Wednesday, December 19, 2012

2012: 8 Great Albums

I didn't buy a whole lot of new albums in 2012, and my choosiness mostly paid off. Of the nearly 30 albums I bought, only 3 were truly disappointing: The Jealous Sound's A Gentle Reminder, Vicious Vicious' self-titled LP, and Alanis Morissette's Havoc and Bright Lights. Even those weren't truly bad, they just didn't live up to expectations.

Below are 8 albums that I dug the most. Work from Fiona Apple, Ben Folds Five, Gaz Coombes, The Divine Fits, The Killers, Miguel, Nada Surf, P.O.S., and The Shins didn't quite make the cut, but still deserve mention.

I haven't ranked this list in the last few years, mostly because I realized how arbitrary it was. But I've gotta say that, weirdly, Van Halen's A Different Kind of Truth is my album of the year. How something that had so many strikes against it (the general stink of being a "reunion" album, the absence of Michael Anthony, the recycling of 30 year-old riffs and song ideas, the fact that Eddie Van Halen's body is being held together with duct tape and dental floss at this point) ended up being so artistically vital is beyond me. In my mind, the album single-handedly rewrites the band's history, relegating the Van Hagar (and Van Cherone) years into a sidebar and placing the emphasis squarely back on Eddie's gifted playing and David Lee Roth's insane charisma and weird one-liners.

The Honeydogs: What Comes After
Check out: Particles or Waves, Aubben, Fighting Weight, What Comes After, Better Word

David Mead: Dudes
Check out: I Can't Wait, King of the Crosswords, Guy on Guy, No One Roxx This Town No More

Motion City Soundtrack: Go
Check out: Circuits and Wires, True Romance, Timelines, Coma Kid,  Bad Idea

Rush: Clockwork Angels
Check out: Caravan, BU2B, Halo Effect, The Wreckers, The Garden

Van Halen: A Different Kind of Truth
Check out: She's the Woman, You and Your Blues, As Is, The Trouble With Never,  Stay Frosty

Rufus Wainwright: Out of the Game
Check out: Out of the Game, Jericho, Montauk, Respectable Dive, Perfect Man, Candles

The Walkmen: Heaven
Check out: We Can't Be Beat, Love is Luck, Heartbreaker, Song for Leigh, Heaven 
Robbie Williams: Take the Crown
Check out: Be a Boy, Gospel, Candy,  Shit on the Radio, Into the Silence, Losers

Thursday, December 06, 2012

2012 Compilation

Every year I make a mix of some of my favorite songs to share with friends. Sometimes the song choice is random and sometimes there's more to it. Every year has highs and lows, but in 2012 they were especially high (my wife and I have a second son on the way) and especially low (my wife's cousin committed suicide). I wanted the mix to reflect that.

1) Beach Boys - Think About the Days
2) Robbie Williams - Be a Boy
3) Gaz Coombes - Break the Silence
4) Motion City Soundtrack - Bad Idea
5) Electric Guest - This Head I Hold
6) Kaiser Chiefs - Listen to Your Head
7) Mike Keneally - I'm Raining Here, Inside
8) The Honeydogs - Better Word
9) David Mead - I Can't Wait
10) Rhett Miller - Love Grows
11) Rufus Wainwright - Montauk
12) Sean Fournier - X's for My Eyes
13) Krystle Warren and The Faculty - Forever is a Long Time
14) The Walkmen - Heaven

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Rock Solid: Talking Heads

"If you only own one album by Talking Heads it's gotta be ____________________."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

Back in 2005 I reviewed every single Talking Heads album, but that predated the Rock Solid feature. So here it is retroactively.

Maybe it's just my fanboy ardor talking, but one would think that Talking Heads would have a fairly competitive catalog when it comes to declaring a best album. Well, as has happened many a time in the Rock Solid (and Rock Bottom) process, my expectations have clashed sharply with reality.

According to the All Music Guide, only 3 Talking Heads albums achieved perfection: 77 (1977), More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978), and Remain in Light (1980). The latter album was no surprise, as it is generally considered a masterpiece. But the first two? I'm dubious. And where are Fear of Music (1979), Speaking In Tongues (1983), or either of their live albums?

Even more surprising is the album that actually won out. No, it wasn't Remain in Light. It was the band's debut, 77. Really. It stands as the only TH album to receive perfect 5 star ratings from both the All Music Guide and reviewers. I know David Byrne implored us to "stop making sense", but I don't know that he meant it so literally!

Here's what I said in my 2005 review: "In artistic terms this is a rough sketch for the larger masterpiece." In other words, it's got a certain tossed off charm to it, but it's hardly suitable for framing. The band became so much more than what you hear on 77. Upon relistening with my 2012 ears, I find that opinion largely unchanged. But let's hear the justifications from the All Music Guide and and reviewers. Let's see where their heads were at.

AMG's William Ruhlman looks at the album largely in historical context. He said the songs used
"existing elements in an unusual combination to create something new that still managed to be oddly familiar." He also labels 77 a "landmark album", most likely because of its role in redefining punk and new wave.

In what might be the most coherently-written set of 5 star reviews on, fans fell into three camps.
1) Those that agreed with Ruhlman about the album's greatness dwelling in its influence:
  • "Though in some ways the influence out ranks the music, this is still a fun listen and an essential addition to a person's music collection." - BeatlesFan3287
  • "77 is an incredibly original album; it essentially made post-punk a credible 'sub' genre." - C.Cross
2) Those that feel the album's simplicity trumps later incarnations of the band.
  • "This is actually my favorite talking Heads album; some of their later albums tend to sound kind of sterile to me, but this record has soul, hooks and a punky New York attitude that won't wait." - Randy "Randy" 
  • "Here we see the early Heads, prior to Eno, African rhythms, extra musicians; and what we get is a beautifully tight, engaging quirky little band with great tunes." - JOHN SPOKUS
3) Those that just dig it.
  • "I wasn't expecting every moment of the album to be so darn memorable though. Definitely a complete surprise when I found myself falling in love with every single song selection."- B.E. Jackson
  • "Even after all the greatness that came later, I have to say that the Heads never topped 77." -

I don't hate 77 by any stretch of the imagination (Psycho Killer and Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town alone would prevent that), but I do certainly believe that Talking Heads made better albums.

My personal pick would be the 1999 expanded edition of the soundtrack to Stop Making Sense. Nearly verything that's wonderful about the Talking Heads' music is there. But since that treads dangerously close to violating my "no greatest hits" rule, I'd go with Speaking in Tongues (an album that shamefully didn't even make the top 6 finalists) as a close second. It's more light-hearted (and danceable) than Remain in Light, while still holding on to the forward-thinking ambition. It's got a big hit (Burning Down the House), great album tracks (Girlfriend is Better, Pull Up the Roots), and a bonafide stunner (This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)).

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Rock Solid: They Might Be Giants

"If you only own one album by They Might Be Giants it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

I suppose it's fitting. They Might Be Giants' music often baffles even the most esoterically-minded listeners, so it shouldn't be any surprise that the process of discovering their best and worst albums has been a convoluted one. Their Rock Bottom selection, The Spine, gave me consternation because, though it was lowest-ranked, no one really had anything bad to say about it. Their best album, similarly, turns out to be something I'd have never expected.

My best guess, pre-research, would have 1990's Flood. This is where and when TMBG made their biggest, most lasting, cultural impact (see Instanbul (Not Constantinople), Birdhouse in Your Soul, and Particle Man for further details). But critics and fans didn't agree with me, or each other. Rather than give a confusing narrative, I'll do this bullet-style for the 5 albums that tied one another for the top spot.
  • Their 1986 debut, They Might Be Giants, got 4.5 stars from the All Music Guide and 4.5 from reviewers.
  • 1988's Lincoln got the same.
  • 2002's No! got the same.
  • 2008's Here Come the 123s got 4 stars from AMG and 5 stars from reviewers.
  • 2008's Here Comes Science got the same.
What to make of this? Well, 3 of the 5 are children's albums, which skews the results somewhat, especially in the Amazon reviews (basically, you've got kids and parents writing these reviews, not necessarily fans of the band as a pop entity). That leaves us with the first two records. Since they're tied, we look next at the percentage of 5 star reviews on Amazon. In a surprise upset, the group's debut wins it, with 82% to Lincoln's 76%.

(If you're wondering where Flood ended up, it's in 6th place, with a combined 8.5 stars (4 from AMG, 4.5 from Amazon). More on this later.)

Anyway, They Might Be Giants may be the unworthiest Rock Solid I've seen yet. In other cases I may not have agreed with the selection, but I could see the argument. This one, not so much.

Even so, let's give it a fighter's chance.

AMG's Stephen Thomas Erlewine is brief and superficial in his summation of the album. The best he can muster is a back-handed compliment: "While there are a lot of geeky jokes and barely developed ideas scattered throughout the album, the sheer kaleidoscopic array of styles is intoxicating."

As for the reviewers, Ryan Hennessy seems to be speaking directly to my skepticism about the album: "So for all of its creativity, wacky but sometimes poignant lyrics and off the wall fun level this is a great album, often overlooked even by TMBG fans." Antiphilosopher adds that the album is, "Bouncy, catchy, upbeat psychosis in musical form!" The Intengenius asserts that They Might Be Giants is "probably the most bizarre album they ever released, [it] literally stomps all over the place, flitting from genre to genre almost flawlessly." And Erin asks, hopefully rhetorically or the answer is going to be a long one, "Who doesn't like a band that consists of two dorks making weird music?"

But several reviewers undermine their 5 star reviews with qualifiers. Mighty Bjorn says, "If you're new to the band, Flood is a better jumping on point because it's not quite as strange." Okay, he's not saying Flood is better, though. However, witness this anonymous review: "[They Might Be Giants] is also a good place to start listening to John and John, surpassed only by Flood, the most friendly of all TMBG efforts." Kari the Digimon Princess puts it more bluntly: "Now I do like They Might Be Giants but this is crude compared to Flood or Lincoln."

Relistening to They Might Be Giants, I am struck by the audacity of it. It's no surprise that the band were hits with college radio first, because music didn't sound like this in 1986. It's the aural equivalent of watching a performance art piece by created by a schizophrenic. The band's identity at this point was based on having no real identity. They were (and are, though to a lesser degree) absurdists. But that didn't necessarily make for great songs. Sure, there are standouts, such as She's An Angel, Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head, She Was a Hotel Detective, and Don't Let's Start, but a lot of the album goes over the novelty line (Toddler Hiway, anyone?). To me, it's a fun listen, but far from their best work.

Many fans would make a strong case for their second album, Lincoln, to take the top spot. I see more merit in that. The band kept its eclecticism and added better songwriting (Ana Ng, Purple Toupee, The World's Address, Santa's Beard, Shoehorn with Teeth, Snowball in Hell). Even so, I think Flood should have been the one. It's They Might Be Giants' time capsule album, the one people are gonna remember. And, to my ear, it has fewer clunkers than Lincoln. In 2009, Rolling Stone did a track-by-track guide to Flood and called it the band's "signature" work. (This was, by the way, a complete  reversal from the original 1990 review that the magazine published. In that review David Browne used the following words to describe Flood: "sophmoric", "novelty", "smug", "disposable", "facile", "throwaway", "grating", "glib" and "campy".)

Do you see what I mean about things being complicated? To add fuel to the fire, my personal favorites haven't even entered the conversation yet. Flood was my first TMBG album, and I'll always have a soft spot for it, but Apollo 18 (1992) and John Henry (1994) are the soundtracks of my formative years. The first time (of six) that I saw them in concert was the John Henry tour, and the songs from that album are still rattling around in my brain. Apollo 18 is the true bridge between what the band were (genre-hopping pop outsiders) and what they became (quirky pop-rock), and, at least until this year's Join Us, their last album to truly straddle that line without going too far one way or the other.

So what to conclude? I'll present it in the form of a comprehension question, with multiple choice answers.

a) They Might Be Giants have made so many good albums that they even fans and critics can't agree on which one is best.
b) David Browne is a strident, humorless sort of fellow.
c) Everybody dies frustrated and sad and that is beautiful.
d) All of the above.