Home > Uncategorized > Obligatory Mid-year Round-up.

Obligatory Mid-year Round-up.

Well, it’s that time of year – the time when all pretentious would-be music critics (yours truly inclusive) sharpen their pencils (so to speak) and start to take stock of what the year has had in store for us. And thus far, the year has had quite a lot to offer; more so than the past several years, so far as I can remember.


In any case, you know the drill, so without much further ado, here are the ten records that, at this point, represent the cream of this year’s crop so far, arranged alphabetically by artist:

  • Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion: Yes, it’s kind of the hipster-contingent frontrunner at this point for album of the year, but it’s also a fun, playful, and highly listenable album that is light years removed from their earliest work. It plays out almost like a greatest-hits album in a blender; the Collective borrow elements from each of their previous releases and sew them together into new pieces. Contrary to the impression such a description may give you, however, these sound not like pastiches or tapestries but like the fully-formed songs they are. A fun listen for the more adventurous or open-minded listener, and deserving of the increased mainstream exposure the band has been receiving.
  • Casiotone for the Painfully Alone – Vs. Children: Owen Ashworth’s songwriting is more cutting than ever here, his pathos more affecting, and the production more ambitious and ornate than ever – a fact that may represent a point of contention for some long-time fans, but to my ears, the warm sound of the production helps draw the listener into these songs, and Owen sounds at home in this environment. Besides, the cold, harsh lo-fi setting of his earlier material may have been too alienating to really engage listeners in this album that my friend Jess aptly describes as being about “what happens when those barely past childhood have children themselves.”
  • Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse – Dark Night of the Soul: Technically speaking, this album has not been released. Not officially, anyway. The project, a multimedia collaboration between the two principal musicians to whom the album has been credited, David Lynch, and several like-minded musicians such as the Flaming Lips, James Mercer, Gruff Rhys, Iggy Pop, Black Francis, and Jason Lytle, among others, was originally announced to a near-instant fever-pitch of excitement and anticipation early in the spring. Soon, however, it was announced that the music would NOT see official release due to a dispute between EMI and Danger Mouse; Burton made a statement that he feared he could not release the album for sale without being sued. Therefore, the art exhibit opened, and the coffee-table book of Lynch’s photography was indeed released, accompanied by a blank CD-R, labeled “DNOTS,” that the consumer is advised to “use as you see fit.” Take that how you will; I’m sure the man who created the Grey Album would never really encourage piracy, right? Anyhow, enough about the back story; the music creates a wonderful sustained mood, without the jarring effect of contrary styles from which various-artist collections often suffer; Burton and Linkous are the sonic putty that holds everything together and smooths over the disparate styles and tendencies. At current, you can stream the entire album from NPR’s website; if, however, you would like it in more permanent form, don’t panix; with a little searching, I am sure you can find a solution and perhaps even a way to use that pretty little CD-R artifact.
  • Dinosaur Jr. – Farm: Beyond was a solid enough album that picked up right where Bug left off, but I never saw this coming. J. Mascis, Lou Barlow, and Murph have decided to make this album live up to the title of its predecessor by venturing outside of the usual moods of your standard-issue Dinosaur Jr. album. Rather than settling with what they know, the band has honed their glorious squall into a more pastoral, relaxed record. For the first time, Mascis doesn’t just sound like a bored, discontented teenager in his songs; apparently he just needed to wait until he was 43 before his songwriting started to mature. Noise, distortion, and guitar solos galore, but from a slightly more pragmatic point of view and with a more laid-back mood. “Plans” may well be Mascis’s finest song yet, and will likely be near the top of my list of my favorite songs of the year come December.
  • Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca: I didn’t want to like this record, but David Longstreth didn’t give me a chance to hate it. When Bill and I saw this band a few years ago, the willfully detuned and off-key chords, relentlessly lazy and lugubrious rhythms, and Robert Palmer-esque backing band led Bill to proclaim that the band had “broken indie rock.” Then came the irresistible David Byrne collaboration on the Dark Was the Night charity compilation, and then came the brilliant single, “Stillness is the Move.” Finally, the girls in the band are revealed not to be the props they appeared to be on the Rise Above tour, but rather Longstreth’s secret weapon. Gifted with Kate Bush-inspired vocal acrobatics, an impressive range, and some actual inventive pop structure instead of discordant avant-trash, Longstreth and crew have crafted the year’s biggest surprise by giving us a big, fun summer pop record.
  • Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest: These past few years Grizzly Bear has proven to be the Little Band that Could, displaying enormous leaps of growth in their soundscaping and songwriting prowess, and readjusting their ambition level accordingly. With this most recent album, Grizzly Bear have seemingly created an opus of incredible beauty, both gossamer and watertight at the same time. Chris Taylor’s basslines, Christopher Bear’s deft drumwork, and gorgeous four-part harmonies work together to draw listeners into a trance-like state, and the psychedelic influence shines through a bit more than it had on Yellow House. The only question this album leaves the listener with: where does the band go from here?
  • the Mountain Goats and John Vanderslice – Moon Colony Bloodbath: A 7-song limited-edition, tour-only, collaborative concept EP that is long on concept and backstory and short on real action, this is possibly the most controversial work I am including on this list. And perhaps it was inevitable that I should include it; after all, my adoration for both of these artists is a matter of record, and the intense anticipation for this record, not to mention the tribulations involved in actually securing a copy, threatened to overshadow the material itself. Fortunately, the material shines through strongly; the record is richly imagined, the concept and story thought out in some painstaking detail, and while there may not seem to be much of a payoff to deliver on the promise of the concept, I prefer to think that it is deliberately left open-ended so the one can use one’s own imagination to fill in the sordid details. Not to mention, it’s exciting to hear two such well-developed and idiosyncratic artists push and pull at each other, gently luring the other out of his respective comfort zone.
  • St. Vincent – Actor: Marry Me was a highlight of 2007 and one of the strongest and most self-assured debut albums in recent memory. With her new album, Annie Clark has dialed up the volume, fleshing out the arrangements with lots of prettiness (violin, clarinet, and flute arrangements ahoy!) before blasting them all to hell with squalls of violent guitar noise. The whole thing sounds a little dangerous, unstable, and unhinged, a perception that song titles like “Laughing With a Mouth of Blood” do nothing to refute – Clark’s songwriting persona seems to have gone from the slightly creepy menace of “Now, Now” into flat-out terrifying mode. As far as not-quite-resolved tension through compressed layering of discordant sounds goes, it’s tough to beat the end of “Black Rainbow.”
  • John Vanderslice – Romanian Names: You may have already seen my thoughts on this album, so I will keep this brief. JV has outdone himself in terms of songwriting and attention to sonic detail, and the seeming incongruity between the painstaking sculpting of the sounds with the relaxed songwriting makes the songs even more compelling and appealing. The best album yet in a seven-album career, John Vanderslice continues to be the perennially overlooked and underrated workhorse, the stalwart and remarkably consistent and dependable indie rock nice guy. Between this and Moon Colony Bloodbath, if 2009 does not prove to be his breakout year, then there may truly be no justice in the world.
  • various artists – Dark Was the Night: This charity album was/is an indie rock fan’s wet dream. Thirty-one exclusive tracks from some of indie rock’s biggest names, all coming together courtesy of the efforts of The National’s Dessner brothers to raise money for AIDS relief. There were collaborations, some likely (Grizzly Bear and Feist) and some not (Dirty Projectors and David Byrne); phenomenal new tracks from out of nowhere (seriously, “So Far Around the Bend” by the National?!?!?); surprises in the form of older unreleased tracks (Arcade Fire’s “Lenin”); a 12-minute Sufjan cover of a Castanets song; and, as is to be expected in such a voluminous project, a couple of disappointments or missteps (Conor Oberst covering himself, and does anyone else find the Spoon contribution somehow lacking?). All in all, though, this project feels important and all-encompassing when one listens to it, like it’s truly an event and not just another various-artists charity collection. Hats off to the Dessners, the Red Hot Organization, and all of the artists who devoted their time and energy to this project.
Curious why you didn’t see your favorite album of the year so far on my list? Let me know what I missed! Please discuss below, and tell me what album I need to hear or what album I need to listen to again and re-evaluate! For the record, this is the pool of releases so far this year that I have heard. Note that in my world, Live albums, reissues, and odds-and-ends collections are generally not eligible for general list honors, and an EP needs to be REALLY impressive in order to rank:

Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
Antony and the Johnsons – The Crying Light
Art Brut – Art Brut vs. Satan
Bat for Lashes – Two Suns
Beirut/Realpeople – March of the Zapotec/Holland
Andrew Bird – Noble Beast
Andrew Bird – Useless Creatures
Bowerbirds – Upper Air
The Boy Least Likely To – The Law of the Playground
Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career
Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
Casiotone for the Painfully Alone – Vs. Children
Jarvis Cocker – “Further Complications.”
Elvis Costello – Secrets Profane and Sugarcane
Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse – Dark Night of the Soul
The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
Depeche Mode – Sounds of the Universe
Dinosaur Jr. – Farm
Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
Bob Dylan – Together Through Life
Franz Ferdinand – Tonight: Franz Ferdinand
Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
Handsome Furs – Face Control
PJ Harvey and John Parish – A Woman a Man Walked By
Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 – Goodnight Oslo
Jeffrey Lewis and the Junkyard – ‘Em Are I
Rhett Miller – Rhett Miller
Morrissey – Ringleader of the Tormentors
Marissa Nadler – Little Hells
A.C. Newman – Get Guilty
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Beware
Sonic Youth – The Eternal
Bruce Springsteen – Working on a Dream
St. Vincent – Actor
Stardeath and White Dwarfs – The Birth
Sunset Rubdown – Dragonslayer
Swan Lake – Enemy Mine
John Vanderslice – Romanian Names
M. Ward – Hold Time
Wilco – Wilco (the album)
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!
V/A – Dark Was the Night
V/A – War Child: Heroes
V/A – Score! The Covers

EPs:

Bon Iver – Blood Bank
The Breeders – Fate to Fatal
Death Cab for Cutie – The Open Door EP
Deerhunter – Rainwater Exchange Cassette
the Mountain Goats and John Vanderslice – Moon Colony Bloodbath
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Chijimi
Sleep Whale – Sleep Whale

Reissues:

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – From Her to Eternity
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – The Firstborn Is Dead
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Kicking Against the Pricks
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Your Funeral… My Trial
Rodriguez – Coming From Reality
Wwax – Like It or Not

Live Albums:

Leonard Cohen – Live in London
The Hold Steady – A Positive Rage
Mark Kozelek – Lost Verses Live
Mark Kozelek – Find Me, Ruben Olivares
My Morning Jacket – Celebración de la Ciudad Natal
Superchunk – Clambake Vol. IV

Odds-and-Ends Collections/Remix Records:

Casiotone for the Painfully Alone – Advance Battery Base Life
Comet Gain – Broken Record Prayers
Franz Ferdinand – Blood
Iron & Wine – Around the Well
The Vaselines – Enter the Vaselines

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