Thoughts on the Music I Heard This Year (Part Two): “The Music Industry is Lying to You”

You might get the impression that a lot of music pissed me off in 2013 and while it is true that lots of music (and many other things) got my ire cranking during the last year, there was a lot of really great music this year and I’m happy that I got to listen to some of it.

This is not a countdown of my favorite albums of the year because I hate those. I don’t believe that nine or nineteen or 49 albums are measurable and precise intervals worse than my favorite album of the year and I think it’s silly to pretend they are. How the fuck do you calculate that, of all the albums released on the planet this year, How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident is precisely the 72nd best? You don’t, because that would be silly.

Yes, the new Future of the Left album is my favorite album of 2013 and my other favorites are all albums that, like How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident, thrilled me to the point of distraction. So rather than some artificial countdown, think of this as “If you only had to hear six or seven albums from 2013, these are my recommendations.” But think of it with the following grain of salt – you might totally fucking despise the things I like and that is absolutely your right.

So what do I love so much about How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident? First off, I love how it came into existence – Future of the Left announced a PledgeMusic campaign in the spring which, understandably, hit its goal in short order. I was able to send some money to the band so they could make this album and in return, I got a signed copy of the album, a T-shirt, and a digital copy of their Love Songs for Our Husbands EP. The band asked for help from their fans and then made an excellent and sincere show of gratitude. Oh yeah, and they made an album full of all the things I like from Future of the Left – sarcasm,  yelling, pounding drums, crunchy guitars, and kazoos. Okay, the kazoos are new but they really tie “Things to Say to Friendly Policemen” together:

The Pitchfork review of this album pointed out How to Stop Your Brain‘s implied critique of macho asshole behavior but then kind of chided the band for providing “no model for a better society” which I find a little bit odd. This is a website that chose the new Vampire Weekend album as the best album of 2013 and if there is a vision for a better society in that band’s music, I haven’t heard it. Forgive me, but I don’t see how a society where everyone endlessly plagiarizes Graceland is any better than the one we have now. Besides, Future of the Left has never been what you would call “solution-focused” (unless you count their suggestion that we “re-imagine god as just a mental illness” on Travels with Myself and Another). Andrew Falkous’s sarcasm, wielded with a skill and precision that cannot be taught, is probably indicative of a certain amount of hopelessness. Mind you, I don’t know the guy – maybe he’s a wide-eyed idealist like me but I doubt it. So why would a guy like me listen to such (on its surface, at least) negative music? There’s a certain catharsis inherent in the sharply barbed wit of Future of the Left’s music and what I love about How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident in particular is that the two minute bursts of catchy-yet-snide stuff (“There’s nothing like a military coup,” sings Falco on “Johnny Borrell Afterlife” before adding, “The clothes are great / and everybody loves a curfew”) are occasionally offset but things like the opening line to “I Don’t Know What You Ketamine (But I Think I Love You)” which goes like so: “One day/ Soon/ Let’s talk about love/ like we talk about food: Generously/ and then/ without irony.” Cheeky title notwithstanding, the song opens with an honest (and, to my mind anyway, laudable) sentiment. Plus, I’m just generally in favor of doing things without irony. 

Obviously, Future of the Left isn’t for everyone but you probably didn’t start reading a music blog called Bollocks! to hear about stuff that might be for everyone. That said, I’m pretty sure most people who like music and/or joy will find something to love about Janelle Monáe’s The Electric Lady. 

One of the great things about life now is that, if you have the privilege of access to the internet and leisure time, you can find the music of pretty much anyone that your friends recommend to you. I read about Monáe when her first full-length, The Arch-Android, came out in 2010 but didn’t get around to listening to her until this year. I tend not to describe a lot of music as being “a revelation” but that’s what The Electric Lady is – it’s a truly thrilling, surprising slice of science fiction-infused soul. All of Monáe’s recorded output of which I am aware takes place in this sort of alternate reality (maybe the future?) where androids are marginalized and abused by mainstream society. But they are led in resistance by Cindi Mayweather, the ostensible alter-ego of Janelle Monáe. In 2011, Monáe told the London Evening Standard“I speak about androids because I think the android represents the new ‘other’. You can compare it to being a lesbian or being a gay man or being a black woman … What I want is for people who feel oppressed or feel like the ‘other’ to connect with the music and to feel like, ‘She represents who I am’.” 

I can’t, as a heterosexual white guy, connect with Monáe’s music from a standpoint of marginalization – just like I can’t connect with, say, Bikini Kill or Curtis Mayfield in the same way that women and people of color do. It would be dishonest, not to mention a bit foolish. Where I strongly connect to Monáe’s work is as 1) someone who loves a good R&B record (and The Electric Lady is a great R&B record) and 2) someone who can quite easily imagine a world where people aren’t chronically fucked over because they are viewed as “less-than” in the eyes of the dominant culture (indeed, I can quite easily imagine an end to “dominant culture” – I told you I’m a wide-eyed idealist). Like a lot of the music I love (Mayfield, Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, Bratmobile, Public Enemy – I could go on), The Electric Lady offers ironclad proof that we never have to choose between style and substance. We can have music that is aesthetically astounding and demands liberation at the same time. Isn’t that what all good art should do?

Writing about and thinking about Janelle Monáe and Future of the Left all morning (it takes me longer to write this stuff than it used to) has led me to a pretty happy conclusion – these are probably the two albums that I have listened to the most in 2013 (and they both came out in the last half of the year) and they both suit different sides of my personality. How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident is loud, sarcastic and (somewhat) diagnostic while The Electric Lady is bombastic, stylistically diverse, and (somewhat) prescriptive. In terms of hopelessness and hopefulness, they kinda balance each other out in some way. It may not work for you, but it does for me.

Those are only two of my favorites from 2013 – I guess you’ll have to wait until 2014 to read about (if you want to, that is – we don’t force anyone to read blogs around here) some of the others, which include albums by Neko Case, Aye Nako, Hilly Eye, The Julie Ruin, and probably some others I’m forgetting.

In the meantime, here’s a link to “Dance Apocalyptic” from The Electric Lady: 

Happy New Year!

Advertisements

Thoughts on the Music I Heard This Year (Part One): The Year of Accidental Racists

The Paisley

Another year is coming to an end, which means I have spent a good part of the last month trying to convince various horrible readers’ polls on the internet that Future of the Left’s How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident is the best album of 2013 and “Singing of the Bonesaws” is the Very Best Single of the year. Although it wasn’t technically a single, I operate on the assumption that we live in an era where every song simultaneously is and isn’t a single.

There’s a lot we could talk about looking back at 2013 but for some reason, my mind keeps coming back to “Accidental Racist” by Brad Paisley (featuring L.L. Cool J). I thought about adding it to my ongoing list of The Worst Songs I Have Ever Heard but 1) I’m not even sure I can do that feature anymore and 2) it would just be too goddamn easy. To address the first point first, part of the reason Bollocks! has been so infrequently updated over the last two years is because I was finishing a master’s degree but another part is that I’ve spent a lot of time looking back at what I’ve written over the last few years and honestly, I don’t like much of it at all. There’s some stuff I’m kind of proud of  but there’s mostly a lot of jokes that seem too easy, not to mention enough ego to swallow a music industry awards show whole. A surprising amount of people (i.e., “any people at all”) dug a lot of that shit and that’s fine. But for me to keep doing Bollocks! it’s gonna have to be different. Better. More on that as it develops.

But as for “Accidental Racist” being too easy of a target for being one of the Worst Songs I’ve Ever Heard, here’s what I mean: it is most certainly one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard. It’s lyrically embarrassing and musically banal but so is most modern country music these days. Like a lot of white guys, I find the reaction to this song kind of shocking. Unlike a lot of white guys, I mean I find it shocking that my fellow crackers were quick to give Paisley points for trying and thereby brush off accusations that “Accidental Racist” is (accidentally, of course!) racist. One writer suggested that this was the “first time ever” that a song had sparked a national dialogue about whether or not the Confederate flag is racist. Essentially, a lot of defense of “Accidental Racist” wants to give Paisley points for trying and shush up all the meanies who dare to suggest that being racist by accident is still being racist. 

This is the point that a lot of people – including Brad Paisley – seemed to miss. That whole “accidental” part doesn’t stop racism from being racism and to suggest that hey, I’m just an earnest white dude in a Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt trying to do my best in this complicated world is to suggest that I’m not accountable for my acts of racism. And points for trying? I’m sorry, but fuck “trying” – it’s not good enough. When it comes to eradicating racism, the stakes are incredibly high. The disparities nonwhites experience at the hands of our so-called justice system, from our police, in housing and employment are literally matters of life and death. In the face of all that, for a white person to expect points for trying is, I would imagine, pretty goddamn insulting.

Similar defenses have been deployed to defend Miley Cyrus’s current nonsense and Katy Perry’s dressing up as a geisha for some goddamn awful performance (the American Music Awards, maybe?) – these white folks weren’t trying to be racist so it’s definitely not racist, according to (surprise!) a bunch of white people. My fellow white folks, we have to do better than that. Ask yourself: doesn’t it seem a little too goddamn easy to dehumanize an entire segment of humanity (by accident or design) and then, when they speak up about it, call them over-sensitive? Doesn’t that seem a little fucked up to you?

So I know I’m rambling a bit but I feel like it’s not just that “Accidental Racist” is awful music (please do remember though that it’s really awful music) – it’s that the rush to defend it based solely on the perceived intentions of the singer is a symptom of how pervasive white supremacy is in our culture. It’s so pervasive that a lot of white folks I know tend to misunderstand the definition of racism, often seeing it as a Southern stereotype with a Confederate flag on his shirt shouting the n-word. Let me take a stab at clarification: our just-mentioned Southern racist is being prejudiced by shouting the n-word at someone. But let’s say (just hypothetically, of course) that he’s from Florida and he doesn’t ever say the n-word, but he, absent of all evidence, makes the assumption that (just for instance, mind you) an unarmed African-American teenager in a hoodie is engaged in criminal activity. Now let’s say our Floridian gets away with murdering that (again, unarmed) kid by claiming that he was in fear for his life – that’s racism (if our Floridian’s jury is made up of mostly white folks, the entire defense is predicated on racism as it asks the white jurors to find it completely understandable to fear for your life from unarmed black teens). That’s prejudice with the power to enforce it broadly to the disadvantage of an entire group of people. It’s what makes it seem acceptable to certain reporters to talk about Renisha McBride’s blood-alcohol level when writing about how a white man shot her when she was seeking help after getting in a car accident, as if to suggest that the fact that she was drunk means she deserved to die.

Understand something, please: we all have prejudices, every single human does. But not all of us have the ability to institutionalize our prejudices – in the U.S. of A., that dubious privilege falls to white people.  Some of us may not like it, but guess what? Not liking it isn’t enough either. We have to stop seeing a level playing field where there isn’t one and we have to own it when we fuck up, which we’re gonna do.

You came here to read about 2013’s musical highs and lows and you got this. I’m not sorry. This is what’s on my mind when I think about picking up this blog again in any kind of regular capacity – I still want to write about music, but it has to connect to all the other shit that’s out there because everything happens in context. And my context has always been that Bollocks! has to matter to me in order for it to continue. And it matters to me to look at the context in which music is made.

Here’s a thing bell hooks wrote that I like: “One change in direction that would be real cool would be the production of a discourse on race that interrogates whiteness… Many scholars, critics and writers preface their work by stating that they are white as though mere acknowledgement of this fact were sufficient, as though it conveyed all we need to know of standpoint, motivation, direction.” I think about that a lot as something to bear in mind when I’m writing even something as seemingly frivolous (and certainly meaningless) as a music blog. Is Brad Paisley interested in interrogating whiteness through the prism of country music? Time will tell. If he is, he’s never gonna get there without learning how to be held accountable for fucking up, which is a really hard thing to do (I’m not, by the way, trying to claim that I’m an Enlightened White Person who never trespasses on folks – I fuck up as much or more than the next person).

Next time, we’ll talk more about music. Unless I wanna talk about something else.

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 2010 Bollocks! Awards, Part 2

Did you miss Part One? Check it out here.

Now let’s keep the ball rolling by presenting the “In the Beginning” Award for Best Opening Track. I had a hard time picking a winner for this award, but I went with a track that not only is an excellent way to open the album on which it appears, but is also a pretty excellent snapshot of everything that makes this particular band great. So the award goes to The New Pornographers for “Moves”, the track which opens their stellar album Together. Honorable mention goes to Ted Leo for “The Mighty Sparrow”, Menomena for “Queen  Black Acid”, and The National for “Terrible Love”.

If I’m going to have an award for an album opener, it only makes sense to have an award for an album closer. Hence, the Coffee is for Closers Award for Best Closing Track. This award was won in a landslide by Wolf Parade, because “Caveosapien” is a badass way to end Expo 86, which is a badass album. Honorable Mention: Ted Leo for “Last Days” (Mr. Leo has garnered a lot of honorable mentions at the Bollocks! Awards because he is indeed an honorable man) and The Hold Steady for “A Slight Discomfort.”

Some critics shy away from paying a backhanded compliment, but I certainly don’t. That’s one of the reasons I made up the Semisonic Award for a Brilliant Song on a Boring Album (Semisonic, astute readers will recall, is responsible for the catchy late ’90s anthem “Closing Time” which opened an album that was so boring it’s not legal to listen to it while operating heavy machinery). This year’s winner is The Besnard Lakes in yet another landslide. “Albatross” is one of the best songs of the year, but it sits smack in the middle of one of the most boring albums I’ve ever heard. The song should be the absolute blueprint for the Besnard Lakes’ continued existence, but something tells me their future sounds a lot more like the boring bits of The Besnard Lakes are the Roaring Night.

Sometimes, when you’re trying to pay homage to a hero, you can end up parodying that hero and – occasionally – yourself, so I like to make mention of artists who honor their heroes with dignity. So I’m presenting LCD Soundsystem with the Marilyn Manson Award for the Best David Bowie Impersonation. LCD Soundsystem mostly gets this award for “All I Want,” but the more I listen to This is Happening, the more I hear post-Young Americans Bowie, which is not a bad thing at all.

This year, I heard a really shitty cover of Don Henley’s “Boy’s of Summer.” Turns out that really shitty cover was by the Ataris. Now, I don’t like Henley’s original, but the Ataris’ version is pure suck. By way of contrast, none of the songs I considered for the Smothered and Covered Award for Best Cover Song suck even a little bit. After much debate, I’ve chosen to give this award to Mavis Staples for her cover of CCR’s “Wrote A Song for Everyone.” Staples goes one better than a faithful rendition of the tune – she takes ownership of it and truly makes it a song for everyone. Honorable Mention goes to Esperanza Spalding for a beautiful rendition of “Wild is the Wind” on her Chamber Music Society album and also to Bettye LaVette for basically all of Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook.

But now that I think about it, one of my favorite covers I heard all year is not available on any album. Good thing I just made up the Ted Leo Finally Wins One Award for the Best Live Cover Song. As you might have guessed, Ted Leo wins this award for his stirring rendition of “Fisherman’s Blues” by the Waterboys. Leo performed this as part of his encore at the Troubadour last spring and it made me want to run home and play guitar really loud. Well done, Mr. Leo. Well done.

So few awards left to hand out! By the way, the winner’s don’t get statuettes or anything – they just get the honor and prestige that doesn’t come from winning a Bollocks! Award. You’re welcome, winners!

Some albums don’t get the recognition they deserve when they come out, so I thought it might be nice to create the Delgados Award for Most Totally Underrated Album of the Year. It’s pretty clear from where I sit that MGMT should win this award for Congratulations. A lot of people wanted more sugary pop from the weird duo and what they got instead was an album of psychedelic freakitude that actually has a lot more going for it than their debut did. Honorable Mention: The Hold Steady for Heaven is Whenever, Jesca Hoop for Hunting My Dress, and The Black Keys for Brothers.

And what’s this over here? Why, we have Another Tom Waits Award, This Time for Best Lyricist of the Year. The winner won’t surprise anyone who’s read more than two posts on this blog: Craig Finn, the singer and chief songwriter for The Hold Steady, is probably the best writer in all of rock music today. Heaven is Whenever, like all four of its predecessors, is littered with gems like, “In the end, I bet no one learns a lesson” from “Weekenders” and “you can’t tell people what they wanna hear/ if you also wanna tell the truth” from “Soft in the Center.” And the ostensible title track, “We Can Get Together”, is one of the sweetest things Finn’s ever written. Honorable Mention: Nick Cave (Grinderman) and Matt Berninger (The National).

I don’t make a lot of genre distinctions here at Bollocks! but I made up the Thriller Award for Best Pop Album because I am often accused of hating pop music. Cee Lo Green is the clear winner in this category because The Ladykiller is pure pop candy and I end up listening to it about three times in a row every time I start listening to it. Yes, “Fuck You” is the best song, but the other songs are not far behind it. Green still doesn’t get the credit he deserves as a pop mastermind and winning this award will definitely not change that. Honorable Mention: New Pornographers Together and She & Him Volume Two.

And so we come to the last Bollocks! Award for 2010, which means I can stop abusing the bold text for another year. The final award is every bit as unprestigious as the ones that came before it – it’s the Bollocks! Album of the Year Award. Though competition was stiff, there’s really only one album I can give this award to and that’s High Violet by The National. That album is still stunning to me every time I put it on and it’s still the album from this year that I listen to the most, which is saying something indeed. I could give several Honorable Mentions but I will point out two that I think also qualify as essential listening to people who like joy and they are This is Happening by LCD Soundsystem and Castle Talk by the Screaming Females. More on those albums later when I publish my arbitrary, old-fashioned top ten albums list.

That does it for the 2010 Bollocks! Awards, but the year-end madness will continue with favorite-album write-ups from a couple of my guest contributors, my top ten albums list, and a look ahead to 2011. If you’ve enjoyed Bollocks! this year, why not give your friends the gift of our web address (https://chorpenning.wordpress.com) so they can enjoy the hyperbole and vitriol for themselves? It’s totally free and it’s the kind of gift that says, “I want you to read the word ‘fuck’  ninety times in the next five minutes.” Hey, it’s the thought that counts, right?



The 2010 Bollocks! Awards, Part 1

Welcome to the 2010 Bollocks! Awards! If you’ve read this blog at all, you know that we here at Bollocks! have strong opinions about music. We  (and by “we”, I mean “I”) like to share these opinions in a (hopefully) humorous fashion, with the goal of edifying and entertaining our readers. To wrap up the year that was 2010, I decided to forego (for a while) the usual year-end countdown of the best songs and albums and try instead to honor musical achievements both dubious and dashing, divided into several user-friendly categories.

The first award I’d like to present is the Curtis Mayfield Award for the Acceptable Use of a Falsetto. This award goes to the Black Keys for “Everlasting Light,” the opening track to Brothers, which may be their best album. In a world where piano-tinkling dimwits croon a falsetto to try and “fix you”, the Keys’ Dan Auerbach knows what all smart people know – falsettos can not only be used for awesome, they can be used for sexy time. Honorable Mention: Cee Lo Green for “Wildflower” and Wolf Parade for “Oh You Old Thing.”

Next up is the Morrissey Award for Being the Biggest Asshole in Music. No surprise here; the award goes to Morrissey for comments he made earlier this year about Chinese people. Complaining to an interviewer about the treatment of animals in China, the former Smiths singer (affectionately nicknamed “Borrissey” by the Bollocks! staff) said, “You can’t help but feel that the Chinese are a subspecies.” Maybe you can’t help but feel that way, Borrissey, but I don’t feel that way because I don’t assume, as you clearly do, that all Chinese people treat animals the same or agree with the horrible treatment that some animals in China experience. Does this mean that Borrissey bases his opinion of all black people on the actions of Michael Vick? Honorable Mention: e-Music for giving people less music for their money and trying to excuse it by saying, “Hey, at least we didn’t raise your prices.”

But hey, it’s Christmastime, so more positivity, yeah? How about the Neko Case Award for Best Female Vocalist? I happily present this award to Marisa Paternoster of the Screaming Females. Paternoster’s performance on this year’s Castle Talk (not to mention on every other Screaming Females album) is bold, loud, and absolutely embodies everything that rock ‘n’ roll singing should be. Honorable Mention: Bettye LaVette, Corin Tucker, and Mavis Staples.

And why not follow the Neko Case Award with the Tom Waits Award for Best Male Vocalist? Long-time Bollocks! readers will not be surprised that I am handing this award to Matt Berninger, the outstanding lead singer for the National. I’ve said before that I would give a non-essential part of my body to be able to sing like Berninger, and High Violet is his best work yet. Whether he’s crooning about you and your sister living in a lemon world or wailing that he’s evil, Berninger proves that he has one of the finest voices in modern music. Honorable Mention: Ted Leo and Matt Whyte (Earl Greyhound).

Since we’re talking about the National, I guess I should tell you that they, along with Ramona Falls, have earned the not-at-all prestigious Hold Steady Award for Best Live Show of the Year. I saw the National and Ramona Falls at the Wiltern in Los Angeles this year and both bands were absolutely electrifying. Though the show featured some of the most annoying fan behavior I have ever witnessed, I was able to overcome my disgust through sets that contained pretty much every song I could want to hear from either band. Honorable Mention: Ted Leo & the Pharmacists at the Troubadour and De La Soul at Coachella. If your wondering why the Hold Steady didn’t win this award, the sad fact is I didn’t see them this year.

A lot of people talk about great songs and albums they’ve heard over the course of the year, but I like to mention some of the worst stuff I hear too. That’s why I’m giving the Know Your Enemy Award for the Worst Song of the Year to Justin Bieber for “Somebody to Love” which also features Usher. How on earth did I come to hear this auto-tuned abomination? I was watching TV at my parents’ house this summer and the show they were watching (I think it was one of the dancing reality shows) featured an “exclusive” world premier of the video. If you actually sit through the whole thing, you’ll catch glimpses of Usher and Bieber coming very close to grinding on one another, which might help you understand what I mean when I say that Usher is the next Michael Jackson.

While we’re at it, let me go ahead and give M.I.A.‘s Maya the Time I Won’t Get Back Award for Worst Album I Actually Listened To This Year. It’s not just that the album makes no sense lyrically – hell, I expect nonsense from M.I.A. – but the “music”, if you can call it that, is mostly gibberish. Maya is so bad that it’s scared me away from M.I.A.’s first two albums, which I thought I liked; my fear is that I’ll go back and discover that those albums suck too. “Paper Planes” was justifiably a massive hit for M.I.A. and I can understand and come somewhere near the vicinity of forgiving the desire to punish people who just want a whole album of that song. But Maya is the auditory equivalent of Episodes One through Three of Star Wars – a sloppily conceived and poorly executed kick to the nuts of the loyal fans.

Let’s round out part one of the 2010 Bollocks! Awards with the Tad Kubler Award for Outstanding Guitar Playing on an Album. It should seem like a no-brainer that I, a massive Hold Steady fan, would give this award to Mr. Kubler. In an ordinary year, I would. But this year, I have to hand it to Marisa Paternoster. If you have been reading this post and don’t know who the Screaming Females are, perhaps this will be your incentive to listen to them. On Castle Talk, Paternoster not only sings like a motherfucker, but she plays guitar like she’s dual-wielding katanas in a pirates-versus-ninjas bar brawl. The Screaming Females are a trio that make enough noise for four or five people, and Paternoster’s guitar and voice are a big reason why Castle Talk is one of the best rock albums of the year. Honorable Mention: Tad Kubler (naturally) and Ted Leo.

Still to come in part two of the 2010 Bollocks! Awards: the Award for Album of the Year, the Coffee is for Closers Award for Best Final Track, the Thriller Award for Best Pop Album, and a bunch of other awards in categories I’ve yet to make up.

Year-End Madness and Albums I Didn’t Review This Year

It’s Christmas week and that means all your favorite music websites are going to spend two weeks totally punting and counting down their favorite songs and albums of 2010. I do not exclude myself from this sort of thing and, in the days ahead, you’ll be treated to a very Bollocks!-y summation of 2010’s best (and worst) music. This year, instead of just counting down the billion best songs and million best albums (seriously, what’s the point of counting down 50 albums? It’s like saying that no albums are really special but these 50 albums are somewhat less un-special than the other albums), I present to you, for the first time, The Bollocks! Awards. Later this week, I’ll present unique awards to the best and worst songs and albums of the year (example: one of the categories is The Morrissey Award for Being the Biggest Asshole in Music). Also, my sometime contributors, Jesus Christ and musical pathologist Rebecca Mellor will write about their favorite albums of the year. And, finally, for you old-fashioned, list-craving people, I’ll tell you my ten favorite records of the year with the caveat that, other than my favorite album of the year (which will be #1), the other nine will be in no real order whatsoever.

But first, we need to talk about the elephant in the room: there are some albums, some of which will end up on other, far-inferior (in my expert opinion) year-end lists, that I deliberately did not review this year. Here’s why: when I review an album, I want to listen to a legitimate copy with the best possible sound quality. That generally means I have to pay for albums and then trade them in if I don’t like them (I used to get albums from e-Music, but they started sucking. On the bright side, the twenty bucks I used to spend on an e-Music subscription is now going to be spent on a monthly donation to the Red Cross. So thanks for sucking, e-Music). I’m neither big enough, important enough nor nice enough to get free promos from record labels. So I try to review albums that I think I will enjoy or at least find interesting. Every once in a while, I’ll pick an irresistibly soft target like Metallica’s Death Magnetic, but for the most part, I try to track down albums that I’ll actually want to keep. So I didn’t review Speak Now by Taylor Swift this year, I skipped the new Kanye West record, and I even eschewed The Age of Adz by indie media darling Sufjan Stevens. Because I was pretty sure I would hate those records.

A couple of years ago, I said that if I obtained a legitimate hard-copy of Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy, I would give it a fair hearing on Bollocks!. I was given that album as a gift and gave it what I think is a very fair chance to impress me (although certain GNR fans might disagree with threats and swear words). So this year, I’m publishing what you might call a Bollocks! Christmas list. Here are some albums that I will review if copies of them fall into my lap (if you really want me to review one of these albums, it helps to bribe me with alcohol):

Taylor Swift, Speak Now. Taylor Swift is fucking everywhere today. I see her face on billboards, at the checkout stand at Starbucks, and on TV every time I turn around. I caught part of her performance on some TV show and it sounded horrible. But I’ve never sat through one of her albums and, for all I know, they could be great. Probably not though. If, at any time (not just between now and the New Year), someone hands me a legitimate copy of Speak Now, I will give it the same fair, objective critique that all albums enjoy on this blog.

Bret Michaels, Custom Built. I’m not going to like this record. There’s a duet with Miley Cyrus. And I’ve never been a big Poison fan. If I listen to it, it will only be to enjoy the Schadenfreude of one man’s slow descent into utter, post-reality show failure. That may not sound very charitable on my part, but that’s why I haven’t bothered to review this album.

Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Everyone loves this fucking record and I’m gonna go out on a limb here and admit that I actually enjoy a few Kanye tracks. I didn’t purchase My Beautiful Pretentious Album Title because I have never enjoyed an entire Kanye West album and I’m hesitant to spend the money rewarding the man’s titanic ego. Of all the albums on this list, however, this is the one I think I’m most likely to be surprised by.

Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz. So-called “indie” people adore Sufjan Stevens and I’ve never been able to figure out why. That Illinoise record was one of the most pretentious, boring albums I’ve ever heard. Was it wrong of me to write off Mr. Stevens based on that one bad experience? I don’t think so, but maybe his new album will change my mind.

Katy Perry, Teenage Dream. This is a soft-target for me, I admit. I have never heard a single redeeming thing in Katy Perry’s music and I’m baffled that anyone over the age of fourteen would listen to this shit. The prospect of sitting through one of her albums is kind of daunting, but I’m willing to do it if a copy should fall into my hands.

I’m pretty much finished with standard reviews for this year, unless I take the leap and pick up the new Kanye record myself, but I’ll be back to the grind in 2011 with reviews of new albums, a new feature called The Worst Songs I’ve Ever Heard, and maybe one or two new contributors.

Stay tuned for The Bollocks! Awards and feel free to litter the comments section with your favorite songs and albums of the year.

My Favorite Albums of 2009 5-1

I know we’re a few days in already, but I have a couple New Year’s resolutions I’d like to share with you, both of which pertain to language you find in abundance on the internet. The words “douche” (or “douchebag” or “douchetard” or “douchefuck” or et cetera) and “hipster” are used far too much on the internet. This year, I will not use the D-word (or any of its various permutations) on this blog. At all. Ever. It’s done. Don’t worry about me coming up with alternatives, either. If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s finding new ways to hurl invective. As for the word “hipster,” when it comes to music, everyone thinks they know what a hipster is and everyone thinks it’s not them. It’s become a completely meaningless – and therefore useless – word. I don’t use that word a lot myself, but it is hereby banished from Bollocks! in the hopes that I can inspire other people on the internet to stop using it.

So let’s get on with the continuation of my meaningless – and therefore useless (but entertaining, one hopes) – list of my 13 favorite albums of 2009. Here’s the score so far:

13. Lord Cut-Glass, Lord Cut-Glass

12. Mike Doughty, Sad Man, Happy Man.

11. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz!

10. Brother Ali, Us

9. Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career

8. The Minus 5, Killingsworth

7. The Future of the Left, Travels with Myself and Another

6. Andrew Bird, Noble Beast

And now here’s the top 5:

5. Sparklehorse and Danger Mouse, Dark Night of the Soul. I know, this album wasn’t technically released this year, but it damn well should have been. It’s still streaming on NPR’s website and the Wikipedia suggests that you can fire up your favorite torrent software and obtain a copy of the album for yourself at an exceedingly reasonable price. Sad thing is, Dark Night of the Soul is well worth the price of admission that EMI is so unwilling to charge. Featuring guest appearances by the likes of Wayne Coyne, Frank Black, and Iggy Pop (to name but a few), the album is pure beauty from start to finish. Danger Mouse has asserted himself as the preeminent collaborator of the last few years (perhaps of the decade, if you’re into that sort of declaration) and he and Mark Linkous (who collaborated on some of Sparklehorse’s underrated Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain) create gorgeous sonic landscapes upon which their friends (including David Lynch!) freely frolic. The highlights are numerous, but “The Man Who Played God” (featuring Suzanne Vega), “Insane Lullaby” (featuring the Shins’ James Mercer, who is partnering with Danger Mouse to release an album as Broken Bells later this year – I’m sure EMI will find some way to fuck it up, if at all possible), and “Star Eyes (I Can Catch It)” are my top 3. If you like music at all, find a way to hear this album, legality be damned!

4. Metric, Fantasies. I think 2009 was a pretty good year for the kind of pop music that I like to listen to. My favorite pop record of the year – no contest – is Fantasies by Metric. Emily Haines has an amazing, versatile voice and Fantasies is infused with loud guitars and pounding drums. This is the album you put on at top volume while flying down a freeway in the summer. And this is one band that understands brevity – the album is but ten tracks, but every single one is a killer. A different one gets stuck in my head on just about a daily basis, although “Sick Muse” and “Front Row” are the most frequent visitors. “Sick Muse” deserves special credit because, as the song builds to the chorus (where Haines sings “I’ll write you/ harmony in C”), it gives  me the feeling of going down a particularly awesome water slide or cannonballing into cool water from some dizzying height. That feeling is exactly the feeling you should get from pop music and it’s why Metric currently tops the list of bands I really need to see live.

3. TIE: Modest Mouse, No One’s First and You’re Next and Lucero, 1372 Overton Park. I know this is supposed to be some sort of exercise in perfectly ranking the albums I loved from last year, but there’s no escaping the fact that Modest Mouse and Lucero both made albums that I think are precisely the third best things I heard all year. No One’s First and You’re Next is technically an EP of songs recorded during sessions for Good News for People Who Like Bad News and We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, and the songs make it clear that they weren’t omitted for a lack of quality. “Satellite Skin” and “History Sticks to Your Feet” are instant classic Modest Mouse tunes, to say nothing of “Autumn Beds” and “King Rat.” Rather than being a miniature pile of odds ‘n’ sods, No One’s First is a potent reminder of the fact (indisputable!) that Isaac Brock is a brilliant lyricist and that Modest Mouse has become a formidable musical force for awesome.

I know I haven’t reviewed Lucero’s 1372 Overton Park, but that’s because I just got it in the last month and haven’t stopped listening to it long enough to write about it. Yeah, Ben Nichols’s voice is shredded (it has been said of Tom Waits that he sounds like he gargled whiskey and broken glass. In that spirit, you could say Ben Nichols was gargling whiskey and broken glass when he accidentally swallowed), but he still tells a great story, (mostly) carries a tune, and manages to wax anthemic as fuck on album opener “Smoke.” There’s a badass horn section on nearly every song, but rather than coming off as gimmicky, the horns perfectly augment Lucero’s busted-ass country rock and aid the band in making their best album since 2005’s Nobody’s Darlings, if it’s not their best album ever. You can have your Airborne Toxic Events and your Gaslight Anthems, but neither of those bands are fit to clear the (numerous) empty bottles from Ben Nichols’s table.

2. The Flaming Lips, Embryonic. If you watch the Grammys, it might be easy to forget that the word “artist” used to apply to a select group of people. On the Grammys, everyone’s an artist (for instance, Maroon 5 were named the best new artists of 2005. I’ll give you a minute if you need to go throw up), but in the really real world, the true musical artist is a dying breed. Or maybe not. Wayne Coyne, the Flamingest Lip, is a true musical artist, a guy who lives his art because it’s who he is. And in 2009, the Flaming Lips returned triumphantly with Embryonic, a spaced-out, bass-heavy, fuzzy hippie nightmare. Not nearly as experimental as Pitchfork would have you believe, Embryonic is nonetheless a powerful rock record featuring the Lips’ usual meditations on life, love, good, evil, ego, and death. And it all ends with the cosmic dance party “Watching the Planets,” the video for which features naked adults being born out of a giant vagina ball. No, really.

MY FAVORITE ALBUM OF THE YEAR:

1. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone. If we learned anything last year, I think we learned that Neko Case is a goddess. Three years after releasing the excellent Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Ms. Case topped herself with Middle Cyclone. Such beauty! Such violence: “Their broken necks will line the ditch until you stop it/ stop this madness” (from “This Tornado Loves You”); “The next time you say ‘forever’/ I will punch you in your face” (“The Next Time You Say Forever”); people are “filleted” on the stairs (“Polar Nettles”), and, of course, surprised when they’re eaten by man-eaters (“People Got A Lotta Nerve”). I could discuss at length, as other have, the obvious metaphors for romance as a force of nature (sometimes beautiful, sometimes deadly), but beyond all that academic shit, what the music of Middle Cyclone is – above all else – is almost profoundly gorgeous. Of the fourteen songs here, there are probably eight that give me chills every time I hear them. Listening to the album again (for the billionth time – if I ever get sick of this record, you can stick bamboo splinters soaked in lemon juice under my fingernails), the dreamlike “Prison Girls” is the one that really has a hold on me. For a while it was “Magpie to the Morning.” And so on. Neko Case is among the best singers in music right now, bar none, and Middle Cyclone is a stunning achievement. If you haven’t heard this album, there is a hole in your life that can, I suspect, be easily filled. Also, it bears repeating that Middle Cyclone‘s cover is among the most badass things I’ve ever seen.