Thursday, December 31, 2009


In my few years in a semi-corporate environment, I've learned that goal setting is a big part of success. It's also a big part of having the personality of a slice of cardboard, so I try not to be consumed with constantly measuring progress and reaching benchmarks, etc. But 100 is such a sexy number in our Arabic number system. Remember when you were a kid and 100 of anything seemed so impressive? 100 dollars a fortune, 100 miles a journey, 100 days a lifetime. Nowadays it's a bit less impressive, but there's still something to be said for persistence. So in January, when I set my goal of 100 posts for the year, I didn't litter my intentions with subsets of goals. I kept 'nine posts a month' in mind, but clearly I didn't adhere to it. But thankfully, slow months were offset by content-heavy months, and things planed out.

And here we are. 100 posts in a year and proud of it. Thanks to everyone who reads the blog on a regular or semiregular basis, even if it's only a few people. I love sharing my thoughts and analysis with you guys, as well as occasionally some satire. Here's to hoping next year is just as fruitful if not more. Have a great 2010!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"I'll see ya in the new year"

"In The New Year" -- The Walkmen

Happy New Year from HSW. I'm looking forward to new discs from Spoon, Vampire Weekend, Band of Horses, the Drive-By Truckers, Radiohead (wishful thinking?), and I'm sure there are plenty more I'm overlooking. Howsabout you?

Be safe, enjoy your various alcoholic endeavors, and we'll see ya next year.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Musical Resolutions for 09: How'd I do?

You know what's scary? I vividly remember writing my resolutions on this blog, nearly a year ago. It was January 5th, the year's first post. Doesn't seem too long ago. Remember when you were a kid, and a year seemed like an eternity? Now, as each year becomes a smaller portion of my life, it seems far less impressive a span. Not to mention it's no longer segmented by summer breaks. Ah, the icy, crushing reality of adulthood. Alas, it's been a year, and now I choose to look over my shoulder and assess my resolve:

1. Buy the Disc

Success? Indubitably. I purchased no less than 20 new CDs alone, many from my local record store.

2. Finally get Orphans

Success? Thanks to HSW reader (and, more importantly, friend) Nick, I received a complimentary copy of Orphans earlier this year, which I've spun liberally throughout '09. Thanks buddy!

3. Discover what the big deal about the Velvet Underground is

Success? Marginal. Thanks to Pandora, I've inadvertently listened to some Velvet Underground that--what can I say--is pretty damned good. I haven't revisited VU&Nico, nor have I sought out the rest of their catalog. But I've accepted the notion that there is something to it. And while I didn't quite crack the nut all the way, I'm committed to getting around to it in 2010.

4. Upgrade my iPod headphones

Success? Partial. I did get some noise-cancelling headphones, but they broke a few months back. So I bought some standard earbuds that'll work in a pinch. For the most part, I've been listening to my iPod through some Behringer HPS3000 headphones that belong to the office, but usually collect dust. No harm in putting them to good use, right?

5. Scratch a few 'must-see' acts of my list

Success? Epic fail. The artists in question:
Drive-By Truckers: They played Charleston a few times, but I never was able to see them.
Arcade Fire: The band was off the scene virtually all year, so I don't feel so bad about this one.
Gillian Welch: Played on the Big Surprise tour with her husband (David Rawlings), the Felice Brothers, and OCMS; but the closest they came was Knoxville. On a Tuesday. Again, I can't beat myself up.
M. Ward: Toured with the Monsters of Folk as well as solo, but never came within striking distance.
I did, however, check off The Flaming Lips, The Felice Brothers, and Andrew Bird. All in all a slow year for live music, but I'm thinking next year will be a big year.

6. Keep this blog a'rollin!

Success? Absolutely. Thanks to all the readers, writers, and everyone else who keeps this blog in the back of their mind.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas from HSW

And from a hooker in Minneapolis.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Top 20 Albums of the Year: #5-1

5. Yo La Tengo - Popular Songs

My dirty secret: Popular Songs is my first foray into YLT, which is kinda despicable considering their inarguable importance in the indie rock movement. My failure to grasp YLT was for no other reason than lack of trying, an egregious crack-slippage for which I should be judged harshly. Warm reviews of Popular Songs was more than enough influence to check out the new record, and I'm glad I did. Kicked off by sinister single "Here to Fall", the album stylistically morphs from one song to the next. "Avalon or Someone Very Similar" is unsettling and cryptic, digitally affected keys humming in the background over Georgia Hubley's ghostly coos. "Periodically Double or Triple" is snappy-funk, thumping along at a head-bobbing pace. "If It's True" is a Motown throwback, complete with a jerky string-section intro straight out of a Temptations hit. "I'm On My Way", featuring bassist James McNew on vocals, is a slice of lounge tropicalia that escorts a silky melody through a moonlit soundscape. Again, genre-leanings vary throughout but the unifying thread in all the songs is the deliberate, reserved vocal style of all the band's members...don't expect any hoots or hollers. The album culminates in epic fashion with a trio of longform entries, led off by the HSW song-of-the-year "More Stars Than There Are In Heaven". By the time the near-16 minute instrumental jam "And the Glitter Is Gone" comes to a close, you get the feeling that Popular Songs was both expertly crafted and effortless; a calling card of truly great artists.

4. Monsters of Folk - Monsters of Folk

This one was a big surprise. I approached this album fully expecting a one-off, gimmick-laden wankfest equal-parts James and Oberst, with M. Ward providing more of a supporting role. After spending a record three straight weeks with the disc embedded in my car stereo, I'd like to issue a public apology to Jim James, Matt Ward, Conor Oberst, and Mike Mogis for ever doubting that the project would yield a result greater than the sum of its parts. Each folk monster (including utility man/producer Mogis) leaves his mark on the album. We get modern-era Oberst folk rock in "Temazcal", "Ahead of the Curve", and "Map of the World". Jim James' provides some rocking, anthemic affairs with "Whole Lotta Losin", "Losin' Yo Head", and the hair-raising closer "His Master's Voice". M. Ward contributes with his trademark sleepy rags, like "The Sandman, the Brakeman and Me", "Goodway", and the peaceful singalong "Slow Down Jo". But there's rarely a track wherein all four MOFers aren't in some way vocally present, with great effect. As I've indicated previously on this blog, Jim James and M. Ward give life to the ethereal chorus of Oberst's "Temazcal", achieving a sonic aura that would have otherwise been barely palpable. It's funny, I'm almost more eager for the next MOF record (assuming there will be one), than I am for any one of the members' next release.

3. Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest

No shortage of fanfare surrounds Veckatimest. But as with Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion, this was my first formal introduction to the band, so my expectations were tempered. But I knew the band had a pedigree, so it came as no surprise that they released one of my most treasured albums of the year. Veckatimest necessitates a starkly different means of enjoyment than does, say, Monsters of Folk. With MOF, you can pretty much push play and let it take you downstream. With Veckatimest, you've got to switch on your headlamp and feel your way through the space. It's about exploration and discovery, and with each listen deciphering more of the subtle sounds and the environment the band tries to create via washed out harmonies and walls of sound. The music ranges from mildly accessible ("Two Weeks"), to increasingly chaotic ("I Live With You"), to hardly even there ("Foreground). Admittedly, it's a laborious listen that won't appeal to those without sturdy attention spans. But the album always resonates well beyond the final note, which is as impressive an achievement any artist could strive for.

2. Felice Brothers - Yonder Is the Clock

When the Felice Brothers took the stage of the North Charleston Performing Arts Center in February, as the opening act for Old Crow Medicine Show, I was giddy for a set of songs from their charming yet derivative 2008 self-titled album. I hoped they'd open with a Dylan/Band rewrite like "Little Ann", "Take This Bread", or "Frankie's Gun". Instead, the band launched into a bounding, fiddle-heavy chase theme ostensibly titled "Run, Chicken, Run". Wow, I thought. This sounds...kinda like they should sound. The singer's voice is natural, in no way straining for Dylan's nasal wheeze or Levon Helms' aw-shucks drawl. When Yonder Is the Clock dropped a few months later, it was evident that they were washing their hands of the Dylan-clone stigma (although it'll be tough to dodge the comparisons when Ian is such a ringer, vocally). Look no further than track number one, the aptly name "The Big Surprise". Rising into a piercing climax in the form of a sharp fiddle note/drum hit 1-2 punch, the rest of the album isn't quite so foreign but still seems distinctly Felice, at least more so than anything before. "Penn Station" takes the train-song archetype and validates it with a superbly thrilling chorus. Slow, aching lament "Buried in Ice" tells the story of an unfrozen and reanimated body, questioning his futuristic revivers for not saving his beloved as well. Unfortunately, what would be an A+ album is marred by the inclusion of a barnhouse demo take of standard "Memphis Flu", clearly an aesthetic decision, but one that drags on for over two minutes and would have benefited from full production. Still, the album is a lunge in the right direction for a band that might have maintained a level of success as career Dylan/Band sycophants. It's to their credit that they're not content with emulation, something they've to proven with Yonder Is the Clock.

1. Cass McCombs - Catacombs

I wrangled with this choice for a while. It was a dead heat between Catacombs and Yonder Is the Clock, two albums that shattered whatever expectations I'd developed. My conclusion, however, was that Catacombs was much purer as a full album than Yonder Is the Clock. In the latter's write-up (which you likely just read), I suggest the Felice Brothers are feeling their way out of the emulation stage and finding their stroke. Catacombs is the work of an artist with a sense of purpose, one who is much less concerned with how it sounds than what it's saying. And that statement doesn't mean lyrics over aesthetic; not at all. As I've so often done in the past, I'll use Tom Waits as the high-water mark here: As Tom developed as an artist, he abandoned the time-tested "Write a blues melody, write sad lyrics" format and became obsessed with addressing every aspect of his creations in an almost lyrical manner. He manipulates timbre, instrumentation, ambiance, and rhythm in addition to lyrics in a combined effort to emphasize whatever it is he's trying to say. This allows his music to translate more comprehensively to the listener. While Cass is no Tom Waits as far as an unusual approach to songcraft goes, he certainly shares with Tom the proclivity for using words and music in tandem to sculpt his overall message. Cass's vocals are perhaps his best weapon. His voice is soothing and unhurried, embedded with a lingering sorrow and a post-adolescent timbre you might expect out of, say, Mark Kozelek's nephew. His lyrics are quirky, at times deceptively mundane. His music, a sort of loping slowcore/folk blend, with flares of White Album-esque weirdness. The album begins with a pure love song, seemingly culled from some fifties prom-band setlist. Over a doo-wop progression, McCombs earnestly admits, "All the delusions that took host then passed/They've only made my immunities stronger." "You Saved My Life" is a near-perfect waltz, a fusion of Elliott Smith's vulnerability and Ryan Adams' genuineness. After the unsettling "Don't Vote", McCombs delivers a somewhat chilling reflection on the daily grind. "The Executioner's Song" seems a bit easy, an unsubtle approach that might preclude any real depth: Innocent, sundry musings from the perspective of a man who takes lives for a living. His routine and toil are no different from that of any man. But the baleful outlook of the narrator is revealed in the last verse:
There is work that is play
There is play that is work
And play that is play
And work that is work
And in only on of these
lies happiness
I'm a pretty lucky guy
I love you and I love my job
The conclusion: The executioner's true joy stems from the kill. I've already given "Harmonia" plenty of press, so I move on to "My Sister, My Spouse", which is a grotesque notion, but seems to be a Biblical reference as opposed to any sort of incestuous connotation. McCombs' lyrics in the song are cryptic, his vocal melody mysterious and beautiful, like dark clouds over a decaying neighborhood. Following the lengthy, pounding "Lionkiller Got Married" and the thoughtful "Eavesdropping on the Competition" is "Jonesy Boy", a catchy, slow-strutting tune that John Lennon might have coveted as a songwriter. It's the most likeable track on the album, proof that McCombs is capable of more than bleak songs in minor keys. Catacombs' send-off is the snappy little acoustic duet "One Way to Go". The lyrics seem appropriate for a roving troubador such as Cass: "One way to go, yeah so many roads, how will we know?" Regardless, it's got a knowing feel, and garnishes the disc with an at least semi-optimistic finale.

Perhaps "One Way to Go" is the light at the end of the tunnel, if you'll excuse the use of such a stale cliche. I invoke it because it's apropos of the album title, considering catacombs themselves are connected subterranean spaces used for oft-morbid or devious purposes. The ominous quality of most tracks lends to the metaphor of wandering through dark, underground passages, each song a new dimly illuminated space. Maybe that's why I love this album so much. It's a linear escape with a discernible endpoint, where one can reemerge with a bit of loaned wisdom. Or maybe it's just an enjoyable indie-folk record. Deeper meaning or not, it's a classic in my book.


Catacombs joins Iron and Wine's The Shepherd's Dog and the Fleet Foxes' self-titled debut as HSW albums of the year. I'll have a few honorable mentions tomorrow, as well as a few more posts to round out the year in the upcoming weeks.

And if you missed it, here's the rest:
Top 20 Albums of the Year: #10-6
Top 20 Albums of the Year: #15-11
Top 20 Albums of the Year: #20-16

Monday, December 21, 2009

Top 20 Albums of the Year: #10-6

10. Red Cortez - Hands to the Wall EP

Who are these indie-rock upstarts from Los Angeles, and why should you care? To the former: Red Cortez is a rock quartet whose genre on Facebook is listed as "Rock/Soul/Punk/Gospel/Other". Their list of influences reads like a hipster Rolodex ("...Billy Bragg, Pabo Neruda, Werner Herzog, Serge Gainsburg, Kurt Vonnegut, Leonard Cohen, Ingmar Bergman...") They've opened for Jason Isbell and Morrissey. Part two: Why should you care? Because they show an immense amount of potential with their iTunes only Hands to the Wall EP. Over five accessible piano-centric rock anthems, the band sounds confident and deliberate. Sweeping opener "In the Fall" puts Harley Precthel's scratchy pipes on impressive display. "Fell On the Floor" is sweaty, viscious club rock that's equal parts Clash and Killers. Close-out track "All the Difference" features a cathartic instrumental stretch, a bombastic finale that leaves your ears sizzling. My hopes are high for these boys. Check them out and see why.

9. Iron & Wine - Around the Well

A compilation of relics, b-sides, and covers, I didn't cull any tracks from Around the Well for my Best of 09 list, since most were written/released in years prior. Many were deserved though, none less than the 9 minute lyrical masterwork "The Trapeze Swinger" that closes disc 2. I think what's so satisfying about this collection is that it encompasses the three LP 'eras' very distinctly: You get the lo-fi basement aesthetic of Creek Drank the Cradle; the studio-warmed folk of Our Endless Numbered Days; and the full-band ambiance of The Shepherd's Dog. All the source material is must-own, of course, and I wouldn't be remiss to speak of this one in similar terms.

8. Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca

Bitte Orca opens with a few tinsely major chords. Simple enough, right? But these humble beginnings empty into a dense thickett of an album. Listening to Bitte Orca is like watching a Pixar movie. I enjoy the hell out of it, but I get a headache thinking about the amount of foresight, effort, and attention to detail involved in creating such a thing. Bitte Orca demands a lot from the listener--what with its mode-hopping guitarwork, funky time changes and harmonic barrage. This makes it all to easy for skeptics to denounce it as pretentious, overwrought, inaccessible, and so on. And while it may be all of those things at some level, there is also an undeniable aura of relatability. I'll refer you to the piece I wrote in July for more on that, but suffice to say its orbit might be a bit less distant than you think. Finally, songs like "Temecula Sunrise", "Stillness Is the Move", and "Useful Chamber" boast undeniable hooks that at least warrant a closer aural inspection from the educated listener.

7. Girls - Album

There's a lot of fanfare surrounding Girls. Lead singer was raised in a cult. There's a lot of sexual ambiguity about the band as a whole. There's a graphic music video (and I mean that in the penile sense) for the lead single. The band is called Girls but they're, you know, guys. All in all, the storylines swirling around Girls are pretty odd. I beseech you to ignore all that and enjoy a pure guitar/drums/vocals album. As straightforward and unsubtle as the title suggests, Chris Owens and crew have given us an album of California anthems, sunsoaked and glistening like the San Francisco Bay. Owens' slightly crazed vocals and mostly major-key melodies are the perfect touch for "Ratrace Hellhole", "Laura", "Big Bad Mean Motherfucker" and other songs that seem to come from the lips and fingers of a guy who's always smiling but just a little off kilter.

6. Flaming Lips - Embryonic

The statistical breakdown for "Percentage I've Listened to the Last Three Flaming Lips Albums" looks something like this: The Soft Bulletin, 48%. Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, 51.75%. At War With the Mystics, .25%. In other words, I listen to Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi a lot, and At War pretty much never. Onset of a decline or rare miss? 2009 was the year I could finally answer that question, and thankfully, it's a resounding "rare miss". Embryonic wins the Flaming Lips "Comeback Player of the Year" honors. The disc harkens back to the Lips' Satellite Transmissions era sound, trading studio refinement for raw energy that reigns supreme on Embryonic. Not that the Lips step back from the studio hijinks (take, for example, the autotune-washed "The Impulse".) But overwhelmingly, futuristic stadium rock done right.


Check back tomorrow for 2009's tops!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Top 20 Albums of the Year: #15-11

15. Andrew Bird - Noble Beast

I first heard Noble Beast in late 2008, when it leaked well in advance of its release date. Since then I feel like I've revisited it in bursts maybe five or six times, and I'm always left with the same response: "Nice." I'm not brough to my knees, nor do I shrug it off. It's a nice album, one that I'll gladly spin every few months or so. Songs like "Anonanimal" and "Not a Robot But A Ghost" give the album a sort of spicy flavor, but he doesn't abandoned his folksy inclinations, as evinced in "Effigy" and "Souverian". While I might pluck Mysterious Production of Eggs or Armchair Apochrypha first, Noble Beast is another fine entry for a guy who tends not to let his standards dip.

14. Patterson Hood - Murdering Oscar

Ever wonder what a Drive-By Truckers album would sound like if there was no Mike Cooley, Jason Isbell, or Shonna Tucker? I give you Murdering Oscar, the raspy throated rocker's second solo effort. Rife with songs of urban dischord and rural contemplation. I'm most intrigued by "Pride of the Yankees", since it seems like such an odd topic for Hood to address. However, he seems to be scultping a rather brilliant metaphor. Lou Gehrig ostensibly respresents New York City, and his terminal illness represents the September 11 attacks. The song gets a little less subtle as it progresses, but the poignant symbolism is an example of how Hood's songwriting always goes beyond its principal subject matter.

13. Bonnie Prince Billy - Beware!

Will Oldham's 2009 release is a different animal than 2008's Lie Down In the Light--one of my favorite records last year. He does an about face from the quiet, brooding style that dominated much of LDITL and, indeed, much of his back catalog. With Beware!, he's created a record that's sometimes silly, sometimes lush, sometimes--dare I say it--fun. It's a different sound, that's for sure, and one that's slightly less befitting of the BPB aesthetic than his previous work. But I get the filling that Oldham would scoff at that sentence, and claim that's exactly why he made the album he did. Beneath that shiny, chrome dome and behind that anachronistic facial hair, there actually lies some charming vivacity.

12. The Decemberists - Hazards of Love

The other day I pulled out The Crane Wife, the Decemberists 2006 release that was in parts based around the Japanese folk tale of the same name. Two tracks (three songs, really) make up the Crane Wife story. I remember thinking, "I like this, but I hope this is as conceptual as they get." So, of course, they wrote a damned rock opera. It's an enjoyable disc, although I appreciate it less for its operatic progression and more for certain individual tracks--especially, as I've pointed out, the lovely closer "Hazards of Love 4". I'd deem Hazards of Love a successful endeavor, but my hope is that the band gets back to creating vignettes as opposed to full-on movements.

11. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavillion

This record is so divisive, it's akin to the Bush presidency. Purveyors and detractors of Animal Collective are at such odds because of the amount of press the record is getting. Rock fans say "This isn't music," and hipsters rebut "You don't get it!" It's become less about the music and more about backlash and being dimminutive. I don't have any sort of history or bias when it comes to Animal Collective, nor did I go nuts over Merriweather Post Pavillion when it came out. I reapproached the album sometime in August or September, well after the hype had died down, and was rather surprised with how much I enjoyed it. Sure, there's a lot going on (apparently the issue most detractors take with AC in general.) Perhaps some pretentious or needless adornments, sure. But unravel the chaos and you'll find clever melodies and thoughtful lyrics written by talented musicians. Really, it's true!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Top 20 Albums of the Year: #20-16

On the heels of such sad news yesterday, I've decided it's time to start into a joyous celebration of music that rolls around at the tail end of each year. Yes, today we unfurl the first five of our yearly top twenty. Look for the rest in the upcoming days.

20. Neko Case - Middle Cyclone

The honeypiped redhead's spring 2009 release was satisfying. Not expectation-shattering or revolutionary, but very strong. It's like Derek Jeter batting .300. Not MVP numbers, but it's the sort of reliable performance we've come to expect from Case. As with most of her stuff, Middle Cyclone speaks to her emfatuation with nature and man's interactions (least subtley conveyed on her ill-advised rendition of "Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth"). Neko's peerless vocals are worth the price of admission though. Oh, and also the cover art.

19. Holopaw - Oh Glory, Oh Wilderness

It's a shame this one came out so late in the year, because it just hasn't had the time to sink in. The unsettling calm of their first album has crystalized into fuller arrangements, but they still retain that wintery aesthetic mostly conveyed through John Orth's thin, trembling vocals. While it'll be difficult for this disc to unseat the self-titled debut in my mind, it's another strong effort from a severely underrated band.

18. Pearl Jam - Backspacer

The best quality of Pearl Jam's newest disc is brevity. Eddie Vedder takes less than forty minutes to convey his point over eleven songs. Amazingly, Vedder's voice hasn't a forfeited a shred of intensity since Ten, in my opinion. Look no further than single, "The Fixer". The triumphal chorus is vintage Pearl Jam, reminiscent of Vs.-era up-tempo rock mesmorization, a la "Rearviewmirror". Tinged with a few contemplative pieces amidst the usual rock melee, Pearl Jam reminds us that they're a band willing to come to terms with their age...but not quite yet.

17. The Avett Brothers - I & Love & You

Oh, I & Love & You. What could have been. Devoted readers will remember my midway through the year awards, when I deemed the Avetts' major label debut "Most Likely to Crack My top 3". Sadly, it didn't make quite that significant a dent. Not without its brilliant moments ("Laundry Room," "Head Full of Doubt"), it lacks the room-full-of-guitars-and-beers stamp that seems so vital to their appeal. Lyrically, Scott and Seth make no bones about their progression and are aware of the backlash that might ensue (re: the high-speed, cringeworthy rap on 'Slight Figure of Speech'.) I guess my beef is that it's all just so damned serious! One of my favorite qualities of the Avetts is their "aw-shucks" approach to songwriting, being both poignant and loose. For I&L&Y, they seemed to abandon the latter and amp up the former. Still, they're talented guys and the music is still pretty darned good. I just hope they run far, far away from Rick Rubin.

16. Wilco - Wilco (The Album)

It's tough to see Wilco's albums sliding on my year-end list, but there was just a bit too much adult-contempo shmaltz for the album to be cohesive. It seems for every string of two or three songs that were vintage Wilco ("The Deeper Down", "One Wing", "Bull Black Nova"), the band would turn around and play a few head-scratchingly ordinary throwaways. I found the single "You Never Know" to be especially middle-of-the-road. Funny how three or four misses can undo an albumsworth of quality tracks. I almost forget about quality entries like "I'll Fight" and "Country Disappeared", two stellar tracks that if stripped down a bit wouldn't seem out of place on A Ghost Is Born.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

RIP: Chris Feinstein

My goal was to make December a post-heavy month, but this is one I'd rather didn't need writing. Late last night, news filtered out through message boards and Facebook postings that Chris "Spacewolf" Feinstein, touring bassist for Ryan Adams' backing band The Cardinals since 2006, has passed away. There's been no official statement, cause of death, etc. But it's essentially confirmed (personal friends of his have announced his passing on the outlets mentioned above.)

Feinstein replaced Cat Popper and contributed to Ryan's Easy Tiger and Cardinology albums, as well as the Follow the Lights EP. He's also played on records by artists like Moby, Santigold, and Albert Hammond, Jr.

I saw Feinstein play with the Cardinals four times, I believe. He was a joyful performer how filled the bassplayer role nicely, usually sporting a grin and standing a bit back from the action. He was the only Cardinal I never met (besides original touring steel player Cindy Cashdollar, who was with the band for a few months before being replaced by the impeccable Jon Graboff.) But by all accounts, he was a very gentle, sweet guy, and his musical talents went far beyond his duties in the Cardinals.

Chris was 42.

20 Best Songs of 2009: 10-1

We continue our two day series of best songs of the year.


10. Wilco; "Bull Black Nova"; Wilco (The Album)

The band plays with tension, simulating the increasing panic of a freshly-initiated murderer via a steady, aharmonic guitar build-up, reminding us that "This can't be undone."

9. The Avett Brothers; "Laundry Room"; I & Love & You

"I am a breathing time machine," is the final refrain, a conclusion that's supported by the rather specific scenes described throughout this swelling, beautiful track that overflows into a classic Avetts grass coda.

8. Dirty Projectors; "Temecula Sunrise"; Bitte Orca

With intricate guitar runs and drum fills, you'd think this song might be about a bit more than the way an impressive sunrise can make life's endless minutia seem collectively golden.

7. The Felice Brothers; "Katie Dear"; Yonder Is the Clock

A warm, country waltz that almost demands the backdrop of rolling hills and sprawling oaks at sunset, its an appeal for us to abandon complacency for romantic conquest, alleging "Lousiana ain't that bad, when all you've had's Lousiana."

6. Animal Collective; "Bluish"; Merriweather Post Pavillion

As sweet as it gets for Animal Collective, "Bluish" is a sweeping love song in aquarium light whose title is also a reminder that this is about as close to a ballad as you'll get on this disc.

5. Cass McCombs; "Harmonia"; Catacombs

Cass's dissection of friendship, comfort, and trust floats through clouds of guitar strums and ribbons of pedal steel.

4. Flaming Lips; "Watching the Planets"; Embryonic

Wayne and the rest of the lips wait til the final track of Embryonic to let it all boil over into this powerful, cathartic brainbasher.

3. The Decemberists; "Hazards of Love 4"; Hazards of Love

This album's uber-theatric progression is its greatest strength and also its greatest weakness, but Colin Meloy ties it all together with a peaceful ballad reminiscent of Castaways and Cutouts-era reflection.

2. Grizzly Bear; "Ready, Able"; Veckatimest

"Ready, Able" begins both lyrically and musically at peace with whatever demons it addresses but soon turns sinister, aided by the refrain "They go we go, I want you to know, what I did I did."

1. Yo La Tengo; "More Stars Than There Are In Heaven"; Popular Songs

An epic, nearly ten-minute anthem, the song burns slowly before expanding to a full on Northern Lights display of lyrical realization and instrumental radiance, walking hand in hand.

Yo La Tengo takes home tops for the year. How will Popular Songs rank among HSW's top albums? Keep checkin' albums are on the way.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

20 Best songs of 2009: 20-10

I'm going to undermine this post immediately by submitting this qualifier: Only one song per album. Otherwise you might see four or five Monsters of Folk songs on a twenty-song list. And I don't want to be perceived as any more of an obsessive fanboy than I already am.

Here's the format: I'll give you the artist, song, and album. This will be followed by a single overly complex sentence write-up. In true post-padding and tension building fashion, we'll give you the first ten songs today, next ten tomorrow. Off we go:

20. Pearl Jam; "The Fixer"; Backspacer

The best Pearl Jam single in years, Eddie's voice is one of the wonders of the modern rock world.

19. Bonnie Prince Billy; "I Don't Belong To Anyone"; Beware

A string-draped country shuffle that's not quite as morose as its title suggests, its the perspective of a contemplating whether he's cut out for love.

18. Mark Kozelek; "Send In the Clowns"; Lost Verses Live

As with "Little Drummer Boy" and many others before, Kozelek reaches across genre lines and invites the song to exist in his dimension of brooding acoustic melancholy.

17. Akron/Family; "River"; Set Em Wild, Set Em Free

A standout track from an underrated album, the bounding vocal refrain of "You and I and a flame make three" is a strong image in a song that makes exceptional use of sonic space.

16. Conor Oberst & The Mystic Valley Band; "White Shoes"; Outer South

Perhaps the final embers of his emo-folk days firing off, "White Shoes" is a quiet, intimate acoustic plea worthy of throat lump.

15. Bon Iver; "Blood Bank"; Blood Bank EP

The title track of the satisfying EP, Justin Vernon pairs some morbid imagery with a steady rhythmic progression; sounds about right for Bon Iver.

14. Patterson Hood; "Heavy and Hanging"; Murdering Oscar

A minor key, mid-tempo rocker that wouldn't have seemed out of place on Decoration Day (it was apparently penned in 1994), Hood regails us with a story of death, depression, and excessive press coverage.

13. Girls; "Laura"; Album

The surefire single from the year's strongest debut LP, it boasts a ludicrously catchy chorus, a bouncing progression, and a lush 3/4-time coda.

12. Monsters of Folk; "Temazcal"; Monsters of Folks

Conor Oberst's second entry, he again delivers with a downbeat space-folk slow jam that owes a lot to Jim James' ethereal harmonies.

11. Red Cortez; "All the Difference"; Hands to the Wall EP

The young band out of California's strong EP closes with a piano-driven anthem that's light on lyrics but still packs an emotional wallop, and leaves me pining for an LP.

Monday, December 14, 2009

4 Worst Albums of the Year

It's always a comfort to hear a fine new album. It underscores my faith in music and the creative spirit that separates man from filthy, filthy beast. From the earliest melodic Cro-Magnon grunts to the most digitally refined electronica, man has managed to manipulate pitch, tone, rhythm and timbre in ways that invoke the full spectrum of emotions from within his listening audience. While the record industry might always be in some state of flux, the majesty of the recorded sound is unbreakable, and is continually strengthened by every unique creation released into humanity's collective earspace.

Sadly, they can't all be winners. I don't like to come down on musicians too hard for music that, in my opinion, doesn't really deliver. I like to think most of the music I absorb was created as a labor of love and/or passion, not of commerce; therefore, I can't speak to the creators' intentions or drivers. It also must be acknowledged that we choose to judge music through our own lens, chiseled by life experiences, musical background, and irrational impressions of art. Speaking to the latter: I can't stand flutes in rock/pop music. Why? Again, it's irrational. But most any song that prominently features a flute is automatically deducted points. But I digress...

I certainly acknowledge that one man's musical trash is another man's treasure; a fact I've repeatedly confirmed through intelligent discussion (re: flame wars on message boards..."It's not my fault you don't 'get' The Dirty Projectors. Fuck you!") So I humbly accept that you might disagree with one or all of these submissions, which I will not rank out of respect for the artists. Without further ado...

Conor Oberst & The Mystic Valley Band - Outer South

Last year, Conor Oberst unleashed a scarily-good solo effort that led me to believe life after Bright Eyes held promise. Let's face it, Bright Eyes was pretty much Conor's enterprise anyway. Why wouldn't he deliver the goods without the moniker? But unfortunately, he let his band in on the action and the music suffered. Conor's stuff was still solid, but the roleplayers' contributions seemed little more than filler that diluted the album. Taylor Hollingsworth contributed the only solid non-Conor tune, disc-closer "Snake Hill", which I unexpectedly witnessed live when he opened for the Felice Brothers in September.

The Duke and the King - Nothing Gold Can Stay

Simon Felice left the Felice Brothers to head up his own project. Sounds good, right? I mean, Simon wrote some great songs--usually tender ballads--with the band, including the crushing "Don't Wake the Scarecrow" from the self-titled 2008 effort. Unfortunately, Nothing Gold Can Stay is a slate of largely uninteresting, and at times terribly corny tracks that seem to take all his talent and spread it out over 45 minutes. I understand the genesis of the album was a personal tragedy and I give him credit for channeling that into his art. His failure to achieve pan-album execution is somewhat analogous to Jason Isbell. His DBT's output was perfection, and, while his solo albums aren't bad, he hasn't created one that expands on the epic nature of his Truckers contributions.

The Hold Steady - A Positive Rage

The music? Great. The quality? Not so much. To be fair, it isn't easy to replicate the Hold Steady's live set. You need the following: Sweat, tinnitus, and Craig Finn's dramatic stage presence. None of that can be conveyed on record, especially one that listens more like a bootleg than an actual, worthwhile live recording. I'd stick to the studio stuff, and just nab some tickets next time the band rolls through. There is an adjoining DVD which I haven't watched, and I hear it's much more worthwhile than the album.

Langhorne Slim - Be Set Free

What a disappointment it was to hear track after track of lazy lyricism and musical cliches from a guy whose catalog I was so excited to finally explore. Slim is a brilliant voice who settled immensely for pretty much every aspect of this I said, lyrics and chord progressions, but also song titles, album art, album title, and so on. I suppose it lacks depth, and doesn't seem like it comes from a very inspired place. I really can't take The Duke & The King album, but at least it sounds like they were trying. It's like Prince Fielder swinging so hard he falls on his ass--you gotta respect his effort, even if it was for naught. With Be Set Free, Langhorne Slim fouled out on a two-strike bunt. I apologize to UK readers for these overt baseball references. Feel free to post some crickett analogy in the comments section.


The good news is I'd originally planned on reaming five albums, but there were only four that were specifically offensive. Sure, some one-off listens and impulse buys I'll likely never revisit, but only the four above boasted an offensive ratio of expected enjoyment to actual enjoyment.

As always, feel free to contribute your own.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Five Best Live Shows from 09

With another year of live shows in the books; I'm a little bit wiser, a little bit deafer, and a little bit more snobbish. "Pfft, I saw them back in '09 back when they were worth seeing," I'll likely say in ten years to younger, thinner, less bald music fans who are still viably cool. Anyway, I saw about...oh, ten shows this year and played four or five of my own. A bit sad, admittedly, but Charleston didn't exactly bring the goods this year, and travel is getting more and more difficult it seems. Suffice to say, this year sort of paled to last year's slate (exhibits A, B, C, and D). But that isn't to say I wasn't privy to some fine performances and, perhaps more importantly, some moments that will crystallize into indelible memories.

The Year's Best Live Shows:

5. Flaming Lips: Washington DC

I'll set the stage for you: It was the tail end of one of the most stressful two weeks of my life. Two Saturdays prior, my girlfriend and I had set out on an east coast-spanning roadtrip, only to have my car break down halfway through Virginia. And it wasn't just a water pump or even an alternator. It was the transmission (re: expensive and difficult to repair). Defiantly, we left the car with a relative and continued with our trip by any means necessary--a real life Trains, Plains & Automobiles. Ultimately I had to leave the car at a dealership in Maryland and fly home for work. At the airport, my father called to inform me of my grandfather's passing. What a week.

I flew back up to Washington the following weekend, but had to wait til Monday to pick the car up. On Sunday, while checking out a few museums, I noticed a massive festival stage set up on the National Mall. I walked over to examine the situation, discovering that the (free) Earth Day festival was in full swing. I had little to no interest in the act playing (sorry Los Lobos), and would have taken off if I hadn't seen a wiley haired gentleman in a white suit standing behind the stage.

Wiley hair? White suit? It can only be one man:

I stuck around and watched the Lips play, U.S. Capitol serving as their backdrop (see top picture). Wayne rolled around in his bubble, shot confetti, and led the crowd in sing-song versions of "Fight Test" and "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1". Unfortunately, the wind picked up, the clouds spat rain, I was underdressed, and my feet were killing me. After about eight songs, I snaked through the crowds and off through the city to my friend's place where I was crashing.

But I did not leave unfulfilled. Considering "free Flaming Lips show in front of the Capitol" is right between "high fiving a pirate" and "watching Glenn Beck get flying-elbow-dropped by Macho Man Randy Savage" on my List of Awesome Things, I didn't have much to complain about.

4. Avett Brothers: Charleston, SC (review)

The other four shows on my list have already received lengthy write-ups, so I'll just link to them and add a snippet. The Avett's show in Charleston featured Scott Avett nearly going on the disabled list due to a punctured thumb, but, not one to disappoint, he toughed it out and rejoined the band, delivering two hours of wild punkgrass that I won't soon forget.

3. Felice Brothers: Charleston, SC (review)

The second time I caught the Felices this year was their headlining turn at the Pourhouse on James Island. I'm glad I caught these trashy troubadors when I did, because they'll no-doubt soon be playing bigger venues. After only their second trip to Charleston, they brought a capacity crowd and left us all clamoring for more.

2. Andrew Bird w/St. Vincent: Charleston, SC (review)

Fiddles and scarves usually mean one thing: Dickensian prose. But on rare occasions, it means Andrew Bird is in town. Such was the case on October 12th, with noted thin person St. Vincent in tow. Bird played a brilliant set, and stands as the best performer I've seen since Tom Waits.

1. Old Crow Medicine Show w/the Felice Brothers: Charleston, SC (review)

Taking this year's old-timey, knee-slappin cake was Old Crow Medicine Show, who migrated to Charleston in February to deliver a raucous set of high-speed bluegrass interspersed with slow burning folk ballads. These guys are world-class musicians, to be sure, and I might have had the best seat in the house. It was also the confirmation of the Felice Brothers for me--they warmed the crowd up for their fellow New Yorkers.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Late As Usual: The 4 Best Late Discoveries of 2009

The used section of any record store is usually a purgatory for the likes of cast off Harry Connick Jr., Four Non-Blondes, and Boyz II Men CDs. Not to mention failed solo outings by rock frontmen (Chris Cornell, Steve Perry, Scott "Myown-ah PREE-zahn" Stapp). But fingering through dozens of used music racks a year will usually yield a few diamonds in the rough. Records that, for whatever reason, landed on the list of records I passed up in a specific year. So a few years later and a few dollars cheaper, here are my four best finds this year:

Beck - Guero (2005)

I touched on this a month or so ago when doling out my summertime accolades, but it certainly merits inclusion on this list. Guero is such a satisfying blend of all things Beck has become associated with musically: Lush production, rapped lyrics of an idiosyncratic style, pop melodies embedded in an electronic framework. Incidentally, Guero has supplanted Mutations as my favorite Beck disc and it might be my most frequently listened album of 2009.

Silver Jews - American Water (1998)

Fellow HSW'er Drew exposed me to the Jews back in college, but it was only this year that I found this 1998 masterpiece. David Berman enlists fellow inde-god Stephen Malkmus among others to craft a rather epic slate of tunes, including the masterful "Smith & Jones Forever" that features the brilliantly understated line, "When the sun sets on the ghetto/all the broken stuff gets cold." Berman is often cryptic, or even Dadaist, in his lyrics, but with his craggy voice and Stephen Wright with a guitar delivery, nothing seems out of place.

Old Crow Medine Show - OCMS (2004)

I'm unsure as to why it took me so long to discover this, as Old Crow is the sort of band whose four part harmonies and clunky folkgrass stylings arrive at my ears in the most pleasurable of ways. I was inspired to pursue the boys further after catching a staggering set back in February. Since this album's old-timey goodness is well documented, I'll take this opportunity to tout David Rawlings' new album, A Friend of A Friend. It features most if not all OCMS members, as well as his well-known wife, Gillian. There's a Bright Eyes>Neil Young cover medley that is one of the finer things I've heard this year. While it's too fresh to work it's way into my top 20 for the year, it certainly deserves and honorable mention.

King Khan and the Shrines - What Is?! (2007)

I bought this album for six dollars based on nothing more than name recognition. When I do this and it pays off, it's such a great feeling. Case in point: What Is!?. Equal parts Spoon, Hold Steady, Pixies and Clash, I first listened to this album during a cracking thunderstorm sometime this summer. The tinny, high-speed drum work behind Khan's powerful and ragged vocals was a nice complement to the supremely foul weather, while the mischevious sentiment of the music and lyrics brought some levity to the chaotic conditions outside. Highly recommend for fans of the aforementioned bands; and who knows, you could probably find it cheap...

Friday, December 4, 2009

Maybe Next Year: Four Albums I Never Get Around To

As my musical horizons expand, I'm finding it harder and harder to cover all my bases. It's like records are flung towards me at a pace that's steadily increasing. At first I manage to snag them all, but soon, slabs of vinyl are whizzing past my skull and off into the night. Alas, it just isn't possible to dedicate an ample amount of time to each record of interest. And tragically, this means a few worthy contenders are ignored, for better of for worse. Here are four of my most egregious offenses:

Lucero - 1372 Overton Park

I was very interested in the follow-up to Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers, one of the more enjoyable cowpunk records I own. 1372 certainly warrants my attention, and I won't hesitate to give it a spin when my schedule clears up a bit.

Bob Dylan - Together Through Life

While I didn't get to Zim's newest disc, you gotta love his maniacal Christmas tune, "Must Be Santa". Look for it in your neighborhood juke box or mental institution.

Them Crooked Vultures - s/t

A supergroup featuring Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones? Yes please. Monsters of Folk were my supergroup of choice this year, but such big names have earned at least a listen or two. I'll need a few months to prepare myself for the unbridled rocking that will ensue.

Tom Waits - Glitter and Doom

I feel real dirty admitting this one, but sadly I haven't gotten around to even hearing Tom's second live disc. In my defense, the Atlanta show I attended was recorded in a very high quality by NPR. Still, I'm intrigued to hear "Tom's Tales", the second disc comprised solely of stage banter.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

New Poll: Album of the Year

Our year's final poll, this one is always tough. What if your favorite album isn't listed? Admittedly it's a flaw, but I tried to include a pan-genre selection. So I suppose you could ask your self, "which of these efforts best represented its genre?"

Have at it...polls close on New Year's Eve!

Best Of month!

It's friggin' December already, and we're wrapping up the most prolific year HSW has experienced to date. Thanks to all the readers who voted in polls, left comments, followed the blog, or in any way spent a few minutes reading what we had to write. Here's what to expect this month:
  • User Poll: Best Album of the Year
  • Maybe Next Year: Albums We'll Probably Discover Next Year
  • Late As Usual: Albums We Finally Discovered This Year
  • 5 Best Live Shows of the Year
  • 5 Worst Albums of the Year
  • 20 Best Songs of the Year
  • 20 Best Albums of the Year
Longtime readers (re: me) will notice that our "Albums of the Year" list has shapeshifted each of its three years. First it was Top 33 (for some reason), last year it was Top 10. This year we've re-expanded the list to 20. I feel this is a nice number, neither bloated nor skimpy, and it allows for us to touch on pretty much all the worthy stuff we came across without any filler.

Here we go!