Song Roundup 8: Club Music–Indie Mix

Let’s not even talk about the massive gap in posts this time.  Maybe later.

I hate club music.  I try not to hate much music, but club music just represents some of my least favorite parts of sound and sonic mentality.  Club music represents sweaty parties full of people drinking to be drunk and dancing only for the sexuality.  I appreciate fun, but this style of music turns heavy bass into a disgusting sensation, rather than an invigorating one.  So on this latest Song Roundup, I want to look at indie music that would make me more comfortable at that next awful party (if only for a few minutes).

There weren’t truly limits on this list, but I did purposefully avoid “indie” techno, as Daft Punk and Justice are essentially definitive dance music.  I can hope that they’re a given for this type of list.

“Idioteque” by Radiohead

Sometimes they’re guitar gods, other times they fiddle with electronics.  Radiohead is a proven musical powerhouse that can touch many genres.  “Idioteque” is one of the most singular songs in their catalog.  That’s quite an accomplishment, but it goes further, making disaster sound exhilarating.  The terrifying sound of primordial computer composition blends perfectly with the rest of the band.  I always get chills, but the rhythm keeps me from a statuesque state.

“Daft Punk is Playing at My House” by LCD Soundsystem

Most LCD songs would be fair game here, but “Daft Punk” is one of the group’s most muscular efforts.  The song really pops with good speakers or headphones and deserves to be played loud.  I’m personally very fond of the version on the London Sessions release, but whatever rendition you get should do the trick.

“Whoo! Alright – Yeah… Uh Huh.” by The Rapture

Dance punk died too quickly in the early 2000s.  That is to say, I wasn’t really aware of it until it was already dead.  But we do have artifacts like this to keep us happy.  The tastefully complex variation on a simple disco drum is the real foundation of this song.  It keeps everything moving at a high tempo and lets the funky guitars work their magic above the rhythm.  But what pushes this over the edge and into greatness is that last bit of lyrical breakdown at the 2:34 mark – almost makes even me want to dance.

“I Can Talk” by Two Door Cinema Club

Two Door Cinema Club has been my guilty-pleasure band-of-choice ever since I first heard them.  Their debut record (Tourist History) is nothing innovative, but it’s simply brimming with energy.  “I Can Talk” is amongst the highlights.  The song has a blistering guitar attack, fun vocals and a massive disco drum/bass pattern filling all the space.  Embrace this Irish band – I think they’re in for big things.

“Dancing Choose” by TV on the Radio

I normally associate TVotR as dense, thinking music.  But at least a few tracks off their most recent record have worked to break my mental stereotype.  Dear Science has some heavy soul power, and tons of personality, and “Dancing Choose” highlights all of that.  Impassioned vocals blend with a propulsive tempo and wild horns to make the art-centric TVotR seem loose and fun.

“Heads Will Roll” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Many have discussed this before, but it’s always shocking to listen to YYYs change from a raw garage band to something more like glam rock or disco rock.  In particular, singer Karen O has removed some of that punk edge and suddenly sounds like a powerful diva.  “Heads Will Roll” is the most powerful example of this change, and makes a strong case for why we should embrace the “new” YYYs.  They do this kind of music the right way.

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BEST ALBUMS OF THE DECADE: 10-4

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Here is the second-to-last part of my decade list.  I hope you’ve enjoyed it so far.  It’s really tough to put some of these in order.  So that pretty much means that albums 10-1 are all crazy good, and I think you should hear them at least once.

Come back tomorrow for the finale…

10. Picaresque by The Decemberists (2005)

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I am a total sucker for the theatrics of The Decemberists.  But Picaresque rises above the rest of their catalogue by offering wondrous detail, both verbal and musical.  The album never becomes unwieldy and is very charming.  Each track is full of lyrical wit and real emotion.  “Eli, The Barrow Boy” is painfully sad.  “The Engine Driver” pulls you into the loss and rejection of the titular character.  Yes, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” is huge and crazy, but it’s also a powerful piece.  Nerdy?  Yes.  Brilliant?  Undeniably.

9. The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me by Brand New (2006)

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Having now heard their follow-up album (Daisy), it’s a bit disappointing to see Brand New stop their evolution here.  Brand New were an average snotty, crappy punk band that followed in the mold of Blink 182.  Forgettable radio fodder.  But then something magical happened: they decided to become artists.  The process was took two albums (leaving Deja Entendu as a nice straightforward punk album), but the result was fantastic.

Here there were textured sounds.  You could actually understand the band’s dynamics.  The songs had a hint of artsy production.  They even managed to pull some Modest Mouse stuff.  It was all brilliant, leaving a refreshing feeling and some faith in punk rock.  Even the simplest of songs were packed with mature themes and strong musicianship.  These guys need not be associated with that Jude Law song any longer.  This is a real statement.

8. Illinois by Sufjan Stevens (2005)

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Ambitious hardly begins to describe this album.  Contained within the now-defunct 50 States project are two records.  Seemingly, it would be pretty difficult to contain the spirit of a state in one disk.  But after doing so well with Michigan, Stevens completely eclipsed his own effort in the sprawling and stunning Illinois.

22 songs, and over an hour of playtime sound pretty daunting.  But when you realize that a few of them are mini-songs designed for album flow, the remaining stuff sounds even more overwhelming.  But Stevens has an amazing gift at hook development.  It starts from the first notes: you want to hear where those pianos will go in “Concerning the UFO.”  Soon you’re left wondering where “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” will go in its two parts.  Eventually you realize that you’re halfway through and still can’t wait to see what will come next.  Insanely classy and certainly brilliant, this is a wonderful epic.

7. Fleet Foxes by Fleet Foxes (2008)

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Okay I lied.  Back when I called this the best album of 2008, I also said something bold about this becoming the greatest album of the decade.  As you can plainly see, 7 is not the same as 1.  Why the change?  Well, I’ve had more time to consider the album and those I’ve placed ahead of it.

Fleet Foxes is a splendid album, still full of the gorgeous things that make me smile in its style of music.  Stunning singers are still the highlight, and it carries the whole album.  But has this recorded lessened in any way?  Almost.  Too much familiarity lessens some of the impact.  Thus, to keep this ageless wonder ageless, it’s best to not over-saturate.  However, when used appropriately, Fleet Foxes is still amongst the best of the decade.

6. Veckatimest by Grizzly Bear (2009)

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My love for Grizzly Bear started as I listened to them before they opened a Radiohead show.  After that show, it was clear that I needed to pay attention to Grizzly Bear’s next album.  Then came the leak.  I was worried about hearing it, but was so painfully curious.  I heard, and was pleased but understood the audio quality as a barrier to excellence.

Oh boy was that quite the barrier.  Veckatimest is superb, offering gorgeous little details.  And really, this is all about the beautiful details.  It’s clear that this album was painstakingly crafted by four excellent musicians.  Every song has moments of pure brilliance and the whole album shimmers with production quality.  After such a great run in only a brief existence, I really look forward to the next release from Grizzly Bear.  It’s obvious they are great quality control experts.  But while I wait, I will have Veckatimest to keep me happy.

5. Funeral by Arcade Fire (2004)

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This was a game-changer for me.  I hadn’t quite realized the broad potential of indie rock, but I was getting there.  And then in the summer of 2007, I finally got my hands on this disk.  Late to the party, sure, but very interested.  I was blown away from the first moment.  The near-sobs of Win Butler’s vocals were stunning.  The fearless sincerity was unnerving.

People sometimes insult or marginalize Arcade Fire for being so loud.  I think that’s a mistake.  Loudness and bold statements do not necessarily lessen music.  When used as a tool for communication, loudness is a powerful resource for Arcade Fire.  They fill out the room like U2, but have the grip of Neutral Milk Hotel.  But for me, none of that matters without “Rebellion (Lies).”  That song is the keystone of Funeral.  In my mind, it all builds to resolve in “Rebellion.”  That progression and development is amazing and makes Funeral so good.

4. In Rainbows by Radiohead (2007)

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It feels strange ranking In Rainbows ahead of Kid A.  But for me, it’s so easy.  While I have to be ready to hear Kid A, this album can come on at any point and make me happy.  That’s one big difference: the joy involved.  Yes, songs like “Nude” and “All I Need” tug at the heartstrings.  But it’s the feeling of the whole album.  Freedom and warmth abound.

Forget about the pricing thing.  It was cool at first, but does not make this the best Radiohead album this decade.  Instead, the songs make this the best album of Radiohead’s decade.  Each one has personality, power.  They’re all made by a full band, offering insight into their powerful musicianship.  But really, it’s personal affection that gets me to place In Rainbows so high.  I love this album for all that it offers and it is in constant rotation in my music.  These 10 songs are phenomenal.

BEST ALBUMS OF THE DECADE: 20-11

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Happy New Year!  Here is the next entry in the Decade’s Best Albums series.  I hope you enjoy, and check back soon for the next installment!

20. We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes by Death Cab For Cutie

So many times in the past 10 years, I’ve seen Death Cab get tossed aside, as whiny, sell-out rock that stands as trendy and pointless.  Yet in my estimation, every album is essential, full of vitality and strong personality.  Of course, I do play favorites here.  We Have the Facts is a bit more sparse than their other albums and holds an air of mysteriousness.  The music isn’t quite as muscular, but the spaces work wonders, giving a real desolation and distinction.

19. Franz Ferdinand by Franz Ferdinand

You got your disco in my rock!  No, you made my dance music have strong guitars!  No matter what the angle, Franz Ferdinand would have been labeled relatively successful if they had only released this debut.  Strong repetition and tight rhythm keep this party from falling to pieces.  Of course, it helps to have a seductive lead voice and strong lyrical catch-phrases in literally every song.

18. Apologies to the Queen Mary by Wolf Parade

Wolf Parade, Arcade Fire, and Broken Social Scene have all done so much to build up the reputation of indie music in Canada.  From the nation of hockey comes a very personal album, stuffed with bold noises and individuality.  There are no weak links here as each song holds memorable song ideas and commentary.  Yes, there are some hints of Modest Mouse in the production, but there are no other songs on this planet like “Shine a Light” and “I’ll Believe in Anything.”

17. Sea Change by Beck

To be perfectly honest, I don’t label myself as a Beck fan.  I appreciate his strong songwriting skills, but I can never really claim that I enjoy everything he’s done.  But then there is Sea Change.  This is powerful music, with a core that aches, demands attention and support.  Of course, I can’t help but feel that Nigel Godrich helped pull out this kind of performance.  Similar in feel to Pavement’s Terror Twilight, this whole album captures my ears.  Also, this holds a kind of personality like that of Nick Drake’s work.  It’s enchanting, sad, and fantastic.

16. No One’s First and You’re Next by Modest Mouse

This has the distinction of being the only EP in the list, but this is EP only in name.  It’s eight songs and over 33 minutes of brilliant Modest Mouse work.  After starting the decade on two high notes, the subsequent album (We Were Dead) was a bit of a letdown.  But here we find a ragtag bunch of songs that manage to shine brighter than any Mouse album since The Moon & Antarctica.  The biggest problem I have with this EP isn’t even a problem: why weren’t these songs included on a proper release?  Each one brims with more creativity than most of the songs from the past two real Mouse albums.

15. Boys and Girls in America by The Hold Steady

Separation Sunday may actually be a better release, but I honestly haven’t had enough time with it.  I’ve had Boys and Girls for a longer period, and it’s a kind of attachment thing.  Craig Finn’s distinctive voice and the nice crunchy guitars meld great story-songs, full of memorable moments and great riffs.  Yes, this album really works better for lyric fans, but they’ll turn you into one after the guitars get under the skin.

14. You Forgot it in People by Broken Social Scene

If you’re looking for a sort of “greatest hits” of indie, this would be the place.  Yes, it’s by one band.  No, it’s not the best album of the decade.  But You Forgot it in People manages to blend so many ideas and stereotypes of indie in one convenient disk.  Even better: the band plays it so well.  Anthems and fist pumpers have strong feeling, there are phenomenal dynamic changes, and the multiple voices are excellent.  You should really get this.

13. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix by Phoenix

I’ve already gushed about this album in terms of this year’s best.  But it’s worth noting that Wolfgang is really that good in a wider context.  The pop is powerful, the tunes catchy, and the whole thing just makes me smile.  And again: the first two songs are nigh-untouchable, but the rest of the album is charmingly addictive too.  Get it for “Lisztomania” and “1901,” but love it forever.

12. Kid A by Radiohead

So, I feel a bit guilty placing this album so far down.  After some big names (Rolling Stone, Pitchfork) determined this to be the best album of the decade, I was a bit depressed to leave my favorite band so low.  But, Kid A is on my list for a reason.  It’s full of innovative sounds, effortlessly brilliant construction, and some of the best intro-to-electronica most people have ever heard.  And if those aren’t reason enough, please listen to hours of “regular” music before hitting “Everything in its Right Place” again.  It can still give chills.

11. Neon Bible by Arcade Fire

The epic follow-up to an epic debut is bound to leave some fans disappointed.  But after going through the two albums, I find Neon Bible to be on similar footing to Funeral.  The sounds are a bit darker and seem to tend toward Bruce Springsteen, yet people are quick to dismiss this sequel as rubbish.  But guess what: the sounds are still brilliant, and I still want to see them in concert.  Taken as a pair, the two Arcade Fire albums are probably the best combo of the decade.

BEST SONGS OF THE DECADE: 20-1

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Here concludes my look at the best songs of the decade.  For this edition, I will also have a link to each track on YouTube.  Just click on the last part of each write-up.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this version of favoritism.  Please leave some comments about what you view as the best songs.  Also, check in tomorrow to see the first part of my Decade’s Best Albums list.  Thanks for reading!

20. “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” by Daft Punk

Techno is a tough thing for me to get behind.  I appreciate all the rhythm and neat computer-ish music.  But the whole thing just seems so fake and cold to me.  But then there’s Daft Punk.  I can’t help but like them.  They know how to conjure a beat and get your body to move.  “Harder, Better” is the highest point of their work.  Thanks to an amazing vocoder breakdown and a real swagger, even just hearing the song causes heads to bop and feet to tap.  I like to believe that, were I a break dancer I would freak out to this song.

19. “Staralfur” by Sigur Ros

Soundscapes can tend to be a bit boring, generally left for those relaxation mixes to be heard before sleep.  Sigur Ros manages to pull the soundscape into a new land, thanks to innovative instrumentation.  The powerful strings blend with light piano notes and production noises.  Things take off when the voice comes in.  Sigur Ros has a real give in their lead singer: he transforms songs from otherworldly to angelic.  You needn’t know what he’s saying, you just feel it.

18. “Energy” by Apples in Stereo

It’s a pretty instant attraction when this song turns on.  The mood can be completely somber, but then “Energy” turns everything bright.  The bright chords, bright voices, optimistic lyrics and fun tempo all add up to something great.  Where Sigur Ros could bring you to another planet, Apples in Stereo carry you to a better place – a state of personal satisfaction.  “And the world is made of energy / And there’s a lot inside of you, and there’s a lot inside of me.”

17. “Pyramid Song” by Radiohead

It bothers me to leave Radiohead so low on my list.  But such was the nature of song content this decade.  “Pyramid Song” has the distinctive nature of being a decidedly unique song in the Radiohead canon.  Everything feels eerie, right from the start.  Syncopated piano rhythms ride above strange electronic sounds and strings.  Soon enough, the drums kick in, slowly dragging their way in, adding to the strangely swung feel.  The whole thing feels like it’s carrying you off to heaven, or maybe hell.  But then Yorke’s last clear claim rings out in your mind: nothing to fear and nothing to doubt.  Believe in this song.

16. “Lisztomania” by Phoenix

One of the best songs from this year, “Lisztomania” is a pop masterpiece.  Catchy lyrics and bright music carry this song along.  Great guitars and solid bopping music are complimented by a touch of electronica, giving the song an interesting touch.  Really, you could pick “1901” here, too.  Both are great songs, proving Phoenix one of the best from 2009.

15. “Blind” by Hercules & Love Affair (feat. Antony)

Disco tends to seem cheesy to me.  Maybe it’s the stereotyped guy-in-white-suit thing.  Whatever the case, “Blind” is strangely freed from any sort of bad disco feeling.  Maybe it has to do with Antony’s vocals.  They really steal the show here, transforming the careful emotional classical singer into a dominant power.  I can’t help but feel like dancing through this song and yet feel terrible for doing do.  Perhaps that is where Hercules & Love Affair really succeed.  They get complex emotions to work in music.

14. “Reena” by Sonic Youth

“Reena” is so wonderfully constructed, making it one of my all-time favorite Sonic Youth songs.  First, it grabs you with those ringing guitars.  Then Kim Gordon manages to sing without sounding annoying.  But after all of the introductory “pop song” stuff, they decide to go all Sonic Youth on us.  For my money, it’s one of their best breakdowns since Daydream Nation.  Everything just goes crazy, drums pounding, guitars thrashing, and then Steve Shelley pulls it back together.  Very circular, very awesome.

13. “The Funeral” by Band of Horses

Songs can have some powerful effects, but it’s rare for me to be actually bothered by music.  Band of Horses succeeds here with those haunting, lightly plucked notes that open the song.  Instantly, you realize that this is something very weighty and somber.  Of course, the careful vocals only add to this effect.  “The Funeral” is so powerful that even the loud rocking sections manage to add to the mood.  Repeated listens diminish some of this song’s power, but never leave you feeling comfortable.  Maybe it’s better that way.

12. “Maps” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs

For all of the loud rock and crazy moments on Fever to Tell, it is the one ballad-like song that we all remember.  Everything about this song gives shivers down the spine.  Those crashing drums, that intro guitar, even the loud rock guitar.  But, of course, it’s Karen O that we all adore here.  Instead of yelling and stalking the stage, she lightly explains her love.  It’s powerful, tragic, and stunning.  This is an impact song.

11. “I’ll Believe in Anything” by Wolf Parade

This song and “Shine a Light” stand tall as the highlights from Wolf Parade’s debut album.  But for some reason, “I’ll Believe in Anything” always seems a step ahead.  I think it has to do with the unashamed emotion that flows in this song.  Seemingly a tale of longing for a lost lover, the whole thing is a bit difficult to dissect.  But it is clear that there is a distinct pain in Spencer Krug’s voice.  The loud crashing music only adds to the raw strength of this song.  By the end of the song, you are also willing to believe, if only for your own happiness.

10. “Clocks” by Coldplay

Coldplay is a very overrated (yes, really) band that garners popular attention because of their refined combination of Radiohead and U2.  They’re big, don’t really have a distinct message, and can generally be described as dull.

So why are they in my top 10?  Because this song is so good.  Perhaps Coldplay was just meant to play this one song and get on with their lives.  I’m a sucker for a good piano song, and this thing is just fantastic.  Chris Martin sings without getting overly annoying, and the looping piano phrase is just brilliant.  And I can’t help but feel taken away when that last phrase hits: “Home, home, where I wanted to go.”

9. “Mothers, Sisters, Daughters & Wives” by Voxtrot

This may be the most low-key song included on my list.  But the whole thing is wonderful rock.  A great, clear voice works well with the instantly appealing guitars and tight drums.  It’s a shame that this band hasn’t really caught on.  With the EP named for this song, they unleashed a set of five amazing tracks.  Every one of them features memorable music, but this is the best of the bunch.

8. “While You Wait for the Others” by Grizzly Bear

Grizzly Bear made a huge leap from enjoyable folk to super songwriters.  The key track off this year’s Veckatimest is a real highlight.  Its atmosphere is powerful and evocative, bringing forth real emotional responses.  Those voices, that guitar… it’s musical brilliance, with just enough muscle to keep it around your brain for months.  This song clearly eclipses all others from this year, constantly echoing in my head.  This is one to remember.

7. “3rd Planet” by Modest Mouse

It starts so simply.  Lightly plucked, quietly entered.  And then the self-admissions happen.  And then the world starts to open up with giant faith statements, and comments about the nature of the earth.  Oh, yeah, the guitars kick it up too.  This song is a great way to enter the land of The Moon & Antarctica, it’s familiar and disarming all at the same time.  Of course, this was the one song where we all wondered, “Is this really Modest Mouse?”  It’s unfortunate they haven’t reached a height like this again.

6. “White Winter Hymnal” by Fleet Foxes

If you don’t like the singing, then I don’t know what you’re doing.  I mean, first there is the lead voice, strong, right on pitch, beats the pants off any American Idol-type pop artist today.  Then there are the backing voices.  Each of these singers could take the lead spot and this song would still be in the top ten.  Instead, they blend and create a harmonious point of glory.  This only functions to add to the amazing musical arrangement, thus creating a powerful, memorable song.

5. “Nothing Ever Happened” by Deerhunter

In an album full of abstract ideas, “Nothing Every Happened” stands out as a beautiful culmination of all the strange noise-rock, but with a very accessible mindset.  Of course, it helps to have one of the best outros of the decade working for you.  Big bold drums give up the limelight for the stunning guitar work.  From the noisy breakdown comes the huge finish: clear, powerful, singular notes.

4. “My Mathematical Mind” by Spoon

It’s sometimes hard to point out what makes Spoon so great.  I guess it’s that they break down their songs into the most minimal of ideas, removing the unimportant fuss.  They kind of make you work for it – fill in the gaps almost.  Here, there’s a sort of self-assured power on display.  I don’t really know why exactly this song strikes so much more than any other Spoon song though.  I think it has to do with the pianos, the ideas (“I’m gonna stop riding the brakes”), and Britt Daniels’ smooth voice.  Or maybe it’s just that this song is really one of the four best of the decade.

3. “A-Punk” by Vampire Weekend

The best song of last year is certainly the best pure pop on from the decade.  It’s extremely bright, and from the moment you hear that chord structure, you’re hooked.  For the next two minutes, you have no choice: you bop your head, and you let the music get at you.  Or you watch the video and enjoy even more.

2. “Rebellion (Lies)” by Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire are all about big song and big emotions.  While some may argue that a few of the “Neighborhood” songs are better, I don’t think you can go wrong with “Rebellion (Lies)”  It stands out as such a strong song.  Call-and-response ending in yells of “Lies,” and a string part that acts as primary instrumental melody.  The guitar flourishes and an enraged lead voice closing out the song.  Each of these moments mean so much to those who have heard the song.  If you’re not amongst the believers, let this song prove the might of the Arcade Fire.

1. “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem

So Pitchfork nearly got it right, placing “All My Friends” at second in their decade-list.  But I view them as wrong.

There are so many great songs focusing on emotion, devastating tragedy, and difficult choices.  But it’s rare for a song to confront the idea of growing up like this.  Yeah, many have taken the general “I hope I die before I get old” path, but how many have really taken the idea of age and turned it into a 7-minute opus?

The whole song grapples with life and this transitional idea.  It’s really strange at first, but by the third minute you’re left wondering where else this guy will go.  It’s an intelligent analysis of the self, and James Murphy has some of the best lyrics in recent memory strewn together to make “All My Friends” work.

Of course, without the backing track, his words are just a poetic reflection.  Instead, the base layer of piano kicks the whole thing along, allowing a gradual build across the entire song.  More guitars are added, louder drums, and even more piano.  Everything almost becomes overwhelming, finally ending in the stunning, maybe empowering reflection, “If I could see all my friends tonight.”

James Murphy has penned the greatest song of this decade.  Its musical, lyrical, emotional, and human elements are all greater than any other single track from another source.  His mastery of his craft and an understanding of himself have resulted in a brilliant song that is forever echoing for me.  It is like no other.

BEST ALBUMS OF 2009: 5-1

Here ends the recap of this year’s best music.  I hope you’ve enjoyed my take on what 2009 has had to offer.  Come back tomorrow for the first part of my look into the Best Songs of the Decade.  Thanks again for reading!

5. Bitte Orca by Dirty Projectors

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Free admission: I had never heard of Dirty Projectors when Pitchfork started hyping this album as the next coming of Jeebus, or something absurd.  But that darned little Lala player thing in their review… so I clicked and before I knew it I was hooked.

Bitte Orca is so interesting because of how scatterbrained it seems.  But the album is such an overwhelming success because it is, above all else, a pop album.  Great hooks, catchy guitars, a solid beat in every song, and enjoyable vocals all sound like something your “average” band would aspire toward.  Dirty Projectors work toward those goals, but with a sense of originality and fun.

Each song has a particular moment that you’ll mentally return to – the first time the guitars kick back in during “Cannibal Resource,” the high-pitched “ooos” in “Stillness is the Move,” or the sense of finality and rest felt throughout “Fluorescent Half Dome.”  Bitte Orca is ultimately so great because it has something for everyone.  For me, it is a stream of catchy indie pop and I love it.

4. No One’s First and You’re Next by Modest Mouse

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There is a strong predisposition in my mind toward the works of Modest Mouse.  My ears are always happy to hear the skittering guitars, the wild rants and the complex drum parts.  I was mildly disappointed by We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, but having so much mental stock in the band, I was pretty excited to hear about this EP.

No One’s First is so much more than just an EP.  Clocking in at over 33 minutes, this EP stands tall, managing to last as long as many full-lengths out there.  But more impressive is the overall quality of these “throwaway” songs.  Every song can get under your skin, be it through muscular guitar heroics on “The Whale Song,” the fun wobbling horns of “Perpetual Motion Machine,” or the absolute insanity of “King Rat.”

One point I’d like to return to is this “throwaway” song concept.  Modest Mouse manages to gain a great deal of respect for releasing such collection EPs.  No One’s First joins previous releases like Everywhere and His Nasty Parlour Tricks and The Fruit That Ate Itself as a document of the non-album products from recording sessions.  The more complete image of the band’s work is fascinating, but made all the more thrilling when the bonus tracks are as great as those found on No One’s First.

3. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix by Phoenix

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I first ran into these guys on Pitchfork (I sound like such a sheep) and a few blogs that I follow.  I’d heard of them before but never heard the band.  So, when I went to buy Veckatimest from Amazon (real CD, mind you), I decided to chuck Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix in my cart to get some free shipping.  Wow what a great impulse buy.

There must be something in the water in France.  That or they’re given some gene that allows great work with electronics in popular music.  At any rate, this album would have held down a top 10 spot with just the first two songs – “Lisztomania” and “1901” have both been drooled about already on this blog.  They’re fantastic pop with insane musical benefits.

But then Phoenix decided to slap a worthy album at the end of this super-duo.  Amazingly enough, I find myself considering the synth-sounds in “Fences,” the guitars in “Lasso” and the lyrics of “Rome” nearly as much as the starting two.  Ultimately, I find myself falling back on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix more often than any of the other albums released in 2009.  Its position on this list indicates a slight superiority in two other releases, but in terms of sheer play time, it’s hard to find an album that has dominated my life more than this.

2. Veckatimest by Grizzly Bear

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I did not need the internet hype for this album: I’d already hyped it up for myself.  After learning about Grizzly Bear out of necessity (they were opening for Radiohead), I realized what an amazingly talented group they were.  Yellow House was wonderful, but it was their live performance that convinced me.  From that point on, I was insanely excited, realizing that Grizzly Bear might make that breakthrough, maybe creating that next OK Computer

Veckatimest doesn’t quite reach OK Computer, but it does more than admirably.  As has been analyzed by others, the album is one of beauty.  Instead of setting out to impress with flashy sounds, everything here happens through a slow, delicate burn.  The songs take multiple listens to reveal their full brilliance, but are very good even with one trial.  I am always impressed by Veckatimest in how it manages to disarm my tendency to stick with maybe one or two songs.  Yes, “Two Weeks” and “While You Wait for the Others” are stunning singles.  But “Southern Point” is such a perfect starter.  And “Ready, Able” is so heartbreaking and powerful.  And “I Love With You” and “Foreground” form a perfect closing duo.

Yes, Veckatimest is as good as the hype claims.  It’s a stunning, near-perfect album album.  The whole thing should be considered when pondering its excellence, and it never fails to impress.  Only a few months ago, this was a shoe-in for the best album of 2009, and probably in the top 3 of the decade.  But then…

1. Embryonic by The Flaming Lips

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It really pains me to pick this as the best album of 2009.  I was so ready to pick Veckatimest.  The Grizzly Bear album feels an old worn friend.  It succeeded at being the great album I wanted and more.  But it wasn’t even fair.

Previously with The Flaming Lips, we were watching a band sit idle.  After ending the 1990s with such a brilliant album in The Soft Bulletin, the group released a similarly ambitious and sonically rich album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.  Both felt really magical, leaving a sense of euphoria and a musical high with the listener.  But then came At War With the Mystics.  There’s nothing really wrong with Mystics, but it’s just not that great.  The songs seem repetitive, and don’t really carry that sheen of excellence seen before.  It was like the band was running out of steam.  And then this happened.

Embryonic sounds like nothing else this decade.  Massive, overwhelming, almost like a poorly edited idea that got thrown onto an album.  But everything is so good.  Right from the beginning you’re left at attention.  The way the guitar bursts in, you can’t help but wonder what is going to happen.

From here on, you are carried through a whirlwind journey of music.  The key here is the atmosphere.  The Flaming Lips never lose touch with what they’re doing on this album – it’s dark, foreign, depressing and imposing.  Thus every song builds with these ideals as a basis.  How did the stagnant Flaming Lips turn around and explode with such suddenly mysterious, muscular music?

The whole thing also seems to focus on the wrongs of humanity, the working of the machine, the tendency of evil.  It’s all rather overwhelming… and yet it fits the huge, ambitious music perfectly.  Embryonic was just so surprising and amazing.

With a bit of time now to digest things, I really had no choice in the matter.  Embryonic is clearly the best album of 2009.  My heart may wish to go otherwise, but to leave this album would be so wrong.  Maybe even more impressive is how this album has managed to reach that kind of plateau where I can think about it along with The Moon & Antarctica or OK Computer.  Its scope, concept and style of music fits the bill.  This is an album I hope to be playing years from now, still considering how lucky I was to run into it.

BEST SONGS OF 2009: 20-11

To check out these songs for yourself, click on the last word of each commentary.  You’ll find a link to YouTube for a stream of the track.  Here we go…

20. “I’m On a Boat” by The Lonely Island

It’s cheesy, stupid, childish, and clearly pandering to the college-jock type.  Yet here writes an engineering student with no real affection toward rap, thoroughly enjoying this song.  “Boat” is just so silly and fun, and you can’t help but love the premise.  The whole thing is made even better by the brilliant self-parody offered by T-Pain.  He is well aware of the setting, and lays down some fantastic fake-singing just for SNL.  It’s made better (obviously) with the video.  Watch it over and over on Lala or here.

19. “WIlco (The Song)” by Wilco

I’ve become a more devoted Wilco follower in recent days thanks to a great run with Summerteeth over the past year.  However, the brilliance of modern-day Wilco shouldn’t be overlooked.  “The Song” is a slight bit of parody, but manages to encapsulate most of what makes the band great in one place.  I think the big bells in the last third of the song really bring it together for me.  It’s the idea that, yes they’re more straightforward today, but they’ll still make magical music.  Listen to it here.

18. Young Adult Friction” by The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

For those not in the know, it’s about love in a library.  I personally find the lyrics to be annoying and a bit overdone.  This is all pushed aside by great guitars and a rhythm section that gives a sense of direction.  Think of combining the jangle and drums of R.E.M. with a New Wave attitude and you’re nearly there.  Lyrical delivery certainly counts for a lot here – enthusiasm is very present.  The 80s would have loved this band, and I’m glad we have them.

17. “Send Him Away” by Franz Ferdinand

The Scots best know for the crazy rhythm change in “Take Me Out” are back with a fairly angry tune.  This discussion of female infidelity fits in nicely with the whole “night out” theme within their latest album.  The singer ultimately ends begging to stay the night.  While he may be a tad pathetic, the music is tight, offering a nice guitar jangle that swings around a phenomenal bass line and a complex-yet-digestible drum part.  I’d argue that this is the top highlight of the whole album.

16. “I am Leaving” by Blue Roses

Blue Roses was described by someone else as the sound of a rainy day repeated over a whole album.  I think that’s a pretty apt feeling, but it sells the music short.  “I am Leaving” is at its core a song about a breakup or exiting a family.  But more important is the sheer beauty of the song.  Aching guitars are placed with bright chimes.  I’m a real sucker for great vocals, and this also propels this song.  Laura Groves has an amazing voice, and after this song, you’re left sorry for her and yet entirely elated.

15. “These Are My Twisted Words” by Radiohead

When this was originally leaked, it seemed like an obvious Radiohead song.  Perhaps that is because it sounds like a stereotypical Radiohead song.  Tight drums, wandering guitars, Thom Yorke’s ever-present voice.  But let me ask: isn’t that also what makes Radiohead so amazingly great?  If they were to release an album full of songs like this, wouldn’t we all flip out and proclaim it one of the greatest in recent memory?  Yeah, “Twisted Words” isn’t very special in the Radiohead cannon, but that it holds many Radiohead trademarks makes it better than 90% of music today.

14. “Pieces” by Dinosaur Jr.

I completely missed out on the first round of Dinosaur Jr, so I can’t really compare this song to anything that came before.  Instead, I have the perspective of an outsider on this.  Frankly, I’m disgusted.  How did I not find this band earlier?  Straightforward rock with the best guitars I may have heard from all of music… where has J Mascis been all my life?  This is a great song on an album full of great songs and the band really deserves all the praise offered lately.  A great first impression (the leadoff track from Farm) for this new fan.

13. “Two Weeks” by Grizzly Bear

There is a very puzzling blogosphere “general opinion” that “Two Weeks” is better than “While You Wait for the Others.”  I really don’t agree with that view of things, and see “While You Wait” as an vastly superior track.  However, that does not leave “Two Weeks” as a poor piece of music.  Rather, the bright pop and fantastic arrangement of “Two Weeks” is a fantastic entry point to the music of Grizzly Bear.  It’s very catchy, the vocal harmonies are splendid (even close to the power of Fleet Foxes) and the whole thing is just very pretty.  It is sometimes difficult to accept a song for being essentially beautiful, but this track is fantastic.

12. “Convinced of the Hex” by The Flaming Lips

There are certainly more catchy songs on Embryonic, but there is nothing more attention-grabbing.  The strange introduction only pulls you into a great blend of crazy rock.  Superb funky guitars and a crashing set of drums manage to set up an amazing atmosphere for the whole album.  Nothing since The Moon & Antarctica has set up such an otherworldly feel.  It’s great, and you’ll be left thinking about that bass line for weeks.

11. “This Tornado Loves You” by Neko Case

Left just short of the top ten, but not because of Ms. Case’s pipes.  Wow can she belt out some music.  Of course her voice is pointless on a “traditional” album unless the music can keep up.  Here, everything is great.  Guitars, pianos, drums, all working in tandem to build the foundation of this song.  Then Case fires on all cylinders to send everything into the stratosphere.  “What will make you believe me?” she belts with all her might.  The whole tornado-lover metaphor thing would seem a bit heavy-handed if not for the great holistic production.  That, and her voice is big enough to be an F5.

Come back for the next 10 songs tomorrow night!

Review: LeftRightLeftRightLeft by Coldplay

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Open admission: I don’t really care for Coldplay.  That’s a careful selection of words – they aren’t a band to dislike, I just don’t particularly care about them.  Of course, they do have a few reasons to love them (see: “Clocks” and “The Scientist”), but I’ve otherwise considered them to be a mediocre Radiohead-cover band (see: “Speed of Sound”).

But then they did something a bit unexpected and released LeftRightLeftRightLeft for free.  I like free things, even if they’re mediocre.  Particularly, I like free music – this external hard drive has plenty of music I don’t always listen to, so why not add this?

I am here to bring glad tidings – this is good free music.  I’m not going to discuss the benefits or failings of the original recordings, but the quality of live music presented here is really excellent.  Layered sounds come through quite nicely, and Chris Martin’s voice never overpowers the instruments (and vice versa).

It’s very clear that Coldplay are excellent showmen, bringing quite a bit of energy to their performance.  It’s an interesting combo on this side of the headphones – there are big bold sounds (like U2), but presented in a personal way.  It’s like the band really cares about every note and word, yet manages to translate their feeling to the crowds.

The majesty of “Clocks” was particularly gripping to me.  I personally view the song as one of the best of this decade, offering musical cohesion and emotional fervor.  Live, the crowds are justifiably excited by the opening.  Suddenly, this special, individual song becomes global and powerful.  A song that jerks tears can also build momentum and bring forth clapping from the masses.  It’s pretty awesome.

The crowds of the recording are also an important note.  They’re never dropped entirely from the mix, but are kept generally low in most cases.  I think this is a good decision, allowing the music to speak without annoying whoops jumping in the way.

The quality of the individual songs can be argued, but that’s left for reviews of the individual albums.  What is in LeftRight is a great introduction to Coldplay and a very nice free album to add to your collection.  The score below isn’t a number (but so you know, the music would not get a 10).  Instead, it’s a clear reminder that free things are excellent, and we should be very thankful for this one.

RATING: GET IT NOW