Wednesday, December 31, 2003

As the year grinds screaming to a halt, I'd like to take the opportunity to do the time honored tradition of making my end of the year best of list. I didn't buy enough new music to make a proper best of 2003 list, so I've made eligible any album I picked up this past year, regardless of when it was released. I wasn't able to narrow it down to a top ten, yet couldn't think of enough albums to make a top fifteen, so I present to you:

14 Best Albums I Heard for the First Time in 2003
(in no particular order)
* denotes an album actually released in 2003

INTERPOL Turn on the Bright Lights
I really have nothing new to say about them, considering I wrote about it yesterday. This was the number one pick on some best of 2002 lists last year, and while I wouldn't go that far, it's really good.

BLUR Out of Time*
I also wrote about this one earlier this month. Quite simply, Blur is a band which continues to impress me and I like the direction this album suggests they're headed.

BELLE & SEBASTIAN Dear Catastrophe Waitress*
Although I happened to like their much-derided Fold Your Hands..., this album is much better. Tweepop fans may recoil in horror, but I'd argue this is their finest album ever.

I got this album even before 2002 had a chance to turn cold and I still listen to it regularly. David Bazan is one of my favorite discoveries in recent times.

BRIGHT EYES Lifted or the Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground
That Conor is one talented boy. This album shows why.

THE POLYPHONIC SPREE The Beginning Stages Of...*
My girlfriend thinks they sound like singing elves, but I think it's the most uplifting music I heard all year.

OS MUTANTES Everything is Posible
I also wrote about them a few months ago. An album that begs repeated listens, it's a great introduction to the lovable oddballs from Brazil.

LOVE Comes in Colours
Another band from the 60s -- I've heard about them for a couple of years now and was finally introduced to them through this compilation. What an amazing band!

I like it. It's one of my more interesting and different purchases of the year.

LILYS Precollection*
The Lilys are back with another great pop moment.

EARLIMART the Avenues EP*
Okay, not an album but really good nonetheless. When Sparklehorse doesn't release anything, Earlimart is the next best thing.

GILLIAN WELCH Time (the Revelator)
No wonder she was a critic's darling when this came out in 2001. A simple album with plain good songwriting.

HOT HOT HEAT Make Up the Breakdown*
One of the most infectious albums of the year.

CINERAMA Cinerama Holiday*
Now that Pulp has decided to take a break indefinitely, I'll need a new band to rely upon for decadence. Cinerama fills that void.

Top 5 Live Shows for 2003
(in no particular order)

EARLIMART @ Mercury Lounge (New York) -- June
It's been a few years since any band took me by surprise the way Earlimart did. I'm very glad I happened to be in the audience that night.

SPARKS @ Central Park Summerstage (New York) -- July or August
The hype surrounding the show piqued my curiosity, but their theatrics blew me away.

LIARS @ Volume (Brooklyn) -- December
Wow. Rock and roll as it was imagined.

BRITISH SEA POWER @ Northsix (Brooklyn) -- July or August
One of the most bizarre spectacles I've ever seen. I must see them again.

ARTHUR LEE & LOVE @ Town Hall (New York) -- June
After three and a half decades, the man's still got it.

Biggest Letdowns of 2003
(in no particular order)

RADIOHEAD Hail to the Thief
A good album by normal standards, but this is the band who made three of the finest records in the past decade. I expected more.

Pretty much the only thing new this time around are the song titles.

ENON Hocus Pocus
This is the hardest one for me to include on the list since I've been championing them for years. Still the best live band around, I just couldn't get into this album as I did with their previous ones.

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

INTERPOL Turn on the Bright Lights (Matador)
I have a confession to make: I like Interpol. I realize I'm getting into this album about a year after everyone else did, but it's really good and it's been lingering in my head for weeks, daring me to play it again.
Here's where I'm usually called a snob, but it was my hatred of the Strokes which led me to avoid Interpol like I would any Jennifer Lopez vanity project. Who could blame me, really? Another hyped to the heavens New York band, a retro-friendly sound, fancy haircuts, and matching suits -- get these boys to the NME offices pronto!
Unlike the Strokes, however, I at least heard of Interpol long before the Brits noticed the pages of their cd booklets sticking together, most notably due to the band's frequent appearances at Tiswas. Just before Interpol-mania would sweep the pages of Pitchfork, I saw them open up for Belle & Sebastian and wasn't too impressed. Partly because the sound was awful, partly because I knew the Aislers Set were opening up on the rest of the tour and I really wanted to see them instead, and mostly because the band was lackluster.

Then, wouldn't you know it, I read a story about them in Magnet and found them to be incredibly likeable. I started to notice a lot of similarities (some of them hit especially close to home) between them and my old band and I felt like I was able to relate to them in a way I've never related to another band before -- except we weren't pretentious, never wore suits, and never got around to recording a Peel Session. Combine all this with one of my friends telling me he thought "PDA" sounded like one of our songs, and I knew I had to listen to their album.

As luck would have it, my girlfriend already owned it and now she admonishes me for playing it too much. "Obstacle 1" is one of the most addictive songs I've heard all year. I used to like "NYC" a lot until I heard the REM cover of it and Michael Stipe ruined that song for me forever (I'll never be able to look at those "New York Cares" subway posters the same way ever again, either). "Say Hello to the Angels" is a blatant rip off of "This Charming Man," so much that you think somebody -- at some point -- might have suggested the band leave it off the album for copyright infringement purposes, but they even turned that into a good enough song for me to forgive them. And the sound of that guitar solo on "The New!" I want to make my guitar sound like that. And for the record, "PDA" doesn't sound that much like our song, although I can definitely hear some similarities. As they say, great minds must think alike. It's a damn good song.

For more info:
There's Interpol's official site, an AMG entry, and an Epitonic page.

Friday, December 26, 2003

Ground Control to Major Damon?
Here's a cool little story I found via Coolfer: Blur wrote the call-sign for the European Mars explorer. Should mission control ever regain contact with the missing spacecraft, it should play the Blur song "Beagle 2" (also found as a b-side to "No Distance Left To Run") back to the those listening on the ground.
You can read the full article here.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

ESG, TV ON THE RADIO, TRACY AND THE PLASTICS, and MOMMY AND DADDY @ the Hook (Brooklyn NY) - Dec 20, 2003
I showed up near the end of Mommy and Daddy's set, catching the last three songs. What I saw was a band consisting of a girl who played bass and a guy who sang and used a sampler. Musically, it didn't seem much different than any of the other hip bands you'll run into around New York, although I thought the choice of instrumentation was kind of annoying. It's kind of pointless to have a live bass if all the other instruments are going to be sampled.

Tracy and the Plastics didn't have any live instruments on stage. It was just one person who sang along to pre-recorded music while interacting with her "bandmates" via video. It was different, clever, funny, and worth seeing again. My friend thought she reminded him of Peaches, although my initial comparison would've been PJ Harvey fronting Chicks on Speed.

I was really looking forward to hearing TV On The Radio. I knew they recently played with the Secret Machines and when I was at the Liars' show a few days before, I overheard someone telling his friend how amazing TVOTR is. My expectations were quickly met with the first few songs. They were really good. The only problem, though, is all the songs sounded the same and I gradually grew bored of hearing the same good song played over and over. They ended up doing an encore which closed with all five members playing drums, which was kind of cool although they already lost me by that point.

To be honest, I didn't know much about ESG prior to the show. I recognized the name from some compilation of 80's New York bands, but never came close to grasping their significance. The rest of the audience did, though, and the excitement was high when they took the stage. It didn't take long for me to figure out that a number of modern local bands -- like the Liars, Radio 4, and the Rapture (one of whom was djing that night) -- owe much debt to ESG for their sound. The rhythm section dominated the show and the band looked truly flattered that so many people came out to see them. My only complaint may sound superficial, but the members were all kind of short and I found it next to impossible to watch them play their instruments. Other than that, it was a good show and everyone had a good time.

Friday, December 19, 2003

LIARS, ROGERS SISTERS, and BLOOD ON THE WALL @ Volume (Brooklyn NY) - Dec 18, 2003
Warning: You are about to enter Hipster Central Command. Please have your proper papers and identification ready for inspection.
As I walked to Volume last night, I realized finding the address wasn't as straight forward as I expected. Luckily, the forward thinking promoters anticipated this problem and plastered Williamsburg with signs reading "LIARS -->" in order to point slightly confused folks like myself in the right direction. As if perfectly timed, the first band went on as soon as a bought my ticket (it was a benefit show for Creative Time).

Blood on the Wall was first up. They were the only band on the bill who I knew nothing about, but they proved to be quite enjoyable. A bass/drums/guitar trio, they played very primal, dirty rock and roll.
The Rogers Sisters were next. Every bit as primal as Blood on the Wall, their sound owes more to garage bands/girl groups than the former's classic rock roots. The problem with a lot of nu garage bands is the tendency to sound redundant after awhile, but the Rogers Sisters sidestep that problem with a high energy performance that made watching them a lot of fun.

As much as I liked the Liars' They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top, I couldn't shake my perception of them as the most pretentious band in all of Brooklyn. This perception was perpetuated by the band's insistence on having about 20 minutes of ambient music drone on (after they finished setting up their gear) while we all waited for them to come on stage. After the first 10 minutes of waiting, the crowd grew impatient and started yelling for the band to come out. Around the 15 minute mark, restless people started throwing beer cans and other objects towards the vacant stage. Finally, the band emerged.
Wow. Angus Andrew is the most electrifying frontman I've seen since Enon's John Schmersal. Here's my weak attempt to describe their new material: it sounds like the Liars but sounds different. All I can say is the set seemed too short and I would gladly wait through another 20 minutes of ambient noise and boredom to see them again.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

PAPAS FRITAS s/t (Minty Fresh)
For reasons I don't fully understand, my girlfriend is the recipient of free subscriptions to a bunch of the top selling lad mags and now my apartment is cluttered with back issues of Maxim, FHM, Stuff, and a couple of others. I was looking through one of them recently and was shocked to discover it contained a review for the new Papas Fritas compilation, Pop Has Freed Us.

I first learned of the band more than a few years back when they released their self-titled debut and I was just starting to get into indiepop. A member of an online group I belonged to recommended this album and I bought it. I enjoyed it very much then and, after a few listens to it recently, still like it.
The album contains some great indiepop songs while managing to avoid the trappings of twee which befell many of their contemporaries. Throw in some some slightly off kilter arrangements and they made a record still worth listening to after eight years.

For more info:
official Papas Fritas site, Minty Fresh site, AMG entry, Epitonic page

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

My politically active girlfriend has been using Meetup.com for awhile to go out drinking with likeminded people. I took a look around the site today and realized there's a handful of members looking to hang out with fellow music fans, so I registered for a few different groups.
If you live in New York and find any of these groups appealing, you should sign up because there's not too many members right now.

Indie music meetup - next one is Jan 3
Shoegazer meetup - next one is Jan 7
Britpop meetup - today's meetup in NYC was cancelled due to lack of participants
World music meetup - next one is Jan 19, although I'm currently the only registered person from NYC

Monday, December 15, 2003


It was about this time 10 years ago when I heard Blur for the first time. Back when MTV was crazy for all music alternative, I caught the video for "Chemical World" on Alternative Nation late one night. It was catchy, well written, and seemingly worlds away from their usual grunge programming. Modern Life is Rubbish would become one of the first cds I would ever buy.
When they had their first US hit with "Girls and Boys," I purposely avoided Parklife. Not because I thought they were selling out, mind you, I just thought the song was awful. Months later, I ended up buying it new for $4 just because I could. I would come to discover it was a pretty good album, despite my initial misgivings. By the time the underappreciated Great Escape came out, I was nearing the height of my musical anglophilia and bought it right away. This was also around the time when the British music press was playing up the whole Blur v Oasis feud, and I found myself firmly in the Blur camp for whatever that's worth.

When their self-titled album was released along with the hype that surrounded the band's embrace of American indie and rejection of the Britishness which I thought made their previous efforts charming, I had no interest in buying it. Every time "Song 2" came on the radio, I felt vindicated in my decision -- although better than "Girls and Boys," I didn't care much for it. My Blur boycott ended, though, when the band came to Pittsburgh and I bought tickets to see them. I picked up the album to familiarize myself with the new songs and realized it wasn't as bad as I was expecting. Although probably my least favorite album by them*, songs like "Beetlebum" or "You're So Great" demand I listen to it every now and then.
*I never bought, or listened to, Leisure.

Live, the band was really good, although the audience was kind of annoying in that they kept shouting "woo hoo!" in between every song. The band played everything faster than they did on record, which I enjoyed but the girl I was seeing at the time (who was unfamiliar with their music) complained the entire set sounded like a wall of noise to her.

I picked up 13 not long after it came out and gave it a few listens before deciding I hated it. I put it back on the shelf for months without any intention of listening to it again, but then I saw the cleverly cute video for "Coffee and TV" and had to give the album another shot. This time around, I found 13 to be an impressive piece of work and perhaps their most cohesive full length.

In case you haven't noticed the pattern yet, I was in no rush to get Think Tank. Unlike the other albums, however, this one came with the most baggage. First of all, the talented Graham Coxon left under debatable circumstances and the band was reduced to a trio. To complicate matters, Damon Albarn was coming off both his Gorillaz side project as well as a much publicized trip to Africa to collaborate with local musicians. Imagining some sort of castrated band making a Graceland for the indie set, Think Tank slipped down to the bottom of my wish list. Reviews I read were scattered; some really liked it, others hated it. I saw them perform at the Field Day Festival, but it was raining, I was far from the stage, the sound could've been better, and I still didn't know what to make of their new material. I watched the video to "Crazy Beat" and was underwhelmed, but the video for "Out of Time" won me over. I bought the cd.
Although the album starts off a bit inconsistently, the second half is strong, and overall it's really good. It's easy to hear how the rhythm section was forced to pick up the slack a bit, but it fits in nicely with the direction in which the band was headed and Think Tank sounds like a natural follow up to 13. They threw in a few North African flourishes on songs like "Out of Time" or "We've Got a File on You," but it doesn't sound forced at all and actually compliments the new material quite nicely. While perhaps not as cohesive a full length as its predecessor, the new album further explores the band's interest in experimentalism, perhaps best exemplified by the avant-jazz sax solo on "Jets." The album ends with "Battery in Your Leg," the only song in which Coxon receives any songwriting credit. In addition to having one of the biggest guitar parts on the album, it closes with the lyrics, "This is a ballad for the good times/And all the dignity we had/Don't get het up on the evil things/You ain't coming back." Although Albarn's probably not singing about Coxon, it somehow seems appropriate.
My biggest complaint with the album, though, is the lyrics. Early in their career, Albarn received lots of acclaim as a sort of Ray Davies for our time -- writing character sketches to cleverly observe modern society. Although he since moved into more autobiographical territory, his new lyrics at times reflect a bloated pop star running out of ideas. Fortunately, the music more than makes up for it.

For more info:
There's an official site, a bunch of fan sites, an AMG entry, and an Epitonic page.
PS: photo stolen from Blurbox.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

USA Today had an article last week about how the growth in popularity of mp3s will sound the death knell for the album as we know it. It was an interesting read but it reminded me that not long after I got my first cd player, I decided that cds will spell the end to the album. My reasoning was, unlike tapes, cds allowed you to skip freely from song to song and reprogram the sequence to your liking. It was a lot easier to listen to the album in a way unintended by the artist. USA Today argued that the rise of mp3s and single song downloads will now force artists to focus on singles rather than complete albums.

I think I've written before that I never got into downloading songs. I tried Napster about a month before it shut down and with my dial up connection, it took about 30 minutes to download a 3 minute song. After five songs, I gave up. I then tried Grokster using my girlfriend's cable connection and the results were better, although I must admit I find listening to music on the computer to be not that enjoyable. Call me a luddite if you want but for some reason, I get much more excitement out of pulling an album off the shelf and putting it on the stereo rather than scrolling down a computer screen and double clicking on a bunch of titles.

While I certainly like the idea of mp3s and having the capability to listen to something I may never have heard otherwise, I'm kind of bothered by the mentality it's creating among a new generation of music fans -- the idea that music belongs to the people and should be free.
I'll admit I've copied albums from my friends and they've copied albums from me, but I find a big difference between having two or three friends borrow my Radiohead cd rather than me upload it on the internet so two or three hundred strangers will be able to copy it. Call me old fashioned, but I think if people spend a lot of time and effort into making something, they should be compensated. And making an album is often times a lengthy and expensive process.

I think of all the opinions I've read during the whole debate on the future of the music industry, the best idea came from Moby. He suggested record labels follow a model similar to that of book publishers and their releasing of both paperback and hardback editions. Moby recommended the labels release two versions of each album: the economy edition would consist of a cd slipped into a plain cardboard sleeve and sell for about $5 while the deluxe cd would include the booklet, enhanced cd content, and anything else we've come to expect from a cd and sell for about $10-15.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

I'm away until Monday so there will be no posting for the rest of the week. Have a good weekend.

Monday, December 01, 2003

The Mix Tape/CD Swap is off to a good start. I'd like to thank all of you who participated and I sent out emails to let you know with whom you'll be trading. If you signed up and, for some reason, didn't get an email from me, let me know. Thanks again and happy trading.

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