Monday, December 8, 2008

2005 - can i tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?

Michelle and I often get into debates about where music is going lately, and she’s maintained for a couple of years now that music is dying. Now, I love my girlfriend. I’d take a bullet for her, I’m ready to move in with her, and in a few more years, I could even see myself having kids with her. But sometimes… she’s fucking wrong. Maybe it’s a youth thing, but I vehemently disagree with her negativity in this area. If pushed, I could expand the list for 2005 to a top 25 or higher. And indeed, starting with 2006, I can list top 25s on the spot, because I'm the sort of nerd that does that kind of thing.

I think that what is different about rock music now and, say, 15 years ago, is that I can’t look to the mainstream much any more. The only major label release on this list is Death Cab for Cutie’s Plans, but I bought that album because of the band’s previous work, not because of Atlantic Records’ advertising dollars. For me, finding good music is not a job for record labels or radio stations or television programs or the local family-owned Best Buy. It’s up to me. I alone have to work at it, because it’s out there, waiting. I believe that art is always alive. I believe it is a part of and apart from my blood. Whether or not I come find a specific band does not validate its existence, but it can validate my own. I always operate under the notion that good music is out there. Sometimes I just need to do the research, and that’s why I read music criticism. That’s why I talk to my friends about it. Hell, that’s why this blog exists. There are no bad years for music, but there are some that require a little more effort than others.

10. Latterman – No Matter Where We Go…!

No Matter Where We Go…! is unquestionably the best album I ever purchased based solely on its album cover (#2 being Ride’s Nowhere and #3 being mothafucking Master of Puppets!). I was hung up on a female lady chick woman girl, so I opted to stuff my sad-gills with records. I picked up this lil gem, and Black Flag’s My War on a separate trip, and the combo exorcised my sad sack ways. As you can see to the left, Latterman’s second album boats a mid-air high five on the cover.

That is cool.

The music is pretty great too. While the record is noticeably more stripped than both its predecessor and follow-up, No Matter Where We Go…! is a mainline of righteous posi-punk right to the heart. With song titles like “Yo, Get Into It” (“We gotta get out of these boxes!”) and “Video Games and Fantasy Novels are Fucking Awesome,” it’s easy to find the happiness in Latterman’s struggle for better days. The best track, though, is “Doom! Doom! Doom!”. Because of it’s needling guitar intro. Because of the way that intro segues into a steady rock drum beat. Because the first line is “Raise your hand.” Because it’s balls to the face punk rock in all its giddy glory.

9. The Blackout Pact – Hello Sailor

Thursday’s Geoff Rickley liked The Blackout Label enough to sign them to his fledgling label, Astro Magnetics, so you’d think that endorsement would’ve been enough to garner these Colaradan comrades a place in the emo/hardcore community. Sadly, not so much. The Blackout Pact broke up a year after releasing Hello Sailor, their sole album, although they recently announced a rarities comp. Still, though, while TBP left behind a mere 10 songs to be remembered by, there’s not a single dud among them. “We Drink So You Don’t Have To” opens the album, and it’s arguably the best track here. With throaty vocals, handclaps, and angular finger tappin’ a-plenty, “We Drink” is a perfect emotional hardcore track for fans of Sunny Day Real Estate, Mineral, and Thursday.

After such a strong opening, it’s a wonder the rest of the album even holds up. “Luxlo Flaming Deluxlo” continues the jawesome rockin’ vibes, split between emo self-pitying and hardcore defiance. The off-time “Do I Sound Like I’m on Old Time Radio?” adds some diversity, but overall the record goes for a consistently rocking sound. The exception to that is the last track, “Lapis Lazuli,” a soft Christian tune. Rickley shows up for the bridge on the mosh pit ode “You Punch Me, I Punch You,” and while his vocals are kinda buried, it’s still a cool meeting of minds. This album’s enthusiasm got me through some rough patches.

8. Sleater-Kinney – The Woods

I’ll always be bummed that I didn’t get to see Sleater-Kinney live, but at least they went out on their own terms and with their best album. The band doesn’t really have any clunkers in their discographies, but there’s something about The Woods that feels like a culmination of everything the band had worked towards. The recording often goes into the red (like Raw Power!), offering the raw edge of the band’s early work while incorporating their latter day sense of melodies. The album is surprisingly psychedelic (like Are You Experienced?!), adding atmosphere to the searing siren calls on tracks like “The Fox” and “Entertain.” The Woods has a delicious soft moment with “Modern Girl,” a feminist tune about relationships that manages to be satirical and endearing at the same time. Sleater-Kinney wasn’t all hooks here, though, as “Let’s Call It Love” is a challenging, but ultimately rewarding, 11-minute dirge that wonks and squeals all over in the name of our savior rock and/or roll. Like I said, I’m bummed I never saw this band live, but I’m also glad they ended their run so remarkably.

7. Death Cab for Cutie – Plans

Did you ever forget you like a band as much as you do? This happens to me all the time with Death Cab for Cutie, with Modest Mouse and Metric taking a distant second and/or third. As much as I love Transatlanticism and The Photo Album and the recent Narrow Stairs, they’re just not albums I instantly think to put on. But whenever I do put on a DCFC record, I fall in love all over again, if only for a little while. Like, right now I’m listening to Plans as I write this paragraph, and I still can’t believe how uncompromised the band’s sound is for this, their major label debut. Ben Gibbard is still a sentimental sap and the tunes are still gentle and calming yet mildly muscular. This record meant a lot to me in fall ’05. I was back at college and had fallen out with a lot of my high school chums. As always, I was existentially and romantically troubled. Plans centered me a bit and calmed me down (like a neck rub!).

6. The Go! Team – Thunder, Lightning, Strike

While it was originally released in the UK in 2004, The Go! Team’s debut record Thunder, Lightning, Strike made it onto my 2005 list because A) that’s when it was released in the states/I’m a good American and B) the track listing got even better. The record was already a charming amalgamation of bubblegum pop, early hip-hop, techno, indie rock, schoolyard chants and harmonicas in ’04, but the addition of “Hold Yr Terror Close” and “We Just Won’t Be Defeated” was a nice touch. The whole dang album is an infectious party stomper, but it’s the final three tracks that flow best: “Hold Yr Terror Close” is a pretty lil piano number that’s stripped down and mellow compared to the rest of the album, which makes the shift back to high gear via “Huddle Formation” that much better.

Arguably the best track on the album, “Huddle Formation” is also the most joyous song on this whole dang list. I almost wish I could make out what the words were, but the record’s lo-fi fuzz suits the endearingly rickety music. And then there’s the banjo-lovin’ “Everyone’s a V.I.P. to Someone,” a thoroughly romantic ditty despite having no words whatsoever. I listened to this album for the first time in a while about a month or two ago, and the angelic exaltation I used to feel from Thunder, Lightning, Strike washed over me anew.

5. The Hold Steady – Separation Sunday

I just got into The Hold Steady this summer. Pissed off by the constant Bruce Springsteen comparisons, I ignored the band if only because they just weren’t E Street-like enough. But after a year of badgering by Nate Adams, I finally caved and bought his favorite THS album, Separation Sunday. If nothing else, I figured it would be a great way to judge Nate… judgmentally.

But, green eggs-like, I loved the damn record. I love the classic rock throwback guitars for their razor-edge riffs. These six-stringers sound like rock music incarnate. I love the piano interludes for the classical touch they bring (and because, yeah… they do kinda recall Born to Run). But mostly, I love the band for Craig Finn’s incredible lyrics. The topics are well-worn: Drinking, women, music, losers. But the internal rhymes Finn scatters sound so playful and effortless, even though there is no way someone could hammer out the words to a song like “Stevie Nix” in a few minutes. In this sense, The Hold Steady reminds me more of Joe Strummer, both with and without The Clash, than Springsteen, because Finn and Strummer both exhibit a sort of playfulness despite all the fury and bluster. I also love how even when Finn recycles lyrics, and he does, he is the first person to call it out in the song.

I bought Separation Sunday a few days before I started working temp jobs. I played this album in my car for two weeks straight, and the 11 tracks about tramps and bums and guys who just don’t quite fit in made the somewhat pathetic turn my life had taken (All those internships and English awards just so I could work phones?) slightly less depressing. “Lord, to be 33 forever…”

4. Bloc Party – Silent Alarm

To be lost in the forest
To be cut adrift
You've been trying to reach me
You bought me a book
To be lost in the forest
To be cut adrift
I've been paid
I've been paid

Don't get offended
If I seem absent minded
Just keep telling me facts
And keep making me smile
Don't get offended
If I seem absent minded
I get tongue-tied
Baby, you've got to be more discerning
I've never known what's good for me
Baby, you've got to be more demanding
I will be yours

I'll pay for you anytime

You told me you wanted to eat up my sadness
Well jump on, enjoy, you can gorge away
You told me you wanted to eat up my sadness
Jump right
Baby, you've got to be more discerning
I've never known what's good for me
Baby, you've got to be more demanding
Jump left

What are you holding out for?
What's always in the way?
Why so damn absent-minded?
Why so scared of romance?

This modern love breaks me
This modern love wastes me

Do you wanna come over and kill some time?
Tell me facts, tell me facts, tell me facts
Tell me facts
Throw your arms around me”

Everyone I meet influences my music taste, but no one has had a stronger pull than my special lady friend, Michelle. A few months into our dating experience, she started playing me “This Modern Love” by Bloc Party. A LOT. Like, every time we drove somewhere. Bit by bit, as I fell more and more in love with Michelle, the more I loved that song. In the event that we ever get married - we can't quite decide how best to give in to that old patriarchal form of oppression - this will probably be the song we dance to our (potential) wedding. Other contenders include "Sweet Avenue" by Jets to Brazil and "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah" by Tracey Jordan.

My appreciation for the album as a whole soon followed, but it was “This Modern Love” that kindled that appreciation. Frontman Kele Okereke accurately covered all the highs and lows of two people trying to connect. He assures his lover not to get too offended if he seems absent-minded, that sometimes lapses are mere brain hiccups, not signs of a less than stellar love. And while I could be “so damn absent-minded,” and Michelle could at times be “so scared of romance,” we found a way to fill all the appropriate gaps, Tetris-like.

That the song is so dang catchy is a nice plus. Okereke’s voice is appropriately aching without sounding broken. He perfectly captures that fine line between agony and ecstasy that comes with a new love. Am I being cool enough? Am I too loud? Should I floss? Should I make sure this is OK and that is OK and this is…? It’s all there in his delivery. Drummer Matt Tong has long been known as the band’s secret weapon, so much so that remarking on his incredible beats and energy is almost a cliché. So I’ll keep it brief… Tong rocks this track. But it’s when the synth lines kick in at the end of the song that it really starts to jolt forth. The song is infectious throughout, but there’s a lot of restraint in the beginning. There’s a little guitar here, and Tong’s drum fills are quick flashes, spontaneous like conversations with your crush. If the music is to be symbolic for awkward flirting, and I really think it is, then the Moog explosion at the end is the first real passionate kiss. Not necessarily the first kiss, but definitely the first kiss after deciding, “Hey, this guy and/or gal is kinda neat. This could be more than one night. This could be more than one month. But I’m getting ahead of myself. SMOOCHES!”

3. Minus the Bear – Menos el Oso

Minus the Bear further explored electronic soundscapes on LP #2, Menos el Oso. While the record doesn’t quite feel like “an album” like Planet of Ice, it still stands as a great collection of potential dance singles. Chilly yet propulsive, Menos el Oso is pretty much great for any occasion: parties, the beach, burritos, driving, and maybe even snuggles. It’s hard to pick a stand-out, since the album is just so dang even, but for me it’s always been the traveling song “Pachuca Sunrise” that hits the hardest. Even when remixed for Interpretaciones del Oso, it’s still an amazing song. It’s a total ’80s tune, somewhere between new wave and shoegaze. Vocalist Jake Snider is so moved by one night at a Mediterranean beach while on tour that he wants to see if it’s “possible to put this night to tune and move it to you? / Don’t cry, I’ll bring this home to you / If I can make this night light enough to move.”

2. The Mountain Goats – The Sunset Tree

Would it surprise you to know that I was initially underwhelmed by The Sunset Tree? Or that when I wrote a list of my top five albums of 2005 at the end of that year, it only ranked fourth? I was originally let down by the sullen lyrical and music shift. I’ve always loved “This Year,” but as a whole the record lacked the raw energy of All Hail West Texas, or even We Shall All Be Healed. Now, of course, I listen to this album probably more often than any other Mountain Goats record, although Heretic Pride has been getting a lot of play.

The Sunset Tree opens with “You or Your Memory,” a slight, subtle hint at the depths yet to be spiraled into on follow-up Get Lonely. The records tell the story of John Darnielle’s strained relationship with his stepfather, in life and in death. And while Get Lonely rarely finds the strength to roar, The Sunset Tree finds plenty to feel alive about. While much of the record details the abuse Darnielle suffered, there’s a defiant jubilation buried underneath. “This Year” is about John’s teenage years – drinking, making out, playing video games, and, finally, fucking up his pop’s car. Everything feels more raw and intense when you’re a teen, and Darnielle captures that feeling perfectly in his descriptions of his relationship with a girl named Kathy. Hindsight lets us all know that they’re not together now, but she feels like his sole source of positivity, his whole world, when John recalls them “locking eyes / holding hands / twin high-maintenance machines.” For me, though, the line that’s stayed with me, and most of my friends, is the chorus, repeated over and over as a mantra: “I am going to make it through this year / if it kills me.”

Of course, John has another bright spot: dance music, described on… um… “Dance Music.” “So this is what the volume knob’s for,” Darnielle realizes as he buries himself in sonics to blot out his parents fighting. Musically, the record does dip into mellower fare, like on “Dinu Lipatti’s Bones” or “Pale Green Things.” But it’s the stompers that keep us all going, like “Up the Wolves” and its discussion about the things you can’t let go about family members. It covers so many different angles – Darnielle promises listeners from abusive families that there’s hope, yet lines later he’s scoping out every way he can topple his own tormentor. “I’m going to get myself in fighting trim /scope out every angle of unfair advantage / I’m going to bribe the officials / I’m going to kill all the judges / It’s going to take you people years to recover from all of the damage.”

The Sunset Tree is a bonding experience. A story about pain. A message of hope. A catchy folk/rock album.

1. Against Me! – Searching for a Former Clarity

I’ll start by saying that this is my favorite Against Me! record. It’s a little more intricate and a lot more confessional. Sure, there are songs that take aim at politics (“From Her Lips To God's Ears (The Energizer),” “Justin”), but a good chunk of the album deals with AM!’s rising fame. Before they took shit for signing to a major, AM! took shit for signing to a better-than-average indie. It’s all in the past now, but the band was actually attacked for working with Fat Wreck Chords. Their tires were slashed at shows and zines even started running articles on how to sabotage the band’s shows. To that end, it’s no surprise that “From Her Lips To God's Ears (The Energizer)” brings the topic of DIY vs. careerism, in which frontman Tom Gabel breaks down what the band has to do to stay afloat, even going so far as to list where all the money Against Me! generates goes. The topic is further covered in “Even At Our Worst We're Still Better Than Most (The Roller).”

But the whole “Against Me! = selloutz?” topic is played out. There’s a certain point where I just stopped giving a shit and focused on got-damn much I love the songs. LP 2, Side B is one of my favorite suites of all time; it’s right up there with Born to Run’s B side in perfection. “Even at Our Worst…” is incredible with its jangled guitars. It marks a moment where Gabel finally collapses under the weight of punk rock elitism, telling any and all detractors that he’s done with the whole thing. “You know they’re waiting to tear us apart,” Gabel and co-vocalst/guitarist James Bowman shout to each other. After a kick-ass guitar solo, though, the band completely dissolves that tension and segues into “Problems,” which is about the lack thereof. Pushed to the breaking point, Gabel resolves that “here in the worst / I will become the best of them all.” As if to prove that point, the band then delivers a real honest to gosh pop song, “Don’t Lose Touch,” before closing out with the somber title track. So is Searching for a Former Clarity a concept album about integrity? I suppose so. Does that make the album a failure because of what happened next? Well, perhaps you should refer back to the start of this paragraph.

NEXT WEEK: where is there left for poor sinners to go, killer werewolf? We can stake it, like sugar in the sacrament, 2006.


Mr. Dogg said...

You can bet I've got plenty to say about this post, but in the mean time PAY ATTENTION TO MEEEEE!

Paul Tsikitas said...

I think you would highly enjoy the Jet Age. Has a very punk slant on their bombastic garage rock sound as well. And this being a political album without any real description of what part of the government they get pissed about is refreshing. Secret Machines would have probably made a top 15 but alas, I wanted to keep it short.