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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Some Loose Ends: The Rest of the Music of 2009, Pt. 2

A lot of music happened in 2009. Some of it was great, some of it was good, and some of it... well, it was neither of those two things. Not just some, either--lots. Lots of music that fell into that last category, though really in most cases I hesitate to call that stuff music at all. For example, Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Miley Cyrus are still releasing music, which consequently means that none of them has been eaten by wolves yet. That's no good. The same goes for the Jonas Brothers, who I had hope for when they released an album entitled Lines, Vines, and Trying Times because I thought for sure it had to be about drug addiction (or at least the jungle). Not so, and a great disappointment. And who the fuck is this "Owl City" guy? When I hoped that The Postal Service would put out another album, I actually hoped that they'd be the ones putting it out. He's paying royalties, right? I'm pretty sure that's illegal.

Point is, people get mixed up. So on this, the last day of the year of 2009, I feel as though it is my duty to clarify for those of you who get your music news from such flawed sources as Pitchfork, Spin, Rolling Stone or Hunter Korchak. Because all of those sources seem to have this thing where they forget that they are supposed to make lists of good music and not just popular music. So they all end up with the same albums on their lists, and they all don't fucking belong there in the slightest. Spin put the new Kiss album on their list. At number forty, sure, but I have the entire Kiss discography and I love them to death and I still don't think they should have been put on anyone's top anything list since ten years before I was born. It's hardly even the same band! Those new guys should have to pick new facepaint designs at the least. And what the hell is with Rolling Stone putting U2 as their number one album of the year? When the fuck were those old self-important bastards last relevant? I'm pretty sure it was War. And that was three albums in. You see my dilemma here; as someone who is never wrong about anything, I'm obligated to remedy this situation. So now, without further ado, let me take you on a little trip through...


The Top 5 Albums That Everyone Else Says Were Great But Really Weren't At All, So They Must Have Been Mistaken... of 2009


#5
Phoenix
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

Easily the best of the five, but the fact that they got ranked so high on every single list this year puts them in my crosshairs anyway. It's not "bad" per se, it's just... pointless. Blah blah, they're French and hip. I liked this album way better when it was called Satanic Panic in the Attic. Or when Jason Schwartzman released it two years ago. Either one of those, really. Points for referencing two different classical Germanic composers in the course of your single and album names. Is that supposed to let us know that you're "real musicians"?

Phoenix - Lisztomania


#4
Girls
Album

Another band I won't necessarily hate come next year, but the pretentiousness of calling your first album "Album" paired with your fake British accents despite the fact that you are from San Francisco--it just gets my knickers all in a twist. So you used to be part of some stupid, half-assed cult and now you let loose by doing drugs all the time and making the video of your big "hit single" some kind of rejected American Apparel ad porno or something. You wanna make a porno music video? Talk to Rammstein about that one.

Girls - Lust for Life


#3
Dirty Projectors
Bitte Orca

Here is what should have been done with Dirty Projectors' single, "Stillness Is the Move": it should hae been air-express mailed up to Björk's fucking ice palace that I'm sure she lives in and she could have made it into at least an endearingly unlistenable piece of weirdo shit. "Bitte Orca" means "Please Killer Whale" in German and I can only assume that what the band means to say by that is, "Please Killer Whale, come and tear our bodies limb from limb and consume our raw flesh so that we can never ever do this to music again."

Dirty Projectors - Stillness Is the Move


#2
Neon Indian
Psychic Chasms

God, isn't this Eighties thing over yet? Even Pacific Sunwear (I'm sorry, "Pac-Sun") is carrying flannel now. Can't we give up on this synth-pop horseshit and move on to some kind of grunge revival already? This album is so boring that it effectively kicked Grizzly Bear off the list, and I really wanted to sit and list all the shitty other Woodsy-Type Animal-Named bands there are stepping on each other's toes nowadays. Like Deertick and Deerhunter and The Deer Hunter and Deerhoof (even though they're good). Oops, looks like I did anyway!

Neon Indian - Should Have Taken Acid With You


#1
The xx
xx

Holy shit. The only band that could out-bore Neon Indian--and I think they're trying it, too! What's with all the off-key talk-singing and whispering and shit? Naturally, my dad heard them on the radio and thinks they're "pretty cool" and totally "the kind of music you listen to, Jeremy." Ugh. Just look at them! It's like MySpace started a band, complete with Hot Topic jewelry and Kelly Osbourne cameo. You know who isn't in this band though? E.E. Cummings. Capitalize your fucking letters, assholes. It's not artsy, it's just as stupid and boring as you are.

The xx - Basic Space


There you go. The best of the worst. Or the worst of the best. I don't even know. I'm going to go open a couple of veins and hope for better in 2010. Happy goddamn New Year.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Some Loose Ends: The Rest of the Music of 2009, Pt. 1

Just because my Top 5 is finished doesn't mean I'm done. Hell no! There are definitely still a few loose ends to tie up this year. Too many, in fact. So I'm going to have to split 'em up into two parts!

In what is quickly becoming a tradition for my End of the Year List-Making, I must now go back and scratch the whole last week or so of posting, because it turns out only one album counted this year. And just like Peter Fox's Stadtaffe last year, I only heard about it once my countdown was winding down and didn't have a place to put it. Besides, putting it anywhere on any list would be pointless: this album needs to be put on a list all its own. So just who in the world could have released something so mind-blowing that it would shame all of my other entries this year into the muck and mire of unimportance?



Why, Andrew W.K., of course! It's been awhile since I'd heard from the man. He released Close Calls With Brick Walls in 2006, but only in Japan (it was later released in the U.S. on Load Records, the Providence, RI home of Lightning Bolt and White Mice), and after that I'd heard he was working on three albums at once, but nothing ever surfaced on my radar.

Those three albums turned out to include a disc of covers of fourteen of the most popular J-Pop and J-Rock songs of recent memory (not mine), fittingly entitled The Japan Covers and a party-rock reworking of the soundtrack to the influential, decade-spanning anime Gundam. Both of those albums include translated lyrics, in very broken english. He's... sorta really into Japan, I guess. I just hope he leaves the creepy stuff to Rivers Cuomo.

But the most important of this trilogy does not have a thing to do with Japan. It doesn't have much to do with anything at all. Especially anything you've come to expect of Mr. Wilkes-Krier. Because 55 Cadillac is an album of classically-inspired, improvised instrumental piano pieces. Eight of them in total. All of them with names like "Begin the Engine," "Night Driver," and "Central Park Cruiser." All of them fucking beautiful and unbelievably brilliant. All of them ready to make your head explode because you had no fucking idea the guy who sang "Party Hard" could play the fuck like this. Unless, of course, you've seen him live, in which case you've seen him do exactly that and when you told all of your friends later, they didn't believe you in the slightest.

Well, now you've got proof. All but forty minutes of proof. Forty minutes of some of the best piano-playing you've probably ever heard--or at least the best piano-playing you've ever heard from a guy with long, greasy black hair, ripped up old basketball shoes and matching sweat-stained white jeans and t-shirts. Just go listen to it. Right now. That's all there is to say, because words do not do it justice. I've said my piece.

Oh, and watch this and this too. He's pretty much the coolest guy ever.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Top 5 Albums of 2009: #1

The Flaming Lips
Embryonic

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)

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Top 5 Albums of 2009: #2

Matt & Kim
Grand

The first time I heard Matt and Kim was soon after their self-titled debut was released in 2006, and in so many words, I was not a fan. The duo seemed like they were trying a little too hard, the production value was thin at best, and Matt's voice grated on my nerves (if not slightly because I had a bunch of classes with an obnoxious kid named Eric who sounded just like him). So I wrote the band off, forgot about them until I heard the song "Daylight" on a Bacardi Mojito commercial. Instantly I recognized Matt's voice, but this time I found myself nodding along instead of wanting to throw myself into traffic.

So I gave their newest album a chance. And really, "a chance" is all I could really call it, because I listened through it once or twice and thought, "Well that was pleasant I suppose," and promptly forgot about it all over again until I happened to see the video for Grand's second single, "Lessons Learned" online. And I was hooked. In no small part, I'm sure, due to the fact that Matt and Kim are both rather attractive people and end up getting very naked in said video. I went back and listened through the album again, and something inside me clicked. My icy heart melted and I fell in love with the cute hipster couple from Brooklyn.

You see, it's all about context. I initially thought them no more than a bunch of trust-fund, art-school clowns going out of their way to make peppy dance music to get popular with the tragically hip Williamsburg scene. But what came off as so Cool to me was actually just plain... well, cool. Their songs are upbeat because they're upbeat. Their lyrics are about how awesome life is because their lives are awesome. How couldn't they be? Here are two twentysomethings that are living their absolute dream, playing music and living in New York City and being ridiculously, adorably in love with each other. They've found something that few people in the world can ever find, and it gushes forth in their music.

It also doesn't hurt that the production on Grand has been ramped up considerably since the couple's last album. With just a drummer and a keyboardist, all sorts of places on the equalizer can get missed, and with Matt & Kim, they did. The album was all mid-range, with sounds tripping over each other to be heard. Now, there is bass! Not the instrument, of course, but the range--a booming low end that rings out with the thump of Kim's drums and the rumble of the left-most keys on Matt's keyboards. Add in some more delicate numbers than were found on their sugar-pop first release, and you have a record that gets more to the heart of things: namely, their hearts.

Every single song on Grand sounds like summertime. Like riding your bike around town in cutoffs and a v-neck, sitting on your filthy, broken porch watching the world go by without a single care. Probably because most of the songs are about exactly that. And they touch me because, frankly, that's exactly what I'd like to be doing at any given moment. Some people might not take Matt & Kim seriously because of how much fun they are having, because their music isn't "serious" enough, but it's the loss of those people. This album does for me what people talk about Pet Sounds or Workingman's Dead doing for them. This is most definitely a Desert Island Disc for me, because it just makes me feel better when I turn it on. And I feel like, as brilliant as, say... Sleepytime Gorilla Museum's Of Natural History may be, I might want to have something to cheer me up a bit. Y'know?

Matt & Kim - Daylight

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Top 5 Albums of 2009: #3

Jónsi & Alex
Riceboy Sleeps

The Jónsi and Alex of the so aptly named "Jónsi & Alex" are Sigur Rós' lead singer Jón Þór Birgisson and his boyfriend Alex Somers, who has done most of the artwork for the band, so it should come as no surprise that the duo's first album together, Riceboy Sleeps, sounds something like the Icelandic post-rock band. But after Sigur Rós released their surprisingly poppy Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust last year, I wasn't sure where I could expect Jónsi & Alex to pick up in conceptual trajectory of Jón's über-famous band. Was this something new that he wanted to take further on his own? Would it be that sort of new, upbeat sound that the band had ventured into on their last release? Or would it be closer to the lush orchestral sounds that put them on soundtracks for The Life Aquatic  and Vanilla Sky?

If either, it was the latter that rings true with Riceboy Sleeps definitely taking a scenic route through ambient harmonies reminiscent of Sigur Rós' earlier recordings. But to call this a return to the days of Ágætis byrjun would be just plain inaccurate. Von, perhaps would be a more likely comparison, but Riceboy Sleeps is a whole and complete, extremely satisfying listen, and Von comes off sort of disjointed, a little scary, and frankly, kinda bad. Like a forgotten Godspeed! You Black Emperor project--and forgotten for good reason. If you actually like Von, I'll have to send you a case of PBR or something, because you've got way more hipster points than the rest of us.

As much as the sounds here do hearken to Jónsi's primary project (hell, every post-rock band hearkens to Jónsi's primary project at this point; you can't not--they are one of the absolute finest bands recording and touring today), they are far more closely related to ambient artists like Xela or Secede. This is an experimental album for certain, and perhaps not all fans of Sigur Rós will find this to their liking. Where a Sigur Rós song might start off quiet and build its way into a dreamy wall of epic stringed orchestration, these songs are more prone to just wander, satisfied to loll about under the muted sun that hangs amidst Iceland's perpetually grey and misty skies. Throw into the mix old friend Amiina (the string quartet who records and often tours with Sigur Rós, and whose own album Kurr is an absolute pleasure) and the Kópavogsdætur Choir, and you've got quite an interesting disc on your hands.

"All the Big Trees" and "Daníell in the Sea," the seamless sixth and seventh tracks on the album, are a perfect example of what Riceboy Sleeps represents. They sound like they could have been torn directly from Secede's Bye Bye Gridlock Traffic, if not for the delicate, ethereal melodies Jónsi and Alex hide beneath the blurring ambiance instead of stutter-step electronic beats. These songs don't have anywhere to go--they're just living in the moment, and it is so unbelievably satisfying to just live there with them. There is no need to crescendo into a smashing blast of distortion, cello bows drawn over tweaked out guitars and hammering drums pounding into oblivion; nor is there a drive to swoop in with ten-thousand strings and produce a tear-jerking moment that Michael Bay will want to pick up for his next celluloid abomination.

That's the best part about Jónsi and Alex: they're just happy to be who they are. Musically, and personally. I mean, have you seen them? A six-foot-tall, half-blind introverted Icelander and his tiny little American boyfriend whose bowl-cut hairdo helps him look roughly thirteen years old. I mean, I absolutely love and respect the guys, but if they're not comfortable with themselves in every single way by now, they've got bigger issues to work out than how many atmospheric flowing-water-sound overdubs they want to put on track nine. Correct answer, incidentally: approximately one billion.

Jónsi & Alex - Happiness

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Top 5 Albums of 2009: #4

Animal Collective
Merriweather Post Pavilion

Way back in January, Animal Collective released their eighth studio album and, twenty days into 2009, already cemented their place at the top of just about everyone's yearly list. Named after a concert venue near their hometown of Baltimore (marking the second time the Maryland city has made this list in as many entries), Merriweather Post Pavilion was a massive hit for the psychedelic quartet, launching them into the public eye. Even Entertainment Weekly commented on the album, saying: "While it won't land the band the opening slot on a Coldplay tour, it cleaves closer to Person Pitch's more listener-friendly aesthetic." Who the hell knew Entertainment Weekly was into Panda Bear?

So why, with all this acclaim and attention, is Animal Collective's latest release sitting so relatively low on my list? It's only half so that I don't look too much like an unrepentant, Pitchfork-worshipping hipster, I promise. Actually, the rest of the next part of that Entertainment Weekly quote pretty much hits my feelings on the head, saying that the record abandoned "the self-indulgent impulses that sometimes muddied last year's Strawberry Jam for an album full of effervescent, transportive oddity."

But wait... that's a good thing, right? Well, if I agreed, it probably would be. Don't get me wrong, I think that Strawberry Jam is definitely pretty damn self-indulgent and muddied at times--I just also happen to think that Merriweather Post Pavilion is even more so. Lots of critics have touted it as the band's "most accessible" outing, and they are right in so much as that the songs take on more traditional pop structures and have fewer repeated random noises sent through Geologist's Kaoss Pad phaser. But since when does making an album catchier make an album better? Is Rihanna inherently a better musician than Sunn 0))) because you can sing along to her songs? Chuck Klosterman would probably argue for it, but who the fuck cares what he thinks? (Or what you think, either, Hunter Korchak.)

The production quality of Merriweather Post Pavilion is what's got me down. It sounds like it was recorded on the bottom of a river. My favorite Animal Collective album is probably Sung Tongs--layered but precise, sweepingly psychedelic but careful in its production, giving each sound it includes the room to breathe. There are moments of clarity on the new disc, where everything focuses, and beautiful music emanates from the speakers--the chorus of "My Girls" for example, or the last verse of "Summertime Clothes"--but in general, the album sounds messy and poorly mixed.

When I first listened to it after having a friend send me a pre-release pirated copy, I thought that there was, perhaps, something wrong with the version I'd received. It sounded like someone had purposely fucked with it so to discourage pirating. Too much was going on under the voices and melodies which even themselves are over-reverbed half to death. But it turns out that was the way Avey & Co. intended for it to sound. It's strange, especially after listening to their newest EP, Fall Be Kind, released just one month ago, where this noisy background bubbling has been stripped away to the point that the band now sounds kind of naked. How about finding some middle ground again, eh? And yet, for all my negativity, they're still Animal Collective, so whatever they end up putting out is inevitably going to be better than just about everything else that a year has in store for music. It doesn't exactly "advance the dialogue on pop and electronic music" (yes, someone on a messageboard I frequent said that; no, I have no idea what that even means), but it's certainly good enough to hit number four on the countdown at least.

Animal Collective - My Girls

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Top 5 Albums of 2009: #5

Dan Deacon
Bromst

When his last album was released in 2007, Dan Deacon topped my End of the Year list, head and shoulders above all other contenders. Of course, at that time I wasn't keeping a blog, so exactly no one knew that fact--whereas now I'm pretty sure, like, six people will know who tops my list this year. Spiderman of the Rings was the Baltimore man-child's ADHD-fueled manic trip into electronic insanity, a giddy carnival ride of sounds and samples played back at hyperspeed to put your ass into a sugar-induced dancing rampage.

Two years later, Deacon has returned from a lengthy tour of the United States in a filthy green bus run on vegetable oil and has brought with him a brand new album, entitled Bromst. And as strange as it is to say about the sort of tubby, bearded man with a childlike wonder of the world around him and the music before him, he's matured. The songs on Bromst (which, by the way has no meaning, though during an interview with Pitchfork, Deacon briefly opined: "It's like a... it's like when a dragon wakes up and its not horny but it knows it could easily become horny") feel more complete, more thought out. They use many of the same sounds and structures as the tracks on Spiderman of the Rings, pieces from older songs showing up almost like conscious reprises--but this time around, they are vastly more refined in their presentation. It really feels, on this second release for Carpark Records, as though Deacon is coming into his own, more comfortable in his surroundings and able to give a little more of himself in the process.

Even the lyrics, when you can catch snippets of them as they travel by in tweaked-out, high-pitched tones, have matured. They've taken an introspective turn in many cases, and it makes me wonder what had been going on in Deacon's life as he recorded these songs. He was injured and sick for awhile and had to cancel a handful of shows, and I know from interviews that running his vegetable oil-fueled bus around the United States was wearing on him a bit (where to find enough vegetable oil, after all?). For as nice of a guy as he seems, it's almost heartbreaking to think that he was driven to write something so personal--but it certainly makes for a deeper and more satisfying album than his rather cartoon-y first outing.

My favorite song on Spiderman of the Rings was "Wham City," an eleven-minute-long ode to Deacon's hometown of Baltimore. I loved that song so much because of how much care it was obvious Deacon put into every second of it. The song was not a frenzied mashing together of blips and boops and samples of Woody Woodpecker's obnoxious laugh--it was quite obviously a passion piece for Deacon, and it stood out above the rest of the tracklisting because of the care he put into producing it. Now, with Bromst, he has given us an entire album of those careful songs, lush and full with a wall of sound driving them forward. I can't believe I've said it already or that I feel the need to say it again, but I think Dan Deacon is growing up. Not too much, of course, but enough to make heads turn on this release. I certainly did a double-take.

Dan Deacon - Snookered

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Top 5 Albums of 2009

It's December and that means it's time for candy canes, Christmas lights, and everybody and their brother to trot out their favorite albums of the year. Whether you write a blog post, a newspaper article or just on the walls of your padded cell, you've probably got a bunch of opinions (that are just like assholes) on who was made the best music this year, and boy-howdy if you don't want to make a contest out of it. Because music shouldn't just be to enjoy; it should be judged and cross-examined until it just ain't fun no more!

But hey, I'm not immune! Thing is, it's been over a year now since I worked at a hip little college radio station in Pittsburgh, so my intake of music hasn't been quite as voluminous as it once was. I have a list of plenty and more than a handful have to be cut to get it down to a manageable size, but without the vast amounts of music sifting through my hands as I used to have, I just don't feel right listing a Top 10 this year. It usually happens that half of my list is populated by weird, little obscure bands that I have been so fortunate to stumble upon during the course of the year, so instead of just pump the list full of other popular stuff you'll no doubt read all about in Rolling Stone or Spin, I've decided to cut it in half. Plus, maybe I'll actually get it all done before the month is out. Less work for me!

That being said, I'm now totally going to make myself a liar, because I have to give out no fewer than four honorable mentions before the list even begins. I debated just working these four albums into the list, but I don't know if they'd all have actually made it. So why choose them as my honorable mentions? Because it's been a good year in heavy music--a genre that doesn't get a whole lot of love on these countdowns in general. Combined, these four albums show a promising direction in the heaviest of heavies, and because of that, they shouldn't be ignored.


Honorable Mention #1

Lightning Bolt
Earthly Delights

When I said heavy, I meant it; this isn't the crunchy guitars of Jack White's new project, The Dead Weather (though I did quite enjoy that disc, despite its absence on this year's list). If you've never heard of Providence, Rhode Island's spazzcore darlings, Lightning Bolt, go ahead and do yourself a favor and shoot yourself in the skull with a shotgun. Because that's the closest thing I can think of to approximate their music to. Or just pick up one of their half-dozen recordings. This year's Earthly Delights is a marked return to the styling of 2001's Ride the Skies, with production set firmly in the mid-range rather than with the brutalizing bass drive of the last two albums. It's not my favorite of their efforts (that would have to be 2005's Hypermagic Mountain), but the directions in which the duo experiments on this disc is worth a listen alone.

Lightning Bolt - Sound Guardians (live--and on a stage??)


Honorable Mention #2

Isis
Wavering Radiant

Isis has been, and continues to be, one of the heaviest bands in existence. They don't need speed metal solos or black eyeshadow--they're just five guys from Boston who happen to make some of the most skull-crushing (and yet still elegantly melodic) music on the face of the earth. Led by Aaron Turner, one of the most prolific musicians/artists/producers in American post-rock and metal with his label Hydra Head and his armloads of varied projects, Isis' Wavering Radiant again shows why Turner and his gang are so widely respected. It's also a crowning example of what Turner has called "thinking man's metal" and music journalists have begun, since the release of Isis' 2002 release Oceanic, branding "post-metal" or "metalgaze." Yes, Isis has their own genre. They're kind of a big deal.

Isis - 20 Minutes/40 Years


Honorable Mention #3

Greymachine
Disconnected

Remember how I couldn't get over how awesome Aaron Turner is? Well, that's because he shows up on this little list twice this year. He wasn't satisfied to just record the best Isis album since In the Absence of Truth--he went right ahead and got together with Justin Broadrick of British experimental metal band Jesu and made an album that could probably break every bone in your body just by turning it on. Definitely more on the "noise" side of "noise rock," Greymachine is the very definition of the experimental metal that Turner and Broadrick are so famous for churning out. It's not an easy listen, but if you can appreciate what these two masters of the craft have brought forth, you are in for a real treat. Plus, "Vultures Descend" might just be the most simple-yet-utterly-bad-ass name for a song in the history of music.

Greymachine - Just Breathing


Honorable Mention #4

Russian Circles
Geneva

Hands-down my favorite album of the four of these, Russian Circles' Geneva is nothing like the beautiful, clean, peaceful Swiss city that it derives its name from. The Chicago trio's second album in as many years is their messiest, most ambient, distortion-driven they have recorded. I'd always been a fan of Russian Circles above many other post-rock bands for their ability to be painstakingly intricate in their musicianship, even live--but this new iteration is something that surprised me, and it's a direction I really like to see them headed. Perhaps it is the influence of relatively new bassist Brian Cook (ex-Botch, These Arms Are Snakes) being added to the mix. Either way, I'm definitely a fan. Now to see if they can pull off three albums in three years--I'm excited just to see where a new album after this might be headed. Don't make me wait too long, boys! (If only I had a dollar for every time I've said that.)

Russian Circles - Fathom

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Rules of Cool

As hipsters, one of our favorite things to do is to do things ironically. We think it's so clever to take things that are/were popular and turn them on their head and pretend that they are cool for reasons that have nothing/everything to do with how they got to be cool in the first place. We watch Full House, wear high-top wrestling sneakers, and drink Pabst Blue Ribbon to be subversive; to show how clever we are by doing things that are/aren't already cool for the same/different reason than we are doing them for.

Which is fine, on the surface. Irony is a delicate sort of humor that not all can fully appreciate or even understand (look for a blog in the near future expounding that exact theory), and when it is done correctly, it can be quite the quaint little laugh. It's funny (and frankly, pretty damn fun as well) to have a Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles-themed 21st birthday party in 2009. Especially if you're going to hold it at a laser tag arena, with Little Caesar's pizza and Surge. Okay... now that I'm thinking about it, that kind of birthday party is one that I'd throw without any sense of irony whatsoever, so maybe that's a bad example.

But you know what I'm driving at: doing stuff that isn't cool so that it's cool all over again--or, alternately, doing stuff that is currently cool, but making sure that everyone knows you know it's uncool (because it's cool) while you're doing it, therefore making it cool again (in a different way) because it's self-aware and therefore not-cool/cool/uncool again in the opposite kind of way. Or something. I'm not sure. And neither are you. And that's where we run into problems.

Because what we have to remember, when these sorts of delineations of coolness and irony start to get all fuzzy and confused, is that the things that we are pretending to like for irony's sake are actually not cool at all, even if they are cool--and especially if they were never cool to begin with, no matter what anyone thought of them. Because if we aren't careful, we begin to see cracks in the system. Bugs in the matrix. Like Lady Gaga.

Lady Gaga is not cool. Sure, she's cool to 13 year old girls and slutty sorority sluts (who are slutty), but that's just the kind of cool that we hipsters are dying to make fun of. An uncool kind of cool that just begs to be mocked with our finely-tuned irony we've gleaned from watching Wes Anderson movies and reading Chuck Klosterman (I don't even know if he's being ironic or not, he's just a fucking asshole). However, lots of hipsters of late have been falling into their own traps, losing a sense of irony about how cool they think Lady Gaga is and convincing themselves that she's actually quite cool after all. They've tripped up in their own snare that they've set for Society, in which Society is supposed to see said hipsters and think, "Boy, they certainly are/aren't cool," while secretly Society is being tricked and, in fact, said hipsters are that much cooler because of how confused they have made Society about what is and isn't not-cool/cool/uncool.

But with Lady Gaga (as well as HBO's True Blood and those striped, plastic Kanye West sunglasses), this admittedly confusing system has become quite a slippery slope. Hipsters the world over have fallen prey to their own irony, and have actually come to believe that Lady Gaga is, in fact, cool. Or worth listening to. Or worth the air she breathes. Well, let me be the one to set the record straight:

She's not. Any of those things.

She's just Britney Spears dressed up in (un?)ironic drag; a robot programmed to appeal to the subversive anti-counter-über-culturalists like me, with my tight pants and road bike, while at the same time still capitalizing on impressionable over-sexualized middle school girls. She is everything the music industry has been looking for since the hipster demographic started blipping on their radar with all kinds of disposable income. She is a plastic, over-produced pop star that has no worth or purpose but to suck money out of you and make you a little bit dumber and more prone to buy the next bullshit bucket of schlock that MTV ironically throws your way.

Dear god, they're beating us at our own game.