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.


Friday, January 01, 2010

the 30 best of the past decade

Before Steve Jobs, there were these things called "CDs." And before CDs, there were "albums" and Memorex "tapes" of albums which, we were told, were killing the music industry. But I'll get back to that.

I’ve been accused of appreciating the wrong albums. “Why,” I’m asked, “would you like ‘Neon Bible’ over “Funeral??’” “You’re not saying that you like ‘Elephant’ more than ‘De Stijl,’ are you??” Yes. Yes I am. That’s the thing about these lists. It's why I love ‘em. They trigger a dialogue about music. And I love to hear a rousing approval or heated retort. I always get something from them, either way.

Some of these albums [or "LPs"] will make the music snobs that I love say to me, “You mean your list includes…???” Yes. Yes it does. Why? It all depends on where you were at the time. I guess you just had to be there too.

30. Jon Brion - "Meaningless"

Okay. I'm kicking this list off with a kind of a "Huh...?" In fact, when I first heard this album, I didn't really like it much. But I'm not just being a contrarian, I think it's amazing. [Craig? It's also fantastic.] I've chronicled my love of Jon Brion before. Specifically the fact that I think he's the best live show I've ever seen. [Stop by Largo on La Cienega on most Friday nights and you'll see why.] And I'll admit that those shows are a big influence on "Meaningless" making my top 30. Jon Brion produces Aimee Mann's albums as well as a couple Fiona Apple's, so if you like those two, sonically speaking, you'll like the feel of this one.

Standout track: "Ruin My Day"

29. Andrew Bird - "Armchair Apocrypha"

Andrew Bird — or, as I like to call him, Andrew Bird — is probably the smartest composer on this list. And if he's not, he's missing a huge opportunity to be. He mixes infectious hooks with gorgeous arrangements. Plus, few have the ability to make the violin and whistling a big part of their stylings. So that's nice. Oh. And if you get a second, check out his performances on "La Blogoteque" [I'd say one of the best sites ever].,2968

Standout track: "Scythian Empires"

28. Badly Drawn Boy - “The Hour Of Bewilderbeast”

I think "Bewilderbeast" is just plain underappreciated. When it came out back in 2000, it got tons of buzz. [I’m not sure how one measures buzz — tons? Yards? Weeks? Anyway...] To my ear, it’s very British. But not obviously so. Not tea and crumpets and bad teeth and thinly veiled embarrassment. It’s a great album and deserves to be on everyone’s list.

Standout track: “Once Around The Block”

27. The National - “Boxer”

A beautiful and unexpected album. Give it a listen, and a listen, and a listen. You start to pick up the details. Another brilliant opening track in “Fake Empire.”

Standout track: “Start A War”

26. The Magnetic Fields - “69 Love Songs”

How do I love yinz? Leave me count the ways. [Something for the Pittsburghers who happen to be reading.] 69 songs, 69 interpretations of love. If you know it, you know there's no album like it, and you’ll like it if you don’t know it. Yeah. Try following that.

Standout track: “Yeah! Oh, Yeah!”

25. Okkervil River - “The Stage Names”

Okkervil River had one hell of a great decade. This, along with “Black Sheep Boy,” “The Stand Ins,” and “Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See” make for an incredible string of home runs, you have to wonder when they’re going to slip-up. Or if they ever will.

Standout track: “Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe”

24. Explosions In The Sky - “The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place”

This one probably isn’t on many lists. It’s on mine because, apart from being an outstanding album, it’s also one that I’ve loved writing to. In a way, it’s kind of my writing soundtrack. There’s something great about a band that can rivet you without singing a single note.

Standout track: “First Breath After Coma”

23. The Antlers - “Hospice”

I just think I’m going to look back on "Hospice" and it’ll still be on this list. It’s a gamble but, hey, I’m willing to take it. Fearless, I am.

Standout Track: “Two” (see “Hear, Here”)

22. Belle & Sebastian - “The Life Pursuit”

Anytime I listen to "The Life Pursuit," I’m in New York in November. I’m walking down Bleeker, on my way to the Blind Tiger; I’m finishing my day, walking through Times Square, heading back to the hotel; I’m watching Christmas lights go up in Columbus Circle.

Standout track: “Another Sunny Day”

21. PJ Harvey - “Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea”

What can I say, I adore Polly Jean.

Love “Dry,”
love “Rid Of Me,”
love “Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea.”
[Like poetry.]

Much poppier than her previous and hooky enough to be on repeat for quite some time.

Standout track: “The Mess We’re In”

20. Bloc Party - “Silent Alarm”

This album? Fan-bloody-tastic. The opening track? Fu-bloody-king tremendous. Makes me want to fly to London and see ‘em live, even today. Raw energy and emotion in every song.

Standout track: “Like Eating Glass”

19. Grizzly Bear - “Veckatimest”

This year’s best album. A lock for this list. It’s one of those albums that carves itself into your brain from listen one. I gushed about it in “Hear, Here.”

Standout track: “Two Weeks”

18. TV On The Radio - “Dear Science,”

“Cookie Mountain” is one of my favorites, but this one isn’t far behind. TVOTR are putting out such innovative yet catchy music, you just can’t ignore them. This one’s a bit more accessible than the aforementioned, yet doesn’t lose any of it’s we're-gonna-do-whatever-the-fuck-we-want attitude.

Standout track: “Stork & Owl”

17. Spoon - “Kill The Moonlight”

First time I heard Spoon, they were opening for Guided By Voices. And I gotta say, they didn’t grab me as a great live band. That said, for his ability to write a damn fine song? Britt Daniel should be in the Smithsonian. This album is just one reason why. “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga” is another. So much so, it was a candidate for this list.

Standout track: “Stay Don’t Go”

16. Bon Iver - “For Emma, Forever Ago”

Justin Vernon has a gift. He can break your heart in just a few sparse notes. And you have to love him for that. I think that when I look back, this one will have grown in importance.

Standout track: “Skinny Love”

15. The White Stripes - “Elephant”

What a decade for these two. “De Stijl” in 2000? “White Blood Cells” in 2001? You’re kidding me, right? I mean, I see one hiccup in the decade [not too big on “Get Behind Me Satan,” but it’s still pretty good]. For me, this is one loud high point. More importantly, "Elephant" has had a major impact on college football fans throughout the country. Where would marching bands be without the bass line for "Seven Nation Army?"

Standout track: “There’s No Home For You Here”

14. Neko Case - “Furnace Room Lullaby”

Three notes into this one and you’ll know why. This woman is a freak of nature. What a voice. “FRL” is one damn fine alt-country album. ‘Least that’s how I hear it.

Standout track: “Set Out Running”

13. Fleet Foxes (self-titled)

These guys came out of nowhere. And Seattle. Which is actually in the Pacific Northwest, for those of you scoring at home [or even if you’re alone]. Anyhow, I’m glad they did because this album is full of great harmonies and the like. And I like.

Standout track: “Ragged Wood”

12. The Strokes - “Is This It?”

Good question, better album.

Standout track: “Last Nite”

11. Johnny Cash - “American IV: The Man Comes Around”

The first music I can ever recall is Johnny Cash. My father’s a big fan. Justifiably so. This was the last album he released in his lifetime and he finished with a bang. On it, he flat-out stole “Hurt” from Trent Reznor. But in my opinion, one of the overlooked highlights is his cover of The Beatles’ “In My Life.” Sounds like a farewell to me.

Standout track: “The Man Comes Around”

10. Sigur Ros - “Takk…”

This is another of those perfect albums. The right intersection of time and space. And these guys allowed us to use one of the more amazing tracks of the decade for my trailer — “Hoppípolla.” Makes you feel like you could fly. Plus, it made for a great evening with Seif. Thank you, Iceland!

Standout track: “Glósóli”

9. Interpol - “Turn On The Bright Lights”

This one drips New York City. [Not as gross as you’d think. Besides, they have penicillin for it.] This one was strangely difficult for me to get into at first. But when I did? Yowzah! It should be placed in a time capsule.

Standout track: “NYC”

8. Elliott Smith - “Figure 8”

This album has a place in my heart in part because of the Halloween show I saw at CMU. I didn’t want to go. The previous week, I had learned that my grandmother had two weeks to live. My parents felt that I needed a break from my day-long visits and encouraged me to go. Turns out they were right and Mr. Smith provided me with a gift.

Standout track: “LA”

7. Iron & Wine - “Creek Drank The Cradle”

Sam Beam’s voice and melodies paint a beautiful picture. Beautiful and bleak. Dark and soulful. He seems to make you lean in and linger on every word. It's almost eerie.

Standout track: “Upward Over The Mountain”

6. The Arcade Fire - “Neon Bible”

This is kind of the soundtrack of my move to LA. And as I alluded to in the intro to this list, it's usually not the first choice of most Arcade Fire fans. But it’s a perfect album in my good book.

Standout track: “My Body Is A Cage”

5. TV On The Radio - “Return To Cookie Mountain”

When I heard this, it was as if I was kicked in the head. In a good way. Y’know— without all of the bruising. Sonically different than just about anything ‘round. It holds a special place in my heart because they let me use “A Method” for my film’s soundtrack. [Buy. That. Track.]

Standout track: “Wolf Like Me”

4. Portishead - “Third”

So. Portishead. What’ve you been up to the last eleven years? Golfing, or…? "Third" [the 4th album on this list] isn't what most Portishead fans expected. In fact, some complained that it sounded soooo different from their other albums but, guys? Eleven years. Things happen. People change. And in this case, I believe for the better. Amazing album, start to finish.

Standout track: “The Rip”

3. Sufjan Stevens - “Come On Feel The Illinoise!”

Sheesh, I love this album. With vignettes of American history [well, Illinois, specifically], it feels like a musical interpretation of a Mark Twain novel or some such thing. And Sufjan sings each song with a delicate tone that suggests he's reading that novel to a group of children. Plus, there are those song titles. Love the whole thing like a really lovable thing.

Standout Track: “The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us!”

2. Wilco - “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”

Somewhere, there’s a record label executive flipping burgers. How it’s possible that someone could shoot holes in an album of such genius is just... I don’t know. I’m getting emotional.

Standout track: “Poor Places”

1. Radiohead - “Kid A”
This is “stranded-on-a-deserted-island” material. A radio station in Pittsburgh played it in its entirety the day before it came out. I sat in my car outside of The Real McCoy in the South Side and listened from beginning to end. Even before it was finished, I knew this would end up being one of my all-time favorites. A worthy follow-up to “OK Computer.” Better, some might argue.

Standout track: “Idioteque”

So then. Am I on target? Am I deaf?

Oh, I'm sure there's a chance I'll kick myself for not including Antony & the Johnsons or I'll rethink that Morrissey album, but until then, this will do.

All of this said, what does your list look like?