Albums Of The Year; 2009

There were a ton of amazing records released this year, and as you’ll see in a minute, most of them were released by Swedish bands (no, wait), I mean Canadians (uh, what?), let me rephrase that; oh just read…

25. Volcano Choir – Unmap (Jagjaguwar; September 22nd)

volcano-choir-unmapBon Iver‘s Justin Vernon and the guys from math rock outfit Collections Of Colonies Of Bees make their debut record; and it’s a fractured take on music, experimenting with sound and structure until the song itself doesn’t so much resemble an actual song as it does a collage of noise and textures. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not experimental in the “I can’t listen to this nonsense” way, it’s experimental in that it seeks to achieve musical harmony without traditional or conventional instruments. In fact, the studio itself is the main instrument on Unmap– that also doesn’t mean you won’t hear Vernon‘s trademark falsetto (it’s there in most of the songs); it just doesn’t dominate the landscape like it does with his day job. And there ain’t a whole lotta guitars on this records either; there’s an mbira, some auto-tuned vocals (that I hate to say really work nicely here) and more cuts and edits with a certain super-expensive premium music software program that I should hate, but strangely have endeared themselves to my ears far too often these past few months.

Key tracks: Island, IS; Husks And Shells, Still, Seeplymouth

24. Neon Indian – Psychic Chasms (Lefse Records; October 13th)

neon_indian-psychic_chasmsDo you miss your old Sega Master System? Cuz I miss mine; I was thinking about buying one off eBay so I can play Out Run and Alien Syndrome and Alex Kidd In Miracle World. See, this album by Alan Palomo (the one-man 8-bit army behind Neon Indian) has got me jonesing something fierce for my old video games. We weren’t as cool as the Nintendo kids, we got Sega for Christmas in 1986, while all of our friends were playing Duck Hunt and Super Mario Bros., we had Hang On and Safari Hunt (the bastard cousin of Duck Hunt). Our friends would come over to play and treat the Sega as a leper, refusing to play or even look at it. That’s what this album reminds me of; the soundtrack to a childhood spent down my basement trying to get to the next level of Black Belt.

Key tracks: Deadbeat Summer, I Should Have Taken Acid With You, 6669 (I Don’t Know If You Know), Terminally Chill

23. Japandroids – Post-Nothing (Unfamiliar Records; April 28th)

japandroids-post-nothingApparently no one plays bass anymore. That ain’t a bad thing- just the other day I saw a bumper sticker that said “Everyone follows the bass” and I immediately blurted out (to no one in particular) “I fucking hate bass players”. Yeah, too bad everyone that starts a band nowadays either wants to be the drummer or guitar player. Later, bass. Vancouver garage duo Japandroids don’t need one anyway, their “heavy-on-the-toms-and-cymbals” sound fills the air with what could be some low-end notes, but a bass would really slow these guys down. They both share singing duties, trading back and forth or going at it together. If there’s one thing the Pacific Northwest can do is rock the shit out of a garage. Without a slow, plodding bass-playing jerk fucking them up. I fucking hate bass players.

Key tracks: Young Hearts Spark Fire, The Boys Are Leaving Town, Wet Hair, Rockers East Vancouver

22. Wildbirds & Peacedrums – The Snake (The Leaf Label; April 13th)

wildbirdsThese Swedes rely heavily on larger-than-life vocals from Mariam Wallentin and drum circle beats from her husband Andreas Werliin. Now Bjork would be too obvious (because of Sweden’s proximity to Iceland) and I’m hearing something else in there as well; but it’s really hard to describe in the context of direct influences. This is pretty unclassifiable as far as a genre is concerned; they won the award for the Best Swedish Jazz Act of ‘08- but it’s not quite “jazz” as much as it’s a freak-out, albeit a controlled one. There’s really no “instruments” besides drums, vocals and occasional ambient synth washes or a few notes here and there; oh, and drums. Did I say drums? Every song is a workout, there’s an amazing amount of range in Wallentin’s voice (sometimes it’s bare, other times she’s multi-tracked over herself, I’m hearing Siouxsie, PJ Harvey, and Kate Bush) and the timbre of the drums go from warm to bright and open to resonant. Wildbirds & Peacedrums The Snake is one of the “dark horse” records of the year- coming from out of nowhere. I’m glad people are making music like this.

Key tracks: There Is No Light, Liar Lion, Island, Chain Of Steel

21. The Rest – Everyone All At Once (Auteur Recordings; April 21st)

The-Rest_fullBig, 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.

Key tracks: Modern Time Travel (necessities), Walk On Water (auspicious beginnings), Apples & Allergies, The Lady Vanishes

20. DM Stith – Heavy Ghost (Asthmatic Kitty Records; March 10th)

dmstithSince there isn’t a track on the record called Heavy Ghost, I’ll just have to say that the name captures the feel of the record- it’s somber, haunting and reflective. Stith’s vocals are lilting and ethereal, the sparse guitars and reverb-drenched pianos are at times juxtaposed by strange percussion (or none at all); it’s a charming and creepy psychedelic folk album that at times abandons what could be considered “western popular music structure”. DM Stith creates a creepy and fragile (yet insanely interesting and charming) alternate reality within this record- it’s a haunting reminder that some of our waking hours are inhabited by unseen forces that can be a burden; or we can acknowledge them and try to make peace.

Key tracks: Thanksgiving Moon, Pity Dance, Braid Of Voices, Isaac’s Song

19. DOOM – Born Like This (Lex Records; March 24th)

doombornxMF, 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 (who is still the best producer in the game, three years after his passing). It never sounds recycled or stale- obviously the work of this gang of hard working crate-diggers is beyond anything anyone else is doing and the samples are getting more obscure. Should I also mention guest rhymers like Raekwon (rhyming over the slowed-down version of ESG‘s UFO) and Ghostface (appearing here as his Tony Starks character) straight slay the mic on their tracks; but they don’t steal the spotlight from DOOM– it’s his record and it’s full of verbal acrobatics.

Key tracks: Microwave Mayo, Yessir! (ft. Raekwon), Angelz (ft. Tony Starks), Gazillion Ear

18. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca (Domino Records; June 9th)

bitte-orcaAccessible? You bet- Dave Longstreth‘s music is usually a workout; it can be both hard to listen to and lyrically obtuse (but not even a little bit on Bitte Orca). This is more of a group effort and Dirty Projectors’ sound is rounded out by the lovely voices of Angel Deradoorian and Amber Coffman; as if their David Byrne-collaboration wasn’t a precursor to how awesome their music was about to sound; when this album leaked the internets basically shit themselves in anticipation, by the time the album hit the shelves the reviews were pouring in with accolades. Crafted with care, it’s artier components aren’t that much of a stretch (try listening to Slaves’ Graves & Ballads or the New Attitude EP if you want to be challenged), conceptually it follows the design laid out by Longstreth in previous releases- brown finches, sleepwalking through life, post-9/11 paranoia, war, etc. There’s music for stupid people and then there’s music for thinkers. Guess which one this is…

Key Tracks: Stillness Is The Move, No Intention, Cannibal Resource, Temecula Sunrise

17. Dark Was The Night – A Red Hot Compilation (4AD Records; February 16th)

dark-was-the-nightYou know; humanity’s defining feature, the one thing that gives me a glimmer of hope for this seemingly doomed world is the fact that when faced with adversity, we humans have a remarkable knack for banding together and breaking down our self-imposed barriers- so at a glance the musical pairings on this record would suggest the gap between artistic differences can be easily bridged. Some not so unexpected; Dirty Projectors have culled a huge influence from David Byrne’s catalog so I can totally hear how the album’s opener Knotty Pine works, Cat Power and Dirty Delta Blues (teaming up for a cover of Amazing Grace) have toured together, Leslie Feist’s collaboration with Ben Gibbard is well matched (both write really nice three-minute pop gems) and Conor Oberst paired with Gillian Welch is no stretch; two insurgent country mainstays sharing a track seems natural enough. What’s hard to believe that some of these songs would be considered “throw away” tracks, not making it on to these bands’ albums; The National, The Decemberists, Bon Iver, Yeasayer, Grizzly Bear, Arcade Fire and Beirut all have given excellent songs. The centerpiece of the album (placed at the end of the first disc) is Sufjan Stevens‘ cover of CastanetsYou Are The Blood, turning it into a sprawling and strange epic, an electro-classical magnum opus with piano breaks and brass sections over club-banger beats- it’s as if he’s trying to convey the entire scope of his musical output in ten minutes and fourteen seconds, joining the electronica of Enjoy Your Rabbit with his Seven Swans-era and those states-themed concept albums. Canadian hip-hopper Buck 65 remixes this track on the second disc, adding his two cents in the way of furiously spit verses.

Key tracks: Tightrope (Yeasayer), Sleepless (The Decemberists), Knotty Pine (Dirty Projectors + David Byrne), You Are The Blood (Sufjan Stevens)

16. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (V2 Records; May 26th)

wolfgangamadeusphoenixI wanted to hate this so bad. I knew what it was (electro-synth pop/rock), knew who made it (the French) and have read so much hype on this band before the album was even out that I was rolling my eyes every time I saw their damn name. Phoenix Phoenix Phoenix Phoenix Phoenix Phoenix every-fucking-where. You know something, it’s a really great record. Songs like 1901, Lisztomania and the album’s closer Armistice are a few of this year’s better tracks, and they’re all on one record. It’s like that damned MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular– initially I hated its freaking guts, but it kept polluting my mindscape until one day I let my guard down and BAM! I got it. And I get this- it’s supposed to be fun, dancy keyboards-and-guitars pop for the iPod generation. That’s exactly what it is. Can’t fight that…

Key tracks: 1901, Lisztomania, Armistice, Fences

15. jj – n°2 (Secretly Yours; July 1st)

jjn02This album has a stickiness factor of nine; once you get these songs in you you’ll be humming them to yourself throughout the day. They seamlessly jump from genre to genre; at once they’re dipping down low into downtempo chillout trip-hop jams next to African-influenced sing-alongs up against tropicalia beach tracks then on to an acoustic, folky number and back again… Are these kids for real? Oh, they’re Swedish, so they were born with the “Scandanavian pop melody gene” inherited from ABBA and heard in Jens Lekman, The Knife, et al. I knew they were too good to be true.

Key tracks: Ecstasy, Things Will Never Be The Same Again, Are You Still In Valida?, My Love

14. Taken By Trees – East Of Eden (Rough Trade; September 8th)

Taken-By-Trees-East-of-EdenMy god, this is a beautiful record- another Swede (damn they’re talented) named Victoria Bergsman (who you may remember as the female voice from Peter Bjorn & John‘s ubiquitous song Young Folks) made one of the surprise albums of the year by traveling to Pakistan to record with local musicians; let’s just say the effect is stunning. Perfect pop sensibilities crossed with Eastern instrumentation infused with polyrhythmic drumming and Sufi vocalizations from Sain Muhammad Ali. There’s a theme running through East Of Eden; of ancient harmonies given current twists- Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox stops by to lend his ethereal lilt to a track, as well as give his blessing to a cover version of one of his band’s songs. In short; a Swedish singer doing Beach Boys harmonies over Middle Eastern music.

Key tracks: Watch The Waves, My Boys, To Lose Someone, Anna

13. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino Records; January 20th)

merriweatherEnvision The Flaming Lips having an orgy with The Shins on really strong microdot while channeling Brian Eno and Robert Fripp’s tape-loop manipulations, all the while conjuring up a seance with Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds harmonies; that’s a pretty close idea to what Animal Collective has done on Merriweather Post Pavilion. And the artwork is pretty rad; stare at it long enough and you’ll get the sensation of movement. Maybe you can still see it with your eyes closed. Maybe, you can get yourself into that “tunnel” and really trip out. Who out there knows what I’m talking about? Indubitably the Collective’s Avey Tare, Panda Bear and Geologist have been inside that lysergically-induced mind warp and this record will probably serve as some sort of spirit guide for a new generation of chemically experimental kids, much like Dark Side Of The Moon or Sgt. Pepper’s did thirty-plus years ago.

Key tracks: My Girls, Brother Sport, In The Flowers, Summertime Clothes

12. The Love Language – The Love Language (Bladen County Records; February 10th)

thelovelangWhere’s this band been hiding all my life? Ahh, North Carolina, Raleigh to be exact. Okay, next question: how do you get that delicious reverb coating on your songs? This whole record has that wonderfully lo-fi Tascam four-track feel to it (or could be Fostex) and the aesthetic works to great avail; the songs are so wonderfully melodic they could’ve been recorded underwater and I’d still get the point. The back story is also too good to ignore; lead singer/main songwriter Stuart McLamb gets kicked out of previous band, breaks up with abusive girlfriend, drinks a lot, ends up in an overnight holding cell, moves in with parents, sobers up and writes/records this album. I swear, Hollywood writes shit like this; but it’s too good to not believe- and I for one am a believer. Another huge surprise album for me in a year filled with nice surprises.

Key tracks: Lalita, Sparxxx, Two Rabbits, Stars

11. A Sunny Day In Glasgow – Ashes Grammar (Mis Ojos Discos; September 15th)

ashes_grammarAshes Grammar is a 63-minute icicle of ambient-electro-shoegaze-dream pop from the Philadelphia sextet known as A Sunny Day In Glasgow (they got the name from a former band member who spent some time in the lovely Scottish city); there are hints of murky psychedelia, club/dance beats half-buried under said murk and noisy passages strung all throughout the journey here- think My Bloody Valentine crossed with Stereolab produced by Brian Eno. It’s got some of the most gorgeous music I’ve heard this year, there are little bits of the record where it drags at times but if you can just sit through those few awkward minutes, you’re rewarded with some true aural beauty, time and time again.

Key tracks: Close Chorus, Shy, Curse Words, Failure

Stay tuned for albums #10 to #1, coming tomorrow!

September Catching Up

Now’s a better time than ever to weigh in on The Beatles‘ 2009 remasters, or re-remasters, or re-released re-remasters, whatever… since they came out this past week (9/9/09). I’ve only had the pleasure of listening to Abbey Road & The White Album, since they’re the two best records in their catalog and the two I associate with their deserved reputation as the greatest rock-and-roll band of all-time. Basically; they’ve been improved by making them less “muddy” (not to say Sir George Martin‘s original production was muddy, he did the absolute best with what was available at the time), but there seems to be more “space” between each instrument and the vocals; it’s definitely “louder” and “crisper”, take the mix on I Want You (She’s So Heavy) from Abbey Road; the snare has much more “punch”, the cymbal hits are more present, Paul‘s bass feels as though it’s way more upfront, actually, everything feels like it’s more forward in the mix- the layered vocals during the chorus are actually distinguishable in that you can hear each part separate in the left/right channels (seriously; mess with your speaker’s knobs as the chorus plays if you wanna hear what I’m talking about.) Anyway- totally worth it if you’re a Beatles‘ fan.

Some of these albums aren’t worth the plastic they’re pressed on, but whatever…

maudlin Of The Well – Part The Second (self-released; 5/14)

maudlinThis record was one of those accidental finds- all I can say is it’s been one of the year’s most challenging listens for a number of reasons. maudlin Of The Well is an avant-garde art-prog outfit that veers dangerously close to post-rock; Part The Second is not an album you can throw on and clean the house to- it demands you pay close attention (for there are subtle nuances hidden all over this record) which ultimately leads to the record’s downfall; it’s challenging in that its overt influences make it somewhat pretentious; while the playing displays unparalleled virtuosity, the blending of rock with jazz saxophones and classical string arrangements make it too unfocused, the noodly guitars border on masturbatory, the vocal effects are annoying at times; it’s not a study in what prog should be (or could be), and for that I need my classic 70s stuff (Yes, Jethro Tull, et al.); there’s a reason the genre died- no need to exhume the bodies and study them again. This album is free if you want it, here’s the link. 5/10

Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard – ‘Em Are I (Rough Trade; 5/19)

jeffrey-lewisJeff Lewis is best experienced live- that being said; his albums are exercises in patience in that he’s as much a visual performance artist as he’s a musician, the music itself leaves a lot to be desired. His comic books are component pieces to his music; the time I saw him open for The Mountain Goats, his folk-punk story-telling was endearing because it was set as a narrative to his gigantic flip book of drawings (The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane and others). Furthermore; his web/TV show is pretty awesome- he’s huge in the UK where most of the episodes are set, as is his record label. Anyway, for this album it’s more vintage Jeff Lewis (lyrically it’s self-deprecating in that whole “I’m a dirty poet that can’t get laid, Oh how I have to suffer for my art…” thing) which isn’t all that endearing on celluloid- again; plays great on the camera and the canvas, but here’s it’s trite as fuck. Musically, it’s more mature (read: better production, better musicians, etc.) so that saves it a wee bit, especially the eight-minute jam-out The Upside-down Cross, but for the most part, it’s just a so-so version of the Lower East Side’s punk-folk scene- which even the best of that is probably just below average… 5/10

Rome – Flowers From Exile (Trisol; 6/26)

romeAnother record I completely stumbled on by accident, how often do you find yourself perusing “industrial folk” duos from Luxembourg? I didn’t even know that genre existed, let alone the bold, deep baritone of lead singer Jerome Reuter‘s voice- which is at once both startling and comforting; he recalls Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Tom Waits and The National‘s Matt Berninger. Add Patrick Damiani‘s production (complemented by field recordings, foreign voices, ambient textures, dark and brooding industrial-type rhythms, Spanish guitars, etc.) and you have an interesting listen to say the least. The story line follows that of the Spanish Civil War; making the album dark and apocalyptic in its scope, revealing a narrative of a war-torn and displaced people, soldiers, isolation, desperation- acting as a modern-day protest record in itself. It’s as European an album I’ll find all year; it’s making me want to delve deeper into the Old Continent’s vast expanses of undiscovered music reserves to find something as new and rewarding as this. 8/10

Wu-Tang Clan – Wu-Tang Chamber Music (E1 Music; 6/30)

wu-tang-clan-chamber-musicBasically a mix-tape made by the RZA, even though only five of the Clan are featured (RZA, U-God, Ghostface, Raekwon and Inspectah Deck) it’s still a Wu release and for that I’m grateful. It’s the Wu, motherfucker; it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be available. That’s all. But you can’t put Tony Starks, the Chef and Bobby Digital in a room together and it not be good, again- it’s Wu, mother fucker. Plus, New York legends Masta Ace, AZ, Cormega, Sean Price, Havoc of Mobb Deep, Kool G Rap and Brand Nubian’s Sadat X all show up for guest appearances and Brooklyn-based funk/soul band The Revelations provide live instrumentation for eight of the 17 tracks; it’s an interesting combination. Working with various producers (Andrew Kelley, Bob Perry, Noah Rubin, Tre Williams of The Revelations and Fizzy Womack of M.O.P) give this album a cohesive feel; after RZA‘s production on 8 Diagrams created beef between him, Ghost and Rae for not having that “classic Wu sound” this can be seen as a return to that darker, sinister sound. Tracks like Harbor Masters, Evil Deeds and Ill Figures are all cut from the classic mold of Shaolin street knowldge; if you like hip-hop you’ll like this. If you like the Wu, you’ll love this. 9/10

Cass McCombs – Catacombs (Domino; 7/7)

catacombsThanks to Jason Dill for introducing me to Cass McCombs. If you’re unfamiliar with Dill, he’s the pro skater that was pals with Jack Osbourne on the first season of The Osbournes, the dude who had a bottle of Jack Daniels among his possessions. Anyway, Dill skated to a McCombs‘ song (What Isn’t Nature) for his video part in DVS’ Skate More (2005) and Jerry Hsu followed suit a year later, skating to a different McCombs‘ song (Sacred Heart) for his Bag Of Suck part. So there’s your skate-video-music-cross-referencing-nerd-shit that I do. So onto the review of this Cass record now; I’d like to add that with each subsequent release, Mr. McCombs becomes a little more refined, his songwriting gets a little better- he’s moved away from the ethereal sounding, churning dream pop and towards a more “American” sound (which is to say a countrified brand of folk-rock that isn’t too much of either). I prefer McCombs‘ albums A and PREfection to this record, as well as his last (2007’s Dropping The Writ). It’s still a decent album. One thing McCombs does that I really like is this idea of “conceptual continuity”, carrying related themes and threads of consciousness from record to record. 7/10

Clark – Totems Flare (Warp; 7/13)

clark_totems_flaresJust a quick peek at Clark‘s labelmates on Warp Records and you have an idea what they are before clicking play: !!!, Aphex Twin, Boards Of Canada, Flying Lotus, Prefuse 73 and Squarepusher would all lead you to assume it’s electronic (correct) and dancy (somewhat) which would immediately raise an eyebrow- I like most of those artists (someonly for their visual collaborations; I’m looking at you Aphex Twin) but for the most part, I eschew any association with danceble electro music. Clark’s Totems Flare (minus the four songs that have vocals) is a decent album that doesn’t sway too far into hardcore techno or the other way into sleep-inducing downtempo trip-hopping; the other seven tracks are enjoyable as background music- never encroaching fully into your consciousness but hovering just below the line of noticeability. And for that, it’s a below average record. 6/10

The Duke & The King – Nothing Gold Can Stay (Ramseur Records; 8/4)

nothing-gold-can-stay“Is that Cat Stevens?” says my girlfriend from the other room. Dear The Duke & The King: immediate musical fail. Now before you freak out and say, “YOU DON’T LIKE CAT STEVENS!?!?” I’ll interject with; I like the Cat Stevens, I don’t like post-millennial ripoffs, the man is still alive for Allah’s sake. You know, I don’t like this neo-country folk stuff all that much, there’s no dividing line that separates it from all the other lousy drivel- there’s just no hook. At least Sam Beam and Justin Vernon (Iron & Wine and Bon Iver, respectively) have that hook, I can’t put my finger on it in so many words, but whatever it is they do have, The Duke & The King don’t have it. This makes me glad I didn’t experience 70s AM radio firsthand, I don’t think I can get through this whole record without at least one suicidal thought. When you see me next, say thank you for listening to all this crappy music so you don’t have to. I’m taking a bullet for you… 3/10

Destroyer – Bay Of Pigs EP (Merge; 8/18)

bay-of-pigsIf this record was made by anyone else I wouldn’t have given it the time of day. But since Dan Bejar has released three of the best records of the last ten years (2000’s Thief, 2001’s Streethawk: A Seduction & 2006’s Destroyer’s Rubies) he gets special handling. Why? Because it’s a damn disco record, an “ambient” disco record at that, clocking in at a bit over thirteen-and-a-half minutes. Halfway between casual dining music and 16-bit video game music (sorta like playing Sega Genesis at that hip Belgian place in the Mission) it doesn’t suck (completely) but it’s not gonna score high marks outside of the fact that it’s really a stretch for Destroyer, and going outside of your comfort zone is a big risk. But as far as the music goes, I’m not the type to hang out at Italian discos wearing guyliner and $700 shirts, so I’m gonna pass on Destroyer‘s Bay Of Pigs– at least the first track anyway. Track 2, Ravers, is a vocals-synth-and-organ tune that’s not as out of place as the EP’s title track, yet it’s not as interesting. It works out to be a confusing piece of music, all 21-plus minutes of it. 3/10

BLK JKS – After Robots (Secretly Canadian; 9/8)

blk-jksI’m going to contradict myself now; I said earlier that prog should rest in peace- I meant to say “only if it’s done poorly” as in the over-indulgent, self-aggrandizing form of the genre. Here comes South Africa’s BLK JKS (obviously pronounced black jacks) who can make rock music that’s both proggy and arty, sans wallowing in pretense. An exercise in energetic guitars, spastic drumming, deep-bottom basses, emotive and soulful vocals relating poignant lyrics from a part of the world that’s been sorely under-represented in popular music. They put out the best EP of the year so far (back in March, titled Mystery) and one of the best live shows I’ve seen this year; file them under Best New Act of 2009. The re-working of Lakeside (the stand-out track from the EP) on here isn’t as urgent and raw as it originally appeared, it fits with the overall mood of this record. If it remained as it did on the short-player it would’ve stuck out like a sore thumb; instead producer Brandon Curtis (of Secret Machines) made it a slower, more refined, vocals-up-front-mix. The album has a “dark cloud” sort of moodiness to it, all the while hinting at some type of silver lining; exploring dub rhythms, churning synths, interwoven guitar lines, out-of-this world drumming- BLK JKSAfter Robots is a welcome addition to any music fan’s library. 8/10

Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs (Matador; 9/8)

popularsongsThis is YLT‘s 309th release and their 373rd year together. Not really, but it feels like it, am I right or am I right? More like 25 years strong (17 with current line-up) and 46th release (18th full-length offering) would have you believe that the gang ain’t going anywhere anytime soon- and with their latest, Popular Songs, they’re right back at it. With other bands, the term “paint-by-numbers” would come as a dismissal that they were mailing it in, but paint-by-numbers Yo La Tengo is a good thing because they’re better than your average band; I wouldn’t want them to put an album of garage punk classic out now, would I? Oh wait, they did that… Anyway, that’s exactly what’s so endearing about YLT; the fact that all three members have an equal say; all three have shared songwriting credits since 97’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One– and here on Popular Songs it’s an obvious group effort. Classic YLT would prescribe that the band can’t be hemmed into one specific genre; so there’s the fuzz-tone jams, something for the shoegazer in us all (By Two’s, I’m On My Way), their noisy brand of pop (incorporating strings in If It’s True and Here To Fall), a heavier reliance on the Hammond B-3 sound and long experimental-type songs (The Fireside, And The Glitter Is Gone). In summation, a YLT album is a very, very good thing. 9/10

Put It In Context For Me…

I don’t know where I read it, but basically there’s this whole school of thought out there that all popular music is just stolen from other popular music; I mean, there’s only twelve notes that can be played/heard, multiply that by “acceptable” chord progressions, rhythms, etc.- there’s really a finite number of “sounds”, and even though it probably numbers in the hundred millions (or even billions), music is gonna get recycled at some point. Or at least sound that way.

So, in reverence to the “classics”, I’m going to review some of the following records in context to their influences (or what I perceive their influences to be). I hope this starts some epic arguments, after all- if we heard everything the same, music would be boring…

P.O.S. – Never Better (Rhymesayers; 2/3)pos

I’m pretty sure I can call 2009 “The Year I Fell In Love With Hip-Hop Again”; in response to my lack of any rap coverage over the last few years I made a conscious decision to recommit myself to an art form I used to hold so dear and I haven’t been disappointed so far, thanks to the good folks over at Rhymesayers Entertainment. Enter Minneapolis-based P.O.S.– not your average rap artist; he produces eight of the 15 tracks on Never Better, he samples Fugazi (on Savion Glover), mentions the prog-metal band Isis on Purexed: they kick that gingivitis / them rappers got the ‘itis / catch me bumpin’ Isis in a crisis…” and generally has a “fuck you” attitude towards the major label rappers. What do you expect, he grew up obsessed with punk rock- so he can reference hardcore bands like Lifetime, sample Christian screamo bands (Underoath) and get fellow Minnesotan and Hold Steady singer Craig Finn to guest star (except all these things happen on previous records, Ipecac Neat & Audition). 8/10

Dananananakroyd – Hey Everyone! (Best Before, 4/6)danana

Dude, this is screamo-pop. And that means I should probably hate it but I don’t. I can hear influences as far ranging as Refused, Blood Brothers, Black Eyes, Les Savy Fav, Pretty Girls Make Graves, The Mae Shi and Los Campesinos! in here- but what would you expect from a band that’s name is a portmanteau of Dan Akroyd and the Batman theme (da-na-na-na-na-ak-royd!)? I mean, really- I for one, am sick to death with music reviews as an academic thing; this band pushes your head right into the crapper, fucking takes a huge shit on you then rips the fucking toilet seat off of its hinges, beats your face with it, scoops the dooky out of the commode, lights that shit on fire and throws it at your mother. I could’ve done this review in two words: FUCK YEAAAAAAAAAAH! 9/10

Wildbirds & Peacedrums – The Snake (The Leaf Label; 4/13)wildbirds

These Swedes rely heavily on larger-than-life vocals from Mariam Wallentin and drum circle beats from her husband Andreas Werliin. Now Bjork would be too obvious (because of Sweden’s proximity to Iceland) and I’m hearing something else in there as well; but it’s really hard to describe in the context of direct influences. This is pretty unclassifiable as far as a genre is concerned; they won the award for the Best Swedish Jazz Act of ’08- but it’s not quite “jazz” as much as it’s a freak-out, albeit a controlled one. There’s really no “instruments” besides drums, vocals and occasional ambient synth washes or a few notes here and there; oh, and drums. Did I say drums? Every song is a workout, there’s an amazing amount of range in Wallentin‘s voice (sometimes it’s bare, other times she’s multi-tracked over herself, I’m hearing Siouxsie, PJ Harvey, and Kate Bush) and the timbre of the drums go from warm to bright and open to resonant. Wildbirds & Peacedrums The Snake is one of the “dark horse” records of the year- coming from out of nowhere. I’m glad people are making music like this. 10/10

Super Furry Animals – Dark Days/Light Years (Rough Trade; 4/21)darkdays

I had a passing fancy with SFA a few years ago and couldn’t quite put my finger on their brand of fun, quirky Welsh pop. Then I revisited some krautrock lately (as I was trying to ready a piece on progressive rock that’s stalled a bit, maybe I’ll finish it soon?) and it hit me- they’re like a poppy version of Can; that four-on-the-floor motorik beat is present in a lot of their songs, as is the aural psychedelic landscape dotted with bliss-kissed synths and that funky experimentation. But singer Gruff Rhys has a much lovelier (yet less expressive) voice than either Damo or Malcolm. There’s even some singing in German (on the track Inaugural Trams, courtesy of Franz Ferdinand‘s Nick McCarthy). I’m really digging this record; I’m sure it’s going to grow on me as the year matures, and I’m currently immersing myself deeply into their back catalog. 8/10

Moderat – Moderat (BPitch; 4/28)moderat

I fucking hate techno. I can’t think of anything more boring and repetitive than this shit- this is the crap that’s playing when you walk into a store that you 1) immediately get dirty looks from the shitty Eurotrash wannabes working there 2) because they know you can’t afford anything anyway and 3) get in a huge fight with your girlfriend over how much she spent there that 4) eventually causes your break-up which is 5) good because she was an idiot that shops at a store with an unpronounceable name with awful people working there named Jens or Britta that like this terrible music. I’m also offended that this album took three fucking people to make- I thought the Germans were known for efficiency. Did they all get paid to click the same mouse? It’s like “Here’s beat #11, here’s bass line #3 and let’s drag and drop “ambient synth #43” on top, thanks ProTools! Because it’s all made on their laptops- ever wonder what those guys are doing when they’re playing live? You just paid 20 bucks to watch a guy check his e-mail, dumbass! This album cover saves this record from getting a zero, because that bitch punching herself in the face is an actual artist’s rendering of the first person to buy this record. 1/10

Thee Oh Sees – Help (In The Red; 4/28)theeohsees

The first time I ever heard The Velvet Underground I was probably fifteen; I don’t remember exactly, it didn’t seem that important at the time. It was probably another five years before I “got it” and understood the massive significance of their influence, I had to listen to them backwards (my term for getting into a band through their influences, e.g.- kids who like Interpol could follow them back to Joy Division, likewise; young folks who dig The National or The Hold Steady could easily then understand Springsteen). So what’s all this have to do with Thee Oh Sees‘ newest album? Let’s just say a fifteen year old discovering this record today could easily bridge the gap back to the Velvets or any other psychedelic/noise/garage band of note, in fact- I’d say just skip this record and put on anything by King Khan, BBQ, maybe the Black LipsLet It Bloom, no- actually, skip all them too and just listen to Sister Ray over and over. I think that’s what the MC5 and The Stooges did, and look at the bands they’ve gone on to influence, trickling all the way down to The Oh Sees, et. al. 4/10

Patrick Watson – Wooden Arms (Secret City; 4/28)watson-wooden-arms

I can think of one reason not to move to Canada: Patrick Watson. That’s the name of the singer/songwriter and his band. Pretentious much? His last album, 2007’s Close To Paradise, won a Polaris Prize (the Canuck equivalent of a Grammy, so yeah- pretty pointless). But who’d he beat out? Not only did he win over Leslie Feist‘s The Reminder but Arcade Fire‘s Neon Bible. Now, I haven’t listened to Close To Paradise, but there’s no way in hell that it’s a better record than both The Reminder and Neon Bible. But this record, Wooden Arms– is crap. I can’t think of a sleepier record, and not “sleepy” in a good way, like when I used to fall asleep to Efterklang‘s Tripper, I mean “sleepy” in bad way, like doze-off-on-a-four-lane-highway-and-into-oncoming-traffic-sleepy. When it’s not a snooze-fest, boring you to death; it’s annoying- using things you find around the studio for percussion instruments isn’t groundbreaking, interesting or even edgy. It’s just lame. And tired. I’m tired now. 2/10

John Vanderslice – Romanian Names (Dead Oceans; 5/19)romanian-names

In terms of melody, Vanderslice is par excellence and his lyrics are emotive and poignant without being overwrought or corny. That being said, he’s the most likely to break out to a bigger audience; I’m somewhat shocked he hasn’t already- he could should be bigger than that twit Bono and what’s their names? But as the mainstream public is usually slow to react to brilliance he’ll probably find his music being misappropraited into an episode of one of those awful CW shows like Gossip Girls or the new 90210. I can’t see JV letting that happen, he’s still “ours” for the time being. On Romanian Names, Vanderslice is at it again- a short and effective album; perfect three-to-four minute pop songs built around catchy-ass hooks that feature imaginative production values captured to two-inch tape in his all-analog studio. He’s a bit of a throwback and I think that’s why he’s so endearing, oh- and his songs, man. 8/10

Hoots & Hellmouth – The Holy Open Secret (MAD Dragon; 6/2)hootsandhellmouth

On the track You And All Of Us, H&H deliver a hearty ole foot stompin’ and hollerin’ right there in the studio; I can envision their live show because this basically sounds like a live album, all amped up with hoedown shout-alongs and hootenany rave-ups. This is old timey music; and a big “much respect” because they’re Philly boys- it’s nice to see a little scene like this going on in my old hometown. It also helps that Sean Hoots, Rob Berliner and Andrew Gray produced this with Bill Moriarty (who did both Dr. Dog‘s and Man Man‘s last records). It ain’t all uptempo songs, however; it’s nicely balanced out with some balladry and melancholia. The most inviting aspect of H&H‘s sound is the three-part harmonies worked to absolute perfection; vocals weave in and out of each other, under, around to create excellent songsmanship. And more props to their record label (MAD Dragon), owned and operated by the students and faculty at Drexel University; it’s actually the only student-run record label in the USA with a national distribution deal (with Warner subsidiary Rykodisc). That’s pretty rad- to think I wasted college on pursuing an education degree, I shoulda started a record label. I’m wasting my life… 7/10

Sonic Youth – The Eternal (Matador; 6/9)sonic_youth

I can’t claim undying allegiance to Da Yoof, not since 1992’s Dirty (in fact, I had to give the seven albums in between then and now a listen to see what I’ve missed out on) so at the very least I can say I’m somewhat caught up on the trajectory of their sound; which if you’re a diehard fan you’d probably agree that it goes from somewhat mainstream to nigh unlistenable from record to record- they can bend their sound to either end of the spectrum. But for the last 28 years no other band smells as much like New York as SY, it’s like riding the D train from Coney Island up to Fordham and back again- kind of scuzzy, a little scary, way-too-hip for someone who grew up in Philly; that’s Sonic Youth in a nutshell. But the songs are all there- Kim Gordon has moved over to guitar as Mark Ibold (ex-Pavement) takes over on bass, so now there’s more diversity on the low end of things, and more interplay between the awesome axe-wielders Ranaldo and Moore. Of course, since it’s their most diverse offering it’s also caused the most division among hardcore fans- “it’s not experimental enough” because it’s not like NYC Ghosts & Flowers; “it’s not as polished as Dirty” because uber-producer Butch Vig wasn’t twiddling the knobs, etc. I don’t care about SY‘s hardcore fans- I can appreciate them as a band that’s dedicated to maintaining a healthy relationship with itself while making music that’s at times haunting and dissonant but still extremely listenable. In short, it’s a damn fine album- I’ve listened to it more than any other album this year (because I burned it to CD so I could listen in the car). 9/10

A Coat Of Primer…

Disclaimer: Rock music is for rock music fans. Music criticism is for music criticism fans.

I’ve been trying to reconcile the two for five-plus years now and I’m even more clueless as how to do this than when I started. I can tell you why something sounds good (or bad) but there’s really no way to accurately describe a piece of music without listening to it several times- so in effect I’m taking the guess work out of it for you, or basically disseminating my ideas on this here website and trying to give you an idea of what you’ll be in for.

Please feel free to disagree with me and stick up for your favorite bands.

I’ve read somewhere that the most boring conversations are the ones where everyone agrees, and if you agree with everything I’ve written I’m not doing my job properly. I’m merely a “rough guide” to music, what I really want is to open discourse about this music.

It’s been my experience that the only non-fiction writing I really enjoy reading is about music, and music criticism in particular. Every day I read the good, the bad and the ugly. I buy my music here. I take suggestions from all these sites, try different things, etc. I come up with opinions on everything and almost have to write them down; because as a fan of music and writing the two are inextricably linked forever in my mind.

So here’s more of some of the albums I’ve been listening to, albums that piqued my curiosity and albums that I hope to never listen to again. I’m just applying the coat of primer, you have to do the actual painting…

Dent May & His Magnificent Ukelele – The Good Feeling Music of Dent May & His Magnificent Ukelele (Paw Tracks; Feb. 3rd)dent-may

Who thought ukelele music would be so rad? Everything about this album is screaming “no no no” but it feels so right. Nerd jokes aside, it walks a fine line between tragic melancholia and tongue-in-cheek clowning; it’s somewhere between a schmaltzy bow-tie Ramada Inn lounge act and kitschy elevator music. A song about smoking weed in your pajamas all day? Try College Town Boy. A torch song to a faded tennis star? Give God Loves You, Michael Chang a go. Have a drinking problem? May admits he’s powerless on I’m An Alcoholic. Beware: this record is ridiculously infectious! Grade: 8/10

William Elliot Whitmore – Animals In The Dark (ANTI-; Feb. 17th)whit

This might be the worst album I’ve tried to listen to this year- maybe the past three years. I say tried to listen to because I couldn’t get through it completely (shame on me). I kept hitting the “next” button; just the song titles made me shiver: Who Stole The Soul, Hell Or High Water, Hard Times… He even used the vocal hook from The Roof Is On Fire on the song Mutiny. It’s like Whitmore picked up a book of overused cliches and wrote an album about that, except it’s political at its core. So in effect, it’s a concept album. The concept is how to suck by writing trite protest/white-boy blues/tired-folk/blue-eyed soul songs. Even the album cover is terrible. Grade: .5/10 (Yeah, that’s a “point five”; I’m really holding on to the “zero” for something more awful…)

Odawas – The Blue Depths (Jagjaguwar; Feb. 17th)the_blue_depths-odawas_480

Imagine if the vocal stylings of Bon Iver‘s Justin Vernon and Fleet FoxesRobin Pecknold were thrown into a musical punnet square. The resulting offspring would sound like Michael Tapscott‘s ethereal voice, but that’s just a basic (and reductive) way to describe what Odawas‘ lead singer/songwriter is capable of. This is one of those beautiful “Sunday Morning” records that plays well when the world is slowly rising to wipe the sleep out of its eyes and stumble into the kitchen for a cup of coffee. It’s a record steeped in psychedelia as well as ambient textures, subdued electronica and good ol’ American folkiness. Grade: 8/10

Gun Outfit – Dim Light (Post Present Medium; Feb. 17th)gun-outfit

Boy-girl-boy. Pacific Northwest. Two guitars and drumset. One guitar plays intricate lines. One plays thrashy riffs. Drums pound. Heavy on the tom rolls. Sometimes girl sings. It’s rock and roll like it’s supposed to sound. I hear their sound informed by the likes of Sonic Youth and Sebadoh; they can go noise or they can do straight “indie” rock (whatever the fuck that means). Also, big ups to No Age drummer Dean Spunt for signing these cats to his PPM label, let’s hope added exposure and some heavy touring in the near future. I’d love to see this band live. Grade: 8/10

Here We Go Magic – Here We Go Magic (Western Vinyl; Feb. 24th)here-we-go-magic

Subliminal folk melodies, (at times) barely there lyrics, instruments slowly fading in and out of the murky, churning under-current of “songs”, yeah it’s another one of these albums. And I say that as endearingly as possible; if my tone sounds mocking please forgive me, I’ve been forced to grow up in this world with things like pro wrestling and house cats, how could everything not be a joke to me? Anyhow, I put the word songs in quotes back there because about three of the tracks on this record are merely ambient drone instrumental pieces, but of the other six they are honest-to-god songs, just without that boring AABA format; bridges and choruses are virtually non-existent. It’s a study in both electronically-induced sonic atmospherics and organic-sounding timbres; banjos and acoustic guitars over synths-and-drum-machines- creating a contemplative state for the listener. Grade: 8/10

Micachu – Jewellery (Rough Trade; April 7th)micachu

“Infinitely interesting post-glitch pop with vaudevillian theatrics…” is how I’d define this three-piece from the UK. Mica Levy (Micachu) and The Shapes (Raisa Khan & Marc Pell) make music on what sound like broken instruments; but in fact they’re homemade. Things like a “chu” (which is a Mica creation- a prepared guitar played with a hammer) and a bow-like instrument made from a discarded CD rack. Umm, there’s even a vacuum cleaner on the track Turn Me Well, but it isn’t employed like this guy has been known to. On paper, this album appears to be a complete mess. On your earholes, it’s a pleasure to introduce the two. Calling it “post-glitch pop” actually does it a disservice; it’s actually post-everything, as if Mica came from the future to show us that all you need to make music is all around you- that frying pan can be a drum and that jar of coins is a maraca. I’m just sayin’ is all… Grade: 9/10

Metric – Fantasies (Last Gang Records; April 7th)metric-fantasies

Emily Haines can write some catchy-ass hooks. That being said; there isn’t much else to this record in that it’s basically just a collection of somewhat cohesive tunes designed to support the single Help, I’m Alive. Each song sticks to the prescription laid out in that song, only deviating slightly from the formula; slick and over-produced pop that’s for the masses. If this is Haines‘ last shot at super-stardom, I’d say she nails it. But that’s only if she wants to be mentioned in the same breath as Kelly Clarkson and Ashlee Simpson. Grade: 5/10

Silversun Pickups – Swoon (Dangerbird; April 14th)swoon

Smashing PumpkinsSiamese Dream was one of my favorite albums in high school. It had big, anthemic radio-friendly sing-alongs (Today & Rocket), sludge-metal riffage (Quiet), string-infused acoustic ballad (Disarm), seven-and-eight minute tracks structured in the vein of prog-and-post-rock (Hummer, Soma & Silverfuck); I still listen to that album every few months and I am instantly transported back to the summer before my senior year. That album gets a 10/10 in my book. Wait, is this supposed to be a review of the new Silversun Pickups album? Oh, yeah. In that case, fast forward from ’93 to ’09, but keep in mind that what was once awesome and trenchant is now tired and lame. I can’t understand some bands’ fascination with mid-90s alt-rock sounds; I think we all voted and decided that those guitar sounds and production qualities a la Butch Vig and Steve Albini were to be left alone. Sorry you guys weren’t invited to that conference. On the one track I sort of was getting in to, It’s Nice To Know You Work Alone, lead singer Brian Aubert sounds af if she‘s saying “it’s nice to know your wear cologne…” Yeah, that’s right- I said “she”, because that dude has a chick’s voice. Grade: 3/10

Japandroids – Post-Nothing (Unfamiliar; April 28th)japandroids

Apparently no one plays bass anymore. That ain’t a bad thing- just the other day I saw a bumper sticker that said “Everyone follows the bass” and I immediately blurted out (to no one in particular) “I fucking hate bass players”. Yeah, too bad everyone that starts a band nowadays either wants to be the drummer or guitar player. Later, bass. Vancouver garage duo Japandroids don’t need one anyway, their “heavy-on-the-toms-and-cymbals” sound fills the air with what could be some low-end notes, but a bass would really slow these guys down. They both share singing duties, trading back and forth or going at it together. If there’s one thing the Pacific Northwest can do (see above; Gun Outfit) is rock the shit out of a garage. Without a slow, plodding bass-playing jerk fucking them up. I fucking hate bass players. Grade: 9/10

Mika Miko – We Be Xuxa (Post Present Medium; May 5th)mikamiko

Channeling old-school three chords and a cloud of dust punk rock circa 1981. I’m a sucker for lo-fi shit these days, and I love this record because a) it reminds me of late-80s cassette-tape punk I used to rock out to in my Walkman, skating at the Manoa Shopping Center before they put up all those “No Skateboarding” signs, and b) it literally sounds as if they recorded all the instrumentation on one track and the vocals on another. It’s like they forgot they had two more tracks to use on their little blue Tascam four-track device. And I fucking love that shit, man. There’s two odes to turkey sandwiches, a saxophone shows up in a few songs and it’s all over in 23 minutes. Even though four of Mika Miko‘s five members are women, they don’t feel the need to play up their sexuality or use it as a feminist pedestal- they just came to rock your balls off and go home. Grade: 9/10

Akron/Family – Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free (Dead Oceans; May 5th)akron

I have to admit that I am confused by Akron/Family. One minute they’re doing straight acoustic folk and the next it’s all techy with weird sound collage-type things. Experimentally inclined, psychedelic influenced, bits of funk and post-rock seep into their sound, three-part harmonies; it’s all over the place. But it’s still folk, with dashes of electro all about. Kinda like feeding granola to a robot, I guess. Grade: 6/10