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january 2012

Instead of the normal 100 MP3 albums for $5 monthly deal, this month Amazon is offering over 1,000 albums at that price. Because there are so many, I'm going to break my recommendations into a few different posts, starting, as usual, with the must-haves.

Here we go: Phoenix's Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, Tune-Yards' whokill, Sleigh Bells' Treats, Surfer Blood's Astro Coast, the Cure's Disintegration, the Strokes' Is This It, R.E.M.'s New Adventure's in Hi-Fi (a seriously underrated album——if you gave up on them after they became major stars and you've never heard this one, give it a chance), and Kanye West's Graduation.

There's also a trio of of Montreal records——Sunlandic Twins, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, and Skeletal Lamping——which together form a cohesive whole that is unmatched in the last decade (Radiohead's OK Computer, Kid A, and Amnesiac is the only similar set of three sequential releases in recent memory that are as brilliant both individually and taken as three parts of the same story).

Today I'm going to cover the pretty good records available in Amazon's monthly MP3 albums for $5 deal, which this month has over 1,000 offerings (compared to the usual 100).

Let's get started: PJ Harvey's Let England Shake, Cults' Cults, Tokyo Police Club's Champ, Eleanor Friedberger's Last Summer, Tom Waits' Mule Variations, Stephin Merritt's (of Magnetic Fields) Obscurities, Japandroids' Post-Nothing, Green Day's Insomniac, Love Is All's Two Thousand and Ten Injuries, Little Dragon's Ritual Union, and Cut Copy's Zonoscope.

There are also two other of Montreal offerings, which bookend the trio of albums I mentioned yesterday: Satanic Panic in the Attic marks their move away from the Beatles-esque Elephant Six sound from the band's early career and towards the experimental dance and electronica sounds they would perfect on Skeletal Lamping, while False Priest follows those three records and has a more pop/R+B vibe to it.

The last category I'm going to cover with this month's Amazon MP3 albums for $5 are records that I own and find interesting on some level, but that I wouldn't necessarily recommend. There's some worthwhile stuff, but even if I generally like the artists who produced these records, these are not typically the ones I would have a neophyte start with.

Here's the list: Wild Flag's Wild Flag, the Decemberists' The Hazards of Love, the Drums' Portamento, Wu Lyf's Go Tell Fire to the Mountain, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's Hysterical, Twin Shadow's Forget, Deerhoof's Deerhoof vs. Evil, Nirvana's In Utero, and R.E.M.'s Green.

Now for the list of Amazon MP3 albums for $5 that I'm thinking about adding to my collection. Several of them are highly regarded 2011 releases that never struck a chord with me when I was listening to their samples, and most of them have been offered before and I didn't bite, so I don't know if I'll actually end up owning any of these: Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues, Wye Oak's Civilian, the War on Drugs' Slave Ambient, Destroyer's Kaputt, and Das Racist's Relax.

I decided to go ahead and pull the trigger on Art Brut's Brilliant! Tragic! because I love the first two albums from this band so much (although I didn't care for the Frank Black-produced third one, and he also mans the boards here), and while I was poking around my Amazon recommendations I also picked up Ryan Adams' Ashes and Fire for $3.99, John Maus' We Must Become Pitiless Censors of Ourselves for $2.99, and the Pretty in Pink soundtrack for $4.99.

The only one of these purchases I don't regret so far is the last one, and that wasn't really a gamble because that was the soundtrack that first introduced me to the Smiths, Echo & the Bunnymen, and New Order. But those price points were low enough to suck me in, so good job with your magic algorithms, Amazon.

Nice surprise in the inbox today: of Montreal released the digital download of their upcoming album, Paralytic Stalks, to everyone who had preordered. I think I'm either going to love this to death or hate it, but I can't wait to hear it and find out.

In the past year or two I've tried to rate every song on all new purchases before I remove them from my primary recent stuff playlist, but I'm just about to give up with the Pains of Being Pure at Heart's Belong. I get about three songs in and then it just all starts to blend together, so I end up listening to the rest of the record without noticing when one song ends and another begins.

I guess none of them have jumped out at me enough to rank them four or more stars, and none of them have annoyed me enough to give them two or fewer, so I should just give everything that's unrated three stars and move on.

So, Steve Albini produced Cloud Nothings' new album. This should be...interesting.

Art Brut's Brilliant! Tragic!, which I picked up from Amazon for $5 in MP3 format, is a lot more of the latter and very little of the former. I thought after their first record that they were a one-trick pony, but their second album was at least as good and might have been a little bit better, so I thought maybe they'd be in it for the long haul. But the last two albums (and a side project from frontman Eddie Argos) have been mediocre at best, and this one especially...well, I just don't know.

Argos has a distinctive vocal style that's basically tuneful yelling, but producer Frank Black (yes, that Frank Black) had him drop a register and try actually singing in this creepy whisper on several tracks, and it just doesn't work. Plus, the music doesn't prop up the failed vocal experiments. If Argos were to sing "Lost Weekend" in his typical style, it might be a salvageable Art Brut track, but otherwise, I'm not finding much to like about this record. One more like this, and they're going to have to either break up or make a fantastically good record to reclaim the legacy of their early work.

The first few times I heard the new of Montreal, Paralytic Stalks, it made me sad. And not in a good way. There was nothing that stuck with me, no hooks, no singles, nothing that grabbed me and made me want to listen over and over again. There were some nice musical passages, but overall the experience was like reading a really, really long novel without a plot or any notable characters that occasionally had some paragraph-long pieces of brilliant writing. But the relative scarcity of those genius bits didn't make it worthwhile to get all the way through the work.

The penultimate song, "Exorcismic Breeding Knife", is a complete waste——I don't know anyone who's begging for more eight minute sound collages, especially on an album where the average track length is well above the five minute mark. But it's followed by the most interesting track, "Authentic Pyrrhic Remission", which opens with the four minutes that sound the most like what you would expect from a new work by of Montreal and closes with two and a half minutes of the most gorgeous piano ballad that Kevin Barnes has ever written. Unfortunately, in between is more noise stuff, and since it's another seven minutes worth (the overall track length is nearly fourteen minutes), it pretty much ruins the song in terms of adding it to my shuffle playlists (I think this might be a sin, but I'm this close to editing out the pointless stretch in the middle for the sake of listenability).

However, as I listened more to the whole record——and this is definitely one of those records where it's best to experience it as a whole when you first encounter it——the album began to grow on me, and although I think it's still probably the weakest album I own by of Montreal (I've got everything from Satanic Panic in the Attic forward), it's got some tolerable bits. When fans look back on it in a few years after a few more albums, Paralytic Stalks may serve as a pause or reset for Kevin Barnes to put behind the story arc he's been working on for the past several albums.

Still not recommended if you're new to the group, and I'm betting a lot of longtime fans like me aren't going to reach the same level of comfort with it that I have after a dozen listens (and I could still change my mind——that's how tenuous my current detente with the album is). Usually when I'm lusting for a new of Montreal record just after they've released a new one, it's because I'm so in love with the music that I have to have more; this time, it's because I'm hoping the future will bring me something better than what I've just received.

Working my way back through the very limited portion of Poi Dog Pondering's catalogue that I own, for no other reason than that I randomly stumbled across a track while messing around in my iTunes library.

I was suprised to learn that they're still active and recording albums——the last one I have from them is from over 15 years ago. I was a reasonably big fan of theirs when they first started showing up on the college radio charts, and I'm not sure why I stopped paying attention to their work (although that four year gap between the last record I bought and the next one they made probably didn't help).

I'm enjoying relistening to the stuff in my library, but I don't know that I'm going to feel sufficiently motivated by it to try anything more recent. Their quirky, offbeat style charmed me as a teenager, and I can still nostalgically connect with that, but if I was hearing a band like this for the first time now, I think I might find it more annoying than anything, so I don't know that I'll be able to find that same spark in anything in the last decade, even if they have remained pretty true to their style.

I went to the divisonal game between the Ravens and the Texans in Baltimore on Sunday, and while I was walking around the stadium before the game, groups in the crowd would spontaneously break out into a chant that sounded like the guitar riff from the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army". As it turns out, that's exactly what it was: they played that over the stadium speakers during the pregame ceremonies, and it's clear that the fans have adopted this as an anthem for the team this year.

But I bet they're not playing that in the locker room too much. No, Kanye and Jay-Z's Watch the Throne has got to be the record of the year for the players themselves: not only do we now have Ravens gear emblazoned with the phrase "Ball So Hard University" (where Terrell Suggs said he went to school in his introductory video during one of weekly national NFL broadcasts earlier this year), a phrase inspired by a lyric in "Niggas in Paris", they played clips from that record's "Otis", "Who Gon Stop Me", and two separate snippets from "Niggas in Paris" during breaks in the action on the field.

I've given it another try, but I'm so turned off by Girls' Father, Son, Holy Ghost, especially given the hype around it, that I don't even want to bother giving most of the songs a low rating. I just want it to disappear forever.

It's a new year, there should be some new music. Let's get to it.

It's a good thing I've been my typical lazy self about putting together my best-of lists, because Frank Ocean's Nostalgia, Ultra. (which I didn't discover until recently) is making a strong case to be included on the album list.

His refrain on Kanye and Jay-Z's "No Church in the Wild" anchors that song and is one of my favorite parts of Watch the Throne, but I didn't bother listening to his own work for a while because I mistakenly assumed that everyone in the Odd Future collective would sound something like Tyler, the Creator, whose music I don't care for (to say nothing of his much-discussed anti-women and anti-gay lyrics).

I don't know quite what to compare Ocean's style to——some tracks don't have any obvious hip hop or R+B references——but if you didn't already know that he was associated with Odd Future, you'd never guess that he and Tyler, the Creator had ever been in the same room together, much less collaborated closely. It's a great piece of work, and hopefully his label issues (he apparently released this album as a free download because his record company wouldn't) won't delay its successor.

Friend alerted me to some last minute tickets for Jeff Mangum's shows in DC this weekend popping up on Ticketmaster, but I don't think I'm going to be able to take advantage. I have the proper reverence for Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, but since I came late to that party, I don't know that I have the same sort of obsessive fanatacism for it as someone whose life has been wrapped up in it longer (although don't get me wrong——I firmly believe that anyone who takes that time to get to know this album will have their life altered by the experience, and I don't say that about many records), which is probably why I'm not pushing a little harder to make this happen.

Also, it seems like Mangum has come out of hiding a bit in the last 18 months, so I'm sort of hoping that touring (and maybe some new music) will become a more regular thing and I'll have another opportunity. It's sort of the same thing that happened with the Pogues——when I first saw them a few years ago, it was the first time they had toured stateside in 15 years, but then they started coming back every year or two, and although I saw them on every visit, it wasn't nearly as hard to get tickets to the more recent dates, and last time I was actually going as much to see the opening act (Titus Andronicus) as I was to see the Pogues, whose shows haven't varied much over the years.

Cloud Nothings' eponymous 2011 album was one of my favorites last year, so I was super excited that the follow up, Attack on Memory, was coming out in early 2012. It ended up being the first 2012 record I purchased, and based on the first single, "Stay Useless", I was looking forward to pretty much more of the same despite it being recorded by Steve Albini and frontman Dylan Baldi's interviews saying the record was darker, etc.

But I should have just stayed away. Aside from "Stay Useless", there's only one other track that I can even remotely stand, and the noise pop bursts of sweet adrenaline that I loved so much on their last album are all but gone. It starts off with the nearly five minute (far longer than anything on the last record) "No Future/No Past", an exercise in droning repetition that doesn't have a single spark of life in it for me. That's followed immediately by a nearly nine minute track that has more energy, but that goes on way, way too long and devolves into chaos that feels too indulgent to be at all interesting.

The songs get a lot shorter after that, but they don't feel much shorter. The only saving grace is that the record is only eight tracks long, so in that sense it ends quickly.

This is my initial impression after a couple of listens, and both because I've had other albums grow on me in the past that I initially disliked and because I don't have much else that's new to listen to right now, I'll give it a few more tries. I know that the jarring difference in what they were before (which I loved) and what they are on this album isn't helping matters, but what can I tell you? I love pop. Distorted, twisted pop, but still pop underneath, and that's definitely not what they were going for here.

My goal each year for the past couple of years has been to rate all the music that came out that year before removing it from my day-to-day playlist of recently purchased albums. I've done a pretty good job in 2011, but there are still several records outstanding: Ryan Adams' Ashes and Fire, Tom Waits' Bad As Me, Danielson's The Best of Gloucester County, Male Bonding's Endless Now, Wu Lyf's Go Tell Fire to the Mountain, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's Hysterical, Okkervil River's I Am Very Far, Patrick Wolf's Lupercalia, the Drums' Portamento, and John Maus' We Must Become Pitiless Censors of Ourselves.

Some of these are recent purchases that I just haven't taken the time to get to know yet, but a lot of them are records that didn't make a strong impression one way or the other featuring songs that sort of blend into one another. The completist in me will just bite the bullet and give them all at least one more listen, but there's part of me that just wants to give every unrated song three stars and be done with it.

Entering another phase of revisting the complete catalog of a band, this time Death Cab for Cutie. Not sure what's been behind these recent episodes, but since I listen to most music in a shuffle format now, there is something different about playing all the albums in a row from a single artist that gives you a different perspective on the overall body of work.