Thursday, December 24, 2009

The List

Oh, yes, my children. It's come to this. The List. My admittedly haphazard collection of albums which best suited my tastes. These are the albums I will be listening to in one, five, and even ten years. These are not in an exact order, though I have arranged them so the general gradient is one of ever-increasing quality.

And it's important to remember that these are not necessarily the albums I would refer to as "The best" of the year; these are my favourites. Most of them happen to be the best, is the thing.

The List

(500) Days of Summer
Various Artists
This is hear because Dena insisted the list have fifteen entries; don't get me wrong, I would have included it at the outset, but for the fact that I don't include live albums, nor do I include soundtracks. And, yes, it's a bit twee, this ramshackle collection of stellar indie tracks, but it suits the movie so perfectly, and the songs work together so well, that you'd be willing to believe they were meant to be as they are here. Great, great movie, too.

The Fall
Norah Jones
I appreciate an artist who is willing to change their sound after as much success as Miss Jones has experienced. On The Fall, she ditches the piano that served her so well on her previous two efforts, and picks up the guitar. She's still mellow; this isn't an abrupt about-face. But it's enough of a change that it represents a serious risk. And it's all the better for it. Myself, I'm partial to the closer, "Man of the Hour," which simulates "Makin' Whoopee" for the modern era. Oh, and she's still got that voice.

Atlantic Ocean
Richard Swift
For starters, literally, this album opens with the perfect sound. The timbre of the noise in the first seconds of the title track is such that you can feel it going through you. You don't hear it, you experience it. The rest of the album is wonderful; on Dressed Up for the Letdown, Swift's previous album, he practiced Tin Pan Alley song-craft. Here, he's following in the hyper-melodic footsteps of Macca and Nilsson, and nothing bad can come from that when you've a talent as intriguing as Swift. He'll never be the brightest star of his generation, but I'll bet you money that, in ten years, he'll have a better discography than just about anyone still in the game. Certainly one of the most individual. And, no, this isn't one of the best albums of the year in the strict sense of the word, but I'll also bet I'll have forgotten about half the albums here before I forget this one.

Tarot Sport
Fuck Buttons
Yes, this was in my last post as something I need more time with, but I've spent time with it. And I can only imagine this album will continue to rise up the incline. It's proper place could quite possibly be down there with the top three or four. But, for now, here will do. A mighty fifty minutes of music, Tarot Sport is feedback and static-ridden, undoubtedly difficult to get into if you aren't used to this sort of thing. But once you get a few minutes into opener "Surf Solar," you're entranced, and the rest of it passes swiftly, hypnotically, and, most important, gloriously. Underneath the layers of static and noise, the melodies here are worthy of Olympic coverage on NBC, or the most epic movie scores. Without ever resorting to schmaltz, without ever getting easy, this will stir you into a frenzy, and you'll have no idea what to do with the feelings it leaves you with. Other than, quite possibly, listening to the album again.

Bitte Orca
Dirty Projectors
I didn't give this the best review. I didn't "get" it. I still don't, really. But there's something about the idiosyncratic guitar, erm, "pop" here that I find compelling, and there's something about the impossibly tight female vocals that I find intriguing, and there's something about the overall sound that I find inviting, and there's something about the album itself that will keep me coming back, again and again, trying desperately to "get" what I know can't be far out of grasp.

Art Brut vs. Satan
Art Brut
Is it as good as their first album? Of course not. But little is, you know, so we can't hold that against them. There's nothing here to match the brilliance of, say, "I've seen her naked! Twice!! I've seen her naked!!! Twice!!!!," but, to suffice, we get lyrics like, "I knew where you lived, so when I used to walk home from school, I would go especially slow past your house, in case your bus would stop and you would get off and we could start chatting or something, but the one time that did happen I got scared and hid behind a tree." If that doesn't ring true with you, you don't deserve for it to. And you probably don't deserve Art Brut. They hate people like you.

Grizzly Bear
This album is admittedly here primarily because of two songs. For one, each time I sit down to listen, I rarely make it past the second track. Grizzly Bear can't be blamed for the perfection of "Two Weeks." With its Beach Boy choruses and perfect keyboard part (a bit ahead of the beat in the left headphone, on the beat in the right? Brilliant), it's easily the song of the year, but it detracts from the rest of the album. The other ringer, "Foreground," is gorgeous, and in the first fifteen seconds makes me want to cry. It's overwhelming. The whole album is intricate, beautiful, haunting, consuming, detailed, and rewards listening. These are the things modern music isn't supposed to do, but Grizzly Bear don't care; These boys are "real" musicians. My only concern? They seem to know it, and I can't tell you how many bands that realisation has ruined.

The xx
A sound based around two mediocre voices, one male and one female, a bass, and electronic drum loops should not be this good, and, yet, there it is. Granted, they have a guitar player, and he knows what he's doing. He doesn't play unless he should which is a rare quality. The question I must ask is, where the fuck did this come from? No, but really, I'd like to know. It's too good for a first album, yet all the evidence suggests (proves, even) that it is. The sound is sparse, something young bands are not meant to understand as an asset; young bands are supposed to get overwhelmed by the freedoms of the studio and pile on every possible sound they can fathom. These kids seem to have done that, and then stripped away everything they could spare; what you're listening to here is the frame of a first album, which is what most first albums should be in the first place. God willing, they'll be back, and better. Tough odds.

St. Vincent
Actor was about the point I decided 2009 was going to be a great year. By the time of its release in May, four of the five albums to follow had already been released, and the quality of these top six was such that the year didn't really need to offer much else to make it a personal favourite. St. Vincent creates intricate modern pop, following in the vein of those who believe that pop is the best avenue for musical exploration (it is, when it's done right). Her songs are airtight, and they go in unexpected directions as a normal course of business. But nothing here is unsettling past the first listen; once you've taken it all in once, it's just wonderful to listen to. There is so much going on musically here, I imagine I could listen to this album for years, and I would still be finding new sounds buried in the mix. And I like that. And, I'll note, the lyrics are just astonishing. "I'm a wife in watercolours, I can wash away. Seventeen cold showers couldn't wash you away." Awesome.

Crack the Skye
This is here because I normally find heavy metal intolerable. This is here because I certainly never enjoy listening to sludge metal. This is here because driving drums with absolutely terrifying fills are something that simply doesn't appeal to me. This is here because no one would expect me to enjoy an album that opens with the lyric "I flew beyond the sun before it was time." This is here because stories about wheel-chair-bound teenagers changing bodies with Russian sorcerers named Rasputin never make sense, and couldn't. This is here because, when you put your mind to it, metal, even the really heavy shit, can be smart, reward listening, and be more than just noise. This is here because sometimes, for fuck's sake, you just have to rock out. Possibly with your cock out.

It's Not Me, It's You
Lily Allen
Well, it's got the year's best title, that's for certain. And what we have here is something that isn't seen often enough; this is intelligent, clever, cute, witty, catchy pop. Yes. Pop, in the truest sense. It has hooks (and, oh, does it have hooks). It has choruses, choruses that are instantly memorable, choruses that are repeated three or four times per song. It sounds, as my roommate put it, like listening to Cotton Candy. But not the kind that'll make you sick. The kind that, secretly, has all your vitamins in it. But you'll never once be able to tell, unless you want to. If it weren't for that pesky last song, it'd be perfect. But there's always an off button, right? "I'm lying in the wet-patch in the middle of the bed. I'm feeling pretty damn hard done by, I spent ages giving head," is poetry for the ages. Or, at least, this one.

American Saturday Night
Brad Paisley
It has all been said before. It's true. There's nothing here that's going to rock the boat. There's no new sound. There's no new topic. There's the easy love ballad, "Then." There's the God Song, "No," an obligatory Paisley construct which comes once an album, I'm convinced it's to keep his audience happy. But there's also that Paisley mindset, where the same things are written about in new, enjoyable ways. It's all entertaining, it's all funny, it's all flawless from a technical standpoint. If you don't like country (or Country), you won't like it, as Paisley's values and focuses are exactly the same as everyone else. But he remembers to bring the hooks. He remembers to bring good memories. He remembers to bring his sense of humour, which never condescends, and never insults. He brings a wonderful sense of joy.Crucially, he brings that guitar sound. He's a better guitar player than you are, he's a better guitar player than I am, and I really hope it stays that way forever. But what's most important to the success of this album, is that Paisley, much like Dave Grohl (there's a comparison I imagine you didn't see coming), brings to it all a sense of complete sincerity. While you can feel the posture when you listen to Tim McGraw or Kenny Chesney, Paisley clearly means everything he says, and it's refreshing, is what it is, to listen to.

It's Blitz!
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Nevermind that Yeah Yeah Yeahs put away the guitars for most of this album, resorting instead primarily to synths. Nevermind that, on an album full of synths, "Dull Life" features the best guitar line of the year. Nevermind that Karen O is a fascinating, absolutely singular talent with two band mates about whom the same can be said. Nevermind that the cover is fuckin' cool. Nevermind that the It's Blitz! E.P. made me cry (The aforementioned "Foreground" makes me want to cry, but the acoustic "Soft Shock" got the job done, and on melody alone). Nevermind that the YYYs have successfully managed to change their sound with every album without losing the qualities that make them unique, the hallmark of a great band. Nevermind that they've released three albums of A+ material. Nevermind that the YYYs are my favourite band of the last decade, and on course to become my favourite band period. Nevermind all that. It's Blitz! is still fucking amazing.

Merriweather Post Pavilion
Animal Collective
There aren't enough good things to say about this album. It embodies all the qualities I want an album to possess: it's musically adventurous; it's well-sequenced; it's a grower, despite being instantly lovable the first time through; it's catchy; it sounds completely unlike any other band; it's fun. I can't emphasise the "fun" factor enough. Here we have an album full of electronic noodling attached to rock-solid songs. There's a new definition of what's possible within the realm of western music. Seriously, outside of Animal Collective's work, there's not a lot of precedent for this. And the year's most uplifting, liberating moment comes in the form of "My Girls," when the boys let loose a primal "WHOOOOOO!" I can't adequately convey this album to you, and so there is little point in trying. Just know the first Tuesday of 2009 saw the release of its best album. You have to imagine the rest of the artists, both on this list and in the greater world, listening to the album, thinking to themselves, "Ain't that a bitch?"

2009: Part 1

There is one week left in 2009, ladies and gentlemen. Over the course of the last 51, I have listened to 87 albums worth of music; that's well over four days worth of music. I can say it was a great year; you can tell, because even the mediocrities were at least entertaining. What I will offer, in the post to follow this one, will not necessarily name the albums I would describe as the best of the year, though for most of them that is the case. No, what we will have is a look at the things which most held my attention, the albums which I will still be listening to in one, five, or even ten years.

But before I write that entry, I would like to highlight a few albums I believe have the potential to make this list, but still require more of my time before I can feel comfortable with bestowing judgment, etc. Don't think of these as the Also-rans, though. Fuck Buttons in particular has a great chance of being a favourite for some time.

Tarot Sport
Fuck Buttons
I'm listening to it right now. And it's entrancing. But I'm listening to it now for the first time. That's not a great lead with which to form an accurate opinion.

Speech Therapy
Speach Debelle
I only listened to it once, and it was whilst cleaning my room. It was a lovely, refreshing album. Everyone should listen to it. I should listen to it again.

Tongue N Cheek
Dizzee Rascal
It would appear that I simply didn't spend enough time with UK rap this year. Then again, in the past, UK rap hasn't exactly given me reason to.

No Line On the Horizon
I know, I know; I gave this a withering review when I first listened to it back at the beginning of the year, and it's on my Worst Of the Year list. But it's been placed at the top of the pile by too many critics for me not to have another go.

Some day.

Monday, December 14, 2009

...and fuck Frank Sinatra.

Rolling Stone is officially dead to me. I know they started losing credibility back in the late eighties, but it's over now. I struggled for a while to maintain a healthy relationship. I read the reviews when I was in the bathroom and needed something to do. I paid attention to the anniversary lists back in high school. Times were good.

This year, they've named U2's No Line on the Horizon as the best album of the year. Their number 2 album is Bruce Springsteen's capable-but-uninspired Working on a Dream. Their song of the year is a bloated seven-minute song that would have been nothing more than boring had it been three minutes long, U2's "Moment of Surrender." Merriweather Post Pavilion by Animal Collective, one of the most original, exciting, listenable albums of the decade, wasn't in the top 10. But Jay-Z's The Blueprint 3 was. So I can sleep easy knowing that. *sigh*

We're no longer on speaking terms.

Deep Breath. Go.

I'm starting to feel the pressure.

The new issues of all the music magazines are coming out now, with their best-of lists, and this December/January is the big game; we're talking Best of the Decade lists, folks. Not just Best of the Year, but the last ten. That's a tall order for one multimedia critic to handle, and I'm not sure how to handle it. Certainly a numbered list will not suffice. I will spend hours debating whether Elbow's The Seldom Seen Kid warrants a place at #38 or #37 (arbitrary numbers; I imagine it might even place a bit higher), and that's not productive for any of us.

I may use a stratified approach. And, no, Kid A will not be my number 1 album of the decade. Those of you who follow the music press probably just giggled appreciatively.

But this is not why we're here right now. I'll get to that once the semester has ended and I can put real time into those lists. I want to do right by them. Why we're here today, is I have a lot of catching up to do. And in the name of (relative) brevity, I'm going to do it all right now.

In music, we've had a bit of a resurgence, as far as releases of interest are concerned. For one thing, I purchased a copy of the new Bee Gees collection, Ultimate Bee Gees, and was reminded that they were a truly formidable, impressive band. I can listen to "Nights on Broadway" for days, I suspect. And I'm damn near making it happen. The new Rihanna album, Rated R, sounds fantastic. It's not as airtight as she tends to be, but this is her "I wanted to be an artist" album, and that's typically how it goes; you trade commercially undeniable stuff for the more expressive business. Again, though, the sounds alone are worth the price of admission.

There's an unexpected, late entry into the Best of the Year arena, XX by The xx. (That's them to the right, there. Don't you just want to hug 'em?) It's all a bit minimalist, like Joy Division stripped themselves down and cleaned up their act. It's also exceptional. I read a review of it which said it feels as though several other, noisier, less-accomplished albums should have come before this one, and I think that about says it all; this is the sound of a band arriving fully-formed, and it's thrilling. Yes, it's their debut. And, yes, it gets better every time you listen to it. Check this one out.

I've started digesting Monsters of Folk, and they're better than anything Bright Eyes has ever put out. I don't care for M. Ward, and I don't care for Bright Eyes, but the two of them together, diluted (perhaps?) by Drive-By Truckers' Jim James is really delicious. That other super-group for this year, Them Crooked Vultures, is also superb. What happens when you put Josh Holme from Queens of the Stone Age, Dave Grohl from Nirvana (he's drumming, so saying "from Foo Fighters" gives you the wrong idea), and John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin in the same studio? I don't know, but it sounds fuckin' amazing.

The new Weezer album is something to sneeze at. "(If You're Wondering if I Want You To) I Want You To" is awesome, in that plastic-sort of way, but other than that, it's really drivel. Still on my to-do list are Fuck Buttons, Biffy Clyro, Norah Jones (good so far... very good), Kid Cudi, and Shakira. Why not?

I've also recently finished several books, but I want to direct your attention rather specifically to Let the Great World Spin by Colm McCann. It's new from this year, and you would be hard-pressed to improve on it. The story is one of those multi-faceted, Magnolia-type narratives, where a number of characters are inter-connected in ways simultaneously inconsequential and incredibly important. The story-telling device McCann uses, having a different character narrate every chapter, has been done before, but he does it so brilliantly that it ceases to be a hook, a novelty, and becomes an incredible part of the story. Before I started the last chapter, I was excited just to find out who the narrator was. And I wasn't let down. A brilliant book with wonderful sentence structure and word choice. As forensic as that sounds, those things matter to me. It's why I never finished The Lovely Bones.

Movie-wise, I saw The Princess and the Frog and Up in the Air this past weekend, and both were wonderful. The Princess and the Frog was a very, very enjoyable movie, and it's a great way for Disney to reinvigorate the hand-drawn animation productions they never should have abandoned in the first place.

Up in the Air may be the best film I've seen all year. It's a wonderful, touching, funny, deep, and, most of all, entertaining film. And George Clooney is reliably great. Michael Clayton and Up in the Air have served to remind me that he is oddly underrated as an actor. Expect a lot of Oscar nominations for this one. Anna Kendrick is tightly-wound to the point of perfection, and deserves a nomination of her own. I'd say it should win Best Picture, but I haven't seen The Hurt Locker yet, and I have my suspicions.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Ah, Life #1

I'm learning now as I dig deeper that this may not be true, but I really hope it is;

In early 1979, Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" was the number one single until it was knocked off by Bee Gee's "Tragedy," for two weeks. "I Will Survive" reclaimed the top spot for another week.

I find this oddly appropriate.