12.30.2009

The 2000's in Music: A Personal History Part III


Music, whether listened to, or thought about, elicits incredible waves of memory, and emotion. Working on this project over the last four days has pitted me against some memories I'd have preferred to lose to the ether and others that I nostalgically wish to relive. For all the emotional spewing and melodramatic rhetoric of Part II, it represents a finite and brief period of my life (Roughly 1/10th, or .10714, to be exact) and if I only ever spent 1/10th of my life loving and feeling heartbreak and growing that'd be disgustingly disappointing. While a single relationship may hold a great effect, it isn't often the last one, or the most important one. And those 3 years, though utterly exhausting, both for good and for bad, were just a primer to life as it could turn out. And music, that just started to creep into my soul, was prepared to fully take hold. 2007 was huge in music. For me. For Music. Capitalized.


2007
Armchair Apocrypha - Andrew Bird
Sound of Silver - LCD Soundsystem
The Reminder - Feist
Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga - Spoon
Marry Me - St. Vincent
The Stage Names - Okkervil River
Under the Blacklight - Rilo Kiley
Graduation - Kanye West
Cease to Begin - Band of Horses

In 2007, I was newly single (though still, luckily, good friends with the woman) and living alone near downtown Boulder. It was a year that unfolded strangely. I spent more time with friends in Denver. I began losing my love for Boulder. I wanted more. I wanted a city. When, in May, I received a letter from my landlord stating that my apartment, which was leased to me until August, had been rented out for the following year, I scrambled to find a place to stay. And found myself living with friends, roommates, for the first time in 3 years. But, I was still seeking the city, beyond Boulder (I just didn't know where, then, and maybe still don't entirely know.) Most importantly, 2007 was the year that I got comfortable in my skin again. Remembered who I was, and wanted to be, and decided to embrace it, if not always fully, at least more than I could during the years before. And at the end of the year, I went to Chile, slept in hostels, and saw a new part of the world.

In Andrew Bird, I received additional affirmation that "smart" and "awesome" were inexorably linked. Essentially a one-man band capable of playing violin, singing, whistling and looping these tracks to create a massive effect. "Fiery Crash" opens an album that is so spectacularly diverse and creative that it made me wish I could create music so interesting and erudite. We had this album in the office, John brought it in, and I seem to remember our amazement with it (after a couple of listens) boiling over into a mutual, "This album is fucking great!" An experience like watching your favorite sports team win, or seeing a great movie and sharing that moment of "wow" with other people. Yeah. We really just heard that. And yeah, it is delicious.

Sound of Silver is another one of those work discoveries that played again and again for months. Though not so heady as Armchair Apocrypha, it has as many, if not more memorable tracks. From the inspiring and witty "North American Scum" to the tear-jerking "New York, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down," the album seems to emanate energy. Being in an office that allows for this kind of free musical expression is something I will always be thankful for, and being motivated by such great music is another. Try denying that "All My Friends" is an incredible, nearly perfect song. You can't. It captures beginnings and ends, and leaves off with the wish we'll all probably wish in our last days: "If I could see all my friends tonight..."

I developed a school boy crush on Feist. I still nurse that crush. The Reminder is the album that everyone bought because of the ubiquitous iTunes commercials that year, but it is bigger than "1234" by a lot. "My Moon, My Man" may be the best song on the album. Or, maybe "I Feel It All." It's difficult to decide because it's all just good. This album also reminds me of a very talented woman I dated briefly a year later, and every time I listen to it I think of her, especially "Sea Lion Woman."

Spoon continued to churn out exceptional music in '07. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga includes a great rallying cry of a song in "The Underdog," which rings true in its words and motivates with the blaring brass back up. There isn't a specific story for 2007 and this album, other than how I would listen to it in the morning, on the bus, sometimes hungover from Johnny Walker, and feel ready to power through the day.

I have to set this next one up properly: When I started working where I currently do, I thought myself to be a relatively "in-the-know" music appreciator. I knew about Spoon, The Shins, Belle and Sebastian and a couple others. I had just left working at the bank, where I was the cool, knows-his-shit guy, and I thought that would be my contribution to my new workplace. It wasn't. My coworkers knew everything I did and more. They read Pitchfork and Salon voraciously, and were ahead of trends, rather than with them. I had to find an identity, and catch up to stay in the loop of the office. By 2007, I made my musical mark. I bought Marry Me by St. Vincent on a whim. (And because I thought Annie Clark was pretty, and there was a blurb about how she played with Sufjan Stevens previously, and the album cover, gray background with just Annie's head shot seemed to suggest something I wanted to hear.) The next day, loaded on the iPod I brought it into the office and played it, and it caught on! I loved the album, for the delicate, soulful vocals and the muddled, grinding guitars that blended into something novel, but when I got these guys, my coworkers who knew music, to love it too, that was something. I'll always remember Marry Me that way. That, and it's infinitely good. Really.

Okkervil River's best album, and Rilo Kiley's poppiest hold a similar place in my heart. They both feel like extremes. The Stage Names is uniquely poetic, quiet and hopeful, but depressed (listen to "Plus Ones" sometime and try to pick out all the references), while Under the Blacklight just wants to dance through all the sadness that comes up in its lyrics. "Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe" is ingrained in my musical memory, as is "Breakin' Up" because both represent transition, and realization of self value and a sort of spiritual travel. Both albums are also tied tightly to people who are dear to me, and while I don't play them as much now as I did then, it feels like going home every time I play them.

Graduation is an album that felt just like, at the time, it's title. It welcomed me further into hip hop and the beat is supremely motivating. At a time in my life when things were happening again, and I was taking control, smoking less and loving friends more, it came off as the party soundtrack to a new era... Kanye's persistent douchey-ness (and gay fish-ness) aside.

Band of Horses' Cease to Begin is on the list both for the musical merit of "Is There a Ghost" (a great song) and because I had a long discussion via email about their music with a woman who, whether she'll ever know or not, helped me trust and love "love" again. I blew that relationship, with expectations and frustration and not speaking my mind, but it was a life changing time. I know that I hurt her, and I regret that, and I regret hurting myself too, but sometimes connections are meant to alter two people so they can continue on their paths. If I ever hear from her again, I'll hope that she could forgive me, and that she's doing the great things she talked about.


2008
Oracular Spectacular - MGMT
Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
Volume One - She & Him
In Ghost Colours - Cut Copy
Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
Dear Science - TV on the Radio

I started this blog at the end of a tumultuous, but great 2008. Going in with a mission of writing about books, music and movies while keeping a personal distance (so not to emulate the old Diaryland stuff I wrote during the earlier part of the decade) meant that I would need to craft my writing carefully. Writing short stories and poetry, or personal essays/philosophical rants was one thing, but this was meant to be entirely different. I've learned, now, that injecting myself into this blog is necessary to keep it enjoyable, both to write and for reading. It's a delicate balance. I've got to thank everyone who has read something in this space over the last year now because without some encouragement, there were times when I felt like taking a break. Many of the albums I'll discuss below made my 2008 year-end post that kicked this whole thing off, so in a way we've gone full circle. Thanks for coming along for the ride.

MGMT arrived with a solid dance/techno/pop album at just the right time for me. I was salivating over new types of sound, since LCD Soundsystem and Kanye West primed the pump. Oracular Spectacular represents a greater broadening of my musical experience, but also the thematic travails of a twenty-something. "Time to Pretend" exemplifies the desire to live young forever, and ignore the truth of growing older, getting responsible and having a "day job." It is a sad song in happy clothing, one that hooks you with every beat and measure, but also demands contemplation. MGMT provides the strongest 1 -5 line up of tracks on any album from 2008. "Weekend Wars," "The Youth," "Electric Feel" and "Kids" are all unique, but intertwined. Like a good baseball line-up, you can almost see the bases load up and the runs come in. If the last half weren't so quiet and withdrawn, this would have been the best album of the year.

Vampire Weekend, the inspired title of the first Vampire Weekend album is the only thing that's weak involved with the disc. It's another exceptional 2008 release that is more impressive with the knowledge that it was self-produced. Poetic, self-aware, and self-deprecating lyrics guide you through anthemic songs. And there's a calypso-dance beat that catches your ear immediately. "The Kids Don't Stand a Chance" even inspired Bill Simmons to call in the L.A. Clippers theme song for '08.

She & Him is my second great musical victory when it comes to the office. I bought and brought this in and the album garnered praise from my musically-educated coworkers. It's also a testament to how beautiful Zooey Deschanel's voice is (and M. Ward's composition and playing). Volume One has the most associations for me. From the first time I watched the bloody/artistic video for "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?" to the way that "Sentimental Heart" makes me think of a dear friend and former lover every time I hear it. (I did her wrong during 2008. It's one of the moments that I've been most disappointed in myself, and I regret that I didn't give her the respect and love she was due. She changed my life, though, and I'm lucky to talk to her still. And to know that the awfulness that I dropped between us turned into some beautiful creativity on her part.) I'd love to see them live, but living in the vortex of non-touring awesomeness that is Colorado means I'll probably have to wait. "Sweet Darlin'" is an unforgettably great late album track too, which makes this one of the most balanced discs of its year.

Back to the synth-dance-rock! I didn't really listen to a lot of, or own Cut Copy's In Ghost Colours until this year (2009), but it's fucking incredible top to bottom. Yes, it's a disco-fueled dance album, but it's not trite. The album builds with energy throughout with the sort of medley that creates a perfect blend. I suppose my love of dance music, at least non-techno, non-house (etc.) dance music is the continuity. There's something classical about it, like a symphony or extended suite that changes directions, evokes emotions and feelings, but also stays a general course. This is one of the reasons that The Fiery Furnaces Widow City is so wonderful too. The first half (nearly) of the album is almost one song, broken into tracks by name only. The flow is valuable, and feels natural, alive and progressive. I love a good, multi-track-with-clear-breaks album, but it's something special when everything fits together like a puzzle; sort representing the completion that can be so difficult to attain in life. Maybe that's why we love good art.

I always think of my friend Jen, whom I visited in Chicago during November of '08, and the performance of Porgy and Bess we attended at the Lyric Opera House when I listen to Fleet Foxes. (Also a subsequent day at the pool with friends when we listened straight through while drinking beers and doing crossword puzzles comes to mind.) The album is reminiscent of Crosby, Stills & Nash in its harmonies and echoing folk style, but where CSN was embroiled in love and protest, Fleet Foxes are all about the disguises we wear, the ways we break down and fail, and the near-mystical ways we succeed in strange and trying circumstances. It's also a nearly hymnal, pseudo-liturgical album where God appears as nature and experience, rather than deity. Jen's poetry can be that way too. Especially a set about Lizzie Borden she sent to me during the winter of '08, which certainly factors into my album association.

Dear Science was my best album of 2008. And I stick by that. The bombast and pomp provided by TV on the Radio hits a sort of maturity that comes rarely to many bands. It is an acknowledgment of their past success and a strong reach toward what they could become. Every year works that way. Embrace the friends and loves you have, and reach forward to obtain the new, and expand your personal horizons. (During that Chicago trip to visit Jen- and also my friend Sara from college, I was joined by my dearest male friend, Jared. Jared has, whether he knows it or not, heavily influenced my life. And on a day that Sara had to work, and we were left to our own devices in The Windy City, we got lost looking for the modern art museum. It was horrendously cold, and we had the best pissed-off-assholes-wandering the city day ever. That always resonates from 2008. The way in which we were both utterly miserable, cold and tired of wandering, plus I'd dare say the fact that we were up until 5 the night/morning before didn't help, but still capable of being only jokingly angry, or at least sharing our mutual misery as a way to build warmth was excellent. Oh, and I listened to Dear Science on the plane trip there... so the story ties in.)


2009
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix - Phoenix
Hospice - The Antlers
Actor - St. Vincent
It's Blitz! - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
I'm Going Away - The Fiery Furnaces
Travels with Myself and Another - Future of the Left
Bitte Orca - Dirty Projectors
The Hazards of Love - The Decemberists

I've already talked enough about these albums in Part One, Part Two and The Forgotten posts earlier this month, but what I will say is that I was lucky enough to see St. Vincent, The Fiery Furnaces, Future of the Left, Dirty Projectors, and The Decemberists live over the course of 2009. Not one show was a disappointment. It is a collection of experiences, shared with friends and loves that simply will not escape my memory. From the perfect album performance of Hazards of Love (and the cover of Heart's "Crazy on You"), to standing right in front Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger as they belted out song after fucking-incredible song, to hearing "Two Doves" sound as angelic and full as the album version, to watching the steady downpour of saliva escape Andy Falkous's mouth as he screamed "Arming Eritrea" into the mic, I've never been so impressed and thankful for live music in my life.

For the albums from bands I didn't see this year, its simply love and the way the music makes me feel. Phoenix reminds me of old friends, lifts my spirits when I hear it. The Antlers is dark and thoughtful, guiding me through the most depressing of thoughts and showing that there's a grace and beauty in loss even when it hurts like hell. Yeah Yeah Yeahs get my feet moving and also bear their hearts on tracks that simply paint human frailty and limitation as the most beautiful curse of all.

2009 also brought a few great things into my life. A new love. A trip to visit the aforementioned Jared in San Francisco and meet a houseful of the most amazing, loving and welcoming people I've ever had the privilege to meet. New projects in writing, like doing this very three-part column, for myself, and for the limited audience I have. And a children's book that I'm trying to get published during 2010. There's a lot of greatness on the way as we teeter on the ledge of 2009, looking into the crevasse of expanding time and experience. I wish everyone a happy new year, filled with health, love and deliciousness.

Thanks for reading.

Next Year: A 2000's book retrospective, more music reviews, and some creative deus ex machina.
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12.29.2009

The 2000's in Music: A Personal History Part II


In a quest to take an introspective, often cathartic, trip through the first decade of the 21st century, I'm listing a handful of albums from each year (2000 - 2009) and infusing anecdotes here and there from my own life. This is the second part, a continuation, of the project started last night. We've already looked into 2000 - 2003, and it's the dawning of a hopeful new relationship for me with music that has only just started to branch out of the mold I set into in high school. Love has come and gone and come again, and during the first half of 2004 I graduated college, with the English degree that I still value and berate alternately. (Actually, I always value it. It was a rewarding experience, reading and learning not only literary history and theory, but also the art of reading people, seeing actions for what they are, and understanding the fragility of life. Cue sappy soundtrack now.) At the end of my lease that summer, I moved in with the girlfriend, and things became progressively rockier. I also started smoking a lot of pot. (It eventually saps creativity completely.) That and cigarettes and coffee, and I was probably the most "rock and roll" I'd ever be. But, it wasn't all it was cracked up to be. There was a lot of chaos, both in the transition from single to living with the significant other and the jump from the idealism/ease of college to the rigor/boredom of the "real" world. I wanted to be a writer, and get paid for it. It sounds endearing in retrospect.


2004
Good News for People Who Love Bad News - Modest Mouse
Franz Ferdinand - Franz Ferdinand
Hot Fuss - The Killers
More Adventurous - Rilo Kiley
Funeral - Arcade Fire
Smile - Brian Wilson

In a year that brought the heralded union/flop known as Velvet Revolver, a best of album for Everclear, and a new release from Captain Kirk there was also some amazing music released. After walking around in a robe on a hot summer morning, wearing a mortar board and receiving general accolades, I started working at a coffee shop on University Hill in Boulder. It was run by a local Christian group, who reigned in the music to the extent that eventually I stopped bringing anything in. (Of course, I didn't know how completely reigned anything could be until later that year when I worked for Wells Fargo for 3 months.) It was in that coffee shop, before the fall of employee-supplied music, that I met, and came to love Modest Mouse. The lead single from Good News for People Who Love Bad News, "Float On," was an insta-hit (just add water) for a band that went underappreciated for three albums prior. I know people who knew and loved them before, and I can see why after exploring the full catalog, but at the time I was blown away. Emphatic scream-singing, jangling guitars and rock and roll drumming combined with intellectual, artsy lyrics. It was exactly the album for a coffee shop discovery, simple, semi-fringe, and completely over-caffeinated.

Franz Ferdinand is one of those albums that never goes away, no matter how shitty the band becomes through subsequent releases. Any album with songs like "Take Me Out," "This Fire," and "Michael" breaking through the disco-pop-rock-punk-glam barrier is going to stick around, and should. I've heard this album countless times since I purchased it, though most often at the behest of friends or plain surprise at a party. I've never NOT got into the groove and beat on the album, which is a testament to its longevity. Sure, it's disappointing when a band blows its creative load on the first round, but at least Franz Ferdinand gave us a solid 38:49. (The average is around 7 minutes.)

When you go to a Target store, they have a music section that is typically reserved for the popular, spoon-fed shit that I don't like to listen to, but every once in a while they'll have an incredible deal (eight or nine bucks) for an album that turns out to be a must own. This happened when I first bought She & Him, and also when I finally broke down and bought Hot Fuss by The Killers. This was an album that defined ubiquitous for 2004. "Mr. Brightside" or "Smile Like You Mean It" or "Somebody Told Me" was playing just about anywhere you went, to any radio station, at any given moment. It was also an album that I doubted for a long time. Each time I'd pass by it, I would go through that list of questions: Is it really that good? Do I need this? Why can't I think of more than one song on here I know? Until eventually it just made sense to own it. I gave it as a gift to my longest-running friend well before I bought myself a copy. It's still an impeccable disc, though weak in spots, but it seems like it was the bulk of The Killers' talent showcase in retrospect... though time will tell.

I also bought into Rilo Kiley in 2004, after hearing "Portions for Foxes" and "It's a Hit," but I didn't know how much I'd love them until later. (I have to thank a friend, with whom I've since lost touch, for guiding me to their earlier work, specifically The Execution of All Things.) Jenny Lewis' voice is pitch-perfect beautiful, and soothingly sad all at once. I listened to this album more in 2005 and '06 than right when I got it and yet knowing that I picked it up (by virtue of the album art, too) when it came out makes it fit well here.

Arcade Fire's debut was another I missed by about a year. I knew I had heard it, here and there, with friends, but I never quite picked it up until a year later. There's no more inspiring and motivating song for me to this day than "Wake Up." There's the slow choral build, and explosiveness. This is also an album that help teach me to embrace my creativity again. It's not just an album to hear, but one where you can close your eyes and imagine the vast stories that are written. "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" is just that sort of song. It voiced everything I felt when my parents weren't getting along, long before they divorced, but also the magical desire to escape in all of us. With so few tangible ways to really get out of a situation that far exceeds your control, you turn to imagination, to dreams about tunnels and friends and surroundings of love.

Brian Wilson's Smile didn't turn out quite as great as I'd hoped, and his rewrite of "Good Vibrations" drives me nuts with how contrived and shallow the lyrics sound. Perhaps that's just the post-drug, post-psychosis songwriter in him trying to compensate for things that never made sense to begin with (but did), but I can't stand the new version of the song. And say what you will about Mike Love's self-centered theft of the Beach Boys from Wilson (including the disgusting spectacle that was "Kokomo" and the Full House cameos), but his voice on that song is iconic. It was more of a power-play to rewrite and "finish" it. For all that Smile lacks, and I've tried my damnedest to give it a fair shake, it does mean something to me because it marks a completion. No one. NO ONE ever thought Brian Wilson would finish Smile as he intended, that Smiley Smile would remain the empty viscera of the great Beach Boys album, but he did... even if it more than likely is nothing like what the 30 year-old him would have done. There's a lesson in life there, that sometimes we finish things no one thinks we can, and often those finishes are completely different from the course we intended.


2005
Silent Alarm - Bloc Party
Gimme Fiction - Spoon
Illinois - Sufjan Stevens
Set Yourself on Fire - Stars
Alligator - The National

This year is the hardest to write about. It was a year of changes, all huge, that taught me things about myself I never thought I'd have to learn. It was also a year of avoiding those lessons, and wallowing in the failures I perceived in my life. In February, I started working where I currently work now (I know! It's been a long time) and met some of the greatest friends I've ever had. They also introduced me to a lot of the music I hold most dear now. I was receiving rejection letters from publishers and internships, too. Later that month, the girl I was living with, with whom despite all the difficulties and complexities of that relationship I imagined I'd spend the rest of my life with, took a job for the summer in California. This was essentially the end, though I was unwilling, and unprepared to accept it at the time. The relationship had been ending long before, but I was blind and idealistic, thinking that the way I felt was enough to affect the way she felt. The summer months were complicated with visits to see her, knowledge that her heart was steadily warming to another man, and confusion about why she couldn't say it was over. (I was foolish, then, to assume that I could hold out, feel the pain, and wait for the honesty that I felt due.) When it finally came time for her to come back, she came back to the other guy, not to me. There were last romantic interludes between us, and statements of love that need not go repeated, but I remained convinced that there was something she still saw in me, and I fought. A lot of shit went down (there's far more to it than that, but promises are promises), and I let myself breakdown over and over. And, ultimately, they were meant for each other and she married that guy earlier this year. The point here is that I didn't listen to as much new music during 2005. I spent a lot of time trying to write my brain outside of itself and love my way back into a long-gone heart (and I did things I'm not proud of during bouts of selfishness), but the albums I did listen to are each uniquely amazing, and I defy anyone to claim otherwise.

Bloc Party's first is also their best, and probably the best British indie rock since The Smiths. It's heady, heavy and alternately raucous. A song like "Like Eating Glass" was the exact anthem I needed, one that reaffirmed the suffering I held onto, and the anger that seemed so logical and fair in its wake. "Modern Love" is a sweeping quiet song with an empowering refrain about being taken away by love, which was sort of how I felt, and sort of what I feared ever allowing to happen again. Bloc Party hasn't been as great since, but Silent Alarm (even in its title) was the exact outburst I required to keep going.

Gimme Fiction became more of a mantra than just an album title. The album is full and dreamy and dark, which reflected the way I felt. Spoon became MY band for about a year or two. I was living the life described in Kill The Moonlight's "The Way We Get By." I was just getting by, all the time, working, writing occasionally, and spending a lot of time drinking and smoking and wanting everything to fix itself. I felt, at times, like the opening stanza of "I Turn My Camera On": "I turn my camera on/I cut my fingers on the way/The way I'm slippin away/I turn my feelings off/Y'made me untouchable for life/And you wasn't polite." I was living alone, and trying to fix shit out again. It's the hardest thing in the world, when you think you know, to find out that you don't know anything, and start trying to learn again. But, you do it. That's what Spoon's music has taught me. You pick yourself up, sing like every day is sunny, and fight on.

Sufjan Stevens' Illinois is just fucking incredible. It's dour, liturgical, rocking, orchestral and poetic. It makes you feel bad for John Wayne Gacy, it makes you wish you were Superman, and it tells timeless, true stories about accepting the people and things we don't think we want to. This is an album about growth, and if I could grow in 2005, I was going to disappear, which is something I couldn't let happen, and no one should, no matter how dire circumstances may seem. "Chicago" is also the penultimate road-trip-stare-out-the-window and wonder what life means and will mean song. "I made a lot of mistakes, in my mind..." is the truest chorus lyric you can find in a song. Melodramatic as Sufjan may be, he knows what it's like to grow up and feel compelled to apologize to yourself for everything you've gotten yourself into.

I've been fortunate to see Stars live three times. The first two shows were smaller, one was on Valentine's Day 2006, which I attended with my buddy Jared. The latest was also with Jared, at the Ogden in Denver. Stars are an incredible showmen, but also purveyors of the kind of dreamy, protest, loving, melancholy pop that really hits the spot when you're in a sad sack mood. Set Yourself on Fire is one of very few albums that utilize, to great effect, the call and response style of song writing. By writing in conversational style, Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan can inject a theatrical element into songs like "Reunion" and "The Big Fight". It is an album of harmony and dissonance. If break ups were like songs, they'd be a lot more enjoyable, not to mention much more brief. "Calendar Girl" may be one of the saddest songs in recent memory, but also the most uplifting. It's about being lost and being redeemed and being brought back to life.

And keeping in the theme of albums that embrace sadness and doubt, The National came to me through my friend Sean, and played at work for at least a month solid, nearly every day. These are songs about taking responsibility, losing control, losing friends and recovering from it. Alligator is like a dark tunnel that seems infinite, but always has a bright light at the end of it. There's a way out of the tough stuff, it's just out in the distance, and if you keep moving, keep running, keep working, you'll get out there.

(My apologies for the dour nature of this section. Writing is a cathartic activity. Sometimes you open up the well and can't stop bailing water. Then you realize that you're going to drown in it and force yourself to clean up the mess.)


2006
Fox Confessor Brings the Flood - Neko Case
Begin to Hope - Regina Spektor
Alright, Still - Lily Allen
The Crane Wife - The Decemberists
Boys and Girls in America - The Hold Steady

All of the bitterness of 2005 faded away, as it always does when you give it time. I learned a lot, and was in a rough, but serviceable place during 2006. This was a year of redefinition. New loves, new friendships, luckily a combination of both. It was a year that turned out a lot better than it started. Growing camaraderie with my coworkers (we even formed a band... which was some of the greatest fun I've had in my whole life, even if we played only one live show), and new parties, new dimensions were all around. And the music in '06 was just as much about rebirth, growing strength and renewed happiness.

Neko Case is easily the most amazing female songwriter in the last 10 years. She's also amazingly resilient, gaining her fame as a member of The New Pornographers, she could have been seen as a pretty voice in the backdrop, but she refused to accept that as her definition. With Fox Confessor, she presents an album all about dangerousness, in getting close to people, and losing oneself, and also that there is an inherent power within each of us that can make us so strong that no danger is too great. Her soothing voice is beyond compare, especially on this album, and great stories like "Margaret vs. Pauline" combine perfectly with the radio "hit" and inspiring anthem "Hold On, Hold On."

I had been trained over years of listening to music that piano rock/pop was usually trivial, comprised of pretty, frivolous love songs and soft, romantic ballads ("Great Balls of Fire" being a prime exception to prove the rule). I was proven wrong and my eyes were opened when Begin to Hope first played in my office. Regina Spektor's combination of an enigmatic voice and bombastic play simply changed the way I look at this music... and it pretty much changed piano music too. It is a bouncy, happy, album with all the right drops in pace and changes in tone. She achieves a great bit of poetic archiving with "That Time," which seems to capture all of the little ways we define ourselves throughout the course of our lives. I'm doing that now, in a way, remembering that time, nodding to old and current friends, and subtly asking everyone to reminisce with me. Regina Spektor also reminds me of reuniting with my friend Rya and how everything changed in 2006. I went from loneliness to complete happiness, going out twice a week or more and spending my time interacting with the people I loved instead of hiding from what I thought could be judgment.

Alright, Still falls in because it's the perfect post-break-up album. It's about telling the other person to fuck off, with almost every song. It's also fun, festive, energized and novel. You'd be hard pressed to find another female pop/indie artist who so seamlessly infuses hip-hop, bubblegum, funk and soul into one album. And while there's a good deal of sincerity here, the angry, biting lyrics are really the best part. Allen is the perfect combination of cute and Doesntgiveafuck(TM).

Before 2006, I had heard The Decemberists at work, and with friends. Most of my introduction came from the aforementioned colleague, Sean, bringing in everything he had. I knew that I like them, but was unable to commit, until The Crane Wife. Despite the major-label production in comparison to their previous work, it was the best introduction I could have asked for. Colin Meloy is as lyrically genius as ever, playing off of Japanese folk lore and a little Shakespeare here and there. There are sweet ballads like "Summersong" and "O Valencia!" and then there are driving forces like "When the War Came" and "Perfect Crime #2". The Decemberists, I'll say with unabashed pride, changed my life. There's a darkness and an eternal optimism is all of there songs, save for a couple on Castaways and Cutouts. It's smart music, but it's also good music. And most of all it's honest music. From The Crane Wife I back-tracked to my favorite album Picaresque and then the previous two. I found out that "The Engine Driver" is in my top five songs of all time. And I really immersed myself in a band in a way I had for a long time. So, on the extremely remote chance that a Google app picks up that I'm talking about them: Thank you, Decemberists. Sincerely, thank you.

Finally, we're to The Hold Steady. They are the perfect bar rock band. They give you life, and with every song, you feel like every good memory you've had is all rolled into one big party. Yes, there's a lot of drinking, drug and sex references, and it's all very loose and almost the opposite of The Decemberists headiness, but Boys and Girls in America is the Springsteen on coke album of the decade. "Stuck Between Stations" reflects the trapped feeling of being between college and middle age, and not knowing what paths to follow, after so many adults made it look so "easy". "Chips Ahoy!" is just fun. And, with the HUGE exception of the final verse, "Massive Nights" is a song I could see playing at my funeral someday. It's about high school delinquency, sure, but it's also about reveling in the great moments in life: those spent really living. (Also, "Southtown Girls" has just the right quiet to build to chant to rock ratio, with a touch of sweetness too.)

Part III is coming next...
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12.28.2009

The 2000's in Music: A Personal History Part I


A dear friend of mine recently said, in response to my top 10 (13?) albums of 2009, that she was waiting for me to tackle the entire decade. I gave this a lot of thought. I considered all the music I've listened to since I was 19 years old... Yes, it has been a while... and I decided that rather than attempting to rank memories of music with all their attached emotional fodder in some sort of pseudo-objective catalogue, I'd rather run through the years, 2000 - 2009 and note a handful of albums that meant a lot to me then. Some of these held value for me because the music was especially prolific, some because I was a tireless fan of a band I didn't know as sputtering out, and some because I needed (really NEEDED) an album to get through a part of my life. Seeing that the 2000's are essentially the place where I've grown the most (emotionally and philosophically) this undertaking requires a certain amount of humility. I really liked some relatively shitty (in retrospect) songs and albums, and I saw a lot of events and changes unfold in my life that these songs either rallied me through or reminded me of, to my own success or detriment. I told myself, when I started this blog, that I wasn't going to get too personal. No one wants another hole in the internet loaded with the demented ramblings of a man in his late-twenties playing up one strange idea or sad-sack story after another. Although, Chuck Klosterman, whom I admire greatly, takes just that path sometimes with his work, and I hope that this post even remotely emulates that greatness. Now, without further exposition, my personal history of the 2000's, in music:


2000
Veni Vidi Vici - The Hives
Parachutes - Coldplay
Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia - The Dandy Warhols
Heartbreaker - Ryan Adams
Blur: The Best of - Blur

In 2000, I graduated high school in the spring and left quiet, conservative Castle Rock, CO (I thought it was conservative then, but an influx of money and baby boomers seeking "the country experience" has led to infinitely more flag bumper stickers.) for college at the University of Colorado in Boulder in the fall. This was before CU had been named Playboy's party school this-or-that eight-times running, and the school was respected and a liberal, new oasis for my young mind. I made good friends in the dorms there, and through one in particular, my next door neighbor whose sister worked for a record company at the time, I heard The Hives and Coldplay months before the official album release. The Hives were my first experience with truly raucous Euro-pop-punk, and would plant the seeds for my love of Art Brut in the latter half of the decade. And Coldplay's Parachutes, over-play of "Yellow" aside, is a truly spectacular album; more honest and sparse than their subsequent stadium-rock releases.

The Dandy Warhols came at 2000 with a shot through the single "Bohemian Like You" and I'll admit that I bought the album for that song, but it also opened my ears to their previous ... The Dandy Warhols Come Down, which is definitely the best of their full-lengths.

Ryan Adams' Heartbreaker was just the dose of sad-sack, beer-soaked blues-rock that my heart desired. It was before I had ever had a serious relationship, and in the relatively massive expanse of Boulder, compared to my old high school, I felt even more lost and confused about where I might find the romantic (and sexual) connection I thought I was due. "Come Pick Me Up," specifically, magnified and gave import to every sense of heartbreak I had at the time (which was not nearly as much as could come) and I relished the strained vocals and dragging guitars.

Blur was a boat I'd missed in the '90s. I discovered the breadth of their catalog, from droning, grungy, Radiohead-esque emulation, to the synthy, dancing tracks and mournful ballads that fill their Best of. It was a new style of music for a kid who grew up on the '60s and '70s rock of his parents, and the top 40 pop of the '80s and '90s.


2001
Gorillaz - Gorillaz
Green Album - Weezer
Bleed American - Jimmy Eat World
Room for Squares - John Mayer
Is This It - The Strokes

During my sophomore year of college, a couple good friends from the dorms and I moved into a house only a few blocks from campus. (Perfect for walking, but close enough to campus to be absurdly expensive, despite being a shithole. The landlord even wrote a rent increase into the lease, which we signed for two years, that would take affect between year one and year two. We were kids and didn't know that this was cheating, b-hole bullshit.) When the Gorillaz first album came out it represented a continuation of the new musical experience that began with The Dandy Warhols and Blur, with a genre-bending, hip-hop infusion that I'd never heard before. It's an album that still feels like growing up, and not just because of the Anime-style toons of the artwork and subsequent videos. I loved Weezer more out of legacy and anticipation than actual appreciation. When Green Album came out, it was loaded with poppy, empty, but driving guitar rock, and I ate that shit up. I specifically remember singing "Island in the Sun" in my car (actually a 1991 Plymouth Grand Voyager) time and time again, and loving that song so much that I learned to play it on guitar just so I could sing it acoustic. Weezer, though, wasn't really that good any more, and had only one more nearly-great album in them. With Jimmy Eat World, we heard a combination of neutered male outcry and existential disillusionment, set to garage-noise rock riffs. Bleed American remains an album that reminds me of my friends Derek and Kim, and riding around town belting it out. "The Middle" and "Sweetness" are excellent tracks.

I know John Mayer has turned into a shamelessly self-promoting jackhole, but when Room For Squares came out it was something special. Songs like "My Stupid Mouth" and "3 x 5" showed a vulnerability and frankness that caught me as a young man. I listened to this album while driving up to Nebraska to visit my mother, who was at the time in a lamentably abusive relationship with my then step-father. Driving through flat land and red rock walled two-lane highways to that album is something I'll never forget. The sunset playing off of the small plateaus and mesas, creating something almost magical in an empty field of grass. This is also the album to which I first kissed my first major girlfriend, on my bedroom floor, a year later.

But, Is This It was the real revelation, musically, of 2001. It came out just after 9/11, even being postponed from 9/25 to 10/9 in the wake of the tragedy. The version I heard was the original, with the smooth curve of a woman's hip and butt on the cover, and with the song "New York City Cops" on the disc. Regardless of what version I heard, though, The Strokes made rock and roll cool again. It wasn't a market dominated by pianists and waifish crooners any longer. Rock was going to be dirty and tight-pantsed, long-haired and bombastic. Rock was going to be clumsy, but complex. It was like the logical creative conclusion of the work in the late-60s and early-70s that was always meant to come along finally appeared, out of nowhere. A Cinderella story.


2002
About a Boy - Badly Drawn Boy
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot - Wilco
Maladroit - Weezer
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots - The Flaming Lips
Songs for the Deaf - Queens of the Stone Age

I fell in love in 2002, the kind of nothing-can-ever-go-wrong young love that inevitably goes wrong and forces growth and introspection upon you. I had bought Badly Drawn Boy's soundtrack to the Nick Hornby-adapted film About A Boy during the last months of that relationship, and it still catches in my memory to listen to it now. All the songs are about the changes that must come with growing up, as they apply to a child and to a man who never grew up during his youth. That was the soundtrack to the first half of that year, as so much was unclear both personally and nationally.

At the same time, Wilco released their most amazing album, and perhaps the best of the decade. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot remains an incredible listening experience, opening with the haunting and truthful "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" and continuing divinely for nearly an hour. Shortly thereafter, Weezer's Maladroit came out. And again, I awaited it with hungry ears. And it turned out to be the best album they've released since Pinkerton. Heroic guitar work and self-effacing writing combined to create a brilliant piece of work and Weezer's third best album ever.

But, wait, there's more. The Flaming Lips released Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots in 2002, too! Holy shit, you say? I agree. Their tenth album was an instant classic, with the haunting electro-pop title tracks and the lamentative, heartbreaking "Do You Realize?". I would, years later, be told by a girlfriend, while in the waning moments of our time together, that the album reminded her of me. I didn't know for sure what she meant, and I'm still not sure I do, but I choose to take it as a compliment. Sometimes I wonder if she even remembers saying that, or if I remember correctly. She had also told me that she thought of me while watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Was it a hope for memorable legacy? For purpose? I think I was so drowned in my worries about the relationship ending that I didn't hear her correctly, but then, it's a hindsight thing. But I can always take solace in "Do You Realize?" for its message and for its musical greatness.

Queens of the Stone Age was the first time I'd listened, passionately, to a band that was both entirely tongue-in-cheek, and entirely angry. Unapologetic in their grinding guitars and growling vocals, Queens of the Stone Age gave me a taste of rock music that wasn't punk for the sake of punk or even music that feigned being deep and thoughtful. It was just loud, and meant to be loud, both to deafen the ears and the mind.


2003
Elephant - The White Stripes
Fever to Tell - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
The Essential Simon and Garfunkel - Simon and Garfunkel
Chutes Too Narrow - The Shins
Let It Be... Naked - The Beatles

By the end of 2003 I had fallen in love again, a more weary, but ultimately more passionate and tumultuous love than the first. I spent the majority of that fall focused on my studies, writing an honor's thesis, and trying to love a complicated woman. Before that, I felt the power and drive from The White Stripes fourth album through "Seven Nation Army" and "There's No Home For You Here". These two songs are some of the greatest anthems of rock from the first half of the decade. They are relentlessly aggressive, crass, mean and passionate. They were songs that wanted to change everything and feel everything at the same time. And I felt that way too, so it worked nicely.

Another album full of artsy vitriol and aggression was Yeah Yeah Yeahs first, Fever to Tell. Karen O changed the scope of female-lead pop-punk with screaming, yet palatable songs about taking all the things men had written songs about taking for decades: sex, money, power. And how can anyone forget the beauty of "Maps," a song that is both lovely and haunting in its uncompromising pleas for love and affection. I love this album now much more than I did then, perhaps because I grew into it, perhaps because I wasn't ready to appreciate it fully when I first heard it.

Now, I know Simon and Garfunkel well preceded 2003. And I know I heard them long before. My parents were the types to listen to great old music loud and often, so my exposure to everything on their best of collection began in early childhood. I went through a phase in '03, though, rediscovering all the great songs, and understanding the poetry and simplicity of a guitar, limited instrumentation and great harmony better than I ever had before. I would put the CD on and listen to each disc, back to back, over and over, while writing short stories for class, typing away at my thesis, and smoking cigarettes. And I even remember listening quietly while my girlfriend of the time slumbered peacefully in my one-bedroom apartment. In a way, it became as much meditation as listening. And I still love these songs. "America" and "Cecilia" especially.

The Beatles reissue isn't an album I particularly love, but it is one that holds value for me. It was a gift that I held dear at the time and one whose giver I'll never forget. It's more acoustic, perhaps the way The Beatles intended, stripped of all the flourish and echoed production of the late '60s. It has a certain honesty, and it also has vulnerability.

But, I didn't forget The Shins, not to worry. Chutes Too Narrow is one of my all-time favorite albums. It can always bring a smile to my face and tears to my eyes with each listen. Songs like "So Says I" and "Young Pilgrims" are both powerful and frail, representing the ultimate in pop-song construction mixed with a child-like energy. But, from this album I will always remember "Pink Bullets" both because of the way it made me feel the first time I heard it; a combination of hollow sadness and awe, and for the way I listened to it on lonely nights when I wasn't sure who I was or where I was going anymore. This album was a crutch for a breakup or two, and a balm for a stack of brief rejection letters from publishers back before I was ready to accept how difficult writing professionally could really be. It reminds me of cigarettes and watching rain outside the window, but also of waking up to the sun and needing to fight another day.

Part II and III upcoming...
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12.26.2009

Harper Phillips - Cartography


Harper Phillips' debut Cartography may start you thinking about map-making, but the album is instead about designs on the heart. Each song, poppy and strongly sung, paints lines of detail across a canvas inspired by love and passion, and at odds with loss and heartbreak. With vocals similar to Zooey Deschanel's with She & Him, Harper Phillips brings melodic honesty to an album full of charming ukulele pop. While ukulele music may bring to mind immediate sonic-memories of Kamakawiwoʻole's version of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow," Harper Phillips tests the boundaries of the instrument by working with rock-style progressions and time-signature changes that make many of the songs musically unique. "Balance" is a strongly metered waltz that functions ideally with the song's subject matter, oscillation between faith and fear and love and dispassion. This skilled songwriting shows musical maturity and a knowledge of her instrument, but beyond that, it breaks up the pace of the album.

Where Harper Phillips shines brightest is in the honesty of the lyrics. "San Francisco" plots a lover's pleas to hear no more talk of a city that means the demise of a relationship. "Underwater" is mixed with a thickness that makes the water above feel physically present. It is a muted voice, swirling within the torrent of ocean's depth, with words that could only come from life experience in their detail and sincerity. All of Harper Phillips' lyrics are clear, and full of emotional bravado, but without any repugnant melodrama. There is a lot of love here, and a lot of loss, fear, hope, dreamy compassion, and self-doubt. These words are most often direct, presented as they are, without thick, wasteful metaphor, but this is not the treacle poetry of Jewel or another too-cute-to-dislike album. Cartography is deeply heartfelt. "Sugar Sand" specifically shows power and some of the most creative arrangements on the album, as well as some of the most meta, self-aware lyrics in recent memory.

Cartography gets better with every listen and is something complete, an album with a topic and a soul that pervades the entire disc. You can download it now on iTunes here and check out more information about Harper Phillips on her website: http://www.harperphillips.com/
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12.22.2009

Best Albums of 2009: The Forgotten

As I noted in Part Two of the Best Albums of 2009, I left a couple out, and reluctantly, but ultimately held them out after creating my list without them. These we can casually call "The Forgotten," but I want to stress that these albums have nothing to do with the terrible Julianne Moore film of same name from 2004. Essentially, this post will not end with an easy, hackneyed alien-menace solution to something that could have been a complex psychological issue disguised in a thriller's robes. In fact, there really won't be any complexity to this post at all, so the metaphor dies, writhing pathetically, there. But, really, this won't be like The Forgotten (2004) and I sincerely caution you toward experiencing the film at all.

There were two albums in particular (and of course, I'm surely missing another handful that were exceptional, but escaped my ears this year) that I felt honest to goodness philosophical lamentative angst about neglecting. They follow below:



The Forgotten 1: The Hazards of Love - The Decemberists

How could I forget this album? I wrote about it three (3) times in this very space over the course of 2009. The exceptional fifth full length from Portland's darlings, The Hazards of Love was a huge risk to take following the pop-commercial success of The Crane Wife and yet, Colin Meloy and dear friends crank out a high-concept rock opera without a single single. Going from easy radio-play tracks like "O Valencia!" and "Summersong" to an album that nearly demands continuous track 1 - 17 listening is bound to lose some of the fair-weather adopters. But this album is so amazing, well-composed musically and historically interesting as it binds fairytale sadness straight from the Bros. Grimm to anthem-rock that it should not be overlooked. High marks must go to Meloy for penning it, Shara Worden, Becky Stark and Jim James for their vocal contributions, and the great band of Chris Funk, Jenny Conlee, Nate Query and John Moen. This album has been absent from almost EVERY list, perhaps because of its March release, but I think it's because it never got a fair shake, as concept-albums sometimes don't. Seriously. How did I forget this in-fucking-credible album? If you see me around, just say "The Hazards of Love" and sock me in the face. Actually, let's watch the face. Maybe just a scowl in my direction will suffice.



The Forgotten 2: Merriweather Post Pavilion - Animal Collective

Another punch me in the face moment. Merriweather Post Pavilion TOPS many of the 2009 lists. It should have been included in mine, though I stand by my love of the Dirty Projectors. Animal Collective's latest is their most cohesive and amiable release yet. It's a mix of baroque-style pop played with samplers that makes it thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end. The question left is where Animal Collective will go now. Having progressed to a complete sound with vocals and musical composition so intelligent and well-mixed can be difficult to replicate. While this is by majority an album heavy on the Panda Bear side of writing and design, it may indicate the dawn of exploring the individual members' interests and personal styles. No matter what, Merriweather Post Pavilion is easily a top 10 album of 2009, or in this case, it fits somewhere in the top 13. And thirteen is a nice enough number, so I'm alright with that. (And the optical illusion artwork is superb. Click the pic for a larger view and see how dizzy you get.)
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12.18.2009

Best Albums of 2009: Part Two

Creating a list, of only ten (eleven) albums from this year that are my favorites, but also representative of the greatness in music in 2009 is no simple task. After I completed my selections, I remembered a slew of albums that have been important and valuable to 2009 that I forgot. It came down then to either electing to alter the list entirely, add extra spots and play them off as ties or a's and b's of the last few numbers, or to just stick to my original guns. After a lot of internal debating, and a lot of discussion (and a lot of research... these lists are ubiquitous) I decided to stay the course, knowing that I'm leaving two albums I loved off the list of 11 entirely.


5. Manners - Passion Pit

After the unique sound and brilliance demonstrated on the Chunk of Change EP, the Massachusetts band bought some nearly clown-sized shoes to fill. With Manners they keep the unique sound going, even porting over "Sleepyhead" over to the new disc. But, what could have sounded like a longer version of the EP, lacking additional creativity, does not. Their first full-length release plays like an album all their own and provides all the groove, lyrical prowess, and edgy electro-pop heroics anyone could have imagined. The sophomore release will be the real test, since they won't be able to send "Sleepyhead" around again, but Passion Pit feels like a turn of the decade band, that has at least another handful of big hits in them. If only, like number 7 on this list, their big song wasn't featured so often in commercials, they'd get EVEN more mileage out of a great tune.



4. I'm Going Away - The Fiery Furnaces

Easily the most accessible and straightforward album they've ever done, I'm Going Away feels like a companion to 2003's Gallowsbird's Bark in pace and tone. But, the eighth album in the band's catalog features more aggressive guitar work, and an even more in control vocal performance by Eleanor Friedberger. Though known for their medley-style compositions in the past, I'm Going Away, has twelve discernible tracks, which explains its draw and appeal, but also shows the ongoing passion for experimentation within the band. No two albums are the same, and that's the only thing you can count on in being a fan. And, even the same album isn't the same when the Friedbergers re-released I'm Going Away as Take Me Round Again using the same lyrics, but with wholly different musical arrangement and composition.



3. Veckatimest - Grizzly Bear

The album's second track "Two Weeks" has been in my head since I picked up the album. That song alone is enough to earn Grizzly Bear this third spot. A mature, genre-blending disc loaded with great folk, pop, chamber and even hints of soul, solidify Veckatimest's position as one of the top three of 2009. Impressively, this second full-length is the first album on which Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen collaborated completely on the writing. Since 2006's Yellow House, the band has greatly broadened their musical style and nearly defined themselves as their own genre. Grizzly Bear reached a point of near-incomparability with Veckatimest. Another great track, "While You Wait for the Others" ought not be missed. But listen to "Two Weeks" once and be warned that you're brain will repeat it.



2. Travels with Myself and Another - Future of the Left

Andy Falkous is used to his greatness going unnoticed. His first band, mclusky, suffered through a short tenure in obscurity despite generating some of the greatest noise/alt rock in this decade. And while decently reviewed, Future of the Left's Travels with Myself and Another has been largely absent from the top sections of these year end lists. This is crime. FotL's 2009 release is one of the most brutally rocking, heady, protest-laden, intelligent, tongue-in-cheek, mind-blowing albums of recent memory. Loaded with scathing lyrics and smart observation, combined with powerful guitar licks, Travels with Myself and Another can be at once a giant middle finger to politics and world order, and alternately a contemplative journey through the impotence of mortality and individuality. You play it loud, you jump around, and you try to sing along mostly with hoarse screams. This album deserves love, as does FotL. When a band this amazing lacks a proper following, it's often because they are too far ahead. When erudite, hard rock slides into the popular culture in 2011, they'll have paved the way.



1. Bitte Orca - Dirty Projectors

Dirty Projectors take the best album of the year because Bitte Orca does EVERYTHING beautifully. Raucous, bouncing dance rock, as featured on "Cannibal Resource" and "Useful Chamber" blasts the senses and attaches itself firmly to the memory. More solemn "Temecula Sunrise" varies between pace changes, bombastic notation and payoff exploding choruses. And then "Two Doves" injects beauty and directness, a truly loving, honest folk-acoustic ballad, into the center of all the chaos-by-design. Not one song disappoints, and amazingly the album continues to sound new with each listen. There are layers to these experimental rock/pop tracks that reveal themselves over time. After getting through the heady lyrics and Dave Longstreth's unique (Ted Leo-esque) voice, you see the powers lying in the harmony, and chord changes, and the time signature shifts, and the guitar work, drums... Bitte Orca provides a near-infinite amount of pleasure, and then promises even more through being a puzzle for the audiophile to solve, dissect, assemble and observe. It deserves to be number one on this list because it is an album that I can see myself listening to, in full, for years to come. It passes not only the 2009 test, but perhaps tests through 2015.

Did you notice a couple of key omissions? Yeah, I know. I will write about two great albums of 2009 that didn't make the cut, but could have, in the next post.
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12.11.2009

Best Albums of 2009: Part One

With the decade about to end, our archival nature as humans drives the creation of these lists. Best "blank" of the year. Best "whatzits" of the '00s. We've got a sociological boner for lists. We want to know what we should have paid attention to and didn't (and take the second chance to know the greatness around us) and we like the virtual handjob these lists can give our egos. My coworkers and I were discussing the AV Clubs recent slew of lists, including the best books of the decade, and there was a lot of congratulatory "We read that for book club!" and "We knew how good THAT was before the list!" wanking. The truth is, we the people love knowing where we stand. It's why we check people out when we pass them by, and it's why we love year-end lists. That, and it's usually incredibly informative. And I've found some of the best films and albums by virtue of lists digging them out of the overflowing pop-cultural viscera. With those previous gifts in mind, I've got to give back. Here comes the first half of my 10 best albums of 2009. (Note: Technically, this list goes to 11)

Honorable Mention: The Visitor - Jim O'Rourke

O'Rourke brings his strong, eclectic instrumentation out yet again with an album that is comprised of a single, continuous opus of a track. O'Rourke played EVERY note on the album, and produced it entirely by himself. It must be heard loud, to catch all the subtle nuances, and doesn't have the catchy vibe of some earlier releases like Insignificance (which he apparently despises via AV Club interview), but The Visitor is easily one of the most impressive albums of the year. And O'Rourke is one of the unsung heroes of indie rock, so while this wouldn't make my top ten, I'm un-unsinging his exceptional effort.




10. Album - Girls

Christopher Owens honest, '60s guitar rock infused record about love and realistic heartbreak lends seriousness to a generally poppy sub-genre without losing legitimacy. It's a crass, 21st album, sung with a voice that melds Strummer with Costello and seems tired, sometimes desperate, but always honest. When I first reviewed the album in September of this year, I loved it, but wasn't sure about its spot in a year-end top ten. Subsequent listens have ensured its spot. It's 2009's (and maybe this decade's) ultimate break-up album; both empowering and lamentative.





9. It's Blitz! - Yeah Yeah Yeahs

When this album came out this past spring, it became an obsession. The special edition disc, with four acoustic bonus tracks, gave Yeah Yeah Yeahs a new feel. Karen O graduates from shrieking art-pop superheroine to soft-spoken, aggressive lyricist. The album opens with the dancey, powerful "Zero" and runs the gamut from there, hitting the sensitive, honest notes on "Soft Shock" and "Skeletons" while still providing the long-loved dance-punk fare of "Heads Will Roll" and "Shame And Fortune". It remains one of the most fun, addictive and motivating records I've heard in 2009. Each song inspires, whether its the urge to jump around like a glow-stick-suited loon, or reconsider how love feels. If there weren't so many great albums this year It's Blitz would've landed higher on this list.



8. Hospice - The Antlers

Still one of the most difficult albums to listen to straight through, Hospice is the most genuinely sad, and perfectly executed concept album of 2009. Based on the decline and passing from cancer of a man's true love, it hits rocking points here and there, but the somber, echoing, near silent tracks are the ones that show the record's (and the story's) real face. It's a profoundly impactful record, and reading the liner notes, for details on each song is not merely recommended, but necessary. And reviewed in this space in October, it's an emotional roller coaster, but one you'll gladly pay admission to ride over and over.




7. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix - Phoenix

We've all heard "1901" by now, whether we have the record, or we've seen a Cadillac commercial, but that electro-pop gem isn't the end of Phoenix's beautiful, solid fifth album. After first hearing the French alt-indie band through the soundtrack to Lost In Translation (They're hit "Too Young" will grab you immediately) I've never turned away from Phoenix. Earlier work, though always strong, didn't always seem complete, and that's why Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix makes this list. It is an album loaded with excellent songs, and the tone is cohesive. The aggressive jumps from style to style are gone, replaced with consistently great music. "Fences" may be the best song they've written, and it follows "1901" perfectly.



6. Actor - St. Vincent

I've made no secret of the massive crush I have on Annie Clark, for her honest, if often creepy/unsettling lyrics and songwriting, and that she's talented and gorgeous. After 2007's amazing Marry Me she had my heart and mind, but after such an incredible debut, she would be hard-pressed to follow it well. Actor is one of the few albums I've bought on the Tuesday of its release, and I've never been happier to be one of the first (general public) people to hear new music. Clark's second record throws together all of the multi-instrumental, looping, weighty, ethereal ingredients from her first album and bolsters them with additional complexity and maturity. In my review earlier this year I called it the best of 2009 at the time, and I had a hard time pushing it down to 6 on this list. St. Vincent also performed one of the best shows I've seen this year, a classic at the Bluebird. It's always so impressive to see her rig up 5 or 6 sounds, looping and grinding live.

Coming up next: Part Two, with numbers 5 - 1.
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12.06.2009

Notable Text: The Great Derangement


Anyone familiar with Matt Taibbi's writing for Rolling Stone knows and should love the bitter, sardonic perspective from which he shoots round after round at the goings on in the U.S. political sphere. Taking an educated man's look at the whole process, he often pushes his personal agenda, being an agreeable and impassioned liberal, but his greatest strength is the way he pushes against both sides of the political spectrum. Neither Republicans, nor Democrats are safe from his critical eye and often-sharp tongue. Taibbi sees the corruption and banal hand-jobbery that occurs daily in Washington, D.C. and rather than pick a side, he takes jabs wherever the political machine forgets to guard with hilarious, and insightful results. His educated view of a system so often veiled in financed mystery is no more evident than in 2008's The Great Derangement. It's a well-paced and enjoyable text that juxtaposes the relative-blandness of actual politics with the extremism that has arisen within the United States since the beginnings of Neo-Con religious politics and 9/11 that brings both laughter, and solemn contemplation.

At the heart of The Great Derangement, Taibbi spends several months attending Cornerstone Church and observing the ways in which big, money-driven religious entities teach, form and control the people who, in their lost and frightened states of mind, come seeking love, faith and protection. Taibbi spends his time as an embedded journalist, attending camps, services and noting the ways that these new churches promote international policies supporting Israel as a prevention of the end of the world, and create large bodies of voters who believe that they're being actively persecuted and even battled by liberal policy. To his credit, there is a lot of sweetness in his writing, and though he is often dismissive of the obviously wackier viewpoints presented (including at one point a prayer for Scooter Libby in his "time of need"), Taibbi also grows friendships with his fellow church-goers and sees the fear and indecision in them that may be the very reason they attend in the first place.

Surrounding his time in San Antonio, Taibbi writes about his time in Afghanistan as a journalist with a military unit, and discusses some of the ways that American politics is corrupt, and disgustingly so, but also hilariously so. During the Bush administration, while the Republicans controlled Congress, most major votes were scheduled to occur in the middle of the night and early morning, knowing full well that most Senators and Representatives would not come in to contest an absurd bill at 3 am. He also notes that in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, that numerous bills headed by Republican members of Congress as "emergency relief" were actually just repeals of environmental restrictions that would do nothing to help New Orleans or gas prices. And the Democrats did little to stop anything, beyond going through the motions and halting extreme absurdity. Taibbi finally addresses the 9/11 Truth Movement, which has spent the last 9 years attempting to prove that the government caused, or allowed, the terrorists attacks to happen.

The Great Derangement, it turns out, isn't about religion, or politics, or fringe conspiracy theory. Instead, Taibbi attempts to show that the extremism of our lives is the greatest part of the problem. In the latter part of the 20th Century, on to now, we as a public have spent more time arguing about candidates personal lives than about what was going on in the country. We've broken down from a nation of people aware of our lives to a nation waiting to be scared or uplifted by big-budget speeches and dramatic battleship-staged victory dances. Even now, in 2009, as we turn toward the second decade of the 21st Century, we do not have universal health care, and instead of any intelligent, televised, real debate between Republican and Democratic interests we are presented with one slanderous ad after another. The logic that everyone should have health care is impossible to deny. And better that people who get sick and have insurance should be able to actually count on using it. Instead, health care stands as a group of distractions, abortion, murder of seniors, and other things that don't make ANY FUCKING SENSE if you actually think about them. What part of the United States' relatively great history would lead anyone to believe that our government would be out to kill senior citizens?

Taibbi's assessment is disgustingly accurate. When the Democrats recently lost two Gubernatorial elections, Fox News said that Obama was in trouble, and a lame duck. The Great Derangement is still going on, and unfortunately, as Taibbi admits, it doesn't appear to be going away anytime soon. We are stuck, in this country, in an ideological loop. You have to pick a side to vote, and the people in power are more than happy to keep anything positive from ever happening while they can pad their pockets, and ensure generations of the same old shit. Taibbi's book is excellent, cover to cover, and it may well convince you to leave the system of American politics altogether. But, that's not the point. The better point is that we all MUST become more educated about our government. Voting along lines doesn't solve anything. Knowledge really is power, and many of our representatives are counting heavily on us not to have it, or to be too distracted with bickering over things that will likely never change, to use what we have. Reading this book is a good start, but reading more in general, and neglecting the definitions we're spoon-fed is essential.
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11.25.2009

November 24: The Fiery Furnaces


Though my first live experience with The Fiery Furnaces, their reputation for bombastic, frenetic long-jam style shows had preceded them through word of mouth from friends, and the litany of web outlets espousing the virtue (and confusion) of the experience. As a finally to round out a November loaded with excellent rock shows, this one was one that I anticipated the most. I first fell in love with the Friedbergers and their complex compositions, often littered with nonsensical, dreamy lyrics when I heard 2007's Widow City. The fluid, medley-style marking the first half of the album instantly sold me on their greatness. I had heard them before, but that album made a lasting impression. So great that I blogged about the band previously here. And with this year's release of I'm Going Away, easily their most accessible album since Gallowsbird's Bark, showcasing such amazing, pop-driven new Fiery Furnaces tracks, I could not have been more excited to see them live, on stage, in the intimacy of the Bluebird Theater.

But first, opening band Young Coyotes played a strong set of songs focused on death, destruction and fear. Composed of Denver locals Adam Halferty and Zach Tipton, the vocals sound vaguely like Sting during the Police, or just post-Police years, and drum-work is exceptional. The songs are worth picking up, now available in two digital EPs on the band's website. They remind me of Guster, with more power, more reverb, more anger, and less sugar. And they are two truly hilarious guys. The banter, between the two, and with the audience nicely broke up what seemed to be a tense night. There were brief utterances that this was their "last show," but there's no indication of that on the band's various web pages.


Then, comes the long awaited moment. Eleanor and Matthew taking the stage, complex and sudden guitar riffs, speak-sung lyrics, heavy drumbeats and brilliant pedal work as they tear off the first 4 tracks from Widow City (excepting "The Philadelphia Grand Jury"). Technically speaking, they are the best band I've seen all month. Matthew's guitar work is beyond impressive. It's awe-inspiring and jaw dropping. His ability to break beat, tear off a 4 measure, high-speed solo with the pedal on, then tap that pedal back, and bring everything back to a slow pace, quietly filling as rhythm is amazing. The Fiery Furnaces are defined by these difficult, up-pace/down-pace, quick change compositions, but actually seeing them played live gives them a whole new value. Matt's hand literally went into a full blur (to which my drinking beer may also have contributed) numerous times while he shred the strings for only a moment. As someone who plays guitar competently, but not excellently (read: relatively lay-person) that's fucking incredible. Eleanor's ability to keep pace with all these changes, happening live, and hold the lyrics close and sing them strong is equally impressive. She has an incredible presence and a strong, beautiful voice live. There's no question that she's happy performing live, even as low-key as her style appears.



The surprise in this show came in the way the set list went down. It was as straightforward as any show I'd seen all month. Nothing like the chaotic presentation touted by friends and media, the Furnaces simply played their songs brilliantly, with minor changes to only two or three. And, the stage-theatrics were utterly moot. Every song seemed more artistically played then raucously played, as this show lacked the large personalities of Art Brut or the bombast of Dirty Projectors. The Friedbergers came off as elder statesmen of indie rock, playing confidently with a sturdy pride and not an inkling of a need for theatrics. While this changed the energy of the show, and closed my November concert going with a rocking, but mature note, it is also a great testament to a vastly talented, journey band giving its audience exactly what it wants: an epic show.

Side note: As the 3rd 16+ show at 'bird for me this month, this one was the most high school-heavy. Excellent youth showing its love of The Fiery Furnaces; the kids are alright.

Photos courtesy of Stepan Mazurov. Check out his Flickr photostream.
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11.24.2009

Surfer Blood - Astro Coast


Surfer Blood's debut Astro Coast comes loaded with indelible, dance-friendly, but still excellently punk-raucous hooks and riffs that make it not only a solid first disc from the Florida band, but a window to a promising future. Astro Coast demonstrates Surfer Blood's early songwriting influences, drawing from Doolittle-era Pixies tracks like "Here Comes Your Man" (A comparison drummer TJ Schwarz said, "People don't say it often, but the Pixies are definitely one of our main influences" at the November 22 show in Denver) for a guitar-heavy garage feel that also grabs surf-rock progressions and thoughtful lyrics. There's a bit of Wolf Parade, and perhaps even baroque-pop '60s group The Left Banke. What's clear is that Surfer Blood understand how to write a great pop song. Astro Coast has numerous "single" type tracks that grab your attention and demand replay over and over, but the greatest upside is that for their grasp of pop fascia like riffs and hooks, Surfer Blood present thoughtful lyrics that have an airy, dreamer quality.

The songwriting craftsmanship is most evident in songs like "Harmonix," "Twin Peaks," and "Anchorage." The hook is valuable, but it's the layers of verses and build-up, breakdown bridges and choruses that create a freshness that invites multiple listens without the pretensions that hinder enjoyment. Other tracks have shades of Vampire Weekend on them, but always with the fresh-faced Surfer Blood style. The track listing is well assembled as well. All too common with new, and sophomore releases, the best stuff is thrown upfront and the album tapers off into middling B- and C-sides. Not the case, here, as track one "Floating Vibes" sets the table nicely, but isn't the best song on the album by far. This album is most like a quality baseball line-up. "Swim" (likely the front-runner for early single) and "Take It Easy" dial up the writing, and then "Harmonix" delivers the run-scoring hit. Slow downs come as the album nears its end, but these songs all stand up independently, which is good for an iTunes universe. This is a very promising young band who could very quickly become one of the indie-rock elite.

Check out Surfer Blood on their MySpace page here and then buy Astro Coast upon its release in January of 2010.
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