Surfer Blood- “Pythons”

Surfer Blood have finally released their sophomore full-length effort . The new album, “Pythons”, is the band’s first album released on a major label, and their first new material since 2011’s “Tarot Classics”.

The new album is exactly the hook-laden, excellently crafted, collection of pop-rock anyone familiar with the band would expect. Guitar riffs still swell and surge in interesting eddies, and the lyrical motifs of choice still include the less pleasant aspects of love, ennui and celestial bodies, but there are some changes to the band’s sound. The reverb that was a prominent feature on Surfer Blood’s debut, “Astro Coast” is mostly gone. This allows for occasional hard-charging, polished guitar charges. It also adds emphasis to lead singer, John Paul Pitts, which only lets this catchy collection further entrench itself into the listener’s head. Although, uses of reverberation may be few and far between on this album there is still an obscuring factor looming over “Pythons”.

Pitts was arrested for domestic battery March 31, 2012. Ultimately, charges were dropped, but it would seem that Pitts was definitely at fault for finding himself in such an awful position. Pitts admits it was an unhealthy relationship, but maintains that he did not hit anyone or act out of malice. It is hard to separate “Pythons” from what seems to be an all-around nasty situation. Especially, when the song “Squeezing Blood” contains the lyrics, “Damning allegations have come to light,” and “All the world fell silent when I read the verdict.” Pitts has said that these lyrics are coincidental, but no matter what it certainly doesn’t stop the specter of his arrest from hanging over the album.

While it is surrounded with unfortunate controversy “Pythons” is a smart, enjoyable pop-rock album with plenty of hooks and an atmosphere perfect for its June release. Whether the album is palatable considering the personal conduct of Pitts is up to the individual listener.

My favorite albums of 2013 so far

It’s already 6 months into 2013, and in those months a lot of notable albums released.  My Bloody Valentine, Daft Punk and David Bowie, all legends in their respective genres put out quality music in the first half of this year, and less well-known artists such as Kurt Vile, Youth Lagoon, The Men and Iceage all followed up acclaimed albums with more strong work. Of course, many excellent albums have yet to be released, but it’s time to take a look at the best music released this year so far.

1.My Bloody Valentine- “M B V”

It took 12 years for the Dublin quartet to release its third album, but the wait was rewarded with another shoegaze master piece.sound. Layers of reverb, bestial howling of guitars, energetic drumming  and the ethereal voices of Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher create a sound that is simultaneously ambient and urgent. “M B V” is an ocean of sound bigger than any wall Phil Specter imagined.It seemed unlikely after waiting for more than a decade, but “Loveless” finally has a proper follow-up, and it is as loud, as strange and as beautiful as you would hope. This album will make your head swirl and toes tap, and it is the best thing released in 2013 so far.

2.Chance the Rapper- “Acid Rap”

The most inventive rap album of the year so far is a mixtape by a 20-year-old Chicago native, Chance the Rapper. Samples are lush, brush and approximate actual instruments. The word play is almost always clever and there is no shortage of ear worm hooks. An excellent guest list including Action Bronson, Childish Gambino, BJ the Chicago Kid, Twista and a show stealing turn by No Name Gypsy add another dimension to Chance the Rapper’s already quixotic and occasionally introspective rhymes.

3. Daft Punk- “Random Access Memories”

The rise of Electronic Dance Music can be easily attributed to the iconic French duo; apparently to Daft Punk’s chagrin. “Random Access Memories” is essentially a pulsating, gyrating lesson on dance music. This purpose is made particularly clear on the track “Georgio by Moroder” as a legend discusses inventing a click track over click tracks. Excellent studio musicians and guests including Niles Rogers and Pharell help create a Disco homage that never resorts to navel-gazing and manages to feel perfectly contemporary. By borrowing from the past with their latest release Daft Punk have put the human element back into a genre which they helped pioneer.

4. The National- “Trouble Will Find Me”

The National have created a trilogy of excellent, brooding, hyper-literate albums starting with 2005’s “Alligator.” Their newest release continues to mine the same vein, and it continues the trend of excellence. “Trouble Will Find Me” consists of about 10 mid tempo songs that rely on heavily on Matt Berninger’s baritone voice and two songs that rock in the way “Blood Buzz Ohio” rocked.  All in all it’s just more of the same from one modern music’s most consistent bands.

5. Ex Cops- “True Hallucinations” ;

This is an excellent jangle-pop debut. Loud guitar, gripping melodies and sweet but not saccharine vocals are all over this album. It seems entirely fitting that “True Hallucinations” would come out the same year as a  new Pastels album, a group to which Ex Cops are obviously indebted. Although, a touch of aggression keeps and audio fuzz keeps this album from being a Pains of Being Pure at Heart retread. Overall while “True Hallucinations” may not be a groundbreaking album it is a thoroughly enjoyable debut and a great listen.

Honorable Mentions: Savages-“Silence Yourself”; Kylesa-“Ultraviolet”; Youth Lagoon-“Wondrous Bughouse”; Pissed Jeans- “Honeys”; The Knife- “Shaking the Habitual”

So So Glos- “Son of an American”

The So So Glos start off their methodically frantic new album “Blowout” with the song “Son of an American.” The song itself begins with a childhood recording of  the band’s bassist, Alex Levine, gleefully discussing Kurt Cobain’s suicide. This aligns So So Glos with Nirvana’s early DIY mentality while also announcing the existence of a new generation of non-mainstream rock acts.

“Son of an American” is an archetypical punk song. It’s all sneering vocals, chugging guitar and wraps up in 3 minutes flat. It bemoans the downside of self-identifying as a young American while also expressing an affinity for ultra-American iconography. The song’s production and straight forward guitar rock composition give it an instant classic feeling.  “Son of an American” is a thoroughly enjoyable track that could have been released in 1979, 1991 or at least during the garage rock revival of the last decade.

Chance the Rapper- “Acid Rap”

Chance the Rapper is an artist barely out of his adolescence from Chicago. He famously started recording music during suspension from high school. He sounds like a combination of Kanye West’s barely-outsider perspective, Kendrick Lamar’s elastic flow and observation and Lil Wayne’s bravado and vocal ticks. Gospel, jazz, soul,reggae, golden age hip-hop, scat and more conventional drum machine beats all appear on this album to create a sound that instantly comes across as familiar and infectious.

Despite all of the audible influential artists and genres Chance the Rapper’s new mix tape “Acid Rap” is some of the most schizophrenically original music released this year. A few things immediately come across when listening to this mixtape. The first is that Chance is an incredibly self-aware rapper. He raps about generational divide and the harsh realities of living in Chicago’s South Side as naturally as he cuts a party track. The second is that Chance the Rapper is totally unafraid to leave the beaten path. He’ll attempt to croon in his warbling, cracking voice before launching into a double timed barrage of word play. The last thing that quickly becomes evident about Chance is that he loves his drugs. Ecstasy, acid, cigarettes, codeine, marijuana and Hennessy all get shout outs on this album, but the album never falls into the trap of being something as simple as a drug album.

Although Chance gives a shout out to another rapping Chicago wunderkind on this mix tape everything is sonically and topically broader than anything the drill scene could possibly produce. Also, although plenty of other Chicago-area artists appear on this album, notably BJ the Chicago Kid and Twista, the guest list also includes Childish Gambino, Ab-Soul and Action Bronson. The end result of the various unorthodox mixtures is an original, ambitious effort that effectively evokes introspection and humor.

Black Kids-“Partie Traumatic”

This album is most likely my guiltiest pleasure. It is the full-length debut of a late ’00s buzz band, Black Kids, that flamed out when “Partie Traumatic” generated responses ranging from indifference to critical failure.The hype surrounding Black Kids was intense enough that I cannot simply claim they were overlooked, but their mindless pop was never popular enough for me to feign semi-ironic enjoyment.  Somehow, I love this album.

“Partie Traumatic” is gloriously cheesy, fun pop music. Silly, snotty female backing vocals that evoke The Waitresses mingle with dizzying synthesizer,bouncing  bass, pounding drums and squealing saxophone. The result is a weird amalgamation of hip-hop, indie rock and dance music all thoroughly polished with a dazzling ’80s sheen.

The album is one ear worm after another; one 3 and a half minute infuriatingly catchy pop track after another. The ability of these songs to lodge themselves in a listener’s brain manages to make “Partie Traumatic” a pleasure to listen to even as cheesy synthesizer lines clash with bizarre or absurd, laughable lyrics.

I strongly recommend this album to anyone that can overlook shortcomings in lyrical content and substance for pure, auditory serotonin.

Kurt Vile- “Wakin on a Pretty Day”

Normally, the songs that I compulsively listen to are short bursts with big hooks. Kurt Vile’s “Wakin on a Pretty Day” could not be much further from that description.

The song ambles on for 9 minutes and 24 seconds. It is the sonic equivalent of s lazy morning stretch in sunlight. Blissful acoustic strumming keeps the song moving forward while Kurt Vile offers a subdued meditation about being immersed in his pleasant surroundings. A spacey electric guitar noodles its way into the mix at both the beginning and end of the song like an abstract auditory doodle.

Lazy, hazy, amorphous and somehow completely captivating.

Bo Diddley-“Elephant Man”

This song was released on the album “Black Gladiator,”  Bo Diddley’s bid for relevance in the 1970s. It’s an extremely interesting album that takes familiar blues guitar licks and structure and filters them through the prominent trends in rock and funk music at the time. This includes the famous Bo Diddley guitar riff being enveloped in rock organ.

The standout track on this incredibly singular album in my opinion is “Elephant Man.”

This song features blues licks played with muscular,loud electric guitar. The powerful guitar attack is backed by flowery rock organ and a loose, smooth bass line.

The songs lyrics explain how Bo Diddley literally is responsible for the creation of the elephant. Not a sculpture of an elephant but the actual animal. Toward the end of the song Bo’s singing devolves into gruff wails, and the song jams on.

It’s definitely worth listening to the song just based on its craziness alone, but musically it’s also a tight blues number dialed up to 11.

Birthday songs in order of tolerability

Today, April 7, is my birthday, so I decided to rank songs that celebrate birthdays in order from most to least likable.

  1. Happy Birthday Party“- DOM: This group of Massachusetts based deviants are responsible for my all-time favorite birthday song. This song has a ridiculously huge, swirling hook undercut by hypnotic, surging bass. It also includes the masterwork lyrics, “It’s time to get gnarly/ happy birthday party, party.” This song is incredible.
  2. Birthday“-The Beatles: This song is pretty inane, even for a birthday song, but it’s harmless and fun anyway. Some lively guitar from George Harrison and Ringo hammering away at the drums really drive the festive theme home. This “White Album,” cut is immortalized as the go-to ‘cool’ birthday song for past generations, and it mostly holds up.
  3. Unhappy Birthday”-The Smiths: A characteristically morose Morrissey has come to wish you an unhappy birthday, because you’re evil. The song still gently rocks and has a gloomy ambiance that somehow comes off as pleasant. It’s short, deadpan, funny and catchy.
  4. Birthday Song“-2 Chainz: At this point the final two songs on the list begin to become much more grating. The artist formerly known as Tity Boi dominated 2012.  2 Chainz was pretty inescapable, and this is maybe his most quoted song, because of the instant classic sentiment, “She got a big booty, so I call her big booty,” and an energetic verse from Kanye West keeps the song from fully drifting into Lonely Island territory.
  5. Birthday Sex“-Jeremiah: This song was a massive hit, and it’s awful. The chorus is just the title repeated until your brains slowly begin to ooze out of the side of your skull. Mind numbing, repetitive and totally devoid of redeeming qualities.

Bleached- “Waiting by the Telephone”

Bleached are something that has become a cliche over the last few years. They’re a female rock band that specializes in lo-fi power punk, but they pack more punch than Vivian Girls and lack the polish of Dum Dum Girls. Both full-time members of Bleach were in the punk band Mika Miko, and it comes across in their music, which is actually more similar to Super Wild Horses than  beach-rock girl bands.

The song “Waiting by the Telephone,” is a great example of all the positive aspects of Bleached’s music. It’s short, it’s catchy and it rocks. The opening guitar noises pack the wallop of a long-forgotten Replacements b-side before transforming into the steady guitar licks that keep the song moving forward.

Some definitely disagree with my opinion about this song. Yes, the lyrics are admittedly a bit contrived, but this adds to the song’s charm by providing a ’50s bubblegum contrast to the aggressive noise.

The song packs a punch and stays around just long enough to leave you wanting more of its wailing hook.

An Album per Year for a Decade

Usually, lists touting the best music from a preceding decade are anesthetized. They fall into a neat ten year span, and praise the albums that in hindsight have become canon to that decade. They also tend to be hourglass shaped with repeat entries coming in at the beginning and the end of the decade as representations of either an influence that shaped a decade or a culmination of change in the sonic landscape.

My list is much messier; one album per year starting in 2003 and ending in 2012. There are no repeat years, and inclusion was based entirely on what album I remember liking the most from a particular year.

  • 2003: The White Stripes- “Elephant”: I received this album as a stocking stuffer for Christmas in 2003. I spent the next couple of weeks ruining my ear drums with my portable disc player at my side.

“Elephant” was released at the tail end of the two year span known im music circles as the garage rock revival. However, it sounded nothing like the other bands that were flailing away at their instruments. “Elephant,” filtered blues, country and folk music through the prism of classic Detroit garage rock.

Recorded using only technology available in the ‘60s in a matter of weeks and including a cover of a Burt Bacharach song this album was a revalation.

  • 2004: Danger Mouse- “The Grey Album”: When this album first came out it was almost an urban legend. A new musical trend called mash-ups was becoming in vogue, and this was its epitome.

A then fairly unknown DJ by the name of Danger Mouse had taken the lyrical content of Jay-z’s “The Black Album” and remixed it with vocals and instrumentation from The Beatles’ “The White Album.”

Despite being instant lawsuit fodder and being given away as a free download this album would prove groundbreaking enough to make Danger Mouse as a hit maker and producer de jour for the rest of the decade.

  • 2005: The Hold Steady- “Separation Sunday”: The Hold Steady are what I imagine Bruce Springsteen would sound like if he had spent a decade toiling at shows in bars from Minnesota to Boston and eventually New York.

The Hold Steady’s lead singer, Craig Finn, belts out sloppy Americana tinged lyrics while the rest of the band plays straight ahead rock with flourishes and horn sections that set it apart from simple meat and potatoes bar music.

Add in the fact that “Separation Sunday” is a loose concept album steeped in semi-ironic Christian themes, and you get an amazing album from the world’s most ambitious bar band.

  • 2006: The Arctic Monkeys- “Whatever People Say I am, That’s What I’m Not”: This album a sensation in most of the English speaking world when it came out. Instantly making Arctic Monkeys a household name in the U.K. and breaking decades old sales figures.

The album is an aggressive mix of cheeky lyrics, early observations about the youth in the early 00’s and hard charging rock.

This simple but well-execute formula was so effective that at the time of its release British politicians were expected to have a familiarity with this album.

  • 2007 Of Montreal- “Hissing Fauna Are You the Destroyer?”: This album is schizophrenic. It bounces between euphoric singing and caterwauls of lament, and it’s all the result of one man.

While ostensibly a band, Of Montreal is mostly the work of one man, Kevin Barnes. In 2007 Kevin Barnes was going through an existential crisis after a separation with his wife

This is the catchiest, funkiest and most psychedelic break up album I could imagine. It features Barnes singing with himself in barbershop quartet fashion while a thudding bass line propels songs along.

It also includes an existential freak out song, which in David Bowie fashion Barnes transitions in an alter ego named Georgie Fruit who transcends race and gender.

  • 2008: Los Campesinos!-“Hold on Now, Youngster”: This English band by way of Wales burst onto the indie music scene with their debut.

All band members went by the same last name, Campesinos! (Yes, with an exclamation point), their lyrics name checked everything and everyone from LiveJournal and Spider-man to Jane Eyre.

Audible elements of any given song include electric guitar, glockenspiel, violin and three or four singers. It’s an explosive, unpredictable debut.

  • 2009: Phoenix- “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix”: This album is the rare case in which extremely popular and extremely good overlap.

The good will generated from this catchy pop-rock album from the French band Phoenix has them slated to headline Coachella Music Festival this year, and “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” is four years old.

The album title is a reference to Mozart and the opening track is a simpatico view of Franz Liszt’s songwriting. A smart pop album was correctly beloved.

  • 2010: Kanye West- “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”: This is not the rap album that any sane person would construct with lyrical elements that question sanity, the pitfalls of fame and substance abuse and features multiple songs that take over six minutes to play.

After a painful breakup, the death of his mother and the public backlash West faced after interrupting Taylor Swift at an awards ceremony West set out to make a magnum opus.

He retreated to a Hawaii recording studio, and he flew all contributing artists to the studio on his own expense. West also required full formal attire of his guests at all times during the recording process.

It’s hard not to see comparisons to Brian Wilson’s notoriously fickle recording techniques during The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” as both efforts resulted in near unanimously praised works.

Ultimately, this album proved that while West may not be the ideal person he can create one heck of an album.

  • 2011: F*cked Up-“David Comes to Life”: This post-hardcore band from Canada was not a likely candidate to release the best rock opera since The Who’s “Tommy”, but they did.

While the singing (bellowing would be more accurate) featured on the album falls in line with the bands profane name, but the music does not.

Twin guitar attack, tight rhythm and steady, pounding drumming provide a melodic contrast to the gruff vocals.

“David Comes to Life” is made even more intriguing by being a concept album about a factory worker’s doomed love that features multiple unreliable narrators and frequently breaks the fourth wall.

  • 2012: Japandroids-“Celebration Rock”: Every song on this album could stand alone as a shout along anthem, and yet it never gets exhausting.

This album is the result of just two young men capable of making a wall of sound that captures the wistful longing for the next party even as one rages on around them.

There is also an underlying angst to the album that keeps it from being too saccharine or from feeling underdeveloped. It was certainly my favorite of 2012.