Sometime in late 2004 or early 2005, a girl whom I barely knew (Annabelle Feeney anyone?) made a mix for me that included a song called “Who Could Win a Rabbit” from a band called Animal Collective. There have been few times in my life when I’ve been as startled, baffled, intrigued, and delighted by a song as I was upon listening to this collage of idiosyncratically rhythmic acoustic guitars, punctuated by driving tribal percussion and entwined with whimsical vocals and found audio samples. I knew straightaway that I had discovered one of the greatest and most indelible indie bands of the 21st century.
Of the 8 Animal Collective albums that I have, at least 3 of them would rank on my top 100 albums of all time. Though the band has moved into a more electronic mode on their last few albums, their experimental songcraft, eclectic instrumentation, earnest, impressionistic lyrics, and the alternately child-like and ecstatic vocals have rarely faltered to produce incredible albums. That is, until now.
On September 4, 2012, Animal Collective’s latest album, Centipede Hz, was released. Earlier in the year, the band had issued a double A-side single “Honeycomb/Gotham” that did not bode well for the album with its weak vocal lines and repetitive lyrics. So as it came closer to the album’s release, my expectations were lowered from the height of anticipation built upon their last album from three years ago, the melodically rich and propulsive Merriweather Post Pavilion.
As I listened to Centipede Hz, the first few songs gave me some hope—there were new sounds (thick, metal guitar chording; layers of bleeps and bloops) combined with some familiar ingredients (Avey Tare’s distinctive vocal tics; hypnotic synth lines reminiscent of Philip Glass scores), but as the album wore on, it became clear that this was going to be a miss. After I listened to the album 10 or so times, I then ranked the songs: the first 4 songs were three stars each, then 1 star for the fifth, and two stars for the rest. My favorites would probably be “Today’s Supernatural” and “Applesauce,” followed by the opener, “Moonjock.”
It breaks my heart to say this, but there were times that I thought I was listening to a more indie version of the rap/alternative rock band 311 (“Amber is the color of your energy”…[shudder]), especially on the song “Rosie Oh.” It truly is quite sad for me to give this album a negative review, considering how much I’ve loved the work of Animal Collective, but I honestly have to say that it’s not worth adding to your record collection.
After making my assessment of Centipede Hz, I looked up some online reviews and found that the album is actually faring rather well with a variety of critics—I think Pitchfork even gave it an 8 out of 10! However, I can only credit this to an “emperor’s new clothes” phenomenon: when a band as talented and with as much indie cred as Animal Collective puts something out, it’s hard to believe that it could be this bad, so you praise it so that you don’t find yourself the only naysayer among the sycophants. I think that Panda Bear, one of the founders of Animal Collective, also had this phenomenon occur with his last two solo works—they were highly praised, but seemed pretty minor works to my ears (his album Young Prayer, however, is one of the most earnest and poignant albums I’ve heard).
In any case, here is my nearly comprehensive ranking of Animal Collectives albums:
- Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009): Just because this was their most popular album doesn’t mean that it isn’t their best. It has its share of flaws (“Guys Eyes”) but the first four songs are beautiful bliss and the rest are consistently strong. “In the Flowers” has practically become my life motto; even after being tragically overplayed, “My Girls” remains the apotheosis of AC songs. Cloud Rank = MUST OWN WHOLE ALBUM
- Strawberry Jam (2007): This album has actually grown on me quite a lot over the years (at first listen, I put it beneath Sung Tongs). Seeing them perform songs from this release at a show was one of the most transcendent experiences I’ve ever had (if you ever have the chance to see them live, you really must go), so that may have added to its lustre. The first five songs are genius (a trend that’s become obvious to me is their tendency to frontload their albums with the strongest material), but overall, it is aging terrifically. Cloud Rank: MUST OWN WHOLE ALBUM
- Sung Tongs (2004): This album represents the heights of joyful creativity and experimentation, not only for this band but in the history of humankind. Again, first five songs are absolute delight, but the sonic flops here are worse, making for a lesser album altogether. “We Tigers” and “Leaf House” never fail to make me smile with crazy delight. Cloud Rank: MUST OWN WHOLE ALBUM
- Feels (2005): My favorite AC song (and among my favorites ever) “Banshee Beat” is found here; other classics include “Did You See the Words” and “Grass” but there’s some real unpalatable music on here as well. Cloud Rank: MUST OWN CERTAIN SONGS
- Centipede Hz (2012): See above. Cloud Rank: SHOULD LISTEN TO, PERHAPS DOWNLOAD CERTAIN SONGS
- Campfire Songs (2003): A lo-fi recording from a front porch, this captures some beautiful moments of creativity, youthful exuberance, and natural talent. Cloud Rank: MUST OWN FOR FANS ONLY
- Hollinndagain (2002): Pretty experimental and frequently minimalist with some crazy loud crescendos (one of which startled awake my friend Jess on a plane ride to Honduras!). “Forest Gospel” may give you a heart attack. Cloud Rank: SHOULD LISTEN TO, FOR FANS ONLY
- Here Comes the Indian (2003): I don’t like this album. Cloud Rank: SHOULD AVOID UNLESS A COMPLETIST
Albums I’ve Never Heard/Questionable Whether They are Truly Animal Collective Albums or Just Attempts to Cash In on Later Popularity:
- Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished (2000)
- Danse Manatee (2001)
- Fall Be Kind (2009): Two strong songs, “Graze” and “What Would I Want? Sky” with some ok b-side worthy material
- Water Curses (2008): Mostly screwing around, but occasionally of interest
- Prospect Hummer (w/ Vashti Bunyan) (2005): I like “I Remember Learning How To Drive,” but otherwise, her voice was grating on my cochlea
- People (2006): The title song had me for a bit, then lost me. The rest is painful.
- Honeycomb/Gotham (2012): Avoid.
Thank you Annabelle Feeney, wherever you are. Thank you Josh, Jess, and Erin for the shared experience of a live show (remember Wizard Prison? Josh: Oh, what a prison it was.). Thank you Elijah, because I always must thank you.
Since Greg shared his more finalised version of the ‘Best Albums of 2009’ I figured it was as good a time as any to revisit my list. I would have simply updated the original post, but there have been some significant changes to my ‘Best Albums of 2009 (thus far)‘ list due to the release of several amazing records since I left America. I have therefore removed the following from my previous list:
- Cass McCombs—Catacombs
- Andrew Bird—Noble Beast
- Sunset Rubdown—Dragonslayer
- The Pains of Being Pure at Heart—The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
I must say that the four records above are worth buying, but in narrowing my list down to ten with the inclusion of a larger canon of new albums in 2009 (my previous list was posted nearly three months ago) I needed to revise my list. Therefore I give you my more official and updated ‘Best Albums of 2009‘.
10. We Were Promised Jetpacks—These Four Walls
I still stand by the excellence of this record, but it has slipped three slots (from seven to ten). Enjoy the incredible Scottish sincerity and steady flow of energy.
9. Atlas Sound—Logos
Bradford Cox (of Deerhunter) really did an excellent job on this record (released 19 October in the UK) with a little help from Noah Lennox (aka ‘Panda Bear’) and Lætitia Sadier (of Stereolab). Cox demonstrates his exceptional and deeply personal writing abilities and leaves room for many more excellent Atlas Sound records to come.
8. Times New Viking—Born Again Revisited
I first heard Times New Viking last year when they released Rip it Off. That album proved to be a great surprise (which was enhanced by the energy and precision of their live shows). This next record (released 21 September in the UK) proves to employ the same techniques – simple pop songs performed by a three piece band (drums, guitar, keys) and production that is intentionally downgraded for an extremely primitive and lo-fi sound. But the songwriting on this album represents a broader stylistic spectrum than their previous work which makes this record more accessible and even more listenable (for someone who usually enjoys what others have sometimes deemed ‘unlistenable’).
As I mentioned previously, this album was very surprising, and it has proven more surprising as I’ve listened on, securing it a rank of number seven (previously eight). At this point one might ask, “Wait, with this subjective switch aren’t your reviews worth the computer screens they are illuminated on?” Correct, the albums I deem worthy of listen are based upon my dynamic personal preferences. But in the end, we must wait for NME’s ‘Top Albums of the Decade’ instead of taking their top album from each year of the decade because of developing musical trends and tastes, so I don’t feel so guilty. This album deserves this spot and maybe even a higher one. This album possesses a near-perfect amount of creativity, innovation, skills and utter fun! A great improvement from Chris Cohen’s previous work on Asthmatic Kitty (Curtains).
I first heard the track “Hellhole Ratrace” back in August. It was raved about by Pitchfork and Stereogum and I found the track very enjoyable, but not as incredible as the reviews were claiming. I bought the record soon after its release on 22 September and gave it a listen. By the second listen I was hooked. Think of a more nihilistic and energetic Elvis Costello circa 1977, with a hint of Buddy Holly.
5. Camera Obscura—My Maudlin Career
This record (along with Cursive’s new record) slipped a slot entirely due to the release of my new number three record of the year. As I’ve mentioned previously, this is probably my favorite release from Camera Obscura. The more I’ve listened the more I appreciate the record and also the more sure I am that I didn’t simply “love it so much because Belle & Sebastian hasn’t released an LP since 2006.” Well orchestrated and executed indie-pop, with plenty of Scottish wit. Even if there is a hint of my love for B & S in this pick, the album (and the band) stands on its own through musical precision and artistic maturity.
4. Cursive—Mama, I’m Swollen
Mama, I’m Swollen probably seems to be an odd pick for this number [four] slot, but I will always have a soft spot for Cursive. This is not to say that this album is undeserving of praise. Cursive is not interested in being another experimental freak-folk-electro-post-rock-cross-genre-remixed piece of overproduced crap like so many other groups are becoming (namely Dirty Projectors). They are faithful to their expressive indie roots, this album being far less poppy than Happy Hollow. It reminds me of Domestica even. Tim Kasher is still obsessed with refuting a theistic/morally superior worldview, but he does it with so much passion and angst I can’t help but be stirred. Cursive encourages us to realize the failure of our Enlightenment/modern ideals and to accept our animalistic/primitive nature. I don’t buy it (but not because it’s not packaged well). I say we drop the Enlightenment and read more Kierkegaard and Barth.
3. Converge—Axe to Fall
After all these years Converge is still bringing ‘it.’ What is ‘it?’ ‘It’ is unrelenting energy. Of all of the bands on this top ten album list, Converge is by far my favorite. This album (released 20 October) is both extremely heavy and true to Converge’s metal roots while remaining very accessible (like 2001’s Jane Doe). Axe to Fall has also made its way into my top three all-time Converge records.
2. Animal Collective—Merriweather Post Pavilion
Retaining its number two slot, Merriweather Post Pavilion – though it is more accessible (think Pet Sounds) than their entire repertoire (a bad start in my odd musical sense) – is very unique, big (to the point of breathtaking at times), and yet more cohesive with itself than any other Animal Collective album. The songs don’t leave you asking, “When is this going to end/how does that even fit?”
1. Grizzly Bear—Veckatimest
I raved about their performance in Glasgow earlier this month and I stand by this pick as the ‘Best Album of 2009.’ My first listen of this record was a positive, but not profound experience. Only two tracks really stuck out to me: “Two Weeks,” and “While You Wait for the Others.” I was even a little disappointed with the album version of “While You Wait for the Others,” at first (compared to their incredible live performance I saw on Morning Becomes Eclectic last year). I sat with the album for another month and at that point it hit me. This is by far (maybe I’ll get harassed for saying that) Grizzly Bear’s best record. By best I mean that they demonstrate great maturity and excellence both in writing and execution, two points that have always seemed to miss one another by an ever-so-slight degree. This record is certain to remain among my favorites unless I fully give myself over to jazz-fusion or something.
It’s late August and I’ve already got a top ten list for the best albums of the year. As I pointed out in an entry last year, it isn’t really my thing to jump on ‘new’ music per se. I am typically balancing myself between ‘new’ music and ‘old’ music that’s ‘new’ to me. This year I wanted to challenge myself to listen to more “new” music (i.e. music that has been/will be released in 2009).
With the trusty aid of music blogs, Lala, random databases, and Greg I’ve been able to become exposed to a larger body of ‘new’ music this year and I decided that before I leave to Scotland and my postgraduate occupation with a large number of books, I would compile a list of my top ten albums of the year. Who knows, maybe this will be my final top ten list for the year (though it has been altered a bit even in the last 24 hours).
10. Cass McCombs—Catacombs
Cass McCombs reminds me of T Bone Burnett and Neil Young more than ever. He remains very unpretentious and sincere, perhaps on this album more than his previous records. Two tracks to reel you in: “You Saved My Life,” & “Lionkiller Got Married.”
9. Andrew Bird—Noble Beast
I really thought I would hate this album. I’m not much of a fan of Andrew Bird’s music. I’ve never enjoyed his voice. Perhaps Noble Beast’s inclusion on this list is a response to how much I tolerated it as opposed to how much I loved it. But I am leaning more toward its inclusion because I thoroughly enjoy listening to this album. Two tracks to reel you in: “Masterswarm,” & “Not a Robot, But a Ghost.”
This album was very surprising. I hadn’t been very impressed with Chris Cohen’s work with Curtains on Asthmatic Kitty, so I didn’t expect a lot. I saw Cryptasize for the first time with Danielson last November and they didn’t leave a very strong impression, but this album really brings out their strengths. It has a great mood—unpredictable but not irritating (like the Dirty Projectors’ new album…). Two tracks to reel you in: “Blue Tears,” & “Gotta Get Into That Feeling.”
7. We Were Promised Jetpacks—These Four Walls
Thanks to Sgt. Grumbles for this suggestion a couple months back. It reminds me of high school, in the best way possible. Enjoy the lovely accent, the token glockenspiel, and the incredible sincerity—one of the most important qualities I look for in an artist. Two tracks to reel you in: “It’s Thunder And It’s Lightning,” & “An Almighty Thud.”
6. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart—The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
American faux-Brit pop never felt so great! It’s delightfully reminiscent of The Smiths, Jesus & Mary Chain, and My Bloody Valentine. Two tracks to reel you in: “Young Adult Friction,” & “A Teenager In Love.” Note: the album cover bears a ridiculously close resemblance to Belle & Sebastian’s 2006 album, The Life Pursuit:
5. Sunset Rubdown—Dragonslayer
This album is a great step forward for Sunset Rubdown. It’s not obnoxiously poppy like Shut Up I Am Dreaming tended to be. There’s a lot going on musically, yet no component is overpowered by another within a song. Two tracks to reel you in: “Silver Moons,” & “Idiot Heart.”
4. Camera Obscura—My Maudlin Career
Let’s face it, I’m a sucker for Scotch indie-pop. This is probably my favorite release from Camera Obscura. Maybe I love it so much because Belle & Sebastian hasn’t released an LP since 2006. Even if there is a hint of my love for B & S in this pick, the album (and the band) stands on its own through musical precision and artistic maturity. Thank you Tracyanne Campbell for your exceptional wit. Two tracks to reel you in: “French Navy,” & “My Maudlin Career.”
3. Cursive—Mama, I’m Swollen
Mama, I’m Swollen probably seems to be an odd pick for this number three slot, but I will always have a soft spot for Cursive. This is not to say that this album is undeserving of praise. Cursive is not interested in being another experimental freak-folk-electro-post-rock-cross-genre-remixed piece of overproduced crap like so many other groups are becoming (namely Dirty Projectors). They are faithful to their expressive indie roots, this album being far less poppy than Happy Hollow. It reminds me of Domestica even. Tim Kasher is still obsessed with refuting a theistic/morally superior worldview, but he does it with so much passion and angst I can’t help but be stirred. Cursive encourages us to realize the failure of our Enlightenment/modern ideals and to accept our animalistic/primitive nature. I don’t buy it but not because it’s not packaged well. Two tracks to reel you in: “From the Hips,” & “Let Me Up.”
2. Animal Collective—Merriweather Post Pavilion
Though it is more accessible (think Pet Sounds) than their entire repertoire (a bad start in my odd musical sense), this album is very unique, big (to the point of breathtaking at times), and yet more cohesive with itself than any other Animal Collective album. The songs don’t leave you asking, “When is this going to end/how does that even fit?” Two tracks to reel you in: “My Girls,” & “Summertime Clothes.”
1. Grizzly Bear—Veckatimest
My first listen of this record was a positive, but not profound experience. Only two tracks really stuck out to me: “Two Weeks,” and “While You Wait for the Others.” I was even a little disappointed with the album version of “While You Wait for the Others,” at first (compared to their incredible live performance I saw on Morning Becomes Eclectic last year). I sat with the album for another month and at that point it hit me. This is by far (maybe I’ll get harassed for saying that) Grizzly Bear’s best record. By best I mean that they demonstrate great maturity and excellence both in writing and execution, two points that have always seemed to miss one another by an ever-so-slight degree. This record is certain to remain among my favorites unless I fully give myself over to jazz-fusion or something. Two tracks to reel you in: “Two Weeks,” & “I Live With You.”
Compilations worth mentioning
Let It Roll: Songs by George Harrison – a compilation of George Harrison’s solo music spanning his entire post-Beatle career.
Dark Was the Night – a compilation release benefiting the Red Hot Organization.
Royal City – a Royal City B-side compilation released by Asthmatic Kitty.
God Help the Girl – a music/film project written Stuart Murdoch, the singer of Belle & Sebastian. Members of Belle & Sebastian with guest vocalists. CD Booklet features a short story that goes with the music.
Lou Barlow—Goodnight Unknown
David Bazan—Curse Your Branches
Castanets—Texas Rose, the Beasts, and the Thaw
The Decemberists (primarily because of Shara Worden’s contribution)—The Hazards of Love
Wye Oak—The Knot
Look out for
Converge—Axe to Fall (20 October)
Atlas Sound—Logos (20 October)
Why does anyone like
Dirty Projectors—Bitte Orca – It could’ve been so great, but it’s incredibly obnoxious.