Monday, December 19, 2011

The Best in Music: 2011

I'm going to spoil it for you: yeah, M83 and Bon Iver are on here. But they deserve it. It's universally acknowledged that they put out some great music this year. However, you're also going to see a host of other names that are unlikely to crop up on similar lists. I know what I like, and it ain't always what your snotty online music 'zine of choice likes. Read on ...

Overall, 2011 was a very good year for music. In fact, its only real problem was that it had the unenviable task of following 2010, which was an outstanding year for music. I think my biggest nagging problem was its distinct lack of an album that just felt like an unequivocal home run. When I heard Ashbury Heights' Take Cair Paramour last year, I knew immediately it would be the best album of the year. This year, that moment never came. My #1 album always felt like it could be nudged out of place at the last minute. Not that it isn't a fantastic album, mind. Everything I'm about to go over, albumwise and songwise, is tremendous. It's just that 2011 is the first year I can remember when I didn't have that Moment. (I did have such an epiphany for my #1 song, though. We'll get to that.)

Even so, the year held its own. There were tons of songs and records and concerts that are likely to go down in the annals of personal history for each and every one of us, and as such it's hard not to call 2011 a success. A year spent in transition, absolutely, but a good one nonetheless.

Before we begin celebrating, however, let us first have a moment of silence. 2011 cruelly relegated many artists to the musical graveyard. A special R.I.P. to a handful of personal favorites: Pure Reason Revolution, Sunset Rubdown, Wolf Parade, Innerpartysystem, R.E.M., Lou Reed and Metallica's good taste -- you will be dearly missed. May we see you all reunite someday.

And now for the fun stuff. Let's kick off the festivities with ...

  • The Most Overrated Artist of 2011: James Blake, whose supposedly groundbreaking debut sounds to me like little more than auto-tuned lounge music.

  • The Most Underrated Artist of 2011: The Rosebuds have been excelling at pop songcraft from the depths of obscurity for the better part of a decade.

  • Musical Crushes of 2011
    Chloe Alper (formerly of Pure Reason Revolution)
    Mark Foster (center, of Foster the People)

  • Favorite Music Videos of 2011
    Battles, "My Machines"

    Beirut, "Santa Fe"

    Cut Copy, "Blink and You'll Miss a Revolution"

    Fleet Foxes, "The Shrine/An Argument"

    Foster the People, "Call It What You Want"

    The National, "Conversation 16"

    Tyler, the Creator, "Yonkers"

  • Top 5 Concerts of 2011
    This year I had the pleasure of attending eighteen shows and one three-day festival (which, for obvious reasons, can't be ranked). These were the best.

    05. Yeasayer @ The Music Box (Hollywood, CA)
    04. M83 @ The Music Box (Hollywood, CA)
    03. VNV Nation @ House of Blues (San Diego, CA)
    02. The Rosebuds @ Santa Fe Brewing Company (Santa Fe, NM)
    01. Arcade Fire @ Ukrainian Cultural Center (Los Angeles, CA)

    Once again, this list does not geographically discriminate. Albuquerque feels left out, though, so I'll give an honorable mention to Interpol @ Sunshine Theater. Great show; it deserves it.

  • The Best Albums of 2011
    Honorable Mention:
    The Antlers, Burst Apart
    Taking tips in equal part from Radiohead, The Cure, and Talk Talk, Burst Apart is a lean and muscular reinvention of the funereal dirges that haunted their 2009 breakthrough Hospice. It rocks harder, the melodies are stronger, the ambition is more varied, and the overall product is superior. [YouTube: "Parentheses"]

    Cold Cave, Cherish the Light Years
    I'll always have a special affinity for post-punk (you know, the likes of Joy Division, New Order, Wire, The Cure, and so on), which is why there will always be a place on my shelf for bands like Cold Cave. Without changing one thing, this record sounds like it could have been made in 1982. Before you go ripping on it for that, stop to consider that that's exactly the point. [YouTube: "Confetti"]

    Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues
    2011 was, without a doubt, the year for American beard-folk revival. But if it's all going to be this good, then why the hell not? Fleet Foxes' sophomore album is a huge, sprawling affair with big songs and little songs and in-between songs, all immaculately composed and produced. I have endless respect for someone who can create something both monolithic and deeply personal, and that's exactly what Robin Pecknold has done. [YouTube: "Helplessness Blues"]

    Other Lives, Tamer Animals
    More American beard-folk for youse, although I like this one better. It's darker and richer and affects me more. Where Fleet Foxes woo me with their technical skill, Other Lives do it by rigging their somber ballads to produce small but powerful bursts of emotion. It's an understated triumph, not revealing its secrets all at once, slowly sinking in. [YouTube: "For 12"]

    Panda Bear, Tomboy
    I'll be the first to publicly scorn Animal Collective if given half a chance, but something about Panda Bear's solo work tends to click with me. If Person Pitch was a sunny, drugged-out beach party, then this is the ensuing psychedelic ritual at the bottom of the sea. It's darker, moodier, trippier, and much less welcoming, but there's still something alluring about it. [YouTube: "Slow Motion"]

    Sepalcure, Sepalcure
    Think of it as a sunlit Burial with a less singular style and a dancier, more mainstream (or at least mainstream electronic) sound and you've got a highly enjoyable record that doesn't try to be anything it isn't, but still manages to mix many of the best aspects of dance music in 2011 into a neat, fun little package. [YouTube: "Pencil Pimp"]

    TV on the Radio, Nine Types of Light
    If you were hoping for another "Wolf Like Me," I think you've always been doomed to disappointment. This, the band's highly underrated fourth album, finds them settling down and mellowing out and producing some of their prettiest, most contented music to date. Sure, it won't shake your world, but you already have their other albums for that. [YouTube: "Will Do"]

    The Top 11:
    11. VNV Nation, Automatic
    Now here's an album that brings me nothing but joy. For a decade, VNV Nation -- amidst a nonstop string of some of the best live shows you will ever see -- have struggled to release another album as good as 1999's Empires. Some are better than others, all are dreadfully inconsistent. Automatic still doesn't quite reach that high water mark, but it's by far their best effort: a bright, optimistic (no, seriously!) set of songs so strong I didn't think they could still pull it off. But here we are. And fuck, did I mention they kick ass live?
    [YouTube: "Space & Time"]

    10. Pnau, Soft Universe
    As it turns out, all Pnau had to do to make the best record of their career was sell out completely. The best moments of their enjoyable but patchy 2007 self-titled ("With You Forever," "Embrace") were straight-up pop, and as if they had read my mind for an attack strategy (as well as taking tips from none other than Elton John), those tracks serve as the blueprints for their entire fourth album. The result comes off very, very well. Soft Universe is immediate, catchy, polished, and tight. Nick Littlemore steps into the frontman/lead vocalist position with an ease that makes you wonder why he hadn't before, and the songcraft is uniformly the strongest of his career. It's the perfect kind of summer album: one where everyone is likely to find their own favorites, but no one can deny they're having a great time.
    [YouTube: "Solid Ground"]

    09. Moonface, Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I'd Hoped
    In a way, Spencer Krug's hilariously and accurately titled solo LP hits me in the same way I imagine it hit him as he was making it: as a necessary, if more than a little bit melancholy, ode to growth and change. Having sadly left behind both Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown, he uses the opportunity, through one of the most unique and focused musical conceits in years, to confront some demons. It is by far the darkest work of his career, and in many ways the most inaccessible. His lyrics have always been challenging, off-kilter, and unquestionably among the very best out there, but here, still cloaked in metaphor, they feel decidedly and restlessly personal. This is a Krug album for Krug devotees; very few are going to find an in here if they haven't already. People often speak of "concept albums." Here's one: a man writes his most personal songs to date and sets them to an odd but endearing array of outdated 80s organ sounds. The artistry can't be denied; the enjoyability is up to you. [YouTube: "Fast Peter"]

    08. Radical Face, The Family Tree: The Roots
    The best I can tell, Ben Cooper's sole songwriting agenda consists of grabbing onto your heartstrings and yanking them so hard you tear up involuntarily. On The Roots, the first of a supposed Family Tree trilogy that is scheduled to be continued next year, he does a pretty damn good job. This is the epitome of old, sad bastard music. It's also gorgeous, earnest, and very very compelling. The ostensible concept of these three albums is to tell the multi-generational story of a fictional family, starting in the 1800s and working to the present. This by itself is ambitious enough, but Cooper has challenged himself to render these songs with only the instrumentation available during the timeframe in which his narrative is set. As such, this, his 1800s album, is recorded entirely on acoustic instruments: guitars, pianos, accordions, and so forth. Whether he updates the sound as he continues his odyssey remains to be seen (I'm sort of hoping for the third album to be an Electric President-esque wash of melancholy synth-pop songs, but that's just me), but if the ensuing two volumes are as good as the first, we're headed straight for a modern masterpiece. [YouTube: "Black Eyes"]

    07. M83, Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
    I love M83, and you do too, so let's get the elephant out of the room and clear up any misconceptions: he has never made a fully consistent album. Each has been very good, but they all have their rough spots. Hurry Up, We're Dreaming is no different, but it makes up for this shortcoming with its sheer, beauteous sprawl. The album's the thing here. While it does contain several of Anthony Gonzalez's finest songs, it is specifically designed and sequenced to be listened to as a whole. It's this approach that ultimately makes it his defining achievement, as well as the perfect soundtrack to an exuberant night in the city. There is so much to love here, and everything is so obviously in exactly the place Gonzalez wanted it to be, that it's virtually impossible not to become immersed. Its sweeping, epic scope is irresistible. Joy radiates from every synth line, all earthly problems seem to vanish, and the world takes on a warm glow that does not dissipate until the final notes have faded out. When we're old and grumpy and looking back on the music of our youth that made us feel happy, we'll think of M83. We'll throw this on and live it out and feel young again. How many albums do you know that can do that? [Soundcloud: "Reunion"]

    06. The Rosebuds, Loud Planes Fly Low
    If half of pop music is about love and attraction, it stands to reason that the other half should be about love's sometimes inevitable dark side. We've all heard tons of break-up songs. Enough to not faze us anymore. But, see, Loud Planes Fly Low isn’t like most break-up music, and so it works on different terms. Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp have spent the better part of the past decade as man and wife, churning out excellent and woefully underrated music. Somewhere in there, since the release of 2008's Life Like, their marriage fell apart. They could have disbanded. They could have done a lot of things. And yet, against all odds, here is an album of astonishing bravery and poise. This is moody, thoughtful, introspective music that never points fingers and, honestly, comes across as quite hopeful. The two acknowledge that their romantic ties have dissolved, but there’s a strong, uplifting sense that they will be able to successfully turn that page in their lives and continue as friends and bandmates. Where most would be content to sulk, the Rosebuds have taken their rocky emotions and challenged themselves to make something both inspiring and mature. It’s a hell of a feat, and they pull it off. [YouTube: "Come Visit Me"]

    05. Innerpartysystem, Never Be Content
    Innerpartysystem's final release is an intriguing breed of album (or EP, whichever; at 36 minutes, it's as long as many proper LPs): the kind with myriad noticeable flaws, yet nothing whatsoever that I would change. Call it an unconditional love. Never Be Content is a dramatic, tightly constructed overview of everything this band could do, as well as a tantalizing hint at where they might have gone had they not chosen to call it a day. A shift from their past work is immediately apparent: "And Together" announces from the gate that this will be a more overtly dance-oriented affair, and from there the record rollercoasters through six tracks of ups, downs, bumps, pivots, and loops. If the jarring, taken-on-its-own-terms first half seems a bit rough, hold out: the final three tracks are so incredible that they cast light back on the first three, allowing the entirety of the record to come together in a way that's both challenging and elegantly cohesive. Sound effects recall prior compositions, lyrics cross-reference themes, songs gang up to create a shattering sense of unity. The band might chide me for ignorning their advice, but even with its imperfections, this is exhilarating. I'm content. [YouTube: "Out of Touch"]

    04. Foster the People, Torches
    I could write a dozen pretentious things about Foster the People, from their lightning-fast rocket to fame to this album's awesome Where the Wild Things Are-style cover art to how preternaturally good-looking all of them are while still maintaining more than a modicum of musical talent, but the fact of the matter is that Torches, their auspicious debut, ranks so highly on this list because it is simply the best pop album I heard all year. Nothing more, nothing less. And I don't mean that as a pejorative. We all crave a good pop album now and again, and a pop album is exactly what it is: ten radio-ready synth-pop songs, all winners, with some (not to get ahead of myself) among the best any band had to offer up in the last twelve months. When this first dropped in May, I scarfed it up like the tasty early-summer treat that it was and readily came back for more. Well folks, it's winter, about as far removed as one can get from the sunny fire most of these songs were forged in, and I still can't get enough. I don't see the charm wearing off anytime soon. [YouTube: "Waste"]

    03. Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Bon Iver
    Has this analogy been used before? Probably, but I thought of it too, and it's a good one: if Bon Iver's universally acclaimed debut For Emma, Forever Ago was (quite literally) the sound of a man sitting in a secluded cabin in the snowy dead of winter, his follow-up finds him in the thaw of spring venturing back into the real world. Where For Emma was cold and insular and monochrome, Bon Iver is painted in a rich, vibrant palette that breathes new life into each of its painstakingly crafted vignettes. In keeping with its themes of nature and geography, I like to imagine the album as a leisurely trip down a leafy, coiling river, each song a separate place or landmark along the way. As a journey, it is unparalleled. The reason for Bon Iver's near-mainstream success is as simple and pure and straightforward as most of the songs on this record: Justin Vernon is just damn good at what he does, and most people have the good sense to know a stroke of genius when they hear it. [YouTube: "Holocene"]

    02. The Decemberists, The King Is Dead
    This is probably the smartest album The Decemberists could have made. Regardless of what you thought of it, it is undeniable that they put a portion of their fanbase at arm's length with their divisive, Zeppelinesque hard-rock opera The Hazards of Love. Some loved it, others considered it a bewildering misstep (I'm somewhere in between). The King Is Dead finds Colin Meloy taking about three or four steps back, re-entering territory I think most everyone can agree upon. Gone, at least for now, are the lengthy suites and thematic song cycles, and in their place, a concise assortment of catchy, emotive, well-written, well-performed American folk songs. It's the most straightforward and approachable record the band has ever made. It's also perhaps the most unpretentiously enjoyable, a quality which has allowed it to move many, many copies and finally give them the bona fide breakthrough they deserve. So who cares if they're not breaking any new ground? In the end, The King Is Dead provides me with one of the greatest pleasures that music can give, and one that jaded music snobs like me always seem to forget is possible: the simple joy of hearing another great album by one of your favorite bands. [YouTube: "Rox in the Box"]

    01. Cut Copy, Zonoscope
    It has been almost four years, so I think I can stake this claim without too much second-guessing: Cut Copy's 2008 release In Ghost Colours is, to date, my all-time favorite electronic album. From stem to stern, it is a flawless masterpiece. Creating a worthy successor must have been an stressful task indeed, so instead of trying to re-capture the high points of that record (who could?), the band has smartly opted to move in a new, if still recognizable, direction. As such, Zonoscope is a very different record: looser, more experimental, less geared toward packing dancefloors, spurred on by the variety of sounds and song structures they can weave into their already vibrant tapestry. The expansion suits them well. They don't always hit it out of the park like they did on In Ghost Colours, but the numerous highlights easily stand among the band's best material, while the rest still rises miles above the generic product that plagues so much of this genre. To wit: Zonoscope is not another perfect album, but it is an immensely satisfying one that cements Cut Copy at the forefront of electronic pop music. To have one #1 album is a hell of a feat. To have two in a row, well, that's a prestige reserved for giants. Bring on #3, guys; I know you have it in you. [SoundCloud: "Take Me Over"]

  • The Best Songs of 2011
    Honorable Mention:
    The Antlers, "Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out"
    Binge drinking meets sexual frustration in The Antlers' most immediate and accessible song to date, a paranoid and electrifying spiral into hell that sounds nothing like the band we knew two years ago. [YouTube]

    Burial, "Street Halo"
    With special shout-outs to its two phenomenal b-sides, "NYC" and "Stolen Dog." Burial's first proper solo release since 2007's game-changing Untrue is a shrewd update of his signature sound that incorporates elements of house into his spooky ambient textures and skittering rhythms. Though more streamlined, the feeling remains the same: a perfect evocation of the unsettling isolation of nighttime. [YouTube]

    Coldplay, "Hurts Like Heaven"
    I wrote in 2008 when I put "Viva La Vida" on my Top Ten (I stand by it, motherfuckers) that Coldplay would never record a better song. It's still true. This is the next best thing: an anti-"Viva La Vida," brazen, energetic, sunny, and upbeat. That it's by Coldplay doesn't keep it from being good. [YouTube]

    The Decemberists, "Down by the Water"
    It's hard to pick a favorite from The King Is Dead. I'm not even sure I have one, so I'm falling back on this, the excellent harmonica-driven lead single that harkens back to early-80s R.E.M. in the best possible way. [YouTube]

    Example, "Changed the Way You Kiss Me"
    This, a concise and tuneful electro-pop track with a conspicuous hip-hop and dubstep influence, was a #1 hit in Example's native Britain. It failed to chart stateside. You tell me what's wrong with that. [YouTube]

    Fleet Foxes, "Blue Spotted Tail"
    Robin Pecknold went super ambitious to craft his band's excellent sophomore album only to have its most affecting moment be its simplest: a soft, brief, acoustic meditation on that all-encompassing question, "What's the meaning of it all?" [YouTube]

    M83, "Midnight City"
    The only thing greater than the massive hype surrounding this song is the song itself. Chalk it up to Anthony Gonzalez's tremendous ability to write a hook. There wasn't a more instantly recognizable track this year. Listen to it once, come back to it any amount of time of time later. Days, weeks, months, whatever. It'll take you two seconds to realize, "Oh! It's 'Midnight City'!" When Gonzalez wails, "The city is my church!" I still get chills. An instant classic. [YouTube]

    Pure Reason Revolution, "Tempest"
    The swan song from one of my favorite artists. Lots of bands broke up this year, but none broke my heart as much as this one. A gorgeous and fitting goodbye. [YouTube]

    Radiohead, "The Butcher"
    There was, if you were paying close attention, exactly one song this year that showed that Radiohead is still worth a damn. So of course they gave it b-side status on a vinyl-only single. Thanks, guys. [YouTube]

    The Whip, "Best Friend"
    A late-year contender that swooped in at the last minute and showed me once again how much I enjoy the electropop genre when it's done right. At this point in my life, it could well be the type of music I enjoy most unreservedly; my musical best friend, one might say. I'm okay with that. [YouTube]

    The Top 11:
    11. Wolf Gang, "Lions in Cages"
    Few songs this year better filled the seemingly obligatory role of anthemic indie pop song than this little morsel, the lead track off Wolf Gang's solidly enjoyable debut. Though lyrically dark, the music is catchy, upbeat, and memorable, with the sort of chorus you'll find yourself absent-mindedly humming as you're carting through the supermarket. The sound is big and important, and Max McElligott sells every note with his strong vocal delivery, winding the song up into a low-key victory. I am sure this is not the best song he can write, but it's a hell of a start, and I'll be one of many onboard to see what he tries next. [YouTube]

    10. Silversun Pickups, "Seasick"
    Brian Aubert's secret is that he smolders beautifully. Always stopping short of exploding outright, he conveys seething tension that never quite boils over. Where most can only communicate rage, Aubert's restraint allows Silversun Pickups the luxury of a sexy dangerousness that's just as apparent as ever on their newest single. It's nothing less than ear candy for those of us who believe that this sexy dangerousness makes for some seriously invigorating music. [YouTube]

    09. Innerpartysystem, "Not Getting Any Better"
    It's hard work writing a lengthy song that merits its runtime. Far too many veer off course and become boring or tiresome. "Not Getting Any Better" is the ideal antidote: a song that starts modestly, then spends every second of its eight minutes building in exactly the direction I want it to. This is Innerpartysystem in microcosm: the one track that evenhandedly shows they could write both pop songs and dancefloor monsters and emerge doubly fulfilled. From the careful melodies of the vocal sections to the eventual dance breakout, and the slow-burning synthesized strings that link them together, this is an underrated band at the top of their game. Maybe they thought they weren't getting any better; I beg to differ. [YouTube]

    08. Other Lives, "Tamer Animals"
    I was a champion of Other Lives' debut in 2009, but for all its lovely piano ballads and mournful melodies in self-referencing keys, it lacked a standout that was able to worm its way into my heart. The title track from their superior sophomore album rectifies any and all problems. This is a lush and cloudy affair, every bit as beautiful as it is subtly defeating. Make no mistake: this is not the soundtrack to your next hipster bake sale. This is quiet, secluded music, for when you're feeling down and just need some time to stop and sort everything out. We all have those days. Winona Ryder said it best in Heathers: "If you were happy every day of your life, you wouldn't be a human being; you'd be a game show host." Other Lives understand this. They've got your back. [YouTube]

    07. Destroyer, "Bay of Pigs (Detail)"
    The thing about this song that makes it work so beautifully is that, at least as far as I know, it's the best possible version of what it is. In other words, when I say "drunk poet rambling for eleven minutes over guitars and ambient synths," neither you nor I nor anyone could find a better exemplar than Destroyer's "Bay of Pigs." I have been hating on Dan Bejar for years, and almost always with just cause, but this song proves that artists a person doesn't especially like can still strike gold if the time is right. I don't question its magnificence. Bejar's lyrics are crisp and pointed and beautiful, while the atmospherics he chooses to accompany them are ideally suited to the sort of foggy, intoxicated, deeply nostalgic nighttime stroll that the words evoke. And if this all just sounds oh so pretentious, he rewards you for your patience: the final portion is the clearest and catchiest music he has written, allowing the song to culminate exactly where it should -- in the stratosphere. So thank you, Dan. I am the last person I ever thought would put a song of yours on a top 10 (or 11) list, but this one deserves it. It's marvelous. [YouTube]

    06. Radical Face, "Ghost Towns"
    I'm still an English major at heart. I love words and stories and am trained to instinctively read symbolism into anything that will let me. I could write entire theses on "Ghost Towns," a heartbreaking song about a drifter whose inner monologue seems to double as a metaphor for the entire human condition. True, Ben Cooper is singing as a fictional character within the narrative framework of his album, but this character is so achingly universal that anyone who crosses his path is likely to relate to him. "I've seen more places than I can name, and over time they all start to look the same. But it ain't the truth we chase. No, it's the promise of a better place. But all this time I've been chasing down a lie, and I know it for what it is, but it beats the alternatives, so I'll take the lie," he sings, and lest you have a heart of stone, I challenge you not to feel something. When the coup de grâce comes in the form of a mournful accordion solo, you'll hardly know what came over you, but you'll know it moved you and you'll realize how powerful it was. [YouTube]

    05. The Good Natured, "Wolves"
    I am a man of simple but discerning taste. Sometimes all it takes to quench my musical thirst is a good, solid slice of electropop. Few were able to do it better this year than up-and-comers The Good Natured do on "Wolves." Think Witching Hour-era Ladytron with more drive and less flourish, sacrificing not one bit of the former's melodic prowess (the last 45 seconds feature a beautiful, and frankly unexpected, vocal coda that takes the song to another level). It's just about as immediate and engaging as this type of music gets, with enough hooks to keep you tethered and enough pure satisfaction to make you rush back to that replay button again and again. [YouTube]

    04. Guillemots, "Walk the River"
    I thought Guillemots were a flash in the pan. I never thought they'd match their brilliant "Trains to Brazil" (the only song I've ever heard that satisfyingly, and for that matter perfectly, addresses terrorism on a personal level), but here, trading universality and worldliness for an uncomfortable level of intimacy, they have. "Walk the River" may not be the better song, but it hits me harder. A lyrical masterwork, it better describes my day-to-day feelings at this point in my life than anything else I've heard. Most artists struggle for entire careers to pen a turn of phrase that can take my breath away. Here, in this very song, Guillemots do it twice. [YouTube]

    03. Bon Iver, "Michicant"
    I'll tell it to you straight: I wept the first time I heard this song. Not torrentially, but there were tears in my eyes. Who's to say why? Maybe, on some level, I related to Justin Vernon's impressionistic lyrics about youth, or maybe -- what with its harmonies and lullaby-ish vocal melody -- it really was just that beautiful. I have listened to it countless times since and, although the tears don't always come, the feeling is always there. And while much has been said already about this song's canny use of a bicycle bell, I have to agree: it is likely the most perfectly implemented use of that sound that I know of. [YouTube]

    02. Cut Copy, "Need You Now"
    A tour de force of build-and-release. Having shown the world about twelve times over on In Ghost Colours that they can write a perfect pop song, Cut Copy try their hand at something decidedly less immediate: a slowly percolating anthem that starts off modest and low-key, only to finish with fireworks and confetti and party streamers. It's a testament to their craft that it's impossible to pinpoint any one moment where the build backshifts into release, but somewhere along the way you'll realize you're flying where just minutes ago you were grounded, chugging away towards an unknown destination. The feeling is beautiful, cathartic, and just about the best thing I could have possibly asked for from this band. And I ask for a lot from this band. I hate giving nods to Pitchfork, 'cause they're a bunch of wankers, but they hit the nail on the head: "Need You Now" is the perfect side A, track one; an ideal kickstart to just about any album, mix, party, or life event it may be soundtrack to. It's rare for a band to shoot for the stars and actually make it. It's even rarer for them to keep going once they've gotten there. [SoundCloud]

    01. Foster the People, "Helena Beat"
    This is it, I think. It's the first weekend of my last undergrad spring break and I am standing, beerless and by myself, in a tiny bar in Santa Fe, NM, with about thirty drunk, mostly inattentive people, listening to an L.A. band no one has ever heard of (Foster the People? The hell kinda name is that?) play "Helena Beat." This is the best song of 2011. Corazón has now closed its doors and Foster the People have since become one of the most popular bands in the country, but despite these radical changes, I firmly keep to my assertion. There wasn't a better song this year. There couldn't have been. What "Helena Beat" does, it does perfectly. Whatever it is that makes this song so mindbogglingly great, it has satisfied all of my requirements for an entire genre. That's a big fucking deal. But I know, definitively, it isn't any one thing. The voice, the melodies, the appealingly processed instrumentation, the gradual build to that glorious final thirty seconds -- these all coalesce into one of the most satisfying four and a half minutes I have ever spent listening to pop music. "Helena Beat" wasn't the hit, wasn't the song that put this band on the map and made everyone turn their heads, but it should have been. [YouTube]

    And that's it, folks! As always, comments about my ridiculously questionable taste are always welcome and encouraged. See you all in 2012!
  • Thursday, October 13, 2011

    cut copy @ the hollywood palladium (10/12/11)


    Take Me Over
    Feel the Love
    Hanging On to Every Heartbeat
    So Haunted
    Corner of the Sky
    Lights & Music
    Blink and You'll Miss a Revolution
    Pharaohs & Pyramids
    Hearts on Fire
    Sun God

    Where I'm Going
    Need You Now

    Thursday, September 15, 2011

    I have just found out that this blog's co-author and I are very likely going to be in the same room as this man in less than a week. This, together with the fact that there has not been a post here in a month (I'll cook something up in the ensuing weeks, fear ye not), makes this completely necessary.


    Tuesday, August 16, 2011


    There haven't been enough pretty men in this blog for a while. This is unacceptable and needs to be rectified immediately.

    Let me take a moment to detail the things I would do to this man:
    [Text removed at editor's behest. Even for the blogosphere, people, the deleted content was ... unsavory. -- Ed.]

    mp3: Pnau, "Donnie Donnie Darko" (2003)

    Saturday, August 13, 2011

    the decemberists @ the greek (8/12/11)

    Quote of the Night: "Life's too short. Why learn to two-step? You're just going to die anyway." Thanks, Colin. We love you.

    Songs played for the people of Griffith Park:

    Down by the Water
    Calamity Song
    January Hymn
    The Soldiering Life
    The Bagman's Gambit
    We Both Go Down Together
    Won't Want for Love (Extended Jam Version)
    The Crane Wife 1&2
    The Rake's Song
    All Arise!
    Rox in the Box
    Dracula's Daughter
    O Valencia!
    This Is Why We Fight

    Raincoat Song
    The Mariner's Revenge Song

    June Hymn

    Sunday, July 31, 2011

    Monday, July 25, 2011

    Nick Littlemore Week continues.

    Empire of the Sun's "Walking on a Dream" is one of my favorite pop songs in recent memory. The video, the first of several odd, colorful entries by this band, is utterly captivating.

    Also, it has Nick Littlemore hanging out almost wearing a shirt. But that's really only a small part of why I like this.

    Monday, July 11, 2011

    Chris' Guide to Recent Releases

    Limited only to stuff I feel like writing about. Most of these are pretty current summer releases, though.

    Man, we’re on a roll here these past couple days. Rock on, Shit-Blog!

  • Arctic Monkeys, Suck It and See
    Rating: 6.2
    I have tried on each of the four go-arounds since 2006 to "get" these guys. I liked The Last Shadow Puppets and I do enjoy Alex Turner's solo work, but for some reason the main attraction just doesn't do it for me. These are decent songs played well, but I'm afraid I just don't care that much.

  • Army Navy, The Last Place
    Rating: 7.4
    Competent, likeable guitar-based indie-pop with more than a hint of melancholy. I really wish there was something more gripping to say about it, but that more or less sums it up. If you’re into that, you’ll probably like it. Don’t expect it to change your life or anything, but there are definitely a handful of rewarding tracks.

  • Battles, Gloss Drop
    Rating: 7.5
    So they lost Tyondai Braxton, the futuristic math-rockin' robot Munchkin voice guy who basically defined this band's sound on 2007's Mirrored (one of the few albums in recent years forward-thinking enough to legitimately be called progressive), but decided to forge ahead and craft a sophomore album. How did they fare? Pretty well, actually. While there are no tracks as immediate or as awesome as "Atlas," the remaining Battlers prove themselves very capable musicians and come across sounding kinda like the funky early-80s incarnation of King Crimson. Works for me.

  • James Blake, James Blake
    Rating: 5.1
    I do not know what the hipsters are raving about. This shit is BORING. And I usually like this kind of stuff. You know what I say: there is nothing worse than a well-made, slickly produced boring album. At least the bad ones are interesting.

  • Bok Bok, Southside EP
    Rating: 4.0
    I downloaded this on a whim, listened to it once, and immediately deleted it. Do yourself a favor and listen to this back-to-back with Burial's new EP (which we'll get to; the two are both from South London, see). It should be ample proof that, just like every other genre, dubstep can sound entirely like some dude farting into a shorting-out microphone unless there's a good deal of skill involved.

  • Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Bon Iver
    Rating: 8.7
    A singularly satisfying indie folk album. Straying far from the bearded-guy-in-the-woods template of his 2007 debut For Emma, Forever Ago, Justin Vernon has penned a diverse and melodic set of vignettes, each as equally enchanting and beautiful as the last. Even the divisive, much talked-about closer “Beth/Rest,” which embraces full-on some of the sappiest excesses of the 80s, is affecting and painstakingly arranged. It’s the sort of album where every song is so carefully crafted and well thought-out that a half-dozen people are likely to each have their own favorite, yet still agree that everyone else’s pick is really effing good. My highlight is the gorgeous minor-key lullaby “Michicant,” but let’s face it: the first half of this album is damn near perfect, and the second half – despite some minor stumbles (“Hinnom, TX,” for instance, while by no means bad, seems oddly out of place) – is still head and shoulders above most album halves. But of course the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and the whole is one of the best albums of the year.

  • Burial, Street Halo EP
    Rating: 7.8
    Or you can call it a single. Whatever. Ever since Sufjan gave us the hour-plus All Delighted People and called it an EP, I really haven’t given a shit about labels. In the digital age, it hardly matters. What does matter is that this is Burial’s first solo release since 2007’s instant-classic, genre-defining Untrue, and – worry ye not – it’s pretty awesome. He’s definitely made some changes: the house-inspired title track is likely the most accessible thing he’s done, and while it lacks the jittery rawness of his earlier work, it retains his signature predilection for urban paranoia and pushes it in an intriguing new direction. The other two tracks are similarly engaging, taking cues from what the man was doing a few years ago but cannily updating the sound. Far from being overshadowed by the multitudes of artists who used his two pioneering full-lengths as a blueprint, Burial proves he’s just as relevant in 2011, and that alone is enough to give me goosebumps.

  • Burial, Four Tet & Thom Yorke, Ego / Mirror
    Rating: 6.1
    Not an entirely unheard-of collaboration. Burial and Four Tet, after all, produced 2009’s solid Moth / Wolf Cub single, and with the exception of the presence of Thom Yorke’s distinctive vocal stylings, this is more of the same. The biggest problem with this is as depressing as it is easy to identify: 10-15 years ago, the music world was Yorke’s oyster. He and his band were on the cutting edge, producing some of the finest music these ears have ever heard. In 2011, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that Yorke’s heyday has come and gone. He wants so desperately to be taken seriously as an electronic musician, but pitting him against the likes of Burial (the best dubstep artist in the world, bar none) all but highlights his shortcomings. To be blunt, and The King of Limbs only corroborates this, I just kind of don’t care anymore, especially if he’s not even going to try for the (admittedly ridiculously high) bar he’s set for himself. If this had been strictly instrumental (which is to say, if Burial and Four Tet hadn’t bothered with Yorke at all), it might actually be more enjoyable. As such, I can’t help but be disappointed.

  • Burning Hearts, Into the Wilderness EP
    Rating: 6.5
    A pleasant four-song EP, to be sure, but we’ve heard it all before (and better) on the band’s enjoyable, low-key debut Aboa Sleeping. The title track is a keeper, but its counterparts fail to make much of an impression.

  • Death Cab for Cutie, Codes and Keys
    Rating: 6.0
    Ben Gibbard on autopilot. Death Cab’s 28th studio album (or whatever) is certainly not a bad record, but it is a glaringly mediocre one. Whatever faculty for heartstring-tugging the man may have had back in the band’s prime of Transatlanticism is long gone, and replaced with a saccharine artificiality that will no doubt appeal to a massive amount of people, but comes across feeling flat and insincere. The first two tracks are decent: “Home Is a Fire” incorporates some of the skittering beats that helped make The Postal Service a household name before even Death Cab achieved the same, and the title track is slick balladry that hints at Gibbard’s ability to still get at something deeper. The rest, though, is strictly formula. Once upon a time, I might have found that formula captivating. This time out, though, it just seems to be wearing very, very thin.

  • Digitalism, I Love You Dude
    Rating: 6.2
    Average, almost completely forgettable synth-pop. It makes you appreciate just how good Cut Copy is at doing pretty much the same thing. There are a few moments when it feels like the music is about to take flight (lead single "2 Hearts," for instance), but in the end it's not enough to save what is, overall, a pretty unexceptional effort.

  • Foster the People, Torches
    Rating: 8.5
    You'll find perhaps no greater champions of Los Angeles-based electro-poppers Foster the People than we here at Marimba and Shit-Blog, and the reason is actually surprisingly innocent: though it certainly doesn't hurt that 2/3 of this band is devastatingly attractive, they've also managed to produce what will likely be the single best pure pop album of 2011. Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard "Pumped Up Kicks" by now (I even heard the song on an Albuquerque FM station, for fuck's sake), and the good news is that the rest of Torches is as good, or better. For my money, gorgeous opener "Helena Beat" remains the best song that anybody has put out so far this year, while "Houdini" and "Don't Stop (Color on the Walls)" keep the hooks coming and the energy level high. If you can, also seek out "Broken Jaw," a great, high-adrenaline dance number that didn't quite make it onto the album proper. So really, just go do it. You can only avoid this band for so long. Back in March I predicted that these guys, then still relative unknowns, would break the scene wide open by year-end. It's happening even faster than I thought. For once, it's a band that actually deserves it.

  • Gang Gang Dance, Eye Contact
    Rating: 7.2
    Pretty cool Middle Eastern-tinged psychedelic synth grooves. I enjoyed their 2008 breakthrough Saint Dymphna, and, just as the hype would have you believe, Eye Contact is indeed the superior album. My only real problem with it is that, even though it's very solid and well executed, I'm just not sure how often (if at all) I'm going to feel compelled to return to it. Even so, the 11+-minute slow-burn opener "Glass Jar" is the best thing this band has done, and the remainder of the album rewards throughout.

  • Junior Boys, It's All True
    Rating: 5.3
    If by "true" you mean "rather dull," then sure. 2006's So This Is Goodbye was sleepy and mellow in a way that rewarded listeners with sudden bursts of energy and inspiration (remember "In the Morning"? That's a great song). This new material is just sleepy and mellow. If there's any inspiration to be found, it was lost on me. A shame.

  • Moonface, Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped
    Rating: 8.3
    I hate to break it to you, but the truth is the truth: if you’re not already onboard with Spencer Krug (via either Sunset Rubdown or, more likely, Wolf Parade), I’m sorry, but this album is going to frustrate and mystify you. I suppose there’s a minuscule chance that this could be the epiphany you’ve been waiting for, but for the most part, this is a Krug album for Krug devotees. If you’re down with that (you know we are: we named our blog after his awesome 2010 EP), you pretty much know what to expect. This is a tight, focused album whose central concept is defined by, as the title suggests, Krug’s reverent use of cool-sounding 80s organs (and not vibraphone, which was evidently his original intention). If you’ve ever seen the man in concert, you know firsthand how well this dude knows his way around a keyboard, and that skill comes through loud and clear in each of these five lengthy songs (each of which clocks in at over six and a half minutes). The rest is gravy: his penchant for awesomely bewildering lyrical turns-of-phrase is in full swing, and if anything, his technical prowess and delivery has only improved over the years. And if, like us, you think Spencer is unquestionably the greatest songwriter/lyricist in the world, then this’ll be just what you need to tide you over to the next Sunset Rubdown record. Which better be in the pipeline, or I may have to have some words.

  • The Rosebuds, Loud Planes Fly Low
    Rating: 8.3
    The Rosebuds’ second best album to date (after 2007’s marvelous Night of the Furies, which has a strong case for being the single most underrated album of the past decade) is not only a fine showcase for Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp’s melodic songwriting and passionate delivery, but also an intriguing anomaly in rock music. The short of it is that the two, who spent several years as man and wife recording a handful of really good albums, recently got divorced, but decided to keep making music together. This, logically, is their break-up album. But, see, this isn’t like most break-up albums. This is moody, thoughtful, introspective music that never points fingers and, honestly, comes across as quite hopeful. The two acknowledge that their romantic ties have dissolved, but there’s a strong, uplifting sense that they will be able to successfully turn that page in their lives and continue churning out satisfying pop music. Where most bands would be content to sulk, the Rosebuds have taken their rocky emotions and challenged themselves to make something both inspiring and mature. It’s a hell of a feat, and they pull it off. And did I mention the songs are damn good?

  • She Wants Revenge, Valleyheart
    Rating: 5.9
    Eh. A couple tracks are okay (“Take the World” has a pretty cool synth line), but this is pretty lifeless. Interpol and their entourage of similar-sounding bands really haven’t fared well in recent years, have they?

  • Skrillex, More Monsters and Sprites EP
    Rating: 5.5
    I get what he's doing here, and in this here 21st century it's actually pretty shrewd. The music scene changes every day and, once you’ve achieved stardom within your niche, you’re never 100% sure about your longevity. This release exists to keep Skrillex’s name out there, pure and simple. Whereas last October’s Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites was a full-fleshed EP with six original tracks, this one only gives us two (plus a slew of “Scary Monsters” remixes), and they’re not all that great. “First of the Year (Equinox)” is a tuneful re-hash of the exemplary “Rock N’ Roll (Will Take You to the Mountain)” that, while listenable, never quite hits the mark. Meanwhile, the two versions of “Ruffneck” are the sort of throbbing dubsteppery I still have difficulty warming up to. It’s commendable that Sonny Moore wants to satisfy his fans so much that he regularly pushes new music their way, but one can’t help but feel we’d all be that much more satisfied if he’d wait until he has another full EP’s worth of material under his belt.

    Aaaand that's it for now! Have a great week!
  • Sunday, July 10, 2011

    streetlight manifesto @ sunshine theater (7/9/11)

    "Did someone just say 'Freebird'? Punch yourself in the face." -- Thomas Kalnoky

    In short: mayhem. Utter mayhem.

    In not-short: Ska isn't my scene, but for some reason I really enjoy Streetlight Manifesto. Even so, I don't think I was quite on the right wavelength last night to fully appreciate the show. Fellow big-namers Reel Big Fish co-headlined (RBF played first, and actually had a longer set than Streetlight), but just didn't do much for me. So it goes. Streetlight themselves were enjoyable and all sorts of energetic, but I emerged much less satisfied than at their (awesome) Launchpad show back in early '09. Maybe that has something to do with them not playing my two favorite songs ("The Receiving End of It All" and "A Moment of Silence"), which they did two and a half years ago (that setlist is here -- yeah, I've been doing this geek thing for a while now). Or maybe not. Who knows?

    In my review of Interpol's show in April, I noted that that concert was the fullest I had ever seen the Sunshine (still Albuquerque's worst indoor concert venue). This show put that to shame. The place was packed to the point of hardly being able to breathe. Most of these people wanted to annihilate one another in skanking circles. I successfully managed to push myself up against the back wall and just enjoy the band whilst surveying the mayhem. Good place to be. Still crowded, though.

    But seriously, it was a fun show. I don't want to cast too bad of a light on it (it's just that, compared to the last time I saw them, this show/venue was a wee bit disappointing). It'll be, in all likelihood, my last Albuquerque show, and it does seem like a pretty good way to go out.

    Here's what they played.

    Streetlight Manifesto:
    Watch It Crash
    Down, Down, Down to Mephisto's Cafe
    We Will Fall Together
    We Are the Few
    That'll Be the Day
    Failing, Flailing
    Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard
    Forty Days
    Such Great Heights
    Would You Be Impressed?
    If and When We Rise Again
    Here's to Life
    The Big Sleep

    Somewhere in the Between

    And if you're wondering, Paul Simon and The Postal Service, the answer is yes.

    Saturday, July 2, 2011

    the rosebuds (with other lives) @ the satellite (7/1/11)

    Other Lives:

    As I Lay My Head Down
    Dark Horse
    For 12
    Tamer Animals
    Dust Bowl III
    Old Statues
    Black Tables

    I first heard this band two years ago when they toured with the Decemberists, and I've only become more and more infatuated. Their sophomore album is a gem and not nearly enough people are going to hear it this year, but I was comforted by the crowd's high level of enthusiasm during this set -- you would've thought they were the headliners. And I totally would've gone to that show.

    The Rosebuds:

    Blue Bird
    Go Ahead
    Limitless Arms
    Second Bird of Paradise
    Cemetery Lawn
    Leaves Do Fall
    Come Visit Me
    Waiting for You
    Life Like

    Cover Ears
    Nice Fox

    ...well, I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn't three songs from Birds Make Good Neighbors and only one from Night of the Furies (their best album, in my little universe). So it says a lot about this band's talent that I still enjoyed this show immensely. They sounded great at all volumes, and highlights ranged from the pure rock-outs of "Cemetery Lawn" and "Leaves Do Fall" to the sing-along finale of "Nice Fox." Also, it is worth noting that Ivan Howard's voice is downright heavenly, so the fact that I accidentally ended up standing right at his feet was hardly a detriment to my experience.

    All in all, it was a pretty great way to spend a Friday night. I think I'll try it again next week.

    Monday, April 18, 2011

    interpol @ sunshine theater (4/18/11)

    A bit of context: By the time I had Interpol's Turn on the Bright Lights memorized (it's still one of the best albums of the last ten years, folks; though I wouldn't actually hear it until later, it was released on my 13th birthday -- welcome to adolescence, young man), Antics still hadn't even come out. Arcade Fire's Funeral didn't yet exist. My Great Indie-Rock Discovery Phase of 2005 (which yielded the likes of the Decemberists, Wolf Parade, Sufjan Stevens, Death Cab/Postal Service, Bloc Party, and so on) was still looming in the distant future. In the spring and summer of 2004, I was, for all intents and purposes, listening to only three "indie" bands: Modest Mouse, Franz Ferdinand, and Interpol. The aforementioned Antics was one of the first new releases I specifically remember looking forward to.

    The bottom line is this: These guys were a big fucking deal in my musical development. Being one of my foundational indie bands means I'll always love you, even if you've severely taken a piss in recent years. Even as someone who finds little to defend in Interpol's most recent work (save a handful of songs), I was still thrilled to finally get a chance to see them live. This is a concert I've been anticipating for something like seven years.

    So of course they played at the Sunshine Theater, Albuquerque's shittiest indoor concert venue.* In spite of this, they still managed to rock really effing hard. As one might expect from their music, seeing this band live is a really intense experience. It's a lot of fun, of course, but these guys mean business. They play these songs with an earnestness and raw force that is breathtaking. In my friend's own words: "That show had the kind of energy that I was hoping for, but not really expecting."

    Even the fact that the much-more-beloved Arcade Fire played in Santa Fe on the same night did not seem to keep folks from coming out. This was the fullest I've ever seen the Sunshine. It wouldn't surprise me if the place was sold out. Most importantly, though, all of these people were really fucking into it. It's a simple law of concertgoing that states that the more receptive the crowd is, the better the band performs. There was palpable chemistry in the room. Both the band and the audience fed off of it.

    According to the almost illegible scribblings on this sad, crumpled up piece of paper I just pulled out of my pocket, here's what they played.

    Say Hello to the Angels
    Hands Away
    Rest My Chemistry
    Summer Well
    The Heinrich Maneuver
    Memory Serves
    Obstacle 1

    The New
    Slow Hands
    Not Even Jail

    ...holy shit. I could nitpick certain songs and switch things around, but I'm not going to. Everything was performed so well that it doesn't make a difference, and the encore was one of the best I've seen. Likewise, I could dissect, discuss, reminisce, and detail until I'm blue in the face. But I won't. It was an excellent show, and worth the wait.

    Okay fine, one small comment: Daniel Kessler is one suave motherfucker. Yeah yeah Paul Banks whatever; Daniel Kessler is one suave motherfucker.

    OH YEAH. And School of Seven Bells opened. They were awesome. They and Interpol make for kind of an odd couple, but hey, what can you do? Good times all around.

    *Feel free, Sunshine, to quote Marimba and Shit-Blog on all future press releases.

    Monday, February 21, 2011

    I will marry this man someday.


    Sunday, February 13, 2011

    the decemberists @ the wiltern (2/12/11)

    Colin Meloy kicked booze in our faces.


    Los Angeles, I'm Yours
    Down by the Water
    Calamity Song
    Rise to Me
    Days of Elaine
    We Both Go Down Together
    The Engine Driver
    Won't Want for Love
    The Crane Wife 3
    Grace Cathedral Hill
    Don't Carry It All
    Rox in the Box
    This Is Why We Fight
    The Rake's Song
    16 Military Wives

    Encore #1
    Red Right Ankle
    The Mariner's Revenge Song (!!!!!)

    Encore #2
    June Hymn

    arcade fire secret show @ ukrainian cultural arts center (2/11/11)

    We were totally there and stuff.


    Month of May
    Rebellion (Lies)
    Neighborhood #2 (Laika)
    No Cars Go
    City With No Children
    Suburban War
    Wake Up
    Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
    Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)
    We Used to Wait

    Ready to Start
    Keep the Car Running
    Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)

    Wednesday, February 9, 2011

    The Decemberists: At a Glance

    Because I have nothing better to do (er, well, I do, but it's not like I'm going to actually be productive ... jeez) and because I can't stop fidgeting and flailing over the fact that, among multitudes of other awesome things, I am finally going to see one of my favorite bands in concert this weekend, I decided to do a quick and unapologetically geeky overview of their discography (sans singles) as I see it. Yay!

    No rating scale is perfect, and I've frequently found the Rate Your Music five-star scale to be somewhat restrictive when it really comes down to the nitty-gritty, so I'm also employing -- for comparison's sake -- Pitchfork's hilariously un-restrictive ten-point decimal scale.

    Scale Conversion: (RYM --> P4K)
    5.0 --> 10.0 - 9.7
    4.5 --> 9.6 - 8.8
    4.0 --> 8.0 - 8.7
    3.5 --> 7.0 - 7.9
    ... and it continues mathematically from there. It may look like I'm paying short shrift to the 4.0 rating, but trust me: I'm not. Tons of albums fall in that window, and -- even with the threshold lowered to 8.8 -- not nearly enough crack the 4.5 barrier. So it goes.

  • 5 Songs EP (2001)
    RYM Score: 3.5
    Pitchfork Score: 7.3
    Best Song: "Shiny"
    Other Standout Tracks (Descending Order): "Oceanside"
    Comments: An auspicious and charming debut. Hell, I co-wrote a 5-song EP, and it wasn't nearly as good as this. "Shiny" is still one of their best songs.

  • Castaways and Cutouts (2002)
    RYM Score: 4.0
    Pitchfork Score: 8.5
    Best Song: "Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect"
    Other Standout Tracks (Descending Order): "California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade," "Leslie Anne Levine," "July, July!"
    Comments: Sure, they sing sea shanties and melodic folk-rock, but beware: these guys mean business. Even on their first LP they prove effortlessly that they do this shit better than pretty much anyone. And they're ambitious, too.

  • Her Majesty, the Decemberists (2003)
    RYM Score: 3.5
    Pitchfork Score: 7.1
    Best Song: "Billy Liar"
    Other Standout Tracks (Descending Order): "Los Angeles, I'm Yours," "The Chimbley Sweep"
    Comments: There ain't nothing wrong with this, to be sure, but I just don't think the hooks are as strong as before (or after). Possibly their weakest effort, but remember: even the Decemberists' weakest is better than your average band on a good day.

  • The Tain EP (2004)
    RYM Score: 3.5
    Pitchfork Score: 7.2
    Best Song: You're funny.
    Comments: Up, up, and away! This is where Mr. Meloy really starts embracing his lofty ambitions. Ever wonder if a melding of Celtic folk and 70s hard rock could fly in the 2000s? Here's eighteen minutes to show you it can, and more.

  • Picaresque (2005)
    RYM Score: 4.5
    Pitchfork Score: 9.5
    Best Song: "The Engine Driver"
    Other Standout Tracks (Descending Order): "On the Bus Mall," "The Mariner's Revenge Song," "We Both Go Down Together"
    Comments: One of the best bands in the world at the height of their powers. Meloy's songwriting, ambition, and execution all reach a dizzying height here, resulting in a masterpiece that perfectly showcases all of the band's strengths.

  • The Crane Wife (2006)
    RYM Score: 4.5
    Pitchfork Score: 9.5
    Best Song: "The Island"
    Other Standout Tracks (Descending Order): "Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)," "Sons & Daughters," "O Valencia!"
    Comments: Having conquered folk-rock and indie pop, the Decemberists branch out to include heavy metal, danceable funk, and lengthy suites without losing sight of what made them special to begin with. Stephen Colbert called it "hyper-literate prog-rock." I just call it their best album.

  • The Hazards of Love (2009)
    RYM Score: 3.5
    Pitchfork Score: 7.7
    Best Song: "The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid"
    Other Standout Tracks (Descending Order): "Annan Water," "The Rake's Song," "The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)"
    Comments: Don't get me wrong. This is an awesome album that shows once and for all that they can pull this sort of thing off when they set their minds to it, but I say this as affectionately as possible: it works best as an anomaly in their discography. For all its myriad charms, it's really not why we listen to the Decemberists, is it?

  • The King Is Dead (2011)
    RYM Score: 4.0
    Pitchfork Score: 8.4
    Best Song: "Rox in the Box"
    Other Standout Tracks (Descending Order): "Down by the Water," "January Hymn," "Calamity Song"
    Comments: An outstanding return to their folksy roots, and by far the most straightforward, accessible, and -- dare I say -- necessary album they have made. No wonder it topped the Billboard charts. Some of their most readily enjoyable music in years is wrapped up in a taut, focused 40-minute package.

    ... and from there, who knows? I am so, so, so excited about having my mind blown this weekend. The ball's in your court, Colin. I know you won't disappoint me.

    Also: Due to the nature of this blog, there is nothing to stop me from doing this for other bands. At all. In fact, it's almost guaranteed to happen. So, like, watch out and stuff.
  • Tuesday, February 1, 2011

    Scott Pilgrim did nothing to alleviate my crush. THANKS.


    [Someday I will actually post something substantial in this blog. Maybe. -- C]

    Thursday, January 6, 2011

    best songs ever, part 1 of a series

    There are myriad mandates and laws here in Shit-Blog Land, but without a doubt among the most critical is the one called "Wolf Like Me" Syndrome.

    "Wolf Like Me" Syndrome states, basically, that when this song stops sounding amazing, you are old. And given that another law in Shit-Blog Land is that no one may mature past the age of 12, this would be a terrible thing indeed.

    So thanks, TV on the Radio, for providing this handy baseline for our existence.

    mp3: "Wolf Like Me"

    Saturday, January 1, 2011

    Best of 2010!

    Here are my lists, in a slightly abridged version! YAY!

  • Best Music Videos of the Year:
    Arcade Fire, "The Suburbs"

    Gorillaz, "Stylo"

    Liars, "Scissor"

    Janelle Monáe, "Tightrope"

    The National, "Bloodbuzz Ohio"

    Gil Scott-Heron, "Me and the Devil"

    Yeasayer, "Madder Red"

  • Top 5 Concerts of the Year
    5. Silversun Pickups @ the Fillmore (Denver, CO)
    4. The National @ the Fox Theater (Pomona, CA)
    3. VNV Nation @ the Launchpad (Albuquerque, NM)
    2. Frightened Rabbit @ the Mayan Theater (Los Angeles, CA)
    1. Of Montreal and Janelle Monáe @ the Sunshine Theater (Albuquerque, NM)

    ... oh look, a couple ABQ shows actually made the list this year. Didn't happen last year.

  • The Best Albums of 2010
    Honorable Mention:
    De/Vision, Popgefahr
    This is more or less what I wish Depeche Mode sounded like these days. Excellent, melodic darkwave synth-pop.

    Frightened Rabbit, The Winter of Mixed Drinks
    Earnestness counts for a hell of a lot in music. What separates the endearingly Scottish Frightened Rabbit from the multitudes of other miserablist rock bands is that Scott Hutchison unabashedly wears his heart right on his sleeve. Even if it's not your cup of tea, you listen to his music knowing he means every word. The power it takes on is tremendous.

    The Morning Benders, Big Echo
    I do admit that I have a bit of a crush on this band, and it is slightly horrifying to me that they're only a couple years older than I am, but how can I resist this? It's sunny, laidback beach-pop with a keen ear for melody and almost no pretensions whatsoever. Awesome.

    Of Montreal, False Priest
    2008's colorful but mystifying Skeletal Lamping seemed to find Of Montreal at a bit of a creative standstill, but False Priest shows Kevin Barnes & co. once again fully erect (yep) with more of the flamboyant, hypersexualized funk we've come to expect from them. A couple of incredibly well-played guest appearances from Janelle Monáe don't hurt, either.

    Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz + All Delighted People EP
    After five years of relative silence (and a 2009 spent battling an extremely serious illness), indie-rock's boy next door is back with a vengeance. Whether your flavor of choice is the ambitious and difficult Age of Adz (a strange and satisfying electronic departure that bears virtually no similarity to his '05 masterpiece Illinois) or the more organic grab-bag of the 60+ minute(!) EP, it's hard to deny that Mr. Stevens is one of the most audacious and talented artists out there.

    Top 10 Albums of 2010:
    10. The Golden Filter, Voluspa
    If I describe this as "ethereal disco," will people actually know what the hell I'm talking about? Like, is that a thing? Because I honestly can't think of any other way to describe it: singer Penelope Trappes' voice is so soothing and airy that the majority of this music makes me feel like I should be floating or something. Not only that, but the songwriting is uniformly excellent. Whether you're like me and you prefer the darker, more slow-burning songs like "Stardust" and "Freyja's Ghost," or if you just want kickass dancefloor hits like "Solid Gold" and "Thunderbird," it's hard to imagine any fan of the electropop genre being disappointed by what this New York (by way of Australia) duo has conjured up on this auspicious debut.

    9. Crystal Castles, Crystal Castles
    I'm pretty sure this album turned out to be about twenty times better than anybody ever expected it to be. I'm not sure why it works, and I've long since given up trying to figure that out, but the stone-cold truth is that it just does. The odd, jarring noise bursts of "Fainting Spells" and "Doe Deer" are perfectly complemented by smooth, lush synth-pop like "Celestica" and (the original, non-Robert Smith) "Not in Love," while instant dancefloor staples like "Baptism" and "Intimate" seem to exist on a higher plane altogether.

    8. Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
    What can I say that hasn't already been said, or won't inevitably be said by someone who actually knows what they're talking about? This is absolution in musical form. One of the most abrasive, disagreeable men in the entire entertainment industry has effectively made an album about just how much of an asshole he really is, and done it so gracefully, earnestly, and -- yeah -- brilliantly, that it pretty much singlehandedly validates his position at the top of the American charts. 2010 may have produced a handful of other albums that I like more, but I'd be hard-pressed to find one I have a greater admiration for.

    7. Scissor Sisters, Night Work
    Sorry, Kanye. As good as your opus might be, I just have a genetic predisposition to prefer gay synth-pop (thus making this my personal favorite album of the year with an ass on the cover; again, sorry Mr. West). And this is really fucking catchy gay synth-pop, so really, this was just meant to be before I even heard the damn thing. Just don't get me started on Jake Shears. You really don't want to wish that on yourself. (It's also a frivolous detail that the ominous, synth-laden transition between "Skin Tight" and stand-out track "Sex and Violence" is the single best segue in pop music this year.)

    6. The National, High Violet
    The National is a damn fine rock band. Of course, we knew this already: 2005's Alligator was a very good album, and 2007's Boxer was a great one. High Violet is, in a sense, the culmination of everything these guys have been working towards for the past ten years. Instead of introducing anything new into the mix, the boys use their newfound success as a means by which to refine their sound. As a result, High Violet is their most accessible, polished, and biggest-sounding work to date. It is also the best overall album they have made. Just be reminded that these guys are the most understated band in the universe. Like everything else they've done, you'll probably have to listen to the damn thing a half-dozen times before it clicks, but when it does, you'll see the handiwork of a band that embodies everything that is good about indie rock in 2010.

    5. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
    I realize this is an odd thing to say about music on a year-end list, but as much as I love The Suburbs now, this is an album I can see myself revisiting with extreme fondness in a decade's time. While neither as immediate nor as urgent as their very solid 2007 release Neon Bible, The Suburbs is the more cohesive and accomplished piece of work: a heartfelt indictment of metropolitan life in 2010 that simply falls into place far more gracefully than I think anyone ever thought it would. No one ever expected them to top Funeral, and of course they never will, but what they have given us is possibly the best record they could have made at this point in their career.

    4. Foals, Total Life Forever
    In 2008, Foals released what one of my best friends affectionately describes as "the perfect indie barbecue album" in Antidotes, a record that also made my top five that year. I have no idea what the hell happened to these guys over the past two years, but no matter how devastating it might have been, it has undeniably hurtled them into another dimension entirely. The band on Total Life Forever sounds like merely a shadow of the "old" Foals: one that has consciously extracted all of the elements that made their sound so unique and intriguing in the first place (most notably their hypnotic guitar interplay) and carefully woven them into the fabric of an album that is rich, lush, and beautiful beyond anything I ever thought they were capable of doing. While this darker, more mature approach may not appeal to everyone (personally, I think it bears explicit mentioning just how great this album is), I think even the most jaded listener will have to admit that "Spanish Sahara" is a stone-cold master stroke, and something they never ever imagined this band would, or could, record.

    3. Yeasayer, Odd Blood
    One of the most thrilling things about Odd Blood is how completely indescribable it is. A near-complete re-invention from 2007's harmonious All Hour Cymbals, the new record falls somewhere between really, really warped electronic pop and ... uh, Middle Eastern-tinged, Animal Collective-ish chanting? Like I said, I don't even know why I'm trying. But rest assured, what it is is a hugely entertaining, wholly original creation that sounds like no one else I can think of. Like me, you may wonder just how exactly the beautifully mournful "Madder Red" can even coexist on the same piece of plastic as the (fucking awesome) dumb-as-shit schlock-dance of "Mondegreen," but by the time Odd Blood is over, you really won't care anymore. It's all great, and somehow it all seems to make perfect, utterly fucked-up sense. Party on.

    2. Pure Reason Revolution, Hammer and Anvil
    Bear with me through all the theoretical bullshit. If you buy into the idea of our so-called "postmodern age," then you likely accept the postmodernist belief that there are no longer any "new" ideas: merely reformulations and different iterations or imaginings of old ones. By this logic, especially with today's enormous, digitally augmented music scene, there will inevitably exist a band for each and every one of us that takes all of our favorite elements from the history of popular music and throws them into a blender to produce a very, very special style. For me, Pure Reason Revolution is that band. On Hammer and Anvil, their third full-length, they further pursue the overt electro-industrial direction of last year's (also #2-ranking) Amor Vincit Omnia to produce their loudest, most aggressive work yet. Even so, this feels like a dismissive pigeonhole: yeah, the sound is massive, but the album is also rife with moments of revelational beauty (the out-of-nowhere piano break in "Blitzkrieg," anyone?) and, of course, overflows with the band's signature harmonies and smooth-as-silk vocals. It seems almost unfair that everything these guys do feels so tailor-made to my tastes, but it's not like I'm complaining. They have yet to produce an album that is anything less than phenomenal.

    1. Ashbury Heights, Take Cair Paramour
    From the moment I finished listening to this for the first time, I really don't think there was any doubt this would land at #1. Countless repeat spins haven't cured me of the notion. This is an unbelievably excellent synth-pop album. You won't believe me until you hear it, of course, but the fact remains. 2007's Three Cheers for the Newlydeads and 2008's ensuing Morningstar in a Black Car EP were very solid, if inconsistent, releases that strongly hinted at a major breakthrough; not unexpectedly, Take Cair Paramour finds frontman Anders Hagstrom truly coming into his own, both as a songwriter and as a performer. I just don't think anyone could have anticipated the sheer magnitude of said breakthrough. By stripping away some of the previous releases' jagged industrial/goth influence in favor of a glossier, more robust sound, and by placing an even greater emphasis on accessibility (no less than a half-dozen of these songs could, and should, be chart-toppers; "Unbearable Beauty" being, for all intents and purposes, the most obvious candidate), Ashbury Heights -- on what may very well be their final release -- have delivered an instant classic, and one of the best albums of its kind. Clap your hands, you motherfuckers.

  • The Best Songs of 2010
    Kudos to you for making it this far! You are now entitled to free stuff. I've gone through the painstaking effort of uploading all of the following songs for your listening pleasure. You can either do it song-by-song simply by clicking on the title, or if you're foolishly confident in my music taste (or just want to save yourself some legwork) you can download it all as an archive file. The link to that is at the very bottom.

    Honorable Mention:
    Brighten, "Without You"
    Just the style of songwriting here takes me back to high school in the best way. Or is it the worst way? Hell, it was high school; the two are probably the same anyway.

    Foals, "Black Gold"
    You guys had me at "the future is not what it used to be," but it's that fucking bridge that kills me every single time.

    Frightened Rabbit, "The Wrestle"
    Featuring a bassline that actively seeks to rip your heart out and then stomp all over it. Most of the time it succeeds. And this is before the vocals even come in. The two together capture a perfect kind of sadness.

    The Golden Filter, "Freyja's Ghost"
    If she must have blood, then let her have mine. I'm totally willing to give it up for her.

    Gorillaz, "Stylo"
    Everything an electro/hip-hop single should be, with an unstoppable groove to boot. Not surprisingly, Bobby Womack totally steals the show.

    Like Pioneers, "Gift from a Holiday"
    In which the band formerly known as Bound Stems delivers yet another satisfying rock song by showing just how well they understand the power of building and releasing.

    Minus the Bear, "Into the Mirror"
    As it turns out, synths and a beefed-up sound do this bear good. For maximum effect, listen to it together with "Animal Backwards." You'll see.

    Janelle Monáe, "Cold War"
    Break-out artist of the year, no question. The ambition and raw talent this girl has is just incredible. And MAN, can she sing.

    Of Montreal, "Enemy Gene"
    ... and speaking of Ms. Monáe, here she is again. It's not that Kevin Barnes can't write a great pop song and sell it by himself. He has before, and will continue to. It's just that these two work so damn well together that I wish they'd collaborated even more on False Priest.

    Scissor Sisters, "Skin Tight"/"Sex and Violence"
    I am no longer able to see these as two separate songs. They melt together so seamlessly and complement each other so well (one's a sappy love ballad, the other a dark and driving promiscuity anthem) that it just seems cruel to split them up. Also, this music is really really gay. I just thought I should warn you, lest you find yourself liking it unconditionally or some crazy shit like that. 'Cause god forbid.

    Sufjan Stevens, "Heirloom"
    Don't get me wrong. I deeply admire Sufjan's ambition, but I've always loved him most at his quietest and most thoughtful. To wit: the vast, colorful Age of Adz will no doubt be the focus of his 2010 output, but this -- a soft, restrained ballad from his intriguingly diverse EP -- is just my favorite. It's beautiful.

    Top 10 Songs of 2010:
    10. Kanye West, "Power"
    It's official: Kanye West has taken one of the all-time great progressive rock songs (King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man") and permanently associated himself with it. And you know what? Even though I've been borrowing (and often not giving back) my dad's Crimson albums since middle school, I'm all for it. Moreover, I'm convinced West has made a hallmark in his genre. I don't know much (at all) about rap, but I know what I like, and "Power" is nothing less than a genius exercise in sampling. That it's also a cold, vicious, and even heartbreaking dissection of West's celebrity persona can only augment its effect.

    9. Go Periscope, "Crush Me"

    8. Arcade Fire, "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)"
    Hmm, how would I say that? Let's try it this way: this song is every bit as wonderful as it is completely unexpected (which is to say, massively). If you'd told me even six months ago that the undisputed highlight of the next Arcade Fire album would be a soaring synth-pop number, I would have laughed at you. But you would have been right. With Regine Chassagne once again on vocals, the band actually sounds like a socially-conscious ABBA or something (no, seriously); the effect is shattering. Do I hope they'll continue in this direction? Not really, nor do I think they will. Instead, I'll just take this as it is: a strange, glittering, beautiful light that shines brilliantly as both the finale of one of the year's best albums, and as a daring but pitch-perfect experiment by one of our best bands.

    7. Crystal Castles ft. Robert Smith, "Not In Love"
    You can't count on miracles. They just happen. A couple months ago this song literally materialized out of nowhere, and just as suddenly became universally embraced as one of the best songs of the year. It's easy to see why. This is not just a collaboration between a hip young electro duo and an aging legend. It's not just a cover of some obscure 80s pop song. I don't think words can adequately describe what exactly makes this pretty much perfect; you just have to listen to it and feel it. Sometimes the stars just align, and here they do so in a way that makes you wonder how you've managed to live your whole life without hearing this. It's been a long, long time (let's say Bloodflowers era) since The Cure released anything this good. By that same token, Crystal Castles will have to try for a long, long time to ever record something better. I'm actually not sure it can be done.

    6. The National, "Lemonworld"
    Let's face it: the moment a song stops being just a song and starts inadvertently being biographical, it's basically guaranteed to place on a list like this. For better or worse, "Lemonworld" perfectly represents my mindset throughout most of 2010, and although the knee-jerk might be to hate it for that, at the end of the day I have no choice but to embrace it as the most personally affecting thing these guys have ever done.

    5. The Radio Dept., "Domestic Scene"
    At an economical 2:25, this is easily the shortest track here, and perhaps the one I most wish would keep playing indefinitely. This seems like the song The Radio Dept. have been trying their whole career to make: a lush, dreamy lullaby that might just be the most beautiful thing released this year.

    4. Yeasayer, "O.N.E."
    Say what you will about Odd Blood (many have), but this is the one track from that album that I have yet to hear anything even the slightest bit negative about. The reason is clear: whether or not you agree with Yeasayer's creative decisions as a whole, the fact remains that this is just a wonderful song. It stands virtually unchallenged as my Summer Anthem of '10; you can practically feel the warmth, excitement, and energy pouring out of every synth bloop and thumping drum beat. And that doesn't even take into account the last sixty seconds, which hands-down comprise one of the most sublime codas I've ever heard. It's magical.

    3. Wolf Parade, "Cloud Shadow on the Mountain"
    It bears repeating: this is the sixth consecutive year that Spencer Krug has landed a song on this list. Do you realize, what with all the music out there, how fucking crazy this is? Not only to release something every year, but have it be among the very best? Again: the man is the most gifted songwriter we have right now, and this, the explosive opener from Wolf Parade's inconsistent third album, continues his strange and unique musical odyssey into possibly its most surreal and frenetic territory yet. If Krug's stylistics don't do it for you, I really have no idea what you could possibly do with this. For the rest of us, it's the most exhilarating thing he has done in some time.

    2. Pure Reason Revolution, "Black Mourning"
    If Pure Reason Revolution is the miracle band that somehow pinpoints and consolidates everything I love about rock music into one unified sound, and if "Black Mourning" is the best exemplar of each of their strengths up to this point (electro-pop, metal, industrial rock, and Floydian prog are all represented here in some capacity), yeah, you better believe I'm gonna totally lose it for this shit.

    1. Ashbury Heights, "Dark Clouds Gather Over Vanity Fair"
    Now listen closely, and understand that I mean exactly what I say: this is not only far and away my favorite song of the year, but one of the finest electronic songs of any sort I have ever heard. By piling fantastic melody upon fantastic melody and underpinning them with a dark, seductive, driving beat, Anders Hagstrom and Kari Berg (whose soaring vocal harmonies shine here like never before) have created something truly out of this world. In hindsight, its omission from Take Cair Paramour is understandable (it appears as a bonus track): while the album proper is astronomically consistent, there is simply no place on it for a statement as grand and show-stopping as this. It proudly stands alone. If Hagstrom's October announcement of Ashbury Heights' permanent disbanding proves to be true, the world will have lost one of its finest and most underrated bands of any sort. Still, this is a hell of a way to go out, and even if we're never treated to more new material, we'll always have this. I'm pretty okay with that.

    ...and for those of you troopers who have waded through all of this just to get to the big jackpot archive file, here it is!

    And that's all! As if that wasn't enough. It's been a hell of a year, folks. See you in 2011!