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.


Michael said...

Ohhhhh are we counting dylan bootlegs? Shit. Would that mean that Belle and Sebastian BBC sessions would also count? Are you guys going to disrespect me for omitting Vampire Weekend/MGMT/TVOTR?

medina said...

Dammit, I really tried with No Age, I did, but I couldn't get into it. And I love distortion, you know this, I guess I just more like Smashing Pumpkins Mellon Collie distortion rather than fuzz.

Nick said...

Is that Belle and Sebastian BBC album good? I could see myself getting lost in that for a month.

Michael said...

I mean, it's Belle and Sebastian. So yes I love it.