Wednesday, June 22

2011 Music: The Year so Far

With the year half over, here is a quick breakdown of the 10 best albums of the first six months of 2011.

A few notes: This list comes from a dude who has stopped listening and consuming music at the breakneck pace he once maintained. A lot of things have slipped through the cracks, and even more things just haven’t had the proper time to be processes. By the end of the year a much more comprehensive, trustworthy and meaningful list will exist. Likely, some albums that appear here will no longer be on the list in any capacity, while other albums will come roaring out of the night to take the top spots.

Albums still being processed: Fucked Up’s David Comes to Life, Okkervil River’s I am Very Far, DJ Quik’s The Book of David

Albums to be listened to:
Bon Iver’s Bon Iver, Cults’s Cults, Death Cab for Cutie’s Codes and Keys, My Morning Jacket’s Circuital, Tyler, the Creator’s Goblin, any number of punk releases that I’ve been missing.

Albums that didn’t make the list but still deserve to be mentioned: The Stroke’s Angles, Cut Copy’s Zonoscope.

The 10 Best Albums of the First Half of the Year:

10) PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
Harvey has long been one of my musical blind spots: this is her first release that I’ve ever owned and listened to with any kind of consistency. I can’t say exactly how this album stacks up in her catalog, but it’s weird charms and off-center take on pop music and classic rock make it more than worth a listen.

9) Frank Ocean – Nostalgia Ultra
Considering all the buzz around Tyler, The Creator, there is a certain poetic justice in this less-heralded member of the Odd Future collective finding crossover success with “Novicane,” a song that is seemingly about how it’s not good to have cocaine for breakfast. Ocean’s samples are either refreshing or annoying in their modern nature and minimal alteration, and while some may focus on his tendency to be like an emotional dude at karaoke, his open lyrics are a refreshing change from the alpha-lover bravado usually found in modern R&B.

8) The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck
On the one hand, the Mountain Goats have failed for two albums to reach the near-rock heights of 2008’s eternally great Heretic Pride. On the other hand, when mellow songs come as fully-formed and well-written as “Damn these Vampires” and “Outer Scorpion Squadron,” who gives a shit?

7) Lupe Fiasco – Lazers
I was initially down on Lazers upon its release due to the turmoil surrounding its release and the obvious grabs for crossover success in the album’s beat selection and collaborators list. Upon repeat listens, all these flaws are forgiven thanks to Fiasco’s personality and dexterity as a rapper, coming off like a more even-tempered, more thoughtful, more vocally accomplished Kanye West. Even at his worst, rap is a better genre with him in it.

6) Parts and Labor – Constant Future
For a minute, I tried to convince myself that Parts and Labor was my favorite band: one part keyboard-rock group that didn’t forget to maintain the second half of that equation and one part Big Country. I’m off that kick now, though, and just happy to have an album of experimental punk that can achieve innovation without sounding like a soupy pile of hippy noise.

Incidentally, I didn’t care much for Panda Bear’s latest album.

5) Monument – Goes Canoeing
Monument is the latest band to reach for Cap n’ Jazz’s spazzy emo throne, and the first band to come within spitting distance since Algernon Cadwalader. Goes Canoeing borrows a little more from the punk side of the cocktail, rocking a little harder and noodleing a little less while still maintaining the wide-eyed optimism and “it could mean anything or everything” lyric style of CnJ.

4) Restorations – Restorations
The older I get, the harder it is for me to justify my love of really stupid pop-punk. Thankfully, Restorations are here to inject a little dignity and maturity to my favorite genre. Part Constantines, part National and part Gaslight Anthem, the band’s first full-length is an absolute joy for the punk rock kids who are still just a little too young to grow old.

3) Tv on the Radio – Nine Types of Light
10 years in and this NYC-based band keeps brining the hits. Originally penned as a rock and roll band hiding under Radiohead-like production, Nine Types of Light finds the band more fully embracing its doo-wop roots while still turning out smart, well-written pop songs. Someday, this band will stop sneaking up on me and I will just be outright impressed with them instead of going “holy shit, this album is wonderful” after five listens.

2) Drive-By Truckers – Go-Go Boots
America’s last great southern rock band slowed things down on its 2011 release, dialing back the endless anthemic guitar solos of 2010’s The Big To-Do for more a more stripped-down country sound and a focus on building tiny worlds of small-town crime and painful lives. The shift works, especially on Patterson Hood’s calm masterpiece “The Fireplace Poker.” However, the song of the year probably goes to “Cartoon Gold,” a simple Chris Cooley number than can stand toe-to-toe with the genre’s best love songs.

1) Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for my Halo
Vile is done fucking around. After doing his best Velvet Underground impression with his band, the Violators, the Philadelphia songwriter scales everything down to a dude with his guitar and a head full of thoughts he can’t understand. Simple songs with a haunting quality and an innocent lyrical focus that could come off as amateurish in someone else’s hands sound like words of a new folk-rock icon coming from Vile, who finally fulfills the promise of all those magazine articles a few years back. There is a lesson to be learned here: talent and skill will always stand out, even if it’s just from a dude and his notebook.

Saturday, January 8

You Guys Just Sit Around Doing SuperCool All Day

Artist: Sisters
Album: Ghost Fits
Year: 2010

Short Review: Like a better, more accessible No Age. This could totally be two dudes you know making fun, fuzzy, punky dirt-pop.

Long Review: At its worst, Sisters do nothing more than ride the current fuzz-rock trend of rehashing the best parts of the underground from the 80s and 90s. At its best, the duo’s debut album, Ghost Fits is a fun, easy blast of accessible guitar crunch, not unlike a low-fi, no-impact version of Superchunck, or a less bullshit-y Sonic Youth.

Recalling the straightforward thump of Japanther, the band get by more on its charms and taste for melody than it does on originality. Opening track and album highlight “The Curse,” which starts with some chunky strumming, wouldn’t be much more than a mid-tempo basement punk song if not for a killer second guitar part that highlights just how much can be down with few chords.

And so the album goes. Every song is held together by a simple beat, a straightforward guitar part and some kind of additional keyboard or guitar melody (see “Glue,” “Sky”). On a track-by-track level, not every song works. Overall, however, the album is a fun diversion for people who think the underground has gotten too artsy.

Perhaps Sister’s biggest strength is its charm. The album is refreshingly free of any subtext or deeper meaning beyond “Hey, how cool does this guitar solo sound? How fun is that drum beat?” This is not a homework project or a great artistic gambit: it is two guys from Brooklyn who probably fell in love with Dinosaur Jr. and Japandroids at some point and decided to make rock music in their basement. The real secret triumph of Ghost Fits then, is how good a job these two amateurs did imitating giants.

Key Tracks:
The Curse, Sky, Glue, Highway Scratch

Buy, Steal, Skip: Buy, for sure.

Thursday, May 20

Department of Squandered Good Will: Streetlight Manifesto Edition

Artist: Streetlight Manifesto
Album: 99 Songs of Revolution

Comments: For a minute there, Streetlight Manifesto was poised to become the one ring of ska bands. One horn to rule them all, one horn to bind them.

The Sauron, the dark master of this strained metaphor, is Tomas Kalnoky, band leader and brainchild of both Streetlight and Catch 22 before them. After the success of the group's super-tight 2003 debut Everything Goes Numb, an album that succeeds with no small thanks to Kalnoky's songwriting and flair for punk-ish arrangements, the group developed a cult-like following who was chomping at the bit to buy whatever ska-morsels the band saw fit to throw their way.

Then weird. Like, totally bat shit weird.

Three years after Numb, the band opted to release a remake of Keaseby Nights, Kalnoky's other ska classic with Catch 22, enleau of a new album. The group eventually got around to putting out a proper followup in a year later, the diminishing-returns-factory of Somewhere In Between, a record that sounded just like their first one in all the wrong ways.

Now, after baffling moves and unreasonable delays, the few faithful have been rewarded album of ska covers! Woo.

If nothing else, 99 Songs of Revolution proves what many suspected after the band re-released Keasby Nights: Kalnoky is out of ideas. Creatively, the man has been treading the same ground since 2003, and putting out an album of covers isn't going to do much to reverse that perspective.

As far as the album goes, it's exactly what one would expect: fucking ska covers of popular songs. There's a Radiohead cover (now with horns!) and a Paul Simon cover (now with more horns!) and a Postal Service cover (with, you guess it, horns!). Truth be told, the cover of "Such Great Heights" is pretty good, if only to hear the band replicate the frantic opening techno notes with brass instruments. Otherwise, this album is a wash.

I mean, if you were waiting for a band like Streetlight Manifesto, a band totally capable of putting out classics, to get back to the business of making rock music, would you give a shit about their cover of "Punk Rock Girl?" Of course not. You'd put on Everything Goes Numb and imagine they broke up immediatly after its release. It would have been a much more graceful way to go.

Key Tracks: Punk Rock Girl

Buy, Steal, Skip: Skip

I'm not linking to the covers. Let's pretend it's 2003.

Wednesday, May 19

The Swedes Won't Stop Making Pop Music, No Matter How Many Small Animals I Kill

Artist: The Radio Dept.
Album: Clinging to a Scheme

Comments: The Swedes make good pop. The Radio Dept. is a Swedish pop band. Put two and two together. Review over.






OK, fine.

Clinging to a Scheme is the band's third album, and it's a dreamy little affair. Their tunes are not forceful or overly-bright as much as they are hazy and warm, free of urgency, with simple, almost lazy hooks. There aren't much drums to speak of, outside the occasional canned computer beat. Still, the lack of percussion suits the light, airy nature of the songs.

The album's best tracks, however, are the ones that are less simple strings of pleasant music and more straight-forward songs. Take, for example, the second single "Heaven's On Fire:"once one gets past the asinine quote about "capitalizing on you youth culture," the song kicks in with flirty guitars and a bouncy, easy keyboard melody that will set twee-hearts a-cuddlin'.

Things are a little childish on Clinging to a Scheme, never getting deeper than the skin, never getting darker than slightly overcast on moodier numbers like "Domestic Scene" and "The Video Dept.," and the sunny disposition of the album can get a little over-bearing at times. Still, its a fine album to just throw on and go about one's day with. It's so sweet and well-made that, when the occasional real song comes along a sticks to the ribs, it feels like an added bonus more than anything else.

And, come on, complaining about the twee-pop record being too cheerful is like complaining about the ocean being too wet.

The Radio Dept.'s latest is well-made, feel-good music for people who like to feel good. By no means a meal, it makes for a fine snack at any hour of the day.

Key Tracks: Domestic Scene, Heaven's on Fire, This Time Around, David

Buy, Steal, Skip: Buy

Tuesday, May 18

Crime In Stereo's Challanging Little Success

Album: Crime In Stereo
Album: I Was Trying To Describe You To Someone

As far as post-hardcore goes, no band is currently more true to the genre than Crime in Stereo. They used to play hardcore, and now they don't. It doesn't get much more straight forward than that.

Still, trying to pinpoint the sound on I Was Trying To Describe You To Someone is a fool's errand. The album is unlike any other I've heard in some time. It stretches the ideas of punk in new directions, resulting in something that sounds very modern and cerebral while still maintaining an aggressive edge through vocals and guitars.

So, yeah, this is a punk rock record. But it's a punk record the same way that OK Computer is an alternative rock record, or the same way that Illinois is a folk record. These albums, while technically just simple genre pieces, are actually much more for what they accomplish and how different they sound than anything else like them. I don't think Describe You will fall into the same game-changing category of the other two records, but it's just as good.

Patches of this album are downright melodic. This record has been out since February, and I'm still listening to the guitar melodies and vocal hooks of tracks like "Type One" and "Drugwolf." Indeed, the vocals are a big part of why these songs work. Singer Kristian Hallbert doesn't do much more than scream, but he has a real sense of melody, and, along with the band's skill of playing off the quite-loud dynamic, his hooks are a big part of why the record is such a success.

Vocal dexterity aside, this is a guitar record. I've never seen Crime in Stereo live, but I'd imagine that its guitar players are some of those guys who have dozens of pedals at their feet. There is a lot happening from the six strings, and, honestly, I'm not sure how a lot of it is happening. There are a lot of little electronic, ambient touches, like on “I Cannot Answer You Tonight,” that are difficult to pinpoint but are paramount to the album's success. The straight forward riffs are mighty good, too.

I Was Trying To Describe You To Someone
is a fitting album name. It is nearly impossible to explain this record's greatness on paper. Punk rockers who come into it blind, expecting some straightforward rock in the vein of Bear vs Shark or Polar Bear Club will be disappointed. However, forward thinking rock fans will be decoding this mysterious gem for months to come, enjoying it all the while.

Key Tracks:
Drugwolf, Exit Halo, Not Dead, Type One, I Cannot Answer You Tonight

Buy, Steal, Skip:

Monday, May 17

Jim Ward is Pretty Good, Too

Artist: The Tallest Man On Earth
Album: The Wild Hunt

Comments: I don't usually go for singer songwriters. Too often I find their music to be self-indulgent, repetitive, devoid of ideas and delivered in a voice that is either emotionally absent, or so overwrought that I want to hurl my fist into someone's face. I don't like to chill out, man, so take that flaccid bullshit back to the beach bonfires and high-school basement parties.

Of course, there are a few exceptions to my distaste. Take, for example, the sparse and powerful tunes of The Tallest Man On Earth, whose latest album The Wild Hunt is like honey for my ears. By combining simple, enigmatic lyrics with an ethereal, almost rustic songwriting sense, the album is both familiar and excitingly new.

No, TTMON isn't re-inventing folk music; it is still just a man and a guitar singing about love through the lens of observation and fantasy. Still, it is hard to remember anyone doing it as convincingly, as enjoyably, as free of excess or pretense.

Maybe it is simpler than even that. Maybe there is just enough joy to be taken in a man who sings bravely and strongly, taking no time to whimper or whisper or wail. Surely one can just draw on the guitar playing, which is confident and firm despite its relative simplicity. Maybe it's just enough that the pretty songs are pretty, the rocking songs rock, and the lyrics are specifically ambiguous enough to apply to any situation.

Still, I say there is more. There is a comfort in The Wild Hunt, a domesticity, like meeting an old friend and finding them exactly as they were. And while the album will not yield new surprises on repeat listens, it will settle into your bones with all the warmth of November apple cider. Take note, young acoustic guitar players: this is what to shoot for.

Key Tracks: King of Spain, Love is All, You're Going Back, Troubles be Gone

Buy, Steal, Skip: Buy

Friday, May 14

I'm Going To Brooklyn This Weekend, But I'll Be Back For NBT

I hope I see these guys:

Or this dude:

Maybe I'll get to do coke with these cats:

I'll probably run into at least one of these dudes:

Jared will probably be there:

But don't worry, I'll be back in time for this