Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Top 10 Albums of 2010

Man, this year was so much better than last year for music. Please find my Top 10 Albums for 2010 below. Lists like this are always subjective, so I suppose a brief explanation of my opinions is needed:

- I have fairly eclectic tastes

- I appreciate complex song structures, yet am not usually a fan of groups that are dedicated to producing abstraction and experimental "noise" (wow, this makes me sound old)

- I highly value technical skill, and the unique (sorry DJs)

- I am biased towards rock, folk, rap, and melody. I am biased against DJs, country, R&B, and choral works.

I am always interested in learning about new bands, as long as they are good, so please post any outstanding albums from 2010 in my comment area. Here are my Top 10 in no particular order...

1) Local Natives - Gorilla Manor:

I am a fairly judgmental person. This is a character flaw of mine. When I first YouTubed this five-piece, I was visually bombarded by staches, keffiyehs, and hipster hairdos. I automatically lumped Local Natives with the Strokes, Hockey, and Vampire Weekend; that is, until I heard Gorilla Manor several times through and saw this band live at Vancouver's Venue Nightclub. Local Natives are part of a Neo-Folk movement (along with bands such as the Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear) that is taking over in the Northwest. These groups create vocal-heavy, melodic, catchy compositions that hearken back to the musical formulas popularized by Buffalo Springfield, The Band, and Love. Gorilla Manor was self-funded and tweaked for over a year before its release. And it sounds even better live!

2) Efterklang - Magic Chairs:

A great deal of the standout music I come across is discovered through browsing the local concert listings regularly and visiting the Zulu Records website once a month. Employing the former information retrieval method, I came across Efterklang (Danish for "Remembrance") only a few months ago. I planned to go to the show here in Vancouver, knowing absolutely nothing about this whimsical Danish quartet, but a university assignment was due the following morning so I never made it. Frustrated and curious, I downloaded both Magic Chairs and Parades. I have recently discovered that there is definitely a Scandinavian indie rock sound. Like The Concretes, PB&J, and Bodebrixen, Efterklang follows the tenets of twee but is substantiated by catchy, acute percussion.

3) Shearwater - The Golden Archipelago:

I have a friend who told me to go see Shearwater this past April at the Biltmore Cabaret. I didn't know Shearwater at this time and was a bit turned off by the nautical-themed concert posters I had seen around town. I skipped the show in favour of an evening involving laundry and a new Family Guy episode, but I did feel guilty enough to download Rook and purchase The Golden Archipelago on iTunes that night. Both albums are excellent. A quiet departure from Jonathan Meiburg's Okkervil River sound, Shearwater creates songs based on the delicacy of birds and the melancholy of the sea. Of course, Meiburg sings about things other than ornithology and oceanography, but these subjects provide a mystery and poignancy around which most of Shearwater's songs are composed. Like Joanna Newsom, Shearwater has a literary, troubadour-like quality that provides every song with an engaging intimacy.

4) Arcade Fire - The Suburbs:

I don't need to write much about this group, OR this album, because it seems to be on every single Top 10 List of 2010. Arcade Fire does have its weaknesses - see: Regine's vocals, conservative song structures, repetitive choruses - but their eclectic musicianship, unrelenting energy, and well-documented authenticity continues to produce albums that are diverse and intelligent. I am always sceptical of albums that are lauded due to hype or to a group's reputation, but The Suburbs really is Arcade Fire's most thoughtful and complex album yet.

5) Beach House - Teen Dream:

I did not like this album the first time I heard it. Victoria Legrand's deep androgynous voice and the keyboard-heavy backing of each track create a psychedelic Dream Pop sound that can be aurally curious and initially off-putting. However, a few more listens and the viewing of some live performances online helped me to understand where the band was coming from. They are indeed an anachronistic band, but Beach House creates excellent, reverb-laden pop that is fuelled by melody and playful tambourine accents. While their debut was good, Teen Dream is a classic. I even bought the CD...who buys CDs anymore?! I should also note that I was totally obsessed with '10 Mile Stereo' for two weeks or so (see video below).

6) Interpol - Interpol:

Paul Banks' deliberate and troubled vocals have coated Interpol's catchiest hits (such as 'Obstacle 1' and 'Slow Hands') with a dusting of pessimism and cynicism. Sometimes this worked (see: Turn on the Bright Lights), and sometimes this resulted in songs peppered with inauthenticity and clashing aesthetic systems (see: Antics). Interpol has often tried to fight their dark edge, especially with Antics, but they simply embraced it with this most recent release. They seemed to publicly (and perhaps subconsciously) acknowledge this fact by choosing not to title their most recent work. The guitars and keyboards reflect Banks' style on this album, and while this does make for an oft-dispiriting outing, one can clearly identify that the band is finally clicking on all levels: musically, intellectually, and emotionally.

7) Stars - The Five Ghosts:

I was a bit meh about Stars prior to this album. The harmonies between Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan (who I still believe to be Emily Haines' vocal doppelganger) have always been pitch-perfect and incisive, but many songs from Heart and Set Yourself on Fire seemed either musically undeveloped or sappy in subect matter. It seems as if Stars has always tried to avoid shooting into the "rock" category, and I think this has hindered their development as a band. Five Ghosts, however, is great because songs such as 'We Don't Want Your Body' and 'Fixed' are danceable and up-tempo while songs such as 'Winter Bones' and 'Dead Hearts' highlight the emotional, narrative style that Torquil/ Millan are known (and loved) for.

8) Sleigh Bells - Treats:

I have selected this album for the same reason I selected Matt & Kim's Grand last year. That is, even though the band may be a one-trick musical pony, their sound is so distinct and kickass that people should tune in and put out. Comprised of Poison the Well's hardcore lead guitarist Derek Miller and the little known Alexis Krauss, this duo produces dirty Noise Pop that is ideal for losing your hearing and/or working out. I have a nostalgic connection to this album as well, as I used it to train for a marathon in the mountains of Bozeman this past summer. While I doubt that Miller and Krauss will release more than two or three albums, I know that 'A/B Machines' and 'Crown on the Ground' will be on my Shuffle for years to come.

9) Jonsi - Go:

I really hate when musicians break away from the pack to persue solo careers (see: Chuck Ragan, Julian Casablancas, Sting, etc). Solo projects are such a cliche: they represent difficulties within the band, they very rarely work out, and they often affect the reputation of the deserter in a negative way. I resisted listening to Go until this, the very end of the year. I also refused to see Jonsi when he came to Vancouver this year. My connection to the music of Sigur Ros is so strong and valuble to me (for both aesthetic and personal reasons) that I did not want a sad solo album to tarnish my extremely high opinion of the band in ANY way. Having said this, I trust no one's taste in music more than my sister's, and she assured me - on many ocassions - that Jonsi did justice to both his band and his career with Go. This album is definitely frothy when compared to the weighty compositions of Sigur Ros, but it combines Jonsi's sprightly personality with the band's complexity to create songs that are both touching and accessible.

10) Hans Zimmer - Inception:

When one watches Inception, or hears elements of Zimmer's potent compositions during trailers for the film, it is difficult to appreciate the depth and existential qualities of the score. Throughout the film, clips of each of the eleven tracks are played, but it is impossible to isolate and analyse these pieces in their entirety. Unlike many orchestral soundtracks, Inception can stand alone as a concept album. Zimmer's addition of electric guitar to several of the tracks, and the ebbing-and-flowing crescendos in many of the pieces, reflect both the tension within the film's plot and modern anxieties linked to corporate control and anonymity. Whenever I listen to this album, it generates visions of both tsunamis and legendary romances...powerful forces that change lives forever.

Keywords: "Best Albums 2010", "Alex Dawkins", "Vancouver concerts"

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Indistinct Drams

I was seriously considering whether or not to post this because the underlying theme of the entry can be misinterpreted as snobbish. Since I have been buying, drinking, and consuming Scotch whisky over the past five years, I have noticed that several distilleries have established themselves as classic Scotch impostors. I feel that I should bring these impostors to the public's attention.

Like buying Spam instead of pork loin from the butcher, or using mouthwash instead of brushing, several Scotches have become unjustifiably common and (dare I say) trendy as alternatives to established and reliable drams. Of course, I would prefer a glass of any single malt over a glass of blended Scotch, but it deeply concerns me when I continue to see Glenlivet on restaurant menus, and Aberlour being featured at the the liquor store. Before you dismiss these sentiments as superficial and unnecessarily critical observations from an indulgent North American nerd, please skim through the follow case studies to see where I am coming from.

Oban is one of my favourite whiskies due to its perfect balance of peat and sweet, and to its briny finish. Diageo Distilleries, which owns Oban Distillery, designated Oban as the representative West Coast Highlands whisky, and it is known around the world for its regionally-specific flavour. However, it is pricey at $120 per bottle, so many people opt for the bland and forgettable Old Pulteney. At $80 per bottle for their standard 12-year-old, Old Pulteney has made a name for itself by mimicking Oban. From its seaside location at the northern tip of Scotland to its nostalgia-drenched marketing, Old Pulteney tries very hard to act like an historical and unique whisky. However, its bankruptcy-riddled past and atypical Highland characteristics reveal that it is only an average malt exploiting the idiosyncratic finish and established features of Oban. Old Pulteney is owned by Inver House, which is a Scottish-owned company, but it just cannot compete with the almighty Oban.

Glenfiddich, the top selling single malt in the world, is a spirit that appears in every bar and restaurant as a Speyside malt. As the Coca-cola of the Scotch world, Glenfiddich relies on product placement and ubiquity to garner fans and deceive those in search of an exceptional Speyside whisky. Chill-filtering, mass distilling, and flavour-enhancing distillation techniques produce a weak spirit, and Glenfiddich (along with Glenlivet) totally lacks the leather-and-dried-fruit sophistication of distinctive Speyside Scotches such as Glenrothes. Glenfiddich is a copycat whisky that uses drink menus and  transnational advertising campaigns to slink into the throats of unsuspecting imbibers hoping to experience a multifaceted Speyside malt.

To reiterate, any single malt is a good single malt. However, the "classic Scotch impostors" out there, such as Old Pulteney and Glenfiddich, will rob you of the ethereal taste sensations that can be generated by consuming Scotches such as Oban and Glenrothes.  

* keywords: "Scotch blog", "Vancouver blog", "Alex Dawkins"

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Hidden Gitxsan Masterpiece

The main branch of a major bank is likely one of the last places you would expect to house a First Nations masterwork. However, if you enter the Royal Bank main branch at 1025 Georgia Street (at Burrard) and head up the escalators, you will encounter a hidden gem in the form of nine fully carved and painted  red cedar panels. Forming a frieze above the mezzanine offices, these murals span 35 meters and depict various stories involving Weget (the Gitxsan name for Raven, the central trickster/creator figure in many Northwest Coast legends).

Completed over a three-month period in 1972, the frieze was designed and executed by founders of and instructors from the recently defunct Kitanmaax ('Between the Banks') School of Northwest Coast Indian Art in Hazelton. Also known as Ksan, this art school was one of the first dedicated to Northwest Coast Native design and technique. While it was located on Gitxsan land and was known for producing masters of Gitxsan formline design, it quickly began attracting First Nations artists from across the province due to its high standards and renowned instructors. This mural was created by Vernon Stephens, Earl Muldon, Art Sterritt, Walter Harris, Ken Mowatt, and Alfred Joseph. Several of these artists were instructors at Ksan, and all of them are now recognised as masters of Gitxsan art. Earl Muldon, for example, recently became one of the only Northwest Coast artists to ever receive the Order of Canada. I just saw Art Sterritt on TV tonight as a First Nations representative in the opposition of the Northern Gateway Pipeline!

So next time you are depositing money or buying travellers cheques at the Georgia Street Royal Bank, take a look on the second floor.