Archive | December 2009

#4) Radiohead: Kid A, 2000

In a way, it was such a gamble.  How could a band like Radiohead follow up their 1997 album, OK Computer, which was hailed by some to be one of the greatest albums ever recorded?  What musical move would they make next after reaching the heights of becoming arguably the best rock band ever?  That’s easy; make an even better album, with more experimentation, that is received by an equally large audience.  
Not that this album was “easy” for Radiohead to release: Thom Yorke experienced depression and writer’s block under so much pressure.  But regardless of the details of process, what they came up with in Kid A is a masterpiece.  I experience it as so much more than an album, but as an event.  

Although it is not a concept album per se, it seems to spark a dialogue between the real and the illusion; the true and the false; the human and the machine.  Kid A may even be referring to a human clone, though Yorke insists there is no specific story or concept driving this album.  Either way, the title suggests someone stripped of the humanity that comes with having a name.  And how appropriate, as listening we attempt (unsuccessfully sometimes) to decipher what is human and what is machine throughout Kid A.  

I have begun listening to this album so many times these last few weeks.  The first time, my iPod decided it needed a charge; Other times I simply mis-judged the time I had before other plans or commitments, and was forced to interrupt myself.  Finally today as I walked, skytrained, and walked some more, I was able to make it from Everything in its Right Place all the way to Motion Picture Soundtrack.  Here is my Kid A experience. 

Instantly I’m introduced to the fine line between the use of human voice and mechanized voice, as vocals are distorted right from the start.  Yet as if coaxing us to stick with him, he lets us know that Everything’s In Its Right Place.  The title track continues the voice distortion, far before the vocoder became every pop artist’s favorite toy, and meanwhile a glockenspiel gives the track a sense of eerie playfulness.  Kid A feels as though we have lost gravity, and yet a solid foundation is maintained through solid beat, and is not far from our feet; as if we’re floating, but it’s not terribly dangerous. 

It’s clear by The National Anthem that the sonic intricacies are calling my attention far above any interesting train companion or view.  Can I also mention that any national anthem that includes a Bari Sax honking out is one that makes me feel very patriotic.  Unfortunately, I don’t know what country (or planet!) I should be proud of.  Perhaps I can consider it a universal-national anthem.  All the horn parts on this track remind me of either/both Charlie Mingus and/or Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz.  As the overblown cadence draws the anthem to a close, a faint recording of an old band reminds us of what a more stereotypical style of patriotic music might sound like. 

The next two tracks combined seem to draw me into an entirely different dimension of time or space.  In some ways this track sounds more familiar, more closely linked to Ok Computer songs like Exit Music for a Film, Let Down, or even Karma Police.  Still, the song finds itself still more pensive beneath electronically layered sounds.  The vocals on How to Disappear Completely sound more human than anything so far, yet his clear lyrics are saying “I’m not here” and “this isn’t happening”. 

I find myself sinking deeper into my psyche and finding the ancient philosophical conundrum:  how can we be sure of what is real?  How do we know we’re not just dreaming all the time?  The strings build this question into a climax of cries, while the slow waltz-like rhythm rocks me as if to comfort my questioning mind.  And then Treefingers is simply present, with no sense of time at all.  I’m suspended, and if anywhere I feel as though I’m underwater.  I half expect to see the outside world with brand new eyes. 

In Optimistic I recognize that we have made quite the departure from Everything in its Right Place’s line, “yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon” to more, well, optimistic lyrics like, “try the best you can, the best you can is good enough”.  And although Optimistic fades out, it only does so as it foreshadows the In Limbo guitar riff, and In Limbo slides in as if it is the second movement of the same piece, though not quite as optimistic in tone.

Actually, this whole album feels as if it works as one piece.  Each track could be seen as a movement that explores different aspects of sound and thought, but in the end they all go together.  This could explain why none of the albums songs was really considered a single.  With the possible exception of the next track.   

There is certainly something special about Idioteque.  I wonder if music can have three dimensions, as I find sounds sneaking up behind me, while others face me head on and fearless.  Still others kindly tap me on the shoulder to let me know they’re standing beside me.  And all of that over a drum machine!  I find myself trying to imagine a group dance choreographed by Sonya on So You Think You Can Dance.  Oh man, I hope that becomes a reality!  That thought (and perhaps the meter in 5 on Morning Bell) put an extra bounce in my step. 

The conclusion of the album with Motion Picture Soundtrack offers a brand new instrumentation.  Beginning with organ and voice, I imagine I arrive at a dramatic funeral on another planet.  Slowly, the track has sweeping harp lines and eventually a distant operatic voice.  Repeating, “I think you’re crazy, maybe” over and over, I wonder if I am.  Has this album played a trick on me?  I wonder if I’ve somehow entered a psychological thriller, and I have no idea what’s about to happen.  The track plays on for a few minutes in silence, only to be interrupted with a short return of suspended notes. 

Kid A is an album I will return to repeatedly and ask new questions of each time.  It has even been listed by many notable critics as the number one album of the decade.  I can certainly see why, although there are three more albums that seem to have embedded themselves even deeper into my own heart…


#5) Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes, 2008

Hands down the best album of 2008.  Hands way down.  It’s an album with a unique mood and timbre that makes my living room smell like the woods when I listen to it on vinyl.  The folky guitar lines and full, high male harmonies make me want to put on flannel and eat spinach at the same time.  If you have not yet listened to the Fleet Foxes on a proper vinyl record, please consider this your invitation to join me on a foggy day at Chalet de Brie (this is the name of my house).  Something about this record sounds simultaneously old-fashioned and like nothing I’ve ever heard before.  And I swear the crackles of dust enhance the entire experience.

I must admit, this listmas thing has become more of a challenge than I ever expected.  And although I am fully enjoying the listening and writing that is the process of blogging, I know that I cannot do the Fleet Foxes justice.  Also, as contradictory as this sounds, though Fleet Foxes are best heard on vinyl, they are also best listened to in a moving vehicle.  Yes, I do know turntables are rather stationary, and that this makes no sense, but just go with me for a second.  If you can’t give all your attention to the album, in a setting that would ideally include blankets, hot beverages, and a well-stoked fire, one must have the album be the soundtrack to beautiful British Columbia, in all of it’s big green splendor passing by your window.  Seriously, you should try both sometime.

What I am trying to say here, is that I am not going to blog this album song by song, but instead make these two suggestions: play it on your way home from somewhere in daylight (at least a 40 minute drive), or come over.  I promise one day I will blog about this album in a more in-depth way – hopefully from the point of view of a road-trip passenger – but until then, it must make a brief appearance to accept the honor of receiving my personal award of the fifth best album released between 2000 and 2009.

#6) Sigur Ros: Takk…, 2005

It’s true that Takk…’s lyrics are mostly translatable, having been written primarily in Icelandic as opposed to the band’s made up language of Vonlenska favored on the earlier album, ().  (There are several moments when Birgisson breaks into the scatted combination of English, Icelandic, and Gibberish, but I personally can’t tell the difference anyway.)  However, I’d rather not bother with  translation because apart of the beauty for me listening to Sigur Ros is in not understanding their words.  I experience the vocals far more like a breathy solo instrument.  In fact, it’s not even always as the primary soloing instrument, but one of many adding to the texture of the piece.  And so, the only word that needs translation from this album is the title itself:  Takk means thank you. 

And what a thank-you it is, whether this album is meant to be directed to life itself, or god, or loved ones, the entire album is packed with beauty and a magical sense of thankfulness for all that is around us.  At least that’s what I feel when I hear it. 
Today I needed to experience the great outdoors.  It was an absolutely beautiful, clear, cold day in Vancouver, and I had only been out to buy groceries and empty to compost bucket.  I knew I would be listening to Takk… this afternoon, and that it’s not a terribly productivity inducing collection of songs, so I put my headphones on and journeyed out into my neighborhood before darkness would inevitably take over.  It was a good plan.  I’m sure that it didn’t hurt that I headed out during magic hour – just as the sun was beginning to set and bathe our icy streets in warm orangey light – but it also is true that noticing and imagining beautiful things is not an uncommon activity when Sigur Ros is in ear-range. 
I took my camera, and even thought about making this one a photo blog, but alas my batteries died, and Beth took the card-reader on her Christmas vacation to Saskatoon.  Perhaps another time with one of Sigur Ros’s many fabulous records. 
Takk… like the majority of Sigur Ros’s music is extraodinarily ethereal.  I knew right away that they would have to make my listmas, and simply chose my favorite album.  I’m sure my going out near dusk must have persuaded my mind to consider that this album expresses a kind of threshold experience.  It can’t just be me either, since the cover art pictures a stencil of a person walking under an archway of tall plants.  The songs themselves effortlessly bleed into one another, and as transitions are made within pieces, sometimes I’m not sure whether or not a new track has begun.  The music on this album creates a mystery that reminds me of Narnia’s wardrobe.  “Glosoli” in particular has me wonder if the air around me is an illusion, and if I look close enough I might find a hatch into some magical kingdom.  I feel like a little kid. 
As I zig-zag through the streets just east of my house I’m full of wonder for the world around me.  I’m terribly aware of my inner-child whenever a xylophone or the higher octave on the piano is played during the first several tracks.  “Hoppipolla” makes me want to dance in the rain, as does the next track, “Med Blodnasir”; “Se Lest” makes me want to run through a park with a kite or maybe a dog; “Saeglopur” makes me want to climb a tree and yell at the top of my lungs; all of them make me wish I were listening to this CD in a giant sandbox or cushion-made fort.  If A Rush of Blood to the Head was black and white, Takk… is the opposite, full of life and colour and magic.  It’s really only a matter of time before a feature film decides to use Sigur Ros alone for their soundtrack.  I’d watch it, no matter the premise or plot. 
“Milano” strikes me as slightly more reflective than the other tracks, and though I can’t understand the lyrics I find myself thinking of Christmas Day in all of its chaos, remembering the beauty and love that I have experienced through my nephews and niece.  (My, they are working their way into this blog more than I expected!).  “Gong” changes pace and mood, adding to the dream-state a sense of threat, as all great fantasies must have. 

There is a certain amount of energy that is kept up throughout the album until “Advari”, which plays more like a lullaby, and Takk… retains this mellower sound through to the end (even when “Svo Hljott” gets huge with sound it feels rather sleepy).  That’s ok by me though, as I’ve returned home to warm my circulation-challenged fingers and toes.  I watch the world fade to darkness from the heated side of the window, curled up in blankets.  It’s as though my Takk… experience was only a dream, and it has coaxed me back to sleep only to wake up to a more familiar reality.  All this time we have been searching the backs of our closets for secret entrances, when all we needed to do was put Takk… on the stereo.  

#7) Coldplay: A Rush of Blood to the Head, 2002

Somehow I can’t believe this album came out this decade, it feels so long ago! It is so far my earliest album on the list, and like Hot Fuss has a particularly nostalgic effect on me. Without a doubt, Coldplay has been one of the most successful bands of the Ohsies, releasing four single-packed LP’s starting in 2000 with Parachutes, and completing the era with Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends in 2008. With no hints that they’ll be stopping anytime soon, Coldplay could very well go on to be the next U2 and find themselves in the mainstream for another 20 years or more, like it or not.

But band history and predictions aside, let’s listen to the album at hand. I’m not sure how much I’m being influenced by the artwork on the cover when I say this, but I find that Politik has me dreaming in black and white. The song seems to state the boundaries in entering dialogue with the album. “Give me time and give me space, give me real, don’t give me fake…” And to the rhythm of the whole band pounding out 8th notes between every verse I put some breakfast together, heeding the call to open up my eyes (or ears as the case may be). And like a good introduction, a hint of the conclusion rounds off the first track with the beautiful line, “but give me love over this”.

I’m finishing up eating and sit with my cup of coffee as In My Place, which is a very good song for drinking coffee, because a good cup of joe makes me feel quite comfortable wherever I may be. My only complaint is that I ran out of milk, so I used soy beverage instead. I should have had it black. I’m going to sit and enjoy this song before I start in on the many “to-do’s” on my list.

Dishes are done to God Put A Smile Upon Your Face. This has often been my favorite track on the album, and I can remember listening to this in my old office at the church in New Westminster as I attempted to plan ridiculous games for teenagers. Somehow the song would be a reminder to give everyone a chance to be great, because “when you work it out, I’m worse than you…” I’m still not so great at that though.

And although The Scientist has become the dreaded piano line that everyone learns to play because of it’s simple chords, I will always remember it as what made me fall in love with Coldplay in the first place. Before ever buying the whole album, I actually went out and paid for a single of this song. (Yes I went out, and bought a cd with only 3 songs on it! These were the years before the iTunes store was something I had discovered). Full of grief and longing, and closely connected in my brain to the haunting music video. And as a note, the pictures in my head are all in black in white, even though the video was shot if colour. Don’t ask me to explain that.

Even though we are 7 years later, I still react to Clocks like an overplayed song. I guess this is one of the downsides to listening to albums from a period when I still spent a great deal of time listening to the radio. Even when the song began to fall from the heights of radio-play, it was used it countless movies and trailers, and later even other songs! I’m not sure I can ever again be not sick of this song. Strangely though, I realize as I’m singing along to the bridge (“nothing else compares…”) that it’s the first time I’ve opened my mouth and sung, even though I’m the only one home.

When Daylight begins, I’m half expecting colour pictures to emerge in my head, but they don’t until Green Eyes. There is something about this song that feels green, far beyond the eyes in discussion. Maybe it’s the acoustic guitar that I feel like I’ve been waiting for. As I’m moving around the kitchen, attempting to clean some mystery items out of the fridge, I make two discoveries. 1) There is beer. At the back of the fridge. I was so sure we were out. 2) There is milk! In the door! I run to the sink, dump out the dregs of my soy-tainted coffee and start grinding some beans for a second try.

I wait for the coffee to brew and sort my recycling as I croon along to Warning Sign, another former favorite track. So sentimental and regretful, and it’s pretty easy to sing lines like “I miss you so,” in a big empty house.

All of Rush of Blood tends to be very image-full for me. The title track clearly brings to mind two moments from cinema.  The first is fairly obvious: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, when the whole album sits outside on the couch watching their family home burn down. The second is related by theme: in Forest Gump when Jenny is found throwing rocks at the house where she grew up. Both are statements of love, revenge, justice, and simply moving forward out of pain and sorrow. This song for me is like a really good monologue that paints a picture not only of the speaking character, but the implied 2nd person.  In other news, my coffee is much better now.

The fact that Coldplay named their album for this song suggests we look at all the songs through this lens. The album itself is carefully crafted, and far more than just a product of a “rush of blood to the head”. Yet, each moment on the album is a product of great passion and tends to build up a bit of a rush for the listener. Ultimately, the album seems to ask me a question: What will I do with my passion? What does any of my anger or love or empathy or sadness accomplish at all, until I decide to do something about it?

And as if Chris expected me to get to this place, Amsterdam comes as a word of encouragement, even if I can’t help but question whether there’s a note of sarcasm: “time is in on your side… it’s no cause for concern…”  Is there time?  And if there is, what’s worth it? Big questions and good questions, as any great album should ask.  Which is exactly what A Rush of Blood to the Head is.

#8) Justin Timberlake: FutureSex/LoveSounds, 2006

So now it is officially official: I am behind.  Christmas Day was a lot more tiring than I thought it would be, and blogging was simply not an option at the end of it.  Have no fear though, the list will go on, and if I must I will spend all of New Year’s Day counting down to #1. 

Although I knew quite early that this would make my list, I haven’t had the chance to listen to it straight through in the last month, so tonight after work I listened, sitting on my bed, drinking lemon ginger tea (because for Christmas, I got a cold) as I wrote this blog.  My first thought as I began was remembering a conversation I recently had with my niece.  She insisted that Timbaland’s real name is “Justin Timberland”, just like Justin Timberlake.  I don’t think she can fully tell the two apart!  And why should she be able to, with the incredible partnership they built up on this album? 

Right from the get-go FutureSex/LoveSounds (the song and album) is like nothing we had ever heard before from a boy-band member, or from Justin himself.  It has darker and sexier tones, that are only given more weight by Timbaland’s heavy bass and diverse sounds.  And then, as if he needed to state the obvious, Justin announces that he has brought Sexy Back.  As hot as this track was the first time I heard it on the radio, it packed way more of a punch on the album.  Naturally, it became one of the biggest dance tracks of the decade, by making each and every one of us want to bring some part of sexy back, in any small way we can. 
Sexy Ladies comes off sounding really cocky, but then he gets away with it by admitting it: “Now it might sound cocky, but is it really cocky if you know it’s true?”  Fine.  You’re forgiven.  I’ll even let you put “sexy” in the title of two of your songs back to back.  Who the heck can get away with that?
All of a sudden, I realize I must put joking aside.  Throughout FutureSex/LoveSounds, the Timb’s use “interludes” and “preludes” to tie songs together, and therefore contains some of the best transitions on a pop record.  For example the Let Me Talk to You prelude at the end of Sexy Ladies that leads into  My Love is so boss, I actually forget how the whole track goes until it starts up.  And then when it does and I’ve already heard the chorus several times, I’m not bored by it because of how different it feels.  The movement in the rhythmic synth riff is contagious, and I’m doing a sort of upper body dance that I don’t think should ever been seen by human eyes. 

And soon enough it happens all over again in LoveStoned/I Think She Knows.  Half way through the song, instrumentation strips down to beatbox and strings, and then cuts out again to a solo guitar vamping on the same pattern.  By the time Justin is singing again, it’s hard to remember that I’m actually listening to the same song – the same chorus even!  When he does move on to What Goes Around…/…Comes Back Around, he has to make it unmistakably new, yet I feel as though the semi-continuity of orchestral strings still ties the two tracks together a bit.  What Goes Around… sounds like a predictable pop song for once… until about 5.5 minutes in when you expect the song to round down, and instead and it shifts to an entirely different attitude.  I stop feeling sorry for Justin, and begin to feel his anger.
And anger is a good thing to feel a little of in the dirty sound, which is exactly where we’re headed with Chop Me Up.  Timbaland’s distorted echo is just nasty on this track.  Mafia Three 6 makes an appearance and slows the bounce considerably, but gets nowhere near stopping anything.  I wish the album could keep on going like this, instead of moving to Damn Girl, which sticks out like a sour thumb.  It’s not that it’s a bad track.  It’s a lot of fun, but it takes me a while to get into the old school groove and harmony after half an album of Timbaland’s unique and futuristic sounding influence.
But don’t worry, Timb’s back with Summer Love.  I am strutting all over the kitchen, living room, down the stairs, wherever with this one.  And although the next song, Until the End of Time, has a completely different tone, once again an incredibly crafted transition prepares me and takes me there, without me even realizing it.  The album is funneling down into a new thought and sound, and maybe conclusion, but there’s no forced-ness or awkwardness about it.
Loosing My Way comes across as far more humble than the rest of this sexy and confident album, although Justin gives himself the character named George.  This one is saturated with MJ influence, complete even with a children’s choir.  “Can anybody hear me, cause I can’t seem to hear myself…” is a prayer for help and forgiveness, which takes a moment to sink into, but ends up believable. 
Another Song (All Over Again) is the only other track on the album (other than Damn Girl) that is not produced by Timbaland.  And yet here I think it works a little better.  At the end of the album, it hits me as a very honest track: After he has been a love god in his own eyes, bringing sexy back and the whole bit, ultimately he’s left as a boy who’s messed up and is begging for a second chance. 

Another Song is very far from where we began FutureSex/LoveSounds, but one that was made by a journey of transitions.  Just as each track is crafted to perfection, the album is shaped in such a way that I do want to put the album on all over again to see just how they did it.  However, I have 7 more albums to listen to, so a repeat will have to wait.