Not a single Lost in the Cloud post in 2015. We could give excuses, but we don’t think anyone is suffering without our ramblings (Greg and I have an audience weekly in our respective congregations…). We won’t insult our readers with elaborate promises of innumerable posts to follow in 2016. All we can do is offer you our modest annual delight, albeit a wee bit late. This being 6 January, for your Epiphanic pleasure, we hope you find some winners amongst our favourites.
Greg & Elijah
Elijah’s Top 10 Albums of 2015
10. Brace the Wave Lou Barlow — Former and present Dinosaur Jr. bassist, a songwriter so dear to the hearts of both of your Losers in the Cloud, has returned for his first studio album since 2009’s Goodnight Unknown. Admittedly, there are a few tracks that don’t stand up as well as others, but in Aristotelian fashion, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Several tracks might even be considered some of Barlow’s finest.
9. Fading Frontier Deerhunter — Gently, Bradford Cox pulls us into Fading Frontier. Those accustomed to the sometimes jarring brokenness of Deerhunter’s previous albums will find familiar hints in softer packages. Whilst not the greatest Deerhunter effort to date, Fading Frontier is full of excellent material, showcasing Cox’s ever-improving songwriting.
8. Weirdo Shrine La Luz — Vague references to an erotic sci-fi-horror comic? No problem. Surf rock? Even better. La Luz’ second album, Weirdo Shrine, is full of instrumental, vocal and lyrical precision, wrapped tastefully in reverb and harmony. There’s a paradoxical playfulness and seriousness to singer Shana Cleveland’s lead, which, accompanied by equally paradoxical arrangements, makes Weirdo Shrine a supremely satisfying listen and causes me to long for those autumnal twilights along the Californian coast of my youth.
7. Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress Godspeed You! Black Emperor — Neither ones for a short band name, nor short album titles nor short songs, Godspeed You! Black Emperor demonstrate once again that they’re not for settling down. The soundscapes of Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress are especially suited to a drookit trek through a Hebridean peat bog, but other contexts, such as sitting in your front room, having a shower, walking your dog or driving to work, are also suitable. Sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes distressing, sometimes triumphant and always moving, GY!BE deliver the goods.
6. Vulnicura Björk — I wouldn’t say that as of late Björk has fallen out of favour in my listening patterns, but her last two records, Volta (2007) and Biophilia (2011), left me feeling less engaged than the previous three. This may well be due more in part of my own shortcomings than those of Björk. But Vulnicura has left me with something I cannot put down. As with most, though not all of my favourite records this year, this album is a grower. Upon every listen, I discover more to love. It is a complex sonic tapestry that demands attention. Unlike so many artists, Vulnicura proves that even as she approaches 51, Björk is brimming with creativity still. She also demonstrates her willingness to engage with fresh talent, collaborating with the Haxan Cloak and Arca, among others. Oh, and check this madness out:
5. I Love You, Honeybear Father John Misty — FJM returns with a new record, but as Greg observes astutely, so returns J. Tillman’s ‘self-obsessed cynicism’. Surely there’s only so much one can take of a disaffected man, hellbent on constructing a new world around himself. But there’s another side to I Love You, Honeybear that stands out to this listener. The apocalyptic Americana bard could content himself with repeating the same winning formula with which we fell in love from Fear Fun (Greg’s top pick of 2012 and one of my honourable mentions). But he ventures elsewhere on Honeybear, bringing a fuller, heavier and more convicted sound to the record, earning him a mid-table slot on my list.
4. Viet Cong Viet Cong — This debut release from the Canadian post-punkers is most definitely a grower. The onslaught of energy is apparent from the onset, but the finesse is the wee bit that reveals itself to you upon repeated listens. In what seems like a time when so many post-punk-labelled bands churn out album upon album of the same song, Viet Cong has done something extraordinary. The ground covered in Viet Cong far exceeds its seven-tracks over 37-minutes. The third track alone gives the listener six minutes and twenty seconds of breadth – a repetitive electronic introduction lulls the listener into head swaying territory, waiting for the floor to drop from beneath you with the oncoming deconstructed harmonies that build into relative despair before the return of a dance beat. It’s really something to hear for yourself: ‘March of Progress‘.
3. Depression Cherry Beach House — Whilst finishing my doctoral dissertation this past autumn I was spending a lot of time listening to Cocteau Twins (engagement with shoegaze and dream pop formed a significant part of the third chapter). I have always sensed a kinship between Cocteau Twins and Beach House. A lad and a lass. Dreamy, simple arrangements. Idiosyncratic female vocals accompanied by reverberating and chorus-laden guitars. And although I would argue that Depression Cherry isn’t as easily consumed as Beach House’s previous albums, Cocteau Twins reminded me to be patient with their dream pop heirs. When one makes the time to absorb Depression Cherry, they will find some of Beach House’s strongest material. For example, I think that the sixth track, ‘PPP‘, is their best to date. I would encourage you to give this record a go — it’s worth every penny and every second.
2. Currents Tame Impala — The Perth-based psychedelic rockers have been a favourite of us here at Lost in the Cloud since we first heard Innerspeaker in 2010. Their follow-up, Lonerism (2012), also impressed (though not as much for Greg as for me). But Currents is most assuredly ‘next level’. The persistence of the phased beat remains, as do Kevin Parker’s George Harrison-esque vocals. But the band is forging new boundaries. They are demonstrating what it means to evolve as musicians and doing so with expert precision and maturity. Tame Impala have not lost their psychedelic, trance-inducing edge — they’ve just sharpened it.
1. Carrie & Lowell Sufjan Stevens — It comes as no surprise to me that both Greg and I have chosen Carrie & Lowell for this top slot. It’s hard to believe that Illinois was released over a decade ago. Many of us Sufjan-obsessed lot wondered where he would go after that album. We saw him through his early songwriting, a mixture of delicate pop folk and low-fi noise (A Sun Came, 2000), through his electronic odyssey (Enjoy Your Rabbit, 2001), through his intensely personal meditations on life in the Midwest (Greetings from Michigan, 2003), joyous folk theodicy (Seven Swans, 2004) and outright indie pop. In danger of professing what may be blasphemy to many, I was never as sold on Illinois as a whole as I had been with his previous efforts. I feared that Sufjan wouldn’t find new territory as he had during the first five years of his career. He lay silent for a while (2006’s Avalanche is composed of songs from his 2004 Illinois sessions). We who heard ‘Majesty Snowbird’ performed live braced ourselves for something extraordinary. But we were made to wait. In 2007, Stevens showed his film The B.Q.E., which was accompanied by a live orchestra. Its soundtrack was released in 2009. By his own admission, Stevens had lost his faith in the form of ‘song’. Then we heard news of an album proper to be released in 2010, which was preceded, without warning, by the All Delighted People EP. We had heard the new sound and it was glorious. Two months later we entered into the Age of Adz. Both Greg and I knew from very early on that it was our shared favourite album of 2010. Then he fell silent again. We wondered where he could go from the satisfying chaos and vulnerability of Age of Adz. Finally, nearly five years later, we got our answer. Much has been, can and should be said and written of Carrie & Lowell. A masterpiece. A revelation. A portrait of serene torture. There’s a sense of despair and hopelessness that carries throughout Carrie & Lowell, but with it is a natural sense of hope and the affirmation of life. In his essay ‘The Experience of God and the Axiology of the Impossible’, American philosopher John Caputo posits:
Hope is only hope when one hopes against hope, only when the situation is hopeless. Hope has the full force of hope only when we have first been led to the point where it is impossible to hope – and then we hope against hope, even as faith is faith in the face of the incredible. Hope is only hope when all I can do is to try to keep hope alive even though there is no hope. There is no hope, I know that and I am convinced of that, but I still hope.
In this way, I must extend my gratitude: Thank you, Sufjan, for giving us hope.
- Escape from Evil Lower Dens
- Natalie Prass Natalie Prass
- Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit Courtney Barnett
- New Bermuda Deafheaven
- Return to the Moon EL VY
- The Agent Intellect Protomartyr
- Have You in My Wilderness Julia Holter
Greg’s Top 10 Albums of 2015
It was lovely to find a few more albums than last year that I knew would be on this list as soon as I heard them—and I’m gratified that my and Elijah’s lists converged more this year than some. I always find myself having to catch up with some of his more esoteric choices and I hope that I am able to help any of our dear readers catch a scent of some new sonic pleasures as well. Bon appétit (wow, a muddle of metaphors if there ever was one)!
10. Times Infinity Vol. One The Dears — I do love this Canadian indie band quite a bit, even though they don’t always live up to their potential. This album feels a bit slight (supposedly there is a Vol. Two forthcoming), but honestly it’s nice to see a band not fill out an album with padding of middling material or playing a song to death with endlessly-repeated choruses at the end of a song (ok, The Dears are sometimes guilty of this). They ask in their almost funky lead single, ‘I Used to Wait for the Heavens to Fall‘: ‘Whose side are you on?’ I am on your side, Dears.
9. Return to the Moon EL VY — Part of me wanted to love this album (more Matt Berninger from The National!), part of me wanted to ignore it (don’t be unfaithful to your bandmates with some poppy, multi-instrumentalist from Oregon!). I gave it a number of focused listens & I just can’t help but get taken in by it–his lyrics, his low melodic rumblings, they are just too brilliant to neglect & the arrangements have grown on me (I wasn’t a huge fan of the title cut at first, but it’s all really quite good), even the ‘haunted house’ feel of ‘Silent Ivy Hotel‘ (love the faux-Elvira/Beetlejuice video…such a great sense of humor!!).
8. Sprinter Torres — Her 2013 self-titled album would have come close to making my list that year if I’d heard it in time (that was such an AMAZING year of music!!), this album is a wholly other turn. When I heard it (on Amazon Prime Music no less), I immediately thought of the early PJ Harvey (it turns out she has a member of Harvey’s old band playing & producing!) and even the primal punk power of the young Sinead O’Connor. Supposedly, the album is about her rejection of Christian faith/upbringing (I need to listen more carefully to the lyrics to sort it all out), but she is IN CONTROL HERE—tight arrangements, in-your-face snarls & howls, layers of harmony on top of crunchy guitars…check out ‘Sprinter.’
7. Brother The Brilliance — This is a Christian group and we use a number of their songs in worship services at my church, so it may seem strange a bit odd here. But honestly, this band, more than any other Christian worship group ever, makes it eminently beautiful at every level—haunting melodies on cello & piano laid down beneath a voice filled with tenderness and longing (there’s a good deal of the spare instrumentation reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens here, so that’s probably part of my affection…though the Age of Adz-y synth bleep-bloops on ‘Love Remains’ is a bit much). Exhibit A: ‘Does Your Heart Break?‘ (note the Elliott Smith shout-out near the end of the song—which is only instrumental on the YouTube video link there, but they actually sing ‘everything means nothing to me’ on the album). The lyrics are poignant & filled with questions of God such as ‘Are you watching as your children die?’ (some of which I take theological issue with, but still think are legitimate forms of lamenting confusion). So many amazing songs here—their whole catalog is filled with this level of quality.
6. Depression Cherry Beach House — Just listen to it. The opening Phillip Glass by way of Mazzy Star track is only the beginning. There’s part of me that realizes that this is just a guy & girl in a studio with a drum machine & a bunch of keyboards & some guitars, but it comes out so transcendent, so ethereal…it’s musical alchemy. Don’t know what else to say. (I would allow you to skip the second song with its shoegazy sort of distorted acoustic guitar, but that would be the one exception).
5. Dear Wormwood The Oh Hellos — Discovered this band through a free download of their album Through the Deep, Dark Valley on NoiseTrade (which sadly usually has more misses than hits for me) a couple years back and felt like I’d been given a bag of gold. I ordered this album sight unseen (and I suppose more importantly, sound unheard) and here it is, right at the top. It’s an immediate masterpiece, not an album of songs per se, but an ALBUM’s album. You should listen to the whole thing to understand it. I found myself choking up on the title track—’I know who I am know and all that you made of me / I know who you are now, and I name you my enemy’—the triumph of pursuing the good over giving in to the evil that can worm its way into our lives.
4. Bashed Out This Is the Kit — Matt Berninger wasn’t the only one playing around outside of The National this year. The Dessner bros are producing & playing on this album. This album came out of nowhere for me. I saw somewhere that Elbow’s Guy Garvey had recommended this album, so I downloaded it. Then fell in love with this album. It is like being inside the head of someone who is so true and kind and lovely; such a captivating vocalist, with layers of sounds and lovely tunes surrounding it. This is an intuitive recommendation—my affection for this album may translate for you. No worries. I’m just so glad I found this band. A good entry point might be ‘Silver John,’ but it’s not really representative of the whole album.
3. Vulnicura Björk — While I followed Björk pretty faithfully through the Sugar Cubes and early solo years, her albums got a bit too out there for me (conventional sort that I am). But this, while wildly experimental at times, is undoubtedly a work of genius. It’s a cathartically painful account of a relational break-up, but it is a masterpiece of exploring the loss with perfectly apt musical accompaniment & vocalization. I feel so terrible for her, but as often happens, hard lives make great art. You have to make the time to listen to the whole album in one sitting—it’s profound, heartbreaking, and epic.
2. Currents Tame Impala — Another break-up album, but this time from the one who left (I think!) rather than the one who was left (a la Björk). I secretly think that the one-man band that is Kevin Parker challenged himself to take a bunch of non-cool musical materials (the most cheesy 80’s synth sounds conceivable—think Spandau Ballet, handclaps, falsettos) and make the most awesome album imaginable. Beggaring belief, he succeeded. A few little filler tracks aside, this is a record of the highest level of song-writing ability and musicianship possible.
1. Carrie & Lowell Sufjan Stevens — So much has been said and written about this album. I don’t think I can even describe what this album means to me. Loss, longing, despair, regret captured by God’s own bard.
- Brace the Wave Lou Barlow (I love Lou and was so delighted to see him live this year, but this album didn’t measure up to his previous solo work for me)
- I Love You, Honeybear Father John Misty (it’s quite a good album, I’m just so sick of his self-obsessed cynicism)
- The Waterfall My Morning Jacket (really good, I just didn’t listen to it enough to evaluate)
- Love Songs for Robots Patrick Watson (always worth listening to)
- Star Wars Wilco (I only started listening to this last week. It’s REALLY good. Too late to include, but may have made the cut)
Dear faithful LITC readers,
Our favourite post of the year is here! We apologise that it’s taken so long, but think of it as a late Christmas gift. As with previous years, we’ve included our respective Top 10 Albums of the year as well as some honourable mentions and some not so honourable ones. Feel free to share your favourite records of the year in the comments section. Maybe you’ll even discover some unknown treasures within our lists. Take care, readers. See you in 2013.
Elijah & Greg
Elijah’s Top 10 Albums of 2012
10. Valtari Sigur Rós — Whilst I loved 2005’s Takk…, I found that 2008’s Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust left much to be desired. Valtari leans more toward Sigur Rós’ earlier style, a more ambient and reflective record although I’d hesitate before calling it ‘samey’. Incredible tracks like ‘Varúð’ and ‘Varðeldur’, some of the finest I’ve ever heard from the Iceland post-rock legends kept me from pushing this record out of the top ten. For this record the band also came up with they’ve called the ‘Valtari Mystery Film Experiment‘ in which they employed twelve filmmakers to make music videos for the album based upon what the song brought to their minds and without the final approval from Sigur Rós. See ‘Varúð’ below, created by Inga Birgisdóttir, who designed the album cover and also directed the video for ‘Ekki Múkk’:
9. Gentle Stream The Amazing — This was the first record of 2012 that really caught me by surprise. Released in Sweden in 2011, Gentle Stream proves to be just that, a gentle yet wide stream of quality, what I would describe as a subtle mixture between Simon & Garfunkel and Dinosaur Jr. Like their previous releases, The Amazing and Wait for Light to Come, there are still hints of psych rock (influenced by the presence of various members of Dungen) and classic rock and the finished product it is most satisfying.
8. All We Love We Leave Behind Converge — Before I listened to this record, I didn’t want to include Converge in this list because it’s starting to look like whenever a few of my favourite artists make a new album they inevitably end up on my ‘Best Albums’ list. For those who know how I rate music, it’s unlikely that the top four will come as any surprise this year. But give me some credit; I can betray bands I love when they make subpar records – like Animal Collective’s Centipede Hz or my ‘dishonourable mentions’ below. Or last year when I resisted We Were Promised Jetpacks’ In the Pit of the Stomach, Atlas Sound’s Parallax, David Bazan’s Strange Negotiations, DeVotchKa’s 100 Lovers, Danielson’s Best of Gloucester County, etc. See, so when I include one of my favourite bands in my top ten I really mean it!
All that being said, I didn’t want to include Converge this year, so when I heard the first track, ‘Aimless Arrow’, I was relieved and heartbroken simultaneously. I would consider the track their weakest opener to date (especially compared to their last record’s first track, ‘Darkhorse‘), and with its hints of ‘screamo’ and melodic hardcore (don’t worry, there’s no ‘singing’ on this track), I was fearful of listening to the rest of the record. But the eight tracks to follow are all heavy, quality tunes! The rest of the record features some spoken word, which works on top of the slow, thoughtful guitar work by Kurt Ballou. But my heart was nearly torn in two upon listening to the tenth track, ‘Coral Blue’. It’s not all that frightening until the chorus, which isn’t quite ‘screamo annoying’, but more confusing for those who listen to Converge. Thankfully, that’s the extent of this ‘singing’ charade on All We Love We Leave Behind. It closes out with the sufficiently epic title track and sufficiently heavy ‘Predatory Glow’. No, on the whole this was no serious transition for Converge, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. They tried that on You Fail Me and they failed me indeed.
7. Sweet Heart Sweet Light Spiritualized — I know, great cover, right? OK, it’s probably one of the worst album covers this year, but don’t let that put you off! This here is an excellent record. Jason Pierce, also known as J. Spaceman, the creative force behind all of Spiritualized’s incarnations over the last 22 years, wrote the album whilst undergoing serious medical treatment for his liver, which was left in a sore state as a result of many years of drug use, both prescribed and recreational. But unlike 2008’s Songs in A&E, which was also inspired by a serious medical emergency (aspiration pneumonia and periorbital cellulitis), Sweet Heart Sweet Light is a much more hopeful, inspiring record, somewhat in the vein of 1997’s Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space.
6. ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! Godspeed You! Black Emperor — This is the Canadian post-rockers’ first record since 2002’s Yanqui U.X.O., and whilst I found Yanqui rather uninspiring after 2000’s masterpiece Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, ‘Allelujah! is a return to form and then some. Godspeed has a rare skill (shared with Sufjan Stevens) for making 20+ minute songs engaging throughout. The tracks are engrossing and become, as the album title suggests, transcendent objets d’art, ushering the listener into heavy aural ascension.
5. America Dan Deacon — I appreciated Dan Deacon’s music before (his 2009 release, Bromst was among my honourable mentions that year), but this record caught me by surprise. The opener, ‘Guilford Avenue Bridge’, is a buzzy digital number, which flows into the two subsequent tracks until Deacon decided to change the pace with ‘Prettyboy’, which seems to ruin the rhythm of the album, that is until we’re brought back into the jam with ‘Crash Jam’. The highlight of the album is the four-part ‘USA’ opus below:
4. Lonerism Tame Impala — Tame Impala’s last record, Innerspeaker, which came to me as such a surprise thanks to Greg’s preaching of the gospel, ranked 6th on my Best Albums of 2010 list, so in my desire to not be let down, I was suspecting that the follow-up wouldn’t be as good. As with their previous material, Lonerism draws much from the past (‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards‘ could’ve been part of Magical Mystery Tour, right between ‘Blue Jay Way‘ and ‘Your Mother Should Know‘, or it could’ve totally replaced the latter and I wouldn’t have minded), but always with a sense of artistic integrity and completeness. Thank you, Tame Impala, for defying the awfulness of your band name yet again and coming up with another excellent piece of psychadelic groove rock! Oh and isn’t it groovy!
3. Bloom Beach House — After their excellent third album, Teen Dream (which ranked 8th in my Top 10 Albums of 2010), I expected Beach House to lose steam. Every subsequent record was getting better and no band can keep that up. Well, this loss of steam will have to wait until their next record, because I’d say that Bloom might very well be their best record to date. Whilst their sound remains distinctively ‘Beach House’ (those keyboard and guitar-driven dream pop soundscapes and that husky female voice), the songwriting in Bloom has taken a step forward. And even though this record demands more time and attention than their previous releases, the payoff is tenfold. And how amazing is this Ghostbusters-inspired video for ‘Lazuli’?
2. Dept. of Disappearance Jason Lytle — This was an exciting year for us Grandaddy fans: the band reunited after six years apart! And very fortunately for us, the excitement didn’t end there. Grandaddy principal songwriter, lead singer and guitarist, Jason Lytle, has kept busy since the break up in 2006. In fact, Grandaddy’s final record, 2005’s Just Like the Fambly Cat, was written and recorded entirely by Lytle. After the break up, a move inspired by lack of commercial success, Lytle relocated from California to Montana and toured with Rusty Miller in support of Just Like the Fambly Cat. In 2009, Lytle released his first solo record, Yours Truly the Commuter and followed that with an EP, Merry X-mas. Lytle and former drummer of Grandaddy, Aaron Burtch, joined with members of Earlimart to form the band Admiral Radley, who released their debut record, I Heart California, in 2010. Each of these incarnations were superb (I Heart California was an honourable mention in my Best Albums of 2010 list), but none seemed to capture the magic that Lytle’s earlier work possessed in great measure. Until now. It’s safe to say that Dept. of Disappearance is a grower, but there was enough of pure goodness present from the first listen to keep me going. Each track is excellent, and some are among the best Lytle’s ever written, such as the title track, ‘Matterhorn’, ‘Last Problem of the Alps’, ‘Somewhere There’s a Someone’ (below), ‘Gimme Click Gimme Grid’ and ‘Elko in the Rain’.
1. Shields Grizzly Bear — I won’t make excuses or defend my pick despite the fact that Grizzly Bear’s previous record was my number one album of 2009. Shields is just that good. Still present are the Grizzly Bear trademarks we know and love, but this record is the band’s most aggressive and coherent to date. At times it is far darker than their previous material (‘Speak in Rounds’), yet it still takes the listener into the clouds (‘Half Gate’). In the midst of this more aggressive direction, Grizzly Bear also ventures into the realm of more accessible pop music, music that isn’t as dissonant as their previous releases yet retains its creative bearings. On top of all of their unique qualities as proficient musicians and songwriters, Grizzly Bear demonstrate a continuing process of maturation, one that solidifies them as—in this listener’s opinion—one of the best bands of their generation.
Elijah’s honourable mentions
- Silver & Gold Sufjan Stevens — A massive five-disc, 58-song, 2.7-hour Christmas feast!
- Shrines Purity Ring
- Fear Fun Father John Misty
- Information Retrieved Pinback
- Cancer 4 Cure El-P
- Love This Giant David Byrne & St Vincent
- Tramp Sharon Van Etten
- The Seer Swans
- Tempest Bob Dylan
- Coexist The xx
Elijah’s dishonourable mentions
- Mirage Rock Band of Horses
- Silver Age Bob Mould
Greg’s Top 10 Albums of 2012
Another conflicted year of listening for me: some of my favorite bands put out albums I thought were shite (Animal Collective, Sigur Rós) and other bands that I expected more from turned out mediocre fare (Passion Pit, The Avett Brothers). Then there were the albums that had real moments of brilliance on them…but which couldn’t sustain that level of greatness throughout the entire record. The following albums didn’t break into my top ten, but you should definitely check out the songs indicated:
- Bloom Beach House — ‘Myth’, ‘The Hours’, ‘Irene’
- Charmer Aimee Mann — ‘Labrador’, ‘Soon Enough’, ‘Slip and Roll’
- Confess Twin Shadow — ‘Golden Light’, ‘Five Seconds’, ‘Be Mine Tonight’
- Lonerism Tame Impala — ‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’, ‘Elephant’, ‘Sun’s Coming Up’
- Shields Grizzly Bear — ‘Yet Again’, ‘Gun-Shy’, ‘Half Gate’
- Time Capsules II Oberhofer — ‘HEART’, ‘I Could Go’, ‘oOoO’; also did a great cover of Kanye West’s ‘Runaway‘
10. Young Man Follow Future of Forestry — I don’t mind if I lose all indie credibility for putting a Christian, anthem rock band on my top ten. This album falls somewhere in between Delirious?/Phil Wickham and post-Pop U2/Snow Patrol (right now, Elijah is raising his eyebrows/giving me a look of consternation/experiencing a slight taste of bile in the mouth). I know that there’s a strong hint of songwriting formulae, mixed with sentimental emotionalism, strategic falsetto insertion, and derivative production sleight-of-hand, but I can’t help it…I eat it up. This is my sonic Kryptonite. It moves me and I can’t help loving it. So there you go.
9. Milk Famous White Rabbits — This was a late addition to the list. I had loved the track “Everyone Can’t Be Confused” earlier in the year, but never got around to purchasing the whole album. Two weeks ago, I finally got it and have enjoyed the carefully orchestrated arrangement and production of each song immensely. As I began reading reviews, many of which were not kind, there was some talk about the band selling out and transforming into Spoon-lite (one of that band’s members produced the album). I actually can’t stand Spoon, but I love these guys!
8. The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do Fiona Apple — I’ll be honest, I’m not such a fan of the craziness that exists inside this woman’s head, but her startlingly stark songwriting, passionate confessionalism, and uncompromising originality make this album a work of undeniable greatness.
7. Port of Morrow The Shins — There may be some measure of sentiment and nostalgia in this pick. The 2001 album Oh, Inverted World was a life-changer for me (a moment captured and corrupted in Zach Braff’s film Garden State) and I can hear echoes of those glorious times in songs like “It’s Only Life,” “No Way Down,” and “For a Fool.” For those purists who find this a shameless exploitation of The Shins brand (being that only one member of the original band plays on this album), a stance which I myself initially considered, I respectfully disagree. The magic is still here…
6. Adventures in Your Own Backyard Patrick Watson — Watson is one of those artists whose voice alone puts him into a category of talent and beauty that should earn accolades–but he is also a brilliant songwriter and musician whose idiosyncratic vision comes into its own on this release. If you’ve never listened to his work before, his catalog is well worth exploring, including his work with The Cinematic Orchestra.
5. Heaven The Walkmen — This band has been loitering in the periphery of my musical tastes for a while–a great song here or there, but no album that absolutely blew me away. Until now…you MUST listen to this record.
4. Tramp Sharon Van Etten — Such fine, delicate songwriting; beautiful, haunting, and frequently spare instrumentation to accompany her striking, melancholy voice; and brilliant production & instrumental assistance from The National’s Aaron Dessner (who better be working on a new album himself!). I love so many of these songs with an affection that is reserved for a select few artists. Listen to the song belong and try not to simultaneously smile AND ache:
3. Break It Yourself Andrew Bird — I wrote about this album earlier in the year, wondering if it would grow on me more and more. Boy, did it ever. As I said before, Andrew Bird cannot make a bad album, but here, he’s certainly made a great one. I think it really comes alive after the first 1/3 of the album is over, so don’t give up on it if you don’t immediately sense the genius.
2. Silver and Gold Sufjan Stevens — I’m considering this a 2013 release, even though it is a collection of EP’s that Sufjan had privately given out to friends and family over the last five or six years. Of course I love it—I’m a Sufjanite through and through. But beyond my dedication to the man, this really is a beautiful collection of 58 songs that I think transcend the holiday season itself and act as a meditation on the human condition as a whole, refracted through the hopes and disappointments that we connect to a particular time of year and experience of faith, family, community, and tradition. There are haunting covers of Christmas & holiday classics (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Joy to the World,” “Let It Snow!” and “Silent Night”), worshipful church hymns simply arranged and devoutly performed (“Ah Holy Jesus,” “Lift Up Your Heads Ye Mighty Gates,” and “Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light”), and Sufjan originals or adaptations that stand up to any of his other records (“Justice Delivers Its Death,” “Christmas in the Room,” “The Midnight Clear,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and “The Child with the Star on His Head”) along with a myriad of lovely instrumental meditations (my favorites include “Make Haste to See the Baby,” “Go Nightly Cares,” and “Even the Earth Will Perish and the Universe Give Way”), crazy experimental electronica (not my favorite genre but occasionally delightful), and simple fun communal musical merry-making. It’s also fun to view the collection in tandem with the albums he was working on during these years (The BQE and The Age of Adz). You can actually download some of the best tracks for free on Sufjan’s Noisetrade page—and that is a truly wonderful gift from the greatest artist of our age.
1. Fear Fun Father John Misty — One day this year, I was listening to an unbelievably compelling live set of songs on KCRW by a band whose name I somehow kept missing. I finally went onto the station website and discovered that it was Father John Misty. This is the first release under this band name by J. Tillman, former drummer from Fleet Foxes. I had some of his previous solo releases post-FF, which were pretty average folkish meanderings. But this! On this album, Tillman discovers some kind of alchemy that turns his melancholy into the rarest kind of beauty and wonder. His songs sound like they were written 40 or 30 or 20 years ago—any age but now, yet they simultaneously capture the hidden spirit of some mystical contemporary world surrounding us that we may not perceive. Even the songs I don’t absolutely “like” have a tangible genius to them. I didn’t want to like this album—the creepy cover, the hipster pedigree, the critical darlingness of it. But, for me, in 2012, this was it.
Greg’s honourable mentions (albums)
- Among the Leaves Sun Kil Moon — Such lovely instrumentation and melodies; such bothersome narcissistic lyrics
- Born to Die Lana Del Rey — I think one is not supposed to like this album due to its contrivances, over-production, other myriad reasons—nevertheless, I found it strangely compelling in a fashion from start to finish
- Lonesome Dreams Lord Huron — Quality folk/Americana
- Strange Land Yellow Ostrich — This ended up on exactly no one’s top ten—yet really quite a solid indie rock record!
- Who’s Feeling Young Now Punch Brothers — Not enough substance to crack the top 10, but some real winning songwriting here, with a eminently listenable sound throughout
Greg’s honourable mentions (EPs)
The year is rapidly drawing to a close, which means that it is time for our favourite annual post here at LITC: OUR BEST OF ALBUMS LIST. This has been a very satisfying year for music. Not much is needed by way of introduction, so let’s just jump into it. As may be expected, we (Elijah & Greg) have several albums in common among our top ten. We will first share our overlap.
Shared entries from Elijah & Greg’s Top 10 Albums of ’10
- InnerSpeaker Tame Impala (Greg) — This is a band where every ingredient (vocals, instruments, lyrics, production, etc.) makes an essential and vital contribution to the final result–remove any element and the entire sound would collapse. Everything I like about ‘classic rock’ (a hideous term that conjures up images of some white trash hessian screaming out ‘FREE BIRD!’) is to be found on this album, yet, to my ear, it in no way feels dated. It’s often uncomplicated, but as if the band simply understood exactly what needed to go where to make each song perfectly what it eventually was meant to become (goodness there were a great many adverbs in that sentence!).
- High Violet The National (Elijah) — The National caught me by surprise this year. I was not as big a fan of 2007′s Boxer, unlike Greg and many of my other highly revered friends. But from the first note of the first track, ‘Terrible Love’, I was entranced. This album is incredible on the first listen, but is also a ‘grower’, with its share of immediately outstanding tracks and tracks that reveal their ultimate reward after a series of faithful listens. There’s something pure and straightforward about High Violet that seldom makes its way into indie playlists these days. Also, listen for Sufjan Stevens’ contribution on the excellent track ‘Afraid Of Everyone’.
- The Suburbs Arcade Fire (Greg) — I admired their first album immensely; their second was a mixed bag. I assumed that this would be continuing in that downward trajectory. I was wrong. This is a masterpiece. I originally felt like there was something derivative about the genres of various songs (Byrds here, ABBA there), but ultimately, I took this to be part of their apocalyptic vision of a decaying world of garden cities where ‘the music divides us into tribes’. Win Butler is one of the best living songwriters…
- The Winter of Mixed Drinks Frightened Rabbit (Greg) — My expectations were unreasonably high for this album (their last was my favorite album of 2008). FRabbit surpassed them. So much greatness to be found. Aside from ‘Man / Bag of Sand’ (which was reminiscent of another filler-esque reprise, ‘Extrasupervery’ on their previous record), there is nary a miss to be found. This kind of material is paving the way for a career that will end up with FR being among the great bands of all time. (Elijah adds: FR’s principal songwriter Scott Hutchison wrote this record over the course of two weeks in Crail, Fife, near my home in St Andrews, so the tone of the whole record gives me a warm feeling of geographic familiarity.)
- The Age of Adz & All Delighted People EP Sufjan Stevens (Elijah) — Our Sufjan thirst twas quenched this year and our cup runneth over. Not only did the contemporary musical genius release a surprise EP, but also a mind-blowing full length — a grand total of two hours, fourteen minutes, and eighteen seconds of new and very worthwhile Sufjan material (though among other Adz tracks, a version of ‘The Owl And The Tanager’ from ADP was publicly performed in 2007). Several months ago, Greg wrote a great piece analysing The Age of Adz. This album is strikingly personal and apocalyptic, and musically Sufjan is pushing the boundaries of pop, perhaps alienating those who are looking for the ‘older stuff’ (or more correctly, the ‘mid-career stuff’, namely Illinoise – A Sun Came is very much the progenitor of The Age of Adz). Sufjan has written his best record to date (and Adz‘ ‘I Want to Be Well’ might be my favourite Sufjan song of all time), which has brought about several modifications to our preexistent lists: The Age of Adz has been added to my Top 50 Albums list (displacing Black Flag’s hardcore punk gem, Damaged for the time being) and as an artist, Sufjan has surpassed The Smiths, Radiohead and Belle & Sebastian in my Top 20 Bands list. (Greg adds: This album is a museum worthy work of art. [Elijah adds: Here, here!])
Elijah’s Top 10 Albums of ’10
10. Belle and Sebastian Write About Love Belle & Sebastian — If the listener is looking exclusively for a return to form, an album resembling Tigermilk, If You’re Feeling Sinister or The Boy With the Arab Strap, he or she will be let down by Write About Love. It is evident that B&S have grown up a bit over the last 1.5 decades and don’t want to keep writing the same albums, something which we cannot blame them for, can we? But this record doesn’t need to be exhaustively defended – it stands well on its own. Its slightly less poppy than their previous release, 2006’s The Life Pursuit, finding a medium between 2000’s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant and The Life Pursuit, as if in the place of 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress (which is also an incredible record). Ultimately, Write About Love is a success if we are willing to see something that isn’t pre-2000 B&S as such. It is an excellent record that certainly improves with every listen.
9. King of the Beach Wavves — For those who have not previously seen this album cover, yes, that is a cat wearing a marijuana leaf-laden hat smoking a joint. But at least he has an all-seeing eye necklace, right? Maybe it will come as no surprise that Nathan Williams, leader and creative force behind Wavves, had a serious drug/alcohol-induced freakout during a concert in Spain last year, causing the other two members of the band to quit. Fortunately for Williams (and for us as listeners), the late Jay Reatard’s backing band (Billy Hayes and Stephen Pope) decided to join Nathan’s group and Wavves was reincarnated to give us the incredibly catchy (I mean, REALLY CATCHY), garage rocky, King of the Beach. Billy has since left the band.
8. Teen Dream Beach House — This record is one of a number of surprises for me this year. Prior to this record I did not find Beach House especially engaging, which delayed my purchase of Teen Dream until Greg included the new version ‘Used to Be’ (the old version was released as a single in 2008 following Devotion) on a mix he made for me. This is an incredibly original record, superior to Beach House’s previous releases, which are rendered mediocre in light of Teen Dream. Singer Victoria Legrand’s vocals power this record into the realm of the serene and sublime. While some tracks are stronger than others (like ‘Zebra’, ‘Norway’, ‘Used to Be’, and ’10 Mile Stereo’), this is an amazing record as a whole.
7. This is Happening LCD Soundsystem — Much like the case of Beach House with Teen Dream, I never found LCD Soundsystem’s music to capture my interest before this record. James Murphy has been at it for ages, and while 2007’s Sound of Silver was a critical and commercial success for his LCD Soundsystem, This is Happening demonstrates a finesse that secures his place as a veteran. This record is both very raw (‘Drunk Girls’) and sophisticated (‘Somebody’s Calling Me’), which combine to give us a incredibly interesting, fun, catchy, and pretensionless album. I also hear a lot of tasteful 1974-77 Eno-esque sound on this record (like ‘All I Want’ and ‘Somebody’s Calling Me’), which pleases me to no end.
6. The Suburbs Arcade Fire
5. InnerSpeaker Tame Impala
4. High Violet The National
3. The Winter of Mixed Drinks Frightened Rabbit
2. Halcyon Digest Deerhunter — Back in September I wrote concerning this record, ‘The album as a whole is excellent and it will surely find a place near the top of my favourite records released this year.’ I’m not merely placing Halcyon Digest at number two to save face so that no one can condemn me with, ‘Elijah gives disingenuous praise.’ No, every single track is an amazing audio experience, and as a whole they function as a battering ram made up of all that is good in independent music, breaking down the doors of pretension by merely doing what they love – and doing it well. Deerhunter makes their last two records (2008’s Microcastle and 2007’s Cryptograms) while brilliant in their own right, sound like mere warm-up sessions for Halcyon Digest. Bradford Cox—whose solo record as Atlas Sound, Logos, was my ninth-favourite record last year—and Lockett Pundt deliver with their unique sense of melody and lyrical strength (even in Bradford’s stream-of-consciousness manner).
Elijah’s Honourable mentions
- Boys Outside Steve Mason (of The Beta Band)
- The Changing of the Guard Starflyer 59 (which improves over time)
- Crazy For You Best Coast (useless fact: Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino is in a relationship with Wavves’ Nathan Williams, and the covers of Crazy For You and King of the Beach both feature cats)
- Crystal Castles (II) Crystal Castles
- Daughters Daughters
- Everything In Between No Age
- I Heart California Admiral Radley (featuring Jason Lytle of Grandaddy)
- Hidden These New Puritans
- Looks Like a Flood, Feels Like a Drought Preacher’s Sons
Greg’s Top 10 Albums of ’10
10. Contra Vampire Weekend — I’ll be honest…I didn’t want for this album to make my list. Vampire Weekend has such a hipster aura that I tend to avert my eyes. In fact, their first single, ‘Horchata’, with its contrived, graceless rhymes (balaclava, Aranciata, Masada) and reek of Paul Simon’s Anglo-appropriation of world music nearly drove me away from the album. But the melodies…ahh, the melodies are sublime, and the singer (Ezra something?) has a delivery of lilts and arcs that makes me love his intention despite the ostentation of his diction, and, really, they pull off the ethno-musical robbery just as ‘Al’ did so many years before (he said I could call him that). Recommended tracks: ‘Run’, ‘Giving Up the Gun’, ‘I Think Ur a Contra’.
9. Fang Island Fang Island — This is a last minute addition (sadly bumping off Josh Ritter’s album, which has some tremendously lovely cuts). But this album is so DELICIOUSLY HOOKY and DELIRIOUSLY FUN that I had to include it. Like a synthesis of early Muse & Weezer playing the old Disneyland Electric Light Parade possessed by the spirit of Brian Wilson. If you don’t enjoy it, I would recommend a good proctologist.
8. Heartland Owen Pallett — This guy was a discovery made driving along a dark road one night listening to KCRW. I used Shazam to figure out who he was, then weeks later remembered to check him out/download the album (at some point, I will need to own a physical copy of this album for the brilliant cover art). I was a bit put off by some of the dissonance on this album at first…but I could immediately sense a lyrical/melodic/arranging genius at work, so I listened to it many more times. It’s one of the most stylistically original and creative albums I’ve come across in years & there’s something about his voice and words that reveals a profoundly singular craftsman, in the manner of Sufjan and Andrew Bird. Recommended tracks: ‘Keep the Dog Quiet’, ‘E Is For Estranged’, ‘What Do You Think Will Happen’.
7. InnerSpeaker Tame Impala
6. Forget Twin Shadow — If you like the Smiths & have any nostalgia for 80’s pop music songcraft, combined with a generally melancholic outlook on life, you will love this album. If not, you will hate it. It’s so distinctive, it is sure to have a polarizing effect–it almost has some sort of mystical power over me. I don’t know what he’s talking about half of the time, but it feels like he is singing my deepest emotions. Recommended tracks: I happen to think that ‘Tyrant Destroyed’ and ‘Castles in the Snow’ are two of the best songs I’ve heard all year.
5. Together The New Pornographers — I’ve followed the NP’s for a while, often finding inspired songwriting/performing genius mixed in with merely human tune smith ‘capability’; however on this album, the genius overshadows the capability by 11 to 1. There are a number of songwriters in the band–one of whose style I have little accord with (see ‘Daughters of Sorrow’), but the rest of the songs have enough buoyant loveliness to keep the Titanic afloat. Recommended tracks: ALL, except the above track and ‘If You Can’t See My Mirrors’.
4. High Violet The National
3. The Suburbs Arcade Fire
2. The Winter of Mixed Drinks Frightened Rabbit
Greg’s Honourable Mentions
- Go Jónsi
- Green Grow the Rushes EP John Vanderslice (it was free online!)
- July Flame Laura Veirs
- Light Chasers Cloud Cult
- Lisbon The Walkmen
- Pharmacy of Love Bettie Serveert
- Suburban Nature Sarah Jaffe (this could have been on the list, but I only own two songs from it, both of which are amazing…PLEASE check her out!)
- So Runs the World Away Josh Ritter (bumped off the list at the last minute, but check out ‘Change of Time’, ‘The Curse’, ‘See How Man Was Made’, and ‘Another New World’)
- The Universe Is Laughing The Guggenheim Grotto
Being that this is the time of year when we celebrate the birth of Jesus by giving one another all sorts of things that we don’t really need (check out the Advent Conspiracy for a counter-consumerist idea of Christmas), I thought it right to offer a small gift to you all…in the form of two versions of a song CALLED “The Gift (I Burn for You)” which has something of a fun history behind it.
In December 2007, Sufjan Stevens created what was called “The Great Sufjan Song Xmas Xchange,” which was basically a contest where anyone could submit a Christmas-themed song to Sufjan’s label, Asthmatic Kitty, and there would be a process of judging the songs with the winner being given the rights to a holiday song that Sufjan had composed.
I had written a number of songs in the past (30 or so) and felt like I could possibly come up with something creative enough to submit, and I had a few wonderfully talented friends whom I thought I could bring together to play/sing on the song in order to make it sound much better than I ever could myself. So, I began brainstorming ideas for this submission.
I am embarrassed to admit that I believe it was the movie, The Holiday, with Kate Winslet that actually planted the seed of a song idea in my mind. My wife was watching it and I caught just a glimpse of a scene where the character played by Ms. Winslet was giving a present to a man who was something of an unrequited love (if I’m remembering correctly). I started thinking of how painful it would be to have put a great deal of time and energy into finding a present, which represented the deep affections in one’s own heart, and giving it to a person who could/would not appreciate what it truly meant. So I started thinking of a story that would become the song I submitted.
The melody and structure of the song came to me quite easily, but it is a rather simple composition (verse/pre-chorus/chorus repeated three times with no bridge). I asked one of my RA’s at the time (and a dear friend ever after), Erin Hennessy, to sing the song, as it was written from a female perspective and she has an eminently lovely voice, and I tried to form a one-off band with the ever talented Josh McBride, Jon Crosswhite, Justin Botz, and the one-and-only genius wunderkind, Elijah Wade Smith.
Well, as the deadline approached, my superband did not pan out, but Elijah did record Erin and I playing the song the night before the contest deadline and so we submitted it to Sufjan as “Erin Hennessy & Sgt. Grumbles,” which was my pen name at the time (though due to a technical glitch, it was a mono recording and could only be heard from one side of a stereo system…Randall Wetzig later used some connections to fix this problem for your listening convenience).
Did we win the prize? Nope. Did we win an honorable mention? Nope (though my friend Wesley’s band Boris Smile did!). However, as Sufjan was writing about the over 600 submissions that he received, our song DID get a little shout out in this paragraph:
There were songs with banjos and ukuleles, songs with synthesizer strings, songs with Casio beats, techno beats, beat boxing, sugary shaker sounds and tambourines. There were songs in Latin, songs in Danish, songs in multiple key signatures, songs with vocoders, songs with Rhodes pianos, toy pianos, multiple xylophones, precious songs with Midwestern accents, sardonic songs with English accents, whistling songs, songs with wrapping paper as metaphor for an overbearing lover, songs as advice columns to Santa, as advice columns to ex-lovers, songs with reed organs and mouth organs and pipe organs. Songs with references to Henry James, in-laws, more ex-girlfriends, abstract ambient songs with twinkling bells and silver glitter, no-nonsense songs with the curmudgeon-y sneer of a Grinch, songs about innocence and forgiveness, songs about spite and regret, songs with great big bear hugs and songs with wintry gazes, songs with reminiscent, sentimental choruses, songs with the names of soccer players and American tycoons, songs with sleigh bells and happy rapping, songs with the thumping back beats of reindeer hooves, screaming children, bumbling boo hoos, bah-humbugs, songs with the beating hearts of all mankind. These were the generous songs of many creative voices participating in the convoluted mysteries of the Christmas tube sock! Yes!
So although we did not win the prize, just knowing that Sufjan had listened to a song I had written & upon which I was (weakly) playing guitar made all of the effort worthwhile! (Also, the reference to Henry James in the song is meant to allude to his novella, “The Beast in the Jungle,” which deals with a story of unrequited love.) But the story doesn’t end there…
Last Christmas, I received one of the best Christmas gifts ever, as Josh, Erin and Jon re-arranged and recorded “The Gift” and sent it to me, complete with banjo, sing-along “la-la” parts, and most cleverly, Josh’s voice singing the parts spoken by the man in the song under Erin’s lead vocal. While I’m sure you will enjoy their rendering of this tune, because of the sweet friendship and affection which I hear in every note, I think it is simply one of the most lovely things I’ve ever heard! I’ve included the original version here so you can hear Erin’s beautiful voice more clearly (the new version was recorded via the mic on a laptop) and to see the brilliance of the re-arrangement!
Hope you enjoy this “gift” dear friends and readers…
Download: “The Gift (I Burn for You)”
The Gift (I Burn for You)
It’s dark outside, my hands are cold from pressing against the window pane
And a fire burns as I wait for you as if all my waiting was through.
My gift to you sits next to the tree, boxes in golden paper:
A record player and 40 LP’s—I searched hard for your favorite bands.
I know that this will give me away, but I don’t care at all…
The time has come to open my heart and accept whatever may happen or not.
I burn for you
Like the star shining over the manger
To direct you to
My heart lying quiet
Like Jesus the savior of men.
When you show up and take off your jacket, you’re wearing the sweater I gave to you.
I make myself wait ‘til we’ve finished dinner to show you the present, but then you say
“Did I tell you that my ex-girlfriend’s back in town from Colorado?”
Then you look away, I go make some coffee.
You ask me to borrow some Henry James.
I tell you to take whatever you want and you say that you’ll take it all
And then you ask, “Who’s that present for?” and I say, “It’s for my brother.”
It’s dark inside, my face is warm from shame and from tears and a hope that’s lost.
The fire dies, I cover my eyes but see through my fingers your present there—
Should I give it away? I know it can’t stay, but I spent all my money on it.
I open it up and take out one record—of course, it had to be “Hey Jude.”
I hold it in my hands like it was my life they were singing about…
I kneel by the fire and then throw it in so that no one can ever hear it again.
Every once in a while it is suitable to give a brief update on the inner-workings of the blog and its contributors. November is upon us and autumn is in full swing. While I failed to publish a single post in the month of October, Greg more than made up for it with several excellent posts (including an amazing playlist of music from 2010 thus far and a very interesting and insightful look at Sufjan Stevens’ excellent new record, Age of Adz – thank you Greg for picking up my slack!). But if you’re really thirsty for more discussion on the ‘Hipster Christianity’ theme that Greg has featured in two posts in September (‘“Hipster” “Christianity”: a “review”‘ and ‘Mocking Hipster Faith‘), I have done a book review of Brett McCracken’s book Hipster Christianity for the blog Transpostions which can be viewed here.
Some exciting news from the blog can be found in the address bar of your internet browser: ‘lostinthecloudblog.com‘! Because we so love this conversation with our readers on LITC, we’ve decided to take this up a notch and acquire an official domain name. So update your bookmark menu and the links to our blog that you constantly pass around to your friends (who are we kidding – we know none of you do this…).
As Greg has hinted, we are rapidly approaching the end of 2010, which means one thing here on LITC: MORE LISTS. Concerning music specifically, this has been an excellent year to be an active collector and listener. I can promise that at the end of this year I will be making several significant modifications to my Top 20 Bands and Top 50 Albums lists. As we share our favourites with you, we’d love to hear your favourites (please enlighten us).
Thank you to all who regularly visit and contribute to our blog. It is likely that in our lameness Greg and I would keep doing this blog even if he and I were the only two people who ever looked at it, but all of you really help us to bring these issues—however serious or silly—into a broader conversation, giving us insights and perspectives that we might not have otherwise encountered. And we love it.
Sufjan Steven’s new album, The Age of Adz, officially comes out on Oct. 12. For those of us anxious souls who pre-ordered the CD (myself) or vinyl (Elijah), a link to download MP3’s of the tracks was available this past Tuesday. So I have listened to the album all the way through a few times and I wanted to post my initial reaction.
First of all, I experienced quite a bit of relief in listening to the album, because I was scared that I might not like it—that it would be too experimental (a la Enjoy Your Rabbit) to satiate my Sufyearning, or that it would somehow mark a decline in his songwriting career (the kind of artistic downturn pointed out in Trainspotting).
Indeed, it is neither of these things—the truth is, rather, that I absolutely love this album. It is different than his last few LP’s, so beware of your expectations, and it takes us into a new aural and thematic territory, so you will need to submit to the album as a guide rather than following your own map of where you think the work should go (if you’ve listened to his cover of “You Are the Blood,” you’ll know what to expect). Having said that, I want to share some interpretations of The Age of Adz which may or may not be completely legitimate, but rather represent my impulsive first responses to the work.
I haven’t read any reviews yet, but I saw in some pre-release material from Asthmatic Kitty that this album was not “built around any conceptual underpinning (no odes to states, astrology, or urban expressways).” However, I don’t believe that. I think that The Age of Adz actually is a concept album, but the “theme” of the album is quite simple: it is a self-portrait. This is no stunning insight, considering song titles like “I Walked,” “Now That I’m Older,” “All For Myself,” “I Want to Be Well,” as well as his self-address in “Vesuvius” (sounding like “Sufi-yan”) and his many references to himself on the album (even apologizing for being so self-critical) I believe that this album is deeply autobiographical, taking the listener all the way from an external experience of Sufjan’s that causes him to go deeper and deeper into himself, on a tour through his emotions, thoughts, religious impulses, raw desires (“id”), and finally into his “Impossible Soul.”
Somehow, I believe, the figure on the cover of the album represents Sufjan’s self-conception. All I know about this painting is that it is the work of an “outsider artist.” Does this reveal something about the way Sufjan sees himself? An outsider? To what? The painting is primitive, even child-like, somewhat dark and cultic, but also looking like a kind of superhero–in a word, conflicted. There is a possible pun in the name: “Adz” sounds like “odds”—is he at an age where he is at odds with something (clearly there is some reference to his sense of growing older)? “Outsider,” “at odds”—these seem to hint at some deep inner tension and alienation…but from what?
The realization of this autobiographical form caused me to reflect on the fact that most of his previous songs from the past decade had been in the form of storytelling (where he used first person description not to tell his OWN story, but rather to take on a fictional persona) or worked within a structural framework of a central external concept. This is not to say there were no autobiographical songs, which one may have found on A Sun Came or Seven Swans. However, the majority of his songs were distanced from his own self-expression through portraying a fictional persona, illustrating a Biblical scene, or depicting some historical narrative. Here we find Sufjan singing straight from his own soul with no personas, no “characters.” It is a cathartic and desperate work of self-expression.
The first song, “Futile Devices,” sets up some of the formal dimensions of the work. It begins with instrumentation that might make you think this album would be quite in line with his previous albums (the guitar melody/picking reminded me of the song “A Sun Came” in particular…later in “Futile Devices.” he references that he “sounds dumb” which takes us again back to a track on his first album, “Dumb I Sound”). He even begins by singing, “It’s been a long, long time…” perhaps alluding to the time span since his last lyrically-based LP. The song introduces the central conflict of the album in his feelings for a person whom he loves very much, but to whom he cannot express his passion. In fact, he ends the song by saying “words are futile devices.” Though this will be a lyrical album, the listener must look past the words to a deeper, more ineffable expression of feeling that runs beneath than the words—I believe the intricate instrumentation and emotional passion (the cracking and stretching of his voice) evident in this album are supposed to convey what words cannot. This first song helps transition us from his “indie-folk” albums into this more experimental, electronic sound, which we find in the primordial bubbling and scratches of the first 25 seconds of “Too Much,” which felt like a sonic version of the old Disneyland ride, “Adventure Thru Inner Space,” shrinking us to fit into the writer’s inner world.
Rather than analyzing song by song, I’ll just say that I perceived a great deal of internal conflict evident in the album in terms of Sufjan’s inability to express his love for someone and the deeper and more comprehensive self-analysis this feeling produces, leading to the exploration of his own emotional and spiritual complexity. I began to wonder why this was the case? What is so difficult about expressing his feelings, or why is he such a conflicted person? He says again and again in the second song, “There’s too much riding on that” in relation to the feeling of “too much love” (there is more repetition of lyrics on this album than he typically uses—perhaps revealing a hope that somehow what he feels can be revealed through saying the same thing over and over, or is it an exasperation that he can’t say what he feels, even though he says it over and over?) What is tormenting him? What is he afraid of?
Various possible explanations ran through my mind to these questions. I’ll share my intuitions, which sometimes don’t have much evidence, and am quite open to you debunking these theories (and my whole idea of the album as a self-portrait). When I get the album and lyrics, I would love to spend some more time considering the meaning and significance of this amazing album with many of my thoughtful friends…
So what are my theories to the central conflict I see in The Age of Adz? With what is he at “odds”?
- Does it have something to do with his adherence to Christianity? Does he feel like an outsider due to his faith? His religious commitment results in experiences like prohibition of certain activities, guilt, and the need to confess and receive forgiveness that perhaps other friends (and potential lovers?) cannot comprehend. Perhaps he is finding himself at odds with his faith itself as it impacts his relationships? His Christian morality also (potentially) results in his celibacy (which I saw evident in the juxtaposition of the lines “I’m not fucking around” and “And I want to be”) which could produce both internal and relational tension. So then this would mean that his feelings are complex because of his unique status as a high-profile Christian in a post-Christian world. Perhaps, but this doesn’t seem like the most compelling theory to me.
- Is it that he struggles with relational “attachment” (in line with the psychological notion of “attachment theory”) and so finds he cannot commit to someone even when he feels deeply attracted to them? Many of his earlier songs seemed to reveal issues with parents/family, so perhaps there are some abandonment issues or lack of relational stability in his history? This theory is more intuitive than it is substantiated by the lyrics…
- Is he in love with someone who is unavailable to him? Perhaps someone who is married or uninterested in him (which I personally would find hard to believe…come on, I have a man crush on him!)? Unrequited love can be powerfully debilitating, requiring evasions and disguises to remain around the romantic object, which cause considerable emotional torment and inability to outwardly express one’s thoughts and feelings. There may be potential here.
- I hesitate to offer this last theory, because it feels quite personal, but I wonder if Sufjan might be gay? This may sound sensational and I don’t mean to pry unnecessarily, but to understand this work, I have to be willing to consider this as a possibility, particularly since it would potentially be extremely difficult to experience these feelings as a Christian (consider Jennifer Knapp’s story). The first song, where the issue of undeclared love arises, seems to be written about a man. However, there is contrarily the conversation with a woman who seems to be the object of love in “Impossible Soul.” After listening to Morrissey’s repressed homosexuality for so long, I may simply be projecting this idea on Sufjan.
So those are my theories on the album for your perusal, dismissal, or development. I hope you enjoy exploring the depths of this masterful work as much as I have and will continue to do! If you do not have the MP3’s, you should go out and buy this album as soon as it comes out (and don’t file-share it for goodness sake)!!!
UPDATE: Listening another time around, with all of this in mind…my theories are on shaky ground. One intriguing song, “Get Real Get Right” contains some cheesy electronic sounds and vocal effects worthy of a segment on “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” and yet this is one of the more overtly “Christian” songs on the album with talk of seared consciences and getting right with the Lord. Maybe this plays into theory #1? There are some other kitschy moments on the album where a vocoder is used (similar to Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” or Bon Iver’s “Woods”) along with some other robotic vocal effects (similar to a lot of 1980’s songs). Is he just having fun, or is there something in this particular choice?
ANOTHER UPDATE: There are no lyrics in the CD sleeve. Which reinforces the idea that words are “futile devices.” Now what the hell do all those paintings by the “Prophet Royal Robertson” mean in the context of this album!?
6. Sufjan Stevens [UPDATE: moved to number 3.]
My deep admiration for Sufjan Stevens is paired with the sad realisation that his rapid rise to fame in 2005 inevitably wore him out. Many feared that Sufjan wouldn’t make another proper record after certain statements he made last year, but lo and behold, this year he unexpectedly released a new EP (All Delighted People) and his newest album, The Age of Adz was released on 12 October [and topped my and Greg’s Top 10 Albums of ’10]. Exciting times, and from the sound of his newest material he is pulling away from the mass appeal generated by Illinois. This recent venture back into semi-electronic, erratic, avant-garde territory is incredibly appealing to me. Three of his records are featured on my Top 50 Albums list: A Sun Came (2000), Greetings From Michigan (2003) and The Age of Adz (2010).
‘For The Widows In Paradise, For The Fatherless In Ypsilanti’ from Greetings From Michigan, live on a farm:
‘Too Much’ from his forthcoming album Age of Adz, live at Castaways in Ithaca, New York in 2009:
Sorry Sufjan fans (and if he’s reading this, sorry Sufjan), but there’s only room for five in the ‘Top 5’ and he’s not there quite yet. In order to gain membership in my coveted Top 5 [please note the sarcasm] he’ll have to beat the five to follow, beginning with The Smiths.
5. The Smiths/Morrissey [UPDATE: moved to number 6.]
There are major differences between The Smiths and Morrissey, but it didn’t used to be such a stark contrast. For instance, everything The Smiths made was great (if not better!) while the Mozzer has been on a steady decline with few recent high points. Still, taken as a single unit they are phenomenal (and I still believe in you Morrissey!). Through their charisma and uniqueness (largely on account of the Mozzer’s voice and Johnny Marr’s guitar), The Smiths have secured their place as the kings of indie pop. Three of their records can be found on my Top 50 Albums list: The Queen is Dead (The Smiths – 1986), Louder Than Bombs (The Smiths – 1987) and Bona Drag (Morrissey – 1990).
‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ from Hatful of Hollow (The Smiths – 1984), live in Madrid (after two minutes of cheering fans):
‘Suedehead’ from Viva Hate (Morrissey – 1988), live on Later… with Jools Holland: