Thursday, December 28, 2006

Top CDs of 2006

What it comes down to is this: what do I want to listen to at the end of the day?

Three of my top five CDs belong to female artists, five of my top ten are from Canada (four from Toronto), and I am seeing my favorite CD performed in about 10 days, which makes me excited.

My favorite CDs had less complicated orchestration and focsed more on solid melodies and songwriting than in previous years. I found good things about everything I listened to this year, but on a whole it did not produce many memorable gems.

My honourable (and otherwise) mentions:

CDs I liked upon initial listen but did not get a chance to listen enough to:
Beirut – Gulag Orkestar (the first three tracks are a real exhausting romp through Eastern Europe, but after that it’s pretty good)
Beirut – Lon Gisland EP
Danielson – Ships
Thom Yorke – The Eraser

and in alphabetical order...

The Appleseed Cast – Peregrine
standout tracks: Woodland Hunter (Part I), Song 3, Here We Are

This is what we get after a break up and coming back together (with a new drummer). There are some really good songs on here with interesting structure and instrumentation. I love the end of the "Woodland Hunter (Part I)" where the programmed drum overtakes the continuing guitar part. I like the take on disjointed keyboards, guitars, and drums on “Mountain Halo” which sounds like, well, the Appleseed Cast ran through an old computer.

This CD blends part of the band’s original feeling with their take on writing with a more pop sensibility. It’s pretty good. I can’t tell whether I’ve moved on, or if the songs are merely above average. "Here We Are" sounds like it belongs on Low Level Owl (a good thing). There are a handful of tracks that are too forgetful though. I like the CD and its sentiment though.

Chin Up Chin Up – This Harness Can’t Ride Anything
standout tracks: Landlocked Lifeguards, Stolen Mountains, Trophies for Hire

I thought it was strange that the best three songs were stuck at the end of the CD (listed above). These songs featured the strongest melodies and most creative instrumentation, blending the usual rhythmic guitar picking, the bass playing a melody feud with the keyboard when the vocals drop out, and things such as drum machine, delay and feedback guitar swells, vibraphone, bells, and harmonica.

While recording the band’s first CD, the bass player was killed by in a hit and run by a drunk driver, and the band decided to keep playing after this unfortunate incident, and the lyrics and music reflect the healing and understanding of this tragedy, most notably on “Stolen Mountains”: “We both drove home from Benton Harbor, Michigan with snow covered headlights…No one had much to say. I wish we would have said more, but we never knew that you wouldn’t be here soon.”

The Early November – The Mother, the Mechanic, and the Path
standout songs: Decoration, Driving South, Never Coming Back

An incredible ambitious three disc project, with the first two disc telling the father and mother’s side of the story, and the third disc blending spoken word therapy sessions with additional songs developing the story. I’ve never heard anything like it. The songs are all good, but unfortunately it’s not the thing you want to listen to over and over. The songs are well written and you can listen to the lyrics the whole way through and hear the entire story unfold. The sum is greater than the parts when it comes to this release. A good pop/rock project that took several years to make. My hats off to Ace Enders and his vision, but the songs aren’t compelling enough to make me want to listen to them over and over.

The Elected – Sun, Sun, Sun
standout songs: Not Going Home, Would You Come With Me, Desiree

I didn’t listen to this CD enough this year. I liked it everytime I listened to it. It’s got that rock/country/pop/folk vibe to it that Blake does so well. This CD is certainly as good as the first CD, Me First. A lot of the electronic parts were taken out and now the songs are much stronger.

Guster – Ganging Up On The Sun
standout songs: Lightning Rod, Satellite

Another high quality CD from Guster. Completely above average songwriting, lyrics, melodies, and instrumentation. Excellent rock/pop songs that you sing along to, where you find some part each time that you haven’t heard before. The first two songs are superb, especially "Lightning Rod", which is gentle and strong, wrapping beautiful melodies around moving guitar and a bit of percussion and organ – this is what Guster does best.

One for the Team – Good Boys Don’t Make Noise
standout songs: Good Boys Don’t Make Noise, I Promised I’d Grow up

Good rock/pop from Minneapolis in the vein of Death Cab for Cutie with a more rocking vibe.

Peter Bjorn and John – Writer’s Block
Standout songs: Young Folks, Detects on My Affection

I didn’t listen to this as much as I meant to this fall, but there are some standout songs. Overall, the minimalism to the songs got to me, as I wished there were more to hold my attention beyond the melodies. Sounds similar to the Shout Out Louds.

Rx Bandits - ...And the Battle Begun
standout tracks: Untitled, …And the Battle Begun, In Her Drawer

Most disappointing CD of 2006, which is because I have high expectations of them. While the vocals for the band continue to progress (there are some awesome three part harmonies all over), the music of the band just doesn’t match. The odd key and rhythm changes sound way too forced. I found them terribly distracting. Ever since Rich Balling left after Progress, the horns parts have taken a nose dive and became way too intricate and/or non-existant. The band always did reggae the best, and that also left that off this CD. My favorite track ("Untitled") is the one they recorded live in one take without practicing and it’s only vocals.

So Many Dynamos – Flashlights
standout songs: Search Party, Progress, How High the Moon

I have to say: I liked their first full length better. However, this CD pushes the boundaries of angular guitar pop (with lots of odd rhythmic changes that sound natural, unlike the jarring changes the Rx Bandits force upon our ears). The bands holds their influences on their sleeve still (The Dismemberment Plan, Les Savy Fav) but on this CD they sound more like themselves. I feel like they lost more of their melodic sensibility on this CD, but it’s pretty decent. “Search Party” is a really nice song – I love the breakdown in the midsection with the horns into the big ending.

Patrick Watson – Close to Paradise
standout songs: Close to Paradise, Daydreamer, Sleeping Beauty

Canadian piano pop, somewhat in the vein of Coldplay or the Flaming Lips, but with a bit of experimental noise thrown in for good measure. Emily discovered this late in the year (thanks, CBC) and we both became fans.

10. The Stills – Without Feathers
standout songs: Oh Shoplifter, Helicopters, It Takes Time

I listened to this CD a lot this late spring/early summer, partly because no other decent CDs were released in the spring, partly because this CD is really good. The band moved away from their darker dance-type rockers to a more organic rock sound, but kept the same thick harmonies and interesting pop songwriting (and added a lot of piano). All the songs are quite good but it doesn’t have that standout song or two that take to the next level.

9. Final Fantasy – He Poos Clouds
standout songs: This Lamb Sells Condos, He Poos Clouds, The Arctic Circle
video for "He Poos Clouds"

Emily and I listened to this CD on Sundays throughout the entire fall. Mellow, with sharp jabs of strings, jangly piano, and shouted vocals poking through the lining, it just felt right hearing Owen Pallet recite the line “his massive genitals” in "This Lamb Sells Condos", between the dreariest fall on record in Toronto, our usual Sunday breakfast of bacon & eggs, reading the Saturday newspaper, and mildly paying attention to a football game on TV.

While I felt his previous release had more standout songs, the songs on this CD are creative and solid all the way through, despite containing demanding melodies.

8. Rainer Maria – Catastrophe Keeps Us Together
standout songs: Already Lost, Terrified, I’ll Make You Mine
video for "Catastrophe"

"Already Lost" is my favorite song of 2006. It tells such a sad story and the song creates this soaring open, thick yet empty space that I think will resonate with all listeners. I love it when the guitar really kicks in at about 1:21. I was sad to hear the band decided toss in the towel, but really, I don’t think their fan base grew much with their last two CDs, which is a shame. Rainer Maria are one of the few bands I don’t consider musicians – I consider them artists. I know that sounds pretentious, but really, this CD is excellent.

7. Brand New – The Devil and God Are Raging Inside of Me
standout songs: Jesus Christ, Archers, Millstone

This CD is like a string of dreary weeks in the spring, offering a rare glimpse of the sun on the occasional morning, and one just waits for a sign of summer, but it never comes. This CD definitely sheds the pop/punk status the band garnered as it falls much more into the modern rock category. Jesse Lacey continues to write a much higher level than his peers, placing himself as one of the more potent lyricists in rock today. In the song “Jesus Christ”:

I know you're coming in the night like a thief
But I’ve had some time, O Lord, to hone my lying technique
I know you think that I’m someone you can trust
But I’m scared I’ll get scared and I swear I’ll try to nail you back up
So do you think that we could work out a sign
So I’ll know it's you and that it's over so I won't even try.

Using their major label recording budget (oh. my. Listen to that perfectly distorted guitar at 2:44 in "Millstone"), the band uses its quiet and loud moments as best they can. I am a bit disappointed in the mastering of the CD, as the quiets can often be too quiet and the louds too loud.

This CD is this ranked this highly based on the strength of three absolutely incredible songs, but then after that, there are few good songs. While the four songs in the middle have their individual moments - "Welcome to Bangkok", "Not the Sun", "Luca", and "Untitled" – they are the weakest songs on the CD, and the CD hurts because of this.

6. Rock Plaza Central – Are We Not Horses?
standout songs: My Children Be Joyful, We’ve Got To Be Glad For, When We Go, How We Go (Part II)

This CD grows on me more and more each time I listen to it. The vocals are a bit disconcerting at first, but I’m continually drawn in. The CD draws comparisons to Neutral Milk Hotel because of the odd vocals and instrumentation. Lots of solid songwriting and melodies, horns, bells, and more vaguely creepy vocal parts. I always hear something new everytime I listen to it, and I like it more and more. I love the interweaving horns at the end of “When We Go, How We Go (Part II)”.

5. Lily Allen – Alright, Still
standout songs: Smile, Littlest Things, LDN
video for "LDN"

Of course I love the ska backbeat, but Lily offers more than just a pretty face and big hooks. Lily Allen gives us non-superficial tight, pop songs from the female perspective, something that is sorely missing from pop music. The songs are smart, unapologetic and get in your head. There are only a couple of weak tracks, one of which I know she absolutely hates (it’s the one that sounds nothing like the rest of the CD and also happens to be music played for some commercial for the CW network). I’m excited to hear what she does next.

4. Regina Spektor – Begin to Hope
standout songs: Fidelity, Better, Samson
video for "Fidelity"

The first three songs on this CD are so, so good. Beautiful and fragile, yet strong. The piano with the vocals in the beginning of “Samson” showcase this the best. This CD is an improvement on Soviet Kitsch, keeping in the same genre of piano driven pop songs, but Regina has moved on and matured as a songwriter. The CD lags in the middle a little bit, but all the songs are strong and unique and tell a great story. I don’t know why she isn’t more well known than she already is. People need to hear these songs.

3. The Decemberists – The Crane Wife
standout songs: O Valencia!, Sons & Daughters, The Crane Wife 3
video for "O Valencia!"

This CD would have been the best CD of 2006 for me. Except there are three tracks on this CD which absolutely kill it – "The Island", "The Perfect Crime #2", and "When the War Came". These songs are the songs that deviate the most from the usual Decemberists sound, and they all really suck. C’mon now – less Pink Floyd wannabe crap and more organic songs with sing along melodies. In an effort to be more positive, I will say that the rest of the CD is beautiful and pretty much flawless. Colin Meloy tells great stories and has the talented band to back them up.

2. Tokyo Police Club – A Lesson in Crime
standout tracks: Citizens of Tomorrow, Cheer It On, Nature of the Experiment
video for "Nature of the Experiment"

I think the band initially comes off as Canada’s high school-aged answer to Bloc Party, but the more you listen, the more you hear the nuances that make this band so compelling. Most notably, all of the pieces of the band fit together so well – the drums fills when it needs to fill, the bass keeps the rhythm as the guitar goes though exciting riffs, the keyboard adds the texture, and the vocals blink between innocent melodies to group shouts. I also find the production of the CD rather gritty and original. Now if they could only write a song that cracked the three-minute mark…

1. Emily Haines & the Soft Skeleton – Knives Don’t Have Your Back
standout songs: Our Hell, Doctor Blind, The Lottery, Detective Daughter
video for "Doctor Blind"

The first snow in the city just started and it’s 7:00 pm. You have a hat, but don’t need gloves yet, because it’s just not that cold yet. You’re walking to your car or bus or subway stop and you just had the longest day, but suddenly you feel pretty pleased about the snow falling and are looking forward to staying home, making yourself a gin & tonic and just looking out the window for a while at the thick snow and the blinking streetlights around the corner.

Emily Haines captures a feeling and mood and takes it to its core. This CD is consistent and awesome with its excellent vocals, gentle melodies, melancholic piano, and layers of drums, strings, and electronic blips. I love it from start to end. There is not a bad track in the bunch. Lyrically, Emily Haines looks at the difficulties facing a young woman in the 21st century – looking at the past wave of feminism and trying to understand how to take those advances and make them her own.

This is the amazing CD I thought Fiona Apple was going to make last year, but didn’t.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Early November/Rx Bandits

I like the new Early November triple disc more than the new Rx Bandits CD.

The Early November

The TEN CD is a grand project. The third disc (The Path) serves as a kind of therapeutic rock musical. The story lines on all three discs are cohesive and well-thought out, as is the music. I think the first disc (The Mechanic) captures the essence of the times, in terms of "smart" pop/punk (as opposed to Fall Out Boy) and the 2nd disc (the Mother) has a more timeless pop/rock quality to it. "Decoration" is an excellent song - the pop/punk song of the year.

Rx Bandits

The new RxB CD is weird. It feels like it has no melodies, but there are three part harmonies all over the place. Now, there are songs that sound really good and parts of songs that sound amazing, but as a whole, it's too prog-y. I liked it when they ventured more towards the pop end of the spectrum (Rich, why did you ever quit?). I wasn't expecting Progress part II. I got over that with the last album. There are more vague political references than straight ahead finger pointing. There are enough strong spots on the CD, but still. Too many jarring key changes and arrhymic (Is that a word? It looks funny.) transitions that kick the flows of songs right in the shins. Anyway, I still recommend it. I still love this band.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Jose Gonzalez

Thought provoking and tender, Jose Gonzalez plays with conviction at a slightly lower decibel level than you may be used to. All of this from an an Argentinian Swede playing classical guitar and his voice.

There's not a track on Veneer that I skip. It's solid through and through. The vocals may remind you of James Mercer of The Shins. There's a certain airiness that that stills radiates a deep emotion in his voice.

I recommend "Heartbeats" and "Crosses."

Jose Gonzalez on Myspace

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Controlling the Famous

Did you ever wish that No Knife sounded much poppier, even though it might mean losing a slight bit of that angular edge except that you would gain more cohesive melodies?

Yeah, Controlling the Famous is it. excellent stuff.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


Your Beauty Is a Knife I Turn My Throat On
Death Could Be at the Door

I just heard this band and my ears dropped the extraneous noise it was holding and zeroed in on what was coming out of the speakers.

A seven piece straight out of Lincoln, Nebraska - Eagle*Seagull

The vocals immediately make you think of Robert Smith, Win Butler, and then Isaac Brock. The music also sounds like their respective bands. It's not derivative though - it is its own thing. Bright, yet brooding. Sad, but optimistic in some odd way. Loose, but controlled.

It features great instrumentation without that feeling that they raided the miscellaneous closet in the recording studio. With seven members they are able to create a very thick sound, but will cut it back for the correct effect.

"Photograph" is currently my favorite of these three. It's epic and gorgeous and really works the uptempo feel to its favor in the first half of the song. And then the vocals leading the end are just the right way to end the song.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Angels & Airwaves

Angels & Airwaves - The Adventure Final

Tom Delonge listens to The Joshua Tree. A lot. Then he listened to his own S/T release. And wrote a song.

It's not bad. It's not going to change the music scape, but surely he'll sell a ton of records to kids who don't know that U2 had a career before whatever their last single was.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Hello Blue

Hello Blue - Celebrate

I meant to pick up this CD when I was back at my parents house in Minneapolis this past summer, but didn't end up buying it until I returned there again after Christmas. I really wish I had picked it up earlier, because it has found its way into the car stereo as soon as I got home on the 31st and it hasn't left. I have been listening to Minneapolis's Hello Blue and their CD What It Takes To Wake Up the entire time.

This CD is now firmly in my top 10 for 2005. Number 8 or 9, at least.

This track is a good representation of what the rest of the CD offers: excellent indie rock, with a little shoegazer tossed in for good measure. It kind of has a Sunny Day Real Estate feel to it or Static Prevails era Jimmy Eat World. This song actually wouldn't have sounded out of place on the Bloc Party CD actually, especially the guitar work in the second half of the song. The production quality has that great home studio charm to it, but what if this were slicked up in a big time studio like the Silent Alarm? I'd like to hear that, but I think I like it the way it is.

The song opens with the band raiding the percussion closet before it gets down to business. fun. The slightly dissonant open guitar chords cascade in and the song takes off with the words "Celebrate", which also happens to be the only decipherable word besides the question everyone has been trying to figure out, "Why do all the good things/happen to such bad people?". These guys manage to stretch out one short sentence into a long verse, favoring chord structure over rhythm (while the guitars, accompanied by the drums, texture the song rhythmically), creating a nice unique effect.

The band uses the studio well with layers of vocals dropping in and out over each other, creating a nice surrounding effect. The controlled chaos of the drums, bass, and guitar underneath these vocals is just awesome - the ride cymbal just barely keeps it all from falling apart.

The second half of the song goes into instrumental territory and not a drop of energy is lost, as the end of each section is broken apart and then pushed forward by the drums, creating a very groovy effect. And at the end like finding a second toy in a cracker jack box comes the layers of feedback, which everyone loves.

Hear more Hello Blue on their myspace page.