The List So Far…
20. The Weather Machines, “Bones & Brains” EP
19. Black Bunny S/T
18. Glasvegas S/T
17. Magnolia Summer “Lines From The Frame”
16. Hysterics S/T
15. Why? “Alopecia”
14. Skipping Girl Vinegar “Sift The Noise”
13. Novillero “A Little Tradition”
12. Cobra Verde “Haven’t Slept All Year”
11. The December Sound S/T (“The Silver Album”)
10. Kaiser Chiefs “Off With Their Heads”
9. Adrian Whitehead “One Small Stepping Man”
8. Beck “Modern Guilt”
7. Phantom Planet “Raise The Dead”
6. Prisonshake “Dirty Moons”
5. Vampire Weekend S/T
4. The Bellrays “Hot Sweet & Sticky”
And a three-way tie for 1:
1. Cheap Time, S/T
1. Blitzen Trapper, “Furr”
(Tied at 1.)Boss Martians, Pressure In The Sodo
It had been a long month.
September just seemed to drag and drag for me musically. I listened to a ton of music, and damn near all of it was dreck. I’d started to notice a few years ago that rock and roll’s old nemesis and arch-enemy, pretentiousness, was waging quite the comeback–only this time targeting the indie kids. Whereas “indie” had once implied a DIY ethos and been a close twin to punk, I’d started to hear an awful lot of over-mannered-ness and non-rock start to seep in around the edges, and by September of this past year I’ll confess that I was feeling rather like Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous”, convinced that perhaps we were hearing the death rattle of rock as I thought I knew it. Over and over again I’d be listening to records, and over and over again I’d be bored to tears, wondering when the rock part came in, always left hanging because there was a distinct lack of anything kick-ass in anything I was listening to.
It was a Tuesday, usually a day off for me. I’d just done one big download of my entire Emusic monthly allowance, and was getting to the end of the pile, bored and distracted by one uninspired pretentious indie prick after another. I think I was almost nodding off, the music just appallingly quiet despite the fact that I had the speakers cranked. And then it happened. What happened? “Power Of Doubt”, the first track on the new Boss Martians album, happened. “Power Of Doubt” is almost, but not quite, as subtle as a cherry bomb in a toilet bowl. Opening with snarling guitars, Boss Martian frontman Evan Foster roared a first line that felt like the best wakeup call a guy in my position could get: “When it first started happenin’/I was stuck in a rut…” My world rocked, I cued up the whole record, and was frankly gobsmacked as one amazing, over-the-top rock song followed another here. What the hell was this all about?
The Boss Martians have been kicking around for a long time. They originally were a surf band…who gradually embraced a garage-rock influence…that morphed into a sort of power pop thing…and then after 2003 or so, they went silent. Pressure In The Sodo (“Sodo” refers to the Seattle neighborhood that was south of where the Kingdome once stood) is their first record in nearly 5 years. Their last, very poppy-sounding disc was flavored by Evan Foster’s ability to sound almost uncannily like a young Elvis Costello, something that got noted in almost every review (there are times on the new record where he sounds unsettlingly like a younger Jon Bon Jovi attempting to do a Robin Zander impression.) The band clearly wasn’t idle in those five years. In fact, for a band constantly evolving its sound, the last five years seem to have been spent absorbing kick-assness from the world around them and moving their music that direction
As testament to that, the second song on Sodo is a ripper called “Mars Is For Martians”, co-written and guest-vocaled by none other than Mr. Iggy Pop his own self. The Ig probably has a lot of stuff he could be doing other than helping out an unknown band who’ll never really sell many records, so if he’s giving his seal of approval…well, yeah, now hopefully you’re gettin’ the picture. From what I can tell, The Boss Martians are always evolving their sound, and they’ve somehow evolved into the loudest, hardest-rocking metal band from your high school years that you never heard. This album is just loaded full to bursting with one FM-radio anthem after another, built on a foundation that’s so brilliantly obvious that you wonder why the hell no one else has managed a rock record like this in recent years: it’s as if Foster and his cohorts said to themselves, “I wonder what The Stooges would’ve sounded like if they’d survived into the Metal Era” and then set about combining all that garage-punk influence from their early years into the hook-laden songwriting of their recent vintage and came up with sound that combines the best of all those worlds. Kudos for this masterpiece also go out to former SubPop house producer Jack Endino, who did a masterful job at the knobs on this disc.
Still, I think I’m missing the essence of this album and what makes it so damn special. Here’s the deal: if you ever, ever listened to The Stooges…or Iggy’s ’90′s solo stuff…or Def Leppard…or Cheap Trick…or The Misfits…or Thin Lizzy…or UFO…or Redd Kross…or, yeah, even Nirvana and thought “These folks KICK ASS” (in all caps), then you need to grab a copy of this record. Then you need to either make a deal with your neighbors or get a good set of headphones and make sure your computer or stereo will allow you to just crank the volume up to ghastly, deafening levels, and then let this sucker rip. You’ll be rewarded by taking delivery of the very essence of pure rock and roll on the single most kick-ass record of this year (or frankly, of many years).
“Power Of Doubt”
“And She’s Gone” (the inevitable “power ballad”, sort of sounds like a really young, freaked-out Jon Bon Jovi on a triple espresso fronting Cheap Trick
“Hey Hey Yeah Yeah” (why yes, that *is* the E-Trade song from the commercials with that creepy talking baby.)
“Elsie” (oh how this song kicks ass….)
(Tied at 1.) Blitzen Trapper, Furr
The worst marketer on the planet works at Sub Pop Records, because at some point after signing Blitzen Trapper–a band I’d heard of, but not yet heard–they decided to “package” them alongside labelmates and fellow-Pacific Northwesterners Fleet Foxes, using the success of that latter band’s quiet folkishness to try to angle in a fanbase for the former. Perhaps there are folks out there for whom the constant comparisons to Fleet Foxes worked, and these folks discovered and embraced Blitzen Trapper as a result…but for me the effect was just the opposite. I’m no fan of Fleet Foxes, even though I appreciate their unique sound collages; it just isn’t my thing, and so when Blitzen Trapper put out their fourth record but first on Sub Pop this past year, I ignored it for over a month due to the frequent and label-encouraged comparisons. I knew about Fleet Foxes, I reasoned, and had heard exactly as much of them as I wanted to, thank you.
Eventually and obviously, I did get around to giving Furr a test-spin, and almost instantly I was convinced that there was some mistake. Before we go any further then, let’s be clear about one thing, and let us get it out of the way right here and right now: Blitzen Trapper sounds as much like Fleet Foxes as The Muffs sound like Enya. Those two Sub Pop bands from up in forest country have as much in common as Anne Murray and Sloan. To be more blunt, when considering the relationship between Fleet Foxes and Blitzen Trapper, realize that one of those esteemed artists is a rock band, and one is probably not.
Having just pissed off a great many of you (sorry, calls ‘em as I hears ‘em!), let me get down to brass tacks on Blitzen Trapper. As referenced earlier, Furr grabs you right away, seconds into the whole enterprise with the song “Sleepytime In The Western World”, perhaps the most intoxicating invitation to give yourself over completely to a record’s charms since the Nazz kicked off their second album with the wonderful “Forget All About It”. Over a bouncing, swirling melody that combines equal parts Mott the Hoople (dig the Blonde on Blonde-ness of organ playing alongside piano) and snarling Mick Ronson-ish guitars, Blitzen Trapper frontman Eric Earley draws you into the Winsor McKay world his band inhabits and makes it all but impossible to willingly leave the rest of this wonderful record.
And so having pulled you into Slumberland, Blitzen Trapper take you on quite the rough-hewn musical odyssey. Drawing on influences from country and folk but never straying particularly far from a tuneful AM-radio rock sense of melody, BT spins out wonderful tunes with a startling effortlessness. “Gold For Bread” hits you with a stunning chorus and amazing guitar lick that seems to come from nowhere. The title track is a gorgeous, rustic tale about a lad raised by wolves and then returned to the world, sounding for all the world like Dylan covering Procol Harum. Songs like “God & Suicide” and “Lady On The Water” have some of the hookiest melodies and arrangements you’ll hear this year, while “Fire & Fast Bullets” sounds like a song Steve Malkmus would’ve killed to have written and “Saturday Nite” is a ’70′s AM radio hit (maybe Hall & Oates doing Richard Thompson?) that never was.
There are two great musical touchstones for Furr, and both are favorites of mine. The first is the post-Fairport Convention band of Iain Matthews, known as Matthews Southern Comfort. MSC was a pretty short-lived enterprise, and only seemed to find their stride on their final of three albums, an lp called Later That Same Year. That same year, 1970, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band released Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy, an amazing record of rock songs reconsidered with bluegrass and jugband instrumentation. Both records are essentially pop albums that aren’t afraid to put traditional folk and country idioms to work on a good rock and roll song. Blitzen Trapper sound as if they listened to the Nitty’s Uncle Charlie cover of Mike Nesmith’s “Some Of Shelley’s Blues” over and over and over again, and then put Iain Matthews’ “To Love” on and kept both songs on a constant loop and then went out and recorded Furr to sound as if it was a companion piece to those classic gems and succeeding grandly. Furr is a record that is utterly timeless, a wonderfully transportational and transcendent gem.
Every year some new band explodes onto the indie scene with huge fanfare and deafening buzz, and every year I approach with suspicion and trepidation and end up with a rather predictable hatred and aversion to whatever Cute Band Alert bozos are being cleverly marketed to the art school set. So it was this year that the anointed ones were Vampire Weekend. Like a gajillion others suckered in by the clever marketing ploy of “bootlegging” their own album 6 months before it saw official release, I snagged a copy of the “CD-R” version of this last year, gave it a spin and thought “that’s utter dreck.”
I’ve told the story elsewhere, so forgive the retelling, but one night in late March after hanging out at some friends I was walking back home and it was cool and the stars were twinkling and the moon was low and I had my portable Sirius going and whatever station I was on was playing this very cool, sort-of weird African thing with these weird keyboard fills and it turns out that the answer to my question of “Who the heck is this, this is good!” was Vampire Weekend.
That’s the challenge here, then. Forget the hype, forget the biases and prejudices “serious” music fans develop naturally for overnight successes like VW, and give this disc another listen with your mind open. You’ll hear Chris Thompson beating the living crap out of his snare (seriously, he sounds as if he’s pounding it to smithereens on “Mansard Roof”); you’ll hear Ezra Koenig’s lovely, multi-faceted voice trill all over “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”. You’ll hear one of the year’s loveliest songs in “Bryn”.
You’ll also hear some of the most ingenious arrangements to appear on any record in recent memory. Anyone claiming that they were thinking of marrying sprightly strings and harpsichords to a reworking of Paul Simon’s Graceland period is either having you on or delusional. Yeah, there’s a nagging feeling that perhaps they ought to be sending Wes Anderson soundtrackist Mark Mothersbaugh some royalties, but mostly the sound is incredibly original, incredibly well-done, and adds one more element–pure joy. These guys knew they were on to something special when this disc was recorded, and you can hear the excitement and enthusiasm of the band fairly leaping right out of the speakers at you.
4. The Bellrays, Hot, Sweet, & Sticky
There had to be a time back last year when Bellrays leader Lisa Kekaula thought about just bagging the whole rock band thing. In addition to her band’s perennial tagging as “can’t miss” they remain anonymous and the ship of mainstream success has probably sailed…and then founding member and songwriter Tony Fate, called it quit bails on the group prior to the recording of their newest album. Kekaula doesn’t need the aggravation; she won a Grammy for contributing the lead vocals to the Basement Jaxx’ “Good Luck” a few years ago; that’s good work and she can get it.
She and The Bellrays are made of sterner stuff. Bob Vennum switched from bass to guitar, they recruited a new bassist, and went into the studio and scrapped all the rehearsed arrangements they’d done with Tony Fate and re-started Hot, Sweet, & Sticky pretty much from scratch.
And then they made the best album they’ve ever made.
Freed from Fate’s muscular (but occasionally monotonous) riffing, The Bellrays stay loud and aggressive on this disc…but everyone can do that. What the Bellrays do here that no one else does (and had only hinted at being able to do previously) is slow things down and let Kekaula embrace her ’70′s soul side. Other than the “isn’t that Aretha Franklin?” vocals, lots of bands can muster the slambang of a song like “Infection”, but the sultry soul sexuality of “Footprints On Water” or “Blue Against The Sky” shifts them to a higher gear that no one else has.
Fate’s departure has let Kekaula push the Bellrays into a direction that opens their sound into newer (the opener, “The Same Way” sounds like the best song the Black Crowes never wrote) territory and finds them finally realizing the promise they’ve hinted at for so long. Maybe too late to ever make The Bellrays stars, but whether they continue or not, they’ve finally made the landmark album they’ve always hinted they could.
Just to break things up a bit…
You know Phantom Planet, of course. They’re the overly-blessed L.A. sweeties responsible for that annoying theme for TV’s “The O.C.”. Or maybe you go a little deeper and know them as the band that Wes Anderson fave Jason Schwartzman plays drums in. Although they’re still pretty young, they’ve been around forEVER; the fifteen-year-old girls who originally went to their gigs are out of college now and are pricing minivans.
From that description, you know Phantom Planet, even if you sort of didn’t before. (Still not seeing their past persona? Lead singer Alex Greenwald became a teen heartthrob by being in GAP commercials; get it now?) Now forget everything you know about ‘em. Max Fischer quit the band back in 2003, and since that time they’ve been trying to sort of find a way to move away from the sound they were known for. They’ve spent the years listening to a lot of music, and letting the influence soak in; as a result Planet have reinvented themselves here as a sort of heavily-produced, more radio-friendly version of The Walkmen; if that doesn’t work for you, imagine what you’d get if you sent a band to a deserted island with only The Bends and OK Computer to listen to for four years. I mean this as a compliment: this album is the best early Radiohead album to come out this year.
Greenwald, in his role as frontman and songwriter has always caught heat for being over-earnest in filling that role…so what he’s done here is to ratchet the rest of the band up to his own level of hyper-caffeinated bliss, resulting a record that ends up loud and rowdy when it wants to be (“Do The Panic” and the sublime “Dropped”) yet gives it an aura of cool intensity when things slow down (“Quarantined” and “Demon Daughters”) and he can Thom Yorke it up.
Come to Raise The Dead skeptical, of course. This disc isn’t gonna be everyone’s cup of joe….but if you’re willing to let a band who seem to have been fleeing their past engage in a little artistic awakening and give this a fair shake you may find that Phantom Planet has succeeded at making one of the best discs of the year. If you’re not sure you’ve got the time for such charity, at least give a listen to “Leave Yourself For Somebody Else” which in a just world would’ve been a chart-topper. Ironically, this is it from these fellows; they played a farewell gig in early December and have called it quits. Shame.
6. Prisonshake, Dirty Moons
(Forgiveness please–this review was a blog post that never was; a double-album 15 years in the creation phase deserves a few extra paragraphs. Sue me.)
Prisonshake’s first proper album in 15 years, Dirty Moons, is a record that does everything in its power to keep you at arm’s length, an album that double-dog-dares you to like it, a recording that pulls out quite a few stops to confound your expectations and even, dare I say, piss you off. It is a sprawling, snarling beast of an a record, and I’ll admit that the first time I listened to it all the way through my first thought was “Fuck this.”
Prisonshake–Robert Griffin, Doug Enkler, Steve Scariano, and Patrick Hawley–have been working on this record since ’95 or so, and since I worked with Steve and Pat and saw Doug and Robert all the time at work at Euclid Records or in the basement as Cicero’s, I remember vividly hearing details about intense practice sessions and heavy recording sessions. I remember the band going to Adam Schmitt’s in Champaign to record an early version of the entire album….and then also remember the band scrapping those sessions and starting over. And starting over again. And again. After I left St. Louis, I’d hear updates about recording and the faint possibility that the follow-up to 1993′s legendary The Roaring Third was due out “soon”. After fits and starts and more fits, I could hardly believe that the long-awaited album was finally going to see light of day here in 2008, some 13 years in the making.
And so my reaction upon first listen was this: “This took 13 years to make?” The record kicks off with a great arty, funky groove on “Fake Your Own Death”, but the song goes all over the place–at various points it has a prog rock feel, at other parts it’s heavy metal, and every time it seems to settle in on itself….the band sound as if they’re deliberately sabotaging it. This “sabotage” continues on the second track, “I Will Comment”; the song itself is built around a killer ascending rock riff and Hawley’s insane timekeeping on snare…and then codas into a sweet groove, which the band decides to mess around with by burying in phase and fadeout. “Cut Out Bin” opens with a bizarre recording of someone–a fan?–leaving a phone message about getting bit by rats at a Biohazard show and living in an iron lung.
What the hell’s going on here? Rock and roll is what’s going on here. “Cut-Out Bin” snarls to life with a what sounds like Peter Buck’s “Begin The Begin” riff as played by Richard Lloyd and then becomes a total anthem. “Dream Along” follows along, sounding like The Heartbreakers (Johnny’s, not Joan’s) covering Finn’s Motel. And then there’s “You’re Obviously The One”. That song is built on the best stupid rock riff Prisonshake’s ever written, and despite the snarl of the guitars and the drive of the rhythm section, you listen to the lyrics and…what the hell? The guys who did “Precious” and “Carthage Burns” have written a song filled with sentiment and pathos and…hell, the damn thing is downright sweet! Check that line:
“Just when you think the thrill is gone
You hear in your ear ‘You’re obviously the one.’”
Yeah, right? I mean, the ‘Shake isn’t turning into John Mayer here, but that’s still a pretty awesome sentiment to hear.
Even cooler, the song finishes with an amazing instrumental bridge that starts off like vintage Motown, with Hawley popping the snare in the pocket while Scariano’s bass runs all over the place…and then Griffin’s guitars come zooming in with a great counterpoint to the vocal melody, and the whole thing just rocks out like crazy….
…and you realize you’ve been set up. Played. Manipulated. The magicians got you looking one way, and you missed the force. See, the tracks where things are allowed to deliberately run off the rails and into unknown territory that confounds your expectations set you up that such will always be the case on Moons. So when that final coda kicks in on “Obviously”, you’re expecting them to deliberately do something…unconventional. Weird. I’ll say it: you’re waiting for them to “screw up” another one of their songs just when they hit the groove. Leave it to ‘Shake then to give you the finger right back: they play it straight, and what might’ve been a “very cool” moment on the record instead becomes a transcendant one. There’s a point as “Obviously” slams to the finish when you realize they aren’t going to play around with the track, and the danger of thinking they still might and the sheer thrill of “what if they don’t, though” combine to make it one of the great rock moments of the year.
Not that the rest of the disc isn’t daunting. Most of one album side is a five-part song cycle called “Scissors Suite” that seems bent on discouraging casual CD-skimming, that seems bent on keeping itself well outside an iPod song shuffle. There’s the ten-minute “Year Of The Donk” which veers wildly from interesting to exciting to self-indulgent and then back again.
The thing of it is, if you’re the sort who listens to a track or two of a disc and then flits off to somewhere else, Dirty Moons is an insanely difficult record. It buries its charms and hides its hooks and saves them for people willing to sit and listen to the entire double album. It dares you discover the amazing-ness of “The Understudy”; it defies you to hang on for the riff in “We’ve Only Just Tasted The Wine”; it wants the casual trend-followers long gone before “Crush Me” and “Fuck Your Self Esteem” come crashing in to the party.
Does an artist create art for an audience, or create art for art’s sake and not worry over whether it finds an audience? 99.99% of rock and roll is made up of artists convinced the answer is the former (whether they’ll say so or not). The greatest achievement of Dirty Moons is that there’s no way anyone will accuse it of being anything but an incredibly personal record that Prisonshake and Robert Griffin especially made for themselves and for their own aesthetic. If it puts you off, they don’t care. If you really, really end up liking it…well, good…but again, they don’t care. Much. (I penalized this disc 5 spots because these guys are friends and there’s no earthly way I can be particularly objective about the record.)
Happy New Year, and all that. Hope yours went well–I worked, then had a snifter of the bourbon I received from my brother for Christmas (A.H. Hirsch) and then headed home. I’m never much of one for drinking on “amateur nights” like New Year’s Eve or St. Patrick’s Day. Too many idiots. Happy to be home. At any rate, it’s now 2009, and I’m out of excuses for procrastinating the rest of my favorite records of 2009. Here’s 12 through 6!
12. Cobra Verde, Haven’t Slept All Year.
If you were gonna buy just one Cobra Verde album….well, this wouldn’t be the one to buy (Easy Listening from 2003 is just a staggeringly good album, and would be the one); thing is, these geezers from Cleveland know how to do the rock. Describing the CV sound in a nutshell isn’t easy, because they effortlessly jump from guitar rock genre to guitar rock genre, so they’ll do a glam rock song, then go right into an alt-country ballad and then swing into a bull-in-a-china shop punk song. Imagine if The Dictators were covering the Replacements trying to cover an FM-radio playlist from 1981, and that’s sort of what Cobra Verde sort of sounds like.
At the center of the gloriously raucous Cobra Verde universe is John Petkovic, who writes about rock music a lot and who has been using his wonderfully limited voice to front various Ohio bands for over two decades. The band’s sound is one informed by an immersion in all things throughout rock history, effortlessly blended into a sound that sounds like only Cobra Verde–where other bands who try to tour through various rock genres always sound like tourists, Petkovic and company sound like they belong; when they do a metal song, they sound like metal gods (albeit metal gods from the golden age of metal). When they do punk they sound like they could be opening for the Dead Boys circa 1978. When they do alt-country, they’re like some lost Gibson Brothers relic from 1989.
The only real problem with CV is that they’re not exactly prolific. This is their first album of original material since 2003, which is about right on their career pace. Haven’t Slept All Year lacks some of the joyful charm of its predecessor, the aforementioned Easy Listening, too. While tracks on the previous album sounded as if they were the result of happily drunken rehearsals and emerged effortlessly, the songs here sound more…well…forced. Sure, tunes like “Riot In The Foodcourt”, “Wildweed” or “Free Ride” are as good as any Cobra Verde song, promising tunes like “I Could Go To Hell For You” and “Together Alone” just don’t work as well as they could due to some interesting production foibles. Thing is, this is a Cobra Verde album. You listen to these guys alongside almost any other record in your collection and they just make damn near everyone else sound like frauds and posers. Petkovic and his merry band of rockers sweat and bleed rock and roll and that never fails to come across, and that feeling alone sits this album in the top 20.
11. The December Sound, S/T (“The Silver Album”)
With My Bloody Valentine reuniting for live shows and bands with fuzzed-out guitars and whispery vocals popping up all over the music landscape over the last two years, I think it’s safe to say that shoegaze is back. Problem is, everyone wants to play their own version of Isn’t Anything or Loveless–seems as if precious few bands want to try to imagine where Kevin Shields would’ve (or should’ve) taken MBV after 1991…
…but Boston’s wonderful The December Sound are interested in not just being influenced by MBV or Medicine, but also in taking that influence and doing something with it beyond just sounding like rote imitators. They’re not afraid to build a song like “Never” off the same aggressive drum beats that The Butthole Surfers used in their unlikely cover of “American Woman”, and they’ll use weirdly looped piano (in a nod to electronica cross-pollination) to gloriously unsettling effect on songs like “Drone Refusenik” and “Painkiller”.
All that might be enough for most bands, but The December Sound just keep pulling out interesting and fascinating stops. The beats behind “Kill Me (Before I Kill You)” have an undeniable hip-hop vibe. “12″, on the other hand, dispenses with any pretense of being a conventional “song” and instead takes you down a rabbit hole where The Jesus & Mary Chain smash headlong into Aphex Twin. “Maker” is Stiff Little Fingers as covered by Swervedriver, imagined through some kind of crazy hallucinogenics. Of course there are some beautiful moments scattered throughout the chaos, like the gorgeously noisy “Il Forte”. What really makes the whole “Silver Album” work so damn well is that at its heart, this is a record built on a foundation of tremendous songwriting and inspiration. The craftsmanship and care around how every second of this record will sound is incredibly apparent, and more than anything else it is what lifts this above the tide of so many recently-emerging similarly-inclined artists. As such, you can sit and marvel over the glorious melodic hook of a song like “No Heaven Like Hell”…or you can flip on the blacklight, put on the headphones and crank this sucker to eleven; either way it works. This is a band to keep an eye on; they’re doing something better than anyone else, and realize I’ve “penalized” this disc about 4 spots for having come out in December 2007 in limited supply and only hitting mass availability relatively recently.
Listen to the whole thing right here! (Check out “No Heaven Like Hell”, “Drone Refusenik”, “Painkiller”, and “Kill Me (Before I Kill You)” especially.)
10. The Kaiser Chiefs, Off With Their Heads
A cardinal sin, this–I’ve gone ahead and rated the KC’s a full four years after most English hipsters would tell you they were last relevant, but that’s music for you. Hooking up with superhot producer Mark Ronson (Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse) pretty much told you that these Leeds lads cared not a whit for any remaining shred of indie cred; having been there and done all that and then some, the Kaiser Chiefs were ready to come sit at the grown-up’s table.
So, yeah, if you’re looking for echoes of The Jam in their sound like the olden days, well they can be heard, sure…a bit, anyway. But you’re just as likely to hear them engage a healthy love for XTC (imagine Franz Ferdinand re-interpreting English Settlement), or to hear singer Ricky Wilson take his limited football chant voice and put it to service channeling Roland Orzabal (“Tomato In The Sun” is the greatest Tears For Fears song that band never recorded). Riding herd over everything is Ronson’s production, throwing around blipping keyboard washes and swoony, odd strings here and there, and using jaggedy, Gang Of Four guitars to take a sound that is unmistakeably the Kaiser Chiefs, but also which sounds rather new and fresh for them.
Look, here’s the deal. You know how us old geezers will talk your damn ear off about how great the Gang Of Four’s Entertainment was? Yeah. What we don’t mention is that two or three or four albums of that jaggedy guitar/society sucks/you’re not living your life right treacle just gets to be a fuckin’ drag (someone put that in a note for Interpol, Bloc Party, and Franzy, willya?) The neat trick the Kaiser Chiefs pull off here is making Off With Their Heads sound fizzy and effervescent and fun…while leaving the wry social commentary and nimble lyrics perfectly intact. In other words, the whole thing stands as a wonderful testament to the strength of the band’s songwriting genius. Have a seat Oasis. The Kaiser Chiefs are the best “‘uge” britpop band in the UK now.
9. Adrian Whitehead, One Small Stepping Man
The blogstory accompanying the release of this debut from this Melbourne, AU fella (hey, two discs from Melbourne in my top 20…just noticed!) mentions that the leadoff track, “Caitlin’s ’60′s Pop Song” was originally a song Adrian Whitehead made up on the spur of the moment at one of those post-funeral family gatherings (grampa died, I think) for his downcast niece. An anecdote like that already puts me 80% of the way to liking this disc; that the song itself is a glorious slab of McCartney-esque pop takes the ball right over the goal line.
One thing that sucks about Brendan Benson being a Raconteur is that we seem to have lost someone able to really put the craftsmanship behind a good classicist pop album. Oh sure, there are more folks trying to work that overplowed field than you can shake a stick at, but I’m talking about people who know how to write interesting songs that flow with verses, choruses, and bridges–songwriters who know how to not only do a middle eight, but also know when they can get away with two of those in the same song. With nothing new from Benson for 2008, and with Sloan having an off-album this year, Adrian Whitehead steps right up to fill the void.
The crazy thing about Small Stepping Man isn’t the wonderful songcraft Whitehead displays; you’ll get around to noticing that when you can’t get the hook from “Better Man” out of your head for a week. No, the crazy thing is how interesting he makes this album–this is a relentlessly creative-sounding and interesting disc that sounds as if it cost about a gajillion dollars to produce, what with strings, keys, piano, guitars of all sorts wandering around in the mix over a very tight rhythm section. Of special note is the subdued “Elle”, which Whitehead builds to a magnificent climax over what is, essentially a one-note piano melody (okay, the cello that comes in is pretty magnificent, too).
So here’s the deal–you could go put Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend album on for the thousandth time…but maybe you ought to give this Aussie bloke a spin instead. This is one of the most hauntingly lovely, rainy-day pop albums to come out in years. Don’t miss it.
8. Beck, Modern Guilt
You’ve gotta have some kind of pity for ol’ Beck Hansen. Seems like every year he puts out an interesting album enjoyable on a multitude of levels…and because it isn’t Odelay or Sea Change, he never seems to get any respect at the end of the year when folks talk about the best discs to come out over the preceding 12 months.
So yeah. If Modern Guilt isn’t Beck’s best album, it’s close enough to put it in the sort of rarefied air that few other artists ever get to. Teaming up this time with Danger Mouse as a producer, 2008 finds Beck heading back to more moody, brooding sounds, which is sort of a surprise if that pairing suggested non-stop mashup hijinx to you. Oh sure, there’s plenty of weird genre cross-pollination happening here, but when the Brian Wilson airy vocals of “Chemtrails” yield over to an almost gauzy Moody Blues chorus and over-aggressive drums…you may not notice that those things shouldn’t work, because they work so well together. You might miss the prairie fiddle sample wending through “Walls” careening electronic rhythms, but again, it’s a nifty little detail that’s waiting there for you to discover.
If Modern Guilt has a fault, it’s that while there’s a uniform excellence to these subdued downtempo songs that you’ll find yourself wishing for a little bit of an uplift here and there (“Gamma Ray” gives it a good try). Still, by the time we get to the album’s final track (and hey, kudos to Beck for realizing that his albums always have about 20 minutes of filler and keeping the running time of this one to a brisk 36 minutes), the sprawling and wonderfully morose “Volcano”, we’re finding Beck finally at a position where maybe he can springboard into a position where he’s mentioned in the first wave of the most important and intriguing music artists of our time.
Why?, the vehicle for Oakland free spirit Yoni Wolf is the kind of band that drives folks who need their music pigeonholed by genre to distraction. Is what they do rap or hiphop? They record for the avant-hop label Anticon, and Wolf is an inventive if vulgar rhymer…but especially now on Alopecia Why? is essentially a sort of indie rock band, with Wolf mostly singing with a his laconic, John Flansburg-ish nasal voice.
Alopecia definitely presents Why? as a rock band. These are songs that won’t be too unfamiliar to any indie rock fan…and Why? carries it off with deep beats and grooves that wend slyly through the proceedings. The result is a terrific mashup of genres that, while having been tried before, probably haven’t been blended this well since the first Basehead album almost 20 years ago. Things tend to wander around a bit, but Wolf is a wonderful ring master for what could become chaos but doesn’t. He’s right on top of things with his inventive if frequently crude (Wolf can make you squirm) lyrics and wordplay.
The danger for Why? (and frankly, for too many folks on the Anticon label) is getting too tied up in the intellectual/artistic statement part of what they do. What makes Alopecia special is that while it is a wholly-satisfying intellectual work of art, it also just sounds damned good.
14. Skipping Girl Vinegar, Sift The Noise.
If you describe an album as uplifting or ascribe to it the cardinal rock sin of happiness, it evokes a sort of effervescent giddiness, so I want to be careful in how I praise this wonderful, gloriously charming debut from Melbourne’s SGV. Is it a happy record? Well, yes. Sort of. See, it isn’t the “happiness without strings” happy of early Beach Boys. Rather there’s a certain lingering sadness and weariness lingering at the edges of Sift The Noise that seem to evidence that this record–which sounds effortless–probably took years and years and years and years to make. The “happiness” of it is more the happiness of a guy on a life-raft who’s weathered some terrible storms (which he’d rather not talk about, thanks) to finally find rescue.
And so with that in mind, I will state that the title track here is one of the most gloriously ebullient songs you’ll ever hear. SGV tends to veer towards more acoustic material on the rest of the disc, but even there lead singer/songwriter Mark Lang is able to carry things off. What helps immeasurably is his ability to channel a vocal sound not at all unlike a young Peter Case (see “River Road” especially; that song could be an outtake from Case’s first solo album). If the middle of Sift The Noise is quiet and acoustic and pastoral, they find a sweet blue-eyed soul groove again on “Sinking”, before finishing with two lovely songs, “Drove For Miles” and the meditative “The Passing”. SGV won’t change the world, but it might change yours, or at least your mood for a few hours. They’re the kind of band for whom it’s easy to root for, and one hopes the success they’ve found in Australia eventually becomes a worldwide thing.
13. Novillero, A Little Tradition
Let me get this out of the way first: Novillero’s Aim Right For The Holes In Their Lives, which came out in 2005, was not only my favorite record of that year, it might be my favorite record of the 2000′s. It showed a raucous, gritty side along with an ability to carry off songs with surpassingly brilliant melodies and topical, on-target socio-political lyrics. Waiting three years for a followup probably had me placing unattainable expectations on A Little Tradition. So what do we have here? Well, we have a good disc, one that, if you’re just discovering Novillero, might sound like one of the year’s best. For me it was a bit disappointing, as the Memphis/Muscle Shoals soulful moves of the previous disc seem much more muted here. I could take up this capsule review by talking about what Tradition didn’t do for me, but that wouldn’t be the point here.
What it does have, then, are some of the best songs of the year. The one-two punch of “Life In Parentheses” and the title track are wonderful, especially the reggae syncopation of the latter. If things sag a little in the middle, “Plastic Flag” does yeoman work propping them back up. “Paco Rabanne” is a terrific instrumental, and the record closes strong with “The Printed Word (Sucks For Inflection)” and “Far From Too Far”, the latter song possessing one of the great piano hooks Rod Slaughter’s ever written. I’ll be very interested to see how Novillero carries forward. They recently saw their bassist and occasional singer and songwriter Grant Johnson left the group right after after the disc came out. Fellow Winnipegger Rej Ricard from the wonderful Telepathic Butterflies joined Novillero to tour, but I suppose it’s an open question on whether he’ll contribute actively to future recorded output. I’d like to see it, that’s for sure.
Well, I suppose it’s time for a list, huh?
Lemme preface by saying that 2008 was kind of a crappy year for music. For me it was full of disappointments (musically, I should say); favorites of mine like Marah and Louis XIV put out laughably dreadful records, and folks like The Hold Steady, Paul Weller and Jeff Hanson put out discs that seemed rather uninspired or unexciting. There were a bunch of discs that had a handful of good songs, but failed to deliver even enough kicks to put the album on this list. New Radiant Storm King, Elvis Costello, The Maybes, Airborne Toxic Event…I’m talkin’ boutchoo.
I can’t help but think as I look over my list for this year that only perhaps a handful of the discs on it would crack the top 20 from previous years. Perhaps they would, and I’m just a grumpy old man, which lies as a distinct possibility.
Before proceeding, I once again offer the caveat that these are my favorite discs of the year, the ones that I personally think are the best. You may disagree, and you probably should. I will also this year mention that since my days as a college radio DJ and record store flunky, I’ve always maintained that I am not a music fan. I am a rock and soul fan, and music is a much broader category that includes genres (like folk, opera, and most classical stuff) that just doesn’t interest me much. This year had at least two big releases that seem to be on every critic’s year-end list: Bon Iver’s “For Emma Forever Ago” and Fleet Foxes’ debut disc. Both are very nice records and do what they set out to do very well. I think they’re both folk albums, and both honestly lie so far outside my personal taste that rather than try to shoehorn them into a list here, and rather than try to figure out where they belong, I’ve left them off. Those are lovely records, but for me they have as much to do with rock as Rachmaninoff. You kids get off my lawn, too.
Now that I’ve pissed everyone off right from the get-go, here’s 20 through 16. Mea culpa.
I’ll kick this list off with a piece of music I had no idea how to categorize. I hate to set the precedent of putting a non-longplaying record into this list, but by the same token, the Weather Machines EP is probably the most coherent start-to-finish rock and roll record to come out this year.
We’ve had some great, historical EP’s in the past: The Grifters “Eureka” EP stands as perhaps the single greatest indie rock testament ever released, a perfect encapsulation of the best of what 1990′s lofi could do. U2′s “Under A Blood Red Sky” was a stirring live document of a band on the cusp of massive superstardom. So here’s the thing: I’d put “Bones & Brains” in that same exclusive company. It shows The Weather Machines (who seem to be now just Jason Ward and whomever he enlists as musical help) to be an artist with the potential to be an all-timer.
I always wonder how a band with a stunning debut (and the Weather Machines’ Sounds Of Pseudoscience was fantastic) will follow that up. The first record is always the easiest, you see–you get all sorts of time to plan it out, play songs live and see which ones work the best in front of audiences, critics, and friends. The songs on a debut album are usually the 10-20% best songs a band has written in the time getting the first record out…and then suddenly they’ve got another record to do, and there’s no time and all sorts of pressure. Jason Ward responded to those factors with “Bones & Brains” by firing off five songs that pull some sort of crazy magic trick. They show an artistic growth and maturity beyond anything I thought the Weather Machines capable of. To put it another way, this EP is clearly as much Jason Ward as the debut album, but it also sounds like that band covering someone else. I think I’m babbling, so I’ll try to make some sense: the first three tracks on “Bones & Brains” are the best 1-2-3-4 punch on any record that came out this year, and things don’t go far astray with the closer, either. If Jason Ward is able to deliver a full album of songs like this, we’re looking at one of the most important rock and roll finds to come down the pike in recent memory.
You can hear these songs as well at the Weather Machines Myspace page:
http://myspace.com/theweathermachines (The new songs there are the first three on the EP: “Parts Of Speech”, “202″, and “New Soft Archetype”. That last song is just un-freaking-believably good–when that guitar lick comes in after the second chorus (1:47 or so), it might be my favorite rock and roll moment of the year. The song just defies you to NOT dance around the room to it.)
19. Black Bunny S/T
What was it I was saying before about records that have only a few good songs on them? That sort of applies to the debut album from Brooklyn’s Black Bunny, but doesn’t exactly fit. See, it isn’t that there are bad songs on this album, just that there aren’t any that live up to the stunning opener, a song called “Hero” that somehow manages to sound like “Creep”-era Radiohead covering Calexico or Ennio Morricone. Black Bunny features singer/songwriter Brandon Wilde, who had a stab at the brass ring years ago with a fairly un-noteworthy band called Thisway; he’s scaled things back and clearly developed as an artist.
For one thing, he’s abandoned the strict tenets of his power-pop origins. In addition to the Morricone-flourishes on “Hero”, he’s able to record the best Wilco song Wilco never wrote on “This Is Nowhere”, and he gives “Survival” and “My Time” a gravitas that wasn’t present at any other point in his work. It makes the whole album worthwhile, even if “Hello” is a little bit obvious (try getting that “Getting Better All The Time” hook out of your head, though!) and “Digital Bystander” doesn’t work as well as it might. You’ll keep going back for “Hero” though. That song is one of the best tunes of 2008, a song that just builds and builds and builds to a climax that delivers one of the best goosepimple/hair-on-end moments of the year…and then goes back again on the coda to do it again. Keep an eye on Brandon Wilde and Black Bunny.
18. Glasvegas, S/T
I’m breaking one of my own rules this year to fill up the top 20 with 20 good records and putting some import-only discs into the mix. Fear not, fellow Yanks–one criteria of mine for this was that the imports in question had to at least be easily available for digital purchase and download. Such is the case with Scotland’s Glasvegas, who have a US label (Sony/Columbia/BMG) who seem determined to botch the domestic release next year of a record that has exploded on the British charts.
What Glasvegas does seems so stupidly obvious that you wonder why they’re the ones with the massive buzz: they draw on inspirations from rock’s classic period–Presley, Spector, Buddy Holly–and then bring the whole thing up to date with a wall of loud guitars that aren’t just fuzzy (like Jesus & Mary Chain) but also jaggedy and challenging. The result is a completely winning debut, a self-assured and timeless bit of rock music that’s built around the same old basic building blocks, but then blasted into a new universe by deft songwriting and challenging arrangements. If the wonderful “Geraldine” sounds like something a number of bands could’ve managed, “Go Square Go” has an all-over-the-place careen to it that shouldn’t work but does, and that’s all Glasvegas.
17. Magnolia Summer, Lines From The Frame
So let’s say you’re a fan of the Jayhawks, who managed two or three of the best rustic rock albums of the last dozen years or so until they finally petered out after edging to close to the blandest sins of Crosby, Stills & Nash or the Eagles. If you’re a fan, perhaps it was exciting that this year former Jayhawks Gary Louris and Mark Olsen put out a record together. That disc is pretty good. What I’m here to tell you is that Lines From The Frame by Magnolia Summer is better, and will scratch that Hollywood Town Hall itch better than the originals will.
MagSummer is the vehicle for Undertow Records label manager Chris Grabau; material I’ve heard from him in the past has sounded good, but really didn’t stick with me. Grabau has a wonderful tenor voice like a cool Missouri wind blowing through one of those endless fields along highway 70, and that’s always been an asset for him. On this new record though, he does a very smart thing: he enlists some new blood into the band and brings them front and center. As a result, Kevin Buckley’s strings take over a few songs in breathtaking fashion (“Diminished Returns”, and the glorious final two minutes of “By Your Side”). Kelly Kneiser of Glossary adds some backing vocals (she turns “Birds On A Wire” into a de-facto duet by matching up perfectly with Grabau’s heartfelt vocals over Dave Anderson’s mournful pedal steel). There’s also the indelible stamp of Finn’s Motel frontman Joe Thebeau (who plays guitar in Magnolia Summer and got co-producer credit on this record), who gently urges Grabau to the best hooks he’s ever written. Lines From The Frame is easily the best country-tinged rock album of 2008.
16. Hysterics S/T
The hook here is obvious–Hysterics are/were a bunch of guys barely out of high school who’d been playing as a band together since before they could drive. Oliver Ignatius and Charlie Klarsfeld played guitar, wrote, and sang these songs which actually got them a ton of buzz back in 2005 or so….
…and then what? The band got this disc done in 2007 to distribute at shows, but didn’t get it out to the public until 2008, and by that time it seems as if the moment has passed. The band did a little bit of touring and then went on what seems like an indefinite hiatus, with Klarsfeld spending most of his time with the wondeful blue-eyed soul stirrings of The Americans (keep an eye on them!), while Ignatius seems to be working on new songs in relative privacy.
So what do we have here? We’ve still got a wonderful pop album that shows off some amazing talent and chops, no matter the ages of those involved. “Radical Chic” is still one of the best songs you’ll hear this year, and “Mostly Untitled”, “You Tell Yourself It’s Easy”, and “What Swallows A Waterfall” are almost as good. I can’t think that we’ve heard the last of the talented lads from Hysterics, even if it’ll be in other incarnations in the future. Still, grab this worthy document of where they started before they eventually arrive.