Already? No, Really… Already!?

While I’m very well aware that many of you hate it when I step up onto the soapbox and prattle on for hours about music, you just have to face facts… I’m a guy who likes records. Since Brinton gave birth to Tweak the EQ, I’ve not only become more interested in albums, I’ve taken an obsessive interest in reviewing them, so in preparation for my final top 20 of the year, I thought it would be fun to check in at every quarter to let you know what records were in the running. After all, what’s fun about a top 20 list of albums if you haven’t heard them!?

Why am I doing this? Well, for strictly personal and ornery reasons… have you heard the music released this year? I’m making this list with apologies to Glass Candy, Ghostface, Gnarls Barkley, Erykah Badu, Evangelicals, Flogging Molly, British Sea Power, Crystal Castles, Atlas Sound, Hercules & Love Affair and a few other forgotten bands. Seriously, this year is THAT good. Do you expect me to remember all of this when I make the definitive list of 2008?

So, brace yourself for the very first installment of four top ten lists to be thrust upon you quarterly… 20 of which will most likely be the best of the year (unless there’s some sort of mathematical/time-space oddity that changes the entire face of mankind… wait, they’re trying that with Lost, I’ll need a new plot development for my blog):

(For the record, RIYL is short for “Recommended If You Like”)

10. Bell X1 – Flock

Roughly 1:45 into the album you’ll find yourself thinking, “Wow, this is the best Radiohead cover band ever… even better than Muse!” Fortunately, the comparisons seem to stop after the shockingly blatant “Reacharound.” Bell X1 are very capable of standing on their own, even if their entire album is little more than a track-by-track theft parade of great bands that precede their efforts. You can hardly blame a band for stealing from Radiohead, Shane McGowan, Depeche Mode, Bruce Springsteen and Eric Burdon… if you’re going to have “influences,” you really can’t go wrong with that particular communal farm.

However, despite being often overwhelmed by their influences, Bell X1 has managed to create a rather accomplished, interesting album. They’re good in the same way that Coldplay is good… they haven’t come to challenge you; they’ve just come to entertain. They’re an edgier Snow Patrol, they’re Travis for a new generation. As you may well know, I’m a sucker for well made soft-pop-rock, and there may not be a better soft-pop-rock album this year. While Bell X1 will most likely be overlooked by the KISS FM stations of the world, Flock is the kind of record that could easily reach the breakout status of Eyes Open, if only one major Clear Channel station would play “Natalie.”

Standout Tracks: Rocky Took a Lover, Natalie, Bigger Than Me
RIYL: Pretending that you don’t like the soundtrack to the O.C.

9. Super Furry Animals – Hey Venus!

Whether you’re a fan or you aren’t, there’s simply no other way to say it other than “there’s just not another band quite like Super Furry Animals.” The Welsh songsters have consistently and relentlessly reinvented pop music, using every instrument, sound and language at their disposal. With Hey Venus! they’ve managed to do exactly the same thing, with exactly the same results. Not to say that the album sounds like anything you’ve ever heard, but if you’re familiar with Gruff Rhys you’re bound to know exactly what I’m talking about. Hey Venus! falls victim to only one major obstacle… timing. The album was inexplicably released in the frigid climate of late January, despite being an ideal summer road trip record. Fortunately, if you’ve not yet heard it, you’re cluing in at exactly the right time!

As with their other releases, Hey Venus! is packed with drum machines, sitars, bass grooves and serves as the soundtrack to the most romantic science fiction teen-drama you’ve ever seen. While it doesn’t disappoint listeners clamoring for the feverish pop-rock of Guerilla or the pop sensibilities of Radiator, Hey Venus! stands on its own as a smooth, jazzy, original pop/jazz/rock/experimental record that, as expected, has no peers. Not to suggest that Super Furry Animals have reached the level of peerless bands, but when absolutely no one on the planet is making records like yours, you tend to get the crown by default.

Standout Tracks: The Gateway Song, The Gift That Keeps on Giving, Baby Ate My Eightball
RIYL: Ganja-fueled dance parties on the moon.

8. The Magnetic Fields – Distortion

It has been entirely too long since Steven Merritt, America’s answer to Jarvis Cocker, blessed us with new material, and much like Jarvis’ 2007 release, it was worth the wait. Distortion is a wonderful mix of fuzzy guitars, bouncy harmonies and cantankerous lyrics pressed into one giant, blissful opus of the absurd. Often, Distortion borders on being “just entirely too much,” just in time to be brought back to earth and settle into your brain, causing your shoulders to gently rock in a left-right-left-right pattern. The entire album feels like a filthy, oily orgy featuring Brian Wilson, Leonard Cohen, a dozen nameless groupies and the entire Jesus and Mary Chain with soundtrack supplied by Time Life Records.

The Magnetic Fields have the distinction of releasing the very first post-punk noise pop record of 2008 to actually be worth a damn. However, to accurately explain what’s going on with this disc, I’d have to include more hyphens than a Rainbow Coalition meeting in San Francisco. Never satisfied with normalcy, Merritt has crafted an incredible record, gorgeously layering his Neil Hannon-esque voice over tracks that would have been the envy of Jim and William Reid. Distortion is irritatingly good… the kind of album that your band in high school intended to make when you were growing your hair and learning to play the same three bass notes.

Standout Tracks: California Girls, Too Drunk to Dream, The Nun’s Litany
RIYL: Honest to God, I have no idea… you’re either going to love this or hate it, and you probably already know.

7. Foxboro Hot Tubs – Stop, Drop & Roll

Aaaaand coming from left-field, an EP from the previously unknown Foxboro Hot Tubs. This band is in no way, shape or form a band that you’ve ever heard of… nope, no way. They’re certainly not, and they certainly didn’t have the biggest album of 2004… they have come completely out of nowhere. The Ebert/RZA-infused garage rock presented on Stop, Drop & Roll is a massive bungee cord, flinging listeners into a type of limbo that started in the early 60’s, died, was reborn in the early 2000’s and seems to fade away upon conception every time. While garage-rock seems eternally doomed to be the rock and roll equivalent to the partial-birth abortion, those who soldier on are given the opportunity to attend little league games and witness graduations of songs that so many had already given up on (alright, let’s all go picket Planned Parenthood on behalf of The Kingsmen!).

Stop, Drop & Roll is a 20-minute masterpiece, perfect for shaking your mini-skirt at the go-go club or discussing the implications of Timothy Leary with your best buddies in the drum circle. As we’re informed in the opening seconds of “She’s a Saint Not a Celebrity,” “I’m gonna make the biggest Goddamned explosion you’ve ever heard!” Now, if only more saints had that mantra on hand, and fewer celebrities.

Standout Tracks: Mother Mary, Stop Drop & Roll, She’s a Saint Not a Celebrity
RIYL: Garage rock that couldn’t possibly have been written by Billie Joe Armstrong.

6. Juno – Soundtrack

I know, I know… it’s not okay to include a soundtrack on such a list. Y’know what, sometimes it is. Juno happens to be one of my favorite films in recent memory, despite the often utterly laughable dialogue, and Juno happens to be one of my favorite albums in recent memory, despite the often utterly laughable songs. While the album may not have been conceived by one drug-addled, adroit troubadour, it stands upright even without the film, as a legitimate musical accomplishment. Picking and choosing between obscure and largely forgotten masterpieces from The Velvet Underground, Buddy Holly and The Kinks was fun enough, but performing a shotgun wedding with the aforementioned bands and Kimya Dawson, Belle & Sebastian and Cat Power is the kind of thing that simply will never happen again. Top that off with a fantastic rendition of “Anyone Else But You” performed surprisingly well by Michael Cera and Ellen Page and you honestly have a once-in-a-lifetime record… and that’s just about all that you can reasonably ask from twelve inches of vinyl.

While there was more nit-picking involved in Juno the film than you’d find in a third-grade lice check, Juno the album seemed to come through unscathed. The soundtrack succinctly summarizes the film, and the entire largely overshadowed meaning of the entire story: Being a teenager is hard, being a teenager these days is impossible, being a teenager in this day and age while pregnant is a goddamned Shakespearean tragedy.

Standout Tracks: All I Want is You, Tire Swing, Anyone Else But You
RIYL: Accepting the fact that a compilation can be better than an inflated, double-disc concept album… or anything that Steely Dan ever produced.

5. Lightspeed Champion – Falling off the Lavender Bridge

Do you remember Test Icicles? If the answer is “no,” then feel free to join the entire rest of the civilized world. Now would be the ideal time for me to flex my hipster muscle and spout off about with some kind of, “yeah, I remember them, they were (insert hipster comment directly tailored to your audience… if they audience is familiar, they were overrated, if they aren’t, they were brilliant, if it’s split, change the subject).” Unfortunately, I’m nowhere near cool enough to pull that off. I heard the band, actually I heard a song… “Circle.Square.Triangle” was included on one of the endless stream of compilations offered to us through CMJ, NME, Q or some other acronym or single capitalized letter magazine. Needless to say, they made enough of an impact to be memorable, but not enough of one to buy the record. I just remember that they were loud, or as Wikipedia describes them, Post-Hardcore-Noise-Art-Punk.

Why does any of that matter? Perhaps it’s because one of them has recorded a folk/rock/country album. Lightspeed Champion (a.k.a. Devonte Hynes) moved on from the teen-angst, picked up an acoustic, united with Bright Eyes (a.k.a. Connor Oberst (seriously, doesn’t anyone use real names anymore?)) and handed us one of the most genuine, soulful records of the year. Falling Off… could be seen as the flip side to Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, the other hand on the same body. It’s strangely similar yet completely different, completely unaware of what the other hand is doing but living the same life. There are no singles, and listening to the album piece by piece is simply not an option. Like many great albums before it (which I shan’t name for fear of drawing unintentional comparisons to considerably greater records), Falling off the Lavender Bridge is best received after sunset, in one large dose.

Standout Tracks: Tell Me What It’s Worth, Midnight Surprise, Dry Lips
RIYL: Being a hipster without the ridiculous haircut.

4. The Mountain Goats – Heretic Pride

If David Rovics decided to stop whining about politics and join the Decemberists, you’d have The Mountain Goats (and as condescending as that may sound, it’s actually a ringing endorsement). Moving toward a more raw feel than 2005’s The Sunset Tree, John Darnielle and company scale it back to remind listeners of exactly why they’re spectacular… storytelling. Heretic Pride is as addictive as it is beautiful, monopolizing my drive time like the score to an incredibly long, incredibly boring film most likely directed by Andy Warhol. Not since The Hold Steady’s classic album, Separation Sunday, has there been such a rich cast of characters and not since The Decemberists’ Picaresque have they been so elegantly dramatic.

Heretic Pride is the “indie folk/rock” album for people that don’t like “indie folk/rock” albums. Despite the obvious fact that such a genre is either so narrow or so broad (depending on your personal definition), pigeonholing an album such as this would be a waste of time and a detriment to the accomplishment. These songs, while interesting and appealing to even the most snobbish of the hipster crowd, would be equally well received at a backyard cookout with an acoustic guitar. The pretension associated with this album is projected upon, not projected by the band.

Standout Tracks: Sax Rohmer #1, Heretic Pride, Sept 15th 1983
RIYL: Tapping your feet, zoning out and realizing that you’ve just lost half of your day to an album.

3. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend

While the buzz on the band may be as annoying as anything ever recorded, there’s simply no arguing with the result. The self-titled release from Vampire Weekend seamlessly blends otherwise bland island riffs with otherwise bland suburban themes… magically creating something interesting. The overzealous tastemakers have shoved this band so deeply into a corner of pretension that casual listeners may feel turned off, which truly is a shame. The tracks are catchy, pop-friendly songs that perfectly fit that awkward time between late spring and early summer.

Musically, the album is sound, if a bit derivative. There’s nothing on this record that you haven’t heard Paul Simon or The Police do… probably better. However, since Paul and Sting stopped making great music around 20 years ago it was high time that someone took up the torch. The topics are woefully upper-class, the images painfully preppy, but somewhat astoundingly the band manages to pull it off without becoming that group of guys that you’re aching to punch in the nose. Finally, a record made for upper-class white kids, by upper-class white kids… owing every bit of its existence to the groundwork laid by impoverished third world nations.

Standout Tracks: A-Punk, Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa, Oxford Comma
RIYL: Late 80’s Paul Simon, much simpler Fela Kuti, irony

2. Why? – Alopecia

One of the most eclectic releases of the year comes packaged in this release from Why?. Equal parts hip-hop, dance pop and indie rock, Alopecia is a genre busting record that echoes influences as widespread as Lou Reed, Pavement and They Might Be Giants. Much of the hip-hop feel is actually nothing more than spoken word poetry layered over innovative beats borrowed from the Tricky/Massive Attack catalogue, but the frequently monotone delivery and witty rhymes set the record apart.

From time to time, Why? can remind listeners of Primitive Radio Gods or The Butthole Surfers, but to compare the group to others really isn’t fair to either outfit. Alopecia is strange, complex and forward thinking while remaining comfortable and extremely digestible. The true strong suit of the album lies in the lyrical delivery, Yoni Wolf’s voice alternates between Bill Callahan and John Flansburgh while delivering lines like “Even though I haven’t seen you in years/your’s is a funeral I’d fly to from anywhere.” Alopecia is strange and beautiful, getting better with every spin and leaving an indelible mark on listeners for (at least) weeks to come.

Standout Tracks: These Few Presidents, Gnashville, A Sky for Shoeing Horses
RIYL: Constantly rewinding the song to “hear that line again”

1. R.E.M. – Accelerate

In the past, introducing someone to “good R.E.M.” required breaking out a mountain of discs, vinyl records, singles, mix-tapes and bootlegs… now, we can just hand them a copy of Accelerate. After a string of three somewhat disappointing albums, Athens’ finest have returned, apparently hell-bent on making the finest album of their careers. Accelerate draws from influences, which apparently are old R.E.M. records, the songs are as fresh as anything you’ll hear this year yet are still capable of slipping perfectly onto any number of past releases. Let me take attendance… yep, the gang’s all here: Life’s Rich Pageant, Document, Eponymous, Automatic For The People, Monster, and now Accelerate – an album that could serve as a “best of” for bands standing in the Stipe Shadow (I’m looking at you, well, everybody).

It’s certainly too early to declare Accelerate the best album of 2008, but to say that the subsequent ¾ of the year has a great deal of work to do would be one hell of an understatement. The feeling I get while listening to this album is the exact same feeling that came over me in the era between Document and Monster, a time when a band really seemed to have the entire world in the palm of their hands, only limited by their own creativity. Often fragile, often audacious, R.E.M. has apparently woken up… and they’d like their crown back.

Standout Tracks: Hollow Man, Horse to Water, I’m Gonna DJ
RIYL: Every great R.E.M. album

While these records proved to be the great accomplishments of 2008, I beg of you not to overlook any of the “also-rans” in the prologue. For a music critic, the first quarter has been an absolute nightmare… any of these records could easily be “Cory’s Album of the Year,” in the right circumstance. Brace yourself, if the first quarter of ’08 even vaguely resembles the rest, all hell is about to break loose.

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8 Responses to “Already? No, Really… Already!?”

  1. Brinton Says:

    I thought Kimya Dawson’s Loose Lips and Cat Power’s version of Sea of Love were far and away the standouts on the Juno soundtrack. I love soundtracks. One of the best musical days I ever had was picking up the Vanilla Sky and Royal Tennenbaum soundtracks on the same day at Hastings.

    I’d take issue with your adoration of Accelerate, but I’ve been in that particular argument a time or two before. There’s just no talking to REM fans. Not saying it isn;t good by the way, it is.

  2. corygraham Says:

    I eagerly await the moment when Aaron chimes in, verbally lopping off your head for attacking R.E.M. I guess that’s the wonderful thing about them, when they’re good they’re so much better than everyone else that it makes you want to smash your record collection. When they’re bad, it makes sitting in coach on a transatlantic flight between two WWE wrestlers while your ears refuse to pop seem almost romantic by comparison.

  3. Matt Sparks Says:

    Is this Cory freakin’ Graham from Powell Co? Holly balls! I found your blog through my friend Zach Hightower’s blog. Small world.

  4. corygraham Says:

    This is, indeed, Cory freakin’ Graham from Powell County! The internet is such a small world.

  5. Aaron, Chiming In Says:

    No need to verbally lop off anyone’s head. I am at peace with the fact that anyone who would attack R.E.M. is either a) in need of medical intention, at the very least psychiatric observation. or b) ass.

    Cory, you define God R.EM. perfectly. You leave out “Supernatural Superserious” from your list of Accelerate highpoints.

    Fart.

  6. jeffffff Says:

    Two things: Hey Venus! came out last year, and Stephin Merritt released Showtunes just in 2006… so it hasn’t been THAT long since we’ve heard from him. It is a fine album, too!

    Lastly, Aaron’s coined an awesome new term: “medical intention”. Like how “drug attics” need “medical intention”!

  7. Aaron, Chiming In Says:

    Yassir. As in Yes sir, not as in Arafat.

  8. Cory Says:

    Alright Jeff, before your snark machine goes into full effect, Hey Venus! was released in the states on January 22, 2008… the good ol’ U.S.A. Listen buddy, ’round here we tend to go by when things arrive in the greatest nation in the world. You might have heard of that place, “land of the free, home of the brave” ring a bell? Maybe you haven’t heard of it, what with all of those copies of People’s Weekly World crammed into your ears.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to listen to my copy of “The Angry American” for about six hours, while trying to wash that left-wing, commie, “we are one world” garbage out of my brain.

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