The Designer’s Drugs: Top 11 of 11

So here’s my crappy end of year list.  I don’t think I liked enough albums, books, or other entertainments to warrant separate best-of lists for each medium, so I’m just smashing everything together. Deal with it.

11.  Medium: Literature. Stimulus: George R. R. Martin – A Dance with Dragons

Finally, George R. R. Martin continues his Song of Fire and Ice series with a gigantic book that nonetheless picks up the pace and is much more exciting than its predecessor.

10.  Medium: Film. Stimulus: Red State

The guy who directed Clerks and Mallrats makes a serious movie about Fred Phelps-grade religious fanaticism and David Koresh-grade domestic terrorism.  On paper, you’d think it wouldn’t work, but it works pretty goddamn hard.

9.      Medium: Game. Stimulus: The Nintendo 3DS

Most video game systems suck and have a crappy library of games in their first year.  The Nintendo 3DS bypassed this by cutting the crap and releasing upgraded versions of the company’s best games 15 years ago, Ocarina of Time and Starfox 64.  It worked.  Add a highly serviceable port of Street Fighter IV, a Mario game that is the 2011 version of 1990’s Super Mario Bros. 3, and the requisite round of Mario Kart, and the opening salvo of the 3DS hasn’t been too bad at all.

8.      Medium: Album. Stimulus: Austrian Death Machine – Jingle All the Way

If you haven’t listened to the Arnold Schwarzenegger-themed metal genius that is Austrian Death Machine, do it.  Do it now!  Their latest release is a two-song EP based on Arnold’s epic Christmas movie, Jingle All the Way.  “I’m Not a Pervert,” based on Arnold’s failed attempt at gaining a bouncy ball from a stupid kid at the Mall of America, is the feel-good Christmas song of the year.

7.      Medium: Literature. Stimulus: Albert Brooks – 2030.

A believable, grounded account of American decline without the usual futuristic vibe.  Usually, books about the future are pretty devoid of compassion and pretty bonered out on robo-fascism, but Brooks plays it calm and presents a future with real people – and, equally important, real language.  This examination of overpopulation and boomer entitlement reaching old age is less fiction than it is frightening inevitability.

6.      Medium: Album. Stimulus: William Shatner – Seeking Major Tom

Shatner Shatners it up and sings cover songs about space.  How could this possibly go wrong?  The answer: it won’t.

5.      Medium: Album. Stimulus: Peter Gabriel – New Blood

I think that instead of the usual gathering of singles into the usual stale Greatest Hits collection, all musicians who reach such a reflective point in their careers should do orchestral renditions of their best songs.  Especially the B-52s.  Consider Peter Gabriel and this beautiful retrospective to be my prime argument for this.

4.      Medium: Literature. Stimulus: Andy Schoepp – Time Ninja

Once more, the great Andy Schoepp delivers over the top martial arts action in book form, yet this time he outdoes himself.  Time traveling ninjas, giant robots, and hot assassin babes make for an epic tale.  I’ve said it before: if Andy Schoepp’s work doesn’t kick your ass, then you don’t have an ass.

3.      Medium: Album. Stimulus: Florence and the Machine – Ceremonials

This is what pop music should always sound like: well-crafted yet forceful, ambitious yet immediate, intellectual yet emotional.  Ceremonials is titanic sonic literature.

2.      Medium: Film. Stimulus: Hobo with a Shotgun

This ridiculous, ultraviolent, pun-heavy bit of low-rent cinema made me grateful to be alive.  Seeing an old grizzled hobo dispense buckshot justice to an awesome family of gleefully murderous gangsters was a joy.  Remember: when life gives you razor blades, you make a bat covered in razor blades!

1.      Medium: Life. Stimulus: Protests!

It’s breathtaking to see people giving a shit and fighting corrupt systems of power worldwide.  In America this seems even more amazing, because we’re currently the spoiled children of the planet.  Divide that down to the Midwest, where the secondary holy mantra that follows “go [insert local NFL team]” is “don’t rock the boat,” and consider my mind blown.  My expectations for humanity this year were completely shattered, and that feels wonderful.

The Designer’s Drugs: Christmas Music for People Who Hate Christmas Music

 

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Christmas Music for People Who Hate Christmas Music

 

If you have a job that requires you to work in a store in December, then you probably hate the seasonal onslaught of holiday music with a white-hot passion.  Me, I have a special fantasy involving a time machine, Bing Crosby, Nat “King” Cole, and a steel chair studded with nails.  Really, I’d expand that fantasy to include any jackass rock band who decides that the world just could not survive without its take on the classics (I’m looking at you, Barenaked Ladies).  Yet fear not, fellow Christmas sufferers, for there is holiday music out there that will not make you consider seasonal rampage!  Enclosed are my suggestions; feel free to sneak them into your store’s playlist.

 

Neil Diamond – A Cherry Cherry Christmas

 

Really, I only suggest this because I’m kind of a nerd for Neil.  Beyond the sheer joy that is Neil Diamond, this is a pretty square affair.  The only swerve comes when Neil appropriates Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song” – though he sort of blows it by endorsing gin and tonickah yet not supporting the smoking of marijuanikah.  Holiday double standard!

 

Tori Amos – Midwinter Graces

 

It’s a Tori Amos album, sad and full of piano.  Its holiday sensibilities run pretty pagan; it barely qualifies as a Christmas album, at least in the sterile modern sense.  If you like Tori Amos, you will like this.

 

Twisted Sister – A Twisted Christmas

 

I love this album.  Twisted Sister rules Christmas.  The songs aren’t much more than heavy metal versions of the old holiday standards, and for all their distortion they’re played pretty straightforward.  Still, there’s something joyous about hearing “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” played almost exactly like “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”  This is the only Christmas album that will have you pumping your fist with joy.

 

Fred Schneider and the Superions – Destination… Christmas!

 

My respectful boner for Neil Diamond multiplies tenfold for Fred Schneider of the B-52s.  Besides having the benefit of being comprised entirely of original Christmas songs, Destination… Christmas! is a balls to the wall celebration of the absurd.  Schneider rocks it wild, singing about fruitcakes, murderous yetis, crummy trees, and lame relatives.  He lurches around like a drunken old pervert in “Jingle Those Bells” and subjects the listener to four minutes of nothing but French orgasmic moaning and jolly ho ho hos at the final track (“Santa, Je T’aime”).  Best Christmas album ever.

 

Julie Silver – It’s Chanukah Time

 

I only mention this one because I have a redneck friend whom I gave this to one Christmas as a joke on his suburban racism, and apparently he still listens to it.  Breaking down barriers!

 

Happy Holidays, and keep Mithras in Christmas!

The Designer’s Drugs: Florence and the Machine – Ceremonials

 

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Florence and the Machine – Ceremonials (Deluxe)

Anno: 2011

 

The thought that ran through my head as I listened to this amazing album was that this is the sort of music that wins Grammys and deserves them.  Ceremonials is a mixture of the ambition of an orchestra, the aggression of rock, the hooks of pop, and the pipes of Florence Welch, a vocalist who could sing the phone book and make it sound like an erotic awakening.  The total product is easily the best album I’ve heard this year.

In fact, it may also have the year’s best track.  “What the Water Gave Me” starts as a steady pace of gloom and pieces of harp, pushing through the introductions before dropping into a hook of subterranean organs, shards of guitars, and a swelling choir that gathers its strength as the song progresses and soon explodes everything.  The song’s titanic conclusion isn’t the usual bitchy distorted guitar angst that typically characterizes rock, but it’s about as powerfully rock as anything I’ve ever heard.

And still, it’s only one song in a great series.  “Shake It Out” is a beaming sadjoy pop tune which carries the right sort of pretentious messianic overtones.  “No Light, No Light” is run by an organ and a smashing drum pulse operating alongside words which might not have been as catching if they weren’t delivered in Welch’s towering wails.  “Heartlines” is in the same percussive orchestral vein, though it has more of an esoteric beat and Welch is even more impressive at the helm.  The electronic R&B of “Spectrum” swings from the subdued intensity of the verses to blasts of voice and harp.  “Bedroom Hymns” closes the album with a frenzied swing rush of drums and piano while Welch does a little bit of the old erotic religion dirty talk.

There’s absolutely nothing on Ceremonials that comes within a light year of bad.  The very worst thing I could say about it is that there’s a song called “Never Let Me Go” that comes off as a slow, minimalist love ballad from the 80s, which isn’t my style.  If you’re into slow, minimalist love ballads from the 80s, however, this thing will spin your wheels.  There are shortcomings to be found throughout the album, to be sure, but the orchestration is so tightly woven in each and every song that any weakness is compensated for with a dozen strengths.

So yeah.  I severely doubt that I’m going to hear anything as good as this for a long, long while.

 

The Designer’s Drugs: William Shatner – Seeking Major Tom

 

Medium: Album

Stimulus: William Shatner – Seeking Major Tom

Anno: 2011

 

God bless William Shatner for having a music career – okay, a spoken-word career set to music.  Following up on his artistic and awesome collaboration with Ben Folds in Has Been, Shatner’s enunciations have returned to the grin-worthy.  At last, his aural body of work has arrived at its logical, Captain Kirk conclusion: a covers concept album about space.  If it’s a famous song that in any way references the heavens, Seeking Major Tom takes it on, swirls it together alongside NASA audio clips, and places it among the coherent whole.  He dusts off his classic rendition of Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” does the expected gloom of Bowie’s “Space Odyssey,” rambles around like a drunk uncle in “Space Truckin’,” rocks it wild on “The Twilight Zone,” and synths up his voice to ba-baba a sweet cover of Duran Duran’s “Planet Earth.”  Most of this is entirely predictable, and all of it is wonderful.

The only exception to this goodness is “Mrs. Major Tom,” a cover entirely devoid of Shatner’s presence and full of Sheryl Crow’s.  It’s an okay track, but in the context of the greater album the lack of hyperacted vocals is jarring.  There’s definitely a Where the Hell is Shatner vibe to it.

But let’s get to the mind-blowing parts.  First off, Shatner covers “Iron Man.”  It’s pretty goddamn amazing, though the focus is much more on Zakk Wylde’s guitar playing than on our hero’s sweet crooning.  Yet looming even more titanic in the category of it must be heard to be believed is William Shatner, covering “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Holy shit (or Shat), this is amazing.  Shatner completely warps and perverts this song, throwing out Freddie Mercury’s rock opera vocals and replacing them with groans and wails and gnashing teeth.  The song becomes less tragedy and much more farce, with the lyrics under Shatner’s stewardship becoming the tale of a paranoid schizophrenic with a splitting headache.  It’s beautiful.

If you can, check out Shatner’s video for “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  Not content with warping only one classic beyond recognition, his music video is by all appearances a dissection of the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight,” in which the starry, disembodied head of Shatner sings in space and occasionally plagues the Earth with meteors.  It’s splendid.

It’s not half as respectable as Has Been (or even those songs in which Shatner howls out Shakespeare monologues), but Seeking Major Tom is the album of a man who knows his place in pop culture and isn’t afraid to ham it up to the fullest.  Now if only Adam West will make a cover album about bats.

 

The Designer’s Drugs: IamX/The Sounds

Medium: Album

Stimulus: IamX – Volatile Times

Anno: 2011

 

Compared to its previous releases, the latest album from IamX plies a slightly more subdued brand of electrogloom.  The grandiose intensity and orchestration characteristic of IamX remains; all that has changed is that Volatile Times is more menace than fury.

Still, what fury does exist here more than makes up for the rest of the album’s comparative calm.  “Cold Red Light” is a brilliant mixture of snarling robotics that evokes the very best of David Bowie’s forays into industrial music.  The album’s title track is a bouncier blast of big band pop which merges well with the whispers and screams in Chris Corner’s vocals, and “Ghosts of Utopia” is a darker and more stripped-down version of that song.

The calm parts are equally deft, and as has become tradition, the final track is especially breathtaking.  In this case, the track is titled “Oh Beautiful Town,” and it exemplifies all that grandiose intensity and orchestration that sets IamX apart.  It seems that with each release, this entity drifts further from beeping masochism and pretentious darkness, and it moves further into these big, beautiful songs – and that’s a wonderful thing.

 

Medium: Album:

Stimulus: The Sounds – Something to Die For

Anno: 2011

 

I’m not sure if the Sounds’ mutation from electrorock to electropop makes much of a difference.  Sure, the keyboards on this album completely dominate the guitars and there are a few tracks here that seem more radio-calculated than usual, but the band’s instrumentation was always so poppy that the difference on Something to Die For is a question of degrees, not absolutes.  The Sounds haven’t changed their style; they’ve simply arrived at its next logical conclusion.

In any event, the best songs on this album are more pop than rock.  The first two tracks are the album’s zenith, as the darkly ravish “It’s So Easy” leads into the bright orchestra pop of “Dance with the Devil,” and both shine.  “Yeah Yeah Yeah” is a straight-up 80s drum machine dance anchored by hate and Prince-namedropping in the vocals.  Even the best rock song, “Diana,” sounds a bit New Order in the basslines.  In fact, the songs that do sound like typical punky Sounds – especially “The No No Song” – feel pretty average.

There’s little on Something to Die For that is mind-blowing, but it’s a solid experiment that neither destroys the established formula nor stagnates in it.

The Designer’s Drugs: Does It Offend You, Yeah? – Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Does It Offend You, Yeah? – Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You

Anno: 2011

 

My initial response to Does It Offend You’s follow-up to its excellent debut, You Have No Idea What You’re Getting Yourself Into, is that the new album is The Empire Strikes Back to its predecessor’s A New Hope. Whereas the band’s first album was a swashbuckling adventure through synthy pop rock, Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You is a much darker record.  On it, Does It Offend You trades in good cheer for violent outbursts and harsh beats that border on Hulk Smash industrial.

Lest this darkness be mistakenly interpreted as a bad thing, consider that the most arresting tracks on this work tend to be the most furious.  The album’s best track is its opener, the punishing “We Are the Dead.”  While it features a few ravey sound clips, the song owes as much to KMDFM as it does to the KLF.

The manic songs tend to be the pockets of the album which eschew the singing of James Rushent in favor of vocal samples, guest singers, or nearly no words at all.  “Yeah!” is the closest the disc comes to a true instrumental, a robotic rally march fueled by spastic drumbeats and a cheering mob.  The big brassy menace of “Wondering” is complimented by the deft rhymes of guest vocalist Trip, who goes on about Batman and Bill Hicks.  The vocals of the bouncy “Wrestler” come entirely from a speech by pro wrestling cult figure Paul Heyman, brilliantly complimenting the rush of the music.  The strangest track on the album, “The Monkeys Are Coming,” features a YouTube clip in which a clearly disturbed man rants about drugs, monkeys, crap eating, and fellatio (in that counterproductive order).  Despite all expectations, it’s a brilliantly aggressive tune.

None of this is to say that Does It Offend You broke the knob off at smashy and shouty.  Though nothing on Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You is as bright as its predecessor, there are a few songs which turn down the violent gloom.  “Wrong Time Wrong Planet” is the zenith of the slow, a smooth electro-crooner where the constant basslines occasionally give way to fireworks.  The closing “Broken Arms” is practically a space ballad that, while it feels wholly out of place in the context of the album, is a great song in its own right.  The closest this album comes to the band’s former self is in “Pull out My Insides,” an upbeat, cheerful song which still manages to convey the band’s new wistfulness.

Ultimately, the important question here is not whether Does It Offend You’s new album is as good as its first.  They’re both excellent, though completely different, works.  Instead, its value depends on the listener’s mood.  If you’re up for a snarling bit of electronic dementia, Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You will prove to be a very, very good choice.

The Designer’s Drugs: Sweat Boys – EP

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Sweat Boys – EP

Anno: 2011

This toe in the water by a group of synth-minded La Crosse goons is a damn good introduction, full of new wave swing which transforms from silly and speedy to romantic and grandiose.  The three tracks on this disc remind me a lot of the Human League, bearing a sort of electronic manic depression that loses none of its immediacy by being gloomy.

“Sweat Boys” the song begins the disc with a hyper sense of perversion, giving the imagery of two guys getting drunk, pissed off, and oiled up before wrestling in a dark alley.  Following this is “See You Dance,” a bouncing story of dancefloor rebound which starts to veer the album toward apocalyptic longing.  This mood hits its climax in the striking “Cold War Lovesong,” which soars as it despairs.

The work on this EP is excellent, a perfect example of electronic dance music.  I do have a very slight complaint that the songs’ production sometimes leaves vocalist Ben Koch’s singing feeling less forceful and a bit secondary to the music.  Nonetheless, I cannot wait to hear a full album.

The Designer’s Drugs: Deadmau5 – 4×4=12

 

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Deadmau5 – 4×4=12

Anno: 2010

 

Whether one enjoys Deadmau5 ultimately depends upon whether one enjoys Daft Punk – and specifically, the minimalist side of the Daft Punk sound.  On 4×4=12, Deadmau5 puts together some good beats, but there’s next to nothing here that doesn’t feel like a mirror of someone else’s song.

Compounding this forgivable sin are the few vocal tracks which dot an otherwise instrumental album.  One of these three tracks, a moody pianodance titled “Raise Your Weapon,” is the album’s best track, reminiscent of the Hybrid school of orchestral electronica.  The other two sing songs, “Sofi Needs a Ladder” and “One Trick Pony”, have solid music, but they feature a shit vocalist who spouts out dirty slut slogans in an attempt to be hip and cool.  Boring.

Beyond those two disasters, 4×4=12 is a good album, but not a mind-blowing one – which, if you’re into the style, shouldn’t matter.

The Designer’s Drugs: Ace of Base – The Golden Ratio

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Ace of Base – The Golden Ratio

Anno: 2010

 

I try to avoid having guilty pleasures, but it wouldn’t be far off to describe Ace of Base as my one musical pleasure which is most surprising.  Though I tend to loathe much of the band’s best known work – “The Sign” in particular makes me grate my teeth – Ace of Base was really my first serious introduction to electronic music.  The clubbed-up B-sides of the band’s debut album drew me in, and its follow-up, The Bridge, is a mature stripe of Europop that stands as my favorite example of the style.  Of course, most people only know the singles, and as such I get a villainous glee when busting out Ace of Base upon the unexpected.

It’s been eight years since Ace of Base released their last album, and for some time it seemed as though the band had packed it in.  The gradual departures of the band’s two female singers, Jenny and Linn Berggren, seemed to be the final straw, but instead of calling it a day, the two remaining members decided to crew up, recruiting two new girls to sing their songs.  The result is The Golden Ratio, and while there are some good tracks to be found, this version of Ace of Base doesn’t match the original.  There are two big reasons why this is the case, and both have to do with Ace of Base trading in what made it unique for more conventional pop fodder.

First, the new vocalists sound like every other female pop vocalist on the scene.  Their voices crack with girly vulnerability at all the right moments, their lyrics profess all the expected heartbreak and whimsy.  They’re props, and serve their purpose.

But the more pressing problem with The Golden Ratio lies squarely on the shoulders of the band’s tenured members.  The band doesn’t completely abandon its reggae-tinged pop roots, and the strongest example of the old style, “Mr. Replay,” is one of the album’s best tracks.  Yet there is a strong sense that the band is trying to keep pace with everyone else instead of being itself.  “Southern California” is the worst offender, a lifeless grab at moody American girlpop.

But what’s worse, the opening track, “All for You,” sounds like every other electropop group from Ace of Base’s mid-90s heyday, and it’s only the most glaring evidence.  Trading in Ace of Base’s electropop for the La Bouche/Snap!/Culture Beat conglomerate is not a good move.

Still, there is one very bright moment on the album, a flamenco guitar led dirge titled “Who Am I” in which every aspect of the new group comes together perfectly.  If every song on The Golden Ratio was as well-orchestrated as this, it would have been brilliant.

Yet as it stands, I’d have recommended that this new group have started with a clean slate and a new name.  The Golden Ratio is no Bridge.

 

(As a bonus, one of the worst music videos ever!)

The Designer’s Drugs: Brandon Flowers – Flamingo (Deluxe Edition)

 

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Brandon Flowers – Flamingo (Deluxe Edition)

Anno: 2010

 

Owing to their Vegas roots, the Killers have always flirted with the idea of being a casino band, but on his solo debut singer Brandon Flowers drowns in gambling metaphor.  Flowers opens the album with “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas,” where he takes in the huddled masses with the intent of fleecing them all.  “Jilted Lovers & Broken Hearts” isn’t as blatant, though the references to rolling dice and playing cards paint the walls throughout this dancing romance.  The album’s best storytelling is on a dopey country tune titled “The Clock Was Tickin’” which chronicles the down and out life of a Vegas dreg with forgiving scope.

Yet Flowers advances this formula one step further and injects this Sin City story with a healthy dose of the Lord.  While this factor could send the album into a preachy quagmire, the storytelling on most of these songs is often an advantage.  A few of the lordy tracks are lackluster, the most obvious being the album’s closer, “Right Behind You.”  Musically it’s a sad and pretty work of electropop; lyrically it plays out like the “Footprints” fable.  Yet “Playing with Fire” – easily the album’s best track – is a gorgeously sparse track bearing the imagery of Christ out in the desert.  Similarly gripping, “On the Floor” plays out like a vice spiritual featuring animals out of Aesop’s Fables.

Though it’s not as immediately exciting as the Killers’ work, Flamingo is Flowers’ bold, and perhaps inevitable, break from its dance rock style.  It’s also his best work since that band’s debut.

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