So it's the end of the year and I feel compelled to list everything I enjoyed in the last 12 months. Music this year was all over the map genre-wise, but 7 out of the 10 artists are from Brooklyn. I guess that says something about this past year.
10. Akron/Family - Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free
My relationship with Akron/Family is back and forth. With 2007's Love Is Simple, I fell in love with the spastic freak folk that fell in and out of chaotic improvisation. I looked into their back catalog, the phenomenal split with the Angels of Light, especially "Raising the Sparks," ignited a small obsession with this band. In 2009, I saw them at All Tomorrow's Parties as a three-piece, a big change from the 7-piece supergroup I saw at the Andy Warhol museum the year before. With Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free, the group loses a lot of the magic of their previous albums. The percussive intro of "Everyone Is Guilty" shows promise, but the following tracks drift toward yawn-worthy territory. "River" has flashes of brilliance and then there are three tracks that lack any sort of surprise. Of course this album wouldn't be on this list if it weren't for tracks like "Gravelly Mountains of the Moon," almost 8 minutes of elaborate Akron/Family greatness. It begins with a crescendo of flute and french horn that builds into chaotic guitar feedback and lyrical harmony that made songs like "Raising the Sparks" so good. After this obvious centerpiece, it's hard to get excited until the final three tracks. "They Will Appear" has the contagious singalong ending that is hard to shake, followed by "Sun Will Shine" and "Last Year," the build up and the denouement ending, respectively. Though I love this band still, I feel like about half of this album could have been cut. Still, I look forward to whatever territory they're heading into next.
9. A Place To Bury Strangers - Exploding Head
Little did I know what I was getting myself into moving into Death By Audio. I had not even listened to A Place to Bury Strangers beforehand, but was instantly absorbed into the wall-of-sound lifestyle perpetuated by Oliver Ackerman and his custom-designed guitar pedals. With names like "Total Sonic Annihilation" and "Fuzz War," the pedals almost describe the feel of Ackerman's live show: epileptic lighting accentuated by massive amounts of fog, overwhelming ear-shattering guitar, projections of television static, and a pulsing drum and bass to drive each song. "Keep Slipping Away" could probably be the radio single, with its catchy riff and vocal line, but I think the best song on this album is the dark "Ego Death," loaded with enough noise to be a viable advertisement for Death By Audio guitar pedals.
8. Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca
Dave Longstreth of the Dirty Projectors has one of the most unique voices and guitar styles I've ever heard. On his earlier work, he showcases these almost inaccessible time signatures and warbling that verges on annoyingly shrill. With Bitte Orca, it's hard to think he hasn't compromised for a more mainstream sound. Still, "Temecula Sunrise" doesn't subscribe to 4/4 time, and "The Bride" drifts around a steady tempo before breaking into a solid chorus, so they've stayed relatively true to form. Of course, this is before the Nico-influenced "Two Doves" ("These Days," anyone?) or the superb call-and-response of "Remade Horizon." Longstreth's trio of female vocal accompaniment has always added a refreshing alternative to his sometimes grating voice, and they show their full potential here. The stellar "Stillness Is The Move" is almost a Mariah Carey or Christina Aguilera pop-diva single. Seeing it live, with Amber Coffman stealing the show away from Longstreth and showcasing an unbelievable vocal range, was jaw-dropping.
7. The Flaming Lips - Embryonic
I've had a long relationship with The Flaming Lips, and like a long girlfriend, we've had great times and rough patches. The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots were the good old days. Psychedelic rock with catchy melodies, live shows with balloons and confetti cannons, Wayne Coyne in a giant hampster ball. It was too good to be true. Then came Zaireeka, which was a valiant attempt at something interesting. Then, as other bands entered my life, and the Lips released At War With The Mystics, I was almost certain our time together had come to an end. The hampster ball was old news, Coyne was recycling music, and they were playing "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song" live, as if it were on par with "Do You Realize?"
Then came Embryonic, and like a romantic weekend together, the Lips and I were rekindled. Buried in fuzz and overprocessed drums, Coyne comes at his music from a different angle. It's like every song was recorded at max volume through iPod headphones but still retains the majesty of Coyne's voice. "Convinced of the Hex" and "See The Leaves" prod along like a 1970's Can album. Then there are spastic instrumental tracks like "Aquarius Sabotage" and "Scorpio Sword." Of course, with 18 tracks, there are a few that fall short. But by the time we get to "Watching the Planets," coupled with its shocking almost-porn music video, we know the Lips have outdone themselves yet again.
6. Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest
As a drummer, I was never a big fan of bands that keep the drummer subdued. I like loud, raw drumming that is in the foreground and as unprocessed as possible. Maybe that's why it took a long time for me to like Grizzly Bear. The slow tempo and mellow vocals started out as "working music" or "going to sleep music," and then I slowly, slowly started to really like this band. Veckatimest has a few really great songs. I don't think I have to talk too much about "Two Weeks" or "While You Wait For The Others," both amazing standout tracks that have received almost too much praise this year. I think the album closer "Foreground" made this album for me, a simple piano melody with a subtle bass drum. Or maybe it was the chaotic end of "I Live With You," or the bass-driven "Southern Point." If the whole album were as consistent as these tracks, this could be a viable #1 album of the year. I think there are still too many points where I just yawned and shrugged.
5. Jeff the Brotherhood - Heavy Days
"This will be your new favorite band," I was told when I moved into Death By Audio. Jeff the Brotherhood, by name and birth parents, are a guitar and drum duo from Nashville. With only three guitar strings and a three-piece drum kit, these guys manage to put on one of the most rocking live shows I've ever seen. Influenced by 1960's garage rock, Heavy Days is raw, catchy, and loud. The title track fades in with the sound of a swarm of bees and breaks down into an instrumental chorus full of crunchy guitar and syncopated drums. Sticking with the theme, "Heavy Damage" is a singalong that encourages the crowd to learn the words "I got so much to do/ Can't even talk to you/ Gotta go do a thing now baby/ We can hang out next week maybe." There's even a ballad ("The Tropics") and an instrumental complete with a metal breakdown ("Heavy Krishna"). The poppy "Bone Jam" would be almost cheesy if the lyrics weren't "I'm gonna grind your bones to make my bread." Closing the album is "Mind Ride," a slow, sludge-metal track that suddenly warps into double speed and repeats itself before catapulting into an ending smothered in wah-pedal glory. Catch this band live if you have the chance.
4. Bill Callahan - Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle
On the other end of the spectrum is Bill Callahan, or Smog, however you want to refer to him. He's been under the radar for quite some time. Monotone and short, he is almost talking more than he is singing. Still, he is never off-key, and he floats his baritone voice over beautiful compositions of orchestral strings and acoustic guitars. Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle opens with "Jim Cain,"as Callahan states "I started out in search of ordinary things" and how he "started telling the story without knowing the end." The dark "Eid Ma Clack Shaw" starts out bitterly before morphing into a nonsensical chorus full of made-up words. "The Wind and the Dove" alters beautifully between major and minor chords while "Too Many Birds" is a simple 1-4-5-minor6 progression. Over both of these tracks, Callahan is singing about what he sees. As with much of the album, the songs are descriptive and mostly about observation of nothing in particular. The closer "Faith/Void" has a stroke of insight, as Callahan repeats, "It's time to put God away" in an atheistic anthem. If Callahan has accepted the fact that the void exists, maybe he's just become content singing about birds and trees. I'm perfectly fine with that.
3. Woods - Songs of Shame
Surprise, Brooklyn again. Woods have perfected a very specific sound: their entire folk band and creepy high-pitched vocals of frontman Jeremy Earl are recorded with super lo-fi equipment. It's to the extent that the band sings through old radio microphones when they play live. Earl sounds like he's singing into a tin can. The drums are barely audible, and occasionally a distorted guitar appears out of nowhere, strikingly louder than the rest of the instruments. It was so striking that I originally thought Death By Audio was testing out pedals the first time I played this album. Haunting melodies on "The Number" and "Down This Road" sound like eerie campfire songs, while the low fi rendition of Graham Nash's "Military Madness" bounces along like a 1940's transistor radio hit. "Rain On" is one of the best tracks on the album, a spiteful anthem showcasing the vocal range of Earl, his high-pitched melodies reminiscent of Neil Young. I think this album is the beginning of a beautiful relationship with this band.
2. Antlers - Hospice
Brooklyn's Antlers, fronted by beautiful lyricist Peter Silberman, were introduced to me by my roommate April back in February. Their third album Hospice tells the tale of a man meeting a bone cancer patient at a clinic, then falling in love with her, and eventually watching her die. "Kettering" starts the tale, as Silberman almost whispers the description of the hospital room and the hopelessness of the situation. His voice trembles as he says "I didn't believe them when they said there was no saving you." This album isn't all quiet, as "Sylvia" follows with an explosive waltz, a call for compromise, to "let me do my job." The metaphorical "Bear" is my favorite track, comparing the cancer to something that's "living inside your stomach" and has been "kicking from within." The wavering chorus alters between "We're too old" and "We're not old at all," a perfect description of facing death at an early age.
"Two" dates back to childhood, spending youth in a cancer ward and not eating. It follows Peter and Sylvia as they move to New York and are abandoned by their friends. It has the most optimistic chord progression with probably the most depressing lyrics. With Sylvia's death in "Shiva," the aftermath of "Wake" showcases Peter's depression in a depressing 8 minute anthem. As the melody from "Kettering" comes back in "Epilogue," we can feel the pain of the funeral, waking up alone, and the lasting memories of the hospital. Beautiful, depressing, almost too painful because it's true. Hospice is a masterpiece of 2009.
1. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavillion
Surprise! This album stands miles above the rest of 2009, a landmark for Animal Collective and a culmination of their entire careers, from Brian Wilson-esque lyrics to layered samples, to insane time signatures. Combine this with live shows utilizing giant projection orbs and huge sets involving a flowing ocean with sharks and tiki heads and you have one of the most innovative and creative bands of our time. I can't say anything about Merriweather Post Pavillion that hasn't already been said. Just listen to "In The Flowers" at about 2:30 and "you'd smile and say I like this song." The album doesn't let up, either. There's the catchy chorus of "My Girls," the driving pulse of "Summertime Clothes" and the 5/4 (I think?) verse of "Daily Routine" which gives way to a draaawwwnn-out lyrical ending. When seen live, this culminates into fifteen minutes of brilliant crescendos and cymbal crashes, a majestic centerpiece to the album.
Merriweather Post Pavillion could almost be viewed as our generations' Pet Sounds, the layered instrumentation and vocal harmonies that dubbed Brian Wilson the genius of his time has been modernized. Samples, both digital and analog, combine with reverb-heavy vocals to make a beautiful, layered masterpiece. This is miles away from the low-key abstract folk of Sung Tongs that brought Animal Collective their initial acclaim, and many will say they've catered their sound to a mainstream audience, but with progression comes change. Instead of recycling this style, they've managed to build upon it with each album. Finally, everything has fallen into place with an accessible album that doesn't compromise originality. Isn't that the most important thing?