Well, we’re halfway through the year, and so it’s time to look back and ramble on a bit about the albums that I loved in the first half of this year. There are some surprises here…at least I’m surprised. Some amazing stuff so far! So let’s jump in:
Best Album of 2009 So Far: mewithoutYou: “it’s all crazy! it’s all false! it’s all a dream! it’s alright!”
This record may very well end up being the best of the entire year. It has taken me completely by surprise and has gotten under my skin. mewithoutYou is somewhat of an anomaly for music associated with Christians, because they are actually original; I don’t know anyone who sounds like them. They continue to morph from album to album, trying something different each time, but each CD featuring that unique mix of group chants, screaming, talk-singing, and complex lyrics and storytelling that the band has developed. Some albums are heavier than others.
I have only jumped on the mewithoutYou train in the last two albums. Brother, Sister is really good, and features some deeply catchy and affecting tracks, but with this new CD they really outdid themselves. Gone are most of the crunchy guitars, replaced with folk arrangements that might be sung around a campfire if they didn’t have so many lyrics and big words. And this combination of their unique talk-sing rock with folk sensibilities and folk tales from different cultural traditions has produced the most memorable musical experience of the year. Everyone needs to get this album.
A warning first: these are not cookie-cutter Christian lyrics. You may find some things offensive. One song, dealing with temptation, produces a very vivid image about lust involving the term “birth canal.” And the final song could fit as a sort of youth sing-along worship tune if it weren’t for the fact that many people would have a hard time with the band’s use of the term “Allah” for God. (No, they’re not Muslims.)
Some stand-out tracks: “every thought a Thought of You”, the reggae-tinged opener. “the Fox, the Crow, and the Cookie” based on an old fable about pride, which I really want to perform live someday, and which has an amazingly creative video that you can see here:
Also, I absolutely love “bullet to Binary (part two)” which starts as some sort of story about vegetables talking to each other and then transitions into this brilliant “reap what you sow” chant, including this line, “We all know we’re going to reap what we sow/so may we old-fashionably suggest/the unmarried not undress/we all know we’re going to reap what we sow.” I don’t undersstand what “Timothy hay” is about, but it’s quite catchy. “Cattail Down” is nice with its “You’re everyone else” chant, and the closer about Allah is also quite nice. But none of the ones in-between are bad either.
Thought-provoking, emotional, catchy, and original, mewithoutYou’s latest may end up being the album of the year.
Best Random Indie Album I am Surprised I Own: The Decemberists–Hazards of Love–This is the biggest surprise on my list, simply because I had heard the Decemberists before, including this entire album performed live on the NPR podcast from sxsw, and hadn’t really gotten into it much.
So why did I buy it? Well…let’s see. We’d been in the UK a month. We finally found a place to live and got someone to take us to IKEA where we researched furniture options, only to return to Sheffield and find out we could not order online most of what we wanted. Which meant another trip. And no one wanted to take us.
So on bank holiday in early April, I caught a train to the station nearest the IKEA. And discovered I was still three miles away or so. On bank holiday, with little transport. Finally found a bus station and took the bus to IKEA. Did my shopping, paid for home delivery, and realized that this trip, to a place 45 minutes away by car, where I actually spent an hour of time doing what needed doing, was going to take about eight hours because of train scheduling. So I was feeling frustrated and went into the nearby hmv with a £2-off coupon from the McDonalds Monopoly contest that I’d found on the ground, and decided “I’m going to buy a CD.” And I picked that one.
So it was a “make myself feel better” buy.
I’m not proud.
But the music itself: Hazards of Love tells a story…that I’m not entirely clear on. There’s a beautiful maiden, and there’s love, and pregnancy, and a shape-shifter, and a guy who kills little kids, and a weird queen, and the ghost of those kids, and in the end the lovers drown. Okay. It somehow comes across and not-too pretentious. Well…mostly. I mean, the first couple of minutes of the CD are basically complete silence…
But I love concept albums–I love when all the songs link together in some way, and I love the mix of musical styles here, which makes for some haunting melodies. The entire first 10 tracks are pretty amazing, but I do get a bit distracted for the last seven, as melody lines are repeated and ideas reprised seemingly ad infinitum. The guitar playing is perfect, and guest vocalists like Shara Worden from My Brightest Diamond definitely shine. And it takes a special talent to write a song with lyrics as horrific as “The Rake’s Song” that is really catchy and sticks in your head before you realize what it’s about. (To be fair, it is the villain singing.) So, Decemberists. You’re weird, but I like you. Highlights: A Bower Scene, Won’t Want for Love, Rake’s Song
Best Album That Would Probably Have Been on Here No Matter What, Knowing Me: U2–No Line on the Horizon
Granted, I’m a huge U2 fan, and so they’d have had to release like, I don’t know, an entire album of remixes of “Mofo” to disappoint me. And the reviews from this album have been all over the place: Paste, which named How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb their album of the year back in 2004 or 5, gave it a pretty mediocre dismissal, but a couple of UK music magazines called it the best U2 album since Achtung, Baby, handing it 5 star reviews.
I tend towards the latter opinion here. I never was a huge fan of U2’s 90s period weirdness, and though I understand the statement behind it, I think they went too far. All That You Can’t Leave Behind had some absolutely stellar songs on it, but…forgive me…after the first five tracks, it’s kind of boring. I rarely go back to those songs. Atomic Bomb is a more lively collection of tracks, and I think stands up better than most people give it credit. It was, though, nothing that groundbreaking.
What No Line does so well is combining all of the different U2 eras into one package. They play to their strengths without sacrificing experimentation. Instead of just trying something new for new’s sake, or just trying to be what everyone expects, they’ve decided to be themselves as they try something new. A combination of approaches.
It is an album that demands multiple listens. It has layers, both sonically and lyrically. I dig the lyrics on this record more than recent U2 albums. The title track, opening the CD, is an adequate opener that…I don’t understand. Track 2, Magnificent, is just that and is a great example of classic Edge riffing. And I have to say, one thing about this record is that The Edge is cut loose for the first time in a long while! There are solos! Lots of them! And they’re good!
Track 3, Moment of Surrender, clocks in at 7 minutes and tells a story about a guy who seems to meet God while at an ATM machine. I think. It has a bluesy, slow burn to it and is quite new for U2 in several ways. Love this track.
Next comes Unknown Caller, which is weird but good, followed by I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight, which is a pop song (as opposed to the previous rock tunes), and a catchy one at that.
Next is Get On Your Boots, which I think was a lousy choice for an opening single, but somehow, placed here in the middle of the record, the song is saved. It just works better in the flow instead of isolated as a single.
Stand Up Comedy would be easy to pass over but I think you need to give it another shot. Some great lyrics: “Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady.”
Fez–Morocco or whatever this is called is the album’s low point. I’m not sure what they were going for, but…they didn’t get there.
White as Snow–A genuine ballad, like Love is Blindness but more wordy, is quite nice.
The albums two closers, Breathe and Cedars of Lebanon, are both classics. The former is a weird guitar-heavy track where Bono does this fast speak thing, and the latter is an interesting closer, as much of the album speaks of hope and second chances and this is a pretty grim song. But it works, and No Line is an overall strong album.
Best Rap Album With a Hit Single that Deserves to go Viral But Never Will: Rootbeer EP
The history of L.A. Symphony is a moving one to me. A group of guys from the West Coast who banded together to do high-quality underground rap, and do it well, with a common bond of faith in Christ but a goal to be a bit more…let’s say…artistic than the average “Christian rap” album. Friends with the Black Eyed Peas, discovered by an up and coming record label with a lot of money from a worldwide hit ready to make the Symphony stars. The dream shattered when the label is bought out and the breakthrough album shelved. Members drift away, CDs are released with dark thoughts…and then the guys come through it, faith and creativity stronger though the fame completely eluding them.
Two of those guys, Flynn Atkins and Pigeon John, have teamed up to form Rootbeer and have released a five song eponymous EP. I love Pigeon John–his solo albums are probably my favorite hip-hop out there–and surprisingly, teaming him up with Flynn was actually a brilliant idea. Every song on the EP is great, but the big single is “Pink Limousines,” which deserves to be a worldwide dance-club hit. The track starts off with this sort of African bongo beat, but in the last minute the beat morphs for the last chorus, and I defy you not to jump up and down.
Similarly, Flynn has been putting out some small solo EPs on Gotee every couple of months, and I have to say I love, love, love the Dishes EP. I could tell you what the song is about, but I’d rather quote the chorus: “I do the dishes/You know I love you/Take out the trash/you know I love you/Save all my kisses/You know I love you/My love’s like that, love’s like that.” I sing it to Ira a lot.
Best Compilation “Dark Was the Night”
The line-up of this CD reads like an indie fan’s dream festival line-up. Put together for the Red Hot charity, which brings AIDS/HIV education and awareness around the world, this two disc set features all brand-new tracks by such luminaries as The National, My Brightest Diamond, Bon Iver, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Sufjan Stevens, members of Sigur Ros, and many others. Members of bands team up for new songs–like Feist and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab. And though I must confess I’ve never actually gotten through the whole thing–it is long–it is a worthy cause and full of some solid songwriting. If you know me, you’ll know the best thing about it for me is the existence of a new Sufjan Stevens track. New music from him has been hard to come by the past couple of years, but here he contributes a nine minute opus called “You are the Blood.” I believe it’s a cover, but he makes it his own. He manages to do something entirely new while still sounding like Sufjan–which should be encouraging to those who fear that he might begin to repeat himself. The song has heavy techno beats and ominous vocals and is beautiful and haunting and worth the price of the album itself. But then, so are most of the rest of the songs.
Best “Speaking of Sufjan Stevens” Record–Welcome to the Welcome Wagon
So, technically this came out late last year, but it right at Christmas after everyone had already bought gifts, so no one really heard it until January. The Welcome Wagon is the work of a Brooklyn pastor and his wife…and Sufjan Stevens. It is made up of modernized versions of songs from a particular denomination’s hymnal and tradition, and some diverse covers–Danielson Familie, The Smiths, Velvet Underground. It sounds like the brainchild of Sufjan without actually being him. And it will make you very, very happy. You can’t really listen to “But For You Who Fear My Name” with all the hand-clapping or “Sold! To the Nice Rich Man” and its deft lyrical turns without smiling. I just don’t think you can. You’ll want to sing along.
To be frank, I only really dig half the album, but that half I LOVE. Not a huge fan of the songs with female lead, for the most part. But I’ve never liked the Smiths, and the Smiths cover (“Half a Man”) is great! They are coming to the UK for like one show and I’m sad I’m going to miss it. Get this record!
So there are some of the great moments of 2009 so far. With new Derek Webb and Mute Math records coming soon, there might be some stiff competition for best of the year. (Actually, I’ve heard the Derek Webb, and it may just make the latter half best-of.) But if you want something new, I’ve just given you some things to try. Enjoy!