Category Archives: Music — 2000s

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

2 Comments

Filed under Music -- 2000s

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Music -- 2000s

Top 20 Albums of 2009, #20 – 12

I should point out that, in my opinion, 2009 was a dog year for music. Compiling my annual list was a challenge, because nothing stood out as incredibly special. My #1 album kind of became #1 by default, not because I was over the moon about it. It was just the one I had come back to the most. I found nice things to say about every album on my list, but bear in mind, there are things pretty high up here that wouldn’t even make the list in other years.

I am, however, looking forward to 2010 in music quite a bit.

To start things off, let’s reel off the Honorable Mentions – albums worth a listen, but fell just a tiny bit short of the Holy Bee’s exacting standards:

Animal CollectiveMerriweather Post Pavilion

I guess my philistine, structure-craving ears just don’t get these guys. But every so often, the ambient noodling up-shifts into some really breathtaking moments, like seeing moutaintops above the cloud layer. (Regarding the linked clip from Coachella above, if you can stand there drinking bottled water and looking smug on stage while your music plays without you, something is wrong. Electronica is such a fucked-up genre sometimes.)

Conor Oberst & The Mystic Valley BandOuter South

Used to be in the top 20, got pushed out at the last minute by Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

U2No Line On The Horizon

Might have been a top-notch album before co-producer Brian Eno got his slimy, deconstructionist paws all over it. Like Animal Collective, this one’s more about great moments within songs, rather than great songs.

MastodonCrack The Skye

This is the one that pained me to cut. Call it #21 on my list. Love the whole idea of this band and this album, but it’s sheer heaviness means I can’t really listen to it all the way through in one sitting.

Monsters Of Folks/t

Some nice songs, but less than the sum of its renowned parts.

2009 offerings from Alberta Cross, 1990s, Girls, Wolfmother, These United States, Arctic Monkeys, YACHT, Eels, and Patterson Hood are all worth a spin as well.

Now, it’s time for Biggest Disappointments:

Holy Bee favorites Bruce Springsteen (Working On A Dream) and Bob Dylan (Together Through Life) both produced underwhelming albums this year. Dylan’s just sounded a little tired (some nice Tex-Mex accordian flourishes highlight the better songs), but Bruce’s flirted with outright suckage, and included the worst song he’s ever written (“Queen Of The Supermarket.”) Bob’s Christmas album had kind of a weird appeal, however (and the profits went to charity.)

Critics’ summer darlings Phoenix (ultimately boring, except for the single), Grizzly Bear (pretentious), and Dirty Projectors (pretentious AND boring) left me cold. Author/comedian Greg Behrendt, as a guest on a podcast, recently wondered about this new twee, arty sound that seems all the rage with young people by asking “don’t kids want to get laid anymore?”, and then answered his own question with the conclusion that the new generation of college kids have already been laid – thousands of times – and are bored with it by nineteen. The result: twee, arty, sexless (and soulless) music chock-full of ennui. I’m hoping the Arcade Fire will be back soon to inject a little passion into art-rock again.

And Jay Farrar has flushed a lot of the goodwill I had for him right down the bog. When he re-formed Son Volt in 2005 after a seven-year hiatus, hopes were high. Okemah And The Melody Of Riot was right up there with his best work. Then came the mediocre The Search. Then came this year’s appalling American Central Dust, where Farrar has completely lost his songwriting ability. Lyrics he seems to have made up off the top of his head as the tapes rolled are matched with totally tuneless acoustic strumming.

OK, enough with the griping. Let’s count down the Holy Bee’s Top 20 Albums of 2009:

#20. KasabianWest Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum

Britpop as a genre took a sickeningly steep plunge in popularity quite some time ago – everywhere but Britain. Every lunar cycle or so, the adorably hyperbolic British music press trumpets another group of collegiate lads with bedhead and Rickenbackers as the Second Coming, only to viciously turn on them as poseurs and sell-outs before the ink on their recording contracts is dry. Kasabian was the Band of the Week a few months back, slotted between The Kooks (wankers!) and The Rifles (soon to be wankers!). Kasabian registered a little higher on the radar for me due to their attempts to inject a touches of neo-psychedelic Eastern flavor (think Magical Mystery Tour-era Beatles – or more precisely, Head-era Monkees, and that’s not meant as an insult). Blend that with some 70s-style glam and pub rock, all on top of a foundation of early-90s Madchester electronic grooves, and you have an album that gets an “A” for effort, even if it never rises above its influences.

#19. Cage The Elephants/t

More noise from the garage. If you can get past the half-rapped lyrics (admittedly, it is a challenge), this recorded-in-10-days wonder from the Kentucky quintet throws its hat into the “bring back real rock n’ roll” ring. Unfortunately, that ring is pretty crowded with forgotten hats, and Cage The Elephant doesn’t always do enough to differentiate itself from the crowd. You can forget all that when you’re actually listening to it, though, because it’s pretty damn fun in its Stones-meet-Chili Peppers way (that description alone is enough to cause some people I know to toss this one right in the trash), and it does contain one bona-fide anthem (“Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked”).

#18. The HeavyThe House That Dirt Built

Stax-Volt meets the MC5. Sometimes they play it straight with an earthy, neo-soul vibe, other times they aim for surreal, Tom Waitsian funhouse grotesqueries , coming off like the soundtrack to a Terry Gilliam movie set in Memphis.

#17. Green Day21st Century Breakdown

Rapidly becoming modern-rock elder statesmen, Green Day proved with 2004’s American Idiot (my Album of the Decade for the 2000s) that through diligent work at their craft and some very un-punk ambition, they have transcended the reductive “pop-punk” label and can stand of equal footing with U2 and R.E.M., who have a decade’s head start. Like American Idiot, the songs of 21st Century Breakdown collectively tell a story, and also like American Idiot, I don’t really give a shit what the story is, because each track works so well on its own. The individual songs all sound like singles, cut and polished and sweated over to hit the elusive bull’s-eye of the ear’s pleasure center, and make a big run at the charts. (Sadly, probably not the Rhianna-and-Ke$ha dominated charts of today, but perhaps the charts of yesteryear, or the charts that only exist in my imagination.) The only reason 21st Century Breakdown isn’t much higher on the list is that it follows the American Idiot template a little to closely, and comes off as a bit of a retread.

#16. Brendan BensonMy Old, Familiar Friend

Like A.C. Newman (one notch higher), Benson is known for his work in the genre called power-pop – music designed to be as hook-y and infectious as humanly possible. A nice treat, but a steady diet will rot your insides. I admit to a power-pop sweet tooth, and Benson’s fourth record provides me with a fix that doesn’t overload the circuits. Underneath the AM Gold guitars and big choruses, there’s some interesting – even dark – things going on lyrically, and the sound (expertly produced by Gil Norton) throbs a little heavier than your standard Cheap Trick-knockoff artists. This is a record meant to be played loud in a fast-moving vehicle.

#15. A.C. Newman Get Guilty

New Pornographers’ frontman Carl “A.C.” Newman continues to play to his strengths on his second solo album: a gift for melody, and a skewed, off-kilter sense of rhythm. Newman’s unpredicatble songs stutter and stop, lurch and sway. Bare-bones acoustic ruminations will suddenly get jumped and hijacked by booming, orchestral drama. Newman also seems to want to use every instrument known to western music at some point to build his baroque pop-puzzles, but the record never feels cluttered.

#14. Neko CaseMiddle Cyclone

Case’s song cycle about nature and its consistent physical and moralsuperiority over mankind was officially selected as the Institute of Idle Time’s Album of the Year for 2009, breaking both the gender and solo artist barrier for an IIT #1 album. Case’s arrangements remain idiosyncratic (including, but not limited to, piano “orchestras” and the ambient sounds of the old barn she recorded in), but her country roots show through in her phrasing and vocal warmth. I also don’t think anyone’s consistently writing lyrics at her level right now.

#13. Fruit BatsThe Ruminant Band

Mellow echoes of the old Laurel Canyon sound permeate this offering from Fruit Bats. Acoustic textures are to the fore, with some pedal steel woven in like silken thread. Lead singer/songwriter Eric Johnson is also a fairly recent addition to The Shins, so I hope his added workload won’t cause him to neglect his lesser-known band, who have produced here a warm, graceful, and relaxed entry in the annals of alt-country (a label that, like “Britpop,” may only have relevance to me as the rest of the world moves on as if there were an entire decade between us and the 90s. Wait, what?)

#12. MuseThe Resistance

Stadium-fillingly huge in Europe, and beloved a particular breed of prog-rock nerd stateside, Muse has thus far eluded the warm embrace of American popularity. It’s easy to say that Muse cribs from the Queen playbook, but I feel it goes beyond that. When they choose to go the Queen route (and they don’t always), it’s no mere imitation. It’s a full-on recreation and rebirth. That dense, layered sound and operatic bombast we thought (in some cases, hoped) was gone forever lives and breathes again, vital and exciting. Muse can also turn it down to a low simmer, and their three-part orchestral suite that closes the album? It’s actually a fun listen, unlike most attempts to scale that particular peak. So points to Muse for having the balls to try and pull off an album like this, and bonus points for doing it so well.

That’s all for Part One. We’ll take it from 11 down to 1 next time…

Leave a comment

Filed under Music -- 2000s

Democracy? No thanks


The very misleadingly-named Institute of Idle Time is hard at work again, this time compiling a definitive list dealing with the best albums of the 1990s. The topic got me to thinking about two of my favorite 90s bands, Weezer and Oasis. (Oh, who am I kidding? The topic of Weezer and/or Oasis is rarely far from my mind.) Both bands have fallen on hard times in the 00’s, putting out a string of mostly-forgettable albums, and coasting on the goodwill of chumps like me who still pony up for them. What happened?

I’ll tell you in one word, my friends: democratization. Both Oasis and Weezer were once ruled with an iron fist. In their golden era, Noel Gallagher and Rivers Cuomo were white-hot supernovas of ambition and megalomania, driven by demons, and would not allow any other band member to take the all-important songwriting reins. Since those days, bellies and bank accounts have reached their fill, ambition and passion have cooled, and both Gallagher and Cuomo have announced, with no little sense of self-congratulation, that the songwriting in their bands is no longer a one-man show. Weezer and Oasis have switched from an autocracy to a democracy. And they have clearly suffered for it.

Has Cuomo’s and Gallagher’s talent faded since they became well-adjusted family men relieved of their personal demons? (Noel’s personal demon: his valiant, one-man attempt to hoover up most of the world’s supply of cocaine. Rivers’ personal demon: being a difficult, twitchy weirdo.) Hard to say, since they no longer write enough to judge. They shrewdly realized it was silly to knock themselves out penning and polishing ten or twelve exquisitely crafted pop jewels for each album as they did in their mid-90s heyday. They’re not hurting for cash (i.e. royalties), and it’s far easier to deliver two or three knockout numbers on par with their earlier work, and a couple of filler tunes, then proceed to leave the rest to the second guitarist, or even the drummer (!). Surely the bassist has a bulging knapsack chock full of a backlog of songs written in his little Mead notebook (some even dating from his junior college days in a shoegaze band) that had previously been suppressed by the benign dictatorship of the resident band genius. Surely these unheard gems can be trotted out, tweaked and re-arranged a little, and made into a passable track #8 on the new album so the resident band genius can spend more time working on his 2011 solo album and being interviewed by Mojo. Sadly, this seems to be the case.

The only way these bands can reclaim their former glory is for these guys to roll the tanks of their songwriting genius into the Tiennamen Square of the recording studio, and crush the infant serpent of band democracy beneath their jackbooted heel.

And if at all possible, avoid posing on their album cover in a cowboy hat and Brooks & Dunn moustache.

2 Comments

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

My Top 20 Albums of 2008 (#10-1)

10. Dr. Dog – Fate
A long and winding Abbey Road leading to right to Big Pink’s door. There’s nothing wrong with wearing your influences on your sleeve as long as you find something interesting to say with them. Dr. Dog has focused its previously rambling, wild-hare sound into a precise, nimble approach where every instrument and voice makes itself known with a unique (and endearingly simple) role within the song, contributing to a mighty whole.
KEY TRACKS: “Hang On” “The Rabbit, The Bat, And The Reindeer” “My Friend”

9. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
Pity poor Vampire Weekend. Praised to the skies in the blogosphere before the release of their first album, these collegiate cardigan enthusiasts then suffered a backlash as nasty as it was rapid. Know-it-all amateur critics giveth…and taketh away. Pay no mind. Their pleasant Afro-pop (shades of Paul Simon and Talking Heads) is still fun to listen to, and their head-scratching lyrics haven’t lost their ability to both puzzle and please.
KEY TRACKS: “Oxford Comma” “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” “The Kids Don’t Stand A Chance”

8. Beck – Modern Guilt
Of the many creative folk who made 2008 a memorable year, production whiz Danger Mouse (mentioned twice elsewhere in this very list) must be at the top of the heap. Everyone’s favorite alt-rock troubador/sonic prankster Beck seemed to have lost his way on 2006’s unfocused The Information, but this fruitful collaboration with D.M. snaps him back into high gear. Like 2002’s melancholy Sea Change, Beck’s lyrics veer into some dark territory here, this time mourning not just his own personal heartbreak, but lamenting an entire world going down the wrong path. The bleakness of his words are offset by the propulsive, slinky arrangements (the slow-burning “Volcano” ranks among the very best songs he’s ever written).
KEY TRACKS: “Volcano” “Gamma Ray” “Modern Guilt” “Youthless”

7. Black Mountain – In The Future
Dark, disturbed tales of witches and sorcery eminating from a group of what appears to be mild-mannered, bearded Canadian grad-students? As a recent vice-presidential candidate might say, “you betcha.” Some of the more egregious Sabbath/Zeppelin bombast is reigned in by a natural indie-rock sense of decorum and self-consciousness, but enough Misty Moutain gloom and doom push through to ensure that by putting this album on at your next D&D tournament, you will be the coolest half-orc (or whatever) in the coven.
KEY TRACKS: “Stormy High” “Wucan” “Stay Free”

6. My Morning Jacket – Evil Urges
No ambitious artist wants to be known as a “jam band.” Being lumped in with Dave Matthews and The String Cheese Incident does no one any favors, and MMJ know it. They have been rebelling against that ridiculously reductive label ever since it was first stuck to them a few years ago, so their last two albums increasingly reigned in their reverb-heavy, country-tinged instrumental stretch-outs with touches of urban R&B (lead singer Jim James occasionally breaks out his Prince falsetto) and concise, straight-up hooks. Try to convince me 2005’s “Off The Record” or this album’s “I’m Amazed” doesn’t smack of old-school AM Top 40 pop.
KEY TRACKS: “I’m Amazed” “Librarian” “Thank You Too” “Sec Walkin’”

5. Old 97’s – Blame It On Gravity
This Dallas quartet has been a mainstay of my Top 20 lists for a decade, and their latest once again goes from strength to strength. They pull off a fantastic musical trifecta of powerful pop hooks combined with countrified lyrics of superior depth and literariness…and they’re a shit-hot live act to boot.
KEY TRACKS: “No Baby I” “Color Of A Lonely Heart Is Blue” “My Two Feet”


4. The Raconteurs – Consolers Of The Lo
nely
Basically the White Stripes minus the White Stripes’ arbitrary, self-imposed restrictions, the Raconteurs demonstrate the full flowering of Jack White’s preoccupation with rooting around in America’s musical attic. And oh, what dusty treasures he finds. When combined with co-leader Brendon Benson’s village-green Anglophilism, the result is an interesting batch of songs that give the listener a kaleidoscopic glimmer of old folk, old blues, and old Tin Pan Alley stylings while remaining comfortably anchored in the electric rock genre.
KEY TRACKS: “You Don’t Understand Me” “Old Enough” “Many Shades of Black” “The Switch And The Spur”

3. Marah – Angels Of Destruction!
Marah have sometimes been accused of “trying too hard.” Well, what the hell is wrong with that? It beats not trying at all. (Listen to Weezer’s latest. Or better yet, don’t.) AOD! is overproduced, yes. But the overproduction here feels like an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink thrill ride, rather than fussy technical wankery. The thinking man’s bar band, Marah churns out their best collection yet, careening from barreling rattlesnake shakes to torch songs awash in spritual imagery and regret, and always playing as if each song is the final encore.
KEY TRACKS: “Coughing Up Blood” “Angels On A Passing Train” “Blue But Cool”

2. The Gaslight Anthem – The ’59 Sound
The Gaslight Anthem have simplified and concentrated the tortured angst-rock of Roy Orbison’s “Running Scared” and the booming drama of the Darkness On The Edge Of Town-era E Street Band by forcing it through a spiky, post-punk filter. They don’t have a full orchestra or dozens of overdubbed Springsteens. Just a couple of battered Telecasters. Their lyrics are the most truly romantic of 2008, in the original, 19th century Byronic sense of the word. No greeting card platitudes here. The Afghan Whigs without the soul-music fixation and murder fantasies? A rougher, riskier Gin Blossoms? Something in between, I suppose. But those two bands were gone too soon, and I hope The Gaslight Anthem sticks around for a good long time.
KEY TRACKS: “Great Expectations” “Meet Me By The River’s Edge” “Old White Lincoln” “The ’59 Sound”

1. Blitzen Trapper – Furr
Blitzen Trapper race from idea to idea and mood to mood in an excited frenzy. Even their slower, melancholy songs seem to demonstrate their thoughts streaking ahead of their singing and playing. Rather than seeming schizophrenic (as last year’s Wild Mountain Nation sometimes did), the thirteen songs on Furr present themselves like an anthology of thirteen tiny one-act plays. The story and atmosphere is different for each one, but the listener can tell it’s the same creators and cast telling each tale. Like a series of fever dreams, a dusty Rocky Mountain saloon dissolves into an urban underground disco which becomes an open, unrecognizable stretch of lonely road. Not necessarily in that order. Then you wake up and try to put the pieces together.
KEY TRACKS: “Sleepytime In The Western World” “Furr” “Black River Killer”

Leave a comment

Filed under Music -- 2000s

…and The Fireman rushes in from the pouring rain…very strange


When was the last time you were excited about a Paul McCartney project? Never, you say? The last time “Macca” burped up anything decent you were in utero or a glint in your daddy’s eye? Well, shame on you for buying into the falsehood that McCartney is anything less than one of the founding fathers of all that we hold dear in modern popular music. Maddeningly inconsistent, yes. Sometimes follows the path of least resistance, yes. But this is the man who wrote the lines “Your day breaks/Your mind aches/You find that all her words of kindness linger on/When she no longer needs you.” Ridiculously simple, yet totally shattering. “Why she had to go/I don’t know/She wouldn’t say/I said something wrong/Now I long for yesterday.” Only three words there that are longer than one syllable. But each one perfectly chosen, and married to a melody that sounds like a whisper from the muses. That is a gift called “genius,” and flashes of that genius rise to the surface throughout his solo career with much greater frequency than he is given credit for.

McCartney has spent his career alternating between painstakingly crafted journeyman pop, and semi-improvised toss-offs. The former can be impressive, but more often somewhat labored. Albums like Flowers In The Dirt, Chaos & Creation In The Backyard, and Memory Almost Full get respectful three-star reviews and polite “refreshing-return-to-form” notices from the big-time magazines, but are written off by those who fancy themselves more cutting edge. Really, though, the worst that can be said about these releases is that McCartney is unapologetically playing it safe.

Luckily, there is the flip-side. The riskier McCartney, the one that doesn’t overthink. These off-the-cuff moments can be fun (The Beatles’ song “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road,” or the roots-rock album Run Devil Run), or painful (The entire Wings album Wild Life, where he repeatedly rolled tape on the the first idea that popped into his cannabis-addled brain, resulting in gibberish songs like “Bip Bop” and “Mumbo.”) What rescues even the worst of these efforts is his almost scary facility for creating melodies. McCartney leaks tunes the way the rest of us leak sweat.

His latest release is from his side project known as The Fireman. Electric Arguments is the third release produced from this collaboration between McCartney and former Killing Joke bassist (and Verve producer) Martin Glover, who has reinvented himself as the elcectronica artist known as “Youth.” McCartney and Youth’s first collaboration was a 1993 set of remixes using tracks from McCartney’s sub-par Off The Ground album, followed five years later by the all-original Rushes. Both were vocal-less, ambient sound experiments, and heard by practically no one. But the minute Paul lends his famous pipes to the mix, everyone sits up and takes notice. Electric Arguments is a throbbing, thoroughly modern journey through inner space, an electronic headphone classic that just happens to have been co-created by (and featuring the voice of) an honest-to-goodness Beatle. It definitely falls into the spontaneous category, with its 13 tracks created over 13 days, and having been released to the public late last November with virtually no publicity or promotion (it’s just a side project, after all.) Could it have been on my Best of 2008 list had I discovered it a little earlier? Very possibly. Is it a clear reminder never to give up on the promise of someone with a towering musical gift? Most definitely.

Leave a comment

Filed under Music -- 2000s

My Top 20 Albums of 2008 (#20-11)

20. The Switches – Lay Down The Law
This year’s Britpop spot goes to this explosive (U.S.) debut. (Bigger names like Oasis and Kaiser Chiefs were in the running, but both are trumped by this south-of-London quintent.) The Switches are nestled comfortably on the younger Franz Ferdinand/Arctic Monkeys side of the Great Modern Britpop Divide: pub shout-alongs and dance floor rump-shakers. As opposed to the older, statelier, rainy-day-mope-in-the-bedroom style of Travis and Coldplay. Another factor that raises Switches above their early-twentysomething competetion is that they have a familiarity with their instruments, and avoid plunking away at the same ringing chord through the whole damn song. I guess they’re trying to sound like The Edge, but The Edge they’re not. Many of these bands (eg. Bloc Party, Tokyo Police Club) sound like they just picked up guitars about eighteen months ago for the sole reason of making themselves more attractive to the opposite sex.
KEY TRACKS: “Drama Queen” “Message From Yuz” “Lay Down The Law”

19. Hot Chip – Made In The Dark
The electronica band for people who don’t care too much for electronica (i.e., me), Hot Chip’s synthesized bleeps and squiggles actually seem to have a human heart beating somewhere within. The relentless drum machine party is also crashed by the occasional atmospheric ballad, which keeps the album from slipping into the numbing, soulless monotony that is the stock in trade that of others of their genre, and appeals only to those on Ecsatsy, or those that like things cheap, plastic and shallow.
KEY TRACKS: “Shake A Fist” “Ready For The Floor” “One Pure Thought”

18. TV On The Radio – Dear Science
“Beggars all description” is a phrase which is rarely used anymore, but it applies here perfectly. This is the hardest capsule review of my entire top 20 to write because there is no easy way to describe the music presented here. It’s like trying to bottle smoke or pick up liquid mercury. The vocals croon and rage by turn, and icebergs of classic R&B, funk, and hip-hop break the surface in an ocean of thrumming U2-style atmospherics and modernist electornic noise. (Are you happy, TV On The Radio? You just inspired me to write the worst musical metaphor in recorded history.) An album that’s easier to admire than to love.
KEY TRACKS: “Golden Age” “Halfway Home” “Dancing Choose”

17. The Hold Steady – Stay Positive
The Hold Steady’s one weak spot – the vocals – has noticably improved, with a little less raspy talk-singing and a little more melodicism. Their strengths remain in play: story-songs soaked in booze and desperation, a solid rhythm section, and a shredding lead guitar.
KEY TRACKS: “Sequestered In Memphis” “Yeah Sapphire” “One For The Cutters”

16. Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple
The fertile imaginations of instrumentalist/producer Danger Mouse and vocalist Cee-Lo once again harness up psychedelic soul to hip-hop beats. A little more disconnected and spaced-out than their debut, and continuing the thread of dark, eerie lyrics that belie the super-fun sunshine of the music (Cee-Lo has evidently not been cured of his paranoia and fragile mental health). Not as consistent as their earlier work, but still a nice chunk of ear candy.
KEY TRACKS: “Run (I’m A Natural Disaster)” “Going On” “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul”

15. Conor Oberst – Conor Oberst
This year’s fastest-maturing musician award goes to the Artist Usually Known As Bright Eyes. Oberst’s “solo” album continues the progression demonstrated on last year’s Bright Eyes album, leaving intolerable adolescent weepiness behind in the hands of those who seem to have no clue how to progress beyond it (i.e., the increasingly irrelevant Dashboard Confessional). Wistful without being too self-pitying (still, someone should keep him away from the steak knives lest we have another Elliott Smith on our hands), and grown-up without being boring, Oberst’s shivery, cinematic tales will keep you coming back to peel another layer.
KEY TRACKS: “Cape Canaveral” “Sausalito” “I Don’t Want To Die (In A Hospital)”

14. Ryan Adams & The Cardinals – Cardinology
Has Adams finally stopped genre-hopping and tossing out albums by the bucketload? Maybe. Adams-watchers have remarked that it’s been a whole year (gasp!) since the release of Easy Tiger, and his new backing band (at least new as of 2005, when they put out the excellent Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights) seems to have settled him into the classic-rock/country-rock groove where he thrives best. Perched on the summit of what came before, this album is the tipping point, and can easily serve as Adams’ entry ticket to the level of Neil Young or Gram Parsons.
KEY TRACKS: “Born Into A Light” “Let Us Down Easy” “Evergreen”

13. The Black Keys – Attack & Release
White people playing the blues is a dicey proposition. Try to be too reverent, and you get banal Starbucks mood music (Kenny Wayne Shepard, or every Eric Clapton album since he quit drinking). Try snazz it up with technical fireworks, and you undercut its simplistic purity, and end up just as banal. (Rest his soul, but Stevie Ray Vaughn was a fucking snooze. Seriously, does anyone get anything out of what he did apart from his admittedly amazing technical prowess?) So for the most part, it’s out of our performance realm. But The Black Keys’ two-instrument attack is not only not embarassing, it actually gets what the blues is supposed to sound like, without being a whiteface carbon copy. Another appearance by omnipresent producer Danger Mouse (there is one left to go) guides the Keys away from repeating themselves, and toward their best album yet.
KEY TRACKS: “Psychotic Girl” “Oceans & Streams” “Remember When (Sides A&B)”

12. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
Five guys on (mostly) acoustic instruments singing close harmony on songs that sound like they pre-date the Civil War. For me, they conjure up feelings of sunrise in the freezing cold, watching the crystal clear stars begin to fade after a night of staying up talking to friends or just listening to the wind. It makes me want coffee and a quilted jacket, or a feather bed.
KEY TRACKS: “White Winter Hymnal” “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” “He Doesn’t Know Why”

11. Kings Of Leon – Only By The Night
The Kings weathered “southern Strokes” comparisons for their punchy first two albums, then disappeared into tuneless sonic murk with last year’s inscrutable Because Of The Times. They have emerged a better band, harnessing their new-found experimentalism to the rock-solid southern boogie that was always their bread and butter (or biscuits and gravy, if you like.) The result is less like a punky Skynyrd and more like an arty In Through The Out Door-era Zeppelin.
KEY TRACKS: “Crawl” “Revelry” “Notion”

1 Comment

Filed under Music -- 2000s