Saturday, December 31, 2011

best albums of 2011

Mostly dominated by foreigners, with only a trio of American artists (St. Vincent, Telekinesis!, and Girls) making the list, this year's top 10 albums underscores the Janus-faced trends in "indie" music this year: the look forward with the continuing rise of "indietronica," the so-called indie dance genre, and a look backwards with the revival of lo-fi sounds such as surf rock and 60s garage.

Destroyer - Kaputt

I put this on the list after a single listen. Seriously, it's that good. And it gets better with every listen. Dan Bejar (also part of the Canadian super-group The New Pornographers) creates a sound I shouldn't like by satirizing all the elements he pulled together to make it. The album is defined by a sort of lite jazz flavor with a full-fledged horn section and everything, very 80s and very much the sound of the suburban SUV crowd. But the lyrics aim a sharp, sardonic wit right at the heart of America's obsession with consumption and fame whores. In a year where the $25 million farce wedding of Kim Kardashian received more coverage than either the deaths of Gaddafi or Kim Jong Il, Destroyer hits all the right notes.

Cut Copy - Zonoscope

Oh, Cut Copy. How I love you guys. I think I saw them a total of 3 times this year. Maybe only twice. But every time was a booty-shaking good time. Not every song on the album hits but when they do, it's pure dance fun. It may just be the Australian accent, but something about them affects a very Men at Work vibe. They also win the first runner-up for cheesiest dance moves on stage behind Canada's Diamond Rings.

The Weeknd - House of Balloons

Man, this guy rounded out the year by releasing a third free, full-length mixtape. I don't know if the sleazy, sex and drug crazed persona portrayed throughout these 9 songs is just a character or these are autobiographical tales from a date rapist. I wouldn't want to run into this Canadian artist downtown at night but listening to him recount his exploits the next day set to r&b beats is pure bliss.

St. Vincent - Strange Mercy

What can I say, I love Annie Clark. She blends such muscularity on the guitar with deft lyrics. This time around, she's more overtly sexual. It's a great one.

Telekinesis! - 12 Desperate Straight Lines

This is the only band who breaks the "don't listen to them for 48 hours before the show rule." Michael Benjamin Lerner's "band" (he plays all the instruments on the album and only tours with others) is pop fun distilled into its purest form. Telekinesis! covers the same lovelorn, lovesick terrain as your basic top 40 crowd but without all the hackneyed cliches that make pop so boring and predictable.

Young Galaxy - Shapeshifting

Another indietronica album on this list. But whereas Cut Copy is mostly up and active and happy, Canada's Young Galaxy dwells on more introspective planes. Listening to Shapeshifting is like waking up to find yourself still moving around in a dreamscape thanks to Catherine McCandless' vocals. You know it's all still real but you're seeing things, love, friends, the party, the world, through a fog and haze that makes it both more alien and more familiar. For some reason, I can't help thinking his is what Stevie Nicks would have sounded like if she started recording 40 years later.

I Break Horses - Hearts

I can't quite put my finger on what it is about this Swedish duo that I like so much. Perhaps its the complex and rich digital soundscapes of the title track Hearts and Winter Beats. Or the more traditional gauzy shoegaze aesthetic of Wired. But whatever it is, it added up to be one of the biggest surprises for me this year.

Veronica Falls - Veronica Falls

The last album I added to this list is London's Veronica Falls. It's bizarre and poppy and goth and absolutely wonderful. From the silly, morose opener Found Love in a Graveyard, about an affair with an apparition, to closer Come On Over, which rattles and jangles with some of the same lo-fi moves that have been so popular both here in the States and across the pond in England in recent years, this debut album bristles with exciting electricity. Bad Feeling and Misery are both great cuts, too.

Dirty Beaches - Badlands

A Taiwanese-born Canadian now taking up residence in California, Alex Zhang Hungtai plays a kind of lo-fi, early rock n' roll that's immediately recognizable and yet wholly strange. I got the pleasure of seeing him, and it's just him, on tour in London over the summer. His guitar snarls, pounds, cries, and whoops with all the frenetic, blues-inspired energy of the year rock broke.

Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost

I didn't rank this list, but if I had, there's no doubt about the number 1. This San Francisco duo's album is unrivaled in its overall quality from beginning to end and sheer number of absolute ear worms that bury themselves deep into your psyche and emerge at random times as the tune you're humming while standing in line at the grocery store. In a year dominated by bands throwing back to the 1950s and 1960s with lo-fi, to the 1980s with synth pop textures and dance beats, and in the year that the Holy Grail of genius unreleased finally found a release date in Brian Wilson's SMiLE Sessions, Girls' Father, Son, Holy Ghost easily stands out. It's a kind of kitchen sink melange of an album, with everything from Pink Floyd-ish lush instrumentals to simple, quiet, soulful tunes like Forgiveness represented. There isn't a single dominating style except for evocation of other styles. An experiment like this often gets panned as being too loose, too unfocused but here it succeeds magnificently. The perfect album in the age of digital downloading singles instead of buying records and hitting shuffle on an iPod that contains everything from Lionel Richie to Li'l Wayne and Silver Apples to The Apples in Stereo.

Honorable Mentions

Neon Indian - Era Extraña

Explosions in the Sky - Take Care, Take Care, Take Care

Twin Sister - In Heaven

Honestly, I haven't had much exposure to the first full-length from Long Island's Twin Sister as an album proper instead of a collection of singles to rate it as an album. But what I heard I thoroughly enjoyed. We'll see in a few weeks if their formula translates well to the stage.

Washed Out - Within and Without

Cloud Nothings - Cloud Nothings

Wye Oak - Civilian

Friday, December 30, 2011

500 days of new year's?

I know, I know. This has already made it around the internet a bazillion times and back. But it's just so cute and apropos. Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt singing What Are You Doing New Year's Eve? So, what are you doing?

top 5 of the week for 30 december 2011

New Year's Eve eve. Here's 5 of Elliott Smith covering other artists and bands.

1. elliott smith - when i paint my masterpiece (bob dylan cover)

2. elliott smith - trouble (cat stevens cover)

3. elliott smith - these days (jackson browne cover)

4. elliott smith - care of cell 44 (zombies cover)

5. elliott smith - for no one (beatles cover)

And a bonus:
6. metric - between the bars (elliott smith cover)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

a couple of christmas songs

Ok, I relent, some Christmas songs.

1. frightened rabbit - cheap gold
Frightened Rabbit - Cheap Gold by Frightened Rabbit

2. she & him - rockin' around the christmas tree

Friday, December 23, 2011

top 5 of the week for 23 december 2011

Sorry I didn't end up putting up a top 5 for last week. After finishing my seminar paper, I decided to take a break from the world for awhile. Yes, I'm still alive and kicking.

I bet you were expecting a holiday playlist from me. Well, there are music services to fill your head with Christmas music. Either that or you can step into any department store in American right now and get your fill. Instead, a theme playlist. Can you guess?[1]

1. islands - swans (life after death)

2. camera obscura - let's get out of this country

3. of montreal - a sentence of sorts in kongsvinger

4. modest mouse - world at large

5. led zeppelin - going to california

[1] No, it's not that they all suck, funny guy.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

joseph heller presents space wars

Spoiler alert! This post reveals plot points of the novel Catch-22 as well as the 1993-1999 tv series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Proceed at your own peril.

I didn't intentionally set out to consume two texts about war this semester. As far as Joseph Heller's novel was concerned, it was the only thing on my shelf I hadn't read that wasn't speculative fiction set on the Indian Subcontinent or a history of the penis. At least until Murakami's 1Q84 arrived. As for DS9, well, I wasn't much in the mood for resuming the sitcom watching I began with 3rd Rock from the Sun I began in the spring. Then netflix notified me it had all 7 seasons available for streaming. I loved DS9 when I was a teenager but a stochastic appearance on the tv schedule starting around season 5 meant I didn't get to see how it all turned out.

But reading Catch-22 and DS9 side-by-side has been an interesting if serendipitous coincident. Together, they describe the experience of a people, the modern American people, at war. While these texts differ not only in setting but also tone, they manage to span the seriousness and insanity of being a soldier as well as offer a glimpse at war for the civilians who share space and time with the conflict. Looking back, they also anticipate much about the War on TerrorTM and the Bush years.


Friday, December 9, 2011

top 5 for the week of 9 december 2011

Originally I was going to post a playlist with a theme. But then I stumbled upon Pretty Much Amazing's Best Songs of 2011 playlist on spotify. So instead I'll share 5 of my favorite songs that I discovered on it.

1. tyler, the creator - yonkers

I've actually enjoyed Goblin before PMA's list came out. This is probably my favorite track on the album because of its calm, controlled insanity.

2. cass mccombs - county line

Another track I'd heard a few times before I saw the list. Can't remember who gave it away for free on the internet. Chill song nonetheless.

3. penguin prison - don't fuck with my money

There's something amusingly cheesy about this song. It recollects 80s synth pop but not nearly as cleverly, adroitly, or creatively as Twin Shadow. This is pure fluff. I'll probably forget about it in a week. Too bad the rest of the world won't do the same with that damn Foster the People song.

4. cold cave - the great pan is dead

A certain louse won't let me embed the version set to scenes of Oldboy but you can enjoy it here.[1] I was supposed to see Cold Cave and the Radio Dept. play in Dallas on 7 November but the Radio Dept. couldn't get a visa and the tour was cancelled. That seems to happen a lot to Scandinavian bands. My ACL after party tickets to see the Raveonettes a couple of years ago were cancelled for the same reason. Oh, and this Cold Cave song is pretty nifty, too.

5. the vaccines - if you wanna

In it's poppiness and simplicity, it kind of reminds me of the Ramones. Not as edgy or great as the Ramones. But it kinda reminds me of them.

[1] Oldboy is one mindfuck of a movie. Definitely, definitely worth seeing. But be prepared to be deeply disturbed. All of Chan Wook Park's Revenge trilogy is worth seeing (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance).

panda on a plane

I know we were all enamored with that photo of the panda riding business class on an airplane that circulated the internet just a few days ago. But my keen investigative reporter instincts have turned up that this adorable guy...
...was hanging out at the airport bar just two hours earlier and he was a drunken ass.

Here are a few more classy lines this panda tried to use.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

top 5 for the week of 2 december 2011

There are rumors swirling that snow may be coming to Austin this Monday or Tuesday. So in honor of the possibility of flakes, here are 5 of my top tracks about winter, the cold, and snow. Now with commentary![1]

1. bon iver - blood bank
Youtube and soundcloud are being ultra lame. No one has the full song available to listen to that I can also embed. Rather than subjecting you to some crappy version with the last 20 to 35 seconds cut off, just click here and ignore the long dead air at the end.

Probably my number one favorite cold-weather themed song of the moment. Winter and the cold reinforcing themes of isolation, loneliness, and loss. Fantastic stuff. Though, to be honest, all of For Emma, Forever Ago probably qualifies for that honor. Plus, you got to love a guy of Justin Vernon's stature in the music biz who basically tells the Grammys to go eat a D.[2]

2. fleet foxes - white winter hymnal

Blood Bank had to displace this simple but utterly profound little tune. It's just the same 52 words repeated three times but wow, so evocative.

3. mystery jets - flakes

Probably one of the saddest break up songs of all time. It makes my cry every time I listen to it (including this one). I came across the Mystery Jets and this tune for the first time on a now defunct music blog called Good Weather for Airstrikes. Good Weather is also where I came across Passion Pit and Sleepyhead about 2 years or so before they exploded. The guy who maintained the blog said he was shutting it down in order to pursue a full time gig promoting Passion Pit. If that's true, he did one helluva job. I'm not as keen on Passion Pit as I once was and the third LP from the Mystery Jets wasn't as great but oh, there was a time in the early aughts before you guys had heard of either of them...[3]

4. the decemberists - the crane wife 1 & 2

This album was my first experience with The Decemberists. Their brand of baroque pop and $5 words isn't for everybody but I like them. This song (in 3 parts, only 1 and 2 are included here; part 3 is a separate track that opens the album). Based on a Japanese folk tale, it's about profoundly screwing up a relationship by not seeing the forest for for the trees so this number touches on a number of themes dear to me.

5. the depreciation guild - november

I'm a huge fan of this now broken up band. Fronted by dreamy front man Kurt Feldman (who also gigs as the full-time drummer for another of my faves, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart), The Depreciation Guild mixed 8bit fun with shoegaze earnestness. I hadn't heard of them before they opened for the Pains and Cymbals Eat Guitars on the 2009 tour. I was so psyched to see TPBPH and CEG together that I traveled to Dallas on a Thursday night from Austin to see them. They were playing Friday night in Austin but that Saturday was the LSAT. From time to time I do try to be somewhat responsible. But only sometimes. This band was an amazing and pleasant surprise.[4]

[1] If you like the commentary, let me know and I'll try to make it a regular thing on the top 5. I of course planned to provide some justifications when I debuted my favorite albums of the year at the end of the month but I thought I'd debut the feature here during week 1.
[2] His sophomore LP is nominated for a number of awards and egomaniac Kanye West pulled him into the studio to work on My Dark Twisted Fantasy. "Lost in the World" is basically just Kanye ripping off the genius of Justin's "The Woods", the last track on the same amazing EP that "Blood Bank" opens (reworked as "Still" on the Justin Vernon side project Volcano Choir with Collections of Colonies of Bees), and replacing all the understated power and simple, profound beauty with his usual bombast, over-production and Kanye-centric worldview.
[3] Yes, I did just hipster you ironically. That's meta-ironic for you. Alanis Morissette's song writers just collapsed into a singularity created with that level of actual irony. And isn't that ironic, don't you think? Maybe just a little too ironic? Fuck you, those jokes are still funny a decade and a half later. Or maybe they're just too obscure for you? Bazinga!!!
[4] Kind of like Here We Go Magic opening for Grizzly Bear at The Parish. But that's a-nother story. You win two internets if you got that reference before clicking on the link.