Various Artists: Variations of Chopin

Variations of Chopin is a compilation featuring modern interpretations of works by my favorite classical composer, Fryderyk Chopin. Released by the small Scottish (by way of Poland) indie label Too Many Fireworks, Variations of Chopin puts an ambient and electro-pop spin on Chopin’s classical melodies.

The album is bookended by interpretations of “Prelude Op. 28 No. 7 in A Major.” Neil Milton’s straightforward but nonetheless pretty piano take is a very brief 48-second opener. Thankfully, Clem Leek’s magnificent, mindblowingly lovely finale of the same piece has an almost three minute life. But we’ll get to that later.

It’s during Black Antlers’ somewhat eerie rendering of “Nocturne Op. 27 No. 2 in D Flat Major” that you slowly become aware that this is not your standard classical album. Though the work’s central melody is tightly woven into the cover, there are just enough electronic embellishments to give it some extra oomph.

Miaoux Miaoux then completely abandons the classical realm for a full-on electro-pop cover of “Nocturne Op. 55 No. 1 in F Minor.” You would never guess all those beats and blips were born from a Chopin arrangement.

deSelby gives a beautiful, somewhat Baroque acoustic guitar cover of “Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2 in E Flat Major.” Even if you don’t know the original Chopin composition, you may recognize the melody from the end of Muse’s “United States of Eurasia/Collateral Damage.

Some of the other covers are a tad too experimental for my taste, though I still admire the concept.

And then we have that spectacular finale. Clem Leek’s rendition pf “Prelude Op. 28 No. 7 in A Major” swirls with ghostly vinyl scratches, distant sparse piano, harmonica and creaky violins. It’s absolutely fantastic.

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Muse: The 2nd Law

Muse recently released their sixth studio album, The 2nd Law, and, wow, was it ever worth the wait. I’m truly in awe that the band was even capable of successfully following 2010’s brilliant, The Resistance (one of my Top Albums of The Decade). Not only does The 2nd Law continue that grandiose marriage of arena rock and classical music, but its futuristic electronic twist allows the album to stand completely on its alone. Definitely one for the year end list.

The bombastic drama of “Supremacy” heralds the welcome return of Muse. Theatrical verses – think Les Miserables meets Phantom of the Opera – explode into a finale that sounds like Jimi Hendrix rippin’ on a James Bond theme.

The slinky, slow burning electro-rock of “Madness” then spins the album into another orbit. The song fairly vibrates with electronic beats and searing rock guitar.

“Panic Station” plays like a catchy, rocked-up, Bizarroland mashup of Willy Wonka‘s “Pure Imagniation” and Genesis’ “Land of Confusion.”

“Survival” is the album’s stunningly gorgeous and multi-faceted centerpiece, weaving thunderous rock, classical song structure and instrumentation with operatic backing vocals into a glorious, cross-genre cacophony.

The actual song “Animals” doesn’t really stand out, but I thought it clever that Muse used sound samples from a Wall Street trading floor to imitate a mob at the end.

“Explorers” is an uncharacteristically soft and subtle ballad.

“The 2nd Law: Unsustainable” is an environmentally conscious, sci-fi thriller of a song. It’s epic, it’s rough, it’s absolutely spectacular.

Overall, I don’t foresee listening to The 2nd Law quite as obsessively as I continue to do so with The Resistance. But the standout tracks are truly superb.

You can watch the videos for “Madness,” “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable” and “The 2nd Law: Isolated System” below.

Muse Official Site

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2Cellos (Sulic & Hauser): 2Cellos

2Cellos are twenty-four year old, Croatian classically trained cellists, Luka Sulic and Stjepan Hauser. The duo quickly rose to fame after a YouTube video of their dueling cello cover of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” was viewed by millions. 2Cellos soon signed to Sony Masterworks, were invited by Elton John to join his European tour and appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres show. That infamous “Smooth Criminal” performance is just one of the many pop and rock covers featured on 2Cello’s new self-titled debut album, which also finds the two musicians transforming hits by U2, Muse, Nine Inch Nails, Guns ‘N’ Roses and Nirvana into cello instrumentals.

2Cellos is bookended with U2 covers – opening with an atmospheric, somewhat foreboding “Where The Streets Have No Name” and closing with a gentle “With or Without You.” Say what you will about U2 as a band, their songs are undeniably distinctive and instantly recognizable. The two covers are among the highlights of this album.

Sulic and Hauser then explode from a soft, understated intro to Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” (best known as the theme of Pulp Fiction) into a frenzy of strings.

2Cello’s aforementioned blistering rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” reveals previously hidden intricacies in the song’s melody.

Granted, you could probably play the title track from Muse’s brilliant The Resistance (one of my Best of the Decade) on spoons and the song would still be magnificent. This classical rendering is so lovely, though, replacing the defiant excitement of the original with a feeling of wistful determination.

The covers of Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody,” Sting’s “Fragile” and Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” are lackluster without vocals, but the fault lies in the arrangements, not the instrumentation.

Judging from the liner note credits, 2Cello covered Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” here rather than the Nine Inch Nails original. Regardless, they do an excellent job of capturing the song’s melancholic beauty.

Their version of of the Guns ‘N’ Roses hit “Welcome To The Jungle” is probably very impressive live, but the recording is a bit shrill and grating for my taste.

Their take on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is much more successful and by far the stand out track on the album. 2Cello’s exotic, moody interpretation stays true to the original’s rock edge, but adds a classical depth and shows off the complexity and innovation of Nirvana’s songwriting.

Sony + all covers means I’m not permitted to share an mp3 or even a stream from the album, but you can hear samples at the links below…

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2Cellos - 2CELLOS (Sulic & Hauser)

2Cellos Official Site

Muruch’s Best of the Decade: Albums

In addition to my usual year end lists, I’ve also compiled Best of the Decade lists. Following are my favorite albums that were released between 2000-2009…

Muruch’s Best of the Decade: Albums

25. Muse: The Resistance

This is one of those albums that has classic potential, and I expect to move its way up the list as the years go by. A quote from my review: “Integrating classical and opera music into their theatrical electro-rock sound, Muse have created one of the most exciting song cycles I’ve ever heard.”

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24. Gaba Kulka: Hat, Rabbit

It was difficult to narrow how Gaba’s releases to just one, but I think her latest is her strongest to date. As I said when I named it #4 on my Top Albums list, it is “probably the most unusual and creative album” of 2009.

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Buy @ Artist’s Site

23. Soundtrack: Once

The soundtrack to the Irish independent film Once features The Swell Season’s Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. I said in my 2007 review that Hansard’s “lyrics are deeply poetic, his music is heart-wrenchingly lovely, and his beautifully raw voice conveys emotion as if the man were literally ripping his own chest open as he sings.”

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22. Antony & The Johnsons: Antony & The Johnsons

Instead of a best of 2005 list, I deemed it The Year of the Bird and that post says everything about how Antony’s music made me feel when I first heard it. While I Am A Bird Now was their more popular release, I’ve always favored their self-titled 2000 album.

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21. Pina: Quick Look

Pina sadly remains my best kept secret. I discovered her in the early aughts when a French pal shared mp3s of “I Loved the Way” and “Bring Me a Biscuit.” I also love Pina’s 2005 release Guess You Got It, but the rougher edges of Quick Look‘s production fit better with her “Gothic folk” style.

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20. Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson: Rattlin’ Bones

My 2008 review summed it up: “The flawless beauty of this album is almost beyond my comprehension.

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19. Hem: Funnel Cloud

I like this album even more now than when I called it a “nearly perfect album” in my 2007 review.

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18. Damien Dempsey: To Hell or Barbados

As I stated in my 2007 review, the album is a “genre-hop through folk, rock, electronica, and reggae…but the genre gymnastics still take a back seat to the stunning quality of Dempsey’s voice.”

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17. Anais Mitchell: The Brightness

My 2007 review said: “Like the greatest of classic literature, the compositions on The Brightness are the kind that softly seep through your skin and slowly make their way into your heart and mind before exploding in dazzling display of amazement.”

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14. Xavier Rudd: Dark Shades of Blue

Xavier has quickly become my favorite male artist in recent years, and as I said in my 2008 review: “the astounding quality of his songs make me wonder if future generations might consider Xavier Rudd to be the greatest artist of this era.”

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15. Mavis Staples: Never Turn Back

I’m almost ashamed not to put this at #1, because in many ways this is the greatest album of the past two or three decades. I simply don’t listen to it often as the albums listed below. I suppose this is because the weighty subject matter requires a certain mood. But as I said when I reviewed it two years ago: “We’ll Never Turn Back is what music should be. Gut-wrenching blues, earth shaking beats, hip swaying rhythms, deeply moving lyrics, and a rich voice that defies description.

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14. Luminescent Orchestrii: Too Hot to Sleep

I deemed 2005 “the year of the bird,” but that’s only because I didn’t hear Luminescent Orchestrii until 2007 when I said: “there’s a definite connection between their frenzied, violent approach to orchestral instruments and the punk cabaret of The Dresden Dolls, but neither description fully captures their unique and unearthly sound.

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13. Flogging Molly: Swagger

This album ushered in the Celtic Punk craze of the decade. There’s no such thing as a bad Flogging Molly album, but this one was definitely their best.

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12. Vienna Teng: Inland Territory

In my review I called Inland Territory a grand “display of Vienna Teng’s brilliance, grace, and talent.” I continue to fall more and more in love with this album with each listen.

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11. Kurt Vonnegut & Dave Soldier: Ice-9 Ballads

My #1 album of 2009. As I said in my review: “I can’t imagine a more perfect score for my favorite novel of all time.”

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10. Mary Timony: Mountains

I had never heard of former Helium singer Mary Timony until a friend sent me this album shortly after its 2000 release. Mary’s unusual mix of Medieval folk, chamber pop, and indie-rock was unlike anything I’d heard before, and it remains one of the most strangely beautiful recordings I’ve ever heard.

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9. Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band: The Whole Fam Damnily

My #1 album of 2008. In my review, I called it an “inebriating concoction of swamp stomp and backwoods pluck.” But in subsequent listens I’ve found myself drawn more to The Rev’s lyrics, which accurately capture the perils of modern rural life.

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8. Allison Crowe: Live at Wood Hall

Oh that voice! Still gives me chills. I’ve posted about Allison Crowe so many times over the years that I consider her Muruch’s musical mascot. As I said in my 2007 review: “there’s really no way to convey through mere words how much the music on Allison Crowe’s Live At Wood Hall moves me” Forget Susan Boyle, Allison sang the definitive cover of “I Dreamed a Dream.” (mp3)*

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7. Soundtrack: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Once More With Feeling

I always call it the “Buffy Musical” rather than its proper title Once More With Feeling.” Years before Dr. Horrible, Joss Whedon wrote a hilarious, poignant, and very catchy musical for an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I don’t know how well the songs translate if you never watched the Buffy series, but I still love singing along to the soundtrack. The album features vocals by actors Sarah Michelle Gellar, Allison Hannigan, Michelle Trachtenberg, Nicholas Brendon, James Marsters, and Anthony Stewart Head. This is an example of why file sharing works – I and several friends burned our own soundtracks from mp3s recorded directly from the televised episode long before the soundtrack was released, yet we all purchased the official album once it became available.

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6. Xavier Rudd: White Moth

I could easily include all of Xavier Rudd’s albums on this list, but I tried to limit myself to just two. My 2008 review said: “Rudd deems the album his “proudest work” and it’s easy to understand why.” But it’s really only been with repeated listens over the past two years that I’ve grown to love and truly appreciate its magnificence. And nothing speaks to the greatness of an album like having a panic attack when you think you’ve lost it and knowing you must replace it immediately. Fortunately, I found my copy!

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5. Damien Rice: O

Unlike most Americans, I heard and fell in love with O when it was originally released in Ireland in 2001. My clothbound first edition of the album is a collector’s item now, but I wouldn’t part with it for anything. Rice seems to have faced some post-hype backlash in recent years, but that doesn’t erase the brilliance of this album. Most remember it for Lisa Hannigan’s delicate harmonies, but Rice’s use of strings and opera music were also very unique at the time. And the album as a whole has withstood changing trends in music over the years.

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4. Fiona Apple: Extraordinary Machine

This is another example of why file sharing can have a positive effect on album sales. Remember “Free Fiona”? If you don’t, Fiona recorded a version of this album with producer Jon Brion and her label initially refused to release it. Mp3s of the demos were leaked online, the fans loved them, and a huge campaign called “Free Fiona” was launched in hopes of getting the album released. It worked, though Fiona re-recorded most of the album for the official release. I was one of many who purchased the album even though I had the demo mp3s. My 2005 review also shifted the focus of this site from simply sharing music to encouraging people to purchase albums. It has since become one of my favorite albums ever, and I hope Fiona decides to grace us with another release in the near future.

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3. Soundtrack: Hedwig & The Angry Inch

Among the 2000-04 archives of this site that have been lost were my reviewes of the movie Hedwig & The Angry Inch (which I saw in a double bill with The Anniversary Party at a local film festival) and its soundtrack. Whether or not you’re familiar with John Cameron Mitchell’s awesome musical about a German transgender rocker, the soundtrack is one of the best rock albums of all time. There are thunderous punk rock numbers like “Angry Inch” and heart-melting ballads like “Origin of Love.” Why Mitchell continues to act instead of record music is a mystery to me.

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2. Old Crow Medicine Show: Big Iron World

In my November, 2006 review, I said “I don’t believe I’ve ever said this about an album before, but I think Old Crow Medicine Show’s Big Iron World is just about perfect.” I stand by that statement. I’ve played this album more than any other released in the past three years, and only one band could keep it from the number 1 spot…

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1. The Dresden Dolls: The Dresden Dolls

Anyone who knows me or has been a longtime reader of this site knows that The Dresden Dolls are/were my favorite band. My posts about their self-titled debut (and the live A Is For Accident album that preceded it) were also lost with early archives of this site, but I’ve raved every other Dresden Dolls release since then. After “Over the Rainbow”, The Dresden Doll’s “Girl Anachronism” is my favorite song and this is possibly my all-time favorite album. Amanda Palmer proves without a doubt that – in the right hands – the piano is the most punk rock of all instruments.

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*mp3 hosted by & posted w/ permission of artist