music, voreplay

2011: The Year in Music

I am angry and have a cane!

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2011 may well be the year our music tastes stopped evolving. Chances are we’ll look back on this year from some future vantage point and see the transformation of our musical tastes from still-somewhat-adventurous-middle-age to full-curmudgeon, distrustful of the new, always pining for the old and familiar. In other words: We shook our cane at James Blake and told him to get off our porch.

None of the music we loved this year could be called especially new or groundbreaking. It was all our usual comfort food. We gobbled up albums by Wilco, Iron & Wine and Fleet Foxes; shed a tear as we hummed along to R.E.M.’s career-spanning anthology; welcomed the return of “old” Ryan Adams even as we wished he wrote better lyrics. We were happy sticking with the familiar.

When we did order something new off the menu, we were almost always disappointed. Florence + The Machine? One of us (Ben) liked, one (Erin) wasn’t so sure. The aforementioned James Blake? Dubstep, shmubstep. We wanted to like Cults and Cut Copy and The War on Drugs  and The Weeknd more than we actually did.

The boldest step (if you can call it bold) we took this year in the realm of music was embracing Spotify. We like Spotify. (We wish a pox on Spotify + Facebook, however. A pox!) It did nothing to curb our musical purchasing (except, perhaps, to ward us off what otherwise would have been ill-advised, sight-unseen purchases). What it mostly did was allow us to indulge in a little game we called Shameful Guilty Pleasures From Our Youth, in which we tried to surprise the other with an even more shameful guilty pleasure from the 80s or 90s that we once embraced with every angsty fiber of our teenage bodies. (See: Soul Asylum; Everclear; Crash Test Dummies; Sloan; P.M. Dawn; Screaming Trees; and Butthole Surfers.)

Before we get to the list, we’ll start with what was certainly the musical highlight of the year: Seeing U2 in Nashville on July 2. The picture below (courtesy of Flickr) is of Vanderbilt Stadium, where “The Claw” descended to serve as the stage for the evening.

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It was the first time U2 had played Nashville in thirty years. The last time Bono and the gang swung through Music City was to play Underwood Auditorium on the campus of Vanderbilt in 1981. This time they brought with them a monstrosity of a set which, according to U2’s website, featured “a cylindrical video system of interlocking LED panels and a steel structure rising 150 feet from the floor over a massive stage with rotating bridges.” Ben texted a picture to his brother, who texted back, “What is that, and where are you?”

U2’s unabashed grandiosity has always been its charm, and occasionally its overreach. But there’s something to be said for a band that aims as high as U2. For two people who don’t usually do big, stadium-sized shows, we were giddy during the whole thing. And it wasn’t just because we were hanging out with Seth and Miriam Swihart (though that never hurts).

Honorable mentions for albums this year include the Buddy Holly tribute Rave On; Mr. Adams and his Ashes & Fire; Strange Negotiations, David Bazan; and The Black Keys’ El Camino.

Now, on to the list. (Previously, 2008, 2009 and 2010.)

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10. Iron & Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean. Like Justin Vernon (#9), Sam Beam opened up his trademark sound to incorporate some poppier elements — in Kiss Each Other Clean’s case, that meant some sweet saxomophone.

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9. Bon Iver, Bon Iver.  It was no For Emma, Forever Ago, but Bon Iver’s self-titled follow-up staked out new territory for Justin Vernon and featured the should-have-been-cringeworthy-but-somehow-he-pulls-it-off closer “Beth/Rest,” what Rolling Stone calls “an unlikely sweet spot between Nick Drake and Peter Cetera.”

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8. Over The Rhine, The Long Surrender. Erin’s favorite OTR album since Ohio, and Ben’s favorite with the exception of Snow Angels. The fact Karin and Linford played a free show, at Ben’s place of employment (a bookstore, not a record store), on the day the album released, may have had something to do with it cracking the Top 10. They’re good folks.

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7. Josh Garrels, Love & War & The Sea In Between. It’d be a misnomer to call Josh Garrels “praise” music, and yet no album this year was more of a worship album for us than this one. Before we scare you off it completely, Garrels’ musicianship merits inclusion on this list. Everyone we recommended it to loved it as well. You can check it out yourself (for free!) at Garrels’ website.

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6. Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin‘. The hip-shakingest pick of our Top #10, and the only one with any real soul. Props to Mr. Saadiq for casting Cutty from “The Wire” in his video for “Good Man.”

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5. Wilco, The Whole Love. It is not our favorite Wilco album, but even a just-OK Wilco album has enough moments of pure rock-out joy to crack #5 on our list. The Whole Love may be a bit scattered, musically, so think of it as a Wilco smorgasbord and chow down on the good stuff (“Born Alone,” “I Might,” “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)”).

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4. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues. Nature make-out music. But it says something about this year’s list that we still don’t consider Helplessness Blues to be the prettiest album we heard all year. (Wait for #1. Wait for it.)

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3. The Decemberists, The King Is Dead.  A little folk rock gem that borrows heavily from early R.E.M. (perhaps because Peter Buck turns up on three songs here), The King Is Dead is a beautifully concise set of ten songs that range from country to Americana to rock. It’s the first Decemberists’ album we actually wanted to listen to from start to finish.

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2. Girl Talk, All DayTheoretically, anyone could sit in front of a computer and create these Frankenstein mash-ups. What Gregg Gillis does is provide just the right jolt of electricity to bring them to life, repurposing anything and everything that’s ever hit the Top 40 over the last five decades and providing a sort of Cliff’s Notes education in pop music while simultaneously creating great party music. When the current is flowing, as on the latter half of All Day, it makes for mesmerizing listening, especially if you’re ADD or running long distances. (Yes, we know this is technically a 2010 release, but we listened to it as much as any other album in 2011. And it was late 2010.)

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1. Gillian Welch, The Harrow & The Harvest. Coming eight years after Soul Journey, The Harrow & The Harvest is intimate, lovely, often haunting. It veers into darker territory lyrically but never loses its gentle, easy grace. The ten songs compiled here sound timeless: simple, spare and evocative. The term “slow music” sounds a bit insulting, but we mean it in the best sense when we say that Welch writes some of the finest slow music out there.

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TOP FIVE SONGS OF THE YEAR!

“Born Alone,” Wilco. Boom goes the dynamite.

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“Second Song,” TV On The Radio. We were underwhelmed by Nine Types of Light, but not this track (even though “You” is the song off this album appearing on most critics’ lists).

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“Go To Hell,” Raphael Saadiq. What starts as a confessional (“Here’s the situation, yes, the devil knows me well/See I’m trying to do my best not to go to hell”) turns into a soaring, full chorus refrain to “let love bring us together.”

“I Can’t Make You Love Me,” Bon Iver (covering Bonnie Raitt). From his appearance on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.”

“Oh My God,” Cults. Though we didn’t warm to the whole album, this track is instantly likable. Is it just us, or is there a creepy resemblance between Madeline Follin’s balloons exploding and the scene in Aliens where the Queen Alien’s body is shellacked with Lt. Ellen Ripley’s pulse rifle grenade blasts?

music, voreplay

Voreplay

We make nature make-out music.

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We are not on Twitter, but for a little variety in your Voreplay this month, here are 140 character (or less) takes on the albums we’ve been spinning recently.

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Adele, 21.  Watching to see if “Grey’s Anatomy” or “Desperate Housewives” features “Rumour Has It” 1st. #betterthantheKYDerby!

James Blake, James Blake.  Consider us dubstep skeptics. In fact, we refudiate dubstep. There.

Broken Bells, Meyrin Fields EP.  Danger Mouse sneezed and out came this EP. It was only four bucks.

Bill Callahan, Apocalypse.  Monotone delivery. Check. Campy lyrics. Check. Flute. Check. So why is Apocalypse so good?

Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues.  A 50-minute time capsule from 1972. This is what a field of wildflowers would listen to during a makeout session.

Mittie Root, Till The Cows Come Home.  Kids music that grown-ups can appreciate too. Like Pixar! By our friend Cindy Hostetler.

Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’.  Sweet-sounding, timeless retro soul and R&B. h/t Erik Brueggemann. Yes please may we have another.

Radiohead, King of Limbs.  A minor contribution to the Radiohead canon, KoL is the sound of a band capable of great things noodling around. #creepyartwork!

tUnE-yArDs, w h o k i l l.  Weird capitalization and spacing are fair warning! This is quirky, radio-unfriendly but insistently catchy music. It’s growing on us.

TV On The Radio, Nine Types Of Light.  “Second Song” may be confused about what track it is (one), but it’s still a great song. #thesaxisback!

The Walkmen, Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone.  The only Walkmen album we own, which needs to change after we heard them open for New Pos @ Bogarts. #Bogartssux

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The sax is back!

music, voreplay

Voreplay

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The album that has occupied most of our time and attention so far this year is Girl Talk’s All Day. We were initially disappointed. After a first few listens, it seemed to lack the exuberance and freelance inspiration of Feed The Animals, or the high points on Night Ripper. The first transcendent moment does not arrive until 1:42 of track three (“That’s Right”), when you hear the burble of Spacehog’s “In The Meantime” behind DJ Amaze’s “I Wanna Rock.” (Disclaimer: We love Spacehog.) That was when we finally started warming up to it.

There are more moments like this one, but Gregg Gillis has backloaded virtually all of them. The best tracks on All Day are the last four, each of which delivers at least one inspired mashup. (This site breaks down each track by samples so you can visually trace how Gillis has constructed each song.) From track nine (“Make Me Wanna”), there is the pairing of Birdman over Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up,” followed by a Van Halen bridge into Radiohead’s “Idioteque” with an Isley Brother’s sample of “Shout” thrown in for good measure. Track ten (“Steady Shock”) begins with Nicki Minaj rapping over Blue Oyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” before bleeding into a one-two-three punch of Soulja Boy, Bruce Springsteen and N.E.R.D. The album’s best track, number 11 (“Triple Double”), features three transcendent moments, none more brilliant than sampling Crooked I over Neil Diamond’s “Cherry, Cherry.” (The other two: meshing Ludacris’s “How Low” with Phoenix, and Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day” over Devo’s “Gates of Steel.”) The final track (“Every Day”) couples Jay Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” with Modern English’s “I Melt With You” before sampling a string of artists over John Lennon’s “Imagine,” the song to which Gillis gives the album’s final word, much like he did Journey on Feed The Animals. (When in doubt, Lennon and Journey are always reliable closers.)

Theoretically, anyone could sit in front of a computer and create these Frankenstein mash-ups. What Gillis does is give them just the right jolt of electricity to bring them to life, repurposing anything and everything that’s ever hit the Top 40 over the last five decades and providing a sort of Cliff’s Notes education in pop music while simultaneously creating great party music. When the current is flowing, as on the latter half of All Day, it makes for mesmerizing listening, especially if you’re ADD or running long distances.

If All Day hasn’t grabbed you yet, keep listening. Or just go to a show when Gillis is in town. He’ll make you a believer.

Beach House, Teen Dream. Teen Dream didn’t quite crack our Top 10 of 2010, but it has been in steady rotation in the new year. This may be because the CD tray broke on our stereo and we literally can’t get it out. Good thing we like music that makes us feel like we’re floating on clouds!

Mynabirds, What We Lose In The Fire We Gain In The Flood. Laura Burhenn split from the D.C. duo Georgie James to make this soulful, thoroughly Saddle Creek album (“Neil Young doing Motown,” in Burhenn’s words), released nearly a year ago but just recently on our radar. Echoes of Dusty Springfield here; she also drinks coffee with David Bazan. The single “Numbers Don’t Lie” is our fave, but if you like yourself some good ol’ pedal steel, the closer “Good Heart” will do you right. Hat tip to Anne Evans for the recommendation here.

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Over The Rhine, The Long Surrender. Erin’s favorite since Ohio. On an OTR side note, we were recently introduced to “The Poopsmith Song” by Ryan Mecum. (That is, Ryan Mecum introduced us to the song. He himself did not write it. Over The Rhine did.) When the day comes that Sam needs potty-training, we will surely enlist Linford Detweiler to help remind our son that poop does not go on 1) arms, 2) legs, 3) toast, 4) eggs, 5) carpet, or 6) linoleum, but rather in the potty.

R.E.M., Collapse Into Now. We thoroughly concur with Mr. Andrew Cashmere’s assessment of this album in this space last week. In the vein of comparing other rock bands to pretty girls from high school who have now grown up, we submit the following list for your consideration:

Band – High School Persona – Current Persona

U2 – Popular Star Athlete/Homecoming Queen – PTA President & Mother Of 4

Pearl Jam – Crunchy Straight Edge Girl – NPR Station Manager

Dave Matthews – Hot, Long-Haired Stoner Girl –  Less Hot, Long-Haired, Unemployed Stoner Girl

Metallica – Hot Goth Chick – Born-Again Yoga Instructor

Genesis – Hot Valedictorian – Human Resources Manager

Poison – Hot Vo-Tech Girl – Michelle Rodriguez

Please submit your own band evolutions in the comments below.

Sleigh Bells, Treats. Sleigh Bells brings an unusual combination of things to the table: on one hand, raucous, screeching guitar; and on the other, sugary, cheerleader chant female vocals — “two things that would drown the other in a toilet,” as Matthew Leathers aptly put it. Think of them as the musical equivalent of Manute Bol. A 7’7″ man should not have been able to hit three pointers the way Manute did. Likewise, any group whose vocals sound like a high school pep squad should not legally be allowed to rock like Treats does. You start the album, you think to yourself, This should not be working, and suddenly this video montage just floats into your head…

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True story: As a cowherd in his native Sudan, Manute once killed a lion with a spear. He also had more blocks than points in his career.

Erin is now wondering aloud whether this is a music post or a basketball post. Moving on.

The Strokes, Angles. Why did they steal their latest album cover from Q*Bert?

music, voreplay

2010: The Year In Music

As detailed in our most recent Voreplay, our music consumption was down this year. We had a baby. Babies need diapers. CDs aren’t absorbent. Neither are iTunes gift cards or ticket stubs from our favorite concerts.

What does this mean for our best of 2010 list? That it might appear slightly less eclectic than years past (2009 and 2008). With less to spend, we were less inclined to take risks on new artists or anything too off the beaten path.

A reminder about our methodology: We compile a list of all the albums that came out this year which we devoted our ears to. Then we rank them numerically, from 1 [favorite] to 10 [tenth most favorite]. Any album which does not chart in the top ten is assigned an 11. The lower the score, the better the album.

This is not a perfect system. If, for example, one of us wanted to use his warped sense of musical appreciation and give a crap 80s Eurotrash retread like Robyn a high score, it would skew the rankings because the worst the other half of Voreblog could do is assign it a still-all-too-favorable-and-not-nearly-damning-enough-score of 11. So we freely admit there are flaws.

Two disclaimers before we get to the list:

1) Kanye West’s My Dark Twisted Fantasy has made just about everyone’s list, often in the top spot. We like Kanye’s music. We think he’s a hilariously egotistical jerk who’s also kind of a dork, but we’ll acknowledge that his outsized ambition is also what makes him a great musician. We debated whether or not to contribute to Kanye’s bank account by purchasing his album, or whether to burn it from someone else and have the satisfaction of withholding our financial support. Today we purchased the album — with a gift card. This means we have not had sufficient time to review it, which explains its absence in the list below. Should we fall in love with it, we will retroactively amend this list to conceal our critical negligence.

2) The album we enjoyed as much as any other this year was David Bazan’s Curse Your Branches. It came out at the end of 2009. Therefore, while we cannot technically include it on our 2010 list, we also cannot recommend it heartily enough. And we will bend the rules by including one of its songs on our Ten Best Songs of 2010. You cannot stop us.

The five albums which narrowly missed the final cut were (in alphabetical order): Beach House, Teen Dream; Best Coast, Crazy For You; Local Natives, Gorilla Manor; The New Pornographers, Together; She & Him, Volume 2.

Enough throat-clearing. We present you with: Ten for ’10!

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10. Robyn, Body Talk. One of us strongly likes this album. One does not. We split the difference and rank it tenth. The one who likes it highly recommends “Dancing On My Own” and “Tell Your Girlfriend.” The one who doesn’t highly recommends shredding your ears with a cheese grater instead.

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9. Surfer Blood, Astro Coast. Guilt-free surf rock that recalls early Weezer, with a dash of Pavement thrown in. Surfer Blood’s appeal stretched from its intended demographic (Ben’s brother Dan, child of the 80s, lover of guitar rock and surfside sensibilities) to a more highbrow crowd (Jerry Grit, who skipped his prom to see Pavement). That this album won them both over says something about its charm.

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8. Vampire Weekend, Contra. This album was a grower. We were cool to it initially, but it’s a superior follow-up to the band’s self-titled debut. Vampire Weekend has bypassed the sophomore slump with an assured effort that sounds like a band becoming even more (eccentrically) itself.

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7. LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening. If this is James Murphy’s swan song as LCD Soundsystem, he went out on a good note. While This Is Happening has turned up on everyone’s Best Of lists, it’s interesting that every reviewer tends to hail a different song as the standout track, a testament both to the album’s top-to-bottom consistency and Murphy’s musical (and lyrical) range. For us, the best track was “All I Want” — see the Year’s Best Songs below — though we won’t begrudge anyone for picking “Dance Yrself Clean” or “I Can Change” either.

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6. Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone. What angel put Mavis Staples and Jeff Tweedy in one another’s paths, who knows, but it was an inspired collaboration that allowed Staples to reinvent herself by covering some old Staples Singers songs (and CCR’s “Wrote A Song For Everyone”) and adding soul to modern hymns like the Tweedy-penned title song, a balm to soothe the soul.

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5. The National, High Violet. Dark, rich, adult pop to match lead singer Matt Berninger’s melancholy baritone. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” put a lyrical bent on being crushed by debt, while “Sorrow” reads like it’s straight out of a therapy notebook. All this would be a downer (the lead track is called “Terrible Love,” for Pete’s sake) if not for the tremor of energy and passion that runs throughout the album. These guys are bummed out, but they demonstrate that it’s possible to mope and rock at the same time.

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4. The Black Keys, Brothers. Another Ohio band hits the big time. Brothers is The Black Keys’ seventh album and the one that put them on the map of commercial (Brothers hit #3 on Billboard) and critical (Rolling Stone ranks Brothers the second best album of 2010; Spin named the band Artist of the Year, slightly atoning for last year’s Kings of Leon debacle) success. They’ve picked up where the White Stripes left off; Patrick Carney, though uglier than Meg White, is definitely a better drummer.

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3. Belle & Sebastian, Write About Love. The best these Scots have given us since 1998’s The Boy With the Arab Strap. Stuart Murdoch and company took the energy of 2006’s The Life Pursuit but reined in its excess, channeling it into a more consistent, less scattershot album, from the slow burn opener “I Didn’t See it Coming” to the gorgeous “The Ghost of Rockschool.”

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2. Broken Bells, Broken Bells. James Mercer and Danger Mouse make perfect sense together when you listen to the debut album from Broken Bells — which we did, over and over, for a good part of our spring and summer. The music shape shifts in all directions; you’re struck by how much it reminds you of things you’ve heard elsewhere, but by the end, it’s clear these two have made something distinctly their own.

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1. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs. An ambitious, mature, triumphant effort from a band that seems unafraid to take on anything. Arcade Fire mines the suburbs for rich material about youth and adulthood, aging and maturing, nostalgia and regret. What surprised us was how hopeful they sound coming through it all. Perhaps it’s because the husband-and-wife team of Win Butler and Regine Chassagne sang about material that’s close to home — becoming parents, fear of change, a longing for community — but everything about this album struck a chord with us. And it was, hands down, the best we heard this year.

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THE YEAR’S TOP TEN ELEVEN! SONGS

“We Used To Wait” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” Arcade Fire. The first of these songs — an ode to old-fashioned letter-writing (“I used to wait” being a lament for a time and place when everything was not so instant) — would not be so out-of-place on a prior Arcade Fire album. But “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” is a song that mashes together styles ranging from disco to dance pop while sounding completely of a piece with the rest of The Suburbs. The miracle is not just that it fits; it’s that it’s the best song on the album.

“All I Want,” LCD Soundsystem. A propulsive, infectious song that shuttles between aching lament and kiss-off rejection (“All I want is your pity/All I want is your bitter tears”), with a sound so euphoric (and, eventually, cacophonic) that it’s near impossible to withhold your affections.

“I Didn’t See It Coming,” Belle & Sebastian. We’ve pledged our love for this song before. We too would be entranced hipsters swaying zombie-like had we been invited to appear in this video.

“F*** You,” Cee Lo Green. Has anyone ever made those two words sound so jubilantly alive? If you’re not one of the 34 million people who has already seen this — well, you know where to find it.

“Hard To Be,” David Bazan. There’s an astonishing amount of theology, wisdom and lament packed into this six minute song. We’re still not tired of it.

“You Are Not Alone,” Mavis Staples. A heartbreaking song about brokenness and consolation, almost Biblical in its fierce devotion to offer refuge. “Open up this is a raid,” Staples sings with a sad but insistent heart, “I wanna get it through to you/You’re not alone.”

“Everlasting Light,” The Black Keys. This song gave us our favorite lyric of the year: “Love is the coal/That makes this train roll.” (The single “Tighten Up” narrowly missed our list.)

“In The Sun,” She & Him. We’ve embedded this before, but there’s no good reason not to do it again.

“Cameras,” Matt & Kim. The antic, hip hop flourishes Matt & Kim added to its third release, Sidewalks, fade to the background when the disarmingly simple chorus (“No time for cameras/We’ll be gone when we’re dead”) kicks in.

“The Ghost Inside,” Broken Bells. Christina Hendricks unscrews her hand! And floats around in space! Then sits poolside sipping a martini! We have no idea what any of it means, but it sure sounds good!

music, voreplay

Voreplay

Having a child has dealt, if not a death blow, then certainly a direct hit on the Battleship that is our indulgence for music. Partly this is a result of a significantly reduced budget for buying CDs and downloads. (The Hold Steady can do many things, but it cannot provide absorbent comfort to Sam’s nether regions.) Partly this is a paucity of leisure time (though we still find time to read, although in a very stop-and-start manner; movies and TV, however, have suffered greatly). In the eyes of our detractors (Jerry Grit), this musical hiatus — the last time we Voreplayed was April 28, though we did plug Arcade Fire and hotly disagree about Best Coast — may be an exposure of us as lightweights, mere dabblers in serious listening and occasional reviewing.

Whatever your opinion, we stretch back to May to cover what we’ve been spinning over the past seven months.

Starting next week, the Best of 2010 in music as well as books, TV, and (eventually, sometime before the Oscars), movies.

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Band of Horses, Infinite Arms. The sound of a band that spent too much time (sixteen months) fussing in the studio, sanding off the edges that made its first two albums, Everything All The Time and Cease To Begin, so likable. Infinite Arms goes down easy and barely leaves an aftertaste. Ben Bridwell and company know how to write a winning song (as in “Compliments“), but what to make of a lyric like, “I was thinking it over by the snack machine/I thought about you in a candy bar”? Is that supposed to be a pick-up line? “Baby, every time I look at a Snickers, I just wanna be on you”? We don’t think that works.

Belle & Sebastian, Write About Love. We covered our enthusiasm for “I Didn’t See It Coming” here, but it bears saying that the rest of the album is the best the Scots have given us since 1998’s The Boy With the Arab Strap. We could’ve done without the Norah Jones duet “Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John,” but “Come On Sister” is a breezy blast while “I’m Not Living in the Real World,” guitarist Stevie Jackson’s showcase here, accelerates along with a whistle-like chorus of “wooo woo woo wooooo”s. (Nobody does whistle-like “wooo woo woo wooooo”s better than B&S.) Stuart Murdoch’s lyrics are more overtly religious than albums past, particularly the gorgeous “The Ghost of Rockschool,” which Ben plays for Sam on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays when he drives him to day care at Grammy and Grandpa’s because he’s convinced it is Sam’s favorite song.

Black Keys, Brothers. The soundtrack of our summer, and high on our Best of 2010 list. You’ll be hearing more about it next week. (The Black Keys: Another Thing To Love About Ohio.)

Jenny & Johnny, I’m Having Fun Now. We didn’t. This should have been fun, but it got a few perfunctory spins before retiring to the rack where it has sat untouched since September. Boo.

Local Natives, Gorilla Manor. One of the sturdier musical pleasures of the year. The Local Natives benefitted from good buzz (and favorable comparisons to acts like Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes) as well as the opening spot on Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ tour. These kids don’t lack for confidence, covering the Talking Heads’ “Warning Signs” on their first album. “Airplanes,” an ode to a pilot grandfather, captures a lot of generational lament in the simple lyric, “It sounds like we would’ve had a great deal to say to each other.” It also features a creepily evocative video.

Matt & Kim, Sidewalks. This is the fun Jenny & Johnny should be having. Erin is less enthused with them than Ben is, but Ben makes no apologies for his affection for “Cameras.” Erin thinks Matt & Kim have echoes of the Christian goof-rock band “Lost & Found.” And this is a bad thing?

Noah & The Whale, The First Days of Spring. The band’s name comes from one of its favorite films (The Squid & The Whale) and its director (Noah Baumbach). The band signs off its blog posts with “Sic Transit Gloria,” a nod to Wes Anderson. Clearly if there was a band tailor-made for us, it is this one. The music is appropriately cinematic as well. “The First Days of Spring” opens with timpani and strings before building to an operatic sprawl. “Love of an Orchestra” is a strange and whimsical number that recalls Sufjan Stevens, while “Blue Skies” begins with the lyric, “This is a song for anyone with a broken heart/This is a song for anyone who can’t get out of bed/I’ll do anything to be happy.” The rest of the song does its part to deliver on that happiness; “Blue skies are coming,” lead singer Charlie Fink sings, “but I know that it’s hard.”

Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone. Previously here. We love us some Mavis Staples. Here she is tearing up Letterman with a cover of CCR’s “Wrote a Song For Everyone.”

Robyn, Body Talk. Also on our Best of 2010 list. In any other year, Robyn’s prolific output (Body Talk follows Body Talk Pt. 1 and Body Talk Pt. 2, both released this year, and collects the best from those EPs plus adds new material) would make her the darling Swedish import of the moment. She must hate Stieg Larsson with a white hot fury. (He probably was a lousy dancer too — although if anyone could get him to shake those pasty white, middle-aged Swedish hips, it’s Robyn.)

Sufjan Stevens, All Delighted People EP. There’s a scene in Rushmore where Max Fischer stages a bike accident so he can scheme his way into Miss Cross’s bedroom. While receiving treatment for his head wound (before Miss Cross discovers it is merely ketchup), Max tells her that his friend Herman Blume (Bill Murray) thinks she’s still in love with Edward Appleby, her deceased husband. She retorts, “Edward has more spark and character and imagination in one fingernail than Herman Blume has in his entire body.” (“One dead fingernail,” Max reminds her.)

Sufjan Stevens has more spark and character and imagination in one EP than most artists bother putting into full length albums. The eight songs on All Delighted People clock in at just under an hour. The highlight here is “Heirloom,” a beautiful acoustic number that channels Simon & Garfunkel. Paul Simon’s “Sounds of Silence” serves as the inspiration for the two versions of “All Delighted People,” a song which Stevens says is “a dramatic homage to the Apocalypse [and] existential ennui.” Because heaven forbid it just be a plain old song about love or some such nonsense.

The seventeen minute “guitar jam-for-single-mothers,” “Djohariah,” closes the EP on a sour note. We are sufficiently skeptical as to have held off on purchasing The Age of Adz for the time being.

Wolf Parade, Expo 86. We were quite critical of At Mount Zoomer, a perfectly inoffensive album that had the misfortune of following Apologies To The Queen Mary. We said then, “[At Mount Zoomer] doesn’t belong in the same breath as Apologies to the Queen Mary — which we’ll listen to twenty times for every one spin AMZ gets.” That ratio has proved about right. Now we’ll say this: We’ll listen to At Mount Zoomer twenty times for every one spin Expo 86 gets — with the exceptions of “Palm Road” and “Yulia,” the best indie rock song about a Soviet cosmonaut you’ll hear this year.

music, voreplay

Voreplay


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[Editor’s note: In honor of Eric Bescak — the music commentator we most aspire to, and our harshest critic — visiting Cincinnati this weekend, we present the first Voreplay in almost three months. Enjoy.]

We went to a show last week for the first time in a long time. We went because it was free. Erin won tickets on WNKU to Tift Merritt and Amos Lee at 20th Century Theater. (One of Erin’s uncanny spiritual gifts is winning free tickets on the radio. She’s done it no less than five times.) We were more excited for Tift than Amos, so we planned to show up at 8, arrived fashionably late (8:20), listened to Tift sing two songs, then stood around for half an hour before agreeing that we were more excited about fresh-pressed lemonade and french fries at Penn Station than hearing Amos Lee.

Here’s what else we’ve been spinning since the last Voreplay:

Big Star, #1 Record/Radio City. One from the vault, which we pulled out for another listen after Alex Chilton recently passed, and after we read this appreciation from Michael Chabon. “They called themselves Big Star and never made it big or found stardom,” Chabon writes, “and there, along with a 2:49 song called ‘September Gurls’ that shimmers and chimes with all the hopeless longing you ever felt for someone you never got to hold or to keep, is the pocket history of power pop.” Chabon also draws an interesting line between power pop and depression:

The second salient feature of power pop, along with its avowed status as a kind of fandom, is that it is happy music—eminently “poppy”—which depends for its power on the cryptic presence, in a lyric or a chord change or a bit of upside-down vocal harmony, of sadness, yearning, even despair. This strand of pop darkness can be found right off the bat, in the founding documents of the genre, like The Who’s “Pictures of Lily,” in whose final stanza the song’s narrator discovers that his pinup dream girl has “been dead since 1929,” or The Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” where the sadness and yearning are smuggled into the melody, the harmonies, the lyrics, and even the title, which marks the broken place, the gap between the wish and the world. True power pop is rueful and celebratory at the same time, glorifying desire and frustration, which is why so many power-pop songs concern themselves with the subject of Tonight, or Tomorrow Night, or Saturday Night, or some other night that will only be perfect for as long as it can be deferred. Depression stalks the genre, from Brian Wilson and Emitt Rhodes to the dual suicides of Badfinger, Pete Ham and Tom Evans; from Big Star’s Chris Bell, who struggled with profound depression right up to the night in 1978 that he crashed his Triumph TR-6 into a telephone pole, to Material Issue’s Jim Ellison and to Doug Hopkins, the lead singer of the Gin Blossoms, suicides alike. All the clouds of power pop are worn inside out to show the silver lining.

Ah, the Gin Blossoms. To be 15, lovesick and miserable again.

Broken Bells, Broken Bells. All the hype for this collaboration between the Shins’ James Mercer and producer extraordinaire Brian Burton (Danger Mouse) has yielded mostly lukewarm reviews, but Broken Bells has been our most reliable listen of the year so far. While the sound is never far from a spacey Shins album, Mercer and Burton pull off snippets of surprisingly agile sonic ventriloquism: Mercer sounds eerily like Thom Yorke at the beginning of “Sailing to Nowhere,” while the plinky piano melody on “October” is straight out of Elliot Smith’s Figure Eight. When Mercer sings “Was it all for show?” on “The Ghost Inside,” you’d be mistaken for thinking Bono wandered in to the recording session to belt out a line or two.

Dr. Dog, Shame, Shame. More of the same from this Philadelphia outfit. Which is a good thing. Though not, we’re afraid, a great thing. Despite standout tracks “Stranger,” “Shadow People” and “Where’d All The Time Go?” ( “a euphoric farmhouse jam that suggests the Flaming Lips at their most anthemic,” sayeth Pitchfork; the weird loop at the beginning of the song reminds Erin of the Cylon refrain from “Battlestar Galactica”), Shame, Shame doesn’t take the group anywhere new from past efforts, though it’s a tighter, more polished album than usual. As Ben’s brother Dan put it in an Amazon review: “Shame, Shame is no Fate, Fate, but it’ll do do.”

Peter Gabriel, Scratch My Back. This should have been a lot more fun. Despite handpicking twelve fine songs from artists ranging from Radiohead to Arcade Fire to Paul Simon, then arranging a full orchestra to accompany him, Peter Gabriel sounds as if he’s singing these songs while lying in bed, or just after taking a Xanax. Boo.

Girls, Album. Good stuff! Girls is actually two boys, and this Album should have made our Best of 2009 list had we not been busy conceiving a child.

Gorillaz, Plastic Beach. Snoop Dogg is just one of many artists who cameo on Plastic Beach; Mos Def, Lou Reed, Gruff Rhys, de la Soul, Little Dragon and something called the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble also appear. The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble? How does one get into the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble? Do they wave a French horn back and forth in front of your eyes and make you recite lines from Mr. Holland’s Opus?

Can you tell we haven’t really listened to this album?

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, I Learned the Hard Way. Nobody brings out Ben’s inner black woman like Sharon Jones. I’m through with your window shopping, bay-bay! (Cincinnatians! Jones and the Dap-Kings join The Heavy at the Southgate House on May 17.)

Miles Kurosky, The Desert of Shallow Effects. The former Beulah frontman’s first solo album, and it sounds endearingly like a Beulah album (all the regulars turn up) … but not quite the same. If you have not previously fallen in love with Beulah, here’s what you need to do:

Arrange to pick up a friend at the Newark airport; bonus points if this friend is Seth Swihart. Since your car stereo was stolen, you’ll need a boombox in your backseat (and extra ‘D’ batteries on hand at all times). Proceed west along the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Pittsburgh and listen to The Coast Is Never Clear on repeat, particularly track eight, “Hey Brother.” If you’re not singing along to the nonsensical chorus and imitating the horn sounds with a grin from ear to ear by the fifth or six listen, well — you may not have a heart.

LCD Soundsystem, “Drunk Girls.” From the forthcoming This Is Happening. When we Friday Recommended it a few weeks back, the official video was not up yet. Now it is. (This is Happening releases May 17, but you can stream it now.)

Megafaun, Gather, Form & Fly. Megafaun, Justin Vernon’s (Bon Iver) former band, are serious about their beards.

There are songs on this album (“The Fade,” “The Longest Day”) that are easy to love, and then there are experimental, improvisational tracks (“Darkest Hour,” “Columns”) that are standoffish and scattered; both sets are equally rewarding. Megafaun blends old sounds and new ones in an unusual, appealing style; this would all be to their credit if not for the fact they are Lakers fans. (An unfortunate — and unfortunately named — blog called “Fuck Yeah Lakers” shows up on their blogroll.)

Joanna Newsom, Have One On Me. Though Newsom’s boyfriend is SNL’s Andy Samberg, none of the songs on this triple disc are about being on a boat or packaging your package as a Christmas gift. So unless you like odd vocal inflections, harps and the lack of auto-tune, this may not be your album. (Confession: We have not listened to it all the way through. We got bored.) (Interesting sidenote: Last spring, Newsom developed vocal chord nodules and couldn’t sing or speak for two months. Why can’t this happen to Glenn Beck?)

She & Him, Volume 1 and Volume 2. Volume 2 (and specifically the video for “In the Sun”) sent us back to Volume 1. Ben is kinder to this duo than Erin, who prefers less Zoe and more M. Those of you who rock out to Volume 2 on drives from Cleveland to Cincinnati in your Honda Odyssey should know that this is what awaits you on Volume 1:

Visqueen, Message to Garcia. You’d be forgiven for giving Visqueen a first listen and wondering if you’d accidentally put a New Pornographers disc in the stereo instead, especially since Neko Case turns up on the first track, “Hand Me Down,” belting out “Come and get your love, bay-bee” over a chorus of horns and guitar. While not as eclectic as The NPs, Visqueen packs a punch and ups the ferocity factor. From the band’s bio page:

Message To Garcia is a collection of Visqueen songs that represents a rock and roll epitaph to front woman Rachel Flotard’s father. … Mr. George E. Flotard was a New York City steamfitter since the mid 1960’s. He fought and loved in Hell’s Kitchen bars on the West Side, and broke all ten fingers twice. He was a strong, red-headed foreman who ordered holes in the ground and fit miles of pipe in a 1970’s Harlem skyline. … Rachel would call her Dad from the road each day. He’d ask if she was “delivering it.” She knew exactly what he meant. And the only answer was “yes.”

You should buy this album. But don’t take our word for it. Take Duff McKagan’s, from Guns N’ Roses! Here’s what he said:

“I listened to this CD last week on a drive through the mountains with my band, and silenced a car full of over-caffeinated men, and perhaps drew a tear or two. Rachel Flotard has written one of the best records that I have heard in a while. Period.”

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Next Tuesday: new releases from The New Pornographers, Josh Ritter, Broken Social Scene, Dolly Parton and … da-duh-duhhhhhh! … The Hold Steady.

music, voreplay

Voreplay: Remainders of 2009 Edition

January is always a great music month. The combination of Christmas gift cards and best-of lists allow us to discover music that slipped through the cracks during the year. This January we took particular inspiration from this list by one Matthew Leathers, who had previously recommended David Bazan only to have it fall on deaf ears. Why it took us so long to get there, who knows.

David Bazan, Curse Your Branches. Our only excuse for hesitating on this album is that we were never Pedro the Lion fans, Bazan’s previous outfit before going solo. Bazan, like Derek Webb from a different direction, has given us an album about faith giving way to disbelief, certainty giving way to doubt. (Featured last September on ABC, Bazan said he no longer considers himself a Christian.) Curse Your Branches begins with a stunning song called “Hard to Be,” which easily would’ve made our Top Ten list, and includes songs about alcoholism (Bazan used to drink whisky out of water jugs at Christian music festivals) and generational inheritance, or in many cases (like “Bless This Mess” and “Please Baby Please”), both. There’s more honesty in these ten songs than you’ll find in many a sermon. We’re retrospectively making it a Top Three album from 2009. Done.

Thad Cockrell, To Be Loved. A gift from Bevin for watching Kitty Cat. We used to attend the same church in Nashville as Thad. We’ve only listened once through, but we like it. Pretty, folksy, with a hymn-like quality. It’s probably sufficient recompense for the hell of Scooter Thomas coexisting with another cat for four days. Probably.

Elvis Perkins, Elvis Perkins in Dearland. Like Thad, Elvis has gotten the shaft thanks to Mr. Bazan. But we can wholeheartedly endorse this album, especially “Shampoo” and the single, “Doomsday,” a bouncy stomp punctuated by horns (as most of the numbers here are). Think a more lush, melodic Conor Oberst on uppers. Also, his dad was the late Anthony Perkins, he of Psycho, which turns 50 this year.

Here’s the sweet video to “Chains, Chains, Chains”:

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The xx, xx. Described by Mr. Leathers as “baby-making music for hipsters,” is it any coincidence we bought this album and now we’re pregnant? Recently profiled by Mr. Frere-Jones of The New Yorker, The xx has an intimate quality, best enjoyed (in our experience) late at night on headphones ( “songs to be sung inches from someone’s ear,” as Frere-Jones put it), not on the highway. The xx seems destined to replace The Avett Brothers in Erin’s scheme of dislike, as she recently dubbed it (falsely and slanderously, in Ben’s estimation) “sad female music.” There is nothing sad about the melody to “VCR,” or about the sublime, wordless “Intro.”

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Not that we care about the Grammy’s, but if Kings of Leon wins tomorrow night, we’re going Van Gogh on our ears and donating them to science.

UPDATE!: You stay classy, Kings of Leon.