Monday, January 02, 2006

Best of 2005

Hello and Happy New Year!

For some time now I have been burdening friends, associates and passersby with an annual list of my top ten albums of the year.

Longtime readers will note that this year's version is a bit shorter than usual. I found after considerable review that this was the number of albums this year that I could strongly recommend.

A random search of the new multitudes of music bogs suggest I'm not the only one who had to stretch to get to a Top Ten. The music industry is changing radically - cod sales are down, sales of downloads are up, and the Ipod has made the album itself less relevant. Increasingly I am discovering new music in smaller bites, single by single, and listening that way as well.

So this year there were fewer new albums that grabbed my attention - but music still framed my days. I ran to music, commuted to music, worked to music, and told my daughter I loved her to music. I trust the soundtrack to your year was also a good one!

As always, please feel free to offer recommendations of your own or disagree with mine.

And so, in no particular order....


Slater Kinney -- The Woods

Over the last decade the trio that makes up Slater Kinney have recorded 6 albums. Most are excellent, and most sounded similar. And so this year the band confronted a choice that other longstanding bands have also faced: Do we continue to make essentially the same record again or do we take the more difficult step by challenging ourselves and our fans with a different sound? Sleater Kinney decided to blaze a new path into The Woods, and the music they made there was a real departure from their previous work. The production is denser and fuzzier, and nearly psychedelic feedback laden solos claw from the middle of songs.

Musical aggression has primarily been a male preserve; the Riot Grrl movement in the early 90s was, in part, an attempt to carve out a space where women could make the personal political with a snarl. Sleater-Kinney came out of that moment and defined it for many - a sound rooted in punk's quick slashing strikes, angry atonal guitars and shouted vocals. Ten years later, Sleater-Kinney reacted to the war in Iraq and with lyrics like "Hey! Look around they are lying to you. Can't you see it is just a silly ruse?" decided to make the political personal. Their sound has always been furious, but musically the Woods is angry in a different way; more Hendrix, and less Clash. Before long guitar solos became a cliché of self indulgent rock dinosaur doodling, they were an expression of freedom and wordless rage. On the Woods, and in their recent live shows, Sleater Kinney has mined this earlier vein. And so, The Woods is an archetype of what a searching, risk taking band can accomplish on its journey forward.


The Hold Steady - Separation Sunday

Sounding like an indeed version of the E Street Band, the Hold Steady is a bar band with big ambitions. Separation Sunday is a sprawling work - musically and lyrically: The songs tell the story to Kevin Smith's next movie; debauched suburban stories mixed with expressions of Catholic guilt: the line about "your little hoodrat friend" gives you a flavor. The almost impossibly geeky lead singer's voice is an acquired taste, considerably more of a growl then a croon, and yet it works because the songs are full of hooks, clever stops and starts, and grandiloquent piano runs up Asbury Park way.


Coldplay - X & Y

It has become officially uncool to like Coldplay (http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20B14FD3D5C0C768CDDAF0894DD404482) in much the same way that it is uncool to cry at the tear jerking movies that fill our multiplexes. So for purposes of full disclosure: I like schmaltz. I'm the guy quietly snuffling in the corner of the theatre. And in truth X & Y could be the soundtrack to any one of those overwrought films - its songs already form the backdrop to multiple movie previews and ads. So guilty as charged: X & Y wears its heart on its sleeve and tugs at our emotions; soaring, dramatic, expressive, and sensitive. The crescendos alone are worth the price of admission. The critics aren't all wrong - the cd is 15 minutes too long and the lyrics are insipid. But if you're like me you're not paying much attention to the dialogue anyway.


Antony and the Johnsons - I Am a Bird Now

In a year when our most highly acclaimed movie is about two gay cowboys and Elton John's wedding is celebrated on the front pages, why can't a 6' 4'' self described transgendered chanteuse who trills "one day I'll grow up to be a beautiful girl" make this year's most heartbreaking and beautiful album? No reason at all, as Antony Hegarty and the Johnsons prove on I Am a Bird Now. Part Boy George (who duets on "You are My Sister"), part Nina Simone, I Am a Bird Now is soulful, operatic folk rent with a palpable sense of longing and loss. Hegarty's voice is beyond category - angelic and fluttering, yet capable of tremendous force, both mournful and hopeful. The album cover - a shot of transvestite Candy Darling on her deathbed sums up the project pretty well.


Jose Gonzalez -- Veneer

"World Music" was a marketing term invented in the early 1980s to sell "authentic" foreign music to Western ears. Today the term is quickly becoming obsolete as the world shrinks and cultural barriers fall. Case in point: Jose Gonzalez. Born in Sweden to Argentine expats, Gonzalez sings his powerful folk in perfect English. Influenced by American, British, Latin American, and Scandinavian music, Gonzalez sounds like Nick Drake or Elliott Smith if they had gown up listening to Joao Gilberto in the still of a snowy winter. This will convince you: ( http://www.bravia-advert.com/commercial/braviaextcommhigh.html)


Franz Ferdinand - You Could Have it So Much Better

Now that Gang of Four has reunited do we really need present day soundalikes Franz Ferdinand? You betcha, because while the committed lefties in Gang of Four merely wanted to bring about a Marxist paradise on earth, Franz Ferdinand has altogether greater aspirations: to become rock stars. And as Mick Jagger and Bono can attest, the world needs rock stars - unapologetic showmen who can strut on a stage and own an arena. Franz Ferdinand lead singer Alex Kapranos is not in that league and he may never be, but, unlike, say, Thom Yorke and Chris Martin, he has both the ambition and at least some of the charisma to pull it off. It's stamped all over this album, the band's second in as many years. The sound and the production here are glossier and fuller than on their debut and the lyrics are positively Jaggeresque in their obsessive self referencing and occasional mention of oral sex. So there is a leering, stomping swagger to this music, but since this is 2005 there is a wink and a smile as well. Kapranos gift is that when he pleads to a walk away lover "kill me now" you know he so doesn't mean it.


Richard Hawley - Cole's Corner

Satiny and rich, filled with strings set at a deliciously languid pace, Cole's Corner is an album to get lost to. On Cole's Corner it's forever 1958; crooners croon, lovers swoon, and the dancing is slow and close. Hawley, a Sheffield native, sings in a rich baritone as if the Beatles never existed; Roy Orbison and Bobby Darin are the touchstones here. Like Chris Isaak's self titled disc, or Bob Dylan's "Love and Theft," Cole's Corner is an evocation that transcends mere nostalgia.


Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Wolf Parade - Apologies to the Queen

In the age of the Interwebs - Myspace, mp3 blogs, chat rooms, file sharing and the like - championing a previously unknown band into some modest degree of wider acclaim and indie success is the best form of self-congratulations there is: Democracy in Action -- We Were There First! Last year the online community carried Arcade Fire on its shoulders and helped propel them to high profile gigs with David Bowie and U2. This year's Arcade Fire is Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, a Brooklyn band that sold over 50,000 of its self-released cds on the strength of a strong Pitchfork review and a ton of blogger shout-outs. And like Arcade Fire, Clap Your Hands makes the kind of literate layered pop that the online community loves. The lead singer sounds an awful lot like David Byrne, and the band is capable of sounding like the Talking Heads, Arcade Fire, and the Feelies; sometime in the same song. If this is the mob rule, bring it on (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/27/arts/music/27musi.html).

Touted by fellow Canadians Arcade Fire and produced by Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock , Wolf Parade arrived to an adoring blogosphere with their indie pedigree intact. Wolf Parade is Arcade Fire with an edge; Clap Your Hand's tougher older brother, more new wave than art pop. Driving dual keyboards trade off with dual vocalists over gunshot drumming; this is a band that sounds much bigger than a foursome.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

2004 Top Ten

Each December I write a "top ten" list of my favorite cds that came outduring the preceding 12 months. I am delighted every year that a few of you write back to compare notes and offer suggestions.
The albums are listed in no particular order:

Arcade Fire -- Funeral, U2 -- How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, DJ Dangermouse -- The Grey Album

Three of this year's best demonstrated how the Internet has changed the music industry forever.

You could not escape U2's merger with Apple -- pitches for its special edition Ipod and complete catalogue available for download have been looping endlessly on nearly every available commercial medium. The result? How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb moved almost 1 million units in week one -- doubling the first week numbers of the band's previous effort. Sales were certainly helped by the album's fan friendly collection of greatest bits -- the familiar mix of Edge's trademark guitar riffs and Bono's soaring elegies about the big themes will have you humming in your sleep. U2's days of experimentation seem behind them, but retrenchment seems to suit the band just fine and the masses turned off by Zooropa and Pop's new directions certainly aren’t complaining. We have heard this before but we liked it so much the first time that we will gladly take second and third helpings.

Funeral would be Exhibit A in any discussion of how blogging has transformed the commerce of indie music. As last month's New York Observer reported (http://observer.com/pages/story.asp?ID=9916), when pitchforkmedia.com (http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/record-reviews/a/arcade-fire/funeral.shtml ) gave Arcade Fire's debut a 9.7 (out of 10) it sold out instantly across the city and was backordered for weeks (I can personally attest to this). Becoming the darling of the blogging community won't generate platinum record sales, but for a small label (Merge), the attention can well mean the difference between total anonymity and real success, albeit on a modest scale. And just what sets the bloggers' hearts racing? Literate art pop, set to strings, piano, and organ, and sung energetically by a brother-sister duo. In this year of election, Arcade Fire's songs tell smaller tales -- adulthood's moments recorded by new participants.

A dozen years ago Negativland released a cd featuring Casey Kasem engaged in some off air (or so he thought) profanity before introducing “Where the Streets Have No Name” on American Top 40. Negativland used snippets of the actual U2 song in their mix, which prompted Island Records to file a lawsuit and issue a cease and desist. Copies of the mix "The Letter U and the Numeral 2" were recalled, confiscated and destroyed. Today they are rare -- and illicit -- collector’s items.

Fast forward to 2004. DJ Dangermouse decides to remix Jay-Z' Black Album with samples from the Beatles White Album. The result immediately draws the wrath of EMI, the Beatles' label, which threatens legal action. The 3,000 copies pressed by Dangermouse are withdrawn -- but instead of becoming scarce they become ubiquitous. Sites offering free downloads of the album spring up across the Net and the disc is reviewed in mainstream publications alongside pictures of Dangermouse in an enormous mouse costume. If the conceit was a gimmick the result was not -- familiar Beatles riffs from songs like “Helter Skelter” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” are employed ingeniously around Jay-Z' tight rhymes. The funkiest album the Beatles never made.

Elliott Smith -- From a Basement on the Hill

Those who call this posthumous work a musical suicide note have only got it partly right -- Elliott Smith had been sending us warning signals throughout his entire career. These were merely the last. Tales of self-loathing have rarely sounded so pretty -- and it's that painful paradox that was at the heart of Smith's tortured genius and strong appeal. The lyrics here are brutal -- From a Basement on the Hill tells of characters "strung out again,"dreaming of themselves “outlined in chalk," searching desperately for a "better place to spend eternity." But the melancholy musicbox melodies sung in a small sad voice are beautiful -- bent acoustic notes given heft by strings and piano and doubletracked harmonies. Smith frequently covered the Beatles, the Kinks and Big Star in concert and their musical influence echoes here as it did throughout his recorded work. Lyrically however, Smith is closer to Kurt Cobain: both men knew what it felt to "hate myself and want to die." Smith's gift was marrying the sweetness in his ear with the darkness in his head -- Junkie tales dappled by sunlight, to the very end.

TV on the Radio -- Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes

New York's music scene does a poor job showcasing our city's rich diversity. Bands like the Strokes and Interpol play music descended on a straight line from Ian Curtis and Lou Reed, seemingly untouched by any influences north of 14th street. Long gone are the days when white bands like the Talking Heads crossed guitar rock with funk and soul influences and African-American bands like Defunkt and Living Colour came to the same crossroads from the other direction. One notable exception: Brooklyn's multiracial and omnivorous TV on the Radio, who mixed gospel and soul with a swirling mix of rock guitars ( http://altmusic.about.com/library/weekly/aa100600.htm) to make the year's best and most original album. The band is fronted by Tunde Adebimpe, an incredibly gifted singer with a charismatic stage presence and the ability to make the most opaque lyrics sound compelling. He harmonizes with guitarist Kyp Malone like 21st century doo-wop singers while multi instrumentalist Andrew Sitek provides the thick textures and danceable rhythms that form the band's complex sound. At a time when so many of our bands -- even our best -- seem content to merely update their forbearers, TV on the Radio is drawing on many different sources to create something totally new.

Green Day -- American Idiot

What happens when the glue sniffing class clowns starting raising their hands and getting the answers right? And then decide to write, direct and act in the class play? Like a cross between The Who and Bad Religion, American Idiot is a surprisingly successful rock opera on the state of the nation from the band voted least likely to succeed. A soundtrack travelogue to a landscape littered with strip malls and fast food (www.benjaminedwards.net), Green Day's "kids of war and peace" worship "the Jesus of Suburbia" to the sound of poppy punk guitar, a pogoing rhythm section and tight harmonies. When Billie Joe Armstrong urges us to give him "another amen" he may be asking ironically, but it doesn’t stop us from shouting out just the same. Wonder why John Kerry won the youth vote? Give a listen.

AC Newman -- The Slow Wonder and Snow Patrol – Final Straw

Vancouver native AC Newman and Scottish resident Gary Lightbody are in a revolving series of bands -- Newman is the lead songwriter for indie Canadian "supergroup" New Pornographers and Lightbody is the lead singer for the marvelous Reindeer Section. All of their projects are characterized by a devotion to melody and tunecraft -- Newman’s solo debut and Lightboy’s third as a member of the Snow Patrol feature little pop gems, powered by hooks as sweet as gumdrops. The Slow Wonder is this year's winning entry in the Matthew Sweet powerpop sweepstakes and Snow Patrol’s scuffed ballads and candied noisemakers will appeal to fans of Coldplay and Damien Rice.

Kanye West -- College Dropout

10 Grammy nominations could just as easily be a sign of mediocrity as talent, but in this case Kanye West has got the goods. Long a successful rap producer, on College Dropout West decides to step forward and take the mic himself. The result? A crossover success that managed to simultaneously win mass appeal and street credibility. In its favor: socially conscious and personally introspective tales interspersed with gospel choirs, soul singers and martial beats. Some of the best singles of the year. And a sales plan that understood market segmentation. Consider the two completely different video for the album’s big hit, “Jesus Walks.” In the one airing on MTV the figure of Jesus accompanies West throughout his day – discouraging him from playing craps, healing a relative and ultimately leading him to church, where the rapper preaches to the congregation about redemption. Another, which can be found on his website, is considerably less hopeful. Prisoners on a chain gang are brutalized by guards, drug dealers flee from the police, and the video ends with a member of the Klan caught in the flames of a burning cross. Either way, when West raps “take em to church,” you better be going.

Morrissey -- You are the Quarry and Franz Ferdinand -- Franz Ferdinand

Morrissey’s return this past year was accompanied by a well orchestrated press offensive of flattering profiles and interviews. Among the highlights: A conversation in the British music magazine NME between Morrissey and Franz Ferdinand billed as “The Mozfather meeting his heirs.” (http://www.nme.com/features/108530.htm) And just what did the 45 year old have in common with a band whose oldest member is a generation his junior? Style, wit and most importantly, a willingness to challenge accepted dogma that breaks music down by categories and separates performers from fans.

Arriving on stage in a white suit beneath a giant red sign that spells out his one name, he is greeted hysterically by crying fans of all ages and both genders. He preens, strikes a pose, twirls his microphone, and in his best crooner's voice belts out his latest single. Like a cross between Sinatra, Liberace and Elvis, Morrissey has entered the building. It's been twenty years since Morrissey's debut in New York, when his fans "rioted" at the Beacon Theatre, invading the stage like postpunk bobbysoxers gone mad. Today his waist has thickened and his hair has thinned but his crooning voice and unmistakable charisma remain remarkably intact, and the fans still invade the stage. Lush and operatic, You are the Quarry is a comeback of sorts that features his best singing and songwriting in years. Next up? Morrissey recreates Elvis's Comeback Special (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B00025L42Q/104-5226782-8170350?v=glance) by performing unplugged with with old partner Johnny Marr -- or begins a residency at Caesar's when Elton is off (http://www.caesars.com/Caesars/LasVegas/EltonJohn.htm).

Franz Ferdinand began 2004 as leaders of the Scottish music scene, playing and DJing in an abandoned warehouse in Glasgow. They close the year performing before thousands in sweaty sold out clubs around the worlds off the strength of its debut album and strong word of mouth. Teaching the indie kids how to dance (http://teachingtheindiekidstodanceagain.blogspot.com/) isn’t easy, but Franz Ferdinand makes it look simple, leaping the barriers between "rock" and 'dance" with songs like "Take Me Out" and "Michael" -- a paean to "beautiful boys on a beautiful dance floor." Whereas obvious forbearers Gang of Four were too angular (and aggressively Marxist) to break through in a major way, Franz Ferdinand have found the sweet spot where art meets commerce in equal measure. And as good as their self-titled debut is, be sure to look for Franz Ferdinand live – when the guitars get faster, the bass gets deeper, and the drums get louder still.