Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Best of: 2003

Then: This was the first year I voted in Pazz and Jop. (It was around this time that I came to terms with the idea that I was, in fact, a rock critic. Of sorts.) And, after the high of 2002, this was the weakest recent year of music for me. Looking over my list, I see albums that aren’t exactly bad, but I haven’t played them for years either. My choice at the time, Blur’s Think Tank (Virgin) is still pretty decent, but the bad stuff (like “Crazy Beat”) sticks out more egregiously nowadays, and the whole project seems more a dry run for Gorillaz’s Demon Days. Still, though, one of the best live shows I ever saw.

Now: Hearts of Oak (Lookout) by Ted Leo and the Pharmacists isn’t perfect, either. But the best songs – “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone,” “The High Party,” “The Ballad of the Sin Eater,” among others – are rock anthems that genuinely try to get at real life, especially the claustrophobically politicized world of which we had just begun to realize, oh shit, this is the way things are now. The fact that Leo conveyed all this while still making music that conveyed joy and exhilaration was his way of showing that there may actually be a way out.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Best of: 2002

Then: Well, I finally got around to recognizing a Wilco album in its time. Sort of.

The previous year, I had put the unofficially leaked Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in at number two. And of course, Nonesuch officially released the album in 2002, which became their year to officially go through the hype-backlash wonderworld. Still, it felt nice to see the band officially leave the alt-country/Triple-A ghetto and, after all, YHF is still an album of incredible sonics, content and flow. But I got it wrong again.

Now: The Execution of All Things (Saddle Creek) by Rilo Kiley is not only my favorite album of 2002, it easily remains so far my favorite album of the decade. Just like Summerteeth, The Execution of All Things perfectly balanced the combination of sweet pop, fatalisms, production quirks and honest-to-goodness rocking out. Seriously.

Actually, the piece I wrote about the band the following year summed it up pretty well for me. It’s linked over on the sidebar to your right, but if you’re lazy, just go here.

And one more thing: for me, 2002 had more great albums than any other year of recent vintage: Neko Case’s Blacklisted; The Bigger LoversHoney in the Hive; Paul Westerberg’s Stereo/Mono; Neil Finn’s One All; Bryan Ferry’s Frantic; Sleater-Kinney’s One Beat; Queens of the Stone Age’s Songs for the Deaf. Probably a few others too.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Best of: 2001

Then: Old 97’s Satellite Rides (Elektra), with its literate, unabashed romanticism appeals to my bookish, sensitive side. But obviously with hindsight it doesn’t really capture the year for me anymore.

Now: Of course, you could argue that there’s nothing in Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci’s How I Long to Feel That Summer in My Heart (Mantra) that flavors this major bummer of a year. This is after all a bucolic, pastoral album of overriding gentleness. But look at that title; if that doesn’t capture what at least part of the last four months of that year felt like – if you’re prone to melancholy of course – than I don’t know what else does. Toby Keith can’t speak for all of us, you know.

But enough of the zeitgeist angle. This ultimately isn’t really a very challenging album. These are mainly simple love songs that are occasionally preoccupied with the passing of youth, though frontman Euros Childs never addresses that topic with the depth worthy of The Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society. When Childs tries to push himself lyrically, as on the Star 80-ish scenario of “Christina,” he is on deeply unsure ground.

How I Long’s triumph is as much structural as anything. The album possesses an effortless-sounding sequence. Every song’s arrangement is perfectly calibrated, with each entrance of harpsichord, brass, choral vocals happening exactly when required. And when you consider songs as gorgeous as “These Winds are in my Heart,” “Honeymoon with You” and “How I Long,” the result is an album that truly manages to embody the passing of summer to autumn. Which maybe brings us back to that zeitgeist.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Best of: 2000

Then: Again, I went with an Aimee Mann album – Bachelor No. 2 (or, the last remains of the dodo) (SuperEgo) – and, again, a fine album has nonetheless lost a little luster. Don’t know why exactly.

Now: Truth be told, for this series I’ve used my iTunes as a rough guideline, to discover which albums of each year that I now listen to the most. And I listen to PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (Island) quite a lot. I loved this album when it came out – more than any other PJ Harvey music, most of which I’ve admired more than enjoyed – and it hasn’t failed me in the ensuing years.

The album opens with one of the few true rock anthems of the modern age, “Big Exit,” and manages to keep up that momentum for the rest of the running time. Other highlights include “Good Fortune,” the terror-sex-predicting “This is Love” and the torchy duet with Thom Yorke, “This Mess We’re In.” But the most impressive element of this album is the sound. It’s a real rhythmic album, with lots of chunky guitar riffs, but at the same time, the drums are mixed pretty low, especially by modern-day standards. (Don’t get me started on the way drums sound on most mainstream rock records these days.) While I love my share of loud drums – part of the appeal of Summerteeth, for example, is the fairly in-your-face drums – there is something to be said about an album like Stories from the City, which isn’t dependent on drums, can be quite atmospheric at times and yet always maintains a strong rhythmic pulse.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Best of: 1999

Then: A year or two previous, I had begun exploring the music of XTC, and thus I proclaimed their long-awaited Apple Venus Volume 1 (TVT/Idea) the best of the year. Actually, this album has some moments of genius (“River of Orchids,” “Easter Theatre”) surrounded by filler and some truly hellacious puns (“Knights of Shining Karma” – Oy!).

Now: Well, now it’s completely obvious. For whatever odd reasons I put it at number two at the time, but even then no other album completely captivated me and fulfilled what I required from an album like Wilco’s Summerteeth (Reprise). It seems I had been consistently underrating this band during the ‘90s.

I want to temper the urge to overpraise; but I think I was totally accurate in believing that, upon its release, Summerteeth was quite simply the album of my dreams. It had all the Kinks/Beatles/Beach Boys melodic influences I so craved but, unlike so many ‘60s-influenced music coming out around the same time, this was music with guts, hell, with balls. The rhythm section played loudly, the guitars and keyboards weren’t afraid to veer out of control at times. Most crucially, Jeff Tweedy made a huge leap as a lyricist, the likes of which I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed before or since. Not only could he suddenly pull off beautiful imagery and disturbing content in his words, but he also crucially seemed to suddenly understand that the way the words sound was just as important as the actual content. The way he formed his syllables is arguably the fulcrum of his talent from this album onward.

When you put all that together, you get an album that says you can do something with nerdy pop songs. The highpoint of the album is probably “I’m Always in Love,” a song I still think could’ve been a hit, with a Moog synth that connects Linda McCartney to Dr. Dre. Here, in 1999, is a group of supposed alt-country dudes, paying tribute to ‘70s AM radio and saying things like “When I let go of your throat-sweet throttle.” Summerteeth shows that you can convey darkness and doubt better than you could with any other kind of music, because the music here realizes that the dark and the light coexist at the same damn time. From this point onward, the ability to realize this dichotomy becomes for me what separates great music from all that other stuff.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Best of: 1998

Until we get to the very recent past, this is the only time I’ve maintained my best-of-the-year pick. I said it then, and I say it again now: Pulp’s This Is Hardcore is the best album of 1998.

The doomy, fatalistic tone of this album fits in well with both college-age angst and the slightly more grown-up version. This Is Hardcore’s sound flirts with a kind of antiseptic bombast, but – thanks to Jarvis Cocker’s inimitable lyrical and vocal stance – it’s completely appropriate, treating the slick modern age as an especially horrific hall of mirrors. In 1998, the most noteworthy tracks for me were the ones with the most gothic despair, like the title track and “The Fear.” Some nine years later, however, it’s the back end of the album that has gained the most resonance; “Glory Days” and “The Day After the Revolution” genuinely try to work through disillusion to get to some better, wiser place. I must also give props to the U.S. version of the album, losing the 14-minute synth note at the end of “Revolution” and adding the awesome glam-rock thrill of “Like a Friend,” which also manages to fit into the aforementioned mood of the album’s conclusion.

The only real competition for best-of-’98 for me is Quasi’s Featuring “Birds”, another album-length ode to failure and shattered dreams. Both albums achieve a sort of catharsis, and both sound great when I’m having a shitty day at work. But I’m going to give the edge to This Is Hardcore, not just because it more explicitly looks for a way out of the mire, but also because of my well-established and unabashed Pulp bias.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Best of: 1997

Then: Still editing/writing for the Collegian; started interning for the Philadelphia City Paper, more specifically, their short-lived quarterly music mag Earshot. At the time, my pick of the year was Ben Folds Five’s Whatever and Ever Amen (Sony 550). I had a pretty strong fixation on this band throughout the bulk of my college years. Maybe that seems odd, but I’m a sucker for unabashed hooks and the heartfelt/humorous dichotomy. And yet, I have not listened to this album in about six years.

Now: I did not know what to make of Cotton Mather’s Kontiki (Copper) at first. Boy, I thought, they really want to be The Beatles, or maybe just Squeeze. But songs like “My Before and After” and “Homefront Cameo” wore me down, with such resilient melodies, perfectly baited hooks and bizarrely elliptical lyrics (“Cracked the code on the Rosetta stone/Said the word for ‘alone’ is ‘alone’”). “My Before and After” (the source of that lyric) particularly is the great lost perfect pop song. Everything’s there for a reason: the snare-drum thwacks, the peeling guitar riffs, the chorus piano. The Austin, TX-based Cotton Mather became a semi-sensation among power-pop aficionados (always a double-edged sword, that), but their existence was just elusive enough to make them more of a rumor than a real band, one of the great secret stories of indie-rock.

(In fact, just as I was planning this entry, I finally tracked down CM frontman Robert Harrison. His new band Future Clouds and Radar has a self-titled double-disc debut due out on April 24. For a particularly promising entry from this outfit, check here.)

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Best of: 1996

This was my first year as Entertainment Editor for my college paper, the La Salle Collegian. For album of the year, I chose Aimee Mann’s I’m With Stupid (Geffen). This is still a really great album: fuzz guitars, hooks a’plenty, smartly pointed lyrics, classic Jon Brion production quirks. One of these days, I’ll submit Brion and Mann as one of the great unsung partnerships in music. But I no longer think I’m With Stupid is the best album of 1996. That would be Wilco’s Being There (Reprise).

Being There was the first Wilco album I ever heard and at the time, it seemed half-filler. Before long, however, it began making more and more sense. For a while, I was obsessed with trying to tangle the album’s timeline. It seemed to begin at ultimate disillusion before spinning back to youthful exuberance and making its way back to the present; and all this without succumbing to concept album’s clichés, without trying to impose a “storyline” in a medium that simply has no need for one. Just when my literature and film classes had gotten me thinking about the structure of art, Being There arrived, having its way with the structure of a rock album. And this vaguely post-modern structure managed to co-exist within a pretty conventional rock-to-roots-rock format, dominated by guitars, drums and piano/organ, plus pedal steel, banjo, mandolin, etc. The days of overt atonal weirdness and intense studio doctoring had not yet arrived for this band. But the stage was set.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Two Announcements

1) I didn't think Prince was all that great last night.

2) This month, I turn 30. In commemoration of this event -- and to get some more substantial content up here for the first time in months -- I'll be embarking on a little project. See, I've been writing about music in some forum or another since about 1996. So for each year from '96 onward, I'll take a look at what I decided at that time was the best album of each year, and what I now think was that year's best.