Friday 90s Focus: Rick Astley

Because it’s April Fools Day, you’d think that RickRolling would be appropriate.  Of COURSE it is, but instead I will present another Astley tune.  This one is also terrible, but I’ve got to keep in line with this 90s thing (“Never Gonna Give You Up” was from 1987).  This is “The Ones You Love” from 1993 (by way of the 1980s sonically).

No seriously, this is terrible.

Now get out there and go buy some De-3D Glasses or something like that.  Or do your own job and RickRoll yourself.  Whatever you prefer.

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Friday 90s Focus: “Brian Wilson”

We’re introducing a new trial-feature today called Friday 90s Focus.  Hopefully this becomes a normal thing.  It involves highlighting a song or record from the 1990s.  The inspiration for this feature comes from an NPR All Songs Considered feature.

I guess I’m a loser – I had never heard this song until a few days ago.  My friends were discussing it and their jaws dropped when I admitted my non-encounters with “Brian Wilson” by Barenaked Ladies.  So they quickly fixed that problem and got me attached to this video.

And now I’m wondering how I missed this in the first place. The song has the typical BNL qualities – strong melody, amazing vocal work and harmonies, and insane catchiness.  But what pushes this over the top is lyrical and emotional weight.  Steven Page spins a great tale about a man living a life like the titular Beach Boy.  The song has aged brilliantly since 1992 (I’ve only just heard this and it sounds fresh and exciting) and is the first entry in our Friday 90s Focus.  Give it a whirl and get drawn in.

New Music: The Invincible by Attaboy

The Invincible Cover Art

I don’t normally get a chance to be so far ahead of the curve, but here I am.  Check out the debut recordings of multi-talented musician Attaboy (known as Evan Bujold to some).  It’s called The Invincible and was just released yesterday.  We’re at the cutting edge!

I’ve only had a chance to listen once but I’m really enjoying it so far.  The Invincible can generally be defined as rock, with punk and alternative touches.  Clever structures and strong lyrics build a very strong outing after even one play-through.  It sounds like there should be rewards with future listens.  Be sure to support this up-and-comer and check out his website and bandcamp pages in the links below.  Hopefully we can see more from Attaboy in the near future.

Attaboy Website
Attaboy Bandcamp with The Invincible streaming

BEST ALBUMS OF 2010: 5-1

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Here we go…

05. Tourist History by Two Door Cinema Club

That’s right – it’s time to gush even more about the most addictive record of 2010.  I’ve already discussed the ultra-strong songs, the youthful exuberance and the driving rhythms.  What else could be said?  If you’re not on board yet, I’d suggest trying the superb singles “What You Know” and “Something Good Can Work.”  Now consider that this is their debut album and that the band is very young.  Many “mature” artists can’t make something so polished and cohesive.

For some, this pick will seem silly and void of real value.  In a way that argument is partially true.  The songs deal in very basic romantic emotion and the band doesn’t really break new ground.  Yet after making countless versions of my Best Albums list, I couldn’t put them anywhere else.  Sometimes music is just good and simply enjoyableTourist History is that for me and endlessly on repeat.

04. This is Happening by LCD Soundsystem

It’s hard to follow up on a record that contained the greatest song of the 2000s.  James Murphy doesn’t even bother really – This is Happening stands tall without anything like “All My Friends.”  But it’s better that way.  Instead of trying to recapture that brilliance, he keeps moving forward, introducing more sounds, better lyrics, better singing and powerful personal discussion across a full album.

What makes this record so amazing is how each song packs a punch.  Opener “Dance Yrself Clean” hits you upside the head when the drums kick in.  “Drunk Girls” is a sustained song-long rush.  “One Touch” has a wonderful groove.  “All I Want” is the saddest tune ever done by LCD and you feel for Murphy.  “I Can Change” feels naked and exposed.  “Pow Pow” is brilliant fun.  They all have something, and that’s why I can’t get away from this record.  It is personal to LCD Soundsystem, yet you can honestly sympathize and that connection is genuinely moving.

03. The Suburbs by Arcade Fire

Different versions of this list have The Suburbs all over the place, but I can’t really justify the record outside the top three.  Quite simply this is one of the most complete albums I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing.  No song, no sound feels out of place in the grand scheme of things.  Win Butler and company have built on the sonic foundations of Neon Bible and done something stunning.  Much like Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest, the beauty offered here is something to marvel at.

Of course the 2,000 pound gorilla in the room still stands: this is no Funeral.  It lacks the true hard-hitters like “Rebellion (Lies)” or the “Neighborhood” tracks.  But that doesn’t matter.  It isn’t Funeral and that’s the point.  Arcade Fire have moved in a new direction and gained a great deal of artistic merit in doing so.  This is a triumphant release by a rising super-band and deserves the praise it has been dealt.  The Suburbs is a fantastic record and you need to hear it.

02. Forgiveness Rock Record by Broken Social Scene

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Grandiose has lost so much value as a phrase in music.  Everybody talks about how big a sound is, often citing arena acts that reach the biggest audiences.  But here, the sheer effort and enthusiasm of such a large group pushes Forgiveness Rock Record into an overwhelming place.  The sounds are layered from everywhere and the song styles are varied.  The huge build in “Chase Scene” is insane.  “Art House Director” is upbeat and exciting.  The productions values are phenomenal and the music is clear.

But you know what?  It doesn’t matter how big and exciting this is – the music itself is phenomenal.  I love the strong drums, the exciting guitars, the boisterous strings and the blaring horns.  It all blends to a tremendous point that few records can achieve: the songs are excellent standalone and the album is even better as a whole.  Yes, it’s just as good as You Forgot it People.  And that’s saying something.

01. High Violet by The National

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Here we are with the best record of 2010.  Just everything about it works.  There is a real confidence in the band, exploring emotional realms and building a real sense of atmosphere.  Dark drums, tight bass and simmering guitars make every song consistent.  And that really matters here – there is no song worth skipping because they all bring so much to the table.  The album supports itself, making even the super high points (“Conversation 16” and “Lemonworld”) add to a much bigger whole.

So what makes this the clear top record of 2010?  For me it’s the details.  Matt Berninger is at his haunting best with vocals.  The lyrics are somber yet complex and draw you further into each piece.  The strings in many songs are just enough to push the whole thing over the edge.

Yes, High Violet is that good.  It is memorable, powerful and will convert you to following The National.  Feel the reward and explore the brilliance.

BEST ALBUMS OF 2010: 15-6

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Stay tuned for the conclusion in the next few days.  Thanks again for reading my blog, and feel free to comment about how great or terrible this list or site may be!

15. Les Chemins de verre by Karkwa

Put simply, this was the second best Arcade Fire record this year.  That seems to lessen the output of one of the bands, but really doesn’t on further inspection.  Karkwa have endearing vocals, layered instrumentation and a strong presence on record.  They’re a bit lighter than the more popular Canadian band, but this is an amazing album to fall into.  Just remember it’s in French.

14. Teen Dream by Beach House

It took me a long time to warm up to Beach House.  The singles didn’t really catch me.  But finally with one Amazon deal later, I decided to jump right in.  It was a great choice – this is a very complete release that deserves a full listen and plenty of attention.  With enough time, the sweeping sounds and captivating lead singer will win you over.  Another victory for pure pretty music.

13. The Archandroid by Janelle Monae

Ms. Monae has been bumping all over my list.  Ask me in another month, and it might be in the top five.  This record is immensely rewarding – it features many styles of music yet holds strong album-wide cohesiveness.  Combine this with an ambitious concept and near-flawless execution and you realize you’re listening to a star rise.  Oh, and “Tightrope.”  2010 was an awesome year if this was so low.  I cannot wait to see what she does next.

12. Brothers by The Black Keys

There is a certain amount of live show bias in this pick: I saw The Black Keys open for The Flaming Lips last year.  I was blown away – they had a stage presence unlike any opener, and they acted like the real draw.  On record, they are they real deal too.  Swagger something crazy combines with tons of musical and compositional skill to back it up.  They’re getting lots of attention these days and quickly becoming the best thing out of Akron (including King James).  Join them.

11. Personal Life by The Thermals

The Thermals don’t get much respect from critics, and I think it’s a shame.  All they do is put out some of the best punk rock in current music.  They’re complicated enough to keep your attention and have the raw grit necessary to meet genre specifications.  But I guess you can get looked over when your previous output (The Body the Blood the Machine) was so amazing. … Wait, what?  Please don’t forget these guys – they’re only doing what they always have and that is awesome.

10. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West

I would be better to direct you to the other drooling reviews of this bloated ego-boosting monster of a release.  But sometimes the discussion of Kanye forgets the record itself.  It turns out that Mr. West is actually still a brilliant pop master.  He pulls in great sounds and constructs excellent rhythms.  Then West manages to lay down some career-best rapping and bring in a litany of talented guests.  Every song is exciting and the record is really worth owning.  Yay hype!

09. Write About Love by Belle & Sebastian

Yet again, it’s another band I’ve missed before and feel ashamed for not seeing.  2010 was a stunning year for twee/indie pop, and these folks stand at the top.  Each track is a shimmering composition backed up by exceptional musicians.  There is real ambition here, and every bit of it is met.  Tight melodies, lovely voices, a balance of ballads and upbeat tracks, fun guitars, strong drumming, great keyboards… this album has it all.  A pop masterpiece.

08. Transference by Spoon

With the first listen, I was disappointed.  This was the first clunker in the Spoon catalog.  But like so many other great records, time brought new understanding.  Unlike the effortless wonder of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Spoon was challenging us with Transference.  The songs were difficult in their sparseness, and ended in strange places.  Instrumentals were unnerving and seemed moments from falling apart.  But that’s the beauty – it all manages to work and leave you with more timeless songs.  I guess they still don’t have a bad record.

07. Epic by Sharon Van Etten

I’ve already gushed about “Don’t Do It,” but what about the rest of the record?  Thankfully, that also stands tall.  Van Etten’s voice is always one of the main draws but there are no weak points here.  The lyrical and emotional value of each track is stellar.  The guitar work is appropriate and evocative.  Epic may have the wrong title from a rock fan’s perspective, but the album is exceptional rewarding repeated listens and impressing on the first.  Quiet, emotional and brilliant.

06. Contra by Vampire Weekend

I thought that Vampire Weekend would never be able to match the pop greatness of their self-titled debut.  It turns out I was wrong and too short-sighted.  The band didn’t go back to pop only, and have expanded to more artistic and rhythmic fare.  The shift is a full success, offering more rewarding compositions, better singing, and a much deeper record.  It’s quite shocking how much the band have improved – even without a true A+ song a la “A-Punk.”  It turns out you don’t need that when everything else is so much better.

BEST ALBUMS OF 2010: 30-16

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30. My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky by Swans

I’m not overly familiar with Swans, but this record was the kind of brooding post-rock I’ve come to enjoy after trying out Mogwai and Explosions in the Sky.  A very enjoyable record with an amazing sense of mood.

29. Cosmogramma by Flying Lotus

Flying Lotus has been praised by so many, but I often find their music difficult.  It’s a strange mesh of jazz, electronica brought together by the tight rhythm.  Yet instead of being confusing, the nearly-alien effort is mesmerizing and worth many repeat lessons.

28. Innerspeaker by Tame Impala

Extremely washed-out psychedelic rock seems nice enough, but the production level brings this to a real high point.  It’s a lot of fun to just sit back and play this really loud and let the Lennon-esque voice and swirling guitars hit the ears.

27. Expo 86 by Wolf Parade

Wolf Parade have never returned to the heights of their debut record, but each subsequent release has still been worth hearing.  The vocals are still strong, the guitars still fun and the songs still infectious.  I advise trying to think of this apart from Apologies – it stands better alone.

26. Infinite Arms by Band of Horses

This record is confusing, with a three song super start and a very light country-rock remainder.  Of course, those top three songs are indispensible.  Taken separately the rest of it is also quite enjoyable, but it’s very different.  It will grow on you, so come in with open ears.

25. The Brutalist Bricks by Ted Leo and the Pharmacists

It’s easy to push aside “typical Ted Leo” as something relatively uninteresting, but this record is just as great as its predecessors.  Super-tight instrumentation, overwhelming hooks and thought-provoking lyrics all add up to make this one of the best releases this year.

24. 99 Songs of Revolution by Streetlight Manifesto

I’m biased as a trumpet player in picking a ska record.  Yet I’d argue that this stands strong even aside from my passions.  The horns are rock solid and the interpretation of each song on the record (they’re all covers) is sometimes shocking and always fun.  Get up and move to this stuff.

23. Champ by Tokyo Police Club

Pure pop infection comes out of these guys.  The singing is strong and emotive enough to keep you engaged while the guitar work pushes it over the edge.  It’s hard to hear these songs without getting them caught in your head for weeks.  And I dare you to find “Bambi” weak.

22. Go by Jonsi

That voice.  Oh man that voice.  Much like on the proper Sigur Ros releases, Jonsi steals the show with his performance.  Top that off with dense sound and an exceptional rhythm section, and you realize what a great individual songwriter and musician Jonsi is.

21. Together by The New Pornographers

After a slight misstep in Challengers, the New Pornos come back with a wonderful record.  While the vocal prowess never went away, the songwriting wasn’t quite there on the last release.  This time it’s all back.  Strong melodies, and some stunning standout songs (“Crash Years” and “Your Hands” especially) make this a record to own.

20. The Monitor by Titus Andronicus

Here we can watch punk rock evolving into something much more.  Long compositions and weighty subjects are combined with the work ethic of a punk group to make a spectacular release.  The glorious guitars, a great lo-fi feel and raw singing all sound amazing, and make this one of the best releases of the year.

19. Romance is Boring by Los Campisenos

I love me some pure pop, and this year has been full of it.  Los Campisenos have excellent energy, and lovely singing, both elements that are basically prerequisites for this kind of music.  But what really makes the record stand out are the crafty musical turns.  You’re always left breathless, wondering where they’ll go next.

18. Total Life Forever by Foals

This album has soured over time for me, but its standing speaks to how strong the record actually is.  It’s a massive change from their last record, turning from a sort of chaos to something closer to The Bends.  Ringing guitars, complex song structure and engaging musicianship make Foals a respectable band with a very good record.

17. Let it Sway by Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin

More pure pop manages to show up on this list.  This manages to edge out Los Campisenos by being more addictive.  Particularly, super-single “Sink/Let it Sway” is brilliant with exceptional guitars and propulsive drumming.  Thankfully that isn’t the only good song on the record.  That kind of melodic excellence and light brilliance is carried in every track.

16. Best Coast by Best Coast

Lo-fi isn’t an insult here.  Instead it describes the warmth and accessibility of this record.  The strong lead vocal is clearly the focus of most tracks, but everything else manages to make every thing seem whole.  In particular, I can’t get away from the excellent low tones of the guitar and underlying bass.  It all adds up to a fun indie experience that is near the best of 2010.

BEST SONGS OF 2010: 5-1

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5. “Conversation 16” by The National

This was the song that finally got me.  I somehow didn’t “get it” for a while with The National.  I was like so many other lost souls.  I thought they were boring, or dull, or that every song sounded the same.  I appreciated the loud songs or the good piano songs, but I didn’t really understand.  And then the creepy chill of “Conversation 16” knocked me right over.  The warbling bass line and the pinpoint drums finally made sense.

But what I ultimately realized were the details.  The organic singing, the reeds playing, the haunting “ooo” behind the chorus, the emotive lyrics, the lightly plucked background guitar.  It took me long enough, but everything worked and that made every other National song work.  If you are how I was, I beg you to try this song.  It might change everything.

4. “Suburban War” by Arcade Fire

“Suburban War” is the most complete standalone song from The Suburbs and that’s why it lands so high.  Unlike the rest of the album, the mood and feeling of this song are retained in any setting, not just in its proper place.  The obvious draw is the plucked guitar that covers the majority of the song, but everything else leaves you holding on for more.

I personally love the little drum fill at the very start of the song, the sweeping strings, and the excellent harmonies.  But the song becomes so much more when it finally takes off, with thunderous drumming, desperate wails and a massive volume increase.  This gives the track real character, and leaves it as a very holistic composition.  This is the ultimate turning point on The Suburbs and the true highlight on a brilliant record.

3. “What You Know” by Two Door Cinema Club

I just can’t avoid this song or this band.  It defies simple dance rock by adding strong emotional depth.  While it starts with a “typical” guitar and drum figure, that high ringing guitar that enters at the 14-second mark changes everything.  Instead of just pushing with a grungy guitar and bass, the ringing guitar cries out with real strength and power.  It seems overkill, but it really makes the song.

But is one guitar enough to make it the third best track of the year?  It does when piled above an infectious beat, a great breakdown halfway through and enthusiastic singing.  Really, Tourist History does very little wrong, and this is the ultimate high point, with the whole track just popping out beyond almost all others this year.  Dance to it, feel sad about it, enjoy the whole thing.  It’s amazing.

 

2. “Desire Lines” by Deerhunter

I’m not the world’s biggest Deerhunter fan.  I don’t really think Halcyon Digest is the pure masterpiece that so many others claim.  I don’t know that I could seriously sit through one of their albums more than once.  They’ve awfully experimental and dense – which isn’t a bad thing, it just doesn’t fit my tastes all the time.  Of course, they’ve managed to make two insanely huge exceptions in singles.  The first was “Nothing Ever Happened,” a purely brilliant song and fifth best of the last decade.  The second is this song.

I can’t really pinpoint why I love the song so much, but it’s crucial to note what a late entry this track was.  I hadn’t listened to any of the new Deerhunter record until Christmas, and somehow didn’t get all the way to this track.  Oh boy was I missing out.  There are such haunting and genuinely bothersome voices.  There is a real sense of escape, but you can’t tell if that’s a good thing.  The chorus is centered around the phrasing “Walking free, come with me / Far away, every day,” which would seem nice enough, but a very subtle “whoa-oh” follows after every three syllables.  It’s mildly liberating and terrifying.

But the true release is in the final half of the song, a lengthy guitar solo and instrumental breakdown, almost fullfilling the initial promise of freedom.  The production is stellar, the pacing perfect, and it just sticks with you the whole time.  I cannot say enough about this song, but it does fall short of the overall top status.

1. “Don’t Do It” by Sharon Van Etten

Here we are at the best song of the year.  I was introduced to Sharon Van Etten through the All Songs Considered NPR Podcast (an excellent way to find new music) and completely blown away by her voice.  Van Etten sounds confident, but not conceited, and emotional without being whiny.  She strikes one of the most perfect vocal balances in current music, and her warmth just draws you in.

From here, the song sweeps you away.  Sparse composition creates a strong backbone for the singing to work around.  It’s all about mood in the instrumentals, and they develop a very strong one.  Light and effective drumming keeps a consistent pace while gradually adding cymbals as the song builds.

The subject matter also pushes the song beyond a simple vocal reflection.  “Don’t Do It” is effectively about suicide, with the singer pleading with the afflicted to not take their own life.  It is sobering, yet ultimately optimistic treatment of such a difficult topic.  Particularly poignant is one of the first lines, “Want to take you outside / Want to show you the sky to remind you why you shouldn’t.”  The song drops you right into the situation, and begs you to interact.

“Don’t Do It” isn’t a pure pop piece like 2008’s “A-Punk”, it’s not baroque pop like 2009’s “While You Wait for the Others” and doesn’t have the tone of the decade-best “All My Friends,” but it stands tall with these songs.  The reflective song and powerful voice push “Don’t Do It” into such elite company, and deep into your mind for months and maybe years to come.  Give it a listen, and enjoy the best fruit of such a good year.