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.