Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Top 17 Records of 2009

Why 17? Because that is the number of roughly the total full length records that I feel need attention this year. In many ways it was an odd year for music for me. What on paper should have been a memorable year of new sounds has, upon reflection, left me a bit wanting. So without futher ado...

17) Sea Wolf -- White Water, White Bloom
This band, which is essentially Alex Brown Church and guests, conjured up a folksy, somewhat dark second record. Traveling in the same vein as Pete Yorn and Voxtrot, Sea Wolf made a record for people who have lost love and long for greater things

16) Broken Records -- Until The Earth Begins To Part
Had I seen this band live I'm sure it would have rated higher. This Scottish group makes song that take time and build on themselves, which always sounds better played live. "Wolves" and "Nearly Home" have a tension and energy that almost explodes out of your stereo.

15) The Editors -- In This Light and On This Evening
Here is a classic example of a record that started strong and faded after a few listens. "Papillion" is a great lost NEW ORDER song and "Bricks and Morter" is a really good pop song, but the weight of the electronic experimentation costs the record in the end.

14) Passion Pit -- Manners
When the best song on the record is a retread from your debut ep, this usually signals a problem from a longevity standpoint. I really liked the cheesy 80's keyboards that are all over this record but the fact that you can't sing along makes it a tough one to stay with over a long period of time. Given that, "The Reeling" and "Sleepyhead" might be the dance tracks of the year.

13) Dave Matthews Band -- Big Whisky and The GruGrux King
Greatest album title of the year (with added bonus points for it's in house reference to their deceased sax player.) 2009 was the year of the comeback for bib time artists (as evidenced later on). Sounding more like DMB than they have in years and seemingly at peace with their sound, Dave and Co. put together a solid record that added "Why I Am" into the pantheon of songs they will play live until they quit playing.

12) The Big Pink -- A Brief History of Love
I am convinced that this is what MY BLOODY VALENTINE would sound like if Kevin Shields still gave a damn about making listenable music. The touches of electronics added the drone of shoegaze give a fresh take on what has become a stale sound. "Dominoes" has a catchy hook to it and the rest of the record has that same woderful drone of classic RIDE.

11) The Mary Onettes -- Islands
Hands down the dumbest name but a great second album. Softer and less reliant on the JAMC sound than their last, this album recalls vintage CURE sounds complete with warm keyboards and hushed vocals. Clearly, between these guys and THE SHOUT OUT LOUDS, Robert Smith is a god in Scandanavia

10) (500) Days of Summer Soundtrack
Great soundtracks are really tricky to construct. The songs have to fit the context of the film and still stand on thier own when the images fade. This year's indie hit gave us an eclectic mix of WOLFMOTHER, THE TEMPER TRAP, MUMM RA and two excellent SMITHS songs that are all key to the plot.

9) Owl City -- Ocean Eyes
Everything about this record should have been mocked. The lyrics are cheesy and amateurish. The keyboards sound like outdated Casio circa 1986. But the songs are damn catchy and I challenge anyone not to be hooked after a couple of listens.

8) Phoenix -- Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
I was ready to dismiss this band from my active listening conscience and then they hit us with this evolution of their signature dance sound. The songs are more structured and have a greater depth than in the past. Unlike, PASSION PIT, this record has gotten better with time and my guess is that it will get a lot of love next year as well.

7) Silversun Pickups -- Swoon
What once was easily dismissed as a SMASHING PUMPKINS wannabe has slowly developed into a solid and interesting act all on their own. This record was a staple on my office computer because it's catchy, not dull, and hip enough for kids not to laugh.

6) REM -- Live at the Olympia
REM had a good year last year and followed it up with a two disc career retrospective performed live. The new stuff has a nice live bite to it, but the highlights are live versions of classics such as "Driver 8", "Maps and Legends" and "Wolves, Lower" that have aged well.

5) We Were Promised Jetpacks -- These Four Walls
Last year I rated FRIGHTENED RABBIT the #2 record of the year behind COLDPLAY, then spent the better part of this year regretting that decision. Where I discarded "Viva La Vida' pretty quickly, the Rabbit was a staple throughout the year culminating with the live performance in LA. I bring this up because this little voice in my head feels like I will be saying the same thing about this album. A punk version of Frightened Rabbit, but with the same depth and emotion in th lyrics. "Quiet Little Voices" is certainly a song of the year contender. Time will tell if I am wrong about their placement.

4) The Temper Trap -- Conditions.
It would have been easy to dismiss this Aussie group from the contribution to the (500) Days of Sumer Soundtrack. Fortunately for me, I kept digging and found a treasure of melodic, soaring pop songs. Shades of U2 creep in here and their but lead singer Dougy Mandagi's voice seperates them from the others. "Fader" and "Sweet Disposition" show promise for a big time, stadium style rock band.

3) U2 - No Line On The Horizon
Shocks me too! Usually a year that sees a U2 release already has a #1 slot spoken for but I can't shake the fact that this just wasn't as good as the past couple of records. "Breathe" and "Magnificent" are vintage U2 and sounded great live, but what was meant to be the heart of the record; "Moment of Surrender" and "Unkown Caller" just haven't resonated with me the way I thought the would. It doesn't mean it's not a good record, but given their standards I expect more.

2) The Dimes -- The King Will Drink The Harbor Dry
I wrote when I first got this record that I thought it was a brilliant fusion of lyrical originality and musical acumen and I stand by that. No where else will you find pop songs about Paul Revere and revolutionary era Boston that are catchy. What could be hokey becomes poignant in the hands of Johnny Clay and his band. A treat for those who are history buffs but not something to be dismissed if you are a fan of good music.

1) Pearl Jam -- Backspacer
Eddie Vedder has achieved statesmanlike status over time as his lyrics have grown more refined and deeper. Moving away from teen angst to middle age analysis of life reinvigorated the band. Stone Gossard and Mike McCready revisited thier punk rock roots with an onslaught of guitars straight out of THE RAMONES playbook and the shorter nature of the record gives it more immediacy. The thing that seperates this record from the previous few is a more carefree sense of timing between the members. Confortable in who they are they have now settled into a rhythm and as a result are more sure of their abilities than ever. Whereas the last records have felt like a band reaching out for acceptance, "Backspacer" feels more relaxed and at the same time a tighter sound. "Speed of Sound", "Gonna See My Friend", and "Got Some" still show a balls to the wall rock band at it's finest. "Amongt The Waves" is what sets the record apart. Anthemic in stature, it's one of the best songs a great band has done. That in and of itself gives it my record of the year status.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Imitation Will Get You Everywhere

When I worked in the music business, I spent the bulk of my day calling college radio stations to get my records added to their playlists. This usually entailed all kinds of cajoling, needling, begging, bartering and general bullshitting about the record. When it was a record I liked this was an easy process. I could effuse about it's artistic virtues and the quality of the musical craftsmanship, the passion of the lyrics and the simple fact the band F***king rocked. However, when the record was less then stellar it was a harder task. The easiest way to get someone to play a record was to compare it to a more established artist. Sometimes this was easy, other times it was a bit of a stretch. For better or worse I now find myself on the other end of that paradigm as labels and promotion companies send material to me to write about. This extends to artists I hear now that immediately recall other sounds. Here are just a couple of examples:

Owl City -- Ocean Eyes
I swear to god when I first heard the lead single, "Fireflies", I thought it was a new POSTAL SERVICE song. Granted the lyrics are certainly more juvenile than anything Ben Gibbard would actually release (in fact one almost pictures Gibbard hearing this and chuckling about it something he would have written in Junior High). But setting that aside, and coming to grips with the sheer candy coated pop nature of the whole album, it really isn't that bad.

(mp3) Fireflies (careful, earworm waiting to happen. Thank the wife for this one.)

Hyperstory -- Hyperstory
I thought the GORILLAZ were about as innovative as they came when they first appeared. Damon Albarn and Danger Mouse served a quality musical foils to each other and pushed one another to new creative heights. The unexpected outcome of that album was a meshing of alternative rock, hip hop and electronic that had been bubbling under the surface and shot it into the mainstream. This in turn led to a lot of this sort of hybrid production as star type of musical projects. HYPERSTORY, is a prime example of this phenomenon. Not wholly original (the press release from the good folks over at Green Light Publicity actually touts this record as a stop gap till the new Gorillaz record comes out) but still a decent outing, one wonders if it would get any attention if it was judged on it's own merit rather than comparing it to a superior product.

(mp3) A Happening (this is the best thing on the album)

Monday, December 07, 2009

Dusting off the Tape Collection (Cooler in College version)

There was a time I thought I was cool. Not in the High school starting quarterback sort of way. More the hipper than thou indie kid sort of way. I feasted on being in the know when it came to music and since I lived in area that did not have a thriving rock scene, any time a band I thought was good came around I gravitated toward them. On top of being a college radio DJ I also worked at the school's TV studio. This in an of itself was not very cool other than it gave us the chance to do stupid stuff with equipment and get paid for it. There is a legendary (at least amongst my college buddies) piece of video of my pal Scott interjecting him into the game DOOM using the green screen that made us laugh for hours.

(Okay so I admit, I was never going to be cool but bear with me anyway)

The moral of this little tale was that for me the height of my insider-ness came in the form of video shoot for an Orange County band called THE LEMMINGS. My buddy Dave had a relative who was either in the band or affiliated in some form who asked our crew of college video misfits to shoot a video for them (or we begged them as part of a project I can't remember which). One afternoon the band came in and we shot it with three cameras in a small studio. Afterwords we edited, reviewed and replayed it over and over. It may have been the highlight of our college production careers (to be fair, some of my friends have gone on to actually produce real television).

So when I found that four song demo I popped it in the tape deck and reminisced about the time when I thought I was cool.

**sonically these guys sound a lot like OASIS or BLUR. Which is funny for four guys from the OC. But not a bad knock off of the brit pop sound.

Since We Last Spoke

Sorry for the absence. Been a bit busy lately. Here is a pic of my newest indie kid: