Wednesday, January 19, 2011

In Pursuit of the Perfect Album

Before I explore what today's title means, I'll let you in on my latest venture. A friend of mine was nagging me to start listening to the Dresden Dolls, and I was wondering why I hadn't before. I love Amanda Palmer's solo work, so naturally, the Dresden Dolls clicked immediately. I've been enjoying them for the past few days. Regardless, perusing around their respective webpages, I noticed that Amanda Palmer had a new album coming out this year, and had just released the first single from it a couple of days ago, called "Map Of Tasmania". Then I discovered the remix contest.

Apparently, Amanda Palmer is running a remix contest for her new single, where the winner gets a thousand bucks, a spot on her upcoming remix EP and the chance to collaborate with her on a song. Naturally, I jumped on it, so expect a remix of the song in a few weeks. I may make it a Salvation Denied venture; Caleb's voice wouldn't sound out of place at all in the context of the song. If anybody else wants to give it a shot, here's the link. It does a better job of explaining the rules than I can.

Now that that's taken care of. In pursuit of the perfect album.

A friend and longtime collaborator (the same one who wanted me to listen to the Dresden Dolls, interestingly enough) and I were talking on a car ride about our favorite albums, the conversation having been spurred by playing "Vespertine"by Björk. He was saying that he thought the album was among his top three favorite albums, and I was inclined to agree.

Then I wondered, why?

I realized it was because I didn't have any problems with the album. Which is incredibly rare these days, after being put through 2 and a half years of analyzing every single detail ever in music. I then went back and looked through what I found to be some of my favorite albums, and realized that a large portion of them I could listen to un-objectively, simply because I had no faults with them. Though the list is small, each of these albums has had a huge impact in my life, and are as close to perfect as I can ascertain. In alphabetical order (because iTunes likes to do it like that), they are:

After Forever - After Forever
Another of those holdouts from my heavy metal listening days, the minute I put this album on I realized that I would love it. After Forever plays the best female fronted Dutch symphonic metal I've heard. And I hate how metal genres are that specific. Not the point. The band finally hit that sweet spot between bombastic orchestral composition, pounding heavy metal and powerful vocal performances, turning in quite possibly the best modern heavy metal album I've heard. Ever. The use of a full orchestra isn't a crutch for bad songwriting to rest on, as it is in so many other heavy metal bands. Rather, the interplay between orchestra and band is symbiotic, each playing off the other and weaving together to create an album for the ages.

The vocals, however, provided by Floor Jansen, are what really ties the whole package together. Floor's voice is utterly captivating, even if it's of the balls out smacks you in the face variety. Extremely powerful and well trained, she makes the music her own and lets it absolutely rip. Just listen.

Björk - Vespertine
Björk's fourth album, and ultimately best, what makes Vespertine so incredible? If ever an album could be described as a winter album, this would be the seminal example of one. It's cold, yet strangely inviting, making use of multiple bell patches, strings, choir, harp, synth pads and the wonderful voice of the artist in question. It's all at once barren, sparse, subdued, emotional and wonderfully lush. Björk tones down her insanity that made tracks like "It's Oh So Quiet" such a riot to listen to, and turns in the most introspective and vulnerable performance of her career. She cries out, just looking for someone to spend the night with her, and ultimately finds someone who stays for a while. We never get the big beats of "Army Of Me" or the anger of "Alarm Call"; at its core, "Vespertine" is an album about the fragility of human love, a subject that all of us can relate to. "Pagan Poetry" especially sells the album in a big way. Once Björk hits those high notes in the chorus, its all over. If you were to listen to only one album on this list, make it this one. Its that good.

Janelle Monáe - The ArchAndroid
I've already detailed why this album is so awesome in my Top Ten Albums Of 2010 list, but while Trophy Scars beat this out in terms of initial impact, "The ArchAndroid" has ultimately proved to be one of the best albums I've ever listened to, simply because of its grandiose ideas and how well they succeed.  A quick recap: a smorgasbord of ideas that should have no business working that do in a big way, masterfully crafted song structures and pacings, and Janelle's voice. Oh my God, her voice. 

TIE: Mono - You Are There / Mono and World's End Girlfriend - Palmless Prayer/Mass Murder Refrain

Quite possibly, these two albums bring real backing to the phrase "beauty in desolation", but they go about it different ways. "You Are There" is the loud one, with the swells that one would come to expect from any post rock band, but done so masterfully that one would wonder if any other post rock band really matters. Take the opener, "The Flames Beyond The Cold Mountain". It opens with trem picked clean guitars and cymbal swells, both post rock staples, but the emotion present in the composition is second to none. The song gradually builds and builds to its breaking point, where everything boils over in a wall of distortion and pounding drums, and the listener is left in the breach, struggling to find a hand-hold lest they get swept away on a torrent of despair. And that's all in the first track. 

"Palmless Prayer/Mass Murder Refrain" takes a much sparser, yet no less effective approach. Relying on mainly strings to provide its emotional impact, its quite possibly one of the saddest, most gripping albums I've heard. The album flows together so well its not so much an album, but one extended composition, lasting nearly 75 minutes, and it doesn't let go for a second. There are its moments of loud intensity, sure, but its an exercise in restraint and layering to provide its impact. And with that, it succeeds where no other album has come close.

Peccatum - Lost In Reverie
This album is quite an impressive feat from a man who's other job was involved with burning churches throughout Norway in the 90s. Peccatum is one of the now defunct side projects from Ihsahn, who used to front the black metal band Emperor, one of the best bands to come out of the scene. And while "Lost In Reverie" still has its share of black metal moments, the majority of the album is taken up by atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere. Listen to the opening track in a dark room alone by yourself and don't tell me you're not freaked the fuck out. "Lost In Reverie" is great because I have yet to find something that sounds like it, and the compositions included on it are wonderful. From the pseudo-breaks, glitch and fretless bass of "In The Bodiless Heart" to the all out assault of "Black Star", the album weaves its way through a multitude of genres, all while pulling off an impressive display of consistency. Definitely listen. But be prepared to be freaked out.

That's all for today. Perhaps tomorrow I'll post up pages from the charts I'm currently writing for my junior recital ensemble. 

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