“Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.”
The originator if this quotation is obscure, even by internet search standards. Everyone from Mingus to Monk, Steve Martin to Elvis Costello is given credit, but the truth resounds nonetheless. Looking at all of these albums in one spot leads me to look for themes; shared values and styles that probably say more about where I am at in my life than the artists that created them.
An emphasis on complexity and innovation runs through several of these albums – challenging the listener to broaden their palette and glean something new with each subsequent listen. Here are bands that intuitively fit into the definition of “rock n’ roll,” but don’t sound much like anything that has come before them in terms of instrumentation, song structure, or lyrical content. Concurrently there has been a welcome resurgence in the power of vocal harmony and using the human voice as an instrument-in-itself, rather than simply a lyrics delivery system.
Contrast that with other selections that are the musical equivalent of comfort food – the mac n’ cheese of two big guitars up front, bluesy roots lyrics, and primal funk that drives you to shake what your momma gave you. So I guess you could say that the new music in my orbit this year is about dichotomy and dialectics -- the ethereal Apollonian artistry and it’s visceral, all-too-human Dionysian cousin sharing space in my eardrums.
In no particular order and noting my inclusion of a few released in 2008, but listened to primarily in 2009. With that caveat in mind, let’s get hyperbolic.
Note – all titles are clickable and hyperlinked to Amazon
1) Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest – Perhaps the most consistently well-reviewed album of the year seems like a good place to start. This is my first exposure to Grizzly Bear and I’m inspired to check out their previous work, but according to most Veckatimest is their masterpiece. This album certainly falls in the category of innovative and challenging, but relies on more traditional rock instruments and tools including heavy reverb, Wurlitzer and Rhodes electric pianos, and acoustic guitars. The innovation and creativity lies in the song structure. Gone is the predictable verse-chorus-verse-chorus pacing. In its place are lush, orchestral movements and beautiful layered vocals. Lest that sound too academic check out the bouncy infectious single Two Weeks which hangs its hat on a simple, almost child-like piano riff. Give this album a few listens to sink in – you won’t be disappointed.
2) Tom Waits – Glitter and Doom (Live) – We can all only hope to be this cool at 60. Tom Waits comes out of his musical genius cave to take it on the road for a series of rare North American and European shows with a truly kick-ass band backing him up. If you’re not already familiar with Waits’ deadly combo of mind-blowing lyrics delivered by a voice that sounds like it’s been gargling with sandpaper, then do yourself a favor and check him out. The choices on this album veer towards his more recent releases and the highly acclaimed Island Records run from the 1980s. He can turn from creepy carnival music to beautiful ballad on a dime and is funny as hell to boot. His timing and sense of groove is impeccable and he does it all while sounding like nothing else out there. Fans of David Simon’s masterful HBO series The Wire (look for future posts on that one) will recognize Waits from the season one original version of Way Down in the Hole. Waits is almost as famous for his stand-up like storytelling interludes as he is for his music and this CD includes a bonus disc of Tom Tales – 30 minutes of hilarious asides and observations. You can also stream a concert from the same tour for free on NPR: All Songs Considered here.
3) Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion – It’s a bit redundant to refer to something as the Beach Boys on acid given the amount of lysergic that Brian Wilson consumed, but that seems to be the only analogy that captures the spirit of this album. Second only to Grizzly Bear this year in terms of critical praise comes Animal Collective’s sprawling work of experimentation. Gone are most typical instruments and in their place is an ethereal pastiche of tribal drumbeats, synths, and incredible vocal harmonies truly reminiscent of Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys. Words really don’t do it justice so just check this out:
4) The Wood Brothers – Loaded (2008) – I have to give credit to my brother-in-law Jamie for hipping me to these guys. One of the Woods is Chris Wood, the stand-up bass player from the fusion jazz trio Medeski, Martin, & Wood. His brother Oliver is the guitarist, singer, and primary songwriter. This sophomore album (and its excellent predecessor, Ways Not to Lose) stands in sharp contrast to the experimentation of Animal Collective. This is stripped down bluesy roots music that hooks you from the get-go. Production from John Medeski expands the sound from their debut to include more drums and occasional organs and pianos on some tracks. I’m particularly fond of Oliver Wood’s guitar sound, as he tends to rely on vintage arch-tops and often drops in authentic Delta blues finger-picking reminiscent of Robert Johnson. The brothers also tend to sprinkle in well-chosen covers such as Bob Dylan’s Buckets of Rain and Hendrix’s Angel. Their cover of the old Stanley Brothers bluegrass standard Angel Band on their debut is my favorite version of this great song, including the original.
5) Lisa Hannigan – Sea Sew – Again, to give credit where credit is due, my good friend Aroon turned me on to this album. After many years making beautiful harmonies with singer-songwriter Damien Rice this Irish songstress struck out on her own. The results are beautiful. Her excellent backing band keeps it simple with acoustic guitars, stand-up bass, muted drums, trumpet, and violin. The songs are infectious, romantic, and sometimes, heartbreaking. I relentlessly nagged my wife, Jess to listen to this one until she finally relented one Saturday afternoon. Now it’s been a permanent fixture in the weekend CD rotation. Jess is now so taken with her that she’s forgiven my boyhood crush on this gorgeous singer-songwriter. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a pretty face with an Irish accent. Here she is performing in a tiny pub in Dublin:
6) Monsters of Folk – self-titled – Supergroups are typically to be avoided (I’m looking at you, Velvet Revolver) but this is one of the exceptions that proves the rule. This collaboration between Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes), M. Ward (solo, She & Him), and Mike Mogis (huh?) is reminiscent of the better songs by another supergroup, the Traveling Wilburys. Surprisingly the secret weapon is that fourth guy you’ve probably never heard of. Mike Mogis is the multi-instrumentalist and producer behind Oberst’s Bright Eyes, and he brings the same versatility and skills to this project. These four can all easily shift from instrument to instrument and the three part harmonies are wonderful. The known entities all share the songwriting duties and this leads to an eclectic mix of songs that range from good to great. I still prefer each of their respective projects, but they managed to avoid the usual over-production pitfalls often found in such collaborations. Any Austin City Limits fans out there may have seen this coming when the four took to the stage during a scheduled Bright Eyes appearance a few years ago.
7) Sigur Ros -- Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust (2008) – Don’t ask me to pronounce it, but I know what I like. Apparently the title translates to “with a buzz in our ears we play endlessly.” My favorite Icelandic band by default (Bjork is not a band) has been on my radar for some time. Their debut Agaetis Byrjun has risen to legendary status as a huge leap forward in majestic orchestral music that you actually want to listen to. I’ve had their maddeningly titled ( ) - seriously, that’s the title - on my iPod for awhile, but never really got into it as a whole. All of their music hinges on the otherworldly falsetto of lead singer Jon Por Birgisson. Until very recently he sang in a made-up language dubbed “Hopelandic,” but the words have never been as important as the music. On this most recent release he reverted to Icelandic (still Greek to me) and they let loose with the happy. Even the cover is ecstatic, with its stylized image of naked people jumping a fence to run rapturously into a green field. While there are still moody passages, the opening track Gobbledigook immediately pulls you in with its driving drumbeat and what can only be described as elemental joy. One of my favorite individual songs of the year that never fails to cheer me up.
8) Blitzen Trapper – Furr (2008) – Wow – where the hell did these guys come from? My friend Matt perused my iTunes collection and announced that maybe I would dig this album. Heavy rotation for almost a year now and I’m still not sure how to categorize it. The songs jump across genres and their only shared characteristic appears to be the band that made them. I love the weird freak-folk fable of a title track as it tackles the narrator’s transition from man to wolf and back to man. I’ve also been playing Black River Killer on the guitar nonstop and continue to marvel that it is based on a simple sequence of five repeating chords. The track is a masterfully creepy glimpse into the psyche of a sociopath – Think Henry. Portrait of a Serial Killer in gothic musical form. Couple these softer acoustic pieces with bouncy power-pop reminiscent of Supergrass or Turin Brakes and you’ve got an eclectic dynamo. I haven’t been this pleasantly surprised by a band since I discovered Gomez back in 1999. Here’s a live version of Black River Killer from college radio in Charlottesville:
9) Fleet Foxes – self-titled (2008) – So much has already been said about this anomalous piece of music. Fleet Foxes vied with the Bon Iver album below for the top spot on many critics best of 2008 lists. This bunch of bearded hippies make incredible acoustic music that feels sepia toned when it hits your ears. Robin Pecknold’s eerily clear and high voice mates wonderfully to the sense of loss and wonder in the music. Once again we see the common theme of resurgent vocal harmonies. This Seattle based indie folk group manages to evoke CSNY along with medieval string music. They make liberal use of mandolins, but aren’t afraid to incorporate heavy drums and electric guitars. Here they are on Letterman:
10) Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago (2008) – A perfect example of how the backstory sometimes sells the music. Bon Iver is a play on the French bon hiver (“good winter”) and is the nom de musique of NC singer-songwriter Justin Vernon. The story goes that Justin got his heart broken and his band The Rosebuds broke up one right after the other. He decided that he needed some time away from his sorrows and moved to his father’s cabin in Wisconsin for three months. During a bout of mononucleosis (no better illness for depressive songwriting except maybe tuberculosis) he was inspired by an episode of the great 1990s show Northern Exposure (big ups for NE!) wherein the charactesr wish one another “bon hiver” prior to the first snow. His cathartic recovery unexpectedly involved recording a series of acoustic, achingly beautiful laments using multiple overdubs of his guitar and voice. For these recordings he broke out a falsetto he was not aware of, beginning with hummed melodies, and writing lyrics to match. He never intended the end result for anything but demos, but positive feedback led him to decide to release them nonetheless. The result is an idiosyncratic and quiet headphone masterpiece, full of loss and emotional pain, but never maudlin or sentimental. The first single Skinny Love exploded onto the UK charts and the rest is recent history. Unfortunately it’s the kind of thing he’s not likely to repeat, despite positive reviews of his subsequent Blood Bank EP. Here’s a live version of Skinny Love from one of my favorite BBC shows, Later with Jools Holland, but you really have to hear the recorded version to get the full effect of all those overdubs:
11) The Black Keys – Attack & Release (2008) – Hey, dude. You got to check out this badass band I just heard. It’s just drums and one dude tearing up an electric guitar. If your mind jumped to the White Stripes then you missed the boat. I love the White Stripes but the Black Keys don’t need to hide behind kitschy colored outfits and indie credentials. They just wear their love of the blues right there on their sleeves and make great music doing it. That and their drummer can actually play (ooohhh, get Meg White to the burn unit right away.) I’ve been in awe of Dan Auerbach’s voice and guitar playing since their initial low-fi releases. Attack & Release represents a natural expansion of their two-piece core thanks to the involvement of DJ Danger Mouse (of Gnarls Barkley) in the producer’s chair. The album maintains their aesthetic while fleshing out songs with bass and organ. Check out this one or go old-school and pick up Thickfreakness or The Big Come Up
12) Dr. Dog – Fate (2008) – Pardon my crass language, but I love the shit out of this band. The third release from the Philadelphia quintet is their best yet and they may be the greatest band you’ve never heard of. They’re often described as a “psychedelic” band, but I prefer the simpler title of kick-ass rock band. They manage to be clearly influenced by White Album-era Beatles, The Band, and the Beach Boys without sounding explicitly like any of those esteemed forebears. They steer clearly to the correct side of the homage-derivative dimension and maintain a unique sound all their own. The vocal harmonies are lovely and coupled with healthy doses of juke joint piano, Hammond organ, and searing guitar melodies. Hang On (complete with opening rhythm of a train passing by) is one of my favorite songs of the year and a helluva lot of fun to play on the piano. Now I just need to get the damn thing tuned.
13) Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears – Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is – Also known simply as The Honeybears (bong-reference, maybe?) Ever heard of James Brown, Sam & Dave, or Howlin’ Wolf? Well this smoking hot Austin funk band clearly has. Drums and production are provided by Jim Eno of Austin mainstay Spoon. These boys got a horn section and they know how to use ‘em. The whole endeavor never veers from straight-ahead, damn the torpedoes, bluesy funk and I can’t get enough of it. Check out the video for their first single Sugarfoot and I dare you not to start smiling:
Biggest Disappointment of the Year:
Wilco – Wilco (the album) – Oh, Wilco…where did we go wrong? I got over my initial lukewarm response to Sky Blue Sky and came to recognize some great songs, but this album asks too much. This inanely titled stinker is not worthy to shine the shoes of previous efforts like Being There, Summerteeth, and the untouchable Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Wilco has been my favorite band of the last 15 years and it was tragic to see them slip into mediocrity this way. Don’t get me wrong. I am still going to see them live in March and pound for pound they may be the best touring act around today. Nonetheless, middle age and domestic tranquility appears to have robbed Jeff Tweedy of his spark and dulled the edge of his previously stellar songwriting. It’s cruel of me, but I liked him better when he was on the drugs and puking from migraines. In the end I am happy to snuggle up with the catalogue and let him live without crippling depression and addiction – you’re welcome, Jeff (just kidding, hold the angry comments.)
Not Yet Heard, But Great Word of Mouth:
Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix – The non-stop praise for the most recent effort from the French rock group is everywhere. I really need to check this one out.
Neko Case – Middle Cyclone – The previous album from the New Pornographers vocalist, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood was indescribable and displayed a remarkable depth in her songwriting. I can’t imagine this new one could be anything but excellent. Besides that, she’s on the hood of a classic car with a fucking sword on the cover of this one. How could it not be awesome?
The Avett Brothers – I and Love and You – You don’t hear the words punk and bluegrass in the same sentence very often. From what little I’ve heard on WUVT neither label does the Brother’s justice on their most recent release.
Conor Oberst And The Mystic Valley Band – Outer South – I wish I had the luxury of ditching one of my many successful solo projects and heading to Mexico to start it all over. No doubt Oberst will be back to the Bright Eyes moniker soon, but this second effort from his new band includes songwriting collaboration with new members and subtle Latin vibe.
Dan Auerbach – Keep it Hid – solo effort from the guitarist/vocalist of the Black Keys. All I know is that his Dad plays banjo on one track, which is super cool in my opinion.
Well, that’s it. One year of music and all the joy it’s brought me condensed down to a few pages. I really took my time with this post so I hope you enjoy it. Please feel free to comment and discuss. I’ll blog at you all again real soon and tell your friends to check it out. Thanks,