Finicky Ears

Best of ‘09 (Err… Worst)—11 Biggest Disappointments

Posted in Best of '09 by finickyears on January 7, 2010

Barack Obama. Just kidding, Mr. President. I love you, man.

As a music fan, being disappointed with an artist previously held on a pedestal is expected. In fact, I think I was prepared to be let down by more albums this year than I actually was. I thought the Phoenix album was really going to suck. I mean, it was called Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Plus, they hadn’t made a record in what seemed like forever (research tells me it was only 3 years, but it really did seem like a long time). The albums that let me down did so, not because they were unlistenable, but because I simply expected more from them, whether from personal listening experience or the blog hype machine.

Note: I really do respect every artist on this list. If they weren’t good or interesting, I wouldn’t spend my free time writing contemplations on why they went wrong. And if you happen to think any of these albums are redeemable, please drop a comment and show me the error of my logic or listening skills. Ok, let the hating begin! Hate, hate, hate, hate, hate…

11. Mo Beauty – Alec Ounsworth

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is an album that will always stay with me. It seemed to appear out of nowhere, gained heavy rotation amongst my housemates and inspired a pilgrimage from Santa Cruz to San Francisco to watch them open for The National (and yes, we were some of the many that ditched out on The National; pretty dumb in hindsight) are vivid in my memory. Countless anecdotes I have from around that time could easily have “Let the Cool Goddess Rust Away” as the soundtrack.  The album still sounds as good today as it did in 2005—and will remain an indie music touchstone both for its effortlessly cool swagger and for the DIY.

Then came Some Loud Thunder. The sophomore (and possibly final) album seemed like an indicator of future disappointment. This is something I’ve noticed with artists: The fall-off isn’t overnight. There is often one album that doesn’t stack up with previous releases, but if you are a fan, you find excuses to avoid the harsh reality, that one of your beloved may be on the decline. Some Loud Thunder is one of these. And, allow me to make some excuses. There are four pretty terrific songs on it! Unfortunately, the album is only 10 songs long, two of which aren’t really songs but, rather, 2-minute bits of randomness that aren’t bad, but could easily go without ever being heard again. And the opening song, though it has a decent melody, is recorded in some weird manner that renders it completely unlistenable. Basically, it could have been a really good EP. Because of these problem, it didn’t gain much positive attention from fans or critics, though I still enjoy the record. Now the band is on hiatus and quite possibly is done for good.

What do we have to look forward to with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah? Hopefully, not more of Mo Beauty (was he hanging out with Phoenix?), CYHSY lead singer Alec Ounsworth’s solo debut. He also released a record this year under the moniker Flashy Python,  which I felt like I should lump in with Mo Beauty, but, honestly,  haven’t bothered listening to it. Mo Beauty was that boring. Mr. Ounsworth seems to believe that sloppy sounding  yet somehow way over-the-top instrumentation and vocal melodies that only inspire anxiety, if anything, are equated with creativity or relevance. Basically, he is not playing to his strengths. I liked it when it sounded like Joy Division meets Talking Heads. That was cool. This, unfortunately, is an album that doesn’t beg for repeat listens and significantly lowers my interest in any future projects. I’m sure I’ll get to Flashy Pythons eventually, but for now, I think we should just enjoy these artists at their height:

10. Born Again Revisited – Times New Viking

I don’t have as much emotional attachment to Times New Viking, but I nearly burned a hole in their previous album, Rip It Off. It seems like lots of bands are bringing back low-fi these days, but Times New Viking seemed to take it to the extremes other bands were afraid of. You pretty much have to turn the volume to double whatever you normally listen at. But, when it’s loud, they create an amazing combination of beauty and noise that begs to be discussed, debated even. How can something recorded in such seemingly low quality, something that demands focus and even patience from the listener, actually be a lovely pop album at its core? I, for one, thought the work was worth it.

But, apparently Times New Viking thought differently. While still low-fi, the band changes the sound that I was so fond of. It’s less noisy, it’s recorded louder, and the instruments are easily recognized and differentiated. This move could have worked, but the songwriting tanked on this record. Besides standouts “These Days” and “No Time, No Hope,” the majority of the songs have quite an abrasive sound. So, they basically went from difficult and rewarding to average and unfulfilling. Granted, this is just a misstep after a pretty amazing record, and there is still time to right the ship; I have a feeling the recording will only become clearer from here on. They just better write some stronger songs.

9. The Laws Of The Playground – The Boy Least Likely To

The Laws Of The Playground is the kind of second album that allows you to forget a band even exists. I had pretty much forgotten this came out in 2009. But, just a couple of days ago, “Be Gentle with Me” came on the iTunes shuffle, and I realized that The Boy Least Likely To was pretty much a one hit wonder. And, their one hit wasn’t really even a hit. Nothing on their debut, The Best Party Ever, came close to being as memorable as that first single, but the album was generally enjoyable in a “Sesame Street”-“Belle & Sebastian” kind of way. Whatever promise was built on that record was just as easily squandered, and I am truly sorry I don’t have much commentary on The Laws Of The Playground, but it was completely forgettable.

8. Please and Thank You – The Broken Family Band

British Americana bands are rare. In fact, that’s actually a pretty damn stupid idea. But, for a few albums, The Broken Family Band managed to pull it off. Then they decided they were something else, but I’m not sure what that something else actually is. Well, crap. Essentially, it is crap. I know most people have no idea who this band even is (they have gotten very little coverage in this side of the Atlantic), but trust me in that this was once a band known for its lyrical finesse and quick wit. Kind of like an R-rated They Might Be Giants. Now, lyrically, they are like an R-rated Owl City.

7. I’m Going Away – The Fiery Furnaces

Like a bully who pushes down the smart kids because Dad won’t play catch with him, so are The Fiery Furnaces. I am embarrassed for you.

6. Hold Time – M.Ward

This is actually the most disappointing album of the year, but I couldn’t put it at number one, just because it is also the best album on this list. My expectations were really high for this one. Post-War, M.Ward’s previous album, was the best album of 2006. Not only that, but Ward was on a steady progression before that, each album better than the last. Then M.Ward released a playful project with Zooey Deschanel, and even though it wasn’t his strongest work ever, it was still fun and enjoyable.

Hold Time adds absolutely nothing to M.Ward’s catalog, to the point that it’s quite boring to listen to. To someone who isn’t familiar with his earlier work, this album may work. But to me, it sounds like an artist out of ideas. I surely hope that is not the case.

5. To Lose My Life… – White Lies

This one is solely on here because of the hype. Screw you NME, this shit sucks. Spotting the new derivative UK band is about as stimulating a game as pull my finger, but this one really got to me because of their billing at Coachella, their massive blog coverage and the way they somehow let some band called Friendly Fires ride their coattails to pseudo-fame. This is the kind of music that is hard to listen to and to think, “Adults made this.”

4. Vapours – Islands

Another band that has been slipping down for a little while. Blooming out of the wreckage of The Unicorns (still an amazing album), Islands built out Nick Thorburn’s reputation with a quite remarkable first album, Return to the Sea. But after a lackluster sophomore effort, Islands released Vapours to actually pretty decent reviews. The problem? Well, I wouldn’t know this was the same Islands unless I was explicitly told so. Other problem? It sounds like music designed to soundtrack “One Tree Hill” episodes. Every song is grossly over-produced, kind of bites Of Montreal and isn’t memorable despite all of it. But I think my biggest gripe here comes from my own instinct. I can spot a phoned-in-fake a mile away, and that is, sadly, what Islands has become.

1. Outer South – Conor Oberst

1. Wilco (The Album) – Wilco

1. Monsters of Folk – Monsters of Folk

Ugh. Such sadness. Some of my favorite all-time artists here. Is it wrong to wish they got back on the drugs? Content Jeff Tweedy and Conor Oberst make for boring artists. Maybe I am to blame? Maybe my tastes should be aging with these artists? But I am not, and I refuse to listen to the old-people music that has been created on these three albums. And why does Conor Oberst have other people singing on his solo album? That doesn’t even make sense.

But seriously, these albums lacked any inspiration, any passion, anything to make me remember why I like them in the first place. Very sad.

Best of ’09 – The 17 Best Songs of the Year

Posted in Best of '09 by finickyears on December 21, 2009

Pretty much every other music publication has posted its year-end lists, so it is only fitting that Finicky Ears follows suit. Seriously, this is the reason I started a blog. I like to list things. You like to read lists. Everyone wins. I will try to get all of these posted before the 1st, but I have a real job, too – and unless you want to start sending donations, I am forced to create insightful (though, maybe, not completely original) lists in the late hours of the night.

Why 17 songs? Well, that just happens to be the amount you could get onto one mix CD. We are sorry to Phoenix and Handsome Furs, who got bumped. Blame The Decemberists for writing such long songs. They are listed in order, but honestly, I gave 366 songs released this year the distinction of five stars in my iTunes, so there is something to be said for a number of artists this year. You could give these 17 a good shuffle, and I probably wouldn’t object too much  So let’s get into it!

1. You Go on Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II) – Sunset Rubdown

When Sunset Rubdown recorded an early version of this song for Black Cab Sessions a couple years back, it came off as intimate and passionate, with lead singer Spencer Krug singing with his eyes closed and the kind of earnestness that is impossible fake. The song was unmatched by anything in his catalog (which includes his better known band Wolf Parade and lesser known super-group Swan Lake), except for maybe Wolf Parade’s “I’ll Believe in Anything.”  So, it was with much joy that I discovered the song properly recorded and hidden in the middle of this year’s Sunset Rubdown album, Dragonslayer. And it delivered.

Musically, i was unprepared for how well the song moved. The combination of bouncing drums, muted guitar strums and gentle keyboard leads creates a completely fun vibe. But as it builds and builds to the eventual (and satisfying) payoff, the listener doesn’t remember a fun song, but, rather, a track that seems immediate and heartfelt. Krug knows how to write a complicated melody, he knows how to write vivid and dream-like lyrics, and he knows how to layer his band to create a big sound without sounding overwhelming or over-produced. But perhaps most importantly, he knows how to fire a lyric through the fog that will stick on the listener. In “You Go on Ahead,” I can’t imagine hearing the line “the days add up to weeks, add up to months, and add up, and add up…” without feeling the burden and the beauty of time slipping away faster than expected.

2. Stillness is the Move – Dirty Projectors

2009 should be known as the year art-rock went pop. Last year, I wouldn’t have believed Dirty Projectors had it in them to write the best pop melody of the year. This is a band that’s previous album was a version of Black Flag’s Damaged recorded from memory. But what a difference a year makes. In February, they released a very memorable collaboration with former Talking Heads’ singer David Byrne for the Dark Is The Night charity compilation. Then, with the release of Bitte Orca in the spring, well, I’ll save that for my best albums of the year list.

“Stillness is the Move” is a gigantic hit in an alternate reality. The first time you hear it, you can imagine a singer like Beyonce singing over a slightly varied arrangement and the VMAs rolling in. So, it was both a surprise and completely understandable that Solange Knowles recorded a cover version a few months after the original was released. However, this song doesn’t need a Knowles to be amazing. Amber Coffman, usually second fiddle to main-man Dave Longstreth, takes the microphone and absolutely kills it. And, after seeing them live in October, I can honestly say that nothing she is doing with her voice on this song is bullshit. Though some purists may not completely like this more accessible Dirty Projectors, there is no compromise in sound or creativity here. It just seems like the band is hitting their stride. Next stop, top 40.

3. My Girls – Animal Collective

Speaking of art-rock, Animal Collective also released their most accessible album this year. Maybe you heard about it? Well, Merriweather Post Pavillion seems to have found a comfortable place at the top of most music critics’ best album of year/decade/all-time lists. And, it is deserving. But, it’s not like Animal Collective was a stranger to critical praise. This time, though, people actually bought a few copies of their record.

But, I’m not totally buying the more-accessible Animal Collective thing. On one hand, Animal Collective isn’t as intimidating as people make them sound. They have quite a few numbers in their catalog (“Fireworks,””Grass,””Leaf House”) that are catchy and great art-pop songs in their own right. On the other hand, this song and album weren’t as listener friendly as many writers make it sound, either. Animal Collective is still weird as all hell. That is how we like them.

“My Girls” reminds me of Outkast’s “Bombs Over Bagdad” in a way, only released ten years later. It seems like a dance song in many ways, but I’ll be damned if I can find a reasonable way to dance to it. But, it inspires people to move and to sing along, even if it makes them look or sound stupid. The lyrics about a man’s wish to provide for his family in the wake of his father’s death (with a tinge of environmental consciousness and anti-consumerism, because, well, it’s an Animal Collective song) are thoughtful and personal. But when all is said and done, this is just another notch in a very impressive belt from a band that is a true original. How many bands can you really say that about?

4. Little Secrets – Passion Pit

Passion Pit are a safe bet in you office’s next-indie-band-to-go-mainstream pool (if you work at a used bookstore or Urban Outfitters). Like Phoenix before them or Modest Mouse or The Arcade Fire, they possess the right blend of catchy tunes, interesting looking people and a modern sound. Also, like these bands, they may be able to trick the public into enjoying some creative, high quality music. For a band that started as a mix-tape love note, their first full length, Manners, is full of infectious, fun songs for riding around in cars or moderate sized gatherings.“Little Secrets” should satisfy fans of pop, electro and indie. Complete with children backup singers, the song moves along with energy to spare. Also, I just heard one of their tunes on a cell phone commercial. It’s already starting…

5. Two Weeks – Grizzly Bear

This list is already filling up with bands that are mastering the art of harmony (Dirty Projectors, Animal Collective), but none can touch Grizzly Bear. All the members contribute to the vocals, but not as your run-of-the-mill backup singers. They all really sing. Also like Dirty Projectors, these guys seem to really be finding their identity this year and produced their best music yet. Oh yeah, they also had a top 10 album. And Jay-Z and Beyonce were spotted at a recent NYC concert. And I’m still pretty sure the people who were buying the other 9 albums in the top 10 while Grizzly Bear was charted at number 8 have no idea who the hell Grizzly Bear are.

“Two Weeks” is a monster success on a technical level, where it combines subtle beauty with dense texture. Seriously, I find it hard to find a better produced song this year. But, it also passes the ear test. The melody is infectious and ultimately quite beautiful. For a band that often goes with the less is more approach, sometime more is more.

6. Rain On – Woods

There was a point a few months ago when I realized that “Rain On” had become my all-time most played iTunes song. Was I depressed? Maybe I just like songs with heartbreaking yet empowering lyrics about the passing of time (See #1)? Whatever it was, this song’s simple beauty still hits hard with every listen. Low-fi these days is surly an aesthetic choice, not a necessary evil like decades ago. But most bands that use it prefer to take the sound in noisy directions. Here, Woods shows a lesser heard style of low-fi and it works with haunting perfection. Every time the lyric “how the days will rain on you” is repeated, it is chilling. Also, the guitar leads in this song kill.

7. Northern Lights – Bowerbirds

Every year needs to have a best song that borderlines on sappy. Bowerbirds are not going to blow anyone away with their creative style or lyrical inventiveness. The central thesis of this tune (I don’t need you to be this, I don’t need you to be that, I just want you) is just about as played out as it gets. It might have been played out when Shakespeare was doing it, who knows? But, somehow this song still manages to cut through every cynical fiber in me. Sometimes, simple and played out is also quite romantic. Songwriter Phil Moore clearly has the heart of a poet and his wife, Beth Tacular (these can’t be their real names, right?), plays a mean accordion. Now imagine them exchanging knowing glances while they play this song. You’d have to be a puppy hater not to give in to this song’s charms.

8. Psychic City – YACHT

YACHT released their first album on DFA this year and clearly they got the “fun” memo upon joining. What could be cheesy or too cutesy in lesser hands, comes across as charming and kind of adorable. This track was released in the summer and was a perfect soundtrack for an outdoor barbeque, a road trip or a bus ride to work. I, personally, like the bus ride idea. Can you imagine hearing the lyric “I told you your dreams would come true” repeated and not having your mood lifted just a little?

9. Young Hearts Spark Fire – Japandroids

Remember when I was talking about the noisy low-fi music? Well, I give you Japandroids. This Canadian two-piece seemed to come out of nowhere this year. And they are pretty much a love them or hate them proposition. They play loud, fast and raw. But, behind the rough, post-punk exterior are quite catchy melodies and surprisingly insightful lyrics. The anthem Young Hearts Spark Fire” wins over the kids with promises of “staying up all night” and “finishing off the wine,” but those of us who are a little older know the flip side of life. So when they note “we used to dream, now we worry about dying”, the 25+ crowd gets a little reminder that growing up doesn’t have to be as bad as we make it. And best of all, this song refrains from being nostalgic. Rather, it is a call to arms in the punk tradition. And, it has a pretty rad title.

10. Two – The Antlers

Maybe The Antlers started as a bedroom project from a reclusive and suicidal singer who decided to channel his pain into an album, self-release it and recruit a band to perform it after it becomes a surprise indie-hit. But even without the back-story (like the first time I heard them), The Antlers created a pretty remarkable concept album about losing a loved one to bone cancer. I’ll spare you the whole narrative for now, but yeah, it’s pretty sad stuff. Either way, the songs themselves hold all these details together with epic grandeur. “Two” is pretty vivid in its depictions of watching the girlfriend waste away. But, the music compliments the sentiment perfectly with its intensity, using the builds to illuminate and emphasize the lyrics. Sure, they sound like The Arcade Fire. But, well, sounding like one of the best bands around is cool with me. And, The Antlers clearly have their own bag of tricks they bring with them. Or, at least, some pretty sad shit to sing about.

11. Hellhole Ratrace – Girls

Hold on there, Antlers. Girls might out due you with their back-story. Lead singer Christopher Owens fled a religious cult at a young age, lived on the streets until he was befriended by wealthy benefactor who encouraged his musical aspirations. So, in “Hellhole Ratrace,” the refrain “I don’t want to cry my whole life though, I wanna do some laughing too” may hold a little bit more weight for him than it does for the average listener. In stark contrast to The Antlers, Girls’ Album reaches toward normalcy, with a number of songs concerned with being a young man like any other. “Hellhole Ratrace” is simple enough in structure, but it makes its money on a slow build that turns a folky number into a shoegaze anthem. And the melody, sung with a remarkable resemblance to Elvis Costello, is instantly familiar in the tradition of Dylan, Lennon and any other of the greats you can think of. Girls is clearly the best debut band of the year and I honestly can’t wait to hear what they make next.

12. The Longest Day – Megafaun

The best country song of the year, “The Longest Day” invokes a classic southern music tradition from bluegrass to Alison Krauss. Of course, you would never hear this on country radio and I’m sure Megafaun is just fine with that. Probably best known as Justin Vernon’s (Bon Iver) former backing band, Megafaun has delved into one of the most difficult genres to find an audience: experimental Americana. With too much country for many rock and roll fans and too much feedback and weird sounds for a county audience, they are forced to attract listeners with truly eclectic taste. “The Longest Day” is one of the more traditional songs on Gather, Form & Fly and features guest vocalist Christy Smith. The track feels like a classic and stands up to pretty much any country duet I can think of. The boys of Megafaun are excellent musicians to boot (Justin Vernon says he learned how to write songs from them), allowing a banjo accompaniment to sound effortless and natural. Well, I guess for them, it probably is.

13. Velvet – The Big Pink

The Big Pink had huge buzz prior to the release of their debut A Brief History of Love (Note to new bands: don’t title you album A Brief History of Love. You got to work your way up to an album title that pompous). And though it was pretty well received, it seems like the buzz has quelled a bit. The biggest enemy of The Big Pink seems to be themselves. They are not making fashionable music. Their record is filled with individual tracks that make great stand-alone singles. But, as a whole it seems really hard to peg down their sound. Still, though “Velvet” sounds dated, there is no denying its infectiousness and craft. If this were 2001, it might be at the top of this list. And, you can’t penalize a group too much for being out of touch with songwriting and production as strong as this.

14. This Tornado Loves You – Neko Case

Though I wasn’t as in love with Neko Case’s 2009 album, Middle Cyclone, as the blogosphere seemed to be, “This Tornado Loves You” ranks among the top songs of her strong career. Whether you read this song as literal or metaphor (and I’m sorry, but a literal song from the perspective of a tornado is way cooler than tornado as a metaphor for love), the lyrics are packed with vivid details and imagery and, well, tornados are cool! Haven’t you ever seen Twister! And, how is Neko Case the toughest artist on this list!? (sorry Japandroids)

15. Fables – The Dodos

The Dodos also failed to deliver on an album that I was hoping for big things for. If only they had the pop sensibility of “Fables” throughout the record. “Fables” manages to showcase The Dodos at their strongest: great interworking between guitar and drums, the band’s two principal instruments. And both the guys have tremendous chops (in fact, if you ever get a chance to see Logan Kroeber on drums, it is a real treat). But perhaps my favorite parts of this song are the subtleties. In the chorus, Logan’s backup vocals compliment Meric Long’s in a manner so perfectly fitting, you hardly even notice it occurs. Also, the presence of the vibraphone player and new third bandmate is a welcome (if unnecessary) addition and does give the song some added texture. If anything, at least “Fables” proves their debut wasn’t a fluke.

16. Insane Lullaby – Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse (featuring James Mercer)

The song that launched one of next years most anticipated music projects. After collaborating on this track for the David Lynch photo book soundtrack Dark Night of the Soul, Danger Mouse and The Shins’ singer James Mercer have recorded an album for a March release under the name Broken Bells. If this song is any indication of what it will sound like, we can all start getting excited. With an organized chaos, it’s great to hear Mercer expanding his sonic ranged, without losing his greatest attribute; his ability to craft a memorable tune. Unfortunately, due to Danger Mouse’s ongoing legal issues, there is no way to get this album legally. But, I guess people don’t really do that anymore, so I’m sure you can find it if you want to.

17. The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid – The Decemberists

I’m not going to bother trying to fill you in on the plot of The Hazards of Love, The Decemberists’ underrated stab at a rock opera. I also don’t really have much to say about Colin Meloy’s serviceable half of the song. There is one reason this song made the cut for best songs of the year: Shara Worden. The woman behind My Brightest Diamond lends guest vocals to this stoner rock jam and absolutely destroys it. Seriously, click on the link down below. Watch this tiny woman with a giant voice and a swagger to match. I fall in love a little every time I watch it. Second biggest badass of the year. So if we learned anything, we now know that the boys creating the best music around need to toughen up.