December 13, 2009

Hatin' on the Decade

Like my better half, I too, am guilty of missing some of the more supposed important bench marks that have marked the past decade. At the awkward age of 15 and living in the suburbs, I wasn't as privvy to the extremely outlandish and definitive moments, but...I also, was sadly somewhat apathetic. At 15 it was more important to me who else was listening to the music I should've been listening to, which meant Blink 182. And for me, Blink 182's gig was up by the time I hit 15-16 and the whole naked wannabe frat boy pop punk just wasn't cutting it for me anymore.

A local independent record store had opened up not too far away from me and the thought of trading in CD's I didn't want anymore for newer CD's that I might not have been able to afford on my allowance alone was appealing to me. I gathered up my finest pop-punk and old boy band (and to me there was only one boy band, and that was N'Sync) CD's and took them to the record store. While perusing the selections, both new and used, I remembered what one of my local "musical heroes" had said about a few different "indie" albums. I was intrigued and, lucky for me, there was an indie section for me to choose from. While somewhat limited, my puny CD trade-in store credit allowed me to purchase 3 CD's. I remembered hearing Radiohead and thinking it was a bit "weird", so I, again, kept thinking of what my musical hero was talking about and walked out with 'The Moon and Antarctica' by Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie's 'We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes', and...

Domestica - Cursive
I wasn't really aware of the term "concept album" and now, 10 years later, I pretty much loathe the idea of concept albums. But, at 15...I also wasn't fully aware of how much this album would shape my musical tastes and change the way I listened to music.

Initially the album in general was a bit too abrasive for me, but a few tracks (specifically "Shallow Means, Deep Ends", "A Red So Deep" and "The Game of Who Needs Who the Worst") were easy for me to wrap my ears around. Because of those songs I kept the album on repeat almost constantly. I felt as though with every listen I picked up something I hadn't before, I caught a telling lyric I'd missed the last time or I'd find a piece to the story and put the puzzle together bit by bit.

Say what you will about Tim Kasher's voice or the simplistic drumming on the album, but this concept album didn't need it; this album was done with style and grace. While in 2000, I couldn't personally grasp what it was like to go through an ugly divorce, but I was old enough to know what heartbreak was and how it felt. As a child I could listen to a song two or three times and have the lyrics memorized, but it didn't really mean much because I just knew the words; I never really put much thought into the meaning of the words. This album practically forced me to put thought into what I was singing along to. Kasher's downright sincerity brought music (and lyrics) to a new peak for me, not to mention the seizing emotion and inflection with which he sang.

As I continued to reserve this album in my rotation, I learned that music was more than just liking the way the vocals sound, or a catchy little hook here or there. The album attuned my ears to how things fit together and flow, which, may be in part to the record being a concept album or because it was a "story" for an adult (even a kind of young adult). The crunchy guitars and resonating bass that went along with the angst-ridden wails and whispers were music, not just sounds and words. The dynamics of this album cultivated my ears and my brain.

This album not only fostered my love for this type of music and aided in my personal musical education, but I have many vivid memories related with this album. The album eventually became my anthem for the year and I constantly felt like I could relate to every word spoken on the album. Emo? Maybe, but this album, to be ever-so cliche, got me through some rough times. I went through some physical abuse and general crappy ol' days and while this may not be the most inspriational and uplifiting album it certainly helped make me feel like I was human and had a place in the world.



Honorable Mentions:
The Moon and Antarctica - Modest Mouse
We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes - Death Cab for Cutie
Fevers and Mirrors - Bright Eyes
No Kill No Beep Beep - Q and Not U
The Dream That Stuff Was Made Of - Starlight Mints
False Cathedrals - Elliott
Trying to Figure Each Other Out - Brandtson

Stalin Retrospekticus: '01

2001 was the year I made a lot of expensive, terrible decisions, lost a bunch of weight, and started my senior year of high school.

  • I remember predicting to my friend that Jimmy Eat World were going to get massive with the release of their next album. Bleed American took JEW to heights that they probably wouldn't have predicted for themselves... which, unfortunately, involved changing their album title after a bunch of Saudis flew some planes into the World Trade Center in New York.
  • It was also the year that America realized Weezer died in a tragic plane accident in 1997 and that Capitol Records dressed four impostors up as Weezer and released the Green Album.
  • It was the year Radiohead released Amnesiac, which, despite being solid, wasn't really on my radar in 2001. I was more excited for the As I Lay Dying debut, Beneath the Encasing of Ashes and the new Saves the Day LP, Stay What You Are.
  • Converge released Jane Doe and wasn't on my radar at all. I would have been all over that had I known ANYTHING. But yet I knew about Bane's Give Blood. What the hell, man?
  • Death Cab for Cutie released The Photo Album. Indie kids all got boners, despite how much they decry Death Cab for "selling-out."
  • Thursday released Full Collapse and we can all point to them as one of the propagators of the screaming/nasal singing over post-hardcore music. The Dismemberment Plan released Change and I didn't even know.
  • White kids in tight jeans were inspired to dance thanks to a little album by Daft Punk called Discovery.

    But at the time, I was all over Further Seems Forever's The Moon is Down. What can I say? I was a Tooth and Nail fanboy for the longest time because of the ridiculous youth group background I crawled out from under. And Strongarm, a highly influential Christian metalcore, was one of my favorite bands. Four former members of Strongarm made up Further Seems Forever, so when I heard they had a new band I was immediately excited.
    That album helped me tremendously during my summer of expensive, terrible decisions. In short, I kind of spent the bulk of my summer in upstate New York trying to hook up with a girl. I mean, naturally, that kind of thing goes south in a hurry, with the whole thing being based on false pretenses and religious confusion. So an emotionally overcharged band releases their debut album before the worst summer of my life? Tailor made.
    The actual album is quite good. You have to forgive them, though. Chris fucking Carrabba singing over a band who helped propel screamo bullshit into Hot Topics everywhere. But the actual substance of the tracks, with incredibly tight musicians performing intricate post hardcore arrangements with above average lyrics, are something to behold. Steve Kleisath, drummer for Shai Hulud AND Strongarm (!!), is behind the kit performing what easily had to have been some of "emo's" most intricate, technical drumming. Sure, the twin guitar thing has been ground to death but come on, if it's done well it's done well.
    It's not the best album of 2001 by any stretch, but it's my emotional favorite of 2001.

  • December 9, 2009

    Stalin Decade Retrospektacus

    Everybody is taking looks at the previous decade, be it music, books, or cinema. If you're anything like me, you haven't listened to, read, or watched half of the things that are supposedly the bench marks of ten years worth of art.

    So I wanted to do something different: what if I look year by year and discuss an album that meant the most to me? Not what I think was great in retrospect. That's too easy.I can look back now and say that, for 2000, Kid A was definitely the album of the year to me. But at the time? I could not have cared less for what Radiohead was doing. Year 2000 me didn't care that OutKast were doing some completely left-field, insane stuff in hip-hop with Stankonia. Year 2000 me was all emo and shit, being sad about being fat and, in spite of my life/health-crippling obesity, still managing to have two girlfriends in that calender year. Being emo and all, 2000 me was broke up with both times (you haven't been broke up with until you hear the other person in the relationship feels God doesn't want them to date.)

    So this is basically a "best of album of each year that I listened to at the time that I probably still (sometimes secretly) listen to now."

    So I'm going to kick this off.

    2000

    In 2000, I was 16 going on 17. I was also incredibly sheltered, but my exposure to music was no longer exclusively limited to the realm of Christian music and music that didn't swear too much. Enter Elliott's brilliant False Cathedrals, which neither swears nor offends delicate evangelical parents. Calling Elliott emo is completely disingenuous. There was a second or third wave going on of guys who had been in hardcore bands putting the macho, bullshit posturing behind them and just let it all out... with restraint. This kind of "let it out in moderation!" really appealed to the obese kid who didn't feel like heavily rocking the boat but still had emotions that were just as valid as anybody else's.

    So what of the album? The production is high and mostly holds up nearly ten years later. The artwork is so well done, so high quality that I'm probably getting the album cover art tattooed on me. My friend described "Drive on to Me" (track 4) as the "coulda been" relationship song of 2000. The drumming is some of the best of the post-hardcore genre. It's as if a bunch of guys listened to Sunny Day, then listened to Radiohead and said "Let's see what we can do here." It's nearly impossible for me to express in words how much this album meant to my personal development. If Revelation Records hadn't put this album out, I don't know what album I would have made out with my eventual wife to, or listened to when I was down and felt better. It might sound now like what you've heard before, but that's no fault of Elliott's False Cathedrals.

    November 7, 2009

    Culture War: Pizza

    Pizza has Mediterranean origins but has become distinctly American. You can see variations from region to region and even city to city. Chicago is renowned for it's artery clogging deep dish pizza, while fans of New York's foldable grease slabs deride everything else as "not really pizza." Don't get me started on California (but linguica on pizza is AMAZING). It's really tempting to just sweep these quibbles under the rug as just trying to please the local palate, but...

    St. Louis has got it all fucking wrong. Look at this.



    The crust is cracker thin and almost about that consistency. Yes, it is yeast-less. The cheese is a processed blend of provolone, cheddar, and swiss. So you have a bizarre cheese that is made only for the St. Louis market, with a thin, unleavened crust that is cut into three to four inch squares.



    Working on a real post about underrated bands.

    October 9, 2009

    The Power of Failing: San Francisco Giants 2009

    Oh, to be a Giants fan. Charles M. Schulz of Peanuts fame knew this heart ache. Schulz moved to the Bay Area in 1958, following the Giants the same year of their move from New York. In his lifetime, he experienced only two World Series visits, one of which was immortalized in a December 22, 1962 strip in which Linus and Charlie Brown are looking disappointed, only for Charlie to break the silence in the last panel with "Why couldn't McCovey have hit the ball just three feet higher?" Charlie Brown lived the predicament that the Giants are consistently finding themselves: just a little bit more.

    Such is 2009.

    The Giants secured their first winning season since 2004, but were eliminated from playoff contention on the last day of September. After leading the Wild Card race, they finally gave way to the streaking Colorado Rockies and ended up four games back for the Wild Card slot.

    It was a good year, but "just a little bit more." Pablo "Kung-fu Panda" Sandoval led the team with 21 home runs. I know that AT&T Park is pitcher friendly, but you can't tell me that letting a Molina brother hitting 16 homers be your second highest home run hitter is acceptable! Thank God for the pitching because we scored a whopping 657 runs in 162 games. By contrast, those bastards from Los Angeles scored 780 runs and the Cardinals scored 730. If that staff had some run production behind it, it could be even more epic!

    And that's been the story since the sport basically told Bonds to go fuck himself and we attempted to airbrush him out of the annals of Giants history. No go to run producer is really of no help.

    So, yep, 2009, another year of just not enough. Welcome to Charlie Brown land, America.

    October 4, 2009

    St. Vincent Review 10/1/09

    Beautiful nights in a beautiful city call for a beautiful soundtrack and St. Louis got just what the proverbial doctor ordered when the amazing Annie Clark of St. Vincent and Champaign, Illinois band Elsinore performed at The Firebird on October 1st.

    It's easy to be apprehensive going into a show where you don't know much about a band that's performing, however, Elsinore made their case for everyone to relax and have a great time. The band claims to have been in the recording process of their forthcoming album Yes Yes Yes for 28 months, which in my humble opinion is a bit too long. Why, you ask? Because that was time wasted they could have been gaining more fans; but not to worry, they are certainly ready for more demanding audiences and shouldn't have a tough time making fans out of...anyone.

    Photo courtesy of Jason S.


    Elsinore was no holds barred, churning out their own notable mix of dreamy rock and bouncy, crunchy pop. Of course, I feel like you can't mention Elsinore and not mention their lead singer, Ryan Groff, and his hair. To be exceedingly cliché, everything about this quintet can not be easily judged by their collective covers. The group was as genuinely surprised at their reception, just as the audience was to giving great attention through their set. They put the crowd in a great move as they moved flawlessly from one song to the next, right up to when they performed a cover of The Postal Service's "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight". While some may say that's a lofty goal, they made sure to nail it to the wall and make sure everyone was thoroughly rocked.


    As The Firebird continued to fill out, joy and giddiness seemed to be bubbling over the crowd; as Annie and her band mates took the stage, Ms. Clark taking a few fleeting moments to insert ear plugs, the consequential happiness spilled out of every pore. Anticipation then took over as she opened with "Marry Me" from her 2007 release of the same name. Sometimes it's difficult to envision how a show will go based on the opening, surprises tend to unearth themselves in the strangest of fashions, but as Annie and her guitar rollicked across the stage it was easy to tell it would be a great night. After a wicked display of jazzy guitar and blues-like soul, Annie moved into newer material, including "The Strangers" and "Save Me From What I Want" just to name a few.

    Photo courtesy of Louis K


    As Annie exclaimed to the audience early on that she was "flummoxed by your enthusiasm" and was "very, genuinely happy" to be there, her jazz combo/watered-down orchestral pit of four exited the stage to give way and make room for solo Annie. As a soloist, vulnerability is inevitable, but Annie tore up her take on her cover of The Beatles' "I Dig A Pony" and in the process bared her soul more than I've ever seen anyone do before; and by soul I don't mean that spiritual and immortal thing, but the genre of music made highly popular in the 1950's. The abrupt and spastic blues riffs filled the air as she perfected the cover; guitar and vocals wailed together in perfect unison, and just as she started the song, she seemed to be crooning toward the end.

    The band joined her back on stage for "Now Now", amidst the twinkiling and complicated guitar pattern she began to play before they arrived. She then moved to the eerie and moving "Marrow" from this years release, Actor and closing out the first round with another newer song "Just The Same But Brand New".

    Photo courtesy of J. Stoff

    Of course, you can't just leave your audience hanging, though they waited with baited breath for everything she did all night, and she came back to treat the audience with a solo version of "Paris is Burning". One particular fan continually pleaded for her to "PLAY MARRY ME!", "MARRY ME? PLAY IT!", whereupon Clark, explained the old saying "the squeaky wheel gets the grease" and she complied most handsomely. "The Party" was next up in the encore and it quickly lulled the audience into a warm sense of the end to come. St. Vincent rounded out the night with "Your Lips are Red" and got the audience to get their fill of the awesome right before the lights came up. The start and stop anxiety of the whole set was culminated by the final song and the audience, though surely wanted more, left amongst the sounds of textured guitar, violin and woodwind-y atmospheric madness. Another thing the audience left with? Pure fulfillment. There was never a dull moment throughout the set and St. Vincent never failed to impress all night long, even after when they stuck around to speak with admiring fans.

    All in all, one of the best shows in the past five years. If you missed this one, I feel very very sorry for you.

    On to the next!

    Setlist:
    -Marry Me
    -The Strangers
    -Laughing With a Mouth Full of Blood
    -Save Me From What I Want
    -Actor Out of Work
    -Dig a Pony (Beatles cover) (Solo)
    -Black Rainbow
    -Now Now
    -Marrow
    -Just The Same But Brand New

    ENCORE:
    -Paris is Burning (Solo)
    -The Party
    -Your Lips Are Red

    October 3, 2009

    What is it about NYC?

    The closest I've ever been to New York City is the Syracuse Hancock Airport. So you have to forgive me for wondering why so many artists feel the necessity to uproot from the towns they call home to move to New York City.

    I understand that New York City is a massive cultural hub not just for the United States but for much of the world. Artists move to New York City or one of it's many boroughs in attempt to "make it" in their respective medium. America is a nation of immigrants and so much of our history is based upon migration from one direction (usually the East) to another (the West), acting as a type of pressure release valve that prevented so much unrest in the old world from occurring here. With no more West to win, major migration has been to major urban centers like New York City.

    Look at a band like Grizzly Bear. At least half the dudes in that band are from the West Coast. But they find themselves in NYC. Former Record Machine artist, Cheyenne, relocated to New York City from Norman, Oklahoma.

    The question that's always been paramount in my mind is whether or not some people can create art in a vacuum, or, outside of the influence of other artists, or if their own vision is intrinsically tied to being around other people who light a flame inside of you. Some bands are forever associated with their community, like Oklahoma City's Flaming Lips. Wayne Coyne still lives in the same neighborhood he grew up in. The Replacements are as synonymous with Minneapolis as Husker Du and Prince are. Hell, St. Louis has Nelly trolling around the suburban Lake St. Louis community.

    So does moving to "the Big City" make it that much easier for musicians to craft their art or is it some kind of artistic diaspora in some vain, fleeting attempt to "make it"?

    September 24, 2009

    Stand by for relaunch

    We're going to work on making this site a little less "webleichen" and a little more real.

    We say that every few months, but come on.

    August 17, 2009

    David Bazan - Curse Your Branches

    In semi-Christian circles, or, more accurately, people who grew up Christian, listening to Christian music, and then bailed when it became abundantly clear that most Christians weren’t like them at all except for a hazily shared belief in the same deity, David Bazan of Pedro the Lion fame is kind of like a demigod. ”He says fuck just like me!” ”He drinks like I like to!” And they won’t admit it, but he’s had the same doubts that they’ve had but has had the commercial foresight to document his religious doubt. He’s essentially spent the last decade or so tiptoeing around Christian music, but not far enough to create a career independent of it. Bazan himself went to an Assemblies of God college. Pedro the Lion promoted it’s first Tooth and Nail Records release by touring youth groups. Gradually he grows disenchanted, the Christian crowds turn on him, he dabbles in drinking and atheism, and inexplicably plays the 2009 Cornerstone Festival. Somebody has pictures of somebody, I think. Or JPUSA, who run Cornerstone, is hurting for cash badly.

    Now that he’s agnostic (or, paraphrasing his words, that he can’t prove God isn’t real, but not sure he believes in it, and “He’s not this vindictive little bitch Christianity has made him out to be,” but hell is not), you’d think, “Man, writing about religious imagery is bound to take a backseat. Surely he won’t run that well dry…er.” Well, kids you would all be wrong.

    The music is as incredible as any Pedro the Lion album ever was. It’s sharp, crisp, and every thing you would want from an album David Bazan is associated with. His singing is on target, full, and powerful.

    But I’m a nerd. My degree was in history, so reading things is what I do well. And Bazan is really plugged into the whole “failed relationships/religious consternation” motif that has been defining his career since 2002’s Control. And that’s ok, you know? Everybody needs something. Tim Kasher milked his divorce dry over two musical projects spanning a decade before he settled down into other territory.

    I understand that this album is an intensely personal, losing-his-religion kind of thing, but I’ll be glad when he sorts that out and starts being able to tell stories again. You never put too much of yourself into your art, no matter how cathartic of an experience it is. But David Bazan decided that wasn’t for him. And ultimately, I don’t think this album is for me.

    May 14, 2009

    We Do What We Do

    If anybody's interested, the last couple albums I've picked up have been:

  • Asobi Seksu - Citrus and Hush. I'm a big fan of My Bloody Valentine and of enchanting female vocalists. I was really slow even finding out about them but those things happen when you work for a pittance and are distrustful of other music journalists.

  • Adele - 19. It's one of those things I maybe shouldn't like because the writing isn't too terribly great, the arrangements are simple, and there isn't anything new being brought to the table... but sweetie is just so soulful when she hits her stride. She's not a new Winehouse, but that's ok, because the morgue couldn't handle that.

  • Apostle of Hustle - Eats Darkness. AoH, in my opinion, doesn't really make memorable albums. It's about a mood. There's such a casualness and easy going feel to the albums that works great as a summer time album. You can connect the sounds with memories and relationships. I think that sums it up.

  • English Beat - What is Beat?. I didn't grow up a ska kid. Jenn did. Even when third wave ska was blowing up, my fat junior high self was hating the fuck out of that shit. The musicians were always a bunch of band kids who thought it would be cool if they to take their saxes and trumpets and play rock music with it and be goofy and have fun. But 1st and 2 Tone ska always felt different and less lame and hokey. The English Beat are great. I hate best of albums but come on, man. It's the Beat.

    I'm also gorging myself on The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris. Theodore Roosevelt was a nuanced pain in America's ass until he became the governor of New York.

  • March 15, 2009

    It's not a breakup!

    I swear! I'll be updating soon. Sorry. Life got in the way and roller derby ate my life. So, I'll learn how to create a better balance and then I'll be updating regularly again. Hopefully...

    Don't push your luck, kid.

    January 4, 2009

    2008 in Things That DIDN'T Suck, Parte Uno

    Let the retrospect begin!

    As the tardy member of the SDS brain trust with my year-end best-of last year, I feel compelled to kick off the new year with a punctual wrap-up to a year that I don't think anyone will be saddened to see pass. Hey, SOMETHING must've gone right... right? Well, uh --

    Albums of the Year:

    *Honorable Mentions


    Elvis Costello and the Impostors - Momofuku


    In his most immediate and well-realized work this decade, the one-time Angry Young Man managed to find recording time somewhere in his busy schedule that included hosting a variety show on Bravo, releasing a signature model Jazzmaster through Fender, getting eaten by a bear for laughs opposite Stephen Colbert, and guesting on Jenny Lewis' newest solo effort [let's not talk about Fall Out Boy, for Elvis' sake]. Veering away from the conceptual overkill and stodginess that have characterized his recent output - including 2006's well-received The Delivery Man - Costello and his band knocked 12 taut, succinct, and mostly winning tunes in Elvis' downtime(!) from the Acid Tongue sessions opposite Ms. Lewis. The results fit neatly between Blood and Chocolate and Brutal Youth in terms of latter-day Costello -- insistent but not rocking self-consciously; mature but neither cranky nor overly moony. From stomping opener "No Hiding Place" to "Long Honeymoon"-doppelganger "Harry Worth" and through closer "Go Away," Costello is in fine lyrical form and The Impostors prove that decades of playing with E.C. have done nothing to dull the edge of one of music's best band dynamics. Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas continue to service the songs as inventively and tastefully as in their days in The Attractions, and Davey Faragher continues to prove himself a capable successor to excommunicated Attraction Bruce Thomas on bass. Thirty years removed from My Aim is True and This Year's Model (and pushing twenty-nine on Armed Forces), Elvis displays he has plenty left in the tank when he doesn't think a good song to death and simply lets his better nature take control.


    Los Campesinos! - Hold On Now, Youngster / We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed


    The restless, precocious Welsh septet unwittingly split their vote by releasing a sprightly debut in spring and then unleashing their follow-up a scant nine months afterward (a set of Welsh "Irish twins") to equal critical acclaim. The melodic abundance and sheer energy of the first finds a welcome companion in the slightly more meditative second; both come well-stuffed with apt, cutting, and often hilarious blog-on-the-sleeve lyricism via singer Gareth Campesinos' sharp eye for detail. Per example: "I cherish with fondness / the day before I met you" from HON,Y kiss-off "My Year in Lists", and "We kid ourselves there's future in the fucking / But there is no fucking future" from the title track of WAB, WAD. In their manic music and depressing misanthropy, Los Campesinos! reveal sophistication both beyond their early-20's years and their "Spanish redneck" namesakes. Hopefully burning the candle at both ends of the calendar year will do nothing to hold [back] these youngsters in the near [fucking] future.

    The Watson Twins - Fire Songs


    After breaking into the indie public consciousness with their name-making turn backing Jenny Lewis on her solo debut Rabbit Fur Coat, Chandra and Leigh Watson turn loose a set of loosely swinging, sensual, and smoothly arranged folk-pop that may rank among the decade's best-realized debut LP's. Bouncy opener "How Am I to Be?" gives way to the gently country-inflected "Lady Love Me" and sends the album up like a softly-spiralling rocket making a skyward climb in its own loose-limbed way. The relaxed, confident mood conveyed by both the Twins' gorgeous harmonies and their backing band's tasteful flourishes calls back to both Dusty in Memphis and the countrypolitan grace of Lynn Anderson and Emmylou Harris throughout Fire Songs' course without sounding overly-manicured or edging into genre exercise. "Dig a Little Deeper" and "Only You" keep the album balanced with great tunes after a spectacular opening half, but the standout cover of "Just Like Heaven" - track four, as it were - may rank with the great makeout songs of all time. Don't say I didn't warn you: put this album on in the right moment and you, too, will be playing with fire.

    The Top Five

    5.
    Vampire Weekend - s/t


    Well, okay. Critics and bloggers have made the case. This is a band of bright, literate Columbia University hipster boys melding Afrobeat and baroque pop like it's chocolate and peanut butter. They have lyrics that pepper the minutiae of coming-of-age with details from The Falklands Islands War and British imperialism in Afghanistan and, by god, THE OXFORD COMMA. But those aren't the reasons this album won me over. Vampire Weekend somehow overcame my innate suspicion of the unanimously-hyped by writing an entire debut album of incredibly strong melodies with great energy and not a weak track throughout. Comparisons of the band's explosion on the scene to The Strokes in 2001 may hold in terms of its rapidity and reach, but nothing on Vampire Weekend sounds flukey and tied to a production aesthetic in the ways that set Casablancas and Co. up for a fall after Is This It. Bandleader Ezra Koenig has the songwriting aptitude and pop chops to sustain his band's momentum, while multi-instrumentalist Rotsam Batmanglij [whose name anagrams into Major Batman List, G!] contributes imaginative and multi-cultural lines to every song with equal facility and the impeccable rhythm section of Chris Thomson (drums) and Chris Baio (bass) keep everything moving expertly. The band's claim that "the kids don't stand a chance" in the album's closing track might as well be self-directed. They don't, not against tunes like these.

    4.
    The Week That Was - s/t

    Not to color myself a Brewis Brothers fanboy, but after lauding Field Music's The Tones of Town in my year-end best-of last year, I have no qualms placing Peter Brewis' side project debut - while Field Music is on hiatus and David Brewis unveiled his School of Language this year as well - in the top four of this year's albums. The songs on The Week That Was are at once dense and catchy, holding together the same insistent feel and freedom of spirit that make Field Music so worthy of repeat listens. Yet in many ways The Week That Was one-ups Peter's old day job, with layered harmonies and sweeping strings holding open pockets of silence and propping up dissonant yet hooky keyboard lines. With non-traditional drumming in the vein of Peter Gabriel's early solo work moving the rhythm while challenging the ear, and such flourishes as marimba and layered synthesizers interjecting discrete lines into Brewis' glowing vocal melodies, The Week That Was sounds like the whirling gears of a giant watch at times, while lyrics observing the mechanization of routine and modern alienation compliment the music to a tee. "The Airport Line" would be my Single of the Year were it not for the near flawless (spoiler alert) track by The Long Blondes that edges it, though "The Good Life" and "Scratch the Surface" might could have edged the pack as well. The Week That Was sounds at once intensely industrial and post-modernist, laying bare the malaise of a decaying modern age searching for meaning among the automated detritus of its once-promising past. It truly owns its retrospective-sounding moniker while neither confirming nor denying history as a source of greatness. Perhaps Field Music can just stay on hiatus, if this is the outcome.

    3. Mountain Goats - Heretic Pride

    John Darnielle released two full, autobiographical sets in 2005's The Sunset Tree and 06's Get Lonely that respectively trafficked in harrowing tales of childhood abuse and heart-rending breakup, so it might surprise some that his writer's voice is so ebullient from the outset of this year's offering. Yet it is, and from the energetic opening strains of "Sax Rohmer #1," in which Darnielle joyfully yelps "I'm coming home to you / if it's the last thing that I do," Heretic Pride sounds like the type of album made by a grinning sinner in repose. The sweet pizzicato countermelody of "San Bernardino" and sneering electric guitar of "Lovecraft in Brooklyn" are but two highlights of an album as diverse as any Darnielle has released. Backed by the versatile accompaniment of drummer Peter Hughes and bassist Franklin Bruno, and featuring performances from Superchunk's Jon Wurster and Annie Clark - alias St. Vincent - among others, Heretic Pride resumes Darnielle's old habit of writing vignettes from multiple perspectives not fully his own: the neurotic romantic failure of "Autoclave" sounds like recent Mountain Goats' self-examination, but the cultist of "New Zion," the shut-in World War I veteran of "In the Craters on the Moon," and the terrorist hostage of "Sept. 15, 1983" all receive Darnielle's generous observational characterization in their individual portraits. If "write what you know" is the first rule in creative endeavors, John Darnielle may actually know everything.

    2.
    Ra Ra Riot - The Rhumb Line

    You have to give it up to a band who just buried a beloved founding member and then take to the studio to record a set of songs co-written by him that include titles such as "Ghosts Under Rocks" and "Dying is Fine". Despite mourning the tragic and mysterious 2007 death of drummer John Pike, Ra Ra Riot unveil an album bursting with life and immense, effortless beauty. Sounding at times like a gentler Les Savy Fav filtered through Big Star's "Stroke it, Noel," the Riot crew deftly incorporate the strings of Alexandra Lawn and Rebecca Zeller into their jumpy, hook-filled oeurve. Wes Miles' golden voice lifts songs like "Can You Tell" into stratospheres exceeding the verite of their lyrics, which themselves impress equally with their innocent honesty and impeccable phrasing. "Each Year" would have no trouble finding its way onto any radio playlist predating the Clear Channel / Citadel stranglehold on programming, and yet may not even be the catchiest song on the album. On second read, six of the nine albums in this year-ender are debut LP's... and on that note, the future of music is looking damn outstanding for the end of the Oh-Ohs and the beginning of the Tweens-and-Teens.

    1.
    Okkervil River - The Stand Ins

    The second sterling full-length in as many years from Okkervil River, The Stand Ins tacks away from last year's The Stage Names as Will Sheff backs off the microphone in order to let his band's lush, intelligent arrangements build and play off each other. Yet Sheff's present challenge to the crown of Rock and Roll Scrabble Champion remains as witty and vital as on the oft-lyric clogged effort preceding The Stand Ins. The horn flourishes on "Lost Coastlines" and "Starry Stairs" add a heady R&B influence to the already potent rock/folk/alt-country kitchen sink approach of the band's writing style, and Sheff tugs at the heartstrings with aplomb on ballads "Blue Tulip" and "On Tour With Zykos". Okkervil River hits marks both profound and danceable with tunes like "Pop Lie" and "Calling and Not Calling My Ex," the latter being one of the best, most maudlin, wistful, and beautiful satellite radio singles to hit the spacewaves in some time. This may be a subjective measure at its heart, but the best music can either freeze you or move you; in the case of my first listen to The Stand Ins, I got goosebumps and shed tears. In listening to this album again to review it, the same thing happened. Time's not gonna dull this one.


    Single of the Year

    The Long Blondes - "Guilt"



    The sheer perfection in the lyric, with all its honest, self-accusing, hesitation-fueled stonewalling in the face of Bachelor #2 and Kate Jackson's breathy delivery should seal the deal. Dorian Cox's randy disco riffing should seal the deal. The airtight, stuttering rhythm and background triangle details should seal the deal. The loungey electric piano in the bridge should seal the deal. But nothing seals the deal. You see, the deal isn't meant to be sealed. It is wrong to seal the deal. Yet it's uncomfortably close to sealed the whole time. And then it fades into the reverb-drenched intro vocal, with a dry four-four hi-hat by Screech Louder and that four-note bass synth hook, and, boom, final beat, IT GETS SEALED. Couples was a maddeningly uneven sophomore release by the British quintet that so effortlessly blended Pretenders-style badass chick posturing and snarky modernism on their debut, but this song highlights all the things the group did right. It is seamless concept, slick execution, and has just enough hairs out of place to look like it was coming out of the wrong bedroom at 2am with... no... good... excuse.

    Unfortunately, The Long Blondes were felled this year by a stroke guitarist/songwriter Cox suffered shortly after Couples' release. But in terms of a last single to put out, this is a tape-measure home run. And easily my favorite self-contained song of the year that used to be.


    Happy 2009, Friends. Don't Fake the Funk on a Nasty Dunk.

    -Cameron "Furge" Ferguson