Friday, December 17, 2010

The Year in Music - My Favorite Album of 2010

Finally, we reach the end.

Titus Andronicus - The Monitor

I was initially sort of dreading this album's release. I'm not really big on concept albums, and when it comes to history, I've never really been all that interested in the Civil War. So when I learned that Titus Andronicus were following up 2008's 'The Airing of Grievances' with a sprawling epic of a Civil War themed concept album, I was skeptical. I was also very wrong to be skeptical.

This is not an easy album to love from the start. This is an album lover's album in the age of singles and one track downloads. Compared to a band like, say, the Drums, who's album has all of two songs that clock in at barely over four minutes, 'The Monitor' is 67 minutes long, and it does that in only ten tracks, two of which take up a combined 4:19. So that's eight tracks lasting an average of just under eight minutes long. This album has a lot going against it.

That said, I'm worried about Titus Andronicus. I'm worried about where they go from here. I'm worried that they won't be able to top this. 'The Monitor' is an ambitious album that sets a very high bar for itself, and manages to somehow exceed all expectations. They set out to create an album that tells the loose story of a young man's journey from his small New Jersey town to the bright lights of Boston, and they decided to tell the story using a Civil War motif. It's punctuated with Abe Lincoln and Jefferson Davis speeches, pamphlet and poetry readings. It's really kinda nuts.

But it's also a monumental achievement. It's almost not a collection of separate tracks so much as one long movement. The typical song starts slow, with an almost depressed sounding Patrick Stickles bearing his soul. Before long, they've built up to a raucous, angry, spittle flecked rant proclaiming at various points that "You will always be a loser", "You ain't never been no virgin, kid, you were fucked from the start", and "It's still us against them". This is not an album you will instantly love. You need to spend some time with it. You need to work a little bit to love it. But the payoff is absolutely worth it. It's stuff that really plays incredibly well live.

It begins with a reading from Abe Lincoln's Lyceum address leading into the beat for the song that's my choice for the best track of 2010, 'A More Perfect Union'. The album culminates in the 14 minute long epic 'the Battle of Hampton Roads', named after the two day long Civil War naval battle of ironclad warships, in which the inspiration for the album's title, the USS Monitor, fought the CSS Virginia to a virtual draw. In the song, our beaten protagonist leaves Boston defeated, but determined to remain " much of an asshole as [he's] ever been".

Like I said, I don't know how they top it. But I can't wait to see them try. And even if they never tread this ground again, they've left us with masterpiece.

I'm going to post the official video for 'A More Perfect Union', and by all means, watch and get the visual, but they cut the song in half, and the second part is every bit as good as the first. I'd suggest clicking on the second vid to hear the whole thing.

A More Perfect Union, a less than perfect cut of the song.

A More Perfect Union

A Pot in Which to Piss

The Battle of Hampton Roads (all 14+ minutes of it)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Year in Music - 2nd Favorite Album of the Year

Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest

I've gone back and forth between #s 2 and 3. #1 has been set for a while, but this album and the one that came before it are pretty much based on my whim at any given time. But whereas the Morning Benders released an album that hit me instantly AND grew on me, this one I've loved pretty much start to finish from day one.

Like many of the albums on my list, I think this one is really well paced. It starts out ambient with 'Earthquake' before dipping to the lo-fi 'Don't Cry', followed up by the brilliant 'Revival'. You get a chance to catch your breath on 'Sailing' before it picks up the pace again with 'Memory Boy' flowing into the second real standout 'Desire Lines'. It's down and up from there, as the first single, 'Helicopter', and 'Coronado' highlight the second half of the album.

The last 16 months or so have really been a breakout period for Bradford Cox. Building on the critical success of Deerhunter's 2008 release Microcastle, he released the second album of his solo project, Atlas Sound, to even more critical acclaim. It was Pitchfork's 18th best album, and landed two tracks in their top 100. And they continue their trend towards accessibility. Microcastle was more instantly accessible than their 2007 release Cryptograms, and Halcyon Digest take that even further, with a handful of tracks that should delight on first listen.

And while Cox continues to pad his resumé as a master songwrite, Lockett Pundt proves himself no slouch with the epic 'Desire Lines' and psych-rock 'Fountain Stairs'. This really should serve as their breakthrough album.


Desire Lines


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Year in Music - 3rd Favorite Album of the Year

The Morning Benders - Big Echo

A friend of mine sent out an email about show these guys were set to play in October, and it reminded me that I'd been meaning to listen to this album. When I finally got around to doing so, I couldn't stop, and it's still a go to record when I need some music to fill the office. He missed their show, but I have him to thank for finally convincing me to listen to one of my favorite albums of the year.

Last year, Veckatimist by Grizzly Bear was one of my favorite albums. That album had a handful of really incredible songs, and a handful of somewhat forgettable songs. This album was produced by Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear, and it's a lot like Veckatimist in that it also has a handful of incredible songs. But the difference here is that there are no forgettable songs.

Half of this album hits instantly, and half of grows slowly. Songs like 'Promises' and 'All Day Daylight' make instant impressions, while slower tracks like 'Stitches' and 'Pleasure Sighs' build slowly to a crescendo. 'Stitches' is my favorite type of song. The type that sounds alright the first time you hear it, but makes a completely different impression in their live show, after which you'll never hear it the same way again. There are a few songs out there I've had this reaction to, such as 'Half the World Away' by the Whigs and 'All Hands and the Cook' by the Walkmen. And the opening track, 'Excuses', is one of the best live sing alongs you may ever get the chance to see. The video below is a great example of how that song is great in a big group. Watch it and imagine that in a club with about 400-500 people all singing along.

There's not much else to say other than that listening to this album is just a really enjoyable experience.

All Day Daylight



Monday, December 13, 2010

The Year in Music - 4th Favorite Album of the Year

The Besnard Lakes - The Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night

Pinko Punko posted this on Song of the Day earlier in the year, and if you click through to that link, you can see my love for this album evolve in the comments. There was a good three week period when I was listening to this album all the way through at least once or twice every day. It's an album that really grows on you, and while individual songs on the album are great, it's really an album that needs to be listened to start to finish.

The Besnard Lakes sit kind of at the intersection of prog and shoegaze. A couple songs, 'Glass Printer' and the album's best track 'And This Is What We Call Progress' sound like they could have come off one of the first two Catherine Wheel albums. They're a Canadian band whose main feature is the husband and wife pair of Jace Lasek and Olga Goreas. They're also a bit unique in that Lasek is spends much of the time singing in a falsetto, at a higher pitch than his wife.

Lasek also produced the album, and his experience shows. He's worked with other Canadian bands Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown, and his ability at the soundboard is every bit as evident as his talent as a songwriter. A few of the songs are fairly long ('Like the Ocean, Like the Innocent', 'the Land of Living Skies', and 'Light Up the Night), but they all reward patient listeners with terrific payoffs. And of course, it's got the best Chicago themed song since Spoon's 'Chicago at Night'. It's really an album worth a few listens.

And This Is What We Call Progress


Last Train to Chicago

The Year in Music - 5th Favorite Album of the Year

The Walkmen - Lisbon

Whereas the New Pornographers, Spoon, and Broken Social Scene all more or less met expectations, the Walkmen rarely fail to exceed them. A bit more stripped down than 'You & Me', my choice for the best album in their catalog, 'Lisbon' finds the Walkmen once again doing what they do best. Lisbon provides a vehicle for Hamilton Leithauser's emotional vocals, Paul Maroon's deliberate guitar, and Matt Barrick's powerful percussion.

Leithauser is able to cut loose in his traditional fashion on the choruses of 'Victory' and 'Angela Surf City', the album's best track, and as good as anything they've done since 'The Rat'. He keeps an even pace on 'Woe is Me' and the opening "Juveniles", a track on which Ham sets the stage by crooning "You're one of us, or one of them". 'Blue as Your Blood' is like a version of 'On the Water' that doesn't reach a crescendo. And like some of the best stuff from their previous albums, Lisbon is littered with gems that require some additional mining, such as 'Torch Song' and the horn backed 'Stranded'.

Five albums in, the Walkmen may not be breaking new ground, but they've found their sound, and they're continually perfecting it. And I should mention, they are, in my opinion, the best touring act in the country. The first and third videos were taken at a show I attended in August (not by me, though. They were filmed by other people).

Angela Surf City



Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Year in Music - 6th Favorite Album of the Year

Free Energy - Stuck on Nothing

The brother of a friend of mine from law school is one of the music writers for Chicagoist. He wrote an entry about these guys after I already had tickets to see them (they opened for Foreign Born), but before I had heard anything by them. That was the first of five Free Energy shows I saw this year.

There's a fine line between creative camp and parody. These guys walk that line as well as anyone. They're basically a band that plays a sort of late '70s semi-glam, reminding me a lot of Thin Lizzy. It has a way of sounding kind of cheesy (I hate that word), but they really make it work, especially in their live show.

And I should say, it's hard for me to separate a band's album from their live show. Obviously I haven't seen every band on this list, but it's not uncommon for me to come away from a show liking an album more than I did before the show, and vice versa. These guys got better and better every time I saw them. And it helps that this album was released on May 4th, just in time for summer. It's a terrific summer album. It's the type of stuff that should be blaring from every car stereo when the sun is out. Advertisers have noticed, with at least one of their songs being used in couple different commercials, including one for Flip video cameras. Here's a taste.

Free Energy (the song)

Bang Pop