24 March 2011

How We Got Here: a Brief Review (pt. 1)

Following a nearly month-long pause (sorry to our four blog "followers"), we believe we're up and running again. Lin's been promoted, Brandon's got a course release, and with spring break soon to be a distant memory (at least for those of us who got one), it seems like a good time to look back and the first chunk of reviews (what we expect to be about 25% of the total).

Caitlin Rose, a surprise Whoopee in Hell Favorite


Pop artists of a certain sort gets lots of mileage out of complaining about the “critics”--about how they get no respect, about how they’re treated unfairly by the elitists who unnecessarily interject themselves between the musician and her audience who, it goes without saying, will really understand them. Well, I’ve always been sympathetic to the critics. When you grow up rebelling against mainstream pop music in a small town, especially in the pre-internet era, critics are crucial. Without both the professionals in the major media outlets and the semi-pros working the local weeklies and the ‘zines, I’d have been entirely without a point of entry to the world of independent music. I feel entirely the same way about the much-maligned Pitchfork, which so many indie artists have an embarrassingly love-hate relationship with. Every critical enterprise has its house style, and as long as it’s transparent, it can still be a good source of information about how to parse the overwhelming and fractured world of pop music.

This strip is too busy. However, I'm pleased with Independent Music James' facial expressions, and I have made demonstrable progress in my ability to draw some semblance of a car.

I think we’ve started to develop a house style over the last 40 or so records, and despite our difficulties in plowing through all these records, I’m proud of our progress thus far. We’ve been pretty expansive in our efforts to cover new records across genres and communities, although there are some substantial limitations to our selection process (no reggae, not a ton of mainstream pop or country, little real electronica, club, or dance music, and no jazz or avant-garde). As our (still-evolving) master list was compiled on the fly shortly after 2010 end-of the-year lists started to appear, we’ve been biased towards records people we trust had already told us they liked.

That’s made listening to the records easier, which is good (few real clunkers). This project has had a much bigger impact on how I listen to music than I had expected. As I’ve digitized my music collection over the last 3 or 4 years, I’ve become more of a singles listener--using shuffle to play through the nooks and crannies of my carefully tagged genre and mood playlists at the expense of albums. But I’m back to albums with a vengeance. In fact, when I get a little break from the tyranny of the new and the unfamiliar to listen to some old favorites, I’m far more likely to play through a whole album that I’ve been in years. In fact, I’m sitting in my office as I write this, plowing through the first disc of a six disc set of pre-war gospel and praise songs that, while I love, I rarely play.

But there are also negative side effects of doing a project like this. While I listen to a lot more new music, I also have to form solid judgements about it rather quicker than I’d like. I often have to base a grade and a review on a single listen all the way through, going back only to tracks about which I want to make some sort of point. Not surprisingly, the pace of this project has meant that I’ve given some review grades that, in retrospect, I’m not entirely happy with. Below, you’ll find my changes, as I see them now. Typically, my re-grades follow one of two patterns: A) I’ve listened to it more since moving on, and I like it rather more/less that I initially thought, and B) I ended up giving an album I like more/less a higher/lower grade, and in the interests of consistency, I need to adjust the earlier album’s score. In many cases, this addresses some of my (self-perceived) grade inflation, bringing a number of my scores closer to Lin’s.

  • Caitlin Rose - Own Side Now, up to an A. This record has clearly emerged as a Whoopee in Hell favorite, which is a bit surprising, because it's just a small little alt. country record that only recently got released in the US. But if you have any love of the twang, this one's well worth your effort.
  • Big Boi - Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty, down to A-. While this is still a good record to my ears, it's not a classic. The relative dearth of good hip-hop LPs on the list led to me overvaluing this a bit.
  • Aloe Blacc and Alejandro Escovedo, both down to B+. A couple of the first records we reviewed, both of which have not aged well in comparison with much of what's come later.
  • Blitzen Trappen - Destroyer Of The Void, down to C+. This is one mediocre record, and I doubt I'll ever listen to it again.

To sum up: As we keep on down the list, there are a lot of records I’m pretty excited for. I hope you enjoy the next 120 (or so) records as much as we’ve enjoyed the last 46 (except the Belle & Sebastian and Broken Bells records--those were clunkers).


There's an old saying that 95% of everything is crap. I’d probably argue that it’s true if you don't add any qualifications. But since we're talking about popular music, I'd like to add two qualifications and reformulate. The albums we've reviewed thus far (and those we will be reviewing) are nearly all released by major (or "indie major") labels and, as Brandon explained, appeared on major EOY lists and/or are from established artists. As such, the totality of all music released last year has been boiled down and 'selected' to a clearly un-represenative 160 album collection. The ratings we've given don't support the "95%" thesis. Instead, I'd make the claim that, for the subset of albums we’re reviewing here,

  • 10% of music is "great" (and 10% of that is "awesome")
  • 10% of music is "terrible"
  • 80% of music is “meh.”
If I wanted to make my point stronger, I'd give a list of all the reviews where I had to find a way of saying "it's not bad, but it's not particularly noteworthy, either."

I spend a lot of time listening to music and have a lot of music to go through. Still, there have been a couple of long stretches where I had no desire to listen to music I didn't already know or knew something about. Or I get in a mood and that's all I can listen to, picking out the best (or at least the favorite) from a particular style. So a project like this suffers. But the joy that comes from finding something truly enjoyable and lasting makes it all worth it.

The highest rating I've given so far is an A+ to Agalloch's Marrow of the Spirit, which still blows me away whenever I turn it on. But I would have heard that album anyway, since I already loved the band. The real winners in my mind are the Caitlin Rose and Dessa albums. I would not have heard either one of these without systematically going through these albums. After reviewing each of them, I added both to my 4-gig mp3 player and haven't taken them off -- which says a lot given the (relatively) low amount of storage space. Indeed, Rose's Own Side Now is probably the album I've listened to most over the last three months.

The mighty Agalloch, America's best active metal band?

Following Brandon's lead, here's a couple albums that I think I may have mis-rated:

  • Anais Mitchell - Hadestown, Original grade: B+ ... I'm not quite willing to bump this up yet, but I've listened to it a few more times and, yeah, it's close.
  • Antony & The Johnsons - Swanlights, original grade: A- ... For an A- album, I've had a curious lack of desire to throw this on again.
  • Caitlin Rose - Own Side Now, original grade: A- ... See my comments above. This is easily an 'A' album.
  • Cee-lo Green - The Lady Killer, original grade: A- ... Not sure this holds up well with repeated listenings. If I was reviewing it today, I'd drop it down to a B+.
  • Eminem - Recovery, original grade: B+ ... Rating something on its extramusicality is probably not the best way to do a review. Musically, I'd drop this down to a B or B- now, as it is really quite tedious for large stretches.

We’ve got a couple of my favorite albums from 2010 coming up and, I hope, a few more that will become such. May our four or so readers out there get as much out of our (intermittent) reviews as we do listening to all these albums, the good and the bad.

Finally, as a special treat to all you kids out there, Lin and I have compiled a playlist with some highlights from the first quarter of the list. These aren't necessarily our favorite songs, but they're all pretty good, and they should give you a flavor of what the list has been about.

Dessa, another WiH favorite
    1) Against Me - I Was a Teenage Anarchist
    2) Agalloch - Black Lake Nidstang
    3) Aloe Blacc - I Need a Dollar
    4) Anais Mitchell - Why We Build the Wall
    5) Antony and the Johnsons - I'm in Love
    6) Ariel Pink - Round and Round
    7) Beach House - Walk in the Park
    8) Ben Weaver - Drag the Hills
    9) Best Coast - Boyfriend
    10) Big Boi - Shutterbugg
    11) Big K.R.I.T. - Hometown Hero
    12) Black Breath - Eat The Witch
    13) Black Sleep of Kali - An End With No Beginning
    14) Boston Spaceships - Freedom Rings
    15) Bonnie 'Prince' Billy and the Cairo Gang - The Sounds are Always Begging
    16) Broken Bells - The Ghost Inside
    17) Broken Social Scene - Texico Bitches
    18) Caitlin Rose - Shanghai Cigarettes
    19) Call Me Lightning - Called to the Throne
    20) Cee-Lo - I Want You
    21) Charlie Parr - Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold my Body Down
    22) Curren$y - Seat Change
    23) Dale Earnhardt jr jr - Simple Girl
    24) Das Racist - hahahaha jk?
    25) David Banner & 9th Wonder - The Light
    26) Deerhunter - Memory Boy
    27) Dessa - Dutch
    28) Doug Paisley - O'Heart
    29) Drake (ft. Nicki Minaj) - Up All Night
    30) Drive-By Truckers - Birthday Boy
    31) Dum Dum Girls - Yours Alone
    32) Ed Harcourt - Lustre
    33) Elizabeth Cook - Blackland Farmer
    34) Eminem (ft. Rihanna) - Love The Way You Lie
    35) Erykah Badu - 20 Feet Tall
    36) Forbidden - Dragging my Casket
    37) Free Energy - Free Energy
    38) Freeway & Jake-One - She Makes Me Feel Alright
    39) Frightened Rabbit - Living in Colour
    40) Futurebirds - There is No Place for This to Go
Links for Part 1 (Tracks 1-20), Part 2 (Tracks 21-40)

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