Culturespill » Best Albums of 2010

Best Albums of 2010 Series: “Le Noise,” Neil Young

19th December

 

neilyoung_1000_nn_0011.jpg

No matter how many “Best Albums of 2010″ lists you read on the web this month, somehow you just can’t shake the feeling that you’re reading the same one over and over again. There’s a pretty good reason for that: You are, and it’s sad. Most lists read like they were composed by a cadre of 20-something Vampire Weekend roadies who crowded the local wheat grass bar and nursed their flax and spirulina smoothies as they chattered in passing about music. In most cases the albums they discuss reflect only a narrow sliver of the year’s creative bounty. And almost invariably, they acknowledge only bands that are at least as young if not younger than they are, bands they overheard fellow pseudo hipsters praising over Venti Spelnda-sweetened extra dry skim-milk Americanos, or bands whose music sounds like somebody just blasted three pterodactyls out of the sky all at once with a thousand-pound nail gun.

That’s one of many reasons why Neil Young’s Le Noise is both right for the cultural moment in which it was released and why, pitted against so many of the year’s lesser but lauded records, it smacks of a creative desperation that in eight brief tracks obliterates the pervading cynicism and emotional catatonia of the “indie only” crowd that has ignored it. These songs were all recorded in one or two takes so as not to dilute the immediacy of the creative impulse from which they emerged, and that Young has managed at age 65 and after countless records to do something he has never done before–a solo electric album–is a testament to the restlessness of his muse and to his enduring standing as one of rock ‘n roll’s genuine mavericks.

Young has been crucified for that very “restlessness” over the past decade, as uneven and therefore characteristically fascinating releases like Are You Passionate, Greendale or Fork in the Road earned a reception which, like Le Noise, exposes even his most longstanding fans as crybabies who hold him personally responsible for the fact that it’s not 1972 anymore.  Even the most casual glance at customer reviews of Le Noise on Amazon.com reveals a host of whiners crying that it doesn’t sound enough like something they heard when they were 12 and their mothers still sported beehive hairdos.  It’s not enough like On the Beach, or it doesn’t sound like Harvest, or it isn’t the same as Rust Never Sleeps. They don’t hear a “Pocahontas” or a “Cortez the Killer.” Many of these complaints begin with “I’m the biggest Neil Young fan in the world, but . . .”

And that’s just it: How on earth any self-proclaimed “fan” of Neil Young cannot exalt in the rich and anthemic riffs that open “Sign of Love” or “Angry World” on this album is utterly mystifying (to say nothing of the fact that the two acoustic offerings on this record, “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” and “Love and War,” are among the most stirring acoustic songs the man has done since the days of “Pardon My Heart” or “Look out for My Love“). If anything, these “fans” are the sort who mistake art for an anodyne, who think music should always palliate and never challenge, who bristle at authenticity because it doesn’t croon the lullaby that plays in the background of their nostalgic fantasies of long-gone days.

Dylan put together a documentary called Don’t Look Back in 1965 as he fumed across the world on a tour that saw fans shout “Judas!” because he wouldn’t play the monkey to their organ grinder, pounding them with “Leopardskin Pillbox Hat” when they paid to hear him sing “Blowin’ in the Wind” all night long. Le Noise is the latest evidence that Neil Young took the man’s advice. Fans endowed with the courage to look forward with him will hear in Le Noise the work of a creative spirit as much at war with itself today as it was when he was just the kid who played guitar for Buffalo Springfield.

Daniel Lanois’s presence on the project could have been an unadulterated disaster because Neil Young’ s music is a dish best served raw, and Lanois’s brand of voodoo atmospherics is anything but undercooked. But it turns out that it was Lanois’s idea to amp up the acoustic album Neil intended to record and turn it into a solo electric set instead. There are times when Lanois just can’t help himself, as he drags out the opening stunner “Walk With Me” with what seems like an eternity of aimless reverb and distortion that serves no purpose other than to lengthen an album that otherwise might have lasted no longer than a drink of water. But elsewhere he is pleased to step back from the songs and let the rage of “Old Black” have the floor.

The first six tracks here–from the primal, Rust-era grunge of “Walk With Me” and “Angry World” to the lonely reverbarations of Neil’s acoustic guitar on the desolate “Peaceful Valley Boulevard”–blaze with a creative fury that is at once disquieting and restorative. “Hitchhiker” and “Rumblin'” add nothing to what is achieved in the songs that precede them but it is at least nice to finally hear an official version of “Hitchhiker,” even if it falls well short of the majesty of the live acoustic version fans have come to know and love.

You won’t find Le Noise on the “Best of 2010″ list over at (enter favorite smarmy indie music blog here), but you will find it on the minds of music lovers a generation from now while so many fly-by-night bands currently enjoying a loving spotlight dwindle into the dusk of their momentary celebrity.The material on Le Noise boasts the strength, urgency and variety of Young’s finest records, and when the smoke of its mixed reception clears, it may well be ranked in that company.

Click here for Neil Young’s FB page

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

Best Albums of 2010 Series: “Warm Slime,” Thee Oh Sees

16th December

 

theeohsees.jpg

If Thee Oh Sees were a dorm room, it would be half-a-foot deep in paper plates stained with pizza grease and have a kitchen sink so bloated with the foul and crusted silverware of meals long past that it belches at you when you pass by. It also would likely reek of some unmentionable mixture of urine, unclean dogs and neglected laundry. And we may need to toss in a few condom wrappers thrown to the floor, walls yellowing with stains of bong smoke, and perhaps a stash of happy mushrooms hidden somewhere under the bunk.

Welcome, my friends, to the music of Thee Oh Sees.

This rioting pack of garage-psych brats hails from San Francisco, and they’re hell-bent on simultaneously resurrecting and razing the cultural stomping ground once lorded over by acts like The Sonics, The Electric Prunes, The Count Five and The Trashmen. The ‘60s script these kids read from is one they’ve studied hard and know by rote, even down to their propensity for cutting a new record every eight minutes or so (six LPs in the past three years alone, and a record in Warm Slime which they claim to have recorded in a single day).

The Kinks released three new albums in 1965 alone, and The Rolling Stones, not to be out done, released four new albums of their own that year as young bands scrambled to stuff the insatiable maws of slave-drivers back at the ranch of one big label or another. Thee Oh Sees don’t even have a distributor, no less a big-label slave-driver, but their Wikipedia discography reveals an extended rap sheet of LPs, EPs, 7-inch releases and the revolving door of labels they’ve thrown them to.

To top it all off, John Dwyer, the epicenter of this calamity who seems only to have gathered a band around him as an afterthought, has paraded through seven prior bands before arriving at the one he’s with. And even then he can’t seem to settle on a name.

“From the OCS to the OhSees to Thee Oh Sees, John Dwyer . . . has molted band names like some rare endangered bird determined to shake off pursuers,” Jayson Greene of Pitchfork remarks.

No wonder their video for “Meat Step Lively” from 2009’s Help seems to serve the sole purpose of inducing an epileptic seizure.

But in Warm Slime Thee Oh Sees have the record The Black Keys and White Stripes thought they’d been making all these years but were never unhinged enough to deliver. The record is an unrelenting siege of distortion, reverb and rage filtered through the sieve of the long-gone garage gods they worship in song. “I Was Denied” is a glorious romp that laces Sir Douglas Quintet’s “She’s About a Mover” with a few tabs of acid and sends it on its exceedingly merry way. The turbulent “Castiatic Tackle” amps up The Cramps’ “Goo Goo Muck” to a decipel even those godfathers of psychobilly didn’t know they had in them. And the title track clocks in at nearly 14 minutes of blistering abandon that will leave you panting for more.

These guys’ fingers may be dirty with the dust of your grandma’s vinyl collection, but with records like Help and Dog Poison in 2009 and now Warm Slime this past May, they leave absolutely no doubt whatsoever that this most certainly is not your grandma’s rock ‘n roll.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

Best Albums of 2010 Series: “Crazy for You,” Best Coast

16th December

 bestcoast.jpg

Best Coast is Neko Case trapped inside a Jan & Dean song. They’re what happens when the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” agrees to a schoolyard throwdown with Wanda Jackson’s “Heard-headed Woman,” when the only thing you need to compliment your spiked lemonade on a blazing afternoon at the beach is an honest half-hour of syrupy surf pop and a good stereo to play it on.

They also are the bustling intersection somewhere in L.A. that witnessed the head-on collision of many bands over the years—Pocahaunted, Cold Wave, Mika Miko, Vivian Girls. Today the group has settled into its tight trio of Bobb Bruno, Ali Koehler and, most importantly, Bethany Cosentino, whose haunted vocals evoke visions of a plum horizon darkening at the edge of the sea in August as the V-shapes of birds swirl overhead.

It’s easy to criticize Best Coast’s latest LP Crazy for You for striking the single note of its sunny pop bias over and over again, but you can only feel that way about the record if you’re not listening closely enough. An evasive complexity lurks between these Pacific Ocean waves. “Boyfriend,” the record’s sublime and most recognizable single, joins the jangling atmospherics of Joy Division and The Cure with the 60s girl group pop of The Ronnettes, The Shangri-Las, or The Marvelettes, while “Bratty B” sounds like an outtake from Hole’s Live Through This recorded deep inside an echo chamber. And if equally majestic tracks like “I Want To,” “Crazy for You” or “The End” merely lengthen the same recipe, they also illustrate the band’s genius for shining the light of their sound through a prism of countless colors.

That is the very genius on which some of the greatest bands in history have founded their fortunes. Pair any two singles by the Stones or the Beach Boys against each other and you’ll hear songs that differ from one another about as much as sorrow differs from sadness. We can begrudge them for it, sure, but they’ve been laughing their critics all the way to the nearest bank for half a century now. Really, who are we kidding? It works, and don’t pretend like either band hasn’t taken your money too at one point or another.

Even if Crazy for You seems to spend much of its mere 30 minutes in length looking as far back in time as the band’s previous records have, it also breathes new life into glories attained and abandoned by peers such as The Thrills and their own ode to the “best coast,” So Much for the City. This record may be steeped in sounds excavated long ago by the influences they brandish like a badge, but somehow that’s exactly why it is such a fresh, inviting and welcome listen. And it helps that there is not a single bum track on the whole damned album.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

Best Albums of 2010 Series: “High Violet,” The National

14th December

hv.jpg

Like Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, The National’s High Violet has the feel of an important record on the order of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Modest Mouse’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News, Radiohead’s OK Computer or Tegan and Sara’s So Jealous. It’s the kind of record that is also a cultural event, the sort of music that puts teenagers in the uncomfortable circumstance of finding themselves listening to the same music as their parents.

High Violet never quite attains that stature, but even to split the difference between itself and those standard bearers is an achievement that cannot be overstated. With his plaintive baritone and the lush, achingly sad arrangements it’s cushioned in throughout the album, Matt Berninger sounds as if he means to sing the stars into rubies. “Terrible Love” reverberates with a radiant distortion that brings to mind the best work of Galaxie 500, while the sudden pluck of an electric guitar slices through the mix on “Little Faith” or “Afraid of Everyone” like a switchblade.

If High Violet has a flaw it can only be that the songs have a habit of melting into one another in an unending atmosphere of melancholy that can feel contrived and emotionally monotone about halfway through. But at bottom this is a gorgeous, dreamy and affecting set that should hold its own against the finest albums of the coming decade. Previous records like Alligator or Boxer—however well they fared with the indie crowd—only play like flickering shadows of the fire that is High Violet, and few of the year’s best records boast this one’s cross-generational appeal.

And now a warning for fans of The National: The album’s decadent production performs a brave and effective tight-rope act between tastefulness and tactlessness. This time around, the songs always fall somewhere on the side of tastefulness (as they have on all four of the group’s previous LPs). But the more you listen to the record the more you realize how possible it is that this may be the last great album we’ll hear from this band. The Kings of Leon’s epic Because of the Times yielded the steaming turds Only by the Night and this year’s Come Around Sundown; and High Violet, for all its splendor and brilliance, sounds like it threatens to do the same.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com