Friday, January 30, 2009

4. Blitzen Trapper - Furr

This is by far my favorite Bob Dylan song of the year... wait. What's that you say? This isn't a Dylan song? I'm not buying it. So what if it is technically by southern rock revivalists Blitzen Trapper. From the nasal midwestern drone of lead singer Eric Earley and the harmonica in place of a guitar solo to the hootenanny-esque bass drum driven rhythm, this track would fit perfectly alongside "Lay Lady Lay" on Nasheville Skyline. At this point I should note that if this song's status as the #4 track of the year didn't already suggest this strongly enough... all this Dylan aping is much to its credit.

Throughout their short, yet relatively prolific career, Blitzen Trapper has served as a town crier for the greatness of 70s rock and pop music. On their prior effort, Wild Mountain Nation the band borrowed more from harder acts than Dylan with distinct hints of AC/DC, Thin Lizzy (LOTS of Thin Lizzy), and the Allman Brothers. Because of this, I've read many critics referring to this LP, also entitled Furr, as a radical departure from their previous efforts but I can't say that I agree with that. Furr feels like less of a radical departure and more a natural progression. While Wild Mountain Nation was a stock debut effort (even though they had self-released others prior to this); more concerned with throwing the knock-out punch than bobbing and weaving. This is a good thing, it's like watching a star closer like Billy Wagner take the mound... here's my fastball asshole, hit it if you can see it. But we all know that baseball isn't about power vs. power. You've gotta balance this out with finesse... the thing that made Greg Maddux's starts so beautiful was the artfulness and muted precision with which he carved up opposing lineups. That's what we get on Furr, on this album (and this track reflects this) Blitzen Trapper have learned to pitch, not just throw.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

5. T.I. - Whatever You Like

Seriously... in the past 5 or 6 years has anyone consistently gotten your head bobbing like T.I.? I don't mean to imply that he has been the best rapper of the past few years (Mr. West?) but in terms of making purely raunchy, easy listening, head nodding southern hip hop no one does it better than T.I. From "Rubberband Man" (I've completely converted on this one Goodwin) to the AWESOME "Top Back" (even the Chevrolet commercial didn't ruin this for me) I can't help but give the guy mad credit for his collective efforts. The thing is though, I feel bad that I like this. I love when other rappers in the game talk about how they want to return to the intelligent, socially conscious hip hop of KRS-One and others of his ilk and I wholeheartedly endorse these sentiments. I can talk all day about how right Dead Prez was on Hip Hop when they complained about the fact that, "All yall records sound the same, I'm sick of that fake thug, r & b, rap scenario all day on the radio, Same scenes in the video, monotonous material."

In "Whatever you Like," T.I. steps (or should I say, us) in as exhibit A for Dead Prez's "real" hip hop beef. Lyrically, we're treated to absolutely nothing special... sex, cars, stacks, private jets, Patron*; clearly we've been here before. The only thing is, there's a reason we've been here before... we like it here. When Dead Prez decries "fake thug r&b rap scenario" they fail to account for the fact that probably 90% of people listening to hip hop ARE fake thugs. I mean, I'm afraid to TALK to girls... about anything really, and here's T.I. spitting SOME LIQUID MAGMA game at some random hook-up target. And yes, I understand it's misogynistic and materialistic but damn what a life it would be for one night.

"Hundred cant deposit, vacations hit the tropics, Cause everybody know it ain't trickin if ya got it, and you ain't never ever gotta go in yo wallet, Long as I got rubberband banks^ in my pocket."

I mean really... is there any question why this song works? It's straight up fantasy... the same thing that draws the nerds of the world to role playing games, sci-fi, and comic books is what makes mass marketed top 40 rap like this work. It allows us to LIVE the fantasy. Add this to the sickly sweet beat, demonstrated to the best effect in the last 20 or so seconds of the song, and it's impossible to not at least have a soft spot for this song. I would argue that beyond a that, the elements that I've described come together in this case to form a real textbook example of how to make the simple syrup of pop music work. One part fantasy to one part danceable and the final result will NEVER cease to impress.

Oh and also there was this, which was maybe the coolest thing I've seen this year.

*Coincidentally these items are all included on my tour rider
^ Tried to do this once and actually couldn't figure out how to wrap the rubberband around my money

Monday, January 26, 2009

6. TV on the Radio - Dancing Choose

For two consecutive years one of my favorite films of the year has achieved that status due at least in part to the presence and talents of one of my favorite musical acts of the year. In 2007, the talents of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova made for not only one of the most enjoyable albums/singles of the year in the form of Once and the incredibly beautiful "Falling Slowly" respectively, but also the low budget indie "romance but not really" Once. To be fair, the album is the soundtrack to what is basically a musical so the link between the two just makes sense, a good musical is obviously going to have a good soundtrack.

This year's example is much less intertwined. The movie to which I'm referring is Jonathan Demme's brutally stark portrayal of addiction Rachel Getting Married featuring not only my newest celebrity numero uno Anne Hathaway (she is like Winona Ryder version 5.0) but TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe. Although Adebimpe plays only a supporting role in the film, he makes the best of his screen time with a fantastic a capella version of Neil Young's "Unknown Legend" off of the Harvest Moon album in a scene that illustrates vividly just how appropriately music can describe an emotion that can't be articulated through mere conversation. Jonathan Demme has understood the power of pop music for years and although the movie isn't really about music, the family portrayed is one for whom music is the Oliver to their Brady Bunch. TV on the Radio's Dear Science is a testament to that same power. For me, Rachel Getting Married will be the movie that I think of when I think 2008

I think every year needs it's definitive album as well; that one musical statement that's not only powerful but reflects the prevailing cultural zeitgeist. Nirvana had it in 1991 with Nevermind, Radiohead had it in 1996 with the amazingly prescient OK Computer and in more recent years, and I think you could argue that Outkast did the same with Stankonia in 2000. More than any other album, the themes and ideas of Dear Science reflect the bizarre year that was 2008. For me the album has been representative of the curious paradox that even in the face of an economic crisis surpassed in gravity only by the Great Depression we have embraced buzz words like "hope" and "change." I would like to think that we have done this out of a genuine sense of optimism but the cynic in me says that it's more the fact that after 8 years we're too exhausted with pessimism, fear, and truthiness to feel anything but optimism. That sentiment is what Dear Science feels like.

On "Dancing Choose" the lyrics are those of a world spiraling rapidly out of control under deception, lies, debt.. ya know those lovable characteristics of the Bush Whitehouse.* One could read these lyrics and expect something more musically reminiscent of The Smiths especially as it's noted in the chorus that, "I've seen my palate blown to monochrome, hollow heart clicks hollow tones." Instead, we get a full on body movin' banger with a lavish horn arrangement that draws from influences from rap to grime to house to campy lounge. Upbeat and danceable, the fun of the music does not overpower the bleakness of the lyrics. What's more 2008 than that?

*Acha cha cha cha

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

7. Vampire Weekend - A Punk

For this post (my second today) I'm going to ask that you indulge my wistful side and for those of you that didn't attend college with me you are going to be thoroughly lost... sorry.

There are songs out there that I love because of one listen. I don't mean the kind of song that you fall in love with immediately... I mean the kind of song that you love because one time you heard it and it was perfect for its situation. The kind of song that takes on a life of its own after being a crucial part of an insanely fun, drunk, miserable, or interesting time in your life. I can't hear Mr. Big's "To Be With You" without seeing the deck of Pat Croce's restaurant in Key West with a table full of empty gin and tonics in front of me. I can't hear "Hanging Around" by Counting Crows without seeing Goodwin's room and an empty bottle of SoCo on Dupont 3rd West. "Summer of 69," "Free Falling," and it goes without saying, "Take Me Home Tonight" all breathe the not so rarefied air of songs that I love WAY more than I could ever begin to explain and I could actually go on forever with this list.*

So where am I headed with this? I think that what I'm trying to say was captured pretty well by a friend of mine in reference to the song "Hot and Cold" by Katy Perry when he texted me, "Am I crazy or is Hot 'n Cold by Katy Perry the song we would all be screaming on Friday and Saturday nights at the Mansion@ if we were still at WM?" So is Hot and Cold the number seven song on this list? No. I like it, but no. "A Punk" by Vampire Weekend IS the kind of song that makes me wish I was back in the Mansion playing quarters and running horribly ineffective game on freshman girls/being scared of Thetas. That the whole song is solid pop gold is hard to dispute. From the heavily Clash influenced bouncing guitar riff to the absurd lyrics that for some reason remind me of an "Are You Afraid of the Dark" episode, this has to be one of the funnest songs of the year. But it's not so much about all that for me. When I hear it, particularly at the onset of the Ay Ay Ays of the chorus, I can picture people# shooting a quarter into a Vikings shot glass and talking trash while simultaneously pumping their fists along to the cadence of the song. I guess what I'm saying is that when I hear this song, I WANT to hear it at King and Queen apartments, Ludwell 702B, Chandler 212, or Campus Center Little Theater%. This obviously isn't going to happen short of a trespassing/breaking and entering charge on my record and a prominent mention in the Flat Hat's Police Beat but just the fact that the song brings me back to all that makes is significant and awesome and... well if you don't understand already, then you just won't.

*One more for ya, Pieces of Me by Ashlee Simpson, oh what 80 ounces of malt liquor can do to two reasonably intelligent people before an intramural softball game especially when 40 of those ounces are Steel Reserve

@If you don't know, don't ask.

#And by people, I think we all know who I could mean.

%Okay, maybe NOT at the Campus Center Little Theater considering my horrendous exercises in dating futility there

8. Fleet Foxes - Your Protector

This band has been written about and had praise heaped upon it to the point that it's actually impossible to say something original about them... so of course (SPOILER ALERT!!*) I will be writing about them twice in the next week or so as I finish this list. The harmonies are beautiful obviously... quite possibly the best since the Beach Boys and the orchestal folkiness of the musical arrangements belies their complexity and richness. Lyrically, I enjoy the fact that the band seems to have disconnected from our world and have succeeded in creating a sort of alternate landscape that seems to be located somewhere between Middle Earth and Narnia. A place where the namesake "Protector" of the song is so shrouded in mystery that I can't help but envision Stephen King's Gunslinger character or any assortment of sci-fi/fantasy badass@.

But let's face it, if you've heard these guys then you already know all of this. If you haven't... hear them... they're a slamdunk. I will guarantee that not only will you like them but you will have trouble not listening to them all the time so captivating are those aforementioned harmonies and lush musical arrangements. This is indeed the rare case of the iconic hipster obsession that warrants every bit of that obsession. Don't believe it? Check out this performance from SNL of Mykonos a track from their EP Sun Giant and kiss that 10 bucks that's let on your iTunes gift card goodbye.

*My life is officially complete... I've issued a spoiler alert.

@Okay I'll admit, I wasn't thinking of the Gunslinger... I was thinking of Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy VII... C'mon.... HATE ME!!! HATE ME!!! BRING IT... your hate replenishes my MP so that I can bust out a sweet Summon spell on you.

Friday, January 16, 2009

9. Department of Eagles - No One Does it Like You

Although this could lead to a flurry of disagreement among my near double digit readership, I think that the Beatles have officially become underrated. It seems that every new, next big thing, Jerry and Jane on the block band seems to be paying their respects to the Beach Boys or Joy Division or even barely better than yacht rock performers such as Peter Gabriel. Not since the Shins' Chutes Too Narrow though has a band on my radar seemed to go out of their way to draw influence from the boys from Liverpool and even that didn't seem to draw all that overtly from that British invasion tradition. I hold the Beatles in such high regard that I think in order for John, Paul, George, and Ringo to get their proper due we would need to return to the hype level surrounding the Anthologies 1,2, and 3.

I hope that Department of Eagles awesome second LP In Ear Park represents the beginning of a renewed indie rock love affair with the Beatles, particularly as it is displayed in "No One Does it Like You." This track does indeed reflect the strange Pet Sounds obsession that seems to have reached a saturation point in their harmonies but that's where the similarities stop. This song sounds like an acid soaked B-side to Yellow Submarine if you substituted a good barbershop quartet* for Ringo's less than stellar pipes. If you listen closely, it seems as though you can even hear some of the nautical noise brick-a-brack that makes Yellow Submarine so strange and progressive in the first place.

So let this be a call to hipsters the world over to put away Pet Sounds, Rhino's Nuggets garage rock compilation, and Exile on Main Street for awhile and give Revolver, Rubber Soul, or Beatles for Sale a spin. I would love to have a strongly Liverpudlian soundtrack to 2009.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

10. Gaslight Anthem - Old White Lincoln

I knew that I wanted to play the bass the MOMENT I heard Krist Novaselic's bass solo in "Lithium." Not only did I know this for a fact but I was CERTAIN that not only would I learn to play this sweet solo but that it would get me SO MANY girls.* Sure, in the 15 years since I had this epiphany, I have been proven wrong on several accounts. I would in fact not learn to play the bass nor did I bag the amount of girls I hoped I would (to be fair joining the football team didn't work a year later for this either). Despite this colossal failure, I hope that somewhere in America right now some pimply, overweight, malcontent is hearing "Old White Lincoln" by the Gaslight Anthem and coming to a similar conclusion about the romantic powers of the bass. The nine second bass intro to this song is the first great chapter of a pretty close to perfect pop song by these Jersey punk rockers (is there any other kind?).

I've heard the criticisms heaped upon this band for simply ripping off Springsteen, and the marked musical similarities along with the Jersey obsession between Gaslight's album The '59 Sound and The Boss are tough to dispute, but I think that these guys and particularly this song avoid plagiarism and tread that fine line by staying solidly in homage territory. Much like the fantastic work of 2006's "When You Were Young" by the Killers, this song seems to isolate the joyous wrecklessness of modern youth frittering their lives away with insignificant drama. From the rich imagery of lighting a cigarette on a parking meter to the romance of the opening line, "If I could write, I'd tell you how much I miss these nights," Old White Lincoln just FEELS good in that quaint insignificance of small town life manner that artists like Springsteen and Alan Jackson capture so well

*Because let's face it, who did 7th grade girls love more in 1994 than Krist Novaselic... oh wait... everyone.

Monday, January 12, 2009

11. Flight of the Conchords - Ladies of the World

I debated about this choice for quite some time. Comedy is a hard genre to plug into the typical pop music canon. For example, I can't imagine that The Hannukah Song made many best of lists but the truly hilarious Apollo 18 by They Might Be Giants is a masterpiece. Adding to the complications with this song is the fact that Flight of the Conchords are a made for T.V. band, and placing them in the company of the Monkees, Partridge Family, and 2gether* is perhaps the strongest argument AGAINST their musical merit. Despite this, I kept coming back to one thing when listening to this song... I really enjoy it. I defy anyone to sit completely still while listening to the Stan Getz-esque bossanova guitar strumming and hand claps that give the song that 70s lounge act feel for which the Conchords' Jemaine Clement and Brett McKenzie were clearly going. The true revelation on this and many other tracks on the album however is the range and versatility of McKenzie's voice... whether rapping (Hiphopapotamus vs. Rhymenocerous), whispering fantasy lyrics (Prince of Parties), or spitting a full scale dancehall banger (Boom), Brett plays the role of vocal chameleon that's essential to the thin line between satire and ridicule that the boys from New Zealand tread.

Ladies of the World stands out as the highlight here both for its subtle humor (just about everything sounds relatively believable as a legitimate pop song aside from the hilarious aside on the "sexy hermaphrodite ladies") and tag team featuring of both vocalists' strengths. I don't know that the 2nd season (airing soon) can top the highs of the first season's soundtrack but getting anywhere close to the fun of Ladies of the World should be considered a rousing success.

* If you remember 2gether then chances are you are between 21 and 28, white, and were probably nearly as lame as I was in middle/high school

Saturday, January 10, 2009

12. The Mae Shi - Run to Your Grave

As 33% of the European populace was dropping dead during the Black Plague, giant booze fueled orgies would break out as people simply decided to say fuck it and live it up for one more night.* It's a shame L.A.'s The Mae Shi aren't roughly 700 years older because "Run to Your Grave" would form one hell of a soundtrack for one of these drunken, communal rolls in the hay. This song is all about our tendencies toward self-destruction but isn't some Alice in Chains style ode du Heroin but a rollicking choral sing-a-long more reminiscent of the Polyphonic Spree than some apocalyptic dirge. This sounds like a downright cheery acceptance of the fact that the modern world is about trying to find the thing that will kill us the fastest and the great thing is that they leave the weapon of choice up to the listener... it could be drugs, could be girls, hell, why not global warming? They warn us only that "they're coming for your brain, but they'll leave with your head."

Musically, a simple pre-programmed Casio keyboard line and thunderous drum work that gives the track a single mic in the middle of the studio, Steve Albini-esque sound create a backdrop that compliments the madness of the lyrics. All of it adds up to a song that is like the crazy homeless guy shouting at the moon on the corner suddenly being hired as town spokesman.

*Quite possibly the worst lead in that has ever been written

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

13. Weezer - Pork and Beans

Okay... I know... You've heard this song a thousand times and have been tired of it since like January last year. You're tired of the video too. But just for a second remove yourself from that and think back to the first time you heard it. This song has absolutely everything you have come to expect from Rivers Cuomo, the greatest pop songwriter since Paul Simon.*@ It's the meditation on his own geekdom that is simultaneously catchy, self deprecating, simple and delightfully contradictory. The story goes that when Rivers and Co. submitted this album to their record label, they heard the commonly held complaint that the album didn't have an obvious standout single... to which a miffed Rivers responded with the scathing "indictment of the industry" track that is "Pork and Beans" and which I (and c'mon... you too) have grown to love. So for those of you keeping score at home, Rivers wrote an incredibly catchy single to mollify his record company about how much it sucks to have to write incredibly catchy singles to mollify record companies.

For years, Weezer has made a living out of writing great rock songs from the perspective of a "couldn't be less cool" nerd. It doesn't take much thinking to figure out that this is in fact the perfect formula. The majority of music fans, at least discerning ones, come from a place that's FAR more Rivers than Brett Michaels so when they hear massive arena rock riffs played over lyrics like, "I've got a twelve sided di, I've got a dungeon master's guide," they're gonna feel it all the more. I will say unequivocally that I can associate much more strongly with "You won't talk, won't look, won't think of me, I'm the epitome of public enemy," than with, "At the drive in, in the old man's Ford, behind the tool shed, Baby 'til I'm screamin for more."

So is this song played out? Absolutely. But like so many other (thought not all) songs that achieve this status (Paper Planes anyone?) it's played out for a reason.

*I'm gonna go ahead and ruin ALL credibility I might have had by adding here that Pete Wentz is a possible challenger for this title.

@I encourage you to provide your retorts below

Saturday, January 3, 2009

14. Titus Andronicus - Titus Andronicus

Everyone that writes or has written knows the unnerving feeling of writer's block. Ironically, it took me about 20 different false starts on this post before I decided how to proceed so clearly I know the feeling as well although for me it's easy to get over... I simply remind myself that I never have nor will I ever need to rely on my already minimal ability to be creative to get by. When I think about someone for whom writing pays the bills experiencing writer's block though I find it to be a very scary proposition. What if you've gotten famous for some incredible achievement in literature, music, or film and you simply have nothing left in the tank. Are musicians paralyzed by the fear of never again coming up with a riff or hook that's worth a damn? If one believes New Jersey's Titus Andronicus on their self titled song "Titus Andronicus" then the answer is a resounding and violent YES
In the shouty, agressive, and unabashedly loud track, the four piece channels The Story is in the Soil... era Bright Eyes while also giving some musical love to the over the top textured compositions of Springsteen's catalog with the E Street Band. The album, The Airing of Grievances which as you might have guessed gets its name from the penultimate celebration of Seinfeld's Festivus is bitch and moan fest after another that works infinitely better than similar material which often times comes off as spoiled and petulant (see Romance, My Chemical and Confessional, Dashboard). Lyrically, the listener gets a good old fashioned melodramatic freak out care of vocalist Patrick Stickles who pouts

"Throw my guitar down on the floor
No one cares what I've got to say anymore
I didn't come here to be damned with faint praise
I'll write my masterpiece some other day
(Fuck everything, fuck me)"

Emo-ish? Yes. But trust me, just listen and you'll appreciate the pissed off stomp and jubilant nihilism that as a whole is quite reminiscent of Cursive's early 2000s masterpiece The Ugly Organ .