Celebrating 22 Years of Doolittle

On this day 22 years ago, something special happened to the world – Pixies’ masterpiece was released.  The recording sessions have been described as difficult – so much so that the band chemistry was forever altered.  The music was not commercially successful (peaking at #98 in the Billboard 200, and the “hit” single only getting to #3 in the Billboard Modern Rock chart).  But here we are more than two decades later, still touched by the impact of this mammoth record.  Doolittle is one of the greatest rock albums ever released.

But why is it still so revered?  The hyper-saturation of modern music can make it difficult to see the singular nature of Doolittle.  So let’s take a step back and consider popular and alternative music in April of 1989, and also see what other artists have said about Pixies.

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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 OF THE YEAR: 2010 EDITION

So I pretty much missed out on all the year-end mayhem.  However, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t formulating my lists.  Thus, it’s time for the best of 2010!

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Here is the schedule we will follow for the next week or two:

BEST SONGS OF 2010

Part 1: Songs 40-21 March 3

Part 2: Songs 20-6 March 5

Part 3: Songs 5-1 March 7

BEST ALBUMS OF 2010

Part 1: Albums 30-16 March 10

Part 2: Albums 15-6 March 12

Part 3: Albums 5-1 March 14

Hopefully we’ll stick to that schedule.  Also, be sure to check out this page, which will hold the summaries when each post is done.

Thanks for sticking with me, and hopefully we’ll be back to a semi-non-regular posting schedule someday in the future!

Review: The King is Dead by The Decemberists

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Rating: 8.5/10

Time for an admission: I’ve only really listened to The Hazards of Love (the previous Decemberists record) once.  By that I mean once through, which is ultimately the only correct way to hear the sprawling rock opera.  But it’s exhausting.  The songs are dense, the storyline overwhelming, and the music not immediately welcoming.  I was disappointed, especially considering the high praise I’ve had for the band in the past.

But that all changes with The King is Dead.  Suddenly the Decemberists are accessible again, and it’s thanks to a real change in musical attitude.

Full review after the break:

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Review: Tourist History by Two Door Cinema Club

Rating: 9.5/10

I’m a bit late on reviewing this one.  I’ve been listening to Tourist History since September, so I hope that at least a few of you got some exposure to this Irish band.  The brilliant blog We All Want Someone to Shout For had covered these guys for a while and that writing ultimately pushed me to listen to the band.

Tourist History is rough to critically review because it doesn’t feel particularly different or innovative.  But what makes it stand out is effort, honesty and the most infectious music I’ve heard since Weezer’s Blue Album.

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Review: The Suburbs by Arcade Fire

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Rating: 9.8/10

You’ve already heard this album.  It leaked last week, it came out yesterday, and it was streamed on NPR for some time between those two dates.  If you wanted it, you certainly own it.  If you dislike Arcade Fire, you’re wrong but this won’t change your mind.  I think this is a real contender for Album of the Year; it has great depth and has rewarded multiple listens.

But you know all of this.  So why should I even bother with a review?  Besides a clear plea for internet credibility and attention (every music blog/site will have some review of this), I’m actually out to compare and understand this album.  I have two directions to follow: one in terms of the whole Arcade Fire canon, and the other in comparison to the greatest album in music at the time of this release.  That second part will be in another post.

As per the score, a brief review: at first it’s good but not overly great.  Then you listen again and it’s better.  You repeat this about 12 times and it’s spectacular.  I don’t know what trajectory it has now, but the whole this is just so cohesive.  The music and themes hit big like U2, but keep that work ethic that the band is known for.  The hype doesn’t really match the album – this is crafted and lovingly executed.  People are too loud in screaming about the album.  Let The Suburbs work on its terms and you’ve got a winner.

Okay, now for the fun stuff:

The Suburbs as an Arcade Fire Album

Funeral is an epic, emotional masterpiece of rock.  It is full of amazing anthems, great string parts, and upbeat songs.  While the whole thing is amazing, there are very distinct highlights: “Rebellion (Lies)” and “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” are clearly the best songs.  These have been the best Arcade Fire songs since their release.  They surge with power, getting you to either move (with the latter) or feel shivers down your spine (with the former).

Neon Bible is a darker album, with a more thunderous bass and moodier atmospherics.  It is far more refined, and not nearly as optimistic.  This album is weaker than its predecessor, but underrated.  There are lulls along the way, but that leaves the top tracks on this release to stand much taller.  “Intervention” is amazing, and “No Cars Go” is electric.

The Suburbs does not have these highlights.  No one songs rises above the others in any significant way.  The opener (“The Suburbs”) is quite similar to others on the release – mid-tempo with meandering guitars.  Even the hard-rocker (“Month of May”) isn’t very noteworthy.  Perhaps the only song to be a semi-standout is “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” but that’s mainly due to the differing musical style.  I can’t see any of these songs being Song of the Year contenders.

But I propose that this is far better than Neon Bible.  Why?  Read on.

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Save This Band: Fastball

Save This Band is a new feature that will look at supposed “one hit wonders” or bands that have otherwise fizzled out in the public sphere.  I think they’re deserving of a bigger audience, and this site will give them some promotion.

Do you remember Fastball?  I’m sure if you spent any memorable moments in the 90s, you might have heard this song:

Are Fastball worth more than just this song?  Let’s start by looking at their hit album, and then expanding from there.

All the Pain Money Can Buy

Fastball’s breakthrough album was released in 1998 and featured mega summer it “The Way.”  The record went platinum as people moved to get the hit song.  Critics weren’t so hot on the album, but the thing managed to be full of creative pop gems.

All the Pain Money Can Buy was marked by strong rhythms, clear guitars, and infectious melodies.  The double-writer status (half the songs by Tony Scalzo, half by Miles Zuniga) pays great dividends to everyone involved.  Both members have smooth voices and you’re never left waiting for one to re-appear.  Song structures aren’t particularly unique, but the style and music more than make up for this only shortcoming.  “G.O.D.” is just short of being a full-on swing or ska song, “Sooner or Later” is a fun romp, and “Nowhere Road” is a pop journey.  Every song has a memorable moment, leaving the album packed full of pop excellence.  Fastball are just laid back enough to sound comfortable, but still have enough pep to remain vital.  This album is a real winner, and doesn’t even need “The Way” to be excellent.

The Rest of the Stuff

So we’ve got one whole album of worthy material.  What about other releases?  Make Your Mama Proud (their first full length album) has a similar Scalzo/Zuniga split, but this time has a punk-rock edge.  They never cross over into Weezer (much less toward Green Day), but the tempo is certainly kicked up and the guitars are more distorted.  Fortunately, the charming singing and catchy melodies do not suffer in this setting, and the record is well worth hearing.

In a different direction is a later album, Keep Your Wig On.  Here, there is a huge range of sound, moving from up-tempo numbers to slower reflective pieces.  The instrumental style also varies, with straightforward rockers mixed with piano songs, and even the occasional saxophone part.  The energy and creativity are at a very high level in this release, and show Fastball shaking any labels.

The Moral

Yes, “The Way” is a great song and a good way to get into Fastball.  But that’s exactly the thing – their hit should be a gateway, not a stopping point.  Delve into their catalog and find a band with at least as much pop ability as Fountains of Wayne.  They’re deserving of your time and become a comforting band, something to fall back on.