THE TEN BEST SONGS OF 2012 (SO FAR!)


2012 certainly hasn’t been a quiet year so far. We may still have three fourths of the year to go, but we’ve already seen Mitt Romney show off his excellent rap skills, we watched our last season of Jersey Shore that didn’t have a crib in the smush room, and we helped The Hunger Games take a massive bite out of box office records.

From Madonna’s record-breaking Super Bowl performance to Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s first baby entering the Billboard charts just days after she entered the world, 2012 is also shaping up to be an unprecedented year for music. Check out my list of top ten songs from the first quarter of the year and share your favorites in the comments section below!

10. Madonna, “Gang Bang”

It seems almost reductive (see what I did there?) to point out that Madonna is the holy grail of pop stars. For proof, look no further than this Tuesday, when her 12th(!) studio record – the *almost* eponymous MDNA – is released.

Don’t let the ploy-for-attention title of “Gang Bang” fool you. Lyrically, it’s one of Madge’s darkest and most twisted tracks in years. “I’m going straight to hell and I got a lot of friends there,” her voice crescendos over the pulsing bassline. “And If I see that bitch in hell, I’m gonna shoot him in the head again ‘cuz I want to see him die over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.” So like … bye Guy Ritchie?

Musically, “Gang Bang” is explosive electro-pop with a sophisticated gothic twist. There’s also a dubstep breakdown sleek enough to grease up the proverbial (or not – we don’t judge here) stripper pole you’ll undoubtedly be clamoring to slide down whenever “Gang Bang” pours out your speakers. Plus, this past weekend during a live Facebook chat with Jimmy Fallon, Madge admitted it was her personal favorite cut off the new record.

I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether the song’s title comes from the gun metaphors throughout it or the fact that with this solid track, Madonna literally fucks the relevance out of all her “competition.”

9. WZRD feat. Desire, “Teleport 2 Me, Jamie”

WZRD is the moniker of rapper Kid Cudi and producer Dot da Genius’ alternative rock collaboration. Unfortunately, the band’s self-titled debut album is to Cudi what hosting the Oscars was to James Franco – an overambitious and subsequently failed attempt to try to prove there’s nothing he can’t do.

While the majority of this album lacks a sense of cohesion and feels awkwardly off, “Teleport 2 Me, Jamie” is a major exception. Sampling the moody ‘80s synth pop deliciousness that is Desire’s “Under Your Spell” (made popular on the acclaimed soundtrack to last year’s hit film, Drive), this song masterfully blends Cudi’s signature hip-hop flavor with longing lyrics and a mid-tempo rock backdrop. It’s the first and only time on WZRD’s album that this multi-genre exploration enhances rather than hinders Cudi’s words. And the end result is one of the most interesting and catchy songs to come out of 2012 so far.

8. Ingrid Michaelson, “Ribbons”

On her latest album, Human Again, singer/songwriter Ingrid Michaelson decided to spice up her signature song recipe. If a sampling of Michaelson’s previous catalog suggests that her music was a one-pot-wonder with few ingredients more than a ukulele, an acoustic guitar and a pinch of percussion, Human Again transformed the songstress into a master chef. Instead of serving the same dish again, Michaelson baked layers of multi-instrumentation and sprinkled exotic new flavors into her signature sound. And while upon the first bite, Human Again may taste like something that you would expect from Michaelson, you’ll soon realize that this time around, the serving she’s put on your plate is significantly richer, bolder and more original.

“Ribbons” acts as a perfect example of the marriage between’s Ingrid’s acoustic roots and the full-band feel of her edgier musical evolution. While an acoustic guitar takes lead on the song’s orchestration, it no longer headlines a solo show. Guided by driving percussion and soaring strings, “Ribbons” becomes an ensemble piece, shining spotlights on its various supporting players to become a more lavish and detailed overall production. Lyrically, the song is composed of Ingrid’s classic poetic and subtle metaphors, securing that this is a woman spearheading a new and exciting movement of indie pop.

(Read my full review of Human Again here)

7. Mouth’s Cradle, “The Fever”

With their debut album, 2010’s The Next Big Thing, local Pennsylvania duo Mouth’s Cradle released one of the most refreshingly kick-ass records in recent hip hop.

The band is to their respective genre what Cory Arcangel is to contemporary visual art. By often crafting their beats out of obscure samples (i.e. the Pokémon theme song), Mouth’s Cradle uses a postmodern approach to create something completely new out of their twisted interpretations of pre-existing material. This invites their listeners to experience a seemingly familiar piece of art in an entirely new way. And thus Mouth’s Cradle’s songs take on their own artistic identities while simultaneously challenging the tools used to craft them.

Gearing up for the release of their next album (set to drop next month), Mouth’s Cradle has just released the record’s lead single, “The Fever.” Think B.o.B meets Freelance Whales meets the Pacman theme. Just don’t listen to this song any place you want kept clean because one play count in and your mind will be blown all over the place.

6. American Royalty, “Matchstick”

While describing American Royalty’s music video for “Matchstick,” Interview Magazine (who also exclusively premiered the clip) wrote that, in keeping with the band’s genre-bending ethos, psychedelic images are paired with bluesy-sounding interludes, and the 1950s intro shows down with the 1970s aesthetic until an unequivocally modern chorus confirms the timelessness of American Royalty’s sound.”

While “timeless” may not have been the first word I would have used to describe a sound reminiscent of what you would imagine a collaboration between Elton John and Sleigh Bells sounding like, it’s perhaps a fitting adjective in that “Matchstick” is a track unafraid to scale the musical timeline by paying homage to both classic rock and contemporary thrashing electronica. Intrigued? You should be because when their first full-length album drops later this year, American Royalty is not a name you’ll be hearing infrequently.

5. Childish Gambino, “Heartbeat” (Tommie Sunshine Remix)

As one of the founders of Derrick Comedy (the comedy troupe behind such viral sensations as “Bro Rape,” “Blowjob Girl” and “National Spelling Bee”), an award-winning writer for TV shows such as 30 Rock and The Daily Show, and as one of the stars of NBC’s current cult-favorite sitcom Community, Donald Glover appears to have his hands completely full.

It’s no surprise then that on his debut major-release album, Camp (released last November via Glassnote Records), Glover (under the persona Childish Gambino) cheekishly raps, “I won’t stop until they say James Franco is the white Donald Glover.”

“Heartbeat,” the album’s largest single to date, is also arguably the record’s best track. A rapid-fire slice of electro-rap, this club banger tells the story of a pair of star-crossed lovers in a cheating scandal. Self-aware as he is funny, Glover writes lyrics that both comment on and have ironic fun with the often-regarded notion that hip-hop is a genre that demeans women. “I’m going straight for your thighs like the cake you ate,” he confidently spits out on one of the verses in “Heartbeat.”

The recently released Tommie Sunshine remix of “Heartbeat” extends the track by one minute by adding in a prevalent machine-gun bassline and speaker-thumping trance. And while the original cut of the song remains superior, this remix is the first can of Kerosene to truly set fire to the dance floor in 2012.

(Official music video for “Heartbeat.” Purchase the Tommie Sunshine remix on iTunes)

4. Regina Spektor, “All The Rowboats”

After the lackluster critical reception of her last album (2009’s Far), singer/songwriter Regina Spektor knew that she had to break out of her comfort zone when working on her follow-up record, What We Saw From The Cheap Seats (out May 29th from Sire Records).

To assist her on this quest, Spektor took a page from Fiona Apple and enlisted the help of producer Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre, Eminem, Alanis Morissette, Rilo Kiley). Together, the duo has given Spektor’s erratic folk/pop sound a dark, electronic makeover. This time around, when Spektor pounds away at her trademark piano, the sound leaving the ivory keys is accompanied by moody synth-pop.

Lyrically, the song uses the metaphors of paintings hanging in a museum to evoke imagery of feeling helpless and trapped. “Masterpieces serving maximum sentences/It’s their own fault for being timeless/There’s a price to pay and a consequence,” Spektor sings with clear agony in her voice.

If the overall direction of What We Saw From The Cheap Seats is to be discerned from “All The Rowboats,” it seems Spektor has reinvented herself to usher in a new era of brooding piano pop with a surprising and welcome twist.

3. Animal Kingdom, “Strange Attractor”

Since being named iTunes’ “Best New Alternative Act” after the release of their single, “Tin Man,” in 2009, British rock band Animal Kingdom have added quite a few more notches to their belt. For instance, they’ve toured alongside bands such as Snow Patrol, Vampire Weekend and Band of Horses and have had their music featured in TV shows like Big Love and movies like Never Let Me Go.

This spring, the band is set to release their sophomore album. Lead single “Strange Attractor” has the same melodic urgency as “Tin Man,” but with a heavily cranked up dosage of synthesizer. And it’s got a chorus so catchy, you’ll be mentally replaying it every quiet moment of your day.

It’s a good thing that “Strange Attractor” is a song big enough to fill a stadium. Because that’s exactly where Animal Kingdom will be performing it in the not-so-distant future.

2. Chiddy Bang, “Talking To Myself”

Philadelphia hip-hop duo Chiddy Bang had the industry abuzz long before the release of their debut full-length album this February. After all, what’s not exciting about a band that was endorsed by Kanye West on his blog, holds the Guinness World Record for Longest Freestyle Rap, samples indie musicians like MGMT, Ellie Goulding, Passion Pit, Sufjan Stevens and Yelle, and shares their weed with Keith Richards?

Upon my first listen of Chiddy Bang’s Breakfast, I immediately knew “Talking To Myself” was my favorite song on the album. The mid-tempo track perfectly represents Chiddy’s sound: a hipster-approved cocktail made from two parts awesomely written hip hop and one part toe-tapping indie rock. It’s a concoction that goes down so smoothly, it’ll have you constantly thirsting for another round.

1. Fun., “Some Nights”

For Fun.’s sophomore album, Some Nights, the band expanded on their anthemetic folk-laced harmonies to really push the limits of both their own music and pop in general. Some Nights is infused with soaring 70’s rock, trance-saturated beats, expertly crafted theatricality and a hearty dosage of hip hop influences.

It’s no coincidence that one listen of Some Nights evokes memories of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Both albums feature heavy production by Jeff Bhasker, whose additional credits include tracks from Jay-Z, Beyonce, Drake, Lana Del Rey, Kid Cudi, Mary J. Blige and Robin Thicke to name a few.

With Bhasker behind the wheel, the title track off Fun.’s Some Nights is the perfect sampling of this brilliant record. Blending tactful AutoTune with slick pop hooks and punch-you-in-the-gut lyrics (“My heart is breaking for my sister and the con that she called love/But when I look into my nephew’s eyes/Man, you wouldn’t believe the most amazing things that can come from/Some terrible lie”), “Some Nights” is a soaring triumph that both rejuvenates and challenges the rest of today’s pop standards.

Other notable tracks of the year:

  • “Marathon Runner” by Yellow Ostrich
  • “September” by The Shins
  • “Do My Thang” by Estelle feat. Janelle Monae
  • “Anna Sun” by Walk The Moon
  • “Happy Pills” by Norah Jones
  • “Perfect World” by Gossip
  • “One Engine” by The Decemberists
  • “Black Tin Box” by Miike Snow feat. Lykke Li
  • “Dark Paradise” by Lana Del Rey
  • “Happiness” by Sam Sparro

Originally published on PopBytes

AN INTERVIEW WITH YELLOW OSTRICH

In 2009, Lawrence University student Alex Schaaf experimented in his dorm room on a musical project he called Yellow Ostrich. Under this moniker, Schaaf digitally released his first album, The Mistress, for free on Bandcamp.

The record immediately exploded all over the hipster blogosphere due to its enchanting blend of rock, folk and classic music. “Schaaf is clearly a talent to watch, and if the outpouring of music on the Yellow Ostrich Bandcamp site over the last two years is any indication, one with a lot of creative ideas needing to get out,” wrote magazine Under The Radar. “As a debut LP, The Mistress is an excellent place to begin and a sign of good things to come.”

With praise like that, it’s hard to shift gears. But for The Mistress’ follow-up album, Strange Land, Schaaf decided to expand Yellow Ostrich into a full three-piece band. Joining the roster for round two are Michael Tapper on drums and Jon Natchez on horns and bass. Together, the trio has put a gritty spin on Yellow Ostrich’s organic sound and has thus signaled a new musical direction for the band.

Strange Land goes on sale today from Barsuk Records. To celebrate its release, I chatted with Michael and Jon about the new record, being the new guys, the band’s evolved sound and more.

AN: Where does the name Yellow Ostrich derive from?

MT: I believe it came from a dream that Alex had. He has a sort of strange obsession with large animals. It might be sexual in nature, I’m not sure. Freud would probably say so.

AN: Strange Land certainly has a heavier sound than The Mistress did. What spurred this grungier shift in your music?

MT: It’s funny you mention grunge. Jon kind of hates grunge. Probably because he was in high school when that was happening and all the lacrosse jocks were into it. But Alex was only like 5 years old, so to him it’s retro and cool. But really I think the guitar-rock aspect of this record comes more from a big Neil Young kick that Alex was on when we were making the record. Which brings us full circle, since Neil Young is the grandfather of grunge or something like that.

AN: When Rolling Stone posted a free download of your new single, “The Shakedown,” they also called out the Neil Young influence of your band. What other musicians and other influences impacted the songwriting process of Strange Land that were not present on the previous album?

JN: Well, Neil Young was definitely a huge influence. We were listening to a lot of him when making this record. Other influences were Brian Eno and The Velvet Underground. They’ve always been a constant influence.

MT: From what I could tell observing Alex during the songwriting period, I think he was getting pretty deep into Bob Dylan too. Also, whereas Alex made The Mistress on his own, Jon and I were involved with Strange Land, so that probably brings in a bunch of musical influences that were absent from Alex’s previous work.

AN: You’ve opened for many musicians in the past, including Ra Ra Riot and The Antlers. But this month, you’ll be embarking on your first nationwide headlining tour. What about this upcoming experience are you most looking forward to? What are you most nervous about?

MT: I’m mostly looking forward to getting a little respect around the green room for a change. No more of this ‘you’re sitting in my seat, dude’ kind of stuff and a little more hummus plate with my name on it kind of thing. What I’m most nervous about is that this respect might still be absent.

JN: Well there’s always the standard, “I hope people come” response. I like to think that I’m happy just playing the music that I enjoy and I don’t really need the validation of a live audience. That being said, when you’re on tour, you want there to be crowds and you want it to go well. All you can really do is play the best music you can and then the rest of it is out of your control. In terms of what I’m most excited about, I’m just happy we get to play full sets. We’ve had great experiences opening for other bands but when you’re the opener, you’re only playing for 30-35 minutes. And we’re a band that really likes to play a lot. Our set is different every night and we do a lot of improvisation. Especially with my role in the band, I’m trying out new stuff on the songs every night. When you’re playing for only half an hour, it’s hard to get in the groove, for lack of a better word. You can’t really stretch out the songs and figure out how to make them different every night. But since we’re headlining, we get to really put a full set together and not feel like we’re leaving anything out.

AN: What song from the new record are you most excited to play for a live audience?

JN: My favorite song on the record is the last track, “When All Is Dead.” I’m really, really proud of that song. In a way, I think I’m most excited to play that live because it’s the most challenging song on the record to play live. Probably because there’s just so much going on in that song that you can’t really know how it’s all going to come together live. But in terms of just what’s a blast to play live, I always get a kick out of “Marathon Runner.” We’ve actually been playing that song live for almost a year now and I still love playing it.

MT: Most of the songs from the new record we’ve been playing here and there at shows, although we’re excited to be able to pack the set with new material. There are a couple, though, that we haven’t played live much (if at all) that we’re excited to finally do, like “I Want Yr Love” and “When All Is Dead.” Those two sort of came together in the studio, and we’re exciting to have finally fleshed them out to play live. Hopefully they rule and don’t suck when we do!

AN: What do you personally find to be the biggest differences in Yellow Ostrich since expanding from a solo project to a full three-piece band?

MT: My impression is that Alex wanted us to play with him mostly for the live show, so that he could have a little eye candy up on stage.

JN: That’s a really interesting question. I wasn’t part of Yellow Ostrich when Alex recorded The Mistress, so that’s an album I don’t really have a personal connection to. It’s something I listened to and absorbed at a distance. So it’s almost like comparing apples and oranges. Since I’m so much closer to Strange Land, it’s hard for me to compare the two. That being said, part of what makes me so excited to be in Yellow Ostrich is how amazing of an artist Alex is. He’s a great musician and a great songwriter. Comparing The Mistress to Strange Land shows me a lot of growth and maturity in Alex’s songwriting. I hear a younger person in songs like “Hahahaohhoho” or even “WHALE” to some degree, both lyrically and musically. They’re good but now I feel that Alex is heading to much deeper emotional places and that’s the main difference I hear between the two albums.

AN: Do you find that you have a deeper connection to the songs on The Mistress now that you are part of the band and you incorporate them into your set lists?

JN: Well, sure. It’s not like if we’re playing a show and if a song from The Mistress is in the set, I check out. When we were putting the songs from The Mistress into the live format with the trio, I of course felt a new connection to them due to the process and to the band. And while I might not have a connection to the writing of the songs on The Mistress, I definitely feel connected to them when I play them live. And before when I said I didn’t connect to those songs, I didn’t mean emotionally. I really dig them and I think they’re good songs. But it’s obviously different than playing Strange Land songs because there’s something about shepherding a song from day one that makes you feel a little closer to it.

AN: Part of what makes your signature sound both so intriguing and unique is your use of layered and looped vocals. Is this something you factor into your songwriting or is it an element that doesn’t come into play until final mixing and production?

MT: I think vocal looping was sort of a foundational element of what Alex wanted to do with Yellow Ostrich at first, when he was working on his own, and a lot of the songs were specifically written around vocal loops. But in the past year and a half or so, since Jon and I have been playing with him, the songwriting has been moving more and more away from vocal looping as a foundational element. And when we do use it, it’s a little more as a textural element. I think it’s something that we still like and that Alex is good at creating, but we also didn’t want to feel constrained to that or to let it become a crutch. So on Strange Land, there still is some of that but less than on previous records.

AN: Many of the lyrics on Strange Land seem to focus on coming terms with the realities of adulthood. Did you set out to structure the record around this theme or did the end result surprise you?

MT: I personally don’t really know what Alex was thinking or intending when he wrote the lyrics. But I think it makes sense that those themes would be there, since he wrote all the songs in his first year after college, having moved from Wisconsin to New York City and really being on his own. I think it kind of shows some honesty in his songwriting that that would come out so clearly, even if it was not entirely intended as a theme.

AN: You’ve posted many covers of different artists’ songs online. What’s the best Yellow Ostrich cover you’ve heard so far?

MT: There’s been a few, and we always think it’s awesome whenever anyone does a cover – it makes my heart swell like I’m watching Friday Night Lights. But one of my faves is a couple of kids doing “WHALE” on like a cello and handclaps or something at a high school talent show and ruling it. Another one is a men’s choir doing “WHALE” totally a capella with kind of a real 6/8 feel. Kind of awesome.

AN: For fans of The Mistress who haven’t heard the new record yet, what do you think will be the biggest surprise when listening to Strange Land for the first time?

MT: The ending. There’s a crazy surprise ending, but you have to listen to the whole thing nonstop for it to really work, but boy is there an incredible payoff if you do it. I can’t even hint at what it is, no spoilers.

AN: Thank you so much for taking the time out to talk to me! Best of luck with Strange Land! You guys should be really proud of it.

MT: Thanks! Been a pleasure!

JN: Thank you, Alex!

Stream Strange Land below:

Originally published on PopBytes

10 ESSENTIAL TRACKS FROM FIONA APPLE

In January, Epic Records chairman and CEO L.A. Reid confirmed via Twitter that a new album from prolific singer/songwriter Fiona Apple would be released in 2012. In the following weeks, Apple released dates for a mini-spring tour that sold out nearly immediately.

While official details about Apple’s upcoming fourth album have yet to be released, the confirmation of the record’s pending release and the jumpstart of what’s sure to be a larger touring year for the singer seem to promise a comeback of epic proportions.

In anticipation of this, I looked back on the moody piano rocker’s previous releases and created a list of what I believe to be her ten best songs. So whether you’re a fan looking to revisit her older material before the new record/tour or you’ve never heard a song of Apple’s and are looking for a place to start, check out the list below.

10. BETTER VERSION OF ME

from 2005′s Extraordinary Machine

“Apple may be pop’s leading drama queen (hell, empress),” wrote Entertainment Weekly in their review of Apple’s 2005 release, Extraordinary Machine. To understand this accusation, look no further than “Better Version of Me.” Lyrics like “I’m a frightened, fickle person. Fightin’, cryin’, kickin’, cursin’, what should I do?” or “can’t take a good day without a bad one, don’t feel just to smile until I had one” serve as indisputable evidence of this claim. Alas, part of what makes Fiona’s music so brilliant is that nothing remains hidden in her songwriting. “Better Version of Me” is a cuttingly truthful aural diary. It’s equal parts vulnerable, sad, determined and musically bouncy. And therefore a perfect entry point into Apple’s work.

9. FAST AS YOU CAN

from 1999′s When The Pawn …

It’s interesting that this song chooses to have the word “You” instead of “I” in the title, when in reality it’s all about an internal conflict that Apple has. On “Fast As You Can,” she sings energetically about the beginning of a new relationship. But as quickly as goes the song’s driving upbeat, Apple becomes victim to her own skepticism about love and tries to push her new lover away to protect herself. She realizes that she’s the only one who can shield herself from heartache. “Fast As You Can” is a rare type of pop song: self-aware, honest, neurotic and infectiously catchy.

8. SALLY’S SONG

from 2006′s The Nightmare Before Christmas Soundtrack

Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Is Christmas is a movie musical with a cult following so large that every 8 seconds, a Hot Topic employee somewhere gets a bonus commission check. Apple’s rendition of the film’s missewn ingénue’s big ballad takes the already spooky song and with it casts a new spell of longing. Her cover not only breathes new life into a classic song, but delivers a take so gorgeously haunting, I’m sure it could make even the hairs on Tim Burton’s neck stick up.

7. O’ SAILOR

from 2005′s Extraordinary Machine

Apple is never one to shy away from pushing the boundaries of her signature dark and gloomy piano/rock sound. “O’Sailor” is injected with a layer of irrevocable theatricality and thereby shines a spotlight on her versatility as an artist. The desperation and disappointment in her voice is unmistakable, making for one of the most defeatist tracks in Apple’s songbook.

6. PAPER BAG

from 1999′s When The Pawn …

There’s a scene in last year’s Blockbuster smash, Bridesmaids, in which Kristen Wiig’s character bakes a masterfully decorated cupcake for herself. It’s a turning point in the film – one in which the protagonist decides to regain control of her passions and become the person she’s always wanted to be.

It’s fitting, then, that this sequence is accompanied by the midtempo rhythm of Apple’s introspective “Paper Bag.” “Cause I know I’m a mess he don’t wanna clean up,” Apple sings. “I got to fold ’cause these hands are too shaky to hold.”

Like the scene from Bridesmaids, “Paper Bag” is about that crossroads we can all relate to. That crossroads where it becomes clear that risks and change need to happen if we want to be the best possible versions of ourselves. “Paper Bag” constitutes Apple’s acknowledgement of this crossroads and signals her first conscious effort to step in the right personal direction.

5. SHADOWBOXER

from 1996′s Tidal

On “Shadowboxer,” Apple channels her inner predator. Wronged by a lover who now only calls her a friend, Apple’s eyes are opened to the reality that the person she loves may be in fact toxic for her. Yet characteristically, she refuses to go down without a fight. As a “shadowboxer,” she trains to defend herself against the attacks on her heart.

“While her naughty, defiant edge will inspire comparisons to Alanis Morissette, Apple’s relatively literate lyrics and spare, brooding arrangements evoke more sophisticated influences,” wrote The Los Angeles Times when describing Apple’s debut album, Tidal. The biting lyrics and palatial ornamentation of its score make “Shadowboxer” a refreshingly unique track and a must for the iPod of any Apple fan.

4. NOT ABOUT LOVE (Jon Brion Version)

from 2003′s Extraordinary Machine  (original Jon Brion-produced version)

A couple of years before Fiona Apple released Extraordinary Machine in 2005, she recorded the album’s content with renowned producer Jon Brion (Kanye West; the soundtrack to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). But when the album’s release kept getting pushed back, fans began to burn with questions. In the fall of 2004, Brion confirmed that Epic Records hadn’t released the album because they felt it wasn’t commercially viable enough. As a result, Brion’s efforts were scrapped and Apple re-entered the recording studios to re-record the album with hip-hop producer Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre; Eminem).

As a result, the Jon Brion-produced version of Extraordinary Machine became one of the internet’s most sought-after bootlegs. The leaked Brion-produced original versions of the album’s tracks indeed sound like a completely different record than the polished version that was ultimately released. While fans remain divided over which version they prefer, there’s no denying that these songs, no matter in what form, make for an exquisite body of work.

And while I personally find the officially released version of Extraordinary Machine to make for a more cohesive and overall more interesting listening experience, Jon Brion’s original take on “Not About Love” remains as one of my all-time favorite cuts from Apple.

“On ‘Not About Love’ … Brion scored Apple’s compositions no less extravagantly than his soundtracking work for the indie-film elite, applying dollops of lush orchestration to place her piano and throwback vocals in an epic frame,” wrote Pitchfork in their review of the leaked Extraordinary Machine bootleg. I couldn’t agree more.

The Brion-produced “Not About Love” is a lush track pronounced by the masterful staccato of majestic string orchestration absent from the final version. Two tracks (“Extraordinary Machine,” “Waltz (Better Than Fine)”) from the Brion sessions of Extraordinary Machine remained untouched. Had Epic chosen to release this version of “Not About Love,” they would have struck gold with a lucky third charm.

3. LIMP

from 1999′s When The Pawn …

Many people I’ve met who are familiar with the name Fiona Apple but are unfamiliar with her music tend to write her off as just another Lilith Fair singer/songwriter with a bruised heart and keyboard to take it out on. Yet that opinion has never remained intact after I’ve played “Limp” for them.

Arguably one of the grungiest songs Apple has ever recorded, “Limp” serves as a threatening warning to the man abusing her. “You fondle my trigger, then you blame my gun. And when I think of it, my fingers turn to fists,” Apple sings as she channels her inner Emily Thorne for what’s surely a harrowing revenge plot.

Put Taylor Swift in a gun range after a night of heavy drinking with Miley Cyrus. Now watch her point the weapon at her targets: Joe Jonas, John Mayer and Taylor Lautner. And there you have a scenario almost as cutthroat Limp.

2. CRIMINAL

from 1996′s Tidal

It’s no surprise that “Criminal” is still Apple’s biggest hit to date. Winning the Grammy for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance, the song went on to be included in countless “best of” countdowns, including VH1’s 100 Greatest Songs of the ‘90s and Blender Magazine’s The 500 Greatest Songs Since You Were Born.

In a very Madonna-esque controversy, the music video for “Criminal” sparked an outcry from conservative critics. Many felt the clip glorified unhealthy expectations of how women should look by showcasing Apple looking like an “underfed Calvin Klein model.” In her acceptance speech for Best New Artist at the MTV Video Music Awards later that year, Apple proclaimed “Everybody out there that’s watching, everybody that’s watching this world, this world is bullshit and you shouldn’t model your life about what you think that we think is cool.”

It’s this unfiltered attitude of self-assurance that makes “Criminal” both such a fantastic track and the defining one in Apple’s career retrospective (thus far).

In “Criminal,” Apple calls out her own weakness to hold onto the man she loves. She begs for redemption and a chance to start over, realizing that the error of her ways are threatening her chance at happiness. It’s a dish of despair served over a bed of steaming hot jazz-infused piano rock. And the end result is nothing short of delicious.

1. SLEEP TO DREAM

from 1996′s Tidal

When she was only eighteen-years-old, Apple made an explosive entrance onto the music scene with her debut album, Tidal. Still her most acclaimed release to date, Tidal opened with “Sleep To Dream,” a song that clearly represented the record’s tones and themes. And perfectly exemplified all the reasons so many millions of people call themselves Fiona Apple fans.

Lyrically, the song is daring, poetic and uninhibited. Musically, it’s accompanied by soaring piano hooks, a pulsing percussion beat and swoops of eerie orchestration. And as moody and dark as the song is, it manages to be simultaneously inconspicuous and provocative.

“I got my feet on the ground and I don’t go to sleep to dream,” Apple triumphantly sings in this anthematic tale of self-empowerment. “You got your head in the clouds and you’re not at all what you seem. This mind, this body and this voice cannot be stifled by your deviant ways. So don’t forget what I told you, don’t come back. I got my own hell to raise.” Hell yeah, tell him, girl!

Not only did “Sleep To Dream” serve as the introductory track to Tidal, but it also introduced the world to a teenager whose deep understanding of human emotion made Apple’s music far more mature than the majority of her mainstream counterparts. After hitting play on Tidal and hearing it kick off with “Sleep To Dream,” critics and fans everywhere were proclaiming that Apple was a force to be reckoned with. And this year, she’ll be ready to prove that all over again.

Fiona Apple’s spring tour kicks off in Chicago on March 19th. Check here for the dates.

Originally Published on Hard Candy Music