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.



***


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.



***


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.



***


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.



***


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.



***


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.



***


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):


***


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.



***


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.



***


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.



***


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.



***


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.



***


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?



***


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)

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

RIB's 2012 Album of the Year
Animal Collective -- Centipede Hz

The Album of the Year Award turns 20 today.

Twenty.

That number, 20 -- five more than my age when I started doing this -- shocked my friend Steph when I told her the other night over Ukrainian food that 19 Album of the Year Awards had already been handed out, and that the 20th was days away. She's known me for all but the first of them, so you can't fault her if the news made her feel a little bit old.

For me, though, the winner of the 20th Album of the Year Award, for all its faults, has done the opposite:

It's made me feel young.

Animal Collective's Centipede Hz -- the band's second Album of the Year winner, following its previous release, Merriweather Post Pavilion -- pumped me full of adrenaline this year. It reminded me of why I love music. It made me want to run.

And while the album missed many year-end lists -- Pitchfork left it out of its Top 50, instead including it on its Worst Album Covers list -- I liked it for the same reasons some others didn't, which are the same reasons I have come to love records for the past 20 years:

Centipede Hz is weird. It's hard to swallow. It's ugly at times. It's not as accessible or as charming as the band's last record, the one everyone agreed to love.

Centipede Hz is more than just those things, though. It's also thrilling, daring and brash -- and less repetitive than that last record.

There are personal reasons I love it, too. The day it came out, I ran through Astoria Park in the rain listening to it, a spontaneous run (I hadn't run in years) inspired by the record -- especially track two, Today's Supernatural, which against stiff competition may also be my song of the year.

That night I had a first (OK Cupid) date with a girl named Amelia Page. After four months, the things that remind me of her are now indelible.

It's an unfair advantage, surely, but there you have it.

I've spent a lot of time writing and talking about Centipede Hz, and I could say a lot more here. But, partly due to laziness and partly due to a lack of time, I will leave it with this not-so simple, and increasingly long, list:

ALBUMS OF THE YEAR, 1993-2012

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

(2012's runners-up: 2. Sharon Van Etten -- Tramp; 3. Of Monsters and Men -- My Head is an Animal; 4. Shearwater -- Animal Joy; full nominees list here)

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Nominees: 2012 Album of the Year

It's that time of year again.

That time of year when your thoughts are not on stuffing or football or Black Friday sales, but on which albums will be nominated for the most prestigious prize of any awards season.

Do I need to name the prize? I didn't think so.

So, without further ado -- after a fabulous year for me, personally, and another great year for new music -- here are the nominees for the 2012 You-Know-What:


***


ANIMAL COLLECTIVE -- CENTIPEDE HZ

Pretty much everything I would want to say about the new Animal Collective record can be read right here.

I hope you take the time to check that link out.

I will add this to it, though: The day I describe in that column -- the day Centipede Hz came out, when I had my spontaneous run in the rain, and my walk home, soaked -- was also the day I had a dinner date at Koliba, a Czech restaurant around the corner from my apartment. It was a first date, with an OK Cupid girl I had a strange feeling about. Call it a hunch.

Her name's Amelia. Today's her 30th birthday.

(Animal Collective is in line for its second straight win, taking home the gold in 2009 for the band's last record, Merriweather Post Pavilion.)



***


OF MONSTERS AND MEN -- MY HEAD IS AN ANIMAL

Probably the most charming debut record I have heard in some time, and certainly the most charming record of the year.

I've missed seeing Of Monsters and Men live at seemingly every turn -- three strikes, so far, and I feel left out -- but I've had the Icelanders in my ears since the summer, and a copy of My Head is an Animal on pink vinyl spinning quite a bit, too.

For me, this record went from being a nice bit of catchy pop to something more as I strolled the beaches of Block Island in June. My friend Hannah and I took a ferry there for the weekend, and this became my soundtrack, never more so than when I climbed the sand to a perch above the beach or when I ran my toes through the grass in front of our bed and breakfast.

Mountain Sound feels like a twisted, modern indie pop update of Mountain Greenery -- check out the Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler-Moore version, and then the Ella Fitzgerald take; Dirty Paws is a skillfully conjured plot breakdown of a never-made Bjork video; and songs like Lakehouse and Yellow Light mix the homespun warmth of the Innocence Mission with the anthemic grandeur of Arcade Fire. The record perfectly captured the New England island vacation -- magical and comforting -- that has lingered with me ever since.



***


SHARON VAN ETTEN -- TRAMP

My best concert experience of 2012, and, after two years of female solo artists taking home Album of the Year honors, Tramp easily would be a more than a worthy successor to Laura Veirs' July Flame and PJ Harvey's Let England Shake -- a perfect mix of the finest qualities of both.

When I saw Sharon Van Etten play earlier this year, we stood way in the back of the room (we had been leaning on the stage for the opening act, the next nominee) and retired to the shadows for a drink.

She played the album's last -- and best -- song, Joke or a Lie, with the patience and care it richly deserves, grainy black and white film footage playing behind her on a large screen, and I fell in madly in love with it. It's been a year of amazing songs, and this one set the tone early; I nearly needed the Bowery Ballroom's back wall to keep me standing as she sang, two-thirds of the way through the song:"I am alone. But I alone in this room with you. Call it a joke, or a lie."

You didn't have to be there. Just pick up a copy of the album, and listen.



***


SHEARWATER -- ANIMAL JOY

It's no secret Shearwater -- the 2008 Album of the Year winner, for Rook -- has made a strong claim as my favorite post-R.E.M. band. Its latest album has done nothing to diminish that.

A little poppier and more accessible than the band's previous works, Animal Joy jarred me at first, but, like Tramp, it has remained in constant rotation for me since its release in February. The sparkling piano in You As You Were won me over, initially, and I wish more music fans had heard it; there were mornings when it made my walk to the subway feel more like the start of a journey than a commute.

I'm no longer waiting for the band to hit it big, but I still consider Shearwater criminally under-appreciated -- especially as a live act. If the band keeps moving in this direction -- while also maintaing their unique brand of mystery -- Shearwater will keep diehards like me very happy, and pick up a few more of us, too.



***


ROUNDING OUT THE TOP 10

5. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros -- Here

6. Andrew Bird -- Break It Yourself

7. Laura Gibson -- La Grande

8. Spiritualized -- Sweet Heart Sweet Light

9. Ingrid Michaelson -- Human Again

10. Peter Buck -- Peter Buck


***


HONORABLE MENTIONS

In iTunes alphabetical order:

Chromatics -- Kill For Love

Counting Crows -- Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation)

Damien Jurado -- Maraqopa

Eef Barzelay -- Songs For Mary

First Aid Kit -- The Lion's Roar

Frank Ocean -- Channel Orange

Fun. -- Some Nights

Japandroids -- Celebration Rock

Karen Peris -- Violet

Lambchop -- Mr. M

The Lumineers -- The Lumineers

The Magnetic Fields -- Love At The Bottom of the Sea

The Mountain Goats -- Transcendental Youth

Regina Spektor -- What We Saw from the Cheap Seats

Snow Patrol -- Fallen Empires

Sun Kil Moon -- Among the Leaves

Friday, December 30, 2011

RIB's 2011 Album of the Year:
PJ Harvey -- Let England Shake

Happy (Almost) New Year! To those of you who read Unwinnable.com, this pick may not be a total surprise. To the rest of you, this is the first year I didn't read this to someone, or make the announcement in a private ceremony, prior to the big unveiling on the blog. It's been that hectic this holiday season. Anyway, here goes ...

Some years, choosing my Album of the Year is a difficult process that requires a lot of soul-searching, not to mention listening to two or three albums incessantly throughout late November and December until I get sick enough of one of them for a winner to emerge.

Some years, choosing my Album of the Year is an easy process, often decided before I've even announced my nominees.

The hard years are more thrilling, and usually make the announcement all the sweeter -- out of sheer relief if nothing else. But the easy years are fun, too, because they are years where not a shred of doubt lingers that I've made the right choice.

This year is an easy year.

Only time will tell if PJ Harvey's Let England Shake is truly a top-tier Album of the Year winner -- in a year R.E.M. broke up, I'm still listening to Monster and Up as much as ever -- and I'd be lying if I told you her runner up, John Maus, didn't get some consideration.

But I can pay it this compliment:

Harvey's record, a rock-n-roll epic about World War I, is by far the best album of 2011 -- and, more importantly, in this context at least, my absolute runaway favorite.

Harvey is the second solo female artist in a row to take home the prize (and third overall). Though she and Laura Veirs couldn't be much more different, like July Flame, PJ's record came out early and stuck with me all year long. In fact, in a year marked by dramatic change in my personal life, I still think of last winter when I hear it, and the sense of emerging from the doldrums that was so palpable back then, especially over a weekend in Boston when I had it practically on repeat.

But while Veirs' record is a quiet, personal masterpiece, PJ's is grand, sweeping, the kind of work fanboys like me get all giddy over when we see her playing it live in front of the British Prime Minister on chat shows. There are cavalry horns, bodies falling to the ground like lumps of meat, ironic, sonically familiar pleas to the United Nations, folk sing-alongs about deformed children (featuring backing vocals from John Parish), and so on, but while it's disturbing at times, it never feels morbid, and even comes off as sentimental -- a terrible time worth remembering, and singing about.

You don't need to know a lick about its subject to get it -- it's not a Ken Burns miniseries. Let England Shake lives and breathes, relevant anywhere where there's war or the threat of it. And, as I'm apt to say in these year-end writeups, it just rocks.

I've been a Harvey fan for some time -- I came late to the party on Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, but Uh Huh Her was an AOTY nominee and I nearly drooled all over her score as I ogled Mary-Louise Parker as Hedda Gabbler on Broadway. Five or 10 years ago, I expected her to win this award, or at least make a very near run at it, but I have to admit this record caught me almost completely by surprise.

It hasn't let me go.





Wednesday, November 23, 2011

RIB's 2011 Album of the Year Nominees

Happy almost Turkey Day!

With the big feast nearly at hand we bring you our annual tradition -- the nominees for this year's Album of the Year. Continuing a recent trend, we have pared down the list to just five.

So, without further ado, in iTunes-alphabetical order:

The Nominees

Fleet Foxes -- Helplessness Blues


Fleet Foxes isn't messing around on its second full-length release, from the very opening verse on: "So now I am older, than my mother and father, when they had their daughter, now what does that say about me? Oh how could I dream of such a selfless and true love? Could I wash my hands of, just looking out for me?" Now maybe that floors me because I'm 33 with a near-marriage under my belt, but I don't think I'm alone here -- ours is a generation of extended adolescence after all. While I can see how some might argue that this highly personal approach is, in a way, a detriment to the album, perhaps that over-internalization actually says everything that needs to be said about these times of ours. At any rate, with Robin Pecknold older now that his parents were all those years ago, and with two classics under his band's belt, one can only hope Fleet Foxes' best work isn't behind it.

John Maus -- We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves


At first, it seemed little more than a novelty to me. Wouldn't it be hilarious to nominate for Album of the Year a record with an entire song that revolves around the single line, "Pussy is not a matter of fact"? And yet, John Maus, for all his Joy Division-tinged anachronism and reverb kitsch, has actually crafted a record that is indeed worthy not only of a nomination, but of strong consideration for the grand prize. There's not a song here I don't like, but a few -- Quantum Leap, Believer and Hey Moon -- are easily among the best songs of the year. And yet this album is still better than the sum of its parts, with an equal measure of I-don't-give-a-fuck and no-actually-this-shit-may-be-kind-of-important.

PJ Harvey -- Let England Shake


Who writes a rock 'n' roll epic about the effect of World War I on Great Britain? PJ Harvey does, and thank God for her. Not only that, but she positively nails it. And if songs about dead bodies crashing to the ground, complete with the soounds of cavalry horns and sing-along backing vocals from John Parish aren't enough to make her a national treasure, the sight of her performing on British chat shows in front of UK Prime Minister David Cameron certainly fulfills the requirement. Harvey won the 2011 Mercury Prize -- just another reason they have it just a bit more together across the pond.

R.E.M. -- Collapse Into Now


Say whatever the fuck you want. R.E.M. is my favorite band of all time and Collapse Into Now, while nowhere near their best work, is a more than worthy coda on 31 years of amazing music. But even anticipating the eye rolls you're giving me now, I had to put this record in my top 5 -- not just as a lifetime achievement award, or because the band signed off on its own terms, but because this record deserves it. Yes, there are several cringe-inducing, late-period Stipean lyrical gaffes here, but there are also some of the best post-Bill Berry R.E.M. songs, too: UBerlin (which, in my opinion, is enough on its own to justify their entire last decade) on the dreamier side, Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter and That Someone Is You on the rockier one. At the very least, since that is indeed Stipe waving goodbye on the album cover, you won't have to indulge me in this regard ever again.

Radiohead -- The King Of Limbs


Radiohead is so great, really good albums by the band seem so-so. Or do so-so albums by the band seem really good? Either way, The King Of Limbs might not be the first record I hand to newbies and non-believers, but it does contain a few of the band's greatest songs -- even if you have to be more patient than you'd expect to be with an album only eight songs long. I could listen to the guitar licks in Little By Little all night and Codex might be the single most beautiful thing in the Radiohead canon, if it's not eclipsed by Give Up The Ghost, the very next track.

Honorable Mention

ADELE - 21
Apex Manor -- The Year Of Magical Drinking
Beirut -- The Rip Tide
Bill Callahan -- Apocalypse
Bjork -- Biophilia
Bon Iver -- Bon Iver
The Decemberists -- The King Is Dead
Florence + The Machine -- Ceremonials
Garland Jeffreys -- The King Of In Between
Gillian Welch -- The Harrow & The Harvest
Girls -- Father, Son, Holy Ghost
Iron & Wine -- Kiss Each Other Clean
Julianna Barwick -- The Magic Place
Laura Marling -- A Creature I Don't Know
Lykke Li -- Wounded Rhymes
Mogwai -- Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will
My Morning Jacket -- Circuital
Wye Oak -- Civilian