Saturday, January 2, 2010

Because I'm not fucking old enough to do a Best-of-the-Decade List (Part II)

Music, 10-1

10 Metric, Fantasies

I may find Live It Out to be a catchier album, but Fantasies is mature and resilient from beginning to end. Emily Haines will never let me down. Key tracks: Gold Gun Girls, Collect Call, Help I’m Alive

09 Patrick Wolf, The Bachelor

Pop, electronica, folk, and piano balladry—not to mention Tilda Swinton as the ‘narrator’ of the album’s journey—all compressed into a hot white ball buoyed by Patrick’s beautifully emotive vocals, The Bachelor may well be his strongest and most cohesive effort yet. Key tracks: Oblivion, Blackdown, Count of Casualty, The Sun is Often Out

08 Gossip, Music for Men

Gossip outdo themselves on this one; every track has the power to provide a soundtrack to your stomp-offs and mirror-karaoke. If the last album showed that Gossip had come into their own, this one proves their true artistry. Beth Ditto’s voice remains soulful, uplifting, and full of conviction. Key tracks: Music for Men, Love Long Distance, For Keeps

07 Tori Amos, Midwinter Graces

Tori was well on her way to complete irrelevance and oblivion, but strangely, a seasonal album dragged her kicking and screaming out of the slump. It’s a tender, deeply felt, and beautiful album, focused by her kooky eye trained on traditional carols, while remaining universal enough to play for the whole family. Key tracks: Star of Wonder, Winter’s Carol, Holly Ivy and Rose, Candle: Coventry Carol (yes, had to choose four)

06 Lady Gaga, The Fame Monster

If you don’t love Gaga already, I won’t be the one to convince you; nonetheless, this is a flawless eight-track EP that blows even her impressive debut out of the water. Impossibly catchy and fascinatingly constructed, TFM wears its influences on its sleeve while proving that Gaga has both come into her own and harbors the capacity for transformation. Key tracks: Bad Romance, Telephone, Monster

05 Florence + the Machine, Lungs

A truly exciting debut album filled with gems; Florence’s voice is at turns violent, booming, caressing. Each song shines, sometimes drowning out the album as a cohesive whole, but give it time to sink in—she’s certainly got a bright future. Key tracks: Cosmic Love, Girl With One Eye, Howl

04 Bat for Lashes, Two Suns

Her debut was fantastic, but Two Suns takes Natasha Khan far away from the sophomore slump and proves that she has staying power; she’s matured from what could have left her as a Stevie-Nicks-knockoff into a voice all her own. Key tracks: Daniel, Siren Song, Sleep Alone




03 PJ Harvey and John Parish, A Woman a Man Walked By


I’ve come to realize the PJ Harvey is possibly the only artist I love that has a spotless track record, at least in my book. Every album is ace; nearly every track is spot-on. I can put her on at any time, in any mood, and find something enjoyable and new. People bitched about her new collab with John Parish, complaining that it’s intentionally ugly, that her gimmick is wearing thin, that she’s doing things simply to seem avant-garde—but I couldn’t disagree more. Admittedly, I loved Dance Hall at Louse Point (their first collab), which is another divisive album, but just when I thought she couldn’t take her music in any other directions, she and JP pull this one out of their sleeves.

Every track is a surprise, and each one inhabits its own sonic and narrative world. Black Hearted Love is vaguely reminiscent of the alt-pop glitz of Stories; Sixteen Fifteen Fourteen is a biblical tale gone sour, or perhaps a Hansel-and-Gretel fable of lost innocence. If Grow Grow Grow (on her last album, White Chalk) was a child’s terrifying elegy for her dead grandmother, April from this one is the grandmother’s haunting poem to her lost granddaughter. The title track could be dissected within the parameters of feminist body horror theory, with its bizarre attention to a woman/man hybrid with “chicken liver balls,” not to mention the narrator’s violent declaration that she wants to “just get up your fucking ass.” The album runs the gamut of emotions, with fury and arrogance carrying Pig Will Not and violence the title track. Melancholy dominates much of the rest: “Send me home damaged, and wanting” she cries in The Soldier, while in April, the plea is for escape, when “these days just crush me.” Passionless, Pointless is perhaps one of the subtlest laments for a love-gone-bored-stiff that I’ve heard; the breakout into wailing midway through the song elevates the yearning to the passion she wishes for, but otherwise, the song merely encapsulates the failure of a love to sustain itself. Cracks in the Canvas, the closing track, is a reflective glance back over the many places the album’s been, and fittingly leads us into the silence that follows.

Polly’s voice remains chameleon-esque; on April she croaks like a century-old hag; on Sixteen Fifteen Fourteen she howls like a lost girl; she growls and shrieks her way through the title track; she’s an otherworldly siren for The Soldier and an androgynous demon on Pig Will Not (evidently, inspired by a Baudelaire poem, to boot). If DHALP at times suffocated under the weight of its experimentalism, AWAMWB creates its own private world that thrives on its strangeness and gains coherence through loosely connected narratives among the songs. PJ has never been more daring vocally, and even if the stakes weren’t high for a side project like this, she and JP are both (chicken)balls-out for the whole run. It’s ugly, it’s haunting, it’s violent and beautiful. Incredibly difficult to rank these top three, I should add.

Key Tracks: Sixteen Fifteen Fourteen, April, Black Hearted Love



02 Neko Case, Middle Cyclone

I know most prefer her last one, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, to Middle Cyclone, but I think I may be on the other, more evil, end of the spectrum. Though the standout tracks of FC shine brighter (re: Star Witness, Dirty Knife, Hold On Hold On), Middle Cyclone tears you open with its opening note and doesn’t stitch you back up until the bitter end. There are (to my mind) two weak tracks on the album; everything else is simply perfect. This Tornado Loves You would probably top my Songs of the Year list if I were making one, and nothing is quite as heartbreaking as the title track. Of course, Neko’s soaring voice is the highlight of every track, but she never suffocates the music. This isn’t a ‘narrative’ or a concept album, but it feels like it could be, because I always feel as though I’m doing it a disservice if I don’t listen to the thing in its entirety.

And now that I’ve sat down to write about this, I have no idea what to say. I was lucky enough to see Neko live in Richmond, VA in April—she was as stunning and powerful as you might expect. There are artists with distinctive voices that I love—PJ and Karen O among them, not to mention Bjork or Joanna Newsom, or Patrick Wolf—and then there are vocalists that are simply so polished and beautiful. Neko somehow manages to excel in both of these, and the best of it was that this power came through even live. Her lyrics seem only to get better with time, whether they’re darkly humorous, as in “You spoke the words, ‘I love girls in white leather jackets’—that was good enough for love, it was good enough for me” from The Pharoahs, or simple and emotionally wrenching, like with “Baby, why’m I worried now? Did someone make a fool of me? For I can show ‘em how it’s done. Can’t give up actin’ tough; it’s all that I’m made of. Can’t scrape together quite enough, to ride the bus to the outskirts of the fact that I need love” on the title track.

She’s a bit country, a bit indie, a bit pop—none of these and all at once. I suppose she’s a bit of a hipster darling from her work in The New Pornographers, but there’s not a more earnest or genuine artist in music right now—she truly strikes me as an artist’s artist, and that shines through on this album. It’s a moving forty-five minute trek into a timeless sort of landscape, and you’ll be kept warm with Neko’s incredibly voice to hold your hand along the way.

Key Tracks: This Tornado Loves You, Middle Cyclone, People Got a Lotta Nerve, Don’t Forget Me, Prison Girls, all the rest



01 Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz

Essentially flawless from beginning to end, It’s Blitz is the album that, according to the band, brought the Yeah Yeah Yeahs back from a career precipice. Karen O confessed that Show Your Bones and the ensuing tour nearly brought the band to their breaking point, personally and creatively. Some people have called this album derivative or said that the YYYs jumped a little too quickly onto the neo-eighties bandwagon, but nothing on the album feels stale or forced; it’s electrifying, fresh, and strangely compelling (though the emotional power of the YYYs isn’t, for me, usually the first strength to come to mind). They’ve revitalized their sound without leaving behind all the qualities that make them so distinctive in contemporary music. Karen O coos and howls her way through each track; the band matches her word-for-word, and the listener (okay, well, I) follows the siren-call. Some tracks compel you to stomp around (Zero, Heads Will Roll, Shame and Fortune); some to dance (Dull Life, Dragon Queen); some to cry (Runaway). Tracks like Soft Shock and Hysteric are of the sort that no one does better than the YYYs—they impeccably juggle reflective melancholy and na├»ve hope. Maybe it’s Karen O’s voice that captures this—I can’t think of anyone who really sounds like her right now, or, if they do, they don’t do it nearly as well. I’m sure this is why she was asked to do the Where the Wild Things Are soundtrack, because who better brings a childlike joy to a frighteningly jaded and adult world than Karen O?

I honestly don’t even know what to say about this album without sounding forced, mawkish, or kiss-ass-y. The best thing I might close with is that this album has followed me throughout the year, through high moods and low, through lonely nights and booze-fueled tranny parties; I played it in the car, in the shower, at work, for my friends and for my mother. As much as I love Neko and PJ, this album had already topped my year-end list by the time I finished my first listen.

Key Tracks: Dull Life, Heads Will Roll, Soft Shock, Runaway, all the rest

There you have it.

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