Announcing: Songs About Radios, A Music Blog

•January 2, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Anyone still subscribed to the feed for this site or checking it on occasion: if you enjoy my writing about music, head on over to my new music blog, Songs About Radios!

This blog is obviously defunct but…

•August 23, 2008 • 7 Comments

…I’m thinking of starting a music blog.  Comment if that sounds like something you’d be interested in reading.

[Sorry, just not really interested in academic blogging (my own, at least) at this point in time]

By the way, for anyone curious, I passed my exams back in May.

Best Music of 2007, Part III (Best Songs)

•February 4, 2008 • 4 Comments

Some might say February is a bit late to still be putting out Best Of lists for 2007.  The year’s already underway, and I’ve already got my eye on some new music from 2008.  But the delay notwithstanding, I’m excited to follow up my list of the top 20 albums of 2007 with a few of my favorite tracks from some other artists.  Some, like Jens Lekman’s ” A Postcard From Nina” and Andrew Bird’s “Plasticities,” are standouts from albums that didn’t quite make the cut.  Some are from artists like Battles, White Rabbits, or the Twilight Sad, who deserved more attention – maybe I’ve caught part of a set of at a music festival or heard a couple of quality tracks from the blogs, but haven’t had a chance to check out the album.  A couple, like Julianna Barwick’s “Dancing With Friends,” Gui Boratto’s “Beautiful Life,” or Alex Delivery’s “Sheath-Wet” are singular tracks that speak for themselves, or, like Le Loup’s rounds of “Oh this world was made for ending” on “Planes Like Vultures,” stand out for a few transcendent moments.  Then there are the tracks like Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and Kimya Dawson’s “Loose Lips” (from the movie Juno) which, aside from being severely catchy, actually had something of an iconic presence in the general public.  And, finally, there a few tracks like “Lovers Who Uncover,” “Something Special” and “The Burning Ambition of the Early Diuretics” which just resounded with me personally for some reason.  Behind each of these tracks, I’m sure there’s a lot more good music from each of these artists still to be discovered, and I hope you’ll be inspired to find out for yourself.

Here are the tracks, in alphabetical order:

  • Aesop Rock – “None Shall Pass”
  • Alex Delivery – “Sheath-Wet”
  • Andrew Bird – “Plasticities”
  • Basia Bulat – “Snakes and Ladders”
  • Battles – “Leyendecker”
  • The Black Lips – “Katrina”
  • Blonde Redhead – “23”
  • Child Rebel Soldiers (Lupe Fiasco + Pharrell Williams + Kanye West) – “US Placers”
  • Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! – “Satan Said Dance”
  • Fiery Furnaces – “Pricked In The Heart”
  • Glass Candy – “I Always Say Yes”
  • Grizzly Bear – “Blackcurrant Jam”
  • Gui Boratto – “Beautiful Life”
  • Jens Lekman – “A Postcard To Nina”
  • Je Suis France – “Whalebone”
  • Julianna Barwick – “Dancing With Friends”
  • Kimya Dawson – “Loose Lips”
  • Klaxons – “Gravity’s Rainbow”
  • The Little Ones – “Lovers Who Uncover (Crystal Castles Remix)”
  • Le Loup – “Planes Like Vultures”
  • Magik Markers – “Taste”
  • Minus Story – “Come Into My Arms”
  • Monster Bobby – “The Burning Ambition Of The Early Diurectics”
  • Rihanna – “Umbrella”
  • Sally Shapiro – “He Keeps Me Alive”
  • The Shins – “Sleeping Lessons”
  • Tough Alliance – “Something Special”
  • Twilight Sad – “3 Second of Dead Air”
  • White Rabbits – “The Plot”
  • Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Kiss Kiss”

A zip file with all of the tracks from my series of posts on the Best Music of 2007 should be up on my webfiles later today.  Shortly after, I’ll send out an email with links to the people with whom I’ve been talking about this.  If you want the link and you haven’t gotten an email by this weekend, just drop me a line via email/Facebook/comment fields and I’ll be happy to pass it on.

Best Music of 2007, Part II (Albums 10 through 1)

•January 25, 2008 • 9 Comments

Apparently someone’s being reading my last post – someone who doesn’t like me. No sooner had I declared my total apathy towards Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon than Coachella declares that Roger Waters will be playing the album in its entirety to close off the fest. I better be careful what I say…

In my last post, I praised Okkervil River’s The Stage Names, Caribou’s Andorra, The Besnard Lakes’ The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse, Frog Eyes’ Tears Of The Valedictorian, Justice’s , Animal Collective’s Strawberry Jam, Los Campesinos!’s Sticking Fingers Into Sockets, Dan Deacon’s Spiderman Of The Rings, Spoon’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, and the Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible. In this post, I close out the list with the top 10 albums of 2007.

10. Sunset RubdownRandom Spirit Lover [Highlight: “Winged/Wicked Things”]

“The pattern of flight is chaotic and blind, but it’s right, cause chaos is yours and chaos is mine mine mine mine / And chaos is love and they say love is blind”

Spencer Krug is currently my favorite musician, and among his three principle projects (Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown, and Swan Lake), Sunset Rubdown is currently my favorite. I may not like Random Spirit Lover quite as much as my #3 album of 2006, but it’s still a hell of an album. While not as flawless as its predecessor, Random Spirit Lover builds on the pensive depths of Shut Up I Am Dreaming, adding new layers of competing, contrapuntal melodies on top of the intensely rhythmic, densely structured chord progressions. The boldest pieces, including opener “The Mending Of The Gown,” a revised “Winged/Wicked Things,” and “Up On Your Leopard,” achieve a level of cacophonous, chaotic energy that often seems even more compelling than their older material. But like all experiments, there are occasional missteps, particularly on slower numbers like “Magic vs. Midas.” Other experimental directions, including the madrigal-inspired rounds of “The Courtesan Has Sung” and the haunted funhouse melody that runs through “Colt Stands Up” and “Stallions,” come off more successfully.

9. RadioheadIn Rainbows [Highlight: “Nude”]

“Don’t get any big ideas, they’re not going to happen”

There’s very little I can say about this album that hasn’t already been better said here and here, so I’ll simply observe that Radiohead are incredible songwriters, and that they have an incredible ability to craft subtle, cohesive atmospheric landscapes with, as they sang on Kid A, “everything in its right place.” Listening through the albums again as I write this, I’m most impressed by the few seconds of children’s choir at the 2:13 mark of “15 Step,” the little rattle that evolves out the drum beat on “Videotape,” the point where the arpeggios of “Weird Fishes / Arpeggi” build towards a climax around the 3:00 mark, at which the background drops out and a new double-layered series of isolated arpeggios backs Thom Yorke’s vocals for a minute or so without interference from percussion or other instruments. The obsession with detail is already an aesthetic statement, reducible neither to ornament nor to the place of the detail within the larger composition. It is the perfectionism of the utterly alone, turning away from the human world towards an intimate knowledge of the machine that the sparsity of In Rainbows allows to emerge, denuded, into the residual glow of the domestic space.

8. Panda BearPerson Pitch [Highlight: “Good Girl/Carrots”]

“Listen in between your notes, there’s something been going on / while you were busy taking notes / and look in between your moments, there’s something good happening / its good to sometimes slow it down”

It’s been a good year for the members of Animal Collective. Not only was Strawberry Jam great, but two members (Avey Tare and Panda Bear) each released solo projects. While Avey Tare’s backwards-recorded Pullhair Rubeye didn’t do it for me, Panda Bear came up with a masterpiece. “Good Girl/Carrots” (especially the “Carrots” part) is Panda Bear’s manifesto: Person Pitch is about slowing it down and luxuriating in the details of production. It’s not that the vocal tracks, which have been repeatedly compared to SMiLE-era Brian Wilson, aren’t catchy. But the real pleasure of this album is in the little pieces of chimes, percussion, and artifacts of production between the notes of the lackadaisical pop melody tape loops that roll in and out like waves. For an album whose production is so jarring at times, though, Person Pitch is remarkably chill.

7. ChromaticsNight Drive + contributions to After Dark [Highlight: “In The City”]

“Shining violence, shining victim, in the headlights, shining pistols, shining diamonds, from a necklace, faceless driver, drive away / in the city…”

When Gorilla vs. Bear first began to inundate me with tracks from Jersey-based label Italians Do It Better‘s “italo-disco” compilation, After Dark, my initial reactions were negative. The instrumentation of these down-tempo dance beats sounded dated and, frankly, trashy. As I listened on, however, I became entranced by the elegance of these sparse compositions: haunting like The Knife but more spectral, if less gruesome, favoring rest over repetition. While I whole-heartedly recommended the entire After Dark compilation, as well as Italians Do It Better-labelmate Glass Candy’s tour exclusive B/E/A/T/B/O/X, Chromatics stands out as the best of the trend. Silkily layering faint strings over nonchalant snares, heavy reverb on the treble, and bass beats that seem more to melt than to boom, Night Drive feels ready to let all of the tension out through the shoulders. Patient pauses and plenty of empty space leaves room for the mind to wander and for imagination to fill in the gaps with the traces of notes retained from earlier tracks. Night Drive seduces by metonymy – located in the space between the club and the bedroom, it alludes to a retro dancefloor, but also to punk, without committing itself to anything beyond its own smug self-enclosure. Listen for the chilling cover of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.”

6. BurialUntrue [Highlight: “Archangel”]

“Holding you /could it be alone, could it be alone, could it be alone /
Loving you / could it be alone, could it be alone, could it be alone
Kissing you, / tell me how can you, tell me I belong, tell me I belong”

Disembodied voices that can only articulate themselves as the subjects of another’s as yet non-existent discourse, the “I” of the “tell me I belong.” Lacking belonging, they cry out a loving, a holding, a kissing that has no origin but the split voice, spliced apart by voice modulation, spliced together from multiple vocal tracks. In the splice, the voices touch, they kiss without ever forming a unit, a subject, a pair, a belonging together in the way that the one belongs together with itself or in the way that the one belongs together with others. The belonging of a longing that belongs to no one.

The layers of musical ether which these voices haunt have the warmth and the welcoming of an abandoned home: this is no one’s home, there’s no one at home; no trespassing, there can be no trespassing, as this is not someone’s home; make yourself at home, you’re not at home, this is not a home; welcome home.

5. LCD SoundsystemSound of Silver [Highlight: “All My Friends”]

“You spent the first five years trying to get with the plan / And the next five years trying to be with your friends again
You’re talking 45 turns just as fast as you can / Yeah, I know it gets tired, but it’s better when we pretend.”

Coachella, 2007: Separated from the group, I watch the LCD set alone, oblivious to my surroundings, absorbed by the sound. When the end of “All My Friends” rings out with a repeated plea, “Where are my friends tonight? If I could see all my friends tonight…” the question is appropriate. I think back on the series of events that have landed me in the middle of a desert in California at this moment. I’m honestly flooded by memories of people with whom I’ve shared so many formative experiences but with whom I don’t really keep in touch: college roommates, grade school best friends, friends from summer camp, the people I used to say “hi” to in the halls in high school, etc. And even my best friends from high school, most of whom I’m still close with, but don’t see often enough; my cousins, who like me have been showing up to smaller and smaller percentages of family events, now that everyone’s away at school; and even Sarah, who’s standing outside of the dance tent, reluctant to brave the crowds for a band she’s not yet entirely sold on, and who’s been too far away for too long.

Lollapalooza, 2007: I watch the set with Sarah, my brother, one of my best friends from high school, and another good friend. They start off with “Daft Punk is Playing at My House” since Daft Punk is, in fact, about to play an incredible set in about an hour. When they ask “Where are my friends tonight?” the answer is, “right fucking here.”

In trying to figure out what distinguishes LCD Soundsystem from just another band with great beats, I’ve increasingly come back to the figure of nostalgia. Dating back to their earlier self-titled album, they’ve always seemed to have an uncanny ability, first, to create nostalgia for a music scene that never existed or for experiences never experienced, and second, to translate that longed for scene, through a sort of excessive repetition, into their own work; in other words, to produce the present as a repetition or return of a past that never took place. “Daft Punk is Playing in My House” plays on the ambiguous relationship between recording and live performance to make present the anticipation of three scenes:

  • the impossible scene: Daft Punk, i.e Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter in the (robot-suit covered) flesh, spinning live in James Murphy’s house from the top of a smaller but no less awesome glow-in-the-dark pyramid (but even this live performance would already be a repetition of recorded materials)
  • the remembered-anticipated scene: a young James Murphy, not yet of LCD Soundsystem, not yet founder of DFA Records, not yet established as a DJ, just ready to give some folks a good time, spinning Daft Punk with the enthusiasm of someone who actually has Daft Punk playing live in his house
  • the present scene: an older Jams Murphy still in awe of and in the shadow of Daft Punk, but doing everything he can to reproduce the same kind of energy they bring to their live shows

He was there (“the first guy playing Daft Punk to the rock kids”), Murphy told us in “Losing My Edge,” in a semi-ironic proclamation of hipster-cred, but the message isn’t backwards looking; it’s that we are here, that this show, this moment, with or without our friends, will always be, potentially, the scene we look back upon when LCD has lost its edge “to the art-school Brooklynites in little jackets and borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered eighties.”

4. MenomenaFriend and Foe [Highlight: “Wet & Rusting”]

“It’s hard to take risks with a pessimist”

Menomena has a lot to do with the fact that I’ve been fooling around with my keyboard a lot more these days. I’ve been extremely impressed by how much they’re able to do with only three musicians layering very simple, repetitive patterns of notes on keyboard, guitar, sax, and chimes. The minimalism of the individual elements keeps everything light and catchy, but it’s the seemingly effortless (but obviously well calculated) movement between the parts that makes these songs infectiously difficult to sort out. I’m also impressed by Menomena’s range – within the same minimalist idiom, they’re able to move deftly from the catastrophic violence of “The Pelican” and “Air Aid,” to the inspirational, almost end-of-soundtrack resolve of “Muscle’n Flo” and “Rotten Hell,” and the mournful angst of “My My.”

3. Marissa NadlerSongs III: Bird On The Water + Bonus EP [Highlight: “Daisy and Violet”]

“Daisy fell ill and was followed by violet / A neighbor would find them dead on the ground / Somewhere inside the mind of a child / Are harmonies only a sister could sing.”

It’s something of a shame, but also somehow appropriate, that this year’s most beautiful piece of singing should be a B-side, buried on the bonus disc to Songs III. But “Daisy and Violet” captures that grace of Marissa Nadler’s voice and aesthetic better than anything else she’s written. It tells the true story of two conjoined twins, sold to the circus as a vocal ensemble. The twins read as a figure for Nadler’s own music, which layers her own voice on top of its recorded double in haunting harmonies over folky fingerpicking in a style that references the exquisite but forgotten gaps in the American aesthetic record which Greil Marcus calls “Old Weird America.” Nadler’s song recalls Daisy and Violet years after their side-show youth, working dully in the market, their otherworldly cadences buried by quotidian concerns in their soon-to-be-extinguished thoughts, a fragile, unspoken secret shared between sisters.

2. YeasayerAll Hour Cymbals [Highlight: “2080”]

“Yeah Yeah we can all grab at the chance and be handsome farmers / Yeah you can have twenty one sons and be blood when they marry my daughters / And the pain that we left at the station will stay in a jar behind us / We can pickle the pain into blue ribbon winners at county contests”

The soundtrack to a nuclear winter will not be black metal. The most apocalyptic potentials of the contemporary musical landscape lie in the emptiness of vocal harmonies. Thus, for all the talk of haunted funhouses and abandoned homes in some of my other reviews, the most frightening thing I heard this year was Yeasayer’s All Hour Cymbals. The relation between the deserty, Fleetwood Mac-style melodies and the mobile excess of light percussion on of “2080” captures all the angst of a song facing forward to the waining of a civilization – “I can’t sleep when I think about the future I’ve been born into … In 2080 / I’ll surely be dead / So don’t look ahead, / Never look ahead.”

1. Of MontrealHissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer [Highlight: “The Past Is A Grotesque Animal”]

“I fell in love with the first cute girl that I met / Who could appreciate Georges Bataille / Standing at Swedish festival discussing ‘Story of the Eye'”

2007 was, for me, the year of Of Montreal. Hissing Fauna may have been the first 2007 album I heard, and my first show of the year was Of Montreal at Avalon on January 27. I watched them reprise the Avalon set at Coachella and then steal the show at Pitchfork with a mind-boggling spectacle involving giant claw hands, darth vader masks, a winged Late B.P. Helium, and some sort of Mr. Potatohead covered in red-paint filled balloons with Kevin Barnes’s face tape on each one. Meanwhile, live covers of the Kinks, Bowie, and the Fiery Furnaces poured in from the blogs, and Barnes and co. squeezed out another 5 track EP, Icons, Abstract Thee. Also, if you were paying attention, you might have heard that Barnes performed half a set in Vegas nude. The shows I saw were tamer – the Avalon and Coachella sets closed with pleather shorts and fishnets, and Pitchfork closed with a codpiece. Of Montreal brought their live performance to a new level of mass confusion and amusement, while releasing some of their best work musically.

“The Past Is A Grotesque Animal” brings out the two things that make Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer a unique record both among this year’s best and within Of Montreal’s catalogue.

The first is the maturity and sophistication of its production. Hissing Fauna strikes me as a significant step forward for Kevin Barnes, carrying the line of development from the baroque psychadelic extravagance of 2004’s Satanic Panic In The Attic (my first exposure to Of Montreal), through the multi-layered drum-machine disco elements of ’05’s Sunlandic Twins. This latest incarnation preserves the pop sensibilities that have been with the band from the start, and the general absurdity of Satanic Panic, but it takes the rhythmic and harmonic complexities of Sunlandic Twins in a more sinister and emotionally challenging direction. Sure, the disco element is still there in tracks like “Suffer For Fashion” and “She’s a Rejector.” But Barnes, coping with the emotional fallout a collapsing marriage, is now foregrounding the manic-depression of his sound, and the ability to move back and forth between abandon and abandonment (see, for example, “Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse”: “Come on mood shift, shift back to good again / Come on mood shift, shift back to good again / Come on, be a friend”) gives Of Montreal the gravitas to tenuously hold together their most aberrant trajectories on an album that always feels like it’s bursting at the seems.

This sort of economics of excess – the constant, impossible attempt to reinscribe aberrance within some sort of rationality, and the creative energy released in collapse – is the second defining aspect of Hissing Fauna that “The Past Is A Grotesque Animal” foregrounds. We know that Barnes has been thinking a lot about economics these days – after “Let’s pretend we don’t exist, let’s pretend we’re in Antarctica” became “Let’s go Outback tonight, life will still be there tomorrow…” and Of Montreal followed up with an equally awkward spot shelling for T-mobile, Barnes penned an article for Stereogum.com called “Selling Out Isn’t Possible” in which, alongside some pretty obvious stuff about artists needing to eat, his understated claim seemed to be to reclaim his ambivalence towards commercialism as itself a source of innovation:

I’ve struggled because of the backlash following my songs placement in TV commercials. That is, until I realized that the negative energy that was being directed towards me really began to inspire my creativity. It has given me a sense of, “well, I’ll show them who is a sellout, I’m going to make the freakiest, most interesting, record ever!!!” … “I’m going to prove to them that my shit is wild and unpolluted by the reach of some absurd connection to mainstream corporate America.”

In “The Past Is A Grotesque Animal,” the semi-ironic reference to Bataille (can there be any other sort of reference to Bataille?) quoted above is thus emblematic. Bataille has become a sort of marketing device for picking up cute girls at Swedish festivals. But if the past is a grotesque animal, it’s not because the mere reference to Bataille strikes Barnes as pretentious, but rather because, fully inhabiting a Bataillan perspective, the absurdity of founding a lasting relationship on the violence of “Story of the Eye” now shows itself in the form of Barnes’s own past laughing at him from the other side of a failed attempt to transform the community of those who have no community into a working community of lovers. When Barnes sings “In its eyes [i.e. the eyes of the past] I see / how completely wrong you can be,” the eye still refers to Story of the Eye: it’s in the eyes of Story of the Eye that it finally seems completely wrong to have fallen in love with the first cute girl that he met that could appreciate Georges Bataille.

Barnes’s concern for excess and economy feeds into the album’s gender politics as well. The upside of the “girls kissing girls” in “Bunny Ain’t No Kind Of Rider,” for example (“Eva, i’m sorry / But you will never have me / To me, you’re just some faggy girl / And i need a lover with soul power”) is the line “besides, you wouldn’t know what to do with me.” And when Barnes shows up on stage with excessively large, almost clownish, circles of blush on his cheeks, dressed like an elf or an 8 foot tall woman, or wearing a little too little below the waist, he really does render null all attempts to know what to do with him.

[Best 30 Songs of 2007 coming soon...]

Best Music of 2007, Part I (Albums 20 through 11)

•January 18, 2008 • 4 Comments

I have to admit: whenever I look over a best-of list that I’ve written myself, I always find myself a little bit disappointed. All these bands are too familiar to me. Where are the surprises for me to discover? Why couldn’t I think of anyone I’ve never heard of? When I read lists written by others, I’m looking for the right balance between confirmation of my tastes and new directions for me to explore – reliable, favorable write-ups of albums on my radar on which I haven’t yet formed much of an opinion, or intriguing descriptions of totally unfamiliar acts. An effective year end list should convince me that it knows me well enough to let it lead me by the hand into the dark. This is the principle I’ve tried to follow in constructing and writing up my favorite songs and albums of 2007. Especially for those readers who know me personally, I hope you’ll find something here that we can listen to together, nodding silently in agreement at how fortunate we are to have had the opportunity to hear this song once in our lives; and I hope you’ll explore some of the tracks that are new to you, because I’d like nothing more than to be responsible for introducing you to your new favorite band.

Before I get to my own list, I’d like to point you to Constantly Arriving‘s thoughts on the subject. Looking at her favorite albums of 2007, it should come as little surprise that we’ve been dating for 8 1/2 years. Her taste in music is impeccable.

My wrap up of 2007 will be in three parts. In this post, I’ll write up albums 11-20 of my top 20 albums of the year. The remaining 10 albums will follow in the next post. Finally, in a third post, I’ll give an additional 30 tracks that stood out for me this year. The rule is one track per artist. Including 1 standout track from each of the top 20 albums, and the 5 Overlooked Albums of 2006 I posted about earlier, that makes 55 tracks I’m hoping to share with all of my readers. I’ve been talked out of posting the tracks directly on this site, but I’ll be putting a zip file up on my webfiles, and sending out a link to a few people. Email me or drop me a comment including your email address if you’d like the link.

Without further ado:

20. Okkervil RiverThe Stage Names [Highlight: “Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe”]

“When the breath that you breathed in the street screams there’s no science / When you look how you looked then to me, then I cease lying / and fall into silence.”

In 2005, I bought Okkervil River’s Black Sheep Boy on the strength of a couple of singles, but never really found my way into the album. Since then, I’ve fallen in love with an older track, “For The Captain,” with its lyrics about “the thing that is making its home in your radio” (I have a soft spot that I don’t understand for lyrics about radios), but don’t much care for its album, Stars To Small To Use (frontman Will Sheff’s side project, Palo Santo, did make my top tracks of ’06, though). The Stage Names is my favorite Okkervil River album yet: 9 solid tracks of folk-inflected, upbeat rock, topped off with a couple of hits and fading out with a gravelly jaunt through the Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B” at the end of “John Allyn Smith Sails,” is just enough to push Okkervil River over a couple of other solid contenders and into the #20 spot. “Unless It’s Kicks” has all the licks to give this mess some grace, and the witty math of Plus Ones (“No one wants to hear about your 97th tear…”) underscores the deftness of Sheff’s wordplay. But the highlight of the album for me is the opener, “Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe,” if only because it’s heavy on what Okkervil River does best: making use of the natural , anapest-heavy rhythm of his lyrics to structure his stretched out musical phrasing and move masterfully between tension and resolution.

19. CaribouAndorra [Highlight: “Melody Day”]

“Melody day what have I done / Now our hearts are locked up tight again.”

Apparently, Caribou has been around for a couple of years now, producing quality psych-infused electronica layered with wistful harmonies reminsicent of the Zombies. But it took a turn towards the garage-y bluntness of “Melody Day” to catch my ear. Andorra itself, while firmly rooted in the harmonic textures of psych rock, covers a wider range – “Sandy,” “Eli,” and others would be at home on Odyssey & Oracle (compare the chorus of “Desiree” with “Changes,” for example), while “Sundialing” and especially “Niobe” embrace the electronic idiom more explicitly. Meanwhile, for a few minutes at the start, “She’s The One” sounds like it’s about to go Animal Collective batshit nuts, then buries the freakout under airier arrangements. Caribou does phenomenal work incorporating electronic elements organically alongside sounds that still seem to belong to the late 60’s, working weird little feedback flutters in with flutes and strings, layers made out of recognizable instruments overlaid and reverbed with artful precision.

18. The Besnard LakesThe Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse [Highlight: “And You Lied To Me”]

“You aren’t even who you said you are / And you lied to me / When you went around defusing bombs / Changing into costume to follow all the criminals in the land / Who’d ever thought you’d join a band”

My interest in Pink Floyd probably peaked around my sophomore year of college, more due to overexposure than anything else. While I would (and do) still occasionally put on Wish You Were Here, I found (and find) myself totally unable to listen to anything off of Dark Side of the Moon. At a certain point, it just started to seem like a cliché, so familiar that I found myself no longer paying attention to what I was listening to. Yet I can still recall the appeal – the spacey guitar licks wrapped around temperate, even plodding pacing; the steady march from sparseness to distortion-heavy, richly layered climaxes; the patient denouements, waiting hollowly for the feeling to pass – even though the operatic grandeur of it all feels excessive to me.

The Besnard Lakes strike me as faithful heirs to the these most favorable qualities of Pink Floyd (with “Goodbye Blue Sky” and “Hey You” as perhaps the best reference points), but without the same sort of ambition or pretension. Whereas Floyd, reacting in part to the absent figure of Syd Barrett, embraced a sort of extroverted, romantic vision of mad genius (think “Shine On You Crazy Diamonds” and the lunatics of “Brain Damage”), the Besnard Lakes are much more comfortable in a neatly circumscribed, insular sound and vision. Their unlikely heroes, who no one thought would join a band, and who don’t get up until the afternoon, wrap themselves, like spies, in secrets they keep even from those closest to them. They address these heroes in an intimate second person, as “baby” and “dear,” pleadingly, trying to pull them back from the brink. The music responds in kind, stuck on the same steady sequences of notes, then wallowing in and out of shoegazey solos. Yet there’s more depth to these characters than the burnouts of fellow space rockers The Secret Machine’s “Alone, Jealous and Stoned.” It’s just that their faith in humanity has been shaken, and they need a little help getting unstuck.

17. Frog EyesTears Of The Valedictorian [Highlight: “Bushels”]

“Oh, though, though he had l-l-l-l-lot’s to do, he pulled a fly off it’s little wing, oh to give the the birch birch back it’s spring when he pulled a fly, oh offa little wing, oh to give the earth back it’s radium swing, oh he pulled a its a five thousand feathered radium wings oh to give give give the birch back it’s spring, oh he pulled a flies offa little wing wing wing wing, oh to give the bir-ch back its swing, oh-oh-uh…”

If it wasn’t for Dan Bejar (Destoyer, New Pornographers) and Spencer Krug (Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown), who joined Frog Eyes front man Carey Mercer under the moniker of Swan Lake for last year’s mostly neglected masterpiece, Beast Moans, I don’t think I would have initially given Frog Eyes much of a chance. Frog Eyes is daunting to a new listener. Mercer doesn’t need much time with a musical idea to strip it of anything solid and find something rhythmic but atonal at its core. Yet, while Krug is undoubtedly my favorite of the trio, I can’t say that he would be the musician he is today without the influence of Mercer, who strikes me more and more on each listen as the greatest innovator of the bunch. Mercer’s willingness to take the axe to the things that hold traditional songs together, to generate an intolerable chaos out of which emerges at times moments of grace and harmony, opens up unforeseen musical possibilities that furthermore sound like they belong uniquely, if not definitively, to the contemporary indie rock landscape.

Case in point is Mercer’s use of his voice. In the great modernist tradition of those composers who write yelling into an open grand piano into their scores, Mercer is committed to testing the limits of the voice as an instrument. His deliberate incorporation of guttural growls, high pitched yelps and the cracks of excessive strain into his vocal performance expands the range of sounds that can be demanded of a vocalist. Unlike the growls and yelps of traditional rock ‘n roll, these elements aren’t mere punctuation for Mercer, but integral elements of each articulated syllable, blended together with traditional pitches, spoken words, and falsettos. The rapid movement between different uses of the voice reveals the mastery behind Mercer’s performance, in which every movement of the mouth, lungs, tongue and throat seems essential to producing the right sound. But Mercer also lets his voice, like his shaky guitar, waiver in the transitions in a way that seems entirely beyond his control – he strains his vocal cords to the point at which, in reacting to the internal dynamics of the vocal system, they take on a certain violent autonomy.

16. Justice [Highlight: “Phantom”]

I’ve just finished listening through Justice’s Fabriclive-rejected Xmas mixtape, wherein Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay give away some of the secrets of behind their non-alphabetically titled album, . Aside from the thrilling ability to recontextualize tracks like Frankie Valli’s “Who Loves You” and Todd Rundgren’s “International Feel” into danceable club hits, one of the highlights of the mix was its inclusion of the source material for the most recognizable beats behind “Phantom” – a track called “Tenebre” from Italian prog rockers Goblin, best known for their work soundtracking films by horror master Dario Argento (most notably, they did the score for Dawn of the Dead). The reference to zombies-by-way-of-goblins is telling for the aesthetic of . If Justice takes off where Daft Punk left off in “Da Funk,” exaggerating the robotic aspects of electronic music through synth-heavy, blatantly digital instrumentation and sutures left in plain sight, the younger of two French duos seems more attuned to the nightmarish aesthetic potential of these inhuman constructions. From the war drums beginning of album-opener “Genesis” to distortion drenched “Waters of Nazareth” and Phantom of the Opera (er… Club) haunted “Let There Be Light,” Justice borrows synth tracks (and occasionally other elements) from a variety of genres (metal, prog, and especially horror and sci-fi cinema soundtracks) at their most baroque to give their sound the threat of violence that makes it sound colossal. These pieces are balanced out by occasional diversion into more rounded off beats whose references are closer to disco (“D.A.N.C.E.”) and hip-hop (“The Party”). A bit overbearing at times, it would be unfortunate if all house sounded like this. But Justice’s ability to create danceable hits with this sort of imposing size makes them a force to be reckoned with.

15. Animal CollectiveStrawberry Jam [Highlight: “Fireworks”]

“I can’t lift you up cause my mind is tired / It’s family beaches that I desire / That sacred night where we watched the fireworks / They frightened the babies and you know they’ve got two flashing eyes and if they are color blind / They make me feel that you’re only what I see sometimes.”

When I first got into Animal Collective’s Feels in early 2006, I was struck by the intensity of tracks like “Did You See The Words,” “Grass” and “Purple Bottle,” but totally turned off by most of the rest of the album. At their best, Animal Collective make exhilarating freak folk masterpieces out of ragged phrasing, accelerated tribal drumming, oddball lyrics mixed with some cooing and grunting, and perfect pop melodies. But then they have a tendency to wander off into some sort of arhythmic, amelodic, “nature sounds” experimental nonsense out of which occasionally will emerge some intricately structured moment of brilliance, only to fade back into the miasma of something that isn’t quite a song. Strawberry Jam is the first Animal Collective album I’ve found that I can listen to straight through. While the moments of nonsense aren’t entirely absent, they’re toned down, shortened, and effectively incorporated into more listenable tracks in a way that adds to the intensity rather than distracting from it. Strawberry Jam isn’t any less experimental than earlier Animal Collective works, it’s just working on better hypotheses, banking on the strength of infectious rhythms and melodies stretched out to the point of ecstasy to provide a loose framework for the ear amidst the micro-bursts that are exploding all around the listener.

I’m not entirely sure what “Fireworks” is about, but it seems to plumb the experience of watching fireworks side-by-side for some sort of meditation on vision as the paradigmatic for a self composed entirely of the traces of external experience (“I’m only all I see sometimes”).

14. Los Campesinos!Sticking Fingers Into Sockets EP + The International Tweexcore Underground Single [Highlight: “You! Me! Dancing!”]

“Not sure if you mind if I dance with you, / but I don’t think right now that you care about anything at all. / And oh, if only there were clothes on the floor, / I’d feel for certain I was bedroom dancing. ”

I nearly left Los Campesinos! off my list this year, since they’ve still yet to release a proper album (Hold On Now, Youngster is due in February), but it just wouldn’t be honest with myself to ignore one of my favorite discoveries of the year. This scrappy band of Welsh (don’t let the name throw you off) teens had me at hello, ever since I heard those first few notes of the verse kick in on “You! Me! Dancing!”, and the fascination only seemed to grow with each subsequent song.

The International Tweexcore Underground single, which includes a cover of Black Flag’s “Police Story” (“understand, we’re fighting a war we can’t win; they hate us, we hate them”) along with the title track (“how you gonna bring the state down when you’re propping it up with day time radio?”) and “C Is The Heavenly Option” (a multiple choice test in which the correct answer is always a shameless, throw-caution-to-the-wind kiss) reads as a sort of mission statement. If “tweexcore” sounds like a contradiction, it is: Los Campesinos! are not equal parts twee and hardcore, so much as twee to the core: like a little kid who’s just had too much candy, Los Campesinos! dash through their jangly, upbeat pop melodies and cute, witty lyrics with a manic stop-go phrasing that just begs for more: pop faster! twee harder! more handclaps! Even at their fast pace, Los Campesinos! borrow from the fast-slow (or, faster-less fast) aesthetic, alternating between noisy freakouts and the calm familiarity of a catchy chorus. If this doesn’t have you and me dancing, you need to get off your ass, ’cause I’m already on the dancefloor.

13. Dan DeaconSpiderman Of The Rings [Highlight: “The Crystal Cat”]

“I’m gonna get my bathing suit on, gonna get my base face on / gonna get my hat out of loan, gonna get my space face on / I’m gonna turn all snakes into bone, go wishing the stone, keep the crystal cat cold, gotta get the throne / hope my baby, may we meet a beastman / hold us there, happy but by one hand / gonna get my pile of stone, gonna my loud loud gong / gonna get my men into rows, you better cover dem toes”

Like most good electronic musicians, Dan Deacon is a collector of odds and ends: samples, electronic equipment, trippy green skulls, kitschy lyrics, suggestions for audience participation, etc. It’s just that his odds are odder than most, and he seems to let them accumulate at an obsessive, ever-increasing pace. Last time I saw him, for example, he had the audience make a huge circle, around which an exponentially increasing number of people then ran, slapping fives with the dwindling ranks of the outside circle. Musically, this logic of accumulation is apparent from the first track of Spiderman Of The Rings, which lays down the “Woody Woodpecker” laugh over some marimba, first at regular speed, then adding a second, decelerated version of the same laugh track, throwing in additional tracks at various speeds until the chatter of the woodpecker’s percussive call becomes an entire spastic, jump up and down, demented dance track. The effect of all the acceleration and deceleration is to create those weirdo, chimpunkish fast-forward vocals singing geeky lines full of Adult Swim style non-sequitters. The lyrics, too, seem to just accumulate. They often sound like little more than a list of weird stuff that Dan Deacon happened to think of. On “Wham City,” Deacon’s ode to the Baltimore collective of experimental musicians of which he is a part, the Baltimore music scene shows up as a gathering up of whatever was around (“Out of the fountain flows gold, into a huge hand /That hand is held by a bear who had a sick band / Of ghosts and cats / And pigs and bats / With brooms and bats / And wigs and rats / And play big dogs like queens and kings / And everyone plays drums and sings”). At a Dan Deacon show, whatever is around is sure to be awesome.

12. SpoonGa Ga Ga Ga Ga [Highlight: “The Ghost Of You Lingers”]

“…the ghost of you lingers (put on a clinic till we hit the wall) it lingers (just like a sailor with his wounds being salted) / I had a nightmare nothing could be put back together (would you settle the score) / If you were here, would you calm me down…”

Let’s face it – Spoon is probably among the most ubiquitous indie rocks acts of the decade. The Arcade Fire might get cited more often as the best band of its time, and we all have our picks for artists we like better, but everyone I talk to these days seems to have heard of Spoon or at least heard a song or too in passing (for me, “The Way We Get By” was, for several years, one of those songs that I knew but didn’t realize I knew until I heard it on the album). Without reaching back to vets like Radiohead with their feet firmly planted in the ’90’s, it’s hard to think of too many indie acts with the kind of name recognition Spoon is in the process of building. Not only that, they seem to be one of the least polarizing indie acts around. Sly without being pretentious, subtle without being inaccessible, genuinely rock without excess testosterone, they’re hard to dislike, and easy to find something exciting in to spark an interest.

Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Spoon’s best album in years (ok, they’ve only really released one LP since 2002, and it was pretty good too), gives some decent hints as to what all the fuss is about. Building on the snarky rhythm and soul of Kill The Moonlight with tracks like “Don’t Make Me A Target,” “My Japanese Cigarette Case” and, you guessed it, “Rhythm & Soul,” Ga x 5 expands in poppier directions, adding exuberant horns that pep up “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” and “The Underdog.” Yet there’s no attempt to back away from the experimentalism of earlier albums, and nowhere is this more apparent than in “The Ghost Of You Lingers,” which lays down washed out and reverbed strata of Britt Daniels vocals over tense, choppy piano, blending the traces of past, present and future into a sea of memories lost and found.

11. Arcade FireNeon Bible [Highlight: “Keep The Car Running”]

“They know my name ’cause I told it to them, / But they don’t know where and they don’t know when / It’s coming, when it’s coming.”

Neon Bible sees the Arcade Fire begin to emerge from underneath the covers of their bedrooms and their parents bedrooms, looking beyond the sheltering boundaries of the neighborhood to the greater theater of global events. The political references are much more explicit now (“Don’t wanna work in a building downtown / No, I don’t wanna work in a building downtown / I don’t know what I’m gonna do / Cause the planes keep crashing always two by two / Don’t wanna work in a building downtown / No, I don’t wanna see it when the planes hit the ground”) but the allegorical approach, which wraps the sinister mythology of the black mirror around the contemporary political landscape, avoids overreaching with a prescriptive politics and keeps the focus on the emotional register of the War on Terror: the anticipation of disaster (“Black Mirror,” “Keep the Car Running”), the retreat from public life (“Windowsill”), the misguided Intervention (“Hear the soldier groan, ‘We’ll go at it alone'”), the sense of unmournable loss (“My Body Is A Cage,” “Ocean of Noise”), and the media spectacle (“Antichrist Television Blues”).

Musically, Neon Bible is everything we could have hoped for out of a sophomore album. While it’s hard to live up to its predecessor, the album keeps close enough to the aesthetic of Funeral to provide a sense of continuity, while simultaneously drawing on Springsteen to evolve towards a bigger sound well fit for the big stage. The new live performance can’t match the intensity of that ’05 Coachella set where they burst forth with “Wake Up,” as if overwhelmed by the opportunity to play to such a large and enthusiastic crowd for possibly the first time. But if that sense of wonder is lost now that they seem entirely in command of the stage, they still seem to be having a vigorously fun time up there, and are scaling up the spectacle, poised to establish themselves as standard-bearers of the indie rock generation.

[Stay tuned for Part II (Albums 10 through 1)...]

Overlooked Albums, 2006

•December 30, 2007 • 2 Comments

It’s still too soon to comment on my favorite music of 2007: who knows what will surprise me in the final 24 hours of the year… Really, though, I just haven’t had time to finish up my best of list. In the mean time, I’d like to take a moment to ring in the new year with a look back to 2006.

There’s a little distance between me and the list of Best Songs and Best Albums I made for 2006 in January, and I can already see a couple of albums fading in my mind from the positions I gave them. At the same time, over the past 12 months, I’ve managed to discover a couple of albums from 2006 that weren’t really on my radar when I made the list. Since I suspect I’m not the only one to overlook some of these albums, I thought I’d start a tradition:

The Top Five Albums I Overlooked Last Year (in no particular order):

  • The BlowPaper Television [Highlight: “Parentheses”]

    “If something in the deli aisle / makes you cry / you know I’ll put my arms around you and I’ll walk you outside / through the sliding doors, why would I mind?”

    I really can’t think of a more genuine expression of love than those lines. Khaela Maricich just touches me in all the right ways. And Jona Bechtolt lays down the most exuberant little electro-pop beats. Too bad he left the band to pursue his solo project, YACHT, though YACHT still gets me excited, in a similarly childish and just unabashedly fun sort of way.

  • Ghostland ObservatoryPaparazzi Lightning [Highlight: "Piano Man”]

    “Got a man that brings the beat / Got a man that practices / Got a man that loves you / that holds you / I swear.”

    …and bring the beat he does indeed: funky chromatic piano licks over heavy, danceable beats and frenetic, tweaked-out synth sounds from the era of Atari. Like its androgynous frontman and cape-clad beatmaker, Ghostland Observatory is a hybrid creature that can only be described, in its own words, as “A robot making love to a tree!!”

  • Casiotone For The Painfully AloneEtiquette [Highlight: Young Shields”]

    “There’s a shield around us / it’s invisible & soundless / & we drink too much & fuck too soon / smoke cigarettes in rented rooms / we quit our jobs & shoot the moon / & cut our wrists & sleep til noon”

    I want to learn how to do this with a Casiotone. I think if I could do that, I would quit my job and shoot the moon. Probably not cut my wrists. I already sleep til noon.

  • Arctic MonkeysWhatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not [Highlight: "I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor”]

    I bet that you look good on the dancefloor / I don’t know if your looking for romance or… / I don’t know what ya looking for.
    Well I bet that you look good on the dancefloor / Dancing to electro-pop like a robot from 1984 /From 1984! “

    I hardly “overlooked” this album, but somehow managed to temporarily buy into the anti-hype hype and forget just how fucking awesome this album is. Seeing their live set at Coachella reminded me what I was missing. No, it’s not the best album in the history of British music, as NME proclaimed, but it does manage to tap into the best of vitriolic British rock and update it for the 00’s. The Arctic Monkeys take all of the bottled up energy of dispossessed youth, at a crossroads with the law and not quite sure what to say to women, not sure what they want to become but pretty certain what they don’t, and transform it into mile-a-minute indie rock that still looks good on the dancefloor. If nothing else, praise ought to have been due for an album that brings quality track after quality track right to the end.

  • The Hold SteadyBoys And Girls In America [Highlight: "Stuck Between Stations”]

    “There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right – boys and girls in America have such a sad time together:
    Sucking off each other at the demonstrations / making sure their makeup’s straight,
    Crushing one another with colossal expectations / dependent, undisciplined, sleeping late.

    She was a really cool kisser and she wasn’t all that strict of a Christian.
    She was a damn good dancer but she wasn’t all that great of a girlfriend.
    He likes the warm feeling but he’s tired of all the dehydration.

    Most nights were crystal clear but tonight its like it’s stuck between stations / on the radio.

    The devil and John Berryman took a walk together / They ended up on Washington talking to the river / He said “I surrounded myself with doctors and deep thinkers / but big heads with soft bodies make for lousy lovers”.

    There was that night that we thought that John Berryman could fly / but he didn’t so he died.
    She said, “You’re pretty good with words but words won’t save your life” / and they didn’t so he died.

    He was drunk and exhausted but he was critically acclaimed and respected.
    He loved the golden gophers but he hated all the drawn out winters.
    He likes the warm feeling but he’s tired of all the dehydration.

    Most nights were kind of fuzzy but that last night he had total retention.

    These twin city kisses / sound like clicks and hisses / and we all come down and drown in the Mississippi River.

    We drink / we dry up / we crumble into dust.
    We get wet / we corrode / we get covered in rust.”

    In January, I had barely given this album a chance, and it took an energetic and just all around fun set at Lollapalooza this summer to really convince me that this album was anything more than a showcase for “Stuck Between Stations.” But even still, leaving “Stuck Between Stations” off of my best tracks last year was criminal. Craig Finn is channeling Kerouac, Berryman and Springsteen here with a little bit of Woody Allen in the delivery, all on top of good, solid classic rock that would sound at home in a college town bar, except way better.

I hope to make these tracks available when I’m done posting my picks for ’07, so stay tuned.

Year End Lists and the New Indie Rock Elite

•December 7, 2007 • 5 Comments

One of the music blogs I read regularly, Stereogum, has been keeping track of 2007 Best Album lists from various publications and blogs over the past week or so, and I’m as frustrated as everyone else over there with the results. Of course, best of lists are always a source of contention and general annoyance, and they should be – you can’t please all of the people all of the time, and disagreements with the Best Of industry are a way of expressing both taste and suspicion of the relationship between taste-makers and marketers in the music industry (as one commenter suggests in response to Q magazine’s list, “this is a list full of major labels, especially all of the top ten … just another ploy by the industry, trying to subtly say that the best music comes from a big record label, which we all know is complete bullshit.”) I have mixed feelings about this particular sort of suspicion (big record labels often release good music, so you can’t exclude an album just because of its label, but Q’s list does seem suspiciously loaded). However, as I prepare to author my own Best Of list for 2007, I want to complain about something else that I seem happening all too often and to suggest a general principle for best of lists that I will, at least, be trying to follow myself.

Continue reading ‘Year End Lists and the New Indie Rock Elite’

 
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