Thursday, December 17, 2009
9. Pearl Jam – Back Spacer – It’s easy to take a band like Pearl Jam for granted at this stage in their career. Much like the Flaming Lips, they could just make another album’s worth of decent material and cash in on the huge tour that would follow that. Instead, after freeing themselves from the major label system, they went on to create probably their best album of the decade. They plow through 11 tracks in the blink of an eye, with “The Fixer,” “Gonna See My Friends” and “Supersonic” reminding us why they were on top of the rock world for quite a while. Bonus points to the show “FlashForward” for perfectly using “Unthought Known” beautifully through the opening of one of the key episodes of the entire season.
8. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavillion – This is the band every hipster has been bending over backwards to praise in the last two years, but this is the first album of theirs that is worthy of so much praise. The band is all over the map on this one, at times jammy, rocky, dancey, trancey, and just plain out there. It’s too bad they didn’t give a damn about their Lollapalooza performance this year, because it would have been great to see them attempt some of these songs live. “My Girls” and “Summertime Clothes” are deservedly being praised as two of the best songs of the year by far.
7. Passion Pit – Manners – This was the breakthrough band of the year based on this cd. Main man Michael Angelakos wrote an ep’s worth of material as a gift to his then-girlfriend for a Valentine’s Day gift. It didn’t work, but instead the ep made the rounds online, and built up a huge amount of hype around the band waiting for their debut album. “Manners” is the result, and it’s a pretty amazing start. The first half of the record is flawless, absolutely irresistible dance rock, with fantastic “Make Light,” “The Reeling” and “Little Secrets” are perfectly designed to get a crowd dancing, while a gorgeous song like “Moth’s Wings” show they’ll be able to do more beyond the dance music as they move forward from here. The only drawback with this one is that the album becomes a bit forgettable in the second half, minus the lone carryover from the previous ep, the bizarre, swirling “Sleepyhead.”
6. Metric – Fantasies – Emily Haines, the lead singer of Metric, pulls off the rare feat of being sexy and sensual without beating people over the head with it, like most modern female music icons (well, she kind of does in her guest appearance in the video for Julian Plenti’s “Games For Days,” but we’ll ignore that). On “Fantasies,” Haines leads the band well through the dance rock of “Satellite Mind” to the pulsing “Help I’m Alive,” wrapping it up with the massive rumble of “Stadium Love.” And how can any indie rock male resist her voice singing a lines like “Who’d you rather be/ The Beatles or the Rolling Stones?/ Come on baby play me something/ Like 'Here Comes the Sun'"? Pretty impossible.
5. Weezer – Raditude – After two very disappointing albums, Weezer returned to their glory with the awesomely titled “Raditude.” With a little outside help, featuring Butch Walker on his second great production and songwriting work for the year, and the main members of All-American Rejects, the band sounds rejuvenated and happy to be playing poppy, upbeat rock once again. “If You’re Wondering If I Want You To (I Want You To)” is just as perfect of a pop nugget as can be expected between Walker and Weezer, and the other album highlights like “I’m Your Daddy” and “Let It All Hang Out” live up to the legacy of Weezer’s greatest songs. Yes, the band even flirts with Indian music on “Love Is the Answer” and hip-hop rock with “Can’t Stop Partying.”
4. Manchester Orchestra – Mean Everything To Nothing – This was a solid album from top to bottom by an Atlanta band I knew very little about before this year. This album has it all, massive hooks, big fist pumping choruses, from the powerful opening duo of “The Only One” and “Shake It Out” to the equally powerful closers “Everything to Nothing” and “The River.” The surprise is the emotion buried within the lyrics, especially in some of the quieter moments on the album. The album contains the most beautifully sad lyric of the year in the centerpiece of the album, “I Can Feel a Hot One,” which I don’t know the story of, but it is haunting nonetheless: “To pray to what I thought were angels/ Ended up being ambulances/ And the Lord showed me dreams of my daughter/ She was crying inside your stomach/ And I felt love… again.”
3. Grizzly Bear – Veckatamist – Besides Animal Collective, the indie rock community has another icon for this year, and that is Grizzly Bear. They’ve been touring regularly since their previous album, and somehow went into the studio, and quickly knocked out this impressively arranged and details work in no time, and were right back out playing it live. The four member band writes and performs incredible harmonies, with main man Ed Droste providing the most incredible voice in the band. The influence of the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” is noticeable here, which is quite a compliment since that is my favorite album of all time. “Two Weeks” is definitely one of the best songs of the year, and the album concludes with the livelier “While You Wait For the Others” and “I Live With You,” before concluding with the gorgeously delicate “Foreground.”
2. …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead – The Century of Self – After a disappointing turn on their last cd, the Trail of Dead returned in a major way with this year’s “Century of Self.” Like A Place to Bury Strangers, they are best when they are functioning like a force of nature, whirling around like a tornado in “Isis Unveiled,” seeming to sputter out before springing back to life and whipping themselves into a frenzy once again. Throughout the album, the band can switch from the majestic to the pummeling and right back again and make it work. What’s possibly even more impressive is that the cover art is a pen and ink sketch done by the main frontman Conrad Keely.
1. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca – This album is about as artistic and complex as it gets in indie rock, before it trips over the line and goes from being enjoyable to just be self-indulgent and academic. Let’s put it this way, if you actually believe that Nickelback are in fact the group of the decade (thanks for the link Brian), then this is not the album for you. The instrumentation is precisely arranged, the vocals are precisely layered and performed, the rhythms seem to turn different time signatures on and off on a whim.
Band leader David Longstreth is rumored to be something of a dictator in his efforts to record the sounds in his head, and thankfully the fruits of his labor were worth the negative press that may get him. The highlight of the album is the 3 of songs at its center. “Stillness is the Move” is a great slow thumping song, sounding like Prince making a lazy dance track, which then gives way to the gorgeous, string heavy “Two Doves.” A thumping bass beat then leads into “Useful Chamber,” which cascades beautiful, intricate harmonies around the thumping beat, before nearly randomly exploding mid-song into a rock freakout, jarringly switching back into the thumping beat again, before exploding once more to the freakout. It’s a very difficult and standoff-ish album, but if you can give it a chance, you will be richly rewarded.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
29. Eels – Hombre Lobo: 12 Songs of Desire – Not the best release from E and his band, but his twisted stomping take on the blues is usually pretty enjoyable.
28. Taking Back Sunday – New Again – Another solid set of “emo” pop-punk from this New Jersey group finds them gravitating towards that dreaded “m” word for a punk group, “maturing.”
27. Mastodon – Crack the Skye – A great album’s worth of mind-bending, pulverizing metal riffs wrapped around bizarre lyrics supposedly about Rasputin, among other things. Good stuff.
26. Dashboard Confessional – After the Ending – I still contend that Dashboard main man Chris Carrabba is one of the best lyricists of his generation, and I believe this is one of the best albums he’s had in the past few years. It helps that another of my favorites, Butch Walker, produced the album, and they even gave fans a treat by releasing the album both as a plugged in and as an acoustic version.
25. Art Brut – Art Brut vs. Satan – Eddie Argos and co. once again plow through another hilarious set of sloppy punk, bringing his witty lyrics and non-singing delivery through more great tracks like the title song and “Alcoholics Unanimous.”
24. Matt & Kim – Grand – A great, gleeful album from the duo that is the sonic equivalent of downing a bag filled with pixie sticks and washing it down with a can of Red Bull.
23. Dan Deacon – Bromst – Equally as hyper as Matt & Kim, but much more experimental and genre defying, “Bromst” again sounds like Deacon taking dance music, putting it in a blender, and fast forwarding the results of that sound.
22. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix – This one probably would have ranked higher, but I’m now holding a grudge against Phoenix for playing only 4 songs at the XRT Holiday show this past Friday night. “1901” and “Lysztomania” were just about as perfect as pop songs got this year though.
21. Ida Maria – Fortress ‘round My Heart – Although the album loses too much steam by the end, “I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked” and “Oh My God” were also among the best songs of the entire year. Very anxious to see where Ida Maria will go from this one.
20. A Place to Bury Strangers – Exploding Head – A massive, rumbling entity, making rock sound more like a force of nature than anything. Heavy on the influence of the Jesus & Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine, and then heavier on the volume. Will be very interesting to see live next year, with a very solid pair of earplugs in tow.
19. Mew – No More Stories are Told… - These Danes put together a beautiful and fascinating space out, sounding something like a twisty, turny message of peace from an alien race. An alien race that can rock, that is.
18. Brand New – Daisy – Brand New is another band that was once considered “emo,” but has thankfully moved on and proven that is not a dirty word in rock anymore. This is their third great album in a row, proving they are in my opinion one of the most underrated bands in the country at the moment. Great, brutally powerful rock when they want it to be.
17. Wilco – Wilco (the Album) – This was an average album for Wilco, but I’ve said it before, an average Wilco album is better than 99% of most bands’ best efforts. The problem with the album was the two star players in the band, drummer Glenn Kotche and guitarist Nels Cline, were held in check for the majority of the album. They were allowed to shine on the excellent “Bull Black Nova,” while other highlights are the amusingly titled fan salute “Wilco (the Song),” and the great ballad “You and I” with Feist.
16. Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs – YLT are a maddening group, live they can be one of the best bands in the world, or one of the most disappointing. There was a string of years early this decade where they moved away from their psychedelic jams towards quieter and introspective material. On this newest album, they seem to want to reconcile these two opposing forces, still touching on their jam side with great songs like “Here to Fall” to the quieter “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven,” with great oddball pop diversions like “Periodically Double or Triple” thrown in between.
15. The Antlers – Hospice – This is the album that is the mystery long shot for me that somehow turned out to be one of my favorite albums of the year. I pretty much bought it only after seeing a very glowing review on it on Pitchfork and nothing else. That turned out to be a pretty good move, since this is a unique and rewarding album that definitely has depth that will only be revealed by many listens. It reminds me the most of the Arcade Fire’s debut cd, although the bands share little in terms of sound, it’s more about the spirit of the album. This isn’t a cd I’d recommend to everyone, it’s a difficult, dense work, but very rewarding for anyone willing to take the risk.
14. Green Day – 21st Century Breakdown – If “American Idiot” was Green Day’s “Tommy,” than this was their “Quardrophenia,” slightly less focused and not quite as strong, but definitely with some standout tracks. “21 Guns” (Bella’s first song she can sing in Rock Band) and “Know Your Enemy” are obvious choices for some of the best songs of the year, but this again shows that Green Day’s ambition is remaining high, and the results are still very enjoyable.
13. The Raveonettes – In and Out of Control – This band has yet to make a misstep, and this is another great addition to their catalog. It takes a special talent for a band to make songs with titles like “Suicide” and “Boys Who Rape (Should All Be Destroyed)” sound like bubbly happy songs to be sung while driving to the beach. Add on top of that, the first single “Last Dance,” a song about helping an addict, sounds like it’s the happiest song the band has written yet. It’s brilliantly deceptive mopey rock at its best.
12. Thursday – Common Existence – This was near the top of my list for most of the early part of the year. Thursday, much like Brand New, are a band that started in the “emo” scene, but have continuously evolved over the last few years, and have put out a string of three fantastic albums in a row now. The band can work up a whirlwind of guitars, and focus it into a flat out pummeling force, best seen on the closing track “You Were the Cancer,” written when the lead singer thought he might have had stomach cancer.
11. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz! – This is another album that was strong out of the gate early in the year. From the terrific one-two punch of the openers “Zero” and “Heads Will Roll” to the gentle ending of “Little Shadow,” the YYY’s once again do a great job of blending punk intensity with dance floor insanity.
Monday, December 14, 2009
It was once again an excellent year for music, here’s my list of my top 50 albums for 2010, with one exception.
I’ll preface the list by explaining my rules once again. I (with extremely few exceptions) will never pay more than $10 for a cd. I’ve got very stores and website I purchase from, and my view is that if a band/label isn’t willing to make the effort to put their cd out for $10 or less, then I’m not going to bother picking it up.
I also don’t believe in just downloading albums/mp3’s, since this takes away a certain degree of ownership and investment in the music to me. I’ve probably downloaded hundreds of songs, but honestly only listen to a small fraction of them. I’ve downloaded two brand new songs by my favorite band, Radiohead, this year, but have honestly only listened to each song a small number of times, since they’re only stored on my computer. Call me old fashioned that way I guess.
On to the list….
50. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago – This is the exception. The album was actually released in early 2008, but didn’t find a wide release and audience until early this year. The story behind the album is well documented, singer/guitarist/songwriter Justin Vernon was in another band which broke up, so he moved a bunch of gear and recording equipment into a cabin in Wisconsin, and over a winter wrote and recorded this masterpiece. It perfectly captures the feeling of sitting by a warm fire in the middle of a cold, snowy winter day, with gorgeous and unforgettable songs like “Skinny Love” and “Re: Stacks” throughout. Since this missed my 2008 list, this gets tacked on to this year since I enjoyed it throughout the year. On a side note, you can download the entire final show of the band's tour for free, which has every song on "For Emma," here.
49. PJ Harvey and John Parish – A Woman A Man Walked By – This one still doesn’t live up to the majesty of Harvey’s previous masterpiece, To Bring You My Love, but it’s a thousand times better than her last album at least.
48. Chevelle – Sci-Fi Crimes – The metal-esque Illinois band put together another respectable collection of songs, and thankfully they’re getting away from the heavy Tool influence that dominated their early music.
47. The Hold Steady – A Positive Rage – I usually don’t put live albums on my best of the year lists, but I was happy to make an exception in this case. This disc very well captured a great Halloween performance at the Metro in Chicago by the formerly Minneapolis based rockers, the only drawback is that it was recorded before the tour for their great album Stay Positive, so only one track from that album was played there.
46. White Rabbits – It’s Frightening – The debut album by White Rabbits is a nice appetizer to the next album by Spoon, since the cd was produced by Spoon’s main man Britt Daniel. The lead track “Percussion Gun” is one of the best double-drummer tracks of the year.
45. Titus Andronicus – Airing of Grievances – This New Jersey band owes a great debt to the most famous rocker from their state, as they infuse the Boss’s anthemic rock with a healthy dose of punk spirit.
44. Silversun Pickups – Swoon – I had such high expectations for this album, based of their previous great breakthrough, Carnavas, that I was setting myself up for a letdown. There’s still some good songs, and “Panic Switch” is actually one of my favorites of the year.
43. M. Ward – Hold Time – The half of the band She & Him that I’m not in love with released another solid album this year, with his distinctive voice shining through his folky rock.
42. Muse – The Resistance – This was another album that I had massively high expectations for, but unfortunately it was a bit of a letdown as well. “Uprising” still probably has my favorite bass line from 2009 at least. Very appropriate that they will be touring with the Silversun Pickups in 2010, I believe they are calling it the “We Let Scott Pacyna Down” tour. I can’t wait to see the shirts…
41. Tom Waits – Glitter and Doom – Another exception to my “no live albums on my list” rule, this is a great collection of performances from Waits’s last trek, with his grumbling, growling voice sounding as great as ever. The bonus disc of him telling his rambling stories (along with the special bonus hidden track “Picture in a Frame”) make it worth the purchase alone.
40. Julian Plenti – Julian Pletnti is Skyscraper – The solo debut project by the lead singer from Interpol sounds, well, exactly like Interpol. It’s a pretty good appetizer for their next cd, whenever that will happen.
39. Compilation – Dark Was the Night – This disc is a who’s who of the indie rock world at the moment, including several of the bands near the top of my list for this year. The only drawback is that it was SO light and fluffy that it could be dangerously close to being a cure for insomnia.
38. Lily Allen – It’s Not Me, It’s You – Thankfully Allen moved away from the heavy ska influence of her first album, and is starting to carve out more of an identity for herself. Despite the fact that it might be her last album, depending on who you believe.
37. St. Vincent – Actor – An album that is a imaginative rework of a soundtrack to the old Disney movies, this shows great potential for the songwriting and musicianship of main member Annie Clark.
36. Tinted Windows – Tinted Windows – The power-pop “supergroup” featuring members of Smashing Pumpkins, Fountains of Wayne and, um, Hanson, gels really well and crafts some solid rockers.
35. Living Things – Habeas Corpus – A great set of pissed off, fist pumping, stomping blues from the left-leaning St. Louis band.
34. The Thermals – Now We Can See – This Portland punk trio put together another rumbling, powerful album, supposedly from the perspective of a corpse.
33. Bob Mould – Life and Times – The quality of Mould’s solo releases was declining in recent years, but thankfully this year’s cd reversed that trend, with Mould’s best set of songs this decade.
32. A Camp – A Camp – Nina Persson, normally the lead singer of the extremely underrated the Cardigans, is one of those singers who I could listen to while they were singing the phone book, and I would love it. Thankfully, in her side project with her husband here, the songs were much more interesting than that, giving her strong material to shine through.
31. Owl City – Ocean Eyes – I, like many people, have been anxiously waiting for 6 years for the Postal Service to finally make a follow-up to their incredible debut, Give Up. Sadly, since Ben Gibbard has been busy with Death Cab for Cutie, among other things, that hasn’t happened. Apparently Adam Young, who basically is Owl City, has been anxiously waiting too, so much so that he created an album that could easily be the follow up to Give Up. The only flaw with this disc is the extremely cheesy lyrics, which get in the way of the otherwise great music.
Sunday, December 13, 2009
Unfortunately, last week we lost my grandpa Matt. He had been fighting some mysterious illnesses for a while, and in the last month, we kind of knew that the end was near for him. Thankfully, pretty much our entire family was able to get out to see him, and without directly saying so, we were able to say our goodbyes before things went completely downhill.
At the funeral, my sister and I discussed our favorite story about our Grandpa. I was 9 or 10 years old, and as a treat, my grandparents offered to drive my sister and I to the Museum of Science and Industry, which is just south of the downtown area of Chicago.
We lived in Franklin Park at the time, which is right smack next to O'Hare airport. On most weekends back then, you could probably make the drive from our house to the Museum in maybe a little under an hour, probably more given the usual traffic. So we figured we'd go for the trip, spend a little time at the Museum, and then head home for dinner.
Our trouble began when my Grandpa announced that he was going to take "a short cut" to get to the museum. Now my sister and I were obviously too young to drive at the time, so we didn't exactly know all of the best ways around the city at that point. So we sat in the back seat, and figured he knew best.
That usually hour long drive somehow ended up turning into a THREE HOUR DRIVE before we finally somehow ended up at the Museum, slightly before its closing time. We ended up somehow driving around parts of the city and suburbs that we didn't even know existed before we finally made our way there. My sister and I had a great laugh all the way there, and the idea of a "Grandpa short cut" would forever be cemented in our minds.
Thankfully Bella got to see her great grandpa a few times in her life, and she got to see what a sweet and kindhearted man he was. We all hope he's gone on to a better place now, and is taking the best Grandpa shortcuts to all the places he's been, all the places he's ever wanted to go, to the homes and hearts of all the friends and family who have loved him. Take care Grandpa.
Thursday, December 3, 2009
Weezer has the dubious distinction of being one of two bands that are on the Top 5 list of the best concerts I have ever seen, and the worst I have seen as well. The big question was which version of the band was going to show up for this show.
Their best show I saw, which was one of the best I've ever seen, was a small tour they did early 2001 as a previewto their Green album, which was to follow later that year. The band had completely dropped off the radar, mostly due to lead singer/songwriter Rivers Cuomo having a bout of depression and locking himself in a room for most of the 5 year period between that and their previous album, the exceptional "Pinkerton." They decided to play the Metro and a few other select venues just to get out playing again before the album was released, also as a thank you to their fans for sticking around. They played an incredible set packed with all of their best material, and looked more appreciative and happy to be on the stage than almost any other band I've seen.
On the flip side of the coin, a mere 4 years later, I went to see them at the Aragon on the tour for "Make Believe." The album was a pretty big disappointment, and sadly the tour reflected that. The show was pretty much a total paycheck show, which just meant they showed up, played what they had to play, and left. All of the joy and exhillaration from the Green album show was completely gone, and they were only there just to collect the big check from the show.
While waiting to find out which of those Weezers would be there at the Aragon on that night, I got to see a couple of bands I haven't seen in a while to pass the time. I should note that the music they had playing between bands was one of my favorite bands, Sigur Ros, so that was a sign definitely pointing in the right direction.
Somehow, first up was Motion City Soundtrack, a band I've loved for 7 or 8 years or so now. The Minneapolis-based power pop/punk band has made some incredible songs, and are an amazing live band in their best moments. They've dropped off the scene for over a year now, I wasn't sure why, but it appeared to have something to do with their amazing drummer, Tony Thaxton.
MCS has a new album out in January, so I was hoping to hear a few new songs to tide me over til then. The band instead plowed through a greatest hits set, churning out most of their best tracks from their albums "I Am the Movie," "Commit This to Memory" and "Even if it Kills Me," with one brand new song tossed in at the end. Their half hour was over in a flash, but thankfully the band was in prime shape, and will definitely be worth seeing again when they are back in support of their new album.
Next up was Jack's Mannequin, a piano-based power pop band that was put in the middle spot of the lineup, when they would have been better off opening the show. I guess the move made sense, somehow more people in the crowd seemed to know their music more than MCS.
I really liked Jack's Mannequin's last album, "The Glass Passenger," so I was going to give them a chance at least, but after MCS's energetic set, JM felt pretty boring and uninspired. I'm assuming they have something new on the way, since they will be back in Chicago in February, but I could tell, and none of the songs I didn't know that they played are making me run out to pick up the cd when it's out.
Finally, Weezer was ready to take the stage. My question of which version of the band would be there was quickly answered, when the band opened with a tease of the opening riff from Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher," then went right into some sludgey metal-ish instrumental, before going right into "Hash Pipe." One of the interesting things off the bat was that the band's drummer, Pat Wilson, was now mainly playing guitar and keyboards, while they brought out a touring drummer with them for most of the songs.
This freed up Cuomo to be more of a lead singer/cheerleader than he had in the past, and surprisingly he took to the role well. He ran all over the stage throughout the set, even doing one of the new songs, "Let It All Hang Out" entirely while immersed in the front row of the crowd.
The band delivered all of the expected classics ("Surf Wax America," "Undone," "Perfect Situation," "Dope Nose"), and did manage to throw in a decent amount of songs from their excellent new album, "Raditude." They brought on a fan from the crowd to share the vocals of "(If You're Wondering If I Want You to) I Want You To," which could have been a lot of fun, but the woman sharing the vocals was frozen and didn't look like she was enjoying herself too much.
They then played the amusing party anthem "Can't Stop Partying" from the new cd, and had Cuomo performing the rap portion in the middle of the song. I have to give him credit for taking some big slugs from what appeared to be a bottle of tequilla without any adverse affects. After that, Cuomo disappeared off the stage while the rest of the band performed a spot-on cover of Pink Floyd's "Time," with Wilson nailing both the vocals and the guitar lines perfectly.
We found out the reason Cuomo disappeared shortly after that, he secretly snuck to the back of the venue and sang the entire new song "I'm Your Daddy" while perched atop the soundboard at the back of the venue.
As another enjoyable moment, the band came out for the encore all wearing Blackhawks jerseys, and after plowing through "Pork and Beans," they went into their mash-up cover of MGMT's "Kids" and Lady Gaga's "Pokerface" that they have been doing at shows for the past year. They again played "Kids" perfectly, and made it more fun than when I saw MGMT play it at Lollapalooza last year. Then midsong Cuomo snuck up to the balcony to the side of the stage, put on a long blonde wig, and hillariously mocked Lady Gaga for the portion of her song.
Cuomo then came out and looped all of the instruments by himself until he was playing most of "Island in the Sun" completely by himself, til the rest of the band joined him mid-song. They closed up with "Buddy Holly," and all 5 band members pounded on the drums to close out the show.
The band definitely looked like they were having a good time this time around, and the feeling was infectious. Despite the fact that the covers they played took up set time that could have been used for even more of their best songs, it seemed to give them more of a sense of freedom and enjoyment than they may have had in the past.
On a side note, this is the third or so show I've seen at the Aragon in the past year. I used to honestly despise going to the venue, but these past shows have shown that this is a very respectable venue once again. The sound at this show and all of the previous shows has been great, much better than the echo filled sludge like it used to sound. I have to tip my hat to whoever made that change, but I won't regret heading back there again in the future.