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january 2011

So Gorillaz made good on their promise to release a new album, The Fall, written and recorded on the road during their recent North American tour and made using an iPad, for free to fans on December 25. The problem is, they defined fans specifically as "those who have paid an annual membership fee to belong to our fan club".

You can still stream the record on the Gorillaz site in exchange for your name and email address, and of course, there are the normal avenues for downloading the content if you want to load it onto your iPod but you don't want to pay for it, but it's kind of a shame they didn't just release it to everyone for free. They haven't announced whether they intend to release it through normal channels at some point, but having listened to it a couple of times, I'm not sure that I'd pay for it——it's certainly not as stocked with ideas and hooks as their normal releases.

The new Decemberists album isn't out for another couple of weeks, but you can listen to a stream of it over on NPR now. This is hardly surprising——more and more indie bands have been debuting their albums this way over the past couple of years, and the Decemberists are practically the house band for NPR.

I've heard the lead single, and while I'm looking forward to the album, I think I'm going to pass on the stream——I'd like to save the surprise for when I can go through my normal process for hearing a new record.

My boss and I occasionally chat about music (Belle & Sebastian is our main point of overlap), and although I haven't liked a whole lot of what I've heard when he recommends a band to me, I was intrigued by my intial listens to Stornoway. I went so far as to add it to my Amazon cart, but I haven't actually been able to push the purchase button yet.

While it sounds good, I'm wondering if it will turn out to be just a little too bland for long term repeat listens; there's something about it that reminds me of the struggles I've had with bands like White Rabbit, the Frames, and the Thrills, all of whom I liked at first but whose songs started to blend into one big mediocre undiscernible mass.

I was thinking it would be a few weeks before we started to get some new music for 2011, but there's a surprising amount of potentially good new stuff coming out in the next week or so. In addition to the Decemberists, who have a new one out on January 18, January 11 will see new releases from Wire, Tapes 'n Tapes (whose debut I loved but whose sophomore effort was mostly unlistenable), and British Sea Power. I'd be surprised if any of these produce any major surprises, but I'm they'll all be decent, and it will be nice to have some new music after the holiday season drought.

I know that very few of you will have any interest in this, but Throwing Muses are back in the studio and they have been posting video clips from the recording sessions. I find it all very fascinating.

How do you send music to people now? I'm confused about what a mixtape is in the iTunes era of music distribution.

I ordered a few things from Amazon yesterday, including Wire's Red Barked Tree, Tapes 'n Tapes' Outside, and British Sea Power's Valhalla Dancehall. I also got a couple of 2010 albums that I've been waiting to order until I had something else to go with them (although with Amazon Prime, I don't really have to think about consolidating orders anymore): Deerhunter's Halcyon Digest and Twin Shadow's Forget.

All three of the new records come from groups who have made albums that I have loved and albums that I have found pretty mediocre, so I don't really know what to expect, although if I was a betting man, I'd put my money on Wire having the best chance to produce something great.

But I'm really curious about the Deerhunter. They (along with Bradford Cox's other outlet, Atlas Sound), have been on my radar for the past couple of years, but I've never clicked enough with what I heard to actually purchase an album. With Halcyon Digest, their sound might finally be tamed enough for someone like me to get it (and if I get it finally, that might drive me back to the older stuff now that I've got a better framework for understanding it).

A friend is trying to convince me to give Sufjan Stevens' The Age of Adz another try, particularly the insufferable 25 minute exercise that is "Impossible Soul". I'm trying hard to give serious weight to his suggestion, but I keep flashing back to his slightly unsettling obsession with Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell when we were juniors in high school (and this was in the late 80s, about a decade after most high school boys were obsessed with Bat Out of Hell), and I'm wondering if we just have different levels of tolerance for overly-indulgent, over-conceptualized pop music. Or maybe my attention span is getting shorter as I get older, and 25 minutes of anything is just too much for me.

Somebody please stop me. I'm half convinced that I should buy Ryan Adams' III/IV. I successfully avoided buying Easy Tiger, despite some positive reviews, so why would I buy a bloated double album of outtakes from those sessions? I have no idea, but I'm afraid that's what's going to happen if someone doesn't talk some sense into me soon.

All of the CDs I ordered earlier this week came in: Tapes 'n Tapes' Outside, British Sea Power's Valhalla Dancehall, Wire's Red Barked Tree, and two 2010 releases, Twin Shadow's Forget and Deerhunter's Halcyon Digest.

So far the 2010 records are the most appealing, but the Wire is definitely a strong entry, and the British Sea Power sounds like a worthy follow up to Do You Like Rock Music? I'm undecided about the Tapes 'n Tapes, but while it might not be classifiable as a full return to the brilliance of The Loon, it's definitely stronger than their last record.

Of the new new CDs that I got last week (not the 2010 releases that I also ordered), the Wire is impressing me the most. It's more mellow than the Read Burn Send stuff from the early 2000s, but it's more memorable than a lot of the stuff on their last release, Object 47.

There's definitely a lot more jangle (the opening track reminds me more of "Kidney Bingos" from 1987's A Bell Is a Cup than anything they've done since), but the overall tone of the album has a smoldering intensity that was somtimes lacking in their earlier jangle period. Plus, they keep things short and sweet: the 11 tracks clock in at 39 minutes, and only three of those tick over the four minute mark.

One similarity with Object 47: the opening track contains the best line. For Object 47's "One of Us", it was "One of us will live to rue the day we met each other." On Red Barked Tree's "Please Take", it's "Fuck off out of my face/You take up too much space."

The new Decemberists, The King Is Dead, arrived a day early, so I've had some time to absorb it over the past couple of days. I can say without hesitation that this is their best work since Picaresque, mainly because they abandon the prog rock pretensions and high-concept themes of their past couple of releases and stick to the classic album format: 10 songs, 40 minutes, and each song can stand on its own.

There's a much heavier country influence on this record——they've dabbled with this occasionally in the past, but here's it's the predominant element on many songs with steel slide guitars, harmonicas, pedal guitars, violins, and country harmonies. There are also lots of references to alt country acts like Ryan Adams ("Rise to Me"), Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart-era Camper Van Beethoveen ("Rox in the Box"), and Guadalcanal Diary ("Calamity Song", which also has some overtones from R.E.M.'s Reckoning).

Two high-profile guests also make their presences known. Peter Buck adds his distinctive guitar to three tracks (and you know within five seconds of hearing them which ones they are without needing to reference the liner notes), and Gillian Welch lends her vocals on several songs, bringing a distinct O Brother, Where Art Thou? feel to tracks like "June Hymn".

Very happy with this record. I've made my peace with their highbrow pretensions on their recent releases, but these are the Decemberists that I fell in love with on Her Majesty the Decemberists, just infused with a little honky tonk.

I've got another friend lobbying on behalf of the new Sufjan, and his tastes couldn't be more differnt than my Meatloaf-loving friend. I'm still thinking about it, but it's going to be tough to convince myself to sit through that album all the way even one more time.

Tapes 'n Tapes is sorta meh, but better than their sophomore effort. British Sea Power is nowhere near as good as their last one, but it's worth listening to a few more times. But all of their stuff I've ever liked I've liked immediately——their music doesn't tend to grow on me——so I don't expect much to come of a few more listens.

Very happy to see that the Rural Alberta Advantage is going to release another record this year. I didn't find out about their debut until several months after it came out, and it took awhile to grow on me, but now I'm very fond of it and I can't wait to hear what they do for a follow up.

Saddle Creek used to be a pretty reliable label for me, but recently I have found myself less interested in the newer bands, and the bands that brought me to the label in the first place have either moved on or just aren't that active any more (Tokyo Police Club is the only other exception). Maybe it's because Conor Oberst just isn't that interested in the label anymore with all of his other creative outlets/commitments, or maybe it used to be easier to have a full slate of releases when everyone was based out of Omaha, but if they could attract more bands like these two, I'd likely still be a big fan of the label.

Yet another voice chiming in for support of Sufjan Stevens' The Age of Adz: of Montreal's Kevin Barnes. I knew he had put it on his top 10 albums of 2010, but in a recent interview, he specifically names the album as an inspiration for the next of Montreal record, which he's already writing. I'm still obsessed enough with of Montreal for this to matter, but it's still a tough sell to get me to listen to this record again, much less to get me to change my mind about it.

Holy cow. The Decemberists' The King Is Dead debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts this week, selling nearly 100,000 copies. I'm happy for their success, and I'm also happy to see them move away from the high-concept prog rock that defined their last two releases. Hopefully the positive sales reinforcement will keep them on a good track.

It's a little late in the month for my list of $5 Amazon MP3 album downloads, especially given that this month they are offering not 100, but over 1,000 album downloads for $5 each. But there are some great bargains here, so hopefully you'll see this before they've posted next month's selections.

First the must-haves: if you don't already own these, get them NOW, starting with Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. There's also the Clash's London Calling, Paul Simon's Graceland, Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream, Phoenix's Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, Arcade Fire's Funeral, and I would even put recent fav Surfer Blood's Astro Coast in this category (I mean, I don't know if it will become a classic like these records, but I'm a big fan).

As for good albums at a good price, the selection is huge this month and includes the Black Keys' Rubber Factory, the Decemberists' The Hazards of Love, the Walkmen's Lisbon, the Radio Dept.'s Clinging to a Scheme, the Drums' self-titled effort, Spoon's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Godspeed You Black Emperor's Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antenna to Heaven, Wavves' King of the Beach (I've really come around on that record in the last few weeks), No Age's Everything in Between, Stars' The Five Ghosts, of Montreal's False Priest, Magnetic Fields' The Charm of the Highway Strip, and Les Savy Fav's Root for Ruin.

There are also a lot of the $5 downloads I'm considering, but the ones that have the best chance of making into my collection this month are Grinderman's Grinderman 2, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit's self-titled release, the Shout Out Louds' Work, Superchunk's No Pocky for Kitty, and Stereolab's The First of the Microbe Hunters.

My hesitation with most of these is that I'm afraid I'll end up liking them and then getting compulsive about having a hard media copy and ordering them on CD as well, which means I'll end up paying way more for them than if I just ordered the CD version now. But none of them have yet triggered my interest enough to pay the CD price, and this is probably the only way I'm going to be willing to buy them. Stupid, circuitous reasoning that gets me nowhere, I know, but that's where I'm at.

I seem to remember way back in the early days of the internet that there used to be three or four sites that kept track of upcoming releases, so you could go anytime and look at the slate of records coming out in the next six months. And now (and for several years), there aren't any. Sure, Pitchfork sometimes does a preview that covers a 3-4 month period, but they don't keep it updated and it's not that easy to find. This has got to be one of the few data streams that has gotten harder to find as the internet has blossomed instead of being turned into a feed than any of us can embed as a widget on our web sites or view as an app on our smartphones.