Best Music Of 2010. No, really.

December 28, 2010 at 12:23 pm (Best-of lists, reviews, rock and roll)

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?

“Flood Of Fortune”
“Highway Code”

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”.

“Another Rainy Weekend”
Myspace Page, where you can hear “So Long (Maybe)” and other tunes.

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.

Dragoon’s Myspace page

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”.

“The Kelly Rose”
“Last Man Alive”
“A Thousand Miles Away”

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!

“Making Her Mind Up”
“Break It Up”
“On The Outside”

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Adrian Whitehead is Gear.

September 4, 2008 at 6:20 am (new releases, reviews, rock and roll)

I seem to be posting a lot about very, very poppish stuff, so if this is overkill I can only beg forgiveness for now…

…but if you happen to love absolutely gloriously executed pop-rock craftsmanship and brilliant songwriting, let me tell you about an Ozzie named Adrian Whitehead. Far too many singers who can do a fey vocal quaver and saccharine harmony get a free pass from critics and fans who buy into it and wonder why the marginally talented slobs they’re championing never get any recognition. I’m guessing they also wonder why albums by such non-talents become forgettable so fast.

It’s all about the songs. A lot of people can sing like Brendan Benson, maybe…but very few can write a hook like “Cold Hands Warm Heart” or “I’m Easy”.

Which brings me back to Adrian Whitehead. No idea who the bloke is. No idea where he cobbled together a recording budget to put his debut album “One Small Stepping Man” together with either, but the production here is stellar (strings, a variety of keys, and even a sax). No idea where he learned to write and arrange and sing songs like these either…but what a stunning record he’s made.

You can listen to the whole album right here.

My favorite tracks are the first two, “Caitlin’s ’60’s Pop Song” and “Saving Caroline”. The former song he says he wrote to entertain his 8-year old niece to make her smile after a funeral for their great-grandfather. How sweet is that? The latter song starts off sounding like vintage Styx(!), but again finds a groove that belongs solely to Adrian Whitehead. I also dig “You Are The Sun” and “Ways Of Man” a lot. “Elle” is five minutes of exquisitely gorgeous piano (best one-note piano song in a while) and strings, and “Better Man” has the most gobsmacking hook on the whole disc. What you’ll notice about all the songs is that they never go just where you think they’re going; Whitehead knows exactly what he’s doing, and half the joy of this disc is listening along to hear just exactly what unexpected turn he’s going to take his melody line, and where he’s going to extract a hook from playing the “wrong” chord or notes.

This has been in my heavy rotation now for over a week. Give it a shot, lemme know what you think.

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There’s A Reason George Martin Was The 5th Beatle

May 1, 2008 at 6:02 am (new releases, reviews, rock and roll)

As we head into Derby Week (bummer of a post position, Brownie), tonight’s blog post has me recalling something the ever-astute Marc Attenberg told me years ago about handicapping horse races: the worst guys to ask for ‘capping wisdom are the trainers and jockeys. Why? I could speculate a few reasons, but to me the main one is easy to pick out. I think trainers and jocks are lousy at sizing up a race because perhaps they’re too close to the subject to form objective theses on the subject at hand.

Which brings us to what I want to yammer on about tonight: earlier this month UNI/Polydor re-issued the seminal and only record (to date) released by Liverpool’s legendary The La’s. It arrives as a double-cd package with the original as-released album remastered, and then a variety of different mixes with different producers of the songs on that original album. Of special interest is the inclusion of the “Mike Hedges Album”, allegedly the version of the debut album that La’s frontman and creative force Lee Mavers was happiest with.

Before going forward, I suppose there might be someone out there unfamiliar with the turbulent history of The La’s and their only album. As the story goes, Mavers had a precise and certain La’s “sound” in his head. Signed to the ultra-hip Go! Discs, the label forked out a lot of money to hook the band up with in-demand producer Steve Lillywhite. Mavers was upset with the production and would later claim the band deliberately played poorly in the recording sessions, in hopes that the material would never be released in that state. The La’s subsequently went through a series of producers (including John Leckie) re-recording the album before a frustrated record label had Lillywhite piece together as coherent a record as he could for release from the initial sessions. Mavers was livid with the label and refused to release another album until the debut could be recorded properly with the songs sounding on record the way they did in his head.

Yeah, good luck with that Lee. Allegedly of all the producers who took a stab at The La’s back in the day, the guy who came closest to capturing the sound that Mavers wanted was Mike Hedges (who’d later work with U2 and Radiohead, among others). The inclusion of the Hedges version of the debut on The La’s Deluxe Edition, then, would seem to be a pretty important occurrence for fans of the band…

…and yet, having listened and re-listened to the Hedges versions of the songs…not so much. There are discoveries to be made on this double-disc set to be sure, but the most major of these is that Steve Lillywhite is one hell of a great producer. Lillywhite’s versions of these songs just seem far, far, FAR superior to anyone else’s. Obviously, the bias of having heard only those versions for the last 18 years is part of it. But even trying empirically and objectively to find brilliant bits of the songs as recorded by Hedges, Leckie, or Gary Crowley, it seems clear that Lillywhite was head and shoulders beyond his peers here. The other versions plod with a sort of deliberateness and hesitancy that make the songs sound positively dull. The myriad versions of the hit “There She Goes” are really jarring; the signature guitar riff on the song sounds fluid and loose in the original, but the differnt versions on the re-issue sound like first-year guitar students picking out the riff by sight-reading a tablature chart. Lillywhite’s versions practically leap out of the speakers by comparison; taken side-by-side in this format it ends up being like watching the “Wizard Of Oz”, where everyone else is black and white and the original version is glorious technicolor.

As such, I’m going to express a bit of pop music blasphemy: Lee Mavers was wrong, wrong, wrong. If the Hedges version of his songs were the one closest to what he wanted, then Mavers was a talent lacking in perspective. Which brings us back to the horse racing analogy at the beginning of this post (yeah, I’d almost forgotten it too). When you’re in a band, I think that like horse trainers and races, you’re too close to the subject sometimes to be able to think critically and have accurate notions of what works and what doesn’t. Hey, the guys in Nirvana were sick and tired of playing “that stupid riff” that became “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Eric Clapton fled The Yardbirds partly because he couldn’t stand playing the four-chord strum of “For Your Love”, which sounded boring to him. Hell, take a look at the post-1969 solo careers of The Beatles; on their own it became clear that John, Paul, and George sure seemed to need the critical and editorial ear of George Martin to help them tell the difference between what worked and what didn’t.

Sadly then if over the years you’ve built in your mind a sort of altar to someone really getting The La’s sound “right” in the studio and laid hopes on hearing the same, I’ve got news for you. Seems as if Steve Lillywhite had it right all along, and had a better feel for The La’s sound than the band themselves. Unless you’re a completist or contrarian, there’s no reason to throw over your old La’s CD for this new version.

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Crash Into June.

April 24, 2008 at 6:40 am (new releases, reviews, upcoming stuff I might blog about)

June 10th is looking like a treee-mendous day for new releases. As mentioned elsewhere, The Telepathic Butterflies emerge from 3 years of silence with a new disc, and samples available at their myspace page and on the Rainbow Quartz page sound pretty good.

…and then there’s this, posted last week on Sloan’s official site:

Sloan have completed work on their ninth studio album, “Parallel Play”, which is due to be released on June 10th. In Canada, the album will be available on Sloan’s own murderecords, distributed by Red Ink Music. In the USA, we are once again working with our friends at Yep Roc Records.

The album was recorded this winter at Sloan’s studio space and features 13 new songs.

We will soon have news about our summer and fall tour plans. We’ll also have some brand new audio and video posted before long, so be sure to check regularly for updates.

The good folks at Yep-Roc have the whole freakin’ album streaming right here. Impressions later, but my first take is that there’s more Patrick Pentland on this disc than on Never Hear The End Of It…and more Patrick Pentland is always a good thing.

Oh….and then I note that the long-anticipated new disc by The Modfather is due to drop on June 24th. Too. Much. Great. Music.

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Just to get clear on terminology…

April 15, 2008 at 1:15 pm (bitchiness, reviews, snark)

…a band was recently recommended to me using the phrase “sort of freak folk, sort of classic rock, with some world music thrown in.”

That sounds like the most dreadful, non-rock horribleness ever released, frankly. Those are not points to sell me, or anyone who loves music, on a band. Those descriptors suggest music that would make me want to beat the performers of same with my shoe.

I see on another blog that an adoring listener of this same band has described them thusly: “Reference points as broad as The Go Team and Phish”. That doesn’t just sound bad. That sounds positively toxic. The only way this band could further fail the Ben Troxel Rock Test is if they performed in costumes. There’s a picture of this Band I Will Not Name at the blog describing them as a cross between two terrible non-rock bands, and slap my ass and call me Ginger, but there they are in costumes. Yikes.

If it is any consolation, I did manage to make it through about 18 seconds of two different songs before I gave up. Never say I didn’t try.

(File under Curmudgeonly Posts Made Before Second Cup Of Coffee)

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I Know How To Ask For More Lemons…

April 9, 2008 at 6:55 am (cool band alert, new releases, reviews, rock and roll)

…and “mas papas fritas, por favor” I can do in two different accents, but beyond that my restaurant-learned Spanish is pretty awful. Not that I’m at all good with foreign languages. I struggle enough with my mother tongue; people who are effortlessly bilingual fascinate me.

But I’m digressing. I have a sudden interest in non-restaurant Spanish all of a sudden.

Here’s the deal: it will surprise few of you reading this that I’m a pop knob at heart. I unabashedly heart the Fab Four, prefer the Buzzcocks and Undertones to The Clash, and think “Box Elder” is far and away the best song on Westing By Sextant and Musket. The flip side of that, though, is that for the last 20 years I’ve been acutely aware of just how much utter shite there is out there masquerading as melodic rock and roll. Honestly, I can take about 30 seconds of most “power pop” stuff before my teeth ache from the cotton candy-ness of it all. That’s why bands like The Blakes or Novillero (message to Winnipeg: please tell me Novillero hasn’t broken up?) rock me so hard–they get that hooks are good, but by themselves they’re like whipped cream without the pumpkin pie. They’re chili and cheese without the dog.

I also learned while playing a college radio show and working at Euclid Records that playing one favorite song of mine after another bored me to tears inside of 15 minutes. My favorite radio shows (and music discoveries) were when I busted myself out of my comfort zone. That’s how I discovered and/or learned to love stuff like Sparklehorse or People Under The Stairs or The Grifters or Silkworm.

And so for the last month or so, I’ve been listening to a ton of music that falls way outside my usual interests. Underground hiphop and electronica. Metal. Lots of metal. Indie rock with no discernible music structure to it. Experimental guitar stuff and even some found sound noodling that didn’t have me lunging for the eject button.

I have eaten my musical vegetables, in other words.

And so now we get back to my interest in Espanol. I just stumbled across a double CD retrospective by a band called Ross. I know zilch about them, except for on first listen I immediately figured the singer had a non-American accent and, thanks to a cover of Teenage Fanclub’s sublime “Verisimilitude” pegged them as Scots or Geordies from the North of England. Nope. Finally tracked down their Myspace page (try finding out info on a band called “Ross”; if they’d called themselves “Jack” I’d have had an easier time of it) and it turns out they’re from Murcia, Spain. Which means that while their songs are all in English, all web infos about ’em are in Spanish. Since none of the information or bio on the band involves lemons, fish, potatoes, or the words “hot” and “cold”, I’ve got nothing really to tell you about them, other than it seems as if Ross’s career ran from 1992 to 2002, and after a long hibernation they seem to be doing live shows and stuff.

Nowlemmetellyawhat: Ross is one of the sweetest, most wonderful music discoveries I’ve made in a long, long time. This double CD retrospective contains 44 songs and clocks in at well over 2 hours of tuneage. It has all the easy stuff for poppish, Beatle-influenced bands to do: chiming guitars played through AC30 amps, sweet Lennonish vocals and gorgeous (but not overdone) harmonies. Thing is, there are thousands of bands able to muster that start, but most of these bands are utterly terrible. These Spanish fellows don’t fall into that trap. In fact, they manage to take that start and take it to some wonderfully unexpected places.

I’ve now spun through the two discs in this collection, and I’m utterly stunned at the fact that these guys managed to come up with 44 gorgeous pop songs that never induce listener fatigue (I got to the end last night and punched up disc one again immediately). They manage that with some incredible songwriting craftsmanship–the melodies here twist and turn and go in all sorts of unexpected places with a seeming effortlessness. Thanks to the mixed recording heritage of these tracks, there are moments of lo-fi majesty, and plenty of Teenage Symphonies To God, as they say.

The disc is called “A Collection For Enemies & Friends, 1992-2002”. You’ll have to hunt for an online shop to import it if you don’t have a buddy stationed at a military base in Europe to pick you up a copy. This is a double CD worth jumping through some hoops for, though.

Let me play you a couple of reasons why:

“Starships-Supersonic Spacewalk”

Here’s their Myspace site, if you speak the language.

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Ever fallen in love….

April 6, 2008 at 6:08 am (new releases, reviews)

….with something you shouldn’t have fallen in love with?

Yeah, Pete, I sympathize. I spent the better part of six months ignoring and/or feigning hatred/outrage for the buzzband flavor o’ the month, NYC’s own Vampire Weekend. Morton had hepped me to the Weekend back in August or July of last year, and I think I gave “Mansard Roof” all of 40 seconds before I recoiled in horror and decided that this was not my thing, as they say. I think it was an expectations thing: you hear “Vampire Weekend” as a band name and I dunno…I was expecting cave teen stomp-a-billy, or at worst really shitty goth revivalism (note to college freshmen intent on forming bands after flunking out this semester: we are not now, nor will we ever be, in need of a Mission UK or Sisters Of Mercy revival so just don’t, ok?) Instead, “Mansard Roof” bubbles out like the Mark Mothersbaugh soundtrack to some Wes Anderson pirate movie (now that, we could use…)

I could’ve left it at that, except for Sirius radio. One of the coolest gadgets I’ve seen recently is the Sirius Stiletto 2 portable satellite radio. I got one for Christmas, and it is a slick piece of hardware, managing to do all those cool satellite radio things, along with a lot of mp3 storage in a package the size of a small iPod. Last week I was walking home from a buddy’s house after an evening of beer and poker, and it was after midnight, the stars were out, a beautiful, balmy early spring night. I don’t even remember which Sirius station I had on the Stiletto, but I heard this song that seemed to effortlessly mix early Israelites-style reggae with a dash of Graceland-ish African feel, as well as that sort of dreamy Mothersbaugh-ish soundtrack shimmer. The song was “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”, and in the setting I heard it in, it was absolutely perfect.

And that’s how it started. I got home and decided to give Vampire Weekend a good solid chance, and this time I noticed how cool songs like “Mansard Roof” and “Oxford Comma” really were. I noticed that “A-Punk” defies you to not fall under the spell of its tricky rhythms. I noticed especially that “Bryn” might be one of the most touching and gorgeous love songs I’ve heard in a while. What I also noticed is that this CD isn’t a bunch of hyper-precious refrigerator-art pretense; these fellows can write a terrific song and a wonderful melody hook, and manage to deliver it in a way that, lord help me, makes the heart feel glad.

So yeah, here I am buying into something that a month ago I would’ve told you was pure fraud. I can’t help it and I can’t deny it. Listening to Vampire Weekend makes me happy. There is a sense of joy and wonder shot through these songs that once taken root inside will possess you.

Here, have some video:

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