My Ten(ish) Favorite Albums of 2010

Well, I can’t fight the tide of year-end best-of lists forever, but I can try to have fun with it. What follows is a rambling, shambling list of my ten-ish favorite albums (I say “ten-ish” because there’s a tie at number ten and a three-way tie for my second favorite album of the year) and, in the interest of defying tradition while still being stuck with it, I’m doing it “count-up” style, starting with my first favorite and ending with my 10th(ish) favorite. It’s Monday, and I figure we can handle it without the suspense.

1. The National, High VioletIf you’ve read Bollocks! over the last two weeks, you already know this is my favorite album of 2010. There’s not much more to say about it – the National have set the bar incredibly high for whatever they do next and this album still gives me chills.

2. Tie: LCD Soundsystem, This is Happening; The Screaming Females, Castle Talk; The Hold Steady, Heaven is Whenever. I know the so-called pros will frown on my refusal to make a distinction between these three albums. “Surely,” they will scoff, “you can’t love all three of these albums exactly the same amount.” “Yes I can,” I will reply, “and don’t call me Shirley.” (Rest in peace, Leslie Nielsen. You are forgiven for Dracula: Dead and Loving It). LCD Soundsystem made a dance/pop/rock/electronic masterpiece with This is Happening. It’s a smart, catchy album, and it’s got some of the finest songs James Murphy’s ever written. The Screaming Females, over their last two records really, have injected some much needed vitality into modern rock music. Castle Talk is probably the best straight-up rock album released this year and, in case you haven’t noticed, everyone here at Bollocks! likes Castle Talk almost as much as we like food. As for the Hold Steady, well, Heaven is Whenever is another in a long line of profoundly awesome albums from my favorite band. More than their previous releases, Heaven is Whenever sends me running for their references – different songs make me want to listen to Jim Carroll or Hüsker Dü and then come back to the Hold Steady. I know some people saw Heaven is Whenever as a step down for the Hold Steady, and they’re entitled to that opinion as long as they don’t try to peddle that bullshit ’round here.

3. The Arcade Fire, The Suburbs. What you have to realize about this list is that the separation of affection I have for these albums is minuscule. 2010 was like Christmas all year long for me, with new albums dropping almost monthly that had me wishing that I could just stay home for a week straight and listen to music. The Suburbs is goddamn gorgeous, substantive, and exactly what I’ve come to expect from the Arcade Fire.

4. Menomena, Mines. This album is candy for your ears. Much is made of Menomena’s songwriting and recording techniques, but none of that is as important as the fact that Mines is stuffed to the gills with soaring melodies and lush harmonies. It’s Menomena’s best album so far and I hope you run out and get it as soon as you finish reading this.

5. The New Pornographers, Together. Some of my friends look at me funny when they ask what pop artists I like and I say, “The New Pornographers.” This is usually because they’ve never heard of the New Pornos and labor under the  popular delusion that “pop” is short for “popular.” I know a lot of people think that, but I’m referring to pop as the kind of rock music made popular by the Beatles. You know, big choruses, catchy melodies. Listen to Together and tell me you don’t hear some of the best pop music of 2010. And then I’ll tell you that I would very much like to donate to whatever telethon helps people like you.

6. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, The Brutalist Bricks. Ted Leo is a bit of an unsung hero of rock music. He plays the guitar like a motherfucker, creates stylistically diverse music with a punk spirit, and even puts in the work to keep ticket prices down (as much as possible) for his fans. The Brutalist Bricks is a pretty relentless record – that is, it’s pretty and relentless, sometimes in the same track (album closer “Last Days” comes to mind). And the band brings just as much thunder on the stage as they do in the studio. The show Leo & the Pharmacists played in Los Angeles last spring was one of the most satisfying concerts I’ve ever attended.

7. The Mynabirds, What We Lose in the Fire, We Gain in the Flood. Laura Burhenn is an incredibly powerful singer, and she doesn’t need any goddamn auto-tune to deliver a melody that’ll put some fire in your blood. What We Lose in the Fire is nothing new musically, but it’s played with the deep faith of someone who as been baptized in the river of the music they’re mimicking. The album starts with a stunner (the somewhat paradoxically titled “What We Gained in the Fire”) and is littered with musical treasures throughout. Listen to the this record.

8. The Corin Tucker Band, 1,000 Years. I had read somewhere, long before it came out, that Corin Tucker’s first post-Sleater-Kinney album was inspired by her marriage and two kids. Given my feelings about such music, my Trepidation Meter was pegged over in the red until I heard 1,000 Years, which is actually just a very lovely rock album with some nice melodies and some really kickass moments. Tucker’s voice is still in the same great shape it was in on The Woods and her return to making music was one of the best things about a very rewarding year in music.

9. Wolf Parade, Expo 86. Wolf Parade channeled 80s David Bowie (the Dan Boeckner-led “Yulia” is “Space Oddity” with a Russian historical flavor) and their own personal weirdness to craft the best 1980s album of 2010. I hate to use the word “accessible” when discussing music, but Expo 86 probably was a breath of fresh air to people who were a bit put off by At Mount Zoomer (I don’t count myself in that group). Either way you slice it, songs like “Caveosapien” and “Ghost Pressure” help make Expo 86 an album that I couldn’t leave alone for long this year.

10. Tie: The Manic Street Preacher, Postcards from a Young Man; Roky Erickson and Okkervil River, True Love Cast Out All Evil. Both of these albums ended up tied for my tenth favorite in the last two weeks. In preparing for all this year-end nonsense, I tried to go back through all of the albums I really enjoyed throughout the year, and these two have done nothing but grow on me. Sure, Postcards from a Young Man is a bit overstuffed in places, but “All We Make is Entertainment” might be the best song the Manic Street Preachers have ever written (it’s definitely one of my favorite songs of 2010) and the rest of the album is pretty great too. James Dean Bradfield is an underrated rock vocalist and he proves it on every Manic Street Preachers album. As for legendary loony Roky Erickson, I spent the better part of this past holiday weekend rediscovering True Love Cast Out All Evil, and that album is really fucking beautiful. Like Postcards, it’s got some dodgy moments but those are far outweighed by moments of transcendent musical awesomeness. “True Love Cast Out All Evil” might be the best title track of the year.

There are lots of great albums that didn’t make this list. I still love them, but 2010 was an amazingly satisfying year for music (at least for me it was) and the albums discussed above are the ones from this year that I return to time and time again. We’re almost done with the year-in-review stuff, but I have found what is definitely the worst album of 2010 and I might need two days to tell you about it. Until then, some unsolicited advice: listen to music more than you talk, write, or read about it. Namaste!


The Totally Not Brief History of Awesome American Music Pt. 7: Modern Times

Chances are, if you read Bollocks!, you are somewhat aware of American music history through the first part of the 21st century. And if you’re a ten-year-old reading this blog, well, you’ve learned some new words, haven’t you? Anyway, to conclude my less-brief-than-intended history of awesome American music, I’m just gonna sum up the decade in things I think are awesome.

And one thing I think is stupid. In the first part of the decade, Metallica got embroiled in a legal battle with Napster over the peer-to-peer sharing of Metallica’s catalogue of unintentionally hilarious songs about darkness, blackness, death, and so on. That doesn’t bother me one way or the other, but Lars Ulrich, Metallica’s shitty drummer, wrote an editorial for Newsweek in which he stated that Metallica didn’t make music for their fans. This comment has stuck in my craw for the better part of ten years because it smacks of the sort of fuck-you-I’ve-made-my-money ingratitude that deserves repeated face punchings. Ulrich basically said that Metallica doesn’t make music for the people who made them millionaires. Well, Lars, I’ve never really been of the opinion that your band made music at all. Fuck you, sir, and good day.

Wilco did two very awesome things in the last decade that are worth mentioning. First, they turned in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to Reprise, a record label owned by AOL/Time-Warner. The label didn’t hear a single on the album (“Heavy Metal Drummer”, motherfuckers! But also, why would you sign a band like Wilco if you want radio hits?) and rejected it. Wilco left the label and, after streaming the whole thing on their website (for free, Metallica. And they’re poorer than you!) and building some buzz around it, they got snapped up by Nonesuch records and here’s the punchline: Nonesuch is a subsidiary of AOL/Time-Warner. So the Warner Music Group fired and rehired Wilco and looked like complete idiots in the process. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was released to well-deserved critical acclaim. The second awesome thing Wilco did this decade has to do with file-sharing. When they were set to release A Ghost is Born, a dude brazenly emailed Jeff Tweedy to make sure he’d downloaded the properly sequenced version of the album. In response to this, rather than getting all litigious, Wilco set up a link to Doctors Without Borders on their website, allowing people to assuage their piratey guilt by donating to charity. They ended up raising a shitload of money for Doctors Without Borders and also issued a statement about how they don’t just exist to make records but to – gasp! – play music for their fans. So to recap, Wilco is awesome and Metallica is pretty much wrong about everything.

The 21st century has been all about revivalism so far, for good and ill. Bands like the White Stripes and the Black Keys have done a pretty good job of keeping the blues vital, even while idiots like Kenny Wayne Shepherd and John Mayer seek to destroy them. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings have almost single-handedly attempted to rescue soul and R&B music from auto-tuning and over-production, doing for that genre pretty much the exact opposite of what Brian Setzer did for swing in the late 1990s (well, to swing. Rape is something you do to people, not for them). And my beloved Hold Steady have taken classic rock out of your alcoholic stepdad’s hands and put it in the hands of people who read books (some of which don’t even have pictures).

There’s even hope for punk music, Green Day notwithstanding. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, whose Brutalist Bricks may be their best album yet (and that’s saying something) is probably leading the charge, with fellow New Jersey-ites (New Jerseyians? Whatever) Titus Andronicus not far behind him. And the Thermals, who hail from my old stomping ground of Portland, Oregon, have been kicking ass for a few years now too. There’s also The Old Haunts, who should probably make another album now.

I started really paying attention to hip-hop in the last few years, even going back and listening to the old school stuff I’ve mentioned previously. Sage Francis was good when he was with Non-Prophets, and he should go back to that. Atmosphere might be the most bang for your hip-hop buck right now, as their last two albums have been nothing short of stellar. And since we’re talking about Minnesotans, you should know about Brother Ali as well. But if you want your hip-hop shit on the level of Coltrane, consider DOOM (formerly MF Doom) the hip-hop version of Interstellar Space. DOOM’s work is of a consistently higher quality than, well, pretty much everyone else’s. The dude even sampled a Bukowski poem on his last record. Of course, there are a couple of hip-hop producers of note, the two big ones being Madlib and Danger Mouse. Danger Mouse, of course, rose to fame by making the Gray Album, a mashup of Jay-Z’s Black Album and the Beatles’ White Album. Jay-Z got his panties in a twist over it and the album was litigated into its grave. Hey, Jay-Z: what the fuck do you expect people to do when you release an a cappella version of your album? Do you really think people like your voice that much? Asshole. Anyway, Danger Mouse went on to form half of Gnarls Barkley, produce an awesome Black Keys record, and cocreate Dark Night of the Soul with Sparklehorse (the late, totally underrated Mark Linkous).

I want to wrap up by talking about some women who I think are vital to American music right now…

I could have mentioned Ani DiFranco in the 1990s section, but she’s been going strong in the last decade as well, standing out as one of the most fiercely independent artists in American music right now. Dudes who can shed their ego enough to actually listen to her work will find that she writes very compelling songs and is one of the most unique acoustic guitarists I’ve ever heard.

Neko Case, as I believe I’ve mentioned before, is a goddess. End of story. If you’ve read this blog at all and don’t own Middle Cyclone, I don’t really understand your priorities. It’s like you’re striving to make your life less awesome.

I am secure enough in my whatever to admit that I like Alicia Keys, but I will like her a lot better when she fires her current producers, gets a lot more jaded, and becomes our next Aretha Franklin. I’m thinking this could happen by about 2030 (I know what I said about making predictions, but I reserve the right to contradict myself).

Bettye LaVette has been one of  the best-kept secrets in American music, and that’s really too bad. As a younger woman, she toured with Otis Redding. Later, she did a stint on Broadway with Cab Calloway. Her first full-length album, Child of the Seventies was inexplicably shelved by Atlantic records until 2000, when Gilles Petard released it as Souvenirs on his Art and Soul label. Eventually, LaVette was picked up by Anti-, the label that puts out Neko Case and Tom Waits records (that’s one helluva roster) and released I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise in 2005. Since then, she’s enjoyed some renewed and deserved interest. I’ll be reviewing her album of British songs later this year.

So that’s pretty much everything I could think of to tell you about awesome American music. I know I missed some stuff and I know I deliberately skipped some stuff, but so be it. I’m compiling a page of essential American tracks that should be up soon, so you can look for that if you want. In the meantime, though, don’t be a musical xenophobe. There’s amazing music all over the world and you’ll probably like some of it if you give it a shot. Some time in the future, I’ll get back to regular reviews, but I’m getting married in 30 days and that’s gonna have an effect on the ol’ updating schedule. We’ll be in touch.

Is High Violet the Best Album Since Heaven Is Whenever? Yes. Yes It Is.

I’ve made little secret of the fact that my favorite album of 2010 is the Hold Steady’s Heaven is Whenever. Come December, I had thought to do a year-end list of my favorite non-Hold Steady albums of 2010. But it appears the National have gone and fucked that up for everyone. Spoiler alert: the best non-Hold Steady album of 2010 is High Violet by the National. So I guess this year, more than most years, it’s especially pointless to bother with all that year-end best-of stuff. Which is actually kind of nice. I’m having a busy year that might (hopefully) end up getting busier. So I’ll take the time-savers where I can get them.

How good is High Violet? I hate to bust out movie-poster words like “stunning,” “edge-of-your-seat thrill ride”, and “based on the novel by the author of The Horse Whisperer” but if the shoe fits, you must acquit. Or something. Okay, those last two really aren’t appropriate to what the National have achieved with their follow-up to 2007’s also awesome Boxer, but if I had to give you a single-word assessment of High Violet, I’m pretty sure I’d stick with “stunning.” If I had to give you three words? “Really fucking stunning.” Seriously, if you’re short on time and can’t read this whole review, just take the next sentence as a summary. High Violet is so good that I must officially elevate it to the level of Exactly as Good as Heaven Is Whenever. If a Time Cop came to my house and said that I could only take two albums from 2010 with me into the future, I’d not hesitate at all to choose High Violet and Heaven Is Whenever. I’ve gone on long enough about the latter record, but the former is pretty much eleven straight tracks of goosebump-inducing greatness.

If you’ve read Bollocks! from back in or near the very beginning (my very first post, back in 2008, was about how the National and Band of Horses had both made the best album of 2007. At this point, with a few years’ reflection, I’d give the title solely to the National), you probably know that I’d surrender various non-essential parts of my anatomy to be able to sing like Matt Berninger and that hasn’t changed. Since I don’t hear people running around in the street singing the man’s praises, I’m going to continue to suggest that Berninger is the most underrated vocalist working right now. That mournful baritone, which can occasionally rise to a scream (listen to “Abel” and “Mr. November” from Alligator for excellent examples of this), is rich, distinctive, and perfectly suited to the bummed out, self-deprecating songs that tend to end up on National records. And, as a lyricist, the dude who correctly observed, “We’re half awake/ in a fake empire” is still sharp as ever. There are myriad lyrical highlights on High Violet, my current favorite being, “You and your sister live in a Lemonworld/ I want to sit in and die.” I like the sunny imagery of a Lemonworld (whatever that is) contrasted with Berninger’s gloomy Gus narrator who wants to die in the middle of all that cutesy, citrusy splendor. If you dig the metaphor, that kind of conflict permeates High Violet (and many of the National’s best songs on their other albums), but the melodies are cranked to eleven so it’s hard to feel as bad as Berninger’s narrators do. “Sorrow,” for instance, is a poppy paean to being bummed: “I don’t wanna get over you,” sung over snapping drums and ooo-ing background vocals.

And of course, Berninger’s lyrics are embedded in the sumptuous arrangements of his bandmates: the brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner and the brothers Scott and Bryan Devendorf. From the haunting, chill-inducing opener “Terrible Love” right on through the clunkily-named (but still beautiful) “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”, the Dessners and Devendorfs lay down the most solid of foundations for Berninger’s observations about love, drugs (“I don’t have the drugs to sort it out,” he sings on “Afraid of Anyone”), and general working-guy angst/paranoia in 21st century America (“I still owe money/ to the money I owe”). It’s been widely reported that the band argued a lot while recording and mixing this album but the end result is… hell, let’s just say it: High Violet is gorgeous, lyrically and melodically, and it’s the best National album yet, which is saying something.

Previous National albums have required time to grow on me but High Violet, from the opening strains of “Terrible Love”, made me sit the fuck still and listen. It has grabbed hold of me and it will not let go – not that I want it to. I figured to love this album, but the extent is a little unnerving. I almost can’t stop listening to it long enough to tell you how great  it is. As I’ve been drafting this post, I’ve found myself frequently pausing just to listen to the music; the way the horns swell and sink again on “Runaway,” (one of Berninger’s best-ever vocal performances. When he sings, “We got another thing coming undone,” it just about breaks me in half) the subtle harmonies on “Afraid of Anyone,” and the second time through, I caught that “Conversation 16”  sees Berninger supposing he’s a zombie (“I was afraid I’d eat your brains/ because I’m evil”). And don’t even get me started on the end of “England.” Holy shit.

Wait just a goddamn minute. “Afraid of Anyone” is… is it? It is. It’s about being a fucking parent! Sonofabitch. “With my kid on my shoulders I try/ not to hurt anybody I like.” It’s totally about that protective paranoia that recent father Matt Berninger is feeling in public with his kid. If you’ve read Bollocks! or talked to me about music for more than two minutes, you know that there’s one thing I know is true: if you write a song about your kid(s), that song will suck and, most likely, your band will start to suck. It’s like invoking an ancient curse upon your own face by the rock gods (if you really wanna hold up “Tears in Heaven” as the exception that proves the rule you can do that. But I sentence you to listen to everything Clapton did after that without vomiting. You can’t do it. So shut up). Tom Waits did one on Orphans called “Take Care of All of My Children,” but that was a cover of an old gospel tune. He didn’t write it about his kids. But Berninger seems to be talking about his child on “Afraid of Anyone.” And he wrote the song. So hear me, ye skeptics, and know I speak the truth: High Violet is so awesome, so skull-numbingly brilliant, that not only could Matt Berninger put a song on there about his kid without ruining the album, but that song itself is also awesome.

The National has just blown my fucking mind.

My Favorite Songs of 2009

Well, it’s the end of the year. Pitchfork has counted down their bazillion favorite songs and billion favorite albums of the year, Rolling Stone has done the same, and nobody’s got it right yet, have they? And nobody will, will they? No, you’re better off making your own list. You have the exact same authority as Pitchfork, you just have fewer people who believe it. I, for one, am not going to let that stop me.

However, I’m not going to count down my favorite songs of 2009 – I’m going to mention them at random and you can, from my remarks, try to quantify them if you wish. I’m going to use a lot of random bold type to make this shit seem more important, too. Let’s get arbitrary:

I really love “Watching the Planets” by the Flaming Lips. It’s a great way to close an album like Embryonic, largely because it sounds like the sort of thing you’d hear at a nudist rave. It has lots to admire – lines about “killing the ego” and “burning the Bible.” I’m pretty sure I could only love it more if Wayne Coyne sang it while gargling Guinness.

“Watching the Planets” features background vocals by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who opened their It’s Blitz! album with the stellar (and catchy as fuck) “Zero,” a song which helpfully suggests that you get your leather on. Granted, “Zero” loses some of its luster when someone asks you to explain the lyrics, but the vibe is strong with this one.

I don’t know where to begin loving Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone, but I guess I’ll start with its lead single, “People Got a Lotta Nerve.” It’s not my favorite song on that (amazing) album, but it does get stuck in my head all the time. The chorus is a catchy little “no shit, Sherlock” for folks who think that animals exist to be cute. “I’m a man eater/ but still you’re surprised when I eat ya” could also function (I suppose) on the level of a predatory woman, but I’m choosing to ignore that in favor of the more explicit animal imagery offered in the song.

Here’s another song I love: “Done” by Built to Spill. One of my favorite things about it is that its most indelible feature is that subtle wah-wah lick that introduces and then meanders through the song. It gives me chills every time I hear it and it reminds me of Doug Martsch’s absolute authority on the guitar.

I mostly haven’t gotten into the new Cribs record, but the opening track, “We Were Aborted”, is pretty badass. There’s another tune toward the end that’s right good as well, but the rest of the album fails to live up to the promise of the opener.

I’ve heard that YACHT is far less than awesome live, which is a shame. I enjoyed See Mystery Lights quite a bit, and my party playlist for the foreseeable future will feature “Psychic City.LCD Soundsytem’s James Murphy saw YACHT’s potential and signed them to his label. I’m hoping the follow-up to See Mystery Lights sounds more like “Psychic City” and less like the lazier “Don’t Fight the Darkness.”

YACHT, being an Oregon band, stands in some great musical company: the Thermals released a phenomenal album this year (that’s two in a row for them – 2006’s The Body, the Blood, the Machine is indescribably awesome) and “I Called Out Your Name” was a loving spoonful of pop from that album. The Shaky Hands waxed spiritual on Let It Die, an album that (happily) got stuck in my CD player for about half a month. Its title track is still one of my favorite things to wake up to. The Decemberists, one of Oregon’s most famous bands, made a fairly inevitable record that was basically a rock opera. As such, it didn’t crank out the hit singles; however, “The Rake’s Song” is a sinister delight.

The Thermals give me hope for the future of punkish music, and so does the Future of the Left. Travels with Myself and Another is aggressive, abrasive, and hilarious. Andy Falkous spends most of the album hitting home-runs, but he’s at his best on “The Hope that House Built”, where he tells us “don’t despair/ life is just a dream” before suggesting we “re-imagine God as just a mental illness.” In the end, everybody wins.

While we’re being sacrilegious, I should mention that “I Would Rather Sacrifice You” by the Minus 5 is one of my favorite songs of the year. “I will die a Christian soldier/ if I ever die at all,” sings Scott McCaughey, after admitting to spreading the gospel with his gun. It’s all done up as country/bluegrass number with excellent harmonies and a sing-along lilt. The overall effect borders on complete fucking genius.

I might lose some street cred for this but, uneven as their album is, the Avett Brothers’ “I and Love and You” really is a beautiful song. The album never regains the heights it reaches on its title track, though I’ve heard their older stuff is better (I’ll probably discuss I and Love and You at greater length later).

Jim James rescued the Masters of Folk album from the depths of tedium this year, infusing his tracks with an almost effortless beauty. “His Master’s Voice” is James at his best and it was probably a smart choice to close the album with it – it gives you the impression that you’ve just heard something special. In the case of the closing track, you have; in the case of the album, you haven’t. Still, Jim James is definitely on the list of people whom I will gladly buy a beer should our paths ever cross.

Speaking of uncommonly beautiful songs, Yo La Tengo’s “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven” certainly qualifies. Gripe about the length all you want, but I could tolerate it at an hour or longer. It captures every one of Yo La Tengo’s strengths, it builds to a lovely climax, and the harmonies are superb.

My love of “More Stars” notwithstanding, brevity is typically the soul of pop music. I’m not sure any band understood that better this year than Metric, whose Fantasies album is a meager but meaty ten tracks. My favorite is “Front Row,” which strikes me as exactly the sort of song I should be hearing everywhere instead of that fucking “Poker Face” song. Can someone get to work on this for me?

Perhaps the best question asked in music this year was “Oh Mommy/ what’s  a Sex Pistol?” The Manic Street Preachers asked it on “Jackie Collins Existential Question Time”, one of several excellently named tracks on Journal for Plague Lovers. I hadn’t listened to the Manic Street Preachers before this year, but I’m quite keen to check out more of their stuff.

“Smoke” by Lucero.

And “Natural Disaster” by Andrew Bird.

Let’s end on a sad note, can we? I spent the better part of Christmas morning scouring the internet for news of Vic Chesnutt’s condition (he died Friday after being in a coma for several hours) and listening to his music on Lala. That’s where I discovered At the Cut and “Flirted with You All My Life,” a song wherein Chesnutt contemplates death and his many run-ins with it (he was rendered paraplegic in a car accident when he was 18 and had apparently attempted suicide at least once before succeeding), finally deciding that he’s “not ready.” The song would be heartbreaking even if Chesnutt hadn’t just died, but his death makes it all the more poignant. He’s the second great songwriter I discovered because of his death, Chris Whitley being the first. I’m trying to track down a fistful of Chesnutt’s albums as we speak and will report on my findings later.

I probably forgot a lot of songs, but that doesn’t mean I love them any less. The list of my favorite albums of the year will be more ordered; here are some albums that definitely won’t be on that list:

Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion

Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

U2, No Line On the Horizon (this was number fucking one on Rolling Stone’s list this year. Do you need further proof that 1) Rolling Stone is completely useless and 2) year-end lists are bullshit?)

Girls, Album

And so on.

Dark Was the Night


AIDS has an interesting history. It was ignored by the Reagan administration until his final year in office, which was detailed in the exemplary book And the Band Played On; it was dramatized effectively in Philadelphia, less effectively in Rent and served as a major catalyst for prophetic vision in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which is – bet yer ass – the most important play of the last twenty years. Much has been made of raising awareness about AIDS, although our current Pope (quick anecdote – I have a good friend who is Catholic and her father, who is sadly no longer with us, knew about Pope Benedict back when he was merely Cardinal Ratzinger. His nickname for the guy was Cardinal Ratfucker) doesn’t seem to think condoms will help prevent it. Once again, Pope Benedict, Science and I would like to have a word with you.

Somewhere in here is the context in which we find the two-disc Red Hot compilation Dark Was the Night, produced by Aaron and Bryce Dessner, two members of The National who used to work at Red Hot. Dark Was the Night exists to raise money for AIDS education and prevention and it’s pretty irresistible at 13 bucks. I ordered my copy from Red Hot and got 2 free 7 inch singles, which I can’t play because I lack a turntable at the moment. But I would like to thank Red Hot for starting my vinyl collection for me. In case the whole value-for-money thing is  a big deal to you, I should like to repeat: I bought Dark Was the Night for 13 dollars. That’s 31 songs for 13 dollars. And most of the songs are pretty good, too. The comp starts off on a weird note with David Byrne and The Dirty Projectors mutilating a song called “Knotty Pine.” The Dirty Projectors have a female vocalist who is absolutely terrible. But that track is followed by a series of very pretty songs, starting with Jose Gonzalez (everyone’s favorite Swede) and The Books doing “Cello Song,” which is all soft and lovely and just like you’d expect from Mr. Gonzalez. Ben Gibbard (s0on to be Mr. Zooey Deschanel) and Feist take on “Train Song,” next, but it’s not the Tom Waits version of the song, which kind of disappointed me. For some reason, I expect one of these artists to cover Tom Waits. I don’t know why.

There’s really no way to talk about Dark Was the Night as anything other than it’s good bits and it’s bad bits. It starts off with a bad song, then goes on a run of several truly lovely tunes, climaxing with The National’s outstanding (as usual) “So Far Around the Bend,” which quips, “You’ve been hummin’ in a haze forever/ praying for Pavement to get back together.” I think we’ve all been doing that. Am I right? There are a few surprises on the album. For instance, I’ve not been a big Grizzly Bear fan, but their “Deep Blue Sea” is part of the afore-mentioned run of loveliness. Stuart Murdoch (of Belle & Sebastian, perhaps the most over-rated indie band ever) turns in a very pretty tune called “Another Saturday.” I’m not a big Antony & the Johnsons fan but Antony sings Bob Dylan’s “I Was Young When I Left Home” like Nina fucking Simone, which is to say he sings it in an unparalleled, hauntingly beautiful sort of way. If The Crying Light is like this (doubtful), I might just be persuaded to check it out. Yeasayer, a band I’ve never given a shit about, made me pretty happy with “Tightrope,” although it mostly makes me miss Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. I’ve never listened to My Brightest Diamond before, but “Feeling Good” is quite compelling. I think Beirut is kind of obnoxious, but didn’t mind “Mimizan” at all.

And, naturally, there are some unsurprising moments, like Sufjan Stevens still pissing me off with “You are the Blood” which is a ten minute bastard of a melodramatic, horn-infused, self-indulgent piece of shit. And then Buck 65 remixes it on Disc 2, making it shorter and still fuck-terrible. I mean, it’s awful. It’s not surprising to me that The National have the best song of the compilation in a landslide (My Morning Jacket comes in a close second with the swinging “El Caporal” – don’t believe the Pitchfork kids’ disses of MMJ; they’re a great band and Evil Urges is an awesome album) and it’s not surprising that my favorite songs on the album are by artists I already know and love.

Perhaps the biggest criticism I could lob at the compilation as a whole is that it represents a very soft side of indie music, which I don’t mind, but My Morning Jacket, Spoon, and Sharon Jones are the only artists who really get the pulse racing on Dark Was the Night. The album could benefit from some of indies louder acts, like maybe The Hold Steady or The Thermals or even The Yeah Yeah Yeahs.  Some more raucous stuff would be welcome on the comp, but I’m not gonna throw the thing out just because it lacks electric guitars.

Among the 31 tracks, the score is overwhelmingly toward the good – I would score it somewhere around 27 to 4 or 28 to 3, allowing for personal taste. But some of the good stuff is truly amazing, like “So Far Around the Bend” and the stunning Riceboy Sleeps (who the fuck is that? Turns out it involves the singer from Sigur Ros and his boyfriend. They have released two singles and a book) instrumental “Happiness.” In fact, the worst stuff on this album mostly involves Sufjan Stevens. And you can’t pay 13 bucks for 28 awesome songs anywhere but the Russian black market. When you can pay 13 bucks for music this uniformly excellent and have the money go to fight AIDS, I would like to think you need no more persuading.

Go here to find out how to order the comp and to see an awesome video of The National performing their stellar contribution to Dark Was the Night