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.

 

On the Radio (New Music for me): Big K.R.I.T.

It has been raining a bit of late in my adopted home state. This is eventful because we often go 60 days or more

Please....

Please….

without rain. So infrequent is the rainfall that my two children are shocked and frightened by the sight, driven to chanting that childhood apotropaic chant: “rain, rain, go away…”.

Rain in states where rain rarely falls also means worse traffic. In even normal traffic situations, I am not a patient or un-profane man. I don’t like when people take forever to make right-hand turns or decide to take a few breaths, a sip of coffee and say a little prayer before heeding a green traffic signal. When it rains, everything slows down.

My serenity, thus already disrupted by the weather and traffic was dealt another mighty blow by the fact that because I have slain yet another iPod, I was cursed to listen to the radio. The stations were all on commercial, it seemed, and NPR was torturing me with another report of looming government shutdowns. I couldn’t take it. I pressed scan on the radio band.

And then I was taken back to a local college station I had forgotten about. A station whose existence had so slipped my mind that I actually googled it to make sure it really existed in my general area and wasn’t just some accident of weather induced serendipity. It wasn’t. It was real. And it was playing Big K.R.I.T.

“Dreamin'” is a masterful track that features the rapper’s drawled style and clever autobiographical rhymes.

Big K.R.I.T. hasn’t released many albums and is currently working on his second major solo work, but he has released a bunch of tracks, has collaborated with a bunch of well-known people, and is touring with Macklemore. (If you want to know more, read his damned wikipedia page for yourself). His song, wedged in between alt-rock tracks by bands named Still Life Still and No Age, made me happy about the length of time the drive was taking. I forgot about the traffic. I regained my serenity.

Of course, as soon as I got to my office I downloaded some more Big K.R.I.T. and I was not disappointed. (Yes, you can imagine 30-something white professor of humanities sitting in a University office bobbing his head to hip-hop. I don’t know what this means.) His production has a spare style that eschews much of the decadence and bloat of mainstream hip-hop. This track is mellow and reflective.

But what makes KRIT different is his ability to write rhymes that flow well with his southern drawl (in a way that builds upon and betters Nelly). Check out this verse:

I told them call me KRIT, they told me change my name
Don’t be alarmed if you don’t make it, that’s just part of the game
Besides I ain’t rapping about dope nor did I sell it
I guess the story of a country boy just ain’t compelling
A&R’s searching for a hit, I just need a meal
Couldn’t afford to pay the rent, but passed up on the deal
Cause, it wasn’t right sometimes you gotta wade the storm
In a class of my own, but I was scared to raise my arm

I realize that what attracts me to this artist is, in part, his reflective approach to hip-hop, his honesty, and his sparer treatment. In his rejection of the drug-dealer narrative and his putative refusal of money, he lays some claim to the starving artist position. And, yet, he prevaricates about his own integrity, implying in the final line that it is as much fear as artistic conviction that has limited him.

But, as you can tell from listening, he also has a fine sense of what makes music effective and what he has inherited from the artists before him. It will be interesting to see how he continues to navigate these influences in his next release.

What do you think, my brother?

Written Elsewhere: Frat Rap and a Final Word on Macklemore

After we posted no fewer than three entries about Macklemore and Lewis’ The Heist in a week (one review, one reaction and one fine guest-post traversing between the personal and the artistic), I swore that I was never going to write about Macklemore again (or at least not for a few weeks!). I still couldn’t quite figure out how to evaluate Macklemore fairly.

Vanilla Ice wasn’t ‘real’. And MC Hammer was?

Since the birth of hip-hop and its spread to the suburbs on the airwaves and through MTV thanks to unthreatening dance artists and, then, even later after gangtsa rap dominated the landscape, a rapper’s persona was in part defined by his color. The early pioneers, the Beastie Boys, were really just shouting. Vanilla Ice was a wannabe’s wannabe. Eminem was an exception because of his experience and his unique ability to rap at a machine gun pace and twist surprising rhymes.

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Requiem for Grantland’s Quarter-Finals: Ni**as in Paris

This is probably violating some type of copyright. But, hey, free advertising for Grantland.com.

This is probably violating some type of copyright. But, hey, free advertising for Grantland.com.

Note: I wrote this post before the competition closed and quite erroneously predicted Adele’s victory. OutKast is victorious! This may undermine my claims about ‘recency effect’ or racism (although nostalgia and ‘safe’ hip-hop could be offered as explanations). For the wider public, I actually think that “Hey Ya” is more attractive than the subject of this post…

This is my third and final post about Grantland’s competition for the Best Song of the Millennium. My predictions have failed and the final competition is between Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and OutKast’s “Hey Ya”. I feel fairly confident that Adele will win the competition for a few reasons. For one, pop culture seems to have its own type of ‘recency effect’ whereby contemporary or rather recent phenomena are judged as better than those more distant in memory. “Hey Ya” defeated some stiff competition along the way (“Hot in Herre” and “Ignition Remix”) but those songs were also outside the memory of the younger generation.

The bigger issue that I think helps to explain Adele’s success apart from the fact that her presence on the radio is concurrent with the competition (recency effect) and her overwhelming difference from other artists, is her relative ‘safe-ness’, by which I mean , her music is non-edgy but ‘soulful’ R&B derivative, she is not over-sexualized, and, she is white.

I don’t want to make too much of possible racial patterns in pop-culture voting, but from Elvis to Eminem and Macklemore, white artists who channel black music often enjoy more success than their counterparts. (And, I suspect that former American Idol contestants are correct that racism is operative in that competition as well, the difference is that they blame the contest and not the voters.)

This is not to detract from the beauty of “Rolling in the Deep” or the power of Adele as an artist but to attest, instead, that the voting is influenced unduly by prejudices basic to our culture and by the bizarre circumstances of the Best Song of the Millennium bracket to begin with. And, we would be remiss not to acknowledge that “Ni**as in Paris” is an abrasive and, for many people, alienating song. That said, it is better than Adele’s song and I thought this a long time back. So here’s a re-posting of why love this song.

As I have mentioned before, my wife brainwashed both of our children in utero with mainstream hip-hop and top 40’s formats. From the posts on this blog it would seem that I don’t care at all about hip-hop, which is not actually the case. The problem is more that the necessary ingredients to love hip-hop as an adolescent were absent from my youth (listening to R&B, funk; the right atmosphere and geography) and my gene pool (my parents were the whitest people on the planet and grew up in some of the whitest places on the planet; they never listened to jazz, blues or anything edgier than the Rolling Stones).

These, of course, are excuses. The real fault is my own. After an early love for bad mainstream rap (MC Hammer, I still feel you), I was a bit put off by the gangsta rap explosion (which came around the same time as grunge). The kids in my all white high school who were wearing cross colors, dropping their pants low, and talking about forties and the like just seemed like morons. So, I ignored the whole damn thing.

And missed out on some great artists. Sure, I heard enough Dre, Snoop, Tupac and the like to know one from the other, but I didn’t really get to appreciate hip-hop until I met my wife who listened to nothing but rap and hip-hop (with the exception of Bon Jovi, an addition I still do not understand) until she met me. Cross-pollination happened; and eventually so did children.

So, rather than wholly brainwash my children, or fight against their preferences (they really do seem to dislike some of the slower, guitar driven stuff I prefer), I play the local hip-hop station on occasion. And for about the past six  months or so I can’t get enough of one song: “Ni**as in Paris” by Kanye West and Jay-Z.

Here’s the first weird thing about this: I don’t really like either artist individually. Jay-z does too much that isn’t rapping (although, as a producer I find him to be a great deal less annoying than the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy); Kanye, whose talent cannot be denied, just seems too thin-skinned in his public proclamations and a bit of a nutjob.

But, because I am so unfamiliar with current hip-hop, no longer watch music videos, and habitually ignore what DJs say, I didn’t know who sang Ni**as_In_Paris. The music drives forward, the opening rapping is aggressive yet not violent. The alternation between rappers works really well. The contrast between the faster and more muscular phrasing of the first rapper (Jay-z) and the dirtier, drawn-out syllables of the second (Kanye) keeps the song from getting repetitive.

(I had to be told by my wife who the artists were, that Jay-z was saying “ball so hard” and not something like “Hasselhof”; I told her that the lines in the middle are from Will Ferrell and originally reference that “Milkshake” song.)

In fact, I think that it is Kanye whose vocals made me like the song the most. When he first takes over the mic, he raps “She said Ye can we get married at the mall? / I said look you need to crawl ‘fore you ball / Come and meet me in the bathroom stall /And show me why you deserve to have it all”. He stretches and builds the vowels at the end of each phrase, and the growl in his voice coupled with the slightly lazy articulation makes me think of the Ol’ Dirty Bastard (R.I.P.)

Here’s what else sets this song apart from the noise on the radio: like the best rap songs it is clever. The driving metaphor of the song is ‘ballin’ of some sort: Jay-z starts with a great boast (“So I ball so hard muhfuckas wanna fine me/ first ni**as gotta find me”) and later turns through a great list of luminaries (“Psycho, I’m liable to go Michael / Take your pick, Jackson, Tyson, Jordan, Game 6”).

But I think there is a self-deprecating play going on here (or else I should hate the song for being another anthem to how rich and awesome the rappers are). Let’s start with the obvious contrast in the song’s title between the reclaimed yet still powerful racial epithet and the European city known for its sophistication. From the beginning, then, I would suggest that this song declares “we, who are from the outside, are now where you live; we have the best”.

But rappers have declared this before. Kanye seems to play with this concept by poking holes in the pretense during one of the best parts of the song:

What’s Gucci my ni**a?
What’s Louie my killa?
What’s drugs my deala?
What’s that jacket, Margiela?
Doctors say I’m the illest
Cause I’m suffering from realness
Got my ni**as in Paris
And they going gorillas, huh!

Note the inverted invocation of brand names (Kanye declaring he knows them by claiming not to know them) followed by a re-assertion of the artist’s realness as he reminds us again of the scene that might have been (and still is if we accept “ni**as” as denoting a particularly American identity) one of fish out of water, of outsiders dwelling (and now buying) where they shouldn’t. Implicit then in the last line of this verse is the cumulative force of racism and stereotyped expectation that both rappers buy into even as they undermine their own identities as hip-hop artists by indicating the shifting and problematic nature of their realness.

Moments like this are what I love the most about hop-hop—it provides a framework for some of the most complicated identity negotiation that occurs in modern music. I may spend most of my time listening to whiny indie music, and I have to admit that there is as much crap on the hip-hop frequency as on any other dial, but there is a reason that 100 years from now the rise of hip-hop will garner more notice than the zenith of alternative rock. It is more vibrant, worldly and often packed with the power of great poetry.

Oh, and my children love the beats.

I am also so on board with this:

(Yes. I drive a prius and listen to NPR. We are all stereotypes to some degree.)

The Heist: “A Life Lived for Art is Never a Life Wasted”

Note: Today we bring you yet another post about Macklemore–who recently won the MTV VMA for best Hip-Hop artist–from a guest who has been a reader of the blog for a little while and a friend of the elder for much longer. The debate on Macklemore’s place in hip-hop seems to be flowing rather than ebbing, so we can’t promise we won’t chime in on the subject again. 

For now, here’s our friend and another teacher-extraordinaire, The Mr. and Only Moe.

I must start by saying that I grateful to the brothersj for allowing me to be a part of their endeavor, especially since my introduction is on a topic for which they have both sufficiently posted already. Before delving deeper into Macklemore and Lewis’s The Heist, some transparency is required. I agree with the elderj that my leftist political leaning effects my perspective on this album, but also I have found that the way in which I come by an album, where I am at in my life, greatly effects my affinity for an album as well, sometimes more.

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Macklemore: Same love of the Thrift Shop

Beyond all the deep stuff my brother got into with his post about Macklemore, the one thing I find coolest about this song is how catchy it is without being annoying. The beats are fantastic and I think Ryan Lewis will do big things in that department.  Due to this phenomenon, I have seen everyone from four year-olds to middle-schoolers  and adults of all ages to my ninety year old mother react positively to this song. When I chaperoned an overnight trip to an ecology school on the coast in Maine last spring, I got up at 4:30 am to see the sunrise with a bunch of enthusiastic 8th graders. This one girl was wearing pajamas with footies and I wondered out loud where a grown man could find nightwear of this nature. She quickly replied, “I dunno, try the thrift shop.”

My brother wrote a very thorough and heartfelt review of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s album The Heist that impressed me as most of his posts do. I will definitely cover some of the same ground, however, I think one of the good things about our blog is the different ways we write and approach what we write about. At least that’s what people tell me who read our blog regularly, so I will try and keep it up.

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“The Content of His Character”, Album Review, Macklemore’s The Heist

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” ~ Martin Luther King

(Ok, ok. That quote is a bit heavy to start with, but it makes sense. I think. This is the first of a few posts about Macklemore. My brother writes about the song “Same Love” almost exclusively; our friend the one and only Moe writes about why he thinks The Heist is a great album.)

More than a few months ago now, my good friend and once roommate Another J asked me if I would consider reviewing the album The Heist by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. I immediately agreed (because I love to please and the childhood schoolboy in me still likes specific assignments), but then I procrastinated after listening to the album. I told myself that I didn’t have time; that I wanted to listen to the album more; and that I had other deadlines that came first. But most of that is bunk.macklemore1

The fact is that I have been trying for months to figure out a way to talk about Macklemore without talking about race, without mentioning his whiteness in a world of mostly non-white hip-hop artists and without comparing him to that other successful white rapper (you know, Eminem). In one sentence I have now acknowledged all of those things because  it is impossible to evaluate the accomplishment of this album without appreciating its (1) context and (2) the obstacles that faced it.

No one who is even half-way intelligent believes we live in a post-racial society. And no one should. The lie that we are somehow past prejudice, profiling, and systematic discrimination is the very thing that makes it possible for the heinous attack on civil rights through the recent evisceration of the Voters’ Rights Act and which perpetuates an economic and criminal system that continues to obliterate Black families and the futures of young minority men. Yet, at the same time, our hyper-consciousness of race and its possible effects also makes it nearly impossible for people of different experiences to discuss something like the death of Trayvon Martin.

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Quick Post: Recent Acquisitions

While my brother waits for kegs to be delivered, I go on periodic music binges. I can confess this without guilt because I know that it is the first step towards healing. I get frustrated with my music library or irrationally exuberant about something I have heard and then I just start downloading. It is the internet I blame—before iTunes I used to troll through Amazon buying CDs with the justification that the used ones were cheaper. Now, even though I know the quality isn’t what it should be, sometimes I just can’t contain myself.records

When I was young(er), before the internet turned us all into more efficient and obsessive consumers, to buy an album was an event, a pilgrimage along back-country roads without shoulders and to one of the few places where new CDs could be purchased. It was momentous, as well, because it also seemed like an investment: I earned $4.25 an hour in my first job making pizza at Little Caesar’s. CDs, irrationally, cost between $12 and $18.00.

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