Monday, December 31, 2012

Sound Waves Goodbye To 2012

I wouldn’t call 2012 a stellar year in music. I felt a number of bands missed some opportunities. Others got hyped for reasons I can’t quite get my head around, but they’ll make someone else’s list. However, to be fair, I didn’t have the opportunity to dedicate as much time to single albums as I have in the past. Yeah, I listened to plenty, but my exploration was hindered by the purchase of my Vespa. Much as I love it, the one downside to owning a scooter is that I’m no longer stuck in LA traffic with a car full of mp3s. And it’s kind of dangerous — and very illegal — to wear headphones whilst riding one of those contraptions. 

That said, there was certainly enough great music to make this list; some of it stellar, including a first in the years I’ve been doing this exercise.

Time to begin.

10. Perfume Genius - Put Your Back N 2 It
A new artist to me. And, shockingly, it turns out he wasn’t named Perfume Genius when he was born. He was actually named Mike Hadreas (in an odd coincidence, by Chanel). Mike grew up to make a very delicate, patient album at times dark, at times lovely, at times both. And it’s more than just his music, it’s also his voice. It’s dark, lovely and both. (...What?) This year, he’s certainly gotten his share of attention from actual music critics and “experts” (whatever that means) most of whom far better qualified to make the call than me. There’s a slight Youth Lagoon quality to these songs, which could have something to do with why I like it. Regardless, PYBN2I is a good place to start the 2012 music conversation.

Standout track: Sister Song

9. Weird Dreams - Choreography
The way the guitars are produced on Choreography suggests that Weird Dreams are big fans of early REM (always a good thing) and this album features probably the most poppy songs on the whole list. In fact, the track Holding Nails always makes me think of Heartbeat, It’s a Lovebeat by the DeFranco Family (usually a terrible thing). The big difference between the two is that it’s not crap. On other tracks, there’s a slight 60s-pop feel. Despite this, WD’s songs aren’t obviously derivative and the best word to describe this album is “bright.” They walk the line between musical influences and originality. And it works pretty well. 

Standout track: Vague Hotel

8. Guided by Voices - Let’s Go Eat The Factory
Guided by Voices (and specifically Bob Pollard) is known to bang out albums at the same rate that most people finish crossword puzzles. Or, at least they were until they broke up on New Year’s Eve, 2004, marking a sad end to a fruitful, inspired career.

Until they got back together again last year.

And they weren’t fucking around, either. In 2012, GbV released not one, not two, but three albums. All of them great, two of them outstanding. And one in particular— Well, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s Go Eat The Factory isn’t just a solid GbV album, it’s a great any album. The reason? It’s Guided by Voices being Guided by Voices. It’s not Guided by Voices 2.0. It’s Guided by Voices. But more than that, they’ve actually evolved from some of their later, less inspired work by composing songs as good as those in 1995. An inspired collection from both Pollard and guitarist Tobin Sprout. So worth the wait.

Standout track: The Unsinkable Fats Domino

7. Lotus Plaza - Spooky Action At A Distance
Okay. What’s the deal with solo artists giving themselves band names? I’m talking to you, Lotus Plaza, Perfume Genius, Youth Lagoon, and Paul Simon!! 

The funny thing about this album is that, honestly, I don’t quite know how to describe it. That isn’t to say that it’s indescribable. I just don’t have right superlatives as I write this. Yeah, that might make it seem like it’s a stretch to make this list, but the truth is, it’s a great album. The songs are in the same vein as Wild Nothing and, maybe, a touch of The War On Drugs. So, okay, I’m not describing it well, but Spooky Action At A Distance is an album you should own. When you get it, you’ll get it.

Standout track: Strangers

6. Jóhann Jóhannson - Copenhagen Dreams
In a word: Wow. In 106 words: I’m not sure why, but I’ve been getting more and more into movie scores over the last few years. (Not soundtracks, but scores.) I’ve never seen Copenhagen Dreams, but I’m guessing Jóhann Jóhannson nailed the tone of the film. He’s certainly nailed that of the photos I’ve seen. And it’s a pretty great album to write to. But that’s no help to you. Jóhannson captures rain and overcast, dusk and dawn, people and machinery set in Copenhagen. It’s all there. So if you’re not sure whether or not you want to visit the capital of Denmark, give this a listen. I’m betting your curiosity will be piqued. Mine is.

Standout track: It Will Take Some Time

5. Beach House - Bloom
Bloom is appropriately great. Appropriate because 2010’s Teen Dream knocked me out. I don’t think I actually stopped listening to that one for two weeks. Anyway, it’s been suggested that Bloom is better than Teen Dream. And that may be so, but to me it’s kind of the second disc of a double album — a really, really good one. One reason is that they’ve not changed their sound much. For many bands, that sort of description would be a left-handed compliment but for Beach House it’s a couple underlines and an exclamation point. Victoria Legrand has a way of lulling you into a frame of mind that enables you to view the scenes she illustrates with each song. (If that makes sense.) This album will definitely be in rotation for years to come.

Standout track: Myth 

4. Grizzly Bear - Shields
Three years ago, Grizzly Bear released Veckatimest and I put it at number one on the list that year, beating out what has become one of my favorite albums, The Antlers’ Hospice. So that’s saying a lot (to me, at least). I love Shields too. And I really love that I can actually pronounce the fucking title. Shields features one of the best singles of the year in Yet Again. (Guess what the standout track will be.) The thing about what Grizzly Bear do is that they do it so well. It’s obvious they’re unbelievably skilled musicians. But that’s not always a guarantee a band can write catchy songs. In Grizzly Bear’s case, they can, and this album is another example of what happens when skill meets tremendous creativity. Buy it. Buy it, I say!!

Standout track: [drumroll] Yet Again

3. Royal Headache - [self titled]
Someone opened a garage door in Australia and Royal Headache got out. They’re a hooky roar that I’m thankful I came across. So good, nothing more needs to be said but: Volume+Hooks= Royal Headache. And... DAMN.

Standout track: Down The Lane

2. Wild Nothing - Nocturne
Like 2010’s Gemini, Nocturne is seamless. It’s shiny. It sneaks up on you. Wild Nothing have a talent for writing songs that start off basic and, well, alright. But then, out of nowhere, they get a sonic boost and the track goes from Super 8 to HD. Nocturne is loaded with ‘em. “Okayyyy... Standard drum beat... In comes the strummy guitar... Now the bass and spiky guitar... Now the— Holy crap! What was that??” It’s that kind of inner monologue that goes on throughout the 45 minute running time. It is simply brilliant. It is perfect. It is unquestionably the best album of the year.

...That wasn’t made by Guided by Voices.

Standout track: Disappear Always

1. Guided by Voices - The Bears For Lunch
I fucking love this album. It’s the first (and likely only) time one band has made the ten best list. And I have to admit, I’m shocked— Wait. Let me go back...

I’ve met Guided by Voices’ Bob Pollard on a number of occasions and he’s always been amazingly kind as well as generous with his time. Even when, on our first meeting, I wasn’t so much talking as I was firing, “Wow!You’reBobPollard!Ilovethenewalbum!Ilovetheold albums!Iloveallyouralbums!!” At some point, I asked the band’s road manager about a factoid from an article I read. It said that he’d written over 3,000 songs. The road manager said, “That’s ridiculous.” (I knew it!) “He’s written way more than that!” 

All of that work made for some of the best albums I own. I thought we had heard the last of the lo-fi genius like that of GbV’s golden age of the 90s. 

I was wrong. Happily so. And looking back, I realize I never should have counted them out.

Standout track: She Lives In An Airport

Honorable Mention

Sigur Rós - Valtari
Usually, when Sigur Rós makes an album, it makes my list. This is a rare slip. Still, a slip by Sigur Rós is better than the majority of what you’ll hear. This one is geared less toward catchy, structured songs and more toward ethereal, moody portraits. So, y’know, if you like that sort of thing…

Standout track: Rembihnútur

Japandroids - Celebration Rock
Hypothetically speaking: If you’re in your 20s. And you’re in college. And you’re in a frat. And you’re having a blow-out. And you have barrels and cases of beer. And you have bottles and bottles of liquor. And you have weed. And you aren’t playing this? You failed.

Standout track: The House That Heaven Built

Divine Fits - A Thing Called Divine Fits
It’s a thing of beauty from the driving force from behind Spoon. I’m not sure why Britt Daniel felt he couldn’t release this album with his day band, but okay. It’s a great Spoon album by Divine Fits. 

Standout track: My Love Is Real

Bat For Lashes - The Haunted Man

I find Bat For Lashes (aka Natasha Khan) is hard to pin down, and that’s why I like her. She does whatever the hell she wants and so far it’s worked very, very well. May as well keep spinning those plates till they fall.

Standout track: Laura

So, there y’go. One of these days I’ll make a supplementary list of best albums I didn’t get around to the year they were released. I’m pretty sure the past twelve months will be well represented.

Still, I’m pretty happy with what we have on New Year’s Eve, 2012.


Sunday, December 25, 2011

My Sound Decisions: The Ten Best Albums of 2011

Last year, my friend Jen Baron posted an article on Facebook in which a famous musician — who it was, exactly, escapes me at the moment — makes the case that year end music lists are ridiculous. One of his points was that you can’t really make an educated decision because you can’t know all the albums in the running. And he’s right. For instance, I haven’t yet dug into Wild Flag enough to make educated assessment, but from what I’ve heard, it’s pretty great, and Guided by Voices just released an album a few days ago. Not nearly the time I need to make a call. (Yes, I am comfortable with being a slacker.) But when it comes to these lists, I don’t claim it to be the be all and end all, unlike Pitchfork, who actually does  seem to be suggesting they are. So, as with past lists, keep a salt shaker at the ready, and watch your blood pressure. 
That said, from what I heard, it was a good year. A very good year, early on. You know it has the potential to be a monster year when Radiohead, TV on the Radio, and REM all release albums in the first few months.  All of them very good to excellent. 

And while I’m on the subject of REM, for the purposes of this list, I’ve disqualified them. Collapse Into Now was, as we all now know, their final album. I’ve been an unapologetic fan for over half my life and I could have easily placed it in the top ten. Regardless of what many people would say — especially most of the 20-somethings I know — neither music nor musicians have an expiration date. But I’m aware that sentimentality could play a significant role. (I am, after all, Mr. Sentimental of LA County three years running.) Hence, the disqualification. Regardless, buy the album. I love it and I think that, at the very least, you’ll enjoy it. A fitting end to a storied career. 
Well, then. Let’s get on with it.

10. The King Of Limbs - Radiohead

I waffled back and forth on this one. TKOL is more divisive than a Denver Broncos quarterback’s post-game interview. [timely football reference] It’s yet another giant step away from OK Computer and that pisses people off. This also means that, if you look in your rearview mirror, there’s virtually no trace of The Bends whatsoever. The problem: What we’re all looking for, really, is the same album over and over and over again. I’ve never understood an inflexible fan base but, okay, it’s not for me to understand. Admittedly, my first response to The King Of Limbs was, “Huh?” But after a couple weeks’ investment, it really opened up. Detractors will say that it’s no In Rainbows. Good. They’ve already made In Rainbows. This is a different album; a great album that's as challenging as it is entertaining. If you don’t believe me, listen to Ferrel with headphones.
Standout track: Codex 

9. Only In Dreams - Dum Dum Girls

2011’s best-of list is loaded with thoughtful, brooding albums. This one’s on it too. Only In Dreams is an album that makes me want to be unproductive. And I believe I’ve achieved that goal. (I'll cross “be unproductive” off my list, but later. Tomorrow, maybe. Or not.) I defy you to listen to Bedroom Eyes three times in a row and not be hooked. You can’t, can you? Unlike the argument I make with TKOL about musical evolution being good, I’m okay with this being the same album as I Will Be, which made last year’s list. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that I’m in love with the drummer. Has my hypocrisy let you down? Really? Yeah, well, I try not to let that stuff get to me.
Standout track: Bedroom Eyes

8. Smoke Ring For My Halo - Kurt Vile

Kurt Vile is a songwriter. I don’t get the classification. Artists like Paul Simon and Gordon Lightfoot have always been referred to as songwriters, but isn’t any musician or band who writes their own stuff a “songwriter”? I suppose if we’re talking about a solitary singer/musician, we’re talking songwriter. So, okay, Kurt Vile is a songwriter of very, very good songs. And the songs on Smoke Ring For My Halo are better than very, very good. (Must… resist... urge... to do... Frosted Flakes™ ad.) At times, it seems like this is an… I don’t know… an “obvious” album, meaning it’s was the natural progression for Kurt Vile. “And,” to quote Daniel Tosh, “for that, we thank you.”
Standout track: Baby’s Arms

7. Past Life Martyred Saints - EMA

Who’s up for songs penned by a young, angry lesbian? I AM!!! I AM!!! Well— Isn’t everyone?? This is a gem. I had never heard of EMA (aka Erika M. Anderson) before this album, but upon first listen, it drew me in like an artist drawing something in. Real in. (And reel in.) Maybe partly due to the fact that she sings at barely a whisper in some of the tracks and you have to lean in to listen. Or maybe it’s because her lyrics are raw and nervy, including, “I wish that every time he touched me left a mark” and the simple, sledgehammer opening to California, “Fuck California, you made me boring.” She ain’t from the cast of the Mickey Mouse Club, that’s for damn sure. Nor, it goes without saying, is she from the Playboy Club. Actually, she’s from South Dakota.
Standout track: California

6. The Year Of Hibernation - Youth Lagoon

What do you do when you’re 22 years old and living in Boise, Idaho? Evidently, if you’re Trevor Powers (no relation to Kenny as far as I know), you make an exceptional album. His voice can best be described as young Neil Young — Not to be confused with young Karl Jung. Musically, The Year Of Hibernation feels a little Galaxie 500-ish, but maybe a little more sparse. Perhaps he was influenced by his surroundings, I don’t know. I’ve never been to Boise, but I’m assuming “teeming metropolis” isn’t a description that leaps to mind for visitors. Sonically, it feels as though you’re in his parents’ garage at 2:00 in the morning, and that’s a good thing. 22 years and already he’s making intimate, vulnerable music. Little bastard; I hate him. But love the album.
Standout track: 17

5. Badlands - Dirty Beaches

Dirty Beaches is one guy — A Canadian named Alex Hungtai. His album Badlands should be used for a David Lynch movie. Change nothing. Just release it as a soundtrack. It’s warped, creepy rockabilly music that would fit the bill if you were driving down a dark southwestern highway, with Sherilyn Fenn in your trunk and no cars in sight. Hungtai’s voice is vaguely reminiscent of Elvis Presley and his production sounds as though his engineer hasn’t graduated from the early cassettes on which Hungtai released his work exclusively. Normally, this would be a troublesome detail, but in this case, it’s oddly fortunate for anyone listening in. I can’t say enough good things about this album, but I will say it’s definitely for a very specific audience. I doubt most of you would blast it at your next barbecue. But you’d be missing out. Seriously. Life isn’t a Bud Light ad, is it? No, it is not.
Standout track: Lord Knows Best

4. David Comes To Life - Fucked Up

Lead singer Damian Abraham’s voice sounds like he’s perpetually yelling at the ref for a bad call on 3rd-and-long, with the playoffs on the line. [football reference #2] It takes a lot of patience for me to get familiar enough with Fucked Up’s music to judge it because I have to negotiate around that voice. But once negotiations have ended, I’m glad I took the time. David Comes To Life is something of a rock opera, and oddly, never makes mention of arcade games of any kind. (Amateurs.) It’s a narrative, but when it comes down to it, it’s really a hooky, powder keg of an album that makes me feel like I should be drinking a lot of beer with very, very smart people. I guess that’s always an option, but I quit a couple decades ago. Eh, screw it. Where’s the marshmallow vodka?
Standout track: Queen of Hearts

3. Let England Shake - PJ Harvey

Let England Shake is the perfect name for the album Let England Shake. To my ear, it sounds like what I would call “21st century apocalyptic.” (A genre that’s gonna sweep both sides of the Atlantic, just wait and see.) There’s an ominous tone to it from start to finish. Not the kind you experience when you look down at your watch only to realizing that you pulled into the McDonald’s drive-thru at 10:31 a.m. — Way worse. But even though its tone feels contemporary, Let England Shake is actually about London after the first World War. This may seem an antiquated topic to you and me, but to Britain, the ripple effects are still being felt today, even if barely noticeable. Though, I can’t speak to how late their McDonalds’ serve breakfast. 
Standout track: The Last Living Rose

2. Bon Iver - Bon Iver 

Bon Iver used to be a man. Bon Iver became a band. Bon Iver is now an album too.  And it’s beautiful. That’s the word. Beautiful. You can throw “delicate” into the fold too. Justin Vernon specializes in songs that go hand in hand (in hand) with these descriptors. This album is so good, I don’t really know what to say about it. It speaks for itself. I want you to buy this album because, if you’re still reading, you deserve it. 
Standout track: Holocene 

1. Burst Apart - The Antlers

If you scan the music sites’ “Best of 2011” lists (I haven’t), I’m betting all the money in my pockets (I carry a debit card) this one isn’t in the #1 position. Nor is it likely in anyone’s top ten. This isn’t to say that I’m somehow in the know. It’s just a matter of taste. Mine might be atrocious and, here, you’ve spent all this time reading this blog. Despite this, I’ll press on: For my money, this is the best album of the year. Burst Apart is The Antlers’ third album and it’s an effin’ tremendous follow-up to 2009’s work of genius, Hospice. Like Hospice, the songs that make up the album cover some depressing, if not troubling topics, ranging from empty, loveless sex to putting down the family pet. Not exactly warm and cuddly, and very unlikely to be covered by teen idol X, Y, or Z, which is the mark of any great album. (I’m talkin’ to you, Roger Daltrey!) Yeah, this album is going to be ignored, and there’s a better than great chance that almost everyone will disagree with me. I mean, without question, enough people to fill all the stadiums of the National Football League. [third and final football reference] But I’m okay with that. I would think most of them haven’t listened to a note.
Standout track: I Don’t Want Love

In The Conversation

More great music. I always find it difficult to boil these lists down to 10 albums. Here are the other ones that could have made the cut, a few that should have made the cut, and one or two that I’ll be kicking myself over in two years. 
(In no particular order.)

Helplessness Blues - Fleet Foxes

The follow-up to their self-titled debut, it could have easily been simply disc two of a double album. But so, so good. 
Standout track: Bedouin Dress

Days - Real Estate

If Vampire Weekend didn’t suck, they still wouldn’t sound as good as this. I’m just sayin’. Vampire Weekend? So ridiculously overrated. Real Estate? Not. But there's a weird guitar-thingy that goes on that reminds me of VW's sound. Left-handed compliment, indeed.
Standout track: It’s Real

Father, Son, Holy Ghost - Girls

Girls often make me uneasy, but I love them. The same can be said for this band. 
Standout track: Vomit

By The Hedge - Minks

It’s tough for me to put my finger on Minks. They have a bit of an Emo sound similar to Wild Nothing, but they definitely put their own spin on it. A good one.
Standout track: Out of Tune

Slave Ambient - The War On Drugs

‘Nother new band that I think is going to do great things. But then, I said that about U2, and they went nowhere fast.
Standout track: Baby Missiles 

Nine Types Of Light - TV on the Radio

Always a great listen. I love TVOTR’s utterly TVOTR sound, and their albums usually end up in my top ten. There just happened to be some great music this year. One has to make the hard decisions. 

Standout track: Repetition

Take Care, Take Care, Take Care - Explosions in the Sky

Explosions are criminally ignored. They deserve to be heard. And not just in a movie soundtrack like Friday Night Lights. Take Care, Take Care, Take Care is a great example why. With music this powerful, who needs a singer? Not Explosions In The Sky.
Standout track: Trembling Hands

Strange Mercy - St. Vincent

I’m fairly certain this will fall under the category of albums I’ll be kicking myself over in two years. It takes a long time for me to dig into St. Vincent’s albums. But, oh, how I love Annie Clark. I’d love her to be my latex salesman. 
Standout track: Cruel 

Metals - Feist

Metals is a very Feist album. And what do you say about a Feist album? It’s feisty, I guess. And it’s good because her voice is feisty too.
Standout track: How Come You Never Go There
So then, that’s this year’s list. Nothing left to say but hello, EMA, Youth Lagoon, War On Drugs,  Minks, Real Estate, and Dirty Beaches. Goodbye, REM.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Yeah, well, y'know, this is just, like, uh, my opinion, man: the top 10 albums of 2010

...Or so says El Duderino. (I’m not in to the whole brevity thing.)

I’m a sucker for great packaging. I suppose you can blame my history in advertising or my lifelong obsession with design, but I appreciate the details in which, I’ve been told, God lives.

I mention this because, while 2010 has been a tremendous year for new music, it’s also been a big year for reissues. As I write this, within eyeshot are the reissues of The Stones’ Exile On Main Street, and Springsteen’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town. Both were so well executed, I ended up devoting a good chunk of time getting reacquainted with the original albums and outtakes, as well as digging into some impressive packaging. (I covet the hell out of Bowie’s Station To Station box too.) These should not be ignored just because they were released decades ago, you agist bastards, so when you get the time, circle back and check them out.

Right. Enough sentimentality and insults. On to the past 12 months.

This year’s list was a difficult one to come to. This, despite the bad grammar, is an understatement. As per usual, it’s a top ten with five runners-up, but I could have easily added to it. The list of ten is rock-solid and any of the five that follow could have easily made the cut.

Okay, then. Let’s go.

10. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

Let me begin by saying Win Butler needs to calm the fuck down. Seriously. Get a haircut and calm the fuck down, Win Butler. I’ll pay for it. (The cut, not the therapy.) Y’see, I really do like Arcade Fire when I don’t have to actually look at Arcade Fire. Win and his wife always look as if 10,000 infants will somehow perish if they don’t perform their songs. Maybe they should stop giving away plastic bags at their shows. Those bags are not toys. Having said that, their grating intensity onstage serves them well in the studio. The Suburbs is what you’d expect from them but in a good way. It’s a very good Arcade Fire album which makes it good enough to crack the ten. As a collection of songs, it feels like they’re building on Neon Bible and taking it a few steps further. Effective baby steps, indeed.

Standout track: City With No Children

9. Dum Dum Girls - I Will Be

A lo-fi dream come true. (I had my first lo-fi dream when I was 13. It was confusing. Nevertheless…) Tuth be told, it’s not entirely lo-fi. It just lingers along the edge. In fact, it’s a strange hybrid. It’s as if Phil Spector took off his wig, put down his gun and took Dum Dum Girls to a recording studio back in the 60’s. Weird, right? But lead singer Dee-Dee sites both The Ramones and The Ronettes as two major influences. These songs are tight and catchier than a catchy thing and, trust me, you’ll be happy to catch their debut virus.

Standout track: Bhang Bhang, I’m A Burnout

8. LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening

Admittedly, This Is Happening didn’t really get a good listen until recently. I can’t count myself as being a huge LCD Soundstystem fan. Chalk it up to the seizure-inducing Tribulations. (LCD Soundsystem, I want to love you, but you bring me down.) Whatever the reason, I couldn’t get my head around it. In fact, I hated it the first five or six times I played it all the way through. But the more I listen to it, the more I’m realizing it deserves to be on this list. It just keeps getting better. Why? Well, that’s the thing about LCD Soundsystem. Much like the conclusion of most of my dates, I can’t put my finger on it. So it’s best to not ask why.

Standout track: All I want

7. Jonsi - Go

Leafing through one of the gazillion racks of CDs at Amoeba, I casually asked mine friend Jim what he thought of this album. HIs response? “It’s exactly what I’d expect, which means it’s gorgeous.” I couldn’t have said it better. Jonsi is best known as the singer and driving force of Sigur Ros, whom I invariably place on these lists with each new release. Go isn’t really a sea change from what fans have come to expect from his day job — delicate yet powerful arrangements and soaring crescendos, mainly. What it does offer is, however, exceedingly helpful to singing along: English. Real, live English that people in Kentucky would understand were they inclined to listen to musicians outside of our freedom-loving nation. Clearly, foreign musicians hate freedom, being that they weren’t born here. Circling back, suffice it to say, Icelandic isn’t a language offered in the Mt. Lebanon School District’s curriculum. Criminal, I’d say.

Standout track: Go Do

6. Four Tet - “There Is Love In You”

There are a lot of people who like to argue that “electronic” music has no soul. Anyone with the aforementioned point of view should listen to track 8 on Radiohead’s Kid A (and maybe consider attending the upcoming book burning in Yazoo, Mississippi). If that doesn’t do the trick, the opening track of There Is Love In You should. It’s made up of mostly sampling and is entirely beautiful. This album is one of those surprise releases for me; you won’t see many albums of this genre on my ten best lists. Because electronic music has no soul. Wait— What??

Standout Track: Angel Echoes

5. Superchunk - Majesty Shredding

A couple years ago, when Portishead released Third after an eleven year hiatus, I was nervous. I sought no therapy, yet have made a full recovery. Though I still shake when I see poodles. I have no explanation for this. Anyway. Bands who take so much time off don’t often bounce back with an inspired effort. Like Michael Jordan and Brett Favre, once you’re retired, you should stay retired. Thankfully, Superchunk don’t enjoy sports, as far as I’m aware. Majesty Shredding is so… Superchunk. These songs still have the grrrrr! of Slack Motherfucker and Precision Auto and prove that there are no rules when it comes to music. Though, I’m pretty sure that it’s considered unsportsmanlike conduct if one texts a picture of one’s junk to a sideline reporter. I’ll ask around to verify.

Standout track: My Gap Feels Weird

4. Belle & Sebastian - Write About Love

“Yeah, we get it, you like Belle & Sebastian.” This, I imagine, is what my close friends are saying upon seeing B&S in the number four position. My response? Yeah. I do. You want to argue it, make your own damn list. Stop judging me!!!! This is — as with past lists — like that one time in band camp!!! All this being very odd because I never attended band camp. And although I have no idea whether or not Stuart Murdoch attended band camp, if he did, then, money well spent. He and his friends have released a really great album featuring some of the best polyphony I’ve heard. And while that probably sounds like a tame, uninspired way to describe an album so high on such a list, I think it’s all that needs to be said. After all, Belle & Sebastian don’t rock hard, they don't pen provocative lyrics and they don’t bite the heads off of anything, except during Easter. They just make really great albums. With some of the best polyphony I’ve heard.

Standout track: I Didn’t See It Coming

3. Beach House - Teen Dream

Advice to any musicians out there: When performing for a large audience, don’t repeatedly apologize for playing new songs. It turns people off and makes them not want to buy the album. It also makes the audience fidgety because they came to see Grizzly Bear and not an apologetic singer. I know this because it’s exactly what I experienced at the Palladium last year. Having written them off, I was surprised when Mr. Craig Seder sang their praises. (It wasn’t so much singing; it was more like spoken word in that he spoke the words.) After speaking, he gave me the album and I was subsequently blown away. Sooooo good. Its retro feel actually serves the songs rather than detracts from them. Each track, whether true or not, seems elementary, but I don’t want to listen to a 17-minute keyboard solo. This is not a Yes concert. It’s music for which no one should apologize.

Standout track: Zebra

2. Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest

Jim: Have you heard the new Deerhunter?
Me: Not yet. I’ve been meaning to. Is it good?
Jim: Holy shit.

This, the only endorsement I needed to go to the “D” section, then lay down my cash (debit card). All I need to say is, “Holy shit.” But you’ve met me. Have you ever known me to say more than two words on anything? I mean, other than an insult? No. No, you have not. This album is so good that it’s all a standout track. The songs range from kind of creepy to Bobby Sherman. (Well, not quite. But still.) This is unquestionably Deerhunter’s best work, which makes it worth more than the cash (debit card) I paid for it. The cover, however, creeps me out to no end.

Standout track: Desire Lines

1. Wild Nothing - Gemini

Who the hell is Wild Nothing? After months of listening, to me this is like saying, “Who the hell is Joe Greene?” (Pittsburghers will get it.) This album, to my ear, is 1989 - 1993. Yes, you can hear their influences, but with songs this great, I couldn’t care less. (See what I did there? "Couldn’t" v. "Could?") That’s what Gemini does. It makes you turn a phrase correctly. Or maybe it doesn’t. What I’m sure it does do is make you glad you listened to the critics and blindly bought it. Every time I consider listening to this, I think, “Yeah, that’s a good one. I’ll listen to that.” Then I click the arrow and think, “Man, this is an outstanding one!” I mean, every time. You may just do the same, blindly or otherwise. But not deafly. I mean… Y’know…

Oh! They also released a great E.P — Golden Haze. Also pretty brilliant.

Standout track: Summer Holiday

honorable mention

Best Coast - Crazy For You

Feels a bit like a sister album to Dum Dum Girls. Catchy as hell. And at this moment, I’m considering switching the two. Feels kind of like an injustice that it’s not up there, wedged in at #8. But, alas, I must stick to the rules I’ve set in place. I’m a tyrant.

Standout track: Crazy For You

Meursault - All Creatures Will Make Merry

“Is the Arcade Fire album that good?" "Was Phosphorescent’s release better?” These are the kinds of questions that swim in my head when I begin compiling these lists. (No, I don’t really take it as seriously as it sounds, but I do think on it extensively.) The real question should be, “Why the hell doesn’t anyone know about these guys??” Meursault is a new band for me and their album blew me away. They’re from Scotland and, therefore, not crap. This is putting it mildly. You know that moment when an album opens up for you and your brain really latches onto the melodies? When that happened with All Creatures Will Make Merry, I was sure very little could top it. Buy this album.

Standout track: Crank Solutions

Phosphorescent - Here’s To Taking It Easy

I can’t remember what drew me to this one, but I was immediately glad I gave it a listen. Phosphorescent has somehow managed to make the best Wilco album since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It’s a series of well-crafted songs wedged between two locations, opening with It’s Hard To Be Humble (When You’re From Alabama) and closing out with Los Angeles. (They’re from neither; they’re from Athens, Georgia and are now Brooklynites.) The latter track offers the line that resonates most with me: “I ain’t came to Los Angeles just to die.” Amen, Brother Houck. Amen.

Standout track: Los Angeles

Local Natives - Gorilla Manner

This album was on repeat for about three straight weeks. I’m happy to have found it. Though, I must admit, it loses points for a not-so-great cover of Talking Heads’ Warning Sign. Y’just don’t fuck with the classics. And if you’re going to? Make damn sure you have it down. I’m just sayin’.

Standout track: Shape Shifter

The National - High Violet

Not exactly Mr. Irrelevant. In comparison to “Boxer?” This one’s no slouch.

Standout track: Anyone’s Ghost

A final thought.

It isn’t often you get to become friends with one of your idols, much less four, but many years back, that’s what happened to me. To this day, I believe that one of the best albums ever made is Surprise, Surprise, Surprise, from New Haven, Connecticut natives Miracle Legion.

Few people bothered to put the needle to the vinyl to find out for themselves because few people knew about it, except for a pretty decent following in England. (Radiohead’s Thom Yorke sites singer Mark Mulcahy as one of his biggest influences.) Fitting that London is where I should become friends with them. I had just flown in for my second tour of duty at a Hampstead Heath Youth Hostel a week prior to an REM show, for which seemingly everyone was trying to get a ticket. In the lobby, before said show, I ran into Miracle Legion’s very jet lagged guitarist Mr. Ray Neal. I asked him where he was staying. Turns out he had no idea. And so began a summer of providing the band with a home base for their European tour. Every week or so, they’d stay at the hostel for a few days, then dash off to Amsterdam and Paris and Berlin and anywhere there was anyone who would listen. For a fan, it was a dream come true.

On the December 14th, Mark released Surprise, Surprise, Surprise on mp3. Being that the only CDs of Surprise were made Japan, copies were hard to come by and so I’ve gone a long time without the album being a staple on my rotation. Listening to it today, I’m reminded of that summer in London and my time with the band, so it obviously has a special place in my heart. But you don’t have to have had a history with Mark, Ray, Dave and Scott to enjoy its brilliance.

This is my highest recommendation this year. Hands down. You can’t get it on iTunes (yet), so the only way to downloaded it is from the site below. If you make the $10 investment, you will be rewarded.

Standout track: Crooked Path
(One of many.)

Enjoy the music, all. And let the debate begin.