Throughout the month of December we’ll be posting lists of the best music of the year as determined by the volunteers that make CHIRP what it is. Today’s is from CHIRP DJ, Mike Scales.
Baroness – Blue Record (Relapse)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
First in a trilogy of Georgian metal acts on this list, Baroness breathed energetic new life into their signature roar and dizzying riffage on this year’s Blue Record. Fine-tuned, dynamic arrangements and soulful acoustic passages make for an instantly classic and cohesive feel to the work as a whole. I’m beginning to expect nothing but the best from this band.
Blakroc – s/t (V2)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
Blues-based, ass shakin’ beats courtesy of the Black Keys with off-the-cuff rap performances by the likes of Wu-Tang’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon & RZA, Mos Def, Pharoahe Monch, Ludacris, Q-Tip, etc. What more could you ask for?
Eyedea & Abilities – By The Throat (Rhymesayers)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
This record from the veteran Rhymesayers Entertainment emcee/DJ duo took me a couple listens to get into. But once the noisy, distorted rock guitars and half-sung songs sunk in, I was hooked. By the Throat is a grand testament to the power of innovative indie hip-hop; can’t wait to hear what these guys do next.
Kylesa – Static Tensions (Prosthetic)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
Georgian sludge maidens Kylesa have really come into their own with Static Tensions; their signature co-ed vocals and dual-drummer attack more melodically and structurally sound than ever. And, truth be told, I just can’t get enough of sultry guitarist/vocalist Laura Pleasants. She simply rules.
Mariachi El Bronx – s/t (Swami)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
L.A.’s punk rock scorchers the Bronx strip-down and suit-up for their new project: a traditional, full-blown, honest-a-god Mariachi band! Cowbells, mandolins, horns and all! It is simply awesome! Do yourself a solid and also download their version of Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U.” It’s a shame it wasn’t included on the album, might just leave you speechless.
Mastodon – Crack the Skye (Reprise)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
One of the biggest buzz bands of the metal community and beyond this year, Mastodon has proven themselves truly epic and progressive better than any of their prior output. A record inspired by personal tragedy, out-of-body travel through space and time and good ol’ Rasputin, Crack the Skye can and will be studied on many levels by heavy music aficionados for a long time to come.
Mayer Hawthorne – A Strange Arrangement (Stones Throw)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
True old-timey soul revival in its purest form. Well, as pure and true as a 30-year old white dude from Ann Arbor, MI, can get at least. Hawthorne wrote, arranged, produced and played most of the instruments on this heck-of-an album for the Stones Throw label. Listen to “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out” now!
Priestess – Prior to the Fire (TeePee)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
I simply cannot say enough about Montreal’s hard rock/metal masters Priestess! The band churns out tunes with the kind of wide-open, barnstorming rock riffs and old school metal swagger that will instantly have you singing along and banging your head in delight. Prior to the Fire may just be near-perfect record #2 for these guys.
Serengeti & Polyphonic – Terradactyl (Anticon)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
With his genre-defying funny/strange flows, one of the most unique and prolific unsung heroes of Chicago hip-hop, Serengeti, is an emcee in a world of his own. And yet somehow dude found and equally eccentric producer in Polyphonic to perfectly compliment his style. Their second full-length together, Terradactyl, is also some of the best left-field hip-hop to come out of the Anticon label in years.
Slayer – World Painted Blood (American)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
What can I say? I have to give love in 2009 to thrash titans/Hot Topic whores Slayer for proving once and for all that reuniting with original drummer Dave Lombardo and putting out a beast as badass as 2006’s Christ Illusion was no mere fluke. The righteous riffage of World Painted Blood is as uncompromising as any of Slayer’s last 20 years of work and, lyrically, these old ass dudes are still as pissed off as ever. Hail.
Throughout the month of December we’ll be posting lists of the best music of the year as determined by the volunteers that make CHIRP what it is. Today’s is from CHIRP DJ, Austin Harvey.
Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Glassnote)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
A classic example of an album that seems to touch all the bases without trying too hard. Phoenix manage to marry catchy choruses with an inherent dancefloor sensibility, tying the whole thing together with an unmistakably French cool.
Fanfarlo – Reservoir (Atantic)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
Picture this: Arcade Fire fronted by a Swedish David Byrne, in London, without electric guitars. Sounds like a noble experiment if anything else, right? Kitchen sink instrumentation and irresistible melodies all come effortlessly on an album that can’t possibly be a debut.
The Antlers – Hospice (French Kiss)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
If 2009 was a complete bummer of a year for you (as it was for me), then maybe a heartbreaking album detailing the protagonist’s struggle – watching a lover die in a cancer ward – brought a little bit of release into our seemingly bleak existence. At once hauntingly intimate and stunningly epic.
Pisces – A Lovely Sight (Numero Group)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
A frequent member of my cohorts’ top 10 lsits, this rediscovered local nugget from the 1960’s serves as a fitting companion to the rest of the decade’s lost gems. Come for the psychedelic freakouts, but stay for “Are You Changing In Your Time”, and “A Flower For All Seasons”, two of the finest ballads from any decade.
Montee – Isle of Now (Strømland)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
Combining the danceable bliss of Duran Duran’s Rio with the polyrhythms and musical deftness of Talking Heads’ Remain In Light. This might be the best new wave album made in 25 years, and it’s from a bunch of harmonizing Norwegians who care little for anachronism. Self-assured, yet precocious.
Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca (Domino)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
“Cannibal Resource” was my summer jam, especially that part in the opening guitar riff where the Moogerfooger effect takes over. “BITTEORCA / ORCABITTE” was my scream-along lyric of 2009. it was a weird year. pop at its most disjointed and unhinged. lovely.
A Sunny Day In Glasgow – Ashes Grammar (Mis Ojos Discos)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
A shoegaze album worth getting excited about? From Philly? Yes. They do it with dream-pop interludes between the longer tracks, and heaps of sonic depth. An added bonus: this album also knows how to dance, check out “Close Chorus”.
Bibio – Ambivalence Avenue (Warp)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
Wikipedia’s genre classifications for this album are “Ambient music” and “Jangle Pop”. You could throw in “Alternative Hip-Hop” and “Folk” into the recipe for this incredibly singular and exciting album from Stephen Wilkinson. The VGM-inspired “Sugarette” jumps to the gorgeous folk of “Lovers’ Carvings” without a chance to catch your breath.
Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career (4ad)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
Tracyanne Campbell sounds more assured with each record, and with good reason. Her band is peaking on this collection of chamber pop tunes with plenty of blue-eyed soul influence, perhaps even a bit of country. The upbeat songs, though, steal the show with a time-honored mix of heartbroken lyrics and euphoric instrumentation.
The Big Pink – A Brief History of Love (4ad)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
Though I’m not the biggest fan of Robbie Furze’s vocal style, I can’t argue with the gigantic hooks on this album. They don’t sound much like The Band, but I hear Screamadelica-era Primal Scream fed through electroclash’s brattiness, or a more hard-rocking version of Cut Copy. Whatever the description, the results are lush and highly rewarding.
Reissue of the Year: The Vaselines – Enter the Vaselines (Sub Pop)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
I will admit that I missed the boat on these guys when I was first getting into Nirvana back in middle school. I’ll turn in my indie-rock cool-kid card and write “‘Son Of A Gun’ might be the best song ever written” 50 times on the chalkboard. This is truly ahead of its time, indie pop clatter that’s at once catchy, messy, and irreverent. Perfect.
Throughout the month of December we’ll be posting lists of the best music of the year as determined by the volunteers that make CHIRP what it is. Today’s is from CHIRP’s March Director and DJ, Tony Breed.
They say the album is dead; people are just interested in singles. I say the album will never die. Sure, most CDs these days are just collections of songs written at the same time — not really “albums” at all — so why not just buy the good songs and leave behind the filler? (This is not news; it’s been the case for decades, but it’s only been recently that you can buy any single songs that interests you.)
But there are still people making real albums: collections of songs around a central theme; songs that proceed in order and sound better as a whole than as individuals; or sometimes albums that tell stories, like an opera or a ballet. No less than four of my top ten albums of the 2009 are true albums: The Decemberists, The Flaming Lips, Madness, and Sufjan Stevens. And the rest? Well they are good too.
The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love (Capitol)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
You know what I love about the Decemberists? As they’ve gotten more popular, and switched to a major label (minor-major, perhaps), they’ve just gotten weirder. the Hazards of Love is not just a concept album, it’s an actual story told in song, like any one of the story-songs from Picaresque elongated into a full album. And it’s brilliant. It’s suffused with prog-rock goodness, and features guest vocals by Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond and Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond. The one flaw? With Colin Meloy singing two roles and narrating, it’s a little hard to follow. Two more guest vocalists would have been welcome. (Ooh! Ooh! The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt as The Rake; would that not have been great?)
Flaming Lips – Embryonic (Warner Bros.)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
Another album with a dash of prog rock and a good dose of weird. I discovered The Flaming Lips with 2002’s excellent Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, where the sweet, odd and tuneful title track is followed by a wild instrumental breakdown featuring screaming. Embryonic is like that track: it grabs you by the collar, throws you to the ground, demands your attention.
Pomplamoose – Pomplamoose Videosongs (Self-Released)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
And now for something completely different: a fantastically adorable duo who make videos for all their songs and post them to their YouTube page. Perhaps you, like me, saw their amusing cover of Beyoncé‘s Single Ladies when that was being forwarded around. Perhaps you didn’t then go to their video home page and listen to some other songs. If you had, you probably would have fallen in love and bought their album, as I did. Singer Nataly Dawn has a gorgeous voice, and Jack Conte’s instruments and production create perfect confections. Promise me you will check them out.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz (Interscope)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
Take note: if you are a band and you want to change styles for an album, this is how it’s done. It’s Blitz’s electro dance sound is reminiscent of Ladytron and CSS, as well as a good chunk of 1983. It certainly helps to have Karen O, who has great presence, vocally (see her collaborations with Har Mar Superstar and The Flaming Lips, and her work on the I’m Not There soundtrack).
The Noisettes – Wild Young Hearts (Mercury)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
I am a sucker for an album that moves through a variety of styles, and here the Noisettes are, pushing all of my buttons. Well‚ it’s more like an overview of Motown, with all the requisit hooks, but a dash of rock thrown in. Downsides: the album is a bit overproduced, particularly for a band known as one of the rowdiest live acts in London. And their disco-inflected hit, Don’t Upset the Rhythm (Go Baby Go), is a bit too slick, repetitive, and under-written for my taste (but I still groove to it every time it’s on, and never get the urge to skip to the next track).
Madness – The Liberty of Norton Fulgate (Yep Roc)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
My goodness, is Madness back? And could this be any good? YES. Peppy, cheerful ska, great stuff from start to finish, never repetitive‚ and capped off with an epic 10-minute track incorporating elements of South Asian music, in honor of the Punjabi population now living around Norton Folgate in London.
Sonic Youth – The Eternal (Matador)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
For me, Sonic Youth had always been a band that can cross the line with their dissonance and noise, into something I just don’t want to hear (e.g. the second last few tracks of Goo). The Eternal sees them instead riding that line, never crossing it, always staying close to the edge. It is a whole album that is like their best stuff. It is Sonic Youth sounding like Sonic Youth in the best possible way.
St. Vincent – Actor (4ad)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
Oh Annie Clark you are an odd one, with your dark vignettes, sweet vocals, and angular notes. I dub you the inheritor of the Kate Bush/Tori Amos weird-lady singer-songwriter mantle. Keep it up. I look forward to your whole career. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Sufjan Stevens – The BQE (Asthmatic Kitty)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
Yeah, I know, sometimes you just want to smack him. Ambitious, grand projects that get attention: Sufjan Stevens is an artist who knows how to get himself noticed. But at the same time, he’s good. He delivers. If only every artist who was this talented set themselves on projects of this magnitude. What this is, basically, is Stevens trying to make classical music. It’s like Sketches of Spain for 2009 (in fact, it has some real echoes of that great 1960 Miles Davis album), except instead of being about beautiful Spain, it’s about the BQE, the most unloved and unlovely highway in the five boroughs of New York. It features Stevens’ signature arpeggios and flute trills, as well as a funky electronica breakdown in the middle. It also comes with a DVD video (the album being really a soundtrack to the video) featuring a trio of hula-hoopers that I confess I have not yet watched. (Yes, hula-hoopers. You do kind of want to smack him, don’t you?)
Neko Case – Middle Cyclone (Anti)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
Great vocals, great lyrics, great songs. She just hits the ball out of the park with this album. The singing is so emotive, and the melodies so evocative.
Honorable Mention: John Vanderslice / Romanian Names
It’s always to hard to whittle my list down to 10. Romanian Names is great for all the same reasons the Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone is great (though the vocal styles are very different). I say, go get both of them.
Song of the year: “Swing” by Zero 7
You know that song you hear on the radio, stop what you’re doing, and just listen? This year it’s “Swing”, by Zero 7, featuring vocals by Jackie Daniels. There are a number of other good songs on the album, though it didn’t really cohere as an album for me. But this song, this one track… I could listen again and again.
Guest of the year:
Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond as the queen on Hazards of Love is so, so good. Note to self: check out My Brightest Diamond. That’s gotta be good stuff.
Belated 2008 album of note: Grace Jones / Hurricane
Not released in the US, Hurricane (Jone’s first album released in 19 years) didn’t get any attention here at all. By the time I even found out it existed, 2008 was almost over. Comeback albums can be hit-or-miss, and I didn’t muster the enthusiasm to get myself a copy until a few weeks ago. This album is a hit; great stuff, start to finish — everything I would want it to be, and absolutely worthy of your attention.
Some people foster holiday spirit with migraine-inducing shopping sprees, others will foster that spirit by candlelight with about 20 of their friends cramped together in an apartment to hear a trio of indie minstrels play carols with saws. On December 8 the Rogers Park home of a friend served as one of the Chicago stops for Julian Koster’s cross-country caroling trip. Formerly of Neutral Milk Hotel and currently of the Music Tapes, Koster and friends used some non-traditional instruments to play some traditional holiday carols, including selections from his album The Singing Saw at Christmastime, released last year on Merge Records. In the dim space, kitschy holiday props and Koster’s colorful bits of invented folklore accompanied the ghostly crooning of the singing saws. Everyone left feeling a little warmer, and I don’t think it was just the spiked hot cocoa that did it.
Please forgive the shoddy video quality — candles and Christmas lights make for a wonderful mood but rather unfortunate recording.
You can learn a lot of valuable lessons from the movie Airheads. First, Moby Dick is a book. Second, if a mediocre heavy metal band takes over a radio station in an effort to secure a recording deal, the band will have to deal with Judd Nelson (begging the question, is it really worth it?). And, most importantly, you learn that if someone asks you who would win in a wrestling match between Lemmy and God, it’s a trick question, because Lemmy IS God. But who needs a movie to tell you that, when you can plow through the Motorhead catalog, from “Ace of Spades” to “We Are the Road Crew”, and realize that Lemmy is a deity. In Mr. Kilmeister’s honor, please throw up a horned hand, and, with your free hand, hit shuffle and share the first ten tunes that pop up.
Gang Of Four — He’d Send in the Army (Solid Gold): There are some folks who insist that Solid Gold is even better than Go4’s classic debut Entertainment. I’m not one of those folks, but Solid Gold more than stands up on its own. The songs are not quite as consistently awesome, but they are good and the band’s sound thickened up a just a little bit. Here, the band builds tension with quiet interludes consisting of Hugo Burnham brushing his high hat, with small bursts of guitar, before the song hits its lurching groove (the type of groove that clearly inspired The Minutemen).
Cassandra Wilson — Strange Fruit (New Moon Daughter): Wilson is one of the top contemporary jazz singers, with her smoky, insinuating voice. Her music is informed by shades of other styles, and she loves to deconstruct and rearrange songs. This is a funky take on the standard that Billie Holliday owned. Cassandra doesn’t take it away from Billie, but she certainly puts a distinctive (and quite cool) spin on it.
The Streets — Let’s Push Things Forward (Original Pirate Material): No matter how often Mike Skinner disappoints, the first two Streets albums will always provide him some cover. His yobbish ruminations on the geezer life and his melding of hip—hop and garage/2—step/grime still sound so cool. The combination of Skinner’s narration and reggae hook on this cut works very well.
Louis Armstrong — Blueberry Hill (The Essential Louis Armstrong): I intend to spend some more time investigating Satchmo’s early years, with the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, where his trumpet playing rules. But he was a pretty terrific singer. This is a great interpretation of the Fats Domino classic, despite the backing choral vocals that sound like they were taken from a 1940s musical.
The Boys — Turning Grey (The Boys): The Boys were the least sophisticated of the first wave of poppy punk bands (in comparison to The Undertones and Buzzcocks). But they delivered the goods, and by that, I mean the hooks, one right after another. Most of their songs are power pop songs with an extra burst of adrenalin. If you dig The Exploding Hearts, here are their ancestors.
Montage — Men Are Building Sand (Montage): After Michael Brown left The Left Banke (best known for the ‘60s smash “Walk Away Renee”), he formed this similar baroque pop outfit. Sundazed tracked down the masters and although this doesn’t quite hit the heights of The Left Banke, it’s not too far off. This is a pretty number, though I have no idea what the title means.
The Morells — Eager Boy (Shake And Push): I have a lot Morells on my iPod. This Springfield, Missouri band played a mix of traditional rock and roll with a bit of R & B and country mixed in, while penning some originals and covering contemporaries like Marshall Crenshaw and Ben Vaughn. This is a semi—rockabilly tune with a spirited vocal from D. Clinton Thompson, who also shows off his six—string mastery.
Bad Religion — Million Days (Into The Unknown): Bad Religion is so proud of its second album, that it has never been released on CD and has been out of print for over two decades. Why? Because the band abandoned its hardcore punk for hard rock with definite prog rock overtones. This certainly sticks out like a sore thumb in the band’s catalog. But they have nothing to be embarrassed about, as this is still an entertaining album, as the songs are very well constructed. This is a mid—tempo number and it’s kind of hippy dippy, and the only Bad Religion song, I think, with a section of “la la la la” vocals.
Tom Waits — Midtown (Rain Dogs): This is a brief instrumental on one of Waits’ many essential albums. It’s brassy and jazzy and sounds like it could have been waxed in 1950. Yep, my iPod is feeling very jazzy today.
The Vapors — Bunkers (New Clear Days): Yes, these are the guys who hit big with “Turning Japanese”, fodder for many VH1 One Hit Wonder specials. It’s a shame. Not to knock “Japanese”, which is a fun song, but it wasn’t representative of The Vapors’ sound. Singer David Fenton constructed songs that mixed the percolating rhythms of The Jam (and the Kinks inspired observational lyrics) with some post—punk edge. This song fits in that mold, with a big emphasis on rhythm, as almost every instrument has a percussive edge and the bass playing is rubbery and flowing. Underrated band.