Saturday, December 21, 2013

2013 Ultimate Music Megapost: Best Songs of the Year Countdown, 20-11

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20. Biffy Clyro – “Biblical”

When it comes to soaring, string-drenched, dramatic, ridiculous, belt-it-at-the-top-of-your-lungs fun, Biffy Clyro have shown that the best over-the-top rock ballads come from this little known Scottish band. First with “Many of Horror” and now with “Biblical”, Biffy Clyro have done it again.

19. Lana Del Rey – “Young & Beautiful”

Lana Del Rey’s emergence was perfectly timed for Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby”, and the movie’s best scene sat atop the throwback sultry vocals and drama of Del Rey’s “Young & Beautiful”. The song stands on its own, but placed over the glitz, glamour, and emptiness of the film, it soared.

18. The Arcade Fire – “Reflektor”

“Wake Up” may always be the song people recognize from The Arcade Fire, but “Reflektor” might just be their greatest triumph. Spanning over seven and half minutes, “Reflektor” has just about everything: alternating English and French vocals, drama, complicated musicianship, a pulsating chorus, and a David Bowie cameo.

17. Vampire Weekend – “Step”

No one sounds like these guys. I mean, just listen to the instrumentation at the beginning. Then comes the ridiculously catchy poetry at the beginning. You’ll be singing that opening verse over and over if you’re like me.

16. Drake – “Hold On, We’re Going Home”

They say every indie blog always has some pop hit they throw in there. I swear I’m not doing this on purpose though (and, I wrote this before Pitchfork made it their #1, I promise)! I was disappointed with the new Drake album compared to most, but this track is absolutely infectious. The song has flow, and Drake’s vocals over the R&B groove and synths make this track the best Top 40 song of the year.

15. The Boxer Rebellion – “Diamonds”

“Diamonds” may immediately seem to be regular with its British mid-tempo-ness . But there’s more than meets the ears. The vocal delivery, sang matter of factly and pensively, fits the mood perfect. And the song sails at the end, blending guitars perfectly as the song’s pace races to the finish.

14. CHVRCHES – “The Mother We Share”

CHVRCHES’ synth pop, in the mold of a female fronted M83, broke out this year. And while the album is brought down by sounding a little too much the same, standouts like the stellar “The Mother We Share” showcase their talents perfectly. The synths swirl and the 80’s are revived, and Lauren Mayberry’s sweet delivery takes it over the top.

13. The Strokes – “Chances”

How did The Strokes get to this point? Hard to understand, but if you get over it, you’ll find so much to love. “Chances” has Julian Casablancas straining his falsetto before the most affective chorus of his career hits. “I take my chances alone/get on your horse and be gone/I will not wait up for you anymore/so you can ask me if something is wrong” he sings, perfectly encapsulating the feeling of acceptance that some things need to come to an end.

12. Blood Orange – “Chamakay”

Probably the most surprising inclusion on this list, “Chamakay” struck me by complete surprise. Simply, I’ve never heard anything like it. This is experimental R&B, but it’s infused with an islander vibe to create something absolutely unique. Combined with the perfect male/female vocal pairing and entrancing video, “Chamakay” became one of my favorite tracks of the year.

11. The Arctic Monkeys – “Do I Wanna Know?”

The beauty of this song is all right up front. There’s the best guitar groove of the year. There’s the simple, plodding beat. Then there’s the vocal kicking in, Alex Turner’s trademark cheeky delivery dropping lines like “So have you got the guts?/Been wondering if your heart's still open and if so I wanna know what time it shuts/Simmer down and pucker up/I'm sorry to interrupt. It's just I'm constantly on the cusp of trying to kiss you” as only he can.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

2013 Ultimate Music Megapost: Best Songs of the Year Countdown, 30-21

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30. Smith Westerns – “Varsity”

This song is sort of my flavor of this week, so it’s dangerous to try to rank it, but I’m addicted to this last song on an album that keeps growing on me. Awash with synth strings, “Varsity” motors forward, underpinned by some fantastic guitar work and hopeful vocals.

29. The Civil Wars – “Eavesdrop”

Their messy breakup tainted the album, but songs like “Eavesdrop” remind us why the band will be missed. “Eavesdrop” is full of the signature tension and drama that defined their sound, and possibly contributed to their demise. Let’s hope they straighten things out, because there no better male-female vocal combo in music that John Paul White and Amy Williams.

28. Cold War Kids – “Water & Power”

Cold War Kids’ revival album rushes to the start with the opening track “Miracle Mile”, but it’s soul is in “Water & Power”. Reverb and soft piano grow into an imploring song. “Are you willing? Are you brave?” they ask.

27. Local Natives – “Mt. Washington”

If angst and longing are what you’re after, “Mt. Washington” brings it in spades. For a band once clapping over songs about “sun hands”, Local Natives sure learned how to bring the heartache to their songs quick. “Mt. Washington” builds to a cathartic finish, and never has a line like “I don’t have to see you right now” hurt so much.

26. Kings of Leon – “Supersoaker”

I don’t think we’re ever getting the KoL I used to adore back in the day, but each album is full of nice little reminders. On their newest effort, “Supersoaker” is the reminder at how good these guys can be at that gritty Southern rock they brought to the mainstream. I was singing “I don’t mind sentimental girls at times” for weeks.

25. The Head and the Heart – “Another Story”

Two albums now for The Head and the Heart, and I’ve simultaneously dislike them both while loving one single track. Last time around it was “Down in the Valley”, and this time it’s the wonderful “Another Story”, pounding along with a percussive piano and an infectious melody.

24. Bootstraps – “Forty Five”

If you’re like me you love driving alone at night listening to a great song on the open road. With “Forty Five”, Bootstraps must have set out to make the absolute perfect night driving song. Forward moving, pensive, and breathy, “Forty Five” needs to be listened to behind the wheel to fully enjoy.

(No preview available. According to their facebook, they just got signed and their songs will be up soon. When they become available again, check them out.)

23. London Grammar – “Sights”

On an album full of sweeping drama, the highest high of London Grammar’s stellar debut is the climax of “Sights”, when the song builds and builds to an incredible moment around the 2:30 mark.

 

22. The National – “Demons”

On an album full of greatness, “Demons” stands out. Berninger’s signature baritone starts on its lowest end, tying the song into emotional knots before letting it all unravel.

21. Volcano Choir – “Alaskans”

I can’t resist two Volcano Choir songs on this list, because “Alaskans” has grown and grown on me. A simple song, the track is nary more than an acoustic guitar and Vernon’s vocals echoing. Vernon’s always used the falsetto in Bon Iver, but here he perfectly balances his natural vocals with the trademark falsetto perfectly.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

2013 Ultimate Music Megapost: Best Songs of the Year Countdown, 40-31

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40. The Airborne Toxic Event – “Timeless”

Proving I haven’t completely abandoned radio-ready modern rock, The Airborne Toxic Event make their second appearance in my year end lists with an ear-friendly track that’s is easy to digest, but has the kind of melody that sticks with you.

39. Broken Bells – “Holding on for Life”

James Mercer (of The Shins) and Danger Mouse team up to help us all look forward to their 2014 album by channeling the Bee Gees over modern production, and giving me more proof that I am completely impartial about anything Mercer touches.

38. Great Good Fine OK – “You’re the One for Me”

Falsetto over an electro groove? Not exactly my recipe for success. But then they dish “hit ‘em with a little bit o’ crazy” and the chorus sweeps in. It might not be my normal style, but that hasn’t stopped me from playing it on repeat.

37. Caveman – “Chances”

At first glance Caveman comes off like another 80’s retread, but dig deeper and you find tracks like “Chances”, channeling Brian Wilson and Noah Lennox on vocals while building and building until it starts to envelop your headphones like the best tracks from The Antlers.

36. Bear’s Den – “Sahara”

Here’s one for ye lovers of indie folk. “Sahara” is basically Snow Patrol vocals and building tendencies with a folk vibe. The song requires some patience, but there’s a payoff. The guitars 2:30 into the song get the song rolling, and a little after the four minute mark one of the single best sections of music this year strikes your headphones. The last two minutes of this song are bliss.

35. MS MR – “Hurricane”

Echoing over a slow-but-steady beat and a smattering of strings, “Hurricane” offers a deft mixture of alt rock and mellow synth pop, crafting casually delivered introspective vocals and lyrics that welcome you to the self-conscious “inner workings of my mind”.

 

34. Grizfolk – “The Struggle”

With folk right in the title, you’d think you’d have an idea what you’re getting. And while “The Struggle” has an indie folk charm, the band’s two Swedish producers lend their hand to supply the song with a vibe that’s completely different. If Of Monsters and Men can hit it big, I see some room for “The Struggle” in everyone’s collections.

33. Iron & Wine – “Winter Prayers”

Sam Beam has taken his Iron & Wine project all over the map, starting with hushed, whispering vocals and moving all the way into the lush, electronic production of his last album. Somewhere in the middle he found his sweetspot with The Shepherd’s Dog, and “Winter’s Prayer” represents a welcome return to Beam’s niche. The song is sad, haunting, and beautiful; Beam’s calling cards. “Slide down South, when once in a while your confidence leaves you”, he sings. It’s a prayer for home from a man who needs rejuvenation.

32. Pearl Jam – “Sirens”

“Sirens” joins a pantheon of Pearl Jam ballads that have served as some of their most memorable songs over the past two decades, and I think it’s a fair assessment to say that it stacks up as one of their best.

31. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Sacrilege”

When Karen O hits her stride, her band’s songs can be absolute powerhouses. Though her newest album was more misses than hits, “Sacrilege” is a strong exception, exploding and building a swarming rock song. The gospel choir may be over the top, but only in the best of ways.

Check Out Songs 50-41 Here

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

2013 Ultimate Music Megapost: Best Songs of the Year Countdown, 50-41

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50. Portugal. The Man – “Atomic Man”

Prolific indie vets Portugal. The Man may have never hit it big, but they have the chops to. Songs like “Atomic Man” pack the rock groove of The Black Keys with the vocals of a pepped up festival sing-along.

49. MGMT – “A Good Sadness”

I unleashed my ire about the MGMT album and their career trajectory in my mini-review, but the disappointing nature of the album has nothing to do with the hazy and wonderful “A Good Sadness”, which grows out of fuzz and smoke to become a reminder of MGMT’s squandered talent.

48. Rogue Wave – “College”

Way back in 2008, the song “Lake Michigan” made the cut at a way-too-low #20. Five years later, and after a string of album’s that didn’t grab my attention, they hit back with “College”, a forward moving song with Rogue Wave’s delivering both a hook and vocals that speak with wisdom and experience.

47. Mutual Benefit – “Advanced Falconry”

Lying somewhere between Sufjan Stevens and Devendra Barnhart, “Advanced Falconry” is soaked in strings and is an unabashed love song, drenched in positivity. “Oh to stare into the void, and see a friendly face”.

46. Cub Scouts – “Told You So”

Enjoy them as Cub Scouts now, because the internet tells me they have had to change their name, which I guess means they got big enough for people to care. “Told You So” is a synth pop jam with a great, hooky chorus that will get lodged in your head. It may be winter now, but this is a great summertime song.

45. Grizzly Bear - ”Will Calls (Marfa Demo)”

Grizzly Bear are elite indie rockers, capable of pushing out b-sides that compete with the best. “Will Calls” is the top track on a stellar b-sides EP, growing from a haunting soft synth and bursting free into an energetic chorus.

44. Sia ft. The Weeknd & Diplo – “Elastic Heart”

I’ve separately showcased Sia and The Weeknd before, but even I’m surprised at how much I let this pop doozy get to me. Sia lends her pipes to a catchy chorus, and The Weeknd’s always impressive pipes play well. Sia, who once before got props from me for her work on the Twilight soundtrack, is making quite a name for herself in blockbuster soundtracks.

43. Jimmy Eat World – “Damage”

Jimmy Eat World is still kicking, and my shameless fanboy-ness still remains. So here I am, once again, using my position as Author of the Blog to remind you that they remain awesome, making pensive alt rock jams better than anyone.

42. Amarante – “The Despondent One”

Husband/wife duo Amarante have a deft handle on the nighttime mood, filling dark spaces with their brand of indie folk. “The Despondent One” moves along on the back of a trickling piano and insistent percussion.

41. Youth Lagoon – “Mute”

“Mute” is a cacophony of sounds at times, mashing a barrage of noise over Trevor Powers’ timid vocals, nearly drowning it out. When the song hits its crescendo though, Powers’ vocals suddenly sail out, creating one of the best moments in music this year.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

2013 Ultimate Music Megapost: Top 15 Albums of 2013

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I remember last year really struggling on the albums section, with barely enough to fill my standard top 15. That happens sometimes. It’s what is obviously a good problem to have, unless you’re trying to write a very specific “Top 15 Albums of the Year” column. But that’s okay, it just means 2013 was a good year. It wasn’t 2007 strong, nor 2010 strong, but it’s a step up from last year, that’s for sure. Please enjoy my top selections from a strong year:

15. Smith Westerns – “Soft Will”

Soft Will is an album that I’ve owned since July but barely gave the time of day. I never even reviewed it. But then suddenly in November I started giving it a fair shake and it really grew on me. Led by stellar “Varsity”, the album is full of little gems, like the guitar running through “Best Friend”, the dreaminess of “Glossed”, and the lyrical delivery on “Idol”.

 

14. James Blake – “Overgrown”

This is the second album in a row where the overall strength of the album doesn’t show in how I feel about every individual track. Blake excels at creating a mood of darkness, and his albums are sparse and haunted. When he abandons the minimalism for fleeting moments like on “Retrograde”, he absolutely soars. Overgrown is not an album to casually pop on; it’s an album meant for the exact right moment, when songs like “Life Round Here”, “Dim”, and “Overgrown” can get under your skin, while “Retrograde” can blow you away.

13. Arctic Monkeys – “AM”

Even with how much I loved the Arctic Monkeys’ debut album back in 2006, tracks like “Mardy Bum” and “When the Sun Goes Down” didn’t exactly scream that this was a band with staying power, especially as the cheeky Brits faced the inevitability of growing older. Color me wrong, because AM is fantastic and their best effort since their buzzworthy debut seven years ago. And although “consistency” is not exactly the primo word to throw at an album, it’s striking how consistent this album is: front to back, there’s nary a bad track on the whole thing. “Do I Wanna Know?” kicks it off just right and it carries right on through slow-jammer “I Wanna Be Yours” without barely skipping a beat.

12. The Boxer Rebellion – “Promises”

Promises starts about as strong as it gets, bolting out of the gate with two year-end-list-worthy four star tracks. And the songs couldn’t be more different. “Diamonds” is the mid-tempo thinkpiece that ponders along in wonderment, while “Fragile” builds and builds into a rock masterpiece (and the running track of the year…trust me, try it on a run). What follows doesn’t live up the beginning, but it doesn’t have to. “Take Me Back” rolls along with forward motion, while “Dream” and “You Belong to Me” have a U2 vibe.

11. Cold War Kids – “Dear Miss Lonelyhearts”

It’s my pleasure to welcome one of my favorite bands back into the fold. After two downright brilliant albums and one disappointing dud in which they attempted to mold their sound into something very un-Cold War Kids-y, the band came back with Dear Miss Lonelyhearts, an album that introduces itself with the romp “Miracle Mile”, an immediate declaration that the band was back to good. It didn’t stop there, with the moving “Water & Power” proving to be one of the most impactful tracks of the year, and songs like “Tuxedos”, “Bottled Affection”, and “Jailbirds” holding down a strong middle pack of tracks on a very strong album. If anything, this album established that their previous effort was just a blip of a misstep, rather than the beginning of the end, and this makes me very happy.

10. The Arcade Fire – “Reflektor”

No doubt destined to be #1 on many blogs, Reflektor may very well end up earning the curse of the hyped: simultaneously excellent and overrated. It sure doesn’t skimp on ambition, and for that I applaud it. But although my praise may sound faint, it’s in my list for a reason. The title track, “Reflektor”, is a seven and a half minute masterpiece that will go down as one of their all-time great tracks, high praise for a band with such a strong discography. “Flashbulb Eyes” is a sonic treat, Win Butler’s breathy delivery on “Normal Person” is delightful, and “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice) is classic Arcade Fire, and the dark “Porno” rivals “Reflektor” as the album’s best.

9. Pearl Jam – “Lightning Bolt”

I’ve always been a Pearl Jam fan, but I was a little caught off guard by how much I enjoyed Lightning Bolt, and album that to me represented growth and maturity from Eddie Vedder’s aging outfit. Some bands struggle with development as they cope with turning from angry 20 year olds to angry 40 year olds. On Lightning Bolt, Pearl Jam copes by easing up a little bit, most prominently displayed on “Future Days”, where Vedder sings about the demons that used to chase him, past tense. There may have been a time when Vedder would have may have resisted the notion of sounding more like a grown man than an angry youth, but at Pearl Jam’s age the mood fits like a glove, and the execution is exceptional.

8. The Strokes – “Comedown Machine”

Say what you will about The Strokes’ career path, but I for one am a big fan of what they’ve transformed into. Comedown Machine is now the second straight Strokes album to make my year end list, and once against it’s a deft blend of rock, electro, and Julian Casablancas’ unique vocals. The stars are the upbeat “One Way Trigger” and “All the Time” combined with the heartfelt “Chances”. The Strokes illustrate the key to growth and molding a band’s sound over the years: if you’re going to morph you must execute well. The Strokes in 2013 sound very little like The Strokes of Is This It, but they still sound excellent.

7. Phosphorescent – “Muchacho”

I was very aware of Phosphorescent before the year started, but I sure didn’t see THIS coming. Matthew Houck had crafted an okay previous album with one real good song, but then in 2013 he drops a stellar album and one of the best songs I’ve ever heard. It all starts with “Song for Zula”, one of three five star songs discovered in 2013, and a song so good it’s worth the album price alone. Houck’s wounded vocals are the key through this alt-country gem, and it carries him through “Terror in the Canyons (The Wounded Master)”, “A New Anhedonia”, and the lengthy and excellent “The Quotodian Beasts”.

6. Daft Punk – “Random Access Memories”

To think I almost didn’t buy this album. Random Access Memories was hotly anticipated and came with an abundance of hype matched possibly only by Arcade Fire this year. They rewarded fans—and created some new ones (me)—with a superbly crafted album that plays better as a whole than as individual pieces, the mark of a great album. The album vacillates between pure electronica/dance numbers (like smash hit “Get Lucky”), festival-ready collaborations like “Doin’ It Right” ft. Panda Bear and “Instant Crush” ft. Julian Casablancas of The Strokes, and heart-wrenching tracks like the absolutely haunting piano-based track that is “Within”.

5. Foals – “Holy Fire”

Regular readers will remember some of my laments in 2012 about the preponderance of bedroom electronica sweeping the web, where some indie girl with tattoos and pink hair writes an entire album in her closet on her computer and the web goes nuts over it. Sure, Purity Ring had some great tracks, but I was yearning for something in the alt rock/indie scene that plain rocked. Enter the 8 minutes of bliss that is “Prelude” and “Inhaler” that kicks off the Foals album Holy Fire. It’s a burning, building, coursing introduction to an album that is equal parts energy, Verve-ish psychedelic-influenced rock (“Milk & Black Spiders), and toe-tapping, night-driving wonder (“Late Night”).

4. Volcano Choir – “Repave”

Of course I’m not surprised that I love something touched by the prolific Justin Vernon (insert obligatory “Justin Vernon is Bon Iver” reminder), but I’m at least a little surprised that I loved something that came under the Volcano Choir moniker. But instead of using Volcano Choir as his outlet for the bizarre, Vernon here amps up the normalcy with superb results, gifting fans a condensed 8 song LP that’s high on quality and low on fluff. There was no better three song stretch in music this year than the glorious “Comrade”, the soaring “Byegone”, and the gorgeous “Alaskans” sequenced in perfect harmony.

3. Local Natives – “Hummingbird”

Possibly the best combination of indie rock and instantly likeable melodies are the Local Natives, whose sunny debut album turned heads in 2010. With Hummingbird, the west coasters up the ante, delivering an album still laden with hooks, but with a more serious lyrical quality. It’s a front-to-back wallop led by “Heavy Feet” all the way back to the emotional core of the album, the duo of “Mt Washington” and “Columbia”, which deals with the loss of the lead singer’s mother. There’s not even an average track on this album.

2. London Grammar – “If You Wait”

Throughout the year London Grammar let single after single trickle out, and with each release I got more and more excited. The final product did not disappoint, as London Grammar released about as perfect a debut album as a band could ask for. Hannah Reid’s powerful vocals drew apt Florence comparisons, though Reid owns a gentler touch, but it’s the music that carries London Grammar’s into special territory. See the guitar work on “Wasting My Young Years” as a prime example. The band has an absolutely stranglehold on how to create atmosphere and space and combine their music with Reid’s vocals. From the perfect intro in “Hey Now” to the triumvirate of lyrical gem “Wasting My Young Years”, goosebump-inducing “Sights”, and soaring “Strong”, this is one of the more memorable debut albums I’ve had the pleasure of listening to.

1. The National – “Trouble Will Find Me”

With my crush on The National reaching Shins-ish level, it must not be surprising that this album ends up at the top. But expectations can be damning too: perennial favorites Iron & Wine and Jimmy Eat World merit only honorable mentions and Arcade Fire sits at #10. This album though? It’s a powerhouse. Everything I love in music is here. Matt Berninger’s lyrics and delivery are self-conscious and relatable (“when I walk into a room, I do not light it up”). The guitar work is without reproach, and The National always make great use of secondary instruments, like the horns that creep in near the end of “Demons”. There are no bad songs here, and there are many great ones. “I Should Live in Salt”, “Heavenfaced”, and “Demons” are giants amongst other giants. My year-long obsession though, is “Pink Rabbits”, a song that gets under my skin, and a song that shows a rare glimpse of sunshine and hope amongst the gloom.

Honorable Mentions, in no particular order:

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

2013 Ultimate Music Megapost: Top Ten New Old Songs

I wish this category didn’t have to exist, but I’m an amateur music reviewer who sometimes misses things. And since the whole point is to show you awesome music, I maintain this category annually to ensure that my follies in 2012 are rectified in 2013 to the maximum extent.

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1) Django Django – “Hail Bop”: What is this, space age Beach Boys? Whatever it is, I love love love it, and if I’d found it last year, it would have a top five song.

2) How to Dress Well – “Cold Nites”: I love songs that set a mood, and never has a song captured the mood in its title better than this. Would have been in the top 15 last year.

3) Alt-j – “Fitzpleasure”: Be assured I don’t know what any of the lyrics mean either. But when that first bass kicks in? Wow. Try not to move when this song is turned up loud.

4) Barcelona – “Come Back When You Can”: Was very impressed by these guys when they opened for Andrew McMahon. A little on the sensitive side, but I still love it.

5) Lord Huron – “I Will Be Back One Day”: I blew this one. I knew of Lord Huron, but didn’t give them a chance last year. One of the better indie folk outfits right now, and this is their best track.

6) Sun Airway – “Close” : Atmospheric alt-rock in the mold of The Verve or The Radio Dept

7) The Temper Trap – “Trembling Hands”: Album was subpar, but “Trembling Hands” once again shows the potential everyone saw when they first heard “Sweet Disposition”.

8) The Amazing – “Dragon”: Soft and lo-fi like it’s 2002 all over again, I found this one in a movie and searched it out.

9) A Silent Film – “Anastasia”: Disappointing over-produced album? Yep. But their potential is on full display with the string-laden “Anastasia”, featuring a toe-tapping guitar line.

10) Macklemore & Ryan Lewis ft. Ben Bridwell – “Starting Over”: Macklemore’s debut LP earned rave reviews and smash hits, but this is the one I loved, featuring Bridwell of Band of Horses of course.

2013 Ultimate Music Megapost: The Introduction

The following has been deeply plagiarized from my past self. Which according to the definition of plagiarism, is in fact not plagiarism at all. So never mind.

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Hello friends and random internet readers, and welcome to the 2013 edition of the now sixth annual Ultimate Music Megapost! Every year I view this post as the ultimate culmination of my hobby, where I pull together every Saturday morning spent pouring through music blogs, every long drive soundtracked to my current favorite songs, and every excited purchase of a new album. This year I have spent six months deployed to Afghanistan and two months in training (pictured above, is my studio at training), and while this reality may damage some hobbies, in some ways it has enhanced my music listening. Each year I highlight what I feel was the best music of that year in a broad range of categories and then open it up for what I hope will be spirited discussion since, let’s face it, music is one of the most subjective things out there, and something on this list will make you think I’m A COMPLETE IDIOT.

As with every year, I must start with a disclaimer. I’m a big fan of music but by no means is this a profession, which means that I don’t get free music sent to me by bands. This means primarily two things: 1) I haven’t heard EVERYTHING, though I venture to say I’ve heard quite a bit and 2) there are sometimes things that get released in the year prior that don’t make it to my collection until the next year, meaning don’t bother getting spun up letting me know that a song was released in November 2012, although I do try to avoid going too far back if I can help it. If the point is to highlight good new music to the casual fan, then I do not want to leave off a solid track. I also try not to get carried away with single bands, so even if I might feel like one album was so good it might justify having seven songs on the list, I’ll leave that commentary for the Best Albums section and diversify the Top 50. Almost every year there are albums where I could get carried away, so let’s just operate with the understanding that my top two albums this year each contributed at least three songs that would be in a more true Top 50.

As always, I welcome any and all commentary, both positive or negative. This is a massive project to undertake, and although I have fun with it and, let’s be honest, barely anyone reads it, it’s always nice to know that people are giving it a try. It would make my day to know that I helped someone find a new band that they love, and the only way I’ll know that is if you tell me.

Over the next few days and weeks I will be posting different categories, from albums to songs to lyrics. You can start below by clicking on the link. I hope you enjoy it!

Top Ten New Old Songs

Monday, November 18, 2013

What I’m Listening To

A sampling of what I have in my headphones right now.

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James Mercer (of The Shins) and Danger Mouse return with the next bit of music from their outstanding Broken Bells project. It may be a small thing, but I just love the “aaaaah-oooohs” in the background around 1:20. These guys know how to make music.

This is from a band I just discovered and will be looking into a little more. This one actually comes with a free download too. Check out Great Good Fine Ok.

For the indie folk fans out there, don’t miss The Head and the Heart’s “Another Story”.

I don’t fall for pop songs like this very often, but Sia, with help from the amazing vocals of The Weeknd, makes an absolute gem for The Hunger Games. There’s a few good tracks on the soundtrack, but this one really jumps out.

You really shouldn’t miss the new Arctic Monkeys album. And this is the track I keep playing over and over.

The Smith Westerns have really grown on me slowly. It took me a few listens, but I’m really digging this.

Painted Palms are another brand new discovery. Really like the energy.

Washed Out, most famous for being the artist behind the Portlandia theme song, made some pretty great tracks for their new album. Like this one.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Discovering the Lesser Known Side of The Beach Boys

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“When you listen to Pet Sounds, you use earphones, in the dark.” –Brian Wilson

As you start reading this post, I’d like you to click play on this track as you read my intro. The song is “Feel Flows” and the band is The Beach Boys. The same Beach Boys who you probably know for all the typical things: surfing, sun, girls, and California.

When Pandora first came around we were first introduced to the Music Genome Project, and if you are a Pandora user you may have been taught a little bit about your own music tastes. Maybe you learned a little about why you like what you like and learned some new terms. Music taste is such a subjective thing. I can try to explain it you why I like one sound more than another in paragraph form, but Pandora took that same information and tried to feed you bands and songs that were similar.

As I got more and more into music, one constant underlying comparison that kept coming up in bands I liked was Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys. The Shins, for example, often elicit Beach Boys comparisons, albeit subtly. For Local Natives, another favorite, it’s more obvious. I’ve seen comparisons made between the Beach Boys and Panda Bear/Noah Lennox/Animal Collective. Recently, while reading a little bit about Caveman, a smaller band I recently got into, The Beach Boys came up again. Here’s an example, side by side. Check out the isolated vocal track of “God Only Knows” next to a more modern track from Panda Bear and tell me you don’t hear the influence.

Here’s a band that, in 2013, is still being used to explain a certain identifiable sound over and over and over again. How prevalent is that? How many bands did something so distinct that their very sound can be described as Beach Boys-ish? What the Beach Boys did—essentially take barbershop quarter harmonies, intermingle them with pop music and experimentalism, and create a sound that helps to define the entirety of Southern California—is legendary if you think about it, but generally unappreciated. We revere The Beatles, Elvis, and Michael Jackson, but there’s a forgotten history amongst my generation surrounding the Beach Boys, a history that’s been whittled down to their sunny early hits like “California Girls”. But the Beach Boys are a complicated lot, as haunted and divided by their own stereotypes as anyone. The constant divide between Brian Wilson’s desire to be a forerunner in experimental music and Mike Love’s desire to be the cars-and-beaches-and-girls band that originally hit it big dragged the band apart for decades. I look forward to watching Paul Dano star as Brian Wilson in a legitimate biopic next year. Expect me to be there on opening day.

There are too many great pieces of writing out there that document the entire Beach Boys history, so I’ll save the internet from having another. But recently I became obsessed with listening to their entire collection front to back and understanding their development. Here’s a nugget of fun for you involving two well know Beach Boys hits, “Surfin’ Safari” and “Kokomo”: they were released 26 years apart. When I found that out, I had to hear everything in between.

To keep this manifesto reasonably short, my goal here is just to share with you some tracks that show their progress and development so that maybe you can begin to appreciate the Beach Boys as groundbreaking legends and not just surfer singers from the 60’s.

Early on it really was cars and surfing and girls. And root beer stands. The Beach Boys were clean and mom and dad approved.

1962

1963

The Beach Boys started to bare a more thoughtful and sensitive side in the next couple albums. Pensive “In My Room”, a song literally about hiding from the world in your room, is Brian Wilson early preview of some social issues that would plague him later. In 1964 they released one their best tracks ever, the comforting “Don’t Worry Baby”.

1965

An awesome look into the studio during the “Help Me Rhonda” recording session, from the same album that featured “California Girls”.

1966

Retrospectively, the band peaked in 1966 with the release of Pet Sounds, which many consider to be one of the greatest single album in the history of music. Rolling Stone has it at #2 on their Top 500 of All Time, NME has it #1.The album is indeed a masterpiece in many ways, combining a deft understanding of pop music with a desire to push and experiment. Straight from Wikipedia, an idea of instrument used on this album includes: “bicycle bells, buzzing organs, harpsichords, flutes, electro-thermin, dog whistles, trains, Hawaiian-sounding string instruments, Coca-Cola cans, and barking dogs”. Any fan of indie music today will recognize that level of experimentation. The Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, and other experimentalists employ similar concepts today to critical acclaim, but did you know the Beach Boys were doing it in 1966? If you want to nerd it up, give this a read: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pet_Sounds#Recording_process. This album includes my favorite Beach Boys track:

1967

I love Smiley Smile. I love that it confused the crap out of people at the time. I love that it’s half drug-addled, and half brilliant. I love that over time it’s become a cult classic, one of those albums that viewed through a different lense as the years passed by. It includes perhaps the most complicated track they’ve ever written (“Good Vibrations”), the most drugged up hilarious atrocity they ever wrote (“She’s Going Bald”), and mix of stellar tracks and comical duds.

Things weren’t as sweet from this point on, but there are some very underrated and unknown tracks that emerged in the next decade.

1969

1970

1973

1980-89

Kokomo’s success, in retrospect, is shocking. The Beach Boys, overcome by internal strife and years of only tepid popularity, suddenly scored a #1 hit in 1988, their first since 1966. 22 years!

…And beyond

To things to note during this time period. First, is the debacle that was 1992’s Summer in Paradise, a comic disaster of an album for many reasons. It has a song that features John Stamos! This is wonderful in so many terrible ways:

Their 1992 material was their last originals for 20 years until 2012, when they released an album as a bunch of old guys that was, well, actually pretty dang good.

Everything I love about the Beach Boys you can find by listening to Pet Sounds, catching the isolated vocals tracks, reading about Brian Wilson’s dedication to experimentation, and thinking about their lasting legacy. There has only ever been one band to ever sound like them. An entire sunny, surfing culture and feeling is elicited from just listening to “Surfin’ USA”, a whole avant garde/baroque pop generation emerged from sessions like those that created “Good Vibrations”, and these two songs were created by the same band. And if you think I’m overstating their experimentation, look up the terms and you’ll find Beach Boys references all over the place. If you’re interested in learning more, enjoy the following documentary. Hope you learned something!

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Arcade Fire – “Reflektor”

arcade-fire-reflektor-cover-500x500 (1)

★1/2

Three and a half stars. Lined up against most other reviews, that’s above average and a compliment. Lined up against some of the early reviews of Reflektor, it might be an insult. In reality, it’s just the truth.

The Arcade Fire, who I was fortunate enough to see live in 2011, are possibly the greatest live act I’ve ever seen. In their earliest days, their debut album gave me “Rebellion (Lies)”, a song that grabbed me during a phase in my music life when songs like that didn’t grab me. Since then they have been astonishingly consistent. Four albums, four winners. Meanwhile their sound has morphed an changed, but remained distinctly Arcade Fire.

Reflektor is another heavily themed album. Where their previous effort, the outstanding The Suburbs, studied the themes related to the suburban sprawl, Reflektor studies the trap of modern technology and communication. It’s right there in the stellar title track: “We're still connected, but are we even friends? We fell in love when I was nineteen, And I was staring at a screen”. The seven and a half minute track is an epic, featuring a David Bowie cameo and brilliant horn and piano bits near the end. “Reflektor” sets the stage wonderfully, pushing the listener head first into an hour and a half long journey. It’s an amazing piece of music. After the generally forgettable “We Exist” is the noisy and interesting “Flashbulb Eyes”. Whether the song is about media attention or audiences who won’t put down their cameras or something else, I’m not sure, but as a herky jerky rocker, the song excels.

Some of the problems with Reflektor are evidenced on “Here Comes the Night Time”, where The Arcade Fire invite you to come along on a six and a half minute song that doesn’t really go anywhere. The song is alright and all, as basically every Arcade Fire song is at a minimum, but I ask myself if I’m ever going to listen through this one in its entirety down the road. “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” suffers similarly.

There’s plenty more to love here. The quirky “Normal Person” stands out, with Butler singing over a tight piano and guitar groove before the song breaks out. It’s the most White Stripes-ish thing The Arcade Fire has ever done, and it works. “You Already Know” is the most familiar, classic sounding track on the album, and is probably a romp live. “Awful Song (Oh Eurydice)”, growing from snare drums and strings, is the building, rousing track of the album, and one of the most initially pleasing tracks. One of the album’s best tracks, though, is “Porno”, which gives the lead track a run for its money. “Porno” is a cautionary tale about female sexuality and the male perception of it, layered over dark of foreboding synths. When Win Butler’s voice sails higher over the chorus, it’s the most impactful moment on the album.

So where does this album fit in the pantheon of stellar Arcade Fire albums? Is it as good as people say it is (Pitchfork 9.1 score, my favorite blog called it their “OK Computer”)? The answer is that no, this album isn’t even their best. It’s just another great album by a great band. It lacks the staggeringly great tracks on their debut, and the consistency of The Suburbs. It’s mood is closer to Neon Bible, but it feels darker, more cautionary, and more coalescent than that album. In reality, coalescence is the album’s chief strength: it may not have a dearth of mind-blowing singles, but it works as one heckuva full album. Worth the buy, but don’t expect it to change your life. Just enjoy it. And enjoy this video.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Pearl Jam – “Lightning Bolt”

pearljam

Somewhere in my closet back in Arizona sits a relic of days past. My giant black book CD collection housing every band from A to L, Arcade Fire to LCD Soundsystem. Missing is a matching black book housing the remaining letters. It was stolen out of my car in Boise back in 2009, a heartbreaking incident for a “collector”. Part of the pain of that loss came in the form of losing entire discographies. During a brief period of obsession I had purchased every Pearl Jam album, liner notes and all, and poured through the music like every decent Seattle music blogger should, I suppose. From the revered classics like Ten to personal favorites like Vs to albums that rarely get air time like Riot Act, I became a Pearl Jam fan.

Perhaps there were hints of what “Lightning Bolt” would be, but I didn’t really see it coming. Vedder has never completely shied away from the softer side or strings (see “Man of the Hour”, a favorite, and the string-laden cover “Love Reign O’ve Me” as examples), but ultimately Pearl Jam have existed as a ROCK band. Independently, Eddie Vedder fronted the emotional soundtrack to the film Into the Wild and even released an album called Ukulele Songs of all things. So maybe there was a hint at maturity, but those themes hadn’t necessarily leaked onto an actual Pearl Jam album yet.

“Getaway”, the outstanding opening song on new album Lightning Bolt, is classic Pearl Jam. “Mind Your Manners” is in the same vein, albeit not nearly as well done as “Getaway”. “My Father’s Son” is probably the album’s weakest track. Something happens after this though, and it’s hard for me not to view it as a second album starting on track four, the vulnerable sounding “Sirens” where Vedder reaches a near-falsetto as he sings “all things change, let this remain” before distant guitar echoes in the background. Words used in the song? How about “fragile”, “grace”, “love”, “safe”, “grateful man”, and “distant laughter”. It’s a staggering turn of events that in the 90’s may have been panned. But here’s the thing: Eddie Vedder turns 50 years old next year.

That’s not to say he goes full on wimpy (“Lightning Bolt” shifts the mood a bit as a driving rock song), but there’s definitely some elements of maturity and aging present. “Swallowed Whole” has a distinct Pearl Jam feel, but the lyrics includes thoughts on “what lies beyond the grave” and declarations like “I can start the healing now”. The final three tracks are all softer. “Sleeping By Myself” is a rework of a track from the Ukulele Songs with full band elevating it a little bit. “Yellow Moon” is a stirring track, building and building into something special. And “Future Days”, the final track, is nothing short of special. Ending on a softer note is definitely part of the pattern for many Pearl Jam records, but it’s certainly unlike anything they’ve ever written, as given away right away by the soft piano intro. It finds Vedder pining “All the demons used to come around, I'm grateful now they've left” in perhaps the most telling lyrics of the whole album. Pearl Jam references pain and angst as if it’s past tense (“Back when I was feeling broken”), and focuses on the positivity in the future. The song has piano, it has strings, and while it may sound decidedly “un-Pearl Jam”, there’s just something perfectly great about that. With Pearl Jam’s career spanning over 20 years, they sound fully grown, confident, and comfortable. And to my ears, they haven’t sounded this good in many years. 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

10 Years of Loving Music

collage

I’ve now been blogging to some extent about music for about 10 years, starting in the Xanga and Myspace days. And as I start to ramp up to my annual top 50, I thought it would be fun to journey from 2003 to 2013 with some Past and the Pending approved tracks that have highlighted the years past.

2003. Muse – “Butterflies & Hurricanes”.

My affection for Muse has not aged well since they transitioned from mega-talented orchestral rock band to the kings of over-the-topness, but back in 2003 I was all about Muse. To this day watching the “Butterflies & Hurricanes” piano break live is one of my favorite moments in music.

Other gems that year: Postal Service – “Such Great Heights”, Snow Patrol – “Run”, Death Cab for Cutie – “Transatlanticism”, and The Shins – “Pink Bullets”.

2004. The Killers – “Somebody Told Me”.

One of the best debut albums of all time, The Killers’ “Hot Fuss” was alt rock masterpiece after alt rock masterpiece, capturing the early wave of modern synth rock. The highlight was “Somebody Told Me”, a song that still rocks today.

Other gems that year: The Arcade Fire – “Rebellion (Lies)”, Jimmy Eat World – “23”, The Hold Steady – “Killer Parties”

2005. The Hold Steady – “Cattle and the Creeping Things”.

There’s no other Hold Steady song that aptly sums up how great they are more than this one. It’s a rock song and it’s a story and it’s a key stage setter for Separation Sunday, an all-time great concept album. There’s no winning picking out a best line, because the entire song is a quotable Biblical journey. I’d explain, but someone already has better than I ever could: http://www.npr.org/programs/atc/features/2005/aug/holdsteady/lyrics_cattle.html

Other gems that year: Nickel Creel – “Doubting Thomas”, Sigur Ros – “Hoppipolla”, Spoon – “I Summon You”, Sufjan Stevens – “Casimir Pulaski Day” and “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois”

2006. Cold War Kids – “We Used to Vacation”.

Boy did I play this song a lot. To this day I can’t think about anything other than driving around Idaho at night when I hear this one. Cold War Kids’ barroom rock style always should’ve been bigger than it was, and I love them still to this day.

Other gems that year: Fleet Foxes – “Blue Ridge Mountains” and My Chemical Romance – “Welcome to the Black Parade”

2007. LCD Soundsystem – “All My Friends”.

Oh 2007. What a year. This year provided so many of my favorite songs that picking is hard. Truth is, my two favorite songs of all time were both from 2007, but if I have to pick one I have to go with “All My Friends” a powerful, emotive, and masterful piece of music that sticks with me still. “You spend the first five years trying to get with the plan, and the next five years trying to be with your friends again”.

Other gems that year: Band of Horses – “Detlef Schrempf”, Jimmy Eat World – “Dizzy”, Radiohead – “House of Cards”, The Shins – “Australia”, Iron & Wine – “Innocent Bones”

2008.  MGMT – “Time to Pretend”.

I guess my ire towards the new MGMT album stems from my love for “Time to Pretend”, a fuzzy psychedelic piece of pop rock that showcased what you could do when you combine all the weirdness of the world with the magic of a good melody.

Other gems that year: Fleet Foxes – “Mykonos”, Spoon – “Black Like Me” and “Finer Feelings”, Coldplay – “Death and All of His Friends”

2009. Biffy Clyro – “Many of Horror”.

My weakness for the swarming and powerful and, most importantly, building rock song flat out gave in with “Many of Horror”, a song from a band I’d never heard of and only mildly like. And it makes a sucker of me at the bridge.

Other gems that year: Passion Pit – “Sleepyhead”, Minus the Bear – “Throwin’ Shapes”, Iron & Wine – “God Made the Automobile”, Grizzly Bear – “Two Weeks”

2010. Caribou – “Jamelia”.

2010 was probably the second strongest year, only coming in behind 2007. With four five star songs to pick from, I’m sticking with my then #1, “Jamelia”, a headphones goldmine that explodes right before the two minute mark. iTunes says I’ve played it 57 times, but that doesn’t count the 200 times in the car on the way to grad school in Ohio.

Other gems that year: Sufjan Stevens – “Futile Devices”, The Antlers – “Kettering”, Mimicking Birds – “The Loop”, The National – Conversation 16”, Freelance Whales – “Generator ^ Second Floor”

2011. M83 – “Steve McQueen”.

Some things never change. 2011 is two years old and I still can’t pick my favorite song. But I can tell you which one still gets the most airplay. M83’s “Steve McQueen” is the zenith of a career defining album, and one of three fives stars on the album. Play it loud.

Other gems that year: Fleet Foxes – “Grown Ocean”, Young the Giant – “Apartment”, M83 – “Midnight City”, War on Drugs – “I Was There”, The National – “Thing You Can Wait”

2012. The Shins – “Simple Song”

A decade after dropping one of my favorite few albums of all time (2001’s Oh Inverted World), The Shins struck again with music in a completely different mold. Gone was the lo-fi, and here was “Simple Song”, a song with a lushness and positivity that rings true.

Other gems that year: Grizzly Bear – “Yet Again”, Sufjan Stevens – “Justice Delivers its Death” 

Only about a month to go before the 2013 list comes out, and the year is looking pretty strong. Thanks for sticking with me over the years!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Uncovering Some Stray Alt Rock Tracks

Sometimes songs get a little buried and forgotten over time, or maybe they were on an album that wasn’t that great. But every now and then they spring up and remind me of how awesome they are even if I don’t mention the band a lot. With that in mind, back from the grave are these four awesome songs for your listening pleasure:

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – “Misspent Youth”

War on Drugs – “I Was There”

The Republic Tigers – “Golden Sand”

Minus the Bear – “Throwin’ Shapes”

The Civil Wars – “The Civil Wars”

civilwars

The Civil Wars’ tense partnership is fairly well known at this point, and although I’d rather not recap it, it would be impossible to deal with their sophomore album while ignoring it. After releasing their enormously popular and award winning debut album Barton Hollow, full of fantastic tracks like personal favorite “Poison & Wine”. The Civil Wars managed two well-deserved Grammy’s out of their debut, and partially occupied the gaping whole in my heart permanently left by Nickel Creek’s premature schism.

I’d rather just point you to this link than discuss the drama in length: http://www.npr.org/2013/08/02/207981618/the-civil-wars-joy-williams-on-the-duos-fragile-bond. Suffice it to say that right in the middle of touring, the band broke up, citing some “irreconcilable differences” or something. It wasn’t cordial either. John Paul White didn’t give interviews, even though Joy Williams does, she can’t speak for him because, well, they don’t speak.

So it was to a great surprise that we got a second album out of the duo, apparently finished right before the breakup. And in the wake of the album we got no press junket and no tour. The album is there, but it goes no further than that. And for a band that always excelled in the male-female vocal tension, we’re left to read even more into the despairing lyrics on their eponymous album.

On Barton Hollow, I found the album curiously backloaded, and they flip the script here. From a pure rating perspective, the albums are about equal across the board, but although I give them the same rating as I did last time, I think I was about a half star short in 2011. And why does this one fall a little short? I think it has something to do with the sour taste in the mouth. On “Poison & Wine” the tension is palpable but the lyrics still convey a sense of longing and hope. Mostly because of the backstory, their newest album’s tension feels less hopeful, and instead feels like you’re listening to a breakup happen. And maybe it shouldn’t feel that way. Take “Same Old, Same Old”: “I wanna leave you, I wanna lose us, I wanna give up, But I won’t”. Hard to take that as hopeful if by the time the album is released, they quite literally gave up.

Ah, but musically this is the same band, and that makes everything much harder. There are some absolutely stellar and moving tracks here. Debut single “The One That Got Away” is dramatic and stirring, fusing rock and folk. There's an edge to the song not present before, and not present again afterwards. “Eavesdrop” may be the most swelling song they’ve written yet, rising over gentle mandolin and guitar to break the best single climax they’ve written yet. Bluesy and John Paul White-focused “I Had Me a Girl” brings a little soul to the joint and tones down the melodrama on an album that could use a lot less.

Maybe this album would sit better if it didn’t feel like a lie. Is that fair? I don’t know. Sometimes people lie to themselves to try and make it work. Sometimes the most well-intentioned of things don’t work out. But all that said I find it impossible to hear a song like “Dust to Dust” about two lonely people rescuing each other and not find it’s message a little off-putting in retrospective. There’s also the issue that the second half of the album doesn’t have any memorable songs save for a good Smashing Pumpkins cover, or that it features John Paul White distinctly less than Joy Williams, which contributes to making a “pretty good” album out of an album with such a distinctly great first half. If you can get past the backstory, though, there’s plenty enough in that front half to satiate a Civil Wars fan.

But I still miss Nickel Creek.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Kings of Leon – “Mechanical Bull”

Kings-of-Leon-Mechanical-Bull-2013-1200x1200

★1/2

The journey of Kings of Leon has been a strange and opinionated one. Nearly everyone who is into alternative rock or the festival circuit has an opinion on the Tennessee rockers. Such is life for a band that committed the two cardinal sins of indie music: 1) changing their sound, and 2) getting huge. I discussed their transformation back in 2010 when Come Around Sundown was released and showed a band that wasn’t completely sure whether they wanted to be gritty southern rock or new school arena rock. The result was a bit of a mixed bag, and now we sit three years and one drug and liquor-fueled hiatus later. Because of the range of opinions surrounding KoL, allow me full disclosure regarding mine. Did they change their sound? Absolutely, indisputably yes.

Just listen to the difference and understand what people mean when they criticize. If you were in love with their early albums and don’t like what they’ve become, I don’t blame you one bit. I don’t necessarily fit into that group though. I believe Kings of Leon are at their best when they combine their southern rock soul and gritty vocals with just a touch of polish. That being said, this is where I think they peaked:

Although I’m an “old school” fan, I believe their best work was not 2003’s Youth & Young Manhood or 2004’s Aha Shake Heartbreak, but actually was 2007’s Because of the Times with 2008’s Only By the Night a close second. 2010’s Come Around Sundown was too much of a compromise, juggling between the old and the new, and ending up tepid and mediocre.

So now, three years later, we get 2013’s Mechanical Bull, with some early promises of returning to the early roots teasing fans ears. In reality this is only true to some extent, but it’s a definite improvement over their 2010 effort, and thus their best effort in half a decade. The album starts with a rush, and it’s hard not to get a little excited. Lead single “Supersoaker” is the kind of gritty-meet-a-touch-of-polish track that I love, and would be a top track on nearly all of their albums. “Rock City” is the kind of fun track we haven’t seen in a while, with Caleb Followill declaring he can “shake it like a woman”. “Rock City” and grinder “Don’t Matter” pull out of the arena rock phase that KoL entered, existing in a more pure rock ‘n roll sense. There’s even some more produced-sounding tracks that succeed in the vein of Only By the Night. “Tonight” survives and thrives on the back of a soaring riff, built for the big stage. Even when he soars on “Tonight”, Followill’s voice doesn’t have the same echo chamber reverb that is used on Come Around Sundown, and it’s a noticeable improvement for a vocalist who gets miles out of his throaty growl. “Comeback Story” is autobiographical (“Picking up the pieces in the world I know/With one in the fire and one in the snow/
It's a comeback story of a lifetime), and will likely please fans of the more charming side of KoL. What really hits you on the song, though, isn’t just the lyrics but the way Followill sings them with such sincerity. Followill’s lyrics can be cocky and brash, but here he sounds legitimately wounded.

Lest I heap too much praise on the album, there’s also plenty of unexciting tracks here too. “Beautiful War” is a little too clean and brooding, and “Temple” goes nowhere. “Coming Back Again” and “Family Tree” are forgettable. Overall though, the album is a solid return to goodness, especially on the strength of a strong opening, and a smattering of winners like “Tonight”, “Comeback Story”, and “On the Chin”. For a band that I wasn’t sure would keep making music, I’m pleased. I’ll probably always listen to Because of the Times to get my Kings of Leon fix, but Mechanical Bull is a much more solid effort than Come Around Sundown, balancing their gritty charm with their expansive new sound without feeling like a compromise, and this album may foreshadow a good post-superfame musical life for one of the best mainstream acts in music.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Volcano Choir – “Repave”

Repave_(2013)_Album_Cover

Justin Vernon sure is a busy man. If you follow indie music, you know Justin very well. If you follow it only fleetingly, maybe you think his actual name is Bon Iver. Justin Vernon is Bon Iver, but he’s also DeYarmond Edison, Gayngs, and Shouting Matches. When he’s putting on his best Bon Iver disguise, he’s Volcano Choir. What is Volcano Choir? It’s Justin Vernon teamed with Collections of Colonies of Bees, which is in itself part of All Tiny Creatures. Are we confused yet? Because that was fun to write, especially since it all made sense to me. I guess I could have kept it simpler and said “that Bon Iver dude has a side project, and it’s really good”.

I think I was slow in turning out this review mostly because it’s all a little hard to break down. Volcano Choir as a side project to Bon Iver seems now to make different sense with 2013’s Repave than it did with 2009’s Unmap. This is because 2009’s Unmap was, to me, a confusing mess of noise and generally a failure, and it seemed to act as Justin Vernon’s bizarre electronic extension of his cabin-in-the-snowy-woods indie folk sensation For Emma, Forever Ago. There was exactly one good (make that great) song on it (“Island, IS”, #6 that year on my year end list), and the rest was an odd collection of noise. Seriously, click on that link there.

If For Emma, Forever Ago was Justin Vernon displaying his deft handling of emotion, and Unmap was him displaying his desire to expand beyond folk, then they became perfectly married on Bon Iver’s epic, five-star Bon Iver, Bon Iver, an album that pushed beyond the folk sound, improving it without losing the emotion. And now here we are with a new Volcano Choir album. Trust me, despite my love of Justin Vernon, I disliked Unmap enough to not even buy Repave on faith. I had to listen to it first.

Surprises, surprises. Once an outlet for experimentation, Repave is an outlet of a completely different kind this time, and it’s all for the better. Indeed, it would have been unthinkable in 2009 that a soaring, emotionally visceral song like “Comrade”, could ever be on a Volcano Choir album, but here it is. Unlike Unmap, this album isn’t a one hit wonder. “Byegone” soars in such an open way that it would make “Beth/Rest” proud, putting hearts on a sleeve in unabashed fashion. The end soars like an Arcade Fire call to arms (“set sail!”), something that, again, you wouldn’t have foreseen years ago when Justin Vernon first came onto the scene. “Alaskans” has an old school Bon Iver feel to a point, albeit missing the falsetto trademark in the verses. “Dancepack”, more than the others, seems to exist successfully in it’s own space rather than as a connection to other work. “Tiderays” and “Acetate”, in all their success, could have fit nicely on the most recent Bon Iver album. It’s definitely still Justin Vernon in the way that his songs don’t make lyrical sense, instead relying about the sound of the words to create images and feelings, with varying degrees of success. I find it easier to let the music sort of wash over me than to seek interpretation, because you just won’t be able to handle “tossin’ off your compliments/wow/sexing all your parliaments” if you try to make sense of it.

After all these words, what then do you make of this album. Justin Vernon is a hard man to pin down, and I think he loves it that way. He makes no distinction between his projects, and would take offense to me calling Volcano Choir a side project. It’s just a project to him. We only think of Bon Iver as the main thing because it got bigger. I suppose he’s right. It’s his music after all. So maybe it’s hard to understand Volcano Choir album #2 compared to album #2 because they are connected only in namesake. The only real connection is Justin Vernon, who has transformed from folkster in a cabin to electro experimenter to some sort of crazy awesome hybrid. I don’t necessarily like things simple, because then I couldn’t analyze it like this, but if you want the straight, simple truth here it is: this album is great. Any Bon Iver/Justin Vernon/Shouting Matches/DeYarmon Edison/Volcano Choir should own it and will enjoy it.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

I Will Feel the Same, But Older

Oh wake me please when this is over
Oh when the ice is melted away
And the hunger returns
I will feel the same but older
And I'll be twice the man that I thought I was