December 23, 2010

Albums of 2010 part 2 (10-1)

10. Tame Impala - Innerspeaker (Modular)
It's nearly impossible for me to listen to Tame Impala without thinking of the Beatles and getting a bit nostalgic about classic rock. On Innerspeaker, there's no shortage of psychedelic jams; Zeppelin, Hendrix are all invoked here. And surely some of the credit for this big "classic" sound is due to Flaming Lips producer David Fridmann. Remember that supposed garage rock revival in the early 00s? Tame Impala's high octane riffs and melodic vocals wouldn't have sounded out of place during this retro revival, but their Aussie rivals (i.e., the Vines) would have fled for the hills.

"Solitude is Bliss"

9. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs (Merge)
This record provided part of the soundtrack for my relocation to Edmonton. It was especially appropriate for the drive through Calgary (shudder). The Suburbs isn't perfect, but it has the kind of emotional energy that only Arcade Fire can provide. Thematically, it's also the group's most sophisticated record; sure, the ideas are big and obvious (that's kind of a given in pop music), but the Arcade Fire handle them with delicacy and nuance. (Read my initial review.)

"Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)"

8. Joanna Newsom - Have One on Me (Drag City)
With every release, Joanna Newsom becomes more surprising and less compromising. That being said, Have One on Me is more relaxed and refined than both Ys and The Milk-Eyed Mender. When the drums kick in on the effortless, swaggering "Soft as Chalk," for example, Newsom seems unsurpassable in her coolness. She steals a few octave jumps from Joni Mitchell, clumsily pounding the ivory like every great folk artist before her. By now, it seems inappropriate to even question her place among the finest of folk-singers.


7. Future Islands - In Evening Air (Thrill Jockey)
Over the last six months Sam Herring has become one of my favourite vocalists. Channelling Frank Black, Carey Mercer, and Ian Curtis, Herring's ecstatic growl cuts against up-tempo beats and new wave ornaments. Amounting to nine tracks in under forty mintues,  In Evening Air is a punchy record, as affective as it is economical. (It also doesn't hurt that In Evening Air boasts some of the best album artwork of the year.) Musically, Herring & co. demonstrate plenty of range (from the angsty "Tin Man" to the hopeful, introspective "Swept Inside"), and the emotional drive that sustains this album (which rests heavily on Herring's vocal maneuvers and the chugging basslines) never feels forced or contrived.

"Tin Man"

6. Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest (4AD)
2008's Microcastle seemed like a big leap for Deerhunter (a leap that ended up being my favourite of the year); on Halcyon Digest, the band's feet are firmly planted. The ambient diversions and transitions have all but disappeared. Instead, we get a more diverse display of Deerhunter's best qualities. At times it's a pretty heavy record: mortality, aging, and transcendence are, as usual, heavily mined themes. Bradford Cox still seems preoccupied with obscure stories of religious affectation ("Revival" and "Helicopter"), while secondary songwriter Lockett Pundt aims for arena-rock with "Desire Lines." Cox & co. have yet to disappoint with their songwriting, but it's the stylistic moves and the instrumental additions (like the wicked saxophone solo on "Coronado") that make Halcyon Digest a great record.

"Desire Lines"

5. Beach House - Teen Dream (Sub Pop)
Sometimes its a good thing that music puts you to sleep. On Teen Dream, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally practically pull open the covers and crawl into bed with you. When this album leaked early last spring, I made sure to keep it circulating through my stereo. Nearly every song could be a single and nearly every song could make for a great cover by a children's choir (please do yourself a favour and check out "Zebra," sung by the P22 Chorus). No record this year was as soft around the edges, as warm or as comforting. Teen dreams make for the best kind of nostalgia; Beach House present them with all of emotion and none of the regret.


4. The National - High Violet (4AD)
I like to imagine that The National's frontman Matt Beringer is the Don Draper of the indie rock world. It works on a few levels. Both dudes manage to embody a sadness that's not only believable, but attractive; they're both solitary figures with family problems (see, for example, the heart-wrenching "Lemonworld") and neither one is shy about his dependence on certain substances to make it through the day (and night). But the parallel breaks down just as easily. Beringer comes by his confessions honestly. Not only that, he's a sad dude you can actually relate to. I've given up wondering whether High Violet improves on 2007's Boxer, or even 2005's underrated Alligator. It may take less time to warm up to the National's new material than it used to be, but songs like "Anyone's Ghost," "Bloodbuzz Ohio," and the unbelievably epic "England," have serious staying power. And how can you not love I guy who confesses, "I was afraid I'd eat your brains"? I want to see this song ("Conversation 16") on The Walking Dead. I love albums that finish strong. High Violet ends as strongly as it begins. (Read my initial review.)


3. Menomena - Mines (Barsuk)
No one sounds quite like Menomena; but somehow Menomena manage to sound like almost everyone. Paradox! Well, it might be if I didn't have qualify it so much. But the point still stands. Menomena dwell in contradiction, and it appears they're quite suited for it. Brent Knopf's slight vocals appear pinned against massive walls of sound, while the rich baritones of Danny Seim and Justin Harris are just as often laid bare. If this is music for the end of the world, why do these guys insist fighting the forces of darkness with the weapon's of a bygone era? Why do they keep singing about religion when it's just as dead as everything else? Those familiar tropes keep popping up, and just as often, Menomena go for boldly sentimental choruses, with equal parts squealing guitar rawk and booming choral chant. With three brilliant multi-instrumentalist songwriters working together, Menomena's music is always more than the sum of its parts, and the songs on Mines move around so much you never know quite where you'll end up. (Read my initial review.)


2. Balmorhea - Constellations (Western Vinyl)
Thank God for this album. For most of the semester it was the only music I could study to. But classifying it as "study music" sells it short. Constellations is an achingly beautiful hybrid of southern folk and classical arrangements; imagine a cross between dust-bowl sounds of Gillian Welch and the careful precision of the French pianist, Debussy. It's the only instrumental album on my list, but the fourth album by this band from Austin, Texas seemed like a special discovery this past year and I'm grateful for the composure it offered during the long autumn months. There's nothing immediately jawdropping here; instead Balmorhea strive for slow-building understatement while staying true to their southern beginnings. Perhaps this strange fusion explains why these carefully arranged Constellations sound so warm and inviting.


1. Women - Public Strain (Flemish Eye / Jagjaguwar)
Women had a mixed year. After releasing their second album to critical acclaim, the band made headlines for self-destructing on stage at show in Victoria, BC. I had tickets for their show in Edmonton the following weekend. I've never had to return tickets and I never expected that I'd have to do so because a band broke up the week before I was supposed to see them. By this point in November, I knew Public Strain was my favourite album of the  year. It may be odd to say for an album this noise-y, but this was my go-to album when I felt stressed out during the past semester. Like the snow storm featured on their album cover (totally surrounding its victims, making for poor visibility), Women smother their surf-guitar pop in dissonant feedback. That might have been too obvious, but I'd add that Women's musical blizzard is the kind of storm you take comfort in. At times Public Strain feels like the musical equivalent of wearing beer-goggles: disorienting, disconcerting, and kind of fun. Like the best experimental art-rockers (seriously, Sonic Youth, just quit and pass the torch to these guys; the same goes for No Age), Women make you work for those melodies; there's some digging to do here, but when you find that golden chord it feels new every time. I'm looking forward to their reunion tour. (Read my initial review.)


December 22, 2010

Albums of 2010 part 1 (20-11)

Despite their orderly appearance, lists are never finished. There's always far too much to choose from, and timing is everything. Something could be on my computer since February and suddenly appear partway through November like some divine revelation. This year I have to make concessions to Vampire Weekend's Contra, Liars' Sisterworld, Sufjan Stevens' Age of Adz, as well as excellent albums by Shearwater, Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, Lower Dens, and Marnie Stern (to name a few): these records could have easily ended up on this list had I given them the time they deserved. What follows is a list of albums that I couldn't imagine going through my last twelve months without.

20. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Def Jam)
It seems appropriate here to begin with a bit of an apology. (Before this record dropped, Yeezy was making a lot of them, but now that MBDTF has already achieved "classic" status, it seems unlikely that we'll be seeing a humble Ye any time soon.) How could I place this at the very bottom of my list, considering its mass appeal, its artistic sophistication, flawless production, etc? I've been blathering about it for the past week, making sure that "Monster" (and Nicki Minaj!) makes its rounds. If this was a list of songs, rather than albums, I'm sure it'd look quite different. Beginning with "Power," you're not likely to find a better three track sequence anywhere. So, Yeezy, while I must agree with most everyone else about the all-around awesomeness of your record (even your incredible list of collaborators seem aware that they're involved in a project bigger than their collective egos), I must also confess that I don't really know how to place it. Congratulations.

A word of warning: I've posted the most explicit song on the album. Headphones up!

19. Baths - Cerulean (Anticon)
On Cerulean, Will Wiesenfeld (aka Baths) switches easily between the sentimental ("Hall," for example) and bedroom-spun chill-wave ("Animal"), electronic and otherwise. In all cases the music is immediate and undeniable. Baths' occasionally freakish mix of vocal layers brings to mind the grating sounds of Passion Pit, but its Wiesenfeld's nack for sunny jams that makes Cerulean worthwhile.

18. Crystal Castles - Crystal Castles (Last Gang) 
To be honest, I don't much care for Crystal Castles. But after hearing "Empathy" and "Year of Silence" I was more or less hooked. More of a pop record than their first self-titled effort, Crystal Castles (II) offers plenty of accessible songs without sacrificing the group's signature style. Their Atari-inspired electronica still features harsh moments of screaming and distortion, but the warmth of songs like "Celestia" and "Baptism" showoff a group that's willing to adapt.

17. Villagers - Becoming a Jackal (Domino)
Irish folk troubadour Connor O'Brien (aka Villagers) was a finalist for this year's Mercury Prize. This being his debut, there's little doubt he'll have another go at the award. Becoming a Jackal is unpretentious and sincere, if at times a bit heavy-handed. Regardless of his weak spots, however, the guy is incredibly likeable. Then again, Becoming a Jackal finally works because O'Brien allows his material to take the lead. I think it's time for Bright Eyes to step aside: there's a new Connor in town. Snap!

16. These New Puritans - Hidden (Domino)
On their third album, These New Puritans blend together a mix of influences (and samples) from classical music, trip-hop, garage, etc. The result is music that feels confrontational to its very core. In the spirit of post-punk outfits like The Fall and The Wire, TNP put large emphasis on cut and paste electronic samples and angular rhythmic shifts. I like to think of most of these tracks as perverse Christmas carols.

15. Tara Jane O'Neil - A Ways Away (K Records)
A Ways Away is comprised of 36 minutes of introspective haze. How could it not be good? Even if you don't share my fondness for reverb, you won't be able to deny O'Neil's crystal clear vocals and her songwriting ability. Another quickly forgotten album from an incredibly gifted artist, A Ways Away came out early in the year and I was instantly absorbed by it. It's been impossible to shake ever since.

14. Gorillaz - Plastic Beach (Virgin)
Damon Albarn is a genius. This, dear reader, is not up for debate. So what if he hates Glee? Most reviews of this record don't even bother to mention Albarn's incredible work with Blur over the last two decades. With every release Gorillaz seem to up their game. "Stylo" was an interesting first single. I, for one, was expecting another "Feel Good Inc.," but instead we got an undanceable car chase sequence featuring Bobby Womack and Mos Def. Among the many other guest spots on Plastic Beach (Snoop Dogg, Ruff Grys, De La Soul, to name a few), it was Lou Reed's bone-chilling contribution to "Some Kind of Nature" that I found most compelling. Creepy? Sure. Catchy? Always.

13. Warpaint - The Fool (Rough Trade)
I'm always happy when I discover a nineties throwback. Enter Warpaint. Even The Fool'spacing seems like it belongs to a bygone era. Stylistically, this was a near favourite of the year. The bass lines dance, the guitars rarely veer away from tremolo, and the vocal harmonies are delicately balanced. Shame about that hideous album cover.


12. Wild Nothing - Gemini (Captured Tracks)
It's hard to believe that Gemini is the product of one guy. Clearly a gifted songwriter, Jack Tatum mines the 80s for inspiration and finds it in the work of dreampop legends like Slowdive, the Cure, and the Cocteau Twins.  Heavy on the reverb, lazy with the vocals, Gemini allowed me to pretend that summer didn't end when the temperature dropped. "Summer Holiday," where were you when I needed you?

11. Surfer Blood - Astro Coast (Kanine)
As the boys in Surfer Blood well know, on a ten song album, there's no room for filler, nor is there any reason to hold back. Along with the Morning Benders' Big Echo, this was one of the best (and most straightforward) indie rock records of the year. No flashy tricks; just power-pop with big hooks and radio-ready choruses that'll channel your inner teenager. Check out "Anchorage" (below); you'll know what I mean.

December 12, 2010

Milton and protestant toleration

Currently, Of True Religion, John Milton's writing on toleration (trendy topic, don't you think?), is providing Miltonists with a good deal of critical energy and just as much cultural relevance. Hot on the heels of the so-called "Wars of Religion," Milton’s writing on toleration demonstrates how the Protestant emphasis on sola scriptura is fundamental to the early modern development of various heresies and sects, many of which claim to represent the true Christian religion. Indeed, by claiming that "Scripture is our only principle in religion," Milton must accommodate for the differences of interpretation that have resulted in a diversity of Christian sects. By privileging reading—that is, the honest pursuit of truth in God’s Word—over doctrine, Milton is able to draw a hard line between an active Protestant faith and what he configures as a passive, necessarily idolatrous Catholicism.

How, Milton asks, are we to combat popery, here in England? His answers are not surprising, but they are intriguing. First, “we must remove their idolatry, and all the furniture thereof, whether idols, or the mass wherein they adore their God under bread and wine: for the commandment forbids to adore, not only any graven image, but the likeness of any thing in heaven above, or in earth beneath, or in the water under the earth.” And if Catholics play the conscience card, “we have no warrant to regard conscience which is not grounded on Scripture.” In other words, conscience can only be legitimized by the reading of Scripture; that is, by the trial of interpretation. If tradition, or any other outside influence governs one’s conscience and orders one’s faith, Milton believes, one’s conscience is in error and one’s faith is idolatrous. Besides the removal of idols, Milton urges Protestants to combat popery by “duly and diligently” reading Scripture, by the “constant reading of Scripture” with others (“who agree in the main . . . though dissenting in some opinions”), and finally by “mending our lives.” 
As a recovering Anabaptist with Anglican inclinations, I can sympathize with certain moments of Milton’s iconoclasm and I can even endorse the sort of tolerance he briefly articulates by bringing up the disagreements that can arise from different communities of interpretation. However, I find Milton’s straw man of tradition not only troubling, but inexcusable, especially since he fails to acknowledge the fact that he himself is part of a tradition, albeit a rival one. How can Milton show such a deep love for the literary tradition, in which he reads and interprets literary texts—the classics, but also Chaucer, Spencer, etc.—and so easily dismiss the a tradition of orthodoxy that selected and produced the very Scriptures to which Protestant reformers believe they can simply and freely return? In the end, I suppose, I see Milton’s (and the Reformation’s) distinction between Scripture and Tradition as a false dichotomy.
It comes down to the way in which Milton defines heresy, and, indeed, Milton’s own heretical opinions seem to haunt this tract: “Heresy is the will and choice professedly against Scripture,” whereas “error is against the will, in misunderstanding the Scripture after all sincere endeavors to understand it rightly.” This distinction allows Milton to accommodate the fervent Protestants while at the same time distancing them from the inauthenticity of Catholic faith. Freedom and self-definition become the very fundamentals of faith, while the public and the social are denounced. Perhaps this turn inward is all that Milton can do to rescue what is left of Christianity from a process of secularization, at once tied to the Reformation, which appears to be at work in Enlightenment Europe. Milton admirably argues against truth as an institutional possession, but by closing it off from the Catholic tradition, Milton draws boundaries that appear to limit divine revelation. Purely internal notions of reading and interpretation that are irreconcilable with the tradition strike me as being vaguely satanic.

December 10, 2010

that special time of year

I've always found the ridiculous, often vaguely offensive messages posted on Church reader boards a source of perverse delight. These days, on my way to school I pass by a United Church with a sign that offers the useless tautology, "God is born where God is born." Indeed! And "The meaning of Christmas is the meaning of Christmas."

December 2, 2010

atlas sound/sacred space

You can say what you want about Pitchfork, but they've got that whole "end of the year" thing down to a science and their off-shoot for music videos, Pitchfork TV, continues to showcase new ways for fans to approach their favourite artists. One of their best features, "Cemetery Gates," places musicians in the empty sanctuary of a gothic cathedral. For the well-behaved choir boys like Grizzly Bear and Jonsi it seems like a perfect fit, while bands like Of Montreal are forced to rethink their over the top stage presence. The video below finds Deerhunter's Bradford Cox performing material from Atlas Sound's 2009 release, Logos. One of the best songs on the album, "Attic Lights" sounds like it was meant to be played in this sort of context and it's all the better for it.