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!