Wednesday, December 31, 2008

13 Great Albums From 2008

I'm starting off my year-end lists for 2008 with a list of thirteen great albums that should be listened to but weren't lucky enough (get it? 13?) to make the top 10 (which I will post tomorrow, along with the top 20 tracks and the superlatives.) These albums aren't in any particular order (except alphabetical), as it's hard to distinguish them because they're all really good but also not perfect. Here goes:

Alegranza! by El Guincho: Pablo Diaz-Reixa's album of sample-based Spanish pop draws from various styles, such as Tropicalia, afrobeat, and dub. His sound is so similar to last year's Person Pitch through its similar use of loops that he is sometimes called the "Spanish Panda Bear."

Alopecia by Why?: The latest work from one of the better artists on the anticon label, Yoni Wolf's album of underground psych influenced hip-hop strikes a different chord with each track, most notably with "Good Friday."

Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill by Grouper: Refer to an earlier post for a full review of this wonderful gem of sleep-inducing noise pop.

Heretic Pride by The Mountain Goats: The latest addition to the mountain of a discography from a very endearing (and sometimes rather whiney) lo-fi indie folk rock group. The songs are very simple and honest; both immediately catchy and also ripen with repeated listens. It's a shame its January release left it forgotten on most other year-end reviews.

HLLLYH by The Mae Shi: The proper debut from Las Angeles pop-punk band combines Dan Deacon-esque electronics with catchy riffs and grating vocals, creating a fine collection of quirky and exciting songs like "Run To your Grave."

Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel by Atlas Sound: An incredible shoegaze/dream-pop solo record from the incredibly prolific frontman of Deerhunter, Bradford Cox. Comprised of beautiful layers and textures of repeated melodies, such as on the phenomenal "Winter Vacation."

Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson by Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson: A great freak-folk debut from MBAR and his collaborators, which include Kyp Malone of TVOTR and Daniel Rossen of Grizzly Bear and Department Of Eagles. How could it not be good?

Saint Dymphna by Gang Gang Dance: The long-awaited follow-up to 2005's masterpiece, God's Money, this album sees GGD go electronic. This album blurs the boundaries between house, dance, jazz, punk and folk music, resulting in another groundbreaking, genre-defying record from a very adventurous group of musicians. Plus, "First Communion" is ridiculously good.

Sea Lion by The Ruby Suns: An exciting collection of pop songs from a group of hip youngsters from New Zealand. The record seems to draw heavy influences from Animal Collective and twee groups like Architecture In Helsinki, and it works quite well.

The Stand Ins by Okkervil River: A continuation of last year's excellent The Stage Names, this album sees Okkervil River produce even more catchy, upbeat tunes. However, the emotion is still genuine and raw, especially on the phenomenal track "Starry Stair."

Visiter by Dodos: Another record inspired by the psychedelic folk of Animal Collective, Meric Long and friends perfect the formula of tribal drumming and rapid guitar strumming to craft a set of wonderful songs, including the increasingly popular "Fools."

by Women: Again, see an earlier post to read a full review of this short-but-sweet set of catchy noise-pop melodies blended among beautiful sound art experiments.

You & Me by The Walkmen: There's nothing too interesting about The Walkmen's music, as it's basically just the typical indie rock formula of rock instruments and average-quality vocals, but these guys really have a knack for writing songs, both with the fast-paced and exciting such as "On The Water" and the toned-down introspections of "Red Moon."

Monday, December 29, 2008

Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill; April; Youth Novels; Naked Acid

Here are my thoughts on four more important albums from 2008...

...the best of which is Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill by Grouper. The album is a majestic piece of melancholy fuzzed-over folk guitar melodies, driven by Liz Harris' soft, echoing voice. The music is very earthy and natural, both themes reflected in some of the lyrics, such as in "Fishing Bird", "Wind And Snow", and "Tidal Wave." The guitar work consists of free-form chord strumming that slowly hypnotizes with swirling notes that are washed in distorted noise yet somehow feel strikingly clear. The overall effect of the album is intricately beautiful, but it could also easily put a listener to sleep. It's as if Harris were a hypnotist, repeating the lyrics quietly over and over until they blend into the oblivion created by her music. Overall, it's a beautiful piece of shoegaze noise pop that resembles notables like Beach House and My Bloody Valentine. And, for some reason, I think the album art is really, really cool.

Sun Kil Moon's April was less satisfying, though it did have some incredible tracks, such as "Lost Verses", "Unlit Hallway", and "Harper Road." Most of the rest, however, were somewhat boring and the entire album, clocking in at over an hour and ten minutes, seemed very drawn out. To me it just didn't have the same magic as Mark Kozelek's earlier SKM album, Ghosts Of The Great Highway.

The third album, Youth Novels by Lykke Li, seemed less like an album and more like a collection of singles. This is not to say that the music wasn't good, however, it just didn't have a cohesive feeling to it. The tracks themselves were pretty good pop songs from an up-and-coming female Swedish artist, but unfortunately none were that incredible. My favorites were "Dance, Dance, Dance" and "Tonight." It's fun music to listen to, but it's less satisfying than some of the other stuff out there. Some tracks remind me a lot of Santogold.

My least favorite of the bunch was Naked Acid by Valet. Maybe I'm missing something, but most of the album just didn't sound good to me. The tracks were long and very free-form, lacking any traditional melody or musical structure, which would be fine if done well but to me seemed like sort of a mess. However, a reward for 35 minutes of boredom comes in the last two tracks: the Beach House-esque "Fire" and the surprisingly electronic album-closer "Streets", the latter of which was actually quite good and, thankfully, justified my listening through the entire album.

The year is almost through, so check back for some exciting year-end lists! I hope to do one for best albums, another for good albums that didn't quite make the cut, and one for my favorite tracks. I'll also do some superlatives, like Worst Album, Best Live Act, Most Promising New Group, and Most Overrated/Underrated. I've been working hard on finishing my listening, so get excited! (Or innocuous!)

Saturday, December 27, 2008


Late last night, after everyone else had gone to bed, I gave a first listen to Portishead's Third, and let me say it was an altogether terrifying experience. Gone is the soft, chillout, trip-hop sound of Portishead's first releases from over ten years ago, being replaced by a harshness created through heavy electronic distortion and loud, abrasive samples (such as the gunshots on the track "Machine Gun".) The vocal stylings of Beth Gibbons now sound ghostly and ethereal instead of soothingly calm, and the album feels like a haunted house with thrills and surprises around every corner.

Third may contain some of the scariest music I've heard since Scott Walker's The Drift, and it even evokes some of the same feelings as that album, though the pieces are not as extreme or avant-garde. Still, the music is extraordinarily dark and erratic, with dramatically changing moods at little to no notice. Several times throughout the album, after drifting into a sort of hypnotic state created through repeated psychedelic swirls, I was blasted awake by loud percussion as the album turned in a completely different direction. Despite this, the music is still beautiful, just in an extraordinarily haunting sort of way. Some more typical melodies immediately stand out, such as "The Rip" and "We Carry On," while others such as "Nylon Smile" and "Plastic" seem to need more listens to be fully appreciated. The entire album is very cohesive, and the full 50 minutes is definitely a unique, must-hear experience. However, I feel like it's the kind of cerebral music that needs to take root deep inside the brain over the time (in a similar way to Dummy,) and so I can't offer a definitive opinion after just one listen. Needless to say, I'm intrigued: Third will definitely grace my headphones with its presence many more times in the future.

Thursday, December 25, 2008


It's Christmas (on the East coast) and in the spirit of giving, I decided to share with you all a neat little tune that I just recently discovered. It's "Orphaned" by Max Tundra and it's awesome for two reasons: one because it's a lovely piece of the quirky electronic indie pop we've come to expect from Max and two, more importantly, because I think I know exactly how it was created.

One of our assignments in my electronic music class this past semester was to create a rhythm generator (like a simple drum machine) using Max/MSP software and then feed audio samples from other songs into the system to make a more interesting beat. Mine used 200 millisecond clips from two different songs, one by Dirty Projectors and another by Van Dyke Parks, and an interesting mix of vocals and percussion arose. "Orphaned" sounds just like this: Tundra's piece is based off of a few simple rhythms built with tiny clips of other sounds. I feel like the best songs are those that make you want to create your own music when you hear them, and this one makes me want to go back and play around with my drum machine again. Unfortunately, my free trial of Max/MSP just recently expired and I'll have to wait until I can purchase a student version. Lucky for me, though, I'll be able to pass the time just by listening to this song. It's a shame the rest of Parallax Error Beheads You somewhat falls short, but hey, I'll take what I can get.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


While I was working my way through the last of the albums from 2008 in preparation for my soon-to-be-posted year-end lists, I stumbled across something wonderful: a short-but-sweet set of fuzzy noise-washed guitar pop melodies mixed among beautifully distorted sonic experiments.

The eponymous debut by Women, an indie rock quartet of four Canadian men, consists of a little less than 30 minutes of music spread across 10 tracks of varying lengths. The song structures are very complex, combining traditional pop vocal melodies reminiscent of The Beach Boys with frenzied harmonious string-plucking. Each individual track is wonderfully inventive on its own, but when compiled together as an album of bright, catchy tunes played over raw, experimental sound art, create an incredibly cohesive album. Even the one-minute tracks, such as the opener "Cameras" and the rapid guitar movements of "Group Transport Hall," are sure to stick in your head with their clever hooks. The standout track of the album, "Shaking Hand," embodies the spirit of the whole: it begins with nice little vocal harmonies that gradually transform into pure, noisy instrumentals over the course of the song. Santa came early with this album, and it's definitely a must-listen for 2008.

Completely changing the subject: Enjoy the holidays, everyone! Sit back, relax, and put on "Sister Winter", an original from Sufjan Stevens' Christmas album. You won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Winter Break Music Overhaul

So my Winter Break started on Saturday and before I left school I took about 35 albums from the radio station library and bought another 12 for really cheap on the Amazon Marketplace (great stuff, some of the CDs were less than a dollar plus shipping). I'm planning on listening to all of them over the next month so I can find some good, lesser-known stuff to play on the next season of our show. Basically I used to find artists similar to some of my favorite bizarre-sounding bands like Animal Collective, Frog Eyes, Grizzly Bear, Dan Deacon, Dirty Projectors, Deerhoof, etc. and took any albums that got good ratings to give them a try.

I know it sounds ambitious, but I was already able to listen to eight albums on the train home and I've scheduled it so that I spare about an hour or so each day to just sit and listen to new stuff, so hopefully I can push through the massive mountain of new music. So far I've heard Crystal Stilts, The High Llamas, Bearsuit, Alaska In Winter, Daedalus, Mercury Rev, Piano Magic, Fennesz, and Fridge, all of which were fairly good and deserve some attention. A list of my favorites follows:

1. Alight of Night by Crystal Stilts (Distorted noise pop like The Jesus & Mary Chain)
2. Beet, Maize, & Corn by The High Llamas (Honest folk/pop similar to Brian Wilson)
3. Denies The Day's Demise by Daedalus (Electronica with scratching and exotica beats)
4. Deserter's Songs by Mercury Rev (Experimental 90s pop a la The Flaming Lips)
5. Endless Summer by Fennesz (Beautiful ambient glitch pieces, found through my Computers & Music class)

Other notables: The track "Close Your Eyes - We Are Blind" on Alaska In Winter's Dance Party In The Balkans features Zach Condon of Beirut. The title track on Disaffected by Piano Magic, the only track worth a listen in my opinion, is similarly fantastic.

In case you haven't noticed, I've been going through the stuff alphabetically by album name. I'll probably interject some random ones once my CDs come in the mail (5 of them arrived yesterday!)

Today's album was Es Tiempo by Alla (right), which sounded like a psych-folksy, Spanish version of Portishead's Dummy. Some good stuff, especially the intro "Un Dia Otra Noche" and the title track.

Finally, I'll leave you with a link to one of the best tracks I've discovered so far. Click here to see a fan video accompaniment to "Endlessly" by Mercury Rev (who you'll definitely be hearing more about in the near future.) Enjoy (and check out the wonderful use of theremin in the background!)

Sigmund Freud Would Be Proud

Welcome to The Pleasure Principle, an outlet for me to rave about any good music I happen to come across, old or new. I'll post ranking lists, new albums, new artists, or any songs that I'm just currently obsessed with for your reading and listening pleasure. Hopefully you'll be able to share some of my joy of finding new and exciting music and you'll have as much fun reading my reviews as I will writing them!