Album Reviews

As usual, my list of “favorite” albums of the year is just that – a list of what stuck with me most throughout the year, and not necessarily what my brain thinks should be the best albums. Hopefully, these 10 recordings will stand the test of time.

Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Most-hyped record of the year finally worms its way into my brain and reveals itself to be “all that”

Typhoon – Whitelighter
Most underrated album of the year from Stumptown big band – almost every song a classic that begs you to sing along

Savages – Silence Yourself
Ferocious songs and serious attitude come together for an album that’s almost as a great as their live show

Thee Oh Sees – Floating Coffin
Sounding like the Fall’s bratty grandchild playing catchy pop songs wrapped in sloppy hooks, and all no longer than they need to be

Cate LeBon – Mug Museum
Icy and hot, restrained and heartfelt, retro and modern … an album of contradictions from my favorite Welsh singer-songwriter

Radiation City – Animals in the Meridian
Hey! You got 70s AM rock in my vintage stereophonic lounge music. Hey, you got vintage stereophonic – well, you get the idea. These great PDX tastemakers all taste great together.

The Knife – Shaking the Habitual
Percolating, ping-pong splatter-beats and over-processed synths anchoring songs of gender dysphoria – what’s not to like?

ARP – More
Brian Eno and Kraftwerk walk into a bar. Musicality ensues … minimal, edgy, pretty and discrete

Yo La Tengo – Fade
Meditative and sincere with songs pared to their essence and then set on a hypnotic “repeat” for a tranquil, yet uplifting album

Deerhunter – Monomania
If I could magically join any band, this might be the one. Not an immediate “winner”, but the distorted mind-bending songs slowly create a solid whole that will eat your brain!

 The Honorable Mentions

  • Robyn Hitchcock – Love From London
  • Wire – Change Becomes Us
  • Yuck – Glow and Behold
  • These New Puritans – Field of Reeds
  • Neko Case – The Worse Things Get blah, blah, blah
  • My Bloody Valentine – MBV
  • David Bowie – The Next Day
  • Washed Out – Paracosm
  • The Blow – The Blow
  • STRFKR – Miracle Mile
  • Jacco Gardner – Cabinet of Curiosities
  • Unknown Mortal Orchestra – II
  • Superchunk – I Hate Music
  • Courtney Barnett – The Double EP
  • James Blake – Overgrown
  • Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

Too busy to write a full in-depth post, but hopefully I will circle back soon and flesh this out more! Without any further ado, here are my favorite 11 albums of 2011:

PJ HarveyLet England Shake

St. Vincent Strange Mercy

Clap Your Hands Say YeahHysterical

Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks – Mirror Traffic

Wire Red Barked Tree

DestroyerKaput

Tom WaitsBad as Me

Alessi’s ArkTime Travel

Girls Record 3

TuneYardsWho Kill

EMAPast Life Martyred Saints

Honorable mentions

Atlas Sound Parallax // Wild Flag – s/t // Danger Mouse & Daniel Luppi Rome // Fucked-UpDavid Comes to Life // Yuck – s/t // Toro y Moi Underneath the Pine // RadioheadKing of Limbs //  M83Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming // IceageNew Brigade // Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 // The WeekndHouse of Balloons // Thurston MooreDemolished Thoughts

We’re all busy working on our Best Albums of 2011 lists, and as a preview of sorts, I thought I’d share my favorite songs of the year. Notice I didn’t say “best songs” and in some cases, these bands aren’t even close to being on my top album list. But, these are my poppy, hook-laden favorites (in no particular order)…

  • Thurston Moore – Benediction
  • Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks – Senator
  • Fucked Up – The Other Shoe
  • Cass McCombs – County Line
  • Wild Flag – Romance & Endless Talk
  • Alessi’s Ark – Time Travel (really the whole damn album)
  • Death Cab for Cutie – Doors Unlock and Open
  • Tune Yards – Bizness
  • Wire – Please Take (really the whole damn album)
  • MGMT – I Found a Whistle, Only a Shadow (Daytrotter Live Sessions)
  • The Weeknd – House of Balloons – Glass Table Girls
  • EMA – Marked
  • Mogwai – Mexican Grand Prix
  • Tom Waits – Chicago
  • Horrors – I Can See Through You
  • The Strokes – Machu Picchu
  • Girls – Just a Song, Vomit
  • PJ Harvey – Bitter Branches (really the whole damn album)
  • Decemberists – Calamity song
  • Dum Dum Girls – There is a Light
  • The Kills – Future Starts Now
  • Beastie Boys – OK & Lee Majors Come Again
  • Destroyer – Chinatown
  • Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Into Your Alien Arms (really the whole damn album)
  • Deerhunter – He Would Have Laughed (Live)
  • The Field – Burned Out
  • Atlas Sound – My Angel is Broken
  • Ice Age – White Rune
  • Sallie Ford – Cage
  • St. Vincent – Northern Lights (really the whole damn album)
  • TV On the Radio – Second Song
  • Typhoon – The Honest Truth
  • M83 – OK Pal

The neo-retro-AM-pop-sincere-yet-tougue-in-cheek duo of She & Him have put out out a Christmas record and that makes perfect sense. Especially when the album sounds like it was transported from the late 60’s/early 70’s sonic landscape where Doris Day or Jim Neighbors would feel right at home. The songs of She & Him are not just wry retro-updates though, they bring a modern sensibility that keeps the songs grounded in the twenty-tens (the future!). And on their new album, A Very She & Him Christmas the songs work much the same way.

The lackadaisical vocal delivery of Zooey Deschanel works nicely on many songs, like Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, but album opener, The Christmas Waltz sounds almost like an out take from “Elf”, especially with the minimal instrumentation. Things finally start to roll when M. Ward takes over the lead vocals with Deschanel on harmony on Christmas Wish. The song sounds more complete and satisfying, heck it even has bass and drums!

The whole affair is pleasant enough–you almost get the feeling that you’re at an intimate Hollywood party, where Deschanel (the real movie and TV actress) is cajoled into singing around the fire, and “hey look, Ward brought his guitar!” Sleigh Ride and Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree even manage to sound peppy as the party moves on into the night. Then, Silver Bells brings the affair back down again with an echo-laden vocals accompanied by ukelele. I have many versions of Baby It’s Cold Outside, and this one fares fairly well with the classics. The duo even manage to make it their own, but any sexual innuendo from earlier versions is stripped away, leaving a jaunty, whistling sing-along. But, I’ll take the Dean Martin version, thank you. Elvis’ Blue Christmas is tough to top, but She & Him do their best, and the intimacy really works here. You can almost imagine you’re at that Hollywood Holiday party … “No more egg nog–I’ll simply burst!”

Little Saint Nick is harmless fun, and they close with the Christmas Song which really brings me back to the classic Holiday Records. So, how does this album work in the Holiday playlist? At our house we mostly listen to holiday tunes on shuffle, mixing genres and time-periods at random, so I think this record will fit in just nicely.

Smells Like: [rating=7]

There’s maybe no other musician that can match Tom Waits’ unparalleled track record. Album by album, and yes, track by track he’s been one of the most consistent artists over the last 30+ years. So, it’s easy to take each new recording for granted – when you first put a new Waits’ album on you just know it’s going to be good. But, damn if his recent records don’t keep getting better and better as he refines his sound and craft.

Strange or maybe not so strange, Tom Waits has seldom had any “hits”. At his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this past Spring, he dead-panned, “They say I have no hits and that I’m difficult to work with … like it’s a bad thing.” Records by Waits are best experienced as whole, where you can be transported to a place out of time, neither really old or very new – a landscape of dreams. Sad dreams, yes and many nightmares, but overall a world completely and uniquely his own.

So hows does he keep making such great, timeless records? It helps to surround yourself with incredible musicians. Tom Waits has a knack for putting together stellar bands to play on his albums, and Bad As Me, his first record of new songs in six years is no exception. Keith Richards plays for the first time since 199X’s Bone Machine (Richards also played on Rain Dogs) along with long-time Wait’s collaborator Mark Ribot, Los Lobos’ David Hildago, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Augie Meyers (the organist from the Sir Douglas Quintet!). All of these players have learned how to work with space and casually (seemingly sloppily) play in-and-around each other without knocking anyone else out of the way. Keith Richards even adds ragged backing vocals to Last Leaf on the Tree, a slow and delicate ballad of regret and resiliency.

When you’re creating classic albums, it also helps to have a great songwriter to work with, and Waits has once again written the songs with his long-time foil and partner, Kathleen Brennan. The yin and yang of the two has, I think, elevated Waits’s songs to a higher ground, resulting in more timeless, grounded and artful albums as a whole. Not many people can work this closely with their spouses or partners, but in this case the results are magical.

Not every song works for me, especially “Hell Broke Luce” which while an interesting song, feels a little gimmicky and breaks the mood of an otherwise stellar album.

Not everyone “gets” Tom Waits,  dismissing his music as too noisy and gruff or maybe too traditional sounding. If the naysayer can get past their initial biases, they’ll be rewarded with an almost cinematic album of dense, complex songs and dream-like stories.

Smells Like: [rating=9]

Can you believe it’s already December? I certainly can’t! If you do need proof that the year is almost over though, let me point you to the plethora of Best of 2011 lists popping up all over the internet. Based on these lists, 2011 was a year hard to peg down. There was no discernable genre, style or band that became overly pervasive (the year of Gaga?) and many of the lists published so far look quite different from each other. The editors and writers at Smells Like Pop are working hard on their lists and checking them twice–we’ll let you know soon who’s been naughty and nice! For now, take a look at these:

Biggest surprise for me? Wilco…”Capitol City” is one of the lamest songs put out this year, and that St. Vincent’s album didn’t go any higher.

The Whole Love from Wilco starts promising and ends OK.

The first song on Wilco’s latest is called Art of Almost and it begins with noisy grinding electronic noise that sounds more like Radiohead than Chicago’s favorite “Americana” band. At just over seven minutes the song sets the stage for more musical exploration, but then I Might comes bouncing in with 60s’ era perky pop – all bap-bap-bap drums, farfisa organ and even a doo-doo-doo-doo chorus. The album proceeds to move around between genres and whilst almost all of the songs are better than good, the sum total experience didn’t really stay with me long. I didn’t want to play it again right away like previous Wilco albums. Rather I felt obligated to listen again to make sure I wasn’t missing something.

Dawned On Me is a nice “Wilco” chugger that will offend no one, but it won’t be a hit either. Black Moon is soft, sad and pretty and puts their distinctive and reserved slide guitar to good use. Born Alone, Open Mind are earnest but non-essential Wilco songs. And then, Capitol City pops on and sounds immediately like the title track to the latest Pixar movie. I actually had to look at the song title and think back to recent animated movies to see if this was indeed from a kids’ movie soundtrack (it’s that corny). Standing O gets loud with a big 70s guitar riff, but doesn’t get much farther than that, and Jeff Tweedy’s voice sounds strained and submerged in the mix of hand-claps, and big lead guitars. The remainder of the songs are ones my Dad would certainly enjoy – they’re all likable, but not really lovable. Album closer One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend) is a bit of standout mostly for the laid back delivery and playing, and the picked guitar refrain that repeats throughout. But dang if that piano couldn’t be found on Bruce Hornsby album.

Taken as a whole The Whole Love takes its cue from the opening song as is ultimately the Art of Almost.

Smells like: [rating=7]

For those unfamiliar with one of Portland’s more prominent bands, it may be surprising that Talkdemonic has gone so far while forgoing the presumed necessity of employing a lead singer. Rather than relying on vocals as a counter-point to their musical meanderings, the band (Kevin O’Connor and a host of instruments) placed a spirited viola player (Lisa Molinaro) at center-stage, relying on the lyricism of the instrument to bring balance and warmth to the cool leanings of the band’s electronic heart. From the start, they captivated audiences, earning Willamette Week’s number one band designation in 2005 (with more than double the votes of the next contender, the none-too-shabby Viva Voce). Now, after a tour with Modest Mouse and most recently with the passionate Handsome Furs, the band is set to release its fourth full-length album next week with Ruins, confirming that the band’s novelty is also the source of its durability.

Within the first minutes of immersion into the newest album, one is struck with the sense that the band is aiming to forge a new path for themselves. Their approach has been dubbed “folktronic” in the past, a label highlighting the genre-bending tension in their work, and which more or less effectively depicts a sound encountered in the band’s last two albums. With Ruins, however, the band dumps the first half of the label–perhaps a wise move given that you can’t throw a stick in their home city right now without hitting someone in a folk-something band. This new effort is more fully in the realm of electronica, albeit a rootsy one, as in hearkening back to the roots of the form in Kraftwerk and Neu!.

The first song of the album, “Slumber Verses,” launches with foreboding in stark and spare synth sounds before ushering in the familiar somberness of the viola, and then grinds it all down in a shower of sparks and distortion. The dark effect continues through the title track, then changes course in “Revival,” showcasing a lighter tone, the viola lilting in a float from left speaker to right and back again. Where the album lingers in simplicity, with percussion from a basic drum kit, most often electronic undertones suggest something more complex and concerning. “Cascading” is aptly named, evoking a waterfall soundscape, while “Midnight Pass” is dark and brooding, electric guitar (or amped up viola?) adding a touch of menace. At the end, “Palace Walk” brings out the sum of the elements, weaving it all together for a lovely jaunt.

With all the depth of the album, I am once again struck by the sense that Talkdemonic has had to work harder than most to create their sound. Where many bands distract the listener from simpler instrumentation with their vocal tracks, Talkdemonic adds layer upon layer of synthesized and acoustic sounds to create richness. I can imagine that some might fault the album”s Autobahn-esque style; one could also point out that “City Sleep,” for instance, starts out more than a little like a fellow Portland band’s “Godless.” But unlike many of their peers, derivative is a most unlikely descriptor of Talkdemonic’s work. Their originality is fully evident in the interplay of their instrumentation. In their live show as well on the album, Molinaro’s expressive viola performance artfully plays off the MacBook-enhanced effects, adding a large dose of humanized tension and release. If there is one caution for the prospective buyer of this album, it is merely that the range of its textures are less likely to be apparent if one is relying on tinny computer speakers, as I did the first time through. This is an album to be played at a healthy volume through the stereo, or better yet on headphones. It will not disappoint.

 

There’s a lot of new music preview streaming out there on the interwebs right now, and many of them are sounding quite nice. There’s going to be some great releases this month! But, before we get into the list o’ links, here’s a cool new video from Portland’s Nurses, filmed and edited by the band:

I’ve said this before, but the NPR Music site (National Public Radio–the one the Republican’s want to destroy) is awesome. There’s so much great new music streaming that it could easily be your primary source for music news. And new stuff is constantly being added. What’s there right now?

The new Wilco album, The Whole Love. I’ve only listened once, but the Wilco gang are getting experimental again and it sounded great.

Next up? Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is finally back with fourth album, Hysterical and it’s a nice return to form capturing the energy and spirit of their acclaimed first album with a more nuanced sense of control and song craft. Check it out!

There’s so much more to listen to at the NPR site (like Harold Budd, Neon Indian, the Tiny Desk Concert Series, and the streaming radio show from Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton) but let’s finish here with the new LP from St. Vincent – Strange Mercy. It’s everything you’d expect from Annie Clark – edgy and intense music, beautiful vocals, and haunting imagery all blended together to make great songs, and a great new album.

Want to stream entire new albums by Wild Flag, Eleanor Friedberger, The Music Tapes, or The Ladybug Transistor? Well, lucky for you they are all on super-cool label, Merge Records founded by members of super-cool band Superchunk.

Happy Streaming! – SLP

EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints
Souterrain Transmissions | May 2011

I admit that I checked out the EMA album because Pitchfork told me to (on their list of best reviewed records). I didn’t know anything about them/her when I first listened to this noisy and dirge-like set of pop-songs. Feedback and melodrama meet in equal parts to create a sound-space that could easily be at home in the late 80s, early 90s or even now. More likely “now” for an album recorded solo by a woman (gasp!) that seems inspired by Nirvana* (Anteroom), NIN (Milkman), and even Prince at his chattiest (California almost seems like a response to Purple Rain).

EMA, or Erika M. Anderson is a former member of Los Angeles bands Amps For Christ, and Gowns, and this is her debut solo release. She uses her fragile and sometimes raspy/husky voice well as she sings and chants softly (sometimes loudly) over her songs of sadness, regret and maybe even hope? The lyrics seems purposely oblique and are for the most part mixed to work around and within the trance-like music and noise, adding to the overall sound instead of being framed by it.

The nine songs on the album at first seem quite long with their slow, churning builds (I’m a sucker for the beautiful and sad slow-build). Some are long, like the trance inducing “The Grey Ship” at over seven minutes, but the pretty and brittle “Breakfast” is just over 3 minutes in length but seems much longer. The entire album clocks in at just 39 minutes which feels right – anything more would be exhausting. Coda is a stand-out track – an a’capella Appalachian-esqe ditty than flows into echoing noisy guitar scrapes and drones that would be right at home on a Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs record. My apologies for referencing so many bands when trying to describe the sound of EMA. I think the comparisons are somewhat valid (and not just lazy writing), though I’m looking forward to future releases from EMA as she grows and expands as a songwriter, further developing her unique voice. Anderson was named an Artist to Watch by Rolling Stone and New Band of the Day by The Guardian among other accolades.

EMA will be performing live with a backing band at MusicFest NW. I’m excited to hear how her songs might fill-out or be expanded upon in a live setting versus the studio layering that created this very lovely album.

Smells Like: [rating=8]

*EMA recorded Nirvana’s Endless Nameless for Spin Magazine’s recent Nevermind Tribute Album. It’s a noisy, shambling caterwaul – nice!