Look; either I'm getting older, more irrelevant, more intolerant... unable to cotton to the "new sounds," or there just wasn't a whole lot to froth at the mouth about in the first half of 2011.
I was disappointed with Radiohead's effort; first-time since well... since never. It was a trial admitting that and leaving it off the list; felt like betrayal. Much of the year's hotly-anticipated or raved-up albums just didn't work for me - Panda Bear, James Blake, The Weeknd; no thanks.. Even old stalwarts fell short, I'm looking at you Decemberists and Strokes. It was just an off half, I guess.
Honestly, and I'm not making this up it's backed with hard data from Last.fm, my most-listened-to record in the first six months of 2011 was Sufjan Stevens' 2010 LP Age of Adz. I don't do that a lot, cling to a record for that long. It's a fabulous album, to be sure, but something in 2011 should've been able to unseat it from heavy rotation. To be fair, the music below is really good too - but January through June just didn't speak to me the way it has in past years. I'd recommend all the stuff that follows for your listening pleasure, and let's hope together that something spectacular comes from the back nine.
So then, to get on with it for those still with it... here's my best-of so-far list for 2011. Only a scant six records to speak of, but I think it's a pretty decent crop of tunes in the end. Check it:
06. Mogwai- Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will [listen]
Back around the year 2001 I "discovered" Mogwai. At the time I simply could not get enough of their sound. I liked them so much, in fact, that Sharaun surprised me with tickets to go see them live in the city around that time. It was a Valentine's Day gift, and she accompanied me. It was an awful show, I recall. Mogwai were too loud during their awesome loud parts and not loud enough during their well-crafted quiet parts. As the years wore on Mogwai continued to make albums, and I continued listening to them, but with waning interest. Maybe I was over "post rock," maybe they just weren't that good, maybe both. I don't know if this is just Mogwai doing right again, or me meeting the album in the right mood... but if you like the soft/heavy-loud/quiet kind of thing and are into instrumentals this is for you.
05. Yuck - Yuck [listen]
And some of the records I do like this year sound like Dinosaur Jr. or Pavement or Archers of Loaf. Yuck is from England, but these guys would be right at home with Mascis and Barlow in some seedy Chapel Hill bar. I kept bouncing this album higher in my list and then bubbling it back down, but that might be because of the six here it's my most recent acquisition and I'm just not ready to have this new guy bump some of the more established stuff I've been digging so far this year. I could see that changing though, as time goes on and I look back in December. Yuck's record is for you if you were a skater in middle school; you maybe snuck out late one night with a can of green spraypaint and tagged Mrs. Canty's, the math teacher, van. You listened to Green Mind and daydreamed about making out with chicks or maybe buying some firecrackers or maybe getting a rush from stealing Now & Laters from the Sunoco. Some people call this "post-punk" or other such dumb taxonomy. You're gonna call it awesome and I'm maybe gonna call it "with a bullet" here on the old best-of. Watch out top-four... watch out.
04. Cut Copy- Zonoscope [listen]
Cut Copy is one of those bands where, sometimes when I listen to them, really listen to them, I'm surprised I like them as much as I do. I'm sure, in a previous review, I've made the Utah Saints comparison - and perhaps even gone back to access the memory databank and pull up the good time associated with similar sounds of yore, but Zonoscope is more than just an homage or Shanghai-Gucci. Generally poppy and beats-based, but with plenty of quirky arpeggio and oooh-kinda harmony, it's just a fun album. We listened to this a lot on the RV trip because it was something Sharaun didn't detest (which says something in its own right). Maybe the best compliment I can pay here is that the album makes me want to dance, and I detest dancing. Get it and shake your body in time.
03. The Pains of Being Pure At Heart - Belong [listen]
Some of the records I do like this year sound like the Smashing Pumpkins or MBV. Hey, maybe I was right in my exposition... I'm "stuck," I can't hear new sounds. I like stuff that sounds like stuff I like. Records that sounds like Siamese Dream or Daydream Nation. No, that can't be right. I drank the Animal Collective Kool-Aid, admitted my penchant for Kanye... I have to be hip, must be with-it, right? Well, whether I'm faking it or not, I liked this record immensely. Yes, it does, at times, sound like the Smashing Pumpkins with Debbie Goode pedals - but, seriously, what's wrong with that? Maybe I'm becoming myopic in my old age, but I still know a good record and I urge you to seek this one out. What? You want to know a little about it? OK: It sounds commercial, it's well-produced, your roommate who loved "that one Killers CD" will probably like it.
02. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues [listen]
I so loved the Fleet Foxes' first album, and I was a little surprised when I didn't immediately cotton to Helplessness Blues. It took a few listens, quiet listens in solitude where I could really sink into the thing, to catch-on here. It's one of those paradoxical albums - so seemingly sparse and reserved in instrumentation yet coming off so very lush and sonic-ally "full." (Is that a word, "sonic-ally?") There's this rollicking kind of breakdown that gets repeated in "Bedouin Dress," like something you might hear sung on a ship... and it's these little bits and pieces that make the Fleet Foxes' music almost an anachronism, crafted with eyes on the simple folks of the past. With strings and banjo and simply gorgeous moments like the sea-change transition in "The Plains/Bitter Dancer." I wore the grooves off this thing.
01. Smith Westerns - Dye It Blonde [listen]
I love it when bands "come out of nowhere." Of course they had a record before this and I've still never heard it. Finding a band I've never heard of and being super-impressed with their album is like hunting treasure. And Dye It Blonde is a treasure. Ever heard of the "C86 sound?" Well, honestly neither had I until I wanted to make a reference to Smith Westerns' sometimes likeness to the Teenage Fanclub for this paragraph. Wikipedia says the C86 sound is typified by "guitar-based musical genre characterised by 'jangly' guitars and fey melodies." I don't know about "fey," but there is some good jangling going on here, and I hear shades of Teenage Fanclub's "The Concept" all over. What are you going to hear?, you ask? Beatles sounding melody! Guitar! Drums! Sorta-feminine vocals! Catchy hooks and happy rhythms. I love this album too, and I bet you might. Really, go into my head and then come back out and tell me I'm wrong.
You know what's funny? After writing all that I think I may have been wrong up above... there was some good stuff around to listen to this year. Maybe I'm just not consuming as much anymore. I'll admit I listened to a lot of "new" old stuff, going on benders with new boxsets and live shows and reissues of purportedly great music I'd not yet digested. Maybe this tomb-raiding took away a portion of the bandwidth I'd have devoted to pawing through the new release bins (the digital kind, that is).
Take a listen for me, OK? Goodnight.
I had a triumphant day at work today.
Well, a half-day at work, as I spent the morning working from the kitchen table while we got a whole-house fan installed. But man, I got tons done and it really improved my outlook - which has been somewhat sour and dire of late. I pride myself on my planning, call my anal or whatever but I truly enjoy preemptively solving problems that will never happen because I understood and accounted for them through my prescience. Today that's what I did, flexed my planning muscles, played some what-if games and wrote some contingency plans. Tried to cover as many of the bases as I could dream up on my own, paint in all the corners, plug up every hole in the dike. I like days like that because I walk away feeling accomplished. And with this and that to tarnish me lately, feeling accomplished is what the doctor ordered.
Been working a bit here and there cribbing down albums and thoughts for my annual best-of-halfway post. Sara, I'm counting on you, at a minimum, to read and enjoy it. OK, you don't have to enjoy it. Just read it. Funny first half for music, most everything up until April was pretty underwhelming. Glad for some later entrants to buoy the front-end. If you like music, maybe of the softer, feyer kind, you could do yourself a favor and go ahead and check out the new Fleet Foxes record before I finish writing that it rocked January through June. Took a few days to grow on me but I can't get it out of the rotation to save my life. Even Sharaun is singing along at this point. But I don't want to give away the ending...
I'm going to be random today, Sorry.
Tonight, Sharaun came into the living room a little freaked out saying she was experiencing what she called "odd visual disturbances." I asked her to describe what she meant, and she said there was a "shimmering sliver arc" in one of her eyes which was obscuring her vision. She said it was "lattice-like" and had "wavy rainbows" and she could hold up her hand and it would disappear behind the thing. I was intrigued and did Google search for "rainbow visual disturbance" to find the following description of something called an "ocular migraine" or "retinal migraine:" An arc shaped sliver that is wavy, almost mirror-like in appearance and has rainbow colored shimmers. She was shocked by the accuracy of the description, almost as much as I was that what she was experiencing is a for-real, well-documented visual anomaly which is extremely consistent from person to person. No really, a Google image search brings up at least ten folks' recreations of what they see (the image heading up this post was the one closest to what Sharaun said she saw).
PS - Today's title is a holdover from an old draft which had nothing in it. Rather than delete the draft, I decided to reclaim the database space with this entry. I liked the title and, not knowing what I was on about when jotting it down, decided to leave it. So yeah, "in gray contrast" to something... apparently.
The other day Ben pointed out to me that I'm nearing a significant milestone.
See, I use this great open-source application called Subsonic to stream all my media. For you non-techies, this means that I run a small program on a computer at my house which can "beam" my music and movies to wherever I happen to be. If I'm on the road, I can use my cellphone; if I'm somewhere else, I can use any web browser. The awesomeness of this software is not to be understated - it is, quite honestly, the media solution I've been dreaming of for a very long time. In fact, it's what finally moved me off the hard-disk based iPod model and into "the cloud." For you techies, I run Subsonic on a four-drive NAS, running Windows Home Server in a JBOD redundant configuration. I keep this tiny machine in our master bedroom closet, where it has a dedicated line to the internet. The machine provides me with a whopping 4.66 terabytes of storage for my pictures, music, movies and saved television shows (a separate repository than our DVR). Using folder mirroring I am fault-tolerant against any single-drive failure. It's a nice setup.
I use Subsonic daily; I drive to work while streaming music, I listen to music at work, etc. One of the neater features of the application is that I can enable any number of friends or family to also have access to the server and likewise stream all my content at will to their mobile devices or PCs. In this way, I've enabled a dozen or so music-minded folks who make regular use of the streaming server. Oftentimes I'll be logged in listening to music and see a friend or two also streaming this or that. Subsonic even supports a rudimentary chat interface, so we can talk back and forth as we enjoy my growing library.
In fact, that "growing library" is what I stopped by to write about, for that's exactly what Ben called my attention to. I hadn't even noticed, but he sent me an instant message in the Subsonic interface yesterday saying "You're close to cracking the 1TB mark!" I'm glad he did, because it seems like an important milestone to me. Check out the screenshot below from the Subsonic interface, where the application summarizes the available listening library:
For a few minutes I was so happy that I almost reached a terabyte of music. Then I realized that full-on 50% of this is movies (Subsonic doesn't differentiate in its count). The real music-only size hovers just over 500GB of disk space. Nothing to be ashamed of, I suppose, yet still not quite as exciting as the ten minutes where I thought I was on the verge of library-size domination.
Guess I'll just have to continue legally purchasing music from iTunes and Amazon in a reach for that next goal.
I don't know if you guys have seen the movie 127 Hours. I don't write about pop-culturey things all that often (I did moreso back when the blog started in the aught-tres, when I was still figuring out what this thing was for), but I wanted to write about this movie a bit. Not about the story, but specifically about the use of one song in the film. For those who've not seen the thing, I won't be ruining it or anything so no worries (not that most everyone isn't at least passably familiar with the story anyway). Is a movie even pop-culture? I think so.
Anyway, I wanted to write about how expertly the film used the Sigur Rós track, "Festival." Gotta be my favorite use of a song in a movie in a while.
If you're not familiar with Sigur Rós, you'll likely react like my wife did when I tried to get her to appreciate them so many years ago. Honestly, her reaction wasn't entirely unexpected... they aren't the easiest act to get into for most. I mean, if you can get around their lengthy songs you've then got to make peace with the fact that the band is from Iceland. Not that Iceland is a bad place, but, moreso that this means the band sings in a foreign language - which by itself turns a lot of folks off. Worse even than that, most of the time they sing in a made up foreign language - one that has no meaning and sounds like gibberish (the rest of the time they sing in Icelandic; I can't tell the difference). The "language," called Vonlenska, or "Hopelandic when translated to English (hey, the name of the language is a real Icelandic word, at least), is entirely unintelligible and the band has stated that they want folks to hear whatever they want to hear in the lyrics.
Sharaun, like many, doesn't really do songs with no words (ala Mogwai, Mono, or Explosions in the Sky, etc.) or songs in foreign langauges (Air, Malajube, Dungen, etc.). You better bet, then, that a band whose forte is either songs with no words, songs sung in Icelandic, or songs sung in a fabricated nonsense language ain't high on her list. That's cool, I can accept that. I actually kind of like the notion of lyrics in an imaginary meaningless language. For one thing, it's kind fun to make up your own words and "sing along" to whatever you hear. I mis-hear and sing words to songs wrong all the time, and Sigur Rós solves that problem out of the gate by not having any real words to mis-hear. For another thing, my opinion says your music has to be pretty darn strong to pull off singing in gibberish.
And strong songs they are! Sigur Rós has a knack for laying down songs which often border on "anthemic." Things that get stuck in your head and make your chest swell with feeling, things that sound like national anthems for pretend countries or old familiar spirituals or other such emotionally-tied things. In fact, the band's music seems to inspire all sorts of folks - particularly those in the advertising world as the Sigur Rós themselves pointed out on their blog about being ripped off in commercials all over the world (it's so prevalent they actually wrote about it again here). Their stuff is catchy and often big and important sounding. And the track used in 127 Hours is one of these grand affairs.
The song (listen here while you read), used in an emotional climactic scene near the end of the movie, is called "Festival" and is a nine minute piece (I almost called it an "epic," but length is fairly common for the band) from the 2008 effort, með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust. The first five minutes or so of the song are quiet and singsong, all done in Hopelandic (and this meaningless). Around the five minute mark the meat of the track, a crazy-good bassline which dominates, kicks in. The track ends with an crashing and repetitive
In 127 Hours the song more than merely underscore or support the film, it absolutely defines and in fact drives the emotional engine of the scene. Yes, the viewer has a lot invested in the story at this point, but even still the scene wouldn't be nearly as effective with the volume muted (says me). Honestly, whoever picked the song did such and excellent job, I don't think I'll ever be able to listen to it again without thinking of the release of pent-up emotion that came with it during that scene. The closing minutes of the track are so well-matched to the tenor of the scene.
No for real guys, if you haven't seen it you really should - and pay particular attention to the finale, the denouement, the emotional climax of the thing. Hear your heart beating in time with that crazy-good song? Feel the way you're edging up on your seat as the kick-drums go double-time and the strings inch towards cacophony? Watch your fists clench as the horns come shining into the party, brassing things up and taking the layered madness just another notch towards the precipice? What's that, crazy cymbals? Insane rain-on-a-tin-roof snares, trumpet-gone-wild, do I hear an ever-loving glockenspiel?! Land of Goshen!, who picked this thing?! I gotta buy this cat a beer.
So kudos to you, soundtrack-type person for 127 Hours, you masterfully applied this wonderful track to the film.
Hi Thursday. Work today might suck, so I wrote this in preparation.
I like writing about music, so I thought I'd write today about songs that "move" me. A lot of songs move me in positive ways, making me happy or pumped-up or reminiscent, but the sad songs seem to get the short shrift. So today I want to focus on just a few songs which make me feel... sadness. Some, in fact, move me to the point of tears; not because of some associated memory or anything, but just because the songcraft or words or whole package is done juuuust right. Here then, are some songs that make me sad.
Save the Life of My Child - Simon & Garfunkel (from the album Bookends, 1967) [listen]
How can a song about teen suicide not be sad?
Poor kid. Who knows what's driven him to this. To climb out onto the ledge of a building and contemplate ending it all. Paul Simon narrates from a 3rd-party perspective, showing us the crowd and the cops and the poor child's mom, begging someone to rescue her child, to not let him die.
Where does it wrench the gut? Oh, people, if you've heard it all the way through and you don't know... they you ain't got blood in your veins. After all that time up there, all alone with his thoughts, the crowd that's gathered below is growing hungry with bloodlust. As night falls and the the police train their spotlight on our protagonist, Simon almost laments, "He flew away." The song changes drastically, and is a cue for us to recognize that we've now entered the mind of our young jumper. We hear his thoughts as he falls, "Oh my grace, I've got no hiding place." Over and over again. The lack of resolution makes the resolution clear.
As soon as I hear that, "He flew away" bit... I get chills and can almost feel the weight of that fictional kid's choice. What an awesome song.
The Ballad of Humankindness - The Dears (from the album, Gang of Losers, 2006) [listen]
Who said sad songs can't be powerful? Because, let me tell you, if a dude did say it that dude was dead wrong.
By now you've maybe queued up the song from the Grooveshark link and it's starting. You might be wondering, "Dave... this sounds cheesey." Stick with me! Please, I beg. Just make it through the trumpet solo (and don't let the fact that there's a trumpet solo turn you off). Right around the end of that solo, you'll hear a stray tambourine... it's your warning bell, your omen, your hint of the amazing denouement to come. Musically, this track is like a lovely jack-in-the-box, winding and winding and winding and finally exploding into an orgasm of arpeggio guitars, steady tambourine, sing-song chorus, and that final strum-hold/strum-hold/strum-through rhythm. Musically, it's bright and powerful and... maybe you'd say... happy-sounding.
But lyrically... lyrically I want to re-cast it for you. Listen to Lightburn's words. Listen. Bemoaning the plight of the homeless, Lightburn asks himself what he's been doing about it. Indicts himself for simply "living with" such a terrible situation. The part that cuts me to the bone is the impassioned, "I'm gonna change, I'm gonna change, I'm gonna change, I'm gonna change!" verse. It's a song about being disgusted with yourself for not heeding your WWJD bracelet. Maybe the words are a bit over-the-top, but I love the sentiment. The guilt, the shame, all of it comes across really well for me - and qualifies as a song that makes me sad.
Little Dancing Girl - Harry Connick Jr. (from the album Lofty's Roach Souffle, 1990) [listen]
There are no words to this song. In fact there are no words on this entire album.
But people, this is one sad song. I don't pretend to know what it's about, other than maybe a little dancing girl, but I like to imagine a story in my head of a father who, for whatever reason, has lost his daughter. Years ago, maybe it was an accident, or a divorce, or even just bad blood and a broken relationship. This song is him remembering when things were better. When she was maybe five and he was her idol and her rock and everything she looked up to in the world. He can think back to that day, maybe she was just dancing around silly in the house, maybe it was her ballet recital, but it's a perfect memory and he holds onto it.
The song really gets bad, sad-wise, when everything else drops away and all you get is the upright bass, somewhere around the 3:40 mark you get that little bass solo. So deep and round are the notes on that big bass that you have to turn the stereo waaay up to hear it. But this bass breakdown represents, to me, my fictional dad's breakdown. He knows his memory isn't reality and this is the part where it all falls apart. Dang. Tearjerker (in my own mind).
She Sends Kisses - The Wrens (from the album The Meadowlands, 2003) [listen]
I wrote about this song already, back in 2004. I loved it then and I love it now. The lyrics are so perfect, 100% unrequited love. The girl is gone. She's been gone. He spent a lot of time missing her, still misses her, maybe not rawly or every day anymore, but he still loves her. He's got all these memories of the time they spent together, how much he worked for her, how badly he wanted her. "Hopes pinned to poses honed in men's room mirrors," and "I put your face on her all year," are simply amazing bits of lyric.
And then, around the crescendo things go dim. My eyes go damp, my chest goes tight. This poor, sad, pining sucker. This dude is head over heels and this specter from the past just sent him a note signed with Xs and Os. Those are stupid-letter-code for kisses! Kisses?! That bitch! After all this time she's going to do this to me?! He reads the note and sees those Xs and Os, knows what they mean and all of the sudden, "Back doors blow open." Every memory cued at half speed, it all comes flooding back. Xs and Os.
Oh you poor man. Down the rabbit hole again.
Thorn Tree In the Garden - Derek & the Dominos (from the album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, 1971) [listen]
A gorgeous song by Dominos member Bobby Whitlock. An unbelievable stereo mix, the guitar and sparse knocking percussion clear and present and balanced. The harmonics repeated in the background almost like bells. I imagine I can hear Whitlock's held-back tears. At the end, when he goes falsetto to wonder, "And maybe some day soon, some way..." you want to just put your arms around they guy and tell him it's going to be OK, it's all going to be alright.
I wonder how many people have listened to this song whilst bawling over their very own lost love. I wonder what they'd think if they learned Whitlock was actually singing about a dog. Yeah. A dog. A roommate of his took his dog and killed it. Bobby hated him for it and wrote this song to "out" him to the world as the guy who did such and awful thing to the pet he loved. Don't worry though, those of you who may have misappropriated the track, Whitlock himself clarifies, "It's all about love anyway. There is no love of this and not that. There's no measure of it. Whether it's a dog, your mother, dad, brother, sister, your companion, your horse or your neighbor, it is that one thing. It doesn't have a distinction. There's no barrier, it's just one thing that encompasses everything if you stop and think about it."
OK, that's enough for sad songs. Here, have a tissue.
How about you? Got any songs that start the waterworks every time? What did I forget? "Tears in Heaven?" Cash's "Hurt" cover? Yeah, saaaad.
Man... this thing has really become a labor of love.
I mean... I worked on writing this; worked hard. It's maybe ironic (a word so oft misused that I never trust myself enough to use it correctly, and pretty much know I'm not doing so here) that I feel some of my best writing is saved for an entry that most folks just gloss over. And maybe I say it anytime, but if you're a "regular" reader I've done some good stuff below that I think you might enjoy even if you're not a stupid music-nut like me. I hope you'll check it out (despite it's length; I know how my generation is with a wall of words and the perceived value we can derive from our time spent reading them).
Now then, without additional delay, honorable mention this year goes to: Menomena [listen], Sleigh Bells [listen], The Love Language [listen], and Yeasayer [listen]. Actually, the "honorable mentions" would fit well at the tail-end of this list and make for a more round fifteen picks - but I honestly ran out of steam and time and just wanted to post the dang thing. So I quit and took the easy road. As usual, I wanted to be done so bad that I did no real editing or "post" or proofreading... so I'm sure that, when I'm no longer sick of this entry and I decide to go back and reread it, I'll make some little tweaks later on.
But for now, what follows are those pieces of art which ranked in my mind. Hope you enjoy them.
13. Wavves - King of the Beach [listen]
Two dominant yet antithetical themes dominated the music I fell in love with this year. I could pick tons of adjectives to describe each dueling idea, but I think boiling it down simply it would come to "safety" versus "frenzy." In some way maybe this denotes the cycle of me this year, the Scylla and Charybdis pendulum of my own ups and downs. When the confidence is up and the sun is shining and I feel I've managed to shelve my sins - frenzy sounds right. When my footing is tenuous and shadows loom and press (which, for an optimist such as me, is something that doesn't get taken out and paraded around), safety piques.
Looking for the duality, King of the Beach is definitely in the left-hand of "frenzy." It speaks to a side that doesn't care, a part that just wants to enjoy some loud nonsense and doesn't mind a lack of polish. No; that craves a lack of polish. Wavves, which I think is just one person - comes presented with no polish. All the scuffs and scratches and faded leather is out-front and unabashed. Words and lyrics are stupid, chords and riffs are sloppy and shambling, rhythm is haphazard and jaunty (or cocksure, maybe that's a better word, I can't decide). But, egads it's fun!! More than just novelty fun, too. Well, to me at least.
You should check it out and try.
12. Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti - Before Today [listen]
Before Today at times sounds like lounge music, or maybe just music to lounge to. You just loosed the cord and fired your rocket and shot straight to the moon and you put on this record and lie face-down in the thick shag. As you pretend you're hurtling through a synthetic fiber wormhole you can kick back to the whacked-out horns, 1970s synth and sometimes jazzy bass. Apparently Mr. Pink (no relation to Messers Blue, Red, and Orange), who is new to my musical Rolodex, has been recording these same tracks for years... sometimes in snippets or as wholes, but the same songs. Before Today is simply the spendy-production "major label" release of his well-known (in some circles, I suppose) repertoire.
I don't know about any of that; the history of the songs or their elemental versions the die-hards may be attached to. I just know these versions from 2010 and Mister, they are good. They are real good. Midyear I said of Before Today, "Some retro Bowie/Eno/Hall & Oates mashup thing? Oh no wait here comes some Velvet Undergroundy guitar stuff. Man this is oddball." This is one you've probably got to hear for yourself. So what are you waiting for, click the link and check it out. Don't forget your scag.
11. The Black Keys - Brothers [listen]
Eons ago when I was a fresh-faced twenty-something scratching out a living as a grunt at the sawmill, I had a best friend named Ben. Between the both of us we were like a two-man indie music record club. We went to concerts and streamed the latest and greatest and downloaded with abandon. Oftentimes we were united in what we liked or disliked, either coming to the same opinion independently or one of us likely swaying the other (how many of your held opinions are solely yours and free of influence?). One thing we were together on, though, was our dislike for The Black Keys.
I don't know why... but we both decided it was cheap imitation garage blues-rock and wrote it off. I like to think this was more of decision Ben made and foisted upon me (makes me feel less guilty for this record making the list while the band flew under the radar in years past). Whoever made the call, it settled into my subconscious and led me to dismiss the band's efforts each time they produced a new recording. How silly the way our brains work: One time we puke our guts out after eating cauliflower and for the rest of our lives we avoid cauliflower like it's a sure-fire sick-maker. I'm afraid the Black Keys were that guaranteed emetic to me, and I'm here to set things right and overcome my mental block.
Brothers is a gritty, driving work of art. It's music for beer and mescaline and sweat and heat. It's simple bluesy rock that's unadorned yet well produced; simple in the way that makes it elementally great - like eggs over easy in the morning with a cigarette after; as simple as grabbing the thing God put under the chicken and frying it and eating it. Undecorated; nothing special; yet good for it. A steak with a pinch of salt and pepper; no four hour marinade, no dry rub, no herb-infusion, and for the love of all that's holy no salsa, A1, or catsup. You're getting the basics here: guitar, drums, and bass. You want glockenspiel you're on the wrong record.
So just shut up and open your mouth and chew and enjoy the stupid-good flavor of some unpretentious rock and roll. Then remember that this is what it's supposed to be like; it's rock and roll the way cavemen ate it. Take pleasure in your connectedness.
10. Zeus - Say Us [listen]
As I wrote halfway through, Zeus' Say Us takes a page from the Beatles' songbook. It's not a bad thing. Again, as I wrote, rock bands have been emulating the Beatles since there were Beatles songs to emulate - and will likely be doing so for a time to come. When you define a genre, you're going to end up in that oft-imitated bracket. It's not that Zeus is doing the straight ripoff thing... they're just mining the same vein. So, now you know what to expect... to a degree (harmonies, 4/4, verse/chorus/bridge/verse/chorus, etc.) - but you still need to check out the record.
I daresay that anyone who is looking for a good "periphery" record (one for backgrounding at barbecues or in the headphones while you snowboard or while you comment that subroutine in your cube) would do right by Say Us. I don't listen to the radio much, so can't say if any of these songs got much play - but they totally could have, that's how approachable they are. Maybe put more simply, if you decided to get all adventurous and check out each album on my list the year and you heard that Wavves record and we're all like, "Dave... what are you on?!," I should redeem myself with Say Us.
09. The National - High Violet [listen]
I found it hard to shuffle High Violet into this list, but I knew (knew hard) that it belonged.
The album has something of a "subtle beauty" and a "quiet ferocity" and all sorts of other oxymoronic adjective couplets. I wrote about it at midyear by calling their albums "growers." I guess this is as good a description as any. I wrote it this way in July, and I can't think of a better way to sum it up here:
Sharaun has commented more than once that this album sounds "slow" and "boring," but she's still got the scales on her eyes and I'm just a little closer to Damascus. When those scales drop, my friends, you'll hear such a passion in each deceptively muted rythym and baritone lyric you'll know right away there's substance to this one. The National do more with less (the pause between the words "blood" and "buzz" on "Bloodbuzz Ohio" drips with anticipation and is likely to make the weak swoon).
Yup; well-said Dave.
08. Surfer Blood - Astro Coast [listen]
At one point in high school I decided I wanted to surf. I didn't want to be a surfer, with the culture and haircuts and mannerisms and groupthink likes and dislikes - I just wanted to surf. From somewhere, I got a board or two (the things are like tumbleweeds in Central Florida... blown around in the onshore breeze and passed from teenager to teenager through the years until the meet their ultimate fate falling from the bed of a truck or being crunched on the coral). My roommate and closest compatriot at the time took up the pastime with me, or he had already, I offer no pretense of memory as mine is often shot. And we, the both of us, took to the briny tides.
I think maybe if I would have picked it up earlier in life, like around the pre-teen years, I would have affected the lifestyle a lot more. I did this, in fact, with skateboarding sometime around seventh grade (there truly are limited options at that tender age... when we so want to be classed and cliqued and to cling to some taxonomy). I dressed skater, talked skater, listened to skater music, hung out with skaters. Even still, I was anything but a skater. If my chosen charade had been surfing, and if Astro Coast was thrown back in time to those years - it would've been the soundtrack of my feigned passion.
This music is "surf" to the core; right down to the marrow (sloshing in rhythm to the rolling sets) inside the bones under your suntanned skin. Put this record on and open up a wrapped puck of Sex Wax and you'll actually feel the crunchy saltwater tangles in your hair. Like I wrote at the midway mark: "... it's that record you were listening to that one time you lost your sunglasses. The Ventures and Beach Boys meet Weezer (when they were good) and JaMC." Get it and go coastal.
07. The Local Natives - Gorilla Manor [listen]
I was enamored with this album midway through the year; a handful of really great tracks shored it up in my mind. As the year trod on, and records with slightly better ERAs trickled out, I began to see the tiny cracks in Gorilla Manor's veneer. Yes it's a super-fine album, and "Airplanes" is one (if not the) best track of the year, but I couldn't even get it into the top five when I did my week of comparative re-listening.
I should be less negative, I don't mean to dissuade anyone or bag on a record I'm including in my very own best-of list. You'd like this album. It's very good. The harmonies and percussion particularly, sounding like a callback to folkier times (but with modernized production). There are songs that'll knock your socks off, namely the penultimate "Airplanes," which I can't stop mentioning. And, like I said at the halfway point, there are parts that "droop and sag." But in the end you'll want to hear this to round out the better stuff of the year. I promise.
06. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy [listen]
Let's get the elitist stuck-in-his-ways stuff dispensed right up front: I don't like rap.
No really, on the whole I just don't dig it. I don't discount it as an art form or anything, that would be ignorant for a music-o-phile, it's just not my cup of tea. It's hard not to like this record though. The tunes are memorable and catchy and the words are just perfect (sometimes maybe a little too perfect, Kanye...). To me the goodness of this album comes moreso from the attitude that comes across than anything else. Take for instance this little call-and-response triplet:
How 'Ye doin'?; I'm survivin'.
I was drinkin' earlier; Now I'm drivin'.
Where the bad bitches, huh?; Where y'all hidin'?
The italicized portions are delivered in this sneering, know-it-all, entitled, Angelica Pickles tone. That Kanye's response to peoples' hatred of him is to stoke the flames while cupping his own balls is what makes his stuff so good. Oh, that and that he makes some wicked-sounding hip-hop that even a dyed-in-the-wool rock 'n' roller like me can appreciate. There's a catch, however. A reason I don't like this record. I know it sounds odd but I actually feel indulgent for enjoying it. Indulgent, moreover, to the point of feeling guilty (I told you it would sound odd). I guess maybe all the cursing, all the trite braindead talk of sex and money... I end up asking myself, "How can you enjoy this basal crap?" It's akin to the feeling I used to have in the morning after getting high - a guilt and a nagging "why?" and "was it worth this?" brought on, perhaps, by upbringing or Officer Dave or Nancy Reagan or Afterschool Specials.
Uh-oh this review is getting long in the tooth.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy topped nearly every single 2010 list I've seen. Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, CokeMachineGlow, Stereogum - only PopMatters dared slight Kanye this year. I'm gonna stand with PopMatters on this. The record is really, really good. Better than College Dropout good. It's just not top-of-my-list good and, besides, it gives me an morality hangover. Sorry Ye. You done real good though.
05. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs [listen]
I don't know when it happened, but something bad went down between me and the Arcade Fire. We had this falling out, or growing apart, or something. I suppose maybe it's my fault; putting them atop of the lightning rod at the summit of Mt. Olympus didn't give them much room to go anywhere but down. So our relationship sort of soured and my hunched shoulders and folded arms whenever they came around were clear tells that I'd backed away. Maybe the Arcade Fire picked up on my aloofness, because I think The Suburbs a love letter written to woo me back, to court them into my good graces one again.
And, oh, Arcade fire! You did it! My counselor says I should take you as you are. He helped me see that, as love matures, those flirty fluttery-hearted days of Funeral will give way to the security of The Suburbs. That those times of sweaty palms, perfume highs and nary an imperfection are past us shouldn't push me away - they should draw me closer to your constancy.
I'm sorry we waned and I'm glad we're back. You keep making "Empty Rooms" and "Sprawl IIs" and I promise I'll always be here for you. XOXO.
I guess maybe it looks like I love everything Sufjan's ever done. I don't. I didn't care for that BQE thing at all. Not that it matters.
These two efforts, unbound but for the year of their release, each moved me to write their respective epics: "Djohariah" and "Impossible Soul." But each is more than just their standouts, and both stand starkly different from each other in feel and sound. The EP, which came out first, is full of "classic" Sufjan instrumentation, while the long-player strays into beats and synthesized bass and blippy electronics. You'll go wrong with neither.
I've written so much about these two already throughout the year that I'm not going to try and do more here - it'd be forced. Check those links above and see how obsessed I was with the records. Then go check out the music for yourself. Might not be your bag; that's OK don't feel guilty. Nickelback is just fine (and I'm being perfectly serious) - there's no need to step to this milquetoast hipster stuff, and I'm no cooler than thou for pretending to "get it" so don't sweat it.
03. Morning Benders - Big Echo [listen]
It was hard for me... the battle between #1, #2, and #3. I know maybe I didn't make it sound so by my comments on Teen Dream down below... but it truly was hard. This album, Deerhunter's album, and the Beach House record are all in what we in the corporate world, those of us who "manage" people and rank them, rate them, what we refer to as the "top bucket." Ordinal ranking within the top bucket is not quite meaningless, but it's close enough. Like any good statistician, the "banding" of data matters nearly as much as the top-to-bottom ordering. To be clear, the "top bucket" starts here - with Big Echo.
This music makes me so happy. Like a week's vacation spent in sometimes-sunlight slanting through pines; like when I was at the bottom of Molokini crater with Sharaun on my flank, floating around coral; like when I sat poolside in Mexico with Jeff, more than half-crocked & daydreaming I was Jake Barnes and Sharaun in the pool was my own Lady Brett Ashley. That kind of bone-deep happiness and comfort. Maybe people who aren't music people won't know what I mean; maybe it's hard to grok that music can do that kind of stuff. But I'm telling you, ye Philistines, it's real; it's really real.
I realized at some point that, when it comes to pop music, I like the formulaic, the patterned, the designed. I read some reviewers saying that Big Echo tries to hard to be catchy or poppy, or some crap like that. Whatever. So did the Beatles (OK so maybe they defined or discovered the formula). I enjoy the results; you'll enjoy the results. Just go do it.
02. Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest [listen]
When the first refrains of Halcyon Digest's lead-track, "Earthquake," come dripping through a pair of headphones - I like to close my eyes and imagine myself high above everything. Related to something I know, I'm cruising at 30,000ft looking out the window on a wide swatch of God's (flawed) creation. Related to something I don't know, yet something which somehow seems more appropos to the sounds, I'm floating weightless in space, tethered by a lifeline to my spacecraft; I can turn left and look down upon the world from whence I came (thanks to tons and tons of high-octane rocket fuel) and I can turn right and look out into the preponderance of seeming emptiness. Yeah, this album makes me think of floating.
So what does it sound like? What are you going to hear? I dunno. Basic stuff, mostly... but I think it's more the tunes than the composition here (I feel like I say that a lot, maybe too much). I guess, if anything, it's more distorted, overall, than the #1 spot (they sound not much alike at all, in fact), and edges away from #1's "classic sounding" production. Themes you'll hear are loneliness, regret, salvation and redemption, and the daily grind.
01. Beach House - Teen Dream [listen]
Teen Dream shimmers. It's such an easy album to love. Hovering around your head weaving tendrils in and out of your ears. It's an easy album altogether.
The chords and plucked themes are all suffused through this hazy fuzzy sound I try to sum up as "shimmery." Do you remember, as a kid, learning from the fire fighters that came to your school auditorium that, if you found yourself trapped in a building that was on fire, you should get low to avoid the smoke? Get on the ground; the smoke rises. If you can, dampen a piece of cloth, a rip of your shirt, perhaps, and fix it over your nose and mouth to breathe through as a makeshift air filter. Have you ever tried that (no housefire required)? It's not quite as easy as breathing free at all... it's a strained fight for oxygen through the wet cloth. But man, imagine if your house were burning... how sweet would that fresh air be? How worth the huffing and sucking and sputtering? Something as easy and familiar as the air you breathe everyday - a million times more precious.
Teen Dream manages to impart that same sense of extra-preciousness through it's layered "shimmer." Don't mistake me for saying it's complicated; it's anything but. If you tried to dissect a track you'd come up feeling short: all the elements are rudimentary - Beach House sticks to the top couple rows of the periodic table of music. Doesn't matter though - it's the construction that hits hard here. Midway through I wrote, "As far as songs go, I often find myself falling for tracks with vocal melodies that are well-defined enough to be standalone songs in their own right." Teen Dream has them in spades.
Looking back over the year, this is the true capstone to me... no doubt.
So what if I'm a year older? I'm still the youngest dude I know. Get off my back.
This Sunday we joined some friends at a church which, I think, fits the definition of a "mega-church." I've never really been to a church like that before, where the service is more of a production and the attendance is simply massive. It wasn't bad, but it was different. I don't know if the musical experience we had is typical of mega-churches, but it was certainly a spectacle. A proper concert, with fantastic acoustics and a full band who rendered every contemporary song of praise in some affected Coldplay style: drums and keyboards and lead-guitar arpeggio descants over alt-rock 90s vocals. Musically, it was quite enjoyable. I love to watch people play instruments, especially fingers on fretboards; bonus for me there.
It occurred to me, though, that this kind of big-sound "alternative" church music might have an unintended consequence: a super whitebread appeal. Looking around the auditorium as the lead singer with the choppy hair sang about salvation, my theory was at least anecdotally confirmed: the stadium seating looked like drifts of new-fallen snow, white upon white upon white. I mentioned my thought to Sharaun after we'd left and she poo-poo'd me, saying that the congregation's Aryan makeup was likely owed more to the local demographics than the style of music. (Somehow, over the ten years we've been married, she's gotten a lot better at making solid logical arguments like this; I blame myself.) But still, I don't exactly see the universal appeal in the styling... Much like I might choose a different church if ours started doing all its hymns in the female-lead country ilk - imagine an all Dolly Sunday service; maybe perfect for some but certainly a turnoff for me.
Anyway, I don't think my idea about the musical ties to congregational diversity are too far off base (I checked around on the Google first, to see if I was trippin' - not so). While the linked article doesn't focus specifically on music as a divisor, I still hold that it could be one, or at least a contributor. Maybe it's not an easy thing to address... a "unified" rotation of musical themes seems to obvious and pandering: the alt-rock pierced-heart lung-fillers, some hip-hop hymns, then some Latino-infused cowbell-flared praisers. I don't envy you, mega-church "worship teams."
Anyway, didn't mean to write the whole thing about church but it just kinda happened. Had a good time though; got some serious praise on with a gaggle of white folk.