It’s been a truism for years now that playlists have supplanted albums in a serious way. Music comes to us in dribs and drabs, of varying genre, popularity, and sound quality. Our iPods are less like a well-organized bookshelf of CDs and more like a garage filled with worn boxes of 45’s and cassingles.
The average music enthusiast is far less likely to spend time downloading songs one at a time and pulling them together—album art and all—into a coherent whole. He’d probably rather drop $10 at a legal outlet to get the finished product in one click. But why do even that when streaming services try to supersize your personal radio station in anticipation of the coming Spotify storm?
Taking the time to appreciate an album from beginning to end is a privilege and a rare pleasure. Sometimes there are more good tracks than bad, which is kind of like winning the lottery (a little). The order of songs is torturously crafted—the first song is supposed to grab your attention, the middle songs must negotiate a rocky emotional terrain without causing injury or boredom, and the last song is supposed to leave you reeling. So it is in this spirit that I give you my summer 2011 music roundup, album by album.
- Ladyhawke – Ladyhawke (2008): A+ An arcade game bonus round for fans of Benatar, Jett, Hall & Oates, Human League, and Berlin, Ladyhawke brings a fresh voice to the familiar terrain of Reagan-era radio hits without giving an inch on her rock and roll origins. She never quite throws caution to the wind vocally, but the restraint is oddly appropriate. At its center Ladyhawke is a confessional on her terms alone, as well as a love letter to the 99 red balloons of 1983, and we’re damn lucky to tag along for the ride. Ladyhawke – My Delierium
- Van She – V (2008): B+ This came right on the heels of Ladyhawke for me. It was one of those “customers also bought” moments, and thank Christ for that. The eponymous single blew my mind, but the full length V is where it’s at. Smart and winky, although a bit overproduced and nostalgic, these guys bring real music. (They also bring an amazing cover of (Don’t Fear) The Reaper.) Echoes of the Editors and Mute Math are scattered here and there. What’s not clear is whether or not this is an electronic rock-like exercise in the spirit of MGMT and Daft Punk, or a true rock album shrouded in the debris field of a dead dance music revolution. What is clear is that they meant to build a bridge between the old and new without compromising real artistic integrity, and they came close. They don’t hit the mark exactly, but it was a long shot—and nobody can blame them for trying. Van She – It Could Be The Same
- Cyndi Lauper – She’s So Unusual (1983): B+ Having somehow never obtained a digital copy of this album, I downloaded and gleefully listened to She’s So Unusual from start to finish for the first time in at least fifteen years. An old friend once recalled that he could tell his mother was sad whenever she listened to this album. It makes perfect sense, actually. Even the charged rock and roll sensibilities of Money Changes Everything aren’t immune to the gnawing sorrow that seeps through the veins of Time After Time, All Through The Night, and the adorably bi-curious When You Were Mine (which is, by the way, one of the best Prince covers ever). This album would have earned an A+ were it not for the abysmally disappointing second side, which includes the so-so Witness and straight up wincers I’ll Kiss You, He’s So Unusual, and Yeah Yeah. This was probably a warning sign that her role as ’80s pop goddess was going to be short-lived indeed. Cyndi Lauper – When You Were Mine
- The Dead Weather – Sea Of Cowards (2010): B Not wanting to do anything but go to a southern church service in the middle of July after not showering for a few days is what Sea Of Cowards is all about. Hot, dusty, angry, and horny. More than a few nods to James Brown dot the landscape, or at least James Brown on a bad night. There are boozy spasms in all the right directions, from blues to straight up country, and they bring along a vintage synth and a smokey Hammond organ for good measure. Jack White meets Kill Bill. My kind of summer CD. Dead Weather – Die By The Drop
- Doves – Kingdom Of Rust (2009): A Another redo from my past. Some Cities and The Last Broadcast were responsible for more than their fair share of my mid-decade emotional sugar highs and lows. Coming back for seconds was a good idea. Kingdom Of Rust is an earful, but there’s real substance here. There are notes bright and dark, plenty of reverb, and lots of frothy emotional appeal. A bitter cynicism helpfully lurks at the heart of everything they touch, and this keeps their albums from floating away into some glowy abyss. To whoever broke Jez Williams’ heart, we thank you. Doves – Spellbound
- Constantines – Kensington Heights (2008): A+ A lovely bit of sentimental self-absorption on a Texas dirt road in the middle of fucking nowhere. I fell in love with St. You a few years back, and I’m really feeling the rock and roll this summer, so this was a no-brainer. Kensington Heights is, like most of their work, spartan and brooding whenever possible, and bad enough to make you feel like you’re sticking your finger in the eye of whoever is responsible for Lady Gaga. A pair of dusty jeans and a wince in the sun. Flawless. Constantines – Hard Feelings
- Iceage – New Brigade (2010): A+ What The Police wish they could have sounded like when they listened to The Clash. A middle finger straight out of 1978, from a band of punks who weren’t even alive when Nevermind came out. You have to get past the wall of distortion and broken trash cans, but it’s worth it. Inside is some really very clever musical craftsmanship, and hey, it’s brand new! Gnarly as a wounded alley dog and sexy as broken glass under a young thug’s boot. Never have I wanted to fuck a trio of 17 year-old boys as I do right now. Ice Age – White Rune
- Patti Smith Group – Easter (1978): C Wanting to give myself a crash course in modern rock history seemed like a good idea at the time. Downloading Smith’s Easter along with The Cars’ eponymous debut and Lou Reed’s Transformer was a good start, but I quickly realized I was heading down a very long road that only leads to a dead end. (After a while you run out of things to discover, and anyway you start to look like you’re succumbing to a midlife crisis.) Having a sense of rock history is crucial, but Easter proved just how far I had to go to meet it halfway. It’s clearly a brilliant album, and I could find plenty to enjoy (Rock ‘n Roll Nigger being an obvious highlight), but I’m just not up to the challenge of fully exploring every room that Smith fitfully points out along the way. It’s a sweaty and psychedelic endeavor worthy of a much more patient audience. (A fun aside: The song Easter sounds kinda like The Cure’s The Top, both of which share respective song and album titles, and were really only released a few years apart from each other.) Patti Smith Group – Because The Night
- Hall and Oates – The Very Best Of (2001): A Mustache + rock sax solo = jizz in my pants. When they were on, they were fucking on. They nailed every one of their hits, and earned every bit of respect they’ve amassed over the years. Clever songwriting, brilliant production, and plenty of earnestness mark the highlights. Pretty much every song that’s not a hit can be easily dismissed, or even outright hated, but the winners truly offered some of the best reasons to louvre 80’s pop music. Hall & Oates – Your Imagination
- Spoon – Transference (2010): B+ Verve and swagger puncture dream sequences and sunny afternoon naps in a smart post-rock offering that has the privilege of being one of only two alternative CDs I’ll allow into my phone with male falsetto vocals. (The other is Van She’s V.) It takes more than a few listens to get under the surface, to the closely guarded, dirt-dovered gems. It’s thirsty work, but rewarding, and you have to want it. A literate and weirdly gorgeous album. Spoon – Before Destruction
- Beach House – Teen Dream (2010): C+ Hearing the single Norway, which easily earns an A+ on its own, is enough to bring me to my quivering knees. An obvious ode to My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and Cocteau Twins’ Victorialand, Beach House wobbles the pitch just enough to cause orgasms and mild acid flashbacks among the 35+ set, and a curt history lesson for pretty much everybody else. I want to enjoy the rest of the album more than I do, and Norway really makes me want to try. Maybe I’ll get there after a few more listens. A band that makes, with one song, so perfect a tribute to these two timeless stars of the holy college-rock constellation is worthy of the effort. [Edit: I’ve decided after another listen to give this one a B+. It’s still growing on me, but what Teen Dream lacks in accessibility is more than made up for in originality.] Beach House – Norway