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.

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BEST SONGS OF 2009: 10-1

Yet again, you can click on the last phrase of each comment to see a stream of each track.  The video is embedded for the Top 3.  Let’s see where it ends…

10. “Guilty Cocker Spaniels” by Modest Mouse

It is an absolute shame that little attention was paid to Modest Mouse this year.  No One’s First and You’re Next was a fantastic EP, offering more great music in its few tracks than most bands have in a full-length album.  “Guilty Cocker Spaniels” is a highlight on this album, built on classically-jangling guitars and Isaac Brock’s clever lyrics.  It’s a bit lighter than some of their other fare, but the song has a great construction, offering no real structure, yet never straying too far into uncharted waters.  What really wins me over is the lightly plucked intro and outro; it’s lovely and innocent – a great foil to the titular dogs.

9. “Mind Eraser No Chaser” by Them Crooked Vultures

The supergroup of Dave Grohl, Josh Homme, and John Paul Jones sounded very exciting from the start.  I would argue that even if this was the only result from their meeting, the whole thing was a complete success.  Hard rock has been missing the thunder provided by Grohl’s drums and the thump brought forth by Jones’ bass.  Interestingly, it’s Homme (the least legendary member) that pulls the whole thing together.  His great guitar and singing presence really elevate this tale to a fantastic new high.  Listen in and let your mind be done anew by this instant classic.

8. “Cannibal Resource” by Dirty Projectors

“Stillness is the Move” may have a better sense of R&B, but Bitte Orca is at its peak where it begins.  This song ultimately summarizes what makes the rest of this Dirty Projectors album so great.  The structure is fairly random, bouncing back and forth between a semi-call-and-response verse, a cooing comment on the “arbitrary life”, and an attacking guitar structure.  What really pushes this song ahead is the previously mentioned guitar.  From the startup, through the midsection, right until the end, the song stands out thanks to great singing and sight guitar.  Hear it and break into this album the right way.

7. “Zero” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Breaking away from the garage rock of Fever to Tell, suddenly the Yeah Yeah Yeahs act as a brilliant electronic glam rock unit.  Here, Karen O takes a full leap into a super-diva.  Her voice is still explosive, but now it’s wide-ranging stunning with the new musical backdrop.  “Zero” is interesting in lyrical content, not just vocal delivery.  The song is directed at the loser (the zero of the title), a sort of realist’s view and inspirational all the same.  They offer that you “No one’s gonna ask you [your name]” and you “better find out where they want you to go.”  It’s mildly humbling, but really pushes you to reach the top.

6. “Daylight” by Matt & Kim

Yes yes, this song has been everywhere.  But honestly, it’s really worth all the attention.  The piano basis is so simple yet utterly brilliant, offering a rhythmic and melodic template for the entire song.  Of course, this would mean nothing without that fantastic swagger that seems to carry through the song.  It is fun and high quality.  A great example of where popularity is deserved.

5. “My Girls” by Animal Collective

Pitchfork has made this the year of Animal Collective, and that sort of labeling is pretty well wrong.  Yes, Merriweather Post Pavilion is a good album, but it is nowhere near the top of the decade.  It’s overdone, too big, and generally quite boring.  The main exceptions to this are “Brother Sport” and “My Girls.”  However, it is “My Girls” that is clearly the top Collective song and one of the best of the year.  Sincere and heartfelt, this song explodes with stunning creativity.  The premise alone would probably make this song worth mention; it’s a reflection on the need for family and only the basic essentials necessary to carry out such a life.  This song’s power only increases in the context of the dead singer’s father.  MPP may not be worth $20, but this song is golden.

4. “1901” by Phoenix

Back in June, I may have commented something about Phoenix existing as an unknown band, guessing that Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix would never sell much.  Whoops.  Turns out that Phoenix has gone crazy this year, finding themselves on the Billboard album charts for months, playing on SNL and being prominently featured in car ads.  “1901” is one of two super-songs on the album, reaching past the regular excellence seen in the rest of the album.  Electronics blend brilliantly with the guitar and drums.  Of course, “1901” would be nothing without the great personality from the band.  Oh, to be French and brilliant musically.  So much more than just a commercial jingle.

3. “King Rat” by Modest Mouse

Guess what: Modest Mouse is still amazing.  This song features the insane brilliance of Isaac Brock, his psychotic lyrical delivery, bombastic guitars, and some powerful horns.  This song is the crown jewel in the fantastic No One’s First EP, offering a song that is miles better than anything off We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank.  It’s stunning, especially when accompanied with the crazy video directed by the late Heath Ledger.  Certainly one of the best songs of the year.

2. “Lisztomania” by Phoenix

So Phoenix unleashed a pretty great album with Wolfgang Amadeus.  The top highlights are the stunning one-two punch that start the album in “Lisztomania” and “1901.”  I personally find “Lisztomanina” to be the superior tune, with the catchier lyrics and the brighter music.  Of course, I don’t think you can go wrong with either tune – they’re superb pop with a touch of electronica to keep things interesting.

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

“Two Weeks” is wonderful, but “While You Wait for the Others” really takes the top prize this year.  Ever since its debut on Conan, this song has been a beautifully haunting reminder of how great Grizzly Bear might become.  The development of this song and eventual outcome on Veckatimest is spectacular.  The 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 for the year, constantly echoing in my head.  This is one to remember.

Last year, the top song was a catchy pop piece, now my cell phone ringtone in “A-Punk.”  This year, we find nearly the inverse.  Instead of bright, happy pop, there’s a moody, introspective baroque-pop song.  Does that lessen either?  Not really, but it provides an interesting point of comparison and a great way to realize how amazing and broad popular music has become.

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at the best songs from this year.  Come around tomorrow night to find out what I view as the best albums of 2009.  It should be fun!

End of Year/Decade: Cleaning House

It must be very clear at this point that I’m a terrible long-term blogger. Perhaps as a part of a blogging team I’d be more useful.  Then I’d have someone around to prod me into writing. Instead, it’s weeks or months of schoolwork that interfere with constructive blog time.  And that leaves me where I am now, doing what I like the most anyway.

IT IS THE END OF THE YEAR AND ALSO THE END OF A DECADE!

Stunning news, I’m sure.  Also, I’m sure you’ve seen all sorts of foolish end-of-whatever lists out there.  I personally love these things.  I realize they’re completely personalized and you can’t possibly quantify music so easily, but I love the idea of comparing great music.  Even more so, I love learning what awesome stuff is out there – there’s no way I could have heard it all.

Of course, as a blogger, it’s the law that I have an opinion to voice.  Thus, we enter my versions of the best of 2009/2000s.

THE SCHEDULE (AS IT STANDS):

  • BEST SONGS OF 2009 – Numbers 20-11 Dec 17th.  Numbers 10-1 Dec 18th
  • BEST ALBUMS OF 2009 – Numbers 15-6 Dec 19th. Numbers 5-1 Dec 20th.
  • BEST SONGS OF THE DECADE -  Numbers 50-21 Dec 21st.  Numbers 20-1 Dec 22nd
  • BEST ALBUMS OF THE DECADE – Numbers 35-11 Dec 23rd.  Numbers 10-1 Dec 24th

 

I hope to stick to this schedule.  I realize that my lack of input has rather failed you all again, but I’ve been organizing and thinking about these lists for a while now.  I love to think about music, and I personally love to decide what the best of music is.  Unfortunately for all of us, OK Computer was in fact released in the 1990s.  That would have made this all much easier.

At any rate, I shall see you all tomorrow with a brilliant list of songs from this year.  They are all great!

Worst Music 2008: The Greatest Man that Ever Lived

Weezer Strikes Again

After covering so much that is positive in music from 2008, we now come to this – the worst that the year had to offer. The discovery is no longer so surprising; we again find Weezer responsible for the greatest lack of quality. But the surprise is that they’ve managed to top even themselves in crafting the worst song in their entire catalogue.

The Red Album: Lyrical Abomination

Before we proceed, I’d like to discuss the polished turd that is Weezer (The Red Album). I’ve tried to write a review for this, and I find the act very difficult. On the one hand, we see Weezer hit a pre-Green Album height with the witty and catchy “Pork and Beans.” This song alone would probably carry most albums to moderate critical approval – it’s a heavy hitter and well constructed.

But they managed to ruin everything. Every other song on the album is completely terrible. Particularly, the lyrics are cringe-worthy across the board, offering weak rhymes and terrible images. The whole thing seems lazy and half-assed (not even forced – just awful). There are so many examples of such weakness that it is difficult to articulate the entirety of what The Red Album offers.

“Troublemaker” is an immediate offender, where lazy couplets such as “books” rhymed with “crooks” try to convey some inspiration. I only see the use of a free rhyming website. Things only worsen when Cuomo states

“‘cuz I can’t work a job like any other slob / punching in and punching out and sucking up to Bob / Marrying a biotch having seven kids.”

Fortunately, you can’t hear the vocal inflection in such a textual form. Unfortunately, if you do (and please do not) listen to the song, a terrible discovery jumps right out – “biotch” is rhymed with “kids.” Do not ask how (something like kee-odds is pronounced), just run away.

“Heart Songs” only manages to show great insincerity with very weak lyrics. The entire catch is Cuomo referencing important songs that have guided him throughout his life (“heart” songs). Unfortunately, the turning point is a poorly structured reference to Nirvana’s breakthrough Nevermind. Simply, the effort put forth to keep the phrases a uniform syllabic length is obnoxious. Such change in cadence shows throws the listener askew and is extremely distracting. It’s really disheartening to remember that Weezer once put together tight songs like “Say It Ain’t So.”

As a final reference point, “Everybody Get Dangerous” has one of the simplest ways of offending – creating a stupid chorus. Yes, everything else is idiotic (the negation of cow-tipping because “I didn’t want the cow to feel sad” is especially groan-worthy), but the refrain stands tall and makes this one of the most moronic songs ever.

“Boo-yah”

Yeah. Seriously. I cannot make this up. The statement “Everybody get dangerous” is followed up with a “boo-yah.” Please make them stop.

The Worst Song of All Time

In the past, I may have described Weezer’s “Beverly Hills” as the worst song of all time. I assumed that no band could ever match the insane levels of pure suck that were displayed in that recording. Little did I know – Weezer would make everything even worse.

I just can’t begin to wrap my head around what they were thinking in even constructing this song. It starts at the point where we last saw Weezer work to achieve new points in “awful.” Yes, they’re rapping again, now with terrible lyrics about getting in someone’s underwear. But the song is full of 10-second outbursts of sound that gravitate around a central guitar riff that appears throughout. So the rapping ends.

And then you pray that it returns. Instead of improving, Rivers Cuomo uses falsetto. This sounds worse than even the lowest of American Idol rejects, and you cry out in pain.

The schizophrenia on display continues as Weezer jumps into a guitar pop that holds their patented sound from the past. But this is only momentary as synthetic sounds hop in and fill out the sound, segueing into another awful segment.

Here, Rivers Cuomo talks about being a “player.” And then it happens. He tell us:

“And bodies be all up on my behind.”

Ladies and gentlemen, it is over. We have lost the nerdy, introspective Weezer that once filled our ears with joy and wonder. It has been replaced by a commercialized, fame-seeking band that only moves toward greater sales.

I think that for our sakes, we should now describe “old” Weezer as the real version of the band. At present, this collaboration of people under the Weezer name is not creating music to match the legacy. It sucks.

Now we can only look forward to each Weezer release and wonder what terrible song they’ll create next. Our ears can only hope that they quit trying to outdo themselves every time.

Best Albums 2008: 1 – Fleet Foxes

Fleet Foxes have everything going for them. They’ve got amazing vocal skills. The multi-part melodies and powerful lead parts are unmatched in all of music (sorry Aretha – you’ll have to move over for a bunch of guys from Seattle). Fleet Foxes also play great music, with excellent guitar lines and brilliant drumming.

And then there’s the atmosphere. Fleet Foxes is a very organic album, full of natural imagery and a timeless scope. Open spaces fill out with the gorgeous echoes of guitar and crooning in “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song.” Yet no particular era or location seems to account as the source of such beauty. You can’t seem to pinpoint a winter theme, a spring awakening, a summer journey through the night, or an autumn jaunt through the leaves in a forest. But it all seems so natural, so perfect, for whenever you are.

Fleet Foxes released this debut in June to much fanfare and its power is such that it still feels fresh in the frigid climates of December. This is a magical album that enchants the mind with every listen. Very few releases in the past twenty years have held such a distinction. Yes, Fleet Foxes is the best album of 2008. That was easy – there was no competition. This is miles ahead of any followers.

More importantly, Fleet Foxes is the best album of the decade, eclipsing even the majesty of The Moon and Antarctica and the stunning urgency of Kid A. It’s absolutely priceless in every way, representing the height in folk music and the true power of “indie” rock. Emotions and music combine here in the best way – get this and treasure it forever. Fleet Foxes is a keeper.

Best Songs 2008: 1 – A-Punk

Ladies and gentlemen, the best song of 2008:

Simple and brilliant, “A-Punk” is the best track off Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut. It starts with the best jangly guitars in many years. The bright sounds jump out alongside a bouncy bass line and a tight drum part. The whole thing goes down very fast (only slightly over two minutes), but it’s jam-packed with excellence.

In reality, this is the song that saved pop for me. Coming into 2008, my favorite “pop” band was Weezer, and I had been witnessing their fall. Make Believe was a flat-out terrible album and I was without hope for the exuberant pop-music that I once loved. Really the only “happy” pop that I managed to see was in 2007 was “tweeny” pop in its sugary, disgusting glory. No artistic benefit was to be seen with terrible lyrics, obnoxious “music” and legions of screaming fans.

Vampire Weekend is like CPR for the ears. It’s so fresh, so tight, and so brilliant. This is how pop music should be. This is how the single should exist. This is far and away the greatest song of 2008. Enjoy.

Best Albums 2008: 2 – Vampire Weekend

The critical reaction has been fairly positive, but the reaction from the blogosphere has been lukewarm. There was an extreme buildup, quite a bit of backlash and various other reactions. Some people think it’s too preppy, that some snot-nosed Ivy-Leaguers really don’t know a thing about making music. Even more, the apparent use of African-rhythms and ideas seems (to many observers) as a false way of being sophisticated.

Well I’ll be damned if I care about any of the buildup on either side. Quite simply, the guys of Vampire Weekend have made the catchiest, quirkiest album in recent memory. The word here is “pop.” Everything presented is catchy and fun, full of vibrant, ringing guitars. The production and songwriting is tight and clean, offering a shiny example of the way pop should be.

Every song has great ideas that stay with you for weeks to come. Opener “Mansard Roof” has an excellently delightful keyboard part that bounces along through the good beats. “Oxford Comma” asks about lies and has fairly goofy lyrics. “A-Punk” is simply the best song of the year with perfect jangling guitars and keyboards. “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” has interlaid guitar parts with bongos. “M79” features bright strings and harpsichord-sounding keys. “Campus” is a thoughtful song about romance and college life. “Bryn” has an amazing guitar line that follows throughout. There is a bit of nonsensical fun on “One (Blake’s Got a New Face).” The drums are stronger and more meaningful at the end of “I Stand Corrected.” The pianos are great and uplifting on “Walcott.” There is brilliance in the minimalism and string parts on “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance” and it provides a great closer to the album.

Yeah – I just listed a small bit about every song on the album. But the amazing thing is that with even a preliminary play, you’ll notice these parts just jump out. The roadmap listed above is fairly representative of what will stick with you.

Vampire Weekend is a great album, from start to end. The musicality (yes, it’s really quite impressive) and the infectious tunes are simply amazing. This is deservedly the second greatest album of 2008.