Sunday, December 20, 2009

My 09 List

In no particular order. Not everything came out this year, but we 'acquired' everything this year in one way or another. I chose to do a list of what I think I listened to the most this year in lieu of what I think the best music of this year was - mostly because I got burned out on music from being at Anthology for awhile and didn't keep up with what was being released. But here's my list!

Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix - 1901

Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career - French Navy

Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion - My Girls

The Avett Brothers - I and Love and You - I and Love and You

Blitzen Trapper - Furr - Furr

(I'm going to regret doing this, but...)
Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band - Outer South - Air Mattress

M. Ward - Hold Time - Never Had Nobody Like You
(volume on this is really low for some reason)

Of Montreal - Hissing Fauna Are You The Destroyer -
(I get to count this because we got the LP this year and realized that we never had all the songs from the album until then)

Rodriguez - Cold Fact - Sugar Man

Titua Andronicus - The Airing of Grievance - Upon Viewing Bruegel's "Landscape With the Fall of Icarus"

Wilco - Wilco (The Album) - Wilco (The Song)
We are *almost* in this video, actually. Front and center. Great show!

Saturday, December 19, 2009


So I asked iTunes to make me a smart playlist containing everything that I've added in 2009, and the result is 679 tracks (to a library of 11815 items). Sorting by play count, it generated this list to summarize 2009:

Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young-Fire Inc.-Streets Of Fire.
The most frequently played song added in 2009? Crazy. A popular hit off my "Jim Fucking Steinman" playlist.

We Are Golden-Mika-The Boy Who Knew Too Much (Deluxe Version)
New album from the high-fructose-Lebanese-Brit-boy-pop master Mika. He jumps around in his underwear a lot, if you like that sort of thing.

Under Pressure-Queen-The Platinum Collection: Greatest Hits
Harkening back to another sweet time, Freddie Mercury. The actual musical skill that Queen fields makes acts like Mika and our entire decade look sort of sad.

Story of a Heart-Helen Sjöholm-Kristina från Duvemåla
Just what we always need, a new Abba song. Written by Benny and Bjorn for the English release of their 20-years too late epic musical, Kristina från Duvemåla, it certainly featured in this year's rotation.

So Hard-Pet Shop Boys-Discography: The Complete Singles Collection
I was really surprised to see this come up in the list. I've spent 40 minutes and 40 seconds this year listening to this? Well, you can't exactly go wrong with Pet Shop Boys...

The Freshmen-Jay Brannan-The Freshmen (Single)
a pre-release single from his album, the masterful young, (hot) Jay Brannan does his take on this classic.

Zombie-Jay Brannan-In Living Cover
Another from Brannan

Mothertongue Pt. 4: Monster-Nico Muhly-Mothertongue
Some people say Nico Muhly is incredibly talented. Sometimes he's also writing an Opera for performance at The Met. Others aren't that impressed.

Useless Useful Phrases-Original London Cast-Sail Away
Elaine Stritch. What can a person say. Maybe too many hours doing Rosetta Stone this year has made this song resonate far more than it should. Music and Lyrics by Noël Coward.

Totale Finsternis-Original German Cast-Tanz Der Vampire
The finale from the Roman Polanski directed mega hit. You'll know the song (start at about 1:07). Vampires returned to Vienna this year, as if it they had ever really gone away. Polanski had a less good year.

2009 was a good one, we'll see what happens in 2010.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

my 2009 best-of list

This is my list, in no order whatsoever, of what I've listened to and loved this year. I think this was a really good year for music. I hope you'll agree.

Wilco - Wilco (the album)
Animal Collective - Meriweather Post Pavillion
Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band - Outer South
Brian Eno and David Byrne - Everything That Will Happen Will Happen Today
Frightened Rabbit - The Midnight Organ Fight
M. Ward - Hold Time
Monsters of Folk - Monsters of Folk
Neko Case - Middle Cyclone
Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
The Swell Season - Strict Joy

ok, there happen to be ten albums here, but i promise that wasn't on purpose.

M. Ward started this great year of music off in February with Hold Time. No one will ever accuse M. Ward of being ground-breaking, but if you couldn't get behind this blast of folkie warmth in the depths of winter, you didn't have a seasonal-depressive bone in your body.
Next, I heard Animal Collective's new record, which is probably the freak-folk movement's Kid A, an absolute masterpiece of electronic manipulation, weird instrumentation, alienated, layered harmony vocals, and worldbeat madness.
In March, Neko Case released Middle Cyclone, which ends with a patience-testing 30-minute long field recording of crickets. But with the amazing pop gems like "People Got a Lotta Nerve" and the haunting vocals of "Prison Girls" that came first, who cares?
Conor Oberst's Outer South felt like a truly collaborative record, he even shared songwriting credit and let some of the other guys in the band sing their own songs. The standout song is actually not even one of Conor's - "Air Mattress" is an unbelievably dance-y 80's synth-pop send up.
Wilco's self-titled new album felt like the start of summer for me: the pick-me-up pop of "Wilco (the song)" was just too irresistible. "Are you feeling Depressed? Wilco will love you baby!"
There were two albums not released in 2009 that made my list this year since I discovered them this year:
David Byrne lives up to his weirdo reputation on songs like "I Feel My Stuff" and "Strange Overtones," while Brian Eno's absolutely addictive arrangements and instrumentation make these bizarre melodies and lyrics seem like just the most natural thing in the world. It takes a while to get it, but boy, is it worth it.
Frightened Rabbit is a real find - a heart-on-sleeve Scottish take on folk-pop. I was singing along with "Old Old Fashioned" the first time I heard it. Can it be possible that my whisky intake increased after buying this record?
For thoughts on Monsters of Folk and The Swell Season, see my previous posts... The find of the year was the French band Phoenix, whose record, released in February, I didn't hear about until the fall. I don't know how they sing with such perfect American accents. I don't know how it's possible to write an amazing song about Franz Liszt. I don't know how these songs haven't always existed.

honorable mentions (for recording a song that held my attention, but not fleshing it out for a full album)
Grizzly Bear "Two Weeks"
Yeah Yeah Yeahs "Zero"
Heartless Bastards "The Mountain"
Steve Earle "Pancho and Lefty"

dishonorable mention
Bob Dylan Christmas in the Heart - I sincerely hope some day I'm able to appreciate some kind of irony in this album. For now though, it just sounds like drunk uncle Bob trying to ruin Christmas for everyone.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Monsters of Folk

Supergroups always sound better on paper than they do on records. Does anyone think either of the Travelling Wilbury's records are better than any George Harrison or Bob Dylan or Tom Petty record? Probably, but their opinion is incorrect.

That said, I love the new record by Monsters of Folk. That's probably obvious, given how often i talk about, listen to, and sing songs by the constituent bands populated by Conor Oberst, Jim James, Mike Mogis and M. Ward. But I tried to not like this album - I even told myself I hated the first four songs that I heard when they posted them on their Myspace page. Each one just sounded like a song that was written by whoever was singing (often the problem with side projects), and I wasn't hearing anything remarkable in their collaboration.

Months later, I saw them play a show at the United Palace Theatre in Washington Heights. It was a very cool evening - the upper level of the balcony was almost deserted, and no one seemed to know what to expect. They played for almost 3 hours, covering every song on their album, trading vocals and instruments, and also taking turns playing music from each of their primary groups albums.

I don't think you need to see them live to appreciate them, in fact, I think this album would be a great primer for people who don't particularly like Bright Eyes or My Morning Jacket or She and Him (or M. Ward's solo albums, or Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, or Yim Yames' solo tribute to George Harrison). These guys are prolific songwriters, constantly honing their craft, and paying homage to their forebears. So what if each of them has such a recognizable style that you can tell, even without listening to the singing, which of the songs on the record they wrote? Have you ever heard a Bob Dylan song you didn't know was Dylan immediately?

Just listen to Ahead of the Curve (an Oberst song). Yes, that's M. Ward on the bass; yes, that's a Jim James signature ringing guitar line, yes that's Mike Mogis making you cry with the lap steel. Still, it's Conor's song, and he's still travelling, looking for a place to call his home, a life he can be comfortable with. Maybe it's about being from a (relatively) small mid-western town and making the best of what you have wherever life leads you. Can anyone think of why I might identify with a song like that?

Or try the M. Ward song Whole lotta losin'. Its a 3 min burst of rockabilly bliss (Ward's specialty), a romantic vision of a young man's life, down on his luck, trying to pick up the pieces, realizing how much of life has passed by already. The vocal harmonies suggest that they've all lived this life, but the guitar licks tell another story: they've moved on, found another path. They're not letting their friends and heroes pack up and move away anymore - they're playing in a band with them.

Its one of the many moments on the album when you realize how much these guys mean to each other. They've grown up playing music together, trying to make it on their own. While each of their primary groups will probably continue to and rightfully should occupy the bulk of their time and their songs, let's hope that the Monster's of Folk reconvene every now and then to re-inject their fans with some much-needed warmth and affection.

let's make that official

not that i'm ready with mine yet, but i second the motion for an installation of end-of-year best-of lists. let's make this a challenge - if you still read this blog (i know you've needed patience), write down the great things you've heard this year. they don't have to be in any order, you don't need any certain number, just let us know what's been spinning on your record player, hard drive, cd player, tape deck. if you need an invite to contribute let me know. in the meantime, read this next post:

It's that time of year again (when we make lists)

Usually, around this time of year, I look around and realize that although I've discovered a number of interesting new recordings that were new-to-me, I'm actually not that up to date on music that is actually new to the world. I therefore enlist the services of the all-powerful Google to find me the "Top Albums of 2009." Conveniently for me (as it saves me the time of slogging through countless fan-boys' "Top Albums of 2009" lists, which invariably have drivel like Echo & the Bunnymen's new album or whatever) Metacritic offers a page of the top rated albums by year.

Browsing this list and downloading randomly from it leads to interesting results. While it did find interesting music like this:

and this:

It also found me this:

So, in other words, I'd say it's a mixed bag (although, truth be told, after a couple of listens, the "drone metal" is growing on me in a hark-back-to-my-high-school-days-when-I-first-heard-Rammstein kind of way).

For that reason, I'd be down for some "Best of 2009" listage here, if anybody has anything to contribute.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Swell Season - Strict Joy

After a long break from writing, I've been inspired to come back by lots of great new music this fall. Partially, this is due to my rediscovery of the revamped music website They have a great new program for discovering and legitimately purchasing new music. You'll see links to various songs now in the blog - you can go to lala and stream the songs one time for free. hope you enjoy!

There are certain albums that - when i turn them on for the subway trip to work in the morning - allow me to make a lot of progress on whatever book or magazine I'm reading that day. The new album Strict Joy
by The Swell Season is not one of those albums.

I have loved this duo's (Irish Singer Glenn Hansard, and Czech Pianist Marketa Irglova) music since seeing them in the indepdendant film Once
, music they wrote about falling in love while making the movie (which is about two musician's falling in love and making music together). It was a real thrill to watch them reach critical and commercial success (eventually winning the 2008 Oscar for best song with "Falling Slowly") since I wrote about watching the movie way back in December 2007. It is a very touching story, and their music, peopled by heart-on-sleeve lyrics and soaring arrangements punctuated by alternately jarring and lulling acoustic guitar can seem overblown at times, but is always affecting.

listen to the album here:

It came as a surprise then, to hear first, that the couple had broken up, and second, that they had decided to continue on as a musical collaboration. If the soundtrack to Once is about their journey of falling in love, Strict Joy is about falling out of it. This is not a breakup album on the order of Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, a one-sided, sometimes-snarling, sometimes-regretful postmortem on a relationship probably doomed from the beginning. This is a balanced view from the inside of a couple that obviously cared deeply for each other and tried desperately to make it work. Even the moments where accusations are made come off with an uncanny tenderness, possibly because the accusee is harmonizing so beautifully even as the accusation is being leveled. There is still love here, even if it only lives on in the music.