January 24, 2003

Songs To Learn and Sing

Even though it's just a Top 10, I couldn't get The Undertones' "Top Twenty" out of my head while creating this list. (And it's all Steve's fault! Almost 10 years later I still hear that song whenever listening to any radio show countdown.)

Before I get to the list, a short intro... 2002 was the year where I rediscovered new music, the thrill of a live rock show, and the vitality of the New York City music scene in particular. I'm happy to say I saw live performances by seven of the ten artists on my list at least once, even if I did miss my few chances see the other three last year. Part of this is because I got a bit of a late start, as I didn't get into the swing of things until May or so. But once I did I just couldn't stop. Still can't. And am quite happy for that.

The latter part of the year was a bit hectic, so the pace of my recorded music consumption slackened as fall turned into winter. So while many of the artists listed here were represented in my summer and fall mixes, others will be popping up on yet another new music mix that's in the making. I may not have the need for walking music at present (not when the temperature is 11 degrees Fahrenheit!), but I need something to give me friends when trying to convince them to go see this or that band with me.

So here we go, from 10 to 1:

10. Radio 4 - Gotham! (link)
I'm not sure how I first heard about this band, but it was sometime over the summer, when I decided to check them out by downloading one of their songs ("New Disco") using Soulseek. Didn't like it, deleted it, moved on. But my ears perked up when I heard yet another track ("The Movies") on a Fenway Recordings comp, which made its way onto my Most Listened To list in iTunes. Then I started to hear good things about the band on other web sites I like and respect. So I picked up the album just in time for my trip to Seattle. Listened to it on the plane over and back. Angular, weird and groove-y fun.

9. Jason Loewenstein - At Sixes and Sevens (link)
Raucous rock-n-roll, dished out in equal helpings of melancholy and fun/dumb pleasure. Length is a weakness, as there are a few sub-par tracks, but the first five are an exhilarating run that would have made a near-flawless EP. Mr. Loewenstein's two earwax-melting live shows I attended this past year cemented his status as former bandmate Mr. Barlow's equal from here on.

8. Wire - Read & Burn 01 / 02 (link)
There are plans afoot to issue a single-CD compiling tracks from these two EPs plus a still-forthcoming third and final EP in the series, but... these two came out in 2002, so let's smoosh them together and call it an LP, okay? Advance raves on the chug list alerted me to the idea that this might be the exception to the Lame Reunion Album dictum (see: just about every punk band who attempts this feat). Wire somehow managed to pull it off, though, with Colin Newman's fierce bark and the band's musical tautness and agression fully intact. Copping speed and fury from Pink Flag and drony repetition from some of their later work, the songs spanning these two discs sear a fierce yet wholly musical hole through the gray matter. Prime Wire for me may be the weird soundscapes of 154 and pretty melodies buoying gems like "Mannequin" and "Outdoor Miner," but I'll take this version, gladly.

7. The Mountain Goats - Tallahassee (link)
I've got a clutch of 7" singles on labels like Ajax and Shrimper squirreled away somewhere in my record drawers, accumulated throughout the past 10-plus years of the band's existence. Tallahassee, however, was the album that made me sit up and take notice once more of the compelling music produced by John Darnielle (= Mountain Goats). Lyrical and musical songcraft spread across fourteen songs, etching a finely-detailed portrait of a relationship in decline. The arrangements are still spare, but not sparse, with ample patches of quietude replacing hissiness, plus touches of bass, backup vocals and other sonic accoutrements that suit the material nicely.

6. Spoon - Kill the Moonlight (link)
My introduction to Spoon, many records and many years after hearing about and reading about (and ignoring) them. I may be a Jenny-come-lately, but one nice thing about latching onto a band that has a deep back catalog is being able to treat yourself to a "new" album anytime the mood strikes -- I'm working on Girls Can Tell right now, and finding it even better (huzzah!). You can hear the proverbial pin drop on Kill the Moonlight, so stripped-down and sharply-accented are the songs. Another band that proved themselves live this past year, giving me more than my money's worth on two different nights.

5. Hot Hot Heat - Make Up the Breakdown (link)
As mentioned in an earlier entry, this was a band that creeped into my conscious via mentions on other web sites, in much the same way that Radio 4 did. On the strength of tip-top, pop-til-you-can't-stop tune "No, Not Now," I downloaded the entire album in one shot, dumped it into my iPod and headed out for a walk. More like a bop through the city as I strained to keep from busting out the Fame-style dancin'-in-the-streets action, perhaps restrained by the realization that my fellow fellow pedestrians would not be providing synchronized accompaniment. The album was that immediately catchy, hyper-kinetic and winning, all on the first listen. This is one band I'm still jonesing to see live, so expand that West Coast tour to encompass these eastern shores, boys!

4. Hot Snakes - Suicide Invoice (link)
Another instant-adrenalin inducer, this was one album that, due to an iPod transfer mistake, I initially played in backwards order. Even in reverse sequence, this one made an impression straight-away, building on my infatuation with one-off download "XOX" by introducing a whole album's worth of barrelling, breathless tunes that put me in blast-off mode whenever I needed a recharge. Pummel me with guitars, oh yeah!

3. Enon - High Society (link)
Everyone has at least one co-worker that's in a band. You'll find this out either by chatting at the coffee machine or via occasional emails sent to the officewide distribution list urging everyone to check out a performance at this or that local rock club. Such was the case with John Schmersal's band, Enon, who I knew about through a project we both worked on ("Oh yeah, that guy who did the Katbot theme song"). But I never bothered to explore his band's music further until a friend pulled me along to one of their shows. We ended up missing most of their set, and the sound in the cavernous Warsaw wasn't the best, and foam-suited, anthropomorphized foodstuffs started menacing the band (really) as their set wound down... even so, I was struck by the combination of electronic and organic, controlled weirdness and undeniable melodicism. Shortly thereafter, I got ahold of a copy of Side 1 of the album, which I played ad nauseum before breaking down one day, literally walking for 45 minutes on my lunch break to find a record store close enough to my SoHo office that had the CD in stock. High Society is a regular Whitman's Sampler of pop delights, from the grungy rock of "Old Dominion" to electro confection "In This City," to the wistful, guitar-driven "Window Display." Its eclecticism tickles all my musical senses, but it's the bullseye pop hooks that kept me coming back to this one throughout the course of summer and fall, when other bands' album-length workouts of a sound or theme had burned out my ears.

2. Interpol - Turn On the Bright Lights (link)
For fuck's sake, what can I say about this record that myself and ten barrels of music critics haven't already said before? As with just about all of the other artists part of this list, I've written words of praise for this band here in the past. Tightly crafted, masterfully executed pop meditations that connect -- thwack! -- like a baseball bat slamming into the side of a piñata stuffed full of eagerly-anticipated treats. Elements of the best from beloved, poppy post-punk records in my collection, synthesized and mutated into an album's worth of delivery on the promise of their three preceding EPs.

1. Consonant - Consonant (link)
Comeback of the year, and album of the year from Clint Conley, who pulled this one from the creative depths after too many years of musical dormancy. This debut from his many-years-post-Mission of Burma project features jaw-droppingly wonderful musical and lyrical synergy between his compositions and the words of friend/poet Holly Anderson on all but a few (solely Conley-penned) songs. You can read my Consonant discovery story and subsequent album and show reviews in the archives for more reasons why this is a CD that I can still put on the stereo (and I did the other night) and happily listen to the whole thing. Over and ohhhhverrrr.

Posted by nstop at January 24, 2003 04:35 AM


Your Top 10 list has inspired me to check out Consonant's album -- it sounds great and I've rediscovered how amazing Burma's Vs. is this past week. Personally, I was a bit disappointed with Hot Hot Heat's full length, even though their previous EP was stellar.

Posted by: Sabo on January 24, 2003 02:50 PM

I was eventually going to get around to putting Consonant on my own list, but I've sort of let it go. The problem with saving all the best stuff for last is that sometimes you don't get to the best stuff.

Posted by: paul on January 24, 2003 07:57 PM

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