Ah, the holiday season, when we all dream of sugarplums (whatever those are) and the music critic’s thoughts turn to compiling year-end lists. I always feel sort of funny about doing a best-of list for the year, since I have mixed feelings about best-of lists in general. First of all, it’s part of America’s obsession with list making, which is so well known that even criticizing America’s obsession with list making has become a cliche. The other thing I don’t like about year end top ten type lists is that it suggests that the year is this discrete, objective entity, in which the same music is experienced by everyone equally. I think this idea of the experience of one year that is shared by everyone is especially invalid for music. Sometimes, the “album of the year” for me is not an album released that year, but an album that I hadn’t gotten around to listening to until that year. My album of the year for 2007, for example, was probably Wolf Parade’s “Apologies To The Queen Mary”, released in ’05. My album of the year for 2006 was probably “Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)”, by the Wu-Tang Clan, released in 1993. Most of the music listening a person does during the year is catch-up, not just new releases. What’s more, I tend to miss a lot of the year’s big releases, for a variety of reasons. I would have liked to have spent more time with Beach House and The Dutchess and The Duke, but I just never got their albums. On the other hand, critics are raving about TV On The Radio‘s Dear Science, but TV On The Radio just has never done anything for me. I heard a few cuts off the album, but it sounded like the same ol’ same ol’, and I never felt compelled to give it too much time. My friend Sam thinks I’m History’s Greatest Monster for not loving Fleet Foxes, but even though I gave it the old college try (heh heh), I just am not well disposed towards toothless, airy indie-folk harmonies. And though folks loved Hot Chip‘s release this year, I will stick to the opinion voiced in my original review of that album for KWUR: overwhelmingly mediocre. Yes, even “Ready For The Floor”. And ugh, am I done with Vampire Weekend. Which is to say that I did listen to that album a whole lot. And I got so sick and tired of it. The music is still somewhat interesting, but I got to the point where I decided that I could no longer hear the line “coffee on your kaffiyeh” again.
So instead of trying to pick out the absolute best albums of the objective year in music experienced by everyone, I’m just going to try and take you through a long, meandering tour of my year in music. Before I do that, however, I have to note one great release that really dominated my listening during the winter of ’07, even though it was technically released in ’08. Pattern Is Movement’s All Together is not just a great album, but a unique musical experience. The combination of the simple production, the use of various homemade-sounding electronic loops, and the soaring and swaying vocal harmonies on this album gives it a peculiar feeling of intimacy, with the raw emotional content of reading a middle schooler’s diary. It’s an album that really sounds like nothing else out there right now.
Overall, didn’t care much for this year in music, the new releases, anyway. A lot of mediocre stuff, dud albums: here, I am chiefly thinking of Of Montreal‘s new album, but I was also disappointed, unlike most critics, by Wolf Parade‘s new release, which I thought lacked the vitality and the pop craftsmanship of Apologies To The Queen Mary. Everything this year sounded bored with itself, dead-ended. I really didn’t care for the set of airy, Fleet Foxes sounding stuff, with the exception of Beach House, or a lot of the noisier stuff, which didn’t do a whole lot to distinguish itself from older noise. A lot of it sounded overly derivative to me, and a lot sounded escapist, totally detached from the year in which it was made, dangerously distant from increasingly troubled times.
The winter and spring of ’08 sounded like We Brave Bee Stings And All by Thao and The Get Down Stay Down and Rabbit Habits by Man Man. Thao Nguyen succeeded in crafting the perfect winter album, the warmest sounding CD this side of vinyl. Beautiful, lyric-centered, simple pop songs anchored by Nguyen’s distinct voice, rich and resonant as an old violin. You put this record on, and you feel no hurry to go anywhere; things are basically ok, and if you wait a while, they’ll get better. Rabbit Habits dominated my spring this year, and it’s probably my pick for best album of the year. I’ve noticed that a lot of music listeners and music critics don’t share my rabid enthusiasm for Man Man, and honestly, I can’t understand it. If Man Man is my blind critical obsession, so be it, but I will champion this band until they start recording Nashville covers of Christmas songs with Britney Spears and Zac Efron (in which case, I will describe the resulting album as a “rare misstep that deserves a second listen”). First of all, the sheer virtuosity of this band has to be noted. Not that virtuosity itself makes Man Man a great band, but it’s a joy to listen to a Man Man song and guess at the inventive instrumentation (Is that a marimba? Are those kazoos?). When you combine the inventive sound with a bluesy pop sensibility and a soulful, all out delivery, you get an album that somehow sounds both experimental and warmly human, like a homemade appliance. It says something about this album that it has, in my opinion of course, one of the most fun, most party songs of the year (“Mister Jung Stuffed”) and one of the most moving songs of the year (“Whalebones”). I can think of no other album this year that I would describe as a masterpiece, but this is a masterpiece in the very literal sense of the word: masters of their craft carefully constructing a piece in which no time, no note is wasted, a piece that sticks in your head for a long time after.
The summer for me meant listening to a lot of hip-hop. I had a boring, stay-at-home job, and I decided to kill time by listening to Jay-Z’s entire discography, along with a lot of Biggie and Nas. Well, surprising nobody, it turns out that this Jay-Z fellow is pretty good. I personally prefer Jay-Z to Nas, and not just because of a geographical affinity (I too, am a Brooklynite). Nas’ insistence on the romantic conception of the artist, opposed to the market, gets boring. But there’s something really brilliant, interesting and subversive about Jay-Z’s embrace of the ultra-capitalist conception of rapper-as-producer/rap-as-commodity. For my money, his best albums are “The Blueprint”, “Reasonable Doubt”, “Life and Times: Vol 3″, “The Black Album” and “In My Lifetime”. Again, not exactly a critical coup, but my opinion, for what it’s worth.
As for the new stuff, I have to say, Tha Carter III at least grabbed my attention. It’s a tremendously interesting (in this case, read: peculiar) sounding album. Lil’ Wayne’s rhymes range from inspired to lazily waiting for syllables to match up. Lil’ Wayne’s flow is also noteworthy: a petulant, adolescent hazy wheeze that might explain his appeal to similarly high, immature suburban teens. But bottom line, when Wayne’s hot, he’s hot. See: “Mr. Carter”, or the downright amazing “Dr. Carter”.
The album of the summer for me, hands down was Mates Of State’s Re-Arrange Us. I once played the title song (according to I-Tunes, one of my top ten played this year) for our music director, Daniel Burton saying “This is everything you could possibly want in a song”. A lot of critics have picked on this album (and Mates Of State in general) for hitting all the same old pop notes and being too sappy. Maybe, but that’s sort of the point: an unbridled pop jouissance, that includes every great pop song tendency. Sing-along vocals, ABBA-like call and response and harmonies, lovely lyrics, great, driving piano lines and that good ol’ call and response, this album has basically everything I like about pop music.
Although I personally didn’t get to spend too much time with this album, I’d hate to overlook The Bake Sale by The Cool Kids. This album might be the most fun album ever made, just genuinely playful and cheerful. Dig the amazing deconstruction of hip-hop on “What Up Man”. It’s a wonder, in this age of the vocoder, to see how the spare production and goofy lyrics here add up to a great album. These guys are just having a blast, making it look easy and letting you join in.
I spent a great deal of time this fall with The Menahan Street Band‘s debut release, Make The Road By Walking. I don’t know how they did it, but somehow, they captured a soulful Brooklyn summer night and put it on record. It’s a joy to listen to this record. Once again, Daptone’s got some of the best musicians anywhere, and they lay down some prime funk, but it’s also just a rare, happy record. It kinda sounds like the day after election day this year felt.
The album of the end of the year, and an easy runner up to Rabbit Habits, is A Hundred Things Keep Me Up At Night by Love Is All. This album is my favorite kind of pop: twisted, angular, sounding as if it were an alternate universe version of mainstream pop. Josephine Olausson’s voice is an eccentric, no wave sounding kind of voice, and the songs are fast, fun, and just plain crazy catchy. These songs, weird as they are, get stuck in your head. They become like a dream you remember as reality.
Those are my albums. But there are also quite a few songs that I dug, even if I wasn’t crazy about the album as a whole. Call ‘em honorable mentions, if you will:
Chad VanGaalen‘s album, Soft Airplane, is pretty swell, but the song “Willow Tree” is a freakin’ masterpiece. The echoing, high vocals, the simple lyrics, laid over a casual banjo line, are piercing and haunting.
I thought The Walkmen‘s new album, You And Me was pretty disappointing, but “In The New Year”, with that lethal seven note decrescendo and the marvelous drum swells, is the kind of song that feels like it could change lives.
Again, great song on an otherwise disappointing album: “Language City” by Wolf Parade. This is the kind of song I loved on Apologies To The Queen Mary: multi-part masterpieces, downright brilliant piano, pounding drums and vocals, a song that sounds so naturally pop that it seems grown rather than written, delivered in a heart-stopping, breathless manner that never fails to prompt a sing-along.
The Watson Twins have some of the best voices around, and when they’re given time to really pound out a song, like on the ballad “Old Ways”, you get something absolutely worth listening to.
I know, I know, I’m a sucker for the bombastic stuff, but you gotta give it up for the big chorus on “Waving Flags” by British Sea Power. I hear the whole album is good, but I haven’t really gotten a chance to listen to it.
At the risk of getting attacked by my own DJs (heck, my own exec staff), I have to say that I generally found No Age‘s album uninteresting, with the exception of the song “Teen Creeps”, one of those Replacements-sounding noisy punk numbers that remind you what it was like when you were in high school, angsty and loud, a fist in the air number.
I really got into The Dutchess and The Duke‘s Simon-and-Garfunkel-like punky acoustic number, “Strangers”. If someone would be good enough to lend me the album, I’d be much obliged.
And some old-school numbers that caught my ear:
“Fool, Fool, Fool” Barbara Acklin – Definitely the best song I played on my show, Hippocleides Doesn’t Care, this year. An infectiously simple wood block beat and walking bass, soulful back-up singers and Barbara Acklin’s unbelievably big voice. This song makes you just plain happy to be alive, which is kinda strange, since it’s about dating an asshole.
“She’s Gone, Gone, Gone”, Lefty Frizzell – Zak, our folk director, got me listening to this classic. Boy, I love those strings and that aching twang. I’d like to see that make it back into pop music, fuck, even country music.
“Harlan County”, Jim Ford – Another gem recommended by Zak. Jim Ford was a country/soul guy who wrote a bunch of songs for Aretha Franklin and Bobby Womack. This song really has it all: country guitar, horns, insistent drums, a charming, almost hokey old school song structure, and Jim Ford’s desperate, psych-soul era vocals.
That was my year in music. Not great, but it had its moments. Hope you had a good year in music, and I’m looking forward to a great one in ’09.