Top 10 Albums of 2010

Because I Write About Music, And Am Therefore Entitled To An Opinion

Or, 2010 in Review: My Favorite Albums

It’s that time of year again, and after a couple of sabbaticals, I am pleased to present to you my list of the year’s best albums, as selected by Me. I’ll probably miss a lot of things, because I don’t listen to quite everything, but oh well. This is more about the albums I liked the most, and not necessarily the “best” albums of the year.

Looking back, 2010 was a pretty good year for the ‘Big Names’ of Indie. Broken Social Scene, The National, Vampire Weekend, MGMT, LCD Soundsystem, Arcade Fire – the list goes on and on, really – all released albums that achieved some sort of critical or commercial success, while, not to be outdone, several buzzbands crafted albums good enough to  significantly deepen their fanbases. Best Coast, Wavves and Beach House all took steps towards mainstream recognition, and newcomers like Sleigh Bells and Avi Buffalo made a good first impression. As the year was progressing, it didn’t feel like a “big” year for music, but in hindsight, a great deal of quality music got released. That’s always a good thing.

Before we get down to my favorite albums, I thought I’d throw in some treats. First off, my:

Top 3 Most Disappointing Albums of 2010!

[Format is Album – Artist]

3. The Orchard – Ra Ra Riot

I suppose I half-suspected, or at least feared, that the follow-up to Ra Ra Riot’s superb debut The Rhumb Line would fall a little short. After the tragic death of drummer John Ryan Pike, who helped write half of The Rhumb Line, the band soldiered on, but I feared that without his influence, the band might lose some of its magic.

Whether or not Pike’s absence is a factor, The Orchard is quite simply not as good as the album that preceded it. Songs drag on for too long, the hooks are not are immediately apparent, and – not that Ra Ra Riot have ever really had an edge – everything feels a little limp. There are a couple good tracks – “Too Dramatic” successfully recaptures some of The Rhumb Line’s flair – but overall, The Orchard is fairly bland and forgettable. Too bad.

2. Business Casual – Chromeo

Fancy Footwork was so good [The sophomore slump appears to be a common theme shared by all three of my disappointments]. The duo’s appearance on Yo Gabba Gabba was so good. Business Casual is not so good. Maybe the slick 80’s pop shtick is getting tired, but my continued enjoyment of Fancy Footwork, not to mention other 2010 releases like Toro Y Moi’s Causers of This argues otherwise. Mostly, Business Casual feels lazy, uninspired, and, all too often, stupid.

Where Fancy Footwork had solid, impossible-not-to-dance-to beats backing up all the goofy lyrics and brought to mind only the best parts of the 80s, Business Casual is pretty much the exact opposite. The titles work really well in this 80s metaphor/analogy.

The 1980s. Pros: Fancy Footwork. Cons: Business Casual.

1. The Winter of Mixed Drinks – Frightened Rabbit

Oh, Frightened Rabbit. Oh, Scott Hutchinson. How perfectly you documented heartbreak on 2008’s The Midnight Organ Fight. How exactly you captured the atmosphere and emotion of a breakup. How much more interesting is sorrow than contentedness.

Unfortunately – from a musical perspective, as I’m sure Hutchinson is quite pleased to not be heartbroken – The Winter of Mixed Drinks was written from a fairly happy, well-adjusted perspective, unlike its predecessor. As a result, the lyrics aren’t quite as interesting or relatable – life is sorrow, after all – and the general uplifting mood just doesn’t quite suit the band.

There are, of course, some other issues too. I’m not a fan of some production choices – studio chatter, weird reverb – and there are more filler songs, and more bits of songs that feel like filler. The album, as a whole, lacks focus. Whereas The Midnight Organ Fight was reportedly written and recorded in a two week period, Frightened Rabbit took their time writing and recording The Winter of Mixed Drinks. It feels like this led to some overthinking,    resulting in some overwrought, overproduced songs.

OH, also Heaven is Whenever by The Hold Steady. Ugh.

None – well, maybe Business Casual – of the above albums are bad, per se, they simply fall short in comparison to their predecessors. Since all three bands are relatively young, I had hoped that they would continue on the upswing. I still hope for a rebound on their next albums, but perhaps a touch more guardedly.

So that’s that. But, because not every great song released this year was on a great album, here are my:

Top 10 Songs That Weren’t On My Top 10 Albums Of The Year!

[Format is “Song” – Album – Artist]

10. “Mickey Mouse” – King of the Beach – Wavves

Mickey Mouse – Wavves

Apparently Nathan Williams listens to Animal Collective. He apes them pretty well on this one.

9. “Heaven’s On Fire” – Clinging to a Scheme – The Radio Dept.

Heaven\’s On Fire – The Radio Dept.

Mmmmmm. Swedish Indie dance-pop. This song consistently made it on to any dancey playlists I made, all year.

8. “Lucky 1” – Down There – Avey Tare

Lucky 1 – Avey Tare

This is the only song on Down There that catches my attention on a regular basis, but I keep listening to the album just to hear it (even though it’s the last track). I love the repeated synth/sax hook.

7. “Belongings” – Burning Bush Supper Club – Bear Hands

(Sorry, no link!)

I’ve had my eye on Bear Hands since seeing them open for We Were Promised Jetpacks this spring, and late 2010 release Burning Bush Supper Club is pretty great. The first half is full of gems like “Belongings” – hooky, midtempo indie rock numbers supplemented with electronics and synths.

6. “Heartbreaker” – Broken Dreams ClubGirls

Heartbreaker – Girls

I’m a sucker for sunny, breezy guitar pop. “Heartbreaker” is unbearably catchy, and Chris Owens’ voice has just enough sneer to keep it interesting throughout.

5. “In The Sun” – Volume Two – She & Him

link

(A video, because why not?)

Remember when I said I was a sucker for sunny, breezy pop? I hope so. Deschanel’s voice suits this style of music perfectly, and M. Ward’s bass-heavy guitar work acts as an impeccable counterpoint.

4. “I Don’t Believe You” – Personal Life – The Thermals

I Don\’t Believe You – The Thermals

Wait. Pop-Punk that is respectable in indie-rock circles? Where do I sign up?

Seriously though, this song does Pop-Punk to a tee – it’s catchy, with just enough of an edge to give the illusion of rebellion against pop music tropes.

3. “Bombay” – Pop NegroEl Guincho

Bombay – El Guincho

Who cares if it’s in Spanish?  It’s catchy and well-constructed! Also, the video is pretty phenomenal.

2. “Leave House” – Swim – Caribou

(You can listen, but not download, the song here)

Dan Snaith must love Mark Mothersbaugh, and/or Wes Andersen. When I listen to “Leave House,” I immediately think of Mothersbaugh’s soundtrack to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. This is a good thing. I haven’t heard a flute loop this funky since the Beastie Boys’ “Flute Loop”! Plus, that sandpapery noise that sounds like someone rubbing their hands together – guess what! – is made by Dan Snaith rubbing his hands together! Cool!

1. “Younger Us” – Younger Us Single – Japandroids

Younger Us – Japandroids

Oh, Japandroids. Just when I thought I couldn’t love you any more, you let loose this bit of magic. How did you know? Who tipped you off? You must have known of my separate loves of your both band and Pop-Punk, and decided to merge the two, for my benefit! There is no other explanation!

What? You also threw in immensely relatable lyrics (for both myself and any other twenty-something who has recently graduated and is trying to sort out his life)? You shouldn’t have!

[Thank you for doing so]

That was fun, wasn’t it? I could go on longer, toss in my favorite videos of the year [Pitchfork’s got that covered pretty well], or my favorite albums titles [A sample: Hang Cool Teddy Bear – Meat Loaf; the incredibly bad-ass Destroyer of the Void by Blitzen Trapper], or the album I thought I would love but actually got sick of really quick [Odd Blood – Yeasayer], or the albums that were exactly as bad as I’d hoped or expected [White Crosses – Against Me!; Congratulations – MGMT], but instead, without further ado I present my Top 10 albums of 2010, with 5 honorable mentions. (The honorable mentions are in no particular order, whereas the Top 10, obviously, are)

[There will be few surprises here, whether you know me or not]

[Album – Artist]

Honorable Mentions:

Black Noise – Pantha Du Prince

I didn’t really get to listen to this as much as I’d have hoped, but it helped me get into a lot of downtempo electronica, a genre I had been neglecting. This album is great because while it’s well-suited as background music for studying or reading or whatever, you can also devote a lot of time listening to it intensely, through headphones, since there’s so much going on.

 

Latin – Holy Fuck

I saw Holy Fuck live again this year, and they deserve this spot based solely on that performance. That’s not to say Latin isn’t a great album – it is – but their live performances are just unreal. This is a really good album to run to. Especially at night, headlong, down a steep hill, breathless.

 

 

Swim – Caribou

There are some really great songs on this album (like “Leave House”), but also a couple of duds. These less-interesting moments held Odessa back, breaking up the flow of what could’ve been a truly great dance record.

 

 

 

 

Innerspeaker – Tame Impala

The first time I really listened to this band, I was lying on my back, in the grass, at Sasquatch. As a result, I’ve got some pretty good memories attached to their music. The great blend of fuzzed-out space rock and Beatles-esque vocal harmonies doesn’t hurt either.

 

 

 

Everything in Between – No Age

If I had listened to this more, there’s a good chance it would have found itself in my top 10. I liked what I saw at Sasquatch, enjoyed the album the five or six times I listened to it, but it never really found its way into my regular rotation, for whatever reason. Usually, I love lo-fi garage rock/shoegaze/noise rock.

 

 

 

And now…

 

My Top 10 Albums of 2010!

10. Causers of This – Toro Y Moi

This is the only album on this list that I would consider a late addition. While it’s been in my collection since early in the year, I didn’t really listen to it all that throughly until the fall. That’s really too bad as it is pretty much perfect summer music.

I was late to the Chillwave party, but by now I’m a big fan of the 80s synthpop aesthetic, washed out vocals and sample-heavy construction. There are plenty of memorable hooks, and the beats get heavy enough often enough to warrant a full-on dance party.

What sets Causers of This apart form most other chillwave is its inherent listenability. While there’s plenty of sonic experimentation and glitchiness going on, it’s all presented with a certain amount of polish and perfection, so that few failed experiments make it through to the final cut. This attention to detail gives Toro Y Moi a leg up on the competition, so that each hook is as memorable as the last, and every song will have you doing the hipster shuffle, like it or not.

9. Teen Dream – Beach House

Like a lot of records I listened to this year, I first heard Teen Dream while prepping a show for CJSF with Jason. The album was a favorite for a couple of reasons: It was on the station’s playlist, from which we were supposed to draw at least 50% of our music for any given show; and it was by a band we had heard of and/or liked. Very rare were bands that fulfilled both of these requirements, (The holy trifecta of Playlist/Liked/CanCon was infuriatingly elusive) So Beach House, naturally, got a lot of airplay.

It didn’t hurt that Teen Dream is a pretty damn fine record, to boot. As Victoria Legrand’s husky voice meshes so perfectly with the countless layers of synths, sparse drumming and simple guitar work, it’s easy to forget what you’re doing and sort of float along with the music. Big single “Norway” got a lot of play in the indie world, and for good reason – Legrand’s dark, twisted lyrics play off the light, fluffy backup vocals and circuitous guitar riffs to create a mysterious, surprisingly suspenseful song. It’s a formula the duo uses for most of the album, and it works incredibly well throughout. While on the surface, at least, Teen Dream accurately describes the album’s sound, there always seems to be an undercurrent of malaise, as though at any second the dream could dissolve into something more sinister.

8. Forgiveness Rock Record – Broken Social Scene

Somehow, I’ve been forgetting about this album all year. It probably has something to do with the fact that the outfit’s previous two efforts (released as “Broken Social Scene Presents…” but whatever, same thing) were entirely forgettable, and that as a result I approached Forgiveness Rock Record with a certain trepidation, afraid that I would force myself to like a subpar effort simply because it was Broken Social Scene’s comeback album.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to force myself to like anything. Forgiveness Rock Record is no You Forgot It In People, but it does do a great job of reminding us why we liked Broken Social Scene so much in the first place. Sticking to the 00s Indie Rock framework they helped to invent, Broken Social Scene pump out dense, incredibly-listenable and oft-times anthemic music that, over the course of 14 tracks, never feels stale or played out. In and of itself, this is impressive: without really changing anything, Broken Social Scene are able to stay relevant and produce music that is just as listenable and enjoyable as their previous records were at the times of their releases.

It might not sound like glowing praise, and really, it isn’t. I feel like the album is still missing something, that some potential was left untapped, but that stands more as a testament to the talent and ability of Broken Social Scene as a band than anything else. Broken Social Scene are a phenomenal group of musicians who have a very special knack for writing near-perfect indie rock gems, and Forgiveness Rock Record finds them operating at about 85%, which is still head and shoulders above most of the rest of the music world.

7. Contra – Vampire Weekend

I so badly wanted to hate this record. I was so over Vampire Weekend, with their catchy, precocious Indie-Prep Rock. How dare they celebrate their education and privileged upbringing, and through the lens of African pop, no less. Yawn. This band is sure to strike out, next at-bat.

The first time I heard lead single “Cousins,” I smugly thought that I had been right all along. Careening at breakneck speed through complex percussive rhythms, single-string guitar solos and  frantic vocals, “Cousins” felt as though it were barely holding together at the seams, as if the band were ready to fall apart at any moment. Sprinting along the edge of a cliff overlooking the chasm of chaos, teetering and coming ever so close to toppling, “Cousins” felt like Vampire Weekend were out of control.

And, in hindsight, after hearing the song in context with the album, I realize that that was kind of the point. Coming off their buttoned up, straight laced self-titled debut (even the title was bland, simple, passé!), Vampire Weekend were out to prove that they were capable of more than pretty much everyone (present company included) had come to expect. There’s the seamless integration of electronics, synthesizers and sampling into their sound. The aforementioned recklessness. Some bold, brash strides towards mainstream appreciation, like the big beat of “Giving Up The Gun,” vastly improved production values, or the use of auto-tune.

What’s most impressive, though, is how Vampire Weekend pull off all of these experiments and changes while still maintaining the same basic sonic identity established on their debut. Yes, they sound different, but this change is evidence of organic growth, a smooth evolution of their sound instead of jerky, sporadic changes. Very rarely are bands, especially young bands, able to move forward so seamlessly, and for that Contra deserves recognition.

It’s a pretty great piece of music, too, in case you were wondering.

6. The Age of Adz – Sufjan Stevens

I knew going in that The Age of Adz was not going to be Illinois: Part Deux. A few listenings of this year’s All Delighted People EP (which was longer than half of the full length albums on this list) were more than enough to suggest that Sufjan Stevens was moving in a different direction. I had come to accept this, suggesting to myself that it was probably a good thing, as every good artist evolves (see: Vampire Weekend, above).

I was still unprepared for both how different The Age of Adz is, and how good it is. The songwriting is still unmistakably Sufjan Stevens-esque, but was incorporating elements of electronic music much in the same way that Illinois and Michigan had done with classical and orchestral music. Instead of glissandos and flute trills – well, not instead of, because those things are still there – in addition to glissandos and flute trills, there are auto-tuned vocals, sequenced, synthesized strings, complex preprogrammed drums and burbling or blaring or shimmering or arpeggiating synths. Where another giant of 00s Indie pop/rock (Broken Social Scene) returned this year and stuck to their tried-and-true formula, Stevens decided to emerge from his half-decade absence by re-forging his template to suit today’s musical environment.

A perfect example: the opening to the album’s title track. It is as grandiose and bad-ass an intro as I can think of in popular music, and is vintage Sufjan – blaring horns and upward-trilling flutes announcing the arrival of the majestic eight minute song. But even here, it’s clear that this is not the Sufjan of Christmas Past. Underlying the horns and woodwinds is a glitchy, off kilter drum machine track, to go with a whoosh of granulated, sweeping synth. You’d be hard pressed to identify it as coming from anyone but Sufjan Stevens, but it’s as different from Illinois as is his instrumental tribute to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, The BQE.

The great thing about the shift is that it still sounds phenomenal. Stevens’ songwriting and ability to understand and incorporate elements of many seemingly disparate musical styles is truly impressive. The albums opens with a quiet, mostly-acoustic meditation on the uselessness of words, and ends with a monumental, constantly evolving 25 minute-long odyssey that culminates in an auto-tuned dance party celebrating the many possibilities that life presents. If it sounds like it’s all over the map, it is. It works though, because Stevens is somehow able to tie it all together, for our benefit.

5. Crazy for You – Best Coast

Remember, several thousand words ago, when I said I was a sucker for sunny, breezy indie guitar pop? Remember when I praised Zooey Deschanel’s unbearably cute voice for fitting so perfectly in said genre? Well Best Coast is essentially She & Him with balls. If you’d rather avoid that mental image, you’re welcome to substitute “balls” with “chutzpah” or “edge” orteeth” or even “backbone”.

While Bethany Cosentino shares with Deschanel both cute looks and a strong (but still cute) voice, they do markedly different things with their latter gift. with Best Coast, Cosentino projects a strong, independent character that is almost the polar opposite of Deschanel’s dainty persona. It makes for better lyrical content – Cosentino’s songs are full of a longing and determination that members of both sexes can identify with – and the songs that support these lyrics are correspondingly strong. Guitarist Bobb Bruno writes simple, catchy guitar riffs drenched in fuzz, knowing exactly when to stand out and when to let Bethany’s voice do the work.

With all this talk of strength and backbones, you might assume Crazy for You is a serious, contemplative record – but you’d be wrong. By and large, the album is light and wistful, with songs about the summer, Cosentino’s cat, weed, love, longing – but these songs are supported by a sort of punk snarl that occasionally pops up above the surface. “Happy,” “Bratty B,” “The coda of “I Want To” all show that Best Coast are more than able to rock out when needed, but even then, it’s Cosentino’s voice that shines through, reminding you why you showed up in the first place.

[Note: that reason is probably album opener and lead single “Boyfriend” which is just so good. So Good.]

4. Romance Is Boring – Los Campesinos!

The band that I thought would never grow up grew up. At first I was disappointed – who would provide me with my overbearingly twee, endearingly sarcastic, eminently danceable indie pop-rock jams now that Los Campesinos! had decided to go the “mature” route? I’m From Barcelona certainly weren’t up to the task. I mourned the death of my precocious heroes.

After a few days of futile scrambling for a replacement, I resigned myself to the fact that Los Campesinos! were as good as I was going to get, and I might as well give Romance is Boring another shot. Come on though, the album had Boring in the title! Surely they must know the errors of their ways.

It only took me a couple of listens to realize that the clever songwriting was still there, that the frantic, scattershot instrumentation hadn’t changed all that much (perhaps a greater emphasis on the guitar), and that the band had quite simply grown out of the bratty attitude, and not out of their musical talents. Like all reasonable human beings, Los Campesinos! had tired of being peppy, keen and gleeful, and had decided to vent their frustrations through their music.

Thank goodness for that. Lyrically, Romance is Boring is at least as dense as its predecessors, chock-full of witty couplets, fantastic puns, and vivid figurative language. Gareth Campesinos! maintains his knack for poignant observations and tongue-in-cheek social commentary, and this time around, the melodies he crafts around the lyrics fit more precisely into the rest of the songs. The varied instrumentation seems to cooperate here, guitars and violins and basses and xylophones and synthesizers and saxophones combining instead of clashing, as they might have previously. New Campesino! Kim allows the band to better integrate male and female vocals, as Gareth and Kim’s brother-sister chemistry is evident throughout.

So while it’s darker, maybe a little less fun – no, not less fun, but perhaps a touch less danceable – Romance is Boring is a more rewarding listen than anything else the band has created, and offers plenty of incentive to come back and discover a new favorite part.

Plus, Gareth compares post-rock to foreplay! Come on!

3. The Suburbs – Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire (The Arcade Fire? It’s all so complicated and confusing) occupy an interesting place in my musical collection. For years, I accepted that they were great, that Funeral was a phenomenal album, etc. without really seriously listening to them. Oh, sure, I had given Funeral and Neon Bible a couple spins, had heard all the requisite singles on the radio and via friends’ iTunes, but until relatively recently, I had never really given the band their due.

So of course, I went for a walk and gave Funeral a really thorough listen, and was (predictably) blown away. I then sent an embarrassing text message to Jamie C. that went along the lines of “OMG Arcade Fire r so g00d Funeral iz a mstrpiece!!1”

Ahem.

So this time around, I was determined to be ahead of the curve, to make up for past mistakes by listening to The Suburbs right from day one, to form an opinion and decide for myself whether or not we had another masterpiece on our hands. And right from day one, I was pretty sure that, masterpiece or not, The Suburbs was phenomenal.

There is not a single bad song on this album. From the rollicking bounce of the album’s opener and title track all the way to its reprise at the end of the album, each song is chock full of memorable riffs, motifs and lyrics that will ensure repeated listens. The first five songs, as a group, rival Funeral’s vaunted “Wake Up” – “Haiti” – “Rebellion (Lies)” trio as the band’s finest moment, as the Montrealers make known their unease in the catchiest, most eloquent manner possible.

There are a lot of little things that I just love about The Suburbs. There’s this sort of moaning, aching guitar tone that shows up sporadically throughout the album, beginning near the end of “City with no Children,” reappearing for the coda of “Suburban War,” and again in “We Used to Wait.” The tone matches the album’s underlying lyrical theme of unease with the way things are, a nervous tension, a fear that not everything is right with the world. It’s a powerful sentiment, and one that resounded strongly this year.

2. This Is Happening – LCD Soundsystem

LCD Soundsystem shaped my summer in a lot of ways, beginning with the buildup to Sasquatch, in May. I had moved back to Canmore, and was doing my usual pre-festival prep by listening to everything every band playing had ever released ever, and found myself drawn to the output of LCD Soundsystem above most other bands. Until this year, I had largely ignored the band, except occasionally to throw them on at a party, and by mid-May I was regretting my past self’s foolishness. I made up for it by listening to Sound of Silver and the band’s self-titled effort at least once a day each, and as soon as This is Happening leaked, I was all over it.

Don’t lie to yourselves. Every one of you was all over this albums as soon as you could get your hands on it. And when “Dance Yrself Clean” really kicks in after three minutes of nearly unbearable build-up, come on, you know you just had to bust a move. And then, for the next hour, you let James Murphy lead you through a genre-twisting, euphoria-inducing party that, as closer “Home” wound up, left you reaching for your remote or mouse or scroll wheel to start it right back up.

From then on, any time any situation called for music to dance to, “LCD Soundsystem!” sprang to your tongue, unbidden. Sometimes, alone, through your headphones, you’d catch one of Murphy’s many lyrical gems that somehow resonated so perfectly at that exact moment. You’d be running, and find that the album perfectly suited your loping, oft-changing gait. This is Happening was taking over your life, and you were strangely O.K. with it.

Sure, as the year progressed, and new music came out, you pulled back a little. “I hear there’s a new Girl Talk album,” you’d say when prepping the music for your latest social gathering, “and the new Of Montreal is pretty dancey.”  But deep down, subconsciously, you wished you were twisting to Murphy and company. “Spencer Krug turns some great phrases on Expo 86” you announce, when asked about your favorite lyrics of the year, ignoring the gnawing doubt that none of his couplets hit you in the solar plexus the same way This is Happening’s best did.

Deep down, you knew what This is Happening did better than almost anything else this year: Dark, cynical, self-deprecating humor, 8 bit synthesizers, earnest sentiments, sneers, shimmering chimes and sarcasm all rolled up into one big, dense, fascinating mess of a dance party.

1. High Violet – The National

Surprise!

It’s common knowledge that The National are my favorite band, and that this spot was earmarked for High Violet as soon as it was announced. Even so, I have no qualms ranking the Brooklyn quintet’s latest this high. On a list that was so dominated by bands evolving, reinventing themselves, adapting, some might cry foul that The National were able to “win” without making any significant alterations to their sound.

“Didn’t you just say that ‘every good artist evolves’?” they might say.

“Well,” I might answer. [Who is asking me these questions!?]

Well…

No one with even a cursory knowledge of indie music is going to mistake High Violet for an album by any band other than The National. Matt Berninger’s distinct baritone is still front and centre, as are his innuendo-ridden lyrics. Complex, interesting drum parts still interact with subtle, understated guitar, bass and piano lines, and occasional flourishes of additional instrumentation still show up as garnish. Berninger and company still love to create brooding, contemplative tracks, often in minor keys, that are prone to lash out or climax at any second.

Sounds a lot like Boxer, or Alligator, doesn’t it?

There are no sweeping changes, no sudden introduction of auto-tune or drum machines, no desire to get people dancing. But The National have always been, more than anything else, about subtlety. They have always been meticulous, always introspective, always churning. More than anything else, High Violet is a refinement, a culmination of everything prior to this point. One could characterize  each of the band’s albums this way, but with High Violet, they have reached perfection.

Take any of The National’s best songs – “Fake Empire,” “Apartment Story,” “The Geese of Beverly Road,” “Cardinal Song” – and you’ll find they follow a similar pattern. High Violet is a macrocosm of these songs, of the perfect The National song. Beginning slowly, softly, the song(album) gradually builds tension, offering minor releases through choruses, ebullient melodies, singles. As the album (song) continues, the tension abates for a few precious moments, then is back full force, redoubled, as the climax nears. Finally, three quarters, four fifths, nine tenths of the way through the piece, a glorious eruption, zenith reached, emotion spilled, tension released, the denouement – and all that left is a breathless, exhausted coda.

You can pin each of these moments to songs on High Violet. It begins, introspectively, with “Terrible Love” and “Sorrow,” picking up steam with “Little Faith” and “Afraid of Everyone” before granting some release through the frantic, cathartic gallop of “Bloodbuzz Ohio.” A brief period of rest and reprieve is offered by “Runaway” before “Conversation 16,” with its thunderous ending, pushes the listener closer and closer to the climax. As “England” unfolds, shimmering, the stored emotion breaks free, horn accents signally the purgative coda. As the roaring drums, and shouting chorus suddenly disappear, quiet, melancholy strings and deep, sustained piano escort us home. “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” holds our hand while we recover from High Violet’s emotional turmoil, slowly, gently letting us down.

So.

I obviously love this album, a lot. That I’ve committed this much effort suggests that it’s probably worth your time, yes?

If you haven’t heard any of the albums on this list (doubtful), but especially High Violet (equally doubtful), please, please, do yourself a favor and give them a listen. Also, if there’s anything I didn’t mention that you think deserves to be up there, please tell me. I’m sure I missed a lot and I’d love to hear anything you think I should give a listen to.

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More Stuff!

Word.

Port City Lights has another review of mine up, you can check that out here. I’ve also begun writing for the website MVRemix, and reviewed The 88’s self-titled album.

Fun stuff.

I think I might be changing the format of this blog a little, in an effort to write more and have fewer posts like this one. Stay tuned.

New Review, News!

Hey everyone,

I recently started writing for Vancouver web-based magazine Port City Lights, and just got my first review published. You can check it out here, and take a look at the rest of the website. It’s a pretty cool publication.

A Dream I Had

So the other night I had this really weird dream right before waking up. During the dream, I recognized how patently absurd some things were, and I think I was right on the verge of lucid dreaming. Cool Stuff. Anyway, as I mentioned, there are a lot of… plot holes, so bear with me.

Feel free to psychoanalyze.

We pulled into the camping area at Coachella, turned left at a copse of aspen, and parked on an embankment. I looked around and saw Jamie and Kyle in the Westphalia, though i got the feeling more than just the three of us were travelling together.

“Let’s find some food.”

“Let’s find a BATHROOM!”

We agreed to locate the facilities, so Jamie and I set off.

“Shit. Jamie, I forgot my tent.”
“No problem, just bivouac.”
“Ok.” I paused. “Goddamn! I don’t have my tickets either!”

In a series of cascading, despair-inducing revelations, I realized that I had forgotten nearly everything – US cash, my toiletries, a towel, the aforementioned tickets and tent.

“Maybe we can find a computer and you can print them off…”

“Maybe.” We reached the bathrooms.

As I washed my hands and left, I realized that the lobby was in fact some sort of dance tent. Jamie called me over to the front, and introduced me to a man, standing behind a table.

“Give this guy your phone number!” he shouted.

Without question, I shouted some digits back at the man

“What’s your name?” he shouted, pointing and his phone and indicating that he wanted to enter me into his contacts.

“You want my name?”

He nodded, pointed at his phone.

“My name… My name is Jesse…”

He shook his head. “Full name!”

He turned the phone’s screen towards me, and I could see sound waves and a blinking red record light.

“Voice recognition!” I yelled. He nodded, pointed at the phone.

“Your name!”

“My name is Jesse Wentzloff.”

He smiled, put down the phone, and moved over to what I now realized were a pair of turntables and a laptop. I heard my voice being played over the P.A., backwards. Once it finished, the recording started over, this time playing forwards. Eventually, the DJ mixed the sample into a beat, and everyone was dancing to some combination of the words “My name is Jesse Wentzloff.”

I remembered my ticket conundrum, found Kyle, and started walking down a hallway. At the end of the hallway was a clear plexiglass wall, with a self-locking door. As we walked up, and East Indian woman wearing a full sari, henna tattoos and bindi pushed a janitor’s cart through the door, and was careful to close it behind herself.

“Excuse me?” Kyle broke the ice.

She looked up, her face a portrait of disdain. “Yes?”

“Um… could you tell us where there’s an ATM?” US cash had taken over my consciousness.

She pointed to her right. We looked to our right. A liquor store. Inside, gleaming, an ATM.

“Thanks…” We turned, and she was gone. a squeaky wheel echoed down the hall. Puzzled, we walked into the liquor store. As we crossed the threshold, I realized that I could print my tickets off at the SFU library. With this in mind, I walked through a doorway labelled ‘TRANSIT.’

Next thing I knew, i was on what appeared to be the skytrain, between Broadway and Main Street/ Science world. it was nighttime and a light drizzle covered the windows with beads of cool water. I blinked, and the train was pulling into a station.

“Terminus Station,” said the reassuringly familiar voice, “All passengers please disembark.”

I got up and walked off the train. Reaching a pair of wooden doors, I pushed them open and paused to let my eyes adjust to the darkness. Crossing the threshold, any noise from the train station vanished and was replaced by a sort of muted loudness coming from a three-piece rock band playing in the back corner of the room. I saw an usher, and asked her how I could get to the other side of the building.

“You can’t go backstage. Do you have clearance?”
“I don’t want to go backstage. I want to go through.”
“Oh. Ok. I’ll look into it.”

She walked off, and I took a seat on the stairs. As I reached into a pocket for  my printed directions, the couple beside glared furiously. The paper was crinkling.

“SHHHH”

Timidly, I tucked the paper back into my pocket.

“THURSTOOOOOON HERE’S YOUR ANSWEEEEEEEEEER” sang the band.

I shifted my wight ,and my leg right clicked a mouse.

The band paused. Apparently we were watching a movie.

I clicked play. The band resumed.

My alarm clock went off.

So that’s it. Preeeeetty weird. Writing it down has definitely revealed some of its secrets to me. Let’s see if you can do better.

Wherever You Go, There You Are

Hello, Bonjour.

WHAT?

Hi.

OH!

Where are you going to today?

GOOD, THANKS! YOU?

Not bad. Where are you headed?

OH JUST THROUGH THE PARK!

Where to?

THROUGH!

Yes, through to where?

BC!

Where in BC?

YOU KNOW, BC!

Which town?

VANCOUVER!

Alright, are you making any stops in Banff, Lake Louise or Field on your way through?

ONLY BANFF AND LAKE LOUISE!

Ok, so both of those towns are in the National Park. How long will you be staying?

SIX NIGHTS!

———-

Hello, Bonjour!

GOOD THANKS YOU?

…Alright, thanks. Where are you going to?
LAKE LOUISE!

Ok, just for the day?

YEAH!

You’ll need a day pass then, it’s –

OH WE’RE NOT GOING TO LAKE LOUISE.

…But you just said –

YEAH NEVER MIND THAT.

OK, where are you headed to?

KEH…KUH…KELOWNA?

[Sigh]

Have a good day in Lake Louise.

I wish both of these weren’t regular occurrences.

The National – High Violet

Hey guys. Looks like Westcoastweasel is going into long-term hibernation, so this is probably my last review for them. Too bad. Once again though, feel free to check the review out there for some music videos and stuff.

Few bands are as consistently excellent as the National, and with High Violet the Brooklyn five-piece (and an all star roster of guest performers) continue a tradition of crafting densely layered masterpieces. The group’s latest effort is a dark, brooding titan of an indie rock record, combining dark pop sensibilities, intricate orchestral arrangements and sorrowful, contemplative atmospheres.

Lyrically, the band hasn’t lost a step. Even when he throws out a line that should be patently ridiculous (“I was afraid/that I’d eat your brains/’Cause I’m Evil”), Matt Berninger’s baritone is so strong that he manages to imbue the lyrics with a palpable sense of menace. The singer still has a knack for turning a clever phrase (“Lay me on the table / Put flowers in my mouth and we can call it a summer lovin’ torture party,” “Everything means everything,” “You can put on your bathing suit and I’ll try to find something from this thing that means nothing”), and the lyrics are uniformly excellent.

And thoroughly depressing.

Make no mistake—High Violet is a sad, sad record. Almost every track is permeated with a sense of despair, resignation or defeat, making it clear both that Berninger is tired of life’s heartbreaks and that he has accepted them as unavoidable. On the very first track, Berninger sings that “It takes an ocean not to break,” the tone of his voice conceding that he is no ocean. He goes on to insist that he “didn’t want to be anyone’s ghost,” that he doesn’t “have the drugs to sort it out,” and that “sorrow won.” Berninger has ceded defeat, admitting that he is not strong enough to overcome the obstacles in his way. Many of the songs are crushingly depressing, revealing a narrator who has not seen a victory in a long, long time. There are hints of optimism, as the album ends with Berninger proudly stating that he “won’t be a runaway” and that while “the waters are rising,” the swans are singing, and all is forgiven.

The morose lyrical themes are supported by brilliantly executed instrumentations. Fraternal duos Aaron and Bryce Dressner and Scott and Bryan Devendorf do an outstanding job, painting the perfect backdrops for Berninger’s vocals. Guitars shimmer, twist and intertwine with the bass, which roams across the register, providing as much melody as it does rhythm.  Keyboards mark haunting progression of chords and add flourishes to guitar riffs, while horns and strings underlie everything providing powerful emphasis.

And the drums—oh, the drums. Bryan Devendorf’s drum beats have never been anything but spectacular, and his work on High Violet is no different. Shying away from traditional schemes and standard rock drumming, Devendorf writes parts that are just as important and melodic as any guitar part.  His drums transform album standout (and single) “Bloodbuzz Ohio” from a slow, syrupy ballad into a churning, frantic cry for help as he pounds toms, snares, cymbals and kick drums with reckless abandon.

With High Violet, the National have written an album that is more than a worthy successor to 2007’s critically adored BoxerHigh Violet is a complex, engaging record, offering plenty of motivation for repeat listening. Even now, over fifty listens in, familiar parts give me shivers, I’m surprised by new details, and I slowly decipher lyrics. Each song is meticulously crafted, with layer upon layer of detail but none of the songs feel stale or canned. High Violet is a remarkable achievement for the National, and solidifies them as one of the best bands in today’s musical world.

Go buy this album. Treat yourself.

Ten-hut

In the spring of 2009, then-neighbour Jamie and I took the train down to the Coachella Music and Arts Festival. It was a great way to travel, beating the bus (we discovered this on the trip home) ands offering a nice alternative to the standard car-based road trip. We met plenty of characters, including a man who claimed to be a vagabond, a sassy concession clerk, a ten year-old boy who was fascinated by our Canadianisms (“Pop,” “Bathroom”) and most interestingly, a soldier in the US Army who had recently completed his tour of duty in Iraq. He exuded an air of effortless cool, and as we shared some beers with he and his travelling companions he told us some stories, one of which is still clear in my mind.

On leave for an unspecified amount of time, the soldier had gone to the family cottage for a weekend. There, he showed his younger cousins how to fire a shotgun, spraying buckshot into slabs of venison hung from trees. One of the cousins, a 14 year old boy, asked him excitedly if he’d ever killed a person.

“Do you love your family?” asked the soldier abruptly.

“What?”

“Your mom, your dad, your brothers, your grandma… Do you love them?”

“Of course.”

“Imagine some stranger you’ve never seen before, different culture, doesn’t even speak the language, does this” – he pointed at the meat hanging from a nearby branch, pockmarked with metal pebbled and dripping onto the forest floor – “to your dad, in your house, in front of you, and you have to watch and then clean it up afterwards.”

The teen’s mouth gaped.

“Think about that next time you feel like asking that question.”

It was the kind of sensitivity i hadn’t expected out of the soldier, who had boarded the train in Eugene sporting a crew cut, a leather jacket, an armful of tattoos and a colourful Jersey accent. As a Canadian, and a relative pacifist at that, about the only exposure I get to the military is through parades and movies. As a result, my perception of soldiers is skewed towards the idealized, compliant, pseudo-robotic commando, an instrument of death with no qualms about carrying out his orders.

Maybe it was simply a respect for human life, as often as he might be forced to take it. Or maybe it was a response to the psychological trauma that must have accompanied his time in the Persian Gulf. Whatever the reason, it touched me deeply and helped me to remember that soldiers can be people too. I’m not about to blindly throw my support behind military action, but since that trip I’ve had considerably less disdain for “support our troops” bumper stickers, crowd members saluting during national anthems, and Don Cherry’s (still awkward) tributes to fallen Canadian soldiers.

Camo is still stupid though.