Top Albums of 2009

Animal Collective

Merriweather Post Pavilion

Domino Records

The true test of a great album is longevity–can the record be revisited a year after year and still pack the same punch that you get during its initial run? Merriweather Post Pavilion was released just six days into 2009 and has been the one album all year that has given listeners more than ample time to soak up what it has to offer. As Collective’s eighth studio album, the hype surrounding the album’s release was high. In the end the group delivered.

The music seems to be the culmination of the band’s musical progression, which in the past featured records with moments of brilliance, sandwiched between harder to handle filler. The past albums, while excellent, never sufficed as being singular masterpieces (the group’s 2004 album, Sung Tongs comes closest to perfection but suffers from carrying on for too long with not as much deviation).

Post Pavilion’s “My Girls” was the perfect first single and easily one of the top tracks of the decade. “Summertime Clothes” floats along on a sea of processed sounds but manages to be the album’s most catchy and fun tune. On “Daily Routine,” rising vocalist/multi instrumentalist in the group, Panda Bear, muses on the daily grind of being a father set to sprinkles of keyboard swirls and pounding drum and bass rhythms. The record’s closer, “Brother Sport” is the one arena rocker on the disc that could truly bring the house down at the real Merriweather Post Pavilion outdoor arena in Maryland. The dreamy “Bluish” may be the band’s most beautifully lush song to date, overtaking Sung Tongs’ spine chilling opener, “Leaf House.” Comparisons to The Beach Boys have been made when discussing Animal Collective and in particular Panda Bear’s solo endeavors, however, the band has gone beyond mere imitation.

Through its impressive career thus far (eight studio albums, four EPs in ten years!) the group has continued to create a sound that is entirely their own. With Merriweather Post Pavilion their importance in the lexicon of modern music is completely realized. Now we wait for what’s next.

St. Vincent

Actor

4AD Records

Rising from the cult shadow of Polyphonic Spree, a fairly kitchy group that never managed to find their relevance in my humble opinion, Annie Clark put out one hell of a twisted record. Actor is at times truly like the Disney movie soundtracks she quoted as being influential. At the other end of the spectrum the album has moments that are truly frightening, both lyrically and with her use of screeching distortion and eerie background vocal walls. The music is puzzling at time. The lyrics range from tender, “I lick the ice cubes from your empty glass” to the macabre, “We’re sleeping underneath the bed / To scare the monsters out / With our dear daddy’s Smith and Wesson / We’ve got to teach them all a lesson.” The album may be the prettiest dark album of the year or the darkest pretty album of the year. Clark leaves you to decide.

Songs like “Save Me From What I Want” open with a suspenseful crescendo of electro string notes which then burst into a steady and terribly catchy back beat set to Clark’s ethereal pipes. “The Neighbors” finishes her musings on “psychotropic Capricorns” with a mighty closing stanza that could serve as the album’s unofficial manifesto on who Clark is, where she fits in the arena of indie rock, and what this album is all about.

How can Monday be alright

Then on Tuesday lose my mind

Tomorrow’s some kind of stranger

Who I’m not supposed to see

Were it not for Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone and Animal Collectives Merriweather Post Pavilion, Actor would be the clear victor for album of the year. It’s a triumphant sophomore release from an artist to keep an eye on. When she sings on the harrowingly titled, “Laughing With A Mouth of Blood,” “And I can’t see the future / But I know it’s got big plans for me,” one can’t help but think she’s right.


Neko Case

Middle Cyclone

ANTI- Records

To say that Neko Case can do no wrong would be a bit unfair but throughout her solo career she continues to release masterful albums that showcase her lovely voice, which seems to only improve with age. Middle Cyclone, along with most of Case’s past efforts is the perfect album for driving on a warm summer’s night, windows open and the air tickling your dangling hands.

“This Tornado Loves You,” a song that truly swirls into motion like a cyclone, opens the album with a bang. The song showcases a funnier and wilder side to Case until the following stanza brings home the true Case: a poetic lyricist, in the tradition of Joni Mitchell and Carole King who wants nothing more than to write tender love songs.

“Cause I miss, I miss, I miss, I miss

I miss, I miss, I miss, I miss

How you’d sigh yourself to sleep

When I’d rake the springtime

Across your sheets”


“People Got A Lotta of Nerve,” is a masterpiece (joining the ranks of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood’s “Star Witness” as essential Case) and contains a moment that brings Case’s vocal range to the forefront and has the ability to induce a surge of the shivers with every revisit. Even on the record’s two covers, Case manages to add her own touches, with Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” taking an otherwise cautionary tale and fusing it together with bubblegum pop.

“Magpie to the Morning” is an oh-so-tender lullaby with Case’s vocals shining bright. “I’m An Animal” makes best use of the album’s various notable guest musicians, including The Band’s virtuosic organ player, Garth Hudson.

Middle Cyclone has been tagged by Case as an homage to nature and the singer’s fascination with its mysteries and beauty. With any other artist fifteen songs devoted to mother earth (including an unnecessary 31-minute track of birds chirping) might seem silly or predictable but it suits Case. This is Case’s best record to date. It’s funny, beautifully romantic, deeply saddening, but is all together candy to the ears.

Phoenix

Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

V2 Records

The feeling you get after listening to a completely awe-inducing record from start to finish for the first time is what music enthusiasts yearn for. It’s what keeps us listening. It’s our drug of choice and is potent enough to make a junkie out of us all. French electronic pop band, Phoenix’s album Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a perfect drug.

The record is short at just over 35-minutes but still manages to assault the ears with a sound that borrows and references damn near every rock genre–pop, prog, synth, rave, Kraut techno, indie. The songs are often of the historical nature with the band alluding to classical music obscurities (“Lisztomania’s” Franz Liszt), but lyrics aside, the must is what counts here.

Make no mistake, this is a pop album, but it’s one with surprises. The back-to-back album changers, “Love Like a Sunset Parts 1 & 2” come at nearly the album’s halfway point and are remarkable exercises crescendo. While lacking lead singer Thomas Mars’ signature squeaks and high notes, the first part is a Kraut rock-inspired groove instrumental that is at times menacing and at times hypnotic as it trudges along. It’s the album’s most surprising moment and easily the one track that sets this album apart from being, “just another French pop effort.”

“Lasso” might be the catchiest pop song of the year, and “Girlfriend” is a tender lament to loosing someone close.

Arising from the same French town that gave us Air, Phoenix is officially on par with its country cousin. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a flawless record, albeit a concise one. It takes the best elements of the aforementioned electronic genres of yesteryear, and sheds a new light on the familiar.

This is an album that begs you to seek out Phoenix’s past efforts and one that has remained timely well into 2010.

The Best of the Rest

Maxwell

BLACKsummers’night

Columbia

The return of neo-soul? How about simply put: the hottest R&B album of the year. “Love You” weaps. “Pretty Wings” channels Prince in his prime. While “Phoenix Rise” brings back the long-honored tradition of featuring one solid synthesizer instrumental track, the “Contusion” to Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life.

Sonic Youth

The Eternal

Matador Records

Fans who commented that 2006 Rather Ripped showed a mellower, more conventional side to Sonic Youth were shaken from their lament with The Eternal. Raw, visceral, pounding, loud, and most importantly, laden with the band’s signature guitar butchery, are just a few ways to describe Youth’s newest opus. At 56 Kim Gordon still knows how to bring the sexy with “Anti Orgasm’s” pulsating guitar waves and primordial vocal grunts. By the time you get to The Eternal’s nearly ten minute closer, “Massage the History” the record has taken on through Youth’s lush musical history and back to the present, showing us that these New Yorkers’ sound is eternal.

The Decemberists

The Hazards of Love

Capitol & Rough Trade Records

The return of the truly weird progressive rock record. While its previous album, The Crane Wife, told a similar story, its music tended to be more on the cute side than Love’s hair-raising tracks. With church organs, an accordion, strings swells, and probably a lute or two thrown into the fold, Love’s mythical love story sounds like a joke gone terribly wrong on paper, but is fully realized when listened to thanks to Colin Meloy’s lyrics and notable guest vocal appearances from Becky Stark and Shara Worden, the latter actually stealing the show on the folk rock album’s only arena rocker “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid.”

Moby

Wait For Me

Little Idiot/Mute

Surprised? Yeah, me too. After the breakout hit, Play, it seemed like Moby was on that oh too familiar trajectory into musical irrelevance. His 2008 club album, Last Night was a terrible let down, and past attempts to be the leader of a rock band rather than being the maestro at electronic symphonies that he truly is didn’t pay off. Sure Wait For Me follows the exact formula that Moby used on Play and its underrated follow-up, 18, but it still manages to sound fresh. Moby could be written up as ambient, since Wait For Me is a cool record to leave lingering in the background at the end of a long day, but really the best way to describe this album is: it’s Moby, but done well.

52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK EIGHT

Week 8: What A Day That Was
Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.

Talking Heads

Album: Stop Making Sense

1984

Sire Records


The band in Heaven, they play my favorite song.

They play it once again, play it all night long.

-“Heaven”


1984 was a good year for music. The Smiths recorded its album debut, Prince unleashed Purple Rain, Bruce made a splash with Born in the U.S.A., The Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime was released, as was Zen Arcade from Hüsker Dü, and Let it Be by The Replacements, to name a few. Then there was the Stop Making Sense soundtrack.


One month before I was born, Jonathan Demme’s concert film, “Stop Making Sense” was released. Its soundtrack, released the same year, was one of a handful of records my parents so wisely schooled my sister and me with. It was played at home, in the car; through headphones and speakers, and eventually out of the shoddy mono speakers of my household’s vintage Sony Trinitron when I finally saw the actual film.


For the record, the Stop Making Sense soundtrack was my gateway to Talking Heads’ music and to the film. But really, one couldn’t ask for a better introduction.


What else can be said about Stop Making Sense that hasn’t already been written before. It’s one of the most beloved concert films and albums of all times. It captures the Heads in its prime, serving as a retrospective of sorts of the band’s musical evolution up to that point. It’s one of the greatest albums of all time, taken from one of the greatest films of all time.


Need one more bold statement? How about this: Talking Heads is the greatest American rock and roll band. Don’t you think?


Think about Heads’ transformation from stripped down, quirky new-wave punk outfit (as seen on ‘77 and More Songs About Buildings and Food) to the experimental, genre bending band it ceaselessly morphed into (from Fear of Music onwards). At only eight studio albums released, the band’s discography is concise, but one could say that the players said what they wanted to say, played what they wanted to play and then cleared the stage, ahead, ultimately paving the way for equally rewarding solo careers from each band member.


The music has influenced so many of its contemporaries and future acts, and “Stop Making Sense” the film changed the way filmmakers and viewers viewed the concert film genre–one will notice early on that the audience is hardly seen during the film and the stage is bare-boned, going against the flashy trends of bigger bands of the time.


David Byrne is one of rock’s true geniuses. An ambitious, almost mad visionary who has never slowed down in his quest to change how we experience music, which he’s long seen as platform best suited for all of the senses, not simply the ears.


Heads’ rhythm section is one of the great collaborations in music, with Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz (real-life married couple) bringing an almost mathematically calculated sense of timing to the band. The bass line in the band’s mega hit, “Once in a Lifetime” alone is one of the great moments in musical rhythm. One bass line, played in repetition like a metronome, but capable of bringing the groove.


Keyboardist and rhythm guitar player, Jerry Harrison, had already come out of the equally influential Modern Lovers outfit before joining Byrne and gang, adding the final essential piece to the band.


Production wiz, and possibly the only other musician at the time with the brains and visions to keep up with Byrne, Brian Eno, would later play a key role in the band’s progression. And the backing musicians on Stop Making Sense, most of them spawns from George Clinton’s funk factory, managed the remarkable feat of taking beloved songs and not only shedding brand new light on them but at times improving on them (the non-Heads track, “What a Day That Was,” originally drawn from an obscure Byrne solo effort, being the perfect example).


I currently have three copies of Stop Making Sense on CD: one “borrowed” early on from my parents, another expanded Special Edition version bought later, and yet another rescued from a garbage bin my college roommate had put together, the latter thus becoming a permanent fixture in my car’s glove compartment. I own its LP and have long dreamed of pulling off the film’s signature “Big Suit” for Halloween. The film is the one DVD I own which I watch on a monthly basis and it has traveled with me to Spain and here in Taiwan.


It’s hard to pick a favorite track on the album, or in Heads’ catalogue for that matter.


The aforementioned “What A Day That Was” is pretty terrific. But so is “Making Flippy Floppy,” “Heaven,” “Crosseyed and Painless,” “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” and of course the album’s tried and true mission statement of an anthem, “Burning Down the House.” When Byrne shouts to the seen but not seen audience at the end of “Life During Wartime,” “Does anyone have any questions?” The answer is always an unanimous: no, no we don’t.


I remember not really understanding what Stop Making Sense was all about when I first heard the album. Having not seen the film yet and being only slightly familiar with Talking Heads, made the experience all the better. For me, like my introduction to Paul Simon’s Graceland, the music just sounded great and it pulled me in.


The African percussion was flawless, bringing on the dance grooves. The rhythm guitar was tight and polished, and Parliament-Funkadelic’s Bernie Worrell’s sparingly executed synthesizer notes sounded futuristic in a surprisingly interesting way. As a budding drumming growing up, the tom-tom fills on “Burning Down the House” inspired many a table/chest drumming fits. Once I finally had a drum kit of my own I often reenacted these moments, much to the neighbors’ dismay.


Really, what else can be said about Stop Making Sense. I’ve listened to this album over a hundred times and it only improves with age. The world is a better place because of this film, this album and Talking Heads contribution to music. When you realize how much is going on within each song–the sonic complexities, nuances and how much of the attention to detail was undoubtedly calculated down to every individual note and beat–reverence is the only proper response. Rock/dance/funk/pop nirvana.


Does anyone have any questions?

52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK FIVE

Week Five

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.

“Sunshine on Leith”
The Proclaimers
Album: Sunshine on Leith
1988
Chrysalis Records


As much as I love discovering songs that remain true to my heart, I get just as much pleasure finding out what music is important to people I encounter. While traveling I am always interested in learning about what music or songs unite people and are universally recognized. Travel stories and memorable encounters, like music, tend to stick with me and instantly become reference points for my time in a foreign place. The following is a retelling of a travel and musical moment in my life that remains dear to me.

At the tail end of a backpacking trip in the Scotland Highlands I found myself in a run of the mill local pub in a borough of Edinburgh, after just having seen a football match at the local stadium.

The pub was full of locals of all age, the majority of whom had just exited the stadium after the Edinburgh team had lost the match. The Sunday afternoon outcome of the game didn’t alter the mood. This was clearly a time for being part of a community.

The pub was alive with the banter of old and young alike, the pints were flowing, the smell of stained bar wood and meat pies lingered in the air and the juke box was spinning traditional Scottish fare and classic rock and roll.

The Stones, The Beatles, U2 all made appearances with cordial indifference from the crowd. I was sitting with my host of the occasion, the local tour bus driver who had taken a group of us around the highlands and had extended the football invitation solely my travel partner and myself.

Suddenly, the first notes of a song came on that silenced the otherwise noisy crowd.

Most people know the band The Proclaimers from its runaway hit from the early 90s, “I Will Walk Five Hundred Miles,” but other than that catchy one-hit-wonder, little else is known of the band outside of Scotland. For the good people of Edinburgh the group, comprised of brothers Charlie and Craig Reid, is a mark of local pride.

The song that began to spin was the title track of the band’s 1988 Album, Sunshine on Leith. As soon as the first lines, “my heart was broken, my heart was broken,” were sung, the entire bar exploded in a massive sing-along that was unlike anything I had ever encountered. Part of the pleasurable surprise of the moment was due in part to the fact that everyone in the bar, from the children to the town elders, were joining in the anthem.

I instantly felt out of place and foreign to the locals who, during this song, could’ve probably cared less about who I was or what I was doing in their local haunt. It was a beautiful moment. It was a jaw-dropping sign of community, the acceptance and passion for local artists who made it big, and an ode to an unofficial town ballad.

Pints were raised high, people were belting out the lyrics and when the song was finished people went back to their banter.

What was striking about the incident was that not even an hour later the same song was selected again, and as if someone pushed rewind, the crowd erupted in the same motions. I asked Mike, the local guide and all around nice guy about why everyone knew this particularly song and he couldn’t give me an answer. Some things just are the way they are.

The Proclaimers’ minor international success in the 90s was clearly a big enough deal back home that people joined in together to recognize the crowning achievement of these local brothers from Edinburgh.

After I had had time to let the incident soak in I began to think about similar moments back home. Surely there must have been some song or moment I could compare this to. In college certain songs were instant crowd-pleasers at keg parties, tailgating events, and bars but these songs generally aim towards a particularly demographic, namely the inebriated, 17-30 year old market.

Sure, an artist like Michael Jackson is recognized by old and young, and a song like Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” tends to bring the proletariat together (hell it even tapped into the echelon of society thanks to The Sopranos finale), but that music is too big to be as humble as “Leith’s” moment in the spotlight. What I came to realize is that part of what made this moment seem so foreign to me is that the pub is unlike any other bar or gathering spot back home. These pubs are not merely bars but rather assembly halls for the community to gather.

This football match was on a Sunday afternoon, a day of rest for most. Rather than watch the game from the comforts of a large sofa in front of a big screen TV, the masses went out to the pub. This is not to say Americans don’t follow suit as well. Sports bars back home have jukeboxes too, however, something about this moment made me think that I had just been given a glimpse into a different world.

As far as songs go “Sunshine on Leith” is a pretty basic ballad, nothing special. If anything it is a little corny or overly sentimental (read: “Your beauty and kindness /

made tears clear my blindness”) It references the district of Leith in Northern Edinburgh that serves as a port to the sea. But even to this day I’ll reach for it to remember that day. It reminds of just how powerful music can be for bringing people together, be it through a communal jukebox selection or a televised musical moment. In our current digital age where music is often solely experienced by the individual, rather than by groups, it’s refreshing to know there are still moments where people unite over song.

There was a time when I wished I had brought a video camera to the pub to document both moments, but the songs’ ability to spark a vivid mental image of that day makes up for it.

Album Review: A Woman a Man Walked By


Album Review: A Woman a Man Walked By
PJ Harvey and John Parish
Island Records

If Polly Jean Harvey ever wanted to avoid the often inevitable record company ‘Best Of’ compilation album, A Woman a Man Walked By (released tomorrow) would suffice as a nice little retrospective of her music thus far. While the record features all new material, and technically exists as the second collaboration LP with musician and longtime producer John Parish, Walked By manages to sum up an exciting career, spanning almost two decades. 

To take care of some of the technicalities behind this record it should be noted that A Woman a Man Walked By is the musical love child of both Harvey and Parish–the former writing all lyrics and taking care of the vocals, with the latter writing and performing the music. Parish has been a longtime friend and musical partner, having produced and played on three of Harvey’s past studio albums, as well as a prior collaboration project, 1996’s Dance Hall at Louse Point. Here it’s as if Harvey was able to focus solely on her writing and vocal stylings (a similar collaboration worked wonders last year for David Byrne and Brian Eno).

The result of this recent partnership is a genre-bending album from Harvey’s past and present. From the heavy alternative blues rock of Dry and To Bring You My Love, to the atmospheric folk tunes from 2007’s bizarre concept departure, White Chalk, Harvey skips from one familiar sound to the next with the confidence of an artist summing up her artistic existence, while also bringing to the forefront a bevy of some of her best songs to date.

Is the album as ambitious as White Chalk or as prolific as Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea? No. Does it showcase her abilities as a raging blues guitar banshee? Not quite. Where A Woman a Man Walked By succeeds is in is Harvey’s knack for writing haunting alt-rock songs and her full-fledged vocals, which casually shift from grunge to ethereal folk.

On the rip-roaring opener, “Black Hearted Love,” a welcomed heavy rock song that is worlds apart from White Chalk’s exercise in cryptic piano lullabies, Harvey aptly sings, “I’d like to take you to a place I know.” It’s as if she’s asking us if we’re ready to embark on whatever lies ahead. The short answer to this instant classic–yes.

On “Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen” Parish’s acoustic guitar riffs pick up where Jimmy Page left off on Zeppelin III’s “Friends,” while Harvey croons about an ill-fated game of hide and seek.

“Leaving California,” The Soldiers,” “April” are the record’s three unofficial continuations from White Chalk, relying heavily on Harvey’s newfound love of soothing child like piano/organ riffs and falsettos. The latter of the trio features one of the most chilling musical ascents of any song Harvey has ever recorded behind a sparse drum march and a Hammond B3 Organ tuned to ‘haunting.’  

The album’s title track–a two-part anti-love song (?) culminating with a rather jarring but beautiful instrumental piece–pays homage to Harvey’s gritty punk past circa Dry, and may be the only song to ever feature the lines “he had chicken liver heart made of chicken liver parts / liver little parts” followed by “I want his fucking ass.” Sung with the same razor sharp virtuosic pipes that once established Harvey as badass singer songwriter she’s evolved from, this is one of the album’s highlights. one that definitely grows on the ears after its initial lyrical shock and awe.

A Woman a Man Walked By’s most surprising tracks also couldn’t be farther apart in nature. “Pig Will Not” might be the record’s most forgettable track, although its screeching guitar/vocal distortion will appease the fans of past songs like To Bring You My Love’s “Long Snake Moan.” At the other end of Harvey’s spectrum is the record’s closer, “Cracks in the Canvas,” an atmospheric two-minute spoken word exercise that would feel right at home in a David Lynch film, most likely sung by a perfect ‘10’ blonde with a This Mortal Coilesque, dream-pop voice. At the end she leaves us with:

I’m looking for an answer
Me and a million others
Disbelievers
Desserted lovers
Dear God, you’d better not let me down this time
Cracks in the canvas
Look like roads that never end

It could be that A Woman a Man Walked By is yet another side project/segue to Polly Jean’s next musical direction, similarly to her last collaboration with Parish, which followed the extremely successful To Bring You My Love. Perhaps it’s simply just a pet project of the two that had been long overdue. Whatever the album’s goal might be is trivial. The ten songs that fill this album channel an unprecedented career from one of finer musicians working today. For Harvey fans this may ultimately serve as a bridge to her future endeavors. For anyone just jumping into her music it just might be the perfect catalyst for a an appreciation of Harvey’s music.  

Ten Great Albums of 2008

It was a great year for music with lots of destined to be classic albums to pick from. This shortlist represents the records that will no doubt be stand the test of time. Vampire Weekend had a good year but will the whitest band around really be remembered twenty years from now? Lil Wayne stirred things up but was he the best Hip Hop had to offer this year?

We’ll see how this list stands up to time. Until then here they are, Ten Great Albums of the year in no particular order.

Portishead, Third

Of all the comebacks and regroupings–Guns and Roses’ overly hyped Chinese Democracy, My Blood Valentine’s magnificent tour but lack of new material, or The Smashing Pumpkins unnecessary half-reunion–the most rewarding return came from Portishead. After two equally exciting trip-hop outings from the early 90s, the Bristol, England trio went on a twelve-year hiatus destined to drift into nostalgia. The group’s third record, appropriately titled Third, showed a musical maturation that few bands ever achieve. Instead of resurrecting its trip hop roots Portishead went an entirely different route blending carefully orchestrated electronic harmonies and rhythms with Beth Gibbons’ ethereal pipes. While each of the album’s tracks stand out in their own way the absolute moments of brilliance come with the opener, “Silence,” guided by a driving bass and drum beat and featuring an otherworldly vocal sample (in this case a recording of someone speaking in Portuguese) and “The Rip,” a dreamy ballad with a crescendo of electronics and vocal range that make it the album’s one true repeat track. That Johnny Greenwood and Thom Yorke of Radiohead both covered this song extensively during the sound checks on their last tour only adds to the song and this album’s genius.

Q-Tip, The Renaissance

Sure Lil Wayne will probably steal the thunder of best of Hip Hop this year (and Tha Carter III is indeed a great album) but one of the most exciting and rewarding albums to be released was from one Jonathan Davis, known around the Hip Hop community as Q-Tip. It seems like ages since A Tribe Called Quest disbanded and it’s been a striking nine years since Q-Tip’s first solo album, Amplified hit the streets. The Renaissance is a closer venture to Quest’s jazz funk influenced, socially conscious hip hop than Amplified and shows that Q-Tip still remains one of rap’s best lyricists–nasally, sarcastic, and electrifying. The album features a number of guests most notably from Norah Jones whose appearance on “Life is Better” dwarfs her work on Outkast’s The Love Below. “Believe” makes good use of D’Angelo’s still active pipes while Raphael Saadiq (whose 2008 album The Way I See It is just shy of being a top contender) shines on the hook of “We Fight/Love.” Q-Tip has long been a hip hop favorite but has been out of the spotlight in recent years primarily landing guest spots on other artist’s records. The Renaissance may not end up being as important or timeless as The Low End Theory but amidst other hip hop artists working today it’s nice to see that one of raps pioneers still has what it takes. 

Brian Eno & David Byrne, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today

Much like Radiohead’s pleasant internet download surprise with last year’s In Rainbows, David Byrne and Brian Eno’s unexpected collaboration and subsequent internet stream/release of new material was the stuff of music geek’s dreams. Everything That Happens Will Happen Today is a testament to just how perfect some musical matches are. Absent were the now predictable African polyrhythms and worldly samples of the duo’s previous collaborations–the stand alone project My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and the three peat of Talking Heads masterpieces culminating with Remain in Light–instead loyal fans were treated to a rare mix of uplifting electro pop gospel songs the likes of which neither musician has ventured towards before. Sure a bit of nitpicking would find flaws in the album’s two minor tracks–the penultimate “Poor Boy” or “Feel My Stuff,” a track that needs to be heard/seen live in order to truly appreciate–but overall this is one of the most enjoyable albums of the year. “The River” alludes to early Heads quick hit pop tunes. “Strange Overtones” brings the duo’s appreciation of groove and funk to the forefront and the album’s title track–a heavenly ballad anchored by the album’s hopeful money line From the milk of human kindness/From the breast we all partake­­­–is quite simply a joy for the ears. Both artists have continued with solo and producing careers over years but nothing comes close to matching the masterful music they produce together.  

M83, Saturdays = Youth

Often donned this year’s ultimate homage to the 1980s, M83’s latest album is much more an ode to the teenage wildlife. Musically the album carries on the torch of electro and synth pop outfits like The Orb and dream pop pioneers like Cocteau Twins, while lyrically referencing adolescent angst, naïve love and wonder. On “Kim and Jessie” M83’s chief Anthony Gonzalez sings, Kids outside worlds / They are crazy about romance and illusion behind a blanket of keyboards and thunder drums. “Up!” alludes to cosmic travels of two characters who may or may not be carefree intergalactic vampires (of the galaxy we fly we feed we suck we bleed we need…), while “Skin of the Night” feels like a forgotten soundtrack to the countless fantasy films of the 1980s, from Labyrinth to, as a friend hinted to in her enthusiasm for the album, Ridley Scott’s “so bad it’s good” Tom Cruise vehicle Legend. Saturday = Youth is the ultimate ode to the synthesizer, a relic from the advent of sampling and electro pop that has seen a resurgence in years past mainly in the hip-hop world (Common’s recent lackluster release, Universal Mind Control is very much a similar wink and nod to the electro funk forefathers) but rather than merely a silly collection of dated melodies M83 gives us fresh, modern take on the 80s electro pop glory days.


TV on the Radio, Dear Science

TV on the Radio’s follow up to the universally celebrated Return to Cookie Mountain somehow got lost in a sea of other new albums and failed to get the monumental release it deserved. Sure it was instantly a critic’s darling with many claiming that it improves on its predecessor by straying away from the dark undertones and ultimately being more accessible musically but in terms of popularity it didn’t make as big a splash. Dear Science is proof once again that there are few groups working today as unique and innovative as TV on the Radio. Musically trying to classify the songs that make up Dear Science is a futile exercise for Radio has always been a band to just soak up and experience. Funk, hip-hop, art-rock, EMO…the list could go on. Lyrically the messages on Dear Science aren’t as bleak as its predecessor but still manage to convey a level of political and social unrest. 

TV on the Radio is a band that doesn’t require adoration. It has realized its place in modern music and is currently in the state of simply showing off the extents that it can take its sound. “Halfway Home,” arguably one of the best opening tracks to any album in recent years (world’s apart from Mountain’s terribly bleak opening “I was your lover, before this war”), is a promising start to what ends up being a flawless album from start to finish. “Family Tree” propelled by an electronic symphony of strings and reverb drenched piano is a heartbreaking love song set, one would assume, during times of slavery, alluded to in the verse, “And in the shadow of the gallows of your family tree / There’s a hundred hearts or three / Pumping blood to the roots of evil to keep it young.” “Crying” returns to the band’s penchant for commentating on society’s woes with lead singer Tunde Adebimpe crooning, “Gold is another word for culture / Leads to fattening / Of the vultures” while the album’s closer “Lover’s Day” may be the closest thing to an unadulterated, uplifting love song the group’s ever released–a highly erotic and exuberant tribute to the physical act of love. TV on the Radio established itself as the “IT” band to keep an eye on with Return to Cookie Mountain. Dear Science secures their future legacy as one of the few bands that mattered during the 00s. 

Gnarls Barkley, The Odd Couple

Like TV on the Radio’s follow-up to their massive hit The Odd Couple didn’t make nearly as big a splash as its predecessor, St. Elsewhere. Much of this might be attributed to Barkley’s refusal to provide another runaway hit single. “Crazy” was arguably the song of 2006 and up their with “Hey Ya” as possibly one of the best of the decade. Many viewed Elsewhere as nothing more than a vehicle for “Crazy,” an attitude that hindered an otherwise triumphant debut record. 

The Odd Couple continues Barkley’s mission of blending psychedelic rock with soul, funk and hip-hop in a bizarre melting pot of sounds and influences. To truly respect what these two innovators are doing you have to appreciate Cee-Lo’s soulful pipes and DJ Danger Mouse’s tight production. The Odd Couple is not only better than its predecessor but arguably one of the forgotten gems of the year. The lyrics are more poignant (i.e. “Got some bad news this morning / Which in turn made my day”), the production more varied and interesting and Cee-Lo’s vocals have never been better. Add this to a bizarre internet download leak of the album played backwards in its entirety from the group themselves and you have one of the year’s most weirdly rewarding releases from a band that proved its beyond a mere one-hit-wonder legacy.


Erykah Badu, New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War)

Those who said the neo-soul movement was ancient history were only half correct. It seemed fitting that the artist who helped start this budding genre would be the one to help propel it in a completely new direction. It had been eight years since Erykah Badu’s last proper album, five since her 2003 EP Worldwide Underground and fans were starting to fear Ms. Badu had gone the way of D’Angelo. New Amerykah: Part One is the first of what appears to be a series or duo of albums with Part Two: Return of the Ankh slated for release next year. The album is a hodgepodge of sounds from soul’s varied past brought to a modern, politically fueled stage. Its opening track “Amerykahn Promise” sounds like a forgotten piece of the Parliament catalogue featuring sirens, sound effects, driving funk guitar and dance rhythms unlike anything Badu has ever done before. What follows are a series of wildly varied tunes borrowing sounds and styles from damn near every genre even remotely linked to soul and R&B. “The Healer/Hip-Hop” takes the album down a notch to a dark bumping groove, while on “Me” Badu dishes out a down to earth personal message about getting old and becoming one with herself and her surroundings. New Amerykah is one of the early albums of 2008 that may have been forgotten amidst what followed it. Its release marks a new day for Badu and a radically different musical direction that is not only fascinating but also welcomed. Part One’s only flaw is that we must wait till sometime next year to see how she continues this new project.

Sigur Rós, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust

Sigur Rós continues to release music that can’t really be described with words; it must be experienced firsthand. Much of the band’s success over the years is its blending of traditional and new sounds with lead singer Jónsi Birgisson’s signature falsetto. To say that Sigur Rós is a bit of a one-note wonder may be a bit of a stretch but the fact is album after album they continue a formula that consistently works. A little ambient pop, a bit of building crescendo for each song and lyrics that are only familiar to Icelanders and sometimes solely the band itself. If one were to categorize Með suo… among Rós’ other albums it could be described as the most stripped down and folk oriented release to date. There are few songs that utilize the band’s signature bowed electric guitar sound instead the group rely on acoustics and an array of live horn arrangements. Sigur Rós will remain one of those rare groups that are embraced no matter what they put out. Ranking this album among the rest is pointless. They are band to see live, a band whose albums should be listened to whole, and preferably with good headphones, and so far the group can’t seem to go wrong.

She & Him, Vol. 1

The move from music to acting has always been an easier feat to accomplish than the opposite. Zooey Deschanel is the last person who you’d expect to be part of one of the best albums of the year but here we are. Deschanel is the She of the duo with indie darling Matt Ward wearing the shoes of Him. Together they have crafted one of the most enjoyable albums of the year–a collection of pure, unadulterated catchy throwback pop tunes. Unlike other actors making the jump to music (Scarlet Johannson’s failed Tom Waits covers album comes to mind) Deschanel has long been an amateur songwriter with a voice of gold. On Vol. 1, which is comprised of all original songs (may written when Deschanel was younger) and two memorable renditions of standards, Zooey sings of love lost, broken hearts, love found, dreams come true, and being “alone on a bicycle for two.” M. Ward’s music mixes acoustic folk rock with the big sound production of yesteryears, fully equipped with string arrangements, female backup singers and plenty of “ooooohs,” “lalalala’s,” and “oooh dum dee-das”–enough finesse to make The Supremes proud. “Sweet Darling” feels like a time capsule from the wall of sound production days, “I Thought I Saw Your Face” features some of the best whistling solos of any album this year, and the duo’s acoustic picking cover of Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold On Me” is enough to send shivers down the spine. There have been many throwback albums from female artists in recent years, particularly post Amy Winehouse but none feel as honest or unique as She & Him’s debut. Deschanel and Ward have both stated in interviews that Vol. 2 is just around the corner and will be even better and it’s in the opinion of this writer that they just keep ‘em coming. 

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!

It’s fitting that Nick Cave, a well-seasoned veteran who’s been writing and performing for over thirty years now is currently making some of the best records of his career. Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! comes on the heels of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ side project Grinderman and its eponymous debut album and is in many ways its continuation. Gritty guitar heavy garage rock married with Cave’s densely written lyrics, and Ellis’ penchant for traditional instrumentation. Cave has always been an intriguing writer with his lyrics and crooning voice being his trademark. At 51 Cave is at the peak of his talents. The album’s opening title track alludes to the tale of Lazarus set in modern day with the subsequent tracks referencing other biblical common themes–love, war, murder, sin, etc. Cave has always been a storyteller first and foremost and the tales he weaves song after song are fascinating. Venturing into the Southwest on “Albert Goes West,” and tackling the day in the life of a hooker in “Today’s Lesson.” On “We Call Upon the Authors” Cave references his influences in the literary world, fellow storytellers who use the written word to comment on the world around them. Musically Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! showcases the influence that Warren Ellis has had on The Bad Seeds since his arrival in the band in the mid 90s. The multi-talented musician shines on the album’s most tender moments, primarily when he’s behind the viola and mandolin. The two have gotten closer than ever over the years having collaborated on side projects including Grinderman and two memorable film scores, most notably for The Proposition. Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! may not be as personal as past Bad Seeds efforts (The Boatman’s Call comes to mind) but its refreshing testament to just how well Cave has aged and matured over the years.  

NOTABLE RUNNER UPS

The Roots, Rising Down-The talented lineup from Philly continues to release poignant, socially conscious hip hop that reflects the past and present. Musically they remain the crème of the crop in instrumental hip-hop.

Raphael Saadiq, The Way It Is-Motown harmonies and production blended with modern day, adult-themed vocals make this yet another successful throwback to the past.

Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes-Stunning debut album from some of best vocalists working in the indie rock arena.

King Khan and the Shrines, The Supreme Genius of King Khan and the Shrines-Technically a compilation album this first official wide release from Khan and his funk star orchestra is the most fun dance record you’ll find this year. James Brown style soul combined with often slapstick dirty lyrics makes Khan a rising name in the genre bending psychedelic rock genre.

AC-DC, Black Ice-The hard rocking album Axel Rose wishes he could put out. AC-DC does, well, AC-DC, again. But it’s still some of the best sounding roadhouse rock around. 

Girl Talk, Feed the Animals-The second best dance record this year. 50 minutes of the finest mish-mosh of pop music history money can’t buy. 

Nine Inch Nails, Ghosts I-IV-It was a good year for Trent Reznor. This collection of inspired instrumental cuts shows NIN is currently making the most of its independent musical freedom. 

Two albums that will undoubtedly be appreciated more with time: Kanye West, 808’s and Heartbreak, My Morning Jacket’s, Evil Urges 

Best stand along song: The so good its worth buying: “I will Possess Your Heart” Death Cab For Cutie, Narrow Stairs

Best Underrated Release From an Underrated Musical Powerhouse: The Black Keys, Attack and Release

Best Epic Album Closer of the Year: “Kissing the Beehive” Wolf Parade, At Mount Zoomer

 

 

Tell Tale Sign of More to Come


It’s safe to say that Columbia Records, and or any other music conglomerate to arise, will be releasing and re-releasing the music of Bob Dylan forever. A musician of this magnitude will always sell records, no matter how they are packaged. New material will always be absorbed, critiqued and ultimately revisited and no matter how many Deluxe or Special Edition versions of Dylan’s back catalogue are reissued, the spruced up discs will undoubtedly be coveted by hardcore fans.

Today marks the release of another piece of Dylan’s growing sub catalogue of “official” bootleg recordings, with Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8. This hearty serving of unreleased live and rarity tracks taken from Dylan’s late 80s to present day recordings is yet another piece of the puzzle in unraveling this musician’s wildly varied, epic career.

While the collection of songs all warrant further listening, with many of the cuts actually besting the official album release (see not one but two superior alternate versions of “Mississippi,” officially released on 2001’s Love and Theft, with a third set to be released on a third special edition companion disc) this eighth Bootleg Series outing ultimately begs the question, what’s in store for future volumes in the series.

The previous seven Bootleg releases chronologically jumped around a bit, with the initial three-disc Vol. 1-3 edition spanning from Dylan’s earliest works up until 1989s Oh Mercy (a truly remarkable, often forgotten LP that is covered more extensively on Tell Tale Signs). Still Vol. 4-7 mainly encompassed the artist’s 60s decade (Live 1964 and Live 1966), with the Rolling Thunder Revue extensively covering Dylan’s acclaimed mid 70s gypsy rock, multi-artist tour (a much more accessible time capsule of this legendary tour than the original Hard Rain live LP release). 

While not entirely sequential in their nature (Live at Royal Albert Hall 1966 was released before The Concert at Philharmonic Hall 1964) it does seems like Tell Tale Signs jumps ahead towards the latter end of Dylan’s career, passing over a largely misunderstood chapter in Dylan’s life.

Dylan’s ‘Born Again’ years are often overlooked when perusing the artist’s canon. Encompassing three official album’s–1979s Slow Train Coming, ‘80s Saved and ending with ‘81s Shot of Love–this radical epoch in Dylan’s life is just aching to be reexamined and for many discovered.

To be fair Dylan briefly covered his spiritual years with The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3. A rough outtake of Shot of Love’s haunting “Every Grain of Sand,” featuring a female backup singer is the highlight of three outtakes featured from this era.

Considering the Shot of Love sessions alone produced roughly 50 other unreleased outtakes and instrumental cuts and both Train and Saved had their share of studio experimentation, an official release chronicling this era would be interesting to hear. Even Dylan’s live sets from his non-secular years, which focused solely on the new material at hand, ignoring his classics, have yet to see an official release (the Real Live LP of the time was a return to the classics tackled in less than desirable style.

Dylan’s “Born Again” years never receive the credit they deserve. Train was decently received by critics and was propelled to mass success by the track, “You Gotta Serve Somebody,” which won Dylan his first official Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance. The LPs true highlights are heard in “Precious Angel” “I Believe in You” and “Slow Train,” a sequential trio of tracks that showcase Dylan’s lyrical strength with just a hint of Dire Straits’ front-man Mark Knopfler’s unique melodic guitar pickings as an added bonus (Knopfler also served as producer).

Saved was quickly dismissed for being too polarizing for Dylan’s more secular fans (its heavy gospel overtones were not for everyone) and Shot of Love, while returning to the roots rock and roll of earlier Dylan was still heavily Christian in the eyes of most of its listeners. Still, if one overlooks Dylan’s then newfound love of Christ and the lyrics spawned from this conversion, the artist was still making some of the most beautiful music of his career, and once again showing another side of the Dylan most thought they knew. 

With 32-studio albums behind him and countless other live and B-Sides recordings collecting dust in the closet Dylan never seems comfortable staying in one genre or style. His legacy will always be rooted in his folk and traditional Americana upbringing, with later accolades for his rallying lyricism. More importantly though Dylan success comes from his willingness to shed all preconceptions and follow new directions.

His “Born Again” years are undoubtedly rooted in American Gospel music with a focus on the call and response, sermon style songwriting. Flash-forward to his current return to Americana and blues inspired folk and its easy to see a natural progression throughout his career, one that benefited from his “Born Again” recordings.

Tell Tale Signs is a treat for fans of Dylan’s recent works, and unlike other artists’ who simply release outtakes to profit off tracks that were rightfully scrapped, the majority of Dylan’s B-Sides are often radically different giving each song an entirely new feel. The stripped down piano version of “Dignity” accentuates the song’s brilliant storytelling while the previously unreleased track (and first single) “Dreaming of You” is one of those rarities you wish had seen an official release during its incarnation.

With every Bootleg Series release fans and newcomers alike are granted a glimpse into truly ‘Another Side’ of Bob Dylan. Tell Tale Signs is a welcome release but one can only hope that Dylan is willing to revisit some of his forgotten years, perhaps in conjunction with his upcoming follow up to the autobiography Chronicles Vol. 1, an equally rewarding look behind some of Dylan’s most popular and underrated albums (the chapter on New Morning alone was worth the read).  For now we can revisit Dylan’s not too distant past.