Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Albums 2013 - Top Ten

I've said it before and I'll say it again - 2013 was an epic year in music and the finest in recent memory.  Those who know me best won't be surprised by my top pick, but the rest of my list might be unexpected.  In 2013, after years of bashful flirtation, I dove headlong into "metal" without pause or irony.  There was an abundance of excellent metal albums this year - many recorded and produced by an always rock-solid Kurt Ballou (of hardcore punk heroes Converge, and proprietor of GodCity Studio in Salem, Massachusetts).  Otherwise, 2013 continued a trend of "retro" with contemporary artists continuing to referencing the sounds of the 70's, 80's and 90's - even some former heroes from those decades made solid comebacks.  These are my favorite albums of the year.* 

Enjoy. . . .        

      
1.  Queens of the Stone Age: ...Like Clockwork (9/10)





"Risk nothing, get nothing" claimed Queens of the Stone Age founder and frontman Josh Homme earlier this year just prior to the release of his band's sixth album ...Like Clockwork - and he couldn't have been more right.  After putting the Queens on ice for six years and jumping fearlessly from major Interscope to indie Matador, Homme brought the band back with their most inventive and redeeming album yet - debuting at number one on the Billboard chart back in June (a first for the band) and earning three Grammy nominations this month.

Full disclosure, Queens of the Stone Age have been my favorite living rock band for over a decade now.  Their sophomore album from 2000, Rated R, was revelatory and when Dave Grohl joined as drummer in 2002 for their masterpiece Songs For The Deaf the perfect mojo was almost too good to be true.  Turns out it was, as Grohl inevitably returned to his Foo Fighters and Homme fired colorful bass player Nick Oliveri for deplorable misdeeds.

Homme would soldier on with new bandmates, putting out a couple uneven LPs in the years that followed - the morose Lullabies to Paralyze in 2005 and an improved Era Vulgaris in 2007.  Despite some good jams, Homme seemed to falter.  He went on to produce the Arctic Monkeys, and reunite with Grohl for super-threesome Them Crooked Vultures featuring Led Zeppelin bass player John Paul Jones.  Homme finally got his mojo back, then died.

Following a depressing three month stint on bed rest, Homme gathered the troops and got back to work.  Longtime drummer Joey Castillo was fired (for reasons yet unknown), quickly replaced by pinch hitter and band veteran Dave Grohl, then permanently by ex-Mars Volta drummer Jon Theodore.  Soon enough a motley crew of friends including Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner, Scissor Sisters' Jake Shears, UNKLE's James Lavelle, Trent Reznor, and actual queen Elton John would swing by the studio to assist.

The resulting album, ...Like Clockwork, is unlike any other by Queens of the Stone Age.  Previously an invincible ginger macho man, Josh Homme forgoes the colossal riffs of yesteryear and channels a newfound sense of fragility and mortality.  "I want God to come/ And take me home" intones Homme on the somber Wendy Carlos-meets-Pink Floyd piano ballad "The Vampyre of Time and Memory" and recounts, in allegory, his near-death experience on the heart breaking spaghetti-western epic "I Appear Missing."

The album is textured and layered meticulously.  No two tracks sound alike, and the creative choices are truly bizarre.  Salacious jam "If I Had A Tail" sounds like Gary Numan's "Cars," Berlin's "Take My Breath Away," and The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" all at once.  Later, "Kalopsia," features Homme and Reznor doing their best Bowie and Mercury, over a caustic multi-part tune with portions that recall The Flamingos' 1959 doo-wop hit "I Only Have Eyes For You."  The sound of scuba gear, or a hospital ventilator, provides rhythmic accompaniment.  This curious sonic detail supports two recurring themes on the album simultaneously - drifting in water and being on the brink of death.    

Though ...Like Clockwork might seem at times like an egocentric pity-party, with Homme emoting vulnerably throughout, he steps back on guitar considerably - letting his newer bandmates shine.  Bass player Mike Shuman steps up with some infectious rumbling grooves like on the album's blistering lead single "My God Is The Sun" while Dean Fertita, also a Jack White sideman, skillfully handles keys and lays down some fantastic Skynyrd-esque guitar solos like on the aforementioned "The Vampyre of Time and Memory."

...Like Clockwork represents a great stylistic leap forward for Queens of the Stone Age, boasting impressive vocals and compositional acumen.  It revives the spirit of Josh Homme's best work on Rated R and Songs For The Deaf while branching off in bold new directions.  Though it's not the monstrous stoner rock album old school fans might've hoped for, it's the album they needed - and it's certainly the album Homme needed to make.  On the massively funky dick-shaking anthem "Smooth Sailing" Homme brags "I'm risking it always/ No second chances/ It's gonna be smooth sailing/ From here on out."

Damn right.


2.  Arctic Monkeys: AM (8.5/10)





British rock foursome Arctic Monkeys learned a thing or two from mentors Josh Homme and The Black Keys, and nearly beat them at their own game with fifth album AM.  Homme produced the Arctic Monkeys years back, luring the band out of a pop-punk corner and into harder, sexier territory.  Similarly, while on tour with The Black Keys, they picked up on that band's predilection for vintage soul, glam, and hip-hop.  On AM the band stomp and shimmy through a dozen infectious grooves that deftly blend those influences, while frontman Alex Turner hones a baritone croon, lending warmth to his lascivious tongue-twisting anecdotes.  AM is not only among this year's most finely crafted LPs, but vaults the Arctic Monkeys into the upper tier of contemporary rock royalty.


3.  Skeletonwitch: Serpents Unleashed (8/10)





Serpents Unleashed, fifth album from Athens, Ohio, blackened-thrash five piece Skeletonwitch is, without a doubt, the most explicitly "metal" album ever to make my top ten.  Showcasing eleven scorchers in little over half an hour, Serpents Unleashed is a ferocious, merciless beast.  Frontman Chance Garnette spins tails of doom and damnation in a blood curdling screech, while his adept bandmates unleash sonic hellfire in perfect, blinding lockstep.  Dustin Botjes' machine gun double-bass kicks and Evan Linger's slippery bass fretwork are particularly impressive.  Producer Kurt Ballou also does some of his best work on Serpents Unleashed, underscoring the band's natural strengths by keeping each element clear as crystal, but warm and punchy.  Absolutely killer.


4.  Kvelertak: Meir (7.5/10)







Like a savage troop of vikings, Norway's six piece "black & roll" powerhouse Kvelertak invaded my world this year and easily became my favorite new band. On their sophomore LP Meir, producer Kurt Ballou once again helps Kvelertak distill four decades of beer soaked party rock, blending the likes of AC/DC, Thin Lizzy, and Motorhead with black metal's infernal shriek and percussive blast beats.  The band do it so well they don't even bother with English - vocalist Erlend Hjelvik screams entirely in Norwegian.  They put on a ridiculous show too.  The only thing keeping Meir down is Kvelertak's own 2010 eponymous debut, which was damn near perfect, and the fact that my top three picks are bold improvements for their respective creators whereas this one merely stays the course.      


5.  Ghost: Infestissumam (7/10)






Sweden's doom pop and metal six-piece Ghost are certainly one of the more unusual bands to ever make my top ten, and their meteoric rise in popularity over the last couple years (signing to a UMG subsidiary, playing Coachella and Lollapalooza, and collaborating with Dave Grohl) is just as unlikely - unless, that is, they actually did make a pact with Satan.  Fact is, as I mentioned in my review earlier this year, ol' Beelzebub has been part of rock & roll lore since its inception and it's about time a band brought some of that cartoon drama and mischief back to the genre.  Borrowing from Kiss and Alice Cooper's showbiz playbook, and relishing every moment of it, Ghost craft their sophomore LP Infestissumam as an outrageous lark filled with memorable odes to devilish matters.     


6.  Kylesa: Ultraviolet (7/10)
 






Sludge metal, a subgenre with origins in America's swampy South, shares the same genes as that early 90's subgenre from America's rainy North West - a soupy mix of Black Flag's punk rock indignation and Black Sabbath's monstrous riffs.  Kylesa, a coed five piece from Savannah, Georgia, best exemplify this patchwork of disparate rock influences on their sixth LP Ultraviolet.  Long time fans will recognize the woozy psychedelia the band perfected on 2010's breakout Spiral Shadow, but may be surprised by their bold new indie-rock fixation.  "Low Tide" plays like a screwed version of The Cure's "A Forest," while "Quicksand" pays homage to Smashing Pumpkins' "Hummer," and closer "Drifting" recalls Slowdive's "Sing" until vocalist Laura Pleasants explodes with riot grrrl fury.       


7.  Nine Inch Nails: Hesitation Marks (7/10)






Having missed NIN in their prime, as Trent Reznor's youthful histrionics seemed below my good taste, I finally saw them live in 2005.  I was thoroughly blown away, ate my hat, and immediately pledged allegiance.  They had entered a fervent period of output, releasing four albums in just three years before Reznor "retired" the band in 2009.  NIN finally returned this year with their eighth full length - a refreshingly minimal Hesitation Marks.  Reznor started out as an 80's synthpop dandy so Hesitation Marks comes to life best in that context - with subtle allusions to that decade evident throughout.  "Copy of A" riffs on primitive techno, while "Everything" employs The Cure's jangly guitar, and "Satellite" borrows its paranoid strip club funk from one-time Prince proteges Vanity 6.    


8.  Beastmilk: Climax (7/10)

 



Though Beastmilk's Climax was released only a month ago, few albums this year were so immediately enjoyable.  Beastmilk are a post-punk goth rock foursome from Finland fronted by British ex-pat "Kvohst" - a veteran of the pan-Scandinavian black metal scene.  The band shrewdly recorded their debut with American producer Kurt Ballou - fleshing out their natural proclivity for dramatic baritone, 80's hand-claps, echoey snares, and huge shimmering guitars.  Beastmilk synthesize equal parts Joy Division, Smiths, Cure, Echo & The Bunnymen, and Misfits to create an assortment of apocalyptic anthems broaching metal's dependable themes of death, war, mind control, and madness, deliberately filtered through the prism of goth's romantic notions of love and alienation.  

9.  My Bloody Valentine: mbv (7/10)
 






Irish shoegaze rock pioneers My Bloody Valentine put out two sleeper classics in their early career, the genre-defining Isn't Anything in 1988 and the monumental Loveless in 1991 - then went silent.  Whereas the crushing weight of expectation drove some of their contemporaries to untimely ends, My Bloody Valentine mastermind Kevin Shields simply went into hiding.  Few knew, or believed, that he would spend the next 22 years composing and recording a followup to Loveless, but it finally arrived with little fanfare as a download-only album, mbv, in February - and it's pretty damn good.  Flowing easily from the bands familiar, but inimitable, gauzy fuzz to uncharted waters of abrasive industrial cacophony and breakbeat rhythm, mbv is a surprisingly exceptional comeback.   

10.  Disclosure: Settle (6.5/10)




Since the skiffle craze of the mid 1950's up through Adele's breakout albums, UK youth culture has had a special way of appropriating and recycling African-American music.  Electronic dance music is no different, as now defunct British artists like Artful Dodger and MJ Cole borrowed heavily from American house and R&B producers like Todd Edwards and Timbaland to launch the brief UK/2-step garage trend of the late 90's.  This year young British siblings Disclosure brilliantly resurrect these Anglo-reinterpretations over a decade later with their Daft Punk-crushing LP Settle.  With massive ear-worm singles like "When A Fire Starts to Burn" and "White Noise," and some sizzling live performances in support, Settle is this year's best dance album on either side of the Atlantic.   


Happy New Year everybody!  Can't wait to see (and hear!) what 2014 brings.
  
*Edit - Album scores added on 5/20/14.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Albums 2013 - Honorable Mention

In recent years I've had trouble coming up with ten albums I really liked.  This year I had trouble paring down about thirty albums.  Suffice it to say, 2013 was a great year for music.  The following are my honorable mentions - ten albums that I really enjoyed, but didn't quite make my final "top ten."  Some came very close, but I had to make some tough decisions.  This is basically my runners-up list - not ranked, but ordered alphabetically.*
Enjoy. . . .


ASG: Blood Drive (6.5/10)





I hadn't heard of Wilmington, North Carolina, stoner/sludge rockers ASG until earlier this summer.  Turns out Blood Drive is their fifth album and it sounds like a lost gem from 1992.  All the hallmarks of that era are preserved and resurrected brilliantly here as if Creed and Nickleback never existed to piss all over them - the angst, the beauty, and the riffs.  Vocalist Jason Shi displays uncanny range, emulating both Perry Farrell's nasal rasp and Mark Lanegan's baritone, filtered through a distinctly southern twang, while the band channel the best of Jane's Addiction, Alice in Chains and that faithful wellspring of both grunge and contemporary stoner/sludge - Black Sabbath.  Showing depth and broad scope rare in modern rock records, it would be a shame to overlook ASG's Blood Drive. 


Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: Specter at The Feast (6.5/10)





As I mentioned in my review of Specter At The Feast a couple months ago, BRMC deserve credit for their part in kickstarting the garage rock revival of the early 00's and for soldiering on while their contemporaries (The White Stripes, The Strokes, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs etc.) have either imploded, stopped touring, or lost the plot.  Before I heard Specter At The Feast I was fully prepared to dislike it.  2008's weird instrumental album The Effects of 333 was terrible and 2010's Beat The Devil's Tattoo was disappointing, so I wasn't expecting much out of this one.  Though poorly sequenced and overlong by about fifteen minutes, Specter at the Feast is surprisingly endearing, gorgeously produced, and features a few ambitious cuts that'd kill in a stadium.  Again, credit where it's due.


Black Sabbath: 13 (7/10)





Black Sabbath are the most influential band in rock & roll.  There, I said it.  You can easily see and hear the distinct aesthetic of doom and instrumental rumble they pioneered over forty years ago in about a thousand bands that followed.  Not to mention the entire genre they spawned - heavy metal.  With founding vocalist Ozzy Osbourne back with Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler for the first time since 1978's Never Say Die! and veteran studio-wiz Rick Rubin at the helm, 13 boasts a muscular, dignified grandeur.  Shame Bill Ward couldn't make the reunion as fill-in Brad Wilk can't quite match the loose jazzy percussion of vintage Sabbath.  Still, 13 is an unlikely success - a gratifying album that recalls the band's dark bluesy roots and brings the journey full circle.


Bombino: Nomad (6.5/10)





Dan Auerbach has been on a roll lately, not only earning rare commercial and critical success with his own blues-rock duo The Black Keys but also as a producer - doing a fantastic job on last year's Grammy winning Locked Down by Dr. John.  Auerbach tries to catch lightning in a bottle again this year with Tuareg blues guitarist Bombino and his sophomore album Nomad.  Recorded at Auerbach's Nashville-based studio, Nomad has a decidedly contemporary feel, with Bombino's nimble guitar picking run through a battery of fuzz, echo, and reverb pedals.  Though slightly overbearing at times, Aurebach's production gives Nomad's psych jams the rock & roll punch needed for Bombino to transcend the catch-all "world music" tag and become a star in his own right.


Kurt Vile: Wakin On A Pretty Daze (7/10)





Despite his slacker disposition, Philadelphia singer/songwriter Kurt Vile has put out five critically acclaimed albums in five years.  The man works hard to appear so laid-back.  On his fifth LP, Wakin on a Pretty Daze, Vile creates a soporific, meandering sonic buzz - dipping into the lighter stylings of indie and classic rock pillars Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, Lou Reed and Tom Petty.  With Vile employing a lazy drawl and the occasional synth or drum machine to accompany his lovely guitar strumming, Wakin on a Pretty Daze deftly approximates (as the album title implies) the euphoric serotonin high of napping outdoors on a sunny summer day - plenty of beer in the cooler, weed in the bowl, and not a care in the world.  This is indie rock's album-length answer to "It Was A Good Day."      


Neko Case: The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (6.5/10)




When it comes to charismatic female musicians, the conversation usually steers right to the subject of gender.  In most cases it's unwarranted and condescending, but when your big single of the year is called "Man" and the lyrics defiantly claim "I'm a man. . . . You didn't know what a man was, until I showed you!" you kinda have to.  The Worse Things Get is indie/pop/country singer Neko Case's sixth album and a distinct feminist machismo is on display here.  If that's sounds contradictory, it's supposed to.  A rambler, farmer, erstwhile nude pinup model, fighter, artist, performer, and peerless vocalist, Case isn't a man or woman - she's just a badass.  The Worse Things Get is beautifully graceful and confessional, and in some cases downright heartbreaking.  Hey, real men cry right?          


Russian Circles: Memorial (7/10)





Russian Circles are a Chicago three piece instrumental post-metal band, and Memorial is their fifth album.  Whereas contemporaries like Pelican could use a yarler to lend some context to their grungy riffage, Russian Circles' colossal Wagnerian anthems could easily, without human voice, soundtrack the sagas of Nordic gods.  Returning producer Brandon Curtis lends Memorial a crisp spacious quality that gives the impression that the LP was recorded live in a single take.  Drummer Dave Turncrantz's stunning percussion is captured in high definition, with minor errors left intact on the final recording.  Borrowing black metal's frightening theatrics, Memorial's beautiful dread ebbs and flows without warning - seesawing dramatically between the balmy and the monstrous.      


The Strokes: Comedown Machine (6.5/10)





The Strokes couldn't even muster a tour this year to support their fifth album Comedown Machine.  How this album even came to be is a minor mystery, considering lead hipster, er, singer Julian Casablancas tellingly recorded his vocals remotely for their last LP, Angles.  When The Strokes hit the scene in 2001 with their cute outfits and jangly retro garage-rock ditties, it felt right.  Their debut album Is This It was fun and irreverent, and rock & roll hadn't been either of those things for a while.  Twelve years and three duds later, we get Comedown Machine - a surprisingly good album that plays to the bands strengths (simple, catchy) while expanding their palate (new wave, electro, lo-fi punk, old-timey rumba?).  Too bad few seemed to care - least of all The Strokes themselves.


Toxic Holocaust: Chemistry of Consciousness (8/10)





Toxic Holocaust's fifth album Chemistry of Consciousness, released just a couple months back, is a late but strong addition to my "honorable mention" list - and is, frankly, still threatening to maul somebody in my "top ten" for their spot.  If you're into beefy metal riffs delivered at a blinding pace, there's a lot to like about this album.  From Portland, Oregon, and founded/fronted by a guy named Joel Grind who looks like Vince Neil's angry body double, Toxic Holocaust are a thrash revival trio that channel the high-speed brutality of the Big Four while keeping things infectiously short, loose, and uncluttered.  With expert punk/metal producer Kurt Ballou at the controls, Chemistry of Consciousness has a warm rugged sound that's pure comfort food for any bitter soul.          


Wolf People: Fain (7.5/10)





Though Tame Impala's debut Innerspeaker was easily my favorite album of 2010, another likeminded band wasn't far behind - Wolf People, with their debut Steeple.  Like Australia's Tame Impala, England's Wolf People was initially the home-recording project of a lone musician, Jack Sharp, and whereas the former fused the Beatles' narcotic pop harmonies with the rave patchwork of the Chemical Brothers, the latter fused Cream's blues-rock virtuosity with the boom-bap percussive funk of the Dust Brothers.  On sophomore LP Fain, Sharp and his capable four-piece band bring their psych-rock meets ren-fest aesthetic into sharper focus - weaving vintage prog-rock, jazz fusion, and English folk into a series of tight, serpentine jams.  Fantastic stuff, and so close to my "top ten."


Next up, the "Top Ten" list.  Stay tuned. . . .

*Edit - Album scores added on 5/20/14.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Live Show Review - Queens of The Stone Age - 12/14/13

Queens of The Stone Age
Date:  December 14, 2013
Venue:  Barclays Center, Brooklyn, NY


Southwest desert rockers Queens of the Stone Age, now approaching two decades led by lone band-founder Josh Homme, played the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, this past weekend.  QOTSA have spent the greater part of the year on a nonstop world tour supporting their independently released sixth album, ...Like Clockwork - their most successful LP to date, debuting at #1 on the Billboard chart in June, and collecting three Grammy nominations this month.

As QOTSA cruelly skipped DC this year, my wife surprised me on my birthday with tickets to their headlining gig in New York (we also caught their short festival set in Philadelphia this past September).  So we braved the snowy arctic weather and made the trip up the coast to see the Queens in Brooklyn (ha!) first hand.


Queens of The Stone Age "The Vampyre of Time and Memory"

...Like Clockwork is an entirely different kind of album than QOTSA's previous ones, showing off Homme's softer, weirder side, so I was curious to see how the band would incorporate the new material into their set.  The Queens exploded out of the gate with "You Think I Ain't Worth A Dollar But I Feel Like a Millionaire" from the band's 2002 classic Songs For The Deaf, followed by their most famous single "No One Knows" from the same album.  Then came this year's single "My God Is The Sun," definitely ...Like Clockwork's most upbeat rocker.

From then on, as expected, the band leaned heavily on selections from their newest album, with nearly half the set dominated by slower jams like that album's title track "...Like Clockwork" and "The Vampyre of Time and Memory."  These two mournful tunes, the latter featuring Homme on piano, came across better than expected - dramatically showcasing the band's bluesy classic rock chops.


Queens of the Stone Age

Queens of the Stone Age have been a rotating carousel of misfits since their inception (Dave Grohl occasionally on drums, Mark Lanegan occasionally on vocals etc.), but some of their rough texture and sonic variety was lost when Homme booted wild man bass player and co-vocalist Nick Oliveri in 2004 for bad behavior.  With Homme now fronting every song it'd be easy for him to monopolize the show, but it was encouraging to see his newer band mates shine.  Dean Fertita, also a longtime Jack White sideman, stepped in for some great guitar solos (smoother than Homme's staccato freakouts) and Mars Volta refugee Jon Theodore skillfully hammered the skins (more controlled than brutish ex-drummer Joey Castillo).


Queens of the Stone Age "I Sat By The Ocean"

Going a bit mellow at times, with no tracks from their eponymous 1998 debut and only a handful from 2000's Rate R, 2002's Songs for The Deaf, 2005's Lullabies to Paralyze, and 2007's underrated Era Vulgaris, the show could've used more old school Queens rockers.  With so many breakneck riffs on Lullabies to Paralyze, the band inexplicably opted for humdrum "I Never Came."  They should've gone with "In My Head" or "Medication" to accompany the cowbell infused crowd-pleaser "Little Sister."

Still, the whole experience was awesome and it was goosebump-inducing to hear the massive arena crowd howl the melody to "Burn The Witch," sing along in unison to the chorus of boozy sex-anthem "Make It Wit Chu," and roar in approval at the end of monstrous stop-start closer "Song For The Dead."  It looks like Queens of The Stone Age are booked solid through next June, but here's hoping we can see 'em again closer to home - maybe under a warm summer sun this time, to complement the band's scorching grooves.      

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Albums 2013 - Duds, Disappointments, & Overrated

Well, it's that time of year again - time for album lists!  I've compiled a few lists that I plan on posting in the next few weeks.  Today it's "Duds, Disappointments, & Overrated" albums of 2013.  Next will be "Honorable Mention," then my "Top Ten" favorite albums of 2013.

All the albums listed below are ones I actually anticipated, bought (or in some cases streamed on Spotify), and spent solid time with.  Some of them I initially enjoyed but grew out of.  Some of them just didn't click, but could suddenly break through at some point in the future.  Unlikely, but I have been known to change my mind about these things.  Note, for scale, the number "1" spot is the most disappointing .*

Enjoy. . . .            


1.  Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Mosquito (3.5/10)




The Yeah Yeah Yeah's are among the best bands to come out of the garage rock revival of the early 00's.  Karen O is a powerhouse, and the last decade saw the trio put out three impeccable LPs.  This year they dropped Mosquito - a scattershot collection of half-baked experiments vacillating between dub, hip-hop, gospel and wistful balladry.  Lead off "Sacrilege" hits the ball out of the park with a powerful gospel choir, but the upward momentum is immediately thwarted by mournful dirge "Subway," then the ridiculously wacky "Mosquito."  This sort of careless sequencing and lack of focus lends Mosquito the air of mixed bag b-sides compilation.  Unfortunately, in light of the band's previous creative ascent, this Mosquito truly does suck.     


2.  The Dismemberment Plan: Uncanney Valley (2.5/10)



There was a short time in my latter years of college when I sincerely considered The Dismemberment Plan to be my favorite rock band.  They were hometown heroes, played locally often, and had a handful of unimpeachable albums under their belt.  1999's Emergency and I was an immediate classic that anticipated the "dance punk" revival four years later.  Their stellar legacy was sealed in 2003 when they "retired" the band.  This year, to the immediate ejaculation of a million Pitchfork nerds, The Plan came back with Uncanney Valley - and it's not pretty.  Lacking the cohesion, hooks, and lyrical prowess of the band's previous albums, Uncanney Valley is a colossal disappointment.  It's not the first on my "duds" list because, frankly, this thing was doomed to fail from the get go.


3.  Boards of Canada: Tomorrow's Harvest (5/10)





Influential Scottish electronica/IDM duo Boards of Canada made their eagerly anticipated return this year with Tomorrow's Harvest, eight years after putting out their last record The Campfire Headphase.  Prior to that they'd released the totally creepy Geogaddi in 2002, and their magnum opus Music Has the Right To Children in 1998.  The latter is one of my all-time favorite electronic music albums - mixing stuttering hip-hop rhythms with eerie samples and phantasmal analogue synth, distressed and warped as if resurrected from old tape (a style emulated by countless bedroom producers since).  Tomorrow's Harvest has been hailed as a return to form, but the album is overlong and bleak - evoking a windswept post-nuclear meltdown.  Bit of a downer.


4.  The Black Angels: Indigo Meadow (4.5/10)




I loved The Black Angels' first record Passover, released in 2006, which approximated the droning shell-shocked psych rock of the 13th Floor Elevators and Velvet Underground from forty years prior.  The band literally sang of the horrors of the Vietnam War as if they'd lived it themselves.  Dark stuff, but certainly apropos considering the US had been marauding in Iraq for several years already.  The band followed up with a snoozer, Directions to See a Ghost in 2008, then a much catchier Phosphene Dream in 2010.  Considering the corrected trajectory, I fully expect to be on board with this year's Indigo Meadow but the band just can't get out of their monotonous rut and anachronistic sloganeering.  There's retro, then there's shameless pastiche.


5.  How To Destroy Angels: Welcome Oblivion (5/10)





How To Destroy Angels is the side-project of NIN mastermind Trent Reznor with wife Mariqueen Maandig on vocals. After releasing two EPs in the years following NIN's '09 "retirement," the band put out their debut Welcome Oblivion earlier this year.  This was done months prior to Reznor announcing the return of NIN with a new tour and album.  As such, when I first heard Welcome Oblivion I fully assumed it might be Reznor's last proper album - a late career vanity project hatched by the happy couple while reclined in twin bathtubs.  It was a sad thought - considering Welcome Oblivion just isn't that good.  As expected, Reznor's production is nice - rich, booming, dark - but Maandig's vocals are shamefully forgettable and the overall tone here is too morose for repeat listens.


6.  Washed Out: Paracosm (4.5/10)



The whole "chillwave" trend of 2011 was sort of interesting.  Bedroom indie rockers traded in their guitars for vintage 80's synthesizers and started composing lukewarm trip-hop and house beats, with snoozy vocal melodies, swaddled in layers of hazy echo and reverb.  Washed Out led the pack with their much lauded debut Within and Without.  Like a sunshiny Depeche Mode in slow motion, this was the ideal Sunday morning soundtrack after a rough night clubbing.  Paracosm keeps things pleasantly drowsy, but flips the script somewhat by incorporating vaguely pastoral, tropical, and otherwise exotic flourishes - birds chirping, bongos, sitars.  The pretty album cover sort of drives that point home.  All nice enough, but sadly forgettable.


7.  Phoenix: Bankrupt! (5/10)



French garage rock'tronica band Phoenix hit it big with their fourth record Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix back in 2009.  To be honest, I hadn't paid these guys much attention until that ubiquitous Cadillac TV commercial drilled their single "1901" firmly into my brain and persuaded me to pick up the album.  Wolfgang's lush production and catchy melodies had me hooked, so I eagerly awaited their followup Bankrupt! earlier this year.  Lead single "Entertainment," featuring bombastic "oriental" fanfare, choral singing, and cool bass synth was pretty good - but the whole album suffers from shrill production.  The throwback 80's pop songcraft is catchy enough, but that sizzling compressed sound is disappointing.  C'est la vie.         


8.  Daft Punk:  Random Access Memories (6.5/10)




There was a time over the summer when Random Access Memories was a shoo-in for my year end "top ten" list.  Then it dropped to my "honorable mentions" list, and now after some tough deliberation, it settled on my "duds" list.  I had high hopes for this album when it was hyped on TV ads, billboards, and promo webisodes earlier this year.   The list of collaborators was great and the promo clips sounded fantastic.  There was a luxurious sheen to the production and a seductive old school groove absent from contemporary EDM.  What happened?  The band already hit these high benchmarks on their 2001 masterpiece Discovery, so at 75 minutes RAM is a tedious overindulgent retread at worst, and an overcompensating apology for their last flop Human After All at best.      


9.  Atoms For Peace:  Amok (6/10)




Anybody else getting tired of Thom Yorke's shameless appropriation of the Warp catalogue?  When Radiohead's Kid A dropped in 2000 it was a revelation for most.  Having reached the critical and commercial pinnacle of guitar rock superstardom with The Bends and OK Computer, Yorke and the boys tacked hard left into the realm of icy glitch electronica - by then well worn territory for genre pioneers Autechre, Aphex Twin, and Boards of Canada.  For over a decade now, Yorke has milked this lethargic aesthetic of stuttering, shuffling beats as a framework for his glum nasal whine.  Amok might've been a total loss if not for Flea's nimble bass groove and the occasional Afropop embellishments.


10.  Deafheaven:  Sunbather (6/10)



Sunbather got super-hyped upon it's release last June, and inevitably made quite a few year end "best of" lists - primarily because this San Franciscan duo boldly fuse the blood curdling shriek of black metal with the soaring instrumental crescendos and atmospherics of post-rock and shoe gaze.  Quite avant-garde, except that other, less hip but arguably more talented, metal bands successfully incorporated shoe gaze into their brutal sound over a decade ago.  So what's left?  The J.Crew Gestapo chic?  How about the laughably woeful Hot Topic lyrics?  I do appreciate dramatic juxtaposition in my music, so that's why Sunbather is last on my "duds" list.  The instrumentals are quite good and the album artwork is cool too.  Let's see where these guys go from here.


Next up, the "Honorable Mention" list.  Stay tuned. . . .

*Edit - Album scores added on 5/20/14.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Live Show Review: Phantogram - 12/3/13

Phantogram
Date:  December 5, 2013
Venue:  930 Club, Washington, DC

The 1990's saw an abundance of electronic acts featuring hip-hop beats and sultry female vocals - Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky, Bjork, Sneaker Pimps, Morcheeba, Olive, Esthero and so forth.  All these groups operated, more or less, within the genre of "trip-hop" - a style that leaned heavily on the boom-bap aesthetics of hip-hop, dub, and jazz but, in most cases, smoothed out the rough edges.  At the time, music critic Simon Reynolds accurately identified that "trip-hop [was] merely a form of gentrification."  The genre had the intangible hallmarks of "cool" without much of the danger, inevitably becoming the soundtrack for sophisticated coffee shops, cocktail bars, and car advertisements worldwide.


Phantogram

The last decade has seen trip-hop wane, supplanted by cutesy synth-pop drawing flagrantly from new wave, new romantic, indie rock, and shoe gaze - styles that had no menace to begin with.  Out with the sub-bass and breakbeats and in with the quirky synth leads and 4/4 disco kicks.  Enter Phantogram from upstate New York, the rare contemporary electronic act that splits the difference - incorporating synth and jangly guitar with chunky bass and hip-hop breakbeats (nary a disco beat to be found).  No coincidence the pair were tapped for three collaborative tracks on Big Boi's last solo record Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors, released late last year.

Phantogram, comprised of Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel, played a sold out gig at the 930 Club last week.  Though Josh Carter frequently takes passable lead on vocals, like their trip-hop predecessors, it's all about the female vocal talent.  Sarah Barthel is always the highlight of the group's live performance - stomping and striding around the stage in her trademark angular bob, skinny jeans and dangerously high heels.  Barthel breathily cooed and belted out the group's best known hits "As Far As I Can See," "When I'm Small," and "Mouthful of Diamonds" while Carter and a new live drummer and bass player handled guitar and rhythm.    


Phantogram

Though the band leaned on selections from their excellent 2010 debut album Eyelid Movies and its mini followup Nightlife, at least half of Phantogram's set was comprised of new tracks from their recent eponymous EP and forthcoming album.  Most of their new material incorporates the rough 808 kicks, triple time hi-hats, and stuttering vocal samples of trap music (think T.I. or Gucci Mane).  New single "Black Out Days" might be the best thing they've done yet, and was definitely the highlight of the show - with a grimy analogue bass-line, massive echoing snares, and Barthel reaching a blaring vocal crescendo to make the hair on the back of your neck bristle.  There's something sincere and unpretentious about Phantogram.  No irony, just tough beats and infectious melodies.  Their sound is not revolutionary, but if they stick with some of the rough edges and expand on the hooky songcraft on display last week I think they'll keep soaring to new heights.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Live Show Review: Bombino - 12/3/13

Bombino
Date:  December 3, 2013
Venue:  The Hamilton, Washington, DC

Tuareg guitarist and rising star Bombino, known as Omara Moctar to his mom back home in Niger, played The Hamilton last night to a packed house.  Riding a wave of good will and critical acclaim, having released an excellent album called Nomad earlier this year (produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys), Bombino has been on tour for the better part of 2013.  Bombino opened for Robert Plant earlier this summer at the posh suburban amphitheater Wolf Trap but, with a $50 ticket price and a 50 minute road trip during rush hour, I opted out and kept my fingers crossed for a headlining gig closer to home.  My hopes were answered.




I'm no expert on nomadic Tuareg music (yet), often called African "desert blues," but I am familiar with the commonly known touchstones:  Malian guitar legend Ali Farka Toure, Tuareg super-group Tinariwen, the Festival au Desert held yearly outside of Timbuktu (sadly now postponed indefinitely due to violent strife in the region, but I'm still hoping to go someday), and Robert Plant's affinity for and dabbling in the genre.

Some claim this style of North African desert guitar music is the direct antecedent of African-American blues, but like 1970's Nigerian and Ghanian Afrobeat music - heavily informed by James Brown's funk revolution Stateside - it's more likely that Tuareg guitar music shares similar genes but developed in tandem with more popular African-diasporic mutations from the West.  Jimmy Page, Carlos Santana, Bob Marley, Jimmy Hendrix, and Mark Knopfler are known influences. Apparently, the latter two were studied carefully by Bombino via bootleg video when he was learning guitar as a youth in Agadez.




Where traditional American blues is often mournful, slow, and instrumentally minimal, Bombino's style speeds up the pace considerably, incorporating a full band (wearing traditional Tuareg desert garb) with bass guitar, harmonica, drum kit, and traditional African percussion - all elements weaved together tightly, creating a relentless and euphoric groove.  Bombino's guitar playing is characterized by impressive finger picking and high-speed fluttering hammer-on and vibrato fret work.  Little wonder Dan Auerbach jumped at the opportunity to produce Nomad before Jack White got the chance (or the interest, judging by his truly bat shit production projects).

Bombino began his performance at the swanky Hamilton politely seated, playing a matte black acoustic-electric guitar, singing in his native tamashek to the well mannered dinner-theater crowd.  As tempos began to increase and Bombino himself couldn't resist stomping the floor with his heel and wriggling gleefully in his chair as if in trance, the empty floor at the foot of the stage slowly began to attract brave dancers (to the ire of a few diners seated front-row, who apparently had never been to a concert before).




Between songs Bombino drew cheers and bantered with reverent crowd members in French - all the while flashing a sly grin and humbly putting his hand over his heart in gratitude (I think that's what that means).  He and the band seemed to be in their glory, as was the audience.  Soon enough Bombino stood up, switched to straight electric guitar, and proceeded to rock through selections from Nomad like the infectious psych-jam "Azamane Tiliade."  By then the floor was fully packed with an eclectic mass of fans, dancing joyfully to the pulsating rhythms - truth be told, some struggling to dance in rhythm (what is this, a double time 3/4 waltz?).

Bombino closed out the evening with a completely unnecessary super-jam with surprise guest Junior Marvin from the Wailers (not to be confused with fellow reggae legend, and very recently deceased, Junior Murvin) who teased out some tepid Americanized blues riffs while looking totally lost and confused.  Despite this slip-up (a bone thrown out to the hippies in the crowd), Bombino created a truly exotic and jubilant atmosphere - playing, unexpectedly, one of my favorite shows of the year.  I can't help but root for Bombino.  Reggae had Bob Marley.  Afrobeat had Fela Kuti.  I'd like to see Bombino transcend the patronizing "world music" tag and become a charismatic genre leader in his own right - an international guitar-hero carrying the flag and pushing the envelope for Tuareg music.  Based on this show, I think that's a strong possibility.

Check out a cool video about Bombino and the story of Nomad here.                  
     

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Heads up! Beastmilk full-album stream.

Heads up!  Beastmilk Climax full-album stream.

Cool albums rarely get released in December, because, frankly, who can compete with Yuletide gems like this?  Well, ditch your Santa hat and throw on some black leather - fuckin' Beastmilk is here.

"He chose, poorly" - guessing that milk went bad


Beastmilk (rad name right?) are a Finnish post-punk goth rock band, fronted by a British dude named "Kvohst," who are about to drop (or have already dropped, depending on your locale) their debut album Climax produced by King Midas studio-wiz Kurt Ballou.  These guys synthesize equal parts Danzig, Morrissey, The Cult, Echo & The Bunnymen, Joy Division, and Bauhaus - but with more balls.

Climax is streaming in full for free here, and available for paid download (iTunes, Amazon etc.) and streaming (Spotify etc.) now.  CD and LP available December 10.  Watch the video for "Death Reflects Us" here