In Heavy Rotation #2

Here’s a short list of some stuff I’ve been geeking on the past few weeks. Enjoy!

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In Heavy Rotation #1

This is the first in a series of weekly columns I’ll be throwing down, and when I say weekly sometimes that might mean 7 or 10 or even 14 days (which I guess would be bi-weekly…) Anyway, look for these- I’ll be around.

Mulgrew Miller – Live at Yoshi’s, Volume One (2004; MAXJAZZ Records)

Pianist Mulgrew Miller got his start with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the mid-80s and has since gone onto play with some of the best in jazz; Ron Carter, Kenny Garrett, Freddie Hubbard and Tony Williams (just to name a few). On this collection, Live at Yoshi’s Vol. 1 (recorded in 2003) he shines along with Karriem Riggins on drums and Derrick Hodge on the bass. It’s more than your standard hard bop fare; Mulgrew’s playing is both dazzling and focused. The album’s closer, Pressing the Issue, is a romp into some inspired post-bop territory and my pick for the best track on the album.

Grimes – Visions (2012; 4AD Records)

I thought (judging from the album cover) this was going to be some scuzzy skate punk or thrashy garage shit. Boy was I waaaay off- it’s some synth dance pop from Vancouver native Claire Boucher. It would not sound even a little bit out of place on an early-80s dance floor at some club in Italy, either. This is probably the hugest surprise of the year; I figured it would be some unsettling and totally unlistenable blast rawk but it’s actually probably the most accessible album I’ve heard this year. Here’s to judging music by the cover art. Boy I feel dumb. Wanna dance?

Panda Bear – Young Prayer (2004, Paw Tracks Records)

I had totally forgotten about this, I almost feel now that it’s the “lost” Panda Bear album, considering how much people went crazy for 2007’s Person Pitch and all the hype around latest release Tomboy. But here’s a really raw, emotive, plaintive version of PB’s work- I think I read somewhere this was written as a eulogy for his recently passed father. If you view it as a component piece to Animal Collective‘s release from that same year (Sung Tongs) then it plays a lot like a b-side; where that album is a spazzy upbeat romp this is a somber, reflective ode.

Blind Pilot – 3 Rounds and a Sound (2008; Expunged Records)

Hyper-literate, melodramatic indie folk that could sidle up next to a band like Great Lake Swimmers or The Low Anthem and be right at home with its recurrent themes of bittersweet longing, reflective thoughtfulness and sweeping autumnal grandeur. My pick for best track on the album is The Story I Heard, a story about a train-hopper that can’t seem to escape the regrets of his life; they follow him everywhere he goes. Plays great on a Sunday afternoon.  

Iron Maiden – Powerslave (1984; EMI Records)

When Maiden fired vocalist Paul Di’anno in 1981 and replaced him with Bruce Dickinson, they cemented themselves at the top of the heap of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal for all times. The twin guitar assault of Adrian Smith and Dave Murray over top of the soild thrumming bass lines of Steve Harris with Nicko McBrain on drums pinning it all down made the Maiden an unstoppable force. The first album with the classic line up, The Number of the Beast, is not only one of the greatest metal albums of all-time, it’s one of the greatest records ever. Fast forward two years to ’84 and their Powerslave album- in my opinion their best (or my “favorite”, whatever). It shows them at the height of their powers, exploring a more proggier side of metal (bassist Harris never shied away from his love for Jethro Tull, Genesis and Wishbone Ash) and those associations have never been more apparent than on the album’s final cut, the thirteen-plus minute Rime of the Ancient Mariner (based on the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem of the same name). Another choice cut is The Duellists, which showcases that twin guitar attack I referenced previously. 

Allow me to reintroduce myself…

…that was quite a long hiatus, too long in fact. I was… uh… out getting some milk, yeahhhh.

No, seriously. I got kind of busy since early 2010. What have I been listening to? Here’s a quick refresher on some of my favorites since I disappeared:

Best of 2010

10. Anaïs Mitchell – Hadestown
9. Gonjasufi – A Sufi and A Killer
8. Holy Fuck – Latin
7. The Fall – Your Future Our Clutter
6. Julian Lynch – Mare
5. No Age – Everything in Between
4. The Tallest Man on Earth – The Wild Hunt
3. Clive Tanaka y Su Orquesta – Jet Set Siempre No. 1
2. Yeasayer – Odd Blood
1. Menomena – Mines

Best of 2011

10. Ketil Bjørnstad / Svante Henryson – Night Song
9. Destroyer – Kaputt
8. A Winged Victory for the Sullen – s/t
7. A Lazarus Soul – Through a Window in the Sunshine Room
6. Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de colouer libres
5. Tim Hecker – Ravedeath, 1972
4. Kendrick Lamar – Section.80
3. The Twilight Singers – Dynamite Steps
2. La Dispute – Wildlife
1. James Blake – James Blake

So there ya go, I guess that sums up my absence from music writing with my favorite 20 albums over the past 2 years. I’ve still been kinda paying attention, albeit more through metascore and review aggregate sites and less of actual “music” blogs and such.

Lest anyone think that based on the above music tastes I’m some massive hipster douchebag let me further distance myself from their ilk by stating a few facts that will get me kicked out of any “cool” club: I love prog rock (that’s right; Rush, ELP, King Crimson, Yes, Jethro Tull, et. al.) and I generally disdain anything regarding “fashion”. 

Whatever, here’s some Spotify playlists!

Best Tracks of 2011

Best Albums of 2011 (with Honorable Mentions)

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Tidying Up…

This will be the last thing I ever have to say on 2009, I promise you this. This is me tying up all the loose ends; in case you were wondering what all my “Honorable Mentions” list looked like- it’s all the shit that overflowed from the proverbial toilet that was ’09. I can also assure you that I have little to no “honor” so this list to follow should be read with severe skepticism.

First and foremost:

The Ten Best EPs of 2009

10. Warpaint – Exquisite Corpse (Manimal Vinyl; October 5th)

warpaintMelancholy dream-pop in the vein of the Los Angeles eighties’ Paisley Underground scene; funny I should say “vein” because this six song EP is the aural equivalent of an opiate rush. It’s a mainline to your pleasure center; reverb-drenched guitars set to syrupy sweet vocals from Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman over plodding basses (courtesy Jenny Lee Lindberg) and a steady, understated backbeat from Stella Mozgawa. On their MySpace page, under “Sounds Like” they describe themselves as Happy Nightmare, no doubt a nod to the Kendra Smith-slash-David Roback (and later Hope Sandoval) project Opal (that would eventually morph into Mazzy Star). Pretty nice sound, and wonderful influences, ladies!

9. Suckers – Suckers EP (IAMSOUND; April 14th)

suckersFirst off, four songs at sixteen minutes is too short, and I’d only say that because this is good enough that I want more, at least 40 minutes of it. Second, Suckers make a unique brand of pop-meets-spiritual music in that they share a musical sensibility that’s equal parts Yeasayer and MGMT– so it’s both a gospel-esque sing-along (or shout-along) as well as rhythmic enough to get your head nodding, even danceable at times. Suckers are your urban hippies with synths- when music comes away from the campfire and into a studio full of electronics and midi sounds; the result is sublime- It Gets Your Body Movin’ is one of the best songs I’ve come across this year.

8. Abe Vigoda – Reviver EP (Post-Present Medium; February 17th)

abe-vAbe Vigoda gets a little more sloppy, slightly more experimental (there’s an almost two-minute noise excursion, a re-do of their own song Endless Sleeper; slowing it down by half and giving it a sonic re-interpretation, right in the middle of the mini-record) but for some reason it’s even more listenable- whetting my appetite for another full-length album from these guys. The track House sounds like there’s three or four different rhythms going on at once- each musician playing their respective instrument to the beat of their own disparate heart, yet it works so well; but the main focal point of the album is their cover (and liberal re-explication) of Stevie NicksWild Heart– it’s a pretty good summation of Abe Vigoda’s mission statement (if they were to have one), this band is like a “fever gone higher…” and the line “…running around like a spirit in flight” fit so well capturing the essence of AV. The droning bass line and the plucky guitar work in conjuction with Vidal’s emotive and yearning vocalization make this track one of the young year’s best- and the searing distortion sneaking into the song doesn’t hurt at all- it adds to the urgency. AV is hitting their stride- I’m really excited to see what else comes from their world in the next year.

7. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – Higher Than The Stars EP (Slumberland; September 22nd)

higherTake some Power, Corruption & Lies-era New Order, add a dash of jangly twee-pop and a slice of The Jesus & Mary Chain‘s sweet-and-fuzzy feedback and you got yourself a nice little sound here that TPOBPAH have cultivated into an EP of stellar tracks; not to mention their wonderful full-length released earlier in the year. It reminds me also (stylistically speaking, of course) of The Smiths in that the music has a sunny side yet the lyrics are dark and depressive- sort of like a subliminal message, with poppy side-effects…

6. Julianna Barwick – Florine EP (eMusic Selects; April 27th)

barwickWow. As far as I can tell, it’s just a woman, a microphone, various delay and reverb pedals, a looping machine, maybe a keyboard and a whole lot of creativity. This is one of the most soul-achingly beautiful releases of the year, a real sleeper. It sounds like a church service held at the bottom of the ocean, attended by whales and dolphins and run by some type of silken-siren voiced angel of a fairy. I don’t know. It’s psychedelic and it’s pretty. So there.

5. Beirut – March Of The Zapotec EP (Ba Da Bing; February 17th)

march_of_the_zapotec_holland_epAptly named for its Mexican funeral march feel, March Of The Zapotec was recorded with the help of a nineteen piece band, The Jimenez Band hailing from the state of Oaxaca. Inspired by Condon’s recent visit there as well as the Oaxacan/Zapotecan tradition of burying their dead with all their valuables, this EP is rife with the imagery and native folklore- the track La Llorona, (Spanish for “weeping woman”) is loosely based on the similar tale told throughout the Hispanic world. The instrumental My Wife, with its waltz-like tone shows that Condon can’t shake his eastern-European leanings just yet- which makes for an interesting study in an increasingly globalizing world- think of it as Beirut’s one-world philosophy; I think one thing Condon can say through his music is that we’re all basically the same. If indie hipsters can like the sort of music inspired by the clash of the Industrial Revolution and the Ottoman Empire, so be it.

4. Deerhunter – Rainwater Cassette Exchange (Kranky; 5/18)

rainwaterI got a chance to hear three of these tracks at Noise Pop earlier this year; before I went deaf for two days. Yeah, Deerhunter’s live show is akin to My Bloody Valentine’s- you better bring some ear plugs because you’re gonna get some guitars. Anyway, the band treated those shows as pre-tour exercises (meaning: they gave 110% but also used the opportunity to “try out” new tracks Disappearing Ink, Famous Last Words and Rainwater). I remember them being louder for some reason… Anytime Deerhunter can throw out a quick 5-song EP in between albums/tours, even if it sucks, I’ll happily lap it up. This does not suck in the least; yeah, it’s too short- but it’s an EP so it whets the appetite ever so slightly, I’m excited for what they have next. A band that’s big on conceptual continuity; you could lay their releases end-to-end chronologically, hit play and listen to them as a series of ideas, where slight shifts in perception create little ripples in the psyche. Some of these ideas from their earlier stuff are still being felt now- that’s why their albums are musically dynamic yet still true to their vision. I can’t wait for what’s next.

3. Hezekiah Jones – Bread Of Teeth (Yer Bird; September 12th)

breadI run the risk of sounding trite, but Hezekiah‘s been crafting these lovely, soul-crushingly beautiful songs since before I can remember; and I don’t say that because I know the guy personally, I mean it- he’s the best unknown artist in the world right now. You’re doing yourself an awful disservice by not checking out his rusty brand of American folk, but maybe you don’t want to be moved to almost tears by the track Traffic To The Sea, and I understand that, but these aching and fragile tunes (as well as the upbeat Iowa Alligator, a re-worked version of a reggae tune done by Hez’s old band StillWillis) will leave you wanting more; I guess a “stop-gap” EP whets the appetite as such.

2. No Age – Losing Feeling (Sub Pop; October 6th)

No-Age-Losing-FeelingThe guys from No Age sure have been busy- after 2008’s Album Of The Year award from yours truly they’ve gotten themselves fully immersed in the skate industry; first getting a clothing sponsor in Altamont and then an Ed Templeton-designed shoe for Emerica. Everything’s coming up No Age! Dreamy, shoegazey, at times heavy and fast; I guess the best approximation would be to just call them a noise pop band and send you on your way; but they’re so much more than that. Take the track Aim At The Airport; it’s an electro-feedback knob twiddling thing- I can’t tell if they’re using a backward guitar loops or some type of rotating Leslie effect, but either way it’s an interesting listen. I guess I’ll have to claim ignorance as to what studio/gadget trickery they’re using; regardless- it’s pretty awesome.

1. BLK JKS – Mystery EP (Secretly Canadian; March 10th)

blkjksBLK JKS‘ strength lies in its ability to harness the power of the drum. Hailing from Johannesburg, South Africa, and nearby Soweto; these four musicians are straddling the Atlantic- one foot firmly rooted in their traditional mbaqanga, marabi and kwela styles and the other in American indie rock. A perfect blend of polyrhythmic drumming, TV On The Radio’s dark and danceable synth pop, Lee Perry’s Black Ark dub and just a touch of psychedelia. It’s at times sparse, light and airy; others it’s dense, heavy and strangling. I could give you a million different styles of album reviews; however overwrought or unstrung they become with such a cumbersome tool like language- the fact remains that this EP serves as a glimpse into the mindset of the rapidly expanding globalization of our tiny world, a slice of modernization meets traditionalism. BLK JKS have come from a part of the world where I’d least expect this type of music to come from, and the result is rewarding if not compelling.

The Honorable Mentions; Albums #26-40

26. Mew – No More Stories / Are Told Today / I’m Sorry / They Washed Away // No More Stories / The World Is Grey / I’m Tired / Let’s Wash Away (Sony; August 17th)

mew-no_more_storiesAre you fucking serious? That’s not an album title, that’s a poem. Listen, reader- I’m not going to sugar-coat it; this is pretentious art rock with a side of rather proggy pop. It’s like these kids grew up with nothing but a few of their parents’ King Crimson and Yes records and a steady stream of ABBA on Danish AM radio. I saw these guys years ago open up for Bloc Party at The Stone Pony; most famous for being the Asbury Park venue that gave Bruce Springsteen his start. I remember thinking, if Bruce heard these cats play, he’d shit in his hat. And I think that’s why I love it; it borrows from over-the-top prog wankery as much as it does from Scandanavian ear candy (think Ace Of Base on mushrooms and ecstasy).

27. Kurt Vile – Childish Prodigy (Matador; October 6th)

vilePhilly’s Kurt Vile has been killing it consistently, albeit in relative obscurity, for the better part of this decade- so when he releases three solo full-lengths, an EP with The Violators and still has time to play in The War On Drugs; you’d be apt to call him prolific. Lo-fi psych-folk jams that sound crusty and slightly aggro; through the syrupy haze of reverb-drenched vocals Vile‘s message is plain and simple- he’s here to rock. And he’s just getting started; inking a deal with Matador that’ll keep him in front of the pack, and keeping me looking forward to more of his stuff…

28. Califone – All My Friends Are Funeral Singers (Dead Oceans; October 6th)

califoneProbably the biggest sleeper record this past year; I say that because I slept on Califone since their last record, 2006’s Roots & Crowns. Three years between albums can make anyone forget your name; once you hear these fourteen songs you’ll realize that through all the densely layered tracks and intricately laced production, it probably took the better part of the last three years to make this. The result is a gorgeous pastiche of fractured Americana, a post-folk world where the soundtrack to Apocalypse: The Movie* is set to Califone‘s music.

* – not a real movie, this is me taking poetic license. Did you need this note here? Is this insulting your intelligence? Anyway, this album actually is a soundtrack to a real movie, directed by Tim Rutili about a psychic woman that lives deep in the woods somewhere. Califone makes a cameo appearance. That is all…

29. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros – Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros (Vagrant; July 14th)

sharpeThis is what a traveling revival show would sound like if it was led by a crazy person that grew up on a steady diet that’s equal parts Jesus Christ: Superstar, CSN&Y and lysergic acid diethylamide. Based loosely on the concept that lead Magnetic Zero/Ima Robot guy Alex Ebert (appearing here as alter-ego Edward Sharpe) had of a being coming down to Earth to save us all, yet he keeps getting distracted from his ultimate goal because he falls in love over and over again. Sort of like a horny alien Jesus, or whatever the Scientologists believe in.

30. Dinosaur Jr. – Farm (Jagjaguwar; June 23rd)

farmOkay, I’m ready to drop my hatred for J Mascis– I’ve been holding on to a grudge against him for so long now I forget why I hated him in the first place. Oh, that’s right- for kicking the immensely talented Lou Barlow out of DJr, which, in retrospect- no booting of Lou, then no awesomeness that is Sebadoh, I guess. I still refuse to listen to any non-Barlow Dinosaur records, and that’s just how it is with me. Plus, I’m not really missing anything- all those records are basically Mascis solo records, I mean, he even booted Murph out before recording 1994’s Without A Sound (with that awful Feel The Pain song, but hey- Spike Jonze’s golfing-through-midtown-Manhattan video was rad, right?) and starting a love affair with the mid-90’s fratboy set that fortunately for everyone involved died shortly after as DJr went on a ten-year hiatus. So I’d be remiss if I don’t mention previous offering Beyond (first album with the original lineup since 1988’s Bug); Farm is a rocking continuation of that record; if you’re not bowing at the feet of Mascis‘ guitar prowess right this minute, light a candle and hit your fucking knees at the altar, bitch. His walls of guitar noise, feedbacked distortion that’s been processed perfectly, Lou’s basslines thudding and plodding on top of Murph’s metronomic drumming, it’s the best pure “rock” record I’ve heard this year. What can I say about an almost nine minute song (I Don’t Wanna Go There) that’s isn’t the least bit boring, including an extended scorching solo? Of course, Lou gets his obligatory album closer- so there’s something for everyone.

31. Condo Fucks – Fuckbook (Matador; March 24th)

condofucksCondo Fucks is not Yo La Tengo. Yo La Tengo is Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew. Now; (follow me here) Kaplan, Hubley and McNew are Condo Fucks. Got it? Basically, it’s their new “project”, more of a lo-fi garage sort of thing that totally rocks. I was just thinking the other day, “Man, I need a summer album…” Well folks, this is probably gonna be it, unless Wavves or No Age drop a record in the next three months, which, considering their output, isn’t that far of a stretch. Anyway, Yo La Tengo Condo Fucks would love to have you believe that they’ve been around for years, even going so far as to make a “fake” bio on their Matador Records page. I could care less, this record fucking rocks. Covering songs by The Small Faces, Richard Hell, Beach Boys, Electric Eels, Troggs, Flaming Groovies and Slade– it’s pretty much a raw-ass, gritty sounding record and I love Yo La Tengo Condo Fucks.

32. White Rabbits – It’s Frightening (TBD; May 19th)

white-rabbitsI wish that I could just review a record without having to find out who produced it; when a record sounds as fully-realized as It’s Frightening does, I have to take a peek as the press packet to see who was twiddling the knobs on the other side of the glass. Spoon’s Britt Daniel is (in my opinion) the best producer in music today- just listen to any of his band’s albums from 1998’s A Series Of Sneaks up to now; he’s best at getting the songs to sound exactly what they’re supposed to sound like- this snare goes here, this guitar there, etc. Basically: perfect records. So White Rabbits entrusted Mr. Daniel to take their sound and do as he sees fit- the result is a heavily percussive affair (Percussion Gun) with piano lines doubling as bass lines (Midnight And I), layers of rhythm (Right Where They Left), textured bits of ambient passages (Lionesse)- White Rabbits are poised to make a surprise run at the top of some year-end lists.

33. The Decemberists – Hazards Of Love (Capitol; March 24th)

hazardsI don’t wanna give too much of the plot away, I’ll give you an abridged version- you find out Margaret’s pregnant (in the song A Bower Scene), has the baby (Isn’t It A Lovely Night?), the queen wants it (The Wanting Comes In Waves / Repaid), a terrible roustabout wants to destroy it (The Rake’s Song), Margaret eventually abducted and confronted (The Abduction Of Margaret), the river (Annan Water), the drowning (The Hazards Of Love 3 – Revenge!) and lovers re-united in death (The Hazards Of Love 4 – The Drowned). As far as the music goes on this record; it’s everything The Decemberists are known for: Meloy’s 12-string guitar and adenoidal vocal delivery, Jenny Conlee’s excellent keyboard work (I think there’s even some harpsichord in there, too), Chris Funk doing everything, and Nate Query and John Moen holding down the rhythm section. Take that basic recipe and then add all these newer ingredients: excursions deep into prog-rock, replete with chase music, power chord vamps, dizzying crescendos, the addition of both Shara Worden and Becky Stark and guest appearances from Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and Robyn Hitchcock.

34. Real Estate – Real Estate (Woodsist; November 17th)

real-estateDreamy beach-pop (yeah, that shit was hot this past year) that sounds effortless; there were a slew of other acts in ’09 that did something similar but Real Estate did it better. And they’re from Jersey, so the same beaches that inform their brand of sun-kissed pop were the beaches that I grew up on. That’s an unfair bias, but spin this record and try not to smile, I fucking dare you…

35. The Antlers – Hospice (Frenchkiss; August 18th)

antlersSlow-burning anthems of melancholic regret weaved in and around a loose narrative of nurse falling in love with patient; the story line goes like this- lead Antler Peter Silberman moves to the big city, spends two whole years sequestered from society writing this album, losing touch with family and friends along the way only to emerge with this stellar offering of dolorous melodies and heartrending storytelling. Think Radiohead-meets-Bon Iver with an Arcade Fire fascination and you can begin to draw a line connecting The Antlers’ influences to one another. If you like pop songs structured around ambient textures and falsetto-styled vocalizations with anthemic aspirations, Hospice may be your favorite album of the year.

36. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart (Slumberland; February 3rd)

pains-of-being-pureSince it’s a self-titled album, I didn’t feel the need to write it twice, that’s a pretty long name to begin with. And it sounds like a really bad diary entry, maybe something from Angela Chase. Except this is really nice fuzzy noise pop with a heart of darkness; it’s an homage to the best stuff I grew up on in the eighties (Echo & The Bunnymen, et al.) and early nineties (Teenage Fanclub, et al.) as well as lending itself to the shoegazer textures of bands like Ride and My Bloody something. Valentine? Yeah, they like those guys too, a little bit. Actually, their influence is heavy on these twenty-something New York scenesters- listening to songs like Come Saturday and Stay Alive, that wall of guitar sound is all over here, built up around lovely pop structures. My favorite track from the record; The Tenure Itch, sounds as if it was recorded for the Pretty In Pink Soundtrack– it just has that angst-ridden teenager feel to it; set upon a gorgeous late-80s pop sensibility. The album has that overall feel; it goes jangly guitars one song, drony and feedbacked the next; all under awkward and unsure lyrics- it is so teenager it’s not even funny. The track Young Adult Friction is a marvelous little pun; it’s set against the backdrop of the high school library (undoubtedly in the young adult fiction section). So I’ve cut and pasted (from their website) a typically teen all-caps shouting of the lyrics: “BETWEEN THE STACKS IN THE LIBRARY / NOT LIKE ANYONE STOPPED TO SEE / WE CAME THEY WENT, OUR BODIES SPENT / AMONG THE DUST AND THE MICROFICHE”. How innocent, yet there’s a line in the same song about taking vicodins- and another shout-out to opiates later on, on the track A Teenager in Love: “AND IF YOU MADE A STAND, I’D STAND WITH YOU ‘TIL THE END / BUT YOU DON’T NEED A FRIEND WHEN YOU’RE / A TEENAGER IN LOVE WITH CHRIST AND HEROIN”

37. Mos Def – The Ecstatic (Downtown; June 9th)

folder1I had given up on Mos Def. I thought Black On Both Sides was a fluke, and that I’d be consigned to get pissed every time I saw him in some shitty buddy movie, ranting and raving about how he coulda be a great rapper. Then Jimmy told me to check out The Ecstatic, and with skepticism I spent 16 of my valuable emusic credits getting it, swearing I’d never speak his name again if it sucked. Un-fucking believably good. That’s all I have to say. I knew it was all going to be ok when I heard Supermagic and it just kept getting better. His voice glides over the tracks, effortlessly weaving between, under, over and around incredible beats and samples.

Bad news and good dope
powder, potion, pills, smoke
baby how you trying to go
Duro o dulce
fast or slow
yay
no
it’s ok you can have it your way
naw, it aint all good but baby I’m cool
feeling great feeling good how are you
10% condition, 90% response
Survival mathematics the number man’s song

I swear the motherfucker just makes the shit sound easy, and like he was born to do it. I don’t pretend to be a hip hop aficionado, but Mos Def in his best form, as he is here, just inspires the shit out of me. -by Spencer

38. Morrissey – Years Of Refusal (Attack/Lost Highway; February 16th)

years-of-refusalSo what is Moz saying on his ninth solo album? That he’s wealthy (as opposed to “rich”) so there’s no need to worry about selling records (they will sell anyway, good or not) or pleasing the record company (he’s one of the few artists that the word “integrity” actually still means something to) and that he’s been able to maintain some semblance of a private personal life while selling somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 million records worldwide (I’m combining his previous body of work); it’s become painfully clear that Morrissey doesn’t need anyone.

39. Mountains – Choral (Thrill Jockey; February 16th)

mountainsBarring a Brian Eno record in the next eight months, I’d say this is the best ambient album of the year. These two art-school chums (Koen Holtkamp & Brendon Anderegg) make aural art with a slow, atmospheric record- designed to both entrance the listener and melt into the background. As much as you want to walk away from it, it holds your attention. Like a sculpture you didn’t know was in the room and when you suddenly realize it’s there, it’s like the most important thing in there. Remember those cheesy New-Age Pure Moods albums with Enya and Moby from the late 90s? Yeah, fuck those. This album is the shit- floating out there in the ether somewhere between Discreet Music and that Fennesz record from last year.

40. Andrew Bird – Noble Beast (Fat Possum; January 20th)

andrew_bird_noble_beastAndrew Bird is a big fan of life; both in an intra-personal aspect and on a molecular level. Continuing on a concept from his three previous records of breaking the biological constraints of life down to its basest parts- the album is again rife with the imagery of elemental vocabulary like calcium mines, radiolarians (some type of protozoic life form that produces intricate skeletal systems), sea anenomes, etc.- it’s as if you need your old bio textbook to read his lyric sheets. I’m going to go ahead and start calling him Dr. Bird, he’s probably the most cerebral songwriter around these days; and I can’t quite call his music “pop”, being that he’s a classically trained violinist his music veers closer towards a baroque sentiment- imagine pop music of the late 1700s set to brainiac post-Ph.D lyricism. But the musicianship coupled with the uber-intelligentsia slant makes for repeated interested listens; highlights include Oh No, Masterswarm, Not A Robot, But A Ghost, and the hands-down best piece of music on the entire record appears after the 2:15 mark of Anonanimal– it’s actually one of the nicest breakdowns in a song I’ve heard in a while. But then again, Dr. Bird can write some really fine melodies; so it’s completely expected.

Honorable Mentions; Songs #26-50

26. You Go On Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II) – Sunset Rubdown Dragonslayer
27. Hey, Snow White – The New Pornographers Dark Was The Night
28. It Gets Your Body Movin’ – Suckers Suckers EP
29. Born On A Day The Sun Didn’t Rise – Black Moth Super Rainbow Eating Us
30. I’m On A Boat – The Lonely Island (ft. T-Pain) Incredibad
31. No Intention – Dirty Projectors Bitter Orca
32. Cheerleader – Grizzly Bear Veckatimest
33. Microwave Mayo – DOOM Born Like This
34. You Are The Blood – Sufjan Stevens Dark Was The Night
35. Brothersport – Animal Collective Merriweather Post Pavilion
36. Lucid Dreams – Franz Ferdinand Tonight
37. So Bored – Wavves Wavvves
38. The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid – The Decemberists The Hazards Of Love
39. The Akara – Beirut March Of The Zapotec EP
40. I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris – Morrissey Years Of Refusal
41. The Tenure Itch – The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart s/t
42. Blue – Julie Doiron I Can Wonder What You Did With Your Day
43. I Am Goodbye – Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy Beware
44. And The Hazy Sea – Cymbals Eat Guitars Why There Are Mountains
45. Home – Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros s/t
46. Coochie – Blakroc (ft. Ludacris & Ol’ Dirty Bastard) Blakroc
47. Should Have Taken Acid With You – Neon Indian Psychic Chasms
48. Traffic To The Sea – Hezekiah Jones Bread Of Teeth EP
49. Bode – Julianna Barwick Florine EP
50. Papa Was A Rodeo – Bright Eyes SCORE! 20 Years of Merge Records

Alright, that’s it for 2009. Later…

The Ten Best Albums Of The Year; 2009

The intro paragraph is totally over-rated as far as I’m concerned; I never use these to my advantage. I just blabber about nothing, trying to set up the article- that’s all you really want, right?

10. Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt.II (Ice H2O Records; September 8th)

raekwonWhenever an album has Ghostface Killah on it, along with an absolute all-star production staff (that beef between Chef & RZA has been squashed over the disagreements in production of 8 Diagrams). Tracks by Dilla, Pete Rock, Marley Marl, Erick Sermon, The Alchemist, Dr. Dre and Mathematics, guest verses a-plenty from Tony Starks, Inspectah Deck, Meth, RZA, GZA, Masta Killa, Jadakiss, Busta Rhymes, Beanie Sigel & Slick Rick. How could this album not be completely awesome? Four years in the making, label changes, beefs arise and beefs quelled, it’s the best hip-hop album of the year, a title previously held by both DOOM and Mos Def’s terrific records from earlier in ‘09. So many standout tracks- House of Flying Daggers, Cold Outside, Black Mozart, Gihad, Penitentiary, Surgical Gloves, 10 Bricks, the ODB-tribute Ason Jones and contender for track of the year New Wu (with Ghost & Meth, produced by Bobby Digital himself) which revisits the classic Wu style of yesteryear.

Key tracks: House of Flying Daggers (ft. Inspectah Deck, Ghostface Killah, Method Man & GZA), Cold Outside (ft. Ghostface Killah & Suga Bang Bang), Black Mozart (ft. Inspectah Deck, RZA & Tash Mahogany), Gihad (ft. Ghostface Killah)

9. Atlas Sound – Logos (Kranky Records; October 20th)

atlasI love Bradford Cox; I swear that man could pee into my ears and just the sound it makes would be one of the twenty best records of the year. Logos, his second offering under his solo moniker Atlas Sound is a step further into accessibility away from his previous album; here he’s less into the murky atmospherics and sound collages and more into exploring structure and form- take the album’s centerpiece for example, Quick Canal. It’s an eight-and-a-half minute homage to Stereolab‘s influence on Cox, and for good measure the main voice behind the ‘Lab Laetitia Sadier is featured on vocals. Also featured on vocals is (guess who) the most visible performer of the year, Noah Lennox– I swear this guy has had more work doing back-up vocals than anyone in recent memory; check out the standout track Walkabout.

Key tracks: Walkabout (ft. Noah Lennox), Quick Canal (ft. Laetitia Sadier), Criminals, Shelia

8. The Clientele – Bonfires On The Heath (Merge Records; October 6th)

clientele-bonfiresSome bands are able to capture a feeling so well and set it to music it’s as if they were born to do it. Each of The Clientele‘s four proper full lengths are so apt at capturing a specific mood- here on Bonfires On The Heath it’s autumn all year long. The imagery of fallen leaves- oranges, yellows and browns; the English countryside readying itself for a foray into winter time; it’s one of the best “fall” records (makes me miss “real” season changes; we get off easy here in California). It’s sort of been the antithesis to all these “summer beach fuzz pop” records that have completely inundated the landscape; it’s more than welcome, too. In the land of perpetual summer, we need more than one season to be represented. Not all of us love the middle months.

Key tracks: Never Anyone But You, I Wonder Who We Are, Share The Night, Harvest Time

7. The xx – xx (Young Turks Records; August 17th)

the xxSometimes a record has such an undeniable pull on your psyche that it can’t be ignored. I gotta admit, the album cover is what got me (at first); it reveals absolutely nothing about the music within. Then a few listens through and it was like a hook in a fish’s eye; stuck beyond belief. This “too young to sound this sexy” quartet (now a trio) from south-west London made the sleekest and sexiest album of the year; singer Romy Madley-Croft sounds years past her age- think of Portishead‘s Beth Gibbons with less smoke in her lungs. Rounding out the sound is Oliver Sim‘s breathy vocals (not to mention deep basslines), all over top of Jamie Smith‘s minimal but perfect beats and samples. By far the best debut album this year, probably of the last few.

Key tracks: Islands, Crystalised, Shelter, VCR

6. White Denim – Fits (Downtown Records; October 20th)

white-denim-fitsProbably my favorite straight-forward “rock” album of the year; imagine a world where time machines exist- let’s put Grand Funk Railroad in a jam session with Pavement and see what happens. White Denim’s Fits, perhaps? GFR was a riff-heavy power trio and the Pave was the lo-fi, thinking man’s take on said “dude” rock. So to mash them two together would be the closest approximation to what White Denim appears to be going for; and to great success. Crammed full of riffs (the first five tracks); the musical ideas stretch briefly into some dub explorations (Sex Prayer), down home-style country boogies (Paint Yourself), a funky Boz Scagg-meets-Jeff Buckley falsetto number (I’d Have It Just The Way We Were), acoustic-tinged dream pop (Regina Holding Hands and Syncn)- just when I thought “indie rock” was getting boring, here comes something that’s forward-thinking by looking back.

Key tracks: I Start To Run, Mirrored And Reversed, Radio Milk How Can You Stand It, All Consolation

5. The Flaming Lips – Embryonic (Warner Bros Records; October 13th)

flaming-lips-embryonicI had pretty much made up my mind that I wasn’t even going to listen to this record, I had completely written the Lips off. Then a friend described it to me as “loose and spacey” so I decided to listen to it, and I’m totally glad I did. Not only is it one of the best records of the year, it’s one of the Lips‘ best (not a huge fan of either of the over-Pro Tooled Soft Bulletin or Yoshimi records, and I thought At War With The Mystics was rather weak) and it hearkens back to a simpler time; i.e. Clouds Taste Metallic-era Lips, sans guitar-centric approach. This album is actually heavier on the bass side of things; favoring the bottom-end as the featured (or dare I say “lead”) instrument. If they used Pro Tools here (and I bet they did, Dave Fridmann again helps out with production and it’s a well known fact that that guy loves the Pro Tools software) they’re trying hard to sound like they aren’t using it; most songs here sound like a minimum of tracks are being used- deep bass, minimal click-and-glitch drums, creepy synths, reverbed guitars, echoed vocals; that’s about it for most of the 18 songs on this double record. I haven’t even mentioned the guests that show up to help out (MGMT, Karen O and some German mathematician guy). How they created something so massively psychedelic, mind-bending, genre-warping, messy; this “thing” that sounds as if it’s going to spin out of control any second yet keeps it together; is the genius of Wayne Coyne and Company. Embryonic is a great title; some of these tracks don’t sound completely finished- there’s a sense of The Flaming Lips gestating this sprawling ball of humanity and birthing  out something so bare and beautiful.

Key tracks: Convinced Of The Hex, Powerless, Silver Trembling Hands, The Sparrow Looks Up At The Machine

4. Sunset Rubdown – Dragonslayer (Jagjaguwar; June 23rd)

sunset2Roll the 12-sided die against the troll now, and save your hit points for the wizard on level 9- he has illusion magic. Seriously; this album makes it cool to say you were once into Dungeons & Dragons (even if it was only for a few weeks while you were a Boy Scout in 1988). Sunset Rubdown’s third full-length is a progressive rock concept album with all the imagery of medieval mythologies, twisting melodies, soaring guitars, midi-influenced instrumentation- and for all the shit I’ve given Spencer Krug about his voice; here it works to amazing and eccentric avail. Anyone who has spent more than three minutes talking to me about music can walk away while holding me in contempt for my mentioning how awesome early-70s prog rock is; well, this is akin to that. I have to say I’m really loving this record; all the geekery I once partook in has been neatly packaged into a 49-minute aural landscape of sorcerers, meteors, ancient Greek muses, ghosts and dragons.

Key tracks: You Go On Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II), Idiot Heart, Apollo and the Buffalo and Anna Anna Anna Oh!, Silver Moons

3. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest (Warp Records; May 26th)

grizzly-bear-veckatimest2009’s most highly anticipated album is like that calming voice whispering from beyond the shadows, telling you not to worry, take a deep breath, relax, you’ll get through this- we’re all going to get through this, but first; there’s the topic of trust- we have to take you somewhere, can you offer yourself to us for just fifty-two minutes? We promise to get you home safely, and it may just change you for the better. From the opening notes, it’s obvious that Veckatimest is a marked departure from Yellow House; for one- it’s a warmer sounding record. It has much brighter textures helped by a more developed and inclusive “group” feel to it- the vocal harmonies are wound much tighter. It’s benefited greatly from lead Grizzly Ed Droste’s insistence on including all four members as equals in the collaborative effort. From the subtle turnarounds on Fine For Now to the Hard Knock Life-aping piano riff on Two Weeks to the bass and drum interplay on Cheerleader to the interwoven vocals on Dory; it’s an album that has grown exponentially more interesting upon repeated listens- one of those fabled “sleeper” albums that doesn’t sink its teeth into you fully at first listen, although you know it’s something special. By the third, fourth, fifth listen it has become that record you find yourself listening to daily while on your lunch break or while taking the train, or any spare moment of alone time you have you find that you’ve let Veckatimest fill up those minutes.

Key tracks: Two Weeks, Cheerleader, While You Wait For The Others; Ready, Able

2. Great Lake Swimmers – Lost Channels (Nettwerk; March 31st)

greatlakeswimI was trying to figure out why I loved this record so damn much; it’s by a Canadian band that plays a nice blend of folky Americana- then it hit me. Canadian bands do Americana better than American bands nowadays- I think that’s because whatever the American Dream once meant means more to Canadians than it does to Americans. Things like civil liberties, freedom of press and universal health care are all American pipe dreams; in Canada they are reality. Politicizing aside; Great Lake Swimmers make great, laid-back folky tunes in that whole echo-chamber aesthetic completed by mandolins, banjos and wistful church organs reminiscent of early-70s MOR light rock. This was the most surprising record of the year, I liked it just fine until I took a long car ride this summer and it made me fall in love with it; blame the vibraphones, jangly 12-string guitars, that aforementioned Hammond organ sound, actual church bells (recorded at Singer Castle), string sections, dobros; all done in various warm, resonant studios in an around the Thousand Islands area where the St. Lawrence River meets Lake Ontario.

Key tracks: Pulling On A Line, Palmistry, She Comes To Me In Dreams, Everything Is Moving So Fast

ALBUM OF THE YEAR…

Bill Callahan – Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle (Drag City Records; April 14th)

bill callahanCallahan is a writer’s songwriter- I only have a few Smog records but the general theme of his music that stands out to me is that he’s a master of self-deprecation. Not so much here; it’s still somber and melancholic, but Callahan takes it easy on himself, instead he’s using his supremely masterful wit and deadpan black humor to take shots at the political and religious right. He’s at his most capable when he’s wringing the emotion out of every last word with his dry delivery, aided here by bare bones instrumentation with occasional strings. I’ve listened to this record far more than any other this year (even bought the vinyl copy as well) so not only is it getting the “Best Album of 2009” award, it’s one of the best of the decade and the best of Callahan‘s career. Occasionally a record speaks to me on so many different levels; this year this was the one that hit home the most points. The opening lines of the album worked like a hook into my brain: “I started out in search of ordinary things / How much of a tree bends in the wind / I started telling the story without knowing the end…” and then Bill sets about telling us nine stories without ever knowing the end. There’s the one about half-remembered dreams of the perfect song, another couple songs about birds, wind, or flying in general. There’s a song for a departed friend, and then the almost ten-minute album closer Faith/Void; with its repeated refrain “it’s time to put God away (I put God away)…” I think I know what Callahan‘s talking about here- how to find peace and solace in this crazy world without faith; a level-headed, secular, humanistic way to approach serenity. And that’s why this album is a complete success; the artist formerly known as Smog has accomplished a perfect synergy between music and words; both serve to support each other

Key tracks: Too Many Birds, Jim Cain, Faith/Void, Eid Ma Clack Shaw