January 14, 2011 § Leave a comment
Well, it’s that time again, although judging by the hundreds of year-end lists that have already appeared, I seem to be a little late. I don’t understand the preoccupation with forming year-end lists in early December. I mean the year isn’t even over by that point, I’d rather wait until January, which I have done. Anyway, if you read my Top Ten Pieces of Impacting Culture over at Mockingbird Blog you’ll notice a lot of overlap from that list to this one, as to be expected. I’ll be writing about five albums in particular, because I felt like picking ten was a bit of a stretch as I wasn’t able to listen to as much new music this year as I would have liked. So here’s the list, complete with Youtube videos galore.
1. The Age of Adz-Sufjan Stevens
I’m not sure what more I can say about The Age of Adz that I haven’t already said, but it continues to remain a revelation to me. By reinventing himself, Sufjan has created a masterful album full of strange noises and at times even stranger lyrics. But underneath all the alienating electronic buzz and depressing musings on life, runs a pulsing current of vitality, the same current that has always run through Sufjan’s music. This is Sufjan at his most personal, albeit slightly disguised behind the seemingly impersonal musical landscape, but I think this musical approach allows Sufjan to truly explore some of the darker corners of his personality without it become overbearing. Regardless, The Age of Adz is an amazing album, its joy tempered and then exalted through the very reality of life.
2. High Violet- The National
The National’s music is so beautiful, in part due to its understatement. Everything about The National seems relaxed, from their laid back music to their abstract lyrics. On closer listen, however, it becomes evident that The National is exploring deep emotions of the soul, often doing so through the mood created by their music and lyrics. High Violet does this exceedingly well, weaving tales of love, loss, fear, addiction and more together into an album that forces you to confront the insecurities and depressions of your own life. It’s an intense look into the soul and mind of the postmodern individual, revealing the struggles of most twenty-somethings that populate America right now, yet High Violet does manage to carry a sense of weathered hope, especially in its closing triad of songs.
3. Sigh No More-Mumford and Sons
If High Violet is beautiful in its understatement, then Sigh No More is beautiful in its zealousness. The neo-folk of Mumford and Sons is brash, hopeful and full of excitement. Blasting through its twelve songs, only stopping for breath briefly, Sigh No More is full of grand statements about life, love and God which is part of its charm. The British quartet is not afraid of wearing their collective heart on their sleeve, a refreshing change from some of the more emotionally guarded bands that exist. What I love about Mumford and Sons is that their optimism is grounded in reality. Sigh No More is relentlessly optimistic and hopeful, but it never sugarcoats the realities and problems of life, but points to a hope that these problems will eventually be made right. A beautiful album measured with grace and humility.
4. How I Got Over-The Roots
How I Got Over is an album that has continued to grow on me since I first heard it in the late summer. The Roots are one of those groups that consistently release albums that are thoughtful both musically and lyrically which is something that I greatly respect. How I Got Over is a dark album that by its end has risen above the darkness in triumph, celebrating life for both its peaks and its valleys. There is a definite shift in the album toward hope as its approaches its midpoint, and this hope comes to fruition in the album’s climatic song The Fire. It is made all the more celebratory because of what came before it, a beautiful realization that sometimes life’s best moments are found after going through the storm.
5. The Suburbs-Arcade Fire
In my opinion, The Suburbs is the Arcade Fire’s best album. It manages to combine their unique musical approach with lyrics that are able to evoke strong emotions, while avoiding many of the problems people have had with their lyrics in the past. The Suburbs is an honest album, delving into the experience of growing up in the suburbs and what suburbia has done to America. It is both nostalgic and critical at the same time, a difficult balance to strike. Full of the bold instrumentation and soaring vocals we’ve come to expect from the Arcade Fire, The Suburbs continues in the same steps as its predecessors, but is better than those albums ever were.
Here’s a few albums that I couldn’t put on my top five list, but deserve to be listened to as they are a bit out of the ordinary.
Juanes is not incredibly well known by English speaking people, but is one of Latin America’s hottest recording artists, for a good reason. He makes great music, pop-rock infused with a Latin sensibility, and sings more than generic love songs. His latest album is another great piece of music and is well worth checking out.
All Day- Girl Talk
I mentioned this album in my blog about the mashup, and I’m still digging it. All Day is extremely fun and creative, combining various pop hits from the past four decades into a new creation that gives these old songs new life. It can be downloaded for free here.
Feedback- Derek Webb
I love Derek Webb and his new album is an instrumental exploration of the Lord’s Prayer. The album is a multimedia affair, coming with abstract art and photographs that complement the music. Webb is always one to try new things, and Feedback is a stunning piece of art that needs to be experienced through the ears and eyes.
October 14, 2010 § 5 Comments
When Sufjan Stevens announced a new full-length album after several years of side-projects and silence, indie fans everywhere rejoiced. Here was Stevens, the poster boy for high-brow indie folk-rock, finally returning to blow our minds again. And if the critical and popular response is a barometer, The Age of Adz has either exhilarated you or confused the crap out of you. Departing from his usual orchestrated, quirky folk-rock, Sufjan has replaced the banjo and acoustic guitar with a dazzling array of electronic effects and dark, soul-searching lyrics, which in turn has alienated some of his old fans.
It seems to me, however, that this isn’t that radical departure that some have said it is. These songs are still packed with sound, except this time it is electronic noise, not layered guitar parts. Sufjan’s lyrics have also carried their dark side (John Wayne Gacy Jr. anyone?), but in the past the music surrounding this darkness has softened it, not intensified it. Yes, for those accustomed to Come On, Feel the Illinoise!, Michigan and Seven Swans, The Age of Adz feels like someone has replaced their best friend with a strange facsimile of him. But I think if they keep listening they’ll find that their friend has not been replaced, but only been changed by his experiences over the past few years. This is an album created from a deeply personal place, and while Sufjan does take inspiration from artist Royal Robertson (the album is named after one of his paintings) and his story, this album is more an exploration of Sufjan’s psyche than it is anything else.
To some this album may sound like a disaster, like it was created without form. To think that Sufjan, a meticulous musician if there ever was one, would have just thrown Age of Adz together without thought is a preposterous assumption. Now, some may say it is over-indulgent or pompous, but that doesn’t mean it is unorganized or sloppy. It is a chaotic, bewildering ride, but I think it is like this for a reason. What is Sufjan, who is an artist obsessed with making grand statements about life through his music, trying to say with The Age of Adz? This is the question before us as we listen to this confounding, glorious mess of an album.
Opener “Futile Devices” closes with the line, “And words are futile devices.” As the delicate music fades, we are abruptly forced into the harsh, electronic landscape that constitutes “Too Much.” I think this is a deliberate move on the part of Sufjan, and by forcing us to confront this new sonic texture he is placing the music/style of album above the “futile devices” of language. This isn’t to say that the lyrics don’t play a major role on this album, but that perhaps they play, and always have played, a subservient or complementary role in Sufjan’s music.
So onward we venture, into the noise that is The Age of Adz. There are big questions everywhere on this album, sometimes voiced very subtly. Sufjan is contemplating aging, fame, relationships and ultimately life and love and he’s doing this within the framework of the album. He’s asking us to concentrate, and in recent interviews, he has wondered if the album means anything anymore with people downloading music as much as they do.
“When I die, oh when I die, I’ll rot/but when I live, when I live, I’ll give it all I got,” sings Sufjan on the title track. The Age of Adz seems to embody tension throughout its running time. There is a tension between the electronic elements and the horns and strings, a tension between death and illness and life and love and a tension between Sufjan the artist and Sufjan the person. On “Vesuvius” Sufjan refers to himself in the third person with these lines, “Sufjan, follow your heart/Follow the flame or fall on the floor/Sufjan, the panic inside/The murdering ghost that you cannot ignore.” This is Sufjan revealing his thoughts to us, and possibly giving us a clue about his departure from his previous style of music.
It seems as if Sufjan is trying to follow his heart, answering his own question from “Come On, Feel the Illinoise!” of, “Are you writing from the heart?” On “I Want to be Well” Sufjan confidently declares, “I’m not f—ing around.” This comes as a shock to us, as Sufjan normally never uses profanity in his songs, but I think it is a necessary shock. It’s Sufjan letting us know that this album isn’t the result of him screwing around, but that it is a cohesive statement about life and his desire to live it in the right way. It is also fitting that this line comes right before the album’s 25 minute closer, “Impossible Soul,” an exhausting, overwhelming, yet truly triumphant song if there ever was one.
“Impossible Soul” deserves a blog post in its own right, which I will save for another time. The Age of Adz also deserves more than this slight write-up. It deserves your time, concentration and contemplation. There are parts that confuse me and that I don’t appreciate musically, but I think the musical vision that Sufjan is bringing to the table here is something that hasn’t been heard before. Is it the defining album of our time, as some of the more extreme hyperbole has stated? Is it even the best album of the year? We’ll have to see how well it holds up, but what I can say is that it will definitely be one of the most challenging and also most potentially rewarding albums of the year. So what is Sufjan trying to say? I think he’s asking us to filter through all the noise in our lives, mirrored in some ways by the noise on The Age of Adz, and find the meaning underneath it all.