Sunday, January 4, 2009

You're the Best Around! No One's Ever Goin' To Bring Ya Down! (Music Edition!)

More and more, music is being shoved in to a context of "aesthetic limbo". Meaning that, while other artistic mediums such as films, television, theater and literature still have the proper outlets for quality to be ubiquitous and prevalent, music, for the most part, has a harder time placing steady footing in aesthetic quality. While many ostensible reasons can be considered, the fact of the matter is that in an age where top 40 radio no longer caters to a community where intent of quality counts, we still have, underneath the layers of shit and Jonas Brothers, an array of exciting and progressive music. This year we saw a scene gone increasingly postmodern: musical hybrids, folk revitalization, and mash-ups, all while providing new meanings and context.

13. Islands- Arm's Way
More bleak and sinister with its tone, Canada's Islands has finally matched up with their lyrical and thematic themes of their first record. While the band danced with an obsession over darkness with discussions of metaphysics and death, their sound (on their first record, Return to Sea), always had an upbeat approach; a predecessor to now overly-lauded Vampire Weekend. Taking a cue from their Canadian counterparts (another small, arguably more known, band from Canada called Arcade Fire), Islands matched their internal themes with their exterior, fusing a sound that, while drones on at first, catches us up in a cathartic moment seemingly out of nowhere in a midst of synth, keyboards, and theatrical, grandiose string/choral arrangements. What keeps the record from straying too far from pretentious "epicness" is the simple guitar riff and melody that made this band so damn catchy in the first place.

The Arm - Islands

12. Thao Ngyuen with The Get Down Stay Down- We Brave Bees Stings and All

Infectious, poppy, and youthful. Everything that has been said about Thao Ngyuen's debut record can be said for herself. Maybe because the album, in the midst of her amalgamation of pop and Dixie-folk, feels personal; so personal, in fact, that it emits a feel of universality. I feel like I know Nguyen. That I went to school with her, carried her books, fell in love, and mended a broken heart cause she dumped my ass to go on tour. I don't say this because she's Asian (ok. maybe a little), I say this because she's found that fine line that differentiates the difference between empathy and cheesiness. Ngyuen could totally fit the bill that Taylor Swift plays, but instead of resorting to desperate pleas of youthful ignorance, she sings about geography, swimming pools, and bags of hammers. All things that ostensibly have no relation, but, while listening to the record, it paints an incisive universal narrative.

Bag Of Hammers - Thao Nguyen

11. Beach House- Devotion

Every time I think of Baltimore, I think about the gritty backdrop set by HBO's "The Wire". Crooks dealing drugs at the "Terrace" and the "Towers" while a string of narcotic officers follow their every move. In my mind, Baltimore is the furthest place from the lovelorn, delicate, and energetic ambiance that Beach House has set in Devotion. The record, at times, sounds like a poetic retelling of a love gone sour by a ghost and her widow. The daze of the record matches its dreamy lyrics and the voice of Victoria Legrand sets up an echo-filled, world-weary stage. It's surprising to see that a record made with such pristine pop craftsmanship can be also be eerily evocative, as if it is being haunted by Legrand's ghost; but a friendly ghost, like Casper.

d.a.r.l.i.n.g. - beach house

10. Cut Copy- In Ghost Colors

Every year, there is always a couple of releases that, initially, come off as the greatest thing ever, the second coming even; then after a few weeks, you want nothing more than three bullets to the skull and a nice shallow ditch to sleep in. For example, the MGMT's "Kids" and the many array of Vampire Weekend singles constantly filled whatever real estate I have left in my song-filled head and the mainstream airwaves. Indie-pop, specifically electro-pop, was getting on my nerves. Then April rolls around, and Cut Copy releases "In Ghost Colors". In the midst of my newly found deep disdain for music that made me dance, Cut Copy, with their sweeping synth bravada, sing-along choruses, sonic atmospheres and delicate acoustic guitars when apropos, convinced me otherwise. What makes Cut Copy so marketable is their ability to balance out what they are obviously passionate about (electro, French House) and when said passion can be a bit too self-indulgent. In the end, we have a seamless collective culmination between traditional rock roots and electo-pop.

Hearts On Fire - Cut Copy

9. Hot Chip- Made in The Dark
I distinctly remember the moment where I realized UK-based electro-pop superstars Hot Chip was just not the harbinger of dance they were advertised to be. I was parked on a San Francisco street, on the corner of Market and and Franklin, waiting for a friend. My iPod went to shuffle, and Made in The Dark, the title track, started to play. Right then, it started pouring cats and dogs. The lights started to illuminate, I started seeing in tunnel vision, and everything to change to a 16x9 aspect ratio. All in all, I felt like I was in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, singing along with Julianne Moore, parked at some sketchy street in the bay area, right after both our respective fathers passed away from a supposed drug overdose (sounds like a plausible plot, yes?). My gaze was broken when the friend I was waiting for knocked on my window. I never experienced that moment again (sober, at least). I've come to the understanding that Made in the Dark sums up so perfectly everything paradoxically frustrating, joyful and peculiar about life. Yes, that we cheesy, but so is Hot Chip, so I'm glad to be in the same boat as them.

Ready For The Floor - Hot Chip

8. Sigur Ros- Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
If you look at Sigur Ros' collective catalogue, I don't think you can ever pick out one album and say it is one consistent piece of work; rather, you can pick a lot of individual songs and compile it to a "greatest hits"-esque compilation. This is, and probably will always be (judging from this album) their problem. But at the end of the day, in the midst of all the fat Sigur Ros so lovingly produces, there is an overabundance of moments in their songs that speak cathartic volumes, volumes so loud that you can't help but disregard the lesser, more spacious songs on the record. Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (roughly translating to "With a Buzz in our Ear, We Play Endlessly"), starts off with a hint of a gamechanger in that makes Gobbledigook, a simple pop song with acoustic guitar layers and a driving drum beat. The next song, Inni Mer Syngur Vitleysingur is one of Sigur Ros' best songs, piecing together everything that makes Sigur Ros so distinct and unique (exuberant horns, exquisite strings and an emotional breakdown and release) all in a short, succinct construct that doesn't take more than nine minutes. It seemed that Sigur Ros finally fallen into the timeless mantra of "less is more", but at the halfway mark of the record, the same drab that tore down Takk (their previous record) remained consistent. The biggest promise of this record is the idea that Sigur Ros can evolve into the band we've all been waiting for. We already have enough post-rock bands and incarnations of David Bryant to provide spacious, atmospheric background noise.

Sigur 6 (Untitled) - Sigur Ros

7. Deerhunter- Microcastle
I have a problem with psych-pop/shoegaze. Not so much a problem, more like a passionate hate for all of it. For the most part, I hear/see a bunch of "some college" educated hipsters picking up the guitar for the first time, plugging in some ambient noise, strumming a guitar in open D, and pretending that they're Radiohead. But then I heard Deerhunter and their debut Cryptograms and my opinions changed slightly. This year, they released Microcastle and my opinions changed dramatically. What the band has done is reinvention. The type of reinvention that takes an idea and places it in a context where it doesn't belong. The type that creates a sound that captures a society's current anxiety and doctrinal alienation. All this coming from a combination of vast ideas (apathy, nihilism, the importance of art) and shrewd instrumentation (from doo-wop to laconic ambiance).

Cryptograms - Deerhunter

6. Neil Young- Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968

There's always something exciting about a Neil Young live record, especially when it's just Neil, himself, sitting there with a piano and an acoustic guitar pandering to the audience with his trademark witty banter. "Sugar Mountain", like his previous live album (2007's "Live at Massey Hall 1971"), is distinctive by the fact that Young, at this time, was only in his mid-20s. Yet, with a voice that feels both innocent and mature, Young sounds like he's singing with more wisdom and veracity than any experienced veteran; an old man stuck in a younger man's body. Young's raw natural talent, his ability to make the simplest of chords sound fresh and new, his lyrical imagery and his implicit charisma make him one of the greatest American singer/songwriters of all time, creating a capacity for which Young's legacy transcends the detriments of time. I saw Neil Young recently at his annual Bridge School Benefit at Mountain View, CA. I remember watching him rock what felt like a 15 minute solo to "Spirit Road". The only thing that kept repeating in my head was, "Goddamn, 40 years later and motherfucker still has it".

Sugar Mountain [Live - Canterbury House 1968] - NEIL YOUNG

5. Bon Iver- For Emma, Forever Ago
I'm one of many who subscribe to the idea that the best of music has the uncanny capacity to exude the emotions of the author at the time of recording. For most artists, a cushy recording studio with equipment ranging in the multiple thousands is a place of creative inspiration (i.e. the paycheck). So it is no surprise that most mainstream music today is the equivalent to eating cat food for brunch. The saving grace of cathartic music is implicit in artists like Justin Vernon, otherwise known as Bon Iver (translation: Good Winter). Every review of his debut record, For Emma, Forever Ago, recites Vernon's backstory that eventually led up to the release of his first record. Vernon, fresh off a breakup with his long time band DeYarmond Edison decides to go through a, sort of, creative walkabout and locks himself in a faraway cabin in Wisconsin for four months. This story wouldn't be as amazing if we didn't hear it in the record. When listening to his songs, a testament to a lonely man trapped in a corner only with a guitar, the quaint imagery of his surronding nature encircles you and goosebumps form as his voice trembles in response to the harshest of colds. Toward the end, a dreadful angst toward a woman you never met before, named Emma, starts to develop.

Skinny Love - Bon Iver

4. TV on the Radio- Dear Science
Being one of the, if not "THE", most musically eclectic bands in the past half-decade is an immense title to live up to. What usually happens is that "THE" band's first record appears, chalked up with a dense and sonic backdrop, mixed in with a wholly new musical texture none of its predecessors have conducted before. Then, a few years later, the band is condemned by falling into the mainstream. Falling out of taste with the avant garde and being shunned for making a three minute pop song. TV on the Radio can, arguably, be guilty of this. So why isn't this a problem? Because in the midst of power-pop, thrilling and urgent electro beats, and borderline kitsch synth, the themes and tones that TV on the Radio have perservered in within the last few years stays true to form. TV on the Radio, without knowing, has become the zeitgeist band of the new millineum. While other bands may title albums that signal that they are the commentary for the sign of the times, TV on the Radio, with "Dear Science" has perfectly captured the sound of the times. Any band can spew out didactic rhetoric, but it is only TV on the Radio that has captured the essence of what is happening, the only band that is evocative of what we smell in the air. TV on the Radio has given us an album that spells dread, fear, and doubt cross-bred with brash hooks, looping synth guitars and transcendent lyrical verses. An amalgamation that leads to uncertainty, disorder and perplexity; a bastion of confusion that irrevocably leads to the final exit labeled "audacious hope".

Golden Age - TV On The Radio

3. Girl Talk- Feed The Animals
The concept of a mash-up is not new in musical vernacular. Stemming back all the way from Run-DMC and Aerosmith's collaboration, the idea of two things coming together that usually have no business concerning each other has always been an enticing concept. 20 years later and people still eat up the contradictory concept, but with a less credulous acceptance of said concept. It seems that every month, there is a new Jay-Z mash up with The Beatles, Radiohead or Oasis, or a Led Zeppelin mash up with Howlin' Wolf or Muddy Waters. With the ubiquity of aspiring DJs and electronic artists belching out an array of subpar ironic mash-ups, the welcome wagon for a guy like Greg Gillis (otherwise known as Girl Talk) is well received. What makes Girl Talk work, while thousands of other blogers and Digg-hounds consistently fail with their achievements in lameness, is his consciousness of pop culture. Essentially, Gillis is nothing more than a connoisseur of Top 40 moments, stringing along together the little moments in any given song and molding them to coalesce into one long, epic moment. My last final at Berkeley, in a class concerning the intricacies of modern and postmodern movements, I constantly referred to Gillis as the quintessential product of postmodernism, or recontextualization. Constantly self-referential, culturally-conscious, and an ability to pick out the things that make collective individuals tick, Gillis' greatest achievement is taking previously defined artifaces and manipulating them to create a whole new perspective. Feed The Animals addresses the notion that mash-ups are nothing but unoriginal callbacks to nostalgia; with that notion considered, it is that much more impressive to see that Gillis can remain utterly original and unique without resorting to cheap tricks or trend-inspired moves, and only with his uncanny ability to constantly redefine.

Still Here - Girl Talk

2. Conor Oberst- Conor Oberst
I hate to be so disheartening, but am I the only one that thinks that Conor Oberst is about ten steps away from a finger on a trigger? His last three records, including his Merge Records self-titled debut, focuses on escapism as a healing entity; spoken in an almost theological perspective. No one, not even his obvious predecessors like Dylan or Young, has spoken, or sung, with more angst and desire to break away from his given surroundings. Embracing the lonesome echo of a folk guitar and the therapuetic notes of a slide, Oberst sings about loneliness, spirituality, and metaphysical inquiries. The things you would expect a Junior in College to mull over about, but Oberst never went to College. Instead, he went off on the road, writing records in Cassadaga, Florida (the palm reader's capital) and Teopoztlan, Mexico (the birth place, according to Aztec legend, of Quetzalcoatl). Oberst, traditionally using his position as the predestined orator of his generation as a protestor of unrequited lovelorn and a lost childhood, has evolved into a more sophisticated spokesman. Pessimistic in his attitude, Oberst remains hopeful in spiritual discovery, as if finding commune in places of supposed spirituality would cleans him of the cultural and moral catastrophes that lay behind him. In the end, the one thing that keeps Oberst interesting is his way with words. Gushing with a collection of words that seem to be lifted with a Bartlet's quote book, Oberst can touch a nerve with the precise use of syntax and flow. At the close of the record, when you hear him sing: "If I go to heaven, I'd be bored as hell like a crying baby at a bottom of a well", we can't help but think that we know exactly what he's talking about.

Cape Canaveral - Conor Oberst

1. Fleet Foxes- Fleet Foxes

In the ripe period of mental and spiritual maturity most call "the early 20s", some of us go to college, others get jobs, and the very few participate in what the mainstream sees as a giant parade of delusion. Most people go for the former. Being that it is the safe route, we pack away our dreams in replace for new ones: G5 jets, HDTV and a trust fun for the kids. The latter, in which millions of people dream of and about thirteen accomplish, is a hard road to tread on. For Robin Pecknold and Skyler Skjelset of Seattle's Fleet Foxes, it was a road worth treading, and it obviously paid off for them. Fleet Foxes is essentially the personification of the American dream. Two fresh-faced kids move to a big city (Seattle) and just start playing music. People start to notice, bloggers start to blog, Myspace hits rise, and SubPop Records calls and says, "Hey. We want to take advantage of your recent popularity. Want to give it a shot?" Out comes their debut self titled record. A mix of Neil Young, The Beach Boys and My Morning Jacket, with glorious harmonies and rural reverbs galore, Fleet Foxes became the most talked about record of the year. It's not just the hype, as Boobie Miles in Friday Night Lights once said (what an obscure reference, Eric.), hype implies something that isn't real. Fleet Foxes is real, or as Boobie Miles would say, the "illest". Picking up this album well after the supposed hype, I had heavy expectations. Reading reviews that compare this to Neil Young's After The Goldrush, I was highly skeptical. Nevertheless, by the end, I don't remember the last time I fell in love with a record like this. All from a bunch of kids, no older than I am, that, one day, decided to make a record. The record's second track, "White Winter Hymnal", is the best showcase for what makes the band special. Intricate harmonies and T.S. Eliot-esque imagery, the boys sing:

I was following the pack/All swallowed in their coats/With scarves of red tied round their throats/To keep their little heads from falling in the snow/And I turned round and there you go/And Michael you would fall/And turn the white snow red as strawberries in the summertime.

An amalgamation of Eagles-esque classic rock, Nick Drake Folk, AM Country, Beach Boys California Pop, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young visual harmonies, Fleet Foxes encompasses everything truly great about not only American music, but the American spirit.

White Winter Hymnal - Fleet Foxes

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