Monday, December 22, 2008

Best Albums Of 2008

Picking a best album from this crop was an unenviable task. I'm still not entirely happy with my selection, nobody else has much of an argument to make against it. Meanwhile, I ended up with too many contenders for worst album. That's what happens in a consensus down-year, I guess.

What better way to salute 2008 than to start at the ass end? In a bizarre fit of Christmas generosity, I have decided to rename the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah Award, only because it's really just the singer who drives me bonkers. So they are hereby rescued from the unbearable hell of some guy on the internet talking shit about them. For now.

So from now on my shit list has a new name:

The Grizzly Deerhoof Collective

Has a ring? No. Forced? Yes. Accurate? Also. Three irredeemably awful bands, coming together to form a Voltron-like musical Golgothan that would probably destroy humanity, just like that meteor destroyed the dinosaurs. And the less said about its parts, the better. Allow these piece of shit songs, if you dare, to speak for themselves:

God help you if you like any of that trash.

In order to stop myself from comparing the above bands to recent poops I've taken, here are this year's booby-prize winners:

No Age - Nouns

No talent, either. This is exactly the kind of non-music Pitchfork LOVES to insist is artistic progress, and not just two bozos making an "atmospheric" wall of noise and hoping some jackass works hard enough to derive some musical qualities from it. (To clarify, Pitchfork is the jackass in that situation, and No Age are the bozos.)

When I consider the untold numbers of talented folks who bust their asses to educate themselves about music history, work on their craft, and conceive something creative and unique to share... and then consider "experimental" garbage like No Age being touted by influential people... depressing.

Fuck Buttons - Street Horrrsing

This album sounds like shit tastes. What I said for No Age goes double for Fuck Buttons, which is clearly short for "Just Fucking Around With The Buttons On My Macbook." I saw these two dopes in person, and thought they were garbage. I checked out their album, thinking maybe they had a bad audio set up. They did not. It was even worse.

They set out upon the difficult tightrope-walk that is blips-and-bloops electronica, but they fall onto a group of tourists below. It's neither the composed brilliance of Burial nor the rollicking fun of likewise filthily-named Holy Fuck. Fuck Buttons is just a bunch of nothing. I hope they're enjoying acclaim while they have it, because their cunning attempt to trick us isn't going to go over twice.

The Walkmen - You & Me

Unlike the above, this just plain sucks. My irritation with The Walkmen is that they are emblematic of all the things I hate about "indie" rock: purposeful awfulness. The singer puts on this awful fake Dylan drawl, the songs are decidedly uncatchy, and the end result of each song is filtered needlessly through a tin can in order to make it impossible to hear, apparently. It's not visionary, it's not hard, it's not rough. It just sucks. There's only one good reason why you would purposely make your music impossible to hear: if it's utter shit.

The Murderer's Row of Disappointments

The Killers - Day & Age

Day & Age marks the end of The Killers as relevant artists. They are no longer ripping off quality musicians like Interpol and Bruce Springsteen... now they're ripping off Maroon 5, themselves a rip-off. We are clearly not getting another Hot Fuss, not unless there's an American Idiot-type return from the depths in their future. But I highly doubt that. The most damning thing I can say is that every time I try to listen to Day & Age from start to finish, I wonder why I shouldn't just put Hot Fuss on instead.

of Montreal - Skeletal Lamping

Skeletal Lamping is the skillet-to-the-face imagery of Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, without any of its hooks, its focus, or its relentlessness. It has some great moments on it, notably "Id Engager," but the superlative, endearing pop ingredients from Fauna are gone. Kevin Barnes's urgency on Hissing Fauna, seen perfectly in the sublime "Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse," is what drove that album to its heights, but it's unseen on Skeletal Lamping. Here, he's just wandering aimlessly up and down each track, no purpose or direction. There are flashes of brilliance here and there (the opening of "Nonpareil of Favor," or his alter ego Georgie Fruit's admonitions in "Wicked Wisdom") but "Id Engager" is the only song that really works in its entirety... and even then, not as much as any track on Hissing Fauna.

My Morning Jacket - Evil Urges

Not up to snuff by MMJ standards... none of the sinister undercurrent of their other, better work. It plays like an Allman Brothers ripoff more than anything. An example of a band escaping the indie ghetto and drawing new fans by going completely blah. I bet it's fine live, but it sure ain't that great in my apartment. Evil Urges is okay, but definitely not unnecessary. I'm guessing they will right the ship next time around.

Tokyo Police Club - Elephant Shell

After being teased by a pair of too-short EPs in two years, I expected their proper album to be longer than 27 minutes. Getting basically just another EP, one that is only sometimes brilliant at that, is not acceptable. Very disappointing, though not so much that I dislike it.

It isn't all bad. "Tesselate" and "In A Cave" and "Your English Is Good" stand up to their best. But it's sad to hear them finally record some filler tracks. Given the choice between getting Elephant Shell when we did and waiting for a proper LP, I would have waited. In fact, irony of ironies, I would have preferred to get Elephant Shell pared down to a six-song EP worthy of their talents.

Tapes n' Tapes - Walk It Off

After the superb "Hang Them All" started to make the rounds, my hopes got up. Not one other song approaches it. There are so many down-tempo, tiresome, blah songs that you wonder whether they indulged their "moody" side a bit too much. The beauty of The Loon, as with so many other lo-fi albums, was that they simply rocked out as best they could. "Hang Them All" was a step forward, but nearly everything else was a step back. (I will grant that album closer "The Dirty Dirty" ends things on a rollicking note that should have been more prevalent in the tracks preceding it.) Still, one of the bigger disappointments personally.

The Roots - Rising Down

They've drifted away from what they're good at in order to recover their street cred. Game Theory and Rising Down both attempt to make the band darker than they actually are. The great tracks on here ("Criminal" and "75 Bars" come to mind) are the tracks with no axes to grind, musically speaking. I just wish they'd go back to making the music they want to, instead of trying to be the cool kids on the corner.

Commuted Sentences

Sigur Rós - Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust

It broke my heart to list this under disappointments, and it really did belong there, but I just couldn't. Still, this usually bombastic group deserves a slap on the wrists for turning in their smallest and least essential album since their debut, Von. Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust has its bright points up front, but the album drifts along into total boredom by the end. How can the band responsible for this turn in such a tepid record?

They've purposely sapped themselves of their power, their biggest asset by far, to make something more intimate, but I don't want that. The only song that kinda-sorta approaches the style of their previous successes, "Festival," in fact proves my point better than anything else: its structure mirrors "Untitled 8"/"Popplagið" and other Sigur Rós gems, but with no bite to the rock-out part at the end, it just doesn't work.

Their acoustic abilities were proven on Hvarf/Heim and the film Heima; dedicating yet another piece to the softer side was not necessary. The most powerful band on the planet should go back to being powerful.

Bloc Party - Intimacy

For a long time, I had them first in line for a beating. Intimacy should have been called Laziness, or Hurry, or something else that mirrors the amount of effort they put into it. But it's still Bloc Party, so ultimately it's still good.

However, subscribing to the slapdash recording methods that The White Stripes used so successfully for Get Behind Me Satan does not suit them nearly as well. They're probably as good as anyone has ever been when it comes to B-sides... so it's pretty disappointing to hear an album of C-sides. Even the best of Intimacy, "Halo" and "One Month Off" and "Talons," reminded me more of "Cavaliers and Roundheads," "The Once And Future King" or "Hero" than any track from Silent Alarm or A Weekend In The City.

All in all, the sloppiness plays as an apologetic reaction to the increase in composure evident on A Weekend In The City. Personally, I didn't need them to prove they could still be wild. It's great that they're so prolific, and want to get stuff out to fans ASAP. But a less hurried band would have kept "Flux" in the can until Intimacy's release, would not have put the digital version out without "Talons," would maybe have cropped a track or two out of the filler, and would have seen Intimacy welcomed a lot more warmly from the get-go. They're better than this.

Good Enough To Name-Drop, Not Good Enough To Discuss

Destroyer - Trouble In Dreams

The Magnetic Fields - Distortion

Okkervil River - The Stand Ins

Portishead - Third

Hercules And Love Affair - Hercules And Love Affair

M83 - Saturdays = Youth

Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago

The Best Of What I Encountered From Other People's Best-Of Lists

Raphael Saadiq - The Way I See It

This year's retro-soul entry, following in the tradition of Nicole Willis And The Investigators and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. But this is the best of the bunch. Mr. Saadiq is a seriously talented dude, feeling less like a throwback and more like a man in the wrong century.

Los Campesinos! - Hold On Now, Youngster... / We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed

Very fun. Potentially annoying, but pretty fun on a first impression. Unfortunately their having released two separate albums this year means that I haven't really gotten through it all yet. But I can say that We Are Beautiful is a large step forward, in quality if not anything stylistic. As amazing as the swiftness of their follow-up's release, the extent of growth is just as amazing.

Good Stuff

Gnarls Barkley - The Odd Couple

It's missing the instant hits, but it's also far more consistent. Even more Motown than St. Elsewhere.

Ben Folds - Way To Normal

"Bitch Went Nuts"

A return to impish form after dabbling in soft-rock territory with Songs For Silverman. Although Silverman was far better than generally thought, it's nice to hear the clearest lyricist in pop music up to his old tricks, writing songs like "Bitch Went Nuts" and a song about falling off a stage. It's not essential from front to back, but it's certainly no disappointment.

Girl Talk - Feed The Animals

You want an indication of how weak a year it's been? Until very, very late in the year, a mashup album, albeit an awesome one, was in my top 10. I purposely left Night Ripper out of contention in 2006, and I very nearly had to break that rule this time around. Sheesh.

But as for the album, same deal as Night Ripper, second verse same as the first. Instant dance party. But more importantly, it made me remember how awesome "Gimme Some Lovin" is.

Lil Wayne - Tha Carter III

[nsfw lyrics]

Best mainstream rap album in ages, certainly since Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. But what's so remarkable is that he didn't go pop, as OutKast kinda did... he dragged pop to him. His talent is so superlative that people are drawn to him without him having to take one step away from what he's doing. For Wayne to be as unique and weird as he is without his beats following suit... for him be as critically acclaimed as he is without sacrificing any street cred... that is just a monstrous achievement, one that mostly explains the diversity and size of his fan base.

R.E.M. - Accelerate

And now here's the best mainstream rock album in ages. They've regained the fastball they had during the Monster years. Basically, Jacknife Lee should stick to dead bands and leave the ones I like alone.

Blitzen Trapper - Furr

Now this gets a huge thumbs up. Embarrassingly, it took a surreal fan-made video setting "Saturday Nite" to Alf footage to get my attention. But it worked. And I'm glad it did, because the entire album is awesome. Reminiscent of The Band or Lynyrd Skynyrd, and more immediately the FAIL-ridden-but-once-great My Morning Jacket. Worthy of each comparison. And far better in the retro category than Dr. Dog, which bores me for some reason.

A quick but illustrative sidebar: a month ago, during a shopping spree at Newbury Comics, I encountered the most drug-damaged acid victim I've ever seen. Holding a gigantic Foo Fighters vinyl box set, he was quizzing the man behind the counter about its contents. Imagine the following exchange happening at the most excruciatingly slow pace imaginable:

Acid Victim: What kind of music is this?
Store Cashier: It's rock.
AV: Yeah, but what kind?
SC: I don't know, just regular rock.
AV: So it's like the Dead?
SC: No.
AV: What instruments do they play?
SC: Um... I dunno, drums, a bass, a couple of guitars.
AV: What, no keyboards?
SC: No, not really.
[AV looks at the box set]
AV: Do they jam?
SC: No.

At that point he looked quizzically at the box set again, confused at how this band could play rock music but be nothing like the Grateful Dead or Phish. I have no idea what possessed this man to pick up the set, other than the word "Foo" sounding like something a pothead Communist from Burlington would name his band. I also cannot imagine why the epitome of late-90s rock would be so impossible to quantify. I have thought about that story several times since it happened, and I don't know what the cashier should have done differently.

My point? That guy should have picked himself up some Blitzen Trapper.

Kanye West - 808s And Heartbreak

I thought this would be #10, but it's not, thanks to a late-breaking curveball.

The general tone of criticism has been that Kanye departed a field in which he was the undisputed master, pop hip-hop, and entered a field in which he is mediocre, neo-soul. However, as I've documented frequently in the past, he's not much of a rapper, but he is an unparalleled musical conceptualist. 808s is no exception, proving both that West is good enough to do anything he wants and weird enough to drag the mainstream towards him. From the bare electro of "Say You Will," through clear highlights "Love Lockdown" and "Robocop," and on to concluding track "Coldest Winter," 808s is a complete success.

The List

10. Frightened Rabbit - The Midnight Organ Show

This album inspired the "best albums from other people's lists" category, then graduated from it.

My first reaction, when digging into the deeper tracks in here, was that they were a Scottish version of Crowded House or Tears For Fears, or even U2 in their sense of drama and the wholesale thievery on "Head Rolls Off" of every rhythm guitar trick The Edge invented.

But after listening to Scott Hutchison's Mangum-style vocal work, particularly on "The Twist," it struck me that the heart of their appeal is the same as that of Neutral Milk Hotel... there's a deep resonance that absolutely hammers you if you let it. Sounding genuinely like a cross between U2 and NMH is one hell of a compliment, but it sure feels true to me.

I have a feeling I'll be listening to this a hell of a lot next year.

9. Hot Chip - Made In The Dark

A big jump forward after 2006's The Warning. They're missing a "Boy From School" to tie it all together, but track for track this one is a lot better. They're really pushing the formula with a lot of these goofy songs ("Bendable Poseable") where the song is weird, but there's a purpose.

8. Death Cab For Cutie - Narrow Stairs

A more than respectable effort from a band that is clearly in search of greener pastures. Not a perfect album from beginning to end, but given the sappier, smoother direction that Plans pointed towards, for better or worse, Narrow Stairs is a welcome reintroduction of some edge and jangle. "Cath..." and "Long Division" are hard to argue with; "No Sunlight" isn't so hard to argue with, as was seen earlier, but it is nonetheless the latest in a series of Death Cab songs that juxtapose cheery and bouncy music with depressing, defeatist lyrics ("The Sound of Settling," "I Was A Kaleidoscope") with great results.

7. Wolf Parade - At Mount Zoomer

Most underrated album of the year. A letdown only because it couldn't possibly follow up one of the greatest albums of recent memory, Apologies To The Queen Mary. But by a) allowing Dan Boeckner to take the reins from Spencer Krug for most of the album, and b) forging a more unified album from start to finish, Wolf Parade make the best of it. Boeckner's emergence is particularly encouraging; while the Krug brilliance everyone hoped for wasn't quite there, Zoomer high point "California Dreamer" excepted, Boeckner rose to Krug's level and established that Wolf Parade has more than one superlative creative force behind it.

6. Snow Patrol - A Hundred Million Suns

I am truly, legitimately shocked to have placed this so high, and above such good work from bands who never stumbled the way Snow Patrol has. After the abuse many of us endured at the hands of "Chasing Cars" and its overexposure, I marked them as either washed up or high on their own stardom. But they've earned it.

So how the hell did this happen? It may not be much of a departure from Eyes Open (which, by the way, looks a lot less crimes-against-humanity bad now that it doesn't signified the demise of the band) but it is mostly bereft of the goofy "put Sufjan Stevens on" lyrical indulgences that made that album so impossible to like. Gary Lightbody's return from the foreground to the level of his bandmates, happy to contribute rather than distract, serves Snow Patrol well.

This return to excellence only bangs home another bizarre truism about Lightbody: he is maddeningly consistent in his inconsistency, alternating brilliance and turditude. Songs For Polar Bears is great. When It's All Over We Still Have To Clear Up is terrible. Final Straw is coming with me to my desert island, as convincing an album as there is. Eyes Open, though better than I originally thought, is openly lazy to the point where you wonder if Lightbody even cares. A Hundred Million Suns proves that he does. How does this keep happening? He's supposed to have a phenomenal creative period in the middle, flanked by mediocrity. It's a Snickers bar with alternating layers of nougat and caramel, and no chocolate shell. Is this alternating yes-yes-yes/oh-God-no situation more encouraging or more frustrating? Even his Reindeer Section output alternates between genius and boredom (Son of Evil Reindeer, which features one great song).

I guess this means the next one will blow, cause this one is really, really good.

5. Cut Copy - In Ghost Colours

One of the most fun albums of the year. Bright Like Neon Love was good; this is excellent. It's hard to describe Cut Copy without invoking the obvious New Order comparisons, but they certainly stand up to the comparison.

4. Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid

This album won Great Britain's prestigious Mercury Prize, and justifiably so. The filler isn't particularly compelling, but the best work on here is deeply moving. As I said in my review, "One Day Like This" is an amazing song that deserves more (or some) stateside attention.

3. TV On The Radio - Dear Science

I was supposed to pick Dear Science. It should have been easy. It's indeed brilliant stuff, their best and most fun work to date. And it certainly makes the best rational argument for the #1 spot, deep and subversive and masterful even through its low points.

But I want to have some irrational love for it as a whole... I need to have some obsession with this album, the inability to take it out of my CD player, the ability to sing along with every song. And that's not really true.

It just feels unreal to me. Return To Cookie Mountain, for all its totally original post-apocalyptic noise, nevertheless still felt very human and organic... my reaction is to wonder how humans could come up with those sounds. Dear Science's detached smoothness leaves no such wonder about the music's synthesis; it's all constructed and processed and digested, stripping away its urgency in the process. Normally I'd be fine with that; here, though, I think they lose sight of what's important.

There's no one defining song on Dear Science, no "Wolf Like Me," to tie the album together. Much as I love "Crying," it's so clean and meant for dancing that it reminds you of bands who do the dance-rock thing a whole lot better. Much as I adore the Africa-infused "Red Dress," it feels more like an Antibalas song (they provide the horns) that TVOTR guests on than the other way around. "Golden Age" is weak. "Dancing Choose" is fun but airy. Where is the song that we all would think of when thinking of Dear Science? I don't hear it.

Dear Science is far and away their most cohesive and least difficult work. It is evidence of a band that has Gotten It. The slick feel across each track takes away from the band's rough strengths, making it sound at times like what New Age really should have sounded like. I certainly don't think it's undeserving. But the bottom line is that Dear Science just didn't win my vote.

2. The Hold Steady - Stay Positive

I'm not surprised that Stay Positive wasn't the upper-echelon breakthrough it should have been, given that it's a redux of Boys And Girls In America that narrowly misses its mark. But Boys and Girls shouldn't prevent us from holding the deeply skilled work here in high regard. If Stay Positive had come along without Boys and Girls preceding it, it would blow people's minds.

They're not plowing any new musical soil, but they do what they do better than anyone else. The band rocks harder than anyone else. Craig Finn's always-tragic words hit harder than anyone else. You really don't need much more than that.

So many upper-underground bands of their caliber failed. It's a shame that The Hold Steady haven't been applauded more often for succeeding so thoroughly.

1. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend

I seem to have dealt with internet buzz bands really well this year. I'm indifferent towards Fleet Foxes, and I love Vampire Weekend to death. This would never have happened five years ago.

Vampire Weekend was probably the most uncool choice possible as my favorite album, but there it is. They didn't rock as hard as The Hold Steady, show the genius of TV On The Radio, hit with the same emotional punches and drama as Elbow. But at the end of the day (year?) none of that matters. Because I just flat-out like their album better.

It's not like I don't get the backlash. Their unabashed bourgeois preppiness and their delicate Ivy League aesthetic open them up for all sorts of criticism. And I hate privileged people as much as anyone I've ever encountered. I should despise them.

But I don't, because they made a fucking fantastic album. High quality, tons of creativity and originality, pop sensibility to spare. They wore those sweaters and loafers, and made a classic album in spite of it. So I can't say shit, other than nice job.

And with that, I'm done. It may only be just over 4000 words, but to me it felt like a milli.

Alvin, You Were A Little Flat... Watch It

Having been walloped over the weekend by a white Christmas, having put the lights on the tree and the presents beneath it, and having guaranteed myself another Christmas Eve filled with frantic store-to-store driving, I have been overtaken by Christmas spirit. And I saved a mouthful of spirit for you! Enjoy.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Songs List Sidebar

Thanks to some seriously nasty snow, I'm stuck in the apartment listening to music and watching the Celtics tonight.  And I'm glad I did, because the most awesomest thing ever just happened.

Speaking of my just-posted best-songs list, Kanye's "Love Lockdown" just came on in iTunes.  After a few measures of the bass beat at the beginning of the song, right as Kanye was about to start singing, a snow plow went into reverse just outside my building.  And its BOOOP... BOOOP... BOOOP... started up just after Kanye did, fitting perfectly into the fourth note of the measure.

It really was perfect.  The tempo lined up perfectly, the tone was in key, the length of the tone even complemented the deep bass half-note it was playing on top of.  It added without subtracting, like a thin layer of mayo on a BLT.  I was disappointed when the truck stopped backing up.  I may never think of "Love Lockdown" the same way.

This is what happens when snow takes a dump your weekend...

Best Songs Of 2008

I thought I'd start easy, since the best albums list is careening out of control like Howard Hughes, and ballooning in size like Mike Tyson.

So, dun-det-da-dunnnnn, here's the best songs from this year... ever.

I've posted an Imeem playlist at the bottom that, as of this writing, holds each of the songs on the list. For now they are mostly 30-second previews; register on Imeem and you should be able to hear the entirety of each song.


Frightened Rabbit - "Head Rolls Off"
Blitzen Trapper - "Furr"
Raphael Saadiq - "100 Yard Dash"
Tokyo Police Club - "In A Cave"
M83 - "Kim & Jessie"
Tapes 'n Tapes - "Hang Them All"
Cut Copy - "Hearts On Fire"
Kanye West - "Love Lockdown"
Girl Talk - "Play Your Part (Pt. 1)"
Okkervil River - "Lost Coastlines"
The Roots - "Criminal"
Snow Patrol - "If There's A Rocket Tie Me To It"
Hot Chip - "Ready For The Floor"

The List

10. The Magnetic Fields - "California Girls"

Caustic and beautiful, like pretty much anything else Stephin Merritt has ever recorded.

9. Gnarls Barkley - "Surprise"

A haunting Mamas & Papas tribute that stands as one of Cee-Lo's most introspective pieces.

8. Wolf Parade - "Language City"

The most fun song on At Mount Zoomer.

7. TV On The Radio - "DLZ"

One of the few from Dear Science that recalls the band's previous, moodier work. Not that the awesome party-fusion stuff they're doing now is a problem, but it's not nearly as totally awesome.

6. The Dirtbombs - "Ever Lovin' Man"

Holy shit, does this rock. A prime example of how ridiculous it is that certain bands aren't bigger.

5. Death Cab For Cutie - "Cath..."

Not frequently does a band in its second decade of existence release a song that so perfectly summarizes that band's body of work. "Cath..." does it.

4. The Hold Steady - "Stay Positive"

Great song from a great band. Manages to be awesome despite a corny, awww-inducing shout-out to their fans and supporters. But easily the catchiest track on Stay Positive.

3. Vampire Weekend - "Oxford Comma"

I'm not at all surprised by the wide array of songs from VW's debut that folks have chosen to single out for lists like this. "Oxford Comma" is the song that really sold me on the band; simple and pretty, rising above the preciousness that elsewhere makes them so easy to dismiss to create a truly great song.

2. Hercules And Love Affair - "Blind"

I wasn't a huge fan of this album in its entirety, but probably only because "Blind" is so completely and totally incredible. Turns any boring-ass room into a dance floor. Between this and Cut Copy, and the recent successes of LCD and The Rapture, it would seem that everything that the DFA touches turns to gold. (Or silver.)

1. Elbow - "One Day Like This"

The clear winner. In my initial mini-review of The Seldom Seen Kid, I said, "this song makes me want to get my fucking life together." So expressive, so profoundly joyful, so effective at banging its uplifting message home and moving the listener. Bravo.

There you have it. Best albums coming soon. Until then, abbondanza:

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Apatow FTW: I Love You, Man

It's been months since any Apatow-related content has come out! I guess that explains why the economy went in the shitter. But it will all bounce back once I Love You, Man comes out:

This looks both totally stupid and totally pointless and totally awesome. It seems like Jason Segel, unleashed and insane, is finally about to match the apex of his acting career, which was accomplished with naught but his silvery voice:

Friday, December 05, 2008

ALF As Northwest Psych/Folk Pop

I wasn't sure who would appreciate this... but here's a video of a Blitzen Trapper song set to ALF footage.