Saturday, December 26, 2009

Kevin's Albums of '09 in Brief

My own personal favorite albums from 2009. In light of Tyler's dissertation below, I'll go the other direction and cut out the verbosity to give you just one sentence about why I like each.

10. Antlers - Hospice
For listeners who don't mind the heaviness it's dark, dense, gorgeous, and more accessible than their first album.

9. Karen O and the Kids - Where the Wild Things Are
All those feelings escape and yearning captured in a fantastic soundtrack by a woman who just can't screw anything up.

8. Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes - Up From Below
A superb, layered folk sound that rocks hard. (also, their music videos will blow your mind)

7. Regina Spektor - Far
Definitely her most accessible and catchy album yet, but still with all the classic Regina weirdness and lyrical genius.

6. Neko Case - Middle Cyclone
Shows just how much of a shame it is that the New Pornographers don't let her sing in more songs.

5. Julian Casablancas - Phrazes for the Young
Everything that was good about the Strokes, combined with everything that was good about disco.

4. Passion Pit - Manners
Soaring, danceable electro pop that you'll still respect in the morning.

3. Handsome Furs - Face Control
Wolf Parade frontman, his wife, and a drum machine unite to kick ass.

2. The xx - xx
Minimal, sincere, and impossible to get out of your head.

1. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz!
It's bliss!

And without further ado, a mixtape of album cuts:

Handsome Furs - All We Want Baby Is Everything
Neko Case - This Tornado Loves You
The xx - VCR
Julian Casablancas - 11th Dimension
Passion Pit - Moth's Wings
Karen O & The Kids - All Is Love
Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes - Desert Song
Regina Spektor - Laughing With
Antlers - Two
Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Soft Shock (acoustic)

Download the whole mixtape here.

Occurances of 2009

It's a completely arbitrary way of organizing time, barely related to any natural function.
...and yet, staring down a new one as I presently am, I can't help but reflect a little bit.

For me it was a backward-looking year. Mad Men perhaps sums up the year the best: a look at the past with an eye toward setting the present in better order. Surrounded as I was with friends more interested in uncovering past gems than keeping on the latest music I fell somewhat behind. I briefly considered just posting what I have been listening to regardless of year. But it's important that the year be put in some sort of order. Or maybe its my experience that I think needs to be put into more order. I would like this to be a list that tracked my actual experience of the year, but I haven't figured out how to make that yet.

The story of my year in music starts with a coronation.
It has become very difficult to talk about Animal Collective in the 11 or so months since they released Merriweather Post Pavilion. The album's basically been canonized, especially in the circles I travel. It's a great album, that's for sure, but its been with us almost all year. It barely belongs to this year anymore. It's become entrenched in my understanding of the world, as all really good albums eventually do. But I find it hard to call it my favorite anything, simply because the album is a fact now. And I'd sort of like to move on to the more interesting parts.

That is, the unveilings.

my favorite song of the year:
Change of Heart, El Perro Del Mar
This is barely a sketch of a song, a simple beat, a traced out bass line. It shimmers, drives forward. It's being caught in-between two places: I can't tell if Sarah is singing "we will never start" or "we will never stop" and that's perfect.
Just listen.

the runners-up:
Golden Phone, Micachu & The Shapes
In the video for this song, Micachu and her backing band halfheartedly wave their hands back and forth with bored looks on their faces (around :30). Don’t be fooled: Micachu is one of the most overachieving musicians out there today, writing this song and album in between symphonies for the London Philharmonic – she apparently doesn't even have time to brush her teeth – but it’s to her immense credit that she can come off that and find a bunch of time to sit around and lip sync and dance really badly. Herbert’s fingers are all over this song (that’s where that hyperventilating beat comes from) but the shuffling rhythm and nonchalant charm are all Micachu. The song bounces like nothing else.

Spring, Saint Etienne (Air France Remix)
Foxbase Beta, the Richard X produced remix of Saint Etienne’s seminal Foxbase Alpha was released to Saint Etienne’s fan club earlier this year, but for the larger, less official version of their fan club will have to make do with this in the meantime. It’s a pretty good deal: Air France plays it close to the chest but manage to turn a slowly flowering song into 5 minutes of joy. Spring becomes summer just like that.

Surfin’, Memory Cassette
This song, supposedly recorded sometime in the 90s and only now released, is practically liquid nostalgia, undefined and hazy, not for anything in particular. Once that chorus hits, it just lasts the entire rest of the song, because what else can you do? It's like rain. Listen to it in the rain. It's nice.

Daniel, Bat for Lashes
Keyboard horns kick this song off. Really obvious ones, too. And yet it's remarkable for its sincerity? And it's a riff on The Karate Kid? On paper this doesn't work at all. But running in the dark, dreaming of home: those are real, I've done those. Then everything goes still, and then it works, and there's nothing to do but to play it again.

Hard On, Withered Hand
This is a patient song. It sounds like someone telling himself off. He picks apart object and feelings, makes it absolutely clear that objects are that, but man, how they rule us. Just as it's about to take off, that's when it ends.

IRM, Charlotte Gainsbourg
I suppose we would expect a song about an MRI to be claustrophobic, but this is far more like a production line. Charlotte isn't trying to be sexy anymore, she's trying to be a robot, and this is probably for the best.

Make Her Say, Kid Cudi, Kanye West, Common
With Lady Gaga taking this year’s Dave Matthews Trophy (awarded to the most talented hack) by a landslide, what's someone who actually enjoys engaging with music supposed to do about it? Gaga is dance-floor fascism at its worst, so who else could bring it down but three people caught in their own narcissistic crises? This is the Ayn Rand novel of 2009 singles. It could have been terrible – it’s based on a blowjob joke – but Cudi, Yay and Common manage to fall on the right side of the amazing/terrible divide, unlike the one they’re puncturing. Plus, who’s better at ruining coronations than Kanye West?

My Maudlin Career, Camera Obscura
A proclamation of disgust with one's career is a strange way to promote an album. Camera Obscura has always been best at walking the line between bitter and sweet, but the stories they've told in the past have been personal accounts. This is a social collapse. The wedding-march piano line weighs it down but lets the song really grow. Never has such a cheerful song felt so much like the end of the world.

Trust Me, The Streets
Mike Skinner is a terribly self-aware rapper. Most of his great songs up until now have been recountings and genre exercises, some that one imagines started out as piss takes. This is the first song of his where he’s sounded in the present, fully in control of his own persona. And that persona sounds a lot nerdier than his previous ones did. This song was leaked on Twitter, against the wishes of his label, and maybe it will go down as evidence of the effect that Twitter will have on a person: it makes you spit beautiful, nerdy, nonsense.

and then,
my favorite album of the year:
Broken Record Prayers, Comet Gain (You Can Hide Your Love Forever)
It’s not really fair: this is a compilation of singles and b-sides spanning from 1993 to the present. But it's so perfectly composed, so well tracked, and ultimately just so good that I had to put this hear. It feels like a snapshot of a band at its peak: most of the songs reference each other and in some cases tell parts of the same story. But more than that, its an image of everything I want from a band: pop songs, just a little damaged from travel but no worse for wear.

Its runners-up:

Psychic Chasms, Neon Indian (Psychic Chasms)
Seemingly patched together from random joyous bits of song, this album sounds like flipping through an almost permanently sunny FM dial. Just wait: this is going to sound so good when it starts getting warm out.

Love Comes Close, Cold Cave (Life Magazine)
Yes, that’s a Joy Division reference in the title, and yes, the singer Wesley Eisold has a songwriting credit on several Fall Out Boy songs (which he got after suing Pete Wentz, who lifted some lyrics of an older group of his) but this is no dull and dreary affair. The album positively bounces, puts the (I am so sorry) Joy back in Joy Division, and remembers that Joy Division became New Order. This is seriously catchy stuff, and even if the hooks are buried in layers of fog, we know there are pure pop songs hiding behind the gloom.

s/t, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (A Teenager in Love)
Tightly spun, perfect, noisy pop has always been a little underappreciated, so seeing The Pains of Being Pure at Heart hit it (comparatively) big was one of the most heartwarming things to happen this year. It's dripping with indie pop references. But don't call it twee. It's way too much fun.

See Mystery Lights, Y.A.C.H.T. (Summer Song)
Jona Bechtolt's had his fingers in some great projects this decade but this is probably the best top to bottom project he's produced. I hope this Claire L. Evans person sticks around: Jona seems to work much better with a musical partner to work with (which is why The Blow kicked so much ass when he was a member). He's a pretty charismatic guy, but where I always felt like he was leaning on that a bit much in the past, this time his music has caught up with him. The songs bounce as he does, with an intensity that's sometimes hilarious but mostly infectious. If there was a musician I would want to hang out with it would probably be him: appropriate that he gave us all his address when we saw him in concert.

Love is Not Pop, El Perro Del Mar (Gotta Get Smart)
What a huge step away from the past. Sarah Assbring’s songs have blown up into full fledged pop, away from the one line songs of her debut. She's gotten multidimensional. She's also grown a backbone: where she just used to sing complaints of how love was treating her, the first song on the album is a tale her dumping someone. It's still sad and sensitive, but sensible now, and a little more mature. I love hearing musicians grow up.

Jewellery, Micachu & The Shapes (Lips)
Matthew Herbert launches another brilliant career. The album's all over the place, but when it gets warmed up, watch out. It's an album of a very technically talented musician who could care less how to actually use her instruments, and instead just makes up chords and just runs with it, and it works perfectly.

s/t, Royal City (A Belly Was Made for Wine)
Another collection, this time just of brilliant b-sides lost to time before this year. It's a lot of ache and pull but joyful at times. The things it celebrates: sleep, a city, a feast, a dog, a conversation, it celebrates so convincingly, it makes me long for the ceremonies of the everyday.

Two Suns, Bat for Lashes (Siren Song)
After that damn bike music video Natasha Khan could have honestly just cashed in, gone all Lily Allen and end up with her nipples all over the British tabloids (This is what happens to the Hot New Bands in the U.K.). Instead she holed up in studio, hung out with Scott Walker, and came out with something weird and a little scary but mostly really good.

Ashes Grammar, A Sunny Day in Glasgow (Close Chorus)
It’s not a dream but it sure passes like one. You forget whole segments of the album when listening to it because you start thinking about other things, like how did they make that sound, and maybe I'm a little hungry. Not that it's boring: it's a series of tightly connected sensations that deserves to be listened to in full. But it'll probably take a while.

Maybe I'll do a recounting of musical moments in my life this decade in a few days, but this'll do for now.

Friday, July 10, 2009


So obviously this is a rockin' song, and Santigold is in top form (as usual).

My favorite part, though, is at about 2:08 in the video, when it stops being a slightly dumb throwback video and starts becoming an action figure commercial. This is the one thing that I am really going to miss about the near-universal culture that Micheal Jackson represented; the ridiculous cross marketing. As I'm sure you know, the man had a videogame.

It doesn't seem to make any sense to have action figures of members of bands these days. Not only is no one that big, but no one is demanding that kind of fandom, the kind that requires you to own everything associated with them and obsess about them from afar. Recent promotional material seems to mostly involve buying stars lunch, finding out they're just dudes, etc.

The distance between us and our stars is shrinking. And isn't this what we wanted? Talulah Gosh was singing about imagining themselves as pop stars just 4 years after Thriller. "Her life will be a movie". They knew it wasn't just pathetic to dream like that; its also liberating.

Talulah Gosh - Talulah Gosh

So yes, its sad that no one who makes good things will ever be that huge again, but that's the choice we've made. To be less dependent on the vast marketing network, to be more "independent".

Maybe we can make our own action figures.

(I promise I will shut up about MJ now.)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

David Bowie is Nikola Tesla

I love it when a song gets covered by a band that has absolutely no business covering that song. Cases in point here: an incredible motown rendition of Wilco's I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, a couple interesting new takes on old classics, and finally, Belle & Sebastian covering Billie Jean. You read that correctly. And they do it right--the only way to cover MJ is to cover him completely straight.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Death, the Universe, and Michael.

The world has faced some shocking losses in the last few days. Farrah Fawcet, the Oxyclean guy, Norm Coleman's senate campaign, and of course MJ. Lately this has me thinking a lot about, you know, death and such. My own poor tribute to what we've lost:

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Away messages

Edwin Moses - I'll Be Around

I am heading overseas for a while - Kevin is already - and I intend to be focusing on travel writing and less on the day to day of the music world (or whatever it is we write about here).

I would say something about Micheal Jackson...but so much has already been written. I can restrain myself to saying that MJ's music is probably the last truly shared experience the world will ever have; but that it meant so many different things to so many different people. I can't wait for someone to get their fingers dirty and start playing with those meanings.

How long do you think it will be until a hot new band is named "Thriller", or "MJ", or "Blanket"?

It already happens all the time for more minor celebrities. Though I'm vaguely aware that Edwin Moses is some kind of world class athlete, I don't hear crowds and Olympic spirit when I flip on this song. All I hear is those strings breathing in, and out.

(TIME magazine has the best possible tribute to MJ, a lesson on how to moonwalk.)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Free Iran Mix

Music for before, during and after the revolution. A mix for a solidarity of sorts.

We're going to have one ear to the ground for news about what's going on in Iran, and, you know, we're going to need to have something in the other ear.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Where the hell is Sufjan?

Is anyone else starting to wonder? There was once a time when you simply couldn't escape him in the blogosphere, but now the little I do hear all seems to fall into one of three categories:

1. Chicago
2. Old B-sides and extras
3. Horrible, horrible mashups (Outkast vs. Sufjan? You're shitting me, right?)

The recent exception was "You Are the Blood," his epic 10-minute long contribution to the charity album Dark Was the Night. Besides being welcome new material, it's a quite a departure from his usual style--is it an anomaly or a sign of things to come?

Sufjan Stevens - You Are the Blood

Sunday, June 14, 2009

More than a feeling?

A Flock of Seagulls - Iran

and Ira-a-a-an, Iran's so far awa-a-ay,
I just ra-a-an, Iran all night and da-a-ay,


Friday, June 12, 2009

Don't wanna sleep out in the rain

I'm always taken aback when I find out what musicians' day jobs are, especially those musicians who aren't big enough to get by on just music. Its hard imagining people that you listen to more than you actually work as commuting, but they're people too, and despite working as hard as possible to create their own worlds, they still have to live in this one. Its a consequence of the decline of the music industry; where musicians used to be selected by record companies, musicians increasingly select themselves. Its pretty funny that the revolution that was punk made us all that much more capitalist. So for those of you who's summers aren't all just sitting around and blogging all day, here are some excellent musicians who happen to have day jobs.

The Aislers Set - Hit the Snow

Some make more sense than others. Amy Linton, lead singer of the former SF band The Aislers Set, was a professional snowboarder for a while. At the height of their success, she was working in local architecture firms as a drafter. She did the artwork for all their albums, and she's really great at picking out the details of street life in her song and making them real. I'm guessing this song is from the former career.

Heavenly - Hearts & Crosses

Amelia Fletcher, lead singer of the band Heavenly, is actually a prominent British economist, which has to be one of the weirdest things I've ever typed. Apparently most of her work involves anti-trust, breaking up monopolies, which I guess maybe sorta makes sense if you're really stretching for meaning. Breaking up dangerous love monopolies?

Percy Sledge - When a Man Loves a Woman

On the other side of the spectrum is Percy Sledge, who started as a prominent singer who now mostly does car commercials around Baton Rouge. Said the Gramophone described him as a "salesman of love", which I think just about nails it. "I know exactly how you feel", he croons at the end; Billy Mays has nothing on him. Someone pass him a Shamwow! for those tears.

An open letter to all violinists

Dear violinists of the world,

This man is Owen Pallett. He is a one-man band called Final Fantasy. He does the string arrangements for the Arcade Fire. He does amazing remixes. He and Andrew Bird are to the violin what Chuck Norris and Mr. T are to kicking ass. His new album, Heartland, is expected to come out this year, and if the recent performance above is any indication, it's going to be mindblowing. Violinists of the world, please stop boring me and try to be more like Owen Pallett instead. Thanks.


P.S. Also, stop scoring 2400's on the SAT. Seriously, it's pissing me off.

Final Fantasy - This is the Dream of Win & Regine
Final Fantasy - Peach, Plum, Pear (Joanna Newsom cover)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

I bet the sessions are awkward.

Yoko Ono - The Sun Is Down! (Cornelius Mix)
Sean Lennon - Parachutes
Cibo Matto - Sunday Part II

So Yoko Ono has a new album coming out in September, and all sorts of people are collaborating on it, including one Yuka Honda (of Cibo Matto) and one Sean Lennon (of John Lennon). Now I can't help but wonder if this is all a bit awkward for Sean.

I mean, not only is Yuka his ex-girlfriend, she recruited him to play in Cibo Matto (he sings backup in the track above) and produced the only album of his that anyone liked. When they broke up, the Cibo Matto broke up (making him the Yoko Ono of Cibo Matto?). Meanwhile all of his new songs are about love. It's clearly on his mind.

So I'm imagining Yoko calling up Sean, being all, "Hey Sean, I'm making an album, Yuka's on it, you should drop by and cut a few tracks and say hi or something." And how do you say no to that? So you have to hang out with your more (critically) appreciated ex-girlfriend that you maybe secretly still like and got all of your cred from? Yeah, those sessions are probably awkward. And Yoko's like, "Whatever, get over it Sean, she's a better musician than you'll ever be."

Yoko's clearly a hilarious mom.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

God Bless America

It takes a truly great nation to put a Pizza Hut and a Taco Bell under the same roof, and likewise it takes a truly great artist to create a song like this one.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009