Sunday, August 30, 2009

My Favorite Disco Songs

I’ve never been to a dance club; I don’t particularly like dancing, and I’m too young. However, over the last year or two, I’ve grown particularly fond of dance music, and, specifically, disco. I may come from the town that killed disco, but Chicago’s hatred towards the genre is one of the few feelings I don’t share with my city. Disco’s demographic may not include my age or the place I’m from, but some of the music from the period (and from subsequent revivals of the period) is truly brilliant, and, of course, loads of fun.

Disco is kind of a tricky categorization. After all, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between disco and funk or disco and house. (For me, at least.) But I think every track here makes a strong case for being a disco track. So here are my 20 favorite disco songs. Enjoy.

20. The Bee Gees—Stayin’ Alive

19. Thelma Houston—Don’t Leave Me This Way

18. ABBA—Take A Chance On Me

17. Instant Funk—I Got My Mind Made Up

16. Klein & MBO—Dirty Talk

15. Aeroplane (feat. Kathy Diamond)—Whispers

14. Dinosaur—Kiss Me Again

13. Donna Summer—Love To Love You Baby

12. Grace Jones—Pull Up To The Bumper

11. Giorgio Moroder—The Chase

10. Hercules and Love Affair--Blind: One of only two songs on this list from the current decade, “Blind” holds up against any classic from the actual disco era. It’s relentlessly funky and groovy, and it sounds extremely modern despite recalling decades-old sounds, which is certainly a tough and often ill-fated task.

9. Gloria Gaynor--I Will Survive: This was a favorite of mine before I knew what disco was. It’s catchy, it’s funky, and it’s timeless. Gloria Gaynor sings the relatively smart and meaningful (compared to other disco tracks) lyrics with feeling to spare, and the music glides nicely and sharply behind her big, emotional voice.

8. The Bee Gees--You Should Be Dancing: My favorite song by what is probably the most popular disco group of all time, “You Should Be Dancing” is definitely the Bee Gees’ funkiest and least cheesy sounding disco hit. It boasts some pretty awesome percussion and lots of vocal echo to create a more unique and refreshing Bee Gees sound.

7. Michael Jackson--Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough: Potentially my favorite song by who is probably the most popular pop/disco/soul singer of all time, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” is Michael (rest in peace)’s best dance track. It started adult Michael’s career off with a swirling, funky bang, and set up a template for part 2 of the greatest career ever in pop music.

6. Dinosaur--Go Bang!: Arthur Russell veered away from the mainstream when it came to all music, including disco. But his tracks under the Dinosaur moniker were still undeniably funky and danceable, even if they were a little weirder than most. And “Go Bang!” is his best—his funkiest, his most danceable, and certainly one of his weirdest.

5. Gino Soccio--Dancer: A master of Italo Disco (even though he was from Canada), Gino Soccio created his masterpiece with “Dancer.” It provides eight and a half minutes of smooth, intricate, and funky disco grooves that just keep layering and layering until the mix is bursting with spastic, jittery energy. It has several of disco’s finest basslines and riffs, all in one song.

4. Candido--Jingo: Candido’s cover of a Santana song (I had no idea it was a cover until recently) turns a Spanish-y rock song into an intense Spanish-y space disco track. It contains a piano line that invented house music and enough congas and other percussion to fill a fifteen minute song. (It's nine and a half.) Add some Spanish group vocals, and you have a disco masterpiece.

3. Giorgio Moroder--I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone: Admittedly, this may not be the best Giorgio Moroder song, but it’s my favorite. It’s not the most danceable either, but it’s still my favorite. This is because it is unbelievably catchy. The catchiness of this song is not to be believed. A melody introduced by a vocoder repeats and transforms over the course of the song above an array of deeply funky electronics to perfect effect.

2. Chic--Good Times: Not much to say about this one. By now, it has deeply rooted itself into the American psyche through not only its original greatness, but by its prevalence in pop culture and hip-hop culture through the extensive sampling of it. “Good Times” contains the greatest bassline in the history of modern music. (Or at least dance music. But I’d say music in general.) It has extremely funky guitars over that bass, great percussion, and a fun vocal to finish off the deal. The “deal” being the second finest disco track ever.

1. Donna Summer--I Feel Love: What could be better than “Good Times”, you might find yourself asking. If you are indeed asking that, it’s a reasonable question. “Good Times” is pretty spectacular. However, “I Feel Love” is more spectacular. This song was the sound of the future when it was released. (After hearing this song, Brian Eno supposedly told David Bowie, “This is the sound of the future,” or some very bold remark like that that only Brian Eno could make.) Now, it still sounds like the future—an incredible feat for a track that was released in 1977. (I think. I should look these things up, but I’m lazy.) Produced by Giorgio Moroder, the music is heavy and funky at the same time. It is based around a highly intricate and unique synth line that has been copied countless times in the years since. The vocals are expertly airy and desperate and sensual. “I Feel Love” not only pushed disco ahead, it influenced most of all modern dance music as well.

That’s what I think. Please suggest ones I missed. And throw an mp3 in the comment box, too, if you want.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

My Favorite '90s Pop Songs

In continuing with this week's 1990s theme, I'm giving you my 20 favorite pop songs (many of them would be filed under "guilty pleasures") from that decade. Though, as you could probably infer from my Top Albums list, I'm not as much a fan of popular music, every once in a while there's a pop song that's either genuinely great or genuinely so catchy and ridiculous you have to like it. There's a little bit of both categories on this list. So, here are the songs that were both important to pop culture in the '90s and important to me. (I included all the music videos because what says '90s like a great music video?)

1. New Radicals--You Get What You Give
4. Beck--Loser
5. Hanson--Mmmbop
6. Sinead O'Connor--Nothing Compares 2 U
7. The Verve--Bittersweet Symphony
8. Harvey Danger--Flagpole Sitta
9. Weezer--Buddy Holly
10. Blind Melon--No Rain
11. Fastball--The Way
12. Chumbawumba--Tubthumping
13. The Notorious B.I.G. (with Puff Daddy and Mase)--Mo Money Mo Problems
14. Biz Markie--Just A Friend
15. Snow--Informer
16. Third Eye Blind--Semi-Charmed Life
17. Cherry Poppin' Daddies--Zoot Suit Riot
18. Right Said Fred--I'm Too Sexy
19. OMC--How Bizarre
20. Coolio--Gangsta's Paradise

That's what I think. Some of those are definitely guilty, but they all provide pleasure.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Top Albums of the 1990s (Pt. 3)

Ah. Here it is. The final part of my three part Top 120 Albums of the 1990s list. Part 1 (120-31) is here and Part 2 (30-16) is here. (Or you can just scroll down.) By now, you may have been able to guess what albums make up this top 15, but hopefully it will include some surprises. The '90s were my first decade, and I enjoyed them. (Them? It? I'll say them.) The top albums on this list just show, along with movies like Batman & Robin, how artistic and cultural the decade really was.

By the 1990s, it had already become difficult to do anything too unique and still be in the realm of rock or pop. But these top 15 albums were able to adapt previous rock and pop music in modern ways to create truly unique and amazing pieces of art. There is an array of styles represented, but the focus here, as you could probably tell, is on independent rock albums, because, well, that's what I like the best.

Without further ado, here are my 15 favorite albums of the 1990s. Enjoy.

15. Weezer--Weezer (Blue Album)
Weezer's self-titled debut album proves that there is always room for great big hooks and great big riffs if they are indeed great. This album is purely guitar pop, but it's executed perfectly. All the songs are wondrously catchy, all the riffs are smart and big, and the lyrics are funny, intelligent, and entirely relatable. Weezer is one of the only albums that my ten year-old self loved that my seventeen year-old self still loves. It's uplifting when it wants to be, jaded when it wants to be, and depressing when it wants to be. Though it’s not especially original, I find myself coming back to it time and again, year after year. (And I've been doing this for about seven or eight years now.) It’s a complete pop music triumph that captures the feeling of youth better than any full-length ever made.

14. Public Enemy--Fear Of A Black Planet
It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back is inarguably one of the finest hip-hop albums ever made. (Some might say the finest.) I might be part of a minority, but I think Fear Of A Black Planet is just as good. On this album, Public Enemy are just as furious as before, and Chuck D’s highly literate rants are just as effective and stirring as ever. The production is chaotic, apocalyptic, messy, and undeniably funky. Obviously, as a white person, it’s difficult for me to exactly relate to hip-hop lyrics, but Chuck D’s raps are so personal and open and heartfelt that his struggle and the struggle of black people is easily identifiable, intriguing, and despicable. It’s sarcastic and angry, funny and furious, but Fear Of A Black Planet is consistently brilliant.

13. Bjork--Homogenic
Homogenic finds Bjork at her most, well, everything. Most haunting, most cold, most bizarre, most artistic, most complex, most intense, and most good. It's completely electronic (though I'm still not sure if some of those strings are real or synthesized, which is a goof thing) unlike Post and draws influence from trip-hop and IDM without sounding like anyone. That's probably because Bjork's voice on Homogenic is as big and singular as ever, and her lyrics seem to be a little more dark and twisted and emotional. I think what makes it Bjork's best album is its cohesiveness. On Homogenic, she finds a style and sticks to it, and the result is a grouping of songs that all sound similar, but different, and flow perfectly. Homogenic is a masterpiece of electronic music.

12. Beck--Odelay
I mentioned that #15 on this list was one of the only albums that I have loved unfailingly for upwards of six or seven years. Odelay is another. (To find the third, look to #8.) Anyhow, Odelay appealed to the younger me because the songs are wondrously catchy and wondrously weird. At age eleven, though, I'm not sure that I appreciated Odelay's full genius. It takes the Beck that became famous--bluesy acoustics and electronic beats--and adds better, more mature songwriting and unbelievably interesting production courtesy of Beck and The Dust Brothers, among others. The songs cover tons of different styles, from trip-hop to experimental to folk to pop to hip-hop to blues (often within individual songs) while managing to always sound cohesive and uniquely like Beck. And it still sounds fresh today.

11. Portishead--Dummy
Dummy is a trip-hop album at its most basic, but it's pretty different from Massive Attack's Blue Lines or something like that. But, upon further listening, Dummy reveals itself to be more of a dark, creepy, intense experimental electronic soul album. Soul is certainly an important describing factor because Dummy truly does contain some of the most soulful--and beautiful--singing of the decade, even if it is often on top of harsh electronic beats. The music and the beats are often harsh and heavy and dark, but they are crisp and intricate and warm at the same time. Some songs do have that trip-hop feel, and the ones that do are some of the finest trip-hop songs I've heard, but many of the tracks are truly unique in their approach. Dummy is a dense, haunting electronic music album with beauty and soul to spare.

10. Yo La Tengo--I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One
I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One is easily Yo La Tengo's best album, and Yo La Tengo is probably one of the top five best independent rock bands. Which is to say: I Can Hear... is amazing. It combines all the sounds Yo La Tengo had made previously--the harsh noise, the droning, the '60s pop, the droning '60s pop, the soft organ pop, etc.--and synthesizes and refines it and puts it all together seamlessly. As is the case with all their music, their influences are semi-evident (a Velvet Underground bassline is used for "Moby Octopad") but the resulting sound is very unique and recognizable only as Yo La Tengo. It's a long album at about an hour and eight minutes, but it never drags. In fact, I usually feel as though I want it to go on for a while longer. This album feels like a mature, well-produced, smarter version of indie rock.

9. Guided By Voices--Bee Thousand
I disliked Guided By Voices and Bee Thousand until last year. However, that was before I actually had ever heard the album. Then, well, I listened to it. And I loved it. It being lo-fi is really the least appealing quality I think. Bee Thousand is filled with several of the best, albeit weirdest, hooks of the decade. Although most of the songs are under two minutes long, they all feel like full, finished, brilliant pop songs that are masked in tape hiss and distortion. It's incredibly raw and personal, even though many of the lyrics have something to do with aliens. The songs are fun when they are supposed to be and melancholy when they are supposed to be, but they always sound original. It's not the best indie rock album, because how can something so sloppy be the best? Doesn't "the best" have connotations of perfection? However, it's that anti-perfection that makes it one of my favorites.

8. Pavement--Slanted & Enchanted
I think this is a logical album to follow Bee Thousand, because together, these two albums basically created the blueprint for indie rock in the '90s and 2000s. And Slanted & Enchanted gets the edge because it came first. In terms of personality and relatability, Slanted & Enchanted is practically unmatched. The lyrics are earnest and smart, and they are sung in an earnest and smart manner. The songs certainly resemble pop songs, but they are often masked in feedback and noise. After everything I've read about this record, it's hard to say something without sounding redundant, but I think the one thing to take away--the thing that really makes this album--is its influence. I said earlier that it created the blueprint for indie rock, and that's because just about everyone has copied it, but no one really has done it as well.

7. DJ Shadow--Endtroducing...
Few albums have really blown me away upon my first listen to them, and, obviously, Endtroducing... is one of those select few. The main reason this happened: it's startlingly good and original. Endtroducing... is a far cry from the hip-hop record it's often billed as. Though most of the beats and the sampling process with which it was created are derived from hip-hop, the album itself founds far removed from the genre. It encompasses every type of electronic style, and, through its samples, all sorts of soul, pop, and rock. It's heavy, dark, and intense, but it often maintains a playful enough atmosphere. Though it is not even close to the first record to use sampling (that happened about twenty years before), it might be the first to use it exclusively, and it's still completely innovative. Endtroducing... is a masterpiece of electronic music, hip-hop, and even pop and rock, because it took all of those and created a whole new thing.

6. Slint--Spiderland
By now, "quiet-loud dynamics" and stuff in that vein has been used to describe about a million albums. You can thank Spiderland for that. The album is full of guitar-centric post-rock that shifts constantly from atmospheric, airy, experimental, quiet, spoken-word rock to heavy, grating, experimental, loud, spoken-word-with-some singing rock. Both aspects of the album--the quiet and the loud--are unsettling, unique, difficult, and incredibly awesome. It, like many other albums on this list, has influenced the following fifteen to twenty years of independent rock music, and, like many other albums on this list, is far better than anything it had influenced. No one else can master the distorted guitars and equally distorted lyrics that make up Spiderland, and that allows the album to stay fresh after eighteen years. Post-rock was an important part of underground music in the '90s (and into today), and Spiderland is the genre's masterpiece.

5. Nirvana--Nevermind
I love Nevermind because it is intrinsically linked to my childhood. For at least four of my formative years, Nevermind was my absolute favorite album of all time. It was angry, messy, chaotic, and still poppy. I listened to Nevermind religiously. When I first found out Kurt Cobain was dead (and had been for years), I was utterly and deeply upset. He was just so cool. All nostalgia aside though, the music on Nevermind truly is amazing. The songs are indeed angry, but literate and intelligent. And they are indeed poppy, but not in a traditional pop sense. They're catchy. They stick with you. They've stuck with me for nine or ten years and will stay with me forever I'm guessing. Nevermind is a huge, lasting statement and more than just a grunge album. It is the most important grunge album, but it certainly has transcended that inherently crappy sub-genre to become one of the most important (and awesome) rock n' roll albums of all time. Period.

4. Guided By Voices--Alien Lanes
I know that Bee Thousand is nearly universally regarded as this band's opus, but I prefer Alien Lanes. Sorry if that doesn't sit well with you. By the time this was released (1995), Bee Thousand had given Guided By Voices a pretty solid following in the independent music world, which, in turn, put some pressure on Alien Lanes. People don't like that it's better produced, more polished, more mature, and more developed than Bee Thousand, but those are the exact qualities that make it better. It takes their amazing hooks, science-y lyrics, and warm lo-fi aesthetic and fully realizes their vision. As for those amazing hooks: they're bigger and better on Alien Lanes. I'll stop comparing it to Bee Thousand, though, because it deserves to stand alone as a masterpiece. Because that's what it is. Alien Lanes showcases a brilliant band at their peak, when they had all the tools and resources they needed to do exactly what they wanted to do and create a truly mesmerizing pop album.

3. Modest Mouse--The Lonesome Crowded West
The Lonesome Crowded West is, in a word, unbelievable. It is actually not believable that a band so young could create such a bizarre, smart, mature, personal, and heavy album. It is an album that gets better with every listen, even if you've heard it through countless times. (And it's a long album. An hour an hour and fourteen minutes.) The lyrics are sometimes apocalyptic, sometimes social, sometimes reflective, sometimes nonsense, and always clever, sarcastic, and brilliant. In Spiderland's review, I mentioned quiet-loud dynamics and how Slint was the only master of them. I forgot about Modest Mouse. The music on this album alternates between beautifully quiet to mind-numbingly loud with frequency. It is the band's most furious, most raw, and most personal album, which, with a catalogue like theirs, says a lot. I realize that they take many cues from other bands (Pixies, Pavement, etc.), but, for whatever reason, I keep coming back to Lonesome Crowded West before any other similar release. (Doolittle, Slanted.)

2. Neutral Milk Hotel--In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
One thing I can definitively say about In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is that I have heard it through more times than any other album ever made. During the first year after I bought it, I listened to it every day at least once a day. This album is transcendent. It transcends indie rock, folk, the Elephant 6 Collective, modern songwriting, non-modern songwriting, everything. It is familiar to people who haven't heard it, and it is deeply encoded into the minds of people who have. Why, you ask. The lyrics, though supposedly about Anne Frank, are immediately relatable and interesting. The singing of those lyrics is sloppy and wild, and, also immediately relatable and interesting. And, though the music itself is often thought of as secondary, the music is a perfectly executed mixture of folk, indie rock, and garage rock that, despite that description, does not sound derivative. Despite the immediate gratification this album gives, it's a grower. It keeps growing and growing and growing until nearly all other music sounds unimportant.

1. My Bloody Valentine--Loveless
Yes, this is the best record of the decade. No, I didn't even have to think about it. If In The Aeroplane Over The Sea transcends everything, Loveless transcends In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. It is one of the largest, most unique, most beautiful, and downright coolest sonic achievements in the history of all music (not just modern. Eat it, Beethoven.) It's undeniably heavy and loud (when I saw them live last year, a girl in front of me nearly passed out due to the volume) but beneath those swirling, raging, loud, un-guitar sounding guitars lies omnipresent beauty. And the guitar noise itself is beautiful as well. The lyrics are usually quite hard to discern, but that's okay because this is an album that's truly about the music and the sound. In that sense, it is like a classical work. A really loud, awesome classical work. It simulates the full range of human emotions and experiences--joy, sadness, anger, passion, sex, etc.--with only its minimal and uplifting sonics. That said, if you look up the lyrics, you'll find that some of them are quite interesting. They deal mainly with sex, but they do so in a way that isn't creepy, just artistic. Another thing I love about it is that Loveless can be anything the listener wants it to be. It's that ambiguity and shape-shifting quality that makes it an easy candidate for a desert island disc, if, you know, you were ever to actually be stranded on a desert island. Loveless is indeed a shoegaze album (and by far the best ever in that category), but I think the genre that it belongs in is "music." This is what music should sound like.

That's what I think. This is the only decade where I don't think #1 is very arguable, so argue about #2-15, or 2-120, or something completely unrelated.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Top Albums of the 1990s (Pt. 2)

Yesterday, I listed my favorite albums of the 1990s from #31-120. If you missed it, it's
here or directly below this post. Today, I'm displaying my #30-16 favorites from the decade that bore Men In Black, Beetleborgs, Tickle Me Elmo, and me. This grouping of albums just continues to prove that the '90s were good--great, even--for something besides Furbies. Enjoy.

30. Built To Spill--Perfect From Now On
I had every intention of disliking this album. I truly did. Everything else I had ever heard from Built To Spill was somewhere between boring and irritating, but, eventually, I decided to give Perfect From Now On a try. What I found was a manic, intense, wild album with some of the finest guitars of the decade on it. The songs build, shift, and wander while always staying interesting. It’s unexpectedly heavy at times, and the vocals, which I had previously deemed annoying, work perfectly. Perfect From Now On shows a different, better Built To Spill.

29. Godspeed You! Black Emperor--F#A# Infinity
This album is haunting and warm, apocalyptic and beautiful, overwhelming and miminal. That said, it’s undeniably creepy at times. But it’s intricately plotted, well-produced, and doesn’t drag on, which is impressive seeing as every piece is over 15 minutes. Its three pieces (they can’t be called songs) juxtapose otherworldly narratives, intense orchestration, minimalist rock music, bagpipes, and silence seamlessly to create a truly definitive post-rock statement that, despite its length, makes it easy and pleasurable to listen to.

28. Wu-Tang Clan--Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
I know I’m not exactly a hip-hop connoisseur, but Wu-Tang Clan appeals not only to the hip-hop fan, but also to the record connoisseur. The samples (which range from old-school funk to movie—often kung-fu movie—dialogue) are always interesting, and they are integrated with expert precision. The lyrics concern drugs, kung-fu, chess, and who not to fuck with, and they’re rapped by a lineup consisting of some of hip-hops all time best MCs. Enter The Wu-Tang hits harder than most hip-hop albums I’ve ever heard, but it’s also incredibly smart.

27. The Jesus Lizard--Goat
When it comes down to it, Goat rocks harder than anything else to come out in the ‘90s. The riffs are heavy and constant, but without sacrificing any artistry. They are simultaneously frantic and precise. The vocals, handled by David Yow, certainly add extreme depth to the music in that they’re crazy. Yow’s howling and mumbling and groaning is haunting, dark, invigorating, and, sometimes, just bizarre. And Goat rocks nonstop; unlike many metal and hard rock albums, every song is hard, heavy, and gloriously chaotic. What I mean is: Goat is nonstop awesome.

26. Tom Waits--Bone Machine
Tom Waits’s first official studio full-length since Rain Dogs doesn’t disappoint, which is an amazing feat (seeing as Rain Dogs is my favorite albums ever.) It follows a similar formula of pairing hectic, avant-garde blues romps next to tender but bizarre ballads. It’s darker and weirder than Rain Dogs or Swordfishtrombones, but even as Waits sings about horrific things, he sounds relaxed, confident, and incredibly smart. Musically, it is less startling and good as Rain Dogs because it’s been done, but lyrically it finds Waits at his doom-filled peak.

25. Fugazi--Red Medicine
Red Medicine is Fugazi’s first (and probably best) album on which they prove themselves to be more than really angry, albeit talented, hardcore punks. This album shows them writing really interesting and original songs that finds their brand of post-hardcore becoming more mature, complex, experimental, and amazing. But fans of Minor Threat and 13 Songs need not worry; Red Medicine is still as heavy and as angry as any previous release from this group, but in a different way. This is the sound of a really great band at their finest.

24. Spiritualized--Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space
Many years removed from his previous masterpiece (Spacemen 3’s The Perfect Prescription), J. Spaceman a.k.a. Jason Pierce created the only truly worthwhile Brit-pop/rock album of the decade. It mixes Spacemen 3-esque psychedelia with soul, pop, and straightforward rock n’ roll to create an intense and refreshing aural experience. The lyrics tackle extensive drug use and a tough breakup, but the record still manages to sound uplifting when it needs to. It is more conventional than any of Spaceman’s previous releases, but it’s also more heartfelt and refined.

23. Aphex Twin--Richard D. James Album
When I first heard this a few years back, it sounded like nothing I had heard previously. And that's always a good thing. To this day, few things sound like it, and those are all just cheap imitations of this album. The songs are bright, but densely populated with clicks and clacks and beeps that sound distinctly like the future--even twelve years later. The beats are surprising and jarring, but they're genius as well. Also, this album takes the IDM label more to heart because some of these songs do inspire dancing in their own experimental, unique, great way.

22. Bjork--Post
Post is probably Bjork's most fully realized, most musically intelligent album. It keeps her voice (the voice that has inspired every other current female singer) front and center, but adds an array of highly interesting orchestration and electronics behind the vocals. From West Side Story sing alongs to industrial, well, sing alongs, Bjork covers a lot of musical ground while always sounding uniquely like herself. And Post is certainly more of a pop album than any of previous (or post) releases. That said, it's still wonderfully weird in all the right ways.

21. Yo La Tengo--Painful
On Painful, Yo La Tengo created their first truly classic record. It contains plenty of their signature guitar noise alternating with their organ-driven quiet pop, and it does so with the utmost success. What makes it stand out though, is that--though still messy--the songs are refined, mature, and written with the expertise that only a truly experienced band can have. It's one of the best from a classic group, and Painful is a further example that, by kind of sounding like other people, Yo La Tengo created one of the most distinctive (and best) sounds in rock.

20. Ride--Nowhere
I might be a little bit of a sucker for shoegaze, but I can definitively say Nowhere is not only one of the best shoegaze albums, but also one of the best British rock albums of the decade. Beneath the layer of shoegazing, the album contains songs that are long (kinda), chaotic, and awesome against songs that are poppy, pretty, and also awesome. The hooks and riffs are certainly more out in the open than on a certain other classic shoegaze album (Loveless), but that just makes it easier to digest. Also unlike that other album, Nowhere is an arena-sized album in a good way.

19. Boards of Canada--Music Has The Right To Children
No album is as atmospheric or relaxing while still being entirely stimulating as Music Has The Right To Children. It combines spaced out electronics with occasional hip-hop-esque beats, scratching, and samples to great effect. I think what makes it truly stand out from the many other things like it is its personality. The music is completely electronic, but it still pours out emotion, feeling, and tons of soul, which is rare for an electronic record and extremely refreshing. This is most likely (you haven't seen 1-15) the best release of the decade in its genre.

18. Bonnie "Prince" Billy--I See A Darkness
I See A Darkness is extremely subtle, often extremely minimal, and always good. Most songs are painfully slow upon first listen, but further listens show that the pace is necessary to best express the lyrics, which, are typically (for Will Oldham) creative, intricate, melancholy, and morbid. The musicianship is a little sloppy, which only adds to the homy, warm, yet haunting atmosphere that the music (mostly alt. folk/country) provides. Moments are beautiful, moments are creepy, and the whole thing is brilliant. Plus, it gets better upon every listen.

17. Pixies--Bossanova
With Bossanova, Pixies kind of solidify themselves as one of the top two indie rock bands ever (Sonic Youth being the other). For me, Bossanova is their second best album (behind Doolittle.) It's not as perfect or consistent as Doolittle or Surfer Rosa, but it fabulously raw and weird and earnest. The band was kind of in turmoil at the time, and you can hear that on the record. It's heavy and frustrated, but contains some of the bands more expertly executed soft songs. Bossanova sounds like the Pixies recording a break-up album in space, and it's a classic.

16. Talk Talk--Laughing Stock
Laughing Stock is a really weird album, especially to someone who knows Talk Talk for "It's My Life" or "Talk Talk." And, while those are pretty good songs, the radical change presented on Laughing Stock is a great thing. This album is long, minimal, free jazz influences, and a little hard to swallow. Mark Hollis's voice wavers hauntingly and beautifully over decidedly slow soundscapes created by guitars, strings, and clarinets (I think). On this album, the band has furthered the post-rock from Spirit of Eden to create an atmospheric post-rock masterpiece.

That's what I think. Now it should be pretty easy to predict the top 15. I'll give you a hint: Hanson's Middle of Nowhere didn't make the cut.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Top Albums of the 1990s (Pt. 1)

I've mostly exhausted the 2000s album-wise, which means I have to find another decade. So, I'll start with my first decade: the '90s. Granted, my memories of the time period concern mainly Power Rangers, Furbies, Pokemon, Legos, and the Chicago Bulls. In terms of music, I was mainly into the Pokemon theme song and "Mmmbop." However, as time has progressed and I've hit puberty, I've found that a lot of truly amazing music was produced in the '90s ("Mmmbop" being only one example.)

The main genre (at least for me) that pervaded the '90s was "indie rock," and its many subgenres--lo-fi, post-rock, etc. So that's what will be the dominant genre on this list. But don't worry trip-hop, hip-hop, electronic, and other fans, they'll be some stuff for you, too. And, like with all these lists, there's stuff I don't have and stuff I haven't heard, so I might not dislike your favorite album. I just might have never heard it. So send it to me!

This list will be given in three parts because these posts take me a long time to write. The first part (this one) will have #120 through #31. Part 2 will include #30-#16 with write-ups, and Part 3 will have #15-#1 with slightly longer write-ups.

Without further ado, here's #120-#31:

120. Del Tha Funkee Homosapien--I Wish My Brother George Was Here
119. Mouse on Mars--Audiotacker
118. Rancid--Let's Go!
117. Wesley Willis--Rush Hour
116. The Roots--Things Fall Apart
115. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds--The Boatman's Call
114. Sleater-Kinney--The Hot Rock
113. Cibo Matto--Viva! La Woman
112. Dr. Dre--The Chronic
111. Mercury Rev--Deserter's Songs

110. Mouse on Mars--Glam
109. Peter Brotzmann--Nothing To Say: Dedicated to Oscar Wilde
108. Sonic Youth--Dirty
107. Beck--Mutations
106. Roots Manuva--Brand New Second Hand
105. Boris--Absolutego
104. Gas--Gas
103. Outkast--ATLiens
102. Sonic Youth--Experimental Jet Set, Trash & No Star
101. Red Red Meat--Bunny Gets Paid

100. Ustad Ali Akhbar Khan--Traditional Music of India
99. Anthony Braxton--Composition #165 (For 18 Intruments)
98. PJ Harvey--Rid Of Me
97. Ultra Vivid Scene--Joy: 1967-1990
96. Stereolab--Emperor Tomato Ketchup
95. Saint Etienne--Foxbase Alpha
94. Green Day--Dookie
93. Deee-lite--World Clique
92. Earth--Earth 2
91. Fenn O'Berg--The Magic Sound of Fenn O'Berg

90. GZA--Liquid Swords
89. R.E.M.--Automatic For The People
88. Belle & Sebastian--If You're Feeling Sinister
87. Harvey Milk--Courtesy and Good Will Toward Men
86. Air--Moon Safari
85. Gas--Zauberberg
84. Yo La Tengo--Fakebook
83. Fennesz--Hotel Paral.lel
82. Smog--Knock Knock
81. Liz Phair--Exile In Guyville

80. Jeff Buckley--Grace
79. Shellac--At Action Park
78. Arthur Russell--Another Thought
77. Nirvana--MTV Unplugged In New York
76. A Tribe Called Quest--Midnight Marauders
75. Bardo Pond--Amanita
74. Massive Attack--Mezzanine
73. De La Soul--De La Soul is Dead
72. The Olivia Tremor Control--Dusk At Cubist Castle
71. Tortoise--TNT

70. John Zorn--Grand Guignol
69. Beck--Midnite Vultures
68. K.M.D.--Mr. Hood
67. The Melvins--Houdini
66. Pixies--Trompe Le Monde
65. Bjork--Debut
64. Massive Attack--Blue Lines
63. Gas--Konigsforst
62. Primal Scream--Screamadelica
61. Smashing Pumpkins--Siamese Dream

60. Mouse on Mars--Iaora Tahiti
59. Slowdive--Souvlaki
58. The Breeders--Last Splash
57. Unwound--Repetition
56. Tom Waits--Mule Variations
55. Mogwai--Young Team
54. Built To Spill--There's Nothing Wrong With Love
53. The Notorious B.I.G.--Ready To Die
52. The Beta Band--The Three EP's
51. Jawbox--For Your Own Special Sweetheart

50. Weezer--Pinkerton
49. A Tribe Called Quest--The Low End Theory
48. Aphex Twin--Selected Ambient Works, Vol. II
47. Tortoise--Millions Now Living Will Never Die
46. Sonic Youth--Goo
45. Tricky--Maxinquaye
44. Nirvana--In Utero
43. Nas--Illmatic
42. Scott Walker--Tilt
41. Pavement--Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain

40. Palace Music--Viva Last Blues
39. The Orb--The Orb's Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld
38. Oval--94 Diskont
37. The Jesus Lizard--Liar
36. Radiohead--The Bends
35. Beastie Boys--Check Your Head
34. Boredoms--Super Ae
33. Dr. Octagon--Dr. Octagonecologyst
32. Brainiac--Hissing Prigs In Static Couture
31. Radiohead--OK Computer

Hopefully that's satisfying for now. Look for 30-16 tomorrow.

That's what I think. Feel free to tell me off and/or speculate about the top 30.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Best Chicago Bands/Artists

Chicago is a magical city, filled to the brim with culture, tradition, great people, and hot dogs. It has mostly everything New York or L.A. has, but it's clean, friendly, and Midwestern. It's a great sports town, a great business town, and a great art town--a rare combination. It is home to America's best architecture and best, well, hot dogs. It's also home to me, which may explain any slight bias.

Chicago has the best or second best in America of basically everything, but it has historically lacked an intriguing music scene. Where Detroit has Motown and techno, San Francisco has psychedelic rock and folk, Seattle has grunge and indie rock, Austin has folk, Nashville has country, and New York has punk, post-punk, new wave, hip-hop, etc., Chicago doesn't really have a well-known genre at its core.

To Chicagoans though, Chicago does have a rich musical history. From Chess Records and blues and jazz to House music to Touch and Go, Thrill Jockey, and the experimental rock of the '80s and '90s, Chicago has always had good music. Venues like the Metro, the Aragon, the Riviera, the Double Door, and the Chicago Theatre have housed some pivotal music moments. But to outsiders, Chicago's music scene seems confusing and mostly nonexistent.

Despite not necessarily having a particular scene or movement associated with it, Chicago has been home to many amazing--albeit singular--bands. These are my favorites, the ones that make me proud to live here. (Bands are judged both on quality of music and Chicago-ness.)

1. Big Black/Rapeman/Shellac/Steve Albini
The common thread here is Steve Albini. Albini, with these three bands, created the finest noise-rock of the '80s and '90s. He perfected the sound--a riff on punk and post-punk--that helped give birth to noise-rock as we know it and industrial. Since the early '90s, he's been producing great albums as well (Jesus Lizard, Nirvana, Breeders) from his Chicago studio, Electrical Audio. He is modern Chicago rock music more than anyone.

2. Buddy Guy
Buddy Guy, like many of the "Chicago" bluesmen, was not born in Chicago, but in the south. However, since coming to Chicago, he has been instrumental in the foundation and progression of electric blues. He opened a blues club, Buddy Guy's Legends, in Chicago to help preserve the legacy of Chicago blues. As Albini is Chicago rock music, Guy is Chicago blues. He was born in Louisiana, but he is quintessentially Chicago.

3. Curtis Mayfield
Both with the Impressions and on his own, Curtis Mayfield made some of funkiest soul music in the world, let alone Chicago. And, unlike the previous two on the list, the man was actually born and raised in the city, which certainly gives him a high level of Chicago-ness. Super Fly remains his highest achievement, but being born in Chicago is a close second.

4. The Jesus Lizard
The Jesus Lizard (who were produced by Steve Albini) coupled heavy, aggressive, noisy, and amazing grunge songs with one of the wildest live shows around. Though I didn't see them until their reunion this year (and not in their early '90s heyday), it was evident that these guys are still very great and still very Chicago (as evidenced by David Yow's Hot Doug's T-shirt).

5. Tortoise
Tortoise is another member of the group of Chicago experimental rockers from the '90s, and they are Chicago record label Thrill Jockey's premier artist. The music--jazz, prog, and minimalist classical influenced post-rock--is some of the finest to ever come from this fair city, and the band continues to show their love of Chicago by performing here a lot.

6. Art Ensemble of Chicago/Roscoe Mitchell
The Art Ensemble of Chicago gains points for Roscoe Mitchell being born in Chicago, and they gain a ton of points for having Chicago in the name. Like another band with Chicago in the name (Chicago), they play jazz, but unlike that other band, they're great. They delve deep into the avant-garde, wear tribal costumes, and play like few other jazz collectives can.

7. Ministry
Another rock band unafraid to experiment that hails from Chicago is Ministry. Frontman Al Jourgenson was born in Cuba, but raised in Chicago, which makes him an honorary Chicagoan, and the bulk of Ministry's work has come out of the city. Ministry is certainly one of the most important and best industrial groups and most important and best Chicago groups.

8. Smashing Pumpkins
To the outside world of music fans and critics and stuff, Smashing Pumpkins are Chicago's music scene. They are indeed the most famous of the grunge-y Chicago bands of that era, and Corgan, Iha, and Chamberlain are all Chicago (or Chicago suburbs) born and bred. The reality is, they probably are the most important Chicago rock band, whether I like it or not.

9. Frankie Knuckles
Frankie Knuckles essentially invented house music. Here in Chicago, there's an honorary Frankie Knuckles Blvd. near the location of the Warehouse Club. That club is where Frankie took up a DJ residency and lay the foundation for house music. If there is one true genre associated with Chicago, it's house, and if there's one man associated with house, it's Knuckles.

10. R. Kelly
Though his musical output may not be as strong (but it's still pretty solid) as some others on this list, R. Kelly is one of Chicago's most famous, most beloved, and weirdest artists. His unique brand of spoken-word/sung R&B is good music and, sometimes, great comedy. Nonetheless, he is a Chicago artist through and through. (And I met him. One of the perks of living here: you could meet R. Kelly.)

And roundin' out the top 20...
11. Ken Vandermark
12. Wilco
13. The Staple Singers
14. Red Red Meat
15. The Dells
16. Naked Raygun
17. The Shadows of Knight
18. Paul Butterfield
19. Rotary Connection
20. The Sea and Cake

That's what I think. Feel free to comment (if you're from here).

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Gorilla vs. Bear's Best Tracks of the Decade

Hey, I just noticed that Gorilla vs. Bear put out a best tracks list, too. It's kind of similar to Pitchfork's, but that's okay because both lists are pretty good (and mine is going to be similar as well). However, this list is not a top 500, it's a top 40 (well, two top 40's); it's much better suited for those with short attention spans. These ones have a lot of songs I like, but don't love. Which is okay.

Without further ado, the entire list is here, and the top 10's (spoiler alert) are listed below.

Chris's List
10. Clipse--Grindin (I just don't like them that much)
9. Grouper--Heavy Water/I'd Rather Be Sleeping (great song, but not this great)
8. Radiohead--Idioteque (again? Really?)
7. White Denim--Let's Talk About It (never heard it before, but I don't like the band too much)
6. Animal Collective--My Girls (again? I prefer "Fireworks")
5. The Walkmen--The Rat (I don't like this band or song)
4. UGK feat. Outkast--Int'l Player's Anthem (see #9's caption)
3. The Knife--Heartbeats (see above caption)
2. Outkast--B.O.B. (can't really argue with this one)
1. Panda Bear--Bro's (probably a top 25 song, but not #1)

David's List
10. Burial--Shell of Light (great, but I prefer "Archangel")
9. The Knife--Heartbeats (still a little high)
8. Panda Bear--Bro's (see above)
7. Wilco--War on War (I'm not a big Wilco fan)
6. Spoon--The Beast And Dragon, Adored (I'm not a big Spoon fan)
5. Animal Collective (good song, but not this good)
4. Radiohead--Kid A (at least it's not Idioteque)
3. Sonic Youth--Sympathy For The Strawberry (I like the love for Murray Street)
2. Panda Bear--Good Girl/Carrots (once again: good, but not this good)
1. The Strokes--Hard To Explain (for the last time: good, but not this good)

There you go. Let the Decade list mania continues...

Pitchfork's Best Tracks of the Decade

It may be early, but Pitchfork released their list of the 500 best tracks of the decade. The list made me realize that 1. 500 songs is a lot of songs, and 2. a decade is a really long time.

The list itself is relatively interesting and relatively predictable if you've payed any attention to the site this decade. I agree with some of the top picks (Outkast, LCD Soundsystem Missy Elliot), but they like Beyonce and Daft Punk a lot more than I do. It's worth your time to look through the list, at least so that you can pass the time before my easier-to-swallow top 180 songs of the decade list comes out.

The countdown from 500 starts here, and the top 10 (spoiler alert) is listed below.

10. The Arcade Fire--Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels) (not my favorite by them)
9. Animal Collective--My Girls (see above explanation)
8. Radiohead--Idioteque (it's not that good)
7. Missy Elliot--Get Ur Freak On (can't argue here)
6. Yeah Yeah Yeahs--Maps (can't argue here either)
5. Daft Punk--One More Time (really?)
4. Beyonce--Crazy In Love (good, but #4? No.)
3. M.I.A.--Paper Planes (feat. Bun B and Rich Boy) (a little bit high I think)
2. LCD Soundsystem--All My Friends (deserves it)
1. Outkast--B.O.B. (maybe not the best, but certainly top 5)

There you go. Decade list mania has officially started.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

My Favorite Albums of 2008

2008. After this, you won't be bombarded with any more outdated Best of the Year lists (probably. I could go back in time.) Last year was a pretty good year musically. One of the best comeback albums in recent memory was released alongside several amazing debut albums. There was plenty of noisy, psychadelic-y, poppy rock stuff as usual, but it was also a great year for electronic music. And I turned 16. Driver's license! (Well, I'm actually still working on getting that. You need a lot of hours. It's tough.) Enjoy.

1. Portishead--Third
It's not often that a band can put out an album years after they've been (semi) forgotten about and have that album be any good. (Look at Sugar Ray's new album). However, Portishead managed to take 11 years off and then come back with a brilliant album. The only true similarity between Third and Dummy or Portishead is Beth Gibbons's voice (which is still amazing). The music on Third tends to veer away from trip-hop into the dark, experimental electro-rock category with great success. It's heavy, dark, beautiful, and the best of the year.

2. TV on the Radio--Dear Science
With Dear Science, TV on the Radio have secured their place in the modern rock pantheon. It takes the fuzzy, upbeat soul that they have demonstrated on previous releases and makes it front and center. It still sounds very much like TV on the Radio, but Dear Science is definitely a pop album. The songs are catchy and big, big enough to fill the sizable venues that TV on the Radio is starting to play in. And while the apocalyptic atmosphere that made Return to Cookie Mountain is certainly gone, the lyrics are still angry and relatively apocalyptic.

3. Deerhunter--Microcastle
I never would have thought Microcastle would have been this high on the list. When I listened to it, I liked it a lot--but not #3 a lot. However, when I was making this list, I found myself unconsciously putting this towards the top. And so I listened to it again, and I knew why I loved it so much. Microcastle may not be the most original. It may not have the best songs. But as an album, it works. The psychedelic pop songs are all executed perfectly. They all flow well with one another. It's easy to take it for granted, but Microcastle is the best pop album of the year.

4. Hercules and Love Affair--Hercules and Love Affair
Truly good dance albums don't come around too often because the genre revolves around singles. But here's one. Probably my most highly anticipated album of the year (based off of "Blind"), Hercules and Love Affair didn't really disappoint. Though "Blind" is the best track on the album (and best track of the year), all of the songs find a memorable dance groove--whether it's disco, house, or synth-pop. Despite that, though, it all sounds uniquely modern. It maintains a level of simplicity, which is rare for disco, and also a level of awesomeness.

5. No Age--Nouns
I've said before that I'm not particularly fond of the movement No Age helped usher in (i.e. all sorts of lo-fi garage rock), but there is something about No Age themselves that make their brand of lo-fi great. Nouns finds them turning the messy, art-rock pieces on Weirdo Rippers (which is also great) into messy, art-rock pop songs. The guitar fuzz is executed in a way that recalls both Wire and Sonic Youth, but sounds like neither. Behind all that fuzz is always a great hook. The last year has presented many No Age imitators, but there's only one No Age.

6. Fucked Up--The Chemistry of Common Life
The Chemistry of Common Life most definitely owes a lot to American hardcore and post-hardcore from the '80s, but, unlike most modern hardcore records, it also owes a lot to the post-punk and art-rock from the same period. It's heavy, but most of the heaviness is derived from the vocals, sung by Damian "Pink Eyes" Abraham. His vocals are forceful, angry, huge, and wonderful. The selling point, though, of the album is the wall of arty guitars. They're smart, intricate, and atmospheric in a way that's unlike (and cooler than) other punk albums.

7. The Bug--London Zoo
Talk about a heavy album. The Bug's London Zoo is dark, scary, urban, and wondrously heavy. The beats are reminiscent of dubstep and jungle, but they transcend both genres and prove to be wholly unique. The dancehall influence shows up in a guest spot from dancehall legend Tippa Irie ("Angry"), but, once again, it sounds very modern. All the other guests work well with The Bug's beats, providing dark, often angry lyrics and intense MCing to the equally dark music. London Zoo provides a bizarre, scary, awesome, Jamaican view of London.

8. Grouper--Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill
Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill crept up on me. I bought it, I listened to it, I liked it, I put it away. Its lush ambience had piqued my interest to an extent, but, well, it fell flat on hooks. A couple weeks later, I found myself listening to it again. A lot. The lush ambience, upon further listening, transformed into a beautiful dystopian landscape, backed by a quiet, haunting voice and an acoustic guitar. And "Heavy Water/I'd Rather Be Sleeping" actually has a pretty nice hook. DADDUAH is truly weird and stunning, and it's the most relaxing album in years.

9. Gang Gang Dance--Saint Dymphna
It's hard to say Saint Dymphna shows Gang Gang Dance becoming accessible because, well, it's hardly accessible, but it is certainly more streamlined and straightforward than their previous releases. It blends electronics, bizarre sounding guitars, squealy vocals, and endless, tribal-y percussion to create an original and futuristic sound that is quite refreshing. Parts of the album veer towards pop structures and sound very nice and smooth, while other parts are disjointed and harder to swallow. But everything is executed with precision and intrigue.

10. Atlas Sound--Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel
Bradford Cox certainly went on a tear. Let The Blind makes three great releases by him in just over a year (Deerhunter's Cryptograms and Microcastle are the others). Atlas Sound, which is his solo project, makes music in a similar vein as Deerhunter, but the atmosphere he creates is far more desolate and more disparate. Washes of blissful fuzz cover his pop songs about being outcast and sad and "Quarantined," and interesting, foreign percussion moves those songs along. It's still psychedelic pop, but it's extremely personal and extremely good.

11. Fleet Foxes--Fleet Foxes
Beach Boys harmonies with a lot of reverb. That's what most critics said about Fleet Foxes. While that's not entirely untrue, I think that that only begins to describe the sound that they make. (Which is not to say being like the Beach Boys is bad. It can be good.) Yes, the album contains beautiful harmonies and a lot of reverb. However, it also contains well crafted, pastoral folk collages and endlessly catchy hooks. The music is not original, but it's done so well that it doesn't matter. And in twenty years, they'll be called "Fleet Foxes Harmonies."

12. Fuck Buttons--Street Horrrsing
Street Horrrsing, like Fleet Foxes, also suffered from mischaracterization. They call it "electronic noise" or whatever, but it's a lot more. Taking influence from post-rock and ambient-y dance music, Fuck Buttons creates miniature electronic suites that build and build above noise. Though the music is sometimes harsh and heavy (when they're hacking away at their primitive electronics), it is always interspersed with stretches of lovely, poppy ambience. It's post-rock for the future, and I'm looking forward to that future.

13. Beach House--Devotion
They don't change the hazy, lazy dream-pop that they established on their debut too much, but the songs are clearly better written, and the sound is more sophisticatedly produced. The vocals are relaxed and relaxing, and the music is psychedelic and repetitive in very good ways. Despite being poppy, it's always haunting and introverted, but without being overly depressing. On Devotion, Beach House continue to do what they best: churn out tons of hooks and luscious, lonely atmospheres.

14. DJ/rupture--Uproot
Uproot is a DJ mix. DJ/rupture took other people's music and put it all together and sold it with his name on it. It might be good, but it's not an artistic achievement. Right? Wrong. Uproot may be made up of previously released music, but it flows so seamlessly that I can't imagine the songs in any other context. Obviously his taste is impeccable--all the songs are really good--and he molds the tracks and sequences them in a way that is most definitely artistic. Uproot is a great mix that very few others could put together.

15. Arthur Russell--Love Is Overtaking Me
One could argue that this album also does not belong on this list. None of these songs were recorded in 2008. In fact, none were recorded this decade. But this still came out in 2008, so it counts. Love Is Overtaking Me finds Arthur Russell in folk mode, and he pulls off singer-songwriter nearly as well as he pulls off disco producer or solo cellist. The songs are desolate and beautiful as they recall lost love, current love, and the Midwest in an earnest and delicate way that is unique to Arthur Russell. If it hadn't happened already, this solidified his genius.

And roundin' out the top 30...
16. Air France--No Way Down
17. Lindstrom--Where You Go I Go Too
18. Philip Jeck--Sand
19. Harvey Milk--Life...The Best Game In Town
20. Fennesz--Black Sea
21. Luomo--Convivial
22. M83--Saturdays=Youth
23. Paavoharju--Laulu Laakson Kukista
24. Spiritualized--Songs in A&E
25. Titus Andronicus--The Airing of Grievances
26. David Byrne & Brian Eno--Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
27. El Guincho--Alegranza!
28. Micachu--Filthy Friends
29. Times New Viking--Rip It Off
30. Valet--Naked Acid

That's what I think. Comment if you disagree. Or if you agree. But it's unlikely that you agree with every single selection. But it's okay if you do.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Kraftwerk Reissues

Kraftwerk, one of the best and most influential bands in the history of the universe, will release a box set called 12345678: The Catalogue. (That was fun to type. Try it.) It will have reissues of, understandably, eight of their albums. The albums are: Autobahn, Radioactivity, Trans-Europe Express, The Man Machine, Computer World, Techno Pop, The Mix, and Tour de France.

I know, I know. No Kraftwerk 1, Kraftwerk 2, or Ralf and Florian. (Or Tone Float by Organisation, before they were called Kraftwerk.) Those are all very good albums that are hard to find and much better than the final three albums actually in the box set. Whatever. The first five albums in the set are Kraftwerk's five best albums, so this looks like a good deal.

My Favorite Saxophone Players

The saxophone is the quintessential jazz instrument. It's sound (be it soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, whatever other kinds there are) is synonymous with the genre, and it has been the most widely use throughout jazz's history. From jazz's inception through bebop to free jazz, the saxophone has been the centerpiece of most classic jazz albums. There are countless famous and brilliant sax players, but I chose to narrow this list to the 20 I like best. The only criteria is that the person played (or plays, but many of them are sadly dead) saxophone. Enjoy.

1. John Coltrane
I think this pick is a no brainer. Before Coltrane churned out classic after classic as a bandleader, he played on tons of classics in the 40s and 50s. He was the best bebop saxophonist, but decided to push the boundaries and became one of the founders of avant-garde jazz. He was the best then, and he still is.
Notable albums: A Love Supreme, Giant Steps

2. Albert Ayler
Albert Ayler once said, "Trane was the father, Pharoah is the son, and I'm the holy ghost." Or something like that. I'm not positive about the wording. Anyways, the quote makes sense. He took all the innovations that Trane and Pharoah had made, and pushed the saxophone even further into the avant-garde with astonishing results.
Notable albums: Spiritual Unity, Spirits Rejoice

3. Ornette Coleman
Coltrane may have been one of the founders of free jazz, but no one had as much of an impact as Ornette Coleman. He was playing outside of time signatures and chords in the mid-50s, when bebop was still considered progressive and wild. And Coleman has shown consistency, as he has consistently innovated for the last 55ish years.
Notable albums: The Shape of Jazz To Come, Science Fiction

4. Anthony Braxton
Anthony Braxton is often overlooked, but his prowess on saxophone (and many other reed instruments) is comparable to pretty much any body. He has dealt exclusively in the realm of avant-garde jazz and has composed some of the most interesting and complex saxophone pieces ever. And, like Ornette Coleman, he has been putting out great material for decades.
Notable albums: For Alto, 3 Compositions of New Jazz

5. Charlie Parker
I'm not as well versed in Charlie Parker's playing, but what I've heard is pretty remarkable. His sound is furious and chaotic, and he did what he did at a time when Louis Armstrong was still the king of jazz. Though he certainly stayed within the parameters of bebop, his wild playing and disregard for the rules definitely influenced free jazz.
Notable albums: Jazz At Massey Hall (with The Quintet), Charlie Parker

6. Pharoah Sanders
I know Pharoah Sanders best for "The Creator Has A Master Plan" off of his masterpiece, Karma. This 33 minute odyssey finds Pharoah and his good sized band (complete with yodeling) making continual psychedelic free jazz noise, which also happens to be quite beautiful sometimes. He was crazy, innovative, and had an extreme lung capacity.
Notable albums: Karma, Deaf Dumb Blind

7. John Zorn
The first (and only, I think) Jew on the list, John Zorn is also one of the most prolific sax players. For the last twenty to thirty years, he has been composing massive amounts of jazz and experimental music, nearly all of it good. But he's not just a great composer. He's a master saxophone player as well. His unkempt squeal is immediately recognizable and awesome.
Notable albums: Naked City, Alef (with Masada)

8. Peter Brotzmann
I clearly have a preference for free jazz, but that's because it's more fun. And Peter Brotzmann is all kinds of fun. Sort of. His sax playing is easily the most intense and dissonant and chaotic of anyone's on this list. His pieces (especially Machine Gun) are far heavier than any metal album, but they're also thoroughly interesting.
Notable albums: Machine Gun, Little Birds Have Fast Hearts

9. Rahsaan Roland Kirk
What impressed me initially (well, and still does impress me) was the fact that Rahsaan Roland Kirk often plays more than one instrument at a time with excellent ability. That alone would get him on this list. When you factor in that the music he creates is smooth while still being chaotic, that bumps him into the top ten. Not to mention: he's blind.
Notable albums: The Inflated Tear, Bright Moments

10. Roscoe Mitchell
I might be a little biased based on Mitchell's Chicago ties, but his playing is truly great. his style is unique, he has unbelievable technical ability, and he has been a free jazz innovator for over forty years. As the leader of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, he has composed and performed some of the best jazz of the last several decades.
Notable albums: Sound, Live In Paris (with the Art Ensemble of Chicago)

And roundin' out the top 20...
11. Eric Dolphy
12. Archie Shepp
13. Sonny Rollins
14. Cannonball Adderley
15. Wayne Shorter
16. Dexter Gordon
17. Ken Vandermark
18. Stan Getz
19. Maceo Parker
20. James Chance
(The last two may not be jazz, but they're worthy sax players)

That's what I think. Granted, I've never touched a saxophone in my life. But my friend plays.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

My Favorite Albums of 2007

We're taking one step closer to the present with this one: 2007. As I was making that dreaded switch from middle school to high school, several of my favorite bands were releasing excellent albums. It was this year that I began embracing more experimental music (Throbbing Gristle, early Sonic Youth), and, though most of my top picks are more straightforward, I think this is a more sonically interesting group of albums. So, yeah. Enjoy.

1. LCD Soundsystem--Sound Of Silver
If Sound of Silver just had tracks 3 through 6, it would be the album (or maybe EP) of the year. "North American Scum," "Someone Great," "All My Friends," and "Us vs. Them" are four of the best songs of the year, with the middle two being arguably #2 and #1, respectively. But Sound of Silver has more than just those four songs. It has countless disco grooves, like the previous album. It has immeasurable sarcasm, like the previous album. But it has a personal, emotional feel unbeknownst to any James Murphy album or any modern electronic album period.

2. Panda Bear--Person Pitch
Panda Bear took a lot of what we loved about Animal Collective, and he made it, well, better. His samples are expertly chosen and expertly looped. His voice soars above said samples, drowned in reverb and background noise. The songs are poppy, but experimental. Long, but they go by quickly. Repetitive, but in a good way. It sounds like Animal Collective, but it's different enough that it feels uniquely just Panda Bear. And the thing that makes it different from AC (at least post Sung Tongs AC) is that it's truly a beautiful, personal album.

3. Animal Collective--Strawberry Jam
Which is not to say Animal Collective is not at all beautiful or personal, or not good. They're really good. I'd even say great. And Strawberry Jam is no exception to that rule. On it, they continue to mature, crafting songs with a little more feeling and structure than on previous works. The result is magnificent, as "Fireworks" is the best song they've ever written, and tracks like "For Revered Green" and "Peacebone" are up in that Pantheon. This album was mostly Avey Tare, so Panda Bear may win this year, but it's a darn close race.

4. Battles--Mirrored
This is probably the tightest debut album I've ever heard. A "supergroup" of sorts (one guy is from Helmet, one guy is from Don Caballero, one guy is from something else, and one guy is Ty Braxton a.k.a. son of Anthony), Battles created a truly unique, heavy, weird, but accessible album in Mirrored. The obvious standout is "Atlas," but the rest of the tracks have a similar energy and the same flawless production. Seeing them live confirmed my feelings because watching them loop everything and play with such vitruosity with my own eyes was awesome.

5. Burial--Untrue
I listened to Untrue every night for about a month after I got it, and, up until a week ago, it was still in my (well, my mom's) car CD changer. It's so atmospheric, I feel like I'm on a bus in London in the wee small hours of the morning every time I hear it, and, for someone who is usually sleeping during those hours, that's a refreshing feeling. Usually "personal" is a quality a value (and overuse in these reviews). Untrue should not be personal. Burial was anonymous when it came out. There are no unsynthesized vocals. But it's deeply personal, and it's great.

6. Dirty Projectors--Rise Above
Rise Above, as you probably know, is Dirty Projectors redoing Black Flag's Damaged. It didn't make much sense the first time I heard it, seeing as the bands are pretty (very) different, but then I actually heard the music. The songs are nothing like the originals at all. They are Dirty Projectors songs through and through. And here, on Rise Above, Dave Longstreth has finally found a cast of characters surrounding him that are talented enough to satisfy his vision. This album shows a more refined Dirty Projectors on their way to Bitte Orca, which is a good thing.

7. The Field--From Here We Go Sublime
It's techno, yes, but it's not at all like the Detroit stuff you've been hearing for the last 25 years. The Field samples his way to blissful, hypnotic dance music heaven. Sublime is an album, like many that I've talked about, that is certainly suited for the dance floor, but sounds great on headphones. It is simultaneously energizing and relaxing, light and dark, which is weird, but awesome. This album is different for me, because I usually like my dance music produced by DFA, but this is completely different from that, and I like it.

8. No Age--Weirdo Rippers
This album may have started the current trend of lo-fi punk and psychedelia (which I'm not too fond of), but it's still great. No Age combines sonic experimentation with smart, loud post-punk-y punk. They take a minimal approach (a reference point would be Pink Flag era Wire, etc.) that is refreshing. Punk is dead, there's no doubt about that. Sadly, it left the world about 25 years ago. But No Age's approach to punk may just be able to revive it, albeit in a bit of a different form.

9. Liars--Liars
Say what you will about them, but you can't call Liars complacent. Another new album yields another new sound for them. This time, they've abandoned the minimalist experimenting of Drum's Not Dead in favor of fuzzy, hard, shoegaze-y rock. And despite changing their sound a lot with every album, Liars are still really good. This album is for sure their most accessible. "Houseclouds" kind of sounds like Beck, even. Nonetheless, this is a heavy, fun, and scuzzy rock record that basically on par with their other work.

10. Dan Deacon--Spiderman Of The Rings
Spiderman Of The Rings is a completely absurd, ridiculous, schizophrenic work of electronic music. And it's awesome for it. Dan Deacon streamlined his sound on this album to create actual songs with actual hooks, but not at the expense of his noisy, clattery electronic experiments. "Fun" might be the best adjective to use to describe this, but, as fun as it is, it's also really smart and excellently produced. These songs are entirely wild and bizarre, and entirely fun and brilliant.

11. M.I.A.--Kala
M.I.A. continues to do what she did on Arular on Kala; she writes really catchy, fun, protesting pop songs that don't really sound like pop songs. (Except, of course, for "Paper Planes"). She's still very much pissed off at the world, but not so much that she'll stop having brilliant hooks and purposefully chaotic, worldly production. And this album certainly is worldly. It seems as if every song is dedicated to (and in the musical style of) a different impoverished nation. She sarcastic, snotty, and she just might save the world, too.

12. Deerhunter--Cryptograms
Cryptograms is one of the most psychedelic-sounding pop records to come out since the 1960s. But, while it is steeped in the tradition of both 60s garage bands and late 80s/early 90s shoegazers, it sounds quintessentially 2007. Periods of psychedelic droning are intermixed with big guitars and big hooks to create a truly interesting and unique pop album that set up a good template for what was to come on Microcastle the following year.

13. Caribou--Andorra
The write-up for the previous album on this list would actually suit Caribou's Andorra pretty nicely. It is definitely a psychedelic pop record that owes a lot to the 1960s while still sounding completely modern. Despite that fact, though, Andorra and Cryptograms are certainly different sounding. Whereas as Cryptograms is raw and dark, Andorra is a bright, beautifully produced pop album. It's very happy and fun while still maintaining a psychedelic vibe.

14. Deerhoof--Friend Opportunity
Friend Opportunity continues Deerhoof's pretty consistent streak of avant-pop albums. On it, the band continues to refine their sound and structures without losing any of their schtick. The vocals are the same and the heavy guitar riffs are still there, but it is definitely easier to swallow than any of their previous releases. That said, it's also their second or third best (1. Runners Four, 2. maybe Apple O'), so I'm not complaining.

15. Chromatics--Night Drive
Night Drive mixes synth-pop, Italo Disco, and some Kate Bush to create a sleek and fresh electro-pop sound. It's steeped in dance music, but it's slow and difficult to dance to. It's better suited for a nighttime car ride through the city. (Hence the title.) The music is cold and glossy at first, but it grows warmer with more listens. They cover "Running Up That Hill," and, while they don't change too much, it still sounds like a Chromatics original, which is good.

And roundin' out the top 30...
16. Beirut--The Flying Club Cup
17. Prinzhorn Dance School--Prinzhorn Dance School
18 Tinariwen--Aman Iman
19. Of Montreal--Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?
20. Italians Do It Better--After Dark (compilation)
21. Health--Health
22. The Arcade Fire--Neon Bible
23. Pantha Du Prince--This Bliss
24. Robert Wyatt--Comicopera
25. Matthew Dear--Asa Breed
26. Bear Bones, Lay Low--Djid Hums
27. The Black Lips--Good Bad Not Evil
28. Radiohead--In Rainbows
29. Dizzee Rascal--Maths + English
30. A Place To Bury Strangers--A Place To Bury Strangers

That's what I think. Obviously. I posted it, didn't I?