Friday, December 31, 2010

End of 10 Best Albums Wrap-Up

Here, in all its glory, is HSW's top 25 albums list for 2010:

25. Marc Ribot - Silent Movies
24. J. Tillman - Singing Ax
23. Mavis Staples - You Are Not Alone
22. Josh Ritter - So Runs the World Away
21. Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz
20. The New Pornographers - Together
19. The Black Keys - Brothers
18. The Hold Steady - Heaven Is Whenever
17. Jay Bennett - Kicking the Perfumed Air
16. Menomena - Mines
15. Sun Kil Moon - Admiral Fell Promises
14. Eels - End Times
13. The Walkmen - Lisbon
12. Toro y Moi - Causers of This
11. Beach House - Teen Dream
10. Titus Andronicus - The Monitor
9. Spoon - Transference
8. Vampire Weekend - Contra
7. The National - High Violet
6. Broken Social Scene - Forgiveness Rock Record
5. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
4. Phosphorescent - Here's to Taking It Easy
3. The Tallest Man On Earth - The Wild Hunt
2. Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
1. Local Natives - Gorilla Manor

Look at the past three posts for write-ups. Many apologies for the delay and the downsized delivery, but by God, I did it before the year ended! I imagine the first post of 2011 might dissect the results of that expired poll you see on the right there. But for now, I'm off to get ready for my own New Years eve plans.

Happy new year to you all, and thanks as always for reading.

End of 10 Best Albums: 5-1


5. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

On their third release, the Arcade Fire set their sights on the notion of "suburbia", effectively positioning it as a dystopian destination for those who have given up the fight. It's not so much damning the fact as it is lamenting its current inevitability. In fact, the song "Rococo" seems to poke fun at non-contributing hipsters, the kind who would likely wind up the suburbs. Musically, the album is mostly comprised of galloping 4/4 numbers, with only a few slower tracks, but the powerful delivery and rich thematic substance were more than enough to guarantee its status as a new classic.


4. Phosphorescent - Here's to Taking It Easy

We regularly need albums that remind us that simpler approaches without any avante garde flare can still work; and that good songwriting and talented musicians will win the day. I always think of Band of Horses' debut, Everything All The Time, as my gold standard for these kinds of albums. But Here's to Taking It Easy deserves a spot high on my list as well. Maybe it's Will Houck's shrinking vocals and words, the unpretentious song structures, or just the band's overall tightness. Whatever the case may be, it's a beautiful Americana effort that, in only nine songs, yields one of the year's best efforts.


3. The Tallest Man On Earth - The Wild Hunt

As Bob Dylan facsimiles go, few have done it better than Kristian Matsson. Why? Because he's not trying to write Bob Dylan songs. Sure, he does the shrill-voiced folky with guitar and novel's worth of lyrics thing. But the more you listen to TMOE, the more that comparison melts away and you realize that Matsson is very much his own artist. Supporting that notion, The Wild Hunt is chock full of vibrant story songs that pick up where Dylan left off at "Tambourine Man". If you take nothing else away from this album, acknowledge the fact that a Swedish guy has better English diction than 95% of Americans.


2. Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest

Up until 2010, I foolishly lumped Deerhunter into "hipster bullshit" category. What little I'd heard did little for me, nor anyone I knew, yet they were beloved by certain alternative media. But not even my preconceptions could drown out the amount of buzz this album was generating. I can't speak for their past efforts, but man, this album is great. It's multi-faceted indie rock that sees Bradford Cox channeling any number of singers--Lou Reed one moment, Julian Casablancas the next. The songs are spacious, but there's a vintage lo-fi aesthetic that defines the album as a whole. The variance in style throughout--dream pop, garage rock, jammy psychedelia--affords it a high replay value. The lesson? Thinking you won't like an album does not equate to actually disliking it.


1. Local Natives - Gorilla Manor

I labored over this decision for a while. I had a similar issue last year, but this time there were more leading contenders. Any of my top seven were in consideration, but in the end, I thought the Local Natives made an album that was most satisfying to me this year. Remember, this is a list of my favorites, which by extension are this blog's top albums of the year. So yes, it was an editorialized decision, but that's the beauty of running your own site. Anyway...

The Local Natives, to me, made the the most well-developed album I heard all year (even if it technically came out in 2009 in Europe--this blog is AMERICAN MADE SON.) Its songs are fully realized, immaculately played as well as written. The writing part I don't champion quite as much--not that the songs aren't great (they are) but remember the old adage: you have your whole life to write your first album, but you only have a year or two to write your second. I'm not completely holding their inexperience against them--quite the opposite, actually. It's hard to believe that a young band can craft songs as explosive as "Shape Shifter" or one with a build as triumphant as "Who Knows, Who Cares". They aren't willing to settle, either, which is evident in their drumwork and meticulous harmony structures. The obvious comparison to draw is to the Fleet Foxes, another harmony-heavy indie group who displayed a level of musical maturity not usually heard on a debut. It should be noted that both groups boast members with significant experience, but their young talents often shine the brightest. Truly, it wouldn't matter if this was their thirtieth album and they were all octogenarians. They have a palpable sense of confidence in their abilities, which was just as obvious on the first listen of Gorilla Manor as it is now.

***

Wrap-up post coming soon, real soon.

End of 10: Best Albums 15-6


15. Sun Kil Moon - Admiral Fell Promises

Mark Kozelek has something of a free pass in my book. Something about the guy's music sits right with me, not matter which hat he's wearing. This time it was an unadorned sombrero, as we hear Kozelek plucking out his songs on a lone classical guitar behind his deep, sorrowful vocals. His playing is pretty magnificent, and obviously he's never had trouble achieving a visceral sadness in his lyrics and melodies. I do pine for the lush arrangements of Ghosts of the Great Highway, but again, I'll take just about anything he's willing to record.


14. Eels - End Times

I first saw/heard of Eels back in high school, which seems odd because I was such a clueless shut-in for the most part. But I saw them perform on Late World with Zach, the short-lived VH1 show hosted by current mega movie star Zach Galifianakis. Anyway, I've bought four or five Eels albums over the years, and End Times has separated itself as my favorite. It's a melancholy affair, but most Eels albums are. Piano ballads like HSW favorite "A Line In the Dirt" are complemented by chugging rockers like "Paradise Blues". The variety fends off staleness--it's a disc I've revisited regularly since its January release.


13. The Walkmen - Lisbon

Like the Eels, the Walkmen don't stray from their tried-and-true aesthetic. Lo-fi, punk-tinged rockers and ballads that seem to rise from Brooklyn rooftops. Lisbon is no different, although the band alleges the titular world capital is really the environment they aimed to conjure. Having never been to Lisbon, I will take their word for it.


12. Toro y Moi - Causers of This

The so-called "chillwave" movement seems to put a premium on dance-ability more than substance. But don't write off Causers of This as just another one of that indistinguishable bunch. Rest assured that beneath layers of sampled beats and hazy keyboards, you'll find an excellent break-up record. Glad to know there's another University of South Carolina grad making waves in the music industry...


11. Beach House - Teen Dream

This album came out in February, and I remember popping it in my car when I had to make a grocery store run at some late hour, for some reason I don't remember. As I drove through town, something about the airy guitars, throwback keyboards and booming vocals compelled me to roll down my windows and let the winter air rush in. That's the closest I could come in a South Carolina winter to what this album brings to mind -- frosty air, jet black winter skies and snow-covered landscapes.


10. Titus Andronicus - The Monitor

From start to finish, this is a fiery record that's as bombastic as the war to which it alludes. Despite the album's the unchained punk attitude, it's clear that there was a great deal of preparation and meticulous arrangement involved. Most of the songs are 5-plus minutes, and the kind of everyman anthems that would rally the muddy front line soldiers as opposed to the stoic generals.


9. Spoon - Transference

Certain bands put a premium on being consistent -- I mentioned the Black Keys earlier. Spoon stands right beside them in that category. They're a band who scarcely change their approach, yet could hardly be deemed formulaic. There are enough creative turns on each disc to elude that label -- and Transference is no different. There's an overarching theme of direct communication on the album (which is probably the source of its title.) I can't speculate on the source of Britt Daniel's writing, but I can say that he continues to do it at a high level.


8. Vampire Weekend - Contra

Vampire Weekend had a wildly successful debut, but with that came the burden of lofty expectations for album number two. I had a lot of hopes for these guys, and--to me anyway--they followed through. They created an album that reminded us why we loved the last one, but also ushered us away from it. I read somewhere that this album contains "Nintendo sounds", which I thought was pretty clever and accurate (I'll let you draw the Contra/Nintendo conclusion on your own.) Indeed, we hear midi textures throughout, blips and boops flickering alongside snappy guitar riffs. Ezra Koenig's vocals are turning heads too--I'm still not sure how he hits those notes on the chorus of "White Sky".


7. The National - High Violet

Back in May, I wrote that this album hadn't really clicked. This had something to do with the bright skies, flowers abloom, and beach traffic. These aren't "National" things. But as the fall and winter months set in, I realized why High Violet received such high marks. The National doesn't rush its albums--few good bands do--but its evident in the complex layering of most of their mixes. HSW favorite "Bloodbuzz Ohio" is a perfect example of this, as do most of High Violet's ten other tracks. It's a much bigger, louder album than it's delicate predecessor Boxer, but it does the job just as well.



6. Broken Social Scene - Forgiveness Rock Record

With all its records, Broken Social Scene crams a funnel in your ear and pours a lot of noise in there. This should surprise no one who's seen the band live or has any knowledge of their lineup. Like their past efforts, Forgiveness Rock Record validates their numbers, populating their colorful tracks with layer upon layer of vocals and instrumentation. This is evident from the onset with magnanimous opener "World Sick", but it's a musical theme that reemerges throughout. Also: "Art House Director" was an egregious omission from my top songs list. I will embed it here as a consolation:

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

End of 10 Best Albums: Honorable Mentions and 25-16

I had grand ambitions for a sprawling, five part "Best Album of 2010" finale, but I dropped the ball. Things came up, work got hectic, the holidays were all consuming. But I'm still intent on getting this out before the end of '10, so as not to undermine the title of this feature. So it'll be condensed by cramming more albums into each posts, and the write-ups will be abbreviated. Like, 2 or 3 sentences. Quite honestly I've probably said what I wanted to say about most of these albums over the course of the year, so feel free to browse through our backlog and learn a bit more about them.

It's also important to qualify this list (and the top songs, for that matter) by saying that "Best of" really should read "My Favorite". I'm not qualified to rank albums, considering I've only heard a small portion of what was released this year. So these albums (and songs) are the ones that brought me the most joy, or the ones I found the most compelling. I've actually had people say "How can you say (album X) is the better than (album Y)?" I'm not saying one is better--I'm just saying I liked one better than the other. I guess this really boils down to the unobjectifiable nature of art. But anyway, keep it in mind.

So here's what I'll do: Honorable Mentions and first ten today, next ten tomorrow, and the top five on New Year's Eve. Enjoy!

Honorable Mentions:

Jenny and Johnny - I'm Having Fun Now
Dr. Dog - Shame, Shame
Blitzen Trapper - Destroyers of the Void
Megafaun - Heretofore
Emeralds - Does It Look Like I'm Here
Delta Spirit - History from Below


Top 25:


25. Marc Ribot - Silent Movies

The first solo album I've heard from the famed guitarist, Ribot doesn't go for perfection, nor is he interested in showing off his inimitable chops. This album is about textures that conjure a candelit attic, full of relics that at the same time are warm, worn, and eerie. It's an excellent album for wee hour reflection.


24. J. Tillman - Singing Ax

Tillman's third album in two years is chock full of snowed in acoustic tunes. His stoic, barren style is like a skeletal version of his full-time gig with the Fleet Foxes. It certainly needs a "Do Not Operate Heavy Machinery While Listening" label, but it strikes a wintry mellowness in the listener that nicely complements this time of year.


23. Mavis Staples - You Are Not Alone

Sometimes, you need a little kick in the ass to realize how great an artist is. In the case of Mavis, it took Jeff Tweedy producing her record. Mavis is obviously a name I know--soul royalty, to be sure. But as if I wasn't expecting it, I was struck by the passion her voice carries. The title track is wheelhouse Tweedy, and Mavis owns it--although I'm a bit miffed he decided to write his best song since a Ghost Is Born for someone else.


22. Josh Ritter - So Runs the World Away

Josh has proved fairly durable over the years, although his one true masterpiece (2006's The Animal Years) is about the only thing of his that did anything for me. But So Runs the World Away displayed a bit more studio involvement than in his past works, and that's something I always like to see out of folkies. While the album doesn't feature the songwriting strength of The Animal Years, it stands as ambitious and often satisfying effort.


21. Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz

The first lyric of HSW favorite "Now That I'm Older" is "It's different now, I think. I wasn't older yet." It's fascinating to view that lyric through the lens of his past two records. The Age of Adz is a very pronounced record, electronically infused and lyrics sung with a bravado we're not used to hearing from Sufjan. Compare that to Come On Feel the Illinoise!, which was a hushed, orchestral masterpiece. While most artists tend to refine as they go, Sufjan zigged where most artists zag. It gets a bit overwhelming at times, but I think such an album takes a few years to fully mature to its audience. By the time Sufjan hangs it up, I think it'll stand with his best.


20. The New Pornographers - Together

Neko, Carl and crew's 2010 release was as punchy and hook-laden as ever. I must admit I haven't listened to it much here in the latter half of 2010, while I've stayed pretty faithful to Canadian counterparts Broken Social Scene's new release. It won't go down as the best album the band (or any of its members) released, the Pornos put together an album with an undeniable indie-pop appeal.


19. Black Keys - Brothers

Based on the poll results, a lot of people probably think I'm crazy for placing the boys from Akron this low. Hey, I enjoyed the record quite a lot. There are some bona fide hits found within it, and the Keys seem to be getting some mainstream appreciation (for better or for worse.) I think it's a bit long for its own good, but it's an rich, soulful rock record from a band whose consistency is matched by few.


18. The Hold Steady - Heaven Is Whenever

The band's first post-Franz album wasn't an unbridled rock melee like we're used to -- there is a sense of maturity on the record, a bit more refined than past efforts. That's good in some ways. Craig's lyrics seem to be experiencing a paradigm shift: He used to tell it like it is, and now he's preaching a bit more. It's an intriguing approach from a man who, by now, has quite a few followers who are willing to listen to his sermons.


17. Jay Bennett - Kicking the Perfumed Air

I know what you're thinking, and you're right: this is a sentimental pick. It was a beautiful but bittersweet thing to hear Jay's voice, silenced forever last year by an overdose. The album reminds me why Jay was so great, and why Wilco's Bennett records are widely considered their best. But this album stands on its own--the songs are great, and his studio expertise and arrangement prowess shine throughout.


16. Menomena - Mines

When Menomena's last record, Friend and Foe, came out, a music mentor of mine told me to get it. At that point it was a bit over my head. However, if Mines had come out then, I probably would have gotten the band sooner. It's a bit less abstract than its predecessor, the songs more direct and approachable. It's an album I would recommend to Menomena neophytes--even if there isn't anything quite as catchy as "Wet and Rusting".

***

Tomorrow, 15-6.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

End of 10: Top 20 Songs Wrap-Up

When I was compiling this post, I noticed an egregious omission. As pointed out earlier this month, Bonnie "Prince" Billy's 2010 release, Wonder Show of the World, didn't knock my socks off. However, it did feature one of the year's best individual efforts in "Troublesome Houses". So my profound apologies to Will Oldham for not doling out credit where it was due.


(Sorry for that awful still shot. Karma's a bitch.)

Anyway, in the interest of having the original list in one location, here you go:

20. Josh Ritter - "See How Man Was Made"
19. Marc Ribot - "Delancey Waltz"
18. Hold Steady - "The Smidge"
17. Dr. Dog - "Where'd All the Time Go?"
16. Jay Bennett - "Mirror Ball"
15. Sufjan Stevens - "Now That I'm Older"
14. Arcade Fire - "Half Light II (No Celebration)"
13. Eels - "A Line In the Dirt"
12. Toro Y Moi - "Minors"
11. Deerhunter - "Coronado"
10. Beach House - "Norway"
9. Vampire Weekend - "I Think Ur A Contra"
8. Titus Andronicus - "A More Perfect Union"
7. The National - "Bloodbuzz Ohio"
6. Black Keys - "Next Girl"
5. Phosphorescent - "Mermaid Parade"
4. Walkmen - "Angela Surf City"
3. Tallest Man on Earth - "Burden of Tomorrow"
2. Local Natives - "Shape Shifter"
1. Spoon - "Out Go the Lights"

And here's a .zip of all these tracks, including "Troublesome Houses".

HSW Top Tracks of the 2010

Look out for the top albums, coming next week.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

End of 10: Top 20 Songs of the Year, 5-1

5. Phosphorescent - "Mermaid Parade" from Here's to Taking It Easy



I know I always go on about challenging ones musical limits as if I'm some sort of avante garde junky, but sometimes all you need is a country ballad with a simple progression and a couple of dueling guitars. Not only is "Mermaid Parade" all of that, it also features the saddest chunk of lyricism you'll hear this year. The story of the swift dissolution of a marriage, the narrator takes stock of his situation while watching a summer parade. The song fades in and out like a warm sunset. But unlike the sunset, you can restart "Mermaid Parade", as I did again and again.


4. Walkmen - "Angela Surf City" from Lisbon



If the Walkmen do one thing well, it's uptempo rock numbers featuring chimey guitars and screechy vocals. Such is "Angela Surf City", the lead single from Lisbon. It features a triumphal chorus, with Hamilton Leithauser screeching words until breathless. Props as always to Matt Barrick's drumwork--I bet dude did some time in a punk band or two. There's nothing particularly revolutionary about "Angela Surf City"; just an effortless (and stellar) single, and another win for the Walkmen.

3. Tallest Man on Earth - "Burden of Tomorrow" from The Wild Hunt



It'd be easy for Kristian Mattson to pack his songs so full of words that only the most lyrically-minded Dylanites could embrace them. And while he's probably guilty of that sometimes, "Burden of Tomorrow" he keeps the lyrical onslaught at least managable. And it's all framed in an attractive melody and bounding tempo that sweetens the deal for those listeners who might be overwhelmed by a lyrics-first type song. If he sang "la la la" the whole time, "Burden of tomorrow would still be eminently likable.

2. Local Natives - "Shape Shifter" from Gorilla Manor



It was a dead heat between this one and "Who Knows, Who Cares"--but I thought "Shape Shifter" was a better representative of the album as a whole. The song starts innocently enough, with a few quiet little piano/guitar measures, but as soon as Taylor Rice sings "My kingdom humble before you," you almost get the feeling that this song is up to something bigger. Indeed, at about :45 in, drums arrive and the build is on. The theme of the year in this list as a whole seems to be quality choruses, and few if any are better than "Shape Shifter". It's a flourish of cymbals and harmonies, and its addictive. It geysers out of the verses with such oomph, you can almost feel it rush over you.

And taking the top spot this year...

1. Spoon - "Out Go the Lights" from Transference



The first thing you might notice about "Out Go the Lights" is that there's really nothing flashy about it. Despite stating in the above entry the importance of choruses to this list, "Out Go The Lights" has a chorus that hardly distinguishes itself from the rest of the song. So why is it my top tune of the year? I suppose that this song, like no other from 2010, invokes a particular state of mind. It radiates a thoughtful coolness that arrives naturally to Britt Daniels and crew. The structure is simple: mellow guitars pick apart chords in stereo. We also hear classic Spoon techniques like an unflinching drum beat and subtle instrumental textures throughout. There's an extended instrumental outro that strips away instruments one by one, leaving the drumbeat all by its lonesome. Lyrically, it seems cautionary. It takes a more subtle approach than similarly-themed "The Underdog" from Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. The lyric "you will remember the way/They fall for you like a brick/Oh but nobody loves you/Or woos you when you're down or kicked" suggests that, in a time of struggle, it's the help you do or don't get that defines us. I've heard some folks dismiss Transference as a rare miss for Spoon; while I vehemently disagree with that, I at least hope detractors could tip their hat to "Out Go the Lights".

***

That's that. Will post a link to download all 20 tracks sometime tomorrow hopefully. And then it's on to my top 25 albums of 2010.

End of 10: Top 20 Songs of the Year, 10-6

10. Beach House - "Norway" from Teen Dream



You can almost see the puffs of cold breath in front of Victoria LeGrande as she exhales the "hah, hah, hah" chorus that arises throughout "Norway." If ever a song conjures the environment suggested by its name, this is it. The jangly guitars and a steady tom thud will transport you to the Norse winterscape in question, which seems like a fitting accomplishment for a band that's so regularly deemed a dream pop group.

9. Vampire Weekend - "I Think Ur A Contra" from Contra



As expected, VW's sophomore effort was peppered with hook-addled indie-pop tracks ("Holiday" appears in several ads this season.) But I was most drawn to the album's closing track, the spacey slow-burner "I Think Ur A Contra." Why? Because it represents an evolution for a band that usually clings tightly to a springy pop formula. I think this band is tremendously talented, and I'd hate to watch them jog in place. Contra as a whole was a bit of an aesthetic deviation form their debut, but only its final track marks a true departure (in the right direction.)

8. Titus Andronicus - "A More Perfect Union" from The Monitor



What better way to start an opus of an album than with a 7 minute, two-part anthem? It's a fist-pumping affair, one that blasts the spotlight squarely on Patrick Stickles' Westerbergian vocals. The lyrics are chock full of allusions to their home state of New Jersey and the Civil War--including the stirring finale, where a string of wartime rallying cries pour out over searing guitar interplay. In case you're curious, the speech at the beginning is from the transcript of an Abraham Lincoln speech given well before his presidency. And, no, it's not really Abe Lincoln speaking. Use your head...

7. The National - "Bloodbuzz Ohio" from High Violet



The edgy hipster trapped inside of me never wants to pick the obvious choice. To be fair, the single (or media-anointed standout) is rarely the album's best track. But it's really hard to ignore just how good "Bloodbuzz Ohio" is. There's nothing particularly groundbreaking about the song structure -- it's your standard I-vi verse. But there's a tension about it, charged by staggered snare hits and impeccable piano countermelody you'll hear around 2:30 and 3:50. Matt Berninger's lyrics find solace in home and love among the turmoil of everyday life. The writing was on the wall for this one: it was a fan favorite before High Violet even hit the shelves.

6. Black Keys - "Next Girl" from Brothers



For the past decade, The Black Keys have made a living off of bluesy badassery like "Next Girl". Its chunky wah-wah riff underscores some junkyard noodling that, from what I can tell, is an effects-laden guitar that achieves a blues harmonica tone. The chorus burbles with attitude as Dan Auerbach's doubled vocals howl, "My next girl/will be nothing like my ex girl/I made mistakes back then/I'll never do it again." I appreciate the production style that allows Dan's excellent voice to be heard clearly--not always the case with the BKs. It's a no, fear speaker-melting manthem that'll wake up your neighbors.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

End of 10: Top 20 Songs of the Year, 15-11

15. Sufjan Stevens - "Now That I'm Older" from The Age of Adz



Amidst the track's five minute electronic swirl lies a beautiful melody and build that could be pared down to a simple acoustic guitar and vocals arrangement. Obviously that wasn't the M.O. here--this is a song (and album) that strives for something greater, a comprehensive sonic environment that Sufjan would rather not leave to the listener's imagination. I'm most struck by the vocal swells that ebb and flow in stereo around the lyrics, be they Sufjan's or a (perhaps synthetic) female accompaniment. It's a song meant for chunky headphones, just one of several easily recognizable elements--also the harp, the vocals--the song shares with Radiohead's "Motion Picture Soundtrack".

14. Arcade Fire - "Half Light II (No Celebration)" from The Suburbs



The Suburbs provided a wealth of fodder for this list--most of the sixteen songs were worthy of selection--but I settled on "Half Light II", the throbbing, far-reaching anthem which marks the end of the album's first half. The song deals with the retreat of a person or people to their childhood home, perhaps victims of the recession. While its sister song, "Half Light I", is reflective and at peace, there's a sense of bitterness that defines "Half Light II"--its parenthetical addendum doesn't exactly hide the fact that there's no joy in this song. I read it as a commentary on the mass exodus that many American adults eventually undertake, abandoning city life for the prefabricated safety and comfort of the suburbs.

13. Eels - "A Line In the Dirt" from End Times



Not unlike Will Oldham, Eels frontman E has a way of injecting a bit of humor into his pained lyrics. The first line of "A Line In the Dirt" is "She locked herself in the bathroom again/so I am pissing in the yard." It's a silly scenario, but also a little depressing in a "How did it come to this?" kind of way. The song is a tears-in-your-beers barroom ballad, featuring a whispered chorus and a drunken horn section bridge. It's the type of thing E does best--dark humor and lyrical realism. There's no better example on either of his 2010 releases than "A Line on The Dirt".

12. Toro y Moi - "Minors" from Causers of This



Bleeding out of album opener and bona fide chillwave hit "Blessa", "Minors" rushes out like hot Atlantic waves and creeps along at the pace of beach traffic. Especially during the choruses, the song fills a ton of sonic space via droning synths that sound like melodic jet engines, and double-tracked vocals delivering wiredrawn notes. The lyrical set is a classic love-lost reflection, which is in line with most of Causers of This. "Not even a year has  gone by/already you've got him/I want to see where I am" is the chorus that bookends the song, charting the progression of an ex in a way to which most can relate. Like much of the genre, the utility of the song needn't go beyond a spot on a party soundtrack. But wade through the walls of synth, and it stands on its own as a quality break-up song.

11. Deerhunter - "Coronado" from Halcyon Digest



Despite its Hispanic title, "Coronado" oozes New York, from the city-lights sax to the overt Julian Casablancas impression. Bradford Cox is something of a chameleon, capable of vocal shapeshifting with staggering versatility. He adapts to the feel of the song, which is perhaps why in this case he decided to mimic the Strokes frontman. Of course that's speculation, but it's an easily drawn comparison. "Coronado" is the penultimate track of Halcyon Digest, perfectly placed on the album to tie together the diverse crop of tracks preceding it. Lyrically it's anyone's guess--far be it from me to decipher his message. I know it's a lazy thing to say, but I just love the feel of the song. Sometimes you can't objectify enjoyment, right?

Monday, December 20, 2010

End of 10: Top 20 Songs of the Year, 20-16

Last year, you may recall that I did my top songs in two sets of 10, each song receiving a one sentence write-up. I decided to do longer write-ups this year, because I've apparently become too longwinded for anything less. So this week will (hopefully) feature four posts, culminating with the top 5 songs of the year. Then next week, I should be able to get the top albums list out.

Like last year, only one song per artist lest the list become cluttered with any one. I'm also going to try to include immediate listening capability--either via YouTube embeds or linking to someplace you can listen. At the end of it all, I'll include a .zip file of all 20 songs.

Let's get it going:

20. Josh Ritter - "See How Man Was Made" from So Runs the World Away



Josh Ritter is a gifted songwriter, but I never thought of him as much of a singer. His voice is servicable, but no one (inculding, I'm sure, Ritter himself) would claim it's going to drop any jaws. But on "See How Man Was Made", Ritter displays an impressive versatility I wouldn't have guessed he was capable of. The song itself is a ghostly, fingerpicked affair, and there's a beautiful ambiance about it that will make you forgive (or at least forget) the C+ lyrics. But again, the vocals are what makes the song. Ritter sustains some impossibly lengthy notes without a waver, and displays an impressive range, too.

19. Marc Ribot - "Delancey Waltz" from Silent Movies



If "Delancey Waltz" is meant to conjure a stroll down the Manhattan thoroughfare under wintry gray skies, mission accomplished. Like most of the tracks on Silent Movies, its delicate, sepia-toned arrangement somehow both calms and unsettles. There's a bit of mystery and minor key eeriness shrouding the gentle strums and unrushed melody. It's gracefully sinister, in such a way that it would have served as a suitable texture to Coppola's Godfather.

18. Hold Steady - "The Smidge" from Heaven Is Whenever



Heaven Is Whenever represented a bit of a paradigm shift for The Hold Steady. I'll get into that a bit more on its "Best Albums of the Year" entry. But amongst all the newness was a rollicking rager that had "vintage Hold Steady" tattooed all over it. Craig Finn lines like "She's got a bandolero belt filled with kamikaze shooters" are all over the place. The riffs are crunchy, and the chorus will have you pogoing and rawk-fisting without regard for those around you. While I was happy to see the Hold Steady branch out a bit with this album, I'm glad Craig and crew reminded us that they're still capable of blowing out some windows.

17. Dr. Dog - "Where'd All the Time Go?" from Shame, Shame



Poor Dr. Dog. I liked Shame, Shame a lot, but it seems every time I tried to really dive into it, something else shoved its way in the picture and I lost focus. While I regret not fully investing my attention into this album, a few of the tracks stuck. Most notably to me was "Where'd All the Time Go", which doesn't stray from the band's vintagey aesthetic. The lyrics are sort of inconsistent, but the chorus is an A+, culminating in a nice 6/8 flourish that'll get in your head after the first listen. The song is sort of a microcosm of the album: it isn't anything revolutionary, but it's the sort of thing that won't become stale either. That's a success in my book.

16. Jay Bennett - "Mirror Ball" from Kicking the Perfumed Air

Listen to "Mirror Ball"

Kicking the Perfumed Air is the first (and perhaps last) posthumous release from Jay Bennett, aka the man to whom Jeff Tweedy owes much of the success of Wilco. After Bennett was relieved of his Wilco duties, he went on to release a few solo albums and produce some other artists. He died of a painkiller overdose in May of 2009. It was a tragedy for more than the obvious reasons, because many Wilco fans hadn't relinquished the hope that the two might one day make music again. Alas, it can't ever happen, but Kicking the Perfumed Air provided us with a relic from that golden era. Recorded in Wilco's loft, "Mirror Ball" has the slow, loping sadness of "She's a Jar" and the lush ambience possessed by much of the Summerteeth-era material. It's expertly crafted, stepping between keys while various synth strings coo behind Bennett's haggard voice and hushed guitar strums. It's a lasting reminder of what Jay was capable of, especially in that creative environment.

***

Here's what's upcoming:

Tomorrow: 15-11
Wednesday: 10-6
Thursday: 5-1
(All this depends on how ambitious I'm feeling. But it should happen...)

Friday, December 17, 2010

End of 10 Superlative Awards: Day 2

The "It Finally Clicked" Award

Bright Eyes - Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground

Back in 2005, all my hip friends in college were gushing about I'm Wide Awake and It's Morning, the new album by Bright Eyes. Yearning for acceptance, I rushed out and bought Wide Awake, and soon found out what they were so excited about. It was a fully realized alt-country record, complete with sad-bastard balladry, Emmylou Harris harmonies and pedal steel licks a'plenty. Soon after, I sought out recommendations for more Bright Eyes. Most fans agreed: my next stop should be Lifted.

The first time I listened to Lifted was on a riding lawnmower. I had my iPod cranked to an idiotic level, no doubt boosting my chances of eventually hearing loss. Suffice to say, this is not a good idea, nor is it the right way to listen to Lifted. Or any record, really. But after that and a few subsequent listens, I stupidly shrugged off the album, considered it too far down the emo end of the spectrum, and retreated to Wide Awake.

Over the next five years, Conor Oberst would emerge as one of my favorite artists. But it took me nearly all that time to give Lifted another go. Glad I finally did, because now I can't put it down. I'd even be so bold to proclaim that it has surpassed Wide Awake as my favorite Bright Eyes LP. Sure, it's Conor in full-on "despair" mode, but the guy is at his best when he's got something to complain about. The anguish is spread thick, most notably on tracks like "Method Acting", "Lover I Don't Have to Love", and the ten minute closer "Let's Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and to be Loved)". But there are some tender moments, like "Bowl of Oranges" and the weepy waltz "False Advertising". It's a beautifully adorned record, benefiting from the skillfull touch of producer, musician, and Monster of Folk Mike Mogis. I'm certainly happy I decided to give this one another shot. Kind of makes me wonder what other records I have that are waiting to be rediscovered.


The "Best Comedy Album" Award

David Cross - Bigger and Blackerer

If you've never watched Arrested Development, you are a lesser person for it. I apologize for being so blunt, but it's true. Seriously, go watch all 53 episodes, and if you can come back to me and say "You're wrong, I was not a lesser person before I saw AD", I will send you 50 dollars. But if you have watched AD, you know Tobias Funke, the mustachioed, never-nude doctor turned actor with a knack for unintended double entendre. He's a great character, but it's kind of funny how little he resembles the real David Cross. The real David Cross is a wildly liberal atheist with a sailor's mouth and no filter whatsoever. And this is what makes his stand-up so great. He spouts some hyper-offensive material--but all in the name of comedy. It's not like it's hate speech or anything--they're usually part of a larger satire. And I think he gets a kick out of how some folks will get so up in arms about "just jokes". But instead of just ignoring those people, he intentionally goes overboard in what seems like a deliberate attempt to simultaneously amuse his fans and disgust his detractors. For instance, on Bigger he does a bit about a date rape PSA. One of the tips suggested by the PSA is to avoid the over-consumption of alcohol, because you might "do something you'll regret...or worse". Here's the clip. You'll know what I'm referring to when he says it:


Admittedly, Bigger and Blackerer isn't flawless--the punchline for the closing bit about the cause of his despression is a total whiff--but overall, it's David Cross doing what he does so well: Being a bookish, sharp-tongued asshole and knowing it. Wisely, he injects just enough straight humor into his religious/political diatribes to make it pallatable. It's a litmus test for telling if someone has a sense of humor. Chances are, if you don't think David Cross is funny, your sense of humor on the whole is lacking. To improve it, go watch Arrested Development right away.


The "Meh" Award

Best Coast - Crazy for You


I don't dislike this album, per se. And I'll give Bethany Cosentino credit for sporting an excellent set of pipes and not being just another meek-voiced indie darling, like that chick from Pomplamoose in the Hyundai Christmas commercial. Man I want to slap that little "oh I'm so cute but OH SO INDIE DONT FORGET THAT PART LOOK A CARDIGAN" half-grin off her face. (Proverbially. HSW does not endorse the physical abuse of females except for most reality TV stars. The Snooki punch made my year...) But by the same token, do we really need another Cali-hipster beach-rock album? I know, she's all cool and quirky and is obsessed with her cat and blah blah blah, but Jesus her lyrics are so atrocious. I know she's young, so there's time for that aspect of her writing to develop. Who knows, maybe one day she'll win the "It Finally Clicked" award. But for now, all I hear when I play this album is this, if you replace "MEE" with "MEH":





The "Best New Artist" Award

Local Natives

(Editor's Note: I was looking for a picture of a pacifier to represent new-ness. So I typed it into a Google Image search, and Vin Deisel kept popping up. Then I remembered he was in that movie, The Pacifier. I found his pictures a lot more compelling than actual pacifiers. Therefore, this trophy shall be henceforth known as the Vinny Award.)

In some ways, the Local Natives are 2010's Fleet Foxes: A band whose debut sounds like a band in its prime. This is not the case with most debuts (see above). Even good ones tend to be a tad unambitious, or not fully developed. But Gorilla Manor is both ambitious and developed, as is the band who created it. I didn't get the chance to see Local Natives live this year, but I hear it's quite a show. As you might expect, Gorilla Manor appears in my Albums of the Year list, so I'll keep this entry short. But from here on out, my hope is that the world is unable to think "Local Natives" without first thinking "Vinny Award Winning Act."

***

This concludes the End of 10 Superlative awards. Now it's time to get serious. Top 20 songs and Top 25 albums should arrive next week--or at least before the new year.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

End of 10 Superlative Awards: Day 1

A new thing I'm doing this year is superlative awards: Individual awards doled out to particular albums or artists. You'll note that some are lighthearted, but there are some albums I wanted to call particular attention to. Off we go:

The "I Actually Liked This Album" Award
Awarded to the album I assumed I'd dislike, but wound up enjoying. And the winner is...

Jenny and Johnny - I'm Having Fun Now

Ever come across and album and think, "Man, I'm going to hate this." For whatever reason, I assumed this was going to be the case with I'm Having Fun Now. Jenny Lewis has never really done it for me (looks aside, of course). Plus, she wrote one of the worst songs of the past ten years, IMO. But on a lark, I nabbed her new album. And what can I say, I enjoyed the hell out of it. It's not a work of staggering musical genius, but I doubt that was the goal. It was a pet project--Jenny and her man (Jonathan Rice), cobbling together a handful of warm pop-rock tunes. It was also a nice treat to see them open for Band of Horses, a performance that sort of certified my acceptance of the album. Well done, Jenny and Johnny, for quietly releasing a super summer album.


The "Saddest Fucking Thing Ever" Award


Mark McGrath hosts Don't Forget the Lyrics!

Barely a week ago, I was watching a Saturday Night Live rerun on VH1 with some friends. The show ended, and before we could change the channel, Don't Forget the Lyrics! began. And, for some strange reason, Mark McGrath was there. In a suit. With a microphone. He was all exuberant and smiley, and he introduced the first contestant, some fat lady. He interacted with her in a way that was becoming of a gameshow host--lighthearted banter, appropriate physical contact such as shoulder squeezes. Good clean fun! And it wasn't like he was trying to maintain an image or anything. The guy hammed it up, and very much sunk his teeth into the role of a grinning shithead gameshow host. It was very confusing. Jarring, even. How did he get here? Isn't he the douchey, tatted-up lead singer of a crappy 90s band, a madman who once publicly went off on a teenager for calling his band "Sugar Gay"? It's not like I was a fan of Sugar Ray or thought McGrath was the posterchild for badassery. But I had this perception of the guy. I figured he'd go do his thing with Sugar Ray--you know, dress up in shin-length shorts and wifebeaters and play neutered alt-rock for high schoolers--and then go throw on some obscure punk records and smoke pot and skateboard. Remember, Sugar Ray was actually a shitty nu-metal band before they were a shitty pop-rock band. And now he's a gameshow host? This wasn't part of the plan, Mark! It should be noted that he previously hosted Extra, so the writing was on the wall. It's a sad, strange reality that yesterday's douchey musicians are today's harmless television personalities.


The "Best Live Album" Award

The Avett Brothers - Live, Volume 3

Since Live, Volume 2 came out in 2005, things have gone well for the Avett Brothers. Specifically, they released arguably their three most popular albums in Four Thieves Gone, Emotionalism, and I and Love and You. It's not hard to notice that, from an intensity standpoint, they've taken their foot off the gas a bit. Each album is a little more polished and reined in than its predecessor, and this has been offputting to some people. Would a third live album--one that largely covers these three releases--reflect their steadily developing sense of restraint? If you've seen them recently, you already know the answer. The band has had to expand their attack now that they're playing to civic centers instead of dive bars, but the music doesn't suffer, nor has their obvious passion for playing live music dwindled. Rest assured, Live, Volume 3 is an intense collection. I still prefer the raw intimacy captured on Volume 2, but I like that Volume 3 isn't just the same thing with newer songs. Rather, it showcases the band's current level of success, and will forever serve as a snapshot for this stretch the band's history. Incidentally, it was my only opportunity to hear "Talk On Indolence" live this year, since they neglected to play it either time I saw them in 2010...


The "Best Instrumental Album" Award

Marc Ribot - Silent Movies

Marc Ribot--a guitarist noteworthy for his contributions to the works of Tom Waits--released this barren, delicate instrumental guitar album a few months ago. I'll keep this write-up short, as this album appears on my list of the year's top albums, so I'll expound on it then. The list should show up next week. Get excited!

***

4 more Superlative Awards will be doled out tomorrow. See you then...

Yes I'll be doing a "150th post" post


Think that just because we're in the middle of the End of 10 feature I'd skip a chance to heap praise on myself? You fool. But really, 150 posts in a year is something I'm pretty proud of. That's a 50% increase in production from last year, and we're not even done yet.

Will I continue this trend? I highly doubt it -- it's hard to run a blog and keep the posts both interesting and frequent. 2010 may well be remembered as HSW's prime--I hope it isn't, but it's definitely plausible as my work schedule gets busier and my free time dries up. But for now, we continue to rock and roll. Thank you for visiting and reading, being a follower, and humoring my fanboyism on a regular basis.

Update: Also, we just got our 40th follower! I think we had like 15 or 20 when the year started. So that's pretty cool.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

4 Disappointing Albums from 2010

Among the dozens of quality albums released over the course of the year, a few eggs are inevitably laid.  Look, it happens. Sometimes the ladder of expectation stretches into the troposphere, but the actual product only climbs a few dozen rungs. Does a dip in quality signify something greater? Not always. Prime examples are Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Both went through mid-career slumps, and then reemerged in the 90s with some of their highest-quality material to date. So, to any of the artist whose album is about to be mentioned, there is still hope. While your 2010 release was disappointing, I believe in your ability to right the ship. You can do it! But until then:


Band of Horses - Infinite Arms

Back in May, I rated this one last among Indie Music MAYhem competitors but suggested it might leap to the front of the pack by year's end. Alas, this didn't happen. Let it be known that there are some excellent tracks on Infinite Arms. But there's also a lot of middling forgetfulness that we can place squarley on Ben Bridwell's desire to play down his role as bandleader. So he lets the other guys write and sing, which is fine I guess. But the execution just wasn't there. All too often Bridwell dials back his world-class pipes, instead relying on rigid, heaped-on harmony arrangements. That, combined with a few too many cornball moments (stone serious references to Now-and-Laters and chipmunks; the entirety of "Bluebeard") earned Infinite Arms a spot on this list. But hey, they still bring it live.



Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Wonder Show of the World

Back in March, Will Oldham released his third album in as many years, this time backed by The Cairo Gang. It starts strong, with opener "Troublesome Houses" standing among his best recent work. But soon after, its trajectory dips into a heaping bowl of adult-contempo gumbo and rarely emerges. It isn't bad music, but it isn't noteworthy. I listened to the album a ton, yet I'm struggling to recall anything outside of "Troublesome Houses". Telling, no? Resilient, I scratched my BPB itch by delving into his back catalog a bit.



MGMT - Congratulations

Admit it: You forgot they released a follow-up to Oracular Spectacular this year, didn't you? Granted, it was a tough act to follow. The reception of Oracular was a celebration worthy of a full-on fireworks extravaganza. With Congratulations, it was greeted with excitement, then confusion, and then "Hey let's put Oracular back on!" Perhaps it was inevitable. When you release an album with as much gravity as Oracular had, it's nearly impossible to escort your fanbase on to something different. But MGMT conceived the album in such a way that it was sure to throw off its audience, who were trained on saccharine hooks and digestible mini-anthems. I think the album might age well, but for now it will struggle to excape in the expansive shadow of Oracular Spectacular.



Drive-By Truckers - The Big To Do

The Drive-By Truckers don't have much to prove. It is with pride that they carry the torch of Southern rock, having earned their stripes over the past fifteen years both on the road and in the studio. Perhaps it's for this reason that they've decided to churn out so much material. In fact, when next year's Go-Go Boots comes out, it'll be the fith release since 2008 (including both a live and compilations album.) Six, if you include last year's Patterson Hood solo album Murdering Oscar--which was basically a DBTs album without Mike Cooley. They've actually been able to maintain a fairly high standard of quality, but The Big To-Do seems to be the first indication that they're spreading themselves thin. With the arguable exceptions of "This Fucking Job" and "Eyes Like Glue", I can't imagine any of the album's 14 tracks going down as Truckers classics. As mentioned, there's already an eleventh album on the way, so we won't have to wait long to know if The Big To-Do is an unfortunate anomaly, or part of a disconcerting trend.

***

It bears repeating that these aren't the worst albums of the year. I'm sure they'll each wind up on some Best of the Year list. In fact, Infinite Arms was recently nominated for a Grammy (not that a Grammy nom means a whole lot.) But these four albums were, in my opinion, below the standards of the artist. But opinions and tastes can change. My hope is that one day I can look back on this post and scoff. Alas, that day is not today.

Looking ahead, our next two posts will dole out various superlative awards to albums that deserve special recognition. Until then!

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Christmas Surprise, Jim James style

Taken a few days later, when approaching the tree didn't involve dodging laser-sights from sniper rifles.

Unfortunately for End of 10, I scheduled a mid-December vacation that temporarily derailed my progress. The lady and I flew up to Washington, DC to stay with some friends and enjoy our nation's capital all glittered up for Christmas. It was loads of fun, but sweet Jesus was it cold. And never was it colder than the first night, which necessitated our standing in a field for nearly three hours.

My buddy won tickets to the National Tree lighting ceremony, which took place at the Ellipse in front of White House. I figured there would be some Christmas music on tap, but I didn't realize I'd be in store for a performance from one of my favorite musicians. The event was hosted by jointly hosted by the reigning Miss America and rapper Common--who kept saying vaguely inappropriate things like "Every year it's the same hustle!" This was hilarious.

The slate of performers read very much like a young suburbanite's mix CD: Ingrid Michaelson, Sarah Bareilles, Maroon 5 and BB King.* But the real surprise was Jim James, the celebrated lead singer of My Morning Jacket.

Jim was one of the early performers. This was much appreciated, since the brutal cold had us eager to depart. The tree was lit early so the crowd could enjoy it throughout the evening's events. But it also meant a stream of departing bodies who were satisfied after seeing President Obama light the big blue spruce. Truthfully, if Jim hadn't been among the first few ensuing performers, I'd have written it off and left. But, mercifully, his number was called not long after the tree lighting. He sang a warm, understated version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas". I found it lovely, but the sprawling crowd wasn't really into it. "Who is this skull-capped, shaggy bearded stoner, anyway?" they probably thought. Not to mention, Jim had the misfortune of following young Jackie Evancho, a ten-year-old American who has talent who sang an unfuckingbelievable version of "O Holy Night".



Did you hear that note at 2:22? Wow. I don't even care that she's 10. I'd be blown away by a 20-, 30-, or 50-year-old singing that. Then she had some cutesy little interview which elicited a collective "BAWWWWW" from the audience. Then poor Jim had to follow all that up. He probably should have done a song that let his vocal abilities shine a bit brighter. "The First Noel", perhaps? Whatever. He has nothing to prove as a live performer. I'm sure he was just thankful for the opportunity.

Anyway, we stuck around long enough to see Michelle Obama botch "The Night Before Christmas", and then decided GTFO out of there lest we hear a single note of the Maroon 5 douchebag brigade. The night was a fulfilling experience with some enjoyable surprises--and actually not the first time I'd unexpectedly seen a favorite in our nation's capital. And most importantly, I'm now back behind my computer. Looking to get a lot of of End of 10 content up this week. Stay tuned!

*I know it isn't fair to lump BB King with those others, but obviously he's recorded some rather digestible stuff conducive to white yuppie consumption.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Five Best Live Shows From 2010

As far as prime spots for shows go, Charleston isn't one of them. We do OK. Most major acts hit it once every two or three tours, but since we're well off I-95, bands have to go well out of their way to swing through the Holy City. Regionally approximate cities like Atlanta, Asheville, and Charlotte are much more convenient stop-offs, so I'll often find myself having to travel to catch a band. In fact, only 6 of the 11 shows I caught this year were actually in Charleston.

If you live in New York or Asheville or Austin, you probably just snickered. You've probably seen 11 shows in the past week. Unfortunately we don't have that luxury, but it's probably a good thing, and my bank account is better for it. Also, truth be told, live music isn't my favorite thing. I enjoy it a lot, but I doubt I'd see too many more shows if the opportunities were more abundant. I guess it boils down to what you appreciate. Personally, I'd forgive a crappy live band who makes excellent records, but not vice versa. I'm sure many folks disagree.

Anyway, this year's live slate was generally comprised of favorites I've already seen several times (BOH, Avetts, Wilco, Isbell.) In fact, only two of the 11 were first time experiences: My Morning Jacket and Modest Mouse. Here's a rundown of my top 5 from the year.  

(I apologize in advance for the crappy iPhone photography, but I like to try to use original photos when I can.)


5. My Morning Jacket -- April 28; Charleston, SC (review)

I was finally able to scratch this one off my list. The boys from Louisville played to a less than capacity crowd at a tennis stadium in suburbia. I wonder if it was what they had in mind. No matter--the band raged for two hours, barrelling through selections from their past four albums, backed at times by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.



4. Band of Horses -- October 29; Charleston, SC (review)

Hometown heroes make a grand return after touring the world for several months. Bridwell and his crew were in fine form, treating the sold-out Performing Arts Center to a southern-tinged rock show. I feel like I've watched these guys mature from a ragtag upstart into respected globetrotters.



3. Modest Mouse -- July 21; Charleston, SC (review)

My appreciation for the Portland outfit came full circle when I saw them play back in July. Isaac Brock and company will squeeze the sweat from your pores with their merciless psych-rock attack. Sure, they weren't the most charismatic, bubbly group I've ever seen, but they more than make up for it with their musical prowess.



2. Avett Brothers -- June 11; Savannah, GA (review)

It was a dead heat between these last two. The Avetts' Savannah debut was worthy of top accolades--apparently it was considered one of the most memorable Avett shows by the diehards. Even if it wasn't, second row seats sure made it seem that way. One night before they took the stage at Bonnaroo, the boys played a triumphant set. Surprisingly for a band that made its name touring the Southeast, it was their first trip to Savannah. Who knew?



1. Wilco--March 25; Savannah, GA (review)

It was at the same venue two months earlier that I saw Wilco play the show that takes top honors this year. At first glance, it would appear that the Avetts would come out on top. For Wilco, we were more than twenty rows removed from the stage. Wilco's crowd was restless and chatty while the Avetts' crowd was fully engaged. But above all, I'm a sucker for the setlist. The Avetts' setlist was good but not great--I'd give it a solid B. Wilco--always eager to please--rolled out a marathon 34-song slate that culminated in a 4-song run of crowd pleasers that whipped even that attention-deficient crowd into a frenzy. The dice are loaded here--Wilco is my bread and butter, and any tie-breakers will go their way. Still, no one who attended would accuse me of favoritism here. (And by the way, they went and played another 34 songs the next night.)

***

For other shows we reviewed in 2010 and years past, visit the Live Reviews page.

Up next, I start into the posts that actually cover 2010 releases. In full disclosure, these probably won't begin to roll out until next week, as I'll be out of town for the next four days. Until then!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Late As Usual: The Best Late Discoveries of 2010

I actually did a pretty decent job this year padding my back catalog. I caught up with a few albums I'd long-meant to hear, and came across a few unexpected gems, too.


Beck - Midnight Vultures (1999)

I seem to catch up with about one Beck album a year. Last year it was Guero. This time, I picked up Midnight Vultures from 1999. It's an album defined by--well, little, actually. You'll hear sampled beats one second, a pedal steal guitar the next. Beck delivers piercing falsettos and flowing raps within minutes of one another. It's a mish-mash of style, all glazed in the glow of the Sunset Strip. Not much of a risk factor here, as it's considered one of the man's finest records--high praise for a guy who makes a habit of only releasing quality material.



Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Sings Greatest Palace Music (2004)

I love just about anything Will Oldham does, and I don't know why I haven't been more active in hording his music. A few months ago I stumbled across Sings Greatest Palace Music, a collection of updated originals written between 1993-1997 under his old Palace Music name. It was sort of passed over by critics, most claiming that the slick, country lacquer glosses over the eerie melancholy that defined the originals. Maybe that's true--but it doesn't make the well-manicured versions any less pleasing to the ear.



Various Classic Country and Folk

After I wrote the Uncle Tupelo feature back in January, I realized some serious holes in my knowledge of the classics. For instance, Tupelo does a song called "Atomic Power" attributed to the Louvin Brothers. They were always a name to me up until this year. I went and listened to a few of their albums, especially Tragic Songs of Life, and was met with some of the most immaculate mountain harmonies I've ever heard--their version of "In the Pines" will make your hair stand on end. This sent me on a minor kick, and I scooped up a few other albums by the likes of Buck Owens and Roy Acuff. I plan on continuing this genre exploration into 2011 and beyond.



Deer Tick - War Elephant (2007)
The Low Anthem - Oh My God, Charlie Darwin (2008)

I package these two albums together because they both represent bands I've been meaning to explore for some time, and it just so happened that a buddy of mine loaned me both albums on the same night. I steadily alternated between them during late summer drives, and found that Deer Tick's high-octane roots rock complemented TLA's well-read Americana rather nicely.



The Pogues - Rum, Sodomy, & The Lash

If I were to award one album the "Late As Usual" Badge of Excellence, it'd be this one. The Pogues have a pedigree; this I knew. But I sat on them for years before finally finding some impetus to listen--I think it was the combination of some Pandora appearances and a glowing endorsement from Colin Meloy. Whatever the case, I acquired Rum, Sodomy & The Lash and quickly realized that this was one of those albums you've been waiting to hear. Not a grower, it required no elongated warming process. From the word go, I was captivated by the Irish band and the gritty quality of their music--due in no small part to Shane McGowan's rugged vocals. I like the high-speed romps, but I especially gravitated to the pint-swayers like "A Man You Don't Meet Everyday", "A Pair of Brown Eyes", "Dirty Old Town" and "The Band Played Waltzing Matilda."

***

There are quite a few others--like Paul Simon's Graceland, for instance, which took me long enough to finally embrace--but I'll cap it at these five entries. The next entry will be a countdown on the best live shows I caught this year. Stay tuned!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Maybe Next Year: Albums I Didn't Get to in 2010

You know, it strikes me that this might be the most useless post of the whole End of 10 series. "Wow, thanks. Fascinating information about things you didn't do." Might as well do a list of "States I Didn't Travel To", or "Tragedies That Did Not Befall Me". In fact, let's do that second one:
  • Clipped by Vespa
  • Excommunicated for making racy music video
  • Crushed by cartoonishly large weight with 1000 LBS painted on the side
  • Drank a Capri Sun contaminated with SARS
  • Killed by roundhouse kick after being mistaken for time by Chuck Norris. (Because when Chuck Norris kills time, he literally kills time.)

See, none of these things came to pass. Hypothetically, that list could have gone on indefinitely...just as my music list probably could. Let's face it: a lot of new music comes out every year, and I probably hear about 1% of it. I suppose there should be a parenthetical qualifier following the title of this post, something along the lines of "(that I Probably Should Have)".

Does it make the information any more pertinent? Not really. Although it might explain some gaps in coverage. I hope it provides some answers to readers who lay awake at night, wondering, "How could he have gone a whole year and not mention ________, for Chrissakes!" I'm sure that's a pretty common problem. Anyway, I can't really validate my efforts here, so let's just get on with the post:


LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening

I don't have much of an interest in LCD, but does that mean I should ignore a critically glorified album? No, no it doesn't. But it came out in the midst of Indie Music MAYhem, so it was lost in the fray.

Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

This album recently dropped, and made waves when Pitchfork awarded it a rare 10.0 rating. This would be an appealing prospect if I listened to Kanye West, but sadly I don't. I'm only really addressing this because some folks asked me why his album wasn't on my poll. Moving on!

Alejandro Escovedo - Street Songs of Love

While I have the utmost respect and admiration for the legendary Texan songwriter, I thoughtlessly overlooked his 2010 release, Street Songs of Love. Honestly, this will probably be one of those records I'll find in a used bin in the next year or two.

Girl Talk - All Day

See Kanye's entry. Look, I think Girl Talk is great novelty music, but as far as real artistic substance, it does nothing for me. This is me being a quasi-purist grouch, and I should be judged harshly for it. I'll play my dusty instruments and listen to ragtime over in the corner while everyone else goes and parties with Gregg Gillis.

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So there's that. I assure you that will be the most useless of any of the posts this month. (Probably.)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

End of 10: Features in Review

I make a point to try to provide content with some substance. Let's face it, no one comes to this blog (let me finish!) for news. I post it every now and again if I get excited. For proof of this, I direct you to the litany of release announcements in November.

But no rational blogger starts out with the intention of being a news source. At least it wasn't mine. The whole purpose of HSW was to serve as an open journal of my thoughts and analysis pertaining to my favorite music. This year, I decided to really concentrate on that sort of thing. I had the goal of taking on a few larger tasks (which manifested itself in the form of the Deeper In series.) Specifically, I wanted to write a comprehensive analysis of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and a study guide for appreciating Tom Waits. Astoundingly, I managed to knock out both of these. And a few others, in fact. Let's have a look at some of the features we saw this year:

1. On the Albums of Uncle Tupelo

Back in January, I found myself in the warm embrace of an Uncle Tupelo kick. I danced between the all four albums for a few weeks, and it left me thinking: Which one is best? Shoot, all four are essential listening. And each is, in some minor or major way, distinct from the other three. My mind was reeling, so I spent a week or so breaking down each album and offering reasons why each might and might not be the best. A conclusion was never officially reached--which wasn't really the point--but hopefully it provided some food for thought for any Tupelo fans who might have stumbled across it.
2. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

A surefire desert island album, Wilco's legendary fourth album went along way in establishing my tastes and helping  me turn the corner as a music fan. Some folks argue that critics and fans overstate its brilliance due the theatrics that surrounded its release. But I maintain that its self-contained brilliance is enough to solidify its status as a classic.

In February, I went about analyzing the everloving snot out of that album and its eleven tracks. A few months ago, I covertly went back and cleaned it up a bit since there were arguments that weren't as clear as they could have been. So if you've read it already, you may be interested in taking a look. If you haven't read it, well egads man, get on it!


3. Indie Music MAYhem

Back in May, there was an unparalleled outflux of music that might have overwhelmed a less able blogger. But this is one less-able blogger who staved it off via making it a competition. And thus Indie Music MAYhem was born. Each competitor (re: album) was previewed then reviewed, and then ranked based on my evaluation of each. Spoiler alert: The results are not perfectly reflected in the Best Albums of the Year list. I'm allowed to change my mind just like anyone, OK? Anyway, here are links to all of IMM:

4. Musical Surgery

Ever hear an album and think, "This is too damned long for its own good!" I sure have. But complaining without taking action is obnoxious, so I thought it'd be an interesting exercise to roll up my sleeves and pare down six overlong albums:
5. How To Stop Worrying And Love Tom Waits

Again, this was one of those long-standing goals of mine. Call it a study guide, a primer, Cliff's Notes. Whatever it is, I hope it serves as an aide to those who might have an interest in Tom's music, but are too daunted or confused by what they hear. I took six of Tom's more essential albums and did a sort of comprehensive review/analysis of each. Here they are:

There were a few other features that thrived this year, including The Things You Can't Forget -- memorable moments that were made indelible by a particular song or album. The standbys like Whathaveyou and Musical Lookalikes made their requisite appearances. Pour one out for The Tube Amp which, as I've mentioned, was retired after July's edition due to being a nuisance to write.

So busy yourself with reviewing all these painstakingly compiled pieces. Preferably for the next few weeks while I ready all the rest of it...