May 12, 2010

via//chicago's 200 of the 2000s:

My Chemical Romance - The Black Parade (2006, Warner Bros.)

Although the two huge singles from their breakthrough album hinted at these guys being much more than just another brooding Hot Topic mall-punk band (let's face it, they were never really emo), I'm not sure anyone expected them to turn into the bombastic modern-day version of Queen on the much anticipated follow-up. But when The Black Parade came out, it was clear that Gerard Way and his band had been doing a lot of homework in the meantime. Between studying Brian May's electrifying guitar solos and many close listens to Green Day's American Idiot, My Chemical Romance came up with a huge sounding rock opera of their very own. Loosely centered around the life, death, and memories of "The Patient", The Black Parade is packed with more sing-along melodies and anthemic choruses than your average Broadway musical ("Mama" and "Teenagers" make very clear that the connection was very much intentional). In lesser hands, this could have been a fantastic failure. But thanks to Way's charisma and thrilling production, the entire record is a joy to hear. Its easy to understand why the critics were quick to bash these guys for being completely over the top, but I wish more current rock bands would be willing to deal in such bombast. I can't wait to hear what these guys do next.

May 11, 2010

via//chicago's 200 of the 2000s:

The Rapture - Echoes (2003, DFA)

In retrospect, from the viewpoint of a music fan in 2010, it is easy to question why everyone got so excited about the whole "indie kids are dancing again" vibe of the dance-punk renaissance. A quick listen to Echoes, however, reveals that there was initially plenty to be excited about, at least until the Hot Hot Heats of the world reduced it to mere formula. Not only does this record contain "House of Jealous Lovers", one of the defining singles of the entire dance-punk era (the other being !!!'s "Me and Giuliani Down by the Schoolyard"), but it also presents a livelier, more varied approach than any of the trendhopping latecomers were able to take note of, let alone try to build upon. While "House of Jealous Lovers" and "I Need Your Love" deservedly got much of the love from the dance-floor packing DFA acolytes, I think the most exciting tracks are those that mine the depths of post-punk skronk in search of great beats. "Heaven", "The Coming of Spring", and the title track rely on live instrumentation and angular guitars to approximate that jittery, hyper-intense sound that made the original run of post-punk so exciting. It isn't hard to imagine several of these being released as Factory 12-inches early in the 80s, while some of the ultra-skronky sax comes across straight up No New York. But what makes this all work so well is the sense of urgency and energy packed into the album, from the cowbell-bashing build of "Jealous Lovers" to the Mick Ronson guitar riff in "Love is All" to the "1 2 3 4 kick that fucker our the door" exhortation in "Killing". The energy is electrifying throughout, even when a few curveballs get thrown. A particular favorite for me is "Open Up Your Heart", a sparse ballad featuring subtle drums, bass, and piano which is basically a bop jazz tune dressed up as indie rock (trust me, it's all in the drums). Everything wraps up with "Infatuation", a murky acoustic ballad that could pass for Amnesiac-era Radiohead by simply replacing Luke Jenner's quirky yelps with Thom Yorke's moaning. In a genre that was defined early on by the 12" single, The Rapture proved with Echoes that dance-punk could easily sustain a full-length album when approached correctly.

May 10, 2010

via//chicago's 200 of the 2000s:

Lupe Fiasco - Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor (2006, Atlantic)

While Kanye West and Common spent 2005 raking in the love and critical acclaim afforded by their two monstrous releases, another personality was starting to build buzz throughout Chicago and the hip-hop blogs. Lupe Fiasco, formally introduced to the wider world via West's terrific "Touch the Sky", was a self-proclaimed nerd that brought a novel approach to hip-hop thanks to his off-beat passions and pride in his Muslim upbringing. When the fantastic single "Kick, Push", a triumphant blast of nostalgia featuring a smooth horn-laden beat backing up a truly compelling metaphor, it was clear that Chicago was home to yet another brilliant young mind and Lupe quickly shot to the top of "next big thing" lists. The single was endearing, charming, and impossible to deny. But was that disarming approach going to be enough to help Lupe last in an increasingly fickle genre? When the debut full-length came out in the fall of 2006, it became very clear that there was more to Lupe than skateboard videos and an easy-going flow. With a whole host of big name collaborators (Jay-Z, Kanye, Neptunes, Jill Scott), Food & Liquor introduced us to a Lupe that was ready to tackle all the big issues without losing touch with what made him such an individual presence. "Hurt Me Soul" detailed his love-hate relationship with the misogyny and violence of hip-hop music, while broadening the scope to take in struggles around the world. From the psychedelic sample that makes up the hugely lovable "Daydreamin" to the thrilling meta-concept of "The Cool" (later expanded on to fill out his second album), it was clear that this was a man of many ideas and, more importantly, he was able to turn them into engaging music. "Sunshine", with its retro-futuristic, digital vibe, gave us a peek into the world Kanye would explore a few years later with 808s & Heartbreak. Another standout was "Kick, Push II" which flipped the sunshine nostalgia of the original into a darker place, reflecting on the troubled worlds that pushed a ragtag group of misfits into the streets and onto their boards. A bittersweet tale that hints at dark, dark depths, but also an example of the masterful storytelling that doesn't appear enough in hip-hop music these days. A truly stunning debut by a rapper that, in retrospect, was the driving force behind today's crop of quirky young rappers. For better or worse, I don't think we'd have a Drake or a Kid Cudi or a Wale today without Lupe.

May 1, 2010

via//chicago's 200 of the 2000s:

Dinosaur Jr. - Beyond (2007, Fat Possum)

I didn't realize how much I missed the classic era of Dinosaur Jr. until I popped this in my car CD player and the first bit of feedback burst through the speakers, followed quickly by an absolutely killer riff. By the time that first track, "Almost Ready", finished melting my eardrums, it felt like they'd never really gone anywhere. Truly one of the most impressive comebacks since Mission of Burma's several years previous. It isn't like any of these guys had disappeared in the time since their decidedly less than amicable split, quite the opposite in fact, but it was amazing how easily their talents coalesced once again to create that easily identifiable Dinosaur Jr. sound. The surprisingly melodic vocals, the rumbling guitar feedback, the incendiary guitar solos, all of it anchored by Murph's steady drumming. Whole "Almost Ready" serves as a perfect re-introduction to the band on this record, I think the second track "Crumble" really reflects the true Dino Jr. vibe - wrapping a 1980's indie pop tune in layers of Crazy Horse guitar. This is quickly followed by the record's big epic, the six and a half minute "Pick Me Up", which features a truly eerie guitar tone and a guitar solo that eats up nearly half the track's running time. Love it. The rest of the record unfolds pretty much as you might expect, with varying levels of feedback-laden guitar wankery and hummable vocal lines. We do get a little bit of a curve-ball thrown to us, courtesy of the back to back pairing of "We're Not Alone" and "I Got Lost". The former keeps the fiery guitar solo but utilizes a very clean guitar tone and shuffling drum approach to give a laid-back vibe, while that latter is even more soothing - exciting any sort of solo and featuring actual acoustic guitar! It makes for a nifty little detour and sets up the closing 1-2 retro punch of "Lighting Bulb" and "What If I Knew". Really it all boils down to little more than the classic Dinosaur Jr. line-up doing what they do best, but considering how thrilling that is, who could really ask for more?