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january 2010

I got the new remastered Beatles stereo box set for Christmas, so there will be lots of posts about that in the coming days, plus my top 10 singles and albums from 2009. And at some point, my top 30 or 50 singles and albums from the last decade. There's not a whole lot on tap for new releases in the near future, but I think the entire Beatles catalogue, most of which I'm unfamiliar with (besides the White Album, which I bought when the Beatles catalogue was originally released on CD back in 1987), should keep me occupied for a few weeks.

I decided to listen to the Beatles albums in order, and there were two things that surprised me about their first two records. First, how many covers there are: six of the fourteen tracks on both Please Please Me and With the Beatles are written by other songwriters, including many that were first made famous by other artists, like "Please Mister Postman", "Roll Over Beethoven", and, of course, "Twist and Shout".

The other surprising thing is how pedestrian most of the Beatles-penned tracks are. Sure, there are flashes of brilliance, here and there, and maybe I'm jaded because the band was so influential, but most of the stuff on these first two records sounds like a mild British update of classic 50s four piece rock; there's not a whole lot that would lead you to believe that this would be the most influential rock/pop band of all time within a decade. And the best song by far isn't a McCartney or Lennon composition——it's "Do You Want To Know A Secret", written by George Harrison.

A Hard Day's Night is a change from the first two albums in that it doesn't feature any cover songs and was written entirely by the Beatles. It also shows some development of their music——"A Hard Day's Night" and "Can't Buy Me Love" are distinctive tracks that stand head and shoulders above the more generic songs that make up most of their first two records. Even for the more average songs, the songwriting is at a higher level than on the first two albums, and you're starting to get glimpses of the band that would emerge in the second half of the decade.

Even though Beatles for Sale returns to the model of their first two albums where eight original compositions are supplemented by six covers, the band continues to take major steps forward in their own work. Many of the tracks start out sounding like the 50s inspired songs from their first two records, but morph into something else, something much more distinctive, pretty quickly.

The two standouts, the songs that have a uniquely Beatles sound from the first note, are "Eight Days a Week", co-written by Lennon and McCartney, and "I'll Follow the Sun", a McCartney composition based on a song he wrote when he was 16, long before the Beatles came to be.

Musically, they're still a long way from the band that reels off four classics in a row——Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's, and the White Album——but chonologically, they're only a year and one intervening record away from starting that run, and you can feel them starting to stretch their wings and realize that there might be something more to rock and roll than hit singles.

For me, Help! is like Wilco's Summerteeth, Radiohead's The Bends, or U2's War: the band is building on its signature sound, but there are signs of something amazing happening, and it's a prelude to the next record where it all comes together and they create one of the defining documents of their career.

There are the usual standout singles, of course——"Help!", "Ticket to Ride" and, of course, "Yesterday", all of which map new territory for the band sonically and lyrically——but there's also a lot of experimentation going on in songs like "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away", "I Need You", "It's Only Love", and "I've Just Seen A Face".

The weakest components of this record are, not surprisingly, the two cover songs, the jokey "Act Naturally" and the forced blues rock of "Dizzy Miss Lizzy", which closes out the album. This is the biggest mistake of all: "Yesterday" is an album closer if there ever was one, and instead of allowing that song to set the stage for Rubber Soul, the band follows it with a crappy cover that would have been more appropriate on one of their first two records.

I'm not done with the Beatles, but I'm going to take a break for a week or two to focus on other bands and also try to get my top 10 lists for 2009 posted.

Some of you might be aware of my of Montreal obsession, which started sometime in fall 2008 and is going as strong as ever. Their next album, which will likely be titled either The Controller Sphere or False Priest (both phrases that follow the phrase "skeletal lamping" in the song "Faberge Falls For Shuggie" on Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, the record that immediately preceded Skeletal Lamping), is mostly finished (the only thing holding it up are mixing sessions with Jon Brion, which is one of the few things that I would think would be worth delaying a new of Montreal album for), and while they wait for the final touches to be put on it, they've decided to embark on a quick east coast tour, which happens to include the 9:30 Club at the end of January.

As soon as I saw the tour announced, I emailed Sliced Tongue, who is similarly obsessed with the band, and we had our tickets ordered within minutes. They're also making a stop in Baltimore a few days before, and I'm sorely tempted to go to that show, too, but taking two days off work to see the same band in the same week might be a bit much, especially given how busy we are at work this time of year. Hopefully the new record will be out by summer, but just in case it's not, this show should sate some of my of Montreal lust for a few months while I wait for it to be released.

A song from Dirty Projectors' Bitte Orca may yet end up on my 2009 best singles list, but it won't be "Stillness Is the Move", which is the one everyone else seems to like. Maybe it was the Solange Knowles cover?

Jay Reatard died last night. No details so far except that he died in his sleep. He was 29.

2009 was a big year for him——his album Watch Me Fall got a lot of exposure and made plenty of year-end best-of lists. We saw him open for the Pixies in November, and he was just as ferocious live as you would expect from his records. I'm only a recent fan——I almost picked up Blood Visions when it came out a couple of years ago, but the local indie store never stocked it and I never got around to buying it on Amazon, so Watch Me Fall was my first purchase——but it was clear this guy was an up and comer, and I was excited to see what he'd do next.

He was a proto punk brat, but there was a darkness and an edge to his lyrics that belied his I-could-give-a-shit attitude. Sure, anytime someone dies unexpectedly after releasing an album whose opening track, "It Ain't Gonna Save Me", includes the lyrics "All is lost/There is no hope/All is lost/You can't go home/All is lost/There is no hope for me", and whose final track closes with the refrain "There is no sun for me", you're going to examine the lyrics with a different lens than you would have otherwise (especially because, lacking any official word on the cause of death, there's no way to rule out suicide by overdose at this point). But his darkness was evident without needing his premature death to bring it to the forefront.

Jay Reatard was an old soul with an adolescent sensability, but an old soul nonetheless, and he will be missed

Finally watched Adventureland, and while the soundtrack was killer——vintage Hüsker Dü, Replacements, Cure, INXS, etc., all the stuff I was listening to when I was a teenager——I'm not quite sold on the film. There were some funny moments, and I really like Martin Starr (Bill from Freaks and Geeks), but I can't stand Kristen Stewart, Ryan Reynolds never fails to irritate me, and Jesse Eisenberg felt like a slightly brawnier, slightly more aggressive Michael Cera. But it was watchable, and there scenes that perfectly captured the feel of adolescence. And the music, which was almost always playing, was present and important enough to become part of the ensemble cast.

I have yet to make my first purchase of music released in 2010, but whenever I do make that trip to the record store, my purchases will almost certainly include the new Vampire Weekend and Spoon records, and maybe the Eels as well.

Eels are turning into a Ryan Adams-like bad habit for me, because a lot of their stuff is mediocre and I end up buying most of it anyway. Their highs are higher than Adams, the ratio of good material to bad is better than Adams as well, and their best work is better than Adams' best work, but still, there's an awful lot of stuff on their albums that I could do without.

I'm going to spend some time listening to streams of the new record to see if it's really worth investing in or if now is the right time to call it quits until I hear something really compelling.

of Montreal playing in Baltimore tonight and I'm not going. But that's just because I'm going to see them Thursday in DC. Still, two nights of of Montreal in one week would be pretty sweet...

A couple of days before my computer crash that kept me from working on my site for a few days last week, I bought Animal Collective's Fall Be Kind EP. You could hardly hope for more from this band in a single year after an album like Merriweather Post Pavillion, which was the near-unanimous pick for album of the year among critics, but these five tracks are a nice way to close out 2009. The standouts are "Graze" and "What Would I Want? Sky", but the other three tracks are serviceable counterparts. Well worth picking up (or, more likely, downloading) if Merriweather did anything for you.

I finally bought my first CDs of 2010: Spoon's Transference, Los Campesinos' Romance Is Boring, Magnetic Fields' Reality, Surfer Blood's Astro Coast, and Vampire Weekend's Contra. I also got last year's eponymous debut by xx.

But I haven't listened to any of them yet, because I ordered them from Amazon instead of taking a trip to the local record store, where they almost certainly wouldn't have had that entire list of CDs in stock. I'm pretty close to giving up on buying my music locally, because if I have to order anything online, I should just buy everything online——the base price is better and even with shipping it's still often cheaper than what I pay at the local independent record store, even with my member discount. I'm tired of not being able to get records from reasonably popular bands for weeks or months after they are released, if ever.

Last year there were at least half a dozen albums that I had to end up ordering from Amazon long after their release because, even though I checked week after week, the store never stocked them. Sure, I could have the store special order them for me, but then they would still take a couple of weeks to get to me (as opposed to 3-4 days with Amazon, and sometimes even sooner becaues I happen to live fairly close to some of their east coast distribution warehouses) and I have a sneaking suspicion that I would pay a premium price.

And, if I start using Amazon as my go-to service for album orders (because I'm still not ready to make the jump to digital downloads of everything) and put in pre-orders for upcoming releases, I should get them the day of release, if not before. I hate not supporting local record stores, because I really don't want to see them die out, but I'm afraid they're headed that way no matter what I do, and I'm weary of self-flagellation in the name of saving a dying industry. I just want to have easy access to the music I want to hear, and right now it seems like Amazon is the most consistent and inexpensive way for me to do that.

of Montreal tonight! It might not be as laden with guest stars as their NYC show, where they were joined onstage by Susan Sarandon and Solange sang a Michael Jackson cover with them, but I'm as excited about this show as I have been about any show in the past few years. This band has been my primary musical obsession for the last year and a half, and they haven't played near me since I really got into them.

I bought Storefront Hitchcock a while back, but I never really listened to it because I thought it was like a typical live album where there was no new material. But as far as I can tell, a studio version of "Let's Go Thundering" doesn't exist. But it should——it's one of Robyn Hitchcock's best songs in years, and it would have been a standout on either of the full-band records he's released in the past few years.