Well Why Don’t You Just TELL Me the Best Album of 2008?

December 4, 2008
She & Him

In trying to think of my favorite albums of the year, I was looking around on other sites to see what albums actually came out this year (why this tag info doesn’t come up in iTunes baffles me).  I’m trying to listen to as MUCH 2008 music as possible in the next few days in order to make some decisions, but so far my opinions were more like Steve from Coupling’s thoughts on Fabric.

So, because I like Excel documents, I grabbed a few of the top 50-or-so lists (Paste, Mojo, Uncut) which, btw, is NOT a good sample of publications…  so I grabbed MetaCritic’s “Top 30 Best Reviewed Albums” and added it to the list too.  With a straight average (regardless of how many times they were referenced), here is the top 10 w/ their average ranking:

  1. She & Him – “Volume One” 1
  2. The Last Shadow Puppets – “The Age Of The Understatement” 2
  3. Plush – “Fed” 3
  4. Vampire Weekend – “Vampire Weekend” 4
  5. Fleet Foxes – “Fleet Foxes” 4.25
  6. Bon Iver  – “For Emma, Forever Ago” 4.75
  7. Neil Young  – “Sugar Mountain: Live At Canterbury House 1968” 5 (tie)
  8. Okkervil River – “The Stand Ins” 5 (tie)
  9. The Bug – “London Zoo” 5.5
  10. Shugo Tokumaru – “Exit” 6

After seeing this very odd top 10, I have to mention that 6 of the Top 10 didn’t make the top 50 of any other list.  How can this be?  How can the best album of the year (according to Paste) be completely disregarded by all other mags?  What does this say about the world of criticism?  Well, in my humble opinion, every magazine, despite all being able to listen to the same LP’s in 2008, need to have their own little “things”.  They all feel the need to champion records to exalt their superior tastes — whether this means gushing over a record no one went super-crazy for, or one no one else has even heard of.

The Bug

I cannot claim to be completely informed about new music, but it does annoy me that 3 of the top 10 artists:  The Last Shadow Puppets, Plush, and Shugo Tokumaru; I haven’t heard peep about until now.  You can chalk that up to me living under a rock, or, as I’d rather; chalk it up to critics keeping their favorite records a secret and then sticking an obscure album way high in their Best-Of List, thereby solidifying their status as super cool, music insider/outsiders.

So, to get rid of the Let’s-Mention-an-Album-No-One-Else-Will epidemic, I will eliminate all albums mentioned only once in all four Year-End lists.  THEN, our top 10 looks like this:

  1. Vampire Weekend – “Vampire Weekend” 4
  2. Fleet Foxes – “Fleet Foxes” 4.25
  3. Bon Iver  – “For Emma, Forever Ago” 4.75
  4. Neil Young  – “Sugar Mountain: Live At Canterbury House 1968” 5 (tie)
  5. Okkervil River – “The Stand Ins” 5 (tie)
  6. The Bug – “London Zoo” 5.5
  7. Shugo Tokumaru – “Exit” 6
  8. Paul Weller – “22 Dreams” 6.5
  9. Girl Talk – “Feed the Animals” 7
  10. Sun Kil Moon – “April” 8

This works more like DEMOCRACY!  Or, more like parliamentary procedure, like, you know, when one guys like “I move to nominate Girl Talk”, and then some other dude in a headband and American Apparel short-shorts is like “I second that!”…  The Girl Talk motion passes!

  

Now, we’ll cut the fat again, here is a list of albums that made three of the four 2008 Best-Of Lists (in an act divine intelligence, there are exactly 10 albums that did this):

  1. *Fleet Foxes – “Fleet Foxes” 4.25
  2. *Bon Iver  – “For Emma, Forever Ago” 4.75
  3. *Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – “Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!”  9.25
  4. Portishead – “Third” 10
  5. *The Hold Steady – “Stay Positive” 12
  6. Drive-By Truckers – “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark” 17.33 (tie)
  7. Randy Newman – “Harps And Angels” 17.33 (tie)
  8. Sigur Rós– “Med sud i eyrum vid spilum endalaust” 17.33 (tie)
  9. *TV On The Radio – “Dear Science” 19.25
  10. MGMT – “Oracular Spectacular”  30.33

*Appeared in all four Year-End lists

You can of course argue that reducing editorial content and criticism to averages strips the rating of any validity… I would probably agree with you. 

But here’s what the list above does:

  • It devalues the one-offs that a critic just had to put in the list for rep’s sake. 
  • The obligatory high ranking for the band that posed for your cover is marginalized. 
  • What emerges are albums that were universally liked — albums that you “buried” deep in your top 50 because they were too obvious, too mainstream, or were afraid to rank too highly.

What we have with this bottom list is 2008 albums that found favor with a diverse amount of critical publications — two iffy “rock” mags, a singer/songwriter obsessed one, and a computer aggregate site.  The result is LPs that span an array of tastes despite the gerrymandering that may effect one individual publication.

I’ll put my personal faves up later this month, and follow-up with a revised page when Stereogum, Pitchfork, and Tiny Mix Tapes, Coke Machine Glow, PopMatters, etc start to mention their favorites.


Muttering Retreats Say Something, then Depart

November 10, 2008


The Muttering Retreats  – Originally uploaded by thegrue76 /TDAOC

This little Q&A with The Muttering Retreats‘ Tim Thornton unfortunately did NOT make it to (Internet)press on time, but far be it for me to deny you insight on this Cleveland-based little band that could.

Aside from playing their first Chicago venue show earlier this summer the day before Pitchfork, TMR has stayed busy this year… dropping their first proper LP (complete with adorable Wes Anderson-y art direction) and recently releasing a cover of Belle & Sebastian’s “Sleep the Clock Around” (Mediafire) — one of my personal favorites twee-as-fuck songs.  They also just learned a bunch Beck songs to perform as America’s Most Acceptable Scientologist for a Halloween show at The Beachland.

If you’re in the vicinity of Ohio in the next few weeks, make sure you stop by to catch Muttering Retreats open for Casiotone for the Painfully Alone; the band that wouldn’t stop touring, on 11/22 at Beachland.

  • The Muttering Retreats – “Sleep the Clock Around” MP3
  • The Muttering Retreats – “The Capitalist & The Communist Vie For Our Hero’s Affection” MP3 (c/o  A Cloud of Starlings)
  • The Muttering Retreats – “Pastiche” MP3 (c/o I Rock Cleveland)

 

 

And now to go back in time to late July when Tim discussed “crusty” recording, album cliches, and being in a band while also living actual lives with 9-to-5 jobs…

Arms, Distance (Brian): First of all, congrats on the release of the self-titled full album! Though, this technically isn’t your first official release — The Muttering Retreats released a limited edition tape last year didn’t you?

Tim Thornton of The Muttering Retreats: Yes. Our initial release was also technically self-titled, but it came to be known as “The Letter Tape,” due largely in part that the alphabet was a bit of a concept with the tape. [The original “pressing” featured music on side A which was then played backwards on side B. The second batch was labeled side C and D, and so on].

Roughly two weeks before our first show in April 2007, I decided that we absolutely needed some sort of product/souvenir of the show, so we cobbled together 15 minutes of audio … and we made a super lo-fi collage and put it on a 30 minute tape. The other side of the tape are those same 15 minutes, only backwards. We did three runs of the tape … but we only have a couple copies left and aren’t making any more. It’s a real ramshackle affair, I wasn’t expecting to keep it in print this long.
As for the choice on the format, it was just a foregone conclusion by that point. We wanted to have something really simple and charming that was also an artifact of a certain point in the band’s career. The super-crusty sounds on that tape really sum up what we were early off.

AD: I wanted to touch on that, actually. It seems that the use of dated technology, like the cassette tape, fits well with the aesthetic of the group. Aside from the nod to indie pop history, making tapes instead of CD-R’s is just one of the voluntarily analog, or organic, or like you said “crusty”, processes The Muttering Retreats seem to take in crafting music. Was this cultivation of your sound just a natural process, or more of a back-to-basics type manifesto?

T: It wasn’t at all a statement about analog or digital or sound clarity or any of that. All of the material on the tape had entered the digital realm at one point, so it wasn’t purism in any form. Rather, it was done as a reminder to the audience that the material on the tape wasn’t meant to be taken so seriously, as it was something cobbled together in such a short amount of time that we couldn’t really even begin to approach it as a traditionally commercially viable product.
 
AD: How does that compare to the new CD?

T: We went a totally different route. We tried to make the full length more cohesive, more of a full length statement. We really went out of our way with what might seem like minor details, such as sequencing.

We didn’t want the album to sound like we had one or two ‘singles’ and put them first on the album. We didn’t want to have a slow, sappy closer. We still fell victim to a couple of sequencing cliches, but we’re still happy with what we came up with. Also, there are a few things about the physical CD that can’t be translated over to a digital format. I won’t go into detail as to what they are, but they are all compact disc specific “Easter eggs.”
 
AD:Sounds very cool, and a nice reward for buying the actual album instead of getting a leaked copy. Hmmmm, what’s the worst sequencing cliche you can fall prey to?

T:I think the biggest faux pas is putting your weakest song as the second to last track … I’d say that putting some of your best stuff on the second half of an album is such a great reward for listening to the whole album. One example I looked to for this album was the newest Spoon record. “The Ghost of You Lingers” is the kind of track most bands would put as the second to last track, but they put it as the second song! Such balls! Even though they put such a difficult song as track 2, they put (arguably) the best song as the second to last. “Finer Feelings” is by far my personal favorite on the record… it’s such a great example of how thought out sequencing can help an album a lot.

We really tried to emulate that brave approach, putting an atypical song as the first track, then putting a completely opposite song as track 2 and so on.

AD: To that point, it’s obvious T.M.R. has put a lot of thought into this album. From how you’ve progressed as a band, to the sound production nuances, to the art direction and liner notes. Is the release of this album a turning point for the band? … Any thoughts about the progression of
this project?
 
T: Well, the band is still relatively young. We officially formed on the second to last day of 2006, and didn’t play a show until April of last year. Releasing this CD isn’t really a huge step, but rather our biggest project so far. We’ve already got a few new, small projects in the pipeline already. We’re planning a couple of new small-run releases, including a quasi-live cassette collecting a bunch of our favorite performances and adding new material right on top of it. Also, we’re contemplating a possible collection of remixes and a 7″.

The three of us have very normal lives with the responsibilities that go with them, including 9-5 jobs, student loans, and upcoming wedding plans. [Tim and Cari are currently engaged]. We can’t live the life of a ‘career’ band, at least not in the sense that you can expect us to pack up and go on tour for weeks on end.

Right now we’re happy to play Cleveland regularly and make day trips out to surrounding cities. With gas prices the way they are, we might even be trailblazing a whole new model, but we can’t really say that it was our intention.

As far as “progression” in the band, the CD is a definite raising of the bar for us. I’m already looking forward to the next one. But we even know it’s not time to quit our day jobs.

AD: Wow, lots of stuff in the works. That is an interesting point, too — that the cost of a “proper” tour must be astronomical now with gas prices. Maybe gas sticker-shock will foster stronger musical communities, supportive hyper-local scenes, etc.

So, you’re multi-tasking this weekend too — attending the Pitchfork Music Fest while you’re in town. What bands are you most excited about seeing? Which of the bands on this year’s docket would you most want to play with? Besides Spoon I guess.

T:Personally, I would really not ever want to play with Spoon, they’re just too good. I’m excited to finally see Spiritualized. They’re a perfect example of the kind of band we’re trying to be … Spiritualized can make their songs work with a 100 piece orchestra or just a guitar and a vocal. We’re really interested in that sort of songwriting.

An obvious choice would be The Apples in Stereo, but it’s warranted, they’re a great band. Most of the bands I’m really excited to see are the ones who dare try to pull off something really unique live. Health, High Places, Animal Collective, Atlas Sound, !!!, Caribou, etc etc… all of these bands have a lot of nerve to go up and try to present (to a festival crowd, no less!) a really unique live set, and I really hand it to them for that. It’s hard enough to try to play a simple pop song to a crowd, let alone a song/set of something completely different.

Oh, and Public Enemy… just because that set is going to be the most fun moment of the summer.

AD: It’s going to be a nice three+ days of music (and people watching).

You mentioned Spiritulized songs can work simply or with lots of components–in that way, how does a Muttering Retreats set work? Your music has elements of both straight-up pop but I know you’re also big into sound experimentation. You feature a fair amount of guest instrumentals and some of the production can also be quite dense: how does all this work live?

AD: Well, sometimes it just doesn’t work. But we try, honest. Our live setup at the very beginning was very convoluted and complex, it just led to a lot of technical difficulties. We had a laptop up there, midi controllers by the drums, wires everywhere, headphones… all this stuff. That didn’t last long.

Our live set depends on our resources. Sometimes there’s a drum set, sometimes not. Sometimes we’ll need a sax, other times a clarinet will do. Recently, we’ve even been messing around with completely re-arranging songs… adding new parts, having someone else sing, playing it faster/slower/on different instruments…

A lot of bands are out there with six or more people up on stage and we simply aren’t one of those bands, though I could see people making that assumption listening to some of our songs. Every once and a while we’ll get someone extra to come up and play drums or trumpet or something, but it’s less often than you might assume by listening to the CD.

We’ve all been getting into the business of making a bit of a soundscape under our songs. There’s a bit of that on the record, but it’s something I like to create in a live setting using loops and such. Chris is currently working on a setup that will allow him to make loops/soundscapes of his violin and piano, but that project is still in the works.


Awkward, but with Poise

August 13, 2008

©Ruthie Hauge | Lightstalkers I see a bit of Sally Mann here, and a bit of Rineke Dijkstra. 

(photo by Ruthie Hauge)

I see a bit of Sally Mann here, and a bit of the awkward with attitude posing that reminds me of Rineke Dijkstra.  Hauge is employed as a newspaper photojournalist, but her journalistic endeavors also give us a chance to see some impromptu slices-of-life.  When you think about it, both a photojournalist and a photographer try to capture the moment, except that a photojournalist can’t tell you to do it again. 

Hauge’s online portfolio is available here and check her forays into video reporting here. (Type “Hauge” into the search video box for all of her pieces.)

Dijkstra

Mann


Church Rock 2: The Baltimore Boogaloo

August 12, 2008

Flickr Photo from Romorosso: http://flickr.com/photos/romorosso/

Nuthin’ cooler than rock & roll in a church.

This, apparently, is not a new thing for spazzed-out Dan Deacon and his electro-whatevershock companions. Dan Deacon, is hosting both nights of his “Baltimore Round Robin” tour at Epiphany (aka Epiphany Episcopal @ 201 S Ashland, Chicago). This is one of many DD shows that he’s done at a chapel. A quick google-y seach churns out:

  • A halloween show at Judson Chuch (New York) with Chromeo and Kudu — (same place Arcade Fire got their neon on).
  • A show at St John’s Church (Baltimore) and First Unitarian (Philadelphia) with Girl Talk and White Williams
  • And also at First Uni with his “Ultimate Reality” video tour.

Check out the KILLER line-up Dan-o’s bringing to town — mmmmm, sacrilidge, tasty:

Night One, “Eyes Night” (10/10): Dan Deacon (duh), Beach House, Jana Hunter, Santa Dads, Lexie Mountain Boys, Lesser Gonzalez Alvarez, Teeth Mountain, Nautical Almanac, Lizz King, Creepers, WZT Hearts, Ed Schrader, Sandcats.

Night Two, “Feet Night” (10/11): Dan Deacon (doi), The Death Set, Adventure, Videohippos, Future Islands, Nuclear Power Pants, Dj Dog Dick, Blood Baby, Height, Cex, Smartgrowth, Double Dagger.

Church… so hot right now.

In the meantime, check out Dan being Deacon:

…and then Dan Deacon:


Military upheavel is benign, bordering on boring

August 12, 2008

Adam “Mauritania” Fiebs is doing just fine in Africa.  The coup going on there is, in so many words, “boring”.  Meanwhile, it’s been generally agreed that Mauritania Peace Corp work is the least-desierable of all assignments.  Yay Adam!

…as you can see, as predicted, the coup is boring and goes with the saying “maritania…worst…coup…ever.” oh well. … i guess peace corps took an unofficial poll and has concluded mauritania is the least desirable, if not hardest, service in peace corps. hilarious! hope all is well

adam

Adam (Right)

Adam then reposted the email he’s received from his P.C. director, of sorts, Obie.  (I’ve edited it for brevity and entertainment value).:

Hello PCV/Ts:

I just wanted to drop you a quick note to say hello and provide you with a brief update on the political situation in the country.  Not that I am counting, but this is now my third coup d’etat since arriving in Mauritania!  As happened in 2005, this looks to be a rather benign coup … At this stage, there are no indications that you (or other foreigners residing in the country) are in any danger as a result of the recent action taken by officers of the Mauritanian military.

The airport has remained open and business and government offices seem to be functioning as usual.  The U.S. has suspended all non-humanitarian aid to the country.  Peace Corps is considered a “humanitarian” agency and as such is not immediately impacted by the cut-off in U.S. aid.

Hmmm.  I would think that a coup just might shake-up a government.  Apparently not.

…Some things to keep in mind as we move forward:

  • In order to protect the integrity of Peace Corps’ mission, it is imperative that you do not engage in sensitive political discussions concerning Mauritania.
  • Please avoid large gatherings or demonstrations.
  • It is very important that everyone respect out-of-site policy (please keep your APCD informed of your whereabouts).
  • Do not allow yourself to be interviewed by any media outlet without first clearing it with me.
  • Keep in contact with your family and friends in the U.S., it goes a long way to reassuring them of your well being. 

If you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to call or eMail any of us.  The after-hours emergency duty officer number is xxx-xxxx.

Very Best — Obie

P.S.  With all of this great material, I would think that a pretty good PC Mauritania tee-shirt could be designed!

If they do eventually make a t-shirt, I will insist Adam send one my way so I can put it up for sale at TeeCycle.

Don't know if that's food or something else, but it's gross.


Plushie DIY

June 26, 2008

Sounds gross right?  Sounds like one of those things they do an MTV Doc on … “True Life:  I’m a Plushie”. Don’t worry, it’s not. 

I’m talking bout plushie art here.  Sort of where the neo Arts & Crafts movement (ah-la Renegade) and collectible toy enthusiasts (ah-la Rotofugi) merge.  There’s also a sprinkling of Cute Overload in there too.

Anyway, I’d highly recommend checking out the DIY Plush Custom Exhibit and Launch Party at the Rotofugi Gallery this Friday, June 27th.   Local and national artists will display their decorated (and most-likely adorable) plush toy creations.  Think of it like that ridiculous “Chicago Cows” thing a couple years back but smaller, cuter, and more tasteful.


The Day Downers Grove Was Awesome.

November 9, 2006

In what some would consider to be an unfortunate event in itself, I rolled out of bed at 6:30am on a Saturday to head to the western suburbs and catch a children’s book celebration. Ouch.

Why would someone do this? Well, the book was the 13th and final installment of A Series of Unfortunate Events by reclusive author Lemony Snickett, along with the musical accompaniment of The Gothic Archies.


ROCK AND ROLL!!!!

But enough with the pseudonyms. Snickett (who’s never been seen) is the penname of the mordantly funny and slightly effeminate Daniel Handler. The Gothic Archies is the most recent nom-de-plum of Stephin Merritt. The prolific singer/ songwriter/ producer/ collaborator that has made fantastic albums under the names Future Bible Heroes, The 6ths, and most recognizably the Magnetic Fields.

I had no knowledge of the Unfortunate Events series (except for the some semblance of a Jim Carrey film) until Anderson’s Bookshop hooked me up with a copy of the book. Despite being utterly clueless, the opportunity to see (and ideally meet) the seldom-touring Merritt was too much of an opportunity to pass up.

It was obvious, as we waited in a line that curved around the block, that Merritt was an obscure footnote in this J.K.Rowling-esque obsession. The cue was mostly made up, as I assumed, of youth — all clutching their new Snickett book. Well… youth, their parents, a smattering of hipsters and Carol Marin. Some of the kids were dressed as characters from the novel… mostly Violet: the eldest of the polite, book-loving orphan protagonist Baudelaire children.

At 9:30 the doors opened and people started heading into The Tivoli Theatre — a gorgeous restored movie house. Merritt and Handler simultaneously took the stage, but it was definitely Handler’s show. He strode to centerstage and gleefully introduced Mr. Lemony Snickett with a sweeping gesture and a swell of applause. As the clapping subsided and no one emerged from the curtains the elders in the crowd who were “in” on the joke let out a little snicker. The kids were less jovial about the ordeal and disappointed that the Tivoli marquee, “Welcome Lemony Snickett”, was an out-and-out lie.

Handler then suggested the crowd should do the “Peter Pan thing” and applaud SO loud that Snicket should magically appear. The kids put in an honest second-effort but would quickly learn that Handler takes delight in disappointing children for the sake of entertainment –- a hobby shared by the author’s delightfully evil antagonist, Count Olaf.

“HONESTLY! Why would he [Snickett] lie to children!!!?,” Handler mused loudly, grabbing one of his books from the hands of an aisle-seated youth. “…Aside from the fact that it’s easy. And fun.” The kids, at some point, were also in on the joke and took delight in Handler’s antics and boisterous delivery — even when the content of his quips were well over their heads.


Really bad photo of Merritt (right) and Snickett’s untouched drumkit (left).

Amidst this highly-animated meanness, Merritt plucked the ukelee to the tune of his new Gothic Archies songs (an album which dedicates a song to each of Snickett’s thirteen books.) Between Handler’s silliness, the author would pick up his accordion to join Merritt in their songs. Merritt, who played the straightman to all of Handler’s hi-jinks, played very little and sang even less.

The Gothic Archies album, The Tragic Treasury: Songs from A Series of Unfortunate Events was TECHNICALLY co-written by Merritt and Snickett. But truth be told, Handler plays the accordion pretty well. In fact, Handler played keyboard and accordion on Merritt’s biggest success to date — The Magnetic Fields’ massive pop genre-hopper 69 Love Songs.

Live, the diminutive Merritt’s voice is striking, a most unnatural baritone that resonated throughout the cinema. His foreboding (and sometimes nearly comical) delivery fits perfectly in Snickett’s playfully gloomy world. Sometimes buried in studio wizzardy or lo-fi recordings, Merritt’s vocals in-person were powerful — most remarkably on their song “This Abyss”.

Merritt exited mid-show in a staged fit of embarrassment, as Handler complained aloud about the musician’s “incessant one-chord strumming”. The author then dragged two volunteers out of the crowd to use percussive instruments. Handler thrust a noise-maker at the older volunteer saying, “Here. Hold this. And when I give the signal, throttle it like a baby.”

At this point, with Merritt definitely not coming back, my entourage began to sneak back to the lobby in the hopes of talking to the reclusive artist. Not that I had anything logical to say to him. After blinking at eachother for a second, Merritt dead-panned “It’s too early.” It was. It wasn’t even noon in rainy Downers Grove. And when I realized how burned-out I was, I imagined Stephin, with the tour not half over, traveling and playing second fiddle (read: ukelee) every morning at 10, he must be flat-out exhausted. In the spirit of the celebration, Merritt told me to frown for a picture. He then signed my pal’s CD, writing “Beware of Brian. Brian is a spy.” He’s on to me.


Stephin It’s-Too-Early Merritt: “Frown. Frown. Frown. Frown.”

Elsewhere in the Tivoli, famed author & graphic novelist Neil Gaiman was shaking hands and signing autographs too. An unexpected but exciting addition to the days events. I personally didn’t know who Gaiman was, but the level of “freaked-outedness” that my friend displayed told me that the guy was kind of a big deal.

That said, the trip out to Da Burbs was well worth it. Though Merritt’s stage time was minimal, Handler was able to keep the attention of people with a near-zero attention span – that being me, my friends, and a crowd of 10 year olds.


Scaring Small Children