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You say Arena; I say Urina.

A few weeks ago, due to a series of mistakes by both Delta Airlines and myself, I found myself sitting in first class, sipping on a complementary vodka Red Bull, listening to The Walkmen’s “Lisbon” and stretching my lanky legs to their limit without fear of kicking or bumping a nearby passenger.  For the first time ever, I was enjoying a cross-country flight.  As I motioned the waitress for my 4th complementary drink, I thought to myself, “I’ll never be able to sit in coach again.”

Of course, I will; for the rest of my life as a matter of fact due to my lack of funds. But just like other facets in my life, the finer things have tainted my opinion of the commonplace.  Why eat a Pink Lady when you can have a Honey Crisp? Why drink a Bud Light when you can have a Dale’s Pale Ale? Why feast on a corn-fed flank steak when you can have a grain-fed t-bone? I refuse to sit in the upper deck at Spurs games after my unforgettable experiences in the lower deck, including the time I sat behind the team’s bench and witnessed David Robinson’s final game (oh, and did I mention they won their second championship that night?).  Not only do I prefer the up close and personal experience over viewing the game from 100 feet away, but the people down below seem more passionate, and dare I say, more knowledgeable of the game.

I’m the same way when it comes to live musical performances, although it’s actually much cheaper to see a band up close in an intimate venue rather than the sterile arena setting.  On average, people pay much more to sit in uncomfortable plastic seats located far, far away from performers  than they’d ever have to dish out at a local venue.

I hold this same sentiment toward outdoor music festivals. Last weekend the annual Austin City Limits Music Festival took place, and like every other year, people who know me as a lover of live music always ask me if I’m going. Back in 2004 I attended the festival, and I haven’t been back since. The experience wasn’t all bad; I did get so see artists like Cat Power, Broken Social Scene, and The Pixies, but I just can’t find enjoyment in the disconnect felt between the artist and the audience.  The bands perform miles away on a double barricaded, bouncer infested monstrosity of a stage.  Frank Black and the rest of The Pixies actually resembled pixies from my vantage point.

I'm pretty sure Kim Deal sat out and let Tinkerbell play the set.

The mixture of people milling around ACL didn’t make the experience much better – a mish-mash of hippies, yuppies, and families with babies in tow (it’s never too early to introduce your child to pot smoke and loud music!).  I have friends who find ACL to be a yearly highlight, but it’s just not my thing.  I’d rather see bands up close in venues with character, surrounded by like-minded patrons who are there for the music and not just an excuse to break out their tie-dye shirt.  If a Sam’s Club style bulk performance weekend is the reason you enjoy festivals like ACL, the South By Southwest Music Festival offers more bands (over 2000 in fact) and the majority of the performances take place in the cozy bars that line 6th Street.

You can go to this:

Or go to this:

In the smaller venue, the “arena detachment syndrome” disappears, and memories are made: Man Man giving the audiences instruments during the set, Les Savy Fav’s Tim Harrington nuzzling both me and my friend’s beards mid-set,  The Very Best inviting the entire crowd onto the stage, Death From Above 1979’s Sebastian Grainger jumping off his drum set and bull rushing the crowd with microphone in hand. This is what live performance is all about. While arena shows have their pre-planned skits, laser lights, movie screens, and choreography, the primal unpredictability of rock and roll still breathes in the smoky bars across this country.

If Lady GaGa really wants to be unpredictable she can take a cue from Tim Harrington and accost her "lil monsters" on stage.

The last real “arena” show I attended was Pearl Jam way back in 2003 at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater (just a hint: if you are seeing a show at a venue that is named after a corporate entity, the show will invariably stink).  Sleater Kinney opened for Pearl Jam, and they sounded great from row 83.  And that’s about all I can say: they sounded good. I wasn’t overtaken by the music, nor did I feel a connection with the ladies giving it their all on the enormous, barren stage.  There was such a wide fissure between the band and I that mid-way through the set I got up to grab some nachos and take a pee.  It’s not like I was missing much – I could always listen to their CD when I got home.

Fast forward two years: my friend PtheStudP and I were standing five feet away from the ladies of Sleater Kinney, doused in sweat and battling with the sea of lesbians that pogo-ed around us.  Sleater Kinney were tearing it up, sending the audience into a frenzy, all yearning in unison for more and more of Carrie Brownstein’s devisive guitar angst and Corin Tucker’s haunting howl that reverberated throughout the legendary SoKol Underground in Omaha, Nebraska.

After six songs, my friend informed me that he had to go to the restroom, an issue I had been dealing with myself.  Unlike my easy submission to nachos at the Pearl Jam show, I wouldn’t give in this time. We would tough it out. Two songs later, on the verge of peeing my pants, a decision had to be made. And here in lies the difference between an arena show and a small venue: at the Pearl Jam show I urinated in a urinal as the show went on; at the SoKol Underground my friend and I both pissed into beer bottles that soon after found themselves on the cement floor.  I can guarantee you’ll never see that level of commitment at an arena show.

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SXSW 2010

South By Southwest 2010 turned out to be one of the strangest yet in my seven years of attending the music festival.  There were some disappointments (both GZA and The Title Tracks were no shows), some major changes (Todd P and his legendary day shows decided to pack up and head to Mexico), and there was, at least in my perspective, an unexpected Canadian take-over of Austin (it will make sense later).  We also began our first real promotion for BDWPS.com, plastering homemade stickers all over the city of Austin.  I even handed out a few business cards, which is just plain silly when you think about it.

Bob Dylan looking over a stranger’s shoulder at the Liar’s show.

But one thing that had the biggest impact on our experience this year was the absence of my long-time SXSW comrade SongsSuck (as he would like to be referred to now).  He did make the trip to Austin but was gone by 6 a.m. on Thursday, opting to forego the remainder of the festival in order to fulfill what he refered to as “a life-time dream” by watching a kid he coached in high school compete at the College Wrestling Nationals (I think he should change his name from “SongsSuck” to “LittleBoysInSingletsRule”). Nonetheless, Johnny Good Year and I still had another great week at SXSW, despite all the changes taking place.

Best Band DiscoveredPivot

One of the best parts of SXSW is coming home with a list of new bands I need to check out.  Unfortunately, this year I didn’t have many of those “Holy crap, this band is amazing!” moments. This is probably due to SongsSucks not being around, the ying to my yang when it comes to going to shows.  60% of the shows he takes us to are hardly tolerable, but those other 40% have the potential to give a jolt to your musical senses.  Without SongsSuck, we went primarily to shows with bands I wanted to see.  This worked out great because I enjoyed almost everything we attended, yet that discovery element was almost nonexistent.

One of the few moments of the week where I found myself mesmerized by an unfamiliar band occurred at The Phoenix.  Johnny Good Year and myself were at the swanky bar to check out the Born Ruffians and caught the last few songs in Pivot’s set. They are a psychedelic/electronic outfit from the UK who approach dance music from an epic stand-point.  Although I don’t have a clip of them playing, I did find a video of the song that first caught my attention, “O Soundtrack My Heart”.

Worst Venue- The Phoenix

Although both Pivot and the Born Ruffians put on excellent sets, the setting for the show left a bad taste in my mouth. On first impression, The Phoenix overwhelmed me with a dramatic decor of velvet walls, elegant chandeliers, and wall sized paintings of Victorian imagery that seemed to be moving like the haunted painting in “Ghost Busters II”.

Vigo? Are you in there?

I thought the environment of the bar was cool, like something out of “Interview With a Vampire” (back when vampires were still cool).  After Pivot finished up, Johnny went to buy drinks and returned to tell me that it cost him 18 dollars for two drinks. SXSW beer prices are usually hiked up, but this was ridiculous. Then we noticed on the table in front of us there laid a silver bucket and a note that read: Do not sit here unless you paid for a bottle to be brought to your table.  “This must be one of those uppity bars on most nights,” I commented to Johnny, thinking that the bottle deal didn’t apply during SXSW since the room was jam-packed with sweaty, hairy, music fans rather than the high-class clientele I imagined usually enjoyed the velvet womb. When Johnny left to hit the restroom, a waitress approached me with a large group and informed me that they paid to sit on this couch.  I guess I was wrong. These people were douches year round, regardless of SXSW.

Despite my irked mood, Born Ruffians still put on a great set, including the following clip I filmed of a new song that will be on their upcoming album (you can see the glow of the blue chandelier on singer Luke LaLonde’s face):

Best Venue- Lovejoy’s

You would think after seven years of attending SXSW and six years of living an hour away from Austin that there wouldn’t be any venues left that I haven’t set foot in, yet every year, I find myself entering strange new environs.  This year I made my first stop at The Phoenix, The Long Branch Inn, and the Trailer Space Record Store.

My favorite venue of the week though was actually one I’d been to before. Lovejoy’s, a hole in the wall bar located on a side street right off 6th Street, is both a brewery and a brewhaus featuring a couple dozen beers on tap.  In the past the little watering hole seemed quaint and unassuming with its walls covered in beautiful murals and intricate artwork spreading across the rotting ceiling tiles and beams.

What made the brewery stand out so much this year was the fact that each day they held a day party, each serving free beer. Oh sure, tons of day parties offer free beer and liquor but not of the quality of Lovejoy’s! Whether it be Flying Dog’s “Raging Bitch” or Ska Brewing’s “Mopus Hoperandi”, Lovejoy’s opted to serve free cups of hoppy goodness all week. These beers, packed with flavor, were a huge step up from the Miller High Life and Lonestar of most day shin-digs. We visited Lovejoy’s so much during the week that by Saturday’s DC Show, the bartenders were handing us fresh glasses of free Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA before our cups were even empty. Free Dogfish Head? Yes, a free glass of beer made with Sam Calgione’s love and filled with joy.

Lovejoy's: an unofficial sponsor of BDWPS.com!

Best Day Party- Rachael Ray’s Feedback Festival

If you’re not an avid reader of BDWPS.com, then you might not know my love of Rachael Ray and her recipes (I’m probably the only straight male in his 30s who subscribes to her magazine). For the past several years, Rachael has hosted a day show at SXSW, featuring free drinks (mojitos, margaritas, etc), free gourmet appetizers, and an array of great bands (the fact that she had Holy Fuck at her 2008 show proves Rachael is no prude). Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to get into one of her shows. In the early years she had an RSVP. Last year would be her first show open to the public, but the line wrapped around Maggie Mae’s way before the party’s noon start time. This year I went so far as to email Rachael’s talk show, thinking I could be one of those people who wins a prize, in this case a backstage pass, and then screams into the phone over tears for 10 minutes. Of course, those tears never got the chance to shine.

What did happen was a cold spell hitting Austin late Friday night. The frigid temperature and the unforgiving wind both caused problems for any day party set outdoors on Saturday. This included Rachael’s party that took place at Stubb’s BBQ. By the time Johnny and I stumbled by the party, there was no line and still tables stacked with mounds of classy hor dourves. Soon the two of us were stuffing our gullets while She & Him performed on stage. Our menu consisted of Tex-Mex sliders, pulled pork tortillas, quesadilla suiza stacks, and albondigas subs along with a couple strawberry margaritas that were heavily spiked for good measure. After a week of eating cold cut sandwiches in a parking garage and inhaling late night slices of pizzas, Rachael’s fine dining hit the spot.

Worst Band- Voivod

On SongsSuck’s only day of SXSW festivities, he wanted to see the classic Canadian speed-metal group Voivod at the Austin Music Hall. Since he didn’t have a wristband, SongsSuck dished out $15 dollars to see the band, a sign to me that the aging rockers would put on a top-notch show. Boy was I wrong. The decrepit cast of characters moved about the stage slowly and stumbled their way through the music like a band of zombie gypsies. After the first song, SongsSuck turned to me in disgust. “Sorry dude…these guys used to be metal giants.” Now they are simply Metal geriatrics.

I tried to shake the camera to make it look like they were lively.

Best Band- Lullabye Arkestra

I’ve had Lullabye Arkestra’s 2009 album “Threats/Worship” for five months now, and overall, I’m a big fan of the married couple’s approach to hardcore. As much as I enjoy their music, I always felt that the Canadian duo’s album was a bit tongue in cheek. With Justin Small’s main musical project Do Make Say Think, I saw Lullabye Arkestra just being something he did as a favor to his bass-toting wife. Their performance on Friday at the Red7 would prove the sexist in me wrong.  Small, a guitar player for his other band, tore his way through one raucous song after another on his lit up drum kit while Kat Taylor’s fingers plucked up and down the neck of her bass spastically.  Like a modern-day Death From Above (think Canada), the two love birds showed that being married doesn’t mean you have to be boring.

Although the sound quality stinks on this one, you get just a glimpse of their raw power:

Worst Crowd Interaction Moment- Japandroids

Once again my bald head made Pitchfork's SXSW coverage (can you spot me?). This is during "Young Hearts Spark Fire" when the audience still cared.

Another Canadian duo to swoop onto the indie rock musical scene last year were the Japandroids.  I saw them this summer at a small bar in Boise, Idaho with a crowd of a dozen people, so I looked forward to catching them at Emo’s during a day show on Friday with what would be a crammed house.  At first I stood back, watching their performance, but quickly the music took over and I made my way for the heart of the crowd – I needed to dance.  Once out amongst the throng of on-lookers I joined in on the fist pumping and po-going through the band’s biggest hit from last year, “Young Hearts Spark Fire”. When the song came to a close, the crowd settled down faster than an anchor.  Despite my efforts to keep the energy up, all the young hipsters looked at the crazy bald man, me,  with annoyance. I felt a bit like Pierce on “Community”.  Despite my eagerness to enjoy an energetic punk rock show, I still felt these kids had some learning to do. Heck, even the 12 Boise natives at the show this summer could produce a better pit than this sad, slew of Twittering introverts.

With the crowd so dead, it was easy to film a steady shot of their show, although the beers seemed to be trying to keep my bouncy cam alive (take note of how their drummer looks like Hedo Turkoglu):

Best Interaction- The Very Best

When we arrived to the Beauty Bar for The Very Best’s closing show of the night, I could tell something crazy was going to happen. It was packed. I don’t know if a show has been that overcapacitated since the last Great White show.   We could barely manuever through the throng of people as Shout Out Out Out Out finished their set.  Johnny couldn’t hack the sardine like surroundings and chose to leave, while I decided to stick it out to see the band perform. I use the word “band” loosely, knowing that The Very Best consist of a couple DJs and Esau Mwamwaya singing his African inspired melodies.

The stage set-up consisted of a table with a DJ kit, and two inflatable palm trees. A DJ came out and basically pushed play, making the performance as close to karaoke as it gets. Yet, somehow, when Esau Mwamwaya came out onto the stage with a pair of African dancers, all negative thoughts subsided and soon I joined in with the other 100 white people in the room, dancing to the tribal music.  Near the end of the set, the guest rapper (I never caught his name) asked a girl up front onto the stage. Bad idea. Soon the entire audience poured onto the performance area like they had just beaten Kansas in the NCAA tournament. By the song’s end the crowd surfing palm trees were deflating fast  and the performers were forced to climb the speakers in order to escape the bedlam.

His climb above the crowd reminded me of Bilbo emerging from the tree-tops of Mirkwood Forest...yes, I'm a nerd.

Best Solo Artist – Ty Segall

For some reason I didn’t attend any “real” solo shows this year. I’m not really sure why. I’m still a folky at heart, but it just didn’t happen. Due to this lack of singer/songwriters in my pool of artists viewed, I’m going to use this category as an excuse to promote Ty Segall some more (even though he technically has a band). Regardless, the accolades for Ty are definitely earned.  Once again Ty Segall put on a stellar show at SXSW, this time in an eclectic bar on the southside of town called the Longbranch Inn.  While the lame-o’s at the Japandroids show stood in what Isaac Brock would call a “cross-armed stance”, the handful of lo-fi fanatics at the Longbranch were up and po-going away throughout Ty’s set.  With the unfortunate passing of Jay Reatard, I’d like to believe that Ty Segall can keep that retro-pop-punk sound alive and well.

Even when videotaping Ty I couldn’t resist hopping up and down. I would make a horrible camera man:

Best Look-Alike- Jack Black

In the early years of SXSW, we used to always enjoy spotting “celebrities” on the streets (although my celebrity spottings were almost always former MTV VJs).  In recent years these spottings have become less and less, although when the Florida metal band Torche took the stage, I swore that lead singer Steve Brooks was actually Jack Black.  He looked just like Jack, had the body of Jack, and even made the facial expressions of Jack. In fact, I’m beginning to think Jack Black may have went the Hanna Montana route and used his Steve Brooks alter-ego to pursue a real life career in the metal world (no matter how great their music, Tenacious D will always be considered a comedy band).

"No one can destroy the metal! The metal will strike you down with a mighty blow!"

Biggest Surprise- Local Natives

I’ve heard a lot of hype about the band Local Natives in the past month or so, and I gave them a chance, downloading their latest release “Gorilla Manor”.  After a couple listens, the music neither annoyed me nor did it excite me. It was just there – a milk/toast sound that reminded me a bit of The Cold War Kids, another band I gave up on simply because they left me in a blank stare stupor.  “Gorilla Manor” does have  its moments, specifically the cover of the Talking Head’s “Warning Signs” but overall it just didn’t enthrall me.

After a recommendation from a friend, a week or so ago, I decided to give them another shot. She seems to have good taste in music, plus they were playing the Frenchkiss Records show.  The Frenchkiss show I attended at SXSW four years earlier would go down in infamy, so I had plans to give this year’s Les Savy Fav headlined set another go-around.  Local Natives came out to a packed house, and I stood in back with my arms folded, awaiting disappointment.  When the band began strumming their guitars for the introduction to “Wide Eyes” my eyes actually got wider.  Not only did the song have me nodding my head and watching in awe, but it sounded so much better than I remembered it on the album. In fact, every song they played sounded better: the bass more plodding, the drums more frenetic, the harmonious vocals resembling a new age Fleet Foxes. I have since given “Gorilla Manor” another shot, but once again was left in disappointment. Not because it bored me as before, but because I knew it could be so much better.

You know it had to be a good show when this was my viewpoint, and I still loved it.

Best Showcase-Arts & Crafts.

As much as I enjoyed Local Natives, I didn’t enjoy the large crowd.  I know a lot has changed with Frenchkiss Records in the past few years with both the sound of their bands and their association with a major label that will remain un-named, but I still would like to believe that at its core, it’s still the Frenchkiss I knew and loved from their showcase four years ago.  Unfortunately, the show felt sterile. There wasn’t any of the camaraderie I remembered from a few years prior when members of all the bands sat by the stage drinking and pulling pranks.  Where were the Fatal Flying Guilloteens when you need them?

With the community vibe gone, I made the tough decision to miss Les Savy Fav for this year and head over to The Parish to catch the Arts & Crafts Showcase featuring the headliner Broken Social Scene.  Once I climbed the creaky stairs leading up to the bar, I could feel that warmth that seemed absent from Frenchkiss. As I entered the door I was greeted by the guy selling CDs and t-shirts. Walking up to the bar several folks nodded and smiled.  These people weren’t industry insiders…they were Canadians! After USA’s devastating loss to Canada in Olympic hockey I wanted to hate our northern neighbors, but these damn Arts & Crafts Canadians wanted to ruin it all by being nice.

That same cozy feeling would spread throughout the bar and all the way to the stage where all the bands hung out in the wings supporting their fellow Canucks as they took to the stage.  The first band we caught was Zeus, a classic rock band filled with multi-talented musicians who could switch instruments on a dime and all sing like choir boys.  At one point I thought in my head, “They’re like a Canadian Beatles” and moments later Johnny Good Year leaned over and said, “They remind me a bit of the Beatles.” Yes, that’s two for two on The Beatles comparison; par for the course as far as I’m concerned.

Next up was Jason Collett a guy I loved before this week and hated after it. Despite my adoration of his album “Here’s to Being Here”, he came off as an arrogant prick in both performances I caught during the week.  Plus, his once folk stylings have been replaced with a disco-dancey pop blend.  He’s our generations Rod Stewart, moving from “Maggie May” to “Do You Think I’m Sexy”.  The only saving grace of his set was his back-up band, comprised by none other than Zeus. You could tell that Arts & Crafts were a family of musicians (Jason Collett would be the step-cousin no one likes but tolerates).

Finally, Broken Social Scene took the stage and Zeus stood aside to take in it all in.  For the first 30 minutes of the show the band enveloped the crowd with their soothing tones, jumping from classics to new material effortlessly as Kevin Drew had the audience hanging on every word.  Finally, the medley of songs came to a close, giving the crowd the sense that the band was finishing. Then Drew stepped to the microphone and mumbled, “Okay. That was the start of our set.”  Of course, the audience went crazy.

A little later Drew asked the audience not to take anymore pictures or videos claiming, “the internet is destroying our memories.” It sounded a bit pretentious, but the entire audience respected his request (including me).  He followed it up saying, “This is our moment” and then broke into another new song.  Throughout the show Drew seemed to be trying to create something different for all of us, at one point even asking for the house lights to be on so he could see the crowd’s faces. Strange, yes, but I had to respect his efforts to connect with the audience.

By the night’s end, the Broken Social Scene’s set would be a two and a half hour marathon of music.  The band’s cast of characters changed from one song to the next with guests jumping on stage to join in on the Canadian three-ring circus. At 1:50 A.M., when everyone was suspecting that the show was finished, Kevin Drew informed us that he had another surprise up his sleeve. “Every Sunday I go to the same bar back home to see The Beauties, so I decided you guys should hear them too.” He turned to the side of the stage and shouted, “Come on up guys! Play us a couple songs.” Right before our eyes, another band jumped up and grabbed the guitars, breaking into a great punk song.  Kevin Drew hopped down into the crowd and stood a couple feet from me taking in the show as if he was one of us. And really, he was. Tonight wasn’t about Broken Social Scene, Jason Collett, or even The Beautys.  It was about the music, regardless of who played it.  We were all a part of this show, this moment, this family.  No photograph or video could truly capture what happened that night in The Parish. Thankfully, it will remain intertwined in my memory for years to come.

I don’t have any pictures or videos due to Drew’s request, but here’s a link to their website where you can hear some of their new songs:

http://www.brokensocialscene.ca/

Biggest Let-Down- Man Man

Let me start off my saying Man Man put on an incredible show. Amazing. I’ve seen the band countless times and this performance ranks up there with the best of them.  Honus Honus was brilliant as he pranced around spitting water and beating the living crap out of his organ.  The band sounded as boisterous and jumpy as ever. There wasn’t a disappointed person in the house…well, that is, except for me.

Something was missing, and I couldn’t quite place it.  I scanned over the cast of characters and noticed a big hole in the scene to the left of the stage…but what was it?  I flipped through my Rolodex of memory, trying to place the missing piece…The cooky guy! With the tiny biker’s cap that played the metal drum! The guy with the great falsetto! Where was the guy with the falsetto?!  Throughout my many Man Man experiences, one of my favorite performers, other than Honus, was Marlette Seveir.  While many in the band seemed to be putting on a performance, Marlette always came across as truly insane. Maybe that’s why he had been kicked out of the band, unbeknownst to me.

In an instant, my mind flipped back to when I saw the band at the SoKol Underground in Omaha, Nebraska almost five years ago.  A morose Seveir sat on the stage by himself pre-show, staring blankly at the floor.  With SongsSuck and I standing stage side, we decided to talk to the lonely looking fella. When asked how he was doing, Marlette replied, “Not so good. The band’s fighting.”  At the time I saw it as a little band spat, but now, watching the band minus their joker, I couldn’t help but wonder if that was the beginning of the end for Marlette.

The remainder of the show my eyes kept being pulled toward the empty spot on the stage. No matter how great the performance, I couldn’t help but notice that the falsetto singing wasn’t quite as strong, that the banging upon the metal can didn’t have the same ring, that the stage theatrics didn’t seem quite as chaotic or authentic. And then I realized one other major piece was missing: my good old friend SongsSuck. I’d never seen the band without my partner in crime, and I’d never been to SXSW without him by my side.

Sure, Man Man sounded great without Marlette and SXSW 2010 was a blast even without my friend, but in both instances, it just wasn’t the same without that ornery, unpredictable character keeping things interesting.

A clip of the Marlette-less Man Man:

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Top 20 Albums of 2009 (10-1)

10.Dinosaur Jr.

“Farm”

Dinosaur Jr pisses me off.  In 1989 Lou Barlow left the group due to inner-group tension, and as a result, we were robbed of 18 year of amazing music. Don’t get me wrong, the post-Barlow era of Dinosaur Jr still had some great albums but they fail in comparison to such classics as “Bug” and “You’re Living All Over Me”.  Fortunately, they finally got over their little quarrel and got back to rocking a few years back. If you thought the band’s kick-ass 2007 reunion album “Beyond” was a fluke, “Farm” serves as evidence that you are gravely mistaken.  Usually when bands reunite, they sound dated and contrived, but somehow, Dino’s reunion material sounds fervent and fresh.  Yes, J. Mascis is keeping the guitar solo alive, and it’s never sounded better.

9. Sunset Rubdown

“Dragonslayer”

“Dragonslayer” is a grower, not a show-er.  The first few listens may be difficult to wrap your head around, but once you’ve grounded yourself in Spencer Krug’s peculiar realm, you’ll find yourself swept away by his story of the struggle between friendship and love. Soon, Krug will have you wondering aloud “Why DID Anna change her name?” or “how did you get held up at yesterday’s parties?”  Krug buries his tale beneath a pile of vivid metaphors, yet, you still sense there is a narrative haunting around the tombstone. “Dragonslayer” is a lot like a T.S. Elliot poem: the more you listen to it, the more you want to hear it, to know it, to understand it.  “Dragonslayer” is the indie-rock opera the Decemberists were aiming for with “The Hazards of Love”, and Anna is our generation’s Pinball Wizard (I still don’t get why she had to change her name though).

8. Jay Reatard

“Watch Me Fall”

You haven’t heard songs this catchy since The Beatle’s “Hard Days Night”, although if Jay were a member of the Fab Five there would have been a lot of chicks with black eyes (No one charges Jay Reatard without receiving a souvenir).  Don’t be fooled by “Watch Me Fall’s” up-beat, cheery sound; this encourageable little pup’s got bite. Although “Watch Me Fall” is grounded in punk, it shows Jay maturing with his sound, relying more often upon his acoustic guitar and songwriting that is complex and finely tuned.  Complex punk? If you don’t think it’s possible, take it up with Jay.

7. Akron/Family

“Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free”

The cover says it all – there is no other album in 2009 that represents America’s trials and tribulations better than “Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free”.  It of course has the folk backbone throughout, but along the ride, the band takes you through various styles of American music, from big band, 60s psychedelia, 40s doo-wop, 90s hip-hop, to the punk-rock noise of the 70s and 80s.  Like a musical Betsy Ross, Akron/Family have taken all the genres of music that have grown out of the “land of the free” and created an intricate, multi-faceted, harmonious quilt of where we’ve been.  Throughout, these sounds are intertwined naturally and performed wonderfully by non-other than Akron/Family.

6. The Thermals

“Now We Can See”

I would have loved to have the members of The Thermals in my English class.  They understand all the basic Literary Elements: themes, metaphors, foreshadowing, symbolism, etc.  Their 2007 release “The Body, the Blood, and the Machine” relied heavily upon allusions to the bible, using the imagery of the ancient book to tell stories and make a statement about our origin.  “Now We Can See” continues with the origin theme, although in this case they use the motif of evolution.  Every song makes references to the scientific theory that we “grew from the dirt “, then “took off (our) skin” and “crawled to the sea” “to swim!”(these four lyrics were taken from three different songs- now that’s an extended metaphor!). Within these Darwinian tales, the band tells stories of facing your fears, the perils of alcoholism, and the eventual demise of modern society.  Yes, this album is an English/Science teacher’s dream come true. Oh, and did I mention that the songs also kick ass?

5. The Very Best

“Warm Heart of Africa”

I didn’t know how to evaluate The Very Best’s first album due simply to the fact that most of the songs featured music by other artists, whether it be M.I.A., Vampire Weekend, or the music from the “True Romance” soundtrack. Although the music was undeniably delightful, could the band have the same result with their own backing tracks? “Warm Heart of Africa” shames me for doubting. Mwamwaya’s voice is still as smile-inducing as ever, and Radioclit’s contributions are stronger than anything on their self-titled effort. The African vibe is felt throughout, but Radioclit is able to carry the songs discreetly through a series of genres, whether it be new wave or trance.  In a time where regionalism has become almost nonexistent due to technology, The Very Best exemplify what is possible when cultures meld their ideas into one masterwork.

4. Baroness

“Blue Album”

At its core, “Blue Album” is a metal album- yet it is so much more. The band takes all of their eclectic influences and somehow combine them naturally into their powerful assault.  Nothing is forced. Every song evolves organically, taking the listener through an obstacle course of compelling riffs and devastating drums.  Metal is often associated with death, but the “Blue Album” is life its self, a blue flower blossoming in your ears, and then unexpectantly gashing your ear drums with their savage thorns.

3. Japandroids

“Post-Nothing”

About a month ago I had a student I trusted run out to my car to grab a folder I left on my front seat. Of course, I didn’t remember that under the folder laid the coffee table book “Punk: The Definitive Record of a Revolution”.  When he got back to my room his face was all aglow. “You like punk Mr. S?” he asked in amazement. It was like he had just learned that Santa Claus indeed did exist. Like an authoritative dick, I asked him to go to his desk and told him we could talk about it after class. This resulted in him standing in my room for 15 minutes during my lunch time, listing all the bands he was into, none of which I’d heard of.  He then pulled out his I-POD and commenced having me check out mediocre emo band after emo band, the 21st century’s version of punk.  I tried to think of a band to suggest to this kid, to save him, one that would guide him down the right path. Minor Threat? The Wipers? Rancid? No. I had to come up with something new; this kid didn’t want to listen to an old guy’s music by old punks.  Then it hit me: Japandroids.  Nothing screams youth more than two kids from Vancouver singing lines about wanting to leave there stomping grounds, living life without concern, and kissing french girls. I told him he had to get to lunch soon, but that I would play him “Young Hearts Spark Fire”, and as I watched this kid discover real, earnest, punk rock, the young heart in me may have even pumped out a couple heartbeats.

2. Bill Callahan

“Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle”

While “Woke On a Whaleheart” showed Bill trying find himself without his band Smog, “Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle” is an overwhelming statement that Bill can in fact do this on his own.  While his band explored stranger terrain, Bill focuses on the tangible here, relying mostly on only the live instrumentation of pianos, guitars, and violins.  The album may seem intimate at times, but there are moments where Bill reminds us that his music can be larger than expected.  For example, when the strings break out on “Eid Ma Clack Shaw”, you’d swear it was a sequel to “Eleanor Rigby”.  But my favorite character has to be the mysterious guitar that lurks in the shadows of the album.  Every song you’ll catch a glimpse of it, a basic electric guitar, no effects needed, meandering in the background.  The only thing to upstage the unassuming guitar is Bill himself with his croaking baritone voice that speaks straight to your soul (I swear even the deaf can hear Bill’s voice).  If Bill Callahan only released his lyrics in poetic form, his words alone would be music to your ears. Oh, but we are luckier than that my friends. Not only is Bill a master wordsmith, but his music speaks volumes as well. Just imagine if Dylan Thomas could sing and play guitar?

1. Animal Collective

“Merriweather Post Pavilion”

On New Years Eve, the group I was hanging out with got into a discussion of who was the biggest band of the decade. The first answer to come to most of our minds was Radiohead. But driving back to Texas, I thought about the question longer and decided we may have been wrong.  TV On the Radio? Arcade Fire? The Yeah Yeah Yeahs? No, none of them created music as influential as Radiohead, but there is one band that did, and maybe even more so: Animal Collective (stick with me here…)

If you look back on Animal Collective’s resume for the past ten years, they’ve released eight albums, four EPs, and a multitude of side projects (Panda Bear’s “Person Pitch” is unquestionably one of the top ten albums of the decade).  If you simply compare “Here Comes the Indian” to “Merriweather Post Pavilion”, you’ll see in an instant how much the band has grown. Every album presents a new way to aproach music. 

“Merriweater Post Pavilion” is quite possibly the band’s best album to date, the perfect culmination to a productive decade.  In this case, it’s not an insult to say that it is their most accessible album because to an outsider, “Merriweater Post Pavilion” would still seem pretty alien.  I hate to say the band has matured because it would be a damn shame, but they have definitely learned how to approach their music from a melodical stand-point (and you’ll never hear them scream once, which has slowly become a crutch for them over the years). 

Even the lyrics speak of growing up and facing adulthood.  Yet I insist, they have NOT grown up.  If anything, the album brings me back to my childhood, sounding like the soundtrack to “Fern Gullie”. The sounds are enchanting, exciting, and will have you conjuring up images of elves and gnomes prancing around a magical mushroom in no time.  It’s too bad Jim Henson is dead because I can only imagine what he could have done with the mystical world on “Merriweater Post Pavilion”. I guess as a consolation you can always rent “Fraggle Rock”, turn the sound off, and blast “Merriweater Post Pavilion” out of your stereo.  Who needs drugs when you’ve got “Merriweater Post Pavilion” and Muppets?

(Note to reader: Sad to say goodbye to our best of 2009 lists? Never fear! Over the tenure of 2010, Paul will be moving methodically through decade, listing what he deems the top albums for each year. Look for it in the coming weeks!)

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Top 50 Songs of 2009 (1-25)

25. Akron/Family
“River”

In the 90s, Big Bad VooDoo Daddy scored a hit with “You and Me and the Bottle Makes Three”, a title Marilyn Manson jump off from with “You and Me and the Devil Makes Three”. I prefer Akron/Family’s approach in “River” singing “You and me and the fire makes three”, warm imagery of what it’s like to be out in nature with your two companions being a river and a campfire. Oh, but I know there is much more going on here. Could the fire be symbolic of the feelings felt between two lovers, with the female being hard to get a grasp of much like a river? Or maybe I’m just an English teacher in search of symbolism…

24. Wavves
“Beach Demon”

Yes, I know Nathan Williams, the genius behind Wavves, is a dick, but I’m sure John Lennon could be an asshole at times too.

23. Wilco
“You Never Know”

Speaking of the Beatles, is it just me or does this song sound like the spawn of George Harrison? Don’t hear it? Get two minutes and 55 seconds in and maybe you’ll know what I’m talking about – the answers hidden within the sliding guitar solo. Even if you don’t hear the ghost of George, at least take joy in Jeff Tweedy dropping all his worries and singing a happy song for a change.

22. Alela Diane
“White as Diamonds”

There is nothing quite as hypnotic as the sound of Alela’s voice jumping into falsetto throughout this song. Just when you are falling in a dreamlike sleep, the notes shoot out at you, surprising you and casting an irresistable spell like Cupid’s arrow.

21. Bill Callahan
“All Thoughts are Prey to Some Beast”

If you saw “The Hangover”, you may recall the moment where Mike Tyson is enthralled by the pounding drum fill of Phil Collin’s “In the Air Tonight”. “All Thoughts Are Prey to Some Beast” has the same rumbling drums, although they don’t attack you like Tyson in the boxing ring. Instead, like a musical Lennox Lewis, the drums slowly overtake you, building and building and building throughout the six-minute opus. This song is larger than life with lyrics to match (I included them all; they’re that damn good):

The leafless tree looked like a brain
The birds within were all the thoughts and desires within me
Hoppin’ around from branch to branch, or snug in their nests listenin’ in

An eagle came over the horizon and shook the branches with its sight
The softer thoughts: starlings, finches, and wrens
The softer thoughts, they all took flight

The eagle looked clear through the brain tree, emptying thoughts saved for me
Maybe I’ll make this one my home, consolidate the nests of the tiny
Raise a family of might like me

Then something struck him, wings of bone
Sweet desires and soft thoughts were all gone
The eagle shrieked, “I’m alone”

Well it was time to flee the tree
The eagle snuck up on the wind one talon at a time
Being sky king of the sky, what did he have to fear
All thoughts are prey to some beast
All thoughts are prey to some beast

Sweet desire and soft thoughts, return to me
Sweet desire and soft thoughts, return to me

20. Mirah
“Generosity”

This song was featured as the intro-music to E!’s “Live From the Red Carpet” show for the Oscars (don’t make fun of me; my girlfriend was watching it). The choice seems fitting for a night where actors and actresses dress to impress. Mirah usually records music that is bare-bones and personal, but her song “Generosity” shows her dressing up her music with an elegant string section and a verbose presentation that fit perfectly amidst Hollywood’s self-congratulatory pomp and circumstance.

19. Cam’ron
“(I Hate) My Job”

It’s too bad this song wasn’t released back in 1999. It would have worked great alongside “Damn it Feels Good to be a Gangsta” on the “Office Space” soundtrack. Actually, 2009 might have been the worst year to release this song. How can you complain about your job when a large portion of our country is jobless? Despite this fact, I still feel this song is an instant classic due to the fact that most people, at some point, hate their job. I love my profession, but at times, the people in power make it very difficult to enjoy what I do. On days filled with frustration at work, there is no better tune to help release the stress on your commute home.

18. Yeah Yeah Yeahs
“Skeletons”

There are many facets to Karen O. She can be bratty, loud, sexy, and even at times, psychotic. She is at her best though when she lets down her guard, exposing her vulnerability. “Skeletons” may not be the most upbeat song on “It’s Blitz”, nor is it the catchiest track, but in my humble opinion, it is the album’s high-point. Karen is no longer hiding behind a drum machine or slashing synth riff. Her heart is exposed for all to see, hidden only by the uncoiling back-bone of orchestra and clicking drum sticks, always on the verge of breaking yet somehow staying steady throughout.

17. Future of the Left
“Arming Eritrea”

Fuck Rick. Who ever he is, he must be quite the douche to get such an angry tirade from Future of the Left’s Andy Falkous. We’ve heard Falco get pissed about many things with his influential band Mclusky, but never have I heard him pinpoint one mother fucker this directly. Sure, the title suggests the song has deeper meaning, but I like to believe that the song is primarily about that shit-dick Rick.

16. Dananananaykroyd
“Black Wax”

Speaking of Mclusky,Dananananaykroyd has obviously listened to “Do Dallas” a few times. Although they do a nice job of trying to fill the classic band’s void, their best song is actually a simple pop song that doesn’t follow the Mclusky formula. “Black Wax” shows the band being able to level out their cheeky behavior with just a dash of charm. Cheers to melodies!

15. Eat Skull
“Stick to the Formula”

While on the subject of formulas (damn, I’m getting good at this whole transition thing), Eat Skull want you to “do to the formula!”. Somehow, with all the clang and clamor they create, Eat Skull found a plum of a chorus. Unlike geometry formulas, the chorus of this song will stick in your head for infinity. If I were a math teacher I would use this song in my class daily. Unfortunately, we don’t do formulas in English (I do teach transitions though!).

14. Built to Spill
“Good Ol’ Boredom”

It’s kind of ironic that the best song on Built to Spill’s ho-hum 2009 release “There is No Enemy” is a song with the word “boredom” in the title. There is too much going on in this song to make it boring. The guitars are piled on top of each other cautiously like a seven layer dip, each part adding its own zest to the final product. There is one guitar line that stands out above all the rest, swooping and momentous like a 21st Century “Free Bird”.

13. BLK JKS
“Lakeside”

This song is a lot like “Weekend at Bernie’s” (in a good way). It opens up sounding dreadful, with spooky harmonizing and a menacing guitar line (there is nothing spookier than dragging a dead guy around a beach). Then of course, the band breaks into the chorus, an upbeat, African-ska-energy infused celebration that would even get life-less Bernie to join in on a conga line.

12. Volcano Choir
“Island, IS”

“Unmap” is a strange album. It is made up of “songs” where awkward instruments squawk clumsily, never really taking shape. It is definitely miles away from the melodic folk music we’ve grown accustomed to with Justin Vernon. “Island, IS” plays as the saviour to the album. It’s almost as if Vernon wanted to throw us off with one master work that delves into environs he’s never visited, to remind us there is still more to come from Bon Iver (plus, any song that mentions “the old tits on your hard drive” is a winner in my book).

11. Nadja
“Needle in the Hay”

Who would have thought an Elliot Smith song could be made more depressing? Nadja does just that, injecting the once intimate song with an eery dose of ambient-doom. The voice is buried beneath the bedlam, a ghostly whisper of “needle in the hay” that will send chills up your spine if you ever grew to know Elliot personally through his music.

10. Mountain Goats
“Drug Life”

What happened to the Mountain Goats of old? They were lo-fi before lo-fi was cool. Using his trusty four-track recorder, John Darnielle used to write hilarious songs with titles like “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” and “I Love You. Let’s Light Ourselves on Fire”. A lot has changed. In 2009, the Mountain Goats released “The Life of the World to Come”, a highly polished album of 12 songs about 12 verses from the bible. I may be mistaken, but I don’t remember the bible having any punch lines (unless you count the burning bush). Fortunately, Merge Records released “Score! 20 Years of Merge Records”, a compilation of indie artists covering classic songs by Merge bands from the past. Darnielle is matched up with “Drug Life” by East River Pipe (a band I definitely need to check out after hearing this song and the Okkervil River cover of “All You Little Suckers”). It ended up being a perfect match due to its hilarious lyrics, something Darnielle abandoned years ago. And just to make us nostalgic, Darnielle records it in his familiar lo-fi style. What a tease.

9. Neko Case
“People Got A Lotta Nerve”

You mean to tell me Neko Case wrote a song with the chorus “I’m a man-eater” and it’s better than Hall & Oates classic? I’ll leave that up for to debate, but her “man-eater” is a killer whale while Hall & Oates are afraid of some chick. What pussies.

8. Passion Pit
“Moth’s Wings”

Can you believe this band is on Frenchkiss Records, home of Les Savy Fav, Plastic Constellations, and the Fatal Flying Guilloteens? It seems like a strange fit, but I can’t blame label head Syd Butler for signing them. Their songs are scrumptious treats, frosted in sugary synths and Michael Angelako’s sacchariferous falsetto. Of all their tasty tunes, “Moth’s Wings” would be the cheese cake, with its complex, creamy textures and its rich, fulfilling melody.

7. HEALTH
“Die Slow”

Industrial music died with the 90s, right? Not according to HEALTH. On “Die Slow”, the band explores new territories in the genre, combining metalic synths with BJ Miller’s insane drumming and the hellacious scream of guitars, all of which seems to be traveling through some type of black-hole-vortex. Taking a nod from Nine Inch Nail’s underrated “The Fragile”, the band sees how live and digital instruments can live together in perfect harmony (or in this case, perfect dissonance).

6. Mos Def
“Supermagic”

While most rappers gave up on sampling years ago, Mos Def realizes there is still some magic hidden on the shelves of the local record store. On “Supermagic”, Mos Def pulled an LP out the Turkish Folk section, sampling “Ince Ince”, a song by the 1970s protest singer Selda. To make an already tight song tighter, he rewords Mary Poppin’s classic “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” with his cooler, darker version “Super magic black origin freshly out of dopeness”. Selda meets Mary Poppins? Now that would be one magic woman.

5. Cymbals Eat Guitars
“And the Hazy Sea”

Cymbals Eat Guitars set their listeners up for a major disappointment by putting “And the Hazy Sea” at the start of their 2009 release “Why There Are Mountains”. Nothing can stand up to the climatic nature of this song, yet you listen to the remainder of the album hoping those feelings will return. Like a 12 hour sex romp with Sting, “And the Hazy Sea” jams orgasm after orgasm into six minutes, leaving you sweaty and incapacitated.

4. Matt and Kim
“Daylight”

Matt and Kim are “the little band that could”. I’ve been enjoying their music for a couple years now, thinking of them as my little pop-secret. Never did I expect to hear their boisterous ditty “Daylight” on TV shows (“Community”), advertisements (an ad for “Bacardi”), and video games (“NBA Live 2010, FIFA 2010”, and “Sims 3”). “Daylight’s” success proves that with a great melody, any band can break through that glass ceiling (although, I suspect that Matt blackmailed EA Games at some point in the past year).

3. Animal Collective
“Girls”

There is something childlike to “Girls”, yet the lyrics speak of what it means to grow up and be a father. Commonly, the music of artists begins to wane with age and the added stress of wife, kids, etc. As usual, Animal Collective break the mold, managing to sound better than ever, even making parenthood sound fun…sleep loss, screaming babies, and poopy diapers –fun? Why must you fuck with my head A.C.?

2. The Very Best
“Warm Heart of Africa (featuring Ezra Koenig”

Last year The Very Best took Vampire Weekend’s song “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and put the Columbia alums back in their place, bringing authenticity to the African inspired song. In 2009, Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend decided to join forces with his tormentors to lend his vocals to “Warm Heart of Africa”. With their powers combined – The Very Best’s African beats and Ezra’s s tender voice -these musical Avengers berate you until you are up on your feet dancing and singing along to African words that you don’t understand.

1. Phoenix
“Love Like a Sunset Part I and II”

Phoenix is a simple pop band that creates great hooks, right? Yes, and no. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, let me present to you evidence: “Love is a Sunset pt. I & II”, a sprawling, atmospheric journey of astronomical proportions. Like a ride through “It’s a Small World After All”, the song takes you through all of the regions music can provide your brain – it baffles and broadens, it pacifies and presses, it’s simple yet cinematic, it penetrates and motivates- simply put, this song will change your life, if you can only lend it a moment of your time.

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