Sunday, December 25, 2005

Year in Review - An unapologetic, imperfect, (but nevertheless fantastic) look at some of this year's best music

Ok, here we go. If all goes according to plan I'll have about 25 little mini-reviews up here before the year is out. When it's done, this list will also have three podcasts corresponding to it, so make sure you've heard the latest one, because they'll be appearing below. I'll be counting down (or up; the most recent addition will always appear at the top of the post) my twenty favourite major releases of the year, and taking a break mid-way to list five groups of local (more or less) darkhorses, debuts, and discoveries that I thought stood out this year. For reference, here are my previous quarterly and mid-year lists for 2005. And here we go...

Wolf Parade - Apologies to the Queen Mary
Sub Pop

You were expecting someone else? The problem with our contemporary sense of popular music (as it has existed since, say, 1955) is that we've so idolized its pioneers that we're often unable to see beyond nostalgia, and actually really appreciate the present moment as it's happening. Wolf Parade, to me, are as great as any Dylan or Bowie or Zeppelin or Springsteen. This is what rock and roll myths are made of, people. Enjoy it. You can read my full review of the album here.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

Forget internet-blog hype and readers—rarely have I seen a band be so quickly embraced by uninitiated listeners. And that's how I felt the first time I heard it, as well. Sure you can hear New Order and Talking Heads. But how about Bob Dylan and Radiohead, too? Most importantly, at no time does the record feel like a tunnel-visioned rehash of any one sound. No, this was a record that burst out of nowhere and was accordingly welcomed with applause. Not groundbreaking, maybe, but still brilliant fun.

Architecture in Helsinki - In Case We Die

Party! Not the drunken debacuhery kind, the loot-bag kind. For orchestral indie-pop this album is suprisingly tight and dance-friendly at times. It also sounds fantastic, which is another welcome change from the low-fi status quo. Certainly a happy record, but also surprisingly versatile.

Bell Orchestre - Recording a Tape the Colour of the Light
Rough Trade

What I love about this record is its patience—this one gets my 'most rewarding listen of the year' award. Here's the flip side to the Arcade Fire's cross-over appeal; jazz and classical lovers should find plenty to pour over here. There are sparse meditations and cacophonous celebrations alike, but by all means approach it one complete composition. You can read my review of one of their performances in Montreal this year here.

Fatlip - The Loneliest Punk
Delicious Vinyl

Most overlooked album of 2005, as far as I can tell. Who doesn't like a good comeback story? A good hip-hop come back story at that? Ex-Pharcyde's Fatlip finally delivers his long-awaited solo debut, and it's funky, funny, somehow fresh despite its retro sounds (maybe because hip hop's early nineties golden age just didn't last long enough...), and full of endearing heart. It's not often in hip-hop nowadays that you get to hear a man really put his vulnerable soul on the table for the public to dissect. Fatlip pulls it all off here, and it's musically tops, too. We're going to try and bring him to Pop Montreal 2006. He seems to have shitty distribution (not available in Canada on CD, what?), so go order it online from Amazon.

Sufjan Stevens - Illinois
Asthmatic Kitty

My favourite part on this album is during "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!" and that little twangy strum that happens right after that "Linus & Lucy" sounding piano that comes right after the "Close to Me" homage in the song's second movement. You know what I'm saying? Probably the most expansive and masterfully crafted album of the year. Layer upon layer of joyful sound, and also his most accessible record yet.

Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings - Naturally

Best dance album of the year. So sultry, so much soul. Lots of bands make a living out of reproducing old new wave and post-punk sounds, and many of them don't sound nearly as good as the first models. So why not some funk and soul that's just as good as any of its original masters? Instant classic; go get it.

Animal Collective - Feels
Fat Cat

What I love about Animal Collective is that they sound like they're from the future, but they resonate like they're from a deeply ingrained distant past. Feels crashes open like lost childhood memory, and it's just as nourishing. I'm still listening to last year's Sung Tongs, and Feels shows every sign of enduring similarly.

Final Fantasy - Has a Good Home
Blocks / Tomlab

Not many people do what Owen Pallett does. Not with that kind of precision and dedication. If the simultaneous fragility and strength of this debut doesn't win you over immediately, go and see him perform. If you like music that resonates like literature, it doesn't get any better than this.

Stephen Malkmus - Face the Truth

I think Malkmus's solo releases have gotten progressively better. Ok, his best song as a solo artist is still "Dynamic Calories", which was released as a B-Side on 2003's Pig Lib, but Face the Truth has nary a weak moment. Variations abound, from Beck-like bleeping to guitar-god action to those Pavement yelps you know and love and still look to him for. I hope he just keeps putting records out forever.

Discoveries, darkhorses, debuts: The locals or neighbours who reared their lovely heads for more or less the first time this year, whether through EPs, self-released bebuts, or demos; whatever. They've been grouped here either by community and/or complementary sound—but mostly for sake of brevity; all of these artists deserve condiseration in their own right. Get the corresponding podcast here.

Friendship Cove and Friends - Think About Life, the Hot Springs, Telefauna

The mutant offspring of Donkey Heart (RIP) and the Electric Tractor (RIP), Think About Life went very quickly from being a band in jest, to opening for Wolf Parade on their first U.S. tour, to signing to local label Alien8. Their full length is being mixed as we speak. I expect similar things from the Hot Springs in '06, especially given the rapid maturation of their sound. The front-persons for both of these bands (Graham Van Pelt and Giselle Webber) reside at the new Friendship Cove, and you'll be able to catch their respective solo acts—Miracle Fortress and Giselle Numba One—at Pop Montreal's year-end benefit show on Wednesday the 21st at the Main Hall. If you dig either of these bands, you'll probably also like Telefauna, who are busying carrying the freaky-synth pop funk torch. Check out Their 1st EP (best release title of the year).

Scores and Circuses - Alden Penner, Torngat, Shoot the Moon

Ex-Unicorn Alden Penner very silently released a very beautiful 7" this year, as well as a score for the independent film, The Hamster Cage. A lot of his new material isn't unlike Montreal's Torngat, who this year released La Rouge (and who also shares at least one member with Bell Orchestre). Torgnat makes beautiful instrumental music with lots of French horn and accordion; antique but innovative. Shoot the Moon's Where Strangers Live, released this year, dips in and out of these melancholy sounds as well.

Social Arts Club - We're Marching On, Oh Bijou, Germans
Guelph / Toronto

I first caught wind of this collective out of Guelph when I caught We're Marching On open for Final Fantasy at the Casa del Popolo back in March. Between those boys and Oh Bijou lies everything I love about the next wave of great Canadian artists. Indie-pop collides with noise frenzy; orchestra intricacy meets rock n' roll authentcity. They've all got EPs floating around at shows and the like, all worth checking out.

Classic Rockers - The Adam Brown, Royal Mountain Band

Someone give these rock and roll heroes major record deals and an assload of radio play. Seriously, if accessible old fashioned rock and fucking roll (and I don't mean trendy, bad hair-cut, leather jacket no soul rock and roll; I mean down and dirty guitar-loving rockstars that are lovable because they love the simple joy of making that classic sound sound so good) is what people want, this right here is it.

Ships at Night & Youth Club Records - Timber, Plants & Animals, the Museum Pieces
Montreal / Halifax

Two great little record label saplings with East Coast roots and branches spreading quickly. Pick any Ships at Night act and you're bound to find the same members onstage in some kind of formation or another, but each has something unique to contribute. It's like Neil Young had children with the whole Chicago post-rock scene of the late nineties. Strong musicianship and recording sensibilities abound. Youth Club's the Museum Pieces proceed similarly, and their Philadelphia is my favourite unsung Canadian release floating around right now.

Major releases, 11-20:

Spoon - Gimme Fiction

Spoon always leaves me kind of speechless. You know how there are some bands that do everything right, but somehow end up being unfairly forgettable and forgotten? Yeah, Spoon isn't one of those bands. There's not a whole lot here that you haven't heard before, but damned if it doesn't stay with you. I recommend playing it LOUD.

Out Hud - Let Us Never Speak Of It Again

The title of this record may end up going down as a kind of ironic swan-song to the post-millenial funk-punk sound. I got bored of the Bloc Party record after two listens, but I still listen to this one. Maybe it's the female vocals, or a conscious effort on the band's part to not sound exactly like !!! (with whom they share a couple members), or maybe it's just dumb luck—but when the dust clears I think you'll see Let Us Never Speak Of It Again still standing.

Danger Doom - The Mouse and the Mask

I love listening to MF Doom rap, that's pretty much the sum of it. I like a good novelty moment as much as the next guy, too, so no complaints here about the skits. I'll take Aqua Teen Hunger Force over Kanye West's Broke-Flat-Broke crew any day. Danger Mouse is as solid a foil as Madlib was on last year's Madvillain, and the results are just as strong. These records are made for headphones and single-sitting listening-sessions. And check out that "Sofa King" remix on the 12" single ...

Andrew Bird - The Mysterious Production of Eggs
Righteous Babe

As far as I can tell, this is not an album about March of the Penguins. It is, however, at least as charming, and just as likely to make you think about our planet in terms simultaneously greater and simpler than you normally would. There's a lot of hope on this record. You might not have a clue from whence the hope springs, but that doesn't make it any less welcome.

LCD Soundsystem - LCD Soundsystem

It will be interesting to see how this one ages. I've included it here by virtue of a number of strengths that don't really complement one another. You've got the one or two big dancefloor numbers. You've got the charming Eno-esque tracks, and you've got the bonus disc with all the collected bomb tracks from years previous. Put them all together and you've got something worth praising, surely. Might not end up aging that well, but for now, it's still 2005. Also: that 7" B-side live version of "Step Into the Fire" is awesome.

Caribou - The Milk of Human Kindness

There's something about Dan Snaith's best songs that hit you everytime where others can't. It's like he's managed to combine the tension-release of dancefloor- targeted electronic music (who's novelty can wear out easily if you've heard the mix a million times, or aren't on any drugs, or both), with the enthusiasm and authenticity of rock and roll. Throw in some incredibly well-executed psychadelic throwbacks and you've got a tasty and unique gem on your hands. He'll probably have to change things up a bit more next time around, but this is a great record, anywhere.

Beck - Guero(lito)

Maybe the Dust Brothers weren't a good idea? Beck is still writing great songs, but Guero, granted, came out a little bit lazy. Too even? There are some great moments on Guero, but there are a handful of even greater ones on the remixed Guerolito. In this case I'm happy to ignore the weak spots and patch together the strong ones from both. Like his own little White Album, or something? Ok, maybe not quite ...

Buck 65 - Secret House Against the World
Warner Canada

If you can get past the melodrama, there's a great album here waiting for multiple listens. Buck 65 is joined by all of Tortoise as the backing band on this record, and it shows. There are piano ballads and dirty galloping country sounds, the occasional buzzing beat, and a whole lot of sex. Buck 65's fiancee, Claire Berest, also appears on the album, the explicit Bardot to his Gainsbourg (as homage, of course). Just don't ask about the Barenaked Ladies Christmas tour ... My full review from July is available here.

Cadence Weapon - Breaking Kayfabe
Upper Class

I first came across Edmonton's Cadence Weapon when he submitted a few tracks to Pop Montreal this year from his mix CD, Cadence Weapon is the Black Hand. If you like hip hop, I dare you to not be impressed and excited by this debut. Not only does Cadence Weapon make amazing beats, complementing them with tight and staggeringly original electro-flourishes—he's got straight-up, no-bullshit conviction as a rapper, which is too much of a rarity these days. Respect!

Coco Rosie - Noah's Ark
Touch & Go

I'd probably give Coco Rosie the award of the year for album cover that most accurately represents the sounds therein. This is a dark, and at times even frightening collection of sounds and wispy dreams. But the world is a frightening collection sounds and dreams... Coco Rosie isn't about to let you forget that the reason Noah needed two of each animal on the Ark was so that they could fuck and make more animals. Noah's Ark may not be as strong as their debut from last year, La Maison de Mon Reve, but once you yield to its mood, it can be pretty amazing.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

PopCast #10 - Part 3: Music comes back from the dead AND down the chimney.

PopCast#10 - Part 3: Music comes back from the dead and down the chimney.

In this episode: Final Fantasy, Andrew Bird, Buck 65, Sufjan Stevens, Coco Rosie, Animal Collective, Bell Orchestre, Architecture in Helsinki, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Wolf Parade.

'Aren't we all forgetting the true meaning of Christmas .... the birth of Santa?' People everywhere may be ironically oblivious to the kingdom of heaven while they worry themselves over the fate of a Christian Christmas, but we know better. Much like Santa, you can't see Heaven; just don't tell me you can't hear and feel it in songs like these.

Word to all of your mothers, and a happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

PopCast #10 - Part 2: Darkhorses, discoveries, debuts

PopCast #10 - Part 2: Darkhorses, discoveries and debuts.

In this episode: The Hot Springs, Katie Moore, We're Marching On, Alden Penner, Les Angles Morts, Land of Talk, Royal Mountain Band, Miracle Fortress, the Museum Pieces.

Friday, December 16, 2005

PopCast #10 - Part 1: Parties, Punks, and Putting the Finishing Touches on 2005

PopCast#10 - Part 1: Parties, Punks, and Putting the Finishing Touches on 2005.

In this episode: Part 1 of 3 of the Year in Review, featuring Caribou, Beck, Cadence Weapon, Out Hud, LCD Soundsystem, Fatlip, Danger Doom, Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, Spoon, Stephen Malkmus.

It's a mammoth three-part podcast affair that I'm bringing you here in collaboration with Pop Montreal and the PopCasts. Over the course of the next week or so I'll be posting my top twenty major releases of the year. Part 1 and 3 of Episode 10 will be giving you a sampling of the best tracks from those albums. While I'll be counting down here in terms of textual reviews, the podcasts will be organized more thematically, with an ear to flow and theme. The tracks have been chosen for their representativeness of the albums from which they respectively spring, as well as their general kick-ass-ness. There are some obvious (and necessary) choices, and some darker horses in the mix. And speaking of, Part 2 will be an attempt to showcase some of the best local/Canadian darkhorse talent that emerged this year as either debuts or discoveries. We'll be posting various reviews and content surrounding that stuff at Pop Montreal. By the time we're done you should have a pretty good idea of what to go out and get yourself and/or your loved ones for Christmas. Assuming, that is, that we can save Christmas. But you'll have to wait for Episode 3 for that ...

Oh Oh Oh

This will be my last party of 2005. The rest of my energy is being channeled into the end-of-year podcasts I'm currently putting together, and getting out of town. It's also Thomas Von Party's last guest spot before he runs off to India for a few months, which is much further out of town than I will get. Gillileo will be coming back to the fold in '06, but until then, may I suggest you come and get your yule on tonight.

Friday, December 09, 2005

PopCast #9 - Snowy Canadian Secret Weapons

Episode #9 - Snowy Canadian Secret Weapons

In this episode: The Earlies, Boo Hoo, Cadence Weapon, Stars.

Bombs dropping everywhere, but no one being harmed. When the war against kayfabe begins, I wanted Cadence Weapon as my general. Something snowy for everyone here, and a fitting December document if I do say so myself. Stay tuned for an expanded special edition of the Popcast with Episode 10, capping off and counting down another amazing year for music in Montreal ... and Canada ... and the Blogosphere ... the Universe .... and ....

Thursday, December 08, 2005

This ain't no vision – Canadian content and the future of radio.

I can't take it anymore. Something is wrong with this picture and it's time we fixed it. Yesterday I suggested that 1) 2005 would go down as the year the communications revolution shifted into high gear, and that 2) satellite radio might not be a big part of it. But satellite radio aside, it's really time we did something about conventional broadcast radio in this country. Given that I think 2005 will also go down as the year the Canadian Invasion really hit the music world, let me tell you a little story that involves a Canadian artist I adore, named Leslie Feist.

Feist came out with a solo album last year on Canadian label Arts & Crafts (whom you may have heard of), called Let it Die. It was released in France and parts of Europe around the same time by Universal. I had a lot of fun playing her record through 2004 and much of 2005 when I would DJ, and at that time she inspired (along with Wolf Parade) the most "who is this?" inquiries from patrons. I posted about this phenomenon a couple months ago when Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's exponential exposure was peaking. It was rare during that period for me to hear her music on the radio.

Fast forward to late 2005. The record is given a summer US release on Cherry Tree/Interscope (owned by Universal). So far, so good. Major industry politics and realities completely aside, I can handle her exposure south of the border being a bit staggered. Brooklyn Vegan has a recent post asking why she didn't make various best of 2005 releases. What gets me is that it wasn’t until the US release that a certain Canadian radio station decided to pump her Bee Gee's cover “Inside and Out” through their machine every single day. I know this for a fact because I work near someone who has said station playing non-stop, and every day, without fail, the same song plays. Sometimes at 11:00, sometimes at 1:00, sometimes at 3:00, whenever. Ok, so this is nothing new. And I'm happy that Feist and Arts & Crafts (and I guess the Bee Gees, hmm) are probably being paid for all these plays. But as much as I love her version of that song, her album is a really brilliant work in general, and many of her original compositions are just as radio friendly, and understandably more Feist. But I'm pissed because Canadian radio has made me hate a song I used to love, by a Canadian artist that I adore. Something's not right there.

In fact, it's a perfect example of everything that's wrong with commercial radio in Canada, and the way CanCon regulations are actually regulated in this country. Pick two or three Canadian artists once they’ve become marketable in the US, play them non-stop ad-nauseam, and leave the rest of the content for College radio. You can hear some of the best music in the world right now on CBC Radio 3 (or even, ahem, Pop Montreal’s PopCasts), but you’d never know anything was any different if you tuned into a conventional commercial radio station. Not only are we letting the commercial radio stations in this country undermine so-called “Canadian content”—we're letting them do it using Canadian artists! Talk about adding insult to injury. If the CRTC wants to preserve whatever they think is “Canadian content”, they need to deal with these old backdoor corporate-control models first and foremost. You can’t really go wrong if you leave Canadians in charge of the content, instead of cross-border corporations. If satellite radio just ends up being a more expensive and expansive wasteland of the same model, I know a whole generation that will be perfectly happy to tune it all entirely out. They’re already doing it with regular radio.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Setting the gearshift for the end of 2005.

My latest PopPicks are up at Pop Montreal, it being Wednesday and all. Some good stuff happening in the nest 7 days, check it out. We're also almost ready to unveil the first wave of changes on the site, as well. While our technical folks toil away on that stuff, I'll be putting together my various best of 2005 lists, as well as a couple longer speculative pieces.

In the meantime let me say that I'd wager 2005 is going to go down as the year the communications revolution shifted into high gear in terms of popular consciousness. Not that the past 10 years haven't been wild ... but we ain't seen nothing yet. Incidentally, I'm not convinced that satelitte radio—which just finally launched in Canada—is going to be a huge part of it. Sure it's neat that CBC Radio3 has a permanent airwave, but with their new site layout, increasingly dynamic-interface podcasts, and handheld devices that do and receive everything, what's the need? This is all beyond my ability (and expertise) to conceptualize, but it's going to be pretty interesting to watch.

Speaking of podcasts, Episode 9 of the PopCast is on the way, and I'll probably be putting together a non-Pop Montreal year-end one of my own to coincide with the best of picks. If you want to make sure you get those, make sure you subscribe to the feeds available here.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Dancing mogwai! (Not the scottish band, the other kind)

After a three week hiatus, I'll be back DJing at the Green Room tonight.

You can expect to hear everything from the new Fatlip record, to ESG and some Brazilian post-punk, to as much Talking Heads as I can get away with, as usual. For starters, anyway. After that it's all up in the air. If you come early enough you might also be able to hear the new Animal Collective tracks that will be released in January. Even I wouldn't play Animal Collective past midnight. You know, cause if you do that they go into a gooey cocoon and then hatch into these spiny malevolent creatures and generally ruin everybody's Christmas ...