Pushing my brain into creation mode, and a note on motivation

Ugh, it’s been so long since I’ve written. Like, not just written in this blog, but written period. I hate that! I’m a person who likes to call myself a writer of sorts. Whenever I get down to it, I love writing. I just need to motivate myself and get in the habit more.

I got out of the habit this past February, when my wife and I were neck-deep in preparations to move back to Virginia from Utah. Things didn’t really go well in Utah, and we were ready to start our lives over again in my home state. The process of moving was stressful and costly, and writing became a lower priority. The thing is, though, that even when we got to Virginia and settled in, I still rarely thought of writing. I’d lost the habit.

I mean, I sort of had outlets. I started an internship at Under the Radar magazine, which is centered here in Rockbridge County, Virginia. That’s been really awesome, and has given me some great opportunities to hone my music writing. I worked a lot. School finally started a month ago, and that’s been keeping me busy. At this point in time, actually, I’m a full-time student, have two part-time jobs, and the aforementioned internship. I’m busier than ever, and I guess that hard work has got me craving some personal writing more than ever.

So here we are. It feels really good to just be typing something about myself, something that I’ll be putting out to the public. I want to share a quote that I ran across recently that’s got me thinking about my life and my goals. You should know before I say this that usually I roll my eyes at this sort of motivational thing. I dunno, maybe it just hit a nerve or something.

“Don’t let your obstacles become your excuses.”

This quote went along with a story about a man, Bob Wieland, who lost his legs to a mortar mine in Vietnam in 1969. Since then, he’s gone on to complete marathons, and even walked across America, coast to coast, in three and a half years.

I don’t have a lot of obstacles, to tell you the truth. I do make plenty of excuses, though; mostly I make them to myself. I let myself get distracted from goals and deadlines and hard work. I choose not to think about the big picture. I’m sort of an obstacle to myself, or to the person I could be.

So maybe it’s a small step, and maybe it’s silly to try and think so profoundly about just a music blog or whatever, but honestly, it is a step and that’s what matters. I’m making a plan and I’m gonna try and stick to it: at least one post a week. It doesn’t have to be about music; I’m gonna let myself write about anything I want (which’ll probably be mostly music :)). And the posts probably won’t be as long, but that’s okay. What matters to me is sticking to my plan and actually being able to say that I regularly write for pleasure.

LET’S DO THIS

SAD

Best music of the year so far, and other notes.

While January and February so far have been par for the course, there have been at least two albums worth spending money on, and a few others worth streaming online. What’s interesting to me is that my favorites so far have been much more “normal”-sounding than I would have expected. I’ve gotten into some pretty weird music during the last two years, and my theory is that it was because of my unlimited access to every genre and whim I wanted to entertain (as elaborated in this post). Before I subscribed to Zune Pass, my tastes were rather run of the mill: Radiohead, Beck, Wilco, Coldplay, etc. Now that my library once again consists of only music I own, perhaps my tastes are beginning to lean back to standard indie-rock fare. Time will tell, of course; there is still plenty of weirdo-experimental stuff I like, and I still enjoy many genres. Plus, who knows what the year has in store? Maybe, objectively, the best releases so far have only been from big indie rock names.

Whatever the reason, here are my favorite releases of 2013 so far:

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Local Natives - Hummingbird

Local Natives’ 2009 debut, Gorilla Manor, was an accomplished summary of indie rock of the times: a little Grizzly Bear, a little Fleet Foxes, a little Vampire Weekend. As such, although there were some great songs and many brilliant moments, the band seemed a little weighed down by its predecessors. Still, I looked forward to their follow-up with more than a little excited anticipation. And while there haven’t been any big shake-ups in terms of sound, Hummingbird is still a major step up for Local Natives.

Some of the more original (see: goofier) elements of Gorilla Manor are skipped this time around, for good or ill. The whoops and yells that surrounded some of the debut’s songs were a clear indication that the band was having a good time, and their exclusion on Hummingbird highlights the fact that this is a more somber affair. But it’s okay, because the songwriting is more focused; instead of trying to pack the songs full of ideas, Local Natives pick a mood and stick to it. This is an exceedingly good thing, and it makes the album all the more immersive and gorgeous. 

Hummingbird was produced by the National’s Aaron Dessner, whose main band is one of the most celebrated and focused of recent years. His influence brings Local Natives that much closer to the National in quality, and it’s exciting indeed.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2zWfxW60z0

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Foals - Holy Fire

Let me be direct: If I were to imagine a mathematical equation that would lead to Foals’ sound, it would be Interpol + Coldplay + maybe a touch of Elbow. You can decide for yourself whether that sounds appealing or not, but I will say that if somebody first described their sound to me in this way, I would be totally uninterested. So maybe ignore that first part and go listen to them….

Either way, Foals do the big stadium-ready indie rock thing really well. Having heard the buzz around this album and subsequently hearing that their previous release was nominated for a Mercury Prize, I decided to follow my piqued interest and checked out 2010′s Total Life Forever.  Between that and this album, which just came out Tuesday, Foals are pretty much all I’ve been listening to lately. And I won’t take back my equation, either. They’ve got the darkness and crisp arrangement of Interpol, the wide appeal (and maybe a little sensitivity?) of Coldplay, and the grace of Elbow. 

While “stadium-ready” as a descriptor used to make me cringe and turn away, this album (along with The Joy Formidable’s recent Wolf’s Law) is starting to make me re-evaluate the merit of a big, slick sound. Hey, as long as the musicianship and songwriting skill is evident, these days, I’m happy. Also, let me add that Foals are really, really good at building a song up to a climax that makes me go nuts, like on “Inhaler” and “Providence.” See for yourself: (WARNING there are some boobies in this video…if that’s a problem, just start it and open a new tab, because the song rips.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qJ_PMvjmC6M

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I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do as far as ratings go. Out of five? Out of ten? With decimal points, like Pitchfork reviews? Letter grades, like The A.V. Club? Well, I’d give both of those albums a solid 4/5, or 8/10, or B+ or A- or whatever that evens out to. 

As for other albums worth checking out:

Foxygen’s We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace And Magic (which I wrote about in my last post) is a thoroughly enjoyable 60′s-esque indie-pop album.

A$AP Rocky’s LONG.LIVE.A$AP is a decent rap album, if nothing else for the thick, moody production and the guilty-pleasure collaboration with Skrillex.

Fall Out Boy has a new album coming out. Lindsay and I are really pumped, and we don’t care what you think! Here’s the single.

In other exciting news, which has almost nothing to do with music and almost everything to do with our personal lives, we’re moving back to Virginia. We missed it too much. We’ll be going back to SVU to finish our English degrees. So, yay! Anyway, enjoy this music, if you haven’t already been listening to it.

Cheers!

SAD

First Impressions: Some reasons to be excited for this year’s music, starting next week

Since January is always slow for music, the only real reasons I’ve been itching to write blog posts are: I like to write blog posts and they make me feel good; and I’ve been watching a bunch of movies from 2012 and I’d like to write about them. You’ll probably have to wait a little bit before my ’2012 in film’ retrospective, because I’ve got some music to write about. I may write full album reviews of some of these albums once I spend more time with them, but for the most part, these will probably serve as reviews.

But first, I’d like to plug Pitchfork’s awesome new feature Pitchfork Advance. I’ve always been a huge fan of the online pre-listen system that’s been getting bigger as of late (for the rock-dwellers or uninitiated, it’s basically a legal way to listen to an entire album for free online, generally a week or two before the album’s release, but not after). NPR’s First Listen series has usually been the best source for big releases, at least in the worlds of indie, classical and jazz. I’ve discovered many a favorite album through this series, including M83′s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming and Childish Gambino’s Camp. And now it has a competitor with Advance. It launched last week with a stream of Yo La Tengo’s lovely new release, Fade, and currently there are five upcoming albums featured. What I especially love about Advance is that you get a pretty pure album-listening experience. There’s a tracklist you can pick from, along with a synopsis of the album, usually provided by the album’s label. And the best part is that you can scroll through artwork and liner notes as you listen. Sometimes there are lyrics and sometimes the art is slightly animated. It all makes for a dynamic and enjoyable listening experience, and if you find some good music through it, you can also better know whether or not you want to buy a physical copy due to the artwork and whatnot.

So for this post I’m going to give you some of my first impressions of the albums currently streaming through Pitchfork Advance. First up:

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Toro Y Moi - Anything In Return

Like all of the other artists featured in this post, I’m new to Toro Y Moi. I remember seeing the name mentioned a bit in connection with 2011′s favored release Underneath The Pines, but I never really looked into it. I’ve done a little bit of reading about Toro Y Moi since then. I know that it’s a bedroom production project by Chazwick Bundick, and I know that Underneath The Pines was usually filed under “chillwave,” a genre of smooth, washed-out, new-wave-influenced electronic music that was really popular for a while and then kind of disappeared. I’m not really an expert on chillwave, but I did rather enjoy bedroom-production-project Washed Out’s defining release Within And Without

Anyway, since one of my goals in music criticism this year is to go into music like this pretty blind, I’m ignoring everything I’ve read about the artist and the album. Here are my attempts at objectivity: Anything In Return is an enjoyable dance/indie-electronic release that can get hokey at times, but generally stays pretty busy and pleasant. It seems Bundick is purposefully trying to distance himself from the chillwave label, and that’s not really a bad thing, but some of the tracks seem to expose themselves as blatant dance-floor attempts. And when I say the album is busy, I mean it’s pretty dense. Not quite as dense as, say, Yeasayer’s release last year, but pretty close. The synths are varied and creative, and though some of the samples can be distracting, for the most part they add to the music. 

Overall, if you’re into dance music but want to stay away from the recent radio trends, this is worth a good listen.

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Foxygen - We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace And Magic

I’m calling this the debut album from California-based psych-pop duo Foxygen; a quick Wikipedia search has revealed that their so-called first album had only seven tracks, and to me, that’s not a full-length. I suppose at nine tracks, Ambassadors isn’t much longer, but there have been many more nine-track albums than seven-track ones. Anyway, a first listen tells me that Foxygen are sort of an alternate-reality counterpart to Tame Impala, the heroes of the indie world with last year’s LonerismTheir music is heavily based in 60s and early 70s psychedelia, but it’s a little more laid-back and folksy than Tame Impala. And as you know if you read my short review of Lonerism a few weeks ago, I find Tame Impala to be a little too hazy and heady; the crispness of Ambassadors is pretty refreshing to me. 

I really like the vibe of this album so far, but since I haven’t spent as much time with it as I have Toro Y Moi’s release, I don’t have as many words. Perhaps I’ll revisit it in an expanded review.

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Esben and the Witch - Wash The Sins Not Only The Face

This is the album I’ve spent the least time with — in fact, I’m listening to it for the first time as I write this. I suppose that’s not the best practice if you’re going to be evaluating albums, but whatever. These are just first impressions anyway. 

I’ve never heard of Esben and the Witch, but a scan of the label’s synopsis provided on Advance tells me that they are a post-punk trio, and this is their second album. I’m not especially well-versed on post-punk, but if I’m getting this right, it’s kind of a darker genre, with the focus on echo-y sounds, and it’s guitar-based, but the synth holds its own too. This album so far fits that evaluation pretty well. In fact, I’m reminded a lot of Lower Dens’ Nootropicsan album from last year that probably should’ve been higher on my list. That’s a good thing. I’ll probably return to this and give it another couple listens. ~~~~~

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FIDLAR - FIDLAR

FIDLAR (an acronym for ‘F*** It Dog, Life’s A Risk’) are a young punk band probably from California, and a quick read of their lyrics provides a clear perspective of their main lyrical focus: drugs. Okay, so drugs are one of the big focal points of rock’n’roll, and I’m all for the occasional lyrical mention of a trippy or high experience, but I think for the most part, drugs should be left to extracurricular band activities. However, it’s hard not to tap your foot and bang your head a little listening to this album. It’s got thrashy punk singles (“Cheap Beer,” “5 to 9″), but it’s also got some pretty good acoustic punk-pop (“Gimmie Something”), and it’s hard to begrudge a punk rock album that keeps its songs short, fast and catchy. It shifts gears frequently to keep things interesting, and like I said before, it’s pretty hard to resist. Ignore some of the drug-pushing, and you’ve got a fine little punk record.

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Mountains - Centralia

Mountains are an ambient/minimalist/drone duo, and once again here is a genre that I am totally unqualified to write about. I’ve occasionally listened to some Brian Eno, but other than that, I haven’t got much experience. What I can tell you about Centralia, though, is that it’s sublimely pretty. The bulk of the music is electronic, but there are lots of acoustic moments and flourishes as well. Those moments are where the album shines. And what I especially like about Mountains’ approach is that the acoustic instrumentation is kept separate from the electronic. Not that they don’t appear in the same tracks, but they are not electronically manipulated in any way. That is probably what makes them stand out. 

I’ve found that in my instrumental ambient music listening, it’s best in the background. Not that it isn’t well-crafted or intricate enough to keep your attention, but it’s more effective as a sort of soundtrack. This album is no exception, and in fact, it’s probably one of the best experiences that I’ve had in putting on something unintrusive and spacing out while keeping busy. Recommended for reading or cleaning one’s room or even falling asleep (in a good way).

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I highly recommend a visit to the Pitchfork Advance site to give at least one or two of these albums a listen. I know I’ll be revisiting Foxygen and Mountains, at least, on Spotify when the albums are released, and who knows? Maybe they’ll find a way into my permanent collection or one of my 2013 lists. For now, though, it’s totally worth it to listen to them for free online while getting a pretty complete album experience.

SAD

 

 

 

 

 

Regarding a cheapened relationship with music

It’s a new year, and while the terms “clean slate” and “fresh start” get thrown around endlessly, in the world of music they seem particularly apropos. Unlike the film industry, in which all the big contenders for “Best Picture”  get released during the last few weeks of the year, the music industry seems to go on vacation during that time. December doesn’t ever really lay claim to any fantastic releases, and even if it does, they always seem to get forgotten. January’s not usually much better (though I must say there are at least two albums I’m moderately excited for this January). So when the schedule of regular and decent album releases starts back up again, it certainly feels like a new year and a new start.

Album releases aside, this year feels like a particularly clean slate for me because I’m in the process of drastically changing the way I consume and encounter music. Let me give you a bit of my history, and I want to get this out of the way first: I don’t want anybody to think I’m getting on my high horse or preaching a ‘proper way’ or anything. I’ve never judged anybody for any illegal music acquisition techniques. But I have never been able to illegally download music. I can think of one time: Last year, when Bon Iver’s fantastic sophomore album was accidentally put on iTunes early, it was of course put online for free, and I downloaded it. Months later, when my wife bought me a record player for my birthday, my first vinyl record was Bon Iver, Bon Iver. I bought it for 24.99. Even Radiohead’s In Rainbows, which was possible to download legally for free when the band famously released it online, I had to buy later on CD.

I don’t think this has anything to do with conscience. Like I said, I don’t judge on illegal downloading. But for me personally, it just felt better to acquire my music legally. I felt like to easily, suddenly and freely own music was to cheapen the experience. Besides, I’ve always loved holding a CD in my hands, looking at the artwork and liner notes.

Almost two and a half years ago, I was in desperate need of a new music player, and after lots of research I bought a 32 GB Zune HD. (I’ve never been a huge Apple fan.) Of course, part of the Zune experience was to subscribe to their service, the Zune Pass. For 14.99 a month, one could download or stream unlimited music, and the only catch was that the music would disappear if one were to stop paying. All the files were DRM-protected, aside from the ten song credits a month that came with the package. “I love music so much,” I thought, “and heck, I buy at least one CD a month at 14.99 or so, so I can justify paying this monthly price indefinitely.” Zune Pass was fantastic. (Zune recently folded, and the service evolved into “Xbox Music,” which is essentially the same thing minus the song credits.)

Anyway, I used the service daily. Downloaded new albums, made playlists. Anytime I even saw an album mentioned online, I thought “Well, why not, I’ve got legal access to unlimited music!” I even filled up my 32 GB just months after getting the device. Every time I downloaded some new music, I had to go through and delete something I already had and didn’t really listen to.

But for the last several months, I’ve gone back and forth about Zune Pass. I’ve missed those teenage CD-buying binges. Most of all, I’ve missed all the time I could spend with the music that I loved, rather than spending most of my time trying to keep up with all the new music I downloaded on a whim. At least once a month, I went through a bit of a crisis and weighed the consequences of cancelling my Zune Pass subscription.  I could never bring myself to do it. The unparalleled access to music that I could judge and review in anticipation of making my list at the end of the year was too good to give up.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I came across this quote, by Lower Dens frontwoman Jana Hunter:

“Music shouldn’t be free. It shouldn’t even be cheap. If you consume all the music you want all the time, compulsively, sweatily, you end up having a cheap relationship to the music you do listen to. In turn, this kind of market makes for musicians who are writing with the burden of having to get your attention, instead of writing whatever they’d write if they were just following artistic impulses. It’s increasingly difficult and un-rewarding to write music that is considered, patient, and simple when the market increasingly demands music that is easy, thoughtless, and careless.”

Here is a musician I respect (Lower Dens’ Nootropics is on my list of best albums of 2012) putting in words something I’ve always felt. Reading them was a catalyst, and once again, I began considering the possibility of cancelling my Zune Pass subscription. But this time, with it came a couple of other incentives: one, my Pass was about to expire anyway; and two, I had recently spent some Christmas money and walked out of a record store with some glorious, shiny new purchases. I’d felt that feeling again.

So to make a long story short, I am now subscription-service free, and I’m in the somewhat-painful process of deleting all that music I once had free access to. Some of it’s been tough — all my LCD Soundsystem, all my Kanye West, all my Spoon, is gone — but I think back to the early college days, when Radiohead was my favorite band and I spent hours and hours listening to their albums, and I realize that with less music to distract me, I can do that again. I can have favorite bands and I can really get to know their product. For as Ms. Hunter suggests, now the music isn’t there to get my attention. It’s there for me to study and immerse myself in.

So where does that leave me as the author of this blog? Well, I’m not quite ready to give up Spotify yet — that’s a different discussion. So for the sake of reviewing albums, I’m going to be relying heavily on Spotify. And if something comes along that I really love, then I’ll take a trip out to Graywhale (a great little record store chain here in Utah) and spend some cash on a physical copy.

And I will sit at home and listen to it, and hold in my hands the artwork, the liner notes, and the product of hard work by great artists, and I will feel wonderful.

SAD

TOP FIVE ALBUMS OF 2012

Well, it’s a new year, and what better reason is there to finally show you my top five albums of the year? (Well, there is the fact that I’ve procrastinated, but let’s go with 2013.) For a long time, I considered 2012 a weaker year for music, and that’s because I hadn’t yet found an album that was anywhere close to my top three of 2011 (Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues, Bon Iver’s Bon Iver, and M83′s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming). As the end of the year drew near, though, not only were some incredible albums released, but I also realized that while 2011 had a handful of near-perfect albums, 2012 has had over twenty that for me have been at least really, really good. And through the whole list-making process, I’ve come to love my top three of the year about as much as last year’s.

What does 2013 have in store? We already know we’re probably going to see new releases by Arcade Fire and Wilco, but beyond future releases, there’s a lot on my mind about my music consumption habits. Perhaps I’ll write a whole post about it, but I’m definitely planning on spending a lot more time on releases that I like and less time trying to like all the other hundreds of albums I read about on the internet.

But let’s just get down to it: my top five albums of the year.

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swinglo

5. Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo Magellan

I like to think of Dirty Projectors as a band of the future, not really because they use any revolutionary technology or recording techniques, but because David Longstreth’s songwriting is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. I was introduced to the band with 2009′s Bitte Orca, and upon first listen I had no idea how to process what I’d listened to, or what to think about it. I am a longtime fan of progressive rock, and even I was taken aback by the tempo and time signature changes and unusual, intricate instrumentation. Even today, Bitte Orca remains one of my favorite albums for the fascination it was able to produce in me.

Swing Lo Magellan is a different story, and it’s no less fascinating. In fact, it may even be more impressive for the way it simplifies and makes accessible Longstreth’s music and lyrics, while maintaining the same level of uniqueness. Lead single “Gun Has No Trigger” actually keeps the same beat through the whole song, and it’s chord progression actually makes sense. It sounds like — Dare I say it? — pop music. And the great thing is, it feels just as strange and wonderful as anything else Dirty Projectors have recorded.

A thorough listen will treat you to searing rock (“Offspring Are Blank”), pretty 60s-esque acoustic balladry (“Swing Lo Magellan”), jittery indie (“See What She Seeing”), and more. And throughout it all, the unifying themes remain the same: melody, simple arrangements, and pure character.

Highlights: “Gun Has No Trigger,” “Swing Lo Magellan,” “Unto Caesar”

Spotify link!

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bloom

4. Beach House - Bloom

This was the first album to come out this year that really grabbed me and pulled me in. It was released in May, during which month my wife and I were house-sitting for an art professor of ours. Virginia was starting to get hot and muggy and very green, and I was waking up at 5 AM a few times a week to go open up the gas station where I worked. I downloaded this album on a whim, having moderately enjoyed Beach House’s last album, Teen Dream, and I didn’t listen to anything else for a few days. In fact, I had it on repeat and would start it over as soon as it ended, something I almost never do. Even now, in the middle of a cold snowy Utah winter, I put on Bloom and I’m immediately transported back to the warm, sunny Virginia countryside.

That’s what’s so great about Bloom. It has an incredible ability to transport, to envelop you and make you feel like you’re in a different place, a place that feels timeless. And this timeless aspect of Beach House’s music is intentional. The two members of the band have continually stated in interviews that they are not interested in ever changing their sound, just refining it. While this has caused some listeners to dismiss Bloom as a retread of Teen Dream, there’s no denying the admirability of a band sticking to their guns. And in my opinion, they’re better for it. The hypnotic synth line in opener “Myth,” the moment of suspension before each chorus of “Other People,” the single repeated guitar note that goes on for several minutes in “Irene” — these elements are evidence of bravery and total belief in the music. And they completely and utterly pay off.

Highlights: “Myth,” “Other People,” “New Year”

Spotify link!

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goodkid

3. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city

In another world, one in which I am a bona fide, one-hundred-percent hip-hop fan, this is my favorite album of the year, and probably my favorite album of several years. But since I am a white dude who primarily listens to indie rock, it’s relegated to number three. I can say though, that because I do from time to time enjoy rap, even if I only listen to a handful of rappers, this is officially my favorite hip-hop album of all time.

Non-rap fans, bear with me. I want to explain to you why I think this album transcends the limitations of its genre. (I’ve even gotten my wife, a genuine rap-hater, to listen to a few tracks and seriously consider the album’s impact.) First of all, it tells a story, and not just any story, but an autobiographical account of a young Lamar growing up in Compton, California, and experiencing first-hand the world of drugs and alcohol and crime, knowing he can and should ascend beyond its reach. In particular, it details the events of a day or two in his teenage life, during which he has a brush with gang violence and is impacted enough to rethink his life and goals. It’s a story that’s undoubtedly been told in hip-hop before, but rarely with this level of potency. It’s as if Lamar, sensing his career on the edge of breaking, poured his self into recording as personal of an early-career statement as possible.

To be honest, I could go on and on about this album and how powerful it is, even for a guy who grew up comfortably in a white middle-class situation. So for the sake of brevity, let me just say that this “short film by Kendrick Lamar,” as it says on the cover, is every bit as engaging, entertaining and important as any film.

Highlights: “The Art of Peer Pressure,” “Swimming Pools (Drank),” “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”

Spotify link!

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awesomewave

2. Alt-J - An Awesome Wave

Online indie-music mag Pitchfork panned An Awesome Wave, giving it a 4.8 out of 10 and giving me further evidence of why I hate Pitchfork (though, for better or worse, I simultaneously love it and check it near-daily). The entire review seemed like space to whine about how Alt-J was being referred to as “the new Radiohead,” and that they were getting so much press and attention for all the supposed innovation in their music. It’s almost laughable how bitter the reviewer sounds.

An Awesome Wave won this year’s Mercury Prize, an award given to the best British album of the year, and it’s totally deserving. To be honest, I wouldn’t quite call Alt-J “the new Radiohead,” but I would hail them as a fresh young band who know how to take the simple elements of music and arrange them in unique ways, much like Radiohead. And in fact, the music is deceptively simple. The band recently appeared on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series, and one can easily see that they didn’t really have to strip their music down that much for it to be considered “stripped down” or acoustic. Songs like the hypnotically hesitant “Something Good” or the beautiful “Bloodflood” are really only made up of a few instrumental sketches layered over one another. The key that seals Alt-J as one of the most fun bands to listen to this year is singer Joe Newman’s voice. It sounds kind of like a soulful Kermit the Frog. And it’s so great; seriously, it’s hard to describe, so you just have to listen to them and you’ll know how good it is.

I stumbled upon this album quite by accident, and I was hooked from the first listen. Much like Beach House’s Bloom, I couldn’t take it off repeat for a week or so, and let me reiterate: I almost never listen to my music on repeat. There’s just such a wealth of beauty and intrigue and freshness here. It’s irresistible.

Highlights: “Breezeblocks,” “Dissolve Me,” “Bloodflood”

Spotify link!

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shields

1. Grizzly Bear - Shields

Unlike quite a few of the albums on this list, the excellence of Shields came as no surprise to me. It was easily my most anticipated album of the year. Grizzly Bear (incidentally the band upon which I would be most likely to bestow the title “the new Radiohead”) is a band that is ceaselessly inventive: melodically, lyrically, instrumentally, and on and on. From the gentle chamber-folk of 2006′s Yellow House to the rich and intricate explorations in 2009′s Veckatimest, the band is always pushing boundaries and leading themselves into new territory. Shields is more urgent and guitar-driven than it’s predecessors, and it’s also probably Grizzly Bear’s best work to date.

There is a word that I’ve been tempted to use while describing other albums on this list, but I refrained because I wanted to save it to describe this one: “sublime.” “Transcendent” would also work. Listening to the album as a whole (as one should always do, but especially with this album) gives me a feeling I rarely get from other music, one that I am constantly pursuing. It’s a feeling that I have been elevated to another plane. That even the unexpected directions and turns that the music make are just right, as if they are the way things have always been and are supposed to be.

When lead single and opener “Sleeping Ute” was released in June, I was on vacation in Utah (before moving here) and had a very busy agenda. I somehow found time to get on the internet to listen to it, and from the very first seconds of swirling guitar, I knew Shields would be the best album of the year. And I was right. If you are in any way conscious of smart songwriting or beautiful composition, you need this album. And know that it comes with my highest recommendation.

Highlights: “Sleeping Ute,” “What’s Wrong,” “gun-shy,” “Sun In Your Eyes”

Spotify link!

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Here’s the entire list of albums of the year:

  1. Grizzly Bear – Shields 
  2. Alt-J – An Awesome Wave
  3. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
  4. Beach House – Bloom
  5. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
  6. The Shins – Port of Morrow
  7. Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself
  8. Purity Ring – Shrines
  9. Animal Collective – Centipede Hz
  10. Tame Impala – Lonerism
  11. Cloud Nothings – Attack On Memory
  12. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel…
  13. Spiritualized – Sweet Heart Sweet Light
  14. Django Django – Django Django
  15. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE
  16. The Walkmen – Heaven
  17. Divine FIts – A Thing Called Divine Fits
  18. Ty Segall Band – Slaughterhouse
  19. Field Music – Plumb
  20. Lower Dens – Nootropics
  21. AU – Both Lights
  22. Liars – WIXIW
  23. Menomena – Moms
  24. Passion Pit – Gossamer
  25. Dr. John – Locked Down
  26. Hospitality - Hospitality
  27. Jukebox the Ghost – Safe Travels
  28. Yeasayer – Fragrant World
  29. Lord Huron – Lonesome Dreams
  30. The Men - Open Your Heart

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So what’s next for this blog? Well, I’m going to start doing actual album reviews as they come out. I’m pretty excited about that. I want to start writing about other areas of entertainment: movies, books, video games, etc. I’ll only write about those as I experience them, though. And I am ALWAYS open to feedback. In fact, I would love to hear advice from anyone. Anything else I should write about? Any ways I can make the blog look better, or any ways I can bring more attention to it? I want this to be a big priority for me, and it’ll be easier if more people are reading. So if you read this, feel free to leave a comment or contact me on facebook (since that’s where most, if not all, readers come from). Until then, get listening! 2013 is here, and with it a clean slate ready to be cluttered with great music.

Cheers!

SAD

TOP ALBUMS OF 2012 #s 10-6

I hang my head in shame: it’s after Christmas, there are only a couple days left in the year, and I haven’t yet brought you my top ten. My only solace comes in all the words I have written in favor of albums ten through six. Man, they’re good. Maybe they should have been my top five…. But no. Those will come later. For now, read and bask in the glory that is this music.

lonerism

10. Tame Impala - Lonerism

When I heard some of the early hype for Lonerism, I decided to check out Tame Impala’s first album, Innerspeaker, and I was blown away by the waves of psych-guitar bliss. Listening to it felt like watching a giant globe rolling down a hill: the songs would continually and gradually evolve, exposing new sides yet still feeling like part of a whole. It was a revelation.
Where Innerspeaker rolls, Lonerism meanders. And that’s not a bad thing. Rather than unified togetherness, it seems to explore multiple situations and environments; early singles “Apocalypse Dreams” and “Elephant” are evidence of this. Both songs repeatedly expand and retract their scope, but both sound very different from one another. The lyrical theme of the album bolsters the sound as well: the exploration of loneliness seems to isolate the separate elements from one another.
Overall, Lonerism is an album that gets in your head, not in the sense that you’ll be humming all the melodies for days, but in the sense that listening to it on headphones is an involving and self-contained experience. It feels like it’s almost not meant for speakers or multiple listeners. And that is where its strength lies.

Highlights: “Apocalypse Dreams,” “Keep On Lying,” “Elephant”

Spotify link!

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centipede

9. Animal Collective - Centipede Hz

Much was said about Animal Collective’s previous album, Merriweather Post Pavilion. Critics called it “one of the greatest American albums of the last few decades” and the like. A masterpiece, they said. And as hard as I tried, I just couldn’t get into it. Maybe it was because I was a newcomer to AnCo. Maybe I was too into the down-to-earth sounds of folk-rock and indie rock (which I was). Either way, there’s no denying that the hype for MPP was so immense, Animal Collective’s follow-up would undeniably be panned.
While it hasn’t exactly been panned, per se, Centipede Hz has been surprisingly ignored for an album by one of the most beloved indie bands of the last twenty years. For me, Centipede Hz is a gateway. While the spacey echoes of Merriweather Post Pavilion didn’t do it for me, the squirmy, noodly density of this album certainly did. It sounds like a group of outcast aliens plugged a whole bunch of instruments, acoustic and electronic, into one another and flipped the switch. The vocals sound like they’re being pushed out of a compressed air hose. The spaces between songs are filled with science-fiction radio transmissions and odd mechanical sounds. And for me, it all becomes some crazy, colorful, beautiful alien symphony. And somehow, the rest of Animal Collective’s output makes sense, too.

Highlights: “Rosie Oh,” “Applesauce,” “New Town Burnout”

Spotify link!

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shrines

8. Purity Ring - Shrines

Purity Ring is primarily concerned with aesthetics. Almost every element of their music, it seems, is made to appeal to the physical senses. Take the lyrics, for instance: in the first ten minutes of the album, we’ve already heard references to cutting open sternums, being embraced literally by ribs, and multiple repetitions of “ears ringing, teeth clicking.” The corporeal aspect of existence must be very appealing to Megan James.
It doesn’t stop there. The electronic production by Corin Roddick evoke sounds and processes of the physical world, as well. The synths shimmer and swell, bubble and burst; the beats are restless, hi-hats buzzing and ever-present snare fills descending. Above it all, James’ voice, harmonic and girlish at times, soars and swelters. It all makes for a rich and busy listening experience that can envelop you (much like being embraced by ribs). It’s also very good for driving at night through the city — all of the pops and swirls complement city lights among the darkness.
Purity Ring first showed up on the scene in January 2011 with their first single, and it took a year and a half to develop it into an album. Hopefully the pay-off of this album is indicative of the band’s future, because it is very bright indeed.

Highlights: “Fineshrine,” “Ungirthed,” “Grandloves”

Spotify link!

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breakit

7. Andrew Bird - Break It Yourself

I first stumbled upon Andrew Bird with 2009’s Noble Beast, which is now considered by many to be Bird’s weakest album. Indeed, looking back at it now after becoming a pretty big fan, it does overdo some of Bird’s signature moves — the hyper-literate lyricism, the slightly twee whistling, the odd song structures and cute titles. But for a newcomer, all it took were the clever and relaxed vibe and the whistle melody of “Oh No,” and I was hooked. Bird’s main instrument is the violin, and it takes a strong musical mind to push an instrument with such a legacy to such fresh lengths.
Break It Yourself, followed up quickly by the also-fantastic companion piece Hands Of Glory, is a simple, stripped-down (if one can say that at all about Bird’s folksy music) affair, and it’s probably the artist’s best work. It tones down the aspects that overwhelmed Noble Beast to a tasteful and appealing level. The album was recorded live at Bird’s farmhouse-turned-studio, and it certainly sounds like it. The songs are open and spacious, but personal, as are the lyrics. The lyrical focus, rather than on interesting and funny words, is on nostalgia, family and breakup.
I have yet to find another artist that mixes so perfectly the relaxing and the engaging. And I’m okay with it, because I know Andrew Bird will always be around to simultaneously intrigue and soothe.

Highlights: “Danse Caribe,” “Lazy Projector,” “Lusitania”

Spotify link!

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portofmorrow

6. The Shins - Port Of Morrow

In a way, Port of Morrow, along with Andrew Bird’s album, is a greater accomplishment than many of the albums on this list. Both albums were released in March and quickly established themselves as some of the best albums of the year. However, it’s impossible to really make a concrete list like that in March. So the fact that both albums held their merit throughout the entire year of great releases is a pretty big victory.
The Shins have always been a favorite band of mine, ever since I discovered them, like so many others, through the film Garden State. Natalie Portman’s claim that they’ll “change your life” may not hold much sway, but it is true that James Mercer and company have a musical and lyrical sense that doesn’t exist in many other places. Port Of Morrow continues that legacy, albeit somewhat controversially: After their last release, 2007’s Wincing The Night Away, Mercer allegedly fired all the other members of the band. He did a short stint with Danger Mouse as Broken Bells, and now he’s back with four new bandmates.
Not a few fans have been disappointed and a little estranged by these events and by the new album. It’s understandable. Musically, it eschews much of The Shins’ trademark quirky indie touches in favor of slick pop anthems. But it’s also incredibly hard to resist. I defy anyone to find me an album more chock full of relentlessly catchy songs. Mercer has honed his lyrical abilities as well; most of these songs come in the form of stories of youth and letters to old friends. And he remains an absolute master of melody. It all comes together to make a near-perfect summer record, and I will reiterate: It’s irresistible.

Highlights: “Simple Song,” “It’s Only Life,” “40 Mark Strasse,” and every other song on the album.

Spotify link!

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Well, there you have it, folks. Let that tide you over until I reveal the top five. But seriously, all the albums in the top ten are so close to one another in quality that you can’t go wrong picking any of these. Well, except for the top three. The top three are incredible and peerless albums. But 4-10 are great! So get listening, and I’ll be back soon to tell you what else to listen to.

Cheers!

SAD

TOP ALBUMS OF 2012 #s 15-11!

The next five albums on my list are, aside from one of them, bold and grand statements of musicianship. They all feel huge and, in some ways, difficult to listen to. But all are extremely rewarding. Two of them are currently topping many year-end lists; while they didn’t reach that honor for me, they’re worth checking out.

channelorange

15. Frank Ocean - channel ORANGE

This album is the overwhelming number one critics’ choice for album of the year. And while it is an incredible album, let me just get my cynical opinion out of the way. Days before the album dropped, Ocean published a letter on his blog, admitting that he is gay. It was a bold and defining moment; of all musical genres, hip-hop has been perhaps the least accepting of homosexuality. And even though I don’t think he planned it as a publicity stunt, I do think that it added a little too much hype to channel ORANGE. 

Now that that’s out of the way, though, let me talk about why this album is so great. It is very accessible: to those unfamiliar to the R&B genre, or to those who haven’t as yet explored it, this is a fantastic introduction. It has pretty universal appeal. Add to that the fact that it has some absolutely perfect songs that explore childhood, class differences, and the feeling that you don’t belong in the world, and you’ve got a recipe for success. If it weren’t for the short interludes (“Fertilizer,” “Not Just Money,” “White”) that I feel distract from the flow, and the kinda-hokey closer (“Forrest Gump” — sorry…) it would be at or near the very top of my list. But forget about all that and listen to the highlights, and it’s a blissful experience.

Highlights: “Sierra Leone,” “Bad Religion,” “Pyramids” ( <— which, in case you haven’t read my last post, is the best song of the year)

Spotify link!

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djdj

14. Django Django - Django Django

This is my second favorite debut album of the year, behind Alt-J’s An Awesome Wave. Django Django sound like Cut Copy had a baby with Peter Bjorn and John, for those who are familiar with those bands. For those unfamiliar, I’d say Django Django sounds like a vintage sci-fi musical being performed on the beach at sunset. They are relentlessly catchy, so much so that you won’t believe that each song can actually be catchier than the last. It’s an album chock full of chunky synths, tambourines, surf guitar and lots of vocal harmonies. Perfect for a head-bobbing commute or a dance party.

Highlights: “Default,” “Waveforms,” “Life’s A Beach”

Spotify link!

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huh

13. Spiritualized - Sweet Heart Sweet Light

First let me say: How ’bout that cover art, huh?

Now: If you don’t like music that can be a bit repetitious, skip this album. But if you’re like me and repetition makes you perk up your ears and pay attention to the little details, the subtle changes and building tension that usually accompanies this particular songwriting device, then go out and buy this album right now. You should know, though, that this isn’t like minimalism — another brand of repetitious music — but rather like “maximalist” rock’n’roll. Many of the songs are at least six or seven minutes long, and most involve a motif that gets repeated throughout, and all of them involve a veritable pile of instruments and voices. It’s a grand, often hazy and frequently exciting foray into the history of rock music.

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tiwiwttdotsawcwsymtrwed

12. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

I’m a relative newcomer to Fiona Apple, but she only has a handful of albums out now, so theoretically it shouldn’t take me long to familiarize myself with her work. But if her former albums are anything like this one, it may actually take a while. Apple’s music is deep and dense, and what’s interesting is that musically, it’s actually quite simple. What makes it hard to penetrate is her lyrical intensity. Even for me, a guy who primarily listens to the music and instrumentation over the lyrics, they pack a punch and hit right in the gut. This albums is a thorough exploration of the psyche: in and out of relationships, daytime and nighttime, through relaxation as well as intense personal contemplation. And honestly it’s this intensity that makes it sometimes hard for me to listen to. If I were to rate the albums by their accomplishments rather than by my favorites, this would be number one, hands down.

Highlights: “Jonathan,” “Werewolf,” “Anything We Want”

Spotify link!

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attack

11. Cloud Nothings - Attack On Memory

Cloud Nothings’ previous releases are full of short, fast, and loud pop-punk songs. Besides the typical pop-punk subject matter (relationships and why life is hard), they aren’t really about much. For Attack on Memory, the band enlisted the help of legendary producer Steve Albini, who (as expected due to his past work with the likes of Nirvana) has brought a sharper edge to the music. The “punk” side of the equation is dominant, and the songs are rougher and less refined, and all the better for it. The lyrical matter is still reminiscent of emo bands of old, but it’s more poignant; the overall theme is that of growing old, of changing and trying to hold on to the vitality of youth. 

Highlights: “Wasted Days,” “Stay Useless,” “Separation”

Spotify link!

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Alright! Next up: top ten. Though I may do an honorable mention post before then… either way, be excited. Sadly I probably won’t finish before Christmas, as was my goal, but I’ll definitely be done by the end of the year.

Cheers!

SAD