Welcome to Check Your Mode

The all-inclusive, ever-changing, and uncomfortably flexible guide to all things music in the 2010's.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Greatest Albums of 2011: #31: Beastie Boys - Hot Sauce Committee Part Two


Greatest Albums of 2011: #32: Little Dragon - Ritual Union

Earlier this year, theneedledrop’s Anthony Fantano posted a video about albums to get it on to. You know, records to put on when you’re in the mood. Sex. What music, if any, do you put on to dramatize your coitus to cinematic proportions? It was a question that sparked a discussion in my mind that I’ve been having ever since. The video’s impetus was the release of Little Dragon’s Ritual Union.

I disagree with Mr. Fantano, though. While I may have very little experience with the sexy time, (Full disclosure: Homeboy still has his v-card) I don’t think Ritual Union would be the go-to album of the year to soundtrack it. There’s no doubt the album’s sensual, but it’s ripe with sexual tension, not release. When I hear Ritual Union, I don’t think of making love. I think of a dank, sepulchral sock hop in which pale white girls with long black hair stare at the ground while they shimmy like a friend recently told me you’re supposed to do when you listen to the xx. (I had no idea.)

Ritual Union is for erotically grinding against that special someone between thin sheets of clothing. But sex? Hardly. Songs like “Nightlight” and “Shuffle a Dream” are so shamelessly propulsive, there’s no way I’d keep from cracking up at the silliness of it all. Songs like the title track, “Little Man” and “Precious” were clearly engineered for dancing, and not the horizontal kind. And what the hell am I supposed to do during the six minutes of “When I Go Out”? Is that the part where I come too early and have to awkwardly explain to the girl that I’ll be fine to go again in an hour or so? Count me out.

I think we can all agree that the best album for fucking this year was The Weeknd’s House of Balloons, even though said fucking would probably be more appropriate with a “hate” prefix. However, Ritual Union is still the better album, because it keeps a more consistent groove and, frankly, it has the better songs. That we can have an honest discussion about whether or not it’s appropriate to put it on while we mash cookies is a testament to its versatility. I may not play it while I have sex, but there’s a good chance I’ll put it on while I go grocery shopping this week. I’m bound to think about sex at some point during that trip.


Greatest Albums of 2011: #33: The Weeknd - House of Balloons

2011 was a great year for misogyny. Rappers like Drake and DJ Quik received critical acclaim despite glorifying egregious double standards, Lady Gaga set feminism back a decade, Odd Future existed, and women screamed lines like “All these girls try to tell me she got no love / But all these girls never ever got a blowjob” at the top of their lungs back at Abel Tesfaye at a rare Weeknd show earlier this year. Despite being widely chauvinistic and, at times, even graphic, House of Balloons, The Weeknd’s debut mixtape, became a sleeper hit among normal people and sexually frustrated basement dwellers alike. When publications like Pitchfork and Rolling Stone started singing its graces, I almost felt disgusted for them.

But, despite its truly gruesome intentions, House of Balloons is a success. Tesfaye’s voice is positively orgasmic all over this thing, but what really makes the record stand out is its production by Canadian producers Don McKinney, Zodiac and Illangelo, specifically its creative use of samples, a fact supported by the mixtape’s mediocre follow-up, Thursday. Hearing Beach House singer Victoria Legrand’s pitch-shifted voice scold Tesfaye’s melancholy is a worthy counterbalance to the record’s aural grime. And turning Sioux Sioux and the Banshees’ “Happy House” into a New Jack anthem was a stroke of pure genius, a massive height from which Tesfaye could jump off right into the dirge of “Glass Table Girls.”

What is also important is that House of Balloons has an intense emotional core, fueled by god knows what and, for that matter, god knows who would want to know. That’s why, even though The Weeknd is rumored to release another mixtape before year’s end, I don’t think Tesfaye will ever top House of Balloons. Much like we can’t hear Eminem rap about being poor after he’s made millions doing so on his first record, I cannot take Tesfaye’s infernal gripes seriously for another album. House of Balloons’s carnal seduction is something that can only be made once before The Weeknd changes up their act. The ground covered on it is so disgusting and intrepid that it cannot and should not be tampered with ever again.


Greatest Albums of 2011: #34: When Saints Go Machine - Konkylie


Greatest Albums of 2011: #35: Trivium - In Waves

This year, we got the closest to having a heavy metal meme. When In Waves came out, people had some choice words to say about its title track. “EGG WHIIIIIIIIIIITES,” they wrote in the comments section on Trivium’s YouTube videos. How do you fight off zombies in Call of Duty? IN WAAAAAAVES! Who made your favorite metal record this year? IN FLAAAAAAAAMES! IN WIIIIIVES, EAT RIIIIIIIIIICE, and my personal favorite: Chuck Norris doesn’t sleep, HE WAAAAAAAAAAAAITS! Most of them hilarious criticisms that could have forced In Waves into self-parody.

But all the humor fails to distract from the fact that “In Waves” and its intro, “Capsizing the Sea,” is one of the best metal songs of the year and one of the best metal record openers of all time. It’s literally a sobering response to all those who doubted that Trivium could write another Shogun. “What if that album was a fluke?” “IN WAAAAAAAAAVES!” “Oh well never mind. I’ll shut the fuck up.” And then the rest of the album continues to pummel you for even considering Trivium aren’t one of the best American metal bands of our generation. From the steely poppiness of “Black” and “Watch the World Burn” to the grit of “A Skyline’s Severance” and “Chaos Reigns,” the band provides wallop after wallop of kickass metallic synergy with few interruptions. Haters gonna hate, but I keep going back to In Waves. The Metallica comparisons are incredibly silly at this point. 


Greatest Songs of 2011: #31: Paul Simon - "Love and Hard Times"

If you think about it, Paul Simon was destined to be a great grandpa. All his best songs, whether with Simon and Garfunkle or in his solo work, have either been educational or innocent fun. If I wanted my kids to be introduced to music while they played with blocks or whatever, I would put on Graceland without even thinking. And now, with shows like Yo Gabba Gabba linking popular music with children’s television to outright hilarious degrees, it seems more apt than ever for Simon, now 70, to take his rightful place as elder statesman with a piano and a voice and give us a private tutoring on the intricacies of life for a couple minutes.

“Love and Hard Times” is that song on Simon’s newest LP, So Beautiful or So What(Also, “Questions for the Angels” is but that’s somewhere around #60 on this list.) In it, Simon sings up about the struggle implicit in the title. Fingerpicked guitars and swelling orchestration yield images of swooping camera angles of beautifully moonlit city streets and the scumbags who inhabit them. So lecherous are they that the god who created them won’t even bother sticking around. The track ends with a man stressing over it all, calmed by his lover holding his hand. “Thank god I found you in time,” Simon sings, but then corrects himself with the track’s message in mind. “Thank god I found you.” 


Greatest Songs of 2011: #32: St. Vincent - "Cruel"


Greatest Songs of 2011: #33: Little Dragon - "Ritual Union"

I’ve always wanted to go to a beatnik club. The omnipresent smoke, the sunglasses, the barrettes, the bongos. If it’s anything like it’s portrayed in The Goofy Movie, the overwrought hipster community should go back to their roots and occupy the basement of some Portland pastry shop and start investing in (even more) vests and Charlie Parker records.

You’d think that the Association of American Beatniks (AAB) lost their shit when “Ritual Union” came out. That they immediately sent out notices to their basement-bound affiliates to play the track on repeat for the rest of ever. Dignified women with excellent posture would discuss egalitarian feminism with men with pencil-thin mustaches, sipping Sauvignon Blanc while progressive couples self-consciously pivoted around each other to Yukimi Nagano’s fluffy croon and Fredrik Wallen’s supple bass line forever more. The only thing I can think of that would be a better fit from this point forward would be the entire Ritual Union album, but I’m told that beatniks are quite poor spending all their cash for these aforementioned signifiers, so I suppose this track will just have to do. 


Greatest Songs of 2011: #34: Cymbals Eat Guitars - "Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name)"

Listen Here

There’s a song somewhere in the eight and a half minutes of “Rifle Eyesight.” I know it. But it’s really hard to find, because it moves so fast you won’t realize it’s there until it disappears. It stumbles out distinctly enough like a drunk kicked out of a dive bar, but before you can recognize it it’s decked in the face by something even drunker than it is and is obliterated beyond recognition. And then it’s in a coma for a while and has a dream and then dies and is resurrected and dies again. It’s really confusing and something I’ve never heard an indie rock group even attempt before. But it’s the thrill of the chase for the song’s backbone through alleyways and corridors that makes it so hair-raising. I’d encourage you to join in, but be warned: This “song” is on some Carmen San Diego shit. 


Greatest Songs of 2011: #35: Shabazz Palaces - “Swerve... the reeping of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding)”

The majority of Black Up, the debut full length from Seattle rap group Shabazz Palaces is heady hip-hop for intellectuals, something you wouldn’t really dance to. However, its last track, “Swerve... the reeping of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding)”... actually isn’t all that danceable either. I mean, if you were high off PCP and decided to take a stroll outside for whatever reason, I guess it would be understandable. Or like if you were in the middle of something like the Dancing Plague of 1518 and your iPod had spontaneously combusted and you were only presented with this song, then it would kinda make sense.

Alright, listen. If you were tied to a chair in an abandoned airport hanger with a gun pointed at your head with someone saying they would shoot you if you didn’t dance to one song in their incredibly limited but inexplicably eclectic iTunes library, I guess you would choose “Swerve” over, like, “Runaway Train.” But then you’d put it on and the guy would be like, “Oh shit, I totally forgot this was in my record collection,” which would distract him enough that you could disarm him and knock him unconscious and use his smart phone to call the police to get a lock on your location to get you back home.

And then after that, with the song still playing, you’d be like, “Wow, this is actually a really awesome song,” and do that head bob thing people do when they really like a song but think they’re too cool to dance to it. But no actual dancing. “Swerve” is not a song for dancing.