Thursday, December 31, 2009

The 2009 Longlist Pt. 2 - In No Particular Order

By the time this is up, you'll be able to tune in to hear my Top 20 albums and songs on UMFM (the countdown starts at 5pm CST and will be rebroadcast New Year's Day at 10am CST).

The Western States - Bye And Bye (Dollartone)
Packing the van for Texas, this fantastic local band benefited from the warm sounds they were able to capture in Premium Recording Studios in Austin, but even more so from a growth in songwriting on their sophomore album. "Fictional Divide," "The Water Remembers My Face" and other songs draw comparisons to Gram Parsons' work because they sound like instant classics.

Andrew Bird - Noble Beast (Fat Possum)
I'll be honest, I wasn't particularly hot on Armchair Apocrypha. After the wonders of Mysterious Production..., that record felt flat to me. I was glad to find him regaining the deft touch at pop songcraft and employing his fantastic whistling sparingly on Noble Beast. If you're able to find it, the double-release with Useless Creatures is worth tracking down.

OK Giraffe - OK Giraffe (Independent)
I wrote about the charms of this little album a while back.

Morrissey - Years Of Refusal (Decca/Universal)
If it's a year where Morrissey is releasing an album of new material (and not one of those b-side horses he trots out occasionally) and the album doesn't completely suck, then it's automatically in consideration. Years of Refusal is a little uneven, but there are a few gems on here. It's no You Are The Quarry, but (mercifully) it's no Southpaw Grammar either.

Telefon Tel Aviv - Immolate Yourself (Bpitch Control)
This one is a bittersweet entry as it is likely the final release from this fantastic electronic duo. Just prior to the release of Immolate Yourself, group member Charles Cooper passed away quite suddenly. I don't know if Joshua Eustis
has any intention of carrying on as Telefon Tel Aviv, but if he chooses not too, this is a strong album to finish on.

The Whitest Boy Alive - Rules (Bubbles/Smalltown Supersound)
Look for Erlend Øye to show up in another musical venture later on, but for now it's his collaboration with a handful of Berlin-based musicians under the Whitest Boy Alive moniker. Rules is decidedly more dance-y than Dreams (coming off like Phoenix at times), but still has Øye's unmistakable vocals at the core.

Royksopp - Junior (Astralwerks)
Most years, this would have been my top electro-pop record as Norwegian duo Royksopp deliver their best record since their debut, Melody A.M.. The pair craft some memorable tunes and manage to evoke their older material without sounding dated.
Collaborating with the likes of Robyn doesn't hurt as her contribution to "The Girl and The Robot" made it one of my favourite singles of '09.
*Wait for the Top 20 to find out what my top electro-pop record was.*

Tim Hecker - An Imaginary Country (Kranky)
While comparisons have been made to the likes of Fennesz and Ulrich Schnauss, with An Imaginary Country, Montreal's Tim Hecker really came into his own in crafting ambient electronic music. From standout opener "100 Years Ago" it's quite clear that Hecker is forging his own sound - a peculiar mixture of ominous and uplifting tones.

Naomi Shelton & The Gospel Queens - What Have You Done, My Brother? (Daptone)
I wrote about Naomi Shelton on this here blog in a double-entry with Lee Fields & The Expressions. Expect to see Fields make a reappearance later on...

Bowerbirds - Upper Air (Dead Oceans)
Ah, Bowerbirds. If you had served notice with Upper Air and then released Hymns For A Dark Horse, it'd be a different story. Upper Air doesn't really 'slump' but it is clearly a sophomore effort that pales in comparison to their 2007 release. That record would likely have been a Top 5 choice this year, while Upper Air was just a contender.

Chairlift - Does You Inspire You (Kanine/Columbia)
I've got conflicted emotions about this record. I reviewed it for Stylus and quite liked the Brooklyn band's curious Kate Bush-ian lyrics ("Planet Health") and synth-pop. But then I heard "Bruises" in the change rooms at Old Navy. I'm not sure whether that says something about my musical tastes, or about Old Navy's music director. If it's the latter, that person deserves a raise.

Nestor Wynrush - Trinnipeg !78 (Clothes Horse Records)
I've already written about this record at length. What are you waiting for? Go pick up a copy at Music Trader!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The 2009 Longlist Pt. 1 - Missed It By That Much

So after an intense period of re-listening to the longlist and poring over tea leaves, I've finally compiled my Top 20 Albums of 2009, which will be revealed in the fifth annual New Year's Eve special on UMFM (101.5 FM in Winnipeg or streaming live at That show - which will also feature my Top 20 songs and the selections of co-host and UMFM Station Manager Jared McKetiak should start around 4pm on the 31st and run right up to the big apple plummet in NYC. And if you miss it on the 31st, we'll be rebroadcasting it during the day on the 1st.

I will be posting my Top 20 selections here AFTER January 1st, but as I did last year, I'm going to take some time to run through the worthy contenders that made my longlist for consideration. All told, the longlist ran sixty-nine entries long - meaning after subtracting my Top 20 there were forty-nine 'also-ran's.' I'm going to break the list up into four batches and while the three after this are bundled in no particular order, this first group of twelve albums are the ones that were in very serious consideration for the Top 20, narrowly missing inclusion. They're the records I debated over and their omission weighs heaviest.

Here we go:

Russian Circles - Geneva (Suicide Squeeze)
This one weighed especially heavy on me (no pun intended). Station was my #1 album of 2008 and Geneva was a strong follow-up. I was surprised by how quickly the band put this together after officially adding Brian Cook as bassist and an intense touring schedule for Station, but Geneva didn't sound hurried and was a natural progression for the band. They even incorporated strings into some of the songs that avoided sounding pretentious or superfluous. No small feat.

Dog Day - Concentration (Outside)
This gender-balanced four-piece from Halifax made one of the best straight-up ROCK records of 2009 with Concentration. I've already blogged this album at length, so I'd just encourage you to read my previous entry (and go pick up a copy of the Elder Schoolhouse 12-inch that came out recently).

Tiny Vipers - Life On Earth (Sub Pop)
Here's another one I blogged about earlier in the year (and no, inclusion on Ear To The Sound doesn't necessarily mean inclusion on my longlist...). This was a quiet and unassuming record that stuck with me.

Throw Me The Statue - Creaturesque (Secretly Canadian)
I literally put this one in the Top 20, then pulled it. Twice. I re-listened to Creaturesque more than any other record while compiling my list and think it's a flat out great record, but I still bumped it. In my review of the record for Stylus, I noted that "it doesn’t happen too often, but when it does I can’t help but be impressed. Seattle’s Throw Me The Statue have followed up 2008’s Moonbeams – one of my Top 20 of last year – with an album that has quickly established itself as a contender for this year as well."
I'm still impressed.

Sleep Whale - Houseboat (Western Vinyl)
I wrote about Sleep Whale's Little Brite EP, but of course, it being an EP it was excluded from consideration. Since the release of that EP, the band released a full-length on Western Vinyl that built nicely on the promise and ideas of Little Brite. I think this one was the wife's favourite from the nearly-made-its.

Lightning Dust - Infinite Light (Jagjaguwar)
Amber Webber and Joshua Wells started Lightning Dust as a side-project to chart different musical waters from Black Mountain. While I LOVE me some Black Mountain, the pair could stick to Lightning Dust at this point and I'd be pretty content. Infinite Light was a big step forward from their self-titled debut and a thoroughly captivating listen.

Nomo - Invisible Cities (Ubiquity)
Apparently 2009 was not a good year to release a follow-up to one of my favourite records of 2008. Nomo's Ghost Rock was my #2 record last year and McKetiak was pretty surprised to hear Invisible Cities didn't make the 2009 cut. It was a strong follow-up, but I felt it didn't quite measure up to the prior record in terms of energy or experimentation.

The Lytics - The Lytics (Pipe and Hat)
This was one of the most joyous records of the year and having seen the group perform live, I know they've managed to capture the energy and sound of their live show on their self-title debut. This is the type of positivity-oriented hip-hop that takes me back to the days of the Native Tongues and one of my favourite records of all time: 3 Feet High & Rising. Listen for a cut from this record in my Top 20 songs on the 31st.

Quiet Nights Orchestra - Chapter One (Do Right!)
The tagline for the QNO's website on Google says "New Swedish Jazz with Classic Elements" and that aptly summarizes the sound, but not the scope of Chapter One. While it was released on Toronto's Do Right! label, it could just as easily have found a home at imprints as diverse as Compost or Verve.

Letting Up Despite Great Faults - Letting Up Despite Great Faults (New Words)
Here's another record that made a contribution to my Top 20 Songs of 2009. The band name suggests a particularly emo sound, but this LA group make indie-electro that borrows from shoegaze and crests and troughs like the waves near Malibu.

Ohbijou - Beacons (Last Gang)
Here's a group that won me over with their live performance. Thinking about their show had me re-exploring the little treasures on offer on Beacons. And then the group did a little cover of Wham's "Last Christmas" that endeared them even further to me over the holidays. But those factors weren't quite enough to push them into the Top 20.

Jay Reatard - Watch Me Fall (Matador)
Here's a guy who showed up on a LOT of lists last year with Singles 06-07, but since that was a compilation it didn't meet my criteria. Watch Me Fall isn't quite as strong as that comp, but it's still a heck of an album (and I'm of the opinion it's more difficult to assemble a front-to-back album than a collection of singles).

Monday, December 21, 2009

They were never in the running...

By now, you'd have to be living in a cave to have missed the Year-End and Decade's End lists that are being bandied about. While I'm still working my way through the longlist for my Top 20 of 2009 (currently sitting at 60 albums long) in advance of my annual New Year's Eve spectacular on UMFM, I can give a rundown on a list of albums that were never in the running. Which is not to say that they're not good records, just thanks to the list-fascist that lives within, they're disqualified by virtue of being one of the following: a compilation, a reissue, a soundtrack, a live album or an EP. That's right, only original-material individual-artist full-lengths make the Ear To The Sound longlist. Anything else gets a handshake and a hearty 'huzzah.'

Rest assured that once the longlist has been winnowed down to my top 20 I'll be repeating last year's exercise in music-critic-masturbation and detailing each of my picks with the "Also rans" kicking things off.

For now, here are my "fuck I loved these records, if only I'd let myself count them" selections:

Timber Timbre - Timber Timbre [Out Of This Spark / Arts & Crafts]

Taylor Kirk is this year's Justin Vernon. Dude releases one of the best albums of the year AT THE VERY END of the preceding year and totally misses my prior year's Best Of and is disqualified for the current year. Timber Timbre would have had a guaranteed Top 5 placing for 2009 if it hadn't come out in late December 2008. Seriously, I wait until the last possible minute to do my list and stuff like this still happens.

**See comments one through three below to see why I striked this.**

Eau Claire Memorial Jazz 1 feat. Justin Vernon - A Decade with Duke [Jagjaguwar]
Speaking of Justin Vernon, he went back to Eau Claire, Wisconsin to perform with his old high school jazz band and the result is A Decade with Duke which features two Bon Iver songs and a half-dozen jazz standards, including "Miss Otis Regrets" which is a really spooky tune when you listen to the lyrics.

Crush Buildings - Surrender Sleep [Independent]
I know I just wrote about this Ottawa band mere minutes ago, but the album apparently came out in 2008 and only recently made its way outside of the capital city and into my inbox. Still worth a listen. "Ghoul Pounds" remains on heavy rotation 'round these parts.

The Wilderness of Manitoba - Hymns of Love & Spirits [Independent]
Another group I've already written about that finds itself on this here list - but not because it actually came out in '08. No, Hymns of Love & Spirits is on here because it is an EP. I honestly can't remember when exactly I established my criteria, but the gist of not counting an EP is because it's conceivably easier to write a few good songs and release a solid EP than it is to write a strong full-length record. In fact, a few mediocre records could have the fat trimmed from them and be really lean, mean EPs in my mind. Now it may in fact be just as difficult to write a strong EP as LP, but them's the breaks.

Death - For The Whole World To See... [Drag City]
This one took me back to one of my first posts here on Ear To The Sound. They sound totally different, but it's another one of those records I can't believe was canned after it was first recorded and that still sounds as fresh and exciting decades later. The weed must have been really good back then.

Various - Forge Your Own Chains, Vol. 1: Heavy Psychedelic Ballads and Dirges 1968-1974 [Now Again]

Leave it to Egon (he of Stones Throw) to unearth these gems and release them in a gorgeous looking double-LP. Who knew psychedelia was so funky? Some of these are behemoths - like bookends "Song Of A Sinner" and "Somebody's Calling My Name" (by Top Drawer and Baby Grandmothers respectively), but some of them are summer-fling brief. All of them are quality.

Various - Tumbélé! Biguine, Afro & Latin Sounds from the French Caribbean, 1663-1974 [Soundway]

Kudos to my boss and friend, Jared McKetiak, for putting me on to this one. Covering some of the same period as Forge Your Own Chains, this is an entirely different sound. Soundway is one of those labels doing fantastic work that goes largely unsung - they dig away at music from the far corners of the world and bring it to ears desperate for new sounds (or at least new to them).

Various - Brownswood Bubblers 4 [Brownswood Recordings]

I'm not wishing I had a different life from the one I'm leading, but if I could have anyone else's career, it would be Gilles Peterson. Dude has a fantastic radio show on the BBC, has run a couple dope labels, digs for records like a fiend, and has been responsible for a whole whack of fantastic compilations, including this one. Vol. 4 in his series of spotlights on the Brownswood label (his own, natch) has some known quantities (Mayer Hawthorne, El Michaels Affair) and some new names that are now on my "ones to watch" list (yU, Souleance, Floating Points). I dropped a couple selections from this album at the UMFM Christmas party last week and it went over like gangbusters.

El Michaels Affair - Walk On By: A Tribute to Black Moses [Truth & Soul]
Speaking of El Michaels Affair, their tribute to Isaac Hayes definitely deserves a spot on the shoulda-been-a-contender list. Taking a break from covering the Wu-Tang Clan, the instrumental group tackle "Bumpy's Lament" and "Shaft" among others. Originally a download-only release, Walk On By is apparently now available on vinyl.

24 Carat Black - Gone: The Promises Of Yesterday [Numero Group]
Another year, another Numero Group release on one of these lists. Those dudes in Chicago know what they're doing when it comes to reissues and compilations and as usual, they put as much care into the packaging and liner notes as they do into the music itself. 24 Carat Black's first record, Ghetto: Misfortune's Wealth [Enterprise, 1973] has been sampled by the likes of Jay-Z and Digable Planets and was thought to be the only recording the band put to tape. But it turns out that for "35 years, the sketches for 24-Carat Black’s sophomore release hibernated in keyboardist and session engineer Bruce Thompson’s basement below the south side of Chicago." Some of the recordings were lost to damage, but Numero Group was able to salvage six songs, collected on Gone.

Pax Nicholas & the Netty Family - Na Teef Know De Road Of Teef [Daptone]
Daptone - the label that brought you Sharon Jones - is known primarily for releasing contemporary albums that sound like they could be unearthed treasures from yesteryear. But as they did with the excellent Bob & Gene reissue, with Teef Know De Road Of Teef they're bringing an amazing album recorded decades ago to the attention of current audiences. Nicholas Addo-Nettey was a Ghanian-born artist who performed in Fela Kuti's Africa 70. As it's told in the Daptone annals, Kuti heard Teef... and immediately demanded the record be buried. I guess the dude was threatened by how good a record this is.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Chrush-mas Time...

UMFM, the station where I work and host my radio show, belongs to the National Campus and Community Radio Association (aka the NCRA) and member stations report their weekly charts to a national chart known as Earshot. If you read Exclaim, you’ve likely seen the charts in the back page.
At an NCRA conference a few years back the Music Directors from various stations came up with idea to send out mailers with prime local material for others to check out. When it comes under the banner of another c/c station and not just out of the blue, folks are more inclined to check a record out.

Case in point is today’s album which came from Ottawa via the fine folks at CHUO last week. With the great packaging (which I can’t find a picture of, but trust me, it’s hella cool), I would have checked this album out regardless but with the stamp of approval from Joni Sadler, Surrender Sleep from Crush Buildings was moved to the top of the review pile.

I was totally taken with the album, right from opener “Konstantinos,” and by the third (and best) track, “Ghoul Pounds” I was sold on this two-piece (or is it five-piece?) take on Kid A-esque glitchy rock and started poking around the interweb to find out more about Crush Buildings. Imagine my surprise to discover that Surrender Sleep was actually released in August of 2008! Apparently the ‘neverending delays’ that I Heart Music referred to weren’t limited to the creation of the record but also to getting it out beyond the 613.

Whatever the reason for it taking so long, I’m just glad it’s getting a broader release and hopefully a broader audience.

You can check out the band’s Myspace page and website, but it would appear neither of them has been updated in a while… Crush Buildings, if you’re still out there, what are you up to??