Saturday, December 23, 2006

Year-end lists

The rest of TBS's list might have to wait for vacation and work, but it will be done in the near future. Quality > speed. In the meantime, here's a round-up of other (better written) year-end lists from around the internets.

Coke Machine Glow
Tiny Mix Tapes

#8- Howlin' Rain- Howlin' Rain

As the year came to an end and the weather started getting colder, I put off revisiting this - psychedelic country rock just isn't winter music. But the minute I did put it on, I was instantly transported back to that three-week period in June when I couldn't listen to anything but Howlin' Rain.

Think CCR or the Grateful Dead with Sonic Youth-ian distortion freak-outs. And for as much as that sounds like it shouldn't work, it sounds strangely natural coming from Comets on Fire side project Howlin' Rain. My Morning Jacket toyed with this sound at times during their steady evolution from backwoods jamband to alt-rock superstars, but they never fully realized its potential - Howlin Rain sounds like a long-lost album that band made during a whiskey and hallucinogen-fueled weekend between the release of The Tennessee Fire and At Dawn.

It's pretty much necessary that I mention mind-altering substances with this album - the thing bridges the gap between stoner rock and Southern rock you didn't know existed. Some will no doubt be turned off by its loose, stupid sloppiness, and lead singer Ethan Miller's raspy croon, but the next time you're looking to throw back a few beers and enjoy the summer sun, very few albums sound as good as this. It's a no-frills party album to its core - like Weezer's Blue Album if you grew up in Smokey Mountains instead of the American suburbs.

Howlin' Rain- Calling Lightning With A Scythe
from Howlin' Rain

Monday, December 18, 2006

#9- Yo La Tengo- I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass

A Yo La Tengo album that is pretty average as far as Yo La Tengo albums go. But Yo La Tengo on autopilot is still pretty damn engaging, as the band switches from the tried-and-true (Shoegazey psychadelic rock and hypnotic, Velvet Underground-inspired pop) to new experiments (the Brian Wilson-esque "Beanbag Chair," the Belle & Sebastian-ish neo-funk of "Mr. Tough" and whatever the shit "Watch Out For Me Ronnie" is) on just about every track. Although they've spent most of the years since the release of their magnum opus, 1997's I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, perfecting the understated, mature side of their sound, this album: A)is titled I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass and B)Opens with almost 11 minutes of the best balls-to-the-wall noise and guitar shredding you're likely to hear all year. It's actually refreshing to see Ira Kaplan step up the rock star bravado ("The Story of Yo La Tengo" is about as epic as rock music gets), as his band - which formed the year I was born, mind you - is one of the most consistently interesting and talented groups in this crop of musicians we label "indie." I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass is a great primer for those uninitiated to Yo La Tengo, and it held my attention and warranted repeated listens for a lot longer than most 2006 albums.

Yo La Tengo- Mr. Tough from I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass

Yo La Tengo- The Story of Yo La Tengo from I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass

Buy I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass

Saturday, December 16, 2006

#10- Sparklehorse- Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain

The best "sad bastard" artists aren't the ones that turn out album after album of pure "bottom-of-the-barell" pieces of self-loathing and depression, it's the artists that know how to take a nice, cheery pop tune and tweak it slightly, giving it a bittersweet vibe that leaves the listener guessing as to the artist's intentions. Subtlety and moderation are key in the "indie-singer-songwriter" mold. It's what separates an Elliott Smith from a Bright Eyes. Even Smith followed up a grisly "2:45 AM" with an absolute upper in "Say Yes," or "Waltz #2" with "Baby Britain."

Enter Mark Linkous, or Sparklehorse. Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain perfectly balances Beatles-esque power pop with some of the deepest sadness you've heard on tape this year. Working with the Flaming Lips' Steven Drozd and Dave Fridmann, Danger Mouse and Tom Waits gives each track a different genre twist. But one thing remains the same - Linkous, like Smith or Jason Molina or Will Oldham or Bill Callahan or Daniel Johnston or other low-fi American bards before him, has a distinct voice that is both instantly recognizable and has an innate bittersweet quality that just defies explanation. With Linkous, you can even hear it through the layers of studio effects on "Getting It Wrong." And you can damn well hear it in "See The Light"'s refrain of "I can't see the light/ for the trees." And you can sure as hell hear it in his whispered tenor on "Return To Me."

The album didn't really kick in for me until it got cold out. For those that love any of the artist mentioned above, Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain is an understated masterpiece and another gem from a guy that deserves his name mentioned a lot more often. Stunningly beautiful, uniquely produced and one of the year's best albums.

Sparklehorse- Don't Take My Sunshine Away
from Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain

Buy Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain

Monday, December 11, 2006

And we're back...

So now that all but one final is over with, I can blog again. Sorry about that. To make up for it, I'll be listing my favorite albums of the year, in order, on a semi-day-to-day basis.

First, the runners up. The following albums made valiant efforts to get into my top ten list, but ended up falling short for one reason or another. To their credit, there are some absolute gems on here that deserve recognition.

Califone- Roots & Crowns
This is the most definitive, complete statements from one of the best "experimental folk" bands around. While weaving trippy electronics and cacophonous noise into plaintive folk songs is certainly not a new bag, very few bands do it as tastefully or effectively as Califone.

Califone- The Orchids from Roots & Crowns

Jason Molina- Let Me Go, Let Me Go, Let Me Go
Molina, without his rootsy backing band, at his dark, desperate and mournful best.

Bob Dylan- Modern Times
A collection of paint-by-the-numbers blues and folk rambles that remind us just how good this guy is.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy- The Letting Go
This really should have made my list. Will Oldham perfectly balances the creepy with the precious and makes the BPB album both you and your parents can enjoy.

The Walkmen- A Hundred Miles Off
After my honeymoon period with this album wore off, it didn't hold up as well as the band's previous work. But "All Hands and the Cook" ranks with the band's best, and the fact that a pretty solid effort from these guys didn't live up to people's expectations is more evidence that Bows & Arrows was one of the best albums released this decade.

The Walkmen- All Hands and the Cook from A Hundred Miles Off

Shearwater- Palo Santo
This one never got its fair share of attention. Majestic folk-rock and Jeff Buckley vocals from a band that includes Okkervil River's Will Sheff.

Shearwater- Red Sea Black Sea from Palo Santo

Beach House- Beach House
Reverby vocals and hypnotic organ like a one of those well-executed dream sequences from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Heartless Bastards- All This Time
Awesome, anthemic, female-led roots-garage rock.

Howe Gelb- Sno' Angel Like You
World-weary folk music and angelic choirs need to be mixed more often.

Sunset Rubdown- Shut Up I Am Dreaming
Wolf Parade co-leader Spencer Krug's side project further cements his place as one of the more promising indie rock songwriters around.

Brightblack Morning Light- Brightblack Morning Light
A "freak-folk" take on groovy rootsy R&B. One of the more unique records to come out this year.

Loose Fur- Born Again In The USA
Who gets together, throws together some classic rock tunes and makes an album this good? Jeff Tweedy, Glen Kotche and Jim O'Rourke, that's who. "Hey Chicken" could have been a Let It Bleed-era Rolling Stones tune.

Loose Fur- Hey Chicken from Born Again in the USA

Human Television- Look At Who You’re Talking To
Jangly guitars and echoy vocals recalls mid-1980s R.E.M.

Peter Bjorn & John- Writer's Block
Endlessly catchy Swedish pop with a Broken Social Scene vibe.

Peter Bjorn & John- Amsterdam from Writer's Block

The main list will appear one by one in the coming days.

Monday, December 04, 2006


Brooklyn-based Pela play an enjoyable mix of early, anthemic U2 (before they got shitty) and The National. It's all fairly simple stuff, but the band pulls it off without sounding too epic and earnest (like U2 now). "The Trouble with River Cities" in particular has been stuck in my head for several weeks now. The band has a couple of EPs out now and is planning a full length next year.

Pela- The Trouble With River Cities from the Exit Columbia Street EP

Oh, and Pitchfork has an interview with Craig Finn of The Hold Steady Apparently the guy from The Killers is apeing Craig's style.
Pitchfork: Did you see the "Saturday Night Live" when the Killers were on, and some people have claimed Brandon Flowers was impersonating you?

Craig Finn: I did not until someone told me to go look it up on YouTube. I don't know what that guy looks like normally, but someone told me he doesn't wear glasses.

Pitchfork: No, he doesn't wear glasses. A year ago, he was totally doing the whole David Bowie dinner-jacket thing.

Craig Finn: I don't know. He discovered Springsteen or something, so a lot of press I've seen has combined reviews of our two records. So that's one thing. But if I had to guess whether that guy from the Killers knows who the Hold Steady are, my guess would be no. But a lot of people said that: "Hopefully, he wasn't making fun of you." That was the thing, like maybe he's trying to dis. But still, my guess is that he has no idea who we are or who I am. I think that if I was Brandon Flowers from the Killers, I would be concerned about a lot more things, mainly just being a rock star and buying things.
Youtube took down the video of the Killers' SNL performance, sadly. If anyone knows where to find a copy, post it in the comments. As much as I love Finn and The Hold Steady (and I do - some might go as far as calling it unhealthy), if anyone has a trademark on those glasses, it's Elvis Costello.
But Costello (nor the Killers, mind you) never renewed my faith in rock music like The Hold Steady have this year. If I come upon a large sum of money sometime soon, I'm taking a quarter off classes, buying whiskey by the box and following The Hold Steady around on tour, Grateful Dead style. Go and buy Boys And Girls In America.