Who is Arcade Fire? (or: Since when did talent merit a Grammy?)

I am interrupting a series of posts I’ve been writing about last week’s Dead White Guys twitter debate because there is only one thing on my mind at the moment. If you’re anything like me, you don’t hold the Grammys in very high regard and haven’t for some time now. More often than not, the awarding of the marquee prizes like Album of the Year have about as much to do with talent and accomplishment as the votes you were forced to cast for your high school’s homecoming court. But if the wave of vitriolic vexation that washed over Twitter in the 24 hours following the awarding of Album of the Year to the Arcade Fire for The Suburbs is any indication, the newest generation of Grammy voters may indeed be experiencing a renewed interest in actual music.

There is, of course, a great deal of basking to be done in the glow of the Arcade Fire (likewise in the award for Best New Artist). We had a baffled MTV trying to rationalise Gaga’s defeat, pinning the blame on the paranoid throngs of conservative musicians frightened by her flamboyant espousal of the ‘queer agenda’. Or the shear joy of watching Esperanza Spalding swiftly dash the dreams of countless beleaguered Beliebers. Then there’s this little gem (whoisarcadefire.tumblr.com), which popped up in the wee hours of Monday morning. But, perhaps more important than the all-too-rare public recognition of a band who spend more time practicing than preening or posturing are the symbolic victories which extend far beyond the band members alone.

Because, if you think about it, it’s a victory for all of us, really—for those of us whose interaction with the world reaches beyond the comings and goings of a Madonna knock-off in a rancid meat dress or a Canadian teenager who really ought to be in school. It’s an important victory for we who still clear space for our turntables and call songs by their track numbers because we still have some concept of continuity: of beginning, middle, and end. And it’s a message to the labels—and one we’ve been trying to send for ages now—that music isn’t (and never should be) about churning out hit after hit, but about nurturing artists and fostering creativity and not as dictated by sales figures and focus groups but by high concept and visceral intuition.

And maybe that’s what we’re seeing here. Maybe the Talent are finally sending a message to the parasites who bleed them dry: that while the hit factory model may make them millions, it will never make them respectable. Will that change the behaviour of the Geffens, Bransons, and Davises of this world? Not likely. But something else we learned last night: no one needs major labels anymore. A lot of talent and even more passion can accomplish everything and more than a bottomless bank account ever could. We can only hope that such high-profile recognition of an independent entity will boost the morale of the innumerable others who choose to go it alone. Could we finally be witnessing ‘the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism‘?

P.S. I would be remiss if I did not also take this opportunity to congratulate my former colleagues from the Chicago Symphony as well as my friends at Naxos of America who absolutely crushed in the classical categories Sunday night.

P.P.S. If you liked this, here is another article from Vancouver about the importance of last night’s award.


The Indie Handbook: Best of the Decade (2000’s)

I don't know the dog's name...
Osvaldo Golijov with Dawn Upshaw, Photo (c) John Sann/DG

Now that you’ve perused our favorite albums and songs of the year, we hope you’ll enjoy our best of the decade lists.  Since both of us were incredibly uncool until about halfway through the decade, please forgive us any gaps, although I think we’ve done our research since then.  On this page, we’ll post our top 10, but don’t worry, we’ve linked to more extensive lists.

Kristin’s top 10 albums of the decade:

10. Jason Mraz, Live at Java Joe’s (self-released, 2001): I don’t care how “mainstream” Jason Mraz is, he is an incredibly talented guitarist and singer/songwriter.  This album is a lot different from “radio Jason” like “Wordplay” and “Geek in the Pink”–it’s poetry set to acoustic guitar.  “Unfold” is my favorite track, but I wouldn’t skip one.

9. Camera Obscura, Let’s Get Out of This Country (Merge, 2006): My favorite Camera Obscura album.  Lovely twee/pop to which you can dance and laugh and cook, apparently, because that’s what I do.  I discovered this band much too late.

8.  The Format, Dog Problems (The Vanity Label, 2006): Everyone knows I love the Format.  Dog  Problems is a work of angsty genius.  Incredible arrangements and Nate Ruess has the best voice ever.  I cried every night until he came back with fun., which is on my best of 2009 list.

7.  Justin Timberlake, FutureSex/LoveSounds (Jive, Zomba, 2006): I don’t want to say too much about this (because I’m saying so much about my other picks), and I realize it isn’t a very indie choice, but it is an amazing album, and I think its sound is pretty revolutionary.  So, thank you Justin, for bringing sexy back.

6. Belle & Sebastian, Push Barman To Open Old Wounds (Matador, 2005): I decided that compilations are allowed, even if the songs didn’t come out this decade, since it is my list and everything.  Every single Belle & Sebastian album is worth having and listening to on repeat, but this compilation happens to house some of my favorites, like “The State I Am In” and “You Made Me Forget My Dreams”.  This storytelling twee makes me so happy I could die.

5. Stars, Set Yourself On Fire (Arts & Crafts, 2004): I think Stars may have changed my life a little bit.  This lovely, cathartic electropop is actually pretty epic, I think.  “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” and “Ageless Beauty” are, in my opinion, the most notable tracks.

4. The New Pornographers, Challengers (Matador, 2007): Another epic album; every song is cathartic, with haunting layers and perfect movement.  “Unguided”–the climax of Challengers.

3.  White Stripes, White Blood Cells (Sympathy for the Record Industry V2, 2001): I don’t think anyone can deny that the White Stripes have made their mark on the music industry over the past 10 years–but which album is their best?  I’ve seen other albums on other lists, but White Blood Cells is my favorite, especially for “Hotel Yorba,” “Fell In Love With A Girl,” and “We’re Going To Be Friends”.

2.  Arcade Fire, Funeral (Merge, 2004): EPIC.  In my search for cool, I listened to Neon Bible before I ever heard Funeral, and while Neon Bible did indeed make my extended list, Funeral is groundbreaking.  What a sound!  What lyrics!  Thank you, Arcade Fire.  “Crown of Love” and “Wake Up” are my favorite tracks.

1.  Andrew Bird, Armchair Apocrypha (Fat Possum, 2007): There was no question here for me about the best album of the decade.  This album reflects the work of a phenomenal classically-trained multi-instrumentalist with a great comprehension of musical theory and folk tradition.  His lyrics fascinate, and his arrangements stagger.  Can I pick a favorite track?  “Scythian Empires,” “Fiery Crash,” and “Armchairs” have the most plays on my iTunes.  Andrew Bird, we love you.

[see Kristin’s other favorites]

Eric’s Top 10:

10. We Leave at Dawn, Envy & Other Sins (A&M/Polydor) – In my mind, Envy & Other Sins is the most significant casualty of the hipster delusion. I don’t care if they won their record deal on a TV show, We Leave at Dawn is still (and by a wide margin) the best album I heard in 2008. Their official break-up in July of this year will forever be a black mark on 2009, but then, even that gave us Malpas, so, you know, it’s not all bad…

9. Mary Ann Meets the Gravediggers and Other Short Stories, Regina Spektor (Sire) – Another collection of impossible to find independent releases, this is Regina Spektor at her best, back when the only people who listened to her actually knew what anti-folk means.

8. Bring Me the Workhorse, My Brightest Diamond (Asthmatic Kitty) – Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond is another one of those enigmatic figures cultivating the no man’s land between pop and classical music. And she packs a punch. Reared on a healthy diet of Pierre Boulez, Nina Simone, Radiohead, and a dash of PJ Harvey, Workhorse was unleashed and it knocked me clean into next week—which is not meant to take anything away from the follow-up A Thousand Shark’s Teeth, but I had to pick a favorite. [Read my interview with Shara.]

7. Want One, Rufus Wainwright (Dreamworks) – This is not Rufus’s harmonically adventurous album by any means (Release the Stars is), but in terms of campy grandeur, I challenge you to find any album that can reach this level without making a complete fool of everyone involved. With such sweeping epics as “Oh, What a World”, “Go or Go Ahead”, and “14th Street”, it’s a physically exhausting listening experience—and worth every minute.

6. Super Extra Gravity, The Cardigans (Stockholm) – It may come as a surprise, but The Cardigans probably have more to do with this the existence of this blog than any other band. Hearing this album on one of the British Airways in-flight music channels in January of 2006 opened the floodgates, if you will. It is, by far, the band’s most mature record to date and a major shift from the satirical bossa nova spirit they championed in the mid-90s. Pick up the UK bonus tracks edition if you can, because the final track, “Slow”, is the bleakest love song you will ever hear with a pretty slick symmetrical division of the octave (at the major third) to close it out.

5. Cuilidh, Julie Fowlis (Machair/Shoeshine) – I took a few months off, then listened to this album again Christmas Eve and came to the following conclusion. This is the most beautiful album I have heard. Ever.

4. Why Should the Fire Die, Nickel Creek (Sugar Hill) – One word: “Eveline”. This is Nickel Creek at the pinnacle of their combined compositional ability. I’m still waiting for that “Hello Again” tour I hope you are planning.

3. Ayre, Osvaldo Golijov/Dawn Upshaw (Deutsche Grammophon) – Yes, if you insist on seeking your identity in the esoterism of the avant-garde, you may keep telling yourself that Osvaldo Golijov is too much of a populist to be taken seriously. All I know is that 4 June 2007, the night I heard Dawn Upshaw perform this song cycle as part of the Chicago Symphony’s MusicNow series, still ranks among the top five most glorious experiences of my life.

2. Push Barman to Open Old Wounds, Belle & Sebastian (Rough Trade/Matador) – Even though these songs all came out in the 90s, this is the first time they have ever been collected in the one place and, as far as I know, the only remaining way to obtain most of these recordings, so it counts. Ever wonder why B&S have the devoted following they do (ourselves included)? The answer is buried among these 24 tracks.

1. Végétal, Emilie Simon (Barclay) – The most intricate, controlled, and breathtaking effort from the woman I consider the quintessential songwriter/composer of the last decade. After three years, I am still peeling back layers of sonic architecture in hopes of reaching the foundation of this subtly monumental achievement. Emilie Simon is creating the future of music, and I don’t think even she realizes it. This is, quite simply, the masterpiece of the decade.

[see Eric’s full list of 51 albums]

I (Eric) would like to introduce one last superlative before we bid adieu to the first decade of the 21st century. That is “Most Vexing Album of the Decade”. To me, the winner is clearly In Our Space Hero Suits, the debut from Sweden’s Those Dancing Days. I’ve been listening to it for about a year now, and I still can’t figure out if I actually like the music, or if I just think the singer, Linnea Jönsson, is really cute. Watch the video below, and help me figure this out.

What do Spike Jonze, Dave Eggers, Arcade Fire, and the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s have in common?

This awesomeness!

Ok, so when I was little, I used to love this book, and now Spike Jonze has made it into a movie that will be coming out in October 2009.  Dave Eggers even helped write it!  I’m going to pee my pants with excitement!

You know what else is cool?  You might recognize the song from the trailer–it’s a re-recording of “Wake Up” from Arcade Fire’s Funeral (2004).  Love it.

And to top it all off, the soundtrack for the movie will feature the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, who are apparently BFF with Spike Jonze (or something like that).  Holy crap.  Does October 16th, 2009 sound like it’s going to be the best day of your life?  I think it does.