Tuesday, December 21, 2010
As any serious rock fan knows, it is impossible to stay current with everything that is released during the year. There are just too many bands, too many CDs, and not enough time. So the following is the best stuff I heard this year.
One of my main criteria is consistency: Can I listen to it all the way through? If there are any bum cuts, does the rest of the album make up for it? I'll play the album in random mode, or reverse the running order. Do the songs hold up separately? I'll listen to it on my stereo, in my car, in my truck, on headphones.
Other criteria concerns the form: How does the album work as an entity? Does it have a beginning and an end? Is it too long, too short, well produced, and sonically interesting?
Here's what I came up with:
The Fall - "Your Future Our Clutter"
The best ROCK album of the year by a comfortable margin. While we can try to convince ourselves that quirky pop is good, The Fall disproves that--they've come up with their best album since "Fall Heads Roll" in 2005.
All the things you've heard about The Fall are true. These days, leader Mark E. Smith is similar to James Brown in his seventies heyday. He gathers whatever musicians are available and makes another album that sounds like The Fall-- this is their 28th studio album! He lets the band set up a series of killer riffs, then starts ranting about whatever is bugging him these days (it seems to be ex-pats and hospitals, I think).
Sonically it's one of their best produced albums. He shows the kids how to go from low-fi to a killer crunch in one song ("Bury Pts. 1 + 3"), does a little James Brown on-the-one stuff on "Mexico Wax Solvent," and throws in another one of his obscure covers (Wanda Jackson's "Funnel of Love"). And as usual, no blues and no standard song structures; just another kick-ass message from The Fall. Let's hope they come to town next year.
(The band who shall not be named) - Let's call them FU (not to be confused with The F.U.'s) - "Couple Tracks" and "Year of the Ox" EP.
While these don't strictly meet my "addressing the form" criterion, these discs are too good to ignore. FU still have not released a legitimate follow-up to 2008's "The Chemistry of Common Life," so these will have to do for now. "Couple Tracks" is a two-disc compilation of FU's singles, remixes, edits, b-sides etc., and it cranks. FU have an awesome sound, layering the guitars to get an incredibly dense roar going.
Singer Pink Eyes (they all use pseudonyms) may be a bit tough to take at times, but just listen to the band. And he IS singing about something, although I don't always know about what (religion seems to be a recurring theme).
The "Year of the Ox" EP showed them experimenting with some free jazz saxophone on the 11-minute "Solomon's Song."
Vampire Weekend - "Contra"
Like fellow New Yorkers The Strokes, Vampire Weekend comes up with a disc that is a natural extension of their first. The two are basically interchangeable. Nothing wrong with that. On "Contra" they again come up with a collection of catchy tunes and exotic instrumentation. The sound is a bit fuller and the textures a little darker. But it's still incredibly listenable, and it was the number one album in the country for a week-- never thought I'd own that again.
Arcade Fire - "The Suburbs"
Here's an album as album. Leader Win Butler has said that repeatedly. And it works. A clear-eyed look at the pleasures and pitfalls of living in the suburbs. This is definitely more rockin' than "Neon Bible," although I still have problems with their bottom-heavy mix--it's not as bad as on "Bible," but I really think the sound should be crisper and closer to what they sounded like on "Funeral."
Kudos should also be given for making an album that does address current politics to a certain degree. I also like the Byrds-like intro on "Suburban War," and the cop of electronica heavies Underworld's "Cups" on the last track ("The Suburbs (continued)). This was also a number one album.
Best Coast - "Crazy for You"
As mentioned in an earlier post, leader Bethany Consentino's sincerity makes up for the banality of her lyrics. This is just classic indie pop. Catchy songs, interesting textures, great backing vocals. Her recent gig at the Casbah showed a lot of potential. If she got another guitarist/backing vocalist and would just focus on singing, the band would be even better. I'm looking forward to the next release.
Things to be excited about in 2011: new Strokes and new R.E.M! Happy listening.