Thursday, December 27, 2007

20 Favorite Albums of 2007


20. Marnie Stern - In Advance of the Broken Arm
19. Boris with Michio Kurihara - Rainbow
18. Throbbing Gristle - Part Two. The Endless Not
17. Terror Visions - World of Shit
16. Scott Walker - And Who Shall Go to the Ball? And Who Shall Go to the Ball?
15. Cornelius - Sensuous
14. Yoko Ono - Yes, I'm a Witch
13. MARVELKiND - State of the Artificial
12. Dinosaur Jr. - Beyond
11. Miss Alex White & the Red Orchestra - Space & Time
10. The Busy Signals - The Busy Signals
9. Grinderman - Grinderman
8. Enon - Grass Geysers . . . Carbon Clouds
7. The Book of Knots - Traineater
6. The Black Lips - Good Bad Not Evil
5. Thurston Moore - Trees Outside the Academy
4. The Coathangers - The Coathangers
3. Of Montreal - Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
2. Bobby Conn - King for a Day
1. The Veils - Nux Vomica

Honorable Mention (I can't put it on the list because it's a single and not an album): Vee Dee - Glimpses of Another World

Dishonorable Mention (Because it's just that bad, and the people need to be warned): The Stooges - The Weirdness

Disclaimers and other small print that will render this list meaningless:
  • Each album has a link to a lengthier review that I've already posted down this page in no particular order.

  • My original plan was not to rank them, but merely to give them "awards" for whatever set them apart. Then I went ahead and ranked them anyway, so you have to go to the write-ups to see their individual "awards."

  • Despite the fact that I ranked these albums, I did agonize over the order I put them in and I'll never be entirely satisfied with it. I'm a little infuriated that some albums didn't score higher than they did, but I did the best I could. Consider each album as having a margin of error of ± 3 spaces.

  • It's also ridiculous to compare these albums side by side. Comparing the Coathangers to Cornelius isn't just comparing apples to oranges, it's like comparing apples to motorcycles to soy bean futures.

  • This list is 20 albums long because these are 20 albums I couldn't bear not to mention on my yearly recap. I would have preferred to do something a little more concise, but sometimes life just does that to you. There are worse problems to have than having too many good new albums to write about.

  • These are my 20 favorite albums, not necessarily the 20 best. There's plenty of good music that I respect but don't love, and there's plenty more that I just haven't heard. These are the albums that have made themselves a permanent fixture in my record collection.

2007 in Review: The "Misunderstood Artist Finally Gets Proper Recognition" Award

This award, honoring a frequently misunderstood and maligned musician who is finally getting the respect she fucking deserves, goes to:

Yes, I'm a Witch
Yoko Ono

I love Can, and Faust, and all of the other krautrock bands that are getting all this love lately for being so brilliant and influential. I'm excited that our culture is finally catching up with them. Which is why it confuses the living hell out of me that we haven't caught up with Yoko Ono yet. Yoko's Plastic Ono Band and Fly albums deserve every bit as much love as Tago Mago and Faust So Far, and yet she's perpetually known as the bleating shrew who broke up the Beatles. LET IT GO.

This year marked the first time in my life when I was really pleased with how I feel Yoko Ono is being represented to the public, and it's because of this album. It's not properly an album of new material, and it should probably be considered a compilation: Yoko made an agreement with 20 or so young and popular musicians to write new music behind her old vocal tracks, to reinvent her songs. The results are largely stellar. Some groups (like, say, Peaches) take the cue from her hit with "Walking on Thin Ice" and turn her songs into clubby dance tunes. Others (like Apples in Stereo) surround her with lush orchestrations that engulf her in the joyous, triumphant optimism that she herself exudes. The results are a bit scattered: the tracks really could have been rearranged into two coherent halves that sounded nothing like each other. There are a couple of duds: the fact that Cat Power's cut is easily the worst on the album was a convenient foreshadowing to the stultifyingly dull set she performed immediately preceding Yoko at the Pitchfork Festival. But this album, and the flurry of great press that surrounded it, have shown that Yoko Ono is finally catching on, that people are gradually mustering the courage to dig into her back catalog and unearth the many gems there.

I personally would have loved to see the Contortions get back together to cover "Why?" but I suppose I can't expect miracles.

2007 in Review: The "No Explanation Necessary" Award

This award goes to the album that's so straightforward that I can't possibly figure out how to describe it:

Space & Time
Miss Alex White & the Red Orchestra
In the Red

Okay. So here's how it is. This just a rock and roll album. Unadulterated. Punk, garage, whatever. It's just rock and roll. It's simple when it needs to be simple, it gets complicated when it needs to get complicated. I can't describe it any more than that because there's nothing to say about it other than that it's really goddam good. Dig?

2007 in Review: The "Hey Man, Why Are You So Kranky?" Award

This award goes to the album for which the review I wrote got me in trouble with a widely respected independent record label.


[NOTE: The previous version of this entry was misinformed on some very key details, an error which was pointed out to me by a representative from Kranky Records. This has been amended, with my thanks for the correction and apologies for the misinformation. Apologies also to Mr. Bradford Cox, whose album did not enthrall me especially but who provided cover art for the Coathangers album, which I did love.]

This year, I bought into a whole lot of hype (on separate occasions) and bought two heavily praised albums from Kranky Records: The Stars of the Lid and their Refinement of the Decline by Stars of the Lid and Cryptograms by Deerhunter. The Stars of the Lid album is a valiant effort to be Brian Eno circa 1980, and the Deerhunter one is a valiant effort to be Kevin Shields. They are both very lush and atmospheric and in my (very, very unpopular) opinion, really boring. They're not bad per se: I appreciate the ambition of both groups and I respect their skills technically. These albums are certainly better music than a great deal of bands out there. But I feel like I've heard what they have to say before, and I liked it better the first time.

Cornelius made a big splash in the 90's with an album called Fantasma that had everyone saying he was the Japanese equivalent of Beck. Much like Odelay-era Beck, Fantasma was a massive hodgepodge of styles that went together with no rhyme or reason other than the brilliant impulse to do so, and to keep the whole thing light and frothy and amusing. It was put together with an overwhelming sense of whimsy in mind, and it turned out great. Beck got older and produced Sea Change, and now Cornelius has gotten older and given us Sensuous. It is soft and light as a feather, it balances acoustics and electronics seamlessly, and manages to pull off the amazing feat of being both calm/mature and still playful. He can write meditative music that still feels like he's laughing while making it.

Cornelius, Deerhunter, and Stars of the Lid all seem to be attempting to pull off a style that is as much felt and seen as heard. It’s auditory, but in a very purposeful way that is designed to involve the imagination in other ways as well. The difference to my ear is that Deerhunter and Stars of the Lid are begging to be taken seriously (and should be), and Cornelius doesn't need to be taken seriously (but can be anyway).

2007 in Review: The "Dance 'Til You Cry" Award

This award honors the most unambiguously depressing disco pop record of the year, which is undoubtedly:

There are certain bands and albums that are red herrings in my record collection. If I were someone else trying to recommend music to me, there's no way I'd recommend Of Montreal: there's too much synth, too much dancing, too many maddeningly obtuse song titles, and too much over-the-top androgyny. Especially in a year where I've gotten into so much garage rock, the idea that I would love a synth pop album this much is sort of ridiculous. But sometime in 2006, I got "The Party's Crashing Us" (from The Sunlandic Twins LP) stuck in my head . . . for about three straight months . . . and I've been hooked on Kevin Barnes ever since.

But despite the synth, androgyny, and catchy tunes, this isn't a bright and perky pop tune like The Sunlandic Twins. The best analogy I can really think up is if Prince decided to a very loosely interpreted reimagining of Blood on the Tracks. If you've ever been stricken with grief over something and tried to bury it under a night of reckless social and chemical hedonism, clawing your way towards ecstasy until the pain catches up with you and drags you back into the pit of sucking despair, this is the soundtrack. Kevin Barnes had to "keep his little click clicking at 130 bpm" or else he'd be forced to stop dancing and think about his life, which (at the time he wrote this album) pretty much sucked. "The Past is a Grotesque Animal" is a 12-minute swirling epic of pain, completely letting go of pop and going straight into emotion. The single, "She's a Rejecter," is the most venomous, bitter dance track I've ever heard, and you absolutely cannot resist it.

Taken out of context, I freely admit that this album probably wouldn't be one of my favorites of the year. There are some killer tunes, but as a piece of fluff, it's lacking. But there's so much ambition and heart in it that I end up marveling at it every single time.

2007 in Review: The "Being Good Despite Letting Down 90% of the Fanbase" Award

This award goes to the album that isn't as good or as groundbreaking as the classic albums by an artist, but is good anyway even though everyone feels let down.

Part Two: The Endless Not
Throbbing Gristle

Back before KMFDM brought ravers into the "industrial" genre, before Ministry brought in the metalheads, before Cabaret Voltaire brought it into the dancehall, and before Einsturzende Neubauten made it so damn aggressive, Throbbing Gristle was just making industrial noise. Its aggression was contained in the mere fact of its existence: the act of presenting an album like The Second Annual Report as music is an affront to anyone clinging to what music was before it. Part Two is . . . not that album. 30 years after starting the ripple effect in all the bands they influenced, the shock has worn off and Throbbing Gristle (even the old stuff, in my ears) doesn't have quite the same effect. Granted, the music isn't that abrasive anymore either: the digital production has smoothed a lot of the corners and made the sounds a lot easier.

But while the form Part Two may not send the unprepared running for their earplugs, it still functions quite well keeping those unprepared folks shifting uncomfortably in their seats. It seems like an extension of the work that TG members did on their own in bands like Coil and Psychic TV, illustrating sullen and blackened environments which are inhabited by any feelings of guilt, fear, self-doubt, disappointment or straight-up depression you may be harboring.

Throbbing Gristle was the beginning of industrial music, and what they started was twisted into a lot of unexpected directions. Part Two takes some of the tools developed by Throbbing Gristle's followers and brings it back into the context and style of the originals. It's not going to revolutionize anything, but that doesn't mean it's not still good.

2007 in Review: The "Duh" Award

This award, for the album that we all knew was going to be awesome before we heard it (even though we heard the leaked version four months before the album was released), goes to:


Nick Cave has made a lot of records over the last 30 years or so, going back to his days with the Boys Next Door. With only enough exceptions to prove the rule, all of them are "should-haves" and more than a few of them are "must-haves." So it's to be expected that any new Nick Cave project is going to be great, the only question is the particular method and style he's going to use to get there.

Much has been made of Grinderman as Cave's midlife crisis album, that as he approached his 50th birthday, he needed to make a raucous garage rock album with booming guitar chords and lyrics about how he can't get laid ("No Pussy Blues" being the primary example of both). But any claims you've read about Grinderman sounding like Nick Cave is doing a throwback to the Birthday Party days is a load of crap. The Birthday Party were too gloomy and chaotic and obsessed with bats and murder and so on. Not to sound like David Lee Roth or something, but Grinderman isn't obsessed with anything but rocking. It's heavier and bluesier than most of the Bad Seeds stuff, with all of the pretension stripped away and all of the orchestration taken out. These aren't Nick Cave compositions with lots of bells and whistles and gospel choirs and the like, they're four guys in a room trying to play as hard as they can until they're done, and only occasionally slowing down because they're all old and need to catch their breath (there's a couple of down-tempo songs to cool off between stompers). It's solid raunchy goodness from start to finish, and any disappointment you can feel about this album is going to stem only from the fact that Nick Cave has completely re-set the grading scale.

There's plenty of people who use the Rolling Stones as evidence that you can never get too old to stop being rock and roll. But when the hell was the last time the Stones made an album this good?

2007 in Review: The "God of Thunder" Award

This award is given in honor of creating a sound so transcendentally grandiose that it induces a spiritual realignment in the listener.

Boris with Michio Kurihara
Blue Chopsticks

I put this album on again last night in order to refresh my memory and to really sink into the experience so I could give an accurate description and review. I will not relate the entirety of the experience I had, because I don't think everyone else will have the same reaction. I will say that the opening track, "Rafflesia," was such a colossal, awe-inspiring crush of noise that I lost track of my concept of self and let the album guide my imagination into bizarre and fascinating places. I had the sense of being lifted out of myself by some benevolent deity and going on an odyssey. And no, I was not on drugs.

It's not all big big noise music: it's often very soft and delicate, and that's a large part of what led me on that journey into the murky corners of my brain. The reference point here isn't really Boris -- this is as far from the pounding rush of Pink as you can get and still be the same band -- but rather Michio Kurihara's work with Ghost. It is very psychedelic, and despite the fact that it's loud rock music, it has the quality of feeling ancient and holy. Rainbow is a very intense experience, and one that I enter into rarely because I don't want to take it too lightly, but it is a spectacular one. Listen to it, but only when you can devote yourself to it.

2007 in Review: The "Shred 'Til You Bleed" Award

This award, given in honor of devotion to little other than guitar acrobatics, goes to:

In Advance of the Broken Arm
Marnie Stern
Kill Rock Stars

1. The art of Technically and rhythmatically [sic] hammering out amazing and lightning-fast solos on a guitar.
2. To play so amazingly fast on guitar you almost destroy it's strings.

This doesn't fall into the Satriani/Vai category by a long shot: it's too abrasive. But Marnie Stern is here to hit as many harmonics as she can in the time she's allotted on an LP and nothing will stand in her way.

And that's about all there is to say about that.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

2007 in Review: The "Labor of Love" Award

This award, honoring the album that only exists because the band members loved it enough to make it, goes to:

State of the Artificial


Sometime around the end of 2001, Benjamin Hughes moved to Los Angeles, Aaron Miller and Dave Golitko started playing in Assassins, and MARVELKiND was pronounced dead. This was unfortunate for those of us faithful few who had been following them for some time. They had come a long way since their early recordings and had some really solid songs, and when they split, I figured that none of them would never see the light of day. Lo and behold, almost six years later, I get an email inviting me to a release show for the new MK record, and I was a little flabbergasted. After a few years of doing their own things, the band decided that the original project was now going to be the side project, with no real aspirations other than to play a show here or there and to make a record that would shore up the loose ends left when they split initially. It's an album that was made with no professional ambition whatsoever, and that's what makes it just so damned good. Each of the songs (some old, some new) are written, crafted, and recorded with the sole purpose of satisfying the band's creative desire, of scratching the itch the members had to play together, and of being music that could only be made by those particular four individuals.

Even after all these years, Ben still sings like he's the sort of guy who, at age 15, would regularly drink 18 cups of coffee and jump off the roof of his mom's house.* He's not always quite in tune, but he's improved from before: he realized that his singing is a lot better if he's either half-talking or screaming his head off. Their collective electronic fetish is still there, but it doesn't mask or dilute the fact that they're mainly just interested in playing hyperactive and occasionally angry rock songs. "Raperville" is an ode to their hometown that isn't especially forgiving, and "Unreasonable Demands" drives its point home hard. Most of the songs sound a little bit awkward at the beginning, but they find their way and end up surprising you with how good they are. "Billions" is the perfect cap on the album, a calm and inviting pop tune that, if it had been recorded in 1985, you wouldn't be surprised but you'd think it hadn't aged a day. There was an acoustic version recorded live at the Hideout that was released via the band's website years ago that I could never get into, but it cleaned up real nice in the studio.

State of the Artificial will probably never reach the hands of any record labels or critics, it will never get broad distribution, or anything like that. It's a heartfelt gift from the band to anyone who will give it the time to take a listen.

*I don't know that Ben ever did this, but it wouldn't surprise me. I'm just sayin'.

2007 in Review: The "I Didn't Expect or Even Want a String Section, but it Works" Award

This award, for the album of the year that was most surprisingly but pleasingly delicate, goes to:

Trees Outside the Academy
Thurston Moore
Ecstatic Peace

Sonic Youth is one of the few bands that I legitimately idolize that I think I can still approach with some objectivity. Their albums on SST are on a plane that few, if any, other bands have ever approached. I will even forgive Dirty and Goo for being as trendy as they were at the time because they're just good albums: certainly a lot better than your average grunge band. But the years since have been far less interesting. I can freely accept that pretty much all of their albums going back to Experimental Jet Set have been pretty dull and predictable, sounding more like they're trying to write songs that sound like Sonic Youth than they are writing songs that they like. Every album they release these days is getting called a "return to form" and none of them are. And while I like their experimental SYR recordings, I've also got my fair share of Thurston Moore collaboration albums that are so far beyond listenable it's not even funny.

And that's why Trees Outside the Academy is so remarkable. Thurston isn't returning to form or defying form, he's creating a whole new form for himself that is exciting and interesting and vibrant. Yes, he's still got that lethargic, barely-in-tune moaning-the-words thing going on, and he's still got some feedback thrown in here and there. "American Coffin" sounds like someone who has listened to a fair amount of 20th century avant-garde "classical" music. But a good portion of the album is played on an acoustic guitar. His core backing band is Steve Shelley and the violin player from the Charalambides. The best way I can describe it is that it's the most conventional songwriting I've ever heard him play, but that he's a surprisingly good balladeer. "Honest James" gives me this little twinge of heartache every time I hear it, and I haven't even bothered to sit down with the lyric sheet. The entire record seems alarmingly intimate, up to and including the final track, "Thurston @ 13," which features a 13-year-old Moore attempting some poetry.

Trees Outside the Academy
seems a fitting name for something that seems so organic, so natural and unadorned as this album. I was expecting a Psychic Hearts or another SYR sort of record, but I got something far more interesting, and far more beautiful. If only all of my disappointed expectations turned out this well . . .

2007 in Review: The "Finally Meeting Their Full Potential" Award

This award, honoring a band that was always good but could always have been better, goes to:

Good Bad Not Evil
The Black Lips

The Black Lips have heretofore been known best as a live act, with stories about urine-drinking and Tijuana prostitutes making them as much an urban legend as they are a rock band. With three studio records and one live album under their belt, The Black Lips had plenty to look back on happily (I won't go quite as far as saying "something to be proud of," because I'm just trying to imagine what their grandparents are thinking). They've made themselves one of the biggest name on the garage rock circuit. And at long last, they have finally made a record that I can describe with enthusiasm rather than one that I describe with a disinterested, "it's pretty good." Garage rock often falls into this pit of pointless self-destruction where bands go into the studio and make an album, and decide that despite the reality that they're already playing their songs really sloppily through shitty equipment, they perform in joints where some guy just pissed out three pitchers of Pabst into the PA (cough*), and they want the album to sound just like that. So they deliberately shred the recording, and half the time it just sounds like twenty minutes of someone farting into a vocoder. Not only does it not sound good, it comes off as pretentious because we all know that they had to intentionally do that in with the production, rather than just letting it sound bad in its own way. The Black Lips finally realized that the songs they write are pretty entertaining, and it's enough just to play them really sloppily through bad equipment. They are still every bit as ridiculous and immature as they always were, and the songs are as good if not better than before, it's just now that you can hear it so much better. They now sound like someone I'd stick around to see play, even after seeing someone piss out three pitchers of Pabst into the PA.

*Disclaimer: I have never seen anyone piss on the PA at the Mutiny. As far as I recall, I don't remember seeing anyone piss anywhere outside of the bathroom at the Mutiny. This is completely hypothetical. I'm just saying their sound system sounds like that, and I wouldn't be surprised if it had happened.

2007 in Review: The "Most Efficient Album of the Year" Award

This award, honoring the best songs squeezed into as little time as possible with no wasted space, goes to:

The Busy Signals
The Busy Signals

The Busy Signals' first album crams 12 songs into less than 25 minutes, and there is not a single wasted second. I'll make an effort to be similarly succinct. They play pop punk in the style of The Rezillos (not the current raft of pop punk bands). All 12 songs are perfect. There is no filler. They are all fast, catchy, and fun. If there is a place in your heart for the electric guitar, this album will make you very happy.

2007 in Review: The "Heaviest Fucking Tom Waits-Related Project EVER" Award

This award, given to the record which gets most of its listeners from its association with Tom Waits but that will scare the living crap out of the average Tom Waits fan, goes to:

Book of Knots

Now, I've already written about this album once, so I'll keep this brief. Traineater probably features the best assembly of diverse talents in years. Very few "supergroups," or albums with a lot of guest appearances, are so artistically coherent. Simply put, the core group came together having already worked with a variety of musical organizations that were each distinct in their own style and exploratory in their ambitions. Having then gotten an idea of what they were doing together, they pulled in the absolute best names they could possibly get to perfect that vision. Despite the fact that they have each accomplished a hell of a lot on their own, there is no doubtin my mind that people like Tom Waits, Carla Bozulich, John Langford, Zeena Parkins, Miek Watt, David Thomas (Pere Ubu), Norman Westberg (Swans) and all th erest were brought in to serve the collective good of the album, not to reshape it. The result is an album that is alternately creeping and overpowering in its intensity, flawless in its execution, and both a mentally and emotionally satisfying collection of music.

2007 in Review: The “Malcolm X but Not Really” Award

This award, in honor of a good album by an artist who has previously released a great album that I did not acknowledge at the time, goes to:

World of Shit
Terror Visions
I call this the “Malcolm X but Not Really” Award in honor of Denzel Washington, who as we all know was completely screwed out of an Oscar for his masterful performance as Malcolm X, so in order to compensate, the Academy gave him an award for Training Day later, even though it wasn’t that good of a movie. The simple fact is that at this time last year, I was not cool enough to have heard Jay Reatard’s Bloodvisions, which absolutely should have been on my “Best of 2006” list. So now I’m including this album, which is completely different, in part because of my ignorance last year. But it’s not really a Malcolm X situation because unlike Training Day, World of Shit is really good in its own right. The Terror Visions group lives up to their name: by stripping out the pulsing warmth of Bloodvisions and replacing it with cold, sterile synth without losing any of the intensity or passion, this really does become a record built out of terror. It is fast, harsh, shrieking, often electronic punk rock. This is waking up in the middle of the night sweating, with the absolute certainty that something with teeth eight feet long is about to eat you. Like the creature in Alien, this record is a "perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility." World of Shit is a stark world, but it warrants as many repeated listens as you can handle. Jay Reatard has put himself into a class of punk rock both skillful and unrelenting that few, if any, are in these days

2007 in Review: The “Scott Walker Can Do No Wrong” Award

This award, given to anything Scott Walker ever releases, goes to:

And Who Shall Go to the Ball? And Who Shall Go to the Ball?
Scott Walker
4 A.D.

Given a 40+ year career of being known as primarily a singer, it seems odd that Scott Walker would release an album without any vocals. But then, it’s Scott Walker. The man has long since transcended “odd.” It was composed as a score for a dance company, one which I presume must be well into the realm of avant-garde. There are large spaces in each of the four movements presented here, gaps where no sound dares to tread. When it does, it’s often just to punctuate the silence. When Walker released The Drift last year, he said he was experimenting with "blocks of sound," where he would take dense groups of instruments or song elements and slam them up against each other. And Who Shall Go to the Ball? is an extension of that: it often sounds like he's written a completely different orchestral piece, but recorded each instrument and part separately, and then composed this one out of samples he took out of the other. But it is well composed: each part starts sparingly and comes to its own climax and resolution, and the first three parts build into a very dramatic climax in the fourth. For any fan of challenging music, this is an album you need to get, you need to listen to from start to finish, and you need to do it alone in the dark.

2007 in Review: The “Album That’s Amazing Despite Everything About It” Award

This award, in honor of success despite overwhelming sloppiness, goes to:

Rob’s House

On the surface, this is a really shitty album. The Coathangers aren’t notably skilled at playing their instruments, so the songs are simplistic and sort of sloppy. The vocals are usually shrill and sort of grating. The songs, featuring titles like “Haterade,” “Shut the Fuck Up,” and (of course) “Nestle In My Boobies” aren’t much in the way of sophistication. And it’s got too many soft spots for a straight up punk record. But there’s something about it that’s hard to explain that goes right into the heart of what these songs are that gives it magic.

For starters, these girls have a lot of fun together. “Wreckless Boy” sounds sort of like what would happen if the Dead Kennedys kicked Phil Spector out of the studio and started backing 60’s girl groups. Furthermore, they mean what they play. When you listen to that screaming on “Don’t Touch My Shit,” right after the “I’ll punch you in the twat” part, well, that’s not a sound someone makes because it’s fun or because it feels good. That’s a sound you only make because you have to.

Here’s where I have to break for a second and talk about “Nestle in my Boobies,” because it’s the gateway drug for this band. Everyone hears a song title like that and goes into it for the novelty value. But it starts out with this icy, flat keyboard line, and then the cymbals kick in, filling up as much of the treble as they can while this ultra blown-out bass line comes in and just rattles your skull. Despite the subject matter, there’s a real driving undertone to this song that’s got a real kick to it. I daresay it’s downright menacing. Several of the songs have that same feeling to them. These girls have a sort of femme fatale vibe: they’re beautiful and they know it, and they’re going to take you home and play with you, and if you piss them off they’ll cut your throat. While you wouldn't think to use the word "subtle" to describe a band like this, it does apply. There are hidden textures.

And then there are the surprises. When “Parking Lot” kicks in, you roll your eyes at the guitar line stolen from “Take the Skinheads Bowling.” But it’s got this charm to it when those chords start flowing so easily that they’re almost indistinguishable, and the band is all singing together that’s actually . . . sort of touching. That’s immediately followed by “Buckhead Betty,” which despite the snottiness is actually a very pretty song. Same goes for “Bloody Shirt.”

I love this record because I can’t pin it down. As blatant as everything seems, there are layers upon layers that make me feel like this can’t all be just slop. It makes me want to dance to it and it makes me feel it, even if it completely short-circuits my ability to think about it rationally. That’s what music is supposed to do, right?

2007 in Review: The “Welcome Back, Old Friend” Award

This award; in honor of excellence by a talented artist who was once awesome, then sucked, and is now awesome again; goes to:

Grass Geysers . . . Carbon Clouds
Touch & Go

Godwin’s Law states that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” Applied to conversation with me, the longer a conversation grows, the probability of a discussion of Brainiac approaches one. Brainiac were a short-lived band from the 90’s who either brought punk sensibilities to experimental electronic music or the other way around, and no one can really tell which. Their first album was a forgettable punk record with some synth on it, but when guitarist John Schmersal joined the band before “Bonsai Superstar,” everything turned to gold. He and singer/guitarist/synth-guy Tim Taylor brought out the best in each other and turned out crazed, charismatic rock music like the world had never heard before, nor has ever been matched since. Then Taylor died, and put an end to more potential than I can really bear to consider.

A couple of years later, Schmersal put together Enon, originally with a couple of guys from Skeleton Key. Their first album, Believo! (which was recently reissued by Touch & Go and you should get it) took a less convincing synth/guitar dynamic from Brainiac, but augmented it with the stomping junkyard percussion from Skeleton Key and made it into something interesting and unique, if you could silence your expectations. And then, for whatever reason, Schmersal replaced those guys with Toko Yasuda from Blonde Redhead, and they put out the utterly fucking BORING High Society. However much I tried to love it, there’s just nothing to it. Hocus Pocus followed, and that was even worse. John Schmersal, the guitarist who had stood poised to revolutionize rock and roll, was lost in the wilderness with a vague memory of having done something cool before and trying to get to it through this haze of crappy pop music. The betrayal was too much. Have you ever had one of those friends who you love dearly, and then he or she gets into a relationship with someone with a completely toxic personality and their life becomes a trainwreck and after a while you can’t talk to them anymore and you can only watch in horror from afar? That was my relationship to John Schmersal. I was covering my eyes and watching through my fingers.

But between then and now, something changed. I don’t know what, but it’s like he woke up. He remembered, “Oh, I’m John Schmersal, and I can play guitar like a fucking fiend, and I know how to make some of the kinkiest noise around. My fingertips are electrodes and I can shoot lightning bolts from my eyes.” No more are the somnambulist afterthoughts like “In This City” and “Star in the Gates.” Instead, the album kicks off right away with a crunchy, fuzzed out bass line and a beat with an actual pulse. After one verse of frantic falsetto, he rips into this dirty little guitar solo and all you can think is how grateful you are that he’s writing songs under two minutes again. Listen to “Those Who Don’t Blink:” you’ll be so shocked that this is Enon that you will actually be physically incapable of blinking. It’s not a perfect record, by any means: Toko Yasuda’s voice tends to conjure up unpleasant echoes of 90’s indie-friendly J-pop (you’re probably okay if you just skip over “Sabina”). But I’m not going to completely write her off as a bad influence anymore, because they’ve finally figured out the dynamics where she can bring this sugary pop element to the mix, and Schmersal can pummel it with dirt and rage as much as possible within the structure.

It’s still too conventional to be Brainiac. No one will ever be what Timmy Taylor could have been. But I feel like at least with this album, John Schmersal is living up to the talent that he brought into the creative mix that made them one of my favorite bands. I put this album on just so I could see how bad it was. I could have received no happier a surprise than bringing this old friend back into good standing.

2007 in Review:The “70’s Throwback of the Year” Award

This award, given in honor of masterful achievement in a variety of styles that are all typical of a bygone decade, goes to:

King for a Day
Bobby Conn
Thrill Jockey

My standard description when people have asked me about this album is that it’s everything bad about music in the 70’s made great. The opening track, “Vanitas,” is an 8-minute prog rock masterpiece of self-indulgence. The lyrics are in Latin, they’ve got as many guitars playing on it as they could fit in the studio, and after the three-minute, almost contemplative introduction, all Conn wants to do is beat you over the head with BIG, AWESOME, POWER CHORDS. It’s like Rush, on steroids. My two particular favorite tracks, “When the Money’s Gone” and “Love Let Me Down,” twist perky “Sgt. Pepper” melodies and lush production into “Rock & Roll Suicide” glam-rock doomsaying. Monica BouBou gets her chances to shine, of course, rocking the violin on “A Glimpse of Paradise” and singing the lilting “Mr. Lucky.” Their disco tendencies come out on “Twenty-One,” which also happens to feature surprisingly not-out-of-place and just freakin’ amazing trumpet work from Chicago jazz staple Josh Berman. But flash and dazzle is nothing new for Bobby Conn. He’s made his name as Chicago’s very own glam rock icon. That's not the attraction here. What’s startling is the amount of love in this album: this is music that comes from the pains and joys of everyday life, not from a life lived in the spotlight, only exorcised in it. It's got heart beyond anything you'd expect, and reaches beyond style.

2007 in Review: The “Released in the UK in 2006 but the US Release Was in 2007 So I’m Including It” Award

This award, given for being too good of an album to heed the technicality that its original release in a foreign country wasn't during the past year, goes to:

Nux Vomica
The Veils
Rough Trade

Every damn review of this album has something to say about how Finn Andrews, the man running the show in The Veils, is the son of Barry Andrews from XTC and Shriekback, and it just doesn’t matter. It’s a red herring. The strongest influence here has nothing to do with 80’s synth rock: it’s Nick Cave all the way. The single for the album, and a couple of other tracks, are bouncy, bittersweet pop. A couple of tracks are delicate piano and vocal downers that will inspire you to do little but sob quietly into a bottle of scotch. And then there are some dirty, brooding, horrific and earthy rock tunes. They start out slow, and they start out quiet, but with every. Passing. Syllable. You can hear the venom creeping into Andrews’ voice. The band starts playing up, the cymbals crash in, the keys start pounding, and Finn starts screaming with terrifying abandon and strangling his guitar within an inch of its life. What they lack in innovation, they make up for in spades with passion. That they’ve managed to balance the pop elements with their less savory moments is a testament to their craft in terms of not just writing good songs, but in composing a full album.

2007 in Review: The “Reunion Album That Not Only Didn’t Suck, It Was Actually Good” Award

This award, in honor of not proving to be a disgrace to the legacy of a great band, goes to:

Dinosaur Jr.
Fat Possum

After the debacle with you-know-who, I wasn’t even going to bother with this one. I was never a huge Dinosaur Jr. fan, but I liked them enough not to want an ever-so-fashionable reunion album to give me a reason to look down on them. But I kept hearing people with taste telling me that the single was actually good, so I closed my eyes, gritted my teeth, and put it on. “Almost Ready” started playing, and my eyes perked open, my mouth opened in surprise, and after about thirty seconds, I turned to whoever I was with and said “wait a second, this is really good!” Not just a tolerable rehash (although they haven’t changed their sound a bit), this is an album that can stand proudly with their best albums from the pre-grunge days. Each of the songs is memorable in its own right, Mascis’ voice has acquired enough middle-aged croak to sound like he’s having actual emotions, and Lou Barlow brings in some of the best songs on the album. Now if only we could get albums this good out of all the other 80’s underground acts who are cashing in on their retroactive fame, we’d be set.

2007 in Review: The "Best Seven-Inch That I Wish was a Full LP" Award

This award, in honor of unfortunate brevity, is given to:

The “Too Good Not to Mention” Award:
Glimpses of Another World
Vee Dee
Criminal IQ

Much to my chagrin, Vee Dee’s upcoming double LP will not be out by the end of the year, so I don’t have a chance to put it on the 2007 list. I remain confident that it will rate highly on the 2008 list. In the intervening time, those of you who’ve worn out your copies of Furthur need to pick up the Glimpses of Another World single, which goes from great to more great to “someone get me roll of paper towels and tell me where the nearest bathroom is.” There’s no excuse not to have it. If you don’t have a turntable, get off your ass and buy one.

2007 in Review: The "Too Bad Not to Mention" Award

This award, in honor of exceptional achievement in excrement, is given to:

The Weirdness
The Stooges

There is something to be said for rejecting any sort of sanctity in punk rock. By its nature, punk is nihilistic, self-destructive, disposable, and temporary. It’s surprising enough that it didn’t burn out as a movement before it even got on the map, and it’s more surprising that it lasted this long. That being said, even if you ignore the fact that The Stooges made three of the most brutal, unforgiving masterpieces of boredom and loathing that the world has ever seen, The Weirdness is still a big pile of shit. I’ll be honest: I haven’t listened to the whole thing. I barely made it through a single song without retching. Every snippet I’ve heard since then only reinforces this opinion. The CD should have been recalled, or better yet shelved before it ever saw the light of day. Everyone involved in it should be shot seven times in the face, with the exceptions of Mike Watt and Steve Albini, who should be shot in the kneecaps and reminded that the only reason they’re still alive is because they’ve demonstrated taste in the past and they should never get involved in something like this ever again. The master tapes should be destroyed, and every copy of the album confiscated by government agents in radiation suits. Everyone who has heard more than thirty seconds of it should have their eardrums scrubbed with sandpaper and bleach. This may not go down in history as the worst album ever to come out of a proto-punk icon, but at least I can listen to Metal Machine Music.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Rezillos - Can't Stand the Rezillos

Back when I was in high school, and my rubric for musical criticism was "loud, fast, louder, faster, EVERYBODY GET IN THE MOSH PIT," I got a compilation with a song on it called "Somebody's Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight" by The Rezillos. It fit all of my criteria: it was rowdy, boisterous, loud, and encouraged an evening of violence and mayhem. Occasionally, while listening to it alone, I would pump my fist in the air and say the word "oi" a lot. Aren't teenagers silly?

Later on, I picked up the full album and upon discovering that the entire album was not in fact filled with head-kicking excitement, let it languish in my CD rack until I became old enough to appreciate it for what it is: one of the greatest party records I have ever heard in my life.

Can't Stand the Rezillos is a punk record, no doubt. But I was in that phase where everything had to sound like the Misfits, and The Rezillos came out of that era where the terms "punk" and "new wave" were fairly interchangeable: a few short years later, the Exploited would be the former and the Thompson Twins the latter, and everything just got awkward. But in 1978, when the Buzzcocks and the Ramones were riding high in the saddle, it was okay to write bouncy, insidiously catchy, devilishly fun pop songs and just play them really fast. Not hardcore fast, just fast. There are no down-tempo ballads, no pretensions of high art: this album starts in a good mood, stays that way, and finishes in an even better mood. There's one cover on the original LP, and if you get the CD version, it comes with a bunch of live tracks, which feature a bunch more covers. In order to give you an idea of what this band is trying to accomplish, take a look at the songs they're copping from other bands:

"Glad All Over"
"Land of 1,000 Dances"
"I Need You" (Kinks)
"Ballroom Blitz"

See? No messing around. Just fun! You like fun, right? So why aren't you listening to the Rezillos already?

Book of Knots - Traineater

I first heard about Book of Knots earlier this year, when Pitchfork announced that Tom Waits would be doing a guest spot on a forthcoming album called Traineater, an album devoted to the decline of the American Rust Belt. I got real excited. I read on, and discovered that a couple of the guys from Pere Ubu, I got real excited. Then I found out that Carla Bozulich, most recently responsible for last year's bone-chilling Evangelista LP would be on board, and I audibly said, "okay, people stop sneaking into my brain and stealing the list of all the people I want to get together on one album." Jon Langford and Mike Watt are on it too, but of all the albums released in the last five years, I can count the ones Jon Langford and/or Mike Watt haven't been on with the fingers on one hand.

What gets passed over a lot because the names aren't as high-profile, but is far more important, is the presence of members of Skeleton Key and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. Tom Waits gets his moment to shine, of course, on "Pray." David Thomas' appearance on "Red Apple Boy" sounds exactly like classic Pere Ubu, and Carla Bozulich will never be anyone but the astounding Carla Bozulich. However, those styles all get rolled up and assimilated into a frighteningly dark, post-industrial cacophony that overshadows all of the individual contributions. Skeleton Key comes clanging through with the junkyard percussion: they're talking about American industrial decline, and there's plenty on this album to bring to mind images of rusted through, decaying, arcane, and barely functioning machinery. If you can imagine what would happen if Terry Gilliam designed machines to make music, they could easily be on this album. Furthermore, when I picked this up for the first time, I was not expecting the skull-crushing blasts of METAL guitars. They're not everywhere, but as I said, these are the guys from Sleepytime Gorilla Museum: they're not always playing at full-throttle (in fact, they can tread as light as anyone else out there) but they've always got a layer of menace in there to keep you off-balance and uncomfortable, and then they come tearing in like a rabid grizzly bear whenever your guard is down.

This is not an album just to get because Tom Waits is on it. If you're just expecting something sort of like Mule Variations, you're going to be disappointed and probably a little bit scared. This is a musical world akin to something from the movie Brazil (without the whimsy), or the final scenes of Touch of Evil: giant decrepit machinery coming to life to terrorize you before it gives out and is forgotten entirely.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Veils - Nux Vomica

Not too long ago, a friend of mine offered me a ticket to come with her to see The Veils in concert. She'd played one of their songs for me, but as soon as she put it on, we promptly began talking over it, so I hadn't really paid too much attention. So when I got to the Empty Bottle, I was pretty much oblivious to what I was about to hear. Finn Andrews and his crew took to the stage like lightning: as soon as he picked up his guitar, he got this look on his face like he had very much just had his heart broken and was not going to be able to hold back the emotion. They dug into the set hard: they got through maybe a verse or two of solid songwriting before he couldn't hold it back anymore, and started shrieking like a wildcat. The whole evening, I'm not sure I ever saw him play the guitar, but whenever he liberated himself from the song structure and launched into one of his freak-outs, he strangled and mangled that thing for it was all it was worth. In short, there is not enough Prozac in the world to save this guy from himself. After that first song was over, I asked if perhaps we should leave, because I wasn't sure he could top what I'd just seen.

Since the show, I've been trying to limit myself to one spin through the album daily, if not less. It's gotten under my skin so completely that I can't stand not listening to it, but I'm terrified I'm going to play it out. The sound is a bit more nuanced than what I described for their live performance: the anguished roars are still present and still potent, but they're spaced out by excellent, well-crafted pop. The best analogy here is Nick Cave circa The Lyre of Orpheus, with digressions into Nick Cave circa From Her to Eternity. Finn Andrews doesn't have Cave's guttural baritone: he gets frequent and accurate comparisons to Jeff Buckley, minus the unpleasant moody 90's rock associations. Veils songs are generally moody, to be sure, but "Jesus for the Jugular" and "Pan" sound like someone trying to exorcise his own demons and wracking himself with all the Linda Blair symptoms, rather than passively wallowing in them.

The first part of what makes this album so impressive is that while it feels at times like the songs are spiraling out of control, it still functions within its own rules. The title track is a long, slow burn driven by a steady drum beat and a rolling bass line, punctuated here and there with some bursts from the guitar. Andrews sings his verses like he's preaching the apocalypse, and the band waits politely in the wings, waiting for him to finish so they can actually unleash that apocalypse.

However, the second half of the charm here lies in skipping the roar altogether. The prancing, slightly melancholy pop (the chorus ends, "what's there left to believe in?") of the second track, "Calliope," leads very nicely into "Advice for Young Mothers to Be," which is best described as a disco track with a ska beat. I know, it sounds perverse, but it works. Without the lush production, "A Birthday Present" could almost be an old Irish folk tune, and "One Night on Earth" could alternately be entitled "The Song Interpol Almost Wrote, But The Veils Got There First." The album closes with one of those tracks with a mood (if not style) like Tom Waits' "Old Shoes & Picture Postcards" or Brian Eno's "Some of Them Are Old:" it's the perfect coda, that acknowledges that what has come before has taken you through the emotional ringer, and yeah, the wreckage is still there, but there's still hope on the horizon.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

What It Is!

If you're curious about this, then you want it. There is so much badass funk on this that I can't even handle it.

William Shatner - The Transformed Man

Okay, I know. William Shatner, can't sing, ha ha, right? Yeah, all the jokes have been done. But have you really heard it? Have you?

Even if it weren't for Star Trek, this album was destined to be a cult classic. It is so far beyond weird that it's hard to imagine a major label touching it, even with the star power. The vocals range from stately and impassioned, to confused, to manic and crazed, and that's just on his version of "Mr. Tambourine Man." The "spoken word" intros range from oddly inappropriate on a pop album (do we really need to hear his interpretation of Hamlet?) to downright terrifying ("The Spleen," his prelude to "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds").

The first time I heard this, I was expecting a silly camp classic, but as the album went on, my eyes just kept getting wider. If it were just Shatner's perverse performance, that would be one thing, but the arrangements match him every step of the way: they walk the line between square 60's spoken word accompaniments to crazed orchestra-on-acid freakouts. It's not an album to play for the kids before bed. Actually, it's not an album for anyone to listen to before bed. It is, however, an album that's absolutely worth hearing.

If this were just a rote cash-in album, it wouldn't sound anything like this: there is passion and creative consideration in it. Whether the people behind it had the talent to make it art is still up for debate, but I keep going back for another listen to try to answer that question.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Best of 2006

This is what I've got to say about the year 2006 in music. I don't want to break it into a list of where things go in rankings, because there's really no point in comparing The Decemberists to Gnarls Barkley. So I'll break my favorites into categories based on how much they impressed me.

#1) Oh my god, this is absolutely the best album of the year holy crap:
Scott Walker - The Drift (There's only one record that has come anywhere close to sounding like this one, and it's Scott Walker's last album. It's absolutely terrifying, but it's almost incomprehensibly brilliant)

#2-6) The other "Holy Crap!" albums of 2006:
Boris - Pink (If Spinal Tap cranked it up to 11, Pink is somewhere in the 30's or 40's. Insane.)

Carla Bozulich - Evangelista (Yikes.)

Johnny Cash - American V: The Hundred Highways (Johnny Cash at his most intimate: these are his final reflections on life and death. I was wary of an album which he didn't survive long enough to approve the final product, but Rick Rubin didn't let us down.)

The Decemberists - The Crane Wife (There's a lot of things I could point to about this album that would make it sound like it's awful. But the fact is, the songwriting is so good that I can't help loving it. It is thoroughly addictive. Damn you Colin Meloy.)

Gnarls Barkley - St. Elsewhere (Party.)

#7-12) The "venerable crap, but not exactly holy crap" albums of 2006:
Belle & Sebastian - The Life Pursuit (In general, I don't like Belle & Sebastian. I think the vast majority of their catalog is for sipping tea and wearing cardigans in dark rooms and seeing how many parts of your life can accurately be described by the word "sallow." But The Life Pursuit sounds like they're actually, well, pursuing something that could be called life. They've stopped knitting and started having fun, and I'm really, really happy for them.)

Califone - Roots & Crowns (Very much like the other Califone records, but they do everything just a little bit better.)

The Flaming Lips - At War with the Mystics (This album really grows on you. It's not their best, but it's better than Yoshimi.)

Los Lobos - The Town & the City (This album doesn't have anything to prove, and becaus of that, it's better than most things that do. It's not flashy or sexy, it's just good.)

Sparks - Hello Young Lovers (Who put Queen, They Might Be Giants, and Gilbert & Sullivan in the same room together. Why the hell anyone would do such a thing? Why is it so very, incredibly awesome?)

TV on the Radio - Return to Cookie Mountain (This is less fun than their debut, but I think it's a better record.)

#13-20)Albums that were good with no surprises:
Akron/Family - Meek Warrior
Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint - The River in Reverse
Detholz! - Cast Out Devils
Glenn Kotche - Mobile
The Roots - The Game Theory
Scissor Sisters - Ta Dah!
M. Ward - Post-war William Elliott Whitmore - Song of the Blackbird

Really, really awesome compilations that came out this year:
Tom Waits - Orphans: Bawlers, Brawlers, & Bastards
Various Artists - The Birmingham Sound: The Soul of Neal Hemphill
Various Artists - Tropicalia: A Brazilian Revolution in Sound
Various Artists - What it is! Funky Soul & Rare Grooves