Thursday, December 31, 2009

Top 50 Albums of 2009

December 18, 2009

46. Dan Deacon

From the Magnetic Fields on i to Elliott Smith on Figure 8, plenty of beloved artists have upgraded their equipment at the expense of some of their most appealing qualities. Dan Deacon's schmancy new toy is a computer-operated player piano that can generate notes faster than any pair of human hands; thankfully, his most appealing quality remains manic glee. So when Baltimore's most notorious electro-spazz made the leap from the basements of 2007's comparably lo-fi Spiderman of the Rings to, well, wherever the hell you'd expect to hear something like Bromst, he sticks the landing. Highlights "Snookered" and "Surprise Stefani" expand the sonic and emotional palette of Deacon's densely layered drifts, staying between Philip Glass and Chicago house, while unexpected touches like the female vocals on "Wet Wings" show new sides of the old goofball. Don't worry, he still sings like Woody Woodpecker. --Marc Hogan

15. Japandroids

Japandroids have a freaking wind machine, which they use to great effect on stage. It's a perfect nod to what this Vancouver band delivered on its debut album: eight deliriously enthusiastic garage-rock songs about girls, growing up, and going away from home. Rather than mask their emotions in reverb or tape hiss, Japandroids shout slogans, often in unison, over thrumming guitar chords and chaotic drumming. From the rambunctious ambivalence of "The Boys Are Leaving Town" to the slo-mo emo of "I Quit Girls", the energy level rarely wavers. Raging against the certain knowledge that we won't know what we've got 'til it's gone, "Young Hearts Spark Fire" sums up Post-Nothing's sound in four words. While Neon Indian, Washed Out, and their homemade psychedelic electro-pop peers were getting accused of wallowing in childhood, Japandroids captured the recklessness of youth-- and the abject terror of not knowing what comes after it. --Marc Hogan

Top 100 Tracks of 2009

December 14, 2009

93. Morrissey
"Something is Squeezing My Skull"

After Morrissey's onstage collapse and subsequent pegging by a drink-hurling fan, Years of Refusal's muscular, defiant opener, with its worries about the star's health, feels like its most striking accomplishment. For such an aggressively upbeat glam-rock tune, the theme is melodramatically bleak-- and, to British pop fans, probably doubly familiar: Modern life is loveless. Worth it just to hear Moz list meds and then breathlessly repeat, "Don't give me anymore," at the song's conclusion. Oh, Mother, he can feel the soil falling over his head. --Marc Hogan

42. The Big Pink

What's more cocksure than naming your band after the house where the Band wrote Music From Big Pink and recorded The Basement Tapes with Dylan? Calling bullshit on Otis Redding. "These arms of mine/ Don't mind who they hold," Robbie Furze announces on "Velvet", the second single by London duo the Big Pink. Men are scum-- check the headlines. So an album called A Brief History of Love would be pointlessly abridged without a song exploring the conflicting, self-destructive emotions of the (post?) adolescent male: heartbroken and heartless, loving and horny, quixotic and cold. If you don't hear any of that, Furze and bandmate Milo Cordell-- plus vocalist Lauren Jones and drummer Akiko Matsuura, with mixing by Alan Moulder-- conjure a feedback-roiled electro-shoegaze maelstrom that sounds as huge as first love feels. Does it make sense, or are we all eventually doomed to end up with facial lacerations and a five-iron through our Escalades? --Marc Hogan  

22. Delorean
[Fool House]

Barcelona four-piece Delorean could hardly have given the standout from their Ayrton Senna EP a more zeitgeisty title. But what "Seasun" represents would be just as relevant in 2002, 1982, or-- warning: weak Marty McFly joke to come-- 2022. It's the sound of a rock group who learned songwriting by making killer remixes of other people's songs. Forget verse-chorus-verse: Singer/bassist/scholar Ekhi Lopetegi doesn't sing anything you could properly call "words" until almost the three-minute mark, but that doesn't make "Seasun" any less catchy. Instead, we get a shimmering, arena- or disco-ready object lesson on letting the beat build. Whirring synths-- and, on John Talabot's excellent "Seasun" remix, electronic thuds that could fill the Camp Nou-- here give way to dramatic piano, high-pitched coos and hearty cheers, handclaps that sneak up on you, rock-style drums that gain momentum, maracas, and gorgeously Balearic guitars. Something something, "never be the same again." --Marc Hogan  

10. Washed Out
"Feel It All Around"
[Mexican Summer]

A year ago, Ernest Greene wasn't singing, really. Nine months ago, he wasn't making glimmering lo-fi electronic pop as Washed Out. Until October, you couldn't buy any of his stuff in physical form. Not long before you finally could, he would've had no reason to ask upstart labels Mexican Summer or Mirror Universe to press more than tiny numbers of his Life of Leisure 12" EP or High Times cassette. Who would be interested in them? A lot of people, it turns out, and "Feel It All Around" is the biggest reason why.

Washed Out's first single doesn't tell you what, exactly, you're supposed to be "feel"ing, but that's the idea. Twinkling synths, amniotic vocal drone, undulating bass, and chockablock percussion all imagine a hazy innocence that's just out of reach. Greene's wispily multi-tracked ache is no more clearly articulated. Anybody truly scandalized about this track's sampling of Gary Low's Italo-disco jam "I Want You" would've been just as pissed at the 1983 original for having synths. The past isn't as sublime as you remember it. The present always ends too soon. --Marc Hogan


B of A Likely to Sell Columbia to BlackRock, Ameriprise: Sources

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Republished December 31, 2009, as 8th most-read Ignites article of the year
Originally published July 17, 2009
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2009 Worst Year for Fund Launches Since 1990

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December 29, 2009

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Class Actress - Journal of Ardency

Track Review
December 8, 2009

Before Elizabeth Harper was frontwoman for slinky Brooklyn electro-pop trio Class Actress, she was another eponymous singer-songwriter. And yeah, before she gained some local media renown as a singer-songwriter, Harper was a college drama major. Those acting classes would appear to have paid off handsomely on the title track from Class Actress' debut EP, Journal of Ardency. For me, a big part of this coolly seductive song's spell lies in the way it gracefully finesses the gulf between someone's glamorous image of big-city nightlife and the narrator's lonely, wounded reality.

"You think I'm livin' it, livin' it, livin' it, livin' it up," Harper repeats behind frosty snare thwacks, adding, "It's a lie, lie." The galloping Italo-disco bass line and luxurious rubber-band synths evoke a night of cosmopolitan-clutching revelry at pricey Manhattan clubs, but the ponderously Depeche Mode-ish song title, unshowy melody, and earnest, expressive vocals tacitly acknowledge our narrator will no doubt be going home as she probably went out: alone. So while the track's moodily retro aesthetic suggests the nocturnal shadows of Glass Candy or Chromatics, its warm heart and bright hooks bring it closer to the communicative synth-pop of Annie, Little Boots, or stated influence Madonna. Confessions on a dance floor, for real.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Pink Skull - Endless Bummer

Album Review
December 7, 2009


New York's RVNG boutique has long distinguished itself for not only its expertly curated mixes, but also its imaginative packaging. When Philly mainstays Julian Grefe and Justin Geller, core duo behind disco freaks Pink Skull, put together the first Rvng Prsnts mix back in 2002, they recorded it straight to CD-R and did the printing at Kinko's. Each copy of Endless Bummer, Pink Skull's second album (first for RVNG), comes hand-typeset with a different "bummer"-- real depressing shit like "BUTT ACNE" or "NUCLEAR WARFARE." I got "JOHNHUGHESDIED."

In a year of summery new-music releases and celebrity deaths, Endless Bummer is neither glo-fi/chillwave trendfuck nor downer. Pink Skull's last album, 2008's Zeppelin 3, was a sprawling journey through psych, krautrock, Chicago house, rave, and other styles you might hope for on a killer RVNG mix. Jumping between live disco and acid house, with plenty of unexpected turns along the way, Endless Bummer is just as varied and transportative. It's also (relatively) focused. Recorded by Mazarin's Quentin Stoltzfus at the studio of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's Alec Ounsworth, the release is available on mp3 and vinyl, with digital-only bonus tracks.

Multiple online reports have suggested that Pink Skull got a full band together only prior to this album, but that's not the case. Grefe, Geller, and their abettors had actually expanded into a working live unit by 2007, and Zeppelin 3's dusty, freeform grooves-- the type of percussive dance-punk explorations that make you feel !!! drummer Jerry Fuchs' death all the more acutely-- get a wild and woolly reprise here. On the near-instrumental title track, for example, a variety of multi-layered, South American-flavored percussion parts support skronky sax and synths that alternately screech and lull.

A bigger change since Pink Skull's last outing-- that rare album to feature vocals from both Mirah and Ghostface Killah-- is the new prevalence of Grefe's own singing, with guests' higher-pitched harmonies balancing out his gruff man-voice. Those vocals are nevertheless the weakest part about opener "Peter Cushing", a limber disco-funk swooner that trades Zeppelin 3's music references for film references, but it's an elaborately realized production that would sit nicely beside something from DFA or Modular. Ostinato bass drives the sweeping, majestic "Oh, Monorail", as Grefe wryly asserts, "You know I hate songs about nightlife."

True to the idea of an album that is more than a collection of dance singles, the contemplative moments on Endless Bummer make return trips more rewarding. Each side of the album closes with elegant ambient synth pieces, while "Circling Bwi" toys with disembodied harmonies. The flute-trilling "Fast Forward to Bolivia, 2000 Years Later, Our Hero Finds Himself..." could score a futuristic update of that old Disney cartoon The Three Caballeros. A track with an even longer title floats a melodic synth line recalling Aphex Twin over complex drum programming. Endless Bummer won't bring John Hughes back, but it would make a hell of a DJ mix. Maybe even cure butt acne.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Shout Out Louds - Walls

Track Review
December 4, 2009

Mr. Ek, nice job putting up this wall. Construction is a sturdy enough metaphor for "Walls", the lead mp3 from Shout Out Louds' second Merge album (third overall), appropriately titled Work. When we last heard this Swedish five-piece, on 2007's Our Ill Wills, Peter Bjorn and John's Björn Yttling was producing; he gave the band's melodic, emotive rockers that innocent "Young Folks" splendor. As great as singles "Tonight I Have to Leave It" and "Impossible" were, the risk for Shout Out Louds is to get too heart-tugging-- you may have noticed "Very Loud", from their 2003 debut, Howl Howl Gaff Gaff, in the trailer for Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist last year-- so it's good to have producer Phil Ek (the Shins, Modest Mouse, Band of Horses, Fleet Foxes) as foreman this time around. "Walls" pounds out a rigid foundation, then lets chunky guitars and hummable piano rise above like spires. Horns are there for hue, not for hooks; those are provided courtesy of throwaway phrases like "ahhh ahhh" and "run, run, run", so you'd almost never notice the fraught lyrical content. "I took too many pills and wrote my will just to get to ya," Adam Olenius sings, sounding tense but restrained. From Sweden's emo Strokes to Sweden's emo Spoon: Look what Shout Out Louds have wrought.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Princeton - Cocoon of Love

Album Review
December 3, 2009

Sometime around 2004, cultural critics started typing up twee's obituary. The latest Wes Anderson film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, had flopped. Mild-mannered bands like the Boy Least Likely To and Belle and Sebastian were about to cross over to the Guster/Ben Folds set. And hey, you hear this guy Kanye West? Precious, indie-label pop has regained some critical currency over the past couple of years, but the most contentious stuff is different now. It has swagger.

At least, Vampire Weekend do. Sweden's the Tough Alliance and the acts on their Sincerely Yours label do, too, though they've obviously spent serious hours pining over old C86 and Sarah Records bands. L.A. baroque-pop quartet Princeton are similarly unapologetic about their self-presentation: boat shoes, a breakout 2008 EP inspired by London's Bloomsbury intellectual scene, and, on debut full-length Cocoon of Love, worldly references to everything from luxury cars and Kafka stories to hip-hop slang. But Princeton have been putting out records since before anyone heard "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa", and the group's singers-- twins Jesse and Matt Kivel-- actually grew up on Princeton Street in Santa Monica.

A little too clever? You're starting to understand the problem with Cocoon of Love. Joined by longtime pal Ben Usen on keyboards and newer addition David Kitz on drums, the Kivels tend toward Jens Lekman's dashing orchestration, unexpected samples, doo-wop finger-snaps, and Eeyore vocals. When they toss in Afro-Caribbean flavors, the effect has more to do with the recent sounds of Gothenburg, Sweden, than with certain young Columbia grads. Nevertheless, for all the names ("Sadie and Andy", Saul and "Silvie") and far-flung locales (Germany, Wall Street, San Diego) in these melodic vignettes about dysfunctional couples, there's little of Lekman's unforced charm. It's as if the songs are still growing into an older relative's finest suit.

Princeton do better here when they outfit their jaunty tunes in more atmospheric styles: the frayed synth-pop of "Martina and Clive Krantz" and "Worried Head", the shoegaze whorls on "I Left My Love in Nagasaki", or the chiming tropical reverie of "Calypso Gold". Waltzing acoustic finale "The Wild", however, with its clumsy poetry, is an even bigger let down than Camera Obscura's own Leonard Cohen pastiche, "Your Picture", itself the worst song on the Glasgow band's still-great Underachievers Please Try Harder. Sure, Lekman remembers Warren G, Vampire Weekend appreciate Lil Jon's lack of modesty, and TTA have covered 50 Cent, but Princeton's "Stunner Shades in Heaven", featuring the kind of squeaks Serge Gainsbourg used to elicit from Brigitte Bardot (and an Arthur Russell quote you'll see coming a line away), is once again a bit too-- har har-- on the nose.

If Cocoon of Love wants to be something bigger than it is, well, there are worse sins. Like Vancouver's equally mannered No Kids, Princeton are stretching beyond the staid chamber-pop of former tourmates Ra Ra Riot-- let alone Noah and the Whale or the disappointing new Boy Least Likely To single-- and that's to be applauded. They've even performed with a dance troupe at Lincoln Center as part of a Virginia Woolf event. And Jesse Kivel has made fine, Air France-style beach fantasy-pop under the name Kisses. None of this makes it any easier to stomach when, on Cocoon of Love's "Korean War Memorial", you hear a weirdly accented voice crooning, like nothing so much as a karaoker's Lekman, "You said to me that you liked indie rock." Here's the thing about swagger: You gotta own it.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Citay - Careful With That Hat

Track Review
December 1, 2009

2010 could turn out to be the year the indie kids stopped worrying and learned to love 1970s classic rock. As a devoted hand-wringer, I'm of more than a few minds about this potential development. It's not as if bands from the Hold Steady to Belle and Sebastian haven't already spread the gospel of Thin Lizzy. And yeah, My Morning Jacket and Band of Horses have almost definitely spent time bro-ing down in the wide open country-fried spaces of classic Neil Young LPs. Do I have to tell anybody at this point about Animal Collective's jones for Grateful Dead? But with Free Energy's barbecue-friendly power-pop choogling and Surfer Blood's more than Boston-sized feelings already among next year's most promising releases, I'm already starting to wax nostalgic for, like, post-punk. Or post-anything.

From the sound of it, Citay were never worried at all. Except possibly about their headwear. Led by Ezra Feinberg-- previously of Piano Magic-- Citay shredded happily, hippily, all over 2007's Little Kingdom, the San Francisco band's first album picked up by Dead Oceans (following a stint on Important). "Careful With That Hat", the rambling opening track from upcoming follow-up Dream Get Together, is no more apologetic about Allman Brothers-style dueling guitar heroics, sprightly acoustic strums, and summer-festival organ-- these guys could share a stage with similarly 70s-minded Swedish folk-rockers the Amazing. "It's an homage, not a mockery, I swear," asserts a boy-girl-girl vocal, the only thing tentative here. As synths and all kinds of percussion pile up on the closing jam, it's clear Citay are of more than a few minds, too-- I count seven band members in the press release-- but also, instruments. Which they can play, too, almost as good as Dickey Betts, whose musical rep should need no rehabilitating. Peach.

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