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 ShakeSt. 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 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-tongue-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 outtake 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 echo-laden vocals accompanied by a ukelele. I have many versions of Baby It’s Cold Outside, and this one fares fairly well with the classics. The duo even manages 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.

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 a 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 how 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 have, I think, elevated Waits’ 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: 9/10

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]

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 seem 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 acapella 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: 8/10

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

Beastie Boys | Hot Sauce Committee Part Two
Capitol Records | May 2011

I have to admit that I haven’t listened to the previous Beastie Boys’ album, “To the Five Boroughs” so my last exposure to their mix of hip-hop, punk and lounge (yes, lounge!) was with “Hello Nasty” from the late 90s and 2007’s somehwat less satisfying collection of grooving jams, “The Mix Up.”

But, the Beasties are back, and on the surface it’s like they never left. The album’s tracks may at first sound familiar, full of snark and witty word-play, but the textures are more sophisticated and the grooves more indelible than past albums. “Make Some Noise” starts with some noodling 80s sounding keyboard lines then breaks into a perky Super Mario-worthy synth riff with some old school raps that only Ad-rock, Mike D and MCA can deliver – Ad-rock often sounding like an amphetimine-riddled Dana Carvey doing his best George W. Bush and Ross Perot (Hello SEO!)

the robotic vocoded chorus comes in and demands that you play this song really, really loud on your car stereo speakers.

“OK” starts with some chugging synth riffs and then slowly builds with all three Beaties adding their voices to the mix until the robotic vocoded chorus comes in and demands that you play this song really, really loud on your car stereo speakers. “Yeh, yeh, right, right, OK!” It’s this year’s “Intergalactic”. But then it stops short at just under three minutes and moves right into “Too Many Rappers”, a boasting rap heavy on the flange filter that sounds at once serious and toungue in cheek, “Grandpa been wrapping since Eighty-thre-e-ee!” Oy, that old boy is me! Being roughly the same age as the Beastie Boys, I think I must be squarely in their target audience, having just the right perspective of hearing them since their first singles on college radio to their current more rounded sound, and having travelled (maybe) the same expanding musical path.

I can hear hints of TV on the Radio and other contemporary Brooklynites in their more rocking songs like “Lee Majors Come Again” with its fuzzed-out bass, bits and pieces of 70s exploitation soundtracks, and even Parliament on “Funky Donkey” which sounds like a George Clinton outake – it just needs Bootsy on bass to complete the picture. “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win” featuring Santogold is a great Summer party song with an infectious melting-pot groove that will appeal to both party boyz and party girlz. Of course, there’s plenty of silly to offset the serious grooves, “Crazy Ass Shit,” and “The Larry Routine” among others.

I could explain how this album is “reportedly” from 2009 and should be called Part One and that Part Two was also recorded but never released, but…you can read all that somewhere else. And you can also read that it was postponed because of Adam Yaunch’s battle with cancer, but let’s just say that he’s beat the big C and we’re very glad. I’m also glad that the Beastie Boys are back with a more nuanced and mature weave to their silly space-age hip-hop fabric.

Smells Like [rating=7]

Radiohead | The King of Limbs
TBD Records | March 29, 2011

As I’m sitting here listening to a copy of Radiohead’s latest outing, The King of Limbs and getting ready to make some sort of commentary about it, I wanted to bring up two quick points:

A) Writing a review of a Radiohead album is like asking to be used as a human piñata in every hip neighborhood in the known world, and

B) I have been known for many years as The Guy Who Doesn’t Like Radiohead!

That said … I have always respected Radiohead. I find their melding of Rock and Pop with heavy experimental to be note-worthy and enviable. Their pioneering, along with Einsturzende Neubauten, of new paradigms for distribution and listener involvement in the album making and releasing process is work that might actually save the world, or at least the musical part of it… I mean, I even own a clear vinyl, limited edition 7″ of Creep. Everything about Radiohead screams my name is several different languages. But honestly, and sadly, since Kid A, I have just never actually been able to get into the music itself.

Honestly, The King of Limbs has changed all of that. Sure, some of the elements that have always turned me off are still here: The skittering, distorted jungle/dubstep influenced beats that should have been laid to rest in 1998 are still there, but have been toned back and mixed in to be more just a chaotic element of the overall sound picture rather than a statement in themselves, and are honestly in rather short supply; a good thing in my book. Thom Yorke is still taking everything in a falsetto, but sounds more inside his voice than in some previous releases.

About that falsetto. Yorke, unfortunately, is in the difficult position of having to sing over what are basically soundscapes. Melodically, there is nothing for a singer to hold onto, and it forces the singer to stretch the vocal melodies and lyrics into long, oblique phrases that are hard to get your head around as being ‘vocals’. The voice simply becomes another instrument in the overall sound picture. On the King of Limbs, Yorke not only fills this difficult position with aplomb and taste, but manages to actually make it sound effortless and good. On other Radiohead albums, it sounded like a lot of work. Here, it just comes across as a natural extension of everything else around it, and quite strikingly beautiful actually.

The musical background is fantastic and approaches the best of Eno’s ambient work in it’s simultaneous depth, simplicity, and utter lack of ego. There are no big solos here, no ‘look at what a fantastic Guitarist/Singer I am’. All of the instrumentation, including the voice, works together flawlessly to create a unified sound picture. Radiohead is working together here to create and evolve a definition of what Radiohead is as a unit, and to do justice to their collective concept of sound and music, not to push a collection of amplified personalities. It works beautifully. Guitars, synths, bass and processing fade in and out of each other and you stop listening for distinct parts and just listen to the music as a whole.

OK. As  for the stars. I don’t often give anything a perfect rating. To me, a perfect rating means an album that is not only good, but somehow changes my perception of music, how it’s made, and at best inspires me not only as a listener but as a composer. The King of Limbs did just this for me. While longtime Radiohead fans might disagree, holding up OK Computer or Amnesiac as better albums, King of Limbs for me is a defining moment; the moment where I finally ‘got’ Radiohead. I might actually delve into some of their older releases I have ignored for years.

Smells Like: [rating=10]