• Sebadoh LIVE Milford CT 3.24.11 Review

    Mar 25 2011, 3:27

    View this original post at my music blog HERE

    Without intending to brag about my nonexistent photographic talent, I think that this photo is rad as hell. Sure, It’s scuzzy, lo-fi, and out of focus, and it was probably taken with my cheap-o camera set on “Landscape” or something, but I think it’s perfect because it captures the feeling of the show it was taken at flawlessly.

    See, when Massachusett’s definitive indie rock band Sebadoh took the stage at Milford, Connecticut’s Daniel Street club last night, nobody in the crowd felt like he or she was about to witness a legendary indie rock band playing a legendary indie rock show. Clearly, that’s not what Sebadoh is about. Perhaps from the beginning, or at least since the addition of Bob Fay on drums in 1994, Sebadoh has been a raw, visceral, and incredibly authentic indie punk band who makes music so sincere that it ultimately makes me question whether it deserves that label at all. What fans got last night was just the kind of experience one would expect from such a band: fun, messy, and a little unfocused, but incredibly sincere and real. Nothing more, nothing less, so to speak. This wasn’t some grand old group of washed up legends playing a show because people like their old music. Rather, it felt like the entire experience — the venue, the crowd, the stage banter (save for a couple jokes about Twitter) and even the music itself — could have happened almost exactly the way it did last night over a decade ago. It was a mess, but it was an authentic and beautiful mess, just like the photograph.

    That said, there is a dichotomy that exists within the songwriting machine that Sebadoh was in the 90s that I failed to appreciate until witnessing their live show. Although singer Lou Barlow is thought to be the primary creative leader and frontman of the band, bassist/guitarist Jason Loewenstein sang and wrote just as many, if not more songs in the band’s setlist than Barlow did last night. Whereas Barlow’s songs, such as the set-opener and fan favorite “On Fire”, and the gorgeous closer “Willing to Wait”, both from Harmacy, tended to be more subdued and melodically conscious, Loewenstein brought the reckless punk energy to the stage. His contributions included the rocking “Shit Soup” and the sub-1 minute thrasher “Love to Fight”, as well as the highlight “Drama Mine”, which verges into post-hardcore territory with its spiteful chorus. When the charming and affable-looking Loewenstein screamed “It’s like wasting everything on someone else’s dreams!” during that song, it was just as intense as it was surprising. But no matter who was singing, the band was kept together and propelled forward by the consistently on-point percussion of drummer Bob Fay.

    Many of the 29 (!!) songs featured in last night’s two-hour set were culled from the band’s albums Bakesale and Harmacy, their two most critically well-regarded albums. Those records were due for a reissue earlier in the year, and the tour, which began last night, was initially planned in support of those re-releases. When acknowledging why the reissues never materialized, Barlow blamed himself, while Loewenstein seemed to suggest that the fault was not their own, but actually Sub Pop’s, the independent record label that Sebadoh has been on since 1991. Regardless, the fact that most of their songs were from these releases was a good thing, as Bakesale and Harmacy were the albums on which the relationship between Barlow’s and Loewenstein’s songwriting really began to foster.

    During the show, like on those records, Barlow’s songs complemented Loewenstein’s perfectly. While Loewenstein brought the rawness and the urgency to Daniel Street, Barlow brought the sincerity. The two traded instruments constantly throughout, with Loewenstein trading the guitar off to Barlow, and Barlow trading his bass for guitar playing and singing duty. Lou Barlow’s songs, gorgeous pop gems buried in fuzz and mumbled with perpetual teenage honesty, are absolutely some of the greatest anthems of the lo-fi era. Hearing them being performed live, I felt like I was in some basement in the mid 90s, listening to a band play live and being ignorant to the fact that what I was witnessing would one day be stuff of legend. When Barlow sang “Magnet’s Coil” or any of the countless other amazing Bakesale / Harmacy-era Barlow tracks, I felt the way I might have felt seeing Pavement play “Range Life”, or the way I might have felt seeing Guided By Voices do “Game of Pricks”. And yet, there was something too down-to-earth and real about Barlow to make the experience overbearing. This really was just a band, but one that happened to make amazing indie rock songs. Other highlights from the Lou Barlow side of the Sebadoh show last night were the classic Bakesale highlight ”Skull” and the anthemic “License to Confuse”, which showed a punk side of Barlow not present on many of his other songs that night.

    Between songs, Barlow and Loewenstein were just as interesting, and possibly even more entertaining, than when playing their instruments. Their onstage banter was witty and creative, with Barlow telling lengthy stories about everything from his ancestors’ history in Milford (Where he has played three times in the past year, of all places, and where he has kicked off four tours) to his hatred of The Clash’s over-ambitious fourth album Sandinista!, and Loewenstein making hilariously sharp and witty remarks, mostly about Barlow’s stories. I can honestly say that I’ve never been more entertained by a band’s onstage banter than I was at this show.

    But despite all of this, there were a couple detractors. Perhaps this added to the charm, but the band was pretty sloppy, especially when Loewenstein was handling guitar/singing duties. Granted, many of Loewenstein’s songs were meant to be sloppy, high energy punk numbers, but even on his more low-key pieces there seemed to be issues. The worst was when Barlow screwed up his bass part on “Nothing Like You” fairly late in the set. “Nothing Like You” is one of my favorite Sebadoh songs, and it was hard hearing it sound like that, despite Loewenstein’s excellent guitar work. Thankfully, Barlow apologized profusely afterwards, and got everything together for the rest of the set.

    Sebadoh’s show last night was really very much like I expected it to be. It wasn’t great, but it shouldn’t have been. The songs were excellent and the band was in high spirits, and honestly, what more could anyone hope for in an indie rock show?



    On Fire
    Too Pure
    Shit Soup
    Got It
    Love to Fight
    Magnet’s Coil
    License to Confuse
    Drama Mine
    Nothing Like You
    Crystal Gypsy
    Beauty of the Ride
    Not a Friend
    Together or Alone
    Give Up
    Junk Bonds
    New Worship
    Brand New Love
    Not Too Amused
    Willing to Wait
  • My Heart to Joy LIVE New Haven CT 3.4.11 Review

    Mar 6 2011, 15:27

    Fri 4 Mar – My Heart To Joy, Transit, Pianos Become The Teeth, The World is a Beautiful Place & I am No Longer Afraid to Die, Fugue

    view this review at my blog HERE

    Last night, a massive crowd packed into Lily's Pad upstairs at Toad's Place in New Haven to see the near-legendary Connecticut emotive hardcore band My Heart To Joy play. The sold-out show had been announced months in advance by Manic Productions in collaboration with The Arc Agency, who billed it as the release party for My Heart To Joy's new Reasons to Be 7". But for the dedicated fans at Lily's Pad last night, the show was much more than that.

    On February 14th, the band announced on their official blog that they were planning to break up. Accompanying this announcement, they posted only two tour dates -- one on March 4th in New Haven, and a final one on May 14th -- thus making the New Haven show their second to last show ever. For many of the show's attendees, this would be the last time they would be able to see the group perform live. Understandably, the show took on a deeper significance even before it happened. The burden was on My Heart to Joy to make the show incredible and unforgettable.

    Given the stunning quality of the four opening bands' sets, one may have thought this would be more difficult than it appears to have been in retrospect. Local math rock band Fugue played first, and set a high bar with their enormous-sounding instrumental music, which recalled 3rd wave post-rock bands such as Explosions in the Sky in terms of harmony and melody. My jaw definitely dropped at at least three points during their set when they threw the instrumental focus to the wind and each member began maniacally screaming into his or her respective microphone, adding a raw, primal aspect to their already overpowering sound.

    The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die played second, and after their set was over I was sure that I had already witnessed the highlight of the night. Having seen [long band name] three times now, I can confidently say that this was their best show yet. While their performance wasn't as note-perfect as their set at BAR back in February, the venue and the crowd perfectly suited their music. The combination of those things, plus a new setlist made it amazing.

    After an energetic and rousing set from TWIABP, Topshelf's premier post-hardcore band Pianos Become the Teeth came on, and nobody was ready. Their set was easily the most intense thing I'd ever experienced in a live music venue, and even having only familiarized myself with their music -- a mix of authentic screamo, post-hardcore, and elements of post-rock -- fairly recently, I found myself truly swept up by the madness of it all.

    Bruised and battered, my friend and I took refuge behind the glass that separated the floor from the bar to hydrate and safely observe the next act, a pop-punk band named Transit, from a distance. I wasn't really familiar with them, and I wasn't hugely into their music, but we both agreed that it would certainly be fun to be in a band like that. The members seemed to really enjoy themselves throughout their set, and I suppose it was good to know that at least some people in this scene were not only genuinely happy but could make music that reflected that.

    As great as the opening bands were, everyone knew by the time My Heart to Joy took the stage that the best part of the night was still ahead. For those who hadn't seen a My Heart to Joy show before (myself included), their setup was immediately striking. The band's two drummers were positioned directly across from each other, while guitarists Chris Teti and Greg Horbal stood at opposite ends of the stage, with the group's bassist positioned between them. In the center of it all was singer Ryan Nelson, whose tremendous height and shocking blonde hair made him appear as intimidating as he was indomitable.

    The band started without warning, and opened with a track from their debut EP called "That Ungodly Arch-Villain Voltaire Is Dead". In addition to being one of my favorite My Heart to Joy songs, it was a perfect choice for an opener. After a couple minutes of buildup, the song exploded with energy that surpassed the studio version by far. When the song reached its climax, I was instantly brought back to when I saw Titus Andronicus at the very same venue over the summer. But while screaming the lyrics to "Titus Andronicus Forever" was an amazing experience, shouting the repeated line in "Voltaire" was on an entirely different level. Forgive me if it's cliche to relate my experience to the lyrics of the song, but at that moment, I really did feel as though not even a god damn mountain could stop us. It was a huge musical moment for me, and countless others in Lily's Pad that night.

    They then proceeded to rocket through an amazing, career-spanning setlist that brought out the very best material from each of the band's four albums. In the intense live environment, My Heart To Joy's newer material gained a rawness that is not present on the studio versions, making songs like "Steady Habits" and "Farewell to a Raincloud" -- both from Reasons to Be -- flow together seamlessly with more aggressive tracks such as "The Hours Change So We Don't Have To" and "Virgin Sails."

    Perhaps the most impressive thing about the show was the incredible range of emotions that the group expressed through their music. Whether it was anger, sadness, or uninhibited joy, these incredible songs conveyed the most extreme feelings conceivable. While "Voltaire" may have filled me with more anger and aggression than is probably healthy, I can't remember being as filled with happiness as I was when I heard that gorgeous opening riff to "All of Life Is Coming Home" live. Similarly, I don't think any live show has given me feelings of such urgency as I had when singing along to "Giving My Hands Away"

    The setlist was also geared towards audience participation, and featured many of My Heart To Joy's most sing-along-ready songs. Incidentally, the crowd was more engaged than pretty much any crowd I've ever seen at a show. It was really something to behold, but also something that I'm proud to consider myself a part of.

    Before I knew it, the show was over, but not before the band pulled out its most rewarding song at the very end. With that instantly-recognizable, absolutely sinister sounding opening riff, they began to play "Ethics", the opening track from Heavenly Bodies. Fittingly, the band finished one of their last shows ever with their first song ever, a fifty second rager that quickly explodes and then implodes just as quickly into a gang-shout of awesome proportions before the instruments come back in for one last fifteen second stand. In concert, they expanded the shout-along part, but not by much. Nevertheless, those last thirty to forty seconds of the show packed enough catharsis to last a lifetime.

    I can only imagine what their last show is going to be like...



    That Ungodly Arch-Villain Voltaire Is Dead
    Empty Homes
    Steady Habits
    The Hours Change So We Don't Have To
    Virgin Sails
    Seasons in Verse
    All of Life Is Coming Home
    Farewell to a Raincloud
    Giving My Hands Away
  • Radiohead - The King of Limbs (2011) Review

    Feb 19 2011, 17:49

    Let's try this again.

    Last night I posted some, erm, initial reactions to Radiohead's new album The King of Limbs, which was released early yesterday morning for download on the band's official website, and quickly leaked onto the various download depositories of the internet. I will keep that here for posterity's sake, but I'm really not sure what was going on when I wrote it.

    When The King of Limbs was announced just five days ago in the wake of Arcade Fire's seemingly-unlikely but entirely-plausible Grammy victory, I remember feeling surprisingly apathetic. Sure, from an objective standpoint, both events were important for "mainstream indie", but just as I didn't really care about the Grammy Awards no matter who one, I didn't particularly care about the prospect of a new Radiohead album. In hindsight, this initial reaction was a little strange, and probably says more about me than it does about Radiohead. In 2007, my mom's college room mate introduced me to Radiohead when I was just twelve years old. In Rainbows had just been released, and even though I didn't understand just how huge the global platform that Radiohead operated on was, I found the idea of a band releasing their music for whatever fans wanted to pay on the internet to be a really interesting idea. Perhaps because it was my first devoted listening experience with the band, the first time I heard In Rainbows was one of those major musical life events for me. I can remember exactly where I was, and exactly what happened on the day that I first heard it. I don't think I'll ever forget the very moment when I pressed play and the sputtering processed beats of "15 Step" surged through my headphones. Surely I thought something was broken, or that the CD player had malfunctioned, but I did nothing to stop it. As the beats pressed onwards, my ears were graced with the contrastingly organic sounds of Jonny Greenwood's guitar. It was a sound unlike anything I had heard before, and one that still sends shivers down my spine

    Had I understood the context in which that album was created, I would've been incredibly surprised that it had come from a band that had in some sense existed for a staggering twenty two years. This really is an amazing achievement in retrospect; In Rainbows was a near-perfect masterpiece that pushed creative boundaries while retaining everything that made Radiohead great in the first place. In the coming years, I listened to what should have been enough Radiohead to bore me of them, but somehow I didn't stop listening and loving for years. I certainly did tire of some releases -- I can't get through a listen of OK Computer anymore just because I know it so well already that each guitar effect and piercing Thom Yorke wail plays in my mind seconds before it plays on record -- but whenever one side of Radiohead started to get boring, I could always turn to the next one. This phenomenon is probably what has made Amnesiac my favorite Radiohead album overall; it never stays in one place long enough to be even the slightest bit predictable. After a while, though, I never found myself really excited to listen to Radiohead. I could put on "Idioteque" and every time feel the palpable nervousness that existed in the pulsing beats and the frenetically spoken vocals, but I would never hear that song the way I did the first twenty or so times. Incidentally, this realization occurred right as the band started announcing new material. It came in waves; first, the bizarre, string-drenched war tribute "Harry Patch (In Memory Of)" was released, and then the kraut-rock inflected "These Are My Twisted Words", which I eventually warmed up to. In addition to new live songs which started floating around during late 2009-2010, these track kept me sated. But this satisfaction was relatively short lived as I quickly realized that they simply weren't very good. Where was the spark? Where were the chill-inducing moments? I've listened to "Nude" dozens of times and I still get shivers running down my spine when the song climaxes. So, there I am, having witnessed the Arcade Fire win "Album of The Year", with a handful of bad to somewhat decent new Radiohead tracks that were already growing stale, and the announcement of a new album leaving me unexcited.

    So, the album. My first auditory experience with The King of Limbs was, like many, watching the video for "Lotus Flower" yesterday morning. I found myself not paying attention to the music whatsoever, though, and rather being transfixed by the disturbing and strangely captivating motions of Thom Yorke's body. Seeing him writhe in front of the camera was bizarrely appealing. It reminded me of that amazing Saturday Night Live performance of "Idioteque" from 2000; the band members reserve themselves to the background while the frail, feeble Yorke takes center stage and flails his twisted self around, alternately shouting and singing his paranoid ramblings in high falsetto. The experience raised my excitement level for the album significantly, and with an open and fresh mind, I approached The King of Limbs.

    Although I tried not to make snap comparisons to any of their other albums, I couldn't help but call to mind Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief, two albums that remain divisive even among Radiohead's devoted fan base. Upon the first full listen, I also connected it to Yorke's 2006 solo album The Eraser, a largely electronic affair that was heavy on beats but lacked interesting melodic ideas and that distinctive atmosphere that Radiohead as a unit was so good at creating. Those same problems seemed to befall The King of Limbs at first, but a series of devoted, close listens revealed an atmospheric world largely hidden to the untrained ear. Much like the more minimalist pieces on Amnesiac, many of the songs onThe King of Limbs benefit tremendously from repeated listens. Nearly a dozen full listens into the album now, I'm still discovering sounds and effects that I hadn't noticed or perceived. Although it initially appears to be simplistic and underwhelming, a headphones listen of the opener "Bloom" uncovers a secret beauty. The track bubbles with plinking keys that somehow inhabit the same space as an off-kilter rhythm, which beautifully underpin Thom Yorke's dramatic, reverb-heavy vocals. As the track builds, the beat slowly becomes more massive. Though Jonny Greenwood's guitar playing is sorely missed on this album, his other contributions are vital to the atmosphere of the record. As distinctive as Yorke's vocals are, it is Greenwood's mastery of effects and atmosphere that creates the uniquely-Radiohead tone. When his guitar does show up, it is just as welcome and effective as his string arrangements. The layered guitar on "Morning Mr. Magpie" perfectly compliments Thom Yorke's characteristically frantic vocal. "You got some nerve coming here," he sneers. Although many of the tracks feel minimal, there is a surprising amount of layering and processing going on here. "Little By Little" is dense to the point of being nearly incomprehensible; its beat is constructed from some really unplaceable sounds that somehow come together in a way that makes sense. "Feral" is similar, but goes even farther into abstract IDM-style territory by processing Yorke's vocals to the point where they only contribute to the atmosphere.

    Perhaps most notable of all are the contributions of drummer Phil Selway and bassist Colin Greenwood, two members of the band who have consistently remained somewhat overshadowed by Thom and Jonny. Although there is an obvious electronic presence on the record, it's surprising and even refreshing how much of the percussion and rhythm is organic and live. Colin has created his fair share of great bass lines, and Phil his own share of stellar live beats, but never have their contributions felt so vital and so essential to the final product. On the aforementioned "Feral", the rhythm and percussion actually takes center stage, making for a Boards of Canada-reminiscent highlight that still feels distinctly-Radiohead despite the lack of notable contribution from Yorke or Jonny Greenwood. However, it is when this newly-empowered rhythmic machine works in tandem with the other creative forces in the band that The King of Limbs is at its best; "Lotus Flower", the obvious highlight that I mentioned earlier, is easily the best song on the album because it combines a powerful but restrained rhythm section with gorgeous falsetto vocals and a genuinely great melody. It almost feels like a restrained, more melodically conscious "Idioteque", and it's absolutely fantastic. Like that song, the closing track "Separator" works on a similar level, with perhaps the most organic beat on the record forming a solid but minimalist foundation over which Yorke's vocals soar.

    Unfortunately, rest of the album does really suffer from a lack of great songs... Perhaps The King of Limbs was meant to be more of a cohesive album than a series of songs, but it can't quite come together as the band might have liked. "Give Up The Ghost" sticks out like a sore thumb, with awkward-sounding acoustic guitar and an unnecessarily repetitive choir-like vocal part. "Codex", which precedes it, is one of the few really good stand-alone songs on the album, but its contemplative piano-based format doesn't fit with the rhythmic nature of the rest of the album either.

    On the whole, The King of Limbs finds Radiohead still holding onto relevance and creativity. Of course this is a good thing, and while it is satisfying to witness a band so huge and so powerful still expanding its musical and creative boundaries, it is sad to see this exploration done in such an underwhelming way. With only 8 tracks clocking in at just over 37 minutes, The King of Limbs is not good enough and not long enough to justify its possibly-impending status as "yet another classic Radiohead album." Sure, this album is dense and inaccessible, but that doesn't mean it's brilliant, and it's certainly not another Kid A.



    1. Bloom
    2. Morning Mr Magpie
    3. Little by Little
    4. Feral
    5. Lotus Flower
    6. Codex
    7. Give Up the Ghost
    8. Separator

    Best tracks: "Lotus Flower", "Codex", "Separator"
  • Top 50 Albums of 2010 with lil' Reviews

    Dic 15 2010, 22:36



    Part 1! #50-21

    50. The Books - The Way Out

    Folk, Electronic, Sample-based

    The Books return after a painful five year break with a record that finds their folk/electronic formula beginning to grow stale. Unlike their cold and disorienting masterpiece Thought for Food, The Way Out is warm and soulful, and features samples from motown and pop records in addition to their traditional offbeat vocal samples. The resulting album is frustratingly familiar yet characteristically well made. It is clear that with The Way Out, The Books have retained their meticulous ability to create collages of sound, but may have lost some of their creativity along the way.

    49. Defiance, Ohio - Midwestern Minutes

    Folk Punk, Indie Rock

    After 2006's The Great Depression, which I regard as one of the very best folk punk albums, and the worthy 2007 follow up The Fear, The Fear, The Fear, folk punkers Defiance, Ohio seem to have lost some of their edge. It is a rare moment on Midwestern Minutes that I am filled with that great feeling of youthful heart-fluttering that envelops me every time I listen to "Oh, Susquehanna!" While rare on this album, those moments are great. "The White Shore" is an angry yet uplifting punk song, and the subsequent track "A Lot to Do" is a great singalong anthem. Unfortunately, Midwestern Minutes lacks the consistency and immediacy needed to make music of this kind great.

    48. Suckers - Wild Smile

    Psychedelic Pop, Indie Pop

    Despite coming directly from the overcrowded and increasingly boring Brooklyn indie rock scene, Wild Smile by Suckers is a refreshingly original sounding album. From the opening line of "Save Your Love For Me", desperately sincere yet bordering on sounding pathetic, the listener is brought to attention. "Save Your Love For Me" is a monstrous track which builds and builds upon itself to create an undeniably great psychedelic pop anthem. Unfortunately, the band fails to maintain this level of brilliance throughout the remaining ten tracks, and the album suffers from its length and lack of consistency.

    47. Girl Talk - All Day

    Hip-hop, Electronic, Mashup

    Girl Talk is admirably good at what he does. Using hip-hop vocal tracks and idiosyncratic beats, he creates fun and hip mashups to play at parties. Unfortunately, that's it; All Day is, by nature, void of any depth whatsoever. At its best, it is clever and well-made, and at its worst, it is only slightly above a novelty.

    46. Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs - God Willin' & The Creek Don't Rise

    Contemporary Folk, Folk Rock, Country

    Improving upon his last two albums Till the Sun Turns Back and Gossip in the Grain, Lewiston, Maine singer/songwriter Ray Lamontagne harnesses a fuller new sound on God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise. This change can largely be attributed to the Pariah Dogs, a remarkably capable folk rock band that adds a degree of thickness and push to the overall sound. The dirty roots rock instrumentation compliments Lamontagne's gravelly voice, but the best moment on the album occurs when the band decides to tone it down a bit on "Beg, Steal, or Borrow"

    45. Foxy Shazam - Foxy Shazam

    Glam Rock, Pop/Rock

    Queen's iconic frontman Freddie Mercury has been reincarnated as an equally flamboyant hipster who currently sings for the band Foxy Shazam. Foxy Shazam makes music that sounds a lot like Queen's Jazz, but without all the cringeworthy "experiments". Very obvious Queen comparisons aside, Foxy Shazam have truly crafted an album as wonderfully anthemic and soaring as nearly any of Queen's greatest hits. This album blatantly and unashamedly rips off the aforementioned band, but it does a damn good job at it.

    44. Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest

    Dream Pop, Psychedelic Pop

    Deerhunter disappointingly continue on the logical path from Microcastle with Halcyon Digest, a dream pop album that lacks much of what made Deerhunter cool in the first place. Instead of the noisy passive aggression of Cryptograms or the dense shoegazing sound of Microcastle, they have delivered a fairly ordinary sounding dream pop album. While songs like the lead single "Revival" are catchy and quite good, they lack that unmistakable Deerhunter sound. On Halcyon Digest, that sound is only truly displayed on the epic closing track "He Would Have Laughed", which is fantastic. Nevertheless, this album is pretty good if only because it's a Deerhunter record.

    43. Weekend - Sports

    Shoegaze, Noise Rock

    With Sports, Needle Drop favorites Weekend face the opposite of Deerhunter's problem. Sports is an undeniable landmark in the ability of a record to shred one's ears and somehow maintain an interesting 90s slacker vibe while doing so, but lacks almost any melodic sensibilities whatsoever. If My Bloody Valentine's Loveless was the perfect balance of beauty and noise, Sports is a very imperfect balance of, well, ugliness and noise. Thankfully, these imperfections tend to fade away when being blasted through your ears at full volume.

    42. Girls - Broken Dreams Club

    Power Pop, Indie Pop, Alt-Country

    Girls' new EP Broken Dreams Club is an exercise in self exploration. With a little extra money and some more experience, Girls have made a record that sounds far removed from the lo-fi bedroom pop stylings of Album. Though it retains some of that charm, Broken Dreams Club is comparatively hi-fi. With horns, pedal steel guitar, and other unique instruments, it certainly sounds fantastic. Often it feels like such instrumental and production embellishments are being used to cover up mediocre songwriting, such as on the title track and the forgettable "Substance". However, on "Thee Oh So Protective One" and the magnificent "Carolina", the complex instrumentation and high production values only corroborate the simple brilliance of the songs.

    41. Broken Social Scene - Forgiveness Rock Record

    Indie Rock

    Forgiveness Rock Record, the newest release from 'aughts indie supergroup Broken Social Scene lacks both the frenetic immediacy of You Forgot it In People, and the epic grandeur of 2005's Broken Social Scene. On the first few listens, it feels both like a tired cash-in and a back-to-basics do over. And yet in the five years since this Canadian band released an album, the indie scene has changed dramatically. Neither of the sounds that those two records captured and helped to create would be welcome in 2010, and it is admirable that Broken Social Scene have evolved. This straight up indie rock style may seem played out, but when was the last time you heard such an album? 2007? 2006? Not in 2010, and not like this. If all of these songs had been as good as "World Sick", this would be a top ten album for sure.

    40. Beach House - Teen Dream

    Dream Pop, Indie Pop

    Beach House's Teen Dream is probably destined to be a modern indie classic, but all the press that it gets will never make it more than just summer record. Sure, it's a damn good summer record, and maybe among the best of its kind, but it lacks the versatility needed to sustain my interest well into the fall and now the winter. These days, Victoria Legrand's unbelievably sexy voice can still warm me up, but the music never seems to make sense.

    Sidenote: I have like 10 2k10 bands with "Beach" in their name...chillwaves.

    39. Flying Lotus - Cosmogramma

    Instrumental Hip-Hop, IDM, Electronic

    Flying Lotus' album Cosmogramma is one of the most sonically impressive electronic albums in years. Cosmogramma whirs, beeps, and reverberates through one's skull with pulsing beats and odd samples, the most interesting of which comes from a life support machine used by FlyLo's aunt Alice Coltrane and recorded while she was in the hospital. It has hip hop tracks, Aphex Twin-like IDM experiments, and even a guest vocal performance from Radiohead's Thom Yorke, but with all this ambition, the resulting album needs to be brilliant to work. Cosmogramma is an example of style over substance; FlyLo tries to do so much with it, but rarely does he follow through with a brilliant piece of music.

    38. The New Pornographers - Together

    Power Pop, Indie Pop

    Vancouver indie poppers The New Pornographers return with their best album since 2005's Twin Cinema. Lacking the charming fuzziness of that album, Together sounds more like their previous album Challengers, but it has better tunes and catchier melodies. The vocals of Neko Case and Carl Newman are placed front and center, and ring clearly over the lush instrumentation. Together also features guest appearances from Beirut's Zach Condon, Annie Clark, and Okkervil River's Will Sheff. Together proves that The New Pornographers are still better than many of the countless Canadian pop bands they inspired, but at times, Together's excess seems less like a triumphant confirmation of legendary status and more like a grasp for fleeting relevance.

    37. Menomena - Mines

    Indie Rock, Art Rock

    Mines is the Portland trio Menomena's most straightforward album to date. Although it doesn't have the experimental instrumental squalls and entertainingly harsh dissonance of The Fun Blame Monster, their debut, it makes up for that lack with great songs. Menomena have clearly gotten much better at writing songs and jamming less, as displayed on the restrained "Taos" and "Tithe", and Mines is an admirable and impressive forward step in their evolution, hopefully not into 'just another indie band'.

    36. The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die - Formlessness

    Emo, Indie Rock, Math Rock

    Willimantic, CT band (take a breath) The World is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die released one of the most surprisingly brilliant EPs of the year. I downloaded it in anticipation for their upcoming December 30th show with Castevet and Snowing, and was struck by how good it was. Formlessness is beautiful but aggressive, and atmospheric but grounded. It initially seems like a familiar sounding album, yet it's also unique. Synthesizing the atmospheric qualities of American Football with an original and nostalgic tone, Formlessness is a wonderful record. I only wish it were longer.

    35. The Tallest Man on Earth - Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird

    Contemporary Folk, Indie Folk

    2010 was a great year for EPs, and Swedish folk singer The Tallest Man on Earth's Sometimes the Blues is Just a Passing Bird is no exception. Riding on the success of his LP The Wild Hunt, which was also released this year, Sometimes the Blues... feels like both an experiment and also an affirmation of Kristian Matsson's great talents. On the experimental side, it features a sharp electric guitar on one track. This song, "The Dreamer" is a midtempo lo-fi ballad, the chorus of which contains the EP's title. In addition, the EP features more of Matsson's signature folk music, which is nearly as good as anything on The Wild Hunt or 2008's Shallow Grave.

    34. sadnes - Fill my Head

    Chiptune, Indie Rock, Shoegaze

    Three EPs in a row? I must be crazy. Regardless, the debut EP from solo artist sadnes, aka OxygenStar, aka Carl Peczynski, is the highest ranking record from a local Connecticut artist on this list. Improving on his OxygenStar project, which I wrote a little about here, Peczynski adds vocals and guitars to his 8-bit beats and rhythms. The result sounds like a brilliant mix of Smashing Pumpkins and Anamanaguchi, owing more to the aforementioned 90s shoegazers than the chiptune-influenced power pop band. The vocals are amazing, and the self-deprecating and ironic lyrics fit the icy tone of the music perfectly. sadnes may seem as dark as his stagename suggests, but maybe he just wants a hug.

    33. The Morning Benders - Big Echo

    Lo-fi Indie Pop, Surf Pop

    Accuse The Morning Benders of being trend hoppers as much as you want, but that doesn't take away from their ability to craft fun, stimulating California pop songs. With surprisingly intellectual lyrics, instrumentation derived from 1960s sunshine pop, and some of the most playful harmonies this side of Merriweather Post Pavilion, nearly every song on Big Echo manages to stick in the listener's head for weeks. Like Beach House's Teen Dream, Big Echo will probably never transcend "summer album" status, but if this was the postcard from the summer of 2010, I'd be entirely okay with that.

    32. Beach Fossils - Beach Fossils

    Lo-fi Indie Rock, Surf Pop, Dream Pop

    Beach Fossils' self-titled debut album sounds exactly like you would expect an album from a Brooklyn band called "Beach Fossils" to sound like. It's lo-fi, jangly, reverb'ed, and uniformly white-washed, just like the wall on the album cover. All of these attributes are well and good in moderation, but the scene has already been saturated with music like that for years. Beach Fossils' saving grace is their overwhelming laziness, manifested as some sort of hazy 90s slacker sound. This general "I-don't-give-a-shit" attitude sets them apart. Beach Fossils are the punkest chillwavers around.

    31. Jaill - That's How We Burn

    Garage Rock, Indie Rock, Power Pop

    I saw Jaill play at a bar in Milford CT in October, but nobody else did. Yes, you read that correctly. Nobody else came to see them. These Wisconsin garage rockers have come a long way from home since their album That's How We Burn was released on Sub Pop earlier this year, and frankly it is just plain unfair that they have not gotten the widespread recognition they deserve. This band plays some of the smartest and sharpest indie rock I've heard all year. Reminiscent of the punkish early stylings of Elvis Costello, and despite the ludicrous album cover of a girl with a dolphin hat hanging out at the beach, this album is void of all irony and filled to the brim with catchy and self-aware garage rock. That's How We Burn is one of the great overlooked albums of 2010.

    30. The Black Keys - Brothers

    Blues Rock, Garage Rock, Soul

    As if the no-bullshit album cover didn't make it clear enough, The Black Keys play it straight. They don't give a shit about relevance, hipness, or culture, and their new album Brothers is a great example of why this is a great thing. Just because the cool kids don't like Led Zeppelin anymore doesn't mean they don't still rock. Taking influence from those guys and more, Brothers is soulful and tender, but never loses the edge that The Black Keys became underground famous for. It may seem odd that Brothers was the album that brought them into pseudo-mainstream territory, but in a lot of ways it makes sense. Though it's not actually anything new, it realy feels like it. In this way, Brothers is refreshing.

    29. Baths - Cerulean

    Chillwave, Electronic, Glitch Pop

    2010 saw the absurdly-titled and loosely-defined "chillwave" movement rise to mainstream popularity and then slowly fizzle out as hipsters moved away from the entry-level and on to the equally bizarre and then-underground genre "witch house". '09 chillwavers like Neon Indian and Washed Out played shows and gained acceptance in 2010, but while they were partying, Baths was hard at work meticulously constructing Cerulean, which is to be known from here on as the best chillwave album ever. Trading in the stereotypically lazy production value and samples of chillwave for glitchy beats and gorgeous vocal harmonies, Baths created a record that was incredibly intricate and engaging, but at the same time remarkably chill. Yes, Cerulean is the best chillwave album ever, and one of the best electronic albums of 2010.

    28. of Montreal - False Priest

    Soul, Indie Pop, R&B, Funk

    In response to a negative Pitchfork review of False Priest, the new album by of Montreal, frontman Kevin Barnes wondered -

    "Why does pitchfork always assign my albums to flaccid puritanical sex hating half humans?"

    Why indeed. As he himself goes on to confirm, Kevin Barnes is not tired of sex. Unfortunately for him, it seems like a lot of people are. In the context of the band's past few albums, it would seem that False Priest offers nothing new thematically. However once one removes the album from that harsh context, you find a wonderful album filled with too-bizarre-to-make-up (yet somehow relatable) sexual anecdotes set to a funky beat and sung by a crazy bisexual dude who wears a lot of make up and sometimes decides not to wear clothes on stage. In addition, False Priest features Janelle Monae and Solange Knowles, two of indie R&B's greatest upstarts (the former of which I hope will take on mainstream R&B with the speed and precision that she has taken over the blogs in 2011). From beginning to end, this album is fun. Pure, ridiculous, intelligent, self-deprecating fun. What's wrong with that?

    27. Los Campesinos! - Romance Is Boring

    Indie Pop, Twee Pop

    "Let's talk about you for a minute"

    These were not words I ever expected the self-obsessed Gareth Campesinos! to utter, and yet so begins "In Medias Res", the opening track from the new Los Campesinos! album Romance is Boring. As the frontman for the Welsh indie band Los Campesinos!, Gareth has spent the past two years either bemoaning or praising himself, but never focusing on anyone else. He's acknowledged that he has screwed people over and that people have screwed him over, but we'll never know anything else about them.

    Romance is Boring is different. The entire album, a noisy and loud 48 minutes composed almost entirely of fist pumping twee-punk anthems, reads like the transcript of a breakup written by Gareth himself. This formula is very interesting, but causes Romance is Boring to feel like a bit of a transition album. If this is the direction in which the band is headed, I'm incredibly excited to hear what they do next.

    "Is this something that would interest you? Would this interest you at all?"

    26. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists - The Brutalist Bricks

    Pop/Punk, Punk Rock, Indie Rock

    Over the past ten years or so, Ted Leo's output has been incredibly consistent. On The Brutalist Bricks, the latest installment in his already storied career, he and his band rock out harder than ever. Leo, now 40, has managed to maintain that Rivers Cuomo-like appearance of eternal youth and tracks like "The Mighty Sparrow" and "Gimme the Wire" show that it is not only a facade. These are energetic and youthful punk rock songs that never sound try-hard or fake. Despite a couple songs that seem to misfire, and a production style that verges on sounding overdone, the straight up great songs on The Brutalist Bricks make it just too good to pass up.

    And just as a reminder, Ted Leo's playing a solo show at The Space in January! More info here! (via Manic Productions)

    25. The National - High Violet

    Indie Rock, Chamber Pop

    Coming in at number 25 is one of the most critically acclaimed albums of 2010. The National's High Violet builds on the band's previous two albums, and features everything one might expect from a National album: sad songs, deep vocals, and heavy drums. Still, High Violet feels a lot more subdued than Alligator and Boxer. Suffice to say that there are no songs as aggressive and angular as Boxer's "Mistaken For Strangers" on this album. However, The National have clearly gotten better at writing slower songs, as evidenced by the gorgeous High Violet opener "Terrible Love". There is not much else to be said about this album that hasn't already been said. While it may not live up to all the hype it gets, High Violet is a very good record by a very accomplished band.

    24. Castevet - The Echo & The Light

    Emo, Post-Rock, Post-Hardcore

    Though largely flawed, Castevet's 2009 album Summer Fences helped revitalize the emo scene which had stagnated over a period of roughly seven years with remarkable new energy and post-rock sensibilities. While fascinating and refreshing, Summer Fences always felt to me like there was something missing. After a hard year of touring, Castevet have come back with plenty of experience. Their new album The Echo and the Light improves on their original formula. The post-rock is still present, but the crescendoing interludes don't feel like they come out of nowhere anymore. On The Echo & the Light, everything feels organic. The clean math rock guitars contrast with the relatively low screamed vocals, but the drums make it all come together. These drums sound fantastic, and wouldn't feel out of place on an Explosions in the Sky record. The drums, which occasionally give way to ear-blasting walls of sound and noise, add that post-rock element to Castevet's mix, and make The Echo & the Light much more than just another emo album.

    23. Belle and Sebastian - Belle and Sebastian Write About Love

    Indie Pop, Chamber Pop, Twee Pop

    Belle and Sebastian's new album Belle and Sebastian Write About Love features a despondent looking girl gazing out her window on the cover. Combined with the overly self-aware album title (which from me will always provoke the response "duh"), this almost seems like a play on the band itself. Though I'm sure Stuart Murdoch has long been aware of the fact that Belle and Sebastian has always primarily been a band for somewhat disaffected indie girls, it seems that he has finally accepted it. Belle and Sebastian Write About Love, and that's okay. Perhaps it was coming to terms with this that allowed Stuart to write the songs contained on this album. Stuart comes off as more open and more accessible than he has ever seemed. He's not the fragile boy who mused about whether he could ever be loved on Tigermilk and If You're Feeling Sinister, but instead he is a grown man teaching the future Stuarts of the world the truth. Girls think it's okay for a boy to be sensitive. Being sad is good sometimes. Being happy can be a choice. Everyone take notes.

    22. The Love Language - Libraries

    Indie Pop, Chamber Pop

    If there was ever a band that Write About Love was written for, it's The Love Language. Stuart (!!) McLamb, a young, black haired upstart and the chief songwriter for The Love Language may even be Stuart Murdoch's protege. Having studied Dear Catastrophe Waitress and The Life Pursuit, McLamb and his band have it in their power to craft indelibly catchy and life affirming pop songs so perfect that they will make you want to sing, dance, and write songs of your own. McLamb draws lyrical motifs straight from the aforementioned Belle and Sebastian albums, but crafts them in his own very personal style. If you are sad, see this band live, they will make you want to live.

    21. Surfer Blood - Astro Coast

    Indie Rock, Power Pop, Surf Rock

    Surfer Blood's Astro Coast can be described thusly: if your favorite Weezer song ever is "Surf Wax America" from their self titled 1995 debut record, you will love this album. Actually, if you love any of the other tracks on Weezer, you will also love this album. Astro Coast is filled with that same glorious, harmonious power pop that was so brilliantly perfected by Weezer that it almost feels like they created it. In the fifteen years since that record was released, nobody has managed to get that sound or that feeling of lively and youthful energy down without feeling cheap or unoriginal. Surfer Blood have done it, and Astro Coast is the gleaming, surf-inflected product that all people who were ever in a Weezer cover band should aspire to.

    PART 2!


    20. Avey Tare - Down There

    Freak Folk, Neo-Psychedelia, Electronic

    “I felt like in the past two years, I’ve had a darker time” - Avey Tare on the inspiration for Down There.

    Animal Collective’s Avey Tare, otherwise known as Dave Portner, wrote his debut solo album Down There in the wake of a bad divorce with Kria Brekkan, his adorable but apparently evil wife and musical collaborator. Portner’s horrible emotional trauma has manifested itself as a unique glimpse into the mind and soul of one of the most innovative and unpredictable musical trendsetters of the past decade. Down There is not a collection of songs; it is an unwaveringly dark and cohesive singular piece of music that was created to exorcise Portner’s own demons and keep them out. It is a personal kind of record unlike any other. Rather than simply rely on lyrics and sad melodies to convey his ruined emotional state, Avey Tare does so by constructing nine frighteningly swampy soundscapes. Looping heavy rhythms and thick, squelching beats, Avey Tare and co-producer Geologist forge sounds as hopelessly dark and wet as the fantastic cover suggests. Barring the similarly bizarre Oddsac film, Down There is so far removed from anything Animal Collective has created since at least 2003’s Here Comes the Indian that I can’t help but think that Down There is very strictly a one-time thing. Given the nature of these songs and the dark swamp hell in Avey’s mind from which they were brought forth and recorded, Avey Tare has chosen not to tour in support of Down There. Although disappointing, his choice is understandable. While it may have come from an awful place and time, Down There closes on a positive note, injecting a much needed sense of hope into an otherwise horribly depressing album. “Today, be like the lucky one”, Portner sings. Such a line is not meant to be a piece of advice to someone else, but rather a final moment of self-motivation. I think Avey Tare is going to be okay.

    19. Sharon Van Etten - Epic

    Indie Folk, Indie Rock

    I recently profiled Sharon Van Etten and sort-of-reviewed her new album Epic on this blog (you can find all of that here). I called her a savior for women in indie music, and indie music in general. In a remarkably oversaturated Brooklyn scene, she seemed like one of the most honest and genuine musicians and songwriters. Since then, my perception of her has only improved. Van Etten possesses a skewed but beautiful voice and an unconventional ear for melody. The guitar slinging indie rocker is reminiscent of early 90s Liz Phair in this way; she has that aura of all-knowingness about her, which only corroborates her truly wonderful lyrics. On Epic, she never writes that perfect pop song, but she really doesn’t need to. She seems too confident, too real, to ever even want to take on the world. Though the best songs on Epic, the anthemic opener “A Crime” and the more rocking “Peace Signs” are also the most straightforward, Van Etten’s experiments with dream pop soundscapes and accordion drones are just as well done and nearly as interesting. Chillwavers, go cry to your mothers. Sharon Van Etten is the hippest girl in Brooklyn, and she doesn’t even care.

    18. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

    Indie Rock, Electronic, Post-Punk

    "It's toned down. I think it's more of a slowburning record."

    "I can't do slow burning. I don't like that"

    "Well it's not all like that"

    What is there even left to say that hasn't already been said about The Suburbs? Well, given the progress that Arcade Fire have made both musically and commercially in the past six years, it is easy to forget that they were once a very indie-pendent band. 2003's The Arcade Fire EP garnered them a small and very localized following in Montreal, but within a less than a year their debut LP Funeral had taken the indie world by storm in a way that no record had since In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in 1998, to which Funeral itself owes a certain debt. In 2007, Arcade Fire were competing with none other than Radiohead and LCD Soundsystem for all of the year-end indiesphere accolades. Neon Bible took the grandiose sound of Funeral and amplified it tenfold. Featuring dense, lush production and grand instrumentation, Neon Bible is one of the most massive sounding records of all time.

    Fast forward to 2010, and we find Arcade Fire pitted against LCD Soundsystem once again. While This is Happening was crushingly disappointing on the whole, barring exactly two fantastic songs, The Suburbs initially left me with just a strange taste in my mouth. Half of the tracks sound as if they were made by some alternate reality Bruce Springsteen who decided to ditch the E Street Band in favor of a troupe of New York City art punks and new wavers in the late seventies. Such songs, including the fantastic punk rocker "Month of May" and the driving "Half Light II (No Celebration)" are the grittiest Arcade Fire tracks ever. These songs do more than just flirt with distorted guitar, primitive electronics, and a rambunctious punk energy that initially seems far removed from the somewhat quaint nature of Arcade Fire that may be perceived by the uninitiated fan. A closer listen reveals that the distance between the punk attitude of The Suburbs and the high energy level of Funeral cuts like "Neighborhood 3: Power Out" may be only as great as the distance between Conor Oberst's garage rock side project Desparecidos and Bright Eyes' Lifted... Oberst was always angry, punk guitars or not, and like him, Arcade Fire have found a way to convey their same emotions through a different musical lens.

    This is where the other half of The Suburbs comes in, because while the musical experimentation that is found therein comes from the punk songs and electro new wave club bangers, the lyrical experimentation comes from the rest of the songs. These songs, such as the huge grower "The Suburbs", sound almost like a Bizarro version of Funeral slowed down by a fourth; a series of yearning midtempo piano, guitar, and string based ballads that feel less wracked with pain and sadness and more with regret and disappointment. In the past, Arcade Fire have only done regret and disappointment once. This is where The Suburbs is tied back to the band's roots. Just as the original 2003 Arcade Fire EP version of "No Cars Go" laid the framework for what would become Neon Bible, and was eventually re-recorded for inclusion on that very album, the song "Headlights Look Like Diamonds" from that same debut EP sets the stage for The Suburbs both lyrically and thematically. I still can't get into some of the tracks here, but by looking at The Suburbs from this perspective, it is easy to appreciate as one of the best albums of the year.

    17. The Hold Steady - Heaven Is Whenever

    Power Pop, Indie Rock

    There’s a line on “We Can Get Together”, one of the standout tracks from The Hold Steady’s new album, in which Craig Finn makes a Pavement reference. “She played heaven isn’t happening / she played Heaven is a Truck,” he sings. Hearing the title of that 1994 Pavement song in a Hold Steady ballad about locking yourself in your room and listening to all your old records seems strange; for me, The Hold Steady has always fallen in with Big Star, The Replacements, and all the other great power pop / pub rock bands of the seventies and eighties. Even though they release new records, they feel like they’re a part of something older, a last remnant of the 80s college rock radio scene. They have a quality that isn’t found in any other music today. It’s that pseudo-Springsteen sound, that Minnesota drawl, and that self-referential lyricism that makes The Hold Steady feel like this, but the facts show something else. At 39, Craig Finn is younger than my mom. He was old enough to be listening to Pavement in the early 90s, but young enough to still be a bit of a kid while doing it.

    Heaven is Whenever, the new album by these 2000s indie mainstays, is a timeless record. For the most part, it sounds just like Boys and Girls in America and Separation Sunday, the group’s most well-regarded albums. In some ways, this has always been the band’s main detriment. Throughout their decade long existence, there has been little variation to their formula. But while their sound seems generic on paper, it is Craig Finn’s unendingly brilliant lyricism that makes the band great. Still, there are subtle musical changes employed on record to keep things interesting. The clarinet on “Barely Breathing” and the yearning slide guitar on the fantastic opening track “The Sweet Part of the City” are good examples of this. Overall, Heaven is Whenever is another well made chapter in the Hold Steady’s catalogue. It maintains what they do well, and tries to improve what they may not.

    16. Free Energy - Stuck On Nothing

    Power Pop, Indie Rock

    Stuck On Nothing, the debut album by Free Energy, begins with a self titled song. Like many of the somewhat rare self titled songs that bands release, the song “Free Energy” serves to perfectly encapsulate exactly what the band is about. “Free Energy” is the best self titled song that I have heard since Titus Andronicus’ ”Titus Andronicus”, from their 2008 album The Airing of Grievances. Like that song, “Free Energy” is a high energy fist pumping anthem, but while “Titus Andronicus” finds its inspiration in self loathing and misery, “Free Energy” is one of the most joyful, exuberant, youthful, and least ironic songs to emerge in years. Such is the nature of the songs on this album. Stuck On Nothing is a wholly consistent set of ten mostly-uptempo fantastic power pop songs. If Free Energy is hip, and I really don’t think they are, it is because they seem so sure in what they are doing that they come off as being effortlessly cool. The same principle applies to their music. These songs sound instantly familiar - from the Thin Lizzy twin guitar lead attack to the supple and thick sounding power chords, none of this hasn’t been done before. Free Energy’s saving grace is that on Stuck On Nothing, such things have never sounded so fresh. The band that Free Energy might be most reminiscent of is Weezer; the high production and power pop sensibilities of Stuck On Nothing sound like what Weezer could have been in the past decade. Rather than descending from mediocrity with The Green Album to utter terribleness with Raditude, Weezer should have been fully capable to create an album as great as Stuck On Nothing. Thankfully, Free Energy did instead.

    15. Crystal Castles - Crystal Castles ( II )

    Electronic, Synth-Punk, Chiptune

    ~In which I write about how Alice Glass is the sexiest human alive~

    I mean, seriously?

    I’ve never seen anyone or anything so immediately arresting in my life.

    That contrast. That ridiculous dyed bed hair. Those eyes. Everything about her screams rebellion and reckless abandon. Her onstage antics consist of screaming, drinking, and crowd surfing. She throws herself from the stage knowing that she will be violently felt up by dozens of sweaty hipsters and she does. not. care. These reasons and more are why none other than Alice Glass is the very female embodiment of punk music in 2010. And isn’t it ironic that the most hardcore, badass, punk rock record to come out all year was released by her band Crystal Castles, a band that at the end of the day is a synth pop band. I mean, the disparity between punk and electropop in the 80s was so great that it took ten years for someone to even attempt to bridge that gap. The man who did so with 1989’s Pretty Hate Machine went on to become one of the most polarizing and vociferous artists of the 90s. Crystal Castles are making a name for themselves too, and with their second self-titled album they have focused that raw punk energy into a very consistent and aggressive album. While Crystal Castles, their 2008 self titled album, flirted with chiptune beats and occasionally harsh vocals, the new Crystal Castles is raw, heavy, dark and aggressive. At the hands of The Rapture and DFA 1979, that dance-punk scene has been played out since 2003 New York. But though it bears some stylistic similarities, Crystal Castles isn’t that kind of music. Actually, the closest thing to this record is the band Suicide, Alan Vega’s bizarre synth punk outfit. Like Avey Tare’s Down There, the cover of Crystal Castles perfectly conveys the mood of the music inside. This is an album for angry punks who can let loose from time to time; more befitting of a moshpit than a dance floor proper.

    14. Daughters - Daughters

    Punk Rock, Post-Hardcore

    In a fairly recent Song of the Day post regarding the band Daughters, I focused on the vocals of Alexis S.F. Marshall as being the best thing about this band. In retrospect, I’ve come to the conclusion that while the Marshall’s vocals are certainly the most interesting thing about Daughters, they are not the best. Who is Marshall emulating with his bizarre voice? Is he Joey Ramone? Glenn Danzig? Nick Cave? Was I correct to pin him as Thurston Moore? Maybe not. Marshall himself has described his voice on Daughters, the 2010 self-titled album by this Rhode Island band as “the sound of Elvis Presley being tortured”. This colorful description is equally apt; after reading that, the similarities to Elvis’ vocals cannot be unheard. On songs like “The Theater Goer” and the masterpiece “The Hit”, the image of a writhing, bleeding punk Elvis gyrating to the strobe-like post-hardcore rhythms crowds my vision, only enhancing my appreciation for Daughters. The record, while not entirely original (it seems to take a lot of influence from The Jesus Lizard’s Goat) follows a formula that’s been absent from punk rock for a long time. Ever since Refused showed the world The Shape of Punk to Come, there has been a perception that harsh and screamed vocals are necessary to achieve a hardcore sound. On this album, Daughters prove that with a fantastic rhythm section and razor sharp guitars, clean vocals can have an even more powerful effect.

    13. Tame Impala - Innerspeaker

    Psychedelic Pop, Psychedelic Rock

    Tame Impala come from Australia, but they may as well come directly from 1968. Granted, this would have to be a sort of alternate reality 1968 in which punk had already happened and everybody listened to The 13th Floor Elevators’ Psychedelic Sounds Of… instead of The Beatles. The retro-futuristic sound that Tame Impala employ on Innerspeaker is a kind of psychedelic rock that is particularly far removed from what passes for “psychedelic” music these days. It takes a truly trippy and mindbending album to reduce over a decade of critically regarded psych pop to middling indie cutesiness, and Innerspeaker is that very album. For one thing, it rocks significantly harder than any of those albums. Driving tracks like “Desire Be, Desire Go”, “Solitude is Bliss” and the instrumental “Island Walking” set a new standard for psychedelic rock in 2010, but the album Innerspeaker is also filled with plenty of fantastic psychedelic pop, the kind which feels like it came from as far away from the standard indie beach scene as possible. Tame Impala are not the Morning Benders, and while they share a certain scuzziness, Tame Impala are much more raw and visceral. While there is no “Excuses” to be found on Innerspeaker, the material on this record is much more substantial.

    12. Steel Train - Steel Train

    Indie Pop, Indie Rock

    The term “life-affirming” is used a lot in reference to music. Though this term tends to appear too much, and is often used incorrectly, it really is a wonderful way to describe some music. A life affirming album makes you want to sing, dance, and be happy. Most of all, it makes you want to live, and reminds you that there are things that make existence worth it. Steel Train’s 2010 self-titled album is a life-affirming record. From the opening crack of that bell on “Bullet”, the album’s Springsteenian opener, to the end of the somber and characteristically wordy closer “Fast Asleep”, Steel Train rings with unwavering exuberance and joy. Steel Train’s sound is so happy and wonderful that it nearly feels overwrought, but is never truly excessive. Unlike their many ipod-commercial indie pop contemporaries, Steel Train captures this perfect sunny day life feeling without all the ridiculous indie cliches. Like many of the great pop releases on this list, Steel Train is completely irony free, and while it is definitely indie, and possibly cliche, it is never ridiculous.

    11. Nana Grizol - Ruth

    Folk Punk, Indie Rock, Indie Folk

    Ruth, the sophomore album by folk punkers Nana Grizol, begins quietly with a slowly picked acoustic guitar. By the time frontman ­­­­and primary songwriter Theo Hilton begins to sing “Cynicism”, the opening track, no aspect of his band, be it lyrical, vocal or otherwise, immediately seems unique. For those first few seconds, Nana Grizol are just another folk band, playing sad songs on street corners like everyone else. While that small-time street corner romanticism is a lovely image, Nana Grizol seem bigger than that. Though they come from humble origins, there is something grander about this band. Give “Cynicism” thirty seconds, and the listener is struck by such paradoxes as the innocent but all-knowing lyricism, the biting but restrained vocal tone, and the somber musical façade, under which lies a sea of explosive potential. Within minutes, that energy is released by unexpected horns and distorted electric guitars. From that point on, Nana Grizol never let it go, and while Ruth does find the band taking a break for some toned-down acoustic ballads, the energy remains hidden just beneath the surface. While it is undoubtedly powerful and engaging, Ruth does not have many of the common attributes that most folk punk bands share. Unlike albums by, say, Defiance Ohio and Andrew Jackson Jihad, Ruth never touches the political world, and instead documents familial and interpersonal relationships and feelings through some particularly thought provoking and heartbreaking anecdotes. Aside from the mind-numbingly beautiful “Cynicism”, the best of these may the rocking “Blackbox”, which displays absolutely crushing lyrics and a Conor Oberst-reminiscent vocal delivery that suits the music perfectly. In truth, Nana Grizol’s Ruth may not actually be a folk punk album at all. Musically, it calls to mind one album in particular, an album whose horn arrangements and acoustic/electric contrast (among other things) made it one of the most beloved and critically regarded albums of all time. This album, of course, is Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the 1998 masterpiece that caused the band to break up on the very verge of what was sure to be massive success. The horns of Ruth, gritty and layered, sound similar to those on such Neutral Milk Hotel songs as “Oh Comely” and “Holland, 1945”, the latter of which also features fuzzy and distorted guitars playing alongside viciously strummed acoustic guitars. The guitar techniques used on the best songs on Ruth are very similar. While Ruth is obviously not In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, it doesn’t need to be. It is still fantastic and, speaking in terms of theme and tone, a very different record with a lot of potential to become one of my favorites. I just realized that on my RYM account, I have both albums rated as a 4/5…

    10. Fang Island - Fang Island

    Math Rock, Indie Rock

    A lot of happy music has been made out of hardship, by people who had difficult lives or experiences but learned to appreciate what was worth living for and convey that through their music. There are the escapist records, the Born to Run clones, if you will, that are based on getting out and away from one’s wasted dead end lives. Though these can be done right, such as with Steel Train’s s/t, my number 12 AOTY, and the Killers’ perpetually underrated Sam’s Town, which may have taken the whole Born to Run thing a little too seriously, they have been written so many times that it takes a truly great record to pull something like that off these days. Then there are the self-deprecating faux-happy albums, made by the Stephin Merritts of the world, that use self loathing and sarcasm to create ironically happy music. These can also be brilliant, but Stephin Merritt is really the only guy who can consistently make great music in such a way.

    Fang Island makes music unlike either of these. It would seem obvious that happy music could be made by happy people for happy people who have all had at least fairly happy lives, but music is a depressed man’s art. Hell, art is a depressed man’s art. It’s been years since a band like this made a splash, but with Fang Island, Fang Island have taken the indie world by storm in a big way. Not only is it one of the most honest and believable musical expressions of joy ever, it is also the most original rock record since Glenn Branca’s “The Ascension” in 1981. Since the 60s, the term “rock” has had an annoyingly vague meaning. In this context, I’m not talking about post-rock, My Bloody Valentine-style shoegaze, or pseudo-avant-garde neoclassical wankery. I’m talking about straight up rock, with some power chords and some cool leads. Within the confines of that formula, Fang Island have made an incredibly creative album that essentially takes everything musically atrocious about hair metal and somehow makes it awesome by adding mathy time signatures and a youthful spirit. This formula would seem so tired if Fang Island weren’t so unpredictable. On lead single “Daisy”, an electrified guitar riff melds seamlessly into a wordless group singalong chorus. ‘Sideswiper” is even better; the aggressive fist have gives way to a warm acoustic guitar, which plays under a slicing lead. If there even are lyrics on this album, they couldn’t matter less. They may as well be reading these lines off motivational posters, and it works brilliantly. Fang Island have described their sound as that of “everyone high-fiving everyone”, which is a colorful if not entirely specific description. I’ve heard them described as “the arena rock of the future”, which I think might be more apt. Hair bands filled arenas in the 80s with zany guitar solos and some bizarre sexual appeal (?). Fang Island are going to be doing the same thing at this rate, but rather than donning tight leather pants, huge hair and makeup to make the people go crazy, they will be coercing those massive audiences entirely with undistilled happy vibes.

    9. Jónsi - Go

    Dream Pop, Art Pop

    Hearing the news that Sigur Ros, Iceland’s greatest post-rock band, was going on “indefinite hiatus” earlier in the year made me horribly sad. Though I was disappointed by Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaus, the band’s 2008 record, I firmly believed that Sigur Ros was capable of creating a record as magical as Agaetis Byrjun or ( ) again, or at least as massive sounding as Takk… Such albums expanded my mind and showed me beauty I had never heard before, and to this day few albums have had such a profound effect on me personally. When the solo album by singer and primary songwriter Jón Þór Birgisson, otherwise known simply as Jónsi, was announced and eventually released, I put off listening to it for months, fearing that it would disappoint me further and affect my opinion of the rest of Sigur Ros’ body of material.

    When I finally listened, I discovered an album that was very special. Firstly, Go, the plaintively titled debut solo album, is not Agaetis Byrjun. Building the last Sigur Ros album that disappointed me so, has abandoned the affinity for long instrumental buildups that characterized Sigur Ros’ sound entirely. Instead, launches into each song immediately, starting with the beautiful and spritely “Go Do”, and continuing all the way through “Grow Till Tall”. What is left are nine pop songs, mostly acoustic and featuring pounding rhythms. With most of them well under five minutes in length, the songs on Go are just as dreamy and yet much more real and immediate than Agaetis Byrjun or Takk…

    Like some of the songs on Með suð…, the lyrics to Go are almost entirely written in English. Hearing Jónsi sing in English is confusing at first, as his accent and unique vocal flourishes mask much of what he is trying to say. On “Go Do” and some other songs on Go, one may only catch a few words, but on “Boy Lilikoi”, a standout track from the album, his pronunciation is perfect and his vocals are clear. “I want to be a lilikoi, Boy Lilikoi / You grind your claws, you howl, you growl / unafraid of Hoi Polloi”, he sings. These lyrics convey youthfulness, setting the tone of the album, and also a raw, relatable spirit not found in the work of Sigur Ros, which, due to the nature of its origin and its often icy tone, feels very distant. The only song on Go that does not possess this rambunctious, almost animalistic nature is the closer “Hengilas”, a reserved and dignified way to end an album that almost feels like a rediscovery of ones own maturity.

    8. Snowing - I Could Do Whatever I Wanted If I Wanted

    Emo, Punk Rock, Indie Rock

    Link to my review of Snowing’s “I Could Do Whatever I Wanted If I Wanted”:


    7. Grinderman - Grinderman 2

    Punk Blues, Garage Rock

    I’ve tried showing this to punk fans, and they seem to hate it. Blues fans hate this too. The verdict? Everyone sucks.

    Like Tom Waits, Nick Cave has been making music for some absurdly large number of years, consistently releasing good-to-great albums. Though both have that certain personality that shows through on everything they do, neither stays in one place for much time stylistically. In 2006, Waits released the most ambitious album of his career, the sprawling Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards, a record as good as anything he had ever made. In 2010, Nick Cave has done the same. The first self-titled record released by Cave’s punk rock side project Grinderman in 2005 was heavy, aggressive and sexualized. On that album, songs like the lead single “No Pussy Blues” (it sounds exactly like you think) occasionally verged on sounding like novelty. Grinderman 2, the band’s new album, all the aggression and yearning perversion is there, but the sound is even more heavy. Everything about Grinderman 2 is bigger: Cave’s anger is even more pronounced, his lyrics even more sexual, his guitar playing even worse better. Nick Cave has sounded angry before. He’s sounded mean before. But barring the incredible and underrated Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds album The Firstborn is Dead from 1985, he has never sounded evil before. The majority of the songs on Grinderman 2 are heavy and dark from the beginning, managing to build on that heaviness and lift it into the stratosphere. On the opener “Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man”, Cave’s fiendish wolf howls signal an unexpected psychedelic guitar squall and pounding drums. Lead single “Heathen Child” is similar, with lo-fi distorted guitars and a truly monstrous chorus. But even the songs that don’t begin with such immediate raw heaviness reach that point eventually. “When My Baby Comes”, the best song on the album, masquerades as an acoustic ballad for nearly three minutes before it all comes crashing down. At that point, just when it is least expected, the band comes in to produce the heaviest two minutes of Cave’s entire career. Grinderman 2 should be the album that all people look to as an example of how to stay relevant and fantastic decades into one’s career.

    6. The Tallest Man on Earth - The Wild Hunt

    Contemporary Folk, Indie Folk

    Of the 19 other artists and bands responsible for creating the other albums in my top 20, The Tallest Man On Earth is reminiscent of one in particular. Sharon Van Etten, whose album “Epic” placed at #19 on the list, writes and sings relatable and true folk music, the kind which feels like it could have been released years ago and been just as meaningful. Swedish singer/songwriter Kristian Matsson records folk music under the name The Tallest Man On Earth, and has a similar attribute. Often with just an acoustic guitar and his high pitched croak of a voice, the 27 year old singer/songwriter has assumed the role of the folk hero, a once ubiquitous musical character that has largely been absent from the scene since the 70s. His 2010 album The Wild Hunt is an incredibly intelligent folk record that sounds truly timeless. In another time, Matsson could have been Bob Dylan, and comparisons to Dylan have abounded since The Tallest Man’s debut LP Shallow Grave was released in 2008. While Matsson is not Dylan yet, and of course he has appeared too late to every truly be compared to the early-1960s folk Dylan, he does have a similar vocal and even lyrical approach. As my mom is sure to remind me whenever she listens to The Wild Hunt, Matsson’s guitar playing is actually far superior to Dylan’s. On The Wild Hunt, moreso than his decent 2008 album, Matsson has developed a signature fingerpicked guitar style. With this style, he creates both aggressive and visceral songs such as the excellent “King of Spain” and equally wonderful slower pieces such as “Love is All”. In short, The Wild Hunt is one of those records that doesn’t necessarily contribute anything new, but that one wishes there were more of.

    5. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

    Hip-Hop, Pop Rap, R&B

    A couple months ago, I got in a little trouble over a review I wrote of Kanye West’s new album, the not-so-absurdly titled My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Actually I don’t want to write about this anymore. Just go read the pitchfork review or something. h8 u guys.

    4. Wavves - King Of The Beach

    Surf Punk, Pop Punk, Noise Pop

    Speaking of getting trouble, I really hate bros, bros! Sometimes I feel like a hypocrite because I absolutely love Wavves’ King of the Beach. Not only does Wavves make music that bros love, Wavves’ Nathan Williams is actually a bro himself! Wavves makes music that exemplifies bro ideals such as weed, girls, and partying. I mean, for christ’s sake that is a cat with a doobie on the cover.Music based on such things should immediately raise that red hipster flag in my mind that goes up whenever some bro bro bro is around, but on King of the Beach, it doesn’t. In a broad sense, my feelings towards Wavves’ King of the Beach are similar to my feelings about much of Kanye West’s work. Kanye’s obnoxious personal attributes annoy me just as much as Wavves’ bro tendencies. But even before West acknowledged his egotism and short temper on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, I still appreciated his body of work. The same can’t really be said for Wavves - Nathan Williams’ first two records were essentially solo works; their shit-fi production value was gimmicky and lame, and while some nuggets of surf punk brilliance could be found beneath, they were few and far between. These songs, such “No Hope Kids” and “So Bored” from Wavvves, set the standard for much of the songwriting on King of The Beach. Herein are twelve great pop songs, many of which outweigh the charm of the Wavvves highlights with substantial musicianship and good production. Many of these tracks are fun pop/punk anthems; the title track’s jangly guitar and juvenile lyrics are reminiscent of Blink-182, as are the surfy “Oooohs” and crisp feel of “Idiot”. But Williams is entirely aware of these similarities. On the excellent “Take On The World”, he acknowledges his musical pitfalls, saying “I still hate my writing, it’s all the same.” Nathan’s solution to such a problem is what sets King of the Beach apart from other california pop and punk records. He experiments with primitive electronic elements and reverbed vocals, adding elements of the chillwave aesthetic to his sound. The resulting songs are among the best on the record, most notably the stand out track “Mickey Mouse”, a song-of-the-year contender that sounds like Panda Bear gone punk. Why can’t more bros make music like this!?

    3. Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz

    Electronic, Art Pop, Chamber Pop

    Sufjan Stevens made a name for himself as an indie folk musician with his brilliant three-album string of Greetings from Michigan, The Great Lake State, Seven Swans, and Illinois, the last of which is a definite contender for my album of the decade. Although it was these albums that launched him into the public perspective, the folkified image of Stevens that these albums give off is not the entire picture. With The Age of Adz, Stevens is not trying to redefine himself so much as remind the world that there is more to him than just that.

    Musically speaking, The Age of Adz is for the most part very far removed from the majority of his other work. Synthesizers are used on almost every song, and other electronic elements abound on songs like the glitchy “Too Much” and the gorgeous “I Walked”, which feature clamorous pulsating electronic beats. Rather than totally abandon the musical folk sensibilities that made him an indie hero, Stevens cleverly incorporates his trademark horns, flute trills and even quiet acoustic guitars in the electronic cacophony. Though the electronic elements take center stage, they also serve to make the quieter moments even more serene and beautiful. The massive sounding 8 minute epic “Age of Adz” is heavy and huge, with pulsing synths and crushing beats, and yet it closes with a fingerpicked solo acoustic guitar and vocal section. The record begins and ends in such a way, starting with the two minute solemn opener “Futile Devices” and ending with the very last movement of the unbelievably epic 25 minute “Impossible Soul”, in which Sufjan completely subverts the message of the previous 23 minutes and recaps the entire record with one line: “Boy, we made such a mess together.” The Age of Adz is that mess.

    Although The Age of Adz is for the most part a sonically robotic album, it is more personal in terms of lyrics than anything Stevens has written before. Upon listening to these confessional tales of heartbreak and sadness, it becomes clear that everything that appeared novel about Sufjan Stevens - the historical references, the 50 states project, and even perhaps his incorporation of his faith into his music - were simply things to hide behind. On Illinois, Sufjan’s most personal moment had to be prefaced by a story about a serial killer. On The Age of Adz, he is immediately confessional, addressing the second person and/or himself on every song. The Age of Adz often finds him musing about his age, as on the gorgeous “Now That I’m Older”. “It’s different now, I guess. I wasn’t older then”, he sings, in what seems like a response to the inevitable backlash from folk-purists. At his most personal moment ever, Sufjan and his heavenly sounding choir sing directly to Stevens himself. “Sufjan, follow your heart”, they sing. The Age of Adz is the culmination of a life spent heart-following, and rivals Illinois as the best Sufjan Steven’s album.

    And I didn’t even mention when he repeats “I’m not fucking around” sixteen times.

    2. Perfume Genius - Learning

    Slowcore, Lo-fi, Chamber Folk, Indie Folk

    It is a rare album that makes me cry solely via listening to it. So rare, in fact, that only one made me do so in 2010. I can’t count how many horribly depressing, incredibly sad albums I listened to this year, and while many affected me greatly, it was really only one of them that provoked such a deep emotional reaction that I really couldn’t contain myself.

    I discovered Perfume Genius in late June, soon after I had taken a job at WNHU, a local college radio station. My job was to listen to all those CDs that get sent to the station by record labels and hopeful independent artists hoping to get airplay. After sifting through 3 or 4 albums that were somewhere between mediocre and terrible, i focused on a CD at the bottom of the bin. It lacked a proper cover, liner notes or even an info sheet. All that was contained in that plastic jewel case was a CD with the plaintive title “Perfume Genius - Learning” and a little sticker that said “Perfume Genius is the project of Seattle, Washington singer/songwriter Mike Hadreas. This is his debut album.”

    On a whim I put the CD in the player.

    What I got was an album the likes of which I had never heard. People have been singing and playing sad songs on piano for what seems like ages, but no one has ever done it like this. From the title track’s opening line, I was struck by the anxiety and grief in Hadreas’ voice, echoing Elliott Smith or the more depressed moments in Sufjan Steven’s discography. “No one will answer your prayers, until you take off that dress”, it goes. Such a statement could be meant as a snide or sarcastic comment about the unfortunate state of the world, but in Hadreas’ hands it feels entirely serious and real. When asked in a Whiteboard Project interview what his favorite word that critics had used to describe Learning was, he replied simply “honest”. As I mentioned when writing about Sharon Van Etten’s “Epic” (#19 AOTY), In an internet age where blogs and mp3s are the conduit by which music is transferred from musician to listener, honesty is increasingly found to be absent in music. Mike Hadreas may not be miserable anymore, but he once was. His harrowing stories, some frighteningly specific and detailed (“Mr. Petersen”) and others vague but overarching, are painfully honest and played with a lifetime’s worth of hardship coloring every word and stroke of a piano key. People’s lives get better, though, and it would be naive and shortsighted to say that Learning doesn’t provide the listener with something moral and uplifting. On “Learning”, the title track, Hadreas sings in his cracked falsetto, ”You will learn to survive me”. Perfume Genius may be fucked, but that doesn’t mean you have to be.

    1. Titus Andronicus - The Monitor

    Indie Rock, Punk Rock, Folk Punk

    “In our basements we all look so bored / We’ve never seen the glory of the coming of the Lord”

    How do I approach an album that has been rapidly approaching becoming my favorite album ever for much of the year from a critical perspective? There’s something so vile about the role of the critic, as if they can not only reduce an entire album to words on a page, but actually change the very worth of an album itself. So instead I’ll give you a story. If you know me, you’ve probably heard this before. You might have even been there. But here it goes. It started around April, when I heard that this band Titus Andronicus was coming to play at the Lilly’s Pad, a tiny room upstairs at Toad’s Place in New Haven. I had heard of them (via Pitchfork, lol… etc.), but never actually listened before. I wanted to take a girl to a concert (naturally) and they were the band coming up that I was even remotely aware of or interested in. So I downloaded 2008’s The Airing of Grievances and their new album The Monitor and got ready to see the show in a couple weeks. Then it turned out that the girl didn’t want to go (h8 girls) and I didn’t want to go alone, so I missed the show. What I gained was something much better and far more rewarding than some stupid girl. Upon first listening, I thought that The Airing of Grievances, with it’s Seinfeld-referencing title and lo-fi garage rock bite, was nice and angsty, befitting of an angry teenager like me. I like that it was mean, self-deprecating and loud, and I connected with Patrick Stickles, the band’s bearded and badass frontman for being “just like me”. In retrospect, such a connection was somewhat silly. I’m not unique, and my feelings aren’t special. With The Airing of Grievances, Titus Andronicus wrote a record that I’m sure plenty of musically-inclined teenagers, and not just me, could relate to.

    I got around to listening to The Monitor about a week after this realization, and at the time I was perhaps understandably pretty depressed. The Monitor begins with a distant voice, sounding as if it was recorded over the phone. “Are we ready to go?” Patrick whispers on “A More Perfect Union”. I was not. Gazing at the cover, one can feel the grit and the soot of the Civil War deep within. I can feel it in my bones. I can feel the chills and the pain and all the grief of death and life and personal wellbeing. How can I be concerned with my problems when people fought and died and lived lifetimes hundred of years before I was born? The Monitor is not strictly a concept album about the Civil War. It is a concept album about coming to terms with how awful you have been for your whole life, and how much of a loser you are, and how it’s absolutely not “not the end of the world”. Every word, every little guitar lick, and every vocal inflection on this beautiful piece of art is perfectly right and true. There is nothing that could be changed to make The Monitor better. As the crowd sings on “No Future Part Three”, “You will always be a loser, and that’s okay.” Titus Andronicus are a bunch of losers. Patrick Stickles is a loser. I might be the biggest loser of all, and that’s okay. “It’s alright the way that you live”, the group sings on the ballad “To Old Friends and New”.

    I did finally get around to seeing Titus, by the way. Well into my period of obsession with The Monitor, I found out that they were coming back to the Lilly’s Pad on July 10th. I told all my friends and got tickets to the show, and I really couldn’t wait. The day came, and my dad drove me and the guys in my band to the place. We pulled up on the curb and I noticed a certain lanky bearded man who may as well have been waiting in line to go to the show. “It’s Patrick”, I said. “Who the hell is that”, said my dad. We got out and talked for about 15 minutes (by the way, most of this “talking” consisted of me gushing over The Monitor and telling him how he was such an incredibly real and honest and inspirational figure to me) and he complimented my Feelies t-shirt! I was so profoundly touched. What an incredible guy, a true American hero and the heir to the throne once held by the likes of Paul Westerberg, Alex Chilton, and Rivers Cuomo. At the show, approximately 150 people packed themselves into a room slightly larger than my bedroom and screamed every word to every single song they played. I thought I was the biggest Titus fan ever, and I was shocked once again that they had touched so many people. But this time, it didn’t depress me. They are not my band, they are a band that every single person, male or female should listen to obsessively forever (and ever!). The Monitor is the new Let it Be, a manifesto for disaffected teens and one of the very best albums I have ever heard. So i’ll leave with this, an excerpt from the gigantic 14 minute closer “The Battle of Hampton Roads”, which takes its name from the first battle of two ironclad warships, but only devotes two lines to the event itself.

    “And so now when I drink, I’m going to drink to excess
    And when I smoke, I will smoke gaping holes in my chest
    And when I scream, I will scream until I’m gasping for breath
    And when I get sick, I will stay sick for the rest
    Of my days peddling hate out the back of a Chevy Express
    Each one a fart in the face of your idea of success
    And if this be thy will, then fucking pass me the cup
    And I’m sorry, Dad, no, I’m not making this up”
  • Snowing - I Could Do Whatever I Wanted If I Wanted (2010) Review

    Dic 9 2010, 4:39

    Sometimes, I can’t comprehend what it would be like not to feel young. My parents don’t understand youth anymore, and even though I like to think that I crave maturity from an intellectual perspective, I’ve actually never felt more like a kid.

    I’m fifteen years old, and Pennsylvania indie-emo punks Snowing make music for me. This is a brand of indie rock passed down from Big Star to The Replacements, Weezer, and now Snowing and countless other indie emo bands. It’s the kind of music that drips with nostalgia and strikes something deep in the listener’s heartstrings. I can listen to Let it Be and feel like Paul Westerberg knows me and understands what my life is, or at least understands that sometimes hard work, creativity, and all the shit your parents said you would need down the road just aren’t enough. I Could Do Whatever I Wanted If I Wanted is a record in a similar vein; singer John Galm is the young and hip guidance counselor, indebted more to Paul Westerberg than he ever was to the Kinsella brothers. But while Westerberg’s dulled razorblades and cheap beer vocals conveyed a lifetime’s worth of hardship and lessons learned, Galm’s high-pitched emotive slur carries a message closer to that of your best friend. Both records are about youth, but while Let it Be found The Replacements exploring the concept from a newly mature perspective, I Could Do Whatever… is youthful both in and of itself.

    At fifteen, it’s easy to listen to John Galm cry about friends (Mark Z. Danielewski), girls (It’s Just a Party), alcohol (KJ Jammin), ‘feelings’ (Memo Yeah That’s Fine Man), or all of the aforementioned things (Why Am I Not Going Underwater) and it’s totally believable because I’ve never experienced anything that might prove his fuck-laden wordy ramblings wrong. Unfortunately, this is what worries me. I won’t be fifteen forever, and even though Snowing is meaningful to me now, I don’t know if I will believe them anymore in ten years, or even in five. Alex Chilton and Paul Westerberg were preaching the gospel to affected indie kids in the 70s and 80s, and those kids, now middle aged, can look back from their office space and TV-tray worlds and think “I should have listened to them.” Galm knows this. On “So I Shotgunned a Beer and Went Back to Bed”, a fantastic mid-tempo indie rock anthem, he reaches his most personal level. As the drums and guitars fade out, Galm is alone in a dark room with his bass guitar, singing “I’ll do my best to live my life without regret.”

    Indeed, I Could Do Whatever I Wanted If I Wanted is a deeply personal record. Lyrically, it reads sort of like your diary. Who hasn’t discovered that “relationships don’t burn; they fade out!”, like Galm does in “Why Am I Not Going Underwater”? Rarely does Galm strive for profundity, preferring to apply meaning to his somewhat ordinary words through his singing and through the instrumentation. This is where the band comes in. While on Fuck Your Emotional Bullshit, Snowing was uniformly aggressive and aggressively uniform, they are much more willing to tone down the punk and delve into more melodic indie rock and even slowcore on I Could Do Whatever…. The best example of this, along with the aforementioned “So I Shotgunned a Beer”, is the American Football reminiscent “Damp Feathers”. It’s driving bass line and restrained vocals are so far removed from their punk roots that it feels jarring at first. At four minutes and two seconds, it is also comparatively long. In their limited discography, only “So I Shotgunned a Beer” is longer. Both of these tracks are significantly longer and slower than the rest of I Could Do Whatever…, and certainly anything on FYEB, but they also find the band members at their songwriting peak. When a distant voice beckons the listener to “Come closer”, it’s downright beautiful, something I never would have expected from Snowing.

    As nice as this experimentation is, it is good that the band keeps its emotive hardcore roots here. Though one day Snowing may be able to make a full on slowcore album, they are not yet ready. They are still too energetic, too lively, and too angsty. The most upbeat songs on the new album rival the best on FYEB, but they too are more melodic and self aware. The biggest shout-along chorus on the record comes from “It’s Just a Party”. Following the somber “So I Shotgunned a Beer…”, and in reference to a certain “Melissa” from that song, the whole band shouts “Hey there Melissa, you’re fucking awesome!” repeatedly. The catharsis rushes in, and everyone feels like dancing. Truthfully, the only song that would really feel at home on their EP is “Malk It”, a song that builds up to Snowing’s heaviest moment. It is a gigantic and, for the album, uncharacteristically angry song. But even on “Malk It”, the band can’t retain this anger. Buried in the mix and sounding more distant than ever, John Galm sings “I wanted to say… I’m sorry”. This is a pivotal and heartwrenching moment of the record: the moment at which the listener realizes that these guys might not actually know everything.

    On Fuck Your Emotional Bullshit, last year’s angstily titled EP, Snowing were angry. They were hipster punks, and they were those scary kids scaring kids. With I Could Do Whatever I Wanted If I Wanted, there is both more sadness and more joy, but less anger. Snowing are your friends and your older brothers, swapping stories with you about emotional problems and offering advice even when they honestly don’t really know where they’re headed. Even though John Galm is almost always singing about himself, all I can hear him say is “You could be better forever… if you wanted, dude.”

  • R.E.M. - Automatic For the People (1992) Review

    Giu 29 2010, 4:07

    "You don't owe me anything / You don't want this sympathy"

    As plaintively stated in "Everybody Hurts", sadness is a universal human emotion. At some point in his or her life, every person has experienced some event of such unequivocal pain, loss, or disappointment that makes us grieve; disoriented, we face the world with the kind of infantile vulnerability that defines a child. We come to crave a mother's consolation, we cry for help, and for better or worse, we redefine ourselves in the process. My depression now defines my life, impacting my grades, my social behavior, and my sense of self-worth. With breathtaking scope and startling accuracy, Automatic for the People charts this cycle of depression through Michael Stipe's poetic lens, and in doing so, provides an ocean of hope to those trapped within this vicious circle.

    The album begins with the chilling Drive, a, well, driving minor key acoustic guitar led anthem which, through heavily reverbed and echoed vocals, sarcastically mocks the Jonathan Richmand/Springsteen rock cliche of kids driving away from home with hope for a new life. It's bleak outlook on this common musical notion perfectly emulates the initial feeling of cynicism and bitterness towards life that depression leads to. The song is hopelessly dark, and as it climaxes, Peter Buck's electric guitar storms in, furiously announcing the album's arrival. Subsequently, Try Not To Breath offers a disturbing but brilliant double entendre. "I will try not to breath" Michael Stipe sings, either a startlingly morose threat of suicide or a childish reversal of the old saying "Don't hold your breath." Who is it that Stipe is waiting for? It is not a specific person or thing so much as a call for help. Furthermore, the song takes on a third meaning when one considers the second verse. "This decision is mine. I have lived a full life and these are the eyes that I want you to remember." In light of Terri Schaivo and cases like hers, "Try Not To Breath" seems to be a statement of a rational and self aware need to die. However, by the end of the song, Stipe sings that he only wants the ambiguous second person to understand to "remember". This internal torture marks Stipe's own depression, while the subject matter helps the listener understand his fascination with death, a theme which is nearly ubiquitous on "Automatic for the People." The following track, The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite has been criticized as throwaway and thematically out of synch with the rest of the album, but while I recognize its upbeat and seemingly joyful nature as different, a closer listen reveals its ironic nature as a simply great pop song. The indecipherable chorus is classic R.E.M. - impossible to understand, and seemingly meaningless once the words are finally discerned. Thankfully, Sidewinder does provide a much needed dose of joy early on in an otherwise stark and depressing album.

    Everybody Hurts, which follows, is somewhat deservedly disliked among R.E.M. fans. For some, it was seen as the point at which they stopped being a "cool" band. It certainly does contain a fairly high concentration of sappiness, as well as lyrically coming across as somewhat middling and overwrought ("Sometimes everything is wrong/Now it's time to sing along""). But who can deny the emotional power harnessed by that chorus? "Everybody Hurts" has a near-Hey Jude level of epic crescendo; the final "You are not alone!" is enough to bring tears at my most pathetic. Perhaps one needs to approach this song from a certain perspective to enjoy it. While line's such as the central "Everybody Hurts, everybody cries" might come off as generic and meaningless in a normal state of mind, they gain innocently beautiful meaning in a sad one. After the emotional tour de force that Everybody Hurts evokes, the listener is graced with the sombre New Orleans Instrumental No. 1, a mellow funeral effigy which at just over two minutes never overstays its welcome but rather provides a quiet period for reflection. Without vocals, "New Orleans" forces the listener to focus on the instrumentation, which is mostly the same throughout the whole album. Unlike Out of Time, which boasted lush, occasionally overdone instrumentation and production, Automatic is more sparse. It still retains a very high production value, but everything on Automatic is more reserved than its predecessor. The string arrangements, while prevalent, are more folk influenced, as well as the organ tracks, which recall Green more than Out of Time. The guitar also takes on a very different role for Automatic. No longer the jangley riff-master of the IRS Years, Peter Buck's guitar contributions here are rarely more than an afterthought, often solemnly following Michael's bright vocal melodies. Rather, Buck's strength shows more on the mandolin led tracks. His playing shines on the sinister Monty Got a Raw Deal, which boasts a mandolin riff of Losing My Religion proportions.

    Anyway, Sweetness Follows continues on with the theme of death and rebirth. Michael talks about burying his mother and father, and asks what would happen if he "lost another". I am not sure if "Sweetness Follows" is suggesting that sarcastically or honestly, but the vocal harmonies and horn arrangement make it a great song. Ignoreland, is upbeat, like "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite" except instead of pop perfection, it is angry and void of the joy and happiness that "Sidewinder" encapsulates. Led by a charging electric guitar riff and a blasting harmonica, Michael Stipe's stream-of-consciousness lyrics read like OK Computer-era Radiohead and play like Henry Rollins after a trip through the library. "I'm just profoundly frustrated by all this. So, fuck you, man" might be the most hilarious thing Michael Stipe has ever written, intentional or not. Regardless, "Ignoreland" is an awesome, high energy song the internal frustration of which captures the rage of a depressive episode to a tee. The reflective Star Me Kitten, an interesting, albeit flawed experiment, serves as a cooling period for the hateful feeling invoked by "Ignoreland", and in the context of the album, it works.

    Finally, the album culminates in perhaps my favorite album closing trio in popular music. Man on the Moon is a slide guitar led mid-tempo hit single which covers topics as varied as Moses, Darwin, Elvis, and Andy Kaufman. None of it makes any sense but somehow when I'm sad it never fails to bring me to tears. The chorus is just glorious, with Mike Mills backing vocals adding so much, as they always seem to do. It's followed by Nightswimming, an absolute masterpiece which like Wendell Gee seven years earlier, stands out as the clear highlight of an amazing album. From the first piano line, Nightswimming plays like a modernized "Moon River", as Michael reads innocently and beautifully his story of swimming at night in Athens, forgetting his shirt at the water's edge, his shyness hiding just beneath the surface as he contemplates his fear of getting caught, of recklessness and water. "These things they go away, replaced by everyday" Michael sings. On an album full of turns and stops at which one has the opportunity to fully reassess himself, Nightswimming is the last and most meaningful point of reflection. In some ways, it feels like the culmination of a brilliant musical career, and a funeral song for a band that from this point would never recapture such flawless brilliance. Whatever your interpretation, it is easy to appreciate "Nightswimming" as one of the greatest musical achievements credited to R.E.M.

    Impossibly difficult to follow, and seemingly a great closer itself, Nightswimming is succeeded by Find the River which, however impossibly, serves not only to perfectly close this monumental album, but to inject a final sense that all is not lost into an incredibly dense, depressing record. Though Stipe admits "Nothing is going my way" he still finds "a need to leave". Finally, after a beautiful but harrowing 48 minutes, Michael Stipe leaves the listener with this, and as such, I will do the same.

    "The river to the ocean goes,
    A fortune for the undertow
    None of this is going my way
    There is nothing left to throw
    Of ginger, lemon, indigo,
    Coriander stem and rows of hay
    Strength and courage overrides
    The privileged and weary eyes
    Of river poet search naivete
    Pick up here and chase the ride
    The river empties to the tide
    All of this is coming your way"
  • R.E.M. - Blue (MTV Unplugged) (1991) Review

    Giu 14 2010, 23:10

    Recorded in 1991 and released later that year, "Blue" is an unauthorized audio release of R.E.M.'s 1991 MTV Unplugged session. For those of you unfamiliar with the "Unplugged" format, it is fairly simple. Bands are invited by MTV to play stripped down versions of some songs of their choice without the use of electric instrumentation. Some of these songs that are performed are aired on TV, and audio bootlegs of the full shows sometimes surface. Occasionally, these performances are released officially. Nirvana and Eric Clapton have both released official Unplugged albums to critical acclaim. R.E.M. performed two Unplugged shows, one in 1991 and another ten years later. Neither of these performances were officially released, so the quality is less than stellar on both. Nevertheless, their first Unplugged show "Blue" provides an interesting new look at R.E.M. songs both well known and more obscure.

    The show begins with the Out of Time standout "Half a World Away," a song the beauty of which transcends explanation. The performance is essentially note-perfect, and while the lush string arrangement and high production of the album version are missing, the stripped down nature of the song gives it a more honest and earthy tone, something that is best captured by a live performance. It is with this release that R.E.M. seem to assert their position as a folk/gothic country band, and while no songs from that album are present here, many of these performances evoke the more mellow cuts from their 1985 masterpiece "Fables of the Reconstruction." it pains me to listen to Blue without wondering how perfectly "Wendell Gee" or "Maps and Legends" would fit on here, but I digress. Rather than choose songs already tailored to acoustic performance, they instead chose to reimagine many of their songs new and old for the Unplugged setting. This is a bold choice, but one that pays off well on Blue. Their folk leanings are evident on darkly reserved "Low" from Out of Time, whose plodding bass stands out among the sparse instrumentation. When Michael raises his voice fully to sing "You and me, we know about time!" chills abound, before he continues the stream of consciousness outburst. On Blue, Low begins a remarkable five song run of fantastic performances. After Low comes a version of Murmur's "Perfect Circle", prefaced by a heartfelt dedication to an anonymous Donald. "Don't give up" Stipe says, before launching into the sparse, organ led performance. As the organ plays, Peters Buck and Holsapple (the latter of jangle pop band The dB's) play quiet acoustic guitar melodies, intertwining with each other to produce a very cathartic result. Stipe's own voice takes a backseat to the chorus harmonies of Mike Mills, stunning in their own right, but particularly beautiful here. All in all, it is perhaps the best performance on the record.

    ...that is, if it wasn't directly followed by Fall on Me, the best song on the band's 1986 record "Lifes Rich Pageant." Though my love for Fall on Me is well documented, I need to go on record once again to say that it is truly one of R.E.M.'s greatest accomplishments if not one of the greatest accomplishments in all of music. This song is mindblowingly good, and the Unplugged performance of it is no exception. The twin guitars shine once again, as do Mills' harmonies. Stipe sounds more harrowing than ever; his age gives the song a new, more mature sound, and while the average listener may be unable to understand his cryptic lyrics, he certainly sounds confident in what he is saying. After thunderous applause unexpected given the intimate nature of the show, the band segues into "Belong." While the Out of Time version suffered from immense overproduction, the version found here is quite wonderful. The guitars, bass and congas provide a flowing undercurrent for the gorgeous wordless chorus, rich in Beach Boys-like harmonies. The song is still marred by Stipes' borderline thought-provoking/borderline pretentious spoken word stuff in the verses, but it is a significant improvement over the original. The five song run culminates in a heart-warming cover of The Troggs' "Love Is All Around", for which Mike Mills takes lead vocals duties. Mills' child like voice gives the song a joyfully innocent tone, while Michael's dutiful "Ba ba ba ba ba"'s keep it centered.

    Unfortunately, none of the performances elsewhere on this record match the quality of the aforementioned six. While some of them are performed well, they seem uninspired. Such is the case with the version of the then-megahit "Losing My Religion", as well as the Document song "Disturbance At The Heron House." Even the encore closer "Pop Song 89," fantastic on record, sounds contrived and out of place in this setting. Worse still is the performance of the abysmal "Radio Song" which is improved slightly over the original by removing KRS-One's inexplicable rap, but still suffers from general sucking. Finally, "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" is performed as something of a joke; a bitter kiss off to MTV who requested that it be played as an obvious cash grab. "We had to get the words on a computer," Michael says, "and I'm not sure they're right."

    In all, Blue is great in concept and scope and while often well executed, it suffers from some poor song choice and occasionally weak performances. Nevertheless, it is a worthy addition to any R.E.M. fan's collection.
  • R.E.M. - Out of Time (1991) Review

    Apr 15 2010, 13:46

    Near Wild Heaven... not near enough.

    I'm sitting outside on the fourteenth of April in pleasant New Haven, Connecticut. The sun is shining through the virgin green buds of the Linden trees, casting a shadow upon the front porch on which I sit, laptop by my side. Bees buzz in the breeze, too placid to sting or even move. The temperature is a beautiful 73 degrees Fahrenheit, and R.E.M.'s 1991 record "Out of Time" is playing.

    These are the days for which this album was made. I think I'm happier than I've been in months. What changed? Such is the paradox of Summer, the season during which one's troubles seem to simply drift away, as if they were never even there. The key to making what we know of as a "Summer Album" is to emulate this very feeling.

    The group's previous LP Green presented them with two very different possibilities as to what path the band could go down musically. Green's raucous arena rock songs and quiet, contemplative ballads were both executed well, and it seemed left up solely to the band's wishes which they would choose, keeping in mind that the choice would effectively define the sound of their Warner Brothers Years output. After the success of their 1989 World Tour, R.E.M., exhausted from the previous decade of near-constant recording and touring (they released a studio album every year from 1982-1988, touring constantly in between), took a year long break for the purpose of assessing their options and their effective position as a mainstream-fringe recording artist. The result? A shimmering, glorious record which, despite a few glaring issues, represents the pinnacle of R.E.M.'s career musically and production-wise. Songs like Texarkana, on which Mike Mills sings lead, glow with a fresh, lush sheen that appears to sound neither dated nor radically forward-thinking. With a prevalent Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys influence, the oft-maligned Belong and Shiny Happy People are actually pretty good songs when not taken seriously. They're kind of, well...dare I say happy? Indeed, happiness is a key theme on Out of Time. Another Mike Mills lead, Near Wild Heaven rings with hints of Lifes Rich Pageant. It's springy piano line conjures thoughts of Hyena and What If We Give It Away? Like those on Lifes Rich Pageant and Green, the songs present on Out of Time feature rich and diverse musical accompaniment. Organs, horns and harpsichords adorn many songs, while classical violins and cellos provide the backing for the whole album. Incidentally, the two songs that feature lead mandolins are among the very best on the record. One is the achingly beautiful "Half a World Away," perhaps the most sincere love song R.E.M. will ever write. During what is by far his best vocal performance up to that point, Michael Stipe sings:

    "Oh this lonely world is wasted
    Pathetic eyes high alive
    Blind to the tide that turns the sea
    This storm it came up strong
    It shook the trees
    And blew away our fear
    I couldn’t even hear"

    The other song, of course, is the legendary and immortal "Losing My Religion", a song the likes of which the world will never again experience. Losing My Religion is the best pop song of the 1990s simply because it defies the conventions of a pop song. Yes, it was Losing My Religion, not Smells Like Teen Spirit that first "broke the mainstream" for alternative music, and this song is just as anthemic without ever losing its musical credibility. For me, Losing My Religion defines the emotion and spirit of the nineties, but never stops influencing me as a child of the aughts. No, the world will never know another Losing My Religion, but thankfully we can appreciate it now. Oh, and I love the music video in all its borderline-pretentious arthouse glory.

    Indeed, Out of Time has very brilliant moments full of transcendent beauty. Why then, does it never reach its deserved heavenly goals? For one thing, some songs are just not up to the high bar set by classics such as Losing My Religion. The "funky" opening tune "Radio Song", featuring an inexplicable guest performance by rapper KRS-One is a near disaster, saved from utter failure only by the brief moments during which KRS is, well, not present. In addition, the instrumental "Endgame" strives for "Fall Breaks and Back to Winter (W. Woodpecker Symphony)", but due to its length, borders on boring and pointless. Most importantly, however, I find myself hating "Out of Time" most months of the year, simply because it truly only works as a Summer album. Today was perfect for this record, but as recently as last week I would have found myself disappointed by the thick production and spotty songwriting present. Taking this into account, the only thing that bumps "Out of Time" from being just an average album is the dark, dirge-like tenth track, an often overlooked number called "Country Feedback." This song's dark lyrics and rough musicianship would fit right at home on "Fables of the Reconstruction," and sounds like a lost classic as a result. Incidentally, Country Feedback actually hints at a very different future for R.E.M.; a future that would be met with very mixed reactions from fans and critics.

    Ah well. In the end, Out of Time certainly serves a purpose. I've listened to Out of Time three times in the time it took to write this review, and I've enjoyed every minute of it.
  • R.E.M. - Tourfilm (1990) Review

    Mar 30 2010, 20:15

    That better not be styrofoam, pal.

    In support of their first major label record, R.E.M. embarked on their first world tour in 1988. Shows on the Green Tour found the once-unknown Athens Georgia band playing stadiums and selling out arenas for the first time. This change in scope would force the band to take a different approach to performing live, and noticeable changes in the band's confidence and playing ability can be observed on this film, known simply as Tourfilm, which documents an arena show from 1989. The tracklisting and more, after the jump.

    1. Stand
    2. The One I Love
    3. So. Central Rain (Detail)
    4. Turn You Inside-Out
    5. Belong
    6. Orange Crush
    7. Feeling Gravity's Pull
    8. These Days
    9. We Live As We Dream, Alone/World Leader Pretend
    10. Poem: I'll Believe In Anything When I'm There.../Future 40's (String of Pearls)/I Believe
    11. I Remember California
    12. Get Up
    13. It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
    14. Pop Song 89
    15. Fall on Me
    16. You Are The Everything
    17. Begin the Begin
    18. With The People
    19. King Of Birds
    20. Low (Detail)
    21. Finest Worksong
    22. Perfect Circle
    23. After Hours (credits)

    Tourfilm opens with a bang. Before the foot tapping organ riff of "Stand" comes in, the listener hears the roar of a massive crowd cheering on their favorite band. Incidentally, this caught me off guard. Because of this project, I've been listening to R.E.M. chronologically. Before I popped in the audio CD of Tourfilm, I had effectively begun to think of R.E.M. as anyone else might have in 1988. I imagined R.E.M. playing small bars and clubs across the country, not stadiums and arenas. When the thundering roar of the crowd came in, that all changed.

    Tourfilm finds R.E.M. at the very moment at which their career was about to take wing. Listening, I find that the reason R.E.M. was the most successful of the college rock bands was that they were willing to adapt and change. While contemporaries The Feelies were breaking little new ground with "Only Life" (1987) and Pylon had all but given up hopes of a new record, R.E.M. was refocusing their talents, turning up the megaphone, and blasting awesome new music to a new world audience.

    Rarely does the band look back. The only song from Murmur performed here is the beautiful Perfect Circle, and while So. Central Rain is represented, it is merely a segment of the song. Rather, R.E.M. uses Tourfilm as a vehicle to document their moving forward. A demo version of the Out of Time (1991) classic "Low" is present, as well as a performance of the much maligned "Belong", which would later appear on the same album. Personally though, I think the song is pretty good, especially this live version, free from any overproduction.

    With this forward thinking attitude, the band really shines on Green/Document Era classics such as the anthemic "Orange Crush." Prefaced by a sarcastically sung "BE ALL THAT YOU CAAAAAAN BE... IN THE ARMY", the band launches into this upbeat song with a certain visceral energy. Not the immature punk energy of a band just getting on its feet, but rather the channeled energy of a band with a purpose and a proven method of conveying their message. As the drums pound and Buck's dirty riff repeats, Michael sings into a megaphone while the crowd whoops and shouts like a machine. The performance is perfect, and the message is clear. R.E.M. were ready to truly take on the world.

    For Document songs like Finest Worksong, the mixing problems present on the studio versions are cleaned up, and more energy is put into them, revealing the true quality of the songs, and their place on the live stage.

    As a stadium rock show, many of the songs performed on Tourfilm are more upbeat, up-tempo numbers. While these are nearly all well done, with the exception of the mediocre performance of "Stand", some of the best moments appear on the lighter side of the show. Prefaced by a poem, the countrified World Leader Pretend rings beautifully onstage. Similarly, Fall on Me and You Are the Everything are played with serene beauty not usually found at shows the scope of Tourfilm. Even the organ-led Murmur classic Perfect Circle sounds fresh and beautiful.

    That said, the best performance has to be that of the epic "Feeling Gravity's Pull", the nightmare inducing song from Fables of the Reconstruction. Peter Buck's guitar tone is as haunting as ever, and as the song picks up, the band leaves their comfort zone in a way that was only then possible. Even the gorgeous bridge section shines brilliantly amidst the jagged-edged verses.

    All in all, I would argue that Tourfilm lacks cohesion if only it weren't so damn awesome. Many of the songs sound even better here than in studio, which is saying something, given R.E.M.'s usually excellent production. A great live film/record.
  • R.E.M. - Green (1988) Review

    Mar 8 2010, 6:12

    1988 found R.E.M. at something of a crossroads. With a major record deal from Warner Brothers and a top ten single, the band seemed poised for mainstream success. In this way, it would appear that retaining the political role that R.E.M. had adopted with Document was in the best interest of the band commercially speaking. With this in mind, the follow-up "Green" could have easily been a sort of Document 2.0, less energetic, more polished, and written with less anxiety and currency. Thankfully, while their political/environmental message is not abandoned entirely on Green, it is approached with a certain resolve and maturity not seen from R.E.M. up to that point.

    Whenever the Document formula is not fully dropped, it is amended and improved. Roughly a third of the songs present on Green are upbeat rocking political anthems, but where this method produced largely mediocre songs on Document, tracks like the pulse-pounding Orange Crush work quite well. The secret lies in the production, which is murkier than Document yet still resonating. On Orange Crush, producer Scott Litt, with whom R.E.M. worked on Document, mixes in sounds of helicopters and muttered words, adding to the overriding anti-Vietnam theme. With Litt's production, guitars sound heavier, drums more machine-gun like, and bass more determined to the point where the more upbeat songs on green simply blow Document out of the water. Orange Crush, for all its anthemic fist-pumping fervor is not even the best of the bunch, as the following songTurn You Inside-Out is even more visceral and engagingly aggressive.

    "Divide your cultured pearls in haste
    I'm looking for to lay to waste"

    Stipe jeers, with the only believable kiss-off he has made to date. Mike Mills, ever distant sounding, still offers a remarkable backing vocal, supporting Michael with a resounding "I believe in what you do!" On the whole, Turn You Inside-Out is everything Document sought to accomplish, and an absolute highlight.

    Juxtaposed against these angry and well made anthems is the majority of Green: down-tempo meditations of mandolin and organ, perhaps no less politically or environmentally conscious than their rocking counterparts but exponentially more mature and lyrically well developed. Rife with images of the outdoors, woods and fields, these songs seem to channel the classic "Fables of the Reconstruction" and "The Good Earth." Some of the material is so good that it would be at home on either of those records, such as the achingly gorgeous You Are The Everything. As crickets chirp in the background and the mandolin riffs a beautiful pattern, Michael Stipe and Mike Mills sing their most romantic song to date. With repeated listens, You Are the Everything quickly reveals its nearly unmatched brilliance.

    Nearly on par with You Are the Everything is the underrated Untitled album closer. Slightly more upbeat musically and lyrically, Untitled reads like a call to arms if not an honest decree of romantic devotion. "The world is big and so awake", he sings. "I stayed up late to hear your voice"

    With two great counterparts, Green's largest issue is its failure to tie the two together. Attempts at finding a middle ground are few and far between on the record, and for the most part they do not succeed in connecting the firey with the contemplative. The catchy single "Stand" and the cheerful "Get Up" try, but ultimately succumb to the irony and forced nature of their own shimmering joyfulness. However, one song stands out as the perfect balance between Green's two very different personalities. "World Leader Pretend" is a reflection more than an anthem; a conflagration of emotion somehow detatched from any sense of aggression yet perfectly constructed lyrically and musically. It is the triumph of a band that never knew a direction, and the ultimate point of maturity for R.E.M.

    There are many things that are great about Green, but the sum of its parts are greater than the whole. As an experiment, Green was well executed. However due to a lack of cohesion, it is merely a good record that happens to display some incredible material.