Dinosaur Jr pisses me off. In 1989 Lou Barlow left the group due to inner-group tension, and as a result, we were robbed of 18 year of amazing music. Don’t get me wrong, the post-Barlow era of Dinosaur Jr still had some great albums but they fail in comparison to such classics as “Bug” and “You’re Living All Over Me”. Fortunately, they finally got over their little quarrel and got back to rocking a few years back. If you thought the band’s kick-ass 2007 reunion album “Beyond” was a fluke, “Farm” serves as evidence that you are gravely mistaken. Usually when bands reunite, they sound dated and contrived, but somehow, Dino’s reunion material sounds fervent and fresh. Yes, J. Mascis is keeping the guitar solo alive, and it’s never sounded better.
9. Sunset Rubdown
“Dragonslayer” is a grower, not a show-er. The first few listens may be difficult to wrap your head around, but once you’ve grounded yourself in Spencer Krug’s peculiar realm, you’ll find yourself swept away by his story of the struggle between friendship and love. Soon, Krug will have you wondering aloud “Why DID Anna change her name?” or “how did you get held up at yesterday’s parties?” Krug buries his tale beneath a pile of vivid metaphors, yet, you still sense there is a narrative haunting around the tombstone. “Dragonslayer” is a lot like a T.S. Elliot poem: the more you listen to it, the more you want to hear it, to know it, to understand it. “Dragonslayer” is the indie-rock opera the Decemberists were aiming for with “The Hazards of Love”, and Anna is our generation’s Pinball Wizard (I still don’t get why she had to change her name though).
8. Jay Reatard
“Watch Me Fall”
You haven’t heard songs this catchy since The Beatle’s ”Hard Days Night”, although if Jay were a member of the Fab Five there would have been a lot of chicks with black eyes (No one charges Jay Reatard without receiving a souvenir). Don’t be fooled by “Watch Me Fall’s” up-beat, cheery sound; this encourageable little pup’s got bite. Although “Watch Me Fall” is grounded in punk, it shows Jay maturing with his sound, relying more often upon his acoustic guitar and songwriting that is complex and finely tuned. Complex punk? If you don’t think it’s possible, take it up with Jay.
“Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free”
The cover says it all – there is no other album in 2009 that represents America’s trials and tribulations better than “Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free”. It of course has the folk backbone throughout, but along the ride, the band takes you through various styles of American music, from big band, 60s psychedelia, 40s doo-wop, 90s hip-hop, to the punk-rock noise of the 70s and 80s. Like a musical Betsy Ross, Akron/Family have taken all the genres of music that have grown out of the “land of the free” and created an intricate, multi-faceted, harmonious quilt of where we’ve been. Throughout, these sounds are intertwined naturally and performed wonderfully by non-other than Akron/Family.
6. The Thermals
“Now We Can See”
I would have loved to have the members of The Thermals in my English class. They understand all the basic Literary Elements: themes, metaphors, foreshadowing, symbolism, etc. Their 2007 release “The Body, the Blood, and the Machine” relied heavily upon allusions to the bible, using the imagery of the ancient book to tell stories and make a statement about our origin. “Now We Can See” continues with the origin theme, although in this case they use the motif of evolution. Every song makes references to the scientific theory that we “grew from the dirt ”, then ”took off (our) skin” and “crawled to the sea” “to swim!”(these four lyrics were taken from three different songs- now that’s an extended metaphor!). Within these Darwinian tales, the band tells stories of facing your fears, the perils of alcoholism, and the eventual demise of modern society. Yes, this album is an English/Science teacher’s dream come true. Oh, and did I mention that the songs also kick ass?
5. The Very Best
“Warm Heart of Africa”
I didn’t know how to evaluate The Very Best’s first album due simply to the fact that most of the songs featured music by other artists, whether it be M.I.A., Vampire Weekend, or the music from the “True Romance” soundtrack. Although the music was undeniably delightful, could the band have the same result with their own backing tracks? “Warm Heart of Africa” shames me for doubting. Mwamwaya’s voice is still as smile-inducing as ever, and Radioclit’s contributions are stronger than anything on their self-titled effort. The African vibe is felt throughout, but Radioclit is able to carry the songs discreetly through a series of genres, whether it be new wave or trance. In a time where regionalism has become almost nonexistent due to technology, The Very Best exemplify what is possible when cultures meld their ideas into one masterwork.
At its core, “Blue Album” is a metal album- yet it is so much more. The band takes all of their eclectic influences and somehow combine them naturally into their powerful assault. Nothing is forced. Every song evolves organically, taking the listener through an obstacle course of compelling riffs and devastating drums. Metal is often associated with death, but the “Blue Album” is life its self, a blue flower blossoming in your ears, and then unexpectantly gashing your ear drums with their savage thorns.
About a month ago I had a student I trusted run out to my car to grab a folder I left on my front seat. Of course, I didn’t remember that under the folder laid the coffee table book “Punk: The Definitive Record of a Revolution”. When he got back to my room his face was all aglow. “You like punk Mr. S?” he asked in amazement. It was like he had just learned that Santa Claus indeed did exist. Like an authoritative dick, I asked him to go to his desk and told him we could talk about it after class. This resulted in him standing in my room for 15 minutes during my lunch time, listing all the bands he was into, none of which I’d heard of. He then pulled out his I-POD and commenced having me check out mediocre emo band after emo band, the 21st century’s version of punk. I tried to think of a band to suggest to this kid, to save him, one that would guide him down the right path. Minor Threat? The Wipers? Rancid? No. I had to come up with something new; this kid didn’t want to listen to an old guy’s music by old punks. Then it hit me: Japandroids. Nothing screams youth more than two kids from Vancouver singing lines about wanting to leave there stomping grounds, living life without concern, and kissing french girls. I told him he had to get to lunch soon, but that I would play him “Young Hearts Spark Fire”, and as I watched this kid discover real, earnest, punk rock, the young heart in me may have even pumped out a couple heartbeats.
2. Bill Callahan
“Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle”
While “Woke On a Whaleheart” showed Bill trying find himself without his band Smog, “Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle” is an overwhelming statement that Bill can in fact do this on his own. While his band explored stranger terrain, Bill focuses on the tangible here, relying mostly on only the live instrumentation of pianos, guitars, and violins. The album may seem intimate at times, but there are moments where Bill reminds us that his music can be larger than expected. For example, when the strings break out on “Eid Ma Clack Shaw”, you’d swear it was a sequel to “Eleanor Rigby”. But my favorite character has to be the mysterious guitar that lurks in the shadows of the album. Every song you’ll catch a glimpse of it, a basic electric guitar, no effects needed, meandering in the background. The only thing to upstage the unassuming guitar is Bill himself with his croaking baritone voice that speaks straight to your soul (I swear even the deaf can hear Bill’s voice). If Bill Callahan only released his lyrics in poetic form, his words alone would be music to your ears. Oh, but we are luckier than that my friends. Not only is Bill a master wordsmith, but his music speaks volumes as well. Just imagine if Dylan Thomas could sing and play guitar?
1. Animal Collective
“Merriweather Post Pavilion”
On New Years Eve, the group I was hanging out with got into a discussion of who was the biggest band of the decade. The first answer to come to most of our minds was Radiohead. But driving back to Texas, I thought about the question longer and decided we may have been wrong. TV On the Radio? Arcade Fire? The Yeah Yeah Yeahs? No, none of them created music as influential as Radiohead, but there is one band that did, and maybe even more so: Animal Collective (stick with me here…)
If you look back on Animal Collective’s resume for the past ten years, they’ve released eight albums, four EPs, and a multitude of side projects (Panda Bear’s “Person Pitch” is unquestionably one of the top ten albums of the decade). If you simply compare “Here Comes the Indian” to “Merriweather Post Pavilion”, you’ll see in an instant how much the band has grown. Every album presents a new way to aproach music.
“Merriweater Post Pavilion” is quite possibly the band’s best album to date, the perfect culmination to a productive decade. In this case, it’s not an insult to say that it is their most accessible album because to an outsider, “Merriweater Post Pavilion” would still seem pretty alien. I hate to say the band has matured because it would be a damn shame, but they have definitely learned how to approach their music from a melodical stand-point (and you’ll never hear them scream once, which has slowly become a crutch for them over the years).
Even the lyrics speak of growing up and facing adulthood. Yet I insist, they have NOT grown up. If anything, the album brings me back to my childhood, sounding like the soundtrack to “Fern Gullie”. The sounds are enchanting, exciting, and will have you conjuring up images of elves and gnomes prancing around a magical mushroom in no time. It’s too bad Jim Henson is dead because I can only imagine what he could have done with the mystical world on “Merriweater Post Pavilion”. I guess as a consolation you can always rent “Fraggle Rock”, turn the sound off, and blast “Merriweater Post Pavilion” out of your stereo. Who needs drugs when you’ve got “Merriweater Post Pavilion” and Muppets?
(Note to reader: Sad to say goodbye to our best of 2009 lists? Never fear! Over the tenure of 2010, Paul will be moving methodically through decade, listing what he deems the top albums for each year. Look for it in the coming weeks!)