Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Year in Music - 7th Favorite Album of the Year

Miles Kurosky - The Desert of Shallow Effects

I discovered Beulah along with a bunch of the other Elephant 6 related stuff probably back in 2002 or so, right after they released The Coast is Never Clear, probably my favorite Beulah album. They would go on to release YOKO in 2004 before calling it quits that year after a final tour (during which I saw them twice).

After a fairly long hiatus, former frontman Kurosky finally released his long awaited solo album, and if you like Beulah, then you probably weren't disappointed. He packs in tons of hooks, tons of instruments, and the clever turns of phrase that delighted Beulah's fan base. It's a pleasant surprise, and not exactly what I expected. But Kurosky has a real ear for pop melodies. This album has been criticized for being TOO stimulating, and lacking subtlety, but hey, I'm a guy who likes Los Campesinos!, so I don't always go in for subtlety. This is indie pop at its finest.

An Apple for an Apple

Dog in the Burning Building

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Year in Music - 8th Favorite Album of the Year

The Black Keys - Brothers

Second of three Top 10 bands that I didn't see live this year. Never really listened to the Black Keys much until this year. There's a plethora of "Black" bands out there. Black Mountain, the Black Kids, the Black Lips, the Black Angels... I think in my head I've always just sort of lumped them all in with one another.

When you subscribe to a bunch of music blogs through a reader (like Google Reader), you tend to see the same stuff posted quite a bit. When I saw the video for "Tighten Up" posted a bunch of times, I finally watched it and listened to the song. So I streamed the album and found out that I really liked it. A few more listens and I was in love. Maybe because it's so different than everything else I listen to. There's not a lot of blues/soul music in my collection. The fact that two white guys from Akron do it so well is pretty unique.

I really like the way this album is paced. It eases the listener in with "Everlasting Light", then pounds away with "Next Girl", "Tighten Up", "Howlin' For You", and "Long Gone" before descending into emotional noise on "Black Mud". From there on out, it's a roller coaster peaking with "the Only One", "Sinister Kid", and "Unknown Brother" before slowing cruising through the finishing "These Days". This is an album as equally appealing when played as background music as it is when blasted from a car stereo. It really makes me want to dig into their back catalog.

And they do make really great videos.

Tighten Up

Next Girl

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Year in Music - 9th Favorite Album of the Year

The Drums - The Drums

I hadn't even heard of these guys until Stereogum posted their list of the 40 best new bands of 2010, a list that they didn't even make. Someone in the comments mentioned them. Turns out I actually had tickets to see them at the time. They were playing a double bill (which is a regular show, except the bands are considered "co-headliners") with Surfer Blood at Lincoln Hall. So I looked into their stuff and found the 'Summertime' EP that was released in 2009. I liked it a lot, and finally listened to the album a few times before the show.

Turns out there was enough interest in the bill that they added a second 10:00 pm show in addition to the original 7:00 pm show. I was meeting up with some friends at the early show, and I had another friend interested in going to the late show. When I arrived, I was told that my admission to the early show was valid for the late show as well. The Drums were so good that I decided to stay around for both. Everyone I was with was there to see Surfer Blood. Everyone left much more impressed with the Drums.

There are some definite Smiths vibes on this albums, and just in case you weren't sure where their influences are from, you're more or less hit on the head with Morrissey in the opening line of the first track on the album, Best Friend:
You were my best friend, and then you died
Mozzer couldn't have said it any better. But the '80s callbacks don't stop there. This album sounds like it was made by the children resulting from a love affair between Joy Division/New Order and the Cure, but only the really melodic stuff (not like Disintegration). This album is a lot of fun to listen to if you're a fan of music from that era, and since that was around the time that I really started paying attention, it strikes a chord with me.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Year in Music - 10th Favorite Album of the Year

First, a note about the process. I hate the construct of a "Top 10" or "10 Best". This process is subjective by nature, and the idea that my selections are THE best is kind of ridiculous. The only thing I can honestly say about these albums is that they are/were my favorite of the past year.

Now, I typically listen to a band's album the most before I see that band in concert, which happened a lot this year. There are three bands in my 10 favorites that I did not see this year. Aside from them, I tried to pick albums that I kept coming back to long after I'd seen their show. I decided that was the true measure of how much I liked an album. So with that said here we go.

10th Favorite Album of the Year:

The Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

I loved Funeral. I did not much care for Neon Bible. And I have a bit of an aversion to bands with huge popularity. So I was not expecting this album to be one of my 10 favorites. But I couldn't help it. I just really enjoy listening to it. I wouldn't call it a return to their Funeral sound, but they found a way to be more engaging, more melodic, and I really like the diversity of sounds on this album, from the rollicking piano in the opening title track to the driving guitar riff on City With No Children. Ready to Start and Sprawl II are real anthems. And if you haven't experienced it yet, download Google Chrome and watch the HTML 5 video for We Used to Wait.

This was an album that I wasn't expecting to like. I almost didn't want to like it. But I can't help it. I have a feeling I'm going to be listening to this one a lot over the next few years.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Year in Music Vol. 2 - The Not Top Ten

I thought 2009 was a pretty damn good year for music. I actually had a fairly difficult time putting together a CD for friends because I felt like there was a lot of great stuff I had to leave off. I was pretty sure 2010 was going to be a bit of step back. I was wrong. 2010 featured a ton of great music, so much that I'm about to list a bunch of albums that I would have almost guaranteed top 10 status before the year started. But in the end, these albums didn't quite entertain me as much as the top 10, to be revealed in the next week or two.

Good, but not quite top 10 - High Expectations Division:
I could pick ten albums from that list, present it as my top 10, and no one would be surprised. They're all bands I love, all bands I'd seen before this year (except Vampire Weekend and Blitzen Trapper, both of whom I saw this year), and all albums that I was really looking forward to. There's not a bad album in the bunch, and my only regret is that my top 10 list is limited to 10.

Apples in Stereo, Spoon, Broken Social Scene, New Pornographers, Los Campesinos!, Vampire Weekend, and Ted Leo were probably victims of their own success. I had really high expectations for all of those albums, maybe too high. And while all had songs that I really love, none of them were good enough start to finish to rank higher.

Admittedly, the Whigs, Interpol, and Blitzen Trapper fell a little flat for me this year, though Blitzen Trapper did put on a really great show in August.

Albums I never really gave a chance to:
I really enjoyed Wolf Parade's set at Pitchfork. I love the first few tracks from Teen Dream. And while I really want to like the National, I'm just missing something that everyone else is getting. Like their first two albums, High Violet has some stuff I like, but just doesn't grab me enough to make me want to listen to the whole thing.

Broken Bells, like Teen Dream, starts out really great, and then I just kind of get lost in the rest, and sometime after I stop paying attention, the record ends. I supposed that's my fault, but hey, this is my list. As for Wolf Parade, I had the misfortune to get their album around a time where I had a bunch of shows coming up, and I usually spend that time listening to the bands I'm going to see. It was a problem of timing for them. I need to get back and listen to that album a few more times.

Unexpected Returns and Side Projects who released great albums in 2010:
Teenage Fanclub returned after a fairly long absence with more jangly power-pop, and this album fits perfectly into their repertoire. They put on two great shows in October. It was my first time seeing them, and they didn't disappoint.

The Posies just missed making my list, and indeed they were included on various versions. I really love the Ken Stringfellow songs on this record, and I think it's their best since Frosting on the Beater was released 17 years or so ago. Their show with Brendan Benson in November was terrific.

Blue Giant is the alt-country version of Viva Voce, one of my favorite bands. It's not my favorite musical style, but they pull it off well, and anything that includes lead guitar from Anita Robinson is worth listening to.

Admiral Radley is the fusion of Earlimart and Grandaddy, and the album sounds like, well, what you'd expect if you combined Earlimart with Grandaddy.

EWITFR,N is the side project of Eddie Argos (Art Brut) and Dyan Valdes (the Blood Arm). It's a response record, in which they respond to other pop-songs. The live show is part concert, part comedy routine.

Stuff that wasn't on my radar when 2010 began:
Surfer Blood were good enough for me to want to see a couple times, but ultimately the album, while good, didn't force me to listen over and over again. The Happy Hollows are a band I missed in November, but I'm still hoping to see them live sometime soon. Avi Buffalo really bring a lot of energy to their live sets, and for a bunch of kids who can barely get in to the bars that they play (they're mostly under 21), they released a great album.

Sleigh Bells, as mentioned yesterday, put out an album I really like a lot, but their live show was underwhelming. Still, I love the album, and in another year it probably could have made the top 10.

The 1900s suffered only from a late release. Their album is excellent, but their live show (last Friday) was absolutely phenomenal. One of the best translations of an album to a live show that I've ever seen. They sound like Belle and Sebastian, but on stage, they really crank up the energy. They're local to Chicago, so I really hope we get a lot of opportunities to see them play.

Finally, I can't think of a category for the Thermals, who I didn't discover until 2010 even though I'd heard of them before. I started listening to their 2009 album "Now We Can See" before the new album came out, and I fell in love with it. I like it a lot more than I like their 2010 album "Personal Life", which has some great tracks, though I don't like it much start to finish as NWCS.

Tomorrow: Day 1 of the main event.

Monday, December 06, 2010

The Year in Music Vol. 1 - Live Shows

It's December 6th, and at current, I have a ticket to one more show before the year ends (Tennis @ Schuba's), with no immediate plans to add any others. So how do the numbers add up for 2010?
  • Shows attended (not including Pitchfork) - 46
  • Sets witnessed (including Pitchfork) - ~90
Shows by venue:
  • Lincoln Hall - 15
  • Schuba's - 8
  • Metro - 8
  • Empty Bottle - 4
  • Bottom Lounge - 3
  • Riviera - 2
  • Vic - 2
  • Logan Square Auditorium - 1
  • Reggie's Rock Club - 1
  • Double Door - 1
  • Subterranean - 1
Bands Seen Multiple Times (including festival shows):
  • Free Energy - 5
  • Titus Andronicus - 4
  • Surfer Blood - 4 (if you include both sets at Lincoln Hall on 10/7)
  • The Drums - 2 (see the Surfer Blood note)
  • New Pornographers - 2
  • Generationals - 2
  • Blue Giant - 2
  • Local Natives - 2
  • Avi Buffalo - 2
  • Teenage Fanclub - 2
  • Cymbals Eat Guitars - 2
Biggest Months:
  • October - 15 shows
  • April - 8 shows
  • August - 5 shows
  • No shows in January for some reason
Biggest letdowns of the year

Tie between the Pitchfork sets for Sleigh Bells and Girls. Of bands I hadn't seen before, those were the two sets I was most looking forward to. Girls played a daytime set in some pretty intense heat, but the crowd was fairly large. They just didn't deliver. They found a way to play almost all down-tempo songs, and for some reason, they felt the need to play them slower than they play them on the album. Sleigh Bells set was short, but that wasn't unanticipated. They have one album, and it's not very long. The problem with their set is that it was way too quiet. To sound good, Sleigh Bells need to be ear-splittingly loud. My friend and I had a normal volume conversation during their set. That shouldn't happen.

Biggest surprise of the year:

A few come to mind, such as the Pitchfork set by LCD Soundsystem. Never really listened to them before that show, but they really delivered. The 1900s show at the Empty Bottle just this past Saturday ranks pretty highly here as well. Their new album doesn't come off as a real rocker, but they really cranked up the energy during the show. The Drums shows at Lincoln Hall in October were pretty great, too. Everyone I was with went to those shows to see Surfer Blood. Everyone left much more impressed with the Drums.

But for me personally, the best surprise was when Miles Kurosky to the stage at Schuba's backed by two former members of Beulah. With roughly half of the last formation of Beulah in attendance, I was able to get a few autographs on my setlist from their final shows in Chicago in 2004. The show itself was pretty great, too. Definitely worth missing Spoon.

Best single night of music - Non-festival:

April 30th. Cymbals Eat Guitars & Los Campesinos! at the Metro, followed by Generationals and the Apples in Stereo at Lincoln Hall. Perfectly timed so that I could see all four sets. The first time I had hit two different shows at two different venues in the same night (though I did it about three more times later in the year).

A close second goes to October 13th. I was invited to see New Pornographers play a small club set at lunch, which was recorded by WXRT. I followed that show up with a double bill of Surfer Blood and the Drums at Lincoln Hall. It was a night on which they were playing both an early show and a late show. I had a ticket for the early show, which I was told at the door would also be valid for the late show. I had some friends at the early show, and a friend at the late show, so I stuck around for both.

Best single day of music - Festival:

The Saturday of Pitchfork was the second best day of the festival on paper, but turned out to be the best day in terms of the quality of the sets. It started with Free Energy kicking off the day in 90+ degree heat at 1:00. Titus Andronicus followed that up at 3:00. Wolf Parade played a pretty solid set at about 7:00, and LCD Soundsystem ended the night in front of a huge crowd at 8:30 or so.

Top Five shows of the year:

HM) Brian Jonestown Massacre @ the Metro - 5/30: The last time I saw them, it was ridiculous. A two hour show with 10 songs, either ending with overly long and patience trying ragas, or extended rants from Anton Newcombe. This time? A near original lineup including Joel Gion and Matt Hollywood. Two hours, about 20 songs, and all of their best stuff from the Give it Back/Strung Out in Heaven period. Really impressive.

5) The Walkmen @ Double Door - 8/6: This was their Lollapalooza aftershow. And quite frankly, anytime the Walkmen play, there's a chance that their show will be in my top five of the year. They're America's finest touring rock band in my opinion, and the band most worthy of my entertainment dollar. They played a selection of material from their not-yet-released album Lisbon (since released), and now I can't wait to see them again having listened to the album lord knows how many times. I missed their follow up show in Chicago because I had tickets for Guided By Voices on the same night. I considered driving to Madison the next night for their show (a Thursday), but that was the same day as the Drums/Surfer Blood show.

4) Foreign Born/Free Energy @ the Empty Bottle - 3/5: I'd seen Foreign Born, who's Person to Person was one of my favorite albums of 2009, a few months earlier at the end of 2009 while I was in Los Angeles. They put on a great show, and they're perfect for a small venue. This was also the first time I saw Free Energy at the suggestion of an acquaintance who writes for Chicagoist. They were pretty great live. Good enough to see about four more times in 2010.

3) Deerhunter @ the Metro - 10/14: These guys were on my radar for a while, but I started listening to Halcyon Digest a few weeks before this show. I fell in love with it and snagged a ticket when I saw they were coming. The show lived up to the excitement generated by the album. They're now a can't miss band for me when they come to town.

2) Titus Andronicus @ Subterranean - 7/16: This was a Friday night show after the first evening of Pitchfork, which featured Broken Social Scene and Modest Mouse. T/A played a tiny club in sweltering heat, at least a good 10 hotter inside than outside on arguably the hottest weekend of the year. But they were incredible in that setting. Just feeding off the heat and energy from the packed crowed. I probably lost about 3 pounds in sweat during their set. It was the best of the four sets I saw them play this year.

1) The Fiery Furnaces @ the Empty Bottle - 6/18: A Friday night show while my family was in town for the Angels/Cubs series at Wrigley Field. I went to this show with my brother, a real trooper. He arrived in Chicago at about 7:00 am on the red-eye from Anchorage. He sat through a baseball game at 1:00 pm, went to dinner with our parents at 7:00 pm, and after a brief nap, was ready for this show around 11:00 pm.

As for the show itself, it was an hour of pure brilliance. I've never seen anything like it. They played for an hour straight, and I when I say straight, I mean straight. No breaks. Not even for applause between songs. It was like an hour long 25 song medley. And they were impressively tight. Not one missed beat or note all night long. I can't even describe how incredible that is based on what they played. Time signatures and keys jumped around like a kangaroo on meth. It was pure perfection. And to top the night off, while chatting with Eleanor Friedberger at the merch table after the show, she commented on my Super Furry Animals t-shirt. It was a really great night.

Tomorrow: Albums of the year - Honorable Mentions