[31 December 2003]
1. The New Pornographers, Electric Version (Matador)
Whereas their debut, Mass Romantic, was a pastiche of solo snapshots from former Zumpano frontman Carl Newman and Destroyer leader Dan Bejar, Electric Version is clearly a more unified and consistent work. Newman’s songs string together subversive fragments of northern socio-political mantras while Bejar channels the boisterous glam of the 1970s. Add the back-up vocals of country siren Neko Case to these mouth-watering compositions and this album is one to go back to for years to come. A propulsive rhythm, tickling melodic keys, and sublime three-part vocal harmonies, “Electric Version” is what the late ‘60s Kinks would have sounded like with Janis Joplin on backing vocals. The kind of thinking man’s pop masterpiece that is rarely seen on this side of the pond.
2. The Decemberists, Her Majesty, the Decemberists (Kill Rock Stars)
Portland, Oregon’s newest lit-rock sensations defy the perpetual late season slump with the release of Her Majesty, the Decemberists. Led by bookstore clerk Colin Meloy, the songs on this album hearken us back into history, beyond the 1917 Decemberists Revolution, weaving tales of scurvy pirates lost at sea, teenage infantry men fighting for more than a faded patriotism, and a former spelling bee contestant with a religious vision from the novel Bee Season. Musically, the band evokes memories of the greats of late-‘80s college radio, the wit and poignancy of the Smiths, the expansive “Americanism” of REM, as well as the quirky story stylings of groups like They Might be Giants and XTC. To describe Her Majesty in a phrase, it’s like PBS with music videos.
3. The Wrens, The Meadowlands (Absolutely Kosher)
The Wrens emerged from their living room in Northern New Jersey after a four-year hiatus with the self-recorded album, The Meadowlands, a work that documents the highs and lows of being an unheralded American band with startling acuity. In a nation obsessed with celebrity, the Wrens have shown us how it feels to deserve to be famous. Every note on this record screams of a band exploding to not only be great but to be recognized for their greatness. Luckily, that desire was realized and they have recorded a triumphant musical document.
4. Throwing Muses, Throwing Muses (4AD)
After a 12-year recording break, stepsisters Kristen Hersh and Tanya Donelly return from successful solo careers to put the band back together once more. Joined by longtime drummer Dave Narcizo and late-era Muses bassist Bernard Georges, the sisters have created their most raucous and off-kilter album to date. Instead of placating their fanbase with nostalgia, Throwing Muses leap forward delivering a difficult album full of therapist-fueled introspective noise-driven anthems coupled with the warm return of the fondly remembered Donelly/Hersh vocal harmonies. A roaring beast of an album that provides a fitting swansong from one of the best and most under-rated rock acts.
5. Songs: Ohia, The Magnolia Electric Co. (Secretly Canadian)
The Magnolia Electric Co. is a shambling album of bleak country rock musings on the subtle thread between life and death. By far the most musically dense and rewarding album in the Songs: Ohia catalogue, this release leaves behind many of the folkster trappings of past recordings and creates a full on barnstorming symphony. Band visionary Jason Molina has made the leap from being a historical footnote in the career of Will Oldham to becoming a writer and arranger whose work deserves to be mentioned along with the likes of Bob Seger’s early Silver Bullet Band collaborations and Van Morrison’s definitive Astral Weeks.
6. The Shins, Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop)
America’s advertising answer to Great Britian’s Coldplay return with a brief but explosive batch of harmonic Byrdsian rock destined to show up in commercials and to blare from the speakers of Urban Outfitters everywhere. This one proves that their debut was no fluke and that the Shins can turn a tune like no other. They also have the smarts to play their strengths. With ten hook-laden songs in 30 minutes, Chutes Too Narrow is a veritable snack for the ears. Indisputably more infectious than a SARS outbreak.
7. Sun Kil Moon, Ghosts of the Great Highway (Jet Set)
On former Red House Painter Mark Kozelek’s first album with new band Sun Kil Moon, he delves further back into the rich musical history of America, beyond his previous slow-core tag, to craft compositions that rely heavily on early guitar and vocal narrative music best represented by the Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. The outcome is an overwhelming step forward for Kozelek. Ghosts of the Great Highway represents an expansive, continent-traversing narrative that climbs into the greater world of American art and comfortably stands alongside the literary work of John Steinbeck and the paintings of Edward Hopper.
8. The Twilight Singers, Blackberry Belle (Birdman)
Greg Dulli of Afghan Whigs returns to beg, scream, and holler some modern rock soul for the aging geek rock masses. This time around, he amps up his supporting cast to include Appollonia Kotero of Prince fame, Petra Haden, and original bluesman Mark Lanegan. The result is a sophisticated album that wrings out the soul and hangs some masterful urban folk balladry on the line to dry. This is the most potent Twilight Singers release to date and perhaps the pinnacle of Dulli’s 16-year recording career. A juxtaposition of brooding and triumphant, this is an album best listened to from the wrong side of sunrise.
9. The Strokes, Room on Fire (RCA)
Those who call the Strokes’ second effort “more of the same” have missed the boat. Underlying their second album of NYC-centric post-punk are strong elements of rhythm & blues, recalling many of the smash singles of the early Motown catalogue. Keyboards have been added to the mix and the guitar and bass juke, jump, and wail where they were simply jagged on Is This It. Make no mistake: this, like their debut, is still a raucous album of outsider anthems, but its enthusiasm is tempered through the maturity of a seasoned band calling on a new set of influences to refresh their sound.
10. The Postal Service, Give Up (Sub Pop)
A collaboration of Internet chatroom heavyweights, Give Up joins the blip-tronica of Dntel’s Jimmy Tamborello with the dewy-eyed romanticism of Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard. The result is a quiet collection of tender indie electronic pop that nestles itself nicely between its obvious references: the Smith and New Order. Joined by Jenny Lewis on backing vocals, Gibbard recounts the pain of youth in time with Tamborello’s scattered beats and processed keys. Song for song, a fine album that illustrates recycled themes of love and loss combined with laptop pop still can feel new and relevant.
Top Five Songs
1. !!!, “Me and Guiliani Down by the Schoolyard, Me and Guiliani
A ragtag nine-minute fever pitch gritty dance rocker that touches on a kaleidoscope of rock’s finer moments, from Simon & Garfunkel to Footloose. A song that makes you want to pump your fists in the air before dropping to your knees to beg for the new !!! album due next year.
2. Death Cab for Cutie, “The Sound of Settling”, Transatlanticism (Barsuk)
A coming-of-30s fist pumping, pogo-sticking, J. Crew anthem, “TSOS” responds to Superchunk’s early ‘90s paean “Slack Motherfucker”. Contrasting the Superchunk song, “TSOS” plays on the archetypal American tale of the individual lost in self-doubt and the onset of middle age and glorifies it. Think John Updike’s Rabbit series.
3. Fountains of Wayne, “Hey Julie” Welcome Interstate Managers (S-Curve)
Jangle pop ode extraordinaire to trials of middle class employment, “Hey Julie” could have been the theme song to the film Office Space as performed by Material Issue. This is the sort of song that makes you believe someone else understands how trapped you feel by your own life.
4. The White Stripes, “Seven Nation Army” Elephant (V2)
America’s darlings go British blues and the results are amazing. Gritty and testosterone-fueled, this rocker features guitar lines and blazing vocals so fierce they propel the song faster than white light, and that is even before Meg’s drums kick in. Enhanced by being the first White Stripes song to feature a full bass line. A statement cut that guarantees all of the White Stripes pretenders will go over like a led zeppelin.
5. LCD Soundsystem, “Losing My Edge” DFA Compilation #1 (DFA)
A fuzz-laden makeshift epic anchored by a couple of analogue synthesizers and an outdated drum machine. The track sparkles with wit, which is led by the hilariously spot-on spoken word rant about the cultural relevance of hipsters versus that of pop music historians. After seven-plus rollicking back-and-forth minutes, the lesson seems to be that never the two shall meet. In this case, the journey was all the fun.