Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Ghosts of Pitchfork Past

Let me first state before writing this that for all the flack Pitchfork takes for being snobby, dismissive, or overly fickle, it is more of a good music source than bad. They deserve a good deal of credit for leading the charge of support behind the rise of acts like Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear, or even Andrew Bird. I know I read it every day, and I bet most people that mock the site do the same. But I digress...

In recent years, it has become apparent that while the credibility and traffic (estimate) of the website seem to be riding a high, acts with less indie cred seem to have effectively disappeared off the site. To put it more concisely, you won't be seeing any Blues Traveler album reviews on Pitchfork anytime soon. A look back, though, shows that Pitchfork had a bit different perspective on things just a few short years ago. This could be indicative of the changing musical landscape, the evolution of particular acts, or of the writers' shifting tastes. It could, though, be a result of the music site's more stringent attempts to be seen as cutting-edge, and ultimately, an insight into their self-consciousness. It's hard to say, especially because their constantly-changing "search" feature rarely yields a full set of results from their massive archive of content.

However, the good people (computer?) over at www.archive.org have a great feature in which you can look back at the history of a website. It lets you read news from historic days, view old site designs, and so forth. Enter Pitchfork, and a world of interesting finds emerges. Check it:

Item A: Canada's Top 25 Albums of All Time

I'm not arguing that this feature is not meant to be funny, or even that it is inaccurate, but I would argue that Pitchfork just wouldn't put themselves out there by posting something like this today. Then again, maybe this is just foreshadowing of the site's current tendency to have reviews that are incongruent with their major lists. They did give this album a 4.2, after all.

Item B: Acknowledgment of
Ben Harper, Days of the New, and Dropkick Murphys Via Reviews

There are some acts that Pitchfork likes to feature by giving them a scathing review, which are usually comical (see: Jet). Most musicians, however, are given what is effectively the silent treatment. Too college-y? No review. Too Nickelback-y? No review. We can mainly be thankful for this, as it saves time scrolling. However, Pitchfork used to actually cover a wider spread of performers for better or for worse. The acts listed above could probably be compared to, say...Jack Johnson, 3 Doors Down, and, well, Dropkick Murphys. All of which haven't gotten the acknowledgment of a review in years, if ever. Would it destroy Pitchfork's credibility if they posted a Jack Johnson album review? Probably not. Does it help their credibility by not posting a Jack Johnson album review? Maybe.

It's hard to answer either way, but basically, I just find the changing climate interesting. Since I've never seen a real discussion of the site, which doesn't allow readers to comment (which I presume is because it views itself as a music site, and not as an interactive blog), I think it's worth a look.

Bonus Item: The Rating System Explanation

10.0: Essential
9.5-9.9: Spectacular
9.0-9.4: Amazing
8.5-8.9: Exceptional; will likely rank among writer's top ten albums of the year
8.0-8.4: Very good
7.5-7.9: Above average; enjoyable
7.0-7.4: Not brilliant, but nice enough
6.0-6.9: Has its moments, but isn't strong
5.0-5.9: Mediocre; not good, but not awful
4.0-4.9: Just below average; bad outweighs good by just a little bit
3.0-3.9: Definitely below average, but a few redeeming qualities
2.0-2.9: Heard worse, but still pretty bad
1.0-1.9: Awful; not a single pleasant track
0.0-0.9: Breaks new ground for terrible

For those readers who may have stumbled upon Pitchfork in more recent times, the reviews can seem oddly specific in their rating. What distinguishes a 7.3 from a 7.6, after all? With a number of different reviewers, how can they have a credible review process that precise? It seems that for a time, although brief, the site did have some sort of explanation as to the meaning of review ratings. Now, however, the process is more cryptic (although the system above is hardly scientific).

You can check out the archive of Pitchforks of yore below.

Wayback Machine: www.pitchforkmedia.com

Monday, January 26, 2009

My Three Favorite Songs of 2009 (...so far)

[photo by Sarah Cass, prob. the best band photo-taker around]

Predictable, perhaps. But at least I'm honest about it. Here you go...a half-song sample of one, a high-quality video of the next, and an Mp3 courtesy of Jagjaguar records for the 3rd. Enjoy.

Handsome Furs - Evangeline

Animal Collective - My Girls

Mp3: Bon Iver - Blood Bank
Buy: Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion
Buy: Bon Iver - Blood Bank EP
Pre-Order: Handsome Furs - Face Control

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Bran Flakes - What It's All About

Please watch this video. Think Yatta meets Kid Koala.

From the forthcoming album I Have Hands, out on Illegal Art on Feb. 24, 2009.

Video: The Bran Flakes - What It's All About
Mp3: The Bran Flakes - Various Tracks

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Albums of the Year, 2008 Edition

Ok, so it's not a top 10. Not even a top 11. I aimed for 10, ended up with 12. But here they are, my favorite albums of 2009.

One of my favorite developments of 2008 was the continued progress of live performances on the internets. As such, with the top 12 below are some of the best performances from the albums listed.

12) Wolf Parade - At Mount Zoomer

It's hard to deny that Wolf Parade have their own distinctive sound. It seems that on this album, though, some started wondering if that sound had grown tiresome. To me, At Mount Zoomer, while perhaps lacking the immediate impact of the group's debut album, is a great second album. The single "Language City" remains one of my favorites of the year. You can check the track out over at Sub Pop Records' site.

Mp3: Wolf Parade - Language City

11) Why? - Alopecia

I thought I had essentially written off the marriage of hip-hop and rock to irreconcilable differences after the late 90s brought us some of the most awful music ever. This album makes the case that they may be able to co-exist peacefully after all, if done correctly. Why?'s sound is that of a couple of guys who benefited from growing up in a world where they were exposed to Public Enemy, Pavement, and The Beach Boys. And also probably went to the psychiatrist a lot. Anyway.

Video: Why? - The Vowels pt. 2 (Live)

10) Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago

I think young music fans sometimes associate loudness with intensity of performance. I know that personally, I've learned to appreciate that sometimes softer performances can be just as impactful, if not more so, than ones that try and make your ears ring for days. Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago is an album that is very soft, and rather subtle, but is one of the more powerful records of the year. Check out the video below for a sample.
Bon Iver - "For Emma" from MySpace Transmissions

9) The Walkmen - You & Me

One expectation I didn't have for this album before it came out was for it to sort of creep me out. But it does. Oddly, this is a good thing. After you get a track or two in, you get the feeling that you've wandered into an early 20th-century smoky lounge. This world of sound that The Walkmen created for this new album works to great effect, as it draws upon some of the best moments of their earlier work, but puts it into this unique context. If you give the concert below a listen, try "Canadian Girl," a song that exemplifies the album's sound.

Video: The Walkmen - Live in Concert

8) Chad VanGaalen - Soft Airplane

Prior to 2008, I knew Chad VanGaalen primarily through YouTube, where his work had been featured several times (he has animated a number of music videos for past releases). He also stood out because of his unique vocal style. For Soft Airplane's release, VanGaalen animated several short promo videos, each with about a minute long preview of a song from the album. My favorite is the first one, which uses the song "Willow Tree," one of the best songs on the album. Rather than going overboard in terms of production on the track, it is largely focused on the singer's voice and a steady banjo line. You can check out the preview below.

Video: Chad VanGaalen - Soft Airplane Promo 1 (feat. "Willow Tree")

7) Death Cab for Cutie - Narrow Stairs

Narrow Stairs starts off with what I think may be Death Cab's best written song to date, "Bixby Canyon Bridge." I'm not entirely sure if I would have thought that before reading this great article in Paste Magazine; it made me interested in the track before I had ever heard it. Essentially, Ben Gibbard took a Jack Keroac-inspired trip in hopes of having a life-changing experience, and to put it simply, ended up disapointed. That trip led to the aforementioned lead-off track, which chronicled Gibbard's emotional let-down. I suppose it's a simple concept for a song, but for such a specific experience, it manages to lend itself as relatable.

Bixby Canyon Bridge

6) Blitzen Trapper - Furr

Folk-influenced music had a great year in '08, and front and center is this release by Blitzen Trapper. The band got a lot of critical buzz in 2007 after releasing Wild Mountain Nation (which incidentally only had a few songs that I really enjoyed), but have started to reach a wider audience after months of touring (including a stretch with Fleet Foxes opening for them in the Spring). Furr is an album that ranges between rock and acoustic folk, but remains consistantly enjoyable throughout. One of the album's standouts is below.

Mp3: Blitzen Trapper - Black River Killer

5) Ryan Adams & The Cardinals - Cardinology

Although Ryan Adams has been playing with The Cardinals for awhile now, Cardinology seems to mark a turning point; Adams now is just as much the lead singer for the band as he is a singer with a backing band. The music benefits from this shift, as the moving parts all work together well. Check out an acoustic performance from the band from "Coffee and Cardinals":

4) Islands - Arm's Way

Often times it seems like when a band has a great debut, the sophomore album ends up with better singles, but less overall continuity on the whole (Band of Horses, for instance). With Islands, it almost seems like the reverse. Arm's Way felt like more of a complete album to me than did Return to the Sea (though it did lack a truly great single like RttS's "Rough Gem," which is probably why it didn't quite get the same amount of critical acclaim). Either way, this album was on repeat all year long for me. Second single "Creeper" is below in video form.

Video: Islands - Creeper

3) Thao with the Get Down, Stay Down - We Brave Bee Stings and All

I've gone on quite a bit this year already about these guys and gal, but I would say it's well deserved. Their album is great, their live show is great, and Fall '09 will (likely) be the release of their next full-length. Lots to look forward to with this group.

Mp3: Thao with the Get Down, Stay Down - Yes, So On And So On

2) David Byrne & Brian Eno - Everything That Happens Will Happen Today

Please go into this album with no expectations, but please do listen.

Full Album Stream - David Byrne & Brian Eno - Everything That Happens Will Happen Today

1) Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes

On their MySpace page, under Tour Dates, Fleet Foxes have this entry for next Saturday (seriously):
Upcoming Shows ( view all )
Jan 17 2009 11:30P
Saturday Night Live - scared out of brain Don Pardo’s House, NY
It's hard to imagine a band coming so far in just a year - Exactly 364 days before this upcoming SNL performance, the band was signed to Sub Pop Records to release their first full-length album. That's a scary-fast rise for a folksy band with no real radio-ready singles, but still, a well-deserved trip to the top. Listen below for evidence of pure musical excellence.

Fleet Foxes - A Take Away Show from La Blogotheque on Vimeo.