Top 10 albums/20 songs of 2009

10. Lady Gaga: The Fame Monster

“Bad Romance” is topping more year-end lists than Animal Collective, and not without reason: if “ra-ra-ah-ah-ah, roma-roma-ma, ga-ga-oh-la-la” is the only thing we’ll remember about Lady Gaga, we’ll still look back fondly while overlooking some of her more dubious wardrobe choices. But The Fame Monster boasts more than just the notorious song: “Dance in the Dark” and “Monster” are also among the signature Gaga entendres, club-ready and unapologetically catchy.

09. Meisa Kuroki: hellcat

If I had to pick one successor to Namie Amuro, Meisa Kuroki would be it, and since Amuro has shown herself to be forging new territory with PAST < FUTURE, it looks like Kuroki is the likeliest competition. hellcat doesn’t have the intensity or acumen behind albums like Queen of Hip-Hop or PLAY, but it’s one of the most fun debut albums I’ve heard in a while and shows great promise, a promise Kuroki is looking to fulfill if the first single off her upcoming album is any indication.

08. Big Bang: BIGBANG [ read full review ]

Korean pop bands are taking over the world. This is not the first time I’ve said it, and I’m sort of hoping it will be the last, as we can now move forward with this knowledge intact and focus on individual artists. Big Bang finally made a break in Korea with “Lies” but it’s their dominance of the Japanese market that finally put them on the map. As a testament to the members’ individual talent, G-Dragon also released the award-winning Heartbreaker which topped Korean charts and showed the band had the potential to be indestructible. With their 2010 album already in the works, one can only hope they continue to prove themselves as adept and proficient as BIGBANG.

07. Mr Hudson: Straight No Chaser

Mr Hudson’s Straight No Chaser is more than just a rap record: it’s a rap record that doesn’t resort to petty clichés, revels in pop appreciation, and isn’t afraid to show its vulnerability as much as it does its ire. More than a bid for authenticity, Mr Hudson never lets on that he has something to prove, instead teaming up with artists like Kanye West and Kid Cudi to craft clever rhymes and confessions, a sort of mea culpa that at the last moment, decides it wasn’t in the wrong after all. At its core, it’s just another break-up record (the track listing is almost unbearably linear: boy tells lies, boy loses the girl, boy begins to reminisce, boy learns to live without love, boy cries, boy gets angry, boy comes to terms), but it’s rendered in such brilliant music, it becomes more than just another entry in Kanye’s blog.

06. BoA: BoA [ read full review ]

BoA is everything a pop fan could wish for. Far more commercial than anything she had yet released, best-selling Korean artist BoA portrays an incredible bevy of talent: deft grasp of the English language, stunning dance skills, and a knack for mainstream sound. Made all the more brilliant in comparison to Hikaru Utada’s own second English language album released the same week, which fared poorly with both critics and fans, a lot of credit must go to the writers and producers who assembled songs very of the moment, nurtured BoA’s strengths, and kept the electropop tone consistent.

05. Lights: The Listening [ read full review ]

A synth-heavy record, Lights’ The Listening is a very mature record that tackles very adolescent issues, centering around the clichéd angst of growing up. The album might be too unrealistic for some listeners, reveling in fairy tale notions of attraction and nostalgia for childhood (and the early 90s that accompanied it), but it’s still a stunning full-length debut record that explores just how hard it is to define adulthood.

04. Nadia Ali: Embers

Trance albums rarely make my year-end lists (Oceanlab was the first last year), though this has more to do with the fact that trance is a very single-based genre with mostly big-name artists releasing full-length albums. I guess Nadia Ali is further exceptional considering her music is not traditional trance, but more of a typical dance style with heavy elements of euro. In glowing tribute to a broken relationship that refuses to release its spark, Embers is steeped in accusations (“Point the Finger”), longing (“Ride with Me”), regret (“Be Mine”), and finally, self-preservation (“Fine Print”). It’s dance music you can’t dance to, stoking and re-stoking what’s left in the ashes of loss.

03. Donkeyboy: Caught in a Life

I’ll admit I’m hypocritical when it comes to the 80s synthfluence of the 00s; on one hand, it’s becoming redundant, on the other, it’s still inspiring some pretty amazing music. Donkeyboy may not have the brash sex appeal of a Gwen Stefani or the Pitchfork-endorsed review of a Neon Indian, but they have the gifted ability to work within the confines of Scandinavia’s celebrated track record to produce some of the most fundamental pop music of the decade. The cheerful melodies set against gloomy lyrics are a testament to the quintessential pandering of youth, meandering its way through real world infancy; Caught in a Life is dreamy and escapist without being immune to the harshest glare of life’s headlights.

02. Florence + the Machine: Lungs [ read full review ]

Lungs is not a perfect album – a few tracks still disrupt the musical narrative, tending to stick out like sore-thumb intervals – but in spite of its flaws, it remains a grand, sweeping album that asks more questions than it answers, provides more enigma than understanding, and never lacks for want of a desperate, sometimes frantic search – for passion, for comfort, for spiritual enlightenment. Florence Welch’s voice cuts through tempos and soars somewhere in the highest realms, lingering far above the already massive melodies, wallowing in the heady first days of romance, the agony of losing love, and finally finding it again in the least expected place.

01. Kent: Röd [ read full review ]

Kent is relentless; releasing masterpiece after masterpiece is one way to show you have enough talent to start throwing it away on B-sides, but the other is simply to keep doing what they do: releasing intricate, carefully crafted albums that build upon previous work without showing any sign of strain to which so many bands two decades old succumb. Any weaknesses the band has never appears on the record, a heady cocktail of fear, aggression, anxiety, and coping with a sort of self-inflicted isolation. Kent is nowhere near where it started in 1990, but Röd is an incredible place to land and probably more than even the most enthusiastic fans could have dreamed.

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Kent’s “Röd”

Kent / Röd / November 06, 2009
10. Töntarna

“So hang them high, so hang them slowly”: such has become the advice of Kent, a band increasingly consumed by producer Jon Schumann’s electronic influence and a penchant for flipping the bird to jerks, bullies, and catty bitches. Transformed from the raw, soul-searching sincerity of Hagnesta Hill and Isola to defenders of the underdog in two albums, Kent’s musical trajectory can either be considered the greatest transformation of the decade or the worst; it’ll become obvious which side I fall on.

It’s almost impossible to talk about Röd without mentioning its predecessor, Tillbaka till samtiden, Kent’s 2007 showpiece that no longer foreshadowed a change in direction, but chiseled it in stone; Schumann took the underlying Swedish gloom and doom of albums like Du & jag döden and The hjärta & smärta EP and transformed them into tactile representations of death, the heart, and pain that have paved the way for Röd‘s abject nihilism. Where Joakim Berg’s vocals used to be lilting and nostalgic, they’re now bitter and acute, tearing into adolescent grief without talking down to its audience. Ostentatious though the production has always been, a sound that used to rely heavily on instantly aching guitar loops and bleeding bass lines that gave away both the plot and the joy of finding that not-so-happy-ending within the first verse has become ravaged by bitter synths and a maddeningly patient denouement. Amateurs could easily dismiss at least two minutes of every track without taking into account the pay off of Kent’s new virtues (hint: temperance is not one of them).

Where some of the tracks may come off as too formulaic – loops are still a thorny issue – others round out the machine-heavy production with violins (“Hjärta”), acoustic guitars (“Ensamheten”), and plinking pianos (“Svarta linjer”); Schumman has become the resident spelunker, transcending the band’s more organic, alternative foundation without altering the magic that made past work so inherently dramatic and moving. Drawing influence from 90’s industrial music, the record is almost mired in too much revenge and fury for its own good; if Tillbaken till samtiden bit back, Röd attacks from behind. No longer providing pathetic excuses for its cowering fear by positing anxiety as a kind of courage, “Töntarna” lashes out: no other song has Berg singing with such precision, such scorn, such accusation. Even Röd‘s love songs hide in songs translated as “Waltz for Satan (Your Friend the Pessimist)” and “There Are No Words,” an ironic admission of the difficulty in navigating eros within the confines of language: “There are no words for it in this damn language / I have no words for that we breathe, think, feel the same thing.”

However, as carefully as each song treads in its intricate tapestry of the morbid and self-loathing (“I failed myself / So see me as a warning”), the album still crouches in the shadow of Tillbaka till samtiden, an album a hair’s breadth more sophisticated and restrained, letting the synths accent pieces of music rather than frame or even form the base of entire songs. But though Röd seems content to tackle smaller chunks of easily consumed issues like high school social structures and loneliness instead of drug use and abandonment, both know where to inflict the most emotional damage. Subtlety has been thrown out to make room for a full choir and two fast-paced, demi-club tunes no one would dance to; it’s a sweeping album, full of epic build-ups and nuanced sounds hidden behind its blatant discontent.

Magnum opus though it may not be, it’s still a masterpiece, a record that will follow you long after the fading robots and tubular bells have ululated through the speakers. “Even one hundred thousand voices can be wrong”; these just happen to be right.

Official Site
Buy Röd

2005 in music

Ten really, really, ridiculously good albums released in 2005:

01. dredg – Catch Without Arms: It’s been way too long since I’ve come across an album as good as this one that just flowed together so well and restored my faith in American rock music. This is one of those albums where you can download each track separately and draw a unique aspect from each and then listen to the album in order and find a commonality that ties the whole album together.

02. Depeche Mode – Playing the Angel: Fantastic album. More than two decades later, they still manage to flawlessly blend an eerie rock edge with synth-pop that brings 80s new wave to the twenty first century. If there is one song I would urge you to download and listen to completely, it would be “Precious.” It is absolutely amazing. ‘Nough said.

03. Namie Amuro – Queen of Hip-Pop
04. Anggun – Luminescence
05. Bloc Party – Silent Alarm
06. F.I.R. – Unlimited
07. The Birthday Massacre – Violet
08. The Receiving End of Sirens – Between the Heart and the Synapse
09. Kent – Du & jag doden
10. Tommy heavenly6 – Tommy heavenly6