Favorites of 2011
(Dirty & Clean Rap)
Danny Brown, XXX
XXX was my favorite rap album of the year. Danny Brown sounds like about five different rappers as it winds its way through its tales of exhilaration, excess and derangement. I wrote a review for it at Sputnik Music so I’ll refer you to that rather than rewriting it here.
Shabazz Palaces, Black Up
Black Up was roundly praised by about six different sources that I respect highly, but it took a lot of listens before it started to sink in for me, and I’m pretty sure it’s still not done, and that’s why it’s in the “Favorites” section of this list. It’s pretty abstract, the titles are practically Illinois-worthy, and the beats are weird—at one point I had it on and Jenn said, “Why is there a loon?"—but the rapping is generally pretty conservative to my ears. With all this, it was the little things I had to latch onto at first: the warm swelling of the synth halfway through "Are You… Can You… Were You? (Felt)”; the “snare” like a hundred people clapping their hands with keys around their wrists in “Yeah You” and the one in “Swerve… the reeping [sic] of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding [sic])” like a snippet of rainstorm piped through a distortion pedal; the hooks that somehow didn’t snag me early because the whole package is so spaced out. It was not clear to me that it would end up on this list until I found myself composing this paragraph while listening, but I still don’t think I’m doing it justice. So I’ll stop here.
(Prior Favorites Who Didn’t Disappoint Me)
For some reason I felt like there was a lot of 80s throwbacky stuff this year, but that may be just because Kaputt came out early and cast its warm, languid light on everything else. It’s mystifying to me that Dan Bejar can do so many different styles so well when it seems like he just does not give a shit about music or lyrics or performance or haircuts, but Kaputt doesn’t have a bad or even a mediocre track on it. My favorite, not counting the stunning “ambient disco” (that’s Destroyer’s label’s description, not mine, and I can’t improve upon it) of “Bay of Pigs"—which I played the shit out of when it came out on an EP in 2009—is the gorgeous "Suicide Demo for Kara Walker,” with its opening round of gentle solos and the album’s prickliest Bejar lyric. But the whole thing goes down like a drink with a fancy name like Cosmopolitan or Martini that I wouldn’t drink but imagine Kaputt is the next best thing.
The Mountain Goats, All Eternals Deck
This isn’t the Mountain Goats' best album but they can still do no wrong. The opening three songs are as good a kickoff as the four that started Heretic Pride, two of them in particular seeming to me like new spins on old reliable Mountain Goats themes. “Birth of Serpents” is reminiscent of We Shall All Be Healed’s “Palmcorder Yajna,” right down to the camera imagery, but it’s “Estate Sale Sign” that’s the real blast of nostalgia for when it seemed like 80% of John Darnielle’s songs were furious exercises in disintegrating relationship exorcism. Only now he’s got a kickass drummer and production so crisp that you can practically hear the flecks of spittle hit the mic. All Eternals Deck doesn’t try to keep up this momentum for its whole length but there are other pleasant surprises and standouts: the striking choice of accompaniment in “High Hawk Season,” the undercurrent of horror (how many times has this phrase been used in writing about tMG?) in “Never Quite Free”’s superficially straightforward pedal-steel Americana. John Darnielle still writes a mean lyric but there’s a new pleasure in the curveballs the Mountain Goats are slinging these days.
Deerhoof, Deerhoof Vs. Evil
Speaking of curveballs, here’s a band that’s built its entire sound around them, and this typically punchy album has them ricocheting off the walls. Opener “Qui Dorm, Nomes Somia” typifies the anti-formula: a 20-second, largely synthetic false start followed by a blast of guitars before it coalesces into a jagged pop song of sorts, loosely built around the prelude’s ghost of a melody and with the lead singer singing in Portuguese with a Japanese accent. Every song offers this kind of cornucopia of pleasures, “Behold a Marvel in the Darkness” jackknifing between gentle and raucous, “No One Asked To Dance” pivoting on a deft flamenco-y guitar line, “Secret Mobilization” with its backbone of classic guitar riffage. But two tracks in particular were my gateway into this album’s spiky playground: “Super Duper Rescue Heads!” and its cute cheeky melody over gorgeously chipper arpeggios, and “I Did Crimes For You,” with a two-note non-melody of a verse and the year’s best handclaps.
(New Residents In My Brain Space)
Jenny Hval, Viscera
Notable for being the second album on this list to include the word “clitoris"—in its first line, no less, and with a mentioned-in-reviews rate pretty close to 100%—but being pretty much the complete opposite of the first one: among other differences, XXX spanned 19 short tracks, Viscera nine mostly long ones. They meander, musically, as much as the peripatetic lyrics, which are cohesive and evocative enough that it’s hard for me to believe Hval’s claim that they were largely improvised. Much of the accompaniment is kind of ambient or avant-garde-y, as the opening track "Engines in the City,” deliberately swelling “This is a Thirst” and the first half of “Portrait of the Young Girl As An Artist.” But if the backing tracks sometimes seem to be holding you at arm’s length, Hval’s vocals never do: I’m continually astounded by her range, from the smooth alto heralding the arrival of “Blood Flight”’s chilly guitar arpeggios to the sudden piercing lilt of “Couldn’t do… yogaaaa!” in the title track. The haunting, wordless melody over the straightforwardly rocking backing track of the second half of “Portrait” is one of my favorite moments of any song this year.
If Viscera was largely restrained in its self-exploration, whokill is rambunctious and wide-eyed with its questions, and Merrill Garbus has a lot of them and precious few answers. In the opener “My Country,” the central question seems to be “If nothing of this is ours / How will I ever know if something’s mine?” and it seems to touch on the album’s main theme of how confusing it is to live and be a woman in America. There’s what seems to be body dissatisfaction in “Es-so” and “Powa,” identity confusion in “Gangsta,” and serious (and topical) qualms about how law enforcement operates in “Riotriot” and “Doorstep,” all delivered amidst music that takes that uncertainty and makes it almost tangible in its tangle of instrumentation and studio trickery. Garbus’s voice is a wonder, too: in particular, the punchy chorus of “Bizness” is a splendid, invigorating moment.
Colin Stetson, New History Warfare Vol. 2
This might not be an album I’m inclined to throw on while I do the dishes. Colin Stetson is a man with an enormous, ancient, possibly priceless saxophone who seems, on New History Warfare, Vol. 2, determined to wring every last possible sound out of it before his lungs give out. His playing is proficient enough when he’s fluttering through Philip Glass-esque minimalist arpeggios in 7/8 (or whatever) time, but it’s on tracks like “The Stars in his Head (Dark Lights Remix),” where he throws what’s gotta be about eight mics on that motherfucker and—in realtime—becomes percussion, horn, drone and enraged goose all in one, that it becomes difficult to believe. Add a sprinkling of very evocative if (to me) completely impenetrable poetry from Laurie Anderson, some alternately heartrending and ephemeral singing from Shara Worden, a few French horns and a dash of immense swelling choir and it’s hard for me to see how anyone could not be awed by this album somewhere in its runtime.
SORNE, House of Stone
Kind of a left-field album, this. I guess it was made by this one guy with just a beat up guitar and some handmade instruments (including “a log made hollow by insects”)? And it sounds to me kind of like what I naïvely imagine the Aztecs would record if they set out to make an album to soundtrack their human sacrifice? I’m not sure. But I haven’t heard anything like this in a long time, if ever. The guy’s voice sounds like the Mars Volta’s singer one moment and the Antlers' singer the next: he can belt it out with the best of them and has a hell of a falsetto, which he uses to great effect on the haunting “Coyote” and title track. But there’s also the punishing beat of “Omnipotent” and driving fury of “Shaman of Snakes,” starting with the attention-getting line “I drowned myself in the river / And walked away.” This album exudes mysticism from every lyric (though I catch snatches of lyrics that leave me not knowing where to place it, temporally: the allusion to “desperate minimum wage,” the cry of “America, I know you”), but its sound earns every bit of it.
PJ Harvey, Let England Shake
I hadn’t really listened to much PJ Harvey before this. I think she opened for U2 when I saw them in my freshman year of college and I remember thinking it seemed kind of… screamy? Of course the sound up in the rafters of that arena was atrocious. In any case, however screamy it might have been, it couldn’t have been as unsubtle as Let England Shake, a musically understated but lyrically overt condemnation of the evils perpetuated on England and its people by its involvement in wars possibly ranging back as far as WWI. One could pithily call this one big anti-war screed, but there’s too much artistry and sonic variation for that to really do it justice: check the bouncy electronics and perky melody leading up to the chilling lyrics “What is the glorious fruit of our land? / The fruit is deformed children.” That’s this album’s vibe in a nutshell, and it would be very hard to listen to if the almost gentle instrumentation didn’t help it go down easier. Also exemplifying this: the potent straining of Harvey’s singing in “On Battleship Hill”, the mournful wailing in “England.” A poison pill inscribed with delicate curlicues.
Non-Favorites of 2011
I like this, and I like parts of it a lot: I enjoy the crisp beats and many of the lines, standouts being “My Habits,” the diptych of “Hard as they Come” and “Murder,” “Get Ignorant” and “Enemies With Benefits”. That they can sell me a line like “Then roam around in my PJs for three days / Eating sour cream and cheese Lay’s” makes me inclined to watch these guys. But the sung parts—samples? I’m not sure, they’ve got a pretty cohesive sound to them—really rub me the wrong way. In keeping with the title and theme I guess they’re maybe trying to capture a psychadelia kind of vibe, and they sound a little like John Lennon at his most fey, but these parts are everywhere and I don’t care for them, nor do I think they do much for the album besides bulk it out.
Jonathan Coulton, Artificial Heart
This was apparently produced by one of the Johns of They Might Be Giants, and it seems like a natural fit because Mr. Coulton’s approach to songwriting is very similar to theirs. There are plenty of good lines like “This bad coffee is filling me with equal parts joy and rage,” from “Good Morning Tucson” and catchy melodies, but the production seems to fall into some kind of twilight zone between sparse and conventional and there a few clunkers like the asinine “Je Suis Rick Springfield,” which I feel like it must be a joke I’m just not getting. There are arrangements of the songs from both Portal games on here and they’re great, but not new. Overall this was worth several spins and the $5 I spent on it but it’s not something I’ll be listening to in two years.
My Brightest Diamond, All Things Will Unwind
This is the third very good but not great album from Shara Worden. She keeps popping up in interesting places on other artists' releases and killing it, but to me she hasn’t yet delivered a full-length of her own that could match the blazing fury of her role as the forest queen/protective mother on the Decemberists' Hazards of Love. To be fair, her own releases take a different tack, and the only places she really gives her pipes a max-volume vigorous workout here are the climaxes of “Be Brave” and “There’s a Rat.” Elsewhere, All Things mostly aims for mid-tempo, slightly off-kilter orchestral gorgeousness, though “High Low Middle” is a bouncy late-album highlight. Some of the songs like the title track and the New History Warfare-sniping “Reaching Through To The Other Side” are too abstract, with not strong enough melody, to capture my interest much; I think I actually like Worden most in her straightforward moments like the aforementioned ones and the deceptively named, unabashedly maudlin closing track. Seriously, on paper I’d hate “I Have Never Loved Someone” and its Hammond-organ backed sappy lyrics about Worden’s child, parenthood being a topic whose resonance with me is basically zero, but there’s no denying the power of the melody and the final, mantra-like repetition of the phrase “You’re OK.”
Bon Iver, Bon Iver
Another album that aims for and often hits the goal of maximal gorgeousness but lacks the extra oomph needed to push it into Favorites territory for me. “Holocene” deservedly got heavy airplay in Starbucks this year, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. Most of the rest of Bon Iver is pretty but doesn’t leave much of an impression on me, aside from closer “Beth/Rest” which does so in the worst way possible. If Kaputt was what you get when Dan Bejar filters out all the good stuff from the 80s and makes a record out of it, “Beth/Rest” is what’s left over.
(Ambivalence or Indifference)
Death Grips, Exmilitary
All respect to artists who can keep this kind of thing up for a whole album, but I just don’t want to listen to this album very often, in kind of the same way I don’t want to be punched repeatedly in the head and neck very often. Certainly I’ve never heard anything else like it. It’s rap, I guess, but this MC Ride guy doesn’t have a “flow” so much as a jagged tumbling cascade of bricks that crash into you over caustic, punishing beats. He yells all the time, basically. I’m just not angry enough to listen to this much, although sometimes I feel like I should be.
Battles, Gloss Drop
I believe Battles' first album Mirrored was #10 on my top 10 list in a previous year, and Gloss Drop sounds kind of like the parts of Mirrored I didn’t like as much, with the vocalist swapped out for some people I also don’t like as much. It’s every bit as complex and virtuosic, but I think maybe it just needs a good solid hook like Mirrored had in “Atlas.” Having listened to it a few times, there’s just no moments here that I feel compelled to go back to.
The Antlers, Burst Apart
I liked the Antlers' first album, Hospice, because it took its overarching concept and milked it for all the anguish it was worth, which was a lot; it wasn’t always (ever?) a fun listen, but it invoked Feelings in me in a way that Burst Apart doesn’t.
Frank Ocean, Nostalgia/Ultra
I put this album on in Jenn’s presence and her response to the first (real) song “Strawberry Swing"—which could be the title track with no changes other than the name—was "This sounds like shit my mom would listen to.” I don’t necessarily count that as a demerit by itself; in fact, I find “Strawberry Swing” pretty charming in a saccharine kind of way. But a lot of this album is pretty cheesy, and with one exception, so frequent a use of Autotune by someone who can obviously sing rubs me the wrong way. This may be the album in this section that I have the most affection for, but I’m still not crazy about it.
James Blake, James Blake
I guess this is “dubstep,” or at least parts of it are, or at least it has some dubstep-like elements to it, but I’m not really sure what the characteristics of dubstep are. (Honestly I kind of suspect that “dubstep” has become a term, like “hipster,” used to mean “something that people seem to think is trendy and hip and I don’t see the appeal.”) It’s about half heavily synthetic, skittishly percussive electronica and half piano ballads, but it’s got a very moody, cohesive and atmospheric sound despite its seeming to occupy two very different territories. For about the first half, the only warmth in it seems to come from the intricately layered and harmonized vocals, and even those largely have kind of a frosty feel to them. Many songs are built around the repetition of ad nauseam of simple phrases, and that kind of thing is always a hard sell for me even if the instrumentation is compelling. This is, in parts, but not consistently enough to make this one of my favorites this year.
Braids, Native Speaker
Where James Blake is cold, Native Speaker is warm, and honestly, thinking about it now, I don’t know why I don’t like it more than I do. It’s got a good mix of upbeat and slower, more ambient tracks; the singer is unique and clearly proficient; the instrumentation heavily synth-based but varied pretty well. But while I can remember several moments from Native Speaker, like the fuzzy staccato of “Plath Heart”’s intro, and the languid repetition of lyrics extolling the sensual in the title track, I really have no special affection for any of them. Of all the albums in this section, I think this may be the best. It just didn’t draw me in.
(Got Too Late—or Listened Too Little—To Evaluate)
Blackout Beach, Fuck Death
To be fair, I don’t think I’ve ever felt like I’m able to evaluate Carey Mercer’s music, no matter how much I listen to it.
Moonface, Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped
It’s another Spencer Krug (Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown) pseudonym. This one seems to maybe be just him, fiddling with synths and prepending “shit” to random words: his first EP as Moonface was called Dreamland EP: marimba and shit-drums and this album has a song titled “A Shit-Hawk In the Snow”.
Eleanor Friedberger, Last Summer
The first track, “My Mistakes,” is a great single. The rest of it seems a little like the last Fiery Furnaces LP: catchy in places, but not really what got me into the Furnaces in the first place.
The Weeknd [sic], House of Balloons
The first time I listened to this I got halfway through the first track and turned it off in disgust. The second time I got the strong impression that about 2/3 of the lyrics were basically not funny variants of “Lemme smang it, girl.” Reading reviews, I get the impression that there’s an undercurrent of unpleasant Dionysian excess but I’ve so far failed to really pick it up. I will probably give this one or two more tries but initial reports are unfavorable.
Chad VanGaalen, Diaper Island
Lo-fi singer-songwritery. So far it sounds like early Mountain Goats, but he’s got a band and doesn’t enunciate as well, and apparently those things make all the difference. I think the really lo-fi thing only worked for tMG with me because the lyrics were still so crisp and the single acoustic guitar didn’t get too muddy; this album doesn’t have those advantages but I need to give it a chance to sink in. The main riff from “Freedom For A Policeman” may be a good hook for me to come back to. We’ll see.
Random Axe, Random Axe
OK rap about, if my memory serves me correctly, “druggin' and thuggin' and that’s it,” actual quote from the lyrics. Did not strike me as remarkable in any way, even including Danny Brown’s guest verse, which is almost kind of impressive.
Noel Gallagher, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds
Honestly I got this because Jenn likes Oasis but she didn’t seem to appreciate it that much. I will give it another try or two; sounded basically like what one might expect from an Oasis dude though.
(Follow-Ups That Disappointed Me In Some Way)
The Decemberists, The King Is Dead
I mean, it’s a good album. Quite good, in fact. Probably better than The Hazards of Love, which I liked despite its being almost self-parody. It’s hooky and the melodies are almost all really good and it’s got Peter Buck on it, and the two “Hymn” songs are gentle and moving. But it’s just not… Decemberists-y. I think it’s possible for an album to be Decemberists-y without being The Hazards of Love, but The King Is Dead sounds like something that some other very competent band could have written. Oh, and “All Arise!” makes me want to hit the “skip” button hard enough to break my iPod.
Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues
Also good. None of the albums in this list are bad, really. But Helplessness Blues seems like it has a lot of filler or unremarkable songs compared to their self-titled debut. The two “medley” songs are both largely plodding and overlong. I can’t link most of the titles of the others to their sound, never a good sign for me. I like “Montezuma” and the title track a lot, and “Someone You’d Admire” is a prettily stripped-down little song, and much of the rest is adequate Fleet Foxes material. But I don’t even know if the last two songs are any good, so much does “The Shrine / An Argument” try my patience.
Okkervil River, I Am Very Far
On the surface, I Am Very Far seems to have all the trappings of Okkervil River’s best material, but there seems to be an emptiness at its heart that I can’t put my finger on. The first half of “The Stage Names” had great songs, sure, but it also had compelling lyrics about the compelling/corrosive nature of performance art that kept me coming back. I don’t have the first idea what most of I Am Very Far is really about, and while that may be my fault, it’s hard for me to get drawn in when so much of what made earlier Okkervil River special was Will Sheff’s lyrics. As for the music, it seems to me like the overall quality is similar to the last couple Okkervil River albums, but more even. Lower highs but fewer, better lows. Still, opener “The Valley” is a rousing foot-stomper, and its transition into the otherwise momentum-killing “Piratess” is sublime. Late-album gems “We Need A Myth,” “Wake And Be Fine” and “Your Past Life as a Blast” ensure that the album can keep my attention all the way through, but it doesn’t captivate me like earlier Okkervil River albums have.
Radiohead, The King of Limbs
Just joining the chorus of people who feel a little let down by this one. I find it to be good background music, which is damming with faint praise for this band, though I seem to be one of about seven people who likes “Feral.” (Of course, I also like “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors,” so.) Radiohead succeeded even in their most difficult moments before because they always brought the songs. This album has too many tone poems and mood pieces and too few songs.
Das Racist, Relax
Probably the most disappointing to me, though in a way it’s just a regression to about the quality of their first mixtape Shut Up, Dude (but with way higher production values). That mixtape was about half awesome and half shit; Relax has a similar ratio. It’s disappointing because while the in-between album, Sit Down, Man, took a while to sink its hooks into me, I now regard it as surprisingly consistent for a 19-track wiseass rap album. Relax, though? Well, here’s the breakdown. These tracks are fire: (the first three and a half minutes of) “Relax”, “Michael Jackson” (dumbass but noisy fun, typical DR but going harder), “Happy Rappy,” “Power”, “Rainbow In The Dark” (but that’s cheating because it was on Shut Up, Dude). These tracks are OK: “Middle Of The Cake,” “Brand New Dance,” “Selena,” “The Trick,” “Shut Up, Man”. Everything else I could happily skip, especially the egregious “Punjabi Song,” inane-as-its-name “Booty In The Air” and asinine “Celebration”. I’ve seen evidence in interviews that these guys can have a little contempt for their audience but this seems like the first place they’ve really started showing it.
Favorite Songs of 2011
Azealia Banks, “212”
The only reason I haven’t been listening to this daily since I first heard it about a month and a half ago is that Azealia Banks is going to drop an album in 2012 and I don’t want to be sick of this track when she does. I guess a lot of people are comparing her to Nicki Minaj, but since I don’t know Minaj’s stuff all that well, Banks reminds me of Janelle Monaé in her apparent ability to to everything absolutely flawlessly and make it seem easy (if not in her writing songs that pivot on lines like “I guess that cunt gettin' eaten”). From my limited exposure to Nicki Minaj (her indomitable performance on Kanye West’s “Monster”), I can hear those comparisons too: Banks spits verses in at least three very distinct vocal styles here. The end result is a bewildering, obscene, bitchily virtuosic joyride and it’s probably a stong contender for my song of the year despite having no album to support it.
Frank Ocean, “Novacane”
I mentioned Jenn’s first impression of this song’s album as “shit [her] mom would listen to,” but this song (the second) dispelled that notion pretty quickly. “Every single record, auto-tunin', zero emotion, muted emotion, pitch-corrected, computed emotion,” Ocean sing-raps, justifying his use of the hated vocal gimmick right off the bat. The premise of the track seems to be a terminated relationship with a drug-abusing aspiring dentist (one of my favorite lines of the year: “Sink full of dishes / Pacing in the kitchen / Cocaine for breakfast / Yikes”) destroying Ocean’s ability to feel anything, and while that’s a decent spin on the typical breakup song, this track has an awful lot else going for it too. The singing’s so smooth the autotune is barely noticeable, the groove and melody infectious. Nostalgia/Ultra was not one of my favorite albums of the year, but if all its tracks were as good as “Novacane” it would be.
Das Racist, “Relax” (first three and a half minutes)
Relax, the album, ended up being disappointing, but I wouldn’t have guessed it from its title track. The vocal hook is distinctive without being overbearing like the bhangra in “Punjabi Song,” the production dark and low-key but still hooky. Victor Vazquez’s verse is serviceable, ending with a nice display of his not usually very impressive breath control. But Heems’s is, I think, the best thing I’ve ever heard come out of his mouth. I’ve previously liked Victor more because he brought more lulz, but Heems doesn’t seem to be fucking around here and it’s enough to make me wonder if he wouldn’t be better suited in a more serious group. He ends his verse with “Elegant lettermans and other fresh shit / To distract you,” and I wonder how much of his act is to distract us from what a good rapper he is (“Yeah, I’m fucking great at rapping!” on “Michael Jackson” notwithstanding). Then the track dissolves into a full minute of someone laughing hysterically through some kind of filter, setting the stage for a lot of the rest of Relax. Oh well, at least the beat’s still good.
Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues”
Robin Pecknold’s at his best on Helplessness Blues when he’s trying out loud to find his place in the world, and while the opener “Montezuma” hints at this, the title track exemplifies it. The chorus is a classic Fleet Foxes blossom of harmony as rich as any on the Fleet Foxes' self-titled album, and in the service of a statement of intent like “I’d say I’d rather be / a functioning cog in some great machinery / serving something beyond me,” a sentiment I don’t think I’ve ever heard in song.
Danny Brown, “XXX”/“Die Like A Rockstar”/“Pac Blood”
Is it cheating to wrap up three songs like this? What if they total only seven minutes? XXX was the messiest tour de force of the year for me, and its opening three tracks lay it all out immediately, demonstrating Danny Brown’s versatility along with (in order) his dedication, self-destructiveness, and flat out ability to spit fire, all over some beautifully appropriately pitch-dark moody beats.
This song has been compared to “Drive” off Automatic for the People, and while the trebly minor-key guitar work is similar, the only other significant parallel I can see is that “Überlin” also deserves to be considered among R.E.M.’s best songs, which is a strong statement. The chorus, with Michael Stipe and Mike Mills harmonizing like in the glory days, is beautiful and limned with the optimism that Stipe started to work into his post-Bill Berry lyrics, but the whole song would indeed have fit comfortably on Automatic. (My favorite R.E.M. album, in case it’s not clear what high praise that is.)
Destroyer, “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker”
It would have been “Bay of Pigs” except that came out originally last year. But this is a close second for my favorite songs on Kaputt: gorgeous, warm yet melancholy, long but never tiring intro; bullshit lyric from Bejar in fine form and still finding new pages to turn in his Big Book O' Bejar Bullshit.
Video of the Year: The Decemberists, “Calamity Song”
They reenact the Eschaton scene from Infinite Jest over a classic jangly R.E.M.-style guitar riff. I mean, Jesus, they might as well have put “For Ian” in the credits, though I’m sure I’m far from the only person who feels that way.
(The Mountain Goats Award For Making This A Little Shorter Than It Might Have Been)
The Dismemberment Plan
So named because of the almost full year I spent mining the Mountain Goats' back catalog instead of listening to new music. It wasn’t as bad this year (as you can tell), but there were definitely a few months this year that I devoted to the Dismemberment Plan. (That’s a band.) I’d had Emergency & I last year, and played it a couple times without realizing it was something special, but I came around sometime in the spring this year. How had I missed the amazing musicianship these guys were demonstrating on every track? “Gyroscope” is impressive enough for being catchy and having an eminently shoutable chorus between verses in 15/16 time, but I’d somehow failed to do an aural double take at the histrionics in “Girl O'Clock” or the explosion of the chorus of “You Are Invited” from its muted verses. I must not have been paying very good attention. And for a fan of unusual time signatures, Emergency & I is a treat, featuring songs in 5 or 7 so deftly that I didn’t even notice until their play counts were in the double digits.
So then I picked up Change, the Plan’s last album, and while there’s a hint of truth to the claim that it doesn’t quite have the energy on display that Emergency did, that was more than balanced for me by the amount this band seemed to have grown up in the space of one album. Change sounds like it ought to have had a decade of growth between it and Emergency. The lyrics are more concerned with romantic travails than Emergency’s tales of early adulthood dysphoria, but rich with metaphor like “Superpowers”’s “indigo light from silver towers / surrounded by rocks and stones as far as the eye can see,” or “Time Bomb,” laying waste to everything in its path, one of my songs of the year despite being recorded in 2001. And of course still the virtuosity: the drumwork in “The Other Side” drops my jaw every. Goddamn. Time.
The Plan’s earlier albums, “!” and …Is Terrified, don’t amaze quite as much, though the latter, at least, has its own raucous charm: “The Ice of Boston” completely deserves its status at the Plan’s great slacker anthem and is hilarious to boot. Overall, though, it’s clear that Emergency & I was as big a leap forward from …Is Terrified as Change was from Emergency, and my impression of “!” is that there’s similar distance between it and Terrified (it’s honestly a little too rough ‘n tumble for me to listen to much). So the Dismemberment Plan only released four full length albums, but taken together they seem like they ought to span a much longer career, two or three more albums between each one. Personally, I’m happy with two 90th-percentile albums from them. That’s two more than most bands and one more than all but a very few.