Friday, December 26, 2014

Not the Best of 2014: The Year in Music - Part 1 of 3

The overall impression I’m left with of this past year’s music is one of being underwhelmed. There was a lot of music I liked, but very little I loved. Even artists whose works I’ve loved in the past turned in efforts that were serviceable - good but not great.

Sometimes it’s useful to judge a best-of list by its omissions along with what’s included. With that in mind, here are some records that didn’t make my list this year. These are not honorable mentions: records that I liked but narrowly missed the list. Neither are they records I hated. They’re records that showed up on other best-of lists or left a large commercial footprint this year, but made little or no impression on me. These are records that made me feel out of step because I just didn’t get it. Do you remember Spin magazine’s original stoplight rating system (green, yellow, red)? These records are solid yellows for me.

This list isn’t meant as a critical attack on these artists; it’s more of a response to other best-of lists. I’m sure plenty will disagree with some of this list, if not call into question the need for such a list at all. Isn’t there enough negativity in the world without having to call out records for not being as good or excellent as some people think? Absolutely. But this is the internet, and you’ve entered my dark corner of it, so enjoy.

Taylor Swift - 1989: Taylor Swift won 2014. Lots of people (my wife included) like this new record. It aims to please and has a professional polish that is hard to dismiss. It’s even become hip to listen to TS. So, what’s my problem? Taylor Swift makes music that is not just cute, but cutesy. I have a hard time with cutesy. Gwen Stefani and No Doubt are cutesy. So are Death Cab for Cutie and The Decemberists, for that matter (see also: Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Bruno Mars, etc.). 1989 was a pivotal year for pop music (one of the very best), and for me personally - I started high school. Taylor Swift was born that year. This record makes me feel old even without that factoid. I know it wasn't created with me in mind. I don't judge anyone for liking this record; I just reserve the right to ignore it without being considered a snob even though everyone will think I am anyway. Oh well, haters gonna hate, right?

Ariana Grande - My Everything/Iggy Azalea - The New Classic/Charlie XCX - Sucker/Azealia Banks - Broke with Expensive Tastes/Lana Del Ray - Ultraviolence/Nicki Minaj - The Pinkprint: It’s completely unfair of me to lump all of these artists together considering how different they are from each other stylistically, but I feel they’re all being marketed to the same audiences under the same rationale. That pluralization of “audience” was on purpose. This is music designed to cross over. Taylor Swift could have easily been lumped in here as well, but her success makes her worthy of her own note. All of it is blown up to obscene proportions and none of it is compelling to me in the least. I don’t really hate any of it, but I don’t understand why these records are showing up on other lists. I’ve also lumped them together because as women they are being marketed in a way that I find grotesque. Men aren’t marketed this way. A great deal of noise has been made about how each of them write their own material in a way that’s completely condescending while at the same time treating them in a sexually exploitative way. This isn’t new behavior, but whereas it used to de rigueur when talking about female musicians, it’s not always the case now. Looking over the names of the female artists whose records did make my best of list (see part 2), it’s the music that people talk about, not the artists themselves as mannequins. Maybe I’m being a unfair to Banks and Minaj who have genuine talent. I won’t go into the whole Azalea vs. Azealia feud. White person exploiting black art and culture?  That’s another old story.

Ed Sheeran - X/Hozier - Hozier/Sam Smith - In the Lonely Hour/Ray Lamontagne - Supernova/Beck - Morning Phase: This category is the other end of the gendered spectrum to the previous one. Stylistic differences aside, these male artists are marketed in the same way as each other: sensitive, earnest men who are serious artists. It sounds like a lot of self-important, navel-gazing baloney to me. I’ve even liked some of Ray Lamontagne’s music in the past, but he’s always tread a fine line for me. These kind of records make me want to put on Ted Nugent’s Free-for-All. Jeff Tweedy’s album that he did with his son as a tribute to seriously ill wife is an example of how to make a heartfelt record without falling into sentimental dreck. That record, Sukierae, didn’t make my best of list either (a little too long and scattershot for me), but it expresses honest emotion in a more - pardon me - manly way.

War On Drugs - Lost in the Dream/Sun Kil Moon - Benji: These are two records from two talented outfits which I just couldn’t get into. Both of them are also ending up near the top of a lot of best-of lists this year. It just so happens that the groups themselves were involved in a silly feud with each other. I’d like to think that the public spat didn’t affect my opinion on their actual recordings, but I can’t say that for sure. War On Drugs’ record sounds like recent Destroyer doing a humorless imitation of Dire Straits covering Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love. Although I’ve never been a huge Mark Kozelek fan, after seeing his live solo show a few years ago I was really impressed with him as a guitar player and performer. His new record, however, sounds like a bitter, old crank recounting every depressing tragedy he’s ever witnessed - like a bizarro world Dan Fogelberg. It’s harrowing and humorless in its own way. I can appreciate it, but from a distance. Kozelek’s two one-off songs mocking WOD were more interesting (and hilarious) than either full-length. It’s a shame he didn’t press them up as a special Record Store Day Black Friday 7”. That would have been a keeper. Kozelek may be a jerk and everyone may have sided with WOD, but there’s no question he won the feud.

Spooky/Post-Punk: There were a bunch of records in this category that came out this year. I’m not putting any of them on my list because I didn’t feel compelled to listen to them more than a few times. This doesn’t mean that they aren't worth listening to, but it’s just not where I’m at right now. If you’re interested, here are some of the records that came out this year in this vein.

  • Have A Nice Life - The Unnatural World: There’s potential here if the singer ever stops being embarrassed of his own voice and afraid to let the hooks shine through.
  • Cult of Youth - Final Days: Has Douglas P. heard these guys? If not, he should take a listen and call his lawyer. A track like “Of Amber” would make a great parody if DIJ weren’t already the perfect parody of themselves.
  • Total Control - Typical System: Stylistically this is a mess. It sounds like people who got into post-punk from a Spotify playlist where there’s no differentiation between Young Marble Giants and Ultravox, which makes it kind of funny. Welcome to the context-free future.
  • Protomartyr - Under Color of the Official Right: Everyone kept telling me to listen to this. It’s okay, I guess. Meh.
  • Iceage - Plowing Into the Field of Love: For fashion.
  • Merchandise - After the End: Rufus Wainwright fronting the Hoodoo Gurus. No, really. For real.
  • Interpol - El Pintor: Worst/funniest lyrics in rock. Now with falsetto.

Metal: Heavy metal just isn’t made for me anymore. It’s splintered into a million sub-genres, and none of them do anything for me. There are people who get close: Mastodon, Electric Wizard, High on Fire, Witchcraft, etc., but nearly all are missing those things I want most out of metal. Jesus people. Am I going to have to make the metal album that I’ve been contemplating for years, just to make the music no one else will? Even the mighty Black Sabbath put out a new Ozzy-fronted record this year, which sounded as perfunctory as expected. Maybe if Bill had been a part of it would have been better. Maybe if they had a different producer (does Rubin even “produce”) it could have been something (I would have loved to hear what Albini or John Cale would have done with them). On the other hand, probably not. Mastodon, Electric Wizard, Pilgrim and Pallbearer all put out some fine records this year; I just can’t fool myself into thinking that they satisfy me.

Foo Fighters - Sonic Highways: The HBO documentary series was great. The album that resulted from it didn’t move me though. Dave Grohl is apparently a really great guy. Pat Smear is cool and graceful. I’m glad post-SDRE bassist, Nate Mendel, will be able to retire. Guitarist Chris Shiflett is a perfectly competent studio dude. And drummer Taylor Hawkins makes the best golden retriever Grohl - or any dog lover - could ever wish for. I’m glad that the FFs are likeable, but their music bores me. Their friends and peers, Queens of the Stone Age, are an infinitely better band with a fraction of the FF’s following. Many of my friends love the Foos (THEY ROCK!). Good on them. May they have a long career and continue to print money.

The Black Keys - Turn Blue: To be fair, I haven’t listened to this record very much. I’ve liked what I have heard, but it sound too much like what they’ve already done. I’d love to hear another Dan Auerbach solo record produced by someone who won’t obscure his vocals - in other words, not Auerbach or Danger Mouse. The production is just a little too self-consciously retro-hipster to penetrate.

Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria Blues: I’m happy for Laura Jane Grace’s recent self-actualization, but it still doesn’t change the fact that her band sounds like a second-string, Americanized Manic Street Preachers at best.

Perfume Genius - Too Bright: A not-bad Art Garfunkel solo record.

Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels 2: I’ve never been much of a Killer Mike fan, and I seem to be the only one. I first heard him on the great Outkast track from 2001, “The Whole World,” and I remember thinking he did nothing but dumb the song down. I never cared about El-P either, but again, a lot of other people would disagree with me. Some critics put this record as their number one. Number ones on best-albums-of-the-year lists are always politically safe picks: records that are usually pretty good, or least records that people will have a hard time saying are bad. Everyone knows that the number two spot on a list is usually the writer’s real number one.

(Almost) Anything Nominated for a Grammy: See my previous post. Wow, what a compelling list of reasons to forever ignore music. Some of the aforementioned artists up above would be included in this category as well as Sia, Meghan Trainor, etc.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Ugh... The GRAMMYS

The nominees for The 57th Annual GRAMMYS were announced last Friday. Wow. Now, the GRAMMYS are usually never an indicator of the best music released for a given year, but this year looks particularly devoid of quality. If this was truly the best that the music world had to offer, I wouldn't listen to music.

I won't bore you here with the particulars, but you're interested in being bored, click here.

I mean, there are two entries for the Dio tribute album in the Metal category. Really? Mastodon should win this, but they won't. If there were a creative soul left in NARAS, Mastodon would play a shared twerk-off set with Nicki Minaj. If you don't understand why, just Google the two of them together.

The worst part about it is that I will likely watch the awards show. I can't help it. Hopefully Kendrick Lamar will get to perform. It will help me deal with Deadmau5 inevitably beating Aphex Twin.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

In Search of Lost Time: The Mats at Midway

photo by John Christenson
Time has a strange way of expanding the further back in the past you leave it. I moved to Minneapolis in 1999, eight years after the Replacements broke up. It's been 15 years since then, which is longer than the period of time the Replacements were originally together. I've spent longer mythologizing them then they've actually been a band. I'm not alone in this, I'm sure. Last Saturday night I was surrounded by 14,000 other people who are likely in the same boat.

Seeing the Replacements play Midway Stadium in St. Paul the other night was the culmination of a dream come true for a lot of people, myself included. Since moving here I've seen many reunited legendary acts I never dreamed I'd see (Echo and the Bunnymen, Wire, Mission of Burma, Gang of Four, and hey, Big Star). After living here a decade though, I'd given up hope on ever seeing a reunited Replacements.

I spent the first few years here finding traces of the band's presence everywhere: learning my first apartment was across the street from the Twin Tone offices, finding the Let It Be house, working at First Ave., being thrilled that Daniel Corrigan was going to shoot my band for the City Pages. There was plenty of romanticism to feed the mythology I had built up in my head since listening to the Replacements back in college in Iowa City. My outsider status of not being from Minneapolis aligned itself with the feelings of outsider-ness expressed in the Replacements' songs of adolescent confusion and angst. I was in high school when Don't Tell A Soul and All Shook Down came out. A little too young to fully appreciate them, but just young enough to attach a significant weight onto those records.

Gradually, as this city became my home, I built my own experiences that made the legend of the Minneapolis music scene not loom so large. To put it another way, someone like Terry Katzman became a person to me and not just a name I knew from a record sleeve. In all that time, the only Replacement I'd manage to meet was Slim (who couldn't have been nicer - I sold him a Lyle Lovett CD for a song he had to learn for a wedding gig). I got older and wiser and realized that the Replacements were just a band - a great one, sure - but ultimately just a band.

Then slowly, the Replacements started getting back together... kind of. There was the best of collection with the two new songs. Then the tribute/benefit for Slim happened. Then the Riot Fest shows were announced. And then Slicing Up Eyeballs posted that 9-second video of the Replacements rehearsing "Alex Chilton." The video was posted right before I saw it and the thought that somewhere in my city the Replacements could be playing right now made the abstract myth of the Replacements very real and present. The sound was glorious. It was the most exciting 9-seconds of music I had heard in a while.

When my friend bought our tickets to the Midway show I started getting very protective and cautious about my emotions. Working at First Avenue and at record stores for over a decade makes you very jaded as far as rock shows go. I was worried that I'd hype the show up for myself beyond hope of what could be delivered.

In the week leading up to the show I looked at the set lists of the other reunion shows thus far to get an idea of what they'd be playing. I saw a lot from Sorry Ma... which I hadn't listened to in a long time. I went back to it and was surprised how well it held up for me. I started listening to all the records again, making a playlist of my ideal set list, something I hadn't done in preparation for seeing a show in a long time. I let myself get a little more excited.

I'd never been to Midway Stadium. Although the idea of seeing the Replacements in a stadium wouldn't have been my first choice, the fact that it would be the last event held at Midway before it was demolished seemed fitting for a band who spent their career operating under the ironic cliche of snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory. Who else would stage their hometown homecoming at a place not actually in their hometown, at a venue that was doomed to be torn down?

The night was cold and parking was horrible, but there was a giddiness around the stadium from everyone's excitement. That could have been the Grain Belt though. I confess I was dreading that the night would be an endless string of run-ins with everyone I had known in Minneapolis for the past 15 years. Not that I wanted to avoid anyone in particular, I just wanted to concentrate on the show with distraction. I actually only saw a few people I knew. It helped that we sat in the bleachers along left field. The sound was decent and I knew as a short person the sight lines in the crowd wouldn't have been much better. I will say from my vantage point that they probably could have fit another thousand people in there. On the other hand, that would have just made the parking and lines for the porta-potties that much worse.

I'm not a fan of either Lucero or the Hold Steady so I won't judge their performances. They got on stage, did their thing, and got out of the way, which was all that I would have asked of them.

The Replacements took the stage as dusk fell and played a set which closely resembled what they had done at earlier reunion shows. They moved through the songs quickly without too much banter which is exactly what a rock band should do. They were loose too which is important to note. The worst thing you can say about a band is that they sounded tight. That's something you tell your friend's band when you have nothing nice to say. It means that they were predictable and met the most basic functional requirement of playing their instruments in time together. When a band is loose it means they sound spontaneous, like it could come apart at any minute, like the band will never play these songs the exact same way ever again. It means the music sounds raw and alive, which it did.

My cassettes and copy of Boink!!
They played almost every song you might want. The representation by album brokedown thusly: four from Sorry Ma..., three from Hootenanny, five from Let It Be, five from Tim, five from Pleased to Meet Me, three from Don't Tell A Soul, one from All Shook Down, a Westerberg soundtrack cut, and a slew of covers. There was nothing from Stink (boo - I would have killed for "Kids Don't Follow" and "Go") and I would have easily traded "Talent Show" for "I Won't." Still, it's hard to argue with a set that included non-album classics like "If Only You Were Lonely" and "Nowhere Is My Home" (technically both were released on the non-canonical Boink!!). The latter was especially important for me. Originally produced by Alex Chilton, "Nowhere" is in my mind one of their best songs. The fact that's its only release would be on an import-only collection is frustratingly typical. No song better embodies the feeling of growing up lost and alone in the middle of nowhere. Bringing Tony Glover on stage for the Jimmy Reed cover was a nice surprise and a good reminder that the Mats were grounded in blues-based rock more than most of their '80s alt-peers.

By the time of the second encore I just wanted the crowd to shut up. It was obvious the band was freezing. "Unsatisfied" is a great song, but it almost feels perverse to sing along to it en masse. I suppose some people find it comforting, but for me that song is something private. After that last song, the Twin City audience kept clamoring for more, not being able to (or not wanting to) recognize that it was the end. You can read that last sentence metaphorically or not. It would have been really great if they would have gotten a Minneapolis police officer to come on stage and say, "Hello? This is the Minneapolis police. The party is over. If you all just grab your stuff and leave there won't be any hassle."

I'd like to say that the night provided some personal revelation or reconciliation with my past hero worship of the band, but I'm too old to lie to myself like that. They were simply a great rock and roll band, something that is unfortunately rare these days. They're the real thing. They still come off like dorks who practice in a basement - and I mean that in a good way. There's no pose or pretentiousness or anything that smacks of professionalism. And yet, there's a self-awareness and sense of humor about themselves that keeps them from some maudlin display of over-earnestness. Their performance validated my impression of them and of what I always thought rock and roll should be.

People always talk about how the indie rock bands of the '80s would have cashed in and made it big had they peaked in '91 instead of '84 or '85. I don't know if that's true. I think if the Replacements were a new band coming out today they would still struggle commercially. Most of the public doesn't want something real. Reality's not pretty; it makes you think and feel. I still think the Replacements are too good for the masses.

Here's a full set list from the night which differs from Andrea Swensson's list (hey Andrea!) in that I had "I Don't Know" listed last in the regular set, not "Bastards." I remember thinking it was typical Mats to end on such an ode to ambivalence rather than a generation anthem.

Favorite Thing
Takin’ a Ride
I’m in Trouble
Don’t Ask Why
I’ll Be You
Waitress in the Sky
Tommy Got His Tonsils Out / Third Stone from the Sun
Take Me Down to the Hospital
I Want You Back
Going to New York w/ Tony Glover
Color Me Impressed
Nowhere Is My Home
If Only You Were Lonely
Achin’ to Be
Kiss Me on the Bus
I Will Dare
Love You Till Friday / Maybelline
Merry Go Round
I Won’t
Borstal Breakout
Swingin’ Party
Love You in the Fall
Can’t Hardly Wait
Bastards of Young
I Don’t Know / Buck Hill (Is that what that was?)

First Encore
Left of the Dial
Alex Chilton

Second Encore

In honor of those Replacements who weren't at the Midway show, here's a playlist of songs the band didn't play on Saturday. It spans their initial run and is an excellent illustration of just how great this band is/was. These left-behind songs are better than most people's greatest hits.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Steely Dan? Who the Hell Am I?

One constant of my music taste has always been my extreme distaste for Steely Dan. In the past, I have described listening to their music as akin to drinking a tall glass of lukewarm vomit. Their aping of jazz tropes mixed with sleazy subject matter approached with a patronizing pseudo-intellectual tone concocted an overall stew of 70s session man "grooviness" that has always made me gag.

And yet, I've always respected Donald Fagen and Walter Becker from a distance. They are very good at what they do. They made the music they wanted to in an exacting, precise fashion. What I deemed as their awfulness was never a mistake. The fact that they made music that terrible on purpose made dislike them even more.

So it is with great personal confusion that I admit that I have recently reevaluated their music, and discovered with some shock and horror that I like Steely Dan. There have been weeks over the past nine months during which there have been periods where I have listened to little else. I am fine with being proven wrong, but such a dramatic shift in my own opinion has made me question the very fabric of my being. I like Steely Dan? Do I even know who I am anymore?

To be fair, this isn't something that happened overnight. I've grown an appreciation for them slowly over the past few years starting with their debut album. It had always been with some embarrassment that I would admit to myself how much I liked the verses of "Reelin' in the Years." I say the verses because this 70s FM nugget's cheesy guitar lead and chorus always gave me hives. However, the verse's piano riff and Fagen's sardonic (Steely Dan, in a single word) vocals are sublime. Song by song, their first album, Can't Buy A Thrill (1972), revealed itself to me to be distinct from the rest of their catalog. I could admit to liking one of their records. The fact that critics and album guides singled the album out from the rest of their work as being more rock 'n' roll made me more comfortable liking it. Here was a band that began with a promising anomaly, but quickly fell off the deep end of jazz rock pretension and smug hipster intellectualism.

Further investigation was halted by the first track on their second album, "Bodhisattva." This song ranks up there with "Sugar Magnolia" as one of my least favorite songs of all time. Bookending the rest of their career with the later sleazy, predatory "Hey Nineteen" from Gaucho (1982), I was able to dismiss everything else in between.

So what changed? Well, at first, I was exposed to their music little by little through external sources: the Minutemen's cover of "Doctor Wu," the hilarious albeit exaggerated characterization of them in the Yacht Rock series, and the VH1 Classic Albums documentary about Aja (1977). I was even secretly thrilled when Becker and Fagen won the Grammy Album of the Year in 2001 in a startling upset for their comeback, Two Against Nature. All these incidents opened my mind towards them, but it took something more personal to fully bring me around.

I came to embrace Steely Dan through periods of great stress. The first time was while I was editing my first issue of The Chord, the newsletter of the record store where I worked. I was under deadline working in my basement office hours after the store had closed, catching peripheral glimpses of mice scuttle by my door as I struggled to learn InDesign on the job. It was in this environment that the first album truly took hold. Something about the music helped me cope with the crushing fear of failure.

Steely Dan make music about pathetic losers, cowardly cheats, gangsters, perverts, junkies, and reprobates - desperate people who have nothing left to lose. Listening to the stories of the characters in their songs I am reminded by something Leonard Cohen once said about staying in hotels. Cohen said one always has the feeling in a hotel room of being on the lam, a safe moment in the escape, a refuge and sanctuary of a temporary kind, a place in the grass while the hounds pass by. This was the feeling I got listening to Can't Buy A Thrill in the late hours of the night (or early hours of morning) engaged in the exercise of amateur journalism.

This past spring saw me working late nights, taking work home during the week and on weekends. This time I fell in deeper than just the first album. When everything is bearing down on you there's something relaxing about the Dan's epic ambivalence. It's a shrug of the shoulders as your just about to go over the cliff.

Below is a playlist that prunes the catalog for my favorite touchstones. A lot of these are the hits, but you'll note that "Bodhisattva" is still conspicuously absent.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

This One Goes to Eleven: My Favorite Records from 2013 (plus a few more)

They’re ranked, but you know the drill - on any given day… There are a few things that made my list that weren’t featured on many other lists I saw. I don’t take pride in this; it just leaves me confused and frustrated. Conversely, there are a lot of best-of-2013 favorites from other lists that aren’t on mine. You can probably tell more about my list from what’s not on it than what is.

1. Austra - Olympia: I think this was my favorite record of the year. The fact that I haven’t seen it on a single “best-of” list yet is incredibly depressing. How could I be that out of step? How could what’s offered here appeal to so few others? I don’t understand how people can go crazy for Metric, another female-lead Canadian group with electronic undertones, but not pay this any mind. To me, Metric are dull, boring as musical oatmeal, and have lame, corny lyrics. Austra are musically sharp and inventive, and have fantastic lyrics. I think the hurdle for most people is lead singer Katie Stelmanis’ voice. The hurdle being that it’s a fantastic and dynamic voice and most people have no taste. This is the kind of music that The Knife (also on this list) used to make (see: “Heartbeats”) and I kind of miss it. There are several examples of similarly hook-laden tracks like “Forgive Me,” “Painful Like,” “We Become,” and “Annie (Oh Muse).” However, I love the patience of opener “What Have We Done?” which starts slow and low, before building to a rousing crescendo three minutes in. For all the buzz around Zola Jesus or Bat for Lashes (both of whom I like), or even Lorde (who… meh), Austra do it better.

2. Alice Smith - She: Again, another record I didn’t see on almost anyone else’s list. This was a great, self-assured record stocked with amazing songs. I liked it instantly. I assumed this would be a huge hit. To my knowledge and great confusion it wasn’t. Maybe it was a case of record being too soulful and not retro enough for rock audiences and not urban enough for R&B audiences. At a time when these types of labels mean less and less I don’t understand how this doesn’t just connect with everybody. I didn’t hear a vocal performance that meant it more, that wore it’s heart on its sleeve more than the one in “Another Love.” It’s one of the best songs of the year, an upbeat tempo and a tank of hurt. There are great melodies everywhere on this and the arrangements are completely classy.

3. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories: It's a cliche to say that they don’t make them like this any more, but in this case it’s accurate. People don’t shell out the cash to make an album that sounds this organically lush. This really isn’t an electronic music record. The drums are real drums played by session musicians in real studios. At a time when faux dubstep is making electronic music sound cheap and trashy, Daft Punk created a pop record that really begs to be heard on a good stereo system. The Nile Rodgers tracks on this are perfect. The Giorgio Moroder-spoken intro has grown on me, while the rest of that track (“Giorgio by Moroder”) floors me. Although it challenged some of their core audience, I think it was a necessary for whatever will come next.

4. Grant Hart - The Argument: This record was a surprise. It plays to the part of me that wants to hear an album as a whole, complete with high concept and literary pretensions. Grant Hart has created a musical adaptation of William Burroughs’ treatment of Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” and to my mind he’s done it extremely successfully. Whatever reputation Grant Hart has personally, you can’t deny the man’s talent. There are few people in contemporary music that would have attempted something like this much less pulled it off. Hart manages to communicate real pain, loss, and humiliation in the characterization of Milton/Burroughs’ Satan. There are songs that work well as standalone tracks (“Morningstar,” “I Will Never See My Home”) and those that are more setpieces to serve the story of the whole (“I Am Death”). However, even the songs which are more plot-movers are interesting musically, often with arrangements crossing genres in a way that Stephen Merritt was able to do with 69 Love Songs. This album received good reviews on its release, but it’s been largely forgotten by the end of the year which is a shame. We need more rock music with this sense of ambition.

5. David Bowie - The Next Day: This album is complicated. There’s a very good record hidden in the one that was actually released. Five tracks on the official album are not very good. The good news is that if you buy the deluxe edition, there are enough superior bonus tracks to craft a record that plays great all the way through. I've suggested a running order in my previous review although I’m not sure I’ve quite nailed it. I did get the songs right though. The bonus tracks here: “God Bless the Girl,” “So She,” “I’ll Take You There,” and “The Plan” are a better fit with the rest of the record than the ones I would eliminate. Why should you have to do so much work to listen to an album? Because it’s Bowie and he’s worth it.

6. Arcade Fire - Reflektor: For all the bluster about James Murphy’s production and AF’s new disco sound, this record still sounds like the progeny of Springsteen and Bowie to me. It’s the first disc of this album that makes the bigger initial splash, but it’s the softer and more restrained second disc that has stayed with me in songs like “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus),” “Afterlife,” and “Supersymmetry.” I’m guessing this record was designed to let a little air out of their high drama, ultra sincere image ala Achtung Baby! What’s funny is that like U2, Arcade Fire’s idea of scaling down their own self-importance still equates with a grand epic statement like releasing a double album and an expertly coordinated, pre-release promotional roll-out (in U2’s case it was the Zoo TV tour). I like that this band are adding New Order to their palette. Now they just need to be able to create something on the smaller scale of say Power, Corruption, and Lies or Low Life. They’re one of the few bands that could use a couple throwaway tracks on their albums to cast the better songs in greater perspective.

7. Blood Orange - Cupid Deluxe: This record should probably be ranked higher than it is, but I only recently discovered it so I’m tempering my judgment a bit. This is a funky, deep British soul album that is both rhythmically and melodically compelling. There are hooks all over the album metered with sadness wearing a mask of heroic romance. You could make the argument that it’s a little retro, very 80s, but the songs themselves are strong enough to bear the weight of comparison. There’s a smooth sax likeness to Destroyer’s Kaputt that inhabits some of these tracks, “Chosen” in particular. In fact, you could make the case that Blood Orange is just an indie-soul update of Al B. Sure. Maybe so, but go back and listen to In Effect Mode and tell me what’s wrong with that.

8. Thundercat - Apocalypse: This is a classy record by a distinctly talented musician. It’s not jazz or dance or R&B. Thundercat exists within his own genre. Although the record is dedicated to a departed friend, there is a joy and love to this music which is warm, uplifting, and inclusive. As a bassist, Thundercat lets his instrument lead these tracks in a way that is unique outside of dub reggae - it even informs the vocal melody. Like any truly great music of the present it feels both futuristic and retro at the same time, blending fusion, funk, and disco together in a way that is really harmonically distinctive. I feel a little weird making this comparison, but what he’s doing is not that different from Esperanza Spalding although he isn’t as tied to tradition as much as she is. I’d love to hear Prince’s opinion of this record. I’d love to hear him do a song with Janelle Monae. I really want to hear what he’s going to do next.

9. Solange - True: Solange’s sister Beyonce just put out a new record and was met with worldwide fawning fanfare. I couldn’t care less. I’ve never liked Beyonce. I’ve never really dislike her. There have been occasionally good Beyonce songs (“Independent Woman,” “Love on Top,” and begrudgingly “Single Ladies”), but she always sounds like she’s working really hard. Solange has sounded calculated in the past, but she has always seemed cool and laidback by comparison to her sister. “Losing You” is Solange’s first great song. Hopefully more follow in its wake. The other songs on this EP are also good aside from some slightly silly lyrics. They don’t sound desperate to impress; they just do.

10. Queens of the Stone Age - ...Like Clorkwork: This is another record that I heard too late in the year. These guys might not be to your taste, but to me this line-up of the band (including contributions from Grohl, Lannegan, and Oliveri) do intelligent hard rock better than anyone else right now. The grooves on this record are slinky with real hips on them. The arrangements have a lot of room to them which is so rare these days. This might be the best production of any record that’s ever been released on Matador. Josh Homme is one of the best rock singers right now with a range going from a deep croon to a silky falsetto. Auerbach is the only one who comes close, but Homme doesn’t hide his vocals under vintage mic filters. Homme has a better drummer too.

11. Parquet Courts - Light Up Gold + Tally All The Things That You Broke: Hey, you guys remember indie rock? Like, American indie rock circa 93-94? I could run through a list of bands that this one references (Sonic Youth, Pavement, Pixies, Dead Milkmen, Camper Van Beethoven, King Missile, Butthole Surfers, Cows, Archers of Loaf, etc.), but that’s a lot less fun than listening to these guys. And that’s the central word to this music, fun. There’s a sense of self-aware, self-deprecation here that a lot of indie rock has been missing since the millennium. Indie rock of the last 15 years has seemingly disappeared up its own art-damaged, Brooklyn-bred bum. When/why did everyone get so serious? I initially didn’t give these guys the time because I figured them for another empty hipster group. Maybe they are hipsters. I really don’t care. They’ve got good jokes. The best recommendation I could make for them is that they sound like a band that the Kids in the Hall would have been into.

The Best of the Rest:

Zeus - Busting Visions: Badfinger? Oh yeah. I can forgive these guys their retro stance because the tunes are good. It’s not really that direct of a copy/target. There are other influences at work: Beatles (duh), Big Star, Faces, Emitt Rhodes, etc. They fall into the Dr. Dog pile for me.

The Ocean Blue - Ultramarine: The first two songs are excellent and rest is merely good. New Order definitely won’t release a record better than this ever again.

The Knife - Shaking the Habitual: To be honest, these guys haven’t really moved me since Silent Shout (Fever Ray notwithstanding). They are brilliant, but far too often they sound abstract for the sake of abstraction. If they so chose to wade in those waters, they could make Lady Gaga irrelevant overnight. Call me nuts, but I want this transgressive duo to make a pop album.

Forest Swords - Engravings: There’s a lot of mood to this record. I’m almost tempted to call it trip hop. Whatever you call it, it’s really beautiful, hypnotic music.

Janelle Monae - Electric Lady: I wanted to like this record more than I did, which isn’t to say that there's not a lot to recommend it. Specifically, “Primetime” and “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes” are magnificent. On the whole though there are too many guest stars. Janelle is more than talented enough to carry her own record.

Active Child - Rapor EP: It’s not as focused of a statement as You Are All I See, but this is very catchy. “Calling in the Name of Love” and “Feeling Is Gone” are my jams.

King Krule - 6 Feet Beneath the Moon: This kid is 19 which makes me sick. He’s like Scott Farkus grown up, pouring out his pain through his voice and guitar. I actually think he needs to leave behind the electronic elements and go for a more sparse Billy Bragg sound. “Easy Easy” is killer.

Savages - Silence Yourself: I resisted this for a good long while as I do with most current records that approach the same genre as my former group. They have the sound, style, and swagger down for sure. They just need a few more songs. “Shut Up” and “Husbands” are a good start.

Fort Romeau - Stay/True EP; Jetee/Desire EP; SW9 EP: This guy is the touring keyboardist for La Roux. It’s house. I like it.

Sebastien Tellier - Confection: This aims to be of a piece with the Cosmic Machine compilation (below). It’s close. It’s not his best, but it’s nice.

Foxygen - We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic: These guys are young and incredibly precious. Their meltdown earlier this year didn’t help their cause. They’ve done their homework though. Anyone who can rip off the Stones ("Under My Thumb"), Elvis ("Suspicious Minds"), and Iggy (take your pick) in the same song ("Blue Mountain") at least show they have moxie. If they grow some thicker skin they could be good as long as they don’t fall prey to their own Brian Jonestown complex.

Ducktails - The Flower Lane: These guys seem like twee dorks, but I can dig it. I’m surprised that this record didn’t come out on Captured Tracks.

Burial - Rival Dealer; Truant/Rough Sleeper: It’s bizarre to me that this guy falls under the same umbrella as Skrillex; and considering the potential comparison, it's a riddle how some people still take the latter seriously.

Jose James - No Beginning, No End: Local guy makes nice Sunday morning music.

Pere Ubu - Lady from Shanghai: You should know by this point if this is for you or not.


Various Artists - Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound: I’m surprised “Just Another Sucker” isn’t on here, but this is both a great listen as well as an important document. Amazing packaging too. The Alexander O'Neal tunes and the Flyte Tyme cuts make it worth it alone.

Various Artists - Cosmic Machine: I’ve been looking for stuff that’s like Alain Goraguer’s La Planete Sauvage soundtrack (which is represented here) and here it is. Now I just need to track down all the records individually.

Craig Leon - She Wears a Hemispherical Skull Cap: Super important producer makes great proto techno with ethnic overtones. Think Byrne/Eno, but earlier and with more krautrock. Easily as vital as 23 Skidoo.

Here's a playlist of everything except Thundercat and Craig Leon because they're not on Spotify. I included a couple videos for those two below.

Lou Reed

I started writing a piece during the summer on Lou Reed's critique of the new Kanye West, but I never finished it. Basically, it was going to be a primer on Lou for Kanye fans who had no idea of who this cranky old guy was. When Lou passed away I was recording vocals for a new record. Needless to say, it was difficult to process that day. I wrote the following on Facebook, but I thought I might like to share it here as well.

I’ve taken Lou Reed’s passing harder than I would have expected. Like many people, his music was hugely important to me. I was surprised how much coverage his death received and the range of people who paid tribute. I admit some surprise at seeing Miley Cyrus’ and Josh Groban’s tweets. Perhaps most celebrities simply realized that a giant had fallen and they felt compelled to comment. Maybe they were fans though. Who am I to judge?

A lot of people posted what their favorite song was or just that he influenced them. However, I didn’t hear a lot of specifics about why they loved his music. Here’s my story about how I found his music and what it meant to me.

I found Lou the summer after my senior year in high school. It might have been earlier except for a hair metal music clerk at my local Great American Music. I had read an article in Spin a couple of years earlier which stated that The Byrds were the most influential American rock group outside of the Velvet Underground. I thought it was strange that I had never heard of the most influential American group of all time. I was buying Led Zeppelin II at the aforementioned G.A.M. when I asked the Dana Strum clone behind the counter who the Velvets were, mentioning the Spin article. He reacted with disgust and told me the Velvet Underground were a terrible band. He played me the beginning of what I later recognized as “Heroin.” It sounded dark and different, but Mr. Strum turned it off before the vocals started, telling me that I was better off sticking with Zeppelin.

I didn’t make my way back until I had found Bowie and learned of the connection. The summer after high school I had to have reconstructive jaw surgery because my dentist was convinced I would develop huge polyps on the sides of my face since my teeth didn’t touch in the back, meaning the jaw muscles were never at rest. I learned later that the surgery wasn’t necessarily needed.

Since the post-surgery recovery would be two-weeks spent at home my mom said she would buy me a couple of tapes. I picked out Walk on the Wild Side: Best of Lou Reed (the one with the Rachel Polaroids on it) and The Best of the Velvet Underground: Words and Music of Lou Reed.

I brought the tapes and my Walkman with me to the hospital to listen to post-op. I remember waking up in the hospital room with my jaw wired shut and my face newly swollen to the size of a basketball. I was told I wouldn’t be able to feel the lower part of my face for at least a few weeks. There was a lot of involuntary drooling over my fat, cracked lip covered in dried blood. My brother and sister had a hard time looking at me without crying when they came to visit. I felt like a monster, like Joseph Merrick. To be seventeen is to be self-conscious, but this was something else entirely.

That first night in the hospital I listened to the Velvets cassette, finally hearing “Heroin” in full while I was hooked to the IV drip. I didn’t sleep much that night. I had to keep going to the bathroom from the constant infusion of fluids. There was something monstrous in this music which I related to, which gave me some comfort. Ever since Lou Reed’s music was a source of comfort for me when I felt scared, confused, overwhelmed, humiliated, or disappointed in myself.

Obviously, my life is far from tormented – I’m a pretty lucky guy, in fact. And likewise, Lou's music is not all grim. There’s a lot of joy in it. As the liner notes to that Velvets best-of stated, Lou’s mantra could have been condensed down to his reassurance that “It was alright.” Essentially, Lou's music found beauty in things that other people thought were weird or ugly, and that can be a reassuring thing when you're feeling low.

Everyone knows the Velvets are great, but Lou’s solo stuff often gets short shrift. For those who are unfamiliar, here’s a playlist. It’s not the most obscure, but it’s a start from my own personal bias.