Tuesday, December 25, 2007

10 Records You Should Buy With the Gift Card You Just Got

Oh what fun it is to laugh and sing a Slayer song tonight.

Continuing in the year-end goodness, the Toaster Talks brings you on this lovely national holiday the first of its two lists. It's the lesser, to be sure. This one takes about an hour or so to crank out, whereas next week's Top 100 songs of the year list kicks my damn ass...still a dozen or so hours to go on that front. Until then, enjoy your Xmas and your Boxing Day (all you crazy Canadiens!) and I'll see you on the 1st.

A little on the methodology here: These are my ten favorite records of the year. It isn't necessarily the best or the most deserving of awards, although I'd like to think they are. There are no soundtracks, no reissues, no cover albums, no tributes and no box sets. And, due to a lost bet 17 years ago, I'm not allowed to include any Jethro Tull. It gets tougher every year...


10. Southeast EngineA Wheel Within a Wheel

For me, this is the biggest surprise of the year. And I’m sure it is for you, because I’m pretty sure 95% of you have never heard of these guys. Well, they’re from Athens, Ohio, and I wrote a little a few weeks back. I am biased here, as I’m very familiar with their work. The more I listen to Wheel Within a Wheel, though, the more I’m convinced it stands up to the best albums of the year pretty well. Its two closest competitors in their genre – Ryan Adams and Wilco – pale in comparison to this refreshingly honest material from a truly gifted songwriter and a bunch of guys who could have easily been just support. Instead, the arrangements are inventive and interesting. All in all, it’s a record that hasn’t stopped growing on me. Compared to the rest of the list, these guys might be obscure, but I have a feeling they won’t be for long.

9. LCD SoundsystemSound of Silver

I was pretty much sold completely on my first listen to “North American Scum” and haven’t looked back. Some of the longer numbers – “All My Friends” and “Someone Great,” in particular, are making me reconsider my general distaste for what I deem to be unnecessarily long songs. For others, this could easily be the best album of the year, but considering most of what LCD Soundsystem does isn’t really up my alley, a No. 9 spot says a lot about how good this one is.

8. Arcade FireNeon Bible

Funeral probably changed how I will view modern music. So in my eyes, at least, Arcade Fire were destined to disappoint. Neon Bible is a somewhat hodgepodge collection of dark, vaguely seditious songs that doesn’t resonate with me the way it intends to (or the way it does for so many others who have them topping out their lists). Still, upon revisiting the record, I still find it very, very good – a follow-up effort that just shouldn’t be compared to its predecessor. (It’d be like panning Magical Mystery Tour because it’s not as complete and life-changing as Sergeant Peppper…).

7. SpoonGa Ga Ga Ga Ga

I’ll admit that I resisted this one and its critical acclaim. I just didn’t think Spoon had this in them. Sure, I enjoyed “The Underdog,” but something about the bandwagon that sped off from the starting gate irked me – not to mention the misspelled song titles or the album name itself. But I kept popping it in my car stereo on many of the long drives that filled my fall and winter. I realized the change in me in September when I found myself really enjoying “The Ghost of You Lingers” and the stereo dynamic that is almost breathtaking in the car (I initially hated it in my headphones.). There’s no question – Spoon has made a fantastic album with this one.

6. The New PornographersChallengers

Many of us – myself included – were really counting on the New Pornographers to give the summer’s pop scene a kick in the mouth. You know, more smart power-pop from the folks who have done it so well since Mass Romantic.

What we got instead was much more an indication that The New Pornographers had outgrown their nascent sound and frontman Carl Newman was trying hard to branch out. There are new lead singers (Immaculate Machine’s Kathryn Calder) and a seemingly conscious conservation of Dan Bejar and Neko Case (the latter gets only two leads on the album).

As a whole, Challengers feels disjointed, a mix of would-be solo Newman songs, a few new Pornographers standards and a third batch of songs that almost deserve to be assigned to a third nom de plume. (The best example of this is the 6-minute “Unguided,” which is probably one of the most intelligently crafted songs of 2007.) Still, the album proved itself to be the grower of the year, due to Newman’s pop sensibilities and the raw talent that this band has on hand.

5. Iron & WineThe Shepherd’s Dog

Much like Challengers, The Shepherd’s Dog is an evolutionary album. Sam Beam finally gave in to the full-band sound, and what a relief! Before The Shepherd’s Dog, I had never been able to listen to a full-length Iron & Wine release without taking a break.

It had to be done. Since teaming up with Calexico in 2005 to make In the Reins, the intimate vocals and sparse (but secretly complex) arrangements that had come to characterize the Iron & Wine catalog no longer satisfied as it used to. It’s hard not to think that it would have been far easier for Beam to continue down the path toward Nick Drake-like mystique. But the urge to play around with his sound clearly got the best of him.

This couldn’t be more evident than on “Carousel,” a disarming track that puts Beam’s vocal through what sounds something like a Leslie Cabinet. In the end, the experimentation is refreshing but it’s the sheer beauty of moments like “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” that make this album a must-own.

4. Jens LekmanNight Falls Over Kortedala

At the very least, this album deserves credit for finally settling the nagging pronunciation issue. It’s Yens. Thank you.

This album is baroque pop at its ripest. Lekman steps up to the plate with his cute, clever Swedish singer-songwriter shtick and hits an absolute home run. Songs like “Postcard to Nina” and “Your Arms Around Me” show that he is one of the best indie storytellers out there. Night Falls Over Kortedala is the kind of album that is good and consistent enough that the listener never really thinks that Lekman could be capable of producing anything less. It’s why it’s one of the last albums I remember when trying to piece together my “Best of” list; it doesn’t play like a masterpiece, perhaps because it doesn’t need to.

3. Of MontrealHissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?

I’ve never been a huge Of Montreal fan, but they certainly have my attention now.

Hissing Fauna…? isn’t just a great album, it’s also managed to get mentioned in the same breaths as stunning concept albums that have left the rock world struggling to figure out what the fuck just happened. Perhaps the best comparison is Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral, which saw a respectable and risky artist put everything on the line in the name of making a strong statement. Hissing Fauna…? is a bit more subtle (how could it not be?) and perhaps a little lighter on the self-hatred in its tales of drug use, depression and longing. And while this album isn’t an instant classic, due mostly to a slight weakness in its later tracks, its ambition is hard to deny.

For me, I always got hung up on the 12-minute “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal,” finding its repetition and length a bit obnoxious. Then one day this fall it clicked. And all of a sudden the song stuck, finally landing (at least in my mind) the triple axel it attempts.

And then it was decided – “This is a fucking fantastic record.” Because I apparently am the decider.

2. The NationalBoxer

This was my far-and-away front-runner favorite album released this year up until about two months ago (not long after Cease to Begin was released, and I finally turned the corner on the Of Montreal album). In a way its greatness was due to its role as a utility infielder for my soundtracking needs. I could throw Boxer on no matter the situation. I first discovered this in the car, realizing it was a great driving record. Then I put it on in the apartment on one night before a party and found it had night-starting qualities too.

Bryan Devendorf’s drumwork drives this album. Sure, the songwriting has merits of its own, but the lyrics take on a necessary subtlety under the stark, popping rhythms. Matt Berninger’s signature drone puts his vocals into a much different category (something more along the lines of Crash Test Dummies, perhaps) without the dark-city-on-a-late-night backing arrangement. But without Berninger’s songstylings, the result would uninviting – an exercise in depicting cold isolation, perhaps. Instead, we get an album that, if you let it, will pump your blood for you.

1. Band of HorsesCease to Begin

While last year’s Everything All the Time catapulted Band of Horses straight into indie hearts everywhere, I always found the album to be a bit uneven. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great album (and an outstanding debut at that) but it didn’t sound like a complete work to me the way that Best Albums of the Year do.

Cease to Begin does. And it’s evidenced by the fact that there aren’t any masterpiece tracks like last year’s “Funeral” and “Great Salt Lake” on this album. And yet each track takes me in and propels itself along in a way that doesn’t just make the album feel whole; it makes it feel brief. For a band that put me in a trance that could have lasted hours in concert, this is no small feat.

There’s no question Cease to Begin gets an A on the Toaster grading scale. Still, I’m always nervous when there is no heir apparent album of the year. And I’m left for weeks second-thinking my choice. This year will be one of those years, I’m afraid, as the #2 and #3 albums could both have easily stolen the throne.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The 2nd Annual Toasties!

Holy cow! It's that time of the year again - the time we music bloggers get on our pedastals and tell the world just how it did this year. It's time for lists galore and endless mentions of how Earth-shattering that damn Panda Bear release was...

Save for a few missteps, 2007 is turning out to be a pretty damn good year in the music folder anyway. So, without further ado, I give you this year's Toasties, the music world's barely coveted superlatives. (There will be no mp3 posts this week.)

Toaster Odds and Ends Awards 2007

Best Band Name: I’m From Barcelona

Worst Band Name: Shout Out Out Out Out

Best Album Name: A Hawk and a Handsaw, A Hawk and a Hacksaw and the Hun Hangar Ensemble

Best Song Title: Des Ark, "If by 'Gay' You Mean 'Totally Freaking Awesome,' Then Yeah, I Guess It's Pretty Gay"

Best Comeback From Oblivion: Dinosaur, Jr.

Biggest Let-Down: Rilo Kiley (bailing out a sadly mediocre Voxtrot)

Best Follow-Up to Greatness: Band of Horses

Biggest Surprise Love: Of Montreal

Best Summer Song: Spoon, “The Underdog”

Best Winter Song: The Shins, “A Comet Appears”

Best Attempt at Bringing Despair Down All Around Us: Of Montreal, “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal”

Best Album to Get Blotto To: LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver

Worst Moment by a Great Band: The first and second halves of Under the Blacklight

Best Opening Act: The Bowerbirds, for The Mountain Goats

Artist That Yielded the Most Cases of Music Blogs Losing Our Respect: Seriously, still Lavender Diamond

Biggest What-the-Fuck?: Rilo Kiley

Biggest Where-the-Fuck-Have-They-Been? (or, They Released an Album in 2007?): Travis

Most Concise Song: Tegan and Sara, “Soil, Soil"

Most Imitated: Belle and Sebastian

Worst Release Date: July 7, 2007 - The Smashing Pumpkins

Best Release Date: July 10, 2007 – Interpol, Spoon, They Might Be Giants - like a normal American band, damn it

Most Anticipated Albums of 2007: The Mountain Goats, Nada Surf, Kathleen Edwards

Worst Lyrics: Rilo Kiley, “15”

Best Lyrics We're Not Sure We Understand: “Flightless Bird, American Mouth”

Best Live Show of 2007 (Witnessed by The Toaster Talks): The Swell Season, July 26, 9:30 Club


Best Marketing Concept: Radiohead, obvs (thank God I didn’t have to pick Paul McCartney's teaming up with Sbux)

Worst Marketing Concept: The Eagles' release available exclusively at Wal-Mart

Best Soundtrack: Juno

Best Release from a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer: Bruce Springsteen, Magic

Best Song That Scares the Shit out of Me: M.I.A., “Paper Planes”

Biggest Tragedy: Indefinite hiatus of Let’s French

The Andrew Bird Eerie-but-Damn-Catchy Award: Patrick Wolf

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Winter in a Car

>> Featured Artist: Beirut

I'm going to be completely honest - after two songs, I get a little sick of the Beirut sound. I can't really make it through a listen of an entire Beirut album unless it's there to soundtrack my Sunday morning chores. I think it's his voice or those precious carnival-like arrangements. Something is just a little too much.
Still, each song taken on its own - out of its album context, I admit - really gets my musical senses going. His newest album The Flying Club Cup is chock full of these buggers, and my personal favorite right now is "The Penalty." (And not just because New Jersey is about to do away with one of its.)

>> Album Lookout:
A Wheel Within a Wheel
Southeast Engine - Released: October 16, 2007 Misra

Southeast Engine is a band that is near and dear to my life - and not just because they hail from Athens, Ohio. No the connections run even deeper. They headlined an Elliott Smith tribute show I organized, and their guitar player produced half of my band's first album. So it's hard for me to conceptualize that these guys are on their way to the toppermost of the poppermost. But it's almost as hard for me to think of a band that deserves this recognition more.
For the record, they're not quite there yet. But their trajectory is a very distinct ascent and I wouldn't be surprised if A Wheel Within a Wheel, which displays songwriter Adam Remnant's honest-everyman's lyrics in the context of musical urgency. It could be the weight of the subject matter - much of the album plays as a straightforward conversation about religion and Remnant's progression toward/away from the light. I'd like to say I've witnessed his songwriting mature over the years, but the truth is the material has never really been anything but. If anything, the songs on Wheel are fascinating in that it appears he mostly threw out the verse-chorus-verse formula for a much more progressive song structure, often leading to very short songs. It's clear that this album isn't intended to be taken individually; they're works in a whole.
But enough about Remnant; don't frontmen get enough attention? The guitar layering on this album and the intensity of Leo DeLuca's drumming make it a good listen with or without lyrical content (and I'm not really an instrumental guy). And though I decided it'd be tough to take one song and point to it as representative of what makes the album great, I'm going to do it anyway.
Take a listen to "We Have You Surrounded" and see why a Paste writer listed this album as the second best of the year.

>> Reverting to: Tonight

No reverting back to tonight. Instead, I'm going opine briefly on my latest obsession - Chicago Public Radio and its never-ending source of brilliant podcasts! Maybe it's just me, being trapped in a car a ton lately, but if you haven't subscribed to This American Life or Sound Opinions yet, you need to start doing so now. It's free. There's no excuse.
On that note, the guys over at Sound Opinions seem really down on the much-hyped Feist. Admittedly I'm not familiar with a whole bunch of her work. Sure, we all know the iTunes tune - "1234" - but is she really a corporate-sponsored force destined to send indie rock to its breathy demise? I don't know.
A little housekeeping: this concludes the Toaster's regular content for the year. The next three weeks will feature the year's awards - superlatives (next week), best albums (Xmas!) and the annual Top 100 songs of 2007 (Jan. 1).

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Still Catching Up (yeah...)

>> Featured Artist: Nellie McKay

Oh, Nellie McKay. You're practically oozing with...whatever good things ooze out of musicians. Now that she's put that run-in with her former record label behind her, she sure does seem to have gotten productive. Sure, she has a charts-worthy voice. Sure, she's funny. But what keeps me coming back is the sedition in her lyrics.
For Christmas, she had so many targets available to her. So naturally she decided to take on the Christmas tree industry (and thank our Christian God she calls them "Christmas trees"). In "A Christmas Dirge" she doesn't just plead to stop the cutting down of evergreens with lines like "please don't sap her veins, but let them sing," she also issues the fun reminder that "death is no requirement for your happiness." (Speak for yourself, Nellie.)
And the best part about it is that she allows you all to donate to the cause. All proceeds go to The Nellie McKay Disaster Fund or, more accurately, the voluntary donations "will go directly into Nellie McKay's bank account."

>> Album Lookout:
The Stage Names
Okkervil River - Released: August 7, 2007 Jagjaguwar

Brother Aarby first discovered these guys from his lair on the Left Coast, and I gave him credit then for being onto something good. There's really no reason why I didn't get around to picking up the new album until now other than I'm a very busy man.
I'd say it was well worth the wait, but that doesn't really make sense (because the wait didn't make the music better, right?).
"Our Life Is Not a Movie Or Maybe" is already on a rapid ascent on the list of my favorite songs of the year. It has everything you want from an indie rock band - clever lyrics, sharp hooks and a level of intensity that allows us all to feel like we're listening to something relevant. With those criteria, Okkervil River hits it out of the park. They're catchy, but not overly so. And every time it feels like they could really amp one up and turn into a Jimmy Eat World sound-alike, they choose a less predictable course. And in that way, their hooks are equally deadly.
Prediction: This one will make a lot of end-of-the-year lists.

>> Reverting to: 1996

At least I can be up-to-date when it comes to out-of-date bands reuniting for no reason other than to pad their retirement portfolios. Of course, to be fair, this "band" never really ventured outside of that mindset when they were relevant.
The Spice Girls reunion mostly just makes me shrug. It's not that I don't care they're reuniting; trust me, I always care about things like this. It's just that I know it won't affect my life in any way whatsoever. And while I'm glad that the Spices are once again exploiting vague notions of feminism and "coining" phrases like "Girl Power," I'm just not as into it this time around. That said, it doesn't make "Say You'll Be There" any less goddamn catchy.