1 PJ HARVEY . LET ENGLAND SHAKE
I’m a picky and serious lady, who should probably be out in the sun more. Be not surprised that the music that has floored me the most this year is a concept album about war torn society, specifically the great grey and sweet smelling country of England. This ridiculously focused masterpiece makes me want to write, makes me want to drop money on an autoharp, and is so incredibly interesting sonically. When can you ever recall tapping your toes to songs about murdered soldiers and unborn children? PJ Harvey was totally right on in planning out an album that takes heavy subject matter and places it with uplifting music. Most critics have been hating on the bugle sample on the following track, and how it’s out of time and irritating. I think it accentuates the song, and perfectly in time. What do you think?
The Glorious Land
2 CROOKED FINGERS . BREAKS IN THE ARMOR
I knew that Eric Bachmann had a band called Archers of Loaf in the ‘90s, with an odd, catchy single called “Web In Front”, which I’ve always had a great affinity for. Laziness maybe prevented me to dig into the rest of their catalogue. Consequently, I had no idea that Bachmann’s more recent project, Crooked Fingers, even existed. So then I found Breaks in the Armor, which is absolutely impressive, balanced and moving. It’s smart and sneery, loud and heartfelt. It’s no bullshit and it’s solid songwriting. Bonus points to vocalist/guitarist (and niece of Vic Chesnutt) Liz Durrett, who adds hauntingly gorgeous harmony to Bachmann’s roaming melodies. They’re also incredibly good live.
3 PARTS AND LABOR . CONSTANT FUTURE
There was a time when I more frequently purchased albums from bands after seeing them live for the first time. Maybe I just see too many bands, or I’m more jaded now. Regardless, it should be said that the fact I absolutely had to get a copy of Constant Future after watching Parts and Labor for the first time, should be a testament to its quality. Holy shit this album owns, and I listen to it constantly. Synth and drum lines so quick and intricate. This is what I wish (likely long-time defunct) Portland’s Point Line Plane could have evolved to, were they to have explored pop melodies. It also helps that one of the two singers sounds totally like Damien Jurado, and is totally fun to sing along with.
Stream the entire album at:
4 LOW . C’MON
Duluth, Minnesota’s Low often are unfairly labeled as slowcore, which has become increasingly inaccurate considering their evolution into more electronic and rock avenues (see: 2005’s alarming The Great Destroyer). Though not necessarily a step forward in structure, C’mon is straightforwardly calm, with really really bitter lyrics. As if someone is pouring their heart out to you with a blank expression on their face. This isn’t to say that Low is expressionless. On the contrary, just one minute of an alternately tuned guitar line from Alan Sparhawk, and lyrics almost seem moot. Vocally, Sparhawk’s harmonies with wife Mimi Parker are a thing of beauty, and when taking the lead, Parker’s hollowed and warm voice drives the van steady down the darkened highway.
You See Everything
5 KATE BUSH . 50 WORDS FOR SNOW
Some reasons I know I’m now an adult: an appreciation for mustard, my knees hurt, and I’ve realized that Tori Amos has spent her entire career ripping off Kate Bush. Her first album in six years, Kate Bush has crafted a wondrous and spacious winter hymnal. Kate Bush is simply the most fascinating and imaginative female songwriter around, period. 50 Words For Snow is excessively more stripped down than Bush’s bellowing albums of the 1980’s, with a quiet haunting that’s way spaced out in front of a fire style. The shortest song on the album is 7 minutes long, for chrissake. Do you listen to Joni Mitchell in the autumn? You should listen to this in the winter. There’s even a dramatic duet with Elton John, for all you moms out there…
6 DAVID BAZAN . STRANGE NEGOTIATIONS
In or around 2006, David Bazan dropped his Pedro the Lion moniker, and subsequent label of Christian musician. Since then, Bazan’s been putting out some pretty exploratory solo albums. 2006’s Fewer Moving Parts was downright addicting, and 2009’s Curse Your Branches was just ok. This year’s Strange Negotiations is the most comfortable and solid album of the three. And when I say comfort, I mean sonically, because the subject matter is still about frustrations with people, specifically the similarities between lovers and the government. Credit is due to Andy Fitts on bass, who harmonizes beautifully with Bazan, and to Alex Westcoat who drums his ass off, especially in a live setting.
Wolves At the Door
7 BRIEF CANDLES . FRACTURED DAYS
Milwaukee has only one band that does the shoegaze genre any justice, but if asked, I’m sure Brief Candles would be more into expressing their love for early British pop albums than Loveless. I waited, along with many others with bated breath for new recorded material from these guys for about four years, so Fractured Days is a joy to finally have. Many of the tracks have been played live by the band for years, and are really awesome to hear now in recorded form. This album is huge sounding and masterfully engineered. The vocals are fuzzy, juicy, and delightfully under-buried. Guitar lines swell and soar, while the rhythm section plows through the songs in steady locomotive fashion.
Stream select tracks at:
8 MEMORY MAP . HOLIDAY BAND
An unexpected gem from Bloomington, Indiana, the terrific debut album from Memory Map opens with an echoey backup choir reminiscent of windstorms in Disney movies of the 1940’s. Guitar lines are part intricate classical runs and part Built To Spill. Vocal melodies and delivery call to mind the most interesting cult favorite indie bands of the 1990’s, including Unwound, Joan of Arc, and early Modest Mouse. Stand out (and mind-numbingly infectious) track “Stowaway” is the best sea shanty of the year, and they didn’t even have to imitate Tom Waits to make it!
Stream the entire album at:
9 A.A. BONDY . BELIEVERS
Every time my roommate has played this sickeningly pretty record, I’ve asked him who it was, then promptly forgot. I don’t typically seek out modern folk records, and usually write them off as boring. Not the case here, man. There’s reverb oozing out of every corner. My favorite track, “The Twist”, is the loudest. It creeps around with a Nick Cave spy theme bass line, lush organ and sexy as hell chorus harmony. A great nighttime album, but if the whole album sounded like this song, I would likely blast it in my car with windows open during the day.
10 RADIOHEAD . THE KING OF LIMBS
“Blah blah blah, Radiohead hasn’t put out anything good since The Bends!” Fuck you. This band is genius. YOU try reinventing the wheel and nonchalantly giving it away. Very similar to 2001’s Amnesiac (see: binary code?), The King of Limbs first listens are almost too cold and too glitchy. Then the French horns kick in, and you’re hooked into an infectious and menacing album. The songs are perhaps a little hard to find at first, which is why I’m under the impression that the general listener gave up on the album too quickly. The warmth is there. The heart-wrenching ballads are there. It doesn’t have to be a pretty pop song, and I will always give Radiohead props for not giving a shit. Still don’t get it? Watch Thom Yorke express it to you better than any music critic:
ADDITIONALLY, THESE ALBUMS WERE PRETTY GOOD
ST. VINCENT . STRANGE MERCY
REM . COLLAPSE INTO NOW
TV ON THE RADIO . NINE TYPES OF LIGHT
DEERHOOF, DEERHOOF VS. EVIL
TOM WAITS . BAD AS ME
FAVORITE LIVE SHOWS
1 TIM MINCHIN . VIC THEATER 11/10
This is my new favorite dude ever, and I had no idea who the hell he was until he was booked at my place of work, the lovely Pabst Theater. Polysyllabic atheist Australian, who wears black eyeliner and wildly teased hair? Yes. Oh also, he’s a fucking genius piano player, lovely singer and clever lyricist. Think kind of Ben Folds songwriting, with more lyrics packed in than “It’s the End of the World As We Know It”, and you kind of get the idea. Certainly not for everyone, but definitely for me. The Vic show is on this list instead of the Pabst for a few reasons: I was working at the Pabst show and didn’t get to watch the whole thing, and at The Vic we got to sit in a box seat, drink a bucket of beer, hang out with Tim after the show and hide plastic spoons all over his green room, then drink at an uncomfortably posh bar on Rush Street. Also, in Chicago, Tim did a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, even though that song is widely over-covered, it was stunning nonetheless.
2 SWANS . TURNER HALL 9/21
Loudest bands I’ve ever seen: Dalek, Jucifer, IfIHadAHifi, and now Swans. SO LOUD. The kind of loud that makes your gut hurt. The kind of loud that makes you think your earplugs fell out. I didn’t know too much about Swans, just that they were a seminal noisy post-punk band that accosted everyone’s ears and broke up before I was even remotely listening to anything similar. I saw founder Michael Gira’s follow-up project, Angels of Light, a few years back and although acoustic, his work was an assault to the ears. This year’s Swans reunion (of sorts) blew that assault out of the water and into the depths of outer space. (You know what happens to matter when it enters a black hole?) The set opened with 30 minutes of drone, becoming larger piece by piece as each member of the band entered the set individually. Gira and company schooled all the noise rock kids, called us hermaphrodites and kittens, and were scarier and nosier than any group of youngsters could strive to be. Like the dichotomy of the band’s name with their sound, it was beautiful ugliness.
3 ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN . VIC THEATER 5/17
Happenstance placed me into this year’s reunion of Echo and the Bunnymen, in which they played their first two albums, Crocodiles and Heaven Up Here in their entirety. Regardless of the fact that the bulk of the crowd were only there to wait a couple of hours to hear “Lips Like Sugar”, and regardless of the fact that the super drunk girl in front of us kept harping in a high-pitched shriek how she once fucked Ian McCulloch, and regardless of the fact that Ian McCulloch drank way too much brandy and was kind of a total dick to everyone is his band, including calling out the confused rookie drummer in front of everyone for tempo disagreements…the show was total goth magic.
4 RICKIE LEE JONES . PABST THEATER 7/28
Rickie Lee Jones is an adorable bad ass. She dated Tom Waits, and it’s clear why he loved the shit out of her. Rickie Lee’s voice is like a bugle, uniquely bouncing through gritty anti-jazz. This was my first introduction to her, and on this tour she performed the first two albums of her career, which first showcased her funny as hell self-titled album from 1979. The second set was from 1981’s Pirates, and practically broke my heart. (Drinking a crap ton of wine during her show probably didn’t help.) Also, I liked the part where she had to shuffle off stage to change her shoes.
5 DEERHOOF . HIGH NOON SALOON 2/16
I’ve seen Deerhoof a bunch of times, but this show was particularly awesome due to Satomi rocking out so hard that she fell butt first into a milk crate. She was totally fine, had a big smile on her face the whole time, and kept playing to the end of the song like the professional she is. Also, Zebras opened the show, so that was pretty sweet too.
6 DAVID BAZAN . CACTUS CLUB 11/9
After having seen Bazan play mostly solo acoustic shows (two of which I was fortunate enough to host in my living room, of all places…), this most recent tour had a welcome loudness, with a killer backup band supporting songs from Bazan’s excellent new album and rich back catalogue. It was awesome to see him at the Cactus Club, which was at capacity with a line out the front door. The guys were on fire and clearly loved the place, which made me quite happy.
[NOTE: Instead of rehashing the same sentiments, both shows #7 and #8 are expertly reviewed by DJ Hostettler over at Martian Dance Invasion. Not only is DJ’s post an excellent read, but it also shares my thoughts on the matter almost exactly.
CHECK IT OUT HERE.]
CHECK IT OUT HERE.]
7 THOSE POOR BASTARDS . TURNER HALL 11/25
8 LOLLIPOP FACTORY . CACTUS CLUB 11/17
9 FREIGHT . CACTUS CLUB 8/6
The first time I saw Freight, it was their last show. People were going nuts watching this band eviscerate everything, in the sweaty haze of the Cactus Club. I had no idea who these guys were or what the fuck was going on, but I knew it was punk rock. This year’s reunion show was exceptionally more fun for the following reasons: I cowered behind a friend during the performance, plastered up against the wall in fear of my life and giggling the whole time. Guys were hanging from the rafters of the ceiling, shirtless. One of the band members had since become a dear friend of mine, and though I’d seen him in more recent projects, it was cool to see him perform his old band with his old buddies, stage diving throughout the bulk of the set and happy as a clam. This set was so hot, the sound guy had to sweep up glass in between each song, so that the kids losing their shit wouldn’t cut themselves open. Even the guitarist played his lines flawlessly while getting passed above the crowd.
10 PETER GABRIEL . MARCUS AMPITHEATER 6/29
Nerd Alert! This tour reimagined Gabriel’s back catalogue into orchestral form. The New Blood Orchestra contained international touring musicians, as well as local players from the Milwaukee Symphony. Some songs worked better than others, and some were really gorgeous. It’s too bad that a show like this had to happen within the horrific shell of the Marcus Amphitheater, where the intimacy of the set was lost the second it hit the air. It was also the first night of Summerfest, so the crowd was drunk (“play the song from that John Cusack movie!”), and the show was interrupted by fireworks and a Hall and Oats show next door full of hipsters. At least Gabriel called the neighbors out for being too loud, and wryly requested that the orchestra play “Red Rain” louder than normal.