Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Some good songs...

Right now, I should be writing a review of Autumn Chorus's EP for that other website, but frankly, it's a rather mediocre release, and penning a critique of it is therefore much akin to torture.

So instead, I'll post an unsolicited list of some good songs. They might not, in the words of Natalie Portman, "change your life", but they're pretty good songs; nothing more, nothing less.

lololol mixtape

1. Two Headed Boy, Pt. II - Neutral Milk Hotel (In The Aeroplane Over The Sea)
2. This Charming Man - The Smiths (The Smiths)
3. The Start of Something - Voxtrot (Raised By Wolves EP)
4. Car - Built To Spill (There's Nothing Wrong With Love)
5. Your Ex-Lover Is Dead - Stars (Set Yourself On Fire)
6. Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying - Belle & Sebastian (If You're Feeling Sinister)
7. In The Company Of Others - Gifts From Enola (Loyal Eyes Betrayed The Mind)
8. Trailer Trash - Modest Mouse (The Lonesome Crowded West)
9. Alice and Interiors - Manchester Orchestra (I'm Like A Virgin Losing A Child)
10. Medicating - Boys Night Out (Trainwreck)
11. You Won't Know - Brand New (The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me)
12. Wishbone - Architecture In Helsinki (In Case We Die)
13. Time Stops - Explosions In The Sky (How Strange, Innocence)
14. Admit It! - Say Anything (Is A Real Boy)
15. This Song Is Not About You, So Don't Ask - Some By Sea (On Fire! Igloo)

Monday, July 28, 2008

One Day As A Lion - One Day As A Lion EP

Buy (


Depending on how many press junkets you have (or haven't) read, you may (or may not) know that One Day As A Lion is a collaboration of Rage Against The Machine's Zack De La Rocha and ex-The Mars Volta drummer Jon Theodore, or that their name is taken from what is apparently a "famous" piece of graffiti declaring that "it's better to live one day as a lion, than a thousand years as a lamb."

Awesome. But what does it sound like?

Pretty much exactly what one would expect. De La Rocha's flow is venomous, Theodore's percussion is bombastic, and the former's keyboards flirt with enough electronics and processing that they sound like guitars. The end result comes off more like Rage Against The Machine than anything, albeit with better drumming. The main gripe is that the songs sort of blend together after awhile, with very little differentiation between each track. But when the songs are this solid, how big of a concern is that?

The twenty minute One Day As A Lion EP finds two very talented musicians at the top of their game, and the technical proficiency on "Last Letter" alone is worth the price of admission. My interest has certainly been piqued - here's hoping an LP is to follow.

Key Tracks:
Wild International
Last Letter

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles - A Boldogság Minden Reményét Elragadták

Self Released

Best of 2008

This was one of my "sample" reviews that I submitted along with my application to become a writer for The Silent Ballet. This was really only the second critical review that I wrote, so the quality is probably a bit questionable, but this was one hell of a release. If you want to get a copy, just e-mail the band here.

[EDIT]: They apparently disagree.

I’m hesitant.

I scroll through the archives of past reviews that have been posted here on The Silent Ballet. This is about the eighth time I’ve done so, but I want to be absolutely sure: never before has an album been awarded a 10/10. Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles’ first release has me wondering if that might soon change.

Being young, and relatively new to this whole “critical appreciation of music” business, I am quite excitable and impulsive, with a tendency to hastily award superlatives after a cursory listen. So, given to hyperbole as I am, when I label a release as “the best of the year”, it is quite understandable (prudent, even) that you, gentle reader, take such advice with the proverbial grain – or seven – of salt. But you need to trust me when I tell you that this release could be the best of the year.

On paper, A Boldogság Minden Reményét Elragadták, an instrumental work with its sights set on the hypocrisies of US global policy and the war in Iraq, has failure written all over it. The foreign title and lofty concept scream pretension and immaturity, making it quite tempting to preemptively write this record off as an exercise in masturbatory self-indulgence. Resist the urge: the album is nearly without flaw.

Deeply rooted in the post-rock milieu, this young eleven-piece from New Jersey is certainly in its element on this debut – spanning well over an hour – painting with quite a diverse and eclectic palette. Over the course of twelve tracks, Riding Alone combine pads of ambience with samples and found sound, deftly manipulating droning guitar notes to work alongside passages of all-out metal fury. The finished product could be chaos, a Jackson Pollock painting in audible form – instead, the end result is nothing short of breathtaking. Perhaps it was unfair of me to pigeonhole this album as a political attack against the United States, because A Boldogság’s scope is so much wider than just that. This record is essentially a treatise on the loss of innocence, the ways in which humanity copes with that loss, and how these coping mechanisms ultimately make things worse, starting the cycle all over again. The title really says it all: A boldogság minden reményét elragadták is a Hungarian idiom which translates to mean “All hope of happiness has been snatched away”. Really uplifting stuff.

To this end, A Boldogság is split into 4 different “acts”, each with its own distinct setting and overarching theme, and the band does an excellent job in crafting each piece so that the unified whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Also quite effective is the (sometimes not so) subtle interplay between each act, most notably the juxtaposition of the album’s two anchors Fallujah Sky and Screwdriver (which start off Acts I and III, respectively).

Fallujah Sky centers around an American attack on the Iraqi city, while a frantic women screams in anguish, her Arabic chants and refrain of “Allahu Akbar” an elegy for her beloved home, while children and family members console her. An American soldier then reflects on her (and the Islamic people in general’s) religious devotion and fervor:

“The woman, seeing my reaction, came up to me and put her hand on my cheek and said Insha’Allah, which is ‘God’s will’. These people over there - it doesn’t matter what bad things happen to them - they can accept it as God’s will. They’re deeply religious. It wasn’t God’s will, it was my fucking order. I gave the order to fire those rockets into that building, and I killed a family.”

Screwdriver shows the other side of the coin and finds the listener in a more comfortable 1950s America. A young child, no older than 8 or 9, adamantly preaches that one must be saved in order to escape the fiery wrath of Hell and the Holy Bible is the word of God. Later, it is revealed that his evangelical mother abused him, forcing him to roam the streets espousing the gospel to the masses.

While starkly different on the surface, each song tackles the same issue: the wound of lost innocence when human life is neglected, and the inadequate bandage religion represents. Riding Alone also implies that America has no right demonizing the Middle East as “fundamental”, as Islam hardly has a monopoly on extremism, tacitly condemning the Bush administration’s War on Terror (the war is more directly attacked during Fading Light and Broken Windows, later on the disc). While quite controversial, these tracks are truly the meat of this release.

This album is by no means perfect, but Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles certainly gets most of it right. In their portrayal of innocence, the band resorts on two separate occasions to the cliché of incorporating samples of children playing and singing, with varying degrees of success. The only track that is unsuccessful, A Million Little Explosions, is a bit of a misnomer, as the song never really explodes as promised, instead choosing to meander through several minutes of ambience before finding a bass riff and sticking with it. When the song finally begins to build some momentum, it abruptly ends. The effect is quite frustrating (one can’t help but wonder if the last five minutes was a bit of a waste), but when viewed in light of the album as a whole, the track seems more like a blemish than a flaw.

In the end, I decide that this album will not receive the ephemeral perfect score. Like I said, the album is not perfect. However, Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles was able to craft a sprawling work of unified concept to great success, a feat in and of itself. That they did so with complete independence, and less than a year’s experience as a band, is nothing less than monumental.

I have been struggling for a week now to write this review, and I’m still not happy with the end result. How can I convey the sheer magnitude of this release using just words, without resorting to fan-boy gushing or carrying on for ten pages? The answer is: I can’t. A Boldogság Minden Reményét Elragadták is just something you have to experience for yourself.

Key Tracks:
Fallujah Sky

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Conor Oberst - Conor Oberst

Merge Records
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My taskbar begins to flash intermittent orange: a new instant message. It's from Kyle.

"new conor oberst just leaked on waffles, you should check it out"

I steal the music (don't tell the RIAA), but my rationale is sound. Kyle has good taste, I had been waiting for this album to drop for a few months now, and I'll probably end up buying it anyway. Besides, a lot of people must google his name, so if nothing else, a review here might get me a few hits and a higher PageRank. Such pure motives, amirite?

I don't know how many times I've listened to this record over the last few days - it could be ten, could be twenty, only my can tell for sure - but it's been a respectably high number. I think that this is a better metric of my enjoyment of an album than any flowery prose I might direct its way: The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me (which would be an 8.5 or 9/10) was on repeat from Monday, November 20th until Sunday, the 26th; I listened to Louder Now (a Cove Reber/10) four times and gave away the CD. I listened to Conor Oberst exclusively for about 48 hours. Bearing that in mind, I don't think a comparative review is necessary, except to say that Conor Oberst could have been a Rocky Votolato album (and this is a very good thing).

All this talk about dates and times and metrics and playcounts is pretty boring though - when did criticism become all about the numbers? There's still room for subjectivity, there's still room for gimmicks, there's still room to shift the emphasis from the work being reviewed to the one reviewing the work. But this album deserves better than that; Conor Oberst deserves better than that. I don't really like the guy (the proseletyzing nature of his live sets can be a bit off-putting), but I can't hate him either. For one, he looks like my best friend from elementary school, Cameron Prescott (there I go, shifting the spotlight). He's also damn talented - he deserves better.

Instead, I'll talk about Conor Oberst on its own merits, and suffice it to say that it has plenty of those. The self-titled nature of this album is quite fitting, as this release finds Oberst really coming into his own. He's never had the vocal chops of an Idol contestant, but, as with Dylan, you're not paying for that; you're paying for the articulate songwriting, and there's plenty of that too. In fact, this record contains what are two of Oberst's strongest songs to date: Danny Callahan and I Don't Want To Die In The Hospital.

Danny Callahan muses on generosity and death and a bone marrow transplant that just couldn't save poor Danny Callahan. Plus it's got a groovy, jangly, country rock feel - awesome, guys! I Don't Want To Die In The Hospital follows from the title: Conor doesn't want to die in a hospital. A younger Oberst could (would) have turned this into a veritable whinefest, a downer about death. Here, it's probably the most upbeat, frantic recording in his oeuvre, matched only by The Four Winds EP's Cartoon Blues in terms of its sheer volume. Oberst doesn't care that he's going to die, he just wants to do it on his own terms. After all, if "they don't let you smoke and you can't get drunk," well, where's the fun in that?

In this vein, he is also more self-assured then ever, selling his indie folk wares with gusto. Sure, there are some questionable lines: the chorus of Eagle On A Pole informs us that "El cielo es azul," or literally, "the sky is blue". But he delivers others with such conviction that "If I go to heaven, I'll be bored as hell, like a crying baby at the bottom of a well" - a line which would ordinarily fall flat - comes off as vaguely insightful, poignant even (Milk Thistle). I might not understand it, but it sure as hell seems like Oberst does. He could be bluffing, but if nobody calls him on it, then what's the difference?

But before I conclude, one major gripe: since when does 3 sustained, off-key drones played on what sounds like an out-of-tune conch shell count as music? Valle Mistico (Ruben's Song) is one minute of my life I'll never get back. I don't know who you are, Ruben, but fuck you, and fuck your song. That being said:

Almost eight months in to 2008, Conor Oberst just might be my favorite record with words (UpCDownC's Embers, an instrumental album, holds top honors - sorry Conor). Anybody who wants to try and top it, please, be my guest; if you manage to do so, you'll have one hell of an album on your hands.

Key Tracks:
Danny Callahan
I Don't Want To Die In The Hospital
Cape Canaveral

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The 20 Best Albums Released Since 1970: 10-1

Read about albums 11-20 here.

Kid A10. Kid A - Radiohead
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#10 has been quite vexing - before I begin, a brief (and very tangential) history lesson.

This vacancy was first occupied by Taking Back Sunday's phenomenal Tell All Your Friends. The greatest album to come out of the New Jersey/Long Island scene since Glassjaw's Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Silence? Yes. One of the twenty greatest albums in all of contemporary music? No.

Then I tried Brand New's Deja Entendu, likely the best release of 2003 behind Dear Catastrophe Waitress and The Earth Is Not A Cold, Dead Place. But while I love Brand New with all of my heart (they are probably one of my three favorite bands of all time), it's the same problem as before: on a list that includes the works of the Clash and Modest Mouse, Deja simply can't hold its own.

I had finally settled upon Miles Davis' 1970 opus Bitches Brew when I realized that, although technically meeting the criteria, the album frankly did not uphold the spirit of this piece. It was recorded over three days in 1969, and was very much a product of that decade. Perhaps one day I'll write about Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper's and the rest of the 60s - Bitches Brew would certainly be on that list.

What's that? Oh....right! Kid A. Sorry, I have a tendency to digress.

Radiohead has never really charmed me. I like them in the sense that I enjoy playing Creep on Rock Band. I like them in the sense that they helped make Scott Tenorman Must Die the single most hilarious half hour of television I have seen in my life. I like them in the sense that they're name-dropped in that scene in The Brave One where Jodie Foster shoots some guy in the fucking eye (!!). The music, you see, is pretty ancillary. The Bends was about as enjoyable to me as their namesake is to a scuba diver, Hail To The Thief wasn't bad (I guess), the most interesting thing about In Rainbows was its novel distribution, and I frankly think that OK Computer is much ado about nothing - although the consensus is clearly in opposition to that remark, so maybe that's just my problem...whatever. The point is, I find Radiohead to be a lot like cottage cheese: kind of bland, quick to spoil.

Except for Kid A. Dear God, Kid A.

Optimistic puts it best: "Try the best you can / The best you can is good enough". Words fall short of describing the power of this album. I'll try the best I can.

I can't wrap my head around the divisive critical reception this album received in comparison to OK Computer. Yorke's delivery is wistful and yearning, swelling with emotion while the band proper lays down an atmospheric bed that accents the record without overpowering it. The focus is on melody and harmony; on most of the songs, rhythm is an afterthought, if present at all (the most notable exception being the superlative National Anthem). How To Disappear Completely threatens to do just that, as the timid organic accompaniment and nearly-imperceptible percussive shuffle of its first few minutes seem weightless enough to be carried away by a light breeze. The arpeggiating horns at the back of the mix are icing on this sonic cake, the strings tear at your soul as they squeal in anguish with heartfelt sorrow, and the listener is left with what just might be the perfect song.

"I'm not here / This isn't happening," Yorke reassures us - reassures himself - on How To Disappear. Immediately upon the brink of disaster, however, it's suddenly real, as Idioteque warns that "We're not scaremongering / This is really happening." The rest of the record follows in a similar manner: a steady build of tension never completely released; a treatise on paradox and contradiction; an unstable chord which doesn't quite resolve.

On at least ten separate occasions, I've given OK Computer another listen, but it's never been to any avail. Maybe I just have shitty taste?

I'm not too upset though. Kid A is plenty.

Led Zeppelin IV
9. - Led Zeppelin
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The story goes that, in hopes of getting a record deal, Explosions In The Sky gave fellow Austin rockers The American Analog Set a copy of their demo tape. The latter was so enamored of the former's work that they passed along Explosions' demo to the famed instrumental label Temporary Residence, attaching only a note assuring the A&R men that "this totally fucking destroys."

I can't talk about such a storied album as for very long from a critical vantage point without my judgement being clouded by my own highly subjective memories. And even if I tried, the prose would be dull and lifeless, unbefitting of a record of such magnitude. Everybody knows just as well as I do the greatness of classic songs like When The Levee Breaks and Stairway To Heaven. Why should I waste my time with rehash?

The disservice that I do this album increases with every word I type, so I'll keep it brief:

This totally fucking destroys.

There's not much else to say. You all have your own memories of Led Zeppelin's untitled masterpiece - I won't spoil them.

The Lonesome, Crowded West8. The Lonesome, Crowded West - Modest Mouse
Up Records
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From the harsh, jagged angles of Teeth Like God's Shoeshine to the sprawling, nihilistic travelogue of anchor Trucker's Atlas to the fiddle-heavy hoedown of closer Styrofoam Boots/It's All Nice On Ice Alright, it is apparent that there is nothing at all quite like Modest Mouse's breakthrough 1997 double LP The Lonesome, Crowded West.

Even before this record, the Issaquah trio had a knack for writing tunes that were simultaenously world-weary and restless, but The Lonesome, Crowded West's release marked the first time that they were able to craft something more than just a collection of songs. The whole was now greater than the sum of its parts; Modest Mouse had released an album.

The title of this album says it all: the songs all deal to some degree with that sensation of feeling alone in a crowd - like that Jack's Mannequin song, only better! Some of them sound like diary entries. Doin' The Cockroach's narrator doesn't believe in heaven or Hell, but his daily commute on the train or the bus or whatever sure feels like both. On Polar Opposites, he's "trying to drink away the part of the day [he] cannot sleep away", and Trucker's Atlas's stream-of-consciousness reads like William Faulkner's drunken LiveJournal posts. Other tracks are character studies: Cowboy Dan, a pornographer, even Jesus Christ - they all get treatment.

The best songs, however, lie somewhere in the middle. The wrenching Trailer Trash is a lesson in economy, a minimal arrangment of tercets and couplets, a portrait of divorcees and drunks, an ode to drop-outs and rejects. The picture Bankrupt On Selling paints is bleaker yet: the angels and apostles have sold us out for a ring and some sandals. In light of this, Styrofoam Boots arrives at the conclusion that "God takes care of himself, and you of you."

Even without such an explicit statement, though, the album's message is self-evident: "Nobody's running this whole thing."

Wish You Were Here7. Wish You Were Here - Pink Floyd
EMI / Capitol
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I am a wholly inadequate and biased source of information when it comes to this album, or any other one by Pink Floyd. When you listen to one band nonstop for a year, you sort of lose your objectivity. Of course you like some songs better than others, and you spin certain records more often than the rest, but it's hard to choose an absolute "favorite".
I have a lot of favorite Floyd albums. This could be Dark Side of the Moon. Who cares? I could've chosen Meddle or Animals, and have still been satisfied. It doesn't really matter - this is Pink Floyd as it was in the 1970s, after Syd Barrett's psychedelic turn at the helm and before Roger Waters' reign of terror. You're going to like it or you're not; I can't really control that.

The best I can tell you is to go and listen to Shine On You Crazy Diamond, and let the music speak for itself.

London Calling6. London Calling - The Clash
Buy (

Certain members of the press in the 70s and 80s deemed the Clash to be "the only band that matters". I don't think they could have been more right.

The Clash "got" the idea behind punk better than any of their contemporaries - they got that choosing the three-chord, sub-two-minute structure and sticking with it, or focusing exclusively upon guitar, drum, and bass, were as decidedly un-punk as anything that the prog-rock community (the movement punk was created to oppose) could come up with. There's a difference between being a punk band and making punk music, and the Clash exemplified this distinction to the fullest extent.

When Topper Headon, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Joe Strummer stepped out onto the stage or into the booth, they were frankly without peer. Dub, hip-hop, reggae, rockabilly, bluegrass, soul, dance, "world", jazz, lounge, pop, rock, grunge, and disco: all fair game. London Calling is arguably the greatest album by the only band that mattered, but don't be fooled into thinking that it is, by analogue, the only album that matters. Sandinista!, Combat Rock, and Black Market Clash are all leagues above the Pistols, Ramones, the Buzzcocks, or whatever other "punk" bands you can name. Think of London Calling as a gateway drug to the Clash's venerable discography, and you'll be in the right frame of mind.

A band like this deserve a better treatment than this, I know. But I'm just not feeling it, and Cormac McCarthy, Joyce Carol Oates, and Chinua Achebe declined to fill in for me. Bastards. Joe Strummer must be rolling over in his grave.

Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven5. Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven - Godspeed You! Black Emperor
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Godspeed You! Black Emperor have the typical instruments: drums, guitar, bass. Then they have some less common ones (for "rock" music, at least): violin, cello, viola, horns. But where exactly can one mention Fringe preachers, reflections on Coney Island, ARCO ampm, French children, and locomotives on the liner notes?

Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven's massive influence on music can be seen right away by the fact that two bands (Canyons of Static and Antennas To Heaven) are named after material found on this release. Even indie rockers Manchester Orchestra namedrop this album on their song Play It Again Sam!, for crissakes! And that's not even to mention the fact that the vast majority of so-called post-rock bands making music in the slow build/furious release paradigm owe their sound to this album, and f♯a♯∞ before it.

One valid criticism of Godspeed is that they lack the gift of brevity. The songs run their course over 18 to 23 minutes each. But while there are definitely highlights, moments of musical bliss that stand out among the rest, I would not recommend skipping straight to them: without the dramatic build, there can be no satisfying payoff. If you don't have 80 minutes free, then don't start to listen to this album. It begs - nay, demands - to be digested in one sitting.

Some of those highlights? How about the triumphant horns that start the album on Storm, that crazy fringe preacher talking about the "heavenly man, the heavenly woman", the middle of Antennas To Heaven, where the floor just drops out, and the entire 23 minutes of Sleep? Those are some of my favorites.

This was, and still is, the best album Godspeed You! Black Emperor ever released. Given their current "indefinite hiatus", it probably will retain that honor well into the future.

In The Aeroplane Over The Sea4. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea - Neutral Milk Hotel
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Does the world need more concept albums? In general, probably not.

Does the world need more concept albums about plans to go back in time to save Anne Frank and make gentle, passionate love to her? To quote The 40 Year Old Virgin, "I'm sorry, was that a serious question?"

Have you ever heard In The Aeroplane Over The Sea before?

You loved it? Great, me too! Scroll down and read about If You're Feeling Sinister, because there's nothing here you don't already know.

You didn't like/"get" it? Stop reading. Go listen to it again. Listen to it again and again and again until you do like it - trust me, you will eventually. It took me three years to find the right combination of open-mindedness and really-fucking-depressed-ness, but I became a Jeff Mangum convert in the spring of '07, and haven't looked back since.

You've never heard it? Ah, then this is for you. Same advice as above, but with a little bit more guidance. Listen to The King Of Carrot Flowers Pts. II & III, and try not to screw up your face in a "WTF?" pose as Mangum wails "I love you Jesus Cuhhhhri-ee-i-ist! Jeeeeesus Christ I lo-ove you, yes I dooo-oo-oo-oooooo." Go ahead and play Holland, 1945, and see if you can do it without dancing or clapping or snapping or tapping your toes, or at least something. I defy you. When Communist Daughter starts raving about semen-stained mountaintops and the epic Oh Comely finds Mangun crooning about Anne Frank's ovaries, make every attempt not to crack a smile. Instead, save that smile for when Two Headed Boy Pt. II reaches its dramatic climax, declaring that "God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life", and see how that works out for you.

Having a hard time? Congratulations. You officially "get" Neutral Milk Hotel. Now go and listen to it again and again and again. You'll thank me later.

If You're Feeling Sinister
3. If You're Feeling Sinister - Belle & Sebastian
Buy (

Belle & Sebastian are a bit like The Stars of Track and Field about which they sing: famous to those who follow the sport -or "scene" (God, I hate that word) - but largely unfamiliar to the world at large. What a crime.

Many critics feel that this was the apex of Belle & Sebastian's life as a band. I'd tend to disagree. If You're Feeling Sinister remains the highlight of a long and prolific career, yes, but it hasn't been all downhill since. Dear Catastrophe Waitress is easily one of their top two or three releases, and Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant, while loathed by most, had some of their best material on it. But the problem that all albums (save Sinister) released before Dear Catastrophe Waitress had in common was that they were plagued by a single song that really killed the momentum and brought down the disc. Electronic Rennaisance, Chickfactor, Beyond The Sunrise: here's looking at you.

But we're not talking about any of those albums that are "one of their best" or contain "some of their strongest songs". We're talking about If You're Feeling Sinister, which is the best work containing the best songs. Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying is three minutes of perfection, the title track is a literate and poignant narrative (vintage B&S), and Judy And The Dream Of Horses ties it all up with a wistfully melanchonic ribbon.

What else is there to be said? There is no better introduction to the world of independent pop music. End of story.

The Moon & Antarctica2. The Moon & Antarctica - Modest Mouse
Buy (

Does this list really need two Modest Mouse albums on it?

Absolutely. In fact, there is a strong case to be made for the inclusion of a third (Building Nothing Out Of Something). But if I had to choose one Modest Mouse album to listen to for the rest of my life, there is absolutely no question which one I would keep.

The Moon & Antarctica is Modest Mouse's crowning achievement, and it is unlikely to be topped - if I were to revisit this list in another 40 years, I am quite confident that The Moon's ranking would be safe. Ignore that number '2' in boldface next to the title at the top, because The Moon & Antarctica is as much the greatest album of the last fourty years as The Earth Is Not A Cold, Dead Place. I guess I just have fonder memories associated with the latter, and I hope Isaac Brock & Co. will forgive my shortcomings.

Every concept, regardless of the medium in which it is realized - film, essay, painting, album - has a main idea, a thesis. On The Lonesome, Crowded West, that thesis was explicated in the record's stunning closer with the conclusion that "No one's running this whole thing." The Moon & Antarctica is more up-front: the first words of the album are "Everything that keeps me together is falling apart." An hour later, Brock revises. "The one thing you taught me about human beings is this / They ain't made of nothing but water and shit!"

Self reliance here is key. In Dark Center of the Universe, Brock is "pretty damn sure that anyone can equally easily fuck you over". If people are really made of nothing more than water and shit (clever wordplay belied by its crassness), then when everything that keeps us together falls apart, surely we can't rely on them to do anything but that: fuck us over. God's not the answer either, as I Came As A Rat observes that He will "stick it to you", first chance He gets. No salvation there.

Indeed, nothing created by society is a salvation for Isaac Brock, be it God or work or love or friendship. It wouldn't surprise me if he was a Transcendentalist, as the only salvation cited - outside of ourselves - is in unspoiled nature, barren and desolate. To this end, the album takes the same ideas as The Lonesome, Crowded West, albeit with more existential angst, and develops them further. The protaganist of Trucker's Atlas tried to escape modern life with a zig-zagging cross-country jaunt; now Brock aims a bit further off, to the moon and Antarctica. The anti-urban themes of Paper Thin Walls and A Different City will be instantly familiar to anybody versed in the gospel of Cowboy Dan. And gone are the days when Brock tried to drink away the part of the day he couldn't sleep away - on Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes he's put down the bourbon bottle and switched to "drinking Coca Cola" as the world crumbles before his eyes, surely the work of a God taking a chance to stick to him.

It's not all God's fault though, and society isn't always to blame either - sometimes the burden is squarely upon ourselves. On Lives, he groans, "My hell comes from inside myself / Why fight this?" - nihilism at its best. He's not perfect either, and despite his philosophy to the contrary, makes attempts to connect to other people. Life Like Weeds laments the lost opportunities for Brock to tell others how he feels ("I wish I could have told you I love you"), and Alone Down There finds him yearning to provide somebody with company, with comfort, belying what 3rd Planet described as his "only art of fucking people over". After all, Brock is an "anyone", so certainly he is not exempt from Dark Center's edict.

In the end though, none of that really has much to do with enjoying The Moon & Antarctica. The thick rhythm section; the warped, overdubbed guitars; the sinister, menacing yelp of Brock's delivery: those are far more likely candidates to sway your opinion on this album. The concept is, frankly, just gravy.

I love this album. You might not. But we're all of full of shit anyway, so what's the difference?

The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place1. The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place - Explosions In The Sky
Temporary Residence Limited
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I think it's only fitting that an album with no words leaves me speechless.

I've already reviewed this album here, but that amounts to little more than a long-form diary entry, really. What I wrote there was admittedly a bit of a cop-out, less a critical review than a cathartic release at the expense of what is, to me, the greatest album of all time.

But maybe it wasn't. Maybe that review was indicative of the fact that much of this album's appeal lies in the fact that its content cannot be objectively analyzed, and its wholly subjective, emotional connection is what keeps me coming back for more time and time again. I've long thought First Breath After Coma to be the most beautiful piece of music ever committed to tape; it seems that Your Hand In Mine is a not-so-distant second.

For me, this release has achieved paradoxical status: a record that is so overwhelming in its greatness, I am sometimes hesitant to listen to it, for fear of overplaying it. I always manage to overcome my reluctance, but I am still scared of what might happen:

I am terrified that one day, the three minute mark of First Breath After Coma will fail to evoke picturesque memories of the clouds parting on a stormy June morning, God himself telling me that things would be okay; that the dynamics of Six Days At The Bottom Of The Ocean will no longer excite, the music instead sinking into the background like the Kursk into the icy depths; that somehow, Your Hand In Mine will cease to be the perfect ending to this album, its note of hope washed out, eroded by overexposure to the elements. I am terrified that one day, this will be just another record in my iTunes library, devoid of any meaning.

But until that day comes, this is the only CD I will ever need.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The 20 Best Albums Released Since 1970: 20-11

Anybody and everybody these days seems to have a Top __ Albums feature going, so I figured I better make one too. I'll be the first to admit it: the list is strongly biased towards guitar-based albums released from 1995 onward (especially those of the more independent variety), but this is a product of my age more than anything. Feel free to add a comment putting me in my place, I could always use a nice slice of humble pie.

(Note: As the title indicates, this list only considers records released since 1970, hence Pet Sounds and ____ album by the Beatles aren't here. That's not to downplay their relevance or their influence, as these were some of the most significant albums ever released in contemporary Western popular music - their omission was more personal choice than anything.)

This Station Is Non-Operational20. This Station Is Non-Operational - At The Drive-In
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How do you solve a problem like At The Drive-In?

Let me rephrase that: when compiling a list of the 20 best rock albums spanning the last 4 decades, what do you do about a group widely regarded as the quintessential post-hardcore band? I could have easily devoted spots 20 through 16 to Acrobatic Tenement, Alfaro Vive Carajo, El Gran Orgo, in/casino/out, and Relationship of Command, and called it a day, but that just wouldn't have been fair to the other 18 bands on this list. Perhaps in anticipation of this conundrum, Fearless Records released a superlative anthology of ATDI's brief but monumental career, and my problems evaporated.

As "Greatest Hits" albums go, This Station Is Non-Operational is up there with The Essential Clash as one of the best ones ever assembled. Yes, there are some glaring omissions, most notably the entirety of Acrobatic Tenement (save a live version of Initiation), but upon hearing the 18 tracks that did make the cut, all is easily forgiven. According to guitarist Jim Ward, the band's rationale in glossing over their early work was that "there was just some stuff [we] wanted to stay special, like those early seven-inches. If you have them, then you have them because you were in a certain place at a certain time. [We] wanted to keep it special for those people."

Hey, as long as it was intentional.

Besides, instead of focusing on what isn't there, I like to set my sights on what is, because there's certainly plenty: Picket Fence Cartel, Enfilade (with an Iggy Pop cameo!), and One Armed Scissor are all essential ATDI cuts. But what makes this better than some bootleg mixtape or fan playlist (which is what most of these compilations boil down to) is the inclusion of some lesser known tracks, songs that are of the same quality as those given the LP treatment. B-sides and singles like Incetardis and Doorman's Placebo shine, and This Night Has Opened My Eyes sounds just as haunting coming from Cedric Bixler as it did when Morrissey sang it twenty years earlier.

The Mars Volta is (mostly) interesting, De Facto was a bit too weird for its own good, and Sparta continually underwhelms: At The Drive-In very well might remain the high-water mark of its former members' respective careers, and this record is full of 18 reasons why.

Domestica19. Domestica - Cursive
Saddle Creek
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Back before the term "emo" was branded and commodified by Hot Topic, before Marc Bianchi even started thinking about making electronic music as Her Space Holiday, the "DC Sound" was what everybody and their mother seemed to be striving for. So who the hell would have guessed that a group of guys from Omaha, Nebraska would do it better than anybody in years? Cursive's 2001 EP, Burst and Bloom, was the epitome of what was then the band's signature: long-form melodic hardcore (long is relative when it comes to hardcore music, as sub-minute track lengths were commonplace) with a softer, more introspective edge. After Burst and Bloom, Cursive began to meander down the winding path of indie rock, to great success. But in 2000, before any of that, they released 32 minutes of near musical perfection, a criminally-underrated concept album (concept album in the good way, not the pejorative Kiss way) titled Domestica.

Ostensibly chronicling the messy divorce of frontman Tim Kasher (a topic later revisited by his softer side-project, The Good Life, on their equally captivating Album of the Year), Domestica winds its way through 9 vignettes of a disintegrating household, of a relationship gone stale, loveless. It's all there: the bitter resentment (The Martyr), the infidelity (A Red So Deep), the confrontation (The Radiator Hums), and the eventual, resigned acceptance of defeat (The Night I Lost The Will To Fight). Kasher claims that the album ends on a note of hope, but I have no idea what the fuck he is talking about: there is nothing hopeful at all about this album, one of the most thoroughly depressing listens in my collection.

Maybe he was confusing "hope" with "catharsis", because there is certainly plenty of that. I've yet to find a chorus as satisfying as The Radiator Hums' refrain "I threw out the phone to try to get through to you!", which isn't even to mention Kasher's clever wordplay that pervades the entire album.

Cursive's status as an "emo" band was questionable: Domestica shares almost nothing in common with the likes of, say, Indian Summer. But I've got to tell you, emo or not, Silverstein and Hawthorne Heights would do well to take a trip down to Omaha. Who knows? They might even learn a thing or two.

Set Yourself On Fire18. Set Yourself On Fire
Arts & Crafts
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"When there is nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire."

Sage words, recited by Stars' lead singer Torquill Campbell's father on opening track Your Ex-Lover is Dead. I'd describe this song, one of heart-aching beauty, but why bother? Somebody else (i.e. the members of Stars themselves) already summarized it perfectly:

" exquisitely warm brass section helps tell a call-and-response story of half-regret, of seeing someone you once fucked at a party, knowing they never hurt you the way they could've, and feeling awkward, hateful and oddly wistful about it."

This quote, which used to adorn their official website, applies to more than just Your Ex-Lover Is Dead. This song is the perfect opening track, accurately setting the tone for the entire album: 12 tales of breaking up, breaking down, and just plain old breaking, each running the gamut from awkward to hateful to, well, oddly wistful.

"12 tales?" you might be thinking, "But there are 13 songs on this album!"

If only that were the case. The CD cover might list 13 titles, but they are more aptly described as "12 songs and one horrible, terrible, awful, rodentious, no-good, rotten, very bad mess of a sonic abortion called He Lied About Death", an extraneously political, generic Bush-basher padded with 2 minutes of masturbatory noodling on a melodica. The track sticks out like a sore thumb, not at all fitting in with the relationship-driven narratives that dominate the remainder of the record.

One clunker generally doesn't make or break an album, however, and in Stars' case, the other twelve diamonds easily offset the one piece of coal. Calendar Girl tugs at the heartstrings, Reunion reflects with fond remembrance and nostalgic regret, and Celebration Guns does anything but celebrate: this is truly baroque pop at its best.

But for one track, Set Yourself On Fire makes the top ten; even at #18, it's still classic.

As The Roots Undo17. As The Roots Undo - Circle Takes The Square
Robotic Empire
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Out of all the albums on here, this might be the hardest to sell: honest to God, archetypal "screamo" (see: comments on the term "emo" above), relentless in its refusal to back down, engulfing the listener in an asphyxiating cacophony of angular guitars and blood-curdling squeals of anguish, coked-out drums rolling through breakdowns and blastbeats with lightning speed and thunderous aplomb.

Scratch that. A better way to market this band and this album would just be to say Jordan Blilie and Efrim Menuck got drunk and had a kid.

Hm, that's not much better, biological impossibilities notwithstanding, and it's pretty obscure too.

I guess this music defies easy description and labeling (ignore the word screamo in quotes in the first paragraph), and needs to be heard for oneself. I won't sugarcoat it: you will probably hate this album, unless you enjoy loud, abrasive, challenging music. Perhaps Circle Takes The Square is the James Joyce of the musical world. They both claim that their work has a narrative to it; the rest of us just have to take their word for it.

Like I said, tough sell.

The Four Trees16. The Four Trees - Caspian
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I can't put it any better than this.

Translating the Name EP15. Translating the Name EP - Saosin
Death Do Us Part
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The classic scenario: boy meets band; boy moves to California to record most intense, relevant 15 minutes of rock music of the 21st century; boy goes on tour, wows everybody; boy gets homesick, moves back to Pennsylvania, starts an experimental band; old band finds a replacement, become chronic disappointment.

And don't forget the drums, recorded by former Slayer drum tech Pat Magrath. Ho-oly shit the drums.

Hotel California14. Hotel California - The Eagles
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A question that I can't get out of my head is "Why did I choose to put this album on the list?"

Was it because it is truly one of the greatest 20 releases of the last four decades? Or was it because of running errands with my father as a young boy, pushing 80 in his 300ZX while the fitting Life In The Fast Lane roared from his Bose six-speaker? Could it be the title track, with its haunting, desolate atmosphere, and that ridiculous guitar solo, often imitated, never duplicated? It might have been New Kid In Town, which spoke, still speaks, to that universal fear of being replaced, something that only becomes more relevant with the passage of time. Or maybe it was the sprawling Henley-dominated closer, The Last Resort, its message and tone a foreshadowing of his solo work, more errands, and new memories.

Perhaps those are all the wrong questions; perhaps critical merit and personal connection don't have to be mutually exclusive. Regardless, the album stays.

Brother, Sister13. Brother, Sister - mewithoutYou
Tooth & Nail
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A 45 minute existential romp tackling life, death, God, the Devil, lust, pride, greed, addiction, "the pious", and "the profane" - good and evil, to put it bluntly - Brother, Sister is quite an achievement. Even more stunning is that a decidedly "Christian" band could make such an album without the resultant product coming off as proselytizing. Instead of preaching, mewithoutYou simply asks a few questions about the universe. Then, they attempt to answer them, in their own, oddly humble way, before ultimately coming to the conclusion that "I do not exist, only You exist, I do not exist."

To this end, the record sounds less like an ad for the church and more like an old ad for Radio Shack: "You've got questions, we've got answers."

Lifted12. Lifted or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground - Bright Eyes
Saddle Creek
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There were three Bright Eyes albums that I felt were qualified to appear in this article: Lifted, Fevers & Mirrors, and I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning. All had their respective places and times, and all had their relative merits, so to avoid any real, critical thinking, I devised a simple metric, based off of the number of so-called "essential Bright Eyes songs" on each release.

Fevers & Mirrors:

  • The Calendar Hung Itself: Vintage Bright Eyes, a whiny Conor Oberst wants to know what your new man's got that he doesn't, with lyrical allusions to You Are My Sunshine to boot. (+1)
  • Haligh, Haligh, A Lie, Haligh: Clever wordplay, a cheating woman, and what was the catchiest chorus of Oberst's career thus far. (+1)
  • A Song To Pass The Time: A character study set in suburbia, its lo-fi glory an apt ending to the first truly great Bright Eyes release. (+1)
Total: 3


  • You Will. You? Will. You? Will. You? Will: Odd punctuation aside, guessing the chorus from the title is a fairly trivial affair; this song, however, isn't. It is an odd mix, composed of equal parts bravado and self-deprecation, but the resulting concoction hits the spot. (+1)
  • Lover I Don't Have To Love: The juxtaposition between You Will... and Lover I Don't Have To Love (placed next to eachother on the album, perhaps intentionally) is quite striking: the former a treatise on clinginess, the latter an ode to the one night stand. And that beat, don't even get me started... (+1)
  • Don't Know When But A Day Is Gonna Come: My introduction to the Bright Eyes oeuvre, its brooding atmosphere, sinister mood, and slow, tense build are certainly enough to warrant classification as "essential". (+1)
  • Make War: Great, another song about a failed relationship! Wait, wait, wait....hold on a's got an optimistic outlook, you say? And Conor Oberst wishes his ex the best in her future endeavors? And he actually means it? What the hell?! (+1)
Total: 4

I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning:

  • At The Bottom Of Everything: We’re going to a party. It’s a birthday party. It’s your birthday party. Happy birthday darling. We love you very, very, very, very, very, very, very much. (+1)
  • Lua: Either he truly is just a terrible, terrible person, or Conor needs to quit selling himself so short: "But me, I'm not a gamble - you can count on me to split. The love I sell you in the evening, by the morning, won't exist," he claims. He's doing a worse job selling himself than I did that Circle Takes The Square album...yikes. (+1)
  • First Day Of My Life: It might be a bit cliche, but this one wins points just because of its sheer optimism, quite a rarity considering the source. (+1)
  • Landlocked Blues: A cleaned up version of One Foot In Front Of The Other, with added vocals from Emmylou Harris, about love, war, stasis, and little kids playing in the street. (+1)
Total: 4

Shit, a I guess I'll end up having to do that whole critical thinking business after all. Or, I could just be cheap and take a point away from I'm Wide Awake out of spite for the fact that its companion piece, Digital Ash In A Digital Urn, is $12 that I will never get back.

Yeah, I think I'll do that.

Between The Heart And The Synapse11. Between The Heart And The Synapse - The Receiving End Of Sirens
Triple Crown
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It's a shame that The Receiving End Of Sirens had to go and break up, because they were the most interesting band making music today. Combining a plethora of varied genres (post-hardcore, progressive rock, jazz, electronica, ambient, experimental, electronica) into a cohesive whole, their freshman effort Between The Heart And The Synapse falls just around there: between head and heart. It is emotional without being maudlin, and it makes you think without coming off as dry. Well over an hour in length, dynamic and engaging throughout, Between The Heart And The Synapse is one of the most accomplished debuts in recent memory.

So, how does a band follow up such an accomplishment? Why, with a concept album centered on Johannes Kepler's tonal theory of the planets, of course!

Read about albums 1-10 here.