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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20. BOAT

“Dress Like Your Idols”

[Magic Marker; 2011]

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

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

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

19. Twilight Singers

“Dynamite Steps”

[SubPop; 2011]

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

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

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

18. Times New Viking

“Dancer Equired”

[Merge; 2011]

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

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

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

17. Panda Bear

“Tomboy”

[Pawtracks; 2011]

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

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

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

16. Thurston Moore

“Demolished Thoughts”

[Matador; 2011]

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

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

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

15. Six Organs of Admittance

“Asleep On the Floodplain”

[Drag City; 2011]

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

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

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

14. Dirty Beaches

“Badlands”

[Zoo; 2011]

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

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

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

13. Low

“C’Mon”

[Sub Pop; 2011]

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

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

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

12. True Widow

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

[Kemado, 2011]

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

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

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

 

11. Colin Stetson

“New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges”

[Constellation; 2011]

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

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

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

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Top 40 Albums of 2010 (25-11)

25. Fresh & Onlys

“Play It Strange”

[In the Red; 2010]

Last year I purchased Fresh & Only’s self-titled album and thought they were just another garage band from San Francisco (don’t get me wrong; this is a good thing).  Boy was I wrong. With their 2010 release “Play It Strange”, Tim Cohen and his band of merry-makers have proven that with a little clean up and an emphasis on a 60s vibe, they are a band to be reckoned with.  The songs are still youthful in spirit but they’ve gained a maturity with the addition of production that clears the air surrounding their surfer guitars and Cohen’s mumbling baritone.  While other retro-outfits try to mimic a multitude of classic songs (Black Lips), Fresh & Onlys have made an album of songs that are completely original despite the fact that you swear you’ve heard them before on the local oldies station.

24. Male Bonding

“Nothing Hurts”

[SubPop; 2010]

It’s been a while since Sub-Pop has released an album filled with so many fast, fuzzy, frenetic songs (could it have been the early 90s?).  Whatever the case, the combination of Male Bonding and SubPop is a match made in heaven.  Male Bonding provide the label with that energetic noise that defined SubPop so long ago, and in return the label cleans the band’s grubby little punk songs up a bit.  Don’t worry – the production isn’t heavy handed, but just enough to allow the listener to enjoy the rowdy 2-minute romps without having to strain.   And “Nothing Hurts” isn’t all punk clamor all the time.  After bouncing your head around for 24 minutes like a bobblehead, the band provides a nice cool down with the final track “Worse To Come”.

23.  The Books

“The Way Out”

[Temporary Residence; 2010]

Usually with sampled music, there is a disconnect because humanity isn’t evident. We may take delight in the composition of the audio clips and the beats, but the enjoyment doesn’t go much beyond that.  This is not true with “The Way Out”.  On the album, The Books take samples of characters who either connect with the listener or expose their own weaknesses. Whether it be a little boy expressing his violent tendencies, a lonely man leaving a desperate phone message to a woman, or a creepy old man retelling the story of lil Hip-Hop.  Several tracks use the sounds of a man speaking about the self-help program auto-genics, and even though I think they are used for the purpose of humor, I’ve found myself on several listens actually slipping “deeper and deeper” into a meditative state.  And just when you think everything makes sense and that the music is really speaking to you, the band will throw in a joke like “The average human being only uses 5% of their brain. The other 95% is for…food.”  And in an instant, you feel like a fool for having such a deep connection to their tomfoolery.  There’s nothing quite like an album that mocks you, the listener.

22. The Roots

“How I Got Over”

[Def Jam; 2010]

A month ago I wrote of The Roots: “I worried that Jimmy Fallon had ruined The Roots like he’s done over the years to so many SNL skits and movies.  Then I heard their 2010 release ‘How I Got Over’ and it all made sense. By playing nightly within the confines of a show that no one watches, the band was able to continue honing their craft through a medium that also provided them with the chance to meet a variety of artists. These two elements are evident on ‘How I Got Over’, where track after track features another guest appearance to go alongside the bands compelling jams.  The difference with The Roots approach to the collective-style album is that there is never a question whose album this is: the band firmly has its fingerprints deeply pressed into every nook and cranny of ‘How I Got Over’.   When The Monsters of Folk softly sing an opening prayer on ‘Dear God 2.0’, ?uest Love’s pin-point drumming responds like a voice from beyond; when John Legend soulfully croons on ‘The Fire’, Kamal Gray’s constant pulse on the piano is the fuel that keeps the flame burning; when the sample of Joanna Newsom’s ‘The Book of Right On’ appears on ‘Right On’, Black Thought plays the perfect anti-thesis to her distinctive voice,  punctuating his point right on cue.”

21. Vampire Weekend

“Contra”

[XL; 2010]

Earlier this year I wrote of this album: “When I first heard the title for Vampire Weekend’s latest release, ‘Contra’, I prepared myself for disappointment.  An album named after the greatest video game ever? No chance of being good (okay, I’m pretty sure the Columbia graduates were referencing the counterrevolutionary guerrilla group, but stay with me here…). Fortunately, I was wrong.  Not only is ‘Contra’ excellent, but it shares the same attributes that made ‘Contra’ a classic NES video game. What made ‘Contra’ such an essential Nintendo hit was how it moved from the side-scrolling levels that take place in exotic locations to a 3-D first person approach, with Bill Rizer and Lance Bean battling aliens and robots while running up a confined, futuristic hallway, laser barriers and all. The balance between these two environments is what makes the game so memorable and replayable. Vampire Weekend’s “Contra” followed the Konami video game’s formula to a T.  The familiar tropical/classical/ska sound is still there, but amidst the bongos and African inspired melodies the band throws in a more futuristic approach. Every song features technological touches (sampling, drum machine, auto-tuner) but these modern sounds are added in sparingly, providing a refreshing new twist to the jumpy Vampire Weekend sound we grew to love a few years ago. Basically, it’s bringing a soundscape from out of this world to the jungle – the premise to ‘Contra’!”

20. Julian Lynch

“Mare”

[Olde English Spelling Bee; 2010]

In a glowing review from earlier this year I wrote: “Déjà vu is such a strange phenomenon. Is it just a series of circumstances that remind us of a past experience? Or is it a result of daily routines where it’s inevitable that events are bound to repeat themselves?  Or could it truly be that memories are timeless, that they float aimlessly through our mind, seeping in from the past, present, and future, creating a psychic horizon where there is no end or beginning? Whatever the case, Julian Lynch’s ‘Mare’ is auditory déjà vu, bringing you back to memories that never existed.  Something about Julian’s ambient psych-jazz resembles music you’ve heard before (maybe as a child, maybe on the ‘Finding Forester soundtrack’, or maybe in a dream).   The songs on ‘Mare’ exist in some way within our psyche, a collection of vivid arrangements that whisk you from one memory to another, then vanish just as you find yourself nuzzling up to the warm feelings that arise. You would swear that ‘Mare’ is a used record store discovery from the 1970s. At the same time, I think you would be hard pressed to find an artist in the 70s accomplishing what Lynch does with this album, an atmosphere from another place, another time.  At the risk of sounding cliche – it’s otherworldly while still being grounded in everything you know (or knew in another life).”

19. The Walkmen

“Lisbon”

[Fat Possom; 2010]

I don’t get how they do it. Essentially, every Walkmen album is based off the same three elements: a reverberating guitar, lyrics of heartbreak, and Hamilton Leithhauser’s incredible vocals (probably my favorite voice out there today).  Yet with each album, they are able to create something distinctive from other releases, although I can’t quite place how they are different. If you were to shuffle all of their songs, it would be difficult to find any major disparity between the songs. But when the songs are separated by album and placed among their peers, they suddenly become something more. “Bows + Arrows” feels like  a night in New York City, “A Hundred Miles Off” resembles Dylan when he first went electric, “You and Me” hearkens back to the 1950s age of courting, and with “Lisbon” the music somehow transports you to a romanticized Portugal where the sun always shines, even when you’ve just been dumped down in the Chiado.

18. Surfer Blood

“Astrocoast”

[Kanine; 2010]

An excerpt from my Summer Albums list: “Don’t let the youth of Surfer Blood fool you; these kids understand the power held within their six-strings.  The guitars of Thomas Fekete and John Paul Pitts complement each other in the same way I imagine it may sound like if Doug Marsh and Dick Dale joined forces.  The band succeeds at blending the surfer guitar licks of old with distorted riffs reminiscent of Pavement.  Back in March, I’d been listening to ‘Astrocoast’ two weeks leading up to SXSW, but when I actually saw them perform, all thoughts of it simply being a happy rock album were erased.  Watching the guitar work of these Florida youths had me in awe.  At first glance, ‘Astrocoast’ is simply fun, but if you delve deeper there is a darker beast brooding beneath the surface; a creature that craves to devour your pop sensibilities and digest them whole.”

17. Sufjan Stevens

“Age of ADZ”

[Asthmatic Kitty; 2010]

From a review this fall: “The songs on ‘Age of ADZ’ remind me of a lot of the literature of Kurt Vonnegut, a strange declaration, I’m sure.  Vonnegut is often referenced as a ‘science fiction’ author, but this label doesn’t sit well with me.  Yes, Vonnegut often wrote of time travel, aliens, and life on other planets, but it’s not done in the same way a Phillip K. Dick or a Ray Bradbury would approach it.  He isn’t writing of these places and events to entertain nor is he trying to convey them with realism. Instead, he’s using them as a vehicle for conveying a larger message about humanity.  The songs on ‘ADZ’ are done in such an over-the-top space-age motif that it’s difficult to take them serious, which in the end is the point. On surface it’s an album of robot take-over and the arrival of Judgment Day, but any able-minded person knows that Sufjan is talking about the demons within his soul, battling it out, not of UFOs and killer volcanoes.”

16. Laura Veirs

“July Flame”

[Bella Union/Raven Marching Band; 2010]

Some would like you to believe that the best album by a female singer/songwriter in 2010 was by Joanna Newsom, but they’d be wrong.  That honor goes to Laura Veirs and her highly underrated “July Flame”. Veirs could easily depend on her more intimate tracks that showcase her and her guitar executing the songstress routine, but she understands that to keep the listener engaged you have to switch things up, and each song takes her unassuming voice from one northwest terrain to the next. “I Can See Your Tracks” resembles a jaunt through Fleet Foxes territories, “Little Deschutes” takes her depressingly down to the water’s edge, and “Summer is Champion” transports us down memory lane to the days when The Decemberists were still entertaining. And she does takes you through all of these fabulous faunas within one 13 track CD. Beat that Joanna.

15. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti

“Before Today”

[4AD; 2010]

I can still vividly remember the first time I listened to “Before Today”.  I was alone in Iowa City, driving around aimlessly, trying to find the venue where Lightning Bolt was playing that night. Frustration is usually the emotion associated with the sensation of being lost, but instead Ariel Pink’s drugged out mix had me giggling to myself as I passed one strange street after the next. Was this guy for real? It wasn’t just simply a band trying to sound retro, it was a sound completely pulled from the 70s.  Plus, the lyrics were over-the-top and completely self-aware.    Yet, this isn’t a comedy album. In fact, “Before Today” features 12 of the most memorable pop songs you’ll hear in 2010 (or in 1978). Now, I can’t help but imagine Iowa Hawkeye football players Johnson Koulianos and Nate Robinson sharing a joint while listening to Ariel Pink’s “Before Today”.  Oh, the crazy drug-town that is Iowa City, Iowa.

14. Quest For Fire

“Lights From Paradise”

[Tee Pee; 2010]

Quest For Fire is not a stoner rock band, despite what you may have heard. I struggle to believe that pot-heads can even keep up with this epic shoe-gaze-psych-fuzz.  Stick to your simple Pink Floyd because “Lights From Paradise” may cause flashbacks. The opening track is called “The Greatest Hits By God” but the album might as well share this title because these songs will take you to a higher level of understanding of the world that surround us.  The grungy guitars would suggest that this is an angry rock album, but Chad Ross’s calming voice shrouds you with positive energy, all held within the distant distortion. “Lights From Paradise” is tranquil and heavy, all at the same time. If anything, this music makes you feel stoned without any drug intake required (plus, there are no munchies).

13. Kanye West

“My Beautiful Dark Twisted Nightmare”

[Def Jam, Rock-A-Fella; 2010]

I almost feel like I have to try explaining why “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Nightmare” isn’t in my top ten, or in the number one spot for that matter. It seems like every major music list is naming it the top album of 2010 (SPIN, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, etc).  Let me first say that there are some great songs here: “POWER”, “Dark Fantasy”, “All of the Lights”, “Monster”, “So Apalled”, “Runaway”, “Blame Game”, “Lost in the World”. The fact that I just named seven kick-ass songs out of ten should say something about how solid this album is from start to finish. I don’t know how many times I’ve caught myself singing “All of the lights!” while shopping for groceries or “This shit’s ridiculous!” while cleaning my room. At times I get annoyed by how much these songs have rubbed their stamp into my brain like a comic strip on silly putty. There is no denying that Kanye has a gift for memorable choruses and rhymes.  BUT, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Nightmare” is not the earth-shattering album that some have suggested. It’s not the in-depth psycho-analysis of a crazy man. The only thing insane about Kanye is that he’s insanely rich.  And honestly, if you want an album of a man who is lost and depressed, check out Sufjan Steven’s “Age of ADZ”, but then again, it won’t be nearly as fun or memorable as “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Nightmare”.

12. Swans

“My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky”

[Young God; 2010]

At first I was afraid of Swans; I was petrified. I read a few positive reviews of “My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky” and decided to check it out. After listening to two songs I turned it off. I didn’t get it. Why was this band considered to be legendary?  Then a few weeks later, while talking on the phone with fellow BDWPS contributor SongsSuck, he asked if I’d listened to “My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky” yet. After getting off the phone, feeling like a fool, I downloaded the album and sat down to give it a good, honest listen. This time I wasn’t bored with the opening track “No Words/No Thoughts”; it literally pained me to listen to the echoing church bells, the ominous organs, and the black metal crackling of the guitars.  I once again turned off the music; his name is SongsSuck for a reason. Then, only a few weeks ago, as I drove across the desolate plains of Kansas, something came over me. In that moment, that chaos that scared me months earlier seemed oddly intriguing.  I quickly found The Swans on my iPod and commenced listening to what goes down as one of the most captivating hours of music I’ve ever experienced.  Once the shroud of noise dissipates, Swans front man Michael Gira emerges with a pummeling series of doom- sludge-dirges, and then they suddenly come to a stop to allow room for the occasional brooding ballad. I guess SongsSucks may like songs after all.

11. The Tallest Man On Earth

“The Wild Hunt”
[Dead Oceans; 2010]

For Christmas my mom gave me Bob Dylan’s “Bootleg Series Vol. 9”, and I’ve been listening to the two disc collection of early recordings a lot the past few weeks.  I’ve always preferred the bootleg releases of Dylan because they are so raw – the guitars squeak, the tape recorder occasionally slips into a muffled state, Bob’s voice cracks and he even forgets words.  It’s as real as Bob as his music get. The Tallest Man On Earth’s “The Wild Hunt” gives me the same feeling of simplicity.  His grisly voice speaks honestly, out in the open without any back-up singers or basslines to interrupt.   The guitar thumps and crackles as Kristian Matsson nimbly fingerpicks and madly strums from one song to the next.  There is no need to polish what Matsson has on “The Wild Hunt”: 10 great folk songs that will have your full attention from start to finish. But while Bob Dylan wrote propaganda songs about the ills of the world, Matsson simply writes great songs about what’s right.

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Best Album Covers of 2010

 

20. Klaxons

“Surfing the Void”

 

This cover is funny in a "Laser Cat" kind of way, but it is also fitting for Klaxon's spacey dance beats.

 

19. Morning Benders

“Big Echo”

 

 

This summer, I wrote of Morning Bender's "Big Echo" and said, "The cover to 'Big Echo' says it all: a swimmer stands knee-deep in the forefront wearing a full body swimsuit and a swim cap, staring out into the vast expanse before him where other swimmers are already enjoying the ocean’s swell. He seems tentative, yet intrigued, just like the Morning Bender’s sound on this album. Like the flowing of the tide, the music moves fluidly between several genres. As much as I enjoy The Morning Bender’s sandy beach love songs, I always find myself awaiting that next big wave to whisk me back away to the enchanting sea of sound and hope that it won’t return me to the shoreline."

 

18. Of Montreal

“False Priest”

 

This cover brings me back to high school when I'd pass the time in class drawing a strange collection of images on the inside cover of my various notebooks. But nothing I drew ever compared to the intricacies on Of Montreal's 2010 release. Every time I look at it I find something new. Keep looking, and you might just find Waldo.

 

17. Thieves Like Us

“Again and Again”

 

 

On first glance, this may not look like much more than a girl throwing cards into the air, but the longer you look, the more questions arise: What is the silver purse-like item in her hands? Why is she giving it an elbow drop? And why are there nude women on the cards? The arrangement of the text only adds to the mystery.

 

16. Sisters

“Ghost Fits”

 

 

This cover combines my three favorite things: castles, mountains, and needle-point.

15. Mimicking Birds

“S/T”

 

I'm not sure what's going on here, but I absolutely love this cover with its strange pods spawning a creature that is literally mimicking a bird.

 

14. Ben Frost

“By the Throat”

 

 

In terms of a cover matching an album title, I don’t think it gets much better than this. The cover for “For the Throat” also contains one of my favorite album photographs for the year with the combination of snowfall, plows, and a pack of wolves caught in the headlights. Jack London could have written a novel based solely off this cover…

 

13. Erykah Badu

“New Amerykah Part Two: Return Of The Ankh”

It's common in the R&B community for the album cover to feature the artist's face, but leave it to Erykah Badu to take it another direction. Instead of going with a glamour shot, Eyrkah's 2nd album in the "New Amerykah" series features a drawing of a robotic-android-Erykah with a tree sprouting from her head, all within the confines of a mystical flowery world. Suck on that Rhianna.

12. How To Destroy Angels

“EP”

 

While Mark Weaver's artwork for the How To Destroy Angel's first release is pretty spectacular, it also sets the listener up for disappointment upon first listen to Trent Reznor's side-project (God I hope it's a side-project).

 

11. Destroyer

“Archer on the Beach”

 

Only Dan Bejar could make a water fountain look magical to the adult eye.

 

10. Kanye West

“My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”

 

 

While releasing five seperate album covers may seem a bit self-serving, Kanye uses the collection of images to add to the mythology of his "Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy": the lustful indulgence, the frailty of beauty, the faces of insanity, the perils of power, and the rebirth of legends.

9. Active Child

“Curtis Lane”

 

 

This year, many bands used old photographs as their cover (Vampire Weekend, Fang Island, Dum Dum Girls), but no photo caught my interest more than Active Childs "Curtis Lane". It captures the neighborhood found within the album's title and features two of the most creepiest child Halloween masks I've ever seen, which adds even more curiosity about the face that is hidden.

 

8. Black Tusk

“Taste the Sin”

 

 

Baroness guitarist John Dyer Baizley never gets a vacation. The artwork of Baizley continued to thrive in the metal world in 2010 with his latest masterpiece for the Black Tusk.

7.  Grinderman

“Grinderman 2”

A wild beast trapped by decadence - Nick Cave defined.

6. Sufjan Stevens

“Age of ADZ”

His darkest album to date, "Age of ADZ" let Sufjan go a different angle than his traditional Rockwell-ian covers. It also doesn't hurt when your album is based on the life of a famous artist (hence the apocalyptic artwork of Royal Robertson).

5. Strand of Oaks

“Pope Killdragon”

Since seeing this cover months ago I’ve had this simple black and tan image stuck in my head. There is something about it that is so alarming, so tribal, so ghostly, that I can’t seem to shake it (this obviously is a good thing).

4. Surfer Blood

“Astro Coast”

The most surprising aspect of this cover is not the shark mouth found within the checkerboard layout, rather what's going on in the other squares?

3. Method Man, Ghost Face, & Raekwon

“Wu Massacre”

Who wouldn't read this comic book?! Wu Tang is about to raise the motha fuckin' ruckus on the streets of Gotham!

2. Gorillaz

“Plastic Beach”

Gorillaz have always been as much about their artwork as they are about their music, and the cover to “Plastic Beach” continues this tradition, providing a visual cue for the world of the Plastic Beach discussed in the music.

1. Quest For Fire

“S/T”

I think I could stare at this cover for hours at a time; actually,  I have. This oil painting of what looks to be a melting, flower-based owl is truly a work of art. The epic, psych-jam-band mentality of Quest For Fire’s music only fuels the flames of exploration within this piece.  Skip the salvia, the mushrooms, and the LCD – just stare at this cover for an afternoon while listening to Quest For Fire; it will be the best trip you’ve ever had.

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