Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: I can't believe it's all gone...

I can't believe we are saying goodbye to another year.  They keep coming and going faster all the time.  At least, that's my perception.  2011 was a difficult year for me personally.   There was lots of upheaval at home with selling and building/buying a new home and moving on the same day in April--I STILL haven't recovered!  I have to say that since I've now gone through the process of moving for the first time in ten years, I can totally understand why people are fed up with how things are now.  It took the better part of a year to sell, even though the previous sale happened within weeks and the sellers had us at their mercy.  This was completely the opposite, and the amount of paperwork needed to secure a bank loan in 2011 is seriously OUT OF CONTROL.  It's no wonder people don't want to move.  The move itself is stressful enough, but when you cannot get bank approval or have to sign hundreds of documents, the prospect of following through with it seems rather daunting.  Still, I love my new home, and hope I can at least spend some time in it before things ever get really bad.  2011 was one of the most beautiful Christmases at home I have ever had.  Now I just need to get moving on finishing some decorating touches and 2012 is the year I hopefully get a little more settled.

2011 was the year my 95-year old grandmother passed away.  It was very hard for me emotionally, especially since we were rather close.  With all my moving expenses, I couldn't really afford the $700 price tag needed to fly to her home town for a couple days for the funeral, but I was there in spirit.  I was almost more at peace remembering her how she was when she was vibrant and energetic.  There were also dramas in my wife's family which I will not get into here, but needless to say, there was a lot of change and worrying for 2011.  Less next year would be a good thing.

So, enough of the Auld-Lang-Syne-ing and here is my list of the top albums of 2011.  Sorry it wasn't up sooner:


I've been championing this band for the three years I have known about them, and nothing could have made me happier this fall than seeing their first full length album finally come to fruition.  And what an album it is!  The songs!  There are so many great tracks--"Into the Clouds", "Wonders", "M.A.G.I.C.", "Ruins of Rome", "My Shadow", "Longest Ever Dream", "Nova", "Conquest" actually gets difficult choosing singles to release!  There is a smooth quality to the singing and music that echoes a Pet Shop Boys sensibility, yet the synths are completely epic in Vangelis/Giorgio Moroder style.  It is an album with 80's written all over it, yet it feels fresh and modern.  Of course, it won't get the attention it deserves, but for now, it's our little secret, and my favorite album of the year.  Favorite track: "Wonders" is amazing, and "Ruins of Rome" is bliss

2) DURAN DURAN--All You Need Is Now

Some may say this album is actually 2010, but since three tracks were held back from Christmas for the April physical release, the album felt short and incomplete.  The final album is a fantastic statement of what made Duran Duran special in the first place, and what they can still be.  Mark Ronson seems to have acted more as therapist than producer, getting the band back in touch with the sound that made them famous, and there are some incredible results.  "Girl Panic!" is "Girls on Film" with more intensity, "Leave a Light On" is "Save a Prayer" meets "Ordinary World", and "The Man Who Stole a Leopard" a quirky "The Chauffeur" inspiration.  Favorite track:  a tossup between "Runway Runaway" and "Too Bad You're So Beautiful"

3) FLORENCE & THE MACHINE--Ceremonials

While some critics have lashed back at Flo for making a big-sounding album with a more unified sound than her first, someone needs to tell me what's wrong with that?  After all, isn't that what artists usually strive to do?  Ceremonials has some stately gothic numbers ("Only if For a Night", "No Light No Light", "Seven Devils"), uplifting tracks ("Shake it Out", "All This and Heaven Too"), and even some R&B ("Lover to Lover").  This is a very mature and fully-fleshed out album by a young singer who likes to emote a lot, and while it might hit some as overkill, in a world of Adeles, Florence is staking her claim.  She might want a little more restraint next time, but that does not keep Ceremonials from being a stellar, consistent album, top to bottom.  Favorite track:  "Spectrum"

4) TOM WAITS--Bad as Me

Not what you might consider a typical choice of mine, I am actually a big Tom Waits fan, and this album was his best since at least 1999's Mule Variations.  Anyone interested in Tom's body of work could really start here, as it serves as a good entry point featuring many different types of sounds and voices in one cohesive and explosive album.  He is an original, and nobody else sings or writes songs like him.  One to treasure.  Favorite track:  For romance, "Kiss Me"; for anger, "Hell Broke Luce"

5) GAVIN FRIDAY--Catholic

An artist who has been recording for nearly 30 years but known very little, Friday was a member of an early-80's underground group, the Virgin Prunes, and left in the later part of the decade for a solo career which has led him into much more satisfying avenues of musical expression.  His sound is sometimes reminiscent of a mix between the late Billy Mackenzie of the Associates and Bryan Ferry, and Friday is good friends with Bono and other U2 cast members.  He stopped making albums in the late 90's when soundtrack work came calling, but now after the death of his father and a divorce, Friday returned with some of his most important work after a 17-year hiatus.  Catholic is meant as a loose dedication to Irish culture, but is much more of an examination of life as we grow older and put mistakes in the past.  Darkly comic and simultaneously touching, Catholic deserves its place on this list.  (If you seek out the U2 Achtung Baby tribute by Q Magazine, Friday's take on "The Fly" is one of the best.)  Favorite track:  "A Song That Hurts"


An immense step up from their first record, I so wish Pala had sold better.  I am afraid many of their fans accused them of selling out and trying to sound like a mix of Vampire Weekend and Wham!, but whatever the reason, Pala is an amazing pop record, and deserved to be just as praised and respected as that Foster the People album famous from a song about killing kids.  Plus Ed MacFarlane is the best dancer in pop now (eat that Lady Gaga).  Favorite track:  "Hurting"

7) WILD BEASTS--Smother

Critically acclaimed but little heard, Wild Beasts suffer from having a lead singer with a quirky voice, but oh, what a voice!  Smother saw Wild Beasts begin to grow into their skins a little bit more, and become comfortable with who and what they are.  Mark my words, this is one band to watch, as they continue to grow and mutate into an ever stronger proposition.  The word is sex...don't be scared.  Favorite track:  "Bed of Nails"

8) THE HORRORS--Skying

Another UK band that just keeps getting better and better.  When the Horrors started as a shriek-y goth-punk band, I had zero interest.  When their second album was produced not only by Geoff Barrow (Portishead), but also Chris Cunningham (video director for Aphex Twin and Bjork), I took notice at their slackening of the noise but the increased tension that ran throughout their music.  Now they've gone all psychedelic-shoegaze with a bit of goth and glam remaining.  The last time I remembered a band improving so much over the course of their first three albums, their name was Radiohead.  While the Horrors don't sell in those kind of numbers, maybe they should.  Favorite track:  the epic "Moving Further Away"

9) DESTROYER--Kaputt

This came out quite early in the year, and maybe got forgotten by some, but it really stuck with me.  Dan Bejar softened some of his musical edges with keyboards piped in from Prefab Sprout-era pillowy 80's records, yet the lyrics remained just a sharp as ever.  I think Bejar has come up with something truly special, and cannot wait to see what he does next.  Another artist more should know about.  Favorite track:  the title song, "Kaputt"

10) LADY GAGA--Born This Way

Of course, it had to make the list.  It is not a token gesture.  While BTW may not be as immediately likeable as The Fame Monster was, it is a lot longer for one thing, and manages to synthesize all the things that make Gaga who she is in a mostly appealing way.  While some of the lyrics may be a tad over-reaching at times ("Born This Way" and "Judas"...I'm looking at you), there are some real winners present (I actually like parts of both of those songs too).  It's a shame "Marry the Night" wasn't released earlier, as it stands as one of Gaga's most iconic lyrics.  The album also features a Def Leppard homage and Clarence Clemons' last recorded performance.  So there.  Favorite track:  either "The Edge of Glory" or the Madonna-esque "Bad Kids"

And the rest:

11) COLDPLAY--Mylo Xyloto (their best since Rush of Blood...)
12) LAURA MARLING--A Creature I Don't Know (it really grew on me)
13) PATRICK WOLF--Lupercalia (I waited all year to buy this domestically and finally gave up for the import--he's never sounded so buoyant)
14) CUT COPY--Zonoscope (formerly #1 on this list a couple years back--this was still excellent)
15) JENS LEKMAN--An Argument With Myself (a great EP that could have been higher as an album)
16) DARREN HAYES--Secret Codes & Battleships (excellent consolidation of his talents, and very accessible)
17) SOPHIE ELLIS-BEXTOR--Make a Scene (the album that finally saw the light of day--I wonder if it would have done better had it been released earlier)
18) KATE BUSH--50 Words for Snow (sex with a snowman--need I say more?)
19) LYKKE LI--Wounded Rhymes (excellent goth-girl group harmonies)
20) YOUNG GALAXY--Shapeshifting (shivering electro-pop rework of the original record--more please!)
21) PJ HARVEY--Let England Shake (excellent lyrics and D-A-R-K)
22) MIRRORS--Lights & Offerings (Ultravox meets OMD in 2011 for this collaboration--not really)
23) TORI AMOS--Night of Hunters (she's better without all that 70's MOR baggage from the last couple records--her 10 year old daughter is alarmingly good)
24) ORIGINAL 7EVEN (aka the Band Formerly Known as the Time)--Condensate (Morris Day's still got it)
25) HOLY GHOST!--Holy Ghost! (why this never got a domestic US CD release is beyond me)
26) PAINS OF BEING PURE AT HEART--Belong (the ghost of John Hughes called and wants his soundtrack back)
27) DUM DUM GIRLS--Only in Dreams (Chrissie Hynde is reborn as a retro girl-group songstress--FAB!)
28) M83--Hurry Up, We're Dreaming (John Hughes meets Giorgio Moroder in France, 1982...)
29) BETH DITTO--Beth Ditto EP (this should have been an album--AMAZINGLY good)
30) BRITNEY SPEARS--Femme Fatale (one of her best albums ever--up there with Blackout)
31) PENGUIN PRISON--Penguin Prison (great debut, and mostly done all on his own--impressive)
32) RAVEONETTES--Raven in the Grave (an especially gothy effort from the Danish duo, yet there were some light moments)
33) ERASURE--Tomorrow's World (the Frankmusik collab sounded better on paper than it actually did, leaving Andy Bell sounding a bit shrill.  Still, there were some sparkly moments...)
34) PETER GABRIEL--New Blood (now about that new album,'s been 11 years again...)
35) JUSTICE--Audio. Video. Disco.  (this was good--I just wish there were more Justice-y bits)
36) HUMAN LEAGUE--Credo (I actually really liked this record.  It's not at all commercial, granted...)
37) JESSICA 6--See the Light (not only did they feature Hercules & Love Affair's former lead singer, they stole their guest singer Antony Hegarty as well)
38) LIGHTS--Siberia (twee pop gets an edge)
39) WILL YOUNG--Echoes (there were many very good moments here, I just wish he'd get a little more excited--a bit too smooth at times)
40) GIRLS--Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (retro rock done right and not simply derivative)

other notables:
Adele, Miles Kane, Arctic Monkeys, Metronomy, Elbow, White Lies, the Vaccines, Cold Cave, Washed Out, the Drums, St. Vincent, Hard-Fi, S.C.U.M., Brett Anderson, Kasabian, Thomas Dolby, Nikki Jean, Foster the People, Diego Garcia, Feist, Active Child, Brendan Perry, the Rapture, Sarah Nixey, Florrie.

Up in 2012:
Lana del Rey, Ladyhawke, the Presets, Saint Etienne, Pet Shop Boys, School of Seven Bells, Marina & the Diamonds, Little Boots, Santigold, La Roux, Dragonette, Bat for Lashes, Robbie Williams, Empire of the Sun, the Big Pink, Sleigh Bells, Metric, Phoenix, Air, Morrissey, No Doubt, the Killers, Garbage--a BUSY 2012 awaits!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

I realize that I am nearly a month late again (sorry for that).  I guess this quarter I was still trying to catch up from the previous, and although there was a lot of music for me to digest, it didn't all strike the heights that some earlier did this year, save for a few select items.  Let's get to it then:


Without a doubt, the Horrors have risen from their lowly and dubious beginnings to one of the best modern rock bands around in the course of three albums.  Skying sees the band going widescreen, and songs like "Still Life" find them rejoicing in some of the most melodic things they've recorded.  Coming straight of Faris Badwan's Cat's Eyes project earlier this year, I would venture to say that the man has quite a future ahead of him (his brother's S.C.U.M. project is good as well).  A song like "Moving Further Away" finds the perfect balance between psychedelic and college rock, between Kraftwerk and Echo & the Bunnymen.  There are shades of many great bands here--the Cure, Suede, etc.--but the Horrors continually find ways to be original.  They are ones to watch.

2)LAURA MARLING--A Creature I Don't Know

Strangely, this album didn't hit me the first time the way her previous record did, but I was willing to give the young singer the benefit of the doubt.  After all, I Speak Because I Can only came out a year ago, with Alas I Cannot Swim merely a year before, so any 21-year old with three albums in three years has gotta be running out of steam at some point, right?  Man, was I wrong.  A Creature I Don't Know is every bit as strong as Marling's other efforts, it's just a bit more oblique and takes a little getting used to.  Things are jazzy on first track "The Muse", while "Sophia" has some of the strongest melodies she's penned.  There are moments that recall Joni Mitchell in her prime, not a bad place to be.  Do not miss this!

3)JENS LEKMAN--An Argument With Myself

Yes, this 5-track EP is ranked high on my list, and it would probably be number one if it were a full album.  Lekman's four-year absence has left the world at a great loss for humorous Swedish pop, and he's back (a little) to fill the void.  The title track is one of the most fun guilty-pleasure songs of the year, while "Waiting for Kiersten" (Dunst) is a scenario only Lekman could come up with, and the other songs add to the feeling of exhuberance and tenderness from this master songwriter.  One of my favorite things about Lekman is his way of describing things happening currently, as opposed to writing about the past or future.  This tends to strip away a lot of the unnecessary stuff other writers would layer on.  He also has unique views on love and relationships that few express in song.  Hopefully this EP is just a taste of more to come soon, as Lekman is just now hitting his stride.

4)TORI AMOS--Night of Hunters

What can be said about this album that hasn't been said before by reporters and bloggers?  It features a kooky story about a disintegrating romantic relationship featuring a shapeshifting animal (played by Tori's mature 10-year old daughter, Natashya), a fire spirit (played by her 19-year old niece), and includes interpolations of famous classical pieces taking odd detours with new (and somewhat indecipherable) lyrics ("Cactus Practice" anyone?).  The long and short though, is that Night of Hunters features some of Tori's best singing and piano playing in ten years, even with the absence of drums, guitars, or any other rock fodder.  It's heady stuff, rather long (maybe a bit too long, pushing over an hour), but these are things we now come to expect from Tori Amos releases.  We don't really expect them on the Deutsche Grammaphon label, but she sounds very "at home" here.  How about a more conventional orchestral-pop album without a big concept lasting around 45 minutes next time?

5)GIRLS--Father, Son, Holy Ghost

This may seem like a rather odd choice for me, but I really responded to this album from San Francisco's Girls when I heard it.  For one thing, it sounds like it came from the 70's, but at the same time, it doesn't sound determined to be retro, or like anything other than the new Girls album.  Sure, there are some Beach Boys references here, Led Zep there, etc., but the way Girls fit them together is totally unique.  I certainly hope this album does well, as it should not be overlooked as a smashing sophomore effort.

Great album from UK superstars.  What's it gonna take to make them bigger here?  Should they work with Brian Eno? 

7)PENGUIN PRISON--Self-titled
This is a great debut album, and while it may be a bit 80's, it isn't so overloaded in references that it cannot stand up to other contemporary pop music.  A winner!

8)BUTCHER BOY--Helping Hands
Great second album from a band reminiscent of a more wistful Belle & Sebastian.  The title track and "Bluebells" are particularly wonderful songs.

9)DIRTY VEGAS--Electric Love
You may be surprised to see this on the list, but this was actually a great, concise pop album from a band who used to prefer meandering epics.  There may still be a small sense of corporate entitlement lurking,  but the fact of the matter is that Dirty Vegas' mega-selling "Days Go By" is several years old, and that U2 direction just didn't work, so it was back to the drawing board with an indie label and a rethink.  Good choice.

10)HARD-FI--Killer Sounds
This has been a weird year for some bands who had a normal sort of distribution to all of a sudden being put off for long periods of time or being told they could only release their album several months later in America.  The Hard-Fi album is yet to be released in the US, but it follows on from the other two Hard-Fi records by upping the dance factor slightly, as well as the melodies.  A very sharp album once you actually get time to sit and spend time with it.

Other good efforts:
WILCO--The Whole Love (not really my thing, but a very good album)
WILL YOUNG--Echoes (while his plaintive voice may never replace George Michael's, this is quite good pop balladry and dancefloor heat)
INNERPARTYSYSTEM--Never Be Content (listed as an ep, but longer than the Erasure album, this was a definite step up for the band, helped by Richard X who produced the Will Young.  The band broke up two months after its release.)
THE RAPTURE--In the Grace of Your Love (highly regarded indie dudes back to make you forget LCD Soundsystem existed.  Good luck)
LADYTRON--Gravity the Seducer (About a B+...the songs are great, but I could do without a couple of the instrumental interludes).
IVY--All Hours (Great pop album from a band I rarely hear about anymore.)
DRUMS--Portamento (Very good sophomore effort--very quickly released too)
BLACK LIPS--Arabia Mountain (good racket-y fun!)
KOOKS--Junk of the Heart (this is a rather enjoyable piece of British pop.)
METRONOMY--English Riviera (unique and satifyingly summery pop)

General letdowns:
FRANKMUSIK--Do It in the AM (this album wasn't bad, but it wasn't great either.  I think he can do so. much. better.)
BJORK--Biophilia (I'm not against this record, but not completely sold yet either.  I think the technology is beginning to take over where there were some fabulous and passionate moments in the past.)

Actually, there weren't too many letdowns either.  This whole quarter was heavily and seemingly loaded up with things people liked but didn't go gaga over.  It will be interesting to see how all the things in Q4 stack up against what's already been this year, as there have been a lot of good records, but supposedly there are many more to come.  Here are some things I'm looking forward to in the Q4 list:

SAINT ETIENNE (early 2012)
GARBAGE (early 2012)

Keep your ears open!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

2011 Q2...a bit late then...

You know what they say about the best laid plans. Anymore, life just seems to get in the way of me posting my favorite lists in any sort of timely manner. I guess the two of you that read this blog will be lucky if I get my year end list of favorites up on time. Until then, I struggle along to get these things up and keep with the times.
It has been a very strange year so far. The biggest event in my life was moving into a new home that was built from scratch. It has been a wonderful home for the past couple months, but the stress leading up to it was unlike anything I have ever experienced before, nor do I ever want to again. There have been passings too--my wonderful grandmother at 95 last month, for one. There was a famous acquaintance of mine who died a mile from my job back in June and the whole town came to a halt (hint: he was a real jackass).
Another person who died in the past year was a good friend of mine from work. He was older (60) and also a great lover of music, and since his passing, his wife has put his record collection up for sale at my store. I have been lucky to acquire a handful of great records in pristine condition that are considered classics, some of which I never heard before, so that has been an education for me through his legacy.
Possibly the strangest of all involves an acquaintance from my job who suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth one day in late February, and I have not seen nor heard from this person in the five months since. This is somebody who used to call me at least three times a week and visit my workplace once or twice a week as well. He was experiencing many transitions in his personal life, but also had underlying ailments, the likes of which seem to have caught up with him. The reason I am spending time talking about this person is that he was a great lover of music, and had recently been exposing me to loads of older things that I missed or never would have given the time to otherwise.
I have listened to more "old" music this year than ever before, and have fallen in love with lots of different artists: Joe Jackson, Talking Heads, John Cale, Nico, Lou Reed, and Velvet Underground, Brian Eno, Stevie Wonder (70s), early Pretenders, early Pointer Sisters, Mike Oldfield, Renaissance, Laura Nyro, Kim Wilde, Kid Creole, Tom Tom Club, Teardrop Explodes, Joni Mitchell, Genesis (old), Squeeze, House of Love, the Clash, the Church, the Cars, Carpenters, the Slits, the Time, early Simple Minds, Roberta Flack, Aztec Camera, etc., etc. These are just some of the bands whose albums either escaped me the first time, or I couldn't afford to buy them to hear them.
With that being said, I am going to spend less time talking about the new music I love in this following post, but let it be said where I think something needs to be. Here they are:

1)WILD BEASTS--Smother
An utterly fantastic and unique postmodern album mixing the best of 80's lush pop (Blue Nile, Talk Talk, Kate Bush) with sensitive modern rock like Elbow. Hayden and Tom's voices bounce off each other in very special ways, and there is an economy of writing and texture that is the antithesis of excess. There is also a dark sensuality at work underneath the surface here, and I defy you to find a more beautiful expression of catharsis than "Burning". Breathless.

2) GAVIN FRIDAY-Catholic
Gavin got busy with life and other projects in the ensuing 16 years since his last album, Shag Tobacco, in 1995. Formerly of 80's obscurities the Virgin Prunes, Friday has gone on to make some of the best suave pop of the past two decades, incorporating elements of Bryan Ferry, Billy MacKenzie, and Bono all into one. Catholic is somewhat of a distillation of recent life experiences and emotions in Friday's world, especially in tracks like "Able", "It's All Ahead of You", and "Lord, I'm Coming". Breathtaking.

3) LADY GAGA--Born This Way
So, it's not number one. It's also not absent from the list. I loved the Fame Monster (NOT the generally poor The Fame), so much so that it was number one on my 2009 list. Expectations here were high, and while I think the hype may have overshadowed the actual album (along with Amazon's fucking 99-cent sale--what the hell was that?), I do think it is generally a very good album. It may be a bit full on, firing on all cylinders most of the time. There may not be a "Bad Romance" or "Alejandro", but any album that has the driving "Edge of Glory", electro-hoedown "You and I", urgent "Marry the Night", Madonna-esque "Bad Kids", Marc Almond-in-flamenco mode "Americano", and gothic "Bloody Mary" can't be all bad. Maybe it's a bit overlong and could lose a track or two, but all in all, it's generally a success. Too bad about the videos though. Maybe a little less talking about how great the album is beforehand would help next time.
Can you believe it finally came out? I was beginning to lose hope. And guess what? It was better than I ever expected it to be. Not only were all the previously released singles positioned well, but the new entries were sparkling. "Magic", "Synchronized", and "Starlight" are all great songs, in addition to "Bittersweet" and "Not Giving Up On Love", which I had purposefully held off on listening to until the album dropped. "Homewrecker" is funny, "Make a Scene" is kooky, and "Cut Straight to the Heart" jawdropping. Possibly the best pure pop album of the year right here. She deserves respect NOW.

I am at a loss as to whether I should namecheck the band or their producer, Paul Epworth, as he has worked similar magic to what he worked with Annie on her last album. Full, lush textures set to amazing island beats are the flavor for this indie band who suddenly go widescreen with the sound of this album, and while some may think their writing has suffered in the process, I disagree and say their writing has just become more focused in service of the music they are creating. I can't think of many indie bands to make such a quantum leap from debut to sophomore record. Radiohead? Goldfrapp? Dead or Alive?

6) SARAH NIXEY--Brave Tin Soldiers
Shows just how much she contributed to Black Box Recorder.

7) ARCTIC MONKEYS--Suck It and See
A return to form with a very melodic album combining all the best elements of the Monkeys.

8) MILES KANE--Colour of the Trap
Other half of Arctic Monkey Alex Turner's Last Shadow Puppets. Maybe the better half? Great debut.

9) JESSICA 6--See the Light
Former contributors to Hercules & Love Affair make early Madonna referencing debut. Golden.

10) HOLY GHOST!--Holy Ghost!
DFA dance duo come up with the goods on a CD still not released in the US (import only). I usually hate on albums that are iTunes exclusives, but you can get this for under $20. Fun!

Other good efforts:
FOSTER THE PEOPLE--Torches (catchy debut)
DIEGO GARCIA--Laura (tunes AND growth)
COLD CAVE--Cherish the Light Years (best goth-inspired record of the season)
WASHED OUT--Within and Without (best electro-dreampop record of the season)
CAT'S EYES--Cat's Eyes (these guys are almost as good as the Horrors!)
HANDSOME FURS--Sound Kapital (major growth but still fiercely indie)
MARC ALMOND & MICHAEL CASHMORE--Feasting With Panthers (some parts are quite lovely)
JOSEPH ARTHUR--Graduation Ceremony (his best album in nearly 10 years)
VACCINES--What Did You Expect From the Vaccines (great debut, if a little derivative)
D:REAM--In Memory Of... (not all great, but certain spots shine. Welcome back)
BRENDAN PERRY--Ark (10 years since this Dead Can Dance vet released an album. Almost worth the wait)
FLORRIE--Experiments EP (make it physical now--it's that good)
DANGER MOUSE & DANIELE LUPPI--Rome (a bit Broken Bells, but very enjoyable)
WOMBATS--Modern Glitch (following in the footsteps of rock bands like Hoosiers going pop. Not better than last time, but not exactly worse either)

General letdowns:
GLASVEGAS--Euphoria///Heartbreak (bombastic and overblown, it could have been so much more)
KATE BUSH--Director's Cut (who could listen to this and honestly believe these versions were better than the originals???)
KEREN ANN--101 (not bad really, but leadoff single and cover art foreshadowed so much more)
MOBY--Destroyed (he keeps making the same album over and over)
I know, I know...I need to write more often...

Monday, May 30, 2011

OK, where did the time go...

Seeing as how my life has been complete and utter chaos for the past year, I can finally say that I am getting settled into my new home, and realized that I have been so negligent when it comes to this blog. Even when I don't have a lot to talk about, I will usually post something, especially regarding favorite albums. I couldn't even get that together. Finally, I have come up with the list of my ten favorite albums from the first quarter of 2011, to be soon followed by the second list, which should come in around 30 days from now. If for nothing else, I figured the two of you that read this blog would want to know what I've been into lately. Let's just say "eclectic" is the buzzword of 2011. I love pure pop and retro things just as much as critic's other words, I'm a critic without the snobbery. I won't hate on you if you don't like the latest band from Brooklyn or aren't into Radiohead. 2011 has been an embarrassment of riches so far, so let's get to it!

1) DURAN DURAN--All You Need Is Now

I have been a Duran fan for lo these many years, and while their career has been admittedly uneven (to say the least), they really hit their retro-stride with this album, the best of their career since Rio (1982). When Mark Ronson asked them to come up with the imaginary followup to that legendary record, that's exactly what they gave us here. Pulsating rhythms, cascading synths, soaring melodies, female come-ons, moody ballads, sex and fun in the sun...these are quintessential elements for this band born in the 80's, and in All You Need Is Now they have served up the album the fans have been waiting decades for. The opening title track is a bit of a red herring, as it begins with a noise comparable to the sound of a dentist's drill, and then veers off into Duran-land with a wistful chorus filled with nostalgia. Following songs "Blame the Machines", "Being Followed", and "Girl Panic!" mine similar retro territory, yet the band sounds more fresh and alive than it has in years (sorry Timbaland). "Leave a Light On" is the new "Save a Prayer", while "The Man Who Stole a Leopard", complete with semi-cheez spoken-word news report, is one of the best tracks for the sheer ambience it creates a-la "The Chauffeur", with help from Kelis. Other favorites are the tense "Other People's Lives", the glam-tastic "Too Bad You're So Beautiful", and the gloriously catchy "Runway Runaway", Duran's answer to the Beatles' wistful "She's Leaving Home". In-between are the funky "Safe" (featuring a guest appearance from Ana Matronic a la Cindy Ecstasy), summer ballad "Mediterranea", and the gorgeously stately "Before the Rain". I feel sort of bad for anybody who bought or heard this record in its 9-track iTunes version back in December, as I think they missed at least three great songs from the final version, and the album feels somewhat incomplete in that incarnation. While some albums use bonus tracks as enticement through filler, these tracks are just as essential to the full experience as the original nine were. An album that belongs in the collection of anybody who ever was a fan of Duran Duran, including anybody who ever gave up on them, get this NOW.

2) CUT COPY--Zonoscope

Cut Copy's last album, In Ghost Colours, was my favorite album of 2008, and Zonoscope is a new contender for the current year. Somehow CC manage to synthesize many elements of synthetic dance music and make it something entirely their own without succumbing to complete mimicry. "Need You Now" opens things with a pulsing electro beat, while "Take Me Home" has a sort of synthy-Talking Heads feel, and "Pharoahs and Pyramids" hits at the heart of late-80's acid house. "Blink and You'll Miss a Revolution" has great xylophone duets in the mix, while the lovely "Hanging On to Every Heartbeat" is a broken-hearted 80's ballad. Things come to a crashing climax with the orgasmic "Sun God", a song best described as prog-electro, carrying on for 15 minutes in the style of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love". This move proves Cut Copy are not afraid to go out on a limb to give their audience something special. Hopefully they won't take so much time between this and their next release.

3) DESTROYER--Kaputt

Dan Bejar is a rather strange man. Donning a voice that's a mix of David Bowie in his Hunky Dory phase, this Canadian has given us a wealth of interesting material over the past ten or so years. Only Bejar would give us song titles like "Savage Night at the Opera" and "Suicide Demo for Kara Walker". Here, Bejar wraps his songs in lush synth-scapes with jazzy overtones, closer to the sound of Prefab Sprout than any other band I could connect him to. While just as literate as much of Prefab Sprout's work, Destroyer is more stream of consciousness, and possibly funnier. The album's penultimate song, "Bay of Pigs (Detail)", was originally released nearly a year before the album's release as part of an EP, and here it is somewhat shortened, but retains most of it's ambient drift and changes in mood and rhythm. If anything, this change in texture and mood has opened new doors for Bejar to explore more sonic textures. I can't wait to hear what's next, and there can be no higher praise.

4) YOUNG GALAXY--Shapeshifting

Not many people have heard this album from Young Galaxy, but they really should. Canadians who were friends of Arcade Fire, Young Galaxy was recently known more for it's solid rock-with-a-sprinkling-of-keyboards-indie-band approach, but grew tired of their sonic confines. Contacting producer Dan Lissvik of producers Studio (Kylie Minogue) by internet in Norway, Young Galaxy set about shaping their latest effort by recording songs and sending them to Lissvik in his studio, where he cut, pasted, and reshaped their efforts, and then sent them back to the band, where they have now ended up on album virtually unchanged. It was a mammoth exercise in faith, especially since they still have yet to meet Lissvik, and know him only as a voice (they had no video connection). This sort of focus on making the best sound possible left the spaces between the notes intact, and the voices are allowed speak for themselves. Check out "Black Swan Event"--it's fantastic from beginning to end. If you like singers like Annie Lennox or Alison Moyet, this is for you (the guy's voice is pretty nice as well).

5) ELBOW--Build a Rocket Boys!

Continuing the trend of nothing but great music from this band, Build a Rocket Boys! finds Elbow in seemingly happier territory than on the last Mercury Prize winning Seldom Seen Kid, and while "With Love" and "Open Arms" seem rather self-explanatory, only a band like Elbow could come up with a song like "Lippy Kids", which is quite sympathetic to those ruffians on street corners who seemingly have nothing better to do with their time. "The Birds" has an epic build, while "The Night Will Always Win" is a ballad of the highest order (and quite a sad one at that). Not a big departure, then, but Elbow continue to do what they do best--make stunning music out of rather simple sound combinations. There is something very special about this band, and this is another great album from them.

6) PJ HARVEY--Let England Shake

Whatever your feeling about PJ Harvey, whether she's stretching for notes obviously out of her range, roaring like a lioness, or singing haunted dirges, Let England Shake is one of her best albums. Gone is the impetuous teen rocker, and in its place is a thoughtful singer-songwriter who has chosen to document her feelings about England and her ability to put her young men's lives on the front lines to achieve her objectives. It is a rattling portrait death and dying, put in literal terms on a battlefield, with Harvey acting as a guide. Songs like "The Words That Maketh Murder" and "On Battleship Hill" put Harvey in the running as a modern-day British female version of Woody Guthrie. This is a dark record, and even songs with small shafts of light like the reggae-tinged "Written on the Forehead", which samples Niney & the Observers' "Blood & Fire", is set to a refrain of "let it burn, let it burn". Her best in a long time.

7) EDWYN COLLINS--Losing Sleep

Granted, this album came out sometime in late 2010, but was finally released in the US in early 2011. You might say, "Edwyn Collins? Really?" To that I say, "YES." Not only is this Edwyn's best work in a while, it has some of the most heartbreaking lyrics you're gonna hear from any rock record this year. Edwyn suffered two brain hemorrages a few years back, and had to learn how to speak and walk again. Some things are not the same, and will never be. This album addresses that loss and redemption of survival head on, with musical help from Johnny Marr (Smiths), Alex Kapranos (Franz Ferdinand), Ryan Jarman (Cribs), and indie upstarts The Drums nonwithstanding. Even with all that starpower, Collins is the star of the show here, and pens some really probing lyrics like "What Is My Role?" and "Humble", while "Bored" rocks with the best of them, and closing ballads "All My Days" and "Searching for the Truth" are two poignant ballads that would have made Johnny Cash proud. His resolve and determination are absolutely amazing, and his album is very, very good.


While there has been much criticism launched at this album, the League's first in ten years, I would go so far as to say that I really enjoy this record, and it isn't something that I have to try to love. First up is the opening track and second single, the snappy "Never Let Me Go", which features the robotic vocals of the women of the group (a ballsy move coming from your first album in a decade). "Night People" is up next, and does a great job of depicting the disconnected-ness of living in the dark with robo-synths and some extremely humorous lyrics recited with complete seriousness ("Leave your cornflakes in your freezers, leave your chocolate and your cheeses...") . "Sky" and "Egomaniac" are also rather pleasing League entries, while "Into the Night" is nearly quite positive in tone, and features a lovely melody with Cole Porter flair. "Get Together" is one of my personal favorites on the record; additionally "Privilege" and "While the Stars Start to Shine" are the most Sheffield-sounding things they've done since Dare. I think people need to realize when going into Credo that they are not going to get Secrets part 2 (did that many people actually buy Secrets anyway?), but get a highly personal and individual sound for a band that's all about keeping it in the family.

9) LYKKE LI--Wounded Rhymes

I was not all that impressed with Lykke's first album, Youth Novels, when it came out a couple years ago. Wounded Rhymes not only shows how much she's grown as a singer, but a writer as well. Heck, this album is so good, Glee even used "I Follow Rivers" in a recent episode. Whether coming on strong as on "Get Some" ("I'm your prostitute, you're gonna get some..."), or trapped in girl-group purgatory ("Sadness is a Blessing"), Li has learned how to manage her talents to better effect this time around. While "Youth Knows No Pain" and "Jerome" are favorites, "Silent My Song" ends things on a rather disturbing note of some kind of domestic abuse, so Li is not all surface without the substance. Heady stuff, and now she has opened the door for more music from her.

10) MIRRORS--Lights and Offerings

Here's an album that deserves much better. Released on an indie in England, this album is sort of languishing in the sales department, and it is one of the year's best debuts. Mirrors make grand and epic synthpop the way Ultravox and OMD did/do, and they do it full on without a moment's hesitation. The absolute winner is the single "Into the Heart", but there are many songs here worth your time (especially in the eminently listenable CD format). "Ways to an End", "Fear of Drowning", "Look at Me", "Hide and Seek", the epic "Secrets" (another 10-minute stormer) are all fantastic, and the lovely "Write Through the Night" is the best thing OMD never wrote. More people need to know about these guys, for they made a fantastically sophisticated debut record without a lot of money, released on an indie label. If you want them to make more, you must give them your money now!

So what didn't make the ten? Quite a few great records actually, but here's a sample of what was left bubbling under:

WHITE LIES--Ritual. This is a better sophomore album from a now better band.
BRITNEY SPEARS--Femme Fatale. This would have ranked higher save for the anonymous charm of the vocals.
SAME DIFFERENCE--The Rest Is History. I know, pop overload, but they did it so well here--the production, the songs, Alcazar...
BETH DITTO--Beth Ditto EP. This would have easily been in the top 10 if she had made a full-length.
PAINS OF BEING PURE AT HEART--Belong. Another great 80's-referencing record that is full of hooks and a little heavy on the cheese--Oh, John Hughes...

My feelings on other records (if you are mentioned, it means you were WORTHY of mentioning for one reason or another--that doesn't mean it was great though):

ADELE--21. This was mostly good, although a bit TOO professional at times--"Rumour Has It" is the best song KT Tunstall didn't record. Then again, that voice. B
BLANCMANGE--Blanc Burn. After a 26 year wait, we've now come to realize that Neil Arthur's voice is completely different, and still aren't sure if we're in love with it. There are quite a few nice things on Blanc Burn, and quite a few confounding things as well, like the absence of choruses. B-
R.E.M.--Collapse Into Now. Another mostly good record, I seemed to have been in love with this when it came out and cooled somewhat more recently. It's not bad by any stretch, but its not the Automatic For the People followup people are claiming it to be either. B
BEADY EYE--Different Gear, Still Speeding. Arguably the best Oasis record since Morning Glory, and all they had to do was shed a Gallagher (and surprising which one it was as well). A fun record, but certainly not deep. B
ERLAND & THE CARNIVAL--Nightingale. Highly overlooked psychedelic pop gem from erstwhile member of the Verve and other guys. I especially love "Emmeline", which samples the theme from Hitchcock's Vertigo. B+
THE DEARS--Degeneration Street. This is another one that hit me quite hard on first listen, and then I cooled somewhat. It's just trying to be everything to everybody, and the lyrics can resonate with a slight pomposity. A shame as I don't think Murray Lightburn will ever get the success he and his bandmates deserve. B
GRUFF RHYS--Hotel Shampoo. This is more focused than his records with Super Furry Animals, and quite tuneful to boot. Now he just needs to up the excitement level here & there. B+
RAVEONETTES--Raven in the Grave. The feedback takes a backseat to doom and gloom, as this album soaks up goth influences. A nice new turn from a band that needed to begin to turn. A-
RADIOHEAD--King of Limbs. What can I say? A missed opportunity? Not bad, but their weakest effort in a while, and just too damn short. Track 4 is unlistenable. C
PETER BJORN & JOHN--Gimme Some. Much better than the last disaster, but still, not as good without the whistling. B-
GANG OF FOUR--Content. Really great effort from a band that needed one. Twitchy in all the right spots. A-
AUDIO BULLYS--Higher Than the Eiffel. Good return from a band that had faltered, now armed with more singing in the pocket. B+
STROKES--Angles. This would have been better had they actually made it together. Maybe next time, but still, their best since the first two. B+
OH LAND--Oh Land. A bit Regina Spektor meets Imogen Heap, but Oh Land does have a sound of her own, and sometimes, it is utterly bewitching. A-
NOAH & THE WHALE--Last Night On Earth. Their best effort yet is still sort of OK. I want them to be Mumford or Laura Marling, but they might just have to settle for second best. B
TV ON THE RADIO--Nine Types of Light. Smoothing out some of the rough edges, this is a very good album by a very good (formerly) indie band. A-
YELLE--Safari Disco Club. I love it, but does the WHOLE THING have to be in French? B+
WIRE--Red Barked Tree. These guys don't quit, and this is their best in a while. Uncompromising. A-
BRITISH SEA POWER--Valhalla Dancehall. If you can get past the first song, which is nearly garbage, the rest of this album is actually pretty good. Judge for yourself. B
ELIZA DOOLITTLE--same. The low-rent Lily Allen. Generally not a good thing. C

You'll be hearing more from me soon regarding: Lady Gaga, Arctic Monkeys, Fleet Foxes, Friendly Fires, Danger Mouse, etc. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

My Favorite Songs of 2010

Since some of these artists had more than one song that really resonated with me this year, I will rank the top 10, and then follow it with a list of truly special songs that all passed the test in one form or another. Make of it what you will.

1) ROBYN--"Dancing On My Own" So much has been said about this song already, and if you've heard it, you know why it rests at No. 1. Here's hoping Robyn can continue the magic for a bit.
2) KYLIE MINOGUE--"Get Outta My Way" I really don't get the backlash this song had, which kept it at a peak of number 11 in the UK, as I felt it was Kylie's most pure poptastic offering since "Can't Get You Out Of My Head" almost ten years ago. Maybe nobody wants to talk about the fact that Kylie is now in her 40's, but this song always made me happy when it came on.
3) CEE LO GREEN--"F**k You" The true test of a great song is whether or not its a great song without the lure of an expletive, and this one is. I'll be singing this when I'm 80!
4) TAKE THAT--"The Flood" Or when they finally proved to me their worth. An epic song with amazing performances by all involved. So anthemic, how could it not move you?
5) ALPHABEAT--"DJ" Poor Alphabeat. That sophomore slump hit them like a cod in the face. Still, they cranked out some of the best pop tunes nobody cared about. I thought this was a great little song--maybe the best song about losing one's self to a DJ's talents ever? Maybe people will listen next time, but I sure hope you don't change direction too much. This was a better fit than the debut.
6) SCISSOR SISTERS--"Invisible Light" While the album wore on me a bit (but was still better than Ta-Dah), this song is pure magic. I cannot help but wonder what would have happened had the Sisters gone full throttle Frankie Goes to Hollywood. And Jake-y, that piecing falsetto is getting O-L-D. You are not Jimmy Somerville, and that's one reason this song works so well. Keep exploring your lower range. Also contains the best spoken word bit since La Roux's "Tigerlily" last year, courtesy of Gandalf McKellen.
7) KELIS--"Acappella" I have to admit this collab with David Guetta was the best thing I've heard from Kelis EVER. Uplifting lyrics, a great beat, and some excellent visuals--I think she's onto something. The album didn't sell all that well, due to some rather half-written songs, so hopefully she can make a more fully formed artistic statement next time around, but DO NOT LEAVE THE CLUB. It suits you.
8) GOLDFRAPP--"Alive" Also called "Love Song From a Vampire" (not really). The most pure pop moment from Goldfrapp ever, and catchy too. Another song that got passed over by the marketplace...what the hell were people buying this year? Certainly not much good, as you can see thusfar...
9) JANELLE MONAE--"Tightrope" This song was absolutely addictive for me, as was the video, and MTVU played it literally every 15 minutes this summer. I can't believe this diva is from Kansas City--I mean, a black girl into hip hop and Metropolis? I LOVED the whole album, which is stylistically diverse, yet shows just how broad Monae's talents are. This was the standout single.
10) PET SHOP BOYS--"Together" Celebrating 25 years together with a song containing underlying elements of group suicide is rather grim, yet PSB pull it off with an electro-waltz in 3/4 time. Epic and beautiful, "Together" wasn't a big hit, but should have been.

Other great songs of 2010:

A-HA--"Butterfly, Butterfly"
ADELE--"Rolling in the Deep"
ALPHABEAT--"Heat Wave", The Right Thing"
ARCADE FIRE--"Half Light II", "Modern Man", "City With No Children"
BECK & BAT FOR LASHES--"Let's Get Lost"
BELLE & SEBASTIAN--"I Didn't See It Coming"
BRANDON FLOWERS--"Only the Young", "Crossfire"
BROKEN BELLS--"The Ghost Inside"
BRYAN FERRY--"Heartache By Numbers"
CARL BARAT--"Carve My Name"
CEE LO GREEN--"Bright Lights, Big City", "Old Fashioned", "No One's Gonna Love You"
CHROMEO--"Don't Turn the Lights On"
COLDPLAY--"Christmas Lights"
COURTEENERS--"You Overdid It, Doll"
DAN BLACK--"Symphonies"
DIVINE COMEDY--"At the Indie Disco"
DRUMS--"Let's Go Surfing"
DURAN DURAN--"All You Need is Now"
ELLIE GOULDING--"Starry Eyed", "Under the Sheets", "Your Biggest Mistake"
FLORENCE & THE MACHINE--"Heavy in Your Arms"
FOALS--"Total Life Forever"
FREEZEPOP--"Strange", "Hypothetically"
FUTUREHEADS--"Heartbeat Song", "Christmas Was Better in the 80's"
FYFE DANGERFIELD--"Faster Than the Setting Sun"
GABRIELLA CILMI--"Hearts Don't Lie", "Love Me Cos You Want To", "Robots"
GOLDFRAPP--"Rocket", "Dreaming", "Head First"
GORILLAZ--"Stylo", "Doncamatic", "Melancholy Hill"
GROOVE ARMADA--"I Won't Kneel", "History"
GRUM--"Can't Shake This Feeling"
HOT CHIP--"One Life Stand", "Alley Cats"
HUMAN LEAGUE--"Night People"
HURTS--"Wonderful Life", "Stay", "Sunday", "All I Want for Christmas is New Year's Day"
JANELLE MONAE--"Cold War", "Say You'll Go", "Babopbye Ya"
KANYE WEST--"Runaway", "All the Lights"
KELE OKEREKE--"Everything You Wanted", "Yesterday's Gone"
KIM WILDE--"Real Life"
KYLIE MINOGUE--"All the Lovers", "Better Than Today", "Aphrodite", "Too Much", "Can't Beat the Feeling"
LADY GAGA--"Alejandro", "Telephone", "Monster"
LAURA MARLING--"Devil's Spoke"
LIKE--"Wishing He Was Dead"
LUCKY SOUL--"Up In Flames"
M.I.A.--"Xxxo", "Tell Me Why"
MARC ALMOND--"The Exhibitionist", "Variete"
MARINA & THE DIAMONDS--"I Am Not a Robot", "Oh No!", "Obsessions"
MARK RONSON--"Somebody to Love Me", "Record Collection"
MASSIVE ATTACK--"Paradise Circus"
MATTHEW DEAR--"You Put a Smell On me"
MONARCHY--"Phoenix Alive"
MYSTERY JETS--"Flash a Hungry Smile"
NATIONAL--"Conversation 16"
NEON TREES--"Animal"
OMD--"Sister Marie Says", "History of Modern Pts. 1 & 2"
PATRICK WOLF--"Time Of My Life"
PENGUIN PRISON--"Golden Train (Royal Palms Mix)"
PIPETTES--"Stop the Music", "Need a Little Time"
PLAN B--"Love Goes Down", "She Said"
ROBYN--"Time Machine", "Fembot", "Hang With Me", "Indestructible"
ROSE ELINOR DOUGALL--"Stop/Start/Synchro"
SADE--"Soldier of Love"
SAINT ETIENNE--"No Cure for the Common Christmas"
SCHOOL--"Is He Really Coming Home?"
SCISSOR SISTERS--"Fire With Fire", "Any Which Way"
SHRIEKBACK--"Loving Up the Thing", "Simpler Machines"
SIA--"You've Changed", "Clap Your Hands", "My Love"
SILENT FILM--"Driven By Their Beating Hearts"
TAKE THAT--"S.O.S.", "Kidz"
TRACEY THORN--"Hormones", "Why Does the Wind?"
UNDERWORLD--"Diamond Jigsaw"
VAMPIRE WEEKEND--"Giving Up the Gun", "Horchata"
VIOLENS--"Acid Reign"
V.V. BROWN--"Shark in the Water"
YEASAYER--"O.N.E.", "I Remember"

Who says there isn't good music out there anymore? Bring on 2012!