The Best Albums of the Last Six Months
Here we are in July, and it's been a mixed bag, music-wise, in the Pajibaverse. We've had some truly excellent albums released so far this year, and some truly horrific ones. Given the sheer volume of albums that get released each month, we're never able to review all the ones we may like to, but I'd like to think we've hit most of the really good ones. With that in mind, we figured we'd run down our favorites of the year so far (out of those we've reviewed) -- sort of a mid-season report for music.
K: The Responsive Chord
If I had to describe The Responsive Chord in one word, that word would be: "chaos." And I mean that in a good way. This album is sonic chaos. It's an amalgam of hip hop, electronica, with traces of punk and rock, all chopped up, dosed with a steady diet of static and feedback, and spat back out. And I'll be damned if that cacophonous-sounding mixture doesn't work. K has taken a page from the DJ Shadow notebook, a kitchen sink approach to music that blends staccato beats, a dizzying electronic fusion, and made it sound like it's being recorded in a sinking submarine. Again -- I mean that in a good way.
Casiotone For The Painfully Alone: Vs. Children
What makes this record so great -- and it's really one of my favourites of the year, which is a lovely coincidence since I'd so confidently predicted it would be good -- is the way Ashworth uses his storytelling voice to switch into a personal mode, which he does on the closing track, 'White Jetta'. In it, he revisits a moment from his mother's dying days, and sings in his typically wry delivery, "Mom's been sick now for a long time/She says she hopes I'll want a family after she's died". Gulp. Ashworth has a way of hitting you with moments of truth, crisply plucked from people's lives, which leave you emotionally shattered.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs: It's Blitz
It's Blitz, despite any similarities it may have to other artists or albums, is still extremely difficult to fault. Yeah Yeah Yeahs have mastered their new chosen sound in almost every way. Even the slower songs thrive with power and honesty, and musical ability is anything but lacking. The brilliance displayed is not seen in flashes or moments, but in entire stretches, if not the entire album. Surely it is among the many masterpieces of the art-punk movement, and will stand tall in the band's catalogue for fans and newcomers alike. Whether it will spark the attention to break them into the mainstream remains to be seen, but it's unlikely Yeah Yeah Yeahs are the sort to care what anyone else thinks of them.
Lamb of God: Wrath
The guitar work from Mark Morton and Willie Alder is freakin' impeccable, and is an excellent example of how musically intelligent this contemporary metal movement is. Many times, I have been listening to a metal band, and where one person might hear screechy screamy grindy noise, I hear pieces of Stravinsky and his love for the octatonic scale. The album builds quickly from that first song, going headlong into the evilly drummed "In Your Words." You know how I mentioned this was some of the cleanest metal work I've heard in a while? Clean. Clean screaming, clean squealing, clean drumming--everything is literally SPOT ON. And in spite of Lamb of God being the poster child of the new American metal movement, this album is very accessible to non-metal music fans--which is probably why it debuted at the No. 2 spot on the Billboard 200.
Radio Moscow: Brain Cycles
Comprised of singer/songwriter/guitarist Parker Griggs, drummer Corey Berry and bassist Zach Anderson, Radio Moscow plays like Cream on steroids. It's pounding, grooving, blissed-out rock, full of whammy bar and wah-wah. Their sound doesn't call for ass-shaking -- it demands it. What's even better is they're showing signs of evolving. Their first eponymous album was decent, if uneven. Their sophomore effort maintains the dirty, throwback-to-Marshall-Stack sound, but shows polish in their playing and songwriting.
P.O.S.: Never Better
P.O.S., real name Stefon Alexander, is a unique beast of music, a rapper raised and active in the punk rock scene, member of hardcore bands like Building Better Bombs and also a founder of hip-hop outfit Doomtree. He is the synthesis of his environment and his influences, focusing heavily on beats and lyrics, but utilizing the power of shouting gang vocals and electric guitars to emphasize his emotions... It's so refreshing that, while Lil' Wayne's creative but messy flow and Kanye West's compositional but mostly thoughtless prowess boost so many unimaginative artists onto the summit of the Top 40, there are still musicians as inventive and moving as Stefon Alexander, pseudonym P.O.S., who reminds us that artists are not the genres they are pushed into, nor are they all the flat corporate mannequins made to imitate talented people.
Mando Diao: Give Me Fire
The album has an atmospheric feel--not "atmospheric," as in weird sounds and not much else (I'm looking at you, Animal Collective), though. Rather, the varied (but always rooted in classic rock) style creates a mood not unlike that of a Tarantino movie. Layers of horns, strings and keyboards give the songs the kind of depth that is almost always missing from so-called "garage rock;" it's these little touches that take Give Me Fire from good to great. The style might change from track to track, but the songwriting is sharp enough to keep the album flowing just the same
Thursday: Common Existence
Common Existence is easily one of their best albums, on par with my personal favorite, War All The Time. They continue to mix it up, with their songs incorporating numerous time changes and tempo swings. Vocally, Geoff Rickly switches easily between melodic singing, the occasional sotto voce spoken verse, and throat-scraping screams. It all flows smoothly, weaving around a solid rhythm section. It's a can be a cacophonous crowd up there with Thursday -- a six-person outfit with two guitarists, a keyboard, drummer, bass and singer, with hardcore aspirations can create a hell of a lot of noise. Beautiful, intricate noise, but noise nonetheless.
Grizzly Bear: Veckatimest
I feel no trepidation in saying that Grizzly Bear has grown to be one of my favorite bands in today's indie rock arena. Their musical sensibilities are impressive without being flashy, intellectual without being inaccessible, heartfelt without being whiny or arrogant. They carry influences and contemporaries on their shoulders, and throw them casually into that same spinning void where their own music resides, ever moving, echoing without walls, pulling the listener in little by little until he or she is just as much a part of them as the band members themselves. For those with patience, and for those who seek music in which to lose themselves without fear, there are few better bands than Grizzly Bear, and few albums quite like Veckatimest.
Matt & Kim: Grand
It's impossible to resist the affirmative option when listening to the sophomore effort from the Brooklyn duo Matt & Kim, despite how we may look on public transportation, at our cubicle, or walking through campus. What's amazing about the twosome, however, is that their sugared-up keyboards and ADHD drumming is consistently precious and pleasing without ever over-saturating the listener with their never ending positivity. From the sunny but never overbearing opener "Daylight" to the mid-tempo penultimate organ-driven "I'll Take You Home", they never get so out of control with their warmth and perkiness that it makes you want to take a break from the affability and go toward something more challenging or angst-addled (cough cough Mates of State).
Ben Nichols: Last Pale Light In The West
Ben Nichols, lead singer, guitarist and songwriter for the drawling, sprawling alt-country outfit Lucero has done something remarkable. He's created a concept album that sums up an epic tale of murder and betrayal, he's done it gloriously, and he's done it with only seven songs. The Last Pale Light In The West is an homage / musical adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 1985 novel Blood Meridian... It's the perfect vehicle for Nichol's gravelly, hard-life voice -- upon listening to him, you can't help but conjure images of tumbleweeds, sand and whiskey. But what will keep you coming back for more are the lyrics -- check out any of Lucero's seven albums for backup to that statement. But here we have grim, yet darkly beautiful lyrics to accompany a much less rock-heavy track list.
IAMX: Kingdom of Welcome Addiction
This is an artist and an album that rise above their genre, beyond the descriptors of "electronica" or "synth-pop." It's simply a darkly memorable piece of music. Fans of groups like Placebo, She Wants Revenge and Kid A-era Radiohead will definitely want to check out IAMX. As for everyone else, as I said: if he can pull me in (and I like Fall Out Boy, for fuck's sake), he'll probably appeal to quite a few of you. Just make sure that you give yourself the time to listen to Kingdom of Welcome Addiction start-to-finish. Each song on the record is excellent on its own, but taking in the composition as a whole is well worth your time.
Bonnie Prince Billy: Beware
The difference between Beware and the other albums he has produced under the B'P'B name is that this one is uncharacteristically warm. Most of his music has a melancholy tinge mixed with wailing violins, slide guitars, and forlorn vocals, but this album starts on a decidedly sweet note. Not coming from a minor place here, Oldham really moves forward with his beautiful layering, gorgeous backup harmonies, and atypical inclusions on electronic instruments and a solid brass section paired with his more typical acoustic stylings.
The Decemberists: Hazards of Love
While Colin Meloy's rock opera could have easily become a bloated beast, another whipping post for those naysayers who believe that concept albums belong on the shelf, the literate singer and his merry band of players could hardly have crafted a more brilliant work than this. If it were to receive its due, The Hazards of Love would be a destined cult classic that would resound through the years as a mark of storytelling in a rock and roll medium. One can assume that it will miss the radar of rock critics, and it will certainly never become a bestseller. But for those who take the time, and give this album what it deserves, The Hazards of Love will not disappoint. It will lift the spirit and the mind alike, and leave an indelible mark on indie rock fans yearning to hear a new story instead of the same old nothing.
Various Artists: Ben Folds Presents University A Cappella!
It's a difficult album to describe, and some of it really does take more than one listen. Yet, it's absolutely worth it, even to the coldest heart or the most hard-rocking listener. Ben Folds has done something that might be more commendable than a lot of the entries in his already impressive portfolio. He's taken an eccentric, oft-mocked musical style, thrown his songwriting and arranging ability into the mix, and created something that still succeeds in being not only unique, but completely engrossing.
Bon Iver: Blood Bank
For Emma, Forever Ago stood out partially due to the fact that it was recorded while Vernon was isolated in a Wisconsin cabin in the middle of winter. Instead of shooting himself in the head, like I would if I were left in cheese-head country all alone, he turned out an instant classic. Blood Bank is a short and sweet four song set, and seems to be a partial extension of that long winter at the cabin. Vernon's falsetto, vocal layerings and themes of love and heartbreak continue on this EP, but he also reaches ever so slightly outside of the box and uses some experimental methods.