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january 2014

As they seem to do a couple of times a year, this month Amazon has expanded its 100 MP3 albums for $5 deals to 1000 albums this month, so it's going to take a few entries to list all my recommendations. Let's get started with the alternative music category:

Must-haves: Chvrches' Bones of What You Believe, the Postal Service's Give Up, Arcade Fire's Funeral, MGMT's Oracular Spectacular, Fiona Apple's The Idler Wheel, and Death Cab for Cutie's The Photo Album.

Worth purchasing: Mikal Cronin's MCII, the Decemberists' The Hazards of Love and The King Is Dead, Modest Mouse's We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, Los Campesinos' No Blues, Pearl Jam's Vitalogy, the Walkmen's Heaven, Eleanor Friedberger's Personal Record, Frightened Rabbit's The Winter of Mixed Drinks, Death Cab for Cutie's We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes, Divine Fits' A Thing Called Divine Fits, the Shout Out Louds' Optica, Marnie Stern's The Chronicles of Marnia, Animal Collective's Feels, and No Age's An Object.

I'm thinking about purchasing: The National's Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, Eels' Wonderful, Glorious, the Beastie Boys' Hello Nasty, King Tuff's Was Dead, and Soul Asylum's Delayed Reaction.

Next let's hit the Rock and Pop categories:

Must-haves: Paul Simon's Graceland, Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Steve Earle's Copperhead Road, the Police's Outlandos D'Amour and Regatta de Blanc, the Strokes' Is This It, Tom Waits' Bone Machine, R.E.M.'s Murmur and Reckoning, the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, XTC's Skylarking, Iggy Pop's Lust for Life, and John Mellencamp's Uh-Huh and Scarecrow.

Worth purchasing: Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians' Shooting Rubber Bands at the Stars, Sting's Nothing Like the Sun, Phoenix's Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska and Born in the USA, Rage Against the Machine's Evil Empire, U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind, R.E.M.'s Document, Brian Eno's Here Come the Warm Jets, Elliott Smith's Figure 8, and Portishead's Roseland NYC Live.

I'm thinking about purchasing: Michael Jackson's Thriller, Rage Against the Machine's self-titled debut, Mos Def's Black on Both Sides, Elvis Costello's Armed Forces, Get Happy, Imperial BedroomBlood and Chocolate, My Aim Is True, and This Year's Model, Nick Drake's Bryter Layter, Big Country's The Crossing, Superchunk's I Hate Music, the National's The National, Lou Reed's Transformer, Pearl Jam's No Code, Bruce Springsteen's Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, Blondie's Parallel Lines, Tom Petty's Damn the Torpedos, Iggy and the Stooges' Raw Power, and the Minus 5's Old Liquidator.

I realize that if I bought all the albums I've listed as possibilities so far (and there are still a few more categories to knock out), I would be spending well over $100, even at $5 a pop. And although I probably won't purchase all of them, I still think I'm going to end up spending at least $70 or so.

Finally, the remaining categories: Classic Rock and Rap. I thought there would be more in these categories, but it's pretty limited. If I had looked at all the categories first, I would have combined Pop and Rap and then Rock and Classic Rock (although as it turns out, there was nothing in Class Rock that wasn't already included in Rock or Pop).

Must-haves: Kanye West's The College Dropout and Beastie Boys' Check Your Head.

Worth purchasing: Childish Gambino's Camp and Beastie Boys' Ill Communication.

I'm thinking about purchasing: Beastie Boys' Hot Sauce Committee Part Two.

Over the holidays I started looking through the end of year best-of lists for some good albums that I might have overlooked, and I ended up picking up Parquet Courts' Light Up Gold, Waxahatchee's Cerulean Salt, and Sky Ferreira's Night Time, My Time.

These are three very different records. Sky Ferreira has something in common with both St. Vincent and the rash of 80s-inspired female-fronted groups like Lorde and Chvrches, while Parquet Courts reminds me a bit of southern-fried throwback rock in the same vein as Spider Bags and King Tuff.

Reviewers compare Waxahatchee (the stage name for singer Katie Crutchfield) to early Cat Power and Liz Phair, and while I can hear those notes in this record, it's something altogether different; Cerulean Salt is easily my favorite of the bunch so far.

St. Vincent has released a stream of "Digital Witness", the second song from her upcoming new album:

This track (moreso than the first one, "Birth in Reverse") seems to be highly influenced by her work with David Byrne on the Love This Giant collaboration, especially the horn section. I'm always excited to see what she does, and there's nothing in these two songs that makes me think I won't like the album, but I hope she finds space for some songs that are a little less...what are the phrases I'm looking for? Over the top? Bombastic? Basically I guess I'm hoping for a little more subtlety, a little more intrigue, from the record as a whole.

The Pixies (who now seem intent on calling themselves PIXIES——when will people learn that a type treatment for graphic design purposes is not a spelling mandate?) have released EP2, four new songs recorded during the same sessions as last year's EP1 and the "Bagboy" single, the first new Pixies music we had heard since the band's last full-length was released in 1991.

I'm sorry to say that these songs aren't any better——any more Pixies-ish——than the ones on EP1, which offered just enough tastes of the old Pixies sound to make the overall generic modern rock sound that much more grating. There's nothing menancing, nothing mysterious, nothing off-kilter about these songs, and all these elements are hallmarks of classic Pixies. "Magdalena" probably comes the closest——it's a little bit slinky, and sinewy in a way that the other tracks aren't——but it also might be the least interesting song on the EP otherwise.

Hell, at this point I would be very happy to get a reprise of the cleaner, glossier sound of their final album, Trompe Le Monde, but the songs on EP2 would barely stand up even as b-sides to that record (especially for a band known for the high quality of its b-sides like the Pixies were).

That doesn't mean I'm going to stop buying these little $4 EPs every time they release one, nor would it stop me from buying an eventual album——hope springs eternal——but the grown up in me knows for sure now that the Pixies really are over.

I made my first purchase of my potential purchases from Amazon's massive $5 MP3 album sale this month: King Tuff's Was Dead. This is actually their first album, originally released in 2008, that was reissued last year after the higher-profile succes of 2012's eponymous sophomore album.

I was just wondering what was happening with Tokyo Police Club last week, and now here they are announcing a new album, Forcefield, and sharing a track, "Hot Tonight":

I've always admired that the band signed to one of my favorite labels, Saddle Creek, a few years back when they undoubtedly had offers from major labels, but in retrospect, it's clear that Saddle Creek had neither the resources or experience to market a band like this, a band with serious crossover potential. I'm pretty sure that if they had signed with a larger label, they would now be at the same level as France's Phoenix, a band with whom they share many stylistic proclivities, including a serious infatuation with pop hooks.

It looks like the band as signed with another independent label for this album, Mom + Pop, but this one is headed by a former head of Sire Records and the roster is one that generally features artists with mainstream potential, so maybe this will end up being a better home for the band.

This track is not one of my favorites from Tokyo Police Club, despite the catchiness. It feels like, after years of putting out good records with at least two or three singles that could have worked with a larger audience, they're now going right after mainstream success——it's too midtempo and lacks any real surprises compared to their earlier work.

I'm still interested to hear what the rest of the album holds, however——this could be their intentional "radio single" and the rest of the album could be more along the lines of their previous releases. Case in point: the track they shared last month (which I somehow missed), "Argentina (Parts I, II, III)":

This actually more like the previously-referenced Phoenix than it does classic Tokyo Police Club, but I still like this one much better than "Hot Tonight".

Liars have announced a new album, Mess, and have shared a track, "Mess on a Mission":

This track continues with the heavy electronic sound that they explored on their last record, but even when they're exploring a specific genre on an album, they still switch things up stylistically and always retain that instantly recognizable Liars DNA, that deep, sinister groove that's the bedrock of most of their songs. This is a solid song if you like the Liars, but I would be willing to bet that it's not going to be in the top three of the songs I like on this record (this is based on my past history with the band, not because I've heard a secret preview or anything).

YACHT have shared a new song, "Plastic Soul". This doesn't seem to be the first preview of an upcoming album, just a one-off single, but it's nice to hear something from this band again.

This is as goofy and pleasant and lovable as my favorite songs from their records, and it makes me wish there was a new record in the offing. If you're already a YACHT fan, you'll likely be pleased with this; if you're unfamiliar with the band and don't like this one, don't bother to explore the rest of their catalog, because at their best, its just more of the same.

And because it's just turning into one of those weeks, Kevin Drew (of Broken Social Scene fame) has announced a new album, Darlings, and has shared a song from the record, "Good Sex":

Broken Social Scene was billed as a music collective where there was no single driving force creatively, but like many other bands that have tried this model (I'm looking fairly intensely in your direction, Belle and Sebastian), it's clear that there are definitely some members who are more talented and who contribute more than others.

Kevin Drew was sort of unofficially the frontman for Broken Social Scene, and with this, his second solo release (although his first without an explicit Broken Social Scene connection), he reinforces that Broken Social Scene's sound and style were largely his doing——this track has all the resigned charm and affable desperation of classic Broken Social Scene songs, and if there were any advantage in doing so, you could have released it under the band name and fans wouldn't find anything to complain about.

So far, the fact that each entry this week has showcased a new track has been purely natural——it's just a big coincidence that four artists I like released new songs that were worth talking about. However, I can't let the opportunity to have a whole week with the same type of content pass me by, and so I'm forcing it a bit today by examining the Pixies' "Blue Eyed Hexe", the first single from their recently-released EP2:

The old Pixies are never coming back——I'm finally at a point where I can admit that to myself——but there are moments in this song that can make you think, "Well, this isn't really the Pixies, but maybe it's not so bad."

That's just more self-delusion, of course, and the moment that you realize that, "No, wait, this really isn't all that good, and it may actually be bad" comes at precisely 2:05 into this track, when Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV launches into a howl that sounds more like a bad AC/DC impersonation than the patented Black Francis howl of yore.

I know that many of you, like me, will continue to buy the new Pixies music in the hope that it will deliver one more visceral shot of pure energy straight to the brain, so I'm the last one to be pointing fingers at anyone who tries to find something genuinely likable about this song. But I just dare you to tell me it's good and feel like you're not lying to yourself.

I know, I know...more videos. I'm not going to unnaturally extend this series from now on, but I'm also not going to not post a new shared song because it happens to conveniently show up as part of this streak.

Anyway, here's the title track from Damon Albarn's upcoming solo album Everyday Robots:

Not wild about this one, but I always like to hear a bigger sampling of the records he makes before I decide to buy. He's been pretty quiet recently, at least for an artist as prolific as he usually is——he went on a tear and released four albums in 2011 and 2012 (a soundtrack and three different collaborative projects), but there's been nothing since then.

I'm hoping letting his creative juices simmer for that long will produce an album well worth hearing, but for me that means it's going to have to sound different than this track (and I'm a sucker for songs about robots, so I really wanted to like this one).

And another one! This time it's Beck sharing "Blue Moon", the first track he's shared from his upcoming new album Morning Phase:

Beck has also been unusually quiet for the past few years: this will be his first formal album release since 2008's Modern Guilt. Beck and his PR team are calling this album a companion piece to the quiet, meditative Sea Change, and while this song is tranquil and peaceful, it has a brighter feel to it than the downtrodden (but in a good way) Sea Change.

And on we go. Today the Hold Steady shared a stream of "I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You", a track from their upcoming Teeth Dreams. I annoyingly can't embed it even though it's on Soundcloud because they are doing some sort of exclusive initial release through the Rolling Stone web site, so you have to go here to listen to it.

The normally prolific band (they released 5 albums between 2005 and 2010) haven't released a record since 2010's Heaven Is Whenever, and I was hoping that the long hiatus would bring them back creatively refreshed, but if that has happened, this track doesn't demonstrate it. It's a nice, solid late-period Hold Steady track that would have been an unremarkable filler track on either of their past two albums, but the triumphant return of a band that's taken a few years off to regroup it's not.

Update: I figured out how to nick the embed code from the Rolling Stone site, so I've included the stream below:

I thought the two-week streak was finally going to end today, but then late in the afternoon Ted Leo and Aimee Mann posted a track from their upcoming collaboration as the Both titled "Milwaukee":

I've always like Ted Leo as a person and I really liked his first few records, but there's been a lack of new ideas from some of his more recent outings. But he, too, has taken some time off, and unlike the Hold Steady, his hiatus seems to have refreshed him and given his music a new spark.

And of course there's the Aimee Mann piece as well. I'm not a fan of hers, but I don't dislike her, either——I've just never been sufficiently motivated to buy anything of hers despite the critical acclaim and strong fanbase she has. I'm sure that collaborating with a new songwriter partner has helped with Ted Leo's rejuvenation, but this track still sounds very much like a classic Ted Leo track, so he seems to be the prime mover creatively in this particular partnership.

Anyway, based on this track, I'm looking forward to the album——sometimes these collaboriations can turn out pretty weak, but like David Byrne's project with St. Vincent, Love This Giant, it looks like the Both might be a winner.

Someday this will end...but not today. Cloud Nothings shared "I'm Not Part of Me" from their forthcoming album Here and Nowhere Else:

I loved loved loved the band's eponymous debut full-length, but I was massively disappointed by the direction they took on their follow-up, Attack on Memory. They've done a couple of tesaers for the new album, but this is the first full track they've shared, and it's getting me excited about the band again.

The production and tempo are different than how this song would have been recorded as part of Cloud Nothings, but it's easy for me to hear that if they used the same style on this track, it would fit right in with those recordings. And as someone who was praying for a true successor to that record, that's really all I could ask for. The only thing I'm even remotely disappointed about is that it looks like album is only going to have 8 songs.

No new shared tracks today, so back to regular entries——the streak is finally over.

Since I wasn't sure if the big sale on Amazon $5 MP3 albums was going to expire midway through the month like they normally do, I bought several albums a couple of weeks ago: Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True, This Year's Model, and Blood and Chocolate, Big Country's The Crossing, Nick Drake's Bryter Layter, Tom Petty's Damn the Torpedos, Lou Reed's Transformer, Rage Against the Machine's self-titled first album, and Pearl Jam's No Code.

I had three other Elvis Costello discs on my list, and I've been really liking the three I've already bought, so I oculd pick up a few more of those before the end of the month. Other than those, however, I think that might be all I purchase for this round.

My favorite album from this bunch of albums has come as a bit of a surprise to me: Lou Reed's Transformer. Of course I love the Velvet Underground, and I own a few of Reed's solo discs, but nothing that goes back to the period immediatley post-Velvets. I bought this one thinking that it would put my curiousity about his early works to bed forever, but instead I found myself listening to it over and over.

I can hear a little bit of everything: there are hints of the Velvets, there are tracks where you can hear the beginnings of the kinds of songs he would create during the late 80s and early 90s (the period when I first encountered his solo material), and you can definitely hear David Bowie's fingerprints everywhere.

"Perfect Day" is unexpectedly, unbelievably beautiful, and it really showcases a strong voice from a man who made a career out of sneering, mumbling, and speaking instead of singing. There's really not a song on here to dislike, something that I can't say about any of the other Velvet Underground or Lou Reed albums I own. It was really a pleasure to see this brilliant album unfold before me——that's a rare treasure at this point in my life, and it gives me hope that there are still lots of great undiscovered records out there for me.

My least favorite album so far is also a surprise: Nick Drake's Bryter Layter. Of course I own Pink Moon and love it, and all of his albums get high critical marks, so I figured this was a no-brainer purchase.

And while there are some good songs on here, overall there's way to much stuff that sounds like adult contemporary prog jazz noodling, which I wasn't expecting at all. "Poor Boy" is the worst offender: over six minutes long, filled with jazzy piano bits and a very out of place group of gospel-inflected backup singers. It grated from the very first bar and made the subsequent six minutes seem like an hour.

I will probably make myself listen to it once more, but I can almost guarantee you I'm not going to change my mind about this one.

To round out the month, I bought a few more items from the Amazon $5 MP3 album sale this month: Elvis Costello's Armed Forces, Imperial Bedroom, and Get Happy, Blondie's Parallel Lines, Iggy Pop and the Stooges' Raw Power, Eels' Wonderful, Blorious, the Minus 5's Old Liquidator, Superchunk's I Hate Music, and Swearin's Surfing Strange.

The Swearin' record is the only one that wasn't on my list of possible purchases back when I first dug through all of the available albums at the beginning of this month, and I ended up buying it because one of the singer/songwriters is Allison Crutchfield, twin sister of Katie Crutchfield, whose Waxahatchee project's Cerulean Salt has become one of my favorite albums from 2013 over the past month.

Listening to a couple of samples, I heard enough similarities to some of the stuff I love about Waxahatchee (interpreted through the filter of a 90s alt rock band that would desperately like to be the Pixies) that I couldn't pass up the opportunity to get the album for only $5.