Archive for January, 2012

Top 5 albums of 2011: Part II: Electric Boogaloo

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

#1 The Cars — Move Like This

The simple fact that I can write a sentence with the phrase “new Cars album” is reason enough to celebrate. That it’s actually a solid, catchy record is a minor miracle. 24 years after they called it quits, a sudden impulse overtook Ric Ocasek, and he decided to get the band back together one more time. Maybe he was feeling old, or, more likely, Ocasek didn’t want the awful Door to Door to be The Cars’ swan song, but whatever the reason,  — OH MY GOD THERE’S A NEW CARS ALBUM.

Granted, it isn’t perfect: Benjamin Orr, who died of cancer in 2000, is sorely missed. A lot of people pointed out that it was Orr’s voice that carried the band’s ballads, and Ocasek isn’t up to the task, straining to match the gossamer tones the songs need. That said, Ocasek’s writing is as beat and whip-smart as ever, and the overall effect is incredible. They somehow managed to pick up their original sound as if they had stepped out for a smoke instead of taking a quarter century break, with songs that both recall their biggest hits and feel completely new. In it’s review, the AV Club said, “considering how many other bands have tried to make modern versions of classic Cars songs, it’s nice to see the original article doing it better than most.”

This isn’t just a nostalgic cash grab by a bunch of old dudes playing at new wavers. Ocasek’s lyrics in particular are world worn, a generational coda to the capricious cool of their top 40 hits. As one critic said, “Sad Song” is the bookend to “Let’s Go” and “My Best Friend’s Girl,” as though it’s sung by the same character thinking about how much he’s learned since. And “Hits Me” is clearly penned by a guy who been through it all and just wants to get to next week. It is their darkest album since Panorama.

And, still, it’s a joy. My brother saw them perform in Philly (at the Electric Factory no less) and said, while they weren’t a great live act they were never a great live act. Yet, it was absolutely clear these four guys were just plain happy to be on stage and playing together, and that reenergized youthful enthusiasm — along with a fans who felt the same way — made for a great show. While it would have been good to see them one more time, I’m just happy I’ve got one more Cars album to listen to, one that fits perfectly along side their very best stuff.

Honorable Mention: Daft Punk — TRON: Legacy 

Technically, this came out in 2010 along with the film of the same name, but I didn’t pick it until well into last year. None of which changes the fact that I played this soundtrack in 2011 more than any record I’ve bought in years. TRON: Legacy — the movie — is seriously flawed and, I strongly suspect, would have failed if it weren’t for this stunning techno score. It is the best thing about the movie, and pulls the story along even when the plot, acting and special effects refuse to do so.

Beyond their driving synth numbers, the duo of Daft Punk — who, with their robot-masked public personas were tailor made to work on this movie (and indeed appeared as themselves in one scene) — composed a tight orchestration that is a worthy successor to Wendy Carlos original TRON score, and belongs among the most famous and listenable of soundtracks.

I’ve listened to it while writing, while playing games, while cooking, while folding laundry — seriously, there is nothing it can’t make more exciting.

This one goes to ’11: Top 5 albums of 2011

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

I don’t do Best of Year lists when it comes to music, partially because I don’t think I listen to enough new stuff to make an informed argument (especially compared to all the audio obsessive-compulsives I know), but mostly because I really don’t purchase a lot of new music. I have never been in a hurry to pick up anything, and usually buy things years after they come out.

2011, however, was different: not only did I only get new music, I went out of my way to get four of those records the day they were released. Granted, I only bought 6 albums this year, but I was so laser focused on the picks, nothing disappointed. These titles have been my constant companions, and I feel completely confident in recommending them.

#5 Gorillaz — The Fall

The first of several Records That Shouldn’t Exist, The Fall is possibly the final release from Gorillaz, the fictional/virtual band that is a front for a small army of musicians and producers. They weren’t even planning on doing another album when someone decided to do this on a whim. Recorded on an iPad in the back of the bus during Gorillaz 2010 North American Tour, The Fall is — as one might expect — experimental, dreamy and playful. If you ever heard Yaz’s “I Before E Except After C,” well, that should give you a good idea what you’re in for — and if you like Yaz’s odd little opus, you’ll love The Fall.

#4 Lynn Blakey — Meadowview

It is difficult to convey how stunningly beautiful Lynn Blakey’s voice is in person, though her 5 song EP Meadowview gets close. One third of the alt-country trio Tres Chicas, Blakey’s new solo album was recorded with — and is pretty much about — her husband, fiddler Ecki Heins.

Listen to Meadowview on iTunes

#3 Megafaun — Megafaun

Equal parts Americana and freak folk, with a healthy influence of ’70s strumming, this self-titled statement from Durham’s best band is like eating ice cream on a hot summer’s day while floating down a creek on an innertube. Here they channel Stealers Wheel in “Second Friend.”

Update: If you listen to NPR you’ve probably heard these guys lately. All Things Considered has put various cuts from Megafaun into heavy rotation for their bumpers (the snippets they play inbetween songs), and I just heard them again a short time ago…

#2 Phil Cook & His Feat —  Hungry Mother Blues

One third of Megafaun, Phil Cook is having his best year ever — certainly his busiest — as he released a solo album on top of all his other projects. This haunting, heartfelt collection of original blues has been in my CD player since it came out, and is what you want playing as the sun sets and the sky melts from orange to blue to black. Here’s Phil playing at an emergency fundraiser for the Scrap Exchange.

…to be continued

Happy birthday to me

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

It’s blog’s first day!

Janus was the roman god of beginnings and endings, of transition and time, of looking forward to the future and back to the past — so it’s appropriate this month was named after him, no? — and I can’t think of a more appropriate time to launch this blog. I’ve tried twice before to write about pop culture, nostalgia and the persistence of memory: here’s to 3rd times and their charm.