Saturday, February 27, 2010

Megan’s Top 25 of 2009: #5 - A Place to Bury Strangers

Round about this time, I think, is the right time to give each member of the top 5 its own special post. Starting in at #5 with a band I almost totally and tragically ignored, A Place to Bury Strangers. Why did I almost give them the cold shoulder you might wonder? Well, little darlings of mine, it’s because of their name. Yes, their name almost sounded a little too emo to be true. I had horrible visions of bad haircuts and heavy eyeliner and awful lyrics. And shame on me, because I was so very wrong. After seeing them last Fall with LET favorites Darker My Love, I was made aware of the glaring error of my ways, and immediately ended my unfair APTBS embargo. Thankfully, there’s no moping suburban crap on this record. Exploding Head is a dark, grinding, heady record, glossy yet pleasingly rough around the edges.

The entire thing sounds a bit like vintage Nine Inch Nails (think Pretty Hate Machine era) having a torrid, dancey affair with Joy Division and Cure acolytes (or maybe even the real things) from the early 80s, with some Britpop dalliances thrown in for the sake of variety; it’s full of pounding synths and vocal echoes and drums that make you question whether they’re man or machine made. But the album is also decidedly modern, towering and imposing and full of pretty powerful sexiness. “Ego Death,” for example, is one of the biggest, boldest tracks on Exploding Head. Guitars grind and grate and play against the deep, husky vocals and basic drum machine beat. It’s simply exhilarating. The fantastic “Deadbeat” features one of my favorite lyrics of the year, “What the fuck/Don’t play with my heart,” as well as some seriously shattering guitar play. And the title track conjures up the ghost of early 80s Cure, in an eerily wonderful way. I was completely caught by surprise by this record, and by how much I found myself loving it. It’s the kind of album that grabs you from the start and refuses to let you go until it’s good and goddam ready to. Exploding Head hijacks your attention and forces itself into your ears and you will absolutely and completely love every minute of it.

mp3: Deadbeat (A Place to Bury Strangers from Exploding Head)

Friday, February 26, 2010

Megan’s Top 25 of 2009: 10-6

And here we are already, at the bottom half of the top ten. Here was where I found myself struggling the most to put a number next to a record, they’re all so very wonderful. Here we have both some saucy and some sorrowful Scots, some lively Louisianans, some nifty New Zealanders, and some wandering nomads of wonder. A seriously special group, I must say.

Do a little research and you might be a little surprised to discover that historically, New Zealand has a pretty darn good track record when it comes to putting out really great bands (The Clean, Look Blue Go Purple, The Chills, and The Bats to name a scant few). In keeping with the tiny nation’s tendency to churn out bands with a skillful blend of punk-pop seasoned with a decidedly English flavor, we now present Cut Off Your Hands at #10. They stick with the New Zealand tradition of musical Anglophilia, making You and I one heck of a delightful record. The record starts off big, with single “Happy As Can Be,” as good an opening impression as you could hope for. Big and bold, it sets the tone immediately and you know right away that you’re in for a treat. These charming boys are indebted to Brit stalwarts like Marr & Morrissey, and you’ll probably hear shades of The Smiths hither and thither, with a youthful edge. You’ll also hear some of the catchiest songs you’ve heard in quite some time, namely the “Expectations”-“Oh Girl”-“Turn Cold” triumvirate, joined a few songs later by the pairing of “Let’s Get Out of Here” and “Still Fond”. All of them are unavoidably addictive. They can even do a damn fine ballad, with the sentimental “Nostalgia” being one of my favorite songs on the record. So grab that special boy or girl and hold ‘em close, and fall in love with Cut Off Your Hands while you’re at it.

mp3: It Doesn’t Matter (Cut Off Your Hands from You and I)

I’ve recently heard My Maudlin Career called one of the best heartbreak albums of pretty much ever. While I’ll refrain from casting my vote one way or the other on that particular heart-wrenching subject, I will say that Camera Obscura made one of the best records of 2009 (#9, to be exact). The strength of Camera Obscura to me lies in their eternally sweet sound, bolstered by the perfectly weary yet still lovely vocals of Miss Tracyanne Campbell. It’s not easy to make sad sound so sugary, but Camera Obscura manages just fine. “French Navy,” the first track on the record, is one of my favorite songs of the year, and easily one of the most danceable, what with the jangle of the tambourine and jaunty attitude. And the wistful irony of “The Sweetest Thing,” with the lyric, “You challenged me to write a love song/Here it is/I think I got it wrong”. Hope you’ve got a box of Kleenex handy. “You Told a Lie” features vocals so fragile it sounds like our heroine is on the verge of tears as she delivers the lines. And so it goes, on and on, song after song of woeful, painful, beautiful misery. If it’s not the best heartbreak album ever, it’s certainly near the top of the heap. Hey Lloyd, they were ready to be heartbroken, and they certainly got what they asked for. They got heartbreak, and we got a great record.

mp3: Swans (Camera Obscura from My Maudlin Career)

Moving away from broken hearts but staying in Scotland, may I present #8 on the Top 25, otherwise known as The Phantom Band’s Checkmate Savage. I’ve likened them to British Sea Power with a brogue, and I think given their propensity for sonic experimentation and oft-bizarre lyrics it’s not such a bad comparison. Right away this isn’t your usual rock album, as the Phantoms go in for expansive sounds and wacky noises, and actual howling in “The Howling”. “Folk Song Oblivion” is just that, a slight hint of an acoustic guitar layered upon with structured guitars and oftentimes monotonous vocals, making for yet another interesting effect. Like British Sea Power, The Phantom Band doesn’t shy away from long, rambling songs, with four songs clocking in over six minutes each. My favorite song on the record, “Halfhound,” is a fierce, forceful track interspersed with gentler moments of light, before plunging back into darkness. Checkmate Savage is wild and wooly and dark and completely, wonderfully insane. And I love it to pieces. This is definitely a band I’m dying to see live, because I need to visualize how this crazy bastard of a record was made. So dearest darling Phantom Band, please make it happen.

mp3: Throwing Bones (The Phantom Band from Checkmate Savage)

Switching gears once again, it’s time to visit my absolute favorite group of Louisianans, the good people of Generationals. My #7 record is their ever-so-excellent Con Law, otherwise known as the aural equivalent of a little ray of sunshine. Formed by Grant Widmer & Ted Joyner (and some amigos) of the now-defunct and greatly missed indiepop outfit The Eames Era, Generationals will light up the darkest of days, guaranteed. They’ve made a record that made me grin uncontrollably the first time I heard it, a grin that reappears during every subsequent listen. Something about listening to Con Law makes me want to jump in the car, go somewhere sunny and warm, and drive around blasting the album with my sunroof open and the windows down, drinking in the sunshine. “Angry Charlie” is my favorite I’d have to say, but each and every song on this record is divine, so well-produced and beautifully, gleamingly clean (but not overly so, mind you). It’s the perfect album to listen to and long for Summer (as I look out my window to a view of an endless blanket of cold, cold snow). Even the substance abuse-themed “Bobby Beale” sounds light and freshly summery, though the subject matter is anything but. So take heed, while enjoying the lovable musical stylings of Generationals, because as they so lyrically and wisely put it, “Everyone’s a dime a dozen/Everyone’s a wolf in waiting”.

mp3: Exterior Street Date (Generationals from Con Law)

They missed the top 5 by a hair, and the top spot by just a few hairs. But at #6, These United States is still one of the loves of my musical life. Having proved their musical chops over the course of two previous records, Jesse Elliott and company reappeared for yet another go at musical superiority. The fruits of their labors this time around is the most excellent Everything Touches Everything, both a thought to ponder and an album to really fall in love with. Opening track “I Want You to Keep Everything” is another of my overall favorites from 2009, a bit unexpectedly poppy coming from the These United States camp, but a very welcome song indeed. Continuing on, Everything Touches Everything ends up being a record you might have expected from These United States. It’s full of their utterly disarming, rustic simplicity, be it in the form of acoustic or slide guitars, and Elliott’s rambling and ambling and occasionally obtuse (though always fantastic) lyrics. “We’re going out/With our hearts strapped across our chests,” Elliott boldly proclaims in the titular track, and somehow you can picture Jesse venturing forth, red heart pinned to his chest to boldly face the unknown. Somehow, though it jumps all over the place, the album never loses its cohesion, or ceases to follow the tried and true TUS blueprint. Perhaps that IS the TUS blueprint, come to think of it. And what a good plan it is.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Megan’s Top 25 of 2009: 15-11

Another fine, fine crop of albums fills slots eleven through fifteen on the Top 25 countdown. A couple of very strong ladies join us here in this grouping, as well as some great bands with great records from both the Left and East Coast.

It’s amazing what a name change can do for your band. Snipping the name down to Say Hi from Say Hi to Your Mom was a great move, as was releasing this here record, the #15 Oohs & Aahs. It’s well-played, well-produced, and just plain fabulous. Anchored by a pair of oft-played radio gems that were responsible for piquing my initial interest, the achingly stark and emotion-heavy “November Was White, December Was Grey” and the irresistible poppy gem “One, Two…One,” this record is one of the ones that managed to make me fall in love with it, seemingly out of the blue, catching me completely off guard. Reminding me a little of the bleeps of the dear Mobius Band, but with more substantive guitar playing, Oohs & Aahs somehow gets better with every listen. “Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh” is not only amusingly-titled, but a great, brass-driven tailfeather-shaker. “She’s a ruby/and I liked red/until I disappeared a little too well,” we hear in “Maurine,” a song heavy with regret and a lost chance at love. It’s yet another beautifully melancholy album (I do so love the mopers), and it’s just wonderful.

mp3: Maurine (Say Hi from Oohs & Aahs)

Let’s just face the facts here, friends. “Where The Wild Things Are” is one of the greatest books ever written. It was formative for so many kids of my generation, so much so that pretty much everyone I know was horrified at the news that our beloved childhood book was to be made into a movie. Thankfully, the movie turned out to be pretty great, and the music for the film was also rather special. And we have Karen O & The Kids to thank for that. At #14, it’s the only soundtrack to make the list, and it’s a delight. Listen in wonder as the lady leader of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs gently hums a childlike melody in opening track “Igloo,” or whoops it up with gleeful abandon in “All is Love”. It’s a different side of Karen O, and it’s enchanting. Rarely have I heard music that was so perfect for a movie, but Karen O and this band of, well, kids, really was a dynamite fit for the live action “Where The Wild Things Are”. Not only is this record a lovely homage to Maurice Sendak’s classic, timeless story, it’s also a collection of songs completely lacking in pretense, which makes it a breath of fresh air these days. Let the wild rumpus begin, indeed.

mp3: Capsize (Karen O & The Kids from the Where The Wild Things Are OST)

How Neko Case does it, I don’t know. She’s constantly putting out records that are mystifyingly good, strong in not only musical but lyrical content as well. And that voice of hers is second to none, filled with heartbreak and lust and shades of wistfulness. Lucky #13 on my list is her sensational Middle Cyclone, a record that boasts subject matter you might expect to find on the Discovery Channel, not an album: killer tornadoes, killer whales, and, well, elephants. Opening track “This Tornado Loves You” is one of the best songs of the year, disturbingly yet beautifully illustrating the depth of her love by comparing it to the widespread destruction of a tornado. It’s followed by “The Next Time You Say Forever,” which houses one of my all-time favorite lyrics, sung oh-so-sweetly: “The next time you say forever/I will punch you in your face”. Absolutely brilliant, Madame Case. “People Got A Lotta Nerve” shows Case at her most charmingly aggressive, touting her status as a maneater (“But still you’re surprised-prised-prised/when I eat ya”). Not to be missed is Case’s cover of “Don’t Forget Me,” a song she manages to make sound like one of her own (though you should also check out the cover The Walkmen did a few years back). All in all, it’s another winner from Neko Case. She’s magic, ladies and gents, magic.

mp3: The Next Time You Say Forever (Neko Case from Middle Cyclone)

Ah, Wooden Shjips. I’ve found myself becoming increasingly fond of these gents for a little while now. These San Franciscans are purveyors of a new breed of magical mystery tour, one with less emphasis on the perfection of song structure and more about…well, who really knows? Dos is #12 on my list, and it’s definitely the most outlandishly “out there” of the whole lot. It’s entirely possible that someday, music journalists will be talking about Wooden Shjips as one of the best post-psych bands that ever post-psyched. They only needed five songs to further convince me of said idea. Dos is full of the sort of things you might have come to expect from this foursome; repetitive droning, muddy trance-inducing vocals, and a mighty wall of noise. And my heavens, does this stuff blow your mind live. “Down By the Sea,” for example, is nearly eleven minutes of a hypnotic bassline, endlessly looping along, as guitars swell and crash around it like the changing tides. And that abrupt stop will certainly get your attention, after spacing out for so many minutes. They’re listenably abstract, this band of bizarre brethren, managing not to come across as taking themselves too seriously while creating some of the more interesting music you’re likely to come across.

mp3: Motorbike (Wooden Shjips from Dos)

Sitting at #11, New Yorkers Hopewell are their own breed of post-psych. By now you’ve doubtlessly heard the Hopewell connection to The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, and The Silent League, so consider those three to get you in the right frame of mind for Hopewell. Good Good Desperation is perhaps the band’s finest work to-date, a masterful opus of the beauty that can be found in the outer reaches of reality. Very noisy and so full of lush sounds from the very beginning that it’s almost terrifying, Good Good Desperation both exudes maturity and pushes boundaries. It’s the kind of record a band should be oh so proud of. Closing my eyes, listening to this album, I see the sun, the sky, the seas, the stars…it’s glorious and somehow grounded and tied to both the earth and things celestial. There’s something organic, rustic, natural about them, as though they draw inspiration from Mama Nature herself. They’re tuned into something special, that’s for damn sure. Hopewell might not yet have the ability to make the sun rise and set, but they’re getting closer.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Megan's Top 25 of 2009: 20-16

Part Two of my Top 25 is quite the mixed bag: Texans, Brits, Canadians and transplanted Alabamians all reside here. This gang of five can make you dance in a variety of ways, and I think they’re all the bee’s knees, the cat’s meow, and all that and a bag of chips (or crisps, for our UK friends).

I still remember being down in Austin last year for SXSW, and one of the bands I heard the most about on a constant basis was the local darlings White Denim (otherwise known as #20 on this here list). While I managed to totally miss them during my time in Austin, I didn’t forget to get my hands on Fits. It’s a noisy, groovy little record with some big guitar sound and some seriously addictive qualities, big bad vocals and crazy drumming being chief among them. The more I listened to it, the more I dug it, and the more I think you should probably own this album.

All Consolation (White Denim from Fits)

My friend Scott is to be thanked for introducing me to #19 Japandroids one evening before music trivia. As soon as I heard the thrashing, pulsating notes of “The Boys Are Leaving Town” I was pretty much hooked on Post-Nothing. They’ve got the guitar-driven danceable thing totally down pat, and this entire album is nothing more than a party. Not just any party, mind you, but one of those parties that’s so good you can barely remember what happened, but you know in your bones it was one of the most fun nights of your life. And bless their little hearts, they wanna French kiss some French girls. Too cute.

Young Hearts Spark Fire (Japandroids from Post-Nothing)

For some reason, the self-titled album by The xx strikes me as decidedly English. And it’s not just the accents that led me to such a conclusion, wiseguys. From the opening “Intro,” it’s got this sophisticated, polished air, swirled around by a cool gray mist, but with a bite, much like London on a foggy late Autumn evening. I avoided this record for a large part of the year, merely because of all the hype surrounding it (something I’m prone to do and almost always end up regretting). But eventually I caved, and I must say I’m glad I did. Songs like “Crystalised,” a potential heir to all those classic New Order hits, don’t come around all that often. It’s a positively haunting song, set alight by the smoky boy-girl vocals and hearty, driving beats.

mp3: Crystalised (The xx from The xx)

Viva Voce
isn’t just for university exams anymore. Their formula for success is easy: merely take an absolutely adorable, terribly talented couple out of the sticky heat of Alabama and put them smack into the misty mysticism of Portland (Rose City, naturally), and you’ve got a surefire recipe for success. #17 record of 2009 Rose City is muy fantastico, and the Mr. & Mrs. Robinson continue to put their folksy boy-girl harmonies with a slightly retro sound in a class all their own. Aided by doubling the size of the band to four members, this new batch of songs is too good to be missed.

Midnight Sun (Viva Voce from Rose City)

As with the Super Furry Animals, I’ve been smitten with Doves for a long, long time (going on ten years now). Simply put, their music is stunning. I can still remember feeling my jaw drop the first time I heard “The Cedar Room” on the radio nearly a decade ago. It gave me chills, made me cry, and can still do the same thing even today. And happily, Jimi, Jez, and Andy are still making beautiful music together. #16 LP Kingdom of Rust could belong to no other band, with their elaborate song construction and the epic feel to each track. This album demands attention from start to finish, and I for one am more than happy to oblige. It’s hard to pick, but I can especially recommend powerful title track “Kingdom of Rust,” “The Outsiders,” and the dreamily bewitching “10:03”. Oh hell, just listen to and fall in love with the whole thing.

Kingdom of Rust (Doves from Kingdom of Rust)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Megan's Top 25 of 2009: 25-21

What a group that kicks things off in this first set of five. We’ve got beloved old friends, wonderful new friends, and a rather humorous not-Australian folk-parody duo. Here’s the skinny on the first fifth of albums in my top 25 of 2009.

Beloved Welsh spacestonerpopsters Super Furry Animals get things going at #25 with yet another great record. While it didn’t quite make me fall in love as much as others (And I’ll say right not that if you don’t own the classic Furries record Fuzzy Logic, hang your head in shame), Dark Days/Light Years is still a mighty fine listen. How can you not dig an album with a song called “Crazy Naked Girls?” The bonus being that it, like so many songs here, is quirky, wacky, and unmistakably Super Furry. SFA is definitely, definitely still ok.

mp3: Crazy Naked Girls (Super Furry Animals from Dark Days/Light Years)

I’m going to go out on a limb here and declare The Young Sinclairs not only #24 on my Top 25, but also one of the top 5 bands in all of this here great Commonwealth of Virginia. Who knows, they might even be the best within state lines. Pay attention to the name, friends, because trust me this band could (and should) get big. Songs of The Young Sinclairs isn’t technically a “new” record, it’s a collection of songs pulled from various Sinclair records and EPs. Released on Kindercore, it shows off their brand of neo-psych that takes heavy cues from the California sound of the 60s.

mp3: Cancelled Flight (The Young Sinclairs from Songs of The Young Sinclairs)

The Raveonettes return with yet another record of shoegaze-cum-surfy retro pop, sitting pretty at #23. While not quite as mind-blowing as 2008’s Lust Lust Lust, In and Out of Control is a darned fine record. And I’ve gotta get behind a record with the whole “Boys Who Rape (Should Be Destroyed)” thing. It’s a little bit dark, but these Danes sure know how to make misery sound beautiful.

mp3: Breaking Into Cars (The Raveonettes from In and Out of Control)

The darling Kiwis of Flight of The Conchords might have broken hearts (including mine) by announcing their hit HBO show wouldn’t return for a third season, but they also induced some serious giggles with their second collection of ridiculously amusing songs. I Told You I Was Freaky is full of comedic highs, some of my favorites being the saucy ode to the other male anatomy, “Sugalumps,” the absolutely hilarious “Too Many Dicks (On The Dancefloor)” to which we owe the terms “brodeo” and “bro-ho ratio,” and the somewhat bizarre Russian folk epic about cannibalism on the high seas, “Petrov, Yelyena and Me.”

mp3: Sugalumps (Flight of The Conchords from I Told You I Was Freaky)

Elvis: quite a big name to fill, but #21 Elvis Perkins does admirably. “Come with me/I’ll take you anywhere,” he croons deliciously in “Hey,” and I believe him hook, line, and sinker. Elvis Perkins in Dearland is filled with glorious swirling tracks and Perkins’ buttery voice. First song “Shampoo” was my introduction to the record, and it’s just one of the lovely tunes that await the listener.

mp3: Doomsday (Elvis Perkins in Dearland from Elvis Perkins in Dearland)

And there you have it, friends, part one of...several. Stay tuned for further revelations, coming soon.

Megan's Top 25 of 2009

Miracle of miracles, my dear friends, the snow has finally melted (ish), and in addition to enabling countless Washingtonians to finally go about their normal routines (ish), this melt has also enabled yours truly to get to a computer and finally post some Best of 2009 listy goodness. Better late than never, as we say around these parts.

Now, time for a confession: I have a really hard time putting things like albums into any sort of numerical order when it comes to year-end lists. I don’t have a formula for why a certain record is ranked 16th and another 22nd. My list is highly non-scientific, and I’ve changed things around no less than a dozen times. What I can tell you is that if the record made my list, it’s pretty darned good. But having to put a rank next to the name of the album can be a huge challenge, and as usual this endeavor has taxed me greatly. I tried to listen to these babies at length and rank them according to how much they got under my skin. Truth be told, apart from numbers 1 & 2, which rocked my world so much and so hard, the other entrants on my list are just the smallest of margins apart from each other. I might have put numbers beside them, but I love them all dearly.

My little list might look a wee bit different than some other lists you might have read about the music of 2009. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing. After all, who wants to have the same list as everybody else? Keep in mind, too, that while we listen to a lot of music, there’s doubtlessly stuff we missed. I know of a few “major” releases of the year that just didn’t pique my interest all that much, so you might notice a few big omissions here. And even if you disagree with these here picks, I hope that at the very least you’ll be intrigued enough to give these bands a listen. They’re definitely worthy of some special time and attention. We begin in just a moment with my first five records.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

DC Record Fair: Thoughts & Reflections

This past Sunday I ventured out from My Own Personal Version of Hell (aka, the recent Snowpocalypse or Snowmageddon or as was more commonly known as four feet of snow in one month) and joined my dear friends Laura and Tom at the DC Record Fair, held at the fabulous Black Cat. As we all know, vinyl junkie that I am, not even copious amounts of snow and dubious parking conditions could keep me from perusing crate after crate of LP (and 7 inch and CD) goodness. What we expected and what we got were dramatically different, but fun was still had, and I had a few thoughts I wanted to put out there, just because.

For instance, as much as I love the Black Cat, and as much as I love having a cocktail or three while pawing through records, this partnership probably needs a little work. Mainly, this thought stems from how dark it was, even as the sunlight beamed outside. It felt no different inside than the lighting you'd get at the Cat during a show. Whether or not this is just a logistical issue, the lighting made it a wee bit of a challenge to see records. So too did the heaving crowds, meaning no matter the visibility factor, we had a hard time even getting to the crates. People took their sweet time going through the vinyl, and it got a little vexing at times. Ok, a lot vexing.

My suggestion to the organizers/the Cat would be to perhaps spread the fair over both floors of the bar, utilizing not only the upstairs space but the Red Room and Backstage spaces as well, to allow for more room to move and some much-needed crowd control. Also, laying out the vendors differently might also make browsing (and buying) easier. Something about the way the vendors were arranged seemed pretty haphazard and disjointed.

Still, whining aside, for the small $2 admission fee it was a great afternoon outing. Great drinks, great records, great people-watching, and great tunes spun by various and sundry local musicians (some rather famous, dontchaknow!). It was pretty great to be surrounded by so many vinyl enthusiasts, as well. Not to mention, it made quite a nice break from being stuck in the house for over a week and forgetting the last time you wore something other than pajamas. I used some restraint while at the Fair itself, and only left with one $1 record - "The Exciting Brooklyn Allstars". After a few hours at the Cat, our little trio strolled a few doors down (and downstairs) to Som Records, a goldmine of vinyl goodness. Much like my beloved Plan 9 in Richmond, Som had a good (though not as extensive) selection of new and used records, as well as a few crates of wallet-friendly $1 records. I left Som with three $1 LPs - Neil Young's "Harvest," David Bowie's "Let's Dance," and Rick Wakeman's "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" (I've been watching a whole lot of "The Tudors" lately, what can I say?). I also picked up The Flying Burrito Brothers' "Close Up The Honky-Tonks," which I pounced on because it's not often I come across a Burrito record these days.

And so, the three of us left 14th Street as the sun went down, happy and contended with our purchases. And I have to say, I'll probably be going to the next installment of the Record Fair, whenever it may be.