Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Comfort Music of the Last Decade

I have a crapload of CDs. My brother-in-law asked me how many I had the other day, and I honestly didn't know. I stopped trying to keep track after 500 or so, and I'm probably closing in on a 1,000 by now.

That means there are a lot of albums I don't listen to all that much. I'm still exploring new music, and there's simply not enough free time in my life to listen to everything. That's why it's kind of remarkable when a handful of albums do pop into my CD player on a relatively frequent basis (and yes, I actually still buy and play CDs...I'm old school like that).

I equate these albums to the musical equivalent of comfort food. My definition of a comfort food is something I can eat that makes me feel good. I can eat it on a regular basis, and I generally won't ever get sick of it. The quality of the food could be great or it could be not-sot-great. Quality isn't necessarily the issue here. The food--or the album--might bring back a certain happy memory or time period in my life. It might be all style and no substance. If it's an album, maybe it just makes shake my ass on a consistent basis. Maybe I know it so well that I don't have to think about it anymore. I can just consume it without worrying about whether it's good for me or makes me look like a dork.

Here are a dozen albums from the last decade that fit this description (the description of each gets shorter as we move through the years since I've written about the latter ones on this blog before). I'm not telling everyone that these are the best albums ever. Many people might hate them. But for whatever reason they have created a little niche for themselves in my music-loving mind. Some of them really are amazing albums that I think everyone should hear. Some I probably latched onto for completely personal reasons. I won't differentiate. I'll just tell you that I love these albums and they make me happy. (I apologize in advance for the font changes and crappy video embed. My grasp of Html is not good enough to figure out what happened.)

Clem Snide -
Your Favorite Music (2001)
I consider Eef Barzelay one of the more underrated contemporary song writers in the US. His lyrics are often described as "overly clever", which I think is a ridiculous critique. I always feel that if a critic or reviewer uses expressions like that, they're seriously grasping for something negative to say, or they're jealous. Barzelay is the core of Clem Snide, and essentially the only permanent member as far as I can tell.

The aptly named Your Favorite Music was not Clem Snide's first album, but it was first I heard and it was the one that got me hooked. The opening track, "Dairy Queen," is a surreal, stream-of-consciousness trip of a song. Later we come to "Bread", a love song that makes every other love song you've heard lately sound...moldy. "I Love the Unknown" is one of my favorite songs of all time. It's a gem of a pop song. It's a philosophy. The album continues to amaze right up to its closer, a cover of "Donna" by Ritchie Valens. Barzelay does not have a classically great voice, but this cover is pretty sweet. When I first started listening to this album, a girl named Donna was doing some work in our lab. She was cute and all, but I think the primary reason I developed a crush on her is because I'd been listening to this song.

I would not say I love every track, but I love most of them, and like the rest. Out of all my CDs, this is the only I have actually worn out from over-playing. It was replaced quickly.

Stephen Malkmus - Stephen Malkmus (2001)
Stephen Malkmus had a huge chip on his shoulder when this album came out, and that chip was called Pavement. Pavement was huge in the 90s, and if you knew music, you were familiar with them if not downright devoted to them. When they split up, it brought closure to a tumultuous decade of music.

Pavement was a lot of things, but it wasn't pop. So when Malkmus came out with this self-titled debut and we got this, it was a bit jarring to a lot of people. But not to me. I loved it. There are songs about pirates ("The Hook") and Yule Brenner ("Jo Jo's Jacket"), as well as "Jenny & the Ess-Dog" a song that describes the beginning, middle, and end of a relationship between a young girl and her much older, hippie boyfriend. I've listened to it dozens of times and seem to hear something new every time. "Off with those awful toe rings" indeed.

Malkmus would go on to release several more good-but-not-great albums with his new band, the Jicks, and eventually he started sounding more Pavementy (and Pavement has actually reunited this year), but there will always be a place in my CD player for this first breakaway effort.

Dressy Bessy - Dressy Bessy (2003)
To put this band into context, I first heard them on a soundtrack for The Powerpuff Girls. But I didn't really fall in love with them until I saw them live. When I saw Tammy Ealom strutting her stuff in her go-go boots and singing her heart out--visually, a stark contrast to her scraggly-but-talented band of dudes--I became a fan for life. They were touring with this album, which though self-titled, was actually their third or fourth LP.

I wore out Clem Snide, but I've probably actually listened to this CD more than anything else in the past 7 years (I guess this CD was just physically stronger??). I put it in when I need something ridiculously upbeat. When I have a ton of dishes to do and I wanna shake my ass while I do them. It's pure bubblegum pop. I've listened to it so many times at this point and know the songs so well that it's the musical equivalent of sitting down and mindlessly eating a whole bag of M&Ms. It's sugary and probably not good for me, but it makes me feel good.

Will everybody like it? Probably not. Maybe I just heard it at the right place and the right time and it stuck. But did it stick hard. Here's a peek of what you'd be getting yourself into if you check it out:

Cat Power -
You Are Free (2003)
You Are Free is arguably the last Cat Power album Chan Marshall made before she un-crazied herself. And holy crap was she crazy when she toured with this album. I managed to make it through about 45 minutes of her "performing" these songs. She never finished a single song and she harassed the poor sound guy at the Cat's Cradle relentlessly. It was the first and only show I've ever walked out on due to the artist's assholeishness.

Lucky for her, I'd already fallen in love with her album before I went to see her live. "Good Woman", my favorite track from the album and, in my opinion, one of the best break-up songs of all time, felt like it was written just for me and my newly-ex-girlfriend. She was (and is) a good woman, and I am a good man, but we weren't so good for each other. It's a simple message, but between Marshall's smokey delivery and Eddie Vedder's guest vocals, it sounds rich and complex and true.

But an album can't be great based on one song, and there's plenty more quality stuff. I would say that 70% of my favorite Cat Power songs are on this album, including "I Don't Blame You", "Free", "He War", and so on. OK, "Names" is possibly one of the most depressing songs ever, but it's still not necessarily a bad song. Sometimes I can just listen to Chan Marshall's voice and it doesn't matter what she's singing. Now that she's sobered up, her live shows are considerably better as well. But if I could only choose one Cat Power album to keep, I would choose this one in a heartbeat.

The Shins - Chutes Too Narrow (2003)
Not too much to say about this one that hasn't already been said. Natalie Portman blah blah blah it'll change your life blah blah blah. Chutes Too Narrow is quite possibly the best sophomore album ever. Their first album was good, but this one was great. Maybe too great for The Shins. Wincing the Night Away was a huge let-down after the pop perfection of this album. Of all the albums on this list, this one was the most popular among the masses. And that's fine. I'm actually relieved that at least one of my favorite albums was enjoyed by a large number of people.

Jim White -
Drill a Hole in the Substrate and Tell Me What You See (2004)
In trying to think of someone with whom to compare Jim White, the closest person I could come to was Harry Chapin. That won't mean much to anyone who isn't either over 40 or didn't have at least one parent into folk music (thanks, Mom!). Like Chapin, most of White's songs are too long to make it to the radio. They range from the playful and fun ("Combing My Hair in a Brand New Style") to the beautifully melancholy ("Bluebird"). Most of the songs on this album fall into the latter category, so I have to be in the right mood when I listen to it. But when I am in the right mood, nothing fits the bill better.

Andrew Bird -
The Mysterious Production of Eggs (2005)
I have written about Andrew Bird extensively on this blog at this point, so if anyone who reads it regularly hasn't checked out his music by now, then it's probably too late to convince you. But I'll try anyway...listen to this album. Please. I'm not going to claim that Bird is the greatest song writer. He's admitted that the meaning behind his lyrics often comes secondary to the way the words sound. The result is beautiful strings of words that are open to interpretation, wrapped in music I can listen to over and over again. This album was my first exposure to his music, and though his earlier and later work is excellent, TMPoE is still my favorite. For some of my earlier raves of both the Jim White album and this one, check out this post.

Jenny Lewis & the Watson Twins -
Rabbit Fur Coat (2006)
The inclusion of this album almost came as a surprise to myself, but when I popped the CD in last week I realized I've actually been listening to this album a lot over the past few years. Maybe it's Lewis's sweet voice backed up by the perfectly harmonizing Watson Twins. Maybe it's the songs that are a little bit country and a little bit rock. Maybe it's the smart songs that are catchy and though provoking, which is not an easy thing to pull off. Maybe it's that perfect cover of "Handle With Care" with M. Ward. I'm sure it's a little bit of all these things.

I can't think of any other album quite like this one. If I'd been writing this blog in 2006, I'm sure it would have tied for my favorite album of the year with...

Forro in the Dark -
Bonfires of São João (2006)
Forro in the Dark's most recent album was possibly my favorite album of 2009 (though I have to say there's probably a little wiggle room in the top five), and I liked this album a lot more. I've written about it before, and I will continue to give props to this band as they continue to promote forro in the US. I told myself I wasn't going to embed any video in this already too-long post, but whatever. Here's Asa Branca, featuring David Byrne:

Bishop Allen - The Broken String (2007)
I actually lost this CD for several months, and when I finally found it again, I had to play it instantly. Yes, I realize I had multiple copies of the album on my iPod and various computers. I never said I was a rational person when it came to music.

The street after which this band is named is just a few blocks from where I work. That's not actually pertinent to anything; it's just a random bit of trivia. What's more important is that this is a very fun album. It's an album I can listen to on my own, or with my kids, or even possibly with co-workers. I don't like using phrases like "If you don't like this album, then you have no soul." But if you listened to this album and weren't charmed by at least a few of the tunes, I would seriously have to question whether or not I wanted to hang out with you.

And as long as I've already broken my no video rule, here's "Click, Click, Click, Click":

The National - Boxer (2007)
My favorite album of 2007. The National comes out with a new album in a month or so, and it'll be interesting to see how it measures up. Boxer is not a happy-go-lucky album. It's not really danceable. I wouldn't call the songs particularly catchy (though they're all good). I guess I can't describe why I like this album so much any more now than I could a few years ago when I called it my favorite. It's just something I have to listen to sometimes.

Thao & The Get Down Stay Down - We Brave Bee Stings and All (2008)
My top album of 2008, I wrote about this one extensively here and here. Still fun, still listening to it. Thao's follow-up last year...not as fun. WBBSaA is a bit more whimsical and innocent, and I like it better for that.


Blackshirtnotie said...

Love this. I actually found this because I was looking for press on Clem Snide's Your Favorite Music as we're about to put it out on vinyl. but you've got great taste. Good call on the Dressy Bessy too... well all of them are great calls. I'm going to post some of this on our site if that's cool with you.


EJP said...

Sure! Use whatever you want, though I'd appreciate it if you linked back to this blog if possible (not that I've had the chance to update much recently).