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Come Away in the Dark December 23, 2010

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And now, #5 in my grab-bag of Favorite 2010 Albums:

Phantogram – Eyelid Movies

Although in the past I’ve obsessively ranked and ordered my year-end lists, part of me has always resisted it.  It seems somehow silly to objectively rank something as subjective as one’s response to art, whether it be books, movies, or music.  That’s one reason why A) I’m presenting this year-end collection of music in no particular order, and B) I’ve purposely named it “Favorite” music, as opposed to “Best.”  I currently own 444 full-length albums released in 2010.  To think I could even hope to name one as “Best” is, well, stupid.

That’s just a long way of getting to Phantogram’s unbelievable debut, Eyelid Movies. Because if I were ranking my favorite albums (and I’m not), this one would be settled firmly at #2, right behind The National’s High Violet. It’s rare that an album that hews pretty closely to the electronic genre finds its way to the top of my list, but Phantogram sidesteps the boring ol’ thud-thud-thud-squeak school of dance music to make something that, to my unschooled ears at least, sounds pretty unique.

A duo of Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel, Phantogram makes something that sort of sounds like Portishead crossed with My Bloody Valentine (which, yeah, are sort of lazy reference points, but there you have it), but way funkier than either of them.  And it’s appropriate that the album be titled Eyelid Movies, because each of the 11 songs here sounds like it could soundtrack the coolest Steven Soderbergh movie ever.  And maybe that’s a better reference point for those who would get it.  Some of the songs here – “Running from the Cops,” with its propulsive beat, garbled spoken-word vocals, and angelic hook and “You Are the Ocean’s” chiming guitars and downbeat electronic melody, especially – remind me a lot of David Holmes’ unsung 2000 dynamo, Bow Down to the Exit Sign. Their music is gritty and moody, but there are also moments of transcendent beauty, such as in the skyscraping chorus of “You Are the Ocean.”

And, like Holmes’ work, Phantogram’s music defies easy categorization. Barthel’s vocals are by turns delicate and dominating, and her keyboards and Carter’s guitars mesh in unexpected and surprising ways.  It’s dance music for people who like guitars, Low-Life-era New Order, and psychedelia. And, although this strays somewhat from the spirit of choosing favorite albums, the band is ferocious in a live setting.  I saw them a couple months ago in Atlanta, and it was easily one of my favorite shows of the year (and Sarah and Josh were kind enough to sign for me the last copy of vinyl they had at the merch table).  There’s just not a weak spot on the album, and if someone forced me to choose my favorite song of the year, “Mouthful of Diamonds” would get the nod.  This is a remarkable album by any standard, but it’s even more impressive to remember that Eyelid Movies is their debut. Seriously great things await this band.

I know I’ve posted at least one of these songs elsewhere on the site, but these are two of my favorite songs from the album (although I literally could have chosen any of them).  The first is the video for the aforementioned “Mouthful of Diamonds,” the second is a live version of “Running from the Cops” (which just gave me goosebumps as I watched it.  Ridiculous).

*****

Current listening:

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – History of Modern (2010)

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Dreaming of Another World December 21, 2010

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Herein lies entry #4 in my random list of Favorite Albums of 2010.

Cloud Cult – Light Chasers

Strip away Arcade Fire’s bombast, self-importance, and the calculated “anarchy” of their live shows, add in a palpable feeling of optimism and euphoria (even when their lyrics are dealing with melancholy and loss), and you’ve got Cloud Cult.  A true indie band – singer/guitarist Craig Minowa started his own label in rural Minnesota in order to release their music in an environmentally-friendly way – Cloud Cult continues to hover just on the cusp of greatness with this, their seventh album.

Light Chasers is their most ambitious work yet, a song cycle purportedly about “an astronaut’s journey from liftoff to landing” (or so says AllMusic Guide).  Cloud Cult’s own website describes it as an album about the search for answers, so, yes, there’s definitely a whiff of pretension hovering over the proceedings.  But here’s the thing: their melodies are so fucking beautiful and uplifting that it’s one of those rare albums where you come away feeling like you just experienced something important.

Across 16 songs (some fully formed, the others shorter sketches), the band does what it does best, mixing guitars, strings, brass, and electronics with Minowa’s delicate tenor to create songs that are both ornate and majestic. One of the most entertaining things about the band is how they make this particular quality work within the strictures of conventional rock music (in the “Unexplainable Stories” clip, watch how the song kicks into high gear at 3:25).  It’s fun, inspiring stuff, and it’s driving me bonkers that the closest they’re coming to my neck of the woods in support of this album is freaking Memphis. Disappointing, Cloud Cult.

Here are two songs from the album, recorded live at Seattle’s KEXP.  The first is “Unexplainable Stories,” the second is the gorgeous “There’s So Much Energy in Us.”

*****

Current listening:

Lilys – Precollection (2003)

Paint Out the Light December 17, 2010

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I hadn’t intended to take quite this much time off, but I’m busy here in the frozen Midwest, visiting family, opening presents, and eating way too much. Also, I accidentally asked a recovering alcoholic if he’d ever tried Four Loko, so there’s that.

Regular programming will resume on Sunday.

In the meantime, here’s #3 in my 100% arbitrary list of Favorite 2010 Albums (but it bears mentioning that if these weren’t completely arbitrary and I were ranking them in order of preference, today’s entry would be my unequivocal #1 choice):

The National  – High Violet

I’m an unapologetic fan of melancholy.  Much of my favorite music over the years (or at least, much of my favorite music since I started listening to the stuff I currently listen to) has sported a rich vein of the stuff.  The Smiths, Joy Division, Nick Cave, Elbow, Elvis Costello, Tindersticks – for me, there’s always been a strange sense of comfort in listening to music that, to other people, often comes off like a huge bummer.

And that’s why, right now, The National is my favorite band in the universe (next to Elbow, which will undoubtedly be an entry in my 2011 Favorite Albums list).  As someone who was lucky enough to get in on the ground floor with this band, it’s been fun to listen to them mature over the course of their five albums, becoming more confident and sophisticated with each release.

For fans of the band, High Violet is an extremely satisfying collection of songs that also provides a useful entry point for newcomers.  While its stock in trade are the slow-burn numbers that make up a bulk of the album (like opener “Terrible Love,” which escalates from funereal to ferocious in the space of four-and-a-half minutes and the gorgeously bittersweet “Runaway”), High Violet is peppered with the stripped-down rockers that have arguably been the high point of previous albums.  “Bloodbuzz Ohio” is propulsive, euphoric, and one of the best things they’ve ever written.

Some have criticized the band for treading water on this album (I guess they wish there was more superfluous bleeping and blooping like the new Sufjan Stevens album, or maybe a cameo by T.I.), but to me it sounds like a sophisticated and triumphant culmination of the sound they’ve been developing over their last four albums.

Here are two songs from the album.  The first is their video for “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” the second is “Terrible Love,” taken from their amazing show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  You have to watch them on YouTube – which is sort of stupid – so click Play, then click one more link to get to the song.  The extra click is worth it.

*****

Current listening:

Rollerskate Skinny – Horsedrawn Wishes (1996)

Walk Towards the Light December 14, 2010

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#2 in the totally not-at-all sequential list of my favorite albums of 2010:

Thrushes – Night Falls

If an album review even mentions the term shoegaze – or any of the familiar catchphrases often used to describe bands of this genre, such as sonic cathedrals or waves of distortion or shimmery guitars – there’s a 100% chance I’ll track the album down, and about a 98% chance I’ll like it (sorry, The Domino State).  I don’t know what it is about this style of music that always grabs me, but I never tire of it, even though it seems as though its practitioners have run out of new things to do with it.

Night Falls, the second album by Thrushes, does bring some new-old things to the table: the waves of distortion are there, as are the ominous basslines and propulsive drums that often keep songs such as these from completely drifting away into the ether.  But where traditional shoegaze often relies on murky, barely distinguishable vocals, Thrushes put singer Anna Conner’s voice right up front, and she drives the songs with some seriously powerful pipes.  In this way their music has more in common with Lush or Velocity Girl than Ride or My Bloody Valentine, and the trick is just unusual enough to seem revolutionary.

Here’s their song “Crystals” (which, besides being a killer song, has a pretty great video, too):

*****

Current listening:

The National – High Violet (2010)

Living With Ghosts December 12, 2010

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Time was, I’d compile my list of favorite albums toward the end of November and then spend the next month obsessively pruning and refining that list for mass consumption.  But now?  Fuck it.  I’m 37 and I have better things to do with my time.  For instance, as soon as I’m done with this, a bottle of pinot noir is waiting for me, along with the 1988 remake of The Blob on Netflix Instant.  Still, as important as music is to me, it’d be an oversight not to spend at least a little time recapping the year that was.  So, for the remainder of the month I’ll be sporadically naming some of my favorite albums of 2010, and then I’ll list them all in a big stinking pile of awesomeness at the very tail end of the year.  Without further ado, here’s Entry #1:

The Barlights – You Cannot Choose the Roads That Take You Home

I wanted to start with something completely out of left field, because, yeah yeah yeah, we all know that Arcade Fire and Kanye West and Deerhunter released great albums, so spending time telling you what every other music publication will tell you is sort of a waste of time.  But make no mistake: the Barlights’ album is fantastic.  It’s kinda jangly, kinda anthemic, kinda folksy, kinda soaring, and all kindsa great.  I don’t know much about the band except that they’re from Norwich, England, it looks like there are four members, and the music just sort of hits that sweet spot for me.  You ever have one of those bands that you love, but when it comes time to explain to someone else why their music means so much to you, you just kind of go, “Gah…”?  That’s what The Barlights are to me.  I’ve listened to this album a lot, but as I sit here trying to articulate why it strikes such a chord with me, all I can do is go, “Gah…,” which is no help at all.  Instead, here’s one of the songs from the album.  It’s called “Love, and Love Only.”  Enjoy.

*****

Current listening:

The Lightning Seeds – Jollification (1994)

Last movie seen:

The Ghost Writer (2010; Roman Polanski, dir.)

Song of the Day (4/20/10) April 20, 2010

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April 20 has to be the lamest day of celebration on the calendar. If anyone is celebrating anything today it’s either A) smoking pot (a celebration of which is totally redundant because anyone celebrating it will just be doing the exact same thing they do the other 364 days of the year), and B) Hitler’s birthday (and “Happy birthday, dear Adolf,” just isn’t very catchy.)

So, rather than recognize the date by posting either a shitty reggae song or something by neo-Nazi mooks Skrewdriver, I’m steadfastly ignoring the date altogether and giving you something by Kitchens of Distinction.  One of the best bands of the ’80s and ’90s with one of the worst names of all time, KOD dealt in shimmery, hazy guitars and lovelorn, sad-sack lyrics.  Their brilliance is due, in large part, to Julian Swales, one of rock’s unsung guitar heroes.  My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields gets all the credit for pioneering the warped, my-guitar-is-underwater sound of shoegaze, but Swales is, for my money, every bit Shields’ equal.  The band released four albums before breaking up, but every single one of them is worth your time.

This song is “Quick as Rainbows,” and it comes from their amazing 1991 album, Strange Free World (and be sure to check out Swales’ spellbinding wall of sound during the song’s last 45 seconds).

Gonna Get Along Without You Now April 15, 2010

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I’m sort of surprised at how irritated I am not to be attending this year’s Coachella Festival.  It’s been a yearly tradition of mine for the last decade, and I vividly remembering walking on the grass last year on the first day of the fest, just after the gates opened, passing a pretzel/churro/frozen lemonade stand near the Coachella Stage, and saying, “Ah, it doesn’t matter how far away I am next year.  I’ll be here for sure.”

Then budget cuts in Georgia caused furlough days at my university, cutting into my income by a couple hundred dollars a month.  Then my not insubstantial student loans kicked in in January.  Then I was worried that the state’s budget crisis was going to cost me my job altogether.  Then, even when my job appeared secure, there was (and still is) the chance that I’ll lose one or both of my summer classes due to low enrollment.  And by the time I might have been able to eke out enough spare change for the trip, the festival was so close that flights were well over $500.  Oh, and my students have a major project due on Monday, which I really can’t afford to miss.

A perfect storm of bullshit circumstances interrupted my yearly three-day respite from work and stress, but even so, I wasn’t expecting to take it so hard.  Yeah, I was disappointed in January when I saw the lineup and first had the sinking feeling that the trip wouldn’t be possible.  But I’ve been in a pissy mood all week, and it can be traced directly to my non-attendance this year.

But, because if there’s one thing I’m known for, it’s my relentless, creepy positivity, I’m not going to let it get me down.  In the spirit of celebrating what the festival’s all about, here’s a small sample of the photos I took last year.  Enjoy.

Los Campesinos!

White Lies

Fire snake

Tesla coils

Cloud Cult

Bob Mould

Henry Rollins

Band of Horses

No Age

The Gaslight Anthem

Lykke Li

Yeah Yeah Yeahs

So, I’m not there this year.  But I’ve already starting saving my pennies for next year.  And, if all else fails, I could easily be talked into harvesting an organ.

*****

Current listening:

Sennen – Age of Denial (2010)

Song of the Day (4/12/10) April 12, 2010

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Cloud Cult is easily one of the best kept secrets in music.  They sort of remain willfully small-scale, recording their music on singer Craig Minowa’s organic farm in rural Minnesota, and releasing the subsequent albums on Minowa’s Earthology records, using only recycled materials in the process.   Oh, and all profits are donated to environmental charities.  Their music, however, is widescreen bliss – soaring, anthemic melodies shot through with a bittersweet undercurrent (due in no small part on their early songs to the 2002 death of Minowa’s two-year-old son).   They’re great on record, but live they’re even better, performing their panoramic epics accompanied by two visual artists (one of whom is Minowa’s wife) who complete paintings during the band’s set, which are then auctioned off following the show. Simply put, Cloud Cult is everything that’s currently right with music.

The first video is a promotional clip for their song “Chemicals Collide.”  The second is their song “No Said it Would Be Easy,” performed at 2009’s Coachella Festival (probably my favorite set of the weekend).   Enjoy.

Song of the Day (4/10/10: The National Saturday Night Double Shot) April 10, 2010

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There are some bands that I can’t help but think of as mine. It’s not that I’m the only one to like them, or that I like them more than anyone else, or that I was one of the first to discover them.  These bands are mine in the sense that they resonate with me on a level that goes beyond merely humming their songs in the car.  Right now, The National is one of two or three bands to hold this particular distinction.

I’ve written about this in regard to other bands, but one of the things that appeals to me most about The National is their gravitas.  I still love young, hungry, up and coming bands, but as I get older (and it is probably a symptom of growing old), I find myself increasingly drawn to bands that sound like they’ve been around the block a time or two.  Elbow, Nick Cave, Doves, Tindersticks, The Frames – there’s a world-weariness, a heaviness, to their music, and it makes them sound like they know what they’re singing (and playing) about.  It’s no coincidence that the members of these bands are older, and The National is no exception.  Singer Matt Berninger is in his early 40’s, and there’s a weight to the way he sings that seems born of experience and knowledge.  For whatever reason, I find that easier to latch onto these days than the hedonistic party-heartyisms of many younger bands.

The National releases its new album, High Violet, one month from tomorrow.  The first video below is from their recent appearance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, performing one of the songs from that forthcoming album, “Terrible Love.”  The second video is “Mistaken for Strangers,” one of my favorite tracks from their 2007 album, Boxer. And, as a special added bonus, click the link beneath the videos to hear the audio of another song from High Violet. It’s called “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” and, to put it bluntly, it’s really fucking amazing.

Audio of “Bloodbuzz Ohio”  (courtesy of Pitchfork)

Last movie seen:

Crazy Eights (2006; James K. Jones, dir.)

Melodies Haunt You January 1, 2010

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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 (12/24/09) December 24, 2009

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It’s more than a little cliché, but for me this will always be one of the greatest Christmas songs of all time.  It’s sentimental without being maudlin, and captures the spirit of the holiday in exemplary fashion.  Here’s The Pogues, with “Fairytale of New York.”

Song of the Day (12/13/09) December 13, 2009

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In the mid-80’s, The Waterboys played music that was so stirring and anthemic that they temporarily gave U2 a run for their money.  Frontman and principal songwriter Mike Scott made it his mission to play something he called “The Big Music”: soaring, majestic tunes that didn’t stint on ambition.  The band has gone through several permutations since then, taking in rustic Gaelic tunes and a vaguely creepy born-again vibe on later albums.  Scott is the only constant in the band’s history, and while his recent music doesn’t pack quite the punch as his earlier songs, the band had a pretty stellar three-album run (This Is the Sea; Fisherman’s Blues; Room to Roam) that I still return to frequently.  To make up for the recent lack of Songs of the Day (and I realize if the frequency of these particular posts continues to slow, I’ll have to give them another name), here are two of the standout songs from their 1985 album, This Is the Sea. The first is called “The Whole of the Moon”; the second is the album’s title track.  Both are amazing.

Song of the Day (12/9/09: New Artist Double-Shot) December 9, 2009

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Goddamn, I love music.  There will always be a part of me that wished I didn’t.  Or at least not so much.  It would be so much more convenient to just lock myself into a handful of favorite bands and follow them (or reminisce about them) for the rest of my life.  But if I did that, I wouldn’t be able to constantly discover new artists.  Like Phantogram.  I don’t know anything about them – apart from the fact that it’s a guy and a girl, and their music is amazing.  Their debut album, Eyelid Movies, has been on repeat play for the last few weeks, and it’s surely going to find its way onto my year-end Top Ten list.  I know it’s not Saturday, but you’re getting two videos anyway.  It’s my blog, so deal with it.

The first song is the leadoff track from Eyelid Movies.  It’s called “Mouthful of Diamonds,” and here they perform it live for Seattle’s KEXP.

The second song is accompanied by one of those cheesy homemade videos, so close your eyes if you find it annoying and just listen to the music.  This song is called “Running from the Cops.”

Accident Waiting to Happen December 9, 2009

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I’m not a fan of unnecessary repetition, but this was too good to pass up.  For yesterday’s Song of the Day, I posted “Savory” by Jawbox, completely unaware of the fact that they were about to make their first live appearance in twelve years on Jimmy Fallon’s show.  Synchronicity?  Serendipity?  I always forget which is which, but one of them is accurate, and it’s always kinda cool when it happens.  The band appears to be in especially good health.  It’s good to have them back.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Song of the Day (12/8/09) December 8, 2009

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I know I have a well-earned reputation as a fan mainly of bands composed of pale, effete Brits who make jangly noises with their guitars.  But I’m nothing if not egalitarian in my music tastes.  Enter Jawbox.  Inexplicably lost in the mid-90’s alternative rock boom, this Washington, D.C., based band made some beautiful noise out of discordant guitar, subtle melody lines, and a vaguely funky backbeat that set them apart from their other, more straightforward compatriots on Dischord Records.  Predictably, the indie community cried “Sellout” when Jawbox made the jump to a major label – so it’s satisfying to see that their Atlantic Records debut is not just the best in Jawbox’ discography, it’s one of the best of the decade.  This is “Savory,” from their recently reissued masterpiece, For Your Own Special Sweetheart.