Monday, December 26, 2011

Favorite Albums 2011 (part 2)

11. Mogwai - Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will: Mogwai returned this year with undoubtedly the best album title of the year. As I noted in my review of the album in Inflatable Ferret, this album is more of recent period Mogwai, and in that sense, there are no surprises. What is surprising is the unceasing creative well of the band members. Even as they use the Mogwai format of heavy-to-light instrumentals, they continue to produce tracks with amazing dynamics, melodies, and arrangements ( contrast to Explosions in the Sky, another instrumental band who seem to have hit a cul de sac.) The hipster wisdom about Mogwai is that that they peaked with their very first album, Mogwai Young Team, but I’m in the minority who believes that every album since then (1997!) has a classic or two. They have such a vast discography now that it can be a little daunting to get into, but I actually think this new one is not a bad place to start. You have the long languid crush-your-bones tracks, the sweeping uplifting calls to arms, the deeply melancholy musical nostalgia, and the utter sadness of failure-without-redemption music, all here. I had tickets to see them in April but they canceled and rescheduled to September because of visa problems. Then they canceled again, and the shows have yet to be scheduled. We shall see.

12. Thurston Moore - Demolished Thoughts: Again, I’ve already reviewed this both on Inflatable Ferret and had a brief note here. Who’d have thought Moore had it in him to make a warm, lush, almost romantic album? Produced by Beck, this has some parallels to Sea Change. While not quite as brilliant as Beck’s magnum opus, Demolished Thoughts has a little bit of that same weariness. What’s different is that it also has a tone of joy in it. All those acoustic guitars, violins, and wooden instruments play music that would be ideal for a sunny Sunday afternoon at Washington Square Park. Of course, it may or may not be pertinent that Thurston Moore recently parted ways with Kim Gordon, and perhaps this album is the soundtrack to his new life? Who knows. My favorite track is "Space" which has some of the gorgeosity of Love and Rockets' classic "Haunted When the Minutes Drag"... or "Saudade." Either way, it may be the best Sonic Youth-related product be released in the past... um, at least five years?

13. Oneohtrix Point Never - Replica: OPN is the name of Daniel Lopatin, some dude who lives in Brooklyn (where else) who makes music on vintage synthesizers and pianos. It's music more on the ambient, drone-y side of things, not unlike Boards of Canada's beatless soundscapes. There's a lot of space in this kind of electronic music, and that space often makes the music more creepy than evocative. This is another one that benefits from repeated listens, and once you start to distinguish each track you start to realize the arc of each song, from beginning to end, that there is some method to all of this. It's a little bit like the Books, especially in the way samples (especially vocal samples) are repeatedly looped and broken and looped again, to create a rhythm -- check out "Sleep Dealer" for example. But where the Books create a strange world out of normal everyday sounds, OPN do the same (and up the strangeness factor) with a panoply of analog synthesizers. I imagine that Pink Floyd's abandoned Household Objects project might have sounded a little bit like this if it they had synthesizers and GarageBand in 1974.

14. Radiohead - The King Of Limbs: So this album came out earlier this year, and it was a brief but exciting moment. Hearing the album was, however, underwhelming. It sounded vaguely unformed, meandering, almost tuneless. But you know, it's really grown on me, and I've come to appreciate it much much more now. If you have not heard it even once, prepare not to be able to tell the difference between the first four tracks. The album really takes off on the final four songs, beginning with "Lotus Flower," the song where Thom Yorke does his spassy dance in that video that was floating around a while back. "Give Up the Ghost" is a beautiful acoustic song while the album closer "Separator" is classic Radiohead pop that wouldn't out of place on In Rainbows. The best thing about the album is that it really works as a single musical statement. Any of the songs taken out of the context of the album really don't do justice to the overall power of the whole thing. Some people complain that Radiohead are too far down the road of programmed music and have permanently left behind the feel of a live band, but remarkably, despite all the bleeps and bloops of computers on this record, it sounds warm. And to prove that, they have recently released a live show (King of Limbs - Live from the Basement) where the band reproduced the whole album live in the studio. There's also a somewhat inessential album collecting various remixes of the album entitled TKOL RMX 1234567, and while some of the folks recruited are impressive (Caribou, Four Tet, Modeselektor, etc.), it's not that great. What is great is that the band released a few songs from the same sessions later in the year, which are fantastic, particularly "Supercollider" and "The Butcher."

15. Real Estate - Days: I first heard Real Estate a couple of years ago when their song "Beach Comber" came out, which I played like a million times. I couldn't believe that there was a song this good that existed; very good R.E.M.-ish Byrds-esque indie rock circa mid-1980s. Maybe it was a bit nostalgic for me, but again, I'm a sucker for a good pop tune that's just a bit off-kilter. The new album is all that and more. Standout tracks are "Younger Than Yesterday" (a sly Byrds reference?) and the brilliant "It's Real." There seems to be a slight resurgence of 1980s-era indie guitar pop these days (see also the band Wild Nothing with their Smiths-esque Gemini from a year or two ago). Real Estate may be the best of the lot. I know I should be posting something from the new album but I can't help but post "Beach Comber" yet again (via Stereogum).

Real Estate - Beach Comber [mp3]

16. Seefeel - Seefeel: This, probably the best electronic band of the 1990s, suddenly reformed in 2010, released an e.p. (Faults) and then a full album in 2011. Bizarrely, as far as I could tell, no one noticed and the album kind of dropped out of sight. Just to back up, Seefeel produced some of the most beautiful electronic music of the nineties. And they somehow they did it all (mostly) with guitars. I like to think that if Kevin Shields hadn't lost his shit and produced a follow-up to Loveless, it might have sounded a bit like Seefeel's utterly brilliant Polyfusia (actually a compilation of singles and e.p.'s). I've written love letters to Seefeel on my blog before (and on the now long lost Fred newsletter), but I haven't mentioned this album yet. The most stark difference with earlier Seefeel here is that they have a live drummer, Lida Kazuhisa (or E-Da) who used to drum for the Boredoms. The main architects of the band, Mark Clifford and Sarah Peacock, still produced blissful music but it sounds more fractured, damaged, brittle, distorted, largely to the dry syncopated drumming that gives it an almost tribal tone. It's definitely an acquired taste and on the fringes of experimental pop but frequent listens will be rewarded. A worthy return from a great band. Here's a recent interview with Clifford and Peacock.

17. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy: I didn't pay that much attention to St. Vincent (Annie Clark) until I saw her shred some guitar covering Big Black's "Kerosene." I mean I'd heard a few tracks here and there (including "Actor Out of Work") but this new album really caught my attention. She seems to have a little bit of the nice-mannered-young-woman-bordering-on-deranged sensibility (a la Kristen Hersh) but without being too predictable. She's clearly very talented as an instrumentalist and the album makes good use of many different instruments (including trumpets, clarinets, violins, flutes) but you kind of never forget the guitar which is front and center here. Which is what you get from this clip:

It will be interesting to see where she goes from here.

18. Tinariwen - Tassili: I've liked Tinariwen for a while now (loved "Amassakoul 'N' Tenere") and judging by the press they've gotten in recent years, they have a big following here in the U.S.. This is partly I think enabled by the fact that members of TV on the Radio have played with them. Incredibly, they were on the Colbert Report recently. Their music is still a nice mix of Tuareg blues but now the band incorporates more rock influences (including songs in English). The album is also very live-sounding, very loose, like a band jamming along, almost discovering unexpected trajectories for each song to take. I wouldn't go quite as far as NPR when they called Tinariwen "just about the best guitar-based rock band of the 21st century" but they are exploring similar spaces that bands like Television did back in the 1970s, a kind of a dream-trance state of guitar music. This makes it three-in-a-row for great Tinariwen albums, and Tassili holds up well to repeat listens. Dream on.

19. Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring For My Halo: I’ve already written a bit about Kurt Vile so I won’t repeat what I wrote before. It has a classic rock vibe not unlike a young Tom Petty—his vocal affectations are eerily like Petty at times—but there’s something about Vile’s music that raises it above generic classic rock nostalgia. The low-fi production, the surprisingly warm and creative arrangements, and most of all, the killer tunes, make this worth all the praise it has gotten. It's the perfect modern classic rock album in ages. Almost every song on the album has pop melodies that get right to the heart. And the heart is really the target here; although not all the songs are about love, they're all about romance, damaged romance for a variety of topics, one of which happen to be girls. And I’m unable to explain exactly why but this may be my favorite album of the year. I’ve listened to it a thousand times and I keep coming back to it over and over again. Worthy of note: he’s released a follow-up e.p. called So Outta Reach that has been packaged with newer editions of Smoke Ring For My Halo.

20. Wild Flag - Wild Flag: Members of Sleater-Kinney and Helium get together. Add guitars and organ. Loud drums. Play.

Favorite Reissues
1. Can - Tago Mago (originally 1971): I come to kraut rock as a complete novice. I’ve resisted the temptation for years to listen to this stuff, especially when, in the late 1990s, it became the hipster badge-of-coolness to have some awareness of krautrock. And then by the early 2000s, when every band this side of Interpol was talking about motorik, I actively resisted. I’m also wary of the revisionist history that folks like Pitchfork will throw at you. People really didn’t listen to this stuff in the 1970s. Or most people didn’t. So their influence was minimal at best, until, I would say, post-punk a la P.I.L. and stuff like that. So my sum total of krautrock songs I’d heard until 2011 was 1. And that was the song “Oh Yeah” from this very album, a track I heard only because it was on an awesome compilation I’d picked up back when I lived in Northampton in the ‘90s. Either way, “Oh Yeah” was actually quite amazing, and for the longest time I actually thought that the percussion on the song was programmed, not realizing that, no, it was actually a LIVE human being playing drums. So anyway, on a whim I picked up this reissue thinking that I should start my krautrock education at basically Year Zero, or Tago Mago. Because I’ve read so much about Tago Mago, it’s hard to escape the weight of its legacy. Yet, I found it oddly freeing to have never heard it until now. I don’t owe it anything. I wasn’t gonna like it if it sucked. That was basically what I came with. So... now that I’ve heard it a few times I can say that it is indeed good. It has the slight whiff of post-Barrett Pink Floyd, vaguely from the Ummagumma years. The two most "visible" instruments are the drums and the vocals, the formerly cranking into a mesmerizing metronome beat that’s mechanical and hypnotic, and sometimes creepy. Damo Suzuki’s vocals mostly play as instruments rather than vocals; and if sometimes he sounds absolutely insane (see “Mushroom”) he also knows when to modulate and drone (see “Oh Yeah”). And one more thing I didn’t know about Can: they sure know how to funk up the music: “Halleluhwah” absolutely cranks up the ‘70s funk even as it creates some sort of space rock jam in a foreign language that wouldn’t be out of place at the Saturday night party on an interstellar battleship heading off to a new nebula. In the context what’s going in 1971, sure, it’s out of place, but not that out of place, if you consider the whacky stuff even popular bands like Pink Floyd were doing. But you know, as a piece of music ripped out of its context, it is an oddly perfect album to bridge the personal with the social. I’ve listened to it on headphones in airplanes and airports, and it seems to mirror the anxieties and movement of the mass of people around me perfectly, while at the same time creating a bubble around me. About the reissue: it comes with a second disc containing a complete live Can concert (three songs!) from 1972. Two of the three “songs” on the live CD are also featured on the original album but they bear absolutely no resemblance to the recorded versions. Highly recommended!

2. Nirvana - Nevermind (originally 1991): What to say about Nevermind at this point? I have a (very) long essay actually coming up soon on that very issue, but as far as the reissue is concerned, is there much to say? Well, the album is the album, everybody knows the deal, but what about the extras? Disc 1 has appended (after the original album) all the original single b-sides some of which are actually essential (“Aneurysm,” for example). Disc 2 has a bunch of previously unreleased tracks from around the time of Nevermind, most of which are alternate versions of songs you’ve already heard a million times. Sure, some of them are of moderate interest (especially some of the pre-Butch Vig versions of the songs, which are generally inferior). There’s the absolutely incredible cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Here She Comes Now” which has actually been floating around on several compilations. The key tracks, that I think worth getting (or at least hearing) are: a brilliant version of “Sappy,” and low quality boom box-recorded versions of “Verse Chorus Verse” and “Old Age.” All three songs are, in my mind, as good as any of the songs actually on Nevermind. “Old Age” in particular was “taken” by Courtney Love and released as a b-side by her band Hole without any writing credit to Kurt Cobain. I’m not an audiophile so I’m not terribly interested in Disc 3, basically a slightly different mix of Nevermind. Disc 4 is worth getting: a complete live show from Halloween 1991 in Seattle. This one has been bootlegged a million times and this pristine recording shows why: it is the three-piece band at absolutely the top of their game. They rip through various Nevermind and Bleach tunes with a single-minded focus that is impressive. Opening the set is a brilliang electric cover of the Vaselines’ “Jesus Don’t Want Me for a Sunbeam,” which later showed up as an acoustic song on “MTV Unplugged.” Just to round out things, there is also a DVD of that Halloween show, with the film remastered to such clarity that the sweat flying off the band members can be seen in Hi-Def. All-in-all, this box set is not worth getting unless you're into the live show and the DVD. And unless you fetishize expensive and redundant objects that remind you of your lost adolescence. You decide.

Other good reissues:

The Beach Boys - Smile
Mercury Rev - Deserter's Songs
R.E.M. - Lifes Rich Pageant
Marvin Gaye - What's Going On
Queen - various albums 1973-1976
Ride - Nowhere
Simon & Garfunkel - Bridge Over Troubled Water
This Mortal Coil - box set
Throbbing Gristle - various albums

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