By The Staff
50 :: Emperor X
Central Hug/Friendarmy/Fractaldune (And the Dreams that Resulted)
Man, no one got this right. Amazon and AMG say it came out last year (wrong) and we rated it something like 76% (wrong) and other sites gave it things like 7.7 (wrong) and 7 (wronger) and all of this is so travestial (a word, Word spell-check is wrong) that I’m ok with saying that I’m the only “critic” type (also wrong, but allow me this indulgence) who loves this album, and you’re probably ok with knowing that I had to threaten to write about Shugo Tokumaru again so that Scott would let me do this piece, thereby getting Smog bumped off our year-end list (sorry Greenwald, but you were wrong, too). Which, I guess, is morally wrong, but biblically correct, so I at least have Florida on my side with this one.
I HATE HATE HATE that this album will get ignored and dismissed as “good” when it is, in actuality, brain viagra. And this is exactly the type of self-contained, self-indulgent temper tantrum that Central Hug can inspire: “Shut up / just shut up / Shut up / you’re not dying inside!” I will now quote an interview with Chad Metheney (Emp. X) that I imagine will happen someday:
CMG: So did Conor Oberst cry when you ate his arm?
EX: No, he actually just turned into a pile of baby-blue dust that slowly got carried away by a warm Texan wind.
CMG: That is so awesome.
EX: His pinky ring nabbed $57 on e-bay though.
CMG: You are so cool.
EX: Thank you.
CMG: Oh my God you just spoke to me.
The skittery synths that sound like they were bought at a garage sale for garage sale reject stuff, the mis-tuned guitars, the subtle mockery of clichéd mopery in a song about moping (“did you ever get said on your bed late at night / crying / listening to Either/Or?”), the “soaring” vocal harmonies (must be heard, “Sfearion”), the absolute unrelenting ripping-through of every track on the album that needed to be ripped through, and then making dudes cry despite laughing at them for crying on “Citizens of Wichita.” Junk-heap pastiche-pop-punk or something. I dunno.
Most underrated of the year, by a long-shot.
49 :: Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
For me, Naturally begs one question: Sharon Jones, where have you been all my life? The album, Jones’s second, puts the 40-something Queen of Soul center stage with the precision-tuned Dap-Kings right behind her for 10 songs of absolutely unstoppable soul music. Tracks like “How Do You Let a Good Man Down,” “How Long Do I Have to Wait For You,” and “Naturally Born Lover” pack enough high-powered funk to get even the whitest of us dancing. The slow jams (“You’re Gonna Get It” and “All Over Again”) show Jones’s domination of the other end of the spectrum too, while allowing the Dap-Kings to prove themselves capable of some Wilson-level arranging, in the process making the record worth being on this list for the instrumentation alone. Somewhere in the middle, Jones and the Kings pull off the best cover of the year in the high-stepping take on Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” and all is right in the world. Sharon Jones for President.
48 :: Constantines
Tournament of Hearts
Who starts an album with 25 seconds of wavering guitar feedback, followed by pounding drums and an even heavier voice? The Constantines didn’t forget how to rock between Shine a Light and Tournament of Hearts, they just do it a little more patiently now. On their third full-length, they dissect their sound slightly, stripping the songs of punk bombast in favor of dynamic shifts and more attention to detail. See how smoothly the undistorted (!) guitars slip into the chorus of “Hotline Operator,” or how much a little twang adds to “Good Nurse”? “Soon Enough” tenderly reveals the band’s softer, folk influenced side. Then we have the rockers: “Draw Us Lines” barely contains itself, and “Love In Fear” is the paranoid fever-dream of the year. This is the last release of Canadian label Three Gut Records, and if they had to go out on a single album, they picked the right one.
47 :: Silver Jews
The Tanglewood Numbers
Tanglewood Numbers should have been huge. The first time I heard the Jews’ latest, I marvelled at the commanding presence of the full band, the use the pristine production and, most importantly, the uncharacteristic insistency in Dave Berman’s voice. I was convinced it would be a crossover hit, broadening the group’s appeal, and somewhat resurrecting the straight up indie rock manifesto that Jews alumni Stephen Malkmus and Will Oldham helped write.
Both, expectedly, prove their worth; Malkmus’ subtle guitar work reaching the elegiac ennui of American Water’s “Federal Dust”, albeit allowed slightly less room to innovate, though at the ebenfit of tighter song structures and a focus that has eluded the collected works of everybody involved for a good decade or so. Berman, though, again proves his worth amongst his better known friends, providing another joyful bundle of quotable lyrical quips; “Andre was a young, black Santa Claus,” anyone? Wonderful couplets such as “Sleeping is the Only Love’s” “I heard they were taming the shrew / I heard that the shrew was you,” and the hilarious “The Farmer’s Hotel” give evidence to a new, almost jovial, lightness in the Jews’ sound. Berman’s substance abuse and suicide attempt slyly alluded to with the line “There is a place past the blues that I never want to see again” in “There is a Place,” before the song breaks down, building up a constructive momentum, soaring as Berman repeatedly intones, “I took a hammer to it all,” equal parts machismo and desperation; the song exasperating itself in a fuzz of splayed riffs before returning to its more familiar, melancholy opening motif.
There’s nothing challenging on Tanglewood Numbers, and the inclusion of Berman’s wife Cassie so up front in the mix can get tiresome, but it’s a collection of songs that demands to be lauded, and should have received much more recognition.
46 :: We Are Wolves
Non-Stop Je Te Plie en Deux
Ah Montreal, where would a year-end wrap up be without you? How easy it could’ve been for a band like We Are Wolves to go overlooked. Immersed in a scene swimming with talent, being one third ‘wolf’ at a time when the word is all too common in the independent circuit (for the record, it’s believed that Wolves predate both Wolf Parade and Wolfmother), and, above all else, making dance-noise in a country where neither are generally accepted as customary. This band should’ve been brushed off before they even began.
Akin mostly to their counterparts in Les Georges Leningrad, but still consummately unique, We Are Wolves displayed a decidedly perverse idea on what would drive hips and shimmy feet. They splash together wave after wave of sonically frayed textures over tribal beats and warped shout outs while maintaining a strong inclination for body shakers leaves the group somewhere between boogie and squawk, be it a violent LCD Soundsystem or a cushioned Black Dice. Few can harness the most dissonant of chords and keys and still come up with something as staggering “LA Nature,” only to later flip for the euphonious side-splitting synth crescendo of “We Are All Winners.” The French trio’s choice of aggro-groove over angst made it known that you can be antagonizing and content all at the same time. The album itself should come with a disclaimer; I’m positive people are hurting each other when these songs come on at the clubs.
45 :: Ladytron
Like my CMG comrade-in-arms David Goldstein, I had always considered Ladytron a singles act for middle-aged hipsters still trying to pull off the black leather pants, yellow-tinted sunglasses and Starbucks non-fat latte trifecta. And while I wouldn’t be surprised to see members of the chic band walking around in such a get-up, this album certainly deserves a wider audience. The band who helped spur on the ugly electroclash moment proves on Witching Hour, their fourth album, that they just might be able to outlive the ill-fated genre. Ladytron’s understanding of mechanical beats and pulsing bass lines is complemented by an ear for aching melody that allows them to createsongs that sound great on a dance floor but are interesting enough to warrant everyday listening. And, yes, Helen Marnie still sounds like a ghostly female version of Ian Curtis, but in a good way. The real success of Witching Hour lies in the fact that it does actually sound like a fully developed album, while still containing the hot singles for which they’re known.
44 :: Keith Fullerton Whitman
To attempt to describe the sonic experience of listening to Keith Fullerton Whitman’s Multiples is an exercise in abject futility for this critic—my knowledge of drone and ambient is remarkably limited (read: nonexistent), so if you want an informed, analytical critique of this album, read Amir Nezar’s excellent review. What I can do instead is explain my reaction to this album as an absolute outsider to the genre (a classification that I’m willing to assume I share with the vast majority of CMG’s readership). I’ll speak in the simplest possible terms, because I’m listening to the album right now, and I don’t want to over-speak or misrepresent it, because I fear that Keith Fullerton Whitman may be able to kill me with his mind if I do so. This is an album of inhuman intelligence.
Multiples consists of eight untitled tracks. The first four tracks come, initially, as an assault: gongs and hums, screeches and soul-fucked synth warps, digitized banshee wails bursting from negative space. In time these tracks become less abrasive; their structures take root at a preternatural, indefinable level; the seething hum of the third track, for example, opens up for a shadowy embrace. The fourth track clashes manically forward, creating an ungodly tension that is wholly dispersed by the fifth track, the opening chime of which feels like a warm breath of air, the wan light of a Sunday morning. After four tracks of clinical asceticism and staunch academia, Whitman introduces a simple piano figure, reiterating quietly for almost three minutes and building thereupon for an additional eight. It is easily one of the most gorgeous pieces of music I have ever listened to, and if that’s not the type of rigid analysis you’d like to hear from a critic, again, read Amir’s review.
I’d like to find a way to define the emotional payoff that comes from listening to this album extensively without making the whole experience sound, well, cult-ish, but phrases like “life-affirming splendor” and “exegesis of absolute musical Truth” keep popping to mind, so it’s best if I don’t. The second half is warm and expansive and accessible, but without the badlands of the first half it’s an unfair victory. The organic whisper and percussive push of the sixth track builds upon the calamitous, arrhythmic second track, and the blissful chirp of the eighth is a successful conclusion of the clatteringly climactic fourth. The fact that this entire album was produced during Whitman’s tenure as a Harvard professor may incite notions of Ivory Tower intelligentsia, and at times it can be frustratingly obtuse, a “coffee table” album. But these impressions are wrong.
43 :: Field Music
So, this comes out next year in the United States of America and Canada on Absolutely Kosher. Sorry we jumped the gun by writing up the import; we almost didn’t gunjump at all though, because at first listen this thing is a little dull. The cover art is dull, too, and so is the band/album name: sounds like Eno’s follow-up to the Ambient series, right?
It ain’t. It’s actually superer and more groomed than any Furries record I’ve heard, and I’ve heard a good FOUR of those (plus Songbook, I know what I need to). And where some might pen me in the eyeball for saying that the SFA’s get by on novelty 50% of the time, Field Music justifies the hard-earned (via slow burn) praise, writing some romance back into brit pop without boring you in the pants like Clientele. Check “When You Meet Someone Else” where FM disguises a lament on lost love in a harangue against mundanity: “I’ve given up drinking / I drank so hard / it made me think”. Irony is good when done like that. And this is a 2006 model anyway, features including smart writing, cute turns of phrase, high-calorie melody, and Futureheads harmonies that sumptuously slow down, easing off on the ephedrine; the songs are Spoon-paced at “bounce” instead of “twitch.” And then on top of all that they’ve got enough savvy to refrain with horn and string sections, and to perpetually toy and trick with an expansive percussion set, all while banging out enough sharp chordage, noise, and distorted bass to comfort the grown-up Sonic Youth fan who doesn’t want to get caught enjoying too-pretty pop music. Best listened to ignored, you’ll know you like it when someone comments on your humps.
42 :: Russian Futurists
OK, so apparently some people here at CMG think this record is “silly.” Which leads me to believe others out there might be making the same one-off assumption that this is shallow enough to be “wacky” or something. I sympathize, sure —- you hear some bright synth, a celebratory string sample, some pop harmonies, you figure “hey, this is nice,” but not probably not a lot else. You couldn’t really tell what that guy was on about, but you’re pretty sure it was just some insignificant shit, right?
Dig slightly deeper and you’ll find the twist: he’s a mopey, “getting drunk and listening to AM radio” singer/songwriter who just happens to write better lyrics than any folkie I heard this year. Which you might not have paid much attention to because, despite being talented enough to write, produce, perform and record an enormous experimental pop album without serious fault, he sure does feel shitty about himself. Each of these songs dig deeper and deeper into insecurity and self-loathing (“I’m ugly and bucktoothed”), and their effects on how he approaches most everything. And he’s about as subtle as the Delgados (“No one / I mean no one can depress me more than I can”) about it, too.
“Paul Simon” confronts the dangers of comfort over personal growth or happiness, his habits and tendency toward circular self-destructive behavior hollowing him out: “I’ve felt how a heart melts down / I’m so burned out, I’m a shell now.” It goes on like this: On “Hurtin’ 4 Certain,” he’s “an old man hiding behind [his] youth” worried that “things will never get better.” On “Why You Gotta Do That Thang?” he’s thinking himself into depression (“You’ll be having sons soon / it’s thoughts like that that consume me”) over a relationship he may very well also be reveling in with “It’s Over, It’s Nothing,” going back and forth between false optimism (“If I had you, I could make it through one night without drinking for two”) and reality (“I knew you were bluffing / but holy fuck it stings”). On closer “Two Dots on a Map” he comes full circle, again “crashing and burning” in a dramatic defeat, ending the record with its most sobering line: “And if we knew we were dying, is this how we’d leave things?”
I mean, sure, you could simplify this album as meshing wholly bleak songs with an imposed enthusiastic production, but that would imply a gimmick where a natural struggle exists. We’re all fighting this dichotomy; insecure (probably also why his voice is lower in the mix than you’d expect, his words frustratingly muddled) and battling for voice/identity/love/acceptance while counterproductively creating an outer persona to cover or divert from that. Hart covers with the music, but comes clean with his lyrics, attempting his best to crawl through (“no more walls or laying bricks”) and connect from the background. And for millions of teens and “young adults” struggling to adapt and mature into something other than an over-thinking emotional wreck, he’s connecting with your frustrations, your deafening self-criticism, your “there’s some shit I hate and I fear I’ve become it,” your “when I wake up / why wake up’s what I’m wondering, but I still try.” He just does it with a smile and a beat, hiding the year’s most interesting diary in some of its catchiest electro/pop/whatever. This thing’s miles deep, “silly” doesn’t even scratch the surface.
41 :: Caribou
The Milk of Human Kindness
Thanks to a silly act of vanity by Handsome Dick Manitoba, who apparently failed to realize that A) there’s a place in Canada that shares part of his name, and B) no one cares anymore and few ever really did, Dan Snaith was forced to change his moniker last year. Thankfully, it didn’t slow Snaith down any, as he followed up his intriguing, summer-drenched album as Manitoba, Up In Flames, with another hefty dose of melodica as Caribou on The Milk of Human Kindness.
If anything, the name change almost makes conceptual sense here as Snaith’s work as Caribou seems to be a tremendous leap forward, with more interesting song structures and more sonic freak-outs than the work he did when he was infringing on some old-fart punk-rocker. As much as Up In Flames was a summery cocktail of psychedelica, The Milk of Human Kindness delves into pure electronica via krautrock while still retaining the vaguely warm feeling he’s always created with his music. Recording mainly as a one man band, his work as a producer here shines repeatedly, making for an engrossing, unpredictable listen. He still wears some of his psychedelic influences prominently on his sleeves, as well as some new ones, but it’s his deftness as a producer and an improved sense of song-writing that makes the album consistently rewarding. Here’s hoping Frank Black doesn’t get too proprietary over the name of one of his old Pixies songs.