Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Top 10 Albums of 2008

Unlike my fellow bloggers, who have seen a lot more films this year than I have, I’m refusing to put together a top 10 list of favorite movies this year. I’m doing this for several reasons, 1) I’ve been outside the limited release mecca of NYC for several weeks, and have thus been unable to see any of the movies that are alleged to be the best of the year, 2) I’ve been disappointed by many of the films I’ve seen this year, and would struggle to cobble together ten list-worthy ones, and 3) I went on a tirade against movie lists last spring, so while I realize how fun these lists can be, it would be a bit hypocritical and inconsistent for me to make one. So even though this is a blog that focuses primarily on movies and visual media, I’m instead putting together an end-year list on something I have very little authority on: music. So here are my top 10 albums of the year, according to my very narrow taste. I’ll be back posting on movies soon.

And for an expert analysis on why good music is good, check out Mary Go Round.


10. Monkey, Journey to the West

Damon Albarn is a man of prolific innovation. As the guy who headed Blur, Gorillaz, and The Good, the Bad, and the Queen, he’d have to be. So it comes as no surprise that Albarn eventually wrote his own opera, even one as esoteric as Monkey: Journey to the West—billed as a “circus opera” and adapted from a 16th century Chinese novel. While not adapted to album form directly from the opera itself, Journey to the West does feature a condensed version of the music used for Monkey’s run in Manchester. Ranging from astoundingly beautiful collaborations in voice and sound to prolonged and disturbingly odd noises, Journey to the West is never short on inspired creativity, even if it may not always be the most accessible kind. However, while listening to the album, one can’t help but feel like they’re missing out on Gorillaz collaborator Jamie Hewlett’s undoubtedly astounding visuals designed to go in tandem with Albarn’s music when Monkey was originally exhibited in the opera medium. Yet Journey to the West can’t help but manifest illustrious juxtapositions of sound and noise on its own terms, making this an enjoyable album despite the schism from its necessary visual counterpart.

Favorite track: “Heavenly Peace Banquet”

9. Friendly Fires

This is electro-synth pop at its most shameless. Friendly Fires’ lyrics are laughably generic and sophomoric, and frankly, after seeing their videos, the members of the band seem like self-infatuated douchebags. At 23, even I feel to old to be listening to this stuff, but it’s just so uncontrollably, ass-shakingly addictive. The very shamelessness of Friendly Fires’ easily consumable approach to hipster ‘indie’ pop, lacking any pretensions of artistic worth while at the same time being narcissisticly self-involved, is what makes their music so enjoyable without the necessary pious guilt often characteristic of this particular music snob’s pop consumption. Its corniness is almost winking, which makes it that much more endearing. Frankly, this kind of music makes me want to go back 5 years and crash a dorm party. Their debut album is so simple and fun, even a four-eyed white guy like me can dance to it—of course, keeping in the spirit of Friendly Fires, I’d be looking for a mirror all the while.

Favorite track: “Lovesick”

8. School of Language, Sea From Shore

The overlapping, vocals-only, vowel-reciting opening of School of Language’s debut album is unique and experimental while simultaneously being accessible and ever-so pleasant. The four-track movement entitled “Rockist” that frames the album evolves quite nicely through an array of developing and receding sounds and musical styles, making Sea From Shore feel like a far more coherent whole “album” rather than a selection of singles primed for individual downloads via iTunes. Other songs on the album don’t bleed together quite as nicely, and you may find yourself segregating your listening of Sea From Shore to a few brilliant selected tracks, but there’s definitely some gold to be mined here. Just from listening to the album (I literally know nothing about the band, as they haven’t made much of a splash on this side of the Atlantic), it seems like the entire project belongs to the immense creativity of the lead singer, whose vocal tracks seem to have been carefully overlapped in the album’s production (or else he is accompanied by vocalists that sound a great deal like him), and the combined aura of musical instruments seems so coherently in tune with the vocals that it doesn’t seem like a collaborative effort at as much as singular genius. The album can’t be listened to song-by-song—it evolves in a way that no other album this year can compare to.

Favorite track: “This is No Fun”

7. Foals, Antidotes

Produced by the white guy from TV on the Radio, Foals’ debut album is just so…so…so fulfilling. The combination of catchy dance-pop rock rhythms and Yannis Philippakis’ almost obnoxiously Oxford-accented vocals may initially remind one of Bloc Party or a far more matured version of Arctic Monkeys, but these conventions somehow occasionally achieve a surprising transcendence by moving far beyond its initial catchiness and misleading simplicity, which renders Antidotes all the more re-listenable. Foals is the type of band that holds their guitars as close to their chest as possible—so you know they’re more serious about music than their sound may initially seem. Wikipedia calls them “math rock” (a term which I’ve never fully understood), which brings immediate comparisons to American counterparts like Minus the Bear or MuteMath, and while Foals’ music seems calculated in the way the term implies, this calculation is reserved only for the band itself—for the listener, it can very well grab your emotions by the tail and take you somewhere else, while instinctively bobbing your head and tapping your feet to the rhythm along the way.

Favorite track: “Olympic Airways”

6. Gnarls Barkley, The Odd Couple

I never cared for Gnarls Barkley’s first album. I got sick of hearing “Crazy” a thousand times and thought their cover of “Gone Daddy Gone” added nothing to The Violent Femmes’ original—I even thought Danger Mouse was overrated. The Odd Couple has sold only a small fraction of St. Elsewhere’s 3.6 million copies, and has yet to produce a similarly overplayed single, but I think that Danger and Cee-Lo are better probably off for it. Instead of the stick-in-your-head radio friendliness of “Crazy,” The Odd Couple gives Cee-Lo the chance to belt out that powerful voice of his, while Danger employs an overwhelming (if not magnificently chaotic) array of musical styles to back him up. Each track seems to be an ongoing mad experiment, packing as many sounds, pop eras, backing vocals, and hand claps as humanly conceivable into each song until it almost implodes, but thankfully doesn’t. I particularly love Cee-Lo’s urgent, “run, children!” in “Run (I’m a Natural Disaster)” and his desperate screaming in “Open Book.” Each track sounds so epic, it’s hard to believe that The Odd Couple clocks in at under forty minutes.

Check out Gnarls Barkley’s cover of Radiohead’s “Reckoner” from one of their live shows, which isn’t on The Odd Couple, but does further evidence their awesomeness.

Favorite track: “Run (I’m a Natural Disaster)”

5. Girl Talk, Feed the Animals

Mashup DJ and fair use prophet Girl Talk released this album In Rainbows-style early this fall, and I can’t think of a type of music more fitting to this open distribution format, as Girl Talk’s very approach to music makes a good case that all music—even corporate pop and bling-praising hip-hop—belongs to everyone. The reason I love Girl Talk’s music is because it works on so many levels. On one, it’s the perfect dance party mix or live concert experience, a self-contained summer rooftop party whose short attention span to any given style or song makes for an ongoing entertainment experience. Frankly, anybody that can’t dance to Girl Talk should probably visit a mortician. On the other hand, it’s a similarly satisfying solitary experience, as identifying the various layers of songs embedded in each seconds-long musical block of Girl Talk’s tracks can prove and endlessly fascinating test of one’s popular music expertise. Thankfully, however, Girl Talk’s constant song shifting does not ring of somebody who hasn’t outgrown his ADHD, as each track seems like as meticulously assembled concoction of overlapping sounds that any lesser DJ could never have conceived as compatible.
LinkFavorite track: “What It’s All About”

4. Wolf Parade, At Mount Zoomer

The moment this album came out, every critic and fan pronounced its evident inferiority to WP’s debut album, Apologies to the Queen Mary. While At Mount Zoomer certainly lacks some of the iconic, catchy tunes and palpable musical passion that made every track of WP’s first album richer with each listen, it’s pretty hard to follow up expectations on (what I think) will probably prove itself to be the best alternative rock debut of this decade, and made them one of my favorite bands ever. However, WP has never seemed to be co-singer/songwriter/masterminds Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug’s major musical concern, as they have devoted just as much if not more time to their respective “side projects” (Boeckner’s amazing Handsome Furs, Krug’s innovative Sunset Rubdown and lackluster Swan Lake). Having first listened to Apologies to the Queen Mary long before knowing about any of these other projects, WP’s first album sounded like a collective sound of astonishing musical range. But knowing about the extent of their careers since, At Mount Zoomer unfortunately feels not so much like the surprisingly effective collaboration of two very different musical approaches that characterized their first album as much as a track-by-track trade off between the two musicians’ individual efforts, up to and including the 11-minute “Kissing the Beehive” (the only song cowritten by Boeckner and Krug), which ends the album by trading off their respective musical sounds within an individual track. Yet WP still remains an indisputably good band. My taste just so happens to gravitate towards Boeckner, so while I appreciate several of Krug’s contributions (the haunting “Call It a Ritual”) and skip through some of those that seem to lack inspiration (“Animal in Your Case”), all of Boeckner’s rocktastic songs are repeatedly satisfying, and their single-unfriendly approach allow his catchy guitar riffs to continually morph into glorious noise on each of his lengthy tracks.

Favorite track: “Fine Young Cannibals”

3. Fleet Foxes

Like any great new folk band, Fleet Foxes sounds like it came from a time without the modern distractions of television, the Internet, or the Jonas Brothers, as their sound seems to have had to develop from an isolated lifestyle heretofore connected exclusively to nature. So it comes as a surprise that Fleet Foxes, headed by the impossibly talented and young Robin Pecknold, hail from the densely legacied musical metropolis of Seattle. Their debut LP spread like wildfire this summer as they quickly sold out shows at their modest venues, highly underestimating their rapidly growing fanbase. The reason they became so popular so quickly is simple: their music is just that good. At a time when most “indie” “folk” bands interchangeably throw together quiet, introspective albums whose mark of success and credibility is their ability to make you fall asleep, Fleet Foxes treat this stuff quite seriously, tossing off the generic for a fuller, particular, and all the more pleasant sound. Often, music is just so good that its sound is inextricable from the experience of listening to it, and I’ll always remember listening to this album while on a train from Edinburgh to London this summer, peering out the window at the rolling hills and agrarian landscape where Fleet Foxes’ music fits so well (…and yes, even falling asleep to it). They’re hardly just another new band with an animal name.

Favorite track: “Blue Ridge Mountains”

2. School of Seven Bells, Alpinisms

Where Fleet Foxes may be my favorite debut band of 2008, my favorite debut album has to be School of Seven Bells’ Alpinisms. Ben Curtis, former drummer of The Secret Machines, loses the engrossing but redundant heavy beats that established the limited appeal of his former band for this oh-so harmonious electro-charm outfitted nicely by the singing duo of twins Alejandra and Claudia Deheza, whose haunting melodies forcibly take your mind somewhere else than exactly where you are sitting. Despite the dense and sometimes challenging layering of music, the surprisingly effective fit with the corresponding vocals creates a sound complex in its execution but so pleasurably easy to listen to (“Half Asleep” is probably the best example of this approach). Alpinisms does seem at first listen to tread on darker territory (“White Elephant Coat”), but SVIIB somehow manage to retain a pleasant, inclusive sound even as their music challenges, experiments, and changes mood. The Brooklyn-based band often retains the danceable electro-pop fun of an artist like Ladyhawke, but rejects the current trend of kitchy 80s nostalgia in favor of attempting aural transcendence. Seriously, if you’re open to it, Alpinisms can change time and space. By the end of “Sempiternal/Amaranth,” you won’t even notice that eleven minutes have gone by.

Favorite track: “Connjur”

1. TV on the Radio, Dear Science

It seems too easy to put TV on the Radio on the top of my list. Their Return to Cookie Mountain was undoubtedly my favorite album of 2006, and they continually find themselves at the top of far more reliable top-10 lists than this over and over again. I’ve had endless debates with friends on where Dear Science stacks up to Cookie Mountain, whether or not it is on par with that masterpiece, and the fact that such a debate even occurs shows how incredible this follow-up is. No doubt, it’s a completely different approach. Where the recording of Cookie Mountain was reportedly as tortured a process as the sound of the album itself, Dear Science favors a lighter approach in mood, favoring harmony over their previous acts of meticulous disruption and the almost overwhelming density that characterized Cookie Mountain, but this is not to say that Dear Science is somehow without immense weight. Dear Science can be experienced both as a list of individual tracks, each with their own irresistible hooks and packed evolution of sound to the extent that each track seems to cover enough material to fit an album all its own, and as a fully collective album experience, each track fitting together in perfect sequence and creating an astounding unified whole. It’s hard to pick out the best individual tracks not only because they are each oh-so-good, but because the experience of listening to the album as a whole is just so satisfying. Just when you think you’ve heard the best song on the album, another one follows that is just as brilliant. Every member of the band seems to be working on the same level, creating a sound in each song that could not have been more perfected with change. Like my experience of listening to Cookie Mountain, I enjoyed the first tracks on this album so much that I only stuck to listening to them, until weeks later realizing that the rest of Dear Science was just as brilliant. If Cookie Mountain was TV on the Radio’s brilliant manifestation of torture, Dear Science is an illustrious return to peace.

Favorite track (if I have to choose one): “Love Dog”


Sigur Ros, Meo suo í eyrum vio spilum endalaust

Takk was an amazing album, and would have been the perfect way for Iceland’s favorite minimalist mood band to retire their penchant for deliberately lustrous sounds. Their newest album seems at first to be pointing in a bold new direction with the uncharacteristically peppy opening track, “Gobbledigook,” which sounds almost like an inventive collaboration with Animal Collective, but then it all devolves into the same old sound, ringing of uninspired carbon copies of their tracks from Agaetis Brutin, and the whole thing seems more redundant and tired than ever.


Bloc Party, Intimacy

I love Silent Alarm. My copy is worn out from listening to it so much. But I know very well that it’s not 2005 anymore. Bloc Party didn’t seem to get that message, rehashing identical rhythms that sound like early versions of the far better songs from their debut album (“One Month Off”). I know of no other band I’ve liked so much in recent years whose successive releases have been so exponentially and increasingly inferior to their initial effort. To make matters worse, Bloc Party inexplicably continues to attempt the forced profundity and poignancy of their ballads (“Signs”) that characterized the very worst tracks of A Weekend in the City (“I Still Remember,” “Sunday”) but somehow worked in Silent Alarm (“So Here We Are”). It doesn’t help that their lyrics are paper-thin and that Kele Okereke’s already limited vocals seem to be receding in range. The whole thing falls flat. Intimacy is simply a non-event.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The South Will Rise Again...with dinosaurs?

No, you’re seeing this correctly, it is indeed a model of a Union soldier being attacked by a dinosaur. It can be seen as a roadside attraction off of highway 11 in Natural Bridge, VA, part of an exhibit developed by “Professor” Mark Cline called Dinosaur Kingdom. If you’re driving on a road trip across Virginia and you see an advertisement for a roadside attraction called Dinosaur Kingdom, you’d probably expect some aging, unimpressive model dinosaurs this side of the La Brea tar pits—they might even be slightly animatronic if you’re lucky. But what you wouldn’t expect is a thoroughly envisioned and charismatically ludicrous still-life narrative that attempts to retell the story of the Civil War and in the meantime make it much more awesomer than your boring high school history textbooks ever made it sound.

Cline’s inspiration follows this narrative: the Union have discovered dinosaurs still living in an isolated area of America and decide to use them as a secret weapon against the Confederacy, training the dinosaurs to attack southern soldiers. But the plan backfires, and the Yankees themselves are attacked and eaten by the ancient reptiles from various geologic periods, thus enabling the South to win and—we can only assume—give rise to the Confederate States of America.

This strange and hilarious exhibit works brilliantly on several levels. For one, it fits well into the strange culture of roadside attractions that inhabit the long stretches of land in the American South, allowing those southerners who celebrate the confederate flag as a sign of “heritage” while ignoring or refusing to articulate the problematic ideological implications of such a statement to pass through and temporarily engage in a ridiculous, humorous form of wish-fulfillment, permitting them to temporarily imagine a Confederate victory...with the help of dinosaurs. It’s a whole new way to rewrite southern history again, like a 21st century Birth of a Nation but not as boring/racist. At the same time, it reads as a criticism of Christian fundamentalism whose strict religious and political beliefs are often reflected in the red hue of the southern states.

Certain schools of fundamentalism are, of course, well known for reading scripture as a document of empirical historical evidence rather than a theological text, and thus seek to uncover, manipulate, or frame historical and scientific evidence affirming that the Earth was created in six days ending with the birth of the first man, and that our planet has since aged just over a few thousand years. Thus, we end up with Creationist museums that argue the coexistence of dinosaurs with human beings, exhibiting often-hilarious historical justifications for such cohabitation like this dinosaur with a saddle for human riding from the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, or the alleged dinosaur fossils in Jerry Falwell’s museum at his Liberty University that are dated as only about 3,000 years old.

Dinosaur Kingdom seems to celebrate southern heritage and the wish-myth of the South’s resurgence while at the same time criticizing the selective re-telling of histories necessary for that celebration (for instance, the South’s frontier myth and agrarian culture are celebrated as signs of honorable heritage while conveniently ignoring the region’s tattered history of racism and slavery). This careful historical framing is realized in its greatest extreme in the ridiculous historical juxtapositions that aim to justify an impossible retelling of all history from the religious right as manifested within Creationist museums. While not all fundamentalists are from the South, not all southerners are fundamentalists or of the religious right (in full disclosure, I’m originally from Texas), and not all religions are fundamentalist, there is certainly a political connection between the retelling of history in the celebration of southern heritage and the retelling of history in Christian fundamentalism that is being playfully parodied here. (Cline’s other exhibits also playfully engage historical icons, like his life-size replica of Stonehenge completely made of styrofoam, aptly called Foamhenge.)

When Cline’s website read that he also resides in Glasgow, it took me a minute to realize that it was referring to a nearby town in Virginia whose occupants exceed barely more than 1,000, rather than the better-known city in Scotland. Yet Cline seems strangely connected to that other Glasgow, as both Glasgows seem to be linked by an odd way of showing appreciation for southern heritage and culture as well as an affinity for bizarre historical juxtapositions.

If you could hear the people speak in the picture above, you would likely be surprised to hear them speaking with Scottish accents rather than southern ones. I took this picture this past July at Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, UK, near the University of Glasgow. The caption above the left corner of this collage describes a love affair had by the citizens of Glasgow with the culture of the American South, from western films to bars like these that feature hoe-downs and line dancing. What struck me most was the presence of the Confederate flag in this Scottish bar, a symbol of dense ideological weight representing America’s long history of institutionalized racism that seemed here to represent nothing more than part of the spectacle of “being southern.”

From the same museum, the picture below is what appears to be a WWII-era fighter plane inexplicably planted above the natural history exhibit, and surrounded (outside the frame) by Scottish aristocratic art.

Either Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum is schizophrenically seeking an eccentric (but more head-scratch-inducing than funny) juxtaposition of history, science, and culture comparable to Cline’s Dinosaur Kingdom, or they were simply making use of limited space.

"Professor" Mark Cline

…And this has officially been my most random and meandering post. Sorry for the dearth of posts this and last month. I promise get back to this in full swing by the end of the month, and the beginning of 2009 should be a more fruitful time for blogging, schedule-wise. Cheers!