Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Good albums from 2008

Generally, I would make a list of a nice round number of albums, but after a lot of consideration, I'm going to do 23 albums and not 25. There were a lot of albums that were good filler for the year, but don't really need to be on any list of "favorites." The Magnetic Fields album was decent, the Bauhaus album wasn't an embarrassment, The Vivian Girls have some awesome tracks here and there but mainly sound like a Jesus & Mary Chain Hoedown, and Byrne & Eno sound like a couple of old dudes making an album old dudes want to listen to. So they didn't make the cut. As always, my exposure to new music in any given year is far from exhaustive, so I will not call this a "best of," but merely my list of my 23 favorite albums of the year, as it stands on the eve of 2009.

23) TV on the Radio – Dear Science
This is a very cautious entry on my list. I put off listening to this album because I’d heard a lot of less-than-stellar things about it, and I don’t think I’ve fully digested it. Every new TV on the Radio album is hard to critique right away, because it’s never anything like what they did before it. Return to Cookie Mountain was rough, distorted, and almost aggressive in tone. Dear Science is about as polished as it can get. The harmonies are carefully smoothed, the synth sounds are pristine, the guitars are heavily reverbed, the strings (!) swoon melodramatically… I could imagine Enya doing a cover version of “Family Tree.” But there are some times when they bust out some attitude. It’s never that simple to give a capsule description of a TVOTR album. While it initially turned me off, Dear Science still makes the list because it’s too much of something not to live and grow with for a while.

22) Melvins – Nude with Boots
This is far from my favorite Melvins album, but man, I do love the Melvins.

21) Torche – Meanderthal
I have serious misgivings about this album. There are parts of it that, in my opinion, veer dangerously towards territory populated by those bands of 21-year-old dudes who wear a lot of eyeliner. But there are far more parts of it that are really awesome heavy metal, and for that I will cast a cautious blind eye to the parts that make me want to turn it off.

20) Silver Jews – Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea
This is the album that finally put me over the edge into liking the Silver Jews, thanks in no small part to the ridiculous fun of “Aloysius, Bluegrass Drummer” and “Party Barge.” It ain’t perfect or anywhere close to it, but there are times when it fits my ear quite well.

19) Cheap Time – Cheap Time
Exactly what you expect from In the Red Records. Loud, fast garage rock that you can’t get out of your head. Nothing fancy.

18) Ladytron – Velocifero
I haven’t enjoyed a Ladytron album since 604, although I’ll grant that I haven’t been paying a whole lot of attention since the stinker that was Light & Magic. More to the point, given everything else I’ve been listening to, I have no idea why I still like Ladytron at all. I can’t make any sense of it. I really like this album though. Weird.

17) Raveonettes – Lust Lust Lust
The Raveonettes are an EP band through and through. A lot of the songs on here have boring melodies over the stiffest rhythms you can get. So it’s a testament to the strength of the other half of the album that it’s on here. The good tracks are atmospheric in all the right ways, they swagger, they breathe, and they’re not afraid to pound obscene amounts of noise into your ear when you’re not expecting it just to prove a point. Listen to this on one of those summer nights when it’s so hot and humid that water vapor is condensing on your skin.

16) Metallica – Death Magnetic
I still miss Cliff Burton, and I can’t tell whether or not he’d approve of this album. But after where Metallica’s been, this is more than just a step up. This is like five days undergoing gradual decompression so you don’t get the bends kind of a step up.

15) Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple
Just because this isn’t as much of a party album as its predecessor doesn’t mean it’s not as good. Listen with your head and your heart before you listen to it with your hips. It’s actually better than its predecessor.

14) Witch – Paralyzed
You can’t call Witch anything new, because they’re not. You can’t call them a revival, because what they do hasn’t gone anywhere. Black Sabbath, The Melvins, Sleep… stoned-ass metal with huge riffs and an assload of ass-kicking. “Paralyzed” has some digression into garage- and punk-influenced tracks (“1000 mph”) and the production isn’t crisp in the slightest. Which is good.

13) Nachtmystium – Assassins: Black Meddle Pt. 1
Part of me thinks heavy metal is really awesome, and part of me thinks it’s really silly. Nachtmystium is sort of the meeting point. Nachtmystium (silly name) is driven by a man who sometimes calls himself Azentrius (silly) and sings in Standard Growling Metal Voice (silly) and coats the whole double-kick-drum (awesome) and hard-riffing (awesome) with electronic overtones and samples (could go either way). The songs are frequently deliberative, which is usually suicide for metal bands, and the heavy post-production gives it a mood that kind of matches the soundtrack for Terminator 2: Judgment Day. But frankly, “Azentrius” is too good at doing what he does to pass it over for what would seem ridiculous in lesser hands. The guitar solos are spot-on, the moods are communicated well without being overbearing and are frequently punctuated by bite-the-curb-motherfucker ragers. All the songs are great on their own, and they’re blended together to make a really enjoyable album.

12) Nick Cave – Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!
After 30 years, Nick Cave still hasn’t jumped the shark. The Grinderman project gave him a lot of musical focus to bring back to the Bad Seeds, where he could add all of the usual garnish and return to his more recognizable lyrical fixations.

11) Jay Reatard – Singles ‘08
The more of a phenomenon Jay Reatard gets to be, the more ready I get to get off the bandwagon, in no small part because it means I keep getting to hear stories about how much of a dick he is personally. But as long as he keeps writing pop songs like this, I can’t get off the wagon yet.

10) Eddy Current Suppression Ring – Primary Colours
This is the most groove-oriented garage band I’ve ever heard. They jump on a riff, get in their happy place, and they run with it until the song needs to be over. It’s a very simple formula, done several times over, without ever getting boring.

9) Fabulous Diamonds – Fabulous Diamonds
I don’t know how to describe this album. I think that John Coltrane, Martin Rev, and Steve Reich would all enjoy it. It isn’t rock and roll, it isn’t nearly as abrasive as most people think when they hear “experimental,” and you pretty much just have to hear it to know whether you’re going to like it or not. It is beautiful in a very cold way. It is very spacious. It’s like watching Dr. Zhivago after downing a slightly-larger-than-recommended dose of Robitussin.

8) Evangelicals – The Evening Descends
It’s a shame that the first notable band to come out of Oklahoma City since the Flaming Lips feels the need to sound exactly like the Flaming Lips. Nevertheless, there’s not a bad minute on this record, and it’s got more theatricality and vigor than the Flaming Lips or Mercury Rev have shown in some time.

7) Clinic – Do It!
Clinic simplifies their usual post-punk-meets-psych formula by taking out most of the post-punk. This time the melodica gets joined by fuzzier guitars than ever and all the harpsichord and necessary 60’s accoutrements. Clinic never do anything new, but they always do it well.

6) Lair of the Minotaur – War Metal Battle Master
Barbarian rock. This shit is brutal. BRUTAL. Sometimes, it's okay to say "fuck nuance."

5) Al Green – Lay it Down
This is Al Green doing the classic Al Green formula. It doesn’t sound like a comeback record, it just sounds like an Al Green record from his prime. What more do you want?

4) Evangelista – Hello Voyager
Most musicians get more sedate, predictable, and bland as they get older. Carla Bozulich keeps pushing the envelope harder and harder. Hello Voyager is definitely more scattered than its predecessor, but I can’t judge them too harshly just because they ruined the grading curve before.

3) Portishead – Third
Every year, there’s an album by an established band that I listen to out of morbid curiosity and end up really loving. This year, Portishead gets the crown. They managed to leave trip-hop in the 90’s (wise choice) and construct something massive and minimalist and new and exquisitely crafted.

2) Cheveu – Cheveu
Part Brainiac, part Fall, part Butthole Surfers, completely self-contained and inspired. Cheveu have the influences of great weirdos past, and all of the curiosity for experimentation that made them great to begin with. This was very close to being #1, and even as I post this, I'm regretting it a little bit.

1) Boris – Smile
It’s hard for Boris to go wrong in my eyes. With every successive album, they keep improving their mix of psychedelic rock and metal. Their range seems infinite. The addition of Ghost guitarist Michio Kurihara seems to have brought a lot of Ghost-like qualities to the band, but it has only enhanced their idea of who they are as a band, rather than distorting it. It’s a rare and magnificent occasion when music can take you not just out of your own body and surroundings, but out of the physical world in general and into a truly spiritual place where the only thing you can manage is to be grateful for the glorious sounds around you.

Happy New Year, everybody. A change is gonna come.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

What in the holy hell?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Songs I have inexplicably had in my head over the last few days:

Monday morning, at work: "I'm in Love With My Car" by Queen
Monday afternoon, at work: "Shine" by Collective Soul
Monday evening, looking for Club Soda at the 7-11 on Elston: "I'm a Chollo" by The Dickies
Tuesday afternoon, at work: "Warning" by Black Sabbath
Tuesday evening, after dinner: "Dr. Faustus" by The Fall

It's worth noting that three of these songs, I haven't heard in months.

[Addendum: since making this list, I have had all five of these songs on rapid fire play in my brain].

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

It's like having non-porous chain-mail . . . for your penis!

Metal band Manowar have their own brand of condoms now. They are referred to as "Warrior's Shield" condoms.

MANOWAR fans have requested a special piece of merchandise from their favorite metal band. MANOWAR has heard these requests and delivered. The new MANOWAR condoms are the perfect romantic accessory for all true metal couples. Whether you are looking to spice things up in the bedroom or meet somebody new after the show, MANOWAR condoms will do the trick. Now, you are ready for any chance meetings that turn into unexpected friendships.


Now you can not only say Fuck The World, you can do it as well.

Why This Record? (or, Preaching to the Choir)

People often ask me why I prefer vinyl to CD's. Now, I have CD's and I'm not averse to buying more if that's the only reasonable option, because in the end the music is more important than the medium. I just happen to prefer LP's. There are two obvious arguments that are a part of it, one practical and semi-accurate answer, and then two (and a half) really good reasons that are just plain sentimental but are really the ones that apply to me. Let's break it down.

The Obvious Reasons
1) Sound Quality. This is an accurate answer if you have crisp, mint vinyl, but a wildly inaccurate answer if you have scratched up, crackly, popping vinyl. On the other hand, if you have a scratched CD, it will go "wubwubwubwubwubwubwubwubwubwubwubwubwubwubwub" until you turn it off and throw it away. The first time I heard a scratched CD, it was something my dad had left on when he left the house and I thought we had a poltergeist. LP's just sound like Rice Krispies when they get scuffed (well, up to a certain point).

2) I am pretentious. I do my best to contain it, I try not to look down on people who like stuff that I don't (hey, I've got plenty of musical skeletons in my closet too) but when I'm honest with myself, it's true. I think the stuff I'm into is the best stuff to be into. I grew up with cassettes and CD's, so I will confess that when I switched to vinyl, part of the reason was that there was a mystique about it: it was my way of connecting with the history of all the music that I missed. I'm sorry, I can't help it. Sue me. But that was then. I now have better reasons.

Practical and Semi-Accurate
3) Cost. I can walk into Laurie's Planet of Sound with fifteen dollars in my pocket and pick up one new CD by the Who, or four of their albums in pretty awesome condition. There are the collector's market LP's which will be more expensive than their still-in-print CD counterparts, and there are certain major labels who are still trying to rape people on the cost of LP's (remember how the last White Stripes LP was like $30? Yeah.) But on average you can pick up LP's on the cheap. Indie labels generally price new records about the same as the CD's, and many of them will give you a code so you can download the album in mp3 format legally from their website so you can listen to it on your iPod.

Sentimental, but honestly, these are my real reasons:
4) The Hunt. There is an art to getting really involved in buying used LP's. It's rare that you can walk into a record store looking for a specific album and rely on it being there. It's more of a hunt-and-see-what's-there process. This ends up leading to some disappointments when you strike out, and it leads to some days when you spend way more than you were planning on spending, but what it generally leads to is being caught off-guard and usually being very pleasantly surprised by what you end up getting, which to me is part of the appeal.

4a) Every piece of vinyl is unique. When I first started buying LP's, I knew I was going to want a copy of Blood on the Tracks, but I passed over about five copies because I knew that on that particular record, I didn't want to screw around with copies that were anything less than spotless. Every LP goes on its own journey: sometimes they're hermetically sealed in five layers of plastic, sometimes they're stored in a stack in someone's flood-prone basement. Sometimes they're placed on the turntable gingerly touching only the label and the wax, some are owned by people with under-supervised toddlers or a cat who likes to bat around the needle while the record is playing. Finding A copy of a record is one thing; finding YOUR copy is another.

5) Presence. With records, I can see where the needle is when the track is playing, I can see where each imperfection is, I can run my fingers over scratches to tell if they'll be audible, I can have a good idea how the process of playing the thing works without understanding binary code. CD's play in a closed space, out of sight and out of contact with the listener. Music should be a physical presence, whether it's live or recorded. More importantly, LP's are more physically substantial. They are heavier, more unwieldy, and they just take up way more space than CD's. But that's the point. I was flipping through the booklet for the brand shiny new Mission of Burma reissues, which have old band photos fliers, and I realized how different it would look if I had gotten the CD version. To put it in perspective, let's look at one of my favorite album covers:

A CD jewel case booklet is about 40% of both horizontal and vertical dimensions of an LP cover (that's about 17% of the total area). When you take it down proportionally (from that already too-small image) you get this:

The smaller Lung Leg gets, the less threatening she is when she's snarling at you. A CD cover is a thumbnail image of the real piece of art that an LP cover should be.

Which is really the crux of the argument. An album should be a pretty comprehensive sensory experience. You can listen to the music, you can feel the grooves under your fingertips, you have an image to examine clearly. I'm all for the portability of mp3's, and the digitization of music has enriched my life, to be sure. But having a file on your iPod and having a record is like saying you're going to throw out your easy chair and replace it with the seat from an old Honda. Mp3's are for making you more comfortable in transit, LP's are for actually having something real. CD's exist in the ether between the two, taking up too much physical space without giving you any real physical interaction. Hence, I'll take the vinyl.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Les Savy Fav live album

Oh HELL yes.

I'll be honest, I've always thought Les Savy Fav's studio work was a mixed bag, ranging everywhere from kind of obnoxious to really goddam amazing. But their live performances are epic. A live CD won't really give you the full effect of getting hit in the face with an ice cold wet sponge while you're sweating your ass off on the dance floor and a half-naked fat man is putting on Peter Criss face paint on stage. But it's a step in the right direction.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Mike Smith and the Dave Clark Five

Mike Smith, the singer of the Dave Clark 5, has died. The Dave Clark 5 are fairly undiscussed these days, their CD reissues are long out of print, and they've been relegated to the oldies stations, so much that you can scarcely imagine their name being said out loud by anyone but Dick Biondi. I had a long romance with oldies radio when I was in junior high, so I heard a lot of their tunes but never really paid attention. I started looking into them again several months ago when I became obsessed with the Rezillos, a Scottish punk group who covered "Glad All Over," which is generally regarded as the DC5's biggest hit. Much to my surprise, the Dave Clark 5 had a surprising amount of depth to their catalog -- not that they were great artists, but they have a hell of a lot of damn good songs.

Putting aside their tendency to use pop ballad schmaltz as filler on their full albums, DC5 churned out a hell of a lot of wild, growling rock and roll tunes. Being a major part of the same wave of British rock as the Beatles, a fair amount of Smith's vocals tended to follow in the John Lennon vein, but on most of their best songs he breaks into his own style. His voice on "I Like it Like That," and a number of others, was a baudy, throaty bellow that communicates above all things that this is not someone you want dating your little sister. Dave Clark himself may have been one of the worst drummers in rock history (well, he was at least more enthusiastic about it than Ringo), but he provided monstrous, stomping beats to match it, so much that several venues insisted that they not play "Bits & Pieces," because all the people jumping up and down to the rhythm were smashing the dance floors to hell.

As I said earlier, all of their CD's are long out of print, and going for a pretty penny used, but their LP's are still pretty common, and pretty cheap. If you can lay your hands on their "Greatest Hits" compilation, it's absolutely worth it. It's only ten minutes per side, but every single song on it will kick your ass.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

In religious news, today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the Christian season of Lent, when the Church encourages its followers to give in to the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder and plan on being depressed for about the next 40 days. This willful depression is in anticipation of the day when Jesus, like bears and squirrels, will decide it's warm enough to come out of hibernation. In honor of religious depression, here is a list of ten moderately to severely depressing albums which appear from their titles, to have some sort of religious connotation:
  1. Depeche Mode - Songs of Faith & Devotion
  2. Swans - Children of God
  3. William Elliott Whitmore - Ashes to Dust
  4. Kronos Quartet - Black Angels
  5. Carla Bozulich - Evangelista
  6. The Residents - God in Three Persons
  7. Cocorosie - Noah's Ark
  8. Various Artists - Plague Songs (It's a concept album compilation about the 10 plagues. Really.)
  9. The Birthday Party - Prayers on Fire
  10. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - The Good Son (The title track is written from the perspective the brother of the Prodigal Son, who stayed home dutifully and didn't get treated any better than his ingrate brother.)
Enjoy! (solemnly.)