Top Songs of (my) Year 2013

FatherTimeSomehow, another year has turned (as the Greeks would put it) and I find myself already contemplating writing retrospective and best of the year reviews. My sense of awe and disbelief derives not from actual disbelief since I can distinctly remember my life last year and where I was when I wrote the restrospectives of a year ago. No, my surprise comes from how fast it has all gone .

The alacrity of our passing years is in part perspective (the more you do something the fast it seems to go; objectively speaking, time itself has not been altered). And yet, in addition, the rapid transit of time is still accelerated more by our myriad modern distractions (I’m talking to you, 24 news cycle, twitter, social networks, etc.) and the busyness of my time of life—early career, young children, somewhat lame blog…

Is the enjoyment of life necessarily limited by speed and quantity? My suspicion is that the answer is yes. But the fact is that I don’t really want to contemplate the answer, because the only solution is to give stuff up. And I wouldn’t know where to begin. The fullness of my life is a blessing more than a curse.

Today isn’t about the busyness or the blog. I want to celebrate the fact that I still take time to enjoy music and that another year has brought me another group of songs I will always love. So, here are the ten songs I will most associate this year with in no particular order.

“New Distributor Cap”, Ed’s Redeeming Qualities

Some how I missed this alt-folk band years back. When I discovered it when I was writing a review of the Breeders’ Last Splash, I fell into one of those “wish I had been a different person reveries”. This song is sweet, and true. The central conceit—that the singer will fix the car for the girl he likes—is just so simple and universal as to be adorable. The fact that the music and recording is low-fi only brings into relief the greatness of the song even more.

(And this made me promise myself that I’d finally get around to writing about Small Rock. Just next year)

 “Best of Friends,” Palma Violets

I wrote about this song earlier. I listened to it every day for two weeks. Hell, I’m listening to it now. It is one of those songs that makes the rest of the album pale in comparison. It made me rethink Rancid. (And I’ll write about that next year.) It would be higher on the list if I had convinced my wife and children to like it.

“Dreams of Cannibalism”, Typhoon

When The Only D called me out on Typhoon and predicted I would like it, I was skeptical, but that crazy guy knows me too well. I love the album White Lighter. I love this song because it is so characteristic of how creative, dynamic and just damn musical this artist is. His songs are heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time.

I have shed a tear listening to this music while running in the wee hours of the mourning. Thankfully, it was always in the dark.

Late March, Death March,” Frightened Rabbit

I am going to cheat on this one and add in two more songs. “Swim Until You Can’t See Land”, and “Twist”. Earlier in the year I wrote how it would be impossible for me to write about Frightened Rabbit. I haven’t changed my opinion, but I have grown to love this band even more. The group’s most recent release (Pedestrian Verse) isn’t their best, but it is still pretty damn good.  I have gone days with the line “like mother said, less heart more head” from this song bouncing around in my head. It is now nearly a mantra.

“It’s Time,” Imagine Dragons

Yeah, I wrote about this song. Then, my children fell in love with it. Then it exploded and Imagine Dragons turned up everywhere. (I still don’t believe that LeBron James listens to the band.) My kids call this the “clapping song”. When my daughter sings along with the last line “I’m never changing who I am”, it chokes me up. I won’t lie.

“Super Bon Bon.” Mike Doughty (from the release, Circles)

I never thought I would get so excited about Mike Doughty again, but I was really interested to listen to this release of Soul Coughing ‘covers’. When my children heard it, they loved it and were at first perplexed by the fact that there was another “Super Bon Bon” that sounded different. They named the original recording “Drum Super Bon Bon” and this one “Small Super Bon Bon.” I play whichever they ask for. So, Mike Doughty, you made the list.

“Closer,” Tegan and Sara

When Tegan and Sara released their new album I did my usual contrarian thing and reviewed what I hold to be their best album (The Con) instead. But this song has grown on me enoguh that I listen to it a few times a week. I love these artists. I will probably buy every recording they ever make.

“Let’s Go,” Matt and Kim

Matt and Kim have always been a bit of a curiosity for me. I think that they are maknig dance music but I really like to run to it. It is memorable but not always that deep. This song is a little more complex than some of their numbers. The real reason it made it to the list is that I have ehard the song 20 times in the past five days. My daughter fell in love with it and I cannot resist when she asks for a song.

“Some Nights”, Night Riot (Used to be PK)

I grew obsessed with the song “Berelain” which I discovered just around the time I finshed the final book of the Wheel of Time series. I actually like this song more. How did it end up as the penultimate song to this list? Every time I hear it, I think, hey, I like this song. And, every time, it seems like a new revelation. That’s a pretty neat thing in a time when repetition kills everything.

“Every Time she Turns Around it’s her Birthday”, Caribou

I have written about this song a few times. I love it. But that’s not enough. No, the progressive and somewhat unstructured music is not just entertaining but it is also transformative. I haven’t heard a song that makes me feel like my state is altered in a long time. This one makes me feel, well, different. Listen.

Happy new year. May next year be even better.

Albums of (My) year 2013

Last year I made a ranked list of the albums I bought during 2012. Since I enjoyed doing it and find pleasure now (and, as often, surprise) when I turn back to it, I am returning to this again. Though I distrust lists and the distorting aesthetic of list-making, I nevertheless find it to be useful to look back on the year to put it into perspective.

This year, I have decided to make things a little more interesting (or maybe just topical and snarky) by ordering the numbered list into roughly associated groups. Enjoy.

Group 1: I don’t know why I bought these albums

19. The Dunwells, Blind Sighted Faith

I believe now that I was experiencing some temporal rift or suffering some sort of mind/body crisis when I heard this song on the TV and liked it. In honesty, I think that the cooking fan was on, the kids were screaming, and I had a cold. I’ve said all that before. This song is overproduced. The album is not very good. I won’t be listening to it again.

18. City and Colour, Bring Me Your Love

I was in a similar state of distraction when I first heard this song at the gym. When I wrote about it, I really thought I liked it. And then I listened to it when I wasn’t oxygen deprived and trapped on a treadmill. I don’t like it. The album is slightly better than the last entry, but not great.

17. Biffy Clyro, The Vertigo of Bliss

This band was suggested to me by iTunes. I don’t know why I keep falling for that, but I actually think this crew has some potential. The sound is a little too polished–another indie band that’s a bit overproduced–but it does seem creative enough that I will actually listen to this album a few times. There is some Superdrag and Eels-lite aura to the sound that makes me think I may end up liking it.

 Group 2: Disappointing Albums by Bands I like

16. They Might Be Giants, Nanobots

Oh, TMBG, I can’t stop loving you. The songs on this album, when they don’t seem formulaic, are small and uninteresting. I think that the band needs a long break or some type of epiphany. Again, I will probably buy albums by this band every opportunity I get, always hoping that they’ll surprise me again. But, then again, maybe the problem is me. Maybe I have moved too far away. 

15. Arcade FireReflektor

I really liked Arcade Fire’s first album. Neon Bible was pretty good. The subsequent two albums are musically bloated and lyrically stale. I keep listening to the earlier ones. I have tried to see if this album would grow on me, but it really hasn’t. It just seems, well, unfocused and forced.

14. PhoenixBankrupt

Lately I have been listening to “Lisztomania” a lot because my  son loves it and my wife just discovered Wolfgang Amadaeus Mozart was a great rock album. Bankrupt is part of a trend I have noticed in indie-rock bands, some sort of a strange rush to dance and synth-music (See Tegan and Sara’s Closer or Arcade Fire’s latest). I still find this album annoying after a few months. I wish they’d strap their guitars back on and make some recordings with a four-track. These guys have a good sense for music–it is just getting blotted out by all their toys.

Group 3: Good Albums by bands I like

13. Tegan and Sara’s The Heartthrob

Hearthrob, the title track from this album, has a rhythm but not always a beat. That’s an example of a sentence that sounds nice but is essentially meaningless. The title track is fun, but the collection as a whole doesn’t have the spit and vigor of the first few albums. I will not lie about my disappointment in this album. I know I keep announcing how much I love this band. The overlapping harmonies are still there, but the sisters’ voices just seem too small for the magnitude of the sounds thrown together on this album. Like Phoenix and Arcade Fire, I wish I could pay them to record an album with just a few instruments.

12. JunipJunip

So, Junip made a big splash lately when its song was used in promos for the Breaking Bad finaleI have loved the music of Jose Gonzalez for a long time. Junip is pretty good music–the extra production in comparison to Gonzalez’s seminal solo work is a little muddy and distracting; in addition, the composition of the songs is a bit unfocused as well. And, yet, this is a fine band with a fine sound. If you’re screaming because Phoenix’s new album is aurally victimizing you, listen to this as an antidote.

11. Why?Mumps, etc.

Why? is one of my favorite bands. If I can get my crap together, I will review the wonderful album Elephant Eyelash in the new year. No band I know of combines different genres and topics so honestly and inventively. This band is one of the top 10 most unique and interesting bands performing today. But, for some dumbass reason, I hadn’t bought this album. So I did. And I don’t regret it. It doesn’t get to be higher on the list because this is my damn list and I want to be arbitrary

Group 4: Albums that Deserve another Listen

10. Little Green Cars, Absolute Zero

I geeked out last year over the advanced single from this album, “The John Wayne”e. I loved it almost immediately. The full album fails to replicate the sound and success of that single, but I can’t quite agree that I am disappointed.

This is another album I think might grow on me if I give it the time. This song (“My Love took me down to the River”), for instance, makes me think of something gospel-influenced lodged between Rogue Wave and The Red House Painters. Not a bad place to be.

9. The Last Bison, Inheritance

“Inheritance”, the opening and title track is exciting and dynamic, but it only lasts a minute or so. This is another band I got really excited about when I first heard the EP from this band (from when they were just called Bison). This album has some forgettable songs. In fact, most of the memorable songs were on the EP.. Since the album was a bit of a rushed re-release of earlier work, I have hopes (perhaps unfounded) that the next album could be something special.

8. Okkervil River, Silver Gymnasium

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Okkervil river is musically interesting and lyrically almost too honest. I can’t say that I love this album, but I think I might. I bought their album The Stand Ins years back and listened to it twice. So, if prior performance is an indication of future performance, this is not a good sign. But my friend Another J keeps asking me about this, so I am going to give it the ol’ school try.

7. The Dodos, Visiter

What the hell is wrong with me? I know that this is a decent and interesting album, but I never listen to it. The lyrical and musical combination strikes me as something somewhere between the best stuff of Of Monsters and Men and the least emo Ben Gibbard solo material with some Grizzly and Bon Iver thrown in for good measure. There might even be some less-than-lyrical Belle and Sebastien stuff going on here.

Group 5: The Contenders

6. Macklemore, The Heist                

This is not the best album of the year. This is just an album we posted four times about and which I listened to way too many times. Macklemore’s style is, I think, quite forgettable and he’ll probably just be a footnote in later years. But I may be wrong about that. If you want to know far too much about what we think about Macklemore, read one of the multiple conversations.

 

5. Caribou, Up In Flames

I wrote about finding this music late on the radio when returning from the airport. This is great music to get lost to and there really isn’t that much else out there that is the same. Thank you, Caribou. Thank you. It doesn’t get to be higher on the list because It is too old and I can’t persuade anyone else to listen to it.

 

4. Jaimeo Brown, Transcendence

To be honest, I haven’t listened to this nearly as much as it deserves.  Whatever the case, I was really excited when I downloaded it. I recognize abstractly that it is a great album and musically impressive. I just don’t find it compelling. But it is good. Just not good enough.

 

3. Palma Violets, 180

This band made me think of Rancid and Fugazi with some more melodic and inventive rock thrown in there. I love the lead song from the album. And I think I listened to the full album three times in two days. Palma Violets won my attention for the whole week.Over the past week or so, my obsession has waned. So, for that reason the album rates a bit lower than the others.

2. Frightened Rabbit, Pedestrian Verse

All year I have been listening to Frightened Rabbit. Any one on the albums could have served on this list. I use this one because it came out this year and I have really grown to love this album despite some initial reservations.

1. Typhoon, White Lighter

Typhoon’s White Lighter brilliant and manic. It is one of the better albums I have bought in a long time.The hard part is that it makes me want to die, Of course, I have listened to this record almost every day since I acquired it.

For the creativity, the gift of the few albums I have listened to by Typhoon, and the certainty that I will be listening to this album for a very, very long time, I am happy to say that this is my favorite album of the year.

 

Fall Recent Acquisitions, Part 1

Over the past few  months I have purchased many new albums but I haven’t had the time or inspiration to write any new album reviews. And yet, my tremendous sense of self importance leads me to share my opinions with the world. Here, the first of two posts about my musical acquisitions.

 

The Dunwells, Blind Sighted Faith

I may have been hungover or especially weak, or experiencing some temporal rift or suffering some sort of mind/body crisis. I heard this song on the TV and thought it sounded really great. In honesty, I think that the cooking fan was on, the kids were screaming, and I had a cold. I downloaded the album, started it the next morning in the car, and lasted about two minutes before I shut it off. This is so plastic I can hear the creaking and smell the cellophane. Needless to say, I have not been listening to this album

Caribou, Up In Flames

I love this band, this guy, and these songs. I actually can listen to this album while running and so I do. This is great music to get lost to and there really isn’t that much else out there that is the same. Thank you, Caribou. Thank you.

 

Jaimeo Brown, Transcendence

I loved this album when I heard it on the radio. Here’s the problem: I don’t really listen to jazz albums when I am (1) at the gym or (2) running. So, to be honest, I haven’t listened to this nearly as much as it deserves. I may return, I may not. Whatever the case, I was really excited when I downloaded it.

 

They Might Be Giants, Nanobots

Oh, TMBG, I can’t stop loving you even though we’ve grown our separate ways. It has been a full decade since I really liked a TMBG album and, yet, I dutifully purchase each one with the irrational hope that this one will turn back the clock and reunite us. Unfortunately, this one doesn’t. The songs, when they don’t seem formulaic, are small and uninteresting. I think that the band needs a long break or some type of epiphany.

 

City and Colour, Bring Me Your Love

I heard this song at the gym while listening to Pandora and was a little overtired and depressed. I thought I really liked it. The song is just fine. The album? Glitzy, overproduced and shallow. The songs are more fit to a top-40 pop artist than a rock-band. There is some real shmaltz here. Beware.

 

Biffy Clyro, The Vertigo of Bliss

This band was suggested to me by iTunes. I don’t know why I keep falling for that, but I actually think this crew has some potential. The sound is a little too polished–another indie band that’s a bit overproduced–but it does seem creative enough that I will actually listen to this album a few times. There is some Superdrag and Eels-lite aura to the sound that makes me think I may end up liking it.

 

Typhoon, Hunger and Thirst

This song is so sad. This album is so sad it makes me want to die. But the artist has some shades of a less egotistical Bright Eyes and really has some creative ideas about music. Listen to the background instrumentals in this song. Then consider the almost perfect and effortless vocals. This guy made me immediately buy almost everything he has published.

 

Typhoon, White Lighter

If Hunger and Thirst is sad and creative, White Lighter  brilliant and manic. It is the better album in every way. But it still makes me want to die, Of course, I have listened to this record almost every day since I acquired it.

This song makes me think that the artist, should he be able to deal with his health issues, should produce for other artists as well. Just think about the choices made with this song. The basic music and lyrics are maudlin and better thanaverage, but the musical choices made at every juncture make it stronger and more memorable. I really, really like this album.

 

The Dodos, Visiter

I have no idea why I haven’t listened to this album more. The lyrical and musical combination strikes me as something somewhere between the best stuff of Of Monsters and Men and the least emo Ben Gibbard solo material with some Grizzly and Bon Iver thrown in for good measure.

Celebrate College Radio Day, October 1st

In the 1990 Christian Slater vehicle, Pump Up the Volume, a wise urban kid moves to a podunk town and sets up his own pirate radio with which he educates and terrorizes the town about music from the Beastie Boys and the Pixies to Leonard Cohen and Ice-T.  IN this suburban Phoenix no-town, no threat has been greater since Kevin Bacon stopped dancing than this: the youth’s access to the edgy, alt-music scene that has been eating away at the edifice of corporate cock-rock for several years.

Today is College Radio Day, a day to celebrate and recognize the achievements and contributions of College Radio. While the threat posed by Christian Slater doesn’t really mean that much any more (who’s going to worry about FM Radio when the internet can bring you child-porn and bomb-making instructions?), College Radio is still providing essential and rare service in an increasingly homogeneous and confused radio world. (If not for Public Radio and College Radio, Clear Channel might have ruined everything already).

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On the Radio: Caribou

A few weeks back I had to get up earlier than early to take my mother to the airport. It was another typically fast and emotional visit. As I have intimated before, my mother and I don’t always seem to communicate in ‘real time’. This is symptomatic less of her than of my rather typically closed approach to relationships: I think I am being laconic; I am observed as being distant and unfeeling.

Man or Band? It doesn't matter. D. V. Smith is Caribou

Man or Band? It doesn’t matter. D. V. Snaith is Caribou

On the way back from the airport, swooning a bit from the early hour and senseless thoughts on the fragility of self and the passage of time, I turned the local jazz radio station up to an uncomfortable volume and rolled all the windows down. (Not a cool sight: remember, I am the one in the rapidly aging blue Prius.) Yet, much to my surprise, the local jazz station straight-out gremlins over night and becomes an Indie-Rock madhouse.

Now the thing about Indie-Rock is that it is mostly described by what it is not: mainstream, major label fare. Beyond the boundaries of delivery device and popularity, it can be anything. So, an overnight, red-eye into the belly of the beast will, in all likelihood, be a mixture of depression, delight and digression. For every moment of wonder, there is another Pavement wannabe or Velvet Underground worshiping poseur.

After languishing through some local act falling somewhere between Stevie-Ray Vaughn and the post-breakdown side of Daniel Johnston (seriously if you don’t know Daniel Johnston and want to be Austin-hip, check out the fine documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston) this track came on:

I love everything about this song from the name (“Every time she turns about Its Her Birthday) to the fantastic rhythms, free-jazz inspired horns, and especially, as anyone who has read this blog before can imagine, the indirect and almost incoherent lyrics:

Spinning round you weigh me down
Gravel hands of green and brown

In your cells both red and white
On the sun that gives us light
In your cells both white and red
From the mouth our kids get fed

Now, what I also love about this track is that there is an essential compatability of sound and lyric-sense–both are fluid, mixed and, for lack of better descriptive, cloudy. The music is somewhere between jazz, rock, and ambient while the lyrics are slightly post-modern and impressionistic. Both, and especially together, invite interpretation and contemplation.

Of course, before it was dawn, I had downloaded the whole album Up in Flames by Caribou who used to be called Manitoba. Caribou, I discovered, is not a band but a man masquerading as one with all the skill of an Aphex Twin blended with a Beck unsullied by mainstream success. The album? One of the most interesting and challenging compilations I have heard in a while. The music is thick and layered, like a sonic parfait doing battle with a milkshake. The lyrics are exceptionally oblique and always wrapped up or buried beneath steppes of rhythm and sluiced by horns.

I thought I had heard of the band Caribou before and bad the mistake of dismissing it as some Train wannabe or fringely progressive one-off. I am so glad I was wrong.  Before that morning, the only musical Caribou I knew about was this one I have heard my brother singing to many times before:

I can’t say that I understand what is going on in Caribou’s music or lyrics; I can say that I will try to. I can also say I am thankful to the randomness of the universe for giving me this song at that time. It took me away from myself and the monotonous road. It took me away from that marginal and displaced feeling in between the end of someone’s visit and the resumption of ‘normal life’. And, whatever normal life is, it saved me from that for a bit too.

Hungry for some more Caribou, my brother?