Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Top 20 of 2008: #1

1. Fucked Up - The Chemistry of Common Life

Ok, where the fuck did this come from? That's what I hear you saying. And you're right. I have no business making The Chemistry of Common Life my favorite album of 2008. I like stuff like Ryan Adams and My Morning Jacket (who both had albums this year, by the way, one was ok and one sucked hard). I don't listen to hardcore. I don't even know how to distinguish good hardcore from bad hardcore. What the hell, Cliff?

I'll tell you what the hell. This record knocked my block off in a way that hasn't happened in years. From its very first notes (played on a flute, natch) you can tell something is different. There isn't anything typical about this record. Opener "Son the Father" slowly builds from that flute opening to a tsunami of guitar rage and Cookie Monster growling, punctuated by whipsmart lyrics like "It's hard enough being born in the first place, who would ever want to be born again?" This ain't your older brother's hardcore.

The rest of the album refuses to fall in line, going from the bongo-driven march of "Magic Word" to apocalyptic doom of "Days of Last" to the surrealistic power pop of "Black Albino Bones." These guys are falling all over themselves to do a mind job on you, both with their unconventional music choices and their incredibly smart, thought-provoking lyrics. Granted, you'll need a lyric sheet to keep up, but these guys sing about politics and religion with a unique and challenging point of view. It's totally unexpected.

No other album this year took my breath away like The Chemistry of Common Life. I listen throughout the year to stuff that I play again and again, but a few years on I find myself not even thinking about those albums any more. The majority of this list probably falls into that category, to tell you the truth. This album is going to stick with me for a long time. It made me relish the rush of hearing a song once and then immediately playing it again at twice the volume. It gives me chills. It's an instant classic, and it made me believe in the power of music yet again.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Top 20 of 2008: #2

2. Frightened Rabbit - The Midnight Organ Fight

I get the sense listening to Frightened Rabbit's second record that they consider themselves to still be amateurs. They talk a good deal in interviews about the short amount of time between when they first started playing together as a band and when they began recording their debut album. And you can really hear that amateurism on their first album, a garbled mess of mumbled lyrics and sluggish songs that is not worth anyone's time, even as a novelty. I'm quite glad that they still consider themselves to be amateurs on The Midnight Organ Fight, because if they didn't they might not have written such amazing, raw, risky songs or played them with such abandon. Let's hear it for the amateurs!

Even if they still feel like amateurs themselves, the songs on the record display a sophisticated grasp of structure and pace that is nowhere to be found on their first record. The one-two opening punch of "The Modern Leper" and "I Feel Better" is about as good an opening combo as can be found in pop music, and they set the tone of the album beautifully. This is a break-up album through and through, but unlike other break-up albums (I'm thinking specifically of Blood on the Trackshere), you don't any sense of hope or strength. These are self-flagellating, angry songs that point the finger of blame squarely into the mirror. It's unconventional, and it works beautifully.

Despite the startling unanimity of theme, there is a shining bright spot towards the middle of the record called "Old Old Fashioned," an entreaty to a lover to turn the TV off and dance to an old radio. It's a beautiful song, and it feels like an old Polaroid that briefly interrupts a really bad night of wallowing. And it's just as earnest and open as the rest of the album, with lines like "Give me soft, soft static, with a human voice underneath." It's quintessentially Scottish.

I think the best thing about The Midnight Organ Fight are the razor-sharp lyrics. These guys know a great couplet. Some of my favorites are:
"I am ill but I'm not dead, and I don't know which of those I'd prefer"
"I left the house without a fucking clue, and left New York City, girl, without you"
"I might not want you back but I want to kill him"
"You're the shit and I'm knee deep in it"
I'm hoping that we keep getting great stuff from these guys, but for some reason this feels like "one great album" syndrome. Somehow I feel like these guys hit on something here that they may not be able to recapture. I hope for all of our sakes that I'm wrong.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Top 20 Of 2008: #3

3. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!!

It's hard to believe that it's been nearly 25 years since Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds first rose from the ashes of The Birthday Party. That first Bad Seeds albums, From Her to Eternity, was everything Jim Morrison wanted to be but never could - dark, literate, interesting and intensely sexual. Morrison could never get past his own ego. You always felt like Nick Cave could take or leave all of us who admired him. He'd be doing it even if we never paid attention.

25 years on, Cave has released on of the best albums of his career. He and the Bad Seeds have been on a hot streak since 2004. That year's double album, Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, established their credentials as one of the best, most interesting bands making music. It broadened the band's horizons beyond the "band of misfits and ne'er-do-wells" label that lazy critics had tended to slap on them. Then, in 2007, Grinderman burst onto the scene spewing fluids and vitriol all over everything and everyone in its path. It was an intensely sexual album, and it signaled that Cave and the Bad Seeds may have gotten older, but they were just as depraved and energetic as ever.

Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!! continues the attitude begun on Grinderman, but whereas that album was a bit of a one-trick pony in my opinion, Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!! is a wonderfully varied effort that touches on every facet of the band's songwriting, from the jaunty storytelling of the title track to the dirty-old-man attitude of "Today's Lesson" to the quiet menace of "Night of the Lotus Eaters" and "Jesus on the Moon." There are a number of biblical references on the record, although in an interview last year with Terry Gross, Cave described the album as his least religious album to date.

The Bad Seeds have never sounded more vital as a band. There are all sorts of squeaks and whirrs on this album that sound like power tools creating not just percussion but melody as well. One imagines the band as Stomp on acid, a group of men so self-assured and familiar with each other that they could make music with just about anything you gave them. They're so good that they embody Cave's lyric on "Today's Lesson": "There oughta be some kind of law against me goin' down the street." Other bands simply don't stand a chance.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Top 20 Of 2008: #4

4. Girl Talk - Feed the Animals

In terms of sheer listening time, Girl Talk is far and away the winner of 2008 for me. I listened to it while running, driving, working, pretty much anything. It's an incredible achievement, a mash-up album that feels like a living piece of art rather than a novelty. And it mashes together Kelly Clarkson and Nine Inch Nails. Brilliant.

Going back and listening to Girl Talk's previous records, it's kind of hard to see where Feed the Animals came from. The previous records were novelty pieces, sped up to the point of mutilation and lacking a coherent vibe. Granted, there were some pretty cool tricks up his sleeve, but they were largely forgettable affairs, just more mash-ups to add to the scrum.

Feed the Animals is different in several ways. First, it's a single piece rather than a collection of songs, and so it feels like it's always driving towards something and adding to the whole at every point. Additionally, Greg Gillis has slowed things down. He doesn't rely any more on hyper-accelerated beats and frenetic cuts to create a mood. Instead, he blends recognizable pop together using the strengths of each song to propel momentum forward. The snobs dismissed those who loved this record as being late to the mash-up party, but in all honesty this is the first mash-up record since The Grey Album that's actually relevant to a mainstream audience. Say what you want about him, at least Gillis isn't just talking to himself like so many others who do this.

I wrestled over whether to give such a high ranking to an album consisting of nothing but found sound, but at the end of the day this album was a watershed moment in music. In my mind it signals the mainstreaming of sampling culture and the end of a previous era of copyright. The fact that no one has yet sued Gillis is amazing. I'm sure someone eventually will, and then we'll have to decide as a country how much power we want to put in the hands of media companies. It's absurd that art like this can't be created without fear of legal bludgeoning. It's a sign of a broken legal system and a broken copyright system. Here's to hoping that the ability to remix and remake culture remains a vital part of our human rights.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Top 20 Of 2008: #5

5. Blitzen Trapper - Furr

2008 was pretty much the year of shaggy, sensitive dudes making records that sound, if not made in bedrooms, at least written in them. Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes and Elbow all had break-out albums, and rightly so; they're all really good. Bob Dylan and Neil Young put out reissues that showcased their more introspective sides. But none reached the heights or stretched the boundaries like this Blitzen Trapper record.

Part of the reason I became so enamored with Furr is its refusal to tone down the wild eclecticism that Blitzen Trapper is known for. The album trips along from lo-fi Beck indie folk to Basement Tapes-type rave-ups to fuzzy, raucous space-rock tunes. But where their first record got criticized for being all over the place and not having much of an identity, Furr is the sound of a band realizing how to blend all of its influences into just the right potent punch of country-rock muscle.

The title track tells the story of a boy raised by wolves who meets a girl, returns to civilization and then ultimately returns back to the wild. It feels really timeless, like something you might have found on an Alan Lomax field recording in some form. These guys are fantastic storytellers, and they accomplish the rare feat of telling vivid, compelling stories in their music without inviting the dreaded label of "literary songwriters." Everything feels really rock 'n roll, with big attitude that is accompanied by a big brain and a big heart.

These guys have big beards and sing about nature and girls. Much like those other bands that got so much more press this year. But whereas I feel that Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver don't have much breadth to their craft, Blitzen Trapper is about to grow into a truly great band, one that has the potential to make some era-defining music. Expect great things from these guys in the coming years, but in the meantime enjoy this piece of rock perfection.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Top 20 Of 2008: #6

6. TV on the Radio - Dear Science

This album has been on the top of a lot of year-end lists, and for good reason; it's a towering achievement. It's political, passionate, optimistic and inventive. All the things that TV on the Radio are. And I guess that's why it's only at #6 on my list. As good as it is, it's not a surprise from these guys.

More than any other album this year, Dear Science captured a political mood. The past eight years have given rise to some great music that came out of anger at the Bush administration, but this year seemed to be a pause, a moment of anticipation rather than activity. TV on the Radio didn't go that route. They created an album that is angry and hopeful at the same time, a call to arms for people that have felt left out for a long time.

The album is self-consciously arty, almost like they're making a statement that they are now the norm, they are the ones who will lead the way in the new era that is about to begin. They are staking a claim to thought leadership coming out of a time when thought was not something that was valued. They rail against the media a lot on this album, from pundits to newspapers, but it never devolves into a screed against all things mass. They create vivid portraits of individuals affected in various ways by the state of things and the coming change. It's more like a book of short stories than a book of essays.

There's not a lot of change here from a musical point of view. Their music still has that sort of metallic sheen that it has always had. In fact, musically, this may be their weakest; three albums in it just doesn't seem as fresh. So from that point of view, listen to the first two records if you want to be blown away all over again. But if you're looking for a rallying cry for the new era, this is a damn good record. Fuck This is music for the new revolution.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Top 20 Of 2008: #7

7. Coldplay - Viva La Vida, or Death and All His Friends

I'm sick of everyone hating on Coldplay.

They've been described as an indicator of homosexuality, as music that couldn't hurt a fly. I get that they're easy to dislike. They're wildly successful at creating anthems that are loved by people who don't think about music very much. And that's very accurate. But they also do a really great job of making music that does not collapse under the weight of its own pretensions.

Indie music fans tend to like music that you really need to think about to appreciate. I've been guilty of that many times (see Marnie Stern). And if you can accuse Colplay of anything, it's of appealing to the lowest common denominator and making music that is deliberately populist and unoffensive. But somebody's gotta make that kind of music, and if it has to be somebody, I want it to be Coldplay.

The reason is that they have gotten really good at experimenting within those narrow confines. I thought X and Y was a really big step forward for them, an expansion of their sound that took the good stuff and left the bad stuff. Viva La Vida does that again, and while it's not as much of a step forward, it's a damn fine album. There are several tracks on the record that stretch into several movements, shifting on a dime into new thematic territories. For a band that gets accused of not taking any risks, they sure are experimenting with what a pop song can be.

Give 'em a break.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Top 20 of 2008: #8

8. Lil' Wayne - Tha Carter III

My mom was really into the George Michael album Faith when it came out. And when one of my parents was really into an album in those days, it meant that it was all we listened to for a few months. It happened with many notable albums, Genesis' Invisible Touch and Paul Simon's Rhythm of the Saints among them. I remember asking Mom why she liked George Michael so much, and she said, "He uses his voice as an instrument." I thought that was a cool sentiment, and it's stuck with me over the years.

Hearing Tha Carter III brought that phrase back to my mind from its first song "3 Peat." Forget what Lil' Wayne is saying and just pay attention to how evocative his voice is. A lot of people have criticized him for using an autotuner too much on this record, but I don't get that. I mean, I get the criticism in general, but not here. Unlike on Kanye's 808's and Heartbreak, which has wall-to-wall autotuner to cover up the fact that Mr. West can't sing worth a damn, the autotuner on Tha Carter III is used like a paintbrush by Lil' Wayne. He colors his songs with his own mangled voice to amplify his persona as a total freak. If the songs were mediocre it wouldn't work. But these songs are anything but mediocre.

There's not a better wordsmith working today. Incredible couplets like "Swallow my words, taste my thoughts / And if it's too nasty, spit it back at me" flow out of him easy as breathing. Granted, not every song here is great, but the ones that are are better than any other rap out there right now. He's got amazing cadence as well, jagged and hurried and completely unique. In a time when so much rap sounds processed and drained of life, you can feel Lil' Wayne in every word here.

The kicker is that he's also the savviest businessman since Jay-Z. He whipped people into a frenzy of anticipation for Tha Carter III by giving music away. Are you listening Sony? Warner? Got it? This is the way to sell millions and millions of records now. Mixtape after mixtape came out where he played with the musical themes that would eventually make up the album. And he gave them away. Tha Carter III is a fantastic, smart album that might just be the blueprint for the new blockbuster.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Choir May Have Been A Bit Much

We now interrupt my slow-as-molasses Top 20 list to comment on the Bruce Springsteen halftime show at the Super Bowl.

-10th Avenue Freezeout - hell of an opener.
-To quote Brad, "Bruce 1, camera 0". A slightly mistimed but highly entertaining little stunt.
-Born to Run had to be there, but it could have been a lot better. It seems like every year it gets a little more mumbly.
-Workin' on a Dream - new material. Yawn. And the choir was definitely overkill for a 45 second song bit.
-Glory Days - perfect closer, and in spite of myself I thought the ref throwing the Delay of Game flag was pretty funny.
-Overall, the Bruce showmanship was there in spades. A for effort.

All in all it was better than Petty's halftime show last year, but I don't think anyone is going to top Prince from two years ago. That was truly awesome. But Bruce did a great job, all things considered.

Oh, and Bob Costas just made a horrible "Born to Run" reference to Pittsburgh's play to end the half. Sigh.