I used to be neck-deep in music. I’d go to two to three shows a week, had a neverending pile of CDs by my desk, download a bunch of albums in one go. When the magazine I worked for died, there was no reason for me to keep current on music for work, which meant I had more time to absorb everything I was listening to.
And I started traveling a lot, which meant that my iPod truly became my best friend. I was in Eastern Europe in March, Seattle, Alaska and Los Angeles in July, Chico, Nevada and Sebastopol in August, drove through six states in November, and ended up in Southern California, then Manila, Siargao and Batangas this month. With so many unfamiliar beds, rooms, and landscapes surrounding me, the only way I truly felt at home and comfortable was by listening to music that I knew and was familiar.
And that became the best of my 2008.
Bon Iver, “For Emma, Forever Ago” – Justin Vernon wrote this album in the Wisconsin woods, two winters ago, broken hearted and alone. I wrote about him last January, when I lived in Milwaukee. I saw him play a show in a smoky club when it was zero degrees out, and then for the rest of that cold, snowy season, would put myself to sleep with this album. During winter my toes were always cold, but at least Vernon’s falsetto soothed me, made me feel like the cold didn’t matter, that, lying in my bed, I would always be okay.
Vampire Weekend, “Vampire Weekend” – It was catchy, it was fun, it was happy. It was different, you know? It wasn’t all that hipster electronica drudgery. Its songs’ untrendy elements made it oh-so-geeky and lovable. So even though I was done with the album by May, I still would say it was one of 2008’s best.
Mates of State, “Re-Arrange Us” – This was definitely a grower. I loved it the first time I heard it in May, then promptly forgot about it. In November I drove 2500 miles from Milwaukee to California, and during the most tiring periods of the trip, listened to this album on repeat. It always made me feel better. (How unsubliminal can I get? The single “Get Better” is definitely one of the most uplifting songs I know, though.) I felt like it was the most accessible of all the Mates of State albums — not so many crazy song breaks or confusing chord progressions, still saccharinely pop but not commercially so.
Lykke Li, “Youth Novel”
Hype! Hype! Hype! This list is full of ultra-hyped artists, but so what? A ‘best of’ list isn’t just about what lasted more than 3 plays on your iPod; it’s also about songs that define the best moments of the year. All summer, “Little Bit” was ringingÂ in my ears. The rest of Lykke Li’s album — bubbling to the brim with her perfect pop tone and bouncing beats — did not disappoint. I love dancey songs on pseudo-relationships as much as I love dancing around my pseudo-relationships.
Michael Franti, “All Rebel Rockers”
Mommy Su loves Michael Franti. As in, laglag panty love. When I went up to northern California to visit her, she brought me to his annual rally/concert, “Power to the Peaceful” at Golden Gate Park. I was an instant convert. Dreadlocks and tiedye and stinky hippies aside, this album has everything you want for a party. Plus a conscience. So it’s the musical equivalent to getting stoned all night and making sure people don’t drive home while under the influence.
TV on the Radio, “Dear Science”
There are albums that you love because the bands’ previous album was so perfect you have residual emotion for their newer work, even though it’s not so great. Think Ryan Adams, or Stars, or YYYs. I think “Dear Science” is one of these albums. On the other hand, it took me more than a year to get into “Return to Cookie Mountain.” So this TVOTR album might even grow on me some more.
It was instant: I heard “Cobrastyle,” I downloaded the album, and have been in love with this Swedish popstar ever since. My usual problem with pop albums is that they have no staying power; but every song in Robyn’s re-debut has been a constant in every dance playlist of the year I’ve made.
Fleet Foxes, “Fleet Foxes”
This Seattle-based band was borne out of a kind of obscure band I loved from a few years ago, Crystal Skulls. But while Crystal Skulls was proggy and electronic, Fleet Foxes incorporates every catchy folk music -device to keep the listeners’ attention. From three part harmonies and simple guitar chords, to allusions to meadowlarks and fields, the band brings you back to the Beach Boys and Crosby Stills Nash and Young without being total copycats. It’s old school, but refreshingly so.
How I like Foals’ “Antidotes” is the same way I have residual love for succeeding albums of bands whose work I really enjoy. I love Foals because I loved Bloc Party and Battles. While they’re not of that caliber, I wanted something similar sounding but new. Foals incorporates melodic prog elements to their music, and there’s enough punk energy in it to make the album worthwhile.
Here’s a Bon Iver review I wrote for Fan-Belt Milwaukee:
Actually, I’m kinda miffed that I had to share Justin Vernon with 100x more people than the last time I saw him. A bunch of people braved the zero-degree weather in January to watch that Mad Planet show, which was also sold-out.
Back then, Bon Iver definitely was just Justin Vernon’s nom-de plume, and his backup musicians were only there to help him along. It was a sparse, lonesome and starkly beautiful performance. I remember the bottom of my stomach falling out, and then listening to his album — written up north after a bad break-up — the rest of that desolate winter.
But last week, at The Pabst, that Bon Iver performance was a whole different band. The performance was warm, joyous, and suffused everyone with a golden glow that they took home.
I’d read interviews where Vernon said Bon Iver has solidified into a real band now, with its members contributing equally to the songwriting and performances, and it showed. On the songs, from For Emma, Forever Ago, song parts that used to be silent were filled with bouncing percussion and deftly-woven harmonies. There were steady bass parts holding up the melodies; there was energy and strength behind the songs of heartbreak and pain.
Of course, there were some parts that faltered — a Talk Talk cover made me feel like dozing off, and “Lump Sum” had some prog-rock bits that seemed forced, like unecessary jam band noodling.
The Pabst crowd was great for the most part, except when buffoons would yell out random things during the songs, which I hate. I also don’t get the audience participation for Bon Iver songs because they’re terribly sad, but in this instance, they worked.
But those were tiny glitches in a beautiful night, which included a cameo by Collections of Colonies of Bees’ Jon Mueller on drums, and was capped by a cover of “Lovin’s For Fools” by Sarah Siskind.
Since I first saw them play about six months ago, I’ve said this randomly to various people at various times: Collection of Colonies of Bees may be my most favorite Milwaukee band of all time. I saw them open for Slarrafenland (the Danes) that I was blown away. I bought a copy of “Birds” that night, but didn’t realize their official release just happened. I love the textures of their music, the delicate melodies, the thought-out percussion.
I’ve analyzed their songs in various movements and permutations, dissected layers of guitar and loops and percussion, danced around my room and fallen asleep to their newest album, “Birds.” Sometimes I can’t believe I’ve seen them at the more low-key Milwaukee venues: Stonefly, Cactus Club and Mad Planet. I’ve also been to drummer Jon Mueller’s house. EEEEE!
And because I’m an old school music fan, I hate when the masses discover something close to my heart and co-opt it. I refer to songs, bands and sonic images in particular, mostly because it’s the most likely to be turned it into something I hate. Hey — it happened with the Pixies, being used in soundtracks everywhere. It happened with the Arctic Monkeys, and Feist with her iPod commercial.Â Meh.
So I feel very protective of Mueller, guitarist Chris Rosenau & co. — I admire them from afar, am generally intimidated by them (it’s the all-black outfits and being part of various noise acts and intellectual sonic experiments. Plus, Rosenau is a biochemist!).
But now that Bon Iver just championed them on Pitchfork, the masses are going to co-opt my love for “Birds” and I’m going to see ten gazillion hipsters at their shows, which will all sell out! Waah!!! I mean, obviously that’s good for the band, which is traveling to South By Southwest next month as part of the Table of Elements showcase, but still. I feel like someone copied a secret recipe for chicken soup that my mother passed onto me and started selling it at McDonald’s. Or posted my secret crush on a billboard on 16th and National.Â Or something. That didn’t even make sense, byt mine all mine!!!
Today is Cocobee’s release party at the Cactus Club, and today is also the day we shot them for MKE’s Feb. 28th issue. I kind of ruined my fangirldom today though. I was up early for various work things, I dressed in a summer dress, I froze all day, I interviewed about six people in the span of eight hours — I was totally tired. So when Rosenau asked me if I was going to their show, I muttered something like, ‘no I have to sleep” and immediately started kicking myself.
AAAAGGHGHGHGHGH! I didn’t mean that in the “i have to wash my hair way.”
I really didn’t.
I was just really really tired. I would watch a Cocobees show over very many things I enjoy, including but not limited to: eating foie gras, riding a ferris wheel, getting free drinks, shopping for clothes, petting rabbits and eating chocolate. But I was exhausted. Mueller and their guitarist Daniel were nice enough to let me off by saying they felt like sleeping too. But I really really did want to watch the show. Anyway, there it goes.
P.s. CoCoBees precursor, Pele, has its whole catalog on sale at theÂ Polyvinyl store for $20. That is such a good deal! $20 worth of GOODNESS!!!
1. Vampire Weekend -Â I was whining to a friend about the lousy Coachella lineup (this may be the first one I’ll miss in five years), and he said: “I have two words for you: Vampire Weekend.” So I looked them up and couldn’t stop listening to it. Shades of the Clash, some afro-beat influences, lots of poppy, happy ska. I love when savvy Ivy Leaguers (the quartet all met at Columbia) make world-inspired music, talk about punctuation marks and name check Peter Gabriel, Benetton and Louis Vuitton in the same song. Their debut album comes out (officially) next week on the 28th or the 29th, depending on where you live. Buy it, steal it, whatever — just make sure it’s within your aural vicinity.
2. Bon Iver @ Mad Planet – Increasingly I am getting lamer and lamer with posting show reports on time. Hey — we’re short-staffed. It’s cold. I park six blocks away from my office. I was made for tropical climates, I have an excuse for everything.
But there’s no denying that last week’s Bon Iver set, though short, was the best local show I’ve been to in a while. Worth braving zero-degree weather for — and since Mad Planet was packed, I’m glad a lot of people felt the same way.
He came onstage with only two other people — another guitarist (who looked like he was 15) and a drummer, but the whole band had percussion instruments at their feet — which they used. Justin Vernon did spare, emotional renderings of songs like “Skinny Love” and “For Emma.” I was slightly worried that his songs, which are delicately beautiful and perfect for alone-time listening, wouldn’t be great in a live setting. But they were.
As usual, openers Collection of Colonies of Bees were incredible; I’m not sure, but I thought I heard them play their new album “Birds” from beginning to end. I’m thinking of driving to Eau Claire on Feb. 10 to watch him again.
3. Bird and the Bee @ Schuba’s – It was a dream come true to finally, finally see this band live. The LA duo, led by singer Inara George, was so cute on stage in her 60’s tent dress and blue tights that audiences kept oohing and awwing throughout the show. She said, “I feel like a kitten. Or a unicorn.”Â Their electro-bossa-pop songs were perfection live, as delicate and delicious as creme brulee. They also played new songs, like “Birthday” which is up on MySpace. George promised “something really cute” for thier last song — and even bet an audience member that they’d definitely say ‘aww’ over it. It was their rendition of “How Deep Is Your Love” by the BeeGees. AWWWWWW!
I miss them already! (They are, BTW, also performing at Coachella.)
4. While at Present Music at the Milwaukee Art Museum, I was struck by how lame it was that Fashion Ninja’s pseudo-runway show used the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Date With a Night” and “Rich” as background music. If you’re trying to impress people with new, interesting fashion forward pieces (hey, I loved the clothes), why would you date your clothes as old by using music that was trendy in 2003? Ecchh. It just seemed so backwards to me. There’s so much cool new music around, you barely even have to look.
5. This weekend I am going out of town so I am missing rollerderby tomorrow and Louis XIV on Sunday (also at Coachella this year).Â I am so boo. You guys gotta let me know how it goes.