I Know You Say Love When You Mean Control

Pour a drink for Sam Phillips’ wonderful Martinis & Bikinis, now up at 100 Albums.

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Top Albums of 2013: # 3, 2, 1

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3. Sam Phillips, PUSH ANY BUTTON

In the five years between this and her last proper album, Don’t Do Anything, Phillips instituted a project, The Long Play, which was a series of digital EPs, singles and one LP only available via a subscription. It was a unique forum for her to hash out ideas and experiments, but it came off as a continual work-in-progress. This set of songs, written directly after it, seems more fully formed, perhaps because it appears that Phillips has unabashedly fallen in love with pop music again. I love everything she’s done since she reinvented herself on 2001’s better-with-every-year Fan Dance, but this record also reminds me why I fell in love with her in the first place. Think of it as an older-and-wiser Martinis and Bikinis and marvel at how lithe and youthful she still sounds on gems like “You Know I Won’t” or “When I’m Alone”.

Best tracks: “Can’t See Straight”, “No Time Like Now”, “Things I Shouldn’t Have Told You”, “When I’m Alone”, “You Know I Won’t”

Video for “You Know I Won’t”:

teganandsaraheartthrob

2. Tegan and Sara, HEARTTHROB

The mere idea that this alt-rock duo would go pop over a decade into their career likely irritated many of their fans—did the Quin sisters really need to make their own Liz Phair? The first thing you notice here is the big, bold, undeniably produced sound, full of synths and other sonics that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Katy Perry record (although knob-twiddler Greg Kurstin of The Bird and The Bee has better taste). Then, you detect the undeniable strength of these songs—catchy but not too obvious, smart but not self-indulgent—and you realize just how much T&G have upped the ante. They’re writing lyrics and melodies of a caliber they weren’t capable of ten years ago and the music’s Technicolor scope perfectly complements their newfound ambition. In other words, Heartthrob consists of ten good-to-great potential singles—what more could one ask of an album?

Best tracks: “Closer”, “Drove Me Wild”, “I Was A Fool”, “I’m Not Your Hero”, “Now I’m All Messed Up”

Video for “I Was A Fool”:

daft punk

1. Daft Punk, RANDOM ACCESS MEMORIES

Six weeks after this album’s release, I likened it to one of my all-time favorite records, The Avalanches’ Since I Left You; nearly six months later, although separated by time (13 years) and aesthetics (The Avalanches construct their songs entirely by sampling existing songs, Random Access Memories contains but one sample amongst its 13 tracks), the two records seem like mirror images of each other, both celebrating and interpreting the past but also integrating it within the present. RAM is a music obsessive’s playground, as if the narrator of LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge” finally got his shit together and simply made his masterpiece.

Beyond the deservedly inescapable, retro-disco hit “Get Lucky”, RAM has room for new wave (“Instant Crush”, my favorite single song of the year), piano balladry (“Within”), Steely Dan-like pop (“Fragments of Time”), the autobiographical musings of a techno pioneer (the epic “Giorgio By Moroder”, which sums up all of RAM’s ambitions and intentions in nine minutes) and ‘70s singer/songwriter Paul Williams (the ridiculous, sublime, emotional centerpiece “Touch”). As for the electronically processed robot vocals (the only thing Daft Punk has retained from their earlier records), they’ve never seemed more expressive or effective. Everything old is new again on RAM, where an inspired convergence of the past and the present spark some show of hope for the future.

Best tracks: “Fragments of Time”, “Get Lucky”, “Giorgio By Moroder”, “Give Life Back To Music”, “Instant Crush”, “Touch”

Video for “Instant Crush”:

You Know I Won’t

My favorite track from Sam Phillips’ latest, Push Any Button. It’s not her best album since Martinis and Bikinis, but it’s certainly her peppiest since then; it sounds pretty lithe and youthful for someone who recorded her first album nearly thirty years ago.

5 Things: Album Closers

Introducing an occasional new feature where I dissect examples of various pop culture phenomena and, um, basically, it’s a top five list (in no particular order). For years, I’ve also wanted to write about my favorite album closing tracks (because the “side one, track one” thing has been done to death); here’s five out of many I could have chosen.

Sam Phillips, “Where The Colors Don’t Go” (from Cruel Inventions)

At best, a strong album closer encapsulates everything great about the whole record while also feeling like an ending, providing some sense of closure. This track at the end of Phillips’ second secular LP lyrically reads like a career-defining manifesto, while Van Dyke Parks’ stirring string arrangement sweetens what could have risked sounding like a mere diatribe in a plainer setting.

Roxy Music, “Prairie Rose” (from Country Life)

Often, the best album closers are songs you never previously knew existed. Take Roxy Music’s fourth album, whose singles were “All I Want Is You” and “Out of the Blue”–both great tunes, but “Prairie Rose” is better. Everything about it showcases the glam Brits at their peak, from its propulsive, sly groove to Andy McKay’s frenetic sax solos to vocalist Bryan Ferry’s inspired interjections (“you’re TAHN-talizing me!”).

Portishead, “Glory Box” (from Dummy)

Most great album closers seem tailor-made for that slot in the sequence–you couldn’t imagine it placed in any other position (consequently, it runs the risk of sounding really out-of-place on a compilation). This trip-hop primer’s finale is a grand one indeed, slo-o-o-w-l-y fading in until it reveals itself as a declarative anthem in its chorus. Then, it goes even further than that (Beth Gibbons sounds on the brink of a violent death as she loudly sings the line that begins with “THIS IS THE BEGINNING…”) before slowly fading back out into the ether.

Belle and Sebastian, “Stay Loose” (from Dear Catastrophe Waitress)

The last track on an album is often reserved for its most atypical song: it could be an experiment, a deliberate stylistic departure, or simply a weak throwaway (on occasion, it can be all three). This Scottish group’s shiny, happy 2003 album is, in its entirety a departure from their earlier, moodier work and a generally successful one at that; this six-minute closer goes further afield, sporting an acerbic new wave influence never present before, but splendidly executed in service of an excellent melody and gleeful dueling guitar solos.

Sparks, “Suburban Homeboy” (from Lil’ Beethoven)

I mentioned album closers that aptly summed up the songs that preceded them; I also talked about ones that pivoted towards something new. Ladies and gentlemen, this one does both simultaneously and although it serves as an exquisite jumping-off point for this venerable duo’s eccentric melding of operatic/classical embellishments and pop music, it also perfectly caps off an album full of similarly themed and arranged songs with its most outrageous and inspired idea: a Gilbert and Sullivan-like testimonial to white boys who act like they’re black.

Top 50 Tracks of the 1980s: # 20-16

20. Sam Phillips, “What Do I Do”
From her fittingly-titled first secular album The Indescribable Wow, a lush, Van Dyke Parks-arranged orchestral gem that I never tire of getting lost in, especially when the searching, questioning lyrics brush up against Phillips’ divine multilayered vocals. Although the world of Contemporary Christian music lost one of its rising stars, the rest of us gained a real, fruitful talent.

19. The Nails, “88 Lines About 44 Women”
A novelty song so obvious and unusual and witty and silly and charming and vulgar that at once you ponder why it didn’t cross over to top 40 radio and know very well why it remained an underground hit. This is the souped-up “RCA version” (as opposed to the deliberately amateurish original), but all you really need in both versions is that excitable, nerdy male narrator.

18. Was (Not Was), “Knocked Down, Made Small”
They eventually hit big with “Walk The Dinosaur”, but this hard-to-categorize collective of Detroit weirdos put out two crazy LPs earlier in the decade. This great lost single from 1983 shows they could combine new wave, hard rock and funk as well as Prince did at the time–possibly better, as they had gruff, powerful vocalist Sweet Pea Atkinson in their court.

17. The Go-Go’s, “Our Lips Are Sealed”
As perfect a pop song as #28 (though I also really like this version), The Go-Go’s updated the girl group for a more advanced and cynical age. Despite the sunny harmonies and a generally wistful air, the band’s knowing, cautionary performance lends the song a bittersweet edge. You could listen to it one hundred times before even discovering it, but it’s there.

16. ‘Til Tuesday, “Coming Up Close”
More emphatically bittersweet, Aimee Mann knows the fine line between being droll and dour; this was even apparent back in ‘Til Tuesday. Although many of their songs suffer from dated production, this lovely folk-rock number is a striking exception. The organic, pastoral setting brings out the reedy warmth in Mann’s voice and the chorus is more palatable than a fistful of period power ballads.

Things I Shouldn’t Have Told You

Sam Phillips returns with Push Any Button, her first album in five years (if you don’t count her unique subscription service experiment The Long Play) on August 13 (you can pre-order it now). This first single recalls the peppier stuff from Don’t Do Anything but with a slightly scuzzier garage-pop edge. The new album was originally to be called Pretty Time Bomb; if that (and this track) is an indication of what the whole LP sounds like, I’m psyched.