2010: Artists of my year

I put the emphasis on my because these aren’t going to appear on anyone else’s run-down of 2010. Or two out of three anyway – the artists of my year actually have a lot in common, but release dates aren’t one of them.

Not that there wasn’t enough good music out in 2010. It’s been a long-ass time since I made one of those numbered lists – I used to love doing it, but I think I might have taken it a little too seriously and they would always end up taking me so long to compile, it wasn’t worth posting them anymore by the time I was finished. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to mention really great albums by Mark Ronson, Hot Chip, She & Him, Tunng, Son Of Dave, Frightened Rabbit (especially Frightened Rabbit – The Winter Of Mixed Drinks really stuck with me), and The Black Keys (always, always The Black Keys) – all of which got a lot of airplay on my iPod.

I’m thinking as I type this that a badass mix tape (the old school kind) could be made of some of my favorite singles of the year. If I did that, the tracklist would probably look a little something like this:

“The Arsonist”, Our Lost Infantry (thanks to Saam at Faded Glamour for letting us know about this one)
“Superfast Jellyfish”, Gorillaz
“Bang Bang Bang”, Mark Ronson (probably my single of the year, if I had to pick one)
“New York Is Killing Me”, Gil Scott-Heron
“Taos”, Menomena
“Best Friend”, The Drums
“The Opposite Of Adults”, Chiddy Bang
“The Cities That You Burn”, Adam Haworth Stephens
“King Of The Beach”, Wavves
“Kentucky Pill”, Johnny Flynn
“Ghost Train”, Summer Camp
“O.N.E.”, Yeasayer

Among others. Hmm, maybe I should make that mix.

Anyway, the point is that, although I loved all of this music dearly, they aren’t the artists I’m going to forever associate with 2010. It wasn’t really my best year ever and, I suppose I really latched on to the way Tom Petty, Langhorne Slim, and Mark Oliver Everett AKA Eels approach music.

Tom Petty?! Yeah, I know, I’m at least 20 years late and it’s not like I didn’t love Tom Petty before last year. But I got to see that amazing Peter Bogdanovich documentary earlier this year and then couldn’t get enough. Same with Langhorne Slim, whose eponymous 2008 album had been wasting away in my iTunes library until I finally remembered to check it out this summer. I snatched up everything else he’s recorded within weeks and at least one of his albums has been on my iPod ever since, no exaggeration. As for Eels – yeah, I listened to a lot of Eels last year too, but again – Mark Oliver Everett’s voice and songwriting just took hold me of me this year even more than before. I loved Tomorrow Morning but listened to everything I have as much as I could; Eels music is, for me, definitely something I love even more the more I listen.

All three play and sing from the bottom of their hearts, reaching deep, deep down for a level of true emotion (both happy and sad) that most other artists can’t dream of – but they all three also infuse their music and lyrics with the kind of hope that just refuses to give up. And I guess that’s just what spoke – or sang – to me in 2010.

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers – Even The Losers
Langhorne Slim – Worries
Eels – Oh So Lovely

Friday Favorite: Eels

Eels – Old Shit / New Shit

In The Merry Merry Month of … January

Eels, End Times

Yeah, it’s been a while since we Merry Merry Month-ed, but January started off 2010 right with some fantastic releases. The obvious, the one everyone talked about, the one that had people gathered around their website waiting for a hint of what was to come is, of course, Vampire Weekend. Kicking of the new year, Contra didn’t quite knock my socks off on the first listen. Sure, “Horchata” was catchy-as-hell, but I wondered if perhaps their sound could really only sustain them for a short time. But it’s grown on me over the few weeks and, even without anything like the triple threat of “Oxford Comma”, “A Punk”, and “Mansford Roof”, I still feel it’s a worthy follow-up to their debut. No big surprises – it’s fun and insanely catchy in pretty much exactly the way I’d expected – but songs like “White Sky” easily remind us why we all liked them so much in the first place.

Laura VeirsJuly Flame is perhaps a little less spunky, but still a pleasure to listen to. Here’s where I should admit that I’ve never actually heard a full Laura Veirs album before. I’ve got one EP, and she’s high on that mental list of artists I keep meaning to finally check out properly, but, shamefully, I still haven’t gotten to it. So it is that July Flame is the first one and, as a result, I have nothing to compare this to. I can’t say if it lives up to past releases or if she’s changed her ways since the last; I can only say that “Summer Is The Champion” and “Wide-Eyed, Legless” (below) were my immediate favorites and I expect July Flame to soundtrack many thoughtful moods in the future.

Laura Veirs – Wide-Eyed, Legless

Now, there are a few artists, few enough that I could probably count them on one hand, that blow away the competition almost by default. Unless something tragic happens, other releases don’t stand a change against theirs. One of that few is the lovely Mark Oliver Everett and his Eels. Assuming he doesn’t totally go off the deep end and release, say, a gansta rap album*, his albums are probably always going to outshine the rest. Last year’s Hombre Lobo had bite; January’s End Times is all stunning heartache and loss. It bluntly describes, as Everett himself put it, “the state of the desperate times we live in. The bottom line-ness of it all. The end of common decency. The loss of caring about doing a good job. These are tough times. Who can you trust? Walter Cronkite is just a ghost.” Add to that a renewed sense of personal hurt and aloneness and you have the recipe for some truly depressing listening. So how is it that Eels albums never quite are? There always seems to be a tiny spark of hope, of defiance, underneath it all that keeps it from sinking into total despair. Everett’s talent lies in his ability to be almost painfully honest in his lyrics, while managing to find beauty in even the deepest sadness.

Eels – Mansions Of Los Feliz

*Though, honestly, I’d totally listen to a Eels gangsta rap album at least once. It would be interesting, if nothing else.

As for singles, it seems that January ’10 had some greatness to offer in that department as well.

These New Puritans – We Want War

This song gives me goosebumps. It starts with a slow drum and gradually turns into a dark force with a choir, middle eastern-inspired percussion and creepy-inspired creepiness. It has the same effect as The Imperial Death March. Seriously, if ever I decide to become a super villain I’d choose this song for my theme. It feels menacing, like the harbinger of evil. Blows my mind.

Lightspeed Champion – Marlene

I first heard this song in concert two years ago (which by the way, was freaking amazing) and I remember looking for it afterwards, because it made such an instant impact. Dev warned the crowd that it was a bit different from his usual stuff. The crowd went nuts, so then he said he wondered whether to be worried that his other songs didn’t get quite the same booming response. To be honest, I’ll listen to anything he dishes out, but “Marlene” truly is a remarkable single with an harder edge and even some psychedelic influences. If you haven’t heard it yet, listen and love, my friend.

Oh No Ono – Helplessly Young (mp3)

The nasal, high-pitched vocals sound like that guy from Empire Of The Sun. I mean, exactly like him! Wait, it’s not the same guy, is it? Uncanny. Anyway, this sounds like a wonderfully, sixties rock-inspired pop song. It’s really sunny and playful and for some reason it made me wish for the warm summer days that ended with a slushy that turned my tongue blue. But I think that might be a personal thing.

Plastiscines – Bitch

Les Plastiscines – following Meredith Brooks before them, aren’t trying to change the world with their earth shattering lyricism, they’re just announcing their superb B-I-T-C-H status with some rowdy Rawk ‘n Roll! “Bitch” has an uncomplicated message, if you can call it that, and mild shock value – well if you’re Amish and consider Avril’s musical endeavors “punk”, but it’s a whole lot of fun.

Stairs To Korea – All Of Your Friends (Dreamtrack Session)

Oh my goodness, I love this song – from the electronic bleeps to the sweeping guitar. Its lyrics tap into the essence of human emotions without getting sickeningly sentimental. It’s the work of one beardy man with an amazing understanding how to play with words and melody to create something that’ll make a lasting impression. I know it’s not fair to compare, but I’ve listened to them in succession and couldn’t help but note his lyrics make the Plastiscines seem very silly indeed, still fun but so very silly.

OK Go – This Too Shall Pass

So sweet. I forgot that despite the somewhat gimmicky feel of their quirky, memorable videos, OK Go make some really great pop songs as well. This one is ridiculously catchy, upsweeping and uplifting and features a whole dang marching band. It will turn your mood from Tim Burton to Roberto Begnini in a heartbeat. AND it has a quirky, memorable video.

Jay Z, Rihanna, Bono & The Edge – Stranded (Haiti Mon Amour)

The proceeds of this single go to relief funds for Haiti. It’s a great cause, a great single and a wonderful way to spend 99 cents.

100bookshelf: Rob Sheffield & Mark Oliver Everett

I’m a great big dork and love reading about music almost as much as I love listening to it. I’d like to tell you about some of the music books I’ve enjoyed, on a monthly basis, if you’d like to hear about them. To start things off this month, I’ve got two books I’ve recently devoured, both about love and loss and the impact of music.

Rob Sheffield’s Love Is A Mix Tape is, superficially, told through the presence of mix tapes in his life. All of us (well, those of us who listened to music pre-iTunes) can relate to the impact of a mix tape. It’s not just about the music on it, because that part can be replicated through playlists and mix CDs. What we’re missing in the digital age is the way it took all day to physically make a really good mix. And, more importantly, the effort that you made to make one for someone else (and vice versa). Making a mix was special. Now we can whip out a CD in a few minutes, which is nice in its own way, but it’s a different thing. Mix tapes had themes and meaning in a way that CDs don’t – I don’t know why that is exactly, perhaps simply because CDs are so much simpler to make, we’re much less perfectionist about them. Mix tapes took devotion and commitment and, in a way, that’s what Rob Sheffield’s heartbreakingly beautiful memoir is all about. The story of how Sheffield met and fell in love with his wife, Renée, starts with a shared love of a lesser-known song (Big Star’s “Thirteen”) and ends with him a much too young widower, surrounded by the mix tapes that soundtracked their time together. It’s also the story of how he managed to live on after her death, both because of and in spite of the music that they loved together. Love Is A Mix Tape is horrifically sad, often funny, and essential for anyone who feels like music means something in their lives.

(Note: On the subject of mix tapes, also recommended is Thurston Moore’s Mix Tape: The Art Of Cassette Culture, a great stroll down memory lane for those of us who used to get really excited about spending all day Saturday parked in front of the stereo, surrounded by cassettes.)

Another memoir, Things The Grandchildren Should Know, by Eels frontman Mark Oliver Everett is a perfect companion to Love Is A Mix Tape. If you saw Everett’s recent BBC documentary, you’ll know that his father basically invented the idea of parallel universes. While that was all surprisingly fascinating (I’m not a theoretical physics kind of gal, so I wasn’t expecting to find the science stuff as interesting as I did), that’s not what Everett’s memoir is about. This is his personal story and it reads like he’s just telling a friend about his life. Like Rob Sheffield, Mark Everett’s musical world has been shaped and altered, in part, by tragedy and sorrow, much more than any one person should ever have to deal with. But it’s just as much about the desire, and the fight, to just be one’s self without compromise. You definitely do not have be a life-long Eels fan to appreciate and be inspired by Everett’s career and his struggle to just be the musician he is.

All in all, these are two of my most highly recommended music books, the kind that make me want to buy a box full of copies and hand them out to my friends like Elvis. Like the best movies and songs, they’re both full of love, humor, sadness and beauty.

   Big Star – Thirteen

   Eels – Hey Man (Now You’re Really Living)