Albums Of The Decade, Part V

So I’ve been keeping tabs on all the other websites’ best-of the decade lists, and I gotta say- great work everybody. I like the way they’re doing it over at Aquarium Drunkard. Likewise Largehearted Boy (who was rad enough to include us in their roll call; gracias and mad kudos!), also check out their extensive and daily updated list here.

Some were laughable (Paste Magazine, I’m looking in your direction) some were head scratchers (Better Propaganda), some are eerily similar to mine (eMusic), some were extremely Spencer Krug-centric (Oceans Never Listen) but mostly they’ve been insanely interesting to read. I hope the same can be said about this list. Someday…

Death Cab For Cutie – We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes (Barsuk Records; 2000)

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Poor Ben Gibbard; he had Jenny Lewis but lost her- he had to settle for Zooey Deschanel instead. Boo hoo, Benny boy. All jokes aside, I much prefer Gibbard‘s heart-rending (dare I say emo?) version of this band recorded right before the turn of the century, not his major-label cash grab records as of late. Death Cab‘s definitely lost something since Transatlanticism, I can’t quite put my finger on it; it’s a combination of a lot of things. Most of the things that make this record so wonderful have been completely stripped from DCFC‘s repetoire; the warm, lo-fi feeling of this album has been erased in favor of the $300 an hour studio with Atlantic Records‘ money, but hey- isn’t that the whole point; to have your music heard by as many possible ears as you can? When nobody knew who the hell these guys were is when they were still making great records- the most important thing Gibbard and Co. lost was a sense of urgency; a sense that here’s a band, toiling along in relative obscurity up in the Pacific Northwest and no one’s gonna get hear our best stuff so we get to keep both artistic integrity and there isn’t an ounce of pressure on us to do anything we’re not comfortable with. I have this feeling that they know this is a prefect record and they’ve been trying to recapture the beauty and wonder of this ever since- but most folks won’t get to hear it. Instead they’ll get to hear their late decade radio friendly drivel…

Key Tracks: Company Calls Epilogue, 405, For What Reason, Title Track

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Destroyer – Streethawk: A Seduction (Misra Records; 2001)

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Dan Bejar‘s lyrics are so cryptical, yet I feel like I understand every one. I can’t pretend that I really do- and that’s the biggest part of his appeal for me; they mean whatever I want them to mean. Like on the track The Bad Arts, when he sings: “Goddamn your eyes, they just had to be twin prizes waiting for the sun…” I’m sure I know exactly what he means there, and at different times in my life that’s meant different things to me about different people. I think. Then, he ends the song with the line “You got the spirit, don’t lose the feeling…” aping the line from the Joy Division song Disorder. It’s classic Destroyer; borrowing from the past- simultaneously revering it and ridiculing it. Nothing is sacred, except everything. This observational irony is a calling card of his work, so even when I don’t get it, it’s okay- I don’t know if Bejar himself gets it. And that’s sort of the whole point, right?

Key tracks: The Very Modern Dance, The Sublimation Hour, Streethawk I, Beggars Might Ride

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Talib Kweli – Quality (Rawkus Records; 2002)

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Two tracks from J Dilla, three from Kanye– this album was the hot shit back in early ’03; I can’t remember who gave it to me but it didn’t leave my car’s CD player for months. It’s just as well I can’t remember who gave it to me; it doesn’t matter- all that matters is that it was my intro to Talib, Dil and Ye (two out of three ain’t bad…) and the rhymes, beats, everything came together here on Quality. I think of this record as the tipping point- Kweli was a connector of sorts for me, from here I got into BlackStar & Mos Def, learned of Jay Dee‘s production prowess, that sick record he did with Hi-Tek; all his collaborators on here became instrumental in making me pay attention to hip-hop again. Maybe my friend Andrew the Jerk got me into this record, maybe it was that quiet chick who lived with her grandmother I dated a few times. I can’t remember for the life of me who gave me this damn record. Maybe that’s the appeal of this album; it’s memory to me is as underground as its reputation- ask anyone who listens to mainstream rap if they know this record (be prepared for blank stares), but they’ll surely remember Talib from his appearance on The Chappelle Show or his appearance on Kanye‘s track Get ‘Em High. Oh, well- Talib is a rapper’s rapper; he’s probably your favorite MC’s favorite MC.

Key Tracks: Get By, Rush, Shock Body, Good To You

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Paavoharju – Yhä Hämärää (Fonal Records; 2005)

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When I think of Finland, I think of massive amounts of snow, dense forests with herds of reindeer running free and rosy-cheeked vodka drinkers. If you were to mention Finnish music, I think of 80s hair band Hanoi Rocks, the synth-driven Children Of Bodom and Bam Margera’s favorite band, HIM– basically; cheesy-ass metal. Paavoharju could be called a lot of things, and cheesy-ass metal isn’t one- more like lo-fi experimental electro/acoustic freak folk (maybe?) I can’t put my finger on what it is they do, but they’re the only ones who do it, so I guess by default they’re the best. Makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is their story; a pair of born-again Christian hippie commune-living brothers (Lauri and Olli Ainala from Savonlinna) that make other-worldly sounds, decompose basic song structures into their barest parts but still manage to create songs built somewhat around hooks and pieces of hooks. Recorded over parts of five years with an ever-revolving cast of musicians/singers; it’s an accomplished debut- equal parts beautiful and creepy. Influenced by such diverse people and bands as William Blake, Burzum, Ed Gein, Boards Of Canada, Jesus Christ, Portishead and Ingmar Begman; that’s sort of what this record sounds like, with Paavoharju serving as dinner hosts.

Key Tracks: Syvyys, Ilmaa Virtaa, Musta Katu, Valo Tihkuu Kaiken Läpi

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No Age – Weirdo Rippers (Fat Cat Records; 2007)

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Turn this shit up, way up. LA two-piece that plays some of the finest noise pop for this here internet generation; equal parts balls-to-the-wall lo-fi hardcore and hummable, fuzzed out surf pop. Imagine The Jesus & Mary Chain knocking up Hüsker Dü; the resulting offspring would be Randy Randall & Dean Spunt‘s twisted take on rock and roll. One minute they’re experimenting with ear shattering, scuzzy feedback; the next sounds as if they’ve discovered how to create a sonic representation of dryer lint (warm, ambient and wooly). Anyhow; this Weirdo Rippers isn’t a real album per se, more or less a collection of 7-inches, b-sides and assorted paraphernalia that strangely enough, sounds cohesive. And don’t worry; if you’re looking for their “other” record, it appears on the “numbered” portion of this list…

Key tracks: Neck Escaper, Boy Void, Everybody’s Down, My Life’s Alright Without You

More Hits and Misses…

Another installment of what was missed on The Musicologists. Or, better yet: Playing Catch-up (part 2). More stuff from ’09 that fell through the grates…

Mi Ami – Watersports (Quarterstick Records; released February 17th, 2009)

mi-amiDrum-punk outfit Mi Ami experiments all over the place with big dance beats, low-end booty bass, frenzied and screeching noise-punk guitars with a few electro-clash-ghetto-tech breaks thrown in for good measure, all seamlessly flowing from one genre to another. Remember the Dischord band Black Eyes? These are two of the guys from that group, Jacob Long and Daniel Martin-McCormick; and as D.C. punk bands go, they had to break up after two records. So you can expect it to be all over the place, and as confrontational and violent as it can be at points, it’s still a focused and coherent effort. Grade: 8/10

Fever Ray – Fever Ray (Rabid Records; released March 18th, 2009)

feverThis is Karin‘s (of Swedish electro-dance outfit The Knife) solo record. I respect The Knife for sticking it to Sony by charging them a fortune to use one of their songs  (the Jose Gonzalez version of Heartbeats for that Bravia ad, the one with all the bouncing balls down San Francisco hills) so they could start their own label. I also respect them for their outright disdain for the media, mainstream pop drivel and the rampant sexism in music. I can’t quite get fully into The Knife‘s music, which is a blend of dark downtempo electronica and upbeat techno-esque synths. Fever Ray‘s formula is similar, more on the shadowy side of things; dubby, atmospheric, brooding and meditative- there’s some scary songs in here. Grade: 6/10

Dan Deacon – Bromst (Carpark Records; released March 24th, 2009)

bromstI could’ve swore I was going to hate this. I forgot all about “hate”, hell; I forgot about any type of nasty emotion once this record started coming out of the speakers, I believe I was actually smiling right through to the end. So I listened to it again. And again. I usually don’t like music when the words “dance” and “electro” are used to describe it, but Dan Deacon made the happy fun time party album of the year right here. And I really like the title: Bromst. I just like saying it, over and over. Bromst! Grade: 8/10

DOOM – Born Like This (Lex Records; released March 24th, 2009)doom

MF, Metal Face, Metal Fingers, Viktor Vaughn, Supervillain, King Geedorah. Whatever name Daniel Dumille wants to use, he creates a new persona just like that- and here on Born Like This, he uses all the top producers; Jake One and Madlib as well as a few unreleased beats from J Dilla. It never sounds recycled or stale- obviously the work of these crate-diggers is beyond anything anyone else is doing and the samples are getting more obscure. Should I also mention guest rhymers like Raekwon and Ghostface Killah? This is the best hip-hop album of the year so far, and sadly; it’s the only hip-hop album I’ve listened to this year. Grade: 9/10

Superchunk – Leaves In The Grass EP (Merge Records; released April 7th, 2009)

chunkMac McCaughan and company are back with their sixth millionth release (more like 62, if you count LPs, EPs, singles, splits and compilation appearances) and their first studio release since 2001’s Here’s To Shutting Up (not counting re-issues, the song they did with Aqua Teen Hunger Force’s Meatwad in ’07 or any of their live Clambake Series albums). So is Superchunk officially a “go” again? I hope so; they’re one of the bands I played on my short-lived radio show in 1991 at WHHS before getting kicked off the air for broadcasting without a license. Anyway- these four songs revisit classic ‘chunk in all their guitar-driven glory; plus an acoustic version of the first track, Learned To Surf. Grade: 8/10

Casiotone For The Painfully Alone – Vs. Children (Tomlab Records; released April 7th, 2009)

casiotoneOwen Ashworth is CFTPA, a tweemo bedroom project (now taken out of the bedroom) that mixes awkward and uncomfortable wordplay with spare orchestrations, booming hip-hop beats, mellotron/organ/pianos galore. This record is something of a concept album; it travels around America peeking into the lives of various ne’er do wells- from Libertyville, Illinois to Wisconsin to Charlotte, NC to Montpelier, VT to Northfield, MN to Orinda, CA and finally to Kansas City. It’s interesting to say the least. Grade: 7/10

Black Dice – Repo (Paw Tracks Records; released April 7th, 2009)

blackdiceIt took a few listens to get into this, and after I got into it I couldn’t find my way out; it triggered a mind-bending flash-back. But I didn’t get scared, I just closed my eyes and rode it all the way through the fractalized tunnel and past the fluorescent banana slug thingys until I woke up nine hours later. If there’s avant-garde and experimental music, this is post-avant/post-experimental. A lot like Animal Collective‘s older stuff; it’s interesting in that it does really cool shit with samplers and noise. If you’re looking for songs/hooks/melody, look somewhere else. Grade: 8/10

Bill Callahan – Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle (Drag City Records; released April 14th, 2009)

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 more than any other this month, so it’s getting the “Best Of April” award, it’ll definitely be near the top of my year-end list. Grade: 10/10

Death Cab For Cutie – Open Door EP (Atlantic Records; released April 14th, 2009)

dcfcWhat happened to this band? Ben Gibbard‘s lyrics have veered so far away from the alienated, nice-guy-finishes-last, sensitive-emo-dude-with-thick-frames-and-striped-sweater to this awful radio-friendly pap. I jumped ship when I saw them live; they made the mistake of touring with Franz Ferdinand (early ’06) and were completely blown off the stage by their openers. The best thing I can say about DCFC is that there’s still their back catalog (up to Transatlanticism) to listen to (and the fact that I can use these guys as proof that you start sucking once you sign to a major). Grade: 3/10 (and I’m being nice with this 3…)

Woods – Songs Of Shame (Shrimper Records; April 14th, 2009)woods

Dear Woods– please have no shame for the songs on this record. You evoke acoustic campfire sing-alongs with freaky electric guitars (that should be out of place, but they’re perfect), re-calling late 60s Americana (I would mention Neil Young, but that’s Canadiana), covering Graham Nash (who’s English) and a ten-minute lo-fi psychedelic freak-out. Let’s just say you’re equal parts Neutral Milk Hotel and CSNY, which is awesomer than milk, which I can’t drink because I’m lactose intolerant. Grade: 8/10

The Rest – Everyone All At Once (Auteur Recordings; released April 21st, 2009)

restBig, anthemic songs wrapped in heavily orchestrated strings- I’m hearing great hooks here; the vocals recall both the yelpings of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah‘s Alec Ounsworth and the plaintiveness of Belle & Sebastian‘s Stuart Murdoch; the music is akin to Arcade Fire‘s brand of baroque pop with a dash of The National‘s shadowy melancholia thrown in for good measure- but it doesn’t do this band justice by lumping them into those easy comparisons. Showcasing a vast array of styles, Everyone All At Once is exactly that- you get everything all at once. Retreating to the faraway northern woods of Ontario to record this record, this band has crafted a genuine masterpiece- fully realized, beautifully crafted and dynamic in scope; The Rest should be the next big band to come from The Great White North, and if they aren’t on critic’s “year-end/best-of ’09” lists I’m formally lodging a criminal investigation to as why they aren’t. Grade: 9/10

Papercuts – You Can Have What You Want (Gnomonsong Records; released April 14th, 2009)

papercutsSan Franciscan Jason Quever creates an atmosphere all his own- dreamy pop arrangements coated in opaque and foggy lyrics, much like the Bay Area weather. Getting help from Beach House‘s Alex Scally on this record; Papercuts is great at crafting a textural ambience to match the mood of the lyrics. I’d compare him to Cass McCombs in that regard, but “lighter” on the ears. Accessible like early 70s AM radio. Grade: 7/10

I’ve got more and more forgotton albums, coming soon…

SCORE! 20 Years Of Merge Records: THE COVERS!

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Various Artists – SCORE! 20 Years Of Merge Records: THE COVERS! (Merge Records; April 7th, 2009)

I usually don’t get jazzed up about compilations, but this year can be the rarest of exceptions. Less than two months ago, the good folks over at Red Hot put together the all-star jammy-jam of the millenium. So, not to be outdone, Merge Records co-founders (and Superchunk-ers) Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan (who’s also the man behind Portastatic) put together their own ridiculously awesome compilation, this one to showcase the collective talent of their own label’s bands.

But here’s the catch; it’s all covers of Merge artists’ songs done by non-Merge artists. That’s one hell of a hook- to be able to wrangle bands like The Shins, The National, Bright Eyes, Ted Leo, The New Pornographers, Les Savy Fav, Ryan Adams and Death Cab For Cutie; covering the likes of Arcade Fire, Robert Pollard, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Magnetic Fields and Destoyer (also there’s four songs by the label’s flagship band).

I call Superchunk Merge‘s flagship band because that’s exactly what they are; Mac and Laura started the label to self-release their early 7″ singles as well as their friends in and around the Durham, North Carolina area. And the rest is history; twenty years of independent music history. It’s funny that people label so many bands as “indie rock” when in fact whenever I’ve thought of if indie rock even had a distinct sound, it’d be precisely what Superchunk sounds like (as well as bands like Sebadoh, Archers Of Loaf, Guided By Voices, Pavement, et al.) but it seems like everything released on an independent label these days is considered “indie”. That’s a whole ‘nother essay, someday…

Let’s just shut that off and get into the music; there’s 75 minutes of tunes here, so we have a lot of ground to cover. I’m just going to gloss over the weaker tracks and delve into what makes this record a worthwhile listen, and as most compilations are; a worthwhile cause.

Four Superchunk songs get the do-over: Ryan Adams does well for himself by speeding up his version of Like A Fool and The Hive Dwellers render My Noise as a completely different piece altogether- getting freaky and minimal. But the two standouts are Les Savy Fav sounding identical to on their cover of Precision Auto and Death Cab‘s really nice re-working of Kicked In.

The Shins shine on their cover of Tenement HallsPlenty Is Never Enough, and The New Pornographers play The Rock*A*TeensDon’t Destroy This Night, both songs penned by Chris Lopez, the voice behind both of those bands. Other standouts would be the beautiful Sleep All Summer (Crooked Fingers) duet by St. Vincent and The National, Bill Callahan‘s gruff and curmudgeonly work-over of VersusSanta Maria, John Darnielle‘s excellent guitar-vocal-Panasonic boomboox rendering of East River Pipe‘s Drug Life, Broken Social Scene‘s cover of The Clean‘s Complications (“this song was written before Born To Run” says the small child’s voice before the song- I can’t confirm if this is true; Born To Run was recorded in 1974, The Clean didn’t form until 1978. Hmmmmm…)

Other tracks worthy of mention- two Magnetic Fields‘ songs; Bright Eyes doing Papa Was A Rodeo and Tracey Thorn with Jens Lekman on Yeah! Oh, Yeah!

Now for the bad news (boo!) Okkervil River, The Apples In Stereo and Lavender Diamond: your songs are all terrible.

Dear Robert Schneider (of The Apples In Stereo),

Please, please, please stop making music. How is it you can cover a Neutral Milk Hotel song and make it unlistenable? I hate you- please retire posthaste.

Signed, Jimmy Mac

Also, that aforementioned Hive Dwellers rendition of Superchunk‘s My Noise: the worst song on the record, by far. When I said “freaky and minimal” I meant “lousy and awful”. There is one song I’m quite indifferent to, I like it and I don’t: Times New Viking on Arcade Fire‘s Neighborhood #1. See, I love the song. And it seems that ever since TNV released their album last year i go out of my way to slander them; alas, this isn’t as terrible as their album. It’s still got that annoying fuzzy reverb but there’s an acoustic guitar in there and the vocals aren’t as washed away. I think I like it. I’m not sure- ask me in a month.

So, there you have it; another really good compilation album in 2009. There’s at least five tracks on this that’ll be entered in the song of the year running come December, which had me thinking; should compilation albums and songs from them be considered as album of the year/song of the year finalists?

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see…

Tracklisting:

01 Quasi: “Beautiful Things” (3Ds cover)
02 Les Savy Fav: “Precision Auto” (Superchunk cover)
03 The Shins: “Plenty Is Never Enough” (Tenement Halls cover)
04 St. Vincent and the National: “Sleep All Summer” (Crooked Fingers cover)
05 Broken Social Scene: “Complications” (The Clean cover)
06 Ryan Adams: “Like a Fool” (Superchunk cover)
07 Bright Eyes: “Papa Was a Rodeo” (The Magnetic Fields cover)
08 Lavender Diamond: “New Ways of Living” (Destroyer cover)
09 The Apples in Stereo: “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 3” (Neutral Milk Hotel cover)
10 Laura Cantrell: “Cowboy on the Moon” (Lambchop cover)
11 Bill Callahan: “Santa Maria” (Versus cover)
12 Barbara Manning: “Through With People” (Portastatic cover)
13 The Mountain Goats: “Drug Life” (East River Pipe cover)
14 The New Pornographers: “Don’t Destroy This Night” (The Rock*A*Teens cover)
15 Tracey Thorn and Jens Lekman: “Yeah! Oh, Yeah!” (The Magnetic Fields cover)
16 The Hive Dwellers: “My Noise” (Superchunk cover)
17 Ted Leo & the Pharmacists: “The Numbered Head” (Robert Pollard cover)
18 Okkervil River: “All You Little Suckers” (East River Pipe cover)
19 Death Cab for Cutie: “Kicked In” (Superchunk cover)
20 Times New Viking: “Neighborhood #1” (Arcade Fire cover)

SCORE! 20 Years Of Merge Records