Friday, December 12, 2008

my sound decisions - top 10 albums of 2008

So these last few weeks, while watching football games on Fox - like, say, when the Steelers come back in the forth quarter to kick the Dallas Cryboys’ ass 20-13 - I see promos for “American Idol.” And I have to admit I just don’t get how so many people can pay so much attention to manufactured, corporate music when all they need to do is dig a little and they’ll get a seemingly endless pool of music that squashes anything you hear on “American Idol” like a grape.

Whatever, I’ll get past it.

2008 was a ridiculously great year for music. And just because an album didn’t make the list doesn’t necessarily mean I don't think it's worthy of a nod. [Unless we’re talking about 92% of you hear on the radio.] The ten that follow are a bottleneck of the best as I see it.

This list is largely comprised of albums that I never would have expected and blah, blah, blah… intro over. Let’s break it down, shall we?

10. The Last Shadow Puppets – “The Age Of Understatement”

If you prefer songs that are produced similar to those featured in the opening credits of a 1960’s James Bond film then, hell, this is your album. The Last Shadow Puppets have put together a collection of sweeping melodies that mix the aforementioned 007 sound with a touch of a late-80s-early-90’s sensibility. [I pick up a little bit of The Church’s “Reptile” in parts of the production.] Despite the influences, these tracks are oddly fresh – like those of a deer after a freshly fallen snow shortly before it becomes venison – hence the number ten position. The title track in particular seems to scream for silhouettes of women floating across lava lamp-inspired fields of color. And bubbles. A few tracks have Bacharachian chord progressions and most have lush string arrangements. Evidently when you combine each of these, you get a great album.

Standout track: “Meeting Place”

9. Deerhunter – “Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.”

When it came to Deerhunter, I was behind the curve. Before this album, I was entirely unfamiliar with them. I feel sick about it, and I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.

This album isn’t for everyone. But for anyone who’s curious, there are moments that offer shades of My Bloody Valentine [e.g. “Vox Celeste”]. And it isn’t afraid to be a little ugly – something that most bands don’t embrace these days. Not everyone can be as brave as Fugazi and Sonic Youth.

I’m not sure what their logic was, but rather than releasing a double-album, they decided to release two albums in one package. So for the purposes of this list, it’s a double-album. That’s how I listen to it, anyway. Regardless [or as the kids say “irregardless—” Whoa! Hang on a second. Did you know that, according to Microsoft Word™ – at least the version I have – “irregardless” isn’t misspelled?? Holy crap. That’s… that’s… ((((((((((sigh)))))))))) that’s depressing…]

Okay. Gotta center myself... That just completely threw me off my game.

Standout track: “Operation.”
[Which I think is about a Milton Bradley game. Maybe I’m wrong.]

8. She & Him – “Volume One”

When I heard that Zoey Deschanel was singing on an album with M. Ward, I got scared. Eddie Murphy, John Travolta, David Soul – history is lousy with actors who sing lousy. [I know, Allison – “lousily.”] Said history now includes Scarlett Johansson’s ill-advised release of Tom Waits covers. I mean… I mean… who the hell thought that was a good idea? Does she not have a manager advising her?

On a related note: the manager of my building, Chris, is Tom Waits’ cousin which, apart from being inherently cool, is also quite educational. For instance, I found out that Tom Waits was actually once a kid. Anyway, I asked Chris if he’d heard her train wreck of an album and he just shook his head and with an oddly similar rasp said, “God, I hope her people paid him well.” Chris says what we all feel.

So. Back to She & Him. Surprisingly, Ms Deschanel has a beautiful voice and M. Ward’s simple melodies complement that voice. There’s no overreaching. She doesn’t try to be something she’s not. And the resulting songs are clean and smart.

Standout track: “Change Is Hard”

7. Sigur Rós – “Med sud i eyrum vid spilum endalaust” *

What do you say about a band you can’t understand? Language barrier aside, almost everything this band has ever done has been at the very least intriguing; usually it hovers somewhere near brilliance; and, I mean, talk about beautiful.

Go ahead.

Talk about it. I’ll wait…

To my ear, 2005’s “Taak” was a work of staggering beauty. So while I was excited to learn this was coming out, I wondered how they’d follow up such a tremendous album. “Med sud i eyrum vid spilum endalaust” answers the bell with songs that range from upbeat and playful to delicate and moving. Maybe such diversity is why the more I listen to it the more I get out of it. Unlike the number of times you view the cover. Which seems to get creepier and creepier. ["Hey Dagbjart. I was thinking - remember that time in high school...?"]

Standout track: “Inní mér syngur vitleysingur”

* My spell check hates Sigur Rós. Irregardless…

6. Fleet Foxes – “Fleet Foxes”

New band. Beard rock. Awesome. When I listen, I hear a little My Morning Jacket and I often feel the urge to live on a mountain. I don’t have an explanation for this. Perhaps I’ll run it past my therapist, but the flipside to such an urge is that these unconventional songs - some of which change up several times, a la The Who’s “A Quick One While He’s Away" - grab you and don't let go.

Lyrically speaking, I’ll admit that there is a certain… I don’t’ know… “oddness,” I suppose. But the melodies are so well conceived that it doesn’t matter. Having said that, the line that always seems to hit me is, “Tell me anything you want, any old lie will do.” Which brings me back to my therapist…

Standout track: “White Winter Hymnal”

5. The Hold Steady – “Stay Positive”

This is a rawk album. Kind of in the same vein as Wilco. It’s solid from the opening guitar licks of “Constructive Summer” to the final note of the three-part closer, “Ask Her For Adderall / Cheyenne Sunrise / Two Handed Handshake.”

The Hold Steady is a perfect band to drink beer to, and “Stay Positive” is loaded with music that’s likely perfect for road trips and frat parties – the former being a plus, the latter not so much, but I think you know what I mean. This album’s sound is so mainstream that I’m surprised a cynical alt-music zine like “Pitchfork” would rate it so highly. Nevertheless, it's one that most everyone can dig.

Standout track: “Sequestered In Memphis”

4. Bon Iver – “For Emma, Forever Ago”

Also new. Bon Iver [meaning good winter] used to be a guy named Justin Vernon, who has worked with the likes of Broken Social Scene and The Shins. Now it’s a band with a guy named Justin Vernon and a couple other guys. This album was produced when it was just Justin Vernon.

Some songs are haunting, some are sweet, and some ache. In fact, as I write this, I’m watching the band perform “Skinny Love” on David Letterman. Lots of euphonious aching. The one common thread throughout “For Emma” is its vulnerability. At times it sounds as though Vernon is exposing his last nerve. Fortunately, in his case, that’s a good thing for us. Call me a freakshow but I think honesty has always been an important ingredient to music with integrity.

Don’t ignore this one. You might miss something you’d regret.

Standout track: “Skinny Love”

3. R.E.M. – “Accelerate”

In the summer of 1986, my friends and I were on the verge of going to college. [Ladies and gentlemen, I give you… “old.”] We were getting liquored-up at a party thrown by our good friend Laura Goldstein. [Thank you again, Laura. Sorry for not helping with the clean-up.] This was a frequent occurrence, and the party I’m remembering lasted three days. Sounds like an exaggeration. It is not. Just ask.

On the evening of the second night, our friend Jim Ferguson joined us and pulled a tape out of his shirt pocket. He said, “Looky what I’ve got. It’s the new R.E.M. album, ‘Life’s Rich Pageant.’” I still remember how instantly addictive it was.

Fast-forward to this past April. I found that I had a similar response to “Accelerate.” In fact, I was talking music with Jim, whose musical taste I have trusted since the eighth grade, and I asked him, “Is it just me, or is ‘Accelerate’ a great album?” His response was, “I know, right??” Given that Jim’s has introduced me to more important bands than a jewelry store owner does to engaged couples each spring [Bah-DUM-Bum!!! ...God, I apologize. I'm ashamed of myself.] my opinion was validated – an opinion that goes a little something like this:

Holy shit. This album is shockingly good. I’ll say that again: “shockingly good.” Sometime during the past two years or so, R.E.M. remembered that they were a kick ass rock band. They plugged in and pressed record and it worked beautifully.

I can say it over and over yet still underrate it – this album is shockingly good.

Standout track: “Living Well’s the Best Revenge”

2. TV On The Radio – “Dear Science,”

Two years ago, Brooklyn’s TVOTR released “Return To Cookie Mountain.” Given the title, I thought it was the soundtrack to a 1970’s Disney movie starring Jodie Foster and Ed Asner. Turns out I was wrong. Instead, it was an album that made me repeat the words, “What the hell was that??” It had so many subtle layers that I couldn’t process it at first, which, for me, was part of its charm. [It was #1 on the 2006 list.] And like Sigur Rós’ “Taak,” I had difficulty believing anything that could top "Cookie Mountain."

“Dear Science,” does not.


That doesn’t mean that it’s not an amazing album, which it is. I mean, hell, it’s #2. And unlike “Cookie Mountain,” this album is far more accessible. It's a great point of entry for anyone who isn’t familiar with their work. Had this album a poppier production value I believe several of these tracks would get strong radio play. “Dancing Choose,” with its “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It [And I Feel Fine]” cadence, could easily make the play list at a few senior proms. I grant you that this isn’t much of an endorsement but my point being, if awkward teenage boys in rented tuxes and equally awkward teenage girls in overpriced, remarketed bridesmaids dresses [both parties looking to shed said apparel as soon as possible] can enjoy it, most anyone can.

Standout track: “Stork & Owl”

1. Portishead – “Third”

In a word: unfuckingbelievable.

Like most fans, I thought I had heard Portishead’s last. But eleven years after their last album, they’ve released a masterpiece.

More than once I’ve heard fans say they were let down that “Third” doesn’t sound like classic Portishead but when a band releases two albums, is there a classic sound? Particularly when you consider that “Dummy” and “Portishead” each had unique characteristics. Besides, had The Beatles released two albums and waited until 1974 to release their third, would it have made sense for it to sound like “All My Lovin’?” I suspect “A Hard Day’s Night” wouldn’t have been embraced by recovering hippies. What, with the fact that “With The Beatles” was released before there even were hippies.

So Portishead has evolved. And when the folksy “Deep Water” and the unforgiving “Machine Gun” appear on the same album – let alone back-to-back – it appears as though that evolution is one that benefits both longtime and freshly minted fans alike.

The cornerstone of the Portishead dynamic is, of course, Beth Gibbons’ voice, which has never sounded better. And when you take in what Geoff Barrow and Adrien Utley have crafted, you know there was [gasp!] actual thought put into it, meaning this album will never get significant airplay, if any. This album is the antithesis of the pollution that is “American Idol.” This album is an instant classic. This album is a must.

Standout track: “The Rip”
[This just kills me.]


Elvis Costello – “Momofuku”

Just ‘cause he’s now in his 50’s doesn’t make him irrelevant. He's still one of the best lyricists around. And with songs like "Turpentine" and "American Gangster Time," I don't see that changing any time soon.

Devotchka – “A Mad And Faithful Calling”

Eastern European rock, I guess, is a good description. Whatever. It, too, is great.

Kanye West – “808s & Heartbreak”

Surprised? Don’t be. I think this one is already underrated. Recommended by Mr. Ferguson, who was right again.

Andrew Bird - “Soldier On” e.p.

Yeah, it’s an e.p. but it’s Andrew Bird. And Andrew Bird is Andrew Bird. Unlike Bob Dylan, who, as I mentioned a couple years ago, is Bob Dylan.

Bloc Party – “Intimacy”

Turns out their sophomore release was just a stumble. Not bad, but not great. This one puts them back on track.

Jon Brion – “Synecdoche, NY”

I’ve attended hundreds of shows in several countries and Jon Brion is the single greatest performer I’ve ever seen. This is your run-of-the-mill brilliant Jon Brion soundtrack.


The Clash - “Live at Shea Stadium”

Don’t think. Just buy it. Now. Make it happen. Go. You know you have that one-click thing goin’ on with your iTunes. Do it. It's a watershed moment in the history of rock. Do it. You know you want to.

R.E.M. - “Murmur” Deluxe Edition

Still one of my favorite albums of all time. And the concert on disc two is well worth the additional greenbacks.

Belle & Sebastian - “Live at The BBC”

A nice complement to their studio stuffs. It’s not Shea Stadium, but Belle & Sebastian at Shea Stadium would be stupid. As it is, this is excellent.

Oh— And I’m listening to the new Abe Vigoda (“Skeleton”) and it’s pretty great. As is Pattern Is Movement's "All Together."

So that’s that. If you have the albums on this list, I hope you agree. If you don’t, maybe you’ll give ‘em a shot. Sure beats watching Paula Abdul slur, “Yer goin’ tuh’Hollywood.” A slur that, given my location, is not a comfort.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

"elated" doesn't cover it.

Barack Obama was elected two nights ago. I've tried in vain to find the words to describe my feelings.

Perhaps I'll find them later.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

stephen root and bosnia.

So I turned in my screenplay to my manager, Dave. Which is not dissimilar to an afternoon bike ride through the streets of Bosnia. It's just a very dangerous situation. Having said that, I'm extremely happy with it. I think the structure is solid, the dialogue and jokes aren't forced and just dark enough, and the characters are believable. And, if I do say so myself, it's a good story. If Dave is critical, which is his job, I'd like to think it's going to be about little things.

If he doesn't like it? I don't know. I think I'll try to scrape together money from wherever I can and make it myself. (Though, I want to direct it no matter what, so maybe that would be a blessing in disguise.) I see what's being produced and sent out into the world and most of it sucks. This is not a revelation. There are only so many "There Will Be Bloods" — a movie that, as I've stated a number of times, is already one of my favorites. And I think with even limited funds, I might be able to crush those uninspired productions like a grape. I know how this must sound. But I believe it's my best work and if I can't feel great about my best work, I may as well just pack it in and leave town.

I've started to think about actors. Real ones. Ones that, if I end up doing it myself, would be impossible to get. Funny enough, I ran into one of my favorite actors yesterday, Stephen Root.
I've thought he was brilliant for years and there we were filing through used Elvis Costello CDs together. I told him, "I'm a big fan of your work and, evidently, your taste in music." Nice guy. We started talking Elvis, but ended up talking for quite some time about many other things. Though, eventually, I felt pretty uncomfortable because... well... I didn't want to say something stupid to Stephen Root. Anyhow, I hastily said, "good talking to you and take care," and as I walked away I realized that he IS the character of Sammy. Sammy's much older, but Stephen Root can become pretty much anything he wants. In fact, he's perfect. And even though Sammy's not a big part, (yeah, i know — there are no small parts... blah, blah, blah....) I found myself hoping to get it to him. So who knows? Maybe I'll send it to his people. Worst case scenario he says no.

But maybe, just maybe, he says yes.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


Heh... heh, heh... hee-hee-hee-hee... ha, ha, ha... heeh, hee, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha-ha, ah-hahahahahahahahahaHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
HA, HAH, HA... hee, hee...tee-hee-hee...


That was a good one...

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

2007? it sounded like a good idea.

It’s been a looooooong time, and I’ve not written because I’ve been preoccupied with writing. And when you write all day, the last thing you want to do is write all night. That said, I’ve decided that my annual list of the year’s best music is a good time to start up again.

As with last year, these are in fairly loose order until we get towards the end. And I could have added a few other albums [like, say, Menomena's "Friend and Foe"] but I figured that would be against the whole spirit of the "Top 10 List."

I've also included rollovers to a few videos, a number of which are links to the brilliant "La Blogothéque."

Enough, already. Let’s jump into it, shall we?

Caribou — “Andorra”

This one was a pleasant surprise. It’s lush and much like a walk through 1967 without sounding overly derivative [and without the bad acid]. To my ear, it’s got a little early-90’s flavor to it as well [without the bad X]. But it’s a great marriage and I doubt there will be any arguing over who gets the dog any time soon. So let that be a lesson for all of you kids out there: Good acid + Good X = Damn fine music.

[Standout track: “She’s the One”]

Spoon — “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga”

Aussie: “You call that a knife? THAT’S a knife!”
Bart: “That’s not a knife. That’s a spoon.”
Aussie: “GASP! I see you’ve played ‘knifey-spoony’ before!”

As we all know, “Spoon” is both a noun and a verb. And for almost 15 years, Spoon have been putting out songs that, at first listen, sound pretty much like what you’d expect from the average indie rock band today. But scratch the surface and you can hear the difference that Britt Daniels makes. “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga” is a collection of catchy compositions and each one sounds exactly like Spoon. And that’s a very, very good thing.

[Standout track: “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb”]

The National — “Boxer”

I had never heard of The National until 2007. [Thereby making me incredibly uncool. Again.] But “Boxer” is a good album with which to start. Taking a few cues from Lambchop, it’s a beautiful, smart album; beautiful, because of the string arrangements and smart because of the fucked-up time signatures in tracks like “Fake Empire.” And these two elements make it better than 99% of anything you’ll hear on the radio. [Have I ever mentioned that said radio sucks ass? If not, I need to remedy that — the radio sucks ass. Let's move on, then...]

[Standout track: “Fake Empire”]

The Bird and the Bee — “The Bird and the Bee”

Some advice: If you find yourself walking down Sunset Blvd, and Amoeba Music’s marquee reads, "TONIGHT: [Band You’ve Never Heard Of]," go inside and take a chance. I saw The Bird and the Bee at Amoeba and they were cool and refreshing — much like a tall glass of 7-up. First I fell in love with the singer; then I fell in love with her voice. If you like your Burt Bacharach mixed with a little electronica, this is the band for you. I do find that one either loves or hates them, though. So if you’re inclined to explore, keep that in mind.

[Stand out track: "Again and Again"]

Elliott Smith — “New Moon”

I’ve always believed that we form relationships with the musicians we listen to. Each elicits a unique emotional and intellectual response. For me, Elliott Smith always felt like the friend that needed a few words of encouragement. And when he committed suicide [was killed by his girlfriend], I can’t say that I was entirely shocked. “New Moon” is a delicate mix of new, incomplete tracks, and few covers and alternate takes. It captures his vulnerability and dignity. And it makes me miss my friend.

[Standout track: “New Monkey”]

Beirut — “The Flying Cup Club”

Everything Beirut does makes me feel like I’ve just walked into a smoky bistro in Paris — I hear catchy accordion-based tunes, smell like a cigarette, and wish there was a cheap streetwalker in close proximity. Somebody should tell Zach Condon he’s from Santa Fe. Better yet, don’t. Although this is one of the top albums of the year, I actually think their best song — and release — of the year was “Elephant Gun.” Regardless, who wants some Armagnac?

[Standout track: “Nantes”]

Feist — “The Reminder”

make me Steve Jobs’ corporate whore…”

Okay. Although I always find it annoying when a band gains public attention via a television commercial [Nick Drake's "Pink Moon"], it’s a good song and a great video. Mind you, I don’t have a problem with the ad as much as I do the laziness of the American music fan. [Dig, people. Earn your damn music.] But “The Reminder” is a terrific album, front to back, no matter where its audience first heard it.

[Standout track: “I Feel It All”]

Iron & Wine ¬— “The Shepherd’s Dog”

Sam Beam is consistently top-notch, and “The Shepherd’s Dog” is the next phase in the evolution of Iron & Wine. This one has a bit more electricity, and often when a band makes the jump from acoustic to electric, it’s a little awkward — not everyone can be Bob Dylan. Who, as I covered in last year’s list, is Bob Dylan. But Sam Beam is Sam Beam, and Sam Beam is pretty damn great. Plus, his beard makes Bob Dylan’s its bitch.

[Standout track: “Boy With A Coin”]

Okkervil River — “The Stage Names”

“The Stage Names” is a lot like Iron & Wine’s “The Shepherd’s Dog” release in that it’s a hugely successful step in the evolution of the band. This, thanks to Will Sheff. He’s a brilliant songwriter, who doesn’t pigeonhole himself and, in doing so, helps to shape the musical landscape. This one features my favorite single of the year...

[Standout track: “Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe”]

Andrew Bird — “Armchair Apocrypha”

This guy makes the violin cool. I missed my chance to see Mr. Bird at Amoeba. I forget what I was doing, but I should have cancelled it twice. I have no excuses and as I write this, I feel a little sick to my stomach, much like an Olsen twin after eating a single ziti. This is a beautiful album. Andrew Bird never really follows musical trends. He makes great music, but no apologies. This one was close to being number one of the year. But then the next two albums on this list came out.

[Standout track: “Spare-Ohs”]

“Neon Bible” — The Arcade Fire

In 2004, “Funeral” was the album everyone was talking about — something that’s usually the kiss of death for any sophomore release. The Arcade Fire didn’t follow that blueprint. On this one, they kind of scattered every which way and ended up making what could have been the best of the year. There are so many standout tracks on this, I’ll just throw a dart at the track list and give you the one I hit.

[Standout track: “Windowstill”]

Radiohead — “In Rainbows”

It’s just not fair. Other bands should be whining. They should go to their mommies and tell. Radiohead continues to be the best band on earth. In fact, they’re so good, they could end up on this list during years in which they don’t release a note of music. They’re better than Christmas morning, the last day of school, Fonzie's motorcycle, and Monica Bellucci, combined. —On second thought, scratch that last example. But they're pretty damn fantastic, and “In Rainbows” just isn’t fair. It’s the best of the year and if you don’t agree, you’re wrong. But that's just my opinion.

Like the rest of this list.

[Standout track: “Videotape”]