Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Top Ten Albums Of 2009

It takes a special breed of person to make end-of-year top ten lists of a given category. I don't mean "special" as in exemplary, or somehow a cut above. I mean "special" like "he wears a helmet in the bathtub." Interestingly, though, that demographic dovetails nicely with the type of person who might think that their ranting and hyperbole might be interesting to the whole wide internet. So here's a list of Mike's Choices for the Top Ten Records Of The Year. The year might not be over, but unless the Young Jeezy record or 30 Seconds To Mars or Rod Stewart albums is going to COMPELTELY BLOW MY MIND, I'm going to call it a wrap on the year. These are ranked, largely, by how much enjoyment I got out of them, how much I liked them, how much I listened to them. There is no science, other than the decades-long mental warping I've incurred. Not terribly empirical, but it seems to work for me. Comment, people, comment!

10. The Flaming Lips - Embryonic
I didn't know they still had it in them. It's not that their past few records have been bad (except maybe that last one), but even at their most fried point in the early years, they were never this... spaced out. The trippiest, freakiest, most acid-drenched head record of the year. Totally deserving of any year-end roundup.

9. The Raveonettes - In And Out Of Control
I've never considered them one of my favorite bands, but it seems like every year the Raveonettes release a record, it makes my top ten list. This year's is no different, in that it's completely satisfying, sounds wonderful, and has good songs. I just can't get enough of their surf/noise/spy guitars and cooing backup vocals. Last year's Lust, Lust, Lust was a comeback of sorts for a band that never went away - it was just a great, lean, dark rock record. If you like almost anything else on this list, you'll like this record. I guarantee it* (*this is in no way a guarantee).

8. Varsity Drag - Rock 'N' Roll Is Such A Hassle [Live]
Ben Deily left the Lemonheads in '89, put out a record with his new band, Pods, in 1994, then disappeared to have a real life until '06, when Varsity Drag debuted on record. This career-overview live disc shows that while he hasn't been prolific, Deily has certainly been consistently excellent. Everything from early L-heads songs up through 2009 material, it's a fantastic collection for anyone who likes good punky rock songs. Considering how good these songs are, I don't think I need to sell it any further.

7. Sune Rose Wagner - Sune Rose Wagner
It doesn't sound like a Raveonettes album, but it couldn't have been made by anyone who wasn't in the Raveonettes. Gossamer, drifting, dreamy - I hate to fly, and this record put me at ease from Cleveland to Boston. All the Spector-esque arrangements you've come to love, but like Dylan's Time Out Of Mind, it sounds like it's being recorded by ghosts. It's beautiful, and the fact that it's all sung in Danish makes it even more ethereal. Forget the Cocteau Twins, this is what dream-pop should sound like.

6. The Dead Weather - Horehound
I'm no great champion of the Kills, singer Alison Mosshart's main gig, but I've got no beef with them. I am on record as being a Jack White fan. So what's the deal with this ill-received project? Voodoo blues. Dark, oozing, psychedelic evil grooves. And it's fantastic. I do like the White-sung tracks a little better, but there's not a truly weak track on this. People didn't like it because it didn't sound like the White Stripes, didn't have big hooks, wasn't catchy. So what? This is way more Captain Beefheart's Mirror Man than anything by Buddy Guy. If you wrote it off, try it again. If you haven't heard it, now's the time to get on board.

5. A Place To Bury Strangers - Exploding Head
Having been angry that I slept on their self-titled first album, I was thrilled to hear about this follow up. Where the first album was a collection of recordings cobbled into an album release, this is the first one recorded as an album. What does this mean? Sonic cohesion. Every one of these static and reverb epics flows into each other, sounding like a monolithic call to feedback arms. It's a good year to be a shoegazer.

4. Early Day Miners - The Treatment
Not so much the sound of a band changing... more like snapping into focus. After several albums of hovering, beautifully longing soundscapes, tunes that felt like memories, a sharpening of hooks and shortening of tunes makes this feel like a new band. Post-punk seems like a touchstone, but it's hard to put my finger on just what this sounds like. Danceable rhythms, mercurial guitar lines, and hooks. Lots of hooks. A surprise? Maybe. Fantastic? For sure.

3. Dinosaur Jr. - Farm
With some of the more jagged edges sanded down from the unexpectedly amazing Beyond, what we have here is an imminently satisfying collection of wistful melodies and extended soloing. If you like Dinosaur Jr., you'll love this record... but if you don't like the band, this album might just win you over anyway. Barlow's rumbling bass guitar and Murph's furious tom rolls build a structure to hold up swirling, winding, neo-psychedelic explorations wrung from Mascis' Jazzmaster. It's impressive that any band could make a record this good, much less one that broke up less-than-amicably 20 years ago.

2. The Vandelles - Del Black Aloha
Coming from out of a buzz-less nowhere with their debut EP, they followed up with a full-length that did everything you would want a first album to do after a killer EP... more of the same, but deeper. Sonically, it's halfway between some wicked surf band we've never heard of and a blast of feedback like a bucket of cold water in the face. Once again, Jesus And Mary Chain comparisons aren't inaccurate, but it's more than just sounding like a good band that makes this a great record. Thrilling sonics, oceanic reverbs, swaggering hooks... it's got what a good rock record needs to have.

1. The Big Pink - A Brief History Of Love
Huge without being silly, atmospheric without being limpid, it's just booming, thundering neo-shoegazer of the finest variety. Maybe not the best record of the year on a technical scale, but I've listened to and enjoyed this album more than any other this year, and it only came out in September. Bits of everything from My Bloody Valentine to the Jesus and Mary Chain to New Order are folded into the mix, but without ever really sounding specifically derivative. I heard the "Velvet" single and had to go out that day to get the single, just to have a real physical copy of it. I haven't done that in years. It's that good, and there is no hesitation in me naming this my favorite album of the year.


Psst... are they gone?

Also-Rans: This was too good a year for music to constrain it to the top 10. There were several excellent records this year that just barely didn't make the cut, but deserve one more largely-unread blog to sing their praises.

ofthemetro - "April Is The Cruelest Month/Roboboogie": honestly, there would have been a place for this at the grown-up table if it had been more than 2 tracks. It was a best albums list, but this is only down here because of a technicality. What does it sound like? Electronic music that sounds HUMAN. That should be all you need to know.

Asobi Seksu - Hush: More dream-pop than shoegazer, it shows that you can strip huge things down, and if they're really good, they'll stand up. This does, and it's beautiful.

Death - ...For The Whole World To See: pre-punk, Motor City Dirtbombs-esque garage'n'roll that proves that obsessive record collectors deserve to be listened to from time to time.

Green Day - 21st Century Breakdown
Far better than I expected, not an earth-shatteringly amazing record, but it's nice to hear a band that I know are honest about doing what's good about big, huge, old-fashioned rock music.

Madlib - Beat Konducta, Vol. 5-6: Hazy hip hop fragments from the underground's best (I said it) producer.

Sonic Youth - The Eternal: solid, tight experiments from the kings and queen of avant-alterna-rock. Fantastic.

Metric - Fantasies: Haunted, danceable modern pop. It SOUNDS perfect, and probably would if it sounded different, too.

Mos Def - The Ecstatic: Not enough hip-hop on my proper list, but not for want of trying. After being written off for a couple of albums, Mos Def comes roaring back with his best since his debut.

Spinnerette - Spinnerette: hard-edged Rock that shows that Brody Dalle is a lot more than a punk screamer. Almost made number 10 up there.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Tonight May Not, In Fact, Be The Night

Since the dawn of well-recorded music, the fidelity has been a subjective factor in the listener's enjoyment, whether they know it or not. Those who are largely unaware of how audio recording works might not realize it, but that "something about it" that people often refer to when talking about their relative appreciation of a particular recorded work is most likely the constructed sound of music in a way that our ears wouldn't normally hear it.

Since the advent of multitrack recording, this problem/benefit has been compounded. In the early days, microphones and tape would pick up a performance live, as it was performed. But being able to record parts or instruments individually, a crafty recording engineer could now put each element in it's own space, so to speak.

For instance, you could make the drums sound like they were in a small, highly reverberant concrete room, but make a guitar or piano sound like they were down a long metal hallway, while putting the bass right next to the listener's left side. Of course, these are all illusions created by the signals your brain gets about REAL space... it's all a trick.

In some eras of popular music, certain production tricks became the standard, and often, eras with a higher number of standard "tricks" are what sound dated. Certain chorus effects and reverbs can come together to instantly scream "1980s". It was a colder, more digital sound than what was prevalent in the '70s rock arena. Until the legion of dimwit new-new-New Wave revivalists invaded the rock underground, the prevailing opinion was that "70s sounds were warm and natural and therefore good, '80s sounds were cold and harsh and bad". Now, aside from the phramaceutical trends of the ages, this is often true, in a purely rockist sense of the word. Some of those '70s classic rock moments stand up to the "timelessness" test because they have the same sound that people have had through the ages. Warm overdriven guitars and drums that sound like they're in a medium size room are going to be familiar sounds.


There was, in the 1970s, a particular production sound that was so weird and unnatural, despite all of its concessions to normalcy and regularness, that sound more unnatural to me than even the weirdest stuff from '85. So, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I humbly submit two stone-cold-classic records that I have a hard time listening to - not because of the harrowing lyrical content, but because of the bizarre production values. Ladies and gentlemen: Tonight's The Night and Berlin.

"B'whaa?" you may be asking. These are what, to some eyes, should be my favorite albums by each of these artists. Harrowing raw-nerve lyrics set to road-burned melodies at the trough of each artists' downward spiral. Confronting the darkest impulses of the human condition. Considered by many their respective artistic peaks. Maybe so, but I pull them out so infrequently that I couldn't sing you most of the songs on either of them, even though I love them. The problem is that I haven't been able to pinpoint why.

The closest I can get is that every instrument has been over EQ'd to death. My ears don't hear like that. You can't spend weeks getting the drums to sound just the way you want them and then set the other instruments to an entirely different set of calibrations. This problem isn't quite as apparent on Berlin, which is largely a collection of "piano and strings" showtunes anyway. But I've been in a lot of rooms with a lot of sloppy rock bands, and while all the playing and activity on Tonight's The Night is "correct", the sound of it isn't. I'm betting that coke and quaaludes have something to do with it, too.

Are there others? By that I mean good records from the pre-punk '70s that just sound wrong to you? I'm sure somebody out there could come up with a good list.

Monday, November 30, 2009


So, I don't do this often, but I wrote a pissy post this morning about a particular record label that I would now like to redact. Pissiness limply tossed at an irritiating but ultimately peripheral antagonist is no way to live one's life. Confident, incisive, heat-seeking ire is the way to go about it.

So, post redacted (cause it was poor, unfocused griping), but the point still stands, if you had the chance to read it.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

My Little Blue Window/Radio Silence

Recently, a lot of my listening has been taken up by one Mr. Elvis Costello, or as some of you may know him, "Declan MacManus: International Art Thief". I've been a huge Costello fan since high school, which may explain why I wasn't exactly a ladies' man, but it was also reassuring to know that there were other angry nerds out there. My Costello listening never really ceased since then, but for me, it's certainly more of an autumn/winter thing, and I've recently pulled out my EC discography from its digital crate.

It seems that whenever I pull out ol' Declan's records, I not only discover new things about the records that I love (which is most of them, but I'm certainly partial to his '77-'80 output, from My Aim Is True to Get Happy!!), but I usually discover a new record once a year or so. Apparently, I'd never cleaned my ears out to bother to listen to his 2002 "comeback", When I Was Cruel. it seems to be the weird, dark, seething record that he was threatening to make back in '91 with Mighty Like A Rose. The great thing about Elvis is that he's never really been pigeonholed by people who know his music. Sure the "angry young man" image sticks in people's minds, but he's always been as stylistically shifting as even David Bowie, he just changes shape within the "post-New Wave songwriter" boundary. Everything on When I Was Cruel seems dark and muffled, giving it a similar vibe, if not exactly sound, of groups like Massive Attack. That haunted, dark, angry sound is a welcome refresher to those of us who love Costello's razor-sharp wordplay. I've been on record since I was 17 as digging his Burt Bacharach collab, but that was a little sweeter - nobody can pen a put-down like Costello.

Back in '02, I was doing summer duty at a mall record store when I was home from college, and we were pretty restricted as to what we could play (thanks, GloboCorpMedia, Inc.), but When I Was Cruel certainly got lots of play from me, but I wasn't giving it a fair shake, cause I was young and angry, and it wasn't This Year's Model. So I've heard the record, but I'm 7 years late in getting to it's glorious, muffled anger - so what's your point, Mike?

My point is that I'm sick of the Day Glo, pseudo-cheerful 80's retroism of today. It's like people have fooled themselves into feeling things that they're not actually feeling. I'll freely admit that I don't understand why anyone would live at that surface level all the time, but I think that some of these people genuinely think that they feel certain things, but it's all ironic, and some of them don't even know it:
Teen2: Are you being sarcastic, dude?
Teen1: (shakes head) I don't even know anymore.

Maybe it's because we're coming out of a dark time, and some of the people in their late teens and early 20s weren't properly emotionally equipped to deal with being plunged into a paranoid era about 8 years ago. The '80s were pretty Day Glo and there was the constant threat of nuclear war. It's back again. But I was old enough to deal with it. And I'm bitter. Bitter at those people, bitter at the spirit of the era, bitter that nobody else seems to be feeling what I'm feeling. Ignoring it with solipsistic dance squiggles and silly haircuts doesn't protect you from fear - you have to fool yourself when all is said and done.

So I'm going to start writing some lyrics for the album I've got in the can. And they're going to be bitter. Because nobody else seems to be doing it with any articulation or conviction. Fuck this dance music. Things might be getting better, but bopping to reheated, rehashed Synth-Pop horseshit isn't going to make this any better. Duran Duran was bullshit then, and their progeny still are. You can't dance your troubles away when the world is falling apart. They say that those that don't know their history are condemned to repeat it, and apparently they've never heard the tale of Nero fiddling while Rome burned.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Don't Know About You, But...

i-ron-y: [ahy-ruh-nee, ahy-er-]
5. an outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been, expected.


So, I'm going through my thrice-a-year Pixies binge, because I'm pretty convinced that they might be in contention for the highly unexpected position of "one of my favorite bands ever".

I didn't really like the Pixies when I first heard them.

Annette, a manager at the restaurant I worked at in high school, loaned me Doolittle... passing it along to me like it was a secret. I assume this is the way people with older siblings find out about cool music. I had to mooch off my friends' older siblings. This would have been about '96 (I think), and I just didn't get along with the record. It was a little scratchity, almost too quirky, and the screaming wasn't really my bag at the time. I was just out of my "nothing but hardcore" phase (done with screaming), and the mysterious ambience of Guided By Voices (which she also loaned me, at the same time) held a lot more sway over my listening habits. Everything about the Pixies seemed so out front and clear and flat, like a photograph or film, while GBV was murky and deep.

But I diligently taped it, and kept going back to that cassette ever couple of weeks. I didn't really like it, but I couldn't help but want to listen to it more - it was like a compulsion. I didn't feel like I needed to like it, but it was so alien to me, I just wanted to see if it was as strange as I remembered it being. Naturally, as happens with most listeners (usually earlier than it did with me), I had some sort of epiphany with that record, and it was like a sudden, jolting realization when I understood I was listening to it wrong. I was taking all my preconceived notions - about it being a seminal "alternative rock" album, an influence on Nirvana that never broke through 'cause it was too weird, and the way that fans a generation ahead of me talked about it - and filtering through that.

All I had to do was open my ears and realize that it was just great music, you know? These were pop songs. Skewed, fractured, with scratchy mariachi guitars and screaming and stomping, but they were also 2:30 pop tunes. Shortly after I had this realization, I finally understood why Weezer had constantly been pegged as Pixies soundalikes. "Debaser" could have been on the Blue Album with a different vocal track. The more I listened, the more I liked it. The more I liked it, the more I listened. It was a good time to be an obsessive high schooler.

As I kept writing songs, in my so-called "punk rock" attempts to get away from "classic rock" songwriting (rootsy, verse-chorus-verse, maybe an acoustic guitar), I was drawn to the way their songs were short, like punk, and they were just played wrong as well. Where my primitive tunes had 8 bars of verse, 8 bars of chorus, 4 bars of bridge, 8 bars of chorus again, these Pixies albums were full of moments where they'd play a riff 7 times instead of 8, giving it this weird push-pull, with unexpected changes that actually SURPRISED me. And if Black Francis was the heart of the band, Kim Deal was the soul. She was what really hooked me overall. The frontman was scary, screaming like a deranged hobo about aliens and whores and surrealist films, but Deal's charming normalcy and audible sweetness was reassuring - as though to say "Hey, I know this is weird, but it's cool Go with it... it'll be a fun ride." As prickly as Black Francis seemed (as though he'd flip out at any moment), Kim had this sort of "Oh, Charles...!" vibe that didn't defuse the insanity, it just made it seem like a lot more fun.

All of the records are good, although my favorite often changed. Doolittle is probably their objective best, the most realized combination of fucked-up weirdness and hyper-catchy spazz-pop. Lots of my friends claim that Surfer Rosa is, like, THE ONE, and I know a few people who think that Trompe Le Monde is the best thing they did, due to the combination of heaviness and texture (the keyboards on that are actually really good). I'm the only person I know who really likes Bossanova, thanks to my love of surf music and space rock, although I know it's probably their weakest album. My favorite is Come On Pilgrim, not because I think it's their best, but because it's the most unique. All the songs sound like they were recorded live, in that order, on the same day, over the course of about 45 minutes. No super hits (no pop magic like "Wave Of Mutilation" or "Velouria"), and every one of those songs is catchy, but sounds like no other song I've heard before. And it was their first EP! How does a band do that?!?

What's the point of all this rambling? I'm coming to terms with the fact that while they've always been a band I really liked, and obviously thought was great, they may have just edged up into that rarified strata of "Mike's Favorite EVER Acts", up there with The Ramones, The Clash, Elvis Costello, et al. I would not have expected that the band I put on in high school and though "Too shrill. Too quirky." would end up a perennial favorite. And I stand by my assessment the other day. I am in the "Breeders" stage of my life right now. I no longer FEEL the way these songs feel. But they sure do compliment each other well.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bedhead Residue: More Scrapings From The Bottom Of The Top Of The Decade

The Strokes - "Is This It?"

I was wondering if I should even consider mentioning The Strokes in my (too-long-dormant) discussion of the Best Records Of The Decade (TM), and I've decided it's going to be necessary. Whether they make it in to the party remains to be seen, but I liked First Impressions Of Earth much more than I expected to, and besides, the NME list is out today, placing the Strokes at the top.

To shift gears for a minute and get all political, I'm of the opinion that no matter what else Barack Obama has done for the country, he's unified a large part of it. What will happen remains to be seen, but the idea that so many people were so fervent about making the administrative change, that he brought unity to the people, a sense of activism, a push to DO rather than "have done for". People being lazy, after the election, slid back to their old ways, largely, but for a minute there, it was one icon inspiring all of US to make something happen.

The Strokes were the Obama of their day.

I heard from every damn angle about this band when their first EP came out and the press went wild. The banned album covers, the trebly, buzzing sound coming from a dirty guitar through an amp. Touchstones of everything from Television to the Velvet Underground. People were STOKED. And this was a good thing. Sure, it may have ended up being a big ol' disappointment overall, but that garage rock revival had a lot of cool music bubble up to the charts. The Hives? America should be GRATEFUL for that happening after the sugary pop of the late '90s. The Strokes (well, the press surrounding the Strokes) reminded everyone that rock 'n' roll was still there, and in the process, made a really good garage-pop record. "Last Night" still sounds like Tom Petty, riffs are lifted here and there from some of your tamer (but hipper) punk forebears (New York Dolls, I'm looking at you!), but it's a neat little album with a sexy cover and one track that caused some post-9/11 lyrical stink. But it opened the gates. People were trying to market the VINES as a garage band. They were awful! But no matter, it reminded everyone that you can crank up and amp, bang on a riff, and howl out some hip jive and you were a rock and roller.

It's the music that matters, yeah, but there are always certain trappings that influence the tunes, and these boys had it DOWN. Sure, they were rich kids playing punk, but weren't Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine just prep-school runaways? Wasn't Lou Reed just a grumpy English major? Artfully mussed hair and perfect Beatle Boots might not make the album, but they sure help sell it. And sold it was. I had a stick up my ass (based on The Wilco Principle) about being told what I had to like. So I resisted. I knew about the White Stripes already anyway, and that was more my bag. I'd rather listen to the Oblivions or the Gories than something that Spin Magazine told me was "hot". Who cares about all that. It's a good rock and roll record.

Context aside, Is This It? is a really good record, that I heartily enjoyed once I got past my pissy contrarianism. Taken IN context, one of the best records of the decade. Just avoid the one that came after it.

Beat It, I Wanna Hang Out With The Psycho Mafia

It's never good when you're having a foul day by 8:30 AM. Too many people around me spitting negative vibes has cast its long shadow over me - I'm only human - and now I'm seething, gnashing, lashing out. I'm feeling pissy and just want to be left alone. Anymore, when I'm in this mood, I don't tend to want to thrash about or pound pound pound my head to clanging electro-industrial beats like I did in my youth. Anymore, it's something low and rumbling like Tricky, or something fully crotchety like The Fall.

I never used to like the Fall all that much. I filed them in with early Gang Of Four as "post punk that everyone seems to love, but is a little too dissonant and dry and amelodic for my taste". I was, of course, gravely mistaken. I knew, however, that I just hadn't heard the "right" entry point, out of their 2,487 albums and EPs. I think the first one I had was a cassette of The Infotainment Scan in middle school. Eh. Not the best point to start at on either count. I heard that they started kinda Northern UK Punk-y, so I picked up Live At The Witch Trials and Early Years and liked 'em, but as a punk fan, they struck me as a case of a non-punk band doing the punk thing, and doing it quite well, but it felt like by enjoying them, I was shortchanging a band that, apparently, was quite a bit more than that. Sort of like really digging on Joy Division's recordings as Warsaw, or the first couple of Police singles - they're all good work by bands that went on to do more interesting things in related fields. But to define those bands by that work would be rather limiting and shortsighted. I was lost as to where to go next, so I tried a few, some were good, some weren't. I guess I was just lost in the wilderness for a while, largely put off by the prickly Mark E. Smith.

The older I get, the more I like Mark E. Smith, in that he might be a complete prick, but he makes no bones about it. He doesn't hide it, and you just know that that's what you're getting.

"Fuck off."

Today, it's been This Nation's Saving Grace. For a while, this "mid-period" for the band seemed a little overproduced, a little les "raw" than the early stuff that I guess I liked, but right now, I want to hear one noisy riff, repeated over and over with frustrated, grey, clanging vigor. I want to hear it decay and start up again, like some sort of broken machine, repeating it's head-nodding, rhythmic fervor over and over and over. The Fall, as music, is equivalent to watching a band like Pere Ubu from outside the room, only to have the door slammed in your face for peeking in. They don't give a rat's ass about you. Or anyone. Not only is it surprising that they release this music to the public at all, but that they release it in HUGE volumes. But even still, they don't care if you buy it, really. Which I guess is what made the music so impenetrable for me for so long. It's completely uncompromising in a way that so much avant music wasn't. Where Beefheart and the Residents created a new language for you to listen to, The Fall just play droning vulgarities in a language you already know, only they're not talking to you. They don't go out of their way to be weird or difficult, they just are.

So bug off, everyone. Leave me alone. Leave me with my Fall LPs.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Can't Fight The Breeders

I'm getting older, I realize. See, nowadays, I want to live at the Breeders, and visit the Pixies. I realize that this statement might seem silly and crazy, but when I was a youth, I was amped up and wired and on edge and constantly on the verge of freaking out - i.e., my reality was similar to the vibe I get from the Pixies' oeuvre. I used to like to vacation in the Land of the Breeders, a hazy, noisy, pretty place with mountains and pretty harmonies. No less rockin', but a little less spazzoid.

Now that I've mellowed with age, I often feel a certain placidity and calm, and like to occasionally get nuts and bounce off the walls. Unfortunately, other than rounding up some singles 'n' b-sides 'n' stuff, I didn't have a lot of background music for that feeling. The Breeders haven't been the most prolific band of the past 20 years... 4 albums? The enjoyable but less-than-epochal Title TK aside, however, each of them has been downright magical.

There are very few recording acts that just completely confound me. I'd like to think that I'm a pretty well-versed music consumer and creator. I know how certain sounds are made, and I know how to achieve that, and how it all fits together. I may not always be able to speak the language, but I can understand what you're saying to me. However, there are those rarified acts that I just can't fathom how they put together that sequence of sounds and timbres to make the music I'm hearing, and often, the Breeders are one of them. The way the Deal sisters put the parts of a song together is completely confusing to me. Which could be part of the appeal. The best part of it, though, is, much like the Early Day Miners, the wizards behind the curtain are almost completely without pretense.

Maybe it's the Deal sisters' Ohio roots, or the down-to-earth mentality I keep seeing around Boston (Kim's temporary home in her Pixies days), but it seems like a completely unaffected piece of primitive art. To assume that the Deals are some kind of savants is doing them a major disservice, though - don't underestimate these women. They know their field, to be sure. But part of the reason that everyone loves them (in the same way people love their Dayton neighbor, Bob Pollard), is that they seem like people you could know, regular people, who have this other side to them that creates this magical atmosphere. Maybe it's her deadpan Midwest accent, but Kim Deal has always reminded me of someone who could have been my babysitter when I was a kid. A little older than me, waaay cooler, but still wouldn't mind eating cereal and watching cartoons. The key, however, is that this side of the band is never distinct from the lush, jagged, hauntingly crushing music that they can whip up like a fever dream. It's not distinct, and in fact the music would be weaker if that side of the personality wasn't visible through the haze.

The Breeders, though, like myself, have mellowed with age. Their 2009 self-released EP, Fate To Fatal, is a wonderful follow-up to the stellar Mountain Battles. There are lots of stories about these people, including nasty band break-ups, drug addcitions, arrests, bad feelings, back-biting - but all that really, truly feels in the past. Like Mountain Battles, there's a sort of, err, "elder statesmen" vibe to this, that says to me "been there, done that, who cares? let's just kick back a little..." It's not that the songs are lacking anything, but without the constant threat of everything suddenly falling apart, the four songs here are allowed to breathe a little bit. There was a day when any new music from the Breeders was met with baited breath, simply due to the scarcity and the event surrounding it all. Despite the fact that it's now a different era, the fanbase is still there, and it's actually nice to hear music like this without the crushing weight of anticipation. It seems like it's nice to the band, too, becuase this feels a lot more alive and organic than most of the other records I've listened to this year. Add it to the list!

[Bonus points to any reader who can tell me why I found the title of this post so damn funny when I wrote it.]

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Gettin' SAD: Keeping Your Chin Up In The Clutches Of Autumn

Fall is once again upon us (at least those of us up here in the Great Northeast), and I've only seemed to make that definitive the night before last, when I put the new album by Early Day Miners on the turntable and let that slow swell of mood once again creep over my very soul. Not bad, per se, just a sort of isolated loneliness that is hard to combat, no matter now much happiness and how many loved ones you surround yourself with.

I'm one of those guys that gets SAD (that's seasonal affective disorder, kids) like clockwork, and the fact that I've been off the Prozac for far too long is putting me in a very melancholic state of mind. Perusing the upcoming album release calendars tells me that, barring and huge surprises, the EDM record will probably be the last "great" album of the year in my book. I mean, the Tom Waits live album will be fun but not revelatory, the Nirvana set at Reading '92 will certainly be enjoyable, but I've had a bootleg of that for years. Where does that leave me... the abysmal new Weezer album? This time of year is usually the point where I tend to stop looking forward for a few minutes and just exist. Lately, that's meant a lot of Brian Eno and "comfort music" - perennial favorites that I know so well I don't really need to LISTEN to them, just have them there as a companion. Some dub reggae, the Clash, Stooges, and the aforementioned Nirvaner (Boston pronunciation).

So what now? There's a debate in my mind as to whether to make a concerted effort to uplift my mood with bright, jangly pop that could make even the heaviest heart step lighter, whether to compliment my mood with autumnal music to ponder the great questions, or whether to explode it all and start listening to things that are so unrelated and all-over-the-place in mood that I don't know what to think and I'll just find myself confused. The problem with the first option is that most of that jangly power pop is ultimately of the blues tradition of singing a happy melody to cheer yourself up. Seriously, Altered Beast or Bandwagonesque or even the first Gin Blossoms album is beautiful, but once you listen to the lyrics, you'll be reaching for the nearest razor blade. The problem with the second option is that if I lean too hard on the "complimentary" music, it could teeter things too far to that side and I'll end up worse off than I am now. When you have evocative music to be plaintive to, it's easy for that to snowball. And as far as the third option... well, The Residents alone cannot sustain a man.

So the big question is, what makes for good autumn music? Right now, I'm leaning toward some psych-flecked Mod pop from the mid-'60s - The Creation, The Smoke, Nuggets II - because it's peppy enough to keep me upbeat, but most of the lyrics are so evocative and impressionistic that they don't really SAY anything to me. It's too cold out to really rock out to some sweaty garage rock, so the Dirtbombs and their ilk are largely off the table. Is there anything that might speak to me but keep me from feeling completely bummed for the next couple of months?

We here at Central Target turn to you, Dear Reader, for your sage advice!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Long-Term Effect

I can't really even listen to Pornography anymore.

I was almost sure that when I grew up, I would outgrow my love of The Cure. I hoped I'd never lose that connection to a bundle of music that I really loved in my youth, but even then, it seemed like something I might grow out of. The older I get, though, the more I find to love about their discography. The strange thing is, though, it's not the same aspects that I'm attracted to, even if it is the same songs.

When I was a teen (let's say 15-18), I was a tried-and-true punk rocker. I loved the Clash and Black Flag, but the Cure were one of my first tentative steps into a different world, a less didactic world. It might have been Jon Savage that said something like, "Punk rock was all about saying 'fuck you', post-punk was about saying 'I'm fucked.'" Few bands did this with as much panache as the Cure, creating their own sonic world that was wonderful and terrifying and haunted and haunting and scary and angry and thrilling. I used to pore over their records, loving both the epic bummed-ness of their "big album statements" like Disintegration and their collections of pop tunes, each one a different flavor of delightful.

The Cure are, without a doubt, a band that is talented at writing songs. I connected to those songs because they gave a bored teenager a window into another world, where it was a little more fun. In hindsight, I had a wonderful setting for adolescence, but in the moment, there is nowhere on earth that is more boring than the suburbs of a mid-sized Midwestern city. The manicured lawns of the outskirts of Cincinnati aren't exactly a breeding ground for vibrancy and culture and the arts. But it was a wonderfully safe setting to start plumbing the depths of my own mind, all to a soundtrack of swirling effects and tumultuous emotional content.

What astounded me in the car on the way to my adult job this morning was that while I will always have a connection to some of the Cure albums I spent most of my youth loving, it's the ones that I didn't spend as much time with that are connecting to me more and more in my adult life. I used to be able to auto-point to 1982's terror-noir Pornography and 1987's pop kaleidoscope Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me as my favorite albums, while qualifying that Disintegration was probably their best work. These days, my music doesn't necessarily need to transport me to somehwere else, and the more I listen to them (especially the lovely remasters that came out a few years ago), the more I find that Seventeen Seconds and Faith are becoming my favorites. They're "normal" music that's going just slightly askew and sinister. I've always LIKED them, but listening to them in the city in the beginning of autumn is like putting on the high-tech Ray-Bans in They Live - it almost reveals a whole new layer of the world that's just slightly out of phase with real life. Sonically, they're far more indebted to Wire or maybe a snappier Joy Division or Comsat Angels than the huge, keyboard-laden songs with 2 minute intros that they'd later develop. Now that I have grown-up things to do, places to go, and a setting that's a little more stimulating than the 'burbs, I don't need to fall backwards into a fantastical sea like I did when I'd stay up all night before school, listening to Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and writing for hours (although that might not be a terrible idea). And regardless of changing favorites, Disintegration is still a masterpiece, still their greatest singular acheivement.

It's not that I have any less love for the gnarled nightmare of Pornography or tracks like "Shake Dog Shake". As evidence of a person dangerously close to the edge, they're remarkable. I love to play the '84 live album Concert to people who slag off the band as a bunch of made-up pop mopers (it's a dark, terrifying post-punk record by a remarkably tight band), and while The Top might be messy, it's far from the disaster people claim. But I investigated that aspect of my psyche when I was younger - I've tested my limits, and don't need to obsess over an abyss of unrelentingly bleak sonic psychology. There are moments on Pornography that rank among my very favorite recorded moments. But that record was so close to me for so long that it's nice to put it on a shelf and know where it is when I want to get to it. It's such a powerful record for me that it's hard to listen to it with any distance - and without distance, it's just a tar-black ooze that will roll over you. OK, over me. But it's a magnificent album that I almost never have the urge to listen to. Brent, if you're reading this, please add it to your list of albums that can be just downright scary.

But the older I get, the more I appreciate some of the nuances of the post-punk music I listened to years ago, and those early albums are really wonderful. They're the sound of a basic pop songwriter blossoming into something more. Live recordings of the '81-era band sound like punk tunes and speeds bursting at the seams to illustrate something... more. And it's that look at real normal life with something else underneath, something indefineable, that really comes across as thrilling. Short hair, no makeup, touring in a little van, but willing to dig deeper without it being forced - that's why I love the early Cure. Try 'em out... you might like them:

"A Forest", "Three Imaginary Boys", "Killing An Arab" 1979 Paris

"Grinding Halt", 1980 Boston

[Incidentally, when I met my fiancee and future wife, I was at the height of my Cure phase. She was just in her office writing a short biography of how we met for our wedding website. That night, I was wearing my lucky "Wild Mood Swings" t-shirt, and even played a ham-fisted, punky version of "Fascination Street" at the soundcheck. Funny how life works, isn't it?]

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Punky Screams, Robot Rock, And Album-Cover Panties: Spinnerette Crosses The Radar

I used to have a couple of Distillers records, but then my hard drive crashed.

My friend Kevin is a big fan, and what with my casual interest in the punk rock, he thought I'd like them. So a couple of years ago, I picked up Coral Fang and (I think) the self-titled one, and liked them, more than most things I hear on Hellcat/Epitaph/whatever punk label they're on. I could never believe that it was actually a woman singing those songs, cause those were some gnarly, raspy, whiskey-and-razorblade vocals. But, they sounded good and I liked them, although I got most of my "gutter punk" love out in one concentrated burst in high school, I do enjoy it, and they were a lot more tuneful than their often too-grimy-for-my-ears bred'ren.

Point being, that I heard them, I liked them, and then I rarely bothered to walk over to the corner I kept them in, you know? Which is why I'm as surprised as anyone that Brody Dalle's new project, Spinnerette, just put out a record that's now in the running for my Top Ten of '09, a good year for my listening if there ever was one.

See, I went to Kevin's wedding last weekend, and he set me up with the Distillers discography, to replace the ones I ripped and sold. They came in MUCHO handy on our drive from Warsaw, IN to the Indy airport, because on the way up, we had no CDs in the rental car - just rural Indiana radio. Which is grim. Christian Country and Regular Country grim. "All-Skynyrd Weekend" grim. But listening to those Distillers records again in an isolated environment reminded me of just how (*ahem*) tuneful they are. Kevin had played me a little bit from frontwoman Brody's new project Spinnerette, which is to Queens of the Stone Age as the Distillers were to Rancid. Apparently, Brody's a gal who tends to shapeshift depending on her current beau (not true, but it's an easy analogy to make, and I'm feeling tired and lazy*), and while it's not a WILD departure, it certainly sounds more like current dude Josh Homme's band than her mush-mouthed ex's mohawk brigade.

The opener, "Ghetto Love", sets the tone, with robotic (yeah, I used it again) drums/claps, a fuzzed out Devo bassline, but downtuned, like the Network gone a little sexier and a little more badass. Brody reveals her inner Rachel Nagy, applying her rasp not to a punky yowl, but a snarling croon. I never listened to the Distillers for their sex appeal, but Spinnerette sounds like a sexy, amp-fuzzed assembly line. Brody's probably at her best here, as far as vocals are concerned. As much as I love a crazy-ass Australian punk woman screaming bloody murder at me, this record connects a little more with my hips. The mixing on the record, as well, pushes the Queens comparisions, but they're really comparisons that could be made to any of the projects in that Homme/Goss/Johannes axis - parts appear out of nowhere, set strangely in the stereo field, surprising you with dry, up-front backing vocals, or reverbing a bassline into near-oblivion. Its effect might be a straightforeward hard rock record, but none of the parts tell you that's where it's going... it might as well be a primer for psychedelic production with piledriving guitar riffs as the base, "just because".

The playing and production on this are all top notch, with far more apparent care into the actual sonics of the record than the Distillers (hey, that's not a knock, I just know what it's like to record punk rock), but this is clearly Brody's show. Her vocals go from dangerous to delicate, evidenced on the lovely and hauting "Distorting A Code". She sounds effortless, but clearly a lot of thought went into her musical and vocal performances. Delicate and thoughtful are not two adjectives I would have expected to apply to Dalle's vocals 3 years ago, but it's a very pleasant surprise. It's just as carefully-crafted as anything you've ever heard - the sound of a talented but pigeonholed artist wanting to show what she can do. And she is an artist, despite what some might think of the Distillers punk bashing, and this is her "no, really, I can do all KINDS of stuff" album. It's to her credit that she had a clear vision and knew which sympathetic sidemen to pick to acheive it. Does it belong in the Desert Rock family? Absolutely. But it certainly sounds like an original take on it. My love of punk rock girls and talented artists and bludgeoning riff-rock and robotic pop hooks all tell me I love this record, and I do. So there we go. Spinnerette is now in the running for one of the highly coveted spots on my Top Ten of '09 List.

[*Yeah, it's glib, and I shouldn't feel the need to justify a pithy comment in an otherwise flattering review, but upon review, her intentions certainly seem genuine, and the artists she's quoted as influences seem feasable. Brody deserves better, as a woman in rock, than for some douche like me to make a sexist comment like "she sounds like whatever man-rocker she hangs around", although I might make the same comparision if she were a guy in the bands, not dating the respective frontmen. If the shoe fits, right? But this is more Queens than Rancid.]

Friday, October 9, 2009

Today's Editorial Mistake: Brought To You By The Internet

If you've been here before, you most likely know my contempt for the hyping machinations of, which I won't even do the service of linking to. I've been thinking a lot about my own creative outlets recently, and while I was perusing the internet today, came across their review of former Queens Of The Stone Age bassist Nick Oliveri's solo album, Death Acoustic. I heartily enjoy the Queens (to the surprise of many of my friends), but am certainly no diehard or historian, but today's reviewer states the following:
...when he offers up lines like, "I use crystal methane by the boatload/ I live off straight booze, I just don't fucking care," in "Outlaw Scumfuc", you don't really question the validity of that statement for a second. In some sense, it's effective songwriting, as the listener gets some insight into Oliveri's persona...

Without bothering to reference the fact that the song "Outlaw Scumfuc" (charming title, isn't it?) was originally written and recorded by one G.G. Allin, one of the most disgusting, depraved people to walk the earth. I have no real problem with the song, the cover, or Oliveri's choice, but nobody bothered to check the liner notes? Fuck this noise... I'm out.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

"Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before"



I was a Smiths fan in high school, despite the horrible, dated production on most of their records. Johnny Marr (who most of you kids would know from Modest Mouse), was a genius guitarist in the age of synths, and their tunes were undeniable. But there's the Morrissey Problem.

I'm not British, so he's not representing any segment of my youth culture (unless you count too-smart-for-their-own-good, self-styled poet-types), and anyway, I came to the party about, oh, ten years too late to really identify with his political views.

Put simply, Moz (as his MOST pretentious fans refer to him) was about as irritatingly affected and pretentious as a singer could get, just shy of Bono on the self-importance scale. So why is it that I've kept listening to his records for so many years?

The Smiths aspect of the equation should be self-evident: Johnny Marr. I love the way he plays guitar, I like the way he integrates himself into the sound of a band, and I like the songwriting style. Plus, he gave Morrissey a foil, in two regards. Firstly, he pushed Le Pompadour into his best singing to match the sparkling, overchorused guitar work, secondly, the personality clash kept the frontman in line. Lennon needs a McCartney, Mick needs a Keef, and dear God, Morrissey needs a Marr.

Once he went solo, he still needed that strong collaborator. On his first two (admittedly wonderful) solo releases, it was producer Stephen Street, who, by virtue of his having worked with the Smiths in the past, understood the man's strengths. After a nasty falling out, his second official album, Kill Uncle (sans Street) was terrible. He teamed up with former Bowie sideman Mick Ronson for Your Arsenal, which was once again wonderful, primarily due to Ronson's ability to keep "The Hair" in check. However, since then, he's allowed his self-indulgence to overwhelm, and despite a few enjoyable moments per record (especially 2004's You Are The Quarry, he's slipped into middling irrelevance.

"But wait", you're thinking. "You're telling me all the reasons that Morrissey sucks, not why you've been listening to him all these years." Well, that's true. The last piece of the puzzle is the fact that he knows how to write a great hook and melody. "William, It Was Really Nothing", "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want", "Panic", "Girlfriend In A Coma", "Everyday Is Like Sunday", and "How Soon Is Now", among DOZENS of others have instantly memorable hooks and melodies. Since most of those titles are the hook, I can barely type them without singing them. Sure, they're beautiful melodies often delivered in the most affected, self-important way possible, but it's still a beautiful melody. Give it to someone else with a half a way with a tune, and let them sing it. It will STILL be a beautiful melody. The fact that a song like, for instance, "London", has such a good melody AND such interesting guitar playing is almost criminal. It would still be a great song with either or... it's almost unfair that it's got so much going for it!

Obviously, my critique is biased toward the "Smiths" years. His solo efforts do seem to wallow in melancholy and hyper-literate moping, but, for example, in "Everyday Is Like Sunday" the soaring glide of the vocals over the synthesized music really gives the images a beautiful power. The lyrics are alright, the music is alright, but that vocal pushes it into another territory altogether, making it even more frustrating that so much of his recent work has seemed so truly bland.

So I'm going to maybe stop bitching about what a douche Morrissey can be. That's not to say I'm any less irritated by his navel-gazing narcissism, it's just that this whole grudging respect thing is harder than it looks. And I don't want to have to stop listening to "How Soon Is Now" any time in the near future.

[Incidentally, a close personal friend of mine does an amazing dance whenever Morrissey comes on the radio - arms straight up over the head, wrists together fingers dangling, a saaaad look on the face and a little mopey hip wiggle. It's like the saddest, most effeminate palm tree you've ever seen. It's called the "Morrissey Dance"]

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Treatment Is In The Medium, The Message Is The Cure

Just when things get boring and I can't seem to find a new band to thrill and swoon to, the universe will unveil for me a reason to keep on digging. I've been experimenting with guitar ambience and musical space for a while now, and just as it seems like my only options are shoegazer gravedigging or moving on to power pop, I get the opportunity to see one of the (unfortunately) secret prizes of the Midwest or any region - Early Day Miners.

Now, there is a bit of bias here. I used to work with their record label, as I lived in their hometown of Bloomington, IN. But that's where the bias ends. They might be a perfect fit for the wide-open spaces of southern Indiana, their haunted guitar lines echoing through a thousand cornfields, but Bloomington is too often a fickle mistress, and while it's nurtured them, it's never given them the due they deserve.

Their new album, The Treatment, is not so much a departure from their previous work as another angle. People (well, critics) too often mistake a consistent artistic vision for complacency, but I'm going to lay it down for you: while their records often don't sound dramatically different from one another, EDM explores variations of a theme, mining (ha!) the space between notes for as much drama and depth as the notes themselves. Sparse has practically been the raison d'ĂȘtre for this combo, but the new album adds an unexpected twist: pop songs.

As much as I love the band, I'd be hard pressed until yesterday to sing you one of their songs. There are tracks that I like, and the melody in those songs tends to bury itself in the whole movement and breathing of the song, almost as if each inhale and exhale were the melody. Beautiful and intricate, with songs gently shifting from one to the next, but "poppy" wouldn't be a word for it. Last night, the lineup was certainly stripped down from the 6 or 7 piece version that I've seen over the past few years, consisting of drummer Marty Sprowles, bassist Jonathan Richardson, guitarist John Dawson, and vocalist and guitarist Dan Burton, who doubles on keyboards. The first surprise was the rhythm section - what was previously a rumbling monster, all tom fills and powerful drama, is now focused, sharp and driven. Sprowles keeps things here tight, clipped, and snappy, propelling the band with a motorik sensibility, even if his playing is more complex. Richardson's bass, however, is the anchor of the band. Never dull, never calling immediate attention to itself, but holding the bulk of the clearest melodic aspects, these two click into a post-punk groove that wouldn't sound out of place on the first Comsat Angels record. A bass-and-drums combo this tight gives the guitarists room to move by remaining steady as a rock, but not steady at the expense of soul. Rarely do I find myself watching the bassist and drummer at a concert as much as I found myself last night, marvelling at the way things seemed to click perfectly into place.

But as a guitar player, it was the guitar that's always seduced me on their previous records. Although it's anyone's guess what transpired in the studio, in the live setting, it was Burton's textures that laid a bed for Dawson's stinging leads to rest on. While Burton had his work cut out for him (at one point he was playing his keyboard, his amp controls, and his effects board at the same time), while it only took some well-placed echo and reverb to make the ringing leads seem larger than life. I'm still amazed every time I see them that this few people are able to create the sounds coming out of the speakers. So we've got a tight, snapping, growling rhythm section, slicingly concise leads, and more spatial textures than you can shake a stick at. Now what was that about pop songs? Oh yeah, I found myself and others in the all-too-thin crowd singing along by the second or third go-round of most of the choruses. There was even a little dancing. In the same way that great bands like Codeine, Galaxie 500, and the aforementioned Comsat Angels were able to create amazing pop songs that almost shunned attention - the songs passing themselves off like obvious secrets, inherently understood - the Early Day Miners write anthems without being preening. Had U2 not desired to rule the world and remained an atmospheric pop band (and maybe traded in that blowhard singer), they would be lucky to be making albums that sounded like this.

So what does all this mean? It means that all the people who have accused Early Day Miners of having the sound but not the tunes need to ear their words. It might be a bit of a development, but listening back to the earlier albums, such as 2005's masterful All Harm Ends Here, all the ingredients are there - the band merely seems like they were merely choosing to ignore the poppier side for the atmospheric until now, acknowledging it's presence and keeping it on the shelf for later. Now that they've chosen to release it, it proves just how adept they are at crafting soundscapes: these ones actually sound pretty catchy.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Add It Up: More Remainders From The Decade's Math Equation

[Here's another entry for the pool of those deserving of being considered for the top honors of the decade: my best-of-decade list. Maybe they'll make it, maybe they won't, but they deserve a shot... they could be contenders!]

The Raveonettes - "Chain Gang Of Love"
Snobs claim to like their first EP/LP better, their third album is nobody's favorite, and Lust, Lust, Lust is probably a better record, honestly. But this is about moments, not just records. When this came out at the tail end of the summer of '03, the heat was winding down, but the world was jsut warming up. 2002 started as a pretty bleak year, after all, and it stayed that way, right in the middle of the first Bush term. Things sucked. Suddenly there was a single on the radio that sounded like Phil Spector mixed with heavenly static, white noise... meaning it sounded just like the Jesus And Mary Chain. This optimistic song (seemingly) about love was slamming through of TARGET commercials, and noiseniks like me were sitting jaw-dropped as we heard what sounded for all the world like 1980s Creation Records noise-pop blasting out at us at Applebee's. Some could easily argue that A Place To Bury Strangers took the Psychocandy sound and updated it, rather than swimming in its simple pleasures, with APTBS ultimately bettering the earlier Raveonettes album. But I don't need to defend Chain Gang Of Love... I'll let the feedback do it for me.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

True Love May Wait, But It's Fans Will Tell You Just How Much Better It Really Is

It's not lost on me that I may have a reputation as a bit of a curmudgeon - a so-called stick in the mud when it comes to certain things that I'm supposed to be a fan of. I very much dislike being told what I like, and the rise of the indie rock blog critic has only exacerbated what I see as a nasty case of cultural elitism. You see, everyone wants to think that what they like is cool, and I have certainly been guilty of that in the past, and probably will be again. However there are two examples in the past decade that have driven me so up the wall that I felt I needed to step back and re-assess my opinion, just to make sure I wasn't holding an opinion purely for pride.

First, there's Wilco. I'm not going to talk much about Wilco, because after going back and listening to them again, I still don't like them. I understand why people like them, but I find them ponderous, faux-"regular guy" art rock and even the addition of the otherwise wonderful Nels Cline to their lineup can't save them for me. Sorry folks, but I'm just closing the book on that train with a handily mixed simile.

It's the hyperbole that swirls around the heads of Radiohead fans that irritates me in a peculiar fashion. It's not that I can't stand Radiohead, and it's not exactly a case of "good band, lousy fans". I'll admit that I still have a certain reactionary instinct regarding the band, but it primarily derives from what I feel is a lack of attention by their most ardent supporters to what the band is actually telling them, and a desperate movement to read what they want into what may or may not be there.

But let's rewind. I bought The Bends in '96 and remember loving it, but being actively teased in the eighth grade because it wasn't Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden. I'm dead serious. Whatever. OK Computer comes out in '97 and I love it, as it perfectly correlates with my then-recent discovery of J.G. Ballard's feverish urban nightmares, Burroughs' post-modern cutups, and the idea that the 1997 "Next Big Thing" wave of electronica could be mixed with rock in a bracingly modern way. It was fantastic, and I distinctly remember biking up to K-Mart to buy it the week it came out. This time, just about everyone was on board (well, all the pseudo-musos in high school with me), and we were all living in a Brave New Age. I remember that my friend bought the first US edition of Now! That's What I Call Music, and it had "Karma Police" on it. Seriously. Sandwiched between Aqua and Everclear. It was a fantastic moment for a wonderful big-statement, capitol-letter Album, and deserves to be hailed as one of the first and most interesting records of the Modern Age of Music (despite its now 12-year-old vintage).

Between buying that and the next album, I went to college, in the first explosion of file-sharing. My university, in fact, was one of the first to ban Napster, after the lawsuits started flying, but there was no way to stop online music. I'd become a music hound, absorbing everything I could, soaking it up, spending fistfuls of cash at my local record store for everything from the Jesus And Mary Chain and Faust to early Kraftwerk to Phillip Glass to Ornette Coleman. It was like 50 years of music history (which I also took in school, natch) crammed into a two year period.

So when Kid A came out, I enjoyed it, I bought it, and I listened to it repeatedly... but I didn't find it particularly innovative. Interesting and fascinating to be sure, but there was very little there I hadn't heard on records that were 20 years old by that point. Not to say it wasn't well done, but for every "Treefingers", there was a Brian Eno song, and if "Idiotqeue" wasn't on your copy, I was pretty sure that you could find it on Aphex Twin's Analogue Bubblebath 3. And that's fine... because the band themselves were tellling everyone that it's wasnt revolutionary, it was just a reflection of what they had been listening to. It's not that it was boring, it was a wonderful sort of pop-distillation of the avant-garde that they clearly loved, and it was a wonderful way to both fuck with people's expectations of a prog/art-rock band and bring this esoteric material to the masses. Suddenly, I see Kirsten Dunst on MTV wearing a Radiohead shirt and get treated to a brilliant performance of "Idioteque" on Saturday Night Live. I believe Kate Hudson was hosting, and it was just shocking how wild it seemed. That performance always seemed to get edited out of the reruns, much to my chagrin. While my taste at the time skewed decidedly pop and punk, it's not like I didn't appreciate what they were doing.

Gradually, however, the press (especially that on the 'net), who I recall giving the album a bit of a cold shoulder at first, started winding up. It wasn't the initial reaction, though, which was one of confusion and frustration - where were the songs, maaaaan? We need another twitchy depressed anthem, a la "Paranoid Android"! After a while to let it sink in, it was as if Radiohead had saved music. Fans became fervent, slavering disciples, swearing up and down that you didn't "get" the band unless you heard this live version of the non-album track that they'd found online. Sure, it was nice to see so many people getting so passionate about a seriously interesting band, but I believe that the rise in this serious music, coupled with the sudden widespread usage of the web, made everyone a critic as dour as Radiohead was purported to be. This serious music had to be taken seriously after all, right?

As time went on, Radiohead got bigger and more important, and the more important they got, the less I seemed to care about them. Again, I can't stress enough how good the band was about attempting to defuse this hype - "messiahs" was a term put on them by outside forces, Yorke told everyone to go out and buy Neu! records to see where they were coming from. But suddenly everyone with a (then-new) iPod was a critic, and the line of the day was that if you don't like Radiohead, you don't like "real" music, and if you don't like them, you don't understand them. I understand them fine, thank you very much, but Amneisiac didn't appeal to me (although I wouldn't be glib enough to use the "Kid B" epithet so often thrown at it), and I felt that Hail To The Thief was interesting, but treading water. A band can only redefine music twice, right?

So in my old age (*ahem* twenty-three...), I suddenly became very anti-Radiohead. I still listened to them, but I preferred the records with guitars. As I became a better guitarist, I was aghast that the three-pronged guitar Hydra that twisted and gnarled and spit out The Bends had hung up the guitars in exchange for broken synthesizers and ProTools. I didn't expect them to make that type of record again, and there were certainly enough b-sides and ephemera from that era to tide me over, I just wanted them to do something I hadn't already heard. I was sick of being told that they were the greatest band in the world, and sick that everyone who loved them had a certain superiority complex. "I love music... what do you listen to?" "Well, I listen to Radiohead...", "Oh, you must be so intellectual." It was a sickening cycle of self-satisfaction feeding egotism that I wanted nothing to do with. Leave that to people like my arch nemesis in college (who I'll refer to as M.T.), a self-styled avant musician, comparing Radiohead to the likes of Sid Barret [sic] and telling everyone who didn't get it that they shouldn't bother. Fuck off. A friend of mine who shall remain nameless recently posted on his Facebook page that he thought that while Radiohead might be overexposed, he thought that anyone who said they truly HATED Radiohead was just being a contrarian. While I don't love their recent work, I thought his was a rather close-minded, indie-centric view (and I realize that a status update on Facebook doesn't qualify for a well-planned treatise). People HE knew couldn't hate Radiohead, sure. But I know plenty of brilliant musicians who know their history and would totally understand Radiohead and would probably just loathe them. I hate Antony & the Johnsons, but I bet ol' Antony has fans that couldn't fathom ANYONE not adoring their hero.

But you know what? I've moved on. The fair-weather musicologists are idiots, and I wish they'd move on to something else, but the fact of the matter is that Radiohead is the most interesting band most of these people listen to, and what they listen to is all they have. It's an amazingly interesting record, made all the more astounding by the fact that it was a hit. All the while, Jonny Greenwood is singing the praises of Mo' Wax Records and Amon Duul II, but nobody hears that, they only praise their heroes. It was a bit like Tommy, where, despite his protestations, his acolytes are just hearing what they want to, not caring about what they're being taught.* Nonetheless, for those who cared to listen to the rare interviews the notoriously press-shy band gave, they did their best, and having subsequently worked at the very record store I bought it from, was amazed at the number of people who DID end up discovering some of the influences through Radiohead. Good for the band, good for those brave enough to step up to the counter with an unheard album like Faust IV or Before And After Science.

With a bit of distance from that self-satisfied indie rock scene I ran in, I would go so far as to place Kid A on my list of top albums of the decade, in that not only was it an interesting record, but in the way that Nevermind brought the punk/grunge underground to the surface, Kid A did sort of the same... only this underground was a much older, much more rooted one that may very well be TOO difficult for the average John or Jane Doe. Liking Kid A does not immediately make Can's Ege Bamyasi or Paul Lansky's Smalltalk accessable to peoples' ears. Radiohead moved the mountain, though. They didn't bring the underground to the mainstream, so much as move the mainstream a few inches toward the avant garde. Maybe only a few inches, sure, but it's still a fucking mountain.

For creating a really wonderful album on its own merits, and for changing what a hit album could encompass, I'm adding Kid A to my list of best of the '00s contenders.

*[Of course, since the last act of Tommy was essentially a criticism of organized religion with the hero as a stand in for Christ, I've finally espoused myself into a corner. I'm comparing Radiohead to Jesus. You win, Internet - it's apparently impossible to author a blog without making that comparison.]

Sunday, August 30, 2009

D'You Know What I Mean?: A Long-Distance Look On The Messy Follow-Up

I had the idea for a series of articles for this blog, entitled something like "Middling Bands Make Great Albums", highlighting the one great moment by an otherwise adequate but dismissable band. The idea of writing a whole column about the Goo Goo Dolls' Hold Me Up, however, seemed like a bad idea before I even started, and the whole "Great Band Makes A Mediocre Album" seemed a little obvious and boring, and I don't want to listen to "Hail To The Thief" or "A Ghost Is Born" again if there's not a gun to my head. I've just been looking to contrast the difference in quality between an album and the work that came around it.

So in that spirit, let's talk about Oasis' Be Here Now.

One of the most highly-anticipated rock and roll records of my formative years, Oasis had raised the bar pretty high. I wasn't a fan at the time - too busy listening to serious angst - after all, I was an American who was looking for the next auteur after grunge... I couldn't be bothered with their hippie-Beatles platitudes. But, I couldn't deny that after the larger-than-life rock and roll of Definitely Maybe and the larger-than-that epic balladeering of the (What's The Story) Morning Glory singles factory, the excitement surrounding the imminent release of Be Here Now was palpable. The leadoff single was "D'You Know What I Mean", and it seemed that the lads in the band were about to enter their psychedelic phase, but with that punky edge that Liam's obnoxious sneer lent their tunes.

And they dropped the ball, or so the story goes.

Coming off not only two of the biggest albums of the '90s, but (from a "classic pop songwriting" perspecitve), two of the best albums of the '90s, they were doomed to fail, to some degree. Bands simply cannot sustain top-of-the-charts success for three albums in a row anymore, even in the heady days of 1990s Cool Britannia. The public is too fickle... a cruelly unforgiving, trendspotting mistress

Many might point to the Gallagher brothers' own assessment of the album to back up the popular opinion - Liam thinks it's genius, but he's a self-deluded prick, and Noel thinks it's terrible, but he lets the public define what he thinks is his best work. If Definitely Maybe was from a young band who wanted to beat the world, and Morning Glory was the sound of the biggest band in the world basking in success, where else did they have to go? They'd been too clear-eyed about their vision, too focused in their aim to be the biggest and the best, and suddenly, they made a sprawling, confused album that sounds messy, almost scared of its own place in the world. What now? "We have everything, and we're not happy, because we don't know where to go next." It might not have the immediate surface impact of the first two, because it has no "Live Forever", or "Rock 'N' Roll Star", or "Wonderwall", or "Roll With It", or "Champagne Supernova" and on and on. There aren't many great singles-type moments on the album, but as a piece, from a songwriting perspective, it's one of the great "we're huge, what now?" albums in the rock canon. It's the paranoid, insular, almost-falling-apart vibe that made albums like Exile On Main Street so fascinating. When you're that famous, when you're working under that level of expectation, you have no precedent at the moment. Who do you look to for inspiration? Nevermind the fact that the band was fronted by the two most self-obsessed rock-star types of their day, dead set on making their epic statement.

It should have been the concise record that made Britpop the biggest musical movement since '77 punk, but it was, in fact, the nail in the coffin. It was purchased in droves, then sold back the next week. It's not that it was a bad record, it's just that it's not the 35-minute singles bonanza that everyone put their money on. Records this messy and sprawling do not stick to people's ribs, they want the next immediate rush. Shit, I bought the hype and it's taken me more than a decade to come around.

Was the album a failure? Yes. It didn't sell as well, it was held in lower regard, it didn't have as many singles, and people still use it as the punchline to jokes.

Why? Because the hooks weren't as strong, the production was too thick and layered (requiring too much work on the part of the listener), and for a band that wrote effortless, inviting pop hits, it seemed too insular. Oasis has (as evidenced by their B-sides comp The Masterplan), probably three full albums of B-sides that are at least as strong as every song on Be Here Now, almost entirely written by Noel. By the third official album, but about the SIXTH if you go by song count, he handed some of the writing reins over to the band. Poor choice, but it's hard to blame the guy. I could make you a mix disc of Oasis material you've never heard and would blow you away. Give the guy a break.

But before it seems like I'm just covering for his shortcomings, let me note that ""My Big Mouth" sounds as good as some Definitely Maybe material; "Magic Pie" (despite some questionable lyrics) is at least as anthemic as "Some Might Say"; "Stand By Me" is their "All You Need Is Love" knockoff (which is to say, a loveable singalong with good intentions but a bit slight - but hey, we all saw them doing a version of that song coming, right?); "Fade In-Out" is, admittedly, psychedelic nonsense; and "All Around The World" is one of those sing-alongs that's so good you might hear it in a commercial. "Don't Go Away" and "Be Here Now" are still, I declare, better than most of the lameass post-Radiohead Brit-mope bands like Travis and (ugh) Coldplay. All in all, yeah, it's overlong, it's overblown, and the songs, while good, aren't up to the level of the first two albums and a lot of the early B-sides. So? Keane has built a whole career on songs like "Don't Go Away", and I LIKE Keane.

Don't believe it. This is a really good record. Not as good as the first two, but name me two albums by the same classic pop band that stand up as a pair like those do, and I dare you to see (if you can even name an example) the follow-up that stands up like this one.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing?

I was talking to someone in bed last night, and she and I were discussing the fact that the Information Age is helping us inch, musically, toward the melting pot of cultures that we've been promised since grade school. The examples on my mind for the purpose of this brief diatribe are Gorillaz and M.I.A..

I've spoken to a few people who took my M.I.A. piece a few weeks ago as a slight against her... far from it. It was more to illustrate (poorly), the effect the internet and global connectivity are having. The two acts listed above are prime examples of this effect. How would you categorize them? Not everything needs to be classified and pigeonholed, but for the sake of posterity, for the sake of our future music historians (who I can only assume will have the same filing system we do), how would you tag the genre for these acts on your iPod?

Me? I choose hip hop. Not because it's accurate. In fact, it stings a little bit because I know it's NOT accurate. But it's about the only style I can wrap my brain around this music being more than anything else. It has beats and a little rapping. Maybe not a higher percentage of that than pop or rock or indie rock or punk or soul or some world music I don't have a knowledge of, but it's got SOME.

Forget all the hype about M.I.A. - I was sick of her before I'd even heard her. Another Lady Sovereign, this one political and indie and Sri Lankan. Big deal. Bloggers were falling all over themselves to kiss her ass, hipsters were telling me how great it was, and I wasn't buying the hype. I still don't. Especially since the same fickle trendspotters have moved on to something else. Some I've talked to told me the appeal lied in hearing a form of music they'd never heard - South Asian hip-hop. Cool. Whatever. But that's not what caught me. It's the fact that, as mentioned in that previous article, the Information Age allows her to pick from the cultural rubble, using whatever she wants to paint her pictures.

Now, I'm not stupid. I know not to believe the tale of Maya Arulpragasam, wide-eyed and angry refugee from a war-torn country. I'd like to give her credit for being smarter than that. After all, she went to art school and designed the packaging for Elastica's second album as I recall. Craftily smart, she's able to pick and choose... with the technology available, any idea or sound is only a click away. It's complete recontextualization, something I've been railing for since I was a pop-art obsessed teen, but too shortsighted to understand when it popped up in front of me in a form I didn't expect. While I hate the fact that the term "postmodern" is misused and thrown around these days to indicate something modern, this is more in line with Jacques Derrida's work (or part of it, as I understand it) - complicated things come from a complicated origin, not something pure and simple. M.I.A. assembles collages like Richard Hamilton - the pieces used come pre-loaded with meaning and purpose of their own, she's either hijacking them or subverting them altogether.

And while Maya A. basks in the glow of a thousand blogs (a trend which I wonder if I'm critiquing or contributing to), the Gorillaz one-up her in a form - they're so post-modern they don't even really exist. Each member of this cartoon troupe is an archetype for either a musician or a gang member, I'm not really sure. They live in a floating castle of sorts and have adventures. It's escapist fantasy. Nevermind the fact that their real-life counterparts are combining rock, pop, hip-hop, soul, funk, electronica, spaghetti western soundtrack, punk, and whatever else. Sure, some of the parts in this case might be more recognizable, but that makes the effect of playing with purpose even more daring. Their self-titled album was great, but the second, Demon Days, took it even further, jettisoning original producer Dan "The Automator" Nakamura and bringing in enfant terrible Danger Mouse, fresh off his postmodern (again with this!) masterpiece, the hallucinatory Beatles/Jay-Z blender child The Grey Album. Genre for them in this case is merely a case of "what should we do now?" They don't add guitar parts, they add whole styles, taking whatever they want, because, hey - it's all just music, right? They are actually breaking down cultural boundaries, building a new concept out of old ideas, taking whatever they want, leaving it to sound like what it is, but somehow, with the magic of this "context blender effect", giving it a new meaning based on what it sits between, without stealing its identity, both culturally or sonically. In the past, an artist might sample something and conceal the sample sonically - fuzz it out, reverb it, EQ tweaking - to make it almost unrecognizable. The new wave of artists leave things as they are. They let your mind change what you hear.

Now that's revolution, baby.

[With these realizations, I'd like to formally submit Danger Mouse's The Grey Album and M.I.A.'s Kala to my best of the '00s list. Why Kala over the earlier and therefore more bracingly "new" Arular? Cause I like the sound better, and they're both really good.]

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Dirty Mike in: The Dead Pool (Best Of '09 Finalists)

Lots of posts, lots of confusion. Let's sum up our current contenders (alphabetically) for the best albums of 2009 (so far):

Asobi Seksu - Hush
The Breeders - Fate To Fatal EP
The Big Pink - A Brief History Of Love
The Dead Weather - Horehound
Death - ...For The Whole World To See
Dinosaur Jr. - Farm
Early Day Miners - The Treatment
Green Day - 21st Century Breakdown
Madlib - Beat Konducta, Vol. 5-6
Meat Puppets - Sewn Together
Metric - Fantasies
Mos Def - The Ecstatic
ofthemetro - Under The Sound
A Place To Bury Strangers - Exploding Head
Sonic Youth - The Eternal
Spinnerette - Spinnerette
Sune Rose Wagner - Sune Rose Wagner
The Vandelles - Del Black Aloha
Varsity Drag - Rock 'N' Roll Is Such A Hassle

Back To The Garage: More Top Albums Of '09

Dead Weather - Horehound
Jack White does not get an automatic pass into my top 10. People assume that I just rate anything he does, even if it's not his best work. However, those ain't the rules of the Year End Top Ten. It just has to be a better album than other things released that year, a target which he hits with alarming regularity. Is this album better than the best White Stripes album? Nope. Is it better than Chinese Democracy and whatever indie-folk messiahs came out this year? Without a doubt. Alison Lockhart acquits herself wonderfully on most of the lead vocals, but make no mistake, this is Jack's show. The Stripes are minimalist blues-punk, the Raconteurs are garagey power-pop, and this is voodoo grind. New Orleans evil blues, positively oozing with sinister vibes. And therefore worth contention for my top ten of the year.

Death - ...For The Whole World To See
No reissues and no re-releases, unless it's more than 60% new material: this is the first rule of the year-end top ten. Two of these songs were previously released on a regional single of 500 copies in the mid-70s, so I'm going to allow it, in lieu of the (sadly) inadmissable Volcano Suns reissues (which were merely "not ever on CD"). Punk before punk's revolution, black punk before the Bad Brains, soul/punk before the Dirtbombs, it's releases like this that give rock and roll archivists like me conniptions. On paper, this shouldn't exists, stylistically. But sure enough, here it is. Gritty, howling, provocative, and recorded on behalf of a major label. This is crazy. This is the kind of dangerously unhinged but pointed music that makes people pick up an instrument in the first place.

Varsity Drag - Rock 'N' Roll Is Such A Hassle: Live In Europe
Practially a Ben Deily greatest hits collection, this is a rip-snortin' power pop extravaganza. The tunes are melodic as all get-out, but they're speedy, short, and buzzy. For those who thought he fell off the face of the Earth a few years ago, the fact that he hasn't missed a beat since Creator (some of which features here), and it doesn't sound like a collection of tunes written over the past 20 years is amazing. The material from Varsity Drag's 2006 debut, For Crying Out Loud is bigger, tougher, and lived-in, the Lemonheads material sounds as good as it always has (which is to say, pretty damn good), and it's nice to hear any Pods tuneage get a wider release. Maybe the best pop band in Boston right now, any fan of punky pop 'n' roll should seek this out immediately. Download it from his site ( right away!

Friday, August 21, 2009

More Of The Decade's Greatest Hits

I'm suddenly wondering if Ash will make my larger pool of candidates, but while I sit and think about that, why don't you turn off your brain and just shake your backside?

Daft Punk - Discovery
I was a Daft Punk fan as of just post-Christmas 1999. My brand new girlfriend made her dad drive her out in lousy weather so she could get me a copy of Daft Punk's debut, Homework. When I reach for any of their records, it's usually that one, with it's rough-edged 808 beats. But it's Discovery that not only made them stars, but presciently predicted much of the danceable music of the decade. It was like a rainbow from the mid-80s were dipped in chrome and sent to the future and back - it was funny, hooky, positive, dancey, funky. Most wannabes on the radio still sound like they're trying to catch up.

Basement Jaxx - Rooty
As much as they might want to, NOBODY sounds like Rooty. Too weird, too insular, too warped, but more than booty-rumbling enough. Remedy was sweaty music for sexy Brit clubbers. Tracks like "Where's Your Head At" and "Get Me Off" were for the freaks. But hey, people, it's all a party, even the sexy people are invited, too.

Joe Strummer - Global A Go-Go
Streetcore is the more "classic Strummer", but the cultural mix up that this album plays while being a punk rock version of world music is infectously danceable. And leading the charge is the late, great Joe himself.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

A Decade Of Decadence: Mike's Fave Albums of The Noughties

Alright, so B. Dawg over at Dogdoguwar proposed that we team up and take on the greatest albums of the past decade. The problem is that I think he and I have listened to far too many records between us this decade. His recent post on the matter is put far more eloquently than mine, regarding the lack of zeitgeist-defining records... it's been a pretty scattered decade. I mean, 9/11 people. Never forget. To floss.

So, to get started at least, I've just started compiling a big list of records that were favorites of mine over the past 10 years, that I could honestly see on my end-of-the-decade list. Some of which are completely unoriginal, but just super-solid records, some are surprises even to me, because even though I've grown to love them,
I actively disliked them for maybe even the majority of the decade (Queens Of The Stone Age, I'm looking at you!). I have, however, tried to be a LITTLE careful in my choices, picking things that are notable on a medium-larger scale... I loved that first Varsity Drag record and a later Cheater Slicks album, two of my absolute favorites for the past few years, and even though I've listened to them more than other things on this list, they just don't feel right to put down, you know?

So without further ado, here's a list of a bunch of records I ended up thinking might make the list at the end of the year (and decade), in, I can't stress this enough, no particular order.

The White Stripes - White Blood Cells
Not even my favorite of their first three, but so tight, varied, and end-to-end listenable that it edges out even Elephant as their best so far for me.

The Dirtbombs - Dangerous Magical Noise
This album revels in the fact that it could have been made before OR after the so-called "garage rock revolution". Mick Collins is a god.

Queens Of The Stone Age - Songs For The Deaf
Written off by myself as nu-metal when it came out, I was turned by the tightness of the rock and the looseness of the groove. It absolutely slays.

Gorillaz - Demon Days
Paranoid, multi-genre hip-pop by a bunch of depressed cartoons. Perfectly post-millenial pop music.

Danger Mouse - The Grey Album
Not only culturally critical, but totally a great listen. If you could find it.

Madlib - Shades Of Blue
"Smart" hip hop has often leaned on jazz tropes... this actually samples from the Blue Note Vaults, and combines the mind expansion of classic jazz with the soul expansion of hip-hop.

Asobi Seksu - Citrus
Do you like guitars with effects? They do. They also love soundscapes behind lovely pop songs, like skipping through a good dream about good dreams, and when you wake up, you're still humming the tune.

The Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots
The sweet, hopeful flipside to the Gorillaz, no matter the weight of the message, they make you feel like they're right there with you. Neo-prog psychedelia meets bubblegum pop. Wonderful and life-affirming.

Primal Scream - XTRMNTR
More than any of the late-90s acts that tried to marry aggressive rock and electronica, this album melds the two like they were the same thing. Not even my favorite Primal Scream album by a long shot, but certainly one of the best.

Fountains Of Wayne - Welcome Interstate Managers
Not revelatory in the least, but a wonderful pop record about life in the midfield. Office workers, hormonal teenagers, broken-hearted sad-sacks and wistful New Jersey denizens collected in a Kinks-like catalog of fully fleshed characters, each more relatable than the last.

Guided By Voices - Isolation Drills
I was very, very surprised to see this on Brent's list as well, since I always had him pegged as more of an Earthquake Weather kind of guy. This will most likely not make my Big Ol' Final List, but it's a damn fine rock record. Just looking at the songs ("Chasing Heather Crazy", "Glad Girls", most of the other songs), makes me wish I was listening to it, and if "Teenage FBI" were on this, I'd have no bones about putting it on the list. Probably the finest "pop" record Pollard & Co. made after 1999.

Johnny Cash - American IV: The Man Comes Around
Probably not the best of the American Recordings series that so defined Johnny Cash in many people's minds, it had a sense of finality to it, as though Cash knew it would be his last, turning out harrowing performances of his own and others' songs as though it were the last time any of them would ever be sung. And it is the last time any of these will be sung like this again.

Gnarls Barkley - St. Elsewhere
To my ear, modern soul and R&B albums sound indebted to the past, no matter how good they are. Maxwell and D'Angelo are wonderful performers, but they're part of a tradition that leads back to Sam Cooke and further. On this album, Cee-Lo's fractured testifying meets Danger Mouse's bouncing production resulting in something approaching soul music in a completely new way. And the second side is the weirdest, most psychedelic album moment of the decade to hit the top forty.

Postal Service - Give Up
My memory of this album is walking the 3 miles from the record store to my recently rented, unfurished apartment to eat leftover chinese food alone while sitting on the floor in the middle of summer. But somehow, this record, summed up by my friend Kevin as "emotronica" at the time, made that situation OK. Hopeful, wistful, sad, optimistic, it was fresh in a way that pop electronic music hadn't been in years.

Luna - Romantica
I'd say it seems a little generic to make a list like this, but nobody else is making records like this. Mature pop, interesting without being inapproachable, subtle without being boring, it's the kind of music I imagined I'd listen to if I grew up to become a classy grown-up. Jury's still out on that one, but the record is wonderful.

Malory - Not Here, Not Now
Not entirely innovative, but probably the prettiest album I've heard in the past ten years. Just beautiful sounds.