Dec 19, 2009

2009 Year in Review IV: The Albums

And today we wrap up a look back at 2009 by listing via//chicago's 50 favorite albums of the year. Away we go...

50. Glasvegas - Glasvegas (Sony)
49. Tombs - Winter Hours (Relapse)
48. Handsome Furs - Face Control (Sub Pop)
47. Fever Ray - Fever Ray (Mute)
46. K'naan - Troubadour (A&M)
45. Arctic Monkeys - Humbug (Domino)
44. Jay Reatard - Watch Me Fall (Matador)
43. Mayer Hawthorne - A Strange Arrangement (Stones Throw)
42. Telekinesis - Telekinesis! (Merge)
41. Real Estate - Real Estate (Woodsist)
40. Mos Def - The Ecstatic (Downtown)
39. The Horrors - Primary Colours (Beggars/XL)
38. Electrik Red - How to Be a Lady, Vol. 1 (Def Jam)
37. Wilco - Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch)
36. Lindstrom & Prins Thomas - II (Eskimo)
35. The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love (Capitol)
34. Dam-Funk - Toeachizown (Stones Throw)
33. Hatcham Social - You Dig the Tunnel, I'll Hide the Soil (TBD)
32. Bowerbirds - Upper Air (Dead Oceans)
31. Raekwon - Only Built 4 Cuban Lynx Pt. II (Iceal)
30. The-Dream - Love vs. Money (Def Jam)
29. Sunset Rubdown - Dragonslayer (Jagjaguwar)
28. OM - God is Good (Drag City)
27. Atlas Sound - Logos (Kranky)
26. Grizzly Bear - Vecaktimest (Warp)
25. Stardeath & White Dwarfs - The Birth (WEA/Reprise)
24. Maxwell - BLACKsummer'snight (Columbia)
23. Nomo - Invisible Cities (Ubiquity)
22. Sonic Youth - The Eternal (Matador)
21. Coalesce - OX (Relapse)













20. Cobalt - Gin (Profound Lore)
For my money, Gin was one of the most forward looking extreme metal album of the year - absolutely dense and crushing throughout and never relying on any genre cliches.













19. Dinosaur Jr. - Farm (Jagjaguwar)
And the trio's amazing comeback continues by stretching everything out to a dizzying degree - song lengths, solos, trippy cover art, etc. Farm is certainly an overwhelming album, but allowing it to just wash over and consume you is the best way to absorb the genius.













18. Bat for Lashes - Two Suns (Astralwerks)
I was already infatuated with Natasha Khan after her excellent debut, but Two Suns pushed things so far forward that she is now my number one musical crush. Even without the album's engaging dark vs. light conceptual bent, Khan's skills would still make this one of the most listenable albums of the year.












17. Fuck Buttons - Tarot Sport (ATP)
I really hate when I read these guys being dismissed as "noise" because I think that potentially puts a lot of people off the album before they've even had a chance to absorb how truly gorgeous it is. In fact, this duo might need a new genre tag, might I suggest "euphoric noise"?













16. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz! (Interscope)
I'm dumbfounded that this album wasn't blasting out of speakers everywhere this summer, it was easily one of the easiest pop albums to love all year. It was yet another stylistic shift from the band, but damned if they didn't pull it off like it was nothing. Truly one of the decade's most versatile and lovable bands.













15. Isis - Wavering Radiant (Ipecac)
Isis is one of those genre defining bands that gets a lot of guff for the lackluster bands they inspire, but this fantastic album goes a long way to helping us understand why - most young bands would kill to sound this hauntingly beautiful.












14. Wooden Shjips - Dos (Holy Mountain)
Another killer album of krautrock meets Velvet Underground in the psychedelic garage from these San Franciscan neo-hippies. Breathtaking stuff.













13. Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Glass Note)
Really this album could have been "1901" and "Lisztomania" repeated five times each and it would have been a lock for my top twenty, but thankfully the band added about four or five other infectious pop tunes and a few surprising rhythmic twists and instrumental turns.













12. Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca (Domino)
The two most engaging elements on this entire album (Dave Longstreth's twisting guitar leads and the soaring harmonies of Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian) come from such different places that it is amazing how well they blend together over the course of this brilliant album.













11. Kylesa - Static Tensions (Prosthetic)
Its about time these southern psychedelic stoner sludge purveyors got their due, but truth be told - this really is their greatest album yet. The two drummer attacked is deployed perfectly and the band's musicality is what really pushes them above and beyond many of their peers.












10. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (Slumberland)
Perfect proof that timeless indie pop will never go out of style. Hazy, shimmering guitar pop that recalls hundreds of bands that did time on labels like Sarah fifteen plus years ago but with an entirely original spin that places them in the here and now.













9. Shrinebuilder - Shrinebuilder (Neurot)
A rare example of the supergroup that actually ends up being more than a well-intentioned disaster, Shrinebuilder combines the extreme talents of Wino (The Obsessed, Saint Vitus), Al Cisneros (OM, Sleep), Scott Kelly (Neurosis), and Dale Crover (Melvins) in a way that allows each to contribute in their own signature way while melding into a powerful, unique voice.












8. Converge - Axe To Fall (Epitaph)
You know a new Converge album is going to be all kinds of great, but who knew they were going to top their previous standard-bearer Jane Doe? Not me, but damned if this isn't one hell of an album. Axe to Fall contains much of the breakneck post-hardcore we've come to expect, but its the slower experiments that really make this such a tough album to top.













7. The xx - xx (XL)
Every so often a new, young band emerges from the ether and manages to point in an entirely new direction and helps you realize that not everything has been done before. Sure, there are obvious touchstones buried throughout xx, but the icy minimalism and the male/female vocals bring something altogether refreshing and new to the table.













6. Oneida - Rated O (Jagjaguwar)
Well, this was certainly unexpected. Three full discs of Can inspired freak-outs? Each disc with its own distinct theme and vibe? Wow, and every single track a killer. One of the few albums on this list worthy of being called a "journey"... but one well worth taking. Stellar in every possible way.













5. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino)
A band that continues to evolve in completely new and exciting ways on each consecutive release. This time out we find the guys experimenting a little more with rhythm and dance music signifiers, but in a way that could only be Animal Collective. Most surprising, however, is just how damned poppy and accessible it remains throughout. Another winner.













4. Sunn O))) - Monoliths & Dimensions (Southern Lord)
By now, these guys are so far beyond being a mere "metal" band that we are going to have to just consider them their own genre entirely. This album, their boldest and best yet, plays more like a avant classical album full of jazz turns and ambient drones, with sparse hints of metal influence to pepper the mix. There's a reason one of the tracks is called "Agartha".













3. Mastodon - Crack the Skye (Reprise)
In which Mastodon drops all pretenses of being "prog inspired" and just goes all out prog. A complicated concept album about czarist Russia and astral planes with songs clocking in at 14 minutes? YES please. And oh, how well they do pull it off without losing a speck of the intensity that made them so great in the first place.













2. Baroness - Blue Record (Relapse)
What a fantastic leap this Savannah band has made from the tremendous Red Album to this instant classic. With its intertwining themes and repeated motifs, this album demands to be experienced as a whole and pays off those who pay attention over repeated listens. Its a shame that the "metal" tag will scare off so many people that would otherwise adore this type of thing.













1. The Flaming Lips - Embryonic (WEA/Reprise)
While a lot of thought and second-guessing went into composing this list, there was absolutely no doubt at any point as to what the number one record would be. I returned to this thing so many times over the last few months since its release, at first to figure out just what the hell was going on and later to absorb every possible detail I could, that there could be no other album to point to as my favorite of 2009. Embryonic is dark, mysterious, massive, insular, and a downright masterpiece of psychedelic rock.

And, to wrap things up, a few honorable mentions:
YOB - The Great Cessation (Profound Lore)
Girls - Album (True Panther Sounds)
Japandroids - Post-Nothing (Polyvinyl)
Brand New - Daisy (DGC)
The Gates of Slumber - Hymns of Blood and Thunder (Metal Blade)
Deer Tick - Born On Flag Day (Partisan)
The Obits - I Blame You (Sub Pop)
Super Furry Animals - Dark Days/Light Years (101 Distribution)
Augury - Fragmentary Evidence (Nuclear Blast)
Obscura - Cosmogenesis (Relapse)
Mount Eerie - Wind's Poem (P.W. Elverum & Son)
Dan Deacon - Bromst (Carpark)
Wild Beasts - Two Dancers (Domino)
Future of the Left - Travels With Myself and Another (4AD)
Krallice - Dimensional Bleedthrough (Profound Lore)

Dec 18, 2009

2009 Year in Review III: The Singles

And now, we continue with via//chicago's top 100 singles of the year. When possible, I've linked to YouTube videos for each of the songs so you can check them out for yourself.

100. "Black Heart Inertia" - Incubus
99. "I Do Not Hook Up" - Kelly Clarkson
98. "Wrong" - Depeche Mode
97. "Meet Me on the Equinox" - Death Cab For Cutie
96. "Oblivion" - Mastodon
95. "I've Got Friends" - Manchester Orchestra
94. "Sex Bomb" - Spinnerette
93. "So Human" - Lady Sovereign
92. "Kinda Like A Big Deal" - Clipse f. Kanye West
91. "Kind of a Girl" - Tinted Windows
90. "Aeon" - Antony & The Johnsons
89. "Halo" - Beyonce
88. "Say Please" - Monsters of Folk
87. "I'm On a Boat" - The Lonely Island f. T-Pain
86. "Hard Times" - Patrick Wolf
85. "Hellhole Ratrace" - Girls
84. "Cornerstone" - Arctic Monkeys
83. "People Got A Lotta Nerve" - Neko Case
82. "Satellite Skin" - Modest Mouse
81. "Ulysses" - Franz Ferdinand
80. "Ignorance" - Paramore
79. "Sweat It Out" - The-Dream
78. "A Dustland Fairytale" - The Killers
77. "A Song for a Son" - The Smashing Pumpkins
76. "The Fear" - Lily Allen
75. " The Hope that House Built" - Future of the Left
74. "Murder in the Dark" - Hatcham Social
73. "Hyph Mngo" - Joy Orbison
72. "Genesis 30: 3" - The Mountain Goats
71. "Crying Lightning" - Arctic Monkeys
70. "Two Weeks" - Grizzly Bear
69. "Casa Bey" - Mos Def
68. "11th Dimension" - Julian Casablancas
67. "Amazing" - Kanye West f. Young Jeezy
66. "No You Girls" - Franz Ferdinand
65. "Paris (Aeroplane Remix)" - Friendly Fires f. Au Revoir Simone
64. "Farewell to the Fairground" - White Lies
63. "Mykonos" - Fleet Foxes
62. "Flowers & Football Tops" - Glasvegas
61. "Black River Killer" - Blitzen Trapper
60. "Infinity Milk" - Dananananaykroyd
59. "The Reeling" - Passion Pit
58. "Young Adult Friction" - The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
57. "Rockin' That Thang" - The-Dream
56. "Surf Solar" - Fuck Buttons
55. "Laura" - Girls
54. "Walkabout" - Atlas Sound f. Noah Lennox
53. "Don't Upset the Rhythm (Go Baby Go)" - The Noisettes
52. "Brother Sport" - Animal Collective
51. "Speechless" - Lady Gaga
50. "If I Had a Heart" - Fever Ray
49. "All is Love" - Karen O and the Kids
48. "Divinations" - Mastodon
47. "It Ain't Gonna Save Me" - Jay Reatard
46. "Inaugural Trams" - Super Furry Animals
45. "These Are My Twisted Words" - Radiohead
44. "Baby Can't Stop (Aeroplane Remix)" - Lindstrom & Christabelle
43. "In for the Kill" - La Roux
42. "Make Her Say" - Kid Cudi f. Kanye West & Common
41. "Dead Flowers" - Miranda Lambert
40. "Suburban Beverage" - Real Estate
39. "If U Seek Amy" - Britney Spears
38. "So Good" - Electrik Red
37. "Basic Space" - The xx
36. "Young Hearts Spark Fire" - Japandroids
35. "Best I Ever Had" - Drake
34. "Panic Switch" - Silversun Pickups
33. "While You Wait for the Others" - Grizzly Bear
32. "The Fixer" - Pearl Jam
31. "Pretty Wings" - Maxwell
30. "Islands" - The xx
29. "Here to Fall" - Yo La Tengo
28. "9X Outta 10" - DJ Quik & Kurupt
27. "Gimme Sympathy" - Metric
26. "Hold the Line" - Major Lazer f. Mr. Lex & Santigold
25. "Sea within a Sea" - The Horrors
24. "Got Nuffin" - Spoon
23. "Higher Than the Stars" - The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
22. "Sometime Around Midnight" - The Airborne Toxic Event
21. "Heads Will Roll" - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
20. "Bulletproof" - La Roux
19. "Dominos" - The Big Pink
18. "House of Flying Daggers" - Raekwon f. Inspectah Deck, Ghostface Killah & Method Man
17. "Feel It All Around" - Washed Out
16. "Obsessed" - Mariah Carey
15. "You Belong With Me" - Taylor Swift
14. "My Love" - The-Dream f. Mariah Carey
13. "Love Story" - Taylor Swift
12. "Daniel" - Bat For Lashes
11. "Dead and Gone" - T.I. f. Justin Timberlake

10. "Crystalized" - The xx
Such a perfect debut single for these London kids, stark and sweet and set us up perfectly for what the full-length was going to sound like. Very few bands manage to nail their sound right off the bat, but the xx certainly managed to do so. Haunting and beautiful.

9. "Run This Town" - Jay-Z f. Rihanna & Kanye West
Two surprisingly strong verses from Jigga, a funny turn from Kanye in a year that found him mostly humorless, and a killer hook from Rihanna heralded the return of one of the biggest rappers on the planet to mainstream radio. One of the few songs this summer that I didn't get sick of hearing.

8. "Bad Romance" - Lady Gaga
This is the song that finally allowed me to "get" Gaga, something I'd failed to do on each of her previous singles. I think this is when her talents finally caught up to her image and her reach, making this an engaging single with a hook impossible to avoid.

7. "Zero" - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Really this whole album is full of huge pop hooks, but I think this is absolutely the biggest of them all. When the chorus bursts out you can't help but be moved. The turns this band continues to make amaze me, can't wait to see what is on deck.

6. "Empire State of Mind" - Jay-Z f. Alicia Keys
Stephen Colbert joked that this song should replace "New York, New York" as the official anthem of the Big Apple, and I can't really say that I disagree. This is exactly what an anthem should sound like - huge, inspiring, and soaring. Jay-Z sounds great, but this wouldn't work at all if it weren't for Keys' absolutely nailing the hook.

5. "Lisztomania" - Phoenix
This track hits like a missile, perfectly crafted to zero in on pop sensibility and then obliterating your other senses until your only response is to react with exuberant joy. One of the two perfect pop songs Phoenix blessed us with this year.

4. "Stillness is the Move" - Dirty Projectors
Who knew one of the greatest R&B tracks from the year would come from a Brooklyn indie rock band? An undeniable hook anchored by some of the finest instrumental work of the year. Indie isn't quite irrelevant just yet, huh?

3. "Pursuit of Happiness (Nightmare)" - Kid Cudi f. MGMT & Ratatat
This was certainly one of the more unexpected thrills of the year and completely surprising that this combination works so amazingly well. I think 85% of this song's success is thanks to MGMT's hook, but Cudi ably steps his game up to match the gift.

2. "1901" - Phoenix
And this is what pop music should be - joyous, exuberant, and undeniable. I will never understand why this didn't catch on even more than it did. I hate to pull out the old cliche, but in a just world this would have been as massive as "Since U Been Gone".

1. "My Girls" - Animal Collective
As massive and universal as "1901" was, sometimes great pop can be intimate and insular, such as the case with this beautiful track that captured me way back in January and never let go. Such a sweet sentiment might have melted like so much processed cheese in less capable hands, but Animal Collective sell the song with everything they've got. This song hits on a very personal level and, surprisingly, very little of that has to do with the lyrics.

Dec 17, 2009

2009 Year in Review II: The EPs / The Various and Sundry

The look back at 2009 continues now with via//chicago's Top 10 EPs of the year, as well as the Top 20 releases that don't fall into out "album" category - compilations, live albums, soundtracks, etc.

First up, the top 10 EPs of 2009:
1. Animal Collective - Fall Be Kind (Domino)
They wrapped up 2009 with nearly as much hype as they began the year with, this time for a five-track EP that shows the band far from slowing down. Much of the attention was directed at the epic "What Would I Want? Sky" and its creative use of the first ever officially sanctioned Grateful Dead sample, but really each and every song is a worthy addition to the band's catalog.

2. Deerhunter - Rainwater Cassette Exchange (Kranky)
The two full albums released in late 2008 weren't enough to contain all of the excellent material under his Deerhunter moniker, so the hyper prolific Bradford Cox blessed us with this surprisingly poppy bonus EP early in the year.

3. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Higher Than the Stars (Slumberland)
These heavily hyped indie poppers already had a great 2009 going, thanks to their stellar debut long-player, and the heavenly slice of New Order inspired pop that was the title track was icing on the cake. This band is going to be fun to watch.

4. Washed Out - Life of Leisure (Mexican Summer)
I'm not sure yet just what I think about the whole "glo-fi" or "hypnagogic pop" movement, but I do know that "Feel It All Around" was a lovely piece of delightfully dizzy pop and the rest of this EP wasn't far behind.

5. Drake - So Far Gone (Young Money)
"Best I Ever Had' rightfully got all the attention for this Canadian rapper, but the balance of this EP (featuring appearances from Lil Wayne, Bun B, & Young Jeezy) showed off a multi-talented dude who has the potential to be a fixture on the hip-hop scene for years to come.

6. Modest Mouse - No One's First, and You're Next (Epic)
Even though it was a collection of outtakes from the band's two previous full-length sessions, this EP stood up well on its own terms and goes a long way towards proving what a great songwriter Isaac Brock has always been. "Satellite Skin" and "Autumn Beds" are worthy additions to the band's discography.

7. Spoon - Got Nuffin (Merge)
Sure, it was only three songs and eleven minutes long, but these guys have been on such a roll over, oh, their entire career, that I'll take whatever I can get. The title track is the obvious standout, but the other two tracks will also help tide us over until the new album drops in the new year.

8. Death Cab For Cutie - The Open Door EP (Atlantic)
Another stellar collection of outtakes, this time from the band's Narrow Stairs album. At least four of the five rightfully could have ended up on that album, but I'll happily take this little bonus. Between this and "Meet Me on the Equinox", DCFC had a stellar year for a band without a new album to peddle.

9. Wolves in the Throne Room - Malevolent Grain (Southern Lord)
Even though I've liked each of this ambient black metal band's two long-players, I don't think they've struck on a better feel than the one acquired on these two epic tracks. The vocals by Jamie Myers of Hammers of Misfortune on "A Looming Resonance" give me chills each and every time.

10. Bon Iver - Blood Bank (Jagjaguwar)
A more than worthy follow-up to For Emma, Forever Ago - I just wish it had been a little longer. Justin Vernon continued his thrilling ascent with this four song release.

And, the top 20 assorted releases of 2009:
1. Neil Young - The Archives Vol. 1, 1963-1972 (Reprise)
An absolute no-brainer for my number one pick. This long, long, long anticipated project finally saw the light of day with this first volume, eight discs compiling the first 9 years of Young's recording career. Album tracks, full live shows, rarities - it may not be perfect, but it really turned out beautifully, both in terms of packaging and material contained. Cannot wait for volume two.

2. The Beatles - 2009 Remaster Series (Apple)
Yeah, this is kinda cheating, but I'm not about to pick and choose amongst these. They really do sound absolutely fantastic and would have been a lock for my number one spot, but Neil beat 'em about by virtue of having previously unreleased material. Still, these things are downright essential for everyone.

3. Loop - The World In Your Eyes [reissue]/A Gilded Eternity [reissue] (Reactor)
Reactor wrapped up their wonderful reissue campaign for this criminally forgotten London band early in the year, packaging each album with a full disc (or two discs!) of bonus material. Long considered to be an also-ran to the Spacemen 3, for my money these guys were the superior group. Well worth checking out.

4. Big Star - Keep an Eye on the Sky (Rhino)
A lovingly crafted four-disc overview of the thrilling power poppers that inspired a legion of imitators, but somehow never seem to get the mainstream love they deserve. Packed with solo cuts, side project tunes, and a full live show in addition to their classic recorded output, this is a must own for any Big Star fan.

5. Leonard Cohen - Live in London (Columbia)
What more can really be said about Leonard Cohen at this point? The man is a legend. This two-disc live document proves that, even as a 74-year old, Cohen is a thrilling entertainer.

6. Nirvana - Live at Reading (Geffen)
Thrilling to finally have a great sounding release of this legendary show. Both the album and the DVD serve as a great reminder of why this band was, and remains, so beloved. A fantastic document.

7. The Drive-By Truckers - The Fine Print: A Collection of Oddities and Rarities (New West)
I just love a band that can toss out an odds and sods collection that still stands miles above the proper albums by other bands mining the same territory. Sometimes silly, sometimes depressing, but always rocking - the DBTs continue to prove themselves one of rock's all-time greats, even on the cast offs.

8. Death - ...For the Whole World To See (Drag City)
Talk about your awesome releases to come out of nowhere... this material was originally recorded by a proto-punk trio out of Detroit back in 1975, only to sit on the shelves until Drag City mercifully let it out into the wild. One can hear the similarities to their regional peers, mainly The Stooges and MC5, but these guys were a fierce force of their own.

9. Various Artists - Dark Was the Night (4AD)
How often do well-intentioned charity compilations suck? Pretty often, right? I can only think of a handful of exception (No Alternative springs immediately to mind), but you can add this one to the list of surprises. Of course, when your roster of musicians includes names like David Byrne, Bon Iver, Grizzly Bear, Yeassayer, Arcade Fire, Yo La Tengo, Cat Power, Sharon Jones, and The New Pornographers (among many, many others) - it'd be kinda hard to completely drop the ball.

10. J Dilla - Dillanthology 1/Dillanthology 2 (Rapster) /Jay $tay Paid (Nature Sounds)
Its not like Dilla was in danger of being forgotten, but these projects have done a great job of keeping his name alive by rounding up his various productions and remixes, as well as letting loose some previously unheard work. Let's hope the other posthumous releases live up to the high standards of these.

11. Pearl Jam - Ten [reissue] (Epic)
12. Iron & Wine - Around the Well (Sub Pop)
13. Circle - Taantumus (Ektro)
14. The Stone Roses - The Stone Roses [reissue] (Silvertone)
15. Zero Boys - Vicious Circle/History of... (Secretly Canadian)
16. Iron Maiden - Flight 666: The Official Soundtrack (EMI)
17. R.E.M. - Live at the Olympia (Warner Bros.)
18. The Vaselines - Enter the Vaselines (Sub Pop)
19. The Hold Steady - A Positive Rage (Vagrant)
20. Guided by Voices - Suitcase 3: Up We Go Now (GBV Inc.)

Dec 16, 2009

2009 Year in Review I: The Introduction

I hate to say it, but I'm glad 2009 is almost over. It certainly wasn't one of the best years on record for me personally, so I'll be thrilled to wave it goodbye and welcome 2010 with open arms. Sure, it wasn't all horrible, but losing my job back in October certainly cast a long shadow on a year that was otherwise filled with a lot of exams to push my career forward. Sort of ironic. Musically, 2009 was a mixed bag of a year. I heard a lot of fantastic new music and fell for a patch of new artists, as well as some older ones I wish I'd have discovered sooner. It was definitely an "album" kind of year for me, most of the things I loved the most were full-lengths and I'm left hoping that rumors of the death of the album format are premature. I think my love for albums this year was due to two main causes - 1) a lot of artists released fantastic statements meant to be devoured as a whole (The Flaming Lips, Mastodon, Baroness, etc.) and 2) mainstream pop absolutely sucked this year. And I think the latter had the biggest influence on my listening habits throughout these past 12 months.

Typically there is one pop artist that really engages me, or at least a handful of singles that really come to define the year, but I don't really think either of these was the case this year. Sure, Lady Gaga was a huge pop story this year, but I came to her late via "Bad Romance" and still haven't warmed to her earlier singles from '09. The usual suspects released singles and albums that either disappointed or didn't hit my pop pleasure points like they might have before - Kelly Clarkson had a string of average singles, Beyonce was on to the tail-end singles from last year's album as was Kanye West, and I just can't get down with the Black Eyed Peas, Chris Brown, Miley Cyrus, or Jeremih. I tried. So it was a rather boring year for mainstream radio pop.

Of course that doesn't mean there wasn't fantastic pop out there, they just didn't come from the most expected sources. Phoenix released two killer pop tunes early in the year and while SNL fell hard for them, neither "Lisztomania" nor "1901" dominated the airwaves like I hoped they would. And, much to my surprise, I think Jay-Z was the most dependable pop purveyor of the year for my money. Looking back, both "Run This Town" and "Empire State of Mind" were my favorite songs to hear on B96 all fall. As much as I thought "Love Story" would be all the Taylor Swift I'd ever need, damned if "You Belong With Me" didn't charm the hell out of me. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs managed to release one of the best pure pop albums of the year, even if not enough people noticed. So while I found the radio to be a wasteland much of the year, it wasn't a complete and total twelve-month drought.

When the year started I was still writing album reviews for Metal Edge and really enjoying it, but sadly that was another victim of the economy. But thanks to my connections there I continued my ongoing love affair with metal. As indie music continues to get more boring and predictable, I've found metal to be the one genre I can count on to continue to thrill, startle, and challenge - which will definitely be reflected in my list of albums of the year. Old favorites like Mastodon, Converge, Sunn O))), Isis and Black Sabbath (well, sorta) continued to impress; while new bands and new discoveries like Shrinebuilder, Cobalt, and Augury made for some fantastic listening.

All in all, it was another year of ups and downs. New bands impressed, old bands disappointed. Old bands surprised, new bands stunned. As usual it was the surprises that made the year for me... The xx and Dam-Funk came out of nowhere to thrill, The Flaming Lips blew minds again, Robert Pollard had one of his best years since Guided by Voices broke up, Oneida and Wooden Shjips kept krautrock alive, the Smashing Pumpkins released an engaging new track... it was the unexpected that made 2009 great. As, I think, it should be.

Enjoy our look back on the music of 2009 this week and come back for the next three parts as we unveil via//chicago's top selections of the year. Part II will be up tomorrow, followed by Part III (the top 100 singles) and Part IV (the top 50 albums).

A quick look back at past year's number ones:

albums:
2003: Outkast - Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
2004: Modest Mouse - Good News for People Who Love Bad News
2005: Bloc Party - Silent Alarm
2006: Mastodon - Blood Mountain
2007: Battles - Mirrored
2008: Erykah Badu - New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)

singles:
2003: "Hey Ya" - Outkast
2004: "Take Me Out" - Franz Ferdinand
2005: "Since U Been Gone" - Kelly Clarkson
2006: "When You Were Young" - The Killers
2007: "Stronger" - Kanye West
2008: "Time to Pretend" - MGMT

Dec 15, 2009

np: "Kunst or Ars" - Meanderthals

Posts will remain spartan until the year-end wrap-up, but thankfully that will be just around the corner. In the meantime, enjoy this heavenly slice of balearic goodness.

Dec 14, 2009

np: "Dominos" - The Big Pink

Just a really great track that has snuck up on me over the past few weeks. Apologies for the gaps between posts recently, but I've been doing a lot of traveling for the holidays and preparing for the year-end wrap up soon to come. Enjoy this tune for now.

Dec 11, 2009

np: "The Healer" - Erykah Badu

Color me thrilled. Pinboard dropped a bucketload of information about the imminent sequel to via//chicago's album of the year for 2008, Erykah Badu's New Amerykah Part One (4th World War). New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh) was unveiled at a recent listening party and just reading the highlights have me extremely anxious to hear the album. The list of producers looks very, very promising - Madlib, 9th Wonder, Dilla, and James Poysner among others. Read the full article here. And while we're at it, let's recall how awesome the last one was.

Dec 10, 2009

np: "Searchin' 4 Funk's Future" - Dam-Funk

Er, holy crap. Why didn't I discover this guy earlier in the year? I would have been bumping the shit out of this guy all summer long. Dam-Funk (pronounced "dame") is an LA producer/DJ that has been creating some of the most out there funk jams I've ever heard. His synth heavy songs can range anywhere from four to ten minutes long, just absolutely spaced out stuff that incorporates quiet storm, P-funk, G-funk, disco, hip-hop, you name it really. Honestly this stuff just needs to be heard, so check out a few samples below and then go pick up his 2-disc (5-LP) epic Toeachizown ASAP.





Dec 8, 2009

Evaluating the Teargarden Part 1: A Song For A Son

Well, its finally here. After months of speculation and some not insignificant delays on the band's end, the opening salvo from Billy Corgan's massive 44-song project has been launched. You can grab it at the band's (suddenly barebones and ugly) official site or scroll down to the bottom of this post to download it for yourself. As I mentioned before, the price tag of "FREE" was just about right after the disappointing Zeitgeist and the embarrassing "20th Anniversary Tour" fiasco (more about that here), so I was willing to give this another shot. So, as Teargarden by Kaleidyscope (ugh that name) gets unveiled over the next 44 months (or however long it actually takes for these to be released), I figured it might be interesting for me to rate the songs and discuss them as they roll out. I plan to rate each song using the 10.0 Pitchfork scale. Away we go...

EP #1, Track #1: "A Song For A Son"
Right off the bat I have to say I love the epic feel of this, seems like a great way to set the stage for this kind of massive project. The piano intro worked well for Mellon Collie and certainly leads into things well this time around. Billy vocals start off front and center, but thankfully they don't completely overwhelm the proceedings once the guitars kick in and we move towards the meat of the song. I've given this a good fifteen spins so far and I keep coming back to the killer guitar solo as my favorite bit, particularly the way the solo actually seems to contain a solo of its own (or is that just a guitar solo introducing another guitar solo?). I've always loved it when Billy goes off on the guitar (he's frequently underrated in that department) and this song is no exception. The song's other strong point is the production, which gives "A Song for A Son" exactly the kind of 1970s classic rock treatment it was screaming out for. I hear Cream, I hear "Stairway to Heaven", and I think in this case neither is a bad thing. Lyrically its a little bit more of a mixed bag. Corgan hits on some of his previous themes (daddy issues, being lost) with typically angst-ridden lyrics, "for the tailor who stitched up my heart", but these certainly aren't among his most engaging. Still, a fitting air of sadness permeates. The most disappointing part of the song is the drumming. Obviously newcomer Mike Byrne had some intimidating shoes to fill left by Jimmy Chamberlain and I wasn't expecting fireworks, but this is a disappointingly standard performance. He keeps the song moving forward, but lacks the punch and sparkle that made Jimmy such a perfect foil for Corgan. There's still time to improve, but this isn't a strong indicator of greatness. Beyond that, few complaints. It is already a huge step up from the majority of Zeitgeist and sets the tone for what has the potential to be a thrilling album. Will this level of quality hold up? Is this truly "one of many more to come"? Time will tell.

Rating: 7.9/10.0

Dec 4, 2009

np: "Hey Bulldog"

Just because every day is a good day for some Beatles. And sometimes its nice to have a cool video to go with a great song.

Dec 2, 2009

np: "Switched On" - Islands

The journey of Nick Thorburn (a.k.a. Nick Diamonds) has been an interesting one for those paying attention. He first leaped to attention when his band at the time, The Unicorns, started gathering rave reviews for their 2003 album, Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone. The album presented a slightly skewed, fantastically fresh take on indie pop and it seemed like the band was destined for bigger and better things. Sadly these things weren't to come under the Unicorns moniker, as they split up in 2005. Thorburn and Unicorns drummer Jamie Thompson threw themselves into the hip-hop infused Th' Corn Gangg, recording a few songs and doing a few remixes, but the project never really amounted to anything substantial, at least as far as released materials go. As it turns out, around the same time Thorburn and Thompson were recording an album for an entirely new project, known as Islands. Their debut full-length, Return to the Sea, came out in 2006 and was greeted with positive reviews all around. Personally I enjoyed the album, but I found it lacking some of the spark that drew me to The Unicorns initially. It seemed like a promising continuation, but some fans started to worry what would happen after Thompson parted ways with the band. As far as I was concerned, his departure didn't trouble me much because the follow up, Arm's Way, was bigger and better in just about every way. It expanded on the band's sounds and shot off into varied, proggier dimensions without sacrificing the pop basics. I loved it. So this year Islands regains Jamie Thompson and releases their third album, Vapours. Thorburn's interviews spoke of his desire to scale back from the excess of Arm's Way and spin things off in another direction. He was certainly right about that and I'm still not entirely certain it was in a good direction. As varied and organic as Arm's Way was, Vapours is concise and electronic - full of keyboards, drum machines, synths, etc. There are some fantastic pop tunes but it certainly hasn't grabbed as a whole. "Switched On" is the song that jumped out at me on first listen, but mostly because I kept waiting for Young Jeezy to pop for "put on for my city".

(As a quick sidenote, the third original member of The Unicorns, Alden Penner, has recently released a fantastic album by his band Clues that is worth hearing.)

Dec 1, 2009

np: "Standby" - BLK JKS

Before we head into a digression into one of my other passions, a quick note about this now playing track. BLK JKS are a South African band that have their own take on progressive rock that has really thrilled me throughout the year. They are a difficult band to pin down, but for my money these guys are pretty damn prog - between the wicked guitar solos and the multi-part shifts in tone. But they seem to be divisive - I've seen them compared favorably to Radiohead and negatively to Mars Volta. I love both those bands, thought I don't particularly hear either of them in here. Here's a video of the band performing this particular track in Florida just a few months ago:



Now onto the main reason for tonight's post, a diversion into the world of architecture. As you may have noticed in previous posts, I have more than a passing interest in architecture. At least enough of an interest to get two degrees and work for nine years in the field (at least until my layoff thanks to the current recession). So why not an architecture blog? Mainly because I find architecture much more difficult to write about. I have a hard time getting my thoughts into words and sentences, so it'd probably end up a blog full of photos. Which would be great to look at, but ultimately kind of lazy and it wouldn't allow me to flex my writing muscles - such as they are.

An ongoing interest of mine is the absolutely insane fantasy world that is Dubai. By now you are probably familiar with the beyond ridiculous money that had been thrown into making the city an elite destination for the rich and disgustingly wealthy that makes Las Vegas look like a ghost town by comparison. I find the whole situation fascinating on so many levels.

1. In terms of architecture, the Dubai boom has just been absolutely insane as the sheiks try to outdo and outbuild each other. Burj Dubai, Burj Al Arab, Emirates Towers, Dubai Financial Center, The Mall of the Emirates... I could go on and on. Each new project reveals unheralded levels of design and engineering marvels. From a professional standpoint, this is just thrilling to watch.

2. On the sadder side of the situation, it cannot be ignored that much of this wealth and fantasy is being built on the backs of what can really only be called slave labor. The shocking juxtaposition of the squalid living conditions of the workers "living" just outside the wealth and glitz of the city is impossible to describe in mere words.

3. The sheer chutzpah of these developers is astounding. I mean, really, a map of the world made out of private islands for the super elite? An indoor ski slope in the desert? Wow.

4. With the global economic crisis it has been fascinating to see the city crumble around itself, even as more audacious projects launch (the Louvre Abu Dubai comes to mind). As debt climbs and incomes drop, the European wealthy that flocked to Dubai are leaving in droves, sometimes in such a hurry that they abandon luxury cars in the airport parking lots. On one hand the city continues to reach for the sky, while large swaths are being ignored and left to decay. Another fascinating juxtaposition.

Which all brings me to a wonderful photo essay that recently appeared in the New York Times, which I suggest you spend some time with. It touches on all of the fascinating aspects of Dubai without ignoring the ugliness behind the glamour. It will be very interesting to see what becomes of this city as the rest of the world continues to wake up from the heady over extension of the last decade.

Nov 30, 2009

np: "Aetheral" - Augury

Need a little kickstart to your week? How about some Canadian progressive death metal? Augury's latest album, Fragmentary Evidence, came out of nowhere and blew me away. Recently it seems like it doesn't take a particularly skilled band to play death metal, but it takes rare talent to play it in a new and exciting way. These Canadians know the difference.

Nov 29, 2009

np: "Speechless" - Lady GaGa

I was convinced it would never ever happen, but it finally did. It was a slow process, albeit one much less painful than I expected. Yes, I finally gave in to the hype and started kinda-sorta loving Lady GaGa. I was pretty much indifferent to her first single, "Just Dance". Despite its ubiquity I wrote her off as another Cascada, tossing off dance-pop fluff that didn't leave much of an impression. I absolutely hated the next two singles, "Poker Face" and "Lovegame", particularly the latter. The more I had these songs shoved down my throat, the more I wanted to despise this girl and deny the talent. People like stupid things and I hoped the masses would move on to someone else soon enough. Then a funny thing happened. Kid Cudi put "Poker Face" to great use on his single "Make Her Say" and repeated plays of that eventually softened me on GaGa's original. Still wouldn't say I liked it, but was less enraged when it came on the radio. Then "Paparazzi" came out and my resolve weakened. I hated it at first, my kneejerk reaction to GaGa's inexplicable success fully intact. As with many of pop's more notorious earworms, repeated airings allowed me to cozy up to the song's charms, of which it has plenty. Then the lead single for extended EP The Fame Monster, "Bad Romance", dropped. And this one hit me immediately, I was smitten from the start. I felt like all of the buzz around GaGa was suddenly justified by this one track. With a $15 Best Buy gift card burning a hole in my pocket, I decided to take the plunge and picked up the expanded Fame Monster that also contained her debut, The Fame, in whole. While I still haven't grown to love that full-length, I've already grown to love each and every track on the new EP. I love the ABBA biting "Alejandro". I love the track with Beyonce. I love the weirdly absurd "Teeth". I love the bounce and Madonna vibe of "Dance In the Dark". I'm not going to write her off any longer, in fact, I'll be looking forward to see where she goes next. The girl is exactly the kind of versatile hurricane that pop music needs right now, it'll be fun to see where and how she next pops up.



Nov 23, 2009

np: "Mind Eraser, No Chaser" - Them Crooked Vultures

Before taking off to enjoy lots of food and the long holiday weekend, I thought it would be a good time to get a few thoughts out on some recent-ish releases before we get well into year-end wrap up season when December rolls around.

Them Crooked Vultures - Them Crooked Vultures (DGC/Interscope)
We all know by now that rock supergroups rarely, if ever, live up to the hype and potential. The better ones serve as entertaining detours from the members' main projects and the worse ones are understandably lost in the sands of time. As fantastic as this particular project sounded on paper, Dave Grohl + Josh Homme + John Paul Jones = OMG, my instincts were telling me to brace more for the latter when the album finally came out. Mainly because, well, the combination sounded too good to be true and that usually signals the death knell for supergroups. As it turns out, however, this is actually pretty good. Essential? No. Definitive? No. Best mainstream rock album of the year? Possibly. Things definitely rotate more around the Homme/Queens of the Stone Age axis than anything else, but Grohl and JPJ certainly make their distinctive marks. If you have no problem with meandering riff-fests featuring thunderous drums, huge bass lines, and the odd mandolin solo - you'll probably get a kick out of this.



Weezer - Raditude (DGC/Interscope)
I've long ago made peace with the fact that we're never going to get another Blue Album or Pinkerton, I'm fine with that - those particular albums meant a lot in a particular time and place that can never be recreated. But now I need to accept that these guys aren't even going to give us another Maladroit or Make Believe. It's just not in them, Rivers has moved on to a different place entirely. Not sure exactly where that place is, maybe a universe where he considers himself king of the Top 40. Last year's Red Album gave us about three decent to kinda good songs and a huge pile of steaming crap. Ditto for this year's Raditude. And, surprisingly, the song featuring Lil Wayne isn't the worst. I think I'll save that particular distinction for Patrick Wilson's "In the Mall". Download "(If You're Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To", "Put Me Back Together", and bonus track "The Prettiest Girl in the Whole Wide World" and save yourself from the rest of the mess.



Converge - Axe To Fall (Epitaph)
Just how good can one band get? Converge could have called it a day after 2001's genre-defining Jane Doe (a cathartic napalm blast of an album that should already be in the collection of any fan of heavy music) and cemented their reputation as one of the decade's best. But no, they followed that up with two albums (You Fail Me and No Heroes) that damn near as good, particularly the latter. Still wasn't enough for these guys. They had to go and ring out the decade with an album even better than Jane Doe. Seriously. The band is as ferocious as ever, but spent much of the album spinning off into multiple different genres and proving that they can excel at nearly every single one of them - sludge, doom, shoegaze, buzzsaw metal solos - they're all here. Of particular interest are the final two tracks, both stylistic departures that are no less successful than the rest of the disc.

Nov 22, 2009

np: "More Stars Than There Are in Heaven" - Yo La Tengo

At this point it seems Yo La Tengo have settled into a steady groove of releasing albums that are good enough, but aren't quite as mind-blowingly awesome as this trio can be. That is, as good as the band was back in the 1990s. I mean, look at that run of albums from 1993-2000:

Painful (1993)
Electr-O-Pura (1995)
I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One (1997)
And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (2000)

On just about any given day I could argue any one of the four as my favorite YLT album of all-time. It's a pretty noteworthy run of albums, one that cemented them as one of the leading lights of indie rock. Unfortunately the band hasn't quite scaled the same heights since. Both 2003's Summer Sun and 2006's I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass were frustratingly inconsistent, the latter ending up the stronger of the pair by far. Each had moments and the tour around IANAOYAIWBYA was wonderful, but I never find myself reaching back for either very often.

So I was disappointed when this year's Popular Songs ended up being just as frustrating - albeit for a slightly different reason this time around. Song for song, this is probably the band's best long-player since 2000, but is crippled by a horrible running order. It was a bad idea to dump all three of the 10 minute plus tracks at the ass end of the album, wearing out attention spans and detracting from three strong compositions. By the time you reach the 16 minute closer, "And the Glitter is Gone", it becomes a downright challenge to finish things. I think it would have made for a much better flow and more enjoyable listening experience to juggle these tracks with the poppier front section. When the songs come up on shuffle, I enjoy most of them, but sitting through the album is a chore. I don't think this is a problem of an overlong run time either, because ATNTIIO ran five minutes longer and never felt like it was overstaying its welcome.

At any rate, Popular Songs gives us another batch of quality tunes, just a shame that the album isn't all it could be. I highly recommend you check out their set on Pitchfork.tv's Don't Look Down though, really makes these songs sound great.