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2011 Year-End List Extravaganza

The insane charts of a sick man

First things first—go see my top twenty-five albums for 2011 here, then come back and comment on this post to tell me how wrong I am about my choices.

Now that the essential business is out of the way, allow me to go broad. I have a love/hate relationship with year-end lists. I love reading them. I love making them. I love debating them. But I hate the increasingly impossible logistics involved in them. I hate that I’m expected to have figured out my list by December 10th. I hate floundering when I see a trusted source recommend an album I haven’t yet heard on December 15th. I hate knowing that I didn’t spend enough time with an album everyone else loves. I hate the fact that so much stock is put into a sampling (top 25) of a sampling (top 30 or 40 candidates) of a sampling (all of the albums I heard this year) of an ocean (all of the albums released this year). I hate skirting the issue between “best,” “favorite,” “top,” and whatever other markers of greatness are used. But I love making my yearly list too much to stop.

This year I approached it differently. Instead of taking stock of my favorites on December 1st and creating my list, I took stock of as much as I possibly could. Virtually every 2011 release I had in iTunes. (This choice excluded a huge chunk of material I'm simply too lazy to port into iTunes.) Notable or intriguing albums that appeared on other year-end lists. During December I listened to 150 albums from start to finish, proving that there’s no obsessive-compulsive task I won’t stupidly tackle. True to form, I mostly listened to these albums in alphabetical order. I made ridiculous charts, shown above, to track which records I listened to when, whether they were candidates for the final list, and my favorite track. All normal stuff.

Tyler, the Creator's Goblin

I have done insane, ridiculous projects before, but this one might take the cake. Considering that I barely did any listening during a four-day vacation early in the month, I plowed through an average of six albums a day. Whatever I was doing—driving, working, washing dishes, reading, wrapping presents, painting—had an arbitrary soundtrack. (The strangest pairing? Painting the nursery to Tyler, the Creator’s Goblin.) I even found time to revisit favorite albums to let them sink in.

The biggest conclusion? It helped, adding three albums to my list, but it wasn’t enough. I could listen to another 100 worthy records and still have that sinking feeling of missing out on great music. I wasn’t dismayed by this conclusion, however, since it confirmed my suspicion that there’s no perfect list, even/especially my own. There are hundreds of excellent albums released every year and variables like taste, exposure, and audience dictate how various publications/writers sift those albums into their own lists. There’s plenty of cross-over between my list and Pitchfork’s, for example, but significant departures as well. If nothing else, I now feel capable of determining which albums would be appropriate for particular publications' lists. It's like I'm an actual music critic!

My initial intent was to write fifty-word blurbs for each of the 150 albums (I somehow completed 120+ of these), but midway into the project I realized that my comments on individual albums were less interesting than the connections between releases. I may complete/post those blurbs a few weeks from now, but the talking points below are of greater importance. I’ve also included a supplemental list of honorable mentions. After all, there’s no use in listening to 150 albums in a month if it doesn’t produce heaps of self-indulgent writing!

Catching Up Is Hard to Do

Twilight Singers' Dynamite Steps

There’s an unrecognizable moment when the arrival of old favorite’s newest release switches from “I’ll listen to this album immediately and half-heartedly enjoy it” to “I’ll download this album and never put it on.” My iTunes is littered with previously unplayed records from past notables—Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Centro-matic, Glossary, Twilight Singers, etc.; releases that fans of those artists recommended wholeheartedly, recommendations I then ignored. When I finally heard these albums, I had three divergent responses. In the case of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, I recognized that Wolfroy Goes to Town was very good at what it does—stripped-down folk—but my appetite for that style went away years ago and has not returned. In the case of Twilight Singers, I struggled to ascertain why Greg Dulli’s songs no longer appeal to me. Ten years ago I couldn’t have imagined that a new Dulli album would fester on my hard drive for months. Is Dynamite Steps the latest in a string of fandom-testing releases (Amber Headlights, She Loves Me, Powder Burns, The Gutter Twins), has the appeal of Dulli's sex-driven noir worn off, or have I changed more than Dulli has? Perhaps that’s the problem. I'll be a father next year and the thought of bringing my future daughter into a world with Greg Dulli in it gives me the creeps. Finally, in the case of Centro-matic (and to a lesser extent Glossary), I slipped back into my old fondness with ease. A superlative rock song like “All the Takers” certainly helps matters.

I’ve thought about this issue plenty before now, but there’s an obvious reason why I haven’t written about it: I don’t write about albums that I haven’t listened to. I’ve been tempted to make an entry into The Ten for favorite artists/bands who’ve inexplicably fallen off my radar—Do Make Say Think after You, You’re a History in Rust and Dirty Three after She Has No Strings Apollo to name a few—because it gets at the heart of the “Is it you or is it me?” It’s much easier when a band drops precipitously in quality (I’m looking at you, Minus the Bear), but much harder when there’s nothing obviously bad about their new output. Perhaps at some point, you've just had enough.

Subjectivity/Objectivity and Best New Music Achievements

The biggest thing I struggle with when listening to and writing about music is my preference for the subjective over the objective. There’s a sense of relief when a great album appears that I can relate to—hello, Wye Oak’s Civilian—but I’ll be the first to admit that records that don’t apply to my social situation or even strive against relatability often fall outside of my listening pile. Hearing music on a purely objective level isn’t impossible for me, but it’s not something I often choose to do.

No time better than the present to change that habit, since this undertaking required heavy doses of objective listening. The subjective listener in me would quickly changed records when something like Das Racist’s Relax came on, but if I’m going to listen, I might as well make the best out of it. This tact mandates an objective approach: can I understand why this record garnered critical acclaim, even if it doesn’t suite my tastes?

PJ Harvey's Let England Shake

For the most part, the answer was yes. I can understand how Girls’ Father, Son, Holy Ghost’s referential streak mines decades of pop music (although the tired boogie-rock riff of “Die” nearly gave me an aneurysm). I can see how PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake is an important album for that nation in this era, even if it feels like assigned reading to me. I get how Cut Hands’ Afro Noise I reconstitutes African rhythms as percussive noise treatments without sounding like an imperialist incursion. (If the whole album sounded like superior versions of Brian Eno’s ’80s records, e.g., “Rain Washes Over Chaff,” it would have made my list.) I can see how Destroyer’s Kaputt thoroughly modernizes late-period Roxy Music and saxophone-heavy yacht-rock, even if I view the latter point as a war crime.

Here’s one notable exception: I enjoy past M83 releases, but Hurry Up We’re Dreaming confirms my suspicions that they’d be better as a singles band. Citing Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness as a dominant touchstone but not correcting its hubristic indulgence is a huge misstep. The issue here is that Hurry Up needs to be heard subjectively, since Anthony Gonzalez’s fixation on youth kills even an objective view of his own influences. I suspect that sixteen-year-old girls aren’t complaining about excessive filler.

If Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming mandates a particular subjectivity, does the inverse exist? Is it fruitless to even try to hear some albums subjectively? Do certain albums require objectivity? It’s hard to apply that designation across the board, but on a personal level, I’ve started calling albums that only appeal to me on an objective level “achievements.” Ironically, I came up with this idea while listening to St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy, an album that initially appealed to me because of Annie Clark’s bonkers guitar tones, not her role-playing-centric songwriting. There’s still the icy chill of art-rock to Strange Mercy, but “Surgeon” and “Year of the Tiger” prompted me to keep with St. Vincent and now I’d exclude it from the backhanded compliment of “achievement.”

Token Selections

Childish Gambino's Camp

Pitchfork’s recent dismantling of Childish Gambino’s & started with a hilariously accurate line: “If you buy only one hip-hop album this year, I'm guessing it'll be Camp.” (The review may have been directed at Community super-fan Todd VanDerWerff of the AV Club.) It’s not applicable to me in the specific case of Donald Glover’s attempts to mimic Kanye West—which I nevertheless suffered through as part of the 150—but it does touch upon the general sense of tokenism I feel when only one hip-hop album, Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80, makes my list.

Listening to 2011 releases en masse made me appreciate such variety, however selective it may seem. When I looked to add recommend titles to my list, many of them were hip-hop albums. Even I get exhausted of gauzy dream-pop, nu-gaze rituals, and dude-rock abrasions. (You got me—I never tire of dude-rock.) Most deviations from my standard sub-genres were appreciated, especially the joke-rap of The Lonely Island, even if I knew it had no shot at the actual list.

This thread ties into that overall sense of flustered inadequacy: you can only spend quality time with so many albums per year, which means some genres/artists/styles are ignored. There’s also a dog-chasing-its-tail element at work; since I listen to less hip-hop, I’m less comfortable writing about hip-hop, so I’m less likely to listen to it in order to write about it. (Exhale.)

There is a silver lining. Not only was I energized by listening to Kendrick Lamar, Shabazz Palaces, DJ Quik, and A$AP Rocky, meaning that I’ll likely spend more time with Passion of the Weiss’s highlighted titles in 2012, but there’s precedent of my shifting genre preferences. Back in 2005, my fondness for post-rock was apparent, but it hadn’t crossed over to ambient yet. Tim Hecker appeared in 2006. Stars of the Lid, Eluvium, and Nadja appeared in 2007. This year, five artists (Christina Vantzou, Kyle Bobby Dunn, Grouper, Tim Hecker, and list-topper Julianna Barwick) qualify as ambient. Tastes change; a “token inclusion” genre from 2006 now dominates my listening.


When coming up with the master list of albums to hear, I made a few exceptions for albums already in iTunes—I’d previously reviewed …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead and National Skyline’s latest releases and could safely bar them from consideration—but titles added for my wife weren’t given exemptions. There’s enough cross-over in our taste (Wye Oak, The Antlers, and Low would also make her hypothetical list) that I’m rarely forced to endure indie-folk water-torture. I also act as a filter for what she would enjoy—in the case of new spins, Ohbijou’s Metal Meets—so the surprises are few and far between.

Bon Iver's Bon Iver

Her favorite album of the year, Bon Iver’s Bon Iver, is hardly a surprise. It’s topped big year-end lists. It’s sold 300K+ copies. I saw a performance of “Calgary” (with Colin Stetson!) on The Colbert Report. But had I actually listened to it before? No. While I’m unlikely to join the Paste Magazine white-power movement on Bon Iver, I’ll admit that aside from the Richard Marxist “Beth/Rest,” it’s worthy of obsession… for those who practice yoga weekly. Which my wife does!

Three other wife-core notables proved more difficult spins. Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues is a remarkable replication of the lush harmonies and thoughtful arrangements of ’60s and ’70s folk, but subjectively, it could not appeal to me less. Iron & Wine’s Kiss Each Other Clean is a further abandoning of Sam Beam’s old whisper-folk days, even catching the Great Saxophone Plague of 2011, but hearing him play ’70s funk-rock is not on my to-do list. Death Cab for Cutie’s Codes and Keys technically appealed to both of us, seeing as its twenty-something chick-rock was purportedly influenced by Brian Eno’s Another Green World, but it lacks the big hooks its core audience salivates over and the level of songwriting detail that appealed to me about their early work. The irony of these three albums came when I told my wife I wasn’t a big fan of them—turns out neither was she, having barely listened to any of them.

Stumbling Block

There’s a single characteristic that can prevent me from enjoying an otherwise commendable release: vocal style. I have a gag reflex to certain styles that I’ve worked hard to correct—I came around on Björk just in time for her string of concept-heavy, songwriting-light releases—but sometimes there’s not much I can do beyond writing a formal apology.

Marissa Nadler's Marissa Nadler

Dear Marissa Nadler, I know I would love your newest self-titled album if I could get past your vocal mannerisms. When you dial them down on “Baby I Will Leave You in the Morning,” I’m on board, but elsewhere I can only shrug at my own hurdles. Someday I’ll get over it, I swear!

Dear Adam Granduciel of The War on Drugs, I am terribly sorry that your penchant for Bob Dylan’s elongated enunciation, e.g., “leeeee-nan” for “leaning,” has prevented me from fully appreciating your band’s newest release, Slave Ambient. Between the Dylan-esque delivery and Tom Petty tempos, you’re inadvertently channeling the six songs my sister played over and over when she was in high school. Nice guitar work, though! P.S., please do not cover Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London.” It would kill me.

Dear Hayden Thorpe of Wild Beasts, a friend continues to plug Smother and I want nothing more than to agree with him on it, but your highfaluting delivery is denying that opportunity. That delivery’s appropriate for your Talk Talkian music, too, so I’ll admit to being in the wrong. Perhaps this situation was fated by your parents, who could have named you Ralph or Chuck.

Honorable Mentions

Astute readers will notice that I bumped my usual 20 selections up to 25 this year, but I could have easily gone higher. The following ten albums were the last cuts. I've included a favorite track from each, but spared you the wrath of more blurbs.

Battles’ Gloss Drop: “Africastle”
Brief Candles’ Fractured Days: “Small Streets”
DJ Quik’s The Book of David: “Killer Dope”
Dominik Eulberg’s Diorama: “Wenn Es Perlen Regnet”
Ford + Lopatin’s Channel Pressure: “Too Much Midi”
Iceage’s New Brigade: “White Rune”
Idaho’s You Were a Dick: “Flames”
Junius’s Reports from the Threshold of Death: “Transcend the Ghost”
Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks’ Mirror Traffic: “Stick Figures in Love”
A Winged Victory for the Sullen’s A Winged Victory for the Sullen: “A Symphonie Pathetique”

There you have it! I conquered 2011!

Reviews: Wye Oak's Civilian

Wye Oak's Civilian

The drawback of being a great live band is that it puts enormous, potentially unrealistic expectations on the accompanying recorded material. It’s easy to romanticize a live performance after the fact: my memories of Shiner’s gut-punching heft causing venue-wide indigestion, Mogwai’s set-ending sonic assault sending my scrambled brain cells off course for the drive home, Stars of the Lid’s evocative swells transforming me into a blubbering mess, and Juno’s fire turning the antiseptic University of Illinois Courtyard Café into a living, breathing entity are equal parts truth and legend. In contrast, studio material very well be iron-clad fact; it's hard to develop a legendary aura when you can study every detail. Some bands soldier through this situation (Shiner’s The Egg miraculously living up to a summer of performances of its title track and “The Simple Truth”), while others fall into the cliché of “not capturing the live energy” (i.e., Mogwai’s “My Father My King”). The specifics of why an album does or doesn’t measure up to its live takes vary by the artist, but the disconnect between rose-colored memories and the unblinking truth of the tape is the usual culprit.

A case study: I lavished Wye Oak’s live performance last September with effusive praise, marveling at how Jenn Wasner turns into a solo-shredding icon on stage, previously reserved songs like “I Hope You Die” burst apart at the seams with deserved catharsis, and new material like “Holy Holy” demonstrated another quantum leap for a young band. Prior to that performance, I enjoyed their records and appreciated the upward arc of their career, but didn’t expect outrageous things from their next record. Yet as the time passed from that live performance to Civilian’s March release, my expectations became unwieldy. I wanted the recorded material to match its live character with broad, openly emotional strokes, not act as its reserved, subtly crafted counterpart. No, I wanted it to surpass that live character. If “Holy Holy” didn’t offer a religious experience of gloriously melodic indie rock, I’d chalk it up as failure. This is why I labeled those expectations as “potentially unrealistic.”

There was a simple recourse to this dilemma: wait it out. That’s the benefit of writing on my own time without an editor breathing down my neck about deadlines. I can let great albums sort themselves out, like I did with Bottomless Pit’s Blood Under the Bridge last year, for however long it takes. I knew I enjoyed Civilian too much to make a rush judgment on it. So I kept listening to it—in the car, in the kitchen, in the living room, in my office—separating the reality of the document from the romance of that performance. The weeks flew by, but rarely without a few spins of Civilian.

Recognizing the symbiotic relationship between Wye Oak’s studio recordings and live performances was essential. The records allow Wasner to work out her issues; the live performances embrace the power of those issues approaching a resolution. “I Hope You Die” from My Neighbor / My Creator exemplifies this relationship: on record, it’s a restrained, introspective plea for a physical resolve; live that resolve has presumably occurred and the dam can break.

The key to that scenario is that I heard the studio version first. It’s much easier to go from point A to point B, from uncertainty to certainty, rather than vice versa. Yet the commendable aspects of Wye Oak—they tour constantly, they keep writing and debuting new material—mean that you may encounter that opposite scenario, like I did with Civilian.

The second biggest realization is that Civilian offers the most certainty of those supposedly uncertain studio recordings. With the triumphant alto chorus of “Holy Holy,” the western trot of “Civilian” exploding into its double-tracked solo, the precision of “Dog Eyes” giving way to its chord-slashing stomp, or the ascendant outro of “Hot as Day,” Wasner and Andy Stack display newfound confidence in their abilities and execution. There’s still room for live amplification—“Plains” evokes the measured pace of Shannon Wright’s Let in the Light, closing track “Doubt” strips the arrangements down to just Wasner and her guitar—but the more I went between Civilian and its live counterparts (courtesy of two excellent bootlegs from NYCTaper and a painfully short opening set for The National / Yo La Tengo show at the Bank of America Pavilion in September), the smaller that gap became.

The performances thrive on such certainty and confidence, but Civilian’s lyrical insecurities give the album legs. Whether it’s religion (“Holy Holy,” “Dog’s Eyes”), love (“Civilian”), or trust (“Doubt”), Wasner finds a compelling perspective between knowing what traditions don’t work for her and what glimmers of truth actually do. When cynicism threatens to take a firm hold, the warmth and comfort of Wasner’s voice helps center its lyrical content.

When I think back to what I initially hoped to hear—broad strokes like Wasner belting out every song’s chorus, fretboard-torching solos in every other song—I shake my head and hold tight to what I have on Civilian. Not having concrete answers in every song gives me a reason to keep coming back. If Wasner’s songs ultimately serve to sort things out, mirroring that process is a worthy, ever-ongoing endeavor.

Reviews: Callers' Life of Love

Callers' Life of Love

The first time I listened to Callers’ Life of Love was in the car. I cite the situation as an alibi for not immediately recognizing their mid-album cover of Wire’s “Heartbeat.” If I’d seen the track title, perhaps it would have registered immediately as their take on the quietly intense song from Chairs Missing, an album firmly stationed in my all-time top ten. Instead, I had a gradual realization starting midway through the first verse. Sara Lucas’s soulful vocals are the biggest red herring; whereas Wire vocalist Colin Newman’s hushed performance mutes every word, Lucas revels in her delivery, exploring new cadences and elongating notes. My internal debate continued until the first instance of the titular line, at which point I wondered how I ever could have doubted it. Credit Callers for completely making the song their own. Even Big Black’s 1987 version begins with Steve Albini evoking the calm blood pressure of Newman’s delivery before ramping up to industrial chants. If “Heartbeat” is Wire’s “first overt love song,” as producer/fifth Beatle Mike Thorne claimed, Callers’ take is even more overt.

Callers’ cover of “Heartbeat” is also the Rosetta stone for Life of Love: a signifier of the post-punk underpinnings percolating beneath Lucas’s chanteuse vocals. It would be easy to hear a few of the more straightforward songs—the title track, the 50s pop of “How You Hold Your Arms”—and slot Callers in the pre-punk era, somewhere between jazz night clubs and early ’70s folk. But Ryan Seaton’s guitar work keeps Life of Love unpredictable, spiking out with no wave atonality on “You Are an Arc,” making a pointillist bed of acoustic plinks on “Dressed in Blue,” and tip-toeing upwards on closer “Bloodless Ties.” These moves often put Seaton’s guitar at odds with Lucas’s expressive vocals, parrying for space and attention.

So who wins these fencing matches? Lucas, every time. It’s impossible to upstage her voice, which wobbles knees on “Roll” and demonstrates powerful range on “Young People.” She could easily be recording stacks of standards back in New Orleans, but challenging her voice with Seaton’s quick jabs is a more compelling long-term option, even if the lone cover on Life of Love demonstrates more heart (no pun intended) than any other track on the album.

Callers’ current tour with Wye Oak hits a sold-out Middle East Upstairs tonight, so if you’re fortunate enough to have tickets, you’ll get a stellar pairing of contrasting developments. Jenn Wasner’s recent emergence as a solo-shredding guitar hero didn’t happen overnight, but every Wye Oak release has been full of character and catharsis. Callers, on the other hand, have an assured aesthetic on their second album, but would benefit from opening up. Hopefully they’ll each take notes for the Wye Oak Callers Mega-Band album in 2012.

The Haul: Wye Oak's My Neighbor / My Creator EP

Wye Oak – My Neighbor / My Creator CD – Merge, 2010 – $8 (Show at the Middle East Upstairs, 9/2)

Wye Oak's My Neighbor / My Creator EP

Here’s some excellent advice: Go see Wye Oak live. Don’t wait a few years like I did; see them the next chance you get. While I’ve enjoyed the Yo La Tengo / Folksongs for the Afterlife back-porch charm of their two full-lengths, 2007’s If Children (2008 Merge pressing) and 2009’s The Knot, they’re a different act live. Jenn Wasner’s weathered voice is enchanting and empathetic, removing a bit of the restraint she shows on their records. The jagged soloing and reverbed chords of her guitar work makes me long for a Wye Oak live album. Drummer Andy Stack pulls double duty by playing the bass lines on keyboard with one hand. And these aren’t simple, held-note bass lines—they sound natural, like they have an honest-to-goodness third member up there. Certainly check out their records, but recognize that Wye Oak’s unrelenting forward momentum means you’ll hear better versions of earlier songs and new material that improves upon the old when you see them live.

It’s hard, then, to hit pause on their evolution and rewind to this EP, which was first available back in March, but My Neighbor / My Creator deserves attention. Five songs, including a remix of The Knot’s “That I Do,” might seem slight on paper, but the four new songs rank among Wye Oak’s finest moments. “My Neighbor” demonstrates the combination of tricky guitar riffs and inviting vocal hooks that made The Knot memorable, but finds its missing ingredient in the occasional levity of If Children. “Emmylou” proves they can tackle alt-country at higher speeds just as well as the ambling tempo of The Knot’s devastating “Mary Is Mary.” “My Creator” adds wheezing organs and tape effects, but it’s the nimble arpeggios and focused songwriting that keep me coming back. As for the Mickey Free version of “I Hope You Die,” I would not have anticipated the addition of police sirens, synth bass, skittering sound effects, and (most shocking) Free’s own rapping, so you can't call it predictable.

I have to go back to my previous comment about “better versions of earlier songs” for the best track from My Neighbor / My Creator. The live take of the affecting “I Hope You Die” casts aside the keyboards and saxophone of the EP version for a more typical transition from solo guitar and voice to fiery, Andy Cohen-esque soloing. (Side note: If you’re unaware of my fondness for the guitar work Andy Cohen of Silkworm/Bottomless Pit, this is mammoth praise, even if Wasner's still developing her style. “Don’t Make Plans This Friday” and “Tarnished Angel” have two of my favorite solos ever.) What makes this transition work is resonance of the material. “I Hope You Die” offers a remarkably open tale of (I assume) Wasner’s mother’s illness. There’s both poetry—“At the ringing of a bell / Or at the falling of a tree / If you think of it at all / Remember me / Just me”—and exasperation—“Against your will / You are alive”—in the lyrics. The overwhelming catharsis on stage is such a natural amplification of these emotions. That performance has been stuck in my gut for a month. The original is still wonderful, but it’s hard to go back.

In line with their rapid release schedule, Wye Oak is recording a new album now. I was treated to a few tracks from it, most notably “Holy Holy.” The majority of the song is a likable, mid-tempo strummer, but at 4:25 of this clip Wye Oak kicks it into another gear. Between Wasner’s ascendant vocal melody and the anthemic guitar work, this part of “Holy Holy” reminded me of catching new songs from my favorite bands on 120 Minutes back in the ’90s and rewinding the tape over and over to burn the good parts into memory. It’s a hell of a teaser for Wye Oak’s third album.

There isn’t an official release date for that album yet, but Wasner did mention that it will be the first Wye Oak album pressed on vinyl. (They did have a split seven-inch for Record Store Day 2008 with Destroyer.) Wasner also discussed the possibility of The Knot getting a vinyl pressing for Record Store Day 2011, so hopefully Merge will apply some of the considerable Arcade Fire cash to that deserving cause. In the meantime, track down this EP, view Wye Oak’s superlative cover of the Kinks’ “Strangers” in the AV Club’s Undercover series, listen to their covers of “Dance My Pain Away” and “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” and check out their upcoming tour dates with David Bazan. It's quite a to-do list.

(One final note: Found this and couldn't pass up sharing it: Wye Oak and the Supernaturals covering Talking Heads' "Naive Melody (This Must Be the Place)," one of my favorite songs.)

The Haul 2010: Shearwater's Rook and Let's Active's Afoot

12. Shearwater – Rook LP – Matador, 2008 – $4.50 (Norwood, MA Newbury Comics, 1/24)

Shearwater's Rook

I took a chance on this Shearwater record for a few reasons: first, it’s on Matador; second, it was cheap; third, they’ve toured with bands I enjoy (Wye Oak and The Acorn); and fourth, I figured my wife might like it. Had I waited a few months, I would’ve added Shearwater frontman Jonathan Meiburg’s appearance on this exceptional Wye Oak cover of the Kinks’ “Strangers” for the Onion AV Club. In spite of all of these promising justifications, I should’ve heard Shearwater first.

I’ll be blunt: Meiburg’s mannered delivery rubs me the wrong way. It’s suited to early 1970s prog-rock like King Crimson, in which case his precise falsetto and reedy bellow would feel right at home. A more contemporary name that comes to mind is Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis, whose controlled phrasing and melodic flourishes occasionally present the same irritation, if not the same eventual dismissal. I’ll admit it: I like J. Robbins’ everyman voice and virtually every voice that resembles it. That’s my default.

It’s not that Rook is bad album. The occasional bursts of crashing guitar on “On the Death of the Waters” and “Century Eyes” recall a manicured version of Neil Young. “Rooks,” “Leviathan, Bound,” and “The Hunter’s Star” incorporate horns, chimes, strings, and piano with a deft hand. But my qualms with Meiburg’s vocal mannerisms extend to the music. There’s an underpinning of theatricality to these songs that occasionally erupts, like the invigorated delivery of “We'll sleep until the world of man is paralyzed” on “Rooks.” The ornithology-inspired lyrics provide a unique perspective, but there’s no chance my brain will allow me to appreciate them.

If you enjoy mannered deliveries and lingering theatricality, Shearwater is worth checking out. If those phrases make you retract a bit from the monitor, heed my warning. Even though I love Shudder to Think’s Pony Express Record and learned to love Talk Talk, some challenges are too great.

13. Let’s Active – Afoot LP – IRS, 1983 – $1.50 (Norwood, MA Newbury Comics, 1/24)

Let's Active's Afoot

Let’s Active are one of those “I’ve heard of them, but I’ve never heard a note of their music” groups that I’ll check out if the price is right. (See also: Dumptruck.) And for $1.50, the price was right. I mostly know them as contemporaries of R.E.M. in the 1980s college rock / jangle-pop scene, since singer/guitarist Mitch Easter produced early R.E.M. albums like the Chronic Town EP, Murmur, and Reckoning and they shared the IRS imprint. (Mitch Easter later produced Pavement’s Brighten the Corners and Helium’s No Guitars EP and The Magic City.) He certainly produces good music, but does he write it?

That verdict hasn’t come in, but I certainly got the genre tags right. The first side of Afoot sticks firmly with jangly college rock, with the winning “Every Word Means No” demonstrating the best combination of clean guitars, crisp drumming, and chipper, melodic vocals. Let’s Active spreads out a bit on side B with less success. The female vocals and new wave textures of “Room with a View” cite Blondie. The enthusiastic “In Between” could almost be mistaken for a Go-Go’s song. “Leader of Men” has a twitchy new wave bass line and an out-of-character squealing guitar solo. I suspect these new wave elements gradually filtered out of their sound on future recordings, since the jangle-pop/college rock side was more in vogue in their crowd. Afoot will hit the spot if you’re fond of jangle-pop from the 1980s or 1990s, but I suspect you’d be better off grabbing “Every Word Means No” and the better material from their later releases.

Record Collection Reconciliation: Wipers, Destroyer, Wye Oak, Kaki King, Eels, Choice Cuts

While I purchased more than five items between two Newbury Comics locations on Record Store Day, I'll focus on the free stuff for this post. I've previously mentioned my fondness for the Wipers LP, but it merits being mentioned again as the representative of the paid-for pile.

11. Wipers - Youth of America - Jackpot, 1981/2007

Wipers' Youth of America

Why I Bought It: After downloading the Wipers’ first three albums (1980’s Is This Real?, 1981’s Youth of America, and 1983’s Over the Edge) a month ago, Record Store Day justified my purchase of Jackpot/Zeno’s 2007 reissue of Youth of America. The reissue LP may be pricey, ranging from $15 (plus shipping) direct from Greg Sage to $20 at most retailers, but the quality is indisputable. In addition to being remastered and pressed onto a thick slab of black vinyl, Youth of America features the thickest sleeve in my collection, putting the paper-thin sleeve of Colin Newman’s Not To to shame.

Verdict: This marks the first time I’ve heard Youth of America in its proper running order*; the 2001 Wipers Box Set puts side B (“No Fair,” “Youth of America”) before side A (“Taking Too Long,” “Can This Be,” “Pushing the Extreme,” “When It’s Over”). Fixing the track listing addressed a prior criticism of the album—that the shorter songs pale in comparison to their epic counterparts—by presenting the album as an accelerating descent into a fever dream. Sage recalls, “The song [‘Youth of America’] itself is out of a dream I had about the future. A time where people ‘over breed’ themselves to the point that even the most simple thing had become the highest level of competition. The dream had such a sense of realism and intensity to it that I went overboard with the recording to symbolize it.” The title track does the best job of encapsulating this sentiment, but the end of “Pushing the Extreme” performs the crucial transition from the relatively straightforward first three songs to the structurally experimental second half. As Sage intones, “Now it’s one against the other / What’s this price we gotta pay?” over backward cymbals—the first noticeably showy production technique on the album—the atmosphere starts mounting, leading to the cataclysmic ascending guitar riffs of “When It’s Over.” More than three minutes of increasing instrumental tension pass before Sage speaks a word in “When It’s Over,” even letting the backing piano chords take precedence over his raging guitar. At the end of the song, Sage yells “We’ll be laughing / When it’s over,” closing side A on a most foreboding note. This track order makes those first three songs a necessary precursor to the snowballing intensity of what’s to come.

“No Fair” starts off in a half-speed haze, with Sage’s spoken vocals barely making it through the woozy guitar. But once Sage yells, “It’s not fair,” a rare bass solo pushes the song into high gear and the guitar overdubs start swelling. While Sage’s vocals and lyrics are solid throughout the album, Youth of America’s primary appeal is its layered guitar tracks, featuring nimble chord changes, swells of feedback, and memorable leads. All of these styles are on display in the title track’s chaotic, nearly freeform middle section. I’ll certainly gravitate toward the ten-and-a-half-minute epic on a given record, but the sprawling range of “Youth of America” defines the record’s reactionary brilliance. Unrelenting, mesmerizing, and yet still approachable, Youth of America is a terrific slab of wax.

*With regard to the album’s running order, all of the LP pressings have the stated order, the Wipers Box Set has side B before side A, and Sage’s own site has “Taking Too Long,” “When It’s Over,” “Can This Be,” “No Fair,” “Pushing the Extreme,” and “Youth of America” listed.

12. Destroyer/Wye Oak - Record Store Day Promotional Single - Merge, 2008

Destroyer and Wye Oak split single

Why I Bought It: Free in a Record Store Day goodie bag.

Verdict: Both songs are exclusive to the single, which is more than I can say for a lot of the other giveaways I grabbed. I’ve tried and failed to get into both Destroyer and Dan Bejar’s other gig, the New Pornographers, and “Madame Butterflies” won’t change things too much. It reminds me of an unhinged Shins song, opting for a bit of guitar feedback instead of a rhythm section, but Bejar’s slightly faux-British vocal styling gets on my nerve. You can hear this song over at So Much Silence. As for Wye Oak, I’m happy to have an exclusive track, but the skeletal arrangement of “Prodigy” has b-side written all over it. Jenn Wasner’s voice is compelling, especially when it’s multi-tracked later in the song, but I miss the layers of If Children. I can’t argue with free, but I wonder if Wye Oak would have been better served by including “Warning” or “Family Glue” on the single.

13. Kaki King – “Pull Me Out Alive” b/w “Zeitgeist” - Velour, 2008

Kaki King's Pull Me Out Alive single

Why I Bought It: It was a giveaway at Record Store Day.

Verdict: I’ve heard a bit of Kaki King’s early guitar virtuoso recordings, but “Pull Me Out Alive,” taken from her 2008 album Dreaming of Revenge, shares little in common with that material. Alternating between a tense, staccato verse and an open, airy chorus, Kaki King’s voice is capable enough, but the guitars do little underneath. I can understand wanting to transition into an indie rock sound, especially if the Foo Fighters are willing to bring you on tour, but “Pull Me Out Alive” sounds like far, far too many other bands. The flip side is a lengthy instrumental (not a cover of the Smashing Pumpkins’ most recent effort) reminding of lite post-rock bands. Snooze.

14. Eels – “Climbing to the Moon (Jon Brion Mix)” b/w “I Want to Protect You” - Geffen, 2008

Eels' Climbing to the Moon single

Why I Bought It: Giveaway at Record Store Day.

Verdict: This single takes a song apiece from the Eels’ recent greatest hits compilation, Meet the Eels: Essential Eels Vol. 1 1996–2006, and their recent rarities compilation, Useless Trinkets: B-Sides, Soundtracks, Rarities, and Unreleased 1996–2006. Aside from radio singles and soundtrack entries, I’ve only heard Beautiful Freak, which had their hit single “Novocaine for the Soul” on it. Both of these songs fall in line with my estimation of post-Beautiful Freak Eels; “Climbing to the Moon,” taken from 1998’s downer supreme Electro-Shock Blues, is a low-key, yet not entirely somber song about someone being ready to die (and not in the glorious Andrew W.K. way), while “I Want to Protect You” is a comparatively upbeat love song. Both songs could certainly hit home given the proper circumstances, but merely seemed “nice” on this listen. Considering that those two compilations span three CDs and two DVDs, I’m not exactly chomping at the bit to hear that much Eels, no matter how “nice” they may be.

15. Various Artists - Choice Cuts: 2008 Record Store Day Sampler - Universal, 2008

Why I Bought It: Free in a Record Store Day goodie bag.

Verdict: I initially wrote a detailed track-by-track recap of this compilation, which features a side of modern rock and a side of (alt-)country, but in lieu of retyping all of my hard work (unfortunately eaten by some nasty spyware), I’ll give the highlights.

Choice Cuts compilation

While the country side of the LP featured some nearly unlistenable entries into pop country, namely One Flew South, Hayes Carll, and The SteelDrivers, it also featured the compilation’s only salvageable tracks. Tift Merritt and Shelby Lynne are both passably low-key female alt-country vocalists whose songs’ comparative subtlety was a blessing. I knew of Whiskeytown, but I hadn’t heard any of their music and didn’t remember than it was Ryan Adams’ formative project. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the best song from a promotional compilation is from a decade-old album newly reissued, but “10 Seconds” pulled off a rocking bit of alt-country. I had to wonder if the inclusion of pop country songs was a ruse—“Well, I don’t think they’ll listen to an album entirely of pop country, but if we throw some songs in along with some alt-country, they’ll have to listen to it!”—but I’m hardly itching to hear any of those songs again.

The flip side showed just how dire rejects from modern rock radio can be. Black Tide and Switches have both opened for the Bravery, hardly an arbiter of critical success, but they’re each somehow worse than that factoid might suggest. PlayRadioPlay! has a simple horrible band name and owes some serious royalties to the Postal Service, but what else should I expect from a kid who got a major label deal as a senior in high school based on MySpace popularity. Ludo is a St. Louis-based pop-punk band whose song reminds vaguely of the Get-Up Kids, but their rock opera tendencies do not wear well. They have a five album deal from Island. Five albums!

The compilation’s low-point is undoubtedly Yoav’s “Club Thing.” If the mix of acoustic guitar, low-key club beats, and falsetto come-ons had the slightest bit of humor, it might be mistaken for a Flight of the Conchords b-side, but don’t let that be mistaken for a compliment. “Club Thing” tries to be both a cautionary tale and a direct route to his audience’s panties, but lines like “He knows he can’t afford / What it pays to enslave her / He’s got a hunger / For the sweetest of favors” only serve to give me the creeps.