Sunday, December 27, 2009

Top 5 Albums of 2009: #1

The Flaming Lips

After 2006's disastrous At War with the Mystics, I wasn't sure what to make of The Flaming Lips anymore. I love Wayne Coyne and his merry band of psychos, but they just seemed to let go a bit too much. It was a generally accepted fact that Mystics was disjointed mess, with some of the worst songs The Lips had recorded since before Wayne even joined the band--but most critics simply looked at it as a bump in their otherwise pretty flawless discography. I, however, being the natural pessimist that I so often am, got worried and I retreated back into their mid-Nineties recordings--the ones that had gotten me into the Lips to begin with. While the rest of the music world wrestled with Mystics, I hunkered down with Transmissions from the Satellite Heart and Clouds Taste Metallic, trying to pretend that their latest abomination had never existed.

And so, fast-forward to two years later, I wasn't all that terribly excited when the new album was set to release, but I downloaded it illegally as a dutiful fan must (well, not too dutiful--I need that fifteen bucks to eat, mind you) and braced myself for the Oklahoma City boys to slip farther down the rabbit hole. But... hark! What is this? This fuzzed out bass! This twangy, distorted guitar! These bottom-of-the-Grand-Canyon booming drums! This wasn't the Flaming Lips of the past decade at all, with their loopy pop songs and obsessions with Japanese girls (let that up to Rivers, Wayne, 'cuz it's kinda creepy). This wasn't like that at all! It was like stumbling upon eighteen separate B-Sides from "She Might Be Jelly" that were dredged up from the Lips' vault and pressed in platinum by the holy hands of Thor and Jimi Hendrix.

Here I was, for the last two years, barricading myself with the Lips' heavier acid-rock albums, so worried that one of my favorite bands of all time were long gone from me--but apparently they were doing the same the whole time. And what they came back with is, without a question in my mind, their best album of all time. Some of these other albums on my Top 5 this year and in my Top lists in the past, have sort of hinged on the fact that you even like the kind of music that the band plays. Whether it be psychedelic chamber pop, frenzied spazzcore, or politically-driven ambient downtempo, you sort of have to want to like it, or you won't appreciate it at all. Which is fine, because I'm not reviewing albums based on how many plays FM97 is giving them, or how good their chance at a Grammy is--I'm reviewing them on their musical worth. And frankly, there is a whole lot more musical worth in some guy punching a de-tuned guitar for three hours than half the shit that is on the radio. But Embryonic is just plain awesome, regardless of what you like and don't like. And if you don't like it, I'm sorry for your loss. It's the best Lips album in history, and one of my absolute favorite albums of all time, so being the best release this year is kinda small beans, really.

From start to finish, the hour-long double album does not misstep. Crunchy, wah-pedaled guitars intertwine with rumbling bass parts and shotgun snare hits, as Wayne's over-chorused voice lilts in just above the clean, full sounds of keyboards and chimes, sometimes singing, sometimes just shouting nonsense along with the beat. Every song is filthy with distortion, even the pretty songs--where tracks on The Soft Bulletin could sound saccharine-sweet and overly-catchy, Embryonic plays out beautiful songs like "Evil" and "If" while still keeping the spirit of the album very alive. A spirit, perfectly represented in tracks like "See the Leaves" and "Worm Mountain" (which features last year's Top Album winners, MGMT), that makes me want to do a five-gallon bucket of heroin in a dark room and then die there in a puddle of my own sweat and vomit. In fact, the entire album is ridiculously consistent, and that's one of my favorite parts coming off such a haphazard release as At War with the Mystics, and even a rather wandering concept album in Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots four years before that.

A double album, especially one where the band admits that they just threw in the kitchen sink in not wanting to cut anything, can be a very scary thing. So many double albums in the history of music should have been run through the ringer one last time, by some third-party, not so attached to the music, perhaps. Do I dare ask to direct your attention to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness as proof that sometimes the editing floor needs to be a bit more littered with snippings? I don't even have the heart to do that. It's become tradition for bands to get bloated with self-importance and then release these multi-disc supposed epics that are just So Brilliant They Couldn't Figure Out Which World-Changing Songs to Cut. And then we get maybe three single-worthy tracks and 27 others that could have been shot directly into the sun for all they were worth. Well, let me be the one to tell you, that's not the case on Embryonic. It's brilliant, and at eighteen tracks, however long each may be, there really wasn't a need to cut anything anyway. And I'm glad that the Lips didn't, because every one of them is worth a listen. Because it's the best album of the year.

The Flaming Lips - I Can Be a Frog (featuring Karen O, over the phone and high as a kite)

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