Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Best of the decade: 100-91

Introduction here. I'm starting to use jumps, as the LaLa.com previews are messing with load times.


Band: The Flaming Lips
Album: Embryonic

The Flaming Lips' latest album is less focused than others the band has released, but far less cutesy or maniacal. The band's other efforts from the decade are nice, but sound forced and, often, obnoxious. Embryonic is sprawling and lovely. It's crazy and subdued. It's the band's best work since The Soft Bulletin

Monday, October 26, 2009

Best of the Decade: Introduction

As the decade of the MP3 draws to a close, I am jumping on the "let's make a list" bandwagon. Take this list (spoiler alert: the whole list is here, in a really boring HTML table) with the usual mountains of salt:

  1. I am not an expert in anything, least of all music. Just because I write about music on the Web via a free blogging service doesn't mean a damned thing. Need I remind you, I am a fool. I spend one day a week dressed like this.

  2. I did my best, but I surely forgot something. I have a nice collection of music, but I do not remember ever record that's come outin the last 10 years.

  3. The more recent stuff has probably gotten short shrift. Timing is like that, I guess.

  4. My tastes are my tastes and they probably don't reflect your tastes. Please don't e-mail me with something about the Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2, the Hold Steady or whatever. I like Sufjan Stevens, Mogwai, etc.

  5. As such, I don't listen to enough hip-hop. Take that for what it is.

I've already written about a lot of these records, including (sorta spoiler alert, if you're a detective) four of the top five and seven of the top 10. In the interest of keeping your suspense, I will post this list in 10 separate posts, over the course of the final 10 weeks of the year. Two albums came in just under the wire (including no. 100), having been released just a few weeks ago.


The 2000s are my decade, in a lot of ways. I spent my 20s -- my defining decade -- during this decade. I fell in love. My family situation, uh, changed. I went through college and spent four years giving a lot of effort toward the greatest college radio station in the world. A scant four months before Jan. 1, 2000, I moved away from home and started college. Four years later, I left the womb of the University of Missouri for the East Coast.

When the decade began, I was 18. I am 28 now. Despite being raised Jewish, I didn't become a man in March 1994 (my Bar Mitzvah); one becomes an adult in his or her 20s. Living on one's own for the first time. It was the first time I'd had a roommate; later I had two and had to play mediator between them. I got my first job, got my first promotion and changed jobs for the first time. I

Maybe I say this because I'm in it now, but this was my defining decade. No, my favorite album of all time didn't come out in this decade; that record was released before I was born. But, the years 2000-2009 define me and will have the most lasting of all memories for me. This is the music that soundtracked those memories.


So, without any further nonsense, I present my top 100 albums of the decade. I welcome any and all comments, of course.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Crack the Skye

Band: Mastodon
Album: Crack the Skye
Best song: "Divinations" is among the band's best and tightest songs, up there with "Iron Tusk," "Blood and Thunder," "Crusher Destroyer," "Colony of Birchmen," "Shadows That Move," "Mother Puncher" and "March of the Fire Ants." Of course, the longest two songs on the records are also brilliant and complex.
Worst song: All good.

Like friend of the site Brad, Pitchfork and probably many other outfits, I'm going to eventually do a "best of the aughts" list. I've narrowed my list down a little, but it'll probably be in the 50-albums neighborhood. Recency is probably too much of an issue for these lists; it's easy to forget all the great albums released in the first two years of a decade.

For sure, I've written about a bunch of my top albums of the decade already on this and my old site (indeed, my two favorite albums of the decade were "unlisted" on the old site). But, making this list is becoming incredibly hard.

I write this because today's record is on that list, certainly, and very near the top.


Mastodon got me back into metal.

I was not a huge fan of heavy metal in high school and college. I listened to a fair amount of punk rock, but progressive- and post- rock occupied my mind almost entirely. I graduated, moved out here and had a friend introduce me to two bands. One was Isis. The other was Mastodon.

The first album I've heard of theirs was the brilliant, focused and furious Leviathan. Based on the Melville classic Moby-Dick, it's a record that's tight and insane, full of killer riffs and the best drumming in rock and roll. Based on a book? Slightly progressive? Fuck and yes. It was and is right up my alley.

I've written about the band's follow-up, Blood Mountain. Thought excellent, it isn't as hard as Leviathan nor as interesting as Crack the Skye. It's a striking record and a brilliantly structured one. It only pales in comparison to the Mastodon records that came before and after it.

With Mastodon came a revisit to Queens of the Stone Age (friends of the MAstodon guys and guest vocalists on tracks) and a look back into the band's influences, notably Judas Priest, Metallica and Iron Maiden. That's no small feat, considering I spent much of 2004 listening to Sufjan Stevens.

So, yeah, Mastodon got me back into metal.


My main criticism of Blood Mountain remains taht the storyline is fucking insane. This applies to the band's next/most recent album, only moreso. The storyline of Crack the Skye is absolutely indecipherable. GUitarist Bill Kelliher tried to get it out in a Pitchfork interview, but it hardly made sense.

It's got a quadripalegic boy and a Russian tsar and a wormhole and all kinds of crazy shit. Like, crazy. Apparently, Brann Dailor -- the dude whose drum work makes me want to kiss him repeatedly about the head and neck -- comes up with these ideas. He's a big Peter Gabriel-era Genesis fan.


There is no question this storyline is totally batshit insane. It's nuts. It produces lyrics like "crawling up through the crack in the sky" and "Wrathful one, nine eyes gaze." It's crazy.

But, lyrics in metal tend to be of a different animal than those done by singer/songwriters with an acoustic guitar. Elliott Smith -- my pick for favored songwriter -- wrote songs about real life with music that soundtracked real life. His worst work came when he fancied large arrangements and complexity over reality.

On the other hand, nothing about metal is all that real. It's fucking crazy is what it is. The guitar solos and the nutty drum rolls and -- especially -- the death growl. I don't want to say that you can't take it seriously, because that wording doesn't work. But, it occupies a different space.

Lyrics/vocals -- as I've mentioned before -- often are another instrument to me. In the case of Mastodon, this is especially true. Yes, I want them to make some sense, but "letting go" isn't Walt fucking Whitman, ladies and gentlemen. It needs to fit the emotion of the rest of the band and Mastodon's crazy lyrics -- and they are pretty crazy, to be able to fit that batshit story line -- fit.


With all that craziness, Crack the Skye is fucking brilliant piece of music. It is, in short, when Mastodon discovered the best of progressive rock. Tempering the Dream Theater-esque crazy speed stuff is the melodic Pink Floyd-esque soaring melodies.

That's not to say that the band goes full-on Floyd. It doesn't.

With any seven-song album, the expanse of styles covered isn't exactly wide; seven songs -- no matter the length -- can only be so cohesive. And, indeed, Mastodon doesn't try out, say, roots rock on Crack the Skye.

Rather, the band incorporates elements from other genres and applies the elements to the metal genre. "Oblivion" has the aforementioned Floyd-esque guitar solo, while "Divinations" has the crazed banjo intro -- Brent Hines developed his guitar skills first by playing the banjo in Georgia as a kid -- of an Applachian mountain song. "Quintessence" borrows mid-career progressive rock keyboards, but only for small spaces. "The Czar" takes a funk rock detour mid-way through the song building into a classic rock epic, all while processed through a metal filter. The album's title track is pounding and And the soft(ish) beginning of "The Last Baron" could've been borrowed from the baddest ass AAA radio station.

Overwhelmingly, though, MAstodon remains Mastodon. Brann Dailor's drum fills on the longer songs -- "The Last Baron," specifically -- are epic and sustained. Hines' solos are varied (the slow burns of "The Last Baron" and "The Czar" to the barely contained insanity of "Divinations") and amazing. Guest vocalist Scott Kelly (of Neurosis) partially carries -- via death growl -- the load on the title track, while Troy Sanders' own voice -- less death growl, more soaring singing -- acents the songs wherein he plays a huge role ("Oblivion" and "Ghost of Karelia," specifically). Dailor himself sings the verses on "Oblivion" and puts fellow drummer/singers Phil Collins and Don Henley to shame (cut me some slack, those were the only two I could think of).

It's a striking album. The long songs (all but "Divinations" clock in at five-plus minutes and two are more than 10 minutes) make for interesting changes; "The Czar" is actually a four-song suite. It's an ambitious one. The storyline is crazy and another band could've easily spent the record showing off how proficient it is.

Mastodon is proficient; indeed, these guys are great musicians. But, overwhelmingly, the album works, it flows and it's catchy and rocking. Progressive rock has a new face.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Whipped Cream and Other Delights

Band: Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass
Album: Whipped Cream and Other Delights
Best song: "Love Potion No. 9" is awesome because it sounds like the type of thing you'd hear in a 1960s stag club. "A Taste of Honey" has become a theme song for many and rightfully. "Lemon Tree" is intricate and pretty.
Worst song: There really isn't a bad song on here.

There are many memories of my college roommates that stick out in my mind, most of them recurring jokes. The Crocodile Hunter impressions. The "Howard voice." Animal Crossing. So many jokes.

One of the running jokes, though, was our collective love for Herb Alpert's music. It started because we put LP jackets on our book shelf as typical students do in rented townhouses. One roommate threw up a Slim Whitman album sleeve. I supplied Whipped Cream & Other Delights.

The album is most famous for its amazing cover art (parodied by Soul Asylum here and by Pat Cooper here), but it's also Alpert's best record. After assembling an entirely non-Mexican band (three Italians, two Jews and a German guy), he dubbed it the Tijuana Brass, after the sound to which he was adding a pop element.

The album is lovely and ridiculous and thematic and cool. Background music all the way, John Pisano's guitar rolls through mariachi on "Lemon Tree." The nominal title track, like the rest of the album, rolls through Alpert's piercing trumpet. He's not Miles Davis, but, god damn, isn't "A Taste of Honey" fun? Or lest we forget, the burlesque swing of the Brass' version of the Leiber and Stoller classic "Love Potion No. 9," one of the porn-iest songs I've ever heard.

The album sold six million copies and not to idiot college kids or people who couldn't get adequate porn six years into Playboy's run. It's a fine album of ridiculously fun music.

Friday, October 2, 2009

American Water

Band: Silver Jews
Album: American Water
Best song: "Random Rules" and "Send in the Clouds" are lovely songs.
Worst song: "We Are Real" isn't great.

There's a certain breed of indie rock singer/songwriter that's remained constant, the deep-voiced misanthrope. They come in different flavors, whether it's the old South warbling of Will Oldham, the wholly strange Bill Callahan or Jason Molina's industrial North Neil Young impression, these singers can bring colorful storytelling, a distinct delivery and stilted writing.

David Berman is often thrown into this mix and I'd say that's probably incorrect. While the Silver Jews isn't a project far off from the aforementioned musicians, he is decidedly more cryptic and far more optimistic.

Moreover, it's the Pavement connection that fueled the early Silver Jews records. Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich's presence on the records seem to mark Silver Jews as a Pavement side project, though that's quite incorrect. Indeed, the Pavement tinge is the side dish to Berman's main course. It is a nice addition to the party, but hardly the Silver Jews sound.


American Water is the best of Berman's work. Pitchfork, in a review of Berman's final record, calls the album's opening line ("In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection.") "among the greats." I don't disagree, but the key point is American Water's opening song is a tour de force. "Random Rules" is both caustic and pleasant, somehow.

The album's Malkmus moments are well-tempered with Berman and make for beautiful music. "People" has a wah wah pedal-fueled funk guitar thing as the verse backdrop as Berman sings an observational ditty. The chorus lilts with Malkmus and Berman doubling one another. The chorus ends with Malkmus alone and a Pavement riff that hangs in the air. Similarly, "Federal Dust" is the most Pavement-esque on the record -- dour and scattered. -- and "Blue Arrangements" sounds as something that could have been on Brighten the Corners, laid back and suburban.

It's the observational songwriting aspects of the record that makes songs like "Smith & Jones Forever" such landmarks. Berman's simple vocal style -- he sometimes even sounds bored -- is fun and pleasant and the production surrounding it is flawless. Berman and Malkmus' blues guitar work is amateurish and charming, as "We Are Real" sounds like any of the classic white boy cops (paging Bob Dylan). "Honk If You're Lonely" has a 1970s folk record's feel with a touchy guitar line and a jaunty drum.

The album's highlight is the lovely and charming "Send in the Clouds." Armed with the innocent-sounding but complex line "Why can't monsters get along with other monsters?" Berman's existentialism seeps through the song. He sounds as cryptic as he is in interviews (example here), Berman recounts a biographical sketch of troubled youth and questioning the world. It's a departure from the album's optimism, but challenging and catchy.

American Water is a folk rock record through and through, but it is the best Silver Jews' record, hands down. The record dances around various microgenres and borrows from friend Malkmus' other band heavily, but in the best possible combination.