A List Building Exercise

Monday, December 30, 2013

Top Ten Albums and Favorite Songs of 2013

I don't have time to do a full write up this time around, but here are my favorite albums of the year in reverse order. Here's a Spotify playlist with all ten albums, and here's another playlist with my favorite 30 songs of the year.

10. Andrew Bird - I Want To See Pulaski At Midnight

9. Dawes - Stories Don't End

8. Caveman - Caveman 

7. Head and the Heart - Let's Be Still

6. Junip - Junip

5. The National - Trouble Will Find Me

4. Volcano Choir - Repave

3. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories

2. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City

1. Cayucas - Bigfoot

Honorable mentions:
Bell X1 - Chop Chop
Neko Case - The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You
Gregory Alan Isakov - The Weatherman
Arcade Fire - Reflektor

Have a happy new year!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Top Ten Albums and Favorite Songs of 2012

There's been enough good music in 2012 to warrant putting together a best-of list. Having looked at Pitchfork's Top 50 Albums of 2012, I know I'm getting old. So let me know what I missed in the comments. Hope you enjoy -- they're all listenable via Spotify through the link.

Shields is another solid album from Grizzly Bear. I don't love it as much as 2009's Veckatimest and there's not standout track like "Two Weeks," but Shields is a good listen start to finish.
Favorite songs: "gun-shy," "Yet Again," and "A Simple Answer"

I'm not one of those people that worships everything that everything Jack White produces, but he's got his own unmistakeable sound and an obvious talent, so occasionally I like his stuff.

Favorite songs: "Sixteen Saltines," "Love Interruption," and "Take Me With You When You Go"

I read somewhere that Chan Marshall wrote this album, then scrapped the whole thing and re-wrote it. That's not reason enough to like an album, but I respect any artist's willingness to completely abandon something if it's not working and start over. Especially when it leads to a fantastic album like Sun.
Favorite songs: "Manhattan," "Nothin' But Time," and "Ruin"

The safest, most mainstream of my picks is the self-titled debut of the Lumineers, but I'd be lying to myself if I said I didn't enjoy it.

Favorite songs: "Charlie Boy," "Dead Sea," and "Ho Hey"

Beach House's sound has a brooding, slightly dystopian, quality to it -- like the band might've been better suited to another time or to support the "Blade Runner" soundtrack. But there's also something really listenable about it. Sometimes I can't get enough of those minikorgs (or whatever keyboards they're using).
Favorite songs: "On the Sea," "Myth," and "Lazuli"

This one's kinda out of left field, but MTMTMK is easily one of my favorites of the year. The Very Best's melding of Afropop and electronica is both upbeat and catchy. Just try to not enjoy the slidewhistle on "I Wanna Go Away."
Favorite songs: "Yoshua Alikuti," "I Wanna Go Away," and "Rumbae"

So Andrew Bird can pretty much do no wrong in my book. Now that I've said that, Break It Yourself didn't melt my brain or anything, but he just continues to crank out some great music, particularly if you love anything with heavy pizzicato hooks as I do (see: "Orpheo Looks Back").
Favorite songs: "Lusitania," "Desperation Breeds," (love the wild electric violin towards the end) and "Orpheo Looks Back"

Canada's Bahamas didn't get on my radar until this year, but he put out an album last year that was pretty acclaimed that I'll have to get around to. There's a Mason Jennings-meets-M. Ward quality to this record, and not surprisingly, Barchords is easy listening. Not in a cheesy kind of way, just nice.
Favorite songs: "Okay Alright I'm Alive," "Any Other Way," and "Lost In The Light"

2. The Tallest Man On Earth – There's No Leaving Now

I've written before about the Tallest Man On Earth, the stage name of Kristian Matsson, who penned my favorite album of 2010. I continue to believe he is wildly under-appreciated. I get that his voice isn't for everyone and there's not a lot of production here, but There's No Leaving Now is an album I could see myself still listening to years from now. There's not a lot of other music put out these days that I could say that about.
Favorite songs: "There's No Leaving Now," "Leading Me Now," and "1904"

1. John K. Samson – Provincial

And so we've arrived at Provincial, my favorite album of the year. John K. Samson, lead singer of the Weakerthans, put this out in the beginning of 2012 and ever since I heard it, it's been on heavy rotation. The album is reminiscent of "Left & Leaving"-era Wekearthans, but with a few acoustic songs thrown in for good measure. I'll concede that there's nothing earth shattering about Provincial, and yeah, it's a little more accessible than the pop-punk sound through which they made a name for themselves, but I like every song here. It's well-worthy of the title spot.
Favorite songs: "Heart of the Continent," "Cruise Night," and "www.ipetitions.Com/Petition/Rivertonrifle/" (yes that's actually the name of the song)

Thanks for reading. I also put together a playlist of my favorite 40 songs of the year, listenable here: Favorite Songs of 2012.

Onwards to 2013.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Top Ten Albums of 2010

Well it's that time of year again. 2010 has been a busy one and while I tried to listen to what I could, I don't think what I've heard has quite lived up to last year. With that caveat in mind, here are my favorite albums from the year that was.

10. Frightened Rabbit - The Winter of Mixed Drinks

Their first album, The Midnight Organ Fight, was one of my favorites from 2008. The Scottish accent, the ambiguously explicit lyrics, and the slow-build of songs like "Keep Yourself Warm" just worked for me. Even so, I half expected their follow-up album to disappoint, given how difficult it is for a band to improve on a first effort. But The Winter of Mixed Drinks was just as likable. One of their last songs of their Lollapalooza set was "Living In Colour" and it was one of my favorite songs of the whole day. Favorite songs: "The Wrestle," "Swim Until You Can't See Land," and "Living In Colour"

9. The Morning Benders - Big Echo

I listened to this album a lot back in the March/April months and until I sat down to write this list, had sorta forgotten about it. I suppose that's why it's only at the #9 spot, but in going back I remember why I liked it so much. Co-produced by the bassist from Grizzly Bear, you can definitely hear some of the better elements of the band's sound throughout, especially on the opener "Excuses." It drags a little bit toward the end, but the front half is great. Favorite songs: "Excuses" and "Cold War (Nice Clean Fight)"

8. S. Carey - All We Grow

Sean Carey, the drummer/backup vocalist for Bon Iver, put together a good solo album in August. Yeah, it might've benefited from Justin Vernon's presence, and even without it, All We Grow is still a little derivative of For Emma, Forever Ago. But in spite of its predictably mellow and wandering pace, there are some songs here where Carey manages to get a lot of mileage out of very little in the way of instrumentation. Favorite songs: "We Fell" and "In the Stream"

7. Sleigh Bells – Treats

Sleigh Bells' "Kids" is in some horrible MTV promo where a girl ends up face down in a pile of trash at the end of the night. I get the feeling this show will inevitably be the station's next pseudo-reality-TV hit. But in spite of the trashy trendiness and hipster self-affirmation that this one inspired (not for me, I mean for the hipsters), I loved it. There's something catchy about the wild gravitas of the guitar and the pop refrains from lead singer Alexis Krauss, especially on the opener, "Tell Em." Then there's "Rill Rill" -- a bit of an anomaly on the album, with repetitive acoustic strumming and these arresting, jangly bells -- which might be might favorite song of the year. It even incidentally helped me around the halfway point of the marathon and for that, Treats earns a slot on the list. Favorite songs: "Tell Em," "Crown on the Ground," and obviously "Rill Rill"

6. The Black Keys – Brothers

I didn't get around to Brothers until October, but when I did, I couldn't put it down. I admittedly haven't kept up with the Black Keys since their release of Rubber Factory in 2004. But Brothers is enough to make me go back to see what I've been missing. I'm actually a little bummed I'll be missing their sold-out NYE show here in a few weeks. Favorite songs: "Howlin' For You," "Sinister Kid," and opener "Everlasting Light"

5. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – The Social Network Soundtrack

Frenetic and foreboding, the music backing the Social Network matched the pacing and mood of the film perfectly. Even if you haven't seen the movie, the soundtrack stands out in its own right. That said, the brooding techno vibe of this one might not be for everyone. And while I haven't been a fan of anything from Nine Inch Nails' frontman since my ill-fated awkward phase that lasted most of the 90s, I really enjoy it. Favorite songs: "In Motion," "Intriguing Possibilities," "Pieces Form The Whole"

4. The National – High Violet

When High Violet first came out in May, I was somewhat disappointed that nothing really stood out to me. But it was just the slow burn nature of the album, rather than an indication of a sub-par effort. Most of these songs require repeated listening before the lyrics really sync in. A NY Times Magazine profile about the band captured it well: "The National sound has a layered, seductive quality that is filled with intimate male feeling and uneasy cinematic portent: a storm coming up outside the window; leaves blowing in the road... All the intersecting sounds mesh with Matt’s voice in a way that seems to deepen his texture, and with repeated listening the songs achieve emotional intensity." Favorite songs: "Afraid of Everything," "England," and "Sorrow"

3. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

I knew this album was going to be a favorite when I first watched his 35 minute film to promote the album. Other than that, there's not a lot to write about Kanye or this album that hasn't already been written. Rolling Stone gave it 5 stars and named it their #1 album of 2010; Pitchfork gave it a 10.0, which I don't think I've ever seen them give before. People are obsessed with his Taylor Swift diss and whether his recent antics fueled this creative output. I think all the bloviating is pretty tiresome at this point and I'm perfectly content to ignore all of the drama (except for his ridiculously entertaining Twitter account) when he's producing music like this. Favorite songs: "Dark Fantasy," "Power," "Lost In The World"

2. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

The Suburbs is a 16-song-critique on the album's namesake that invites choose-your-own-adventure interpretation. Win Butler said the album, "is neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs - it's a letter from the suburbs," and I should be content enough to take them at their word. But there's something depressing and kinda true about the band's musing in "Sprawl II": "Sometimes I wonder if the world's so small/that we can never get away from it all/living in the sprawl/dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains/and there's no end in sight/I need the darkness someone please cut the lights."

I would also say that Arcade Fire's second album, Neon Bible, lacked the cohesiveness, consistency, and introspection that Funeral invited, so it's no surprise to me that I don't really listen to it much anymore. But The Suburbs mirrors Funeral in a lot of ways, and I'm optimistic it'll have a shelf life just as long. Favorite songs: "City With No Children," "Half Light II," and "Sprawl II"

1. The Tallest Man on Earth – The Wild Hunt

And so it is that we've arrived at my favorite album of the year: The Tallest Man on Earth's The Wild Hunt. And you may say, "Really? A non-native-English-speaker, solo artist who sounds like a Bob Dylan protege with nothing more than a guitar and the occasional piano made your favorite album of 2010?" And I will respond merely that you should listen to his cover of Paul Simon's "Graceland" (a b-side supplement to one of the album's singles, but recorded around the same time) to level that incredulity. He brings out the heartache of this song that Simon intended but didn't quite deliver (and don't get me wrong, I love Simon's original). He's only 27, but Kristian Matsson sounds like he's lived a half dozen lifetimes on this album. The Wild Hunt didn't get much critical praise lavished on it, I think, in part because of how basic its structure and because it just doesn't sound like all the other heavily-produced stuff out there. That said, I think he put together a near-perfect, albeit underappreciated, album. Favorite songs: "King of Spain," "A Lion's Heart," and "Kids on the Run"

Monday, December 21, 2009

Top Ten Albums of 2009

2009 has been a great year for music. So much so that I felt like writing something, and it's been a long time since that's happened. Since I'm a bit rusty in the process, it seemed easiest to put together a Top Ten list. But in doing so, came to discover that it was pretty hard to whittle it down. After some deliberation, and some tweaking of the last few spots, I came up with a list I'm pretty happy with. I'm a little embarrassed by how closely the end result resembles NPR's All Songs Considered "Listener's Choice" (man, how old am I?) or Paste Magazine's Top 25 of 2009, but in all honesty, I wrote this list prior to seeing either.

First, some honorable mentions:

The Avett Brothers - I and Love and You (I didn't hear this until just this last week, and I love it.)

Various Artists - Dark Was The Night
(I've always ruled out compilations in my year-end lists, but this is a great collection, especially songs from The National, Yeasayer, and the Dirty Projecters/David Byrne. Plus, the proceeds benefit HIV/AIDS research and awareness, so buy it if you can.)

Bon Iver - Blood Bank EP (EPs don't count either, but this is another great 4-song output from Justin Vernon if you're into falsetto wuss-rock, which you know I am.)

Now the list:

10. Discovery - LP
Side project of a few members of Ra Ra Riot and Vampire Weekend, I gave this repeated listens over the summer and really enjoyed it. Favorite songs: The opener, "Orange Shirt" and the Jackson 5 cover of "I Want You Back"

9. The Very Best - Warm Heart of Africa
Radioclit, a group of London producers, teamed up with East African singer Esau Mwamwaya, after visiting his second-hand furniture shop down the street from their studio. The result is a fun listen, even though I don't understand most of it. P4k describes accurately as "infectious dance-pop, the result of a free exchange of Western and African sounds." Favorite songs: "Warm Heart of Africa" and "Chalo"

8. Yeah Yeah Yeah's - It's Blitz
Lead singer Karen O's voice is addicting; I listened to this a lot over the summer and it's perfect for running to. Favorite songs: "Soft Shock" and "Runaway" (they almost used this in a 'Chicago 2016' promo, which would've been perfect, but the editor had to cut it because it wasn't recognizable enough.)

7. John Vanderslice - Romanian Names
This one hasn't been mentioned in any year-end lists I've seen, but it's kept its appeal for me since its release. Unique and a little rough around the edges on a few songs, I first started listening to it during a trip up to Wisconsin back in April, and it's still as catchy as it was then. Favorite songs: "Sunken Union Boat" and "Carina Constellation"

6. Passion Pit - Manners
From Paste: "Lead singer Michael Angelakos and his merry sidemen play with a verve that traces back to disco; Passion Pit’s falsetto vocals sound like Bon Iver being sampled and sped up by Kanye West." I don't know if that's exactly how I would describe them, but you get the point. Favorite songs: "Sleepyhead" (even though it was kinda ruined by that Palm Pre commercial) and "Moth's Wings"

5. The Antlers - Hospice
Be forewarned, this entire album is an ode to a friend dying of cancer. If that sounds depressing, well, it is. And yet, the whole thing is very listenable and engaging (if you're in the mood for it). It also falls into that falsetto, wuss-rock category I referenced for Bon Iver's EP, but that's part of why listening to such sad-bastard music like this is tolerable. Favorite songs: "Kettering," "Two," and "Epilogue"

4. Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest
"Two Weeks" might be my favorite song from this year. This album was pretty omnipresent in critical circles, perhaps just a little bit less than Merriweather Post Pavilion, but much more deservedly so, in my opinion. It's not available on Lala, unfortunately, but if you missed it, you can listen to previews here: http://lala.com/zf5S

3. Neko Case - Middle Cyclone
Something about Neko Case's crooning and the occasional twangy guitar just lures me in. I could've done without the 30 minute closing song of nothing but crickets, but there's even something charming about that, too. Favorite songs: "I'm An Animal" and "This Tornado Loves You"

2. Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
A French group known for making incredibly catchy pop-rock made the year's best album if you're into incredibly catchy pop-rock. Favorite songs: "1901" (also kinda ruined by a commercial for Cadillac that was aired during every TV timeout of every football game played this year) and "Girlfriend"

1. Andrew Bird - Noble Beast
I could start by arguing that this was a critically under-appreciated album (as was the bonus album Useless Creatures), but nevermind. Andrew Bird, as a sheer performer, is at the peak of his career. So he doesn't really need the critical acclaim or affirmation of his work -- something goons like Jim DeRegatis can't seem to appreciate. I was at that April show at the Lyric Opera House, and was just blown away by his stuff. For a sample, check out the joint session he performed with St. Vincent in September. Though the lyrics are a bit arcane ("Effigy" comes to mind) and he sometimes relies on alliteration for alliteration's sake, you have to be willing to look past that. Noble Beast, start to finish, is arguably his best release. Favorite songs: "Masterswarm," "Not A Robot, But A Ghost," and "The Privateers."

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Two Six in Ought Seven

I had a great birthday yesterday. I know I saw a lot of you out for drinks at Pontiac -- if not, hopefully you can make a trek to Des Moines in the next 5 months or so. Thanks to those of you who made it out. If any of you have pictures, send them my way.

Mary and I caught the Cubs game, which they lost on some spotty relief pitching in the 8th. Bonds was booed mercilessly in his lone at-bat, which warmed my heart.

I head back to Iowa tomorrow. It's almost harder going back than it was to leave in the first place. It's tough to come back and get just a taste of everything I love about being in Chicago, only to be thrown back to the mercy of the campaign, knowing I likely won't be back for several months. I love what I'm doing out there and the people I work with, but it's also the hardest thing I've ever committed myself to.

I know I mentioned it last night, but know that there's an open invitation for any of you to come out to visit.