Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Oscar and Alice in a weird afternoon snowstorm.

Really small, dry snow, but in the middle of a vicious wind storm so it was like a white hazy wall of pure cold. The dogs wanted to go outside and run around in it, so I decided to snap a few shots.

Alice was ready to come inside after a few minutes.
Ever the ball fiend, Oscar wasn't quite ready.
But I made him come in, so now he's pouting.~Austin

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Favorites of 2010

Returning to my old format of year-end listings; here we go for 2010....

My top albums of the year (no ordering, just stuff that I liked)
(as always when in lo-fi mode, if you want cover art, just google the titles)

Trembling Blue Stars — Fast Trains and Telegraph Wires/Cicely Tonight_Vol. 1
Album of the year, without question. I initially felt like Bob was maybe just going for that crowd pleasing 'hit it out of the park right after pointing at the stands' sort of thing and it turned me off. But, then it occurred to me: why shouldn't the indie pop Big Bambino knock one out for old time's sake? I swear to god, I feel like it's 1989 and I'm sitting in my bedroom doodling on spiral notebook lined paper when I'm listening to this album. While most people want to recreate a hipster pseudo-80's sound, Bob just writes songs in that mode all the time. The ancient drum machines, the melodramatic guitar effects; that's what he's done all along. And there's even a total bummer breakup dance anthem with 'Cold Colours'; vintage 80's, pure class. Even after the combination of Last Holy Writer/Exploring the Shadows EP three years ago, this is quite a shock. Rumors say that tBS only have an EP left in them. I mourn the loss, if so. But, holy sweet mother, what a magnificent swan song. Again: album of the year(s). Godlike.

The Durutti Column — A Paean to Wilson
Speaking of godlike... Never has such a beautiful album been so painful to listen to. Vini Reilly's proper tribute to Tony Wilson is nothing short of a 70 minute masterpiece. A bit heavy on the emotional end, sure, but such quality music is nearly impossible to underrate in the bigger picture. It was pretty clear from initial listens that Vini poured his entire soul in this album and that he suffered a stroke later in the year only enhanced its feeling of finality. Truly, if it is to be his last full studio album, consider it his final magnum opus (in a career of many).

Trashcan Sinatras — In the Music
Scottish jangle goes soft rock, amazing results. While their step in this direction was definitely hinted at with the mature jangle tones of Weightlifting, to have the music so successfully take on a breezy lite funk/jangle hybrid sound so convincingly was the real surprise. For a veteran act to venture so far from their initial sound and sound just as good as ever is truly a rare thing. Throw in ‘Oranges and Apples’ —arguably the band’s best song… well, ever— and you got one of the finest pure pop albums of the year.

Crowded House — Intriguer
Containing three of Neil Finn’s best songs ever, Intriguer was enough to convince me that the Crowded House reunion may just be one of the best ideas the guy has ever had. Sure, the band is arguably a Neil Finn solo project in all but name these days, but it’s not like he’s disrespecting the band’s legacy by releasing records this good.

Tracey Thorn — Love and its Opposite
Ditching the club-inclined beats of Out of the Woods and sounding more like an Everything But the Girl album (I’m thinking Love Not Money meets Idlewild meets Amplified Heart — i.e. a summary of the best of their best work), Love and its Opposite is a fantastic installment into an artist’s later work that adds even more depth to an already long-productive career. Saying an album like this is ‘mature’ is about as clichéd as it gets, so instead I’ll just say that it’s got a very pleasant, albeit a tad melancholy, ‘lived-in’ quality to it and mention that ‘Swimming’ is one of the year’s best songs.

Natalie Merchant — Leave Your Sleep
Listening to its warm production and taking in its obviously laboured-over everything (seriously, the thing came with a friggin’ book), it’s hard not to think that Natalie Merchant designed Leave Your Sleep as her bid for super serious high art that would endure past her alt-rock beginnings and propel her into the sphere of ‘seriously respected artist.’ And while it is without question a pretentious and sometimes failed affair, when it’s good, it’s good enough to overshadow the missteppings without much effort. I have my reservations about her turn away from more introspective-toned music —and subsequently towards what are essentially musical research projects— I have to admit that there is an undeniable warmth to the best songs offered here. It does feel less like ‘listening for pleasure’ and more like a project to actually sit through the whole thing (which runs in excess of two hours from front to back) but the highlights are high enough to merit repeat listens (too bad the summarized single disc version of the album missed some of the key moments, making the two disc version of the album the proper way to go). This presents an interesting quandary though: what could she possibly do next?

Gil Scott-Heron — I'm New Here
Although I did initially give this one five stars, and it certainly is extremely good, I have to back track on my perfect rating. There are five or so tracks here that are completely awesome in the way that they portray a musical visionary —who, by the most common of senses, should have died years ago because of his indulgences and addictions— in the most venerable stance of his entire career (which is quite a statement, as this is the same guy who did ‘Home is Where the Hatred Is’). There is definitely a sense of finality to the whole thing and Gil’s voice is not his best. But those things —a fragile voice realizing its own poignancy— combine for an affecting performance by one of the best that ever did it. It’s just that, the heavy beats, the cover songs… I’m not sure how those things really contribute to the best material on the album. The deluxe digital edition featured Gil playing some of his old classics accompanying himself on piano in between some interview bits (further evidence of Gil’s place as one of the true masters of the English language) and a mindblowingly good outtake (presumably from 1977’s Bridges album), so that was a nice little bonus. Overall, very good; not perfect though.

Ahmad Jamal — A Quiet Time
A bit of a change this go 'round for Ahmad, as there was no Idris Muhammad and the trio was expanded to a quartet with a percussionist. This seemingly would have changed the dynamic of the group considerably, but Ahmad's playing is as distinct as ever here, so, even with the changes, it's undeniably an Ahmad Jamal album. Things were a little more heated and swingin' on this album, shying away from the introspective tone of his last few albums. Because of this, the few ballads that are played really stick out. Maybe a slight dip in quality in comparison to his last two, but still up to his usual high standards.

Sade — Soldier of Love
Basically a continuation of the stripped down, strummy lite funk sound the band started on Lovers Rock. It holds together incredibly well as an album, but that's also a bit of a con, as —besides the amazing title track— this makes for a very samey album with only one real highlight. Still, it's better for an album to be samey and decent than samey and bad. And this one certainly falls into the former. I wouldn't care if she just turned in one of these sorts of albums every ten or so years because nobody else does what she does as consistently and as good.

Miles Kurosky — The Desert of Shallow Effects
I never thought I'd hear any new Beulah-related music ever again, honestly. Knowing that Miles had major reconstructive shoulder surgery and tons of rehabilitation, it explained why this album took so long to finally get recorded and released (he basically had to learn how to play guitar all over again). So, it's not like he spent seven years on this ten song, barely 40 minute long album. But, anticipation being what it is, it certainly felt like that was the case. So, is it any good? Well, for Beulah fans, hell yes it is. It sounds like When Your Heartstrings Break, but with completely poignant lyrics. The songs are full of big horn charts, string and woodwind blasts, shifting tempos, Beatles style harmonies, acoustic bass and just a ton of heartfelt pop. It's totally good, and yet. . . I can't help but feel it's a bit of an exercise in redundancy for Miles. Like he took all those reviews of Yoko that said, 'It's good, but it doesn't sound like Beulah' too much to heart and decided to give the world a crowd pleaser of an album. All cynicism aside, it is rather good. Just not great.

Belle and Sebastian — Write About Love
I said it before, but I’ll say it again here: easily their best album since Isobel left. ‘Come On Sister’ is pretty much my song of the year, but there’s at least four others on the album that are no-brainer highlights (and among the band’s best songs). The thing that everybody seemed to be talking about with this album was that Stuart was back into the role of ‘taking charge’ in the band, like that was what the band should have been about the entire time. But I don’t know, there are just as many duets, guests and non-Stuart moments as on previous albums, so I think this album’s quality has more to do with the sound. I mean, the keyboards and less-whispery vocals of recent albums are still there, but the songs all look back to the self-aware esoteric whimsy of the band’s glory years. So, this one got over strictly on vibe. Vibe and some undeniably genuine and downright great pop songs. Which is what made Belle and Sebastian so great in the first place, right?

Sam Prekop — Old Punch Card
Sam Prekop has never been shy about being kind of an eccentric artsy guy at heart. Sure, he writes gorgeous pop songs in the Sea and Cake, but every once in a while, a weird moment arose —an inexplicably noisy solo, a frantic and chaotic vocal outburst— either on his band’s or his own records and it never really seemed out of place. Because of his long-standing potential to just go off into left field, Old Punch Card was not quite as much of a shock as it probably should have been. Make no mistakes: this is an experimental electronic glitch album. There is almost no guitar to be found and absolutely no vocals whatsoever. The songs are split into schizophrenic fragments that bounce back and forth between blaring static, ambient keyboard interludes and what seems like found sound unfamiliarities. Not really my thing normally and I definitely would not have listened to it at all were Sam’s name not on the cover. In a cool move, Thrill Jockey made the album available in a limited edition that featured hand painted covers (each one consequently bearing it’s own unique cover image) and a select few that were signed by Sam himself (admittedly, this is what I was buying the album for). Very challenging music, but I did find some rewarding aspects to it upon repeated listens. Certainly not among my favorites of the year, but an interesting curiosity nonetheless. As it stands in the Sam Prekop chronology, a weird move for sure. Just watch: the next Sea and Cake album is the one where they finally go death metal.

Monster Movie — Everyone is a Ghost
Released on the irreproachable Grave Face label, this is actually the first album by Christian Savill’s post-Slowdive musical endeavor that I’ve checked out and, I have to say, I was unsure of what to make of the somewhat run of the mill indie pop sound initially. But, after a few listens, it occurred to me: the songs are fantastically written and played. There’s a sense of just good old classic indie attitude to the whole thing and that keeps the mood fun and thoughtful. There's just about every sub-style tackled here: jangle, synth pop, acoustic strummny numbers and even a vintage-sounding shoegaze track. Certainly not life changing, but executed darn well.

Jónsi — Go
There's a lot here for Sigur Rós fans to latch onto, as this album basically sounds like the awesome, uber-poppy first half of Með suð completely perfected and with a few gorgeous ballads thrown in for diversity. 'Animal Arithmetic' is in my songs of the year, for sure. And the overall album is definitely not just a stopgap Sigur Rós affair. There's a bright, almost giggly feeling to the material that I just don't ever get from Sigur Rós. So that counts for something. Sidebar: I love the cover art for the album, as well because it is such a fantastic representation of the music. At times throughout the album, it just seems to make sense that Jónsi would have ramshackle rainbows spewing from his brain. Because he certainly writes songs that sound like it.

And now, for my biggest disappointments…
None, really; besides all those dollar records I took a chance on. But that's a given when indulging in that sort of thing. I don't know. I guess I'm just not really into looking into things I know that I won't like anymore. I mean, yeah, all those stupid Kanye Wack/Vampire Weekend hipster bullshit Pitchfork approved atrocities sucked, but I didn't really expect anything else, so you can't legitimately call those disappointments, can you?

The albums that I wanted to check out, but never did, based on whatever variables…
Too many to get into. Most of them reissues on the unimpeachable LTM label. I'll see you soon, Low Life.

I hesitate to call this the ‘rediscoveries’ section because I never discovered these records until this year, but a lot of people call it that. Anyway, here’s a bunch of older things that I just caught up to in 2010…
Kate Bush
Don't believe me? Check out the most played artists in my library. Yes, I just started listening to her six months ago. I feel stupid.

Slowdive — Pygmalion deluxe edition
When Creation reissued the band's catalogue in 2005, Pygmalion stuck out big time because it was the only album that did not receive a fantastic expanded second disc. I don't know why the wealth of material that now appears on this new Cherry Red reissue was held back for so long, but I'm elated to finally have it. The bonus material on disc two eclipses the running time of the proper album and most of it consists of otherwise unheard songs. So, yeah, basically the great lost fourth Slowdive album. I already considered Pygmalion a musical milestone, but these newly released vault recordings just enhance its prestige for me.

Sigur Rós
This actually is rediscovery in the traditional form. I once had everything of theirs up to the parentheses album (even the sweet ten inch record!). But, I don't know. I just ditched it all one day in favor of Frank Zappa albums (I know — can it get any dorkier?). But I just picked them up again this year. Sparked by the random pick up of the Hvarf/Heim set, I was off. The parentheses album and Takk have become my favorites, but sweet googly moogly, that first half of Með Suð is something I regret disregarding two years ago. Quickly becoming one of my favorite bands.

Orange Juice
Mostly based around the release of the fantastic ...coals to newcastle box set. It's six discs and was just released about a month ago, so I've yet to really soak all of it in. But I have focused on the Glasgow School and Rip it Up discs (the title track on the latter is a classic for the ages) and those are both perfect examples of super polishy, exquisitely jangly new wave at its absolute best. Highlights from other discs: 'What Presence?!', 'Consolation Prize', 'Salmon Fishing in New York' and 'Bridge.' Wonderful stuff and I look forward to really digesting it all in the coming months.

The Wake
One band that the LTM label has reissued I did get to check out this year. They started out on Factory in the early 80's and moved over the Sarah label in the early 90's. One of the most unfairly overlooked jangle bands of the 80's.

Mixed media? Why mix media when I'm essentially not interested in anything but music?
Yes, I've officially become a buzzkill unless you want to talk about new wave or Stereolab. I'm lame. Deal with it.

And because I love you all, here's a new feature this year: a streamable 63 minute mix of my favorite songs of the year...

If you're not keen on streaming, click here to download the mix in an MP3 file that you can take with you.

A pretty good year, I'd say.