Friday, December 19, 2008

Chuck Berry: Is Rock N' Roll

On December 13th, I had the distinct pleasure of attending one of Chuck Berry's all-ages show at The Pageant. Playing for little over an hour, in addition to his regular band, Chuck was joined on stage by his son and grandson on guitar, as well as his daughter on harmonica and vocals. Rather then having a set list, Chuck took requests from the audience. This produced some great moments, a perfect example of which is when he sang happy birthday to a member of the crowd, adding the line "How old are you? How old are you? I'm 82."

Overall, the night was one of the most entertaining concerts I have attended. The fact that he is still putting on shows, and good ones at that, goes to show just what Chuck Berry has done for music. Hopefully he is still playing when I can attend one of his monthly shows at Blueberry Hill.

Monday, December 15, 2008

2008 Year in Review: Album of the Year

The Hold Steady - Stay Positive
Of all of my year end choices, Album of the Year was the hardest. 2008 was a year of phenomenal songs and decent albums. Looking back, I found many albums I enjoyed, but few that I consistently liked sitting down and listening to all the way through. Then I put on the Hold Steady’s Stay Positive. While not my favorite Hold Steady record, Stay Positive was the most cohesive and complete record of 2008. From the blaring guitar riff that kicks off “Constructive Summer” to the chorus of “whoas” in “Slapped Actress,” Stay Positive is an album that keeps you listening in a way no other record did in 2008. Craig Finn is lyrically at the top of his game, telling stories of murder (“Song for the Cutters”), downtrodden drunks (“Lord I’m Discouraged”) and fights (“Slapped Actress”). The band was also the most successful at transitioning their sound from one album to the next. While Coldplay and My Morning Jacket made giant leaps in their sound that make their records very distinct from their previous ones, Stay Positive sounds like the step up from 2006’s Boys and Girls in America. Like I said, it isn’t my favorite Hold Steady album, but the fact it’s not and is still my album of the year shows that this is a truly great band that’s always worth listening to.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

2008 Year in Review: Top 10 Songs of 2008

Here's my big list. The only thing left is my picks for album of the year which will be up in the next few days. If you want to hear some of these songs, I'll be playing them on my Best of 2008 show this Tuesday, during my normal 5:30-7:30. Tune in at! Now, without further adieu, here are my Top 10 Songs of 2008:

1. Land of Talk – Some Are Lakes

A low-profile choice, I know, but the Canadian trio put out one of the best indie-pop songs this year in the title track for their latest LP. Elizabeth Powell lets her voice soar over her guitar as the band keeps time behind her gently, falling apart just before the chorus and hitting us again, only to fall apart one more time during the bridge. Sonically, the song is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. At one point, it’s a very straight forward love song, and suddenly, it’s a darker, more unconventional song that goes right back to where it started. If nothing else, it is an impossibly beautiful and catchy song that will stay in your long after you’ve listened to it.

2. Jenny Lewis – Acid Tongue

Perhaps the most stunning song of the year was the title track of Jenny Lewis’ fantastic album. Just Lewis, a guitar, and backing vocals from Chris Robinson and Jonathan Rice, the song is a gorgeous call for redemption that is both a sorrowful and uplifting at the same time. Lewis’ voice isn’t as soulful as Cat Power’s Chan Marshall or as silky as Feist, but it is sweet and just as powerful as both of her peers. The backing vocals add to the very soulful sound of the track, filling you with a warmth that few songs can provide. Definitely the best song she’s ever written.

3. My Morning Jacket – Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Pt. 1

Building off of the experimentation they started on their album Z, My Morning Jacket put out this track that combines beautifully their new sonic direction with their long established goal of playing to the rafters. The song seems to reach into space with Jim James’ voice switching octaves and reaching just as far as the echoing guitars and keyboards. Backed by a steady drumbeat and funky bass rhythm, the song will enter the MMJ tour rotation as a favorite of fans everywhere.

4. Okkervil River – On Tour With Zykos

Starting off with just singer Will Sheff and piano, this track builds to a gorgeously arranged string finale that is the perfect example of the band’s style and sound. The piano punctuates the points where Sheff isn’t singing his story of being songwriter that is better than his peers but stuck feeling like there is more for him out there. Normally, Sheff’s singing stands out from the music, but here it compliments it, and the band offers responses to his ponderings of loneliness and the meaning of what he’s doing. The song’s instrumental end is like Sheff’s unspoken verse, as the music captures a feeling words can’t quite convey.

5. The Hold Steady – Constructive Summer

The lead off track on their album Stay Positive, “Constructive Summer” grabs you with a driving guitar that doesn’t let up as the song rumbles forward. The song is a loud and quick ode to the summer for underachievers stuck in a dead end town. Craig Finn proclaims, “We’re gonna build something this summer,” and by golly, you believe him. This isn’t the most complex song on this album by any means, but it is a summation of the sound and attitude of the Hold Steady that for me exemplifies the album. The song also has a lot of personal meaning to me as well, which is a big factor in ranking it this high. When I think back to my summer of 2008, this is the song that will pop into my head.

6. The Mountain Goats – Heretic Pride

Ever since the Mountain Goats went hi-fi, John Darnielle’s song writing has become more and more complex. This song represents the culmination of 17 years of songwriting that went from him in a bedroom with a tape recorder to having a full band in the studio. At the song’s base is a typical Mountain Goats song, with Darnielle strumming a familiar steady rhythm, but the band helps build the song so that when it hits the chorus, the song bursts out with Darnielle’s exclamation “I feel so proud when the reckoning arrives.” Matching his uncanny ability to take dark themes and disguise them in beautiful music, Darnielle remains at the top of his game, with no sign of him coming down.

7. Eef Barzelay – True Freedom

Completely stripped down with just the former Clem Snide front man singing over an acoustic guitar, the song is in many ways reminiscent of a pre-electric Dylan. A pseudo-love song that starts off conventionally lyrically and devolves into seemingly drug-induced rambling (for the song’s characters, not Barzelay himself) before returning to it’s starting voice. The Dylan comparison comes not only from the stripped down sound, but from Barzelay’s yelping voice that adds power to an already powerful song. A fantastic track to listen to the later it gets in the evening.

8. Los Campesinos! – You! Me! Dancing!

Starting off quietly and building into chaos, this track suddenly comes alive and grabs you, never letting go. A frantic song that bounces around before slowing and becoming stable before taking off again, “You! Me! Dancing!” is all about give and take, much like dancing. What’s great about it is that it works both as a song to dance to and to listen to while wandering around with an iPod. The band already released their next record, which isn’t quite as chaotic sounding as this, but “You! Me! Dancing!” will remain one of my favorite, cherry dance songs.

9. She & Him – Black Hole

So much has been made of She & Him as we reach the end of the year that it sometimes is hard to remember they crafted a beautifully classic album in 2008. At the heart of it is this country bop that perfectly melds the sound of M. Ward’s production and instrumentation with Zoey Deschenel’s songwriting and incredible voice. The song goes along steadily until it comes out of the bridge with pretty harmonies and the steady ticking of cymbals. Listening to it, it’s sometimes impossible to tell if it was released in 2008 or 1963. A timeless song that will never go out of style.

10. TV on the Radio – Love Dog

This is the best song this band has ever written (yeah, I said it). Dark and complex, the song doesn’t start out in noise as some of their more popular tunes, instead building as it reaches an end reminiscent of some of Radiohead’s best work. Sorrowful lyrics are accentuated only with the occasional harmony and little more. The track is for the most part minimal until it hits an ending in which the band puts on more and more layers until it suddenly comes to a crashing halt. For those still unsure about Dear Science, hopefully this track can change your mind.

Honorable Mentions:
R.E.M. – Living Well’s the Best Revenge
Vampire Weekend – Campus
Coldplay – Viva la Vida
Death Cab for Cutie – Cath…
Death Cab for Cutie – I Will Possess Your Heart
Dr. Dog – Army of Ancients
Bon Iver – Skinny Love
The Walkmen – In The New Year
MGMT – Electric Feel
Of Montreal – Id Engager
Portishead – The Rip

Saturday, December 13, 2008

2008 Year in Review: Artist of the Year

Another in a series of short posts recapping the year in music.

Artist of the Year: Los Campesinos!
In a year when bands were breaking with their sound (see: My Morning Jacket, Coldplay, etc.), Cardiff’s Los Campesinos! burst on to the scene with their frantic bouncy pop on their debut LP Hold On Now, Youngster, an unabashedly original and friendly record. The record was an irresistibly catchy, raucous good time that pulled you off your feet and got you dancing. As if that wasn’t enough, the band closed the year by putting out We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, a collection of 10 tracks that the band is calling an “EEP.” On Beautiful, the band maintains their energy while reeling in their sound just enough to make it not sound like leftover tracks or a bunch of songs put out for publicity, but an entirely different phase in a band’s career. This incredible rate of songwriting doesn’t seem to have a stopping point, with the band already demoing another album for 2009. Hopefully, it will continue this awesome trend of songwriting.

Friday, December 12, 2008

2008 Year in Review: Most Underrated Album of the Year

Another in a series of short posts recapping the year in music.

Most Underrated Album of the Year:
Headlights – Some Racing, Some Stopping

While everyone was swooning over She & Him for their throw back sound, it seemed that nearly everyone passed up this fantastic album by Headlights. The album takes the lush indie pop of their 2006 debut Kill Them With Kindness and melds it with Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound to create a gloriously modern retro album. The record does a fantastic job of balancing highs and lows, opening with the building momentum of “Get Your Head Around It” and going through the ups of “April 2” and the downs of “Some Racing, Some Stopping.” The album is complete, which is something a lot of young bands are unable to accomplish. This is an album I truly can’t believe didn’t get jumped on in a year where retro is cool.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

2008 Year in Review: Comeback of the Year

Another in a series of short posts recapping the year in music.

Comeback of the Year: R.E.M.

After their worst album of their career (2005’s Around the Sun) and a couple of lack luster albums before that, R.E.M. went back to basics and rediscovered the sound that abruptly stopped when drummer Bill Berry left the band in 1997. The result is Accelerate, a return to form that shows them shifting away from adult contemporary radio and going for a rock song again. Peter Buck’s signature guitar sound is back and Michael Stipe rediscovered his ability to be a rock star. Mike Mills is solid as ever on bass too, though his backing vocals aren’t as pleantiful as they were in R.E.M.’s golden era. It’s good to see the pioneers of college rock back in form, ready to reclaim their title as one of the best bands in rock.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

2008 Year in Review: Most Overrated Band of the Year

Another in a series of short posts recapping the year in music.

Most Overrated Band of the 2008: Fleet Foxes

This year, it seemed that everyone fell in love with Fleet Foxes, and for the life of me, I can’t quite figure out why. Their music isn’t bad, it’s just nothing spectacular. Stealing the voice of Jim James of My Morning Jacket and putting it over folk retreads doesn’t make you a fantastic band, it just makes you enjoyable to listen to while doing work. I found that people have been thinking of Fleet Foxes as this great band that fills you with warmth, but honestly, I just don’t see it. Congrats guys! Another honor to post on your website!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

2008 Year in Review: Best New Bands

It's end of the year list time, so I'm going to start my installments of some of my year end reviews. Over the next week, I'll have my lists finalized and they'll be posted. Other "awards" include Songs of the Year, Most Overrated Band of the Year, Comeback of the Year, Artist of the Year, and the coveted Album of the Year. What better way to kick things off than to name the best new bands out there. This year it was a three way tie:

Vampire Weekend
This might be a little obvious since they went from playing Columbia parties to being one of the biggest stories of the year, but Vampire Weekend is as good as the hype advertises. Those that argue that they simply took Graceland and did something different with the sound should remember that that’s pretty much all rock music is: the variation on a previously established sound to create a new one. It’ll be interesting to see if they can keep up this success with the spotlight on them, but for now, they can relax knowing they made one of the more enjoyable albums of the year.

Bon Iver
Justin Vernon of Bon Iver broke onto the scene this year with a gorgeous album that echoes the loneliness of the isolated cabin that he recorded in. Vernon’s success may not have been as big as Vampire Weekend’s, but For Emma, Forever Ago is an album is an easy choice for top 10 lists everywhere. Now with the opening gigs for Wilco all finished, Vernon is putting out the Blood Bank EP in January, offering us a glimpse at what his sound is like, post success.

Vivian Girls
Brooklyn’s Vivian Girls released an album that fell under the radar but went right to the heart’s of those that did find it. Melding the vocals of 1960’s girl groups, sounds of classic Ramones, and the distortion of the Jesus and Mary Chain, Vivian Girls self titled debut is a short but bouncy album that keeps you hooked from start to finish. It might not be on any major lists, but the future looks bright for these three girls.