Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Checkpoint: The Year Thus Far In Music

We're basically at the halfway point for the year, so it's time to do some ranking. I hate ranking, but it's convenient for the layman, and so I will do it. I'm going to cut it off at the end of the month, as technically A. June must end for it to be really halfway and B. it allows me to rank Wilco (the Album).

You could essentially swap the second-place record and first-place record on most people's lists and you wouldn't find any disagreements. Hell, on a given day you did that to my list, and I probably wouldn't complain. And, you could color me surprised if any record coming out later this year even came close to deposing either record.

I decided to do Top 5 records thus far because I haven't been able to get some of the other records I should have, and if I will present a top 10 later, it makes sense to present half as many at the halfway point through the year.

And here we go:

#1. Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca (96/100)

For those unfamiliar with Dirty Projectors, the closest comparison is to the Talking Heads, except that the frontman, Dave Longstreth, is about 1000x stranger and that they're a six-piece with three gorgeous-voiced women (and probably plain gorgeous, but that's neither here nor there), with less of an emphasis on rhythm and more on arrangement and experimentalism. But perhaps for all the experimenting they've done, this record is so not that experimental, and it's a better record for that. The record is still entirely unpredictable, with more left turns than you could ever make, but each track remains a coherent whole. Current single "Stillness is the Move" and the following track "Two Doves" would have been total double-A-side material back in the day, and there is honestly no weak track on this album. From the opening guitar chiming that kicks off "Cannibal Resource" to the last fluttering notes of "Fluorescent Half-Dome," there is no moment that ceases to hold me. I could elaborate a lot more, but then you'd be reading a record review dedicated to Bitte Orca with the above grade, 96/100. Let me tell you, that's a damn accomplishment because I'm a man who believes being weird for the sake of being weird is a load of hogwash, and for all the weirdness in the record it feels too at home to be a bad record in any way.

#2. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion (93/100)

And to think when this year started off, I didn't think anything would top this record, but hey, shit happens. That's not to say that this is a poor record; by far, these two are the top two records of the year. There's virtually no space between the top two, but there's a glacial chasm between the two and the rest, God save my soul for such a claim. From the opening of "In the Flowers" to the end "Brother Sport," but likely excepting "Lion in a Coma," this record exhibits the same strength across the board that Bitte Orca has, but "Lion in a Coma" strikes at the heart of the problem for many groups, and one that ultimately leads me to place this second: bands who get their branding as "experimental" or "weird" feel the desire to maintain this cred, when it is totally unnecessary and utterly superfluous. "Lion in a Coma" is that weird moment. While perhaps not an entirely weak track, it certainly represents the weakest point on a record with so many great moments, from the cyclical hymnals in "My Girls" to the fun-time romp of "Summertime Clothes" to Avey Tare's love-lust in "Bluish." Bitte Orca maintained the trademark while doing away with all the weird stuff put in for the sake of being weird...and Animal Collective likely felt the need to maintain that. You can't fault an artist for doing so, but it certainly made the album weaker. But me griping overmuch about that track in particular should not be indicative of my perception of the record - after all, I triumphantly claimed to my friends that this was the record of the year, folks, and this was back in February (perhaps a little early) - it is Animal Collective at their (collective) finest and likely stands tall as one of the best albums of the decade.

#3. Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest (88/100)

And so starts the rest of the records. One could ordinarily call these ones a bunch of saps, but no, that is not possible. 2009 has been stellar for music, certainly a lot stronger than 2008. Grizzly Bear's Veckatimest would have likely contended for "album of the year thus far" if this was released last year, for example. But this is certainly the best Grizzly Bear effort yet, and it's a fantastic one. The record kicks off with the groovy "Southern Point," and then goes into the star track, "Two Weeks," which gets the record off to a good start. However, it starts to lag in the middle. Perhaps this is the nature of Grizzly Bear, because it happened too on Yellow House, but for one reason or another the inherently languid tracks start to meld together too much, and slowing down, it comes harder to bear. That is not to say, though, that they are poor tracks...the slower tunes tend to play in the court of Grizzly Bear to begin with, but when they start getting sequenced one after the see where it goes.

#4: Wilco - Wilco (the Album) (86/100)

And...Wilco's at it again. I am a professed Wilco lover, so you wouldn't be off-base if perhaps I rate this higher than others do because of the love. But it is possible to adequately defend this record. This record is probably the most akin to Being There, in that there is not necessarily a coherent theme to the record. Wilco (the Album) gives you a smattering of everything, from the chamber-pop of "Deeper Down," the bright, old-school Harrison/Petty sort of pop in "You Never Know," to the hard-edged rock of "Bull Black Nova." Personally, I can easily select "One Wing" as my favorite track of this record (and challenges for track of the year thus far), but I can see how anyone can like any track on this record. Which also inherently means that someone can not like a particular track on the record. Of course, the lack of "focus," but not "flow," means that the record suffers a bit from this lack of a "thematic quilt" that can tie the record together. But this lack means that Wilco get to happily play where they may, and for that it is a great record. Sometimes, there is no real need to present such a thing; let what may be be, and you will be satisfied.

#5: Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (85/100)

The average Joe is a sucker for a good pop song. The not-so-average Joe sees that Top 40 is not a place to find a good pop song. This not-so-average Joe looks for the Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix's for his good pop songs. Phoenix have produced what can be considered a pure pop record: filled to the brim with catchy hooks, lyrics, the whole bit, it is impossible to not really like this album as a creation of pop. After kicking off strongly with the two singles "Lisztomania" and "1901," the album doesn't leave your head until you put something catchier in...that is to say, not many other records. While the instrumental section of "Love Like a Sunset" does get to be a bit of a sleepy track, with gently wading synths and etc., it gives welcome relief before the band kicks in again with the all the pop power in the world. The record title is perhaps a bold statement, but Phoenix meet the challenge well.


And so, there it is.

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