31 December 2010

12 FROM 2010

A dozen random pix from the past year:

Fowle's in Newburyport on a frigid Saturday in January.

Snake(s) at Millenium Park in West Roxbury. I saw one at first, then two, and frankly I'd rather not know if a third lurks somewhere in there.

Classy canisters in a kitchenette at the Mandarin Hotel Boston

Congress Street bridge across Fort Point Channel on a true blue Friday afternoon in August.

Old and new co-existing in Downtown Crossing.

An elaborate kite (you can barely make out the string on the mid-left) at Crane's Beach, Ipswich.

Autumn sunset approaching Scituate Harbor (and "Mildred").

A creative, welcoming archway at the Coastal Maine Botannical Garden.

A corridor teeming with a Green Wall (and single-use restrooms--no, really) at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania.

Also at Longwood Gardens--photographers pray for natural light and shadows like these.

A mosaic of immense proportions on South Street in Philadelphia.

Maggie lounging under our living room's entertainment center--her new favorite spot.

18 December 2010


(click on each link for individual posts)

2. Charlotte Gainsbourg – IRM
3. Hot Chip – ONE LIFE STAND
4. Laura Marling – I SPEAK BECAUSE I CAN
5. Janelle Monae – THE ARCHANDROID
7. Belle and Sebastian – WRITE ABOUT LOVE
8. Joanna Newsom – HAVE ONE ON ME
10. The Divine Comedy – BANG GOES THE KNIGHTHOOD

ALSO RECOMMENDED (with favorite tracks):

The Arcade Fire – THE SUBURBS
Still too ambitious for their own good, but at least they’re less pompous while retaining their singular grandeur. (“Modern Man”, “Ready to Start”, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”)

David Byrne and Fatboy Slim – HERE LIES LOVE
An all-star concept double album about Imelda Marcos? Works better than it has any right to—credit the impressive cast rather than the material. (“Here Lies Love” with Florence and the Machine, “Walk Like a Woman” with Charmaine Clamor, “Why Don’t You Love Me” with Tori Amos and Cyndi Lauper)

Field Music – MEASURE
Another double album that would’ve made a tidy single one, but their accessible (if angular) smartypants pop is often a welcome respite from scores of Pitchfork-approved humorless indie rock. (“Effortlessly”, “Let’s Write a Book”, “Them That Do Nothing”)

Goldfrapp – HEAD FIRST
Hardly their most profound effort, this extended tribute to synthetic ‘80s gloss is no less fun than any ‘80s appropriation of ‘60s culture (and it has the year’s best album cover). (“Rocket”, “Alive”, “I Wanna Life”)

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – I LEARNED THE HARD WAY
They posit another loving tribute to a past era, but sincerity and a wealth of talent keep them from sounding like a tribute band—they continue to find new colors in their limited palette. (“The Game Gets Old”, “I Learned the Hard Way”)

Contains this year’s best clever non-sequitur lyric (“Eat it Michael Musto, you’re no Bruce Vilanch”), but with increasing alacrity, the standouts aim for more than laffs.
(“Home”, “All I Want”, “One Touch”)

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists – THE BRUTALIST BRICKS
His most consistent album since HEARTS OF OAK: not so much an advance as a refinement, with wisdom now supplementing his ample passion.
(“Bottled in Cork”, “Ativan Eyes”, “One Polaroid a Day”)

Scissor Sisters – NIGHT WORK
Sleazy, a bit cheesy, and on occasion, gloriously vulgar—who else would juxtapose AD/DC with The Bee Gees?
(“Invisible Light”, “Night Life”, “Harder You Get”)

Sufjan Stevens – THE AGE OF ADZ
As one track puts it early on, it’s all a bit “Too Much”, but I have to admit this certifiably peculiar detour has grown on me, albeit at a more glacial pace than I’d prefer.
(“I Walked”, “Vesuvius”)

Vampire Weekend – CONTRA
As with their debut, can a person absolutely admire the music while finding it actively annoying at times? Chalk that up as a rationale for why it came this close to making my top ten.
(“Giving Up the Gun”, “White Sky”, “Taxi Cab”)


Joan Armatrading, “This Charming Life”
Best Coast, “Boyfriend”
Broken Bells, “The Ghost Inside”
Cee-Lo Green, “Fuck You”
Four Tet, “Angel Echoes”
The Gaslight Anthem, “American Slang”
Gorillaz, “On Melancholy Beach”
Emm Gryner, “Stray Bullet”
Nellie McKay, “Caribbean Time”
Morcheeba, “Even Though”
The New Pornographers, “Crash Years”
Pernice Brothers, “The Great Depression”
Robyn, “Dancing on My Own”
Gil Scott-Heron, “New York is Killing Me”
Stars, “Fixed”
Sufjan Stevens, “Heirloom”
KT Tunstall, “(Still a) Weirdo”
Laura Veirs, “July Flame”

17 December 2010

BEST ALBUMS OF 2010: # 1

I had exceptional difficulty picking a number one album this year, as I loved the top four almost equally. However, I can't have a four-way-tie on a top ten list, so after much deliberation...


Thorn recently married Ben Watt, her longtime partner in Everything But The Girl with whom she has three children, so it initially seems a little odd that her third solo effort contains songs about heartbreak, divorce and working up the courage to attend a “Singles Bar”. But EBTG’s best work always offered an unusually sobering, brutally honest perspective on romantic love and you believed every word regardless of whether or not Thorn and Watt lived it. Largely eschewing the dance music that defined 2007’s Out of the Woods and the later EBTG albums, this is mostly stripped-down chamber pop full of unexpected but earned epiphanies: the opening piano waltz “Oh, the Divorces!” blossoming into orchestral bliss on its bridge, the peppy, charming mother-to-daughter heart-to-heart of “Hormones”, the woozy cover of Lee Hazelwood’s “Come On Home to Me” (sung as a duet with Jens Lekman) that’s so perfect one would think Hazelwood composed it specifically for them, the ineffable sense of wintry dread piercing through the autumnal reflection of “Late in the Afternoon”. More than anything, Love and Its Opposite recalls and is often of a piece with EBTG's masterpiece, 1994’s Amplified Heart.

Favorite Tracks: Hormones, Oh, The Divorces!, Why Does the Wind? Come On Home to Me, Kentish Town

16 December 2010

BEST ALBUMS OF 2010: # 2

2. Charlotte Gainsbourg - IRM

To give you a sense of Gainsbourg’s apparent fearlessness, she took on the challenging lead role in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist not long after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. The latter inspired this album’s title (the French acronym of an MRI scanner) and music. Similarly fearless, it’s a sonic playground, an ever-changing canvas for Gainsbourg’s reedy but magnetic vocals: the title track simulates its namesake's mechanical milieu, “Dandelion” coolly shuffles along like a rootsy Donovan song, “Time of the Assassins” beams in from an alternate-world '70s AM radio station, the dramatic-yet-barely-there “Vanities” feels almost unbearably poignant and “Le Chat du Café des Artistes” even apes her famous father Serge’s style and gets away with it. Beck co-wrote and produced nearly every track, and he proves an ideal collaborator; like Gainsbourg, he’s a polymath who does more than merely pay homage to his influences. I wouldn’t mind if the two reconvene for a sequel, but as with her unconventional acting career, I suspect Gainsbourg would rather try something new on her next album.

Favorite Tracks: Dandelion, Time of the Assassins, Heaven Can Wait, Trick Pony, Vanities

15 December 2010

BEST ALBUMS OF 2010: # 3

3. Hot Chip - ONE LIFE STAND

Increasingly disappointed by some of the albums I anticipated most this year, I found ample pleasure in others that I had absolutely no expectations for, like the fourth full-length by this British male quintet. Although sporadically capable of a great single, much of their previous stuff scanned like the output of prankster, laptop-wielding geeks. Here, they beef up the instrumentation to symphonic levels but also court the heart rather than just the feet or the funny bone. You can still dance to most of it (the irresistible Tamla-groove-with-strings of “Hand Me Down Your Love”; the title track’s oddly cheery Depeche Mode-isms), but the lyrics (“I only want to be your one life stand”, “It’s a wild love that I have for my brothers”) and Alexis Taylor’s androgynous but ever more expressive vocals exude sincerity and deep emotion without feeling sappy. And practically every song here could be a single.

Favorite Tracks: Hand Me Down Your Love, One Life Stand, Take It In, I Feel Better, Brothers

14 December 2010

BEST ALBUMS OF 2010: # 4

4. Laura Marling - I SPEAK BECAUSE I CAN

As a 20-year-old Brit singing potent, exceedingly dark folk music, Marling would seem a novelty if both her vocals and words did not bespeak such rare maturity and wisdom for any age. She expertly builds from a hushed stillness to menacing rage on “Hope in the Air”, but also steeps the musically jaunty “Darkness Descends” with just enough self-deprecation to temper her misery. A major advance on her recorded-at-the-age-of-17 debut Alas, I Cannot Swim, this ten-song set reminds me of nothing less seminal than The Songs of Leonard Cohen—one can intuit a sustained sense of awe in its austerity, especially on those occasions when the simple arrangements swell into something magisterial. As Robert Altman did with Cohen on McCabe & Ms. Miller, some likeminded young director should score a film to these songs.

Favorite Tracks: Hope in the Air, Rambling Man, Darkness Descends, Devil’s Spoke

13 December 2010

BEST ALBUMS OF 2010: # 5

5. Janelle Monáe - THE ARCHANDROID

Monáe’s full-length debut reminds me of my favorite album of 2009 in its openness and endless possibilities and also ‘cause it’s nuts. Where to begin classifying a sci-fi conceptual piece in two suites that encompasses prime Stevie Wonder soul (“Oh, Maker”), disco boogie (“Locked Inside”), giddy ‘80s electropop (“Wondaland”), reverbed-to-the-max psychedelia (“Mushrooms and Roses”), hot swing-band jazz (“Come Alive (War of the Roses)”), haunted folk (“57821”) and Prince-like new wave (the Of Montreal-assisted “Make the Bus”)? And that’s not even mentioning the orchestral interludes, the Philip K. Dick tribute or the genre-defying singles (“Cold War” and “Tightrope”). Altogether it astonishes, it nearly overwhelms and it’s as precocious and promising a full-length debut as fellow delightful nutjob Nellie McKay’s Get Away From Me.

Favorite Tracks: Wondaland, Cold War, 57821, Tightrope

10 December 2010

BEST ALBUMS OF 2010: # 6


What's this band all about? You can't easily categorize them as anything more dynamic or telling than that catch-all variety "indie rock" and the moment they got on the radio (with their previous, overpraised effort Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga), I sensed some calculation in their minimal-but-not shtick. So, this proved a pleasant surprise, even if it further muddies my initial question. Although every song could have conceivably fit on any of their last four albums, you sense the band pulling back a bit, forgoing fanciful flourishes for the leanest, barest essentials (groove and melody-wise). Overall, it feels refreshingly off-the-cuff and yet hypnotic, whether they're going for nighttime driving music (the spy film worthy "The Mystery Zone") or enigmatic collages that just about leave you hanging, but still satiated ("Nobody Gets Me But You", "Who Makes Your Money").

Favorite Tracks: The Mystery Zone, Out Go the Lights, Nobody Gets Me But You

09 December 2010

BEST ALBUMS OF 2010: # 7

7. Belle and Sebastian - WRITE ABOUT LOVE

After a considerable hiatus, Stuart Murdoch and company return with more of the same (not counting a guest vocal from Norah Jones, of all people) and for once, that's acceptable. Fifteen years after their debut and seven since splendidly reinventing themselves as groovy pop pastiche artists, they arguably have no new musical boundaries to conquer. All any fan could ask for is more good stuff, which this affable, durable collection delivers more often than not. However, look behind the shiny surfaces and first-contact pleasures and you'll find depth and even a few revelations such as the intensity underneath "I Didn't See it Coming" surfacing euphorically in the song's bridge or the title track's glove-like appropriation of a guest vocal from actress Carey Mulligan (of all people).

Favorite Tracks: I Didn't See it Coming, The Ghost of Rockschool, I Want the World to Stop

08 December 2010

BEST ALBUMS OF 2010: # 8

8. Joanna Newsom - HAVE ONE ON ME

Yes, it’s an honest-to-god triple album: three discs, six songs/40 minutes per. Well, if her ambitious, impenetrable second album Ys suggested she had more to her than a squeaky seven-year-old girl’s voice in a woman’s frame, this gargantuan follow-up confirms it, but with a few twists. For one thing, although most songs still average six-eight minutes in length, they’re far easier to swallow with their simple chord progressions and even an occasional chorus. More significantly, her vocals sound deeper, less harsh and far more nuanced. Although I glean more pleasure from a single disc at a time than trying to consume the entire thing whole, this is an apotheosis for Newsom: abundantly rich, stimulating and far reaching even if it exists in its own inimitable plane.

Favorite Tracks: Good Intentions Paving Company, Go Long, Baby Birch

07 December 2010

BEST ALBUMS OF 2010: # 9


She was born of Jamaican and Puerto Rican parents and raised in England, and I only mention this as a means to decode her captivating polyglot vocal style, which scans less Joan Armatrading than you’d expect and more Neneh Cherry and Amy Winehouse than frankly you’d ever want. Fortunately, her music’s just as much of a mash-up, mixing and matching rockabilly, contemporary R&B, reggae and good ol' Britpop into a dazzling gestalt. If a touch too quirky to gain the radio airplay of someone like Rhianna, Brown nonetheless suggests a potentially bright pop future. At the very least, she’s a hell of a lot more fun than Katy Perry.

Favorite Tracks: Shark in the Water, Leave!, Bottles

06 December 2010

BEST ALBUMS OF 2010: # 10

10. The Divine Comedy - BANG GOES THE KNIGHTHOOD

I’ve spent the past year delving into Neil Hannon’s considerable back catalogue (Absent Friends or best-of A Secret History are good places to start); satisfyingly, this conveys no reduction of his erudite wit, clever hooks or particularly British insouciance. In fact, apart from a suitably dramatic ballad or two, it’s positively lighthearted: “Neapolitan Girl” and “Island Life” sway and sigh like an effervescent breeze, while “At the Indie Disco” celebrates rather than mocks its Morrissey devotees. Hannon even allows you to almost root for “The Complete Banker”, who laments apologetically but with sincerity, “So I caused a second great depression, what can I say? / I guess I got a bit carried away."

Favorite Tracks: At the Indie Disco, The Complete Banker, I Like