Friday, January 14, 2011

The Ten (Eleven) Albums of 2010 - Part 2

I meant to get on the second half of this post a lot sooner.  Instead I've been sleeping more than half of every day for the last few days trying to recover from the stomach flu that's been circulating around the house.  Head's finally cleared up.  Stomach's finally settled, so now I'm playing catchup in my writing, running, and working.  First on the to-do list is to knock off the second half of my top ten (eleven) albums of 2010.  Here we go.

Just before the fall semester started in 2009 a video went viral on youtube (as videos are wont to do).  Capturing the frustration of a generation as well as the inability to give in to the nihilism of Generation X, Cee Lo Green's "Fuck You" was an instant hit.  If you haven't heard it, watch the video.  It was the glorious precursor to the November release of The Lady Killer.  The junior release from Gnarls Barkley vocalist veers wildly from the motown infused Satisfied to the intro and outro James Bond anthemic The Lady Killer Theme.  With the single's viral success, and the album's soul, Cee Lo has established himself as a cult icon.  Beyond the single, you can't miss Bright Lights, Bigger City.

Kind of like with Mark Owen being a massive pop icon in Britain, and a virtual unknown here in the states, the same is true with most of the music coming out of Australia.  Some of their larger rock musicians (the Whitlams comes to mind), are impossible to find even in the dwindling number of record stores.  The next two artists on the list come from that faraway Land Down Under.

I first discovered Philadelphia Grand Jury on youtube with their video for Triple J's Like A Version, of the Philly Jays in a studio looking goofy and covering Jay Z's 99 Problems.  Formed between two life-long friends (Berkfinger and MC Bad Genius) and hanging on to a drummer almost as unsuccessfully as Spinal Tap.  The band has a gloriously simple yet effective sound, and all the sources I've read about them say the same thing: This is not a live show to miss, ever.  Their freshman release Hope is for Hopers was released in 2009, and then in October of 2010 was expanded on and rereleased as Hope is for the Hopeless.  This album is bristling with energy, and excitement, and awkwardness, with all the amps turned up to a fuzzing 11.  From the opening shout and driving Going to the Casino (Tomorrow Night) all the way through to Berkfinger railing out a live version of 99 Problems, Hope is for the Hopeless leaves me more hopeful of even better music coming out of the land that gave us the Croc Hunter, kangaroos, and one of the hottest accents ever.  Check out I Don't Want to Party (Party) for bar non the best song on the album.

Speaking of hot accents (amirite fellas?) and why the Land Down Under is musically kicking our ass, comes the next artist.  She was one of the finalists of Australian Idol, a show very similar to our own (but apparently with way better talent), lauded by the judges from the first awkward moments of her tryout all the way through to when she finally got the axe.  After she took a left turn from pop stardom, favoring a more independent path, blazing a trail across the outback, opening for acts like Jason Mraz, playing in huge venues like the Aussie's Big Day Out Festival this year.  Her music will be at least partially familiar to those of the PlayStation 3 persuasion (Neapolitan Dreams was featured on the astoundingly good LittleBig Planet soundtrack).  Lisa Mitchell burst onto the scene in with a couple EPs and then her full-length release Wonders in July of 2009.  The album features sharp song writing, quirky instrumentation and composition, intimate lyrics, endearing sentiments.  Were it not for the couple following, this album would easily have taken its place as album of the year for the sheer relentless play its received on my iPod.  If you're not sold after the music video below (she's gorgeous, amirite?) you've got some broken emotions.  All of it is worth having, but seriously check Coin Laundry.

In 2004 my favorite band of all time broke up.  It was senior year.  I was in love.  Beulah's When Your Heartstrings Break was my soundtrack.  And then, after a rocky tour, and tense friendships, the boys from the West called it a day, and went out on their high notes.  William Swan went on to normalcy and fatherhood, blogging regularly about politics and other hot button issues including fatherhood and how to put that you were in a band on a resume over at Ham Radio Central and tweets from time to time as swanwilliam, he also provided some trumpet work for groups like Death Cab For Cutie.  Eli Crews kept the flame alive in Oakland and now co-owns New Improved Recording.  The rest of the guys have pretty much done the same.  Except our next artist.  Miles Kurosky, the voice and the songsmith behind Beulah is also something of an enigma.  In the years after the band broke up he would disappear with mentions of shoulder surgery, or some crippling sickness.  I remember reading one point, maybe a message posted by Bill Swan, maybe an interview, where Miles mentions perhaps being unable to pick up a guitar again because of his surgery.  Then at some point a couple years back he talked about his next album.  How it would probably sound like the 5th Beulah album and he didn't care.  Turn the pages forward a bit to March 9, 2010.  Enter: The Desert of Shallow Effects.

Is it the 5th Beulah album, unrealized by the band?  Yes and no.  With Mile's earnest weighted vocals and the west coast etched into his DNA, it's impossible to miss the sound.  But don't let that color your opinion before you go in.  What's here is an intricately constructed, layered sonic experience weighted by Miles's bittersweet lyricalism.  And even that has taken a step in a new direction, constructing anecdotes and stories like he's never done before.

And just when that was awesome enough, Eli Crews (bassist from Beulah, mentioned above) invited Miles down to his studio, New Improved Recording, to record live for The Bay Bridged some of the songs off Desert.  Miles said sure, but do something special for it, like get a mariachi band, or a boys choir, or something to back him up.  What Eli did was so much better than that.  For me it was like Christmas, my birthday, my wedding day, the birth of my first child, and winning the lotto all rolled into one.  You can read about it here and watch this:

New, Improved, LIVE: Miles Kurosky (with members of Beulah) - "The World Won't Last the Night" from The Bay Bridged on Vimeo.

The album that took this year's album of the year slot, was rather a surprise for me when I started listening to it, but the more I thought about it, the more I couldn't deny the fact that above all else, this was the album that had its hold on me, and on my imagination.  Craig Minowa's band, Cloud Cult, is no stranger to my album list, Feel Good Ghosts was on my 2008 List and The Meaning of 8 almost made my 2009 list for the sheer playtime it saw (though I'd been listening to it often the year before too).  Those who know Cloud Cult know that the band is no stranger to hurt.  The central axis upon which the band has turned for the last eight years was the 2002 death of Minowa's son, Kaidin.  Since then each Cloud Cult album has been infused and bristling with the need to understand why, the need to understand death, mortality, grief, and living.  Every listening to a Cloud Cult record is an emotional experience that reaches down to my very core.  2007's The Meaning of 8 was a revelation, when I finally gave it a full listen through, and one of the few albums to move me to tears.  All this makes their last release this September, Light Chasers, a truly unique experience.  For the first time since the death of his son, we're graced with a Cloud Cult record that transcends the trappings of death, and much like the lyrical content, breaks its tethers with the earth and goes out with wide eyes into the unknown on a quest for meaning.  Filled with the fierce joy of life and potential, Light Chasers feels less a broken father's eulogy trying to understand the randomness or purpose that took his young son from him, and more that same father taking his newborn son (the Minowas welcomed their newborn into the world in August of 2009) by the shoulder and telling him of how amazing the world is, how dangerous it is, and how full of energy and light we all are.  This is a truly transcendental experience.

And now for an honorable mention, because I really didn't know how to approach them, their album, and their business model.  I have to talk about Pomplamoose.  Bypassing the need for labels, distribution companies, or even a regular album release or tour schedule comes a band that is redefining what it means to be a musician and a celebrity.  When I first heard about them it was back in February, and my friend Kate was telling me that I needed to see this video of this girl covering Beyonce's Single Ladies.  I was intrigued.  She pulled it up.  We watched it, laughed, and watched it again and laughed some more.  Then (because I was visiting her and her husband in LA and was sleeping on their couch) she left to go to work, and I went to get started with my day.  Then, humming the song to myself, I pulled it up again.  That was when it struck me, this was actually really good.  Instead of getting on with my day I sought out as much of their music as I could, watched all the videos at least twice.

Pomplamoose does what they call Videosongs, which is also the name of their album.  A concept created and defined by the male half of the Pomplamoose couple, Jack Conte.  There are two rules.
  1. What you see is what you hear. (No lip-syncing for instruments or voice)
  2. If you hear it, at some point you see it. (No hidden sounds)

And with those two rules they create not only brilliant compositions and unique covers of a bizarre range of songs (everything from Arrowsmith to Earth Wind and Fire), but sharply cut videos that show musicians at the process in an interesting way.  The only way to get their music is through iTunes or their myspace or to watch on their youtube channel.  And apparently the business model is working.  They're living off the money they're bringing in, and they were just featured in a series of Hyundai commercials.  Their album Videosongs is a blast.  Check it.

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