Friday, January 7, 2011

The SE7ENTEEN: 2010

This year was full of amazing music, and perplexing popular choices. Kanye West made one of the most incredible albums EVER (apparently). I can't wait to hear it! Emeralds seem to have all the "it" kids by the balls. Why does everyone think it's the best album from a band no one's heard of? Granted, these opinions are weighted by support from the community. I just never got into either of these records. I like Caribou's Swim album, but I also didn't get into it. Once the amazing first track "Odessa" ends, everything feels like a drop off. I did get very into the new Arcade Fire album, and I intend to check out These New Puritans. Truth be told, I don't listen to much vocal-driven music anymore, so it takes something special to get my attention. So I'm going with what I know. Let's do this in reverse order, for extra tension (and because I like to copy everyone else).

20., 19., and 18. who get respect but no love.
. .

Strië - Sléptis . . Nils Frahm & Anne Müller - 7fingers . . Evan Caminiti - West Winds

17. The Parenting Award
Hans Zimmer - Inception Soundtrack
Have you heard the Flashdance soundtrack? It's a bunch of pop songs and mini ballads from the 80s, and if you listen to it on vinyl in your parlor the only thing binding them together is the production values of that decade and their overall mediocrity. In the context of the movie, it works ok (though Footloose is way better). Soundtracks these days are really getting better; more thoroughly conceived. When I listen to Inception while I work, my pulse quickens or falls, making me work faster or more intently. Hans Zimmer truly has perfected his style, and each film he scores has unique musical moments (Gladiator was good). The dude scores so many films, it's hard to understand how he can continuously come up with memorable themes. On Inception,there is a glut of themes, it's hard to pick which one is the flagship of the movie.Zimmer employs a few new tricks as well, and while the massive brass-driven DUHN - DUHNs are kind of cheap, they really are effective. Like a Playboy, or doritos. Except I don't feel cheap when I hear it. I am exhilarated.

16. The Fat Man Sweat Award
Slow Six – Tomorrow Becomes You
Christopher Tignor is one of those people who's too good. Explaining how he creates his own (open source) live-manipulation software to effectively make the bands he plays in possible can make your head spin. On top of that, his bands are really good - Wires.Under.Tension, himself, and this Slow Six thing, which is a bunch of all stars from the New York scene, though you've likely never heard of any of them. My friend Malcolm's even recorded with a couple of the guys who play live with Slow Six (we don't remember their names, but they were talented chaps). This brush with obscure stardom was fun for me to discover! I was pretty positive Tomorrow Becomes You was one of the best albums of the year back in January. Not much has changed. If anything, I over-listened to it, and now I have to wait a year before I go back. I was saturated with the glut of amazing ideas, techniques and compositional executions on this record that my ears are bloated. This is the only way I can explain its position at #16. But on another day this could be in my top five because the music on this album is what rock and roll is all about.

15. The Indigenous Christ Award
65daysofstatic – We were exploding anyway
These assholes just seem to get better and better. I was on an Amtrak back in 2001, on my way to Florida, when I ran into a very large young man. He was bound for Gainsville, his first scholarship year for the Florida Gators football team. He spoke of Jesus, and the entire train car ended up in our riveting religious discussion. My main problem was with the tenet that once someone hears about Jesus Christ and his availability for saving your soul, it was your fault for not being saved (and being damned eternally). "So people in Papua New Guinea, who have never heard of Jesus, who led a healthy and happy life, get out of this?" By his logic, that was the case. While this view is frustratingly flawed in some ways, it can be applied to 65daysofstatic, because if you are an aspiring rock band, and you hear these people, it's up to you to not suck anymore, to strive to be great at what you do. Never before has a band fused electronics and rock elements in such an energetic and exciting fashion. This record is an absolute riot, jam-packed with inertia. I know they're probably listening to Jay-Z, but I always imagine football players are listening to We Were Exploding Anyway while they warm up for a big game.

14. The Death By Kitchen Sink Award
World’s End Girlfriend - Seven Idiots
Who knew the same guy who sounds so slow and sad on Palmless Prayer: A Mass Murder Refrain would also create one of the most riotous explosions every committed to tape. And yet, Seven Idiots is highly accessible compared to Daisuke's Program Music, in my opinion. If you were imagining this album was to contain more mournful drift, World's End Girlfriend really shits the bed on expectations with this one. Centered around the Divine Comedy, Seven Idiots is truly an adventure in sound. It massacres anyone with ADD and satisfies those looking into the fine qualities of pacing. It sure sounds like Katsushido Maeda hired every manner of demon, pixie, video game character, gorgon, pink elephant and muppet to suit up in some comical suit of armor to unleash the joyous fury that this album possesses. Nothing on earth behaves as this record does. An anomaly.

13. The Secret Handshake with Terence McKenna Award
Dirac – Phon
How this record didn't end up on The Silent Ballet's top 100 is beyond me. One track. One hour. One novel, mutating organism. "Ambient" is merely the name of the diving board one launches off of while the ocean awaits beneath. My buddy Steve postulated that, "Dirac's project is to provide the necessary assistance to the listener, that she might access something within her psycho-physical existence that would otherwise prove impossible." To be swept away by this sleeping beast, is to leave the body and all relativity. This could very well be a dream. At its apex, Phon can help one achieve ecstatic frames of mind. Whoever these people are have a concentrated amount of knowledge when it comes to the finer details of soundscape drama. Definitely artists who are seriously into what they are doing, and I can't wait until they receive the acclaim they must be heading for.

12. The Classical Music To Get Dumped To Award
Daniel Bjarnason – Processions
This album is a testament to how the times are changing - but in a cyclical fashion. Back in the day, artists like this would be at odds with other composers, perhaps ready to duel at sundown over who was more honorable or talented. Nowadays, feuds are over the same shit, but we usually hear about how this one guy in the Rolling Stones dissed the girlfriend of so and so from INXS (look it up). It's the rock bands that are getting the attention put on their personal lives. The Icelandic composer Bjarnason has been writing and conducting other people's work for years, as well as his own. He's worked with so many incredible music outfits (London Symphony, Sigur Ros) that it's high time for a debut album. And what a massive piece of the earth's crust he has vaulted over the heads of the contemporary landscape! From this tower of amazing composition, this guy rains down the fire and brimstone in a visceral display of wisdom and fury. You don't just get dumped, and write a tune out of frustration with an orchestra. You do it with a guitar - thus the popularity of rockers. But this.. . . This Processions album, as beastly as it is, feels like it harnesses that energy. Considering the magnitude of a full orchestra agreeing to play these notes, no ex will ever recover from the rebounding wrath. Oh, and Processions is muy pretty, too.

11. The Ecstacy Award
My Education – Sunrise
Jesus god, another post rock album. But wait, this band is pretty good. And anything is better than this album cover. (As Richard Allen said, "All time least good!") So anything further can be redeeming, but wow, what a statement Sunrise makes. The production is as clear as crystal (with 8 different instruments, that's pretty great). The songs are riveting, for the most part, and compositionally speaking, My Education have a beat on how to perfectly arrange repeating parts. Meant to be a soundtrack to a 1922 silent film, this album apparently only features the highlights. I come out of it thinking nothing on the lines of post rock. Post rock is dead, and bands like this frankenstein it for the greater good. Also, someone told me that if you listen to "Oars" while on MDMA, it's awesome. I can imagine! Did you know that MDMA is used by therapists in Sweden and other nations as a chemical agent in resolving conflicts? If the dude in the silent film Sunrise ever took this drug, he likely wouldn't have gotten to the point where he was trying to murder his lover. So I recommend it. (the album)

10. The Canadian Dictatorship
Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
Orchestra rock. Why is this popular while orchestras are not? Why does the adding of classical elements enhance, while classical elements themselves have no luster in this climate of young music? Sorry Daniel Bjarnason. But people want to sing along. Fandom is contagious. The impression of being a part of something is powerful, while finding a genuine tribe is hard work or seemingly improbable. The Arcade Fire are a pretty well-knit tribe, one that people are ridiculously in love with everywhere. I missed my chance to see them at a small venue back in 2004. Opted not to chance it. But now they only seem to play the concrete noise church that is Pacific Coliseum. And they wouldn't be in such big venues if it weren't for their disgustingly quality albums. Suburbs will never be Funeral (perhaps the best rock album of last decade), but it is Arcade Fire. They ain't compromising for anyone. It's all bliss in its angst and pressing on. The lyricists are not cynical, they are full of hope, wonder, determination. It's the kind of album that you put your fist in the air to, while the other hand is writing a letter to that person you've been meaning to talk to for all your life.

9. The Perfect Springtime Soundtrack Award
Jónsi – Go
Oh, how all doubters were silenced by this. Sigur Rós was riding high, and then they made that one album with all the running asses on the front. Lost their luster a bit, for me. Are they sad? Are they happy? In order to better arrange these disparate emotions, let's go solo. Jónsi sure is happy. But we've all heard happy people that make shitty albums. Like Mr. T. Bruce Willis. Alf. Ringo. If Jónsi had made a movie, maybe it would be a B rate bargain bin special. Instead he's made one of the happiest albums I can remember. Not forced either. You know how Lords of Acid was sort of cool when you were younger cause it was all sexual and shit? Well, it's total crap. Forcing the sex thing into songs is a big no-no. So trite. Cheap. Cheaper than Mad Dog 20/20. Go is no fruit colored liquor. It is a unicorn frolicking on a flowery hillside, swallowing rainbows and harvesting manna. Or, that's what Ford Motors thinks, at least. What's up with that, you say? Jónsi doing a Ford commercial? Listen: It's not like Jónsi agreed to sing a song about the nuclear family driving cars over the bloodied corpses of third world sweat shop workers. He wrote a song, years ago, it's successful and full of joy, Ford gives him money. Ford was going to give someone money. Jónsi didn't have to do anything extra. I'd rather hear Jónsi than another rah-rah Pappa John's mess of an audio mix. You aren't buying cars anyway, you're loving this album.

8. The Having Sex in a Lamborghini, Eating Chocolate, Flying Off a Cliff Award
Talons – Hollow Realm
Mega awesome, high energy album. Someone we know once explained how they wanted to die, and it was roughly the name of this award. Why go out snoring? Fly by the seat of your pants, and fuck up as many times as you have to while you do what you love, that's what I say. Adding a violin player to a band is a little played out now, but adding two violins, however - now that's not so common. And in this case, the songs have so many changes and seethe with such intensity that it becomes a recipe we've never really heard of before. Hollow Realm feels innovative because so many post rock bands languish their energy in looooong build ups. No filler here. Talons are incredibly talented and they play fast and complex stuff. I am so satisfied when I turn this one up. My 2-year old is on breakthrough away from requesting it every day (like he does with some albums). But we all get obsessed. I'd say that each of the albums listed from this album on gave me so much so as to be obsessed for a long period of time. They are wonderful.

7. The World Eraser Award
Richard Skelton – Landings
This is not an album. It's life itself, contained in a man-made product. You might say, that's what all music is, to a degree. And I counter: Richard Skelton isn't music. It's life. Whether he is Cloubeck, A Broken Consort, himself - whatever - there is a special quality to his music that feels like it emerges from within the listener's heart. Was it because he recorded his mournful pieces in a vast wilderness where he secluded himself, with babbling streams, curlews and winds playing along with him? Was it the poetry he wrote to accompany the book graced with his dead wife's photography? What is this quality? It's magic; that's all I can say. Nothing compares to this guy's stuff. You can feel each bow string, each meandering thought. And no listen is the same as the last. If I was trying to be funny in this analysis, it wouldn't work. Because life is not funny. TV is.

6. The Best Soundtrack For A Devastating Premise Award
Brian McBride - The Effective Disconnect
Dude didn't call it "Soundtrack for...." No. This soundtrack is good enough to have its own title. Bees are disappearing everywhere, and it's horrible. People's livelihoods hang in the balance. Nature would never be the same, ecosystems might collapse. You might not be able to grow flowers in a pot! But wow, McBride sure makes it all sound pretty amazing. In fact, this album is so gorgeous, it has lessened my acute awareness that bee populations are declining. In essence, I disconnected (effectively) from the entire problem to instead focus on orchestral ambient perfection. Has Brian McBride done the world a disservice by ironically helping to destroy bees? Why care about bees when people are way more beautiful? I find myself going to this album a lot. The arrangements are more suite like, engaging the listener more than a Stars of the Lid track (which is often spread out over three tracks!). So beautiful. Just don't forget about the rest of the world too long...

And now, my top five.

5. The Virginie Lebeau Award
Black Swan - Black Swan (In 8 Movements)
You think Daft Punk wants you to respect the music and not the people who make it? They do. That's why they are robotozoids with fashion sense. But Black Swan ups the ante, choosing instead to appear as a series of X-rays! I don't know if this can be topped. There's no straighter path to the importance of the musical experience than to deliver it to your audience as an anonymous persona represented in ambiguous two-dimensionality. It definitely gives this album a special appeal, as if it had always existed - like a waterfall in a canyon, or a cluster of quasars. And in this case, the music is so compelling. It's ambient, drone, William Basinski-esque tape manipulation - and it is excellent. It has a creep factor, as if the listener is meant to be gagged and bound, subjected to a barrage of violent television or a parade of eternally damned sinners. And it is gorgeously conceived, as if the dark lord himself were singling you out for a soliloquoy about the everything. I have yet to listen to this record and feel jaded. Over and over, it delivers. There are few records that have this power over me. The fact that it's just over a half hour in length preserves the magic, and encourages one to play it again as soon as it ends.

Here is but one movement of the 8 at

4. The I Got Nothin' Award
Olan Mill – Pine
I can't find a single disrespecting review of this album on the Internet. Come on, people. Doesn't anyone hate Olan Mill? There's got to be something bad to say. "Too Good. You might as well just die because nothing's really going to be as beautiful as this again. Kill yourself." You would think that if everyone knew about this album, the suicide rate would actually go down. I reckon people kill themselves while crappy music is playing. Serial killers on the other hand - they might warm up to this album. Kind of like how the Joker loved classical. Well, this is modern classical, so get with the times, you lunatics. Pine plays out like an afterlife romance, provided that that afterlife takes place in a regal mansion with a ballroom, cloud vistas, aromatic fields - really pretty places. There's nothing dark about this release (in case you think "afterlife" is synonymous with something morbid, that's not where I was going). It is bright at the corners, optimistic, all the love in the world, effusive, just out of reach. An audio symbol of the condition we humans have where knowing everything about existence would just crush us. It would be too much. This is the music that laments but smiles in light of this. Hard to realistically say anything asinine about Olan Mill's debut. Splendid stuff.

Listen to Pine on Soundcloud.

3. The Jesus Makes No Sense But Buy it Anyway Award
Year of No Light – Ausserwelt
This band is all kittens and cranberries. Kittens are, of course, juvenile rodent murderers. Cranberries are a bitter fruit that can only survive in acidic bogs. Now imagine a bedraggled cat, soaked in bog water, maw full of bloody cranberries - a zombie, cast aside by the eyes of love, left to wander the badlands without purpose except perhaps to hunt down the innocent, destined to crash in a heap and await a grizzly fate. That doesn't exactly summarize how Ausserwelt sounds, but it does bring to light its brutal sound palette, fused with a dreamy, shoegazey bent. This is not black metal - far from it. It's sweet, but bitter. It's fuzzy like a cat, but cats are also escorts for dead pharaohs as well as creepy in general. This is really a stupid review. What I really want to say is that this album absolutely destroys. In fact, I don't like cats all that much. But I do love cranberries. They help cure bladder infections. And they complete the North American holiday meal. So this album was bred from hate, but it's healthy and tastes delicious. It's purrrfect. (Kill me)

You can hear a track off Ausserwelt here.

2. The Cinnamon Toast Crunch On Christmas Award
Fang Island - Fang Island
I love the Black Swan album for it being disembodied from its creator. At the same time I love this album, Fang Island, for the fact that it sounds like people having fun. Clearly humans made this. It's got raw talent, amazing hooks, godzilla-sized guitar lines, and a sing-along factor I can't recall an album having since, perhaps, a Beatles record. And, to satisfy my niche mind, it has post-rock segments that are killer. (I am all about killer metaphors) Weird, wonderful, I don't know how this record feels so fresh. All it is is a few dudes with guitars and drums and voices, all fired up, in unison, slaying demons with songs. And they are having the time of their life. I think that's what does it here: the fun factor. You know how certain people always make you smile? Or make you feel validated, smarter, or something? People like Joseph Campbell or Tom Hanks. They just have that special joy that makes their life a work of art at all times. They love it. Fang Island are totally in their element. A lot of young bands start out loud and proud, swashbuckling their way to their third and fourth albums where shit starts to slow down and mellow out, disappointing millions of bandwagoners, only to nestle comfortably into a market niche that has nothing to do with the grassroots or genuine nature of being in a rock band. This band, however, feels like they could make happy rock and roll forever. They don't give a fuck, but they care about you! Have you seen them playing in that kindergarten class? Tell me these guys aren't in it for the joy.

Listen to the whole album here.

1. The Toy Story 4 Award
Nest - Retold
We put up with sequels all the time. You might have seen the latest Toy Story film and thought what I thought: best one yet. By far! Most of these sequels fall flat. You don't really think the third Austin Powers was superior, do you? Is the debate worth it? How high were you? Regardless, this re-telling of old tales is a part of our culture. Movies do it all the time. But when an album gets re-tooled to better express an artist's vision, woa, Hey now. We'll listen, but we won't validate you. Oh the controversy. To explain, five of these songs were released as an EP in 2007. One of them was re-done for this release. They all were re-mastered. Four new tracks were added to make it an album. And thus, it is not eligible for pretty much anyone's best-of-2010 lists. I was up in arms. "Big deal! It's amazing." A technicality may deprive many willing ears from one of the best secrets of the year. It's a crime. Retold is easily one of the year's best; Nest's Empire Strikes Back. It's hard for me to decide whether or not this or Olan Mill's record is better, but I think Nest has the edge. Maybe it's the otherworldly, ethnic flavor of the Welsh harp. Or the perfect placement of every single note. My buddy Gabe was equally amazed in his review of this amazing work of art. Nothing is out of place. The album's flow is lovely. The beauty is stark and evanescent at times, but more often it is as tangible as a moss covered stone at the water's edge. Your cheek on its moist fuzz, the sound of the waves lapping. Linear time is gone. The album's narrative is just top notch, with each instrument woven in like a star in the sky's indigo blanket. Retold's space is consistently large, and cozy. Constellations appear everywhere, in any form, depending on how you connect the dots. I think what makes the album so special is the myriad and unique voices heard throughout. "Kyoto" uses that harp and a synthetic 'Japanese' mirror instrument. "Marefjellet" has a peculiar air of nervousness and determination. "Amroth" is a total drifter into the arctic waves of white. The fact that these two musicians added songs to an existing EP and made it better shows a lot of skill and integrity about what kind of story they are trying to tell. That EP was just the trailer. This is a complete work. Impressive, gorgeous and essential listening.

Listen to Retold here:

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