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Reviews: Survival Knife's "Traces of Me" and "Divine Mob" Singles
2013 (and 2012!) Year-End List Extravaganza
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Reviews: Bottomless Pit's Shade Perennial
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2013 (and 2012!) Year-End List Extravaganza

Top 25 Albums of 2013

First things first: You can view (and sample!) my top 25 albums of 2013 and my top 12 albums of 2012.

Yes, it took me a full year to finish a list for 2012. Yes, it only has twelve albums. No, that doesn’t necessarily imply that 2012 was “a terrible year for music,” nor does my doubled selection total mean that 2013 was “a great year for music.” (Any time I see those grand declarations, my eyes roll into the back of my head.) I listened to fewer albums in 2012, many bands I’d usually slot in by default had an off year, and I had less time and enthusiasm in December to complete a list, let alone replicate my exhausting review of the previous year’s contending titles. Comparatively, tons of bands—familiar and unfamiliar—issued worthy albums in 2013, I regained some energy for listening to and occasionally writing about music, and my wheelhouse genres of angular indie rock and ambient had strong years. I’m unwilling and unprepared to objectively declare 2013 a fantastic year in music for all tastes, but for mine, it certainly was. Subjectivity strikes again!

In case two year-end album lists isn’t enough, here are some supplemental selections.

Ten Honorable Mentions from 2013:

Eight Excellent Seven-Inch Singles from 2013:

  • Alpha Cop / Carton, Split Single
  • Julianna Barwick, “Pacing” b/w “Call”
  • Daria / Office of Future Plans, Split Single
  • Fat History Month / My Dad, Split Single
  • Future of the Left, Love Songs for Our Husbands
  • Loscil, Sine Studies I
  • Lower Dens / Horse Lords, Split Single
  • Speedy Ortiz, “Hexxy” b/w “Ka-Prow!”

Two Sources of Ongoing Ethical Conflict

  1. “Free” concerts offered by shoe companies: I enjoy not paying for things as much as the next guy, but tripping over future landfills worth of Vans promotional garbage at The Walkmen’s potentially final show in Boston and seeing “Converse” emblazoned on the chest of The Men’s bassist has forced me to recognize that corporate back-slapping always has a price.
  2. Band-circumventing vinyl reissues: I enjoy re-buying beloved 1990s albums that I already own on CD way, way more than the next guy, but 1972 Records’ Stereolab reissues are almost certainly sourced from those very CDs instead of the original masters and have no involvement from Tim Gane or Duophonic, while Shop Radio Cast’s wish-fulfilling pressing of Hum’s You’d Prefer an Astronaut cut Matt Talbott’s attempts to reissue the album on his own terms down at the knees. (Fortunately, he has a stockpile of original copies you can occasionally buy.) Labels, be more like Numero Group and add value to your reissues by actually involving the artists who created them. Bands, be proactive in reissuing your catalogs so that shady operations don’t do it first. Record collectors, investigate the origins of the reissue you’re holding before you plunk down $27.99 on it.

Two New Year’s Resolutions for 2014

  • Actually finish reviews and features: If I merged my partially and mostly completed posts from the last two years, I’d have a damn book.
  • Keep reminding myself about that first resolution: I'll have a headstart on months of posts, at least.

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.

Wife-Core

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!

Covering the Smiths: Eighteen versions of "Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want"

Simon Goddard's The Smiths: Songs That Saved Your Life

I just finished Simon Goddard’s The Smiths: Songs That Saved Your Life, an excellent, highly detailed run-through of every song in the beloved band’s catalog. For someone who’s always enjoyed the Smiths but has never been truly obsessed with them, the book opened my eyes to just how much there is to obsess over about in their music: literary references in Morrissey’s lyrics; Motown melodies in Johnny Marr’s guitar lines; the production differences between alternate takes; label conflicts; UK tabloid controversies; internal band strife; and comprehensive concert, radio, and television appearances. I can only imagine the pride I would have had from discovering a single lifted line from one of Morrissey’s favorite plays; being presented with scores of them is both impressive and overwhelming.

This deluge of information encouraged me to touch base with my friend Jon, who does qualify as a Smiths obsessive. After he asked me what my top five Smiths songs are and I opted to hold off answering until I completed the book (at which point I begrudgingly limited myself to “Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before,” “Hand in Glove,” “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” and “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”), I posed the same question to him. Naturally, he threw his hands up in the air at the impossibility of answering. But I’ve been friends with Jon long enough to know that “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want,” a b-side for “William, It Was Really Nothing” that later appeared on the compilations Hatful of Hollow and Louder Than Bombs, would make his short list. He’s mentioned his fondness for the yearning, mandolin-accompanied ballad more than any other Smiths song.

Jon’s not alone in his love for “Please…,” one of the most oft-covered songs in the Smiths’ repertoire. When I saw the number of artists cited on Wikipedia who’ve offered their own renditions of the song, a brilliant/terrible idea popped into my head: track down these covers and convince Jon to listen to them with me. Understandably, he approached this project with trepidation—“I’m sorry I ever brought it up, I’m sorry I ever found out about this band, they may have shaped my life and all….”—knowing that it would test his fondness for the song (and perhaps our friendship as well), but fortunately he caved.

A note on the selections: this list is not comprehensive. My foremost apologies to the scores of acoustic guitar renditions floating around YouTube, but two conditions needed to be met for inclusion: either the song has garnered a proper release or the band is familiar enough for us to endure a muffled live recording. An obvious third condition—I must be able to find the cover in short order—excluded big names like the Decemberists, Franz Ferdinand, and OK Go.

Let’s see if enduring the following eighteen covers can make good men go bad. The band name links to the YouTube or MP3 of the song, when available.

Dream Academy's Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want

The Dream Academy [YouTube]

Who: A decidedly ’80s English folk band (i.e. they had fruity keyboards to go with their acoustic guitars).

Where: An instrumental version was featured in the art gallery scene of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but the Dream Academy released a vocal version of the song as a single back in 1984.

What?

Jon: Morrissey seems more butch now.

They just hit the flanger pedal, which they just bought. If it’s new, it must be good, right?

The song should be ending now.

S: When you were in England, did you step into a lift and hear this version?

J: It’s pretty lame to cover the song the year it came out, right? Did Morrissey ever chime in on this?

S: Yes, Goddard’s book mentions that it was included in the interval tape on the Smiths’ 1985 tour of Scotland. Also, in a 1988 interview, Morrissey said, “I liked the Dream Academy version… Everyone despised it and it got to number 81, which is nearly a hit."

What amazes me about this cover is that no matter how dated Smiths records sound in terms of production values, it could have been much worse in terms of keyboard usage/sounds.

The Halo Benders' Don't Touch My Bikini single

The Halo Benders [YouTube]

Who: A collaboration between the baritone Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening and the noticeably higher register of Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch.

Where: Included as a b-side on their 1995 single for “Don’t Touch My Bikini.”

What?

J: (Audible sound of disgust when Calvin Johnson’s voice comes in.)

Terrible? Terrible. Why should Calvin Johnson be too cool for school on a Smiths cover? Didn’t he try to live out a Smiths video in Portland, Oregon? Don’t you remember that bit from Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life?

S: If you could have a mute Calvin Johnson plug-in, would you like this version?

J: No, this was still before Doug Martsch learned to sing on key. It’s still a terrible version.

Everything that Doug Martsch does, I try to figure out what J. Mascis did ten years earlier. In this case, Dinosaur Jr.’s cover of “Just Like Heaven” wins.

I need to have a cleansing cigarette after that.

S: You’re going to go through a pack and a half.

Deftones' Seven Words

Deftones [YouTube]

Who: The nu-metal band who openly enjoy The Smiths, Drive Like Jehu, Hum, and Jawbox, thereby making it acceptable for indie rockers to listen to a nu-metal band.

Where: Originally appeared as the b-side to their first single, 1995’s “7 Words,” subsequently reappeared in a remixed version on 2005’s B-Sides and Rarities and 2011’s Covers LP.

What?

S: I’m waiting for this to get a lot worse, considering it’s from 1995.

J: The shredder pedal on the solo is bad.

S: This is not a crowning achievement of guitar tone.

J: This is what it has going for it: It seems like a true love letter to the song. But the guitars are a problem. The Deftones are a litmus test for people who liked Hum for all of the wrong reasons. I can’t really knock them too hard. The guy’s got an interesting voice.

S: I feel like at the end of this we’ll look at this fondly.

J: (Audible groan)

Various Artists' There Is a Light That Never Goes Out: A Tribute to the Smiths

Luxure [YouTube]

Who: A long-running Italian pop/rock band that started as contemporaries to The Smiths in 1984, reformed to record this cover in 1997, and then finally called it quits in 2009.

Where: There Is a Light That Never Goes Out – A Tribute to The Smiths, a compilation of primarily Italian bands.

What?

J: Goddamn a wah-wah pedal.

S: Like the Dream Academy version, this underscores why the song should be under two minutes.

J: They make the Dream Academy version sound butch.

Third Eye Blind [.mp3]

Who: A ’90s modern rock band whose ubiquitous singles (“Semi-Charmed Life,” “Graduate,” “How’s It Going to Be,” “Jumper”) haunted alternative rock radio when I was in high school. Singer Stephen Jenkins once compared his group’s independent mindset to Fugazi.

Where: Recorded at their show at Boston’s Paradise Rock Club from October 11, 1997, the height of their infamy.

What?

S: Do you think this guy ever got what he wanted?

J: Blake Schwarzenbach you mean?

Sounds like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.

S: They are in Boston.

J: This is clearly the definitive version!

S: It was mercifully short, at least.

Hootie & the Blowfish's Scattered, Smothered, and Covered

Hootie & the Blowfish [.mp3]

Who: The little-known early band from Burger King pitchman Darius Rucker.

Where: One of fifteen cover songs on their 2000 Scattered, Smothered, and Covered album, which revisits the group’s bar-band origins.

What?

S: That’s Hootie’s voice, alright.

J: (Bursts out laughing) Jesus Christ! Even though I don’t hear any drums, I still want to punch the drummer for this. It sounds like a radio DJ singing, just horrible.

S: Are you regretting your decision to participate?

J: (multiple sighs). Jim Neighbors could do a more soulful version of that song.

Muse's Hyper Music

Muse [YouTube]

Who: You know, that British band who sounded like an alt-metal version of Radiohead for a while, then shifted into prog-glam overdrive. Either the greatest or worst band in the world, depending on which of your friends you ask.

Where: Included as a b-side on the second of two CD5s for the double a-side single “Hyper Music”/ “Feeling Good” (2001), the latter of which was elected in 2010 by readers of NME as “the greatest cover song of all time.” A likely story!

What?

J: Thinking of Muse makes me mad I couldn’t get through Guitar Hero 3.

Is this Thom Yorke’s cousin’s band? This song always needed a more muscular version. It sounds like Weezer with a fake Thom Yorke singer.

S: When we complain about the Smiths’ drum sounds, this is what they should have been going for?

J: Well, the production’s better.

SIANspheric's The Sound of the Colour of the Sun

Doves [YouTube]

Who: An excellent British rock group who also originated in Manchester, England. I’m particularly fond of their sophomore album, 2002’s The Last Broadcast.

Where: Performed the song for BBC’s Re:Covered program(me) in 2002.

What?

J: This band is the Level 42 of today.

S: Why is that drummer doing so much?

J: He’s recording the tracks for the next song. Maybe he’s playing Rock Band.

S: That was a reasonable version. If you like Doves, you’ll be happy to hear this cover.

J: Boring, but not bad.

A String Quartet Tribute to the Smiths

Vitamin String Quartet [YouTube]

Who: A string quartet that churns out classically arranged versions of songs for practically every artist/group around. Seriously, Dr. Dre, Ke$ha, Saliva, Sum 41, Jet—the list goes on.

Where: 2003’s The String Quartet Tribute to the Smiths, obviously.

What?

J: This version accompanies flowers and a white dress walking down the aisle.

S: I was thinking it would be great for a bris.

J: The EQ with the violin cutting through your eardrums is perfect. It makes me want to go back to the Third Eye Blind cover.

Romantic and Square Is Hip and Aware: A Tribute to The Smiths

Slipslide [.mp3]

Who: A London-based indie folk group on Matinee Records who released one LP back in 2003 called The World Can Wait (hardly equaling the confident outrage of the Smiths’ The World Won’t Listen).

Where: Included on Matinee Records’ 2004 Smiths tribute album, Romantic and Square is Hip and Aware.

J: This is the problem with the Smiths: they appeal to people who have no balls who also think Morrissey has no balls. “This is my ball-less band.” That’s not Morrissey at all.

S: I nodded off there for a minute. This one lacks both balls and a pulse.

Sky High soundtrack

Elefant [YouTube]

Who: A buzz band from NYC trafficking in ’80s nostalgia whose biggest musical accomplishment was placing a song on The O.C.

Where: The cover-filled soundtrack for Sky High (2005), a live action Disney film about a super-powered high school.

What?

J: I saw Elefant when that dude was dating Lindsey Lohan. Seven people were in the audience and he insisted on berating the closest member to the stage. If any ladies were in the audience and wanted Chlamydia, I bet they got it.

This is going to be good. It’s going to have Jeff Garber production. Tremolo pedal.

S: This guy’s British affectation is beyond irritating.

J: He’s from Enga-land!

S: Every time I hear the mandolin section, I think about how perfect it was the first time around.

J: Oh great, comes around for another chorus. Sounds like the auto-tune was set to “I have a heart and it’s on my sleeve.”

What a bad version for such a good movie!

This Is England soundtrack

Clayhill [YouTube]

Who: A contemporary British folk group.

Where: The soundtrack for the widely acclaimed 2006 film This Is England, which explored the skinhead youth culture in England in 1983.

What?

J: This guy won American Idol, right?

S: I have a feeling this is going to be excruciatingly long at 3:43.

J: It’s off-key Sting with asthma.

This is a leftover Gerard Butler cover from P.S. I Love You.

S: Now that dude has some balls.

J: Wait, he’s feeling it now.

S: This is passable and probably fits well in the movie.

Josh Rouse [YouTube]

Who: An alt-country/folk singer.

Where: Apparently on a promo-only disc called Reel to Reel V3.4: Nettwerk Covers (2007).

What?

J: I think PBS gives away his CDs when they have a fundraiser.

S: Wow, his voice is annoying. Too high/reedy.

J: Nobody likes Steve Earle.

S: You know what would make this version better? If Calvin Johnson added baritone vocals in the right channel.

J: I bought this four-track and I’m going to use it!

Amanda Palmer [YouTube]

Who: The lead singer of the Boston-based Dresden Dolls, who play a dark brand of cabaret punk.

Where: Performed at Club Academy in Manchester on October 6, 2008.

What?

J: From the YouTube still, it looks like Amanda Palmer is riding on a hobby horse.

I’d rather watch a Sarah McLachlan commercial for abused animals.

S: This song desperately needed overbearing piano embellishment.

J: At least Meatloaf’s vocal was good when he was dramatic. I want to do a monologue over this about throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

(500) Days of Summer soundtrack

She & Him [YouTube]

Who:The pairing of actress/singer Zooey Deschanel and indie folk singer/songwriter M. Ward, otherwise known as the most adorable thing ever.

Where: Part of the soundtrack of Marc Webb’s Smiths-loving 2009 film (500) Days of Summer, which starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel.

What?

S: Jon, tell me your thoughts on (500) DOS.

J: I don’t know if I can give my quick thoughts on that film. [Editor’s note: Jon loathes (500) Days of Summer more than anything since Nothing but Trouble.]

I thought I liked M. Ward a lot but not enough to enjoy this.

S: I’ll give him credit for the instrumental composition of this version, which is one of the best we’ve heard, but her vocal affectation is still too irritating.

J: It’s so precious.

Kaki King [YouTube]

Who: A talented guitarist who’s slowly transitioning from instrumental compositions to more pop-oriented songwriting.

Where: Along with a number of other Smiths covers, it’s part of her live repertoire, and this particular version was recorded at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn on February 9, 2010.

What?

S: At the beginning of this song it looked like she was doing the guitar version of the Doves’ drummer’s over-activity.

J: This is the best version to watch if you want to know how to play this song.

S: She needs to sing louder. This is all guitar.

J: She can belt it, right? Her vocals were barely there on this song. She’s a good guitar player, though. For a girl.

Deleted Scenes' Bedbedbedbedbed EP

Deleted Scenes

Who: A DC-based band that draws from both layered indie pop and the guitar rock more typical to their home city.

Where: Included on their 2011 Bedbedbedbedbed 12” (which just came out, so no .mp3), a precursor to their upcoming (and downright excellent) Young People’s Church of the Air LP.

What?

S: I like Deleted Scenes, but they have a tendency towards too many production tricks, and this is a good example of that. Nice vocal obscured by stuttering loops.

J: My copy’s all screwed up. Too many pops and clicks. Just a bad encode.

S: Is there anything to this version beyond production tricks?

J: This is pleasing no one.

S: The end is nice. The aesthetic finally went somewhere. I feel like the payoff was worth hearing an eighteenth cover of the song.

Wrapping Up

Jon: I feel like I’m a better friend now.

Sebastian: That’s entirely true. What versions stuck out for you?

J: Overall I think we’ve learned that “Please, Please, Please” is a bad song to cover. If you took the vocals off the SIANspheric version, it would good. The instrumental version of Dream Academy from Ferris Bueller is fine. The Deftones version is passable, same with the Doves.

S:The Doves is the best straightforward version. I agree with you on the other highlights, as well. In general, I appreciated when bands did something different with the song (SIANspheric, Deleted Scenes in particular) as opposed to a rote folk version.

If we’d done this a few weeks ago, I could have used it to wish you an “Unhappy Birthday.” How long do you think it’ll take before you can listen to the original again?

J: Six months to a year, provided you don’t send me any more covers.

2010 Year-End Wrap Up Part 1: The Album Lists

First of all, you can view my top twenty of albums of the year over here.


That’s the first and most important feature of New Artillery’s year-end wrap-up, but it’s certainly not the only one. This post also covers the honorable mentions and older breakthrough albums. Some point this week I'll polish off my two CD 2010 mix, my favorite live performance list, and (quite possibly) a rambling post of statistical analysis and meta-commentary on my year of listening. First, let's start with the honorable mentions.

Honorable mentions for 2010


The Acorn’s No Ghost
The Depreciation Guild’s Spirit Youth
Emeralds’ Does It Look Like I’m Here
Four Tet’s There Is Love in You
Hoquiam’s Hoquiam
Damien Jurado’s Saint Bartlett
Killing Joke’s In Excelsis EP and Absolute Dissent
The Radio Dept.’s Clinging to a Scheme
Superchunk’s Majesty Shredding
Team Ghost’s Celebrate What You Can’t See EP
The Twilight Sad’s The Wrong Car EP
Warpaint’s The Fool

You will hear more about a few of those albums as I continue to plug away at full-length reviews.

Older Albums That Hit Me in 2010

The A.V. Club uses the word “discovered” in their similarly themed article, but in many of these cases, I knew about or had even heard these albums prior to this year, but they simply didn’t click until now. Longer reviews linked when available.

Faust’s Faust IV: There’s a larger dialogue to be had in terms of how much 1970s German music I checked out in 2010, but Faust’s Faust IV might be the best of it. These tricksters subvert expectations at every turn, from the noisy drift of “Krautrock” to the weirdo mod strumming of “The Sad Skinhead,” from the weightless dreaming of “Jennifer” to the off-kilter sax of “Giggy Smile.” I picked up Faust So Far a few months later, but kept coming back to Faust IV trying to make sense out of it.

Klaus Schulze’s Trancefer: The stars aligned for Klaus Schulze this year: I got into a few contemporary artists who are influenced by his work (Emeralds, Oneohtrix Point Never), I kept running into his LPs up at Mystery Train, and the tense electronic epics on Trancefer soundtracked a few memorable trips into Boston. Whether Trancefer ranks highly among his stacks of solo albums is beyond me, but it made for a solid introduction.

Sonic Youth’s EVOL and Murray Street: I won’t add to the word count apocalypse that was Sonic Youth Discographied, but these two albums are the ones that I most enjoyed getting to know.

The For Carnation’s The For Carnation: This quietly absorbing dose of post-rock storytelling never strayed far from my turntable, but its best application was during late summer evenings. With the windows open and the sound of crickets filtering in, I’d sit and wonder why Brian McMahan hadn’t recorded anything in a decade when this album is so damned good.

Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction: I had grand schemes of becoming informed on jazz at the beginning of the year, but soon that took a backseat to my usual diet of guitar rock. The primary exception was Science Fiction, an album full of surprises that pushed against what I expected from Ornette Coleman and yet couldn’t have come from anyone else.

Yo La Tengo’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One: Want the reality of The Haul? I bought this album back in March, listened to it immediately, loved it, wondered why I hadn’t spent time with it earlier, tried writing about it, kept listening to it, tried writing about it again, and kept listening to it. The embryonic entry is still sitting at 156 words in my massive .doc for the project (over 41,000 words), but my desire to finish it isn’t quite up to my need to get it right. Too often I just end up listening to “We’re an American Band” over and over, hoping to lose myself in the dreamy fuzz.

Palace Music’s Viva Last Blues: Similar to Yo La Tengo, I’d heard and enjoyed Will Oldham’s music before (especially I See a Darkness), but hadn’t ventured to his Palace-era albums. I corrected that mistake to a certain degree this year, getting Viva Last Blues in the same trip to Mystery Train as I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, but every time I listen to it, I feel like I need another spin to wrap my head around it. I’ve already booked Oldham for Discographied next year.

Frightened Rabbit’s The Midnight Organ Fight: Owing mostly to my wife’s affection for the bearded Scottish indie rockers, I saw Frightened Rabbit twice this year. I’d given their material a cursory spin in years past, but after “The Modern Leper” clicked, I spent more time with The Midnight Organ Fight and learned that it’s one of the finest break-up albums of the last decade, filled with crowd-pleasing stompers, open wounds, and tons of self-deprecating wit.

Burial’s Burial: If you can believe it, I had pretty much missed the boat on dubstep. Grabbing Burial back in January helped clue me in. I’ve even kept going back to it rather than switching to its acclaimed follow-up, Untrue.

Top Twenty Albums of 2009

Top Twenty Albums of 2009

My long-overdue best of 2009 list is now up. You can sample these twenty fine records with links (YouTube and mp3) for songs from each album, or download the two-CD Recidivistic Best of 2009 mix, which, surprisingly enough, features songs from each of these albums.

The top five became clear to me by early November. Six through twelve were in consideration most of the year. Beyond that, it was a crapshoot. I considered including albums from Boston Spaceships, Constants, Do Make Say Think, J Dilla, Mission of Burma, A Place to Bury Strangers, Ring, Cicada (opted for Heroes of the Kingdom—more on that decision soon), We Were Promised Jetpacks, and Wye Oak, all of whom could have easily made it. There is a handful of great recommendations I’ve barely processed (including Floodwatchmusic’s number one, Blut Aus Nord), which may very well top a number of these albums in the near future. If I’ve learned anything about list-making, it’s that the finished product is always temporary. These are the twenty albums I’d recommend first if someone asked me today.

I’m still planning on doing a top albums of the 2000s list, but given the frequency with which my views change as I track down more great albums, it may be a while.

2008 Year-End Wrap Part One: The List

My 2008 year-end list is up, with links for at least one song per album linked to either an mp3 or a YouTube video. I promise that I’ll only utilize horizontal scrolling for special occasions.

Quite a few albums could have easily found themselves in the 20 to 15 range. Matthew Robert Cooper’s Miniatures is pleasant, but too many of the songs sound like sketches instead of finished compositions. Sharks and Sailors’ Builds Brand New has a solid front half, but loses steam near the end. GZA’s Pro Tools has some excellent cuts, but the lack of energy is disappointing. The Constants/Caspian split single might have made it if I’d counted seven-inches, but I’m sure Constants’ forthcoming 2009 release will rectify their absence this year. Fuck Buttons’ Street Horrrsing was aesthetically intriguing, especially “Colours Move” and “Sweet Love for Planet Earth,” but a few of the songs did nothing for me. Lights Out Asia’s Eyes Like Brontide is an improvement over their last album, but doesn’t quite reach the heights of Garmonia. Wire’s Object 47 needed more tracks like “One of Us” and “All Fours.” I simply didn’t spend enough time with Secret Chiefs 3’s Xaphan: The Book of Angels, Vol. 9 to give it proper consideration, but there is always a few albums that slip past me until the following year.

Next up: my two-disc year-end mix and my list of the best non-2008 records that I first heard during this calendar year.

A Record Per Year

When I saw that Floodwatchmusic had posted a list of his favorite records from each year of his existence, I thought “Wait a second, hadn’t I thought of doing that and never followed up on an initial list?” Naturally I only thought about completing such a list, since I pushed the idea back until I was comfortable enough with 1980s records to make a list that didn’t seem embarrassing. It may be a few more years before that happens, but for now I’ll make due with what I enjoy. For the record, 1987, 1991, 1994, 1995, and 1999 were tough calls, but you’ll have to guess what the competing options were. 1985 and 1986 were the stragglers that delayed this list a few days. There are a few 1985 albums that I feel I should enjoy more than the one I picked, but I’ll stick with honesty until one of those other albums takes its place.

1980 Talking Heads – Remain in Light
1981 Killing Joke – What’s THIS For…!
1982 Colin Newman – Not To
1983 R.E.M. – Murmur
1984 Minutemen – Double Nickels on the Dime
1985 The Dead Milkmen – Big Lizard in My Backyard
1986 The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead
1987 The Smiths – Strangeways Here We Come
1988 Dinosaur Jr. - Bug
1989 Pixies – Doolittle
1990 Fugazi – Repeater
1991 My Bloody Valentine – Loveless
1992 Faith No More – Angel Dust
1993 The Afghan Whigs – Gentlemen
1994 Shudder to Think – Pony Express Record
1995 Hum – You’d Prefer an Astronaut
1996 Dr. Octagon – Dr. Octagonecologyst
1997 Built to Spill – Perfect From Now On
1998 Dirty Three – Ocean Songs
1999 Juno – This Is the Way It Goes & Goes & Goes
2000 Arab Strap – Elephant Shoe
2001 Juno – A Future Lived in Past Tense
2002 Do Make Say Think – & Yet & Yet
2003 Folksongs for the Afterlife – Put Danger Back in Your Life
2004 Isis – Panopticon
2005 Eluvium – Talk Amongst the Trees
2006 Tungsten74 – Binaurally Yours
2007 The Narrator – All That to the Wall

In addition to FWM’s list, there are a few other examples of such lists, most notably Maura Johnston’s list on Idolator that inspired his post and the countless lists posted in the comments section of that entry and the list that inspired hers, which shares a few of my picks from the 1980s. Rate Your Music is another good resource in case you’re trying to remember good records released in a given year.

Preferred Musical Selections of 2007

In the "better late than never" category, here are my top twenty records for 2007. I blame the following things for the delay: ruminating endlessly on fifty-word blurbs, spending too much time trying to one-up last year's design, and attempting to cram a few more 2007 albums into my listening pile after perusing other sites' lists.

More posts to follow now that I have cracked the seal.