I think we can all agree that 2016 was not a great year. From terrorist attacks to deaths of beloved celebrities to the tumultuous presidential election, it’s easy to compile a list of 2016’s lowlights. What has been lost in this sea of let-downs and despair is the amount of great music that was released this past year. Once again, I’ve compiled a list of some incredible albums that hail from a wide range of genres. Give the final 20 a read through and a listen. I’m sure you’ll find something you also enjoy, and maybe you’ll discover something that strayed beyond your listening peripheral in 2016.
2016 has been a comeback year for “the album” with artists like Beyonce, Chance the Rapper, Radiohead, Drake, and Kanye West dominating news cycles with the surprising arrivals of their new full-length albums. I see this as both a blessing and a curse. As a fan of the long-form listening experience, I love that albums as a whole are getting love in the age of Spotify playlists and Pandora radio. On the other hand, many of these albums do not deserve the hype that surrounds them (i.e: Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book pales in comparison to his last effort, Acid Rap, and Drake’s VIEWS might be the most uninspiring, uninteresting albums of 2016). Lost amidst all of this album release hoopla is a lot of the great music not getting the attention it deserves. That’s where we here at BDWPS come. Below you will find 20 original, rousing, and memorable albums that you should have been listening to instead of wasting your time with the latest Rihanna album.
(All of the albums on this list were released before June 1st. I set this cut-off date to ensure I’ve had ample time to listen and connect with albums before placing them on the list.)
For her latest project, PJ Harvey took a voyeuristic approach to the recording process by allowing the public to witness the band in the studio through one-way glass. On face value, this seems a bit gimmicky, but it’s a pretty fitting reflection on PJ’s songwriting for The Hope Six Demolition Project. For the concept album, she was an observer herself, taking on the role of a reporter, viewing the impact of American capitalism on the world.
Last weekend a few friends and I took a three-day canoe trip down the Des Moines River in Iowa, starting in Estherville and ending up in Rutland. Since this experience, I can’t get the river off my mind (I have water on the brain). The journey packed a jambalaya of emotions: fear, exhilaration, calm, joy, and enlightenment. Many around Iowa look at the Des Moines River as a dirty cesspool of cow dung and pesticides, but they’ve obviously never gotten to know those murky brown waters. Now, I can’t help but feel a connection to the river.
Realizing I need to post a blog before BDWPS.com dries up like a riverbed, I contemplated different albums I could review. Nothing excited me though, and without passion, my writing sits as lifeless as a dead fish on the banks. Instead, I followed my recent enthusiasm from my river experience and decided to write a list of the “Top 20 River Songs.” As I started compiling the list I began to realize that rivers have been the subject of many, many, many songs. And it isn’t any wonder: rivers are mysterious old souls that can look serene and inviting while hiding beneath their vast power and unpredictability. They are both beautiful and terrifying at the same time.
“Lazy River” Louie Armstrong
“Green River” CCR
“Yes, the River Knows” The Doors
“The River” Dutchess and the Duke
“Roll On Columbia” Woody Guthrie
“How Deep is that River” Mason Jennings
“River of Deceit” Mad Season
“All the Gifted Children” Lou Reed
“Mississippi River” Muddy Waters
20. “Proud Mary” Creedence Clearwater Revival
I hate this song (probably because it has been so over-played), but I felt compelled to include it on the list. If you asked the average person to name five river songs, this song would undoubtedly come up. If I left it off the list I would be deceiving the readers based solely on my bias. I prefer the CCR version over Tina Turner’s. Then again, that’s like saying I prefer liver and onions over a Spam sandwich. Regardless, you made the list CCR. Take your #20 ranking and roll with it.
19. “River, Stay ‘Way From the Door” Frank Sinatra
“River, Stay Away From the Door” is a plea to flood waters to stay away from the narrator’s cabin. The song takes on a double meaning as a plea to an ex-wife or girlfriend, asking her to stay away and leave him with the few items that he still has: his bed and a fire. And really, that’s all a man needs, right?
18. “Dam that River” Alice in Chains
As with 90% of Alice in Chains songs, “Dam that River” is about heroin addiction. In it, Layne Staley sings of someone trying to dam the river (stop his addiction), but despite their efforts, the river still washed him away. Damn.
17. “Down in the River to Pray” Alison Krauss
There has always been a connection between rivers and religion, one that goes beyond baptism. With “Down in the River to Pray” Allison Krauss sings about going to the banks to speak to God. And why wouldn’t she? Just like God, the river is deep and mystifying, cleansing and strong, ceaseless and never-ending. It makes you wonder why anyone who lives within 20 miles of a river goes to church to pray.
16. “Ballad of Easy Rider” Byrds
On the “Ballad of Easy Rider,” the Byrds draw a connection between riding a motorcycle and riding a river, and I guess it makes sense. During our trip down the Des Moines last weekend, we often didn’t know where we were or where the curving waters would take us next, but we never really cared just as long as we kept moving. I imagine this is the same experience those roving bikers felt in “Easy Rider,” letting the journey lead their way toward freedom. The only difference being (spoiler alert) we didn’t have a bad acid trip or get murdered by hillbillies. (Side note: Bob Dylan helped write this song)
15. “River of Sorrow” Antony and the Johnsons
No other voice could pull this song off quite like Antony. His croon always captures the spirit of a desperate soul. On “River of Sorrow” he begs the endless river to stop swallowing many things: sorrow, love, and time. Now if only he’d tell the river not to swallow my cell phone and wallet (which it did!).
14. “Ol’ Man River” Beach Boys
You knew “Ol’ Man River” would make the list. It’s a staple of the river song catalog and has been performed by artists such as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Ray Charles, but my favorite version comes from the Beach Boys off their album “Friends/20/20.” It’s probably inappropriate to like their version the best considering it originated as a slave song with lyrics like “let me go away from the white man boss.” Oh well, I’m a sucker for Bryan Wilson harmonies. I guess I would draw the Beach-Boys-slave-song-line at “Strange Fruit” (although I imagine it would even be pretty incredible).
13. “Pissing in a River” Patti Smith
I first discovered this song when I read Nick Hornby’s Songbook. In the chapter on “Pissing in a River” he recounts an incredible show he caught of Patti Smith and how her performance of this song still remains in his mind. Hornby says it best: “…the song was called ‘Pissing a River’; and it was played on guitars, and it lasted four or five minutes, and its emotional effects depended entirely on its chords and its chorus and its attitude. It’s a pop song, in other words, and like a lot of other pop songs, it’s capable of just about anything.”
12. “River Euphrates” Pixies
In “River Euphrates” the narrator finds himself stranded, out of gas, on the Gaza Strip. I used to think his solution was to ride a tire down the Euphrates river, which would be pretty sweet, but doing research for this blog I discovered that he actually says “Ride the tiger down the River Euphrates!” Riding a tiger down a river?! And I thought riding a tire was bad ass.
11. “Five Feet High and Rising” Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash has several river based songs (“Big River,” “Run Softly Blue River”) but the one I like the best is “Five Feet High and Rising.” I love how the song goes up a key each verse, a subtle touch that adds to the narrative. Plus, Cash somehow makes a disaster like a five foot flood sound fun.
10. “Watching the River Flow” Bob Dylan
When I started compiling this list, Bob Dylan’s “Watching the River Flow” was one of the first songs to come to mind, but when I searched through my i-Pod for the song, it was nowhere to be found. “What album was it on?” I wondered, searching one album after another. Then I realized I first heard it on his second edition of greatest hits, which I didn’t load to iTunes for redundancy reasons. With all of Dylan’s bootlegs and rarity albums you’d think there would be another place to find this great song, but it has only be seen on that one greatest hits compilation. It’s a testament to Dylan’s songwriting talents; an awesome song like “Watching the River Flow” is just a leftover.
9. “Shenandoah” Pete Seeger
A song about as old as America’s rivers themselves, “Shenandoah” once served as a shanty for river men and has changed over time as people from across our great nation changed and added lyrics to fit their region. Over the years, the name “Shenandoah” in the song has represented a plethora of things: a river, an Indian chief’s daughter, and a small Iowa town. Pete Seeger’s version is my favorite. While others spruce their recording up with orchestra swells and back-up choirs, Seeger captures the folk soul of the song simply with his voice and a guitar (there’s also a live version with a banjo – yes, a banjo).
8. “Black Water” Doobie Brothers
“Black Water” has an upbeat, blue grass feel that captures the sensation of rolling down the river with friends, taking the experience all in. It also hearkens back to Huck Finn’s journey down the Mississippi on a raft and how those black waters led his way. Some have suggested that the black water represents anything from bong water to moon shine, but I tend to believe it is simply about the Mississippi River. And if it is about drugs or alcohol, why are they riding on a raft? Does that symbolize a bean bag? And are the catfish pot brownies?
7. “Whiskey River” Willie Nelson
I don’t think there is an actual Whiskey River, but the metaphor is pretty obvious. With a broken heart, Willie turns to whiskey to wash away his pain and take his mind off of his problems for just a while. The river makes for a great whiskey analogy because while riding the Des Moines we were disconnected from the real world of responsibilities. It was just us and that amber current (Note to self: bring a bottle of Jack next year).
6. “River Guard” Smog
This song always reminds me of “Shawshank Redemption.” Not that there are any rivers in the film, but Bill Callahan’s story of these prisoners being free for just a moment conjures up the image of Andy Dufresne and his gang drinking beers on the rooftop, finding joy and freedom for an instant. The river serves that same purpose in “River Guard,” giving these criminals a chance to be “unburdened and relaxed.”
5. “River” Joni Mitchell
I find it strange that Joni Mitchell’s “River” has become a Christmas song. It was never intended as such. Sure, it speaks of decorations and songs of peace, but the message is anything but joyful. Joni wrote “River” about the remorse she felt when thinking back on the daughter she gave up for adoption. Instead of most songs on this list that speak of flowing waters, Joni wants a frozen river to “skate away on.” That’s a Canadian for ya.
4. “Down By the Water” PJ Harvey
What happened under the bridge is still in question, but there is no doubt that innocence was lost. Whether it was the narrator who lost her childhood to sexual abuse or her actual daughter, she stands on the banks of the river and begs the fish (Christ) to bring back her purity. The fact that many think this is just another riverside murder song shows just how much depth there is in PJ Harvey’s songwriting.
3. “Take Me to the River” Talking Heads
This is originally an Al Green song, and as much as I respect Mr. Green, I prefer what the Talking Heads did with it. The Green version was based in religion with him turning to the waters to wash away his sins. In a genius move, David Byrne took these lyrics and tweaked them to be about a lover who the narrator can’t resist. He’s willing to give up everything just for her to “dip (him) in the water.” Leave it to Byrne to make baptism sound racy.
2. “Down by the River” Neil Young
One of Neil Young’s most mysterious songs, “Down By the River” has a chorus of “Down by the river, I shot my baby.” This would suggest that this is another song about a riverside murder, but the rest of the trippy lyrics speak of “taking a ride” and being dragged “over a river.” While Young has stayed pretty mum on the subject of the song, some have suggested that the river represents heroin (a motif discussed earlier with “Dam the River”) and he’s shooting himself up in order to take the ride. Again, it’s probably just about a river, but it’s fun to think about. Whatever the case, it’s a damn catchy song with distinctive guitar break-downs throughout. Just like a river, Young’s guitar solos are always erratic, fierce, and unrelenting.
1. “The River” Bruce Springsteen
As with most Springsteen songs, “The River” tells the story of the struggles of adulthood. This particular song tells the story of a couple who has been together since high school, spending their youth down at the river swimming and sunning. As the song progresses both the river and their lives change with time. By the end, the river that once tied them together and brought them joy is gone. It’s hard to imagine a river dying; about as hard as it is to see teenage dreams dry up.
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:
True Entombed fans are probably the faction who prefer their earlier, more brutal death metal albums. This one is often referred to as “death ‘n’ roll.” Ha ha, I usually hate lame made up genres (even though I am more guilty of it than most) but this one really fits and it’s kinda funny. I started with Uprising, maybe that is why I tolerate the slower tempos and yelled (rather than growled) vocals. Definitely not a sellout ploy, it is still WAY too brutal for MTV or the radio (although not in a perfect world). One of my top metal albums of the 00s. I like walking the dogs while listening to it; it makes everyday activities like that seem badass. – Ho Chi Unser Jr.
29. 16 Horsepower – Secret South
How’s this for another made up genre: post-rock Americana. I don’t know what to
call it, but it is brooding and one is jolted into the realization that hell is a mother fucken real place. And we all might end up there. No one knew banjos, violins, organs, bandoneons, and stand up basses could be so heavy and ominous. — Pthestudp
28. Mountain Goats – The Coroner’s Gambit: or Slavonic Dances if you prefer
John Darnielle disagrees with Android50 about the Bible being punch-lineless. I’ll tell you that right now. In “Jaipur”, after he gets done singing about sugar pastries cooked in clarified butter, he tells the story of being sold to evil men by his brothers. An obvious Joseph reference and a definite a “punch line.” But even though they would disagree on that topic, this is exactly the type of album Android50 pines for from the Mountain Goats: lo-fi songs with hilarious and often poignant lyrics. He sings about blood running through the streets of Rome, growing a garden, having no money or sense, going to Canada with a Tolstoy quoting woman, divorce, suicide, death and the afterlife. In fact, he is really the only person I want to hear sing about the latter three. And of course maybe my favorite lyrics ever: “bag full of oily rags, fifty cent lighter/dreams of retirement in Cancun burning ever brighter/there’s a lot of ways to make money in this world/but I can’t recommend insurance fraud.” But even though he is probably the only lyricist the last fifteen years who can give Bill Callahan a run for his money, you really can’t get it off of a page. You have to hear the demagogue himself preach it from his pulpit on high. – Kid Kilowatt
27. Microphones – It Was Hot We Stayed In the Water*
No one should have been too surprised by the black metalness of 2009’s Wind’s Poem. First of all Phil Elverum hasn’t been too secretive about his love of the dark metal and secondly his music never really has been too far removed from being classified as such. IWHWSITW’s nature themes and his massive noise WTFs and hissy lo-fi recording techniques owe something to BM. It is really just noisy, massive, fist pumping black metal for the soccer arenas, albeit with loads of pop dynamite, some sunny mumbling vocals and a pack of cavemen beating on random things for percussion. If you like The Glow Pt. 2 you really must have this one as well. – Suzy Creamcheese
26. Weakling – Dead as Dream
Five songs, (the shortest being over 10 minutes) of the most intense black metal ever issued from this side of the Atlantic. Will surely separate the men from the pussies (and poseurs). Don thy corpse paint and thy Gorgoroth spiked arm bands cos we’re about to fuck some shit up. – Dr. Anonymous
25. Agents of Oblivion – s/t
It’s funny looking back to high school and the music we listened to. I say this because I grew up in rural Wyoming, with no college radio and practically no internet. How did we find good bands? I still don’t know; so when I remember us listening to a good band I feel like providence somehow led our path. My buddy’s older brother introduced me to Acid Bath and I followed Dax Riggs wherever he went after that, and Agents of Oblivion was formed after Acid Bath’s bassist died. I’ve heard Dax’s voice compared to Jim Morrison. So how’s this: a Queens of the Stone Age fronted by Jim Morrison that grew up in New Orleans on Eyehategod and weed, instead of in the desert on LSD and ecstasy. — Pthestudp
24. Black Heart Procession – 3*
I have a BHP t-shirt. It depicts a bunch of naked zombie girls running around hypnotized. That is what this postwar desolation album sounds like, given the fact that one or more of the hypnotized naked zombie bitches can play the saw. — Pthestudp
23. PJ Harvey – Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea
One can tell a lot about the music from Polly’s album covers. The raw, blaring guitars of Dry were presaged by the picture of Polly’s lips and chin pressed against the glass with an ominously dark background. Rid of Me’s cover, a naked Polly in black and white with her hair flying presumably from a whip of her head, foretell Steve Albini’s abrasiveness had been added to the bone rattling mix. To Bring You My Love has Polly in a red dress, lying down in water, heralding grandness, passion and theatricality. One look at this albums cover will tell you times have changed. Polly dressed and looking normal in every way, crossing some NYC (where she lived for 6 months for inspiration, as indicated by the album’s title. I’m assuming the sea part comes from her life in England) street. Many do not like the change in Harvey brought by SFTCSFTS but they should have seen it coming. Look at the cover people! — Suzy Creamcheese
This album is like a child who frequently begs their parents for candy. The parents get tired of the child’s incessant whining, so occasionally they give in and dish out some candy; but sometimes they beat the shit out of the child whenever they ask. Then, about 25% of the time, in spite they think: “you asked for it, you got it” and drown the child in a vat of yummy honey. And the child thinks to themselves, “hum, I kinda wish my parents would have beat the shit out of me again; instead of immerse me in sweet sweet candy.” – Songssuck
21. Christine 23 Onna – Shiny Crystal Planet
Another Pthestudp recommendation. He said to put it on when I was hungover sometime. Which I did and didn’t know why the fuck he would say that. It was like I was hungover on Mars and getting anally raped by Martians or something. But then I found as the album went on, it did soothe my hangover like nothing else (maybe I like being anally probed by aliens). I couldn’t believe I had never heard these guys, this is the grooviest cosmic attack (without ever getting wanky) ever! — Songssuck