On this “on-the-road” edition of BDWPS you’ll hear new tracks from Surfer Blood, Majical Clouds, The National, and Action Bronson. Also, songs by Two Gallants, Sunny Day Real Estate, and Bob Dylan are discussed.
Surfer Blood “Demon Dance” Majical Cloudz “Silver Rings” The National “Fireproof” Eleanor Friedberger “Stare At the Sun” Two Gallants “Seems Like Home To Me” Action Bronson “No Time” Sunny Day Real Estate “8” Jeff Tweedy “Simple Twist of Fate”
Check it out below (or subscribe at iTunes, keyword- BDWPS):
You are about to read through what I deem the top 60 tracks of 2011. Yes, 60. For some reason, lists need to fit within the confines of the top 100, top 50, top 40, Top 20, or Top 10. Any other number seems arbitrary. I had the same uncertainty with the number 60. When I first assembled my list it consisted of 87 songs. I had a decision to make: force 13 more songs onto the list and create another monolith like I did last year (it was a lot of work by the way), or attempt to whittle the list down to 50. I went with the latter, but when finished, I found I still had 67 songs. I struggled and struggled and eventually had it to the number we have now: 60. At this point, I couldn’t remove one more song. None of these songs could be tossed aside, each holding a special meaning, memory, or melody that helped me through another year.
Well, it happened. Arcade Fire “Suburbs”: album of the year. Wow. Who would have thought?
And despite giving the Grammys a thrashing last week, I watched the last bit of the ceremonies, and my alibi is that I was waiting to see Arcade Fire’s performance. But I have to admit there was some curiosity as to if Arcade Fire could pull it off. And they did. And I cheered like the Spurs had just won the NBA Championship. I’m not sure exactly why. As discussed in my last blog, Grammys are a joke, yet it was exciting to see a band I’ve loved for years actually get recognized. Maybe this is a sign, or maybe it was just a one year fluke (probably the latter), but I enjoyed it nonetheless.
My favorite part is that instead of giving a lengthy, self-congratulatory speech, the band simply wanted to play another song:
The otherwise torturous Grammys were made much more tolerable thanks to Tweets by fellow artists that came up throughout the night. Here are some of their reactions:
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
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
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
[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
[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
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
[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
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”.
“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.
On face value, this is just another punk rock song, but if you listen a little longer you’ll hear exactly what makes Eddy Current Suppression Ring different than others within the genre. While most bands would wrap this song up at the two minute mark, ECSR have just begun. The next four and a half minutes of “Tuning Out” Eddy Current takes front stage, manipulating his Stratocaster to its limit, making a gluttonous amount of squeaks and howls, showing exactly why this is his band.
24. “Crank Resolutions”
Back in Septemeber, I wrote of Meursault and this song: “While most bands are forced to rely on a more polished production value to push the sense of urgency to a higher level, Meursault rely solely on a strange mixture of popping beats and crunching piano riffs that are reminiscent of a CB radio broadcast. ‘Crank Resolutions’ features a beat that is beyond description (which is a good thing).”
23. “Don’t Look Back”
Usually, Kylesa are pretty damn scary, but on “Don’t Look Back” they sound strangely inspirational. Tony Robbins better watch his back (on second thought Tony, heed Kylesa’s advice and don’t look back).
22. “Like the Ocean, Like the Innocent Pt. 2: Innocent”
I saw Besnard Lakes perform this song at SXSW this past year, and since then, I haven’t been able to remove the soothing chorus of “Ooh, you’re like the ocean” out of my head. You can put your ear up to my cranium like it’s a seashell and hear the sounds of “Like the Ocean” softly echoing inside.
21. “Hey Cool Kid”
“Hey Cool Kid” is a story of an outsider, realizing that his idol is nothing but an asshole who will “beat me back into the ground”. Despite this, his insecurity pushes him to still keep asking for the cool kid “to come around”.
20. “Suburban War”
When I first heard this song I liked it because the guitar lick reminded me of The Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter”. Then of course I made the mistake of listening to the lyrics, and this once upbeat song spawned sorrow for those friends I’ve lost in their pursuit of adulthood:
My old friends
I can remember when
You cut your hair
We never saw you again
Now the cities we live in
Could be distant stars
And I search for you
In every passing car
19. “Sleepless in Silver Lake”
Les Savy Fav
As far as I’m concerned, there are way too many songs about Los Angeles. Where are the songs about Bozeman, Montana for Christ’s sake!? Despite the saturation of “I Love L.A.”s and “Under the Bridge”s, Les Savy Fav present a fresh take on the City of Angels with “Sleepless in Silver Lake”:
The walking wounded wrap their face in gauze.These kids’ll kill ya just because they can. Their teeth are bleached and their tits are tan.
18. “Black Bubblegum”
I’m 86% sure that this song is about Sherry Becker who chewed Black Jack bubblegum, wore an orange dress, and witnessed Jerry Seinfeld returning Tropic of Cancer to the library in 1972 (or was it Dentyne?).
17. “The Tree”
Blitzen Trapper (featuring Alela Diane)
Another highlight of 2010 for me was my last minute trip to Portland with my brother. The two of us rented a little Vibe and drove around the area, hiking whatever peaks we could fit in within our three-day stay. While hiking along the Cascade Ridge, we came upon 300-year-old Sitka trees – an army of menacing patriarchs, standing judicious and strong, looking down upon all that pass by. Whenever I listen to the 2010 release from Portland’s own Blitzen Trapper I can’t help but think back to that trip, more specifically this song with its lyrics of a tree that “grows never-ending”. Upon each listen, I’m brought back to that day, standing with my brother and looking up at the majestic beasts that surrounded us. The addition of Portland’s first lady Alela Diane to the song only sweetens the song’s enchantment.
16. “Take It Easy”
Starts off with a tropical feel, moves into an early 90s alternative chorus, and ends with an 80s U2 outro: this is what we call a song quilt.
15. “The Boys are Out”
Whenever I play this song I feel guilty. I bought the Hanoi Janes latest release, and after listening to it all the way through a couple times, I found myself continually going back to this song (ignoring the rest). There is just something about the little freak out that arrives at the 30 second mark- maybe it’s the drumstick cracks, or it could possibly the call-and-response guitars that reverberate from one speaker to the other- whatever it is, “The Boys are Out” is the most fun you’ll have in under a minute thirty.
14. “The Winner”
“Twistable, Turnable Man” was an album of Shel Silverstien covers that came out this past year, and despite an impressive list of bands featured on it (My Morning Jacket, Andrew Bird, Lucinda Williams) the best cover is performed by old reliable, Kris Kristofferson. His raspy baritone naturally works with Silverstein’s narrative songwriting. When I listen to this song, I imagine the narrator is LeBron James and Tiger Man the Cool is Michael Jordan. It just seems fitting after finding out this past summer that James doesn’t understand what it takes to be a winner.
13. “My Gap Feels Weird”
I would prefer if this song were about having a pain in your taint, but it ends up ol’ Mack wrote it about going to a show and realizing you’re the oldest one there. I hate to admit that I can relate. At least I can take comfort in knowing old folks are always welcome at a Superchunk show.
12. “Night, Night”
Big Boi (featuring B.o.B. and Joi)
“Night, Night” is one of the finest rap call-outs you’ll ever hear, not pointing out one specific MC, rather annihilating all the fools that can’t hold themselves up to Big Boi’s standard. To back up his flow built on intelligence rather than empty threats, Big Boi blends a funky bass with a spunky female choir that is completely devoid of auto-tune. It truly is “something new.”
11. “Marimba and Shit Drums”
Earlier this year, I wrote of this song/album: “There is only one 20-minute song on Moonface’s EP “Dreamland” and it is called “marimba and shit-drums”. The title is straight to the point because, in fact, the song is comprised of just that: a marimba and shit-drums. Of course, you also hear Spencer Krug’s voice, but otherwise it is simply a marimba and shit-drums; nothing more, nothing less. The constant pulse of the marimba gives the song imminence; a feeling that the echo of the wooden bars being struck by a mallet is building towards something, racing toward a culmination. Then, of course, the shit-drums kick in and it’s on. The crackling of the harsh rhythm plays as the perfect antithesis to the happy-go-lucky marimba. Krug has taken the joyful sounds of the African instrument and somehow given it tension, made it angrier, made it sound more, dare I say, hardcore. With only two simple instruments Krug creates music that is just as dramatic and heartfelt as anything by Explosions in the Sky. Creating explosions with only two instruments? In essence, Krug is the MacGyver of the music world.”
When Dean Spunt sings “I want you bad underneath my skin”, he’s encapsulating addiction. It could be a dependence to drugs, alcohol, food, sex, or maybe even an abusive relationship; whatever it is, the speaker knows it will cause harm yet craves it. For me, the addiction is to the screeching distortion that lurks in the background of this song. To many, I’m sure this sounds like simply noise, but I keep coming back. Not because I enjoy pain, but because I’ve found beauty within that dissonance. I can’t get enough of that needling noise underneath my skin.
9. “Dance Yrself Clean”
I present to you an auditory cleansing. The first three minutes will help you relax, help raise your spirits. And then, well, then it’s time. James Murphy’s pumping beats and throbbing bass line burst through the speakers and spray you with an energy you didn’t have moments ago. Suddenly, without warning, you’re on your feet moving; washing away your worries; shaking away your negative energy; dancing yourself clean.
8. “Desire Lines”
If you asked me a year ago to name the top ten songs of the past decade, Deerhunter’s “Nothing Ever Happened” would have easily made the list. Its fluid movements from one riff to the next continues to leave me in awe. I didn’t think the band could ever top the song. Then along comes “Haclyon Digest” with the song “Desire Lines”, and I’m thrown for a loop. Not only does this song follow the same transformational model (three minutes in the madness is unleashed), but it also features an even catchier chorus to start things off. “Nothing Ever Happened” probably remains the quintessential Deerhunter song for me, but they are sure making things difficult.
7. “Post Acid”
Only a year ago, everyone hated Nathan Williams for his meltdown in Barcelona, even his drummer. But now it’s officially time to exonerate him of his past mistakes. Not only are his songs more instantaneously satisfying, but he’s also apologizing in “Post Acid” when he sings “I was just having fun with you.” Ah shucks Nathan; we forgive you.
6. “Wide Eyes”
The harmonizing voices, the machine gun drums, the twinkling guitar riffs: “Wide Eyes” is an example of a band finding their true potential. While much of “Gorilla Manor” is milk-toast mediocrity, this song proves that when all the pieces are put in the right place, Local Natives are capable of making extraordinary music.
5. “Round and Round”
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti
All of the parts of “Round and Round” work together like a merry-go-round of melody, moving round and round, up and down, creating an experience that will have you begging for another ride through simpler times.
4. “Snakes for the Divine”
High On Fire
The metal anthem is not dead, despite what sports arenas around the country would suggest. They’d like you to believe that fist pumping and head banging died with AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, and Metallica. Wrong. Imagine if you will, your favorite sports team running onto the court/field/ice as the opening to “Snakes for the Divine” rumbles through the stadium, building a frothing mass of furious, energized fans, filled with bloodlust for a win, shaking, twitching, standing on the verge of a completely chaotic riot…. actually, it’s probably a good idea to keep High On Fire out of the stadiums (especially Detroit).
Kanye West (featuring Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Nikki Manaj, and Bon Iver)
When Kanye West sang his song “Runaway” at the VMA’s, most thought it was an admission of guilt to Taylor Swift. Not so fast my friend. Soon after “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” came out and all thoughts of apologies disappeared. On “Monster” Kanye erases any suggestions of humility or guilt When he spouts, “I’m living in the future so my presence is my past. My presence is a present kiss my ass.” This is the musical version of Hulk Hogan joining the NWO; Kanye takes pride in his villainous portrayal. The scariest part of “Monster” is not the flows of Rick Ross, Kanye, Jay-Z, or even the soothing vocals of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. That honor goes to Nicki Minaj’s venomous verse that electrifies and brings this monster of a song to life.
2. “A Cold Freezin’ Night”
Set to what resembles the theme music to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, “A Cold Freezin’ Night” features samples of a little boy ranting about how he will kill you with a rifle, a shotgun, and cut your toes off. In response, a little girl admits that boys are better than girls, even going so far as to wish she was a boy. And somehow, all these chauvinist, psychotic threats are joyful due simply to a great dance beat (and a short harmonica solo never hurts). If only it was this easy to make little kids tolerable in real life.
Earlier this year I bought a record player and soon after found myself with a vinyl obsession. Most of my records were used purchases, but I also dabbled in buying the vinyl of new releases. With many labels including a free download code with a purchase, it just seems to make more sense to get the larger than life packaging/artwork. One of my earliest purchases was Ty Segall’s “Melted”, and it quickly became a mainstay on my turntable. Every time I listened to the album, I would get up and push the arm back to the beginning of “Caesar” to hear it one, two, maybe even three times in a row. A month ago as I was compiling this list I put “Melted” on again only to find that during “Caesar” my record now skips. While the loss of this song saddened me to no end, the scratch also symbolized my undying affection for this pop-punk gem. Fortunately for you, you can listen to the clip above as many times as you like without fear of a scratch (but you won’t get the full effect without it crackling out of a record player).
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
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
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.
This cover combines my three favorite things: castles, mountains, and needle-point.
15. Mimicking Birds
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
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).
“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
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.
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
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
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
Who wouldn't read this comic book?! Wu Tang is about to raise the motha fuckin' ruckus on the streets of Gotham!
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
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.
The Soft Pack’s music is a lot like the infamous tight-roper Phillipe Pettit: it teeters between the ram shackled reverb of the garage and the slick, streetwise attitude of the West Coast, yet they somehow balance their alter-egos with ease. Never has garage rock sounded so smooth. Their 2010 self-titled release rolls out before you without hesitation, one song after another picking up where the prior left off, continuing this Army-brat band’s direct assault of surfer guitar solos and matter-of-fact vocals. There isn’t one song that stands out as the “hit”, yet there isn’t a song you can bring yourself to skip past. Like Pettit, who conquered city skyscrapers one step after another, Soft Pack methodically satisfy, one great song at a time.
This video for “Answer to Yourself” reminds me of all the dumb stunts my friends and I used to pull while working at the swimming pool:
9. Kings go Forth“The Outsiders are Back”[Luaka Bop Records]
Have you ever wondered what Sly and the Family Stone would sound like with bongos? What about a James Brown with a higher register and a jazzier backing band? Enough with the rhetorical questions; I’ll get right to the point: Kings Go Forth may be a call-back to classic 70s funk, but as their name suggests, the sound goes forth, diverging in new directions while still yielding that retro-vibe of the soul kings that came before. Singer Black Wolf gives the album that classic 70s vocal display while the production of Andy Noble provides a modern edge. Summers of the past have been labeled a variety of “explosions” (ska, latin, british), and this year looks to be the explosion of soul.
Overall, a pretty lame video for the song “One Day”, although the cut scenes of records being made is like watching “How It’s Made”:
8. Free Energy“Stuck On Nothing”[Astralwerks/DFA]
I’m embarrassed that I like this album. The cover to “Stuck On Nothing” is hokey and easily a contender for our year end “Worst Album Cover” list. The production is polished and conventional. The music is nothing new: joyous melodies reminiscent of Thin Lizzy (this is the first time I’ve mentioned Thin Lizzy in an album review without bringing up the two-guitar-lead; kudos to me!). But despite all these setbacks, I can’t lie to myself; there are some great fucking songs here. In fact, “Stuck On Nothing” has the potential of being one of those albums where 80% of the songs end up becoming Top 40 Hits. But I doubt it will happen. You won’t see any Disney shows called “Free Energy” nor will you witness the band flipping off the New York Mets for publicity. They are simply a rock band from Philadelphia who happen to write kick-ass melodies. Remember the days when that’s all it took to make it big in music?
The downfall of the MTV that actually played music? High School themed music videos:
7. Woods“At Echo Lake”[Woodsist]
I understand this list is flawed. Summer music isn’t simply restricted to albums released within that year. It goes without saying that each July a moment will arise where I’ll dig up some old Neil Young for those long drives back to Iowa. I guess my goal here is to introduce some new music that you can check out this summer or possibly pull out in future years when in need of some cheer. But if you need a replacement for that “Tonight is the Night” album that you’ve played to death, the Wood’s “At Echo Lake” might be that modern Neil Young stand-in. I know, I know, that’s a huge statement and I wouldn’t dare to suggest that Woods are even in the stratosphere of Sir Neil Young, but you’ve got to give these kids credit. With innocent, falsetto vocals, and natural, weeping guitar solos, this lo-fi outfit seems to be on the right path toward someday being able to sing, “Neil Young take a look at my life I’m a lot like you.”
The ultimate sign of a cool band? Not having one music video on YouTube:
6. Tanlines“Settings”[True Panther]
I used to love getting tanlines when I was a kid. There is just something so strange about that distinct line that forms between the sun burnt red skin, the bronzed tan, and the pasty white flesh, resulting in the appearance of a human neapolitan. “Settings”, the six song EP from Tanlines, follows that same neapolitan form with several distinct auras bouncing off each other but never crossing that line toward unity. While the album relies heavily on the tribal rhythms of the djembe and steel drum, a pounding dance bass line throbs throughout each song as well, springing off of the more natural, earthy tones. The final layer of 80s pop sensibility will be burned into your memory way before you apply to sun block.
Seattle’s KEXP undoubtedly does the best job of in studio performances:
5. Morning Benders“Big Echo”[Rough Trade]
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. It begins planted in the simple, serene 1950s-style confines of the shore, and then before you know it, you are caught up in the gushing experimental expanse of the ocean, taking the listener off into uncharted territory. Their more mainstream side leans towards a laid back Phoenix, while the experimental splashes remind me of the Ruby Sun’s 2008 offering “Sea Lion”. As much as I enjoy The Morning Bender’s sandy beach love songs, I always find myself awaiting that next big wave of sound to whisk me back away to the enchanting sea of sound and hope that it won’t return me to the shoreline.
Who needs a video for “Excuses” when you’ve got an album cover like this:
4. Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings“I Learned the Hard Way”[Daptone]
A few years ago while visiting my friend Sewer in Lake Havasu, Arizona, we spent our afternoons lounging in the swimming pool, drinking margaritas, and listening to Hepcat, the SoCal ska band that we saw perform while still in high school. In our drunken reverie we’d sing along to the sweet melodies and dance amid the lukewarm water as the blaring horn section blew out their minds. Why am I bringing this up? No, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings aren’t a ska group, and my friend and I have never sang along to their music. The reason I bring up this up is because every time I listen to Sharon Jone’s latest release “I Learned the Hard Way” I can’t help but be brought back to my memories of Hepcat over the years. There isn’t even a hint of ska in Sharon Jones sound, in fact her sound is straight up funk/soul of the 60s and 70s. I guess the connection is due simply to the combination of upbeat harmonies set next to a jovial horn section. Then again, I don’t remember Hepcat ever having such a soulful, passionate voice or writing such fiery love songs.
Sharon Jones is a musical Jackie Brown:
3. Surfer Blood“Astrocoast”[Kanine]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.
I like how in this performance of “Take It Easy” half of the band is filmed on surveillance camera in what resembles a panic room:
2. The Amazing“s/t”[Subliminal Sounds]
It’s that time of year again when a company airs a commercial laced with happy summer imagery, all set to the music of the late great folk hero Nick Drake. This season’s offering is an AT&T commercial set to Drake’s “From the Morning”, because really, what says “better coverage” than Nick Drake? But I get what they are going for: Nick Drake’s soft serenades fit perfectly with the calming spirit of the summer, which leads me to the Swedish side-project The Amazing (two members of The Amazing are from Dungen). On this project, Gustav Ejstes moves away from the psychedelic and focuses in on the same warm approach that Nick Drake mastered decades ago; it is pulled off brilliantly on the self-titled LP. Every song swells with emotion, all bottled up in Ejstes soft, tranquil voice, warbling on command, guided by the docile strumming of acoustic guitars. The fact that this album actually came out in December of 2009 may make this entire 2010 list a bust, but the idea of this warm album not getting the chance to see the sunlight is a thought that sends shivers down my spine.
The only thing missing from this video are images of people talking on their AT&T phones:
1. Fang Island“s/t”[Sargent House]The opening track to Fang Island’s self-titled album features the sound of fireworks popping, reminding me of when my dad used to take us out on the 4th of July in his fishing boat to watch the display over Spirit Lake. “Dream of Dreams” multi-layered, Queen-like chant brings me back to the year “Wayne’s World” came out and how whenever the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” came on the radio my brothers and I felt compelled to re-enact the famous car scene. “Davey Crockett” has a swirling synth/guitar line that conjures up memories of watching “Reading Rainbow” with my brother Alex and laughing our asses off at the strange synth outro, and then commencing to imitate it the remainder of the day. “Careful Crossers” punk rock anthem reminds me of the summers my friends and I would make trips up to Sioux Falls, South Dakota to see punk bands sweat it out at the now closed Pomp Room. “Daisy” and its organ heavy backing track transports me to the summer I worked the late shift at a gas station and listened to Bob Dylan’s organ-heavy “Blonde On Blonde” while selling cigarettes to meth addicts. “The Illinois” is filled with guitar solos that almost seem stolen straight from classic video games, pulling my conciousness back to the days when, after a long day at the swimming pool, my friends and I would ride our bikes to the video store to rent the latest Nintendo game. Simply put: Fang Island makes me feel like a kid again. And isn’t that what summer is all about?
You may want to be annoyed by this video for “Daisy” and it’s cast of characters, but by the song’s end, I dare you to not enjoy their antics within the confined space: