Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Singles Of The Year

Nathan's Single of The Year
Bear (Feat. Michael McDonald), "While You Wait For The Others"
NS: Yes, the original album version of the song is great, but I implore any Grizzly Bear fan to find a version of this song with Michael McDonald on Youtube (it was the B-Side version on the original single). Do not laugh. Did you know that McDonald and Grizzly Bear's music are an almost inhumanly perfect match? You will realize that McDonald's voice, deprived of its usual smooth accompaniment, is a force of nature. That what sounded slightly arch and distanced on the original recording sounds completely emotional and alive. Among other benefits.

Aaron's Single Of The Year
Maxwell, "Pretty Wings"

The notes that open "Pretty Wings," grouped in metallic, rising clusters of four, are musical accompaniment to the Calder-esque mobile that opens the song's video: abstract, but with a powerful sense of melancholy. Maxwell's tale of love lost quickly abandons abstraction, but subtle instrumental touches abound. They are numerous, ingenious, and difficult to describe, dangerously open to that vile epithet smooth, but simply too beautiful for it to stick.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Critical Beatdown Round 3: 2009 Wrap-up

Destroyer, "Bay Of Pigs"
AM: Hard to say what this is, or why Dan Bejar might have undertaken it, though the first line provides a clue. So vastly different from the wooze-pop of his last two albums...and so much worse. The vocals are great, but the song has no kick before the guitar comes in around seven minutes. 2.5/5

NS: Like a lot of 13-minute songs, this one has a lot of chaff, and it takes the beginning in particular a while to get going. Still, there are plenty of good musical ideas which pop up occasionally, and I especially like the apocalyptic imagery, which is evocative and playful in a manner similar to Talking Heads' "Life During Wartime." 3.5/5

DJ Quik & Kurupt, "Nine Times Out Of Ten"
AM: Doomed to be compared to "Grindin," but like that song, damn good. Barely more than Kurupt's tense, terse rhymes and a drum machine, the latter of which practically ruptures space-time. 5/5

NS: This beat is a grower. Augmented by a Neptunes-ish drum pattern and a female vocal sample, Kurupt proves his lyrical worth even as his flow lags somewhat behind. Tests the limits of what I find refreshingly minimal in rap, but still an enjoyable listen. 3/5

Grizzly Bear, "Two Weeks"
AM: I really tried to resist the prim, wussy sounds of Grizzly Bear--hated Yellow House, saw them open a generally boring show. And yet..."Two Weeks." It sounds like a lost Wings single, played at 25 rpm. That's a compliment. 4.5/5

NS: Man, those pianos sound punchy, don't they? Yet another example of Grizzly Bear's inimitable instrumental touch, which finds no equal in any other band. The high vocals kill me every time, and as usual Grizzly Bear's drummer proves his mettle with a gentle instrumental flair unmatched in the business. 4.5/5

Flo Rida, "Right Round"
AM: I'm not sure if there's a rapper out there with less cred than Flo Rida. He leaves no imprint on this song whatsoever. Thankfully Dr. Luke has enough sense to dress up his graft in cool noises. 3/5

NS: Would I have at least enjoyed the sample this song is based on more had I never listened to the original Dead Or Alive song? Would I have liked the Watchmen movie if I hadn't read the original comic? Probably. Doesn't change the fact that awareness of this lazy piece of musical thievery does indeed color my critical judgment. Sorry. 1/5

Drake (Feat. Kanye West, Lil Wayne, and Eminem), "Forever"
AM: I resent Drake--he came from the world of Canadian teen soaps, never really proved himself before superstardom, and seems to be hedging his bets between singing and rapping. Remarkably little gets accomplished in this song's six minutes, unless you count lazy guest verses or faux-epic beats. 2.5/5

NS: The highest compliment I can give this song is that it is indeed a perfectly calibrated companion to the Lebron James documentary it features on. The force and punch of the beat on this song is beyond what popular radio is accustomed to, and I can imagine it becoming a perfect stadium jam. Of the rappers, Kanye is oddly the weakest. 4/5

Wale, "Pretty Girls"
AM: The only song I've heard off Attention Deficit with the horn-assisted smoothness of last year's killer Mixtape About Nothing--it brings back aptly-titled production team Best Kept Secret. Alas, not as lyrically intelligent as MAN's "The Manipulation," but this is a beat made for riding. 4/5

NS: I love this song despite its cruel intentions (essentially, to mock ugly girls at the expense of prettier ones). Horn samples pop up all the time in rap songs these days, but I've never heard a horn sample that sounds like this. Everything about the song, from aforementioned horns to Wale's delivery, is sheer quality. 5/5

Vampire Weekend, "Horchata"
AM: Much better than that other single, though not quite Ezra's guest spot on The Very Best's "Warm Heart Of Africa." Progresses from one nice bit to the next, the jumpy orchestral section being the best. 3/5

NS: I'm not a Vampire Weekend hater by any means, but I have to say that, despite some really good songs, they often indulge in certain musical practices that I find extremely lame. Unfortunately, this song has several of them, chiefly a sensibility that can be described as "overly chipper." 2/5

Fucked Up, "Do They Know It's Christmas?"
AM: If nothing else, proof that FU understand internet-era humor. The cacophony is toned down, but it's pretty fun. My favorite guest is Bob Mould. 3.5/5

NS: Weirdly righteous. I congratulate Fucked Up in finding the hidden awesome core of a song I simply assumed was irredeemable. Fucked Up is a band of many talents. David Cross' line, aping Bono, got a big laugh out of me. Merry Christmas. 4/5

Stay tuned for 2009's final Critical Beatdown, our Single Of The Year nominations.

The Favorite Music of Nathan Sacks, 2009

1. Future Of The Left, Travels With Myself and Another
With harder riffs, a fiercer and more macabre sense of humor, and a singer who possesses the rare gift of turning screams of disgust and anguish into catchy hooks, no album excited or amused me more (check out the conversation about great prison breaks in American film in "Lapsed Catholics"). Funny, provocative and unsettling, this album and its first song, "Arming Eritrea," became the Bible by which I now choose to deal with condescending individuals in D.C.

2. Raekwon, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II
I've written in-depth about this album before. Suffice to say it more than makes up for its lack of any cohesive musical or narrative structure with sheer artfulness and craftsmanship on the part of Rae, Ghost, Meth, Deck and the rest. Hundreds of beautiful moments, anchored by Rae's streetwise sense of detail and buoyed by the still-fecund mind of the late J. Dilla.

3. Grizzly Bear,
Not a bad song in this collection of sly, virtuosic tone poems, proving that experimental music utilizing devotional church-type harmonies is the kind of gambit that virtually requires repeated listens. Primo art rock, and tuneful, too.

4. Them Crooked Vultures,
Them Crooked Vultures
I've written about this album in-depth as well. I can't account for its middling reception from critics, except to note that most of them seem to think that Homme doesn't have the chops or the songwriting skills to merit playing with a rhythm section of Grohl/Jones' caliber. These critics are stupid and completely, 100% wrong about Homme. This album is an intense, enormously rewarding journey in the most classic rock sense.

5. Tyondai Braxton, Central Market
This experimental, orchestral solo work from Battles' leader basically jettisons whatever remote pop instincts that group had in favor of more virtuosic passages of avant-garde noise. I enjoyed it enormously in the same way I enjoy a lot of Frank Zappa's longer fusion works. Not necessarily tunes that are containable in one's head, but eminently listenable if you are in the mood. If you're a fan of 10+ minute songs, this has one very good one.

6. The Almighty Defenders,
The Almighty Defenders
What looks to be a one-off collaboration between the Black Lips and the King Khan & BBQ Show has yielded this enormously impressive album. These soul-influenced lo-fi punkers and their songs of heartbreak and transcendence make this album the best of the year to drink alone to.

7. The xx,
This band gets my award for "debut album of the year that doesn't sound at all like a debut album." Smartly sequenced and immaculately produced, this album proves that all you need to carry a tune is a boy, a girl, and a bass, and everything else is merely timbre.

8. Passion Pit, Manners
I understand that this album is basically the aural equivalent of high-sugar junk food, and some of the songs are only a few D.O.C. samples away from becoming straight jock jams. Still, as I always say, one can't argue with effectiveness. The opening 25 seconds of "Little Secrets"? There's nothing that came out this year that gets me more pumped.

9. Morrissey,
Years Of Refusal
Morrissey's solo work this decade has yielded a lot of quality returns, but a lot of it still has the sort of jangle-by-numbers quality that has marred (heh heh) most of his post-Smiths oeuvre. Though Jeff Beck's work on "Black Cloud" is lax and "I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris" is too damn short, this album may be the best and most creative he's ever made, and the final two tracks in particular may be his best solo songwriting, ever.

10. Wale,
Attention Deficit
Not a perfect album, unfortunately, which may make it sound like I am trying to affect some annoying sort of critical hometown boosterism now that I have relocated. I assure you this is not the case. Wale's flow isn't 100% spot-on, but he is one of the most intelligent and likable new rappers out there, and I guarantee you no other rap album sounds like this: if you want to know what D.C. contributes to the rap game sonics-wise, and you need an introduction, best start here. There will be more to come.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Aaron's Favorites, 2009

1. Dinosaur Jr, Farm
At first the songs seemed too long, the lyrics lazy even by Mascis standards. But beneath his slacker veneer, J has always been a perfectionist, a weird visionary for a sugary thrash no other band even dares attempt. Turns out the extended jams and warm production just give Dinosaur--as good a trio as has ever lumbered--more room to soar.

2. The-Dream, Love Vs. Money
An update of Dirty Mind in the post-crunk era. Unlike the Purple One, Dream isn't a game-changer, but he and collaborator Tricky Stewart's lavish, gorgeous songwriting--interlocking beds of synths, loverman coos, gang chants, and elastic rhythms--is miles ahead of the competition.

3. Wye Oak, The Knot
Wye Oak's 2007 debut was an often beautiful, occasionally awkward shotgun marriage of folk and shoegaze. The Baltimore duo's second disc tends towards the latter, and goes places the band simply couldn't two years ago. Jenn Wasner's plaintive vocals still keep both feet on the ground. Her guitar's mournful too, but the fucking thing sounds massive.

4. Morrissey, Years Of Refusal
"All you need is me," our hero intones, brashly. I believe him. As a vocalist, he's untouchable--operatic, masculine, nimble--and his band powers through the album's fantastic rockers and only slightly less-great ballads with aplomb. Oscar Wilde's favorite album of 2009.

5. Amadou and Mariam, Welcome To Mali
Vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Amadou Bagayoko and his vocalist/songwriter wife Mariam write songs completely their own--ringing and clear, with melodies at once accessible and elusive. An all-world set of collaborators help bring their visions to vivid life.

6. Sonic Youth, The Eternal
No new tricks here, but SY sound fiercer than they have in ages. Thurston Moore and Lee Ronaldo's fuzz-squall alchemy continues, with some typically cool-sounding vocals on top.

7. Raekwon, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Part II
Unlike many of his peers, Rae has never been a natural on the mic. But what he lacks in the agility department he makes up with pure grit. OB4CL2 is miles better than its predecessor, just harder, with better beats, ace guest rappers, and some brutal OG wisdom.

8. Flaming Lips, Embryonic
Mindfuck music, in the form of an unexpected and very welcome left turn. Shit, it's not anthemic even once! While one of your speakers spools out bad-trip synths, the other blasts nightmare bass and spider guitar.

9. The xx, The xx
The sound of slow burn. These absurdly young upstarts make lust music, somehow synthesizing the aims of Sparhawk and Timbaland while infusing their songs with a potent negative space.

10. Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career
Expert indie-pop. Tracyanne and Co. have spent as much time studying the C86 songbook as their purely heart-pained colleagues, but The Obscura have evolved into a symphonic, even muscular mope-rock outfit.

Monday, December 21, 2009

What a good decade!

Although certainly not without its share of terrorist attacks, mass murder, wars, odd and regrettable personal experiences etc., the '00s was a great time to be aware of America and its continuing cultural dominance. I've worked on and off on an end-of-decade album list that still poses certain problems, and I have an end-of-year list in the pipeline, but I thought I'd share some general thoughts about what I have enjoyed during the last ten years, because there certainly is a lot.

I may add more to this as I see fit.

Album of the Decade: At The Drive-In, Relationship Of Command
Runners Up: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, Jay Reatard, Blood Visions
Song Of The Decade: Of Montreal, "Disconnect the Dots" (the only song I played so many times in college that someone in the dorm next to me knocked on my door to make sure I was okay).
Runners Up: Outkast, "Hey Ya," The Magnetic Fields, "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend," Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, "Shake The Sheets"
Band of the Decade: Liars
Runners Up: Animal Collective, Radiohead, McLusky
Comeback of the Decade: Mission Of Burma
Disappointing Comeback of the Decade: The Pixies
Guitarist of the Decade: Josh Homme, Queens of the Stone Age
Bassist of the Decade: Brian Gibson, Lightning Bolt
Drummer of the Decade: Brian Chase, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Songwriter of the Decade: Jarvis Cocker
Renaissance Man: Nick Cave (five albums, a screenplay, several soundtracks, a novel, etc.)
Music Documentary of the Decade: Heima
Awesomely Apropos Soundtrack Moment in a Movie: Clive Owen meets his crazy-rich autocrat brother in Children Of Men to the tune of King Crimson's "In The Court of the Crimson King" (also notable for said brother recreating the cover to Pink Floyd's Animals outside his window).
Movie of the Decade: (tie) Nobody Knows (2004) and In The Loop (2009) [have not seen Avatar yet, however]
Director of the Decade: Clint Eastwood
Rap Act of the Decade: Outkast
Rap Album of the Decade: (tie) Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II and Deltron 3030
Loudest Band: Guitar Wolf
Best Canadian Collective: Fucked Up
Best Supergroup: (tie) Them Crooked Vultures and the Good, the Bad and the Queen
Worst Supergroup: (tie) Damnocracy and Chickenfoot
Appalling Rock Critic Moment of the Decade: Sasha Frere-Jones accuses Stephin Merritt of being a racist for saying in an interview that he liked some of the music in Song of the South.
Runners Up: Kelefa Sanneh popularizes a new straw man, the "rockist"; Jann Wenner shills for Mick Jagger's solo album Goddess in the Doorway.
Worst Anti-War Song of the Decade/Ever: The Rolling Stones, "Sweet Neo-Con"
Best Song Over 30 Minutes Long: Liars, "This Dust Makes That Mud"
Guitar Solo of the Decade: Dinosaur Jr., "Pick Me Up"
Radiohead Song of the Decade: "There There" (by a nose!)
Inexplicable Cultural Phenomena of the Decade: (tie) Lady Gaga, Black-Eyed Peas, American Idol, Fallout Boy-style punk, anything Cyrus or Jonas-related, the continued relevance of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the iPod, autotune, the Killers, etc. etc. ad infinitum
Best Song On Chinese Democracy: "Better"
Saddest Thing to Happen in 2001: (tie) 9/11; Fugazi go on indefinite hiatus
Most Apparent Instance of Rolling Stone acting toolish: (tie) the reality show I'm From Rolling Stone; Jann Wenner opens upscale restaurants with no live music.
Biggest Bid For Posthumous Relevance: J. Dilla
Fiction Book of the Decade: Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers
Video Game of the Decade: Half-Life 2
Album of the Next Decade I Am Most Excited About: Dr. Dre, Detox
Douchebag of the Decade: Matt Friedberger
Beck Song of the Decade: "Girl"
Song That I Will Be Obsessed With For the Foreseeable Future: Bat For Lashes, "Daniel"
Greatest Rock/Film Criticism of the Decade: Steely Dan's Walter Becker and Donald Fagen on Wes Anderson's soundtrack choices.
Lyrical Maxim That Will Define the Decade: "My lifestyle/determines my deathstyle"--Metallica

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Stick With Me Baby, Stick With Me Anyhow

Back in October, Nathan suggested that I do a track-by-track take on Bob Dylan's unexpected Christmas album. I've taken the liberty of trashing Bob's other 2009 disc, Together Through Life, three separate times on this blog.

But I resisted for other reasons. Not only did Christmas In The Heart seem like a clunker, but I despise Christmas music. Treacly, staid, and, worst of all, explicitly Christian, Xmas tunes have never been my thing. In fact, to my knowledge the only good Christmas-themed songs ever recorded are Prince's "Another Lonley Christmas," Dump's brilliant cover of that song, and "Jesus" by Big Star. Those, and a great SNL sketch featuring comedic genius Horatio Sanz. Other listenable savior-related songs, like Modest Mouse's "Jesus Christ Was An Only Child," Slayer's "Jesus Saves," and The Birthday Party's "Big-Jesus-Trash-Can," among others, seem not to be sincerely about the birth of God's son (Jesus, not Nas).

But here I am with some free time on a Saturday, and an irrepressible curiosity about what a Christmas album from the Hibbing Jew sounds like. Is it a Tarantula-level disaster, or Masked And Anonymous-level disaster? Or, as the reviews suggest, actually OK? I only intend to listen to this thing more than once, so let's see:

1. Here Come Santa Claus
Dylan sounds cheery enough, backed by an all-male choir. The music is pretty much what you'd expect--part Americana, part pre-Elivs pop. The tune, rendered with a light skiffle, goes by in a pleasant 2:42. Not bad, not bad at all.

2. Do You Hear What I Hear?
Bob groans his way through this one, an odd pairing of syrupy strings, chime-y piano, and slide guitar. I'm hearing typical Jack Frost production so far--clean, upfront, but perhaps too perfect to give Dylan's band room to breathe. I'm digging the percussion.

3. Winter Wonderland
A female chorus sings the title hook, and the song's light Americana swirls around like tiny snowflakes in a snowglobe. Tidy, but oddly charming. A far cry from the dark, caustic songs on Together Through Life.

4. Hark The Herald Angels Sing
Looks like there's no originals here, and the song selection is pretty standard. But you expected that. This is a showpiece for Dylan's voice. People shit on it all the time, but I appreciate his command of bleating and crooning--it's occasionally a thing of beauty (listen to Modern Times' "Workingman's Blues #2"). Not so here.

5. I'll Be Home For Christmas
These songs are all rather sparse, but the production and backup vocals (the latter are rare on Dylan records) make them seem otherwise. They are also mercifully short. They don't overstay their welcome one bit--Dylan goes through 15 songs in just over 40 minutes. This one sounds a lot like the previous song, so that's why I don't feel like describing it.

6. Little Drummer Boy
Among the more execrable songs in the cannon of execrable Christmas music. Dylan's take at least has a cool, reverb-y guitar going for it, so I can pretend I'm listening to Tom Verlaine's "Cold Irons Bound" cover.

7. Christmas Blues
Dylan's take on Christmas is so out of touch with how modern Americans celebrate the holiday--from his album cover on down--you wonder why he bothered recording this at all. He's still on Tin Pan Alley in the era of the information superhighway, and even his sad Christmas song reflects that. A harmonica shows up, briefly.

8. O' Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles)
This one's gained some notoriety its first verse, which is in Latin. It's totally in keeping with the classicist spirit with the album, though, and I suppose it's become notable for a Latin verse because there's little else of interest here.

9. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
I swear I hear a Hawaiian inflection in some of the guitars on Heart, even on this song. I'm really impressed with the vocals on the album--Dylan has taken a genre that seems to play to his weaknesses, i.e. his lack of range, but he consistently nails these songs. The longest song on the album at barely over four minutes, it also goes by fast enough, even with the slow tempo.

10. Must Be Santa
The record's barnstormer, previously reviewed in a Critical Beatdown. The accordion reminds me of Together Through Life, but the band really barrels through this. The call and response is great--add another point to my previous score.

11. Silver Bells
The response to this album has been really interesting, because it deprives critics of their usual talking points. Dylan didn't write a single lyric for the album, and it exists outside of what I'll unhelpfully term "Dylan continuity." It's an aberration--a bizarre genre album that doesn't fit into the narrative about Dylan's work from Time Out Of Mind through Together Through Life. I suspect it will be remembered as what it is, a curio, sometimes entertaining but never great. We get not a whit of insight into The Man. But whatever it is, please don't ask yourself if he's fucking with us. He's always fucking with us.*

"Silver Bells" blows, by the way.

12. First Noel
This sucks too. Extremely corny, and I now want to recant my praise for Dylan's vocals. Strings, female choir, organ, blah, blah, blah.

13. Christmas Island
This song actually is Hawaiian-themed. I imagine Hawaiin's non-Christian indigenous inhabitants would take umbrage with their homeland being called "Christmas Island." But then the tune's inoffensive, which is not to say good.

14. Christmas Song
The last four songs have really taken a nosedive, quality-wise. "Song" superficially resembles the gentler moments on Modern Times and "Love & Theft", but lacks the wizened perspective of a song like "Mississippi." I guess no Christmas album would be complete without "Christmas Song," but my life will never be complete while I'm listening to it.

15. O' Little Town Of Bethlehem

Unbearably slow, sparse but without a hint of intimacy. The album--better than expected--ends after five shit songs in a row. Maybe I'll play this for my Mom sometime.

So 2009 has come and almost gone, and seen Dylan release two mediocre albums, something he hasn't done in the same calendar year since 1973. Still, I'm glad Bob's around, even if he's not.

*Fucking with us even though he's donating proceeds from Christmas In The Heart to charity in perpetuity. A nice gesture, but it doesn't mean he's not fucking with us. He's always fucking with us.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Tweeting in Cyberspace

In a two-pronged effort to increase this blog's traffic beyond the same two or three people and establish (carnal) relations with Roger Ebert, we now have an official Twitter account, which can seen here. Twitter being the obvious mixed blessing that it is, we're going to use this mainly as a means of finding like-minded (read: Gaga hatin') bloggers and expanding our "brand," if you will. And as with most Twitter accounts, you will want to check this one at least ten times a day in order to keep up with whatever we happen to be thinking about at the moment. And follow us or tell others to do so in your stead!

Lead us into Web 3.0, Mistah F.A.B.!