Thursday, December 22, 2011

25 Favorite Albums of 2011

Last year I did mini-reviews of every album I listened to in 2010.  However, given that I listened to over fifty new albums which were released in 2011, I figured I'd just make a list of the 25 best.  All of these are good albums, but only three achieve greatness.  It was a solid year, but light on the eventual classics.

25. Crooked Still - Friends of Fall
Just an EP, but a solid one.  Aiofe O'Donovan was involved in three of the albums on this list, but this is the one that is carried by her delicate, whispery voice.  Can't wait to see her open for Punch Brothers in March.



24. Noam Pikelny - Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail

Punch Brothers banjo player Noam Pikelny made this record in October, which I bought mostly because of his hilarious pitch in the Punch Brothers email newsletter urging me to do so.  Fairly standard, but expertly arranged, bluegrass fare, and all instrumental besides a contribution from Aiofe O'Donovan.

23. REM - Collapse Into Now

This was the first REM record I listened to in some time, and I enjoyed it quite a bit.  And truthfully, I'd probably move it up if I got around to listening to it more.

22. Opeth - Heritage

Mikael Akerfeldt's music keeps getting more and more complex, but for some reason, it doesn't seem to have quite the impact it had back in the Blackwater Park days.  The loud/soft dynamic that made them so awesome as recently as their previous album is missing here.  Even so, it's a very good progressive rock album.

21. Chris Thile & Michael Daves - Sleep With One Eye Open

Never before had I thought anyone could do so much with just a guitar, a mandolin, and two voices.  This album is not groundbreaking, but very, very fun.

20. The Head And The Heart (self-titled)

These indie-folksters had a fair amount of attention there for awhile.  Solid, melodic folk balladry with a pleasant piano-heavy sound, but may not survive the test of time.


19. Dawes - Nothing Is Wrong
2011 will go down in my personal history as the year I fell in love with alternative country.  This alternative country/rock band from LA made a solid record here with a bit of a jangly pop feel.



18. Paul Simon - So Beautiful Or So What

Paul Simon always writes solid music, but this is said to be his best since Graceland.  Admittedly, I haven't heard any of his work during that stretch, so it's true by default.

17. Greensky Bluegrass - Handguns

This is a recent find for me, a result of their being revealed as part of the 2012 Telluride Bluegrass lineup.  Starts out OK, and gets better and better as the album progresses, and ends with a solid 12 minute jam.

16. The Jayhawks - Mockingbird Time

These guys were pioneers in the alternative country genre, and they're back together, and stronger than ever.... Well, maybe not ever, but at least since Tomorrow The Green Grass.  It's almost criminal how good they are at vocal harmony.

15. Old 97's - The Grand Theater, Vol. 2

Confession: I haven't even listened to Vol. 1.  That's weird, right?  Either way, more solid alternative country from another influential alternative country band.  This one seems, to me, to be a little more artful than the two above similarly-styled albums.

14. Dead Man Winter - Bright Lights

What do you get when you take much of Trampled By Turtles, and add drums and electric guitars?  You get Trampled By Turtles-flavored alternative country.  A few of the songs have a nice TBT flavor (and one doubles as an actual TBT song), and a few others are closer to being alternative rock.  At any rate, they're better as a progressive bluegrass band, but this is still thoroughly enjoyable.

13. Blackfield - Welcome to My DNA

I was really tentative about this album before it came out, but it turns out that everything Steven Wilson touches sounds good (this is one of three albums on this list with which he was involved).  This time around, Aviv Geffen was almost solely responsible for writing the songs, but what makes this record great is not the writing, but the recording and production.  Wilson did his usual phenomenal work here.

12. The Dodos - No Color

This progressive indie-folk duo has a sound that is all their own.  It is fairly minimalist, but they use acoustic guitars in a way I've never heard them used before.  For their minimalist instrumentation, their songs can actually be somewhat complex.  I like it.

11. David Lowery - The Palace Guards

It's really difficult to pinpoint what exactly Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven frontman David Lowery's first solo album is... Is it art rock?  Whatever it is, it's Lowery's best work since Greenland, with more mellow and introspective music than what we get from his bands.  Well, maybe "All Those Girls Meant Nothing To Me" isn't introspective, but that's the exception...

10. The Roots - Undun

I always kind of respected the Roots, but I was never one to sing their praises.  But this album is good.  One of the most intelligently-penned rap albums I've heard.  It's nice to have rappers who actually have something interesting to say, which hasn't been mainstream since Public Enemy (maybe an exaggeration...).

9. Bela Fleck and the Flecktones - Rocket Science

For this album, the Flecktones reformed their original incarnation, with piano player Howard Levy.  The result is one of their best albums ever.  These guys are one of the most entertaining instrumental bands around, and they're doing their part to keep jazz music alive.

8. Pain of Salvation - Road Salt Two

It's not as good as Road Salt One, but it still has enough stellar tracks to make it a worthy record.  My favorite is the mandolin tune "Healing Now."  Gildenlow is doing a great job alienating his prog-metal fanbase, but I always respect a musician who makes music for music's sake.

7. Steve Earle - I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive

This is my pick for country record of the year.  Earle's country-folk style comes across as incredibly authentic, and he actually has something to say here.  Steve Earle is an excellent songwriter and a man with something to say, and that combination often results in timeless works.

6. Okkervil River - I Am Very Far

Okkervil River have managed a very long string of good-but-not-spectacular records.  It's nice when a rock band has this much instrumental depth.  It gives them a sound much richer than most bands around, and Will Sheff's overly narrative vocal style adds some valuable uniqueness.

5. Laura Marling - A Creature I Don't Know

This album is like crack.  I get one of the catchy melodies from this record stuck in my head, and I absolutely must listen to it.  The usual culprits are "Sophia" and "Salinas."  Her writing is accomplished and intelligent, and her sexy British accent certainly doesn't hurt her cause.

4. The Decemberists - The King Is Dead

For half the year, this occupied my top spot.  This is not The Decemberists' most interesting album, but it is very accessible and likable.  It is well documented that they're paying homage to REM here, but they do it in a way that maintains their own unique style.

3. Yo Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile - The Goat Rodeo Sessions

What happens when you take three of the best bluegrass musicians in the world, and add the world's most accomplished cellist?  This.  You get this.  This is the most recent of the three great records to come out this year, and it is simply thoroughly enjoyable and impressively performed progressive bluegrass instrumentals, with two tracks with vocals by Chris Thile and Aiofe O'Donovan.  I constantly have the urge to listen to this disc.


2. Abigail Washburn - City of Refuge
This album came out in January, but never struck me until I saw her perform the material live in Telluride.  After that I was hooked.  This record is sheer beauty and texture, and her voice fits like a glove.

1. Steven Wilson - Grace For Drowning

Steven Wilson has spent the past few years remixing old King Crimson records, and here it finally manifests itself in his songwriting.  Grace For Drowning is the best all-around package I've run across in some time; the music is up there with his best work, the visual artwork (both the physical packaging and the music videos) is stunning, and the sound is better than any other I've heard.  The Blu-ray version has a clarity I never thought possible.  If you're someone who likes to immerse yourself in your music, rather than relegating it to rhythmic background noise, you have to listen to this record.

The Ghost of Eastside Records

Talk about a score.

I got a tip about a new record store in the Phoenix area.  It is called Ghost of Eastside Records, and seems to have risen from the dust of the old Eastside Records that used to be located in Downtown Tempe.  I heard about their great selection, and their great prices, so I decided to check them out.

I was blown away by their selection...and their prices.

Some of the purchases almost felt like I was stealing from them:
Jay Farrar & Benjamin Gibbard - One Fast Move or I'm Gone - $9 ($18+ on discogs)
Uncle Tupelo - Anodyne - $11 ($22+ on discogs)
Rolling Stones - Goat's Head Soup - $5 ($10+ on discogs)
REM - Out of Time - $7.50 (not sure which pressing I have, but the US one is $40 on discogs)
REM - Fables of the Reconstruction - $13 ($35 on discogs)
Pink Mountaintops - Axis of Evol - $5 ($10 on ebay and discogs)
The Jayhawks - s/t (the bunkhouse album) - $5 ($10+ on discogs)
Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama - $5 ($18+ on discogs)
Neil Young - Le Noise - $18.50 ($60+ on discogs and ebay)

I realize the advertised price of something is not always its true value, but that's about $80 for nine albums that would cost about $225 on the internet (if you don't look too hard).

So, whoever it is who runs the new Ghost of Eastside Records... I don't know how you can offer me these records at these prices and stay in business, but I salute you, and I hope you keep it up.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Mandolin, and Rock and Roll

I purchased this low-end mandolin,
the Epiphone MM-20 A-style.
A month ago, I decided to pick up the mandolin.  I've been listening to a lot of bluegrass the last couple of years, and that instrument plays a large part in that genre.  I've been particularly inspired by the work of Chris Thile in his band Punch Brothers, and having seen the likes of Thile, Sam Bush, and other masterful mandolin players, I became drawn to the mandolin.

Subsequently, I started noticing mandolins in rock music, and I decided to go buy one.  A mandolin is an excellent way to add an extra dimension to an otherwise basic tune.  Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones was one of the early pioneers in this technique, and many Zeppelin songs contain mandolin parts (further cementing John Paul Jones into his position as my favorite Led Zeppelin member).

Later, R.E.M. raised the bar, and the instrument became a prominent feature of their music, starting around Green or so.  Their most successful song, "Losing My Religion," brings the mandolin to the front, and might be one of the most popular songs to heavily rely on the mandolin for its sound.  In fact, the mandolin is the only musical instrument to make an appearance in the music video for the song.  See for yourself.

The cool thing about mandolin parts in rock songs is that in most cases, the musician using the mandolin is not a virtuoso mandolin player, which means the mandolin parts tend to be easier to play.  This is nice for a beginning mandolin player like me.

Last night, I even decided to figure out how to play Pain of Salvation's "Healing Now," which is one of my favorite new songs this year, and features not one, but (at least) two mandolin parts.  Listen to this awesome song:



The mandolin has never sounded better, nor has rock music.
 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Six bluegrass artists you should pay attention to

With the rise to prominence of bands like Mumford & Sons, people are paying more attention to bands that play good ole' acoustic instruments, like banjos, mandolins, resonators, etc.  It has yet to become the flavor of the week, so there's still time to hop on that bandwagon before it gets moving too fast.  With that in mind, here are a few projects worth checking out, in no particular order.

Abigail Washburn
Washburn is known for her mastery of the clawhammer technique of banjo playing.  Her music is not traditional bluegrass, but it is very traditional.  Her original backing band, The Sparrow Quartet, was assembled to put into music some of the ideas she came up with as a result of her time spent in China, and the Chinese cultural influence on the music is profound.

Washburn has two solo albums, Song of the Traveling Daughter (2005) and the superb City of Refuge (2011), and The Sparrow Quartet has The Sparrow Quartet EP (2006) and Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet (2008).



Check her out if you like rich, textured, traditional music.


My favorite tracks: "Divine Bell," "His Eye Is On The Sparrow," "Chains."




Trampled By Turtles
This Duluth quintet will play you right into a frenzy.  My personal theory is that they have to play as fast as they do in order to stay warm all the way up there in Northern Minnesota, but whatever the reason, they are blazing fast.  A Trampled By Turtles show has the energy of the most amped up metal or punk show, but with more melody and strictly acoustic instruments.  In the olden days, TxT was not as adrenaline-saturated, and used some electric guitars and a drum or two (check out their Trouble album for this version of the band), but since Duluth, it has been all acoustic, all the time.



These gentlemen have quite a unique thing going, and it is a lot of fun.  They have five studio albums: Songs From A Ghost Town (2004), Blue Sky and the Devil (2005), Trouble (2007), Duluth (2008), and Palomino (2010).



Check them out if you like your music blazing fast.


My favorite tracks: "Never Again," "The Darkness and The Light," "Wait So Long," "New Orleans"


Yonder Mountain String Band

Yonder Mountain String Band is a jambgrass quartet out of Nederland, Colorado.  One thing you don't do is listen to Yonder for their studio output.  A Yonder Mountain studio album only exists to tide you over until their next show, where the real entertainment happens.  Here you'll hear classic bluegrass standards, their own compositions, and extended jam sessions sometimes up to a half hour long.  You'll also get a different performance every night, and you'll probably hear some songs you've never heard before (I've never counted, but they have to have at least two hundred songs in their repertoire).  You'll hear excellent playing on every instrument, and maybe even some vocal improvisation from Mr. Jeff Austin (mandolin).  



Yonder Mountain String Band have five studio albums, Elevation (1999), Town By Town (2001), Old Hands (2003), Yonder Mountain String Band (2006), and The Show (2009), as well as five live albums, and about a billion live shows available for download.



Check them out if you like jams, live bands, and catchy hooks.


My favorite tracks: "Must've Had Your Reasons," "A Father's Arms", "Peace of Mind," "Out Of The Blue"


Crooked Still

Crooked Still are a traditional-yet-not band out of Boston, which plays a delicate flavor of bluegrass highlighted by Aiofe O'Donovan's textured voice and a somewhat prominent banjo.  I'm not sure what it is I like about this band; they're nothing groundbreaking about what they do.  Perhaps it is just the soothing quality of O'Donovan's voice.  At times the sound coming out of her mouth is barely more than a whisper.



Crooked Still have four studio albums: Hop High (2004), Shaken by a Low Sound (2006), Still Crooked (2008), and Some Strange Country (2010).  Each successive album seems to have more original compositions than the last, which is a positive trend (though I can't complain about a Rolling Stones cover).



Check them out if you like soft vocals, banjos, and delicate, unassuming arrangements.


Some songs I like include "Distress," "Sometimes In This Country," and the gospel tune "Calvary."


Punch Brothers

Punch Brothers are a progressive blueglass outfit currently based in New York City.  Led by Chris Thile (of Nickel Creek fame), they are breaking new ground in the area of progressive music with acoustic instruments with elements of classical composition and rock-influenced vocals.  Every member of this band is a virtuoso on his respective instrument, yet they don't overplay.



I've caught these guys live three times now (I even drove all the way up to Moab, UT to see them), and it's not nearly enough.  This is, in my mind, the most exciting thing happening in music right now.


Punch Brothers have two or three studio albums (depending on whether you count How to Grow A Woman From The Ground): How to Grow A Woman From The Ground (2006), Punch (2008), and Antifogmatic (2010).



Check them out if you like challenging music, with great harmony and musicianship.


My favorite songs include "You Are", "Don't Need No," "This Is The Song (Good Luck)", and "The Blind Leaving The Blind."


Yo Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile

Yes, this one is brand new, and who knows if it will remain a thing going forward.  But they just made an album, and it is spectacular.  Here you have four musicians playing what sounds on the surface like bluegrass, but is really more a sort of a Celtic-jazz-grass thing.  I never thought I could be so entertained by an album that is nearly completely instrumental (there are two tracks with vocals by Aiofe O'Donovan and Chris Thile).



Here's hoping these guys go on tour, come to Phoenix, and continue to record music together.


They have just one album, The Goat Rodeo Sessions (2011), although Ma has collaborated with Meyer on a couple of albums, and Meyer with Thile on one or two. 



Check these guys out if you like instrumentals, strings, and chamber music.


Some songs I like include "Here or Heaven," "Where's My Bow?," and "Franz and the Eagle" (which features Edgar Meyer on piano).

Sunday, November 6, 2011

#1: Neil Young - Tonight's The Night

Release Year: 1975

If you were to compile a list of the top 10 Neil Young songs, would any of them be found on Tonight's The Night?  Doubtful.  Why, then, is it my favorite album ever?  I think it is actually partly because of that.

When Neil made this record, he was hot off his most successful record ever, Harvest.  He was at the height of popularity, but he was completely depressed.  He had lost two close friends to substance abuse, and he was dealing with substance abuse problems of his own.  This album captures that mood better than perhaps any other album ever made.  It is a clinic on tone.

As a display of incredible songwriting and musical talent, this album is not Neil's best.  There are certainly some excellent tracks, but it is so raw that Neil doesn't even bother to clean up his voice cracking or his completely missing notes.  But as a work of art, it is transcendent.

Standout tracks:
  • Lookout Joe
  • New Mama
  • Come On Baby Let's Go Downtown

Saturday, November 5, 2011

#2: Pain of Salvation - Remedy Lane

Release Year: 2002

Simply put, this album is perfect.  It has tightly structured songs, texture, dynamics, excellent melodies, and it is personal.  Here, Daniel Gildenlöw's melodramatic vocals shine, and his creativity and musicianship are in the forefront.

This is, in my mind, not just the greatest progressive metal album ever, but also the best metal album, and the best progressive rock album.

Since this album, Pain of Salvation hasn't made an album that can really be considered progressive metal.  Since Remedy Lane, each album seems to be an experiment with something new... Because once you've made a progressive metal album that can't be surpassed, why would you make another one?

Standout tracks:
  • A Trace of Blood
  • Ending Theme
  • Rope Ends
  • Waking Every God

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

#3: King Crimson - Islands

Release Year: 1971

Islands is regrettably considered by many critics to be King Crimson's worst album from the first era.  I, for the life of me, can't figure out how anyone can appreciate King Crimson, yet consider an album with "Formentera Lady", "Islands," and especially "Sailor's Tale" to be subpar.

This album is definitely different.  It has more flute, saxophone, and mellotron than electric guitar.  It has many delicate passages, and if you're listening to it while driving, you're going to miss half the music.

Islands also features Boz Burrell on vocals, one of my favorite King Crimson singers.  Burrell brought a dynamic to the band that fits this album like a glove; it's hard to imagine anybody else taking his place.

It really doesn't bother me that Islands is not very popular.  I myself didn't fully appreciate it until I heard it in surround sound.  This album is 40 years old, and nobody has dared make anything else like this.  Not even King Crimson.

Standout tracks:
  • Ladies of the Road
  • Sailor's Tale
  • Islands 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

#4: Punch Brothers - Antifogmatic

Release Year: 2010

This is a controversial album for a top 5 pick: it is relatively unfamiliar to most, and, being just a year and a half old, has not withstood the test of time.  I didn't like it at first; it took me three or four listens before it really grabbed me... But once it did, it just started getting better and better.

Antifogmatic is an album not like any other.  It strictly adheres to a five-piece traditional bluegrass instrumentation, yet there is nothing traditional about it.  It was made by five of the most talented musicians on their respective instruments, yet it doesn't sound like they are overplaying.  It is musically diverse, with influences as broad as classical, bluegrass, and rock.

Punch Brothers are one of the most exciting bands in music right now.  There is nobody else who is doing what they are; they have managed to take a traditional music genre and move it into the next generation.

Standout tracks:
  • Don't Need No
  • You Are
  • This Is The Song (Good Luck)

Monday, October 31, 2011

#5: Neil Young - On The Beach

Release Year: 1974

The first time I heard On The Beach, I thought the first half was brilliant.  "Walk On" is a great rock song, "For The Turnstiles" is a nice little banjo tune, and "Revolution Blues" is like an even better "Southern Man."

But this album really achieved greatness for me when I heard it while driving down the freeway in Phoenix late one night, while in a mellow state of mind, and "Motion Pictures (For Carrie)" came on.  A feeling of peaceful satisfaction came over me that lasted through the end of "Ambulance Blues."

The back side of this album was recorded while the band were consuming a marijuana-laced honey concoction, and the result is three mellow tracks with an abstract and tender quality not achieved anywhere else in his repertoire.

This record is a portrait of a man on his way out of the ditch.  This is an album about finding resolution in your toughest battles.

Standout tracks:
  • Revolution Blues
  • Ambulance Blues
  • Walk On

Sunday, October 30, 2011

#6: Jeff Buckley - Grace

Release Year: 1994

Jeff Buckley's father, Tim, was a successful folk musician who lived a reckless life, characterized by frequent substance abuse, which ended at a relatively young age.  Jeff Buckley was a successful rock musician who lived quite the opposite lifestyle, without any substance abuse issues...and he did at a relatively young age.

I sometimes wonder if Grace would have quite the impact it has now, had Jeff gone on to record more music.  But that is purely academic; the fact of the matter is, this album is spectacular.  His style is unique, and his voice is strong and passionate.

Buckley's rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is nothing short of moving.  If you include a cover song on your studio album, you better make sure you contribute something, and Jeff answered that in spades.

We'll never know what Jeff Buckley would have recorded had he not drowned, but with just this one album, he made an indelible entry into music history.

Standout tracks:
  • Hallelujah
  • Eternal Life
  • Grace

Saturday, October 29, 2011

#7: Josh Ritter - The Animal Years

Release Year: 2006

Josh Ritter has always been a great lyricist, and a great folk storyteller.  Here, though, the lyrics are more pessimistic than anything else he has written, and it gives his music a whole new touch.  The tone is set right away with "Girl In The War," a song that is about the feeling of helplessness one must feel when he has a girl who has been deployed to Iraq, but can also be about the helplessness you feel when you are simply unable to heft the object of your devotion, whatever that may be.

The great thing about this album is that the lyrics work on multiple levels.

Contained herein is Ritter's best lyrical work to date, the sprawling "Thin Blue Flame."  Over the course of its nine plus minutes, this song evolves from cynicism to anger, and finally to resign and reconciliation.  And the tone and intensity of the music matches that of the lyrics throughout.  This is one of my favorite songs.

There is a reason none other than Stephen King gave this album the honor of being his favorite album of 2006.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

#8: Porcupine Tree - Fear of a Blank Planet

Release Year: 2007

Porcupine Tree has had a vibrant career, with a history of genre jumping.  The early days were psychedelic, and after a brief hiatus after Lightbulb Sun, they took up metal.  2007's Fear of a Blank Planet is like a look back at everything they had done up to that point, with apparent ties to many of their previous styles.

In describing the theme of this album, Steven Wilson stated, to paraphrase, that when he was growing up in the 1980s, the biggest issue society was facing was racial tensions, and one of the most important albums on that topic was Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet.  Now, race issues seem to be largely a thing of the past, but kids growing up in this age face a whole new set of problems related to proliferation of information.  As he related it, he didn't even know what pornography was until he was 16, but now it's a click away for most ten year olds.

Thus, all of the lyrics on this album deal with the subject of how our modern society is shaping adolescents.  The songs largely deal with overmedication, teenage angst, suicide, entitlement, etc.  Because I generally agree with his conjecture that the onslaught of information is one of the major circumstances that will determine where humanity goes in the future, I can really appreciate this album, even if its lyrics are fairly simple.  The message it conveys is not deep or mastered, but it is succinct.  It doesn't tell you how to think about the issues; it gets you to think about them.

But of course, the music is superb as well, or else I wouldn't have this in my top 10.  Gavin Harrison shines on drums, the textures are rich, the harmonies are as excellent as ever, and we have the most abstract Porcupine Tree has been since Signify.  And if you include the other tracks from the FoaBP sessions in your evaluation ("Normal," "What Happens Now?", "Nil Recurring," and "Cheating The Polygraph" were not included because Wilson felt they did not fit like he wanted them to), it's even more superb.

Standout tracks:
  • Fear of a Blank Planet
  • Anesthetize
  • Normal (technically from Nil Recurring) 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

#9: King Crimson - Lizard

Release Year: 1970

In the very late 60s and early 70s, King Crimson became notable for their ability to blend jazz and classical stylings into their music.  Lizard is easily their jazziest record.

Some people don't like Lizard.  This is understandable, but they are missing out on one of the greatest albums ever made.  This album goes from weird, to more weird, to serene, and ends at epic.  It has everything from seeming nonsense, chaos, a coded song about the breakup of The Beatles, guest vocals by Jon Anderson, and a killer English horn solo (arguably my favorite English horn solo).

As if this album weren't great enough already, it is even more incredible when heard in Steven Wilson's 5.1 surround sound mix.  All of the King Crimson 40th Anniversary Editions are good, but this is one of the albums that benefits the most from the 5.1 treatment.

Listen to this one if you like the weird, jazzy, or classical.  If you want rock songs, look elsewhere.

Standout tracks:
  • Lizard
  • Indoor Games

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

#10: Steven Wilson - Insurgentes

Release Year: 2008

Steven Wilson is probably my favorite musician, and his work in 2007-2008 is probably why.  In this general time period, he was involved in Porcupine Tree's Fear of a Blank Planet, Blackfield's II, and this, his first solo album.

Insurgentes was named after the main drag in Mexico City where this was recorded, and it is more textured, abstract, and electronic than his Porcupine Tree work.  You'll find more variety here than in any of his countless other projects, from straightforward rock ("Harmony Korine"), to loud and discordant ("Salvaging"), to ambient ("Veneno Para Las Hadas," "Twilight Coda"), to killer bass groove ("No Twilight Within The Courts Of The Sun"), to wall-of-sound (the end of "Get All You Deserve").

This is one of those albums I can listen to nonstop.  It was Wilson's most ambitious work to date, and easily his most beautiful.  At the time, it was also one of the finest sounding albums I had heard, and has only since been matched by some of the other albums he has mixed.

PS: I should note that I think his new solo album, Grace For Drowning, is even better, but since it was released only a month ago, I'm not going to include it.  Just know that it's probably going to be in my top ten when the dust settles.

Standout tracks:
  • Harmony Korine
  • No Twilight In The Courts Of The Sun
  • Significant Other

Monday, October 24, 2011

#11: Neil Young - Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

Release Year: 1969

Neil Young's second album, and first with Crazy Horse, is a true masterpiece.  Crazy Horse was one of the loudest bands of the time, and provided a perfect vehicle for Neil's songwriting ability.

It's really difficult to beat an album with both "Down By The River" and "Cowgirl In The Sand," two of the best rock songs written by anybody, ever.  Neil has written several lengthy rock songs ("Words," "Last Dance," "Cortez the Killer," "Like A Hurricane," "Shots," at least four songs from Ragged Glory, "Change Your Mind," "Scenery," "Ordinary People," and "No Hidden Path," just to name a few), but the two on this album are his very best.

This is the album that turned me into a Neil Young fan.  The first Neil records I had heard were HarvestHarvest Moon, and After the Gold Rush, two of which are Young's most successful albums, but it is this one that converted me.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

#12: The Black Crowes - Before the Frost...Until the Freeze

Release Year: 2009

The Crowes had a long and, in some respects, turbulent, career, with struggles over creative control, poorly received experimentation, and a hiatus or two, but it all culminated in this excellent work, Before the Frost...Until the Freeze.  This album was recorded in front of a live audience, with minimal overdubs, in Levon Helm's studio in Woodstock, NY.  This gives the album a bit of a spontaneous feel.

The first disc, Before the Frost, is more typical Crowes (except for, ironically, the lead single, "I Ain't Hiding," which has a bit of a disco beat).  The second disc (technically, just mp3 downloads), however, is what really makes this work.  Here we see the Black Crowes strip down to good 'ole folk music.  It was really their journey into folk territory that made them ascend about the level of standard rock-and-roll bands, and here we're treated to a whole disc's worth.

The Crowes are back on hiatus now.  We'll see if they get back together again and make more records, but if they don't, what a fine record to end with.

Standout tracks:
  • I Ain't Hiding
  • Roll Old Jeremiah
  • Been A Long Time (Waiting On Love)
  • Shady Grove

Thursday, October 20, 2011

#13: Trampled By Turtles - Palomino

Release Year: 2010

This is an album that I initially thought was OK... And then I heard it again, and liked it more.  And heard it yet another time, and like it even more.  Each time I listen to it, it gets better.

You see, there aren't really any other albums like this.  The Duluth quintet faithfully adheres to the use of acoustic instruments, yet this is one of the most intense, energetic albums I have in my possession.  This is speedgrass, thrashgrass, or whatever you want to call it... Folk music played at a frenetic pace.

Even though they have a very standard instrumentation, they have a sound that is all their own.  Tim Saxhaug's acoustic bass guitar and Dave Simonett's alternative vocals and songwriting style make this unlike anything else that I'm aware of.  And that gets this album an A+ in my book.

Standout tracks:
  • Wait So Long
  • Victory
  • New Orleans
  • Help You

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

#14: Opeth - Blackwater Park

Release Year: 2001

I never thought I would ever like death metal... Until I heard Opeth.  There is no other band that better takes advantage of a loud/soft dynamic than this one, and this is their album that most seamlessly transitions between soft, idyllic folk passages and raging metal rampages.

Blackwater Park is notable for being the first Opeth album to feature Steven Wilson as producer, and his influence is profound.  Here we have a crisper, less murky Opeth, with keyboard parts and vocal harmonies.  The song "Harvest," in particular (featuring background vocals by Wilson), sounds like it could fit in perfectly well on a Porcupine Tree record.

Opeth is not your normal metal band.  There are long instrumental passages, extreme dynamics, and some songs without choruses (the closing song, the title track, features a 3-4 minute soft acoustic stretch in the middle that almost lulls you to sleep before returning as relentless as ever).  Blackwater Park is one of the greatest metal albums ever made.

Standout tracks:
  • Blackwater Park
  • Harvest
  • The Drapery Falls

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

#15: Rolling Stones - Exile On Main Street

Release Year: 1972

The Stones had a lot of great albums, but this one came at the peak of their career in the early 1970s.  There is just something about this album that is the epitome of everything that was great about both the Rolling Stones and the early 70s.  You won't find a lot of complex songs structures here: what you will find is a vibrant collection of completely enjoyable rock and roll songs.

Exile didn't yield a lot of hits relative to other Rolling Stones albums... Yet, this is probably their best, and most unassuming collection of songs.

If you can have only one Rolling Stones album in your collection, this would have to be your best option.  This album is what rock and roll was all about.

 Standout tracks:
  • Sweet Virginia
  • Tumbling Dice
  • Rocks Off
  • Happy 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

#16: Lost In The Trees - All Alone in an Empty House

Release Year: 2010

Here's one you may not have heard of.  In 2006, Ari Picker was in an indie folk/rock band in North Carolina called The Never.  He left the band to attend Berklee School of Music, and learned orchestra/film scoring.  Using that knowledge, he started the band Lost In The Trees, which I usually describe as a heavily-orchestrated folk band (actually, I wouldn't call it a band... they're really more a throng).

Their 2007 record Time Taunts Me is brilliant, but All Alone in an Empty House takes his fine mashup of folk and classical and adds an extra dash of focus.  The result is phenomenal.

There is something really interesting about the juxtaposition of detailed, highly organized orchestra scores, and his somewhat frail, and sometimes almost chaotic, vocal style.  It can safely be stated that there is nothing else that is anything like this.  Picker has a truly novel idea here, a talented group of musicians surrounding him, and the talent to put it all together; this is one of the most exciting new musical projects I've heard in some time.  Let's hope they can garner enough support to keep it going for some time.

Standout tracks:
  • Song for the Painter
  • Fireplace
  • A Room where your Paintings Hang 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

#17: Pain of Salvation - Road Salt One

Release Year: 2010

Swedish progressive metal heavyweights Pain of Salvation's seventh studio album, Road Salt One, was a major departure from their previous work (this, even despite the fact that BE and Scarsick weren't exactly true to form themselves).  It was recorded in a vintage style: it sounds like it is straight from the 70s.  This move was not very well-received among many fans (ironically, few fans of "progressive" music like music that strays too far from what they're used to), but it was great for people, like me, who like to just hear something new.

The departure is so severe that it really doesn't sound anything like their previous work.  This record is not even metal, and it's not "prog."  It's just melodic modern rock music in heavy 70s stylings.

Daniel Gildenlöw already made the greatest progressive metal album ever, so why would he need to make another progressive metal album?  The fact that he tried this, and in my opinion, succeeded, is a truer testament to his creative genius than any number of identical progressive metal albums would have been. The fact is, this new format allows him to unleash some incredible songs and melodies, the likes of which would not have been possible in the old format.

This is an album that is, unfortunately, destined to be forgotten: prog rock fans who are aware of Pain of Salvation are likely to pass over this one, while fans of more straightforward rock are going to assume this is just another prog metal album (if they ever even hear of it at all).  Oh well, I'll just enjoy this one myself.

Standout tracks:
  • Innocence
  • Sisters
  • Road Salt
  • Curiosity 

Monday, October 10, 2011

#18: O.S.I. - Office of Strategic Influence

Release Year: 2003

In 2003, 9/11 was fresh on our minds, and one of the big sticking points was how much civil liberty we were willing to give up in order to achieve more security (or, some of us argue, the perception of more security).  Ex-Dream Theater keyboardist Kevin Moore was invited by Fates Warning guitarist Jim Matheos to collaborate on an album, and what we got was one of the most awesomely paranoid albums I've ever heard.

The term "Office of Strategic Influence" refers to the propaganda machine set up by the US government after the terrorist attacks.  The lyrics are centered around this theme, and indeed, the lyrics and music take on a somewhat sardonic tone, with Kevin Moore's signature sound bites topically spread throughout.  This is an excellent protest album: it does not come across as trite, shallow, or even angry, but instead more sarcastic.

Besides Moore and Matheos, this album features ex-Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy, some melodies and lyrics by Daniel Gildenlöw, a song featuring lyrics and vocals by Steven Wilson, and another guest or two.

This album is a perfect mix of heavy and atmospheric, and the vast difference in styles between the respective projects led by Moore and Matheos yields a very diverse and interesting album; yet, it still manages to stay true to its specific theme.

Standout tracks:
  • Head
  • Dirt From A Holy Place
  • When You're Ready
  • shutDOWN 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

#19: Josh Ritter - So Runs The World Away

Release Year: 2010

After a slight misstep in The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter (though by no means a bad album), Josh Ritter returned with his most musically mature and diverse album yet, So Runs The World Away.  This record is upbeat, ethereal, and atmospheric.

Here we see Josh at his most poetic.  Songs like "The Curse," "Orbital," and "Rattling Locks" exemplify what makes Josh Ritter my favorite lyricist ever.

The highlight of this record is the dreary, seven minute track "Another New World."  It would be difficult to find a better showcase of tone than this.  It's rare enough that an author effectively employs a dark, chilling tone in words alone; Ritter does not only that, but projects that same tone into the music itself.  Indeed, two of my favorite moments this year were Punch Brothers covering this song.

Standout tracks:
  • Another New World
  • Southern Pacifica
  • Lark
  • Orbital 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

#20: Abigail Washburn - City of Refuge

Release Year: 2011

I don't know what it is about this album that makes it so great.  The first few times I heard it, I thought it nothing special, but said I'd buy it if I saw it on vinyl.  At Telluride Bluegrass, I saw a vinyl copy at the merch tent, and I'm a man of my word.

It helped that I saw her perform several times at the festival.  It was during her live set that her music really clicked with me, and I found myself enjoying her set more than almost any other.  I listened to the album a few more times in the ensuing weeks, and I was hooked.

Washburn plays the banjo, but this isn't bluegrass.  It's more folk than anything else.  The music is rich and textured, and her warm voice perfectly complements her lush songs.  There's really nothing else out there that combines the same influences she pulls from, making this one of the more unique records in my collection.

Standout tracks:
  • Divine Bell
  • Burn Thru
  • Chains
  • Last Train 

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

#21: Mumford & Sons - Sigh No More

Release Year: 2010 (2009 UK)

Typically, I don't like music that is really popular.  It's not that I'm an ideological contrarian; it's more that the characteristics I value in an artist are usually not valued by the world at large.  But every now and then, something I like happens to become really popular, for one reason or another.

I actually purchased this album before it was officially released in the US.  I spun it probably dozens of times before they really started to pick up steam in the states.  There's nothing particularly new about this record; other artists in the West London folk scene (e.g., Laura Marling, Noah and the Whale, Johnny Flynn, et al) were already doing the "intelligent hipster folk" thing.  But Mumford & Sons took that style and injected an extra level of energy in their music, and the result is something that maintains the same musical quality, but is considerably more accessible.

This is one of the albums that is really pushing acoustic music to new levels of popularity.  Considering most of the new artists I've been listening to in the past two years are similarly acoustic, I really can't complain about their popularity.

Standout tracks:
  • Awake My Soul
  • Winter Winds
  • The Cave 
  • Thistle & Weeds

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

#22: Dream Theater - Awake

Release Year: 1994

A lot of people accuse Dream Theater of being pretentious.  That they are nothing more than a bunch of showoffs trying to fit as many notes into each measure as possible.  They are certainly guilty of that at times (especially after the departure of Kevin Moore), but I cannot deny that Awake is a solid album, and Dream Theater's musical pinnacle.

This album flows just right, from the first song to the last.  There is certainly musical virtuosity here, but none of it seems out of place.  The long songs don't seem unnecessarily long, nor do they lack direction.  The musicians are technical, but here they can actually be described as "progressive."

This album has strong dynamics, interesting rhythms, and memorable memories.  After Awake, Kevin Moore would leave the band, and they never quite had the same creative spark.

Standout tracks:
  • Scarred
  • Voices
  • Space-Dye Vest
  • 6:00 

Monday, October 3, 2011

#23: Led Zeppelin - Houses of the Holy

Release Year: 1973

Led Zeppelin's fourth album, IV (or ZOSO or Untitled or whatever you choose to call it), gets most of the attention, but Houses of the Holy is easily my favorite Zep record.  There's just something about the record that makes it stand out, and I think it is "The Rain Song" and "No Quarter."

These happen to be my two favorite Zeppelin songs. "The Rain Song" is stunningly beautiful...I love everything about it.  The way the choruses hit you is just perfect.  And "No Quarter" might be the most creative and artistic Led Zeppelin ever got.

This album is just solid from start to finish.

Standout tracks:
  • The Rain Song
  • No Quarter
  • Over The Hills And Far Away 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

New Release: Steven Wilson - Grace For Drowning

Release Date: September 26, 2011
Label:  KScope

Having received my much-awaited Grace For Drowning vinyl and deluxe edition mail orders, and allowing a few listens to set in, I feel compelled to provide my thoughts on this excellent new record.  Steven Wilson is the lead singer, songwriter, producer, and creative genius behind the progressive rock/metal band Porcupine Tree, and has been involved with many other projects (as both musician, producer, and general sound expert), including Blackfield, Opeth, and, notably, the new 40th anniversary King Crimson remasters.  It is the latter project that clearly had the most influence over the outcome of his new sophomore solo record.

I shall break this up into a few broad attributes.

Packaging
Grace For Drowning vinyl edition
I bought both the vinyl and the deluxe blu-ray edition.  The vinyl is a standard double gatefold, with printed sleeves and 180g black vinyl.  This is what I listened to first, and it is an impressive package, but not any more so than similar vinyl releases.

The deluxe edition, running at a cool $80 plus shipping, is truly impressive.  This version comes with both discs of Grace For Drowning, and bonus disc with demos and outtakes, and a blu-ray disc containing 5.1 and stereo mixes of the album, videos, a couple of bonus tracks, photos, and handwritten lyrics.  I haven't had a chance to watch all of the videos, but the ones I've seen do songs justice, and fit their dark mood, as is typical of Lasse Hoile-directed videos.

Grace For Drowning deluxe edition
The deluxe edition is housed in a 120-page hardcover book, whose cover is fitted with embossed denim.  They certainly did not skimp on quality here.  The book's 120 pages - yes, there are really 120 pages - are photos that I'm assuming are thematic, interspersed with lyrics and reproductions of handwritten notes.  I don't know where all these photos came from, but it looks like almost as much work could have been put into the design of this edition as the music itself.  Steven Wilson considers the album artwork to be, along with the actual music, one of the critical components of an album, and this album artwork is as breathtaking as any I've seen.

Sound
I mentioned that Wilson is hot off his work on King Crimson's 40th Anniversary Editions, and these song truly phenomenal.  The new 5.1 remixes of those albums are largely responsible for my renewed appreciation for Lizard and Islands.  Thus, it is only appropriate for this album to include a 5.1 edition.

The great thing about this is the 5.1 mix doesn't make the album.  It still sounds spectacular in stereo; you don't even really need the 5.1 mix to appreciate the incredible aural experience this album offers.  What the 5.1 mix brings to the table is a little more subtle; Wilson essentially brings you, the listener, into the room by moving atmospheric elements and some vocals to the rear channels.  There is more separation between the sounds.  The blu-ray edition really shines during the quiet parts of the album, when there are but a few instruments, and you are not limited to the dynamic range compressed stereo CDs have.  A perfect example of this is the final track, "Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye."  You hear Wilson in the center channel, the piano in the rear, guitar chords in the front, some occasional strumming in the rear, and layered background vocals all around you.

Even if you don't buy the $80 deluxe edition, it is still worthwhile to have the blu-ray disc, when can be bought separately for about $15 on Amazon.

The Actual Music
Obviously the music is the most important part of any album, and there is no disappointment in this regard.  Grace For Drowning is far more ambitious than Wilson's debut solo album, Insurgentes, which is sometimes a recipe for trouble.  There is always the risk of coming across as overindulgent, and sometimes music just needs to be simple.

Fortunately, Wilson took a new approach here: he made two separate albums, Deform to Form a Star, which comprises the first disc, and Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye, which comprises the second disc.  He intended for these albums to be digested separately.  The first, Deform, is more structured, less ambitious, and contains a few beautifully simple songs (e.g., "Postcard").  The disc starts out with the delicate title track, whose vocals are limited to some layered la's.  The second track, "Sectarian," is a wonderfully discordant and rhythmic instrumental.  This starkly contrasts to the Insurgentes, which began with the catchiest song on the album, "Harmony Korine."  The effect here is that after ten minutes of textured music, the soft vocals become far more profound when the track "Deform to Form a Star" begins.

The second disc/album is more abstract and ambitious.  The centerpiece is a very Lizard-esque epic track entitled "Raider II."  The onset of this track seems to give a deliberate nod to Lizard, with its vocal melody and style that is very reminiscent of the beginning of Lizard's first track, "Cirkus."  This influence is noticeable throughout the entire album; for this record, Wilson employed several jazz musicians, and there are saxophone and flute parts scattered about.  Given the fact that Lizard is one of my favorite albums, this is a welcome influence.

The reason I like the way the albums are divided, is that if the whole album is a bit too much for you, you can simply stick to the first sub-album.  This disc alone offers enough depth to keep you occupied for some time.  When you feel like you're done absorbing the first disc, you can then move on to the second.

I don't know where this album will settle after I've had months to digest it, but my initial impression, after three listens, is that it's the best thing I've heard in some time, and it's Wilson's best work, which is a high mark indeed.  

This album, perhaps more than any album I've heard, offers the complete package.  It is pure art in every form.  It has excellent music, great photography, beautiful videos, and amazing sound.  Regardless of whether this is your preferred style of music, you can't help but be amazed by Wilson's ability to put all this together.  





★★★★

Saturday, October 1, 2011

#24: Josh Ritter - Hello Starling

Release Year: 2003

The first of Josh Ritter's trifecta of great albums, Hello Starling contains some of my favorite modern folk tunes.  Here, the acoustic guitar shines, and Ritter's poetic aptitude is on display.

This is Josh at his most sincere.  Most of the songs are nice, pleasant, acoustic guitar-based ballads, with a few upbeat folk rock songs mixed in ("Kathleen," "Snow Is Gone," and "Man Burning" being the ones that stick out).

Ritter is one of my favorite artists, and a huge part of that is his lyrics.  I don't know what to say about this album other than, this man is a poet.

Standout tracks:
  • Kathleen
  • Snow Is Gone
  • Wings
  • Man Burning 

Friday, September 30, 2011

#25: Pain of Salvation: BE

Release Year: 2004

In 2005, I was heavily into the progressive metal scene, and one of the bands that had a small, but devout, following was Pain of Salvation.   This was their most recent album at the time, so I decided to check it out... And I didn't like it.  I found it overindulgent, and lacking any real structure.

Two years later, I finally decided to check out some of their other work, and I liked it.  I went back to BE, and perhaps I was just in a different place, but I liked it.  It is still overindulgent and lacking any real structure, but it is awesome.  I think Daniel Gildenlöw has earned the right to be overindulgent.

BE is a concept album about the existence of God and humankind.  All of the track titles are in a sort of pseudo-Latin, referencing the classic language of theological discourse.  The music is incredibly varied, with styles ranging from spoken word, to Medieval folk, to metal, to straight piano.  There are really only five to seven normally-structured songs, connected by thematic instrumentals or limited-vocal pieces.

For this album, Gildenlöw wrote a complete score.  The metal parts blend tastefully with the orchestra, and it gives it a depth that does not feel at all contrived.  The more I listened to this album, the more I found that the transitions are not filler, but nicely tie the album together.

There are two highlights for me: first, the track "Vocari Dei," which the band created by setting up an answering machine and instructing their fans to talk to the machine as if they were talking to God (and the result is a thoroughly enlightening pastiche of pleas from skeptics, believers, upset people, worried people, children, and apologetic people); and finally, the track "Iter Impius," which is an incredibly beautiful song about a man who is the sole human being wealthy enough to survive human extinction, just to find that he bought loneliness on a barren planet.  This is one of my favorite songs ever.

I will admit, I have not immersed myself in this album enough to really understand what it's about, but if you want to be challenged, this is a great record.

Standout tracks:
  • Iter Impius
  • Vocari Dei
  • Lilium Cruentus
  • Nihil Morari 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

#26: The Black Crowes - Amorica

Release Year: 1994

The Black Crowes' first two albums, Shake Your Money Maker and The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, were both solid southern rock albums.  The demonstrated that they could write rock songs and ballads as well as anybody.  But they were somewhat lacking in depth.

With Amorica, that changed.  They started experimenting a little bit, and some folk influence started creeping in.  And we got a collection of songs that fit together better than either of their previous albums.  This is where the Crowes went from being just another guitar rock band to being real artists with a truly interesting contribution.

Lest you think they ceded their ability to write solid rock songs, their riffs are as good as they ever were.  But there are more dynamics, and the softer parts are more textured, and feature more acoustic instrumentation.

Every time I hear this album, it throws me into another Black Crowes kick.  This is the best early Crowes album, and one of my favorites of the 1990s.

Standout tracks:
  • Wiser Time
  • Descending
  • Nonfiction
  • A Conspiracy 

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

#27: Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers - Sonoran Hope and Madness

Release Year: 2001

The Refreshments were one of the most popular bands in Arizona in the mid-1990s.  They had hit songs on the radio and on television series.  After their 1997 record The Bottle and Fresh Horses, however, the band split, and singer/songwriter Roger Clyne and drummer P.H. Naffah regrouped under the moniker "Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers."  This band, while similar in some respects to The Refreshments, had a more Americana feel.

Their sophomore album, Sonoran Hope and Madness, is the quintessential Arizona record.  It marries Clyne's time spent on his uncle's ranch in Tucson with his suburban Tempe upbringing, and the result is a record that captures the Zeitgeist in turn-of-the-millenium Arizona.  Here we have a city rapidly growing into a metropolis, yet struggling to somehow retain its rural attitude.

That's the theme of this album, and that's why I like it.  Here we have Clyne at his songwriting pinnacle, and his storytelling was as good as ever.  The themes are distinctly Southwest: songs about trailer parks, murder in Mexican villages, diversity and tolerance, and the transition from farmlands and ranches to stucco and highways.  Even the interlude, an instrumental "Home on the Range," evokes a yearning for open spaces.

To perfect the motif, the album is bookended by something else that is a critical aspect of Arizona youth: bottle rockets.

RCPM would gradually get less creative and less introspective after this album, but this one might go down in history as Clyne's magnum opus.

Standout tracks:
  • Buffalo
  • Better Beautiful Than Perfect
  • Colorblind Blues
  • Mile High and Risin' 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

#28: Beastie Boys - Ill Communication

Release Year: 1994

Beastie Boys are an interesting sort of rap group.  White people love them, and they started out as a hardcore punk outfit.  License to Ill and Paul's Boutique were two of the most influential rap albums of the 80s, and they pretty much wrote the book on sampling with the latter.

For me, though, Ill Communication is where they shine the most.  This album has style.  With this one, they focused more on music then with any of their previous records; that's why it has no shortage of instrumental tracks, and most of the vocals are distorted.  I'm not sure what message they were trying to send by doing this, but I like it.

This is more Beastie Boys as musicians than Beastie Boys as emcees.  While I don't like the two hardcord punk tracks on this album, I appreciate their role in showing us their roots.  One of my favorite tracks here, "Bodhisattva Vow," has a cool Indian feel to it.  And "Get It Together," one of the few straight raps, featuring Q-Tip, just flows beautifully.  The Beasties peaked at this album; each studio album following this got progressively less awesome.

Standout tracks:
  • Get It Together
  • Bodhisattva Vow
  • Do It
  • Root Down 

Monday, September 26, 2011

#29: Cracker - Greenland

Release Year: 2006

Years ago (about four of them), when I finally decided to check out Cracker, I downloaded two of their albums: Kerosene Hat and Greenland.  Hat had their hit song "Low," and a few other recognizable tunes, like "Eurotrash Girl" and "Lonesome Johnny Blues."  On the surface, you'd think that would be the better of the two records, and while it is very good, it was Greenland that really stood out to me as a great record.  While it did not spawn any hits, it was very cohesive, had a distinct sound, and had very well-written songs.

This is the record that most perfectly blended their California punk rock attitude with their country tendencies, creating a stunning meld of Americano-tinted folk rock that proved that these guys aren't just alternative rock has-beens.

This album is mellow, but upbeat.  It doesn't have any punk anthems like "I Hate My Generation" or "Teen Angst," but it does have a couple of loud, riff-driven songs.  This will go down, in my mind, as one of the most underrated albums of the decade.  It is Cracker's best album, and their most consistent since The Golden Age.

Standout tracks:
  • Sidi Ifni
  • Where Have Those Days Gone
  • Everybody Gets One For Free
  • Fluffy Lucy 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

#30: Neil Young - Time Fades Away

Release Year: 1973

In 1973, Neil Young was hot off his hit record, Harvest, which is probably his most successful album ever.  While touring in support of that album, he was trying to play the songs he wanted to play, with a band he was not comfortable with, to audiences who just wanted to hear Harvest.  The result is Neil Young's live album Time Fades Away, which is, to this day, (officially) only available on vinyl.  Neil hated the tour, and the shows where these songs were recorded, but released it "so you could see what could happen if you lose it for awhile."

What happened is a great collection of songs.  There are a few classic Neil Young guitar rock songs, reminiscent of Crazy Horse.  There are three piano ballads ("Journey Through The Past," "Love In Mind," and "The Bridge") which make this album really work.  And it closes with a longer, upbeat track more in the vein of "Cowgirl" called "Last Dance."

There are all kinds of great Neil Young records to choose from, but this is one that stands out for its rawness, its history, and, also somewhat importantly, its music.

Standout tracks:
  • Last Dance
  • Journey Through The Past
  • Don't Be Denied 

Friday, September 23, 2011

#31: Punch Brothers - Punch

Release Year: 2008

Punch Brothers are one of my favorite bands.  The musical talent and creativity these guys have is paramount.  They were formed by Chris Thile (of Nickel Creek fame) as a vehicle to record the 40 minute long suite he composed called "The Blind Leaving The Blind."  They went ahead and recorded an album of covers and original songs called How to Grow a Woman From the Ground, and then, a couple years later, finally went into the studio to record the suite.  Punch is the result.

The one thing I value most in music is originality.  An album can have great songs, but if it doesn't bring anything new to the table, its ceiling is a lot lower.  Punch is about as unique as it gets...how many albums are there with bluegrass instrumentation, while being centered around a jazz and classical music influenced four-movement suite?  This is certainly the only one I've heard.

Besides their phenomenal aptitude, and musical creativity, these guys just keep it interesting.  I've seen them three times now, and each show was completely different.  They might play their early material; they might play newer material; they might play some Beck, Radiohead, or Strokes; and they might even play some Bach.

Definitely check this one out if you like to be challenged.

Note: "The Blind Leaving the Blind" is the subject of an excellent new documentary called How to Grow a Band. I'm not sure if it's going to ever have a wide release, but it was a thoroughly engaging watch, and an interesting window into the trade-offs in trying to write the music you want vs. pleasing your audiences. I was fortunate enough to watch this documentary, and get a limited edition poster signed by the band.

Note 2: Check out the cover.  I just noticed that they're sorted from shortest to tallest, and also from least dressed to most dressed.  Awesome. 

 Standout tracks:
  • The Blind Leaving the Blind
  • Punch Bowl 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

#32: Porcupine Tree - In Absentia

Release Year: 2003

Yes, I know this is the third Porcupine Tree album I've picked, but considering (a) they've been one of my favorite bands since 2005 and (b) Steven Wilson has always been a believer in the album as an art form, you'd expect them to have several outstanding albums.

 In Absentia marked a radical change in direction for Porcupine Tree.  Steven Wilson had just finished producing a couple of Opeth albums, which are, of course, progressive death metal.  Wilson cited this experience as something that rekindled his love of metal, so what we got here is the first "metal" PT album, and one that alienated a lot of older fans, but was very well-received in the prog metal crowd.

The great thing about this album is that, despite its easily being the loudest PT record in existence, it is still as melodic, if not more melodic, than their previous work. The guitars are much louder and in-your-face, and the drums are more technical (thanks to the addition of drummer Gavin Harrison), but there are still cool bass grooves, layered vocals, and lots and lots of atmosphere.

Besides the overall sound, it's just a great collection of songs.  Some of them could have been hits if they had a record company with deep enough pockets.

Standout tracks:
  • Trains
  • Prodigal
  • The Sound of Muzak
  • .3 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

#33: Opeth - Damnation

Release Year: 2003

Beauty in despair.  Those are the first things that come to mind when I think of this album.

Opeth originally intended to make Deliverance and Damnation (both produced by Steven Wilson) a double album, but the powers that be wanted them separate.  So we have the balls-to-the-wall heavy Deliverance, and its antithesis, Damnation.  The former is somewhat mediocre (though it has its moments), but the latter is one of the most beautiful albums I've ever heard.

If you listen to any song here, you'd probably be surprised to find out it was made by a death metal band.  It is all clean vocals, rich melody, unplugged guitars, keyboards, and the signature Steven Wilson atmosphere.

This is one of those albums that you can't listen to repeatedly, because there is nothing upbeat here.  Yet, it's one of those albums you have to have in your collection, because there is nothing else like it available - not even from the band that created it.  It has a thread of sorrow woven throughout every aspect of the music, from the lyrics, to the instrumentation, all the way down to the actual packaging.

Incidentally, I listened to their new one, Heritage, for the first time today.  I might need to add a disclaimer to this list, that it only includes albums released before this month.

Standout tracks:
  • To Rid The Disease
  • Death Whispered A Lullaby
  • Windowpane

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

#34: Oceansize - Effloresce

Release Year: 2003

Every once in awhile, you run into a band that did it right the first time out.  Oceansize is one of those bands.  Oceansize, from Manchester, England, released four full length albums and at least two EPs before breaking up earlier this year.

Oceansize was generally labeled as progressive rock, though they don't really have anything in common with most bands in that umbrella.  They do tend to write lengthy songs, which in the early days had some jam tendencies, with repeated riffs, and lots of build ups.  Their last couple of albums, Frames and Self-Preserved While The Bodies Float Up, feature more chaotic arrangements.  Everyone Into Position was probably their tightest record, but Effloresce is my favorite.  This album just features so many great melodies and instrumental sections that it's almost overwhelming.  They hit the perfect spot on their first album, and while the others were unique, to be sure, this one has the best combination of experimentation and structure.

These guys are loud when they need to be, and quiet when they need to be.  If you like a good, dynamic album, this is a great choice.  Oceansize were excellent musicians, and one of the most underrated bands of the 2000s.

Standout tracks:
  • Saturday Morning Breakfast Show
  • Amputee
  • Catalyst
  • One Day All This Could Be Yours 

Monday, September 19, 2011

#35: The Rolling Stones - Let It Bleed

Release Year: 1969

In the 1960s, The Rolling Stones were a great band.  When you think of the 60s, that are really two bands that come to mind: The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones.  In my mind, the Stones were the greatest band of the decade, not the Beatles.  Despite that, the best stretch of Stones albums came from 1968 through 1973, starting with Beggar's Banquet.  Let It Bleed is the following album, and a very solid album indeed.

This album has it all: a classic opening song in Gimme Shelter, 60s punk like Live With Me, the monumental closer You Can't Always Get What You Want, and even a little honky tonk in Country Honk.  This album is still decidedly 60s, but you can hear the 70s creeping in.

 It's difficult to explain what is so good about the Stones; the songs are simple.  Compared to the burgeoning progressive rock movement, there really wasn't very much to it.  Really, it's just rock and roll.

Standout tracks:
  • You Can't Always Get What You Want
  • Midnight Rambler
  • Let It Bleed
  • Monkey Man 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

#36: Billy Joel - Streetlife Serenade

Release Year: 1974

For some reason, Streetlife Serenade is my favorite Billy Joel album. It doesn't have his most memorable songs, or greatest, songs.  But it seems to me like it has the most soul.  Like it's his most coherent album.

The best song here, and maybe the biggest hit, is "The Entertainer," which was made in response to the record company editing his single "Piano Man," and thereby messing with his art.

Pretty much every song on this album is solid.  The two instrumentals - the thoroughly upbeat piano romp "Root Beer Rag," and the latin-tinged closer "The Mexican Connection" - are two of his best.  It has a few excellent ballads, my favorite being "Roberta."

If you're the "Greatest Hits" type of Billy Joel fan and want to check out one of his albums, this is the first I'd recommend.

Standout tracks:
  • The Entertainer
  • Roberta
  • Streetlife Serenader
  • Root Beer Rag