The Musical Box – Best Albums of 2009

Music

Anamanaguchi - Dawn Metropolis

Anamanaguchi – Dawn Metropolis

With the chiptune scene becoming increasingly important and interesting, it was only a matter of time before a band like Anamanaguchi showed up with a radical new take on the genre. While many chiptune artists create rocking music using synthesizers and NES sound chips alone, Anamanaguchi complement their sound with live guitar, bass and drums. The synthesis of the two worlds is difficult to categorize; it has the excitement of metal, the timbre of a vintage video game, the rhythm of dance-punk. Dawn Metropolis is an exciting album, pure and simple.

Mos Def - The Ecstatic

Mos Def – The Ecstatic

Mos Def made a big impact in the late 90’s, both with Black Star and his excellent solo album Black on Both Sides. Unfortunately his releases this decade have been somewhat lacklustre, and adherents have long anticipated a return to form. I doubt The Ecstatic is exactly what they were looking for.

The album doesn’t statically capture his old sound, but rather reflects the tribulations and blessings of the interim decade. Songs with Middle Eastern vibe (“Auditorium” and “Wahid” in particular) echo the complexities of America’s increasing involvement in that part of the world. In contrast, “Life In Marvelous Times” and “Casa Bey” explore the obligations of fulfilment and plenty. It’s a remarkably mature and complex album, more authentic than an anachronistic carbon copy of Black Star.

Fever Ray - s/t

Fever Ray – s/t

Fans of the Swedish electronic duo The Knife had a lot to be excited about this year, as Karin Dreijer Andersson released her highly anticipated solo album under the alias Fever Ray. The album is significantly murkier and slower paced than the band’s other material; the formerly danceable elements of The Knife’s sound (layered synthesizers, tribal drums) are translated to be mournful and foreboding. The exploration of deep pitch shifting is particularly interesting, given Karin’s haunting voice and distinctive accent. The entire album has a shamanic vibe, an aesthetic that’s reflected in her live shows.

Metric - Fantasies

Metric – Fantasies

I’m surprised I haven’t seen this album on more “best of” lists, especially given the long gap since their last record. Have we started taking excellent Metric albums for granted now? Fantasies is loaded with hits: “Help I’m Alive”, “Gimme Sympathy”, and “Front Row” all charted in Canada. The new songs are layered with synthesizers and vocal harmonies; in contrast the lyrics are more romantic and personal. Metric is really hitting their stride as a band, and as a fan I’d be quite content to see more of the same in their next album.

Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca

Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca

Like many people, I became aware of Dirty Projectors after the 2007 release of Rise Above, a cover album of Black Flag’s Damaged reinterpreted from childhood memory. It was a really interesting experiment, but the cognitive dissonance caused by knowing the original songs made it a bit difficult to appreciate.

Bitte Orca, on the other hand, is composed of entirely original material and is significantly stronger as a result. The band’s idiosyncratic formula contrasts Dave Longstreth’s strange soaring voice with soft vocal harmonies by Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian. While the singing is usually backed by extremely minimal instrumentation, the guitar and drums occasionally crescendo to incredible effect (ex: “Useful Chamber”). I suspect this is the kind of formula you either love or hate, but to me it’s absolutely magical.

Honourable Mentions

  • Regina Spektor – Far
  • Jay-Z – The Blueprint 3
  • St. Vincent – Actor
  • Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
  • Sieber, Kammen, Fulton and Schatz – Braid OST

That’s my perspective on 2009 in music! Did I miss any of your personal favourites? I’m always open to new music suggestions, so please do drop me a comment with your picks.

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The Musical Box (Vol. 16)

Music

Newer readers might not know that The Musical Box was once a proud monthly tradition on this blog. For better or for worse, I’ve been trying to move away from the general mishmash of subjects I used to cover and instead concentrate on exploring video games. However, rules are meant to be broken; here’s some recommended Summer listening.

Future of the Left

When I first listened to Future Of The Left‘s “The Hope That House Built”, my first thought was: “that’s the filthiest guitar I’ve ever heard!” Their latest album Travels With Myself and Another is dirty, hungry and excellent throughout. With indie rock tending toward dreamy Pet Sounds pop these days, their heavier sound is both refreshing and distinctive.

Kitty, Daisy & Lewis

Could this trio of teenagers (16, 21 and 19 respectively) from London spark a modern swing / rockabilly revival? I certainly hope so! Kitty, Daisy & Lewis‘s self-titled album consists mostly of covers, but they have a unique contemporary take on the classics. Beyond genre novelty, the band’s sheer instrumental ability shines through, particularly Kitty Durham’s wailing harmonica. This is a band to watch, without a doubt.

Regina Spektor

Regina Spektor‘s latest album Far was released yesterday, and I assure you it will be playing on repeat at my place for the foreseeable future. A Soviet-born, Bronx-raised folk singer, Regina’s music is defined by its contradictions. Her songs are playful and mournful, traditional and experimental. If “Dance Anthem Of The 80’s” (embedded above) made you smile, I strongly suggest investigating her entire discography.

Connie Converse

Finally, the story of Connie Converse is as peculiar as it is heartbreaking. In the 1950’s, this aspiring musician was living in an apartment in Greenwich Village. Her melancholic, thoughtful, feminist music was perhaps too avant-garde for contemporary recording companies, and she was never picked up. Disillusioned, she packed up and disappeared.

However, her private recordings were rediscovered decades later, “unearthed from the bottom of a filing cabinet.” As Lucy Foley [via Simon Parkin] explains, her music is remarkable:

This woman wrote her songs before the Beatles showed up. Before Elvis showed up. Before rock ‘n’ roll showed up. Long before the singer songwriter paradigm showed up. Connie Converse was writing songs in the fifties of such intimacy, wit and poignancy that would not be heard in the mainstream until Joni Mitchell came along, a hundred cultural light years later. There’s an uncanny quality in Connie Converse. Her songs go on journeys into yearning, into the uncanny.

You can hear more about this outstanding lost musician on WYNC’s Spinning on Air, and purchase an album from the people who rediscovered her work.

That’s all from me, but if you’re looking for more music check out Nav’s Summer selection over at Scrawled in Wax.

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Punk & Indie Games

Music, Video Games

The Clash

Last month, head editor Ben Abraham and his crew of bloggers launched Critical Distance, a game criticism archive and compilation blog. They’ve been doing a terrific job, linking out to fascinating new sites and really expanding the conversation.

With exams over, I recently had a chance to contribute something: a post wherein I attempt to connect my love of indie games with my interest in music history. A quick note about the unusual format: it’s not intended to be an in-depth comparison, just a light exploration of the concept via various game bloggers.

Critical Distance Critical Distance – Punk & Indie Games

If you’re looking for fresh perspectives in video game criticism, then Critical Distance is definitely a website to watch.

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The Musical Box (Vol. 15)

Music

For this month’s Musical Box, I’ve invited friend and fellow blogger Denis Farr to share some recommended listening with us. Denis writes Vorpal Bunny Ranch, a thought-provoking blog about video games, where he often tackles issues of gender and sexuality. I’m always picking up great tunes from him on Twitter, so this post is really just cutting out the middleman (i.e. me).

Here are his picks for this month:

Greetings, Quixotic Engineer readers. I’m quite tickled that I have this opportunity to share my recent musical obsessions with you, which Matthew graciously invited me to do. Now, to the music:

Aleks & The Drummer

Aleks & the Drummer is a local favorite of mine, based here in Chicago. It consists of ‘Aleks’andra Tomaszewska on farfisa organ alongside her siren-y vocals and Deric Criss on drums. I saw them open for The Octopus Project in 2007, and in 2008 they finally released the EP May a Lightning Bolt Caress You, filled with tracks that manage to sculpt out a space that brings to my mind space-age choirs. The ethereal landscape that is provided by Aleks through her two chosen instruments is well complemented by the driving force and reality that is Deric’s percussion.

Grace Jones

I’ve always had a mild obsession with Grace Jones, ever since I first saw her in “Conan: The Destroyer”. Years later I would discover her music, and then my friend Josh showed me this video from her recently released Hurricane. The album itself is rather spotty, though the tracks that do stand out do so quite forcefully, and well. This was the first single, and seems to be perfectly suited for the economic crisis in which we find ourselves. Needless to say, it’s been played a few times since I’ve heard it.

Antony & The Johnsons

Two notes: this video is much better viewed in HD and is NSFW. I have a special place in my heart for Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons, given his treatises on gender and a voice that seems to reverberate with that special quality we attribute to the soul singers of the past. From his new album, The Crying Light, this song has a very soft touch in its instrumentation, in contrast with the floating majesty of Antony’s voice.

Goblin Cock

There exists no actual video for the song I wanted to share for Goblin Cock, but this happened to aurally work its way into my brain quite effectively regardless. Goblin Cock includes the talents of Rob Crow, a rather prolific artist, if not widely known. What we have is a doom metal band that doesn’t take itself seriously, nor is completely lost in genre with gruffly presented lyrics. The result is the doom metal sound with only two acknowledgements: well-written in its form and fun.

Thanks again to Denis for graciously accepting to guestblog, check out more of his great work at Vorpal Bunny Ranch.

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The Musical Box – Best Albums of 2008

Music

Fleet Foxes – s/t

A delightful, dreamy folk album that evokes the softer side of Jethro Tull. It’s lovingly and masterfully crafted from beginning to end. “White Winter Hymnal” is the perfect song for a chilly December afternoon, and “Ragged Wood” feels like a long walk through a familiar forest.

Girl Talk – Feed The Animals

I’ll admit, this album would likely have been higher on the list if I didn’t consider it an immense guilty pleasure. Thumbing his nose at the RIAA and other creativity destroying goons, Girl Talk gleefully samples across eras and genres to create his distinctive sound. The tracks are light and fluffy like the pop music they sample, transitioning from earworm to earworm at a furious pace. Like no other artist, Girl Talk coaxes harmony out of cacophony.

Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple

This album came as a complete surprise to me, as their breakthrough effort and its massive hit “Crazy” left me cold. I picked up The Odd Couple on a whim and discovered an urgent, poignant pop/soul/hip hop album that was uniformly excellent all the way through. I can’t imagine why singles like “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul” and “Run (I’m a Natural Disaster)” didn’t chart well.

Santogold – s/t

I wrote about Santogold‘s terrific debut album back in May, and I’m still listening to it regularly today. It’s a lovely eclectic record, M.I.A.-like on “Creator” while “Lights Out” is upbeat alternative. Amazingly, the disparate tracks come together to produce a refreshing coherent whole.

Shugo Tokumaru – EXIT

In October I described Shugo Tokumaru as falling “somewhere between Sufjan Stevens and the Katamari Damacy soundtrack.” EXIT is a quirky potent mix of pop, folk, and elements that I can only assume are uniquely Japanese. It’s dreamy and clever and, frankly, I’m nuts about it.

Honourable Mentions

  • Beck – Modern Guilt: It didn’t reach very far artistically, but it’s the return of the catchy concise Beck we didn’t see on 2005’s The Information.
  • Jenny Lewis – Acid Tongue: More honky tonk indie rock? Yes please.
  • TV on the Radio – Dear Science: It featured some very solid singles, but didn’t grab me as a whole.

Happy new year, I’ll see you all in 2009!

UPDATE: I’m sheepish about admitting this, but the list previously included Cross by Justice, an album I was quickly told was released in 2007. It was new to me! Thanks to Denis for the correction.

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