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Versus: Bob Dylan

By Staff; June 14, 2012 at 1:20 PM 

Versus is a series in which we pit selected albums against one another and offer case statements for which is superior. In our latest installment, we isolate three of Bob Dylan’s most acclaimed records and pose the question: which do you think is his best album?

Versus: Radiohead

By Staff; April 3, 2012 at 3:00 PM 

Versus is a series in which we pit selected albums against one another and offer case statements for which is superior. In our latest installment, we tackle Radiohead’s entire discography — with one notable omission — and pose the question: which do you think is their best album?

The Bends (1995)

The Bends marks the first coherent statement by a band that would go on to say more than anyone could have ever imagined. In just twelve tracks, Radiohead recalibrated the U.K. music scene by crashing their jarring amalgam of haunting falsetto; pithy lyrics; and thick, gravid riffs into the Britpop stratosphere.

Recorded in London’s Abbey Road Studios, its no surprise that The Bends enjoyed the guiding hands of the best soundmen in the business. Not only did legendary British producer John Leckie – architect of Stone Roses’ alluring, infectious soundscapes – turn down a mob of promising Britpop acts to work on the 1995 LP, but The Bends also introduced Radiohead to sound engineer Nigel Godrich. As the story goes, Godrich’s creative energies fused so well with the band’s impulses that he would eventually earn the moniker of Radiohead’s “sixth member” by co-producing all of their subsequent albums, along with singer Thom Yorke’s solo project The Eraser.

Opening cut “Planet Telex,” ripe with electronic loops and fuzzy distortion, has Yorke straining over warbling guitars. Dripping with angst, the singer cries out, “everything is bro-keeeeennn,” stretching out that last syllable for what seems like an eternity. Transitioning with the sound of clinking glass, titular track “The Bends” provides a cathartic burst of grandeur that could very well have initiated an Oasis ditty. Set against Greenwood’s jagged riffs, Yorke winces and pleads, “I wish it was the sixties, I wish I could be happy / I wish, I wish, I wish that something would happen!”

Radiohead takes its foot off the accelerator on down-tempo “High and Dry.” To the tune of subdued acoustic strumming, Yorke launches his heartwrenching, glass shattering falsetto. At the precise moment his voice threatens to crack, Greenwood’s densely textured guitar pours into the narrow gap. “Fake Plastic Trees,” arguably unsurpassed lyrically by any of the band’s later offerings, also relies on heavy falsetto à la Jeff Buckley. Amidst a nostalgic, melancholy string section, Radiohead juxtaposes the beautifully pathetic struggle of the authentic and real against that cold, hollow permanence of the synthetic and artificial. Whimpering in tragic resignation, York sobs, “the gravity always wins.”

“Bones” touts Colin Greenwood’s prurient baseline thumping in tandem with grungy guitar lines. Starting off as an airy respite atop celestial violins and pleasant harmonies, “(Nice Dream)” evolves into a thoroughly rambunctious cut with a harsh, bold instrumental buildup. Setting smooth, fluid hooks off against pulverizing riffs, “Just” has Greenwood unleashing an uninhibited, brash cacophony that threatens to drown out Yorke’s lyrics. A manic, bipolar track that goes from serene to oppressive at the drop of a dime, “Iron Lung” doubles back on itself with scathing, reckless riffs and charred vocals.

Chronicling a doomed attempt to pull a rapidly unraveling lower back from the edge, “Black Star” features sparse, tasteful guitar flourishes. Haunting apparition “Street Spirit,” closing out the LP, channels an experimental flavor that Radiohead would more fully explore on OK Computer and Kid A.

Dispelling skeptics’ inklings that the moody quintet from Oxfordshire would end up as one-hit wonders with only social paralysis ridden “Creep” to call a legacy, The Bends endowed Radiohead with a loyal fan base that the band would challenge and stretch with experimental beats, emotionalist vocals, and caustic studio effects for years to come. As guitarist Jonny Greenwood remarks, it was the moment when Radiohead finally “started to feel like we made the right choice about being a band.” Without The Bends, Radiohead may have faded away with a faint whimper and left our entire generation all the poorer.

– Henry Hauser

Listen to The Bends on Spotify.

OK Computer (1997)

I arrived a little late to the Radiohead party, having purchased the band’s Kid A album two years after its release. And while I remember the mumbled diffidence of the group’s debut single, “Creep,” I wasn’t mature enough to appreciate it at the time. It was 1992, and I was in the sixth-grade. So I can’t tell you what made me buy OK Computer, an album largely considered the group’s seminal recording, with its glitchy alt-rock rhythms that writhe with adolescent urgency, twisting and squirming for 53 minutes of restless, chaotic bliss. These songs felt isolated, each one different in scope, yet held together by dashes of melancholy and eccentric agitation. In other moments, the album reached for the stars and felt noticeably intergalactic, even down to the android that appeared sporadically throughout the project. “Wake… from your sleep,” frontman Thom Yorke groans on the volcanic “Exit Music (For A Film).” Did I ever.

Apparently, the band sought detachment for OK Computer. “Anything that you’re trying to do that’s different, it is going to be challenging, it is going to take a couple of listens to get into,” Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien told MTV UK in a 1997 interview. In it, O’Brien also recalled the disappointment of fans who expected OK Computer to be a carbon copy of its previous album, The Bends, a landmark in its own right. Instead, OK Computer was the anti-Bends: simple acoustic compositions gave way to fidgety electronic turbulence, and soothing comfort grew into restive petulance. “Paranoid Android,” and its multiple pace changes, is the perfect example of such schizophrenia — the first movement is a gentile nudge, the second an abrasive bridge that dissolves into slow, angelic moans before it concludes with raucous guitar work. The aforementioned “Exit Music” is similar in approach: Yorke’s distinctive mumble takes precedence over a skeletal blend of strings and atmospheric ventilation before it explodes into strident pangs of dejection. Conversely, “No Surprises” feels like a lullaby until you decipher the lyrics. “A heart that’s full up like a landfill/A job that slowly kills you/Bruises that won’t heal.”

In subsequent years, Radiohead would build upon OK Computer’s stellar foundation, tapping into other genres to achieve musical nirvana. 2000’s Kid A is Computer’s aerial complement, with tempered instrumentals more fluid than its predecessor. “Bloom,” from 2011’s The King of Limbs, struck me as a rock-n-roll song with danceable West African percussion and window-shattering bass drops. “We Suck Young Blood,” a standout from 2003’s Hail To The Thief, is meticulous gospel with ambient drum cymbals and escalating piano chords. Certainly, the British quintet has ascended to an iconic place among the rock gods, and one could list a few albums as the quintessential Radiohead record. However, there’s nothing quite like OK Computer, which paved the way for like-minded artists to trek the same path. Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part One and Common’s Electric Circus carried the same free-wielding spirit, as divergent sounds blended together to make a seamless whole. OK Computer is messy and disjointed. It frowns at contemporary wisdom. It’s moody and inaccessible. It’s perfectly beautiful.

– Marcus J. Moore

Listen to OK Computer on Spotify.

Kid A (2000)

Many might think that I got lucky, that I was the furthest off picking the short straw, and that I must have slept with someone high up to get the rights to this album in this Versus debate. And putting it simply, I am lucky, because Kid A is the best album Radiohead have ever released. Making the case for Kid A is like having to explain how wonderful The Muppets are, or how awesome monster trucks are to child; it’s just obvious. This should be a breeze, right?

Yet, here I am, twiddling my thumbs, unsure what to say, or where to start. “Don’t think about it Ray, just write whatever come to your mind”. Okay, here goes:

I’ve never seen a shooting start before… no, that’s no good.

Hey guys, remember that time Radiohead released that “perfect” album and then trolled everyone with its follow up? Christ, that’s not even funny, or true.
This is the problem with Kid A: there’s no place to start. Sure, I could begin with the sublime opening track, “Everything In Its Right Place,” and start by describing how it transcends past your sense of hearing, as synths wash in and out of your consciousness, held together by clicks and beats, and – most importantly – Thom Yorke’s savaged voice, which sounds coated in an ambiguous, hypnotic sadness that would be lost completely by any other singer if they merely thought about shifting the pitch of their vocals. I could start that way, but I won’t. Kid A deserves more than just another verbose narrative; it deserves the recognition that this is the ultimate peak of their career (so far), that this is the timeless album that should be remembered above all else, and that this is more than just a band’s best album, but one of the best albums that has ever been created.

But I still don’t know where to start with that, and even if I did, I know the words would feel inadequate. All I know that is whenever I’m on my own, or in company, the moment Kid A begins there’s no need for me, or anyone else around me, to speak up and say, “the guitar melody on “In Limbo” is so underrated”, or the way “Treefingers” bridges the gap between the surrounding two tracks is perfect!”. There’s no need because it’s just there to be heard. Kid A is the best Radiohead album. You don’t need me, or anyone else to tell you this; just use your ears.

– Ray Finlayson

Listen to Kid A on Spotify.

Amnesiac (2001)

From a critical standpoint, Kid A is Radiohead’s finest release. Nostalgically speaking, I’ll always have a soft spot for my first Radiohead album, OK Computer. But if we’re going by play count—a fair assessment, I think, of how much one actually listens to a given piece of music—then my favorite Radiohead album would have to be Amnesiac, the bastard stepbrother that came just a year after the much-heralded Kid A.

For one thing, I find it to be the most Radioheady album, perfectly balancing the band’s various aesthetic modes—rock stars (“I Might Be Wrong”), electronic whiz kids (“Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box,” “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors”), and avant-garde enthusiasts (“Life In A Glass House,” “Like Spinning Plates,” “Pyramid Song”)—without sacrificing Thom Yorke’s typically cryptic lyrical eloquence or the gift of melodic songwriting that have made so many of Radiohead’s albums so rewarding. If Kid A was the band’s attempt at “destroying themselves, and subsequently rebuilding a perfect entity,” as one critic put it, then Amnesiac represents a stronger push towards the edge of not just popular music but musicality itself. Opener “Packt” is all rhythm and bass, while the unbeatable closing one-two punch of “Glass House” and “Spinning Plates” finds the band going from melodramatic backmasked balladry to an unexpectedly New Orleans-indebted jazzy sound. Sandwiched between are some of the most beguiling, occasionally frustrating, and altogether entrancing music in the band’s storied catalog.

The versatility of Amnesiac is best displayed in its middle stretch. “You And Whose Army?” starts as a sparse, haunted, almost a capella outing before exploding into a spacy yet cathartic post-rock denouement. Next comes the rockabilly stomp of “I Might Be Wrong,” arguably the most accessible track here. Like “Whose Army,” “Wrong” also plays with its own structure in its final minute, but this time we hear a (refreshingly guitar-driven) cooling off instead of an escalation. The relatively straightforward “Knives Out” follows, allowing us to catch our breath before the perverse and vaguely threatening reworking of “Morning Bell.” There’s a quietly cinematic streak to Amnesiac, and it’s best heard in the tense string sections on “Pyramid Song,” “Morning Bell,” and “Like Spinning Plates.” Even more so than Kid A, this album grapples with the fragmentation of identity in the digital age; using these movie-score allusions therefore seems a bit ironic, as though the band is borrowing from older artistic traditions but twisting the high-pitched violins into something more sinister.

While I wouldn’t recommend Amnesiac as a starter album for someone just getting into Radiohead, I think it’s a vital document in the band’s history. At the intersection of pop, rock, electronica, and experimental music, Yorke and company briefly set up camp and laid down eleven of their weirdest, most original tracks to date. Its title is thus a misnomer; Amnesiac is difficult to forget.

– Joshua Becker

Listen to Amnesiac on Spotify.

Hail to the Thief (2003)

“…I think they’re trying too hard not to be Radiohead… I like them as a rock band, all the buttons and sequencing and stuff like that I don’t really care for.”

– Tad Kubler (of The Hold Steady)

A band redefines itself each time it releases new music. Each new definition may, but needn’t be, a reprint. Radiohead doesn’t reprint. When the vestige that is “Creep” first catapulted them to rock-star territory, the words that introduced the band to listeners were “I don’t belong here.” In the next two albums, the group strayed, coyly, from the restrictive “rock” format, but remained at arm’s length. In the Kid A and Amnesiac sessions, they deserted these confines, and ventured boldly into uncharted sonic territory. War broke out.

On one side are the sweet old-timers, whose mantra I’ve included above for your appreciation; these poor things just want to rock out. Diametrically opposed are proponents of the view that musical progress follows an unwavering path, away from traditional instruments and structures, and toward electronics and experimentation. Frustratingly, remarkably few realize that Radiohead are concerned solely with making good music. By indulgently expanding their sound palette during the Kid A sessions, the band tapped into a fresh aesthetic, and attained a new potency. On Hail to the Thief, they further explore these sounds, but concurrently excavate and employ their old “rock” tools unabashedly. There is a palpable musical freeness on the record, which makes for a particularly enjoyable listen.

There’s a certain edge to the Kid A/Amnesiac sessions that seems to have withered in In Rainbows and The King of Limbs. Consider “Feral,” the most abstract, electronic track on the latter album, alongside “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors,” its counterpart from Amnesiac. The earlier song rattles, cracks, bends and morphs, creating an effect that the comparatively subdued and stripped-down “Feral” cannot replicate. The most electronic songs on Hail to the Thief, however, retain the elusive edge: the warped, skittering “Backdrifts” the skewed, ethereal “The Gloaming,” the meditative adrenaline that is “Sit Down, Stand Up.”

And then there’s the rock… Kid A’s release gave rise to a worldwide chorus of bitching for the band to “sound like a band again.” The King of Limbs drowned out some of this bitching, with loud guitars. When a band seizes to sound like a band, as Radiohead did on Kid A, the band, in a way, transcends its form, and inhabits a separate realm, floating slightly above the constant reshuffling of clichés that constitutes pop music. Listen to Kid A’s “Everything in its Right Place,” and you might understand. Then, stop it, and put on “Bodysnatchers” from In Rainbows.

Seriously? That riff? WTF?! Are these guys just jamming in a garage?

Point: a return to “sounding like a band” can actually be a debasement. Yet, it isn’t on Hail to the Thief, hence much of the album’s brilliance. Radiohead manage to do it well, starting with the opening track’s mid-song eruption, and punk rock snarl. The three-guitar attack, which was so elemental to the band’s early sound, is in top form. “Go to Sleep” grounds the band with organic guitar sounds, yet assumes a transcendental quality with its off-kilter folk stylings. This cryptic, otherworldly quality has been in Radiohead’s music long before their electronic period. You can hear it, say, in the final minute of “Street Spirit” or in the third section of “Paranoid Android,” but it has a particularly marked presence in Hail to the Thief. It emerges in the latter portion of “There There,” when Thom’s emotive vocals soar over the meshing guitar lines and massive drums. It’s in the haunting drag of “We Sung Yuck Blood,” which sonically recaptures the gothic magnificence of OK Computer’s “Climbing Up the Walls.”

Intertwined with the electronic and rock components of Hail to the Thief are sundry softer songs to which the album owes much of its beauty and poignancy. Take, for instance, the unassuming grandeur of Thom’s bare harmonies in “I Will,” or the clever musical angularity and immaculate dreaminess of “Sail to the Moon.” An elegant balance is maintained via the inclusion of rhythmic, catchy songs “Where I End and You Begin” and “Myxomatosis.” Overall, the versatility in style and consistency in quality of the total fourteen tracks make a quite remarkable album.

I sometimes wonder whether Thom Yorke still wishes he were special. He lives in a perpetual sulk, which relaxes its grip only when he dances himself loose. The vapid squares in the mainstream media, who raise their contemptuous eyebrows at this miserable bastard, manage to occasionally elicit a trace of my empathy. Luckily, someone like Ted of the Hold Steady always comes to the rescue, with a sufficiently exasperating comment to scare me straight. Invariably, I run back to Radiohead with open arms, and commiserate with Yorke. My wish is that people would simply realize and accept that true artists evolve. Radiohead is a case in point. Each album is conspicuously different, and should be considered on its own. Many of the records intently focus on a specific type of sound or concept. For instance, Kid A is the abstract album. The King of Limbs is the rhythm album. Yorke has said, himself, that In Rainbows was “a particular aesthetic.” Hail to the Thief, however, does not seem to have been created with any such concept or style in mind. Consequently, it showcases the band freely surveying the varied sounds at which they excel. More importantly, it does this extraordinarily well. It this sense, one might consider it Radiohead’s strongest album.

– Ad Mehta

Listen to Hail to the Thief on Spotify.

In Rainbows (2007)

It’s unfortunate that the much of the discussion around In Rainbows was centered on its business model. Back in 2007, the novelty of the online tip jar overwhelmed the music, but that hasn’t stopped it from blossoming into tidiest, and best, release yet. We really shouldn’t be comparing this album to the likes of OK Computer or Kid A, not yet at least. In Rainbows isn’t even five years old, and we’ve really yet to see Radiohead divorce themselves from the low-key sound that has come to define their post-EMI career. It occupies an entirely different emotional realm than anything that they had released up to that point. Radiohead’s early output is anxious and creeping with dread; In Rainbows is elegant and understated. It may also be the most accessible work in their canon.

I believe history will look upon as Radiohead’s best record for this simple reason: Everyone I know who didn’t like Radiohead liked In Rainbows. It’s something even a casual music fan can marvel at. The music is polished, efficient and often beautiful, the usual prickle in Thom Yorke’s voice is gone as he wades through the densest set of melodies he’s ever crafted.

This also is the first record that Radiohead made where they weren’t plagued by the possibility of a break up. It’s a singular vision, the opus of a band finally at peace with itself. They didn’t want to make a statement, just a set of really, really good songs. “Nude,” the OK Computer-era lullaby (which sounds strangely familiar backwards) is perhaps the best example of how much their songcraft had improved. The version from their live shows circa 1997 lacks the confidence and incisive melodicism of the studio version. They made this album when they were ready and not a second sooner.

In Rainbows isn’t troubled by consumerism, politics, personal crisis or technological disconnect. I can’t imagine a song like “All I Need,” which does so much with so little, coming from any other band at any other point in time. Its final minute might just be the most devastating minute of music Radiohead have ever produced, but it doesn’t need doomsday orchestration to make its point. Elsewhere, the band is as tight and refined as ever. “Jigsaw falling Into Place”’s moonlit jaunt through the clubs is seductive and builds with an eerie sense of desperation, while the odd time signatures on “15 Step” sound loose and playful. Even when they tackle darker subject matter, like on “Reckoner,” it’s hard not to be blown away by the majesty of the music.

Like all great albums, In Rainbows has to age, be reflected upon and dissected. The fact that it’s a relatively recent release from a still-active band obscures this prognosis somewhat, but if any of Radiohead’s records can withstand the scrutiny that all classics must inevitably undergo, it’s this one.

– Brendan Frank

Released independently, In Rainbows is unavailable on Spotify.

The King of Limbs (2011)

It’s hard for me to defend The King of Limbs as the best Radiohead album when it was the most immediately disappointing to fans. While Kid A alienated many listeners due to the fact that, well, it didn’t sound like a Radiohead record, The King of Limbs disappointed because it was hardly a full-length. Furthermore, it was the band’s first release in three and a half years, and one of the tracks had been kicking around in various iterations since ‘02. With only seven new tracks, it’s hardly a surprise that people immediately entered into conspiratorial whispers over that standout lyric on “Separator”: “If you think this is over, then you’re wrong.” Fans wanted more than what they were offered and began praying that a follow-up would be announced. “Greedy capitalist wankers,” Thom Yorke probably muttered under his breath at some point.

If you’re looking at quality over quantity, TKOL offers up some of the strongest tracks that the band has ever crafted. A cohesive mixture of electronic blitzes, unplugged movements, and full band workouts, the album is a compact culmination of Radiohead’s finest moments from the post-OK Computer era. Yet even as a culmination, it finds the band continuing to develop and explore new territory.

Take the opener “Bloom” as an example of this phenomenon. “Bloom” finds the band exploding into a polyrhythmic electronic shuffle that recalls “15 Step” from In Rainbows. But the production on “Bloom” outdoes “15 Step” in almost every way, supplemented by an even smoother bass groove and a thickly layered clattering of percussion and electronic blips. Again, the piano triads of “Codex” hearkens back to Amnesiac’s “Pyramid Song” – hell, both tracks even depict jumping into water. Yet, while “Pyramid Song” builds into a beautiful orchestral swirl, the arrangement on “Codex” only grows from a whisper to a tremulous murmur. Radiohead has learned how to use a symphony more tactfully over time, and such subtlety produces an unparalleled, haunting effect on this track. Finally, consider “Little By Little,” a song that could’ve fit nicely on Hail To The Thief if that album weren’t already so overstuffed. The music is instantly recognizable as Radiohead in moody-rock-mode, but even here the band throws some new ideas into the mix; the song features a drum track that sounds like it was made on a set of electronic pots and pans, as well as a recurring noise that sounds like a reversed and processed guitar line.

In essence, Radiohead takes what they’ve done over the course of the 21st century on The King Of Limbs, and revises it into an oeuvre that is somehow more eclectic, more mature, and more sonically diverse. For me, it was one of those albums that didn’t really impress on first listen. My initial conclusion was that it was just another eight Radiohead tracks. But listening to one of their albums once and passing judgment on it is like reading a few pages of a book and saying that you’ve read the entire thing. After repeated listens, I began realizing how remarkably impressive the album is. Most bands that have been around as long as Radiohead have either stopped making music or have made the same record four or five times. But for a band that has been around for upwards of 25 years, they still make music that feels refreshingly young. On TKOL, they still sound like they have an infinite pool of creative ideas floating around their heads. Every album prior to this one was an attempt to establish a sound that is uniquely Radiohead. The King of Limbs is the realization of those efforts, wrapped into a succinct LP that proudly exclaims, “Well, we don’t really have a sound, do we?”

– William Lancaster

Listen to The King of Limbs on Spotify.

Which of these Radiohead albums do you most prefer? Drop us your vote in the comments below.

Versus: Built to Spill

By Brendan Frank & Henry Hauser; February 16, 2012 at 2:30 PM 

Versus: Built to Spill

Versus is a series in which we pit selected albums against one another and offer case statements for which is superior. In our latest installment, we match Built to Spill’s Perfect From Now On and You in Reverse and pose the question: which do you think is the better album?

Perfect From Now On (1997)

The consistency and quality of Built to Spill’s catalogue is such that you should really just think of the albums discussed here as recommended listening. Nevertheless, I can’t think of a single reason why Perfect From Now On shouldn’t be considered their best. Not only is it their greatest statement, it represents a genuine musical transformation; a creative leap forward that no one saw coming. It’s the sound of a band throwing conventions out the window and leaping into indie’s upper echelons without so much as a second thought. The charmingly off-key teenhood tales of There’s Nothing Wrong With Love (which there isn’t, by the way) can’t hold a candle to its casual, cosmic energy. It’s the universe under a microscope, a philosophical juggernaut of a record that tickles your brain while you revel in its musicality.

Perfect From Now On covers more ground than some bands could hope to over an entire career, but there’s still an immaculate sense of continuity to it. Each of its eight lumbering numbers is a standout and unlike some of their later offerings, none of them are strained or overlong. If at any point your attention starts drifting, a change in tempo or key will come out of nowhere and pull you back in.

Even though it was new terrain for them, Doug Martsch & co. tinker with everything, fascinated by the sonic possibilities of the traditional rock setup. Each track has something different to offer. The paranoid, creaky swells of “I Would Hurt A Fly” become stretched into a highbrow jamming session; “Kicked It In the Sun” is a multi-headed beast that’s both symphonic and euphoric, with a defeated-sounding first half that mushrooms into pop of the highest caliber at the drop of a hat; “Randy Described Eternity” contains lyrics so vast and mind-bending that they deserve to be written out in full here, but the first verse will suffice:

“Every thousand years/This metal sphere ten times the size of Jupiter/Floats just a few yards past the Earth/You climb on your roof/And take a swipe at it with a single feather/Hit it once every thousand years/’Til you’ve worn it down to the size of a pea/I’d say that’s a long time/But it’s only half a blink in the place you’re gonna be.”

And that all goes down in its first two minutes. “Stop the Show” has three distinct sections and accelerates through them in thrilling fashion; plunky, undulating guitar parts slowly mesh together underneath existential reflection on “Velvet Waltz”: “You thought of everything/But some things can’t be thought.” Other tracks like “Untrustable/Part 2” and “Out of Sight” serve as compliments, but are still outstanding in their own right.

Perfect From Now On is so complete and purposeful, satisfying in the same way as a five-course dinner. It’s rich and elaborate with an abundance of lingering notes and flavours. The bottom line is that while other records may come close in places, Perfect From Now On is front-to-back their best. There’s really no way I can prove it to you, but as they say, proving is illogical.

– Brendan Frank

Built to Spill – Perfect From Now On by Rob Hakimian on Grooveshark

Listen to Perfect From Now On on Spotify

You in Reverse (2006)

No disrespect to the otherwise superb early offerings from Boise, Idaho based Built to Spill, but 2006’s You in Reverse is in a class of its own. Throughout the LP, songwriter/guitarist/vocalist Doug Martsch taps into a fresh, captivating balance of intricate, meandering guitar lines and a distinctive vocal whisper not fully realized on any of the band’s previous albums. Matching Martsch’s exiguous lyrics with melodic, interwoven guitars that allow his tracks to breathe and build, You In Reverse conveys a sentiment that is at once heart wrenching, fatalist, and pluckily defiant: “Look out the world’s destroying ya / Relax it isn’t fair / Mother nature’s disposition / She don’t mind, she don’t care.”

On opening cut “Going Against Your Mind,” which carries a compelling energy across the entirety of its eight-plus minutes, layered, scathing electric guitars evoke a phantasmagoria of shrieking sirens, shrill cries, and a frantic scramble for cover. Halfway through the track, Martsch lures us into the eye of the storm with ethereal hooks and a fragile, bewildered falsetto: “When I was a kid I saw a light / Floating high above the trees one night.” This sense of security, however, is fleeting. The song erupts with sinister momentum atop throbbing bass, thunderous percussion, and jagged, coarse distortion, as Built to Spill hurls us headlong into a chaotic instrumental melee.

“Traces” has Martsch grappling with insomnia infused dilemmas amidst inconceivably precise flourishes that oscillate between resilient conviction and nonchalant detachment. Keeping us on our toes, the steady, sparse chord progression and jangly tambourine of down-tempo “Saturday” gives way to the highflying, blistering guitars and fuzzy static reverb of “Wherever You Go,” as the singer struggles to be heard amidst the cacophony.

Martsch’s nimble digits blur the frets with spectral virtuosity on upbeat “Conventional Wisdom,” setting forth a barrage of peppy, coruscating riffs. Chirping with frenetic zest, the singer taunts: “Some things you can’t explain / Nothing’s goanna change that / Like why we’re all embracing conventional wisdom in a world that so un-con-ven-tion-al,” drawing out that final word before blasting a fundamentally anthemic hook. Empowered with newfound insight and backed by crisp, celestial hooks, Martsch chides: “They don’t know they’re wrong / But you know that they never can see that / That’s what makes them strong.”

Even the LP’s back end is studded with gems. From incendiary, percussion-drenched “The Wait,” to the heavily distorted solo that wraps up “Mess with Time,” each cut on the entire album is completely relevant.

The album concludes by highlighting Martsch’s rare ability to fuse haunting, deconstructed acoustic strumming with soaring electric licks in a single, unified track. Transitioning from vocals doused with heavy echo to supernal guitars, spacey electronic effects, and a majestic organ, Martsch’s shivery vocal delivery leaves us with a sense of infinite longing and an insatiable need for change: “You wait for summer, then you wait for rain… You wait for darkness then you wait for day… You wait for someone that’ll make the waiting worth the wait.”

You in Reverse stands apart from Built to Spill’s other offerings in its flawless balance of densely rendered lyrical fragments and melodically intertwined guitars that leave just enough space for Martsch’s falsetto to slip through the cascade.

– Henry Hauser

Built to Spill – You in Reverse by Rob Hakimian on Grooveshark

Listen to You in Reverse on Spotify.

Which of these Built to Spill albums do you most prefer? Drop us your vote in the comments below.

Versus: Arcade Fire

By Josh Becker, Daniel Griffiths & Jason Hirschhorn; January 12, 2012 at 1:30 PM 

Versus: Arcade Fire

Versus is a series in which we pit selected albums against one another and offer case statements for which is superior. In our third installment, we offer up our first triple threat match pitting Arcade Fire’s Funeral, Neon Bible and 2010’s The Suburbs against one another and post the question: which do you think is the better album?

Funeral (2004)

At this point, it’s difficult to think of the Best-Album-Grammy-winning, Madison-Square-Garden-selling-out juggernaut known as Arcade Fire as anything less than one of the biggest bands in the world. And I’m not just talking about publicity; their music is always epic in scope, expansive rock vistas that inevitably build up to a moment of beautiful catharsis.

Back in 2004, however, Arcade Fire was hardly so well-known. Funeral was technically their second release, but it felt like a coming-out party of the grandest order. Twinkling keys, orchestral gestures, wide-eyed lyrical visions of love and loss, and Win Butler’s timeless warble maneuvered ’round each other as though it were soundtracking a cotillion. Funeral was a record for everybody; the starry-eyed romantics, the cynical snobs, and naively curious kids like me could all find plenty to love here.

And it’s important to recall that everyone loved Funeral. It was unifying in its heartbreaking majesty, like the Sistine Chapel recorded to tape and given a Springsteen-esque guitar gloss. It was — and remains — Arcade Fire’s most personal statement. Debut albums are special because they really don’t need to reckon with the burden of expectations. Few who heard the band’s 2003 self-titled EP could have imagined the aching, heartfelt enormousness that Arcade Fire would unleash on the world the following year. The only 21st-century analogue I can think of is Franz Ferdinand’s first album, also released in 2004. In both cases, it’s not that the respective bands in question were doing anything unprecedented—they were just doing what they did extremely well, carrying a confidence that belied their inexperience.

And like Franz Ferdinand, Arcade Fire have since released a few really good rock records, but how could they over hope to match (or — gasp — exceed) the storied debut? It’s almost unfair; Neon Bible could’ve been a veritable Revolver (it wasn’t) but it still would’ve been seen as some kind of letdown. That’s because Funeral set the bar almost impossibly high; it was that rarest of all things, a perfect indie rock statement. It’s like a Möbius strip, seemingly impossible but endlessly fascinating all the same, folding in and out of itself with a swan’s grace and a sunset’s finality.

How can you even talk about this album without resorting to critical cliches? Words seem inadequately small in the face of tracks like “Wake Up” and “Rebellion.” For an album born of personal loss (with several band members having lost loved ones during its inception), Funeral is ultimately a feel-good document, equally moving as a private listening experience or as part of a party playlist. And that, perhaps, is the true source of its lasting power. In the midst of all this sadness, as you watch your carefree youth recede like a ship floating past some infinite horizon, as you remember those who died and forget those who remain alive but haven’t ever lived, as you make and break promises to yourself and your loved ones, there is room for joy and optimism. In fact, optimism is the only emotional armor that will protect you from the harsh realities of growing up.

I am reminded of the funeral scene from the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon. Above an open casket, a video of Kaufman singing a blithe tune begins to play. “Why should any heart be lonely?” he asks, to no one in particular except, perhaps, himself. It’s an excellent question, one that Funeral answers admirably. Love thrives in our saddest and most vulnerable moments, even when we’ve lost all hope. The sun will keep shining, in other words, every time you close your eyes.

– Joshua Becker

Funeral by Andrew Bailey on Grooveshark

Neon Bible (2007)

Hello, my name is Daniel Griffiths and today I’m going to present an argument on Neon Bible being Arcade Fire’s best record.

Yep, that’s right, I’m the crazy one. I didn’t even pick a short straw for this titanic battle – I chose this because I genuinely, honestly love Neon Bible far more than anything else Arcade Fire have ever recorded. At the conclusion of the 47th minute and third second the band have taken you on a thrilling ride of highs, lows, truly euphoric and inspirational sounds, delicate songs, danceable songs and thump-your-chest-in-public songs.

Neon Bible is where the music finally caught up with the lyrics. Yes, on Funeral it was great, but the spacey and foreboding atmosphere presented by the instruments directly connect to the mysterious and dark lyrics on Neon Bible. When the band want to sound jovial it’s the music that sets the scene, ditto when they want to sound epic, intriguing and inspiring. Take “Intervention” as an example: while the lyrics alone are heartfelt and emotive, the organ that backs those lyrics is simply spine-tingling, continually moving up on the intensity scale until, at the end of the song, you can’t help but feel emotionally shattered, and bruised by how powerful the song becomes. There are countless other moments on Neon Bible where the music kicks the song into another gear or down another alleyway: the musical 180-turn on ‘”Black Wave/Bad Vibrations”, the late entry of the organ on “My Body Is A Cage”, the flute (I think) on “No Cars Go” that creates that uplifting, floating feeling. Neon Bible is rife with them.

There’s also a certain grandiosity to the album that sets it apart from its two brothers. While those two are undeniably epic, it’s only in one way or another. On Neon Bible it’s turned up to eleven on everything when that quality is called for. And it’s that ability to go all-in on the big songs that allows the quieter and humbler songs to really shine through. Placing “Neon Bible” in between “Keep The Car Running” and “Intervention” isn’t just a form of respite from a sonic assault, it’s a chance to reflect and absorb the lyrics, which happen to be pretty important to the album as a whole. The same applies to “Windowsill” – sandwiched between “(Antichrist Tevelsion Blues)” and “No Cars Go” it may sound humdrum, but the lyrics are big, and they’re emphasised so much more because of Neon Bible’s shifting dynamics.

Whenever I listen to Neon Bible, I’m always comforted by the fact that it’s different. Arcade Fire were willing to try something new, which could have failed spectacularly, and I think there’s a kind-of nervous energy to the album because of that; music made by a band going out on a limb. When you look back at a band’s catalogue, there’s always an album that defies convention, moves away from the norm and stands out. Neon Bible is, and probably always will be, that album. And, you know, there’s something special about that album being your favourite, and the one you think is the best. It’s like having your own musical secret even though the band is mega-huge, because no one else goes with you on that.

I don’t want to repeat anything I’ve already said for a conclusion (you can’t just summarise Arcade Fire), so all I’ll say is; kick back, put Neon Bible on and just enjoy. And while you’re listening to it, remember that this was the album that Arcade Fire were different and moved away from their usual formula. Ain’t nothing better than that.

– Daniel Griffiths

Neon Bible by Andrew Bailey on Grooveshark

The Suburbs (2010)

While Arcade Fire still calls Merge Records their home, The Suburbs might as well be their Green: the band’s attempt to go big without compromising the aesthetics or approach that guided them this far. This was a milestone development, and it’s not as though the Arcade Fire were previously renowned for their subtlety. Both Funeral and Neon Bible were whoppers in their own right. However, with The Suburbs, Arcade Fire consciously and carefully transitioned from one of the most cherished groups in indie to a mainstream concern. The songs here are more than sonic mammoths; they’re colossuses as large as the slice of life the album chronicles.

But The Suburbs isn’t merely a “big-sounding” album. Excavating through the walls of sound reveals a depth of introspection not found anywhere else in Arcade Fire’s catalog. The band isn’t writing about the suburban sprawl many of its listeners know and revile. The album isn’t even really about the physical buildings or residents. What The Suburbs details is the internal conflict between warm childhood memories and the post-innocence realization that what you grew up believing may now be worthless. It’s this juxtaposition that The Suburbs does so well. Where “We Used To Wait” remembers connecting with a childhood friend by letter, “Modern Man” describes the “people as numbers” unconsciousness of modern times.

Yet all this would be meaningless if the songs on The Suburbs weren’t great themselves, and the album is full of Arcade Fire’s most robust melodies and riffs. Not only does “Ready To Start” replace “Wake Up” as the group’s rockiest jam and “Suburban War” exhibit the band’s ever-increasing penchant for the slow burn, but the title track is eminently catchy and the perfect introduction to the album’s thematic crux. That’s not to mention of songs like “Month Of May” or “City With No Children,” both of which would be standout tracks for lesser artists yet are par for the course here. However, all take a backseat to “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).” The central synth hook sinks in instantly, taking up residence in the listener’s head for days. Régine Chassagne’s vocal on the track is her strongest on record, fully capturing the desperation and struggle to find some modicum of art and beauty in the suburban sprawl.

Further distinguishing The Suburbs from the rest of Arcade Fire’s catalog is the album’s consistency. It’s very difficult to locate any obvious low point or filler. “Rococo” and “Half Light I” are probably the only contenders, and even they have strong choruses and don’t stay too long. The same cannot be said for either Funeral or Neon Bible. While “Une Annee Sans Lumiere” and “Windowsill” aren’t quite clunkers, they do break the flow on their respective albums. This compounds upon the preponderance of evidence that not only is The Suburbs their biggest and most personal album to date, but also their best.

– Jason Hirschhorn

The Suburbs by Andrew Bailey on Grooveshark

Which of these three Arcade Fire albums do you most prefer? Drop us your vote in the comments below.

Versus: Kanye West

By Sean Highkin & Ryan Studer; October 3, 2011 at 4:30 PM 

Versus: Kanye West

Versus is a series in which we pit selected albums against one another and offer case statements for which is superior. In our second installment, we examine Kanye West’s debut The College Dropout and last year’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and we ask: which do you think is the better album?

The College Dropout (2004)

Innovating a genre defined by its well-established traditions is easier said than done. In hip-hop, MCs boast about “being the best,” but only handful of them live up to the expectations of quality records; not singles. In this respect, Kanye West is extraordinary. Here’s an artist who crosses the boundaries of the genre without succumbing to the prospects of mainstream methodologies or traditional beatmaking.

When Kanye West released The College Dropout in 2004, its immediacy was similar to Outkast’s Stankonia: there was nothing like it. Presenting himself as both rapper and producer, Kanye constructed a collection of songs that radiated themes of far-reaching aspirations vs. college education. It was epic in length, nearly 80 minutes long, filled with social commentary and political thought that sought to bring out the worst in a so-called “land of opportunity.” And its usage of skits was uncommonly intelligent, mocking the significance of college degrees and PhD’s through witty dialogue and sarcastic speeches.

Critics and fans alike also admired Kanye West The Social Protester: a rapper whose debut record wasn’t so much a collection of beats, but a fascinating study on the American dream.

“Man I promise, she’s so self conscious
She has no idea what she’s doing in college
That major that she majored in don’t make no money
But she won’t drop out, her parents will look at her funny”

The album’s fourth and best track, “All Falls Down,” might as well be considered the album’s centerpiece. Though the guitar-sampled beat ranks among Kanye’s best, it’s the “self conscious” lyrics that ends up capturing the spirit of the album as a whole. Like others, it dares to ask the question, “why go to college at all?” when the tools are right there and ready for you? Though Kanye illustrates himself as the typical boaster allover Dropout, (“Get ‘Em High,” “Breathe In Breathe Out”), he also portrays himself as something utterly unique: a nonconformist.

Unlike My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, The College Dropout puts political thought and social commentary over and above anything else – even more so than the rags-to-riches lifestyles that other rappers conventionally refer to. Instead of relying on the idea of being “hardcore,” Kanye created his own idiosyncratic identity by embracing the troubled society where rappers come from. In this respect, The College Dropout evoked innovative ideas than cliche motifs. Whereas a rapper like 50 Cent initiated his solo career with a single about the club, Kanye released “Through the Wire,” a soulful track that meditated on the harsh realities of a near-death experience. This wasn’t your average MC from the get-go.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy retains the careful attention of its predecessors, but The College Dropout stands out as Kanye’s bravest creation. Sure, Twisted Fantasy amounts to the rapper’s most emotionally-complex work to date – solidifying Kanye’s transformation as a tarnished soul – but Dropout forever raised the bar of what hip-hop albums can do. Like the classics before it, the album provided just as much intellect as it did sheer entertainment.

– Ryan Studer

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)

If you’re an old-school hip-hop purist, I’ll probably never be able to sell you on Kanye West’s post-College Dropout work. There’s nothing to knock about that album – it holds up remarkably well seven years after its release, it showed that the man responsible for some classics from Jay-Z and others had actually been saving his best beats for himself the whole time, and it’s the most complete and enduring statement of purpose of any rap debut this century. But to hold it up as his best work in 2011 is to write off the idea that we’re witnessing one of the all-time great stretches for an artist – not just in hip-hop, but in any genre.

And that’s the key here. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the album on which Kanye became bigger than hip-hop. It shifted his peer group radically, to a place nobody from the rap world had ever ascended to. College Dropout and Late Registration are albums that people compare to other rap albums. His competition on Fantasy is Radiohead, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, and U2. This is prog-rap, and seeing an album this ambitious in scope and execution achieve the commercial success that it did does a hell of a lot more to make me confident in the future of pop music than an album of straightforward hip-hop tracks that, while artistically unimpeachable, isn’t unprecedented.

This is why Watch the Throne, while containing moments of greatness, felt like a step back for Kanye. Throughout the album, it was apparent that Jay-Z needed this collaboration more than he did, even though Hov is generally considered an all-time top-five MC. Kanye’s walked that ground before. His production style defined a decade of commercial rap, and he’s shown himself to be more than competent on the microphone himself. He has absolutely nothing to prove as a hip-hop artist. On My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he recognizes this, aims about as high above his genre identity as humanly possible, and damn near gets everything right. The result is an album that music fans and musicians who for whatever reason still don’t take rap seriously as a genre might respect.

– Sean Highkin

Which of these two Kanye West albums do you most prefer? Drop us your vote in the comments below.

Versus: The Decemberists

By Andrew Bailey & Henry Hauser; September 14, 2011 at 2:00 PM 

Versus: The Decemberists

Versus is a new series in which we pit selected albums against one another and offer case statements for which is superior. In this, our first installment, we examine two albums from the same artist’s catalog — The Decemberists’ Picaresque versus The Hazards of Love — and we ask: which do you think is the better album?

Picaresque (2005)

Unleashed with the aboriginal shriek of a shofer, Picaresque will forever be the gold standard against which all The Decemberists’ offerings are measured. In crafting an escapist reality with anachronistic imagery and the bombastic bravado of singer-songwriter Colin Meloy, Picaresque was a major force in reviving the Pacific Northwest music scene from the chilled embers of grunge rock.

Set to tragic violin lines simultaneously evoking impending doom and the blinding ecstasy of love, “We Both Go Down Together” presents a couple struggling in vain to steer fate’s turbulent current. Unable to reconcile his girl’s tainted past as a “tattooed tramp” with the stifling expectations of an elitist patriarch, the lovers are driven to the twisted salvation of simultaneous suicide: “And while the seagulls are crying / We fall but our souls are flying.”

“Sixteen Military Wives,” an anthemic rebuke of both neoconservative foreign policy and the media’s fundamentally acquiescent response, weds triumphant horns with the frantic rhythmic punch of a crisp snare drum. Backed by a majestically swirling organ, Meloy belts: “And America does / If America says it’s so / It’s so! / And the anchorperson on TV / Goes la-di-da-di-da-didi-didi-da!”

Up-tempo “The Sporting Life” is an endearingly self-conscious ditty about athletic competition seen through the eyes of an uncoordinated outsider. Atop a melancholy accordion and twinkling piano, “The Engine Driver” reminds us of those rigid hierarchies that determine the course of our lives. Decrying free will and social mobility as cruel lies, the singer laments: “I’m a county lineman… So will be my grandson / There are power lines / In our bloodlines.”

Rounding out the album is sinister, brooding gypsy rock number “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” which maintains a high level of energy and intrigue through the track’s eight-minute saga of naturalistic calamity, exploited kindness, and masochistic retribution.

Picaresque put Portland back on the map; kick started the Third Rock Revival, and endowed The Decemberists with a legacy few indie groups have achieved since. Notwithstanding the novelty of their progressive rock opera The Hazards of Love, Picaresque is Meloy’s seminal album and perhaps the most elegantly structured, lyrically dramatic, and vocally expressive folk-rock LP of its decade.

– Henry Hauser

The Hazards of Love (2009)

With all due respect to the fantastic balance of The Decemberists’ work, The Hazards of Love isn’t just their best record, but one of the finest of the last decade. That it has become this sort of lightning rod amidst their canon is staggering, borderline incomprehensible to me. Sure, it was a different sound and concept than they’d ever levied before, but they hit every mark flawlessly.

Conceptually, you’d be hard pressed to find a more thoroughly composed album not just in their own catalog, but anywhere, period. The story might be a little bit fantasized, but that’s always been Colin Meloy’s writing style. Besides, the story is only as narrow as the listener’s imagination and ability to relate fables to life. There’s a reason sensationalized children’s books manage to stand the test of time; their messages, subtle as they may be to children, are equally powerful to adults. Hazards might be about shape-shifting forests and fairies on the surface, but there’s hidden meaning in literally every word and every note of the album. And that’s where it becomes such an easy record to fall in love with.

One of the most common complaints about The Hazards of Love – beyond the camouflaged ire of fans bitter that a treasured indie band had made what amounts to a stadium rock opera – is that, as great as it plays as an album, it struggles in terms of individual songs. But I couldn’t disagree more. Every song on this record, even down to the instrumental interlude, is as magnificent as a single dangling thread as they are amongst the whole effort quilted tightly together. “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid” becomes more and more jarring each time you hear it and “The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)” – my god, that song – is literally one of the greatest love songs in the history of music. I genuinely can’t fathom being able to listen to that song without feeling as though someone just lit a match and is holding the flame up tight against my heart.

Picaresque is an amazing record. From the songwriting to the arrangements, there’s absolutely nothing in those 11 songs that warrants complaining. But The Hazards of Love is in a class all its own. Meloy’s songwriting is every bit as powerful, sophisticated, and ingenious as ever, the guest vocals and characters lended by Becky Stark and Shara Worden are perfect accompaniments, and the full band really stretches themselves and their compositions; the way the whole album bleeds together is something to marvel at. Rarely is an album perfect, but Hazards is one monumental accomplishment that is.

– Andrew Bailey

Which of these two Decemberists albums do you most prefer? Drop us your vote in the comments below.

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