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
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!?