Here are ten of the best records I heard this year, in no particular order
Sharon Van Etten – Tramp
Man, I loved last year’s Wye Oak album and needed more this year. Luckily, Sharon Van Etten came through this year. Similarly to Wye Oak, Van Etten seemed to come from nowhere to unleash a haunting rock record that grips you from start to finish. It didn’t hurt that half of Brooklyn collaborated it behind the scenes or in the margins to help Van Etten deliver a punch to the gut. Still, it’s defining moment for a musician I hope to hear more from in the coming years.
The Walkmen – Heaven
Nothing new here. The Walkmen release a record and I love it. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that their records are always this good. Somehow a band known for songs about going out and drinking have eventually written one of the best albums about adulthood, having children and all that. There’s a simplicity to The Walkmen formula that allows them to adjust to their current living conditions. These are just working stiffs trying to put some food on the table and clothes on the backs of their children. I can get behind that.
Titus Andronicus – Local Business
I’m not gonna lie. I really didn’t care for this record upon the first listen. I was having buyer’s remorse as I listened to it stream on Spotify, knowing that the new local record shop was holding a copy for me. Then, I gave it another try as the record popped up on several year-end lists. It’s really a fantastic record as Titus Andronicus does what every New Jersey band does eventually: they all turn into Bruce Springsteen. There’s nothing wrong with this of course. It’s just a fact.
Cat Power – Sun
Yes, this has been a shitty year for Chan Marshall. However, that may mean she’ll have to put out more records and tour whenever she can scrounge up the dough and good health to hit the road. Cat Power has evolved from record to record. Now, after some faux-bravado, one gets the sense that Marshall is becoming comfortable with her station in life, embracing her demons, health issues, and apparent financial stresses in making what is maybe her most honest record in years.
Believers – Believers EP
Someone will surely give me a hard time for praising Believers again, but the praise is legit. Although this EP feels somewhat incomplete, it brings with it the promise of great things to come. I fully suspect several of these tracks will reappear – possibly re-recorded/remastered – on an LP via some high-profile indie label.
Japandroids – Celebration Rock
Honestly, this would be my record of the year. It’s a bit more uneven than 2009’s Post-Nothing but it still contains that raw energy that only Japandroids can bring without an ounce of irony. This band makes me want to hit the bars and dance all night before the reality of my middle-class-mortgaged-parenthood comes crashing down on my fantasies. Still, it’s nice to dream/reminisce once in a while.
Best Coast – The Only Place
On one hand, I don’t know why I like this band. On the other, I don’t know why I ask the first question. Like Japandroids, Best Coast has found a recipe that works. Unlike the “live like there’s no tomorrow” message in a Japandroids’ song, Best Coast wears their California lovin’ on their collective sleeves. I appreciate this love for one’s home state. Like Jenny Lewis and The Eagles, Best Coast won’t let you forget where they’re from and they’ll make you want to live there as well.
Dinosaur Jr – I Bet on Sky
How is it that Dinosaur Jr. is writing and recording better music after they’ve reunited? Maybe it’s that Lou Barlow has been allowed to come into his own. Maybe it’s because J Mascis has mellowed his ego. Whatever it is, I hope they never stop making loud records.
Hospitality – Hospitality
Last year, it was Eleanor Friedberger. This year, it’s Hospitality. Last year’s Friedberger joint Last Summer had me longing for some straight girl pop rock from the City. Hospitality filled that void admirably. And when you close your eyes, you think it’s Belle and Sebastian.
Dirty Projectors –Swing Lo Magellan
I really expected a letdown from Dirty Projectors, but this record – more straightforward than previous efforts – did not disappoint. I knew this as soon as I dropped the needle to reveal the opening track.
Discovered too late to form a proper assessment, but they’re pretty great: Tame Impala, Diiv, Grizzly Bear, Metz
Overall, this year wasn’t nearly as inspiring as last year’s onslaught of great records. However, most of these would rank among last year’s best. So, take that for what it’s worth, which is basically nothing.
1Ranking art just seems to be so archaic, so overdone. So, I will refrain from it this year. Instead, I’ll just tell you about ten records I liked.
2Meaning that, like Wye Oak, she hadn’t released anything of note until this latest album which is great.
3In Cat Power years, that’s maybe two records a decade.
4Let’s face it, every EP feels imcomplete. They are akin to the 20-minute set. You get a taste of the very best, maybe with one stinker. Just when you’re into it, it’s over.
I have four records to tell you about1. They’ve been out long enough for you to shape your own opinions, but I’m here to give you mine. They range from the instantly great to the three listen minimum and a little something in between. This isn’t a March Madness themed review2. These are not the “final four” records by any means. They’re just the four about which I have to tell you.
Titus Andronicus recorded a concept album that’s either about a guy who leaves New Jersey for Boston as told through a metaphor of a Civil War battle or vice versa. It’s really good and rocks your socks off, but throughout I wondered how we got here.
Like TA, a guy named Springsteen rose from the polluted land and water of New Jersey to give his side of the story. This guy – I’ll call him “Bruce” – wrote a record called Nebraska about some kids on a killing spree. It’s really a good record. That and it’s a concept record of the highest order. Bruce tells a story or string of stories that are expertly-pieced together in a way that 99¢ spent at iTunes could never do for you.
From that same state of Nebraska is a Omahan named Conor Oberst3 who has been called the “next, next Dylan” by some. Bruce, of course, was the “next Dylan,” one “next.” Conor has recorded under several monikers and with a couple of bands. One of those bands was Desaparecidos4. In that band, Conor screamed over feedback-excessive guitars about all the injustices of suburban sprawl surrounding his beloved-Omaha. Where Bruce succeeded in telling a narrative about Nebraska from his Jersey perspective, Conor told a global story from his Nebraskan vantage point. Both recordings5 are prime examples of concept albums done right and done with real emotion.
So, when you have a band that sounds like Desaparecidos playing Bruce Springsteen songs, you figure it should work no matter the concept. And it does, sound-wise. The bombastic blue-collar anthems of Springsteen work when screamed over a punk rawk onslaught hard to deny. There are horns, guest speakers6, bagpipes, and a kitchen sink7 for good measure. The Monitor delivers a punch to the gut like few albums have for me over the last several years.
However, as a concept album, the record is a stretch. How a guy moving to Boston from Jersey relates to the most famous naval battle of the Civil War8 is beyond my comprehension. Of course, the band believes in the concept and makes it convincing enough for the listener to play along9. One cannot ignore such conviction, especially when it sounds this good.
To make it simple, go buy this record now. You can buy the other three records mentioned below, but buy this one first.
Quasi used to be be quirky and sad. Somehow, the bitterness in Sam Coomes10 has grown into an anger, nearly to the point of capitulation11. Of course, he hasn’t totally let go of his failures and the resulting anger, but the loss of the roxichord12 alone makes one question God’s existence all together. The anger suits Quasi. So, does a bass player.
I like Quasi’s new direction more with each recording. They’ve eased into a more traditional rock sound, leaving behind the whim and whimsy disguised as despair in their mid-nineties work. As they rock more, the strength of Janet Weiss‘ drumming comes to the forefront. Not since her final Sleater-Kinney album13 have I heard a kit endure more punishment. It’s good to hear, as is Coomes’ underrated songwriting. The roxichorded Quasi allowed Coomes the room to play with cliche and rhyme, crafting fine pop songs, but his adoption of a guitar turned to 11 has expanded their sound beyond the novelty of an organ and birds tweeting14. Even new bass player Joanna Bolme brings some wieght to the songs, making me think for a second that “Little White Horse” is a Mike Watt song15.
This album might just be a case of a must-have for a long-term fan, but I doubt it. Quasi rocks a ton and writes some good hooks. It’s not exactly what the kids are listening to these days with its nod to the Beatles and familiar culprits in the Blues and Punk eras. However, it contains just enough punch to surprise you. Totally worth a listen and absolutely worth a peek when they travel to your town.
The Morning Bender‘s sophomore effort, Big Echo, lost me from the beginning. Their influences are all over the place. It’s hard to pinpoint what they’re doing and whether it’s them or Chris Taylor’s (Grizzly Bear) production work16. So, I did what any self-respecting music fan would do: I listened to it again.
Sometimes the best albums are not fully understood right away. I didn’t get The Soft Bulletin or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot the first time around. Those albums are growers. They take time and effort to get, but when you figure it out, it’s worth it. The Soft Bulletin was such a departure from the Lips’ hardcore and grunge-esque days that I felt I had been duped. Then, I saw them support the album live. In the early incarnations of what is now an extravaganza of sorts, the visuals paired with Soft Bulletin material made it rather clear. Coyne’s dramatic, bloody performance and calculated explanations didn’t hurt either17. The Wilco record was just not as alt.country18 as I expected. They built an album out of conceptual tracks and dysfunction, not middle-class cow punk. It took a few listens to get past the limitations of their genre, but I did and was glad. Neither album was easy to hear the first time around. However, the pay-off for giving them additional listens was worth the time.
Now, I don’t think Big Echo is so good that the fourth or tenth listen will blow my mind, but I think it has room to grow. For certain are the lush arrangements and detailed textures within. As mentioned before, the influences are many, but they include Beach Boys, Shins, Lips, etc. So, it generally works. The album has components and complexity that makes the listener want to return in order to give it a fair chance. You should too.
No one gets more out of a few songs and forty-three different pseudonyms than Will Oldham19. Sure, you probably have all these songs in some form or another, but you don’t have this record of a live performance just outside of his hometown Louisville. Oldham, who always seems to have a record out, released this LP under cover of darkness, almost causing me to miss it completely. The record is a grand document of a little gig that inspires reviewers to throw around terms such as “hoot-nanny,” “ramshackle,” and “ramblin’.”20 And it’s lovely. No one croons or writes a tune to croon to like Bonny ‘Prince’ Billy. The band he assembles to pull off the task isn’t too shabby either. When I first played it, I was afraid that I was actually enjoying a Prairie Home Companion. Luckily, there was no mumbling, rambling semi-jokes by Garrison Keillor21 or faceless men frantically trying to make sound effects with kazoos and hallow coconut shells. It was just Billy and his merry band of minstrels.
It’s not ground-breaking22. It won’t make you want everything Will Oldham has ever done. But it will comfort you when snow falls in mid-March or wake you when the sun shines in November.
1We’re up to six now, but those others will wait for another post.
2For two reasons: 1) I hate themed reviews. And 2) I’m avoiding sports as long as possible on this blog.
3I realize some folks have their issues with Oberst, but they really need to review his oeuvre objectively. He’s a hell of a songwriter, lyricist. The hype surrounding him has made this impossible to fairly assess, though. I don’t know that he’s the next Dylan or Springsteen, but he’s a talented wordsmith.
4Originally, this band was supposed to be a hip hop project, but it somehow evolved into hyper-political emo band.
5I’m really not trying to equate Conor Oberst’s side-project to maybe Bruce Springsteen’s greatest achievement on record, but thematically and aesthetically these are good connections in understanding Titus Andronicus.
6That one guy who talks over Hold Steady records about beat poetry and Springsteen utopias lends inside voice to a Whitman poem.
7Not really, but it could have worked.
8Typically, the Battle of Hampton Roads earns this honor. One of the ships involved in this battles was the Monitor. And now you know.
9It’s sort of like when you repeat a lie over and over, so much that it becomes the truth. You know who did that really well? Our last white president was a master at the repeated-lie-becomes-truth-trick.
10Primarily attributed to his divorce from Quasi drummer Janet Weiss, maritally-speaking.
11Judging from Quasi’s recent output and the state of the union, I blame this on our last white president.
12Arguably the best rock instrument that is not a guitar (including bass) or guitar. Sorry, keytar and Hammond B3.
13The Woods is as good a farewell album as there has ever been. Of course, they’ll be back soon enough.
14However, there is a track featuring a howling wolf.
15I mention this only because I have been listening to Ball-Hog or Tugboat? a lot lately.
16Which, by the way, is pretty fantastic. Orchestral, layered, textured, you name it. This guy should do this more often.
17I contend that the early portion of the Lips is by far their best live work. Finally, they were ripping off the Butthole Surfers without being so obvious. The three of them crowded in front of a relatively small projector as it displayed some of the same fractured footage they show today only without all the tomfoolery of bunny costumes and giant, inflatable balls. At that time, it was all about the music and imagery, not the shenanigans.
18This is a term I’ve had a love/hate relationship with for a long time now. Sure, I love me some cow punk/post-punk country music, but I just can’t place my finger on why this is an actual genre. What really constitutes alt.country these days? Magnolia Electric Co? Will Oldham? The reincarnation of Son Volt?
19Will Oldham, Bonny ‘Prince’ Billy, Palace Brothers, Palace Songs, Palace, Bonny Billy, Bill, etc.
20None of which I will use here.
21Garrison Keillor is fine, I guess. I just know that when I hear his baritone delivery of a corny joke, half of my Saturday is gone.
22But it’s certainly better than that load of crap Old Joy Oldham starred in as an actor hiking through the woods with his buddy. Gawd! That thing was awful. And he didn’t sing.
In case you haven’t figured it out, I am perpetually living in the nineties. I obsess over bands who did all their best work over ten years ago; my politic is mired in the discovery of some post-something-or-other during my college days1; and I sometimes think that I’m still 22. Maybe this is what every one goes through. We all sort of stick to that time period when life was fresh and exciting, when we experienced the most as adults2.
So, when it was rumored then announced that Pavement was getting back together, I have to admit that the 22-year-old in me got a little excited3. The band that defined a decade of independent music and much of my coming-of-age years was getting back together for what seems like the unlikeliest of reunion tours4. It was as unlikely as a Pixies reunion or Slint getting back together5. They started out scheduling and promptly selling out a few dates in NYC’s Central Park a year in advance and have slowly added Australia, New Zealand, Europe, nearly every American rock festival, and a handful of US cities. To boot, they’ve even released a best-of LP as an intro to younger audiences6. It’s been a full-on media onslaught ever since.
I first saw Pavement in the summer of ’95. In fact, I saw them twice that year. They were a favorite of mine since late ’93 or early ’94, but I was hooked after seeing them live7. Over the next few years, I would see them play maybe five or six times8. The last time was their final North American date at Cincinnati’s Bogart’s. They didn’t travel through Ohio9 often, so I had to jump on every chance I got.
Honestly, I was a bit slow to the Pavement bandwagon10. I wore out a dubbed cassette copy of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, but I didn’t fully appreciate what I was hearing. Grunge bands dominated my CD collection more than anything else in those days11. It wasn’t until Wowee Zowee and the soon-to-follow shows in Cleveland and at Lollapalooza12 that I finally got what Pavement was all about.
Anyway, they’re still my favorite band. Their albums are littered among my lists of all-time favorites and I still listen to them regularly. I really haven’t moved far beyond the original lo-fi slackers of indie rock13 or their brethren. At least every other album I receive in the mail is by a band from that era or heavily influenced by SM and the boys. I like to think I’ve grown, but my taste in music suggests otherwise.
One of my opportunities to see the reunited Pavement is at this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival and the bands that have me most interested are bands from…you guessed it…the nineties. Modest Mouse, who I first saw in the fall of ’9614, open the fest on Friday night before an also-reunited Jon Spencer Blues Explosion15 takes over Saturday. Pavement headlines the Sunday lineup. Sure, there are other bands16 playing the weekend-long fest in Chicago, but I am most excited about the three bands with ties to last century.
What is wrong with me? It’s not like all my living happened between 1990 and 1999. I grew up in the ’80’s. I don’t want to look like the eighties or dwell on music from that decade17, but it is a big part of me. The aughts are even more wrought with life-altering experiences. The last decade has seen me switch jobs and careers, get married, move nine-hours from my home, and become a parent18. It’s as if the Y2K bug went off in my head, making everything since seem like a hallucination.
Maybe we just stick with what we know best. It gets harder and harder to expand our knowledge base or interests as we grow older. Some of us slow more than others, but we all quit trying to some extent as our responsibilities mount and youthful exuberance fades.
Then again, I think we gravitate to what comforts us the most. It may also be what we know best, but we return for that solace and control of a well-worn pair of jeans, ratty old couch, or warped and scratched LP quicker than learning something new. Is there anything wrong with that?
The trouble happens when we try to force the “good ole days” on everyone else. We reminisce ad nauseum about how things were better back then, completely discounting the experiences of those who are not of our generation19 but, more importantly, our own experiences before and since. Pavement and other nineties’ indie bands meant a lot to me, but that doesn’t mean a Titus Andronicus20 shouldn’t be meaningful to you or me.
Our heads begin to swell at some point with knowledge and experience, good and bad. We no longer have any room for new information, so it pours out in an effort to keep anything new from entering our consciousness.
So, I will probably continue to live in the nineties. LeBron is no Jordan. Riot Grrrls are the new face of feminism. We’d right this country’s course if Bill were in charge again. Pavement is still the best band in the world…
Don’t give up on me, though. I still have room for something new. Hell, I am in for a whole lotta new as my daughter ages. That and I still follow music, read, and generally pay attention. I may be perpetually living in the nineties, but I do have the capacity to learn and grow.
1…and cooch-flavored cigars. Sorry. Apparently my humor is also stuck in the nineties. Who could resist a Clinton/Lewingsky reference? Not this guy.
2Perceived or otherwise.
3Let’s face it. The 18-35 year old in me was excited. Still is.
4This was meant to come off as sarcastic, cynical even. The trend seems to be start a band, record one or more memorable albums, release them on an indie, create some buzz, break up, reunite once all the “money” is spent, and make some major bank.
5First, see above. Second, these two represent the two extremes of the reunited indie band. The Pixies pieced together several classic records and toured the shit out of their livers and waistlines. Then, they reunited…twice. Slint, on the other hand, really only recorded one great album. Sure, it was Spiderland, but it was only one album and a smattering of shows. They were able to garner a lot of fame and cash from that one release. Of course, it was Spiderland.
6And, in all honesty, for pathetic losers like me who will buy said greatest hits collection even though I own a copy of every track on that comp.
7Despite the stories of terrible live shows which often featured sub-par drumming and SM chastising other band members for not playing their parts correctly, a Pavement set was a memorable rock show.
8I’m never quite sure of the number. I do know that I didn’t see them ten or more times and it was certainly no less than five. Similarly, I saw Guided By Voices well over ten, twelve times, but I’m not sure how many. It’s also like that for Modest Mouse and Built to Spill. I told you that I was stuck in the nineties.
9This explains the number of GBV shows in my pocket.
10So slow that I remember turning down a chance to see them in an art gallery in the spring of ’94. I either didn’t have any money (maybe a $4 cover) or was with a girl or a combination of the two.
11Remember, it was the nineties. Grunge cannot be held against me. That and the number of flannel shirts I wore.
12This was the Lollapalooza that they were blamed for destroying. However, I seem to remember a pregnant Sinead O’Connor playing either just before or right after Pavement. Just sayin’.
13Sorry. Somewhere it is written that the words “slacker” and “lo-fi” must accompany everything said on the Internet and/or glossy magazines concerning Pavement. I believe Spin proclaimed this in 1994.
14Completely by accident. A local band I liked was opening for this “mouse band” at Bernie’s. At a friend’s urging, I hung around to stand behind a pole, completely unaware of what was about to be unleashed. I know that it is hard for folks to imagine a time when Modest Mouse was edgy and punk, but I assure you, dearest reader, it happened.
15The Hipsters have no idea what’s about to happen to them. Jon Spencer will make them submit to his every whim. Judah Bauer will strike fear into every dude with a mustache and Russel Simmons will induce migraines with every blow to his kit. You’ve been warned, Chicago…in a footnote of a blog no one reads, but you’ve been warned.
16I’m most excited/interested to hear/see Broken Social Scene, Bear in Heaven, Titus Andronicus, Panda Bear, CAVE, Sleigh Bells, Here We Go Magic, Cass McCombs, Girls, Lightning Bolt, and St. Vincent.
17I’m not counting anything from the hardcore scene or Manchester, England. Those are things I discovered much later and still enjoy. My musical tastes were limited to whatever Casey Kasem brought me on Sunday mornings.
18All long stories which will more than likely not be discussed on this blog.
19That’s X for those of you who are keeping score. Technically, I’m on the tail-end of GenX, like my parents are barely Boomers.
20I am loving their new record. A review will follow shortly. Hopefully.