The Thermals “Personal Life” [Kill Rock Stars; 2010]
“Now We Can See”: damn is that a great album. This 2009 release from The Thermals is filled with enticing melodies of rebirth, alcoholism, and letting go all conveyed through the lens of Darwin’s evolution. I ranked it #6 on my “Best Albums of 2009” list, and its staying power is made evident each time I find myself returning to it amidst the downpour of amazing albums in 2010 (more on that in December…). Unfortunately, “Now We Can See” never got the credit it deserved from most major music journalists. Instead of deeming it a miracle that the band could follow up their modern classic “The Body, The Blood, The Machine” with another blistering set of songs, most reviews responded to “Now We Can See” with a yawning “Oh, these guys are still good…”.
Which leaves me wondering if a band is at a fault when they release great album after great album. It’s what I’d like to refer as Tim Duncan Syndrome – after winning back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards in 2002 and 2003, Duncan never received the award again. A look at his career stats shows that there was never a fall off in his nightly performances through most of the decade, a sustenance that led Charles Barkley to nickname him “Groundhog Day”. Despite this perpetual dominance in the paint that drove the Spurs to four NBA titles, it seems journalists became bored with his unyielding talent and decided to award the player of the moment each year (how many titles did Steve Nash win again?).
Perhaps if Duncan had a Jordan-like year off to pursue a career in professional swimming his continual dominance would have been better appreciated. And maybe that’s what The Thermals are doing with their latest album “Personal Life”. I’m not saying that the 2010 release from The Thermals is a cataclysmic failure like Jordan’s baseball career. In fact, there are some fantastic songs on the album that flow within the vein of what has become the band’s signature sound. “Personal Life” just lacks the significance that their past few albums have had – it lacks the weight. I’d like to believe they are taking a break from writing songs with depth in order to be better appreciated a year from now. I hope this is the case.
It’s album of love songs. That’s it. No allegories. No references to the bible. Just love songs. So yes, I guess the album has that signature Thermals album “theme” to it, but I’m pretty sure “love albums” have been recorded a million times over (if only they’d utilized a metaphor like the Roman Empire or the Civil War to express the struggles of love). But to just write a collection of love songs without any deeper meaning? I guess I’ve just come to expect more from the Portland band that is usually writing intelligent pop-punk songs. Never have they sounded so literal.
The album’s weakness goes beyond my textual analysis; the songs just aren’t as good as what I’ve come to expect, and I think I know why. The power chord has left the building; the distortion pedal has been put in the pantry. “Personal Life” consists mostly of bass driven songs with Hutch Harris meandering across the fret board trying to keep occupied without accomplishing much. Only on “I Don’t Believe You” do we hear that signature crunch, which also happens to be the best song on the album. It’s classic Thermals, plain and simple.
The video also features Carrie Brownstein of Sleater Kinney and Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock:
The album starts off strong, but quickly dwindles into songs that lack the excitement of what we’ve come to expect from these three. Again, I must stress that the songs aren’t horrible; you can still hear the band’s knack for melody throughout. It’s just missing something.
The most disappointing moment has to be “Your Love is So Strong”, starting off with a promising “Oh-wo-ee-oh-oh-oh-oh!” intro reminiscent of their 2009 hit “Now We Can See”. But this is no “Now We Can See”. Instead, it builds up to stagnation. Unlike it’s 2009 sister, this song never explodes into the passion felt within their music in the past.
You can have this:
Maybe it’s the angst that’s missing. “The Body, The Blood, The Machine” had an anger towards God and the government, “Now We Can See” held a disdain for the past and mistakes, but “Personal Life” has only love. “You Changed My Life”, “Not Like Any Other Feeling”, “Only For You”: these aren’t the types of song titles that lead to fist pump or jumping humping. These are songs for spooning in a Snuggie. No thank you. I’ll take my rage elsewhere. Let’s just hope that The Thermals read some Vygostky sometime in the near future; that psycho-babble will frustrate anyone.
If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.
Staring out into the dark clouds that enveloped our little rock island, I came to the realization that I couldn’t ditch Paul; not just yet. Leaving Paul in Idaho and going off on my own would damage our friendship beyond repair. A year earlier, we planned the trip based solely on the premise of having good times with a friend – the mountains, music, and breweries were just an added bonus. Maybe once we reached Montana things would turn around and get back to the way they had been the year prior. I knew our friendship wasn’t worth sacrificing for a week in the Pacific Northwest. If anything, I’d just have to call the trip off if things became worse.
I still needed a distraction. My frustration and anger still bubbled in my stomach. I pulled out my I-POD in search of something that would put a smile on my face, but none of the music, not even Paul Simon, seemed fitting at that moment. I needed something that would put me in high-spirits yet still have a vicious bite…Opie and Anthony radio show! I’d downloaded their episodes from the entire month of June prior to the trip, and I knew that their raunchy, politically incorrect flavor would hit the spot. I laid back on my rock recliner and giggled into the vast mountain range for the next hour. The bit I recall most from that day was a news story about a funeral home that cut a guy’s feet off in order to fit him into a casket, unbeknownst to his family. Somehow, the boys made this horror story funny (at least in my demented opinion).
Here’s just a small clip from the episode I listened to that day on Chief Joseph Pass:
My mood eased thanks to a few dirty mouthed scoundrels in New York. I finally decided I needed to join Paul to try to smooth things over. I hoped his tempers had ceased. When I arrived to our camp site I could see a large pile of rotting logs laying near my tent. As I approached, Paul emerged from the woods carrying more kindling. He walked past me, not making eye contact. He finally ended the silence asking, “Can you break up some of these logs?”
“Sure,” I replied. At least we were back on speaking terms. He continued stocking the pile, and I began the process of leaning a log against a tree and stomping down on its mid-section to break it in half. After ten minutes, I became bored with my methods and decided to switch it up. I picked up a flimsy, rotting limb and cracked it over my knee Bruce Lee style.
"Don't waste yo self."
Paul walked up just as I pulled off the move and chuckled. “Nice double hand, knee smash.” I took his comment as encouragement, and soon I was pulling off a variety of wood breaking moves including the drop-kick, the teeter-totter, and the over head “HULK SMASH!” Once Paul finished his enormous pile, he joined in on the fun. Soon we were pulling off insane WWF tag team moves. At least for the moment we were back on good terms.
If we were the New Age Outlaws I'd be Road Dog and Paul would be Ass Man.
And really, how could we fight with mushroom and swiss burgers on the menu? It would be our first real meal in a week. Paul got the fire started while I prepared the patties. After sautéing some shrooms, we threw the burgers into the frying pan and soon had the aroma of savory meat floating atop the drifting smoke into the Wyoming air – the same night air grizzly bears would be breathing in. I told Paul we had to make sure to hang up the food and clean the grease out of the pan before bed. He agreed, begrudgingly. Part of me wondered if he wanted to meet a bear face to face.
Paul hanging with his homies.
In ten minutes, we were sitting fireside eating amazing, fire-grilled mushroom and swiss burgers. Paul announced that it was the best mushroom swiss burger he’d ever eaten. It was pretty tasty, but it still didn’t compare to the Hardee’s mushroom and swiss burgers I use to inhale before each high school football game, a pre-game ritual.
Unfortunately they had to ruin the swiss burger with their new Angus burger, which taste like greasy plastic.
After our hearty, grease soaked meal, Paul packed up our food and told me he would go hang the food up in the woods. I asked if he needed my help but he said he would be fine. Minutes after he left, I didn’t feel fine at all, just sitting there with the burger scent fresh on my clothes and breath. I decided to go to bed, finding comfort in my flimsy little tent. Despite being inside, I stayed awake until I finally heard a rustling outside 10 minutes later. When I looked out, I discovered Paul, safely returning to camp.
The next morning I awoke to the strange warbling of some mountain bird. It was quite annoying, but Paul somehow continued to sleep through it. I read some “LOTR” for about an hour, until my partner began moving. I packed up camp and he went and got the food. Eventually, we made the climb back down to the car.
We drove for about 30 minutes and then decided to stop when we came upon the type of scene you’d find on a doctor’s office calendar. Since we could see a pond nearby, Paul thought it would be a good place for us to bathe and eat.
We pulled into a nearby parking area and found that we sat right next to a river. I grabbed the camping soap and my swim trunks (I would not be bathing nude today). In order to reach the water’s edge, I had to rock climb down into a cove of calm water. It would serve as a perfect bathing area.
Unfortunately, we didn't have any nature safe bubble bath to use.
I quickly changed into my trunks and waded into the frigid H2O. Although I’d been bathing in ice water for a week, I still hadn’t gotten used to it. As I lathered up my bald head, Paul made his way down the rock wall. He commenced taking off all his clothes and wading into the water, as if joining me nude wasn’t gay at all. Of course, it didn’t surprise me. At one point, he asked if I thought I could swim across to the other side? I looked and tried gauging the current.
“Hmmm…I think so,” I replied. The water was moving at a decent clip, but it didn’t seem like anything I couldn’t power stroke my way through.
“Really?” he seemed surprised. “You should try it.”
My pride took precedence over my logic. “Sure,” I confidently answered. Feeling like I was becoming the downer of the trip, maybe this would prove I was willing to take chances. Plus, it didn’t look like too strong of a current. I waded upstream and tiptoed along the wall toward the raging waters. I knew the second I left the wall it would be a free for all freestyle.
My goal was this...
I step out and instantly went into swim team mode, kicking my legs incessantly, slicing the waves with my arms, pulling the water beneath me. With my head down, determined to reach the other end, I quickly sensed that things weren’t going according to plan. I raised my head for an instant to see that the only direction I’d moved was upstream, and fast. Crap. What had I been thinking?!
I had to think fast. Within moments I would be out of Paul’s site and further up-stream where “God knows what” awaited me. I turned around and began swimming back towards our bathing pool, and soon found my body approaching a rock wall. I reached out my arm as far as I could and braced myself for impact, knowing I’d have to also grasp a rock to pull myself back toward Paul.
...but the result was this.
I pancaked into the jagged wall and frantically reached out my hands in search of a crevice to grab on to. Fortunately, my fingers wrapped around a jutting rock and I found my footing down below. Despite finding my balance, the water continued pushing and pulling me out toward the current. Slowly and cautiously I moved my way away from the treacherous waves and re-entered our bathing area. I couldn’t believe how dumb I had been. What did I have to prove? I’d been a fool.
Of course, Paul disagreed. “Dude! That was awesome!” I smiled and nodded, knowing deep down that I had just, once again, escaped the culmination of my New Year’s Day omen. I pulled myself up into the rocks and laid back, disgusted with myself. Paul got out also and sat down on a nearby rock (still nude).
As we talked about my raging river exploit, we suddenly heard a rustling up above. Looking up I caught a glimpse of a guy looking down at the two of us in disgust. I guess the image of two wet guys (one nude) sitting on rocks and conversing calmly can be alarming to some.
There's nothing wrong with a couple of gents having sitting on rocks and talking (even if one is nude).
When I told Paul what I had seen, he began cackling manaically, loud enough that the guy looking down could probably hear him. It was time to go back up to the car; no need sitting around laughing with a naked guy. I changed back into my dry clothes and climbed back up the rock wall.
Back at the car I made a sandwich, trying to avoid eye contact with the people in the two other cars parked nearby. Out of my periphial I noticed someone approaching me. I turned to see the same guy who had seen us down below.
He was the epitiomy of red neck: cut off sleeves, Wrangler jeans, a pedophile stach, and a gaudy belt buckle. I avoided eye contact and glanced down at his buckle, discovering I’d missed a major detail. A gun. Stuffed into the top of his Wranglers, a Lone Ranger style revolver. My eyes darted back up to his face that was frozen in a scowl. I returned my attention back to my sandwich, hoping the gun-toting fella wasn’t homophobic.
Just then, Paul appeared, pulling himself up from the rock ledge, no longer nude, but now wearing only his used Army underwear. Crap. Paul moseyed past the gun-man and approached the car with a goofy smile on his face. The red neck shook his head and made his way down to an area set aside for fishermen.
“Paul…dude…that guy has a gun!” I whispered over my sandwich. Of course, Paul’s reaction wasn’t what you’d expect.
“Ha, ha! You’ve gotta love Wyoming!” he joked.
“Dude, he’s the guy who saw us down on the rocks.”
“Really?! Ha, ha, ha! That’s even funnier,” he howled. Instead of throwing on his clothes and avoiding a gun-point conflict, Paul decided to grab the skin lotion and moisturize his skin outside the car. I didn’t say anything, knowing Paul wasn’t antagonizing the gunman; he has a strange post-shower routine of always lotioning up.
5 minutes later, as Paul was finishing up his lotion routine, the gun man appeared again, this time not wearing a shirt, showing off his farmer’s tan and blubbery beer belly. The gun still stuck out from his pants, partly buried under his gut, and his pants were beginning to sag off his fat ass, exposing the top half of his Christmas boxers. It was a sight that remains etched in my memory.
You can't make this stuff up.
The red neck, with his gun and festive boxers, walked toward us with purpose, keeping his steely glare on my moisturized friend. He stalked past us, but his revoltion filled the air. Once back at his truck, I calmly walked up to Paul.
“Let’s get out of here,” I mumbled.
“I’m going to make a sandwich first,” he calmly replied.
“Okay, but make it quick.” To avoid any confrontation, I sat in my front seat, trying to occupy my mind with my book, but not really comprehending the adventures of Frodo at the moment with my mind on the X-Mas Boxer Murderer, pacing around his truck nearby. “How long does it take to make a sandwich?” I asked myself, looking back to see Paul meticulously construct a super sandwich.
Just then, the sound of a grumbling engine erupted. I turned to see the shirtless wonder, pulling out of his parking spot and slowly driving by us. As he passed, he gave me the evil eye, and sped up, shooting gravel in our direction. I hoped he wasn’t off to find more friends with guns and holiday themed undergarments.
We'd later find out that we met one of the bank robbing Boxer Boys up close.
I got out of the car and joined Paul amidst his creation of the perfect sandwich. “Let’s get going man. You can eat while I drive.”
“Nah, I’m gonna go back down by the water to eat.”
“Come on man. We’ve already wasted an hour here. Let’s get going.” Paul turned, as if he didn’t hear me, and walked away from me toward the water. Unbelievable. I knew the likelihood of gun boy returning was slim. My biggest concern was time. We were so close to Montana I could feel it, yet here we sat, waiting. It seemed that’s all I did the first week of the trip, waiting, waiting, waiting.
I sat festering for 15 minutes, bubbling with anger, when Paul finally returned.
“Was that quick enough?” Paul asked sarcastically.
I tried to keep it civil. “Okay, yes, it was dumb of me for getting mad that you were going to eat by the water, but it just seems like we’ll never get out of Wyoming.”
“What’s your deal? We’ve seen some cool shit. You’re being weird dude.”
He was right; I couldn’t argue. I had to cool down. I had to forget all the frustrations and arguments of the past week. I had to forget Oregon. We weren’t going to get there. Face the facts. We have two weeks left in the trip, and one of those weeks will be in Colorado with Tony. Oregon would have to wait until next year. Suck it up Andy. Forget the past week. The trip starts now.
Fortunately, we chose to end our Oregon Trail rather then ending it at the hands of some old timey disease contracted from rotten buffalo meat.
Back on the road, finally, our drive instantly turned to pure beauty. If only we had driven another 30 minutes the day earlier, we could have camped in bliss rather than turmoil pass.
For the next couple hours, we were stopping every minute to soak in the lay of the land. Like zombies to brains, we couldn’t resist it: start car, stop car, get out, stare at mountains for 10 minutes, get back in car, repeat.
It's too bad that bald creep had to ruin this picture.
Snow cover giants surrounded us, looking down upon the miniscule Element as we shimmyed our way between its shoulders. Unfortunately, we also ran into a slew of tourists/terrorists along the way, taking photo op after photo op, although a couple cool groups brought their own sleds and were riding down the snow drifts on nearby inclines. It was really a magical land, that even our sour moods couldn’t resist.
Our goal was for the peak of Beartooth to be Paul's party hat. Success or fail?
Jon Jon had been right; Cheif Joseph Pass is one of the most beautiful drives I’d ever taken. Eventually, it turned into a crazy, downward switchback, rollercoaster ride, leading us downward, back and forth, back and forth, like we were marbles rolling down one of those old wooden slide toys they’d sell at my church as a kid.
How this was fun as a kid, I'll never know.
The road continued slithering downward into a valley of green. Throughout this journey to the center of the Earth we listened to The Thermals “Now We Can See”, and to this day I can’t listen to this amazing album without remembering the incredible drive that day.
Once at the bottom, we drove a short distance before reaching Red Lodge. We were in search of Red Lodge Ales Brewing Company, a small town, dive brewery located in an old, red, machine shed. I could still remember our visit there the year prior on the 4th of July – the mass of townies crammed inside, the bearded lumberjacks huddled around the fooseball table, and the gaudy old fridge sitting center stage behind the bar, plastered in an array of stickers.
I swear the shed was red, although this picture from last year seems to contradict my memory.
Despite thinking we’d see the red shed along our downtown drive, we reached the edge of town without spotting it. Had we missed it? Or had our memory served us wrong? We decided to continue up the road a little fuhter, hoping to spot the illusive tin barn. After passing through a slight curve we came upon what looked like a red shed, but much nicer with a vaulted glass ceiling, a fresh coat of paint, and a huge black top parking lot out back (rather than the gravel we parked on the year earlier). We drove past it slowly and spotted the sign.
“I guess this is it?” I said to Paul in confusion.
“Yeah…I guess…I swear it was downtown last year,” he replied, equally perturbed.
“This looks like a new building all-together. Let’s check it out.”
We entered timidly, knowing it was the brewery, but unsure whether we crossed into the “Twilight Zone” or if this was the bizarro Red Lodge Brewery.
Inside the beauty matched the exterior. The walls, once faded with chipping paint, were now colorfully designed, featuring a vast array of shimmering medals. A glass wall sat near the back, looking straight into the brewery filled with more shiney goodness. I took a seat at one of the art deco tables while Paul went up to order our first two brews.
I began looking around the immaculate brewery, everything glistening and new. As much as I liked the new digs, I missed the old, small town vibe of the year prior. It just seemed to antiseptic.
As my eyes roamed the room, I stopped upon a recognizeable item. My eyes focused. An old beat up fooseball table sat in the back corner, the same foose-ball table we saw earlier. I began to scan the room and slowly, recognizable features began to jump out, hidden within the modern design. As Paul returned with our pints, I could see the old beat up, sticker infested refridgerator sitting center stage, right behind the bar.
If you look closely behind Paul carrying our beers, you'll spot the old school fridge built into the wall.
Despite all the pieces from the old bar, things had changed, just like our road trip. We still had all the features from the year prior (breweries, mountains, etc) but things hadn’t gone nearly as well as the year before. At that moment I knew, with only a couple weeks left, I still had time to make the trip memorable. I hoped my new change in attitude would yield different results.
Dinosaur Jr pisses me off. In 1989 Lou Barlow left the group due to inner-group tension, and as a result, we were robbed of 18 year of amazing music. Don’t get me wrong, the post-Barlow era of Dinosaur Jr still had some great albums but they fail in comparison to such classics as “Bug” and “You’re Living All Over Me”. Fortunately, they finally got over their little quarrel and got back to rocking a few years back. If you thought the band’s kick-ass 2007 reunion album “Beyond” was a fluke, “Farm” serves as evidence that you are gravely mistaken. Usually when bands reunite, they sound dated and contrived, but somehow, Dino’s reunion material sounds fervent and fresh. Yes, J. Mascis is keeping the guitar solo alive, and it’s never sounded better.
9. Sunset Rubdown
“Dragonslayer” is a grower, not a show-er. The first few listens may be difficult to wrap your head around, but once you’ve grounded yourself in Spencer Krug’s peculiar realm, you’ll find yourself swept away by his story of the struggle between friendship and love. Soon, Krug will have you wondering aloud “Why DID Anna change her name?” or “how did you get held up at yesterday’s parties?” Krug buries his tale beneath a pile of vivid metaphors, yet, you still sense there is a narrative haunting around the tombstone. “Dragonslayer” is a lot like a T.S. Elliot poem: the more you listen to it, the more you want to hear it, to know it, to understand it. “Dragonslayer” is the indie-rock opera the Decemberists were aiming for with “The Hazards of Love”, and Anna is our generation’s Pinball Wizard (I still don’t get why she had to change her name though).
8. Jay Reatard
“Watch Me Fall”
You haven’t heard songs this catchy since The Beatle’s “Hard Days Night”, although if Jay were a member of the Fab Five there would have been a lot of chicks with black eyes (No one charges Jay Reatard without receiving a souvenir). Don’t be fooled by “Watch Me Fall’s” up-beat, cheery sound; this encourageable little pup’s got bite. Although “Watch Me Fall” is grounded in punk, it shows Jay maturing with his sound, relying more often upon his acoustic guitar and songwriting that is complex and finely tuned. Complex punk? If you don’t think it’s possible, take it up with Jay.
“Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free”
The cover says it all – there is no other album in 2009 that represents America’s trials and tribulations better than “Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free”. It of course has the folk backbone throughout, but along the ride, the band takes you through various styles of American music, from big band, 60s psychedelia, 40s doo-wop, 90s hip-hop, to the punk-rock noise of the 70s and 80s. Like a musical Betsy Ross, Akron/Family have taken all the genres of music that have grown out of the “land of the free” and created an intricate, multi-faceted, harmonious quilt of where we’ve been. Throughout, these sounds are intertwined naturally and performed wonderfully by non-other than Akron/Family.
6. The Thermals
“Now We Can See”
I would have loved to have the members of The Thermals in my English class. They understand all the basic Literary Elements: themes, metaphors, foreshadowing, symbolism, etc. Their 2007 release “The Body, the Blood, and the Machine” relied heavily upon allusions to the bible, using the imagery of the ancient book to tell stories and make a statement about our origin. “Now We Can See” continues with the origin theme, although in this case they use the motif of evolution. Every song makes references to the scientific theory that we “grew from the dirt “, then “took off (our) skin” and “crawled to the sea” “to swim!”(these four lyrics were taken from three different songs- now that’s an extended metaphor!). Within these Darwinian tales, the band tells stories of facing your fears, the perils of alcoholism, and the eventual demise of modern society. Yes, this album is an English/Science teacher’s dream come true. Oh, and did I mention that the songs also kick ass?
5. The Very Best
“Warm Heart of Africa”
I didn’t know how to evaluate The Very Best’s first album due simply to the fact that most of the songs featured music by other artists, whether it be M.I.A., Vampire Weekend, or the music from the “True Romance” soundtrack. Although the music was undeniably delightful, could the band have the same result with their own backing tracks? “Warm Heart of Africa” shames me for doubting. Mwamwaya’s voice is still as smile-inducing as ever, and Radioclit’s contributions are stronger than anything on their self-titled effort. The African vibe is felt throughout, but Radioclit is able to carry the songs discreetly through a series of genres, whether it be new wave or trance. In a time where regionalism has become almost nonexistent due to technology, The Very Best exemplify what is possible when cultures meld their ideas into one masterwork.
At its core, “Blue Album” is a metal album- yet it is so much more. The band takes all of their eclectic influences and somehow combine them naturally into their powerful assault. Nothing is forced. Every song evolves organically, taking the listener through an obstacle course of compelling riffs and devastating drums. Metal is often associated with death, but the “Blue Album” is life its self, a blue flower blossoming in your ears, and then unexpectantly gashing your ear drums with their savage thorns.
About a month ago I had a student I trusted run out to my car to grab a folder I left on my front seat. Of course, I didn’t remember that under the folder laid the coffee table book “Punk: The Definitive Record of a Revolution”. When he got back to my room his face was all aglow. “You like punk Mr. S?” he asked in amazement. It was like he had just learned that Santa Claus indeed did exist. Like an authoritative dick, I asked him to go to his desk and told him we could talk about it after class. This resulted in him standing in my room for 15 minutes during my lunch time, listing all the bands he was into, none of which I’d heard of. He then pulled out his I-POD and commenced having me check out mediocre emo band after emo band, the 21st century’s version of punk. I tried to think of a band to suggest to this kid, to save him, one that would guide him down the right path. Minor Threat? The Wipers? Rancid? No. I had to come up with something new; this kid didn’t want to listen to an old guy’s music by old punks. Then it hit me: Japandroids. Nothing screams youth more than two kids from Vancouver singing lines about wanting to leave there stomping grounds, living life without concern, and kissing french girls. I told him he had to get to lunch soon, but that I would play him “Young Hearts Spark Fire”, and as I watched this kid discover real, earnest, punk rock, the young heart in me may have even pumped out a couple heartbeats.
2. Bill Callahan
“Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle”
While “Woke On a Whaleheart” showed Bill trying find himself without his band Smog, “Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle” is an overwhelming statement that Bill can in fact do this on his own. While his band explored stranger terrain, Bill focuses on the tangible here, relying mostly on only the live instrumentation of pianos, guitars, and violins. The album may seem intimate at times, but there are moments where Bill reminds us that his music can be larger than expected. For example, when the strings break out on “Eid Ma Clack Shaw”, you’d swear it was a sequel to “Eleanor Rigby”. But my favorite character has to be the mysterious guitar that lurks in the shadows of the album. Every song you’ll catch a glimpse of it, a basic electric guitar, no effects needed, meandering in the background. The only thing to upstage the unassuming guitar is Bill himself with his croaking baritone voice that speaks straight to your soul (I swear even the deaf can hear Bill’s voice). If Bill Callahan only released his lyrics in poetic form, his words alone would be music to your ears. Oh, but we are luckier than that my friends. Not only is Bill a master wordsmith, but his music speaks volumes as well. Just imagine if Dylan Thomas could sing and play guitar?
1. Animal Collective
“Merriweather Post Pavilion”
On New Years Eve, the group I was hanging out with got into a discussion of who was the biggest band of the decade. The first answer to come to most of our minds was Radiohead. But driving back to Texas, I thought about the question longer and decided we may have been wrong. TV On the Radio? Arcade Fire? The Yeah Yeah Yeahs? No, none of them created music as influential as Radiohead, but there is one band that did, and maybe even more so: Animal Collective (stick with me here…)
If you look back on Animal Collective’s resume for the past ten years, they’ve released eight albums, four EPs, and a multitude of side projects (Panda Bear’s “Person Pitch” is unquestionably one of the top ten albums of the decade). If you simply compare “Here Comes the Indian” to “Merriweather Post Pavilion”, you’ll see in an instant how much the band has grown. Every album presents a new way to aproach music.
“Merriweater Post Pavilion” is quite possibly the band’s best album to date, the perfect culmination to a productive decade. In this case, it’s not an insult to say that it is their most accessible album because to an outsider, “Merriweater Post Pavilion” would still seem pretty alien. I hate to say the band has matured because it would be a damn shame, but they have definitely learned how to approach their music from a melodical stand-point (and you’ll never hear them scream once, which has slowly become a crutch for them over the years).
Even the lyrics speak of growing up and facing adulthood. Yet I insist, they have NOT grown up. If anything, the album brings me back to my childhood, sounding like the soundtrack to “Fern Gullie”. The sounds are enchanting, exciting, and will have you conjuring up images of elves and gnomes prancing around a magical mushroom in no time. It’s too bad Jim Henson is dead because I can only imagine what he could have done with the mystical world on “Merriweater Post Pavilion”. I guess as a consolation you can always rent “Fraggle Rock”, turn the sound off, and blast “Merriweater Post Pavilion” out of your stereo. Who needs drugs when you’ve got “Merriweater Post Pavilion” and Muppets?
(Note to reader: Sad to say goodbye to our best of 2009 lists? Never fear! Over the tenure of 2010, Paul will be moving methodically through decade, listing what he deems the top albums for each year. Look for it in the coming weeks!)
The harmonizing voices on this song perfectly capture the heartbreak of the narrator. Despite being near his lover, he still feels miles apart. A few weeks ago I was playing this song in my classroom during journal time, and one of my students commented that it sounded like something from “Juno”. I agreed, although I don’t remember Moldy Peaches ever sounding this damn beautiful.
“Best God in Show”
Despite releasing a couple lackluster albums in the past few years, NOFX still have a gift for catching you off-guard. On the surface, “Best God in Show” is a happy-hippy jam, but when you get past the joyful ska riff and cheery organ, NOFX is once again questioning religion in a way that is both humorous and thought-provoking.
48. M. Ward
“Never Had Nobody Like You”
Once you get past the use of a double negative in the title, you will find M. Ward has written another hum-able gem that would fit perfectly alongside other classics on “Transfiguration of Vincent”. It’s just too bad he had to let Budweiser throw it into a comercial about guys hi-fiving…who okays these things and deems them as funny?
“DOA (Death to Auto-Tune)
Jay-Z is the godfather of the rap world. When the Hova says auto-tune is dead, you better take notice. Like a modern-day Biz Markie, Jay-Z howls “Na, na, na, na! Hey, hey, hey! Goodbye!” off-key throughout the song, along with the use of live instrumentation, ranging from a squealing saxophone to a sultry guitar line. While most of the rap world has become a caricature of their former selves, Jay-Z continues to sing his own song, even if it is out of tune.
46. Bon Iver
Wait just one second Jay-Z…like a musical zombie, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon breathed new life into the auto-tuner with this captivating new approach to the played-out device. Somehow the old timey lyrics of “I’m building a still” work perfectly through the 21st century lens, sounding like a robotic barbershop quartet. And somehow, Vernon is still able to convey the loneliness and solitude of being alone in the woods.
In a year where we got a glimpse of the stock market’s dirty under-belly and the corruption of American big business, it’s nice to see Slayer take a break from wreaking havoc on Christianity and focusing on the sick fucks who have preyed upon the middle class of this country for too long. There is something poetic about such an “evil” band taking on the true evil of this “land of deceit”.
44. Ty Segall
Ty Segall is often banging away at his guitar from start to finish, but on “Lovely One” he takes a break from his distortion pedal, starting off with a calming little guitar strum, eventually leading into the infectious chorus that would fit perfectly alongside The Animals and The Loving Spoonful on a classic oldies station.
43. Lightning Dust
This song seems pressing despite the lack of a real drum track. The pulsing undertone continues from start to finish while the piano and organ truly take shape as percussion instruments, driving the two-minute romp through its existential path. How can something sound aged and cutting edge at the same time?
42. Pissed Jeans
Historically, hardcore punk songs are about several defined topics: criticizing the government, criticizing the use of drugs/alcohol, or conveying how horrible it is to be a teenager. Pissed Jeans like to take a different stance. On past albums they’ve lamented the difficulties of being a stalker, the shame felt when cumming, and the perils of scrapbooking. On their 2009 release “King of Jeans” they even present the misery felt during the process of losing your hair:
I still can’t believe this is happening. I’m not fifty years old. I consider myself a young adult and want others to see me this way. If my looks deteriorate, it’ll wreak havoc on my self-esteem. Is that what I have to look forward to?
Although humorous (and hitting a little close to home for a bald fella like myself) the song also conveys the anguish and frustration that is associated with growing old and losing your youth, one hair at a time.
I know what you’re thinking: “How could he put this song so low on his list?!” Yes, I will admit that when I first heard this song during the spring, I played it endlessly. It’s catchy as hell and is even capable of getting a white boy like myself on his feet dancing (after a few beers mind you). Unfortunately, my love has turned to loathing due to the Cadillac ads played in heavy rotation during the commercial break of every football game. Despite this hatred, I still can’t deny what a great song it is, or was (don’t worry, Phoenix gets more cred on this list…)
40. The Love Language
You’ve heard this song before, but in actuality you haven’t. Weird? That is the power of The Love Language my friends. Quit trying to remember where you heard it and just sit back and enjoy the tune you’ve never heard before but swear you have.
“Something’s Squeezing My Skull”
When Morrissey expresses that he is “doing fine”, you know he’s lying. Despite being an older gentleman, he still seems to be dealing with his demons, some of which take pleasure in squeezing his skull. Drugs? The perils of relationships? Insanity? Who cares really. At least musically Morrissey sounds better than ever, with a Gang of Four, angular riff and the closing chant of “Don’t give me anymore!” that you just can’t get enough of.
38. The Thermals
“Now We Can See”
The fact that you are hooked on this song within 10 seconds says it all.
37. Sonic Youth
“Thunderclaps for Pyn”
When I lived in Omaha I liked to go to the Old Country Buffet on barbeque night. I’d skip over the salad bar, the fried foods section, and even noodle salad row in search of one thing: BBQ ribs. I’d fill my plate with ribs, and ribs only. When all that remained was a plate with meat-less bones I’d go back for seconds, engulfing a pig’s entire rib cage by the end of my visit. Sonic Youth’s “The Eternal” is much like a buffet line, featuring a wide range of Sonic sounds from over the years, ranging from the art noise of early days to the sparser atmospheres of recent albums. But, like a plate of short ribs, this past year I often found myself skipping over the other tunes in search of a nice earful of “Thunderclaps for Pyn”. Yummy!
36. Lightning Bolt
How do you make a Lightning Bolt song more chaotic? Add bongos. But there is so much more going on in this song; there is actually a chorus! YES FOLKS! A CHORUS! And if you listen close enough, it almost sounds like a 1960s surfer tune. I can see the beach blanket gogo dancers now…
“The Boys are Leaving Town”
Sure, this song has sentimental value for me, reminding me of my road trip this past summer where Paul and I listened to this at the beginning of our trip and later saw the band perform in Boise, Idaho. But this song made its way on this list for more reasons than the memories associated with it. Simply put, it kicks ass. Being the anti-thesis to Cheap Trick’s “Boys are Back in Town”, Japandroids have taken the classic teenage angst of leaving town and given it a jolt with rolling, jumpy drum fills and passionate, lo-fi vocals.
34. Andrew Bird
“Fitz and the Dizzyspells”
Every interview/review I read about Andrew Bird’s 2009 release “Noble Beast” focused heavily on the album’s use of whistling. This is for good reason. Every song on the album features whistling at some point, an aspect that becomes annoying pretty quickly. Only on “Fitz and Dizzyspells” does Andrew find a happy medium between his violin and pierced lips, creating a joyful romp that begs you to put a smile on your face.
33. Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Karen O singing about leather? I’m sold.
32. Animal Collective
In the past few years the tribal sounds of bands like MIA and El Guincho have become more and more popular. How soon we forget that Animal Collective brought this sound to the forefront years ago. On “Merriwether Post Pavillion” the boys finish the album off with “Brother Sport”, a tropical rumpus that works perfectly as a final track due to its celebratory tone. It also serves as a reminder that the Collective can still make you shake your ass off if they really want to.
31. Lou Barlow
“The One I Call”
I know, I know. I hate love songs too. And I’ll admit, Lou Barlow’s “One I Call” would probably work great on a John Cusack chick flick. But you can’t resist its earnest lyrics nor can you deny the comfort of the combination of Lou’s voice and his guitar. If I saw Lou on the street, I’d probably yell to him, “Great song Lou!” to which he’d glare at me in disgust (inside joke).
30. Blank Dogs
Guided By Voices meets The Cure circa 1980s? Oh, what a sweet combination, like peanut butter and jelly.
“Dear Coach’s Corner”
Propagandhi usually rage against racism, government, and of course the fact that “Meat is murder”. But never before have I heard them write about such unique subjects as they do on “Supporting Caste”. The best has to be “Dear Coach’s Corner”, a vial criticism of the Canadian hockey show “Coach’s Corner” (I guess with Bush out of office, their song material got cut in half). The ranting tune basically states an annoyance with announcers conveying their own agendas when in the end, it’s just a game. Shut the fuck up:
Dear Ron McLane, I wouldn’t bother with these questions
if I didn’t sense some spiritual connection.
We may not be the same, but it’s not like we’re from different planets.
We both love this game so much we can hardly fucking stand it.
There is something admirable in Propagandhi’s approach; no one is free from being criticized. Who wouldn’t like to hear a song ripping into Bill Walton, Bob Davie, or Joe Buck?
28. Jay Reatard
Everything in this song has its function. The “lade-da-da” that starts the song leads into a sweet little acoustic guitar lick, jumping straight into Jay’s yelling anthem, and finally kicking into the fist pumping chorus. And then, when you think you’ve figured it all out, the song finishes off with a killer closer that would put “Hey Jude” to shame. Jay Reatard is a master songwriter; it’s about time we all accept his God-liness.
27. Matt and Kim
“Good Ol’ Fashion Nightmare”
Matt and Kim songs are so simple. A plinking piano over a pounding drum beat and Matt’s nasally whine. Yet, with only these few elements they are able to write irresistable pop hits. While “Daylight” may be considered their breakout hit in 2009, “Good Ol Fashion Nightmare” is just as charming and replay-able.
“My Night With the Prostitute From Marseille”
When I heard Beirut was releasing a double CD (one disc of them performing with a mexican mariachi band and another of Zach Condon singing over electronic music), I expected the first CD to be the better of the two but was disappointed by his Mexican offering. Instead, I fell in love with the second disc of five dance songs, devoid of trumpets and accordians. While two of the songs are about hookers, “My Night With the Prostitute From Marseille” is the obvious stand-out of the album.