Thursday, January 21, 2010

Best of 2009:The Top 10

10. Twilight Sad – Forget The Night Ahead

I call music like this “open wound”. The heaviness and emotion are so dense and hard, yet it’s melodic and exquisitely beautiful. Imagine densely powerful alternative pop bands like The Cure or Interpol, but with Billy Bragg, or someone else with a thick Scottish brogue, as the lead singer. Two components that don’t seem like they should go together, yet they do and it makes for something new and special. Proof that something can be both dark and beautiful. Hopefully, you already knew that.

Best Track: "I Became a Prostitute"

9. Jack Penate – Everything Is New

This one is a lot of fun. First bonus, it’s only nine tracks long so it’s over before it wears out its welcome. Second bonus, each song has a heavy influence of world music as if he traveled the world and brought back these knick-knacks. Third bonus, it’s all set to some excellent beats. I’ve heard several people compare him to Lily Allen, but I don’t see that. Maybe they both write pop music with a wider world-view, but she’s totally pop. Jack appears to be an artist. Maybe if he was a hot, drugged out girl that’s always running around naked, the comparison would be more obvious.

Best Track: "Everything Is New"

8. The xx – xx

Definitely the most hyped band of the year and the latest in that ongoing assembly line of bands getting enormous in the UK and then attempting to keep the momentum going in the States. It’s a couple of young ‘uns, a boy and a girl, with only a guitar, bass, and a drum machine, but the sounds they create are intense. It sounds like the hushed, minimal guitar strums of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” with some chilled out, bubbling beats. The voices are sly and sexy, but seemingly by accident, like they’re too shy to really belt it out, yet that’s what makes it magical. So simple, but so incredible. Believe the hype!

Best Track: "Infinity"

7. The Temper Trap – Conditions

Probably the safest bet of the year. It’s the best album for the most amount of people because it has multi-quadrant appeal. In other words, they sound the most like Coldplay. I mean all of these things as complements. It’s rare that rock music is done right, AND presents something slightly on the edge. It’s comfortable in a way that the best music should be. I predict big things from them.

Best Track: "Sweet Disposition"

6. Passion Pit – Manners

Another example of the domination of excellent synth pop in 2009. Passion Pit started out as one guy who made some songs for his girlfriend and then posted them on MySpace which led to a record deal. Isn’t that basically the success story template of the new millennium? The beauty of Passion Pit is the sense of soul at the heart of the electronics. That’s difficult to pull off without working really hard at it and it appears to come naturally to them. Plus, his voice hints at some boiling chaos just beneath the surface, which is exciting and keeps you wondering if/when he’s going to blow.

Best Track: "Little Secrets"

5. One eskimO – One eskimO

I’m leery whenever I read that a band is really a single artist on a creative binge, because it’s usually some indulgent nonsense that only sounds good to him (or maybe I’m still scarred by Primitive Radio Gods). In this case, it’s some guy I’ve never heard of named Kristian Leontiou. That being said, this is some rich, full pop music that goes down really easy. It’s largely acoustic with some nice beats percolating under the surface and one of those vibrant blue-eyed soul voices.

Best Track: "Kandi"

4. Friendly Fires – Friendly Fires

I lucked out on this one, as it’s technically a reissue. Originally released in 2007, these French dance club maestros showed a ton of promise with their version of what LCD Soundsystem do so well. In other words, dance music with instruments. In 2009, the single “Kiss Of Life” completely knocked me out with its martial African drums and yell along chorus. It made a splash, which lead to the album being rereleased with the song attached (it isn’t included on the original). The rest of the album is just as good.

Best Track: "Kiss Of Life"

3. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest

Probably the most challenging and least conventional album on the list. These guys create a beautiful racket that sounds strangely like the Beach Boys mixed with Wilco wrapped in a heavy gauze that’s been stained by the sun. When it works, as it does on about 8 of these 12 tracks, it’s intensely powerful and mightily expansive. When it doesn’t, it can make for some forgettable white noise. Luckily, the highs don’t just transcend you, they transcend what you understood music could be and sound like. It’ll stretch your mind and you’ll like it.

Best Track: "Two Weeks"

2. Glasvegas – Glasvegas

Another reissue. What often happens is come January, record companies will throw marketing dollars at the smaller artists on their roster that weren’t priorities during the high traffic shopping seasons. This is what happened to Glasvegas, so their debut also got a rerelease with a bonus track or two. They deserve the attention because it’s gorgeous. Maybe it does sound sort of trendy, the whole early U2/Interpol/Big Country thing with the ringing guitars and melodies to fight a war to. Who cares? Just add them to your list of favorite things that make your life better. That list can never be long enough.

Best Track: "Geraldine"

1. Owl City – Ocean Eyes
Most people hate this guy. Well, not most people, he did have one of the biggest hits of the year from out of nowhere. But, purists will tell you that he sounds too much like the Postal Service and, since Ben Gibbard and all he produces is sacred ground, Owl City is to be sentenced to death by firing squad. I don’t get this. The best true “pop” music is all about improving on a template. Postal Service is great, but they always left me a little cold. Owl City has much more heart and the tunes sound fuller and warmer.

This was a rough year for a lot of people, me included. We all just want to feel better. As a music lover, I can appreciate being challenged (hence Grizzly Bear), but not right now. Not during these times. I just want my outlook brightened and my heart lightened. Owl City provided that for me. I am choosing not to be negative about him. There’s enough of that filling up the rest of my day.

Best Track: "Fireflies"

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Best Albums of 2009: 20-11

20. Fanfarlo – Reservoir

A fun little band of gypsies. The songs are as strong and poppy as anything Coldplay would come up with. But these guys throw on the brass, the accordions, the violins, etc. It ends up sounding like a Russian hoe-down. After their excellent contributions to the "Little Miss Sunshine" soundtrack, kindred spirits DeVotchka’s profile was raised, but they should have been bigger. Hopefully, Fanfarlo, who sound very similar, can make that breakthrough.

Best Track: "The Walls Are Coming Down"

19. Kiss – Sonic Boom

Everything you want from a Kiss album. Sure, it’s absolutely riddled with clichés, but when you figure Kiss basically invented those clichés, it’s really just them doing what they do best. It’s crass and lunkheaded and misogynistic and all the rest of the stuff they’re constantly accused of. And, that’s why we love them.

Best Track: "Modern Day Delilah"

18. Pet Shop Boys – Yes

If you really think about it, it’s baffling how consistent the Boys are. They’ve been at it for 25 years and have never released a bad album. In fact, there may not even be a bad song. Now, when you follow a template as meticulously as they do, it may be hard to screw up. It’s not like they take a lot of chances. But, it is an enviable skill to be so good at something that you consistently do it well year after year.

Best Track: "All Over The World"

17. Gomez – A New Tide

As these guys have stripped a lot of the cool little tricks they lathered on top of their earlier albums, the songwriting has gotten stronger and stronger and they’ve actually become a much better band, even if they sound less unique. In the beginning, their genius blend of blues and techno was unlike anything anyone else was doing at the time. Still is. But now their sound is richer and the songs are deeper. The gimmicks are largely gone, but the maturity is, arguably, more interesting.

Best Track: "Win Park Slope"

16. Metric – Fantasies

Another example of a band that found the groove among the gimmicks. Canadian band, Metric came up during that time in the early 00’s when groups were merging indie rock with 80s style and synths. Metric were catchy, but lacked much heft. It was pretty noodly in that 80s pong kind of way. Fantasies is them honing those skills into a set of tracks that could almost be described as meat and potatoes alternative rock. Every song is good. Every song is catchy. Never do they sound simple or amateurish. Solid.

Best Track: "Help, I'm Alive"

15. Bob Mould – Life and Times

The guitar God plays it straight. A few years ago, Bob decided he was hanging up his axe for good and turning to turn-tables full time. His fans revolted in droves. Noticing that when you’re one of the world’s greatest guitarists the public would rather you not release dance music, Bob has been melding the two sounds successfully since he returned to form. Of his albums since the comeback, Life and Times rocks the most and will most likely remind you of his excellent work with his power-pop band Sugar.

Best Track: "City Lights (Days Go By)"

14. Simple Minds – Graffitti Soul

Another example of a once world-dominating band from another era that’s releasing consistently strong stuff. It pains me when I realize that one of my all-time favorite bands continues to release music every couple years (admittedly with spotty results) and that music isn’t available for purchase in the United States. Simple Minds have one of the biggest hit singles of all time (“Don’t You Forget About Me”) and was one of the most important and adventurous bands of the 80s, and yet they can’t seem to secure an American record deal. Boggles my mind. The new album is good. They deserve more.

Best Track: "Moscow Underground"

13. Raveonettes – In and Out of Control

They finally get the mixture right. After years and years of combining Buddy Holly pop simplicity with a Jesus and Mary Chain sonic backdrop, the Raveonettes have produced an album of fluid consistency. They’ve always been able to write a few excellent songs. Now, they have an excellent album. Strange how catchy songs about suicide, drugs, and rape can be. Hope they can keep it going.

Best Track: "Bang!"

12. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz

It shouldn’t work. One of the most innovative sludgey-guitar-based bands of the last decade decides they want to focus on the synthesizers. In keeping with a recurring theme on this list, it made for one of their most consistent albums. Their first album with that epic hit “Maps” was a smash, so expectations were high for what they’d come back with. Doubt anyone expected this. The nutty thing is, this album’s better than the first. This is the year for techno-pop and who would have guessed that these guys would be leaders of that charge.

Best Track: "Zero"

11. Mando Diao – Get Me Fire

Mando Diao released one of the best albums of the last decade with their 2003 debut, “Bring ‘Em In” which is also one of the greatest garage rock masterpieces of all-time. Since then, they’ve spit out about an album a year and each one seems to be them taking on a more successful band’s persona whether it be Oasis or Kaiser Chiefs or Stereophonics. None of them were as good as them just being themselves. "Give Me Fire" is the first time since 2003 that they’ve sounded like they should. Hope they can keep it going.

Best Track: "Blue Lining, White Trenchcoat"

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Top 10 Movies of 2009

10. Anvil! The Story of Anvil
Rock and Roll dreams come through! The band of Canadian knuckleheads had the chops to make it in the 80s hair metal scene, but never managed to make it click. They sunk further and further into obscurity while they watched their fellow cohorts go multi-platinum. After 20 years of wondering what happened, and struggling to hold down regular jobs while still putting on shows that only a handful of people even attend, the spotlight is finally shown on them. The film stands as an emblem of the power of redemption and shows that sometimes karma smiles.

9. State of Play
A rare thing: excellent entertainment for adults. Hollywood continues to dumb us down by either sensory overload or trite formulaic story lines. The interesting stories usually have to be found in the indie films. Not this time. It doesn’t hurt that I’m a sucker for movies about journalism and politics. Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck are so good they may cause you to like them again. Granted, the movie indulges one twist ending too many, wish they would have stopped when they were ahead, but I’ll forgive it since the rest was so satisfying. It’s the perfect thing to watch when the kids have gone to bed and you’re dying for some grown up time.

8. I Love You, Man
The funniest movie of the year (hear that, Hangover?). Paul Rudd has ascended to that rarefied air where you’ll line up for just about anything he’s in. And Jason Segal is proving himself to have a similar cache. Today’s man is sensitive. He’s in touch with his feelings and his needs. This evolution calls for a bro-mantic comedy and I Love You, Man fits the bill perfectly. Easily the best odd couple since Oscar and Felix.

7. Funny People
This one took me by surprise. Judd Apatow was beginning to reach that perch in his career where you’d prefer to see him fail rather than continue to succeed (Coldplay is another good example). Just when you’re ready to write him off and think it’s safe to condemn his new “dramedy” (speaking of men “evolving”) before even seeing it, something unexpected happens. He throws something at you that’s half Apatow, half Ingmar Bergman. Funny People feels more like a foreign film for the leisurely pace and high dramatic content, and, yet, it’s OK. In fact, it’s better than OK. I’m sure it was exactly this mix that doomed it at the box office, which is a shame. Just hook up to it and let it take you on a journey. It’s a surprisingly good one.

6. Sugar
Speaking of being surprised, wait til you see Sugar. It’s the story of a minor league baseball player from the Dominican Republic and the culture clashes he’s forced to acclimate to while playing ball in small-town America. A sports movie, but not really, it’s one of the rare films that tells a story you didn’t know, but assumed you did, and then learn you had no idea about. The hidden gem of the year.

5. Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Anderson’s films had begun to rub the wrong way. They were like one big pregnant pause without a payoff. Who would have thought that his best film by a mile would be an animated one. But, it actually makes sense. Go back and watch his other films and they’re practically animated as they are. It was a stroke of genius to go old school with Rankin-Bass looking puppets. Never having read Roald Dahl’s original book, I have no idea how close it is to the original story, but I wouldn’t call this a “kid’s movie” by any stretch. They’ll probably think it looks really cool, but not understand the subtext of the little guy fighting off the boss man. I can’t wait to show it to my kids when they’re old enough to sit through an entire movie.

4. Up In The Air
Michael Jordan was born to play basketball. Michael Jackson was born to entertain. And George Clooney was born to be a movie star. These people couldn’t possibly be anything but exactly what they are and we’re lucky to have them enrich our lives (even if we are blind with jealousy). No movie has captured George at the top of his natural powers until this one. It’s the Network or Wall Street or All The President’s Men of its time. In 50 years people will want to know what life was like at the turn of the millennium and that curiosity should lead them right here.

3. Food Inc.
The documentary of the year and, hopefully, the film that changes the way you live and think about life. Not only is it dispiriting to learn about the ugly politics behind the food and goods we buy from our local grocery story, it’s a sobering reminder of how difficult it always seems to be to do the right thing in this country. The system’s corrupt, from how the food we eat is made, to who gets to provide it and who doesn’t (tip: the money makes the rules). Food is a hot topic now in this country and deservedly so. Inform yourself and start here. It’s essential.

2. The Informant!
I’ve heard a lot of gripes about this film because it doesn’t stack up to the book. Well, I never read the book so I have no problem saying it’s one of the best movies of the year. Matt Damon is hilarious (who knew?) as an unstable corporate whistleblower who’s really in it for himself. Another excellent film for adults with brains. Both horrifying and hilarious, the tone keeps you slightly off guard, never really knowing exactly whose side to take or how you should feel. After an hour or so of laughing with tears in your eyes, you’ll know where it’s all going.

1. (500) Days of Summer
Simply, the best time I had at the movies last year. If you’re in the right demographic, this is probably the story to a half-dozen of your own love stories. It’s smart, it’s funny, it’s insightful, and it’s a different spin on the traditional rom-com. By the end you realize it isn’t so much a love story, as the story of the person you fall in love with just before the person you end up with.