Saturday, March 6, 2010

For the curious

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

Flipper- Love

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

K'Naan- Troubadour

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

Royksopp- Junior

Sonic Youth- The Eternal

Moby- Wait for Me

Erin McKeown- Hundreds of Lions

Basement Jaxx- Scars

Girls- Album

Super Furry Animals- Dark Days/Light Years

Mos Def- The Ecstatic

BlakRoc- BlakRoc

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

Maxwell- BLACKsummers'night

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

Metric- Fantasies

Weezer- Raditude

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

Mario- D.N.A.

The top 10 albums of 2009: No. 1

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

The top 10 albums of 2009: No. 2

Nite Jewel
Good Evening

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

The top 10 albums of 2009: No. 3

Grizzly Bear

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.

The top 10 albums of 2009: No. 4

Speck Mountain
Some Sweet Relief

The sophomore album from Chicago's Speck Mountain is infused with a spiritual energy. Just don't expect mitres and pulpits.

Read my review of Some Sweet Relief here.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The top 10 albums of 2009: No. 5

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

The top 10 albums of 2009: No. 6

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.

The top 10 albums of 2009: No. 7

The Raveonettes
In and Out of Control


Read my review of In and Out of Control here.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The top 10 albums of 2009: No. 8

Mulatu Astatke

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

The top 10 albums of 2009: No. 9

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 top 10 albums of 2009: No. 10

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.