These are the albums I heard in full last year, and here's how they rank, relative to one another:
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart- The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Nite Jewel- Good Evening
Grizzly Bear- Veckatimest
Speck Mountain- Some Sweet Relief
The Flaming Lips- Embryonic
Crocodiles- Summer of Hate
The Raveonettes- In and Out of Control
Mulatu Astatke and the Heliocentrics- Inspiration Information, Vol. 3
Mastodon- Crack the Skye
The Bird and the Bee- Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future
Depeche Mode- Sounds of the Universe
Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions- Through the Devil Softly
Yo La Tengo- Popular Songs
Prefuse 73- Everything She Touched Turned Ampexian
Built to Spill- There Is No Enemy
M. Ward- Hold Time
Wilco- Wilco (the Album)
Gun Outfit- Dim Light
Jay-Z- The Blueprint 3
Kid Cudi- Man on the Moon: The End of Day
Doves- Kingdom of Rust
Major Lazer- Guns Don't Kill People ... Lazers Do
Mason Jennings- Blood of Man
Animal Collective- Merriweather Post Pavilion
N.A.S.A.- The Spirit of Apollo
Au Revoir Simone- Still Night, Still Light
Norah Jones- The Fall
Eels- Hombre Lobo: 12 Songs of Desire
Asobi Seksu- Hush
Dirty Projectors- Bitte Orca
VAST- Me and You
Dan Deacon- Bromst
La Roux- La Roux
Bat for Lashes- Two Suns
The Dead Weather- Horehound
Camera Obscura- My Maudlin Career
St. Vincent- Actor
Neko Case- Middle Cyclone
Zero 7- Yeah Ghost
Doom- Born Like This
Yeah Yeah Yeahs- It's Blitz!
Chris Cornell- Scream
Morrissey- Years of Refusal
Air- Love 2
John Mayer- Battle Studies
Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson- Summer of Fear
Imogen Heap- Ellipse
Green Day- 21st Century Breakdown
The Prodigy- Invaders Must Die
Lady Sovereign- Jigsaw
Amy Speace- The Killer in Me
Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band- Outer South
Passion Pit- Manners
David Bazan- Curse Your Branches
Sonic Youth- The Eternal
Moby- Wait for Me
Erin McKeown- Hundreds of Lions
Basement Jaxx- Scars
Super Furry Animals- Dark Days/Light Years
Mos Def- The Ecstatic
Dinosaur Jr.- Farm
The Mars Volta- Octahedron
Simian Mobile Disco- Temporary Pleasure
Amadou & Mariam- Welcome to Mali
Felix da Housecat- He Was King
Sufjan Stevens- The BQE
The Big Pink- A Brief History of Love
The Church- Untitled 23
Kings of Convenience- Declaration of Dependence
Cake- Motorcade of Generosity
U2- No Line on the Horizon
Crystal Stilts- Alight of Night
Dolores O'Riordan- No Baggage
Viva Voce- Rose City
Al B. Sure!- Honey I'm Home
Mariah Carey- Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel
Paramore- Brand New Eyes
Peter Bjorn and John- Living Thing
Jadakiss- The Last Kiss
Sunn 0)))- Monoliths & Dimensions
Rodrigo y Gabriela- 11:11
Porcupine Tree- The Incident
Wolfmother- Cosmic Egg
Shakira- She Wolf
Echo & the Bunnymen- The Fountain
Flight of the Conchords- I Told You I Was Freaky
Maps- Turning the Mind
Franz Ferdinand- Tonight
Cracker- Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey
Patterson Hood- Murdering Oscar (And Other Love Songs)
Whitney Houston- I Look to You
Silversun Pickups- Swoon
The Crystal Method- Divided by Night
Tinted Windows- Tinted Windows
Better Than Ezra- Paper Empire
Trans-Siberian Orchestra- Night Castle
Wyclef Jean- From the Hut, to the Projects, to the Mansion
Soundtrack of Our Lives- Communion
MSTRKRFT- Fist of God
Meat Puppets- Sewn Together
Scarlett Johansson and Pete Yorn- Break Up
Lionel Richie- Just Go
Os Mutantes- Haih...Ou Amortecedor...
2009 albums I heard in full after the cutoff date:
The xx- xx
Health- Get Color
Tegan and Sara- Sainthood
Clipse- Til the Casket Drops
Devendra Banhart- What Will We Be
R. Kelly- Untitled
Lil Wayne- Rebirth
2009 albums I heard most of but not quite all of:
The Avett Brothers- I and Love and You
Bebel Gilberto- All in One
Pink Martini- Splendor in the Grass
A Fine Frenzy- Bomb in a Birdcage
The Phenomenal Handclap Band- The Phenomenal Handclap Band
Our Lady Peace- Burn Burn
Saturday, March 6, 2010
These are the albums I heard in full last year, and here's how they rank, relative to one another:
The Pains of Being
Pure at Heart
The Pains of Being
Pure at Heart
In what plays like a love note to mid- to late-'80s jangle pop and shoegazer distortion, the debut album by New York foursome The Pains of Being Pure at Heart skips and zips, chirps and chimes, altogether chipper and defiantly alive. With élan that verges on delusion, their bright-eyed melodies defend a heroin casualty and a brother-sister tryst, as well as relate more familiar youthful pursuits, like the raging impulse to lock lips and hips.
Such urges fuel anticipation and impatience in "Come Saturday," sprinting drum rolls and a tumbling guitar rush playing the role of the firing-on-all-cylinders adrenal glands. The library, such a testament to the pent-up, the potential, is one place where desires erupt and give the microfiche something to stare at, in the cheekily titled "Young Adult Friction." The male-female vocal blending of guitarist Kip Berman and keyboardist Peggy Wang-East fosters the Romeo-and-Juliet overtones.
True to Shakespeare, there is tragedy, though you probably wouldn't know it before you read the lyrics. A plucky snare-and-kick-drum beat and a guitar line evoking the piano hook of David Bowie's "Modern Love" open "A Teenager in Love," belying the fact that Alli, the teenager in question, has died, most likely as a direct consequence of her lust for life, which happened to involve heroin. When someone impugns Alli as being "dead all along," Berman scornfully tells the heavens (or quite possibly her gravestone), "He hadn't lived a day / the way you lived in your final days."
Murkier --- or what would be murkier if Berman and Wang-East didn't sound so chaste --- are the apparent tale of incest in "This Love Is Fucking Right!" (blithely unrepentant) and the not-necessarily-consensual couplings in "The Tenure Itch" ("These late night sessions, he's master still / Just one more lesson leaves you twisting to his will.")
But the album's brilliant melodies and endearing optimism bathe everything in a radiant, innocent light. It's all too easy to get lost in the sweet alliance of burbling bass, frisky drums, jangling guitar and singing keyboard. So pure at heart, so high on life.
Thursday, February 18, 2010
When we're first introduced to Ramona Gonzalez's voice, on "Bottom Rung," it's buried; perhaps it is the rung.
And yet it's all around us, enfolding the sanctuary- or pagoda-suited keyboard, as if she's pulling a curtain of raindrop beads.
Read my review of Good Evening here.
Sunday, February 14, 2010
On Grizzly Bear's follow-up to the much-praised Yellow House, they again draw inspiration from setting. This time the title is a little island off Massachusetts that isn't even recognized by the Census Bureau. But that's only the start of the mystique.
Read my review of Veckatimest here.
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
The Flaming Lips
Listening to Embryonic, I can't help but think it was meant to be experienced in a format other than CD. Vinyl, maybe: spread out over two or three records. Or perhaps on cassette, giving it an A side and a B side. Or maybe its songs were meant to be beamed directly into your brain and arranged to match your mood, care of some device to be invented decades from now.
Of course, this is the same band that released Zaireeka, a four-disc curiosity intended to be consumed simultaneously. (In other words, you'd need four different stereos.) Unlike The Soft Bulletin (1999), which came two years after Zaireeka, and unlike Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002) or At War With the Mystics (2006), Embryonic scales back the pop melodies and indulges in atmosphere. This atmosphere vacillates from frenetic and clattering ("Aquarius Sabotage," "Scorpio Sword") to peaceful and drifting ("The Impulse").
"Gemini Syringes" is trance-inducing space rock: As German mathematician Thorsten Wörmann deliberates on an equation, the slow throb of Michael Ivins' bass sways us into a haze. And there's an intermittent clacking, too. It sounds reptilian (but is later revealed to be ... Karen O[!]).
In quiet ballads "Evil" and "If," which could be parts I & II of the same song, Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd examine the good-vs.-evil duality of human nature. They show considerable sensitivity in these, Coyne wanting in the former to spare someone pain, and in the latter Drozd weighing which human motivation is stronger. Bad news: They conclude it's evil, although they do preface that by implying we have more than a small choice in the matter. Drozd sings, "They can be gentle, too / if they decide."
In that spirit, Coyne and Karen O collaborate, almost flirtatiously, on "I Can Be a Frog," with her providing imitations of whatever animal he mentions. There are moments when the two nearly break out in laughter, but Coyne's sincerity sells it. You can bet that even as he throws O a loop, like tossing in "helicopter" before "wolf," he has the underlying message in mind, which is that the woman in the song can be anything she wants to be. (Perhaps coincidentally, O did the soundtrack for the 2009 big-screen adaptation of "Where the Wild Things Are.") It's remarkable how tickled and carefree she is here, given how cold she can come across in her Yeah Yeah Yeahs material.
With another cameo --- this one an uncredited David Bowie (or if not, an amazing likeness) --- Coyne picks up the thread of good and evil and loops it around the stargazing theme. After Bowie/pseudo-Bowie counts up to 10 (signifying blast-off?), he gives voice to the dark side ("Free to eat the fruit / from the evil tree"). Also, it seems that those sticky-palmed heathens grant their bodies and/or their souls to "the silver machine" in exchange.
Planets and stars, whether astronomy or astrology in nature, fit the Lips' proclivities; after all, they did spend the better part of the past decade working on their eccentric sci-fi venture, the film "Christmas to Mars." Yet there's a Pink Floyd-esque vastness about Embryonic. Wonder how it would sync up to "The Wizard of Oz." Or would "2001: A Space Odyssey" be more appropriate?
Saturday, January 30, 2010
Summer of Hate
When I write poetry, I most commonly do it as a form of exorcism. I have feelings I need to vent, whether frightful or painful or thoughtful, and writing them down allows me to process them, or to make sense of them, or to move past them. This has the side benefit of allowing me to create something out of a raw experience. Sometimes I end up with something beautiful, even if all I started out with was something troubling.
I suspect musicians do this, too. Certainly not all the time, but it's wonderful when their irrepressible impulse to share love or humor or angst or despair culminates in a great piece of music. Think of all the breakups and setbacks and breakthroughs they survived or overcame or championed. And it might never have been, had they chose to, say, go watch TV.
Crocodiles, a band from San Diego, have funneled their throbbing temples and clenched teeth and aching hearts and wistful stares into a 34-minute nerve net of emotion. Merging tremeloed guitar with drum programming and '60s pop sensibility, Brandon Welchez and Charles Rowell capture the tender as well as the brutal.
Some tracks spurt confrontational energy. "Refuse Angels" lashes out with rapid-fire rimshots. "Flash of Light," which begins with swing and swagger, disintegrates into a full minute of caustic, repellent shooshing effects, like an aural strobe gone haywire. In the latter song, Welchez sings, "Tonight I'm gonna set my house on fire. ... Gonna rewrite my life."
The title track and "I Wanna Kill" would seem similarly inclined, although "I Wanna Kill" displays a gallows humor. Featuring a riff that could have been cribbed from The Crystals' "Then He Kissed Me," the song links a man's meager beginnings to his present frustration. It's the poppiest song on the album, with a back-and-forth chorus that includes "all the kids sing swan songs / all the kids sing along with me." This is somewhat more disturbing when you take into account that Welchez is a teacher by day.
Often, the message might be one of struggle, but the mood is anything but oppressive. "Sleeping With the Lord" assembles majestic vibratoed synths, almost like a take on Vangelis' classic theme "Chariots of Fire."
The CD, containing no liner notes, is scrawled "lovingly dedicated to Willy Graves." Graves was their bassist in a previous band, The Plot to Blow Up the Eiffel Tower. He died in autumn 2008 at the age of 28. So it's reasonable to assume his passing informed or influenced the tone of at least some these songs. Death and the afterlife is a recurring theme, with religious imagery popping up in several songs.
Summer of Hate has many highlights, but "Here Comes the Sky" is something extra special. Rowell's tremolo really shines here, shimmering amid a wavering synth that flows over it like an aura. There's something crushing about this track's tenderness, in the same way that some of Brian Wilson's songs go for that lump in your throat. Welchez tells us that his love has departed --- nothing special there --- but when he confesses, "In your absence, my heart's overflowed," it's such a powerful and unusual statement. He's not mad at her (or him, I suppose, although he equates her/him to a rose, which is a pretty strong feminine symbol); he actually has so much in his heart that it pours out. Continuing the metaphor, he says, together, they could grow to the sky, "where the weeds who are after us dry up and die."
It's so fanciful, so preposterous: a garden in the sky! And yet he's so unfaltering in his delivery, there's no denying that this is a deep avowal. Core-deep. It's a hope that we know is a dream. An impossible dream.
And Rowell's guitar gently weeps.
Saturday, January 23, 2010
and the Heliocentrics
Inspiration Information, Vol. 3
Contrary to what you might expect from the title, this is the first album made by Mulatu Astatke and the Heliocentrics. Together, that is. He's an Ethiopian jazz master, and they're a young U.K. band with worldly tastes (which is to say that their talents encompass instruments beyond the standard, Anglo-centric array of guitar, bass, drums, piano and keyboard). Their pairing was facilitated by the Strut record label of London for its Inspiration Information series, an influential-veteran-meets-hotshot-newcomer arrangement.
The two have chemistry, for sure. Ghostly Moog whines in "Dewel" give way to a chorus of horns, the sax, trumpet and trombone pattering in common conversation. Waiting in the bass groove, Astatke emerges with twinkles of vibraphone. Then the horns chatter anew.
The bulk of the songs were composed by Heliocentrics members, who number Malcolm Catto (drums), Jake Ferguson (bass), Oliver Parfitt (keys and synths), Adrian Owusu (guitar), Jack Yglesias (flute and percussion), Tom Hodges (theremin and saw), Dan Keane (cello), Kat Arney (harp), James Arben (clarinet and sax), Shabaka Hutchings (tenor sax) and James Allsop (bass clarinet). It's a full house.
Mulatu Astatke (piano, percussion) seems more mentor than bandleader here, although the tracks are bent toward traditional Ethiopian arrangements rather than new age eclecticism. Some guest players bring in washint, krar, begena and masenqo, instruments little-heard in Western music. Dawit Gebreab plays washint on "An Epic Story," the flute tones offset against a synth wind. It would seem befit for a warrior, one surveying his future kingdom from atop a bluff, perhaps at the cusp of daybreak.
The players save the best for last, though. "Anglo Ethio Suite" unfolds with suspense, a deliberately paced composition with a solemn and recurring cello theme. Malcolm Catto's kit skittering opens the piece, and Kat Arney dusts the scene with harp before Jake Ferguson's combo of bass and begena establishes the hypnotic groove. Astatke, at the piano, darts out, then retreats. Dan Keane's thin, high strings squeak out, and from there the track narrows in on cello and flute, as if the two are trapped in the face of impending tumult. The strings worry and scurry, then scrabble feverishly. A clarinet squeals. The end is near. Literally.
Saturday, January 16, 2010
Crack the Skye
With Crack the Skye, Mastodon have charged into the realm of accessibility. Sung vocals, avoided by some metalheads like a strain of the pox, are in steady supply here. Throughout, the Atlanta metal quartet's musicianship remains enviable: They tear through savage riffs and runs, pulling tempo change-ups on a dime, an equilibrium of ferocity and control. Sabbath would be proud.
Read my review of Crack the Skye here.
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
The Bird and the Bee
Ray Guns Are Not
Just the Future
Just to be sure, this is not a children's album. And yet it's uncanny how Ray Guns could fit the form, so gentle and good-natured and parental. Despite what Inara George (the Bird) twitters on "What's in the Middle" --- "If you say it all the time, a dirty word will get a cleaning" --- you won't find any cursing here. That's a bit of a change from The Bird and the Bee's debut full-length (The Bird and the Bee, 2007), which included their buzzed-about track "F*cking Boyfriend," complete with a coy little asterisk. (The song was later picked up for the "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" soundtrack.) Of course, their profanity was never profuse or controversial by rock 'n' roll standards; "tame" would be more precise. These days, however, everything comes kissed with congeniality. For instance, when George chides a scoundrely beau, she says, "You're a cad" --- even though the tongues of most would be more likely to say, "You're an asshole."
Greg Kurstin (the Bee) outfits the tale with an accordion for the rogue --- or rapscallion, by the Gallic air of the wheeze --- along with a flouncy beat and banana peel sound effect. The latter in particular aims to conjure comical high jinks. The combination strays close to cheesy, but it's endearing in the context of the album.
Plus, who could predict the poignant performance that follows? "Witch" is a Bond-theme doppelgänger about a femme fatale realizing her powers have fizzled. George's vocal performance is remarkable for the vulnerability it communicates. Here a temptress falls in love and essentially has the spell turned on her. "How could I haunt you," she sings, "keep you close / when you can see the seams, the fraying of my dress? / I am defenseless."
Just as effective, but back on the carefree side of things, is "Diamond Dave," a re-examination of her schoolgirl crush on the flashy, hedonistic lead singer of Van Halen, David Lee Roth. She concludes, "No one can hold a candle," and she dovetails that with a revelation of her continued attraction: "I still carry such a flame." The song's bleeps and bloops create a carnival atmosphere, joining prancing drums and nicely timed chimes. Strings flit like nylon cords zipping from an invisible pulley.
Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future makes a case for Kurstin being the Willy Wonka of effects. He's quick to include a whimsical keyboard flourish, whether it's the "ooo" pulse on "Ray Gun" or the hammered dulcimer on "My Love" or the accordion on "You're a Cad."
At least some of it is motivated by humor. "Phil" is a wink: The song, just 10 seconds long, is simply a drum fill, which serves as an intro to "Polite Dance Song," itself a lark. "Polite Dance Song" pokes fun at automatic rock-show requests --- "Put your hands in the air," "Give it up," "Clap your hands" and so on --- and it does this by phrasing them to be excessively gracious, becoming sillier as the requests get randier. Of course, the album as a whole is exceedingly polite, so "Polite Dance Song" is also a self-parody, in a way.
Humor and whimsy tend to be more common in children's music, not because children don't suffer, too, but because ... well, there could be a lot of reasons. The rugrats aren't out there cutting records and commiserating with their peers over spilled milk and gas pains. And parents are the ones buying the music, so it's natural that they'd want their kids to laugh rather than cry. (If your kids enjoy Mudhoney's "Touch Me I'm Sick," maybe they'll grow up to be mentally disturbed. Then again, maybe they just dig rock music.)
In the end, perhaps the Bird and the Bee's tender turn was prophetic. After all, Inara George is pregnant now.