Monthly Archives: June 2011

Top 20 Albums of 2011 (So Far…): 10-1

Amidst my rambling to introduce 20-11 of my “Top Albums of 2011 (So Far…)” list, I forgot to post my list of honorable mentions. Below you’ll find some wonderful albums that almost made the cut.

Honorable Mention:

Alela Diane “Alela Diane & Wild Divine”

James Blake “S/T”

Earth “Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1”

Paul Simon “So Beautiful or So What?”

Skull Defekts “The Temple”

Thao & Mirah “S/T”

Mike Watt “Hyphenated-Man”

Yuck! “S/T”

And now, the Top 10 Albums of 2011 (So far…):

 10. Bill Callahan

“Apocalypse”

[Drag City; 2011]

Truman Capote once dismissed Jack Kerouac’s stream of consciousness approach saying, “It isn’t writing at all – it’s typing.”  I suppose he would have the same response to Bill Callahan’s “Apocalypse.” I say this because of the album’s rambling lyrics that wander about like a Bedouin in the desert. Prior to “Apocalypse,” Callahan used themes as a scaffold to his stories; on “Apocalypse” his stories wander in search of a theme, sometimes never arriving at their destination.  This experience is often close to the heart with Callahan singing about his own confusions or channeling those emotions through his characters.

Callahan has never been one to follow songwriting norms, and on “Apocalypse” he has stretched his terrain to the unexplored. His songs are sparser, more personal, and more perplexing than anything he’s done since his days with Smog. He rarely aims to give us answers but puts us in his mind’s eye, giving us the task of trying to answer them ourselves. Whether its his personal story of seclusion as a musician on “Riding For the Feeling,” or his tale of a lonely cowboy on “Drover,” this is an album about the “Apocalypse” within; the endless, draining apocalypse of our heart and soul and how “ this wild, wild country/ It takes a strong, strong/ Breaks a strong, strong mind.” If that’s not songwriting, I don’t know what is, Mr. Capote.

“Riding For the Feeling” tells of Callahan’s disconnect from both his fans and himself:

9. TV Ghost

“Mass Dream”

[In The Red; 2011]

Last weekend, while visiting my friend PthestudP in Omaha, I played TV Ghost’s “Mass Dream” for him, knowing he’d like its chaotic take on post-punk. Within the first 40 seconds of “Wired Trap” I could see his eyes light up with excitement.  Half way through the song though his take on the album had been altered, “I really like this, but I don’t know if I can handle it right now.” I wasn’t offended; I knew exactly what he was talking about.  He was feeling that same combination of excitement and fear that I’d felt upon my first listen. Plus, sitting in a car and listening to “Mass Dream” is like drinking a 5-Hour Energy and watching “Antique Road Show.”  You can not sit still and listen to this album, and if you do, seizures are probably in your future.

Just when it seemed the post-punk rebirth had run its course, TV Ghost’s take on the genre has tossed expectations for a loop, the church organ moaning behind the shrieking, surf guitar riffs, and the ballyhooing of singer Tim Gick.  His voice, a combination of David Byrne’s nervous, jerky shouts and David Yow’s tortured, muffled howls, provides the mad scientist to this seance of terror and trepidation.  You cannot resist the supernatural powers of “Mass Dream,” so just let the music grasp your soul and shake it.

As frenzied as “Wired Trap” starts out, the organ riff that surfaces at the 2-minute mark calms your nerves, if not for only a moment:

8. J. Mascis

“Several Shades of Why”

[SubPop; 2011]

When I first got J. Mascis’s “Several Shades of Why” I didn’t expect much. Mr. Mascis without his trusty Jazzmaster and his wall of Marshall amps is like Samson without his locks. Or at least I thought as much. With all the distortion and guitar soloing gone, Mascis’s true strength is finally revealed: his songwriting.  Neil Young has said that all great songs should sound just as good without effects and Mascis proves this sentiment with 10 delicate songs of love and loss that are warm and welcoming.

With effects all but gone, a vocalist’s strengths or weaknesses are put right out there for all to hear. But as we’ve learned over the years, Mascis’s distinct croaking vocal style is strangely an asset. On “Seven Shades of Why” this is especially true with it being backed by the pairing of an acoustic guitar and strings (I can’t help but wonder if Mascis’s friend Thurston Moore had a hand or at least an influence on this album).  Don’t worry, Mascis guitar prowess is still on display, in this case, finger picking his way through one bittersweet ode after another.  Then again, one of my favorite moments on “Seven Shades of Why” is when Mascis’s guitar returns to the stomp box for a quick Dinosaur Jr guitar solo at the end of “Where Are You,” just a quick reminder that he still has plenty of Guitar God power in his back pocket if his long silver locks ever do get cut off.

I’ve been trying to post only audio clips as not to slow down my page, but I couldn’t resist displaying Mascis’s trippy video for “Not Enough”:

7. Fucked Up

“David Comes To Life”

[Matador; 2011]

I have to confess that Fucked Up’s “David Comes To Life” shouldn’t be on this list.  While coming up with it, I made the rule that all albums had to be released before June 1st in order to be considered, just to make life easier. “David Comes To Life” came out on June 7th of course, so what gives? For one, I’ve actually been listening to several of the tracks off the new album plus a handful of other rarities for a couple of months now. The Montreal-based band is so fan friendly that they gave free downloads of rare material for those that pre-ordered the album.  But that’s still no excuse.  I guess it boils down to this: with something this great, I couldn’t just sit on my hands until December.  That would be, dare I say, fucked up.

Now that I have the entire album, my adoration for this hardcore-rock-opera has only grown more.  In 2008 I placed the band’s “The Chemistry of Common People” in my top 10, saying that it saved hardcore. The band is back to their savioring ways, this time resurrecting rock n’ roll.  The riffs on “David Comes To Life” tear out the speakers with sharp edges that cut their way into your brain.  This is the type of riffage you’d find on a Bon Scott era AC/DC album, and the wall of guitar carnage is comparable to the multi-layered assault of Queen’s Brian May. Unlike May, who sat in a studio for weeks at a time recording a guitar over a guitar over a guitar, Fucked Up utilize three guitarists, often recording all together in one take. It’s truly teamwork at its finest with each guitar not simply backing the other up, but providing flourishes to fill the entire canvas.

Pink Eye’s vocals are the one piece in the band maintaining that hardcore sensibility, barking out one anger-laced tale of heartbreak after another. Unlike “The Chemistry of Common People,” this album never rests to take a breath. It is one backbreaking anthem after another for 80 minutes straight. As you’d expect, this can be a bit daunting, yet it’s totally fulfilling (if you can survive the Armageddon).  Any other band would have cut out songs or saved half of them for the next album, but Fucked Up aren’t like any other band.

“The Other Shoe” will have you nodding your head and pumping your fist as you sing along to the chorus of “Dying on the inside!”:

6. Death Grips

“Exmilitary Mixtape”

[Third Worlds; 2011]

Not only is “Exmilitary Mixtape” the best rap album of 2011 so far, it might be the most unique rap album of the past 10 years. Death Grips is the side-project of Hella drummer Zach Hill, and his mastery of the “unpredictable” surprisingly translates well to hip-hop with 48-minutes of nightmarish madness.  The beats are glitchy and jittery, the bass lines booming and foreboding, and the screaming vocals violent and cannibalistic: basically, it’s an Aphex Twins album for the world of hip-hop.

The entire album plays like a mix-tape (because it is I suppose) with each song blending into another vicious attack, resulting in a nonstop assault on the listener. Hill’s love of music is apparent with samples from all ends of the spectrum: Pet Shop Boys, Link Wray’s “The Rumble,” Black Flag, and even audio of Charles Manson. The use of the Manson audio to open the album is no mistake.  “Exmillitary Mixtape” resembles what is probably going through Manson’s head at this very moment.

This past week I watched the entire first season of “Game of Thrones” and as I revisited “Exmilitary Mixtape” for this list, I couldn’t help but thinking of Khal Drogo: savage, fiery, and sadistic.  Stretching boundaries like Tribe Called Quest did in the 90s, Death Grips could easily be called Tribe Called Dothraki.

I’m not quite sure what a “Death Yon” is but I’m definitely feeling it:

5. Snowman

“Absence”

[Dot Dash; 2011]

When I finally figured out this mid-year list, I was a bit shocked that Snowman’s “Absence” ended up being this low due to how often I’ve listened to it over the past few months. Although the albums ranked above it are masterpieces, “Absence” is no slouch. It’s depressing to think that this is their last album, breaking up before it was even released.

A month ago I wrote of “Absence”: “An easy approach to reviewing an album is comparing it to what has come before. Whether it sounds like Beach Boys “Pet Sounds” or Ziggy Stardust, the use of compare and contrast helps guide the reader toward what they are in for with a certain album. With ‘Absence,’ my guiding light is, well, absent.  It is both brooding and sinister like Earth and Pyramids, but you’d be hard-pressed trying to find any distortion here. It’s filled with harmonizing, ghostly vocals, but it is far and away from anything resembling Bon Iver or Panda Bear.  It has the synthy pulse of Four Tet and Flying Lotus, but the drumbeats take more from tribal territories than dance clubs.  There is no need to pigeonhole it: this is Snowman; this is ‘Absence’.

The atmosphere of Snowman will have your mind reeling with visions, your heart beating with anticipation. I realize that the word ‘atmosphere’ gets thrown a lot in music reviews (it’s become somewhat of a crutch for me) but in this case, it truly transports you to a temple of both solitude and mystery. It somehow calms the soul, yet builds a tension within.”

“A” will catch you off-guard, so prepare yourself:

4. Destroyer

“Kaputt”

[Merge; 2011]

Last year on his EP “Archer of the Beach,” Dan Bejar included the song “Grief Point,” an eight-minute ramble about his confusion on the role of music in his life and the lives of his listeners. Fortunately he had one more album for us all to enjoy, and he’s made sure not to follow expectations.

While many artists draw their musical inspiration from 80s sounds such as new wave and post-punk,  Destroyer borrows from the most unpopular of 80s music forms – smooth jazz. Yes, smooth jazz: electronic piano plinks, cheesy saxophone solos a la Kenny G, echoed trumpets, and new agey synth walls fit for a massage parlor.  Rather than going with lo-fi which he perfected decades before it was cool, the songs on “Kaputt” are done in the most produced of all musical forms.

He’s not using the form ironically like Beck used funk for “Midnight Vultures.”  Bejar’s said in interviews that this album is about America, and if so, the smooth jazz form conjures up the 80s, a time of superficiality and indulgence, both prominent attributes of “Kaputt.”  Despite these two unsavory elements, Bejar has created one of the most honest albums of 2011 via one of the most superficial genres.   He sings with confidence on songs that will make you feel like you’re alone, roaming city streets in the fog at night in search of something: a taxi, another drink, or a long lost love.  When he sings that “we built this city on ruins,” he’s not only playing off the Jefferson Starship song, but he’s also making a statement about the state of our nation today. As expected, Bejar is still writing tongue in cheek lyrics that are both amusing and insightful. Let’s just hope this isn’t the last we get from one of America’s finest songwriters.

“Song For America” would probably be Patrick Bateman’s favorite song:

3. Fleet Foxes

“Helplessness Blues”

[SubPop; 2011]

The first time I heard the opening line to “Helplessness Blues” first track “Montezuma,” I couldn’t help but have an emotional reactio: “So now I am older / than my mother and father / when they had their daughter / Now what does that say about me?” A few weeks back a friend of mine on Facebook posted the exact same lyrics, and I wondered how many other aging drifters out there connected to Robin Peckfold’s tender lyrics.

I think that’s what makes “Helplessness Blues” such an incredible album. I’m not sure if it’s the lyrics, the guitar arrangements, or Pecknold’s soft voice, but I listen to this album and feel like it is a private, personal experience. The fact that thousands across the world are having that similar encounter tells me that this is more than a simple folk album. It somehow creates community through intimacy, if that makes any sense.

I often listen to music too much with my ear, analyzing them more than necessary, but with Fleet Foxes, I listen with my heart. I can’t necessarily break down what they do that is so great; okay, I could (harmonizing, break-downs, etc) but I don’t want to. The songs stir up the nostalgia and regret felt with old age, yet for some reason I don’t find it to be a total bummer of an album.  Despite song after song of depressing tales, I sense in Pecknold’s voice a grain of hope. By the time the final track arrives, “Grown Ocean,” the narrator has realized that he can’t change his mistakes, so he continues on as the wide-eyed walker introduced on “Battery Kinzie,” always moving forward toward an unknown horizon.

On “Lorelai” he compares old age to being trash on the sidewalk, yet the guitars, melody, and mandolin only cause one to smile:

2. PJ Harvey

“Let England Shake”

[Vagrant/Island Def Jam; 2011]

One of my biggest regrets in life is that I didn’t pay attention in history class during high school. I could blame my lack of historical knowledge on my mediocre teachers, but it is entirely my fault for being too preoccupied with girls, sports, and rock and roll.  Now, when in a discussion with others that pertains to anything in history (American or world) I find that I know almost nothing.

This lack of knowledge becomes even more frustrating when listening to “Let England Shake,” PJ Harvey’s intricate collection of songs about England’s history. The songs focus primarily on WWI, although the remnants of this war have apparently cast a shadow on modern Britain (this is an assumption based on PJ’s lyrics; not on anything I learned in history class).  I find myself listening to “Let England Shake” again and again due to its collection of memorable songs, each distinct in its own way.  And although I don’t know anything about the Gallipoli campaign, the Anzac trench, or Battleship Hill, PJ provides enough hints for even a dolt like myself to grasp the message within her imagery of  “a pile of bones,” “Deformed children,” and soldiers that “fall like lumps of meat.” The lyrics read like a book of Wilfred Owen’s war poetry.  Harvey creates a unique dichotomy by pairing her gruesome descriptions of war within high-spirited songs that range from reggae, pop, and folk.  As a result, the ugliness of war is anesthetized and treated in the same way it is in a textbook, revealing the facts in a way that is disconnected from those that lost their life.  In the end, that’s the message of the album; all the soldiers died so that the ideal Britain could live on, when ironically that British ideal is now dead itself.  I guess I learned something after all.

The lyrics to “All and Everyone” had to be taken from Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” I swear it!: 

1. Kurt Vile

“Smoke Ring For My Halo”

[Matador; 2011]

  Was there any doubt who would be at #1? Anyone who follows my blog knows how much I adore Kurt Vile’s “Smoke Ring For My Halo.”  I over-killed this album so severely that I hadn’t listened to it for three months in fear of ruining my enjoyment forever. Yet, for this list, I knew I had to revisit it in order to see where it placed.  Fortunately I wasn’t disappointed and found the feelings associated with this album quickly resurfacing.

Here’s what I wrote of the album back in March: “On the surface, Vile’s album doesn’t seem like much more than a collection of slow strum-bling and mumblings of a sarcastic, disaffected youth.  But this isn’t just some jangly, patch-work of songs; a closer analysis and you’ll quickly see that every song is intricately constructed within a lush, cave-like environ that only magnifies the creaks and buzzing of Vile’s acoustic.  While he seems all alone with only the ghosts of his band the Violators hiding in the background, the production hugs his vocals and creates an ambiance that is one part groove, and one part melancholy.  Much like Neil Young’s ‘On the Beach’ or Bob Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited,’ each song on ‘Smoke Ring For My Halo’ is distinctly different, yet they all feel to be a part of the same world. It never feels like Vile is giving much effort, but don’t be fooled. This man is wearing his heart on each note captured on this album.

Vile’s lyrics also portray this feeling of indifference, but it doesn’t take long to figure out that there is a lot of pain being masked behind his nonchalance. For example, on ‘Ghost Town’ he mumbles: ‘Raindrops might fall on my head sometimes / but I don’t pay ‘em any mind. / Then again, I guess it ain’t always that way.’ Instead of a message facing adversity with ‘I will survive,’ Vile’s lyrics convey a feeling of simply giving up and continuing his journey of ‘Sleep walking through a ghost town.’  These white flag mantras are throughout the album, whether it be giving up on religion, society, love, or life.’

I’ve read several articles that compare Kurt Vile to Tom Petty, and although I don’t totally see it, “In My Time” is pretty damn Petty:

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Filed under Top Albums Lists

Top 20 Albums of 2011 (So Far…): 20-11

Around this time last year I posted the “Top 20 Summer Albums of 2010.” I understand this may sound like an awkward, convoluted list, but it essentially consisted of 20 albums that had been released to that point in the year, all featuring upbeat, summer-y songs. Readers generally enjoyed the list, and now in 2011, I feel I should follow it up with a sophomore effort. Yet I can’t.

At this point last year, dozens of upbeat albums filled my shelves (Vampire Weekend, Fang Island, Surfer Blood, etc). I had so many “summer albums” to list that several great releases didn’t even make the cut.  But this year? Nothing. Setting out to write the summer list, I struggled to even make a top 10 list, let alone a top 20. For those that care, here’s what it would have looked like:

1.    Toro Y Moi “Underneath the Pine”
2.    Beastie Boys “Hot Sauce Committee Part II
3.    Go! Team “Rolling Blackouts”
4.    Ponytail “Do Whatever You Want All the Time”
5.    Akron/Family “The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT”
6.    Dirty Beaches “Badlands”
7.    Fleet Foxes “Helplessness Blues”
8.    Danielson “Best of Gloucester County”
9.    Davila 666 “Tan Bajo”
10. Cloud Nothings “S/T”

Even though I’m able to come up with this list, writing it would probably be painful simply because few of the albums are as near and dear to me as the ones that made up my list last year (although two of the albums above did make the list that I’m about to unleash on you…).

Don’t worry though. My love for great albums hasn’t waned. There are many albums that have already hit a chord with me, so much so that I feel I must write about them so that others can share in my joy.  I’ve come up with a much more logical mid-year list: “The Top Albums of 2011 (So Far…)”.   This will not only serve as a mid-term report on the year’s best, but it will also bring forward some great albums that probably won’t make the final cut on my year-end list (it pains me to leave wonderful albums out every December).

The rankings for this list are not to be treated as the end-all-be-all (I just don’t want to be held accountable if an album is 17th on this list and ends up in the top five at the end of the year).  As you know, our experience with an album ebbs and flows; sometimes our adoration grows with time while in other cases, the thrill is gone after a month.  Enough of this babbling. Time to get down to business.

20. BOAT

“Dress Like Your Idols”

[Magic Marker; 2011]

The cover to “Dress Like Your Idols” says it all: a collection of album cover parodies,  mostly focused on albums of the 90s.  Yes, there is an homage to the Ramones and Velvet Underground, but you don’t have to go beyond the 90s to find BOAT’s biggest influences.  A quick listen to BOAT’s music and the first band to come to mind for most is Pavement due to Crane’s everyday lyrics and straight-forward, disaffected vocal approach.  If he needs to pay his electricity bill, he sings about it.  If he is walking past a convenience store, he sings about it.  If he’s listening to his walkman, he sings about it.  But within these tales of commonplace, everyday occurrences, he weaves in heartfelt themes of isolation, helplessness, and loneliness. Instead of going full-emo, Crane uses humor to defuse the sadness of his stories, in turn, creating intelligent power pop that is immediate and reassuring.

There are other 90s elements at play here, whether it be the guitar squeals of Built to Spill or the quaint jangle of Folk Implosion, but I can’t simply tag BOAT as a 90s rehash. A band like Yuck! would better fit that category (as much as I love their music, their borrowing from Dinosaur Jr and Superchunk borders on criminal). BOAT on the other hand have learned from the music of their youth, and taken it into the 21st century, bringing their own fresh, slacker take on the new millennium.

“Landlocked,” just one of many slacker tales of seclusion:

19. Twilight Singers

“Dynamite Steps”

[SubPop; 2011]

The Twilight Singers frontman Gregg Dulli is the epitome of the anti-auto-tune. No, his voice is not always perfectly on key, it is prone to crack, and at times he strains for notes that are just out of reach. Despite these deficiencies, he remains one of the best vocalists of the past 20 years due to his soulful approach, his shouts and howls that resound with anger, pain, and bitterness.  His mistakes always further the vulnerability of his narrative, adding the forlorn character found within the tattered, frail city of “Dynamite Steps.”

While other voices of the 90s have faded, Dulli’s has only strengthened over the years. He has been keeping busy since the break-up of Afghan Whigs with the Twilight Singers, his solo work, and his collaboration with Mark Lanegan, the Gutter Twins. Despite this mass of music production, “Dynamite Steps” is the closest Dulli’s dipped back into the world of the Afghan Whigs in a while, more specifically, “Black Love” and “1965” era Whigs.  These songs are just as funky, emotional, and dark as Afghan classics.  Even the story on “Dynamite Steps,” lovers held back by the confines of their decrepit city, is eerily similar to the one found in “Black Love.”  The only difference is that their answer isn’t to burn it all down as Dulli once suggested on “Going To Town”; instead, from what I can gather, he kills his lover so he can see her in his dreams where everything is beautiful again. So yeah, I guess you could say Dulli has matured.

Singing off-key has never sounded better than on “Last Night In Town”:

18. Times New Viking

“Dancer Equired”

[Merge; 2011]

I’ve been saying it for years now, “If only Times New Viking would clean up their production value…”  Well, with the slow move away from the lo-fi movement, TNV finally granted my wish with “Dancer Equired.”  Not to say that the production value is pristine, but the band has wiped away a bit of the fuzz to allow the listener a step closer into their pop palace.

TNV has always written infectious pop melodies, and finally they allowed the songs to be the centerpiece of an album.  No longer is it about how bad we can make a great song sound, rather “Here’s a great song. Take it as you will.”  One may suggest that the band has sold out by moving away from lo-fi, but they still keep their cred with most of “Dancer Equired” sounding like it was all recorded in one day.  And really, that’s what makes TNV so great. In the past TNV’s songs were in your face: either the hook caught you or you got lost in the noise.  On “Dancer Equired,” with much of the lo-fi trappings gone, the band takes time to unreel songs that aren’t as instantaneous. Instead, they allow their organ riffs and energetic shouts grow on you with each listen.  I never want to hear a polished TNV album, but “Dancer Equired” has just enough shimmer to allow the melodies to shine their brightest.

This song is called “Fuck Her Tears”; I don’t think we need to worry about TNV selling out:

17. Panda Bear

“Tomboy”

[Pawtracks; 2011]

For those that have followed my blog over the years, seeing a Panda Bear album this low on a best of list (let alone a mid-year list) is probably a bit alarming.  “Person Pitch” is one of my all-time favorite albums, and I’ve conveyed my admiration of both Panda Bear and Animal Collective fervently over the years.  So “Tomboy” at #17 might be a strange site on BDWPS, but then again, “Tomboy” is a pretty strange album. The first half is filled with the types of Beach Boy style melodies we’ve grown to love, all filtered through Panda Bears arsenal of squeaks and echos.  Songs like “You Can Count On Me” and “Slow Motion” are just as enjoyable listens as anything on “Person Pitch.” I could listen to side A of “Tomboy” again and again (and I have).

Then there is side two. It’s far from bad, but the album definitely takes a peculiar turn.  To this day I can’t comprehend exactly what is happening on side two, and part of me really likes that about this album.  The alien approach makes it a challenge to figure out exactly what Panda Bear was trying to accomplish. It’s ominous, desolate, and almost frozen melodically.  With each listen, I feel myself slowly cracking the surface of what Panda Bear is doing, and this slow and steady process of discovery is the reason “Tomboy” snuck onto this list.  If all of “Tomboy” were like the first half, you’d probably find this album in the top 10, if not at number one, but as of now, I’m still familiarizing myself with the unexplainable hum of side two, with its obtuse offerings like “Scheherazade,” “Friendship Bracelet,” and “Afterburner.” Who knows, by year-end I might be singing a different tune (or chanting it like a Panda Bear monk).

“You Can Count On Me” is familiar territory from side one:

16. Thurston Moore

“Demolished Thoughts”

[Matador; 2011]

Kim Gordan is one lucky gal. Seriously, she’s married to Thurston Moore.  How cool is that? Sure, she’s an indie goddess in her own right, but Thurston Moore! Thirst N’ More!!! Not only are his contributions to the indie scene immensely significant, but based off the songs on his solo album “Demolished Thoughts,” he makes a pretty loving husband.  With exposed lyrics like “whisper I love you my darling” and “you stole his heart away,” Thurston holds back nothing when it comes to his gal Kim. I personally hate love songs, but with something this honest and forthcoming, I can’t help but feel an admiration for what this power indie couple has held together all these years (what is it now, 25 years?!).

While “Demolished Thoughts” sounds very similar to Thurston’s last solo album “Trees Outside the Academy,” both featuring an enchanting combination of acoustic guitar and strings, “Demolished Thoughts” has a production value that is far beyond his prior effort.  Beck produced this album, and it is easy to figure out that he took his prowess from “Sea Changes” and implemented it here.  The back-and-forth of the guitar and strings harken back to the sweet sounds of Nick Drake.  But Drake’s guitars never sounded this clear, this personal, this serene. You won’t hear a better sounding acoustic guitar in 2011, and I doubt you will hear a more honest, charming album of love songs.

Just one listen to the guitars on “Benediction” and you’ll fall in  love too:

15. Six Organs of Admittance

“Asleep On the Floodplain”

[Drag City; 2011]

A few years back, my friend SongsSuck burnt  me a book full of CDs, mostly bands I’d never heard before.  When presented with 200 new albums, it can be a bit daunting to trek your way through them.  One of the albums in the multitude of CD-Rs was Six Organs of Admittance’s “Dark Noontide,” and although I enjoyed it, the album got lost in the mix over time.  Upon seeing Six Organs had a new album this year, I jumped at the chance to revisit the band long forgotten. The problem is I didn’t recall what they sounded like, and for some reason, I got them confused with Godspeed You! Black Emperor (probably the long names caused my mistake). You can imagine my surprise when Organs experimental folk ramblings sounded nothing like GY!BE’s hypnotic chamber rock.  As much as I enjoy GYBE, my rediscovery of Six Organs was a stirring experience.

On the droning, 12-minute “S/Word Leviathan” Six Organs could have been confused with GY!BE, but the rest of the album is folk meandering at its finest.  You never know where Ben Chasny’s guitar will take you, but you know it is a warm and inviting place.  While some might describe Six Organs as psychedelic folk, I feel it is the style of folk that John Fahey finger-picked long ago.  This is an ancient journey, roaming about the fret board while staying grounded in Americana.  Songs stop and start without warning, but the voyage never really ends.  And when Chasny decides to offer up a traditional folk song with verses and a chorus, he shows that he could settle down if he wanted to. He just doesn’t want to (and that’s a good thing).

An acoustic guitar has never sounded as unpredictable as it does on “Above a Desert I’ve Never Seen”:

14. Dirty Beaches

“Badlands”

[Zoo; 2011]

Have you ever noticed how every Michael Moore film starts the same: the 1950s and 60s, American Dream, cheap health care, zero violence or poverty, and a booming auto industry? I enjoy Moore’s films as much as the next tree-hugger, but it does seem to be both an overused motif and an inaccurate portrayal of the time.  Anyone who has watched “Mad Men” or read On the Road knows that life wasn’t necessarily all picket fences and apple pie back then (although Sal Paradise does intake massive amounts of apple pie en route to Denver). The Dirty Beaches “Badlands” is just another artistic take on how the innocent 50s is all a sham.

“Badlands” is all about its lo-fi production –  unassuming drum, and mechanical bass lines that all fit within the 1950s musical mold. If you were to play a song off this album to someone and said it was a “golden oldie” they would undoubtedly believe you. But Dirty Beaches aren’t simply a warm nostalgia trip down better times lane. These songs feature a darker tone than those that they are borrowing from. The vocals are cloaked in reverb, yet you can still discern the baritone croon that will make you wonder if Nick Cave found a time machine.  These are not songs of love and joy; they are songs of lust and despair. By the time the final two tracks arrive, “Black Nylon” and “Hotel,” there is little doubt that a film noir murder has taken place, although I doubt even Detective Samuel Spade could handle the dark depths of “Badlands” homicide scene.

“Horses” reminds me of Chris Isaak’s “Baby Did A Bad, Bad Thing”, except Isaak wasn’t nearly as convincingly sinister:

13. Low

“C’Mon”

[Sub Pop; 2011]

Fans of old school Low might not like “C’Mon.” Not that it doesn’t resemble Low, but much of what made albums like “Long Division” and “I Could Live In Hope” popular are all but gone. The haunting spaces have been filled with sound, the instruments are no longer hiding in the shadows, and the self-loathing has turned slightly toward optimism. But the biggest difference are the vocals. In the past, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker were ghostly figures, a part of the atmosphere,. On “C’Mon” their voices are up front and center thanks in part to the lush production of Matt Beckley.  Not until first hearing this album did I realize what incredible vocalists the duo are.  Sparhawk’s baritone is thick and hearty, and Mimi puts forth the best female singing I’ve heard this year with her dark lullabies that somehow lull the listener into a comforting dream.

Low still ventures into the dark tones of the past, but it all seems more dramatic, more ambitious and persistent.  I’m not dogging on that slow core sound that the band mastered decades ago; I’m just celebrating a band who has found a way to continue thriving, evolving all the while.

Although it contradicts my portrayal of the album as a positive venture, “Majesty/Magic” is one of the most incredible tracks of the year thus far. Try not to get chills:

12. True Widow

“As High As the Highest Heavens and From the Center to the Circumference of the Earth”

[Kemado, 2011]

Don’t worry about slow core dying with Low my friends; others are now carrying the torch.  On first listen, the trio of True Widow may not resemble Low and others of the slow core variety, but upon closer look you’ll find the same wall of ethereal droning as the back-bone of True Widow’s sound.  True Widow refer to themselves as a “stonegaze” band, yet the approach is the same.  Like a slow, dismal march through a storm, “As High As the Highest Heavens and From the Center to the Circumference of the Earth” trounces from track to track at a steady pace, always teetering on the verge of a distorted explosion that never comes. This is what makes this album so great; it works like a Henry Ford era machine, constantly turning and grinding away with Nikki Estill’s angelic voice countering the crunching sludge of Dan Phillip’s guitar work.  The combination is both terrifying and rousing, causing one to feel both depressed and inspired at the same moment.

Last year I couldn’t get enough of Quest For Fire’s “Lights From Paradise,” and in 2011 True Widow have continued this obsession with this plodding sound. Maybe I’m just going through a stone-gaze-phase and this album isn’t nearly as incredible as I find it, but I doubt it.

“Skull Eyes”- always on the verge of an eruption that never comes:

 

11. Colin Stetson

“New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges”

[Constellation; 2011]

The fact that I loved “New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges” before even seeing Colin Stetson’s incredible live show assures me that my judgment wasn’t blinded by the experience. Probably because “New History” contains some pretty magical, innovative stuff.  I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anything like what Stetson does here. I don’t even need to focus on the difficulty found in his abilities to play a saxophone riff endlessly without taking a proper breath AND singing with his howling vocal chords at the same time.  Impressive, yes, but Stetson also writes some brilliant songs, both mystifying and enlightening.

The album was recorded with dozens of microphones, located in various parts of the room and on different parts of his sax (including the innards). As a result, you are brought into an atmosphere never explored in music (to my knowledge): the belly of the beast; the heart of the saxophone.  The bass saxophone echoes and squeaks from within as the pads pound out a slurpy beat (spit valves are for wimps) while Colin’s constant circular breathing blows through the cavern like a chilling wind. This is an album for any kid in beginner band who ever wondered what it sounds like inside their instrument. The answer? Remarkable.

“Clothed In the Skin of the Dead” is just a taste of life inside a saxophone:

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Video Clip of the Week: Vegan Black Metal Chef

I’m not much for cooking shows, although I have a sweet spot for Rachael Ray. I’ve found that with most of these programs I either get bored or hungry.  If only the Food Network would add the Vegan Black Metal Chef to their roster. Not only would he be the first vegan chef on the channel, but he’d also inject the line-up with some excitement (albeit in the form of black metal).  I at first enjoyed this clip because of its hilarity (whether it be the knife or the lyrics that jump from satanic praises to directions on how to make a sauce).  Then, 10 minutes in, I realized I was no longer watching it for humor but because I was actually learning something. I’m far from vegan, but this clip had me tempted to step into the depths of tofu hell.  Below is the first episode; he recently posted his second. Don’t be fooled by the imitators on youtube. None of them are nearly as funny or have the great music found with the one and only Vegan Black Metal Chef.

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Mike Watt “Hyphenated-Man”

Mike Watt

“Hyphenated-Man”

[Clenchedwrench; 2011]

Rating: 7.5

Mike Watt has finally found his way back home. 25 years ago his friend and band mate D. Boon died, and ever since this punk rock Odysseus has been on a quest, venturing out away from the familiar environs of The Minutemen and their 2-minute bursts of punk rock anthems.  While he’s produced some pretty unique and interesting albums along the way (both solo and with his band fIREHOSE), nothing ever came close to the shores of The Minutemen’s distinct sound.  To clear his mind and heart of those experiences, he’s said in interviews that he couldn’t bring himself to even listen to Minutemen albums for over 20 years.  It seems Watt needed some time away with his thoughts, years and years to find out who he really was without his skipper by his side.

In 2005 when The Minutemen documentary “We Jam Econo” came out, Watt finally had to face his past.  In what he describes as a therapeutic experience, Watt returned to those albums that made him who he is today (“Double Nickels On the Dime”, “Post-Mersh”, etc). This experience must have brought him ease. Not only is his latest album “Hyphenated-Man” jam-packed with 30 two-minute songs in the vein of classic Minutemen, but Watt made the conscious decision to write the entire album on Boon’s old guitar.  As a result, you can’t help but feel the spirit of Boon hiding within the ether of reverb on tracks like “Wheel-Bound-Man” and “Antlered-Man.”

“Antlered-Man”: 

But “Hyphenated-Man” isn’t simply a “return to form” album.  Watt used the songwriting process as a way of analyzing himself, not only about who he was as a young man with the Minutemen, but also personal demons he’s faced over the past two decades, whether it be marital issues or his life threatening infection in early 2000.  In the same way Sufjan Steven’s used the art of Royal Robertson to analyze his own life on “The Age of ADZ,” Watt found his muse in the paintings of Renaissance artist Hieronymus Bosch.  Exploring the grotesque depictions of heaven and hell in Bosch’s paintings, Watt pinpointed characters he found within the imagery and wrote songs about 30 of them, each representing another fragment of Watt himself.

The New York Times did a great slide show looking at some of the images that inspired Watt:

http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2011/02/27/arts/02272011_WATT.html?ref=music

As a result of this exploration of Bosch’s artwork, the track listing for the album resembles a roster of end bosses to a Mega Man game: Bird-In-The-Helmet-Man, Hollowed-Out-Man, Finger-Pointing-Man, Frying-Pan-Man, Shields-Shouldered-Man, Cherry-Head-Lover-Man. I could go on and on with this list of men to bring my point home, and you would think my 1980s video game quip would end there, but it doesn’t.  On the first listen, before I’d even looked at the song titles or researched background on the album, I found myself thinking that the songs sounded video-gamey.  Yes, I just used the adjective “video-gamey”.  Not “epic”, not “catchy”, not “brash”. Video gamey. This is album is so video-gamey I couldn’t help but wonder if a member of The Advantage had joined forces with Watt.  Just take a listen to the following few tracks and try telling me you don’t get the itch to play some “Contra”:

“Funnel-Capped-Man”:

“Confused-Parts-Man”:

“Beak-Letter-Holding-Man”: 

“Own-Horn-Blowing-Man”:

“Fryingpan-Man”:

As a result of this video-gamey quality to the songs, I’m a little up in the air with some tracks.  By the time you get around to “Man-Shitting-Man”, track 29, you might feel the same burnt out reaction to playing 5-straight hours of “Castlevania.”  While the short bursts of energy don’t feature the same pop-sensibility that Minutemen pulled off so well (probably what D. Boon brought to the table), there is still enough fun surprises here to keep you listening.  Without the comparison to his work with The Minutemen, I have to respect Watt’s effort here. “Wheel-Bound-Man” brings it all home, creating a final image of a painter, holding all the characters in his hand. Watt is the artist, looking back at all his creations, found within himself, and he is finally setting them free after all these years.

My favorite moment on the album, “Wheel-Bound-Man”:

(Final Note: How great would it be if someone created a 30-level game set to Watt’s music on “Hyphenated-Man” a la Mega Man?  It could be called “Mega-Watt” and it could have a little Watt running around shooting lasers from his bass while his music blares in the background. This is probably the best idea I’ve ever had.  Who wouldn’t want to see a face-off between Mega-Watt and Man-Shitting-Man?!  I’m thinking along the lines of what Sabzi did for Das Racist’s “Who’s That? Brooown!”  .   Unfortunately I don’t have the skills to make this happen. If you’re interested in pursuing my idea, let me know and I’d be glad to post your creations on BDWPS.com)

This is just a glimpse of what could be with just a little help.

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