Saturday, June 30, 2007

Best of the year so far

Hey all,

Here are my top 20 albums of the year so far...

20. Spoon - Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga

Spoon has always sounded like they record in a room that is barely big enough to contain the band yet still produces a bit of an echo. I don’t know where this mystical room is, but it works for them. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is a bit of a departure for them in that they use a lot more effects than they have in the past. Not that they have been particularly averse to effects in the past, but this time they put them front and center on several songs. Interestingly enough, they enhance the songs rather than overshadowing them. It’s the songs without many effects that suffer on this album. It’s not their best bunch of songs by a long shot (there’s not really a clear standout), but it’s a solid and consistent album that shows them branching out a bit.

19. Feist - The Reminder

I stayed away from Feist as long as I could. Every once in a while an artist will get hyped in such a way that I don’t want anything to do with them. I still haven’t heard Let It Die, and I’m not sure I ever will. I’m stubborn that way. The Reminder, however, is a really strong album that made me reconsider my illogical aversion to Leslie Feist. Songs like “I Feel It All,” “My Moon My Man,” and “One Two Three Four” skip along at a delightful pace, and her slower songs rarely sink into boring introspection. One concern: she covers “See Line Woman.” Why the hell would you try to cover Nina Simone? The closest anyone’s ever come to doing one of her songs justice was Jeff Buckley’s cover of “Be My Husband,” and even that is a distant second to the original. Watch yourself, missy!

18. LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver

Following last year’s wonderful Nike+ tie-in 45:33, a 45 minute mix of some of his best work to date, LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy has put out a really cool set of songs. The best one, Someone Great, is a section of 45:33, sadly the only one that appears on the album. The remaining songs are almost as good, however, and the album never seems drawn out or meandering. Whereas 45:33 was designed to be a running album, I get the feeling that Sound of Silver works best as a driving album.

17. Battles - Mirrored

The thing that I never got about progressive music, particularly industrial prog, was the fact that these huge songs had to be sustained through virtuosity. I eventually came to the conclusion that most of the time you can’t sustain a song for more than six minutes or so without relying on repetition unless your audience is other musicians. And for years musicians were one of the only audiences for prog. Battles is different. There’s still a lot of great musicianship on this record, but they anchor each song in a structure that always brings the listener back in with a repeating hook or rhythmic pattern. It’s what I always wanted prog to be.

16. Fountains of Wayne - Traffic and Weather

“Radiation Vibe” came out my junior year in high school, and I immediately loved it. I bought the album, listened to the rest of it, and promptly forgot about all but that song. Listening back to the songs now, I can see why I didn’t respond to them. Fountains of Wayne has always made music that adults hear and think, “I would have loved this in high school,” when in actuality only a very few high schoolers respond to the brand of pop subtlety that they create. It’s high school music for grownups. Their newest is certainly not their best, but it’s smart pop done well, and there’s certainly not enough of that going around these days.

15. Avett Brothers - Emotionalism

None of my Northern friends understand bluegrass. Come to think of it, they don’t really understand the South. They roll their eyes when they hear that (hell, sometimes I do too), but there’s something about growing up down here. You just get it. Now I’m not talking about the fist-pumping, Dixie-waving South. I mean the South that gets its identity from hating those assholes, from being forced to share an identity with them. The best bluegrass music, like the Avett Brothers, speaks to these people. It’s the anti-Kenny Chesney: subtle, witty, and loose, with attitude to spare. Also, they put on an amazing live show. Word.

14. Kathy Diamond - Miss Diamond To You

I’m not usually one for dance music. Probably because I am a terrible dancer, first of all, but also because it’s typically processed to the point of being commodified. There are only a handful of truly original acts in the history of dance music, and as such I typically stay away from the whole genre. The DIY movement has, however, revitalized the genre, and now we have people like Kathy Diamond making great records in their bedrooms. Miss Diamond To You is laid-back, vibrant, tight, and sexy as hell. All you NYC folks will especially thank me. I can’t imagine a better subway commute album.

13. New Pornographers - Challengers

It’s going to be a little tough to defend this album from Brad. I can see how it would be boring. But I just don’t care. Carl Newman is my kind of songwriter. This is by far not his best batch of songs. I might even rank it last among their albums. But their worst album is still an amazing piece of pop songcraft. They have such an inherent grasp on melody, harmony and rhythm that every song seems effortless, like they just pooped it out in ten minutes. Their lyrics are always clever, never precious. And come on, it’s Neko Case. That’s like kryptonite to me.

12. Arcade Fire - Neon Bible

When a band’s debut is hyped as much as Funeral was, it is really hard to follow it up with something that raises the level of conversation without lessening the intensity of it. The Strokes couldn’t do it. Neither could Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Editors, Interpol, or Ray Lamontagne. Arcade Fire has managed it with Neon Bible. It’s just as dark and brooding as Funeral is, but it also brings a level of musical complexity to the table that their debut did not have.

11. Paul McCartney - Memory Almost Full

Every single review of this album has branded it, in some way or another, as “music to soundtrack your latte.” Does Starbucks really have that much sway over our consciousness that it overshadows that album itself? Apparently so. And I have to say that when I heard the news that Paul McCartney was going to be the first artist on the Starbucks label, I yawned. Sir Paul has really made a great album, though, one that is a lot more Abbey Road than Give My Regards To Broad Street. And “Dance Tonight” belongs on everyone’s stereo this summer.

10. The Shins - Wincing The Night Away

Now that the summer’s here, this album is even more necessary. While this album falls a bit short of Chutes Too Narrow (honestly, what wouldn't?), it is a really cool step forward for them. They don't rest on a formula, they stretch their comfort zone. It almost always works, and a couple of times they hit it out of the park.

9. Laura Veirs - Saltbreakers

Thank God for hippies who don’t make hippie music. Laura Veirs is an amazing songwriter with the soul of a hippie but the disposition and sensibilities of an indie rocker. She evokes images of the natural world that are simply delightful while grounding her songs in solid emotional territory. I haven’t been this excited about a female musician since Kathleen Edwards.

8. The National - Boxer

This album has grown and grown on me, even though I really liked it the first time I heard it. It’s a slow growth. And based on Jonesey's review of their live show I don’t even know the half of it. It’s not quite hanging together as a cohesive whole for me yet, but I get the feeling that this is the sort of album that I will revisit many times in the coming years.

7. Ryan Adams - Easy Tiger

I think that Ryan Adams has finally found a balance on Easy Tiger. He’s made an album that is compelling without bogging it down by trying to write outside his strengths, like he did on parts of Gold and Rock N Roll. His maturity seems to have caught up with his talent. This is driven home even further by the album's closer, "I Taught Myself How To Grow Old." It's one of the best songs he's ever written, and it plays out like a tour through his fabled career. Just fabulous.

6. Iron and Wine - The Shepherd's Dog

No surprise here. Sam Beam has one of the most consistent runs in music today, and he’s showing no signs of sucking. He just keeps adding layers of texture and nuance to his unique sound, a mix of Southern gothic and folksy understatement. This is his best batch of songs yet, and while it’s less of a revelation than Our Endless Numbered Days, it’s no less of an album. It actually might be more of one.

5. The White Stripes - Icky Thump

It’s good to have you guys back. We’ll just forget about those last two. What the hell were you thinking??? I mean everyone has bad albums, but gee whiz! And how did you manage to convince all these rock critics that they were actually good? Oh well, water under the bridge. The new one is wonderful, fuzzy and bluesy and adventurous all at once. Good stuff

4. Tegan & Sara - The Con

This is the one I will probably get the most shit for, but I really don’t care. This is a great pop record. It’s fluffy, breezy, even a little whiny. But it sure as hell would be the soundtrack to my summer if I were sixteen again. Hell, it’s the soundtrack to my summer at 28. Like Fountains of Wayne, it is teenage music for adults. Tought thing to do.

3. Modest Mouse - We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank

Following up the kind of success Modest Mouse had with their last album can be a pretty tough thing. Death Cab for Cutie went through a similar situation a couple of years ago when they were faced with following up Transatlanticism. And while Plans was a decent collection of songs, it wasn’t the kind of statement that many hoped it would be. Isaac Brock and company have bucked that trend. This is a great rock album, start to finish. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

2. Marnie Stern - In Advance of the Broken Arm

Shred it up, girl! Because nobody’s got chops any more. The guitar has become much less than it used to be. I can’t say that this fact has made me overly sad. There are few things that I detest more than pointless virtuosity, a la Yngwie Malmsteen. But listening to Marnie Stern makes me long for a new era of guitar greatness. She plays guitar like nobody I’ve ever heard, tweaking and plucking her way to euphoria without descending into pointlessness.

1. Panda Bear - Person Pitch

Person Pitch is what I think joy sounds like. The joy of living, of creating something and putting it out into the world. It’s an album of emotions rather than ideas. There is no great insight in the lyrics. They are about having fun, being great to each other, and celebrating everything you can. And as corny as it may sound, it’s the closest thing I’ve heard to what might be playing in heaven.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Soon to come

Hey everybody. Sorry posts have been few and far between lately, I am currently in the process of moving a lot of crap from one place to another. My trip out to L.A. was great, and hopefully I will have some good news related to that next week. I have a lot of new music to write about, including great new albums by the New Pornographers, Iron & Wine, and Laura Veirs. Bear with me while I sweat and grunt while moving this week.

In the meantime, an oldie but goodie......

Monday, June 18, 2007

Sesame Street Awesomeness

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Easy Tiger

Over the years Ryan Adams has written songs that wrap themselves around my life in a way that allows meaning to flow both ways. I remember listening to “Drank Like A River” and “Tennessee Square” when I was living in Nashville, letting those songs carry me down the highways that I would drive aimlessly to get away from Vanderbilt. I remember “La Cienga Just Smiled” and “Sylvia Plath” accompanying me as I walked through through rainy streets of London, wishing I had a girl to love. I remember “Magnolia Mountain” and “Cherry Lane” soundtracking a summer of getting re-centered and recovering my sense of wonder. The songs gave those times in my life more nuanced meaning, and listening to them now sometimes takes my breath away. There is a whole world of meaning now packed into those three or four minutes.
The best music does this. It brings you clarity and understanding when you need those things, and then it stores those experiences better than any photo album or scrapbook. So it’s hard for me to listen to any new Ryan Adams album with objective ears. I will always have my idea of what it should sound like. Sometimes it sounds that way, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes he surprises me, sometimes he disappoints me. But I always have an opinion right off the bat.
Easy Tiger is, first off, a really good album, in my opinion his best since Cold Roses. It’s a bit of a hodgepodge, and for that reason it reminds me at points of Demolition. But Easy Tiger succeeds where Demolition failed because its variety doesn’t get in the way of its cohesiveness. It’s less like a bunch of leftovers thrown together and more like a tour of where Adams is right now as a songwriter.
There’s not much new on Easy Tiger. Every song sounds like it would be right at home on another of his albums. It’s most closely akin to Cold Roses, starting off with three tracks that embody the breezy, jammy feel of that album. “Tears of Gold” is straight outta Jacksonville City Nights, “Off Broadway” is a welcome return to the melancholy of Love is Hell, and “Pearls on a String” even evokes a Whiskeytown vibe. The album’s masterpiece, though, is “I Taught Myself How To Grow Old,” a sparse and yearning tune that stands with his best work. I think it’s the best song he’s written since “Meadowlake Street.”
I think that Ryan Adams has finally found a balance on Easy Tiger. He’s made an album that is compelling without bogging it down by trying to write outside his strengths, like he did on parts of Gold and Rock N Roll. His maturity seems to have caught up with his talent.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Quote of the Day

Any event, once it has occurred, can be made to appear inevitable by a competent historian.

-Lee Simonson