BEST ALBUMS OF THE DECADE: 3-1

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Here they are, the three best albums of the past decade.  I particularly feel that numbers 1 and 2 are a cut above the rest, but everything on this list was worth hearing.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this run of posts.  Come back in the next few days for a few final clean-up things from the last year.

3. Embryonic by The Flaming Lips (2009)

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The Flaming Lips are tough to characterize.  While they’re seemingly always a rock band, that little phrase means a litany of things coming from these guys.  Here, we find them at a bold, fresh place.  Instead of continuing a commercially noteworthy run of happy dream-pop, The Flaming Lips turn in a new direction.

Embryonic is full of dread, sadness and terror.  But it’s also a crazed combination of sound.  Here we find a band acting completely unlike themselves and unlike any other group.  Insane guitars, brooding production, and deeply emotional singing are all played in a non-traditional guise.  From the first spin of the disk, Embryonic is quite clear in its individuality.  After repeated listens, the details still remain stunning and unfathomable.  The whole thing is gigantic and a bit overwhelming, but cannot be ignored.

It was tough for me to include such a recent album so high in this list.  I wondered if future reflection will find me willing to place it elsewhere.  But that this album pushes ahead into this location speaks volumes toward its worth.  Certainly this was the best album of 2009, and it is a strong candidate for representation of the whole decade in music.

2. Gimme Fiction by Spoon (2005)

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It all starts for me with Britt Daniels.  The man has a voice that cuts through me like butter.  It’s not the most technically proficient, nor is it the most emotionally charged.  Instead, he sings with a sort of blue-collared honesty, utilizing his powers and space as well as possible to sing his songs.

And then the music develops around him.  Obviously that doesn’t explain their creation process, but it’s how I rationalize these songs.  Everything is cut down to be exactly what is needed; no more, and no less.  This concept of minimal songwriting is brilliant, and doesn’t leave gaping holes, as might be imagined.  Instead, the songs are full of life, but not necessarily lots of instrumentation.

Things are better this way.  Without this cut down, we wouldn’t have the great dry jam of “I Turn My Camera On.”  But then there are songs like “Sister Jack.”  Believe it or not, this also subscribes to the minimalist theory.  Can you imagine if this song were loud punk riffs throughout?  Here we find a loud rocker that holds back.

Spoon released album after amazing album this decade, so I forced myself to pick just one album from the Texas natives.  Why such a limit?  Because I didn’t want spots 2, 3, 4, and 5 all from one artist and I didn’t want to lump them all together at number 1.  This also hints at how strong Gimme Fiction is within the Spoon canon.  That I can justify it standing head and shoulders above the rest is stunning.  See also, exhibit 4: “My Mathematical Mind.”  I dare you to name a better Spoon song.

1. The Moon & Antarctica by Modest Mouse

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And here we stand, in the presence of the greatest album of this past decade.  At this point, the praise for The Moon & Antarctica has seemingly taken a backseat to the amazing revelations of success found by Modest Mouse.  It is completely clear that “Float On” is a bigger draw than “3rd Planet” in the popular sphere.

So what makes this release so profound and leaves it to stand as the greatest album?  A good place to look is at the ambition.  The previous Modest Mouse release (Lonesome Crowded West) was an excellent indie rock album, full of skittering guitar and Isaac Brock’s crazed lyrics.  Unfortunately, that album was rather directionless, dragging on at times and leaving the last half to carry on a bit too far.  However, Lonesome was enough to push the band off to a major label.

Oh what a major label debut.  I think the best descriptor is “fearless.”  Every song is packed with ideas and each sound is refreshing and enjoyable.  Strong textures and great musicianship create something that is a real space-rock experience.

Things are taken even further by the power of the lyrics.  While Brock has focused on strange things, religion, and life (both before and after this album), he has never been so coherent.  Reflections on life, death, hope, religion, and the very nature of the universe are all included.  While this may seem a bit over-ambitious, nothing seems dilute or unnecessary.

When I created this blog, I named it “Essential Listening,” hoping to convey what any music fan should hear.  This is the apex of that output in this past decade.  Modest Mouse fan or not, this album stands out in stunning fashion.  Every piece, every epic element of this towering accomplishment is stunning, even almost 10 years after its release.  This is truly essential.  The Moon & Antarctica is the Album of the Decade.

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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!

Song Roundup 5: The Cold Stopgap Version

Winter has struck with its full fury. This means negative temperatures and the fine distraction known as “college.” However, I have not forgotten the existence of this blog. Here are some songs I’ve been listening to in the past few weeks.

“Beautiful Day” by U2

Understandably, U2 doesn’t always find favor in indie critics. Instead of pushing forth on a small label and aiming for personalized songs, Bono and company scale everything to as massive a scale as possible. The sound, the message, the concerts and the personalities are simply enormous. U2 is that rare band that really fits the idea of being the “biggest band in the world.” The first track off All That You Can’t Leave Behind is no different: the pounding drums, the echoing guitars and the soaring vocals are classic U2. But this doesn’t lessen the impact of the song. The lyrics hit hard in a very powerful combination of joy and sorrow. Clearly, the initial reaction is in the jubilant chorus. Bono sounds positively ecstatic, noting that this day is simply “beautiful.” But the lead-up and follow-up shift the scope. The initial sounds are not happy and the text matches the tone: “there’s no room” and “you’re out of luck” in this town. So the resultant cry is suddenly more urgent. It’s not just a beautiful day, “It’s a beautiful day, don’t let it get away.” This plea has a personal appeal, but it manages to touch all who listen. This is a keeper.

“Millstone” by Brand New

My initial reaction to Brand New was from the radio nonsense that had been spread in the early part of this decade. Your Favorite Weapon and Deja Entendu didn’t seem to have any real value. Of course, this judgment was only based on my experience with their singles. Imagine my surprise when I encountered this song – a complete, poignant piece with powerful lyrics and stunning musical composition. Was this really the same band?

The latest release by Brand New (The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me) is one of the most amazing records of the past five years. The whole thing is full of breathtaking sonic structures and touching lyrics, all while maintaining the work ethic exhibited by so many “punk” bands. There are standouts everywhere on the album, but perhaps the best song is “Millstone.” The piece begins with a tight bass line and a light guitar as the singer discusses his joyful past. The chorus then explodes as self-defeat takes over. Fortunately, this outcome does not come across as whiney or pretentious. Instead, we see Brand New working an excellent rock song as their singer laments in a very legitimate way. It’s not emo – it’s excellence in music.

“A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” by The Flaming Lips

The inimitable Flaming Lips have struck musical gold in nearly every facet of their career. However, The Soft Bulletin sticks out as the top Lips album in my mind. “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” simultaneously takes off in many directions, offering reflective strings one moment, crashing guitars the next, and a harp somewhere in between. The whole thing is psychotic, but manages to hold together with the constant narrative voice of Wayne Coyne leading the way. It’s a fun song and proof of the brilliance of the Flaming Lips.

“The Bleeding Heart Show” by The New Pornographers

The New Pornos have been fighting for the title of “best pop band” for a few years now. Their resume includes great singing, insanely catchy melodies, and tightly constructed songs. “The Bleeding Heart Show” may stand as a summarizing statement of all that makes this band so great, offering varied dynamics, dueling vocalists, full-out chant-choruses and bright guitars. But there are two elements that make this song so worthy of repeated listens. First, the drumming in the final section is simply divine. Kurt Dahle uses phenomenal fills that are vastly more innovative than any seen in current pop radio. Instead of merely sticking with a consistent repeated statement throughout, Dahle goes everywhere, working each element of his set. Miraculously, he never loses a single joule of energy or a second of the beat. It’s a very refreshing experience.

And then there are the lyrics. While this is a relationship song, the vast sea of love clichés is seemingly avoided. The story explains a love that forms between two former friends instead of two star-crossed lovers. This pairing seems “as if I picked your name out of a hat,” and the idea is strange to observers. Yet the whole thing falls down as the perceptions disappear. In the aftermath of such a strange spark is the epic final phrase: “We have arrived too late to play the bleeding heart show.” It’s a perfect song and represents the hope of those looking for the future of pop.