Thursday, August 27, 2009

Top 15 Records of 2000-2009

As this decade winds down, it reaches the time where you have to start looking back on this past decade and music and see who did the best. This All-Decade list is a little more than that, though. The top of the list is pretty damn cluttered with all sorts of amazing records, so it becomes more and more imperative to look at the broader picture: given this decade, what can embody this decade the most? So records I can call best of 2009 so far (I'm looking at you, Bitte Orca) can fall on an all-decade list. As we all know, this 2000-2009 set of years was a real peculiar one, with great highs and lows, death, war, etc. etc., stuff you can hear everyone else elaborate on. Important, yes, but not really my business as it is. So, here we go:
1. Arcade Fire - Funeral
From the twinkling of the keys that start to the record to the climatic finish, Funeral grips you and doesn't let go. Every single moment on this record is heartfelt, and there is not one moment that won't snare you and give you the chills, because it is that good. Funeral barrels along its path like a rebel without a cause; Win Butler and co. certainly create the music with a sense of primacy and urgency that has been missing from music. And they certainly felt it. The much-repeated backstory about how various family members of the band members passed during the making of this record. It's all been documented in great detail, but the point is that few artists can embrace the sadness and create pure light from it. You believe Arcade Fire when you listen to the record. The record essentially alludes to the entire human condition, which is a level of depth virtually unattainble for any artist to achieve, and for that, Arcade Fire's Funeral is my record of the decade.

2. Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Regardless of my Wilco fan-ness and all, this record is perfect. This may be second only because Funeral might have the "better" story to tell, a broader and more compelling allusion towards the entirety of the human race. Obviously, this record sort of embodies the whole David vs. Goliath, small band vs. big label deal before it went crazy in 2007 with Radiohead's self-released In Rainbows...which inadvertently means that in some ways, with this album the CD as a format had begun to die. But in a sense, the more startling thing is that for America, at least, this album was unusually reflective in a post-9/11 atmosphere even though the material was written before (see "Jesus, etc.," "Ashes of American Flags" and you'll understand).

3. Radiohead - Kid A
Surprised to see this record this far down? Perhaps in the view of pure innovation and destruction of a group's traditional "identity" (power guitar-rock) and depending on who you ask, pure musicality, then yes, this has been the best record, because it deconstructed rock. Thanks to Nirvana, rock became a sort of "loud-soft" ordeal where you had to play your guitar or you were toast. Thanks to Radiohead, that's not the case anymore. Oh, no, it ain't. You could definitely argue that this record really blew the field wide open for magnificent exploring by many, many other groups. However, this record has been the polarizer. In indie circles it's hailed as a coup de grace of epic proportions, but to some it has been regarded as just far too weird to be worth anything. I'm more of the former, but I see the latter (and at times Radiohead is far too moody), and so Kid A is relegated to the third slot.
4. Brian Wilson - SMiLE
Who would have thought that this record would ever come out? Virtually everyone resigned themselves to the fact that the Beach Boys masterpiece that was owed to them would never come. The public was resigned to making their own cobbled-together versions of the record, hotly debating which versions of demos was the "right" version for it, and all that sort of business. But that was settled when Brian Wilson also settled himself down and completed what he had started all those years ago. And my God, what a record. Classic pop, grandoise arrangements, omnipresent optimism...this is as close as it will ever get to those sunny 60s ever again. Brian Wilson is one of the few remaining bastions of the 60s era, and when he "speaks," you listen, because he is that good.

5. OutKast - Stankonia
If I haven't surprised you so far on this list, you should be surprised now. Because if you know me, I think rap and hip-hop generally suck. But this record proves singlehandedly that the genre is not a bottomless black hole of death and destruction. Stankonia was light years ahead of its time, which is why it didn't do as well as it should have. Credit is due, because OutKast threw out the playbook. No stone was left unturned, from stabbing, angular guitars weaving on the title track to the balls-to-the-walls pacing of "B.O.B.," which is really the key track here. The duo, with the eclectic approach, made a record that appeals to a large swath of people (me included). Dizzying with its brilliance and its total construction, Stankonia is a hip-hop album for the ages.

6. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
"And in our next installment of the little record that could..." The backstory has been talked about as much as the record. Cabin + winter + sadness = great record. It's not just the music, the endlessly beautiful voice of Justin Vernon, but it's the mood that is evoked that makes this record spectactular. You can feel the winter, and you can feel the "emptiness" (though I suppose that's not the particularly perfect word I'm looking for). As a listener, you begin to empathize with everything you hear, and for that it is a near-perfect (if not perfect) record. I cannot say enough good words about this album, which makes it slightly strange that I put it down here, but on my criteria, this is where it belongs (sadly).

7. Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros - Streetcore
Joe Strummer once said, ''People have told me songs I've written have changed their life. That's remarkable. That keeps your faith.'' The man is damn right, because I can say that he changed the way I existed. But enough about that banter. This is a pure rock record, in every sense of it. Even with the hints of the world music that he explored on Global a Go-Go, this is still rock, this is still punk. It's what punk should be, because in his own words, "I will always believe in punk-rock, because it's about creating something for yourself." Punk is what you make of it, not a bunch of power-chords and a snotty attitude. It's the worst thing in the world that Joe Strummer was getting his groove back when death struck. When I hear him say "Ok, that's a take" at the very end of the record, I just sit in wonder of this man who not only changed my world but in all cases the entire world.

8. Loretta Lynn - Van Lear Rose
I'm no country man myself, but when I hear a good record, I hear a good record. Produced with Jack White and backed by him and what would be the Raconteurs, Loretta Lynn gets fresh life breathed into her career with a rollicking good album. It seems peculiar at first...the militaristic and hard-rocking "Have Mercy" sounds altogether strange upon the initial listen, but then the realization hits, that it works, and that it's absolutely great. Working with Jack White really did wonders for the album, with his epic skills at life (I guess) but the greater story is that Loretta Lynn became relevant again. Brilliant writing and that classic Loretta Lynn singing cast in a raucous Jack White musical setting: what could be better?

9. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion
Animal Collective always had a serious issue of being weird. Not only because they were always a little weird, wired a little differently in their approach, but because weird was almost branded on their calling card. But when they realized that they could ditch that calling card and let the unique wiring show off their abilities, you end up with the most accessible record of 2009, and when it comes down to it, flat out one of the more accessible indie efforts this decade. Avey Tare and Panda Bear have rarely worked together in the fashion shown on this record: in some sense, it's slightly Lennon/McCartney-esque in its brilliance (nothing can ever come close to that partnership, but to evince some sort of cooperation in music-crafting is always something to applaud). It's slightly a downer to see them temporarily pick up that calling card again near the end of the record, but it seems that Animal Collective realized it and recovered nicely to produce their greatest classic (probably ever, but I'd like to be wrong, you know).

10. Bob Dylan - "Love & Theft"
Late Bob Dylan is also great Bob Dylan. With another peak in his career, it's something virtually every musician would die become relevant once again. Beginning in the late 90s withTime Out of Mind, Dylan returns in full force, with lyrics becoming even spookier, his voice even more sinister. I don't think anyone figured that Dylan didn't have it in him to write good records, which is pretty obvious, but I don't think anyone had figured that it would be this late, that he would have to show those young punks how it is still done. And no one does it best like the one and only Bob Dylan. I don't think you can say anything else.

11. The White Stripes - White Blood Cells
Putting yourself on the map critically and commercially is no easy task, but that's exactly what the White Stripes did on this record. This was more than just garage rock; it was also post-punk, "dirty" blues revival, and alternative rock all wrapped into one neat little package. It's evident from the start of the record that White Blood Cells is a different beast. It struts, it swaggers like few records have done in this decade.

12. Kanye West - Late Registration
This record is Kanye's masterpiece, no doubt about it. No one has ever denied that the dude has had balls or swagger or an ego the size of seven suns, but when you look at it, he's sort of got the goods to back it up. But the real masterstroke here is Jon Brion producing. Kanye got his beginning cred from producing, but Jon Brion pushes his boundaries when Kanye steps up to the mic. Even for a guy who doesn't like rap, I admit that this crazy record is a great one.

13. LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver
Perhaps more originially known for having Daft Punk playing in his room, James Murphy knows how to do. On this album, he shows his best stuff, from all-decade song "All My Friends" to the just-as-good "Someone Great," proving that he has the goods to not only get people listening but to get people dancing. But it's more than that. James Murphy not only that he could himself be a mature and talented songwriter, but also that electronica/dance was capable of being that mature and talented.

14. Sigur Rós - Ágætis byrjun
Of all the skills that Sigur Rós are accomplished at, of particular import is that of building up to that moment. The point in a song where you just get hit by it all: it becomes simply emotional, heartfelt, and relatable, even though the great majority of Sigur Rós listeners probably are not aware of what they are saying. That skill of theirs is no more apparent than on this record. It's languid in nature, though that's not a bad thing on this record (sometimes however leading to an adverse reaction of deep slumber if sleep-deprived), because it allows Sigur Rós to do what they do best.

15. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
The lovechildren of the Beach Boys and the Band, Fleet Foxes created a sound on this record that is essentially timeless and placeless. To be able to craft such a boundless aesthetic is alone a great marvel, but reinforce it with the fact that as a first effort there is remarkable maturity and strength to the songwriting, you find yourself with a winner of an album right here. The best part about this album? If it's any indicator, Fleet Foxes are going to join the hallowed halls of the great bands of our time.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Art of the Cover

Covering is the easiest way for any band, using the parlance of the current times, "to get their shit together." Something already released is there for the picking, to be (sometimes) easily adapted and played, allowing the band to gel in many ways. But it is a fickle art. Why? Because 99.9% of the time, the original is that much better. The prototypical cover wishes to faithfully address the original: alright by any means, but unless the original was poorly executed, leaving way for the cover, there is not too much to offer. The not-so-standard cover wishes to cast a song in a new light: daring, but there is a strong chance of the cover severly backfiring. A recast cover can be considered pure brilliance, or it could just be a flaming pile of garbage.

Inherently, though, there is the problem of "first version heard." Let me use the example of Paul McCartney's "Live or Let Die." This is the version I first heard of the song. I love the song to death, even with the really hokey "spy movie music" middle bits that sound really dated and sort of stupid at times. My good friend heard the Guns 'n' Roses version first. He thinks that version is a lot better than the original. So we reach the problem of "first version heard," where the first version heard is the one that sticks out. You could consider it musical tastes, but more often than not it's the version you heard first.

Another good example is that of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower." This is the version I heard first, the one I love the most. The majority of the public has likely heard Jimi Hendrix's version first. My opinion? I hate Hendrix's version. To me, the original has a sense of urgency, immediacy and primacy (something like the devil chasing him, etc. etc.) that is substituted with some sort of frilly pomp and circumstance in Hendrix's version. Certainly a strong stance on the cover, but I truly feel that way. All covers and further occuring instances pale in comparison to the original.

Here, however, are examples of some good covers that I have located recently:

The first is the Faces doing Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed." If I have discussed music at at any real sort of length with you, you probably know my position on this sort of thing. Anyone who dares to tarnish anything Beatles or Beatles-related deserves all sorts of fiery death rained upon them and etc. etc. Only real exceptions are Beatles playing other's Beatle songs (i.e. Paul McCartney doing Harrison's "Something" or "A Day In the Life/Give Peace A Chance") or other super-gods doing them (i.e. Neil Young's version of "A Day In the Life," Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra doing "Something"). And somehow this version defies my rules entirely. Let's face it, Rod Stewart and co. aren't really "super-gods," though Ronnie Wood comes close. But just listen to it, and you can't help but acknowledge that this faithful reproduction is pretty damn awesome. It's got more of a rockin' feel too it, with the solos hitting you a little harder than the original. Though the keys are a bit hokey and not as well-fitting as I would hope, but still to find something pretty good is damn impressive.

This second one is a recasting, by David Sandström and co., whoever they are, and their dramatic recasting of Wilco's "Jesus, etc." It's a dramatic turn from a shuffle to a much, much slower sort of "hymnal" deal, and I use that word loosely. This version sure ain't a dirge, but who knows what the heck it is. Regardless, the translation to Swedish was really well done, and the cover is beautifully done. I have been sort of listening to this one a lot lately, so call me biased...maybe.

And the last one is a recent one, and it's another dramatic recasting, this one by Antony and the Johnsons. Antony and the Johnsons have turned the, er, "bootylicious" Beyoncé song "Crazy In Love" into a virtual elegy, slowed to a "Moonlight Sonata"-esque pace and all. Personally, I like this version better, but you can call me biased because I am not a fan of the "popular music" climate at the moment. It features trademark Antony piano, chilling strings backing right now, and obviously the trademark quivering Antony vocals. It works. It really does. Kudos to this guy.

Friday, August 14, 2009

When I Claimed Earlier This Year...

That no releases could ever come close to matching the Dirty Projectors or Animal Collective releases this year, I may have been wrong. And I may have to eat my words for the second time this year. Evidence this:

The Flaming Lips - Embryonic. With the few tracks "Silver Trembling Hands" and "See the Leaves," it appears that the Lips have gone back to what they do best. But this time it seems to be much less of the Soft Bulletin formula where the brightest of sheens covered darker meanings - the sinister beat of "Silver Trembling Hands" and the apocalyptic krautrock stylings of "See the Leaves" already indicate something much, much darker than anything they've done since they made it "big" (i.e. Soft Bulletin). Fine by me, all I want me is some good old Flaming Lips. It's out October 13th.

Also, evidence this:

Volcano Choir - Unmap. Sure, there's only "Island, IS" that's been leaked, but who could ever think that Justin Vernon, Bon Iver mastermind, could ever do anything wrong at this point? The released track is some strange amalgamate of organic loops dancing around while Justin Vernon sings over it. It's a rather cryptic experience, so it's hard to describe. But this one has high, high hopes. Out September 22nd.