15. Steve Wynn & The Miracle 3, Northern Aggression
The first studio album of all new material from Wynn and The Miracle 3 (Wynn’s 2008 album, Crossing Dragon Bridge was a solo billing, and he spent 2009 recording and touring as the frontman of The Baseball Project) initially finds them in fine fettle. “Resolution” is as hard-rocking and contains as hooky a riff as Wynn’s ever written….but from there the album seems to grind the gears a bit through some mid-album lag–although let’s be serious: what comes off as “lagging” for Wynn are rockers that 99.99 percent of the rest of the rock world would give their eyeteeth for. Oddly, it is on two slower numbers, “Cloud Spitter” and “St. Millwood” that Wynn and the M3 take this album from the category of kind of good into true brilliance, and the closer “Ribbons And Chains” is as good as anything he’s recorded since “Amphetamine”. As always, The Miracle 3 reveal themselves to be one of the best backing bands in recent rock history.
14. Broken Bells, S/T
What we’re supposed to do, us fans of The Shins (whose leader, James Mercer is one half of Broken Bells) and Danger Mouse (nee Brian Burton, of Gray Album, Beck, and Gnarls Barkley fame) is sit and analytically pick apart this album, apparently. We’re supposed to figure out which bits belong to Danger Mouse, and which parts Mercer brought to the table. We’re supposed to discuss whether Mercer sold out years ago by allowing McDonalds to use a Shins song in a TV ad, while wondering if Danger Mouse is still as relevant as he once was. At least, that’s the gist of most reviews I saw of this album before I ever listened to it (actually, if someone can decipher Heather Phares’ incomprehensible AllMusic review, I’m all ears.) Seems to me that everyone’s missed the forest for the trees. What we have here is a fantastically catchy, remarkably interesting record that manages to be multi-faceted and layered enough to reveal things about itself even after dozens of listens (to wit: the instantly-grabbing “The High Road” and “Vaporize” were my favorite tracks here over the summer, but now I’m fairly convinced that “Citizen” and “Trap Door” are the best songs here).
13. Tame Impala, InnerSpeaker
I think it’s a natural thing to try to categorize and compare and pigeonhole the music we listen to into easily-identified sub-groups. This is grunge, that’s metal, that other thing is hip-hop, and that next bit is pop–that sort of thing. And so along comes Tame Impala, an Australian band that defies such categorization about as well as anyone on my list this year. Songs like “It’s Not Meant To Be” start off sounding like guitar soundscapes a la Caribou and then a beat that nearly has a hip-hop feel to it comes in, and then a glorious major-key chorus right out of the Lennon songbook comes roaring in like a jumbo jet. There are dangers in this approach, of course; frequently this album goes off the rails and meanders around lost in a forest of the band’s own creation….but when they get it right on songs like “Lucidity” and the glorious “Solitude Is Bliss”, Tame Impala make some of the freshest and most exciting music anyone on the planet is making right now.
12. The Young Veins, Take A Vacation!
To hear females under the age of 16 tell it, Jon Walker and Ryan Ross are twin antichrists for having decided, at the end of 2009, to part ways from their band Panic! At the Disco (god I hate that name.) Walker especially seemed to have an idea he wanted to try out–a more organic take on music, influenced by the ’60′s sounds that were capturing his attention. Ross was the perfect collaborator for the project, and they recruited a band. Now then. Say what you will about the pedigree of the band. Say what you will that this might be an elaborate prank or joke. Dismiss them as derivative and geeky. Whatever. On the song “Young Veins (Die Tonight)” Walker and Ross write the one of the best lyrics in recent memory about the headlong rush of youth and freedom and the exhiliration–and frankly the abject fear–that comes with being in your early twenties and seeing the world spread before you. When they sing “Is ‘young’ a word for ‘dumb’?/A word for ‘fun’?/We have the time of our lives every night/Like it’s our job to lose our minds”, they’re getting damn near “I Can’t Explain” territory, and that’s no joke or elaborate prank. Neither is the glorious way “The Other Girl” is constructed around a minor-key melody to sound like it could be somewhere on side 2 of Rubber Soul. Sadly, Walker tweeted earlier this month that the band was on “indefinite hiatus”, which probably means “no more.” The disillusioned PATD fans rushed to gleefully say “We told you so”. Here’s what I’m telling you: these guys had “it”, and if they weren’t breaking up this disc would be in my top ten. At any rate, I’ll sure be watching to see what Walker does next.
11. An American Chinese, Utopian Tree
So rare these days to get an album that sounds as if it was sequenced and meant to be heard as a complete whole, but here’s one that does exactly that. AAC are a Philadelphia band who defy easy categorization. There are guitars, yes. And sometimes they’re acoustic, and sometimes they’re splashed with electronic noodling and the vocals sound sweet at times…and sound as if they were sung through a cell phone into a rickety answering machine the next. What I love about this album is that it manages to channel its own quirky charms into making for one of the more aurally-pleasing full-album listens of the year. Even when some of the songs don’t work, they never sound boring, and I mean that as a compliment. When AAC hit on all cylinders (“No No Like That”, which seriously sounds like The Violent Femmes paired up with Oh Ok, or “Metropolitan”, or “Panic Pilgrim, Quick Grab Your Suitcase”) they succeed so gloriously that the rush is almost giddy.
My list won’t have The New Pornographers, Grinderman, Spoon, Teenage Fanclub, Kanye West, Janelle Monae, Sharon Jones, Phosphorescent, Wild Nothing, Joanna Newsom, OFF!, or Blood Feathers. All those folks put out terrific music in 2010, and I greatly enjoyed their respective outputs. For whatever reason, there were 20 bits of music that just clicked better with me personally than what those folks put out, so there it is. Enough folks with excellent taste will tell you how good those discs are, and they’re right, and I mention them because I don’t want anyone to think me not including them means I don’t think any of those folks put out the best music of 2010…they probably did…
….but this is my list, so it’ll be subject to my own biases, prejudices, and tastes. It is what it is.
20. The Granite Shore, “Flood Of Fortune” 7-inch (also “Tomorrow Morning, 3 AM” 7-inch).
Lots of years I seem to have an EP that I slot in at 20, not ready to give it full credit as an album but still. This year I went even smaller. The entire recorded output of The Granite Shore–who hail from “The Southwest UK”, Exeter perhaps?–consists of four songs released on two expensively detailed, meticulously, beautifully packaged 7″ vinyl singles (they do digital, too). The band, the vehicle of a fellow named Nick Halliwell, frequently consists of folks from the Wild Swans, as well as Phil Wilson who was once the leader of an incredible 1980′s band called The June Brides. And I’m writing more about The Granite Shore than anything else pretty much in the bottom half of my top 20 for the year because on these four songs Halliwell and his mates have recorded some of the most striking orchestral pop music I’ve heard in…like ever. Let’s just be clear: if you can imagine a band that combines the best bits of The Left Banke, Belle & Sebastian, and then stir in the most inventive moments from the first Decemberists album, you’ll get in the ballpark with The Granite Shore. The “Flood Of Fortune” single (backed with “Highway Code”) consists of a 56-piece string section, for instance. I cheated a bit here: the glorious “Tomorrow Morning, 3AM” single (backed with perhaps the best song in the Granite Shore catalog, “Workhouse”) is actually from 2009…but that sucker’s worth grabbing too. According to Phil Wilson, Halliwell has enough material to record and release an album proper. Let’s hope that happens in 2011. In the meantime, you Decemberist fans get all the hell over this, please?
Their Myspace page, where you can hear “Tomorrow, 3AM” and “Workhouse” in their magnificent glory. That page also has a link to their website where you can buy the songs as mp3′s or get the beautifully packaged vinyl or CD singles.
19. Nushu, Hula
At their best, Nushu (which is LA scene vets Lisa Mychols and Hillary Burton) sounds like the great followup album The Breeders never recorded. There are songs here that kind of fall flat (and the second half of the record rather lags a bit as a result), but there’s no denying the greatness of “Another Rainy Weekend” or “So Long (Maybe)” or “Your Girl”.
18. Dragoon, The Offending Party
The first album from the collaboration between the rhythm section of the legendary indie scuzz rockers The Grifters and Trusty frontman Bobby Matthews has been in the works for years, finally seeing light of day here in 2010. Lo-Fi as grungy as hell and hearkening back to the Crappin You Negative days of The Grifts, I suppose slotting this in at 18 is something of a disappointment. Turns out the songs that Dragoon released for consumption a few years ago (“Impress Me” which opens with the memorable line “We can do this with or without your snide-ass attitude”, “I Can Relate” and the sublime “Golden Hips”) were the best ones in the arsenal, and there are a few songs that just don’t work as well as they could. I also docked them 5 spots for leaving “Impatient” off this disc; that song had an epic feel that seems missing from some of the other songs that did make the cut. Still, you get a chance to hear Stanley Gallimore and Tripp Lamkins rock out and you need to grab it.
17. The Brought Low, Third Record
These Brooklyn-ites have always brought it heavy…but never quite this southern. In fact when the group throws itself into a groove, guitarist/vocalist Benjamin Howard Smith sounds not a little bit like a long-lost Van Zant brother. The record is a little uneven, but even the lesser parts are made up for by incredible songs like “A Thousand Miles Away”, “Last Man Alive” (which is so beautifully Skynyrd it could be a studio outtake), and the epic “The Kelly Rose”.
16. The Cyanide Pills, S/T
There are maybe a hundred bands on this planet right now doing a retro-punk thing that recalls the sounds of The Undertones, Stiff Little Fingers, or The Buzzcocks. The Cyanide Pills are probably the second best of all of them. For one thing, these blokes don’t have to affect fake British accents, as they hail from Leeds in the UK. The Cyanide Pills were a band I completely dismissed the first time I heard them…and then realized that I had “Break It Up” and “Shallow” riffing like crazy through my head. And so what these folks do sounds like it oughta be easy, but I’m not sure it is. They know from a killer hook, and like their obvious influences they strew them all over their 2-minute songs (this, their debut album features 19 songs…and a 40-minute run time.) So yeah, maybe the Cyanide Pills are painting by numbers here…but they’re doing it damn near better than anyone else on the planet, and there’s plenty of reason to think that they might just continue to evolve and have an even more monstrous record in them in the future. For now, turn this up and get to air-guitaring and pogo-ing!
A little Christmas gift from me to you. Watch it now, I’ll have to take it down soon. (This was a BBC documentary for 2005 or 2006 or so.)
With the snow coming down rather steadily outside, I think the time has arrived to unveil the 2010 Christmas Music Mix. If you can’t wait, just scroll on down and download or stream it. If you can, just let me mention that like every year, I stitched the tunes together as one big MP3, with everything sequenced a certain way, the volume all normalized (which means every tune plays at the same loudness; nothing kills a mix of songs faster than having to adjust the volume constantly on it!) It runs about an hour and 12 minutes or so, and of the 23 proper songs on it, 20 are brand new for Christmas 2010.
I will say that looking over the actual artist and track list for the mix, I’m struck by the unfortunate fact that there are a lot of bands that get lumped into the “hipster” category, that adjective having somehow become the bad word of the moment on the internet. Realize this please: folks like The Walkmen, Mark Crozer, Evangelicals, etc. didn’t find their way onto this mix for my sense of indie cred; about that I could give a rat’s tuckus. I’m too damn old to care about such silly stuff at this point. Those artists and the songs they perform made it onto this year’s mix because they moved me in some way; they’re where they are because I like the songs and they fit. If the entry from The Haunting Party on this mix doesn’t tug at your heart just a little, indie or no, I’m not sure you’re human.
Without much further blathering on from me, here’s the tunes!
(Either click that title to stream, or right click and “save as” to download it.)
This year’s track list:
1. Remember, it’s for Santa.
2. Yuletide Zeppelin — mojochronic (with an assist from The New Yardbirds)
3. “What’s This” Danny Elfman & Jack Skellington
4. “Snow Is Falling” Darker My Love
5. “Santa Stole My Lady” Fitz & The Tantrums
6. “Angel In The Snow (New Moon)” Elliott Smith
7. “Queuing Up For Christmas” The Keys
8. “Santa Claus” The Sonics
9. “Sleigh Ride” Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass
11.”Little Drummer Boy” The Dandy Warhols
12.”Ain’t No Chimneys In The Projects” Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings
13.”Last Of The Melting Snow” The Leisure Society
14.”Baby It’s Cold Outside” Brian Setzer Orchestra With Ann-Margret
15.”Next Christmas” Mark Crozer
16.”All Alone On Christmas” Parker Lewis & Matilda Berggren
17.”White Christmas” Esquivel
18.”Christmas Isn’t Christmas” The Boy Least Likely To
19.”I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm (Stuhr Remix)” Kay Starr
20.”Carol Of The Bells” John Fahey
21.”While I Shovel The Snow” The Walkmen
22.”It’s Christmas” Coconut Records
23.”Home For Christmas” The Haunting Party
24.”Wonderful Christmas Time” Paul McCartney, super extended 12″ scratch remix.
(Ok, just kidding about track 24. Every year the mix ends the same way. You all know this. I cannot fathom any listening experience more execrable than an extended scratch remix of the worst Holiday cash-in song ever recorded, which that Macca tune most likely is.)
(2011 Edit: No, not really.)
(2011 Edit, part deux: If you’re disappointed beause you were really looking for a dubstep Christmas album…well, seriously? C’mon. We’re about 2 weeks from dub drops in Walmart TV ads. Let it go. Enjoy some Christmas music from years past.)
So this past year when I moved the blog to a new server because Blogger/Google decided it was time for them to make poor business decisions, I left behind an awful lot of files (which I do have backed up on a variety of external drives and whatnot, but still), some of which included a whole bunch of past Christmas mixes. Sort of gratifying that various folks out there have been requesting them, and so without any further ado, let’s go ahead and at least put up the last five shall we?
I’ve got the CD from the 2004 mix floating around here somewhere, and I’ll do a little magic on it and get it uploaded too. In 2003 I had a whirlwind of activity hit me outta the blue (I ended up spending Christmas working in Connecticut, which was fun…but very unexpected), so that year I just sent out Christmas cards, no CD or mix. 2002′s mix, “Deck Us All With Boston Charlie” is lost to history now, although most of the songs on it have re-surfaced on one of the past 6 mixes. (And it better be lost to history, since the 2010 mix I just finished–yeah, I said it–has that year’s most prominent track repeated; a few of you 15 folks who got that CD in a Christmas Card or whatnot back then will be disappointed in that repeat…but heck, it’s been 8 years. Give a brotha a break!)
Looking over track lists (and you can find those in the archives, just head for December of whatever year), I’m pretty happy that I haven’t gotten too awfully repeat-happy. Over six years, I’ve got 120 different Christmas or winter-themed songs, very few of which suck, which is a pretty decent track record if I do say so myself…and I just did.
As I was putting together this year’s mix, I was again struck by just how many truly awful Christmas songs become available every holiday. Lots of established artists just mail it in for a quick cash-in with some dreadful, soulless readings of some Christmas chestnut. At least I can understand the financial reasons behind that in a purely cynical way. The holiday tunes that really exasperate me are the gajillion indie artists who think the way to do a Christmas song is to pick some heartfelt standard and re-render it slowed down and dripping with implied irony. I suppose something like that could work in a vacuum…but you stick awful, over-ironic crap like that on a holiday mix next to the Green Pajamas’ “Caroler’s Song” or something from Vince Guaraldi, or especially next to that certain Irish ditty that ends every Christmas mix I do by tradition and all that dripping hipster-ism just collapses in on itself.
So anyway, you’ve got a few hours to wait until I upload the Christmas mix for 2010. Grab one of these older ones and give it a spin. Thanks for reading, I hope your holiday season so far has been as enjoyable as mine!
(Edited to include 2011′s mix to this list for easy all purpose Christmas music grabbing.)
…and you might be able to watch it, even.
Assuming this video loads as it should, what you’ve got here is indie rock darlings Beach House playing a sort of semi-plugged in set in a living room in an apartment in France. It’s recorded for the web on a site called LiveWeb, as part of what seems like a kind-of-orphaned series called “Soiree De Poche” (“Evening Bag”, as in a purse the ladies carry out for a fashionable evening on the town.) It’s kind of a cool premise–like 20 people sit in while a band plays in the apartment living room.
And so what happens here is that Beach House does a nice set. And they get to the end, and they’re at the 20 minute mark, and (if my barely passable French is hearing correctly), a producer guy tells them they’ve got another five minutes if they’d like to do one more song. Singer Victoria Legrand and guitarist Alex Scally exchange glances and shrugs. He plays a familiar intro riff. She laughs and says they can give a certain song a try, but it’s clear they’ve never tried to play this tune as a semi-acoustic number. Victoria finally says something to the effect of “If it doesn’t work, we can just stop. It could be fun.” And so we go.
What happens next is pure magic. In five minutes it took me from being vaguely interested in Beach House to being head-over-heels for them. Stripped of the heavy production that fuels the studio version, they do an unplugged take on “Silver Soul” that has absolutely seared a permanent image of itself into my soul. Amazing how Legrand–who in the band’s promo photos seems to look waifish and sometimes even downright mousy–commands the room with her presence and voice, looking positively angelic like some pop music goddess giving us mortals a small taste of sun-bright genius.
Now then. I hope you’ll be able to see this. For reasons I cannot fully fathom, LiveArt decided to apparently take down this live performance sometime in August, right when I was getting ready to blog about it the first time. Now it seems as if maybe it’s back up, so hopefully this loads. The entire performance is worth a look…but if you want the real magic, go to the 20 minute mark and prepare to fall in love. Can’t embed it, but you can click the link and it should load for you.