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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Top 10 Albums of 2008: #6

She & Him
Volume One

When celebrities get the bug up their ass to try their hand at releasing music, I usually stay as far from the result as possible. Every once in a while, some shred of genius shines through, but for every Eddie Murphy singing "Party All the Time," there are a thousand more Billy Bob Thortons and Bruce Willis, butchering the shit out of the blues. When Scarlett Johansson released Anywhere I Lay My Head, an album of Tom Waits covers, I didn't hold out much hope, and rightfully so. The album was flat and lacked everything about Waits' songs that made them so wonderful to begin with (like Tom Waits). However, Zooey Deschanel is a different story altogether, and this year's collaboration with Saddle Creek standard, M. Ward, comes in half-way through my top albums of the year at number six.

The first time I heard Deschanel sing was in the 2003 Christmas comedy, Elf, and I had to consult Wikipedia to see if it was really her voice coming through my speakers, so beautiful was the sound. So when I heard she'd be putting out an album with one of my favorite modern balladeers, I kept my ears open for the release date and snatched it up as soon as it made it to the radio station where I worked. And disappointed, I was not. The thirteen songs of Volume One make me hope there will be a Volume Two (which, reportedly, there will be--it's in production as we speak), and excited for any other consequent work Deschanel decides to lend her vocal cords to. But we're talking about this one here, and I digress.

The thirteen songs here are very much in the vein of other indie songstresses like Cat Power, Feist, and most of all, Jenny Lewis. This album is country to the core, with just a hint of 1950s sock hop-pop, but not the kind of glossy pop-country that Faith Hill is singing on CMT. This is Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn's country, the kind made to be sung into a big silver bullet mic and played out of grandpappy's old AM radio. The best part about She & Him's brand of modern indie-country is the honesty and fun of it; where Jenny Lewis tries to make an ironic statement with hers, playing the cliches of the genre to her, admittedly, clever advantage, Zooey and Matt seem to really love what they're playing. I've talked mostly about Zooey's contribution to the album thus far, but it is her voice that is the star of the show. However, Ward and the backing band (including Saddle Creek brainchild Mike Mogis and The Decemberists' Rachel Blumberg), deserve their share of time in the limelight. Without them, as beautiful as Deschanel's voice is on record, it would have just been a voice on record. The beautiful sounds emanating from behind her are the work of these fine ladies and gents: a perfect, delicate sprinkling of strings over plinking pianos and mellow guitars. Even the more upbeat songs like the doo-woppy "I Was Made for You" feels light and airy; but nothing can compare to the album's opening, "Sentimental Heart."

I love the next two songs on the album, "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?" and "This Is Not a Test," possibly even more than the album opener, but it is the nakedness of Deschanel's voice and simple perfection of the music that builds slowly behind it that makes it such a brilliant first song. In the first two bars, you know exactly what you're in for through the course of the album, and you couldn't be more excited to listen the whole way through. I wasn't even listening to full songs the first few times I turned the album on--I just wanted to see everything Zooey and Matt were going to give me, and I'd skip all around, listening to pieces here and there. It's probably not a good way to get into an album (and not my typical way at all), but it is a testament to just how good the entirety of Volume One is. It's not a single, followed by some half-assed schlock, just to sell a record on the back of a celebrity. It's true, beautiful music: another one like Jim Noir's number seven pop masterpiece that everyone can listen to. Even your grandma will like this one. And that's saying something.

She & Him - Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Top 10 Albums of 2008: #7

Jim Noir
Jim Noir

Sometimes in the world of music, "pop" is used as a bad word. It's that glossy nonsense we hear on Top 40 radio and MTV, with its over-produced sounds and pretty faces. But pop music existed long before television hijacked it--it even had a distinct sound all its own, despite its all-encompassing name. Upbeat, major key songs with bright guitars and a little swing, pop music was all but perfected by the British Invasion artists of the 1960s, creating a sound that has been emulated and expanded upon endlessly through the years. So it should be no surprise that the seventh place finisher on my countdown comes from across the pond, from Davyhulme, Manchester, just a stone's throw away from where The Beatles' Liverpool, where it all began.

With his second album, Jim Noir (real name Alan Roberts--his pseudonym comes from surrealist British comedian, Vic Reeves, whose real name was Jim Moir), proves himself to be a connoisseur of the genre. His brand of pop draws from the later work of The Beatles, Monkees and Beach Boys, focused firmly in on an easy-going brand of psychadelica. It is not the acid-dropping, wigged out music of Black Moth Super Rainbow, but a more free-flowing, organ-driven pop that harkens back to the days of round sunglasses, mop-top haircuts and dayglo-striped backdrops on the BBC. Fellow UK-residents, Super Furry Animals out of Wales, are the closest I can relate to Noir's sophomore effort, but even their music is far more steeped in modern electronica. Noir also dabbles in the electronic realm, but does so in a way that still sounds deliciously dated. I have no idea what kind of technology he's got at his disposal, but judging by the fact that this is first recording produced outside of his parents' basement (including four EPs and one full-length), I'm going to guess that he's got the real thing going here--analog everything, tape loops and ancient, Roland drum machines. If he isn't rocking the classics, he's got an ear for production like no other because this sounds as authentic as it gets.

Every year, one or two albums like Jim Noir's self-titled sophomore effort are released, and give me renewed hope for popular music at large. No matter who I am with, I can turn on this album and they always say "Who is this? I really like this!" and it makes my heart swell with joy, because it proves that there still is good, simple music out there, floating around in the world somewhere. All we need to do is somehow rope it in, convince the huge media conglomerates and bloated record labels to print it, and we'll be able to save music as we know it! If anyone can do it, it will be Noir, with his nostalgic sound full of rolling Hammond organ and reverb-drenched vocals. With other Completely & Criminally Unknown Artists like Peter Adams and Har Mar Superstar, they will lead the charge, reclaiming the pop music banner from Rihanna and Britney Spears (she is seriously putting out records?? Who is allowing this to go on??), and reviving pop music as our parents knew it. That's one war I'd have no problem supporting.

Jim Noir - All Right

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Top 10 Albums of 2008: #8

Flying Lotus
Los Angeles

Out of his sophomore album's namesake of Los Angeles, California comes number eight on the countdown: Flying Lotus. The little-known hip-hop producer has yet to truly break onto the scene like contemporaries J Dilla and Madlib, but you've probably heard more of his tracks than either of the other two. How? He's the uncredited creator of the vast majority of the Adult Swim segues played every night between episodes of Aqua Teen Hunger Force and The Venture Bros.

His sound is instantly recognizable for Adult Swim viewers, off-beat hand-drumming over bass drones, all produced with the fuzzy deterioration of ancient vinyl. The beats are messy and spastic, almost world music-esque with electronic sitar-like swells lending accents to the sexy grime of the low end. But don't let Flying Lotus' characterization fool you; Los Angeles is less a hip-hop album than it is a downbeat electro adventure. This is the album that pushed Dosh off my list this year, my own personal hero of electronica. Hip-hop only describes the speed and sway of the beats--there is no rapping or singing to get in the way of Lotus' production. Instead, the stars of the songs are the beats themselves, the solos the blipping electronics that peek through the mess.

Los Angeles, I would love to imagine, is truly the sound of the city. It is filthy and a little scary, leaving the listener in the dark of what might be around the next corner. I spent about ten minutes in Los Angeles this year, but got to see none of the downtown area that I'm told is exactly what I just described: a wasteland of empty, graffiti-covered buildings and gangs, especially after dark. I've tried to imagine the club where I'd expect to hear Flying Lotus spinning, but I don't think there is one in particular--this is music more fit for running through alleyways at midnight, trying to get away from some Crips that just gunned down your brother. As you run by neon-lit clubs and bars, you hear snippets of dance music, of people talking, but then you have to keep moving, and it's back to the frantic pace of your footsteps as you stumble into trash cans, hurdle over fences. By "Parisian Goldfish" (probably the album's most single-oriented song), you have slipped into a coke-head disco, trying to lose yourself among the crowd and the flashing lights, but you see the gang come through the back behind you, scanning the crowd, and as "Sleepy Dinosaur" begins, you're tripping over people's feet, trying to push your way out into the street again.

Maybe I'm taking the analogy a bit far, but Flying Lotus has not just presented us with another collection of singles, ready for MTV and Kiss-FM. This is a challenging record, daring to create an environment for us to enter into, not just a glossy song for us to mindlessly shake our asses to. Hip-hop could learn a lot from Lotus, and I hope that as people like him and Danger Mouse begin to crack the popular charts, the genre as a whole takes a well-needed step forward. Rappers say they rap about real life, murders and drugs and the streets; Flying Lotus recreates the streets through the art of sound and brings them to us unadultered. What is more real than that?

Flying Lotus - GNG BNG

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Top 10 Albums of 2008: #9

The Black Angels
Directions to See a Ghost

The self-proclaimed weirdest town in America, Austin, Texas, makes its second mark in a row on the list with psychadelic stoner rock quintet, The Black Angels. Their sophomore release, Directions to See a Ghost, is, with its fuzzed-out guitars, tribal beats, and wandering sitar lines, the kind of album that envelopes you with its sound and hits the ninth place among my best albums of the year.

The only way to listen to this album, especially its opening track and single, "You on the Run," is to turn it up as loud as your stereo can manage and let it roll over you, feeling the vibrations of the thumping toms and rumbling bass lines buzz through your skin, the hair on the back of your neck and up your arms standing on end. Every detail in the production here is paid deft attention to, allowing the album to come off dirty and loose while not losing an ounce of quality, no instruments going overlooked as Alex Maas' delayed vocals swoop in and out of the speakers. My my, those vocals: they're what holds it all together, the perfect compliment to the sludgy beats with their creepy, echoing, mid-range howls. There is a timeless quality in them and their production that hearkens back, utterly fittingly so, to The Velvet Underground, to the point that if I didn't know that the Angels were a current band, I might peg them on sound alone as one of VU's contemporaries back in the late Sixties.

The Angels themselves even blur that line with their logo, a super-high contrast photo of Nico caught in a circle, the band's name running along the inside circumference. I think it is this self-recognized tie to pop music that sets The Black Angels apart from their peers like J. Mascis' Witch who also released their sophomore effort, Paralyzed, this year. As fuzzy and noisy as they get, the Angels know and understand what makes a pop song, and they use it even in the constraints of their genre to produce a brand of psychadelica that wouldn't feel out of place in the halls of modern, classic, or indie rock. With these finely tuned sensibilites at work, you might even find yourself shaking your booty to some of these jams if you aren't so fucked on acid as you listen that you can't move more than your eyelids.

Pulling influences from Lou Reed instead of Ozzy Osbourne gives the Angels a wider palate to work from and more room to adventure (though it is done subtley enough here, in choice of chord progression and production approach, instead of other aspects that might make the album come off as shallow or forced--think Axl Rose's foray into industrial rock with Chinese Democracy's track "Shackler's Revenge"). With this freedom, the entire album feels fresh and new, while still retaining a sense of purpose--quite an achievement for a band working in such a specific genre.

Directions to See a Ghost is just that. Turn it on at midnight, as high as it can go (and as high as you can go, too, if that's your style), and see all kinds of scary-ass shit. That's what stoner rock does, and this is stoner rock at its finest.

The Black Angels - You in Color

Monday, December 22, 2008

Top 10 Albums of 2008: #10

My Education
Bad Vibrations

Starting off my Top 10 list for this year has got to be Austin post-rockers, My Education. It is not very often that I am so utterly impressed with a new post-rock album (most of it, nowadays especially, just sounds like a carbon copy of albums Mogwai and Red Sparrowes have released half a decade ago), but with their fourth release, these guys have really got my blood pumping. They come from quite a pedigree: members of Stars of the Lid, ST37 and Cinders, My Education has toured endlessly over the last few years with other post-rock darlings Pelican, Dälek and even Red Sparrowes themselves. They also have completely embraced the orchestral quality of their music in composing an original score for F.W. Murnau's 1927 silent film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, a step further into the core of post-rock than even Mogwai has gone with their soundtracks for The Fountain and Zidane.

The music on Bad Vibrations, as one might expect from a band with chops enough to lay down silent film scores, is built of soaring strings and layered acoustic and subtley crunchy guitars, backed with chimes, twinkling pianos, and marching snares. Even a lapsteel makes a guest appearance on a few tracks, maybe borrowed from their Sparrowe buddies? Of course, the screaming guitar solos occaisonally peak through, but they are treated less as a cock-comparing contest as in much rock music and more as just another instrument in the orchestra with its chance to shine. And when those solos distort to the point of static, the noise is just as beautiful as the delicate string arrangements.

To fully appreciate My Education's approach to music, it might be helpful to know the origin of their name: My Education: A Book of Dreams, the final memoir/novel published by William S. Burroughs in 1995 that collects a selection of his dreams from 1959 on. It is, as Wikipedia would have me know, his most mellow and mature work, with a far more sedate outlook on writing, allowing descriptions time to develop, ideas time to fester. If ever there were a more fitting name for a band of My Education's stock, I do not know it. Each of their songs is a miniature soundtrack to life, building up from nothing until they become almost unbearably real, intensity personified in the thundering drumming and searing guitars before it fades again, slowly dying into the calm, then silence silence, letting the next track be born.

And so, as the Best Post-Rock Album released this year--better even, I'd argue, in its variation and surprisingly fresh approach to the genre, than Russian Circles' long-awaited Station, My Education's Bad Vibrations takes the first spot in my Top 10 Albums of 2008. And so it begins.

My Education - Bad Vibrations

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Top 10 Albums of 2008

Just like every other jerk-off that listens to music, the end of December marks that time when I get to thinking about my favorite albums of the past year, and those thoughts turn to forming a list, proving that I have, in fact, been thinking about it. Usually, I compile a list on a napkin or scrap of paper, intending to do something more with it, like write a brilliant article about each of the albums, complete with a full history of the band and all of their eye colors and favorite flavors of pie, then sell it for copious amounts of money to Rolling Stone and secure a full-time job with them. But usually I just end up losing that scrawled little list as soon as I put it in my pocket, and then struggle to remember who even cracked my top five.

But now that I've got this little blog thing going, and it's lasted far longer than my MySpace or even my Xanga ever did, I finally have the vehicle to spout my opinions about music you likely either don't know or just downright hate! I might not be putting Michael Azerrad out of a job, but at least I won't feel like such a Nick Hornby loser, making lists upon lists for myself to wank over. At least now you can wank with me. Or watch me wank. Whatever you're into.

But I don't want to blow my load all in a single tug (I can keep this kind of innuendo up all day), so I'm going to do it in increments. If nothing else, it gives me a reason to get up tomorrow, and plenty of material to write about for the next week and a half when I'll be trying my best to convince myself to sit down and type instead of finishing my Premiership season in FIFA07--a challenging feat, as well as Hull City is currently doing. So it'll be an album a night or so, counting up to my favorite album of the year, but tonight I'll give a double dose: two albums that didn't quite make the list, but I'll still proudly label as my honorable mentions.

Below each review here (and throughout the rest of the list, providing I can turn something up for all of the other bands), are links to YouTube videos for their singles. Please excuse the quality of the videos--I didn't upload them, they're just there to give a sample of the music since I can't upload mp3s to this website. Close your eyes when you listen to them if you must, and just be glad I found the actual video for at least the first one, and didn't have to link to the slideshow of horse pictures someone made. Oh, YouTube, you never cease to amaze me.


Honorable Mention #1

Sigur Rós
Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust

The problem with being one of the greatest, most emotive bands in the world, is that as soon as you put out one album--nay, one song--that doesn't quite live up to your full potential, everyone is down your throat, nails out, screaming about how you're past your prime and you might as well just throw in the towel. Thankfully the backlash on Sigur Rós' fifth studio album (translated "With Buzzing in Our Ears We Play Endlessly" from their native Icelandic), was not quite so harsh. But this latest offering, especially with its strangely upbeat lead single, "Gobbledigook," did not have the same expansively minimalist quality we've come to look for from our favorite Icelanders, and I personally felt cheated.

I'm typically a fan of an artist's freedom to try something new, but when I pick up a Sigur Rós album, I am picking up something very specific. What they tried on this new album was definitely a different direction, and an interesting one at that, but it was not Sigur Rós. It was a little bit Animal Collective, and a tiny bit... Coldplay, actually, who in no way, shape or form came close to cracking my Top Infinity Albums of 2008 list with this year's Viva la Vida. I hope that with this release, Jónsi and his boys have exorcised whatever pop demons that were troubling them and that we can expect a return to the beautiful soundscapes with which they've led us into dreamland for the last eleven years.

Sigur Rós - Gobbledigook


Honorable Mention #2

Midnight Juggernauts
Dystopia

Probably my favorite dance album of the year, Australian trio Midnight Juggernauts are riding the coattails of their friends from France, Justice. And while I loved the album to death, with "Ending of an Era" and "Into the Galaxy" making it onto just about ever mix CD I put together this year, it is that exact fortunate turn of events that keeps them out of my Top 10. Right now, nothing is hotter than the rock-dance that Justice turned the world onto with their emblematic "Cross" album last year. Throw an electric guitar over a heavy trance beat, maybe a catchy sample to put a bow on that neatly-wrapped package, and you'll find yourself in car commercials and as background music for every self-respecting hipster's Friday night out. But what have you really made?

In this case, probably just a throw-away dance album that we'll all, unfortunately, forget about in another year. The only reason I paid attention to this album in the first place was its attachment to Justice (the duo extended their hands to these three boys from Melbourne with an opening slot on their North American tour last year), and one of the only reasons their album has stayed in my head all this time is because Justice didn't release anything this year to knock it out. That and maybe a little bit because there's just a hint of INXS on this record that makes me feel all sexy inside when I turn it on. But I feel bad! I really do like these guys, and I want to see them succeed! I'm just afraid (read: certain) that when this whole heavy-metal-trance-punk thing comes crashing down in another year, Midnight Juggernauts won't have enough to stand on, and will be swallowed up, a forgotten band of a has-been fad. Like The Hives, and that Garage Rock Revolution we were all talking about four years ago.

Midnight Juggernauts - Into the Galaxy

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Alan Moore - Watchmen ****

It scares me that Alan Moore's Watchmen is now twenty years old. Not because it makes me feel dated--as old as I admittedly feel sometimes, I wasn't even alive when Moore published the first volume of his magnum opus. The reason it scares me is because of how horrifyingly relevant it still remains today, two entire decades after it was first put on bookshelves. The scary part about that--the reason why it remains one of the top-selling, top-reviewed graphic novels in the world, now on the cusp of a major motion picture from Warner Bros.--is because the crime and corruption that is dealt with in the book is still the exact same crime and corruption we see today. It frightens me to death that in twenty years nothing has changed. If anything at all, it has maybe even gotten worse. The reference to The New American (in the book, "The New Frontiersman"), the pseudo-White Power newsletter that was visible on the desk of one former VP hopeful, Sarah Palin in a picture leaked to the internet all but made my stomach turn. Twenty years ago, and here it is bubbling to the surface again. And no one remembers? I thought we were supposed to learn from our mistakes.

What is in store for the next twenty years? Will we still be reading Watchmen and sadly, knowingly shaking our heads? I hope we are not. I hope that the stories held within seem as outdated as Archie comics. Not to destroy Moore's work, not at all. He has created something so important with the Watchmen that it would be a crime to stop reading it. But I hope that we can read it in a different light. One of intelligent retrospect, of knowing from whence we came with a clearer vision of where we are going. I can only assume Moore would agree. From the lessons he tries to teach in Watchmen, I think he'd gladly allow his royalty checks to run dry if he could see some greater good come of it.

That's ultimately what I took away from Watchmen as I read it: an attempt at merging all the grey areas with those who can see only in black and white, molding them into some kind of moral beast, with which to fight what is wrong with the world. That's what the Watchmen themselves did--they attempted to pool together their talents and passions, but their beast was uncontrollable, too many heads and not enough brains. If you are to read the novel (and yes, it is truly a novel--the only thing "graphic" means here is that it is told primarily through pictures) like any other superhero story, you will be sadly left wanting. Perhaps not if you are a reader of some of the more modern superhero stories, starting with the X-Men and the modernization of Batman, ones that stretch beyond galactic battling in skin-tight leotards. But many of those comics themselves have been inspired by what graphic novels now represent. An emphasis on "novel."

The action here is not breaking down doors. David Gibbons' artwork is extremely dated and a bit shallow, the palate too full of oversaturated purples, yellows and reds. Not enough shading, no attention to how the story moves across its frames. Wordiness to wane even the interest of a bookworm like me. That's what kept me from buying the book for so long. A graphic novel is far more than just its story, and even the most intriguing books can be ruined by subpar artwork. By the same turn, some otherwise worthless stories can be turned around completely by artists like Ben Templesmith or Brett Weldele. Thankfully, I finally got past that judgement of mine and began reading. Within ten pages I was hooked, and I started carrying the book everywhere. Normally, I treat my comics with an almost anal-retentive kind of care, but Watchmen became like a novel to me, and for the week I spent reading it, took all kinds of abuse, from the weather, in my bag. I even read it on the toilet--a place where the glossy pages of Black Summer or Stray Toasters will never see.

And when I was finished... well, I was finished. The ending brought together disparate aspects of the story that managed to completely blow my mind once I figured out just what was going on. But the experience itself sort of fell flat. I really hate to say it, but ultimately I ended up just a wee bit disappointed. The drawbacks in artwork really hurt the hugeness of the climax for me, and injured the book beyond saving. I know I've just touted the thing as one of the great political and philosophical works of our modern era, and I still do wholeheartedly believe that to be the case. I learned more from Watchmen than I have in half of the regular novels I've read of late. But as a graphic novel, as a whole, I still don't know. As I said before, what I ultimately took away from the book was the lesson that was to be gleaned, not neccessarily a complete satisfaction with how it was presented. I am, however, excited for the movie. I don't know how they're going to shove all the necessary information into less than two hours of celluloid, but I think it will be amazing regardless. The book is definitely an excellent story board, and I can see this going down in history with Fight Club as being only my second ever Movie That I Liked Better Than the Book.