Erykah Badu — New AmERYKAH Part One: 4th World War
A schizophrenic and dark album with very few actual songs contained on it. Most of the tracks were divided between partial song sketches and things that played like extended interludes. While this made the album a great all at once listen for the first few runs, it exposed the lack of substance in the material fairly quickly. The fully fleshed out songs were on a completely other level of awesome though: 'Solider' was thought provoking and breezy, 'The Cell' was absolutely badass funk with one of the best basslines this side of 1975 and 'Telephone' was a confusingly personal and poignant tribute the late J Dilla. Overall, it was definitely a return to an actual muse and passion after the seeming apathy of Worldwide Underground, but it still wasn't seeing anything on Mama's Gun or Baduizm. As evidenced by songs like 'Telephone' and the seeming afterthought (but still an album highlight) 'Honey,' she's at her best when dealing with matters of the heart, while this album was dominated by political and social issues. As such, it came off mostly as an angry bunch of unfocused rants. And, as funky and as hummable as some of them were, it was more off-putting than it was satisfying.
The Breeders — Mountain Battles
Despite the two tracks in other languages, it sounded like Pod. Flippin' awesome. It was a noticeably toned-down affair with songs like 'Night of Joy,' 'We're Gonna Rise' and 'Sparks' containing almost no distortion whatsoever and slow tempos all around. However, there were some vintage sounding songs, too. Things like 'Walk it Off' or 'It's the Love' could have come from Pod or Last Splash (and would have been highlights there as well). Overall, it was easily better than Title TK and is arguably their second best album.
Nicola Conte — Rituals
Although the near-exclusive focus on vocal cuts was initially a disappointment, the tunes were so good that, repeated listens revealed it to be just another step in the man's evolution. There was much more of Nicola's own guitar to be heard on this album, so he actually seemed like a true bandleader this time around, instead of just a director. 'Karma Flower' is likely one of the best album openers of the decade, while 'Red Sun' was the sort of neo-lounge jazz that just felt like a timeless piece of music from the first time I heard it. The new traditionalist stance that Nicola has taken all along was personified with a rousing update of the standard 'Caravan.' The title track (the only fully instrumental tune) closed out the album on a meditative and gorgeous note and it solidified for me that, while maybe in the past, Nicola's constant contemporary updating of classic sounds may have come across as a bit forced, this album was the real deal. Sure, Other Directions inspired an entire scene, so I dig it more just because its timing left a bigger impression on me, but Rituals perfected the ideal.
The Cure — 4:13 Dream (and singles)
In one of the most awesome moves of album buildup not seen since the early 80's, the Cure released four (count 'em) two song singles, one per month, in the months leading up to the full length's release. While I was split down the middle with the success of the selected a-sides ('The Perfect Boy' and 'The Only One' were awesome, 'Sleep When I'm Dead' and especially 'Freakshow,' not so much), all four of the b-sides were exceptionally good (in the band's tradition, I guess). My expectations were kept at a minimum because I was expecting another self-titled album (great singles and b-sides, so-so everything else). I was wrong. Porl Thompson returned to the band for his third time overall, they ditched having a live keyboardist and funneled that newly found love of noise and heavy distortion into their most well-rounded album since Wish. Starting off with what is destined to be a Cure classic forever and ever, 'Underneath the Stars' was just absolutely the epitome of why the Cure is the Cure; and, subsequently, why the Cure is so damn unique in the first place. 'The Hungry Ghost' seems to be everyone's favorite from this album and I can see why. The six string was back on the seriously great 'The Reasons Why' and there was a Cure first, as 'Siren Song' had an (amazing) pedal steel riff. I was cynical as hell of good old Bob, but the album was seriously good regardless. Among their best albums? Probably not. A surprisingly strong and consistent later work? Without question. Absolutely restored my faith in the band.
Death Cab for Cutie — Narrow Stairs
And, speaking of bands making (perhaps surprisingly) strong albums after somewhat missteps. I can go back to Plans now and pick out the good aspects, but at the time, my expectations for Narrow Stairs were non-existent. That is, until I heard 'I Will Possess Your Heart.' At which point, my expectations shot somewhere into the lower stratosphere. The lead single for Plans was 'Soul Meets Body,' a nice jangly pop song, but very much what you'd expect from them. The lead single for Narrow Stairs was 'I Will Possess Your Heart,' an 8+ minute epic that was essentially a worryingly obsessive and dark narrative of unrequited love. And the bassline was epic. Well, the first time I heard the album, 'Bixby Canyon Bridge' blew me away. A disappointing and poignant self-realization, using Jack Kerouac's beautifully ugly life as its muse, it's the best DCFC album opener (yep, even better than 'The New Year') and, to be followed by 'I Will Possess Your Heart,' I knew I was in for some heavy shit. Reaching near Disintegration levels of gloom at some points, I was, in retrospect, completely perplexed that they became even more popular on the back of an album that was essentially one of the most brutal breakup albums this side of Rumours. I mean, the entire middle trilogy of 'You Can Do Better Than Me,' 'Grapevine Fires' and 'Your New Twin Sized Bed' was the equivalent of Ben just saying, "Love sucks, life sucks" repeatedly over different riffs for ten minutes. Closing with the confrontationally bleak 'The Ice is Getting Thinner,' Narrow Stairs is easily the band's darkest and most fully produced album yet. But, with the cabaret pop of 'You Can Do Better Than Me,' the angular post-punk of 'Long Division' and the post-rock-informed Appleseed Cast-esque noisy guitar mini-symphony 'Cath...' it was also their most most musically varied and diverse album yet. A confounding and labyrinthine work of beautiful gloom, it feels like the spiritual follow up to Transatlanticism and is definitely their second best album.
The Durutti Column — Treatise on the Steppenwolf
As much as I will sing the praises of Vini Reilly's output this past decade in this series, I will not, under any circumstances, support this release whatsoever. It was misleading, plain and simple. Sure, there's a couple new songs, but 85% of the album is old songs under new titles. Not new takes of old songs. Nope, they couldn't even be arsed to record new versions. A lot of the songs were rehashed from Sporadic Three. Sure, there were a couple new songs (mostly keyboard doodlings), but if anything good is to be said about it, this did have a couple insightful revisions of 'Drinking Song' (titled here 'A Beautiful Thought Part Two' and sounding like an even more heavily effected take of the tune than the one on Sporadic Three) and an extra long alternate take of 'Woman' (retitled here 'Stupid Steppenwolf Part Two'). Apparently, a stage production selected some Durutti songs as its soundtrack and that explains the album's existence. There are two live tracks (presumably performed at the actual stage production), including an excellent short take on 'Mello.' It would have been nice if all of the songs had had their proper titles listed on the cover, so I would've known exactly how many of these tunes I already knew note for note. Beyond disappointing. More like annoying.
The Durutti Column — Sunlight to Blue...Blue to Blackness
Alright, this is more like it! The picture of a much more youthful Vini on the cover was not just a cool photo for a cover; it seemed to be an acknowledgment of how the album's stripped down sound was more along the lines of Vini's minimal work from the early 80's when the photo was taken. Bruce is only on a couple tracks and the slow, quiet, mostly solo guitar melodies seem to be done in the grand tradition of jazz players recording an all ballads album to say goodbye to recently lost friends. Indeed, this was the first new Durutti material after Tony Wilson's untimely departure. As a calm and modest follow up to Idiot Savants, however, it was a brilliant move. Instead of focusing on the Technicolor-infused arrangements, it stripped Vini's sound back to its essence. And it sounded incredibly poignant because of that. 'Messages,' with its uncharacteristic harmonica and xylophone melody, has become one of my favorite Durutti songs, while the original acoustic-only instrumental demo for 'Gathering Dust' made the tune all the more important to me. Elsewhere, a revisit of 'Never Known' from 1981's LC was unexpected and awesome, while 'So Many Crumbs and Monkeys!' sounded like a Keep Breathing outtake (in a good way) and 'Head Glue' was a glorious feature for Poppy Morgan. Classic Durutti Column, circa 2008. How does he do it?
Fleet Foxes — Sun Giant EP
I'll say it right now: I don't get Fleet Foxes. I love them. But, who in the fuck exactly do they think they are, blending Crosby Stills and Nash with Slowdive? I don't know if this is something that would've been arrived at inevitably and they just had the balls to do it first, but I have a hard time thinking just anybody could conjure up something as epic and layered as 'Mykonos.' As far as what a pre-album EP is supposed to do (that is, build up huge anticipation with as few songs as possible), Sun Giant did its job astoundingly well. Come to find out, it was recorded after the sessions for the proper album. You don't say. A quick shot of brilliance from one of the decade's most unforeseen sources of quality.
Fleet Foxes — Fleet Foxes
I remember being boggled and having somewhat of an out-of-body experience the first time I heard it. I mean, I knew it was good. This was clear. It was just such a thick concentration of quality that my brain literally stopped. It just couldn't keep up. I listened to it damn near exclusively for a week before the songs even started to differentiate from each other. Besides the Appleseed Cast and his own music (and maybe Medulla), I don't recall any other album this decade giving me the same vibe and genuine outpouring of sheer emotion since David Axelrod. There is so much grasp in this music on maturity and life experience. I often listen to it and have trouble reconciling the fact that the majority of band members are all three to five years younger than I am. Robin Pecknold's voice was just belting and passionate and unlike anything I'd ever heard on an album that had so much consideration for internal evaluation. Tackling big life changes, using the change of seasons as its main device, in 'White Winter Hymnal' may seem like a tedious idea when I try to convey here in text, but listen to the song and it has a powerful effect; a warmth and clarity mostly unheard of in today's (indie) musical climate. There is a very distinct feeling in this album of timelessness and utter importance, but it never sounds like anything less than the naive and earnest document of young musicians coming to grips with the world as adults. Stunning, through and through. Definitely tops.
Al Green — Lay it Down
As a frequent poster on the okayplayer.com message forums, I had been aware of a Questlove and James Poyser produced Al Green album for at least 18 months. After Questlove had mentioned it so many times and no news of it actually being released was ever heard, I just started to assume it would never see the light of day. Well, much to my surprise, it actually happened. And it sounded like classic 70's Al Green. Questlove wanted Al to record an album that would have sounded right at home as the follow up release to Call Me or or I'm Still In Love With You. And while we can get very cynical about the implications of Al Green recording music that purposely sounded like it was thirty five years old, the bottom line was: it was his best album since the late 70's. So, cynicism be damned. The whole thing sounded like outtakes from his classic period and, let's face it, isn't that what I what secretly wanted all along? Yes. Yes, it was. Fantastic.
Ahmad Jamal — It's Magic
At this point, he was cranking them out like it was 1964. Another batch of lively new compositions, another somewhat brief (but no less surprising) revival of 'Swahililand' and a percussionist this time and it's unbelievably high quality and consistent business as usual for a living freakin' legend. Not the best of his new millennium albums by a longshot, but better than a lot of the stuff even being mentioned in this series. When a musician sets the bar as high as Ahmad has set it for himself, even a seeming second tier album like this blows past most of its contemporaries. Ho-hum; the world keeps turning. He was nearly 80 when it was recorded. I've already accepted that I will do nothing this good in my entire life and I'm not even 30. But I love it.
The Occasional Keepers — True North
The first Occasional Keepers album was a strange, unexpected curiosity that I would have been completely happy if they had just pretended like the thing never existed in the first place and left the album to exist in a solitary unexplained mystery. When I heard about a second album, I thought, 'Well, hey, bonus!' But, as it turns out, True North is less like a side project and actually feels like the group has become a genuine working unit. I wanted it to be another dreamy curiosity, but it was actually a concise, song-oriented pop record; the sort of thing you would have expected from a Sarah records supergroup all along. Where The Beauty of the Empty Vessel felt like Caesar had a bit of input, but it was mostly Bob's show, True North is Caesar's show. 'If the Ravens Leave' and 'Town of 85 Lights,' which also sound nothing like you would have expected, were excellent songs. Bob did come by later on to drop 'Leave the Secret There Forever' —one of his best songs ever and easily among the decade's best tunes— but it really was Caesar who delivered the meat of this album. Beauty of the Empty Vessel sounds great at 2am, but True North sounds great anytime, quickly establishing itself as the better of the band's (so far) two albums. If they continue to develop this quickly, album number three will be better than anything Bob or Caesar has done previously. I look forward to it.
The Sea and Cake — Car Alarm
Returning to their old work ethic, the Sea and Cake let Car Alarm loose just a few months after the tour for Everybody had ended. And guess what? It ruled. I have emotional attachments to Everybody for personal reasons so I have a hard time saying any of their albums not called The Fawn or OUI are better than it, but Car Alarm comes damn close. The teaser pre-album track was 'Weekend,' a look back to the dancey, electronics-accented sounds of One Bedroom. I was not apprehensive though, because it was a concise, under three minute pop song (even with nearly a full minute of vamping at the beginning too!). It still strikes me as one of the decade's best, not to mention one of the band's best. The album was varied and energetic, providing a balance to Everybody's somewhat calm introspective tone. Songs like 'New Schools,' 'The Staircase' and especially 'Pages' showed the band was as creatively vital as ever. It may be a bit too all over the place for its own good, seemingly trying to summarize the band's entire history into one album, but when the songs are digested as works unto themselves, it can easily be looked at as another stunning statement of relevance by a band that never seems to run out of ideas.