Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Fight With Tools Conference

The Flobots formed a non-profit group for community organizing, Fight With Tools, which held its first annual conference at the end of 2008. The band has funded the initial costs of launching community groups in several cities, working on topics like immigration reform and militarism. They are performing a New Year's Eve show just down the road from Denver University, at The Gothic. It's refreshing to see a band that not only talks a consistent political talk, but walks the walk by funding efforts to make things better.

Below is a video of band members welcoming everyone to the conference. Other highlights include a militarism workshop with a game of Jeopardy, and a talk by Dan Conerd from the Iraq Veterans Against the War, on the reality of deployment. Here's another video from Wednesday, with Jonny 5 and Brer Rabbit leading a workshop on Strategies for Change.







The first day concluded with a vigil at the State Capitol in downtown Denver, to protest Israel's bombing of the Gaza Strip. There were more than 200 people there, an inspiring sight.







Monday, December 29, 2008

Pre-Emptivity is (Almost) Always Wrong

The academic argument often made when discussing Dick Cheney's definition of "preventive" and "pre-emptive" war, is that the former is never justified under international law, while the latter could be rationalized if armies were massed at the border, or missiles were readied (or fired) into an adversary's territory. By that thought experiment, Israel could be justified for its late-December attacks on Gaza, as the occasional Katyusha assaults coming from Hezbollah now are augmented with scores of Hamas' unguided Qassam rockets from the Gaza Strip (pictured on the left - think roughly of the difference between the V2 and V1 buzz-bombs during the Nazi asaault on London, with Qassam playing the role of V1. Islamic subnational groups have no true equivalent of guided missiles yet.).

The importance of this definition is that Israel now claims it is absolutely "at war" with Hamas. The problem with this rationalization of pre-emptivity is that it does not take into account the asymmetry of the powers involved. Do rockets assaults from Hamas and Hezbollah occasionally kill Israelis? Of course. Are the continued attacks from Gaza in the wake of Israeli bombing raids a macho act of desperation that only makes things worse? Of course. But as usual, Israel is adopting an eye-for-an-eye response that shows total lack of reciprocity. Its matrix of control thrown over Gaza makes the so-called retaliatory assaults a series of turkey shoots.

Let's repeat it for emphasis: Israel is an imperial state. Israel is an occupationist state. Israel is a thug state. Does it sound like any other nations we're familiar with?




V for Pynchonesque Victory or V for Vendetta?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The List: Best Music of 2008


I was ready to call the entire year lackluster until the cluster of fall releases ended up making 2008 marginally memorable. As I’ve mentioned the last two years, the combination of a general recession, a shift to digital music, and the constrained times of the music industry has meant a continuation of a slump – though the output still far exceeds the era of the somnambulant 1980s. What was annoying was that too many anticipated releases ended up being devoid of inspiration. Folks, we can turn to artists like Flobots, Vampire Weekend, Jucifer – even mainstream Kings of Leon or Kaiser Chiefs types – to show how to assemble an album where every song has a memorable riff. Those that did got recognized in this list. Too many artists in 2008 made only half-hearted attempts to do so.

Special Award to Fight the Powers That Be

Flobots, Rage Against the Machine, and Ted Leo and the Pharmacists all deserve mention for contributing time, energy, and money to protests at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions. Yes, I like the fact that Will-i-am of Black-Eyed Peas gave us the theme song for an election year, but it takes more guts to stand outside the door and holler than to stand inside the corridors of power, even when you’re working for someone as inspiring as Obama.

Regular Studio Albums, 2008

1. Flobots, “Fight with Tools” – No, it’s not just a special handicap for being politically orrect or being based in Denver. These folks produce some of the tightest arrangements and most interesting woodwind-electronics-poetry counterpoints I’ve heard in years. Brings the excitement of Last Poets or Family Stone aura to political hip-hop. Scarcely a weak song on the runaway best album of the year.

2. Crooked Fingers, “Forfeit/Fortune” – Eric Bachmann’s latest incarnation of CF is more stripped down, but it’s hard not to go bonkers over Elin Palmer on violin. The studio work features members of Devotchka, and the double-disc version has a much-needed video of ‘Man O’ War.”

3. TV on the Radio, “Dear Science,” – This band was wonderful when they were weird and apocalyptic, but now they want to dance, and their music is just as layered. Nothing wrong with dancing!

4. Jucifer, “L’Autrichienne” – Amber and Ed often get slighted by the critics, as they dwell in a netherspace between metal, experimental, and folk, but it’s hard to ignore a double-length concept album on the Terror/Thermidor period of the French Revolution. Impressive as hell, particularly in double pink vinyl with a guillotine on the label.

5. The Mountain Goats, “Heretic Pride” – After lagging slightly with the “Get Lonely” album, John Darnielle is back to the level of the triple releases of the mid-2000s. When you take into account he released three great EPs this year along with this wonderful full-length, you realize the MGs are still at their (well, Darnielle’s) peak.

6. Robert Pollard (Boston Spaceships), “Brown Submarine” -- Of the four major releases Pollard issued under various aliases in 2008, I never would have guessed this would have been the one to crack the top ten. One listen will tell you why.

7. Shearwater, “Rook” – Knew nothing about this band when they were composing tributes to Nico. Would have been interesting to see them opening for Coldplay this year. Jonathan Meiburg’s falsetto obviously isn’t for everyone, but the arrangements are knockouts, reminiscent of what Tim Buckley composed during hippie days.

8. Sun Kil Moon, “April” – Maybe there’s no single song to match the “Ghosts” album, but Kozelek proves he can come up with achingly beautiful stuff, particularly in the double-disc version of this album.

9. Gang Gang Dance, “St. Dymphna” – Avant purists are sniffing at Liz for veering dangerously close to pop diva, but this is the first true dance album of Gang Gang Dance, and I think it’s great.

10. Stephen Malkmus, “Real Emotional Trash” – This is the first solo Malkmus release that carries the fun and easy nature of a good Pavement album. The 10-inch EP deserves its own mention, and indicates Malkmus moving into a more prolific period.

11. Vampire Weekend (s/t) – OK, this is going to be controversial however I rank it, but I would have been fine placing them in the Top Ten. Yes, they’re preppy and overly cute, yes, they’ve been victims of a critics’ backlash, but when it comes down to it, songs like “M79” are too damned catchy to ignore.

12. Lucinda Williams, “Little Honey” – Wow, a happy Lucinda Williams record, and one with varied styles and rhythms. And Elvis Costello as a guest grump, making a much better cameo appearance than he did on Jenny Lewis’ new one. It’s worth picking up the Best Buy edition with the free acoustic downloads, great stuff from Lucinda.

13. Snow Patrol, “100 Million Suns” – Even if Gary Lightbody’s angsty weepiness fills up too many “Grey’s Anatomy” episodes, I still admire this band’s songwriting. The B&W rehearsal DVD on the new album made me appreciate them more.

14. Bon Iver, “For Emma, Forever Ago” – Sometimes a singer-songwriter comes out with a very strange and compelling initial release (think Michelle Shocked’s “Texas Campfire Tapes”) that makes everyone sit up and take notice. Justin Vernon has an odd, breathy style, and the recordings in a log cabin as Bon Iver have a strange surreal quality like something you heard waking from a dream.

15. Death Cab for Cutie, “Narrow Stairs” – It’s interesting how a band can really give a shot at widening styles and trying new things, as Death Cab does very successfully on this new album, but the level of magic makes the difference between “Transatlanticism” being Number 1 in 2003, and this one being at 15. It’s not because I’m sick of Ben Gibbard or think the band has sold out. This is intriguing and fun, but not as perfect and startling as “TA.”

16. Julianna Hatfield, “How to Walk Away” – Two women, Hatfield and Edwards, released two mostly-bitter and angry albums this year that really worked. Suzanne Vega should take lessons from them on remaining pissed off and not repeating yourself. Julianna scores a wee bit higher due to the pop-tune perfection, particularly of the opener, “The Fact Remains.”

17. The Hold Steady, “Stay Positive” – Got my first chance to see a Hold Steady show in 2008, and I finally get what all the excitement is about. The band tried to dig deeper than party anthems this time around, and got knocked by some for doing it, but I think this is the band’s best outing so far.

18. Kings of Leon, “Only By the Night” – Critics climb all over this Southern cousin redneck band for being chameleons and trying too many new styles. To hell with that. Every song on this album has a memorable riff, and that’s impressive in its own right.

19. Inca Ore, “Birthday of Bless You” – This album carries the highest rank of an experimental noise album this year, at least in the regular studio release category. That’s partly because Inca’s split release with Grouper is considered a special. This album is a bit more eclectic than her stunning “Birds in the Bushes” of a couple years ago, but everything Eva Saelens touches is Inca gold.

20. Jenny Lewis, “Acid Tongue” – Someone at People magazine had the audacity to give this a C. Why is this less appreciated than her all-country album of a couple years ago? The variety of really clever tunes make this the next best thing to a Rilo Kiley album. And with guest appearances from M. Ward, Zooey Deschanel, and Elvis Costello, Jenny’s harder-rocking second solo work is a fine thing to behold. But please don’t shelve Rilo Kiley, Ms. Lewis.

21. REM, “Accelerate” – Nice to have Michael Stipe make interesting and upbeat music again. Sure, it’s below the Top 20 because REM is an aging band, but their jump-start sure beat out B-52s – and the latter weren’t half bad, either.

22. The Raconteurs, “Consolers of the Lonely” – Why did everyone consider this a sophomore slump? I thought this was a better album than the first Raconteurs, not only giving Jack White a chance to try new things, but spotlighting other band members too.

23. Xiu Xiu, “Women as Lovers” – This came out so early in 2008, it may get forgotten, but it was a healthy attempt by Jamie at being somewhat normal, though his normally weird sense of composition comes through in the end. Michael Gira gives a great guest appearance.

24. The Kaiser Chiefs, “Off With Their Heads” – Like Kings of Leon, Kaiser Chiefs get no respect, as a British instantiation of rock-dummies. The great riffs are not so dumb.

25. No-Neck Blues Band, “Clomeim” – This is No-Neck’s big studio effort, and the diversity and complexity of the numbers is impressive. Maybe this will earn them some new fans, who can check out the livelier and more unpredictable CDs in the huge No-Neck portfolio.

26. Christina Carter, “Original Darkness” – Most of Christina’s releases are in the specials section, but this semi-major-label outing has her playing a variety of instruments with a unique mix of styles and voices. Christina always has been strange and prolific, but now the sheer diversity of her styles can leave a listener dazed.

27. Scorces, “I Turn Into You” – Christina’s double-LP with Heather Leigh Murray of love between two women is sure more intimate than half the lesbian-folk-singer types out there. An intense instrumental work of pedal steel guitar and formless vocals.

28. Deerhoof, “Offend Maggie” – Deerhoof was in danger of becoming too cute in its angular weirdness. But this album is direct, dark, and startling in the way much of their earlier work was.

29. Kathleen Edwards, “Asking for Flowers” – Like J. Hatfield, Kathleen has given us a wonderful piss-off album. The ratio of truly interesting tunes may be a little less than Julianna’s, but this could easily rank as Kathleen’s best album.

30. Future Clouds and Radar, “Peoria” – I’ve never thought this band is the second coming of The Beatles like some claim, but Rob Harrison’s songwriting talents are evident in this outing.

31. Fuck Buttons, “Street Horrsing” – It was a pleasant surprise to see this album so widely mentioned. An interesting blend of noise, rhythm, and electronics.

32. Randy Newman, “Harps and Angels” – You know the ragtime score Newman has developed as his signature style, but it still knocks me out how fearless and on-topic his voice is, when dealing with dumb governments or dumber people. When I rant on the Jackson Browne types later on, it’s because I’m convinced if you’re going to write topical political music, Newman’s is the model that works.

33. Dar Williams, “Promised Land” – Not as profound as “Beauty of the Rain” or as goofy as “My Better Self,” this album still has lots of keepers, especially a stark, scary song that’s one of Dar’s all-time best, “The Buzzer.”

34. Mogwai, “The Hawk is Howling” – Mogwai’s transition to a “Red”-period King Crimson sort of sound was evident in the BBC sessions, and has flowered in the new album. The dual-disc with the live set from a small town in Italy is fascinating.

35. Okkervil River, “The Stand-Ins” – This one may be down several points from last year’s excellent “Stage Names,” but it makes a great companion album. Will Sheff seems to be taking voice lessons, as there’s a range here that wasn’t present in previous albums, but the overall power of the songs isn’t quite up to “Stage Names” level.

36. Robert Pollard, “Is Off to Business”

37. Robert Pollard (Psycho and the Birds), “We’ve Moved”

38. Robert Pollard (Circus Devils), “Ataxia” – These three alter egos of Saint Bob may be down quite a bit from the Top Ten Boston Spaceships, but they’re all utterly charming in their own way – Business as three-minute pop, Psycho/Birds as odd chanted and talked riffs on top of infectious tunes, and Circus Devils as the odd Tobias gumbo we’ve always known and loved. Another banner year, Bob.

39. Sigur Ros, “Meo suo i eyrum vio spilum endalaust” – The band has loosened up and backed off on the orchestral arrangements to provide us with the most playful Sigur Ros album to date. Still inscrutable and cryptic in certain ways, but not quite so self-important.

40. Why?, “Alopoeia” – Some great post-Clouddead stuff from Why?, which some people find good enough to place in their top ten. It’s fascinating, but features creepy stories of the street which are off-putting at times.

41. Deterioration Yellow Swans – Apparently the last studio album in the Yellow Swans catalog, this farewell isn’t the blockbuster of “At All Ends” or “Psychic Secessions,” but a keeper nonetheless.

42. Martha Wainwright, “I Know You’re Married, But I’ve Got Feelings Too” – Many Martha fans are confused by this album, with its odd orchestrations and funny time signatures. I think it’s wonderful – Martha is channeling Kate Bush, and the style similarities suit her just fine.

43. Tom Carter, “Shots at Infinity 1”

44. Tom Carter, “Shots at Infinity 2” – While his ex Christina may have made the most intriguing studio album this year, Tom Carter’s double shot for Important Records should not be ignored. This is a somewhat “normal” Carter double release that would feel at home in an acoustic jazz collection.

45. Deerhunter, “Microcastles” – It’s not that I dislike this album, but unlike those who put it in the Top Ten, I’m just not sure I get it. Seems ethereal and unfocused, although pleasant. Maybe I’ll move it up at a later date.

46. Duffy, “Rockferry” – In the British Motown-revival cliques, my daughter and I have endless Duffy vs. Adele fights. I think Duffy wins hands down, love her styling, even though her Marilyn-Monroe-meets-Dolly-Parton stage presence on Saturday Night Live was over the top. I’m placing Adele at the end of the studio list, in the “mainstream releases of definite interest” category, but I like Duffy better.

47. Meridian, “Listen to Your Breaking Heart” – Lead singer Brian Westrin gets compared to everyone from Jeff Buckley to Morrisey, but what strikes me is that this band takes the few good aspects of 1980s sensibility and merges it with some 21st century consciousness. My favorite segments are when Peter Mowry gives us Johnny Marr-style riffs, as in “Parting Lines” or “Winter Clothes” – Meridian works best with upbeat power pop, since the more majestic Death Cab-style numbers sound more derivative. It’ll be fun to see where Meridian takes its sound.

48. Be Your Own Pet, “Get Awkward” – In some ways, this might have outdone the debut album by these punky Nashville teenagers, but it came out early in the year and its moments of snotty greatness got pushed aside. Too bad, it’s really an amazing album.

49. Dylan Nyoukis, “Inside Wino Lodge” – The Scottish spazz-poet and master of found sounds, founder of Prick Decay and Blood Stereo, comes back with a document that re-defines lo-fo and ambient noise.

50. The Kills, “Midnight Boom” – It’s a shame The Kills are getting a reputation as a mediocre live band, since they’ve loosened up quite a bit on their third album. No longer just heroin chic, this band is funny and smart.

51. My Morning Jacket, “Evil Urges” – Too many reviewers gave a thumbs-down to this album because MMJ was turning too chameleon-like. But what’s wrong with trying on several sets of clothes? I admit not being as enamored of the new one as “Z”, but it’s fun listening to the Motown stylings coming from a country-ish jam band.

52. The Ting Tings, “We Started Nothing” – I usually don’t like cute. I tried to avoid this one for the longest time. But it’s like The Pipettes, you end up liking the riffs in spite of yourself. File under “guilty pleasure.”

53. Ponytail, “Ice Cream Spiritual” – Here I bitched at Pitchfork for putting this album at Number 50, and I do them three worse! Ponytail is actually wonderful, reminds me of Spinto Band (see later), squealing, angular art-school rock reminiscent of 1970s-era Pink Section, or very early Talking Heads. Total fun.

54. Conor Oberst (s/t) – Of course it’s a Bright Eyes album in all but name. And it has some very memorable and brilliant tunes. Maybe it was ranked lower because the last Bright Eyes album had such knockout arrangements.

55. Spinto Band – “Moonwink” – Total goofballs live, but also purveyors of pure three-minute pop goodness.

56. The Breeders, “Mountain Battles” – Breeders fans are right in calling this criminally neglected. The Deal sisters have crafted their best album since “Pod,” but too much of the world has forgotten The Breeders. Pity.

57. Wire, “Object 47,” – Another one I wanted to rank higher. Unlike the early 1990s reunions, this album brings Wire back to the “Pink Flag/Chairs Missing” days, and they sound great.

58. The Skaters, “Physicalities of Sensibilities” – These guys always seemed like more than a drone-noise band, and this album proves they have a certain transcendent spiritual quality that’s almost spooky.

59. The Notwist, “The Devil, You, and Me” – It’s been so long since The Notwist’s “Neon Golden” album, I was at first disappointed that the sound was softer, more ethereal, and unfocused in a Deerhunter kind of way. But then I started chanting “Let’s just imitate the real, until we find another one..” and I realized the band had hooked me again.

60. Beck, “Modern Guilt” – There are plenty of individually interesting songs on this CD, but it has the feel of fulfilling a recording contract. Beck didn’t seem as committed to the music as he has in his last few albums.

61. Elvis Costello, “Momofuku” – Elvis really was hoping to craft a widely accessible pop album, bringing Jenny Lewis and others in to help him kick up the beat. It’s not like he has to do this, since he’s famous enough in enough genres today to shift his persona every 5 minutes. The songs are clever, but I don’t feel a lot of desire to pick a tune from the CD that often.

62. Aimee Mann, “@#@&*%^&#$ Smilers,” – Nothing essential here, but Aimee is having fun and not trying overly hard to be Beatles-esque, which gives this album a freewheeling sense.

63. Pelt, “Dauphin Elegies” – Just because Jack Rose is gone doesn’t mean Pelt is boring. This has the found-sound feel of some of the Keyhole recordings, but it works best as background ambience.

64. Coldplay, “Viva La Vida” – You would think from the low ranking that I didn’t find Chris Martin’s effort to be less haughty a successful one. You’d be wrong. “Viva” is actually a fun album to explore, and the title track is something I could listen to over and over again. But it seems as their EP “Prospekt’s March” is better constructed – hence the higher ranking in EPs.

65. The Loved Ones, “Build and Burn” – If you caught them opening for The Hold Steady, you know these folks have one of the most sincere and friendly old-school-punk routines in existence. The new album feels like old Clash, but more heartfelt.

66. Armedalite Rifles, “Flux Idea for Cover” – And speaking of heartfelt punk, this little nugget of vinyl sincerity, with a plastic paintbrush taped to the cover, should not be missed.

67. The Wedding Present, “El Rey” – Even if Gedge isn’t as layered and complex as Wire with their reunion, even if this album can’t keep up the pace of classic Wedding Present albums like “Bizarro,” Gedge can still hit his stride in classic bitter love/lust songs like “The Thing I Like Best About Him is His Girlfriend.” Simply having The Wedding Present back is a joy.

68. She & Him (s/t) – Look, I’m totally in love with Zooey Deschanel, and she makes every bit as good a musician as an actress, but this outing with M. Ward just has mildly interesting folky tunes. I’m glad she’s good friends with Jenny Lewis, who can teach Zooey the difference between an actress-turned-singer, and actress-turned-mega-musician. Zooey has potential.

69. Fireman (Paul McCartney and Youth), “Electric Arguments:” – Since Paul was my least favorite Beatle, I’m consistently amazed with the music he’s released in the last decade, much better than a lot of Wings-era stuff. The third album he’s released under the name “Fireman” is the most rocking, but it’s also experimentalism of a McCartney brand. And notice something interesting – experimentalism coming from a MOR hack like McCartney still ranks three steps above the new David Byrne/Brian Eno album. But I won’t go there.

70. The Tindersticks, “The Hungry Saw” – Here’s another British band reunion which has almost as many interesting moments as Wire and Wedding Present, but Stuart still struggles to bring back the really interesting early 1990s days of Tindersticks.

71. The Silver Jews, “Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea” – It’s pretty obvious we won’t see cameos from Malkmus or other Pavement members soon, so Silver Jews is basically a David Berman showcase these days. And that’s OK, particularly when his wonderful wife Cassie sings along, it’s kosher free-form Nashville at its best.

72. David Byrne and Brian Eno, “Everything That Will Happen, Will Happen Today” – I understand precisely what this duo was attempting, new Americana hymns for the 21st century. The effort is interesting, but it’s like Ornette Coleman trying to cover Stephen Foster. Why? When I listen to this album and I look at the picture of Byrne and Eno in the NY Times, I think of the avant-garde nursing home for aging bizarros.

73. The Raveonettes, “Lust Lust Lust” – I almost gave up on this duo completely after their largely useless second album. But this album holds out hope that they can still churn out a good strident riff. Let’s hope the current trend continues.

74. Tom Carter, “Skyline Grinder” – Oops, almost lost track of this excellent slice of instrumental guitar. C’mon, it’s Carter, of course it’s great.

75. Black Mountain, “In the Future” – Interesting space rock, almost like a more popular version of Bardo Pond. Didn’t grab me hugely, though.

76. Ani DiFranco, “Red Letter Year” – Just because Ani’s a middle-class mom these days doesn’t mean she’s given up trying new things. Her latest efforts almost sound like Tom Waits – megaphone voice, dissonant jazz stylings. The reason it doesn’t rank super-high is the old “art as pain” problem. When you’re happy, as Ani most obviously is these days, your lyrics only rarely reach greatness, as in “Atom.”

77. Fleet Foxes (s/t) – Despite all my gripes, I don’t dislike this band. They’re defining an acoustic folk style that borrows from early My Morning Jacket. The problem is, it’s not that good – yet. Not Top Ten. Certainly not the best album of the year, as Pitchfork insists, not even close.

78. Lonely The Seabird, “Ancient Ships” – I like every new effort my pals LtS come out with, and this year’s is no exception.

79. Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan, “Sunday at Devil Dirt” – In their third album as a duo, Isobel and Mark finally move beyond doing a Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazlewood thing, and into a dark and mysterious thing of their own, a little Leonard Cohen-esque in certain ways.

80. Devotchka, “A Mad and Faithful Telling” – This Denver band does Spanish-gypsy styling better than anyone, and Nick’s voice is among the best in rock. But the limits of Devotchka’s style are what strikes me, and this album was well-crafted but specialized none the same. I like their work with Crooked Fingers better.

81. Gown, “For the Maples” – Andrew’s work with Christina Carter established a new kind of folk experimentalism, and this album is the broadest and best produced effort to date. Gown is an acquired taste, though.

82. Dressy Bessy, “Hollerandstomp” – Seeing as how I’ve always had a soft spot for these locals, it hurts me to admit that DB is beginning to show age. Ken Tucker calls Tami Ealom “a far more efficient pleasure machine than Coldplay,” and I see his point. But Tami’s vocal range is limited, the band has mined all the 1960s flower-power reference points, and I need to hear something new from Dressy Bessy to be really inspired again.

83. Magnetic Fields, “Distortion” – Stephin Merritt is as good a songwriter as he was for the “69 Love Songs.” Since I like distortion and noise, I should have liked this album. But feedback and Merritt lyrics make for an odd mix.

84. Mercury Rev, “Snowflake Midnight

85. Mercury Rev, “Strange Attractor” – A few years back, I came down hard on Mercury Rev for abandoning lyrical weirdness for orchestrated pomposity in the album “Deserters’ Songs,” which most people seemed to love. This dual-release seems to be a partial step in the right direction, but it’s telling that the all-instrumental “Strange Attractor” is really the better album. Lyrically, Mercury Rev is still stuck in sappy lyrics best aimed at teenage girls.

86. British Sea Power, “Do You Like Rock Music?” – Yes I do, and I like you guys too, but for mainstream 3-minute-songs I’d rather turn to Kings of Leon or Kaiser Chiefs. Maybe there’s a little too much AC/DC in your mix.

87. Portishead, “Third” – Since I love all things Beth Gibbons and had appreciated her musical shifts of late, I thought this would live up to its potential. Sorry to say that it didn’t for me, largely snoozy tunes.

88. Free Kitten, “Inherit” – Kim Gordon discovers her inner-LSD roots. Nice, but no great move forward.

89. Nine Inch Nails, “Ghosts I-IV” – Better than any of the recent rock-style albums, this double instrumental album features Trent Reznor noodling with Adrian Belew. Really worthwhile stuff.

90. Ellis, “Break the Spell” – She’s got the coffee-shop-lesbian-folkie style down, and live she’s really exceptional, but the songwriting on this didn’t knock me over. It was fun getting the dual-disc version with acoustic demos, so you can follow a song in development.

91. Mason Jennings, “In the Ever” – I only ranked this as low because it was a mixed bag, but Mason has included some really exceptional new songs in this collection, such as “Soldier Boy.”

92. Andrew Jackson Jihad, “People Who Eat People” – An acoustic jug-band novelty group which may be stylistically limiting, but the song “Brave is a Noun/Ain’t got the Do-Re-Mi” is alone worth the price of the CD.

93. The Pretenders, “Break Up the Concrete” – It’s frustrating that Chrissie Hynde is back, and has the courage to try some jazz-like styles, but ends up with something that is definitely not a Pretenders album, at least in the 1980s sense of that word.

94. B-52s, “Funplex” – And speaking of 1980s ghosts, I was happy to see B-52s come back, happy that Kate Pierson was hot at 60, happy to have a collection of interesting songs, but it all seemed forced and slightly weird, like B-52s in the nursing home or something.

95. The Counting Crows, “Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings” – Adam Duritz tried really hard to give us an album of mixed tempos and tenors, without the self-obsessive angstiness of the past, but the poor man just can’t help himself. Too bad.

96. Michael Franti and Spearhead, “All Rebel Rockers” – Some people would say that Franti is the real thing and The Flobots are all poseurs. I’d say the opposite, without being quite so cruel to Michael. He puts out great albums of politically-conscious stuff, but this Jamaica-produced album seems to be a little heavy on the rhetoric.

97. Jackson Browne, “Time the Conqueror” – It’s Jackson’s first studio work in six years, his voice is intact if not better than ever, and the arrangements are great. The problem is that the quirky personal songs have gotten less interesting, while the political songs have gotten even more trite and predictable than they were in “Lives in the Balance” days. If I didn’t like Jackson so much, I wouldn’t find this so annoying, but I do, so I do.

98. The Weepies, “Hideaway” – And speaking of folk artists that disappoint, I had great hopes for The Weepies with their first album, but this second outing seems sappy and corny and none too thrilling.

99. Augustana, “Can’t Love Can’t Hurt” – Of all the teen-fave weepy bands of middling fame, these guys are probably the best. That may not be saying a lot, but the album is interesting.

100. The Fratellis, “Here We Stand” – Why do people make such a business of hating The Fratellis? To me, they make good, happy, Broadway-style pop music that’s fun to drive around to. And isn’t that all you want from a good pop record?

101. Hot Chip, “Made in the Dark” – Interesting techno-dance for a listen or two, but why they’re the darlings of certain subcultures is as much a mystery to me as why Fratellis or Vampire Weekend or whoever, is hated by the same subculture.

102. Kooks, “Kong” – The only thing annoying about The Kooks is that they’re too calculated-goofy, while their songwriting isn’t up to other poppy-style bands. Still, not bad stuff.

103. The Killers, “Day and Age” – I gave Brandon extra mileage for “Sam’s Town,” because even if it sounded too much like a Springsteen rip-off, at least The Killers were trying something different from their first album. Here, The Killers are trying something different again, but it’s unclear what they’re trying to do, or why we should care.

104. Adele, “Nineteen”

105. The Cure, “4:13 Dream”

106. Nine Inch Nails, “The Slip”

107. Taylor Swift, “Fearless” – I wanted to end the list by mentioning four sort-of-mainstream albums that are worth a listen – Adele as a Mama-Cass Motowner, Taylor as the finest Nashville songwriter living even though she’s 18, Trent and NIN because he’s past his suicidal angst and into good shit, and Robert Smith because The Cure have made a good comeback even though I’m not a Cure fan. Notice there is no Chinese Democracy or Metallica to be seen.


Special Albums (Live, Compilations, Splits, CDRs, MP3s, etc.)



1. Patti Smith and Kevin Shields, “The Coral Sea” – Two discs and two full readings of Patti’s book, with guitar background by Kevin. Magical.

2. Lemon Bear, “Lemon” – Inca Ore’s husband Michael proves he’s just as inventive as she is, if not more so.

3. Belle and Sebastian, “BBC Sessions” – Hunt down the double-disc version of this release, which has plenty of covers, as well as songs going back to “Tigermilk” days. A necessary document.

4. Fiery Furnaces, “Remember” – Last year, I was griping about Eleanor wanting to be a metal queen, while writing like Gilbert & Sullivan. This double-disc live album has elements of both. Although it says there’s 30-some-odd songs, they’re strung together into wild medleys where Eleanor keeps going back to certain themes – “I wish I was single again”, “there’s a chill in the air” – while the band goes spastic behind her. Jason Lowenstein sits in for this crazy set, too.

5. Neil Young, “Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1969” – How could you go wrong? Young has just split from Buffalo Springfield, he’s playing at my alma mater of Michigan State, and the recording comes with a DVD.

6. Vibracathedral Orchestra, “The Momentary Aviary” – It may not be the full VCO of the Campbell years, it may be ad-hoc performances from 2007, but the detritus from VCO beats the best of most improvisational artists.

7. Magik Markers, “Pwtr Ser”

8. Magik Markers, “Danau Blues” – No studio albums this year, but Magik’s two underground releases show Lisa Ambroglio moving further into her quiet mysticism period. MM has gone from screeching noise to music of and for the saints.

9. Raccoo-oo-oon (s/t), The last release of the Iowa City experimental band Raccoo-oo-oon is a double-LP train wreck, astonishing in its audacity.

10. Inca Ore and Grouper – split LP – This special album shows both Eva and Liz in some of their finest moments, going into some strange and wonderful compositions.

11. Hototogisu, “Pale Fatal Sister” – This is almost a companion piece to Jucifer’s “L’Autrichienne,” a double concept album for Brunnhilde and Gotterdammerung. Marcia Bassett was involved in several astonishing releases this year, as we’ll see below, but this is best of the bunch.

12. Harry Pussy, “You’ll Never Play This Town Again”

13. Harry Pussy, “Live in Austin” – Eleven years after the band’s demise, we finally get two final documents of the scariest spazziest band in the history of rock music. “Town” is a digitally-remastered compilation of final-tour releases, while “Austin” is a rough-cut CDR with audiences hurling bottles and epithets. Adris of course, dishes it out to everyone, screaming at the top of her lungs and playing drums in a manner that is physically impossible.

14. Pavement, “Brighten the Corners” (deluxe) – One can make the argument that every 10-year re-release of a Pavement album is a must-have, even if you own the originals. The extra disc of new material may not be as crucial as the extra discs for “Slanted,” “Wowee Zowee,” etc., but I’m glad this series is continuing.

15 – 31. Sunburned Hand of the Man, “Glak,” “Glek,” “Glik,” “Glok,” “Gluk,” “Memorial for a Black Limb,” “Schmetterling,” “Spacial Crime Symbol,” “Ego Enema,” “Get Fuck,” “Civil Complaint,” “Chinese Perfume,” “Terminator 9,” “Weekend at Burnie’s 2,” “Attic Rectangle,” “Charlie’s Itch,” “Sweeter Natural” – Sweet Mother of God. I had a hard time believing in 2007 when Suburned put out several legitimate studio releases in alliance with some fine artists, while issuing some underground releases of its own. The output in 2008 was even more astonishing, with at least 14 full-length releases, including a double-CD of spoken-word poetry, five live albums from the UK, and improv works that were totally different from album to album. These Boston wackos lost a key band member, Adam Nodelman, in 2008, but continue to burn up the tracks brighter than ever.

32. Jackie-O Motherfucker, “Freedomland”

33. Jackie-O Motherfucker, “Cryin’ Sea” – We get one live set from 2007 with the incomparable Rev. Inca Ore rantin’ and ravin’ with the best of them, and one from much earlier, with Nestor Bucket on saxophone providing us memories of the jazzier Jackie.

34. Cat Power, “Jukebox” – Cat Power gave the world a lot of covers this year – the standard version of this album, an expanded version from Best Buy, and a double 10-inch vinyl release of even more covers (listed in EPs). The expanded version of this album is the essential one, with covers of “Breathless” and “Naked If I Want To.” Great interpretations, but I miss Cat writing her own material!

35-40. Christina Carter, “Masque Femine,” “Two Nights Film,” “Texas Blues Working,” “A Blossom Fell,” “Message Volume One”;

Scorces, “Dreamers of Decadence” – Christina’s four releases on Many Breaths, as well as the Blackest Rainbow “Texas” release, spotlight talents from acapella renditions of 1930s torch songs, to distorted Texas blues as played by an experimentalist. Her duo CDR as Scorces, with Heather Leigh Murray, is a stunning companion to the double LP “I Turn Into You” listed above.

41. Tom Carter, “After Lunch, Only Devils” – And let’s not forget her ex-husband Tom’s CDR solo, as interesting as his studio releases for Important Records.

42-43. Charalambides, “Branches,” “Rose/Thorn,” Meanwhile, Tom and Christina release the long-lost “Branches” on CD, along with another concert from 2001 or so.

44-45. Zaika, “Live at Eat Records,” “Live at the Church of the Friendly Ghost” – To make the transition from Carter-based projects to Bassett-based projects, let’s mention two live sets from the Tom Carter/Marcia Bassett duo, both mesmerizing.

46-50. GHQ and Burning Star Core, “Live 2005” (expanded LP version); GHQ, “Seven and Eight,” “Under the Rose,” “Everything at Once”; Zaimph, “Undetermined Dyad” – Considering these Marcia projects collectively, we see an interesting shift – her Zaimph work and older GHQ (including the fascinating joint set with Spencer Yeh) are still very drone-like and ethereal, but the later GHQ material features melodies and actual Old-English-style folk singing. It’s hard to tell where Marcia and friends like Matt Bower and Tom Carter will head next.

51. The Chaingang of 1974, “Mad Mixtape” – Just what it says. This duo is nuts, hip-hop and disco and insane works, much more interesting than Girl Talk.

52. Jonatha Brooke, “The Works” – Just like Billy Bragg and Wilco, Jonatha got to peruse the Woody Guthrie library and pick out lyrics that would fit a woman’s sensibilities. Maybe she wasn’t as adventurous as Tweedy and Bragg, but her compositions are superb, and it’s great to keep getting samples of Woody from beyond the grave.

53-55. Bardo Pond, “Lapsed (Live),” “Batholith,” “Circuit VIII” – While the most excitement was generated over the exquisitely produced double-LP “Batholith” collection, the live rendition of the classic album “Lapsed”, from Philadelphia in October 2008, may be the most fun for old Bardo fans.

56-58. Starving Weirdos, “Spirit Activity,” “Today is the Clearest Stream,” “Atheists Are Gods (Brotman/Pyle/McKinlay)”, – A quieter year for the Arcada weirdos, a couple small-release tapes, an EP, and manipulations of Darius Brotman piano pieces.

59. Lou Reed, “Berlin Live” – Finally the live production of “Berlin” from a year ago sees the light of day. The full orchestra, the extra song from Antony, etc. all make for a stunning recording, though Lou’s voice is a little worse off than it was in 1973.

60. Inca Ore, “Ballet Chop” – Even the rarest of Inca’s CDRs has fascinating material that shouldn’t be missed.

61. Armedalite Rifles, “The New Wave of Homemade (Live on WFMU 12-07)” – More sincere punk from at upstate NY band that knows when and why to name-check Captain Beefheart.

62. Colin Meloy, “Sings Live,” Well, of course, it’s really like a Decemberists Unplugged session, but that’s not a bad thing. A good fun set.

63. Yellow Swans and Mouthus, “Live at Conan Island” – A live companion to the collaboration album they did a year ago. With Yellow Swans going separate ways, I’ll take anything from the archives.

64-71. Ashtray Navigations, “New Fashions in Toilet Training” (with Neil Campbell), “Snakestrings,” “Pussy Noise,” “The Cream Wheel,” “Animal Interior,” “Fuzzbottle Phenomena,” “Red Culture,” “Idiot Music Lavatory Floor” – It’s always tough to know how to rank Phil Todd, as his Ashtray Navigations work is wild, wooly, all over the place, and you never know how many and how many types of releases are out in a given year. The collab with Neil was my fave from this year, though “Pussy Noise,” with its ethereal drone, came in a close second.

72. Fursaxa, “Kobold Moon,” A couple really good cuts here, and it’s nice to know Tara is still making mysterious music under the Fursaxa name.

73. Six Organs of Admittance, “Days of Blood,” A good, rollicking live album for Six Organs, quite unlike some of Ben Chasny’s recent studio stuff.

74. Michael Flower Band (s/t) – Almost like a Sunburned/Vibracathedral collaboration. Wowstuff.

75. Lee Renaldo, “Maelstrom from Drift” – Solo work from the often underspoken member of Sonic Youth.

76. Noggin Big Band (s/t) – A long-missing late-1990s recording from the era when the Noggin duo began collaborating with all sorts of woodwind and brass characters. A glorious mess.

77. Mountain Goats, “Live in NYC” – Really a John Darnielle solo show, like his appearance at Folks Fest this year. In the NYC set, John digs deep into his catalog for some early 1990s tunes.

78. Jack Rose, “I Do Play Rock and Roll” – Sounds even better on heavy vinyl than on the Three-Lobed CD series, Jack showcases some of his acoustic, non-rocking guitar talents.

79. Gown, “A Voice Will Remain” – More mysterious Gown stuff from Andy and friends.

80. Robert Pollard, “Superman Was A Rocker,” – An album of odds and sods, mostly throwaway but fun nonetheless.

Singles and EPs

1. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, “Rapid Response” – Recorded during the RNC protests as a benefit for those arrested, this shows Ted at his rapid-response best. Go get ‘em, tiger.

2. Mountain Goats and Kaki King, “Black Pear Tree”

3. Mountain Goats, “Satanic Majesty” – Good old John, sneaking the best of his work out at year’s end in two limited-edition EPs. I’m so glad he toured with Kaki King, because their work together is phenomenal.

4. Coldplay, “Prospekt’s March” – It’s funny to see that when Chris Martin loosens up a little, the results are even better than the main event. Was “Prospekt’s March” really a leftover from the “Vida” session, or was it calculated in release to drum up more full-length album sales? Either way, the EP should not be ignored, a few of the tunes are better than anything on “Vida.”

5. Hot IQs, “Houndstooth” – Not only is the A-side essential, but we get what will probably be the only released version of “Iggy Pop.”

6. BLK JKS, “Mystery,” – A strange band from Johannesburg, plumbing a little bit of electronica, street beat, and everything else. Great fun.

7. Florence and the Machine, “Kiss with a Fist”

8. Florence and the Machine, “Dog Days,” No, she’s not the next Kate Bush, she’s more mainstream than that, but the first two singles really are quite interesting.

9-10. Starving Weirdos, s/t seven-inch, “Live in Portland,” – A very early 45-rpm classic and a 20-minute set on a three-inch CD. A great introduction for the Starving Weirdos neophyte.

11. Cat Power, “Dark End of the Street” – Oh, boy, a double 10-inch addition to the “Jukebox” covers, featuring some of the best session work yet.

12-14. Decemberists, “Always a Bridesmaid” series – A fun set of three 12-inch singles, dominated by “Valerie Plame,” of couse, though all six songs are keepers.

15. Leslie Keffer and Valerie Martino, “Prissywillow” – Nashville’s two noise maidens join together for what they call teenybop dance music. Yeah, right. Wild stuff.

16. Robert Pollard, “The Butler Stands for All of Us” – With this release out, a Boston Spaceships second single at year’s end, and a full-length in January, Bob isn’t slowing down – and it’s all good stuff.

17. Sunburned Hand of the Man, “Weekend at Burnie’s” – An excursion into vinyl by these monkeys is a cause for celebration.

18. Boston Spaceships, “You Satisfy Me” – What, having the B-side as backwards is a waste? Don’t you remember Napoleon XIV’s “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha Ha”?

19. Zaimph (s/t) – Marcia gives us singles too, as strange as her full-lengths.

20. Stephen Malkmus, “Cold Son” – A necessary adjunct to “Real Emotional Trash.” Besides, 10-inch records are important in their own right.

21-22. Bruce Springsteen, “My Lucky Day,” “Magic Tour Highlights” – In anticipation of the Jan. 27 release of “Working On a Dream”, Bruce gives us digital previews and downloadable live sets. Such fun.

23. Danielson Famile, “Live” – Hilarious detritus from the Danielson catalog.

24. John Doe, “Golden State” – Thanks, John, but where the hell are you and Exene for new studio work?

25-26. Beck, “Gamma Ray” (black version, white version) – Even if the new album wasn’t all that hot, Beck retains his sense of fun for releasing various goodies.

27. Wrens, “In Turkish Water” – It’s been a long time since anything new from The Wrens. Thanks for the download.

28. Kaiser Chiefs, “Never Miss A Beat” – A great 7-inch, period.

29. Astral Social Club – Since I’ve given up trying to keep up with all of Neil Campbell’s ASC releases, a 7-inch sampler was the best I could hope for this year.

30-34. Bored Fortress Series – Not Not Fun – I couldn’t end the singles list without recognizing this great series of split 7-inchers. Can’t lay claim to finding them all, but I would say the Inca Ore/Secret Abuse, Yellow Swans/Goslings, GHQ/Ex-Cocaine, Hototogisu/Hive Mind, and Charalambides/Pocahaunted releases are all must-haves. Anything on the Not Not Fun label is fun by definition.

35-46. Robert Pollard, Happy Jack Rock Records – And finally, a shout-out to Rich Turiel for helping to shepherd 12 separate seven-inch records from Pollard’s 2008 work into vinyl, all with unreleased B-sides. Dang, what a vinyl year.



Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Wobblies Whomp Starbucks - Thanks in Part to George Bush!

Gather by the fire, kids, and I'll tell you the tale of how that inveterate friend of the working stiff, the International Workers of the World (known to friends as "Wobblies"), scored a key victory at Christmas over the evil spawns of Satan, Starbucks. And they did it with the help of the Bush administration, revealing at last its hidden sympathy for anarchist union organizing.

Yes, Bush's National Labor Relations Board, which issued only a handful of pro-union rulings in eight years, decided Dec. 23 that Starbucks had denied organizing rights to Daniel Gross and other Wobblies attempting to unionize baristas in Manhattan. Starbucks intends to appeal, though its chances of gaining a more sympathetic ear in the Obama administration seem unlikely. NLRB Judge Mindy Landow seemed particularly perturbed that Starbucks had continued illegal union-busting after reaching an agreement with the feds in 2006 to stop similar behavior in Minnesota and Michigan.

Did Bush's appointees elect to prop the Wobblies because they identified Starbucks with those liberal yuppie types who voted for Obama? Or did they realize that Starbucks in the pre-recession period had gotten so big, so predatory, so arrogant that someone needed to bitch-slap the company into submission? Is there a lesson for Whole Foods here in its fight to acquire Wild Oats?

Who cares? We all get an unexpected Christmas present of watching those snobby, heartless purveyors of double-decaf lattes get their noses ground in the dirt. Merry Christmas, and buy local!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Hot IQs Throw a Christmas Party!

It's so special to have a nice Jewish boy like Eli Mishkin throw the best durned Christmas party in town. The Hot IQs were celebrating the release of their "Houndstooth" video and seven-inch single on Dec. 19, and threw a hellacious party at the Bluebird Theater, complete with dancing elves doing a choreograph thingie they called Team Firefox. The lighting was too dark to catch the amazing Elaine Acosta on drums, but below is the video for "Firecracker," and I also took some quick Flips of "Retromuff," "Duck and Cover," and a song I didn't know with a chorus of "Wait for Me." I didn't get a video, but the last encore was a wonderful cover of The Magnetic Fields' song, "I Think I Need a New Heart." Eli also did a hilarious holiday Q&A for the Denver Post.

One of the openers was an absolutely maniacal hip-hop-primitivo-techno-disco duo that called themselves the Chaingang of 1974. Here's a drum excerpt of their performance.

Merry Christmas and belated Happy Chanukkah!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Purpose-Driven Obama

Sometimes the cultural choices made by political figures can be as revealing as their alliances for getting things done. The down sides of cabinet picks like Hillary Clinton, Jim Jones, Ken Salazar, and retained Robert Gates were obvious to all, but Obama is taking the most heat for the invocation beginning his inauguration, which will be led by the author of The Purpose-Driven Life, Rick Warren of the Saddleback (Mega-)Church. The minute I heard the pick (and before griping emerged), I knew Warren was likely to be shot by both sides - conservative evangelists consider him a liberal poseur for the evangelical movement, while liberals don't like his stances against abortion and gay marriage.

I've seen Warren's videos for Purpose-Driven Life, and I find him nerdy with a disarming high-pitched laugh, but not filled with the Calvinist venom of many of his brethren. I could live with the invocation, albeit with annoyance, just as I lived with Obama saying conclusively that he doesn't believe in gay marriage. Maybe Obama felt he had to pay penance for the ramblings of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Still, you're judged by the company you keep, and in this case, maybe Obama feels his position is strong enough so that he does not have to throw doggie bones to the progressives. Michael Albert of Z magazine gave us three alternatives to understanding the directions Obama might take after winning the election. Obama's actual trajectory was more conservative than the worst of Albert's predictions. I won't join any protests against Warren, and I hope he gives a good invocation. But I am looking to 2009 with more skepticism every day.