The hardest part about writing about music is that it's nearly impossible to say anything that makes any sense. Instead one is left with a bunch of repetitive adjectives that may or may not connect the reader to the actual music that's being described. In this age of information, it's so easy to find even the most obscure new music, that it's easy for people to check stuff out without spending money or really with that much of an effort, so that's helpful...which is nice.
Another year has passed and it's time for me to aimlessly post my list of favorite music releases of the year. The only reason I do this is because I have this burning desire to share my love of this stuff! Plus, like so many, at times like these, I like to reflect on the events of the past year, and even though the best music is timeless, it's also the way I keep track of events in my life. I remember what I was doing when I was listening to certain songs.
Since I'm so long-winded and there're so many releases here, I have chosen to break the list down into 4 parts of 10 releases and I'm going for the American Top 40 Casey Kasem style, so we'll start with 40 and work our way to the # 1 pick of 2011.
Happy New Year!
12 Desperate Lines
This is my first exposure to Michael Benjamin Learner’s music. He definitely takes major cues from early period Death Cab for Cutie here (no surprise with Death Cab’s Chris Walla producing and playing along for this second album) – just check out “50 Ways” or “Dirty Thing” for a sample. It could be a lost track from Death Cab's We Have the Facts. There are also clear influences of the Teen Beat label’s vision of dryly recorded new wave and the bass-lines throughout would not sound out of place on an Unrest, or Flin Flon album. Check out the new wave bass line of the standout track “Please Ask for Help,” or the sing-along chorus of “Car Crash” to see that this guy can write very addictive tunes. I haven’t heard Telekinesis’ earlier work yet, so I do not know if there has been significant growth away from their/his influences, which could be important, but the influences are sound as far as I’m concerned. This is a solid cohesive collection that is worth a listen.
King of Limbs
Radiohead have reached a level of exposure that I am not especially comfortable with. It’s become more about their aesthetic then their music these days. I appreciate that in 2000 they radically changed their sound and direction with Kid A, and even more so with Amnesiac (which King of Limbs most reminds of), but everyone knows that their best work came during the mid 90s with The Bends (a huge creative leap forward from their debut) and their peak OK Computer in 1997. Whether it’s their fault or not, since then they’ve been stuck in a media blitz which obfuscates their music with their supposed politics and message. Having said that, they have done some pretty great work, if not as solid as their “rock” phase, but their last LP 2007’s In Rainbows found them regaining their strengths. King of Limbs is a bit of a step back or sideways. These eight songs are built on complex sounding drum loops and various electronics with Thom Yorke putting his patented creepy moan over the top. Lucky for them, they have serious talent, so it all sounds pretty good – save for the terrible Casio keyboard sound effects that distract the opening “Bloom.” It’s the final four tracks that rate the real attention. “Lotus Flower” makes an obvious single choice with its actual dance-ability, while “Codex” is a moving piano driven ballad that lingers like a bad hangover. “Give Up the Ghost” is a strange folk/electronic hybrid that is oddly effective, and finally the closing “Separator” finds a sing-along chorus with Yorke harmonizing against himself. Not sure how this rates in their lexicon, but it’s worth an actual listen, as opposed to listening to everything that gets said about them.
Codes and Keys
Death Cab have made it to album number seven and now third on a major label (not that that means anything anymore) and they are finally truly showing the tell tale signs of a band that needs a break. While this is their biggest departure from their now signature sound, and I give them ample credit for that, it feels heavy and distant. Their music has always been about intimacy and the small things in life, while this new album is bloated with useless electronic trickery and is way too slick for its own good. It’s in the songs that remind of more of their mid-period work (like back to Transatlanticism) such as the single “You are a Tourist” and the title track that are the catchiest and strongest of their new direction. “Monday Morning” and “Underneath the Sycamore” also show signs that these guys are still breathing. Overall, this is a bit of a letdown, not because of lack of songwriting chops, but because this doesn’t feel like they were fully invested in its making. It’s still worth a listen.
Highs and Lows
When I first fell head over heels over Holiday Flyer back in the late 90s, I never thought I’d be chasing down all the various projects that now defunct band would be involved with. There's the California Oranges, Desario, and well, here’s another one. This one finds vocalist Katie Haley (Conley) leading a band with former members of the offshoot California Oranges (among others) and mining similar territory. The album alternates between very catchy pop numbers featuring Katie’s sweet voice and some shining guitar based melodies and more dream-like atmospheric or dare I say shoegaze-y numbers (more like early Lush). The opening trio of songs are an immediate highlight, with the short, pounding “When Will You Come Home,” the stratospheric “Closer to Me,” and finally the rocking “Something to Go on.” Don’t miss out on “Better Be Good,” “It’s Right ”and “No Sanctuary” or my favorite catchy tune “Take it Back.”. Just track this thing down and try and keep up with all the Holiday Flyer alumnus projects out there – you won’t be disappointed, or better yet, start out with the old HF albums and work your way forward.
Passive Aggressive: Singles 2002-2010 (2 CD)
I know very little about these Swedes. We sold all of their music on our old Entangled Records website, but I only heard a track or few here and there. I did always like what I heard, but was never sure if it was enough to delve further. Along came this collection early this year: two CD’s for the price of one, and singles which should represent their best tracks, so I decided to give it a try. I am glad I did, because these 14 songs definitely live up to my high expectations of the melodic Swedish pop scene. These tracks span their entire career and find them moving from in-the-red low-fi numbers that remind me of my days listening to Spare Snare and the like to an almost Pet Shop Boys sound (“The Worst Taste in Music”) to a more balanced fully realized sound of their now mature selves on the newer material such as the amazing “Heaven’s on Fire,” the strangely dubby “Never Follow Suit” and the lyrically strong “The New Improved Hypocrisy.” Of course, I also bought it because they cover the Go-Betweens classic “Bachelor Kisses” here. The B-sides are okay, but not essential. They are mostly sketches and experiments that are really of interest to fans only. This will definitely lead me to check out more of their previous work. (theradiodept.com)
Cut the World (reissue)
In 2008 this Philippines 5-piece released their debut 7” and mini album before disappearing off of the radar. This reissue of their early and only released work reminds us all why they were such a find a few years ago. These kids were clearly heavily influenced by the work of the Sarah records stable from the late 80s and early 90s. The music is mixed in a mid-fi haze of atmosphere, while the winsome vocals are barely audible. This isn’t merely a revival of that Sarah sound though. These songs feel a bit heavier and are driven a bit faster and edgier. It’s an interesting angle they take. One that puts the listener in a sleepy trance at first, but over time the details start to shine through exposing an entire new light on the premises. Thank you to the Japanese for keeping the light directed towards this valuable release and check out the first new music from Moscow Olympics with their recent mp3 “Keeping the Avenues Open.”
The Echo Lingers On: Demos, Outtakes and Rehearsals
I was smitten with this band when I first heard their song “Cayman” in the year 2000. During that summer, I had a giant brain cyst that was making life increasingly difficult due to a never ending severe headache, numbness and a near constant case of the hiccups. Only a few things kept me sane. One was taking long fast walks, the other was golfing, which somehow eased the head trauma and nausea - though not the odd colors I was starting to see and the balance issues I was experiencing – and lastly, listening to the soaring voice of Regina Sosinski and the dramatic dream-like build and release of Mira’s “Cayman.” If you haven’t heard Mira’s blend of kinda gothic, ethereal, and shoegaze, then I would suggest starting with their debut self-titled album which includes the amazing “Cayman.” Next I would recommend you stop off at their third and final full length, 2005’s magically recorded There I Go Daydreamer, which includes their single “Window Seat” and sounds like its being performed right in front of you. This CD is a limited edition collection of some of Mira’s demos and such and is definitely for the old die-hards. Some of this is pretty sketchy what with rough live rehearsal recordings and some unfinished demos. However, the first four songs include their debut EP from way back in ’97 Something Ventured and it is well worth the price of admission alone! Throw in the added bonus of the surprising short pop nugget “For Now” that did not make the final cut of the debut and I found this to be a nice listen.
Led Zeppelin Five
(the Eskimo Record Label)
John Andrew Fredrick’s band the Black Watch has now been grinding away around the fringes of the music scene since 1987 and never have they broken through towards any sign of exposure (other than a near miss with 1994’s career highlight Amphetamines, which is only notable because it could be found by the multitudes in used/cut out bins all over the record shops back then). This is a major tragedy! Fredrick is an English professor and would probably be horrified by my attempt at writing this (or any) review, but I will sing his praises anytime. This curiously titled album is the 11th full length album from TBW (the 10th for me, I have not yet found their debut) and please don’t be fooled by the name, because this is nothing like Led Zeppelin. If one were to reference a “classic” rock band as an influence, the obvious one would be the Beatles (whose “It’s All Too Much” is covered as the album closer – re-titled “Weirdly”), since these songs are streamlined pop songs full of vibrant melodies and hummable hooks. This album was released as a limited release on New Zealand label in 2010 (see obscurity reference above), but has finally been issued here on Fredrick’s own label. I highly recommend you take advantage of its availability, because this is their best work (among a discography of consistency) since maybe 1999’s King of Good Intentions. There are hit single possibilities all over the place with such songs as the hyper catchy “Emily, Are You Sleeping?” Or check out the mid tempo relate-able “Like in the Movies” and the magical “Earl Grey Tea,” which I think features lead vocals from recent guitarist Steven Schayer. I hope they continue to give this music thing a chance, because there are a few of us out there that welcome the new music every few years.
In 1999 Shelf-life Records released the quiet debut album by Florida’s Brittle Stars. It is the quintessential album of the entire Shelf-life catalog. It was also the only the only album they released (aside from a remix and obscurities collection), which is incredibly sad, because their soft mix of New Order and OMD electronics combined with the reflective sense of The Sundays was a perfect one. These are subtle songs that really should be heard by more people, but I think they prefer to be off to the side on their own, which is how I like to listen to such beautiful songs as “Tripping Me Up,” the momentous “You Went in Phases,” “May,” and the closing title track. This is so good that Japanese label Fastcut has decided to release this album with a few extra tracks from the remix LP tacked on with nice packaging. Unfortunately, it has only been released as a limited edition, but hopefully this magical music will stay alive through word of mouth. This is my part.
(can be found at tonevendor.com)
Dead Legs and Alibis
Dark Captain has abandoned ship on half of their name. They may have dropped the too wordy addition of ‘Light Captain’ from their title, but their sound remains as consistent as ever. This doesn’t stray too far from the sound of their surprising and flawless debut Miracle Kicker. This is complex sounding music. Each song is built on top of busy repetitive drum percussion patterns and intertwining acoustic guitar lines that are almost too much for the mind to comprehend. It’s best to focus on the whole of their sound then the intricacies that form it. The simultaneous vocals of apparently all members of the band create an easy welcoming vibe into their dark world. When they find a groove with their unique sound, the results are really stunning as on “Submarines,” the fluttering “Right Way Round,” and the final open spaced “Flickering Lights.” They’ve added more layers of instrumentation throughout this album, but their biggest flaw may be that the songs start to sound the same with too much exposure. Much of this is to blame on the shared one voice vocals, which leaves less room for emotional inflection. Also, the sheer busyness of their sound can wear one down after so many songs. However, their sound is a great one and this is being nit-picky. Maybe their niche should be with EPs instead of LPs, just so we (me) slow thinkers can focus our attentions without so much effort. Start with Miracle Kicker and see if you like that before coming here.
Please tune in next time for the next installment of the Top 40 0f 2011!
links: Top 40 #'s 30-21