Saturday, December 17, 2011
This is awkward. It's been six months since I abandoned my "best of the decade" countdown with less than a quarter of it done. Sorry about that. I got distracted by how lazy I am. Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" was going to be the #1 album, for those of you seeking closure.
I read an article once about how the internet is destroying the critic industry. With everyone blogging, youtubing, twittering and... friendstering their every opinion, the voices of actual critics get overwhelmed by the nonsensical din of teenagers' important opinions on My Little Pony and dubstep. In a society that's already more splintered and divided than a middle school dance floor, this is threatening to make the idea of critical consensus a quaint notion from a simpler era.
Anyway, it's the end of the year, which means it's time for me to make things worse by tossing my own opinions into the churning maelstrom. Like the rest of the amateur critics out there, I don't expect to be taken seriously or even agreed with. In the end, I just want to make a mark, a statement, something that says "I was here. I mattered. And I thought that Bon Iver record was a bit overrated."
And now to the point! As tradition dictates, before the best album list, here are ten great songs from albums that didn't make it. The full list will be up sometime this week, and you can hold me to it this time. (Please don't hold me to it. I'll probably forget.)
blink-182 - "Heart's All Gone"
After almost a decade of watching Tom DeLonge try to save the world by waving his arms while dancing, I was a bit apprehensive about the idea of a new blink-182 album. But, awkward Tom lyrics about God aside, Neighborhoods was a pretty tight album. "Heart's All Gone" is the best song, but it's less a song and more like a time machine designed to take you back to 1997. It sounds exactly like a Dude Ranch b-side, which means it makes me feel like I'm 15 again. And by that I mean it makes me want to run around like an idiot and slam into people. Ah, youth.
Childish Gambino - "Freaks And Geeks"
What do you do when you've already accomplished way more than most people ever will? What do you do after you've starred on a brilliant TV show, won an Emmy for writing and developed a successful stand up career? If you're Donald Glover, you strap on a Lil Wayne beat and make sure the world knows exactly how big your dick is. It's catchy, ridiculous, stupid and brilliant at the same time. It'll give you the weirdest boner.
Destroyer - "Suicide Demo For Kara Walker
This song is like floating gently on a cloud with a guy who's improvising a poem about race and gender relations in America. It also sounds a lot like Steely Dan/Michael McDonald yacht rock, complete with flutes and tasteful horn arrangements. It manages to make "dated" sounds seem fresh and original, and it was a perfect soundtrack for last winter's slow thaw.
Dropkick Murphys - Peg O' My Heart
The Dropkick Murphys have covered enough traditional Irish songs to turn a dozen wakes into fist fights, but there's something special about this one. The band sounds as energized as ever and their excitement is completely infectious. Plus, Bruce Springsteen shows up to sing a few verses. Maybe that has something to do with it.
Kurt Vile - "Jesus Fever"
"Jesus Fever" is a song that can make me happy one day and give me the creeps the next. The crisp guitar sounds like the first crisp day of autumn feels, but Kurt Vile's Velvet Underground-mumble gets more and more haunting by the line as he repeats "I'm already gone." It's like getting a hug from a ghost.
Panda Bear - "Surfer's Hymn"
"Surfer's Hymn" doesn't hide its Beach Boys influence - it's called "Surfer's Hymn," for fuck's sake. But it looks past their pop sensibilities and ends up sounding like the distilled essence of a good vibration. On headphones, it becomes a soundscape of crashing waves and sunsets, with singer Noah Lennox's voice sounding almost holy. This is Brian Wilson's "teenage symphony to God" updated for a generation that needs this kind of musical optimism more than ever.
The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart - "Heart In Your Heartbreak"
The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart (which is a terrible name for such a good band) went added some Smashing Pumpkins and My Bloody Valentine to their tool kit this year and pretty much erased the "lo" from their lo-fi sound. The transition could have been messy, but they brought their a-game and made a pretty great set of songs. This one is probably the best pop song of the year.
R.E.M. - "We All Go Back To Where We Belong"
This one's going to be long. First some background - six months ago, R.E.M. were one of my favorite bands. Then they announced their break-up in September and I decided to listen to all their albums chronologically. Then, somehow, I didn't listen to a single other artist for a month and a half. At one point I listened to their "Murmur" album fourteen times in one day. When I finally came out of my R.E.M. bender, not only had they become my favorite band, they were my favorite-favorite band ever. No other band has ever resonated with me quite this much, spoken to me on quite this deep a level. My musical tastes shift around constantly, but I have a feeling this one might stick for a long time.
So, a couple months after the band announced they were retiring, they put a cap on thirty years and fifteen albums with this song, their final single. And it's pretty much perfect. They're not trying to recapture any past glories here - there's no hint of shiny '80s guitar jangling or somber '90s mandolin strum to be found here. Instead, it sounds like a group of people looking back on a lifetime of making great art and feeling content. And yeah, the first time I heard it, the "is this really what you want?" lyric made me cry great big manly tears. You know when a great closing song always makes you want to start the album again? This one always gets me reaching for 1982's "Chronic Town" EP to hear everything one more time.
Rise Against - "Satellite"
Rise Against and I aren't as close as we used to be. Back around the time "Siren Song Of The Counter Culture" came out, I counted them among my favorite bands. Then the crowds got bigger, the stage got further away, and they released an album ("Appeal To Reason") that's been waiting three years now to start growing on me. Their latest, "Endgame" is a slight improvement, but still doesn't quite reach the heights of their early work. Except this song. When the album came out early in the year, "Satellite" seemed like a standout track not just on the album but in the band's career. Now, after a year full of Americans waking up and beginning to stand up and speak out against our society's injustices, the song sounds like a generational anthem.
Thurston Moore - "Circulation"
I swear this year was trying to kill me. Less than a month after R.E.M. called it a day, Sonic Youth basically announced that they were coming to an end. In other words, as of this fall, music sucks. Even if we can't have the full band, at least singer Thurston Moore's acoustic album kicked ass earlier in the year. This isn't the kind of solo acoustic album where the singer tones it down and delivers a bunch of relaxing, easy-going songs. The album can be as intense and experimental as Sonic Youth's best was, and it strikes the best balance between tense and melodic on "Circulation," which sounds like a brilliant lost track from "Daydream Nation."
Saturday, June 11, 2011
17. The Decemberists - Picaresque (2005)
"And I am a writer, a writer of fictions..."
Being a music lover is like eating at Taco Bell, only without the intestinal hazards. You can be happily eating your five-layer burrito and suddenly realize, "Hey, this is really similar to the Taco Supreme I had yesterday, and the Gordita Cagarse I had the day before..." And then you look at the menu and realize that everything is made of the same shit rolled a different way. You get the same feeling when you realize that most music is just a Mad Lib that says "I feel _______," usually with love or hate filling in the blank. Suddenly every love song you hear is a Gordita Crunch and every fuck-you song is a Macho Burrito and you're shitting in your pants, wishing there was a better way.
When I start feeling this way, you know what helps? A nine-minute song about a man who avenges his mother's death by following her killer around the world and finally murdering him while they both starve in the belly of a giant whale. You definitely don't get that shit at Taco Bell. You can't even get that at Del Taco, and they even have cheeseburgers. The only place to go for that is The Decemberists, and with that I'm probably going to drop this food metaphor because I no longer understand it.
Picaresque, according to wikipedia, means "a popular sub-genre of prose fiction which is usually satirical and depicts, in realistic and often humorous detail, the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class." That's a better description that I could give for this album's collection of strange characters and wildly original songs. It almost feels more like a collection of short stories than an album. For example, check out "The Bagman's Gambit," a story of espionage and forbidden love in Cold War-era Washington that eventually descends into a mess of discordant strings that recalls a shadowy take on The Beatles' "A Day In The Life."
Skip ahead a few tracks and you're in a whole other world. "On The Bus Mall" is a gorgeous rain-swept ballad about two young lovers who run away only to find themselves drawn into the world of prostitution to stay alive. The lyrics avoid being overly sentimental by focusing on the emotions of its protagonists, trying to stay strong in the face of incredible adversity. It's a feeling anyone can relate to, even those of us who have managed to avoid selling our bodies for money so far. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the song is hauntingly beautiful, with a melody that draws us in even as the story it supports becomes bleaker with every line.
The album only steps away from its storytelling formula once, for the spirited and downright poppy "16 Military Wives." While most of the album's songs take place at some point in the past, this one plants its feet firmly in the present (or, you know, 2005) by taking on the Iraq war, primarily the asleep-at-the-wheel media that allowed it to happen. The song makes its points without becoming preachy or dating itself with specifics. Its story of cannibal kings, doomed company men and grieving widows could apply to any previous war and any of the ones still to come. The band does this while framing the song with their most effortlessly catchy tune yet.
And then there's "The Mariner's Revenge Song," the epic tale of adventure, betrayal, revenge and being eaten alive by giant whales. Singer Colin Melloy tells the story over almost nine minutes of sea shanty, punctuated by Rachel Blumberg's haunted choruses, where her ghostly voice urges our hero on in his quest for revenge. Also, when the band performs this live, they sometimes use giant cardboard cut-outs of ships and whales, so there's that too.
What makes Picaresque a great album instead of merely a collection of great songs, is the way common themes wind their way through stories that may seem a world apart. The most prominent theme here is "expectations vs. reality." The injured high school football star of "The Sporting Life" watches his future fade before his eyes in much the same way as those naive teenage runaways did. The star-crossed lovers of "We Both Go Down Together" end up jumping from the cliffs of Dover in a possibly-mutual suicide, and it echoes the doomed romance between spies and government workers in "The Bagman's Gambit." Without these threads, the album could feel directionless, but it all ties together as a coherent whole, even as the songs refuse to stay in one place for too long.
Picaresque isn't a "background music" kind of album. It rewards close attention, and investing in the stories and characters can really pay off. Spend too much time with it and other music can start to sound unoriginal and uninspired. Why listen to yet another "why won't that person come back?" song when you can come to this world of victorian ghosts, disgraced football heroes and street urchins, where you literally have no idea where the next song might take you? It's like walking out of a Taco Bell and discovering that there's a whole world out there.
Friday, May 13, 2011
#18. The Streets - Original Pirate Material (2002)
"Around here we say 'birds' not 'bitches'"
They say you should always write about what you know. That's why I choose to write about music instead of say, holding a job or dressing myself. Mike Skinner, a.k.a. The Streets, knows about drinking beer, smoking weed, going to clubs, being on the dole, and all the other petty details of being young, poor, bored and British. Listening to Original Pirate Material is like taking a walk in his shoes, only if he's only walking to the corner store for a pack of fags.
British music has a history of doing what Americans have already done, but better. Think of how The Beatles conquered American rock and roll, only to shape it in their own image and send it off in a hundred new directions. Or, a decade later, when countless bands took the punk banner from The Ramones and ran towards darker and stranger territory. The Streets made intelligent, personal and vibrant hip-hop at a time when the genre in America was entering a decade-long free fall that still hasn't hit bottom yet. To see just how wide the gap in originality is, check out "Let's Push Things Forward," a bouncy, Specials-influenced track buoyed by a jaunty upbeat rhythm and a ska-influenced bassline that grounds the song in a state that's completely its own.
"The Irony Of It All" is the album's most instantly memorable track, a debate between an alcoholic lout named Terry and a timid stoner named Tim, both of whom are played by Skinner, complete with a theme for each character - an abrasive bass-heavy beat for Terry and an airy looping piano riff for Tim. Over three and a half hilarious minutes, the two go back and forth about the merits of one's drug of choice versus the others', with Terry working himself into a drunken rage while Tim calmly picks the chicken pieces out of his pizza and plays video games all night. It's a well-stated message, pointing out the arbitrary nature of modern drug policy while never losing its sense of humor.
"The Irony Of It All" isn't quite the most fun song on the album - that honor goes to "Don't Mug Yourself," a great track that finds Skinner and his friends discussing how long he should wait before calling the girl he met the night before. The infectious rhythm and bassline make it one of those songs you can't hear without bobbing your head and moving to the beat. And that ending, when the song falls apart and everyone starts laughing, is one of the album's best moments.
If the album were nothing but jokey songs and ska-flavored upstrokes, it'd be one hell of a fun listen but probably not enough to be the 18th best album of the last eleven years. As the album progresses, Skinner works himself into a more reflective mood that peaks on his best song, the hazy and nostalgic "Weak Become Heroes." Over a looped piano that sounds like an echo of a thousand half-remembered parties, he looks back on his younger years in the UK club scene, remembering the way a roomful of strangers could feel like friends, and the way they would inevitably turn back to strangers the next morning.
The song's best moment - no, the album's best moment - comes at about 3:20, when the piano drops out for a few bars and Mike reflects on how much older he's gotten in seemingly an instant. It's a familiar feeling for anyone - even if you're like me and wouldn't go to a rave unless you were forced at gunpoint, everyone has had that moment where suddenly everything's changed and you can't put your finger or when or how it happened.
Before I'm done, we have to talk about that album cover, right? Go back up and look at that thing again. Original Pirate Material begins and ends with that imposing block of cheap apartments. (Flats?) You can easily imagine all the album's characters just out of sight in those lit up windows. The violent football fan of "Geezers Need Excitement" is plotting to cause trouble somewhere in there. The dole-squatters of "Same Old Thing" and the brokenhearted romantic of "It's Too Late" no doubt share this space too. You can even imagine Terry and Tim having their back-and-forth through the thin walls. Nothing ever changes for these characters - none of these songs are about life-changing epiphanies or high drama. Life just keeps going on the way it always does. In a decade when hip-hop traded most of its soul and nuance for dance tracks and autotune, Original Pirate Material is the genre at its most honest and conversational.
Friday, April 15, 2011
#19. Against Me! - Reinventing Axl Rose (2002)
"If it doesn't matter now/Then it never really did/And without this, we might as well be dead"
Apparently when Axl Rose heard about the title of this album, he was so upset that he made a voodoo doll of Against Me! singer Tom Gabel as a way of getting weird, cartoonish revenge. Whether that voodoo doll is to blame for the diminishing returns of Against Me!'s next four albums is impossible to say, but all the voodoo sorcery the guy who wrote "Paradise City" can muster will never take away from the fact that Reinventing Axl Rose is a punk rock masterpiece.
I was sixteen when I heard this album for the first time, which means it hit me like a train hits a hobo. It was something completely new to me - it was pissed-off, ragged, messy and undeniably punk, but with a distinct folk undertone and lyrics that turn angry political diatribes into heartfelt, personal affirmations. Of course, that makes Reinventing sound like a dry, serious record, which it's not. This album is FUN. "Those Anarcho Punks Are Mysterious" is a stand-out sing along song on an album literally full of them. It's a thoughtful song about consumerism and the price it takes on our interactions with each other, but it never lets its weighty themes get in the way of the infectious rhythm that begs to be clapped along to.
Too many punk bands just set their political beliefs to music and call it a day. This can result in some exciting and revolutionary music, but the shelf life is short. There are about a million punk songs about Ronald Reagan that may still sound good but were long ago made irrelevant. Against Me! would fall for this two albums later when they built a chorus around "Condoleeza, what are we gonna do now?" But here on their first album, they blend the political with the personal in a way that renders the distinction meaningless. Take "Walking Is Still Honest," which has an anti-religion chorus worthy of classic Bad Religion, but bases it from the perspective of a non-faithful father debating giving his kids the easy answers of religion to comfort them.
The album's best moments are complete opposites. "Baby, I'm an Anarchist" is, for better or worse, a career-defining moment for the band, presenting their radical politics with a winking sense of humor and a a gentle folk melody that gets periodically shattered by a phlegmy scream. Too many fans have taken the song seriously and used it to accuse the band of selling out when they jumped to a major label a few years later, but looking back it's obvious the song is a joke, and a great one too. It's not a political song or even an anarchist song - it's a love song, sung by a broken hearted protester who just wishes he had someone to smash windows with.
And then there's "Pints of Guinness Are Strong." It opens the album and stops me dead in my tracks every single time I hear it. A fast folk melody that would sound at home on a Flogging Molly record masks what is undoubtedly the saddest punk song of all time. It's a story about a loving marriage ended too soon by alcoholism and tragedy, with a chorus that finds the narrator pondering the same end as he drinks "until the memory of the last work week will be gone forever." This is a song that can make a basement full of drunken, bearded punk rockers cry.
About halfway through Reinventing, Tom Gabel nails the feeling of a great punk show better than anyone I've ever heard when he sings "Given the chance I'd stay in this chorus forever/Where everything ugly in this world is sadly beautiful." There will always be people who feel disillusioned and outcast by the world around them, and hopefully there will always be records and bands like this one to bring those people together. Reinventing Axl Rose looks at a broken and sad world and says that the only option is to grab a guitar and some friends and "Scream Until You're Coughing Up Blood."
Thursday, March 24, 2011
#20. The New Pornographers - Twin Cinema (2005)
"The hourglass spills its sand/If only to punish you/For listening too long to one song"
I feel like I got old way too quickly. Not in the sense that the cruel world has crushed my fragile, youthful dreams, although that certainly doesn't help matters. I feel prematurely old because society has changed a ridiculous amount since I was a kid. The faster technology advances, the faster we become dinosaurs. Remember when you couldn't leave the house if you were waiting for a phone call? Remember when if you didn't know something, you had to go to a library to look it up? Remember trying to download porn on a dial-up connection? If you tell young people about this today, it'll sound like you're saying you used to walk a mile uphill through the snow to masturbate.
I miss albums the most. Growing up, I loved the feeling of ripping the plastic off a new album, sitting down with my headphones and absorbing it all. These days, listeners generally download one or two songs that they already know they like, and discard the rest. These people are doing themselves a disservice, and they're probably stupid. My favorite thing about music as a kid was the way an album's initial highlights might fade a bit by the fourth or fifth listen, and songs that didn't register at first might become your favorites once you tuned into what made them great. I'd hate for this experience to fade away, only to be experienced by gross music nerds hanging out in basements talking about things like "dynamic range compression."
Before I start sounding like I'm launching a moral crusade against iPods, I'll admit I'm guilty of the pick-and-choose. When I first heard The New Pornographers' amazing Twin Cinema, it took almost a month to get past track four. That's because track four is "The Bleeding Heart Show," an amazing tour-de-force slow-build pop song that's one of the best songs of the decade and possibly of all time.
I could talk for a week about how much I love this song, but I'll limit myself to a paragraph. You should probably listen to it first, or else this paragraph will be even more boring than the ones that came before. The song opens with a plaintive tone that sounds weary and resigned. It's a complete departure from the Pornographers' usual energetic power-pop, but singer A.C. Newman's delivery sells it completely. The song begins to expand its sound at about 1:15, but it doesn't quite become transcendent until 2:08, when Neko Case's beautiful "ooohs" come in sounding like sunlight breaking through the clouds. Once the "hey-la" chorus comes in, there's no way you're not smiling, unless you dislike happiness.
I listened to "Bleeding Heart Show" about a hundred times before I went back to tracks one through three, or onward to the ten songs following it. Once I did, I realized how badly I'd been missing out. Nothing quite tops "Bleeding Heart Show," but the entire album is pretty damned amazing. Check out "Sing Me Spanish Techno," where the band busts out a tune so effortlessly catchy that it instantly feels like it's been one of your favorite songs for years.
The New Pornographers have at least three singers, and they all get a chance to kick some ass. Dan Bejar (also from the fantastic indie band Destroyer) shows off with "Jackie, Dressed In Cobras," probably his best song ever. The drums in the intro bring to mind The Who at their most anthemic, but the song takes a left turn and becomes a furiously insistent pop song, gaining momentum and picking up speed as it goes. When Bejar sings about the "train devouring the land," the backing music paints the picture perfectly.
Neko, deservedly everyone's favorite Pornographer, takes the lead on two songs, the bouncy "Bones of an Idol," and the beautiful "These Are The Fables," a gentle, acoustic-based ballad that betrays Neko's alt-country roots. "Fables" uses a slow-build technique similar to "Bleeding Heart Show," but where "Bleeding Heart" eventually opened up into an ecstatic chorus, "Fables" stays downcast - even when the beat finally steps up around 2:38, the song never escapes its sweet, melancholy beginnings.
Twin cinemas, the iconic double-marquee theaters the title track cebelrates, went out of fashion a long time ago, replaced by the monolithic 24-screen megaplexes that drove the old theaters out of business much in the same way that chain record stores used to drive the independent places away. Of course, soon enough high speed internet came along and devoured them both along with the music industry. The back cover of Twin Cinema shows an old projector sitting next to a crate full of records, as if to say that both mediums are on their way out. What are we losing in our quest for convenience?
P.S. - Here's David Cross!
Friday, March 18, 2011
Decades are strange things. They are, of course, completely arbitrary ways of defining the passage of time, with no real bearing on the events and culture they represent. And yet, the wisdom of hindsight seems to lend each one a distinct personality of its own. It's easy now to look back at the '70s as the decade when punk battled disco, and the nation's interior decor was drenched in a flood of brown and burnt sienna, or the '80s as the age when synthesizers and Prince roamed the earth.
But the present tense - that's trickier. I say present tense because in a sense, we're all still living in the last decade. The calendar may say 2011, but pop culturally, we haven't moved far from 2008 yet. This is how it usually goes - the first two years of the '90s were racked by the day-glo aftershocks of the '80s until Nirvana chased hair metal and synthesizers away. The early '00s were the '90s Part II (Congrats on best selling record of 2000, NSync!), but all that changed when BUSH DID 911. Until whatever cultural or societal change washes away the Autotune and Saw sequels, it's hard to predict just what form the last ten years will take.
That's why I roll my eyes whenever I hear anyone being described as the "voice of our generation." Generations rarely get to choose their own voices - the people who come after do that for them. Our kids may reject our Radiohead and Wilco records and decide that, say, Hoobastank were the great musical innovators of our time. And we can shake our canes and write angry letters to the editor, but in the end, we're pretty much powerless to define our own legacies. Which is all a roundabout way of explaining why my "Best albums of the 2000s" list is about a year and three months late. Expect the first review later this week.
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Sometimes when I feel overwhelmed, like the pressures of modern life are too much, I like to think back to a simpler time, a better time when people were friendlier, the streets were safer, and the world moved at a slower pace. A sepia-toned time called 2010. And even though 2010 may seem a lifetime away now, we can still feel like we're stepping into the past through the magical music of this bygone era. Now let's get nostalgic!
20. Off With Their Heads - In Desolation
Listening to In Desolation is like being Off With Their Heads' therapist, except they shout their problems at you, and you have a strange urge to shout them back and then run around in a circle pushing people. Off With Their Heads are as pissed off as the next punk band, but they direct their anger back at themselves, writing songs that are as self-loathing and defeated as they are energetic and catchy. This is probably the only band that could turn "I'm not alive, I'm just as good as dead/I can't find a reason why I should even get out of bed" into a defiant mosh pit sing along. Let's hope these guys never feel better.
19. Sundowner - We Chase the Waves
When I was 18 The Lawrence Arms weren't just my favorite band, they were the best band I could imagine. Drunk, sad, funny punk rock filled with references to The Simpsons and literature? Hell yes, I'll have some of that. But The Lawrence Arms haven't released a full album since 2006's Oh! Calcutta!, so for now we'll have to settle for periodic releases from singer Chris McCaughan's acoustic side project. And when I say "settle for," I mean "enjoy the hell out of." It may lack the raw energy of the full band's releases, but We Chase the Waves still sounds like catching up with an old friend and spending ten songs hearing what they've been up to. And then hearing them sing an old baseball ditty from 1910.
18. The Clientele - Minotaur
When you open up a new Clientele record, you know what you're getting. (If you're one of the seventeen people who know who The Clientele are.) The band specializes in beautiful, hazy pop music about suburbs, sunsets, and other pleasant, "stop and smell the roses" trivialities, some of which don't start with the letter s. Minotaur doesn't fix what's not broken, and fills the time between full-length albums with six new, great pop songs. There's also a bleak piano instrumental and a creepy urban legend set to dissonant eerie drones and ambient echoes and footsteps, but you'll probably only listen to those once. The rest of the EP is the world's best pop band sounding as world's best-iest as ever.
17. Band of Horses - Infinite Arms
Sometimes an album cover tells you all you need to know about what's inside. Infinite Arms sounds like a night sky full of stars, which it turns out sounds like a perfect mix of indie pop and Neil Young-inspired folk rock, with some Brian Wilson-esque harmonies floating gracefully in and out of the mix. This isn't an immediate album, but if you live with the slower tempos and soft focus melodies for a while, the record becomes more beautiful and deep with every listen.
16. Tame Impala - Innerspeaker
Not that I know from personal experience, but it's hard to find LSD these days. The kids seem to have moved on to trendier drugs, like prescription painkillers and huffing dust cleaner. But apparently it's still the summer of love in New Zealand, because Kiwi band Tame Impala came out of nowhere this year with a debut album that I can only describe as "far out, man." Innerspeaker is a swirling kaleidoscope of trippy guitar and spaced-out vocals that sounds straight out of 1968. It's the perfect soundtrack for a trip, whether you're high on acid or nostalgia. (Or both!)
the Pharmacists - The Brutalist Bricks
14. Crime in Stereo - I Was Trying to Describe You to Someone
The world needs Ted Leo. If one guy (and the guys in his band) could save mainstream rock music from the coma it's been in for the last fifteen years or so, Ted Leo would be the one to do it. His upbeat blend of punk energy, infectious pop hooks, and thoughtful, relevant lyrics are everything that's been missing from rock radio for seemingly forever. And while The Brutalist Bricks isn't his strongest album, it's still an addictive collection of songs that all sound like #1 smash hits in some alternate universe where popular taste corresponds with talent.
14. Crime in Stereo - I Was Trying to Describe You to Someone
Hardcore isn't a genre that encourages experimentation. Stick with your three chords, galloping tempos and shouted lyrics, and you can stagnate in a hardcore band forever. So when a band like Crime in Stereo comes along to challenge perceptions of what hardcore can be, a lot of people can get pissed off. But fuck those people, because Crime in Stereo has pushed their sound so far from the hardcore blueprint that they make the genre sound fresher and more exciting than it has in years. I Was Trying to Describe You to Someone sounds like hardcore being broadcast from the moon and into the vacuum of space; cold and expansive, somehow bursting with hardcore anger at the same time it's sounding lonely and isolated. But the saddest thing is that the band broke up a few months after the album came out, meaning that their most intriguing development will also be their last.
There's always been a formula for success in pop music, and it rarely changes: write a catchy, disposable song (or have one written for you), wear revealing clothes and milk that success for all its worth. Janelle Monae shows a different path. You can write a genre-defying epic with suites and overtures, release it in two parts, and focus the whole thing around a vision of the future inhabited by robots. The ArchAndroid isn't like any pop record you've ever heard before, using its 18 tracks to explore dance, jazz, punk, psychadelic, English folk, and anything else that comes to Ms. Monae's mind, which might actually be a computer processor. But even if she is a robot, she's a very well-programed robot, able to go from old-school jazz crooning to punk screaming and back without breaking a sweat. (Or whatever robots do when they get too hot.) "Cold War" and "Tightrope" are possibly the two best songs of 2010, and hearing them back-to-back on the album is enough to convince you that the future is already here, and it belongs to Janelle Monae. Now let's just hope she doesn't want to kill all humans.
12. The Menzingers - Chamberlain Waits
My musical tastes have expanded a lot in the last few years, but much as a parent always loves their firstborn the most, punk rock will always be my favorite genre. Which is unfortunate, because there's sure not a lot of great punk rock coming out these days. 2006 had at least a dozen amazing, all-time classic punk records. 2010 had three or four. Of these, The Menzingers gave us the album that sounds most like it can stand the test of time. Chamberlain Waits never drops the ball, and each of its' dozen vaguely folkish punk songs is ready-made for basement sing alongs. It's nothing groundbreaking, but sometimes good old-fashioned punk rock just sounds right. Punk's not dead, but it's probably on life-support right now. The Menzingers might be the band to save it.
11. Beach House - Teen Dream
Tell people that one of your favorite albums of 2010 was Teen Dream and they'll probably assume you're talking about Katy Perry. But this Dream actually feels like one - a gauzy haze of droning keyboards offset by the guitar that spirals around them and the warm, inviting vocals. Unlike most dream-pop, the album doesn't just sound like one long, pleasant song. Each song here has its own ideas, its own sense of purpose, from the bright pop of "Norway" to the gospel-tinged "Used to Be," and yet they come together to form a coherent whole. This is music to immerse yourself in, and let it ebb and flow around you. And best of all, this is a Teen Dream that you didn't hear about five thousand times last summer.
10. Vampire Weekend - Contra
Vampire Weekend's first album was a bright and happy collection of pop songs, so naturally it made a lot of people very angry. Something about authenticity, I don't remember. For the follow-up, they don't play it safe or cater to their critics by changing things up too much. Instead they broaden their sound and incorporate elements of dub, alt-rock, and even tasteful autotune to their shiny Afro-pop. "White Sky" wears its Paul Simon influence proudly and is anchored by an outstanding, helium-voiced wordless chorus. "Cousins" explodes with a stop-and-go punk energy, while "I Think UR a Contra" brings a stately, dream pop sound to the mix. Referencing Joe Strummer on the six minute dub-flavored track "Diplomat's Son" is no coincidence. They'll attempt their "London Calling" sooner or later.
9. The Walkmen - Lisbon
My favorite albums are the ones that create their own worlds, landscapes of sound that you can explore and get lost in over and over again. The Walkmen's latest does that as well as any album I've ever heard, building up a world of sparse instrumentation that nonetheless sounds open and vibrant. The songs fit together perfectly, but the band wrings a lot of variety out of a simple base sound. "Angela Surf City" is an driving and rhythmic rock and roll explosion. "While I Shovel the Snow" sounds as still and peaceful as a freshly-fallen blanket of white. Lisbon sounds like nothing else - it's a bright, misty morning in a strange town, a half-remembered dream of somewhere you've never been. Which is all a pretentious way of saying that this album makes me feel things, maan. I'll bet it'll do the same for you.
8. Girls - Broken Dreams Club
Girls' debut album was my pick for the best of 2009 (although now I wonder if it should have been P.O.S. instead...), and in my write-up last year I mentioned how Girls' singer Chris Owens spent his youth in the Children of God cult with his mother, basically separated from the outside world. The result of growing up in a cultural vacuum is that certain musical cliches never had a chance to turn into cliches. It's an easy explanation for why Girls' music is full of things you just don't hear much anymore, like optimistic affirmations that "you can rock and roll, out of control" and the word "darling." On Girls' follow-up EP, the old pop music cliches get a chance to shine again, as the band pulls off six brilliant new songs, all without a trace of irony or pretension. Maybe they're right about that whole rock and roll thing after all.
7. Surfer Blood - Astro Coast
Imagine you're walking down a hallway, carrying with you a big bowl of The Beach Boys. Coming toward you from the opposite direction is a guy carrying a bowl full of R.E.M. and Big Star. You collide. Music goes everywhere. "You got your jangle pop in my surf rock!" you exclaim. "You got your surf rock in my jangle pop!" he shouts. Then you try it, and realize that it's catchy, addictive, and sounds great blasting out of a car stereo. "Two great tastes that taste great together," you proclaim, before going your separate ways and thanking god this incident turned out better than the Nickelback/Gordon Lightfoot disaster from last week.
6. Dessa - A Badly Broken Code
You wouldn't know it from following popular taste, but hip-hop is a hugely varied genre, capable of creating as many sounds and feelings as any other. Dessa's brilliant debut album sounds a world removed from the likes of Lil Wayne, with its spoken word poetry influence and non-autotuned singing interludes, but it's a perfect example of how hip-hop can give voice to a wide variety of people and ideas. Dessa's lyrics focus on family relationships, and the substitutes we look for if those break down. It's heavy, emotional stuff, buoyed by Dessa's unimpeachable skills as both a rapper and a jazzy crooner. On the infectious "Bullpen," she asks "In a room with thugs and rap veterans/Why am I the only one who's acting like a gentleman?" and it's enough to make you wish there were about a dozen more of her out there.
5. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
A Canadian indie band writes a concept album about the American suburbs. Doesn't that sound terrible? Can't you already hear the pretension and dismissal being belted out between the handclaps and string sections? Well, the Arcade Fire are better than that, and The Suburbs isn't the flat condemnation of suburbia that some bands would have given us. Instead, it explores the tension between comfort and boredom that always exists in rows of identical houses. The album sounds hopeful but cautious at the same time, celebrating the feeling of youth and security while looking towards an outside world both inviting and overwhelming.
4. Los Campesinos! - Romance is Boring
Romance is Boring is interested in more than having a "great album, ugly cover art" contest with Crime in Stereo. The record is so dense with weird lyrical asides and unexpected turns of phrase that it can it can require a few listens to take it all in. Even then, your enjoyment of the album will depend on whether you find lyrics like "I think we need more post-coital and less post-rock/Feels like the build up takes forever but you never get me off" are delightfully snarky or obnoxiously snarky. Los Campesinos! (who are British and thus could play a concert with Yo La Tengo and confuse some Spanish music fans, but I digress) handle everything from relationships to religion to death with the same sarcastic smirk that almost obscures the fact that these songs are surprisingly thoughtful, introspective and most of all, addictive.
3. The National - High Violet
The National write huge songs about small subjects. Sweeping songs with orchestral scores feature lyrics about student loan debt and social anxiety. Singer Matt Berninger's rich baritone makes the lyrics haunting and universal, and the music is overcast and gloomy without being oppressive. It's an album with its own view of the world as a place where regret too often overwhelms hope, but never entirely. High Violet is the definition of a grower - new details emerge on every repeat listen and the album goes from a collection of songs to a cohesive piece of art. It's an album to get lost in after a day that didn't quite go right. And again the next morning, because it's that damn good.
2. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Sometimes you have to separate an artist's personal life from their music. Like how millions of people still love Michael Jackson's music, despite that time his hair caught on fire. Kanye West doesn't allow that kind of art/artist disconnect, because listening to his music is like being allowed inside of his head. And it's a fucked up place. MBDTF explores a lot of topics, like fame, sex, drugs and isolation, but even on songs with around a dozen guest spots, it never wanders far from Kanye's egocentric, yet paradoxically self-loathing monologue. Which would all be boring as hell if the music wasn't amazing, but it is. This is hip-hop's Sgt. Pepper: a sprawling work of art that will change the game forever. The track list reads like a career best highlight reel; the propulsive chant of "Power," Nikki Minaj's frothing showstopper of a verse on "Monster," Kanye and indie folkster Bon Iver teaming up to create the world's most alien dance party on "Lost in the World." And then there's "All of the Lights," which brings eleven (fucking eleven!) guest stars as diverse as Fergie and Elton John to create this decade's "We Are the World," except this time the charity is Kanye's insatiable ego. If he keeps making music this groundbreaking, we'll keep forgiving him.
1. Titus Andronicus - The Monitor
Before the Civil War, when Americans talked about themselves, they said "The United States are..." After the Civil War, that changed to "The United States is..." The war was a horrifically destructive, bloody affair that ruined and ended countless lives. But at the end of it, America had finally become itself, so to speak. What does this have to do with a punk band named after a Shakespeare play? The Monitor focuses on growing up in New Jersey, hating everyone around you, drinking to excess, and being entirely directionless. It also fills out its sound with quotations from people like Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Using the civil war as a lens, Titus Andronicus takes an honest look at young adulthood, with all of its confusion, joy and apprehension. And they hope that, like America, when this great conflict is over, we'll have become ourselves.