Make-Believe Gospel

Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 Albums

10. Gorillaz - Plastic Beach
9. Joanna Newsom - Have One on Me
8. The Walkmen - Lisbon
7. LCD Soundsystem - This is Happening
6. Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest

5. Janelle Monae - The ArchAndroid

I first heard about Janelle Monae on NPR's Sound Opinions, where hosts Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot could hardly contain their praise. I immediately bought it and sat down to be blown away. It didn't happen. I liked what I heard, but was she the musical visionary they claimed? I stuck with it, though, and each song began to emerge: I fell in love first with "Locked Inside" and grew to love single "Tightrope" as well as every single other song on the album. As an artist, she's all over the map; this album is like a symphony with overtures, interludes, hip hop, disco, even a weird track featuring Of Montreal. Plus, the woman is gorgeous—and she can dance.

4. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

The title of this album scared me. "The Suburbs" sounded like the last thing I'd want Arcade Fire to call an album. Wouldn't it be fun to hear them sing about, I don't know, surfing? I didn't need another dark, brooding, preachy album about how bad the suburbs are and urban sprawl.

They save it by finding their earnestness again, by showing that they love the subjects of their songs as much as they despise them. In that dichotomy lies Arcade Fire's power. They also find their storytelling voice again. But above all, the music is remarkable. They make an art of mid-tempo songs, comfortable that they don't have to hurry up and say what they need to say; if you make stunning songs, people will stick around and listen to what you have to say.

3. Vampire Weekend - Contra

Unlike Nick, I fell in love with this album from the beginning, from the very first song. A leap forward in maturity from their last album, yet still goofy and unmistakeably the work of exactly the same band. They took a risk, making music that was a little more difficult to love, just as melodic but not quite as obviously so. More than any other album, I listened to Contra over and over again throughout the year: in the dead of winter "Horchata" comforted me; I trained for the marathon this summer to "Giving up the Gun." Ezra's vocals are a big part of this album; he sings independantly from the instruments, sometimes over nothing but silence, making his voice go up and down and all around. I can't wait for what they do next.

2. Robyn - Body Talk

I came to this album late in the year, but I'd heard pieces of it throughout 2010. Robyn is like a Swedish Madonna, and this year she released this album in three parts. I heard "Dancing on My Own," still the album's best track, at some point this summer. But I had no idea how good every other track would be on this, the final installment, which features songs from the first two parts as well as some new ones.

This year was about beats for me; for the most part, indie rock bored me. Maybe it was the fact that I spent half the year mining the 80s for tracks and obsessing over Depeche Mode. I had a short attention span for music this year, but this was the last problem with Body Talk: this is my Junior Senior of 2010, dancey, a slightly guilty pleasure, the most danceable, happy-inducing music I heard in 12 months. Whether it was the melancholy of "Dancing on My Own," the dark, solipsistic persona of "Don't Fucking Tell Me What to Do," the robotic vocals of "Fembots" or the bittersweet, knowing lyrics of "Hang with Me," I totally fell in love with this album and with Robyn.

1. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Where do I even start? I listened to this album for the first time one afternoon at home, when I was trying to get a bunch of work done. I got about 20 seconds into the first track when I literally could not work and listen to this music at the same time. I had to stop and do nothing but absorb. And I did so for the next hour, then did it all over again.

Since that day I've listened to every song on this album 3-4 times every day. I've watched the 30 minute art-film music video that features many tracks from the album at least 4 times. And the only thing I can really say is that this album is the work of an artist, on the level of the best musical artists of all time. And along with that, it is a work of a collaboration. Kanye has the gift of presenting a complete, formed vision, while at the same time allowing room for many voices and talents within it. In that sense he is a greater musical artist than many who have come before him.

I feel like I can't say much more than others have already said. We'll all be listening to this album for years.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Top 100!

Of the decade!

And, it's here.

This has been a lot of fun, very stressful, and deeply nostalgic . It's been an incredible decade, one in which my taste in music changed dramatically thanks to people like Nick living across the hall, Pitchfork, and the explosion of the indie genre. I never knew how much music was out there until these things happened.

That said, my list has a lot of emphasis on the 2004-2009 years, because since 2004-ish I've been a much more aware and avid music listener. Obviously there is lots of pre-2004 represented, but the choices might be more obvious ones.

I wish I had more time to devote to writing about these albums, but perhaps I will soon. But in any event, the damned list is done.

For dramatic effect, the top ten albums have cover art, too.

100 . Badly Drawn Boy - Hour of Bewilderbeast
99 . Jayhawks - Rainy Day Music
98 . Yo La Tengo - And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out
97 . Feist - Let It Die
96 . Edan - Beauty and the Beat
95 . Beck - Sea Change
94 . The Strokes - Room on Fire
93 . Silver Jews - Tanglewood Numbers
92 . Grizzly Bear - Yellow House
91 . Ted Leo and the Pharmacists - The Tyranny of Distance

90 . Broken Social Scene - Broken Social Scene
89 . Junior Boys - So This is Goodbye
88 . Keith Jarret - Radiance
87 . Alphabeat - S/T
86 . Brendan Benson - The Alternative to Love
85 . Air France - No Way Down EP
84 . Kanye West - Late Registration
83 . Regina Spektor - Begin to Hope
82 . Air - Talkie Walkie
81 . Andrew Bird - Weather Systems

80 . Travis - The Invisible Band
79 . Sufjan Stevens - Michigan
78 . Asobi Seksu - Citrus
77 . No Age - Weirdo Rippers
76 . M.I.A. - Kala
75 . Brian Wilson - Smile
74 . Bright Eyes - I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning
73 . Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca
72 . Deerhunter - Microcastle
71 . New Pornographers - Twin Cinema

70 . Godspeed You Black Emporer - Lift Yr Skinny Fists to Heaven
69 . Joanna Newsom - Milk-Eyed Mender
68 . Destroyer - Rubies
67 . Vitalic - OK Cowboy
66 . Peter Bjorn and John - Writer's Block
65 . LCD Soundsystem - LCD Soundsystem
64 . Broadcast - Tender Buttons
63 . Burial - Untrue
62 . Junior Senior - Hey Hey My My Yo Yo
61 . Sigur Ros - Agaetis Byrjun

60 . The Tallest Man on Earth - Shallow Graves
59 . Russian Futurists - Our Thickness
58 . Radiohead - Amnesiac
57 . David Gray - Lost Songs
56 . Hot Chip - The Warning
55 . The Books - Thought for Food
54 . The Streets - A Grand Don't Come for Free
53 . Ratatat - Ratatat
52 . Antony and the Johnsons - I Am a Bird Now
51 . Belle & Sebastian - Dear Catastrophe Waitress

50 . Hercules and Love Affair - S/T
49 . Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
48 . Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
47 . Walkmen - Bows + Arrows
46 . Tough Alliance - New Chance
45 . Art Brut - Bang Bang Rock and Roll
44 . Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
43 . The Shins - Chutes Too Narrow
42 . Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Fever to Tell
41 . LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver

40 . Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
39 . The Knife - Silent Shout
38 . Okkervil River - The Stage Names / The Stand-Ins
37 . Animal Collective - Feels
36 . Franz Ferdinand - Franz Ferdinand
35 . Spoon - Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
34 . Wolf Parade - Apologies to the Queen Mary
33 . Radiohead - In Rainbows
32 . Belle and Sebastian - Push Barman to Open Old Wounds

31 . No Age - Nouns
30 . Broken Social Scene - You Forgot it in People
29 . Cat Power - The Greatest
28 . Jens Lekman - Oh You're So Silent Jens
27 . White Stripes - White Blood Cells
26 . Feist - The Reminder
25 . Spoon - Gimme Fiction
24 . The Strokes - Is This It?
23 . Ryan Adams - Heartbreaker
22 . Madvillian - Madvilliany
21 . Eliot Smith - Figure 8

20 . Liars - Drums Not Dead
19 . Interpol - Turn on the Bright Lights
18 . The Rapture - Echoes
17 . Daft Punk - Discovery
16 . Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam
15 . Rufus Wainwright - Poses
14 . The National - Boxer
13 . Animal Collective - Sung Tongs
12 . Andrew Bird - Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Eggs
11 . The Walkmen - You & Me

10 . Spoon - Kill the Moonlight

9 . The Books - Lemon of Pink

8 . The Avalanches - Since I Left You

7 . Panda Bear - Person Pitch

6 . Jens Lekman - Night Falls over Kortedala

5 . Arcade Fire - Funeral

4 . Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion

3 . Radiohead - Kid A

2 . Sufjan Stevens - Illinoise

1 . Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Friday, December 12, 2008

2008 Albums: 1-5

5. Okkervil River - The Stand-Ins

It would be so easy for Okkervil River to drift into preciousness or precociousness. Will Sheff is enormously literary with his lyrics, perhaps self-consciously so, which normally bothers me. His voice has an indie-rock quality to it that's almost too much. The songs are rooted in folk but draped in just-barely-not-ironic horns and power-pop and honk and bar cover band vibe. If you described the music to me without my hearing it, I'm pretty sure I'd avoid it altogether.

But listening to Okkervil River, what it most undeniable is the quality of song writing and the sincerity of Will Sheff. I loved last year's The Stage Names, and according to an interview I heard with Sheff, the songs for this album were written together with the last ones, but as they went through the recording process they decided which to push to a later album.

The Stand-Ins is looser and more confident. Knowing that they've improved in the space of a singler year speaks well to their bright future. I was unmoved by Black Sheep Boy, convinced by Stage Names, and overwhelmed by The Stand-Ins. I am beyond excited for what Okkervil River does next.

4. The Tallest Man on Earth - Shallow Graves

I'll never forget a conversation I had with Nick back in college over a $1.99 Amber Bock at the Duck. We were discussing music, possibly because Pitchfork had put out their best of 2000-2005 list and I hadn't heard of more than half of the bands. At one point, Nick said something casually derisive about the entire singer-songwriter genre as a whole. Namely, that he hated them. That singer-songwriters were the height of mediocrity in music, clogging up all the space with their hackneyed Bob-Dylan-aping schtick, lacking a shred of originality.

Having grown up around church youth groups where the earnest-man-with-a-guitar is respected and adored, I remember being incredibly surprised, and I feebly defended the genre. But a short while later, I realized Nick was absolutely right. 99% of singer-songwriters are crap, emotionally adolescent, and uninventive musicians. It was a sad but true realization.

So my sincere love for The Tallest Man on Earth could be dismissed as nostalgia. Perhaps it's for early Bob Dylan, with whom the similarity is uncanny--not just the way the music sounds but his vocal style, aptitude for poetic lyrics, and overall energy. Or maybe it's because he's Swedish and I'm just a sucker for that country, as this list seems to attest. But I have not stopped listening to this album since I got my hands on it in May. The songs are rich, vivid, sad and deeply beautiful.

How can someone sound like early Dylan in 2008 and not be a derivative hack? I don't know. But the only answer I can offer is that maybe there's something transcendent possible when a man sings and plays a guitar.

3. Deerhunter - Microcastle

Cryptograms was totally lost on me -- I hadn't heard of it until end-of-year lists, and then I just didn't have the energy to unpack it. I'm sure it was briliant and all that. But I chalked it up for loss and moved on to other things. So when Microcastle came out, I was determined to listen to it along with everyone else, planning to put in a good effort and understand what it was about Deerhunter that was so amazing.

But once through was enough. Sometimes the only reason I want to listen to music is to be taken someplace I could never reach myself. More than reading a novel or looking at a painting, music can create an emotional experience within a minute or two that's bewildering in its intensity. Listening to Deerhunter, I feel myself retreating completely into a disturbing sensibility, a bleak landscape. I think the only thing that keeps me tethered is the moments of pop. I have no idea where the songs began, how they got to where they are now, and I don't much care. Deerhunter achieves for me what The Liars did a couple years ago with Drums Not Dead. I am transfixed and amazed and held sway.

2. The Walkmen - You & Me

Maybe more than any other album this year, I loved giving in to The Walkmen. It is a perfectly paced album, unfolding carefully and slowly. It helps, of course, that their music is moody and atmospheric, that they evoke the kind of beleagured middle-of-winter mood that's strangely comforting and easy to slip into. But from the moment I heard the first gentle cymbal crash of Donde Esta la Playa and the rumbling, muddled bass, I had little choice but to submit.

What's most surprising to me is that I never emerge from The Walkmen feeling depressed, even though I should. There's something about Hamilton Leithauser vocals that's human and courageous. To write this I'm going back over the tracks individually and what strikes me is how quiet they are, which I hadn't really realized before. There's nothing like the ferocity of The Rat. But the music lacks none of its intensity, commanding my attention just as pointedly as that song but with more careful instrumentation. With every listen the contours of this album shape and become clearer, new moments emerge, most unexpectedly uplifting. How The Walkmen bury this kind of beauty is lost on me. But this is a remarkable album.

1. No Age - Nouns

I came and left this album through a period of many months this year, obsessing then putting it away. I couldn't help but compare it to last year's Weirdo Rippers. I love Weirdo Rippers with a fierceness I can't explain. I may have listened to it more than any other 2007 album during 2008. Its power over me continues to grow. The songs, anchored in punk, stretch out into these giant, moody guitarscapes that evoke plane hangars and the warm, woozy desolation of Los Angeles. But at the same time I was trying to absorb Nouns, their proper full-album (Weirdo Rippers was a collection of EPs and other material). But Weirdo Rippers wasn't done with me; I hadn't escaped its thicket of messy sound.

Nouns isn't more cohesive--it's barely held together by an overhanging fuzz. But there are little moments of melodious brilliance (Things I Did When I was Dead) that I keep returning to. The power of melody is never more important than in noise rock--it's the beauty among obliteration that makes it all worth listening to.

It may be that I'm way in over my head with Nouns at the moment, and making irrational decisions about its placement on this list. But more than any other album it has captured my time, intellect, and imagination. The music is inventive and brilliant for a drummer and a guitarist -- bands twice their size are routinely less impressive, with a fraction of the ideas. Their mastery of noise is unmitigated.

It's been said that the sign of a good writer is when a whole book is thrown away on every page. The same applied to Nouns. The sheer number and quality of ideas in this album is staggering.

2008 Albums: 10-6

10. Coldplay - Viva la Vida

It's hard to know what to write about Coldplay, because it's hard for me to understand what this album is doing eeking into my top ten albums of the year. The blatheringly bad X&Y was a record I loved to hate--its use of meaningless anthemic sounds and titanic yet vapid lyrics was either stupendously naive or darkly cynical. Rush of Blood to the Head has some gems, but hasn't aged terribly well. I was always back-and-forth about Parachutes, usually ending up indifferent. Except this time, well, Brian Eno was involved. So I'd have to at least listen to the single with good headphones.

I would play "Viva la Vida" over and over again and never tire of its melody. I have no idea what it's about -- Martin's thoughts on the lyrics are cringe-worthy -- but Jesus, that string section. And the second half of the Coldplay album following the single -- begining halfway through "Yes" and through to the end -- is absolutely brilliant. The album should sound like a bunch of overfilled, puffed-up songs, CPR'd by Eno into passable listenability. But instead they are actually good. They go down easy, and they're vague. But there's a lot that's smart about the music, beginning with the opening track.

I really don't want to like this album. Here's how they describe why Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People is on the Cover and they've been touring in military jackets:

There’s this slightly anti-authoritarian viewpoint that’s crept into some of the lyrics and it’s some of the pay-off between being surrounded by governments on one side, but also we're human beings with emotions and we’re all going to die and the stupidity of what we have to put up with every day. Hence the album title.
Fight the government! It's just terrible that a band of this commercial stature would clumsily, disengenously pose in this way. But what can I say? Easily their best album, and one I returned to often.

9. Hercules & Love Affair - S/T

What I think is most important to stress about this album is its brevity. Every song could let loose and extend for miles; every song is full of capable ideas. But instead it's fantastically restrained, and that's why it's more than just a dance record--why it has the power to impart meaning.

I'm not longing for the long-lost age of disco per se. Nor am I gay. But listening to this album, I feel something. Just the same way Antony singing about a boy longing to be girl brought me to actual tears, so the emotion here is imparted. But who am I kidding? What I really love about this album is how my feet move. Hercules' Theme and Blind have made me very, very happy this year. And that's enough.

8. Vampire Weekend - S/T

I'm starting to feel like I'm spending too much of my time defending my choices rather than exclaiming why I actually love the albums on this list. But, it's going to be hard to not to that again here. This is the kind of album that's so easy and catchy that it's hard to listen to anything else in the first week of exposure. In fact, this was the first album I heard in 2008 that I really loved. As time went on, this love became guiltier and guiltier as the sheen wore off and I realized that I felt like an alumni frat brother during Monon Bell weekend, and I put them away for awhile. But the songs stood the test of many listens, and every time a song would pop up on random, I'd drop turn off shuffle and listen through the whole album. I've always admired bands that are able to appeal quickly while maintaining staying power.

It's also an album about New York, and I'm a sucker for those. The whole Columbia Ivy-Leage preppy schtick, while undeniable, is handled with appropriate measures of sincerity and irony. My biggest complaint is that the song about Blake's new face is the weakest on the album.

7. Fleet Foxes - S/T

Some of you bailed on Fleet Foxes awhile back -- which is fine -- but I adored this album. Sure, it sounds like you're in church. But that's what I love about it. It's not easy to make music this stunningly beautiful. The moment I heard Winter White Hymnal I was floored. I love harmonizing, and I love the vague, steeped-in-fairytale quality of the lyrics, I love the myriad influences and styles in every song, and I love the mountain-man folky qualities. I love that this album draws from all kind of American music and couldn't have been made anywhere else.

Maybe I'm a sucker for this sort of well-produced AM radio/country/folky/60s California thing, indie-fied for my pleasant consumption. And sure, the lead singer probably loves the sound of his own voice. I'll admit the harmonies are nowhere near Brian Wilson stature. But listening to this album, I am moved, emotionally uplifted, and full of wonder.

6. TV on the Radio - Dear Science

I had never loved a TV on the Radio album in the past -- not through a sense of purpose, but because none had ever drawn me in past a listen or two. This almost happened to me again this year when I listened to Dear Science. Maybe it's a matter of taste, but my first time through the album the songs seemed redundant, and the funky drums just didn't sit right with me. There was plenty to admire about it, but I wasn't compelled. There was all this heft to things, but it landed with a dull thud. The same thing the second time. But I was reading such incredibly praise about the album that I kept on it.

Everything changed when I put on headphones. Suddenly I heard the handclaps on Halfway Home. The textures of each song emerged. Everything became vivid. And the quality of the production was enough to keep me around long enough for the revelation to hit. The heft reflected the intensity of emotion. The rawness of political statement was achieved not through brute force, but an emotional complexity and energy.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

2008 Albums: 11-15

15. MGMT - Oracular Spectacular

It's difficult to shake a song you hear while incredibly happy to be the best man in a close friend's wedding. Add to that being buoyantly drunk, garrulous, jubilant, and in an unfamiliar city being driven around by a mysterious woman (Kyle's girlfriend). All these circumstances converged in Electric Feel, which Kyle played over and over while we all embraced each other in the back of a car and cared not what it looked like. We fell asleep singing that song in the hotel room, and played it the next morning despite raging hangovers and the fact that Nick periodically threw up all the way home.

But as much as I wanted to just put on Electric Feel and remember that night, the other songs were immediately interesting enough to keep me listening to the whole album. They're warm, lush, immediate, and sugary. And I just kept listening to the album over and over. I didn't care what they sang about or why, or if the music was derivative or inventive. It was, and is, just a hugely enjoyable album to listen to. So here it is on my list.

14. Lindstrom - Where You Go I Go Too

The first time through this album, I actually sort of chuckled. For some reason what popped into my head was some sort of mid-90s computer generated school video about travelling through the universe, zooming in and out of the solar system and learning about planets. This, naturally, made it very hard to take the album too seriously. Repetive beats, spacey sounds, artificial synthesizer melodies -- it sounded like the production assistant at an educational video publisher had got hold of an MC-303 and gone to town.

I clearly got past this initial reaction. In fact, this is a beautiful piece of work that I listened to many times while reading and writing, and came to appreciate like a piece of classical music. It's hardly danceable -- there are bits here and there that would work, but in between long stretches of swirly ambience where you'd stand around wondering what to do -- but that's probably not the point. Plus, doesn't he look like such a nice guy?

13. Lykke Li - Youth Novels

What the hell is it with Sweden? It's like a conveyer belt of really good bands. One after the other, year after year, somebody new comes around and blows me away. My biggest Sweden crush this year was Lykke Li, who is young (22), smart, not afraid to be goofy, and a fantastic writer of pop songs.

It's easy to listen to this album once or twice and walk away saying "meh." The production is very minimilist and uncrowded, which can be a little underwhelming, especially because the songs are well-written enough to really soar, and at times I really wished they would. But I stuck with it, and found myself increasingly charmed. It's a very, very restrained album, and mature because of it--every little beat and backup vocal is carefully placed. Lykke's voice is pretty airy and gentle, so the simplicity suits her -- but it takes time to love. She's a coy artist, which is the best kind to have a crush on.

12. Shearwater - Rook

During my torrential love affair with Okkervil River this year, building on my love for last year's The Stage Names, I read a lot about them. That's when I found out about Shearwater, a side-project for Will Sheff with Jonathan Meiburg that has since grown, while Sheff has lessened his role to work with Okkervil River (Meiburg also plays in Okkervil River)

The influence of one band on the other is clear, but Shearwater is a lot calmer, darker, and introspective. Like the National, the band pulls off a kind of wearied sophistication that's massively appealing. There is a melancholy to everything, but none of that mood weighs down the record; instead it give it permanence. The songs ebb and flow with the high falsetto and richly expressive qualities of Meiburg's voice, which has this amazing combination of strength and fragility (think Jeff Buckley). The record is entirely human, and the songs express that. It's not a record of pop melodies or experimentation. Just an extremely high quality collection of incredibly well-written songs.

11. Silver Jews - Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea

Since I missed Tanglewood Numbers back in 2005 I've been absorbing a lot of Silver Jews. I've since gone back to their earlier albums (especially American Water), and I recently realized that they're closely related to Pavement, and Stephen Malkmus played with lead singer David Berman in college and was an early member of the Silver Jews until Pavement took off. This is, I think, their best album since American Water.

Why do I love the Silver Jews? Berman is a gifted songwriter, a published poet who writes like it, and pens incredibly odd music. He's probably a heavy whiskey drinker, and just an all-around weirdo. The songs are unfailingly smart, hilarious, and never takes themselves seriously (see Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed from Tanglewood Numbers, or the epic San Francisco B.C. from Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea). It's just enough country for me, feeding a casual southern/southern-gothic fascination, and he knows how to tell a great story. He sings in a casual, deep voice that kinda reminds me of Johnny Cash in its deadpan delivery. But in the end, I'm most entranced by the strange beauty that emerges when I listen to the Silver Jews. I don't know why, but I can't deny it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

2008 Albums: 16-20

20. Cut Copy - In Ghost Colors

I'm not well-versed in Cut Copy's music, but this album really stuck with me this year. I suppose it's a electronic dance album, which is fine, but dance/house music isn't something I often play repeatedly. Maybe this is because, well, a lot of it takes care of that and more by being incredibly repetitive all on its own. Sure it's great in a club where you want 20 identical measures of the same thing to perfect your robot--but it's not something I often put on at home wearing headphones.

In Ghost Colors has got the beats covered, and is full of shining examples of good electro-synth-pop. But their songs and melodies stand out more than usual. I found myself coming back to it for reasons other than being fun to dance to--because the songs were really good.

19. David Byrne and Brian Eno - Everything that Happens Will Happen Today

Who could know what this album would actually sound like. Two 60 year old musical gods casually tell the world they're throwing together a few bits and bobs they've got lying around. One of them just produced the latest commercial rock behemoth for Coldplay, the other rides his bike around Manhattan these days, turning buildings into art exhibits. Would it be landscape-y and dreamy like Eno's Airports? Quirky and quick like Talking Heads albums? Just about the only thing we could count on was that it would sound great on headphones.

The result is a warm, touchingly scattershot affair that is held together only because the two men who made it are very good at what they do. My first couple times through this were pretty rocky. There are a lot of awkward moments, some odd lyrics, and a cohesion was not made a huge priority. You get the sense that each is feeling the other out to see whether this collaboration will work again. But everybody just seems to be in such a good mood, especially Byrne. And of course, it's incredibly fun to, well, listen to this on headphones.

18. Alphabeat - S/T

This album is embarrassingly high on the list for me. But I should refuse to feel bad. With gems of pure sugary pop as satisfying from the first listen to the 40th, even an album as uneven and over-pleasing as this gets credit in my book. iTunes play counts don't lie, and 10,000 Nights of Fire, Fascination and In the Jungle are all in my top ten for the year. The first three songs are almost enough to make the rest of the album work, but it all does begin to wear.

But there were innumberable times when I put on the beginning of this album after a bad day, and it made me indescribably happy, dancing around like a white man never should. And if music that does this isn't good, I don't know what is.

Technically this was released last year, but they came out with a 2008 version that's not as good. So get the original.

17. Bonnie Prince Billy - Lie Down in the Light

I'll preface this by saying that I'm not a big fan of Bonnie "Prince" Billy, because, well, I really have a low tolerance for sad bastard music. When Nick told me about this album, he was sure to mention immediately that he didn't much like BPB either. So with this recommendation from a skeptic, I gave it enough time to grow on me.

It's a great, great album. The man is actually sorta happy. Halfway through the first track, when a one-handed little piano ditty comes into the mix and someone hums, I had a good feeling. He's got a few downright uptempo cuts on this, and he just lets the songs be folk songs, shedding the solipsistic singer-songwriter schtick for country twinge and playful arrangements that sound full and lush in comparison to his earlier albums. The album ends with a chorus, for Christ's sake.

16. M83 - Saturdays = Youth

To call M83 cinematic is incredibly obvious, but they're one of the few bands that actually inhabit this over-used adjective with full-on earnestness. The synths are huge, the nostalgia is thick, and there's a girl who looks like Molly Ringwald on the cover. As if I didn't love John Hughs' movies enough -- many of them were filmed in my town or the next one over -- M83's album let me re-live it all again. The big sweeping sounds are expansive and 80s-drenched, yet carefully orchestrated enough to sound modern (but still nicely fuzzed-over into shoegaze). After the dreamy opener, Kim & Jessie is a good enough song to propel me halfway into the album. But the song after song hits home.

In this territory it would be easy to make a saccharine, heavy-handed pile of crap. But everything is kept in balance and the emotions, somehow, never veer too far into sentimental territory. Maybe it's just nice to hear sincere love for the past without irony playing too much of a role--Gonzalez really cares about the 80s. He's not just ripping them off casually. Oscar Wilde described the sentimentalist as someone "who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it." This album does not meet that definition.

Monday, December 8, 2008

2008 Albums: 21-25

25. Peter Bjorn and John - Seaside Rock

Most of the reviews I've read seem to really hate this album. Maybe it's because, without a doubt, it's a huge let-down after Writers Block. It's a slapped-together instrumental album with lots of clips of Swedish people talking and not a single great pop hook. No doubt, this is probably a bunch of leftover half-cooked stuff that they put out while working on their proper follow-up with vocals. But I don't know -- I sorta like it. If I'd never heard of Peter Bjorn and John before and this album came on, I think I'd enjoy it. There are at least a couple frustrating moments when a good buildup is thrown away or the blathering old Swedish woman just keeps talking a little too long. But it doesn't take itself too seriously, it's imbued with a kind of child-like charm, and has lovely moments. The band's future is not in mining experimental electronics--it is, hopefully, in writing 60s-esque pop songs--but I still like this album.

24. Beach House - Devotion

I'm a serious sucker for ambient and moody albums, and this kind of dream pop gets me every time. I am more than happy to submit to a world of muddled, ethereal, hazy sounds. But to create this seamless world is to risk writing songs that all sounds the same. That leads to a pleasing but boring album. Which has been a consistent criticism I've read about this album.

What makes Devotion work is the variation within the songs. Weepy keyboards and calm work on an electric slide guitar are the albums constancy, but the music subtly changes in interesting ways throughout. The album is placid, but the ghostly lyrics and singing of Victoria Legrand keep things from feeling settled. Kind of like Broadcast but a little less stark and spare.

23. The Dodos - Visiter

The first time I listened to the Fleet Foxes, I emailed Nick right away because he'd told me to download it. "This is so beautiful," I dashed off. "Oh, you're just getting to that?" came the dismissing reply. "Try the Dodos. It takes a little more time to get, but definitely worth it." So try I did, to get into the Dodos. I downloaded the album without reading much about them, and listened to it. Over and over again. Probably ten times. But I couldn't make any sense of it. It just seemed spotty and disorganized. And really frustrating.

A couple months ago I tried again, and finally understood that they're not trying to write pop songs. I realized that people were comparing them to the freak-folk scene, and Animal Collective's "more straightforward moments" in the words of the Pitchfork review. I started to relax and let the album set its own terms. And I think I got it. They're nowhere near as exciting and joyous as Yeasayer last year or Animal Collective--no single song knocks your socks off--but they've quietly made a very good album once you obey its rules more than your own.

22. Conor Oberst - S/T

"There's nothin' that the road cannot heal." God, we need songwriters around who still sing a line like this so earnestly, who build an album around it glorifying driving and wanderlust. Even though I think I've reached an age where I can no longer read Keroac's On the Road without sheepish embarrassment at its zealous naiveté, I'll still listen happily to Oberst conjuring up old cliches. Maybe our generation no longer believes in the road; we're not sad when Peter Fonda sighs at the end of Easy Rider, "You know Billy, we blew it." But hearing about the road in songs? I lay back and indulge.

What I loved about I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning is true of this album: the way Oberst writes songs that seem offhand and yet packed full of intensity. It's probably something to do with the shaky quality of his voice. With this album the highs are not quite so high, the lows not as low--the songs are more even-keel, the songwriting is stellar. It's just a more laid-back record, a little more traditional in its folky-country sound. That's quite fine though--it makes for a great album.

21. Air France - No Way Down

Air France aren't French, they're Swedish, and that's an important point. There's no summer in Sweden, or no summer like the average person would define it. It's all a joke. For an album that sounds like it was born on a tropical island, but created in snowy Sweden, this is pretty convincing. Living in Estonia, I listen to this and think fondly on fellow Northern European / Scandinvian neighbors as the driving windy snow blows down the street, and how we are all working together to collectively imagine beachy paradise. "Sorta like a dream?" asks the innocent girl's voice on "Collapsing at Your Doorstep." "No, better."

The summery vibe is only a part of it, though -- the music is also rich and textured and wonderfully reminscent of The Avalanches. Every time I listen to "Beach Party" I want to run and put on Since I Left You. But then I stay, and realized that Air France might be just as good.