Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014, musicially speaking

Hello one final time, loyal reader(s)!

First things first: after several years of diligently documenting the highs and lows of a small subset of pop music commonly referred to as “indie,” Mitchfork is hanging up our collective blogging shoes. While we reserve the right to come out of retirement, GUNS BLAZING, we felt the time was right to ride off into a digitally rendered sunset.

We began humbly back in 2008, with an adorable post from our intern Ezra promoting his new band Vampire Weekend. Not sure whatever happened to him or them, but he was let go soon after for never shutting up about how amazing Graceland is. Seriously dude, everyone knows Garfunkel was the talent. Simon was and is an overrated hack.

Now, almost seven years later, a lot has changed. Some staff members have gotten married (Shout out to Kathleen!), others have served time (Free Squires!), and one even split off to start his own misguided attempt at music blogging. Jake, stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to. Throughout it all, we’ve patiently been waiting for new albums from Modest Mouse and the Wrens (both confirmed for 2015, although The Wrens are notoriously cagey). We’d like you all to know that, even as our passion waxed and waned, we’re grateful for each and every one of your 37 page views (looking at you, Dmitri from the Ukraine!).

Ok, that’s enough nostalgia; there’s still one more year of music still to dissect!



Stephen Malkmus, Wig Out At Jagbags

Pavement’s former frontman is a source of much inspiration (see Jake Grindal’s wet dreams), casting a long and distinctly shaped shadow over indie rock (for recent evidence, see Parquet Courts). His solo career with The Jicks has mined some rich creative depths (Stephen Malkmus is at least the equal of Pavement’s last two albums), but he has also taken his fair share of wrong turns. Pig Lib, for example, was mostly misfires, and Real Emotional Trash was overly jammy garbage that had us poised to jump ship. Steve recaptured some of his previous playful spirit with Mirror Traffic, but this album, his sixth on his own, is the end of the line for us. There’s a reason Pavement called it quits when they did (great reunion tour though guys!); there’s a point where a band reaches the end of its creative road. Malkmus might still have some interesting ideas up his sleeve as he meanders through middle age, but we won’t be along for the ride. All that said, his will always and forever be the face (and voice, and attitude) of 90s indie rock. Never stop chasing those gold soundz, Steve!


Taylor Swift, “Shake it Off”

What, you got a problem? Have you seen this video? It’s a goddamned joy to behold. Just a blast of pop sugar seamlessly blended with dancing hijinks. Perfect complement to the song, which is already addictive enough as is. You keep shaking off the haters, Taylor.


Future Islands performing “Seasons (Waiting on You)” on Letterman

About time one of the best live bands on planet earth (coming to Boston’s Royale on January 6 and 7) got their due. Letterman gets it (“I’ll take all of that you got!”). We always wondered if the other members of the band are actually that bland, or if lead singer Samuel T. Herring had them lobotomized to provide an ideal contrast for his insane voice/dance moves.


FKA twigs performing “Two Weeks” on Fallon

Forget the song, which is great. More important than that is this: does FKA twigs know magic? She appears, based on her control of her scarves, to have some supernatural abilities. There’s some eerie shit taking place on that stage.


Cymbals Eat Guitars
, “Child Bride
(Shout-out to friend of Mitchfork Jeff for this devastating power ballad from these guys, whose third album rewards repeated listens.)
The Twilight Sad,Last January
(More contagious Scottish sadness from these gloomy Guses. If that’s your speed, we recommend labelmates We Were Promised Jetpacks.)
The Drums, “I Can’t Pretend
(We honestly don’t know what is making these guys so sad. It’s not like they’re from Scotland after all.)
Angel Olsen, “Windows
(Stirring closer to an uneven album, delicate and heartbreaking with a killer crescendo.)
Mac Demarco, "Passing Out Pieces
(Never has a smile been able to so accurately describe a sound, but Mac’s gap-toothed grin sums up his mischievous music well.)
Broken Bells, “Perfect World
(Songs like this show just how far The Shins are in James Mercer’s rearview mirror. We salute his continued evolution, as well as his partnership with Danger Mouse.)
Kevin Drew, “Good Sex
(Former Broken Social Scene frontman continues to craft BSS-sounding (that's a good thing) tunes that seem, more often than not, to reference the carnal.)
Generationals, “Reading Signs
(More catchy Aussie pop from these guys, prolific purveyors of consistently catchy Aussie pop)
TV On The Radio,Happy Idiot
(Their last two albums suggest they may have lost their fastball, but this Seeds standout throws some high heat your way)
Tokyo Police Club, “Feel the Effect
(Disappointing album overall, but this track captured some of the punchy pop-punk magic from their earlier releases)
Strand of Oaks, “Shut In
(Low-key folk act busted out of obscurity with their new album, which features bombastic tracks like this rousing anthem)
Tom Vek, “Sherman (Animals in the Jungle)
(Shout-out, per usual, to KEXP’s John Richards for this earworm that effectively served as our song of the summer.)



Alex G, DSU

Here at Mitchfork, we don’t pretend to have a good grasp of the future (We lost big money betting on Ross Perot making a comeback in the 2012 presidential races). That said, we’re buying stock in the potential of one Alex G. This young man, over the course of his debut full-length album, manages to encompass the entirety of 90s indie rock and beyond. You’ll hear Pavement (“After Ur Gone”), Built to Spill (“Skipper”), Modest Mouse (“Axesteel”) and Elliott Smith (“Sorry”), and that’s just scratching the surface. Kid’s got influences to spare, but they’ll all great sources of inspiration and he does them fitting homage. We’d like to think that in 2024, when Mitchfork triumphantly comes out of retirement, young Alex will be in the middle of a prolific career in which he explores new creative ground free from the shadows of his predecessors. Also, maybe hover boards will finally be a thing.

Spoon, They Want My Soul

We’re starting our top 10 the way we’ll finish it, with a veteran act that originated in the 1990s proving they’re still at the top of their game. Spoon is known for being the band that everyone likes but no one loves, but after almost two decades of delivering the goods, we’re giving them their due. They’ve never sounded fresher, all while maintaining (and further developing) their signature brand of rollicking rock. Our ears immediately perked up when we heard standout “New York Kiss,” but it needs to be said that, front to back, there’s no filler here. Just a band in completely mastery of their powers, doing their thing and continuing to deny the law of diminishing returns. And if you think that’s easy, check in on the other bands (how’s life, Phantom Planet? And what about you, The Dandy Warhols?) that were featured on the first soundtrack to “The O.C.” and see how they’re doing a decade later.

Future Islands, Singles

For us here at Mitchfork, 2012 was the year of Future Islands. Sadly, we were unable to acknowledge our obsession via blog (the only way to truly validate one’s obsessions), as the two albums we were sinking our teeth into, In Evening Air and On the Water, were released in 2010 and 2011, respectively. We’re very strict about the rules here, so we kept our mouths shut, only letting them hang open when we stood, transfixed, during this band’s otherworldly live show. Anyways, 2014 is when one of our favorite bands of the decade deservedly broke out (due in part to the Letterman performance of “Seasons (Waiting On You)” highlighted above), and we couldn’t be happier for them. We’re not sure the more polished Singles stands up to their previous two LPs, but it’s an engaging listen that ends on a high note with “A Dream of Youand Me.” Throughout, you get lead singer Samuel T. Herring’s unhinged, soaring voice on a backdrop of swelling synths, and really, what more could a fan ask for?

Owl John, Owl John

Fresh off Frightened Rabbit’s best album to date, lead singer Scott Hutchinson set off on his own, at the suggestion of Atlantic Records (drinks on them!), to take a long-desired stab at recording some solo material. Lo and behold; even without the band, Owl John doesn’t sound dissimilar to Frightened Rabbit. That said, Hutchinson’s debut does a great job of shrinking the scope of FR’s sound, creating a more intimate atmosphere that puts the focus more on his major strength: his words. The music on standout songs like the bittersweet “Los Angeles, Be Kind” and menacing “Red Hand” will have you humming, but it’s the piercing lyrics on stripped down, politically charged tracks like “Songs About Roses” that stick with you: 

Chloroform the singer who has nothing to say
Stare in wonder as the masses sing along anyway.
Pull apart the actors pretending to grieve
They never went to the funeral, and they never believed.
Shack your burning placard in the government lawns
Have faith that there is consequence in protest songs.

You have to wonder if Hutchinson had Scottish secession on his mind when he wrote those lyrics (Frightened Rabbit were visible supporters of the movement for independence).  Regardless, the man has a way with words, and Owl John reaffirms that there’s some real substance under that charming Scottish brogue.

Phantogram, Voices

A pet peeve of the Mitchfork staff is when an EP is released that includes almost all of the best songs of the upcoming album it’s meant to tease. It’s like a movie trailer that gives away pretty much the entire plot in two minutes; leave a little something in reserve! Haim did it in 2012/2013, ensuring their debut LP was always fated to be a bit of a let-down, and Phantogram did in last year on their self-titled, four-track EP, featuring such winners as “Black Out Days,” “The Day You Died” and “Celebrating Nothing.” Fantastic EP (Their 2011 Nightlife EP is even better though), but the shine was off by the time Voices rolled around this year… showcasing those three songs as the main draw. Frustrating stuff. Anyway, Voices is every bit the equal of their debut, Eyelid Movies, albeit with more of an edge. Where there was a delicate, more subdued balance at play before, now there’s lots of bombast. This was especially apparent in concert, where wave after wave of sound washed over the crowd Mitchfork was a part of. Cool at first, then a bit much. Like with the EP/LP dynamic, a little restraint goes a long way.

Haerts, Haerts

Speaking of extended plays that include all the upcoming album’s best songs, Haerts’ 2013 EP Hemiplegia, while not exactly reinventing the wheel of 80s synth pop, regularly found itself in our rotation throughout the year, with “Wings” even being called out as one of 2013’s top songs. Fast forward to this past fall, and guess which song reappeared on their debut full-length, alongside “Hemiplegia” and “All the Days,” two other highlights from their first foray? Suffice to say, we were again left shaking our heads, but who can stay mad for long when listening to songs like these? Sure, tracks like “Call My Name” (our personal favorite), have about ten layers of studio polish and feel like a millennial’s take on a cheesy 80s ballad, sounding somewhere between CHVRCHES and Haim without possessing the heart (pun intended) of either, but that’s no dealbreaker.

That said, as long as you don’t dwell on the boilerplate lyrics, or the nagging feeling that you’ve heard all these songs in varying forms at some point during the last three decades, you’ll have a grand old time. Man, we just realized how bitchy this review is coming off. Look, this album is number six, which means it’s obviously doing some things right, so just enjoy it for what it is. However, if you want to hear this kind of 80s pastiche done even better, we suggest Ladyhawke’s 2008 debut Ladyhawke. Ok, we’ll just stop; we’re only digging our hole deeper.

Caribou, Our Love

The instant we first heard Our Love's lead single “Can’t Do Without You” on John in the Morning (KEXP 90.3 FM. WHERE THE MUSIC MATTERS), we knew Caribou (aka Dan Snaith) had done it again; he’d taken yet another sonic step forward. The progression since 2005’s The Milk of Human Kindness has been remarkable; each new album features a further evolution of his unique brand of “bedroom electronica.” Why did we throw that term in there? Because there’s no denying the pulsing beat of his songs, but they’re perfect fodder for your headphones as you sprawl out on your mattress, spaced out, staring at the ceiling. Also, they’re sexy. No, really, listen to songs like “Second Chance” and tell us that “sexy” isn’t one of first adjectives that comes to mind. Real sexy, not Nicki Minaj “twerkin on Drake” sexy.

Not saying it’s all slinky, seductive sounds, though; tracks like “Back Home” show Caribou is perfectly capable of constructing songs with rousing crescendos that’ll get your pulse racing. Really, looking at Snaith’s trajectory over Caribou’s past few albums, one thing he’s clearly capable of is leading a long, fruitful career where he adds even more layers to his already distinctive musical palette.
Fear of Men, Loom

One reason we at Mitchfork are closing up shop is that it seems like every year we’re relying more and more on old favorites to deliver the goods. Considering how unreasonable it is to expect consistent dividends from any aging creative venture, this is a strategy that has increasingly left us feeling disappointed at the stale state of indie rock. We’re lucky in that this year has provided us not only with known players throwing their weight around, but the arrival fresh faces like Fear of Men.

Loom immediately appealed to us, which is no surprise considering it’s a nice balancing of gorgeous dream pop melodies (ethereal atmosphere, fragile female vocals, gleaming guitars) with a bit of an attitude. On album highlights “Luna,” “Inside” and “Waterfall” there’s plenty of melancholy beauty, but underneath those layers is a scorned lover who has “tried my best to destroy you.” The subtle, barely contained fury at the heart of these songs gives them some added weight when they otherwise might just drift away. There’s real sorrow here, and the fact that it’s wrapped up with such pretty packaging only gives it more legitimacy.

There’s nothing necessarily groundbreaking about what Fear of Men are doing here on this, their debut LP, but they’ve skillfully added some new wrinkles that invite repeated listens. As we made this list, we realized that, throughout 2014, we kept coming back to Loom, and it kept rewarding us when we did. This is no small thing, and bodes well for this British band moving forward.

Cloud Nothings, Here and Nowhere Else

Mitchfork used to have a bit of an aggressive side, and our music tastes reflected that adolescent anger at play. However, the past decade has mellowed us out, diminishing the appeal of the testosterone-laced tunes we used to watch other people mosh out to (we once pushed a guy, but immediately regretted it.) Just listen to the soundtrack to our first book and you’ll hear some distinctive notes of angst, along with the occasional hint of rage. Not saying we’ve lost all of our righteous fury; it’s just harder to tap into.

Which brings us to Cloud Nothings. With 2012’s Attack on Memory, Dylan Baldi and company took a giant step forward, assuming the role of resident “angry band” that we can turn to when we had the urge to RUN THROUGH A FUCKING WALL. In fact, songs like “Wasted Days” reminded us we even had that urge. The sort of epic ferocity reappears on “Pattern Walks,” the nearly eight-minute centerpiece of Here and Nowhere Else, and we’re grateful for it. Really, it was a relief to see success hadn’t smoothed away any of the band’s edges; this is a fact that’s made immediately clear with “Now Hear In,” the charging, take-no-prisoners opening track. The guitars are raw, the drums rampage, frontman Baldi’s voice is as ragged as ever, and none of these things relent over the remaining seven songs, especially on standard bearer “Pyschic Trama.” In conclusion, while we may not possess the same angst we once did, it’s a relief to know that younger folks continue to channel their aggression in compelling yet surprisingly catchy ways.

Real Estate, Atlas

You won’t find any of Cloud Nothings’ edge here, just wistful musings about fading youth and years long lost. Nostalgia infuses every note on Real Estate’s third album, with Martin Courtney IV (The IV? We’ll just leave that there) crooning over lazily strummed guitars on songs like “Past Lives” about how he “Cannot go back to this neighborhood without feeling his old age.” Despite our sincere doubts that Courtney himself is past 30, we’ll refrain from the eye rolls, if only because Real Estate effortlessly capture the feeling of that endless summer day. You know, that day where, even if you’re only 25, you can acutely feel the weight of every year you’ve left behind as the remaining sunlight slowly slips away from you.

There’s no denying it; this is music for the privileged, by the privileged (to be fair, we're assuming this, but Ridgewood, NJ, where the band was formed, has a median household income of more than $100,000). Without taking away from the craftsmanship on display here, or the remarkable progress Real Estate has made over three albums in developing a distinctive sound, this is ear candy for well-educated white people. On one end of the spectrum is the volatile subject matter addressed on the other Fork’s number one album of 2014, Run the Jewels 2; on the other is Atlas, which describes a carefree suburban universe where the main concern is… growing up? Why worry yourself with income inequality, race relations and police brutality when you can drive aimlessly by well-maintained lawns yearning for a time when your only care in the world was how to score booze?

All that said, man, are these songs endlessly listenable. We’d especially like to call out the final two tracks, “Horizon” and “Navigator,” both of which immerse the listener in a dreamy landscape that you never want to depart. Long after the last shimmering guitar note fades away, you’re left with a melancholy residue, a vague feeling that there’s something you’ve left behind that you can never reclaim. It’s no easy feat, conjuring up that longing, but the boys of Real Estate are getting better at it with each successive effort.

Sun Kil Moon, Benji

We were almost ready to give up on Mark Kozelek. The man who possesses, in our humble opinion, the best voice in all of music, seemed to not have much left to say. This was 2010, when the Spanish guitar of Admiral Fell Promises was paired with an increasingly weary, if still compelling, croon. It was a perfectly acceptable entry in a distinguished career that, with both Red House Painters in the 1990s and Sun Kil Moon in the 2000s, had resulted in the development of a signature rock sound that started out heavier but grew increasingly delicate as Kozelek entered middle age. Admiral Fell Promises, while pleasant enough, felt like the work of a man who was resting on his laurels, content to indulge himself as he toured the world in his forties, a shadow of his former creative self.

Looking back, it began with Among the Leaves, his 2012 follow-up. More stylistically varied than its predecessor, the real hint of what was to come was the shift in not just his lyrics, but in how he delivered them. Always introspective, Kozelek’s words now had an added bite, as well as a directness previously unseen. He wasn’t singing as much as talking at you, the listener. The rich timbre of his voice might convince you it was singing, but no, this was closer to beat poetry set to strings and guitars. He was telling you about death, about a venereal disease he picked up, about his life on tour. Here was a middle-aged man who had accumulated some insight in his time, and he was finally ready to share some unvarnished thoughts about his life.

Then came Benji. Those biting observations he had begun to explore in Among the Leaves? They’re weaponized here. There is no escaping that voice and, more importantly, what it has to say. About family he’s lost, in bizarre, horrifying and mundane ways (“Carissa,” “Truck Driver”), devastating tragedies that should never be forgotten (“Pray for Newtown”), and terrifying boogeymen who are all too real (“Richard Ramirez Died of Natural Causes"). Also, there’s a lifetime of sexual encounters recounted, alternatively humiliating, rewarding and educational (“Dogs”). Kozelek wants you to know he loves his parents, will always be hounded by melancholy, isn’t handling aging gracefully and is grateful, not just to be alive, but for all the people in his life who have made his journey worthwhile.

These 11 tracks are, all together, a heartbreaking, humorous, and humbling listen. Beyond the words being spoken is the music itself, which alternates between stripped down and layered, meandering at times and desperate at others. The gently picked guitar becomes something menacing one song later, and the breakdown at the end of “Richard Ramirez Died of Natural Causes” is straight out of The Lonesome Crowded West (that’s the highest compliment we can pay). More than anything though, the music serves as a sturdy and versatile platform for Kozelek’s relentless confessions.

Over 20 years into his musical career, Kozelek has created his magnum opus. We’re pretty sure that realization won’t give him any peace of mind, but it offers us hope that our best creative days are still ahead. Also, the War on Drugs are shit, and we don’t care who knows. Just kidding! What a silly “feud” that was.

That’s it for us. We hoped you enjoyed our sporadic posts over the years, and we’re glad you decided to take the fork less traveled. Enjoy 2015, wherever it may take you, musically or otherwise.

The Staff of Mitchfork

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013: The Music.

Why hello there. Quite the year, right? It certainly was for the Mitchfork staff! We finally hit the big time, only to lose it all when the music blog bubble burst. The resulting layoffs were hard to stomach, but we righted the ship and produced some of our best non-posts to date! If the past 12 months have taught us anything, it's that success on the internet isn't measured by what you produce, but by what you dream. And we at Mitchfork are big dreamers. Who needs "profits" when you have IDEAS?

At any rate, AOL's angel investment (no money like AOL money!) stipulated that we at least write one post, so here's our


Let's start with the less savory sounds of 2013.

Take them out to pasture! (albums that disappointed us to a large degree)

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Hysteria

A list of the post-punk "revival" bands from the first half of the 2000s whose fourth album effectively announced their end as creative forces to be reckoned with:

Bloc Party
The Strokes
The Killers
Yeah Yeah Yeahs

A gospel choir kicks in at the end of opener "Sacrilege" -- what else do you need to know? Another darling of the early aughts bites the dust. We're not happy about it but, like the gray hairs we're finding on our head, we suppose it was inevitable.

The Knife, Shaking the Habitual

This Swedish brother-sister duo have always had an uneasy relationship with pop music, not to mention the world at large. That said, they managed to channel their weirdness into some downright catchy ("Heartbeats", anyone?) if unnerving songs. Well, whatever balance they correctly struck with their very good 2006 album Silent Shout has been thrown completely out of whack here. We get it, you want to rattle our cages, but remember that honey works better than vinegar. Vinegar being a 19-minute-long track of creepy noise.

And now, only the good things...

Best music videos of the year:

The songs are great; the videos are even better.

Rhye, "Open"

We're pretty sure it's about losing your virginity, but our first time was nothing like this. Right, Matt? ;)

More Rhye! This time, "The Fall"

Functions as a sort of sequel to "Open". Although we suppose it could be the other way around. Either way, it's nostalgia played out perfectly.

PAPA, "Put Me to Work"

If the Rhye videos are a bit too sappy for your tastes, PAPA deliver the fun with this ideal accompaniment to one of the best songs of the year. BEWARE FLAMING AXES.

Song of the Year:

Cloud Control, "Scar"

Shout-out to John in the Morning, aka John Richards of KEXP (the best radio station this side of the solar system) for this track, our favorite of the year. Straight out of Australia and into our hearts! Speaking of hearts, if this chorus doesn't get yours beating fast then consult your cardiologist.

And here are 10 other songs from 2013 you should listen to:

The National, "Don't Swallow the Cap"
Haerts, "Wings"
Local Natives, "Breakers"
Weekend, "Oubliette"
Washed Out, "It All Feels Right"
Vampire Weekend, "Step"
Sigur Ros, "Isjaki"
Majical Cloudz, "Childhood's End"
Foals, "My Number"
Chromatics, "Cherry"

Honorable mentions:

Phoenix, Bankrupt!

The band that brought us Mitchfork's #1 album of 2009 is back and... more proficient than ever. The word "proficient" is telling here -- these are 10 tracks, polished to perfection, with hooks to spare. But in place of the exuberant, dance-floor-ready "1901" and "Lisztomania" are more subdued songs that, while they went down easy, didn't draw us back as readily as those in Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Easy to listen to, easy to forget, but still worth your time.

HAIM, Days Are Gone

Days Are Gone would certainly have been much higher on this list were it not for the year of buzzworthy singles (one of which was our favorite song of 2012) leading up to its release. Between "Forever", "Go Slow" (also on 2012's Forever EP) and "Don't Save Me," we had already played the three best songs on these wonderful ladies' debut album into the ground. While the entire selection of tracks on Days Are Gone owes a great debt to those who went before them, "Falling" and "The Wire"(the two latest singles) just sounded too familiar to resonate with us. That said, Este, Alana and Danielle all seem swell and we expect there's still plenty of new sonic territory for the three sisters to explore.

And here's a top 10!

Beach Fossils, Clash the Truth

Usually when we run, it's more about the pace/"fist-pump potential" of the music then the music itself. Running soundtrack albums can be some of our favorite albums, but we almost never "get into" an album if our first prolonged exposure occurs while we're struggling for breath on mile 4. Not so with Clash the Truth, Beach Fossils' follow-up to their perfectly pleasant if a little TOO laid back debut Beach Fossils. But, they, like fellow dream pop/chillwave/shoegazey (honestly, we have no idea what to call all the laid back, summertime-sounding music) bands Neon Indian, Real Estate, Wild Nothing and Washed Out, they used their second album to ramp up the intensity a bit. There's a welcome charge to these songs, showcased by album highlights "Careless" and "Crashed Out," that kept our legs moving during the summer of 2013.

 Small Black, Limits of Desire

Speaking of that chillwave scene and the evolution of some of the bands who inhabit it, Small Black released an underwhelming 2010 debut titled New Chain. Considering the other chillwave bands' debuts in the couple of years prior, there was nothing new about it. But they drew our notice via former Mitchfork contributor Jake Grindal, who emailed us the music video to "No Stranger", along with a message essentially saying "this is the kind of shit you like, right?" He knows us all too well. Limits of Desire, especially on the triumphant title track, has a grand scope to it that we never quite tire of, an epic, expansive sound that consists of swells of synth and ethereal vocals that speak to our adolescent id. It's the soundtrack for first kisses, triumphant and refusing to apologize for its dramatic flourishes.

 Volcano Choir, Repave

Those Bon Iver fans out there, including the entire staff here at Mitchfork (Bon Iver tied for first place in our 2011 top ten), might be a bit worried after their log cabin muse has indicated he may want to move on from the two french words that made him famous. They shouldn't be -- that same wintry, pastoral sound, rich and rustic, continues on in Justin Vernon's side project Volcano Choir. Plus, you know, there's his voice, quite the instrument in its own right. Volcano Choir's first album, Unmap, suffered from a lack of focus, but this time around what you hear is essentially a more rocking Bon Iver. "Dancepack" and "Acetate" are perfect examples, and the triumphant "Byegone" shows that the man from Wisconsin is perfectly capable of producing a stadium-ready anthem. The flannel remains, just under another name.

 Arcade Fire, Reflektor

In years past, we could safely assume that our number one album of the year would either from be Arcade Fire or The National. 2005? Alligator. 2007? Neon Bible. 2010? Close, but The Suburbs barely nudged High Violet for the top spot. Then, 2013 happened. It was inevitable, we suppose, that one or both would stumble, and we weren't shocked that The National was the first band to begin sounding like they were running out of ideas (it still depressed us immensely though, as you can tell by our soul-searching post earlier this year).

Arcade Fire, on the other hand, sits here at the #7 spot not because of a dearth of ambition, but because of an excess of ambition. With James Murphy at the producing helm, they clearly felt free at this point in their careers to just throw shit at a wall and see what stuck. Some did ("Afterlife", "Reflektor") and some did not. Interestingly enough, it was the straightforward rockers ("Normal Person", "Joan of Arc", "You Already Know") that worked less for us than the island/world beat sounding stuff influenced by their time in Haiti. With time, "Flashbulb Eyes" and "Here Comes The Night Time" kind of grew on us. Win, Regine and the gang are really just victims of the impossibly high standards they set with their first three albums, each better than the last, all of which made the misses on Reflektor more glaring. However, we at Mitchfork (and we know they care what we think) have the utmost faith there's still plenty of great stuff to come out of the biggest band in indie rock.

Daft Punk, Random Access Memories

Up until this year, Mitchfork's relationship to Daft Punk was a relatively superficial one. We owned Discovery but rarely listened to it, but "One More Time" was a song we always went nuts to on the dance floor. Then "Get Lucky" leaked in April of this year (this was the perfect way for us to first hear it) and, well, the rest is history. But let's move past the fact that these two helmeted Frenchies created the song of the summer (No matter what Colbert says, Blurred Lines doesn't measure up), because they also created an impressive, if uneven, album. You're left with the impression that, whether it was Pharrell ("Lose Yourself to Dance" in addition to "Get Lucky"), Julian Casablancas ("Instant Crush") or Panda Bear ("Doin' It Right"), they made fantastic use of available resources to create a  "capital A" album with a diverse array of equally engaging sounds. This is a collection of songs that can keep you entertained all night long, regardless of whether or not you see action. Honestly, do you think they keep those robot helmets on during sex? They must, if only for the novelty.

The Mary Onettes, Hit the Waves

Over their first three albums, it's pretty clear The Mary Onettes have identified their wheelhouse, and on Hit the Waves they refine it further. Luckily for them, that wheelhouse is a combination of The Head on the Door-era Cure and Power, Corruption and Lies. We can't get enough of the soaring guitars and lead singer Philip Ekström's oh-so-pretty voice as he channels his sorrow and yearning into songs perfect for wide-eyed romantics who fancy themselves world-weary. "Unblessed", the title track and "Evil Coast" all deliver melancholic melodies in spades, big in scope and laced with synths. However, the moment in the album that always hits us in just the right spot is the beginning to "Years", where Ekström petulantly croons "in the end of the day, I'll never get what I want...". His voice is so wistful and resigned -- he wants it all and he just can't have it! We don't know what that's like, spending every night rolling around in a bed of AOL money, but it sure seems rough.

Frightened Rabbit, Pedestrian Verse

We've always been suckers for a Scottish accent, but this is the first appearance of Frightened Rabbit on a Mitchfork top 10 (fellow Scots We Were Promised Jetpacks and The Twilight Sad have already gotten the "Mitchfork boost"). That's no fault of Scott Hutchinson and the boys, who have had a run of indie rock respectability over their last few albums. And, taking a closer look, it's clear they've been making strides from their debut as full band, The Midnight Organ Fight, to The Winter of Mixed Drinks and subsequently Pedestrian Verse, their most polished and consistent effort yet. Put it this way -- this was the first year we bought tics to see FR live (That's right, the entire staff of Mitchfork buys tickets to concerts together). And it was worth it just to see the best song they've ever done: "State Hospital". If you want to know everything this band is capable of (evocative lyrics, stadium-sized crescendos, the aforementioned Scottish brogue), give a listen.

Lucius, Wildewoman

We came here not to praise Lucius, but to bury them. Just kidding -- if they're #3, they deserve praise, but first a little playful ribbing. For one, their brand of indie rock is very NPR-ready: it's folky and organic, but with just enough of a pulse to justify the "rock" part. When fiancee of Mitchfork Kathleen first heard us playing them, she asked "isn't this mom music?" Well, maybe for the COOLEST MOM OF ALL TIME. In all seriousness, it might be a familiar note they're hitting, but they hit it dead-on song after song ("Hey, Doreen!", "Tempest" and "Don't Just Sit There" to name a few), climaxing with the rousing "How Loud Your Heart Gets". It also helps that we just got into these guys in the late fall, which gives them an unfair advantage over early releases like those of Frightened Rabbit and The Mary Onettes. But hey, that's why the Oscar bait is sent out this time of year, so more power to them. Also -- cool, colorful and sort of phallic (maybe that's what makes it cool) album cover.

Big Deal, June Gloom

We feel confident that we are one of a select few (or none) blogs/music publications placing June Gloom on an end-of-year "best of" list. The other fork didn't even deign to review it (gasp!). But John in the Morning of KEXP (We know, that guy again!) brought our attention to "Dream Machines" and we were hooked. If Small Black's Limits of Desire is the soundtrack to a first kiss, June Gloom (apt name) is the score to the ensuing heartbreak. "Grunge pop" was a phrase we saw somewhere in the blogosphere, and it's fitting -- restless and dreary, it still delivers catchy melodies you would imagine listening to in summertime.

The album starts super strong with "Golden Light", "Swapping Spit" and "In Your Car" before "Dream Machines" arrives, but it sags a little in the midsection ("Pristine" is pretty though). Then, boom, "Catch Up" hits, followed two songs later by "PG" -- two more highlights. Sometimes it's all about the sequencing. But more importantly, it's about nailing the elusive "atmosphere" we at Mitchfork continually reference. If you can capture it like Big Deal does, an agreeable listener will be kept hooked even when the tunes are a little lacking. And if there's one thing we have been described as, it's agreeable. No, you don't agree? Go jump in a lake.

CHVRCHES, The Bones Of What You Believe

Synth pop! Big surprise, right? Well, we were anticipating this one all year thanks to advance single "Recover", but unlike HAIM, the gang from Glasgow (where are the accents?! WE LOVE SCOTTISH ACCENTS) lived up to the hype. It turns out Recover was just the tip of the iceberg -- there really isn't a weak song in the bunch (special shout-outs to "Gun", "Tether" and "Night Sky"). These are haunting, glittering songs which can be both cheesy -- our favorite track on the album, "By the Throat", starts off sounding remarkably similar to an 80s song of some reknown -- and enjoyable  to very, very sophisticated music palates like our own.

A lot of the credit for this careful balance of big hooks and diverse electronic textures is due to the band (they self-produced) and Rich Costey, who did the final mix. It all effortlessly melds together and, more importantly, provides the perfect fodder for lead singer Lauren Mayberry's delicate but biting vocals. In the middle of this musical maelstrom, her voice soars above it all, and the tension between her crystalline exclamations and the computer-generated sounds surrounding them ensures each track is an engrossing listen. The lyrics themselves conjure up some surprisingly aggressive imagery -- whoever Mayberry is coming after sounds like they got their hands full -- but it just adds to the fun. Violence and pop music, that's what America was founded on.

Well that does it. We managed to make it through another year of life, and music continued to play a big part in it. Looking ahead to 2014, we see our impending nuptials, but that pales in comparison to the looming specter of the first Wrens album in 11 years or the first Modest Mouse release in 7. We kid, we kid, although we would love to walk down the aisle to "I've Made Enough Friends".

Happy New Year from the staff at Mitchfork. May your 2014s be filled with funky playlists and new musical discoveries.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

From the Vault: Top 10 Albums of 2008 via yoontunes

Before Mitchfork was Mitchfork, we still ranked albums on a yearly basis. We just used other blogs to do it. Blogs like the magnificent and now-defunct yoontunes.

Well, the tireless crew at Mitchfork decided to take undertake a mission to rescue a Top 10 yoontunes had posted for us back in the day. As you can see below, we were successful.


1. Cut Copy, In Ghost Colours
Album is like: Being Inside a Rainbow 
Grower or Shower: Ron Jeremy Kind of Shower
Perfect Environment to Listen To: A Room Filled With Other Sweaty People Jumping Around Where Bright Lights Abound
Best Track: Unforgettable Season

2. Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago  
Album is like: The Crackling of a Fireplace in the Dead of Winter
Grower or Shower: Grower. Immediately Inviting, but Not Immediately Apparent How Engrossing and Atmospheric It Really Is
Perfect Environment to Listen To: Log Cabin In the Woods
Best Track: For Emma

3. TV on the Radio,
Dear Science
Album is like: The Hopes and Fears of Tomorrow; Potential Being Realized
Grower or Shower: Many Different Layers of Shower
Perfect Environment to Listen To: Gathering of Jaded Liberals Right On Election Night Before the Results Are Announced
Best Track: DLZ

4. Fleet Foxes,
Fleet Foxes
Album is like: Pastoral Purgatory
Grower or Shower: Grower, Because It Takes Sometime To Extricate Yourself From Modernity
Perfect Environment to Listen To: An Open Field Nestled in the Vastness of the Blue Ridge Mountains in a Time Sometime Before the Now
Best Track: Your Protector

5. Crystal Castles,
Crystal Castles
Album is like: Megaman on PCP
Grower or Shower: Shower, But It'll Take a Few Listens to Comprehend You're Being Shown the Rise of the Machines
Perfect Environment to Listen To: A Modern Car Assembly Line
Best Track: Vanished

6. MGMT,
Oracular Spectacular
Album is like: A Hot Air Balloon Ride On A Summer's Night With Fireworks Exploding all Around.
Grower or Shower: Shower. Barechested, With Glitter and Scarves
Perfect Environment to Listen To: A College Dorm Room, Intoxicated and Full of Blamless Hedonism
Best Track: Kids

7. Wolf Parade,
At Mount Zoomer
Album is like: Equal Parts Schizophrenia and Sneer
Grower or Shower: Grower. It Lurks and Lurks, and Right When It Looks Like You're Safe You've Been Snared and Are Dangling Ten Feet in the Air Wondering if You Want to Get Down
Perfect Environment to Listen To: Somewhere Pitch Black, With One Hidden Speaker Blaring Out Spencer's Part of Kissing the Beehive and Another Blasting Out Dan's
Best Track: Solider's Grin

8. Passion Pit,
Chunk of Change   
Album is like: The Fireworks, Candy and Puppy Dog Store
Grower or Shower: Shows You How to Turn That Frown Upside Down
Perfect Environment to Listen To: A Ballpit Complete With 25 Giggling Kids With Birthdays
Best Track: Sleepyhead

9. Pete and the Pirates,
Little Death
Album is like: The Unfathomable Chaos That is Love and Life in Your Twenties
Grower or Shower: Shower. The Non-Stop Energy is a Pathogen You Breath In With the First Jangly Guitar Noise
Perfect Environment to Listen To: Running Down The Street, Late to Work, After A One-Night Stand
Best Track: She Doesn't Belong To Me

10. Why,
Album is like: Self-Loathing With A Killer Beat
Grower or Shower: Grower. The Enticing Melodies Set The Stage to Some Of the Best Lyrics This Side of David Berman (Silver Jews)
Perfect Environment to Listen To: Lying on Your Bed, Headphones on, Attention Undivided.
Best Track: The Hollows


Honorable Mentions:

Vampire Weekend,
Vampire Weekend
Bloc Party, Intimacy
Santogold, Santogold
The Dodos, Visiter
Shearwater, Rook

Friday, May 31, 2013

An Indie Rock Touchstone Turns 10: Celebrating The Meadowlands

Hi there loyal reader(s). Two posts in a week from the Mitchfork gang -- impressive stuff after months of silence. Don't read too much into it though -- it's not a trend so much as we were randomly struck by inspiration a couple times in close succession. Per our last post, we're not even positive we'll produce an end-of-year "best of" list -- that's how much indie rock has exhausted us.

Speaking of exhausted, The Wrens are presumably so tired out by their non-music lives that they can't even muster a follow-up to one of the best albums of the 2000s (to see Mitchfork back up this statement, we will direct your attention to the #19 pick on our revised "The Top 20 Albums of the 2000s" list). Even for a band that took seven years from their second album (the perfectly swell if a little under-done Secaucus) to their third, a decade-long wait seems to bode ill for their chances of ever releasing any new material. If that is in fact the case, then The Meadowlands will also benefit from its legacy not being overshadowed by the subsequent work of a less-inspired band. Because, make no bones about it, this is an inspired album.

We mentioned in our last post that "indie rock" is used today as an umbrella term to encompass many different styles of music (everything from chill wave to freak folk to baroque pop), but this is an album we would proudly present, right alongside Slanted and Enchanted, Bee Thousand or Lonesome Crowded West, as a collection of songs that perfectly encapsulates what indie rock is supposed to be (in our humble opinion). It's rough and decidedly lo-fi at points (album stand-out "Everyone Choose Sides" comes at you with a mighty wall of staticy guitars that coalesce into a catchy anthem of a pop song) but there's no hiding the hooks, and even though it bubbles with a reckless energy, there's an air of resignation hanging over all of it.

It's the work of a bunch of 30-somethings, bruised by their lives, their loves and their failures, not of successful musicians who hit it big at 22 and never looked back. There's a line from Interpol's Paul Banks on the band's disappointing fourth album Interpol where he laments "I have succeeded/I won't compete for long." Not only does it sum up why Interpol as a band (and so many others) run out of steam, but it also an accurate summation of why The Meadowlands' harsh edges cut so deep: it's an album by a group of men who were not dulled by success and who, closing in on middle age, still had a lot to say and the musical chops to back it up. 

"Because I'm caught/I can't type/I can't temp/I'm way past college/No ways out/No back doors, not anymore/But then once a while/We’ll play a show then that makes it worthwhile" Those are our favorite lines from our favorite song on the album, "This Boy Is Exhausted." No description of the Wren's lyrics would be complete without a mention of Charles Bissell's raw, straining and soaring vocals, and here in particular they add a desperate bite to these world-weary words. There's no posturing here, just a bruisingly personal confession about their struggles and minor triumphs. That's the thing -- everything about The Meadowlands feels refreshingly genuine, which is why we suspect these ramshackle pop songs will continue to deliver the goods even after our gray hairs outnumber our brown ones.

And now, we will again climb down from our soap box. We doubt we'll be getting back on it for some time. Enjoy the summer everyone and know we love you. Especially you, Bob Benson, resident "good guy" of Mad Men, a man who may very well be a serial killer. Only time will tell...

Monday, May 27, 2013

When a Disappointing Album Is More Than a Disappointing Album: A Review of The National's "Trouble Will Find Me"

Hello loyal reader(s). In the past few years, the expectation (largely aided by the staff here at Mitchfork) has been that we only produce a single post a year, our "Year in Music." However, we're breaking form here, so let us explain.

A decade ago, back when Mitchfork was a freshman in college, we hadn't heard of the publication that would eventually rhyme with our name. In fact, we hadn't even listened to many of the bands that now define our music tastes and, to a certain extent, our cultural persona. That all changed over the next few years, when a series of bands (introduced to us by kind, knowledgeable friends) fundamentally altered the way we approached music. Rather than casually consuming catchy pop singles, we allowed songs and albums to sink deep into our marrow and leave enduring impressions. Our inner life, the place where we interpreted meaning, became increasingly influenced by the music we were obsessed with that month and, as time passed, the major events in our young life became indelibly intertwined with the bands and songs we were breathlessly listening to at that time. For example, we remember the exact moment the first notes of Interpol's "Untitled" hit our ears, the way our eyes widened and our pulse picked up. Music became a necessary complement to our existence, enriching many of our formative experiences and heightening our senses.

But, what does that indulgent paragraph have to do with why we're writing this post and addressing The National's latest album? First, let us expound a little further. What happened to that same boundless passion we felt for music, the profound role the act of discovery had in our emotional life? It has steadily diminished after those first few breakneck years, not noticeable at first, but more and more tangible as our ardent adolescence emerged clearly in our rear-view mirror. There used to be dozens of albums we wanted to gush about every year. Then there were several. Now there are, if we're lucky, a couple standouts we want to promote. Why is this? After some thoughts, we have decided there are several reasons, in no particular order of importance. 

Reason #1: We've Exhausted the Genre of Indie Rock/It's Exhausted Us

When we say "music," we really mean the giant umbrella of indie rock and all the varied punk, folk, pop and electronica it encompasses. That said, there is only a finite amount of bands to choose from, and after a decade of voraciously devouring hundreds and hundreds of albums, it's safe to say that the available options aren't as plentiful or as impressive as they once were. There are only so many great bands, and it's perfectly possible that some of our fatigue is the result of lacking new music to replace that which we've already burnt out on. 

Furthermore, it wouldn't be a stretch to posit the thesis that, over the past decade, the genre as a whole has stagnated to a certain extent. Some of this might have to do with its rise in popularity, encouraging less innovation and more imitation, but it does seem like fewer and fewer bands since the 1990's have been able to leverage their influences into something approaching a definitive sound. This may be an issue throughout pop music in the 21st century, but that's an argument for another time.

Reason #2: We're Older and Our Hearts Don't Beat So Fast Anymore

It's not blasphemous to say that a large part of our expansive passion for music as a young person was due to the fact that we were extremely fired up about everything in our life. The thrill of the new, combined with our juvenile hormones and our carefree, unstructured lives all conspired to make us particularly receptive to the articulate, angst-ridden musings of those who also happened to be particularly adept at constructing pop songs. Don't get us wrong, those same tracks still sound just as good now as they did then; they just don't move us in quite the same way. They're familiar, well-worn psalms, and there's nothing we can do to reignite our senses in regards to them. 

Reason #3: The Best Days of Our Favorite Bands/Artists Are Behind Them

Just as our appreciation for music was picking up speed a decade ago, many of our favorite bands were just coming into their own and releasing their definitive albums. It would be unreasonable to expect their level of creativity/production to remain at an elite level over this extended amount of time, and the truth is that it largely hasn't. 

Bloc Party, Death Cab for Cutie, Interpol, The Strokes, The Shins, Iron & Wine, The Killers and The Decemberists are examples of bands for whom each successive album has been more disappointing than the last -- reflecting either a creative exhaustion or a need to escape from the sound that once defined them.

Others like Wolf Parade and Broken Social Scene have quasi-disbanded as the members pursue side projects, effectively putting their future output in jeopardy. And while we still anticipate the next Sufjan album, we have no idea what to expect from that mad hatter. There are no more great B-sides to dig up from Elliott Smith's catalog, and it's been over six years since Modest Mouse has released a full-length album. Even Radiohead, with their sterling record of innovation and excellence, essentially mailed in The King of Limbs. Maybe rock music is just a young man's game after all, because it appears in many cases like the ambition just isn't there anymore. 

Where does this leave us? Well, with The National, who, along with Arcade Fire, we considered to be our two favorite bands of the past several years. Arcade Fire are expected to release their fourth full-length later this year, and we've felt that the case could be made that each of their past three albums is just as good if not better than those before it. Fingers crossed this trend continues, especially because Trouble Will Find Me just hasn't delivered the goods. 

It pains us to say this, but this disappointment is partly the result of the impossibly high expectations Matt Berninger and the boys have created for themselves thanks to their past successes. It's an especially acute dissatisfaction because, due to all the reasons listed above, we really were hoping The National's sixth album would maintain their signature sound while breaking new ground (a la Radiohead). They certainly did the former, but the result was an LP that feels exceptionally staid (even for The National) and a bit stale. 

All the hallmarks of The National's previous work can be found on Trouble Will Find Me -- these are immaculately constructed, artfully subdued songs from masters of their craft. Berninger's voice sounds better than ever (he stopped smoking in 2011 and it shows), and his lyrics are tantalizing oblique as always. The issue though is that we feel like we've heard it all before, and it was a little more lively the first time. As they've aged, the restraint that usually worked for the band is starting to constrict their music -- many of these songs sound nuanced and layered, but the residue they leave behind is minimal.

The only standout track is "Don't Swallow the Cap," a tense and plaintive song whose highlights are Berninger's gorgeous chorus and Bryan Devendorf's always stellar drumming. If it reminds the listener of Boxer standout "Brainy," then the next song "Fireproof" echoes "Racing Like a Pro," another Mitchfork favorite. Beyond those two tracks though lies a series of songs without any real highs or lows. This is despite the best efforts of "Sea of Love" and "Graceless," both of which appear to have the potential to break out as anthems, but end up falling short in a way similar songs from the band would not have in the past.

Trouble Will Find Me, truth be told, brings to mind a band slowing fading into middle age, sanding off the rough corners and settling into a comfort zone. It's perfectly pleasant, with a few memorable peaks, but those moments only serve to remind us of previous albums (Alligator in particular), where they were more plentiful. Even as the band's embraced a measured sound, it always felt like they were exploring new ground. For the first time, we can't say that's the case. 

Now, back to Mitchfork and putting Trouble Will Find Me in the larger context of how our music listening has evolved over the years. There are still plenty of good bands out there, and we don't suspect we'll be quitting music or indie rock anytime soon. However, this post does indicate an increasing acceptance of the inevitable end of Mitchfork in the near future. Although it's only been around for five years and Mitchfork is composed of just several sprawling posts, this blog is an online manifestation of the lingering passion we still feel when proselytizing the merits of truly great music. Perhaps it will be this year, or maybe next, but the writing is on the wall. 

That said, while it is becoming more and more difficult to amass a year-end list of memorable music, the existence of songs like "Don't Swallow the Cap" continue to make the search worthwhile. Moreover, while our hearts might not flutter as they once did, the imprint the music has left on us will remain.