Monday, December 14, 2009

Tim's Favorite Albums of 2009

This is, more than most years, a reflection of where I am at the end of the year than what happened over the course of the year, because my tastes crossed a line somewhere and I can't see what was on the other side of it. I could almost make a list to mirror this one (probably bigger, actually) of things I thought would be on my best-of list, but eventually got cut without a second thought. But I'm not going to.

25) Yearling - Yearling
When David Lynch was writing lyrics for Angelo Badalamenti, Badalamenti complained that they weren't lyrics, because you couldn't make a song out of them. Lynch told him not to try to make a song fit the words, but just to make the words float. The same principle, if not the sound, applies here.

24) The Smith Westerns - The Smith Westerns
Trashy rock and roll, somewhere between garage and glam and power pop.

23) IUD - The Proper Sex
Another harsh, grating industrial noise album, like many others on this list. The songs are a lot like actual songs, mostly. But not entirely.

22) T.I.T.S. - Second Base
Lots of feedback and harsh post-hardcore guitar noises, with a melodic style reminiscent of The Residents. Imagine Lee Ranaldo and Bikini Kill doing a cover of The Commercial Album.

21) Rabid Rabbit - Rabid Rabbit LP
Gritty, metal-derived art noise that manages to avoid being pompous on the merits of simply being just that good.

20) Cheveau - Cheveau
Crunchy electro-punk with the recording budget equivalent to that of your average visit to the local Aldi.

19) Yoko Ono & The Plastic Ono Band - Between My Head and the Sky
In a couple of months, I might wish I had put this higher on the list, but I haven't taken the time to fall in love with it yet. Yoko's collaborators on this record, the new Plastic Ono Band, fully appreciate what her eccentricity contributes to her music, but keep her grounded enough to make the album fluid and (by my estimation) far more palatable to the average listener.

18) Liechtenstein - Survival Strategies for the Modern World
Icy Swedish new wave pop with impeccable melodies and harmonies that are actually harmonious, unlike some bands that are getting famous this year (coughcoughviviangirlscough).

17) Baroness - The Blue Album
Another statement in defense of metal as a truly magnificent art form, eloquently stated.

16) Throbbing Gristle - The Third Mind Movements
I'm not sure these cats are human.

15) Death - For All The World to See
Another amazing "new" record this year that was recorded almost 35 years ago. Urgent, honest punk rock from Detroit, circa 1975.

14) The Ganglians - Monster Head Room
It's like Brian Wilson and Syd Barrett and a large bottle of glue had a magical weekend together.

13) Pissed Jeans - King of Jeans
Sort of like The Jesus Lizard taking late-period Black Flag songs and making them not suck. I play this a lot when I'm really annoyed by someone.

12) Black Heart Procession - Six
If Nick Cave had an album called "Songs for Funerals," it would sound like this. It rolls along slowly, considering every move carefully, and savoring the morbidity of each note.

11) St. Vincent - Actor
The first few times I heard St. Vincent, back when her first album came out, I lumped her in with boring female singer-songwriters with pretty voices, and ignored all the surprisingly weird stuff she was doing. I figured it out later -- just in time for Actor, which is bombastic in all the right places and manages to be good despite being cute.

10) Coathangers - Scramble
I was initially disappointed that this album wasn't as childish and silly as its predecessor, but it eventually weaseled its way into my heart. One of the few garage rock records I'm not getting bored with right now.

9) Lily Allen - It's Not Me, It's You
Shut up. I get to have a guilty pleasure. I don't know why I like such a tarted up pop sensation, but I can't deny that I think the songs are really fun. As you may have noticed, there are a lot of serious bummer jams on this list, and this is the cure.

8) Nothing People - Late Night
Aptly titled. This is music for 4am when any more coffee won't keep you awake, or even give you the shakes, it'll just fray your nerves even more. Unusual noises with lots of open spaces.

7) Pisces - A Lovely Sight
I'm not sure if it's a statement about me or the year we've had that one of my top ten records is a 40-year-old psych record that was never released. But my god, is it good. It's stunning that with all the labels trying to dig up rare psychedelia, it took the Numero Group, who are known mainly for their soul albums, to bring this one to light.

6) Evangelista - Prince of Truth
Carla Bozulich can do no wrong in my eyes. Far more gentle than her previous albums with Evangelista, but no less potent.

5) Kurt Vile - Childish Prodigy
Believe the hype. Vile takes the boring old "sad, skinny white guy with an acoustic guitar" idea and reinvents it with lush production and deconstruction, and launches us into inner space.

4) Magik Markers - Balf Quarry
No-wave and noisy avant-garde music with a strong foundation in punk rock. Every time you think they're just brainy wanks, they crank out some adrenaline and play some blazing-ass rock and roll.

3) Flaming Lips - Embryonic
Krautrock is alive and well and living in... Oklahoma City? After a long flirtation with being a pop band, the Flaming Lips have given it up, and in doing so may have turned out the best album of their career.

2) Vee Dee - Public Mental Health System
The psychedelic sounds of what happens when you fall 13 floors without an elevator.

1) Zola Jesus - The Spoils / Zola Jesus & Burial Hex - Split LP
Imagine Diamanda Galas singing for Suicide. Cold, distorted synthetic sounds and one of the most amazing voices I've ever heard. When this music plays, it's hard for me not to stop and stare at the stereo in awe.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Pisces - A Lovely sight

How does something this good go so long without being discovered? The Numero Group has finally brought these AMAZING psych-rock recordings to the light of day after they (the songs, not the Numero Group) spent forty years fermenting in a cellar somewhere in Rockford, Illinois. Pisces pulls you right into their uniquely dark but gentle atmosphere in the span of about six seconds, and once you’re there, you’re there. It is very mystical and very beautiful. I can't really describe it in concrete terms, but the words I would use in a metaphoric description are "dream," "lush," "foggy" and "verdant." For recordings that were never released, the recording quality is improbably good, the production is brilliantly suited to the quality and intent of the songs, and the songwriting is top-shelf all the way through. I’ve seen a few people pick this one off the shelf and put it back again because they only want Numero to do soul, but it's really worth a second glance.

Liechtenstein - Survival Strategies in a Modern World

This is what the Vivian Girls would sound like if they were better at playing their instruments. Also, if they were a Swedish pop band. Liechtenstein has harmonies that are far more harmonious, and plenty of icy new wave vibes. It's only 20 minutes long, but it doesn't fuck around.

Scott Walker - Tilt

I generally think having some context is a good thing when listening to music: knowing who the artist is, when it was recorded, what the circumstances were... this usually provides some helpful perspective. But with Tilt, I think that gets in the way for a lot of people. In light of his highly successful (if often overlooked in hindsight) career as a pop star in the 60’s, the temptation is to look at Tilt almost as a cautionary tale, to listen to it only for the purpose of thinking, “what the hell happened to this guy?” But the fact of the matter is that Tilt stands better on its own -- it defies any interpretation based on the context of the world outside Scott Walker’s imagination, which has never made sense to the human race at large, regardless of what time period you’re talking about. Tilt is a masterpiece of isolation. Huge, alien sounds ring out in a massive empty space. Armies of percussionists pummel drums, and plenty of things that aren't drums. Walker had an orchestra on hand so he could take them to places that I don't think anyone is too emotionally comfortable with. And Walker’s warbling, menacing baritone floats above it all. It’s a whole world unto itself: it is dark, it is vast, and deserves to be explored at great length for those looking for an experience in composition far beyond the pop realm.

Flaming Lips - At War with the Mystics

This album generally got worse reviews than Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, and from a certain perspective, that's accurate. Yoshimi has the hits: if the Flaming Lips are remembered in 100 years, it will be for "Do You Realize?" and that one Cat Stevens song that they "wrote." But there are also big lulls that encourage you (or me, at least) to skip ahead to the hits. At War with the Mystics is not only more of a consistent record, it's a really consistently good album. There are no songs worth skipping -- except maybe the first couple of tracks, which were unfortunately the ones that were promoted. The synthesizers achieve a pleasant orbit around Jupiter, but that doesn't stop them from accompanying some good, fun rock tunes. "It Overtakes Me," "Mr. Ambulance Driver," and "Goin' On" will never be as remembered as "Do You Realize?" But they do guide along an album that works far better together as a whole.

The Postal Service - Give Up

This is a really apt title: allowing myself to like it was a process of giving up some of my pride. When I first heard "Such Great Heights," years ago when I didn't know who it was, I loved it right up until I got that sharp burst of pain when I found out that it was a Ben Gibbard project. I've never understood the appeal of Death Cab for Cutie, and the thought of liking one of his albums was anathema to a 20-year-old music nerd who was mainly into angry punk stuff. But eventually, I relaxed, and admitted to myself that Gibbard or not, these songs were too good to pass by. Any song on the album could have been chosen as the single and it would have been just as successful. The album is largely electronic, and it sounds pretty clean as a result, but at no point does it lose any warmth, or any sense of the emotional baggage that worked its way prominently into the songwriting. Give Up will comfort you and make you happy, but only when you're ready to be lonely and sad.

The Kinks - Muswell Hillbillies.

If you've ever heard this record, you don't need to bother reading this, because you already know. Muswell Hillbillies is, without a doubt in my mind, the pinnacle of Ray Davies' songwriting career, one of the pinnacles of 20th century music, and one of my "desert island"* records. Davies had been working for some time on striking a balance between British and American songwriting traditions. He wears his influences on his sleeve, finding just the right contours of country and rock and roll to fit into jaunty British music hall numbers. Some of the more rocking, big-arrangement numbers sound almost like T. Rex, and others sound like the source material for every good idea Jeff Tweedy ever had. Davies' notoriously dark sense of humor runs rampant throughout, throwing jabs at welfare-state bureaucracy, over-consumption of both alcohol and tea, and girls who are too skinny. If Village Green was the Kinks' response to Sgt. Pepper, then Muswell Hillbillies is the response to anyone who thinks the Kinks were just a Beatles knockoff.

*A "desert island record" is one of those records you mention when someone asks you what records you could bring with you if you were going to be stranded on a desert island and could only bring five albums with.

Ministry - The Land of Rape & Honey

My feeling is, if I have to justify to someone why I like industrial music, then they haven't heard The Land of Rape & Honey. It's got beats you can dance to, pummeling guitars, dark and magnificent spaceouts, a name that will piss off just about any Republican you can find, and the drugged up lunatic who's in charge is shouting a lot. It sounds great, ad I can't think of much else you can ask for from a rock record. Never, ever forget how awesome Wax Trax! was in their prime.

Sisters of Mercy - Floodland

Ass-kicking rock and roll from the blackest pits of Andrew Eldritch's smack habit. Goth rock from guys with worn-out motorcycle jackets and aviator shades. Evil and full of testosterone, but with a beat designed and ready for the dance floor. The Sisters of Mercy had a phenomenal career, but this is the pinnacle. Get more, but start here.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Sonic Youth - The Destroyed Room

NOFX has a B-sides and rarities compilation called 45 or 46 songs That Weren't Good Enough to Go on Our Other Records. The joke, of course, is that that's usually what those types of compilations are (and definitely true of that NOFX comp).

Not so with The Destroyed Room though, which is easily the best thing Sonic Youth has released since 1992, if not before. A lot of the tracks here are more electronic- and effects-oriented work from their time with Jim O'Rourke. It doesn't really sound like a traditional Sonic Youth record, but that's a good thing: everything they've put out in the 2000's sounds like typical Sonic Youth, so there's no good reason for me to listen to Murray Street or Sonic Nurse instead of Sister. Since they signed to Geffen, all of their really exploratory impulses have been released in the context of solo projects, so the "Sonic Youth" brand has been a series of predictable "return to form" albums (that, let's face it, just aren't Daydream Nation) instead of pushing into any new territory. So despite the fact that The Destroyed Room is short on the visceral, string-scraping guitar acrobatics we've come to expect from Thurston and Lee, they make up for it with a renewed spirit of sonic exploration. Sonic Youth isn't exciting to me unless I feel like they're discovering sounds that are new to them, which they haven't in a long, long time. With musicians this talented, a new form is usually better than a return to form.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Murder City Devils - Empty Bottles, Broken Hearts

Do you have a drinking problem, a lot of adrenaline, and a not-so-subtle subconscious yen for a long dirt nap? Yes? Well, I’ve got the album for you. This album has death-wish written all over it: the vast majority of it is filled with hard, fast, sloppy, drunk-ass rock and roll, obsessed with dancing, rocking and partying -- the rest is about death, guilt and isolation. In fact, they often occupy the same songs at the same time. But even when the energy level goes down a few notches, the Murder City Devils still have more swagger in their little fingers than most bands could manage on their best days -- this means that even when they sink into self-pity diatribes like “Every Shitty Thing” and “Cradle to the Grave,” they don’t get obnoxious and pathetic. I consider their whole catalog to be essential listening, but if you’re not sure yet, this the place to start. This is fevered, self-destructive party rock at its finest.

Ween - Pure Guava

How any song from an album like Pure Guava ended up having actual success in a mainstream media market, I have no fucking clue. But I suppose it makes sense that Beavis & Butthead would like it, so the army of stoners who wanted to be them would like it too. There’s no other explanation for the rampant weirdness -- the distorted vocal tracks, maniacal giddiness, and completely cracked songcraft -- than recognizing this as the flagrant misuse of commercially available products by a couple of guys who couldn’t afford proper black market drugs. There was a lot of angsty bullshit rock that came out of the early 90’s, but it did have the intended effect of making a market for musicians who just wanted to fly the freak flag: early Beck would be the most obvious example, but the Melvins, the Butthole Surfers, and Ween all got swept up in the wake of grunge, and history is doing us the favor of weeding out some of the whiny crap and remembering just how awesome some of those weirdos really were.

Al Green - Lay it Down

Yet another in the series of “surprisingly amazing albums from an artist who jumped the shark decades ago but got an amazing producer and pulled his shit together and did it up classic-style.” Al hooked up with ?uestlove from the Roots for this one, and turned out an album that manages to be smooth and relaxing without being to saccharine and easy-listening. It doesn’t quite sound like his old albums (despite that unmistakable organ), but it doesn’t sound like he’s reaching to try to sound current either: Al Green just has one of those sounds that ages well without really needing to get updated. Most people will choose to pass by an album like this in favor of his old, classic “Greatest Hits” compilation. But fans will find more than a few reasons to hang onto this one.

.45 Grave - Sleep in Safety

.45 Grave deliver death rock in a style that is thoroughly Los Angeles: it’s loud, trashy, blazing punk rock, more influenced by The Germs and Black Flag (and maybe even Motley Crue?) as Joy Division and Bauhaus. The melancholy theatrics and musical mood breaks that characterized even the most glam-oriented British goth bands are left in the dust by “Partytime,” which sounds like it could be by the Dictators, and a whole album full of razor sharp riffs. There’s even a surf-rock instrumental towards the end, which (as far as I can tell) is not a joke at all. Sleep in Safety is still dark, and it still absolutely belongs in the same category as Christian Death, their closest stylistic and geographical contemporaries, but it’s a lot more... snide. And lively. And it has a sense of humor about itself. Goth rock is a genre with a handful of good bands and countless others aping their styles -- 45 Grave is one of those few, proud bands that figured it out on their own.

Magik Markers - Balf Quarry

I cannot get enough of this record right now. Someone recommended it to me when I said I was listening to a lot of the Sacred Bones Records recordings, which to me often sound like no-wave and industrial artists growing old and relaxed. Magik Markers aren’t that, but it’s a start. There are plenty of parts that do try to achieve beautiful (if unorthodox) music using ugly sounds. But they’re still a rock band at heart, and don’t hesitate to jump into some punk rock when the need arises. I’m reminded a lot of pre-Evol Sonic Youth, but I don’t want to pigeonhole them as a knockoff, because I think they have their own thing going on. I’m the sort of person that digs a lot of spacy, avant-garde weirdo music, but I get sick of the pretension that goes with it. It’s unbelievably refreshing to me to hear a band that shares those same “outsider music” tendencies, but will still play some real, honest rock and roll when they need to cut through the bullshit.