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!