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My dad has a pretty neat vinyl record collection in our basement. I’ve always been interested in it, and I was first introduced to artists like Queen, The Beatles, and Elton John thanks to him playing their albums in the house when I was a kid. Not everything in there is to my taste (why is there so much Barbara Streisand?), but there’s also some great stuff. And I know there are probably tons of albums in there that I’d love, but just have never listened to before. So I’ve decided to educate myself a little bit, musically, and listen to “new” albums. Today’s selections are all by artists that I’m familiar with, but I’m not especially well-versed in any of them, and I’ve never listened to these albums in their entirety before.
Billy Joel – The Stranger (1977)
In retrospect, The Stranger could almost play like a greatest hits album. Most of Joel’s most famous songs – “Just the Way You Are”, “She’s Always a Women”, “Vienna”, and “Only the Good Die Young” – can all be found here. However, even though I was already very familiar with almost half of the songs on here, The Stranger was a bit of a revelation to me on first listen. Before this, I’d usually listened to Joel in single-song servings at weddings and in movies. To me, he’d been a singer who sang pretty songs. But when I listened to The Stranger as a whole, it all came together and seemed artistic in a way that his work never has to me before.
I wouldn’t have necessarily thought that the rollicking “Only the Good Die Young” and the winsome “She’s Always a Woman” had much in common, but somehow it makes perfect sense when they play back-to-back on Side B here. And “Vienna” – a song I’ve loved for a while now – feels like a beautiful, weary sigh at the beginning of the album’s second side. Meanwhile, The Stranger‘s opening track, “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”, has lovely lyrics about casting aside society’s expectations, and that theme permeates the whole album.
The message and melodies of the album feel thoroughly modern, but there’s also more than a hint of retro fun (so many saxophone solos!) Despite a couple of songs that fall on the questionable side of schmaltz (“Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”, and yes, “Just the Way You Are”), this album is just an amazing example of pop songwriting at its best. No one does it like Joel, and I understand that more than ever now.
The Allman Brothers Band – Brothers and Sisters (1973)
Even though I don’t listen to that much of it, I really enjoy southern rock. And The Allman Brothers Band has always appealed to me, even though, again, I’m not especially well-versed in their music. But it seems like I got a pretty good formal introduction with Brothers and Sisters. Full of traditional roots influences, this album blends folk and rock in a really satisfying way. The standout track for me was “Southbound”, which is probably the most concise, accessible song on the album. I love the vocals on that track. As well, “Ramblin’ Man” showcases the band’s flawless melodies while simulataneously paying homage to their influences and influencing generations to come.
However, I wasn’t as enchanted by the album’s second side. Since I’m usually not a big fan of long, jammy instrumental songs, “Come and Go Blues” lost me a little bit. It seems like the band traded their gritty vocals for instrumental jams on the back half, which will suit some fans perfectly, but it didn’t sit as well with me. Overall, though, the Allman Brothers create a pretty euphoric offering of southern rock on Brothers and Sisters.
Tom Waits – Blue Valentine (1978)
It’s pretty easy to see why Tom Waits is a polarizing artist. That voice is certainly not for everyone (I’ve spent years debating whether or not I like it), and he often fuses his songs with more experimental jazz elements. And while I mostly like Mule Variations, Waits is not an artist that I’ve actively sought out much over the years. But I decided to give Blue Valentine a shot. Admittedly, it was mostly because of the title (I guess I was expecting some kind of aural link to the Ryan Gosling film?) and the strangely attractive photos of a young Waits on the sleeve. But I’m glad I did give it s listen, because it’s a very interesting album.
It opens with Waits crooning the star-crossed ballad “Somewhere” from Westside Story (a la Johnny Rotten’s “My Way”?), but then quickly cuts to the chase. The album alternates evenly between fairly straight-forward blues tracks and more challenging jazz-influenced songs, and to be honest, I much prefer the former. Tracks like “Postcard from a Hooker in Minneapolis”, “Wrong Side of the Road”, the title track, and especially the slow-burning “$29.00″ showcase his voice so much better, in my opinion; His voice sounds gruff and sexy in all the right ways when he keeps things simple. (Wow, apparently I’m just perving out on Tom Waits today).
Objectively, the experimentalism is interesting (though the less accessible tracks might take a few listens to get used to), and I don’t really consider the mix of styles a weakness of the album (in fact, it’s probably a strength) – it’s just a matter of personal opinion. However, “A Sweet Little Bullet from a Pretty Blue Gun” is a lively, more uptempo track that hits perfectly. The bass line is creates a sultry undercurrent, and Waits’ voice weaves perfectly with the horns. Blue Valentine is an ambitious, wonderfully atmospheric album. It’s one that I’ll definitely come back to in the future, because it seems like there’s so much more to discover here.
My latest musical crush is Bobby Long. I’d heard about this guy a while ago (and momentarily wondered if he was somehow connected to the 2004 Scarlett Johansson movie that I’ve never seen, A Love Song for Bobby Long. He’s not.), but I’d never really listened to his stuff. But now that his debut LP, A Winter Tale, is currently streaming over at spinner.ca, I decided to see what the fuss was about. And literally from the opening few chords, I knew that this was an album that I was really going to like.
His husky, soulful voice was the first thing that got my attention. It sits comfortably between Gavin DeGraw and Ray LaMontagne, and he sings with a refreshing clarity. And while his style could sometimes be described as “blue-eyed soul”, there is none of the posturing or affectation that tends to comes along with that tag. Instead, Long’s delivery style suggests a world-weariness far beyond his 24 years. While someone like Marcus Mumford (whose voice I like quite a bit) seems to belt every lyric like it’s a matter of life and death, Long knows when to pull back. And some of the album’s most stirring moments occur in these moments of calm.
It’s going to take a few more listens to establish favourites, but on first listen, I liked every song on A Winter Tale. It’s (mostly) sombre folk, and it certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but those who like that style are sure to be presently surprised by this newcomer (he has a couple of self-released efforts, but this is his first release on a record label). His sound may not be as trendy as fellow British folk acts Noah and the Whale and Ellie Goulding, but Long strives for something far more enduring and timeless.
I have to say, this has been quite a strong year for music, so far. We’re barely a month in, and I’ve heard four albums that I really like so far (as well as Long, Bright Eyes, Cage the Elephant, and Iron & Wine have had very strong efforts). With a new Fleet Foxes album on the horizon (I love the first single) and endless possibilities for musical greatness, 2011 could be as good as or even better than 2010.
I’ve been checking out a bunch of new albums recently, so I figured that I’d recap a few notable ones, along with one slightly older release that I’m just catching up with.
Champ – Tokyo Police Club
For my money, Tokyo Police Club is one of the most exciting new Canadian bands out there (and they put on a great live show, too). And while I liked their debut full-length, Elephant Shell, quite a bit, it felt a bit incomplete to me. But they’ve cleaned up every rough edge for their second LP, Champ. Their sound is a bit derivative at times (Strokes comparisons are still apt), but the sheer strength of their songwriter is far better than anything on Elephant Shell.
The opening track, “Favourite Colour” adds depth to their snappy sound, and lead singer Dave Monks has a refreshing nuance in his vocals. Other highlights include the instantly catchy “Boots of Danger (Wait Up)” and the album’s closer, “Frankenstein”. A couple of mid-album filler tracks aside, the songs feel fully-formed. Rather than falling prey to the sophomore slump, they’re a band that took the hype from their first album and used it to grow.
A Larum – Johnny Flynn
Since I dug the new Mumford & Sons and Laura Marling albums so much, I figured that I’d check out another mainstay of the current U.K. folk movement, Johnny Flynn. As well as being quite easy on the eyes (see above), Johnny Flynn can write an amazing song. His 2008 debut LP, A Larum, is chocked full of simultaneously hushed and rousing acoustic gems, sung in Flynn’s beyond-his-years husky tone. “The Wrote and the Writ” is a gorgeously written song on spirituality and love, while “Wayne Rooney” harkens back to the lovely stuff of Nick Drake’s catalogue. The album is fantastic all the way through.
Flynn’s follow up LP, Been Listening, was released earlier this year in the U.K., and I can’t wait for it to get its North American release on October 26. I’ve heard a few tracks (“Barnacled Warship” being my favourite), and it sounds great! A bit of a different vibe from A Larum, but still very Johnny Flynn.
Lisbon – The Walkmen
Best known for singles like “The Rat” (which made Rolling Stone‘s best songs of the decade list), The Walkmen is a band that’s never quite fully crossed over to more mainstream success. But on their sixth album, Lisbon, they make a convincing case as to why they should. Lead singer Walter Martin still sings with every ounce of abandon that he did in the beginning, and that’s best displayed here on the ferocious “Angela Surf City”. As a whole, the album is very cohesive, and it moves along at a faster clip than their previous effort, You & Me. At times, that cohesiveness starts to turn into a kind of -y-ness that I don’t like hearing from The Walkmen, but as a whole, it’s a very, very solid album.
Treats – Sleigh Bells
One of the most buzzed-about albums of the year, I decided to check out Sleigh Bells’ Treats for myself. I found it to be a very mixed bag. Some songs, like “Rill Rill” have a great groove to them. Others, like “A/B Machines” made me want to chuck my laptop out the window just to make it stop. To me, it was far less innovative or fresh than I was expecting. The little girl vocals are old, and the whole thing feels a bit amateurish. To me, it sounds like they tried to combine the aesthetic of M.I.A. (at times) with the fun mindlessness of Wavves, and it didn’t work on either account. It’s too dumb to be smart, and it’s too contrived to be offhanded.
…has Sufjan Stevens been this gorgeous?
Since always? Oh, alright, then. Just wondering.
He looks like some mythical hybrid between Clive Owen and John Krasinski. And that is a very, very good thing.
Musically, I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about Sufjan Stevens. “Chicago” is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard, but sometimes I find his music a bit too pretentious or overdone. And the constant presence of music journalists sucking his dick (figuratively speaking, of course) doesn’t help any, either.
But I have to say, I’m a big fan of his new All Delighted People EP on first listen (you can stream it for free here, or download it on iTunes for a mere $5). It’s more of a proper album than an EP, considering half of its eight tracks over six minutes long (with the final one clocking in at a whopping seventeen minutes), but it has some really gorgeous songs. I love the opening track, “All Delighted People (Original Version)”, which swells just enough times to keep it exciting but still restrained. Stevens’ voice has never been the problem for me, and he sounds just as lovely as ever.
After this, I’m considerably more excited for his first non-Christman LP in 5 years, The Age of Adz, which comes out October 12. If you are so inclined, you can pre-order it here. In the meantime, here is another completely unnecessary batch of pictures. Please comment on the composition or lighting of these photos or something to make me feel less shallow.
Wavves’ third full-length album may be full of triumphantly self-loathing couplets like, “My own friends hate me / but I don’t give a shit”, but somehow frontman Nathan Williams (who started the Wavves as a one-man effort) always keeps the mood light. Full of would-be summer anthems and massive hooks, King of the Beach proves Wavves could be a viable pop-punk act, if Williams wasn’t seemingly in his own way.
The album’s celebration of self-destruction and dysfunction has inevitably drawn comparisons to slacker Gen X acts like Beck and Green Day, but at the mere age of 24, Williams represents an entirely different generation. And it would seem that this particular group isn’t afraid to have fun, and maybe even care a little. For someone so apparently apathetic, he manages to pull together some pretty brilliant songs. “King of the Beach” is a pop-punk blast with a huge chorus, and it makes for an unlikely surf-rock gem. And “Green Eyes” may fall near the end of the album’s short runtime, but the rowdy fuck-you to Williams’ frenemies packs the biggest punch of the entire album.
William’s loose, shout-y vocals (which are often just this side of grating) provide an interesting contrast to the sort of slick, layered production of the album. Certain tracks turn to technology for drum loops and multi-track vocals, but Williams proves to be much more masterful on the simpler tunes. The title track is almost numbingly basic, yet its sheer catchiness is something to behold. As tossed-off as Williams would probably want you to think this album is, in reality, it’s shrewdly calculated and well-constructed.
Wavves has had more than their share of online fans (regarding the music) and detractors (regarding Williams’ onstage antics). And while that may seem like extraneous information for an album review, this strange fascination in a relatively minor musical figure may be worth discussing. Many have complained about the lack of “rock stars” in modern music (who is the last one? Jack White? Lady Gaga?), and while the verdict is still out on whether Williams is someone who the public can embrace, he certainly is someone who gets them talking. And public antics aside, King of the Beach is an extremely solid, refreshing take on a genre that easily could have felt gooey and retro. Don’t let the goofy album art fool you.
Despite what the title of The Black Keys sixth full-length album may suggest, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney are not siblings (and, unlike another popular duo, The White Stripes, they’re not pretending to be). But there’s such easiness in their collaboration at this point that one could easily think otherwise.
While other recent musical duos like Japandroids and The Kills bask in the jangly limits of guitar and drums, The Black Keys seem to take pride in doing as much with one song as two people can physically do. They’ve always played as one unit – with Auerbach on vocals and guitar, and Carney on drums – but Brothers is their most cohesive effort to date.
As a whole, Brothers slants more towards slow-burning blues than to the psychedelic rock of early singles like “Set You Free”. Auerbach and Carney have clearly settled into a groove, and it’s one that suits them well. “She’s Long Gone” is blistering and loping, with Auerbach wailing about a girl who’s gone “like Moses through the corn”. “Next Girl”, a sludgy stomper about past mistakes, combines the perfect amount of sludge, soul, and guitar solos to make for one of The Black Keys’ best songs yet.
The album also explores the different influences that can be found in the band’s music. “Never Gonna Give You Up” fully realises their retro inspirations with the addition of horns and a motown beat, while “Ten Cent Pistol” plays on swampy southern rock.
Having been around for a while, these Akron natives boast audible evolution here. Auerbach now seems to favour an introspective, crisp singing style, rather than the crackling wail he unleashed in the past. This added maturity is refreshing, but a couple of additional up-tempo rockers wouldn’t hurt Brothers at all. Near the end of the disc, things get a touch too mellow to maintain the level of interest of the opening five tracks.
The songs on Brothers are more easily digestible than those on The Black Keys’ previous album, 2008′s great Attack and Release, with only one song clocking in at over five minutes. The band is clearly on the rise (Brothers debuted at #3 on the Billboard Chart, making it the band’s most successful sales week ever), and the songs here make it easy to see why. But it’s refreshing to see the band grow without sacrificing the root of their back-to-basics appeal in a time where selling out and cashing in is virtually expected in alternative music.
20. Beyond – Dinosaur Jr.
Dinosaur Jr.’s 2007 comeback initially seemed to be under the radar, but then Beyond (the band’s first album in ten years) was met with great critical acclaim. It seems as the guys managed to please their original fans, and gain new ones, with their fuzzy anthems. The songs are great, and Beyond kind of picks up where Bug left off.
19. Ashtray Rock – Joel Plaskett Emergency
Joel Plaskett’s another one of those well-kept Canadian secrets. His band’s 2007 disc, Ashtray Rock, made the short list for the annual Polaris Prize, only to lose out to Patrick Watson (he lost to Fucked Up this year). There’s lots of fun to be found on Ashtray Rock, as well as some genuinely lovely moments, like the shimmering “The Glorious Life”.
18. Icky Thump – The White Stripes
I’m not really sure what to make of this album. I’m a huge White Stripes fan, but I’m still not able to connect with Icky Thump the way that I can with all of their other albums. It has some great songs (“Effect and Cause” is my favourite), but I think it just seems too calculated to me. But anything put out by the White Stripes is still better than most of the other music around.
17. Into the Wild – Eddie Vedder
Based on a lot of exasperating technicalities, Eddie Vedder’s soundtrack for the 2007 film, Into the Wild was not nominated for either of the songwriting Academy Awards. This collection of the songs that he wrote for the film (with a few instrumental tracks) is really lovely. It’s much more tender than anything Pearl Jam has done. You can decide if that’s a good thing or not.
16. A Weekend in the City – Bloc Party
I’m not really sure how one would classify this music, but whatever it is, I really like it. I’m not a big expert on Bloc Party, but when I first heard A Weekend in the City (their sophomore effort), I was immediately drawn to their sound. Their first album (which I’m yet to hear) seems to be more beloved among fans, but I’m not sure how they could be disappointed with this.
15. Welcome to the Night Sky – Wintersleep
Halifax, Nova Scotia makes its second appearance on this list in the form of Wintersleep. These guys had something of a hit with their first single off this album, “Weighty Ghost”. I was surprised to hear how much their style varies (“Oblivion” sounds like some especially good Interpol), and I think the entire album is really solid.
14. The Story – Brandi Carlisle
Apparently, Brandi Carlisle’s voice has been compared to Thom Yorke. I have listened to her music specifically trying to pick out the resemblance, but I don’t get it at all. But nonetheless, her music is great in its own right. Her songs are heartfelt and searing, and I think that it’s the emotion (which this album has heaps of) that is Carlise’s strongest suit.
13. The Stage Names – Okkervil River
This is one album on here that I just recently got around to listening to, and it caught my attention right away. I guess Okkervil River has a classically “indie” kind of sound, but I like it. Their songs are so impeccably written, and it seems like they have a lasting quality to them.
12. Cease to Begin – Band of Horses
This is where I began to have a lot of trouble putting the rest of the list in order. These twelve albums are all great, and I could probably justify putting any of them at the top spot. Cease to Begin has kind of an ethereal, slightly haunting sound that I really liked. There are lots of great songs to be found, including “Cigarettes, Wedding Bands”.
11. We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank – Modest Mouse
This album probably could have cracked the top five if they’d shaved a few songs off the track listing, since I’m generally biased towards shorter albums. But there are definitely some great songs on here, and I really like the addition of Johnny Marr on guitar. The Shins’ James Mercer also does some great guest vocals on a few tracks (most notably on “Missed the Boat”).
10. Era Vulgaris – Queens of the Stone Age
Queens of the Stone Age are one of the most popular hard rock bands to emerge in the new millennium, and Era Vulgaris is a great example of why this is the case. It may not have a hit as catchy as “No One Knows”, but the whole album is a fantastic mix of hard rock and solid songwriting. Josh Homme has one of the best voices in rock, too.
9. Easy Tiger – Ryan Adams
Ryan Adams is undoubtedly one of the most prolific songwriters around, and he kept up with his album-per-year standard with Easy Tiger. It’s probably one of his most consistent and listenable solo albums to date. I also think that “Two” and “Halloweenhead” are two incredible additions to Adams’ already impressive catalogue.
8. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga – Spoon
No one writes a pop song quite like Spoon. The first single off Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, “The Underdog”, was one of my favourite songs of ’07. The album has a bit of a Beatles influence to it, in a very enjoyable way. Even if I’m in a terrible mood, this album is likely to make me smile.
7. In Rainbows – Radiohead
Kid A and Hail to the Thief lost me a bit with their heavy electronic influence, so I was glad to hear that In Rainbows was (somewhat) of a return to their earlier sound, circa The Bends. I think this is probably their fourth best album. And when the band I’m talking about is Radiohead, that’s no small feat.
6. Wincing the Night Away – The Shins
The Shins released their third stellar album of the decade with Wincing the Night Away. “Phantom Limb” and “Australia” are two tracks that jumped out at me immediately, but the rest of the album soon grew on me in a big way. It’s too hard to pick my favourite Shins record. I’ll say it’s a three-way tie for first place.
5. Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace – Foo Fighters
The Foo Fighters are constantly proving that they’re so much better than the “post-grunge” label that lazy critics slap onto them. Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace has some fantastic, catchy hits, and hidden gems like “Summer’s End” and “Stranger Things Have Happened”. It’s some of their best work yet. Grohl seem to just get better with age.
4. Cassadaga – Bright Eyes
2007 may have been a bad year for Conor Oberst’s hair, but it was a perfectly wonderful time for his music. Oberst decided to embrace his country roots by taking a pilgrimage to…Florida? Seriously, though, Cassadaga is a great album, and it’s nice to see Bright Eyes expand their sound. There are lots of brilliant songs here, but I think that “Classic Cars” is my favourite.
3. New Wave – Against Me!
These Florida punks got a lot of flak for “selling-out” with New Wave, but it also gained them a lot of new fans (like yours truly). I’ve gone back, and I really like their older stuff too, but I think that New Wave is their masterpiece, so far. New Wave pretty much had a permanent spot in my CD player during late 2007/early 2008, and I connected to it in a way that I rarely do with new albums.
2. Neon Bible – Arcade Fire
2004′s Funeral earned Arcade Fire major acclaim, but I much prefer their follow-up, Neon Bible. The thing that I like most about this album is the atmosphere that they created. Each song has a specific feel to it, but the whole album is amazingly cohesive. “Intervention” is easily one of the best songs of the decade, and every song on the album feels like it serves a specific purpose.
1. Boxer – The National
How could this band possibly have released a better album than Against Me! and the Arcade Fire? It’s hard to explain, but it feels like everything came together perfectly on Boxer. The songs are aching and sombre, and Matt Berninger’s voice suits the mood beautifully. In a time when singles and ringtones are measures of success, I have so much respect for a band that can make an entire album that is this amazing.
I’ve had some lists kicking around for a while, so I figured I’d share some of my favourite albums from the past few years with you here. And what better place to start than last year? I don’t think 2008 had quite as many releases that I loved as 2007 did, but there were still some very worthy albums put out there. A lot of new artists proved themselves in a big way.
20. Bring Me Your Love – City and Colour
With his stunning voice and beautiful, simple melodies, Dallas Green’s music never fails to move me. His follow-up to 2005′s Sometimes sticks close to the style that has made him so beloved by indie and mainstream audiences alike, but why try to fix something that isn’t broken? “The Girl” is a fantastic, tender love song, and I love his duet with Gord Downie on “Sleeping Sickness”.
19. Oracular Spectacular – MGMT
MGMT burst onto the scene with hyped-up hits like “Time To Pretend” and “Kids”. Those are two of the standout tracks on their debut album, but so is “Of Moons, Birds & Monsters”, which comes closer to the end. I’m not sure that I want to know what these guys do in their spare time, but their music is pretty infectious.
18. Conor Oberst – Conor Oberst
I think that if Conor Oberst wants to be taken more seriously as a “grown man”, and release mature music with a different vibe to it, like he does on Conor Oberst, I think he’s making the right decision to move away from the Bright Eyes name. Considering he’s only thirty, this guy’s had a long, consistent career, and Conor Oberst just keeps the tradition going.
17. A Piece of What You Need – Teddy Thompson
Ranging from reedy to rich, Teddy Thompson’s voice adapts easily to the diverse line up of songs on A Piece of What You Need. And while the album’s penultimate song, “Turning the Gun on Myself” is every bit as melancholy as the title would suggest, I like that Thompson manages to keep things sparse and haunting, rather than melodramatic.
16. Elephant Shell – Tokyo Police Club
They were one of the most buzzed about new bands before they even had a full-length album out, and Tokyo Police didn’t disappoint (much) with Elephant Shell. Their sound really grew on me, and even though I think a few of the songs could be a bit stronger, it’s an incredibly promising debut effort. And they put on a mean live show, too.
15. Narrow Stairs – Death Cab for Cutie
I like Transatlanticism and Plans more for the sake of sheer listenability, but Narrow Stairs has some great songs (“Cath…”has to be one of their best yet), and overall it does not tarnish Death Cab’s badge of consistency one bit.
14. Only By The Night – Kings of Leon
Sell-outs or not (and look at that picture of them – they’re clearly sell-outs), Kings of Leon released a batch of great songs on 2008′s Only by the Night. There are good songs beyond the hits, but I’m still not sick of hearing “Sex on Fire” or “Use Somebody”. And my favourite radio station has been playing them consistently for over a year.
13. Terminal Romance – Matt Mays & El Topedo
Matt Mays is one of Canada’s best kept secrets, and he’s been putting out great work for a while. Some might compare him to Ryan Adams or even Bruce Springsteen at times (but really, who isn’t compared to Springsteen these days?) but he’s definitely worth listening to on his own merits. Great sound, great voice, great songs.
12. Evil Urges – My Morning Jacket
Evil Urges is probably the best summer album released in a while. It’s impossible to pin it down to one style, but I think that most people could find something on here that they like. It’s all a little twisted, but it’s also a lot of fun. The anthemic “I’m Amazed” is just one of the many great tracks here.
11. At Mount Zoomer – Wolf Parade
These indie favourites disappointed some with their latest disc. I’m not familiar with much of their older music, but their quirky style sure impressed me here, and according to me, Mount Zoomer was the best Canadian release of 2008. Side note: why do I find Dan Boeckner (far right) so attractive, when he is so clearly nothing but trouble?
10. Modern Guilt – Beck
I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Beck Hansen. (Perhaps I should say, with his music. It makes me sound less crazy.) It’s pretty much what it sounds like. Sometimes I love his music, and sometimes it bores me to tears. But when he teamed up with Danger Mouse (The Grey Album, anyone?) the result fell drastically towards the “love” side of the spectrum for me.
9. Gossip in the Grain – Ray LaMontagne
Ray LaMontagne can do no wrong, in my eyes. Gossip in the Grain is packed with a slew of great little songs (including the much-discussed “Meg White”). All three of his albums have been good, and LaMontagne will surely earn himself a reputation for being one of the most consistent singer-songwriters around.
8. Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends – Coldplay
Flame me all you want (who am I kidding? No one reads this blog), but I love Coldplay. After a bit of a misstep with 2005′s X&Y, they returned in fine form with their fourth album, Viva La Vida. If it’s possible, they’ve amped up the theatrics, and written some of their best songs yet. Viva la Vida, indeed.
7. Accelerate – R.E.M.
Before Accelerate came along, R.E.M (arguably) hadn’t made a great album since 1992′s Automatic for the People. So when they came back with a concise, (mostly) filler-free set of songs, it’s understandable that their fans reacted in such a big way. But Accelerate isn’t just good by “new R.E.M.” standards. It’s just really, really good.
6. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
I know that every blogger and their mom loves Vampire Weekend (literally – my mom and dad listen to their album frequently!) But this album was just way too good to pretend to hate. Time will tell if they become a one-album-wonder (remember when the The Strokes were the next big thing?) but what an album it is.
5. Consolers of the Lonely – The Raconteurs
I’m probably going to like anything that Jack White is involved in, and The Raconteurs’ debut album, Broken Boy Soldiers, introduced me to the wonderful world of Brendan Benson. So the odds were pretty high that I’d like the sophomore effort from this “side-project”. But they actually surpassed my expectations and released an album that I know I’ll be listening to for a long time.
4. Made of Bricks – Kate Nash
One of the year’s most surprisingly fantastic releases came from this plucky Brit. Comparisons to Lily Allen continue to run rampant (for pretty good reason), but I might actually like Kate Nash more. She goes from sassy to melancholy in the blink of an eye, and Made of Bricks is one of the most listenable female singer-songwriter albums I’ve heard in a long time. Quirky, but not self-indulgent.
3. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
I feel a little bit guilty about succumbing to all of the buzz bands from 2008. But they put out such great new work, that it’s impossible to ignore. Fleet Foxes was no exception. Their shimmering, earthy folk is beautiful, and I find myself finding new favourite moments every time I listen to the album.
2. Nouns – No Age
Refreshingly different from a lot of the stuff that I was listening to last year, these California punks are apparently leading their own movement (Canada’s own Japandroids are similarly great). Nouns is raw and fuzzy, but also has a great pop sensibility, which is key for me.
1. For Emma, Forever Ago – Bon Iver
I know, I know. But I couldn’t help it! There’s a reason that For Emma appeared at the top of just about every blogger’s list last year. It’s that good! I think Justin Vernon is one of the most promising new artists around. “Skinny Love” is already a classic, and the rest of the album is gorgeous, too.
We all know which albums are largely considered to be “classics”. Every serious rock fan probably has Revolver, Blood on the Tracks, Thriller (especially this summer), and Harvest on their iPod. But what about the output by these bands that has fallen by the wayside, for some reason? Maybe it’s a band’s first album from before they hit it big. Or maybe it’s a follow-up to a huge album, and fans’ expectations were unrealistically high. I’m going to be explore some of the albums by big names that I feel tend to be unfairly overlooked. In many cases, I agree that the artist’s more “famous” work is better, but, in my opinion, these underrated works by popular artists are certainly worth a listen to, nonetheless. For the first segment, I’ll be talking about Nirvana’s Bleach.
Before Kurt met Courtney, and before they knocked Michael Jackson from the top spot of the Billboard chart, the artists formerly known as “Fecal Matter” recorded an album for $606.17 on Seattle’s indie label, Sub Pop. Sub Pop had released albums by similar acts such as Green River and Mudhoney, two of Seattle’s founding grunge bands. (Today, Sup Pop is still releasing cutting edge music by young bands like No Age and Fleet Foxes) This would be the only full-length album that Nirvana would release with the label, as they later accepted an offer from major label DGC. Nirvana’s 1989 debut album, Bleach, gives a decent idea of what was to follow in the band’s career. Their sound is much less refined, and the music is generally more towards the punk persuasion, but the foundation is there.
The classic Nirvana line-up was not yet in place when Bleach was recorded. Chad Channing is on drums here, and while he does a fine job, it would have been interesting to listen to Bleach with Dave Grohl’s powerhouse drumming backing them up instead. Jason Everman was also in the band (briefly) as a second guitarist during the Bleach era, but doesn’t actually play on the album (he got to be on the cover, and is credited as playing guitar on the album, though. He was the one who lent the band the money to record. If I remember correctly, he has not yet been paid back), so it’s all Krist Novoselic and Kurt on guitars. Even though the band’s sound is a little rougher around the edges, the album certainly has its highlights. “Sifting”, “Blew” and “School” are sludgy, early grunge at its best, and “Floyd The Barber” gives a pretty big hint towards the wicked sense of humour that Cobain would display so often (see his Morrissey-style performance on Top of Pops circa 1992 for further proof). But the true diamond in the rough here is “About a Girl”. Its simple melody and honest lyrics are the first glimpse we got at the flipside to Nirvana’s noisy rock, and it still remains one of their best songs. The sincerity and vulnerability of that track must have come as a surprise to those listening to the album when it originally came out, but luckily the band pursued that style on standouts later in their career, such as “Polly” and “Dumb”.
I’ve often heard people assume that Nevermind was Nirvana’s first album, and while that’s understandable, it doesn’t give the band enough credit. Nirvana’s rise to fame was pretty quick, but they were not overnight sensations. Kurt and Krist formed the earliest version of the band is 1987, and they paid their dues with this authentically grunge album. Bleach is the sound of a promising indie band laying down their first work for the sake of making music, not selling records. And it’s a document of the early grunge era, before Nirvana themselves turned the genre into a viable mainstream marketing strategy. It is essential listening for Nirvana fans, and anyone who’s interested in learning about the evolution of the last quarter century’s greatest pop band should definitely give Bleach a spin.
2. Floyd the Barber
3. About a Girl
5. Love Buzz
6. Paper Cuts
7. Negative Creep
9. Swap Meet
10. Mr. Moustache
12. Big Cheese
Here’s a live performance of Nirvana’s fantastic outtake, “Sappy”, from 1989. The song isn’t on any of their main albums, but it can be found on compilations such as With the Lights Out, and Sliver: The Best of the Box. Definately one of my favourite Nirvana tunes, and it’s nice to see that they were already showing their great live energy back in ’89.
Side Note: It was recently announced that Bleach will be rereleased on Sub Pop to commemorate the album’s 20th anniversary. Along with a remastered version of Bleach, the two-disc set will include an unreleased live Portland performance from 1990, and the obligatory booklet with rare band photos. Should be cool.