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Call me crazy, but I actually really enjoyed the Grammys on Sunday night. I know that it’s cool to hate on the Grammys (I’m guilty of it), and to say that they’re irrelevant, but I liked way more of the performances than I expected to. Maybe I was just more open-minded, or maybe mainstream music has just gotten better. And the actual awards themselves weren’t the disaster that I’d expected, either. Here are a few quick thoughts on some of the key performances:
- The Aretha Franklin tribute was nice, but it felt a bit forced. Jennifer Hudson gave the most impressive performance, vocally, but Florence Welch also brought something refreshingly different to her rendition of “Think”. Everyone was trying to one-up each other to sometimes comical effect.
- Lady Gaga’s performance of her new song, “Born This Way” showed her typical showmanship. I like the song, and her performances are always interesting.
- The Janelle Monae, Bruno Mars and B.O.B. performance was very lively. Mars’ vocals were wonky on “Grenade”, but the dude wore half a dozen hats (figuratively speaking) in that extended number, so I have to give him credit for that. And it was another great example of Monae’s showmanship.
- I may have officially lost it, but I actually liked Justin Bieber’s performance. I certainly could have done without Jayden Smith popping out from beneath the stage (with copious shots of Will and Jada smiling smugly in the audience like they were at the world’s most prestigious school Christmas pageant), and the weird spoken-word intro with Usher. But when it was just Bieber, I thought he sounded really good. I think I like his voice more now that it has deepened.
- I was definitely the most excited for the Avett Brothers/Mumford & Sons/Bob Dylan performance. The transitions between songs were a bit awkward, but individually, they were really strong. Once Mumford & Sons got into the last half of “The Cave”, it was really powerful. The Avett Brothers were a bit more low-key, but great, as usual. And the finale sing-a-long of “Maggie’s Farm” was great.
- Was it really necessary to have Gwyneth Paltrow and The Muppets join Cee-Lo for “The Song Otherwise Known as ‘Forget You’”? Not really. Cee-Lo sounded fantastic on his own. But Paltrow offered some really impressive vocal moments, so I really didn’t mind it.
- I LOVED Norah Jones, John Mayer, and Keith Urban’s stripped down version of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”. It had an intimate, impromptu vibe to it that was totally different from the rest of the show’s “bigger is better” ideology. I respect all three artists individually (though I don’t really actively seek out their music), and together it was kind of magical. Mayer and Urban are really fantastic guitarists, and Jones and Urban both sang really well (didn’t think Mayer’s vocals were as strong).
- My biggest knowledge gap in current music is probably with rap music. It’s not that I don’t like it, I’m just not…drawn to it, I guess? But by my judgement, Eminem KILLED it in his performance with Rihanna, Dr. Dre, and Skylar Grey. Everyone sounded good, but Eminem sang with the kind of conviction that reaches through the television, grabs you, and makes you listen. It was beyond performing. While other artists prance around the stage or dodge ninjas (I said I liked Biebs’ performance, but that was a bit much), Eminem is just living in his music.
- The Katy Perry/Russell Brand wedding album? No, thanks. Her performance was fine, but forgettable.
- Mick Jagger is amazing. The dude is ancient, and he didn’t even look winded after his high-energy take on Soloman Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love”.
- Arcade Fire are also amazing. “Month of May” was great, but their post-win performance of “Ready to Start” was something really special.
- ARCADE FIRE. YES. YES YES YES.
- It’s sappy and all, but I do like Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now”. Them winning Song of the Year was acceptable (given the nominees), but I didn’t really need to see them up there three times, to be honest.
- I’m glad Eminem won Rap Album of the Year. He’s had an impressive comeback, considering that a lot of people thought that he was out of the game. I went through a phase when I was twelve when I sort of got into his music, thinking that I was a badass, so it’s cool to follow his career since then. And even though he may be incapable of smiling, I liked his speech. I thought it was gracious of him to thank Rihanna, because (as he acknowledged) her chorus on “Love the Way You Lie” definitely helped boost his recent popularity.
- Muse winning Rock Album of the Year? Bleh.
Warning: People who do not like Neon Bible will probably not like this list. But it happens to be my favourite Arcade Fire album so…
- Wake Up
- (Antichrist Television Blues)
- Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)
- We Used to Wait
- Keep the Car Running
- Deep Blue
- My Body is a Cage
- Ready to Start
(You can watch “The Suburbs” video embedded above, or head over to Arcade Fire’s website to watch a better quality version.)
…I think that the music video for Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” will become a classic.
I know that it’s hard for music videos to achieve the ubiquity that they used to. MTV doesn’t play music anymore, and I recently discovered that Much Music is now playing videos in ADD-friendly one minute snippets (seriously!). But this thing is just too good.
It’s directed by my boy Spike Jonze, and it’s a fantastic addition to his catalogue. Throughout the 90′s Jonze was a prominent music video director, most famous for clips such as the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” and Weezers “Buddy Holly“. He broke into feature films with 1999′s Being John Malkovich (which earned him a Best Director Oscar nomination) and has since directed 2002′s Adaptation. and 2009′s Where the Wild Things Are.
Although he’s still been directing music videos, his output decreased in the past decade. Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice“, Phantom Planet’s “Big Brat“, and Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights” all serve as highlights of his post-Malkovich career. However, I think he’s outdone himself here.
It’s crazy to me that such a cryptic video can make me feel so many things. There are so many unanswered questions. There were rumours earlier this year that Jonze was working with the band on a sci-fi short film, which could potentially expand on this video (or could BE this video). But in a way, I think I’d prefer to let it stand on its own.
It starts off with your standard directionless youth getting into hijinks. It’s a music video staple, but it works so much more effectively when Jonze is behind the camera. He always imbues his films with an airy tinge of nostalgia. The images of faceless suburbs and bored kids immediately took me back to my own childhood.
But then things start to get strange. The military is in town, one of the kids gets a haircut, and the whole friendship crumbles. Even though it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, I felt the urgency, and I held my breath for much of the video’s second half. I think it says a lot about our current society, and everything that it means to grow up. I’ve heard others make the comparison, but “The Suburbs” feels like this fucked up generation’s version of the “1979” music video from fourteen years ago.
Combined with Where the Wild Things Are and Jonze’s excellent short film from earlier this year, I’m Here, Jonze seems to be taking a more melancholic approach to his filmmaking recently. All three pieces explore the loss of innocence and the desire to connect, and he does it with a fine balance of optimism and restlessness. I’d even go as far to say that Jonze is putting out his best work yet.
Here’s the second and final part of my “Best Albums of the Decade” list. Be sure to check out part one, which covered numbers 20-11. Feel free to let me know what you think of my list in the comments. Of course, this is all just my opinion, so let me know which albums from this decade struck a chord with you!
10. Amnesiac – Radiohead (2001)
I can see the merit of Kid A. I just don’t find it to be that enjoyable of an album to listen to. And while Kid A and Amnesiac are often lumped together, I see them as totally separate albums. Amnesiac has some typically lovely Radiohead songs, like “The Pyramid Song”. You can also find one of the most debauched, oddly raucous songs in Thom Yorke’s catalogue here – the jazzy “Life in a Glasshouse”. I may be one of those annoying “common” Radiohead fans that love The Bends and OK Computer more than anything from this decade, but Amnesiac is by far the best of their less accessible albums, in my opinion.
9. For Emma, Forever Ago – Bon Iver (2008)
I don’t want to overstate the importance of Bon Iver’s (aka Justin Vernon’s) debut, but this is an album that I could see becoming something of a classic, over time. The back story is top-notch, as are all of the songs on here. “Skinny Love” is a phenomenal song, and “Re: Stacks”, “Creature Fear” and “Flume” all rotate as my second favourite song on the album. Justin Vernon followed For Emma up with his Blood Bank EP, and if these two releases are any indication, I’m definitely excited to see where his music is headed. Maybe all of the praise is premature, but even if he can never recreate the magic of this album again, at least we have this one.
8. Rockin’ the Suburbs – Ben Folds (2001)
Ben Folds Five is a band that is quintessentially 90′s. Snappy, piano-driven hits like “Kate” (which was on my Sabrina the Teenage Witch soundtrack) and “Brick” seem like nostalgic fun now. So perhaps it makes sense that Ben Folds would go it alone for the new millennium. Rockin’ the Suburbs still has the upbeat, vaguely gimmicky vibe that his music has always had, yet it also feels very honest. It’s power-pop at its best. “Zak and Sara” and “Rockin’ the Suburbs” are tons of fun, while “Gone” is just a plain fantastic tune. Ben Folds is fairly popular, but I still don’t think he gets enough serious credit as a songwriter.
7. I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning – Bright Eyes (2005)
Perhaps what I like best about Conor Oberst’s music is that he isn’t afraid to be earnest. His lyrics (while sometimes seeming contrived) are just ambiguous enough to be open for interpretation, but they are also distinct in their sentiment. And I don’t think he’s ever got that emotional-fuck-up sentiment as right as he did on I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. He celebrates drugs, women, and making noise, but there’s a naiveté to his tales of rebirth and fresh starts that keep it all relatable and grounded. He might not be the “New Dylan”, but Oberst knows how to pull on people’s heart strings in precisely the right way.
6. Chutes Too Narrow – The Shins (2003)
The Shins hit it big with Oh, Inverted World, but I like their 2003 follow-up slightly better. Chutes Too Narrow is generally far more upbeat, and it suits James Mercer’s off-kilter, yelpy voice really well. “So Says I” is my favourite Shins song, and the rest of the album is an easily digestible, fun set of songs. I know that they’ve supposedly changed the lives of indie kids everywhere, but can’t people just enjoy the Shins for what they are – a really good pop band that writes fantastic pop songs – and stop with all the overstatements?
5. Close to Paradise – Patrick Watson (2006)
I’m always eager to support Canadian music, and even though not as much of it ended up on this list as I had originally hoped, I am incredibly proud to place Patrick Watson’s debut album in my #5 spot. Close to Paradise has slowly been growing on me since its release, and I’m now just about convinced that it’s a perfect album. Every song is lovely, and they all work together to create a fantastic atmosphere. From the piano-driven hymn “The Great Escape” to the slightly raucous “Drifters”, Watson always uses the precise emotion in his voice to convey his ideas. (Side note: if you haven’t already, be sure to check out Patrick Watson’s work with The Cinematic Orchestra on “To Build a Home“)
4. White Blood Cells – The White Stripes (2001)
Jack White is undoubtedly one of the hardest working musicians of the past ten years. People often whine about how rock stars are a dying breed, but this guy is singlehandedly keeping them alive. The White Stripes burst into the mainstream in 2001 with their third album, White Blood Cells. It’s an eclectic collection that even tosses in some country (“Hotel Yorba”), but even though the Stripes hadn’t entirely honed in on their blues-rock niche yet, this album is far from unfocussed. It’s obvious that Jack White knows exactly what he’s doing at all times, and it makes for a nice transition between their scrappier early work, and their more refined albums that would follow.
3. Boxer – The National (2007)
This Brooklyn band has steadily been releasing great albums throughout the decade – it just took people (including myself) a little while to catch on. They earned massive critical acclaim for 2007′s Boxer, which was actually their 4th release of the decade. Boxer is home to a slew of fantastic songs, such as the timely, brooding “Fake Empire”. Matt Berninger’s voice has such wonderful feeling of melancholy in it, and The National extend that feeling throughout the record. I find new things to love about this album every time that I listen to it, and I think that this is an album that I will be listening to regularly for years to come.
2. Neon Bible – Arcade Fire (2007)
2004′s Funeral may have been the album that caught most people’s attention, but Arcade Fire’s follow-up, Neon Bible, was the one that caught my attention. The album sticks with the band’s signature grand arrangements, but also makes the songs feel more personal. There’s a desperation here that I like. Not to be morbid, but I like the anger, frustration, and near hopelessness that seems to run through this album. I think the grandness of Arcade Fire’s sound (not to mention the power of Win Butler’s voice) is much better suited to this kind of fare. I don’t know that it’s meant to be a concept album, but I feel like this album takes us through the course of a person’s life. Every song evokes a different feeling, yet they all work together perfectly to create a beautiful statement about what it means to be alive.
1. Heartbreaker – Ryan Adams (2000)
Leave it to Ryan Adams to out-brood everyone else on this list just by opening his mouth. Even when he’s singing an upbeat song, he still sounds miserable as hell. Heartbreaker, his debut solo album (his original band, Whiskeytown, imploded around the turn of the millennium) is one of his twangiest to date, but it’s also his most consistent, by far. Every song here is great, and integral to the over feeling of the album. The raw energy of Adams’ voice on songs like “Shakedown on 9th Street” and “To Be Young” contrast nicely with the wistfulness of “Come Pick Me Up”, and it all comes together to paint a portrait of a complicated man. Heartbreaker goes far beyond your typical “break-up album”, emotionally.
Thanks to downloadable singles and ringtones, the average human attention span can’t seem to handle sitting down and listening to twelve tracks by the same artist anymore. This is a shame, since many fantastic albums save some of their best songs for last. It’s that final song that ties together all of the other tracks you’ve just heard, and leaves you with a great lasting impression of the album. Here are ten songs that appear last on their respective album’s tracklisting, and make it worthwhile to sit and listen to the whole thing.
1. “Gouge Away” by the Pixies
From the 1989 album Doolittle
Doolittle is an album full of fantastic spiky, biting pop songs, and “Gouge Away” best exemplifies the Pixies’ oft-copied soft/loud dynamics.
2. “Here Comes a Regular” by The Replacements
From the 1985 album Tim
Paul Westerberg was a far better songwriter than songs like “Gary’s Got a Boner” would suggest, and this introverted, quietly heartbreaking ballad is the perfect ending to The Replacement’s most accessible work, Tim.
3. “All Apologies” by Nirvana
From the 1993 album In Utero
“All Apologies” perhaps suggests that, after the antithetical battle of style that was In Utero, Kurt Cobain’s songwriting was taking a turn for the melodic. We’ll never know what would have followed, but this beautiful song is a great note for Nirvana’s career to end on.
4. “Mr. November” by The National
From the 2005 Album Alligator
Though their breakthrough came in 2007, The National’s Alligator is a fantastic, moody collection of songs. I love “Mr. November” because it’s so visceral, and it rocks surprisingly hard. It’s definitely a highlight on an all-around fantastic album.
5. “Tomorrow Never Knows” by The Beatles
From the 1966 album Revolver
Many would call “A Day in the Life” (off 1967′s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) the best album closer of all time, but I’ve never understood the fuss. This surreal track ties the middle-Eastern influence and experimentation of Revolver together perfectly.
6. “My Body is a Cage” by Arcade Fire
From the 2007 album Neon Bible
It’s eerie, depressing, and understated, but after all of the emotional purging that can be found the other tracks of Neon Bible, nothing else would seem right.
7. “Gold Dust Woman” by Fleetwood Mac
From the 1977 album Rumours
This Stevie Nicks-helmed song captures some of the obvious emotional turmoil that went along with the recording of Rumours, and it’s one of the best songs on this hit-packed album.
8. “Dinner at Eight” by Rufus Wainwright
From the 2003 album Want One
Rufus Wainwright is a great storyteller in his songs, and this piano-driven tale of domestic disconnect is a fitting way to end an all-around grand album.
9. “Dream Brother” by Jeff Buckley
From the 1994 album Grace
A lot of artists like to end their albums with slow songs, but this Jeff Buckley ballad feels like a very natural ending. The melancholic tone suits the rest of the album, and there is a certain finality to “Dream Brother” that is oddly satisfying.
10. “Rock Star” by Hole
From the 1994 album Live Through This
This is one of the few upbeat tracks on my list. Courtney Love may have become a sad joke, but her band’s 1994 sophomore album was pretty fantastic. This catchy, satirical look at her homogonous hometown of Olympia, Washington is unexpected, but very welcome.
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.