Harry Nilsson: Pandemonium Shadow Show
After living with two different Harry Nilsson greatest hits comps for many years, last year I finally got around to picking up Nilsson Schmilsson, widely lauded as his best album. It's good—it's great!—but it also left me a little cold. Perhaps it was simply a matter of knowing so many of the songs already from the comps. Still, there were two other minor strikes: the songs I didn't know were mostly just good, not outstanding. And the songs I did know, aside maybe from "Gotta Get Up," are not among the upper echelon of my favorite Nilsson songs (that echelon being pretty fucking high up in the atmosphere). Nevertheless I know that Nilsson is too much of a genius not to warrant more full-length acquisitions. So I went with an earlier album, Pandemonium Shadow Show. All that is a preface to this little secret tip: Pandemonium Shadow Show is way better than Nilsson Schmilsson. From the biblical "Ten Little Indians" to the Kinks-like "Cuddly Toy" to what must be the first-ever mash-up "You Can't Do That," which is a Frankenstein's monster of disparate Beatles lyrics, Pandemonium is a fun, funny, breezy album that is also an incredible display of Nilsson's mastery of pop craft. Shit, I need to go get another Nilsson album.
- Harry Nilsson: Ten Little Indians
Brian Eno: Here Come the Warm Jets
As with Nilsson I've been slowly but surely filling in my Eno collection, this being my third Eno acquisition in the last couple of years after Another Green World and Before and After Science. Though I thoroughly love those records, this might be my favorite of them all so far. Warm Jets is Eno's first solo album; whereas an album like Another Green World plays like a 50/50 transition between his rock past and ambient future, Warm Jets is pretty firmly rooted in the rock world he came from, with dashes of Brian Ferry and David Bowie-isms sprinkled all around. Incidentally I just finished Geeta Dayal's book on Another Green World, which only makes me want to hear more Eno, stat (specifically On Land, Discreet Music, No Pussyfooting, and Music for Airports—none of which I expect to sound like Warm Jets; so, Taking Tiger Mountain [by Strategy] too.)
- Brian Eno: Some Of Them Are Old
Radio Dept.: Clinging to a Scheme
It took me a long time to realize that the Radio Dept.'s first album, Lesser Matters, was my favorite album of 2004. It took me a little longer to realize it was possibly my favorite album of the last decade. No, it doesn't feel "important" like Kid A or Funeral or some Animal Collective record, but I sure did play the shit out of it consistently for years. Still do. It's a rare record that can go three, four, five, six years and still never feel played to death. I was much cooler on their followup, Pet Grief, which has a couple of terrific songs and a lot of atmosphere. So when it came to their latest I really wasn't sure which way they were going to go. Happily, I'm realizing this is my favorite new release of the year. Just like Lesser Matters, I just keep listening to it! Need there be more justification? It's hazy and poppy and cool and warm and light and spacey and fuzzy and fun and melancholy and great.
- Radio Dept: This Time Around
Silver Apples: s/t
Telling, perhaps, that of the seventeen krautrock albums I picked up in the last six months, only one makes it into my "best" category. Blame Faust IV, but the bar is fucking high. This is my first Cluster album and man do I hope the rest of their discography is as good as this. Soweisoso is an essential album for anyone interested in the history of electronica—utterly ahead of its time. Even more impressive in that regard is the Silver Apples' debut from 1968, an otherworldly psychedelic electronica. The album gets a little tedious toward the end—I swear the duo is recycling rhythms on a couple tracks—but their best ideas are still astounding, especially considering when the album was made.
There are two kinds of Spoon fans in the world—first-time fans and long-time fans. Every Spoon album is just similar enough yet just different enough to keep the long-time fans happy; every album also serves as a perfectly acceptable point of entry for the uninitiated. You might have your favorite Spoon album, but it's not essential that some newbie start with that one. Girls Can Tell, Gimme Fiction, whatever. Start where you like. Right? Well, I think that was true up to the newest. Transference is a great album but I think it's made for the long-time fans. It's the Spoon recipe—Britt Daniel oozes cool, the rhythm section drives every song, the guitars play only the minimally required amount, the production is so detail-oriented as to be more interesting than the music in spots—but it seems to require just a little more patience. It took me a few listens to identify why that was so. At first I thought it was the production—the fact that the band interspersed a lot of raw demo material with the more polished stuff. But that wasn't it, because Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, my favorite of theirs, actually has more production tricks and is a sonically weirder record. With more listens I realized that Transference contains more drawn-out instrumental vamps and jams than their other records. "The Mystery Zone" feels like it could end around the three minute mark but instead goes on, without a lot of variation, for another two minutes. "Out Go the Lights" does too, and "Nobody Gets Me but You." It bothered me at first. Bored me, I mean. But with more and more listens—awesome tracks like "Is Love Forever" and "Who Makes Your Money" kept me coming back—the vibe of Transference really sank in. Which is to say I love the album but I'd recommend almost any other—more specifically, Kill the Moonlight or Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga—to the uninitiated.
- Spoon: The Mystery Zone
Wire: Pink Flag
Like Harry Nilsson above, I've lived with a couple of Wire compilations for a long time, the pleasures of which somehow barred me from getting around to their proper full lengths. Pink Flag is, of course, terrific. Acquiring this album around the same time as the new Spoon brings home to me what that band has taken from Wire: the elemental nature of rock—a few chords, a simple beat, a lot of attitude. I look forward to picking up more proper Wire albums in the future (I have a feeling I'll like Chairs Missing more).
- Wire: Three Girl Rhumba
Vampire Weekend: Contra
Contra is not too different from Vampire Weekend's debut, but that's okay with me. First and foremost these guys are an excellent guitar pop band, their songs full of perfect melodies, witty lyrics, bounding rhythms, effervescent guitar runs. Who can complain about that? It falls short of the debut, partly because Contra doesn't benefit from feeling "new" the way the first album did, and partly because Contra falls off toward the end. "Giving Up the Gun" is too polished and the closing track, "I Think UR a Contra," sounds almost like a Coldplay song. (Honestly can't be a good thing when I hear a song and think, "I wish Coldplay were singing this instead.") Those aside, songs like "White Sky" and "Cousins" and "Run" are as great as anything they've done before.
- Vampire Weekend: White Sky
Along with all the krautrock the other genre I've gotten deeper into this year is ambient/drone. Of the handful of such albums I've picked up, Choral is probably the most spacious and most elegant. The group paints vast, open landscapes through a combination of Stars of the Lid-like guitar drones and occasional, more traditionally played acoustic motifs. The best kind of ambient music is the kind that lets you sink into its atmosphere yet doesn't bore; this is exactly what Mountains accomplish.
- Mountains: Telescope
Talk Talk: Spirit of Eden
Writing my book on Spiderland I was reminded of a common claim I've long heard about the so-called genre "post rock"—namely that the genre tag was originally coined in an attempt to describe Talk Talk's later albums a few years before Slint came along and the description was sort of co-opted to describe them instead. Seeing as I'd never really heard Talk Talk before, it seemed like imperative that I do so. Thank God I did. Spirit of Eden is a gorgeous album, almost like a song cycle. Its six songs drift along, ebbing and flowing like one cohesive work. Spirit of Eden is moody without being morose, inventive yet humble, really a (softly) glowing album.
- Talk Talk: Eden