This is Fifty Second Week, and what a year it’s been.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, here’s what Fifty Second Week is all about. I started this annual feature in 2005, as a way to clear my backlog at the end of a year. There’s just so much music that comes out in a given year – in 2009, for example, I bought close to 275 new albums, not counting reissues – that I simply can’t devote a full review to everything I hear, or even everything I like. That’s one of the reasons I started the blog this year. But even that hasn’t helped much.
So at the end of each year now, I make a list of the records I bought and didn’t review, and I run through them here, in the 52nd weekly column. But here’s the catch: I give myself 50 seconds to review each one. I have a timer set up to buzz me out when 50 seconds elapses, and even if I’m in the middle of a word, I stop writing. 50 seconds. That’s it. Theoretically, this column should take about an hour each year to complete. (Logistically, it takes a bit longer, but not much.)
Hopefully, the result is fun to read as well. I’ve received some nice feedback on Fifty Second Week through the years, enough to convince me that people enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it. As usual, we have 52 albums this year to burn through, none of which were granted a full review on the main site. (I did do first listen reviews of a few of them on the blog.) After this, my top shelf will be bare, and ready for 2010 to fill it up again.
Ready? In alphabetical order, then. This is Fifty Second Week.
The Airborne Toxic Event
I saw this band live at Lollapalooza this year, and they knocked me out. Their album is pretty weak, though, and the lyrics especially betray its origins as Mikel Jollett’s failed novel. This is standard Nickelback-style rock that thinks its clever.
Arctic Monkeys, At The Apollo
Live album and DVD from this frenetic British band shows off just how good they are. Not much more to say about this – if you like the Arctic Monkeys, this is those songs played louder and faster, and if you don’t, well, this won’t change your mind. The DVD is nice, though.
Arctic Monkeys, Humbug
This might, though. The Monkeys’ third album was produced by Queen of the Stone Age Josh Homme, and is slower and slinkier than their other stuff. None of the songs jump out and announce themselves, but some of them are among the best ones Alex Turner has written. They’re still a band to watch.
Hell. Yes. This is Hank Williams III’s thrash metal band, and it just stomps. There’s no hint of the country-rock Hank is known for – he plays just about all the instruments on this album, and the style is hard, relentless, killer metal. Good shit, for what it is.
Dan Auerbach, Keep It Hid
Solo album from the guitar-vocal half of the Black Keys. This sticks largely to the blues-rock that band is known for, but some tracks are wildly diverse, showcasing the direction Auerbach may be leading the band in. This is nice, though.
The Bad Plus, For All I Care
On this album, the venerable jazz trio picks up a vocalist, Wendy Lewis, which turns out to be a tragic mistake. The BP’s instrumental covers of pop songs like “Tom Sawyer” are awesome, but here, Lewis sings “Comfortably Numb” and others, turning them into loungy jokes.
Bleu, A Watched Pot
Extremely disappointing third album from this Boston wunderkind. Bleu normally writes hooky, quirky pop songs, but here, he streamlines himself, sticking to slow, radio-ready ballads, all glossed up with strings. There’s just nothing here that shows what a good writer he is, though the voice is in fine form.
Yeah, I’m just going to take a little nap here while you guys bang out your basic, boring three-chord rock. You don’t mind, right? Just wake me up when you’re done. Thanks.
Built to Spill, There Is No Enemy
You know, this is a decent enough little Built to Spill record, and probably deserved a full review. Although, I can’t think of anything remarkable to say about it. Doug Martsch once again writes some full-blooded indie rock songs, and performs them with tremendous skill on guitar. It’s good.
Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career
Scottish twee-pop in that Belle and Sebastian vein, this time practically drowned in strings and horns. None of these songs stick in my head, although Tracyanne Campbell’s voice is quite nice. This is essentially pretty wallpaper, and I haven’t thought about it much since buying it.
Julian Casablancas, Phrazes for the Young
The singer for the Strokes goes solo, and picks up a bunch of synthesizers on the way to the studio. This sounds pretty much exactly as you’d expect, and no better. Some of these songs made me want to grind glass into my ears, but some had me head-bobbing along.
Cheap Trick, The Latest
Surprise! This is the long-running Illinois power-pop band’s best record in probably 20 years. That doesn’t mean it’s top-notch Cheap Trick, but it is pretty damn good, especially rave-up rockers like “Sick Man of Europe.” I hope they can keep this up.
Cheap Trick, Sgt. Pepper Live
For those who bought the Beatles box set and just can’t get enough of these songs, here are very, very faithful run-throughs of every song on the Fab Four’s best album. Plus you get a medley of other Beatles songs at the end. It’s nice, but not essential, and more like a cherry on Cheap Trick’s sweet year.
Also known as Rabbit, because of the white chocolate rabbit on the cover. Why? Who knows. I could swear I listened to this, more than once. But I can’t remember a single song right now, which kind of illustrates my point: Collective Soul makes faceless, forgettable rock. And yet I keep buying.
Shawn Colvin, Live
It takes Shawn Colvin forever to make a new album. It’s been three years, so to fill the gap, we get this lovely acoustic live album. Just the woman and her guitar, singing her sweet and sad songs. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, although some might consider it background music. I quite like it, but I wish she’d hurry up with that new studio LP.
The Drawing Room
This wonderful side project from one of the members of Thousand Foot Krutch flew under the radar, but it shouldn’t have. Mostly acoustic guitars and electronics, the songs on this record sparkle, and there’s even a very good, respectful cover of Sting’s “The Hounds of Winter.” Worth tracking down.
Jeremy Enigk, OK Bear
Enigk’s return to heavy, widescreen rock also went largely unnoticed this year, even by me, but this is his finest solo album. The amps are turned up, but so are the melodies, and Enigk’s unique, remarkable voice is always amazing.
Liam Finn and Eliza-Jane, Champagne in Seashells
Fine second effort (a five-song EP) from the son of Neil Finn, but it suffers from the same malady as his debut album, I’ll Be Lightning: the songs drag, stick to simple melodies, and never really take off. I hope he pulls out his dad’s records and gives them a thorough listen before his next effort.
This is my “I don’t get it” album for 2009. Girls drew acclaim from virtually all corners this year, and all for an album I find amateur and boring in the extreme. I was expecting some good melodic pop from the reviews, but what I got is a guy who is just learning how to write songs. Give him three albums, maybe, but this is blah.
Girlyman, Everything’s Easy
The two girls and one man in Girlyman are slowly expanding their sonic palette – this is their most fully-produced effort. But the focus is still on the three intertwining voices, and the simple folk songs they write together. Worth it for the studio version of the great “Somewhere Different Now.”
Great White, Rising
Yes, this ‘80s blues-metal band is still going. No, they haven’t changed much at all. This is more power-blues, sung by Jack Russell, one of Robert Plant’s biggest acolytes. It’s nice, if you like Great White. I have a soft spot for them, and probably always will.
Guilt Machine, On This Perfect Day
Swedish musician Arjen Lucassen is the man behind Ayreon, the ridiculous space-opera project that seemingly came to an end last year. His new project is very different – slow, creeping metal soundscapes that build and build. If you like this style, this is really good.
Heaven and Hell, The Devil You Know
Oh wow. This is much better than I expected from the reunion of the Dio-era Black Sabbath. This is all slow, creepy, scary metal. It never quickens its pace, but the crawling menace just oozes out of every pore. This is terrific.
The Hold Steady, A Positive Rage
This live document emphasizes the rawk side of this band, as opposed to the epic Springsteen side, which is to its detriment, I think. The Hold Steady are very good when they are trying to be the new E Street Band. When they are trying to make amped-up noise, they are less successful. There’s a pretty fun DVD with it, though.
Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers, Levitate
Remember when people thought Hornsby would be making soft-rock hits for the rest of his life? He turned out to be a much more interesting musician than anyone could have guessed, and Levitate is another mix of jazz, pop and weird-ass show tunes that proves it.
Chris Isaak, Mr. Lucky
May Chris Isaak never change. This is another slab of ‘50s pop and surf-rock from a guy who should be more of a household name than he is. Of course, the down side of never changing is that this sounds exactly like his last album, and the one before that, and the one before that. Whether that’s a bad thing is up to you.
Jars of Clay, The Long Fall Back to Earth
I should have reviewed this one. This is Jars’ best and most consistent album… well, ever, I think. It’s more keyboard-driven, has some new wave influences, but is buoyed by some of the band’s best songs ever. And unlike every other album they’ve made, it doesn’t fall apart by the end. The last songs are the best.
Living Colour, The Chair in the Doorway
Damn! The always-inconsistent Living Colour finally pull it off. This is a really good rock-and-soul album, careening from one style to another, but held together tightly by the wailing guitar of Vernon Reid and the extraordinary voice of Corey Glover.
Manchester Orchestra, Mean Everything to Nothing
Andy Hull clearly Means Every Word of this record. It is big and earnest and widescreen and all those adjectives, but it’s also unfortunately a little boring. The guitars and vocals pump with big wide hearts, but the songs are lacking, and the sentiments a little too upfront.
mewithoutYou, It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s all a dream! It’s alright
Man, I wanted to like this. Emo band mewithoutYou branch out into world-pop, but they do so while becoming repetitive, and the vocals just become screechy and irritating as the songs wind on and on behind them. Next time, guys. I’ll still be here listening.
Modest Mouse, No One’s First and You’re Next
An EP collecting b-sides and other things from the last few years. This is pretty good, although nothing has the zip and panache of the last couple of studio albums. I love the title of “History Sticks to Your Feet,” but the song is just average. This is a stopgap, though, so what do you want?
Nirvana, Live at Reading
You know what? Nirvana sucked. They sucked in the studio, and they really sucked live, which this messy, scrappy, loud document proves. It’s chock full of wrong notes and missed beats and sloppy playing and the Voice of a Generation sounding like the naked emperor.
Om, God is Good
This bass-and-drums duo writes long, long dirges, and plays them as if they have buzzing guitars in the mix. It’s an interesting stoner-metal minimalism sound, and they add several other instruments here to fill it out. It’s kind of awesome, in its way.
Our Lady Peace, Burn Burn
I really used to like this band. But on their seventh album, they surgically remove everything I liked, leaving nothing but bland, faceless, radio-ready rock. Only “Monkey Brains” rises above the static. This is pants.
Pain of Salvation, The Second Death of Pain of Salvation
I’m not sure what the title means either, but the album is two discs of live PoS goodness. This Swedish band plays in a dozen different styles, from prog-rock to disco, and they are excellent live. I can even forgive another version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” especially one this good.
Grant-Lee Phillips, Little Moon
This is a sweet little album from a man with a voice that should be everywhere. For the second time in a row, he’s turned in a full-sounding pop record, with good solid songs and some nice lyrics. If only that were enough anymore.
Q-Tip, Kamaal the Abstract
Wow, this is finally out. I first heard about the shelved Kamaal probably 10 years ago, and it was rumored to be a jazz-rap-fusion weird-o-rama. And guess what, it is. It steps into Miles Davis territory here and there, but always springs back to the jazz-fueled rap Tip is known for. Weird as its reputation…
Kyp Malone from TV on the Radio branches out on his own. The result isn’t at all what you’d expect – it’s organic and acoustic, and very, very long. But it’s heartfelt, something I can’t say about much of TV on the Radio’s stuff. The first Malone album I’ve liked?
Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions, Through the Devil Softly
Remember Mazzy Star? They were wonderful. Singer Hope Sandoval has carried that sound on to her solo work with the Warm Inventions, and quite why it takes her so long to make these albums, I don’t know. The sound hasn’t significantly changed, and her voice still sends chills down the spine, in a good way.
Bryan Scary and the Shredding Tears, Mad Valentines
An EP from Mr. Scary, one that showcases his band’s phenomenal talent. Just listen to “Andromeda’s Eyes.” Yes, it really is that fast. This is Queen-inspired, Supertramp-on-Jolt-Cola, piano-pounding pop goodness.
One of the world’s best metal bands had some stiff competition this year, but came back strong with this tight, awesome record. It’s a concept album based on A Clockwork Orange, and that alone should make it suck, but it doesn’t, at all. The band is tight and fast and loud and terrific as always.
Superdrag, Industry Giants
The surprise reunion of the year sees newly-Christian John Davis putting the band back together after two faith-filled solo discs. Too bad he forgot to write any great songs. There are hardly any good ones, either, and Davis just sounds tired and worn out here. Too bad.
Tegan and Sara, Sainthood
If there’s anything on this list I wish had been given a full review, it’s this. Sainthood is one-end-to-the-other ass-kicking rock, and the melodies sparkle and shine. I love this album, particularly “Hell,” one of the year’s best little rock tunes. This deserved better from me.
They Might Be Giants, Here Comes Science
TMBG’s fourth children’s album is as wonderful as the other three. It starts with a sidelong glance at creationism, then moves on to photosynthesis, shooting stars, the scientific method, and a recasting of classic “Why Does the Sun Shine” with proper science. The tunes are awesome as always.
Volcano Choir, Unmap
A side project from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, this odd little record spends much of its time setting mood and atmosphere, with acoustic guitars folded, spindled and mutilated electronically. There are a couple of songs here, but this is mainly instrumental soundscape music. Pretty good, though.
Rufus Wainwright, Milwaukee at Last!!!
Three exclamation points, and it earns every one. This is a live album and DVD from Wainwright, captured on his lavish Release the Stars tour. The so-so material from that album comes alive on stage, and the whole thing is drenched in wondrous excess. Now, where’s the new record, Rufus?
We Shot the Moon, A Silver Lining
Second album from these piano-playing pop-punkers sounds just like the first, although the songs are tighter here. There’s nothing here that’s going to set the world on fire, but these are nice little songs, played well. I’m not sure We Shot the Moon will ever give us anything else.
We Were Promised Jetpacks, These Four Walls
Great band name, mediocre album. These Scottish rockers write large songs with little melodies, and play them with lots of energy. But there’s little here that turned my head, and even less I remember, several months on.
White Lies, To Lose My Life
Man, that sounds emo. In reality, this band is new-wave-influenced rock, and fairly boring at that. They’re trying to be Joy Division, like every other band of this style, and falling far short. Like every other band of this style, as if that needed to be said.
White Rabbits, It’s Frightening
Britt Daniel of Spoon produced this, and you can tell. White Rabbits write really neat little pop songs, and here they perform them minimally, giving just enough to sketch the outline of each song. Opener “Percussion Gun” is amazing, though.
Robbie Williams, Reality Killed the Video Star
Trevor Horn produced this one, hence the title, but instead of the quirk-filled pop this British star often gives us, Reality is a maudlin and serious collection of ballads and sun-splashed epics. It’s okay, but nothing special, and sometimes really chessy.
Yim Yames, Tribute To
Yim Yames is Jim James of My Morning Jacket, and his little EP is the perfect grace note to end this column on. James plays sweet versions of six George Harrison songs, performing them with all the respect and reverence they deserve. This is beautiful, beautiful stuff.
And that’s it, I’m afraid. I have several more from 2009 that I shamefully haven’t listened to yet, but that (mostly) clears the decks of albums I’ve heard. And that also brings Year Nine to a close. As always, it’s a pleasure and a privilege to write this column for all of you, and I appreciate, deeply, all of the friends I’ve made through it, and all of the support I’ve been given from people I know, and people I don’t. You’re all reasons to keep going, every one of you.
And keep going I will. I’m taking next week off for vacation, but when I come back on January 11, it will be to kick off Year Ten. The 10th anniversary of my silly music column. Who’d have thunk it?
Thank you, again and again, from the bottom of my heart. This is me, signing off for another year.
See you in line Tuesday morning.