Sunday, January 16, 2011

My Favorite Albums of 2010 (3)

See previous posts for:
10. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
9. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
8. Women - Public Strain
7. Pomegranates - One of Us
6. Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
5. Surfer Blood - Astro Coast

Part 3:

4. Caribou - Swim
I recognize that I am predisposed to love Dan Snaith's (aka Caribou) music. Ever since 2003's Up in Flames made me weak in the knees (read: ears), I've anticipated and mostly cherished each release since as if it were nectar from the gods. Swim threw me for a bit of a loop, though. I didn't anticipate the mutation of Snaith's song sense toward a dance-ier, more angular direction as in tunes like "Found out" and "Sun." What I've enjoyed so much about past Caribou albums is the saturation of melody. Songs like "Desiree" or the more psychedelic "Hendrix with KO" pushed the melodic elements to their limits. Restraint, or, perhaps more precisely, standoffishness, did not appear much in Snaith's repertoire before. Upon hearing the first single, "Odessa," I was skeptical about an entire album of this "watery dance music" (as Snaith has aptly called it). Later, after several listens through, I found that the more economical sound of the dance-ier tracks like "Sun," "Leave House," and "Odessa" left room for the more melodic-leaning tracks to stand out. "Kaili" swirls colorfully, growing and retreating, dancing between the ears, yet always spinning away. Listening to the "chorus" in headphones is an out-of-body experience, and the entrance of the saxophone near the end does inexplicable things to my body: I twitch, I shake my head, I squirm, I breath deeper... exhaling now - anything to FEEL all of this song. It may be my favorite song of the year. My hair stands on end; chills spring up and down my spine. "Lalibela" meditates further on "Kaili"s excellent melody. "Jamelia" reaches similar heights, climbing upward, surging chaotically before suddenly receeding. I cannot explain my connection to Snaith's music, but it almost always makes sense to my ears. It gets me, and I it.

Must hear: "Kaili" Other highliths: "Odessa," "Sun," "Leave House," "Jamelia"

3. Fang Island - Fang Island
"Fun" is not a word I have ever associated with shredding prog-metal bands, but there's no mistaking the significance of the distant snapcrackling of fireworks as the album begins: Fang Island are here to celebrate. Fang Island have described their music as "everyone high-fiving everyone." Pick any song here, and you'll listen to a moment or two that made me jump off my couch, whip my air guitar around my back, catch that air guitar and go down on my knees in total RAWK OUT MODE. It's an instinctual reaction. This album was made for guitar hero; it makes you feel like a rock star. I tried to control this response, but no: traveling with the fam in the car during the holidays did not stop Fang Island from sending my entire body into rock out mode alone in the back seat. Yes, I am 28. Yes, my parents asked what was going on, but I don't think the metal fists I showed them really said much. You try listening to this circus of high-flying guitar shredding, death-defying drumming and lion-taming jams. It's not hard to imagine the band smiling their way through all ten tracks. The only speed they know is EPIC-speed. Tenacious D must love these guys. Let there be rock.

Must hear: "Welcome Wagon" Other highlights: "Daisy (fav video of the year) " "Sideswiper," "Davey Crockett"

2. Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti - Before Today
What a weird album! Why do I like this so much? At some point during my first listen through Pet Sounds, I remember thinking that I was experiencing timeless music. A scroll written in a strange yet familiar language was unrolled, explaining all the music that I had enjoyed and thereafter was to yet. The language of pop, or, a history and future of Aaron's liking music by The Beach Boys, it was called. Before Today isn't nearly as monumental, but it was a similar experience. Before Today is ultimately a pop album masked in its diverse draw of influences and styles. As some sort of artifact containing the last four decades of pop music, the album sounds at times like a corroded, thirty year-old battery which, having been exposed to the elements, has become a jumbled timeline. Some moments surface from the past; others point toward the future. The corrosion damage is ascertainable: fuzzy production, singers unconcerned with intelligibly pronouncing all lyrics, songs veering in unexpected directions, and the foolishness of the word "genre" to define the wash of sounds. The pop instruction manual checked out this morning. This oddball world that Ariel Pink has put to tape, replete with unpolished gems, centers on "Round and Round," a song that works as a kind of collage of all musical styles represented on the album. It's indescribable for me in terms of sound, so i can only praise as wonderful these partially decomposed songs whose pop souls show through the virtual decades of dust. I hear Stevie Wonder, Bowie and Talking Heads to name a few. Hear the past, hear the future. Hm!

1. Hot Chip - One Life Stand
I just said to myself: "I feel so warm when I hear this album." Wait, isn't this dance music? I have no idea. In my musical ignorance or inexperience, I've found this kind of music (dance? I'm not sure yet) to be alienating, often too distant in its precision to affect. So 2010 has shown me through a couple albums on this list that this music can have power over more than my spinal cord and hips. Where One Life Stand succeeds for me is in the welcome mat of hooks that unfold slowly, or spring from nowhere as if from a pop-up book. "Hand Me Down Your Love" throws jerky jabs for 1.5 minutes, and right as I'm reaching to skip tracks the tender, melodic heart of the song is revealed. The strings reach in and stretch our chests open wide. The title track is similarly standoffish until the two-minute mark when the song's bouncy lurch is replaced with sweet sentiments and molasses-thick melody. Stretch it over your toes when it gets cold. "Brothers" is also a standout and personal favorite for its heartfelt tribute to brotherly love. The song's mild verses are, once again, shot through as the song accelerates, but the sentiment grows softer, more human. It's a shift that knocks me off my feet even though I know it's coming. If there is an album this year that I would say reminded me how carefully to treat songs, it's this one. One Life Stand knows when to let them smolder, when to let them grow, and when to flip them on their heads. The dynamic of cold giving way to warm and vice versa is what has kept this album so fresh all year. It's season-less, or, maybe more appropriately, season-full, and the seasons of life from my 2010 have only proved its breadth.

Hooray! That's it for 2010!

Friday, January 14, 2011

My Favorite Albums of 2010 (2)

From part one:
10. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (needs proper comma use)
9. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
8. Women - Public Strain

Part two:
7. Pomegranates - One of Us
I love this fruit. As an enticing band name that caught my eye (mouth?), Pomegranates did quite a number on my ears, too. The opening title track sonic-booms after a pensive first minute, propelling me spaceward where reverb dreams and guitar drones float along side me weightlessly: "I wish that I could just let go / I've closed my fingers way too tight on what I think I know." Yeah. I'm with you there, Pommies. Some tracks rock a bit; some tracks drift as looser compositions or transition from "song" to "song." I'm happy to simply categorize this album as "indie rock," even though the term is almost meaningless at this point. The term is a hurricane: all that radiates from the center interacts, blows,, but the eye's a nothingness - a controlling but empty sign of the larger swirl. So, "indie rock" will have to do. I found much to enjoy here, whether it was a more beat-heavy rocker ("50's," "Prouncer") or a mellow, meditative dreamscape ("White Fawn," "Between Two Dreams"). One highlight, "Anywhere You Go," starts with a chest-thumping swell of yelps ("I can be / pretty desperate / about a lot of things / but all I want / to want / is love") before stepping away into a back story narrative of new lovers. The final punctuation of "I'll go anywhere that you go / I like you / I REALLY LIKE YOU!" strikes a wistful and anxious mood that lies at the heart of this collection of songs. It's heartfelt all the way through as a good indie rock disk should be, and that reminds of the bounty of life experiences that 2010 brought me.

Highlights: "One of Us," "50's," "Prouncer," "Anywhere You Go," "Between Two Dreams," "Demond"

6. Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
Deerhunter make great music. This is no surprise as they and side projects have been in my top ten for three straight years. Good good good. End of story.

5. Surfer Blood - Astro Coast
Some albums here required no thought at all for me to love. For forty minutes, Surfer Blood let the pop-rock flow from them seemingly effortlessly. The hooks are bouncy, the lyrics contemplative yet light; all in all, the album efficiently delivers blow after blow of crunchy pop-rock. "Swim" is the most perfect example here: huge riffage, vocals in booming reverb, and a cheerleading chorus. It's simple, effective and air guitar ready. Rock on.

Top four this weekend!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

My Favorite Albums of 2010 (1)

I've made it a small new year's resolution to blog more here - and about other things besides music. However! This is the fun time of year that I get to delve into music nerditry and talk about why certain albums made my ears have a great year. This has taken the form of a top 10 list, but in reality it's nothing more than an ordered catalogue of music that has worked its way into my life, invariably but somehow staking a claim on how I experienced 2010. Here is the first installment:

10. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
"Huh? -Actual thought as I read all the year-end lists from magazines, e-zines, friends, etc. So many of them had Kanye on top. Admittedly, I kinda despise the guy, but I guess we probably all do just a little bit. He's like me in a lot of ways, and that scares me. So despising him makes me feel as if I have control over those things. I picked up this album half out of morbid curiosity and half out of genuine hope that it was awesome. Well... It took a few weeks. Immediately, "All of the Lights" was a favorite, as well as "Who Will Survive in America," a brief segue track that features some passionate/bizarre Allen Ginsberg-esque poetry reading, but I left it there: content to be unimpressed. Something happened though: I started to like MORE of it. If you know me, you know I'm not into the rap/hip-hop that much. Even the most classic of the classics in the genre have probably never graced my ears. So there I was stuck in a car with people that wanted to rock this album all the way to Colorado (eight-hour drive from Nebraska), and somewhere along the way I let me guard down. "Lost in the World" was allowed to sound its anthemic YAWP in my ear, unobstructed by my resistance. Putting this album at 10 on the list is not simply a token acknowledgement of an album that so many others have praised. I experienced it and loved it in my own way.

9. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
Arcade Fire became, through Funeral and Neon Bible, many people's favorite prophets of the 21st century apocalypse. On this record, as Win Butler has alluded to, the band seems to step back a bit from the exasperation of earlier albums. I hear what Butler means when he says that this album is simply meant to be "from the suburbs," and not a critique of them. There is less satire here, less irony, and this translates to more earnestness, happily. "Modern Man," among others, communicates adult paranoia in more personal and less political ways, and Butler's quivering vocals have never sounded quite so hopeful and helpless as on the title track: "I want a daughter while I'm still young / I want to hold her hand, show her some beauty before all this damage is done / But if it's too much to ask... / Send me a son." It feels like Arcade Fire is ageing well. It's easy to forget - probably because of the emotional and critical weight of the previous two - that The Suburbs is only the third major release from the group. As an evolution of the riotous passion that Arcade Fire is capable of expressing, this album sees them move inward toward the more personal - away from overindulging the socio-political. For me, the inward turn produces some of the more poignant expressions of the corporate experience of suburban life. Artistic success does not lie solely in how convincingly the subject is rendered, however, so it's to their credit that they've conveyed that subject through this great collection of songs.

8. Women - Public Strain
Haha... OOPS! I put a song from this album in my not-top-10 list! I know. That was before Women completely took over my iPod, car stereo, computer and the musical part of my brain. You must blame them for this! The first time I listened, I thought, "I loved one song (see previous post) and was bored by the rest." I heard a voice saying, "Give it some time, Aaron!!" "...OK VOICE!" I said. And, then, two weeks later: "Good GOSH, thank you, voice!!!" The thing is, I dont' think my first impressions were all that off; there isn't a lot to grab your attention here, honestly. But slowly, surely and unintentionally, I started to hear things I liked - no, wait... - loved. First of all, I hear so many other artists I love throughout this album: Sonic Youth ("Drag Open"), Embryonic-era Flaming Lips ("China Steps"), Strokes ("Locust Valley"), Velvet Underground ("Narrow with the Hall"), and Television (all over). But Women hold it together and are able to forge their own sound from these parts. The guitar interplay is one of my favorite parts, as the crunchy hooks seem to surface form nowhere. In much the same way, melody bubbles up somehow from the seeming a-melodic, and the atonal reveals its tonality. Much like the album cover, it's a blurry, dizzying blitz of noise, but there's still living breathing people behind it all if you care to pick them out.

A close few that will miss the cut this year:
Gorillaz - Plastic Beach
Vampire Weekend - Contra
Tame Impala - InnerSpeaker
Girl Talk - All Day

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Favorite songs not on a top 10 album of 2010 (4)

A couple more songs from great albums that aren't in my top 10 list:

Joanna Newsom – “Baby Birch

Beautiful is not a sufficient word for Joanna Newsom’s Have One on Me; it’s too broad. Beauty wears many faces. For example: “Baby Birch,” although beautiful, is devastating. My chest caves in four inches, my head falls: “This is a song for baby birch,” she welcomes. Be ready, my heart, you will fall farther, sigh heavier: “I wish we could take every path / I could spend a hundred years adoring you / Yes, I wish we could take every path, / because I hated to close / the door on you.” Some have speculated that the song is about abortion or a stillborn child. Could be. Regardless of the subject matter, it’s still a “nine-minute-ache” – to borrow a description I’ve read. Indeed, it has haunted me at times with the weight of its sadness. Although difficult to digest in its fullness I’ve known early on that this was a superb album, and “Baby Birch” fills me with so much of whatever it is filled with that I cannot deny how often I have carried its weight with me.

Liars – “Scissor

The song’s basic plot: man finds body, man drags body to the car, body awakens. Liars have always seemed to gravitate toward the grotesque, but even when this is not their theme they manage to spread their dementia through the music. Take “Scissor,” the first track from Sisterworld. Here’s a song that, regardless of lyrics, would still sound fearsome, cowering and ominous. The minor-keyed chorus of falsetto-ed harmonies that opens the track is exposed as sinister by the lower, quivering octave. Even Billy Corgan opted for that softer, lace-thin voice at times, but it was rarely mistaken as a voice of comfort. So it is with Agnus Andrew. By song’s end, he’s the boogeyman once again, howling in the corner: “When I saw her blinking eye / she was a-LIIIIIIIIIIIIVEEEE!!!!” “Scissor” gave me chills all year. So did the excellent video.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Favorite songs not on a top 10 album of 2010 (3)

Take a listen to these tasty treats:

Beach House - "Take Care"

This album ultimately suffers the fate of being left out of the top 10 because I lost track of which songs were which after so many listens. As albums become more familiar, their parts should become more distinguishable in my mind somehow. In Beach House's Teen Dream, but for this nitpicking, I found a highly enjoyable listen, and "Take Care" was immediately and remains my favorite track from the album. Unfolding from simple verses, I've described the chorus as the birthing of a musical thought the song had been pregnant with since the first note. It's a wonderful climb, and one that you can almost sense coming. Often those moments that can be anticipated musically fall short of their anticipation, but this one surprisingly fulfills as the mood and music swell to reach the altitude of Victoria Legrand's bounding melody: "I'll take care of you / if you ask me to". Anticipation: fulfilled! One of the better album closers I heard; one of the better songs I remember hearing.

Andrew Bird - "Master Sigh"

I have to check myself here, because Mr. Bird's Useless Creatures was available beginning in 2009. It didn't receive its own release, though, until this October, which was when I first made its acquaintance. It's terrific meditative music to lazy away any afternoon with, curled up with a book or fast a-study. Bird's work has grown increasingly farther from my tastes in recent years since 2005's brilliant The Mysterious Production of Eggs, but with this sparse release, I'm beginning to believe again. "Master Sigh" introduces the meandering orchestral strolls of Useless Creatures quite well while indulging in a swooning melody accompanied by his patented whimsical whistling. Soon the string section pulls up the blankets, drifting into and over the tranquility, weightless and floating off into nothing. It's breazy, airy and charming. More of this, please, Mr. Bird. Plz.

More to come! Top 10 albums list coming early next week!

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Favorite songs not on a top 10 album of 2010 (2)

Yeasayer – “Ambling Alp

What a thrill this song was the first time I listened! The other times, too. The first listen with headphones was even more dizzying. The album didn’t live up to the promise of this, its first single, but geez I’d be satisfied to have recorded a song this sonically affecting. It almost elicits a physical response from me as a listener. I shake my head violently as the main thrust swoops in, mimicking in any way I can the thrashing and throbbing; I bob and skip to the chorus’s charge: “Stick up for yourself, son / Nevermind what anybody else done.” The sentiment fits well, but it will always be the maddening, chaotic rush of the first minute that brings me back to this song over and over.