Phrazes for the Young
Grand Theft Auto III was an awesome video game, complete with an attitude nothing else on the market could mess with. After racking up so many hours playing, it became clear that the game could use a change of scenery. Raunchy Liberty City got old. When Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was released, complete with a 1980’s setting and shiny new weapons and cars, the results were electric. The swagger was back.
You might be able to guess where this is going.
The Strokes were an awesome band. But the New York City rockers burned out (third album, 2006’s First Impressions of the Earth, well, sucks). The members needed a change of scenery and we got solo attempts and side projects from all of them, except lead singer Julian Casablancas. Until now. Finally, Casablancas delivers Phrazes for the Young, complete with 80’s synths and shiny production. Yes, the results are electric. But is the swagger back?
Only eight songs long (the “deluxe” version has three bonus tracks), Phrazes will leave you drooling for more, whether that means another Casablancas solo record or a fourth Strokes LP. At the same time, this is not Is This It? Casablancas. Production has caused some of his edgy vocals to become, put simply, less cool. More President Obama than candidate Obama.
You might not notice, though. Album opener “Out of the Blue” is truly a great rock song. The Strokes’ who-gives-a-you-know-what attiude shines immediately as Casablancas states “yes I know I’m going to Hell in a leather jacket, at least I’ll be in another world while you’re pissing on my casket.” Then, somewhat unexpectedly, a soaring… plea? “How could you be, ooooohhhhhhhhh, so perfect for me?”
It’s better than anything from The Strokes’ last effort.
Then comes the memorable electro beat in “11th Dimension,” Casablancas’ first solo single. And “4 Chords of the Apocalypse,” although not anything too mind blowing, is notable for its kick-ass guitar solo at 2:14.
Afterwards, Casablancas gives a bit of a history lesson on the Lower Eastside of New York in “Ludlow St.” Here he throws in a out-of-nowhere country twang. It’s not like Casablancas could show up to the CMA’s with a cowboy hat on and win best new artist (unlike Hootie of the Blowfish), but it’s still a surprise.
And while the song is one of the most interesting parts of Phrazes for the Young, it also uncovers one of the album’s downfalls, that Casablancas goes overboard at times. He uses what sounds like anything and everything that was available in the studio, sometimes building too many layers. Meanwhile, that exact drawback becomes a strength on the epic “River of Brakelights.” It’s a materialism lesson just in time for Black Friday shoppers.
On “Tourist,” which closes Phrazes, Casablancas seemingly tells the listener he’s not comfortable anywhere in an ever-urbanizing world (“I feel like a tourist lost in the suburbs, soon the whole world will be urban sprawl, feel like a land lover out on the ocean, feel like a teardrop streaming off your chin”).
That made me wonder if Casablancas had lost his swagger. Luckily, bonus track “I Wish It Was Christmas Today” kicks in, a “Saturday Night Live” cover. I wondered no longer. Only an artist like Casablancas could pull that off.
It all goes to show that, well Phrazes for the Young isn’t perfect, at least one member of The Strokes still has the swagger that helped make the band famous. Casablancas just needed a change of scenery.
Up to Now
Let’s get it out of the way — Snow Patrol says Up to Now isn’t a greatest hits album, but it is.
This means it should probably include 10 songs and then the normal one or two unreleased songs to make fans and the record company happy, bringing the total to 12.
Instead, Snow Patrol gives us 30 tracks. By the time you get to the second disc, I’d be surprised if you weren’t on the verge of falling asleep. And that just doesn’t seem right, because Snow Patrol is a very good band. There’s a good chance “Chocolate,” “Chasing Cars,” “Set the Fire to the Third Bar,” “You’re All I Have,” or “Run” has been struck in your head at some point or another. So why add filler to a greatest hits collection?
The fifth song here, “Crazy in Love” (yes, a Beyonce cover), isn’t just bad, it’s completely out of place. Just like the traffic person on your local TV station’s morning show (the weather guy can’t handle that, really?). Previously unreleased and first single “Just Say Yes,” on the other hand, fits in well with the rest of the band’s 15-year career. Which is to say it’s basically a much more boring Coldplay X&Y-era song. You guessed it, a floating in outer space atmosphere with melodramatic lyrics.
Two songs by “Scottish indie rock supergroup” (led by Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody) are included. By the way, not my description. Yawn. So are a couple more new songs. Yawn. “Signal Fire,” from the awful Spider-Man 3, is here, too. And then two live recordings of “Run” and “Chasing Cars” show up to close each disc, even though the two studio versions of the songs are already on the compilation. Ugh. “Post Punk Progression,” a b-side… well, you get the idea. It’s in there somewhere.
This is the most overstuffed greatest hits collection in recent memory. Overall, 20 of the 30 songs are taken from Snow Patrol’s five studio albums. At least five of those could have been left out, leaving 15 tracks, plus maybe some bonus stuff for fans if they buy Up to Now on iTunes. In a perfect world, right?
I recommend 2003’s Final Straw or 2006’s Eyes Open (skip 2008’s A Hundred Million Suns). Actually, besides a few songs, it’s a better idea to listen to Coldplay. Or even Travis.
1. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
The results of the French pop-rockers finally living up to their potential? The best album of the year. 2000’s United was something worth listening to. 2004’s Alphabetical was much improved. 2006’s It’s Never Been Like That was the best Strokes album ever made. Who could’ve guessed Phoenix’s fourth studio album would be a masterpiece?
It kicks off with two easy contenders for song of the year. “Liztomania,” referencing composer and virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt, immediately has the listener hooked. During the bridge, a soft piano bounces in the background as vocalist Thomas Mars sings something that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. And anyone who has heard the album will sing along as Mars states, “I’m not easily offended, know how to let it go,” in the coolest way possible.
Stunningly, it gets better with “1901.” Once again, no idea what the lyric “Past and present, 1855-1901” means, but it has to be the catchiest line of the year. The track buzzes all the way to “Fences,” a silky-smooth number that is also as good as anything else Phoenix has done.
Maybe silky-smooth would be the best way to describe the rest of the album, too. Any of the last five songs could easily become a favorite of the month at any given time. “Girlfriend” and “Armistice?” My June and July, respectively. Even the mostly-instrumental “Love Like a Sunset” is beautiful, slowing the album down a bit in the middle before ramping it all back up.
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is a treasure and the sound of a band hitting their stride. It’s everything you usually want an album to be: intriguing, genuine, catchy, and tight (it all clocks in at around 36 minutes). It’s easy to recognize it as the best of ’09.
2. Passion Pit – Manners
After the Chunk of Change EP, it was easy to expect a good debut album from Passion Pit. Instead they put out an amazing debut album. For a first time listener, hearing the falsetto voice of lead vocalist and songwriter Michael Angelakos must be a surprise. One might expect the whine of Adam Young’s band Owl City or even The Postal Service’s Ben Gibbard. But then again, the music is happier sounding than Owl City and easily more upbeat than The Postal Service.
But behind the quick tempo, electronic hooks, and children’s choir featured in a few songs, the album contains some truly soul-searching lyrics. It’s often easy to forget what you’re singing along with. Conversely, on a bad day, Passion Pit’s music can easily return a smile to your face. Then again, the opening of “Little Secrets” always puts a smile on my face, reminding me of playing the fast and stressful later levels of Pac-Man back in the day.
In “The Reeling,” which is receiving some surprising radio play, Angelakos asks “Is this the way I’ll always be?” to a resounding “Oh no!” from the children’s choir. It’s uplifting and a clear example of the power of music. Standout “Sleepyhead” still sounds as good as it did on the band’s original EP. Closing tracks “Let Your Love Grow Tall” and “Seaweed Song” make it easy to hit repeat or toggle back to the start on your iPod and take Manners for another spin. And with each listen it gets better and better.
3. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
The best love song of the year opens Middle Cyclone — from the point of view of a tornado. Not joking. “This Tornado Loves You” is reason enough to listen to Case’s fifth studio album. With almost every song, it feels as if you’re sitting next to Case, listening to amazing imagery on every track, except the last; “Marais La Nuit” is a 30 minute recording of nature sounds at a pond on her farm.
4. Kasabian – West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum
Kasabian suffered from the sophomore slump with 2006’s Empire. But third album West Ryder… is also the band’s best effort yet. The energy is finally contained — in a good way. On a song like “Fire,” it’s easy to wish you were seeing the band live. And finally, Kasabian have made a complete album. There’s just not much filler here. An interesting instrumental (“Swarfiga”) is about it. It’s a band that might not ever break the United States. Which is unfortunate, because Kasabian is easily one of the best proper rock bands left in the world.
5. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavillion
A Pitchfork fad? Nope. This is Animal Collective’s eighth LP and it’s experimental bliss. Everything sounds like it’s from another planet. One of those albums you must look up the lyrics to just to know what’s going on. For the first time, it sounds as though Animal Collective knows exactly what they’re doing. Precisely. Down to every note. Complete confidence. On first listen, many will think “this is weird.” Only a short time passes before it usually turns to “this is amazing.”
6. Lily Allen – It’s Not Me, It’s You
Forget Talyor Swift. Lily Allen is 50 times more interesting and a 100 times more entertaining. Case in point: It’s Not Me, It’s You. Lead single “The Fear” shows Allen’s blunt honesty as she sings, “I want loads of clothes and f***loads of diamonds,” all in that soft British accent. But the album is far deeper than honestly. Allen added some electropop to her second LP, adding to the catchiness of her debut Alright, Still. She even does politics. “Kabul S***” might not make you think for hours, but it’s easy to relate to. “F*** You” is even better, with Allen sounding ever so polite while telling a certain former president what’s what.
7. Metric – Fantasies
It doesn’t get much more slick than this. From “Sick Muse” to “Gimme Sympathy,” it’s hard to see why a bundle of songs here didn’t take radio by storm. Nonetheless, Fantasies deserves to mentioned with the best of the year. On a song like “Blindness,” Metric know when to hold back, letting vocalist Emily Haines take the spotlight with lyrics to sing that are more interesting than on any other Metric album.
Bat for Lashes – Two Suns
Pearl Jam – Backspacer
Discovery – LP
Silversun Pickups – Swoon
Jet – Shaka Rock
The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
Muse – The Resistance
U2 – No Line on the Horizon
Noel Gallagher – The Dreams We Have as Children (Live for Teenage Cancer Trust)
Steel Panther – Feel the Steel
The Lonely Island – Incredibad
“Here, it’s clear, that I’m not getting better,” sings Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo on “Put Me Back Together,” the best track from the band’s seventh studio album. You have to wonder if Cuomo knew how true that line was when he wrote it. If the “Red Album” was the band in a midlife crisis, then “Raditude” (named by actor Rainn Wilson, go figure) is the sound of a band needing therapy, stat.
Okay, that might sound overly negative. This is the best Weezer album since 2001’s “Green Album.” But it’s far from what fans clamor for: a return to the sound of the “Blue Album” and “Pinkerton.” In fact, it feels highly doubtful that Weezer will ever return (it’s been 15 years since the band’s debut). Instead, we get Cuomo playing the best prank of 2009 (take that, Balloon Boy). Very Weezy, er, Weezer.
It’s true, rap mega star Lil Wayne is featured on the track “Can’t Stop Partying.” It seems odd coming from a Harvard graduate (“I gotta have the cars, I gotta have the jewels”). It’s power-pop that’s poking fun at the mainstream (the joke’s on you, Lil Wayne). So is “I’m Your Daddy” (likely the second single) and “The Girl Got Hot.” Both are ridiculous. Both are catchy. Both are at least worthy of the Weezer name. First single “(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To” is the second best of the collection. Cuomo relives his awkward teens and continues to keep Weezer relevant, releasing one of the catchiest songs on radio this year.
Then there’s the second half of the album. Two songs here are good enough for inclusion (“Trippin’ Down the Freeway,” “Let It All Hang Out”). But the inclusion of “Love Is the Answer” is inexcusable. It may be the worst song Weezer has ever recorded. It sounds like it belongs in an awful Youtube video consisting of the best moments of some Bollywood movie. Between the awfulness that is Cuomo singing nonsense (“Love is the answer/makes no difference what you have heard/love is the answer/you have got to trust in the world”), Hindi singing is also included. It’s the worst possible response to The Beatles’ “Within You Without You.” Warning: your ears might bleed.
“In the Mall,” written by drummer Patrick Wilson, is almost equally terrible (“Now we’re ready/in the mall, I was in the mall/keep it steady/in the mall, I was in the mall”). Closer “I Don’t Want to Let You Go” was better and more heartfelt on Cuomo’s 2008 solo album “Alone II.” Another warning: stay away from the deluxe version of “Raditude.” The bonus tracks aren’t really worth a listen unless you enjoy the feeling of sharp pains in your ears.
Alright, this review sounds mixed. Probably a lot like what’s going on in Rivers Cuomo’s head. “Raditude” is the sound of a band in midlife crisis, but every Weezer album has felt that way for the past decade. You could take two or three songs from each album after 1996’s classic “Pinkerton” and come up with a greatest hits collection almost worthy of the original Weezer. Instead, we get another disappointment. Or at least it would be that if there was anymore room for disappointment.