Friday, December 29, 2017

RIB's 2017 Album of the Year:
Bjork -- Utopia

No piece of art meant more to me this year — or, arguably, any recent year — than the return of “Twin Peaks.”

That includes the music — spread over three records, it’s a treasure trove of score and songs and sound effects, from Angelo Badalamenti, Dean Hurley and David Lynch to Nine Inch Nails, Sharon Van Etten and Eddie Vedder.

Taken as a whole, it’s my soundtrack of 2017.

But it isn’t my Album of the Year.

When I started my award a quarter century ago — yes, this is my 25th(!) winner — I set two basic rules for myself I reserve the right to change on a whim but have stuck with ever since anyway:

  1. The record must be released during the calendar year.
  2. It must be made up of original recordings — covers, for sure, but not old material or compilations that include the prerecorded work of others.

There was a lot of that in the music of “Twin Peaks.” But because it was curated so well, I was ready to throw those rules right out the window — until the week of Thanksgiving.

That’s when I took a brand new record with me to Mexico City, and during a fabulous family vacation that took us from Frida Kahlo’s house to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, I fell asleep each night to Bjork’s “Utopia.”

I’ve been falling asleep to my 2017 Album of the Year nearly every night since.

It’s been 16 years since I loved a Bjork record like this. “Vespertine” was my top record of 2001, when I’d listen to it sitting in the window of my apartment in Prague, or riding the tram across the Vlatava, watching the snow fall. And hearing the snow fall — in particular the sound of boots making tracks in the soft, thick powder — through my headphones.

On “Utopia,” there are growling wolverines and the bitter leftovers from an devastating divorce. But similar in some ways to “Vespertine,” which wraps you in the warmth of winter, this record is blanketed with tropical birdsongs and flutes; where “Vespertine” sings of secret loves and hidden places, “Utopia” explores sex and romance through the swapping of mp3s and the swiping of apps. Where “Vespertine” pleads for a do-over on its most powerful track, “Undo,” a choir-filled prayer for a new beginning, “Utopia” carefully plots out its do-over, point by point — exploring the messy details of it, from the excitement and fear of letting yourself be vulnerable again to keeping your children from the emotional “luggage” of a custody battle to moments of #MeToo-like empowerment in rejecting the sins of fathers, passed down through generations, to protect our daughters — culminating in a pair of songs as moving as any in Bjork’s incomparable catalogue.

“Music loves too. I am here to defend it,” Bjork states on “Saint,” her voice low in the mix as the swirling sounds overpower her words and attempt to leap from the speakers to form tangible objects in the air. The song distills much of what has come before — the sweetness of “two music nerds obsessing” as they fall in love to a song to the expression of pain and regret in “Sue Me” and “Tabula Rasa,” not to mention Bjork’s previous record, “Vulnicura,” filled with raw anger still being worked out in verse.

At the end of the opening track of one of my Album of the Year runners-up, Mount Eerie’s “A Crow Looked At Me,” Phil Elverum laments the loss of his wife Geneviève Castrée, from pancreatic cancer — leaving behind their 1-year-old daughter -- by asserting that, in the face of real death, all poetry and art loses its meaning. Of course, he’s making a record about death, which neatly contradicts what he says. Bjork’s “I am here to defend it” is more bold — a mission statement from an artist who’s had more time to mourn, and is a little more ready to reconnect to life and love.

Bjork didn’t play The Roadhouse on “Twin Peaks.” But the unique and at times surreal world of this record draws you in. And in the same way Lynch embraces the comic and the dramatic in the same moments, so does “Utopia.” The epic, nearly 10-minute “Body Memory” explores her deep relationship to nature, but starts off both by making fun of it and exalting it:

First snow of winter
I'm walking hills and valleys
Adore this mystical fog!
This fucking mist!
These cliffs are just showing off!

Then the body memory kicks in
I mime my home mountains
The moss that I'm made of
I redeem myself

And then there’s the stuff that maybe just works on that “Twin Peaks” plane only for me, but is no less a part of the record’s story in my mind. When Björk sings, “Hold fort for love” on the closing track, “Future Forever,” it’s again the proclamation of a survivor, coming back to life after a loss — or a “Losss,” spelled with three s’s in the title of the astounding Track 8. But when I mishear the lyric, over and over, in Bjork’s Icelandic accent as “Hold fart for love,” the humor does nothing to diminish it. Nor do the bird sounds all over the record — lush and exotic, yes, but still I imagine what it would be like to be surrounded by so many flying creatures, and all the bird shit that would surely land on me.

But that’s love, isn’t it? Opening your heart, getting betrayed, getting shat on, and then, sometimes, at least in those early days of courtship, holding in your gas to make her love you more than you think you might deserve.

On the 2017 Album of the Year, that love — old and new, flourishing and foundering — extends well beyond mere romance.

”Utopia, it isn’t elsewhere,” Bjork sings, as she both laments the state of our planet and longs for better. “It’s here.” Despite another bleak year — after all the shit we’ve been through politically or professionally or personally — it’s here. It’s just that more than ever, we‘re on our own to fight for it.

Past winners:

1993: Counting Crows -- August and Everything After
1994: R.E.M. -- Monster
1995: The Innocence Mission -- Glow
1996: Dave Matthews Band -- Crash
1997: U2 -- Pop
1998: R.E.M. -- Up
1999: John Linnell -- State Songs
2000: Radiohead -- Kid A
2001: Bjork -- Vespertine
2002: Wilco -- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
2003: Bonnie "Prince" Billy -- Master and Everyone
2004: Wilco -- A Ghost is Born
2005: Sufjan Stevens -- Illinois
2006: The Decemberists -- The Crane Wife
2007: Radiohead -- In Rainbows
2008: Shearwater -- Rook
2009: Animal Collective -- Merriweather Post Pavilion
2010: Laura Veirs -- July Flame
2011: PJ Harvey -- Let England Shake
2012: Animal Collective -- Centipede Hz
2013: Mogwai -- Les Revenants
2014: Sun Kil Moon -- Benji
2015: The Tallest Man On Earth -- Dark Bird is Home
2016: Bon Iver -- 22, A Million

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Nominees: 2017 Album of the Year

I was in Mexico City over Thanksgiving and didn't set this up to post in advance. So here goes, better late than never.

The nominees for my ***25th*** Album of the Year are ...



***


Angelo Badalamenti/Dean Hurley/Various — The Music of Twin Peaks (three albums, one joint nomination)

So this might seem like a copout, or an unfair advantage, but trust me, it’s neither. The music of Twin Peaks was the soundtrack of much of my summer, and some of the older pieces in this collection are part of the soundtrack of my life. Mostly what makes this three-pronged TP attack a nominee is the simple fact that there was no more important piece of art to me this year than Season 3 of the greatest television show ever, and one of its grounding elements was the sound design (done by David Lynch himself) and the Roadhouse performances at the end of nearly every part. It was the best concert of 2017 you couldn’t attend in person but felt no less real — and often far more surreal. It was the music event of the year, and it takes three records to cover the full breadth of it — from those dreamy or disturbing Bang Bang Bar acts to the perfect placement of old or reimagined tunes to the buzzing electricity of Dean Hurley’s sound effects to Angelo Badalamenti’s compositions — some familiar, some new — that continued to set the incomparable tone of Twin Peaks.



***


Bjork — Utopia

I’ve had various levels of interest in Bjork’s work since her masterpiece — 2001 Album of the Year winner Vespertine. This is the most excited I’ve been about a new Bjork record in years. Sure, she doesn’t really do hooks anymore, and her vocals are often too low in the mix, but the songs here explode, and the lyrics are profoundly moving — Utopia feels like a latter-day Vespertine, with the thick blanket of snow replaced by a tropical island filled with exotic birds and flutes.



***


Hurray For The Riff Raff — The Navigator

This is the record that turned HFTRR from a strong folk act to an “Important Band”. A drama told in music — but not a musical — it spins the story (one quite personal to lead singer Alynda Segarra) about growing up Puerto Rican in the Bronx. Although the elements for a record this strong had been there, the transformation is nothing short of astounding. As a Bronx-born white dude who grew up in suburban privilege, I have a hard time singing along without at least a tinge of embarrassment and shame. Which I think is at least part of the point.



***


Laura Marling — Semper Femina

One of the better live shows I saw this year (a surprise from Amelia!), Laura Marling is just one of the best songwriters there is right now. I find these songs a lot more subtle, less bitter, less defiant, than her last Album of the Year nominee, Short Movie, but they’re all memorable and if anything show off her range. “I was wild once,” she speak-sings, and it seems to make sense as some rumination and reflection on the brief but fiery film that preceded it.



***


Mount Eerie — A Crow Looked At Me

This is a record so hauntingly beautiful it’s hard to listen to. Phil Elverum faces the death of his wife, musician Geneviève Castrée, from pancreatic cancer — leaving behind their 1-year-old daughter — with a low-fi and direct and personal and poetic set of vignettes about picking up the pieces and moving on, without ever forgetting. The record is both a profound work of art, and a rejection of the meaning and power of art in the face of death.



***


Offa Rex — The Queen of Hearts

Olivia Chaney gave me my favorite concert memory — really, memories — of the year, which I’ve written about at length in Unwinnable Monthly. And sure, that helps make this record more special to me. But it would have been right in this space regardless. It’s a collection of ancient folk ballads I wasn’t — save for one more recent tune — acquainted with, but Chaney and The Decemberists deliver them so expertly and beautifully, I’m thrilled this is how I heard them for the first time.



***


Tift Merritt — Stitch of the World

Like HFTRR and Offa Rex, Tift Merritt is a cherished Newport Folk Festival discovery, who gave Amelia and me our wedding song. We also saw her perform this set of new songs in a brilliant show at City Winery. There are instant Merritt standards — most of the record, in fact — and Icarus ranks among the absolute best songs of her career.



***


Hon. Mention

Aimee Mann — Mental Illness
Big Thief — Capacity
Broken Social Scene — Hug of Thunder
Daniel Hart — A Ghost Story (Original Soundtrack)
Feist — Pleasure
Fever Ray — Plunge
Filthy Friends — Invitation
Groundhog Day: The Musical (Original Cast Recording)
The Innocence Mission — The Snow on Pi Day
Iron & Wine — Beast Epic
John Maus — Screen Memories
Sharon Van Etten — (It Was) Because I Was In Love
Willie Watson — Folksinger, Vol. 2

Saturday, December 31, 2016

RIB's 2016 Album of the Year:
Bon Iver -- 22, A Million

This year, a great year for new music and an absolutely awful year for just about everything else, my Album of the Year pick came down to a final three artists: Radiohead. Leonard Cohen. Bon Iver.

(You can read more about what informed that choice here.)

The muse of Radiohead's "A Moon Shaped Pool" is Rachel Owen, Thom Yorke's partner -- and later wife -- of 23 years, a relationship that produced two children, and ended last year. The record is a post-postmortem on their love affair, at times angry or foreboding, but mostly resigned, restrained, and beautiful. On Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016, amid 365 days of death and destruction, Rachel Owen died of cancer. She was 48.

The day before the worst news of 2016 happened (hint: a Tuesday night in November), Leonard Cohen died. He left us with a final work worthy of a canon of music that has and will stand the test of time. His voice on "You Want It Darker" is deeper and, yes, darker than ever; his words as poetic and meaningful.

There is loss, too, in Bon Iver's "22, A Million" -- though it's buried a bit in numerology and vocal effects and his sometimes inscrutable lyrics. But there's a reason, for me, Justin Vernon's first missive in five years rises above the pack to win my 2016 Album of Year: hope.

It seems, at the end of such a brutal year, that we don't have much of it right now. I wrote at length about how the acceptance in Radiohead's "True Love Waits" made it finally ready to be put to tape, and to close "A Moon Shaped Pool." No longer a live take -- a desperate, pathetic plea to a leaving lover, sang over an acoustic guitar strummed so hard it could shred fingers -- it's now a recording of quiet acceptance, with no catharsis, no dramatic flourish at the end. It's just a goodbye, long after all the goodbyes have been said.

A breaking heart, though, is different than a broken heart. It's far more painful in the moment, yes, but then the feeling hasn't turned empty yet. The hole is forming, but it's more a fresh, gaping wound than a crater, covered in several layers of thick gray moon dust, too deep to ascend.

So when Thom Yorke sings, "Please, don't leave. Don't leave," on the album version of "True Love Waits," he's talking to a ghost. It's harrowing and beautiful in its own right.

But when Justin Vernon, on "715 Creeks", sings, "Turn around, you're my A-team. Turn around now, you're my A-team. Goddamn turn around now, you're my A-team," his voice digitally manipulated so it forms tendrils around itself, it's heart wrenching. The moment is unfurling in real time. Will his A-team turn around? It might. And it might not.

It's the last words of the song, so we never know. The mystery is unsolved. The yearning continues.

"It might be over soon," Bon Iver's record warns you on its opening track. But maybe it won't be.

There is so much wisdom on the Radiohead record -- one of the best of the band's career, a record which might have won easily another year, and was the front-runner most of this one -- and on Leonard Cohen's, a spiritual incarnation of so much secular import, but they hit the intellect for me more now than they do the heart. Right now, I need the heart. I need room to believe. It's why "Glass Eyes" is probably the best Radiohead song this year -- maybe there's hope in the woods, if you only get off the train from the city and walk.

Bon Iver's record is full of heart. It takes the cabin in the woods intimacy of "For Emma, Forever Ago" and mixes in the richness of production that helped define "Bon Iver" to find a home in the center. It's the band's finest record yet; far from perfect, meandering in some places, but peppered with moments that grab on tight. I didn't know I needed it, or even wanted it, until I heard it. It's warm and inviting, even amid the mystery of the coded song titles and the artwork, littered with symbols, that could very well turn some away -- and kept me at a distance at first, too. It has a sense of humor, too, at one point rhyming "quandary" with "waundry" in an off-hand manner in the midst of a much deeper sentiment.

But the two lyrics on "22, A Million," I find most compelling come on the final track, "00000 Million":

"I worried bout rain and I worried bout lightning/But I watched them off, to the light of the morning"

Bon Iver's darkness yields to the dawn; it's not Radiohead's darkness, which is at worst the sun covered over by a spaceship in your darkest hour, at best the glassy-eyed light of a dreary, cloudy day, or Leonard Cohen's darkness, the moment the flame is extinguished.

And then there are the final words of the song, and indeed the final words of the record:

"Well it harms it harms me it harms, I'll let it in"

The takeaway? Hope that comes out of hurt takes work. It's time to feel it, let it in, and get going.

Past winners:

1993: Counting Crows -- August and Everything After
1994: R.E.M. -- Monster
1995: The Innocence Mission -- Glow
1996: Dave Matthews Band -- Crash
1997: U2 -- Pop
1998: R.E.M. -- Up
1999: John Linnell -- State Songs
2000: Radiohead -- Kid A
2001: Bjork -- Vespertine
2002: Wilco -- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
2003: Bonnie "Prince" Billy -- Master and Everyone
2004: Wilco -- A Ghost is Born
2005: Sufjan Stevens -- Illinois
2006: The Decemberists -- The Crane Wife
2007: Radiohead -- In Rainbows
2008: Shearwater -- Rook
2009: Animal Collective -- Merriweather Post Pavilion
2010: Laura Veirs -- July Flame
2011: PJ Harvey -- Let England Shake
2012: Animal Collective -- Centipede Hz
2013: Mogwai -- Les Revenants
2014: Sun Kil Moon -- Benji
2015: The Tallest Man On Earth -- Dark Bird is Home

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Nominees: 2016 Album of the Year

Happy Turkey Time! If all goes to plan, this should auto-post while I am happily enjoying a trip to Iceland with the family. (I am, however, writing it more than a month in advance, on a sleepless night -- so *fingers crossed*.)

Anyway ... say it with me: It's been an awesome year for music. Three former winners are up for the award this year, and many of the honorable mentions might have been nominees in past years. I have so much to choose from, they're all so different, and -- though no one ever believes me when I say it -- I have no idea which one I'm gonna pick.

So let's get right to it. Here (with admittedly brief descriptions; I said it was a sleepless night, but now all of a sudden I'm getting kinda drowsy) are my 2016 Album of the Year nominees -- in the usual iTunes alphabetical order:


***


THE AMAZING - AMBULANCE

There's that cliche about books and their covers, but I saw the cover of this record -- a black cloud descending down a flight of stairs (see right) -- and I was sold. (Technically, I finished the glowing review I was reading before I downloaded it, but you get the idea.)

The Amazing is a Swedish band I had never heard of before I stumbled upon this album. I tweeted that the band is a sort of Mark Kozelek-meets-The War On Drugs, which of course is a physics puzzle because those two very much have met -- and were repulsed by each other. Which I guess is too bad, because The Amazing sound ... well ... amazing.



***


BASIA BULAT - GOOD ADVICE

Canadian Basia Bulat was one of my annual Newport Folk Festival discoveries, but like one notable previous folk-fest find, Tift Merritt, I actually missed her performance -- hearing a bit of it on the radio in the car as we parked, and then listening to the very end of her set wafting over the walls of The Fort as we walked toward the front gate.

Unlike Tift Merritt, I didn't find myself hanging out with her briefly outside the Museum Stage. But I hope that, like Tift Merritt, I get to see her several times at folk festivals of the future and otherwise.



***


BON IVER - 22, A MILLION

I really didn't think I needed another Bon Iver record. And then I heard this one.

Look, the album titles are weird. And with my limited listening time these days, there is so much more to unpack that I haven't yet (but plan to). But the way Justin Vernon mixes in his little electronica dabbling with his soulful voice -- and even a saxophone -- is entrancing. Listen to the song below, and you might understand why I keep hitting repeat.



***


case/lang/veirs -- case/lang/veirs

Unlike Basia Bulat, I got to see case/lang/veirs perform at the Newport Folk Festival -- and it was awesome. k.d lang's voice filled the summer air as Neko Case and 2010 Album of the Year winner Laura Veirs dropped to her knees on stage with her guitar in mock rock-goddess pose.

The record is a perfect mix of the three songwriters and voices. Veirs is my favorite of the three, but some of the best songs on here are from the others, like Case's Delirium and lang's Honey and Smoke and Why Do We Fight -- although they all are served by the harmonies they make together. Of course, I love me some Laura, which makes the song below one of the ones I keep returning to the most.



***


KANYE WEST - THE LIFE OF PABLO

I have no idea how the version I have differs from the final version, or if there is a final version, but this record really didn't need any tinkering IMO (but what do I know -- the video below is different from what I've been listening to, and it's awesome).

All of the many sides of Kanye can be found on this record -- musical prodigy, asshole, salesman, showman, sincere, insincere, dark, vulgar, you name it. It all works together to paint the picture of a complicated, thrilling, frustrating and confounding genius.



***


LAURA GIBSON - EMPIRE BUILDER

She may never get a Nobel Prize for Literature (go Bob!), but Laura Gibson is a poet who happens to set her words to music.

Just listen to the song below. Listen to the lyrics with your eyes closed as she sings, or read them as the video plays. Nothing I could write in this space could approach them.



***


LEONARD COHEN - YOU WANT IT DARKER

(Late-breaking edit on this one.) We lost Leonard Cohen the same week America lost an election. The video below -- though not a song from his last album, or even his own performance of it -- shows how much we still need letters from L. Cohen.

And we do have one last missive in You Want It Darker.

From Treaty, an instant Cohen classic: "I heard the snake was baffled by his sin/He shed his scales to find the snake within/But born again is born without a skin/The poison enters into everything."

He was a giant. Good thing he'll never really leave us.



***


RADIOHEAD - A MOON SHAPED POOL

Radiohead has already won Album of the Year twice -- a win this year would separate it from fellow two-time winners R.E.M., Wilco and Animal Collective. Is Radiohead better than those other bands? Obviously, I'll likely never put any band past R.E.M., but Radiohead is a notch above the other two.

If Radiohead does win, I'll have to come up with some new things to say about the band, and this particular record, but for now I feel like I've said most of what needs to be said right here.



***


SHEARWATER - JET PLANE AND OXBOW

It's time to finally stop asking where Thor and Kimberly are; this band is basically unrecognizable -- except for lead singer Jonathan Meiburg, who in recent years has taken Shearwater from mysterious and beautiful to poppy and political.

It works. This album rocks; it's catchy and fun but still smart; and it has perhaps the most uplifting song of the year -- the song of the spring, at any rate -- Pale Kings. But if you haven't heard Jet Plane and Oxbow yet, start with the first single, embedded below.



***


WARPAINT - HEADS UP

I've been madly in love with this band from the moment I first saw the video for Elephants while randomly flipping channels one day seven years ago.

Their last album, which was self-titled, narrowly missed out on Album of the Year. I'm not sure if the band will ever quite reach those heights again, but I'm digging this new joint at the moment. Don't forget -- it's still October for me. I have to live with this one a bit longer, but it's on heavy rotation at the moment, as the days get shorter and Halloween approaches.



***


HONORABLE MENTIONS

Also in iTunes alphabetical order:

Andrew Bird -- Are You Serious

Angel Olsen -- MY WOMAN

Animal Collective -- Painting With

Anna Meredith -- Varmints

Cross Record -- Wabi-Sabi

Daughter -- Not To Disappear

David Bowie -- Blackstar

Gillian Welch -- Boots No. 1: The Official Revival Bootleg

Ingrid Michaelson -- It Doesn't Have To Make Sense

John Prine -- For Better, or Worse

Mike Mills -- Concerto for Violin, Rock Band, and String Orchestra

Mogwai -- Atomic

Okkervil River -- Away

Savages -- Adore Life

Violent Femmes -- We Can Do Anything

Friday, January 01, 2016

RIB's 2015 Album of the Year: The Tallest Man on Earth -- Dark Bird is Home

Blurb reprinted from here.

Swedish guitar-picker Kristian Matsson, AKA The Tallest Man on Earth, often writes songs about being a traveler in solitude, but on his new record he’s added a backing band to his caravan, including Bon Iver’s Mike Noyce. And while that full-band sound might qualify as “going electric,” Matsson’s acoustic guitar has always had plenty of its own voltage. Ironically, this record, thematically, though far from cloistered – songs like “Little Nowhere Towns” and the standout “Seventeen” definitely have that open-road mix of hopefulness and weariness – there’s a lot less of that thrill of the chase which helped characterize past albums like “The Wild Hunt.” Matsson, who sings about a traveler coming home in “Slow Dance,” ends the record with the title track, in which a dying man sings to his lover as he enters into the afterlife. At one point – earlier on the record in “Sagres” – he laments “all this fucking doubt”; by the end of “Dark Bird is Home”, though, he’s crystal clear: “I thought that this would last for a million years/But now I need to go/Oh, fuck.” It’s the realization that another strange and extraordinary journey has come to an end, and a new one is ready to begin.

Past winners:

1993: Counting Crows -- August and Everything After
1994: R.E.M. -- Monster
1995: The Innocence Mission -- Glow
1996: Dave Matthews Band -- Crash
1997: U2 -- Pop
1998: R.E.M. -- Up
1999: John Linnell -- State Songs
2000: Radiohead -- Kid A
2001: Bjork -- Vespertine
2002: Wilco -- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
2003: Bonnie "Prince" Billy -- Master and Everyone
2004: Wilco -- A Ghost is Born
2005: Sufjan Stevens -- Illinois
2006: The Decemberists -- The Crane Wife
2007: Radiohead -- In Rainbows
2008: Shearwater -- Rook
2009: Animal Collective -- Merriweather Post Pavilion
2010: Laura Veirs -- July Flame
2011: PJ Harvey -- Let England Shake
2012: Animal Collective -- Centipede Hz
2013: Mogwai -- Les Revenants
2014: Sun Kil Moon -- Benji

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Nominees: 2015 Album of the Year

I'm not giving up this tradition, which dates back to my teens, but having a kid this year has not only limited my listening time, but made me completely forget to post this on Thanksgiving, as is the tradition. (Thanks Amelia for the reminders!)


Anyway, busy weekend (wedding, moving), so let's do this:

The 2015 Album of the Year nominees are ...

NOMINEES

Frank Turner -- Positive Songs for Negative People

The Innocence Mission -- Hello I Feel The Same

Laura Marling -- Short Movie

Sufjan Stevens -- Carrie & Lowell

The Tallest Man on Earth -- Dark Bird is Home

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Adele -- 25

Bob Dylan -- Shadows in the Night

Courtney Barnett -- Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit

Deradoorian -- The Expanding Flower Planet

Elle King -- Love Stuff

Joanna Newsom -- Divers

Panda Bear -- Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper

Sleater-Kinney -- No Cities To Love




Saturday, January 10, 2015

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Michael Stipe -- New Test Leper (Live at Webster Hall, 12/30/2014)

Watch the whole thing. Full screen. In HD. With the volume up.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Nominees: 2014 Album of the Year

Happy Turkey Day! As you read this, I am on a beach in Jamaica, enjoying my honeymoon (as I write this, however, it's freezing cold out in New York and I haven't even packed yet because I have three more days of work before I leave).

Anyway, since I couldn't leave the world waiting until next week ... here are my 2014 Album of the Year nominees, in iTunes alphabetical order. Hooray!


***


DEATH VESSEL -- ISLAND INTERVALS

Death Vessel is the first of several Newport Folk Festival discoveries this year, although we arrived too late at Fort Adams to see them. I'll have to settle for my memories of their opening set (for Shearwater) at the Bell House earlier in the year, which won me over.

Death Vessel is the American Sigur Ros; they've toured with the band and, in fact, the album was recorded in Reykjavik with Jonsi -- who sings on it, too. It's a little twee at times, and although the Rhode Island outfit, headed by Joel Thibodeau, isn't quite as good as Sigur Ros, Island Intervals contains some of my favorite songs of the year. Triangulated Heart was first to make me a fan -- I snatched their Brooklyn set list and it's the third song, marked simply, △ ♡ -- and it's followed on the record by the infectious Mercury Dime and the Jonsi-infused Ilsa Drown.

You probably have to be in the right mood to listen to Island Intervals. Watch the video below; by the end, you'll have more of an opinion as to whether Death Vessel is charming or cloying. The band is both at times, I admit, but I've mostly been sold on the former.



***


FIRST AID KIT -- STAY GOLD

The album's title (and the title track) is inspired by the Robert Frost poem, Nothing Gold Can Stay:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

I enjoyed First Aid Kit's previous record, but this one tops it, imo, and the title track is a perfect reason why: a melancholy song you can sing along to. Same goes for much of the rest of the album. Which is all I ever really ask for from music.



***


HURRAY FOR THE RIFF RAFF -- SMALL TOWN HEROES

Alynda Lee Segarra is gorgeous. She's Puerto Rican and from the Bronx -- both of which surprised me, having heard the album before reading up on her -- who landed in New Orleans. When her band showed up on the Newport Folk Festival lineup, I checked out her music to get me primed for her set.

So glad I did. The album is wonderful, full of songs that long for home while stuck behind car crashes in Germany, songs set in the Blue Ridge Mountains and San Francisco Bay and Big Easy bars on Monday nights -- songs that feel like old friends after just a play or two.

If I say any more about Segarra, well, my marriage may come to an end before it's had much of a chance to start. So just watch the video or Spotify them or something. It's 25 degrees out, and my palms are getting sweaty.



***


MOGWAI -- RAVE TAPES

Mogwai, live, assaults your ears. My memory of the band from 2014 will be my head getting blasted in by them at Terminal 5. Great show, if you didn't end up bleeding from your skull or falling into a seizure. (I avoided both, but only by retreating to the rooftop bar; Terminal 5 staff were ducking for cover in all directions, fingers in their ears.)

Mogwai won my 2013 Album of the Year with one of the greatest soundtracks of all time. Rave Tapes can't -- and doesn't -- match it, but once again, Mogwai paints sound pictures that are worth a thousand words.

As usual, each song is so strong you forget you're listening to instrumentals; Rave Tapes is another great album from one of the world's elite bands. This one has been on repeat all year long.



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SHARON VAN ETTEN -- ARE WE THERE

My wife tells me Sharon Van Etten finally broke up with the dude who inspired these songs (and presumably, the songs on her last record, another Album of the Year nominee). Thank goodness. I mean, the dude might have helped give us some great art, but the pain is almost too hard to listen to, let alone to bear.

Just listen to the song titles: Your Love Is Killing Me. I Love You But I'm Lost. Break Me. Nothing Will Change. And the lyrics: "I washed your dishes, but I shit in your bathroom."

Or this:

Break my legs so I won't walk to you
Cut my tongue so I can't talk to you
Burn my skin so I can't feel you
Stab my eyes so I can't see
You like it when I let you walk over me
You tell me that you like it
Your love is killing me

We saw her live; she's quite charming and even clumsy and ditzy. On these albums, she is raw power and pain. Maybe her next record will bring out her happier, loopier side. In the meantime, we have an amazing document of love going very, very wrong.



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SUN KIL MOON -- BENJI

So Mark Kozelek's feuds with "hillbilly" concertgoers and The War on Drugs gave us a pretty hilarious song, but it grew old and sort of left a bad taste in what should have been a purely triumphant year -- not only is Benji a great album, but Kozelek's Christmas album, which just came out, could become a staple if I can listen to it without all the irony.

Benji is packed with songs about death; I think Pitchfork compared its rambling lyrical style with boxing -- jabbing and weaving and ducking and blocking -- which is a sport Kozelek loves and even mentions on the record. I've enjoyed Sun Kil Moon's music for some time -- and was thrilled to see him at Newport -- but, to me, this is the best thing he's ever done.

Yes, that's (Album of the Year winner) Will Oldham singing backing vocals on Carissa. And to top it off, I danced with my mom to I Can't Live Without My Mother's Love at my wedding. Hard to beat.



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U2 -- SONGS OF INNOCENCE

It's become hip to hate on U2. It's been deserved much of the time, but not now. Songs of Innocence is a great album, their best in at least 15 years.

Was putting the song on every iPod, iPhone, iPad and iTunes account in the known universe a douchebag move? Of course it was. But don't let this get lost in the furor: U2 had the balls to do it. It's free. And it's damn good.

This album is U2 without some of the less palatable excesses. Bono sounds great; The Edge crunches his guitars; and the songs are personal, mostly about growing up in Dublin, so even when the lyrics are a bit generic (long a Bono staple), they still resonate. Sometimes it's OK to be a jealous R.E.M. fan.



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THE WAR ON DRUGS -- LOST IN THE DREAM

If I had to choose sides, I'd pick Mark Kozelek's.

Still, I love Mark Knopfler. And he sounds like he's playing on this album, even though he isn't, making a song like An Ocean in Between the Waves one of the best songs of the year.

Bridge and tunnel people, apparently, love them some War on Drugs. They're pretty beloved by the hipsters, too. While it annoys me that this album gets praised while Songs of Innocence gets bashed -- I think you either like both, or don't like both -- I won't hold it against them.



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WARPAINT -- WARPAINT

I had the pleasure of seeing Warpaint twice this year, once at Webster Hall and a second, even better show, outdoors in Prospect Park. They were awesome. This record is their best yet.

From Intro -- with its stomping drums and its apology and its restart and its seamless flow into Keep It Healthy -- to songs like Disco//Heavy and Drive, which seduce you slowly, Warpaint's self-titled gem doesn't seem to have the hooks to make them a mainstream success. But they're intoxicating and mysterious -- I get swept away by their guitar work, live and on tape - and they've made possibly the best record of 2014.



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HONORABLE MENTIONS

Also in iTunes alphabetical order:

Leif Vollebekk -- North Americana

Peter Buck -- I Am Back To Blow Your Mind Once Again

Primus -- Primus & the Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble

R.E.M. -- Unplugged 1991/2001

Shearwater -- Missing Islands (Demos & Outtakes 2007-2012)

Sinoia Caves -- Beyond the Black Rainbow (OST)

"Weird Al" Yankovic -- Mandatory Fun

Willie Watson -- Folk Singer, Vol. 1

Monday, December 30, 2013

RIB's 2013 Album of the Year:
Mogwai -- Les Revenants

It's fitting in a time of sudden loss and slow recovery that my Album of the Year is the ghostly soundtrack to a French television drama about the dead coming back to life.

It's also appropriate in a year when words could only do so much — and nearly always failed — that my Album of the Year is almost entirely instrumental.

The walking dead of Les Revenants -- the French show that provides the title and inspiration for Mogwai's remarkable record -- are not zombies; they are everyday people who don't know they’re dead. In the opening scenes of the pilot -- the only part of the show I've seen, lacking an English subtitled version -- a school bus full of children careens off the side of a mountain road.

After the Mogwai-driven opening credits roll, a schoolgirl, Camille, climbs over the guardrail, back onto the road, and breathlessly makes her way back home -- where her mother, hearing sounds from the kitchen downstairs, watches as her dead daughter fixes herself a snack.

That's all I know about the show, which is set in a mysterious town that has drawn comparisons to Twin Peaks, to which I am an outspoken devotee.

So I don't quite know how each Mogwai track pairs with the visuals and the plot lines and the characters. All I can judge the record on is the music itself:

Beautiful. Haunting. Hopeful. Restrained.

Most of all, there is that restraint. Never does a song swell to the heights of "Death is the Road to Awe" -- the climax of The Fountain soundtrack that Mogwai recorded with Clint Mansell and Kronos Quartet.

But while that could sometimes make Mogwai's record less immediate than this year's runners-up -- the throbbing pop of Chvrches' The Bones of What You Believe, the raw indie rock power of Savages' Silence Yourself, the emotionally and racially charged vanity of Kanye West's Yeezus, the anachronistic but pure throw-your-head-back-and-dance pulse of Daft Punk's Random Access Memories, the instant familiarity of Laura Veirs' Warp and Weft, and even the quiet catchiness of Yo La Tengo’s Fade -- it didn't keep it from sticking with me as the months turned from cold to warm to hot to (prematurely) cold again.

Any or all of the runners-up could have been a fine choice for Album of the Year. But none of them truly fit. My Unwinnable readers already know what has defined my year, so I won’t go into it again (newbies click here). Perhaps it’s the fact that those records are packed with words and ideas and messages that make it impossible to pin them down as emblematic of a year so jumbled with emotion. There is no chorus or couplet that wraps up 2013 in a nice, tidy bow.

There is only the mournful sound of Mogwai.

And then there's Track 13 -- "What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?" -- the album's lone vocal cut, a well-worn tune attributed to 1920s Texan gospel singer Washington Phillips.

It may not be "Get Lucky" or "Blood on the Leaves" or "We Sink" or "She Will", but it may be the only song in a year of great songs that really had something to say to my soul:

What are they doing in heaven today,
Where sin and sorrow are all done away?
Peace abounds like a river, they say.
What are they doing there now?

I'm thinking of friends whom I used to know,
Who lived and suffered in this world below
But they've gone off to heaven, but I want to know
What are they doing there now?

Oh, what are they doing in heaven today,
Where sin and sorrow are all done away?
Peace abounds like a river, they say.
But what are they doing there now?

There's some whose hearts were burdened with care
They paid for their moment to fighting and tears
But they clung to the cross with trembling and fear
But what are they doing there now?

Oh, what are they doing in heaven today,
Where sin and sorrow are all done away?
Peace abounds like a river, they say.
But what are they doing there now?

And there's some whose bodies were full of disease
Physicians and doctors couldn't give them much ease
But they suffered 'til death brought a final release
But what are they doing there now?

Oh, what are they doing in heaven today,
Where sin and sorrow are all done away?
Peace abounds like a river, they say.
But what are they doing there now?

There's some who were poor and often despised
They looked up to heaven with tear-blinded eyes
While people were heedless and deaf to their cries
But what are they doing there now?

For an agnostic, I've had more reason to wonder about heaven than ever before.

In other words: Goodbye, 2013.

And here's a prayer for next year, too.

This post is running simultaneously at Unwinnable.com.

ALBUMS OF THE YEAR, 1993-2013

1993: Counting Crows -- August and Everything After
1994: R.E.M. -- Monster
1995: The Innocence Mission -- Glow
1996: Dave Matthews Band -- Crash
1997: U2 -- Pop
1998: R.E.M. -- Up
1999: John Linnell -- State Songs
2000: Radiohead -- Kid A
2001: Bjork -- Vespertine
2002: Wilco -- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
2003: Bonnie "Prince" Billy -- Master and Everyone
2004: Wilco -- A Ghost is Born
2005: Sufjan Stevens -- Illinois
2006: The Decemberists -- The Crane Wife
2007: Radiohead -- In Rainbows
2008: Shearwater -- Rook
2009: Animal Collective -- Merriweather Post Pavilion
2010: Laura Veirs -- July Flame
2011: PJ Harvey -- Let England Shake
2012: Animal Collective -- Centipede Hz
2013: Mogwai -- Les Revenants

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Nominees: 2013 Album of the Year

I'm working today, so I'll keep it short and sweet.

Here are the nominees for the 2013 Album of the Year (in iTunes alphabetical order, as usual):


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CHVRCHES -- THE BONES OF WHAT YOU BELIEVE

I'm starting to embrace pop more in my old age; or maybe pop has suddenly become all indie and cool again?

Doesn't matter. I did a lot of dancing on the way to work this year, and Chvrches -- one of two Scottish bands to earn a nomination in 2013 -- had a lot to do with it.

"Recover" ranks among my songs of the year; I've had it since their EP was released and it's been the soundtrack, in part, to some pretty hard times. A few of the other tracks on the album proper -- like "Tether" and "We Sink" -- had I had them sooner, might have provided a similar function. And they still may.

Synth pop about battling depression/obsession/addiction and relationship turmoil? That gets me on the dance floor.

Play it at your weddings.



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DAFT PUNK -- RANDOM ACCESS MEMORIES

Did I mention I danced a lot this year?

"Get Lucky" was arguably the song of the summer (I called it, Amelia!) but the song that stole my heart (and got me to buy this album the day of its release) is "Doin' It Right", which features Panda Bear from two-time Album of the Year winners Animal Collective.

I think it was Amelia who quipped that I like songs that repeat the same thing over and over and over and over again -- although if it wasn't her, my work colleague Jeff has heard me singing enough made-up songs to know that it's sometimes my jam -- and I'm pretty sure she was referencing this song when she said it.

Maybe it's only robotic Kraftwerk-like voices or members of AC who can get away with it.

And me. At least until Jeff strangles me at my desk.



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KANYE WEST -- YEEZUS

Kanye West finished second in the Album of the Year race a few years back, and he'll finish high in the rankings again this time around.

I'm gonna say the same thing I always say: Kanye West is a douchebag. But you shouldn't like his music despite that fact; you have to, at least in part, like it because of it.

"I Am a God (feat. God)" is perhaps the perfect example; Kanye is brazen enough to call himself a God, but also self-conscious and smart enough to undercut his message with the sounds of screaming and panting as he runs away from his own demons.

Is Yeezus as good as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy? Probably not. But when a song like "Blood on the Leaves" is playing, I find it hard to believe there is a better hip-hop album out there, period.



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LAURA VEIRS -- WARP AND WEFT

There are miles between Kanye West and Laura Veirs. But they live together harmoniously in my music collection, and for that I am thankful.

In fact, it was Veirs who beat out Kanye for Album of the Year with her previous release, July Flame, which remains one of my favorite albums of all time. I didn't expect her to top it, but apart from a track or two, this is as satisfying a follow-up as I could have hoped for.

There are songs on this album that sweep me away. "Sun Song" is a Vitamin D pill. "Ten Bridges" is the first light at the end of a wicked storm, the smell of ozone still in the air. And "White Cherry" is a world of its own, with a line I've employed as a musical mantra for months:

"Even in the lean times, I take pleasure in the wind chimes."



***


MOGWAI -- LES REVENANTS

Mogwai's soundtrack for a French TV show I've never seen has followed me around all year long.

None of the music here contains the climax that "Death is the Road to Awe" has on the soundtrack to The Fountain, but the subtle beauty of each song seems to suit the subject matter of the TV show -- a small, Twin Peaks-like town where the dead come back to life.

But these dead aren't zombies; they're regular, everyday people who never realized they'd died. It's a less morbid, less blood-splattered, less edge-of-your-seat sort of drama. Or at least it is based on Mogwai's soundtrack, which ranges between hazy despair and comforting, if not revelatory, beauty.

If the show's anywhere as good as its soundtrack, may it come to Netflix asap. In the meantime, this has been one of the most-spun soundtracks to my 2013:

A confounding mix of loss and a prayer for renewal.



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SAVAGES -- SILENCE YOURSELF

I can't remember the last time a single guitar riff was enough to earn a record an Album of the Year nomination.

But it happened with Savages.

Pop open your Spotify (or just watch the video below) and blast "She Will" at near-maximum volume. Man, what a song.

Of course, I'm exaggerating a little. "City's Full" and "Shut Up" and "No Face" and "I Am Here" are among my other favorites in this PJ Harvey/Patti Smith-style rock debut that just crackles out of your speakers.

I've never seen them live, but I just had to copy this from Wikipedia: "The New Musical Express described their performances as 'frottage-inducingly intense affairs.'"

I can definitely believe it.



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YO LA TENGO -- FADE

Yo La Tengo is old favorite band that I thought had dropped out of my consciousness, especially after I escaped Hoboken. (Even now, their music brings back bad memories.)

But this album is as fresh as if it was YLT's debut, and still as familiar as an old, well-worn baseball glove. "I'll Be Around" is my love song of the year, hands down. "Ohm" is Yo La Tengo's mission statement, expressed anew. "Is That Enough" and "The Point of It" are everything that's always been so lovable about this band.

Fade is as great an album as you'll ever hear from an act that's set to celebrate its 30th birthday next year.

What more could you ask for?



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HONORABLE MENTIONS

Also in iTunes alphabetical order:

Atoms for Peace -- Amok

Bill Callahan -- Dream River

Bonnie "Prince" Billy & Dawn McCarthy -- What The Brothers Sang

Bookhouse -- Ghostwood

Caveman -- Caveman

David Bowie -- The Next Day

Karl Blau -- Shading Stump

My Bloody Valentine -- m b v

Rogue Wave -- Nightingale Floors

Shearwater -- Fellow Travelers

Various -- Son of Rogues Gallery (Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs and Chanteys)