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Melodies Haunt You January 1, 2010

Posted by monty in music.
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One thing my two-week-plus absence robbed me of is the chance to launch a bilious screed against 2009.  It was tempting in the last few days to recap the year that was, or to point out how the right wing’s predictably nasty, conveniently amnesiac response to the failed Christmas Day bomb plot (and can we please stop calling him the Underwear Bomber?) was just one more kick in the nads to a year that was already battered and bleeding.  As succulent as it would be to tell 2009 what I really thought of it, at this point I think it would be redundant.  We all know it was a shitty year; there’s no need to belabor the point, especially now that it’s 2010, which means personal jet packs should be just around the corner.

So, instead of looking back in anger, I’ll take a gentler tack.  Even though I resist the notion that 2009 marks the end of the decade (Year One, people – come on), I was a good little sheep and compiled my list of the best albums of the last ten years.  It was, I think, a pretty good decade for music, as evidenced by the fact that there were quite a few tough calls on this list, and at least a couple albums that would probably show up on my all-time Top Ten.  I didn’t adhere to any particular rules – I allowed myself more than one album per artist, and I didn’t feel particularly obligated to include a token hip-hop act (or electronic or polka or whatever).  These are simply the fifty albums that resonated the most with me from January 1, 2000 to December 31, 2009.  The list, then, with a little commentary on the top ten:

50. The Decemberists – Picaresque (2005)

49. Ted Leo + Pharmacists – Hearts of Oak (2003)

48. The Coral – Self-titled (2002)

47. Badly Drawn Boy – The Hour of Bewilderbeast (2000)

46. The Mountain Goats – The Sunset Tree (2005)

45. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – No More Shall We Part (2001)

44. Secret Machines – Now Here is Nowhere (2004)

43. Guided by Voices – Isolation Drills (2001)

42. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Fever to Tell (2003)

41. Eels – Blinking Lights and Other Revelations (2005)

40. The Libertines – Up the Bracket (2002)

39. Muse – Origin of Symmetry (2001)

38. Death Cab for Cutie – Transatlanticism (2003)

37. Art Brut – Bang Bang Rock and Roll (2005)

36. The Streets – Original Pirate Material (2002)

35. Richard Hawley – Coles Corner (2005)

34. Ballboy – A Guide for the Daylight Hours (2003)

33. Cloud Cult – Feel Good Ghosts (Tea-Partying Through Tornadoes) (2008)

32. Explosions in the Sky – The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place (2003)

31. Doves – Lost Souls (2000)

30. U2 – No Line on the Horizon (2009)

29. Regina Spektor – Soviet Kitsch (2004)

28. Editors – The Back Room (2005)

27. The Twilight Sad – Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters (2007)

26. Ash – Free All Angels (2001)

25. Idlewild – The Remote Part (2002)

24. Elbow – Leaders of the Free World (2005)

23. Arcade Fire – Funeral (2004)

22. Rainer Maria – A Better Version of Me (2001)

21. Franz Ferdinand – Self-titled (2004)

20. Primal Scream – XTRMNTR (2000)

19. The Mountain Goats – We Shall All Be Healed (2004)

18. Spiritualized – Songs in A & E (2008)

17. Modest Mouse – The Moon and Antarctica (2000)

16. Ryan Adams – Gold (2001)

15. Bloc Party – Silent Alarm (2005)

14. Belle & Sebastian – Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003)

13. Coldplay – A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002)

12. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (2004)

11. The Delgados – The Great Eastern

10. Grandaddy – The Sophtware Slump (2000) Unfairly pegged as a poor man’s Flaming Lips, Grandaddy’s sophomore album is every bit as prescient at Radiohead’s OK Computer, and twice as melodic.  The songs here occasionally burst forth with joyous keyboards (see “The Crystal Lake,” one of my all-time favorite songs) or buoyant guitars, but they are, by and large, wistful and melancholic things, anchored by Jason Lytle’s plaintive voice and an undercurrent of foreboding.  The fact that it remains an exciting listen on subsequent spins is a testament to the superior songcraft within.

9. The Hold Steady – Separation Sunday (2005) I love new bands featuring young whippersnappers who are hungry for success and adoration.  Their vitality and exuberance keeps rock music alive from generation to generation, and it’s important to see the torch get passed to a younger generation.  At the same time, though, it’s just as thrilling to see a band like The Hold Steady – grizzled veterans in their 40’s who just know how to rock like a bunch of crazy mofos.  This album is a perfect distillation of singer-guitarist Craig Finn’s literate story-songs (see “My Little Hoodrat Friend”) and the rest of the band’s bluesy, quasi-bar-band crunch.  I get the Springsteen comparisons, but to me they’re a modern-day Replacements, which is one of the highest honors I can bestow.

8. Mercury Rev – All Is Dream (2001) It’s the rare album whose songs could just as easily soundtrack your pleasant dreams as well as your nightmares.  Mercury Rev’s fifth album is that rare beast, and it’s the pinnacle of their woozy, psychedelic art.  It’s an album that’s weird and beautiful and unsettling and majestic (sometimes in the span of one song, as in lead-off track “The Dark Is Rising”).  Vocalist Jonathan Donahue has never sounded quite as fragile, and the rest of the band has never sounded quite as inspired.  At some point during the course of the album you realize you’re listening to a rock band metamorphose into something far more bizarre and wonderful, and it’s exciting to watch it take flight.  They would try to replicate the success of this album on subsequent collections, but have never again come close to the exquisite delirium of All Is Dream.

7. The Strokes – Is This It (2001) Depending on what day of the week you ask me, this album might make an even higher appearance on the list.  The Strokes’ debut is, hands down, the most exciting first album I can think of from this decade, each song sounding like the greatest single you’ve ever heard bursting from your speakers (see the live version of “Someday” for evidence).  It hits the ground running with the title track and then careens breathlessly through ten more spiky, live-wire numbers.  It’s not innovative or envelope-pushing or genre-busting; it’s simply guitar music at its best, and its unfortunate that the last eight years have dulled the shot of adrenaline this album gave to an otherwise moribund music scene.

6. Interpol – Turn on the Bright Lights (2002) Interpol’s debut album is all the evidence you need that a band need not be original to be brilliant.  More than a little reminiscent of U.K. post-punk mainstays Joy Division and The Chameleons, Interpol confidently cast its lot with the black-clad crowd, offering up gloomy, atmospheric tunes tailor-made for listening in the wee hours of the morning.  What often gets overlooked, though, is the band’s muscle (see “Obstacle 1,” recorded live for Jimmy Kimmel’s show, for proof).  They don’t simply ape their predecessors; they take the best bits of their influences and transmute them into something relevant, vital, and fresh.  And yeah, I know they generally suck as a live band, but with a debut this confident and powerful, I’ll forgive them just about anything.

5. Sigur Ros – ( ) (2002) Can beauty punch you in the gut?  That’s always sort of the way I feel after listening to this album – like I’ve just heard something intensely wonderful, but in the process the album took me out back and beat the crap out of me.  ( ) is a monster of an album, each song mostly instrumental and almost invariably building to a swelling, majestic crescendo that crashes over you like a cresting wave.  What’s more remarkable is the fact that when there are vocals, they’re sung in a made-up language that their singer calls “Hopelandish” (see “Untitled 4”).  Maybe it’s pretentious; maybe it’s genius.  But it’s convincing evidence that the emotional language of music transcends what we can consciously understand.

4. The National – Alligator (2005) This band has been probably the most significant “grower” on my list.  Their first two albums were nice enough, but with Alligator and 2007’s Boxer, The National has become a force to be reckoned with.  The band mines a similar vein as Tindersticks, baritone singer Matt Berninger spinning out literate late-night tales as the band lays down an expansive, anthemic backing (see “Secret Meeting,” the album’s lead-off track).  The band truly comes to life in a live setting – their set at 2008’s Coachella is one of my favorite memories from the festival – and it’s in concert that album standouts like “Lit Up” and “Mr. November” take on a completely new character.  Most exciting of all is that one gets the feeling that this is still a band on the way up, and that their best days are still ahead of them.

3. Doves – The Last Broadcast (2002) I thought Doves had no chance of topping their beautiful, melancholic debut, 2000’s Lost Souls. Then I heard their sophomore album, and realized there was no limit to what this band could do.  Where the band had previously only hinted at its widescreen tendencies, here they present a clutch of songs that are simultaneously euphoric, anthemic, and life-affirming (see the live version of “There Goes the Fear”).  Taken as a whole, the album – and that’s really how you have to take it; not as a shuffled songs on an iPod – is an embarrassment of riches, bursting at the seams with glorious choruses and a sense of joy and passion that puts the cynical to shame.

2. Radiohead – Kid A (2000) I’m not sure I would have made it through my first year in grad school without this album.  While I loved the band’s previous work, this is the first of their albums that I truly connected with on a personal level (which is odd since it’s the one that was supposedly their difficult, inaccessible album).  Capturing the band at its most experimental, the densely layered songs see Radiohead embracing experimentation with stirring results.  They largely eschew traditional “rock” tropes, processing the vocals and guitars beyond recognition, and throwing in, at various times, cacophonous brass, glitchy electronica, and sweeping strings.  It’s an uneasy balance between the sterile and the organic, and somehow it all works (see the live version of “Idioteque”). We desperately need bands like Radiohead, who flirt with the mainstream while challenging and subverting what’s acceptable and popular.

1. Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid (2008) A week ago this album was #2.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I really can’t underestimate or overstate just what this album (and the band’s live performances) has meant to me during the last two years.  I love music, but it’s the rare album that always makes me feel better, that always reveals new things to me each listen, and that never fails to make me believe in the beauty of the world.  And that’s why it’s my favorite album of the decade.  Singer Guy Garvey is the kind of boozy, affable romantic that I’d love to be in another life, and the rest of the band manages to be sentimental and atmospheric without being mawkish or hokey.  It’s an astonishing album that I suspect will only get better with age.  The two songs included below are required viewing: recorded live with the BBC Concert Orchestra, they capture two facets of this very special band.


Current listening:

Memory Tapes – Seek Magic (2009)

Current reading:

Heidi Julavits – “The Miniaturist” (in McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, ed. by Michael Chabon, 2004)

Last movie seen:

It’s Complicated (2009; Nancy Meyers, dir.)


Song of the Day (11/26/09: Thanksgiving Edition) November 26, 2009

Posted by monty in music.
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What are you thankful for?


Today, I’m thankful for R.E.M.

For Elbow.

For Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds.

And for Regina Spektor.

Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the little things.  But that doesn’t mean I ever forget.

Song of the Day (10/30/09) October 30, 2009

Posted by monty in music.
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Even though I take a fair amount of photos at shows, I don’t usually record videos of entire songs.  I made an exception for Elbow.  Even though it’s been a year and a half since their latest album, The Seldom Seen Kid, was released, I just can’t shake it.  It somehow manages to be majestic, melancholic, and euphoric all at the same time.  It’s not just the crowning achievement of their already-remarkable career – it’s a towering milestone by any band’s standards.  This is their song “Mirrorball,” recorded live by yours truly at Atlanta’s Center Stage Theater last August.  It’s a foggy, rainy night here in the South, and this one lets a little sunlight in.