Category Archives: Music — 2000s

The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 1: The Institute of Idle Time (A Re-Introduction)

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020

The “Spotify Chronicles” were/are cobbled together out of random music-based thoughts I shared with the Institute of Idle Time via instant messaging as I “worked” from home, or typed piecemeal into a constantly-open Google Doc late at night as I was drinking old-fashioneds and plugged into my earbuds listening to Spotify…so some of it is a little venomous (talking to my fellow Idle Timers brings out my feisty side) and a little more rambling than usual (imagine!), but keep in mind, chunks of the following are literally copied-and-pasted out of IM discussions…

And, for the first time in Holy Bee of Ephesus history, this piece has a co-author. My friend and Idle Time collaborator for almost twenty years, MMDG, will be weighing in with his recollections. (In our written shorthand, we always refer to each other to this day by initials, like some kind of music-nerd Cosa Nostra…I’ve changed my actual initials to “HBE” here for clarity purposes.)

If you were to dig back into this website’s early history, say 2007-2010, you’d find me mentioning the Institute of Idle Time quite a bit. Since they’ve made a bit of a resurgence in my day-to-day life (due to the sheltering-in-place), and are an important part of the chronicles to come, I thought I’d re-introduce them. 

Idle Time Logo invert-01I co-founded the Institute of Idle Time in early 2002 with two people — WH and MMDG — who were my co-workers at the time. (Actually, I’ve known WH since I was 20 — almost literally a kid.) It was a jokey name for what we did in our spare moments away from being rookie middle-school teachers, which was talk about music, argue passionately about music (we have very different tastes), and make ranked and themed lists of music. 

Once we abandoned our Pitchfork-style decimal-based rating system, the Idle Time ranking process became a drawn-out and brutal ritual of MMDG’s invention we call Rock & Roll Roulette. The basics are simple, but the nuances and subtleties amount to sustained psychological warfare. Depending on the number of albums or songs we’re working through, it can take days, weeks, or months. It can be done in person (where it is the most fun, especially over several beers) or online (thanks to shared spreadsheets and polling apps).

We used to compile songs into individual mixes (or entire series of mixes) to share with just each other via burned CD-Rs. Then we started collaborating on group mixes for public consumption, and gave away CDs of our lists to anyone who was interested (they made great stocking stuffers and wedding gifts). Beginning in 2003, the CDs got elaborate — glossy covers and extensive liner notes (“blurbs” in IT-speak). We truly became a collective at that point.

Let’s hear from MMDG:

“Adrift on the wide-open internet waters was a bounty of images, mp3s, and treasure-map signposts towards albums, singles, and recordings that we never knew existed. It was a grand time to be a pirate. HBE had his Your Music Sucks series, which seemed to specifically target my indifference towards bands like Son Volt and Supergrass. I adopted The Promise Ring’s “Make Me a Mixtape” as a battlecry for any number of mix-CDs. We mail-ordered labels and booklets in bulk.

It was WH’s What I Heard compilation that gave real direction to our operation. Following his lead, we shared our favorite albums with one another just prior to winter break in 2002. Initially, these discs included songs from 2000 and 2001. That was before the project took on radioactive parameters and, screeching with mathematical fury, threatened to destroy Tokyo to the hundredth decimal point.

idle-time-002We went from friends, happy to find common ground in something like 02’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (HBE: I actually didn’t like it all that much past the first two songs, I think I was still playing nice), to bitter rivals, arguing vehemently over whether or not 03’s Hail to the Thief belonged on a year-end celebration of the best music. (HBE: It didn’t.) We were doing one list, one compilation, and affixing one name to the glossy inkjet-printed booklet: The Institute of Idle Time’s Top 20 Records of the Year. I even had the audacity (or foresight) to stick a little ® on there, even though I shamelessly stole the Jack White artwork from someone on the internet.

The cute pseudonyms were born in the 2003 CD booklet too. I think subconsciously all this rampant piracy made us a little nervous. How were we to know that not even a decade later intellectual property rights would hardly mean a damn and the world wide web would turn into a playground of digital socialism? So we hid cleverly behind the impervious anonymity of our own actual initials, confident that this would foil any FBI plot to root out felonious file-sharers and make an example of them. We had our own paper-and-staple usernames way before any online avatars came into being.”

The Institute drifted out of workplace lunch breaks and into our social lives. IT06Membership expanded and became fluid — different members have come and gone over the years (including myself, as we’ll see), but it always seems to hover around ten. 

At a certain point, several years in, a healthy portion of the group was made up of a handful of former students from our first year or two of teaching (we were only decade and change older than them, and they were the frequent, sometimes puzzled, recipients of those early CD-Rs).

This was the Idle Time Junior Division…still thought of that way even though they’re all now in their thirties. For those keeping track, the three original members are referred to as the Elder Idlers. The Elder Idlers plus the longest-standing member of the Junior Division (known by the moniker RF, who joined as an enthusiastic mascot while still in high school) are known as the Core Four.


The Core Four looking like sad pandas, posing in front of our favorite record store that went out of business in December 2006

What self-respecting music junkie of a certain age can resist a lavish CD box set? We designed a pretty elaborate one (limited-edition, of course) for our fifth anniversary in 2007. An unprecedented two discs of the collectively-chosen “best of 2007” (featuring Spoon, Arcade Fire, the Shins, LCD Soundsystem, the White Stripes, Radiohead, Vampire Weekend, and many, many more), and including four more discs, each individually curated by a member of the Institute. (Mine sadly included a Velvet Revolver track, but I stand by everything else.)


You don’t still have your copy?

The cover art of the box was intended to be a parody of the Hives’ The Black and White Album (see below), a timeless reference and sure never to date itself at all.


Our version was a little off. We did what we could with the matching outfits. I normally keep my jowly double-chin covered with at least a goatee if not a full beard, but I took one for the team and shaved down to just a skeevy-looking mustache to replicate the cleft-chin glory of Hives bassist Dr. Matt Destruction.

I tried to capture his intense stare, looking straight ahead as fiercely as I could. Of course, I should have been staring straight at the camera lens…which was slightly to my right. Oh, well.

idle time

I had to walk around looking like that for two weeks until my goatee grew back.

We self-published a few zines, and our magnum opus — a big, glossy book called Decades: A Tribute to Our 400 Favorite Albums of the Last 50 Years, which gave rise to the Roulette process. Continue reading


Filed under Life & Other Distractions, Music -- 1960s, Music -- 1970s-80s, Music -- 1990s, Music -- 2000s

The Holy Bee Retires…Sort Of (The Top 20 Albums of 2012)

Timeliness has always been a watchword here at Holy Bee World HQ, so it may seem odd to post my Top 20 Albums of 2012 in March of 2013. Ordinarily an eagerly-anticipated feature of January, there has been a bit of a drift around here, and I have to ‘fess up to what’s causing it.

Looking back on 2012, I see that the most acclaimed albums are from the likes of the xx, Swans, Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors, Shonen Knife, Flying Lotus, Cloud Nothings, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, Bat For Lashes, Chromatics, Beach House, Purity Ring…

…and I’ve decided they can all go die in a fire. To my ears, they all kinda sound like shit, and wash by in a clatter of forced artiness, or smug haziness, or often, downright tunelessness. Sometimes all three. I blame Radiohead. Fuck those guys and what they’ve wrought. Someone needs to tell that emperor he’s buck naked.

I kind of hate them.

I kind of hate them.

Yes, I’ve always been a proud classicist and defender of old-school dinosaur rock, but I felt I balanced that with an eagerness to explore other areas and a respect for those breaking new ground. But now, I can no longer pretend to be interested the newest and different-est. In fact, I may have been faking it for quite some time, because time spent trying to like the Mountain Goats was less time I got to spend listening to Led Zeppelin.

I realize that this is on me. I own this, it’s my failing. If you like the kind of music listed up there, I’m not judging your taste, I’m judging mine. You don’t have to write me to say “you couldn’t be more wrong about the xx.” I know I’m wrong. But my ears are now dead  to the sound of what is still frequently called “indie” music. Which is sad, because ever since I (and a lot of people my age) lost touch with the “mainstream” well over a decade ago, “indie” (which has, admittedly, lost any true meaning as a descriptor, but it’s handy) was the discerning music-lover’s haven. And now that has passed me by, too. It all leaves me cold. I guess there’s something to be said for the mainstream trending back toward roots music, but I can’t stomach Mumford & Sons either, so where does that leave me?

It leaves me as someone who no longer considers music a central facet of his existence, which is a difficult truth for me to face. I used to go hungry to be able to buy a CD. I’d have some sleepless Monday nights waiting to get Tuesday’s new releases. I have written more on music than any other subject, and had more conversations about it with more people than any other subject. But the flame has gone out. And it’s not an age thing. Several of my friends my age and a little older still have the passion. Great rock writers like Anthony Decurtis, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, and many, many others are a decade or two older than me, and are still forward-thinking, ever on the prowl for the cutting edge. I think that’s fantastic…but they’ll have to carry on the mission without me. Continue reading


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The Best & Worst of the Solo Beatles, Part 4: Ringo Starr

Part 1: John Lennon

Part 2: Paul McCartney

Part 3: George Harrison

OK, this is the one I’ve been dreading. Most folks who lead normal lives are blissfully unaware that the former drummer for the Beatles has released sixteen solo albums. That is not a typo. But the experience of listening to all of them actually turned out not to be excruciating. Read on…

Starr may have been the Beatle who least matched his public persona, a persona created out of thin air by the early-’60s media (especially the American media, who initially had trouble telling them apart) and reinforced by his “Ringo” character in A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, and especially the ridiculous Beatles Saturday morning cartoon. He was the mascot, the goofy dimwit, condescended to and put upon by the others, but always childlike and cheery. Out of the spotlight, however, the real-life Richard Starkey could be just as cutting and sarcastic as Lennon, as moody as Harrison, and as savvy as McCartney.

He was the oldest Beatle, and the others have all reminisced about how much more cool and sophisticated Starr seemed before he signed on with them. In fact, “Richy” (his spelling) was considered something of a tough customer, rising up from the lowest of the Liverpool slums (a place called “The Dingle”) to become the powerhouse drummer for the hardest-rocking band on the local “beat” scene, Rory Storm & The Hurricanes. He drove a sporty car while his future bandmates still scrounged for bus fare, wore flashy jewelry (hence the stage name, which close friends never referred to him by), and cultivated a cool bohemian beard as early as 1960.

The fact that the proto-Fab Three had coveted him and his drums for years should certainly say something about how his skills were regarded at that time, and the fact that the great Ringo Starr ditched his sweet gig with the Hurricanes and deigned to join these upstarts should say something about Starr’s own musical judgment. [ADDENDUM: I’ve recently (Nov. 2013) read the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s exhaustive three-volume Beatles biography, and it shed a lot of light on this era. Evidently, the Hurricanes were stagnating — Ringo had already quit them once — and the Beatles, far from being “upstarts,” had been top of the heap in Liverpool for some time, and were clearly poised for bigger things.]

Maybe his role as the “runt” stemmed from the fact that he joined the band at the last moment before they skyrocketed in late ’62. Maybe it was the fact that he was three inches shorter than the others, or wasn’t quite as handsome (that nose, y’know.) What seems clear is that the dismissiveness people sometimes projected onto Ringo as a personality began to spill over to his skill as a drummer, and that’s just plain unfair. Continue reading


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Top 20 Albums of 2011

#20. The Beastie Boys — Hot Sauce Committee, Part Two. A welcome return after a cancer scare for Adam Yauch, and their overwrought and just-no-damn fun-at-all previous album, 2004’s To The Five Boroughs. Although the Beasties love an epic sprawl, you gotta admit their albums are often about five tracks too long. Hot Sauce Committee is succinct and tidy, never wears out its welcome, and the wordplay and beats are more reminiscent of the classic Paul’s Boutique than anything they’ve done in between now and then.

#19. Raphael Saadiq — Stone Rollin’. Sometimes it’s hard not to hold a person’s artistic past against him or her. (For example, in order to finally be taken seriously as an actor, Mark Wahlberg had to take years to overcome the stigma of being the tighty whiteyflashing teen rapper “Marky Mark,” which — to his credit — he did with grace and good humor.) Raphael Saadiq started out as a member of the ultra-slick, super-shallow New Jack Swing outfit Tony! Toni! Tone! in the late 80’s. He finally hung up his poofy Hammer pants in ’96, and began making solo records that hearkened back to ’60s soul — not so much in the smooth, jazzy Motown mold (which is great in its own way), but the more stripped-down, beat-oriented sound of Memphis R&B (with occasional flashes of funky West Coast psychedelia — love that Mellotron!) Saadiq plays most of the instruments himself. He’s a passable guitarist, and a great bassist, but the most immediately noticeable thing on most of the tracks is his absolutely gleeful bashing around on the drum kit.

#18. Cut Copy — Zonoscope. My love/hate relationship with electronic music comes down pretty firmly on the “love” side regarding Cut Copy. Human fingers moving across real instruments made of wood and metal will never (ever, ever, ever) be bettered by mouse-clicks and microchips, but the artifice and machine-assisted pulse of such creations can weave their own weird spells. Like Frankenstein’s Monster, true humanity reflected in a less-than-human simulacrum can be riveting to experience, if concocted by people still connected to emotions rather than simply sounds. This is why artists such as Cut Copy (with songs like “Take Me Over,” one of the best singles of the year) will always have longevity and resonance, as opposed to shallow sonic dog-shit like Skrillex. (I’m going to start a Kickstarter page to raise money to hire someone to punch that stain in the face.) Continue reading

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Top Albums of 2011: Honorable Mentions

I thought 2010 had been a great year for music, but it was really just a prelude to the embarrassment of riches 2011 has brought. As always, my Top 20 of 2011 list will be brought to you some time in early 2012 long after everyone has stopped caring, and as always, I begin December by taking a quick look at the albums that are worth hearing, but didn’t quite make the cut.


R.E.M – Collapse Into Now. We all had to say goodbye to one of the cornerstones of modern rock when R.E.M. called it quits after 29 years. In this writer’s opinion, they should have done it after original drummer Bill Berry quit in 1997. The three albums after Berry’s departure were lackluster and hollow. (Some people still like Up, though.) But just when they were about to be written off as totally irrelevant, they came back to life with 2008’s aggressive Accelerate, and now this — their final album, which recaptures their signature sound. (“Oh My Heart” is the R.E.Miest song R.E.M. have ever done.) Glad they’re going out on a high note.

Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto. Always commercial-oriented (remember when “Clocks” was everywhere?), Coldplay doesn’t lose a step, putting out an album that captures the sound  of  “Top 40 Radio in 2011,” but proving those big, glitzy pop/R&B grooves don’t have to restrict themselves to brainless fun. If you program your ‘pod to skip some of the weaker Melancholy Ballads (TM) that are also Coldplay’s stock in trade, this would make a good “summer” album.


Black Lips

Pains Of Being Pure At Heart — Belong. Some great hooks to be heard here, but man do these guys wish it were 1988 and they were opening for My Bloody Valentine. Belong is a meticulously crafted homage to those halcyon days where straightforward pop like The Outfield began co-mingling in listeners’ ears with the stuff coming from the fuzzy underground. They re-create it so well that it’s almost distracting.

Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears — Scandalous. Retro soul of the Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings variety, but lacking that outfit’s dark edges. This is a party record through and through.

Black Lips — Arabia Mountain. A Georgia punk band formerly known more for their onstage antics than for their music, they’ve finally began developing some real chops over their last three albums. They’ve dug a nice little niche between the primal garage rock of the 1960s and the hardcore sound of 1980s acts like Husker Du and the Minutemen. They’re still a little inconsistent over the course of an entire album, but I predict their arrival in my actual Top 20 within their next few releases (if they don’t electrocute themselves or OD in the meantime.)

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The Best & Worst of the Solo Beatles, Part 2: Paul McCartney

I have a little theory: Paul McCartney is insane. Batshit nuts. I don’t know quite when the cheese slid off his cracker, but I’m guessing about twenty-five years ago. Yes, he’s always been a little goofy, but lately? From his bizarre hair-dying experiments to the interviews that are about equal parts inane platitudes, vegetarian propaganda, and total gibberish accompanied by a cheery thumbs-up, he’s been leaving a trail of crazy wherever he goes since the mid-1980s. It’s not train-wreck, flame-out crazy, like Martin Lawrence wandering through traffic with a  handgun. It’s a subtler crazy, as if during the recording of Press To Play, alien beings had made off with his brain and attempted to replace it with an exact replica, but assembled it from poorly-translated instructions.

That’s not what happened of course. What happened is that his ownership of many valuable song publishing rights kicked in about then, he became a multi-billionaire instead of a multi-millionaire, cut himself off from anything resembling reality, and has been living in a totally self-generated bubble-world ever since. And I don’t blame him. If I became a multi-billionaire, I would reach foaming heights of crazy that would make Andy Dick look like a Presbyterian deacon.

For reasons directly related to his billionaire-induced craziness, Paul has become the most-maligned Beatle. With every misfire album and every cringe-worthy quote, his light dimmed a little more. But make no mistake — he was the driving creative force of the Beatles in the second half of their career, and that’s no small thing. He always valued the concept of being in a band more than the others. Lennon gets credit for being the witty, rebellious iconoclast, Harrison gets credit for being the quiet mystic, and let’s face it, both of them get double-extra-credit for being dead. Everyone loves a corpse, because they never disappoint. They’re not around to release mediocre albums anymore. But both of them tired of the “band” concept long before Paul did. In the 70’s, Paul tried to keep the idea alive by putting together a bunch of hirelings and calling it “Wings,” but even he knew they weren’t a real band — they were his employees, and various members came and went like the clock-punchers they were.

(At the start of his solo career, he followed the example of Lennon and installed his wife as full creative partner. His second solo album is officially credited to “Paul & Linda McCartney.” On John & Yoko’s joint albums, Yoko contributed full songs. Horrible, horrible songs. But songs, nonetheless. Linda’s contributions consisted of 1) hilariously flat backing vocals placed super-high in the mix, and 2) helping to write some lyrics. The conceit fooled no one, but co-crediting songs kept their royalties from becoming “frozen assets” in the morass of the Beatles break-up lawsuits going on at the time.)

At times, Paul seems to be resented by fans for simply still being alive and somehow tarnishing the image of the Beatles by his very existence as a living, breathing doofus, which can’t be helped. This can result in some unfair treatment. (There’s a song buried in the second half of Off The Ground — if you make it that far– called “Winedark Open Sea,” a kind of sparse, dreary piano ballad that I suspect would be hailed as a “classic” if it came from Springsteen or Neil Young. Those guys can get away with almost anything.) Other times, it’s entirely his own fault. The parallels with George Lucas become obvious if you’re petty enough to examine them (which is my stock in trade). The younger creative genius gives us several gifts we all cherish, things that beyond providing hundreds of hours of entertainment, may even have molded us as people. He then ages into the older billionaire crank and starts doing stupid shit, such as going back and futzing with the legacy. McCartney’s bone-headed attempt to change the songwriting credits on “his” Beatles songs from “Lennon-McCartney” to “McCartney-Lennon” a few years ago is the musical equivalent of Greedo shooting first. Continue reading


Filed under Music -- 1970s-80s, Music -- 1990s, Music -- 2000s

Top 20 Albums of 2010: #9-1

Well, this is thoroughly shameful. Every website, every major music magazine, even the goddamn
Grammys, have already weighed in on the best of 2010. My excuse for not posting the second half of my best-of in a timely manner is pretty much unacceptable: the demands of a day job, plus too many good books to read and shows to watch in the hours off from the day job. And a lot of single-parent crap (despite my fervent wishes, enormous slag-heaps of laundry do not do themselves). Some of the material you will be reading below was composed months ago for the the official Institute of Idle Time website, some was composed over the last few hours in a hazy, sweaty white heat fueled by vodka, over-the-counter Benadryl, and desperation.

The Walkmen’s recordings are sparse — simple but effective tick-tack drumming, flashes of almost flamenco-style electric guitar strumming, and Hamilton Leithauser’s straining rasp — but they weave a melancholy spell that stays with the listener long after the last sad song has faded. The Walkmen have attempted to flesh out their sound a bit before (2006’s A Hundred Miles Off owes more than a little to the cluttered, rustic sound of the Basement Tapes-era Dylan*), and although their stock-in-trade is wistful meditations on loss and regret, they certainly do have a sense of humor (witness their track-by-track re-recording of Harry Nilsson’s 1974 cult classic Pussy Cats), but here they play to the more subtle strengths that have carried them since their 2002 debut.

#8. Dr. DogShame, Shame
Philadelphia’s Dr. Dog has been a band I’ve been listening to for quite some time, just waiting for them to do something great. The potential was always there, but they seemed content to work within a certain template, where their classic rock influences (usually the Band, late-period Beach Boys, and the Beatles) were paid respectful homage, and they ended up chasing their tails. Now, their training wheels are off, and they’ve broken through with an original sound, and their influences — great as they are — are finally where they should be: buried deep, seeping into their material like an unseen, underground spring feeds a river. Shame, Shame is a fast-paced, jittery album for the most part, percussion and rag-time piano in the forefront, with a clarity of purpose and unity of theme that previous albums lacked. Even if the material was weak, Dr. Dog could always rely on its secret weapon to put a song over — gorgeous, harmonized backing vocals — and that trait is out in force and better than ever on Shame, Shame.

#7. LCD SoundsystemThis Is Happening Continue reading

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Top 20 Albums of 2010: #20-10

#20. Old 97’sThe Grand Theatre, Vol. 1
The Old 97’s continue their winning streak, even they did just squeak in at #20 (beating out all theHonorable Mentions, many of whom could realistically occupy this space.) This powerhouse country-rock quartet once again makes its traditional appearance on the Holy Bee’s Best Of list. The Old 97’s are my musical comfort food, and while they may never again reach the heights of Too Far To Care or Satellite Rides, their charisma and eminently agreeable blend of rollicking Tex-Mex and bubblegum power pop is something I can listen to at any time in any mood. Old 97’s are the old standbys. Bless ‘em.

#19. The Constellations Southern Gothic
This mixed-gender collective presents a travelogue through the sometimes seedy nightlife of their native Atlanta. Harnessing a jam-band mentality to a hip-hop framework, the best Constellations songs are so insanely catchy that they border on commercial jingles (“We’re Here To Save The Day,” “Felicia”), and even their worst make you admire their moxie (a nine-minute cover of Tom Waits’ “Step Right Up”? Really?). A word of warning: visually, they’re a nightmare, encapsulating everything hateful about insufferably smug “quirky” hipsters. (Avoid pictures of them. They will make you stabby. OK, click here at the risk of ruining your enjoyment of their music.) Continue reading

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Top Albums of 2010: Honorable Mentions

It’s that time of year. For the fourth time, the Holy Bee presents its Top 20 Albums of the Year. (2007, 2008, and 2009 lists can be found in the archives to the left.)

As predicted, 2010 produced a bumper crop of good music. I struggled last year to come up with twenty albums I liked well enough to put on my list. This year, I had a quota of twenty by springtime, and several worthy contenders had to get the chop. Here, then, are some albums that didn’t quite make the cut, but are certainly worth a listen.

Against Me!White Crosses
With its 2008 album New Wave, Against Me! managed to alienate its hardcore, politically-agitated “true” punk fans by abandoning social outrage and political sloganeering and embracing a more approachable (and more mature) viewpoint. White Crosses continues that trend, and puts a pretty fine point on it by titling its best song “I Used To Be An Anarchist.” The point when a band pisses off its already angry, narrow-minded “core” audience is usually right when the Holy Bee jumps on board, because that’s when a band has actually gotten good as musicians/songwriters, and has outgrown being the musical equivalent of spray-painting an anarchy “A” on the side of a Rite Aid, thinking they’re changing the world.

Black MountainWilderness Heart
This Canadian collective leaves behind the soaring, fantasy-Zeppelin jams of their previous record (#7 on my 2008 list) in favor of a quicker, more casual effort. These concise hard-rock nuggets sometimes sound a little too tossed-off, and don’t really stay in your head after hearing them. They certainly don’t have that “sweated over” intensity of their last album. Continue reading


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Top 20 Albums of 2009, #11-1

#11. Yeah Yeahs YeahsIt’s Blitz!

Both It’s Blitz! and my #10 pick below are similar in that their creators left behind their trademark buzzsaw guitar sound in favor of one that’s smoother, sleeker, more sophisticated. The aural equivalent of exchanging a leather jacket for a silk suit. The rough edges have been sanded away, and there’s more breathing room to explore the possibilities of the voice. There seems to be no escape from the throbbing synthetic influence of dance music in 2009, but if the electronic pulse of the discotheque is wielded with the amount of taste and confidence heard on It’s Blitz!, there’s no reason even the most Luddite classic-rock purist shouldn’t love it.

#10. Julian CasablancasPhrazes For The Young

Strokes frontman Casablancas (mostly) leaves behind the heavily-processed sneer that was the voice of his former band in favor of a more open, natural singing style. The strength of the melodies and the complexity of the arrangements — all by Casablancas himself — tips us off as to who the driving wheel of the Strokes’ songwriting really was. Other band members’ solo albums are certainly pleasant enough, but don’t give many hints of the powerhouse talent on display here. Much ink has been spilled (as with It’s Blitz!) over the use of synthesizers in place of guitars, and its Tokyo nightclub vibe, but rest assured Casablancas does vary up the styles and our friend the guitar is still very much in evidence. It’s not as good as I hope the next Strokes album will be (this fall, maybe? please?), but it’ll do for now.

#9. M. WardHold Time

Some fine, fine music has been made by just a guy or girl with a guitar. But what can be captivating at a coffeehouse or camp-out, or on a spunky debut album can begin to sound dull and repetitive over the course of several albums. Most recording artists know this, and by their third or fourth album, have begun to hang a little production flesh on their folk troubador bones. Hold Time is a sterling example. Ward’s already-strong songwriting is carried even higher by a funky, retro production style that’s part Pet Sounds, part T. Rex. And guest appearances from Ward’s “She & Him” partner Zooey Deschanel, Lucinda Williams, and Grandaddy‘s Jason Lytle are icing on the cake.

#8. Deer TickBorn On Flag Day

It’s not a very original statement to say that what passes for country music these days isn’t really country — it’s braindead, glossy pop, with a fiddle thrown in as an afterthought — so I’ll just acknowledge the truth of the statement and move on. If you want the real deal, you have to dig deeper. As hacky Nashville producers and song-pluggers began slowly killing mainstream country music over thirty years ago, a disenchanted musical response has always been bubbling angrily away, from the “outlaw” movement of the 70’s, through cowpunk bands like Jason & The Scorchers in the 80’s, to the earnest alt-country acts of the 90’s. In the 00’s, shitty Nashville country is more prevalent than ever, but the disgruntled, reactionary response by artists who know what true, soulful country should sound like is getting harder and harder to find.

The best country album this year was made by a band called Deer Tick from Providence, Rhode Island, which is kind of sad. It proves that the Deep South — the region that gave birth to every genre of music that I care about — is now almost completely culturally bankrupt. Deer Tick’s sound hearkens back to a time when that wasn’t the case. When they play stright country, it’s right from the Hank Williams/Lefty Frizzell style book. When they play rock, it’s Chuck Berry’s chugging, countrified R&B they use as their template. (“Straight Into A Storm” could be a lost Berry B-side.) A touch of folk introspection rounds out the package.

#7. Dan AuerbachKeep It Hid

That the solo album of one-half of The Black Keys sounds pretty much like The Black Keys is no surprise. Nor is it a surprise how good it is, as The Black Keys’ brand of gritty, lo-fi blues has been a staple on my playlists since their debut four albums and most of a decade ago. The main difference is Auerbach’s bluesy moans and reverb-drenched guitar are stripped of bandmate Patrick Carnahan’s clattering garage-band drumming, and his tentative attempts to strecth out (the excellent acoustic opener “Trouble Weighs A Ton,” for example) are given the necessary space.

#6. Jason Isbell & The 400 UnitJason Isbell & The 400 Unit

Three brilliant but moody songwriter-guitarists in The Drive-By Truckers was one too many, so Isbell was cashiered after a five-year stint, and immediately put out his impressive first solo record, Sirens Of The Ditch, which earned a spot on the Holy Bee’s 2007 list. With a new backing band on board, Isbell continues to hone his fiery bar-room sound and continues to develop as a lyricist. Isbell’s songs consist mainly of finely-drawn character studies or drown-my-sorrows honky tonk weepers, sometimes with a subtle undercurrent of political or social conscience. All of which are hallmarks of the best Drive-By Truckers material, by the way, but Isbell and the mighty 400 are doing it almost completely below the radar.

#5. The Avett BrothersI And Love And You

Famous for their raucous live shows featuring fleet fingerpicking and a slew of rural-music influences (folk, bluegrass, country) that informed their style but never defined it, The Avett Brothers throw us a slight curve by creating an album of mellow (if sometimes spooky or anguished) piano ballads. They have not abandoned their stringed instruments — far from it. Acoustic guitar, banjo, and cello/violin provide the frills and flourishes, but keyboards are the melodic bedrock here. If Elton John had been born in the piney hills of Carolina instead of somewhere in England, he might have sounded something like this.

#4. Pink MountaintopsOutside Love
Sister group to the harder-edged Black Mountain (represented on the 2008 list), Pink Mountaintps is the more experimental of the two Canadian collectives headed by Stephen McBean. I generally like a firm footing in my music, and am suspicious of a band trying to coast too far on atmospherics, but Pink Mountaintops’ ponderous, echoing, fuzzed-out sound is indeed all about atmosphere. However, it has such keenly-felt yearning (especially in the heartbreakers “While We Were Dreaming” and “And I Thank You”) in the vocals — delivered by McBean & friends in clusters of two or three, or in Wall of Sound choral unison — that its sandal-gazing self-indulgence is forgiven and the album ends up charming and captivating.

#3. The Dead WeatherHorehound

Another Jack White side project — alongside The Raconteurs — and another winner. White is not the main voice here, however, turning over the majority of the vocal chores to Alison Mosshart of The Kills. If The White Stripes bring a taste of noisy dissonance to standard blues forms, The Dead Weather deconstruct the formula even more. Horehound is a cacaphony of buzzes, drones, and howls, created by Mosshart’s feral vocals, Dean Fertita’s primitive-sounding organ, and White’s drumkit bashing. It seems on the verge of spiraling into a complete noise-rock clusterfuck, but clings to a grim level of listenability with the tenacity of a gutter-rat, its traditionalist heart beating strong under all the scuzz.

#2. Franz FerdinandTonight: Franz Ferdinand

Franz’s first album was a “typical” buzz-band debut — about four hot-shit singles and some pretty good filler. Their second album also followed the usual pattern — written and recorded too soon after the smash debut, and desperately attempting to force-grow some artistic development and sonic expansion. This can result in the dreaded “sophomore slump,” but in Franz’s case, it worked, and the second album was even better than the first.

Reputation firmly established, Franz Ferdinand took their sweet time with their third album. Tonight can be heard as a loose concept album chronicling a Saturday night in the life of a typical British lad: going to a Franz Ferdinand concert (hence the album title, and a trying-to-sound-like-ourselves cheeky rewrite of their biggest hit “Take Me Out” entitled “No You Girls”), meeting and becoming infatuated with a girl, going to an after-hours dance club (represented by the hypnotic techno throb of the eight-minute “Lucid Dreams”), and parting ways with the girl as the sun rises. Or it can be heard as simply a great pop album, with catchy choruses, dashes of electronica, and cool percussion, including exuberant cymbal crashes in just the right places.

#1. The Black CrowesBefore The Frost…Until The Freeze

I grow tired of defending The Black Crowes, mostly because their detractors are so often correct. They hold a special place for me because of the fierceness of their Stones/Faces-influenced first two albums. What of it? Some bands coast for decades on the strength of one album, releasing nothing but half-baked shit forever after (*cough*Violent Femmes*cough*), yet their fans are not mocked and derided the way Crowes fans are outside of the hippie/jam-band community. So yes, the Crowes spent most of the 90’s riding the beads ‘n’ beards pothead circuit, putting out a series of increasingly incoherent and mediocre albums, and then hanging it up in 2002 for a hiatus during which they were not really missed. But when they re-emerged in 2008, they were a different — much better — band.

Different, certainly, from the young gunslingers of their first two albums, but aging has suited them. Age has deepened their grasp of fundamental blues and R&B motifs, which they seemed to forget during the worst of their wretched jam-band era. Age has polished their songwriting, and most of all, age has improved their playing. I mean, these guys play well. It’s not just a few chords and a rack of effects pedals that seems to pass for guitar-playing these days (yes, by some on this very list.) Long-time guitarist Rich Robinson is joined by new guitarist Luther Dickinson, who also plays with the North Mississippi Allstars, and together they form a team whose prowess lies not just in flashy soloing — though they can certainly do that — but in perfect rhythm and feel. “Body music” as it is called by Crowes hero Keith Richards.

Recorded live (with most of the crowd noise edited out, a la Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps) at Levon Helm’s “Midnight Ramble” barn in upstate New York, the Crowes’ already formidable six-man lineup is augmented by an additional percussionist and a banjo/fiddle/pedal steel specialist in a grand display of instrumental virtuosity.

There were two versions of this set released: a standard length album (Before The Frost) and an expanded double-length with a different running order (Before The Frost…Until The Freeze). The extra tracks are for the most part quieter and quirkier, leaning more toward country-folk than blues-rock. This #1 ranking would apply to either one, but I prefer the more experimental longer version, which is also the only one available on vinyl. I don’t know how long the band can continue at this level, but my faith in them has been somewhat restored.

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Filed under Music -- 2000s