Thursday, December 22, 2011

Best of 2011: My 25 Favorite Albums

When I joined KJHK's music staff in 2007 (my second year at the station), I learned that the best way my brain knows how to communicate with music is to write about it. When I started freelancing for the Pitch in 2009, it totally changed the way I had to write about music. It had to be more formal, less like the stream-of-thought-via-three-or-four-listens pseudo-rants I was writing for 4-8 CDs a week at KJ. This blog has always been a place to escape the formal (read: coherent) writing of print and to better understand the stuff I love/own. I love lists. All sorts of lists. But ordered year end lists really get me hot and bothered, so I've been making them for my favorite records and movies since 2003 when I had a Xanga and like 10 followers (the lists came between bad poetry and trying to be a "photography," naturally, since I was 17 and all). It's the competitive nature inside me, and somehow tied to the fact that I became obsessed with Fantasy Football this fall. WHO WILL WIN THE ULTIMATE BATTLE?!?! There's something kind of sick about pitting albums I love against one another, but I can't help it. I feel bad for the #2 album because it would be the #1 album any other year BUT, etc. This isn't a best of, just my personal favorites. The ones that didn't stop playing. The ones that didn't leave the car stereo for weeks or that I had to keep re-burning because they started skipping because my car's CD player is old. 2011 was one of my favorite years for music in a long time (since 2007!!!) and I feel guilty for not listening to more albums. Feel sorry I couldn't put albums I'm sure I'll love in 2012 on this list. But the list is never accurate. It's just a document of where I was when, and I keep these lists for myself as much as anybody. Apologies for my woeful grammar. Despite years of

25.) Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost

This is the ultimate of last minute additions. I’m giving this one the benefit of the doubt, because after months of being EH about this, the follow-up to one of my favorite records of 2009, it’s starting to make sense. And that’s enough to put this on the list. Because I’ll regret it. Because I let these lists get to me and I stress out over not hearing enough albums in any given year. They’re never totally accurate, only accurate for the end of the year. But what does it for me, is that part at the end of “Vomit.” You know the part I’m talking about. I remember hearing this when they put this song out before the album came out and I was like “Well it’s long and slow and that part at the end is nice” but holy FUCK is it a grower. And I’m applying that to the rest of the album because it’s already growing on me.

24.) The Get Up Kids – There Are Rules

Reunion records have a tendency to suck. This one doesn’t. Of course I’m biased, what with being raised in the Greater Kansas City Metropolitan Area (both Jenny and I had teachers at our respective high and junior high schools related to guitarist Jim Suptic) it was all we had. They were our local band, and given my mother’s paranoia I was never allowed to travel to KC to see them. Sadly, the first time I saw them was at the fucking Voodoo Lounge at fucking Harrah’s when they were on their Something to Write Home About reunion tour, and that was pretty sad. But then I saw them at the Bottleneck this year in support of this record and it was a blast. Like all the high school rock show stuff I never got when I was in actual high school. It helped that There Are Rules is really good. It’s a better record than the oh so spotty Guilt Showand assuming they don’t make another record, a perfectly fitting end. They’re grown-ups now. THE GET UP MEN. Doesn’t sound as good, does it. But there’s maturity here, of course, but that’s what everyone says. Basically, what it means is that they don’t sound like they’re trying to be 18 and that’s reassuring.

23.) Richard Buckner – Our Blood

A few years back I got really into alt-country. For a straight year, it was my thing. If the sun of that solar system was Wilco, the, oh, Mars would have been Richard Buckner. He was the one that made me realize that those “I like everything but country music” responses to “what kind of music do you like?” were the most absolute of all bullshit. Buckner’s voice adds an extra sense of aching to his woe-induced tunes. Our Blood is Buckner’s most cohesive and unified record since, god, forever ago’s Devotion + Doubt, and some of the songs here are some of my favorites in his extensive discography. “Witness,” “Confession,” “Traitor,” and “Thief” are punch-in-the-gut jams that live up to their simple titles (every title on this record is one simple—or maybe not so simple—word). The melody in “Confession” notably makes my brain turn to butter and melt. Buckner’s always written sad songs, but holy shit, the elegance with which he does it defies any genre you’d like to chuck him into.

22.) The Decemberists – The King is Dead

Though I love me a good concept album as much as the next music geek, the Decemberists Hazards of Love rubbed me in precisely the wrong way. It seemed to subvert everything that Colin Meloy did will simply because he was too ambitious. It felt forced and clumsy like an overworked story where you end up scratching your best ideas in some misguided effort to perfect what was a pure and good thing to begin with. So the scaled back, rootsy, back-to-basics attitude of The King is Dead was ever so welcome. It’s a great transition album. One that finds the band between their quirky, archaic selves of old and this new, more realistic bunch of vagabonds and ragamuffins who are, well, real people and not characters out of a Dickens novel or some picaresque adventure. It’s an album that sounds like going home.

21.) Beirut – The Rip Tide

This is probably my favorite Beirut album. It’s weird, Beirut. I thoroughly enjoyedh is first two records, and that double EP thing he released a couple years back, but this one has a set of songs I thoroughly enjoy beginning to end. Maybe it’s because Zach Condon’s not trying to be Balkins folk music or mid century French pop, and just sounds like an amalgamation of everything he’s done and ultimately, sounds like a band with its own identity. He’s a great songcraftsman of the Elephant 6 ilk and though The Rip Tide is a brief album (clocking in at just over 30 minutes with 9 songs). And I realize why I like this album so much because of this quote I just read from Wikipedia via The Observer: “The vagabond thing – that was a teenage fantasy that I lived out in a big way. Music, to me, was escapism. And now I'm doing everything that is the opposite [of that] in my life. I'm married. I've got a house. I've got a dog. So it felt ridiculous, the narrative of what my career was supposed to be, compared to what I was actually trying to attempt in my life.” That explains why it’s the most personal album he’s created, and the married/house/dog equation makes me endeared to it even more because it’s such an interesting place to be. This is an under the radar success. Something that will certainly be lauded years down the line when looking at Beirut’s back catalog. Though thought to be a minor album, it actually indicated _______.” I can’t write the rest because it hasn’t happened yet, and I’m excited to see how this little gem fits into the rest of Condon’s sure to be terrific complete discography.

20.) Alex Turner – Submarine OST

I did not give a single fuck about Arctic Monkeys before watching Richard Ayoade’s excellent film Submarine. Actually, that’s a total lie, because the reason I rented Submarine was because I’d read about it in an article about Arctic Monkeys video for “Suck it and See,” which mentioned that frontman Alex Turner did the soundtrack for the film and I remembered that I’d wanted to see it when I saw the trailer because of my fierce love for Ayoade (and his work on “The IT Crowd,” “The Mighty Boosh,” just generally being a hilarious dude). Anyway, I watched the “Suck it and See” video which was OK but the song was fantastic, so I got excited to hear frontman Alex Turner’s score. Since it’s only a brief five songs long, I feel weird about putting it any higher up on the list, but holy shit these five songs are so good it hurts. They’re reminiscent of Cat Stevens’ soundtrack for Harold & Maude, and the original songs really help set the film apart from the Wes Anderson comparisons (which are many and valid, as the whole film is very Rushmore-esque yet finds ways to make itself rather unique) and the montage sequences which they lay on top of are beautiful in all regards. Submarine was my favorite film of the year and the soundtrack was one of the things that really pushed it over the top. “Stuck on a Puzzle” is going to end up very, very close to the top of my 2011 songs list if only because I had to have played it more than any other song from 2011. (Note: Upon checking this fact on Last.fm, this was not true. Top listened tracks were Fucked Up’s “The Other Shoe,” Los Campesinos! “Songs About Your Girlfriend,” and Turner tied with Yuck’s “Get Away,” however those facts are the definition of skewed).

19.) Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo

Kurt Vile can hang with the best because I’m pretty sure he just plain doesn’t give a fuck. That’s what his songwriting sounds like. Fuck-all songwriting. And that is a sincere compliment. That’s what makes him special. That’s what made me listen to Childish Prodigy obsessively every autumn since it came out because it is one of the most perfect fall records I’ve ever heard. It just fits. Rainy, cloudy, gloomy, chilly days wrapped up in a hooded sweatshirt driving to and from work. It works. Smoke Ring For My Halo is more cohesive, and Vile making a truly proper record for Matador. I guess. Doesn’t matter. Not really. It’s got ageless punch-in-the-teeth jams like “Puppet to the Man” and “Society is My Friend” paired up with pensive numbers like “Baby’s Arms” and the excellent mid-tempo single “In My Time.” “Peeping Tomboy” reminds me of my favorite moments of Childish Prodigy, “Jesus Fever” feels like a brilliant pop song because there’s a hook in there that just gets me every time. The six-minute closer “Ghost Town” is a meditative (read: stoned), depressive masterpiece and an excellent look into the mind of a new crooked master.

18.) East River Pipe – We Live in Rented Rooms

Everyone loves to talk about how Bon Iver recorded an album in a cabin, but man, no one wants to talk about Fred Cornog works at a fucking Home Depot and puts out a damn good record every few years. I think I’m getting old because “every few years” is actually FIVE years, and I remember when I started at KJHK in 2006 and What Are You On was in rotation and I played either “What Does T.S. Eliot Know About You” or “Druglife” every week and it was one of my first great discoveries that I had expected to amass whilst working at a renowned college radio station. I don’t tend to listen to his albums all the way through, but there are a handful of tracks from each of them that I think are some of the best songs ever written. “Make a Deal With the City,” “Here We Go,” “Helmet On,” “Shiny, Shiny Pimpmobile,” “Where Does All The Money Go?,” and on and on. We Live in Rented Rooms is another more than worthy addition to Cornog’s catalog, and one I only really discovered via chucking it on my iPod and having random songs come on while I was at the gym or at work after closing (this happened with a lot of my favorite records this year). “The Flames Are Coming Back,” “Backroom Deals,” “Conman,” I remember all of these coming on shuffle and just going “Goddamn, this is fucking great is this East River Pipe?” Not to knock Bon Iver at all (as you’ll see, he shows up a little later), but Fred Cornog has a more authentic mythology. One laced with drugs, homelessness, and with the ultimate redemption found in a woman who leads to a family and a simple life where he gets to make music for pleasure but ultimately just be a normal guy. You’d never know the dude selling you a power drill was a fantastic songwriter, and there’s something beautiful about that. Obtaining artistic greatness without having to go through all the hassle of celebrity. Fred Cornog is a genius.

17.) Hospital Ships – Lonely Twin

Another excellent release from local lad Jordan Geiger. Lonely Twin finds a cohesion that Hospital Ships’ debut Oh, Ramona lacked (that was still a fine record, though) and makes me not so intolerant of the town I live in. Well, the video for “Galaxies” did anyway. It’s comforting to know you live in a town with excellent songwriters (See also: Rooftop Vigilantes) and though I’m totally out of touch with the local music scene, it’s nice to have Hospital Ships as a constant.

16.) The Antlers – Burst Apart

A surprisingly good album! I don’t know why. I loved Hospice so much. I loved it so much that it became the identity for this band. Like they should never record another album (more on this later in the list), that kind of good. But thank goodness they did because Burst Apart is pretty wonderful. My favorite thing about it is that the last song is the best song. It’s a lost art, sending your album out in an appropriate fashion. So often the lesser songs just get tacked on the back but man, “Putting the Dog to Sleep” fucking kills me. And it’s nice because it’s the best song Peter Silberman has ever written. Well, from my little prism at least. It’s my favorite, better than anything on Hospice, which I thought was surprising. “My trust in you/ Is a dog with a broken leg/ Tendons too torn to beg/ For you to let me back in.” Oof. Maybe I just love dogs and he’s playing to my sweet spot (that is true, I do love dogs) but whatever, it’s masterful. And it’s just an added bonus that the rest of the album is really fucking good, too.

15.) Andrew Jackson Jihad – Knife Man

I’m new to Andrew Jackson Jihad. I somehow stumbled upon Can’t Maintain at the tail end of 2009 and really loved the lead-off track “Heartilation” but never really listened to the album all the way through. Then, this year for some odd reason, I picked up that album and it spent a solid couple of months in the car stereo. I love it. It’s a masterpiece. Just so violently good and personal and the kind of music that makes me love music again. And then out of nowhere, AJJ put out a new album this year! And while it’s not as great as Can’t Maintain (because all the b-sides got left on the album proper, it seems) it’s still better than most of the albums I heard this year. Well, maybe not better, but I listened to it more and I liked it more. It lacks the coherence of Can’t Maintain and jumps from social issues to personal issue back to social issue. BUT STILL, it made the list because it’s good and “Hate, Rain on Me,” “Fucc the Devil,” “Sorry Bro,” “Gift of the Magi 2: Return of the Magi,” “Big Bird,” and especially the mega creepy murder ballad “Back Pack” reminded me that Sean Bonnette writes with a triumphant sense of vitality. WOW THAT WAS MUSIC WRITERY! HE WRITES WITH A SENSE OF URGENCY ABSENT FROM THIS MODERN GENERATION! But really, he’s just a great songwriter who is tragically overlooked by the music writery elite. Although he did write the ultimate fuck you song to music critics, “We Didn’t Come Here To Rock,” so it’s not really a big deal.

14.) David Bazan – Strange Negotiations

This is one of those records from early in the year I’ve only recently revisited despite listening to on repeat for weeks and weeks. I think David Bazan is as fucking good as he’s ever been. It picks up where Curse Your Branches left off, tackling much of the same subject matter (religion, politics, trying to be a decent human being, etc, etc) and it’s good, good, good. I don’t know why there are so many haters. It feels like everyone hates David Bazan. I’m sure a lot of them hate him because of the Christianity thing, but it feels like there’s another set that hate him because they think his songwriting is like, I don’t know. Too direct? I don’t know. Personally, I always thought Bazan was at his best when he was grappling with his religious beliefs. Maybe it’s cuz he made fun of Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber on that one song from Fewer Moving Parts and there’s like, a haters union that has to strike against Bazan. I DO NOT KNOW. I think he’s pretty great. He puts on a great live show that I still try to go to when I’m not broke, and he puts out records that always hit me in a personal place (the heart, not something lascivious). The paranoia-induced “Wolves at the Door” gets the religion and the politics all in one fell swoop, “Future Past” delivers one of those Bazan-esque melodies he’s been crafting for years and years. The kind of melody that I can’t explain, but you’d hear it and you’d think of Control. Maybe people hate Bazan because sometimes he doesn’t write in thinly veiled metaphors and it’s perhaps unwriterly to take on the recent financial crisis in plain English on the title track. “You kick and scream to get your way again/ But the writing is on the wall/ Any minute you’ll go onto your reward/ Someone else is gonna make the call,” he sings to Wall Street and “I feel like a stranger in my hometown” to everyone else. I don’t understand the hate Bazan tends to receive (on the flip side of this, he has a legion of adoring fans, which is awesome) because he just seems like a normal dude, making him music, doing his thing, not stepping on anyone’s toes unless they’re a shithead music critic and you know, it’s pretty great to see a musician strike back. He has an excellent method of conveying his worldview, which is as hard a thing to craft as a perfect song.

13.) Real Estate – Days

This new buttoned-up-Oxford prim and proper indie rock leaves me with mixed feelings, and I really never understood why everyone gave so much of a fuck about Real Estate. And then I put on Days one early autumn afternoon and something clicked. I haven’t gone back and re-listened to their first album or whatever it was they were putting out a couple years ago, but man, this album is so good. SO GOOD. It’s accomplished as shit. I watched leaves float by the window, felt the cool breeze coming under the door, it was nice. And this CD spent a lot of time in the car, where it really opened up on my back and forth drives to work. Though “It’s Real” is the monster jam that seems to be getting all the attention (and the more subdued but equally excellent “Green Aisles”), mid-album track “Municipality” is the one that really did it for me. It expresses a sweetness that matches the lilt of the guitars and the perfectly lovely subtle love song lyrics. Days is one of the more consistent records I heard this year and while I STILL don’t get what Real Estate is all about, I sure enjoyed listening to this album on repeat.

12.) Crooked Fingers – Breaks in the Armor

I’m the kind of failure who hosted KJHK’s Alternative Flashback for two semesters without ever listening to Archers of Loaf. That’s embarrassing and damning. But I made up for that after the fact…well, sort of. I developed an unhealthy obsession with “Web in Front” last summer without ever listening to Icky Mettle all the way through. It’s weird. Eric Bachman’s post-Loaf group Crooked Fingers have been on the fringes of my musical intake for years, too. It’s weird. I remember listening to Dignity and Shame and latching on to the horribly sad “Sleep All Summer” a few years back in a rough spot. And then this album just sort of fell into my lap and I just started listening and I just sort of loved it. I started running recently, and I’ve been listening to this on the treadmill for some reason. I don’t know why. I think it has something to do with the way this album has been opening up to me. Wait, I DO know why. This album was on my iPod and songs kept popping up on shuffle so I just started listening to the album because the songs that came up were just so good. “She Tows the Line,” “Our New Favorite,” “The Counterfeiter,” they’re all arresting.

11.) Smith Westerns – Dye it Blonde

These kids seem like chodes. They just do. When I saw them open for Los Campesinos and Girls a couple years ago, they just seemed young and kind of chodey. But that is precisely why Dye it Blonde is great. Instead of getting lumped in with all these other lo-fi teenage jackoffs, they somehow managed to make an album that was above all that band-of-the-moment shit. Or at least that’s what Dye it Blonde sounds like for me. I’m jealous of their youth. Their fuck-all attitude is what makes this record great. It’s borrowing riffs that sound straight out of 30 years ago and just churning out some of the catchiest pop songs of the year. It’s like they’re so desperately trying to make these great stadium anthems in a basement. Alex Chilton looks down from above and smiles at power pop still thriving like bacteria in a petri dish. JUST LISTEN TO THAT GUITAR LINE on “Dye the World.” I do that wahhh-wah-wah-wah-wah-wah-wah-wah bit when I’m listening to it in the car!

10.) EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints

This one fell into my lap organically. It was kind of fun that way. I didn’t read about it or see a video on youtube. My boss was listening to it one morning in the back office and I was like “WHO IS THIS THIS IS REALLY COOL” and he told me. And then I got this album. And then I sat in a dark room listening, and being all “Goddamnit this is haunting and real and gorgeous and so so sad and it’s scratching down at my soul.” The whole album is just a masterpiece, just a totally pure and unfuckedwith vision straight from Erika Anderson’s head, but “California” and “Marked” are these two cornerstone songs that kept me off balance. “California” is kind of the clear stand out, and the one where you just stare at the songwriting in awe because no one is really writing like this (read: honestly) delivered with this soulful intensity and conviction that seems rare. Maybe it’s not. Maybe there are plenty of artists coming from this place, they just haven’t broken out like EMA has this year. “Marked,” on the other hand, holy shit. That’s really all I have for that song. “Holy shit.”

9.) Fucked Up – David Comes to Life

This album is insane. Just fucking insane. Who would even have an idea to do a punk rock concept album about a dude who works at a lightbulb factory and gets swept up in his girlfriend’s mysterious death? I STILL don’t even know what the hell is going on in the middle to back half of this album, but I love it. I love that this exists. That punk rock is being explored in new ways long after punk was supposed to be dead, buried, exhumed, and buried again. It’s an exhausting album to listen to. Sort of the RPG video game of the music world. One that takes a considerable amount of hours to catch everything, but even the cursory listens are good so this one’s a winner. On top of that, the band released a fake compilation (well, it has real music so it is a real compilation, but) of bands set in the fake city where this story takes place. And you know what? THAT COMPILATION IS AWESOME. So yes, when popular underground music is designed to have a shelf life less than organic greek yogurt, Fucked Up have created a monolith. A punk rock monolith, no less, that people can stare at and go “goddamn, this is pretty brilliant.”

8.) St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

It’s baffling how good Annie Clark is at making music. There’s no particular reason why it’s baffling, it’s just that I don’t ever expect any human being to make no mistakes when making a record. Three album’s in and Clark has upped the stakes every time. 2009’s Actor was my second favorite album of that year. It was. That happened. And I thought that was a high watermark and I don’t know why I always do that with talented people that I admire. I’m not really a pessimist, I just play one on TV, and I’m genuinely thrilled when my pessimistic tendencies to think artists won’t ever create anything better than what they’ve just created are overthrown. It’s just my way of coping with great music. Sometimes I just can’t deal. Sometimes violently shaking my head from side to side and saying “Fuck this music, fuck this music” (I did this at least once whilst listening to all of the albums in the top 10, it’s a good sign) isn’t enough. Strange Mercy is a cool album. Just fucking cool. The way she manipulates a guitar is experimental without every trying too hard which you kind of might expect when you hear an artist talking about how she wants to reincorporate the guitar back into her music. Or did I ever think that about St. Vincent? I can’t remember. It’s artsy as shit but it’s only artsy by default. Non-pretentious and genuinely affecting (See: “Surgeon,” which throws like ten punches into my gut every time) and real and sexy. Goddamn this is a sexy album. In every regard, and not just because St. Vincent is a woman. Like Serge Gainsbourg or something. Seductive.

7.) Okkervil River – I Am Very Far

I don’t know how I put off listening to I Am Very Far for so long. I adore Okkervil River, and Will Sheff is one of my favorite songwriters. Actually, thinking about that, most of my favorite songwriters put out albums this year which is why I’m so gaga about 2011’s musical output. But anyway, I don’t know why I waited so long because this is another amazing album from a band that keeps getting better. I only put it on when I got offered a chance to interview Sheff and after forcing myself to say yes, yes of course I want to interview one of today’s smartest songwriters, I set to listening on repeat. I came up with a bunch of questions, and then the got pushed back, and then the scheduling just didn’t work because of course and ended up having to send the questions off via e-mail which felt like a failure, but it ended up being OK. I’m sad I didn’t get to talk to him though. I was pumped up, ready to face my fears. But it’s ok, because I got this album out of it. Sheff self-produced the album, emboldened by producing Roky Erikson’s latest record (that Okkervil River played backing band for), and Sheff’s getting to produce the thing himself is what makes this so exciting. It’s like he’s rediscovering music, has the energy of someone making their first and last record or something like that. Urgency. “White Shadow Waltz” gives me chills every time I hear it, and I think I understand how production works because there’s such a specific sound to that song. I mean, of course there’s the throwing-a-filing-cabinet-across-the-room-at-a-wall sound effect, but good god that just makes it that much more epic, what with the cacophonic clatter disrupting those glorious strings. It’s a scary song, a spooky song, haunting more than anything. Usually, when people tell you about their dreams, you’re disinterested because other people’s dreams are usually so specific it’s impossible for us to comprehend why they are significant. But the dream imagery here is wonderful, again HAUNTING, lots of haunting on this one. It helps that the songs are pushed to their absolute limits with orchestrations upon orchestrations and Sheff going all out with the vocals, which is always the best part of Okkervil River records. There’s so much excitement and conviction in the way he sings. It helps that this line-up has really morphed into the finest incarnation of this band, even following the departure of the great Jonathan Meiburg. It’s wonderful watching bands adapt, and Okkervil River have done a sensational job.

6.) The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck

I think I read somewhere that John Darnielle said if The Sunset Tree was about living through abuse, All Eternals Deck is about surviving. Or being a survivor. And it never sounds more like that than on the penultimate track “Never Quite Free” which effectively serves as a sort of coda to Darnielle’s masterpiece, the aforementioned Sunset Tree. The song is blatantly hopeful, in the best way. Wonderful, powerful, and evidence that Darnielle is one of the great treasures of the musical world. Not even the modern musical world, just music in general. All music is made better by having him working in the medium. All Eternals Deck is another great album, but really, what do you expect from the Mountain Goats? Have they ever put out a bad album? I can’t think of a single one I don’t love. Highlights include “For Charles Bronson,” which is a sad but also hopeful (lots of hope running through the veins of this album) portrait of the tough as nails film legend who brought himself up from nothing. I remember them playing that song last time they played the Bottleneck and going “yes, this album is going to fucking rule.” “Estate Sale Sign” is a sibling of “See America Right” and “Psalms 40:2.” All three are these dark, destructive road trip sort of songs. Or they all take place in cars, or involve travelling (even if it’s just travelling the two miles to the bus stop with a case of vodka under one’s arm or driving to the Precious Moments chapel). “Estate Sale Sign” just fucking kills it though. Scratches right down into your soul. This whole album does that. Gets under your skin, works its way in. The Mountain Goats make me feel really fortune to be coming of age in the age I’m coming of age in. I’m so lucky I heard “Going to Georgia” on some weird internet radio site when I was 17 and immediately launched into the heavy research, stumbled onto The Coroner’s Gambit and All Hail West Texas and just became a maniac. John Darnielle wrote from a place that I didn’t necessarily want to go to, but I wanted to look in the windows. It wasn’t particularly familiar to the place where I was coming from, but his songs made me want to write my own songs. Write stories. Make films. Create. And that shaped so much of where I directed my life over the last 8 years. The Mountain Goats are my perpetual soundtrack, my favorite band, and of course All Eternals Deck gets a high spot on my year end list. Mountain Goats records usually do (with the exception of The Life of the World To Come which I only really warmed up to and fell in love with the year after it came out). I don’t want to be John Darnielle, but I want to have his attitude. His interface with the world, at least the way he comes off at live shows and in interviews, is magnificent, and that’s why his music is so great. The Mountain Goats are a national treasure. Appreciate.

5.) Bon Iver – Bon Iver

Is it passé to reference how passé it is to hate on Bon Iver because he’s famous now? It probably is, leading us all down a rabbit hole of disingenuous spite, and really probably worth avoiding. But I CAN’T avoid it. It just sucks that such a great album would get overshadowed by so many people thinking it was overrated because that’s the cool thing to do. It’s Arcade Fire all over again, where it’s straight-up uncool to like something. Like you have to feel guilty for liking something like it’s a guilty pleasure. Anyway, off topic. Not important, it really isn’t. I just can’t help myself because I think this is an incredible Album with a capital A. And that’s why the Grammy nominations are so funny, because two of them are for “Holocene” and I don’t know how you look at this album and pick out one song that’s better than all the rest. That’s exemplary, because they all are, because they all work to make the most cohesive album of the year. From “Perth” to the apparently divisive “Beth/Rest” there’s an evolution at work and watching that play out is the album’s greatest triumph. Well, I suppose that is basically just it being a triumphant album, but you get it. It’s such a goddamn confident sophomore album, and not what I expected, which is so exciting. After “Blood Bank,” which emphasized a much more straightforward songwriting approach (which I really liked), the writing here is even more abstract than For Emma, Forever Ago (which really, wasn’t really even abstract at all). I remember reading the lyrics when Jagjaguar put them up a couple weeks before the album dropped. It was like “Goddamn what the fuck is he talking about but it’s beautiful.” It’s a beautiful record. Just beautiful. Gorgeous. Peerless, really, too. I can’t think of anyone else doing the things Justin Vernon is doing and that’s pretty cool I guess. It’s rootsy and familiar but otherworldy. I’ve spent a lot of time with this record though, so I’m pretty defensive. There was a three month span where Jenny and I would listen to it before bed, sometimes multiple times. We did that a lot when we started dating, staying up for hours in bed, listening to For Emma, Forever Ago or Neutral Milk Hotel just talking and staring at each other all googly eyed and I think I tie this album to that too. Still, every time we get to “Beth/Rest” I say something like “Goddamn, this song is so fucking brilliant. It ties the whole album together.” I wrote a big long piece about how I thought it was bullshit that “Beth/Rest” was so polarizing and I stand by that. I don’t get how you’d listen to this album and single out that song because A.) Everything that happens before it leads up to that beautiful, lite-rock tinged monster ballad and B.) DESTROYER DID THE SAME GODDAMN THING FOR A WHOLE FUCKING ALBUM. To those who say Bon Iver is boring, OK, sure, but don’t confuse boring with subtlety. Maybe that’s just me being a boring music apologist, but I don’t think this album is boring. I think every time I listen to it there’s something new there and all the best albums are like that (someone could probably argue that too, but whatever). Justin Vernon is so confident here it hurts. Hurts so good, that is. Of all people he deserves it. An indie rock lifer, finally getting his due and staying humble, it’s a great story. Bon Iver, Bon Iver doesn’t have the mythology of its predecessor and lord knows it doesn’t need it. He’s beyond the cabin now, onto something totally different, past one trick pony fears and into maybe being one of the defining artists of his generation. Blah, blah, blah. He’s awesome.


4.) Bright Eyes – The People’s Key

I don’t know why everyone hates Bright Eyes, but I have a theory. My theory is that all of these young, modern music critics had their high school career’s soundtracked by Conor Oberst and Fevers and Mirrors gets filed away under “music I liked in high school before I knew what good music was.” Or at least that’s the impression I always get when I read someone slagging on Bright Eyes. I’m not saying that all his albums are like, great masterpieces or anything, but I do think they’re honest and yeah, melodramatic but still honest. Anyway, a new Bright Eyes album comes out and I listen to it. And yeah, it was big in high school, but Oberst was still pretty young then too and the evolution of his career has been a really interesting one. I think he probably had the opportunity to go off the rails. To be the actress dating, drug fueled sellout, but neglected to do so. His discography is littered with various tastes and influences from the alt-country of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning paired simultaneously with the murky electro-pop fueled Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. Then there’s that amazing self-titled solo album from 2008 that boasted Oberst’s best songwriting to date and made up for the mystical and misguided Cassadaga which wasn’t really bad by any means, just overwrought to the point of eh. The People’s Key feels free of all of that stuff from the past. There’s no definitive genre play at work. It just sounds like a mix of all the toys Oberst has played with over his long career and excellently put out on display. It’s Bright Eyes’ best album, and if this is the stopping point as I think it is meant to be, then this is as good a place to stop as you’re gonna get. There’s a little of Cassadaga’s mysticism here, but it feels so much more personal here. Oberst’s frequent references to Rastafari don’t come across as being phony, but as a vehicle to relate to the world and see how others relate to it. “Triple Spiral,” the surefire pop hit of this album tackles life through the prism of an ancient pagan religious symbol. And yeah, the song is catchy as hell, but reading up on triple spiral symbol was enlightening and I really loved what he did with this song and how it feels like a really great attempt to deal with the universe and fate and faith and metaphysical quandries and secret societies maybe. The whole album is like that, really. Sure, the interspliced talking bits that are a Bright Eyes staple are a distracting adornment, but they’re so weird I can see why he put them in. And they fit really well with the theme. But really the theme is Conor Oberst. This sounds like every Bright Eyes album blended together but totally accomplished and new and there’s a great sense of peace I get from it despite the aforementioned conflict in the songwriting. Everything here feels just right, and this album really helped me connect with music a little more. It let me set aside critical judgment for just experiencing something, someone’s ideas put out in songs, and that’s why I love this album. It’s a look at someone’s worldview, a complicated complex one, and that’s what makes this really interesting. And the music is good, too. That helps. Even that double bass drum stuff on “Jejune Stars” (which is actually totally awesome)! And though Bright Eyes is probably done, well, it’s just a name really and the reason I keep hanging onto that original vinyl copy of Letting Off the Happiness is because I have this gut feeling that Oberst is going to stay relevant. I thought I shoulda sold it off when Cassadaga came out because after that he’d be washed up or something, I don’t know why, those were the KJHK years where I wanted to destroy all music, but now I think he’s going to have a fascinating, Dylanesque career. And maybe this album closes a chapter and opens another one. I can’t tell, it doesn’t really matter. What matters was learning to relate to music on a human level again, which I spent the whole summer doing with this album.


3.) Destroyer – Kaputt

This was the #1 contender for months and months. Ultimately, it was usurped because I had some revelation about how the music I really truly love is all about heart and that while I greatly appreciate stylistic mastery, in a tiebreaker gritty heartbreak indie rock wins. The trouble with this argument that bothered me after I wrote about 1000 words on it for the original introduction to this list was that it was just a bunch of bullshit full of non-arguments and weird opinions. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, style vs. emotion, and Destroyer was ultimately what sank that whole argument for me. Dan Bejar is one of those songwriters that transcends the “best songwriter of this age” remarks and I think he’s going to be one of those songwriters people look at fifty, a hundred years from now and go “goddamn what a fucking genius.” He’s up there with John Darnielle and David Berman. Just a master wordsmith and tunesmith. And naturally, Destroyer is one of my favorite bands. Top 5. And Kaput might be his best album. Who knows, it’s impossible to make hard and fast judgments on things like that, especially when it comes to Destroyer albums because all of them are amazing and I don’t really even have a favorite because it changes so often. Like Your Blues (which was almost entirely composed on MIDI and features some of Bejar’s greatest songs), Kaput is an experiment in form. Like the “Bay of Pigs” single that preceded this album by a year, Kaput plays with weird eurodisco whatever. I can’t remember what they called “Bay of Pigs,” but it’s that. And it’s more. It’s got a soft rock vibe that should be obnoxious but that saxophone stuff is awesome and though the lyrics aren’t as bizarre and masterful as Destroyer’s Rubies or Trouble in Dreams or This Night or any of them, they’re still far and away better than most. Especially his collaboration with artist Kara Walker (the aptly titled “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker”) which is probably the best song anyone wrote this year. This is a list of favorites, I get bored trying to make a qualitative judgment on music which is just so subjective, but if there was a “best album of 2011” it would probably be this one (or maybe St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy) just because of the artfulness of it all. All the goddamned artfulness, the playing with form, the literary quality of the songwriting, the thoughtfulness, the genius clearly at work effortlessly tossing off another batch of “European Blues” with great ease. Bejar is a master. That’s why a few years back when I went to SXSW for the first time I tried to see every set Destroyer played because he never comes to Lawrence. I think I saw them three times, and all three times they played the same set and all three times it was totally worth it. This is one of those records that reminds me that I shouldn’t give up faith in music, that certain players will always surpass any expectations I have, turn around and give them the finger, and then race away into some territory I can’t even begin to imagine.

2.) Los Campesinos! – Hello Sadness

I didn’t even know this was happening. It was announced in like, September and came out two months later, throwing a wrench into my plans. So many 2011 albums to absorb, so little time, and here’s one of my absolute, top 3 favorite bands dropping a brand new LP barely a year after their last one. Needless to say, I jumped on this one like a grenade in a war movie. And oh what a beautiful grenade it was, because I gotta say this band just doesn’t know how to stop getting better. Every album is an improvement, or at least evidence that the band is constantly evolving and staying fresh and wonderful. Gareth Campesinos is probably the grand master of break-up songs in this flock of young bands that have risen from the ether of the last five years, and oh boy, oh boy, here it is, he’s given us an honest to God, end of the world, masterful and destructive break-up album. Sure, the lead-off track and first single “By Your Hand” is a brilliant jaunty pop song, maybe the best they’ve ever written, but goddamn you can see that thing are not going to go well once this album progresses. What with the appearance of Fate, the cruel mistress girl (the prettiest in the world) and this sense of dread that they somehow manage to convey without bringing the song down into sadsackville (remedy sadsackville tendencies with this recipe: 7 parts vocal harmony, hand claps, horns). The songs just get sadder, earning the album’s title. And though most of it is delievered with Gareth’s traditional self-deprecating humor (“Not headstone, but headboard, is where I wanna be mourned,” he sings in “Baby I Got the Death Rattle” after prying his necktie off of the bedpost where he and ex-lover used to get saucy) and with typical manic cleverness. Every song on this album is great, and I had to step back and really appreciate the full band that makes these albums happen because it’s so easy to just focus on Gareth and his fantastic songwriting and forget the rest. Assuming Tom Campesinos still writes the music, the compositions here are his most accomplished yet. But I suspect it’s probably a more full-band thing by now. Hopefully this line-up sticks, because as saddened as I was to see co-vocalist/keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Aleks Campesinos leave, her replacement—Gareth’s sister, Kim Campesinos—just totally kills it despite being used sparingly. But when she’s used, man oh man, does it just push everything over the top (see: the chorus of the epic centerpiece “The Black Bird, The Dark Slope” and lead back-ups on “By Your Hands”). This is also the first album for Rob “Sparky Deathcap” Campesinos who’s an excellent singer/songwriter in his own right and I want more because the little bit where he comes in at the end of “By Your Hand” kind of adds that last little bit that makes that my favorite song of the year. But holy shit, this album knows how to kill you. I know the band is kind of taken lightly because well, they themselves pretty lightly, but this is serious shit when you get down to it. I’m listening to “You Throw Parties, You Throw Knives,” the giddy twee jam that made me fall in love with this band years back and I never thought they’d make an album like THIS. It’s not that I didn’t love them or think they were one of my favorite new bands, but you just can’t ever predict these things, and it’s so so so exciting when you realize that something you love is becoming something you love even more. I never expected “To Tundra.” Just listen to it. It’s crushing, and it’s the heart of this album from which the rest is rooted in. That pure, bottled misery and sadness and heartbreak that Los Campesinos! capture so well. They always have, and I dare say they always will.

1.) Yuck – Yuck

This wasn’t even a dark horse. This wasn’t even at the fucking stable when I was gearing up for year-end 2011 in oh, March. Plotting through all the upcoming releases from some of my favorite bands: Fucked Up, The Mountain Goats, St. Vincent, Okkervil River, Bon Iver, etc, and somehow this blipped onto my radar. I don’t remember how or when exactly (sometime in March during the “creating a MS Word document for the Best of 2011”) but it happened. And it was a huge hit. For Jenny, at least. She immediately latched onto this record and as a result it stayed in my car stereo for a solid month and a half and became the soundtrack to making dinner for even longer. I like to use Jenny as a gauge for what real people think about music. Real people being the people unlike myself: the snobbish, head-up-ass critic who can’t just appreciate something for being pleasurable and has to dissect every last goddamn thing. But the thing is, with Yuck, I listen to this album and yeah, I can dissect every reference to every 90s alternative rock band they pay homage to and unlike other bands who sound a whole hell of a lot like 90s bands (read: the Pains of Being Pure at Heart and their overblown attempt to become the Smashing Pumpkins on this year’s Belong), Yuck never felt anything other than honest. It helps that the songwriting is personal and has a tendency to punch you right in the middle of the guts when its wants to (“Suck,” “Suicide Policeman”) but also has fun in celebrating simplicity (“The Wall”) and surprising you with these transcendent moments where you think all music is going to cave in and collapse because no song will ever be this good (“Operation”). Transcendent. That’s the word of the day for Yuck. Despite sounding like a mash-up of Yo La Tengo, Sebadoh, Guided by Voices, they only end up sounding like Yuck. There’s no pretense, no posturing, just four English kids jamming away the best way they know how (read: heartstoppingly excellent riffs, severe pop majesty (“Georgia”) and heartfelt/heart-on-sleeve/kid-has-a-lot-of-heart songwriting). I kept trying to play this album out and I just never got tired of it. It hits all my pleasure centers and it gives me hope. Hope that the young bands still love good old fashioned indie rock and know how to push it forward in a way that’s familiar and exciting at the same time. Really, the thing that pushed Yuck over Los Campesinos! was one moment on one song. "Shook Down," the song that hooked me the first time I listened to the record, plays like a tender little ballad and then two-minutes-and-forty-seconds in the distortion kicks in and it becomes a goddamn POWER ballad. It's little moments like this that make Yuck's debut album so special. They do what feels natural, they follow their hearts, they are pure and good and they write hooks like nobody's business and that's why I listened to this album more than any album of 2011 and that's why it's my favorite. So there.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Best of 2011: Rooftop Vigilantes - Real Pony Glue

Since I first heard and fell in love with Rooftop Vigilantes second album, Real Pony Glue, like two years ago, I couldn't fit it into the list I'm making of my favorite albums of 2011. But it certainly belongs there, since it got left out of last year's and the year's before and since there's a funny story where I called dibs to review it for the Pitch way back when (and when a new editor had just started) and it took so long for this album to actually come out that a NEW new editor was in place and that didn't end up happening. But this is the sort of album not meant for this sort of "Best of 2011" list which is just a general catalog of music of the year that blah blah blah. This is the salvation of local music. To me, at least, and that's probably stilted maybe but not to me I guess. I don't actually own the album (save for the one-track MP3 mentioned in the review here) and have been listening to it track by track on the band's bandcamp page wishing I wasn't poor and wishing they didn't release it on goddamn cassette tape and hoping that once haters realize how good they are, this gets a vinyl release someday.

Rooftop Vigilantes – Real Pony Glue

Oh the woes of the local music scene. I first heard (and subsequently fell in love with) Rooftop Vigilantes troubled sophomore LP roughly two years ago (only judging from the “REALLY ALMOST PONY GLUE MIX” MP3 in my iTunes which is just one 40 minute track dated 1/15/10). The record was recorded by indie rock legend (and Jawbox frontman, indie rock legend first though) J. Robbins and never saw the light of day until the band released it on their own (and on goddamn cassette tape, which I know it’s organic and tangible and all but it gahhhhhh) this year. It’s a tragic thing, because I think Rooftop Vigilantes is the best band from Lawrence, and the best band that’s come out of Lawrence in a long time. I could talk your ear off about the fucking local music scene, but it’s just too long a conversation and one that makes me look like a horrible asshole. So I’ll leave it at “I love Rooftop Vigilantes.” Or I’ll amend that, “I love Rooftop Vigilantes and it’s not just because I know these people and I played in a band for a minute with the drummer and I think they’re generally very on it folks, I legitimately think this is a great record and even if they were all assholes I would STILL think this was a great record but fortunately they are not so that’s cool.” So where was I? Oh yeah, the tragedy of Real Pony Glue having to toil away in obscurity where it will have to become some sort of local legend like an artist who’s work isn’t appreciated til after he’s long dead and can’t reap any of the awards (like free coffee and favors, you know, the usual). This seemed to be true when I thought the band had broken up and I applied Guided by Voices references to them (See: “Bright Paper Werewolves” – “They want to get out of here/ But they can’t find the exit/ They cling to the cinema/ And they can’t find security/ Then they finally got recognized/ So they left in obscurity and misery.”) which was probably welcome but still pretty sad. But they’re NOT really broken up which is great, but they’re also not playing a show every couple of weeks, which is not great because that was the greatest when that was happening and a winter or so ago I had the most embarrassing moment of my life when I very drunkenly attempted to do vocals on their THIRD run through of Big Star’s “September Gurls” on the day of Alex Chilton’s death and proceeded to trudge the three blocks home in an intense snow storm where I stumbled on the sidewalk and ripped a hole in my jeans and thought about how people by jeans with holes torn in them and in my case I was just fucking annoyed cuz I’d just bought them a couple weeks ago and would have to go by a brand new pair but it was worth it even though oh god the horrific embarrassment still haunts me to this day. Rooftop Vigilantes taught me that it’s really wonderful having an open dialogue with a band you honestly love. You get to see all the minutiae, warts and all, and how that not only builds your appreciation for the band but for how music is made in general (read: like sausage, ugly but supremely tasty). The point is, I wish Rooftop Vigilantes was the house band at the Replay Lounge if only because this album’s title is an anagram of said bar. And it’s a perfect title because paying homage to that bar is pretty much paying homage to that part of Lawrence that this album stemmed from. I know it, people I know know it, and people who don’t know it can still sort of experience it by listening to this. It’s a fucking college town in the middle of nowhere (well, not really but I say Kansas, you say “The Middle of Nowhere”) and we’re just like you in INSERT CITY HERE. I love this record because today it seems like to be a band you have to be from Brooklyn and really, you can be from anywhere (read: Minneapolis in the 80s, a time period Roofie Vig no doubt adore with their ever present show-closing cover of the Replacements “Can’t Hardly Wait”) and I think we’ve sort of lost that. For the longest time, all the decent bands seemed like they were trying to get better so they could move to Brooklyn and Rooftop Vigilantes seemed like they were OK being in Lawrence and just did what they did because that’s what they did and there was no bullshit. There STILL isn’t any bullshit, and this record is a testament to that. And this reads like a love letter to Rooftop Vigilantes, which it is. I’m excited they’re making music again, and I’m sorry this had to have an obligatory spot on the list when it should have been higher but lists don’t matter and fuck everyone should listen to this album because:

Top 5 Reasons why Real Pony Glue is tragic because no one will give it the time of day:

5.) The Back Half of this album is just insane – Really, the back half of an album is usually reserved for filler. At least the back middle part, and then the last two are usually pretty OK, but all of these songs are real damn good. The front half is pretty rad too, but that’s expected, but burying “Seth No Jump,” which was the song fucking SPIN MAGAZINE wrote about, in the middle of the fucking album is bold, ballsy, and not even intending to be because that’s just where it fit and the craftsmen/craftswomen in this band know better than to put the single at track 3.
4.) The lead off track is dedicated to the hold policy of Lawrence’s finest record store – THIS IS LOCAL MUSIC. This is what I think of when I think of Lawrence. This band, this album, this song. There’s just SOMETHING I can’t even explain that I always wanted a local band to have and this band has it and I get really excited and every time they play a show I wanna rush out and go to it (although they played at fucking Love Garden like a couple weeks ago and I fucking forgot about it and I DIDN’T EVEN HAVE TO WORK THE NEXT DAY but I’m not too hard on myself because I thought this band was broken up for like, a year SO THERE). I can’t tell if my judgment is skewed. I mean, I KNOW it is, but I just don’t know how skewed it is because everyone loves the bands from their hometown. Although I usually tend to treat local bands with the same criticism I’d treat any band (which is only fair, you should be able to handle criticism and I remember some instances on music staff where a local record would be denied entrance to the coveted KJHK rotation and words would be had with the music director at the time where he would just say “OK we’ll give it another shot because it’s local” and it would be voted down again because goddamnit, you can’t have affirmative action for local music. You can grade it at a curve, sure OK but if it’s shitty it’s shitty and you can’t deny it just because they’re from your town they deserve to know and to learn from that because no one is ever gonna get better if you tell them that their shit music is sunshine and roses GODDAMNIT ok there was that long conversation about local music but moving on…) and if this band was from Boisie, Idaho or Augusta, Maine, I think I’d think they were awesome and I’d praise their clear love of the Replacements and GBV while not totally ripping them off and sounding like a real goddamn band.
3.) “Cartoon Crush” – This is the song that should open every set. This is the song you play to make all the people content to talk in the back and sip their PBR go “Whoa, this is actually pretty good.” And it has one of the best transcendent moments on the album at 1:10 when (I’ll probably use this again) when the whole motherfucker tips over and rushes off to the end of its short existence. Did I mention I love the fact that their songs are short, GBV style, which is kind of like getting to eat at Golden Corral everyday without getting fat (which is, basically, the greatest dream any man can have).
2.) “Fists of Gary” – Rooftop Vigilantes’ catchiest songs usually come from Oscar while Zach’s songs are the glue that kind of holds their albums together. But “Fists of Gary” is just so fucking good it makes me want to fucking scream. It’s written in vein that every Guided By Voices fan understands, and the transcendent quality to this song is ultimately what makes me so, so sad that labels didn’t flip their shit and sign this band immediately. This is the song that makes me want to have a trust fund just so I can start a record label and sign this band. LISTEN TO THAT GIRL GROUP DRUM DROP IN THE BREAK! GODDAMNIT!
1.) That part at the end of “Desperately Seeking High School On Ramp” (see: 1:20) – Zach and Oscar’s interplay as songwriters is the rocketfuel of this band (not to slight Seth (who is my favorite drummer in this town, and not just because I’ve played with him, but I jumped at the opportunity to play with him because he’s my favorite drummer in this town) nor Hannah (who’s farfisa skills add that extra something that separates RV from everyone else) and it’s so fun to have a band with dual songwriters who are probably constantly challenging each other to get better. But this song is Oscar’s best on the record because of that moment at 1:20 where it just all tips over and spills out. Fucking god. This is the part I think about when I think about this album when I think about this album.

Naturally, this review is heavily biased because this is a hometown band and touting this record would be like me praying for the Kansas City Chiefs to win the Superbowl. It's hometown pride, but it's more than that because my whole identity is tied to where I'm from despite trying to pretend that's not true. But then there's the aforementioned hate of local music and how Rooftop Vigilantes make me want to go to all of their shows because they're so goddamn good beyond anything I ever expected. They're a goddamn Kansas City Chiefs Superbowl, Royals World Series, and Jayhawks National Championship all rolled up into one little bundle that I can carry over my shoulder like a hobo wherever I go. Hell, they're better than that because they actually EXIST (with the exception of 2008, which I think RV understand based on Carrot Atlas' "Charley want Mario Chalmers"). More bands need to be this awesome, no matter where the fuck they're from.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Thrill of Discovery: Arctic Monkeys - Part 3

Day 6: November 20, 2011

Humbug


Favourite Worst Nightmare left a pretty bad taste in my mouth, so much that I abandoned Arctic Monkeys for a month and a half. Actually, that’s not true. I’ve been listening to Humbug and Suck it and See regularly. Or both are on the iPod and certain songs come up on shuffle and I’m like “Oh this is good.” Humbug is pretty damn fucking good, I’d say. It’s a big step up in maturity (see: no more dance punk bass lines, etc) and Alex Turner’s songwriting evolves into bipedal adult from knuckle dragging club kid.

“My Propeller”

Not a blow you a way lead off track but solid through and through, which is comforting after the amazingly hit or miss Favourite Worst Nightmare(see: “Flourescent Adolescent” being the only hit, the rest, well…).

“Crying Lightning”

Lots of interesting stuff going on here in the gloomy guitar work and Turner’s vocal line. They’re straying away from the big, over the top hooks and it suits them so well. Don’t get me wrong, Arctic Monkey can pull off the massive hooks with ease in the right environment, but Favourite Worst Nightmare seemed so eager to please everyone whereas Humbug is much more internalized, giving less of a fuck, and ultimately sounding like this band making a big step forward.

“Cornerstone”

My favorite video after "Fluorescent Adolescent."

This is a masterpiece of a song. This is everything Arctic Monkeys do well, executed flawlessly and going above and beyond anything I ever expected. A brilliant pop tune carried on the back of Alex Turner’s songwriting prowess. It’s hopelessly sad, a young gentleman so hung up on a young lass he keeps either finding girls who look like her (or do they?) and attempting to woo them and ultimately, pleading to call them the other girl’s name. It’s obsessive and insane and if you’ve been there, it’s pretty accurate. The lyrics manage to be off the cuff and playful(“She was close, close enough to be your ghost/ But my chances turned to toast/ When I asked her if I could call her your name”) while cementing this tragic and pathetic character roaming the bars looking for a replacement. He smells her on a seatbelt and takes the long way home, and ultimately sees this young lass’ sister, picks her up, and she agrees to let him call her his ex-girlfriend’s name. It’s fucking WEIRD. Bizarre and bad-dream like and just gets everything right. If Every song Arctic Monkeys wrote was this good, they could be bigger than the Beatles. Well, maybe…

“Pretty Visitors”

“What came first, the chicken or the dickhead.” Turner’s lyrics are always playful, fun, and appropriate (for the song, not for primary school, church, or ice cream socials, natch). I really like that this band is slipping further and further from their Franz Ferdinand aping/dance-punk roots and this is a weird sort of song, waffling between gothic horror movie music cut with typical, short burst rapid fire bits. Just realized that I used the word “Playful” again, which I guess is what I can’t help describing Arctic Monkeys’ music as because you can’t just say it’s fun over and over again. That and I wrote that bit about “Cornerstone” like a week and a half ago and I realize how lazy I am and how I gotta get this done.

“The Jeweller’s Hands”

ANOTHER dark, weird jam. This one has been coming up a lot when the iPod’s on shuffle and we’re cooking dinner or whatever. And yet, I never turn it to something else. I do really love how they’re branching out into murkier territory. These last few songs make it sound like the band is ready to move on. They’ve gestated long enough in a specific style with specific media ramifications that they can do whatever the fuck they want now because they’re famous.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Book Club: The Magicians by Lev Grossman




Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is pretty much universally tagged as “Harry Potter for Grown Ups.” It’s not, really. For one, it’s not really that much like Harry Potter other than the fact that it’s largely set at a school of magic and in a world where magic is real, but the magic is grittier, more arcane and mysterious and dangerous than the simplified magic world of Harry Potter. Not to knock HP, I love me some Harry Potter, but my big fear going into this book was that it would be too Harry Potter-esque and I was relieved to find that it wasn’t. The Chronicles of Narnia is also a huge touchstone, and there’s more of that influence in The Magicians than anything. At least what I know about Narnia, which isn’t a lot but even then, he makes references to Narnia and Harry Potter in the book so as to set it all apart. Anyway, Grossman’s book was engrossing. Ha! And it was really, really good and sad and a wonderful coming of age story featuring a protagonist who is a fuck up just like everyone else. It’s rare to find a genuine fuck up in books, I think. There’s that platonic ideal of a fuck up and then there’s Quentin Coldwater who rings much more like you or I (or probably just I in this case, I identified with him a bit, although I don’t know if I’m as big of a bitch as he is but I probably am) than of the classic fuck ups. He makes mistakes, often big ones that have huge consequences, but they’re mistakes anyone could make under the right emotional circumstances. The Magicians treats magic like some dangerous, unstable substance humans just accidentally stumbled upon and it really grounds this novel in reality, which is primarily why it’s so great. That and Grossman’s prose is just terrific to read and laugh out loud funny sometimes and then just horrifying and brutal other times.

It’s been a while since I’ve wanted to do one of these Book Club features for a book, but I’ve figured out that certain books just go better with music and it’s not right to force it. As usual, most of these songs are culled from whatever’s been in the CD player or playing on repeat on iTunes, or some new thing I stumbled upon that seemed to fit in one way or another.

Parry Gripp – “I Wanna Be a Magician”

Lev Grossman curated this theme song for The Magicians. How fucking cool is that? And you know what, it’s a goddamned great track. Like Grossman, I share a sort of undying love for Nerf Herder based on years of listening between the ages 14 and 18 and well, I still listen to Nerf Herder now and again because it’s just good. Good hooks and such. This is just such a perfect fucking song for this book/series/whatever it is. It conveys that sense of excitement that kind of runs through the book. That’s really the only consistent emotion, really. Even when it’s subdued due to danger and heartbreak, there’s always that thrill of the quest. It’s what this book is all about: finding out that magic is real and then seeing how far the rabbit hole goes.


Los Campesinos! – “By Your Hand”

One of the best things about The Magicians is that it deals with teen angst in a more realistic way than Harry Potter. That’s one of the things that really sets it apart and somewhat removes the “Harry Potter for Grown Ups” stigma. It’s not really Harry Potter for grown ups because it’s not really that much like Harry Potter. And it’s not really for grown ups. It’s more young adult with a hefty dose of post-college lit.

I can’t wait for this album to come out. I forgot it was so close. This is the first single, and I found this video about a month after it premiered, took a break from reading, freaked out a little, and then freaked out a little more because it’s so good. It’s good because it’s catchy and sad like all the best LC! Songs but it also definitely feels like this band is maturing in the best way. The way where they aren’t sacrificing any of the inherent stuff that makes them great and that only makes their music better and better. Maybe this song fits so well because they’re British and Brakebills is described as being very Anglophilic. But it balances the fun and sad that comes with the early twenties/twentysomething characters. Anyway, I think I watched this video right when Quentin and Alice went to her parents weird house and it felt like something was going to go drastically wrong with their relationship sometime later in the novel, but at that point they still loved eachother. Not like they ever stop loving eachother, it just gets complicated because as I’ve said, Quentin is a stupid fuck up which only makes what happens at the end all that much more tragic and ultimately, what makes this book so fucking good. There are consequences, and those consequences are never pleasant, and will have to be dealt with by those who surivive. And that’s sad. But that’s life.

Los Campesinos! – “This is How You Spell..."

And yeah, maybe it’s the British thing. But Quentin and Alice’s relationship just feels like a fucking Los Campesinos! Song. Bittersweet. Emphasis on the sweet, emphasis on the bitter. Notably “I know, I am wrong, I am sorry.” Something about that sentiment.

Feist – “The Bad in Each Other”

Well, it’s pretty clear what I focused on the most in the book. I just love a well told relationship story. One that gets it right. That sort of thing seems to be the most important thing it is, or at least that’s how it seems. The way we interact with people, notably the ones we love. You know Alice and Quentin are gonna get together from the second you see them in the same room and he remarks at how weird and odd she is. And then there’s the whole fox-sex thing in Antarctica and the fact that they’re the only two crazy enough to participate in Mayakovsky’s optional final. Kindered spirits, those two. SO SPOILER ALERT QUIT READING IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THIS, it was pretty easy figure out that Quentin was going to cheat with her. What with all the drinking and drugging and partying and time away from Alice because she hated all that. This post-Brakebills world seemed almost out of character for Quentin, but mostly because I was just so annoyed because I knew what was going to happen. And then it did, and then I understood why it had to happen: So Penny could show up with the magic button that would take them to Fillory. Having that Quentin/Alice drama running through what should have been the most exciting thing ever was just perfectly placed to keep things grounded. To make sure the real world followed them into magic land. And then it looks like it’s going to work out, maybe and of course Alice sacrifices herself with some badass medieval magic to kill the Beast and I know that needs to happen because Quentin is the protagonist and he needs that to happen so he can learn and grow but man, but it still sucks. It illustrates the complexity of their relationship and that’s what makes Quentin who he becomes. I’m reading The Magician King now and he’s a little bit wiser. Still a fuck up, but he knows that there are consequences and he’s more mature this time around. Granted, not that much more mature, but he’s touched the stove and realized it’s hot so there.

Anyway, this song has pangs of a couple who’ve been together so long they know every last bit about each other and notably, how they’re capable of hurting each other.

M83 – “Midnight City”
I put M83’s new bloated-but-still-lovely LP Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming one night whilst reading and it was a nice fit. Anthony Gonzalez knows exactly how to play on nostalgia in such a way that it captures the absolute spirit of youth and preserves all of its faults and triumphs. It’s not so much of a lyrical thing, but the tone that the synthesizers have that just screams 20 year olds at magician school. Also, I didn't know this when I picked this song, but the video is basically a bunch of kids who can do magic. GO FIGURE.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Free Design - Kites are Fun

The Free Design – Kites Are Fun
Project 3, 1967
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2010
Price: $8

This is some proto-twee shit. I bought this because I vaguely remember this band from my Nuggets/twee-pop-is-god phase and I don’t think I ever listened to it. That seems to be the only reason I can use to get myself to buy records since I don’t really need them anymore and I clearly don’t listen to them enough. So “Oh great! I haven’t heard this and I think this record is rare maybe” is as good an excuse as any. This is the only record in my collection that is musty (it’s simply not allowed, not ever, especially since I’ve started working at HPB in which handling collections that have been collecting mold and such for the last 20 years makes me throw musty records away on sight), a rare exception. No visible mold, but you can certainly smell the must. A small sacrifice, I suppose. The music is what you would expect from a band tagged with a label like “Sunshine Pop.” The siblings Dedrick certainly have a penchant for happy jams, that’s for sure. Laid back, groovy loungey tunes from the Summer of Love, etc. There are some long liner notes that I don’t have time to read, but the first line of the title track proclaims “This bright, gay song was, literally, the beginning of the Free Design.” (Note: Haha, Gay. Lol). The song-by-song notes look like they’ve been written by some PR exec desperate to make you think this music is interesting but instead ruins them with over-explanation with lines like “Chris adds a jaunty recorder solo to the group’s singing” and quotes from the band like “If it takes drugs to free your mind, you’re reaching out for nothing. Your own imagination is where it’s at.” God, what a bunch of SQUARES. On the whole, this is a really fucking lame record. Just painfully lame, which I suppose is why it reminds me of twee pop. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy aspects of it, but really, after reading some of these lame ass liner notes, I’m thinking about how much more interesting this might be if it wasn’t for stuff like “It’s important for the whole song to have an idea, like a novel or a poem, although it doesn’t have to be very profound. To start with you need a catchy phrase. But after that phrase, a lot of songs don’t go very far. I spend a lot of time on the lyrics trying to make them say something and, at the same time, to make sure that they’re not so deep that nobody understands them.” This over-explanation of concept is an interest-killer, for real. But I suppose pretending it doesn’t exist and just evaluating the record, it’s still just some boring folk-tinged easy listening pop. Sure, I can see the influence on twee a bit (singing about Kites, carefree things, etc) but Twee was cool because it incorporated punk rock. This is not-cool because it tries to be as vanilla as humanly possible in an effort to get more people to listen to it. At least that’s the impression I get. This might have sounded really fresh in ’67. Who knows, maybe I woulda ate this shit up but now it’s dated in a sad sort of way. Plus, the whole thing sounds like it was painstakingly packaged by out of touch record label execs trying to tap in to the “youth market” and it shows. Still, there are plenty of nice harmonies and well orchestrated bits of instrumentation and I guess it’s a nice album, but nice album’s don’t get asked to the prom.


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Thrill of Discovery: Arctic Monkeys - Part 2

Day 4: October 6, 2011

Favourite Worst Nightmare


“Fluorescent Adolescent”

What a great video! Seriously! Arctic Monkeys seem to shine when they prove that their simple music can be twisted and morphed into fucking brilliant pop songs if they want it to.

This is the first great track on this record. I’d even go as far as to say that it’s the first really good track on this record, and it’s five songs in. It feels like a departure from the first record in the best way: the way where Arctic Monkeys start to peel past the unavoidable comparisons and get a “That sounds like an Arctic Monkeys song.” Mind, it’s not there yet. Not quite at all, but I’ve been listening to their latest, Suck it and See, in the car on a loop for five days and it feels like more fun to track this young band’s progression up to that point. Puts it all in perspective, because it feels like they’re getting better and better, album after album. Or maybe not better and better. But figuring themselves out more. This one sounds better, nice production and all, but until “Florescent Adolescent” hits it all feels a bit rote. The prior songs on the album, that is. It’s a groovy jam through and through hitting that sweet spot that Arctic Monkeys seem to hit three or four times an album. Chris, just a fucking excellent song. A three minute pop song played to perfection. And an excellent music video directed by Richard Ayoade to boot!

“Only Ones You Know”

Man oh man, the quiet songs is where Alex Turner really gets to shine. The nice new beefed up production works in his favor here, too, in that it stays out of the way while letting all the nice and elegant pretty bits shine through before rushing back into the pretty OK rock music of the next song. But when the lights are dimmed, he can really twist a gorgeous melody around your guts and heartstrings and I don’t know, muscly things that gives you the heavy chest. I don’t feel like these guys are amazing musicians. They’re capable enough, I suppose, at least for what Alex Turner’s songs require, but on a whole the riffs and the basslines tend to err on the side of OK. When there’s less to get in the way of the actual songs, they tend to shine.

Day 5: October 11, 2011

The Rest of this Fucking Album
Remember that last paragraph where I said that Arctic Monkeys’ relied very, very heavily on the talent in Alex Turner’s songwriting? Well, well just yeah. The rest of this album is forgettable. I’ve listened to it three times through looking for a spark of something great and I get some amateurish guitar work and boring ol’ bass lines and all that brashness of the debut but muted because its filtered through some fancy studio boards or whatever. Maybe that’s why the three singles on this album are culled from the first five songs. It seems like Arctic Monkeys have this problem with consistency. Their sound is pretty consistent, I’ll give’em that, but consistently compelling is something they can do maybe 50% of the time. At least that’s what I’ve seen with Suck it and See, which I’m still compulsively listening to in the car despite the album being 50% excellent and 50% just plain boring with a dash of cock-rock. On Favourite Worst Nightmare they’re not quite there yet. Still a handful of British lads getting to play at being rock stars, which is awesome, but the back half of this album is mostly chaff. “The Bad Thing” isn’t so bad, it has some really fun vocal delivery that mixes it up enough to keep it going for its pretty short running time.

BUT!

Revisiting the First half of the record for shits and grins

“Brainstorm”

Ok, this song has something to it. It’s fun, and I think that’s something that for some reason I can’t bring to the table when I’m listening to Arctic Monkeys. Because I hate fun music. I mean, I don’t really hate it, I just generally hate fun. Or I’m indifferent to fun, at least when it comes to music. It doesn’t bother me when its there, but if the song lacks any meatier substance I can tend to overlook the fact that it might have been just good old fashioned fun. The bass line (What is it with the bass lines on this fucking album?) reeks of what Death From Above 1979 did for bass lines in the early 00s and now every bass line sounds crunchy when played with aggression and the distortion turned way up.

“Teddy Pickler”
The other aforementioned single from the first five songs. This one drowns under an amateurish bass line as well. I wish the music wasn’t so boring, because I really do think Alex Turner has some amazing talent. The sort that’s going to mature with the man. He’s clever. Very clever, good with words and teriffic with melodies. The music, man oh man, it’s just plain uninspiring.

“D is for Dangerous”
This is another one of those “fun songs.” Except in this case, “Fun” means “dance punk revival. At least the songs are very, very short on this record. Particularly in the case of this one, which stays afloat because it’s only a little over two minutes long.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Thrill of Discovery: Arctic Monkeys - Part 1

Thrill of discovery is an ongoing feature where I dive headfirst into the discography of a band everyone loves or are popular for some reason that I've never been able to understand based on cursory listens. It is an effort to fill in the gaps of my musical knowledge, which there are very many, and the end result is designed to be "fewer." This go around, it's British post-post-punk popular darlings Arctic Monkeys. It's meant to be a bit of a break from the colossal undertaking that was the Ween discography and the even more massive discography of the next artist, REM, who handily just broke up and it's now the perfect time to figure out why people are all apeshit for them now that they're kaput. But anyway, Arctic Monkeys. I chose them because I always thought they were entirely boring despite only ever hearing chunks of their songs on alt-rock radio. I realized I'd never actually listened to one of their records and that I couldn't even name one of their songs. I recently watched Richard Ayoade's directorial debut, the absolutely wonderful coming-of-age story Submarine which boasts an absolutely appropriate and unreasonably gorgeous five-song soundtrack from Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner. Turn's out the guy is quite the songwriter. That coincided with the release of the music video of the title track from Arctic Monkeys latest LP, Suck it and See, and while I thought the video was a beautifully shot load of sexy rubbish, the song was really fucking great. Oh yeah, that's why I watched Submarine that night. Go figure.

Day 1: September 26, 2011
Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not


“The View From the Afternoon”


Sounds like a mash-up of the best of blur and the lingering dance-punk influence that sadly dwelt in the middle of the 00s. BUT, this song plays off with enough swagger and British enunciation and general funness that makes it not only work, but makes me want to listen to more. It’s pulling the same card as the Strokes, almost the exact same one except barely more British. The guitars are crunchier, the structures more loose, and it works.

“I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”

I can't tell if he's trying to be the Gallagher brothers or not (not really). We have the same guitar, though, so COOL.

What I like about this album (two songs in) is that none of it feels overthought which is really, I think, is one of the many Achilles’ Heels of modern music. Especially mainstream music. Especially mainstream modern rock, the kind of wannabe alternative trash they play on 96.5 the Buzz. Arctic Monkeys sound like Buzz stables. Like they could fit in right next to the Killers or Straylight Run or any of those other mass-produced sounding bands reliant on the Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Chorus-Chorus-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus song structure, and naturally they’d stick out as sounding a bit more with it since they don’t beat their songs to death. They know that a good pop song should be right around or just under the three minute mark. Good for them.

“Fake Tales of San Francisco”


This is better than the last song, which I think was the single. The first single. Big single? I don’t really know. Again, fucking dance punk drums that will date this as the years go on but Alex Turner is a good enough writer to carry this band, it seems. Great hooks, fun and clever lyrics, etc. I appreciate concept albums, too. Even if they’re just thematically conceptual like the club scene nature of the songs here, it gets a thumbs up and if it sucks an E for effort.

“Dancing Shoes”

Aaaaand now into the realm of way-too-obvious fan films.

Speaking of dancing, the British obsession with clubbing is so strange to me yet probably not much different from any of the commonplace mating rituals we have here in the States. What’s the equivalent? I mean, they have gigs and stuff there, and yeah we have rave clubs where teenagers do ecstasy and get all sweaty all over each other but it seems like it’s thee thing to do in England to stave off boredom and maybe get laid. Anyway, just realized that this band sounds a lot like a grimier version of Franz Ferdinand.

“Still Take You Home”

You know, at first I was like "Well, this is all just really simplistic and that's fine but still" but you know what, it makes me really happy to see that rock bands can still be popular. Or maybe that's a mainstream thing, but I think Arctic Monkeys have a bit more artfulness than most like the Strokes or something and though that trend is dead and buried, I'll take this over Chillwave any day.

This album already sounds a bit dated. The whole mid 00s is already set in amber and so much of this album is either taking from things that were happening in the earlier 00s or late 70s punk rock. Edgier Blur tones and a less full of themselves Strokes come to mind again, over and over. At least I don’t think they’re a bunch of rich kids. Or at least it doesn’t sound like they’re a bunch of rich kids. Rich kids can be deceptive because lord knows how they love to be perceived as poor because they think it makes them real despite the fact that the only reason their little band has any traction whatsoever is because of the connections they were born with. Back to the old argument of is it great art if it was born with money because poor people without connections are making great albums no one will ever hear or are the albums legit because the opportunity for everything was there forever. It’s a useless argument, totally. And what was I talking about? Oh yeah, “Still Take You Home” sounds like it should be a filler track, if that makes sense. Like the kind of track most bands use for late album padding, except it’s really good. A straight up jam, not super spectacular but good and a grower for certain. Something to latch on to.

Day 2: September 27, 2011

“Mardy Bum”

I think this is the song that works best on the album, but it also serves as a perfect example to what a song needs to be, which is that it needs to be able to be played on an acoustic guitar and a voice and still work. I guess that's not true. Probably a lie, actually. But I've always thought that that the best songs did. Like it needs to work at the very base to work at all or it's just going to collapse and bury whatever family is living inside of it.

God, this sounds like a fucking single, if only because it’s my favorite song on the album so far. But probably because I had to stop listening when this one was almost over and picked up writing by just replaying it. I’ve probably been over this before, but the reason I love short pop songs so much is that it illustrates a knowledge that it’s better to leave a listener wanting more than to run it into the ground by repeating the chorus 8,000,000 times. Oh, I already said that? It bears repeating because modern rock is fucked that way. “Mardy Bum” is just under 3 minutes long and I immediately want to listen to it again once it’s done. I appreciate the craft of it. Sure, it sounds extra-Blur-y, but they’re British and EVERYTHING sounds like Blur over there. Great hook, well written, solid jam.

“From the Ritz to the Rubble”

Shit, this one is really great too. Definitely Finn-y.

Alex Turner’s vocal delivery and songwriting is Arctic Monkeys’ greatest gift. Their music is a more punked up dance-punk meets the Strokes but Turner is onto something. I keep thinking of Craig Finn of the Hold Steady, who also writes songs about kids going to crazy parties, doing too many drugs, trying to get laid, and having massive highs and crushing lows. Turner also doesn’t seem to like to repeat his choruses, making them structural placeholders and expending his energy in telling these fancy clubbing stories in the verses. And that’s the kind of songwriting I love and it stands opposed to all the other goddamn songwriting in modern radio rock music right now. Lyrically, the song appears to be a rote account of not getting let into a club thanks to some Nazi bouncers then going off, getting drunk, having some maybe deep conversations with the girl you made out with and reflecting on that the next morning. Simple stuff making me thing Alex Turner is Craig Finn’s spiritual little brother. He’s not as gifted as Finn is with details and wordplay and well, all around songwriting prowess, but his heart is in the right place.

“A Certain Romance”

HA.

OK, I’ve already mentioned the whole three minute pop song rant like 8 times, and “A Certain Romance” is 1.) The first real deviation from that format on this record and 2.) Very obviously the favorite single from this record because 3.) It’s the most solid, certifiable jam. And it’s right at the very end, which I thought was either a ballsy move or wasn’t intended to be on the album but they tacked it on after people loved it so much (or they realized it was such a jam and could sell more records). It’s just a big motherfucking song and it works at its length. It’s not my favorite song on the record, but it’s a nice cap on a debut that I thought was gonna be garbage when it came out all those years ago.

Day 3: September 29, 2011

Who the Fuck Are Arcic Monkeys? EP




This is a glorified single for Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’s lead-off track “A View From the Afternoon.” And though it came out only a few months after the LP, it already feels like a departure. From the soulful haze of “Despair in the Departure Lounge” that really illustrates what this band is capable of if they drop the dance punk beats and the bratty faux-punk delivery. The song sounds like it was recorded in one take at three in the morning and the solo performance makes it all the more lonely. Actually, all of the tracks save the one “A View of From the Afternoon” take Arctic Monkeys in a much more enjoyable direction.