Friday, December 12, 2008

Best Albums of 2008: 1-5

5. TV on the Radio – Dear Science,I was not a believer of Return to Cookie Mountain, which had lots of effects and ZERO tunes. Was there a melody on that whole album? But make an album of carefully crafted pop so adventurous as to transcend classification and then I’ll fall over and praise you. First track "Halfway Home" starts like sixties garage before mixing soul vocals, off kilter drums, and keyboard atmospherics. It’s not until the last 30 seconds lays on the regular rocking. It’s worth the wait.

"Crying" sounds like the offspring of LCD Soundsystem and U2’s Achtung Baby. Hand claps sound like snare drums. I have a hard time figuring out whether a guitar is being played or a keyboard blare. "Golden Age" is all bass at first until they throw it atop some massive keyboards, a catchy chorus, and what sounds like an orchestra.

But no matter how weird things get, how many effects or intruments they pile on, everything is built upon the solid frame of a killer song. Surely not as difficult as thier last album, but when it is so easy to sing along why fight the urge?

4. Hercules & Love Affair - Hercules & Love AffairPitchfork gave the The Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack an 8.7 but had this disclaimer:

It did so by diluting disco's more extreme elements to create a safer, more marketable package. Even then, conservative audiences saw disco culture as a Sodom and Gomorrah rather than an alternative Eden.

I was skeptical that there was some deep, dark disco universe I didn't know about. Sure, I knew about the drugs and the sex that happened at the club, but the music?? Though I've enjoyed some of the disco elements that modern indie bands have incorporated into their music, I've never actually, consciously, listened to what can be called "disco" without sort of enjoyment. I can't ironically dance to old disco hits. I can laugh along with LCD Soundsystem, but that's about it.

But here is a living breathing Disco album and the most striking thing about the whole experience is how dark and menacing the experience is. Though the music definitely makes you dance, this is dancing for some kind of understanding or, at the very least, some sort of release from the regular world. It's no joke that they brought in Antony to sing on so many of the tracks. His weary voice gives meaning to these songs, and an importance that can't be diminished.

Rather like Austin, I was tempted for a few weeks this summer to throw this album up top and be done with it. A nearly perfect dance album featuring insane single after insane single, this album was one that sounded equally good on the dance floor as it did on headphones. Hell, I even played the title track during my wedding reception and people danced.

But unlike Austin, I never let go. "Blind" sounded as good to me in the summer sun as it did while I was ducking into buildings during cold Chicago winters.

3. Okkervil River – The Stand InsAustin, I hope you're happy. I've been trying for the past four years to dismiss Okkervil River as an average guitar band. I had vindication with Black Sheep Boy, an album I still don't care for. But last years The Stage Names slowly wore me down. And now with The Stand Ins standing as one of my most played albums of the year, I have nothing left to fight against. I've given in. Okkervil River are an astonishing band.

This has been called a brother to The Stage Acts, but it’s easily the superior album. Every song on this collection is solid and distinctive. Little bits of classic songs have been tossed in for effect, but it never feels like stealing. It just sounds like a band on stage playing to the crowd to see if they are cool enough to get the jokes. It’s for the faithful, the ones that stuck around through the encore to see what else the band could do. I’ve played it a dozens of times, and each time I find a new sound, a new instrument, a new melody buried deep within.

2. Bonnie "Prince" Billy – Lie Down in the LightI often have River Cottage induced dreams of retiring to the country to raise pigs and tend to gardens, and now have the singer I’d like to have on my imaginary front porch. Bonnie "Prince" Billy didn't mean much to me before this but I've been completely taken aback by this album. I still can’t listen to I See a Darkness. I know it’s the supposedly his best album and I’ve tried to go back to it, but nothing sounds as comfortable as this album.

This is an album of infinite pleasures, starting with "Easy Does It" a simple song that's quietly my favorite song of the year. There's something so refreshing about the complete lack of irony when he sings, "There's my brothers and my girlfriend, my mom, and my dad, and meeee....and that's all there needs to be." It's all backed by instrumentation that's the furthest thing from flashy, but is also perfectly suited and steady as can be.

But that's only the start. "For Every Field There is a Mole", with its biblical refrain gets me teary eyed and by the time we've hit "What's Missing Is" I'm home. I feel the weight of the Ohio River flowing by the hills of my small hometown in Southern Indiana. I can hear the heaviness of the air. It's all there in this album, and that's way I returned to it so often this year.

1. Deerhunter – Microcastle

Like all of my favorite music, the idea that this has a beginning or an end is unimportant. This could play in loops - it often has - and I'd never tire of it, never fail to hear something new.

I certainly got in with "Agoraphobia", with the dream-like lyrics floating over my head. But that's really just the beginning. "Never Stops" continues that incessant beat, and features the beginning of that gorgeous wave of distortion that seems to pop around this album. And then the rest of it is a blur. One incredible blur of an album I've been trying to digest again and again to see if I can figure out what is going on. Yet, it always remains out of reach. So I try again. I think I'm going to be doing this for a long, long time. This album and me are far from over.

This album works wonders. Though Deerhunter don't sound much like Radiohead, this album feels like a distant cousin of OK Computer. It's really that astonishing. It creeps under your skin in odd and disturbing ways, yet it glides along like the best pop music.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Best Albums of 2008: 6-10

10. Vampire Weekend – Vampire WeekendI'm afriad had I actually been in college this album would have meant far more to me. But as it stands it always felt like I was going back to visit my younger friends in dorm rooms, drinking cheap liquor out of plastic cups, and trying to act like an undergrad again. Essentially, a lot of fun to act all irresponsible, but it was always best in small doses.

This is basically our Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! album of the year. An album so sweet and catchy as to be completely irresistable, yet so absolutely close to the annoying line as to make you always question your allegiance. I teetered back and forth for months, wondering whether this album would appear in my top 10 or not on my list at all. But how could I possible have so much venom for an album I've been listening to regularly since January?

Though praised for their use of African music, this band owes far more to the Strokes than most people would like to admit. Listen to "Someday" by the Strokes than "A-Punk" off this one and get back to me. About all they are using from Africa is the sunny disposition of the pop songs, and the fact that none of these songs even remotely rock.

Though I like songs like "Oxford Comma" and "A-Punk", what I really love are the ones where the string section is just as prominent, like "M79", where the violins take residence where guitar solos would usually reside. It's these moments that give me hope the band moves beyond the adolescence of eternal college and goes into something a little more dangerous.

9. No Age - NounsBlake couldn't believe I didn't have this album. "It's really a no-brainer." He's right. My love of distortion is very real and this is basically an album were distorted guitars rule the world. Every song, whether it differs in tempo or tone, features some kind of pulled metal strings, and it's an addicting sound that I've been indulging in for months.

But No Age are for more than just a loud band. While I love distorted guitars, I'm not that into the whole "noise genre" that's been raging in the past years. I could never really figure out why. Wasn't this what I wanted? But the compete lack of tunes, and the fact that every other instrument in the band was usually going apeshit too was probably the real reason. Though shoegaze had insane guitars, the beat was always level headed and the singing more sweet than strained.

Most of the songs here could have very easily been strummed on acoustic guitars, and the singing never gets above a snarl. It shows that volume isn't so much a trick as much as a texture, and these two L.A. rockers are impeccable craftsmen.

That said, my favorite song has to be "Sleeper Hold" where they throw out all the rules and rock with absolute abandon.

8. The Walkmen – You and MeThe Walkmen only sound good when it’s cold, dark, or very late at night. Fortunately, when it’s any of the above it's hard to imagine anything sounding much better.

Like nearly every else, I first got into the Walkmen through "The Rat", a vitriolic screed that was at once deeply depressing and manically addicting. But I stayed with the Walkmen for their hazy laments which provided most of the bulk to Bows + Arrows, and what was almost completely absent from A Hundred Miles Off.

They kind of lost their way on that last album, but here they return to the snow drifts that so enveloped Bows + Arrows. Songs like "Canadian Girl" and "Long Time Ahead of Us" take that droopy metallic fog of 2004's "Hang on Siohan" to new weepy heights. And when the weather's right (or, I guess bad) I can't get enough. I wish I could take these guys out in the sunshine and show them around, but perhaps that would ruin all of their powers.

7. Coldplay – Viva La VidaI jumped off the Coldplay wagon right around the time “Clocks” became the biggest hit of their career. It didn’t sound like they wanted to be the biggest band in the world, just the least offensive. Though they had never been my favorite band, I flocked to what can only be described as their struggle to be something more. It didn't always produce the best music, but hearing them struggling through their influences made for some engaging listens. Of course, they followed the uneven A Rush of Blood to the Head with the completely tailored X&Y, which took insubstantiality to whole new realms of blandness. I went from a timid fan who liked "In My Place" to becoming completely repulsed.

Which is what makes this album so frightening. Viva La Vida is scatter shot, poorly sequenced, and maddening, but it’s also an album worth picking over, finding the right bits, and returning to over and over again. Which I did. Look at my iTunes play count and it's absolutely riddled with Coldplay. So much so, that I felt horribly guitly and intentionally stopped listen even though I wanted more.

But how can you deny the military march of "Violet Hill", the sweet summer serande of "Strawberry Swing", or "Chinese Sleep Chant" which finds coldplay doing My Bloody Valentine, albeit in a good natured way? Hell, I even like "Lost".

This feels awful to say, but this is a Coldplay album that's actually really good. Easily their best album, and one of the best sounding albums of the year. Brian Eno surely gets some credit from broadening the palate of these wispy British lads. I'm not sure if it was his choice or theirs to chop up songs, tack them onto other songs, or get rid of choruses in most songs, but the sense of adventurousness is addicting. Though it doesn't always work - why do two tracks in a row feature two seperate songs stuck together? -the fact that Coldplay are challening their listeners is a huge step forward.

To my ears, it just sounds like they are trying again. Parachutes had lots of problems, but it sounded like a few guys trying to make something grand out of nothing. Viva sounds like a few guys trying for something mythic. It doesn’t quite reach those heights, but if the most popular area rock band of our age is taking these kind of risks, isn't that a good thing?

6. Bob Dylan – Tell Tale SignsEvery June for the past five years I pack my things into cardboard boxes, tape them up, and load them up into a moving truck. I unload them, unpack, and stack them around a new apartment. I wait 11 months and 29 days and then I repeat the same process over again. Indianapolis, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Columbus, and now Chicago. Every single year I listen to Bob Dylan a little bit more.

Perhaps I’m maturing. I've progressed from a Bob Dylan appreciator to something we might call a Bob Dylan Fan (fanatic is still too far out). But I've never had that flash of recognition when I realized the gloriousness of Dylan. It just keeps building.

Leave it to Dylan to release and odds and sods collection that sounds fresh enough to be a brand new album. This is especially impressive considering most of this material comes from the highly stylized Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind which both featured hazy, reverb laden production jobs. Nearly all of the production has been stripped away, leaving songs like "Series of Dreams", a leftover from Oh Mercy that appeared on his first Bootleg Album, feeling nearly naked. It used to swirl around your head like a Joshua Tree leftover, but now it feels more like a rush of ideas than a rush of production effects.

“Most of the Time” on Oh Mercy was all fog and that incessant beat, which made it great for movie soundtracks, but tended to mar the actual words. Left naked and bare its as sweet and deprecating as anything on Blood on the Tracks.

I’ve spent hours trying to decode “Mississippi”, a seemingly flighty little number tossed off on Love and Theft. But from the sessions of Time Out of Mind, it sounds muddy and inspired, like the river it flows down.

Perhaps most startling is “Ring them Bells” which appeared in a fine version on Oh Mercy as a spiritual lament, all cool and calm. This live version from 1993 couldn’t be more different. It's joyous and heartfelt. Throughout the song a group of men can be heard screaming “yeah!” “all right!”, like a hallelujah from a spiritual. And Dylan takes all those screams and ratchets up his intensity until he's nearly screaming.

It reminded me of this interview he gave in 1997:

Here's the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don't find it anywhere else. Songs like "Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain" or "I Saw the Light"—that's my religion. I don't adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I've learned more from the songs than I've learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.

That’s the kind of shit the Dylan stirs up on a daily basis in my life. It’s the kind of sentiments that never get old and never stop improving no matter where I'm living at the moment.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Best Albums of 2008: 11-15

15. MGMT – Oracular Spectacular

Sure, “Electric Feel” was the song of my bachelor party, a raucous and very late night that ended in slapping fights and a very bad hangover. But I never assumed that song or its album would have any other part in my life. How could it? I only knew that one song, and didn’t expect it to work out of the context of being personally chauffeured around to bars around Louisville, getting belligerent, and listening to "Electric Feel" the whole time.

But something changed at about the 10 second mark during the first track, "Time To Pretend" when those keyboards come in. I realized this was an album I was going to adore. And by the time I got to "Kids" I was in, and haven't really let this album go since the mid summer.

Unlike Cut Copy, an album I kind of liked but could never commit to, MGMT sound as good banging from shitting headphones as they do on a loud stereo system. And they've kept their 80's influences in check - aping the synths, but keeping the dream pop and beats pointing towards the modern millenia.

It may be nothing more than a soundtrack to an awesome night, but what's the harm in that?

14. Sigur Ros –Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust

I was sure Sigur Ros had magical powers after listening to Ágætis byrjun. How could you not believe? I used to listen to this album before bed during my freshman year in college, and it coaxed things out of my dreams that I never thought possible. I’d never heard anything like it, and the music reorganized my brain to believe in sounds that it would never have tolerated before.

I actually loved their next album ( ) even more, overdosing in the deepness of it all. It sounded like an important band taking a head first dive into the unknown, and I was there to swim along. It also, honestly, sounded really good when drunk. I still don't understand this phenomenon, but believe me, it's scary.

Perhaps I was destined to think of Takk... as something like a retreat even though it had actual melodies and short songs. By that time I had Animal Collective to stretch my imagination, and I was growing tired of the languid rhythms, and how it always felt like I was listening to them at 2 o'clock in the morning.

Enter Sigur Ros Vol. 2, and hey! They make a mighty freak folk band. Who knew they had it in them? Not as defining as the original, but special in its own magical way.

I really thought this was going to be a top ten album, but I never quite delved in far enough. Perhaps I never let them sink in subconsciously, listened to them at night, or while drunk. They can be an isolating band, and with a wife and a dog, there aren't many times when I'm just hanging out with my headphones. But I'm still keeping them around, to see what kind of majesty they can lead me to.

13. Conor Oberst – Conor Oberst

I actually enjoyed the pop inflected tracks that Oberst inserted into last years Cassadega, even if the album as a whole felt a little cold and calculated. Well, the blood, and the acoustic guitars, are back in this one, but not the aggression. Instead of the righteous yelling of I'm Wide Awake It's Morning, we get some cool cruising music with Oberst talking about how easy the living would be on a house boat. That line from "Sausalito" had me wanting to take a long trip down the center of this country until I ended up in the Gulf of Mexico. Hell, during this Chicago winter that still sounds good to me.

Taking a nice year long vacation dipping ones toes into the ocean and not worrying about much else would be a great trip. But that's all this album really meant to me. It just sounds wonderful when it's on, and so I listened to it a lot. Far more than Cassadega, and well enough to appear far up in the top 10. I'm just not sure how much longer I'll want to take a joy ride with this guy, or whether we'll get tired of each other once the problems appear.

12. Little Joy – Little Joy
Jesus, like I needed another reminder of how bad the Strokes have become. This is what they should sound like right now. It could be that the singer sounds like Julian Casablancas, or the simple mono guitar parts that ring throughout, but it’s probably because of Fab lent his immaculate drumming to the recordings. I’m not sure why his simplistic beat is so easy to spot, but this couldn’t be anyone else.

Every single whack of his sticks just digs the knife in further and makes me hate the new turbo-charged Strokes that much more. That’s quite odd coming from an album so sweet and good natured as this one. The cooing of the female vocalist is enough to make you long for sunny Sunday afternoons, and the male vocalist comes on like Julian without as many cigarettes. Toss in a few Bassa Nova chords, a couple Strokes-lite numbers, and you’ve got Little Joy. Like the perfect hug, it's not the most meaningful action, but it can occasionally just feel perfect all over.

11. The Fireman - Electric Arguments

Sometimes you'd like explicitly to tell an artists what they shouldn't do, whether you have any right to do so (probably not). But nothing is worse than watching a loved artists goof around and loose their way, yet there isn't much one can do about it. One can only hope that he/she gets to their senses, or at least puts out an album like this. The project between Paul McCartney and the producer Youth is the strangest of his albums: a complete experiment that takes loads of risks and yet still sounds like the most immediate and impressive work he's done in years.

My affection towards McCartney is well known, and I actually have been impressed by his previous two studio albums. But nothing really prepared me for this. It's huge, immaculately produced, and nearly absent of the pop pandering that McCartney has a hard time leaving behind.

Instead of hoping for a good chorus, these songs build off of little changes, continually adding ideas until the music simple soars off the speakers. "Sing the Changes" starts off in the clouds before ending up in the stratosphere. "Two Magpies", on the other hand, might as well have been a leftover from his very earliest solo recordings. It's also may favorite.

It's wrong to call this a McCartney solo album, because the presence of Youth has made it not sound like one. It stretches and groans in unexpected ways, and yet is also his most coherent work since something like 1982's Tug of War.

Mac loses his way towards the end, somewhat derailing an otherwise brilliant new album. But with him you take what you can get, hopefully he continues this collaboration and turns it into his new full-time band. As it stands, it's the second best band he's been apart of.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Best Albums of 2008: 16-20

20. Lucinda Williams – Little Honey

Though she's often thought of as tough and difficult, part of Lucinda's appeal has been her giddy pop songs. Don't believe me? She actually wrote "Passionate Kisses", which Mary Chapin Carpenter took and made into a pop country hit (it also won a Grammy!). But it was no fluke single. Between 1988 and 1998 Lucinda made three albums loaded with these strange, immediate pop singles that should have been mega hits had anyone somewhat normal sung them. Perhaps it was the songs in between, full of anger and spit that turned people off, or it could have been her voice. I don't know.

There is hardly a week that goes by when Abby and I don’t listen to her unfuckingbelievable 1998 album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road or her equally awesome self titled album from 1988. Unfortunately, her most recent album, West, which wallowed in sub-Time Out of Mind ramblings and weightlessness, was an enormous step in the wrong direction, so unworthy of its predecessors that I couldn’t even believe it was her. It shattered me. Lucinda always tried to get at something profound, but at least I could sing along to her pain.

That's what made me so depressed about West: it was no fun.

Apparently she’s tired of wallowing in her pain, too. Little Honey is about as happy as anyone can rightly expect Lucinda Williams to be, and nearly half of the songs sound like were back in the the middle of her very good 1992 album Sweet Old World. Not exactly top of her game, but still a joy to listen to.

I'm particularly fond of "Tears of Joy", "Little Rock Star" and "Real Love". It derails sometime around "Honey Bee", which is kind of filthy and obnoxious. But after West I didn't expect to Lucinda to get back to here. I'll take what I can get.

19. R.E.M. – Accelerate
Though championed as R.E.M.'s comeback album, Accelerate doesn’t even approach the top half of their best albums. Hell, it isn’t their best post-Berry album (that title goes to very underrated Up). It just happens to be much, much better than Around the Sun, the worst album (by an incredibly wide canyon) of their career. Though a huge mess, and horribly produced, it does have a strain of something we might actually describe as "passion", something R.E.M. haven't shown since...well...when?

Everything good and bad about this album is located in the first single “Supernatural Superserious”. It starts off with a riff (a dumb one, by the way), showcases a verse we know we’ve all heard before, then kicks in with some killer harmonizing by Mills (welcome back to the mix!), and finally and surprisingly, ends with with a kick of the kind of prolonged jangle pop that would make "Pretty Persuasion" proud.

That's basically how the album goes. I’d probably give up the first half of this album for Reveal’s "Imitation of Life", but not the last half. "Mr. Richards" starts off a four song suite that reminds me of the glory days of Lifes Rich Pageant. Perhaps it's the new producer, but it actually feels like they were playing together in the same room.

Hell, I even like "I’m Gonna Dj", which is a stupid song that doesn't mean anything. But why deny Stipe in such a frenzied mood? He's a singer that used to change lyrics around at will and sing about chairs and nonsense. I wish he would do that more often. The winner is definitely “Horse to Water” which sounds like nothing much in the catalog. No one has been clamoring from the to make a revved up punk number with great drumming, but thanks anyway.

If they'd have asked my opinion, I'd have stripped all the distorted guitars from this album and not produced with such a dumb fucking thumb. Why does it need to be so loud? This habit of mastering albums within an inch of the red line has got to stop! I care hear little sweet arpeggios ringing on the sides of the speakers until the mammoth guitars come in.

I don't really know where I'm going with this. R.E.M. is one of my very favorite bands, and though it doesn't come close to their cannon, it's a strong album with some wonderful songs to pick off. And average R.E.M. is still worth an awful lot to me.

18. Brian Eno and David Bryne- Everything that Happens Will Happen Today

This album sounds really good on headphones. Really good. I know with Eno involved that was bound to happen, but it's such a thrill to put on this album and have the music swirl around your head with such abandon. He is, gasp, a phenomenal producer.

But this album could have been recorded with on Garage Band and these David Bryne songs would still be good. That's really the backbone to this album. Though it's a little scatter shot, with some really weak electronica-flecked tracks mucking up the second half, when Bryne strums simple chords and Eno has the background pulsing something magical happens.

It's essentially a simple album elevated to the heights of technicolor drama, which is basically the opposite of what Coldplay did with Eno this year. Sometimes it's great to be humble when you have so much power, and that's what I feel every time I kneel down before these gods of modern music.

17. Tilly and the Wall - O

I had what can only be described as a crush on their first album, the absolutely adorable Wild Like Children. We're talking a Junior High crush, so innocent and pure, yet so important as to feel like the weight of the whole world hung upon every interaction. Though the tap dancing is cute, what I loved was the sweet acoustic pleas. I wrapped meanings into things that I'm sure weren't there, and longed to actually meet these people so I could fawn over them.

So it’s kind of surprising that I’m loving the new raucous Tilly, that specializes in guitar riffs and minor key chants. Honestly, there are parts of the album that sound like the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs. "Pot Kettle Black" is an obvious choice, but so is "Chandelier Lake" and "Too Excited".

To their credit it still sounds like them, and though they've pushed that tap dancer a little further back in the mix, she's still there.

Perhaps it's a more profound enjoyment. I no longer want to hold their hand, but I probably listened to this album more, but that doesn't always mean everything. I'll always return to their first album for the pinch of first love, but this one will do for the morning after.

16. Hold Steady - Stay Positive

For the past three years I've felt like the lone champion of the Hold Steady. Though I threw the delightful Pipettes atop my best of 2006 list, I continue to listen my number 2 album, the Hold Steady's Boys and Girls in America, far more. Though I don't exactly feel guilty about it, they should have been number 1.

When this album came out I thought I could rectify that small mistake. Not only is it another strong album, it comes with zero filler, something their previous album couldn't even say. The only complaint, and it's a big one, is that they are musically identical albums. The surprise is lost.

I stopped listening a few months ago, and never felt like I was missing too much. Though they are often touted as our generation's Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, the Boss never felt like he was standing still. He followed the exuberant and overblown Born to Run with the somber Darkness on the Edge of Town. The downright depressing Nebraska was followed by Born in the U.S.A. And even that album, which is criminalized for its pop songs and reliance on bad synths, is stuffed with somber gems like the sex starved "I'm On Fire" -- still one of his very best songs.

The Hold Steady aren't there, but maybe that's asking for too much. I'll trade all of my old Pearl Jam albums, and every other grunge band for that matter, for "Lord I'm Discouraged" a song that should rightly end around the four minute mark, but instead drifts off into a completely unexpected coda so affecting and genuine as to make you want to listen to it again and again.

They will always sound great cranked late at night. This album is another fine example. Here's hoping their next album goes even further.

p.s. who designs their covers? For crying out loud...

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Best Albums of 2008: 21-25

25. Nico Muhly - Mothertongue
My experience with Nico Muhly is as strange as it unlikely. I found the album through Kyle who had proclaimed it the best album of the year sometime in early July. I hated it. There were no songs per se, just what felt like aimless drifting punctuated by a nervous sense of distress. It is essentially an instrumental album, but he uses tapes of vocals whispering nonsense over and over until you feel like you're in a hushed elevator and you can't get off. I thought my time with Nico was done.

Unbeknownst to me, Nico was touring with Doveman, who had just made cover album of the Original Footloose soundtrack (!!). My friend Hal created the website for the album, which ended up being a minor Internet sensation. Hal also got free tickets, so I got to see Nico and Doveman, and Sam Amidon. And it was there, when I could see the mad frenzy take place on stage, that the music sunk in. What sounded like scattered ideas on record were beautifully orchestrated movements. Where once there was discord, now a melody appeared.
In particular I've became infatuated with The Only Tune Pt 1, 2 and 3, a suite based on a creepy old folk song that Nico's parents used to sing to him. Something about two sisters walking down by a pond. One pushes the other in. The dead sister is fished out of a pond by an old man who makes a fiddle out of her remains. Only problem is the fiddle can only play one song, Oh the Dreadful Wind and Rain.

Creepy. Right. So he takes that song and makes it into major blood soaked tragedy, something cinematic and real and I can't get it out of my head. I wish I could say the same about the rest of the album, which is why it's hanging out down here at number 25. But the visions of that song stay with me, and it's why it made the list.

24. Beck – Modern Guilt
Joey Waronker has blood on his hands. The famous session drummer and insanely talented man, is also the Grim Reaper of established bands. Everything he touched in the late nineties went to shit. Think about it. Smashing Pumpkins flopped with Adore. R.E.M. with UP. And with Beck, Joey has been there throughout it all, mucking up every album since Odelay. I know the moment a band dumps their drummer and picks him up things are about to go to shit.

Dude is talented to all hell, but something gets lost when he is there. Beck made the beat for "Loser" on a cheap drum machine in a living room, and it destroys anything Joey has done. Which is why I've been into Modern Guilt from the start. With Danger Mouse providing the beats, and Joey left to just one track, Beck's songs sound like the have some purpose.

It certainly isn't a fun album, but it's his most cohesive in years and songs like "Walls", "Profanity Prayers", and the title track are the best since his heyday. Plus, it has the best album cover of the year, and that has to count for something.

23. Oasis – Dig Out Your Soul

I’m the biggest closet Oasis fan I know. While I’ll wax poetic about the genius of their first two albums and a smattering of singles released between 94 and 96, I’ve also been known to listen to latter day Oasis albums more than once. Each time I’m convinced they’ve made their best album since Definitely Maybe, only to find that I’ve just wasted perfectly good hours of my life that I will never get back.

Though they will never make an album as good as their first again, I think any Oasis fan would have gladly accepted another bloated Be Here Now. At least that album had a few good songs. And you know what? That’s basically what they've done here. This sucker is a mess. It's poorly produced, loud as all hell, and yet still I come back to it.

I'm not going to try and dissect songs like Bag it Up, The Turning, Waiting for the Rapture, and The Shock of the Lightning, but they do reconnect with their much more interesting first album. They ditched their second drummer Alan White an album ago, and it was much needed. The flashy White indulged their overblown "Hey Jude" sensibilities a little too much. Their first drummer had no talent, but his blundering style provided Oasis with (perhaps unintentional) hints of shoegaze's numbing beat. This album occasionally gets back there, and it's enough to make this album not just okay, but actually their best since Be Here Now. You can take that as a compliment or a curse.

22. The Raveonettes – Lust, Lust, Lust

I adore their second album, which wraps sweet bubble gum pop in piercing, abrasive distortion, but figured it was kind of a one-off affair. Their third album kept the songs but ditched the noise, and once I could peak in and take a look at the songs I realized there wasn't much going on.

Well, the noise is certainly back, and so is the purpose. This sucker is huge and I'm hearing all kind of things I'm sure aren't actually there. I'm such a sucker for this sound.

About half of these songs try to act menacing, and I’m having none of it. Give me the songs that sound so sweet you want to gush and the distortion so overwhelming as to magically turn into a Phil Spector sized orchestra.

First single “You Want the Candy” is good, but even better is “Sad Transmission” which swipes the baseline from "Duke of Earl" (Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl) and beat straight from Motown. The guitars are obviously Jesus and Mary Chain loud, but there is also some killer Buddy Holly happening, too.

21. Dodo’s - Visiter

I don't have anything to say about this album. I've tried to write things but none of it matters. I like the drums and the acoustic guitars, but not much beyond that. I originally took that as indication that I didn't really care about the album and that I should leave it off the list, but the sucker has three songs in my iTunes top 25 most played songs. That should count for something, right? Perhaps it was just my consolation Animal Collective album this year. Whatever it is, I listened to it a lot and I think other people should, too.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Radiohead: Nick's Greatest Hits

This post was created in reaction to the recent Radiohead Greatest Hits. I don't know why it angered me so much, but it was probably because I so loved the band and the whole realease had no class. These songs were created for individual albums, and to slop them all on one release felt wrong. So Austin and I decided to make a better one. We'd pick at least one song from every album and reconstruct this failed collection.

A week later both of us failed. No matter how you try to arrange things, a song from Pablo Honey will always butt heads with an Amnesiac number. So we scrapped those plans, and just decided to compile a 10 song Radiohead album that would best showcase our favorite album. It would not only include a bunch of their best songs, but would flow like their albums always do.

I had two competing criteria. One is that these were my top 10 favorite Radiohead songs. And two, that the 10 songs had to fit well together. There is a noticeable lack of songs from Kid A on this list, which happens to be my favorite of their albums. But those songs don't like to break away from each other, and tossed in amongst the rest of their cannon, things didn't feel right. The same could also be said about the Bends. It's an album I do like, but none of it's big powered riffs felt right cutting their way through these ones.

What I finally decided upon, was that if someone were to ask why I love Radiohead, this is what I would hand them. A retrospective of (most) of their career, it nonetheless is highly subjective, and long on the gorgeous Radiohead I love so dearly.

1. Airbag - OK Computer
I tried all kinds of different songs, b-sides, live songs, and all of them failed. As introductions to albums go, Airbag is unparalleled and I just couldn't tear it away from that spot. I'm not completely sure why. Perhaps it's that after 10 years the song still sounds off kilter and confused though impossibly perfect. Radiohead never made a song like this before Ok Computer, and they never really returned here. It's the right introduction to collection of songs that constantly surprise and never do as they are told.

2. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi - In Rainbows
After Hail to the Thief I kind of jumped ship. I figured that Radiohead's best years were behind them and that I should move on. Then I heard a live version of this song and quickly realized I was wrong. The album version manages to be even better than those early raw tries, replacing the repetitive ending with a skate around a gloomy ice rink. Like the Weird Fishes of the title, the song just keeps diving further through the strange world below.

3. Let Down - Ok Computer
By now, I hope, my intentions are clear. My Radiohead is a complex subdued one. There is nary a distorted guitar on these 10 songs. No, my Radiohead is bewildering and mysterious. And no song sums up my love of Radiohead more than this song. 10 Years on, I still can't figure out how they created a song like this one. It's a relatively plodding tempo, there aren't many crazy chords, and while there are a few dozen guitars or so, what is surprising is how they make all the normal instruments sound so completely alien. What always get me is how triumphant it sounds, how oddly empowering the music is compared to the small insignificant lyrics about being crushed like a bug.

4. Worry Wort - Amnesiac B-Side
To end the trilogy of the gorgeous, I picked this Amnesic b-side. It's one that I somehow missed when it came out, and discovered it a few years later along with Cuttooth (another b-side that almost made the cut). It shares many of the same characteristics as the previous two tracks, but this world is completely insular. It isn't of this earth. I suppose it wouldn't have fit on either Kid A or Amnesiac, but it remains one of my most listened to tracks. This little trilogy showcases what I hold most dear about Radiohead. The odd dynamics, the use of shading and the slow build. There isn't any release to these songs, just a long burn that's beautiful to watch.

5. Kid A - Kid A
My love of this song borders on the bizarre. I still don't really have any idea what they are doing, or whether there is a melody, chorus, or a structure at all. My favorite album by Radiohead is Kid A, and the title track sums up everything I love. I remember listening to this song for the first time on tinny computer speakers a few days before the album was released. It was the most anticipated record of the day, and no one had any idea what it would sound like. They had released some blips to advertise, but nothing like a whole song. We knew it would experimental and that it wouldn't have guitars. But how can you ever expect anything like this? Instead of being scared of this new strange world, I just dove right in. It's the centerpiece of an album I still can't get over. And on any album claiming to have the best of Radiohead, I can't imagine this song not being present.
By now, I hope you can tell I love the downbeat, experimental Radiohead.

6. Gagging Order - Com Lag
But wait! Com Lag is the worst thing Radiohead ever put there name on, and that includes Pablo Honey and all their early singles. It's heavy on some of the worst electronic impulses they ever had. There is hardly a melody to find. Except this song, which dates from Ok Computer and sounds as simple as Thom Yorke could possibly be. It just has an acoustic guitar and voice. If this were stuck on some album I'd probably have grown tired of it years ago. But since I had to find this one stuck amongst their worst songs, I feel oddly attached to it. I'm not one of those guys that wish Radiohead would stop playing with computers, but it's just impossible to deny this guy's power. It doesn't sound like any bit is missing, or that the drums would really make this move. It took Radiohead so long to realize they didn't need distortion to move people, and this acoustic piece showcases that better than any song.

7. Karma Police - OK Computer
Of course it's on here. As I get older and start to really admire the more electronic side of Radiohead, I move further and further away from the Bends and from half of Ok Computer that has a regular structure. But I'll never get over this song. It's the one that got me into Radiohead for the first time, and it's the one I sang when drunk in college. It's a first love and one that won't die.

8. Knives Out - Amnesiac
My love of Kid a is only tempered by a strange infatuation with this song. I know Austin doesn't understand it, sometimes I can't even figure it out for myself. It's distinctive guitar part is lifted almost note for note from Paranoid Android, and unlike that epic it has no shift in tone, no bridge, and no guitar solo. But for some reason I adore those muffled guitar strums before every verse, and the way the third guitar enters the during the instrumental break so quietly that you'd be hard pressed to realize it was even there. The song seems so effortless. It's like Thom was born to be able to crank out these minor key songs without really thinking about them. This is him at his most unguarded.

9. Street Spirit - The Bends
The only song more depressing than a song about cannibalism, it remains the black hole of Radiohead despair. That it's also oddly beautiful and hypnotic is beyond question, but why would ever want to subject himself to this pain? The Bends is usually the fan favorite Radiohead album, but it's not mine. I have no animosity to it like I do for Hail to the Thief. It just doesn't even seem to be the same band. Dynamic is built on distortion and screaming, where they would later learn restraint. This is the one exception. It could have easily fit on Ok Computer, and even, oddly, on In Rainbows. The use of background vocals to ratchet up the tension is brilliant, and that repetitive guitar line can float in your head for days on end without getting boring.

10. Nude
But Radiohead for me is not about depression. I don't identify with that. What I love is sweet release, and no song has anything quite like the ending to Nude. But lets back up for a moment to Meeting People Is Easy, the VHS (!!) release that chronicles Radiohead's Ok Computer tour and showed them completely losing their minds. After an hour and half of them trying to answer stupid questions from journalists and doing sound checks on songs they couldn't get right, we hear them end with a song called Big Ideas (Don't Get Any), which has a xylophone, some beautiful vocals, and a smashingly loud guitar at the end. It sounded like the best song they had ever done. I was sure it had to be on Kid A or at least Amnesiac. But nothing. They played it live a few times, but it didn't appear on Hail to the Thief. It wasn't until In Rainbows, where it showed up with a dub influenced beat, a choir of back ground vocals, and that glorious high falsetto. It's odd that anything so perfect in my head would turn out so different and yet better, but Radiohead seems to have done it.