Top Ten: Albums of 2013

I’ve revisited the list a few times since 2013 ended. And while my list has changed a bit since the year ended, I must admit that I still haven’t listened to the last Arcade Fire album, or Kanye’s list-topping purported masterpiece, nor to any of Buckethead’s twenty-nine albums. Heck, there are still albums that I’m genuinely interested in that I haven’t gotten around to.

There weren’t ten whole albums I was actually crazy enough about to prattle on at length about, so let’s hit it and quit it with the first few. I did manage to doodle covers for all ten of ‘em, some more successfully than others, so those are here for a vague reference point as well.

10. Arctic Monkeys – “AM”

arctic-monkeys

Last year I finally started getting into these fellas and, while I still think “Riot Van” may be their greatest little song, AM is an enjoyable romp. Special guest: Josh Homme.

9. Quasi – “Mole City”

quasi

A couple of tremendous stand-out tracks, a couple of hair-raising noise tracks, this one is still growing on me because there’s just a lot to get through. Hand it to them, though, no two Quasi albums are the same.

8. Telekinesis – “Dormarion”

telekinesis

If Wes Anderson ever used more modern music in his movies, I think Telekinesis would fit right in to his oeuvre.

7. Wavves – “Afraid of Heights”

Rockin’ stuff. Pretty solid.

wavves

6. Nine Inch Nails – “Hesitation Marks”

nin

“I am just a copy of a copy of a copy”, he says, but this is one of Trent Reznor’s most experimental NIN records to date (saxophone? backup singers?) and the results are mostly great. “Year Zero” is still tops in my book, but this is a solid album (with some pretty cool guest spots from guitar gods like Adrian Belew and Lindsey Buckingham).

5. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – “II”

“I wish that I could swim and sleep like a shark does”

umo

I had first heard UMO’s self-titled debut just as I was wrapping my 2011 list and, despite not spending much time with it, it earned the final spot there. And where the debut lured me in with its Syd Barrett sensibilities, II retains the general sense of uncharted territory but this time with songs of a relatively more conventional and accessible structure.

The record languishes a bit in the middle with slower numbers, but a track like “The Opposite of Afternoon” really only pales in comparison to the anthemic “One at a Time” that precedes it and the excellent, driving, fuzzed-out rock of the following track, “No Need For a Leader”.

I have a hard time calling up comparisons to songs like these but I can’t help but feel that it would feel at home in a Soderbergh movie.

The other major difference from their debut is that this one was made with a real drummer and live bassist and the eponymous orchestra sounds much the better for it. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the excellent guitar work on this record. It’s inventive, full of hooks, and could carry the record all on its own.

4. Neko Case – “The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You”

“6 o’clock tomorrow, a strange voice says to me
‘I do believe we have your fire, lady.
You can pick it up if you come down with ID'”

neko-case

Neko Case may eschew the public’s general distaste for incredibly long album titles, but “TWTGTHIFTHIFTMILY” is a strong album. While not as immediately accessible as its predecessor (“Middle Cyclone”), I venture that it is a lot deeper and varied both musically and emotionally.

If you’re familiar with Neko’s work then you have a pretty good idea of what to expect here, whether you call indie rock with a country bent or vice versa, it’s damned good music. The album feels both more personal in its subject matter and like it takes more risks than prior efforts musically. One track that exhibits both of these qualities succinctly is the above-quoted “Where Did I Leave That Fire?”. It starts out with a light vocal melody over sparse telemetric sounds, a mood that comprises the bulk of the song, which mirrors the sense of loss and longing that pervades the lyrics. When the song picks up, with our narrator postulating where their fire might be found, it almost swells to a rock and roll song before ending abruptly with a ringing chorus; the effect is haunting and beautiful.

The cast of musicians offers up several of the stalwarts who have appeared on other Case albums, such as Kelly Hogan, AC Newman, and M. Ward. Howe Gelb and Eric Bachmann also have turns on a couple of the bonus tracks, and those songs intrigue me for different reasons. “Madonna of the Wasps”, a Robyn Hitchcock cover recorded with Gelb and Ward is a fantastic cover for them all, stylistically. It’s a track worth seeking out. A revisiting of Case’s own “Magpie to the Morning” follows, which is curious both because of its recency and because the version of it that appears on “Middle Cyclone” is a close to perfect as that song could be in my mind, so this one, while good, pales ever so slightly in comparison (partly due to unexpected lyric changes). Other than that track and “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu”— which I find to be an interesting experiment but generally not re-listenable— the album as a whole is a great piece of art.

3. QOTSA – …Like Clockwork

“I got bruises and hickies, stitches and scars
Got my own theme music, plays wherever I are”

qotsa

Six years passed between “Era Vulgaris” and the release of “…Like Clockwork”, as QoTSA appears to be following the same geometric sequence of years between releases that the Beastie Boys employed after “Ill Communication”. I was a while in coming around to QoTSA, being really only familiar with their songs through “Guitar Hero”, but when I caught their show at the Roseland during the tour for “Era Vulgaris”, I immediately got it. I have become of fan of Queens and other Homme projects since, notably including 2009’s “Them Crooked Vultures”, but it was a long wait for a proper new album.

Anticipation was high, and the release was preceded with the single “My God Is The Sun”, a song which did a lot of good in reassuring the world that, despite the hiatus, this wasn’t going to suck.

For an ostensible rocker, though, the album starts out slow. The opening track leads off with nearly twenty seconds of the soft sounds of breaking glass before heading into a plodding, churning rhythm, and holds at that tempo for the rest of the five minute song. It seems like a strange choice in sequencing, but QoTSA was not a band that was ever hedged in by convention.

There are several cameos on this album, including Trent Reznor, Alex Turner (of the Arctic Monkeys), and Elton John, but this time out, unlike previous QOTSA albums, it’s clearly a Homme-driven affair. There are a lot of great songs on this dense little album, but the standout track in my mind is the relentless swagger of “Smooth Sailing”.

2. Clutch – Earth Rocker

“One thousand Les Pauls smolder in a field
What measure of madness fastens their hearts?”

clutch

I’ve long has a soft spot in my heart for Clutch, even if they seem to be the sort of band where every other album confounds me. Since their previous outing, “Strange Cousins from the West”, never really got its claws in me, I suppose they were due. And “Earth Rocker” is aptly titled; the rock starts right about twenty-four seconds into the album, not relenting until track six, the long slower, most introspective song in the set.

Clutch, the band, is a bit of a strange beast. They’ve been around and kicking ass since 1990 and still, it seems that not too many people have heard of them. Almost to a person, however, the people I have met who like them at all are devout fans; there is rarely a middle ground. Sonically, they also occupy a bit of a strange space. Their records are nearly always found in the “metal” section but their sound is less like Motörhead or Pantera than QoTSA or The Sword (bands that you usually find in the “rock” section).

Lyrically, the material is much more cerebral than, well, most rock and roll out there. Like many of the best songs in their catalog, the album is rife with a lot of interesting imagery and references: Doctor Who; Queen Isabella’s conquest of the new world (as inspired by Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain”); one of the first rock n’ roll records (“Rocket 88″); cyborgs, armies of guitars, labor strikes; and other unusual song fare.

Sonically, the album is very tight and focused, the songs catchy and well-formed, and, like “Electric Worry”, it’s an album I will doubtless be rocking to for years to come.

1. Parquet Courts – “Light Up Gold”

“I drank right from your tears of plenty and
I exchanged all the gifts you sent me.
Dreary beats over fast-rapped verses
Leaked through windows in hatchback hearses”

parquet-courts

Somehow, in the wake of a swift followup maxi-single and a great little EP that followed this record’s release, I nearly forgot that it came out in 2013. “Borrowed Time”, the most obvious lead-off single candidate, was the first song that I heard (via XM), and although the song didn’t quite light my hair on fire, I remembered the name. It was the second song that I heard, the more unusual “Stoned and Starving”, that made me really take notice.

I’ve listened to a lot of music based on the fact that someone, somewhere, put forth the supposition that it sounds like Pavement but, honestly, nothing has lived up to that level of hype. Although I hadn’t heard of them described that way before I heard the record, Parquet Courts comes by the comparison more honestly than most. If nothing else, it’s a certain self-assured slacker aesthetic that informs the whole affair that garners the parallel. They aren’t trying to sound like Pavement, there is a just a certain je ne sais quois to it. But when a former band’s lead singer makes the comparison himself (whether or not he’s being glib), it’s probably well-earned:

“I was in this hamburger place the other day in Portland – they were playing the Parquet Courts record and I thought it was Pavement.” – Stephen Malkmus (via Rolling Stone)

It’s fun rock and roll, but also rewarding music without art-rock or college radio pretension. It evokes The Soft Pack (née The Muslims) but with more anarchy in the mix as well as the occasional “White Light/White Heat” foray into nigh-unbearable feedback drones. It’s a record that doesn’t take itself too seriously and still manages to make you think.

There are a couple of tracks on the record that still confound me but it is otherwise strong from start to finish, and the sequencing on the first side in particular is tightly wound. It may be a little dense at first blush but it’s well worth the repeat visits. Got the record, saw the band, loved the follow-ups, but I was still genuinely surprised to see them a a few weeks ago on Seth Meyers’ late night show. Their follow up, Sunbathing Animal, came out last week and, uh, I’m listening to that sucker right now. So good. Expect to see it high on this list for 2014.

Add comment June 14th, 2014

The Last Hurrahs of Obsolete Formats

formats

The last North American releases from major studios for obsolete formats:

  • Betamax: Mission: Impossible (1996)
  • Laserdisc: Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
  • VHS: A History of Violence (2006)

We were watching the 1996 “Mission: Impossible” movie when I stumbled across the first tidbit of information and got curious about other obsoleted formats. This is what I found.

While Betamax and Laserdisc are now complete relics, VHS is (apparently) still a popular format for low-budget slasher flicks. That “M: I” came out so late seems a bit mind boggling, but it’s mentioned in the trivia page for that film on IMDB. Further digging was fairly inconclusive but for one post I found that claimed “only 25 copies were produced and to this day Paramount will deny they ever made them.” Curious.

On another note, “M:I” does not hold up that well, particularly from a technological standpoint. On the one hand, they have Google glass tech that can transmit video halfway around the world. They have experimental 686 processors with artificial intelligence RISC sub processors (which, at least the sentence makes sense). But the critical NOC list that the plot hinges on sits on a 3.5″ floppy. It feels anachronistic in its own movie.

“A History of Violence”, on the other hand, is a great movie and does hold up well. Everything from the eerie crawling opening shot across the desert motel, to the gradual reveal of Tom’s true past, to great performances across the board. It’s one of the most interesting comic book adaptations to date. (Sadly, though, when I think of this cross-section of Viggo Mortenson, Ed Harris, and David Cronenberg, I get bummed that sequels to both “Eastern Promises” and “Appaloosa” sound increasingly unlikely.)

I haven’t seen “Bringing Out the Dead” since it was in the theater. I remember it being an intense movie, and it’s Scorsese. I’ve been meaning to get back to it for a while. I’ll pass on trying to find the laserdisc version, though, as it’s probably streaming on Netflix these days.

The story with music is a little more tricky to track down. The last 8-track is disputed but generally agreed upon to be “Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits”. Vinyl, of course, still enjoys a plethora of major releases while cassettes, although not generally distributed by major labels these days, has seen a renaissance among independent labels; the last major cassette release is hard to determine.

Add comment February 10th, 2014

A Merry Xmas Playlist

A Christmas List!

I put this together for a little Christmas get-together that we had earlier in the month where I was tasked with finding a thematically appropriate playlist. I searched far and wide for a largely nonconventional collection of holiday songs. So, interspersed with a couple of classic takes (like Dean Martin), we venture here into jazz, rap, rock, indie, and a couple of comedy tracks as well.

The Tom Waits track appears here twice, once as his own version and once as Neko Case’s cover version, because they are both excellent in their own way.

Name Artist Album
1 Xmastime Disappointer  
2 Happy Xmas (War Is Over) John Lennon Single
3 Rock N Roll Santa Yo La Tengo Merry Christmas From Yo La Tengo
4 Christmas 1979 MBE Archive from 1959
5 Christmas is Coming Soon Blitzen Trapper ?
6 It’s Snowing On My Piano Bugge Wesseltoft It’s Snowing On My Piano
7 Santa Claus Is Coming To Town X Merry Xmas from X
8 Jesus The Mexican Boy Iron & Wine EP
9 Up On The Housetop Paul Slocum The 8 Bits of Christmas
10 No Christmas While I’m Talking The Walkmen Bows and Arrows
11 Baby, It’s Cold Outside Dean Martin Christmas With the Rat Pack
12 Christmas Tree on Fire Holly Golightly A Damaged Christmas Gift To You
13 Little Drummer Boy Nicole Atkins Stereogum Xmas 2011
14 The Blizzard Camera Obscura Single
15 Twinkle (Little Christmas Lights) JD McPherson Single
16 Santa’s Got A Bag of Soul Soul Saints Orchestra In The Christmas Groove
17 Alan Parsons In A Winter Wonderland Grandaddy It’s A Cool Cool Christmas
18 A Christmas Carol Tom Lehrer More of Tom Lehrer
19 Christmas In Hollis Run DMC Single
20 Linus & Lucy Vince Guaraldi Trio A Charlie Brown Christmas
21 Let it Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! The Fab Four Hark! (Xmas Songs in a Beatles Style)
22 It Doesn’t Often Snow At Christmas Pet Shop Boys Christmas EP
23 Sexy Christmas Baby Mine Morphine Opium (bootleg)
24 Jingle Bells X Merry Xmas from X
25 Merry X-Mas Quasi When The Going Gets Dark
26 Blue Christmas Johnny Cash Christmas With Johnny Cash
27 Soulful Christmas James Brown James Brown’s Funky Christmas
28 Dick in a Box (feat. Justin Timberlake) The Lonely Island Incredibad
29 Father Sgt. Christmas Card Guided By Voices Universal Truths and Cycles
30 Frosty The Snowman Fiona Apple Winter Songs
31 Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis Neko Case New Coat of Paint – Songs of Tom Waits
32 Silent Night The Kills Stereogum Xmas 2011
33 Father Christmas The Kinks Single
34 Jesus Christ Was An Only Child Modest Mouse The Lonesome Crowded West
35 Fairytale of New York The Pogues Single
36 Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis Tom Waits Used Songs (1973-1980)

Add comment December 22nd, 2013

Top 10 Albums of 2012

Yes, that says 2012. It was just not a great year for albums, to me. I had contemplated and scrapped a list of my tops for the year last December or January before I thought: maybe I will just wait. And then maybe I’ll get back to it and find that there were albums there all along that I didn’t discover until later, which is a thing that happens to me all the time.

But that didn’t happen either. Very few of the albums that I liked songs from came together as a whole. And albums from artists that I generally like came out that year, too, but they largely felt lackluster. A couple of gems made the cut, though:

1.) Mynabirds – Generals

“I’d give it all for a legacy of love”

Generals (video)

I’ve been a fan of Laura Burhenn for a while. The short-lived Georgie James band showed a lot of promise. When she cropped back up on her own with The Mynabirds debut, I was on board for that even if that initial album was a lot more Dusty Springfield than my tastes usually run. I still liked it well enough on its own merits to check out the followup. In a rare show of restraint, I waited until the advance single arrived on Record Store Day to check out the first cut, the title track “Generals”. Kids, it kind of blew my mind. It was not was I was expecting from this band: it stomps, it revels, it rebels, and it’s a call to arms.

I pre-ordered the album the next day and it did not disappoint. There are few albums in a given year— even in this very list— that I can listen to front-to-back, over and over, and really enjoy. Even fewer, perhaps, that I can drop into the laps of almost anyone else I know and tell them with confidence that they will enjoy it. And even here in late 2013, it holds up greatly.

2.) Tame Impala – Lonerism

“It feels like I only go backwards, baby / Every part of me says go ahead”

Psychedelic rock: it can be amazing or awful. In many ways, this Australian band’s sophomore effort reminds me a lot of local Stumptown heroes Unknown Mortal Orchestra but eschewing the level of sheer insanity for a more heartfelt approach. More Waters and less Syd, in a way, but the end result is still an album that a longtime Pink Floyd fan like me can definitely appreciate.

It’s a very front-to-back listenable album but there are definitely tracks that stand out on my first few passes through. “Elephant” was the first on that I’d heard— on XMU— and my interest was sufficiently piqued to hunt down the rest of the album. Not long thereafter, “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” dropped heavily into my rotation as well as on the radio’s. And the cuts just go deeper from there.

3.) Summer Girlfriends – Shockwaves

“So just sit tight, walk right, aim high”

It’s easy enough to lump femaie-fronted bands of a certain lo-fi indie pop aesthetic into the same umbrella because there have certainly been a lot of entries in this nascent genre. Dum Dum Girls certainly lead the pack (and they have a new album in 2014 that I’m definitely looking forward to) but there a number of others in this vein that readily come to mind: Best Coast, Frankie Rose, Coasting, and Vivian Girls, among others, embody the aesthetic. But if the sound has a lot of commonality, it’s the songwriting that sets the bands apart.

Chicago’s Summer Girlfriends’ debut excels in this department with high-concept song titles like “PG-13 Sex Scene” and “Goth Beach Party” that deliver in hook-laden execution. My favorite track to date opens the b-side of the record (if you’re listening to it that way), the excellent “Balloon Rooms”. It’s held up well despite, or maybe because, being no more than it pretends to be. The bubblegum pink vinyl is a nice touch, too.

The Rest

Not to disparage these albums, as they’re all pretty solid, but they didn’t have the same je ne sais quo is for me.

  1. Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – Meat & Bone
  2. Sharon Van Etten – Tramp
  3. Kelly Hogan – I Like To Keep Myself In Pain
  4. Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra – Theatre Is Evil
  5. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel…
  6. Dinosaur Jr. – I Bet On Sky
  7. Regina Spektor – What We Saw from the Cheap Seats


Honorable Mention: JD McPherson – Signs & Signifiers

Technically, this album came out in 2010, hence the Honorable Mention status, but it got a major label rerelease in 2012 and so it was new to me and many others as well. I stumbled across this gem on a fateful Sunday in the springtime when I was in a serious need of something new to listen to. It was the cover initially that drew me in on the shelves at Jackpot: McPherson clad in denim and seated on a couch in a wood paneled room, a book on Japanese in one hand, the other hand pressed against his face in anguished repose, a wood-bodied electric guitar at his side. Then there was the NPR pull quote, “Engineered to restore your faith in rock and roll.” I needed faith restored in something, it had been a long winter with a healthy dose of soul searching.

I took it up to the counter and the Jackpot clerk asked me, “Have you heard this?”

No, I said, but it looked interesting. He effusively fawned over the album for a minute or two, ending with, “I hope I didn’t oversell it!” I was getting it anyway and I told him that I would soon find out for myself. I got home and accidentally put on the B-side first (the track “Dimes and Nickels”) and was immediately impressed. McPherson’s 50’s rock influences are worn on his sleeve from the composition to the recording techniques and the result is a record that at once feels new and old, a timeless rocker from a forgotten era.

Add comment December 2nd, 2013

Elephantitis

Thanksgiving isn’t really a song-inspiring holiday. I’ve got John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey” and Clutch’s “Wishbone”, but the well runs dry pretty quick after that. So, how about an oddly specific elephant themed mix?

In one of my favorite dreams that I ever had, I was an elephant. Good times. Whether or not you’ve ever had an elephant dream, here’s a short playlist all about these dudes. Short because, there aren’t a million elephant songs to choose from and we’re going for quality, here, people. And as it turns out, elephant songs are largely pretty mellow.

Name Artist Album
1 Elephant Gun Beirut Lon Gisland
2 Elephant Tame Impala Lonerism
3 Elephants Them Crooked Vultures Them Crooked Vultures
4 Elephant 20 Minute Loop Decline of Day
5 Red Elephant Born Ruffians Red Yellow & Blue
6 White Elephant Coat School of Seven Bells Alpinisms
7 How to Make A Baby Elephant Walk Yo La Tengo Summer Sun
8 Baby Elephant Walk Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet Music for Pets
9 The Elephant Riders Clutch The Elephant Riders
10 Robot Elephant’s Tears Yuka Honda Heart Chamber Phantom
11 17 Pink Sugar Elephants Mates of State Crushes (The Covers Mixtape)
12 Pink Elephant Cherry Poppin’ Daddies  
13 Effervescing Elephant Syd Barrett Opel

No Pavement this time! The word ‘elephant’ looks weird to me now.

Add comment November 27th, 2013

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