opening aperture signature
And about time it's 2004 already, because this is OUR BEST YEAR YET, dammit, and we've been waiting for it. (But yes yes yes the blogoolies say, we want your top tens, time to get decimal on us.) Fine. Just carved up the butterflied ballot for the Peanut and Jelly Poll, and here's what we've got and why. Albums today, singles maybe later if you'd like.
1) Melt-Banana: Cell-Scape (A-Zap)
Because it grabbed me by the tailbone and hoisted me eight feet into the air and then swung me around as if I weighed no more than a theoretical linguistic construct. Because they've finally made an album as physical as they are live. Melt-Banana are what my old co-worker Cheryl used to call "Douglas-Rock"; by that she meant, probably, stuff I adored that nobody else could understand why I liked so much, but I sometimes tried to figure out if there was a specific formula for it. Fast-loud-and-squeaky is one formula for it, and this is that, but one thing I've realized over the past year is that I like things that are entirely idiomatic--that is, that take artists' or performers' innate style as a starting point, and work from there. "Show the hand" is my private jargon for it, and Melt-Banana do it constantly. I really appreciate Cell-Scape's dramatic pacing, too--it'd be easy for the middle eight songs to get lost in one big jalapeño rush, but there are enough swerves and surprises in every song that I played it straight through more than any other record this year, and usually wanted to pogo to it. Or, when nobody else around, did. (A few MP3s, courtesy of Aquarius Records, are here.)
2) The New Pornographers: The Electric Version (Matador)
Lisa bought a Zumpano CD a few weeks ago, and as we were listening to it in the car, I thought: this sounds sort of like the New Pornographers (obv. because Carl Newman's singing), but it's just pretty good. And The Electric Version is great--did Newman get that much better as a songwriter? Well, probably, yeah, but he also got more charged-up as a performer, and he also started working with Neko Case and Dan Bejar. I love Bejar's songs in a very different way from Newman's--for a certain kind of band, having a second songwriter is key. I also love the idea of a band having an essential offstage member (Martin Swope/Bob Weston for Mission of Burma, Grrrt for Dog Faced Hermans)--one of my maxims this year was one from Brian Eno that Franklin Bruno quoted to me: "an arrangement is when someone stops playing."
Two other great 2003 New Pornographers-related memories: playing "The Laws Have Changed" for Sasha, which got the deadpan response "You know what this band's problem is? Not enough hooks"; seeing them play at Warsaw and insist that people get up on stage and dance with them, "except no guys who are assholes." (After the audience was a little reticent, Carl announced "okay, we take it back: it's okay if guys who are assholes want to come up and dance." Eventually, they had about 50 people up there shaking it, including only a couple of guys who were assholes.) (A couple of MP3s are here.)
3) The Thermals: More Parts Per Million (Sub Pop)
And not just because we're in Portland now. Totally derivative in conception (less-than-170-second punk songs!), totally distinctive in execution, and it took so little to pull it off--that filter on the singer's voice that makes it sound like the concentrated residue of 1978 goes a long way. These are the kinds of songs I'd like to write if I could figure out how to make them simple enough: very smart, distilled down as far as they'll go, crackly, funny, a little harsh, not at all predictable. Something about them suggests a different direction Warsaw might have gone (as does something about Prosaics, who might be on this list next year--but that's a different direction still). Extra points for fully satisfying 25-minute live sets. (There's an MP3 of "No Culture Icons" here.)
4) Goodbye, Babylon (Dust to Digital)
I'll mention it here one more time. Five discs of mostly shellac-boom-era Southern gospel, black and white, plus a disc of sermons ("legit" and quasi-jackleg, and mostly at least partly musical) from the same era, a book with all the details I can handle, extraordinary presentation, a triumph of the curatorial art. I'm still writing about this one for publication, so won't go into too many details here, but really, this is an achievement on the level of Harry Smith's Anthology, and the only reason it's not listed higher is that it didn't give me as much entertainment-type pleasure as the top three. (Well, okay: my top 10 includes four compilations of pre-2003 recordings, plus an album that came out originally when I was two years old, and as much as I want to respond to The Naked Maja's opprobrium for people who cling to pre-modernity in year-end roundups by pointing out that any record you haven't listened to is a new record, and if you've heard more than like 15% of the stuff on Goodbye, Babylon before then feel absolutely free to dis me for thinking it's the hot new thing but please otherwise give it a rest, there's still a way in which stuff that just got played seems more... uh, something to me.) (This page links to 15 pages from the book and their associated sound files; I'm not gonna tell you where on the site you can find MP3s of the entire first two discs, but it shouldn't take much effort. Try "Lift Him Up That's All" and "Lover of the Lord.")
5. Velvet Tinmine (RPM)
This is what I mean about curation, too--I spent more time listening to other people's mixes this year than ever before. I'd only ever heard of two of the performers on Velvet Tinmine before I got it, but Phil King, Bob Stanley (of St. Etienne!) and Mark Stratford, who put this together, love all the crappy glam-rock that came out in England trying to get a piece of Marc Bolan's mojo and record sales so much that they've put together a mix tape of 20 pieces of it that really truly move. I don't think I'd necessarily want to spend money on a full album by any of these bands (except maybe Simon Turner, who's a special case), but I'm very glad I heard all of these songs. (Sort of hard to track down MP3s of this stuff, but everything by Stavely Makepiece is here, including "Slippery Rock 70s," which is on VT.)
6. Gétatchèw Mèkurya: Negus of Ethiopian Sax (Buda Musique)
Not even new album: just a newly reissued record that I played all the time for pleasure last year, by an Ethiopian saxophonist who recorded a roaring album and a few singles' worth of pentatonic boo-ga-loo with a super-hot organ-led band (possibly the Police Orchestra?) sometime in the very early '70s. According to the liner notes, "he still knows nothing about Ornette Coleman or Albert Ayler, about free jazz and the critical battles that were to ensue from 1960 onwards." Which is a strong argument for parallel evolution. Supposedly, this is "warlike music"; if we must have warlike music, let it be like this. In the Dept. of Blogrolling: thank you so much, Mer, for convincing me to buy this one.
(No MP3s to be found; teeny little sample of one intro here.)
7. Belle & Sebastian: Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Rough Trade)
I liked it at first, but was a little dubious--it seemed to be too unserious, too goofy, too much Stuart Murdoch imitating himself, ripping off Arthur Lee, and ceding territory to the lesser songwriters in the band. Then I realized that Stevie Jackson is a "lesser songwriter" by no reasonable standard. Then I heard it playing in the background somewhere and realized that I could listen to it endlessly, and that the real hero of the album was one of my oldest musical heroes, Trevor Horn--that he'd made all the arrangements and mixes rustproof and matte-smooth. Then I listened to it at home again and had the sense to crank up "Stay Loose," which is Stuart Murdoch not repeating himself at all (and I love that Elvis Costello missing-beat trick). Then I realized that the most Arthur Lee line on the album--"killing people's not my scene," in "If You Find Yourself Caught In Love"--is preceded by one of the best and most Stuart Murdoch lines of the year: "If you're going off to war then I wish you well/But don't be sore/If I cheer the other team." (No MP3s on this one either, sadly.)
8. Oedipus: Oedipus (InPolySons)
And off we go into conflict-of-interest-ville. Will everybody please just get it into your heads that John Pearce/Alig Fodder/"Johnny Kash" is a freakish genius of songwriting, so he can sell a bunch more records and his songs can become standards already? He's absorbed a lot of songwriting modes that don't have a lot to do with the new wave, but I always feel the shiver of alien freshness about his songs. This album is Alig (and lyricist/singer Anne-Marte Rygh) in European pre-electrical pop song mode, mostly just voice and accordion or guitar; in a few ways, it's 20 years further down the track of Family Fodder's All Styles 2x33 album. (Two MP3s, including the sublime "Que lindo meu amor," available here. And of course there's their "Hybrid Phase Yellow" single from Dark Beloved Cloud.)
9. The Rapture: You Are Here ("King Biscuit Productions")
A bootleg, pretty obviously, made from their set on BBC1's "Essential Mix" show. Ranted about this already here, on Dec. 17. I loved their singles, and had mixed feelings about the "real" album--a lot of what I like about them is in fact their echoes of other things I like, and they were so eager to show off their range on the album that I was left with very little idea of how they play or sing or write these days when they're not trying to sound very much like their favorite records. But as curators, they turn out to be awesome: this was my A-1 dancing-around-the-new-apartment album. (The track listing is here. No audio, though--too bad.)
10. Radio Java (Sublime Frequencies)
Still writing about this one elsewhere, too, so I'll hold my tongue about it other than to be purely descriptive. It's subjective ethnomusicology: a bunch of tapes made in Java by the Sun City Girls' Alan Bishop and a friend 14 years ago, sliced up and rearranged into a collage that has more to do with Bishop than with its source. (The label is here; no audio available.)
This is of course the part of the top 10 list where I point vague regrets at all the honorable mentions, which include your favorite album. Of course.