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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Sanskrit's Top 10 Albums of 2006

#10: Clogs - Lantern
This really feels like an album that shouldn't be considered "top ten material". Clogs are an interesting band, yes. An entertaining band, certainly. But how could orchestral chamber ambience possibly compete for top ten honors against the uncompromising competition from the likes of TV On The Radio, Junior Boys, Jay-Z, and so many other wildly popular and critically-acclaimed musicians who did not make my list this year? By simply being more compelling. In the simplest terms, Lantern is an amazing album. I listen to it while I'm drawing, I listen to it while I'm playing video games, I listen to it while I'm talking to ex-girlfriends on the phone for hours, and every time it inspires a warmth in my chest and a delightful glee at the tips of my ears. Clogs win my award for most underrated band of the year, without a doubt, and I will gladly listen to Lantern for years to come.

#9: Casey Dienel - Wind-Up Canary
Quaint, sweet and folksy, Casey Dienel's debut LP succeeds everywhere that Regina Spektor's new album fails (except in attempts to be "quirky rock", where Regina still doesn't quite make it, but Casey doesn't bother trying). In the American folk song tradtion, Casey's delicate yarns about people and their specific woes and joys weave a warm and tender quilt of humanity. Casey is simultaneously aggressive and pensive, forthright and grandiose. More importantly, she reminded me that the piano can be sexy without having someone laying across it.

#8: Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Show Your Bones
Karen O, Nick Zinner, and Brian Chase have shown us that they are all tremendous talents whose brilliance only amplifies when they work together as the all powerful Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Their past eps and full-length have shown humor, rage, frustration, longing, and so many other powerful feelings synonymous with the life of an urban hipster. With Show Your Bones, though, Yeah Yeah Yeahs did the one thing that I never expected, they were beautiful. All three members - whose wild, reckless disregard for anything approaching restraint has been their charming trademark in the past - are considerably...well...constrained. Nick's strings shimmer instead of shred. Brian's drums pulse instead of bleat. Karen's voice sings instead of shrieks. Its almost like the band has become a heavenly angel of some sort. There's still some shredding and wailing and such, but its more considered and less vagrant. Regardless of whether you miss the old revolutionary YYYs, you cannot deny that "Dudley" is their most beautiful song to date, and you know you wept just a little the first time you heard the "Cheated Hearts" plea of Karen's "sometimes I think that I'm bigger than the sound."

#7: Man Man - Six Demon Bag
If I were to make a list of the best live acts I'd seen in 2006, Man Man would be the surprising number one. I'd heard a few Man Man songs and a whole lot of hype leading up their set at this summer's Siren Music Festival, but I was nowhere near prepared for what I would see and hear on the stage that afternoon. A gang of unshaven men in bleached white tennis shorts and polo shirts with sweatbands on their wrists and heads and tribal paint on their faces proceeded to bash their instruments, throw plastic toys at pots and pans, and warble their way around songs in a way that suggested the inate geniuses of toddlers playing with their imaginations. Captivated, I rushed out and bought Six Demon Bag the following week and listened for months. Its moody and cinematic, epic and childlike, sincere and ridiculous. I implore all who like experimental music or outrageous live shows to open their arms to Man Man. Be cautious, though, as they're likely to throw plastic horns at your face.

#6: Islands - Return to the Sea
The Unicorns are dead, long live Islands. We all expected the debut release of this post-Unicorns band to be good, especially considering it featured guest musicians from the Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade, but I don't think anyone was expecting the songwriting and craftsmanship to be so mature. Return to the Sea is to The Unicorns/Islands as Ill Communication was to the Beastie Boys, a history-obliterating album that proves the artists' relevence and integrity despite previous acclaim as quirky fun. I've heard some claim that Return to the Sea is nowhere near as good as Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?, I've heard some claim that it's monumentally better. It doesn't matter to me which one is a better album or a better band. Return to the Sea showed beyond the shadow of a doubt that Nick Diamonds is a gifted songwriter, not just a clown, even if he does still wear costumes on stage.

#5: The Dears - Gang of Losers
Mock me all you want, naysayers. I! LOVE! THE DEARS! I've already rambled on and on about how great this album is (a couple of posts down), so I will simply reiterate that this is probably the best album the Dears have made yet, and if you don't feel a pull at your heart at any point during your listening, then you have no right to listen to pop music at all.

#4: Nomo - New Tones
When I saw Home Video, Nomo, and His Name Is Alive at Mercury Lounge back in May, I stopped by the merch table to say high to HNiA's Warn Defever and take a gander at his handmade electric kalimbas. Warn held up a copy of the just-released New Tones and proudly exclaimed to all that would listen that it was the greatest album he'd ever worked on (playing bass and producing). That claim, along with the handful of songs I'd heard from the previous Nomo album, was more than enough to convince me to purchase it without hearing a single note. Ten minutes later I became convinced that I'd made a good call as Nomo took the stage and stole the crowd's hearts for a breathtaking affair of handdrums, trumpets, conch shells and the aforementioned electric kalimba. Certainly no recording could contain the spirit and emotion and flawless nonet synchronicity of that live show...until two hours later when I was on the train with headphones secure and jaw dropped.

#3: Oh No! Oh My! - Oh No! Oh My!
An indie-pop goldmine was unearthed earlier this year by three kids from Texas trying to teach themselves how to make music professionally. Oh No! Oh My!'s self-titled self-released debut album is a non-stop traditional pop love-in that inspires mental images of hopeless bleak despair within tremendous tapestries of sweet adorable la-la-las. Even though I'd repeatedly listened to the album's unmastered pre-release late in 2005 and discussed my thoughts on the songs at some degree of length with the band via email, I still find precious little morsels in these pop tunes that incite more contemplative awe with each listen. The album is far from perfect, but its a stellar first effort (unless you count their previous Jolly Rogers ep, in which case its still a definite step up towards perfection).

#2: His Name Is Alive - Detrola
My most anticipated album of the year was an early favorite. Warn Defever's pet project, His Name Is Alive, have a rather sizable back catalogue of intesnely interesting music, spanning the entire spectrum of music. They were pigeonholed early in their career as a goth band, and then when they started doing surf rock, funk, gospel, and r&b, they were ridiculed by the industry and kicked off of the prestigeous 4AD label that had been their home for over a decade. Years passed and word finally came out that HNiA were releasing their first new album since being let go and fans squealed with delight. Surely this would be a culmination of all their work to date. Every single musical influence ever posed on Warn's shoulders would meld into one great collection of genre-bending american rock that would defy critics' expectations and command attention from those who had disbelieved before. And the most amazing thing about the album, when it did finally come out, was that was exactly what it did.

#1: Think About Life - Think About Life
I know I shouldn't love this album as much as I do. Its experimental pop, emphasis on the experimental. Three guys slamming casio keyboards and murmuring lyrics that mean little to nothing over simplistic 8-bit drum samples? This is just a goofy joke, right? But no! Think About Life's self-titled debut LP was actually the most compelling, satisfying, and blatantly addicting album I heard all year long! Much in the way that (former) fellow Alien8 labelmates The Unicorns captured the hearts and imaginations of legions of kids back in 2003, the overly simplified yet utterly messed-around-with melodies of Think About Life are sweet and despondant, bouncy and contemplative, joyous and cynical. There is so much rich flavorful creamy filling inside the coarse candy shell of this album that its almost impossible to describe, and difficult to appreciate until your fourth or fifth listening. Let me tell you, it only gets better as you approach listening numer two-hundred.

Wha??? Awards for fantastic and deserving albums that I loved but somehow didn't make my list this year:

Final Fantasy - He Poos Clouds
TV On The Radio - Return To Cookie Mountain
Liars - Drum's Not Dead
Supersystem - A Million Microphones
MSTRKRFT - The Looks
Ratatat - Classics
Herbert - Scale
The Rapture - Pieces Of The People We Love
Tunng - Comments Of The Inner Chorus
Xiu Xiu - The Air Force
I'm From Barcelona - Let Me Introduce My Friends
The Lovely Feathers - Hind, Hind Legs
Division Day - Beartrap Island
Thom Yorke - The Eraser
Asobi Seksu - Citrus
Peter, Bjorn & John - Writer's Block

11:50 AM
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Monday, December 18, 2006

I think its rather telling of the album's quality when I think that the Dears' 2006 release, Gang of Losers, is quite possibly their best work to date. It's even more impressive when I look back over the Dears' back catalog, their anthemic debut End of a Hollywood Bedtime Story, their somber and ornate Orchestral Pop Noir Romantique ep, their new wave tinged early demo Nor The Dahlias: 1995-1998, their experimental and emotional Protest ep, their sweeping cinematic hit album No Cities Left and various demos, b-sides, and live unreleased songs along the way. And what really shocked me when I looked back over all that Dears material as I looked back on it was that there was not one single song that I disliked. Not a single stinker. Sure, the three Protest songs aren’t as fulfilling on their own as they are together, and yes, the video for OPNR's "Autonomy" is rather dull, but so is the video for Cornelius's "Gum" which is a delightful blast of energy when listened to without visuals.

Which is why it pains me so that Gang of Losers's very first track, "Sinthro", is utter crap, 90-seconds of warm twinkling keys cooing for attention and all it does is make me want to turn the damn thing off. "Sinthro" is 2006's answer to last year’s "Clap Your Hands!" from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's self-titled album, an offensive introduction that makes you want to snap the cd in half, but you already know you love the band and you've already heard one of two songs on the album and know they're brilliant, so you just grit your teeth, hit fast forward to the next track, and pretend that horrible moment of pretentious introduction never happened. Thankfully, that's why there are checkboxes in iTunes, so my listening experience can begin properly, with the much more worthy "Ticket to Immorality", the first of many tracks on the album to pass what I call the Picaresque test, named for the Decemberists album, wherein the songs themselves sound like typical fair for the band, if not better, but the choruses are instantly transformed into bedroom-contained singalongs. I can't not sing along with Murray as he croons "I hang out with all the pariahs. Everyone is almost done with you," and "the world is really gonna love you!" which seems a welcome follow-up to the previous album's first song ("We Can Have It") and its similar cries of "you're not alone!" and chanting "it won't ever be what we want."

The aforementioned "you're not alone!" was easily my favorite musical moment of 2003 (when I imported the Canadian release, two years before the rest of the world suddenly fell in love with the reissue, which was missing a track and had decidedly more lame artwork), and there are similar song-stopping moments of grandeur to be found in Gang of Losers, most notably on "Bandwagoneers" when Murray hollers "I'm trying to remember when we had control, when we let it go!" You can almost feel the hammer of the song's metaphorical pistol cock.

The album is at its most rocking with "Death or Life We Want You" and its most hipster poetically beautiful with "There Goes My Outfit". If you're not completely sold when everything but the acoustic guitar and tambourine drop out at the 3:25 mark of "You And I are a Gang of Losers" where (primarily) the girls coo "we...we've got the same heart" then you just don't have a soul.

The true sign of success for Gang of Losers came back in August when I played it for my friend Dan, who shares similar tastes in everything as I, but is extremely reluctant to anything I try to introduce to him (he hated Bloc Party when I first played "Banquet" for him, and now its two years later and he’s all over Silent Alarm). It played pleasantly in the background as we talked about other things for the first eight minutes. Then, about halfway through "Hate Then Love" he said "this is very The Bends-ian (referring to the seminal Radiohead album which Dan worships), who is it?" and I responded "it's the new the Dears record," and Dan, with the glint in the corner of his eye trying to suppress the fact that he refused to listen to No Cities Left all those years ago let out a very casual "cool. I like it."

10:17 AM
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Thursday, December 14, 2006

The second album I choose to spotlight for 2006 is Supersystem's sophomore (and sadly, final) album, A Million Microphones.

Now, I know there were a lot of haters before, but I personally enjoyed Supersystem's 2004 debut, Always Never Again. Yes, it was derivative and a little bland, but it was also intelligent and catchy. I knew I'd eventually listen to their follow-up when it came out this year, but my interest was piqued when I heard the first single, "White Light / White Light". Yes, it was a driving dance tune with electric guitar slashes and competent drumming, like the previous album's "Defcon" without all the cowbell...only it was intensely more likeable. The boys of El Guapo-Supersystem had finally figured out how to make their music without alienating the listener with repetition and loud disco noises! Also, the Tron-inspired music video instantly won me over.

Album opener "Not The Concept" immediately sets up the new standard for this album, with hooky synths, lively but spacious drums, a more relaxed but intent swagger, and a craving to clap your hands and wiggle your hips. Later tracks even challenge the listener with concepts that seem completely disparate from this genre introduced with ease a grace. "Eagles Fleeing Eyries" is a relaxed balad about migratory patterns. "The Pinnacle of Experience" sings the joys of teenagers eating hallucinogenic mushrooms. "The Only Way Its Ever Been Done" even makes a countdown from thirteen to one sound skillful and danceable!

The album closes on an absolute high note (though it smostly composed of low bass synth beats) with "Revolution Summer," where frontman Justin Destroyer (real name: Moyer) regales us with "a story that you've heard me tell before" about traveling as a child with his parents and seeing a band play on a rooftop and not understanding what he saw until years later. Its a sweet and introspective moment from a dace-rock band that somehow meshes perfectly with everything they'd done before.

This review is bittersweet as Supersystem/the former members of El Guapo announced last week their breaking up after making music together for ten years. The good news is, their last album may very well have been their best.

12:19 PM
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Thursday, December 07, 2006

yes, I know, I haven't posted in over two months. it was very negligent of me, but I was a little busy getting a job or two and then, you know, commuting and performing said jobs. still, its the most wonderful time of the year, where its a perfectly well accepted cliche for me to look back on the music that came out in 2006 with an almost nostalgic personal analysis.

the first album to get this treatment from me is the self-titled debut album from Think About Life.
The album kicks off with the infectious drum machine loops, synth taps, and distorted moans of "Paul Cries", wherein Martin Cesar sluggishly reminds you to "put on your shoes and your clothes. Get set, get set for life!" The song is a perfect intro to the rest of the album, with its noisy wails of sound, like a group of toddlers stepping on casio keyboards plugged into various distortion peddles and huge amps, and immediately you are knocked back on your ass, astounded by how much rhythm these toddlers have got!
"Commander Riker's Party" starts off sounding like a sample from the Capcom-produced "Little Nemo in Slumberland" NES game (that's a very good thing to sound like) and quickly kicks into party mode.
One of the more nuanced songs on the album, "Money" starts off sounding like a simple straightforward, nothing special keyboard and drum machine song, but about halfway through the entire song is taken over by a beat change and waves of excited whelps "It was all for the money!!!" which bring the song to an uproarious and galiant conclusion.
The two most welcome surprises, though, come in the latter half of the album. The easily favored "What The Future Might Be" (very likely my most-heavily played song of the year) features LA's Subtitle competently rapping over the surprisingly melodic distorted synth and drum machines of TAL, as Subtitle and Martin both are quick to point out "this is not a love song" (and who would have thought that would be a fun line to sing along with?).
Most impressive, though, is "In Her Hands" which starts out exactly where I worried the sound of the band might head, with wooshing, dark, driving synths filling the atmosphere with a decidedly goth sound as a woman's sing-talking is lost in the swirls of vibration, sounding like a fall into the twilight zone, and as you reach the other end of the rabbit hole, a delightfully upbeat tune awaits you in the last half of the track. What a welcome surprise!

Think About Life's debut album was easily one of my favorite guilty pleasures this year, and I only considered it a guilty pleasure based on the boarish simplicity of the tunes. I'm not sure if it qualifies as "art rock" but it sure as hell qualifies as damn good listening.

9:51 AM
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