Music is undoubtedly the most visceral art form, constructed from patterns of vibrations which are interpreted by our eardrums as they penetrate our bones. While I believe most genres of music offer their own geniuses, breakthroughs and pitfalls, I am hopelessly intrigued by and entranced with the continually progressive (and just as self-referencing) genre of rock and roll.
I recently pitched the idea of the “Daily DJ Afternoon” to my colleagues at work. The concept is simple; from 2pm to 4pm, one of us will have the opportunity to commandeer the office speakers and choose the music which will push us past the potential afternoon slump and onward through creative breakthroughs.
It was in choosing music for my upcoming playlist that I decided to rank my favorite albums of the year. They serve as a startlingly accurate soundtrack to the last twelve months’ creative output.
10. Von Südenfed – Tromatic ReflexxionsWhile dance music possesses a unique relevancy in this age of mainstream mass communication and technology, far too often I find it omits the flaws and humanity inherent in some of the best rock music. This record is an industrious marriage between the two; the lazy-yet-confrontational speech of Fall frontman Mark E. Smith set against the crunchy, inhuman backdrop of electronic group Mouse on Mars. Deliciously abrasive and captivating.
9. Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga GaThis band won’t stand still. After last year’s infectious throwback-catchy breakthrough single “I Turn My Camera On” (through which I discovered the group), I figured we may be in for a phoned-in follow-up performance. I couldn’t have been more wrong; Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is Spoon’s best album. Equally danceable and challenging, the album is extremely satisfying despite it’s relatively short running time. Better yet, the CD version was priced at $9.99 the week it came out with a full second disc of material.
8. Menomena – Friend and FoeThough Menomena’s live performances and eccentric debut album earned them a respectable fan-following in the Portland area (and hipster communities beyond), the unimaginative production of their previous records kept me from investing in their studio output. Their latest offering remedies this problem with layers of inventive harmonies, brilliant instrumental arrangements and fervor-inducing lyrics. I’d talk about the fantastic packaging if I hadn’t already.
7. Prinzhorn Dance SchoolThe Horn possess a rare impact. They are Bauhaus rock in the strictest sense, simultaneously minimalist and calculating. Sparse-yet-predatory instrumentals lend a humorously haunting air to everday subject matter. While the full sixteen-track LP may prove too formidable for the casual listener, those with an intense appreciation for the avant-garde will enjoy this subtly aggressive batch of Bowie-by-way-of-LiLLiPUT punk rock gems.
6. Black Francis – BluefingerThe Pixies are one of my favorite bands of all time, but it’s no secret that frontman Frank Black’s output since the group’s breakup has been incredibly polarizing. While records like Frank Black, Teenager of the Year and Pistolero have been heralded as accomplishments in their own right, other efforts (most notoriously The Cult of Ray) have served as curiosities at best. While many were disappointed at the lack of a new Pixies album following their 2004-2005 reformation, fans should take note that the regained Black Francis moniker is not merely a marketing gimmick. Bluefinger is Frank Black’s most Pixies-like record, but it’s also one of his strongest ever. Regaining the naked aggression that was once his trademark, songs like “Threshold Apprehension” and “Tight Black Rubber” re-establish the artist as one of the gods of modern art rock.
5. The Good, The Bad & The QueenDamon Albarn flexes his songwriting muscles the most since Blur’s The Great Escape, painting a bleak yet beautiful picture of English atmosphere in theatrical arty pop-rock. Paul Simonon’s bass is essential but not singular. Simon Tong’s guitar is rhythmic and drives the songs forward, while Tony Allen’s drumming is playful, creative and purposeful. What this should have been is the worst, muddled bit of Britpop supergroup stew. What it ended up being is a beautiful, individual work that is undoubtedly Damon’s baby. It sounds a little like Blur, a little like Gorillaz, and a lot like The Good, The Bad and The Queen.
4. Wilco – Sky Blue SkyWith Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco hit something of a creative peak. They managed to perfect their alt-country-meets-60s-rock song structures and marry them with sophisticated textures, the result being a series of songs simple in impact and complex in execution, considered flawless by many a hardened critic and fan. Having pillaged the full range of arty songwriting solutions, 2004’s A Ghost is Born sought to do the same with an immensely scaled-down palette; the result was a rewarding-yet-lukewarm follow-up that bewildered many listeners. Foreshadowed in Kicking Television‘s energetic live arrangements, the songs on Sky Blue Sky seek to recapture Wilco’s breadth without, as Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel would put it, “all the mucky-muck.” Foregoing the studio trickery that complimented songwriter Jeff Tweedy’s heartfelt, poetic lyrics in the past, Wilco takes another left-turn by producing more straight-forward songs driven by a guitar that sounds like something from an Adventure-era Television single. While not as innovative or singular a work as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Sky Blue Sky is one of the band’s best and deserving of a top place in their catalog.
3. The Clientele – God Save The ClienteleLilting and dreamlike, God Save The Clientele is an amazing work of “Daydream Believer”-style English pop. While it doubtlessly brings about nostalgic feelings of the era it lovingly references, the songs featured therein and the emotions they trigger are wonderfully unique. In a postmodern age where artists are struggling to maintain their relevancy, The Clientele still manage to delight and surprise through the classic art of unabashed, ear-pleasing songwriting.
2. Radiohead – In RainbowsGroundbreaking and controversial distribution methods aside (I plan to write another post about them), In Rainbows could be one of Radiohead’s best albums. While 2003’s Hail to the Thief was an interesting mixture of the band’s foundational guitar rock and subsequent electronic experimentation, it lacked the lasting effectiveness that’s kept the majority of the group’s catalog in consistent rotation on many a fan’s iPod and turntable. In Rainbows recaptures Radiohead’s respect for the album as a work while serving songs projecting an increased confidence and creative spirit. The record could be taken as a document of the band’s output as a whole, covering their audial spectrum all the way from crunchy garage rock (“Bodysnatchers”) to electronic faux-dance (“15 Step”) to Thom Yorke’s unnerving-yet-passionate ballads (“Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”). With the release of In Rainbows, Radiohead have managed to extend their own legacy while lighting the way for the younger musicians in their shadow.
1. LCD Soundsystem – Sound of SilverWhen I purchased LCD’s debut album, I was absolutely enthralled. The record encapsulated catchy intellectualism, a balance between art and pop but also between art-rock staples and electronic, dance principles. What the album had in spades were killer songs; what it lacked was the sort of cohesion that makes an album’s running order memorable as an entity in and of itself. Sound of Silver possesses that quality in nine immensely revelatory tracks I believe I’ll still be enjoying thirty years from now.
What LCD mastermind James Murphy has accomplished with this record is a progression of rock and dance genres in tandem with a mindfulness toward the performers which preceded him. Despite the consistent throwbacks to (in no particular order) Lou Reed, The Fall, The Contortions and others, Murphy never seems suffocated by his influences and instead applies lessons learned to songs which sound decidedly now. Like the output of Television in the late 70s, Murphy’s strengths lie in his ability to orchestrate tracks between four and nine minutes in length that feel purposeful and lack the pretension and self-indulgence of typical marathon electronica.
Every track is a winner, from the infectious opener “Get Innocuous” into the rowdiness of “Time to Get Away” and the crowd-pleasing “North American Scum,” to the amazing performance of “All My Friends” and the album closer, “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down.” Another perfect marriage of dance and post-punk with a newfound element of glam rock injected, Sound of Silver is a picture of where rock and roll should be. With accolades from college campuses and established art-rock elite secured, I have no doubt that this album will be mimicked (and rightfully so).