Thursday, December 20, 2007

Best Albums of 2007: 5-1

5. M.I.A. - Kala
I didn’t expect this. Arular was fantastic and all, but every single freaking song on this album is a gangbuster ready to make the dance floor move. Where did those beats come from? Before, the caged beats sounded futuristic and threatening, and now they sound downright earth shattering. And instead of some chanting she’s crafted some perfect songs.

I still, honestly, can’t pin down exactly what moves me about her. Her tone-deaf delivery isn’t exactly revelatory, and while her lyrics are interesting, they aren’t poetry. And her politics, like nearly everyone has mentioned, are rather disturbing. This isn’t the power-of-the-people vibe, this is radical and dangerous. I wouldn’t mess with her. Sure, it could be a huge facade that she’s put on to sound more dangerous. But I don’t buy it. I’m scared of her. Honestly, if I saw her on the street I’d walk the other way. God knows what she’d do to me. Ask for an autograph? Forget about it.

Perhaps that’s the attraction...that and the 12 or so unbelievable singles piled up here.

4. Rufus Wainwright - Release the Stars
I think I’m the only person in the world that loved this album. I know for a fact I’m the only person in Columbus, Ohio who knew the words to all the new songs. When I saw him this fall I belted every song, and everyone looked around like they had no idea what was going on. I remember seeing Rufus in New York during his Want II and just feeling completely surrounded by love. And there I sat in the midwest with a bunch of people that didn’t care.

Why did I care? Because he delivered an album of romantic gems set to completely over the top productions that swept me up in a fever of bittersweet nostalgia (the best possible kind). Why doesn’t any one else care?

I know that answer, too. The album is a little campy, bloated, and not nearly as strong as his first two albums. Sure, I’m forgiving. I gave the Smashing Pumpkins nearly four albums before I jumped ship. But I have jumped ship, and am now privy to anything Rufus wants to do. Luckily he’s not bitter or jaded, and is making romantic albums full of tortured lovers, forbidden loves, and that voice to carry it all.

3. Radiohead - In Rainbows
This is a special album, and I think we all know that. There was no where to go after Hail to the Thief, an album that saw Radiohead reaching further and further into the depths of digital hell---perhaps I’m not the right person to talk about this. I was never a fan of that album, which I saw as stripping Radiohead of all their power.

There were hints that things might change, specifically the wondrous live version of “Arpeggi”. But I could never have anticipated an album of such warmth. In fact, I was expecting more drum machines, especially after a typically glum Thom Yorke solo album. It’s certainly not a happy album, but it feels full-bodied and real, something that you can’t really say about a Radiohead album since the Bends.

But this is no retread and never have they taken their minimalist tendencies so far. If Kyle is right and this is their last album, I can’t imagine a more fitting way to go.

2. Spoon - Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Last New Years I spent with Austin getting mad drunk and hanging out with people I had no right to be around. It was some kind of Ivy League party and I had just drunk a bottle or two of champagne and was acting obnoxious. I spilt hot wax all over my one leg, spent 30 minutes in the bathroom trying to clean it off, and then I found the iPod. They had this meticulously sequenced playlist which I decided had to go. In a room of about 50 people I’d never met before, i started picking every song. I think i was doing well until I decided to play Spoon “I Turn My Camera On”. Everyone froze and looked at me. I got bitched out by some girl (who Abby threatened to fight), and left in a semi-disgrace. Spoon were ruined for me. I was a little embarrassed, but just mostly ashamed. I had a great time that night, but Spoon were always going to be the band that tainted the evening.

I had no interest in Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga when it came out. When I finally did get around to listening to it, I wasn’t much impressed outside of “Cherrybomb”, thinking it stale and too simplistic. I just didn’t want to be reminded every day of my idiocy. And then slowly but surely I got in. First it was “Underdog”, then “Finer Feeling”, and then “Don’t You Evah”, and before I knew it the album was on repeat for the whole summer.

But it wasn’t until I got madly obsesed with “Japanese Cigarette Case” that I realized I was on to something truly unique. Here was a song with one verse repeated occasionally, with a spanish guitar solo, and then a riff. And yet it was one of the most engaging songs I’d heard in ages. How did they do this, how can you make such simple things say so much?

So, it’s been my year of Spoon. From disgraced figures into heroes . Who knew?

1. Panda Bear - Person Pitch
One of the stranger experiences in life is when I happen to fall asleep watching a movie I’ve seen many times before. I know the plot, know the characters, but in the haze of sleep these events line up to create a completely new experience. Strange scenes that never existed before appear, and characters start breaking from the script. None of it ever makes sense, but this new world is beautiful and strange. I’m always curious to see where it goes, before I drift off again.

I’ve never heard an album as completely bewitching and dreamlike as this one, and never one that reminded me of this phenomenon. Each time I sneak in it feels like a completely new experience, one that can never be replicated. Because there are no verses, no choruses, just waves of samples looping around itself, there is no entry point except the beginning. If you drop in the middle it’s disorienting and alarming, but always beautiful and often sublime.

The album will always be about the random, the unexpected, the new turns I didn’t know existed. It will be me rambling around Brooklyn half awake with headphones through the trees back to my old apartment at a late hour. It will always be the unknown, and that’s why I can’t stop listening to it on repeat waiting for unexpected to happen.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Best Albums of 2007: 10-6

10. Kanye West - Graduation
I understand it. I was ready to ditch the Kanye bus, too, until he dropped a party animal with exactly one bad track (Drunk and Hot Girls). No skits, no sappy ballads with Brandy, and at least three phenomenal end of the year chart toppers (Stronger, Good Life, Flashing Lights) that equal anything he’s put out before. I was ready to hate. I am still not impressed with his flow. But I am impressed with an album loaded hits that makes the stunning Late Registration look slightly stale.

It all has to do with Kanye the producer, who took back control and played it exactly the way he wanted to. Late Registration felt like the edges were smoothed over, but Graduation hits hard and often with miraculous sounds that are innovative and quirky.

I’ll never trade his rhymes for Hova’s, but in a year that saw American Gangster look back to past strengths, Kanye looked straight ahead and put together a staggering modern American hip hop record.
9. LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver
This is it. I remembering anticipating his first album with bated breath, hoping that I’d have some spark of light to equal his insanely great singles (Beat Connection, Yeah (Crass), Losing My Edge). It was a fine, fine record, but nothing even came close. What I was really waiting for was this stunning record, where every single song could be the best song he’s ever written.

That’s no joke. There’s not even one remotely weak track here. There are the crass, slightly goofy tracks (North America Scum, Us V Them) that equal the good times of his initial success, and then there is impeccable dance rock (All My Friends, Someone Great). As inspiring as those songs are, I prefer the jackass “Losing My Edge” LCD Soundsystem, and in that respect, didn’t listen to this album as much as I should have.

But I recognize its genius, and wish the album meant more to me. Perhaps, it feels too much like 2005. Did he miss his big chance? According to most music blogs, he didn’t. And I still have years to fully dissect what's going on here, which I'm more than happy to do.

8. Jens Lekman - Night Falls Over Kortedala
E-Mail from Austin Diaz, December 8th 2005: “All of you need to get in touch with me as soon as you can over IM...I’ve been listening to the Jens Lekman album...and I’m really trying to not just buy into Pitchfork hype but this album is amazing. As Duncan commented, it sounds “Christmas-y” which it does and like Morrisey had a torrent love affair with Sea-Change-era Beck.”

This was right before our big year end list two years ago, and I had absolutely no time. I was juggling 10 new albums, trying to figure out what exactly I had missed and what was worth skipping. So I didn’t even give it a try.

E-Mail from Blake Royer, December 9th 2005: “I think of the affair as less torrential and more of a gentle rainstorm, with tender fucking, melodramatic role-playing, kinky balloons and other twee props.”

And I STILL didn’t download it. What was I waiting for? Musical recommendations don’t come much better than that.

It wasn’t until this wonderful and charming record that I finally got around to what I as supposed to already know. Jens Lekman is a man of many talents, including some impressive sampling skills, but it’s his warm story telling that keeps me around. Like just about everyone else in humanity, it was “Nina” that sold me. Was I the only one that wished I were in that situation, pretending to be the fiance to a lesbian? How precious is that?

7. Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam
Blake said to keep trying, but it was taking a long time. I really loved Sung Tongs, and had liked Feels at first, even if I never listened to it after the 2006 list where I threw it in the top 10. I missed the more subdued feel of Sung Tongs, and was growing very weary of the bursts of screaming. I was tired of having to try so hard to like an album. Was I getting too old for this? Of course I wasn’t, I told myself, so I listened to it again and again and again...

Then one day I turned on “For Reverend Green” and realized it was the greatest fucking song I’d heard all year. I don’t mean this lightly. Animal Collective were always a band I wanted to like more than I did. Perhaps it’s the cool factor, the want to be more obscure, but I don’t have to pretend any more. All of sudden the heavens opened up and this absolutely perfect song appeared to me. And I didn’t have to do anything except adore it. That was easy.

And quickly the rest of the album fell in the line. “Peacebone” and “Fireworks” were next, and then I was humming “#1” like it was a pop hit. Albums do take time, but they need to inhabit your day and not sit on the shelf looking pretty. This is the first time Animal Collective jumped in the game and played.
6. Arcade Fire - Neon Bible
Indie rock kids have been trying for years to sound like Bruce Springsteen. It’s cute. But no one ever figured out that there has to be something to fight for, some strife to get over. It’s not about rocking with abandon, it’s about breaking away, cutting your loses, and starting over, even if that’s an impossibility. Arcade Fire are the first band to actually come close. It’s no accident that he invited them on stage to sing “Keep the Cars Running”, this is mimicry on the highest level.

But it’s still mimicry, and that’s the only reason this album doesn’t have the dark intricacies and rambling confusion of their fantastic debut. This album is streamlined, obvious, and, at times, rather clumsy. The lyrics are weighty and overbearing. But their heart is there, and the rage they conjure up is real.

Ironically, my favorite songs are the ones that stray furthest from the Funeral multi-suite template. (Antichrist Television Blues) is straight verse chorus the whole way through, yet they manage to weave a twisted tale of money, god, and power into one of the catchiest 5 minutes in 2007. The title track is a simple 2 minute lullaby played as quietly as 7 talented musicians possibly can. It's theses new fantastic directions that get me the most excited, and what kept these songs close to the top-played list all year long.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Best Albums of 2007: 15-11

15. The National - Boxer
“Apartment Story” got me into the dark forbidding place, and “Fake Empire” kept me there. All the rest is about atmosphere and how much low singing you can stand. I apparently have a very high threshold.

14. Okkervil River - The Stage Names
When people bashed Bright Eyes “I’m Wide Awake...” a couple years ago, they usually used Okkervil’s “Black Sheep Boy” as what real modern folk music should sound like. I wasn’t having any of it. Austin kept playing it for me, and I just couldn’t ever manage to sneak in. The latter album felt slick and detailed, while Mr. Conner’s effort felt freewheeling and spontaneous. Of course, Bright Eyes followed that album with the mannered Cassadega, and Okkervil make a rocking Americana record full of strange characters and lots of guitars. It’s the clear winner this year, and one of the last albums I thought I’d get into. I had kind of convinced myself I didn’t like them. And then “John Allyn Smith Sails” came on.

I never, ever, in a million, billion years would have predicted that they would just break into the Beach Boys. It’s one of the most rousing endings to any album I’ve heard since, probably, “I’m Wide Awake”. I know I keep comparing them to Bright Eyes, and they really don’t sound much alike at all, but I guess that means I (finally) like them. It’s a good thing.

13. Paul McCartney - Memory Almost Full
Its no longer accurate to say Paul makes bad solo albums. He’ll probably never make anything as convincing as his Beatle compositions, or even the fantastic Ram, but he’s made five solid solo albums in a row. That’s impressive. They haven’t been classics, but for someone (rightly) demonized for thirty odd years for making mediocre shlock it is a feat.

I don’t really feel right ranking these new achievements, but if I had to pick I’d probably settle on this one. It shows a rejuvenated Paul taking his best shot at pop music since his early 70’s pinnacle, and mostly succeeding.

I’ll always be that guy fighting for Paul. He’s my favorite Beatle, and I cringe when people continue to belittle his contributions to modern music. It’s just nice to have something to show for my side. This helps.

12. Feist - The Reminder
It’s no great secret that Let It Die’s best moments were those actually written by the lady singing it. The second half of covers felt overbearing and fussy compared to the stripped down simplicity of the wondrous first half. It would seem smart of her to have learned her lesson and made a beautiful, stripped down album with nothing but originals. So it comes as a rather shocking surprise that the least interesting moments on The Reminder are those that most recall her first.

There is nothing wrong with these songs (So Sorry, The Park, Intuition), but the best moments of this CD are when she subverts these and either ratchets up the sex (My Moon My Man) or turns into a big goofball with her ear set on a sing-along. (One Two Three Four). Honestly, she could sing about just about anything and I’d listen, but the more insincere and mysterious she becomes the more I pay attention.

11. Jay-Z - American Gangster
I got watches I ain’t seen in months!
Oh, really? I haven’t worn a watch in years! When I still lived in New York, clocks smacked my face on a regular fifteen second interval on the subway. When not in the subway, I was usually staring at a computer screen with little numbers constantly glowing in the top right. What about on the street? I either had my nose buried in an ipod (top right), or had my handy cellphone at arms length. Who needs a watch?

Jay-Z’s separation from the streets he’s trying to rap about here is miles thick. I’m not convinced for a moment that he’s more Frank Lucus than Ludicrus. You can’t have it both ways. It’s the thinnest of concept albums, and one that features some of his absolute weakest production jobs.

This could have been just as big a disaster as Kingdom Come, but somehow, it manages to rank among his very best. I do love “Roc Boys” and “No Hook”, but it’s over that furious organ, spitting rhymes with Nas, that Jay really gets his point across. Jay didn’t become famous because he was a drug dealer. He got it because he can ride the wave of some organ crash, saying something ridiculous about eating too much at Mr. Chows, and still come out sounding downright triumphant.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Best Albums of 2007 - 20-16

20. Yeah Yeah Yeah - Is Is EP
Yeah, Show Your Bones had it’s moments, but hearing Karen O rip out in “Rockers to Swallow” is like hearing a dear old friend say hello for the first time in years. It’s the scream, that full bodied tear breaking over a wave of distorted guitars and drums that first attracted me in the first place. And for the most part, that’s what this album delivers. It’s not quite the cold classic of their self-titled e.p., or even their roaring first album, but it shows what we missed when they decided to be just a tad quieter. Sounds sad, but sometimes youthful bashing of instruments really does mean more.

19. White Stripes - Icky Thump
There seems to be two camps with this album. One believes this to be the Stripes fall from grace after two hit albums. The other that this is their best album since White Blood Cells. But I guess that depends on whether you like your favorite brother and sister combo rocking seriously or just cracking cruel jokes with guitars blazing and nothing but pure spite to fuel the fire.

Count me in the later. Nothing is better then when White gets all preachy about the lost morals of today's youth, while he layers on distortion three miles thick. Ah! How I missed being yelled at. And I especially missed the creepy sibling tales. Sure, the album is not near as solid as their breakthrough, and they did miss out on their folksy, acoustic side. But I'll always take the smart ass White to the one that gets his videos played on VH1. I know, it's snobbish. But there was a time when the weirdness of the Stripes seemed like commercial suicide. I remember it so well.
18. I’m Not There - Various Artists
Like I needed another reason to get heavily into Bob. It’s becoming a yearly occupation and each time I get a little further in. Last year it was No Direction Home, and now I have this: a covers album of mostly obscure Dylan songs that is consistently, and mind-bogglingly solid. This is strange. These random artists are taking lesser Dylan songs, covering them (mostly) faithfully and ending up with an album that pays homage to the classics but still sounds modern. Honestly, it could have been so bad.

It's still to big of a beast to fully plow through. I have my favorite (everything by Yo La Tengo, Maulkmus, and "Just Like A Woman" sung by Charlotte Gainsbourg). But I need more time. It's an album of as much pleasure as you have time to give, which you can definitely say about the man behind the whole project.

17. Ryan Adams - Easy Tiger
Though awfully funny, I now look back on 2005 as my favorite time for Mr. Adams. He was swigging whiskey, making a fool of himself, and releasing album after album of swaggering country anthems. But it couldn't continue without something going horribly wrong. This album is about as fine a product as could have emerged from a full-on rehab and a new girl that doesn't want to break his heart.

I agree with the suggestion that it's a mini greatest hits album, complete with some fantastic acoustic laments, breezy soft rock, rocking Replacement carbon-copies, and some genuine country ones. I prefer the first and the last, so about half of this album sends me into a dizzy. I always skip the more serious compositions for the moments when the melody gets so ingrained with his body that it feels like he could just exude sadness. What a beautiful image...even if it only occasionally pans out.

16. Bruce Springsteen - Magic
This album breaks my heart. I've been a huge Boss fan for years now, and I'm no longer scared to admit it. I used to listen to "Born to Run" with the bedroom door locked, quietly pumping my first in the air with all the teenage rage of his greatest characters. And here is an album with Springsteen completely unhinged, gunning for his former glory. The songs are drenched with some of his saddest images --I think of the flag flying over the courthouse and the clouds of grey on election day--and some rocking tunes to back them up.

But the production sucks. Every electric guitar is reverbed, all the acoustic guitars chime, and echo coats all his vocals in syrup. Instead of the wall-of-sound of Born to Run, he's made a polyphonic spree. Instead of poignant, the songs feel sappy. It's a sad fact that masks one of his best efforts with a sheen of irrelevance.

Fortunately, half the songs get to shine through the Disney strings, and make a difficult album perfectly bearable instead of a slog.

Best Albums of 2007: 25-21

25. Andrew Bird - Armchair Apocrypha
This is when I knew it'd be a good year. Blake had loved Bird's previous album (Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Eggs) and played it often when we were still in college (ages and ages ago!). But I had always resisted, always found a reason not to dive in. Not this album. It was the first album of the year that I played repeatedly, and still do. I think it was "Heretics" that drug me in. It feels wonderful to be proved wrong. So this seems like the perfect place to start this list, with a fantastic album in a year completely stocked full of them.

24. Wilco - Sky Blue Sky
It could have been a contender. With Niles Cline pulling the strings, and a live album showcasing some serious rocking, this one seemed destined to be a hell of good time. But all was apparently not well. Instead of bringing the barn down, they decided to retire to it. And they made an easy-going mid-70s soft rock album. Or at least they attempted to. Which is just as well, for when this album works, like the first half, I think they succeed brilliantly. It’s not until the later half that the lazy songs become boring, and some rather awkward rocking goes by without much moving in their wake. I'll still take the easy spirit of the first half, and especially the title song, to settle down to any day.

23. Grizzly Bear - Friend E.P.
Yellow House was a beautiful record, but for some reason I didn’t realize how complex the arrangements were until I saw them go apeshit live. The mutli-instrumentalist would be on both knees screaming into different microphones, punching different pedals, while the guitarists would be playing insanely intricate picking patterns, and someone would be screaming...and still, the melody would be maudlin and lazy. I couldn't figure it out. But some of the new song they played were moving a little faster, and those all ended up on the E.P. That includes a particularly creepy version of "He Hit Me", which changes the romantic relationship and increases the doom. The E.P. is still insanely beautiful, but this time with a little more below the hips.

22. Bright Eyes - Cassadaga
I wanted to adore this album like I had with “I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning”, but it’s shiny veneer is hard to get through. Where that previous release felt warm and inviting, this one is glossy and slick. It makes some of his acoustic songs feel insincere.

Fortunately, he didn’t write an album of acoustic pleas, and when he strays from that formula some beautiful things start to happen. Who knew Connor could pull off a mid-tempo sixties pop gem like “Make a Plan to Love Me”? Or that he could finally get the jagged electronic beats to do something for him with “Coat Check Dream Song”?

Sure, I still like “Four Winds” and "If the Brakeman Turns My Way", but this album shows his restlessness is what makes him interesting, and why he still sounds like he has so much more to find.

21. Battles - Mirrored
What the...? I still have no idea what is going on in this album and I suppose I never will. The rhythms are too tight, the vocals too scattered, and the guitars...where to begin. As out of control and chaos-tinged, it's still maddeningly methodical and never overbearing. Much has been made about how this is indie-rock's stab at prog, but no song stretches past the 10 minute marks and (I don't believe) anyone breaks out in three part harmony. Just some insane rock made by people too talented to do anything else. I think it has much more in common with freak folk than Yes, but I suppose that's because I actually enjoy this stuff.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

The Best Albums of the 90s: 5-1

5. My Bloody Valentine - Loveless
Both Radiohead and My Bloody Valentine like to hug the top of most 90's lists and here they do with mine. I came to My Bloody Valentine much later, so in that way it still sounds fresh in a way OK Computer just doesn't. I could go on and on about this album, but I've delayed finishing this list for so long, I really shouldn't waste any more time. This album is essentially perfect and in that way it's hard to define. I love distortion. I love pop songs. Enter Loveless.
4. Lucinda Williams - Car wheels on a Gravel Road
In 1998 I found Lucinda with album World Without Tears, which is terribly behind schedule. It's also a bitter, emotional slog. It's kind of funny that I fell for it so hard. Especially considering how spirited and exciting Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is. As far as albums filled with great singles from beginning to end , this one is stocked tight. How country and blues can sound so engaging is hard to understand. Mostly it's her voice that still kills me.
This also represents the exact opposite kind of music I thought I'd be listening to later in my life.
3. Radiohead - OK Computer
What hasn't been said about this album? It exists outside of criticism at this point. But it's not topping this list because I don't really listen to it much anymore. Maybe Hail to the Chief burned me out, Radiohead exist in the past for me now. I'm far from embarrassed of my infatuation with the band, and who knows, I could go into a huge kick next week. But I don't play Radiohead like I play everything else in the top 5. Why it belongs here is because of how it once controlled my life. I know every crevice of this intricate, delicate album. It probably plays through my head subconsciously at least once a day.
I'm just going to say it again. I think Hail to Thief was a mistake. It was the kind of album that made me question the supremacy of Radiohead. If I could just go back to a simpler time when this album and Kid A were all that mattered. Then, just maybe, it'd be topping this list and not just appearing. It's hard to talk bad about this album, especially any piece of plastic with a magnificent song like "Let Down" on it. But this list is all about what I listen to now, and while I can recommend this album completely and openly, you may notice how my itunes hits are low.
2. Rufus Wainwright - Rufus Wainwright
I adore Rufus. This is a complete guess, but I'd be willing to beat my heterosexuality on the fact that I was the only kid in my school that listened to him in 1999. It's just a fact. He didn't play to Indiana sensibilities, nor to anything that I had previously known about myself. Much like there used to be lots of grunge bands on my list and now there are none, Rufus came at a time when I didn't think I needed him. I had no precedent for him. I didn't grow up on Broadway musicals, I don't really like singer-songwriters, and here was a gay Canadian singing some of the most beautiful music I'd ever heard. And for reasons I can't quite explain, I've been listening to him ever since. I never fell out of favor with him, never had to rediscover his back catalog. Maybe it is because I like each one of his subsequent albums (including Release the Stars!), so I've never had a reason for Rufus to be out of my life. Many of the rest of these bands had their peak in the nineties and moved downward from there (Hello Oasis!). But Rufus was just getting started, on this, his debut album.
He has never sounded like this again. It's a sprawling, ambitious album to be sure, but it's nothing compared to the bombast of the Want albums. It almost feels like Rufus unadorned, unworried about contemporary flourishes like he was on Poses, and still not ready to bring down this house on every single freaking song on an album like every other album. It's started by what happens to be my favorite love song, "Foolish Love", and ends with another stunning plea in "Imaginary Love". It careens through cabaret, waltz, and careful ballad after ballad in between.
Though I think Want I is Rufus at his most quintessential, and Poses features his best collection of songs, this is his best pure album.

The Smashing Pumpkins - Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

I own essentially everything the Smashing Pumpkins have ever put their name on. Main albums not withstanding, I have most of their singles, DVDs and video cassettes. On my computer I have roughly 150 demo versions of songs. I've bought Siamese Dream three times. I have a collection of some 120 tracks of nothing but live banter. And that's on top of the numerous concerts I have in full. It's sad. But when you have a favorite band, you treat them as such and you get your hands on anything you can. And the Smashing Pumpkins are my favorite band because of this album.

In fact, though I have hours upon hours of songs, if it weren't for this little collection (if that's what you can call a 28 song collection), I probably wouldn't care. Why such love? Maybe it was the time in my life (13 years old) when I needed an album like this to get lost in, quite like The Wall that Billy had said he wanted to emulate. But that overlooks the songs on this epic, monstrous album. I can understand how some might not like this album, but it's also one the most impeccably produced album of all time. It's loud, raucous, dangerous and ethereal. Unlike Siamese Dream it sounds like they played all these songs live. And they were able to add some electronic flourishes just underneath to give texture (something they'd lose sight of around Adore). I don't feel like defending it anymore. It's great.

I'll admit I had a devious reason for this list. The Pumpkins are getting ready to release a new album and I'm worried, so so worried, that it's going to the worst album ever made. I have reason. Look at the shitty, depressing titles. Look at the cover. It doesn't have James, probably doesn't have Darcy, and will probably rock really, really hard. But I don't want heavy metal Billy, I want dream pop Billy, the one who screamed over blankets of warm, fuzzy distortion. I, basically, want an album like this one again. But is that right? Should we place such restraints on artists. I was fairly excited when I heard that the pumpkins were reforming. Why shouldn't they? If the album sucks, then I just don't have to listen to it. Lots of great artists have made really bad albums. Most of the bad albums occurred later in their career. This is my way of dealing with something I have no control over. It has sort of worked.

PS - I've heard their first single Tarantula. It rawks like old school Pumpkins. I have hope!

The Best Albums of the 90s: 10-6

10. Yo La Tengo - I Can Hear the Heart Beat as One
If you were to sit down and construct my perfect album, a good place to start would be this one. Pop songs flushed out with mind numbing distortion. That I came to this album some 9 years late only makes me feel sorry that I didn't have it earlier. It's hard to pick my favorite moment, but their cover of the Beach Boys ranks up there. Mostly I just think of that distortion.

9. Oasis - What's the Story Morning Glory
It's passe, not cool, maybe not even correct. Sure Oasis, but this one?

My girlfriend loves this album. My friends do to. Play it at a bar and everyone fucking loves it. I'm not sure how long we have to go on pretending this isn't a great album. Maybe because it's stacked with sappy ballads, Oasis aren't even remotely cool, or the lyrics are shite.

For years I have intensely defended Definitely Maybe as the superior album, considering it both cooler and a more solid collection of songs, and it probably is. But in a straight up times listened to challenge there isn't even a contest. I'm not talking about when I was junior high, but last year. Have you listened to "She's Electric" recently?

8. Primal Scream - Screamadelica
I don't know why I listen to this album. I started listening when I lived in London for a while and every fucking copy of Mojo claimed this album as the greatest ever. I don't go to raves, I've never even heard this played at a bar. Maybe I just love the cover (Isn't it great?!).

7. Wilco - Sumerteeth
The power of Summerteeth, and why I listen to it constantly no matter what mood, is the way it wraps heartbreaking lyrics with some of most driven, gitty music imaginable. I'd like to congratulate Jay Bennet. Synth here. Hand claps there. The deeper it burrows into the pain of Twitty the more Bennet lays on the schmaltz. It's a dangerous record, one that can make a shot in the arm seem joyous. But in terms of sheer listenability, it's a stunning achievement.

6. Sigur Ros - Agaetis Byrjun
Having your mind completely fucked everyone once in a while is important, and for me it all began with Sigur Ros, a band completely different than anything I had everything I had witnessed before. Sure there was Radiohead. Sure I've listened to more difficult music. But Sigur Ros, especially on this album, produces sounds I'd never known before, and ones that I never thought I'd love so much. This album has powers.

Freshman year, Austin and I would fall asleep to this almost every night. I probably have listened to it more in my dreams than on my computer.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Best Albums of the 90s: 15-11

15. Beck - Odelay
Beck is strangely unlistenable now. I once considered him a genius. In the summer of 1999, my number 1 album of the year was Midnite Vultures, an album I thought was revolutionary and complex and now consider incredibly tame. Same thing with Mutations. I used to listen to it . Mellow Gold has a ramshackle feel to it, that is easy to love and equally annoying. And poor Odelay. Once destined for pantheon status as on of the landmark albums of the 90s and of all time, is now slowly fading. But it's also the only great Beck album (though I'll still stand by most of Sea Change) and deserves to be looked at again.

14. Nirvana - In Utero
I don't get Nevermind. As the one album from the nineties that ever touches lists of great albums, it remains a complete mystery to me why it does so constantly, all the time, and without irony. Nevermind bugs the hell out of me, not because I hate the songs, but just the production. It's glossy and well manicured. Maybe blame Butch Vig, but it sounds dated. In Utero? It's still hits really, really hard. Maybe it was Girl Talk that reintroduced me to those drums in Scentless Apprentice, but they are massive. But this has always been my favorite Nirvana album, maybe I liked the darker shades of Kurt, and especially All Apologies. But when I think of Nirvana this is always the first album that comes to mind.

13. The Flaming Lips - The Soft Bulletin
This was another album that I came to after the fact. I was even late to the game on Yoshimi, an album that I immediately fell for. But the Soft Bulletin is something different, and I wasn't quite ready for it when I found it. It's dark, warped, and not nearly as playful as Yoshimi. It took time, but while Yoshimi sounds tied to its time, the Soft Bulletin sounds better every time I return to it. The power of the Soft Bulletin is how it wraps it's songs in some of the most impressive production techniques, and yet each one of these strange tunes could stand neatly on its own if played on an acoustic guitar. There aren't many Flaming Lips songs you can say that about.

12. Belle and Sebastian - If Your Feeling Sinister
One of my favorite things to witness in New York is when someone puts Belle and Sebastian on the jukebox at some indie dive. It's so quiet compared to whatever came on before that everyone sits around wondering if anything is playing. A shock runs through the room. They get real quiet. Is it broken? But slowly a little acoustic guitar strum appears, and that little croon pops up. By the second verse, it becomes more evident, and when everyone finally notices that it's the Belle, they usually smile and comment that, isn't that nice, Belle and Sebastian is playing. As quiet and peculiar as this album is, for some reason it sounds best with a lot of people listening to it. That Blake is usually responsible for the play is another matter.

11. The Smashing Pumpkins - Siamese Dream / Pavement - Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain

Out on tour with The Smashing Pumpkins Nature kids, i/they dont have no function I dont understand what they mean And I could really give a fuck.

It's come to my attention over the past years that these albums are essentially one and the same. These artists have much more in common than anyone would like to believe. Both are highly adventurous albums, which signaled both groups most commercial work. That the Pumpkins sold millions upon millions more than Pavement is beyond question. Why they both remind me of each other, even if though it's obvious that they didn't like it each other, is the subtle ways each one tries to act like the other. The similarities even go down to their album titles.

I believe it deep down, a fact that I think was backed up with Pig Lib, that Stephen Maulkmus wishes he had a muscular rock band behind him. Sure the charm would be gone, but he'd be able to indulge his prog rock instincts. What is "Stop Breathing", other than an excuse to, however awkwardly, solo? And because Maulkmus is a much better guitarist than he has any right to be, he wants to break away at every moment, but stumbles when he sees the rest of the band not catching up.

And in that same way, Billy wishes he could be as cool as Malkmus. It's really obvious. Billy wants so often to be cool, but he couldn't be further away. So he hides his lyrics in vague meanings and tries to sound smarter than he is to counter the affect. But maybe I'm stretching things. The best part about each one of these albums, is how they try for each others glory and end up stumbling over their own unique vision. Crooked Rain's awkward walk is half of it's charm, and Siamese Dream would stumble over itself if it were even sort of cool.

Even if you discount the duality in both of their album titles, the similarities run deep. They should really end their feud and create a supergroup. Now that would be an album.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Best Albums of the 90s: 20-16

20. The Beastie Boys - Check Your Head

Man, I listened to a whole bunch of Beastie Boys in high school. It reached full fruition after Hello Nasty. And then began the steady decline. First dropped off their annoying debut, and then Ill Communication (has anyone ever listened to the last 10 songs of that album?). And as much as I loved Paul's Boutique, it seems juvenile at this point. I'd probably need to give it another listen. But this album. It seems as wildly experiemiental as the first head scratching time I listened to it.

19. Bjork - Homogenic
Good god that bass. The first time I heard the Hunter, I didn't really know how to react. What was that? There had been nothing in my Midwest upbringing that could have prepared me for that assault. Something so unique, mysterious, and deliberately weird was the exact opposite of what I was listening to at the time. And it still, more or less, feels the same way. I don't know where Bjork came from or what she hopes to accomplish, but I still have dreams about the collapsing set in the "Bachelorette" video. Maybe that's because they played it on MTV. Really. I guess that's what youtube is for no adays.

18. Blur - 13
I was once attacked by an angry Irish waitress when I admitted I liked Blur's albums. Great singles, maybe, she said, but all their albums are crap. I then countered that my favorite album was 13, and she said "oh that's different." Yes, it is different. Nothing by them really sounds like this album, one that can happily be described as an absolute mess. While all the rock bands in the late nineties were making electronic albums, trying to shift up their beats, Blur used tape hiss and amplication to dramatically change the clean tones of their previous albums. It's an atricious mess, with not a few unlistenable moments. But it's always exciting, always ready to shift under your feat.
17. Radiohead - The Bends
After OK Computer imprinted itself in my head, it was only a matter of time before I moved back to The Bends. And much to my surprise, it's as much of a statement as its big brother. Sure the songs are great-it probably has better singles than OK Computer-but the reason I return to this album is because of those guitars. They are everywhere. I doubt there is a powerchord on this whole album, but each distorted burst seems to land with as much force as a Pete Townsend whirl wind. I konw it doesn't sound intellectual to pass off a moody, somewhat depressing album as having great guitars, but whatever.

16. R.E.M. - New Adventures in Hi-Fi
My favorite 80s R.E.M. album is probably Reckoning, a rambling, loose collection of songs that they had largely written during the tour for their debut album Murmur. It's quick, passionate, and largely devoid of studio trickery that had peppered Murmur. My favorite 90s album by R.E.M. is probably New Adventures in Hi-Fi, a long, rambling collection of largely rock songs written and recorded during the Monster tour. It almost entirely devoid of the warped wall of guitars of its predecessor, and somehow rocks even harder. While it's fun hearing R.E.M. record what is essentially a live album, there are moments of great fidelity that help break the album up. The best is "E-Bow", with it's refrain about "aluminum tastes like fear", that sounds menancing and beautiful at the same time. I like all of R.E.M.'s 90s albums, it wasn't until Around the Sun that they blew it. And I probably should have more on here. From here it probably would go Out of Time, Monster (grossly underrated), Automatic for the People, and finally Up--a cheerful little record that is just a tad too long. But it's New Adventures that I play the most.

The Best Albums of the 90s: 25-21

This isn't a guilty pleasure list. We've done that before. And now is not the time. I can't put on albums I'd like to say I hate but secretly listen to occasionally (STP's Tiny Music...Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop, Green Day's Dookie). This is about what I consider the best of the 90s. This list has been much harder than I thought it would be.

It's funny how much things have changed, how many things I declared as permanent have changed. I listened to a lot of grunge rock as a kid, and not much is left. Same thing with rap. I listened to a lot of gangsta rap in middle school, and while it's a good nostalgia trip, it's not great.

Some things didn't surprise me. By my senior year of high school, I had kind of figured out that no one really liked the Stone Temple Pilots, and for good reason. But some things have surprised me. By 2002 I had fallen in love with Weezer's Pinkerton, and my love was only confirmed by the vast majority of students at college. But after two brutally bad albums, I can't with any feeling listen to them.

About half of these albums I found after the 90s had died. I thought this would be such an interesting exercise, to look back at what I remembered, and what I listen to now. We're constantly reevaluating the past, but until now the 90s always felt so close. But they are so, so far away.

I also wanted to see what other people thought. What have a forgotten about, never explored, or need vindication about. It begins now.

25. Cornershop - When I was Born for the 7th Time
Cornershop were my little secret in high school. It was hard to admit to people that "Brimful of Asha" is your favorite song of the summer, especially when it's not the Fat Boy Slim remix. It's just not many times you can become infatuated with a Indian/British hodge podge of hip hop, country, Ginsberg instrumentals, and a completely serious version of Norwegian Wood sung in Indian. And unlike a lot of my weirder loves during the time, this one still sounds just as fresh as when it first come out. I especially love "Good Shit", where he repeats the title over and over and makes it sound so darling.

24. Pearl Jam - Vitalogy
Time hasn't been that kind to Pearl Jam. I have every single one of their albums and starting at about my Junior Year in college I haven't listened to them. Except, that is, for this one. Their dour mood seems forced now. Glum might be the better word. But if someone asked me what grunge was and why it was so popular, this is what I'd hand them. Weird, dark, heavy, melodic, and just arty enough to have edge. Vs still rocks like a monster, but after 10 years, this one still sounds the best. Why? Maybe it's the deliberately stripped down production, but I think the main reason is that's its the first time they didn't take themselves so seriously. Song about bugs? Check. Jazz freak folk outs? Check. Self-loathing grunge? You betcha...

23. Wilco - Being There
I never got Wilco until Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, so imagine my surprise when I went back two albums and found out that they were a happy-go-lucky rock band. Big huge riffs? Catchy choruses? How about really great classic rock solos? In "Heavy Metal Drummer" they may have talked about watching those "heavy metal bands, I used to go see on the landing in the summer", but this album beckons for such an event. It sounds kind of silly, but the 90s had a lot of dull rockers, and this one showed me that rocking seriously didn't have to be so studied and mechanical. Playing really loud guitars could actually be a whole lot of fun.

22. Oasis - Definitely Maybe
One of my favorite past-times is defending Oasis. Especially to the people who believe Oasis only wrote weepy acoustic ballads. The first place I start is with "Supersonic", and then move to "Columbia", and end with "Cigarettes and Alcohol". Usually people either cup their ears in defense of the abrasive distortion, or admit what I always knew, that Oasis, in their infancy, were a seriously great rock band. While they'd become a boring stadium touring dinosaur so very quickly, none of these songs is plagued with the boring rock conformity that strangled Oasis later in their life. Whether they incorporated shoegaze, disco, or blues riffs, it's a marvelous debut and one that most people are surprised to hear.

21. U2 - Achtung Baby
My favorite U2 album, Achtung Baby is the only one that doesn't seem indebted to its time. As great as Joshua Tree is, the moment those reverbed guitars hit the speakers the only thing I can think is: "it's the 80s." And as much as I like Zooropa, it's buzzing dance oriented songs sound very much of the 90s. But Achtung Baby, for some crazy reason, still feels modern to me. The songs don't stray much from normal rock construction, there are still lots of verses and choruses, but the execution is detailed and infinitely pleasurable. "One" will probably never get old, but I always loved "Even Better than the Real Thing". I like the sex god Bono. But that's just me.