Saturday, October 31, 2009

It's the end of a decade, in another ten years' time...

I guess it was inevitable that another ten years would pass, but I still can't believe it. Now that I have officially reached an age group where I am one of the few still interested in recorded popular music (especially music in a physical format), I feel it is my duty to anthologize and rhapsodize a bit on what has transpired. Ten years ago, the western world was in the midst of a pop-culture blitz where the almighty $ reigned supreme. There had been big pop eras before, but we really reached a peak in commercialism in 1999 with Britney Spears, N'Sync, and Backstreet Boys dominating the world of pop music, joined by Eminem and Jay-Z in rap, and Limp Bizkit and Dave Matthews in rock. Oh, and Radiohead had just morphed into the best band in the world. Now ten years later, some of those names are still relevant while others have thankfully long since faded into the ether. What originally began as sharing of song files through facilitators like Napster has begun to move into the world of paying for digital downloads, and Apple (not the Beatles' company) is more powerful than ever because of it.

Speaking as a music fan, I remember buying 45s in the early 80's, and felt like I had something to show for it. Now I get a file to call my own. I graduated to LPs not long thereafter, moving quickly from the remnants of 70's corporate rock to my newfound obsessions like Duran Duran, Culture Club, Eurythmics, Thompson Twins, the Cure, and Prince. I still have some of those records, refusing to jettison everything when they looked to be "things of the past". I enjoyed my LPs a lot, even though they were really heavy, and didn't always have the greatest sound (certain ones I memorized with the minor scratches), but they had a tactile warmth about them, which is much of their appeal, I suppose. Now I have more CDs than LPs, and yet I still enjoy having CDs around. I cannot imagine a house so cold that it lacks a single CD or LP. Why would you want that? I guess it makes mobility easier in a dangerous world where you don't know if your house will be blown up tomorrow or not, but I appreciate them. Some albums I even own on CD AND LP. Now THAT's dedication.

In an era where CDs are on the decline and everybody talks online, I get the sense that we are in the process of losing something that was once quite special. Music stores, now few and far between, were also places where people could get together and discuss their latest finds in a very personal, face-to-face situation. Now, you have to get on a computer and find a group somewhere that supports similar tastes to yours, making it difficult to get exposed to other types of music. As music styles seem to be blending more and more to try and capture more listeners, music audiences are becoming more fragmented due to their self-isolation. Sure, you can congregate at Starbucks, but how many people stand around talking about their favorite new band there? I remember hearing Madonna for the first time, thinking she was black. Her music had a hot beat, her voice had a soulful quality, and there was no music video for "Holiday", so until the LP was released with her picture on the cover, we fantasized about what she could possibly look like, hence her eventual influence on 80's fashion. Similarly, Prince was somebody who set rock music on it's ear, incorporating many different styles, yet his background was not one typically connected to rock music (this probably goes back to Jimi Hendrix, but that was a little before my time).

The radical changes in the way music is made and (hopefully) sold in the past ten years are a direct influence on the selections on this list. I will spare your precious time by not going into extended detail as to why these are the best albums of the past decade...they just are. If you don't agree with me, it's OK...this is not your list. Most of these albums are known in many circles, while some are very little known. Their sales figures do not necessarily equate with their excellence. What are the parameters? Really it all comes down to their musicality and production, cultural significance, and how much I liked them. A list such as this was very difficult to compile, as I have listened to literally thousands of albums over the past ten years. If I recommend it here, it HAS to be good. And so, in alphabetical order (I found this much easier than trying to select them numerically):

AIR--Talkie Walkie (2004)
AMY WINEHOUSE--Back to Black (2007)
ANJA GARBAREK--Smiling & Waving (2001)
ANJA GARBAREK--Briefly Shaking (2006)
ANNIE--Anniemal (2005)
ANNIE--Don't Stop (2009)
APPLETON--Everything Eventual (2003)
ARCTIC MONKEYS--Favourite Worst Nightmare (2007)
ARCTIC MONKEYS--Humbug (2009)
ARCTIC MONKEYS--Whatever People Say That's What I'm Not (2006)
ARCADE FIRE--Funeral (2004)
ARCADE FIRE--Neon Bible (2007)
BASEMENT JAXX--Kish Kash (2003)
BASEMENT JAXX--Rooty (2001)
BAT FOR LASHES--Two Suns (2009)
BELLE & SEBASTIAN--Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003)
BJORK--Vespertine (2001)
BLACK BOX RECORDER--Facts of Life (2001)
BLACK BOX RECORDER--Passionoia (2003)
BWO--Prototype (2005)
CAMERA OBSCURA--My Maudlin Career (2009)
CICADA--Roulette (2009)
COLDPLAY--Rush of Blood to the Head (2002)
COLDPLAY-Viva La Vida (2008)
COLDPLAY--X & Y (2005)
CURVE-Gift (2001)
CUT COPY--In Ghost Colours (2008)
CYNDI LAUPER--Bring Ya to the Brink (2008)
DAFT PUNK--Discovery (2001)
DARREN HAYES--Tension & the Spark (2004)
DARREN HAYES--This Delicate Thing We've Made (2007)
DAVID SYLVIAN--Manafon (2009)
DIVINE COMEDY--Absent Friends (2004)
DIVINE COMEDY--Victory for the Comic Muse (2006)
DOVES--Last Broadcast (2002)
DRAGONETTE--Fixin to Thrill (2009)
DRAGONETTE--Galore (2007)
ED HARCOURT--Beautiful Lie (2006)
EDITORS--Back Room (2005)
EDITORS--In This Light & On This Evening (2009)
ELBOW--Cast of Thousands (2004)
ERASURE--Nightbird (2005)
ERASURE--Light at the End of the World (2007)
FLAMING LIPS--Yoshimi vs. the Pink Robots (2002)
FRANZ FERDINAND--Franz Ferdinand (2004)
FRANZ FERDINAND--You Could Have it So Much Better (2005)
FROU FROU--Details (2002)
GIRL CALLED EDDY--Girl Called Eddy (2004)
GIRLS ALOUD--Out of Control (2008)
GIRLS ALOUD--Tangled Up (2007)
GLASVEGAS--Glasvegas (2008)
GOLDFRAPP--Black Cherry (2003)
GOLDFRAPP--Felt Mountain (2000)
GOLDFRAPP--Seventh Tree (2008)
GOLDFRAPP--Supernature (2006)
GOOD, THE BAD, & THE QUEEN--Good, the Bad, & the Queen (2007)
GOSSIP--Music for Men (2009)
GRACE JONES--Hurricane (2008)
GUILLEMOTS--Through the Window Pane (2006)
GWEN STEFANI--Love.Angel.Music.Baby. (2004)
HERCULES & LOVE AFFAIR--Hercules & Love Affair (2008)
HUMAN LEAGUE--Secrets (2002)
IAN BROWN--My Way (2009)
IMOGEN HEAP--Speak for Yourself (2005)
INTERPOL--Turn Off the Bright Lights (2002)
JENS LEKMAN--Night Falls Over Kortedala (2007)
JOSEPH ARTHUR--Come to Where I'm From (2000)
JUNIOR SENIOR--Hey Hey My My Yo Yo (2006)
JUSTICE--Cross (2007)
KAISER CHIEFS--Employment (2005)
KATE BUSH--Aerial (2005)
KEANE--Hopes & Fears (2004)
KILLERS--Hot Fuss (2005)
KIRSTY MACCOLL--Tropical Brainstorm (2000)
KNIFE--Deep Cuts (2005)
KNIFE--Silent Shout (2006)
KYLIE MINOGUE--Fever (2002)
KYLIE MINOGUE--Light Years (2000)
LA ROUX--La Roux (2009)
LADYHAWKE--Ladyhawke (2008)
LAST SHADOW PUPPETS--Age of the Understatement (2008)
LILY ALLEN--Alright, Still (2006)
LILY ALLEN--It's Not Me, It's You (2009)
LUCKY SOUL--Great Unwanted (2007)
LITTLE BOOTS--Hands (2009)
M83--Saturdays = Youth (2008)
M.I.A.--Arular (2005)
M.I.A.--Kala (2007)
MADONNA--Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005)
MADONNA--Music (2000)
MARC ALMOND--Stranger Things (2002)
MARY ONETTES--Islands (2009)
MARY ONETTES--Mary Onettes (2007)
MOLOKO--Statues (2003)
MORRISSEY--You Are the Quarry (2004)
MUMMERS--Tale to Tell (2009)
MUSE--Absolution (2004)
NICK CAVE & BAD SEEDS--Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus (2004)
NINE HORSES--Snow Borne Sorrow (2005)
NINE INCH NAILS--Year Zero (2007)
NO DOUBT--Rock Steady (2001)
PALOMA FAITH--Do You Want to Know the Truth or Something Beautiful? (2009)
PATRICK WOLF--Magic Position (2007)
PET SHOP BOYS--Fundamental (2006)
PET SHOP BOYS--Yes (2009)
PIPETTES--We are the Pipettes (2006)
PORTISHEAD--Third (2008)
POSTMARKS--Memoirs at the End of the World (2009)
PREFAB SPROUT--Let's Change the World With Music (2009)
PRESETS--Apocalypso (2008)
PRIMAL SCREAM--Evil Heat (2002)
PRIMAL SCREAM--Xtrmntr (2000)
PULP--We Love Life (2000)
R.E.M.--Reveal (2001)
RACHEL STEVENS--Come & Get it (2005)
RADIOHEAD--Amnesiac (2001)
RADIOHEAD--In Rainbows (2007)
RADIOHEAD--Kid A (2000)
RICHARD X--Richard X Presents His X-Factor (2003)
ROBBIE WILLIAMS--Sing When You're Winning (2000)
ROBYN--Robyn (2006)
ROISIN MURPHY--Overpowered (2007)
ROISIN MURPHY--Ruby Blue (2005)
ROYKSOPP--Junior (2009)
ROYKSOPP--Understanding (2005)
SADE--Lovers Rock (2000)
SAINT ETIENNE--Finisterre (2002)
SAINT ETIENNE--Tales From Turnpike House (2005)
SANTOGOLD(SANTIGOLD)--Santogold(Santigold) (2008)
SARAH NIXEY--Sing, Memory (2007)
SCISSOR SISTERS--Scissor Sisters (2004)
SCOTT WALKER--The Drift (2006)
SCRITTI POLITTI--White Bread Black Beer (2006)
SHOUT OUT LOUDS--Our Ill Wills (2007)
SIGUR ROS--Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust (2008)
SIOBHAN DONAGHY--Ghosts (2008)
SIOUXSIE--Mantaray (2007)
SNEAKER PIMPS--Splinter (2001)
SOPHIE ELLIS-BEXTOR--Trip the Light Fantastic (2007)
STROKES--Is This It? (2001)
TEARS--Here Come the Tears (2005)
THOM YORKE--Eraser (2006)
TRACEY THORN--Out of the Woods (2007)
VAMPIRE WEEKEND--Vampire Weekend (2008)
VEILS--Nux Vomica (2007)
YEAH YEAH YEAH'S--It's Blitz! (2009)
YUKSEK--Away from the Sea (2009)
ZERO 7--Simple Things (2001)
ZOOT WOMAN--Things Are What They Used to Be (2009)

That was tough. We'll see if I can even compile a list like this in another ten years...Hopefully albums will still be around. Stay tuned...

Up on the lookout for the best songs of the past decade...

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Q3: "Don't be tardy for the party"...

Yes, the Real Housewives of Atlanta inspired the title of this post, and yes, that song would be much hotter without Kim on it. I don't really understand why Kandi felt she needed to give the song away. I's kinda corny, but it had a few fun riffs, and if she's trying to get her recording career back on track...too much information already. So I missed the deadline for the Q3 titles--too much going on while working my fingers to the bone, so now that I have a few minutes, I would like to "briefly" review my favorite albums of the end of summer, and prepare for the final fall edition to be followed by the year 2009 (seriously, does anybody really care to read this crap beside me?--it's not like my opinion is the Bible). To be quite honest, 2009 has been one of my favorite years for music in a long time, so while the globe sinks into a recession, the music just keeps getting better while fewer people support it. I don't know how many more times I can stress the importance of supporting the music that you love without simply raping it for your pleasure (wow, that sounds like a harsh relationship). Trouble is, many of the digital outlets do not support the ability to purchase everything that you would like to support due to territorial restrictions. Therefore, the albums that I have chosen here represent records that were either released in the US during this quarter, or I bought as import CDs. Sorry, I don't really count downloads, unless they are purchased downloads, of which this list does not contain any anyhow (they are all on good old-fashioned official hard copy CDs). So without further ado...

1) GOSSIP--Music for Men

I will say more about some of these albums in the year end post (I did not do a first quarter roundup this year either), so let me just say that anybody who knows me will know that I went out on a limb with this one, especially a #1 choice. No real heavy synth/keyboard textures and an overweight lesbian lead singer with a voice like a punk Dolly Parton do not really add up to "me", but there is just something undeniably powerful about this record and Beth Ditto's performance. It is subtle when it needs to be, it's super danceable without being electro, and who needs lots of instruments when Ditto is in the room? Her voice more than makes up for the absence of sound, and that is one thing I find myself liking alot about this record--the silences. There is "space". I also tap my foot a lot when it comes on. They deserve superstardom in the US, but will America take a chance on them? An antidote to the bland, for sure.

2) LA ROUX--La Roux

This will also get a bigger post at year end, but I love La Roux. At first, I thought it was a bit screechy, and I could not understand why people liked this over Little Boots. Now I do. Don't get me wrong...I still love LB also, but this has depth and a kick of brattiness LB lacks. Maybe Boots is too professional, or just doesn't let her hair down enough. Whatever the case, this album is solid for me from beginning to end, with "Bulletproof" a frontrunner for single of the year. How THAT song has not been a hit in the US is also a mystery to me. I love Elly's style and hair as well, and know that, if I were a teenager growing up now, I would totally idolize her. So what if "I'm Not Your Toy" hasn't set the charts on fire in the UK--the song is damn infectious, and the video, as all of their videos have been, is quite clever and unique. A pleasant surprise.


This is probably more typical a choice of mine, but I think Alex and the Monkeys are pure genius, and working with Josh Homme gave a dimension to their sound which they didn't really have before. There may not be as many singalongs this time, but there are some smashing songs and some of the tightest playing I've heard in a while--that drummer is on fire! Totally rifftastic, and three albums in, still on top of their game.

4) PREFAB SPROUT--Let's Change the World With Music

A protracted masterpiece this, and I must thank for his recommendation of many titles this year such as this, the Gossip, and the upcoming two. I was a very casual listener of PS in their heyday, and it has only been in the last five years or so that I have really plunged in and become much more aware of the genius of Paddy's work. This album, shelved by Sony in 1993, goes to the heart of what was wrong with the music industry at that time (see George Michael vs. Sony), and while there is some religious reference in the lyrics, that is quite a limiting label. And then there are the melodies and the arrangements. They just don't make 'em like this anymore. Paddy's melodic sensibility is old school in the Cole Porter sense, and there is such charm and grace in his dulcet lilt and turns of phrase. The instruments remind me of the early 90's, but are generally updated with a fuller, more organic sound than they would have had then. Every time I hear this album, I think it is just fantastic in its unique and fearless way.


How many more fantastic debuts can 2009 take? Again, I don't know if the US will get Florence--she is a bit highbrow for most, but they may be willing to accept her in a Kate Bush "on the fringe" sort of way. A powerhouse vocalist reminiscent of Sinead O'Connor, I love how the arrangements on this album are generally rather lush with strings, piano, and harp, and have tribal drums in the background. Florence's vocals remain front and center, and most of the songs are rather sharp. If it had not been for the inclusion of "Kiss With a Fist", which seems sorely out of place as some earlier track with a different feel than the rest, and the relegation of "Swimming" to a bonus disc, this album would have ended up closer to #1. However, I was not in charge of picking the running order. Hello playlist...

6) CALVIN HARRIS--Ready for the Weekend

This was a pleasant surprise, and I knew Calvin had it in him after doing Kylie's "In My Arms". I thought his first album was a bit of a let down, and rather mindnumbing in its repetition, but this album is very charming, fun, has a lot of melody that is not one-note, and uses some guests without losing the focus of who is the star at the center. Maybe more talented than Mark Ronson (well, he does do many of his own vocals), I may have been to quick to write Calvin off in the past, but I am changing my tune. A great summer record.

7) MUSE--The Resistance

Some of you may think I have lost my mind when choosing this. Yes, it is the cheese. Yes, it is overblown. But boy, is Matt Bellamy a genius or what? The first few songs snap with an immediacy I think Muse were afraid to embrace before. They were so overcome with being the next big thing, that they were forgetting to have some fun, and I think "Supermassive Black Hole" was a signpost of things that were to come. That being said, there is some very high quality musicianship on this album, and Matt is definitely a master of guitar and piano--his interpretations of composers such as Chopin are stunning--Lady Gaga might be the only other current performer I can think of who would include entire passages of classical pieces in her pop songs. Muse do it with more grace and subtlety, and this is the definition of what a concept album is all about. Stunning.

8) MARC ALMOND--Orpheus in Exile

Vladimir Kozin is not a household name in the west (nor is Marc Almond really), but the man named Marc who almost died a few years back has once again done it with a spectacular album of cover songs by the great Russian, Kozin. How thoughtful of Marc to bring the work of someone who suffered under communist rule to the modern world of the west with such lovely sung renditions. The arrangements transport me to another place and time every time I hear them, and I stop to think how much time and care went into creating the perfect balance of instrument and voice, and the correct poetic translations. While I remain optimistic that Marc will soon release more original material, hearing his interpretations of music like this is pure magic. This is more than commercial music, this is art.

9) YUKSEK--Away from the Sea

Yuksek is not a very well known artist to be sure, so let me drop a few names. If you like Daft Punk or Justice, and you imagine them with more melodies, you would get closer to what Yuksek is all about. There is even a song called "So Far Away from the Sea" that features vocals from a band called The Bewitched Hands on the Top of Our Heads, which sounds quite similar at times to the Blur song, "Girls & Boys". Yuksek has a cut-n-paste way of putting certain elements together, yet they all seem to work for the most part, and they retain a certain warmth other electronic artists don't achieve. This is modern disco of the highest order. And I haven't the foggiest what "Eat My Bear" means.

10) A-HA--Foot of the Mountain

I know, people will say "sellout", but what a great album this was. It really brought some of the special electronic elements of A-ha to the fore while retaining their undeniable sound. There isn't really a bad song to be found at a just-right ten tracks, where their last three albums, although great, usually had at least one duff track ("Halfway Through the Tour", a seven minute mis-step being the entry from their last effort, Analogue). While the title track moves close to Keane territory (or is it vice-versa? Didn't A-ha come first?), "Riding the Crest" bubbles with an early-80's electro-pop bop, "What There Is" is nothing short of elegant, and "Start the Simulator" is their "Light Years", albeit less kitsch-y. Granted, lyrics like "Mother Nature Goes to Heaven" won't win them the pulitzer in English-speaking countries, but the sentiment is definitely there, with that song edging close to classic Depeche Mode terrain (if anything, the album bests Depeche's recent effort). This album was a winner in many ways, and it would be too much of a shame if they really are breaking up as they said they are in a recent press statement, as I feel they are just beginning to hit a new stride. Their solo albums sure haven't been much to write home about, and I feel they are much stronger together. Time will tell, but here's hoping for a hiatus.
There were so many albums I enjoyed in this quarter alone, and here are many of the others. You never know if one will all of a sudden click with me and end up on top of the year end list...

BASEMENT JAXX--Scars--what they do best, with more variety this time, which works mostly
BRENDAN BENSON--Brendan Benson--Jack White's friend and Robbie Williams should-be
DAVID SYLVIAN--Manafon--difficult listening yet utterly beautiful
ENGINEERS--Three Fact Fader--welcome return to shoegaze gorgeousness
ISLANDS--Vapours--welcome return to poppier shores and better songs
LEAVES--We are Shadows--Coldplay-who?
NOISETTES--Wild Young Hearts--close contender for the big list, they may still slip in...
ZOOT WOMAN--Things Are What They Used to Be--best ZW album yet
FRANKMUSIK--Frankmusik--he deserves better--a great little pop album
THE MUMMERS--Tale to Tell--another sleeper for the big list...incredible singing & playing
JACK PENATE--Everything is New--who knew he had this in him? Paolo who?
JUAN MACLEAN--The Future Will Come--best recordings yet--Human League for a new gen
KLEERUP--Kleerup--cleanup on aisle 2008...
LIGHTNING SEEDS--Four Winds--haunting little return exorcising ghosts of the past-- welcome back Ian
METRIC--Fantasies--girl-pop of the highest order
MEW--No More Stories--beneath the concepts and hype, great musicians
NORTHERN KIND--Wired--melodic electro-pop meets DIY
PHOENIX--Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix--certainly you have heard this by now
POSTMARKS--Memoirs at the End of the World--Divine Comedy wants their orchestra back :)
RICHARD HAWLEY--Truelove's Gutter--or Richard Hawley discovers the glass harmonica...
RUMBLE STRIPS--Welcome to the Walk Alone--what a great Mark Ronson produced album-- Now if more than ten people hear it...
SALLY SHAPIRO--My Guilty Pleasure--my guilty pleasure
BANANARAMA--Viva!--my other guilty pleasure

See what I mean?!? A few albums I "heard" but will end up on a later list: Dragonette, Raveonettes, Cribs, Maps, Paloma Faith.

Good albums from artists I respect and admire, but don't listen to much (maybe because there was too much other music already): Manic Street Preachers, Imogen Heap, Zero 7, Miike Snow, Datarock, Big Pink, Sea Wolf.
I honestly feel that this quarter has produced a generally high quality of new albums from good artists, without too many mis-steps or duds.