Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Best of 2008

Okay, first things first. 2008 wasn 't quite as good a music year as 2007. So what? The best albums from this year were still really good. No promised My Bloody Valentine comeback record? No matter, betcha didn't expect a new Portishead album this year! So what if The Avalanches still haven't released Since I Left You 2? I bet you didn't count on Chinese Democracy coming out, did you? Remember The Verve?
They're back. Deerhunter didn't let a hiatus stop them from putting out another classic. And then there's Wolf Parade... The list just goes on. And the thing is, the comeback albums weren't even the big story of 2008! The vast majority of this list contains debut albums so good, it's hard to pick which band seems to have the brightest future. In fact, there were so many quality records released this year, I couldn't just stop at 50. So here it is... The 70 best albums of 2008.

1.)Portishead – Third

It’s been 11 years since the last Portishead album. Considering that one was only the band’s second album for the flash-in-the-pan genre of trip-hop, it seemed like this band was to remain a relic of the ‘90s and nothing more. But to consider Portishead as such does no justice to their art. However dated albums Dummy and Portishead may sound, they also sound inarguably good. Though they never strayed near the spotlight, Portishead has been missed and Third has remained highly anticipated by a select few. The album doesn’t disappoint. Straying from their trip-hop past, Portishead has created something that sounds fresh and new. Driving acoustic/electronic beats push the album’s pacing as sound effects flutter in and out of songs. Singer Beth Gibbon’s voice hasn’t aged a day as she mysteriously hovers around the soundscape like a ghost looking for a home. Third is haunting, beautiful, and essential. It’s the best record of 2008.

2.)Deerhunter – Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.

It seemed last year that Deerhunter’s nearly-perfect pair of releases, Cryptograms and Fluorescent Grey EP, would be their swan song. All of the typical elements for their dissolution were falling into place… Guitarist Colin Mee abruptly quit the band. Lead singer Bradford Cox went solo. The band called for an indefinite hiatus. Despite how bad things appeared to be, worries started to evaporate early on this year when Microcastle leaked over the Internet. By the time its October release came around, fans realized that not only was Deerhunter back, but they were as good as ever. And as prolific. Not only did they release Microcastle, they issued a “bonus disc” – a full-length album of equal, if not better quality as its companion. Basically, Weird Era Cont. is the best bonus disc I’ve ever heard. Where Microcastle’s hallmark consisted of mixing Deerhunter’s established textured sound with pop, Weird Era Cont. picks up where Cryptograms and Fluorescent Grey EP left off, with creepy left-field shoegaze and ambient interludes. Each of these records by themselves would notch a top three spot this year. Forget Britney - Deerhunter is back.

3.)Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

For Emma, Forever Ago is the sound of winter in the remote Midwest. It’s mysterious and haunting, yet real. This album conjures up images of snowy wooded areas with a fog setting in. It’s creepy, ghostly even, but familiar. Singer Justin Vernon’s falsetto sounds almost disembodied, as if it were coming from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Bon Iver has created the best acoustic singer-songwriter album in a while – a perfect companion piece to Iron and Wine’s 2007 summer-conjuring record, The Shepard’s Dog.

4.)Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes/Sun Giant EP

Using their fantastic Sun Giant EP as a prelude to their self-titled debut, Fleet Foxes managed to create an overwhelming amount of hype. Unlike most over-hyped bands (Vampire Weekend, Cold War Kids, etc.), Fleet Foxes not only managed to land on their feet upon release day, but they transcended expectations by creating an album of the utmost quality. Fleet Foxes sounds exactly like nothing else, though it exudes a sense of familiarity. It sounds like Simon and Garfunkle, Nick Drake, and My Morning Jacket. Except not. Their sound is unique, and their songs great. The hipsters were right this time.

5.)TV On The Radio – Dear Science

Dear Science is TV On The Radio’s follow-up to the 2006 classic, Return To Cookie Mountain. The two records couldn’t be more different. Where Return… was driving, epic, and exhilarating, Dear Science takes things slower, with a smooth sense of cool. While they’ve always sounded like a mash-up of Sonic Youth and Marvin Gaye, this record focuses a lot more on Gaye. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its intense, pounding moments – just listen to “DLZ” – it matches anything off of Return… It’s just that TVOR has matured. They’ve figured out how to correctly pace an album for maximum emotional appeal. Considering all three of their records have been knockouts, they’ve also figured out how to be the best band in America.

6.)The Rural Alberta Advantage – Hometowns

Everyone has been trying to cop Neutral Milk Hotel since they released their classic, In The Aeroplane, Over The Sea. The Rural Alberta Advantage is no different. The thing is, it’s just the sound they copy, not the work. They’ve taken Neutral Milk Hotel’s style and made it their own, creating decidedly unique songs that stand head and shoulders over 99% of new music out there. Did I mention this Canadian band isn’t even signed? Their home-recorded self-released album reached listeners via the “eMusic selects,” program started by downloading company eMusic in an effort to get unsigned bands attention and contracts. But it’s not Hometowns’ back story that makes it so great. It’s soothing, brilliant, and highly addictive. Hopefully record companies have taken notice.

7.)Wolf Parade – At Mount Zoomer

As the long-awaited follow-up to 2005’s Apologies To The Queen Mary, Wolf Parade’s At Mount Zoomer couldn’t feel much more different than its predecessor. Yes, it’s still the same band, led by songwriters Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner, but where are the singles? It seems that in the post Apologies… years, Wolf Parade has developed their sound, blending in the members’ innumerable side-projects to create something cohesive and bold. Without question, At Mount Zoomer is epic, with each song building off each other until the all-encompassing 10-minute closer, “Kissing the Beehive,” where each element comes together like a Fourth of July grand finale.

8.)The Walkmen – You & Me

Since 2006’s middle-of-the road releases, A Hundred Miles Off and Pussy Cats (a Harry Nilsson cover album), The Walkmen have been all but forgotten. This is unfair, considering the band formerly lived as mega-hyped bust (also unfair) Jonathon Fire*Eater, and had to rebound to the commercial heights of their first two albums. Well, they rebounded again. You & Me isn’t just a return to form, it’s the bands’ best album. Clocking in at about an hour long, it’s pure enjoyment from start to finish. Each song builds either by itself or in conjunction with its companions, creating a record that truly travels from place to place. You & Me is beautiful and evocative, and is a wonderful addition to any record collection.

9.)Atlas Sound – Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel

Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox is a busy man. Last year, his band blew up, releasing a classic LP and equally classic EP. This year, Deerhunter put out two full-length releases and toured the world with bands like Animal Collective. In the meantime, Cox took it upon himself to release several EP’s, singles, and this album under the guise Atlas Sound. The man may be busy, but the quality of work doesn’t exactly reflect that. Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel sounds like much more than a collection of songs penned in an artist’s free time. It lacks much of the aggression found on Deerhunter’s five releases, focusing instead of Cox’s interest in the ambient and abstract. Each song is like a little sonic experiment, with hallmarks unique to themselves, like stereo panning and surprise instruments like bells or xylophones. Lyrically, this is typical Cox: deep and slightly morbid, in disguise as simple cast-offs. It doesn’t appear that Cox will be changing his prolific nature anytime soon, as another Atlas Sound full-length, titled Logos, leaked earlier this year. Cox will reportedly scrap it in retaliation and record an entirely new record for next year. Fans are no doubt anticipating it already.
10.)Beach House – Devotion

Remember the Mario Bros. haunted houses? Remember how spooky the music was during those levels – with simple synthesized organs fluttering out of the speakers like the pixilated bats from the game’s background? Now imagine that with Neko singing overtop and you’ve got Beach House. Devotion is definitely their best record, combining these dubious elements with honest emotion. It’s fully affecting and compulsively listenable. Oh, and it makes for perfect Halloween soundtracking.

11.)Laura Marling – Alas, I Cannot Swim

This young British singer has already established a cult following because of this album. Her voice is impressive, but it’s the songs and the depth of the their orchestration that steal the show here. It’s as good as baroque-folk-pop gets.

12.)The Hold Steady – Stay Positive

As some of the best current lyrical story tellers, the Hold Steady seem to get better with each release. Stay Positive combines tales of small town youth and their exploits with their most creative and diverse sounds yet. This may well be their best album to date.

13.)Fennesz – Black Sea

Austrian guitarist/laptop composer Christian Fennesz takes a lot of time to release albums under his name. Black Sea, the follow-up to 2004’s Venice, is not only worth the wait, but it stands with the best of his work. The instrumental electronic symphonies take time to digest but provide more depth emotional appeal than most anything currently out there.

14.)Deerhoof – Offend Maggie

With each passing album, Deerhoof gets more accessible. While that tends to be a complaint by fans of most bands, Deerhoof finds ways to unveil more aspects of their sound than ever before. Offend Maggie proves these aspects are worth unfolding.

15.)M83 – Saturdays = Youth

While the ‘80s fascination fad is rapidly disappearing, M83 may have released the best ‘80s flavored album just in time. Saturdays = Youth adds power snare to its electro-synth-shoegaze and sets the scene for some awesomely cheesy dialogue about lonely teenagers and graveyards. It’s like a guilty pleasure you needn’t be guilty about.

16.)Beck – Modern Guilt

Sadly, it seems that the fun-loving Beck of old (Odelay) may never return. He tried to be fun on Guero to no avail. He tried again with 2006’s The Information, but got distracted by the war in the process. Now, he’s given in to the negative bug and created an album of stripped-down songs about how much things suck. The thing is, he’s as good at that as he was at being a carefree entertainer, just listen to Sea Change. With a little help from super-producer Danger Mouse, Modern Guilt stands as testament to Beck’s beautiful melancholy.

17.)Calexico – Carried To Dust

Another album by genre-shifting south westerners Calexico, Carried To Dust may be the most relaxing listen of the year. It’s impossible not to find beauty in this gentle acoustic record.

18.)No Age – Nouns

No Age writes simple, hooky pop songs and buries them under noise – distortion, feedback, tape hiss, static, etc. It’s not only fun to listen to, but interesting as well. Not to mention this is one of the most driving, propulsive rock albums of the year.

19.)Paavoharju – Laulu Laakson Kukista

Laulu Laakson Kukista is a Finnish take on pop-folk. Which basically makes it like nothing else out there. This album plays out like a dream sequence from a trippy film. At times, it’s gentle and pretty… Then it suddenly morphs into a Euro-pop electronic trance song, which is interrupted by a grandfatherly voice speaking in Finnish. Then there’s the hovering fog of fuzz and static that floats throughout the album like a storm cloud ready to burst. Yes it sounds too conceptual, but the segments of songs present here are nearly as good as anything else this year.

20.)Los Campensinos! – Hold On Now, Youngster/We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed

Yes, this band can be silly at times. Yes, they can get a little too energetic. But it’s just because they’ve got something to be excited about – somehow they discovered the secrets to what seems like all the classic sounds of the past decade and managed to combine them in two marvelous full-length albums. Really, one release would have done, but thankfully that wasn’t enough for this Welsh seven-piece.

21.)High Places – 03/07 – 09/07/High Places

Another eMusic Selects success story, High Places is one of those extremely unique bands that doesn’t quite sound like anything else. They combine elements of electronic dance music, dub, and children’s songs. Both of their full-length releases this year capture a uniquely innocent, wide-eyed look at the world and catchy melodies that stick around in the listener’s head.

22.)The Gaslight Anthem – The ’59 Sound

The Gaslight Anthem plays straight-forward, Hold Steady-esque rock music. They play it very well, which works great as a framework for singer Brian Fallon’s Springteen howl. It’s not essential, but it’s good. Really good.

23.)Department Of Eagles – In Ear Park

Grizzly Bear is one of the best bands to emerge lately. Unfortunately, it’s been a couple years since their astounding album, Yellow House. In the meantime, this side project from Grizzly Bear multi-instrumentalist Daniel Rosson will have to do. It captures the otherworldly folk his main band is known and loved for, and stands well both by itself and as an appetizer for the Yellow House sequel.

24.)Blitzen Trapper – Furr

Last year, Blitzen Trapper found their way onto the underground map with the release of the awesomely promising Wild Mountain Nation. Furr builds on those expectations with its great songwriting and oddball attitude. Much like early Beck, Blitzen Trapper plays acoustic folk blended with hip-hop, rock, and electronic sounds to create an ADD-riddled hairbrained mess that’s incredibly catchy/kitschy. Who else would write a love song from the point of view of a feral child?

25.)Vivian Girls – Vivian Girls

At lot of people would rightfully compare Vivian Girls to No Age. They share the same aesthetic – noise infected pop songs with a hard edge. This batch of songs resembles girl groups from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Sharing both style and catchy hooks. Vivian Girls is a blast to listen to.

26.)The Bug – London Zoo

As one of the most emotive, evocative, and enthralling new genres, dubstep has kept a low profile on this side of the Atlantic. Untrue, last year’s release by the then-unidentified artist Burial, succeeded in drawing limited attention to the genre, but that focus didn’t last long. It’s a shame, really, because The Bug’s London Zoo is a thrilling mix of Burial’s propulsive low-end electronics and highly confrontational Caribbean rap. Lyrically and musically, London Zoo stands as a call to arms to those embittered and disillusioned with the current state of political affairs. This protest album is as uniquely affecting as they come.

27.)Women – Women

Women is an all-male four-piece from Calgary. This self-titled debut is regarded as one of the most promising releases by any band this year. I’m not one to disagree with that statement. Women, like No Age and Vivian Girls and Abe Vigoda, uses lo-fi production techniques to add ambience and build stages for their songs. Yes it’s experimental, but the songs are really good once they sink in. Women is not just a promising debut, it’s an excellent one.

28.)Hercules & Love Affair – Hercules & Love Affair

Released by LCD Soundsystem’s label, DFA Records, Hercules & Love Affair is packed with highly danceable tracks, each one mixing authentic-sounding disco and electronics. It’s pure joy to experience.

29.)Kanye West – 808’s And Heartbreak

So this is apparently Kanye’s difficult album. The songs are sparse with little propulsion in their beats, his trademark rapping is non-existent, and he half-heartedly sings through that horrible computer-voice, called Autotone. This might not be the most fun album of the year, but it’s one of the most honest, emotional, and competent. It might have little in common with West’s other work, but it shares the same high level of quality.

30.)Destroyer – Trouble In Dreams

It’s easy to sort through Destroyer’s catalogue and find essential releases. There’s Destroyer’s Rubies, Streethawk: A Seduction, City of Daughters, Your Blues, Thief… Even This Night and We’ll Build Them A Golden Bridge were great. Some people accuse Destroyer songwriter Dan Bejar of running out of ideas, but listen to Trouble In Dreams and you’ll find it’s just as good as any of those other albums. Destroyer may be the most underrated currently active band.

31.)The Notwist – The Devil, You + Me

German band The Notwist hit the mark with their 2003 record, Neon Golden, and promptly disappeared. Well, they’re back with The Devil, You + Me. Their signature electronic pop, ripped off to great results by better-known band The Postal Service, remains largely unchanged. That makes this record sound surprisingly dated, but the good news is that The Notwist haven’t lost their strong emotional appeal. The Devil, You + Me is nearly as good as their well-regarded classic.

32.)Guns n’ Roses – Chinese Democracy

Chinese Democracy has been the punchline of pop culture jokes since its intended release was announced and cancelled several times since about 1991. Yes, the biggest draw this Guns ‘n Roses album is that it actually exists, but don’t let that or the critics fool you. Though many call it middle of the road or worse, Chinese Democracy is epic, bombastic, and absurd. It sounds as if Axl Rose recorded each song and stepped back, asking, “How can I make this bigger?” No the album doesn’t need face-melting guitar-shredding solos for its entirety (Courtesy of a man who calls himself Buckethead). It doesn’t need epic orchestral arrangements or huge gospel choirs, either. But do such elements make Chinese Democracy awesomely hilarious? Yes. Don’t forget - a guilty pleasure is still a pleasure.

33.)Abe Vigoda – Skeleton

Yet another album exploiting lo-fi atmosphere, Abe Vigoda’s Skeleton sounds similar to releases from Women, No Age, and Vivian Girls. Similar in sound, depth, and quality. I highly recommend this record.

34.)Ladytron – Velocifero

Ladytron made a huge shift in quality and style in 2005, with their release of should-be dance classic Witching Hour. Each song stood out as a highlight, and the album perfectly recreated the woozy hazy atmosphere of a hipster dance club. Velocifero maintains that style, and has its fair share of highlights to boot. Why aren’t more people talking about this band?

35.)Max Tundra – Parallax Error Beheads You

Max Tundra is obscure both in style and exposure. Parallax Error Beheads You continues that tradition, with complex song arrangements and sounds. Yes it’s nerd rock, but it’s good nerd rock.

36.)Sigur Rós – Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaus

Iceland’s best known musical export that isn’t Bjork gets all folk on us here. Don’t worry, Sigur Rós’ epic scope hasn’t changed, though. They’ve just figured out to fit acoustic instruments into their glorious sound.

37.)Sun Kil Moon – April

Hazy, atmospheric, and touching. This album really deserves more attention.

38.)El Guincho – Alegranza!

The cliché with this record is that it sounds a lot like Panda Bear. Yes it does, but it also sounds a lot like some of the best tropical music ever recorded. Try frowning while listening to this. I bet you can’t do it.

39.)Flying Lotus – Los Angeles

It hasn’t been a great year for hip-hop, but maybe that’s because Flying Lotus took all the best beats and used them for this instrumental release. Highly addictive.

40.)Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend

Lot’s of people will list this in their top 10. I’m telling you here that it’s not that good. Not to say it’s bad by any stretch of the imagination, though. It’s a fun, upbeat indie pop record. That’s good enough for me.

41.)Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles

Crystal Castles make for an addictive listen. Just imagine if your NES started playing dance music. This is the next best thing.

42.)Dodos – Visiter

Visiter makes for a very nice listen. Calm and collected at times and upbeat and driving at others. The intense moments here are the best. The Dodos are also one of the more lyrically clever bands out right now.

43.)Girl Talk – Feed The Animals

Remember Night Ripper? That crazy mash up of rock, pop, and hip-hop hits you heard at like every single party you attended the last year and a half? Well, Feed The Animals is its twin brother.

44.)Music Tapes – Music Tapes For Clouds And Tornados

Music Tapes aren’t the most classifiable band in the world. Yes, they’re associated with the Elephant Six collective that spawned Neutral Milk Hotel and Of Montreal, but this band certainly doesn’t make rock music. Whatever it is they do with that orchestra, ping-pong ball and saw sounds great, though.

45.)Jay Reatard – Matador Singles ‘08

Before the White Stripes got big and bloated, they sounded a little like this. Jay Reatard makes punk that’s raw and primal, without making your ears ring. And he covers Deerhunter here for bonus points.

46.)Santogold – Santogold

Balancing the creative and accessible, Santogold should have had a hit with this self-titled album. Maybe people just aren’t ready to hear every possible genre of pop music (minus country) blended together like this.

47.)Islands – Arm’s Way

The beloved Unicorns have dwindled down so far that only this band called Islands is left. Their latest release, Arm’s Way, sounds about as far from the goofy Unicorns as it can. The songs create tension and release, feature peaks and valleys, build and convey emotions, and are generally huge. Unfortunately there are some negative differences, too. But Arm’s Way is a good record.

48.)Cut Copy – In Ghost Colours

One of the best electronic dance albums of the year, in a time absolutely filled with them.

49.)Love Is All – A Hundred Things Keep Me Up At Night

2005’s Nine Times That Same Song came out of nowhere and set the standard for female-fronted European rock groups. Its songs moved and shook while echoing all over the place. They tended to be cathartic for both the singer and listener while remaining a joy to experience. A Hundred Things Keep Me Up At Night picks up where that left off, minus the glorious reverb. A couple more releases like this and Love Is All will become legends.

50.)Mahjongg – Kontpab

Another really good arty electronic dance album. Check out “Those Birds Are Bats” and “Rise Rice” for two of the best dance songs of the year.

51.)Plants and Animals – Parc Avenue

Parc Avenue is a nice set of well-crafted Canadian indie-folk songs. This band should have a large following very soon.

52.)Evangelicals – The Evening Descends

This band is easy to compare to fellow Oklahomans The Flaming Lips. They’re weird, quirky, and really really good. The Evening Descends is their best album so far.

53.)The Verve – Forth

This legendary British band released three stunning albums in the ‘90s, though they’re unfairly categorized as a one-hit wonder for “Bittersweet Symphony.” Forth is their unlikely comeback. It not only neglects to embarrass the band, but it actually does justice to their greatness with a great bunch of songs. It is a worthy addition to The Verve’s wonderful collection.

54.)Crystal Stilts – Alight At Night

Yes, Crystal Stilts are another eMusic Selects band. Like the others, they’re really good, deserve some of the spotlight, and will hopefully have a long career. Alight At Night is a really good post-punk album along the lines of Interpol, without sounding too derivative. Well worth the listen.

55.)Times New Viking – Rip It Off

Rip It Off is the best record so far by these Pavement-like noisenicks

56.)Okkervil River – The Stand-Ins

Originally meant to be a second disc to go with last year’s wonderful The Stage Names, The Stand-Ins makes for not only a good companion to the album, but stands nicely by itself.

57.)Dungen – 4

These Swedish prog-folkers can’t seem to stop releasing quality albums from the 1960’s.

58.)Lil Wayne – Tha Carter III

Pop rap at its best.

59.)Brendan Canning – Something For All Of Us

True to its title, this quality album features a wide variety of indie rock genres.

60.)Deastro – Keepers

This electronic artist and eMusic Selectee displays talent and the ability to craft a fine album here.

61.)Titus Andronicus – The Airing Of Grievances

Although it borders on the emo side of the spectrum, The Airing Of Grievances is a well-written album that unfolds nicely with each listen.

62.)The Mountain Goats – Heretic Pride

Heretic Pride is another quality album from lo-fi pioneers The Mountain Goats. “Lovecraft In Brooklyn” flat out rocks.

63.)MGMT – Oracular Spectacular

Wow, this band blew up. Their cool sound and snarky lyrics make this album a whole lot of fun.

64.)British Sea Power – Do You Like Rock Music?

Do You Like Rock Music follows through on its awesome title with a collection of awesome rock songs.

65.)Magnetic Fields – Distortion

Mega-prolific band Magnetic Fields tries their hand at Jesus And Mary Chain-style jangle pop/shoegaze to very entertaining results.

66.)The Ruby Suns – Sea Lion

Much like El Guincho, The Ruby Suns make island music that’s actually worth listening to.

67.)Evangelista – Hello Voyager

This polarizing album is either great because of its weirdness or horrible because of its weirdness. I’d say it’s great.

68.)Drive-By Truckers – Brighter Than Creation’s Dark

Drive-By Truckers are one of the best, most unheralded bands around. Brighter Than Creation’s Dark continues their tradition of releasing consistently great albums.

69.)Vapnet – Doda Fallet

Vapnet makes joyful pop music sung in Swedish. Listening to Doda Fallet may actually make you happier

70.)Devotchka – A Mad And Faithful Telling

A Mad And Faithful Telling makes for another great Central American/gypsy-folk album from Devotchka, best known for their work on the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

New Music: Microcastle

I’ve put off reviewing Deerhunter’s new album, Microcastle, for a while since its leak. Quality has nothing to do with this decision; it’s a great record. Instead, I was a bit troubled by the timing of the leak – it happened at the start of the summer, even before a release date (Oct. 28) was announced. I just didn’t feel good hyping something that may or may not even come out. Well, several weeks ago, the date was posted alongside the album artwork. I just couldn’t wait anymore.

The band’s previous release, Cryptograms, was a surprising high point from last year, as was its companion EP, Fluorescent Grey. Lead singer, Bradford Cox, put out a fantastic solo album (Atlas Sound, Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel) early this year that will pace high on the ladder at the end of the year. Deerhunter is suddenly prolific, an improbable surprise to those who were introduced to the band through their rough 2005 self-titled debut. How they progressed from there to the beautifully polished songwriters they are now is anyone’s guess.

Enough about their backstory… How is Microcastle? Wonderful!

Like Cryptograms, Microcastle starts out with a pretty instrumental piece (“Cover Me, Slowly”) that flows into a nifty lead track. That’s pretty much where the similarities end. Sure they have those echoing sounds, vocal effects, and that propulsive drumming; but Microcastle is happier, catchier, and more listener-friendly. After listening to Cryptograms about a million times, I could probably write a dissertation about its connotations with mental illness, how each track interacts to tell a musical story, how the compositions are near perfect, etc. Sure I could do that, but here’s the catch: it took me about a million listens to be able to get it. Microcastle doesn’t need to grow on you, it’s already there.

Considering how busy Bradford Cox has been lately, it’s not really a surprise that he hands the vocal duties to guitarist Lockett Pundt for a couple songs (including the opener). Cole Alexander (from the Black Lips) also takes vocal duties for a track (Saved by Old Times), leaving Cox’s signature voice to about 3/4ths of the album. That’s okay, really, because guest vocals are a fun idea. The album is supposed to be fun: if Cryptograms was all about depression, Microcastle is all about what happens afterward.

Deerhunter just have fun with this album. “Nothing Ever Happened” explores Krautrock. The lyrics on “Agoraphobia” are so morbid, they’re silly. “Cover Me, Slowly” starts the album with a decidedly epic chord progression. “Saved By Old Times” features the line, “We were captured by Victorian vampires with elaborate designs.” Gone is the creepy weirdness so prevalent of Cryptograms and Fluorescent Grey: the band seems to have shifted their colors.

The new Deerhunter is not only fun, they know how to, well, rock. Several songs are loud and bombastic, and, dare I say it, epic. “Never Stops”, “Neither Of Us, Uncertainly”, and “Twilight At Carbon Lake” each build to grandiose finales, and the album purposefully goes through a little valley (“Calvary Scars”, “Green Jacket”, “Actavia”) in order to build up to a huge conclusion. Like U2’s best albums, Microcastle is both inspired and inspiring.

Sure, it’s not as great as Cryptograms (the best album from the recent shoegaze re-hash), but Microcastle doesn’t want to be. It’s a smart, fun, catchy pop album filled with rewarding hooks and sounds and noises. Its buildups and falldowns are emotionally affecting, and every piece works the way it should. Microcastle is one of the best records of the year.

EDIT: You can buy it on iTunes right now. Please do so... It's worth it!

Nothing Ever Happened - Deerhunter

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Don't Forget About... Lesser Matters

The next entry in my series spotlighting under-appreciated albums.

You know, I’ve listened to this so many times, I probably don’t need a refresher listen to write this post. The Radio Dept,’s Lesser Matters is not only one of my favorite records, but it’s a flawless album…

It’s not that it’s groundbreaking or revolutionary or genius or any of that; Lesser Matters won’t blow your mind. It is, in fact, a relatively straightforward pop/rock album with shoegaze undertones.

Unlike most shoegaze, however, The Radio Dept. doesn’t try to wash your feet out from under you with noise. They, instead, transport you to another time and place with ambience. Take, for example, “Slottet #2”. On the surface, it’s a little instrumental break in the record. A bit deeper in the mix lay echoes of rustling leaves. This smart little addition instantly puts you on a country lane in the fall, making the song necessary to the flow of the album. Brilliant.

This approach works great with the vocal tracks, as well. A touch of ambient haze makes each song seem like a fond memory, placing importance and familiarity on the reflective lyrics. Though I was only 10 in 1995, the song bearing the same name makes me nostalgic for the days of my distant childhood. When they sing, “You can’t touch me ‘cause I’m way beyond you today,” in the song “Strange Things Will Happen”, the listener is really placed on an emotional plateau. If everyone viewed art as the search for emotional beauty and serenity, this would be a hallmark of the music medium.

It’s not as if that’s even the highlight of the album, though. If anything, the shoegaze element is simply an afterthought, a footnote in the list of things that makes Lesser Matters so great. At one point I got so stuck trying to choose a song off this album while making a mix for my soon-to-be wife, I decided just to give her the entire CD. It’s like every track is the record’s strong point. In a perfect world these would be hits burning up the charts. If only…

But that’s the thing; Lesser Matters isn’t about “what if,” it’s about what was. If you want a quiet evening of reflection, pop this sucker in and sit back – it’s a memory stimulant. Gosh, the first time I heard this thing, I didn’t leave the couch until I completed the third listen. Each minute of Lesser Matters distracts you from your surroundings and puts you somewhere else. It’s the audio equivalent to reading a great book, and, being 43 minutes long, it’s highly (but not dangerously) addictive.

Oh, and it’s not just an album full of great individual songs. Lesser Matters works great as a whole, starting out with a fast pace and traversing a unique ebb and flow. They give and take, stopping for a breath with the afore-mentioned “Slottet #2”. When Lesser Matters concludes, it does so with flair and perfect timing. Each arrangement is packed with melodies and hooks, but not so many to make the listener’s head spin. Each composition suits the song just right. There is nothing less than ideal about this record.

As is the case with such brilliant debuts, The Radio Dept. has spun their wheels a bit since they put out Lesser Matters back in 2004. The Swedes' last few releases, while pretty good, lack the same unspoken something that makes this one so great. That’s okay, though. This album will provide memories for a lifetime.

The Radio Dept. - Lesser Matters

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Goodbye... Wait For Me

The latest in my series about albums to be deleted from my iPod.

There’s an underground British scene creating some great music right now. It’s cranking it out at a frantic pace, with nearly every release being borderline essential. Taking cues from, but not aping, important pop forefathers, this scene is arguably the future of the underground and a refreshingly creative alternative to the run-of-the-mill fodder largely being released right now.

The Pigeon Detectives are not part of this scene.

A band called The Libertines was formed in the late '90s. They took cues from such NME favorites as The Clash, The Jam, and Oasis. The Libertines broke up after two mediocre albums, but were a huge commercial success anyway. This was due in no small part to the critical bandwagon driven by, surprise surprise, NME and Q magazines. Their legacy has now reached legendary status, and their followers (re: posers) are burning up British radio and charts. This means whatever creativity The Libertines once claimed to own has been mined and stripped of all value. Now the first wave of imitators (see: Artic Monkeys) have imitators of their own. Heaven help us.

Yes, The Pigeon Detectives are one of these rip-off rip-offs.

Let’s get one thing straight. The Pigeon Detectives don’t suck. They are a pretty good technical band: they play tight, seem to have aptitude at their instruments, and are well-produced. No, my problem with has nothing to do with their aptitude. I just wish they’d, you know, try.

You can’t fault a band for using standard song structures. Most songs are written that way because it’s what works. But The Pigeon Detectives have other common (re: cliché) elements to their songs: hand-claps (see: The Kaiser Chiefs), responding backing vocals (see: Artic Monkeys), danceable staccato guitar lines (see: Franz Ferdinand), and attempts at “humorous,” self-effacing lyrics (see: every other band in this lousy genre). And they do it pretty well. The thing is, there are hundreds of other bands doing the exact same thing!

The world doesn’t need another Jam/Clash/Oasis/Libertines/Arctic Monkeys/Franz Ferdinand/Kaiser Chiefs.

The thing is, their sound isn’t even that good! It’s danceable, but not that danceable. It’s driving, but not that driving. It’s clever, but not that clever. Man, it all just sounds the same.

I know I haven’t even mentioned their album, Wait For Me, yet. Do I have to? I mean, c’mon, I can’t even tell the songs apart, much less these bands. I wouldn’t listen to The Pigeon Detectives even if I liked this type of music. Go listen to dubstep, England’s other current underground music scene. It’s inspired, groundbreaking, creative, and just… better. This garbage? Delete.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Don't Forget About... Witching Hour

The next entry in my series spotlighting under-appreciated albums.

The club scene is one I’ll never know. It’s dark, glamorous, and devoid of emotion. The occupants of the best ones, it seems, dance not because they want to, but because they have to. Icy stares suggest having a night out is some kind of duty. No, this is not something for me. It is, however something with mysterious appeal…

Enter Ladytron, a British band whose reputation from the get-go was shrouded by their involvement (and arguably pilfered sound) of the club scene. It seemed the critics and public alike didn’t take it as seriously as the group and their compatriots. The band’s music was for clubbers, made by clubbers, and there was little appeal outside those boundaries. At least until 2005 when they released Witching Hour.

Like any other great album, Witching Hour works on various levels… It works as an ode to the aforementioned club scene, with every song pulsing with an aggressive fury urging listeners to dance. Lyrically, this is a love letter to nightlife: with subject matter rarely venturing past lullabies of endless weekends, Ladytron is sticking to what they know best.

Witching Hour also works as a breakthrough album, fusing their already-established electronic sound with the re-emerging shoegaze flavor. The newfound echo and ambience of their keyboards and guitars makes Ladytron sound like they are hosting a dance party in a haunted house. Of course, the creepy Bulgarian lyrics of “Fighting In Built Up Areas” make this an apt comparison. Track after monster track pummels the listener until their head spins, and the record’s hazy sound makes you just feel like you’re in a club. This isn’t just Ladytron’s best album, it’s one of the best dance albums ever.

Another trait of great records is the closing song, and Witching Hour follows suit with “All The Way”. Like the rest of the album, the lyrics are sung with little emotion. The music, however, tells the real story here. The song’s tension and release puts the listener into a reflective state, as if something worth remembering just happened. It’s the sound of Ladytron going home after the party, looking forward to the next.

Though Witching Hour is unquestionably Ladytron’s high point, 2008 follow-up, Velocifero, is nearly as good. This is encouraging news, as very few bands can affect a listener like Ladytron. Their sound is that of pure escapism, the essence of club life. They don’t bring the listener to their element, they bring their element to the listener: that is the mark of a worthwhile group, and a trait few bands possess. Bravo!

Ladytron - Witching Hour

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Goodbye... Maladroit

The latest in my series about albums to be deleted from my iPod...

“There ain’t no hope for me anymore,” says Rivers Cuomo in “American Gigolo”, the opening track off Weezer’s Maladroit. “If you hate this, I don’t blame you,” he goes on to say.

Hate is a strong word, usually reserved for the most burning of abominations. Weezer’s “comeback” is one of those abominations.

Their career started out well enough: two consecutive classic albums (The Blue Album and Pinkerton) and a strong fan base. That made their third release, The Green Album, forgivable. It was, after all, a comeback album. It also sported a couple pretty great songs: “Island in the Sun” and “Photograph” come to mind. Maladroit has no such redeeming qualities… Yes, it’s all bad.

How bad can it be, you ask.

Well, it ranges from trite alt-rock clichés (“Dope Nose”) to downright obnoxious sing alongs (“Slob”). Throw in the least tongue-in-cheek, least called-for guitar hero solos, and you’ve got something not fit for public consumption. The lyrics are tepid, and the music is samey – what with the same crummy-tone guitars downstroking through the album like an over-caffeinated mallpunk. Give me a break. Or at least some variety.

Parting shot: besides The Green Album, this is the peak of Weezer’s post-Pinkerton career. Things only got worse from here. That’s saying a lot, considering I can’t even make it all the way through this thing to write this post. Delete.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Don't Forget About... Scavengers

The first in a series spotlighting certain under-appreciated albums.

Calla’s Scavengers (2001) left a permanent impression on me the first time I heard it. It’s not epic, it’s not life affirming, it’s not anything that people would like to call ‘classic,’ and that’s okay: it doesn’t need to be. Instead, it’s a very good album that I caught at the right place at the right time…

Secluded near the television in-between bouts of homework, I was with a lonely college boy’s best friend (or was it just mine?) – Knights of the Old Republic on the xBox. All by myself in the basement, I spent the Friday evening wielding a lightsaber while downing a bag of Cheetos and drinking Dr. Pepper. My brain cells cooked as my muscles rotted.

When such things are done out of necessity rather than convenience, there is a certain attitude life’s necessary soundtrack must take… By no means one of joy, but not one of despair either. No, such a state is voluntary, though not desirable. It’s a feeling of willing self-depreciation, taking joy in your wasting away. Scavengers hits those notes perfectly.

It’s easy to stare your vision into blurry focus when the country-twang guitar solo descends into hazy feedback and background noise on “Traffic Sound.” It’s like the solo’s Lone Ranger just died in a heroic rescue attempt, but the listener is still vegetating. Other such buildups are thwarted during the listen as well, but the debauchery of “Traffic Sound” is probably the most affecting. The album, being full of such moments, doesn’t want you to get up and do something with your life; it just wants you to get up for another beer. For example, the most upbeat song on the album, “Slum Creeper,” buries what, in another life, may be a dance guitar riff under a deep, lazy bass line determined to keep up its slow pace. Even when the song builds, it does so into deafening noise instead of a stadium cheer. It’s as if the music is yelling at you: “Sit down!”

It’s not until the beautiful closer, a cover of U2’s “Promenade”, that Calla give up the bleak outlook. The song, though it didn’t make much sense on The Unforgettable Fire (U2’s best album, by the way), works perfectly here, capturing the simple beauty of an everyday situation. Listen, it says, enjoy your moments: not just the happy ones, but the sad ones too. It’s all life; each moment has its own importance and significance, take it all in and appreciate it. And then you start to feel better.

So, that’s the desired affect; that’s what makes it so good. So what’s it sound like exactly? Like a cowboy riding the New York subway at 3:00 a.m. Calla uses Texas guitars (with twang, echo, and vibrato) to accent songs rooted with pummeling bass and electronic textures. At times, it seems a bit creepy-crawly (there is a bug on the album cover, after all), and every sound is liable to get engulfed in the haze of the feedback hovering through the album like an apparition. In the right circumstances, listening to Scavengers could make your spine shiver in fright. But most of you probably wouldn’t listen to this while reading Kafka in a low-lit room (don’t do it, trust me).

Of course, I’m not telling you to give Scavengers a try just because there isn’t a lot out there with its particular shade of melancholy. I’m telling you to try it because it’s so good it just may own your soul. Or at least comfort it.

Calla - Scavengers

Thursday, May 22, 2008

New Music: At Mount Zoomer

Despite how much has happened since September 2005, Wolf Parade's debut, With Apologies To The Queen Mary still sounds fresh. At the time, it seemed Wolf Parade was just like any other band - a group of people who tour and write music together. Except there was a small difference: Wolf Parade had two songwriters; they were a sort of an indie rock Fugazi. In the three years since then, both writers (Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug) have found their own avenues and developed their own sounds. Boeckner's Handsome Furs project features rather straightforward songwriting and song structure with little musical arrangement - just his voice and guitar over his wife's electronics. Though Handsome Furs is much better than their description sounds, it is still overshadowed by Krug's work with Sunset Rubdown, a solo outing-turned full band. Featuring three albums of complex arrangements, clever lyricism, and, well, epic bombast, Sunset Rubdown seems to have become Krug's main musical outlet (and put out one of the best 60 minutes of this generation with Random Spirit Lover).

Yes, Wolf Parade has revealed itself to be a sort of super-group. Just look at the amount of side-projects held by its members...

Spencer Krug: Sunset Rubdown, Frog Eyes, Swan Lake, Fifths of Seven
Dan Boeckner: Handsome Furs
Dante DeCaro: Hot Hot Heat, Johnny and the Moon
Hadji Bakara: Megasoid
Arlen Thompson: played drums for the Arcade Fire, though not a part of the band

Supergroups definitely have a stigma to them, and for good reason: they rarely work well together. Even when they do work well, most people would rather just listen to their members' other work. But Canadian supergroups, at least these days, seem to be an exception to the rule (see The New Pornographers, and Swan Lake), so it's necessary to keep an open mind about Wolf Parade's latest, At Mount Zoomer.

Sorry about the 300 word preamble, but it's necessary to know the facts before listening to this album. Not because it affects the listening experience, but to highlight just what an achievement this album is.

The review begins here...

Let's just get this out of the way: there is no "I'll Believe In Anything" on At Mount Zoomer. In fact, most of the pop sensibilities from With Apologies To The Queen Mary are gone. At Mount Zoomer aims for something more than just a collection of single-worthy tunes (not to take anything away from With Apologies' greatness) - this is a cohesive remark about the state of the band... They aren't going anywhere.

Opener "Soldier's Grin" may be the best song Dan Boeckner has ever written. The first half of the song gives At Mount Zoomer a sunny beginning, but it doesn't last long - "Soldier's Grin" transitions into an intense, slow-paced stomp unlike anything Boeckner or Wolf Parade have done before. Yes, Boeckner's songs are obviously his, but this is the sound of Spencer Krug at work. It's the sound of Handsome Furs and Sunset Rubdown fusing into one - the ideal Wolf Parade.

Though At Mount Zoomer features the best songs of Boeckner's career, he doesn't necessarily steal the show. Krug's writing captures the same intensity as his latest Sunset Rubdown release, Random Spirit Lover. However, these aren't the kind of masterful pop songs Krug may be best known for ("I'll Believe In Anything", "All Fires"). Instead, these are mood pieces - their dramatic stories (ranging from escape and peril to a scorned lover) give At Mount Zoomer a sort of dark energy or menace: the "take" to Boeckner's "give." Oh yeah, and his voice still sounds as if he's being strangled while singing - it's a love or hate affair.

The individual performances here mesh very well - this sounds like the work of a full-time band, not a side project. Though it's not clear which guitar is Boeckner's and which is Dante DeCaro's, it doesn't matter; the work here is masterful, validating Sub Pop's dissertation that At Mount Zoomer is this generation's Marquee Moon (by Television). Krug and Hadji Bakara's keyboards are equally impressive, and it seems by his drumming that Arlen Thompson has been listening to Sunset Rubdown (this is a good thing).

This is all well and good for the nine songs on the album; there are not very many weak points on At Mount Zoomer. The closest it comes to a let down is Krug's "California Dreamer", not because it's a bad song, but because it's exuberance doesn't seem to match the song's subject matter very well. At first listen, 10-minute closer "Kissing The Beehive" also seems like a mistake. It aims for three epic movements, but can seem impenetrable until further listens reveal all of the hooks waiting to be discovered...

In a way, "Kissing The Beehive" is a microcosm of At Mount Zoomer: it's a duet between Krug and Boeckner backed by thunderous drums, eerie keyboards, and aggressive guitar work... At least for the beginning. Soon, "Kissing The Beehive" turns into a dance-rock party fueled by a twitchy high-hat and a killer guitar riff (presumably DeCarto's - he was in Hot Hot Heat, you know). As if it was his last breath, Krug yelps, "Fire in the hole!" during the section - in any other context this would be cheesy, but, wow, it works so well here! Then, the song suddenly turns ominous, and remains so for the its last three minutes, as if it were exit music as the band walks off-stage... It's intentionally leaving you wanting more; it's almost a promise that they'll be back. Just wait and see.

Hopefully, we won't have to wait three more years though...

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Goodbye... Rooney

The first in my series about albums I'm deleting from my iPod.

Oh man, this one has been a long time in coming.

Rooney's self-titled debut is one of those albums I'm a bit embarrassed to actually own. I really don't know where to begin with the thing. Should I start with the insipid lyrics? Okay...

Yeah, everyone goes through high school - it's understandable that there is such a huge market for teen-related songs, but my gosh, there are tasteful ways of writing lyrics that apply to the age group... and Rooney knows nothing of them: "I'm a horrible person, I read her diary... I told all of her secrets to all the guys in town - they all laugh and slap me five. Oh yeah!" How could you listen to those words and not laugh? It would be one thing if they weren't serious...

Speaking of serious, let's talk about pretension for a second. It would seem a no-name group such as Rooney (at least pre-OC soundtrack Rooney) would maybe be a little more realistic about their (small) place in the world. Think again! Case-in-point... "Popstars"... I can look beyond the chorus lambasting "money-making machines", but judging from the lyrics posted above, Rooney has no business tossing around the word "unsophisticated". They do it anyway.

There are several things I find hilarious about this clip. My favorite is the fact that the performance takes place on popstar Carson Daly's show. If there are truly "killers of rock 'n roll", then Rooney is holding the knife.

I guess I don't really care that Rooney sounds exactly like Weezer. It's more the utter lack of creativity, intelligence, taste, etc. that gets to me. Besides, any band with a high probability of listing Switchfoot as an influence is on thin ice as far as I'm concerned.

There are other aspects I can't stand about this album, but to give it a full review is to give it more than it's worth. Let's just say it's bad and leave it at that.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Oh, you pretty things!

I'm back like Ma$e.

Apologies for the, er, lengthy departure. I know, it's kind of a buzzkill.

But I'm back (see above)!

So, what's in store for Wasted Style? Changes? Nah, just more content, more good times, more everything.

Tragedy struck in my absence, boys and girls. It seems 60 gigs simply isn't enough iPod space when exploring legendary back catalogs and (trying) to keep up on new stuff. Monetary difficulties make it all but impossible for me to afford a fancy new iPod (No! Devil, eBay, you will NOT have my soul!), so it looks like I'll be going the other route... sorting through the machine's contents in the search to find out what is simply not good enough to be in there.

What won't make the cut?
What will redeem itself?
Only time will tell!!

Oh yeah, and I'll keep you posted on the results.

Sounds like a plan!

P.S. I missed you.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

New Music: Devotion

It seems funny that a band called Beach House would release an album in the winter. That is, until you hear their music. Much like its February release date, Devotion is bleak, cold, and beautiful. Like the coldest of seasons, it’s Beach House’s desolation that makes it so pretty.

Similar to the band’s self-titled debut, Devotion consists of simple songs and instrumentation. The sounds here don’t vary from their established keyboard/organ/guitar/drum machine template. Victoria Legrand’s voice, compared to Nico by All Music Guide, shines through the barren echoes of the accompanying music, telling stories of despair. Beach House is certainly not summer music.

It’s not bad, either. “You Came to Me” builds up to a mysterious climax as Legrand sings “You came to my in my dreams.” The music suggests those weren’t daydreams. “Gila” and “Turtle Island,” like most of the other songs on Devotion, are beautifully sad. The album truly reaches its peak with the “Holy Dances,” “All The Years,” “Heart Of Chambers” trio. The three songs conjoin with each other and share the same nearly sing-song sensibility – one not found on their debut.

The main weakness of this album is that it’s strongest in the middle. It doesn’t start flat or fizzle out, but its moments of brilliance and beauty are found mostly mid-way through. That’s not to say the end is entirely devoid of “moments,” though. “Astronaut” ends with a catchy background vocal riff that appears at just the right time in the tune. “D.A.R.L.I.N.G.” takes elements of surf music and seems to, well, sedate them – staccato organ riffs, buzzing guitars, and surf beats are all devoid of all but despair here. In fact this song, like most of the album, sounds like it came from a haunted house – in a good way, of course.

With Devotion, Beach House has created one of the better albums of 2008 so far. It’s impossibly pretty, yet bleak, mood calls to mind other beautifully sad releases…

Calla – Scavengers
Beck – Sea Change
The Durutti Coumn – Someone Else’s Party
The Clientele – Strange Geometry

Devotion and these other releases are worth checking out on a rainy, or snowy, day.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Loveless or Loving?

It's been 2008 for a little while and nothing has been released (or, uh, leaked) that holds a candle to the best of '07. That's not so much a knock on this year, as it is a compliment to its predecessor. But, nonetheless, there isn't a lot to grab my ears. Sure Destroyer's Trouble In Dreams (March 18) is pretty good, as is (Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox) Atlas Sound's Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel (Feb. 19 - soon!). Yes, there are other decent releases - Vampire Weekend's self-titled is pretty adorable - but it's more the promise of things to come that has me salivating... not so much the stuff I've heard so far.

My Bloody Valentine, like, one of my favorite bands, say they've got something new for us to hear. It's about time. Sixteen years is a long while in-between releases, especially at this band's caliber. Though their body of work consists of a modest 4.1 hours, according to iTunes, MBV's back-catalog is pretty stunning. Yeah, Loveless and Isn't Anything were great, but the Jesus and Mary Chain-aping Ecstasy and Wine is just as essential. You can hear its influence all over new favorites like last year's Liars self-titled album and this year's Distortion by The Magnetic Fields. Ecstasy proves there are actually songs under the hazy symphony of noise normally associated with the band.

But what a symphony it is! Yeah, only two of their full-lengths sound like that but, gosh, their similar EP's are so... great! Glider and Tremolo, probably their best EP's, are actually in print but hard to find without Amazon. Their You Made Me Realise EP is also a classic, and the Feed Me With Your Kiss EP is pretty good. But, you know, that's what eBay is for.

They have older material, too, but it's not worth checking out as much. Even so, three albums and four EP's make a pretty decent body of work worth checking out before they unveil what has been 16 years in the making.

But, yeah, that's all well and good. Is it true?

That's debatable. I remember a couple of years ago the Web was alive with news about a forthcoming boxset with all of their releases - LP's, EP's, and singles. Tell me when you've seen it, and it would be greatly appreciated. And, yeah, the band's been under contract to release new material since, well, before Loveless. That means every year I've been paying attention, a rumor has surfaced regarding this supposed masterpiece. And what about the "lost album?" You know, the full-length version of Glider that spawned Loveless! Did that just, uh, disappear?

Kevin Shields has been up to stuff lately. The idea has people's mouths watering, but what he's really been up to is no good. His work with Primal Scream, with the exception of EXTRMNTR, had been garbage. So have his soundtrack contributions.

So the question now is a two-parter... Is MBV setting us up for disappointment with a phantom album? Or are they setting us up for disappointment with a trashy release?

But let's stay optimistic. Their new one is 16 years in the making. It could be something more than worth hearing. And, Shields says, most of it was written and recorded shortly after Loveless... during the band's stride.

I'm crossing my fingers. And listening to their back-catalog.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The best of 2007

So 2007 was a wonderful year for music; even better than 2005 and much better than 2006.  It was so good, in fact, that a list of 10 or 20 won't do.  There are 50 albums on this list, but let's be realistic: there were way more than 50 great releases in '07.  In fact, I could have made a list of my top 75 but c'mon, I'm not that much of a nerd.  Fifty will do...

1. Sunset Rubdown – Random Spirit Lover

While his other band, Wolf Parade, had bloggers’ mouths watering about a release slated for this year (it’s now set for 2008), songwriter extraordinaire Spencer Krug quietly released a Sunset Rubdown album in October.  The singer/songwriter/keyboardist/guitarist later admitted to an online magazine that he obsessed over the record. He said he put in so much effort, he just wanted to move on from the album’s content after its completion.  These sentiments may well be experienced by listeners. That is: obsession and exhaustion.  Random Spirit Lover is certainly not for everyone.  It defies simple categorization (prog circus-rock?), because of its absurd individual parts.  In fact, it sounds like it would be downright awful when these parts are taken into consideration: 70’s prog-rock lead guitars, 80’s sleaze-metal synths, carnival music, A Capella vocal interludes… all while the singer does his best Bowie impression.  The music is as chaotic as it seems, as each song bleeds into the next with a sweeping fury.  And yet it all works.  Random Spirit Lover is a surprisingly cohesive album that boasts thoughtful, if off-kilter, orchestration and lyrics.  It’s all set to a sort of stage-production theme where actors intermingle with “winged wicked things” and “stallions.”  Though the meaning behind the lyrics (and music, for that matter) is often vague, insight unravels with each successive listen.  Often, as with the musical arrangements, it’s when the songwriting is viewed as a whole (and with patience) that it makes sense.  In fact, it makes sense enough to be one of the best albums of the decade.

2. The National – Boxer

This band is just getting better and better.  The National’s self-titled debut was a solid indie-pop album that took cues from the alt-country scene (Wilco, etc.).  A solid step forward with Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers was succeeded by Alligator, which had bloggers and (some) critics crying “classic.”  As with all of these records, Boxer is a great piece of work that takes some time to fully digest.  On the surface it’s a collection of quality, albeit simple, songs sung by a deep-voiced frontman.  Deeper probing reveals extraordinary drumming, subtly effective string arrangements, clever lyrics, and strong hooks.  In fact, Boxer is so full of hooks, each song will dance in your head and have you swearing it’s your favorite on the album.  It’s tasteful, melodic, and beautiful (just ask David Letterman), and the band’s strongest effort to date.  It’s not a niche or concept album, it’s not a hard-rocker, it’s not composed of a couple great songs and filler.  It’s simply a straightforward collection of no-frills songs.  Boxer is the kind of album you treasure for years to come.

3. Deerhunter – Cryptograms

The shoegaze scene is slowly making a comeback.  Unfortunately, a comeback for a scene comprised of just a few bands, a small fan base, and little critical attention requires little more than a few like-minded albums.  The genre’s trademark spacey, echoing ambience has showed up recently on records by groups like Asobi Seksu, Blonde Redhead, and A Place To Bury Strangers.  Last year’s self-titled effort by Norwegian band Serena Maneesh marked the finest release of shoegaze since the mid-90’s, paving the way for Deerhunter’s equally great Cryptograms.  This Georgian band is known for its jarring live performances, oftentimes featuring singer Bradford Cox in a Cobain-style dress.  The band’s recently negatively well-publicized blog also distracts from the true business at hand – the music.  Ambient instrumental soundscapes pioneered by bands like Slowdive appear on the first half of the album, in-between surprisingly aggressive rock songs.  As experimental as the first half is, it works surprisingly well with its concluding section that features poppier songs, closer to the style of, say, Ride.  Cryptograms is a bi-polar work, where two sides explore nearly opposite styles.  Yet it works as a sort of encompassing guide to shoegaze, showing the best of what the genre had to offer in its heyday.  In fact, Cryptograms ranks as not just one of the best albums of the shoegaze rebirth, but one of the best the genre has to offer at all.  Don’t let the band’s attention-grabbing antics fool you, their music actually deserves the spotlight.

4. Radiohead – In Rainbows

For their 7th album, Radiohead again blazed new trails.  This one, however, sounds familiar.  In Rainbows is the sound of a band realizing it doesn’t have to change the world.  Instead, Radiohead chose to write 10 pop songs.  The band’s subject matter used to regard technology, cloning, and the government.  In Rainbows focuses on relationships.  Relationships!  Of course the music shows the usual attention to detail, but nothing here is groundbreaking; the guitars sound like guitars.  Odds are, none of this will end up on American radio, but there is nothing inaccessible on In Rainbows (which may explain why they offered it for free on their Web site).  Instead, the beauty of each song shines through, making Radiohead seem more human than they ever have… This is for better and worse.  There are weak spots on this album.  The beauty is that the band doesn’t seem to care.  Kid A and O.K. Computer were perfect albums, and Hail to the Thief tried, but fell short of perfection.  In Rainbows sees its flaws, accepts them, and is better for it.  When compared to Radiohead’s previous output, In Rainbows is, of course, inferior.  But if any other band did it, it would be called genius.  Hence, it is.

5. Burial – Untrue

This faceless artist’s follow-up to last year’s self-titled debut came as a surprise late in 2007.  Untrue matches Burial in beauty, but adds some more of its own, all the while avoiding the predecessor’s rough patches.  It’s really good.  But what is it?  Pigeonholed into the dubstep genre, Burial is an act that transcends its categorization.  While there are reference points of dub (primarily in the beats), the electronic music also takes cues from ambient works, such as Fennesz’s Endless Summer.  It has a mist of reverb throughout, making the surprising bits that occur in each song stand out enough to raise hair.  The album also suggests a modern R&B influence, though it’s restricted to only the samples.  Untrue is as enigmatic as it’s artist.  It floats around at its own pace, buried under a mysterious background haze.  Though it’s addicting to listen to anywhere, the record seems designed to be listened to on a dark subway at night.  It’s eerie, yet beautiful… solitary.

6.     Panda Bear – Person Pitch

It’s hard to refrain from using The Beach Boys as a comparison when discussion Person Pitch.  Though Panda Bear’s album shares the same sunny disposition as the legendary surfers, the differences end there.  Person Pitch is a modern take on 60’s art rock, blending the usual instrumentation with electronics.  The songwriting is trippy, but Panda Bear makes it work, and it’s no wonder – he’s a songwriting force in the equally experimental Animal Collective.  Don’t let that scare you, though, Person Pitch is surprisingly accessible.

7.     Iron and Wine – The Shepard’s Dog

The best singer/songwriter record this year, The Shepard’s Dog is Iron and Wine’s finest album, due in no small part to the full band approach in its production.  The music puts you in its own world…  dusty roads and apple orchards during a cloudy day.  Lyrically, The Shepard’s Dog creates separate scenarios involving awkward situations and shady characters.  Approach this as a movie, with the music as the setting and the lyrics as the story.

8.     Okkervil River – The Stage Names

Sure, vocals on The Stage Names seem more than a little screamo-inspired.  That’s certainly something that takes some time to get past, but underneath the surface lays the best pure indie-pop album of the year that isn’t The National’s Boxer.  The arrangements are tightly woven around some great songwriting in this mix of acoustic ballads and distorted rock songs.  The Stage Names is both straightforward and wonderful.

9.     Of Montreal – Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?

This mishmash of glam rock and electronica centers around Of Montreal mastermind Keven Barnes’ reaction to his recent divorce.  The album is passionate and emotional, but also has a wicked sense of humor.  Yes, it’s easy to cringe as the singer references his mistakes, but the up-tempo cheeriness of the music keeps your head up as Barnes does the same.

10.  M.I.A. – Kala

It’s no wonder the singles from Kala have found their way to the likes of MTV.  Though popular radio (and television) is notorious for having poor taste and judgment, it features songs that are easy to grasp and relate to.  M.I.A. does just that with this hip-hop album.  It remains catchy and cool, while incorporating unconventional beats and samples that make it the most interesting radio-friendly release of the year.

11.  Beirut – The Flying Club Cup

Zach Condon’s fifth release in the past two years (second full-length) improves on last year’s Gulag Orkestar, one of the best debuts in a while.  Like its predecessor, The Flying Club Cup molds indie-pop with European gypsy-folk music to create something fresh and unique.  This one features Beirut’s tightest arrangements to date, making it the band’s best work so far.

12.  Lucky Soul – The Great Unwanted

As of right now, The Great Unwanted is only available in England, and that’s too bad.  It’s a great recreation of 50’s girl-fronted pop with smart arrangements and a sultry lead singer.  Definitely the most romantic album of the year.

13.  Animal Collective – Strawberry Jam

Though impenetrable upon first listen, Strawberry Jam is a warped take on pop music by freak-folkers Animal Collective.  It’s one of those records that’s inexplicably good: those who like it can’t really explain why.  Strawberry Jam can be addictive for those who can wrap their minds around it.

14.  Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga

Spoon may be the most consistent band of our time.  Each release has been a tasty slice of pop songcraft, and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is no exception.  Though not quite as good as the masterful Gimme Fiction, this record is still a gem, anchored by Britt Daniel’s unmistakable voice.  Like all of their albums, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is indispensable.

15.  LCD Soundsystem – The Sound Of Silver

DFA producer James Murpy’s solo outfit, LCD Soundsystem, makes great, well-thought-out dance music in the vein of Remain in Light-era Talking Heads.  The Sound Of Silver is the third full-length album under the LCD Soundsystem moniker, and it’s Murphy’s best.  Each song is creative, witty, and utterly danceable.

16.  Caribou – Andorra

A low-key album, Andorra takes some time to digest… I initially hated it, due to its lack of thrills.  Each song is complex in the more-than-meets-the-eye way: Caribou makes you find the hooks.  When you do, they aren’t leaving your head anytime soon.

17.  Frog Eyes – Tears of the Valedictorian

Tears of the Valedictorian should be listened to like jazz.  The lack of repeated elements (i.e. choruses) makes it seem to run together in a haphazard kind of way.  Sneakily, Frog Eyes marks each song with certain elements, musical and lyrical, that make their way into your memory.  These elements flow like a 4th of July grand finale in Tears of the Valedictorian, making it one of the most satisfying 35 minutes of the year.

18.  Liars – Liars

Last year’s Drum’s Not Dead is one of the best albums of the decade.  With that in mind, it’s surprising that Liars’ self-titled release came with such little fanfare this year.  As a band that constantly reinvents itself, the fact that Liars is nothing like Liars have ever done should surprise no one.  It’s “pop music,” according to the band, but can be delightfully heavy and uneasy at times, all the while abounding in thrills.  After Drum’s Not Dead’s primal stomp, who would have guessed Liars to put out a Jesus and Mary Chain record?

19.  Deerhoof – Friend Opportunity

Veteran art-rockers Deerhoof released a fairly accessible record in Friend Opportunity, displaying their songwriting chops with several gems.  The album flows in its own herky-jerky style, and ends with possibly the saddest song the band has ever done.  Listening to Friend Opportunity is like riding a rollercoaster.

20.  Patrick Wolf – The Magic Position

British singer and multi-instrumentalist Patrick Wolf made a name for himself with his strange persona on-stage and on-record.  The Magic Position smartly decides to stick to the basics, using Wolf’s classical background to create smartly arranged songs.  It builds tension and releases, oftentimes into exuberance.  At times, The Magic Position feels like pure emotion.

21.  Blonde Redhead – 23

23 is Blonde Redhead’s concept album.  Each song flows in a progression that calls to mind classics such as Radiohead’s O.K Computer.  While it fails to reach such heights, 23 succeeds in being a complete collection of wonderfully catchy, yet interesting, songs.  The title track is particularly beautiful.

22.  Justice – Cross

French electronic duo Justice made a name for themselves with their single, “D.A.N.C.E.”  The song is a blast – catchy and danceable.  However, it fails to represent the rest of the album known only as the cross symbol.  Each song intermingles with its predecessor and successor, creating a sort of 50-minute dance party with its own highs and lows.  Unlike “D.A.N.C.E.” Cross tends toward the darker side of the spectrum, going for intensity, as opposed to joy.  It works very well.

23.  The Clientele – God Save The Clientele

Gloomy Brits The Clientele seem to have remade themselves as optimists for God Save The Clientele.  Instead of rainy Byrds-derived pop, this album is sunny Byrds-derived pop.  Despite this surprisingly major change, God Save The Clientele lacks none of the beauty found on the band’s previous efforts.  In fact, the band may have gotten better during the changing process.

24.  A Sunny Day In Glasgow – Scribble Mural Comic Journal

The prettiest album of the year, Scribble Mural Comic Journal is the year’s second best shoegaze record.  Though it’s not Deerhunter’s Cryptograms, A Sunny Day In Glasgow doesn’t try to be essential.  Instead, its musical beauty provides a gentle background for everyday activities when the listener doesn’t want a life-change.  There is something to be said for that sort of thing.

25.  Andrew Bird – Armchair Apocrypha

Chicago violinist/singer/songwriter/guitarist/etc. Andrew Bird has been getting attention recently for his wonderful work, and Armchair Apocrypha does nothing to break this high standard.

26.  Jens Lekman – Night Falls Over Kortedala

Night Falls Over Kortedala is a perfect example of the sort of charming indie-pop coming out of Sweden these days.

27.  Blitzen Trapper – Wild Mountain Nation

“Slacker” music in the vein of Beck and Pavement, Wild Mountain Nation is a mix of country, rock, and good humor.  It’s the kind of record that will put any listener into a good mood.

28.  Les Savy Fav – Let’s Stay Friends

The hard-rocking Les Savy Fav’s first record in a while, Let’s Stay Friends drives with force and moves listeners’ feet, all the while drawing smiles at the band’s sense of humor.

29.  !!! – Myth Takes

!!! makes up-tempo dance rock that combines electronics and “normal” instrumentation.  Myth Takes is their best effort yet.

30.  Interpol – Our Love To Admire

Interpol’s third album, Our Love To Admire, deftly combines the artsy atmosphere of their classic debut Turn on the Bright Lights with the pop-rock sensibility of their second album, Antics.  Our Love To Admire also sits in-between in quality, but that’s not a bad thing, considering how good those albums are.

31.  The Veils – Nux Vomica

An album that progresses from an angry beginning to a reconciled end, Nux Vomica is a great singer-songwriter album led by Finn Andrews’ ferocious voice and electric guitar.

32.  The Besnard Lakes – The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse

The Besnard Lakes take the trendy “Montreal sound” and add in progressive elements and high emotions to great impact on their second album, …Are The Dark Horse.  It’s epic, dense, and engaging.

33.  Dungen – Tio Bitar

Though Tio Bitar doesn’t live up to the promise of its predecessor, Ta Det Lugnt, that’s an impossible standard to hold it to, anyway.  It’s still psych-folk sung in Swedish, and yes, it’s still brilliant.

34.  White Rabbits – Fort Nightly

This is a band with a wide arrange of influences, it seems, but they use them all tastefully to create the most artistic take on the “New York sound” yet.  Think The Walkmen with far-reaching instrumentals and nonsensical lyrics.

35.  The Twilight Sad – Fourteen Autumns, Fifteen Winters

Another album featuring the old/new shoegaze sound, Fourteen Autumns, Fifteen Winters is an addictive slice of solid songcraft.  It also happens to feature a lead singer with the most outrageous Scottish accent this side of Groundskeeper Willy.  Yes, it may border on guilty pleasure territory, but this record actually has much more to it than just its face value.  Worth listening to and worth loving.

36.  The Field – From Here We Go Sublime

Great electronic background music, the From Here We Go Sublime is reminiscent of the best aspects of the Fennesz classic, Endless Summer in both composition and quality.

37.  Handsome Furs – Plague Park

This is another Wolf Parade affiliated album, though it doesn’t involve Spencer Krug.  Instead, it features Dan Boekner, the other songwriter from the acclaimed band.  In many ways, it seems Boekner’s prolific writing partner has rubbed off on him.  In other ways, his pop songcraft seems to be the antithesis to Sunset Rubdown.  Plague Park is a solid album with great pop songs from beginning to end.

38.  Josh Ritter – The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter

A very good offering from the unheralded singer/songwriter.

39.  The New Pornographers – Challengers

The New Pornographers is an indie supergroup that has been putting out quality albums for its three releases prior to Challengers.  This album is no different – it’s full of fun, catchy tunes that make you smile and think.

40.  The Go! Team – Proof Of Youth

This English band’s previous album, Thunder Lightning Strike introduced cheerleaders, samples, and hopscotch to the indie scene and Proof Of Youth continues with the format.  The most major change here would be a higher production value, but Proof Of Youth also features the band’s strongest song to date, “Grip Like A Vice.”  This is energetic, up-tempo music that will most certainly bring a smile to your face.

41.  The Good The Bad And The Queen – The Good The Bad And The Queen

The Good The Bad And The Queen is a band, an album, and a song.  As a band, it’s led by Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorrilaz.  It also features former members of The Clash and The Verve, and the legendary Tony Allen on the drums.  Tastemaking producer Dangermouse was at the helm of the recordings, and all of the talent created something entirely different than it would seem – a smart, catchy album that mysteriously floats at its own pace, weaving songs about England’s current political climate.  It doesn’t feature any of the ego-stroking normally associated with supergroups.  Instead, it’s tastefully subdued, letting the listener approach it on whichever level they so choose.

42.  The Arcade Fire – Neon Bible

Of course, The Arcade Fire couldn’t duplicate 2005’s Funeral, so they didn’t even try.  Instead, they headed in a different direction with Neon Bible.  It rocks harder than its predecessor and is more lyrically pointed.  It’s almost draining to listen to as a whole, but very high in quality and a solid follow-up to one of the best albums of the decade.

43.  Menomena – Friend And Foe

Because of its early 2007 release, Friend And Foe was a front-runner as a top album for a long time.  It’s epic ambitions are nearly realized, due to the record’s cohesive nature.  It’s quirky, yet charming and utterly listenable.

44.  The White Stripes – Icky Thump

This band’s first three albums were wonderful, but Get Behind Me Satan, their latest, seemed to suggest a drop-off for the band.  Luckily, The White Stripes seem to have gotten back on track with Icky Thump, a rock album with attitude, a sense of humor, and songs of very high quality.

45.  Feist – The Reminder

One of the favorites from Canada’s Arts and Crafts label, Feist hit the mark with The Reminder, a collection of great, nearly timeless, pop songs.

46.  The Shins – Wincing The Night Away

The Shins third album, Wincing The Night Away, travels in a different direction than the near-perfect pop-rock of Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow.  Here, the band decides to show off its creative side, with interestingly manufactured beats, production, and sounds.  Though not all of it succeeds (most does, however), Wincing The Night Away succeeds because The Shins never forgot their hallmark – great songwriting.

47.  A Place To Bury Strangers – A Place To Bury Strangers

Yet another revisit to the shoegaze scene, A Place To Bury Strangers travels all the way back to the 80’s for inspiration.  The genre’s forefathers, The Jesus and Mary Chain, may directly inspire the self-titled album but A Place To Bury Strangers also updates their sound.  It’s not an extremely relevant album, just an extremely good one.

48.  Battles – Mirrored

An instrumental math rock album, Mirrored may be one of the best, if not the best, albums of the year from a musical standpoint.  The skill by the musicians here is apparent, but the songs are also filled with hooks – a trait not always found in the instrumental post rock genre.

49.  Kathy Diamond – Miss Diamond To You

Miss Diamond To You is an electronic pop album that displays solid musical chops and an attitude.  It’s one of those records that’s simply a lot of fun to listen to.

50.  Akron/Family – Love is Simple

One of the best freak-folk bands around, Akron/Family is as weird as ever on their latest release, Love Is Simple, but that’s not a bad thing.  They play to their strengths, all of which are apparent on this record.