Wednesday, December 23, 2015

To Pimp A Butterfly, Sexwitch, Chvrches, Moon Wiring Club

Oh, and bizarrely, I only just began to pay attention to the Kendrick Lamar record which everyone and their pet hamster loves. I'm highly suspicious of people lauding an album unanimously as the second coming of Christ. My defenses immediately go up. Why was Kendrick Lamar number 1 everywhere? Were people too lazy to deviate from The Consensus? I don't know.

But I do know that I really like Lamar's "Alright" and "King Kunta" and actually, pretty much the whole album, To Pimp A Butterfly. I'm still reluctant to put it in my top albums list because I'm still in the listening mode. But it is pretty amazing -- and I'm actually just talking about the backing music. Haven't paid much attention to the words at all, which I am told in a stern voice, is about all sorts of important shit. The music is pretty FANTASTIC though.... Honest. Take a listen:

Also, a couple of other albums that I forgot or missed from my top list:

Sexwitch - Sexwitch: a collaboration between Natasha Atlas (of Bat for Lashes) and a bunch of other people. They do these amazing covers of long-forgotten 1970s psychedelic / pop / folk songs from Iran, Morocco, Thailand as well as some American stuff. Pretty cool. Check out "Helelyos":

Chvrches: Every Open Eye: I like it! What can I say? It's melodic, it's dancy, it's well-recorded, and it feels like 1983 (or '84?). Technopop from people with thick Scottish accents who seamlessly integrate a whole host of great 1980s pop influences (OMD, Depeche Mode, Eurythmics, etc.)

Moon Wiring Club -- this is an electronic band (actually a British guy named Ian Hodgson on the Blank Workshop Label) who have released a bewildering amount of stuff in the past ten years or so. In 2015 alone, he has put out two things, Why Does My House Make Creaking Noises and Playclothes from Faraway Places. Their website is a strange rabbit hole of an imagined world of Victorian curiosity.

Here is their "Velveteen World," which is actually a track from 2013's A Fondness for Fancy Hats. But you get the general idea:

Also, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that I didn't really like much-touted albums by Sufjan Stevens (NPR listener music), Courtney Barnett (meat and potatoes guitar music), Tame Impala (completely derivative classic rock), Father John Misty (pretentious), and Adele (she's a good singer but do we have to continue to pay attention to her?).

Monday, December 14, 2015

Favorite Music 2015

My list of favorite albums this year. Like most years, it's a list with the same old, same old. Let's face it, my taste in music is like it's frozen in 1992.

- A bunch of guitar-based rock.
- A bunch of electronic music.
- A bunch of singer songwriter types.
- Sometimes, some instrumental music.

One or two oddities. Blah blah.

What I did notice was a lot of women. Make of it what you will.

Favorite 17 albums of the year. This is in alphabetical order!!!!
Except my favorite album of the year, which is:

Beach House - Depression Cherry: I like this. It's mellow. It sounds a bit like My Bloody Valentine's softer moments. But they are undeniably great songwriters, capable of great hooks. I cannot say enough good things about this FANTASTIC album. They also released a second album this year, called Thank Your Lucky Stars, but I have not heard that. This is one of my favorite tracks from Depression Cherry, "10:37." There is a magical childlike quality to it, isn't there?


1. Arca - Mutant: Well, what can you say? It's discordant, it dispenses with the conventional structure of music, it is all about mood, and even then it is disturbing, off-putting, uncomfortable, tense. Arca is London-based producer Alejandro Ghersi (originally from Venezuela). Nothing on this makes sense. Honestly, I had the same feeling when I heard White Light/White Heat for the first time (even though that album sounds nothing like this). That this is the present form of electronic music is no surprise in a world that feels like it's going to hell. A perfect soundtrack to entropy.

2. Lou Barlow - Brace The Wave: This is literally the exact opposite of Arca. We're talking muddy, low-fi singer-songwriter acoustic guitar stuff. I always liked Lou, not sure why, all the way back to Folk Implosion but also, of course, Sebadoh. This is an intimate album, you alone, somewhere, someone's house, not even yours, you're a guest, you put it on, you're quiet for about 40 minutes, and then it's over. Some things are pretty, but always a bit off-kilter. Great stuff. Check out "Repeat."
3. Blur - The Magic Whip: I like this. It's better than I expected. I saw them live at the Hollywood Bowl recently. They were good. I think most of the songs were basically written by Graham Coxon (the guitarist) and then Damon Albarn (singer) sort of came in and put some words and melodies on it, taking a break from his global-music-sampling high-flying lifestyle. I hear he might even activate Gorillaz. Sounds good. But this album is a huge surprise and I invite even those who never liked Blur in the first place to sample a few tunes from this. Here is "Thought I Was a Spaceman":

4. Deerhunter - Fading Frontier: Well, Deerhunter has always been in my top 10 whenever they release an album, and this one is no different. This is certainly top 5 for me. Not as abrasive as their last one (Monomania), this new one is perfectly crafted indie pop, no sharp edges, great melodies, and excellent production. It's musically conservative in that it breaks no new ground but that is no slight against the band at all. There is something comforting in this kind of pop/rock. This is probably the album I've heard the most in the past few months. Below is the opening track from the album --  Was there a better opening track on any album this year? NO!

5. Florence + The Machine - How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful: Well, I sure do like this album. Guilty pleasure? Music for the bourgeois? I don't know. Song for song, this is the best commercial pop album of the year, every song, ear candy for the top 40. Florence Welch is obviously into the drama of her own life and sees every single emotional left turn in her life as worthy of a dramatic song. But props to her for creating anthemic tunes out of the ups and downs of romantic yearning. It's a bit like if U2 took all their stadium rock aspirations and distilled it down to fantastic pop songs about the "pains of being pure at heart." One day, one day, I will see her live show and it will be great. Imagine seeing this song at the Hollywood Bowl (which is apparently what it's about).

6. Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress: Unusual for these guys, they managed to crank out a new album, "only" three years after their other (brilliant) one from 2012. In any case, the album is four tracks, most of it which is based around a musical piece called "Behemoth" that the band have been playing for many years. And honestly "behemoth" is a word I've long associated with these guys: their music sounds like a behemoth making music. Some of the stuff on the new album sounds like Yanqui U.X.O. from many many years ago - it has that cavernous effect, as if the band is playing in an underground cave and their loudness is going to literally collapse the cave around them and bury all of them under a pile of rocks. I know none of that made any sense. But really, with Godspeed, there's no point in writing about their music. It's really quite impossible to describe it. (Although I have tried many times). These new four tracks of ripping industrial epic noise will set you adrift into the asteroid belt. They have never let me down.

7. Holly Herndon - Platform: She's a techno producer based in San Francisco (and apparently a Ph.D. student at Stanford) who has been around for a few years putting out all sorts of electronic music, often using a visual programming language called Max/MSP. What to say about this? Honestly, the first thing that struck me about the album was the cover and particularly her face -- red hair, big blue eyes, a vacant faraway look. Someone reviewed her music and said that it's about how you "express humanity in a digital age." Mumbo jumbo, indeed. This is laptop music with an irregular erratic beating heart, and I mean that in a good way. Here is "Chorus":

8. Julia Holter - Have You In My Wilderness: Strange, strange, singer-songwriter type. Strange voice, strange accent. A bit of a baroque sensibility. Sometimes dreamy. A voice from far away. Like she's singing from another time, through a time machine, and it's getting to us here through a megaphone. It's music for the NPR set but in this case, this is not a bad thing. Based in Los Angeles, she is obviously an extremely (extremely) talented songwriter, musician, and producer, someone in total control of her music. Here's "Feel You" from the album -- you can imagine it being on 120 Minutes sometime in 1989, just when you're falling asleep but you wake up and think, hmmm, this is pretty good, maybe I should go and get it.

9. Hop Along - Painted Shut: So who remembers guitar rock? Anyone? Some people apparently still believe in it. In 2015! I know. Anyway, this band from Philadelphia, fronted by a young woman, is all about guitars, basses, and drums. Also, some people seem to think that said woman's voice is weird. I don't think so at all. But what it is, is melodic, a bit like 90s alt-rock. See for yourself. Here is the opening track on Painted Shut, called "The Knock." The album is pretty much like that, and it's one of those albums you can listen to from beginning to end without skipping a track. Good stuff.

10. Jaime xx - In Colour: You may know Jaime xx from his role in the band, the Xx, but he seems to spend most of his energy as a producer and remixer of others. He's so busy that I couldn't really do him justice but despite all his achievements, this is his first actual solo album. This is soaring uplifting techno / rave music, the kind you don't hear so much anymore. One review says that "[t]here are passages in In Colour where the music is huge and anthemic while being simultaneously open and intimate." I think that actually does a good job of succinctly describing this album. Check him out on this episode of Morning Becomes Eclectic on KCRW.

11. Metz - II: Finally,  a band that rocks the fuck out! Sure, they have a bit of (Bleach-era) Nirvana in them but when you crank up the first song ("Acetate"), it will make you want to jump up and down and destroy everything around you. The album is completely about one thing: blow-your-voice-out-rock-and-punk. There's, granted, not much variety (a criticism leveled at the album by some) but the album is about half-an-hour long and before you know it, it's over. It's a perfect punch in the gut of a laid back afternoon.

12. Oneohtrix Point Never - Garden Of Delete: This is basically a guy named Daniel Lopatin who's based in Brooklyn and puts out his weird electronic music on the famed Warp label. I've mentioned his stuff before on Joy of Speed (particularly his album Replica from 2011) and he continues to push the boundaries of electronic music here on Garden of Delete which literally came out a few weeks ago. It's moody music and (like Arca) a bit of an acquired taste, but it does feel like the soundtrack to these times, sometimes cold, sometimes warm, sometimes aggressive, sometimes gentle, but bathed in this kind of awareness of the confusing electronic world we all live in. Here is "I Bite Through It."

13. Puscifer - Money Shot: For some strange reason, this album dropped and then disappeared. Which is weird when you consider that Maynard James Keenan is at the heart of it.Yes, it's been 10 years since the last Tool album, and does anyone really give a shit whether they will release another album? In the time that Tool has not released an album, Led Zeppelin had pretty much their entire career. But we do have Puscifer to hold us over, and unlike most of the earlier Puscifer albums, this one, called Money Shot, is not entirely a joke album with Ween-like songs about absurd shit. In fact, in the middle of all the heavy music there are moments that remind me a lot of A Perfect Circle: emotive and intense. Consider "The Remedy":

14. Sleater-Kinney - No Cities To Love: Was a bit afraid that there would be infinite hype about this album (there was) and it would be a letdown (it wasn't). It is actually pretty awesome. This album is great from the beginning to the end - high energy popish punk that doesn't outstay its welcome -- it's only 32 minutes long. Great melodic rock. And after all these years, I still kind of have a crush on Corin Tucker. She has the most unbelievable voice in pop music. And on this album, she doesn't quite reach the halcyon heights of The Woods, but she still manages to pummel you into submission.

15. Kurt Vile - B'lieve i'm goin down....: So every one of his albums for the past few years has been worth getting. Straight head guitar-bass-rawk with bits of Tom Petty thrown in. The difference is that Kurt Vile has an uncanny ability to write absolutely great songs that permanently stick in your brain. Not all the songs here are top-notch, but as a whole I think this album is a smidgen better than the previous one. I saw him live in LA a couple of months ago and I would have enjoyed it more if the sound mix was a bit better. Aside: I ran into him at a Thrifty car rental a few weeks ago. I told him I'm a big fan and he was very nice about it. Here is a live version of the opening track:

16. Wilco - Star Wars: Who'd have thought? I'm honestly not a big fan of Wilco (dad rock and all that) but I like the sound of this (free) album a lot. The guitars sound brittle, a sonic aesthetic I'm very fond of, kind of like the band Television. This is yer basic guitar-rock album, but it doesn't sound overthought (like much of Wilco), just kind of jammed out and tossed into the world. Yet, there is an intelligence to these songs. These are musicians who have a deep knowledge of the history of rock and they know their Gang of Four as well as they know their copy of late sixties Faces. A great driving album.

I'll post my favorite reissues, compilations, and live albums in a couple of days.

Monday, November 16, 2015

DIfferent Drum

Here in Southern California, it's cooler than usual tonight. My mother isn't well, and I miss her very much. Here is one of her favorite songs, "Different Drum," by released in the fall of 1967 by a band called the Stone Poneys whose lead singer was a young woman named Linda Ronstadt. (I should clarify that even though the song was credited to the Stone Poneys, only other session musicians played on it). Anyway, my mother was very fond of Linda Ronstadt, and growing up we had her greatest hits on the record player a lot. She had a great run of country-tinged Top 40 singles. This particular song, written by Mike Nesmith (of the Monkees) is a perfect pop song, a wonderful example of a catchy, beautiful, but clever pop song, less than 3 minutes long. (And it has a bit of an edge too, lyrically).

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Harmony Rockets - I've Got A Golden TIcket

A reader request. I'll only have the link active for a short period of time.

Harmony Rockets - I've Got A Golden Ticket
[link removed]

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Beach House - Depression Cherry

So one of my favorite albums of this year has been Depression Cherry by Beach House. (This is mostly due to a reader of this blog who made me revisit their catalog -- thanks!). A duo from Baltimore, they produce dreamy shoegaze-y music, a bit like My Bloody Valentine but without all the drama and crazy experiments. Their sound isn't original and would probably fit in quite well in, say, in 1992 as a band on Creation Records, but what sets them apart is that they have an incredible talent for writing beautiful tunes, the kind you think you've heard before because they sound so obvious but you really haven't. Like MBV, their sound is also defined by a male/female vocal dynamic and songs can often blur into another, but I really admire their aesthetic of just crawling inwards into the music instead of outwards (if that makes any sense). Their music is minimalist, without too many frills, and songs often fade out instead of coming to a discrete ending. Imagine driving, and you drive by someone playing music, the music comes into focus, it's a small slice of bliss, then as you drive way, the Doppler shift takes it away, and the song fades into nothingness.

They've been mining the dreamy pop vein of music for about ten years now. Depression Cherry, which came out at the end of August, was their fifth album. Remarkably, less than two months later, they have released a completely brand new album, Thank Your Lucky Stars, which must be a world record for the shortest time between two new albums.

For a band that's kind of under the radar, I was surprised to see that Depression Cherry reached number 8 (number 8!) on the national Billboard charts! Amazing. And the remarkable thing is that any of their recent albums are just as good as Depression Cherry. Go search out Bloom (2012) or Teen Dream (2010), for example.

Here are a couple of awesome songs, the first one from Depression Cherry:

The second one is "Better Times" from their album Teen Dream:

Friday, July 17, 2015

Grizzly Bear

Belatedly (very belatedly) I have finally gotten into the band, Grizzly Bear. I've known their music for a while now, years in fact, and kinda liked some of their stuff, but suddenly something totally clicked early this year and I have been listening to their most recent two albums Veckatimest (2009) and Shields (2012) nonstop. Both are beautifully constructed pop albums and listening to them, you can tell the care that went into creating them. As far as I can tell, the band began as a four-piece based in New York but are now split between LA and NYC. Most of the heavy-duty music work is done by Daniel Rossen (guitars, etc.) and Chris Taylor (bass, overall producer), both multi-instrumentalists extraordinaires, but the public face of the band is, more or less, singer Edward Droste (left in the picture) who has a bit of an angelic voice.

What to say of their music? They are a bit like the Beatles in spirit in that they work firmly in the three-minute-pop-song idiom but their ambition is far bigger than pop. They draw in all manner of different genres (folk, rock, psychedelia, and the modern avant garde) into the mix. What comes out are odd but familiar pop tunes crafted lovingly in the studio. I can see why some people would find them a bit twee (in the mold of say, mediocre bands like the Decemberists or Death Cab for Cutie) and yes, they don't rock out or anything. Their commitment is instead to produce the perfect song, the perfect melody, with a strong sense of the history of pop music, with one eye firmly planted into the future. The future part is in the way songs are both familiar and yet sound like nothing you've heard before. I think there is a movement here to push the boundaries of conventional pop into marginally new areas. The production values are excellent. They really take this stuff seriously. I like that. (And so does apparently, of all people, Trent Reznor).

One thing worth mentioning: I know that they have been critical darlings for many years, particularly from the Pitchfork-type set. I missed all that (fortunately) so my recent devotion to them is something that has happened entirely organically, a rare feat in these over-saturated social-media-crazed days. They just grew on me!

Both the albums I mention above are lovely, and I could name any number of songs to check out. But I'll mention one from each, both just literally the best pop tunes I've heard in years, maybe in a decade. The first is a song from Vekatimest called "Ready, Able." I am posting a live version but the studio version is also just as good if not better.

The second is a fantastic song from Shields called "Yet Again." Can this be the best single pop song from the past five years? Anyone? We're talking (nearly) as beautiful as Neil Young singing "Expecting to Fly."

And because you should also see the studio version of "Yet Again":

Finally, apparently, the band is now recording a new album, due in 2016.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Dead Flowers

"Well, I won't forget to put roses on your grave...." I've been jamming to the Sticky Fingers reissue the last few weeks. This was the stuff of my teenage years. I'd honestly forgotten how great of a band the Rolling Stones were at their peak (roughly '68 to '73). It doesn't hurt to have a stellar blues guitarist on board (Mick Taylor) and everybody generally writing and recording one awesome album after another: Beggars' Banquet (1968), Let it Bleed (1969), Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out (1970), Sticky Fingers (1971), Exile on Main Street (1972), and yes, even Goats Head Soup (1973). And let us not forget the two stellar non-album singles from that period, "Jumping Jack Flash," and "Honky Tonk Women."

They are also a great live band, needless to say and this clip, showing them in a small club in London in late 1971, just before the release of Sticky Fingers shows that, once, even the Rolling Stones could play to a small crowd and be totally plugged in. Also noteworthy: Charlie Watts is a phenomenal drummer; Mick Taylor is a superb guitar player; Keith Richards looks like a corpse; and Mick Jagger looks like Adonis.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Quatuor pour la fin du temps

Here is a performance of "Quartet for the End of Time" by Oliver Messiaen (1908-1992), the French composer. Apparently, Karlheinz Stockhausen was one of his students! Who knew?! The piece was first premiered in 1941 and is about 50 minutes long. He apparently wrote it while a prisoner-of-war under the Nazis and the music was first premiered in an actual POW camp.

This particular performance is by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Part 2 begins automatically after Part 1.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Spiritualized - Run

Is this sublime or what? Spiritualized's cover of J.J. Cale's "Run." This is the single version. There is also an equally great version on Spiritualized's first (and very brilliant) album Lazer Guided Melodies (1992). I was listening to this album nonstop back in the old Pittsburgh days. I remember regularly driving from Oakland (where I lived) to the Southside. You had to cross over the Birmingham Bridge, then take a right onto Carson, leading you towards Dee's -- that infamous bar where I stumbled out many a night a bit more intoxicated than necessary, having decided that writing a dissertation was not a life conducive to improving one's self-respect. Spiritualized's "Run" was a perfect soundtrack to those nights.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Last Month

A bit of a random post here, by which I mean that this post is not necessarily centered around a single song or a band or anything like that, but more a general commentary about things.

I was just looking at my iTunes and thought I'd write about the last few things I've added to it -- things acquired in the past month. (It's easy to verify this since iTunes has a "Recently Added" feature). Some of the stuff I added is positively embarrassing, but some not so. For some reason, I downloaded the entire catalog--all three albums--of Buffalo Springfield. Every so often, I go off on a Neil Young tangent and I seem to have gone in one recently, sparked by two recent vinyl purchases, of Time Fades Away (1973) and On The Beach (1974). Those who are somewhat familiar with the Neil Young songbook will recognize those two albums as part of the so-called "ditch trilogy" (the third one being Tonight's The Night from 1975), because apparently he left the "middle of the road" pop industry and headed for the ditch. Either way, these two are spectacular albums, although very different in tone. Time Fades Away is unpolished, scraggly, barely put together, just completely falling apart, while On The Beach is moderated, controlled, and weary in tone. But both are incredibly morose albums, the kind of stuff you don't want to hear often. They contain some of Neil Young's greatest songs that no one's ever heard of. I'm thinking of fantastic songs like "On The Beach," "Revolution Blues," and "Ambulance Blues" from On The Beach, amazing meditations on the malaise of the nineteen seventies and the death of the 1960s dream. Here is "Revolution Blues" a kind of "fuck you" to Southern California's star culture. The music is propulsive, amazing, David Crosby's rhythm guitar and Levon Helm's drums creating aural imagery of people out to do something wrong. Of course, a fabulously bizarre lead solo from Neil Young himself. Key lines:

"Well I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars
But I hate them worse than lepers
And I'll kill them in their cars"

Anyway, so Buffalo Springfield, yeah what a great '60s band, very quintessentially hippie but with an inventive spirit that burnt out too soon. Neil was, of course, firing on all cylinders producing one masterpiece after another on those early Springfield albums, including the epic "Expecting To Fly."

Other recent additions? Well, I got me some obscure David Bowie, actually some of his maligned 1980s stuff, particularly the rather unremarkable singles "Never Let Me Down" and "Absolute Beginners" but also the utterly strange Baal E.P. (1982), a bunch of songs written for Bertolt Brecht's play of the same name. One of the songs ("The Drowned Girl") actually has a video for it. It's very dirge-y, not something you want to hear first thing in the morning. One of Bowie's odd excursions outside the pop world. Other recent Bowie acquisitions included the soundtrack for the movie The Falcon and the Snowman (1985) which features the utterly great song named after the movie, a collaboration between fusion jazz guitarist Pat Metheny and Bowie. A lovely and evocative song from a surprisingly great movie:

I also coincidentally acquired another movie song:"Real Cool World"off the Cool World (1992) soundtrack. Bowie had firmly moved into the electronic dance pop phase of the 1990s by this time. I remember when this came out, I totally loved it, but this was also a time when I was madly going to clubs and doing what club people do. It sounds a bit dated now but has the spirit of good disposable pop.

Other acquisitions in the last month include Thom Yorke's recent solo album Tomorrow's Modern Boxes. I quite liked his last one but at the same time I am in danger of getting fatigued a bit on his whole blippity-bloppity unobtrusive electronic music experiments. And I wish he would just belt out sometimes, and actually sing about something different than the computer distance between us all, or whatever. This isn't bad actually, especially the second half of the album which is a bit more ambient and Aphex Twin-y than your usual Radiohead glitchy pop. The last song on the album, "Nose Grows Some," is like many last songs on Radiohead albums, a bit dreamy and very pretty:

unofficial nose grows some from spilleR ltd on Vimeo.

OK, I also got the recent Sleater-Kinney album, No Cities To Love (2015) which I've been listening to quite a bit recently. I resisted the hype--there was this absolutely ridiculously hagiographic essay on Pitchfork about the band that was really grotesque--so I almost didn't want to like it. I like it a lot actually. They put together some good songs! It's not as monumentally heavy and kickass as The Woods (2006) which almost rivals Led Zeppelin IV in heaviness, but the new one is a great upbeat rock album for those into that kind of thing. Here is "Price Tag" performed live:

A final addition to my iTunes, the lovely EP2 by FKA Twigs. Who could possibly not like "Water Me"? Gorgeous:

Monday, February 09, 2015

The Crusaders - Street Life

Back when I was a kind, my musical tastes were strangely much more diverse than now. One of the albums that I heard a million times over (I'm thinking I was 13?) was the Crusaders' Street Life. The Crusaders were a light soul/jazz/R&B fusion band who apparently have been around in some fashion or other since the early 1950s but they really hit it big in the 1970s when jazz fusion as a category made some big money. Their biggest hit was Street Life (1979) which featured guest singer Randy Crawford, who had (maybe still has) a fantastic R&B/jazz voice.

I don't know what it was about that album that I loved so much. Soon of course, I got all self-conscious and began to listen to soulless grown up music, but after so many years, I just got the album, and sure enough, the title track still for some reason reminded me of being 13. It's light, it's ebullient, it's not deep, but it somehow still packs a punch. Here is the 11 minute version:

Monday, February 02, 2015

Favorite Movies of 2014

13. The Trip To Italy (Dir.: Michael Winterbottom)
12. Big Hero 6 (Dir.: Don Hall & Chris Williams)
11. Live Die Repeat: Edge Of Tomorrow (Dir.: Doug Liman)
10. Lucy (Dir.: Luc Besson)
9. Birdman (Dir.: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)
8. Guardians Of The Galaxy (Dir.: James Gunn)
7. Gone Girl (Dir.: David Fincher)
6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Dir.: Joe & Anthony Russo)
5. The LEGO Movie (Dir.: Phil Lord & Chris McKay)
4. X-Men: Days Of Future Past (Dir.: Bryan Singer)

3. Snowpiercer (Dir.: Joon-ho Bong)

2. We Are The Best! (Dir.: Lukas Moodysson)

1. Under The Skin (Dir.: Jonathan Glazer)

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Favorite Albums of 2014, Part II

Favorite Albums of 2014, Part II

10. Luluc - Passerby: I don't know much about this Australian band, beyond the fact that it's a man and a woman. I think this is their second album. It's ghostly acoustic music. It's not terribly original and could have been made 50 years ago, but I've been coming back to it over and over. This is one of those things that reveals new things on repeated listens. You get a sense of their music on this song, "Reverie on Norfolk Street," which begins as a traditional folk lament but the words begin to pack an emotional punch as small details pile up, building entire stories out of small moments. The accompanying electric guitar has a touch of shoegaze but isn't obtrusive

9. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross - Gone Girl (soundtrack): I really liked the last two soundtracks these guys did (The Social Network and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) and this is no exception. (All three movies, of course, being David Fincher movies). It works as a total sound piece lasting about an hour-and-a-half, as kind of an ambient music to your day. Because it's a soundtrack, we get repeated motifs. And because it's minimalist, we get a lot of what sounds like the same musical figure repeated over and over. But that's part of its attraction, in that the soundtrack builds, like repeated folds in fabric, to its "thick" peak on the spectacular track, "Technically, Missing." Like much of Reznor's work these days, you can see callbacks to his earlier work (in this case, Nine Inch Nails' 1999 album The Fragile), but there are new textures bubbling up all over. Great stuff.

8. Tinariwen - Emmaar: As those of you read this blog know, I love Tinariwen, a band of (sort of) nomadic (and now, in exile) musicians from Mali who play Tuareg blues. They achieved a bit of success among Western fans with their 2004 album Ammasakoul. Likewise, their following album, Aman Iman: Water Is Life (2007) was superb, bridging an electric guitar-driven sound (known as assouf) rooted in West African music with sounds from American/British classic rock. I lost track of them for a while but this album is quite awesome, recorded apparently in the Mojave Desert in California. Key track: the fantastic "Chaghaybou."

7. Swans - To Be Kind: This is the third studio album by the Swans since Michael Gira re-started the band a few years ago. It is also the third one in a row to be quite good! Based around heavy minimalist grooves developed through months of jamming, To Be Kind sounds a bit different from its predecessor, The Seer (although it is just as long -- clocking in at about two hours). I sense a slight (and I say, very slight) sense of playfulness in the tracks, in the sense that on a track or two, they're exploring faster tempos, rather than the sludge they're usually known for. Consider "Oxygen," which actually sounds a bit like Captain Beefheart maxed out to 10. Like any recent Swans album, it requires a special commitment to listen. You need to play it loud and be in immersed in the sound and fury. But you will be rewarded.

6. Beck - Morning Phase: At least, temporarily, Beck appears to have abandoned his party aesthetic, in favor of earnest songs about life, love, and nature. These are intricately composed pop songs, produced with a soft glow around each. There has been much talk of this as a sequel to his earlier (absolutely brilliant) Sea Change (2002) and it does bear more than a passing similarity to that earlier album in tone, vocal stylings, and general vibe. The main opening song, "Morning," could easily be mistaken for the opener on Sea Change. But where Sea Change was full of resigned melancholia, this is slightly more ambiguous and even joyful at times. It's a strangely happy album although that's not necessarily what you'd get on first listen. But I listened to it a lot this year, especially on my long trips to the West Coast and back. Beautiful stuff.

5. Morrissey - World Peace Is None Of Your Business: I pretty much completely abandoned following Morrissey after Your Arsenal (1992) and in fact, barring a few songs here and there have not heard an entire Morrissey album since then. Until now. Encouraged by a friend, I listened to the whole thing. Then I went to see a Morrissey show. And something happened which I NEVER thought would happen again. I liked a Morrissey album. While this is nowhere near as good as Viva Hate (still the gold standard), it's a bit silly to expect anything that good. But it is pretty darn good. He's outgrown that bullshit rockabilly sound and the music on this is much more diverse and rich than one might expect, with musical authorship split between Boz Boorer and Jesse Tobias. No Johnny Marr, these guys, but they're not bad. Somehow they all lined up 12 pretty good songs in a row (plus at least 6 great b-sides). The lyrics are not cringeworthy, and sometimes actually funny. And his voice! Its still amazing -- even better than ever. The highlight on the album is the single "Istanbul," a fine song about the city that holds up as good as any song from the early solo years.

4. The War On Drugs - Lost In The Dream: This is the third album from this Philadelphia-based band which has gotten a lot of press this year. My first reaction hearing stuff from this album was that it sounds like mid-1980s classic rock, something that could be off of Bob Dylan's Empire Burlesque. Or worse, something from John Cougar Mellencamp or Tom Petty or Dire Straits (especially, Brothers In Arms). In other words, it was really off-putting because that's the exact kind of music I HATED at the time. Lots of keyboards, guitars and vocals with tons of reverb, classic rock moves, etc. But further inspection of the contents really changed my mind. Two things to consider: this music has a genuine emotional depth and I don't know why it does. Every time I hear it, it kind chokes me up. Second, the songs are intricately arranged and go into these kind of epic outros that are positively mesmerizing. In spirit (if not in actual style) they have that thing that the Feelies used to have -- playing the same chord sequence for 5 minutes until the listener has been taken to another dimension all together. Beauty in repetition. I haven't paid too much attention to the words but they seem to be about someone who is struggling, struggling just to be. The band's main architect is one Adam Granduciel who, it turns out, is someone who has had a lot of ups and downs. As an aside, another modern day classic rocker who I love, Kurt Vile, was a member of the War of Drugs until he went solo, which sort of makes sense now. The final song on this album -- actually not like any other song on it -- is "In Reverse."

3. Mogwai - Rave Tapes: Every year or so, Mogwai releases an album, and every time I think, hmmm, this time they're just gonna coast. And I read the reviews, and the reviews say, "Yup, they're just coasting at this point." And then I get the album, and I think, "Wow, this is good!." And so it is with Rave Tapes which is a lot like many recent Mogwai albums but also a bit different. I've begun to appreciate Mogwai's attempts to broaden their instrumental palette. On one song ("Remurdered") they actually have a weird house-music-y thing going on. Another song ("Repelish") has a spoken word text (about "Stairway to Heaven"!) over a heavy Mogwai background. There are a couple of super heavy Mogwai-by-numbers tracks that are weirdly awesome, and don't feel tired. The best track on the album is actually the first one, "Heard About You Last Night," a gorgeous and eerie soundtrack to ... I don't know, walking in the park alone at night? A bit romantic, but a bit scary? It distills all of Mogwai's recent styles into one awesome five-and-a-half minute track.

2. St. Vincent - St. Vincent: Everyone and their dog put this as one of their favorite albums this year. Maybe it's because she (Annie Clark) seems so utterly cool. Some musicians have this absolute cool about them, and she has it in spades. Fortunately, she combines cool with stunning good looks and what can only be described as a very unique musical vision. Her songs are pop songs in the way that Talking Heads songs were pop songs. They are a bit strange, emotionally distant, but clever observations about life. And they sound strange, but with good hooks and verses and choruses. If you've never heard a St. Vincent song, they all have a processed drum beat, a synthetic bass, a good synthesizer riff, and processed guitar. Yet, in spite of all that, she makes it sound like a live band. Her guitar chops are undeniable -- I've written before about that. This album (11 songs) is top to bottom to great. It's not too long and perfectly paced. The "hit song" is a catchy herky-kerky song called "Birth In Reverse" which is amazing in its economy, pacing, and strangeness. Yes, it sounds like if the Au Pairs met up and jammed with Gang of Four in 1981, but we are not here to grade originality. Although the album as a whole avoids earnestness or heatfelt emotional expression, a couple of the songs, "Prince Johnny" and the final song, "Severed Crossed Fingers" show little bits of warmth in the artifice. If we had a bit more of that, I think it could point the way to an even more interesting future for her?

1. Aphex Twin - Syro: So I have to admit that I was a bit afraid when I first heard that Aphex Twin was about to put out an album -- how could he possibly top anything after such a long hiatus? Turns out I was a bit misinformed. He's actually been releasing music under lots of aliases and random media for a while now. But the truth of the matter is that this was the first "proper" Aphex Twin album since Drukqs (2001). So yes, I suppose 13 years is a long time. In the nineties, Aphex Twin was pushing the envelope forward while others trailed in his wake. Could he (Richard James) still do that? Well, no, he's not at the leading edge of anything anymore but that doesn't matter. If electronic/digital music could have a life embedded in it, this is it. Syro is a complete statement, as good as any music I've heard in a long time, an hour of deceptively simple--in fact, quite complicated--electronic music. If his past couple of albums were willfully obscure and esoteric, even abrasive, for whatever reason, James has rounded off all the rough edges here and produced a beautiful album capable evoking a complete musical experience. The album moves from fairly conventional to more experimental until the final track, which is literally 5 minutes and 22 seconds of an (organic) piano melody played over and over again. A strange but fittingly appropriate way to end an album that draws all sorts of human emotion out of the bleepity bleeps of the digital world. Standout track includes the very first one.