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Midwestward, Ho! by Joel Calahan

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Joel Calahan relives his year in music.

Midwestward, Ho! by Joel Calahan

I heard a lot of records this year. Maybe I should have heard more, but that’s something we all wistfully admit. Looking back on these records, my personal favorites from the past year, it’s kind of beautiful to see a division between the first half of my year spent in Los Angeles and the second half spent in Chicago. But no matter: the music is translatable across the Great Plains. These albums are simply the ones I’ve spent the most time listening to, now, then, all the time, over and over again. They’re the ones that hold something interesting for me each time I return. I’ve no idea which ones should be ranked above the others, but I think you’ll begrudge me a little indecision with respect to the traditional Top Ten list. I’ve also thrown in a few individual tracks that had me up in knots, just for fun. Thanks for reading, and let's all hope for next year.

1. Joanna NewsomThe Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City)

I decree that: this record is the best of the year; that though the odd accouterments are the first thing you talk about, the strength of the record rests not so much on the strangeness of the harp and her alienating Claudine Longet meets Li’l Orphan Annie voice, but on the perfectly crafted songs; which songs are just a bit too verbose and a bit too quirky; and all of this in a good way.

2. Susanna and the Magical OrchestraList of Lights and Buoys (Rune Grammofon)

This record came as the surprise of the year for this reviewer. Being a duo and Scandinavian at that are not the only similarities they share with the enigmatic twee women of Müm: SMO’s orchestrations gracefully accompany lead singer Susanna Wallumrød’s strong vocals like glitter stars behind a lonely nighttime wanderer. The cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” nails the candid beauty of the plea to the sordid mistress of the title in a way that I know only Susanna could.

2. NoxagtThe Iron Point (Load)

I didn’t turn back to this album until I had heard Noxagt play at The Wire festival at the Empty Bottle in Chicago, but it’s quickly proven to be one of the most interesting of the year. The viola cranked up to 11 distinguishes them, but it’s the penchant for guttural rhythms and melodies that pushes this album so high on my list.

1. LiarsThey Were Wrong So We Drowned (Mute)

In terms of sheer hours, this CD stayed in my discman longer than most other discs combined. It’s quite simply a masterpiece in scope, weaving dirty electronic effects around primitive, earthy percussion that won’t stop, pulling you from song to song tirelessly. Angus Andrew stomps around like a crank at an A.A. meeting (he’s the only one there). It’s one of those rare records that redefines music for you while you’re listening to it. It’s also better than that other best album I mentioned before.

3. V/ADielectric Minimalist All-Stars (Dielectric)

Here’s a record to let simmer in the background. Aside from being the most relaxing record I’ve heard in ages, the ensemble cast that put together this record achieves a sympathy of tone and material that’s blissful and strange for minimalist noise.

1. Animal CollectiveSung Tongs (FatCat)

This record felt like the gasping intake of fresh oxygen at the top of a mountain that’s difficult to climb. I adored last year’s Here Comes the Indian but, admittedly, mostly for the weirding-out effect it had on friends. Avey Tare and Panda Bear and the boys sound much better when they’re singing actual melodies, and the production on this one rubbed out the edges of the crisp guitars just enough create that psychedelic haze to wash it all together. This one makes those other two best albums cower.

2. RammellzeeBi-Conicals of the Rammellzee (Gomma)

If it’s still cool to be old school in hip-hop, Rammellzee is the original. No beats hotter in my opinion, and his delivery makes me want to tear things in little bits. Except for his CD of course.

3. Cheval de Frise - Fresques sur les parois secrètes du crane (Frenetic)

This French duo has finally found its way into the States, seeing a re-release of their 2001 album on Sickroom records in July, but not before they had cooked up this disc at the very beginning of the year. It’s acoustic guitar and bass for those who haven’t heard, and maintains equal footing in the jazz and post-rock camps. Still, it’s not quite that.

2. Yellow SwansBring the Neon War Home (Narnack)

This is by far the best noise record of the year. This is all the things that noise record should be, and then some things that other records should be. Brutal fractious intensity descending into quiet oblivion. It’s all so sly.

2. Amps for ChristPeople at Large (5RC)

This particular Amps for Christ album is perfectly complete, embracing all the facets of multi-instrumentalist Henry Barnes’ singular vision. The classical Indian raga stands out as his most obvious reference, and along with a rotating cast of characters and musicians, he delicately explores Eastern motifs and Anglo-folk traditions with equal aplomb. The diversity is welcome, and the execution is stunning.

11. Malade de Souci (No Sides)

Released on the miniscule Chicago label No Sides, MM-Baa cavort for a good half an hour, cut it into 24 songs and then they go home. The quirkiness of their guitar and drum improv lulls into Samesville almost immediately, but I can’t help but keep playing it and wondering about how this thing gets me. It’s like that infomercial for those super-sharp knives: you watch it every Sunday morning and know what’s coming next but it still seems equally amazing. (P.S. Got ‘em before last year’s Thanksgiving meal and never enjoyed such delicately carved turkey. All the hyperbole is true!)

Plus, a few songs that I can’t help but mention right along here:

1.5 Nouvelle Vague - “Guns of Brixton”
This cover record becomes so much more than a novelty when Nouvelle Vague hits the fourth track, The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton.” This slows down a bouncy reggae-inflected protest tune to sounding like Nick Cave could have written it, and, oh, when she hits those low notes it’s all swimmy up in my eyes.

1.5 Old Time Relijun - “We Washed Our Feet in the Water”
“This is certainly the smartest OTR; my favorite OTR; and the sexiest creature I have ever laid eyes on….” But seriously, yeah. Down-Home Northwestern Gospel Fire and Brimstone from a Demon.

1.6 The New Year - “Chinese Handcuffs”
It’s not quite the same without Bedhead around, but this muted and beautifully written relationship simile takes me back to the power of poly-rhythms in emotional pop.

1.4 The Blow – “The Sky Opened Wide Like the Tide”
Olympia, WA’s best chance this year at a #1 dance hit. If the Billboard peeps make it up the treehouse ladder.

1.56849 David Grubbs – “Knight Errant”
It was a tough decision pruning Grubbs’ latest effort A Guess at the Riddle off my Top 10, but nevertheless this first track tells the whole tale: simple arrangement, catchy melody, appropriately poetic lyrics.

1.2-1.7 Sufjan Stevens – “The Dress Looks Nice on You”
In a rare moment of minor-key darkness, Stevens waxes complimentary, to charming effect.

1. Iron & Wine - “Cinder & Smoke”
This is the perfect song, enough to stand out on a devastatingly gorgeous album like Our Endless Numbered Days. Sam Beam has the kind of voice on this track that can make snow melt.

By Joel Calahan

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