Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Top 20 of 2008: #9

9. Yeasayer - All Hour Cymbals

It's kind of hard to write about Yeasayer's debut album. I find myself running into the same problem I have writing about any world music (or, in this case, merely world-sounding music), namely that I have no context in which to place the music. I therefore can only evaluate it based on whether the music and/or the words are pleasing and meaningful to me, which if you subscribe to that theory means I would hate Lou Reed, Marnie Stern and Tom Waits. Thankfully for me, I try not to evaluate music simply based on aesthetics.

So maybe I could evaluate Yeasayer as a band using the cloak of world music to evaluate the world around them in simple terms. Being indie rockers, they probably feel a lot of pressure to be quite clever and erudite, even snarky, about evaluating the world around them. But looking at their lyrics, there's not a lot of depth there. It's stories about red caves, germs and sunrises. Hmmm....

Well, at any rate, I do love this record. You can tell they had a lot of fun making it. It's great to dance to at very loud volume. So what the hell. Who needs a reason?

Friday, January 23, 2009

Top 20 of 2008: #10

10. The Gaslight Anthem - The '59 Sound

I didn't hear this album until about three weeks ago, and when I did I had one of those "Oh God I have to totally rethink my Top 20 list" moments. The album really knocked me off my feet on first listen. That high didn't completely hold up over the ensuing weeks, but this is a damn fine record that deserves a lot more than Springsteen and Ramones comparisons. Although those comparisons are right.

I think a more interesting point of reference might be Social Distortion. They were one of the first bands to draw the connection between '50's greasers and '70's punks, and as a result they became a true cult band, not widely acclaimed but loved a small group of devout fans. The Gaslight Anthem add a lot to the aesthetic that Social Distortion established, namely the themes of escape and belonging that guys like Springsteen and Dylan were so good at capturing. And while they're not in that echelon, they do it better than just about anyone working today (including Springsteen and Dylan, although those two have since moved on to new things.)

The major criticism of this album is the same one all punk rock albums get: it all sounds pretty similar. And it really does keep them from greatness. It's only on a few songs, like "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" and "Here's Lookin At You, Kid," that they break out of their full-steam-ahead mode and add some depth to their music. But then variety isn't really the point with guys like these.

The point is that these are songs to pump your fist to, to yell out of open car windows on hopeful Friday nights. More than just about any album this year, The '59 Sound captures a mood and an attitude. The songs are hopeful, cynical, brash and vulnerable. It's earnest music that doesn't hide anything, and there's way too little of that stuff going around these days.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Top 20 of 2008: 15-11

15. Okkervil River - The Stand Ins

I didn't pay much attention to last year's The Stage Names even though it got a lot of attention and acclaim. Everything about Okkervil River seemed affected and too clever for me. Right off the bat, though, The Stand Ins is impossible to ignore. "Lost Coastlines" is an infectious, joyful piece of songwriting that never failed to cheer me up and get my head nodding, and the rest of the album actually keeps that energy going.

Will Sheff's lyrics are, to use a too-often-overused descriptor, Dylan-esque. In this case, it's the madcap, stream-of-consciousness Dylan of the Bringing It All Back Home era. It's almost as if he's afraid that the words are going to fly right out his ears if he doesn't get them out. This results in a singing style that I would describe as the exact opposite of Willie Nelson; whereas Nelson is always a quarter beat behind, Sheff is a quarter beat ahead.

"Pop Lie" is another raucous gem that really gets me going, but it's the quiet moments on the record that push it to another level for me. People with Sheff's talent with words often come across as disingenuous when they attempt to be heartfelt and earnest, but he pulls it off beautifully. When he sings "God knows I just want to make this white light big enough to climb inside with you," I really believe him.

14. Matthew Ryan - Matthew Ryan vs. The Silver State

Sensitive singer-songwriters usually don't come out with with innovative, career-defining albums. They tend to plod along gently, gradually perfecting their craft until they get to the level of Grant Lee Phillips - respected but not groundbreaking. Some notable exceptions are Josh Rouse's Under Cold Blue Stars and Patty Griffin's Flaming Red. Add to that list Matthew Ryan's latest.

A lot of people think that Ryan's last record, From a Late Night High Rise was his masterpiece, and while that record was incredibly powerful, Matthew Ryan vs. The Silver State trumps it in terms of songwriting maturity and breadth. Ryan's raspy whisper of a voice is able to convey an incredibly dense and complex web of emotions here, and his songs stick in the head without becoming annoying or mundane.

He's a lyricist of rare talent, an introspective writer who never comes across as self-indulgent of navel-gazing. "American Dirt" is one of his best, an intense and caustic meditation on regret that gets better with every listen. Given where he's been as a songwriter, this record is a quantum leap and, hopefully, a sign of even better things to come.

13. Santogold - Santogold

Forget the hype and just listen to it with fresh, non-judgey ears. This is a fantastic record. Nuff said.

12. Walkmen - You & Me

From its very first notes, You & Me feels like an album that captures our present like few others do. It's music for this recession, not just any recession. This recession still feels unreal in a lot of ways. We see financial disasters, we know people who have lost their jobs, and yet it still feels distant and hazy. The Walkmen strike a perfect balance here between nervy, brooding melodies and lyrics that, for all their darkness, are actually pretty optimistic.

Those expecting a dramatic departure in sound from their previous records will be disappointed. The jangly guitars, half-screamed vocals and five boroughs imagery are still here in spades. What's different about this record is that all of that stuff has finally been put into a relevant package. I don't think many people actively disliked the Walkmen, but they weren't a very exciting or interesting band. Their strange mix of optimism and darkness just feels right now though.

Everyone talks about "In the New Year" as the quintessential song on the album, but for my money the opener, "Donde Esta La Playa," captures everything that's great about this album. It begins with rolling drums and bass, with a world-weary vocal performance that then gives way to a screaming chorus, and then it all goes quiet again. The record is a wonderful ride, from start to finish.

11. Sigur Ros - Med sud I eyrum vid spilum endalaust

I feel like I've never really "gotten" Sigur Ros. They were good music to fall asleep to, or background music for staring off into the distance, or music to play before a staff meeting. They were novel but not interesting.

"Gobbledigook" smashes that all to hell. It begins with a single snare, followed by a strumming acoustic guitar, followed by an entire jungle of percussion screaming along in a joyous cacophony. It's fantastic, energetic and unlike anything they've done before.

My friend Tara described this album as "like standing on top of a mountain." I really can't think of a better description. It makes you glad to be alive, and I can't think of a better purpose for music than that.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Top 20 Of 2008: 20 - 16

20. Deerhunter - Microcastle

It is rarely a good thing for albums to flirt with mythology before they are even released, particularly when those albums are described as “taking the band into the next phase” or “raising the bar.” It usually ends in unmet expectations and disappointment.

No so with Microcastle. It leaked half a year before its release and was hailed as a masterpiece, and it largely lives up to those expectations. Bradford Cox is a songwriter in the vein of Stephen Malkmus and Bob Pollard, not content to let his melodies off too easy. They must compete with the texture and complication that he gives them through noisier elements. The meleodies thus have to be incredibly strong in order to shine through the haze.

If there’s a fault I can find with the album, it’s that it’s a bit too divided. The opening and closing sections are fantastically diverse, but the middle of the record is an ambiguous wash of drone and noise. It’s interesting, but it would be a lot more interesting if Cox had crafted those fragments into songs. Despite this, however, Microcastle is a fantastic listen, an album full of great songs that are somehow better as a whole than they are as component parts.

19. Army Navy - Army Navy

From the very first drum roll on Army Navy’s debut album, you sense that these guys live on the sunny side of life. Insanely poppy hooks and near-bubblegum sensibilities abound, and it’s great listening. It’s also a great antidote to the sad bearded dudes who are dominating indie music of late.

There’s not a lot of great lyrical content here. Frontman Justin Kennedy is an alum of Pinwheel, Ben Gibbard’s band before starting Death Cab for Cutie, and it’s clear who had the literary chops. But Army Navy more than make up for it with songs that transcend their sometimes cheesy peppiness and never devolve into a sugary mess. There’s a lot of sophistication in these songs. It’s like if Fountains of Wayne never got famous and dulled the edges of this music.

While the album is not incredibly diverse, they do manage to sound almost pensive on songs like “Slight of Hand” and “In the Lime,” slowing things down without getting boring. It was a frequent soundtrack to my Southern California summer. Guitars don’t get much more jangly than this.

18. Cat Power - Jukebox

Nobody does covers quite like Chan Marshall. She wraps her choices in her shimmery haze, evening out the inconsistencies without dumbing everything down. Every pick seems incredibly logical when you hear it, even when they’re as disparate as Hank Williams and James Brown.

Marshall has become an incredibly confident vocalist, and it’s her voice that’s the real attraction here. Once you get past the novelty of some of the changes she makes to these songs, you’re left with a sense of just how powerful her singing has become. The band is great, but she is always the star here.

It’s hard to pick standout tracks, but it’s actually her own “Metal Heart” that caught my ear the most. It displays a lot of maturity as a songwriter, which is particularly gratifying considering her tantrum-laden past. It also makes me able to say, for the first time, that I’m genuinely looking forward to the next Cat Power record.

17. School of Seven Bells - Alpinisms

Women with ethereal voices always get me, but my fascination usually fades with time. All the pretty voices in the world can’t make up for a lack of good songs. Thankfully, Alpinisms has both in spades.

Given guitarist Benjamin Cutis’s time with The Secret Machines, it’s no surprise that School of Seven Bells manages to find great songs in the midst of atmospherics. While not as metronomic and measured as the songs of his former band, the songs on Alpinisms show every bit as much maturity and willingness to stretch beyond convention. There’s a depth to the lyrics that lifts the songs above the usual New Age trappings that drag the genre down.

Above all, the voices of the Deheza sisters make this album. They duck and weave around each other, mixing in ways that suggest that they have been singing together since they were little girls. That familiarity is what makes this album shine.

16. She & Him - Volume 1

Maybe Volume I is just a delicacy, a fluffy record made by a pretty actress who happens to also have a pretty voice. Maybe it is just a retread of AM radio melodies and girl group sentimentality. Maybe it is the least accomplished work M. Ward has done.

Or maybe it’s a fantastic rediscovery of a genre that is often imitated but rarely done well. Maybe M. Ward’s arrangements indicate a maturity that extends beyond his usual virtuosity and propels him into a new phase as a musician. Maybe his guitar has never sounded as good as it does with Zooey Deschanel’s voice.

Whatever you believe about this record, it’s clear that these guys are having a great time making music together. This is a joyous, energetic album that still makes me smile when I listen to it. And for what it’s worth, their version of “You Really Gotta Hold On Me” might just top the original.