Wednesday, January 6, 2010

My Decade in Music 2000-2009, #60-41

I had band practice and work today. MY LIFE IS STARDUST IT IS GOLDEN. Sorry these are late; no intro essay thanger.

The Top 100 Albums From When I was a Young Person, #60-41

Morrissey - Years of Refusal (2009)

Morrissey himself claimed that Years of Refusal is one of his best albums, and I’m in no position to argue. This was the record that finally made me pay attention to his post-Smiths work. Producer Jerry Finn recorded Years like it was an Alkaline Trio album, and that clean punk approach suits the album. These are, after all, some of Morrissey’s angriest songs yet. I listen to this about as much as The Queen is Dead at this point.

59. Big D and The Kids Table - Strictly Rude (2007)

Ska is often thought of today as a stagnant musical style. The third wave ska subgenre, otherwise known as “modern ska,” has existed for about 20 years or so with minimal improvement. But Big D and The Kids Table have plowed through mediocrity to craft a series of revolutionary and brilliant albums which single handedly reinvigorate the ska genre. Boston may be one heck of a ways away from Kingston, but Big D and The Kids Table have still mastered Jamaica’s eclectic musical style, as proven by Strictly Rude, their first purely ska album in the grand tradition of two tone.

58. Metric - Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? (2003)

One of the great things about my employee discount at Sam Goody is that I could afford to take a chance on records I didn’t know much about. Enter Metric’s Old World Underground. It sounds quaint, but I didn’t look the band up on MySpace or pirate their mp3s or whatever. I simply liked the cover art. Plus, the album came with free stickers. Hell. YES. Oh, and the music was good too. Eighties synth pop, sarcastic lyrics about hipsters and sex, and a good hook or two. The band has since blown up (and devolved into self-parody), but Metric never quite topped such rousing anthems as “The List” or “Dead Disco.”

57. Bear Vs. Shark - Right Now, You’re in the Best of Hands. And If Something Isn't Quite Right, Your Doctor Will Know in a Hurry (2003)

Sweet merciful Christ how I miss Bear Vs. Shark. Spastic yet muscular, Right Now, You’re in the Best of Hands… is blisteringly brilliant. It’s like XTC meets Hot Water Music, all angular and c-c-c-c-crazy yet very, very hardcore. The record stomps faces right away with the lead track, “Ma Jolie.” The drums could derail at any moment, the guitars are sloppy and crunchy and then, without warning, everything locks into a dancey post-punk beat. And then it all ends in a percussionless campfire singalong, which is funny because the next song is called “Campfire,” and it will fuck your shit up. My favorite song from the album has always been “Second,” if only for the passion behind the lines “And I’ll take what is given to me / and I’ll realize I’m not going home.” It’s kind of became my mantra, even though I refuse to accept my current living status and I do in fact live at home.

56. Minus the Bear - Menos El Oso (2005)

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.”

55. Flogging Molly - Float (2008)

Flogging Molly’s sound is easy to generalize – Irish-y, like The Pogues – but the intricacies that separate each of the band’s albums are numerous. Float is neck-and-neck with Swagger for being the best Flogging Molly album. Swagger sounds raw and unbridled, thanks to Steve Albini’s production and Dennis Casey’s searing guitar. Plus, it’s Flogging Molly’s studio debut, so it has the advantage of being first. But Float might be the album that better represents Flogging Molly’s musical background as a whole. While its guitar and drum sounds aren’t as thunderous, Float offers 11 infectious Celtic folk ditties. The concept of the band has always been based on that style, and it’s shown in its purest form here. The punk influences are gone on this outing, leaving one of the flat-out best Celtic albums of the last eleventy billion years.

54. Sleater-Kinney - All Hands on the Bad One (2000)

Ever get the feeling Sleater-Kinney could do whatever they felt like and it would be awesome? All Hands on the Bad One is far and away the poppiest SK record, which the band pretty much did for the fuck of it. They went back to more discordant fare throughout the decade, but for one record, they dropped the riot grrrl sound for something a heck of a lot catchier. If the sound didn’t bate Puritans enough, the lyrics sure did – tunes like “You’re No Rock ‘n’ Roll Fun” and “All Hands on the Bad One” certainly mocked older fans unwilling to enjoy this, their “fun” record.

53. Flogging Molly - Swagger (2000)

Up until this year’s Float, Swagger was my favorite Flogging Molly record. But man is it a close race. As recorded by Steve Albini, the album captures the band at its rawest, borrowing from The Pogues while outrocking ‘em as well. Frontman Dave King leads his ragtag team of boozers and losers through 13 of the best songs about drinking, fighting, dancing, and loving. This is perhaps the penultimate Celtic punk album, blending searing guitar and pounding drums with more conventional Irish instrumentation via tin whistle, fiddle, banjo, and accordion. For every barn burner like “Salty Dog” or “Devil’s Dance Floor,” King has a tender, folkier side for ye with songs like “Far Away Boys” or “Grace of God Go I.” Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash is pretty good, but Swagger is drunkenly transcendent.

52. Rilo Kiley - The Execution of All Things (2002)

Intrigued by “With Arms Outstretched,” I took a gander at The Execution of All Things’ deeee-lite-ful collection of lady-laden, despair-shaking, indie rock pop tunes. Like Conor Oberst, Jenny Lewis has lived to disappoint me. But on Rilo Kiley’s second full-length, she was perfect, an emotive chick who knew how to kick ass on guitar. I’ve spent hours upon hours obsessing over pretty much every single track on this album at one point or another – opener “The Good That Won’t Come Out” stayed with me for a long time, thanks to its downplayed depression. The way the lyrics count off all the “friends who lost the war / and the novels that have yet to be written about them” hits me every time. “A Better Son/Daughter” is a right rabble-rouser. In this moment, though, I have to give it to epic album ender “Spectacular Views.” The feedback-spewing guitar solo. The propulsive bass line. Those synth flourishes and driving drums. The way Lewis sums up every image ever as “so fucking beautiful,” that desperate shift in her voice, like she needs to scream it but also needs to keep it together for the sake of the song’s pop leanings… Do you know why I don’t like Feist? Because she can’t let herself go, like Patti Smith or Tori Amos or PJ Harvey or Courtney Love or Jenny gosh-dang Lewis.

51. The Weakerthans - Reconstruction Site (2003)

Weakerthans are on those bands I wish I was in. I know they’ve taken some big breaks between albums this decade, but man… when John K. Samson hits me with finished songs like “The Reasons” or “One Great City!”, the lyrics flow out of him so perfectly, conjuring up beautiful/sad images of snow-covered Canadian landscapes, cats’ wayward ways, and some awfully unhappy people finding solace in each other. Dude is one of the best lyricists out there, and got-damn do I love the way he sings as well. I feel a little weird calling Weakerthans an indie group, in that their influences come more from punk, rock, and country, but then again, they’re a successful act that’s adhered to the term’s alleged ideals: They release their songs on independent labels, they celebrate the best art (Samson has been known to help move a best-selling book or two in Canada through his endorsement), and, uh, they make music that’s significantly better than the mainstream.

50. Minus the Bear - Highly Refined Pirates (2002)

Freshman year of college was a scary time, what with the whole “complete lifestyle change” thing going on. I spent the summer before moving into La Salle buying as many albums with my Sam Goody employee discount as possible (40% off!!). One of the last purchases was an EP AP hyped; They Make Beer Commercials Like This by Minus the Bear. I was hooked on its fine blend of synthy surfy prog-rock. Later, on one of approximately 12,000 South St. trips with Eric Crack and Nick Elmer, I picked up Highly Refined Pirates, MtB’s first full-length. It’s remarkable how much the band had already figured out its airy yet rockin’ sound right off the bat. Highly Refined Pirates is an album I can pretty much listen to regardless of setting – on the beach, while driving, in bed right before sleep, or at 10:25 a.m. on a Monday morning (as of this writing) whilst perusing the Internets. Songs like “Thanks for the Killer Game of Crisco Twisters” and “Absinthe Party at the Fly Honey Warehouse” are lovely lil gems about good times with good friends – partying, dancing, drinking, swimming – bathed in the warm glow of Dave Knudson’s guitar-tapping wonders.

49. Ben Kweller - On My Way (2004)

While he skimped on the Weezer-ish nerd rock on LP #2, I was too stoked on Ben Kweller’s sunny guitar pop on On My Way to care much. Besides, Kweller kept a glimmer of the oddball lyrics fans craved (check the title track’s discussion of the merits of karate). I spent an inordinate amount of time listening to this record summer ’04, especially during the month or so that I lived at the Jersey shore. This was in the bulky, awkward Walkman days. I would wear big ol’ cargo shorts to the beach so as to make room for my CD player. Assuming I didn’t get too sandblasted, the subtle power of songs like “Believer” and “Different But the Same” would charm me. Ben Kweller relied a bit too much on piano, but On My Way finds a nice balance between keys and guitars, making for a delicious garage rock experience.

When I came back at the end of the summer, half of my stuff was on the curb. My parents dismantled my furniture in order to give my room to my brother. He eventually moved out, and now I sleep on a much shittier bed. This was one of several “you can never go back” moments that year. And no, I still haven’t gotten over it. Why do you ask?

48. Bruce Springsteen - The Rising (2002)

Although most of the songs had been written prior, Bruce Springsteen’s reunion with The E Street Band on The Rising became for many a reaction to the 9/11 attacks. A slew of pro-American songs came out after 9/11, many of them banal (Paul McCartney’s “Freedom") and some of them even embarrassingly offensive (Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)”). Bruce went the opposite route; The Rising isn’t about retaliation, it’s about figuring out how to move on. Last week, I wrote about Joe Strummer’s “wilderness years,” the period where he didn’t quite know what to write. Well, Bruce had a pretty big dry period. He’s never made a truly awful record, but every studio album that came out in between Nebraska and The Rising – two decades – was spotty.

The Rising is the sort of effortless, grand Americana statement Bruce used to make effortlessly. It’s dated in some spots thanks to an overabundance of keyboards, and it would be a golden past sort of album if it weren’t for all the lyrics about moving on and living. The whole E Street gang returns with their classic sound. There’s tons of piano and guitars, but everybody knows it’s Clarence Clemmons’ sax that really gives the songs drive.

Ultimately, the record is really about Bruce trying (and occasionally failing, like on “Nothing Man”) to believe in himself again. The timing just meant that the rest of us had the same problem. But even if The Rising wasn’t tied to the terrorist attacks, it would still be a resonant record. I’ve found myself listening to it a lot in the last year or so. I always turn to music when times get tough, but The Rising is one of the few albums to make me take a proactive approach to my problems. When I didn’t get the job at the Inquirer, when I bombed a separate interview, when I’ve felt powerless, The Rising brings me back to life with its repeated messages about hope, faith, and rising up. Not that all my memories of the album are tied to bad events – I made it a point to spin The Rising after Barack Obama clinched the presidency. The album is a little overstuffed in the middle, but when I hit that last third – “Mary’s Place” into “You’re Missing” into “The Rising” into “Paradise” into “My City of Ruins” – I truly believe everything is going to be alright. C’mon, rise up.

47. Sleater-Kinney - The Woods (2005)

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.

46. Rx Bandits - Progress (2001)

You’ll Never Eat Fast Food Again turned me on the Bandits’ second album, 1999’s Halfway Between Here and There. While that record was a catchy ska-punk batch in the vein of what Drive Thru Records was doing at the time (bands good enough to open for Less Than Jake?), Progress was miles ahead in every way. Better production, better style, and just plain better songwriting. The Bandits used to be a fairly un-serious bunch; early songs included such titles as “High Skool” and “I Don’t Care,” an ode to soccer girls. Magically, frontman Matt Embree metamorphosed into a bold, socio-political figure that also happened to write kind of complicated songs. Thus Progress was born.

Now, Progress is still a ska-punk album, but it outclasses just about every non-Less Than Jake ska-punk album out there. You’d think Embree was Sting the way he decries corporatization, oppression, and the mass imbalance of wealth in the world on opening track “VCG3” (or, you know, throughout the album…). Even the old relationship songs have a newfound seriousness to them – “Anyone But You” is one of the most mature break-up songs I’ve ever heard. Sadly, the band got even more technical after this album, disappearing in a cloud of pot smoke to create prog-ska. But I’ll always have Progress, a stunning ska/punk/rock/reggae record that blends elements of Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, The Specials, Megadeth, and Minor Threat into a palatable blend.

45. Minus the Bear - Planet of Ice (2007)

Listening to Minus the Bear’s Planet of Ice is like getting a foot rub from Jesus Christ reincarnated as a panda bear. It’s like experiencing the sunrise through rose tinted 4-D glasses. You know that subset of people who think doing drugs and listening to Pink Floyd or The Animal Collective is awesome? Those people are stupid. Listening to Planet of Ice is super fine without supplements.

I’d like to apologize for my hyperboles, but I simply cannot deny the mastery of this progressive dance surf synth rock album. It’s that fucking good. The band didn’t rewrite Highly Refined Pirates, and it’s for the best. Between Planet of Ice and the experimental remix album Interpretaciones del Oso, Minus the Bear has revealed a fearlessness in songwriting that is practically unparalleled. Well, Mew might be able to keep up. But surpass? Forget about it; Minus the Bear is your Technicolor panda bear savior.

44. The Horrors - Primary Colours (2009)

Tired of trying to be shocking, the Horrors settled for something better: Being awesome. The group selects from some of the best post-whatever bands of the last 30 years – My Bloody Valentine, Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees – and crafts something new and psychedelic out of the mix.

43. Patton Oswalt - 222 (2003)

Patton Oswalt is the comic that got me back into comedy albums. Sure, I’d been into “Weird Al” Yankovick and Adam Sandler as a youngin’, but Oswalt is the one that made me pay attention to comedy again and taught me to demand more from comics than smashed fruit and profanity. 222 is one of his crowning achievements. At two hours and 22 minutes in length, broken up into two, single track CDs, it’s the raw material that went into his Feelin’ Kinda Patton album, and it is awesome. Dude just keeps going until he is out of material, riffing on boozing, bad movies, comedy clubs, ice cream cakes, Alvin and the Chipmunks, sex, and just about everything else. This is my “White Album” of comedy.

42. Tegan and Sara - The Con (2007)

Filled with synth, folk-pop, and angst, The Con made me realize that there were so many more qualities to Tegan and Sara than lame haircuts and “Walking With a Ghost.” These sisters are a pretty smart pop duo, delivering raw numbers like “The Con” and “Nineteen” with utmost sincerity and cajones. The Con is all over the place, harkening back to the band’s folk-y early days on “Call It Off” while reaching into Cure-like levels on the title track and “Back In Your Head.” Their sorrow sounds ever so sweet, thanks to concise song structures and solid hooks. And hey, they roll with Hunter Burgan, Kaki King, and Matt Sharp on this record, so clearly they’re nice folks, right?

41. The Menzingers - A Lesson in the Abuse of Information Technology (2007)

Joyous folk/pop punk from my own home state of Pennsylvania, A Lesson in the Abuse of Information Technology is crammed with anthemic throat-shredders, with an acoustic ditty or two for variety. It’s hard to choose a favorite among the flock; the title track stands out with its repeated line “I supply my own divide / morality.” But so do “Sir Yes Sir” and “Alpha Kappa Fall Off a Balcony.” And again, how sweet is that Clash cover? These passionate Pennsylvanian punks make me giddy, and not just ‘cause of the alliteration they let me slip in.

TOMORROW: I guess Sal Paradise was right, these troubled states, light us a fire, #40-21.

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