Archive for December, 2009

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2009: 15 of the Best. #1…

December 18, 2009

#1 – Ian Brown – Stellify

From: My Way
Released: September 28, 2009
Label: Polydor
Buy it: Here.

As a self-admitted John Squire apologist (and major fan), it kind of feels a bit odd to give Ian Brown top props for the year. But here’s the thing, I have to argue with pretty much everybody to make my points about John Squire’s better moments on his two solo albums. With Ian’s music, I don’t have to argue with anyone. I returned home in November to find my parents dig it (is it cool to admit that? Or is that a strike against it? Whatever, I think it proves the point). It’s not to say King Monkey’s brilliant through and through — indeed My Way as a whole is as uneven as any of his post-Stone Roses work, but the thing about an Ian Brown album is that you’re always guaranteed one or two tracks that are going to knock it far, far, far out of the park. “Stellify” is easily the top choice here (although “Just Like You” provides stiff competition) — it’s the best hook you’ll hear this year, it’s the coolest love song of the last few years and the fact that it was written for (but never recorded by) Rihanna is both her loss and indie music fans’ incredible gain. Brown said it’s the first pure, direct love song he ever wrote (er… “Love Like a Fountain”?), but if this is the result when he uncovers a romantic flare and stops pontificating on arming space, evolution, religion, war and politics (OK, OK, I do love “My Star,” “Dolphins Were Monkeys” and “The Feeding of 5000”), he proves to be just as affecting. Horns have seldom sounded so celebratory as they do at the 2:40 mark, you find yourself singing along before the song ends, of if not that, then certainly shadow boxing. I will still be one of the first to buy John Squire’s next album if he ever puts down his paintbrushes again, but I’m not going to take sides anymore. Ian Brown’s just too fantastically enjoyable. And the fact that he can put out a song like this TWENTY years after the album he’s most celebrated for… how can you not root for the guy?

As is tradition with the #1 song, here’s the video. It’s one of the better videos of the year too, although I don’t at all dig the fact they cut the song down tremendously for it.

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2009: 15 of the Best. #2…

December 17, 2009

#2 – The Bird and the Bee – Ray Gun

From: Ray Guns are Not Just the Future
Released: January 27, 2009
Label: Blue Note
Buy it: Here.

It may not contain the best song of the year, but there is no doubt in my mind that Ray Guns are Not Just the Future is far and away the best album of the year. Despite some tepid reviews (including a ridiculously dismissive one from those chuckleheads at “Rolling Stone”), few albums worked as cohesively as this one. Greg Kurstin and Inara George are not only fabulous songwriters and arrangers, but George’s voice is one of the finest in music at the moment and is used to deliriously wonderful effect throughout the album. Although it’s hard to pick a favorite track on the record (“My Love”? “Diamond Dave”? “Love Letter to Japan”? “Polite Dance Song”? “You’re a Cad”?), I have to go with “Ray Gun” for all of its melodramatic beauty. Never mind the precious little melody at the core of the song — the way the song adds multiple melodic layers (e.g. “Will someone come and save my life…” and “I want a life, I’m caught under the weight of all my life…”) recalls the adventures Brian Wilson explored in his prime. Add to all this the fact that the song’s lyrics just illustrate a hushed optimism and it becomes almost too much. Few songs manage to stun listeners the way this one does, and that’s to be commended in that it stands wonderfully on its own, but works even more effectively in the context of the entire LP.¬†“What are we to do, where are we to go with all this beauty stretching out behind us?” George asks. Rhetorical question… right?

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2009: 15 of the Best. #3…

December 16, 2009

#3 – Madeleine Peyroux – You Can’t Do Me

From: Bare Bones
Released: March 10, 2009
Label: Rounder/Universal
Buy it: Here.

I’ve noticed that one of the first complaints anyone ever has about an album they don’t like is “It sounds like the last one.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard or read that about a Madeleine Peyroux album, despite the fact that Bare Bones sounds a lot like Half the Perfect World, which, in itself, sounded a lot like Careless Love. From this, we can either deduce that that criticism is the epitome of lazy dismissal, or — and this is probably the truth — if you’re really f*cking good at what you do, then there’s no godly reason to change things up. It’s been a few years now since Madeleine decided to up and disappear to France for awhile, but she’s still getting a lot of coolness credo from everyone who listens, despite the fact that her music seems tailor-made for Starbucks compilations (and other artists catch a lot of crap for doing this style). She’s an enigma, to be sure, but a damn enjoyable one at that. “You Can’t Do Me” is the runaway favorite on Bare Bones — co-written with Steely Dan axe/bass-man Walter Becker, and dripping with all his trademark smartassedness. The song contains 27 similes, all of which sound awesome and are unbelievably clever. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite — there’s something very sexy about Peyroux singing “screwed like a high school cheerleader,” something very funny about Peyroux singing, “blanked like a last place also-ran,” something very sweet about Peyroux singing “cartooned like a Charlie Brown Christmas card,” and something very cool about Peyroux singing “juked like a payola chart-topper.” And that’s not even mentioning the tips of the hat to Alabama ‘baccy-wads, Arkansas griddlecakes, Mississippi sharecroppers, milk money bullywhips, teenage downloaders, bulls in china shops, little league ball swatters and bottled-up border crossers. I have don’t even have to insert the word “arguably” here — this is the greatest use of similes ever in popular music.

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2009: 15 of the Best. #4…

December 15, 2009

#4 – Franz Ferdinand – Twilight Omens

From: Tonight: Franz Ferdinand
Released: January 26, 2009
Label: Domino
Buy it: Here.

I read all the reviews for Tonight: Franz Ferdinand, and apparently the album marked a bold new direction for the band, but if that’s the case, it was entirely lost on me. Bold and surefooted, absolutely, but I didn’t see much difference in this year’s model from their previous two efforts (and I’m sick of people writing off You Could Have it So Much Better these days — while it’s not their finest album, it’s also a lot better than most bands’ finest). The fact of the matter is that Tonight is bolstered by songs that make everyone want to groove — seriously, next time you get the chance, take in a Franz concert and look at the myriad of people in the audience. Both “Ulysses” and “No You Girls” were excellent singles and reaffirmation that the band hadn’t lost it’s spark, but it’s the oft-looked over “Twilight Omens” that provides the album’s finest moment. Besides the Herculean task of making multiple cruddy synths sound quite wonderful, Alex Kapranos still manages to go down lyrical roads than several before him have, and makes them his own. How many songs are out there about listening to the radio and thinking about an ex? I’m sure you can rattle off four to eight right away. But how many of them contain a lyric like “I typed your number into my calculator where it spelled a dirty word when you turned it upside down, you can turn my dirty world the right way round”? None. Eternal kudos for that and the fact that people get the same giggle I did in junior high after punching 58,008 into a calculator.

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2009: 15 of the Best. #5…

December 14, 2009

#5 – Arctic Monkeys – Cornerstone

From: Humbug
Released: August 19, 2009
Label: Domino/Warner Bros./EMI
Buy it: Here.

Alex Turner keeps his streak alive for this blog’s “15 of the Best” series — all four years I’ve done this series, he’s had a composition included, either as an Arctic Monkey or a Last Shadow Puppet. I freely admit that I was terribly wary of the hype surrounding him and the band in 2006, but I’ve been consistently proved wrong. If their albums aren’t as consistent as some of us may like, their prolificacy is to be commended, and the fact that they always have a surefire winner on each record (if not most singles’ B-sides) is also pretty remarkable. I think the consensus for most is that while Humbug is a bit uneven and maybe underwhelming, “Cornerstone” might be the band’s finest 3:18 yet. It’s the kind of song that once upon a time gave Morrissey’s solo career a bit of majesty (see: Vauxhall and I-era), but Turner doesn’t cloud his feelings with tough-to-pin references or flirtations with trying to be too clever — he just says at is. Who amongst us hasn’t pursued someone based simply on a more-than-passing resemblance to a crush or ex? So as the song’s narrator veers from bar to bar trying to find the ideal doppelganger if not the muse herself, it’s almost poetic justice (or a really great metaphoric middle finger) that he ends up with her sister. But every stop in between — including the elongated taxi ride home — just drips with the most regal heartache you’ve ever heard.

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2009: 15 of the Best. #6…

December 11, 2009

#6 – 7 Worlds Collide – Too Blue

From: The Sun Came Out
Released: September 29, 2009
Label: Columbia/EMI
Buy it: Here.

If there’s one thing Neil Finn is really good at being (well, besides a songwriter), it has to be a ringmaster. The original 7 Worlds Collide concerts in New Zealand in 2001 pulled together an amazing group of musicians (including Johnny Marr, Ed O’Brien, Phil Selway, Eddie Vedder, Sebastian Steinberg and Lisa Germano), resulted in one of the best live albums ever and proved to be such fun for everyone that Neil decided to invite pretty much everyone (and more) back for a Christmas holiday last year. This time the lineup was expanded to include the likes of Bic Runga, Jeff Tweedy, Glenn Kotche, KT Tunstall, John Stirrat and more. With everyone contributing their own songs, the result was a massive double album that was recorded in two weeks and used to raise money for Oxfam charities. The album has plenty of cool moments, but in a way it blows its coolness load in the opener — Johnny Marr’s majestic “Too Blue,” which he co-wrote with Jeff Tweedy. Tweedy doesn’t figure on the recording, which is a bit of a shame, but it’s nice in that the vocals are left to a Johnny Marr and Neil Finn one-two punch, and it’s quite incredible how well their voices work together. The lyrics carry a bit of Tweedy’s bite, but the majestic musical backdrop is trademark Marr and when the man takes to vocals for himself at the 2:06 mark, I think it’s as good an argument as any for another Healers record. Sure, he’s keeping busy with the Cribs when he’s not doing Modest Mouse business, and more power to him for continually stoking new creative fires, but the guy can be a legitimate frontman in his own right. And for my money, of every track released this year that Marr was a part of, this is far and away the best.

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2009: 15 of the Best. #7…

December 10, 2009

#7 – Rhett Miller – Like Love

From: Rhett Miller
Released: June 9, 2009
Label: Shout! Factory
Buy it: Here.

Rhett’s third “proper” solo album (look, I’m as much of a completist as the next guy, but must we seriously keep counting Mythologies when his promo tour consisted of local access TV?) is a formidable set of songs — certainly a step up from 2006’s hit-and-miss The Believer, and the fact that it came on the back of last year’s Old 97’s record Blame it on Gravity — arguably their best work of the decade — probably raised the bar for his solo work a bit. Rhett Miller isn’t a slam dunk from top to bottom — the latter half of the record gets a tad bogged down in sleepy acoustic laments. It’s not that Rhett can’t write a pretty little song to make girls swoon, but when you got people like Jon Brion or Apples in Stereo drummer John Dufihlo, you know — for Christ’s sake, use ’em! “Like Love” is a good example of the kind of energy a decent studio band can provide. This song certainly could’ve been a lovely little acoustic strumalong, but put a punchy little drumbeat and bassline under it with a healthy hit of harmonies on the chorus and voila — one of the best songs of the year. For some reason, a lyric like “The boy that I still am tells a joke, the new girl of my dreams doesn’t even think to laugh” is something I think only Rhett could get away with writing, and I’m not quite sure why. But it’s a brilliant line and the from the gut energy he lets go on the song’s refrain is also pretty fabulous. Here’s hoping the bar stays raised for the new Old 97’s album that should be released next year.