27 December 2007

Everyone else is doing a year's best

so why not jump on the bandwagon?

So the other night Dave and I had a long stoned conversation* while he cooked dinner and I cleaned up cat barf about our picks for the year’s best album. Dave’s choice was, of course, John Davis’s solo album Arigato! (Davis is the frontman for Superdrag, one of Dave’s favorite bands ever. One of mine - now - too, if I think about it.)

Arigato! is straight-up rock but Davis is a born-again Christian and most of the songs are about God, which definitely sheds a different light on the “who sucked out the feeling” guy. “Sucked Out” was written by Davis when he was still all rock-and-rollerish and not sober; then his dad died and he quit drinking and converted. I don’t know why this background information fascinates me, but it does. (I allow the biographical information of authors to inform my reading, also.)

We saw a reunion Superdrag show this fall and no joke, it was the best show I think I’ve ever seen in my life, despite the presence in the audience of an occasional tiny fuckhead with a pierced neck. (Don’t worry, I elbowed her right back as hard as I could.) It was a reasonably small venue (the Paradise) and a sold-out crowd. (More trivia: the Paradise in Boston is where Superdrag played their last show before taking a break.) The opening acts were awesome and local to Knoxville, where Superdrag is based.

I have never seen such a high energy show for TWO FUCKING HOURS. I still feel guilty because I was sober and my back hurt from standing on a concrete floor for three hours during the opening acts and I was wearing earplugs the whole time (because live music fucking hurts) so I don’t think I looked very enthused, but I was. There inside my own head, I was thrilled. And they played all the greatest hits off the Superdrag CDs – I was surprised to find I knew every song – and a whole bunch of stuff off Arigato! (much of which I also knew, since Dave downloaded the singles off John Davis’s MySpace page (that link will take you to the page where you, too, can listen and download) and had been playing them ever since.

So we bought the album at the concert and it’s really good. It’s not Christian-christian, in that kind of safe-pop way that I think Christian rock tends to get categorized as; it’s much closer to John Donne’s gripping raw struggle with God. Which is cool to see – at leas faith works for someone, even if not for me! And while the message isn’t doing it for me, the rock does. It’s straightforward and sincere, which is Dave’s thing – he really values authentic emotion. It’s also a very skillful album – the songs are well-thought out and well crafted, without the craftsmanship ever actually taking over. A terrific balancing act.

So I liked the album a lot, but it wasn’t my pick for year’s best. Probably my personal favorite this year is Andrew Bird’s Armchair Apocrypha, which is clever and a little goofy and kind of experimental. And not quite insincere, but there’s no raw emotion, everything is polished to a high gloss. It’s very cerebral and a little cool, if you consider that a flaw, which I don’t (not for this album, anyway.) Those things are all the things that I dig, though, and that link above to the John Donne isn’t an accident – the metaphysical poets are my favorites because they take this emotion and compress it really tightly into tightly constrained boxes of metaphor and rhyme scheme and when it works, it gives me goosebumps. Andrew Marvell’s bracelet of bright hair about the bone, oh my! The risk with doing that kind of thing is that you can slide into insincere artifice (see: the later work of They Might Be Giants, or some of Pope’s poems) and just play by the numbers, which is boring and sneery.

Bird doesn’t do that, though. Imitosis is probably my favorite song on the album. I mean, how can you not love this?
“despite what all your studies had shown/
What was mistaken for closeness was just a case for mitosis”
So smart! The internal rhyming, the pun! And it’s a fucking peppy salsa number with violins! And then the chorus “we were all basically alone” is haunting. Not all the songs are that good, although I also love "Plasticities" (guaranteed to get me bobbing my head at my desk at work like a looner) and "Fiery Crash" and "Dark Matter" and ohhhh, all the songs, really.

So what I think it comes down to for year’s best is really a matter of taste. I feel kind of fraudulent professing any musical taste at all since I’m unable to create music myself (no, can’t carry a tune or keep a beat, it’s sad for me since I LOVE to sing). But I guess a lot of critics don’t necessarily produce. (Theoretically critics are well-educated, though, and my musical education is suckola.) I don’t think either of these albums is obviously head and shoulders above the other; I don’t think either album will go down in history as much more than a footnote, not necessarily because of the quality of the work but because neither is well-known.

So, blah blah blah, here’s some other stuff I found this year.

Best Album to Play When Parents Come Over: Amy Winehouse, Back to Black. Yeah, I’m sick of her tabloid antics too, but your parents will love the Phil Spector 60s heavily-produced orchestral sound. And maybe you’ll get a secret thrill from all her swearing which your deaf parents don’t notice. But although I still like the album, there’s not much more to it than what you hear on your first listen, which means I don’t listen to it very often. I bet it would be great for a party, too.

Best Guilty Pleasure: Belle & Sebastian, The Life Pursuit It can be totally twee but The Blues are Still Blue is a fucking terrific track. Plus, soft spot for the Glasgwegians singing about cups of tea and Morningside because awww, net curtains and sweetness.

Best New-To-Me Discovery That Was Not New This Year:
Butch Walker, Letters. Dave’s drummer gave him a copy of this album and it’s awesome car music, kind of sunny-yet-melancholy sensitive-songwriter boy pop. Yay! Also in the category is The Pernice Brothers, Yours, Mine and Ours.

Most Flexible Album: Fiest, The Reminder. 1234 made it into an iPod commercial, but don’t hold that against the band, because the singer’s voice is terrific and out of 14 songs on the album, there are only a few that I skip. (“Sea Lion Woman” sucks, but “My Moon My Man” more than makes up for it.) But you can totally play it with kids in the room, or parents (and no worries on the swearing), or as background music in the car, or just sit down with a drink and listen to it, and it holds up to all that stuff. Sometimes innocuous can be a virtue.

Best Pop Album: New Pornographers, Challengers. I have a feeling this album will come to mean “fall of 2007” to me, it feels very specific like that. I will note that after seeing them play in concert in bored fashion, I lost interest in this album and now only play it sporadically. I think I overplayed it, actually; my lack of interest might be due to user error and not the album. Whatever. It’s still a great poppy record, and shit, it has a LOT of really great songs on it – it would be shorter to list the tracks that suck (“Failsafe”, “All The Things That Go To Make Heaven And Earth” and “Adventures in Solitude” is iffy) than to list the super rad awesome tracks (“My Rights Versus Yours”, “All the Old Showstoppers” – the best track on the album, I think – “Challengers”, “Myriad Harbour”, “Unguided”, “Mutiny I Promise You”, “Entering White Cecilia”).

Most Overrated: it’s a tie between Rilo Kiley’s Under the Black Light and Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky. The Wilco album has a few good tracks (“Either Way”, “You are My Face”but it seems self-indulgent (Impossible Germany is like, skippable Germany); if this was a book I’d say it needed another round of edits. The Rilo Kiley is interesting and experimental and plays around with different genres a lot – something I appreciate (see Andrew Bird) but in this case, it’s mostly not a success. Standout tracks include “15”, “Smoke Detector” – heh, I smoke in bed too - and “Silver Lining”, although I’ve got a soft spot also for “Breakin’ Up” – one of the songs where the experimentalness works. Moneymaker, on the other hand, sounds like a cover of an obscure disco song, and not in a good way. And that was the single they chose, too. Bleah. Why didn’t someone ask ME?

* all I really needed to say was stoned, huh? length is kind of implied

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