Monday, December 31, 2012

The List of Lists 2012

You know the drill. Arbitrary lists palooza.

1. Television: Marquee Moon (Elektra '77)
2. Big Star: Third/Sister Lovers (PVC '78)
3. Wire: Pink Flag (Harvest '77)
4. The Clash: London Calling (Epic '79)
5. Stevie Wonder: Innervisions (Tamla '73)
6. Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire '78)
7. The Clash (Epic '77)
8. The Velvet Underground: Loaded (Cotillon '70)
9. Patti Smith: Horses (Arista '75)
10. Big Star: Radio City (Ardent '73)
11. Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life (Tamla '76)
12. Neil Young: Tonight's the Night (Reprise '75)
13. Parliament: Mothership Connection (Casablanca '76)
14. Brian Eno: Another Green World (Island '76)
15. Michael Jackson: Off the Wall (Epic '79)
16. Ramones (Sire '76)
17. Neil Young: Zuma (Reprise '75)
18. David Bowie: Lodger (RCA '79)
19. Marvin Gaye: Here, My Dear (Tamla '78)
20. Neil Young: On the Beach (Reprise '74)
21. Stevie Wonder: Fulfillingness' First Finale (Tamla '74)
22. Neil Young: After the Gold Rush (Reprise '70)
23. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (Apple '70)
24. The New York Dolls (Mercury '73)
25. Funkadelic: Let's Take It to the Stage (Westbound '75)
26. The Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers (Atlantic '71)
27. Wire: Chairs Missing (Harvest '78)
28. The Jam: All Mod Cons (Polydor '79)
29. Marvin Gaye: Let's Get It On (Tamla '73)
30. Blondie: Parallel Lines (Chrysalis '78)
31. The Beach Boys: Love You (Reprise '77)
32. Brian Eno: Before and After Science (Island '78)
33. David Bowie: Low (RCA '77)
34. Fleetwood Mac: Rumours (Warner Bros. '77)
35. Neil Young: Time Fades Away (Reprise '73)
36. Funkadelic: Maggot Brain (Westbound '71)
37. John Cale: Paris 1919 (Reprise '73)
38. Patti Smith: Easter (Arista '78)
39. Curtis Mayfield: Superfly (Curtom '72)
40. The Rolling Stones: Exile on Main Street (Atlantic '72)
41. Big Star: #1 Record (Ardent '72)
42. Marvin Gaye: What's Going On (Tamla '71)
43. Leonard Cohen: Songs of Love and Hate (Columbia '71)
44. Sly & the Family Stone: There's a Riot Goin' On (Epic '71)
45. The Flamin' Groovies: Shake Some Action (Sire '76)
46. Gang of Four: Entertainment! (Warner Bros. '79)
47. Joy Division: Unknown Pleasures (Factory '79)
48. Talking Heads: Fear of Music (Sire '79)
49. Paul Simon (Columbia '72)
50. Neil Young: Harvest (Reprise '72)
+ (because I can't fit them above but can't bear not mentioning them):
Fleetwood Mac: Tusk (Warner Bros. '79)
Dennis Wilson: Pacific Ocean Blue (Reprise '77)

1. Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch)
2. The Roots: Phrenology (MCA)
3. Broken Social Scene: You Forgot It in People (Arts & Crafts)
4. Pet Shop Boys: Release (Sanctuary)
5. The Mountain Goats: Tallahassee (4AD)
6. Interpol: Turn on the Bright Lights (Matador)
7. The Extra Glenns: Martial Arts Weekend (Absolute Kosher)
8. Rilo Kiley: The Execution of All Things (Saddle Creek)
9. The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Warner Bros.)
10. The Walkmen: Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone (Startime)
Red Hot Chili Peppers: By the Way (Warner Bros.)
Eels: Souljacker (DreamWorks)
Laura Cantrell: When the Roses Bloom Again (4AD)
Peter Gabriel: Up (Geffen)
Gus Gus: Attention (Underwater)

1. Leonard Cohen: The Future (Columbia)
2. Pavement: Slanted and Enchanted (Matador)
3. L7: Bricks Are Heavy (Slash)
4. R.E.M.: Automatic for the People (Warner Bros.)
5. XTC: Nonsuch (Virgin)
6. Madonna: Erotica (Maverick)
7. Television (Capitol)
8. Yo La Tengo: May I Sing with Me (Alias)
9. Lightning Seeds: Sense (MCA)
10. Lush: Spooky (4AD)
Catherine Wheel: Ferment (Fontana)
Peter Gabriel: Us (Geffen)
Deee-Lite: Infinity Within (Elektra)
Lou Reed: Magic and Loss (Sire)
INXS: Welcome to Wherever You Are (Atlantic)
Loudon Wainwright III: History (Charisma)

1. Richard & Linda Thompson: Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal)
2. King Sunny Ade: Juju Music (Mango)
3. Prince: 1999 (Warner Bros.)
4. Yaz: Upstairs at Eric's (Sire)
5. George Clinton: Computer Games (Capitol)
6. Mission of Burma: Vs. (Ace of Hearts)
7. Marvin Gaye: Midnight Love (Columbia)
8. Lou Reed: The Blue Mask (RCA)
9. Roxy Music: Avalon (Warner Bros.)
10. Peter Gabriel: Security (Geffen)
XTC: English Settlement (Epic)
The English Beat: Special Beat Service (I.R.S.)

1. Curtis Mayfield: Superfly (Curtom)
2. The Rolling Stones: Exile on Main Street (Atlantic)
3. Big Star: #1 Record (Stax)
4. Paul Simon (Columbia)
5. Neil Young: Harvest (Reprise)
6. Al Green: Let's Stay Together (Hi)
7. Todd Rundgren: Something/Anything (Bearsville)
8. Stevie Wonder: Talking Book (Tamla)
9. The Meters: Cabbage Alley (Reprise)
10. David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (RCA)
Miles Davis: On the Corner (Columbia)
Nick Drake: Pink Moon (Island)
Lou Reed: Transformer (RCA)
Funkadelic: America Eats Its Young (Westbound)
Stevie Wonder: Music of My Mind (Tamla)
O'Jays: Back Stabbers (Philadelphia Int'l)
Jimmy Cliff et al.: The Harder They Come OST (Mango)
Yoko Ono: Approximately Infinite Universe (Apple)
Roxy Music (Reprise)
Herbie Hancock: Crossings (Columbia)
Van Morrison: Saint Dominic's Preview (Warner Bros.)
Loudon Wainwright III: Album III (Columbia)

1962 SONGS
(An unscientific list; I want to do this more extensively in the future. As it stands, I'm positive I'm forgetting some majors and obscurities.)
1. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" (Tamla)
2. Sam Cooke "Bring It on Home to Me" (RCA)
3. The Crystals "He's a Rebel" (Philles)
4. Roy Orbison "Working for the Man" (Monument)
5. John Lee Hooker "Boom Boom" (Vee Jay)
6. Sam Cooke "Twistin' the Night Away" (RCA)
7. Ray Charles "Unchain My Heart" (ABC)
8. Dion "The Wanderer" (Laurie)
9. Howlin' Wolf "Shake for Me" (Chess)
10. Marvin Gaye "Hitch Hike" (Tamla)
11. Chris Montez "Let's Dance" (London)
12. Roy Orbison "Dream Baby" (Monument)
13. Freddy Cannon "Palisades Park" (Swan)
14. The Impressions "Minstrel and Queen" (ABC)
15. The Everly Brothers "Crying in the Rain" (Warner Bros.)
16. Tommy Roe "Sheila" (ABC)
17. Mary Wells "You Beat Me to the Punch" (Motown)
18. Ben E. King "Don't Play That Song" (Atlantic)
19. The Crystals "There's No Other (Like My Baby)" (Philles)
20. The Marvelettes "Beechwood 4-5789" (Tamla)
21. James Brown "Night Train" (King)
22. Dick Dale & His Del-Tones "Misirlou" (Deltone)
23. Muddy Waters "You Shook Me" (Chess)
24. Otis Redding "These Arms of Mine" (Volt)
25. Hank Locklin "We're Gonna Go Fishin'" (RCA)
26. The Isley Brothers "Twist and Shout" (Wand)
27. Dion "Ruby Baby" (Laurie)
28. The Marvelettes "Strange I Know" (Tamla)
29. Routers "Let's Go (Pony)"
30. The Impressions "Little Young Lover" (ABC)
31. Mary Wells "The One Who Really Loves You" (Motown)
32. Marvin Gaye "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" (Tamla)
33. Skeeter Davis "End of the World" (RCA)
34. Patsy Cline "She's Got You" (Decca)
35. Sam Cooke "Having a Party" (RCA)
36. Little Eva "The Loco-Motion" (Dimension)
37. Ray Charles "You Don't Know Me" (ABC)
38. The Beach Boys "Surfin' Safari" (Capitol)
39. Booker T & the MGs "Green Onions" (Stax)
40. Tornados "Telstar" (Decca)
41. The Marvelettes "Too Strong to Be Strung Along" (Tamla)
42. Sam Cooke "Little Red Rooster" (RCA)
43. Roy Orbison "The Crowd" (Monument)
44. Dion "Born to Cry" (Laurie)
45. Elvis Presley "Return to Sender" (RCA)
46. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles "I'll Try Something New" (Tamla)
47. Gene Chandler "Duke of Earl" (Vee Jay)
48. The Marvelettes "Playboy" (Tamla)
49. The Crystals "Uptown" (Philles)
50. Duane Eddy "Dance with the Guitar Man" (RCA)
The Beach Boys "409"
The Shirelles "Soldier Boy"
The Ventures "Lolita Ya Ya"
Roy Orbison "Leah"
Dee Dee Sharp "Mashed Potato Time"
The Beatles "Love Me Do"
Ray Charles "At the Club"
B. Bumble & the Stingers "Nut Rocker"
The Drifters "Up on the Roof"
The Beach Boys "Heads You Win, Tails I Lose"
Chubby Checker "The Twist"
Elvis Presley "Can't Help Falling in Love"
Ray Charles "I Can't Stop Loving You"
Bobby 'Boris' Pickett "Monster Mash"

The B-52's: Wild Planet (1980)

(Warner Bros.)


Sure, sure, it's just exactly like the first record. Does nothing new, etc. More of the same. So fine, think of it as an extension. Deny yourself this sort of pure delight and it's like, what are you even listening to records for?

"Party Out of Bounds" is the perfect way to ring out a year -- new wave haunted castle synths and better lampshade anarchy than "Barbara Ann" and, I dunno, "Love Shack" put together. Nothing here quite stands up to their all-time double-header peak of "52 Girls" and "Dance This Mess Around" from the first record, but mix those in with the bubbly march "Dirty Back Road" or inexplicably filthy "Quiche Lorraine" and nobody'll notice.

You can carp with every B-52's album after the first one, but the fact is that this one don't stop, and if we're honest with ourselves we realize that sentimental attachment ties us to its predecessor; if anything, Wild Planet is more consistent, and for god's sake, when Ricky Wilson was in the fold they were never anything less than a blast to listen to. The biggest brashest retro-funk on order here is in the steamily weird "Give Me Back My Man," a showcase for Cindy Wilson; the '50s Roebuck catalog surf-kitsch of the first album is effectively reprised with "Runnin' Around."

The best material here, however, is of more pronounced absurdity and is concerned primarily with the joy of band interplay -- "Private Idaho" is a surreal joke of little importance but its chief attraction is the chance to hear the band operate so well as a unit, subservient to nothing except its belief in its joyous art-punk. Even a towering riff like that of "Devil in My Car" can't be taken fully seriously, but its pleasures go beyond an attraction to antiquated pop forms and into a harmonic seizure of sorts, divorced from context and in the kind of avant world that allows for belted, feverish, bloodcurdling screams to become musical, for the declarative "I can't lock the door!" to achieve bizarre transcendence. It's all nonsense. It's perfect. You're so into their giddiness you're almost disappointed when "53 Miles West of Venus" is just music, chanting, then the curtain lifts: beneath it all, the band is terrific. Remember? But nuts to all that -- party out of bounds, still spinning.

The B-52's (1979)

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Beach House: Devotion (2008)



Would you have a look at that pleasant scene playing out on the cover of yer dreampop record here? They seem like a nice couple of kids, yeah? They really are, I think, and what's more -- they listen to a lot of the same shit you did when you were that age. (They're actually older than me, but who's counting?) Yeah, Cocteau Twins and Low and all that stuff. As you know, with Bloom I became a full-on Beach House convert in a big way; it sonics and hooks soared with me in every manner that the predecessor, Teen Dream, had left me cold. We won't be devoting much time to another Teen Dream revisit anytime soon -- try as I might, it falls on my ear pleasantly and disappears and that's all I can say for it.

Devotion, which has been kicking around for a while but which I focused on after the Bloom fixation took hold, falls someplace between the two other Beach House albums I've spent time with. One thing it's easy to sense is specifically why the transformation after the duo's Sub Pop signing seemed so impressive -- this is comparatively raw and simple music, typically spinning its magic out of not much more than drum machine and organ and reverb and more reverb and, of course, Victoria LeGrand's tirelessly woozy vocals, which make a bigger impression here in and of themselves that at any point since. The relative clarity of the music itself doesn't present any revelations in songwriting terms -- but for me, this just spells a good band that took a while to find its voice. What's here is nevertheless interesting and worthwhile, even if it does kind of float away like some shoreline breeze. Maybe that's the idea.

The quintessential Devotion cut is the second, "You Came to Me," which is the sort of track for which AllMusic invented those "tones" listings it has -- by turns, this is fluid, focused, sweet, unfettered, lilting, relaxed, catchy, and, well, long. One reason I found Bloom such an immersive experience was that the length and detail of its songs was, for me, hypnotic; there's less variance here and the lushness is missing, but I do get a sense of what LeGrand and restless tape-deck twiddler Alex Scally were getting at -- "Holy Dances" introduces plenty of the trickiness that'd show up later, and it's one of the livelier tunes here, but the slightly canny, flat sound does it in. This band needs spaciousness the same way Merrill Garbus needed an actual recording studio. They do stomp a little, and it's easy to understand why Teen Dream wrought the inclination to spend much more money on sonics, why the band reported that that album's demos sounded like this one's finals. Nevertheless, there's charm in the offhandedness that provides a wholly different effect than what's now associated with Beach House -- something more fitting of their name, even! Of course, pay too much mind to all this and by "Gila," the thing starts to plod. "Turtle Island" is the occasion for yet further plodding. It sounds nice though! But they could sue Tennis for essentially co-opting this album as the basis of their entire career.

It can't be a coincidence that this and Teen Dream both give me an inclination to fall into a painless and gently adventurous slumber; that is not by any means a negative criticism, just an observation. I snap into total consciousness thrice: first on "All the Years," because it's an excellent song and points the way ahead for LeGrand's haziness, Scally's druggy meanderings; second, hey look they covered Daniel Johnston, and that tune's way around a hook renders it their most immediate pre-Bloom moment outside of the inexhaustible "Norway"; and dig that "Imagine" homage on "Astronaut"!

It's another Beatle whose image keeps popping around my head when Devotion's playing. Or even when I'm looking at that adorable cover image -- I feel like I'm hearing one of those early off-the-cuff Macca things when the poor guy was trying so desperately hard not to be humorless and provided us with telling glimpses of his kinda-surprisingly-mature (seemingly) domesticated lifestyle. It's not just because Devotion starts with the namby-pamby sweetness of "Wedding Bell," a chilled lounge slow-dance just this side of Ram by way of the Cure. It's more a feeling that instead of complaining, I need to let these two invite me in and feed me and light the candles and just be nice to them, they're good nice people -- the kind of good nice people with just that shade of something sinister in their eyes that quietly implies they have something like Bloom up their sleeves.

Bloom (2012)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Best Records of 2012



My feelings about the flaws in treating pop music as an album-oriented medium have been trotted out here and elsewhere a million times, and we don't want to spoil anyone's fun with a rant, but 2012 has renewed my passion on the matter. For the first half of the year I was overrun with singles, one-off internet tracks, and Soundcloud fragments that infiltrated my life -- and no more than one or two albums that held up over any significant period of time. In general, I'm bound to remember 2012 as a weak year after a couple of good ones; the bottom third of my top ten wouldn't have soared that high in 2010 or 2011, and several records of comparable high quality, all of which I love but none of which I'd call truly "great," competed for the top until very late in the year. I had no real idea what my #1 album of the year would be until I sat down to listen to everything and compose this entry; my tentative choice was down three spaces by the end of the venture. That hasn't happened since I've been keeping up. The choice that was made for #1 sprang up in the final weeks of the year and its only serious competition was also the sole record of 2012 that I love more every time I hear it, to the extent that I'd level the top two as almost interchangeable, even.

But does this all spell burnout? Doubtful. I feel that exposure to more music since devoting myself to this blog has potentially made me more cynical about a number of the acclaimed or unknown albums I digest. That only makes it more of a splendid experience when I discover something like Confess or Words and Music that I can be as enamored of and excited about as if I were still seventeen and doing odd jobs around the house to keep a healthy supply of CDs coming in. I fretted for a few months about whether I too was consigned to the doom of being a curmudgeon about all that's new; there are multiple strands of pop and semi-pop right now that do absolutely nothing for me, including much of what seems to be happening in electronic circles. Should I apologize for this? I don't really think so -- so long as this is just my blog, my zone, and hey, I've always been pretty choosy. The essence of all this is that new music keeps me feeling young and I don't think I could do without it. That's never been a truer aspect of who I am than in the last few years, and I'm passionate about it. On long drives to and from my girlfriend's house this fall, I rediscovered the source of that passion: it's always and forever songs. I think the occasional album can do something with the medium and can stretch it -- see #1 below for sure, and perhaps #2 and #3 in some capacity -- but as for the rest, they mean as much to me and maybe even more to me as "collections of songs" than as some daunting unassailable artform of the Long-Player. This is nothing new. I've always preferred shuffle mode and greatest hits collections; I'm that asshole the Kids in the Hall made fun of.

All that said, there's nothing like gathering these wonderful records back together and hearing the great cuts come up one after the other -- conveniently, #3 below actually discusses such phenomena and personal epiphanies at length. Here are the ten best such epiphanies I experienced in 2012, more arduously than usual (as in '10, but for the opposite reason) whittled down from 84 albums I officially reviewed here this year -- and at least twenty more that I listened to but didn't write up. The seven below the ten encompass near-misses and flawed records that have lingered for me and will continue to do so. A theme with the ten big ones, though, is their consistency. You can cut them up, but their impact is cumulative and the bands and acts responsible make a sizable impression by their own strengths, and I think it's important to mention that only two artists in my top ten here also made it to my top ten songs below. Different matters -- not completely, but just enough.

I also want to state that, completely by accident (in the sense that I did not notice until just this second), only one album of the ten below comes from a band/performer who's previously done full-length work I loved, and he happens to be my choice for the best living, currently active solo artist we've got. Obviously Beach House and St. Etienne are not new or new-to-me bands, and I've known and liked Fiona Apple's work for a decade and a half, but my real passion for them is new. If I'm ever in this space proclaiming that the latest dinosaur rants from the Rolling Stone-beloved aging titans of my youth are the best that the year in music has to offer, please kindly tell me to stop bothering. I'm doing this because I love music, of course, but like Sarah Cracknell implies more than once on Words & Music, really I'm doing it 'cause I need it. I hope that doesn't change and I don't think it will.

10. Terry Malts: Killing Time (Slumberland)
Bouncy but brutal, disaffected but friendly, this is really just pure pop, hook-filled, loaded with the caffeinated manics of early Ramones or Buzzcocks (even Wire on "Can't Tell No One") and the suburban angst of the Replacements. It never gets old, traversing from loud and obnoxious to snottily despairing to sometimes surprisingly romantic (roll my eyes and squeeze you tighter), with useful rants about not being a Christian, being neurotic and going to the mall. The pettiness is so devotedly ground into classicist punk fury that it's all quite affirmative and winning, and the most fun I've had with a standard guitar rock album in some time.
Best cuts: "No Good for You"; "Tumble Down"; "I'm Neurotic"
[Full review]

9. The xx: Coexist (Young Turks)
Are you as sick as I am of hearing about how this is too "minimalistic" to give you anything to hang onto? Sure, it's hushed and intimate, but so is the complicated monogamy upon which it fixates -- despite the title, it's less about the conflicted passions and doubts of years-long familiarity than about the tentative movements toward commitment, the growing pains and moments of mutual insecurity. Like any great thematic recording, it sounds like what it sings about; it expands the universal psychology of the lonesome and wanting in Tracey Thorn's much more florid work with Everything But the Girl into the arresting and sensual back-and-forth of a couple on the run into themselves. It seems sincerely felt, but beyond that it just sounds wonderful, Jamie xx's deep and unorthodox pounding and stroking a nocturnal gift for the loved and longing alike.
Best cuts: "Tides"; "Angels"; "Fiction"
[Full review]

8. Suckers: Candy Salad (Frenchkiss)
This spent most of the year near the bottom of the list (in other words, not anywhere close to the top ten), presumably because my experience with it was too sporadic to render a really consistent appreciation. Since virtually no one paid it much attention (I was provided a copy as part of a freelance gig and then ended up buying myself the record), the infectious brilliance of the songs failed to jump out at me until to my surprise, this past week I put it on the turntable and could hum if not sort-of-sing every track. I know little about this band and haven't yet reached back to their earlier work, but they are tunesmiths of splendidly relaxed ease and grace. From "Chinese Braille" to "George" and back again, the oddball arrangements and full-throated vocals are impossibly catchy and lushly but smartly produced, evocative as much of the Shins at their power-pop peak as of a warmer, more romantic ("your love is all that surrounds me") variation on the mixed-media aural stuntwork exemplified by AU and MGMT. I hope more people check this out in the months to come and are as unexpectedly enamored by it as we are; if so, please let us know if you can decipher the lyrics to the chorus of "Figure It Out" so we can belt it out the right way. Just pretend the record has a different cover and you're all set.
Best cuts: "Bricks to the Bones"; "Turn on the Sunshine"; "Figure It Out"
[Full review]

7. Advance Base: A Shut-In's Prayer (Orindal)
Do you know Casiotone for the Painfully Alone? Oh good, you'll love this. Do you love having your heart broken and then reliving it over and over again? Welcome to Owen Ashworth's beautifully sad universe, a hazily remembered netherworld of time spent with long-gone loved ones, forlorn childhood failures, and wistful triumphs and regrets. Read anything I've just said and/or watch the splendid Muppet-focused video for "Summer Music" and you're bound to think of Ashworth as the one-note jilted lover he absolutely isn't. It's more accurate to lay out the wit and ache central to his humor -- which on "Riot Grrls" escalates to a masterfully warm odyssey of friendship and its iterations and transformations -- and sincere pathos, which is everywhere. "My Sister's Birthday," an account of frayed relations with a once-beloved sibling, hits the emotional peak of both Ashworth's work thus far and 2012 music in general with the simple statement "oh, when we were kids, she stuck up for me when no one else did," which sounds like a basic enough premise in print. But like so many things Ashworth writes, when he sings it, it elevates to parts unknown, and you can't escape the height of it, and then if you're like me you get more than a little choked up. He's always been great and I think he's getting better. Plus he sent me a hand-drawn picture of a duck (or a goose, possibly) and that's awesome.
Best cuts: "Riot Grrls"; "My Sister's Birthday"; "Summer Music"
[Full review]

6. Leonard Cohen: Old Ideas (Columbia)
Being a major booster of the moralistic fury of The Future and being, additionally, the only person in the whole scope of Cohen fandom who preferred Dear Heather to Ten New Songs, I was initially disappointed that Cohen's first album in eight years captured him in reflective mood, with little of the anger that was once an inseparable feature of at least parts of each album, and none of the bizarrely plastic, surreal production values. It seemed a step into self-aware classicism to me. But as the year wore on, it became increasingly clear to me that you can put up nearly all of these songs up against anything Cohen's done, from any era; there was no more dramatic proof than when "Anyhow" came on and until two or three minutes in I was sure it was vintage, 1979 or something. That comes down to the songwriting, which calls back to the most insurmountable and iconic of the great man's works, from "Hallelujah" to "Tower of Song," tempered now by a new sense of accomplishment and loss -- and, of course, the fearlessness that came into focus somewhere around I'm Your Man. "Amen" and "Show Me the Place" are carnal spirituals as stark and strikingly beautiful as anything in this illustrious catalog. I undersold the second half too, being an extended mood-builder worthy of his early crooning singer-songwriter records. So glad he's still here. Would give anything to see him live.
Best cuts: "Different Sides"; "Amen"; "Show Me the Place"
[Full review]

5. Beach House: Bloom (Sub Pop)
I haven't given Teen Dream a complete renewed shot yet (Devotion will be reviewed here soon) so I can't say whether I just wasn't ready, but every second of Bloom endears itself to me. It's the sort of music that feels physically good to listen to, like a tease upon the ears; "Myth" was good enough on its own but the record opens up with the panoramic "Wild" afterward and then continues to stretch and stretch until the "Marquee Moon"-like catharsis at the finale, just a clang clang clang clang into a strange paradise. Equal parts throwback synthpop and shoegaze drone, it's immersively, cinematically beautiful -- perfect for zoning, cooking, driving, drugging, whatever -- and so consistent it's hard to pick out standouts; the 45rpm version Sub Pop put out helps. This spent most of the year as my presumptive top of the pops and it's not undeserving.
Best cuts: "New Year"; "Lazuli"; "Other People"
[Full review]

4. Twin Shadow: Confess (4AD)
Makeout city. I'm rather proud of having expressed two years ago that I believed Twin Shadow (George Lewis Jr.) would return with a killer second album; I was more than correct. This gigantically wonderful series of perfect pop tunes, confidently delivered swagger by a genuine rock & roller who dances on his hooks, suggess Morrissey as much as Prince and recalling a time when pop and soul needn't substantially differ in impact. I was half-asleep the first time through and the florescent John Hughes atmospherics came at me hard and dreamlike; waking up in love with the songs, I concluded that these odes to faltered relationships and dancing while you lie to me (dancing while I lie, too) may have been initially striking because of the leap in sonic value since Forget, but they linger because they are a shot of generous pleasure as songs, songs before sounds and songs before "records." Plus, the drama and sexuality of it all is enormous, from the grand gestures of "Golden Light" into more intimate territories -- the sweeping bridge on "I Don't Care" during which Lewis comes to his lover in the night towers above everything, my favorite moment in 2012 music.
Best cuts: "Run My Heart"; "I Don't Care"; "When the Movie's Over"
[Full review]

3. Words and Music by Saint Etienne (Heavenly)
Surprised there's any critic, or anyone who cares deeply about the experience of falling in love with (and to) music, who doesn't adore this record. The initial hit to the sensitive obsessive's heart is Sarah Cracknell's monologue on "Over the Border," reminiscing about the cool kids who went to scope out Peter Gabriel's house, Top of the Pops as international roadmap, living in her room and watching the charts and changing everything, "all because of music." Then the city seems to magnify and breeze by as adulthood looms, as a transfixing gig becomes the whole world on "Tonight," as the communal and private pleasures of pop become the foundation of "I've Got Your Music." And finally, that inescapable worldly nostalgia of "When I Was Seventeen," of having known so much and so little. It surprises me that I can't say this the most moving recording of the year (slightly eclipsed by the two below in a tiny walk), because its expressions both lyrical and pounding, pumped-up musical strike a deep chord. You want to live in it and carry it everywhere, which is only appropriate.
Best cuts: "Tonight"; "When I Was Seventeen"; "Over the Border"
[Full review]

2. Fiona Apple: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (Epic)
The kind of album that renders every 1970s notion of the singer-songwriter aesthetic something on the order of laughble; this is lovesick music hall daydreaming of astounding confidence. Apple's long period between projects apparently pays off in the form of lyrics perfectly wrought and densely layered, music of charm and power that reveals itself over time to be ever more lovingly crafted than you realized on the first few passes. It captures a laid-bare experience of the unlocking of one's self to oneself, or in this case to an army of the faithful listening. Can we talk about what an outstanding singer Apple is? It's not as though she wasn't always, but her range here, from the Andrews Sisters winking of "Hot Knife" to the guttural punchdrunk proclamations of "Every Single Night," she's a presence of magnificent force. Almost nothing about this isn't magic -- even the loveliest records of this year can't claim to feel so full-blooded and frank, and even fewer can make that bleeding so gorgeous.
Best cuts: "Hot Knife"; "Anything We Want"; "Left Alone"
[Full review]

1. Kendrick Lamar: good kid, m.A.A.d city (Interscope)
Underneath everything: the wake-up calls, the swimming pool full of liquor, the first love, the music of being young and dumb, the shooting, the "becoming a positive person" -- this is no mere harrowing childhood story, it's a cry out for empathy and a note of regret and contrition to a family, however flawed. Lamar's a head-spinning performer, his voices and roles never gimmicky but consistently gripping, his emotive hits to the jugular telling: "I'm fortunate you believe in a dream." One of the best-ever entries in the notion of album as storytelling medium, and a personal missive that comes so clearly and undeniably from the heart. But don't let the excellent lyrics and vocals distract you from the grooves that simmer, the paranoid arrangements as likely to torment as to titilate. good kid, m.A.A.d city is the most formidable achievement in rock & roll this year -- and it's really real.
Best cuts: The record resists such segmentation, but if we must, "Sing About Me" is probably at the top.
[Full review]

(Others I loved in 2012)

Bob Dylan: Tempest (Columbia)
A reliable band like Dylan's can generate beauty in the mundane, even in workhorse mode -- Dylan goes intimate and old-world on the soft doo wop of "Soon After Midnight" and Sexton, Hidalgo, Garnier et al. fall behind him as smoothly as can be imagined. They can make something vital out of a swaggering Muddy Waters lift, or make the distorted, deliberately backward Lennon tribute that closes the record feel as stuck in time as it should. All the while, Dylan never wavers from his own sense of purpose, renewed once again. Grab hold of the storytelling and the introspection if you want, but when he pitches in with a snarling "Even death has washed its hands of you," well, that's my Dylan.
Best cuts: "Pay in Blood"; "Tempest"; "Soon After Midnight"
[Full review]

The Tallest Man on Earth: There's No Leaving Now (Dead Oceans)
The only problem that Kristian Matsson's work presents is that it's so consistent I have a hard time laying out what's different about his third album. A few press reports indicated it to be a full-band effort, which is amusing since this amounts to a nearly insignificant number of songs featuring bass and/or drums. The melodies are a bit more sophisticated this time, I suppose. More clearly, Matsson's voice has stretched and now croons a bit, a considerable evolution from the cigarette-burn of his 2008 out-of-nowhere treasure Shallow Grave. As on The Wild Hunt, the songs take time to gain the breezy, almost primal familiarity of the first record, but once they do, each and every one of them is a delight. If there's nothing here as emotionally soaring as "Love Is All" or as biting and guttural as "The Gardener," fine, but this is an even more consistent record -- I wouldn't mind more of the same from this gentleman anyway.
Best cuts: "1904"; "Leading Me Now"; "To Just Grow Away"
[Full review]

Titus Andronicus: Local Business (XL)
Nevertheless, this is a big album by design when you think about; modeling itself on Springsteen, the Rolling Stones and the Replacements, it's a true rock & roll album. More specific to its touch of the working-class anthemic is its status as a true American album, a true New Jersey album -- a gritty catharsis of drinking songs and camaraderie by a group of decent guys who aren't afraid to occasionally expose their dark side, one defined by self-doubt and self-abuse rather than contempt for others. Like The Monitor, it's a quintessentially masculine recording, but not a "macho" one.
Best cuts: "In a Big City"; "In a Small Body"; "Still Life with Hot Deuce and Silver Platter"
[Full review]

Nas: Life Is Good (Def Jam)
Purely musically, there's no doubt this is Nas' best album in well over a decade. With varied, capable production handled in bulk by No I.D. and Salaam Remi (on separate tracks), it employs a robust R&B sound that seems deliberately backward, yet fresh in its playful applications. It's in his lyrical themes, however, that Life Is Good comes across as the most consistent (and least self-conscious) LP the great rapper has put together since It Was Written in 1996. That's not to say that Nas has reined in his more unsavory mannerisms; there's sexism, bitterness, and bare anger that's all unbecoming years after the fadeout of Illmatic's goodwill. What's striking is the messiness; Nas keeps comparing this to Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear, and he's right in many respects. The rants and raves that occupy Life Is Good -- an ironic title, of course -- are meant to piss you off, to make you shake your head and try to psychoanalyze the dude. But there's just enough of an abstraction here to make this a successful examination of a broken human both living in and trying to escape the past.
Best cuts: "You Wouldn't Understand"; "A Queens Story"; "Bye Baby"
[Full review]

The Walkmen: Heaven (Fat Possum)
I must admit this is the weakest Walkmen record for me (hello to Hundred Miles Off fans) but I've come to appreciate its subtleties, especially when heard as an extension to the excellent Lisbon. I've even started not to notice its awkward pacing, reiterating a vague initial feeling that it just gave us what it gives us in the wrong sequence. Why carp about little things? It's a great band doing fine work, still stretching on the title cut and "Dreamboat," and the smashing rocker "The Love You Love," and generally serving as a domesticated fat-and-happy ode to the finer familial things. How much can you really object when you immediately know from the first moments of "Love Is Luck" that it's the Walkmen doing Walkmen things but you're still clapping and still touched? Don't hesitate schmaltz; it has its purpose.
Best cuts: "Song for Leigh"; "The Love You Love"; "Line by Line"
[Full review]

Andrew Bird: Hands of Glory (Mom + Pop)
Stripped of his indie leanings and the baroque fixation that began to take hold circa Weather Systems, Bird proves himself little more or less than an enthusiastic talent whose penchant for chameleon-like playing, singing, and writing is just an element of who he is. His relaxation and freedom to experiment betray a robust confidence that make Hands of Glory something much more than any given artist's collection of live-in-the-studio jams. It's a delight, a must for anyone who's ever been impressed by him, and I'll take this unlabored joy over the poky meanderings of certain other solo genre-busters any day.
Best cuts: "Three White Horses"; "Railroad Bill"; "If I Needed You"?
[Full review]

Killer Mike: R.A.P. Music (Williams Street)
You can be forgiven if you put a new rap record on in 2012 and feel like you've entered a time warp when you hear this rapid-fire old school shit against a super-angry rant about Reagan; the only evidence, in fact, on the current apocalyptic single bearing the former president's name that this isn't the Iran Contra era is a (not very kind) reference to Barack Obama and the rather classic closing line: "I'm glad Reagan dead." Well, then. It's naive incendiary politics but how great and strange is it to hear such rage directed against matters that predate Mantronix? Killer Mike blows his horn about his literacy even as he makes conspiratorial accusations, though I doubt anyone would question that he's right about how we live in a world of a white-tinted single party system -- the right and the extreme right, naturally -- but that's dangerous talk right now in these last weeks of the danger of a Romney administration. As he puts it, "If I say any more / They might be at my door." Cute. But we love rock stars with a thirst for awareness and education (lord, how I hate the word "consciousness") that's far outpaced by their imagination, the ones who can't keep their mouths shut; that's basically John Lennon, right? Lennon would've dug this record.
Best cuts: "Reagan"; "Don't Die"; "R.A.P. Music"
[Full review]


Chromatics: Kill for Love (Italians Do It Better)
Horse Feathers: Cynic's New Year (Kill Rock Stars)
Frank Ocean: Channel Orange (Def Jam)
Ice Choir: Afar (Frenchkiss)
The Mountain Goats: Transcendental Youth (Merge)
Miguel: Kaleidoscope Dream (RCA)
Lord Huron: Lonesome Dreams (PIAS)
The Men: Open Your Heart (Sacred Bones)
Dent May: Do Things (Paw Tracks)
WhoMadeWho: Brighter (Kompakt)
Spiritualized: Sweet Heart Sweet Light (Fat Possum)
Jessie Ware: Devotion (Cherrytree)
Lambchop: Mr. M (Merge)
The Magnetic Fields: Love at the Bottom of the Sea (Merge)
Perfume Genius: Put Your Back N 2 It (Matador)
Cat Power: Sun (Matador)
Brian Eno: Lux (Warp)
Hot Chip: In Our Heads (Domino)
John Talabot: fIN (Permanent Vacation)
Tame Impala: Lonerism (Modular)
Antibalas (Daptone)
Andrew Bird: Break It Yourself (Mom + Pop)
Quakers (Stones Throw)
Willis Earl Beal: Acousmatic Sorcery (XL)
The Roots: Undun (Def Jam)
Yeasayer: Flagrant World (Secretly Canadian)
Curren$y: The Stoned Immaculate (Warner Bros.)
Bonde do Rolê: Tropical/Bacanal (Mad Decent)

Yo La Tengo: Stupid Things (Matador)
TNGHT (Warp)


Youtube links provided where available. Limiting to one song per album, but not per artist. Like the album list, this is subject to change, only even more so. The version you see here will stay with time-capsule permanence, but in future years I reserve the right to go back on it. As noted above, this list is far more rife with brilliance than the albums list; virtually everything up to the bottom half of the thirties would be top ten-worthy in a lesser year. It completely blows my mind that "Dance for You" is all the way down there, that "Tonight" is only #14, that Usher's "Scream" isn't #1 for the year. But I can make a case for every single thing above them. Singles are still the lifeblood of rock & roll; celebrate them please.

1. Frank Ocean "Lost" [Channel Orange
2. New Build "Do You Not Feel Loved?" [single]
3. Miguel "Adorn" [Kaleidoscope Dreams]
4. Le1f "Wut" [Dark York]
5. Beyoncé "Love on Top" [4]
6. Spiritualized "Hey Jane" [Sweet Heart Sweet Light]
7. Cat Power "Manhattan" [Sun]
8. Twin Shadow "Run My Heart" [Confess]
9. Superchunk "This Summer" [non-LP single]
10. Beach House "New Year" [Bloom]
11. Ellie Goulding "Lights" [Lights]
12. Black Marble "A Great Design" [A Different Arrangement]
13. Fiona Apple "Hot Knife" [The Idler Wheel...]
14. Saint Etienne "Tonight" [Words and Music By]
15. Pink "Blow Me (One Last Kiss)" [The Truth About Love]
16. Chromatics "Kill for Love" [Kill for Love]
17. Mary J. Blige "Mr. Wrong" [My Life II]
18. Passion Pit "Take a Walk" [Gossamer]
19. Big K.R.I.T. "Money on the Floor" [Live from the Underground]
20. Horse Feathers "Fit Against the Country" [Cynic's New Year]
21. Dark Dark Dark "Tell Me" [Who Needs Who]
22. Tanlines "All of Me" [Mixed Emotions]
23. Perfume Genius "Hood" [Put Your Back In 2 It]
24. Mode Moderne "Foul Weather Fare" [Strange Bruises]
25. Usher "Scream" [Looking 4 Myself]
26. Hot Chip "These Chains" [In Our Heads]
27. Suckers "Bricks to the Bones" [Candy Salad]
28. Leonard Cohen "Different Sides" [Old Ideas]
29. Justin Bieber "As Long as You Love Me" [Believe]
30. Alpine "Hands" [single]
31. Dirty Projectors "Dance for You" [Swing Low Medallion]
32. Storm Queen "Let's Make Mistakes" [single]
33. Terry Malts "No Good for You" [Killing Time]
34. Jessie Ware "Wildest Moments" [Devotion]
35. The Men "Candy" [Open Your Heart]
36. Young Jeezy "Leave You Alone" [Thug Motivation 103: Hustlerz Ambition]
37. Dent May "Parents" [Do Things]
38. Yeasayer "Longevity" [Fragrant World]
39. Lotus Plaza "Eveningness" [Spooky Action at a Distance]
40. John Talabot "Journeys" [fIN]
41. Grimes "Oblivion" [Visions]
42. The xx "Tides" [Coexist]
43. The Magnetic Fields "Andrew in Drag" [Love at the Bottom of the Sea]
44. WhoMadeWho "Inside World" [Brighter]
45. Wild Nothing "Shadow" [Nocturne]
46. Frankie Rose "Know Me" [Interstellar]
47. Curren$y "Plot Music" [internet-only]
48. The Walkmen "Song for Leigh" [Heaven]
49. Elle Varner "Refill" [Perfectly Imperfect]
50. Nas "You Wouldn't Understand" [Life Is Good]
51. Lambchop "Gone Tomorrow" [Mr. M]
52. Andrew Bird "Three White Horses" [Hands of Glory]
53. Strand of Oaks "Maureen's" [Dark Shores]
54. The Tallest Man on Earth "1904" [There's No Leaving Now]
55. Chairlift "Met Before" [Something]
56. Dominique Young Unique "Big in Da Game" [internet]
57. La Sera "Please Be My Third Eye" [Sees the Light]
58. Advance Base "Riot Grrls" [A Shut-In's Prayer]
59. Azealia Banks "Liquorice" [internet]
60. Titus Andronicus "In a Big City" [Local Business]
61. Simian Ghost "Wolf Girl" [Youth]
62. Fergus & Geronimo "No Parties" [Funky Was the State of Affairs]
63. Disclosure "Tenderly" [single]
64. The Mountain Goats "Lakeside View Apartments Suite" [Transcendental Youth]
65. Cold Showers "BC" [Love and Regret]
66. Lord Huron "Time to Run" [Lonesome Dreams]
67. Quakers "War Drums" [Quakers]
68. Ice Choir "I Want You Now and Always" [Afar]
69. Sidi Touré “Tondi Karaa" [Köima]
70. Royal Baths "Faster, Harder" [Better Luck Next Life]
71. Blur "The Puritan" [non-LP single]
72. Lee Ranaldo "Off the Wall" [Between the Times and the Tides]
73. Bob Dylan "Pay in Blood" [Tempest]
74. Egyptian Hip Hop "SYH" [Good Don't Sleep]
75. Phèdre "In Decay" [Phèdre]
David Byrne & St. Vincent "Who" [Love This Giant]
DIIV "Geist" [non-LP single]
AU "Get Alive" [Both Lights]
Daniel Rossen "Silent Song" [Silent Hour/Golden Mile EP]
Colleen Green "Goldmine" [Milo Goes to Compton]
Willis Earl Beal "Monotony" [Acousmatic Sorcery]
Bonde Do Role "Bang" [Tropical/Bacanal]
Lace Curtains "Bedroom Honesty" [The Garden of Joy and the Well of Loneliness]
Black Star "You Already Knew" [Aretha]
Sky Ferreira "Everything Is Embarrassing" [Ghost EP]
Antibalas "Dirty Money" [s/t]
Killer Mike "Reagan" [R.A.P. Music]
TEEN "Electric" [In Limbo]
G-Side "Land in the Sky" [internet-only]
Madonna "Gang Bang" [MDNA]
Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti "Only in My Dreams" [Mature Themes]
Boys from Patagonia "Rimini '80" [non-LP single]
Open Mike Eagle "Cobra Commander" [4MNL HSPTL]

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Anouar Brahem: Barzakh (1991)



You were expecting maybe some year-end lists!? Well, having finally listened to everything many times over, I am now allowed to dive back into, uh, "old" music again, and this calming and beautiful hour of Tunisian jazz musician Brahem playing the oud (with minimal but striking accompaniment by percussionist Lassad Hosni) is the soundtrack to my attempts to write something coherent about all the damn music I've listened to the last few days. Still, desolate, and minimal, this is a wondrous kind of comedown-romance, and Brahem's playing is bracing in its lyricism. For the full run of this expansive set, he never sinks into repetition or meandering; it's improvisational work that's as easy on the ear as can be imagined.


Not to make this personal again, but good lord, for the next few weeks I'm listening exclusively to garage bands circa 1965 and ancient Motown 45s and I will not think critically about any of it, goddammit.

But of course you know that last bit isn't true. See you in a few hours.

Monday, December 17, 2012

TNGHT EP (2012)



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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Yo La Tengo: Stupid Things EP (2012)



Though we've since heard more, this was the first taster of new material in a slightly appalling three years from the ordinarily prolific Yo La Tengo, a trio that we here at The Only Engine are not shy about proclaiming pretty much the best band in the world. In the meantime, with the exception of the Chris Knox cover "Colored," there'd been no one-off EP or scattered track. They've hardly, of course, been dormant -- their Spin the Wheel tour in 2011 quickly became infamous and controversial in a manner to which few other 27 year-old bands can claim access. Few people can logically claim this to be an artistically placid band, which is interesting when you consider where, say, the Rolling Stones sat after a comparable amount of time.

"Stupid Things" is a track from the forthcoming album Fade, but presented in a different mix; it's a gentle, driving, echoing oddity that signals a departure of sorts, not just because the band is working with a new producer, John McEntire, after nearly two decades with Roger Moutenot at the helm. The mix here is a sensual, enveloping thing that sounds familiar but wholly new and vaguely experimental, in common with the last album's first released cut "Here to Fall." The striking thing here is the lush, gorgeous string arrangement -- it's hard to get it out of your head, especially laid against that pressing, obsessive beat.

The only problem with this so-called EP is that it really doesn't deserve to be billed as such, coming across more as a glorified 12" or even 10" single, boasting simply three versions of the same cut. What's here is excellent, though. As bold an introduction as "Saturday" was to the muted glories of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, "Stupid Things" is a honey of a track. It's joined here by a bizarre and not wholly successful remix that's nearly impossible to recognize, which, fine, have your fun. But the reason you should pay a few bucks and pick this up is the twelve-minute instrumental demo of the song that never intensifies or flags but remains beautiful and crucial, a hypnotic extended jam that doubles as a fascinating glimpse into the band's impenetrable process. I frankly wouldn't mind if they did this for every song they put out.

We try not to be straight up shills for the bands we like at this blog, but if you go to Matador's web store, you can pick this up in lovely 12" format for quite cheap. Aaaand not that we're suggesting we know anything about the quality of the subsequent album, but... buy that too.

Popular Songs (2009)

Dum Dum Girls: End of Daze EP (2012)

(Sub Pop)

Feels drab to me, whether it's an "expansion" of this band's sound or not -- it consists of leftover tracks that were too slow and draggy for the album, with the result that the EP itself is, yes, slow and draggy. It opens up with a slightly industrial grinder called "Mine Tonight" which is a not uncomfortable shift away from one sort of traditionalism to another; in slow-dance mode, in "eulogy" mode even, it works.

But cast it and the rest of this passable entertainment in the shadow of the shimmery surf-soul of "I Got Nothing" and, well, you... eh, too easy. It's not even that "I Got Nothing" is a particularly grand song overall, as much its tuneful radio-ready chorus frankly soars to Shadow Morton levels, but it's such an impassioned and danceable creation that it does few favors to End of Daze overall, which comes out as a kind of quickened dirge that might have been more immersively dreary without it... yet also far less memorable.

All of the above is with the caveat that the EP bears the mark of an eager eclecticism, and hence will work well for those tuned into its aesthetic. Don't let the numb ones among us spoil it for you, maybe?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Also recommended in 2012

This informally gathers albums I liked but didn't have time to review at length, or covered elsewhere on the web. Depending on what sort of stuff you're into, each of these could well be a jewel waiting for your attention.

- Willis Earl Beal: Acousmatic Sorcery (XL)
Reviewed at Metro Times.

- Horse Feathers: Cynic's New Year (Kill Rock Stars)
Reviewed at Metro Times.

- WhoMadeWho: Brighter (Kompakt)
Reviewed at Metro Times.

- Yeasayer: Fragrant World (Secretly Canadian)
Review submitted to MT but unpublished: "Sensuality" isn't a word typically associated with indie rock these days, which is what makes the grown-up funk of Yeasayer's third album so exciting, druggy and lyrically oblique as it may be. With strange synth loops hovering above bass-heavy, adventurous arrangements from the Sign o' the Times school, cuts like "Henrietta" (about Henrietta Lacks, whose cancerous cells were infamously cultured in the 1950s) and "No Bones" have little trouble advancing these Brooklynites from the somewhat tempered pop of predecessor Odd Blood. As before, the vocals are arguably more full-bodied than the music, with Chris Keating's shiver and swagger lighting up songs that would otherwise get wrapped up in prog-fettered busyness. That's the only serious problem with Fragrant World, though it's a sizable one: Yeasayer can't curb their desire to stuff the experimental kitchen sink into each song, leaving us to enjoy the moments that don't get bogged down. Thankfully, only the slogging finale "Glass of the Microscope" fails outright, and when the band's varied ideas snap into place, as on the irresistible groove "Longevity," we get as lost as they do.

- Bonde do Rolê: Tropical/Bacanal (Mad Decent)
As dumb and liberating as anything on top 40, it's halfway between the B-52's and the fucking Baha Men or something -- a giddy, breezy listen in small doses, though.

- Ice Choir: Afar (Frenchkiss)
This (an offshoot of Pains of Being Pure of Heart, of all things) is close to a "highly recommended," but that's the OMD fan in me talking; if you thought Cut Copy convincingly duplicated mid-'80s synthpop, your head will explode when you hear this. It hits a sort of musical uncanny valley, by which I mean it provides such a negligible twist on what it's imitating that it doesn't contribute much... which is why it's a one-off, but it's fun anyway.

- Antibalas (Daptone)
Third-hand, well-recorded Afrobeat will piss off purists; whatevs, the songs are great.

- Lord Huron: Lonesome Dreams (PIAS)
Strongly informed by The Shepherd's Dog and the folk rock boom of the 2000s in general, this is an atmospheric series of pastoral selections that fogs up and meanders a lot but is never anything less than enjoyable. Better its harmless, robust prettiness than the robotically disaffected New Order-without-personality dance music that's made so many waves in indie circles this year.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The xx: Coexist (2012)

(Young Turks)


There seems to be some mild eccentricity to the way I'm hearing this, as there was for Radiohead's The King of Limbs and its blatant but blatantly ignored tributes to dance-floor boffing; it all rests on what seems to me a pervasive and incorrect notion that pop music knows of only one way in which to be sensual. Bosh to that -- is anything sexier than the high-pitched weirdness of Mickey & Sylvia's "Love Is Strange" or Brian Wilson's androgynous role-playing on "Don't Worry Baby"? Forget the lyrics for a moment. For me there's something deeply, woundingly lovely about the very same elements of Coexist that have led so many to declare it a crashing, sparse bore -- the glitchy little beats that Jamie xx pops in and then forgets about, his array of half-formed distant sounds, and that almost uncomfortably intimate way that Oliver Sim and Romy Croft's voices meld together and cancel one another out. I swear I'm not hearing this simply because I fell hard for this album while sitting in an upstairs study room next to my betrothed. Am I?

Coexist calls back strongly to a few key trip-hop influences without actually copping to any of their musical totems; it isn't Everything But the Girl, it just runs with Tracey Thorn's ideas of how to express loneliness, emotional need and empathy in both lyrics and vocals while stripping the music down to its core. Only at one moment does this come across as something like a dance record, and that's a brief interlude in "Swept Away" which fades off quickly after a gradual transformation. But for all the aural minimalism, everything here rests on tension and soulfully big ideas -- that whole questionmark of young love (always young, because that's all there really is, right?), its obsessions and twistings and the simple questions of trying to live: the ones about how "we will be us," but how do you do that? Can you talk through all of it? Is life ever too short? Is a family formed by anything but compromise, and how much do you talk of it before it's time to give up? Can you depend on the idea that we'll always at least try for a while before we give up?

On a record that lives and dies by its songwriting, the personal-experience sourcing of these thoughts are everything, and Jamie xx senses this, evidenced by the brilliance of his unshowy precision here, which absorbs everything he's taken away from his whirlwind career since 2009. A nocturnal, wintry still overtakes these songs, but they remain distinctive because there are no distractions whatever. From "Angels" onward, it all seems to emanate from one's own skull and/or body -- it's aware of its drama but so carefully expresses it, "being as in love with you as I am," because it senses the actual universal importance of its themes. It's all a big romantic slowdance about how fucked up we are but maybe it will be okay? It will if we sing about it, right?

Hard to pick out highlights, harder still to avoid singling other bands out to make points that don't really need to be made (like how this is "soft rock" far more challenging and dangerous than you-know-who's). Hard still to get over the dually sympathetic agonizing of the two central voices -- Jamie Smith makes it all sonically agreeable but it's still a resonant contrast that drives a barely-sensed narrative, wisps swinging along like "we used to be closer than this" but told mostly with less explicitness. The story is all left turns and emotive transitions; it's not verbal, nor is love, but it's concerned in some way with the reconciliation of rationality with romance -- a struggle we all have to consider even if we can't conquer it. The hushed, heartfelt singing goes a long way. Jamie's like a sympathetic third wheel, just providing a stage, but he's what gives the thing its teeth.

Maybe you have to be a bit of a freakshow to think of this as the dance music of cold nights and wet streets, but it doesn't seem perverse or overly revealing to me to cast all this as an exploration of the sexuality of smallness. There's little about "Fiction" or "Missing" that's grand, but they both feel major. Croft's voice wails out wordlessly on the latter somewhere behind Sim's begging. Smith cuts off all the lights and preps during a pregnant moment for a stunning return, and then "my heart is beating in a different way." True love, right? The ringing guitars on "Fiction" are like a gravestone for the last few years and all their nostalgia-baiting within the genre subset to which this band belongs, ably contrasted by the Trent Reznor pounding on the verses, twice over when you notice the feverishly sincere romance and its vague suggestions of club hedonism call back to, of all things, U2 in the Pop period -- that band's final years as an interesting and artistically adventurous outlet -- sans bombast. Don't laugh, it's a more salient comparison than the more superficially obvious St. Etienne, who this year have no use for minimal, careful, sub-pop anything if they ever did.

I feel like maybe I'm overstressing Jamie xx's contribution here, but whereas his bandmates are what addict me to this and keep me coming back to it, it's Smith who makes it tick. His use of silence, for instance, is mindbendingly smart, and the oddball rhythms and sonic hidden-room fuckery are as surprising as they are easy to seep into. Point being, he gives the others room. By "Tides," which has an actual beat, the close listener is surely seduced. It comes together slowly as a harmonized anthem of sorts, a cry of "some things have lost their meaning" underscoring its depth of wanting. Bliss and loss are both inarticulate here, as they should be. I mean, "you don't answer when I call / I would've given you it all"? Fine, that's art, license, whatever. "Out of sight, out of mind / It doesn't mean you're not mine"? That's such a home run it hurts.

So there's the big secret, to romance in Hollywood and rock & roll and everywhere -- we need it because it's a comfort, even when it's the "real" thing, not the imagined thing, but the warm body that tells us the truth and sometimes -- hey, I said sometimes -- the truth is exactly what we need to hear, and that's young, old, middle-aged love, etc., in and out of study rooms and bedrooms and your lover's softly lit apartment, everywhere.

And that is the story of the LP record in 2012.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Brian Eno: Lux (2012)



BREAKING !!!: Person who invented ambient music is good at it -- stay tuned for full story

So, yeah, this is exactly what you expect it to be; even the cover art is sort of a brightened-up museum version of Discreet Music, and so it is that this collection of pieces Eno installed in museums and, yes, airports is ideal for setting a mood and commanding a kind of relaxed background conversation. It plays things safer than Music for Airports or Apollo but shows no less taste and intelligence, and has quite the capacity for sapping tension and urgency away in favor of a coolheaded calm. Throughout the eighty minutes, separated into four quadrants, the tones seldom travel above or below a few repeated notes, so the trickery and fascination is all in the nature and pattern of that repetition, and much of those pleasures are subsconscious.

There's not a lot else to say about this -- if you like Eno's ambient work at all, for heaven's sake don't waste time picking it up, as it's certainly a return to form in such respects -- but I must quickly add that I once underestimated how much I appreciated Eno for giving his pure ambient creations names like "1/2" and "Lux 3" and "Inland Sea" instead of, say, "List of tallest buildings in the Inland Empire, Mark I: A Tale of Debt Arbitration" or "United States House of Representatives elections, 1898 (Wight Pusher Seaplane)."

Drums Between the Bells [w/ Rick Holland] (2011)

Andrew Bird: Hands of Glory (2012)

(Mom + Pop)


This collection of loose, almost haphazardly recorded throwaways is accidentally-on-purpose the strongest and most immediate music the ever-reliable Bird has released in many years, and that's coming from someone who loved Noble Beast. This is also, somewhat remarkably, his second full-length album of 2012 after Break It Yourself; that album was a weighty, ambitious and cerebral affair, especially in comparison to this spontaneous series of eight covers, self-covers, riffs on rustic tradition, and weird country-music jokes. Bird is a fine composer and musician in a classic sense, but to hear him cutting loose and having fun to this extent is a revelation on par with his giddy Bowl of Fire days.

Hands retains the full-band sonics of Break It Yourself but strips the acoustics down until the record gains the genuine acoustic minimalism of an old 78; opener "Three White Horses" is one of his best-ever tunes and could've sprung forth from the actual past or the past as painstakingly duplicated by Daptone or by the Asylum Street Spankers -- only with less effort, thus greater significance. Bird gives no regard to cohesion in moving on to the wild spiritual "When That Helicopter Comes" or the relentless fiddle goofoff "Railroad Bill." The second half sustains a mood more carefully, but only slightly, with Townes Van Zandt's "If I Needed You" treated to an emotional reading by Bird so sincere it's rather shocking in the context of his career, and the extended "Beyond the Valley of the White Horses" ambling prettily into the runoff groove with greater ease and charm than the analogous "Holes in the Ocean Floor" on the previous record, which was at least a minute shorter and felt longer.

Stripped of his indie leanings and the baroque fixation that began to take hold circa Weather Systems, Bird proves himself little more or less than an enthusiastic talent whose penchant for chameleon-like playing, singing, and writing is just an element of who he is. His relaxation and freedom to experiment betray a robust confidence that make Hands of Glory something much more than any given artist's collection of live-in-the-studio jams. It's a delight, a must for anyone who's ever been impressed by him, and I'll take this unlabored joy over the poky meanderings of certain other solo genre-busters any day.

Noble Beast (2009)
Break It Yourself (2012)
Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire: Thrills (1998)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Kendrick Lamar: good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012)


HIGHLY RECOMMENDED [re-graded A+ in 2019]

Lamar is not kidding by labeling this "a short film." This is the sharpest narrative about troubled childhood and adolescence in LP form maybe ever, but certainly since the Mountain Goats' The Sunset Tree, and its hallmarks are cinematic: City of God, The 400 Blows, Breathless, Double Indemnity (the lust element), and Shoot the Piano Player, troubled people, usually young people, in troubled places, sometimes thrust upon them and sometimes of their own making. Lamar's narrative of swiping the keys to Mom's van and scampering out the door -- before she can demand an explanation -- in order to follow a pretty girl and get suddenly mixed up in a violent underworld is so vivid and personal that by the end of it all, in its wispy detail and carefully explored and evolving mood, you deeply wish it were a film. As it stands, there's little doubt it's the most emotionally affecting album of the year, and it's so clearly the best hip hop record since Kanye West's very different and completely outrageous My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy that it seems trite to even bother saying so.

It's a lot to grab hold of, largely because it's an album in the classic sense -- that is, like Loveless or 3 Feet High and Rising or Here, My Dear, it's far, far more than merely a collection of songs, and it stretches the boundaries of what a rock & roll album is and what it can do, how it can touch us. More than that, it doesn't even boast any songs that are particularly grand or distinctive out of context -- the hit "Swimming Pools (Drank)," for example, carries none of its power and scariness on the radio -- but listen to the thing in sequence and there's not a dud to be found, at least until a slight fizzling of power on the two closing tracks. We've known for years, anyway, that sad albums with this much that's dark and downbeat are seldom producers of great dance club tracks. Isn't that why Pet Shop Boys lost their entire American audience with Behavior? Whatever -- for those open to an experience that's fragmented, nonlinear, and naturally paced with a strong sense of journey, here is your album, all beautiful and ambitious. It effortlessly fuses the mainstream and the underground contingents of hip hop (Lamar now a Dre-endorsed hitmaker but not so long ago an indie-rap fixture) while retaining a wit and good-hearted intelligence that may not always survive such a transformative period.

Lamar's style remains paranoid, nervous, but here more reflective than before; one of his strongest and most distinctive capabilities is of playing roles as various aspects of himself, changing his voice nearly unrecognizably at times in tracking a transformation from precocious kid to wizened adult -- "the music of being young and dumb," as he puts it early on. His lyrics are perceptive ("I love so much I love when love hurts"), but the richly varied yet texture-consistent music requires little aid in telling his gripping story. So it is that "Sherane" opens the album in minimal, conversational and intimate fashion, the spell broken briefly by a humorous voicemail message that turns out to have great significance for the record's narrative and jets us into the Outkast-derived "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe," the perfect example of Lamar's tricky syncopation and semi-sarcasm, broken by the periodic line that's as profound as anything you'll hear in pop music for a while yet. "I am a sinner who's probably gonna sin again," he announces, effortlessly setting up a spiritual undercurrent that will peak in an hour or so.

You wouldn't have to look far to find a variation on "Backseat Freestyle," fucking the world for 72 hours, that's entirely sincere in its eagerness and overconfidence, but Lamar puts on this distinctly adolescent air like a costume, generating a vocal that comes from an entirely different place than all else so far. Soon enough, on "The Art of Peer Pressure," he's clarifying his duplicity and conflict: "I'm a peacemaker, but I'm with the homies right now." As intensity gains -- the capturing of a city, nocturnal and desperate -- he narrates a first criminal offense with choking poetry, "circling death." The record could consist of little beyond those few minutes and still be a landmark.

But there's more. More, like "Money Trees" and its sweet abrasion, the chilled braggart "dream[ing] of livin' life like rappers do," the smoothless of a groove backdroped by the darkness of a terrifying lyric like "The one in front of the gun lives forever." More like the slow-jam of conflicted wants and fucked-up love ("a lot for me to take in") "Poetic Justice," and more like the '70s-infected Roots revision "Good Kid" and its goofy choral melodrama. Then the nightmare starts. The midsection of good kid, m.A.A.d city is a chronicle of gang violence as it falls upon a kid caught in a whirlwind -- gritty but unflinching, honest but as poetic and surreal as something only vaguely remembered. The first fifteen seconds of "m.A.A.d City" itself are as wild and commanding as anything here, and they spill out into the horrorshow insistence of the ugliest of this record's songs, addressing the permanence of violence: "You killed my cousin back in '94, fuck your truce." Yet again, Lamar tracks the contrast of the adolescent steeped in a culture and the bigness of the world around him -- his voice begins to crack as the skeletons in the closet come out, as Schoolboy Q lends him some harsh lessons about the street. And then, the hit.

"Swimming Pools" makes sense here, and it does play somewhat on its context as a prior radio success -- its starkness and rumblings of the conscience become a feverishly teenaged vision of young love and young damage, the trippiness of the extended portions fully earned, the devastating cut-through-the-bullshit tone of "All I have in life is my new appetite for failure" hardly Hot 97 bait, and then when the shots fire, it seems the perfect aural resignation, the signal that we can never crank up the van and really go home again, not to the place we left. "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst" is such an evocative title it's a pity it actually refers to two separate recordings, but steep yourself in their sincerity all the same: "Promise that you will sing about me" is a deep enough signal of fear and depression without the more on-the-nose "my mind is really distorted," but listen carefully. Lamar sings as a woman here, as a bent and human older man looking back there, and his barely scripted, barely restrained "I'll never fade away I'll never fade away" seem the waning call of the boy looking to reconnect, to get out, to escape. The song itself (songs, rather) evolves with Lamar's increasingly dark mood, from lite jazz to Danny Elfman schlock, until being "tired of running" from desperation down through the years leads us to the only redemption he sees as possible.

That's the available redemption. Who knows if it will enrich him, will free him, will liberate this kid. Let's hope it does, or did if this is reality. But there's a sense that the damage is done, especially on that last, horrible, moving message from the boy's parents, and especially again when we revisit the almost prepubescent kid on the Morning Of, trotting out the door telling his mom he'll be back in fifteen minutes. Rewind, fast forward, you can't change anything. Kendrick Lamar is a famous rapper who's recorded a genuinely great album now that may prove a masterpiece; others who've lived this tale or something like it, if by no means all of them, remain in permanent shadows. Lamar hasn't just presented a narrative that may or may not be but certainly feels strikingly personable and real; he's told a collective story that falls not on generational or societal lines but on the lines of adolescence itself -- and, inevitably, on race and class and Compton and America's treatment of, even awareness of, its own. Like one group put it when Lamar was four years old, "How will I make it? I won't, that's how." Little has changed. Will it ever?

Miguel: Kaleidoscope Dream (2012)



Hi and welcome to 1998. Miguel might have a finger on the pulse of the oft-speculated-about, seldom necessarily, Future of Soul, but Kaleidoscope Dream is, like Frank Ocean's Channel Orange, the product of a post-internet savvy about pop music's breadth and history. At virtually no point is this more apparent than on the hit "Adorn," one of the most indelible, and honestly magnificent, R&B singles of the last ten years. That cut is a head-spinning revision of Bill Withers and Marvin Gaye traditionalism with the playful rhythmic trickery of urban radio just before we lost Aaliyah. If Dream has a failing, it's that it gets this masterpiece out of the way immediately; perhaps the tension could've used some stretching out.

This is Miguel's second album. I admittedly have not heard the first, All I Want Is You recorded way back in 2007 and released three years later. But I've listened to enough of it in response to the follow-up to detect that Miguel is, for all his charges of genre-bending innovation, a classicist pop singer whose key weapon is nothing more than an eclectic, elastic voice that scores big on sheer confidence, swagger even. Kaleidoscope Dream is nothing if not assured in its many sideways explorations and transgressions: his throwaways, in other words, are somehow "big." That includes "Do You...," a weirdo moment that puts Frank Ocean's weirdo moments out to pasture; the lyric is hilarious, the dreampop falsetto a punchline, but the drums are relentless, and for that matter so is the guitar. Or hell, near the end of this thing, following the airy secular gospel "Arch & Point" and just ahead of a worthless finale whose title I don't feel like looking up, Miguel offers some acoustic fuckaraound called "Pussy Is Mine" that's pretty much a shout-out and/or fuck-you to the kind of acoustic tomfoolery rock bands love to dabble in; Prince used to hide things like this on b-sides and in studio vaults. Miguel not only releases it like it's great art but underlines the excess with some sort of in-studio skit about how he's wasting time and valuable tape.

Yeah, the dude loves himself. So did Prince, who coincidentally is someone else Miguel seems both inordinately fond of and concerned about; "Where's the Fun in Forever" is a decades-late answer song to "1999" and "Let's Go Crazy" and all their hobbling around with the afterlife and fucking one's way into moral high-ground. Miguel's atheistic (or agnostic, we're not judging) impulse is to question whether immortality is really what anyone wants, which of course it isn't, and pitted against love he correctly reveals that the latter is impossible with the former. It's a salient philosophical point that offers this record's indisputable peak, along with "Adorn" and that stunning "Time of the Season" interpolation at the end of "Don't Look Back," which will melt more than the British Invasion buff in your life. (But him/her too.)

The only problem is that Miguel's overriding concern with getting across the hugeness of his ambitions often gets in the way of his actual strengths, which are of a more intimate variety. God fucking bless him for not getting stuck in a bunch of silly half-assed half-songs like Ocean, but the arena-rock plod of "Don't Look Back" and the stadium-lights fury of "The Thrill" betray a certain sense of obligation in the way we make and sell albums today. "Thrill" does end up seeming like a felt and human track, but not nearly so much as the title cut, the unstructured and cloudy nature of would seem surreal even without the hippie nonsense. Even that song doesn't need to go on for four minutes, however.

So this is more than halfway to great. Miguel's only going to improve as a singer between now and album the next, and in the meantime we can detect some of where he's headed in the way he tempers the purity of his highest notes on "How Many Drinks?" with frustration and hesitation, always commanding every bit of our attention in a way that even the best of his peers can't. While he's learning how to sustain that, if he also cut the shit in regard to accusing women who aren't obligated to return his advances of "wast[ing his] time"? That'd be, y'know, kinda nice too.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

One-sentence reviews #4

Traversed through Pitchfork's "Best New Music" certifications for the latter part of the year, plus some other things that slipped through. Rolled my eyes a lot.

Lupe Fiasco
Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album, Pt. 1

!! CAUTION !! - An improvement, but only slightly; none of the bewildering sonic embarrassments of Lasers but more than enough of the same weird musical apathy, dressed up in the pretension of the Everclear-like title.


Royal Baths
Better Luck Next Life

!! CAUTION !! - As sardonic VU imitations go, "Faster, Harder" is near the top of the recent heap, but the drone of the album becomes repetitive and fatiguing; the thing with "Lady Godiva's Operation" is that Reed and Cale sounded like they sort of cared.


Metz (2012)
(Sub Pop)

!! CAUTION !! - This actually is your father's indie rock, or at least not mine -- heavy, pounding, screamy, thrashy, annoying, everything this blog is unqualified to judge.


The 2nd Law
(Warner Bros.)

!! CAUTION !! - An amusingly unrestrained comedy album, the kind that contains lines like "now I have seen the light" and comes on like a local Battle of the Bands "Bohemian Rhapsody," probably hosted in the At the Hop Ice Cream Shop.


Godspeed You! Black Emperor
'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend

!!!!! AVOID !!!!! - I have no clue how or why people listen to / worship this shit (fun game for the Junior Jumble: which song title is Muse and which is Godspeed? -- "Strung Like Lights at Thee Printemps Erable" vs. "Exogenesis: Symphony Part 2 (Cross-Pollination)"), but it's really none of my business, yeah?


Bat for Lashes
The Haunted Man

It's boring, but it's Kate Bush boring, which makes it difficult to really dislike; Natasha Khan's voice bears the scars of a child who once suffered mightily through vampiric Miss Sjlaka's middle school music lessons.


Andy Stott
Luxury Problems
(Modern Love)

I could see loving this, as the rhythms are loose and challenging, but the looping / sampling designed to melt it all into something vaguely conceptual just gripes me, like Jim Morrison-level relationship drama; we've firmly established by now that I'm not the electronic music connoisseur of my youth.


Mac DeMarco
(Captured Tracks)

Another branch of your dad's indie, the singer-songwriter dork with the electric guitar in the power pop bargain bin (also interestingly, a record you actually can gauge very accurately from its cover art); more Jonathan Richman or Ben Vaughan than Ariel Pink, this seems just the right side of being a bit too juvenile and tossed-off, but the tunes are solid and the guitar playing fine, the singing deadpan.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Grizzly Bear: Shields (2012)



Edwarde Droste, the Prince of Twitter
Daniel Rossen, his waiting-maid
Justin Vernon, a peasant

ACT I: in which the hopes of a generation are quashed at the annual Ceremony

Pleasing it is to present a recognition to Things of Youth and Color, the album of whom entitled Thr33$some P8888rtnerZZ has re-energized the shadowy forces which are truly in control!

DANIEL ROSSEN [in the audience]
huh huh this is lame man
whut is this shit

JUSTIN VERNON [beside him, holding towel]
Do not you recall
that these Multi Millionaires are full of Shit?
that they were full of Shit in their
failure to recognize my true Heart
whence I laid down The Kind Ladies of Hertfordshire [a Concept Album -ed]
It had been recorded
using only the sands of the Earth
and a backyard generator

yeah so

I'm saying this is true Shit, the true Shit is that which
celebrates the craft of the Mass Beloved
we are the true Artists, we of the twisted minds
the twisted minds run Amok!
the twisted minds of Passion! of Grace! of Intellect!
you will gather the Shit they pile upon us, we will Recoil from it
but you will return in 2012

didn't you win one of these things

it is all Shit all of it

I have come to a decision
we will record the most Intelligent Music
that has ever been recorded!
THRONGS will march in the STREETS
proclaiming its great INTELLIGENCE
and that people will complain that it is merely
merely the pathetic prog noodlings of boredom writ large
it will be a mark of how the Shit, the Cunts, the Fucks
are in control
but we will blast through with our pur-
ity and passion

[The telephone RINGS. it is Jack WHITE]

JACK WHITE [in a special cameo]
and all that is real,
it won't be fake, it won't all be image
it will be Genuine, it will be Authentic
and it will be pressed on 50 vinyl LPs
that are shaped like Horses Heads

I do admit that I find this
Slightly absurd

my Mistake;
I have forgotten that I dislike you immensely. [Hangs up]

our record will be the Real Thing
we will Mean It
and that will Show Them

We will not PAY for THIS unless you will allow
it to be in our
barbecue sauce commercial

ok i like bbq sauce

VERNON [aside]
These are years of sadness.


ACT II: Mother Hope returns at the Rock Concert, seven years later

We have a New Song it is about Flowers

{Clanging noises, in various time signatures which are Impressive; there are also horns and occasionally Drums]

DROSTE [Singing]
MMMMMMMMmmm proooove it allllllllll


Sounds of pots and pans falling! Upon the DAT

Alive, I have never
Felt so.