Dusted's Editorial Mid-Year Roundup
With August rapidly approaching, we felt that we should stick our necks out there for the record. Here’s what the editors of Dusted are digging (and burying) so far in 2004.
1. Joanna Newsom – The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City) - From the first time I put this CD on until the 500th time I put it on I have a found new way to love it with each listen. Much has been made about two particular aspects of this album: Newsom’s voice, and the fact that she plays the harp. Newsom’s voice is high-pitched and squeaky – at times like an agitated Bjork – and is admittedly difficult to get used to, but what I initially mistook for a prickly affectation I know think of as something that is beautifully sincere in its imperfection. Trying to imagine these songs sung by someone with a more conventional voice, or even by a more contained Newsom seems, in my mind, to suck away that which is more intangibly endearing about this album. Her harp playing is much the same way. What could easily be written off as a gimmick or novelty here becomes something so soothing and so perfect that it is nearly impossible to imagine the songs having the same impact were they performed on any other instrument or using any other arrangement. If this isn’t my favorite album of the year come December, I will be (pleasantly) shocked.
2. Sufjan Stevens - Seven Swans (Sounds Familyre) - Sufjan Stevens has never made the same album twice. This release was timed somewhat oddly, coming out almost a year after Michigan but only months after most of the world actually heard it (thanks to end-of-the-year lists). At first listen Seven Swans fooled a lot of people into thinking that it was a step backwards – there were no lush horn arrangements, no 8-minute epics, and rather than the charmingly endearing theme of Stevens’ home state of Michigan, Seven Swans was focused on much less accessible ideas of Christian god and faith. Yet the songs themselves, stripped down as they were, stood strong with any of Stevens’ previous work. Their strength and power is a testament (no pun intended, or really achieved?) to his natural, god-given (?) ability to write epic, tender folk-rock songs. The eloquently folksy way with which he presented his faith was equally impressive, especially coming in a year during which public opinion about religious displays was as polarized as it has been in years.
3. Espers - Espers (Locust) – Sensing a trend here? Me too. But don’t be mistaken; you are not keenly observing your trusted editor blindly throw himself upon the ‘folk revival.’ In fact, I have been disappointed with most of the modern/psych/Appalachian/etc. folk albums to come out this year: PG Six’s The Well of Memory was not even half as good as his debut; Currituck Co’s new album is missing the tunes and melodies that made his debut so pristine; Devendra Banhart dropped a lot of the old crow vocals that made his debut so grating (at times), but couldn’t quite come up with the tunes to make his new album stellar. Yet for all the hype that these records have gotten, Chicago’s Locust Records has quietly put out many of the year’s best folk releases (is there any other way to do it?), this one chief among them. Full of haunting Britishisms, but never overdoing the renaissance faire theatrics, Espers channel any number of legends, from Nick Drake to Vashti Bunyan, and along with a Kranky-esque sensibility for the ambiance of acoustic guitars, put together the best folk debut of the year thus far.
4. Oneida - Secret Wars (Jagjaguwar) – I’ve been waiting for this band to get over how fucking hilarious they think they are for a long time. Thank god they’ve finally done it because on this album Oneida found all of the perfect little freak-outs, psych-outs, mellow-outs, math-outs and groove-outs that made their previous albums almost great, magnified them into full songs, and recorded the album of their lives. As with any truly great band, their influences are apparent and varied, yet their sound is truly their own – keyboard driven punk? Punky prog? Psych prog? In a city where being unique is as difficult as making rent, Oneida continue to thrive and grow and progress to who knows where.
5. Brightblack – Ala.Cali.Tucky (Galaxia) Born in Alabama and currently living in the hippy/backwater Bay Area town of Point Reyes, Brightblack’s Nathan Shineywater’s tunes are like male, crisper versions of Hope Sandoval’s. Spooky harmonies and stoner slide guitar dominate these latest Will Oldham affiliates (also see: Joanna Newsom). With more varied tunes Brightblack could become a slo-mo, modern version of the Band.
6. Nervous Cop – Nervous Cop (5RC) - I am bored by frantic/insane music more often than I am agitated, but this is, perhaps, the most painfully uncomfortable record I have ever heard. Greg Saunier and Zach Hill, drummers for Deerhoof and Hella, respectively, recorded an album entirely of frantic, nonstop noise, percussive mania. Aided occasionally by John Dieterich on electronics and Joanna Newsom on harp, this album sounds like channel 3 played through a delay pedal. 10 tracks and 30 minutes almost entirely of snare roll duets sounds like something that could get boring fast, but this album is a cacophony of precision that only grows messier and more chaotic as it goes. If music were seizure-inducing, this would be the equivalent of Pokemon – a claim I hope the band takes as a compliment!
7. Booooooooring, but also exciting that “indie rock” actually, finally, after manymanymany years seems to be catching on to the mainstream. Modest Mouse have been dominating the BILLBOARD charts all summer with Franz Ferdinand not far behind. After a year the Postal Service (ugh) and Interpol continue to sell a ton of records every week. I know, you read about it in Rolling Stone and saw it on MTV and this isn’t interesting to you, the Dusted reader. But maybe it should be. Think of what it could mean! The general public’s discriminating taste was at an all-time low a few years ago. I’m not looking for a complete turnaround, but it certainly is refreshing to see bands who are closer to my general realm begin to reach levels of super-stardom. Who will be next? Sleater-Kinney? Fugazi? Dinosaur Jr.? What if?!
8. Savath & Savalas - Apropa't (Warp) – What would a year-end list be without Scott Herren? He doesn’t keep making it onto these lists by recording the same album over and over again. He does it by continuing to further himself in every possible way with each release. This album couldn’t be more different than the work that Herren does with Prefuse73, nor could it be more different than his previous (and equally excellent) Savath & Savalas album. This collection of Spanish-influence trip hop has thick, sick bass and drum parts, but is, at its core, a very smooth, loungey album. It’s no wonder a guy with as many ideas has Herren has spread himself over so many different names.
9. Honorable Mentions
Clouddead - Ten (Mush) – Psych hip hop? Way better than the debut, but no less weird.
Br. Danielson - Brother Is To Son (Secretly Canadian) – Minimal shrieks, maximum tunes, this is the best album Daniel Smith has made (not counting the stuff that he produced).
Slicker – We All Have A Plan (Hefty) – Tight grooves, hot live instrumentation, quirky vocals, and wonderfully crisp production. My favorite dance record this year.
David Byrne - Grown Backwards (Nonesuch) – An odd choice, I realize, but this is the best solo album of Byrne’s that I’ve ever heard, minus a few cringingly cheesy tracks.
Deerhoof - Milk Man (Kill Rock Stars) – There’s not much that I can say about this that I haven’t said about their last few albums except that the title cut is the best song they have ever recorded.
Electrelane - The Power Out (Too Pure) – The best song on this album is actually a b-side of their first single – a cover of “I’m On Fire.”
David Grubbs -A Guess At The Riddle (Drag City) – I have always found the literary stuffiness and general blandness of Grubbs’ solo albums to be more than a little bit off-putting, but this album sheds both of those quirks to reveal fairly simple, yet perfectly excellent indie rock tunes.
10. The Worst Albums Of The Year - A tie between Scissor Sisters - Scissor Sisters and Ratatat - Ratatat - Normally I am vehemently opposed to including disliked things in these periodic roundups, but I wouldn’t feel like a responsible editor if I didn’t use this public forum to warn anyone considering picking up these records or checking out these bands because they are fucking awful. Scissor Sister’s are the worst white dude faux funk to come along since Beck’s Midnite Vultures. Actually, they are much, much worse. If Jamiroquai tried to sound like the late-era Bee Gees, and let the Matrix write their songs, it might sound a little something like this. If that doesn’t sound shitty enough to you, consider this: the third song is a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” Oh, it’s funky. And Ratatat: The nerve of those guys to not only implicitly associate themselves with Dr. Dre, but to then dare to take the stage to the referential part of The Chronic is inexcusable. These two hipsters are not nearly as funky as Scissor Sisters, but what they lack in soul they MORE than make up for in wannabe Williamsburg cool. Their recent Chicago show was one of the worst wank-offs I’ve ever seen: two cool-dude silhouettes playing guitar and bass along with a DVD (presumably) of canned beats and kindergarten computer animation. Far out, dudes. These guys sound like Phish trying to cover Neu! or something like that. Don’t forget: Ratatat features a member of Dashboard Confessional!
1. Joanna Newsom – The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City) – Sam and I have pretty disparate tastes. That said, we always seem to LOVE the same albums. Beaches and Canyons two years ago, Sufjan Stevens last year and the Goddess of Small Things Joanna Newsom. I’ve listened to The Milk-Eyed Mender at least once a week since February and, like the pedals of her harp, I’m floored each and every time. As she says on “Sadie,” these aren’t her songs – she’s just borrowing them from the greater good. But, damn, if she doesn’t know which songs to pick. The harpsichord on “Peach, Plum, Pear” makes for one of my anthems of the year, and on other songs like “Bridges and Balloons” and “Inflammatory Writ” I can’t help but hear a young Dylan balancing rhythm and resonance without sacrificing sentiment. Notice that I haven’t mentioned the word “endearing” once.
2. Reigning Sound – Too Much Guitar (In The Red) – I’ve never been the biggest Rolling Stones fan, and now I don’t have to be. Reigning Sound have created possibly the most genuine rock’n’roll record of 21st century. I don’t really know how else to put it. And it could not have come at a better time. With major label A&R recruiting Television soundalikes (talk about 57 channels and nothing on!) who depend on MP3s for influence, Greg Cartwright and Co. just looked out the window for inspiration. Memphis will always be the rock capital of the world and Too Much Guitar is a fine addition to its annals.
3. Arthur Russell – Calling Out of Context (Audika) – This record is heartbreaking for a multitude of reasons. Arthur was still an unrecognized genius when he recorded these songs from 1985 to 1990. A classically trained cellist who enjoyed the disco, he epitomized the multi-cultural persona that we strive for today. Arthur died in 1992 of AIDS at the age of 40, which has only added to his mystique. Who knows what this man might have achieved given the resources of the past decade? His masterpiece “That’s Us/Wild Combination” is included here for the first time on compact disc.
4. Sufjan Stevens – Seven Swans (Sounds Familyre) – Again, Sam beat me to the punch on this record. Stevens draws inspiration from a different well than most, and God bless him for it (again, no pun intended, seriously).
5. VA – Ivan Smagghe presents Death Disco (Eskimo) – Smagghe is half the duo Black Strobe, but he has a better knack for spinning music than making it. He compiled last year’s stellar How To Kill The DJ, Pt. 1 mix on Tigersushi, and he’s equaled it with Death Disco. Spanning Krautrock, post-punk, house, big-beat, and schaffel (Superpitcher’s remix of Quark’s “I Walk” is included), Smagghe doesn’t let genre get in the way of a good time. With each additional listen, these somewhat anonymous 12” mixes reveal their personality. Thankfully Smagghe had the foresight to recognize them from the get-go. Worth it just for “I Walk.”
6. Tom Recchion – I Love My Organ (Birdman) – Like Arthur Russell’s compendium, most of I Love My Organ was recorded in the mid-’80s after Recchion finished his Chaotica record. I admire the breadth of what he can accomplish with an organ and home-made sound effects (which he details in the liner notes) in an improvisational setting. He jumps from Les Baxter mumbo jumbo to Black Dice fodder to Andrey Tarkovsky bliss without blinking. With songs dedicated to William Basinski, Terry Riley, Briano Eno and Jad Fair, you can tell that Recchion has been around. (he started the Los Angeles Free Music Society in the late 1970s).
7. Claro Intelecto – Neurofibro (Ai) – Each year I tend to latch on to one techno record and this year’s winner so far is Neurofibro. The opening track “Peace of Mind” is one of the best techno songs I’ve heard, up there with Ricardo Villalobos’ “Easy Lee.” Mark Stewart incorporates electro, IDM and some slower tempos to keep things fresh throughout.
8. Sagor & Swing – Orgelplaneten (Hapna) – More organ, please. Eric Malmberg on Hammond organ and Ulf Möller on drums pump up the androstenedione and make a welcome departure from the pastoral beauty of past albums. Like its namesake, the album’s standout “Postmodernism” never gets old
9. Reissue of the Year: Keith Hudson – Flesh of my Skin, Blood of my Blood (Basic Replay, 1974)
10. Worst Album of the Year: We have a tie. Sam speaks for the both of us on Ratatat, and I’d have to add Patrick Wolf’s Lycanthropy, which was reviewed here. Enough said.
By Dusted Magazine