Category Archives: music

Playing favorites, or resisting “best of”: 2010 edition

Every December, a personal dilemma arrives: The “best of 2010″ music list. To make one or not? Such lists often feel stifling, sometimes bullying, and I don’t particularly feel justified in claiming the decidedly dubious title of “tastemaker.” Last year, I chose to, instead, create a mix honoring some of my favorite musical discoveries of 2009 and did not make my personal list public. This year, instead, I created a series of 8tracks mixes to accompany a brief essay here on the blog (while I still reserve the right to devote a blog to my favorite discoveries of ’10, too!) While this still feels weirdly preachy, I welcome you to indulge my selections for what they’re worth (not much!) and possibly even discover something you may have never heard before — the best part of being a music junkie, in my book.

My personal favorite albums of 2010:

1. Titus Andronicus – The Monitorlisten to the top 10
2. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Before Today
3. Twin Shadow – Forget
4. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening
5. Jonsi – Go
6. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
7. Male Bonding – Nothing Hurts
8. Owen Pallett – Heartland
9. Glasser – Ring
10. Marnie Stern – s/t
11. Local Natives – Gorilla Manorlisten to #11-21
12. Lower Dens – Twin-Hand Movement
13. Tame Impala – Innerspeaker
14. Robyn – Body Talk
15. Wild Nothing – Gemini
16. Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz
17. Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me
18. The National – High Violet
19. Menomena – Mines
20. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – I Learned the Hard Way
21. Dessa – A Badly Broken Code
22. Sharon Van Etten – Epiclisten to the rest
23. Matthew Dear – Black City
24. Beach Fossils – s/t
25. Diamond Rings – Special Affections
26. Janelle Monae - The ArchAndroid
27. No Age – Everything In Between
28. Foals – Total Life Forever
29. S. Carey – All We Grow
**Girls – Broken Dreams Club
**Active Child – Curtis Lane
**Generationals – Trust

Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus

Honorable mentions: Salem – King Night, Warpaint – The Fool, PS I Love You – Meet Me at the Muster Station, Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh), Eternal Summers – Silver

2010 was a great year for music, and as such, I must add one important caveat to this list: I was fortunate enough to see several of the acts listed below live in concert and those experiences surely colored my enjoyment of their recorded material ever since. LCD Soundsystem and Titus Andronicus at Pitchfork, Twin Shadow at Schubas, Jonsi at the Vic, Local Natives at the Metro and Owen Pallett at Lincoln Hall were all fan-freaking-tastic (if not brilliant, in the case of some) live shows that really spoke truth to the power of each of their albums released this year. On the flip side, I didn’t so much jive with either Sleigh Bells’ or Best Coast’s sets at Pitchfork this summer, and it soured me on their albums. I have a feeling that, were my economic situation different, had I seen a few of the other acts on this list in concert – namely Janelle Monae, Joanna Newsom and Sufjan Stevens – they likely would have been higher, but such is life.

Joanna Newsom

Joanna Newsom

What I really loved about albums like Titus, Jonsi and LCD’s releases were that they were able to take huge, grandiose things — in the case of Titus and LCD, some pretty epic songs; with Titus, a nerdy historical concept; with Jonsi, some pretty epic instrumentation — and made it work. They made it near-perfection, in my mind. Other albums – like Joanna’s and Sufjan’s – also had lofty ambitions and have some really glimmering moments, but on the whole, I think both suffered from their lack of editing.

Jonsi

The opposite extreme of the spectrum: Somewhat simple, often brief music, also really stood out to me this year. The Lower Dens’ debut album, as well as Carey and Van Etten’s, provided us with a much-needed break from the grandiose. Their voices are endearingly raw at times and it all adds up to so much more than the sum of each song’s parts.

All of these albums helped me through the difficult times this year and if you haven’t heard any of the above artists before, I’d highly recommend you check out the mixes and if you like what you hear, head out and buy their album, see their show the next time they’re in town and tell your friends about what you’re listening to. I highly doubt you’ll regret it.

Table scraps.. SSION’s American Dream

When I was preparing to interview Cody Critcheloe, brainchild of the band SSION and the film BOY, I didn’t exactly know what to expect from the unpredictable, sex-charged performer.

SSION's BOY is currently being screened in LA.

That’s actually a complete lie. I went into my phone interview with Critcheloe, meant to preview his band’s New Year’s Eve appearance at Berlin Nightclub, feeling prepared for pretty much anything. I’d seen all the videos, read other reviews and caught up on the performer’s blog and Twitter – an increasingly interesting source for question ideas with public figure-types.

So, when I called Critcheloe at 11 a.m. just a few days after Christmas, I launched confidently into asking the performer about his stage show, working with Peaches, touring with Gossip and being a “lesbian at heart” – clearly we had a nice little bond going, at least as good of one you could expect from a half-hour-long interview.

Eventually, I’d asked Critcheloe what he made of the (then recent) controversy another black-eyeliner-wearer, one Adam Lambert, had encountered – a topic I’m currently touching on in a longer piece that should be out next week. While some of the conversation that followed made it to the final story, the bulk of it did not.

Here’s what went down somewhere between his passing me off to his “girlfriend,” whom I talked to for a few minutes, and the somewhat-fragmented stream of consciousness brought into action by my question. Somewhere along the line we went from American Idol to Critcheloe’s own American Dream.

Cody Critcheloe: It seems like whenever there are extravagant gay male pop stars – someone like Boy George – it’s shocking to people, and they say, “He’s such a fag.” And no one picked up on it! Even my dad loved Boy George growing up … But I think it’s different for Adam Lambert because he chose the route of American Idol as his path. You have a whole different audience looking at you and critiquing you. He set himself up for being abused. It’d be different if he started out in shitty nightclubs and worked his way up. I think people would say that’s part of his thing if that had happened. It’s sad.

An affirmative.

Me: How does your family feel about what you do?

Critcheloe: They’re not really aware, and I think they’re confused by it. I don’t go home and talk about it either. First of all, they’re not interested, second of all, why explain it? They know I make music and make art, but I’m not sure they know how it all comes together. Having people like [Lady] Gaga or Adam Lambert in the public eye does give them an idea of what I’m doing, even if it’s a really mundane, pathetic version of it.

Me: Do you have a day job that you balance with the band?

Critcheloe: I’ve been really lucky in some ways because I haven’t had to work a day job since May, so that’s been incredible. But at the same time, that also means I have to work really hard and am always constantly a bit nervous this could stop at any point … But I’m a really fucking shitty waiter. I’m shitty at everything but singing, it just comes to me. The goal is to work comfortable and do the things you want to do. That’s the biggest perk that comes with being famous, with more exposure comes the ability to do the things you love and be paid to do it.

Me: It’s refreshing that you’re more upfront about that than most musicians are.

Critcheloe: Well, I come from a middle-class family and I don’t give a shit that I’m totally 100 percent American. I want nice things and I want to work. I’m only happy when I’m working. I want to be creative and work on interesting projects. The only people who diss the American Dream are the people who have enough money to diss it. I don’t give a shit. I want a nice car and nice things.

Enjoy SSION’s video for Bullshit below.

Previous scraps: A trip to the zoo with Kevin Chamberlin | Dragonette and the conundrum of cool

Give a listen to… 10 in ’10

Though originally tempted to join the club of “best-music-of-2009″ blog writers, I decided, given the fact this post is arriving already two weeks into ’10, to instead take the opportunity to give a shout-out to some of my favorite artist discoveries of the year. These are musicians who have graced many-a mix CD of mine and gotten me through a number of stressful deadline-meeting sessions. Here are 10(ish) of my new-ish-found favorites to given a listen to in ’10.

If you like what you hear of these musicians, Google them, go to their show, buy their tunes. And tell them I sent you.

Mirah
Generosity (mp3)

I had to start this list with an artist who was really more of a re-discovery in 2009 than a newfound treasure. I must admit that when I first heard Mirah’s tunes several years back, I wasn’t overly moved by the folksy-woodsy queer jams. But (a)spera, Mirah’s newly-released album from this past year, is magnificent and has been greatly overlooked by many of the blogosphere’s lists-that-be. The album combines deeply personal lyrics with swelling string orchestrations and deserves to be held in the same – if not higher – company as some of the other, newer ladies-of-weird who shone this past year.

Local Natives
Wide Eyes (mp3)

These California boys are a very recent find, as I was tipped off by the Guardian’s profile last month. This track – off the yet-to-be-released Gorilla Manor – is the first track of theirs I heard. I was immediately struck by the wintry piece of harmonious heaven, and later impressed by their use of unusual, African-esque percussive rhythms to break up their beautiful vocal glissandos. Their sound is slightly reminiscent of Justin Vernon on uppers. On vacation in LA. In fast-forward. Or Fleet Foxes, but actually good.

Golden Silvers
True No. 9 Blues (True Romance) (mp3)

One of the biggest joys of no longer being unemployed – probably my biggest accomplishment of the past year – was the ability to buy music again, and my vinyl collection has since swelled. One of the first albums I picked up with my bits of discretionary income was True Romance from Golden Silvers, a band that belies easy classification. I’d already heard one track – the pleading “Please Venus” – via a blog, but the full record – which is a lovely hue of lavender – took my appreciation for the band to a new level. Their music is flamboyantly poptastic to be certain, but its psychodelic vibe felt surprisingly refreshing on first listen. Despite holding a certain retroness to it, their sound grows more addictive with each listen.

Bombay Bicycle Club
Always Like This (mp3)

Another Brit pop outfit that rocked my headphones this past year is Bombay Bicycle Club. This track, off their endearingly-titled “I Had the Blues But I Shook Them Off,” is particularly pleasing, and has become a staple of my frequent mixes made for friends. It plays well as a transition song between the opening, upbeat first-third of a mix and the more introspective, slower middle-third, indicative of the band’s successful combination of soul-searching lyrics (like “I’m not whole / I’m not whole / Oh, you waste it all”) with undeniably catchy instrumentation. Other tracks on their debut go into unexpected, more experimental directions, proving this is a band whose next move is never predictable. What is it about Brit boys and their mastery of the pop music machine – and my heart?

Ramona Falls
Clover (mp3)

Ramona Falls, the solo project of Menomena’s Portland-based Brent Knopf, at times feels like a psychiatrist’s exercise. But that’s OK. Intuit, the debut album looking inside the songwriter’s head, is not exactly an optimistic creation, but proved both ambitious and delicious to this listener’s ear. This track is particularly epic with its bleak lyrics -  “My heart wants just to know that it exists / My heart wants just to know” – and slow-building, then quietly-dissipating  guitar and percussion. Other songs bring in haunting piano and plenty of unusual structures. Even if he could be in need of a good pharmacist, Knopf is clearly a musical prodigy, and his debut solo effort is remarkable.

Lightning Dust
Dreamer (mp3)

Speaking of the structure of a mix CD – this is the portion of the list dedicated to those aforementioned introspective songs that usually compromise the middle section. And the Canadian band Lightning Dust could not fit better anywhere else on this list. I was first clued into the project of Black Mountain’s Amber Webber and Joshua Wells by Carrie Brownstein via NPR’s All Songs Considered, and the hype she lent their music was clearly well-deserved. Their album, Infinite Light, is one of my favorites of this past year. The songs are laden with nostalgia, desire and a quiet sense of optimism shining just under the surface of their sparse musical creations.

My Gold Mask
Violet Eyes (mp3)

Naturally, this list would not be complete without at least one local contribution, and My Gold Mask are one of the hottest bands to watch in the Windy City. I first came across this duo after having a few too many vodka-sodas at the Decibelle kickoff party at Berlin last October. Playing after French electro-singer-songwriter Emilie Simon, the couple blasted into their set with an energy – and surprising amount of sound – that could not be ignored. The release party for their A Thousand Voices EP last weekend at the Hideout was sold-out and equally impressive. Her presence is particularly transfixing, similar to an early Karen O.

Clues
Perfect Fit (mp3)

Given this Montreal band’s previous roots – including former members of the Unicorns and Arcade Fire – it is not surprising that their sound is a feast for the ears, at least if you dig somewhat dark vaudevillian, cabaret pop stylings. Their self-titled debut – out last year – is another that I was surprised did not make more best-of-’09 lists. The album combines bizarre, often grim lyrics with song structures that land all over the map but never, never bore. So get a clue – har – and give this band a listen.

Ellie Goulding (feat. Frankmusik)
Wish I Stayed (mp3)

If you haven’t yet jumped on the Ellie Goulding bandwagon, you are, frankly, running out of time before takeoff. Goulding has found herself near the top of most Brit critics’ ones-to-watch lists in recent weeks, and the accolades are well-deserved. Her voice has that incredible quality that hipster remix-creating DJs and pop audiences alike fall in love with. Her EP was fantastic and her other endeavors – including vocals for Starsmith’s beautiful remix of Passion Pit’s “Sleepyhead” – have only furthered the case for her impending stardom. Her debut album – Lights – is out in March. (And this track features another adorable Brit, Frankmusik, who narrowly missed this list. He’s like Cher’s bi-curious electro-baby.)

Chew Lips
Salt Air (mp3)

These exciting Kitsune darlings from South London are also remix-friendly and more than ready to boil over with just a bit more time to simmer. Their electronic creations combine somewhat sinister lyrics with sleek production. They represent a lot of styles that are catching on right now, without being too much of any particular musical trend to remain enticingly fresh. This is electro-pop at its finest – keep an eye out for their debut album – Unicorn – out this month.

Cold Cave
The Trees Grew Emotions and Died (mp3)

I realize this Philly-based project – led by the former hardcore head Wesley Eisold – makes eleven, but I couldn’t bring myself to narrow the list down any further. And technically, Cold Cave’s sound is so derivative-at-times (see: “Love Comes Close,” New Order) that it nearly fits into the category of “re-discovery.” But this stuff – based in synth beats, feedback and distortion – is so solid that I really couldn’t care more that the sound may not be the most original.

Amanda Palmer and inter-artist dialogue

I’m a big fan of inter-artist dialogue. Whether it be between a painter and a photographer, a sculptor and a dancer or an author and a cartoonist. Even when working in the same medium, our processes are all different, but despite this, the foundations of creative response share one key commonality:  Audacious curiosity. And it’s interesting, of course, to see different artists’ take on the same words and ideas.

The idea of exploring curiosities is fundamental to why I enjoy speaking with and learning from artists. Though my field is technically scientific in nature, expressions of artistry have always deeply inspired my journalistic process in how it re-energizes my sense of observation and broadens my perception of the realities surrounding me. This is a world of sounds, colors and shapes more than a world of numbers, formulas and statistics and these things should never be left out of the storytelling process.

One artist whose work has consistently inspired and informed my perspective on art, journalism and storytelling is street-performer-turned-musician Amanda Palmer, formerly of the Dresden Dolls. I know I’ve spoken of her a bit on this blog before, but her work epitomizes these things which I am trying (in a very meandering way) to get at. Through her music, writing (her blog is a great read), she enlivens the idea of all of us storytelling creators as a global community in an increasingly fractionalized world. She isn’t afraid to try things that haven’t been done before and is pioneering what I believe is an early version of a new economic model for creative-types to earn a living doing the thing they love to do. A beautiful concept, no?

Palmer’s most recent creation that grabbed my eye is a music video she made with Michael Pope for the Tegan and Sara single “Hell.”

Filmed over the course of one day in New York City, Palmer pays homage to the Canadian twins’ fantastic song with an impassioned piece of performance from the streets. Palmer had this to say regarding the video’s inspiration:

“….i got the idea brewing when i saw some footage of tegan intro-ing the song at town hall in NYC a few months ago and talking about how she would pass all these homeless people in her new neighborhood in vancouver and feel that awful feeling you feel of frustration and hopelessness. i worked from there. some of the best things that happened never made it onto film, i wish you could have seen what i saw that day. it felt really good to run through the city at the top of my lungs, with an actual excuse that was (relatively) sane. i always feel like doing that. but i rarely have a reason.”

It’s pretty rad to see Palmer’s version of T+S’s experience.

And in the interest of keeping the dialogue rolling, via another expression of this love, cover songs, is a T+S cover of The Bowie. Enjoy!

Download: Tegan & Sara ‘Rebel Rebel’ (David Bowie cover) (mp3)

Table scraps.. Dragonette and the conundrum of cool

OK, I get it. I’m lousy at regularly updating this blog. And even worse at consistently providing ongoing “series” (Remember “This one time I..”). But this time it will be different, I (sort of) promise.

As you may know, I do a lot of interviews with a lot of different people for the stories that I write. And quite often, due to space constraints, word limits or a piece’s thematic arch, terribly interesting bits of info are left out from the final product. And, also missing from that end product, are all the “hazards” of the trade. The strange, awkward, unexpected moments where a story source asks me to send pool-side, nude photos along with a link to the final story. (Yes, that really happened.)

“Table scraps..” will share those stories. Think of it like a DVD extra. Or surprise morning sex. Enjoy!

——-

In mid-October, I was fortunate enough, thanks to the fabulous people at High Rise PR, to interview Martina Sorbara and Dan Kurtz, the king and queen of electro-pop outfit Dragonette, for EDGE just before they were set to headline a wicked evening of debauchery at the now-closed Sonotheque.

Sorbara and Kurtz getting their fix.

First, it was to only be a simple 20-minute phone interview with Sorbara, just a fun little question-and-answer thing to preview the show and continue my dream of interviewing as many of the names responsible for the tunes constantly streaming through my iPod. I’ve loved Dragonette since I first heard a remix of their seminal jam “I Get Around” via a friend’s mix CD in early 2007, when the band was just beginning to take wing.

Now, they’ve released a second album, Fixin to Thrill, which is equally stellar. And, at least in my book, they are worthy of some major cred for their danceable, remix-ready pop gems. I was psyched for the interview, had done extensive research, listened to every track they’d ever released and thought my prepared questions would create a fool-proof golden interview. It would grace the RSS feeds of indie music blogs the world over and add ammo to my quest to one day write for Paste, Rolling Stone or [insert noteworthy music publication of the future here].

But alas, I knew from Sorbara’s sparse response to my first question that those things remained far away. Yes, she was sweet, kind and apologetic for her head cold… But she wasn’t giving me much content of note worth the quote during an afternoon break before her Calgary show that night.

The complete Dragonette crew.

Fortunately enough, I was able to chat a few days later with Kurtz, while he and the band sat in their room in Portland’s Jupiter Hotel (room 131 of this crazy tricked-out “boutique hotel” if you’re ever in town and want to soak up some of the pop brilliance). And this guy came ready to spout off, as we spoke for a half hour, twice as long as the 15 minutes I’d asked for.

Just after confiding that his wife had tossed the piece of “processed cheese” from her knitted hamburger (made of merino wool) in his face, Kurtz provided this answer to my question of what musicians he’d like to collaborate with. His answer was surprisingly frank, slightly bitter, but incredibly refreshing in a world of recycled agency-fed “talking points” and marketing plan-inspired drudgery.

Me: Who would you like to work with on in the future, remixes, collaborations or otherwise?

Kurtz: “I don’t know … I think I’d like us to work in another genre of music with somebody who can really teach us something new. I know that sounds really vague and whatever … But for example, I’d love to learn how to write a great country song. To work with Dolly Parton or Willy Nelson, that’d be great and entirely outside of our element, not that I even like country music.

Me: You were quick to add that caveat! Honestly, that’s surprising to me, you all don’t strike me as fans of the ‘twang, per se. Though the banjo on “Gone Too Far” off the new record is certainly moving in that direction.

Kurtz: Well, it’s Tina who brings that. She’s the fountain of country music in our scene. It would be more of an intellectual exercise than anything. As Dragonette, we’ve existed so far outside of … If I could tell you the number of times the achingly cool music group du jour have been offended by the question “Would you like to remix Dragonette?” It’s just always seemed like we had to fight really hard to get respect in this “town.” I think it’s a bit outside the realm of possibility to work with the “achingly hip” people, so we’ll maybe just go to some old-timers to write stuff, people who truly know how to make music.

And that’s a zing against you daily special bands out there. Next, I asked Kurtz, given the band’s recent exposure on shows like CSI and The Hills, what television shows or films he foresaw his tunes playing during. And again, he had some interesting words about the industry’s hip types.

Me: What television shows or sorts of films would you like to see Dragonette tunes featured in?

Kurtz: I suppose I’d go with the shows I like to watch. I’d like to see my own song pop up on a show like Weeds, Mad Men or Breaking Bad, or one of the big fuck-off British TV shows like the Jeremy Clarkson car show. That’s top-tier. If we moved off of TV and into movies, I’d pay money to have a song in a Wes Anderson movie. We do, perhaps, really like his movies, but then again we’re probably not hip enough for that. The last time we saw him, he was with some very hip people. He was sitting with Clive Owen at some club while we were in town. Oh well, you can always dream!

And here’s hoping they don’t stop dreaming anytime soon. And please, someone, tell them they’re still “cool” – Kurtz seems on the verge of a borderline inferiority complex. Meanwhile, enjoy the download below, a sexy remix of one of my favorite tracks off Fixin To Thrill.

Download: Dragonette ‘Easy’ (Buffetlibre remix) (mp3)