As I came to my conclusive final ordering of albums, I couldn’t help but feel like my list differed from the norm. You’ll find familiar faces like Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend, but many of the albums that ended up surfacing near the top are absent from all the major lists I’ve perused in the past few weeks. Does this mean I’m out of touch or that I’ve become such an outsider that I can’t connect with the mainstream? I hope not. Those albums you find on this list that you’ve never seen included on other lists are not my attempt at being different, rather, they are albums that fell through the cracks by the major outlets and deserve a listen from anyone who still appreciates “the album” as a work of art. The BDWPS.com mission statement of “guiding you down the path less traveled” is truer than ever in 2013.
The more autobiographical an artist, the more we, the audience, get to see them grow up right before our eyes. Such is the case with Alela Diane who first gained attention with her debut Pirate’s Gospel back in 2004, the 21-year old Portland native singing innocent songs of companionless pigeons and Pirate’s prayers of “Yo Ho Ho!”
In 2009 she came into her own with To Be Still, an album that combined her tranquil vocals with lyrics that focused on the splendors of nature. The combination of the vivid imagery and the pure wonderment in her voice results in an album that would make John Muir blush. For me, the music stirs the humbling and exhilarating experience that is venturing into the wild. On the album, Alela seems to be at peace with the world, an inner hope flowing out with each note, pure and calming like the mighty Columbia. The production on both early albums was warm and quaint, as if you are sitting in the corner of a log cabin while Alela and her dad, who sang and played on both albums, serenade you by the fireplace.
You are about to read through what I deem the top 60 tracks of 2011. Yes, 60. For some reason, lists need to fit within the confines of the top 100, top 50, top 40, Top 20, or Top 10. Any other number seems arbitrary. I had the same uncertainty with the number 60. When I first assembled my list it consisted of 87 songs. I had a decision to make: force 13 more songs onto the list and create another monolith like I did last year (it was a lot of work by the way), or attempt to whittle the list down to 50. I went with the latter, but when finished, I found I still had 67 songs. I struggled and struggled and eventually had it to the number we have now: 60. At this point, I couldn’t remove one more song. None of these songs could be tossed aside, each holding a special meaning, memory, or melody that helped me through another year.
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
[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”
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”
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
[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:
[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:
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
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”
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:
On face value, this is just another punk rock song, but if you listen a little longer you’ll hear exactly what makes Eddy Current Suppression Ring different than others within the genre. While most bands would wrap this song up at the two minute mark, ECSR have just begun. The next four and a half minutes of “Tuning Out” Eddy Current takes front stage, manipulating his Stratocaster to its limit, making a gluttonous amount of squeaks and howls, showing exactly why this is his band.
24. “Crank Resolutions”
Back in Septemeber, I wrote of Meursault and this song: “While most bands are forced to rely on a more polished production value to push the sense of urgency to a higher level, Meursault rely solely on a strange mixture of popping beats and crunching piano riffs that are reminiscent of a CB radio broadcast. ‘Crank Resolutions’ features a beat that is beyond description (which is a good thing).”
23. “Don’t Look Back”
Usually, Kylesa are pretty damn scary, but on “Don’t Look Back” they sound strangely inspirational. Tony Robbins better watch his back (on second thought Tony, heed Kylesa’s advice and don’t look back).
22. “Like the Ocean, Like the Innocent Pt. 2: Innocent”
I saw Besnard Lakes perform this song at SXSW this past year, and since then, I haven’t been able to remove the soothing chorus of “Ooh, you’re like the ocean” out of my head. You can put your ear up to my cranium like it’s a seashell and hear the sounds of “Like the Ocean” softly echoing inside.
21. “Hey Cool Kid”
“Hey Cool Kid” is a story of an outsider, realizing that his idol is nothing but an asshole who will “beat me back into the ground”. Despite this, his insecurity pushes him to still keep asking for the cool kid “to come around”.
20. “Suburban War”
When I first heard this song I liked it because the guitar lick reminded me of The Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter”. Then of course I made the mistake of listening to the lyrics, and this once upbeat song spawned sorrow for those friends I’ve lost in their pursuit of adulthood:
My old friends
I can remember when
You cut your hair
We never saw you again
Now the cities we live in
Could be distant stars
And I search for you
In every passing car
19. “Sleepless in Silver Lake”
Les Savy Fav
As far as I’m concerned, there are way too many songs about Los Angeles. Where are the songs about Bozeman, Montana for Christ’s sake!? Despite the saturation of “I Love L.A.”s and “Under the Bridge”s, Les Savy Fav present a fresh take on the City of Angels with “Sleepless in Silver Lake”:
The walking wounded wrap their face in gauze.These kids’ll kill ya just because they can. Their teeth are bleached and their tits are tan.
18. “Black Bubblegum”
I’m 86% sure that this song is about Sherry Becker who chewed Black Jack bubblegum, wore an orange dress, and witnessed Jerry Seinfeld returning Tropic of Cancer to the library in 1972 (or was it Dentyne?).
17. “The Tree”
Blitzen Trapper (featuring Alela Diane)
Another highlight of 2010 for me was my last minute trip to Portland with my brother. The two of us rented a little Vibe and drove around the area, hiking whatever peaks we could fit in within our three-day stay. While hiking along the Cascade Ridge, we came upon 300-year-old Sitka trees – an army of menacing patriarchs, standing judicious and strong, looking down upon all that pass by. Whenever I listen to the 2010 release from Portland’s own Blitzen Trapper I can’t help but think back to that trip, more specifically this song with its lyrics of a tree that “grows never-ending”. Upon each listen, I’m brought back to that day, standing with my brother and looking up at the majestic beasts that surrounded us. The addition of Portland’s first lady Alela Diane to the song only sweetens the song’s enchantment.
16. “Take It Easy”
Starts off with a tropical feel, moves into an early 90s alternative chorus, and ends with an 80s U2 outro: this is what we call a song quilt.
15. “The Boys are Out”
Whenever I play this song I feel guilty. I bought the Hanoi Janes latest release, and after listening to it all the way through a couple times, I found myself continually going back to this song (ignoring the rest). There is just something about the little freak out that arrives at the 30 second mark- maybe it’s the drumstick cracks, or it could possibly the call-and-response guitars that reverberate from one speaker to the other- whatever it is, “The Boys are Out” is the most fun you’ll have in under a minute thirty.
14. “The Winner”
“Twistable, Turnable Man” was an album of Shel Silverstien covers that came out this past year, and despite an impressive list of bands featured on it (My Morning Jacket, Andrew Bird, Lucinda Williams) the best cover is performed by old reliable, Kris Kristofferson. His raspy baritone naturally works with Silverstein’s narrative songwriting. When I listen to this song, I imagine the narrator is LeBron James and Tiger Man the Cool is Michael Jordan. It just seems fitting after finding out this past summer that James doesn’t understand what it takes to be a winner.
13. “My Gap Feels Weird”
I would prefer if this song were about having a pain in your taint, but it ends up ol’ Mack wrote it about going to a show and realizing you’re the oldest one there. I hate to admit that I can relate. At least I can take comfort in knowing old folks are always welcome at a Superchunk show.
12. “Night, Night”
Big Boi (featuring B.o.B. and Joi)
“Night, Night” is one of the finest rap call-outs you’ll ever hear, not pointing out one specific MC, rather annihilating all the fools that can’t hold themselves up to Big Boi’s standard. To back up his flow built on intelligence rather than empty threats, Big Boi blends a funky bass with a spunky female choir that is completely devoid of auto-tune. It truly is “something new.”
11. “Marimba and Shit Drums”
Earlier this year, I wrote of this song/album: “There is only one 20-minute song on Moonface’s EP “Dreamland” and it is called “marimba and shit-drums”. The title is straight to the point because, in fact, the song is comprised of just that: a marimba and shit-drums. Of course, you also hear Spencer Krug’s voice, but otherwise it is simply a marimba and shit-drums; nothing more, nothing less. The constant pulse of the marimba gives the song imminence; a feeling that the echo of the wooden bars being struck by a mallet is building towards something, racing toward a culmination. Then, of course, the shit-drums kick in and it’s on. The crackling of the harsh rhythm plays as the perfect antithesis to the happy-go-lucky marimba. Krug has taken the joyful sounds of the African instrument and somehow given it tension, made it angrier, made it sound more, dare I say, hardcore. With only two simple instruments Krug creates music that is just as dramatic and heartfelt as anything by Explosions in the Sky. Creating explosions with only two instruments? In essence, Krug is the MacGyver of the music world.”
When Dean Spunt sings “I want you bad underneath my skin”, he’s encapsulating addiction. It could be a dependence to drugs, alcohol, food, sex, or maybe even an abusive relationship; whatever it is, the speaker knows it will cause harm yet craves it. For me, the addiction is to the screeching distortion that lurks in the background of this song. To many, I’m sure this sounds like simply noise, but I keep coming back. Not because I enjoy pain, but because I’ve found beauty within that dissonance. I can’t get enough of that needling noise underneath my skin.
9. “Dance Yrself Clean”
I present to you an auditory cleansing. The first three minutes will help you relax, help raise your spirits. And then, well, then it’s time. James Murphy’s pumping beats and throbbing bass line burst through the speakers and spray you with an energy you didn’t have moments ago. Suddenly, without warning, you’re on your feet moving; washing away your worries; shaking away your negative energy; dancing yourself clean.
8. “Desire Lines”
If you asked me a year ago to name the top ten songs of the past decade, Deerhunter’s “Nothing Ever Happened” would have easily made the list. Its fluid movements from one riff to the next continues to leave me in awe. I didn’t think the band could ever top the song. Then along comes “Haclyon Digest” with the song “Desire Lines”, and I’m thrown for a loop. Not only does this song follow the same transformational model (three minutes in the madness is unleashed), but it also features an even catchier chorus to start things off. “Nothing Ever Happened” probably remains the quintessential Deerhunter song for me, but they are sure making things difficult.
7. “Post Acid”
Only a year ago, everyone hated Nathan Williams for his meltdown in Barcelona, even his drummer. But now it’s officially time to exonerate him of his past mistakes. Not only are his songs more instantaneously satisfying, but he’s also apologizing in “Post Acid” when he sings “I was just having fun with you.” Ah shucks Nathan; we forgive you.
6. “Wide Eyes”
The harmonizing voices, the machine gun drums, the twinkling guitar riffs: “Wide Eyes” is an example of a band finding their true potential. While much of “Gorilla Manor” is milk-toast mediocrity, this song proves that when all the pieces are put in the right place, Local Natives are capable of making extraordinary music.
5. “Round and Round”
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti
All of the parts of “Round and Round” work together like a merry-go-round of melody, moving round and round, up and down, creating an experience that will have you begging for another ride through simpler times.
4. “Snakes for the Divine”
High On Fire
The metal anthem is not dead, despite what sports arenas around the country would suggest. They’d like you to believe that fist pumping and head banging died with AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, and Metallica. Wrong. Imagine if you will, your favorite sports team running onto the court/field/ice as the opening to “Snakes for the Divine” rumbles through the stadium, building a frothing mass of furious, energized fans, filled with bloodlust for a win, shaking, twitching, standing on the verge of a completely chaotic riot…. actually, it’s probably a good idea to keep High On Fire out of the stadiums (especially Detroit).
Kanye West (featuring Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Nikki Manaj, and Bon Iver)
When Kanye West sang his song “Runaway” at the VMA’s, most thought it was an admission of guilt to Taylor Swift. Not so fast my friend. Soon after “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” came out and all thoughts of apologies disappeared. On “Monster” Kanye erases any suggestions of humility or guilt When he spouts, “I’m living in the future so my presence is my past. My presence is a present kiss my ass.” This is the musical version of Hulk Hogan joining the NWO; Kanye takes pride in his villainous portrayal. The scariest part of “Monster” is not the flows of Rick Ross, Kanye, Jay-Z, or even the soothing vocals of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. That honor goes to Nicki Minaj’s venomous verse that electrifies and brings this monster of a song to life.
2. “A Cold Freezin’ Night”
Set to what resembles the theme music to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, “A Cold Freezin’ Night” features samples of a little boy ranting about how he will kill you with a rifle, a shotgun, and cut your toes off. In response, a little girl admits that boys are better than girls, even going so far as to wish she was a boy. And somehow, all these chauvinist, psychotic threats are joyful due simply to a great dance beat (and a short harmonica solo never hurts). If only it was this easy to make little kids tolerable in real life.
Earlier this year I bought a record player and soon after found myself with a vinyl obsession. Most of my records were used purchases, but I also dabbled in buying the vinyl of new releases. With many labels including a free download code with a purchase, it just seems to make more sense to get the larger than life packaging/artwork. One of my earliest purchases was Ty Segall’s “Melted”, and it quickly became a mainstay on my turntable. Every time I listened to the album, I would get up and push the arm back to the beginning of “Caesar” to hear it one, two, maybe even three times in a row. A month ago as I was compiling this list I put “Melted” on again only to find that during “Caesar” my record now skips. While the loss of this song saddened me to no end, the scratch also symbolized my undying affection for this pop-punk gem. Fortunately for you, you can listen to the clip above as many times as you like without fear of a scratch (but you won’t get the full effect without it crackling out of a record player).
2009 was the year of disappointments. Obama’s change never really took shape, the Lakers and Yankees won championships in their respective sports, and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” sucked ass. The disappointment flu bug didn’t avoid the music world, where perennial greats like A.C. Newman, Andrew Bird, Beirut, The Decemberist, Handsome Furs, Built to Spill, and The Dodos all released mediocre albums (this list could be longer, but I thought I’d spare you the details). Fortunately it was not all a wash, with many bands stepping up in 2009 with ambitious albums that beg to be reckoned with.
And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead “The Century of Self”
Converge “Axe to Fall”
Lightning Bolt “Earthly Delights”
Marissa Nadler “Little Hells”
Megafaun “Gather, Form, and Fly”
Memory Tapes “Seek Magic”
Mount Eerie “Wind’s Poem”
Pissed Jeans “King of Jeans”
Propagandhi “Supporting Caste”
Yeah Yeah Yeahs “It’s Blitz”
20. Bats for Lashes
“Two Suns” doesn’t feel like an album at all, rather an ancient, epic tale of love and survival. What would it sound like if C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien were to form a band? This might be it right here, with Natasha Kahn’s voice resembling Lady Galadriel, speaking a tale that only the forest knows. At times it is over-produced which is a plus in this case, commanding your attention. A story of this magnitude can not be told in lo-fi (compare the PBS version of “The Chronicles of Narnia” to the latest film versions, and you’ll understand my point). Although the lyrics tell of a mystical, metaphorical world of chivalry and heart-break, the music sounds like something new and unexplored.
“Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix”
“Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” is more than a dance record, but you probably already know that. It fronts as a collection of pop music, but in reality it’s a headphone album. Every song features an ambience that will envelope your head and have strange sounds bouncing around inside your skull like a magical, musical Pong. Even in its most mainstream track “1901” there are random bleeps and whistles that surprise you from every which way. Phoenix, veterans of the pop music world, have mastered their craft, balancing memorable hooks with little nuances that make it an album you’ll go back to, over and over again.
18. Fuck Buttons
I’ll admit, when I first heard “Tarot Sport” I was a little disappointed. What made their 2008 release “Street Horssing” so great was how every song eventually led into a world of torture, usually a garbled voice howling a la Aphex Twins. On “Tarot Sport”, the oppressed vocals have been set free. The more I thought about it, the more I realized why the band had to move on. If they continued relying on the riotous finish to each song, what was at first an original sound would become a gimmick. Instead, the band looked to new horizons, realizing they could take their sound to higher altitudes. Fuck Buttons want to take dance/electronica beyond the raves and gay night clubs. Dance music has become a “boom boom boom boom” cliché. Fuck Buttons see that this music style can be grand, can go beyond what is copy and pasted on a laptop. It can build, layer upon layer. It can feature live instrumentation. It can gather sounds from beyond the digital world. When I first heard the band name Fuck Buttons I thought it was in reference to the clitoris, but with “Tarot Sport” I now know I was wrong. They are making a statement: “Fuck buttons!” Electronica has relied on technology for too long. Instead, they take live tribal drums, growling guitars, and toss them into the digital mix. Fuck Buttons have made an intrepid album that builds, much like their old sound, but shows the Bristol boys can be more potent and spacious than the girtty bite of “Street Horssing” would allow.
17. Mos Def
By modern definition, “The Ecstatic” isn’t a rap album. It doesn’t contain any lyrics about driving in a Benz, wearing bling, or drinking Cristal. There are no sexual innuendos, tales of sex acts, or descriptions of shakin’ booties. You won’t find any auto-tuner, in fact, Mos Def sings throughout the album with a voice that is smooth and rich. The backing loops don’t even sound like the rap music of today. Mos Def sampled albums from Lebanon, Turkey, and Brazil (oh, and a little Marvin Gaye for good measure). Some songs sound Jamaican, others sound Arabic, and even one (“No Hay, Nadas Mas”) is rapped entirely in Spanish. In fact, the entire album plays like a journey across the globe, with Mos Def professing lyrics about troubles that go beyond the hood. Sure, the inner city can be tough, but try living a day in the ghetto of Iraq.
This past fall I reviewed this album and claimed that HEALTH were now writing songs, which may have been misleading. The band is still as vicious as ever on “Get Color”, violently raging through a noise that is both clamorous and discordant like their work of the past. The only difference here is that they understand their music can be more than just noise; it can have peaks and valleys – it can have melodies. Believe me, their are plenty of both rage and harmony to go around. While their self titled album leaves you beaten and bruised, “Get Color” serenades you to your feet just in time to take another wallop of destruction.
15. Lightning Dust
Although this album may seem sparse, it is much more complex and ambitious than your first assumptions. Yes, Amber Webber’s warbly voice does sound lost in some type of echo chamber, but the music as a whole will fill up every corner of your room, drowning you with tales of wisdom and curiosity. Lightning Dust proves that the folks behind Black Mountain can do more than write psychedelic metal (just imagine what could have happened if Black Sabbath and Joan Baez collaborated in the 70s). This music is like a lost and distant star. Amber guides us towards it, leading through the cosmos of sound, visiting strange, ancient melodies, and finally offering us up to the light.
14. Future of the Left
“Travels with Myself and Another”
If you’re expecting Future of the Left to be Mclusky with a different name, you’ve been mistaken. Yes, the lyrics are still witty and wry and the guitars at times still bark and growl at you, but the majority of the album has a different edge to it than the classic Mclusky work. “The Hope That House Built” is a march about jumping on the bandwagon of a hopeless cause, “Throwing Bricks at Trains” is Devo through a hardcore lense, and “You Need Satan More Than He Needs You” is Big Black for the new millenium. In the song Falco screams “It doesn’t smell like a man! It doesn’t taste like a man! but does it fuck like a man?” The same question could be asked of Future of the Left. It doesn’t always sound or smell like Mclusky, but it still sure fucks like Mclusky.
Merrill Garbus, the brains behind BiRd-BrAiNs, recorded her entire album from her home, using only a loop pedal, a ukulele, a drum set, and a digital recorder. With such a simple palette, it doesn’t seem like she could take the sound very far, but you would be mistaken. “tUnE-yArDs” is an accomplishment in resourcefulness because she is somehow able to create music that is complex and ever-changing. At times it is simple folk music, at others it is calming R&B. Unlike most of the R&B on the radio, BiRd-BrAiNs is personal and real. Throughout the album you can hear the echoing voice of a little boy talking, laughing, and coughing in the background (I’m guessing he’s her son but I have no proof of who the mystery child is) and he becomes a part of the music, a character in her little world. Throughout the album, she somehow takes the sounds of cars passing or a child coughing and meshes them into her tunes, making mistakes sound like an intrical part of the song. While many artists try to take their sound to uncharted territories, she somehow makes home sound like a new and alien place.
It’s easy to hate Nathan Williams. His melt-down at the Primavera Festival in Spain became a YouTube sensation earlier this year. He was sarcastic, bratty, and simply put, an asshole. Yet, I feel he’s gotten a bad rap. We all have bad days, right? In the same style as the ESPN show that tries to defend Dennis Rodman’s behavior, I’m going to give you “Five Reasons You Can’t Blame Nathan Williams”:
5. Wavves never wanted to be famous. Their first album was self-released and recorded in William’s bedroom on a 4-track. It was simply a kid having fun with his guitar.
4. Williams was on a mixture of Valium, Ecstasy, and alcohol the night of the famous Spain show. Sure, we can blame him for being so fucked up, but do you think his 2009 album would be so damn cool and divergent if he were a sober fella?
3. People from Spain are not worthy of Wavves. Get over it, filthy Imperials.
2. Drummer Ryan Ulsh was holding Nathan back…of course, I have no proof of this.
1. The band got too big, too quick. Their album came out in February, and within a couple weeks, they were the biggest buzz band of 2009. Within a month, they were playing before festival crowds (including SXSW) that they never could have imagined when recording their first album.
Despite these facts, many moved past Wavves, judging Williams by his behavior and not his music. Their loss. Wavve’s self-titled album is a roller coaster ride through no-fi Valhalla, a combination of crackling guitars and spacey synths with Nathan’s muffled voice shouting throughout. This is damn good stuff; you can’t deny it. But then again, maybe I’m biased. After all, I always did find Rodman’s behavior on the court to be refreshing and graceful, a beautiful disaster prancing up and down the court.
11. Alela Diane
“To Be Still”
“To Be Still” is not cutting-edge, nor is it going to change the face of music as we know it. Its strength lies in its familiarity. No, it doesn’t sound like anything on the radio, yet you feel like you know this voice; you know these stories. Throughout “To Be Still” Alela paints pictures of nature, all images and colors you’ve seen in your time, yet not from her unique perspective. “To Be Still” is an album that is cozy and welcoming like a campfire. Sit. Be still. Let Alela’s glow captivate you, filling your soul with warmth and comforting you through the cold winter nights.
In the 90s, Big Bad VooDoo Daddy scored a hit with “You and Me and the Bottle Makes Three”, a title Marilyn Manson jump off from with “You and Me and the Devil Makes Three”. I prefer Akron/Family’s approach in “River” singing “You and me and the fire makes three”, warm imagery of what it’s like to be out in nature with your two companions being a river and a campfire. Oh, but I know there is much more going on here. Could the fire be symbolic of the feelings felt between two lovers, with the female being hard to get a grasp of much like a river? Or maybe I’m just an English teacher in search of symbolism…
Yes, I know Nathan Williams, the genius behind Wavves, is a dick, but I’m sure John Lennon could be an asshole at times too.
“You Never Know”
Speaking of the Beatles, is it just me or does this song sound like the spawn of George Harrison? Don’t hear it? Get two minutes and 55 seconds in and maybe you’ll know what I’m talking about – the answers hidden within the sliding guitar solo. Even if you don’t hear the ghost of George, at least take joy in Jeff Tweedy dropping all his worries and singing a happy song for a change.
22. Alela Diane
“White as Diamonds”
There is nothing quite as hypnotic as the sound of Alela’s voice jumping into falsetto throughout this song. Just when you are falling in a dreamlike sleep, the notes shoot out at you, surprising you and casting an irresistable spell like Cupid’s arrow.
21. Bill Callahan
“All Thoughts are Prey to Some Beast”
If you saw “The Hangover”, you may recall the moment where Mike Tyson is enthralled by the pounding drum fill of Phil Collin’s “In the Air Tonight”. “All Thoughts Are Prey to Some Beast” has the same rumbling drums, although they don’t attack you like Tyson in the boxing ring. Instead, like a musical Lennox Lewis, the drums slowly overtake you, building and building and building throughout the six-minute opus. This song is larger than life with lyrics to match (I included them all; they’re that damn good):
The leafless tree looked like a brain
The birds within were all the thoughts and desires within me
Hoppin’ around from branch to branch, or snug in their nests listenin’ in
An eagle came over the horizon and shook the branches with its sight
The softer thoughts: starlings, finches, and wrens
The softer thoughts, they all took flight
The eagle looked clear through the brain tree, emptying thoughts saved for me
Maybe I’ll make this one my home, consolidate the nests of the tiny
Raise a family of might like me
Then something struck him, wings of bone
Sweet desires and soft thoughts were all gone
The eagle shrieked, “I’m alone”
Well it was time to flee the tree
The eagle snuck up on the wind one talon at a time
Being sky king of the sky, what did he have to fear
All thoughts are prey to some beast
All thoughts are prey to some beast
Sweet desire and soft thoughts, return to me
Sweet desire and soft thoughts, return to me
This song was featured as the intro-music to E!’s “Live From the Red Carpet” show for the Oscars (don’t make fun of me; my girlfriend was watching it). The choice seems fitting for a night where actors and actresses dress to impress. Mirah usually records music that is bare-bones and personal, but her song “Generosity” shows her dressing up her music with an elegant string section and a verbose presentation that fit perfectly amidst Hollywood’s self-congratulatory pomp and circumstance.
“(I Hate) My Job”
It’s too bad this song wasn’t released back in 1999. It would have worked great alongside “Damn it Feels Good to be a Gangsta” on the “Office Space” soundtrack. Actually, 2009 might have been the worst year to release this song. How can you complain about your job when a large portion of our country is jobless? Despite this fact, I still feel this song is an instant classic due to the fact that most people, at some point, hate their job. I love my profession, but at times, the people in power make it very difficult to enjoy what I do. On days filled with frustration at work, there is no better tune to help release the stress on your commute home.
18. Yeah Yeah Yeahs
There are many facets to Karen O. She can be bratty, loud, sexy, and even at times, psychotic. She is at her best though when she lets down her guard, exposing her vulnerability. “Skeletons” may not be the most upbeat song on “It’s Blitz”, nor is it the catchiest track, but in my humble opinion, it is the album’s high-point. Karen is no longer hiding behind a drum machine or slashing synth riff. Her heart is exposed for all to see, hidden only by the uncoiling back-bone of orchestra and clicking drum sticks, always on the verge of breaking yet somehow staying steady throughout.
17. Future of the Left
Fuck Rick. Who ever he is, he must be quite the douche to get such an angry tirade from Future of the Left’s Andy Falkous. We’ve heard Falco get pissed about many things with his influential band Mclusky, but never have I heard him pinpoint one mother fucker this directly. Sure, the title suggests the song has deeper meaning, but I like to believe that the song is primarily about that shit-dick Rick.
Speaking of Mclusky,Dananananaykroyd has obviously listened to “Do Dallas” a few times. Although they do a nice job of trying to fill the classic band’s void, their best song is actually a simple pop song that doesn’t follow the Mclusky formula. “Black Wax” shows the band being able to level out their cheeky behavior with just a dash of charm. Cheers to melodies!
15. Eat Skull
“Stick to the Formula”
While on the subject of formulas (damn, I’m getting good at this whole transition thing), Eat Skull want you to “do to the formula!”. Somehow, with all the clang and clamor they create, Eat Skull found a plum of a chorus. Unlike geometry formulas, the chorus of this song will stick in your head for infinity. If I were a math teacher I would use this song in my class daily. Unfortunately, we don’t do formulas in English (I do teach transitions though!).
14. Built to Spill
“Good Ol’ Boredom”
It’s kind of ironic that the best song on Built to Spill’s ho-hum 2009 release “There is No Enemy” is a song with the word “boredom” in the title. There is too much going on in this song to make it boring. The guitars are piled on top of each other cautiously like a seven layer dip, each part adding its own zest to the final product. There is one guitar line that stands out above all the rest, swooping and momentous like a 21st Century “Free Bird”.
13. BLK JKS
This song is a lot like “Weekend at Bernie’s” (in a good way). It opens up sounding dreadful, with spooky harmonizing and a menacing guitar line (there is nothing spookier than dragging a dead guy around a beach). Then of course, the band breaks into the chorus, an upbeat, African-ska-energy infused celebration that would even get life-less Bernie to join in on a conga line.
12. Volcano Choir
“Unmap” is a strange album. It is made up of “songs” where awkward instruments squawk clumsily, never really taking shape. It is definitely miles away from the melodic folk music we’ve grown accustomed to with Justin Vernon. “Island, IS” plays as the saviour to the album. It’s almost as if Vernon wanted to throw us off with one master work that delves into environs he’s never visited, to remind us there is still more to come from Bon Iver (plus, any song that mentions “the old tits on your hard drive” is a winner in my book).
“Needle in the Hay”
Who would have thought an Elliot Smith song could be made more depressing? Nadja does just that, injecting the once intimate song with an eery dose of ambient-doom. The voice is buried beneath the bedlam, a ghostly whisper of “needle in the hay” that will send chills up your spine if you ever grew to know Elliot personally through his music.
10. Mountain Goats
What happened to the Mountain Goats of old? They were lo-fi before lo-fi was cool. Using his trusty four-track recorder, John Darnielle used to write hilarious songs with titles like “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” and “I Love You. Let’s Light Ourselves on Fire”. A lot has changed. In 2009, the Mountain Goats released “The Life of the World to Come”, a highly polished album of 12 songs about 12 verses from the bible. I may be mistaken, but I don’t remember the bible having any punch lines (unless you count the burning bush). Fortunately, Merge Records released “Score! 20 Years of Merge Records”, a compilation of indie artists covering classic songs by Merge bands from the past. Darnielle is matched up with “Drug Life” by East River Pipe (a band I definitely need to check out after hearing this song and the Okkervil River cover of “All You Little Suckers”). It ended up being a perfect match due to its hilarious lyrics, something Darnielle abandoned years ago. And just to make us nostalgic, Darnielle records it in his familiar lo-fi style. What a tease.
9. Neko Case
“People Got A Lotta Nerve”
You mean to tell me Neko Case wrote a song with the chorus “I’m a man-eater” and it’s better than Hall & Oates classic? I’ll leave that up for to debate, but her “man-eater” is a killer whale while Hall & Oates are afraid of some chick. What pussies.
8. Passion Pit
Can you believe this band is on Frenchkiss Records, home of Les Savy Fav, Plastic Constellations, and the Fatal Flying Guilloteens? It seems like a strange fit, but I can’t blame label head Syd Butler for signing them. Their songs are scrumptious treats, frosted in sugary synths and Michael Angelako’s sacchariferous falsetto. Of all their tasty tunes, “Moth’s Wings” would be the cheese cake, with its complex, creamy textures and its rich, fulfilling melody.
Industrial music died with the 90s, right? Not according to HEALTH. On “Die Slow”, the band explores new territories in the genre, combining metalic synths with BJ Miller’s insane drumming and the hellacious scream of guitars, all of which seems to be traveling through some type of black-hole-vortex. Taking a nod from Nine Inch Nail’s underrated “The Fragile”, the band sees how live and digital instruments can live together in perfect harmony (or in this case, perfect dissonance).
6. Mos Def
While most rappers gave up on sampling years ago, Mos Def realizes there is still some magic hidden on the shelves of the local record store. On “Supermagic”, Mos Def pulled an LP out the Turkish Folk section, sampling “Ince Ince”, a song by the 1970s protest singer Selda. To make an already tight song tighter, he rewords Mary Poppin’s classic “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” with his cooler, darker version “Super magic black origin freshly out of dopeness”. Selda meets Mary Poppins? Now that would be one magic woman.
5. Cymbals Eat Guitars
“And the Hazy Sea”
Cymbals Eat Guitars set their listeners up for a major disappointment by putting “And the Hazy Sea” at the start of their 2009 release “Why There Are Mountains”. Nothing can stand up to the climatic nature of this song, yet you listen to the remainder of the album hoping those feelings will return. Like a 12 hour sex romp with Sting, “And the Hazy Sea” jams orgasm after orgasm into six minutes, leaving you sweaty and incapacitated.
4. Matt and Kim
Matt and Kim are “the little band that could”. I’ve been enjoying their music for a couple years now, thinking of them as my little pop-secret. Never did I expect to hear their boisterous ditty “Daylight” on TV shows (“Community”), advertisements (an ad for “Bacardi”), and video games (“NBA Live 2010, FIFA 2010”, and “Sims 3”). “Daylight’s” success proves that with a great melody, any band can break through that glass ceiling (although, I suspect that Matt blackmailed EA Games at some point in the past year).
3. Animal Collective
There is something childlike to “Girls”, yet the lyrics speak of what it means to grow up and be a father. Commonly, the music of artists begins to wane with age and the added stress of wife, kids, etc. As usual, Animal Collective break the mold, managing to sound better than ever, even making parenthood sound fun…sleep loss, screaming babies, and poopy diapers –fun? Why must you fuck with my head A.C.?
2. The Very Best
“Warm Heart of Africa (featuring Ezra Koenig”
Last year The Very Best took Vampire Weekend’s song “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and put the Columbia alums back in their place, bringing authenticity to the African inspired song. In 2009, Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend decided to join forces with his tormentors to lend his vocals to “Warm Heart of Africa”. With their powers combined – The Very Best’s African beats and Ezra’s s tender voice -these musical Avengers berate you until you are up on your feet dancing and singing along to African words that you don’t understand.
“Love Like a Sunset Part I and II”
Phoenix is a simple pop band that creates great hooks, right? Yes, and no. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, let me present to you evidence: “Love is a Sunset pt. I & II”, a sprawling, atmospheric journey of astronomical proportions. Like a ride through “It’s a Small World After All”, the song takes you through all of the regions music can provide your brain – it baffles and broadens, it pacifies and presses, it’s simple yet cinematic, it penetrates and motivates- simply put, this song will change your life, if you can only lend it a moment of your time.