Friday, December 18, 2009

The Generic Awards Special: Songs of the Decade

The aughts were the first complete decade of the post-Napster era. While file-sharing, iPods, digital files, and musical piracy had an undeniable impact on the music industry and its products, all was far from lost. As these twenty-five tracks demonstrate, the decade had a wide breadth and depth of musical achievement. Without further ado, let's get to this list.

Two ground rules:
1) Live albums and greatest hits are ineligible. Sorry, Kicking Television, How the West Was Won, and Nirvana: Live at Reading.
2) No album was allowed to have more than one track on the list. This wouldn't have happened in more than a few instances anyway, but I figure the more variety the better. Plus, two artists still managed to make the list multiple times.

25. M.I.A. - "Paper Planes" - (video) - Okay, okay, I'll be frank: I dismissed this song (and the album as a whole) when I reviewed Kala on its initial release. Two years later, I have no idea how that could have happened. "Paper Planes" pistol-whips the listener the second that Clash sample kicks in. M.I.A.'s sing-song vocals on the refrain play in perfect contradiction to the violent acts described therein. The musical marriage of Diplo and M.I.A. hasn't always proved fruitful, but this is the perfect synthesis of their talents. So, uh, no funny business.

24. My Morning Jacket - "Dondante" - (video) - When Z arrived in 2006, OK Computer comparisons were plentiful and inevitable. They were only lent more credence by each album having an epic, earth-shattering finale, with "Dondante" serving that role for My Morning Jacket. Jim James' vocals carry the load for much of the song, as the guitar flourishes hint at the maelstrom to come. When James finally lets go and the band lets loose, it's the sound of beautiful chaos.

23. Peter Bjorn and John - "Young Folks" - (video) - The runaway winner for "Mistake of the Decade," the famous whistling of "Young Folks" was originally put into the mix until the band could figure out an instrumental. Instead it became the most instantaneously catchy, yet simplistic, hook of the decade. As the music fleshes out around the aforementioned hook, the band has seized lightning in a bottle. That it became a left-field hit and career-defining moment for the band was inevitable.

22. Soulja Boy Tell 'em - "Turn My Swag On" - (video) - Yeah, I know, what the fuck, right? This isn't some joke or post-ironic hipster posturing. "Turn My Swag On" is amazing. It's the sound of an artist simultaneously winking toward and flipping off his critics, taking the best beat he's ever worked with and singing (admittedly terribly) about fucking waking up and getting ready in the morning. He's not only in on the joke, he is the joke, yet he transcends the joke and delivers this: part hip-hop, part pop, somehow neither, somehow both. His unabashed joy and confidence are endearing, and after this song finally sinks in, it's simply the fucking jam. For some, its appeal will never reveal itself. Advice to them: look in the mirror and say "what's up?"

21. Interpol - "NYC" - (WTF video) - Many a morning-after drive have been soundtracked by the third track on Interpol's immaculate debut. A bittersweet letter to his hometown, Paul Banks doesn't shy away from the city's ugly underbelly ("the subway she is a porno, and the pavements they are a mess") as he reflects apathetically about what the city (and by extension, life) mean anymore. "I know you've supported me for a long time, but somehow I'm not impressed," he reveals. Meanwhile, the song's ceaseless waves of guitar crest over, washing everything away. The city might not be perfect, but it's not going anywhere and it'll always be bigger than you. Same goes for life, but at least those moments of realization can bring about fantastic and touching music like this.

20. Broken Social Scene - "Lover's Spit" - (video) - Those encompassing opening chords. The sensual mood the songs sets. The tossed-off romantic vocals of Kevin Drew (who really has cornered the market on that). Modern lyrics touching on the classic theme of wanting to grow older and escape the angst of young adulthood. There are so many things to appreciate in this song, it's easy to forget the best one: this whole flawless composition is about fucking blowjobs.

19. Shearwater - "The Snow Leopard" - (video) - Johnathon Meiburg, sometimes contributor to Okkervil River, truly comes into his own as a singer-songwriter with "The Snow Leopard," the easy highlight from his band's best LP, Rook. Beginning with sonic hints toward Radiohead's "The Pyramid Song," the track sets itself apart as soon as Meiburg's vocals kick in. In the best alternative vocal performance of the year, the band follows his lead as he takes the song to soaring heights. By the time the horns kick in at the end, it's game over; Shearwater's won.

18. Immortal Technique - "Dance With the Devil" - (video) - In a genre where violence, misogyny, and drugs are embraced, "Dance With the Devil" is the answer. Telling the pitch-dark story of a wannabe drug dealer, the rapper guides us through a cautionary tale with such vivid detail and imagery that some listeners were left wondering if it were a true story. In its bloody and impacting conclusion, with a twist that would make M. Night double-take, Immortal Technique grabs the audience by the throat before concluding with a fatalistic lesson. Whether it's true or not isn't the point, it's a bleak parable that will stick with you either way.

17. Wilco - "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" - (live video) - The opening track on Wilco's magnum opus, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it immediately establishes that this is an entirely new Wilco experience. Over rough-hewn, AOR-style production, Jeff Tweedy sing-speaks about a relationship, bouncing between past and present tense, and occasionally drifting into free-association. The song carries an undeniable force, with enough sinister subtext to give Tweedy's understated vocals extra gravitas. It's rare for a band to completely surprise with a sonic shift this late into their career, and even rarer that the shift results in the group's paramount effort. One can see why a major record label would doubt this song, just like one can see why major record labels are struggling.

16. The Streets - "Dry Your Eyes" - (video) - The emotional centerpiece of Mike Skinner's musical soap opera, A Grand Don't Come for Free, "Dry Your Eyes" chronicles the beloved protagonist attempting to cope with losing his love. The song's power and emotional tug comes not only from circumstances, because the song is able to carry those traits outside of the context, but from those heart-wrenching strings and the song's perspective. In the moment of realization that his "life is crashing before [his] eyes," she closes her eyes "for what seems like an eternity." Love isn't logical, emotions don't always make sense, yet here The Streets have managed to construct heartbreak in meticulous detail.

15. Band of Horses - "The Funeral" - (video) - Band of Horses stormed out of the gate in 2006 with lead single "The Funeral." Three years later, and the song hasn't let-up in the least. Ben Bridwell's vocals are given a tremendous task: to carry the emotional burden of the song's lyrics while competing to match the intensity of the band. Mission accomplished. Note to other hype bands: this is how you earn it.

14. Incubus - "Aqueous Transmission" - (video) - So, wait, the premiere ambient pop song of the decade came from... fucking Incubus? I can just imagine Brandon Boyd and company chilling in their tour van, patting themselves on the back, when by some deus ex machina they become aware of the existence of the Chinese instrument known as the pipa. But I have to give credit where its due, and while Incubus certainly take full advantage of the pipa, they also manage to craft a brilliant and perfectly cohesive framework around it. As he sings of floating down a river, the music flows with it in synchronization. I'm left jaw-dropped, double-checking that this indeed Incubus I'm listening to. Then, as if to fuck with me, the band puts a pointless one-minute outro of nothing more than frogs croaking. Yes, this is Incubus alright, but fuck if it isn't also brilliant.

13. Primal Scream - "Pills" - (video?) - As the name implies, this is a drug trip put to music, and not a good one. The heaviest song on this list, Primal Scream's "Pills" is the soundtrack to a horrifying, bleak acid trip through the night clubs of Hell. As the backing vocals reiterate themes of isolation and paranoia, the lead vocals warn you're fading away, presumably into oblivion. The song also manages to make the repeated use of the word "fuck" go from merely a shock tactic to a crushing realization expressed in a single word. Forget D.A.R.E., this shit will keep kids off drugs, while still being one of the most compelling listens of the year.

12. Missy Elliott - "Get Ur Freak On" - (video) - The second Timbaland hits those keyboard notes, this song's place among the decade's best tracks was sealed. More club-ready than previous Elliott singles like "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)," with more edge than later work such as "Lose Control," "Get Ur Freak On" is the ultimate product of Elliott and Timbaland's partnership. It's immortal enough that each could have rested on their laurels after its release. Thankfully, they've only used it as a compass pointing toward further innovation.

11. Radiohead - "Everything in Its Right Place" - (video) - "Everything in Its Right Place" is a more cerebral track than anything the world's greatest band has released before or since. The keyboards sound like something imported from another planet, Yorke's vocals float among the many sounds co-existing in the track's strange brew, another strong instrument in the mix. The disparate elements form a cohesive whole, decimating expectations in the band's post-OK Computer era. From this song on, Radiohead were capable of anything, and limited by nothing.

10. Cannibal Ox - "The F-Word" - (song-only video) - That the song manages to be the standout on an album as loaded as The Cold Vein automatically warrants a spot in the top ten. El-P's beat is breathtaking, dense and layered. There's a reason this album's instrumentals were released as a separate album. Yet, more than any other song on the album, "The F-Word" lets rappers Vast Aire and Vordul Mega take the forefront. Reversing the traditional role of gender in hip-hop, "The F-Word" finds the duo frustrated and denied by women, stuck in the friendship role despite desires toward love and lust. Stylus claimed the lyrical virtuosity conveyed "the potential for hip hop lyrics to work on as many levels as the finest English poetry." Allow me to nominate Vast Aire for Poet Laureate.

9. Bright Eyes - "No Lies, Just Love" - (mood-killing video) - I have friends both who love and loathe Conner Oberst, and both camps raise valid points, depending on perspective. Whereas his emotional nudity can be perceived as grating or overly melodramatic, on "No Lies, Just Love," the best song he's ever written, it's nothing less than gripping. Dealing with suicide, apathy, family, and disappointment, Oberst covers a wide breadth of areas with the master's touch that earned him Dylan comparisons in the first place. The arrangement is just as strong; when the music amplifies after the "if you go, then soon I will follow," it has never failed to give me goosebumps. As he cries out in the coda, there are shades of Lennon's "Mother": an artist facing his dispassion, disbelief, and disillusion, and contradictorily reaffirming life's importance to the listener.

8. Boards of Canada - "Dayvan Cowboy" - (video) - Leave it to the masterminds of the 90's best electronica album, Music Has the Right to Children, to come up with the 00's most impressive electronica composition. "Dayvan Cowboy" immediately and repeatedly finds one perfect groove after another, slowly bleeding one into another, a cognitive exploration of the mind using analog synthesizers and drum machines. This is music for when the drugs no longer work. It doesn't hurt that it has the decade's best music video to accompany it either.

7. Justin Timberlake - "My Love" - (video; actual song starts at 1:40) - Like Missy Elliott before him, Justin Timberlake's artistic future was forever altered for the better when he began working with Timbaland. "My Love" is the primary example. Timbaland throws out all his usual pop tricks. There's no element here we haven't seen before, but the combination is pop perfection, the musical equivalent of the first time Reese mixed peanut butter and chocolate. Timbaland lays the groundwork, Timberlake does everything he's asked to, and then there's T.I.'s verse, the second-best of his career (behind "Swagga Like Us") and a stone-cold confirmation of his talents. Consider this the aughts' equivalent of "Billie Jean."

6. Eminem - "Stan" - (video) - Eminem was, without argument, the most divisive figure in popular music this decade. Even Eminem was divided into two artistic "characters": Marshall and Shady. "Stan" tackles the criticism Eminem has faced as an immoral "role model" to fans, as well as establishes the distinct difference between Eminem the persona and Marshall the person. The sonic details (the scribbling of the pen, the background noise during Stan's final correspondence, etc.) make the song all the more enveloping and engrossing. "Stan" was (and, let's be honest, will remain) Eminem's career-defining track, one which took much more risk than obvious-subversive bullshit like "Fack" or "We Made You."
(sidenote: If I'd given out a "Worst Song of the Decade," it would have been the aforementioned "Fack.")

5. Wolf Parade - "I'll Believe in Anything" - (video) - I have a theory regarding the energy crisis our nation faces: there has to be some way to harness the pure energy Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug produce on Apologies to the Queen Mary's stand-out jaw-dropper. The sound builds and builds as Krug pleads to take his love away from the pains of the real world, to somewhere where "nobody knows [her] and nobody gives a damn." The energy pulses through the song, managing to maintain a crescendo for its entire second-half. The band demonstrates the ability to transport anyone with nothing more than drums, keyboard, guitar, and cries of howling longing. By the time it's over, the listener truly does believe in anything. After a performance as honest as this, how couldn't they?

4. Sigur Rós - "Svefn-G-Englar" - (video) - I read a brilliant author's take on this song, which was much more accomplished than anything I could produce. Take his word for it.

3. The Wrens - "She Sends Kisses" - (WTF video) - Full disclosure: I have a jaded affection for this song. About the same time I got into The Wrens, I broke up with my first love. After that point, listening to "She Sends Kisses" was a painful but essential experience. The song so perfectly captures the post-heartbreak fallout from a male perspective that each listen was a confirmation I wasn't alone in my suffering. Seeing your first love in the next girl ("I put your face on her all year"), the flooding of emotion from simply reading of text from your once-beloved, wondering how her next man could ever do the things you could; all of it was there, all of it rang true. Three years later, and while the feelings for that ex are gone, the feelings for "She Sends Kisses" are as strong as ever.

2. Radiohead - "Backdrifts" - ("Hard Candy" video) - Hail to the Thief may not have been Radiohead's premiere album of the decade, but as is to be expected from a band of their caliber, it provided moments of unparalleled excellence. "Backdrifts" is the track on which Radiohead return to rock from the ambient/electronica detours of their previous two albums, while perfectly incorporating lessons they had learned along the way. The lyrics of paranoia are fairly standard fare for the band's post-The Bends output, yet within the analog mind-fuck of the song's sonic strucutre, their power is amplified. Radiohead have continued to break ground with each new album this decade, which makes it all the more impressive that "Backdrifts" stands as their finest track during that span.

1. My Morning Jacket - "Steam Engine" - (song-only video) - It's a shame what's happened to mainstream radio. The days of triumphant rock and roll gaining widespread radio play are seemingly vanished, replaced by lazy, misogynistic hip-hop and faceless pop music. In 1977, "Steam Engine" would have been all over the air-waves, playing next to "Hotel California" and "Tuesday's Gone." The song is no relic though; rather, it is timeless. Jim James' voice remains one of America's under-appreciated national treasures (American Dad plugs aside), capable of hitting seemingly any note with ease. The guitar and drums do exactly what they're supposed to do: breaking through at the precise moments they need to; letting James carry the load when needed. The song is a heart-on-sleeve epic, the kind of beautiful craftsmanship and songwriting that wouldn't stand a chance on Top 40 radio. It's better that way. You can't play "Steam Engine" and follow it with "Poker Face."

And now you can tell me how wrong I am for leaving off Lil Wayne, Kanye West, Daft Punk, and/or your favorite band.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Swan Lake / "Enemy Mine"

Questions I Asked Heading Into Enemy Mine and How They Were Answered
  1. How would it compare to Beast Moans, which was inconsistent, but worthwhile thanks to impressive zeniths? As much of a fan as a I am of the artists involved in Swan Lake (Carey Mercer, Spencer Krug, and Dan Bejar), the group's debut album was not up to expectations. Signs of life, however, were seen in outstanding tracks such as "All Fires" and "Are You Swimming in Her Pools?" As I prepared to listen to Enemy Mine for the first time, I was cautiously optimistic that the three talented musicians at the core of Swan Lake could build off Beast Moans' highlights while reaching a level of consistency that album never had. Turns out, not so much. After the Carey Mercer opening number "Spanish Gold, 2044" validates the optimism by letting Mercer's compelling and unique vocals carry the song over a plodding beat out of Wolf Parade's down-tempo playbook, things slowly but explicitly slide downhill. By the time the album gets to the convoluted mess that is "Warlock Psychologist" all hopes are diminished. Compared to Beast Moans. Enemy Mine fades sooner, has fewer lasting highlights and impressions, and is frankly quite dismissible.
  2. Can Swan Lake ever span the classic album their talents are capable of? With two albums into the books and only three or four tracks worth of great material between the two, Swan Lake appears more and more like a masturbatory side project for all its members. Maybe they don't want to bring out their best material for an album not as closely tied to their musical legacy. It's not like Swan Lake is an outlet for the artists' more experimental fancies. Take any Frog Eyes album and it will take infinitely more risks than both Swan Lake albums combined. So what is Swan Lake? Is it nothing more than a way for Krug, Mercer, and Bejar to crank out more albums (all are renowned for being in three-plus bands as it is) regardless to if the trio is diluting their talents or not? Don't get the wrong impression, the songs on Enemy Mine not named "Spanish Gold, 2044" aren't by any means terrible songs (exception being the aforementioned "Warlock Psychologist"); they just aren't at the level of any of the artists' best - or even notable - songs. Perhaps the trio has a classic in them, but it's going to take a much more substantial effort. I mean, come on. The laughable Bowie impersonating which comprises the last two minutes of "A Hand at Dusk"? I thought I was listening to Flight of the Conchords.
  3. Is a group really a "super-group" if no one in the band has even had a gold record? From an artistic standpoint, yes, Swan Lake are capable of being a super-group, even if Frog Eyes and Destroyer aren't exactly household names (unless you're referring to the Kiss album). When attempting to warrant the title based on artistic merit, however, that merit needs to be conveyed on the group's albums, not simply implied due to the triumphs each artist has individually achieved. Generally speaking, that takes more than two great songs per album.
  4. But, hey, it's still better than Surfing by Megapuss, right? Yeah, so it has that going for it.

Rating: 5.8

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

DOOM / "Born Like This"

Daniel Dumile was once not only one of hip-hop's greatest working artists, he was also one of its most prolific. Hell, in a two-year span he dropped three of the most original and striking albums the genre has seen this decade ("Take Me to Your Leader" as King Geedorah, "Madvillainy" as Madvillain, and "Vaudeville Villain" as Viktor Vaughn). Then after 2005's mediocre-by-his-standards "DangerDoom" collaboration with Danger Mouse... nothing. But here he is, four years later, and finally making a return to the studio. The problem is, it just doesn't feel right. "Born Like This" is Dumile all right, with yet another moniker, but at the same time it doesn't sound like the artist I remember. There's something missing besides just the MF.

For one, the production is lousy nearly all across the board. I counted two songs out of seventeen ("Rap Ambush" and "Cellz") with beats that didn't sell DOOM short. Compared to the revelatory production on "Madvillainy" and the nearly as impressive production on "Leader" and the first Viktor Vaughn album, nothing here would even cut it as a B-side. Quite frankly, these beats wouldn't have sounded relevatory in 1989, nevermind 2009.

But, hey, people don't tune into a DOOM album for the production anyway. His main draw is his labyrinthine and ludicrously great rhyme flow. After all, Mos Def said he'd "bet a million dollars on DOOM against Lil Wayne." If we're comparing DOOM circa 2009 to Wayne circa 2008, I think Mos Def would be losing money faster than AIG at this point. I've listened to this album through eight times now. Maybe two or three lines stuck with me, and those were for all the wrong reasons, and all on the same track, "Batty Boyz." The song is the first time DOOM has ever sounded this vicious, but his anger is not directed at other MCs, but rather at homosexuals. Opening with a variety of homophobic sound bites from various sources (I think I even heard a Jeff Dunham puppet in there. What?) it goes on to basically spew hate-speak and bigotry for three minutes straight.

Now, I'm not naive. I realize homophobia and hip-hop have been bedfellows for some time now, and some of the most bashing albums are actually among the genre's best (see: "The Marshall Mathers LP"). But with Eminem it's expected, and it's all part of his persona, like it or leave it. It's never been part of DOOM's repetoire, and the track leaves a confused and slightly bitter feeling with the listener.

What's saddest about "Born Like This" is that "Batty Boyz" is really the only thing I remember about the whole album. While its remaining sixteen tracks aren't bad (well, maybe a couple are), they leave no discernable impression upon the listener. No "America's Most Blunted" or "Never Dead" to be found here. Five years or silence and instead of that long-rumored Ghostface collaboration we get this? Perhaps the man himself spells it out best on "Ballskin": "Don't believe the hyperbole." Generously, this is a poor man's "Supreme Clinetele"; realistically, it's a barely above-average album by an artist who has proven time and again capable of so much more. Hopefully it won't take him another four years to redeem himself for this misfire.

Rating: 6.1

Friday, March 27, 2009

Friday, February 20, 2009

Dead Mellotron / "Ghost Light Constellation" EP

2009 has been a great year for music already. First, Animal Collective's "Merriweather Post Pavilion" proved to be every bit the masterpiece the hype had suggested. Next, Phantom Band released an album ("Checkmate Savage") which appeared poised to challenge "Merriweather" for album of the year up until December. Now this: relative unknown Dead Mellotron's "Ghost Light Constellation" EP, a muscial achievement so crowning as to topple both of the aforementioned albums, and to set its sights upon being not only one of the year's finest albums, but one of the decade's most impressive releases.

The description for this album might as well have read "a lo-fi reimagining of all of Erik Hukriede's favorite rock genres." Throughout its eight tracks, it tackles alternative, ambient, post-rock, shoegaze, and also manages to successfully incorporate elements of noise and electronica. Album opener "Nothing I Ever Imagined" builds itself up from the skeletal blueprints of shoegaze, leaving room for creativity and genre revision. The guitar is brought further to the forefront, amplified to crash over everything like a tidal wave. The vocals are buried in the mix, functioning more as an additional instrument than a means of conveying words. The percussion shoots through the fog of haze like escaping light beams. Everything is illuminated, and it is brilliant.

The brilliance carries over through each of the remaining tracks. "I Woke Up" is aptly titled, an ambient guitar piece swirling sonically as the sound gets bigger and nearer, like leaving a dream to rejoin reality. "I Hate the Way Things Are" opens with a dance/electronica beat before a menacing guitar enters in and obliterates the conscious, before slowly returning to melody. It's the musical direction Fuck Buttons should have taken post-"Sweet Love for Planet Earth" had they wanted to remain ahead of the curve. "Heart Flutter" operates as a form of break for the listener, all minimal drum machine and keyboard arrangments with little in the way of variation. By itself, it is not an overly impressive track, but it fits perfectly into the context of the album as a whole.

"Dress Rehearsal" signals a return to the rock side of the EP, and is the most straightforward rock track on the album. It is also one of the few times the vocals are both audible and distinguishable, although even here they remain down in the mix. The song ends with a guitar solo which abruptly ceases as "Saltwater (Beach House)" begins. As the sounds of waves crashing across the shore set the exposition, guitar, keyboard, and drums fade in and out while distorted vocals further set the mood. Simply put, it is one the finest ambient rock tracks I've heard in the last five years. The album closes with the two longest songs, "Untitled" and the title track. "Untitled" is an amalgamation of post-rock and ambient, and manages to exemplify both genres simultaneously in only a four-minute run time. "Ghost Light Constellation" ends the disc on a high note, although at this point it's more like a peak sticking up from a very elevated plateau. Reminiscent of Tangerine Dream's electronica masterstroke, "Phaedra," the song rides extended keyboard notes while percussion kicks away to keep the pace. As the percussion gives away, the songs bleeds away slowly, before both it and the album end.

"Ghost Light Constellation" combines a plethora of disparate elements with such fluidity in a way unseen since "Kid A." Cohesive, masterful, and unique, it is a new artist not only making a name for himself, but challenging all of his contemporaries to reach the same zenith he has. It might be awhile before the challenge is accepted. This album is just that incredible.

Rating: 9.7

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The 2008 Generic Awards Part Two: Albums of the Year

With apologies to Black Milk, here are the top ten albums of 2008:

10. Sigur Rós - "Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust" - The last thing I thought I wanted from Sigur Rós was change. The slowly-paced, post-rock artworks which had become their trademark had shown signs of diminishing since "Ágætis Byrjun," sure, but the formula certainly wasn't broken. However, after just the first two songs from the Icelandic group's latest album, I saw (or rather heard) the error of my thinking. "Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust" is an album full of life, one which provides new direction for the band while leaving enough of their signature sound intact to keep old fans while welcoming the new. It may not be their best album, but it feels like their most immediate.

9. Torche - "Meanderthal" - In a year in which a lot of hard rock albums drew praise ("Fortress," "The Chemistry of Common Life," "Life... The Best Game in Town," etc.), the best of all was an album masquerading as hard rock. Torche explore genres and annihilate each and every one of them. "Speed of the Nail" does up death metal while adding a hint of pop levity, "Grenades" takes the power anthem and soars it to new heights. Torche exemplifies genres while rebuking them, joke too straight-faced to possibly be kidding, and just happen to make kick ass rock music the whole time.

8. Fleet Foxes - "Fleet Foxes" - Observed from a distance, this album doesn't suggest it should be receiving its exemplary level of praise from critics both mainstream and independent. Which makes sense, since "Fleet Foxes" is such an inviting record that to hear it is to fall in love with it, thus never needing to observe it from afar. The album never seeks to blow the listener away or leave them in awe, but rather to provide a sense of welcome and familiarity. When all those hype albums fall by the wayside six months after being proclaimed 'the next BIG thing,' "Fleet Foxes" will be waiting, every bit as great as it has always been.

7. The Dodos - "Visiter" - That am album crafted by two guys on a minuscule label manages to sound this bombastic is incredible. That it can transition almost immediately, yet flawlessly, into soft acoustic rock is even more impressive. With the success of this album, both critically and commercially, I wonder what the future will bring from The Dodos. If they can make an album this inspired out of nowhere and with a lo-fi budget, with the resources it has created for them, the follow-up already promises greatness.

6. R.E.M. - "Accelerate" - Maybe I put it on here because R.E.M. is such a historic band, with a back catalogue which can match almost any band working today. Maybe I put it on here because "Reveal" and "Around the Sun" were so underachieving. Maybe I put it on here because the first time I heard "Until the Day is Done" I had to check that it was indeed a new R.E.M. song. Maybe I put it on here because its political statements were fitting without rendering the album ephemeral to its time. Then again, maybe I just put it on here because it's brilliant, regardless of history, return to form, or any other non-musical factors. Yeah, I think that was why.

5. Jacaszek - "Treny" - Post-rock is dying. Mogwai will never make another "Young Team." Sigur Rós will never make another "Ágætis Byrjun." Tortoise are no longer relevant. Jacaszek offers the solution in this eulogy to the genre. On the surface, "Treny" appears simple but encased within its songs are labyrinthine structures of sound, a plethora of tiny parts each contributing to a massive whole, then muffled to create the illusion of ambiance, a façade of peace created by constant war. Maybe it's all a metaphor, maybe I'm over-thinking it, maybe that's why I never wrote a review. Whichever way, it's certainly one of the year's finest albums.

4. Bon Iver - "For Emma, Forever Ago" - 2008 was the best possible year for this album to arrive. Auto-tuners had taken over, with Kanye, Lil Wayne, T-Pain, and Akon (among others) dominating the charts and the airplay. The raw humanity of Justin Vernon's voice is an instrument in itself. Flawed in the classical sense, yet so ideal for this album that to imagine these songs being performed by anyone else is nearly impossible. That the vocals are accompanied by compositions which fit the mold of folk music while transcending the genre through experimentation and creativity makes "For Emma, Forever Ago" that rare album which achieves importance effortlessly.

3. TV on the Radio - "Dear Science," - Time will tell what Barack Obama's ultimate legacy is and, by extension, what the legacy of this album is. At this point, it may well be a "Golden Age," and it seems beautiful and cause for hope. It may turn out to be a representation of when the United States made a turn toward progress. It may turn out to be a time capsule of a nation's naiveté if things don't end up really changing at all. Either way, it remains a profound document of our nation's collective emotions moving beyond one of our least popular presidents toward one of our most inspiring, a chronicle of finding hope in dark times. It's an important, engaging album to match an important, engaging regime.

2. Bonnie "Prince" Billy - "Lie Down in the Light" - My affinity for Will Oldham has been made blatant and obvious on this website. Albums like "Lie Down in the Light" make it easy for me to confirm why I love his work so much. In many ways, "Lie Down in the Light" is his most approachable album to the uninitiated since Palace Music's "Viva Last Blues," perhaps ever. In many ways, it sounds like an amalgamation between Oldham's alt-country and the Golden Era country music of Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, and others. It is a love letter to his influences, while also drawing the love of his fans.

1. Chad VanGaalen - "Soft Airplane" - The transition and artistic leap made from VanGaalen's first two albums to "Soft Airplane" is staggering. A singer-songwriter suddenly emerging with an album which covers every genre from dance to folk to noise rock. Just look at the list of artists I listed as influences in the context of my original review: Devendra Banhart, Talking Heads, Grandaddy, LCD Soundsystem, Beck, Destroyer, Smog, The Microphones. Try finding another album which can connect those dots! That he manages to not only explore genres, but master them in the process is simply ridiculous. Creativity, artistic leaps, variety, and masterful execution? Sounds like the album of the year to me.

And, lest we forget, the worst album of the year: "Vanilla Ice is Back!" - If I have to explain to you why an album which features Vanilla Ice covering "Buffalo Solider" and "Fight the Power" (shudder) is the worst album of the year, I wouldn't know how to make it any more obvious.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The 2008 Generic Awards Part One: Songs of the Year

With apologies to Sigur Rós, here are the best songs from 2008...

10. Fleet Foxes - "White Winter Hymnal" - Music need not be bombastic to be impressive. Using fairly basic (and at times no) instrumentation, Fleet Foxes let their uncanny ear for vocal harmonies and their pitch-perfect blending more than make up for what the song lacks in sonic experimentation or creativity. What results is a song which sounds as though it could be at home in any era, one which defines what is meant by "timeless."

9. Animal Collective - "Water Curses" - For all their wild experimentation, Animal Collective have been a pop band since their fifth and best album "Sung Tongs" came out in 2004. "Water Curses" is the most concrete proof of this that the Collective has ever offered. With a straightforward tropical percussion, easy vocals, and little signs of experimentation, it almost seems too safe at first to suit the band. However, it nonetheless remains immediately enjoyable, while still impressing more and more with each subsequent lesson.

8. Vampire Weekend - "A-Punk" - On "A-Punk" Vampire Weekend make pop music look way too easy. One listen and I was sold. Ezra Koenig's vocals are inviting, the woodwind flourishes add variety, and the drums pace everything wonderfully. The song is a great representation of the band: immediate, enjoyable, perhaps forgettable, but always welcome.

7. Bon Iver - "Skinny Love" - Justin Vernon's "Skinny Love" exemplifies all of the characteristics which made his debut under the Bon Iver moniker such a beautiful and treasured find among the vast landscape of indie albums. The lyrics are heartfelt and affecting, delivered in a fashion which conveys all of the emotions touched on by the lyrics. The composition is minimal, allowing Vernon's voice to become the focus. The bare compositions leave Vernon's exposed, forced to reveal itself and to wear its emotions on its sleeve. There is a level of power which comes from the quiet, and Vernon has found the most productive means of channeling it.

6. Lil Wayne - "A Milli" - I know. What is "A Milli" doing on this list, right? It's just a series of unrelated punchlines and non sequiturs. The beat isn't all that impressive. There's just something about it though that keeps me coming back. Lil Wayne is at full swagger, and he doesn't give a shit if things don't add up. He's here, he spits his rhymes, and then he leaves. I stand and witness, my mind left two-thirds blown and one-third confused. After enough lisens I just give in. Lil Wayne is a venereal disease like a menstrual bleed. He's the shit, and I've got loose bowels. I don't see him, but I hear him.

5. TV on the Radio - "DLZ" - As "Dear Science," slowly but surely became the go-to album for chronicalling America's transition from Bush to Obama, each of the album's songs took on additional meaning. The dark and ominous sound of "DLZ" combined with its Bush-bashing lyrics represent a fear of the direction the nation was heading in. Tunde Adebimpe's "la la la" chorus conveys a hope and light through it all. You might not agree with their message, but it's hard to knock TV on the Radio's means of delivering it.

4. Big Boi, featuring Andre 3000 and Raekwon - "Royal Flush" - With the failed "Idlewild" experiment and the overrated "Speakerboxxx / The Love Below" most recently on the minds of their fans, it's understandable to forget how great OutKast really is. Leave it to Big Boi to remind everyone how he and Andre 3000 are still ahead of any other hip-hop artists working today (although Clipse are closing the gap quickly). He and Raekwon drop some nice verses over an Isley Brothers' sample of "Welcome to Atlantis," but really they're just setting up the audience for Andre 3000 to provide further evidence that he is the most intelligent and creative and, well, essential MC working today. When he says "hey I'm talking young man / as if chalk in my hand / I will take yo' little ass to school," he's not kidding.

3. Fuck Buttons - "Sweet Love for Planet Earth" - Noise rock tends itself to fans of the avant-garde, a genre designed to be appealing only to those who crave the unappealing. Fortunate, no one relayed that message to Fuck Buttons. Combining ambience and noise, chaos and sleep, the group wound up with one of the most original and compelling compositions of the year.

2. T.I., featuring Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Lil Wayne - "Swagga Like Us" - Just as "Paper Planes" and M.I.A. hype were dying down, Kanye West resurrected them as well as his hip-hop credibility on the stand-out single from T.I.'s otherwise-disappointing "Paper Trail." Bringing together arguably the four biggest names in hip-hop, each contributes at or above expectations. Kanye makes incredible use of the M.I.A. sample while turning his best verse since "The College Dropout." Jay-Z, who typically phones-in his guest spots, brings a verse up to par with anything on "American Gangster." Lil Wayne is business as usual, which means he's exceptional. Then there's T.I., who has the verse of the year. Every rhyme is worth quoting, so to save space just listen to the track and stand back in awe. Indeed, no one on any corner has swagger like these four guys.

1. Shearwater - "The Snow Leopard" - Okkervil River is a very good band. However, they've never released anything this good. "the Snow Leopard" is nothing short of a monumental achievement in music. The piano sets the tone, Johnathon Meiburg's vocals howl and coo beautifully in an almost operatic fashion, and the guitar seals the package. In a year with many exceptional songs, "The Snow Leopard" was the only one which I would unequivocally qualify as perfect.