Monday, January 02, 2012

Music 2011

Alright, kind of a mish-mash, which indicates how I've been going about listening to music lately. I reckon I spend a lot more time finding "new old" music than "new new" music. But to start off with, my top 5 albums, beginning with The Best New Band I Discovered in the Last...I Dunno...Five Years, Maybe?

tUnEyArDs - w h o k i l l ?
This band hits so many of my personal fetish-points that it would be impossible for me not to fall for them. They're weird, funky, catchy, experimental, DIY, femme-fronted, and their sound incorporates post-punk, hip hop and Afrobeat. In fact, once you hear the African influence (and I have to admit, it took me a couple listens to zero in on it for some reason), they don't even sound all that weird. Tuneyards (let's put the cutesy typography aside) are the brainchild of Merrill Garbus. She recorded their first album on a voice recorder, looping drums, vocals and ukelele, and released it on recycled cassette tapes. She has a touring band to fill out her sound now, but she still primarily relies on herself and a couple delay pedals to make loops of her voice, and accompanies herself on ukelele and a standup pair of tom-toms. And she write great songs. Nothing complicated, just good, catchy, and kinda weird tunes. She's wisely been putting "Gangsta" out there as the single, but I personally prefer "You, Yes You." Both great, happy dance songs.

Another thing worth mentioning is that Merrill does not look like a rock star at all. There's something really cool about someone who looks so normal fronting a band, with no hint of glamor. Merrill Garbus may be the most un-rock-star-looking rock star since Bun E. Carlos.

I don't really have a top 10 albums to list, so here's the rest of my top 5, and a handful of honorables. I don't listen to enough new stuff, I guess.

Jay-Z and Kanye West - Watch the Throne

You almost have to admire the sheer depth of Kanye West's egotism. This is a guy who makes Jay-Z look humble. In fact, you know what this album reminds me of? Marc Maron's podcast. It's two self-obsessed people sharing the mic, constantly trying to turn the subject back to themselves. All those bits in "Otis" where one will pick up the other's last line and flip it? That's the musical equivalent of saying "Oh yeah, that's like what happened to me last week, see I was at Macy's and..." Like that one where Jay says "I got five passports, I'm never going to jail," and Kanye replies "I made "Jesus Walks," I'm never going to Hell." THIS MOTHERFUCKER THINKS GOD OWES HIM A FAVOR.

"Otis" is pretty much the jam of the year, no? God, the choppy beat, the screams, the way it abruptly ends (and shrinks into the relative calm of the opening of "Gotta Have It"). When Kanye complains about fools "actin' like this summer ain't mine," he's absolutely right. (If you have more taste for R&B/pop than I do, you probably think the summer belongs to Beyonce, but for my tastes, "Otis" is the one.) I like this meta approach to the idea of a summer song, announcing on the very song that it's going to be the song of the summer. A bold move, but Kanye is prepared to back it up.

It's not really Kanye's boasting that sets him apart in the megalomaniac sweepstakes--that's pretty much what rap is all about. It's his thin-skinned defensiveness. Like on "New Day," which is supposedly a track about how they're gonna raise their kids. And for Jay-Z, it's just that, promising to teach his son right from wrong, to never abandon his son as his father abandoned him, and so on. For Kanye, it's a chance to complain, in the most passive-aggressive manner, about how terrible his life as a rich celebrity is. Maybe he'll even make his son be Republican, so everyone knows he loves white people. Or, in the most pathetic line, "I'll never ever let him hit the telethon/Even if people are dying and the world ends." Dude, the problem isn't that you went on a telethon, it's that you showed your ass once you got there. Own the fuck up! Besides the obvious point that (a) what Kanye said on the telethon was completely true, and (b) he never suffered any real consequences for it, other than some people talking shit about him on TV! But to Kanye, this is a rough life. He's still not over the South Park thing, which pretty much proves he's a douche bag. I mean, for anyone who isn't a douchebag, if South Park makes fun of you, the correct response is "AWESOME! I'm being spoofed on South Park!" You know what, Ye? If you want to make the world a better place for your offspring, maybe you could start by not calling the very next song "That's My Bitch."

Which is an awesome song, by the way. Probably my second-favorite after "Otis." Such a 1990 throwback, with that Native Tongues-style beat, and the Public Enemy "Bat-Badyo, Bat-Badyo" loop, and the Monie Love reference. I liked My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy, but for my tastes, it had too much syrupy R&B. Watch the Throne is mostly hard hip hop beats, and the flow from song to song is so smooth. To my ears, Watch the Throne is the better album.

So, back to Kanye's ego, "New Day" is not even the peak. On "Made in America," the second-last track, Kanye actually compares his travails (being stalked by paparazzi and made fun of by T.V. comedians) to the martyrdoms of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Jesus! (I can't figure out how Betty Shabazz gets elevated to "Queen" status, but Malcolm is still just "Brother".) But you know what? I'll stick with Kanye, because for all his bluster and bitchiness, he's a funny guy. Seriously, who else would come up with that break in "Niggaz in Paris," or that line about "My other other Benz," or even "I paid for them titties, get your own." Kanye is in the great tradition of highly entertaining assholes. And he makes some great beats.

Wild Flag - s/t
Carrie Brownstein's new all-grrrl supergroup sounds pretty much like you'd hope they would sound, all rock-n-roll fun and attempts to be everyone's Joey Ramone. I don't think anyone's going to deny that this is the kick-ass rock-n-roll album of the year. I will add a slight complication, though. Songs like "Racehorse" were clearly composed with live performance in mind, and I can't help but feel like their holding back just a bit in the studio. Compare the excellent recording of "Romance" with the version they performed on Letterman, and there's a pretty big enthusiasm gap. This isn't always a bad thing, as these songs have lots of 80's pop subtleties to bring out, but I think they could have brought it a little harder.

Beastie Boys - Hot Sauce Committee, Part 1
You can take this album's inclusion with as much salt as you deem necessary--I'll listen to pretty much anything these guys do--but this is the album the Beasties have been moving toward for decades. Starting in the late 90's, they seemed to pull apart their sound, to concentrate on each aspect for a whole album: punk rock on the Aglio e Olio EP, sample-based hip hop on To the Five Boroughs, and funky instrumentals on The Mix-Up. Now, they've finally fully integrated all these aspects into one sound. The band mostly rap over their own live instrumental tracks, and they've developed an arsenal of effects and sounds that harken back to late-80's indie sludge, but sound much more lively than any of those bands. Even the one punk rock track here, "Lee Majors Come Again," sounds fully integrated into the greater body of work. Like all their albums besides License to Ill and Paul's Boutique, they run out of "A material" well before they run out of room on the album, but for a bunch of old fogies, this is pretty sweet stuff.

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks - Mirror Traffic
This album actually goes well with the Wild Flag record, being a fairly straightforward, un-deconstructed rock-n-roll record. And it turns out Malkmus is pretty good at writing simple, cool rock songs like "Senator." He's maybe even better at the odd ballads like "No One Is (As I Are Be)" (maybe my favorite song title, but even these seem clearer than any he's done before.

A few other albums I enjoyed:

R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now
I was confused when, earlier this year, R.E.M. announced that they were calling it a day. For one thing, I always figured that R.E.M. would just be making music forever. Back in the 80's, they seemed to have an advantage over bands like the Butthole Surfers or Fugazi in that their was nothing about their sound that required being young and full of energy. There was no reason they couldn't be writing their strange, beautiful songs just as easily at the age of 100. For another thing, in this moment when pretty much every band I listened to from 1986 to 1995 is on a reunion tour somewhere, it seems like a huge drama queen move to make a big, public announcement that you're breaking up. Why not just quietly go on indefinite hiatus? Does anyone really doubt that these three (or four) guys are gonna be making music together again within a decade?

At any rate, this album obviously has a bit more significance for me for it being the official swan song, but it's a good way to end things. After the pleasant-but-forgettable Reveal and the boring-but-boring Around the Sun, they sort of kicked themselves back to life with Accelerate, their hardest rock album, and they maintain some of the energy here (about half the songs on Collapse are fast rockers), but play more to their own strengths, which are always in the quiet moments. Collapse is easily the best of their post-Berry albums (and I'd also rank it above Out of Time, which I've never liked much for some reason).

My favorite track is "Every Day is Yours to Win," which feels to me like a nice send off for the band, a pretty little melody conveying the eternal message of R.E.M.: stick with it, kid, you're gonna be fine. They released a final single in October, "We All Go Back Where We Belong," and the two songs together seem to tie a nice little button on their career. Maybe it is best that they quit here. As much as I like these songs, I have to admit that none of them match their early material, and you can hear Michael start to slip into some familiar melodic tics that sound a lot like recycling old material.

Shabazz Palaces - Black Up
I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this album. In theory, I love it. Palaceer Lazarro (fka Butterfly from Diggable Planets) is continuing his experiments in jazz-inflected hip hop, and going much further out. There's a loose sound to all these songs, like pieces of different tracks pulled apart and reassembled haphazardly in unexpected ways. It feels genuinely spontaneous and collaborative in a way that hip hop rarely does. But much of the album fails to engage me. Possibly the biggest problem is that the weakest material is frontloaded, so you get tracks like "Are You...Can You...Would You? (Felt)" and "A Treatease Dedicated to The Avian Airess from North East Nubis (1000 questions, 1 answer)," both of which wear on my nerves a bit, right up front. For best results, maybe skip to track six.

Bjork - Biophillia
Can someone please explain to me how Bjork manages to get weirder every year? It's very frustrating to us hipsters, as it prevents us from rolling our eyes and saying we liked her early stuff.

And some stray songs I dug this year. As is always the case, much credit to Fluxblog, which is pretty much my source for keeping up with new music (to the extent that I actually do that):

Jonathan Richman - "These Bodies That Came to Cavort" I think this album actually came out in 2010, but I didn't hear it until this year, so I'm counting it. There was some footage of Jonathan performing it on Jimmy Fallon, but it looks like the web police removed it, so the best footage available is this. One of the best songs Jonathan ever wrote, it sounds like classic doo-wop, but it's impossible to imagine anyone but Jonathan having written it.

The Kills - "Future Starts Slow" These guys should be huge, just because this song NEEDS to be played in a packed stadium.

Radiohead - "Separator" I liked King of Limbs better than most people seem to (best album cover I've seen in years!). This song is definitely the standout. I thought it sounded familiar, couldn't quite place it, then I went back and listened to this Beastie Boys track, and...oh yeah, there it is!

The Drive-By Truckers - "I Do Believe" and "Pulaski" I wrote about these two songs here.

Bjork vs. Omar Souleyeman - "Crystalline (Omar Souleyman Remix)" I'm not sure if this is an official remix, or just a mashup, but it takes the best song from Bjork's excellent new album and kicks it up several notches.

Scissor Sisters - "Nightwork" This song is hysterical. When I picture what people listen to at gay discos, I imagine it sounds pretty much like this.

Lloyd w/Li'l Wayne and Andre 3000 - "Dedication to my Ex (Miss That)" Sure, anyone can write a funny, profane song. The trick is to make it sound good, and I think Lloyd and the gang managed to do just that.

Mr. Muthafuckin' Exquire - "Huzzah! (Remix with a bunch of other rappers)" I'm always down for a good posse cut. Most of the rhyming on here is juvenile and silly, but I still have fun with it. I especially like El-P's inversion of Beyonce's countdown in his verse. That video, though...sheesh. I never imagined that El-P looked like a fucking Teddy Ruxpin.

Flaming Lips - "I Found a Star on the Ground" I actually did make it through the first two hours of the Flaming Lips' six-hour jam, and that was without even staring at a strobe light. You have to hand it to these guys, nobody takes a more experimental approach to music these days.

Favorite old stuff found on the internet:

Gil Evans Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix
. Especially the tuba-driven version of "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)."

Gumbo for Colombo, a nice little mix of "global bass" from Mixtape Riot.

Dark Sweets, a beautiful mix of old 78's from Holy Warbles. I LOVE that first song, "Night Owl."

"Reach Out and Touch" by The Souls of Unity, a gorgeous gospel song that I became obsessed with during our Hawaiian vacation, from Soul Sides. While I'm on Soul Sides, let me also recommend Oliver Wang's podcast. Excellent interviews with guys like Quantic, Thes One of People Under the Stairs, and Sasha Frere-Jones. My two favorite episodes: Brian Cross (B+), which inspired me to hunt down Brian's book It's Not About a Salary, and Aaron Copeland, who discusses his 33 1/3 book about Aretha's live gospel album, especially the "bonus beat" section, where Aaron picks some of his favorite gospel recordings, including this one, guaranteed to MELT your speakers:

And my favorite, the mixes of early 20th Century recordings posted by Jonathan Boggart at Just One Song More. I especially like Jonathan's examination of minstrelsy in this post.

And a few random things:

The Stooges at the Palladium
I almost can't believe I saw this show. Seeing The Stooges play is something I've dreamed about for over half my life. And it never seemed like an actual possibility. Now, seeing the 21st century reunion tour is not the same thing as seeing the Stooges on a good night in 1970, or even on a bad night in'74 (not knowing which you were gonna get before the show started was probably part of the appeal), and furthermore, I would have preferred to see them a couple years ago, when ron Asheton was still alive (I'm a Funhouse partisan. In fact, my ideal Stooges set would consist of them playing Funhouse in its entirety, with maybe "1969," "Search and Destroy" and "I Wanna Be Your Dog" for an encore), but still, to see Iggy backed by James Williamson and Ron Asheton, with Mike Watt (the world's greatest rock bassist) and the guy who blew sax on Funhouse? Yeah, it was pretty awesome. The set list was a bit weird: they started with 6 of the 8 tracks from Raw Power, and they ended their encore with "Cock in my Pocket," of all things. But as soon as Williamson started cranking those licks out, and Iggy stood on the edge of the stage striking those Frank Frazetta poses, I was in heaven.

The opening act was Le Butcherettes, a Mexican girl punk band. The singer, Teri Gender-Bender, out-Iggy'd Iggy. The drums were so hard and loud that you could feel every beat in your chest. Damn cool band!

Niki Minaj - Pink Friday
The disapointment of the year? I dunno, I downloaded it for Bobbie (she being as taken as most everybody by Niki's verse on "Monster"), and neither one of us was able to get through it. Considering our age, maybe that's proof that it's awesome. I went back and listened to "Super Bass" since it appeared on everyone's year-end lists, and while it's definitely the standout, it's still pretty far off from what I wanted. I guess I didn't expect her to go all pop diva. Clearly she's aiming more for being the 2010's Madonna than a female Busta Rhymes, and that's probably a good decision, just not what I was looking for. It's kinda like that moment when it became apparent that Soundgarden were aiming to be the 90's Whitesnake rather than The Melvins-with-songs.


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