Ok, so the order in these particular groups isn't totally crucial but this is as close as I'm gonna get to sorting this stuff out. I love all these records to death, so this is far as I'm going; whittling it down to 50 was hard enough. Before you say anything: yes it's all rock music, yes it's all of the indie persuasion, yes I need to broaden my horizons, no I don't care. We'll be counting down to number one here for...well as long as it takes me...me and schedules don't get along. Props to those who were this close to being included: Airborne Toxic Event, matt pond PA, Aderbat, Black Keys, Secret Machines, DeVotchka, Sigur Rós, Rogue Wave, The National, Spoon, White Stripes, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, My Morning jacket, Calexico, Glasvegas, The Stills, Loose Fur, The Dears, Guillemots, LCD Soundsystem, Animal Collective, No Age, Kasabian, Camera Obscura, and The Hidden Cameras. I decided to limit myself to one album per artist. Otherwise there'd be four Radiohead albums and three TV On The Radio albums on here and that just didn't seem fair to the Helio Sequences of the world.
I Can Wonder What You Did With Your Day/Outside In
by Julie Doiron/Julie Fader
I've cleared a spot for both of my favorite Canadian Julies because they represent the same ideal, that of friendship and love meeting the DIY ethic. Recorded with friends and family close by, both records are brimming with optimism from privileged views of love and life, ones that I'd kill to have but haven't earned yet. The songs are earnest but never trite, soft but never predictably so, charming and always without trying. Perfect end of the day (ordeal) records, Fader's heavier, Doiron's lighter, neither entirely without personal strife and struggle, both with happy endings. They did it, why shouldn't you? What I found most endearing about their albums is that their styles are sparse and far from uniquely orchestrated, yet manage to provide a totally invigorating experience; neither record sounds like anything you've heard before yet you feel as if you've been listening to them all your life. On Outside In the moment that strikes me hardest is the chorus of album opener "Maps." "Perplexed by you..." I go ridged everytime I hear it. On I Can Wonder it's on album closer "Glad To Be Alive;" listen to her get the words of the refrain out. Jesus Christ, it's stunning! Fader and Doiron may not have the fanbases either deserves but those who know them rightly hail them as gems and these albums showcase their considerable strength and individuality of voice.
A Ghost Is Born
Wilco is a band that have become less interesting to me the more creative control they achieve. If allowed to do precisely what they want without anything to rebel against, they've gone a little soft. Their latest bored me stiff (though I'm warming to it) but back in 2004 they were still dangerous (kinda funny to think about actually, how nervous this record and its predecessor Yankee Hotel Foxtrot made everyone). Anyway, this is singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy at his most vulnerable; he was far from home free with critics and record sales and was just starting to regain confidence in himself after drug-related setbacks and all that shit with his last label. The whole thing sounds like a man trying to find his legs again after a fall, after drugs maybe, and in this regard the songs represent his arc; he comes out into the world again soft, maybe even relapses ("At Least That's What You Said"), regains composure though his fears don't go away ("Hell Is Chrome"), finally holds his own, in fact he even over-exerts himself ("Spiders (Kidsmoke)"), needs a breathe but proves himself a fighter ("Muzzle of Bees"), remembers times before he fell, sees how beautiful life is even with its heartbreak and his problems ("Hummingbird," "Handshake Drugs," "Wishful Thinking"), brings himself back to where he was before hand, enjoys life, considers what guides him ("Company In My Back, ""I'm A Wheel," "Theologians"), sees what he was at his darkest, his most alone ("Less Than You Think") and finally conquers it ("The Late Greats"). I was feeling pretty fragile too when I found the album (nothing like Tweedy, of course - I was 15, maybe) and it's stuck with me even though whenever I get happier it means a little less.
The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse
by The Besnard Lakes
Like a sleeping giant, The Besnard Lakes first record wakes slowly. First a soft electric guitar, then Jace Lasek's angelic falsetto, pleading violins and then a few verses in the rest of the band, the persistent drums, the loping bass and the buzzsaw guitar intro that dissolves in tremolo. "You've got Disaster (said, brilliantly, "Diz-ASS-TORE") on your mind!" Like a good many of the bands on this list, Besnard Lakes, Canada's best psych-gazer band are appreciated by many of the countries musicians but haven't quite found their footing down here. But trust me when I say that they're awesome. There's My Bloody Valentine-style shimmering and the 60s prog instrumentation and impressive vocals - even some of Lacek's lyrics recall bygone eras in a way many can't even parody correctly (you could read "She had secrets written all over her body" as a nod to Peter Fonda's The Trip if you were so inclined). The songs are lush and stick with you long after the record's done, whether it's "For Agent 13" which sounds like ice melting beneath two naked bodies, shining juggernauts like "On Bedford And Grand" or slow burning rockers like "And You Lied To Me," the album maintains its fleeting beauty like a perpetual sunset.
Digital Ash In A Digital Urn
by Bright Eyes
Conor Oberst and I have something of a tortured relationship. I fell in love hardcore with I'm Wide Awake It's Morning though I knew his was a sound too precocious for a longterm commitment. The first week I had it I bragged to all my friends, shouting the staccato opening to "At The Bottom OF Everything" to anyone near enough to listen. Then things cooled off and we went our separate ways, but sometime later I'd remember that one night during that first week my goth friend had pulled me aside on the bus and said "hey man, you gotta try this." I braced myself as I put the earphones on and sampled the wares. What I heard was a baby crying over a simple drum beat by Jason Boesel and Clark Baechel and in between fits was Nate Wolcott's muted trumpet, bemoaning something lost on all of us as we couldn't see the rainy street in his head but we picture our own everytime. Before Oberst became his own one-man Last Waltz he made one of the most darkly optimistic records of the decade in Digital Ash In A Digital Urn released the same day as I'm Wide Awake. While I can't take all of the drunken country flavor of the latter, I can take the grey-tinged atmosphere of loss and regret of the former any day of the week. From the hazy, urban nightmare of "Time Code" (which has perhaps my favorite drum programming in history) to the wistful rocking of "Light Pollution" (which has perhaps my favorite drum intro in history), the album is loaded with emotional revelations. It's tough to say whether you're meant to be happy or sad after "Easy/Lucky/Free" ends the record but I do like the ambiguity and the expert song crafting; Nick Zinner's guitar and keyboard predicts some of the best work he would do with Yeah Yeah Yeahs, as on the awesomely textured "Take It Easy (Love Nothing);" It's tough not to love that outro. Ultimately the record is about the pitfalls and highs in loving people and there will be good times and bad, but though we take them both but know which to keep.
Broken Boy Soldiers
by The Raconteurs
More than any other band, The Raconteurs made me and a few likeminded listeners really appreciate just what a band is. I realize how that sounds but there was something about Jack White, who'd taken his time including a bass guitar on White Stripes records, doing something other than harsh, occasionally radio-friendly, backwoods art rock. Who did he do it with? Why Brendan Benson, one of the most underrated pop singers in the states. Who did they invite to play in their rhythm section? Jack and Patrick from The Greenhornes, another unjustly overlooked 60s-y blues band that did that killer song that wound up in Broken Flowers. Maybe it's the production but the contribution of each member is so distinct and so audible. The songs, each clearer and more memorable than the next, are lousy with hooks and the sense of not knowing or caring whether it's Benson or White singing or leading on the organ or the guitar is more than welcome. To get lost in it is half the fun of rock music, especially rock music so full and confidently (but importantly not at all arrogantly) delivered. The record has a good deal of youthful energy, out of time but definitely masculine, so I won't claim it's universal, but it really is satisfying to be able to put in a record and really appreciate every member of a band. A Band. A BAND!
& Yet & Yet
by Do Make Say Think
From the opening hi-hat and kick drum of & Yet & Yet, it is quite clear just how badly Do Make Say Think want to rock your shit. They start out coyly, sure, but as always, they build themselves into an unshakable foothold, grooving out that timeworn tapestry of guitars, keys and horns atop a veritable earthquake of rhythm. Not until you've waited for it does the hook emerge from the fog and run its fingers through your hair...or anyway that's what it feels like whenever I listen to "Classic Noodlanding, " & Yet & Yet's opener. Through seven tracks DMST explore the backways and abandoned warehouses of rock music, showing everything a band is capable of without words to get in the way of your feeling, connecting to and living with the music. From the schizophrenic "Reitschule" to the indelible "Soul and Onward" to the warm blaze of "Anything For Now" & Yet & Yet isn't so much a rock record as a place to get lost and then rediscover things about yourself and rock music.
by Sonic Youth
In my best of the year post, I called Sonic Youth's The Eternal "a masterpiece" painted on the canvas of rock music. I stand by that ludicrously over-wrought statement even now. It's crunchy, it rocks, it's got pockets of harmonic awesomeness to fall into after/during/before the rocking that makes up the body of each song. I like Sonic Youth but more than air-drumming to their records I'd respected them as artists; I can't really rock out in my basement to the SYR series or Evol but I loved that for years they did whatever they wanted to do and were promoting a sense of experimentation and keeping noise alive. I like "Teenage Riot" but the rest of Daydream Nation is too impenetrable for me. Does this make me a philistine? Almost definitely. Anyway my point is that my enjoying Sonic Youth records from top to bottom started with Sonic Nurse (I'm the only one, apparently) and they've just gotten better since then. First came Rather Ripped and now The Eternal which is a record that subverts rock clichés into something that reaches levels of art; who else could turn the simple tuning of a string into something so attention-getting as the opening of "Antenna" or the simplest rock riff a la "What We Know" which remains just about the most badass thing from 2009. Taken as a whole it's a sonic painting, somewhere between Pollack, Picasso and Popova and in my stupid, too young, wasn't-around-to-see-them-change-the-face-of-rock-music opinion, their best album. Or anyway it's my favorite.
by Neko Case
I admit that between writing about many of these albums in past year-end summations I run out of additional things to say. Middle Cyclone, as its name implies, is a maelstrom of dusty rock beneath Case's gorgeously imploring vocals. Her most mature and catchy record to date (and in this I count her work with The New Pornographers) and it's so loaded with great moments where the band fades away and it's just her voice and a guitar....it's moments like that "My love, I'm an owl on the sill in the evening" from "This Tornado Loves You" or all of the title track that prove she's equally at adept at breaking hearts as rattling bones. Listen to her tear the house down on "The Pharoahs;" her voice is a motherfucking force of nature. This is June Carter/Johnny Cash good, this stuff. And in order to prove me wrong, you have to go buy Middle Cyclone on vinyl, listen to it, then try and reason with me.
In Our Bedroom After The War
Whenever someone puts Set Yourself On Fire by Stars on at Siren Records, my boss Larissa would always look at me and try to articulate the specialness of the album. "Scout, this record is just..." and so would follow a series of intangible descriptors. She's right and every new way she would come up with to sum up the appeal of the album would be as true as the last because Stars do make incredibly special albums that manage to get inside the metaphorical heart and sit there like a lightbulb waiting to be switched on everytime you hit play. Things make sense, they get brighter, you feel happy. It was with much thought that I chose a single Stars record to put here but I feel ok with In Our Bedroom because it has the most heart, I think, and the most immediacy of their four releases to date. The qualities that my favorite songs on Set Yourself On Fire, "Soft Revolution" and "Ageless Beauty" have in common is both a shimmering exterior and an urgency to the melody. In Our Bedroom has both in spades; indeed the album is shiny as a Christmas tree. The earnest "Take Me To The Riot," the soft yet determined "Midnight Coward" Amy Millan's voice communicating heartbreak and hope in her very enunciation and tone, Torquil Campbell's the angel on her shoulder inspiring hope, even as he himself spins his own doomed romance in "Barricade". That the record has war as its theme is perfect because it necessarily makes their already stellar pop songs into things of desperate poignancy. Listen to the whole record and then try not to feel like you yourself have just won some operatic struggle after the joint conclusion of "Today Will Be Better, I Swear!" and the title track. It's very difficult. I don't recommend listening to "Window Bird" or "Bitches In Tokyo" without being in love, because the cruciality behind Millan's honeyed voice causes a surge of emotion to rise out of you and you might grab the nearest person and kiss them...so I'd suggest finding someone who'd be OK with it before listening to those songs too loud. They're dangerously beautiful.
When At The Drive-In broke up we were given two gifts: an ever-expanding stable of virtuosos called The Mars Volta who became a fusion of the ethos of genre-exploding groups like Santana and The Jimi Hendrix Experience and the intensity of the modern concert experience, and Porcelain, Sparta's second album. The latter wasn't a gift everyone appreciated, of course, but such is life. Drive-In castaways Jim Ward, Paul Hinojos (who later joined The Mars Volta) and Tony Hajjar and new bassist Matt Miller created the kind of modernist art that people like Ingmar Bergman and Antonioni made at the apex of their artistic freedom (I'm really digging Michelangelo today). Before you get all whatever you were about to get, remember first that when Winter's Light and L'Aventurra debuted people weren't exactly convinced that these were the works of genius they're considered to be today. I would argue that Ward's peculiarly abrasive vocals are the equivalent of the harshness and minimalism of Winter's Light or Through A Glass Darkly and the band's use of space and silence in their production are the equivalent of Antonioni's distancing mise en scène and his deliberate eclipsing of people by architecture. Porcelain is a decidedly melancholy work; but for "Breaking The Broken" and "Lines In Sand" none of the songs has a chorus with a major sound, many of the songs are in drop D, and most use augmented chords and rely on Hinojos' lead guitar (he is a vastly under-appreciated guitar player; his playing is so accomplished and under-stated that though he never solos, his presence is always felt) to provide the mood, which is never positive (when it disappears, during the chorus "Breaking The Broken," it is the album's one classical 'rock' moment and the song was unsurprisingly the album's single; though for once that doesn't make it the album's weak spot; I'd argue that it doesn't have one because Porcelain is about alienation; alienating moments would be just at home). Ward's screaming protagonist desperately tries to find order in meaning while sorting out what life's big occurrences, like religion in "End Moraine," questions of identity in "Lines In Sand," legacy in "Travel by Bloodline" the end of life in "Death in the Family" and "From Now To Never" actually mean. Ward had suffered the loss of friends and family during the writing of the album and his plight is universal; his grappling with what happens when he and those close to him die is heartbreakingly human. Coupled with the music's constantly evoking an aching soul alone with nowhere to turn but the daunting reality of infinity - the reverb-heavy guitar especially - Porcelain isn't an ordinary rock album but the outpouring of a troubled soul, someone who cares too much to be existentialist in the face of tragedy. Ward's loss transforms and guides his music in a powerful way. Never has something like a guitar solo like the one in "Syncope" sounded more like the contents of a soul or the intensity of "Tensioning" or "Travel By Bloodline" been so much more than prompts for nodding heads. Such a profoundly emotional work can be a daunting listen, to be sure, but Porcelain is a gift that I'm grateful for.
by Tom Waits
When confronted by changing times, the best artists make the times work for them. Some can hold out without changing a thing, but some, like Tom Waits, aren't interested in standing still. Ever since Swordfishtrombones Waits has been a trailblazer of new and bizarre styles that compliment his own brilliantly strange persona and of course his one-of-a-kind voice. Alice and Blood Money, his first two albums of the millennium were definitely interesting but they hinted at something new that he hadn't quite arrived at. So he dropped the piano for the first time in his career and made an album that is both a compendium of the possibilities of a studio record at the time of its release and also timeless. Sure, "Top of the Hill" sounds very much like it was recorded in 2004, what with it's turn-tables and sampling (RJD2 was still on top of the world) but if you didn't know, when would you say songs "Hoist That Rag" or "Shake It" were from? This is Waits at perhaps his most insane-sounding and yet I feel that he had control over every second we hear with the most success to date. Dissipated record company pressure (that is to say they themselves are real gone) and technical advances say that Real Gone is Tom Waits, pop-less and pure, the way he was meant to be all his life, that he's gotten to now. He always did things the way he wanted to, but there's something so right about the style and production of this, his latest full-length record. It's instantly compelling.
There were a lot of pretty excellent bands that paid tribute to the 60s and 70s with their albums but Dungen sounds like the real deal. Frontman Gustav Ejstes' commitment to seamlessly produced psych music went past charmingly awesome on into sublime somewhere around Tio Bitar their second big record over here and their fourth in all. Tio Bitar starts with the sound of a party siren, announcing first that something big is about to hit and his band's fuzzy assault follows seconds later, but it also signals that the record will have the same aesthetic of the freak-outs and happenings of decades past. When the distortion fades and Ejstes' flute closes "Intro" the feeling of instantaneous pleasure is replaced with completeness. Bitar is, like Antonioni's The Passenger or Zabriskie Point a journey through space, but mostly through states of the mind. Tracks like "Familj" or "C Visar Vägen" may wander, but each has sections of immediacy and eye-opening directness that, though you can't understand what Ejstes is saying (unless you're fluent in Swedish) brings you to a realization about yourself and the moment you're standing in. Then of course there are the rockers, through which it is quite hard not to imagine yourself on a chopper shot on over-exposed 16mm. From the 8+ plus minute jam "Mon Amour" to the spring-loaded assault of "Ett Skäl Att Trivas" followed by the awe-inspiringly mountainous "Svart Är Himlen," Bitar rocks most consistently of any of Dungen's records and kicks most modern/reunion prog's ass by a hefty margin.
by The A Frames
Erin Sullivan might be the most underrated or at the very least unfairly unknown songwriter in modern rock. With but two albums to his name (and an out-of-circulation EP) he has one of the most distinct voices I've ever encountered. While his other band The Dipers is certainly the more brash of his two projects, The A Frames managed a sound so masterfully produced, dark and unique that it at once damned itself to obscurity and made it impossible for Sullivan to follow it up. Sullivan has done nothing musically since Black Forest the band's feature-length album which has ensured that it remains a pure statement and, despite my wish for another record, has left me with no unanswered questions. It is a perfect little rock album with all the doom and gloom one could ever hope for. Packed with imagery from WWII-era Germany and structured around someone remembering life before the earth was laid waste to with the twain occasionally meeting, Black Forest may be the only post-apocalyptic album. Sullivan's erotically detuned guitar carves riffs into the record like a combine into steel while Min Yee's rusty basslines and Lars Finberg's drums, who sounds more like a factory or an aged machine than a human playing an instrument, doggedly keep time. That the album goes from the exhausted/haunted de rigueur of a zombie oberst (the "Black Forest" songs that segment the album, "My Teacher," "Eva Braun," perhaps the least appealing/most mesmerizing love song ever written) to post-punk noise that can only be compared to a steam-powered juggernaut, as Sullivan understood when he called his poppiest song "Death Train." "Memoranda" and "Negative" are compelling action pieces, like a knife-fight in an alley, while "Quantum Mechanic," "U-Boat" and "Flies" suggest hellish factories, the last vestiges of a doomsday regime. What's most interesting is that though the album is absolutely terrifying in its production and lyric content (delivered in Sullivan's perfectly tuneless voice, sometimes a gleeful participant of the destruction, sometimes a victim), it is also at heart an immensely catchy rock record; a sheep in wolf's clothing. This dichotomy is best summed up in Sullivan's few guitar solos. On the whole the record is a well-oiled machine with little time for heroics but the few times that Sullivan does anything other than etch memorable guitar lines are thrillingly ugly. In "Age of Progress" he doesn't play notes so much as he murders his guitar and listens to it scream. In "Eva Braun" and "U-Boat" it confesses sins like a guilty child and turns in comrades. In "Galena" it is a vicious animal clawing your back. Black Forest is a rich text just itching to fill you with its subtext.
Keep Your Eyes Ahead
by Helio Sequence
Maybe I'm just a sucker for reverb but I find Keep Your Eyes Ahead by The Helio Sequence endlessly appealing. I love every song, every delayed guitar part, every one of Ben Weikel's giant drum parts and snappy programmed rhythms, every one of Brandon Summers' tormented turns of phrase, I love all of it. The drums and bass pop out of the tapestry of reverb happy guitar and keys and Summers' strangely appropriate voice dictates the proceedings like a lovelorn carnival barker. Keep Your Eyes Ahead is about being lost, on the outside of relationships and feeling like you'll never join in the fray, that life's going by too quickly. Songs like the wonderfully sly "Lately" and the expansive and somber "The Captive Mind" communicate the trouble as much as the Dylan-inspired acoustic ballads "Shed Your Love" and "Broken Afternoon." You know that when a song called "Hallelujah" sounds less than miraculous that you're in the hands of a broken-hearted auteur. As Summers tries to grab onto something that'll bring him back to life, he and Weikel hone their quirky music to a point as fine as a new sharpie. While bands like The Shins and Death Cab For Cutie try to evolve without fundamental changes, The Helio Sequence make their style work with their maturing worldview until a meditative medium is reached; Keep Your Eyes Ahead is just that: a work calloused but hopeful that shimmers with creativity unhurt by the baggage that either songwriter brings with him.
Love At The End Of The World
by Sam Roberts Band
I've spoken about my love of Sam Roberts a hundred times here and in person. He was the catalyst for what will hopefully be my first completed film, he's put on some of the best shows I've ever seen, he's granted me every possible kindness a musician can grant a fan. I've followed Sam since his debut in the states and it gives me no little pleasure to say that I had a hard time sorting out which of his three excellent albums would end up here. Though We Were Born In A Flame has a blazing warmth and sense of triumph-overcoming-malaise and Chemical City is at once an acerbic critique of our tendency to hurt ourselves and a record filled with hopefulness as loud as its psych-influenced centerpiece "Mind Flood," I decided that Love At The End Of The World best captures Sam's worldview and is his most concisely written album. From the stomping, ice-breaking title track on through the laid-back "Stripmall Religion" and "Oh Maria" Sam and his band's third album starts off listenable and with a clear message: stop what you're doing and love each other. The rockers may not get as loud as those on Chemical City but "Fixed To Ruin," "Them Kids," and "Up Sister" have a feeling of agelessness important to the album's success. Love is Sam's ode to the free love spirit that lived and died in the 60s (communicated best in album closer "Detroit '67") and so crucial in getting us to see this is to write songs that are a little adrift, hard to place in time. Eric Fares' keys, Dave Nugent's guitar, James Hall's bass and Josh Trager's drumming are all on point, and rather than taking a separate tack to display their not inconsiderable talent, they all blend together in the mix, a subtle statement in keeping with Roberts' thesis. Love is ultimately a triumph over the cold truths of the real world because at no point is that ignored, it's simply defeated by a belief in people and their capacity to love.
by Handsome Furs
A friend told me that the reason that I loved Face Control so much was because I had seen the Handsome Furs play it live, and so understood the force and the power behind them and could conjure them at will whenever I heard the album. It is quite true that everytime I hear "Legal Tender" I will be in the music hall of Williamsburg watching spouses and bandmates Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry launching themselves at each other, spitting and sweating, fucking through their instruments. And so the moment in each song are not just verse, chorus, verse, they are build-up, attack, release. "I was down at the motel" sings Boeckner in his perfectly handsome voice, and this we may infer, is the release. The different musical elements introduced are all in place for those few seconds and we can feel what they feel for those few seconds; live it's even better. I don't pretend that everyone will see Face Control the way I do because they haven't been front row center and don't get what it's like to be able to hear the drum-machinist's feet hit the ground and maybe they have no interest in that. Handsome Furs are not for everyone, they just should be because their music, beyond their New Order-inspired post-punk, Perry's perfectly busy fingers and Boeckner's badass guitar playing and fetishistic lyrics, is the music of souls melding, of shared beds, of the excitement of love, of being able to get excited every morning knowing that anything you and your beloved do will be the most exciting thing you've ever done. Thus "Talking Hotel Arbat Blues" isn't just a Dylan paraphrase, it's about the forward momentum of two people holding hands, "Passport Control" a strobe-light over a frantic intimacy, "All We Want, Baby, Is Everything" two people looking at the rest of their lives and rightly demanding the most of them and excited for the best of them.
Though my sister nearly killed this record for me by playing it too much I don't think I'll ever stop loving Absolution. I saw Muse in 2004 at the Curiosa festival where after playing highlights from their most recent opus, they destroyed the stage. It was a one-of-a-kind experience helped in part by their being preceded by Interpol and followed by The Cure. Matt Bellamy views rock music with the eye of a classical composer, never content to simply come up with a chord progression when he can add a mile-a-minute guitar fill, a mood-appropriate piece for the keyboard or a string section. Like his hero Rachmaninov, Bellamy finds darkness and light in ever-shifting progressions and grinds his songs down until every inch of its potential has been set free. His voice, half paranoid Lydon-esque snarl, half soaring Yorke-esque falsetto, is a thing of beauty. Whether he's thrown his whole being into rocking as on "Time Is Running Out" or "Stockholm Syndrome," or floating like his delicate atmospherics on "Blackout" and "Falling Away With You" his is a captivating brand of rockstar. Of course he'd be nowhere without Chris Wolstenholme's blistering bass playing and Dominic Howard's sound and efficient drumming. The three-piece snake through the harsh buzz of "Hysteria" to the lilting "Ruled by Secrecy" to the hugely ambitious "Butterflies & Hurricanes," proving that no sound is beyond their reach as musicians. Absolution may be about facing apocalyptic hurtles and overcoming them (as "Apocalypse Please" the wonderfully heavy opener can attest) but it couldn't be an easier record to listen to. Muse are an interesting anomaly; though they rightly grow in stature yearly thanks to their slowly penetrating broader spheres (a guest spot in Twilight probably hasn't hurt sales one bit) they manage to never do what is expected of them or of any rock band. Bellamy's compositions have gotten bigger and more esoteric as they've risen to the top, so while they're selling out arenas, they're doing it with songs on custom-made keytars and three-part symphonies as well as audaciously produced pop-songs. Absolution is their most satisfyingly complete statement (though I might just enjoy its hegemony) but I have loved watching them grow.
Some records manage to transport you somewhere of yours and its own making. Whenever I hear the introductory strumming on Matt Houck's old acoustic guitar before his four-or-more-part harmony starts the rest of "A Picture Of Our Torn Up Praise" I am someplace cool and breezy by the sea, the sun is just about down, crickets are chirping and I'm not alone. The rest of the album has a darker bent but is no less powerful as a work of transcending the everyday with its palpable mood and angelic sound. When "Be Dark Night" follows, I can see city streets in black and white and the faces of those who have nothing but live on anyway, I can see plains and fields of grass and life moving inexorably forward like a calm river. Houck's voice is flooring, capable of haunting you or lulling you into a dream, and his orchestration restrained yet sated. The best Phosphorescent songs, like Cormac McCarthy novels all communicate a knowingness, an awareness of all of life's little things, and Pride is wild and lazy like a night filled with fireflies, sage and strange. I'm afraid to say more would be like caging an animal, a "wolf," it has to run through you for you to understand its splendor.
Come On Feel The Illinoise!
by Sufjan Stevens
Sufjan Stevens is an insanely prolific artist, having recorded some 200 plus songs in the last eight years, though he didn't write them all. And as much as I'd like to espouse the virtues of his lesser known projects (his softly tearjerking look at family life Seven Swans, last year's flawless and largely unknown instrumental record The BQE which was among my favorite albums of 2009) there's no getting around the genius of Illinois. I know, I'm sick of Chicago, too, but I'll get over it if you can. I've long believed that a connection between auteur filmmakers and distinct songwriters existed in that when a songwriter is really alive and inside every note, he brings you with him. Like Wes Anderson, Stevens brings both zany and mournful stories to life centered around one thing, in this case the state of Illinois. What other indie songwriter do you know who would have the balls to do something as busy as the title song or something as simple as giving his songs names so long that they've finished before you've had a chance to read them off the screen of your iPod? "Out Of Egypt, Into The Great Laugh Of Mankind, And I Shake The Dirt From My Sandals As I Run" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, does it? Or how about his song about John Wayne Gacy? He not only identifies with him, but he gets us to identify with him; a man who killed dozens of people. I hasten to remind you that Illinois didn't receive a single negative review in the national press that I've been able to find. That's because he's an auteur and the audience loves a stylician (I will get that word into the dictionary some day!). Stevens is a lovable kook with a fathomless creative process that produces baroque-yet-catchy pop records with full orchestras on nearly every track. And then of course there are songs like "Casimir Pulaski Day" which I believe has broken the heart of everyone who's ever listened to it. In fact it's the personal stigma attached to that song (and a few others) which has perhaps lowered my estimation of this record over the four years I've lived with it. Maybe I've changed, but not enough to not recognize how brilliant Illinois really is.
Man of Aran
by British Sea Power
British Sea Power's Man of Aran is a record of considerable emotion and power and is deserving of a place in the pantheon of rock and roll albums it may never get. Recorded as an alternate soundtrack to Robert Flaherty's documentary of the same name, the album is just as beautiful as the texture of Flaherty's images. An arresting and winsome story told in song, Man of Aran is just as communicative of setting as the film it speaks for. Though it could be called post-rock, I think there's something crucial about the whole idea that needs to be spoken to. In deciding to make Man of Aran British Sea Power not only saw for themselves a challenge and a fascinating opportunity, but they stood up for a work of art and the people it portrayed. They gave new life to Flaherty's film and to the real-life characters inside. Traditions are dying with people everyday and the importance of capturing memories and passing down stories of lives lived to the fullest in the name of love and family is something that is lost on too many people. British Sea Power thus earn not only my admiration at their ability to write such poetic and overwhelming music but my deep-seated respect for extending their power to other art and artforms and those traditions that I too wish to keep alive. And what better way to celebrate what artists have been able to achieve than with Man of Aran playing as loud as you can stand it. It's sweeping melodies, charging rhythms and thoughtful compositions all ring out as clear as the sound of waves against a great cliff.
by Bloc Party
As post-punk goes this last decade was a particularly fertile time. Along with TV On The Radio's Dear Science I think that Silent Alarm by Bloc Party best captured the spirit of dance-driven guitar music that came about in the wake of Brian Eno's collaborations with David Bowie and Talking Heads. Bloc Party, sounding a touch like the Heads, Gang of Four, XTC, and Scritti Politti but with production value those pioneers could only have dreamt about. Ok, I guess there isn't much to Bloc Party's sound but there doesn't have to be. Two rapid-fire guitars and breathless rhythm section and the melodic cry in Kele Okereke matching the intensity of his songs is quite enough to fill a record. It's a great formula and though all that's changed is the number of keyboards used as lead instruments over the years, I still say Silent Alarm is their best. "Like Eating Glass" is imperative and light at the same time, "Helicopter" is an exercise in breakneck ironic detachment that works in spite/because of its memorable chorus, "Banquet" is still just as lo-fi fantastic as the first time you heard it despite it being the de facto commercial break song for a few years there, "Blue Light," "So Here We Are" and "This Modern Love" are tender and heartrending even if the tone suggests something more boyish. The songs all fire off like a rocket and could be just poppier rock tunes n but there's an important post-modernity to their shotgun-blast delivery. As technology and the increasingly over-populated world makes it harder for us to see each other, the distance between people may seem as short as ever but we are growing steadily apart and if we don't reach out and touch somebody we might forget how to.
After a few years on my radar as a band capable of strange and occasionally catchy mood rock Doves finally rose out of the murky depths of semi-consciousness with a song that I took as a statement. Those who didn't watch MTV2's Subterranean in its golden era (which is to say before I stopped watching television and/or anytime the woefully out-of-his-element fuckheaded host Jim Shearer wasn't talking and/or back when we were stealing the channel before the cable company got wise) probably missed their video for "Black & White Town." I'm not a fan of music videos but this one stays with me even now. Pale British kids in static shots lay around their bedrooms and other locations until, presumably breaking from the malaise of modern life, they spring to life and chase each other out of town. Yeah it doesn't sound like much but it was pretty amazing at 2 in the morning and with the song behind it, the whole thing felt like a revelation, like we were being let in on something unsettling. The kids sure looked like the real thing and the video had the low budget charm of Danny Boyle meets Ken Loach. I was a huge fan of all things counter-culture and British (I still am, if less so) and the video was the equivalent of Johnny Depp or Peter O'Toole showing up in the cast list of some film you've never seen. I bought the record, Some Cities, the next day and for weeks it was all I listened to. There is something uniquely British in many of the songs, the drudgery of Manchester still just as poignant and hopeless as it was in '79 or presumably the whole life of the region. I grooved hardcore on the keyboard sounds, those echoey cries imploring the listener into action, lest they fall into the same trap of lifelessness as the kids in the video. Doves knew all the right moves. The reverby post-punk guitar scraping out leads, the bass that lets the choruses float on air, the no-nonsense drumming, Jez Williams' deep and hoarse crooning, pitch-perfect production. Some Cities is an active record and forces you into a mindset. You have to see the hopefulness that lies just beyond the emptiness and work with them to reach it. Songs like "Snowden" and "Some Cities" prove the smiling foils to the despairing "Ambition" and "The Storm" while "One Of These Days" and "Someday Soon" seem to openly grapple with their moods. "Almost Forgot Myself" proves a striking example of this; Williams even sounds mildly upset when the song has to leave the chorus to go back to the verse, with its pacing bass riff and ostinato guitar as he sings "Ah ah ah all". Some Cities is in this way a record that can't be listened to in its entirety without the proper mindset, something I find to be true of most of my favorite records. A great pop record is fun but to appeal only to our short-term memory isn't nearly as impressive as a record that mines the depths of your emotional response and banks on you sympathizing with the problems of its creators, which are in every chord and haunted call and response chorus line. "hoo-ooh hoo-ooh". If you were looking to learn the heart, the core of Some Cities I'd suggest you listen to tracks 9 and 10 together. "Shadows of Salford" is all dreamy nightclub piano, the whole song swooning and swimming in concert hall delay. It is a sombre track, but it also seems to know it, and in the bouncy, slightly detuned piano, a knowing irreverence, especially as it's the shortest song on the record. The minute the piano is closed, the scraping of pick on guitar and the three members of Doves are rocking again. "Sky Starts Falling" is one of the greatest and most optimistic rock songs ever written. It starts strong, the instantly memorable verse riff coupled with Williams devil-may-care delivery, and gets stronger. The chorus, wordless, doesn't so much arrive as it does explode. "Be sure to send my love," he says injecting years of meaning into those words before the guitar and drums burst out of the build-up. The record reaches the high-point of its positive side in these moments and they're so irascibly happy and raucous that you want there to be more of them, which is just the point. Sure there are bad times, sometimes "ambition gets you down," but even through heartbreak, you can rise above it and find yourself and ride off into the sunset. Reality gets in the way of fantasy more often than not, but there's no reason you can't put a little of fantasy into the real thing.
I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass
by Yo La Tengo
When in 2006 I went to go see matt pond PA, I was greeted by a most pleasant surprise. They were just the openers. Well, I should say we were warmed up by a pre-stardom Band of Horses, then matt pond gently rocked us, then The Stills came bursting on stage like a bolt from the blue to the sounds of the Kids In The Hall theme with brand new ass-kicking songs from their not-yet-released Without Feathers. And to top that off when that was done out walked living legends Yo La Fucking Tengo and they had all new songs to play and a new record to follow. After the ten plus minutes of Ira Kaplan destroying his telecaster during "Pass The Hatchet" I was sold. What I didn't see coming was the infectiousness of the pop songs that made up the majority of the record. I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass comes out appropriately guns blazing (not unlike someone who's unafraid of you and might, if provoked, beat your ass) and once it's showed you how hard it can rock, it slides back into its 'beanbag chair' and takes it easy on you. Beatlesy pop tunes with catchy piano and trombone riffs and crisscrossing melodies. They almost kick your ass harder than the five minute guitar solos of the opener. The beautifully pastoral "I Feel Like Going Home" follows with its heartbreaking cello then the Jacksons-esque "Mr. Tough," the Canadian Indie sound-alike "Black Flowers," the charmingly aimless "The Race Is On Again." I'm not sure where the greatest pleasure lies, not knowing where the record will go next, or the scope of the styles put on. Like the best 60s record collection come to life I Am Not Afraid has moments of grinding, freaky psychedelia ("I Should Have Known Better," "The Room Got Heavy") and snappy and airy pop tunes ("Sometimes I Don't Get You" "The Weakest Part") and best of all never gets dull (though the eight minute "Daphnia" wears out its welcome around minute five). Fittingly, the album ends on another mammoth track, the nearly 12 minute "The Story of Yo La Tango" which is as nervous as "Goodkind" is aggressive. Like the album it finishes, you sink into the soundscape and come out feeling new.
by Yeah Yeah Yeahs
It's Blitz sounds curiously like a record very much of its time, yet feels like the child of sounds twenty and more years old. The keyboards, both lead and trilling asides, are clearly of a different era and bring poise and gravity to the songs, which match the bombastic energy of Karen O beat for beat. Nick Zinner, as man in the planet, orchestrates a world for her to explore that is gigantic and majestic; Brian Chase's drums the ground she walks upon. She takes to the environs immediately, acting as queen in some instances ("Heads Will Roll," "Dull Life," "Dragon Queen") and child calming great, unexplainable forces ("Skeletons" "Soft Shock" "Little Shadow") in others. Karen O sounds at home talking to shadows and bones but I think she is most suited to describing what love feels like inside your body ("Hysteric") as only she knows how to. I think the reason that It's Blitz is such a stimulating work is because it seems to have crawled from the imaginations of its creators intact. They wanted you to see their vision of both a great, exciting, scary world and of a neat rock record with a million different entry points; accessible, inspiring and more than once touching.
by Holy Fuck
9 songs, 36 minutes and one discernible lyric: "Woo!" That lyric, then the impossibly fast drums, the appropriately childlike keyboards, the ever-busy bass, and the screaming. Holy Fuck. Holy Fuck. Has a name ever been more appropriate, more amazed? I find myself so caught up in the truth of calling your band Holy Fuck that I wrongly attribute grandiloquence to the statement. It's perfect, I'm just over-thinking it. By now it's something of a cliché and I'm sure the band tire of hearing stories like this, but after hearing their record on vinyl for the first time, then seeing what they called themselves, I could think of nothing else to sum up just how dumb-struck their music had left me. Dance rock that seems to dance without you. A hundred and fifty sounds, playful interludes, all children's keyboard samples, drums that sound the very embodiment of rhythm. What's most ingenious is that though Graham Walsh and Brian Borcherdt take their keyboards into a number of different directions during the verses, they always come back to roughly the same riff afterwards to remind you that you are indeed still listening to the same song, and the journey's far from over. Radiohead's Thom Yorke (or was it Jonny Greenwood?) singled out "Lovely Allen" as an especially awesome work. They're not wrong. Has anything else been so effective that steadfastly uses the same riff for four and a half minutes? Or how about "Frenchy's" whose hook is two of the same bassnotes? Still I'm amazed that "Royal Gregory" and "Safari" were not composed without laptops. Holy Fuck's record is like a potion boiling over, it's so full of ideas and energy that it can't be contained and trying to grab onto one element means getting burned because they haven't finished boiling. You want the power it contains. When the record is finished the indelible impression of each beat are the red marks on your hand; reminders how strong the ingredients are and how hot they burn.
If pressed I'd define the word "Ethereal" by simply playing Talkie Walkie in its entirety. Air have a big name and often that means that the more well-known they get the more accessible (and typically louder and more obvious) they get but Air have essentially been regressing since they made the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides, a film whose appeal I still can't quite figure out. Anyway, like Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio Air decided that the best thing for their image following their scrape with the spotlight was to retreat into an increasingly unmarketable sound akin to a low hum at cocktail parties. But before the way-too-hip and whisper soft Pocket Symphony and Love 2 Air gave one of the most dreamlike forays into pop music any electric musician has ever attempted. There are moments on Talkie Walkie that seem like more-or-less deliberate attempts to crack the mainstream ("Surfing On A Rocket," "Cherry Blossom Girl" both blissfully ruined for U.S. record companies by the two members' effete French lisps) but the others are far more audacious if also catchy. Air actually tried releasing a song to radio with no lyrics and whose chorus consisted of a number of people whistling in unison. How's that for different? The album has a few similarly effective instrumentals ("Alone in Kyoto" and the staggeringly gorgeous "Mike Mills") but really it's that the whole record is of a piece. Talkie Walkie is the aural equivalent of finding out you're in love in the course of an evening. "Venus" the overwhelming sensation of either the first time you see or kiss that heavenly body, it's floating bridges the moments between conscious thought when your brain shuts off for the duration of your being awe-struck; "Cherry Blossom Girl" the thoughts accompanying your feeling for the potential for the two of you with lasting happiness; "Run" your doubts, the cost benefit ratio of your love when you think "what will people think? Can I do this again? Does any of that matter?" of course not, you're in love; "Universal Traveler" the moment you're together just talking, lying on your backs, of the same mind for the first time, enjoying the way you think; "Mike Mills" when you first confess to each other and when you see that the only thing that matters is that you're together, damn the future; "Surfing On A Rocket" is tempting to write off as the simple act of epically making out, but it's more the sensation of someone new overcoming you during those moments of speechless ecstasy; "Another Day" the feeling of starting over, or perhaps simply starting, and all the joy and hang-ups that accompany the mere idea of a relationship, but ultimately none of those come close to how happy you are; "Alpha Beta Gaga" all the many flights of fancy you imagine, walking down the street knowing you're with someone jaw-droppingly attractive both in mind and appearance, thinking of all the bragging you could but probably won't do; "Biological" picturing the future and whether it may include the both of you, picturing it in general, wondering harmlessly what we hope for in relationships, marriage, children, whether it speaks to your devotion or to your insecurities or upbringing that the extent of your feelings end where they end in future terms, in things you can measure and leave behind; "Alone In Kyoto" the moment where you must consider parting.
Aha Shake Heartbreak
by Kings of Leon
Some bands, like The Strokes or The Fever, will occasionally, miraculously, do exactly what you could have ever asked of them. The only problem is that often they then have no place to go but down. The Strokes have yet to find a viable angle to take their proto-garage sound having tried both new-wave blues and Danzig-inspired post-punk and The Fever broke up after releasing their somehow superior sophomore record. Kings of Leon are still not quite sure what kind of band they want to be, but lucky for them their new audience doesn't seem to care. Anyway, back in 2003/2004 thereabouts the only people who responded to them quite so slavishly were the English who couldn't get enough of their musky southern rock or their long hair and ugly mustaches. They were all-American boys and apparently there's nothing quite so appealing to young British chicks because Kings of Leon spent the aftermath of their debut record, Youth & Young Manhood fucking anything that moved; it got to be that they needed to leave pliers by the bed to pull down the zippers of their ultra-tight jeans in a hurry. But one can't live like Bacchus forever and when the smoke and hotel rooms cleared, singer and second oldest of the family band Caleb Followill had enough material for a book let alone one bad-ass rock record. And so Aha Shake Heartbreak remains not just their best album but one of the great rise-and-fall rock albums of all time. A twelve-song sucker punch, Heartbreak is as potent as two-guitars, a bass, drums, and one devilishly cracking voice can get. The first four songs are as many rollicking shot of Southern hospitality. "Slow Night So Long," "King of the Rodeo," "Taper Jean Girl" and "Pistol of Fire" are simple enough but it's in the few divergences from regular rock that they shine. The unassuming production, Jared's virtuosic basslicks (he's got to be one of the best bassists in the game), Nathan's sparse-yet-complex drumming, the counter-intuitive way in which the guitars intertwine and Caleb's refusal (inability?) to enunciate mark them as a ball of fury not to be messed with and a band to be watched (Also, anyone considering disparaging the band might give ear to "Four Kicks" and then consider waiting until they're all dead). Then when the softer moments come in ("Milk," "The Bucket") and they lose nothing of their sincerity or bite is proof that this is a band with a voice and not simply a bunch of kids with guitars, learning to deal with fame.
by Sondre Lerche
What I think is most impressive about Phantom Punch is that it changes genres every other song but it's clearly the same man pulling the strings. One minute he's Cole Porter, the next he's Elvis Costello, the next he's Andy Gill. There's nothing Sondre Lerche can't do and this record here's proof. After Duper Sessions, his hookless experiment in jazzy pop music, Bergen's favorite song decided to turn the volume up and give guitarist Kato Ådland something to get excited about. First there's the insanely catchy "Airport Taxi Reception" and then the rocking begins in full. "The Tape" is a crunchy post-punk tune but it's also extremely likable as a pop song; Sondre Lerche's found his calling. "Say It All" "Tragic Mirror" and "After All" walks the line of dusky pop tunes a la Roy Orbison or Irving Berlin and heartfelt balladeering. Though I have to admit it's with the guitar heavy rockers that my sympathies lay. "Face The Blood," "Well Well Well," and the title track all get to the seething, screaming guitar with no trouble. Ådland's soloing in the latter two songs is awe-inspiring because it's so logical and yet sounds like a flaming train crashing into the station. The progressions are straight jazz (I have to assume Lerche penned them) but his deftness and that he knows his way around his effects pedals make them tens more exciting than any metal sweep. Phantom Punch is something that punks and aesthetes could agree on if either could be persuaded to give Lerche a chance. Whatever, more for me.
by Fleet Foxes
It's funny how something can come to be considered a classic. How do you know when you're listening to something that it's timeless, that years from now it will be just as important as it is now? That it will be among the ranks of that vanguard? The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Neil Young, you know them. It took me a number of weeks to finally have the whole album at my fingertips but I don't know that I knew for some time how important Fleet Foxes is. It is a record of warmth and depth of mood and atmospherics as thick as morning fog. There are time-worn traditions like the beautiful five part harmonies ever evoking the hallelujah chorus, the ever-chugging acoustic guitar that seems to have the texture of the sun's rays or of wet grass on the forest floor, the simple orchestration, the throaty baritone of Robin Pecknold, the curious plucking of the electric guitar and mandolin. The record, more than any other in recent memory, evokes the setting of its songs' stories in its very production. That may sound a touch protracted but think of it like this. Pecknold puts a very clear image in the listener's head when he mentions his brother missing "his connecting flight to the Blue Ridge Mountains over near Tennessee." We now have a piece of imagery but thanks to the plucking of the mandolin and that it, the guitar and Pecknold's voice drip with reverb, we see a forest in darkness in our head because he has left space for it. The reverb creates negative space to be filled in in our mind's eye. When the organ accompanies his later "I love you, I love you" it is not unusual to see light in the same dark forest as the sound accompanies church revivals which have their own colour palette in the listener's mind. Thus we may see two people meeting in the forest by light, which implies a structure like a cabin, and the rest is up to the individual. I'm not saying that the imagery is universal but it is logical that the song will take its audience somewhere other than wherever they happen to sit when they listen to a song like "Blue Ridge Mountains." Or if we look at my favorite song on the record "Quiet Houses," he manages the same thing with no direct imagery. All we hear is the chorus of "Lay Me Down" and "Come To Me" yet the music is so evocative of natural imagery. I've listened to the song no fewer than 50 times to try and determine what it is that is so cinematic. It's a number of things, it's the unpredictable melody, it's the guitar licks playing over each other like the fabric of an afghan blanket, it's in those instrumental refrains where the organ and guitar counter each other evoking something ancient and nearly sinister like Bach's Toccata and Fugue or if you're me the score to Castlevania. It's the band's constantly forging ahead and providing the most amount of sound possible to fit their vision. It's this same determination, their devotion to their music, that brings about moments of planned spontaneity like the bit of piano at the end "He Doesn't Know Why" or the tempo change in the middle of "Ragged Wood." They are restless, the songs talk of travel and lengths of time passing and always new places. The record has a whole film's worth of imagery, spoken and silent, waiting to be placed in your head, a kind of selfless songwriting that Pecknold does beautifully and that the production helps greatly. Fleet Foxes is an album that speaks loudly of its love for the possibilities of sound and vision and gives so much more than just eleven thoughtful and catchy songs. All of the songs sound of a piece and yet none is quite what you expect it to be. What qualities do "Heard Them Stirring" and "Sun It Rises" have in common? They are so disparate in their elements and construction and delivery yet when you've traveled from the one to the other, it is clear that they are both necessary steps in the journey you've embarked on that particular instance. I don't know that the album has brought me to the same place twice (except when I've needed it to) and it continues to give me inspiration and moments of private discovery and more than that it continues to be a great and listenable record.
Quiet is the New Loud
by Kings of Convenience
My other favorite Norwegian songwriters Eirik Glambek Bøe and Erlend Øye have earned all the hyperbole and superlatives they've ever been handed on the strength of their first record alone, even without their still good successors. Honestly though I enjoy Riot On An Empty Street and to a lesser extent Declaration of Dependence they are almost unnecessary because of the simplicity of formula present on Quiet Is The New Loud. "The sun sets on the war, the day breaks and everything is new." There is a freedom to the record because the songs, though many are in minor keys, are light and I believe they're meant to be taken that way. Pop songs to celebrate human heartache, as it always has been. "Toxic Girl" and "The Girl From Back Then" are both incredibly nimble and melodious even if the lyrical content isn't all sunshine. But the point is that these are both discoveries, that two acoustic guitars and two finely tuned voices could do so something so simple and have it sound like an idyllic sunset (I defy you to tell me the latter song doesn't sound like that). The pop songs are on the whole so perfect that even their few additions (the electric guitar in "Leaning Against The Wall," the trumpet in "Singing Softly To Me") sound almost perfunctory even though they are perfectly suited to the deftly composed pop songs. Kings of Convenience make you appreciate quiet and minimalism with their hopelessly gorgeous little songs about missed connections and the pain of not feeling needed. It's the paradox of something sounding so unassuming that you might be tempted to think "I could do this," and when the inevitable "why didn't you?" follows, the answer is simple. You couldn't have done this. Listen to "I Don't Know What I Could Save You From." It's genius on the level of Harold Arlen and Stephen Sondheim and beauty on the level of the French Countryside or Marion Cotillard or The Double Life of Veronique and it doesn't come along everyday. If Bøe and Øye hadn't done another thing they'd still have a pass for life thanks to Quiet Is The New Loud and it's not for nothing that their follow-ups haven't quite captured the same freedom or magic of their debut. Not much else will.
by Rage Against The Machine
I probably shouldn't include this because it's a covers album, yes. Here's why it's here, though: it fucking rocks. It rocks more than any metal record I heard in the ten years after it, more than the live album released after Rage broke up, almost more than the time I saw them play live at Coachella (I'm just kidding, nothing rocks more than that). I had a friend who did extensive comparisons between each song on Renegades with the originals and through a meticulous system determined that not a one of them compared to Rage's version. I was tempted to argue that "Kick Out The Jams" and "Down On The Street" had comparable originals and I still stand by the MC5, but I can see that the virtue of Rage Against The Machine covering a Stooges song was that their original had a beautiful minimalist approach but couldn't rock as hard as I wanted them to (they hadn't discovered the kind of balls-out sound they would bring to Raw Power just yet). So what we have are punk songs in desperate need of a voice as commanding as Tom Morello and Zach De La Rocha and rap tunes in need of the kind of context that Rage could provide. Renegades is the aural equivalent of an action movie, replete with fast-paced car chase guitar riffs and one-liners that would shame Shane Black. De La Rocha may not have written "E-F-F-E-C-T" but neither did Schwarzenegger write "I'll Be Back;" they both just made them their own. The same I would argue could be said of "No Wall," "Cause I'm Housin'" and the all-important "We're Renegades of Funk." Tom Morello rides shotgun, filling classic punk and hip-hop full of holes with his 12-guage tone. Brad Wilk and Tim C. take turns at the wheel delivering inch-thick run-throughs of "In My Eyes" and "How I Could Just Kill A Man" that surpass their originals with ease. But it's in the few instances where the political fervor of student and master are, if not comparable, then at least in line. "Maggie's Farm" is a thing of seething artistry, De La Rocha and Morello seeming to each know that they'd never get a chance like this again and earning every second of it. My hair stands up whenever I hear "She's sixty-eight but she says she's 24," and then Morello comes in with his three-guitar solo, and then it goes back to the opening riff. It's leftist rage at it's most razor-sharp. Though I think even their Dylan cover has to take a backseat to their reworking of Springsteen's "The Ghost of Tom Joad." The pick scraping against the strings like the sound of a helicopter passing overhead, a riff like a volcanic eruption, the cavernous bass sound, the drums like barely restrained pitbulls barking crazily, De La Rocha's vocals delivered as if through a megaphone to prisoners; there's nothing like it. It's a revolution, complete with pictures. There's a dual tragedy to Renegades, first that no one treated it like the awesome statement of finality, the last word on political music, the end of an era and second that Rage broke up just before George W. Bush stole the election and ran rampant over human rights for eight motherfucking years. Seeing Rage live was a reminder that the world isn't just talking heads and barely literate figure heads bullshitting the American people while a team of racists pulls the strings and spends money on war and their pension plans. We had Rage at a time when the country was smart enough to vote for a democrat but they imploded when we needed them most. But whenever the country's gone mad, whenever there's a black man office yet racists still have the ability to vote, they're never far away.
Return To Cookie Mountain
by TV On The Radio
Is there a sound more internally polarizing than the horn sample that opens both "I Was A Lover" by TV On The Radio and their second proper album Return To Cookie Mountain? It is both a kind of endorphin-releasing trigger that makes you freak out in the best way possible and the dread-inducing sound of the modern world encroaching on personal freedom and replacing us each with self-obsessed automatons who don't trust each other. It's enough to make you a little uneasy, but I think that's the genius of those first two TVOTR albums. You can't really call them feel-good, yet what is that sense of your whole being marching on after "Wolf Like Me" or "Dreams" have ended? Why, after "I Was A Lover" do you feel like you've found the perfect work of art-rock? Because you have and you take the euphoria with the paranoia when you stumble upon something as important as this because that dichotomy defines every song on Cookie Mountain. Tunde Adebimpe's delivery on "Hours" is soothing and charismatic, yet the song drips with sinister notes and hints at something very dark under the streets you walk every day or the placid faces of the people you think you know. David Bowie's appearance on "Province" is a good example of what I'm talking about. I bet many people went looking for a prominent cameo from Ziggy Stardust and found him mixed down to equal billing with Kyp Malone and Adebimpe. Why? I have a theory that Bowie understood that TVOTR's forte is capturing the panic blowing through the streets that calls itself the zeitgeist and mocking it with a whirlwind of voices akin to a Greek chorus. Bowie's was just one more voice in the fray. Moreover to take center stage on a TVOTR record would be to miss the point of being there; it'd be like putting steak in chocolate fondue. So the main course remains the band and their totally unique take on modern alienation. David Sitek's production is impeccable, creating his own windy guitar scrapings to go with the gust of voices from the band's two voices. Jaleel Bunton's drumming is breathless, virtuosic to the point of proselytizing (listen to "Playhouses." Try not to tap your foot, your pencil, nod your head...). His speed and technique are quite impressive. Equally awe-inspiring if less prominent is Gerard Smith's bass and foreboding keyboard parts. He's responsible for some of the record's most memorable asides (the piano at the end of "Province," the sitar in "Wash the Day") but he's firmly in the background. Then there is the simple wonder of Malone and Adebimpe, vocalists. Whether it's through persistent monotone that starts "A Method," though whosever whistle that is needs a prize, or the memorable chorus that follows, or the upper-register harmony that arrives for the chorus, TVOTR have two of the most talented singers in rock music. And they are masters at arranging their pieces. "Let The Devil In" showcases this rather nicely. Starting with an onslaught of percussion and Malone's soft voice yet trenchant delivery, the song burns like a flare when the many-man chorus comes in in front of Sitek's angry guitar. There's no real word to describe what this band does and that in and of itself is one of the keys to their appeal. Every new listen might yield new answers or more questions, but either way there is a compelling darkness that teases you into listening again and again. There are bombed out tenements and sick survivors in every song and you've got to figure out what happened to destroy the world, which I think is probably why the band made Cookie Mountain the way they did. The sky was falling and no one was looking up. And then there's the simple fact that this album has "Wolf Like Me" on it. That alone could have put this record on this list.
The Shepherd's Dog
by Iron & Wine
If you're wondering I chose this over any of the softer Iron & Wine records, it's in the first...20 seconds of the first song. When the percussion come in over the guitar loop, ooh, it gets me everytime. That's the sound of promise, of possibility. And sure enough there follows one of Sam Beam's most energetic (still whispered) vocal performances, a dozen different string sounds, jumpy piano rolls, a beautifully somber cello riff, a menagerie of new things. All at once Iron & Wine came alive and became more than one man's tender vision of the world. Now he had a voice as loud as can be even if he never raised it above a few decibels because his arrangements now speak volumes that he couldn't before he discovered the capabilities of a room full of people. Every new second of "Pagan Angel & The Borrowed Car" is like hearing what music can achieve over and over again; it's palpable, something you can measure because Sam Beam's the guy behind it all and if he can make it work, anyone can and to any effect. What's more he utilizes so many different styles: sludgy bayou bluegrass ("House By The Sea"), dub ("Wolves"), bar blues ("Devil Never Sleeps"), Eno-inspired sample rock ("Boy With A Coin"). But of course he still found time for what he does best: heartbreaking acoustic ballads. Truly is there anything more soothing than "Lovesong of the Buzzard" or "Resurrection Fern" or "Flightless Bird"?
Life On Other Planets
It's tough to pinpoint when you really became an active record collector, when you stopped buying records you heard on the radio or at the very least records that weren't getting frequent radio play. Anymore I only buy records if I hear street derelicts say the names of new bands accidentally while waiting for the 77 bus to Harvard Square. Back in the day, those crazy, free-love days of 2003, I didn't have a job at a record store or the information superhighway to rely on, so finding records I wouldn't be embarrassed by later was quite a feat indeed (oh, I should mention I knew about music magazines, but seriously Spin? I'm gonna listen to advice from the guys who said Nevermind was better than 3 Feet High & Rising and Achtung Baby was better than Illmatic and anything by Pavement is better than Kid A? Puh-leaze. Someone explain Pavement to me, cause I....Don't....Fucking.....Get It! What is the point of a Pavement record beyond nostalgia?). Anyway, one of the very first records I bought without ever retroactively stuffing myself in a locker (I went to a private school so kids weren't big on that kinda stuff; you had to get creative) was Life On Other Planets. In fact not only was I never upset that I bought it, I was rather pleased with myself. When it scratched itself to death, I bought a new copy. I have all of the 7" singles Supergrass released around that time, I've bought everyone of their records since, their greatest hits CD for the few b-sides and the live album on disc two and have tried to see them live (unsuccessfully) no fewer than three times. They're one of my favorite bands and Life On Other Planets is my favorite of their albums or side-projects. I like the peppy energy of their first record I Should Coco, their Who-esque second album In It For The Money, their sleek single-machine of a self-titled third album, their expansive and mysterious fifth album, Road to Rouen even their kinda-sorta cock rock sixth record Diamond Hoo Ha. I love the covers record that Gaz and Danny just put out (actually I love that Hot Rats record) and I loved their stint as the Diamond Hoo-Ha Men. They could be Phil Collins' backing band and I'd still love everything Gaz Goombes touches. Anyway, Life On Other Planets is a great pastiche of a proto-psych record and has everything from wonky keyboard solos to lyrics about witchcraft, but at heart it's a Grass record so it's all about chewy hooks, high-energy piano, sing-along choruses, Mick Quinn's elastic bass playing, Gaz's life-affirming songs and of course his mammoth sideburns. The good feelings starts with the childish piano riff that opens "Za" and then the record just rockets into your id and reminds you what fun you had as kid. There's the indirect ("Rush Hour Soul," "Never Done Nothing Like That Before") that hint at the fast-paced brain power of children and with their ripping distortion win us over with the brute force of a violent video game or a football match (I assume. What the fuck do I know about sports?). And then there's the direct ("Funniest Thing," "Grace," "La Song") that seem to tap directly into our childish instincts whether through diction or precious subject matter. Taken with the trippy keyboards on spacier songs like "Prophet 15" and "Run" and you've got one fluffy trip back to the womb via the moon. Life On Other Planets promises explorations of the universe but it's greatest trick is showing us that we don't have to go very far to be someplace new; why, through the power of imagination and ass-kicking post-proto-prog you can go anywhere in the known universe! All you have to do is press play.
by Grizzly Bear
There is nothing else in the world like Yellow House. It is it's own genre, it's own species of record. I'm obsessed with film (fucking duh) and I'm incredibly visual in my appreciation of music. There was a quote from the band's website that I wish I could find again that said something to the effect of Yellow House sounds like a living room come to life. I'm most likely butchering it but that sentiment is the one I wish to drive home. The sounds on Yellow House are of a grey pallour and suggest a house on the cape, in view of the sound, and of many grey mornings, lonely afternoons with dust gathering in pockets of light, and truly haunting nights. The closest Yellow House ever comes to sounding like something you've heard before (at least as a piece) is in the chorus of "Knife" and the rocktastic second act of "On A Neck, On A Spit." Beyond that this is rock that knows no name and frankly doesn't care. Yellow House is a murky and beautiful anomaly, a record with movies to play in your head. That's why I always come back to Yellow House is because even if, say "Marla" or "Central & Remote" don't stick in my head for the hooks, I want to go back to the dreary landscapes and picturesque scenes that lie inside each note. Everytime I've ever written anything, I've done it to Grizzly Bear and more often than not that means Yellow House. The instrumentation plus the four-piece's totally unique approach to songwriting takes your ears to places it just didn't think possible before or for that matter weren't sure existed. Listen to the ever-morphing Banjo riff during "Little Brother;" it's not quite folk music or old pop music or Cosmic Jokers-esque space rock, is it? I mean there are elements of plenty at work but they've never come together like this. It has all the oddball pioneer spirit and naturalism of Carl Th. Dreyer's Vampyr and the elegance of a Rosemary Clooney 78 but to just list the things it reminds me of doesn't do it justice. It's so dark, uncompromisingly so, yet revolutionary in its production and resolutely strange and staunchly left-of-center pop stylings. Its appeal is in the heaviness of the height of "Plans" or "On A Neck" the foggy openings to "Easier" and "Reprise" and everything in between. It is the spirit of its namesake and with it the lives of everyone who passed through it and wherever else it takes you before it ends. It has a thousand stories to tell you if you're willing to listen.
by Rufus Wainwright
I've seen Rufus Wainwright in concert four times, each time a different kind of venue, each time a different band behind him, each time he killed. I've never minded that it took him as long as it did to get huge (he still has room to grow, but the states are still filled with bigots whose deaths I'm waiting for patiently, so...all good things come to those who wait) because I loved being in on the secret. And I loved how huge a secret it was; Want One is enormous, epic. "Oh What A World" is one man and a melody that grows into the Macy's Day Parade. "I Don't Know What It Is" has literally over a hundred tracks on it and it shows. The cool detachment of Wainwright's delivery nearly always bursts into the emotional juggernaut I love as the songs grow in size by the second. Like Roy Orbison or Frank Sinatra he makes the most of his instrument and also has a hell of an ear for orchestration. The film orchestra strings and brass on Want One are so emphatic that you feel yourself being converted to Wainwright's shining musical vision. If Christians could write songs like Wainwright, they'd be way more popular (also maybe they'd stop bitching about how persecuted they are), because Wainwright's songs are like Disney musicals in five minute doses, but with twenty-something gay protagonists, which to be honest is how I'd like my Disney musicals to turn out. His gift for songwriting is in his ability to turn the specific (the verses of "Vicious World," "Go Or Go Ahead," "14 Street") into the universal in time to get you singing along (the choruses of those songs, plus many more). Who can't empathize with a line like "Why'd you have to break all my heart? Couldn't you have saved a minor part?" even if Wainwright has an incredibly specific and wildly entertaining story behind it. So aside from being able to turn romantic problems into big budgets musical numbers, his singing voice is spectacular (listen to him hold the notes on "My Phones On Vibrate For You" and "Beautiful Child," both great songs), his compositions mature and winning, his production vibrant. What's not to like?
Broken Social Scene
by Broken Social Scene
Talk to me for a half hour about anything and chances are I'll mention how much I love Broken Social Scene. Perhaps more than any other band they defined the last ten years for me. They were the crux of a documentary I made, I've covered their songs, seen them live three times (in one instance driving twelve hours just to see and interview them), I lived with one of their occasional members for a week, I've been regaled with rocker stories by one of its chief songwriters, met just about everyone in the band and I love them and their music as if they were part of my own family. This is made easier by the fact that in listening to their music, they seem to include you in their own lives, the good times and the bad. They are like the seniors at your high school, except instead of snubbing you, they invite you along and let you know that that feeling you have, like your life's never gonna make sense, they had it too, but things got much better. Ok, so Hope Newhouse and John Howell never said that to me, but I did get the sense from talking to them that anything was possible, which is how I feel when I listen to Broken Social Scene. And as much as I love Feel Good Lost and You Forgot It In People the feeling I had of breaking free from just existing and starting to really live and figure out what I wanted from life came when I really paid attention to Broken Social Scene. From the smoke-clearing first act , "Our Faces Split The Coast In Half" deliberately painting a noisy picture so that "Ibi Dreams of Pavement" can knock it down and disorient you so that when the ending comes along, all blaring horns and high energy, you know is you're happy as a lark and you want to go where they're going, and then "7/4 Shoreline" that most ebullient of rock songs, that which seems to embody what it means to collaborate, to bring your friends, to love others in a song. When the song goes quiet after the build-up ("It's Coming It's Coming In Hard!") I like to think of it as the band's way of saying "Are you here yet? No? It's cool, we'll wait for you." The notion of togetherness expands as the likes of Feist, Emily Haines, Torquil and Amy from Stars, K-Os, Jason Tait from the Weakerthans, Julie Penner, Charlie and Ohad from Do Make Say Think and Jason Collett stop in to add an instrument or a decibel or two. It's hard not to listen to "Handjobs For The Holidays" or "It's All Gonna Break" or "Superconnected" without being caught up in the group for those few minutes. You see them together, blending in the great sound cooked up by producer David Newfeld. This was the record that made everything else possible in the Canadian music scene. It became synonymous with guest musicians and the collective spirit and soon everyone who made it big up north was fixed to some band because that attitude had captured everyone's attention. If I ever finish this fucking movie, hopefully people will see that connection first-hand. In the meantime the rest of the world has Broken Social Scene and you don't need me or anyone else to enjoy it.
National Anthem of Nowhere
by Apostle of Hustle
If Broken Social Scene is the Alfred Hitchcock of Canadian music, making giant records that utilize the talents of the country's many talented stars, Apostle of Hustle is like the Edgar G. Ulmer. Making quick, efficient and slick records with no fanfare, Andrew Whiteman (Social Scene's lead guitarist and occasional singer), Julian Brown and Dean Stone deliver high-octane, multifarious rock music that delivers the goods; National Anthem of Nowhere is their Detour. Drawing from a fount of inspirations, National Anthem is a hook-laden buffet of big guitar sounds, Latin rhythm, memorable turns of phrase and deft musicianship. Andrew Whiteman deserves more credit as a guitarist (his bandmates could use a bit of the old fanfare as well); his guitar drives most of the songs easy and his lead-like melodies on "My Sword Hand's Anger" and the title track are not just impressive but also memorable. His tone mocks the sounds of many different countries, while crafting a sort of fusion sound that you can't quite put your finger on. The opening riff of "Haul Away" and the centerpiece of "Rafaga!" are two such examples that set your brain on fire and rather than try and fix a label to them, you just want to know how he did it. His rock impulses carry the moody "A Rent Boy Goes Down" and the 90s hugeness of "Justine, Beckoning" but he's also capable of charming little pop songs as well. "Chances Are" is sweet and romantic and "Cheap Like Sebastian" catchy as anything (if you remember anything from this record, it'll probably be Lisa Lobsinger's chorus of 'La's on that song). There's romance, intrigue, action, and a likable hero descending into ever darker territory (the slow-moving "Jimmy Scott Is The Answer" and finally the doom-laden "NoNoNo"). In other words, it's just like an Edgar G. Ulmer film.
by World Leader Pretend
Punches while having nothing to do with the holiday, will always put me in the mood for Christmas. It's mostly due to the effervescent compositions and Kit Liberty's use of sleigh bells in many of his songs. Regardless this is an album for the dead of winter, for that is when it is the most poignant. Any other time of year you have a great pop album, to be sure, but with snow on the ground the edge gets harder and the hope more pronounced. World Leader Pretend were the hope of the nation for a few seconds in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina struck and they were the band whose gear got wrecked. They toured with R.E.M. who wrote the song they take their name from, they had one of the best albums of the year (and decade if you're willing to believe me, and you've read this far, haven't you?). There was nothing they couldn't do except, evidently, record a third album. I don't mean to be snide but I've been listening to Punches since it was new and held out hope for a follow up until....well, until last night when I heard they broke up two years ago. Fuckers. I don't mean that guys, if you're reading (you're not), I'm just frustrated. But this record is awesome. The majestic compositions and Keith Ferguson's honest and sweet vocals make it a tour de force. I described WLP as Muse from New Orleans to the ten people who ever asked, and though that doesn't work in light of The Resistance or even Black Holes & Revelations, if we're talking Absolution days the mixture of dire subject matter and endearing delivery is apt. World Leader Pretend can give charming orchestral rock ("New Voices," "Dream Daddy," "Appassionato") redolent of waking up to learning its christmas and that boy likes you and you got a pony. Or they can give apocalyptically heavy "They're right behind you" rock ("Punches," "The Masses," "B.A.D.A.B.O.O.M.") which can either make you think of the rapture or of Yossarian's walk through the city at the end of Catch-22. And through it all that sense of New Orleans big-band and pop is audible. It's in the brass, the memorable guitar licks, Ferguson's soulful delivery, the sticky rhythm, the skilled keyboard playing, the fullness of each song. It's in the fact that this little band who got dealt a shit hand and who couldn't pull it together for another outing still managed one of the best and most lovable records of their generation. It might be little consolation to them that their record helped me deal with traumatic experiences and saw me through to better times, but it must be said that, even if it ain't much, it's something.
by Wolf Parade
Like Yellow House or Return To Cookie Mountain, Wolf Parade's Apologies To The Queen Mary has no peers. It doesn't even have any satisfactory descriptors. Just what the hell do you call it? What kind of music is "You Are A Runner And I Am My Father's Son?" I was tempted to call it Dada rock more than once, thanks not just to the band's subtle critiques of society but also to the left-field lyrics that though many don't make anything like sense at first listen are delivered so confidently that you figure they've got to be very important and close to singers Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug. Beyond that listening to the two men harmonizing reminds me of Hans Richter speaking into a cone. But the very melodies and notes are themselves totally strange. I'd come to think of Wolf Parade as playing the court music for the aristocracy on Mars in some pre-moon landing fictitious account of space travel like Pirates of Venus. From the madly skipping and theremin-aping "Grounds for Divorce" to the foggy, serpentine "It's A Curse," the instruments sound familiar but they're speaking another language. And in that, there is something absolutely stunning. I don't get some of Apologies, hell I can't understand a lot of it, so I create meaning each time I listen to it; what's more dada than that? Then there's the sheer force-of-will that drives songs like the bizarre "We Built Another World," and the sweaty, romantic "This Heart's On Fire," the latter being the closest the album has to a single. Wolf Parade, I should mention, were one of the very first bands that the internet gave to me. I scrolled through blogs clicking songs at random and by the end of an hour I had a hundred new bands to sort through. Many (Blood on the Wall, The Decemberists, Wolf Parade) were quite good. I bought Apologies on Vinyl because it had the better version of "Dear Sons And Daughters of Hungry Ghosts" on it. Oh, did I mention that I obsessively collected every song they've ever recorded, including side-projects and demos? Wolf Parade were my squeeze for months and I spoke of and listened to little else. The lack of evidence about them infuriated and fascinated me. I constantly missed opportunities to get more of it (their appearance on TV went right by me, as did at least two tour stops) and so all I had was the mythology I'd compiled and Apologies the only proper album I could hold in my hands without spending a hundred bucks on eBay for original pressings of their EPs. I had Arlen Thompson's efficient drumming, Hadji Bakara's truly amazing keyboard playing (the man is the lead and the bass at once), Spencer Krug's stunning and otherworldly lyrics, voice and composition and Dan Boeckner's lackadaisical (by comparison) and husky bark acting as the foil to Krug. I liked two of Krug's compositions the best, "Dear Sons" and the earth-shattering "I'll Believe In Anything" but Boeckner's "Shine A Light" and "Modern World" were close behind. They were a band that rose from nothing, from bands I'd never heard of, and arrived ready made with legends and a debut produced by Isaac Brock (and even reminiscent of his slurring charm). They had come from a destroyed world with a story to tell that more than once brought me to hysterical movement and crazed behavior. The record is, as a friend used to describe the running of the bulls, mittigated insanity, inhabiting the form of a rock album.
by Regina Spektor
Regina Spektor gets something of a mixed reputation because she has become on her later albums the aural equivalent of a Disney Pixar movie. So effervescent and colorful and full of rather obvious emotions are they that people tend to overlook that she came from a much darker place and earned her smiling quirkiness with a few seething and sombre records from before the world knew her name, before she was on soundtracks, before she had a band, before you knew who she was. 11:11 and Songs were quiet and dark explorations of a number of her fractured relationships in the context of great historical romances and very specific street corners, but Spektor's apotheosis came on her long-delayed Soviet Kitsch. I wasn't big on her follow up Begin To Hope, due in large part to its lack of gravity and constantly shifting production. After Kitsch it sounded a pale imitation, grasping at the heartstrings of people who hadn't earned her attention; furthermore the songs didn't seem to tax her, like she was sleepwalking through the whole record. It worked. Far, the record that came out last year, is somewhat of a return to form in that there are full-band pieces but her athletic enunciation returned, as did her heartbroken storytelling. I enjoyed it, but until she returns to whatever combination of heartbreak and bullheaded perseverance that led her to write the nine songs on Soviet Kitsch everything's going to seem much less important. You could start at the beginning but I'm going to go to "Carbon Monoxide" the third track. It's here that you get that Spektor isn't fucking around. The gesture that simultaneously gives her a voice of her own and pulls her from the ranks of both oddball songstresses (Joanna Newsom, say) and ultra-dark and superserious underground valkyries of rock (P.J. Harvey, say) is one word. It's in the first chorus. "Walka-walka-walk ya HOME....yiyuh." That affected 'yeah' is spat both so fluidly and maliciously that its effortlessly fitting into the most harmless arrangement takes you by surprise. It's too callous to gel with her current cute image and it's why I fell in love with her music; imagine the singer of "Hotel Song" or the girl in the credits of that Narnia film taking all men to task on their bullshit in such a biting way. That song, incidentally, is why for at least two years I didn't want to listen to her music. When her it's superceded by the later choruses of "Come on Daddy" and "Dead-a-Dead-a-Dead-a", you forget that she said it, but you never forget that she's deadly serious. It isn't simply a man who's wronged her, it's masculine identity and the corner of the room it leaves for femininity. In "Ode To Divorce" it's in her coy reasoning "So won't you help a brother out?" In "Your Honor" it's in the quiet deductive reasoning "you fight for my honor but I don't know why." If man is destroyer and destroyed, what place does that leave for women? Spektor takes the form of the men who seek to both co-opt the attention and sympathy from women, while maintaining a kind of barrier to try and sort out the paradox firsthand. She takes their side (ironically) on "Sailor's Song" where she describes a coquettish girl who'll "kiss you till your lips bleed, but she will not take her dress off." This makes her a bitch, as the fun, Tom Waitsy-chorus informs us. The men miss the girls back home when they're at sea, yet can't see the problem with their operation - they go away, come back, want attachment free sex in return. She looks at the troubled youth who spurns those close to him but wants affection all the same in "Poor Little Rich Boy". Not only do I sympathize with the sentiment, I want to take a bite out of the rich stream-of-consciousness verses, which mock the writers her protagonist clings to, in a deft bit of role-play; and all the while, though her turns of phrase become all the more quick and complicated, her tongue remains untied. That the one common thread in the songs is Spektor's burlesque-hall of a voice makes the tales all fit together like a bloody puzzle by the record's rapturous end. The only song that doesn't feature her piano as a main feature is...ok, well it's two. First we hear Regina and her nephew (?) whispering about when the next song will start. It's a simple enough allegory for the record itself: "When's it gonna start?" "Soon, you just gotta wait." seconds pass... "start it already." Men want what they want now, women must respond to their child-like demands. The faux-punk song that starts up picks up the romantic angle of masculine energy and sexualized violence ("I kissed your lips and I tasted blood") but the tack piano that comes in with the too-cute "I'm a pizzatarian so it's a frozen pizza pie" as the girl has to think practically about dressing her man's wounds. The record splits the difference between the serious and the metaphysically optimistic, which is the balance needed for not just a perfect Regina Spektor album but a great solo album. Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, et. al got the balance right and so does Spektor here. "Us" is the only real single and it's about whether your relationship lives on in memories or not even after it's over. "The Flowers" is about as tragic a personal confession about the songwriter's loneliness as you'll find on a record with a hit single on it, but it ends with that graceful Hava Nagila paraphrase, so it's tough to take it as a total loss cause you just want to dance around. "Chemo Limo," the last song, is simple and catchy and then when you find yourself humming it later you remember it's about dying and leaving your family behind. It's hard not to want to well up when she says "Jacqueline was being such a big girl." Spektor doesn't have children but she manages to put so much pathos into those few words and they manage to own you. The record's over a minute later but it stays with you much longer.
News And Tributes
by The Futureheads
I don't know what many people listed as their best records of the decade. I didn't look mostly because I knew I'd probably get angry. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that not many of them will have News & Tributes by The Futureheads. I'll go further out and say that those people who don't rank the album as among their favorites are missing out on something great. When Film Punk was brand new I wrote a piece about the record as I couldn't understand then (as now) why it wasn't more popular. The finer details of the record's sound are there so I won't run down those again. I will say that the piece holds up in that attitudes haven't changed, the record remains criminally under-appreciated and it's now firmly in my greatest hits. The record has personal associations for me, sounds best in winter, still gets my pulse racing and the four-part harmonies still beg to be made five whenever they're in your earphones. If anything News & Tributes has just proved to fit into a tradition, making it a no-brainer for inclusion in the pantheon of classics, yet I'm apparently alone in my thinking this. "Burnt" remains beautifully catchy and tormented, "Fallout" edgily sincere, "Back To The Sea" nervously compelling, "Cope" ballistically satisfying, "Yes/No" brilliantly rocktastic. The whole album is a font of adjectives on top of other adjectives! My point is that there are albums that sleep next to your heart that others don't understand but News & Tributes is one album I could conceivably share with the world at large (which I couldn't with Neon Bible) because it is such a big, lovable record. Maybe this is my urge to be liked speaking, but I think that The Futureheads hit all the right notes and weren't rewarded. In fact this album's performance caused the band to record a hopelessly homogenous third record I wish didn't exist. I don't want straight-up rock records, I want pop records that experiment with everything from fills to production per track to vocals to tonal shifts between songs to changing singers every other track. News & Tributes is the sound of a dysfunctional family coming together and making a big mess, but who wants to be normal anyway?
by French Kicks
I bought this album 100% on a whim. I walked into Siren Records and there it was. I didn't know French Kicks had recorded a follow-up to Trial of the Century let alone that it came out then, but I grabbed it and bought it along with that forgivable/forgettable Feist remix album (it's not her fault, I just hate the whole idea of a remix album and only bought it for two not quite exciting b-sides, but I digress). The sound is varied here, a little sleeker here, a little rawer there. Like Trial it isn't of a piece, production wise, but it does fit together nicely. "So Far We Are" makes use of harmonics on a guitar tuned a step-up, unusual and endearing. This is a record that feels somehow both like an experimental session in a garage in the middle of winter but also like one of the most meticulously planned new romantic tribute records ever made. The drums and bass on "Also Rain" sound coolly haphazard and unevenly mixed, but the keyboard and mellifluous guitar can't be spontaneous. But in the next track, "Cloche" it's the guitar that sounds off-the-cuff and the rhythm section is screwed-on tight. Song-to-song though the hooks are indelible and Nick Stumpf's somehow un-superlatived voice goes from slurring to sweetly soaring. The song's all come with their own atmosphere, each different from the last, which makes rocking out to them more than simply enjoying the disparate elements but being in the thick of a memory and a mood. "Knee High" sounds like an uncertain but happy start of a new relationship, "Keep It Amazed" like slipping under the radar of something much bigger than you and feeling both persecuted and in charge, "No Mean Time" is ready-made for montage. Experience has made this a winter record for me; I can't listen to a note without picturing snow on the ground and typically can't really listen to it unless reality matches fantasy. The ice-cold dexterity of "Basement D.C." already sounds like breath condensing, so waiting for the snow to fall isn't too much to ask. I would argue the same for "Hey I Wait I" and "England Will Just Not Let You Recover." Both figured into things I wrote around the time I bought the album because they're so evocative. "England" specifically, is an example of what I like to call transcendental pop music (for a more perfect example see Arcade Fire's "My Body Is A Cage" or Ambulance LTD.'s "Young Urban" below or seek out "Your Lips Are Red" by St. Vincent). The song brims with anticipation, from its ostinatto piano riff, palm-muted guitars, shaky percussion and subdued bass, each moving in a circle along with Stumpf's muffled revelry. He knows a secret that you don't and his band is having a hard time keeping it. When the synth lick comes in after the first verse, it's laughing because it can't hold it in, but Stumpf remains cool even as the music opens up and then lets loose the first flood of honeyed wordlessness. For a blissful few seconds you and the song float on air, and then you open your eyes and your back in the waiting room. I wrote the song into a scene involving two people leaving on an airplane to escape a number of things because the song seemed to demand it. It is one of the only songs that openly acknowledges our need for a chorus. The music all but vanishes as Stumpf challenges our patience with his lackadaisical "Can you say you always do?" lines and then the heavenly choir returns. The music builds this time and his voice gets higher and is mixed slightly louder. They seem to understand that we've waited and the release must justify that. It is a brilliant moment not just of self-consciousness, but also one of the very best choruses I've ever heard. But it is, I caution, not something to be listened to lightly, everyday. It is for those times when you need it most, when you yourself are on edge of something great and can no longer take the verse. When you need the chorus, it will find you. That is why I love Two Thousand. It is a record that never forgets you and neither will you ever want for a soundtrack to your emotional highs.
by Ambulance Ltd
Rock albums are completed every day. I'd wager that with equal frequency bands fall out, break up and are doomed to never be appraised by the audiences that their die-hards feel they deserve. I've been singing the gospel of Ambulance LTD. since their only feature length record came out midway through 2004. The following winter I saw them in concert and frontman Marcus Congleton assured me they'd have a new record out in early 2006. That never happened. Their label TVT folded and Ambulance's demos were no longer their own - that meant starting from scratch. News that the band were touring behind other musicians instead of their frontman preceded the news that they'd split up to form the Red Romance, an inferior disco-y outfit that still tours. In 2006....or maybe it was 2007 it was announced that Congleton, the only remaining Ambulance driver was in the studio with John Cale, one of my favorite songwriters/producers; there was even video to prove it. It's 2010 and only a brief tour in 2008, which I missed due to school, has proved that Congleton and his new band of hired guns (who, according to the wikipedia, don't have a drummer) are still a band at all. I can't imagine the residuals from their now out of print debut EP, their only record, two subsequent EPs (one vinyl only), and soundtrack/jean promotion website appearances has kept Congleton out of the red, but I guess he can't be all that desperate because I've not heard a new Ambulance song in well over three years. As my hopes for a new Ambulance LTD. record become rapidly like those who waited twelve years just to hear that Kevin Shields was doing interviews again, I come to appreciate the mystic quality of the band's one full-length album and continue to scratch my head at its almost complete obscurity (as obscure as anyone who once opened for The Killers can be). The record's name is a point of contention, it's either self-titled or it's called LP; no one seems sure. It starts with a swelling instrumental, "Yoga Means Union," like a storm over a calm body of water. The bent guitar will show up later, this is just a flexing, like a cat yawning as it wakes up. The whole track seems to yawn like a great gaping maw in the earth, the rhythm guitar like it's metal teeth grinding together (though I say this with not so much cacophony as internal rhythm in mind). The single follows; "Primitive (The Way I Treat You)" has nothing of the layers or dramatic heft of the rest of the record but it is incredibly catchy. The chorus, with its Cale-inspired piano riff, is pretty hard to get out of your head. "Anecdote" is light, but the chorus is strangely angular and while you may end up singing it later, it won't be with the same laid back attitude with which you'd approach "Primitive." "Heavy Lifting" begins the album proper, as far as I'm concerned, the first three tracks acting as a kind of calm preamble before the journey really starts. With it's knee-deep rhythm and Congleton's deeply felt singing, the song wells up inside you. The song has a tremendous momentum, helped by Benji Lysaght's guitar which sounds like a train whistle in the distance (incidentally, Lysaght is one of my unsung guitar heroes, his skill and total mastery of tone are masterful, to say the least). From here on in, there's no looking back, there is only deeper water to explore. The intricate melody of "Ophelia" is a real delight, a kind of jogging through deep forest and bizarre emotional turmoil; one of those songs that uses its guitar as a surrogate vocalist in parts to great effect. Then follows the slow ambient build-up of "Stay Where You Are," which has the cool of late Velvet Underground filtered through the 40 years of post-punk that followed their forebear's demise. It sounds like it could be a number of bands but you never quite put your finger on it, so the mystery entertains as it creates an ever-thickening fog for you to get lost in. "Sugar Pill" is a slow-burner of a track with the brashness of rock but the attitude of a dub song; Lysaght's guitar tone is simply delicious and Congleton's turn of phrase recalls a 40s shamus "I came home but my key didn't like the door". When the gunfire-like commotion dies down, we get the relaxed and moving "Michigan" which floats over the plains of its namesake with ease. Having been to Lake Michigan on an overcast day, the song more than captures the feeling, and that of general aimlessness giving way to direction. The harried-sounding "Stay Tuned" follows with its unfolding guitar lick and sumptuous chorus. Congleton's drug imagery and the highs and lows found in his voice and the music play a clever game. "Swim" sounds just like its name, like someone, the voice of the guitar or Congleton himself, is caught beneath a raging tide. Congleton matches his song's feeling, he is adrift, as he has been for the whole album, but his alienation finally becomes a gift, a purpose. "I won't come home 'til after I've shaken hands with native lands." Being lost is his blessing (and if his bands status after the release of LP is any indication, he was right on the money) and riding it out his destiny. The carnival organ helps fill out the sound, along with the scruffy echoing guitar. Much has been made of the band's debt to My Bloody Valentine and I would argue it's here that that is most pronounced. The band dies down in time for the ending of the record, the strongest and most exciting song on the record and indeed one of the most thrilling of the decade. In true transcendentalist fashion, the song starts prosaically enough, a kind of lilting, easy-going almost country sound. Congleton sounds a bit more intense than the arrangement (note the vibes in the refrain), like he knows that he won't be able to sing once the song kicks into gear. The band is indeed priming themselves - taking it easy, so to speak. "Step into a well shut door," Congleton sings on, occasionally aided by Bassist Matt Dublin's falsetto, but then those keywords come along and the game changes. This is almost exactly at the half-way mark. "Told you believe in the things that you know, baby you trust that you can. Trust you can..." Then like a puff of cigarette smoke, he vanishes and Lysaght's guitar takes over. Congleton's voice will return, but as an instrument. His repeated "Just, just baby" only add to the growing chaos of the guitar and over-dubbed percussion; the effect is something like watching someone destroy a pinball machine - one you've been trying for weeks to beat but cannot. The guitar sounds start simple but when the drums get louder and start lapping each other, they grow in intensity. The change in rhythm is what gets me everytime. Both times they change the backing chords, it becomes like the end of a film. The loping first half is gone and your surrounded by rushing waters, kissing someone you've been pursuing madly for who knows how long. You've defeated armies and now you've won. That's the rushing sensation that waits for you at the proper end of LP. If you got the US version on CD, you also have a tired sounding Velvet Underground cover I wish they'd left on an EP; not because it's bad but because it totally undercuts the cleansing effects of "Young Urban," which is to wit, very nearly the perfect way to end a rock record.
Random Spirit Lover
by Sunset Rubdown
I speak about records in visual terms a lot - it's kind of my thing, being totally incapable of judging a record in terms of what it actually brings to the table. I've spent my entire life watching movies and only discovered music as an entity unto itself (you know with records I might buy and shit) when I was....I wanna say 7 or 8. My parents gave me cassette tapes I listened to compulsively not because I loved them (upon reflection the Beach Boys hits did stick with me - I think that Brian Wilson fellow is going places, keep your eye on him) but because that's what I had and I can't sleep very well in silence; Rank informs us that's because I'm terrified of the womb, which also explains why the only memory I have of my pre-conscious years is from a perspective I clearly couldn't have had - I see myself in my crib screaming as a door is closed. I'm watching myself, you see. So it didn't happen like that....but as I did have movies already in my head by this time, I feel in my remembering I had simply framed it like the films I'd already started watching and loved. So if my childhood is rendered proto-cinematically in my brain, what chance did music stand? Anyway, the reason this is important is because thanks mostly I feel to the reverb on Jordan Robson-Cramer and Michael Doerksen's guitars, Random Spirit Lover is a film of a record. Whereas many of my favorite albums often bring out images in my head if I'm in the proper mood and need ideas, Random Spirit Lover is such a profoundly unique and strange beast that it puts its stories and images there everytime. It has precedents certainly, "Heroes" by David Bowie and In The Court Of The Crimson King by King Crimson, spring to mind, as influences as well as ancestors. It is so strong in its delivery that you are just along for the ride, you don't give anything but your attention, it does all the work. And in that I feel it is probably alone in records this year. Neon Bible comes very close to this and I'd say as an emotional record it gets its hooks in a little better because I think Win Butler's vernacular is more accessible, but that's not to say that Spencer Krug is any less capable. Krug is a composer like Bach or Brahms or Philip Glass are composers. He has a style that purists recognize immediately and his work is so complex and beautiful that it cannot (at least for the duration of Random Spirit Lover) be called simply rock music. He would also incidentally probably hate me for saying all this, but...I don't care. Dizzy and I went to interview him last summer and though he and the band were about as humble as it gets, someone's got to sing their praises. And seeing as how she's also the only person reading this right now, I don't feel too bad about lionizing him and his record to the heavens. Or telling everyone that Dizzy hugged him after our interview. I wasn't quite so bold and left with a handshake...and the knowledge that Doerksen and Cramer had read my article about their guitar playing. I was a pig in mud. I've met a lot of my heroes in the past year and a half and I haven't been disappointed once but meeting Krug was a tremendous deal to me because he had a pretty enormous hand in two of my all-time favorite albums. And if you can't really see why news that Sunset's two guitar players had read my article about them made me the happiest geek on earth or why getting to talk to Krug about how Random Spirit Lover fit together, just press play. "The Mending of the Gown" has guitar athletics that trump any classic rock record but after the deliciously deft opening, they vanish and become part of the chorus, so to speak. Cramer (for that is I believe who's playing during this track - he did when I saw the band live in late 2008) never stops, but I can't for the life of me keep up with him. The two guitar players have a dizzying understanding of the fretboard, as do the band's other half, it's two keyboard players, Krug and Camilla Win-Ingr. Ingr's voice makes precious few appearances on the album and her response "This one's for Maggie...this one's for Sam" in "Gown" will likely stay with you to the end of the record. The song snakes itself into new directions and then once it ends, the record begins, cooling off and becoming "Magic Vs. Midas." With its melodica and acoustic guitar it is one of the few songs that get properly quiet, for aside from the ending, the rest of the album is so alive with its own force of will and Parnassus-like character and energy. The record has many turns of phrase, but I think the one that I most agree with is here: "by magic I mean trickery and by midas I mean faith." The song ends in a kind of carousel waltz full of ever-building momentum; every song but the last has a mind-blowing coda. When the fun is over and the quiet resumes, it's only just before the pulse of the next song rises to a boil. "Up On Your Leopard, Upon The End Of Your Feral Days" doesn't sound like a rock song, it sounds like something from the story of Nibelung or an old surrealist novel. The music suggests operatic heights like the kind of music E.W. Korngold used to write for Errol Flynn adventure films. Of course it's never that simple. The arrangement dies down and returns to soar over our heads again when the lead guitar breaks through the moment's quiet. Much has been made of Krug's lyrics and though I get snatches here and there I don't know most of them. I like it that way. His songs are of a magisterial otherworldliness and the fact that after easily two dozen times through I still don't know what happens to his protagonists isn't to me a deterrent but a sign that I can still enjoy the journey and the mystery. Learning lyrics is a tricky business for me. They can humanize their author, make them seem even more interesting or they can murder your estimation of who you thought was your favorite songwriter. With Krug, whose Wolf Parade lyrics and those he wrote for a choice few Sunset songs ("Shut Up I'm Dreaming Of Places Where Lovers Have Wings" and "Stadiums and Shrines II" namely) I know by heart, they wouldn't undermine or alter my estimation of him because I know he's a genius - the music that forms the scenery around the lyrics happens to be some of the most brilliant I've ever heard, so it's not like he has far to fall from if I found out he was singing about something trite - which he's not. "The Courtesan Has Sung" is fascinating and the second half of the song brings you out of the oblique opening chapter into some place completely new and (to my ears) snowy. The song is mostly interesting because it shows Krug's voice unencumbered by music (instantly compelling) but then shows that even when grounded in silence, a melody can come out of nowhere, change the song's character, and still sink it's teeth into you. But the meat of the record is yet to come. The following seven songs are where the record's most cinematic qualities emerge. The cloudy keys and treated pick scrapings that open "Wicked/Winged Things" are like a thousand different bits of scenery, the sky, the sea, fields green and black. There is vacancy in the song, distance between the drums and the guitars and keys, but it's planned that way. By allowing holes to sink into in the production, Krug allows us to go with the music, to see between what he sings and what's being played. At a little after two and a half minutes, the keys and guitar and cymbals become a kind of waterfall and are followed in each case by the very formal drum beat. This is an incredibly evocative patch. The rhythm and lack of in each place is one we recognize, it's the sound first of dreamy escape then of courts and order and they compliment each other nicely. We go from one extreme to the other in very short order, so how can you not combine the images you're given. It's a touch like the kind of surrealist images that Aleksandr Rou and Aleksandr Ptushko used to inject into their Russian fairy tale films. It's all pomp and circumstance until something fantastical blows through and suddenly the hero has to adjust - you just sit and watch it happen. It's hard for me not to go to fantastical places in my head during the closing minute and a half of "Colt Stands Up Grows Horns," which combines Ptushko's fairy-tale whirlwind with 70s horror music a la Halloween or Suspiria. The song proper is of a murky, worrisome tone, as if lost in the woods while monsters rear their heads all around you and the guitar lead drives this point home by rising out of the otherwise subdued sound (and sounding a little like Toto's score for Dune in the process, which had its fair share of monsters). "Stallion" is pitch black but manages to become brilliantly light and colorful by its end. It's here that the guitar mocks the sweeping strings of a film score most effortlessly; in the middle of the piece, it puts on a burst of speed and grows louder and guides the song until another silent patch. Krug's awkward keyboard phrase sets the stage for the end; the darkness met with a kind of sublime insanity. The screaming chorus that follows can be heard as that urge winning over before quiet comes again in preparation for the next song, the drums still hammering away like Thor's famed instrument. It's a kind of delightful surprise to hear the sound of a live, untampered Autoharp. The darkness lifts in favor of a daylight and color not unlike that at the end of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony; and yes, this does give you license to picture winged horses...I do. What else can you do during the ecstatic chorus: "If you make the rays the sun makes the waves!" it's hard not to smile. But, ever the chameleon, Krug brings it around to relative edge in time for the end, which has a slightly sinister tinge to its last guitar flourish, just before the coda breaks off and sets up the following song, the monumental "Taming of the Hands." The sort of childish wonder present in the melody of "Leopard" returns here. I've associated these two songs with a kind of fantastical imagery revolving around pirates. It's to do with Win-Ingr's wordless vocals in the start, Krug's mention of "Sails...flapping in the wind" that wonderfully bouncy melody from both guitar and keys and the traditional rock sound of the drums. It is, to put it simply, fun. There's probably a lot going on in Krug's story, but he's crafted a six minute epic that you can ride anywhere you like. If I could make a movie as concise and thrilling as the songs on Random Spirit Lover I might die happy. Krug's songs can take you over oceans and up castle walls if you drop your guard even a little and let them. How he managed to make songs that are so different, yet of a piece in their adventurous sound both intense and engagingly free. There's a break of sorts present in "Setting Vs. Rising," which has a hazy start and an endearing, almost rustic sounding end; The wounds of the boy hero are healed here before he takes on the dragon (something Krug would make literal on his next record). The expectancy, the build-up, the tension is great. "Hands" is such a boisterous song and to drop down for "Setting" is a tease, a respite we don't need, but Krug evidently does. The next song's minor opening is also a tease, but one we know will be rewarded and it is. The slowly ascending electric guitar sounds enough like the sharpening of a sword to warrant excitement as it overpowers the acoustic guitar, which promptly disappears to make room for the drums. Anyone who knows video games knows those drums - those are final stage drums; castle or cave, it's crumbling. At a minute eighteen he drives the sword deep into the beast's chest and the music is his nightmarish scream of pain. Both regroup, trading menacing stares and bravada in their respective roars. Krug has poetry "I'd like to think the actors never vanish. I'd like to throw this trumpet down and go empty handed;" The dragon has the guitar. The one-note fills are incendiary bursts, fire blown from the beast's nose. They finally spar for the end, Krug and the squealing guitar. "La-Da-dadada La-Da-dadada Do!" He screams. Every instrument at hand plays their final charge. At four minutes fifty you can see the dragon whip its tail, the hero his hair before the great demon is struck down. "Child-Heart Losers" is the aftermath; sad and lonely, but isn't it always when you remember that fantasy is just that. "Fire makes it go," Krug and Ingr lament. The stories need imaginations to work and until then they and the storyteller are lonely without ears to fill, minds to set alight. The real world returns and it's a bummer - the song used to seem anti-climactic until I saw it as a necessity after the thrill of battle, the lie of adventure. I know nothing of the reality of the situation but an aside from Krug when I interviewed him led me to believe that like News & Tributes the response was not overwhelmingly great to the album. I also believe the reason why is a lack of imagination. If you cannot let yourself go on the ride, of course you'll hate the idea of being taken. Maybe it's my age or my upbringing or that I'm a hopeless Canadiaphile, but I love Random Spirit Lover. I love to write to it because it is so rich and can solve otherwise daunting problems. It is great for writing films because it is so like a film. It has characters, elements introduced and called back, excitement written into its progressions and melodies, grand themes, sights and sounds. It is a blast, a movie that goes in your ears, a record unlike any other in its commitment to the fantastic, its spirited vision, and inimitable sound.
Turn On The Bright Lights
In summer of 2003 I found myself in Newbury Comics in Boston for the first time. I bought Sondre Lerche's Faces Down and Interpol's Turn On The Bright Lights. It has since been one of the most important records I've ever bought. I've seen the band live three times, I listened to them nonstop while entering my first serious relationship and then again when that fell apart. It's the record that made me first discover how much better some albums are during winter. Snow on the ground makes some things so much more resonant and meaningful, Turn on the Bright Lights most of all. When I went out and bought an electric guitar for the first time, I had one thing in mind: sounding like Dan Kessler. A few years later I bought the same bass Carlos D. plays; that is to date the most money I've ever spent on anything. Idiot. It is the guitar album of the decade, the post-punk album that made me fall in love with all my other post-punk crushes (The Chameleons, Joy Division, etc.). When I'm forced to envision the after-life, it usually comes to the guitar break in the second half of "PDA," which ought to tell you a little about me. The kind of movies I want to make have all come from things I've seen while listening to "Leif Erikson." When Carlos D.'s bass does that bottomless reverberation thing at the end of "Say Hello To The Angels" the hair on my arms stands up. The whole song is excellent. It reminds me of snow-covered ancient mansions where people are treacherous and behave terribly toward one another. I'd like to film that too. The album has the epic momentum and emotional depth of a whole life lived in 49 minutes. The album cover looks like a stage on which a man will plead his case for entry into hell because that's where he's sure all his friends are. The guitar tone is unrivaled and often creates a wall or a fog or a cloud that is my absolute favorite thing that a guitar can do when plugged into an amp. It's what I've always tried to do whenever I've had a guitar. It reminds me how short life is and how I live it to the fullest. It's the sound of despair but there's hope in there too so it can't be. It's the sound of longing, of being at the bottom of a dozen skyscrapers and wondering how you could ever be heard with so much noise everywhere. The four members of Interpol dress immaculately; they're the reason I don't mind dressing nicely and why I wanted to wear empty holsters to my prom, which my girlfriend didn't approve of. Paul Banks monotone howl is the only voice that could work with the music of Interpol. They're on Radiohead's former label now, and Carlos D. swears they still have their Kid A in them. I'd like to hear that. I think it'd be nice. But there's no rivaling Turn On The Bright Lights. Why? Because "Stella Was A Diver And She's Always Down" is perfect and maybe you only get one. But then they also recorded "The Specialist" around this time, didn't they? There's no song so deep and so nuanced and so layered and so heart-breaking from the record because like "She Lost Control" it's about people who can't decide really what they'll do with their lives. The guitar, that more or less optimistic guitar fill after the chorus is like trying to and feeling like you can, like the days aren't going to kill you, like you can control them. Maybe you can. Maybe they'll make a better record, but I love this one so much I don't know that I'd appreciate it. It's that first foggy record that made me love all the other foggy records I've found since then. It uses silence and isolation to brutal effect.
The bracelet wearing, Eno-produced, Johnny Cash covering Coldplay that everyone loves to hate, despite their still selling out arenas everytime they leave the house are not the affable Brits they were in 2000 when they first crossed the ocean. Their egos inflated a touch, they espouse good virtue in a big way, they cut their hair regularly, they coordinate their wardrobe, their a little less cool than they were when they debuted, but only a little. To be honest the coolness of Coldplay was never really why I listened to them in the first place. The reason was Parachutes and they could wear Nazi uniforms and I'd still buy their new albums because of it. It starts softly with the opening chords of "Don't Panic," the kind of sweet, think-about-life song they made their name on. Jon Buckland's guitar is kinda why I fell in love with this band. On the opener and "Shiver" it's just...there's nothing better. It's awesome. Chris Martin's voice is relentlessly compelling, its shift from tired near-rasping to stunning falsetto, but on "Shiver" his voice and Buckland's guitar work together, to the point that Buckland's guitar is almost the lead vocal. Of course Guy Berryman's bass is also rather excellent, as are Will Champion's busy and rainy-street-reverb. The musicianship is great, but the production, the spacing of each instrument to allow for silence to cast a poetic shadow over each song is a stroke of genius. For a few years in the middle of the decade it became impossible to hear an album with enough quiet in it; every second was bursting with keyboards and unnecessary guitar fills (for the record, you can't have too many guitars, you just need to know how to use them. Case in point: Broken Social Scene. They have more guitars than Pete Townsend's living room but they never lose sight of the sound of a record). The balance between optimism and darkness is crucial to the success of Parachutes. "Spies" is a good example. The song is pitch-black and has some pretty dour imagery yet is endlessly listenable. Is it the tremolo stitched onto the end of the second verse? The palpable atmosphere? I don't really know and that's how I like it. I listen to the song because it puts a really clear image in my head everytime. It's unresolved so I keep coming back. Take it apart and it loses a touch of that mystique. Each instrument works so well together that if you isolate them the song is no longer quite the juggernaut it is on its own. That's Parachutes all over. It is a masterfully produced album, one of depth and a wealth of emotions. "Sparks" weaves a blanket of comforting (if slightly, unexplainably unsettling) sounds and drapes it over you. "Yellow" is doomed to be the point of contention on this record, what with its unforgivable overuse in popular media. I don't try and hide the fact that I really can only handle "Yellow" on some days but it made the whole world fall in love with them so you can't say it didn't at one time have power. It's a simple song, the lyrics don't make sense, it has a driving lead guitar, loud drums and a sensitive vocal delivery. I take it as the death of that culture vacuum that overly optimistic fratboys call the 90s. Ok, that's harsh, we all call them the nineties, but only people with nothing in their lives look at the nineties as anything other than a totally forgettable place holder. It sucked and both Parachutes and Kid A signaled the blessed end of trends for trends sake and the prominence of commercial radio, the end of anyone being an arbiter of taste. Freedom of choice was back! And now we can choose to skip "Yellow" when listening to Parachutes but to be honest it's not a bad song. It's just the single, the black sheep on a great album and so will look not quite as beautiful as the rest. I remember liking the video, though... "Trouble" continues the great mix of emotions with its sombre verse and warm chorus and despite reservations, it really is a lovely, understated song. Coldplay, whatever else can be said of them, get choruses. The piano, the slide guitar, the plucked rhythm, the tambourine, the pastoral momentum, the running to stand still. It really is lovely. "Parachutes" may just be the most beautiful thing in the world. It's not even a minute long but my word is it gorgeous. The sound of Chris Martin's fingers changing chords echoing is a necessary and charming reminder between the album's most heavily produced tracks that these are just guys who write remarkable songs. "High Speed" is pure Manchester but with the production values and recording equipment that the likes of The Smiths and Joy Division never dreamed of. The dreamy guitar, the almost inaudible organ welling up beneath everything else, the half-aborted acoustic guitar, the too-cool drumming. I love Martin's wavering pronunciation of the title lyrics towards the end of the choruses. The distance between the instruments creates a fog thick enough to walk through. "We Never Change" feels a bit perfunctory as it's sat between the saddest and most eerily hopeful songs on the record but again the chorus is almost too sweet to not love. The dripping guitar notes that open it make the whole song. "Everything's Not Lost" is a bit of an emotional low-blow, a feel-good sing-along with a lot of repetition and a way fucking happy message, but hey, sometimes you need just that. And leave it to Coldplay to produce a sing-along this grey. And that is how to describe the record, grey, uncertain, silent enough to hear the echo. It's sitting on a beach between total darkness and sunrise. It's soft and harrowing at times but also beautiful, not unlike Kurosawa's Ikiru. It's a record of reflection; of trying to sort yourself out and deal with the hugeness of life, hence the odd over-simplification. I don't have many answers, which is why I like to have the likes Parachutes handy to figure some of the more important things...it helps to have a great record.
by The Decemberists
In 2005 I think I really discovered the Internet and believe me I needed it. 2004 had proved to me just how little I knew about music. In my vein effort to compile a list of 100 great albums of that year, I'd found maybe 50 worthy of mentioning, the rest were filler (sadder still, I'd purchased all of them; it's no wonder I couldn't afford to take my then girlfriend nicer places). At my lowest I'd once seriously considered buying a Taking Back Sunday album. I know, I know... so in 2005 much of my life and habits changed seriously. Though certainly greater things happened that year but firstly I stumbled on a now defunct blog (the first I'd ever read) called Radio Free Internet run by a guy called Jason H. H had a number of fixations, Rilo Kiley, Iron & Wine and The Decemberists chief among them. I didn't yet have my job at Siren Records and my sisters were never huge into music that I liked unless I showed it to them first (even then they gave me shit about a lot of it) so I was looking for new ways to find music and H delivered. He didn't always give me music I liked (I still don't get Rilo Kiley) but he did have a page of links to other blogs, which had other songs, and on and on and on. This is all common knowledge now but for me back then it was like finding the keys to the kingdom. As I found more blogs, I downloaded more and more Decemberists songs until I had nearly the wholePicaresque album. That christmas I thought I might as well buy the damned thing because it seemed no one was ever gonna blog "The Bagman's Gambit," or "Of Angels and Angles" that last song that so eluded me. That christmas my friends Ken and Ben bought me the CD and since then it's stood near the top of my favorite albums of all time. My discovery of Sufjan Stevens through those very same channels led me to think that some of our better songwriters were like film directors, so completely in charge of the tone of their records that they made short films for our ears. Colin Meloy is one such sonic auteur, the Wes Anderson or P.T. Anderson of the guitar. His vocabulary is of course exemplary, but I've since grown weary of the showmanship present on "The Infanta" (though who doesn't love Shofar intros?). What still impresses me is his timeless songwriting. "We Both Go Down Together," "Eli The Barrow Boy," "From My Own True Love (Lost at Sea)" and "The Mariner's Revenge Song" all sound like hundred year old sea fairing ballads and it takes a songwriter of pretty considerable talent to pull of such a feat. And as if that weren't enough he proves himself equally capable of truly memorable pop songs and mini-epics. The production on "The Bagman's Gambit" and "The Mariner's Revenge Song," indeed the whole record, is nothing short of remarkable, all the more so when you see footage of them recording it in an old church with nothing but odds and ends and Chris Walla at the mixer. Meloy's songs and his band terrific acumen are given great breadth. Picaresque is a band with a clear message, a shit-ton 'a talent, and microphones positioned so perfectly that you don't miss even the faintest bit of their brilliance. Even the little things are great. The muted booming drum sound, bells and string solo on "From My Own True Love," the crisp drum sound and percussive guitar opening on "16 Military Wives," the screaming on "Mariner's Revenge Song," the simple use of a twelve string guitar on "On The Bus Mall," which is one of the greatest love songs of our time, the fact that all of that is stripped away, making silence the third instrument, on "Of Angels and Angles". The momentum, the zeitgeist of the record is of the underdog breaking through and making his own way, redefining and in this way embodying success and nothing said this better than the figure of Meloy himself. Meloy, while no Shane MacGowan, was a round man with a bowl cut and glasses. A classic nerd who sang openly bibliophilic songs about sucking at sports, letting everyone down and making up fantastic fables about undying love with women who don't exist. Take the glasses off and that was me without the songwriting talent in 2004. It was only through discovering bands like The Decemberists that I was able to change the things about myself I hated and start over, be better than I was. I was able to leave my girlfriend who made me feel terrible about not being able to take her anywhere or dress nicer or act less weird. I started writing, I started trying to be a better friend, I started a band, I got a job, I embraced my weirdness fiercely and haven't stopped since. Picaresque wasn't just a great record I found at a crucial moment, it was my record, my story and the story of my friends. Basho, our friend Nick and I (Dizzy too, though I can't speak to her first Decemberists experience) are insane Decemberists fans and we probably always will be and it started then with Picaresque. We used to sing "Mariner's" aloud at school, we've seen them in concert, we've played their songs at coffee houses, we rock out to their songs rather foolishly in cars. We are super fans. The Decemberists made great records in the intervening years and they'd made great records before but Picaresque is absolutely my favorite of their works because it's not just something I love, it's about the triumph of nerds like Colin Meloy and me.
In 2000 Radiohead said fuck you to fifty years of label expectations and rock and roll conventions and released Kid A. That nearly ever publication you can think of is calling it the best record of the decade because it's defined the DIYness of everything that's followed and the fact that there is now no such thing as an unreleasable album or an impossible situation. I do love that Radiohead put out Kid A, Blur morphed into Gorillaz and people just stopped listening to Oasis because they didn't change a fucking thing. What can I say? It's all been said or at least thought by everyone who's listened to it. Seriously though, "In Limbo?" That song is fucking mindblowing! I could list everything its inspired me to write or tell you that I've listened to the album no fewer than 50 times but what have I said? There's no way I'm gonna be able to claim this one for me as something special. This album is so hugely important to so many people and I'm just one of them. Maybe the only real surprise is that it's not number one. That's why these are all opinion pieces and there's no such thing as an objective best. If there was, this'd be it though, I think.
by Arcade Fire