Category Archives: Lists

Essential ’80s Albums

Last year I embarked on a project to fill out my collection of ’90s music, with the help of your recommendations. This was quite successful, and I will post my list of favorites eventually. But recently I have posted a lot of top music lists, and am a bit burned out, so I’m going to put it off. Instead, I will move on to this year’s project, which is to fill out my collection of ’80s music.
So: what are the essential albums of 1980-1989? Essential either as a consensus classic or a personal favorite; all genres are open. Here are a few I hear mentioned a lot, just to get things started (inclusion in this list does not constitute endorsement):

  • Michael Jackson, Thriller (1982)

  • Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska (1982)
  • New Order, Power, Corruption, & Lies (1983)
  • The Police, Syncronicity (1983)
  • Prince & The Revolution, Purple Rain (1984)
  • Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense (1984)
  • The Smiths, The Queen Is Dead (1986)
  • Guns N’ Roses, Appetite for Destruction (1987)
  • R.E.M., Document (1987)
  • U2, The Joshua Tree (1987)
  • Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation (1988)
  • The Cure, Disintegration (1989)
  • Pixies, Doolittle (1989)

Favorite Albums of 2006

My final year-end list: my favorite five albums of 2006. As with last year, the number 1 choice was easiest and the number 5 choice was hardest. Somewhat unsurprisingly, these albums contributed the top five songs from my previous list (in a slightly different order). The criteria here are a little different though: a good average song quality is necessary, but I also weight coherent themes and the ability to enjoy playing the record all the way through, as opposed to just adding the best few songs to my iTunes playlist. This knocked Pretty Girls Make Graves’ Élan Vital out of the top five, since it had a lot of great songs but didn’t hang together as well as the others.

5. Asobi Seksu, Citrus
This was the year I fell in love with noise pop and shoegazing music, as I looked at classic albums from the ’90s, and I was delighted to find that Asobi Seksu is keeping the genre alive, and putting their own stamp on it. I picked “New Years” for the top songs list as the best example of their fuzzy, dreamlike songs, but all the songs on the album have these textures without sounding alike. The best tracks, “Goodbye” and “Miso Asobi” along with “New Years”, bring a warm and happy feeling out of the noise and distortion, but everything in between is interesting in its own way. It’s one of the most seamless albums of the year.

4. TV on the Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain
This is a highly acclaimed album among rock critics, but unlike Justin Timberlake’s, it’s for a good reason: it’s original, inventive, and excellent. It’s hard to come up with something to compare it to, since the sound is so unique—it doesn’t even really sound like TV on the Radio’s earlier work and represents a major step forward for the band. Perhaps a good metaphor could be drawn from one of the best songs on the album: this record is a dirty whirlwind of music. The maelstrom approaches ominously with “Hours”, reaches peak speed at “Wolf Like Me”, slows to a calm center for “Method”, and then picks up again. Not all the tracks are as good as “Wolf Like Me”, but nothing is filler.

3. The Hold Steady, Boys And Girls In America
The Hold Steady topped last year’s list with Separation Sunday, and so it is not a surprise to see them on the list again this year. Their latest album is more song and less story than its predecessor, presenting short vignettes instead of an overall arc and with lead singer Craig Finn taking a more melodic approach. This was initially a little disappointing, but I warmed up to it since the songs are very good indeed. Their Springsteen-esque hard rock rocks harder than just about anything else from this year, and with “Citrus” they showed they could do acoustic ballads too. Even though it’s not the equal of Separation Sunday, it’s still one of the best albums of the year.

2. Belle & Sebastian, The Life Pursuit
This will also be an unsurprising choice, since regular readers know that I hold Belle & Sebastian in high regard. However, this is a standout album even in their catalog, the best since their 1996 release If You’re Feeling Sinister. After several albums that felt like poor copies of Sinister, they’ve tried some new directions starting with Dear Catastrophe Waitress and now, with great success, in The Life Pursuit. The new songs are bright, polished, and sunny (sometimes literally), as well as catchy and infectious. While the pervasive melancholy of their early albums has been left behind, Belle & Sebastian can still write songs that are heartbreaking (“Dress Up In You”) or wistful (“Funny Little Frog”). But the best songs here are simply fun, like “The White Collar Boy” and “The Blues Are Still Blue”.

1. Islands, Return to the Sea
I’m not seeing this album on very many other year-end lists, but it was definitely my favorite of the year. Maybe their quirky blend of indie-rock and tropical music has limited appeal (ok, probably), but I love it. The first couple of songs are epic: “Swans (Life After Death)” is a metaphorical account of how the band was formed after the dissolution of the Unicorns, something I only discovered after I bought the Unicorns’ last album and could decode the references. “Humans” is more straightforward, telling the story of refugees fleeing an (alien?) invasion. After this they move to shorter songs, but no less variety in topics: anorexia, the diamond trade, environmental disaster, and with “Jogging Gorgeous Summer”, a simple and beautiful love song. All these disparate themes are tied together with island and ocean metaphors, which tie in perfectly with the musical style. I never got tired of listening to this album and felt like I noticed something new and interesting in the music every time.

Actually, I do have one more music list to post: at the beginning of the year I made a resolution to fill out my collection of ’90s albums, and promised to post my favorites a year later. So that list will appear next week.

Year-end Miscellany 2006

I usually name a favorite book, movie, and game of the year. This year none of the books I read were recent enough to qualify, so I’ll just do the other two:

2006 Movie of the Year: Brick
There wasn’t a standout film in this category, but I think Brick was my favorite of what I saw this year. (There are many reportedly excellent movies that I haven’t seen yet as well, such as The Departed.) Brick puts a classic detective noir in a high school setting, and does an excellent job of blending the two genres, much as Buffy did with horror. (The movie is definitely influenced by Buffy and works in a subtle but unmistakeable reference.) All the elements of the classic noir movies are present, from the convoluted plot to the familiar character archetypes to the eerie soundtrack. The juxtaposition with high school students is sometimes funny, sometimes striking, but never cheesy or over-the-top.

2006 Game of the Year: Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria
I didn’t play a large number of video games this year, but there was a clear winner, the sequel to one of my all-time favorite games. The original Valkryrie Profile was a great dungeon crawler with beautiful visuals and complex and interesting characters. It only suffered from somewhat repetitive combat, which was completely reworked in the sequel to one of the most interesting and engaging systems I’ve ever seen in an RPG. The signature side-scrolling dungeons (hence “Profile”) were preserved with a couple new twists—the ability to switch places with monsters, and sealstones that alter the mechanics—that gave the puzzles more depth. Overall I found the gameplay addictive in a way that I hadn’t seen in years, and the only flaws I found are by comparison to the original Valkyrie Profile (mainly in the aesthetics and the character development).

Later this weekend, I’ll post my favorite albums of the year.

Favorite Songs of 2006: Year of the Wolf

Today is mix CD release day, so here’s my ranking of my favorite 20 songs of 2006 (which, in a different order, comprise the tracklist of the CD). The CD is entitled Year of the Wolf, copies of which are available upon request. (If I see you during the holidays I’m going to hand you a copy even if you don’t request one.) This naming scheme (following last year’s Year of the Phoenix) may or may not continue in the future, but since it worked again this year I went with it.
The rules: Only music released in 2006 (or December 2005) qualifies, and no more than one track is selected from a single album. Generally records which were released earlier in other countries (typically the UK) before a 2006 US release are disqualified, but I have been inconsistent in applying this rule.
Special congratulations to the Decemberists and The Hold Steady, who are returning from last year’s favorite songs list.
20. “Help Us Out” by the Futureheads (from News and Tributes [US release])

This was a bonus track on the US release (and a B-side to one of the British singles), and the runner-up for Best Bonus Track of 2006. (The Art Brut bonus track named there was disqualified from this list due to an earlier British release.) Maybe it’s the way it captures the energy of the Futureheads’ superior debut album, but I liked this track more than any of the non-bonus tracks on the record. A wonderfully frenetic song that races through its two-and-a-half minutes.

19. “I Bet You Looked Good On The Dance Floor” by Arctic Monkeys (from Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not)

The Arctic Monkeys were one of the most hyped bands of the year, but this, their key single, lives up to its reputation. A gem of Britrock in the line of the Libertines or Pulp, with clever lyrics and terrific guitar riffs.

18. “I Feel Space” by Lindstrøm (from It’s A Feedelity Affair)

The title is an apt description of the song, gorgeous spacey electronica suitable for some retro-futuristic disco.

17. “Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken” by Camera Obscura (from Let’s Get Out Of This Country)

This bright-sounding pop-song was a striking opening track for Camera Obscura’s album, so striking that I kept it as the opener for my mix CD.

16. “Roka” by Calexico (from Garden Ruin)

A strong runner-up in the Best Bilingual Song category, Calexico mixes some Spanish vocals into their Southwestern-country style to great effect.

15. “Way Out” by Ellen Allien and Apparat (from Orchestra of Bubbles)

This European electronica collaboration produced some great tracks, none better than the ethereal “Way Out”, which feels like exploring an alien landscape.

14. “Conventional Wisdom” by Built To Spill (from You In Reverse)

Trading off between a spectacular guitar riff and catchy vocals, the first two minutes of the song are rock perfection. So we’ll forgive them the next four minutes of aimless jamming.

13. “Summersong” by the Decemberists (from The Crane Wife)

The Decemberists forgo their usual narrative-heavy songwriting to evoke a bittersweet summer’s day, and the result is the best song on the album.

12. “Set The Fire To The Third Bar” by Snow Patrol (from Eyes Open)

Gary Lightbody makes several attempts on the latest album to recapture the anthematic glory of Final Straw; this duet with Martha Wainwright is the one that best succeeds.

11. “Love & Communication” by Cat Power (from The Greatest)

A simply beautiful song which achieves a nice synthesis between Chan Marshall’s voice and the accompanying Memphis Rhythm Band.

10. “Glasgow Mega-Snake” by Mogwai (from Mr Beast)

If the title conjures an image of a gigantic snake eating Glasgow, it’s an appropriate one. Heavier than usual for Mogwai, a direction they should perhaps go more often.

9. “Pictures of a Night Scene” by Pretty Girls Make Graves (from Élan Vital)

PGMG members shuffle instruments among themselves and trade their usual aggressiveness for a tense and haunted atmosphere.

8. “Marble House” by The Knife (from Silent Shout)

Nearly eveything from The Knife’s eerie record was good, with this track edging out “We Share Our Mother’s Health” as my favorite.

7. “Black Flowers” by Yo La Tengo (from I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass)

A perfectly calm and comforting song that always leaves me feeling peaceful.

6. “Revolver” by Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan (from Ballad of the Broken Seas)

Mark Lanegan’s songwriting contribution to this album is the best Americana song of the year, a dark contemplation of life and death.

5. “New Years” by Asobi Seksu (from Citrus)

Somewhere between shoegazing and J-pop lies Asobi Seksu, and this is the best of their fuzzy, blissful pop. I don’t understand the (mostly Japanese) lyrics, but the song does somehow feel like New Year’s Eve.

4. “Hot Soft Light” by The Hold Steady (from Boys and Girls in America)

It was tough choosing just one song from this album, but this is the one I found the catchiest. Craig Finn takes the persona of a guy being questioned by the police, his story backed by the band’s most formidable rock.

3. “The Blues Are Still Blue” by Belle & Sebastian (from The Life Pursuit)

My most-played song of 2006 (it helps that it came out in February), it’s one of those perfect Belle & Sebastian pop songs that I can’t get enough of.

2. “Rough Gem” by Islands (from Return to the Sea)

Originally I thought this song a notch below some of the others on this amazing album, but after multiple plays it kept growing on me. Mixes commentary on the diamond trade with plays on the singer’s name and some thoroughly impenetrable lyrics, on top of Islands’ irresistible calypso-tinged pop, here at its most vibrant and coherent.

1. “Wolf Like Me” by TV on the Radio (from Return to Cookie Mountain)

This one astonishing song towers over everything else on an already excellent album. Filled with passion, energy, and primal desire, given powerful expression by Tunde Adebimpe’s vocals, it’s the best song about werewolves since Warren Zevon.

Friday Non-Random 10: Miscellaneous Song Awards, 2006

It’s December and therefore time for lots of meaningless best-of-year lists. I’ve started putting together the CD with my favorite songs of the year, and will probably post that list at the end of next week. (Really great songs that are released this month will be included in next year’s list.) Meanwhile, I want to acknowledge some songs that may not make it onto the CD, but deserve special recognition in a particular category. Some of these categories will likely return next year, but some will be one-shots. I’ve added links to songs that the artists have made available online.
Pirate Song of the Year, awarded back in September to the best song about pirates:
“Selling the Wind” by Pretty Girls Make Graves
Best Romantic Song, for the song that turns me into a hopeless romantic for three minutes:
“Jogging Gorgeous Summer” by Islands
Best Breakup Song, to balance out the Best Romantic Song:
“Tears for Affairs” by Camera Obscura
Best Bilingual Song, for the ultimate in impenetrable lyrics:
“New Years” by Asobi Seksu (English and Japanese) [mp3 download]
[Dishonorable mention to Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan for “Deus Ibi Est”, in which they employ Latin but pronounce it like French.]
Best Protest Song, in a year with plenty to protest:
“Parade” by Pretty Girls Make Graves [MySpace stream]
Best Religious Song, because religion sometimes does inspire greatness:
“Act of the Apostle Part I” by Belle & Sebastian
Best Irreligious Song, because blasphemy is usually more fun:
“Here’s Your Future” by the Thermals [mp3 download]
Best Apocalyptic Song, for when it feels like the end of the world:
“Volcanoes” by Islands [MySpace stream]
Best Bonus Track, where too many are just lame filler:
“Really Bad Weekend” by Art Brut
Arrested Development Memorial Award for Multilayered and Allusive Lyrics, for when I need to listen to your previous band’s catalog to understand the song:
“Swans (Life After Death)” by Islands
Tune in next week for the best songs of the year! In the meantime, dispute my choices above or create your own categories in the comments.

Unusual deaths

While poking around on Wikipedia I found their interesting and macabre list of unusual deaths. Apparently ironic deaths were big in the 20th century, whereas the 19th century is characterized by deaths from trivial accidents. The latest trend seems to be getting killed by bears, which suggests that Stephen Colbert may be on to something. Alexander Litvinenko is the most recent entry.

What’s missing from Guitar Hero?

Stylus offers a list of songs overlooked for inclusion in Guitar Hero. Despite one selection that is clearly crazy and a fixation on hair, it’s a respectable list. But the real reason to post this is to start a thread on the subject. What else should have been on the Guitar Hero setlist? I’d like to see some of the dueling guitars of Pretty Girls Make Graves (“Something Bigger, Something Brighter” would be good) or Sleater-Kinney (“I’m the Drama You’ve Been Craving”?) for the two-player game. Or anything by Built To Spill.

But where’s “November Rain”?

Pitchfork hits YouTube and comes back with 100 Awesome Music Videos. Well, some of them are awesome and some are “awesome” (David Hasselhoff covering “Hooked on a Feeling”, for example). I watched “To Here Knows When” (My Bloody Valentine) and “Sugarcube” (Yo La Tengo) immediately, those being two of my favorite songs—the former looks like the song for a nice synaesthetic effect, and the latter is just hilarious. Also, the Decemberists’ “16 Military Wives” video is worthwhile (I saw it a while ago). Later on I’m going to go through and watch a bunch more of these.

Vaporware watch: The Duke Nukem Forever list

If you read Kotaku this is last week’s news, but someone has compiled an amusing list of things that have happened since Duke Nukem Forever was announced. (For the non-gamers in the audience, this is a PC game that was announced nine years ago and is still in development.) They start with video games (75 Mega Man games, I assume that counts remakes) and proceed to more general categories, e.g.:

Movies that were filmed, released in theatres, and have made it to DVD:

  • All three Star Wars prequels.

  • The entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, with extended editions.
  • Every Pixar movie aside from Toy Story.
  • Three (possibly four) James Bond films.
  • Every movie, animation, and video game from The Matrix series.

Also note the occasional liberal bias. (“The national minimum wage has remained $5.15.”)

Band names: good, bad, and ugly

I keep forgetting to link this: The Onion A.V. Club list of Worst Band Names, and an accompanying list of band names that are so-bad-they’re-awesome. These are actual bands and not an Onion parody. I recognize at least one local band (The Fucking Ocean), but my favorite name on the second list is “Mariospeedwagon” (who also appear to be a Bay Area band).
I have always thought that El Diablo Robotico (a phrase that appeared in an episode of Angel) would be a great name for a band.