Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Here's Part Two (of two) of my self-important rant on the year in music. A reminder: all of these songs have been compiled on an iTunes 'iMix', entitled "FINNEGAN'S GUIDE TO POPULAR MUSIC 2008. Check it out, if you want to hear clips of any of these little ditties.

NOTE: Scroll Down for Part One, to see numbers 27 through 15.
14. AL GREEN, "Wanna Say" – I promise I'm not just throwing this one on here in an attempt to break up the unending stream of white people. The term "return to form" is way overused by lazy music critics, but here it really applies. He seems to have recaptured not only the sound but also the intimacy of his classic Seventies albums.

13. SON LUX, "Raise" – This album is relatively new to me, having learned about it on NPR's "All Songs Considered" year end wrap-up (yeah, I know). But wow, is it something special. Each song managed to be simultaneously beautiful and bleak as all living hell. Still, I probably won't listen to it constantly. It's kind of like the film "Children of Men"—sometimes you just don't have the energy, you know?

12. THE CURE. "This. Here and Now. With You." – At this point, The Cure probably isn't going to pick up any new fans. If you haven't liked them in the past, you won't like this. But there are songs on "4:13 Dream" that stand up with the best stuff they've ever recorded. And this is the Cure in 'giddy' mode, which I always love. If you used to be a fan and gave up on them years ago, this is worth checking out.

11. NADA SURF, "I Like What You Say" – This a nearly perfect pop song by a band that specializes in nearly perfect pop songs. I've been a huge fan for years and they just keep on churning out great albums. The word I'd use for Nada Surf is "tasteful", which sounds like an insult but it's not. I'm never not in the mood to hear this song.

10. DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE, "No Sunlight" – Like Nada Surf, Death Cab writes mature power pop songs for adults. A lot of Ben Gibbard's lyrics resonate with me in ways I'm not entirely comfortable with—not this song, specifically, but in general. They definitely have a style that they stick to, but it's great to buy an album knowing that it's going to be check-full of fantastic songs with smart lyrics, expertly performed and produced.

9. BON IVER, "Skinny Love" – Another 'critic's darling' that totally lives up to the hype. After a few listens, at least. It took me a while to adapt to the main dude's near-constant falsetto, but now I find it eerie and beautiful. The songs on "For Emma, Forever Ago" are ultra-simple, but become more evocative with each listen. This is one of those lay-in-the-dark-while-wearing-noise-canceling-headphones albums. As such, it doesn't quite attain Iron & Wine status, but it's still pretty amazing stuff.

8. M83, "Kim & Jessie" – Lots of bands these days use the early 8'0s as a musical jumping-off point. But for the most part, they're working with a very specific strain of Eighties Pop—angular, up-tempo New Wave, a la The Jam. This song is different. It harkens back to the blissed-out Casio queerfests of Thompson Twins and Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark*. It's music to make you want to sit Indian-style on a glass dinner table, making out with Samantha Baker (or Jake Ryan, depending on who you'd prefer to be in that scenario).

* Typing out these words, I felt a wave of revulsion at how ridiculous a band name this is. When I was a kid I assumed it was just some abstract combination of words, like "The Electronic Walrus Party" or something. I now see it as the foppiest, most pretentious, most PLEASE-GIVE-ME-A-WEDGIE five words ever composed in English. Egads!

7. GOLDFRAPP, "A&E"—This song's actually from the same neck of the woods as the M83 song, in that it's lush, keyboard-heavy stuff. But it's even more airy-fairy. The whole album feels like it was recorded inside the movie 'Legend', if that an be construed as a good thing. I give them credit for taking things in a different direction after having garnered a huge following over the last couple of albums, doing a techno burlesque kind of thing. Here's the litmus test: Where do you stand on Kate Bush? If you're 'pro', you'll probably love this song.

6. TV ON THE RADIO, "Halfway Home"—A real step forward for a band that was already great. I don't think there's a band recording today more confident in its musical vision than TV on the Radio, with the possible exception of Radiohead. How in the world would you classify a song like this? How in hell would you go about writing it? It's as if they've created their own genre of music.

5. KINGS OF LEON, "Notion"—Holy fuck do I love this band. When they debuted, I wrote them off as a blues-rock gimmick. But now I'm a true believer--over the past three albums I've listened to KOL as much as any other band in my collection (do people even call it that anymore? Would referring to it as my 'Library' be more or less worthy of scorn?) I feel like they've caught a bit of indie backlash for making a 'bigger' sounding record, which is typical. But I don't think the best bands, the bands that really end up "mattering", shy away fro a smidgen of grandiosity. I don't think there's any fear of this band going all 'Coldplay' on you.

4. MATES OF STATE, "The Re-Arranger"—There was one day where I listened to this song eight times in a single afternoon. It's funny, there are a bunch of the songs I consider to have universal appeal. And yet, my four favorite songs of the year are all ones I could understand any rational human being loathing. This is especially true of "The Re-Arranger". This is peppy shit, so if you can't do 'peppy', best to move on. But if this is up your alley, you should watch the YouTube video of their daughter (Mates of State are a married couple) dancing offstage to this song during an outdoor concert. Pretty life-affirming stuff.

3. THE HOLD STEADY, "Constructive Summer"—I remember seeing "Dazed and Confused" for the first time and thinking about director Richard Linklater, "Man, that guy really gets it." I wasn't talking about all of the period references and goofy bellbottoms; what struck me was how well that movie evoked what it's like to be a teenager in the suburbs. The Hold Steady do the same thing for me, only with a huge dose of restlessness. Singer/writer guy Craig Finn is like Springsteen for kids who grew up going to soccer practice. The line, "We're going to build something this Summer" is, to me, the ultimate expression of suburban hope and desperation.

2. DR. DOG, "The Rabbit, the Bat and the Reindeer" – I love it when a band sounds like nothing you've ever heard before. But I also kind of like it when an artist says, "Fuck it, this is the kind of music we want to make, and we end up sounding like something you might have heard before so be it. (That's how I earnestly defended Lenny Kravitz for his first few albums.) Dr. Dog gets thrown under the 'revivalist' bus, as if they're nothing but a novelty act because they sound like the Beatles, as impersonated by The Soggy Bottom Boys. But people forget that Beatles were only the Beatles because they wrote great songs. This too is a great, great song.

1. MGMT, "Time to Pretend"—On paper, this is the kind of band that I hate: two predictably unkempt Williamburg hipsters making music where you can't tell if they're trying to be sarcastic. But geez, this is kind of extraordinary. It's not my favorite album overall (that would probably go to TV on the Radio or Bon Iver), but as songs go, "Time to Pretend" kicks me in the buttocks. It sounds like being invited to a Smurf orgy. Butt then, one of the Smurfs drops some bad E and ends up doing a nosedive through a fourth floor window.

What? Why did it get so awkward her all the sudden? Is it weird that my favorite song of the year makes me imagine getting a reach-around from a blitzed Handy Smurf? Where are you guys going?! COME BACK!!

Okay I guess that's all. I'm going to make a sincere attempt to make regular blog posts in 2009 (I refuse to use 'blog' as a verb). But just in case I turn out to be a liar, see you whenever!

Still more regards,

So here's the deal:

I have lots of stuff I should be doing--I have a DVD coming out in a few months for which I still haven't written liner notes or filmed DVD extras, I'm painfully behind schedule in writing new stand up material and the damned dishwasher still needs to be unloaded. So how did I decide to spend the better part of yesterday? Writing an exhaustive rundown of my favorite 27 songs to be released in 2008. Why 27? Because that's as far down as I could trim my list without feeling like I left off something good. Please enjoy.

The ordering of this list is relatively arbitrary, by the way--on another day I may have ordered them differently. Anyway, here are numbers 27 through 15. I'll post the rest at some point tomorrow. Your thoughts are welcome, but feel no pressure in that regard. I'm really just doing this in the hopes that maybe you'll get turned on to a song or two you might not otherwise have heard.

FYI, I've created an "iMix", in case you want to hear samples of any of these songs. Just go to iTunes and do a search for "FINNEGAN'S GUIDE TO POPULAR MUSIC 2008".

Without further ado:

27. GHOSTLAND OBSERVATORY, "Dancing on my Grave" – I saw this band perform on 'Austin City Limits' and I couldn't decide whether the lead singer's revival-tent-preacher-on-peyote act was inspired or smarmy (a bit of both, maybe). Either way, I found myself thinking about them for days until I eventually broke down and bought the CD. The album is not stellar, but this song is great and I'm betting they'll do good stuff in the future. Plus, it's the best band name I've heard in years.

26. SHAWN SMITH, "Breathe In" – Good stuff from the leader of the late, lamented Satchel. If you're familiar with his stuff, there's nothing terribly new here, but his "thing" is idiosyncratic enough that I never tire of it.

25. MARNI STERN, "Ruler" – I listened to this album quite a bit for a week or so, until my wife demanded that I turn it off. She kind of had a point. This is probably not a sing I'll listen to a whole lot as time goes by. But it's just so gloriously odd that I'm thrilled it exists. Plus, it's cool to hear someone doing guitar fingerboard 'tapping' without trying to sound like Yngwie Malmsteen. It should be noted that this is the most radio-friendly song on the album. No, seriously.

24, DELTA SPIRIT, "Trashcan" – Everything Delta Spirit does feels so gloriously uplifting and unpretentious. They're not trying to be the 'cool kids', they're just bashing out music and singing their asses off. I hear they're a great live band, which I hope to discover in person, if I can shake off my acquired hatred of rock club crowds.

23. MELVINS, "Billy Fish" – Looking over this list, it's surprisingly light on 'heavy' stuff. That's a bit of a surprise, as I'm a sucker for musical sludge. This song makes me want to crush a row of human skulls with a sledgehammer.

22. THE FUTUREHEADS, "Work is Never Done" – This is a band that I have loved since inception, even though the majority of their most recent album ("This is Not the World") runs together a bit. It's kind of like three great songs and then one pretty good song repeated ten times. But if you dig this I highly recommend their self-titled first album.

21. GEMMA HAYES, "Sad Ol Song" – I spent a few minutes trying to describe how this song makes me feel, but then I realized it's pretty much all in the title. A simple, bittersweet tune by a great songwriter with a fantastic voice. Me likey.

20. THE TEENAGERS, "Homecoming" – Okay, this borders on being a 'gimmick' song, but it's pretty sweet. And it actually works as a pop sing, even though the vast majority of the lyrics are spoken. It's not saying anything groundbreaking (yes, American girls will screw any guy with an accent), but it's well done and pretty hilarious.

19. PORTISHEAD, "The Rip" – I had a hard time trying to decide where on the list this one should go. I dig the song itself, but it comes from the most disappointing album of the year, in my opinion. Yes, my standards for Portishead are very high, but man—this is why you shouldn't wait eleven years to put out a record. The majority of "Third" feels labored over to the point of exhaustion. The genius of "Dummy" (and, to a degree, the 2nd album) was that it was equal parts creepy and sexy. There is absolutely nothing sensual or alluring about "Third". If "Dummy" felt like a dirty rendezvous with a mysterious woman, "Third" feels like waiting to get the results of your AIDS test. Still, a great tune.

18. THE FLEET FOXES, "Sun it Rises" – This band is a real 'critic's darling', which made me assume they were overrated. And now that I've listened to the album a bunch of times, I'd say…well, they're a teensy bit overrated. But only a teensy, as the album is pretty great. If you're a sucker for vocal harmonies, you need this album.

17. COPELAND, "Should You Return" - I'll always love this song, even if it eventually ends up in an episode of "Grey's Anatomy" (assuming it hasn't already). There's just something perfectly soundtrack-esque about this song. It seems like the kind of thing you'd wander the city streets to on a rainy day, mourning your lost youth. Or something equally pretentious.

16. JAMIE LIDELL, "Green Light" – How is it that Brits has such a firm grasp of and appreciation for classic American soul music? This whole album ("Jim") is just a fun, breezy pleasure. Great summertime backyard cocktail party music.

15. VAMPIRE WEEKEND, "A Punk" – I understand neither the hype nor the backlash surrounding this band. They put out a good album of hum-able tunes with a sound that, while by no means unique, feels fresh at this particular moment in time. Plus, you have to tip your hat to a group of guys who are confident enough in their sissyhood to make repeated lyrical references to Cape Cod.

That's all for now--check back tomorrow for Part Two!

Christian Finnegan