The Best Music I Heard All Year, 2005 Edition.

In alphabetical order:

The Carter Family, In the Shadow of Clinch Mountain (2000)

A few weeks back a reader of this blog wrote to tell me that I was the only other Filipino he knew that was a fan of American folk music. I don’t understand it either; certainly it stirred up no strands of any sort of racial memory! American folk, in short, was the music that was most culturally alien to me; I never heard it growing up, or on the radio then and now. But there was something about the Carter Family that spoke to me in ways I can barely articulate — these rough-hewn, gorgeous voices calling from a faraway time and land, singing of the curt brutality of an interrupted life, the innocence of souls in love, and a faith in an incorruptible future.

M.I.A. & Diplo, Piracy Funds Terrorism, Volume 1 (2004)

Boomf boomf. Are there banlieue in London? I don’t think so. Choco slick and a kick in the teef. Chika chika. Tamil tiger daughter. Jungle guerrilla graphics. Hip pop history, Bangles and Pepa remixed. Hip hop is all de tournament anyway. Galang galang. You could be a follower but who’s your leader? Crank it up. Break that cycle or it will kill ya.

Robert Pollard, Zoom (2005)

It’s been a good year for the fans of the Robert Pollard Experience: a concert DVD, a band biography, three side-project albums, a soundtrack for a Steven Soderbergh film, an art chapbook, an album coming out from Merge next year, a nationwide concert tour, a box set with a hundred new songs — and this absolutely delightful four-song EP, sourced from some alternate ’70s pop universe.

Puffy, Nice. (2003)

Let’s get this clear: the vaguely Orientalist TV show on the Cartoon Network has nothing to do with their music. With that out of the way, let me talk about Nice. There are, of course, frequent moments of genius scattered all throughout their discography, but Nice. — an all-Andy Sturmer affair, but that shouldn’t scare you — is simply bursting with pop sweetness: the clap-your-hands-say-yeah! joy of “Long Beach Nightmare” (sheer perfection), the irrepressibly happy “Atarashii Hibi” (Brand New Day). Naysayers will say that every other riff seems to be stolen from somewhere else, but that’s part of the genius: a reclaiming of an international musical vocabulary that transcends all borders.

Teenage Fanclub, Songs from Northern Britain (1997)

Like most people, I first heard Teenage Fanclub when the cheerfully discordant anthem “The Concept” hit MTV; like most people, I (erroneously) figured they had more or less sunk without a trace as (again, erroneously) Glasgow’s response to grunge, cranking out similar-sounding albums from then on; like most people, I rediscovered the band through Nick Hornby’s Songbook, for which Hornby picked two songs.

Songs from Northern Britain is an album of transcendent beauty; the fact that it’s composed of the simplest four-minute love songs makes it even more of a marvel. (Which makes it a different kind of transcendent beauty than that of, say, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, but I digress.)

I will cop out and quote instead some anonymous music fan, who wrote this review on

Part of the grandeur of this record is a point which nearly everyone has missed: many of these songs are hymns to God. Listen to the first line of the record: “I don’t know if you can hear me, I’m feeling down and can’t think clearly….” This is not written for a girlfriend; it is written to God; a bare human call to his creator. And they are beautiful songs. There are none about drugs, none about being in Teenage Fanclub; but all are about what it is to be a spiritual being on this earth… If you think it is about girlfriends, you miss the point and much of the majesty. “I can’t feel my soul without you.” I could go on–this record brings tears to my eyes. It is staggering and epic.

I don’t necessarily agree with all of it — of course it’s about loved ones too — but the writer perfectly captures the spiritual core of the not-incompatible pulls of yearning and contentment throughout the album’s teenage symphonies to God. Musically, Teenage Fanclub draws from the three B’s (the Beatles, the Byrds, and Big Star), and they stand with those three on the strength of this album alone.

In any case, Teenage Fanclub’s Songs from Northern Britain was my favorite album of this year. Sometime this summer I started living with it, listening to it before I went to sleep, or when I woke up in the morning, I went running with it, I played it in the car and sang at the top of my lungs, all with an ache and joy in my heart. It must be what it’s like to be in love again.

TsuShiMaMiRe, Pregnant Fantasy (2004)

More details here. Key phrase: hair flying everywhere.

music Uncategorized

Your New Favorite Song.

(A few months ago I had wanted to do with an all-Japanese month of music downloads — I started with Merzbow, and failed to follow up — and now here’s the continuation.)

Grown-ups don’t have to dislike music for kiddies, and kiddies don’t have to dislike music for grown-ups. There’s Dan Zanes (to whose concert I took Izzy last month), whose albums are infectious slices of Americana; Lisa Loeb and Elizabeth Mitchell (from Ida) also have an album of mostly nursery rhymes and lullabies. (An old grad school housemate of mine used to date Liz, I think, so that’s only a few degrees of separation there!)

But don’t get me started on those cut-rate albums where random kids are assembled in a studio and made to sing nursery rhymes — or worse, sanitized renditions of pop hits. I once heard this awful version of “Hey Ya!” with all the “Lucy Liu” references removed…

Izzy, in turn, likes the Beatles and the two Elvises (Presley and Costello); her very first concert was Gillian Welch, although she really only got into it when David Rawlings did a cover of “Big Rock Candy Mountain.”

But back to the subject at hand: Izzy really likes the Japanese singing duo Puffy, and the fact that neither one of us understands a word doesn’t stop her from jumping up and down. Okay, me neither.

“LONG BEACH NIGHTMARE,” from the 2003 album NICE., is a prototypical Puffy song (thanks here to Andy Sturmer, “Godfather of Puffy”) and though this one doesn’t utilize the usual “homages” — generally, a “Day Tripper” riff here, the introduction to “Baba O’Riley” there — it’s still full of creamy pop goodness: oooohs, handclaps, girly voices singing in unison. In other words, perfect.

Hear it (4.7 mb, 192 kbps .m4a).


Best Albums I Heard in 2002

The best albums I heard in 2002:

  • Guided By Voices: Universal Truths and Cycles (2002)
  • Sonically, it’s leagues away from their lo-fi classic Bee Thousand; the production is wholly beefed up, and the usual song fragments now get the full Who treatment. But Robert Pollard’s amazing songwriting still shines through.

  • Diana Krall: Live in Paris (2002)
  • Her last two albums were profound disappointments — too much gloppy strings and not enough swing — as they relegated her piano-playing to the background. But on this live album, Krall acquits herself very nicely, with long, almost fiery solos, and on the DVD the groove within the band is crystal-clear.

  • Jacques Louissier Trio: Bach’s Goldberg Variations (2000)
  • I became obsessed with the Goldberg Variations (and Glenn Gould) over the past few years or so, and so it was a lovely surprise to hear jazz interpretations of the pieces. There is little room for the band to fling itself into the material, jazz-wise, as it conforms very strictly to the pieces’ original durations, so they make do extremely well with those time constraints — a bass solo here, a samba rhythm there.

  • Puffy: AmiYumi Jet Fever (2000)
  • The best pure pop rush of the year. I don’t know much about Puffy — do they write their own songs, even? — but if there was some pop candyland realm out there somewhere, Ami and Yumi would be the reigning queens. Makes my previous pop favorites, the Cardigans and Girlfrendo, seem indie-rock by comparison. Puffy cribs from a whole slew of different genres, and steals riffs from the Beatles, and puts them all together into a too-sweet power-pop lollipop. Or something like that.

  • Swans: Soundtracks for the Blind (1996)
  • I got turned on to the Swans fairly late in my musical listening life, and it’s a wonder I wasn’t into them earlier. Soundtracks distills industrial clang, gothic death strum and nihilistic wallow into a sonically bleak and adventurous double album.


It's Top Ten Time Again

Just posted this on the Zorn list, after what looked like lists and lists of discs by Anthony Braxton and Dave Douglas and Polwechsel and the Ruins and what have you.

I probably have the poppiest and shortest of all the year-end lists so far — kind of makes me wonder what I’m still doing on this list…

The best things I heard all year (including some oldies):

– Guided By Voices: Universal Truths and Cycles
– Diana Krall, Live in Paris
– Puffy: AmiYumi Jet Fever
– Swans: Soundtracks for the Blind

I went to exactly two concerts this year (this is what happens when you have a kid) and both were totally unforgettable:

– Boredoms, with Jackie-O Motherfucker opening, Slim’s, SF
– Marilyn Crispell Trio, with the Susie Ibarra Quartet opening, Yerba Buena Theater, SF

And I barely saw any videos this year, much less see any films on the big screen (though in a few days the babysitter arrives so my wife and I can watch Lord! Of! The! Rings!), but here were two excellent ones:

– Lantana
– The Deep End

And the absolute worst movie this year — indeed, one of the worst I’ve seen period, even if I saw it with already lowered expectations:

– Star Wars Episode something-or-other: Attack of the Clones

And I’m going to the Gerhard Richter show at the SF Museum of Modern Art tomorrow, so that’ll be up there with the Yoko Ono show earlier this year, if not better.

And is Missy Elliott’s “Work It” an amazing single or what?