I listen to albums, start-to-finish. If you’re interested in this list, you might do the same on a regular basis.
We’re not normal.
In his article, “Straddling the Cultural Chasm: The Great Divide between Music Criticism and Popular Consumption,” published this October in the journal, Popular Music and Society, Tom McCourt gives a fantastic overview of the increasing isolation of the traditional critical establishment from the very listeners they purport to inform and influence. Among the many issues he raises, he emphasizes the shift to a song-based listener culture where the single reigns and shuffling dominates—a shift that many critics have yet to make. McCourt writes, “Critics and consumers who might once have tended to respond differently to the same product are no longer even listening to the same product.”
In some ways, though, there is a split happening among listeners too. You see it most prominently in the rise of vinyl, an aggressive commitment to a technology that explicitly eliminates “shuffling” behaviour. The album’s decline as a commercial form is, arguably, increasing its relevance as an art form, a playground for those bands and their fans alike who cherish long-form experiences and less-than-instant gratification. If you’re like me, then even the greatest song can’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the greatest album, and I doubt I’ll ever outgrow my affection for records as a whole.
So I guess if you’re like me, then this is our list.
One of the best columns going right now is Steven Hyden’s AV Club 1990s retrospective “Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation?” In his most recent entry, he made an unexpected comparison between Spoon and Soundgarden: bands that made such consistently good albums that their career as a whole can seem kind of boring while you’re experiencing it album-to-album. Maybe that’s why Transference kind of got forgotten this year. While not the band’s best, its playful structures—songs that start and stop without warning—gave a welcome loose feel to the band’s trademark tightness.
A strong contender for music’s greatest tragedy this year? That label disputes kept Andre 3000 from guesting on Big Boi’s first proper solo debut. What might beat it, you ask? That there’s really room on the pop charts for a wonderfully messed up old-school-meets-WTF hip hop album. If nothing else, Sir Lucious Left Foot should put to rest the old “Boi as straight man, Andre as weirdo” false dichotomy that defined Outkast, even through Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Big Boi is every bit as adventurous—and at least he got an album done and in our hands.
I’m not interested in Wolf Parade if its two genius songwriters—Spencer Krug and Dan Boecker—aren’t interested in bashing against each other; I have more than enough opportunities to hear them make noise on their own respective turfs. I want to hear the tension, the pull and push of Boecker’s punk riffs against Krug’s prog smorgasbord. Expo 86 may be the last Wolf Parade record we get in some time, but it’s a pretty great one, with songs like “Cave-o-sapian” and “Ghost Pressure” staying sharp but sticky, mad but manic, and always tense.
Perhaps the only record this year that sounded better on bad speakers, Treats is almost tailor-made for the iPod-as-soundsystem age. Sleigh Bells have no interest in subtly or nuance. They make cheerleader sports anthems with jock rockin’ beats, all pushed to the auditory breaking point. No wonder that it took me a while to come around to the album; there’s a fine line between music and noise, and Treats dances gleefully all over it.
Though Broken Social Scence didn’t really “go” anywhere in the five years since their self-titled third album—they toured, they did shows, Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning put out “BSS Presents…” solo albums—it sounds like the band was in pretty dysfunctional place, judging by the interviews they’ve given. So maybe it’s a relief that Forgiveness Rock Record got made at all, let alone that it’s a pretty impressive distillation of the band’s ramshackle, rollicking live incarnation. It’s not classic, and perhaps not challenging, but there’s something wonderful in its comforts.
You know why I like later Replacements records more than early Replacements records? Because they learned how to write songs. The professionalism that Against Me! gained on New Wave wasn’t the sound of selling out; it was the sound of something better. White Crosses is a step above even that for me because it wears its age proudly on its sleeve. The band that once sang “Baby I’m an Anarchist” now belts “I Was a Teenage Anarchist,” poking respectful holes in the circles they once travelled but always with a respect for the past. It’s growing up with grace and grit.
Though I loved Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut, I probably would have given them even odds on making something up to that same standard, especially when so many “first album wonders” struggle with the follow-up. And yet, Contra kind of betters it. It’s an impressive balancing act, keeping the bands strengths intact while stretching their sound off in a whole slew of directions: punkier (“Cousins”), dancier (“Giving Up the Gun”) and more soulful (“I Think Ur A Contra”).
Some bands sound like their place of origin, inseparable from their surroundings. In contrast, The Walkmen sound placeless. Though they’re from New York, they sound more western, wandering, nomadic. That sonic playfulness has made for a surprising variety in their records, even though their core elements—jangly guitars, Hamilton Leithauser’s raspy belt—stay the same. Lisbon is their most lived-in record to-date, warm and inviting, which may make it their best.
Writing about music professionally—even if only occasionally, as in my case—makes you realize just how much SOUND is out there, and how little of it we actually come in contact with. I’m reasonably confident that …And Now We Sing would have never even gotten on my radar were it not for the assignment to interview the band’s namesake, Olenka Krakus. Hours before the interview, I hid in the corner of a coffee shop—incredibly hungover, no less—desperately seeking something warm and soulful. An hour later, the album’s European-influenced folk, brilliant and broken, seemed indispensable.
James Murphy has hinted that This is Happening might be LCD Soundsystem’s swan song, at least in its current incarnation. If so, it’s a pretty compelling exit note, offering something of a summary of his work under the moniker to-date. Even though I preferred the pop direction that Sound of Silver‘s highlights took, there’s something great about hearing tracks like “Pow Pow,” which are a complete throwback to Murphy’s initial singles. This is Happening is an eclectic, exciting compendium of what alternative-focused dance music can offer.
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