Sunday, December 20, 2009

Best of the decade: 11-20


Band: Mastodon
Album: Leviathan

And so it began.

My relationship with Mastodon began with an album that used a classic American novel as a metaphor for the band's trials and tribulations. It's a pretty stupid novelty, but I love the idea of music based on books. So, when I saw the furied whale album cover at, of all places, Target... I bought it.

I've probably listened to the full album somewhere in the neighborhood of, 500 times since then. Whereas Blood Mountain has some great tracks ("Colony of Birchmen," of course, is a classic), there are no mediocre songs on Leviathan. There aren't any average songs. Every song is good, every song is furious and true, with the wailing (whaling?) musicianship flying out of my headphones.

"Island" thrusts forward, eventually coasting into insanity. "Hearts Alive" is 13 minutes of movements, where "Megalodon" is the kind of exercise in guitar playing that Steve Vai wishes he could have accomplished (the beginning of "Aqua Dementia" would fit this, too).

And those are the lesser songs on the album.

"Blood and Thunder" is one of the band's signature songs, with a punishing drum sound and a Van Halen-esque guitar breakdown between Bill Kelliher and ex-banjo player Brent Hinds. "I am Ahab" has doubled guitar harmonies, perfect triplet repetition and Troy Sanders' best singing. "Seabeast" is all shuffle and anger. "Iron Tusk" has the best melodic guitar line this side of Iron Maiden. And "Seabeast." Oh, "Seabeast."

This is what metal should be, folks.


Band: Grizzly Bear
Album: Veckatimest

Veckatimest was my favorite non-Mastodon album of the last year, buoyed by a handful of absolutely brilliant champer pop tracks. "Ready, Able" -- to cite one -- has timing, strings and atmospher-y production to be an awesome Portishead song. But, it also has the emotive songwriting that could be a great Death Cab song. And the combination of it all that makes it almost Radiohead-eque.

"Ready, Able," by the way, is the third-best song on the album.


Band: Songs:Ohia
Album: The Lioness

A suicide note set to music and the inspiration for what I mistakenly called my "opus."


Band: Iron & Wine
Album: The Shepherd's Dog

Nearly the best in a mediocre year of albums, 2007's The Shepherd's Dog is no slouch. Sam Beam's best work shines on the record, with a full band production style missing from his previous work. Beam jumps from genre to genre, all while doing his signature Nick Drake-meets-the-American-South impression.

"Boy With A Coin" is a godsend.


Band: OutKast
Album: Stankonia

There is a stop on the DC Metro (our version of the subway) that serves Springfield, Va. It also serves a neighboring town called Franconia. I always think of this album when I get on the train that goes toward Franconia-Springfield.


I hate to continue to dive into the race-card pool, but is this record nearly as popular with black people as it is with white people? I have to think that it's not. Stankonia is nearly the picture of my Kanye West theory -- that any strangeness/introspection/oddities=great for the mostly white rock critic audience that reviews most record -- with the Source giving it a good, not great review (four of five stars, though, in its defense, Vibe gave it a 9 of 10). On the other hand, Village Voice, Pitchfork and AV Club have all given it perfect or near-perfect marks. In fact, "B.O.B." was Pitchfork's number one track of the decade. Friend of the site Alyssa loves OutKast.

I can't help but look at OutKast and think "Decemberists." Great idea, not great in practice. The production on their records is pedestrian, at best. The duo's flow is choppy, at best. Listening to their records is mostly just a chore. I want to like OutKast -- I aspire to the pretentious white rock critic archetype. I really do. But, the duo has one good album, nay, great album.

Ranked -- properly, I'd say -- 359 on the RS list, this album is great.


Band: Broken Social Scene
Album: You Forgot it in People

Released the year I graduated college, I did not find this record until some years later. This happened largely because I mostly eschewed new music in the immediate time after graduation, especially the critically acclaimed stuff. I've recovered and love Arcade Fire, Bloc Party and this record, but lost Animal Collective and TV on the Radio somewhere in the mix.

Anyway, I've written about the soft, muffled brilliance that is this albm, mostly wrapped in stories of breakups and weird experiences. I'm always surprised that no one comments on these stories.


Band: Cat Power
Album: You Are Free

Pretty strange that Dave Grohl makes two appearances on my list, neither time for the Foo Fighters. God, I hate that band (save for one fucking brilliant album released a while ago).


Framed within the top 100 of Pitchfork's list, I adore You Are Free. On first listen, I was in love and with each subsequent listen, I enjoy this record as much as that first listen. Like the best lyricists, Chan Marshall's words can go a million ways, but evoke something in each track.


Band: Yo La Tengo
Album: And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out

Yo La Tengo has been a constant in my indie rock life. They were the first band a friend Andrew showed me. It was this album that made me feel like I belonged in college. And it remains a band I enjoy with those important to me.


Band: Kanye West
Album: The College Dropout

There's no two ways to say it: Kanye West's debut album is amazing. He isn't the rapper that, say, Jay-Z is, but he's a superlative producer and writer. His lyrics are clever, instrospective and conscious. He dances on the line of bizarre commercialism and self-diagnosis on the album, hitting up religion (for the album's worst song) also for good measure.

"Through the Wire" is an autobiographical dance through the story of West's car crash that led to his jaw being wired shut. "Two Words" is an anti-establishment romp with guest sots from The Harlem Boys Choir, Freeway and Mos Def. It's the album's best track. "All Falls Down," based on a Lauryn Hill sample, is the most self-reflective song about the black community since Tupac's "Changes," only about 100 times better. "Slow Jamz" started West's stupid love of Jamie Foxx (though, the Twista rap on it is brilliant), yet remains a great song. "The New Workout Plan" is sarcastic and clever. "We Don't Care" is West's motivational rap, done first.

The album is catchy. It's smart. It's great.


Look, Kanye West clearly thinks his shit doesn't stink, which is annoying. But, he can back it up. He's flat-brilliant. His writing is clear and smart, emphasizing his own insecurities to make a larger point on tracks like "All Falls Down." His production is striking and catchy. Yes, he shouldn't have fucked up Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the VMAs. Yes, I'm tired of his blogging. Yes, his fashion line looks ridiculous.

But, as long as he keeps producing records like this one, he's great. As long as he's a musician, I want to hear what he's doing.


Band: Tortoise
Album: It's All Around You

I'd say that Tortoise's five proper album is departure, but the brilliance of Tortoise is that the band doesn't really have a formula from which to depart. The first record was a wonderful post-rock album that largely set the standard for the genre, while 1996's Millions Now Living Will Never Die started out with a 20-minute song. TNT is tight and worldly, while Standards uses electronics and prog-rock.

The title track of It's All Around You is among the band's best songs. It's an exercise in layered production, with vibes, drums and a brilliant Jeff Parker guitar line leading the way. It's the best instrumental of the decade, rivaled only by Mogwai's "Friend of the Night."


Bradford Pearson said...

I still don't get Grizzly Bear. I know I SHOULD like them, they just don't do it for me.

dan said...

whoa. how can you say 2007 was a year of mediocre albums? I think that's been the best year in recent memory, maybe even of this decade.

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