Monday, December 27, 2010

A Good Cry

I have a morning routine. It works for me and so I've stuck with it for 38 months. On weekdays, I start with 40 milligrams of Micodine, then I put the coffee on and take a shower. By the time I'm dry the coffee is ready and that helps wash down the Lamictol, which are big pills. Two hundred milligrams and then I'm stabilized.

I drink the second cup of coffee after I'm dressed -- usually a button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up and pressed trousers. It's cooled down a few degrees and I can gulp it down in no time. Sixteen ounces of coffee to start. I'll have another 16 at the office.

I pop a Klonopin in the car, two if traffic is heavy, and flip through my mp3s -- over 16,000 songs loaded. On days when I'm feeling good and agitated, I'll put on some classic Stones or Zeppelin or maybe even Blondie if it feels right. On days like last Tuesday, when everything seems poised to crash and my eyes are drooping and my teeth are grinding, I'll pick something more mellow. Maybe Leonard Cohen or one of the more drugged-out Neil Youngs. Something to keep me sharp but settle me into the mood.

This was one of those Tuesdays; I could already tell. I put on Nico, stayed in the right lane, and took the freeway at 35.

The office was starting to fill up and I shuffled quickly to my desk. I had to close my eyes and think about whether to put down my bag and turn on the computer first or to leave the bag on and walk to the kitchen for coffee. I compromised, dropped my bag and turned, and my eyes stopped twitching.

The drip coffee is shit, but if I supplement it with a long pour of half and half it becomes bearable. I was at the office early this Tuesday, so I got one of the big mugs and a tall glass of ice water, to which I added some Sweet & Low.

My desk is positioned perpendicular to the window and faces the entrance. Thus, only people standing directly behind me (or out the window) can see my screen. Even if I am dutifully working, I don't want the scavengers watching me.

As I said, I was somewhat early on this Tuesday, but the office was starting to fill up, so I nodded my head to new arrivals while the computer booted up. I don't sit still and I don't like looking unimportant, so I flipped open the notebook that always sits on my desk and started writing sentences. Anyone passing by would think I was on to something or had remembered an idea from the night before.

Once the newcomers settled down, I got on Google and typed in "bourbon cocktails." I was normally a scotch drinker, and wanted to do something different after work. I wouldn't have the opportunity, of course, but I didn't know this at the time. I marked down a few variations of the Old Fashioned and then closed the tab. I pulled up Facebook and scrolled through the list. Most people were at work, like me, so it was busy. Girls were excited about stupid things like lemon cookies and seeing Thom Yorke at the mall. The guys on my list were posting articles that confirmed their point of view. I kept scrolling. It wasn't even 10:00 a.m. yet and I was already bored.

That's when Chloe came over to my desk.

"Hey Blake, at 1:30 there's going to be this guy, um, this guy named Cookie. He's having Share Time across the street, you know in the Chili's parking lot?"

Chloe was a real nice looking girl, but I tried to avoid her at the office, as she had some of my same daily proclivities, and I didn't appreciate attention my way.

"Oh, really," I said. "Come with me. There's a fresh pot of Caffe Verona in the kitchen."

We walked and she talked and I tried to keep her straight, euphemistically, until we were alone. Then, in the kitchen, I did indeed pour myself another cup of that shit Caffe Verona and pulled her to the side where the pretzels are and asked for further details.

"This is a big Share Time," she said. "It's almost too overwhelming. That's why I'm telling you about it. I don't want to go by myself. If it was just the normal thing with a few groups milling about, I wouldn't mind so much. But this is a big fucking event, so I hear, and I think I'd really like you to be there with me, if you're okay with that."

I should explain why this exchange with Chloe was riling me up so damn much. I take great care to procure my goodies from reliable sources without attracting attention. I like sharpening my focus on life without consorting with folks like Cookie and certainly without discussing the peculiar particulars with an attractive but disjointed girl.

Despite the irritables, however, this Share Time had my attention, as one could often find hidden gems at these sort of events, the way you might discover an old, cherished record at a garage sale. I agreed to venture out with Chloe around 12:30 p.m., under the guise that we would be walking to Isaac's around the corner. (Isaac's was a sandwich place around the corner that we all knew but nobody ever went to, as the sandwich quality was spotty at best.)

I took a quick trip to the restroom when I was confident nobody else was in there. I locked myself in a stall and snorted a few quick hits of frost. Goddamn, I thought, I need to cut my fingernails.

At 12:58 p.m. Chloe and I were out on the street and I noticed it was sunnier than earlier. I felt almost out of place in my navy blue button-down, but I shrugged it off and kept my shoulders rotating as we walked. Chloe talked a lot.

"Are you thinking about getting something to eat while we're out? It'll seem natural that way though I suppose nobody will care either way."

"I'm not hungry," I said, and ran my tongue around the circumference of my mouth. From molar to roof to molar, down to that pit below the bottom-front row, and back again. I had a tendency to do that. Chloe probably didn't notice but there's no way to be sure.

Chloe talked about her boyfriend or someone she was sleeping with who wasn't her boyfriend. She referred to him as "the boy" which annoyed me to no end.

We arrived at the Chili's or, rather, the Chili's parking lot. There were plenty of people milling about, some of them with toothpicks in their mouths, having just eaten. I assumed they were all there for Share Time, though to go through the pretense of eating a Buffalo Ranch Burger or whatever the fuck seemed an unnecessary obstacle.

The sun was sitting high above us and a few of the loiterers backed themselves to the Chili's awning to stay in the shade. I wanted to stand out in the sun and cook. Chloe stood with me and I caught sight of the some of the freckles on the back of her neck. Her skin looked creamy and white with these faint little spots, almost invisible to the naked eye, like they were little stars in a faraway galaxy that nobody else could notice. Nobody but me.

Christ, I thought, when is this shit going to get started? I got a little itch behind my eye. My lips were dry. I was really starting to notice things.

A blue sedan from the early part of the decade pulled up and parked in the far corner. The engine stayed on for a soft minute and then quit. We all starting heading over; the people from the awning stood up hesitantly but I just went right over to the car. Nobody was watching. Nobody cared.

A black man got out of the car. He was skinny as hell and wore a baggy tank top that bore the logo of a team I couldn't recognize. He put his hands up in the air opposite each other gestured to all of us in a general way to gather around.

There were two women in the backseat of the car smoking cigarettes and talking to themselves. One white and one black. They didn't seem concerned about the crowd forming around their car.

The man started talking; again, without any real direction, but clearly at all of us around the car.

"Two things, two things," He said. "One, I don't negotiate. It's cool and you'll be happy, but if I tell you what we're getting and you aren't interested you turn and walk away. Don't fucking matter, you feel me? But, if you happy with the quote you peel off some bills and get them by the window. One of my girls help you out there. We happy to share, that's how everyone stays happy. Sharing makes us happy."

I thought about this last part. Sharing was, indeed, occasionally fulfilling, though "happy" was a bit of a stretch, I thought.


Chloe and I didn't go back to the office right away. She asked me first if I wanted to get a drink.

"I don't think so," I said. "I really don't want to go inside this place." I meant the Chili's.

"No, not here," she told me. "I live a few blocks away. This was quick and I don't want to go back yet."

So we walked to her place. I thought about her and her freckles and how they would spread and her body would get paler and wrinkled. I'm glad I know her now, I thought, when she's young and attractive.

In her apartment, she poured me a glass of tequila straight. She had a few limes lining her kitchen counter, and she sliced one and hung it around my glass.

"Just like at a nice bar," I said.

This made her smile and she stuck her tongue out in a real cute way and poured herself a drink and then bounced over to the couch and sat down next to me.

I had barely opened my package and popped a couple before she started kissing my neck. Wild, I thought, just wild. I sat there and felt her lips pecking around me. It was tough to feel it that much at this point but the contact itself was good enough and I closed my eyes. She did good by me and didn't try to escalate things too much right there. She just kept running her lips and tongue around my neck and my cheek and my eyes were closed and I thought.

I went deep back in my mind. I was in fifth grade and I'd written a book report on a Neil Armstrong biography. I was reading it aloud to the class, and talking about how Neil believed that life was about discovery and we all had a duty to go discover, whether it be a physical place like the moon or just a place in a book buried in the back of a library. We all were looking for things and had to discover them. This was our purpose, I told my class.

The teacher told me that I hadn't followed the assignment. That I was supposed to talk about the written style of the book and how the style influenced what was being said. But, this was just a silly book about Neil Armstrong and how he'd become an astronaut and gone into space, and that's all I'd talked about, space and the moon and discovery and things like that.

This was where I went when Chloe was kissing my neck. I must have really gone there, really deep inside, because I snapped out of it when Chloe pulled away and took my face in her hands.

"What's wrong?" She was very concerned.

I shook my head because I really didn't know why she was asking me that. She put a hand over my eyes and I felt wetness come off my face. She showed me her palm and the few small dots of tears.

"It's not okay," I said.

"It has nothing to do with being a real man, you know." This is what she said to me. "You're allowed. I mean, that's why we came here instead of going right back to the office. Refill?"

I looked at the table. My drink was still there. I hadn't had even a sip, so I told her no thanks.

Then a horrible thought crossed my mind. My routine was shot. This is not how I kept myself going in the early afternoon. One gets through the days by having a plan and sticking to it, even if it means a lack of adventure. Deviation meant disruption.

She rested her head on my shoulder and rubbed her hand back and forth on my chest as if it were a tabby cat.

"Stop being so sour," she said.

I closed my eyes again but made sure I was just staring at that amorphous darkness on the back of my eyelids. I sure as hell didn't want to go back to that place I was before. I just wanted to stay here, in this dark, comforting purgatory, away from the lights and signs and nonsense that had become the world.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Get Better

They had sent me home to die. Or, rather, I had sent myself home to die. In my eyes, if I was going to spend the rest of my life in a “death bed,” it might as well be my bed. I wasn't getting better. And now, the people were starting to show up, getting in line to see me as if I were a carnival ride. I had never been so popular!

Joan structured it like a movie. There was a schedule and the least important characters would be first. The first people in to see me were hardly even friends. Did they think I'd have been offended if they didn't show up? One was this guy I used to see at the track named Gene. His wife and my wife were friends, but his wife couldn't make it. So, now it was just me and Gene, me in my bed, index finger still holding the page of a novel, he on the office chair pulled in from the den.

I'm sorry for the time but I'm heading out on a flight to Denver later today. Consulting, you know.

Yes, of course. Thanks for coming by.

Did you see that Sox game last night? It was a thriller.

No. I was reading and fell asleep early. Hard for me to stay awake at night and the glare from the television is surprisingly harsh on my eyes.

It was quite a thriller.

Gene left after a few more minutes, thank Christ, and I peeled open my book. Joan was going to bring me food then, I knew. I thought of telling her, finally, right then, or somehow using metaphor remembered from my younger days to broach the subject. (No honey, I'd prefer pickles to doughnuts. Do we have any of those?) I said nothing, though. How could I say anything? At this point!

I ate soup and crackers, craning my neck forward to avoid spilling broth all over my chest. Like the opposite of sitting in the front row of a movie theater – snapping your neck forward instead of back.


The next day was better because my grandchildren came. As a child myself, I never understood why my parents' parents were so much happier to see me than my parents themselves. Now that I'm old, I get it. I see something in them that I could never recognize in my own kids. As a young parent, their success mattered. Everything I did to them mattered. But, these kids aren't my responsibility. They'll be as ripped apart and damaged as anyone else, but it's not my fault. So I'll give them candy and money and tell them stories that never happened.

I tell them about being a prisoner of war. I make everything up.

They didn't feed me for days, I tell them. It was just me in an outdoor cell. All I could do was look out into the Cambodian jungle and wait for rescue or death. They would come and torture me, though I had no information. They tied me down to a wooden plank and performed water torture on me, the kind of torture where you're staring up at the sky and they splash one drop of water on you at a time. A drop – then a few seconds – then another drop. How did I survive? I hummed a tune in my head, and each drop was another beat of a metronome. DROP—DROP--DROP--DROP--I've got sunshiiiine—DROP--DROP--On a clouuudy day—DROP--DROP--

Sometimes I'd have to update the story to a more modern song for their benefit. Heck, I could've been imprisoned in 2007.

DROP—DROP--I'm bringin' sexy back—DROP--DROP

They ask me how I'm feeling and where it hurts. They think bandages with cartoon characters make things better. I envy them. Then it's been twenty minutes or so and they're bored so they leave.

I look out the window and see a bird and a squirrel staring at each other in a tree. It's like a boxing match that hasn't started yet. They don't know each other, but something seems wrong, and if one got the chance it'd pummel the other. There's no wind.


I wasn't getting better. My head felt heavy and the back of my neck was tight, as if a small bag of marbles was tied back there. I was beginning to see colors that didn't exist. I wondered if this is what dropping acid felt like, though the colors weren't particularly pleasant.

My wife would sit with me and we'd talk about the past. Our trip to Belize, the first time we made love, our kids and how they were beautiful but used to drive us completely nuts, so nuts that we often would laugh about driving them to Disneyland and leaving them there. They wouldn't even know we were gone, we'd say.

She touched my hands and described how they'd changed over time. They were never particularly large, but they had definition when I was young. The way I gripped someone's hand when I shook it for the first time, she said, made her feel safe. Now my hands were weathered and old. Joan was nice and said they still looked good. She still felt safe. I touched her face and she smiled. It made her sad because I was dying. It made me sad to know she could have had more.


I wasn't getting better. I saw a unicorn in front of me, a hallucination to convince me that the tangible world wasn't special. It was darker than most unicorns you see. There were no rainbows or long eyelashes or princesses in sight. It was the color of egg nog with the consistency of scotch. Its face was pristine but it looked at me and frowned. This fantastical beast wasn't death coming for me. It was death's lackey, there to stare me down.


On Sunday, a man showed up at the door, younger than me by only a few years but bright and robust and colorful. He introduced himself to my wife as Keith and said we'd known each other years ago at the lab in Brookhurst. Keith heard about my illness through a mutual friend, he told her.

She nodded and showed him to my room. I didn't ask for privacy but she left us with coffee -- which I was still, mercifully, allowed to drink -- and closed the door. I didn't recognize him at first.

I've known you were here for awhile, but I figured you didn't want to see me, he said. I thought for a long time about life and relationships and connections and the universe, and I decided that the life I offered wasn't the life you wanted. I understood that. I accepted it. I moved on. But, I never forgot, and I always wondered if some day you would seek me out, even if just to offer me some sort of explanation.

What can I say? Especially now. If you wanted to find me at my weakest so you'd have an advantage, you've done well.

Oh, I don't want to hurt you. Not now, you old son of a bitch. Just tell me: did you ever once consider returning? Of giving up what you thought you needed to come back?

It was hard to look him in the eyes, those pervasive, insidious green eyes I had once looked into the way I had since reserved only for my children or a newborn puppy. I exhaled -- I had been holding my breath without knowing it -- and gestured to a family portrait on the dresser.

This is my family.

What, in this breathless, overdue conversation, did he hope to accomplish? I was too old and tired to think up words to spare his feelings, then words to summarize the phony conversation I would then detail to my wife. I was too old and tired for these things and my brain didn't want it. My brain didn't want it thirty years earlier, and it sure as hell didn't want it now, especially with these colors and creatures and hallucinations.

It's evolution. This is what I said to him. We know it's happening but we still try to stop it.

Keith sat down by his coffee and poured in some cream that my wife had left in a paper cup. He held it up so I could see.

Want some?

I've been taking it black.
This is what I said to him.


Keith left and Joan sat by my side for the rest of the evening. The sun was out late and we watched it, almost intently enough to see it move. I reached out and touched her hand. I told her the story of her hands, from when we'd first met decades earlier to this very moment. They were dry and plain. She hadn't painted the nails in years.

I sat up as best I could and saw colors in the sunset. Who knew if they were real? I felt like I could reach out and touch them. My wife kissed me on the cheek. I didn't get better.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The First Helicopter In Canada

“What are you talking about,” Lindsay demanded. “Nobody says ‘My Stars’ anymore. What are you, Greta Garbo?”

This was said to Jaimee in person, not in text form, which served to add emphasis. They had just left class and Jaimee knew she could have felt the little vibration from under her desk at any time, but Lindsay waited because she had to, just had to, say it in person.

“I was just exclaiming about her shoes is all,” Jaimee said. She was referring to the flamingo shoes, those tacky, flashy little eyesores that Missy or Mindy or whatever-her-name was wearing. But, of course, Lindsay couldn’t just focus on the problem at hand. No. She had to go after Jaimee. After her words, of all things.

“‘My Stars’ is something you expect to hear from an old lady. Something you’ll hear on T.V. from a movie a billion years ago.” Lindsay was adamant. “It’s just so weird, you know? It’s the last thing I would have expected to hear you say. Um, text.”

This last part was Lindsay’s attempt to be conciliatory. Something being “weird” is a lot better than something being “stupid,” which is clearly what she was thinking.

But, Jaimee accepted this insult and kept pace with Lindsay’s turkey-trot footsteps over the hill that bordered the school parking lot and across the street.

“Let’s go to Randall’s and get a latte.” Lindsay decided what they would be doing and Jaimee didn’t have an opinion anyway.

They walked the two blocks from the school to the shopping center, which was older than “The Hive,” the hip young everything shopping center a mile away, but this amorphous and unnamed shopping center was closer and housed Randall’s, which itself housed a few boys in their late teens, too proud to succumb to working in one of the chain coffee houses or restaurants at “The Hive,” and whom Lindsay routinely would lasso into conversation. These boys were in college, after all.

“Now,” Lindsay began, “I’m not going to say something disparaging to you, like ‘Let me do the talking,’ but keep in mind that these are boys that are very very close to being Em Ee En. We want them to think -- actually, we want them to know that we are more mature and effervescent than the average girl.”

Jaimee didn’t think Lindsay was using that word right, but she certainly wasn’t about to point it out and start another mess. Plus, she didn’t exactly know what it meant either.

In Randall’s, you ordered at the counter, but then you sat down and they brought you your drink. This was a step over Starbucks, where you stand in a little factory farm area by the “bar,” as they call it, and when the barista comes over, they call out “doubleshot soy mocha” and everyone crowds around to see if the drink is theirs, backing away disappointed when Mr. or Ms. Doubleshot comes over to claim their victory prize. Randall’s avoided this, but added the pretention of weak customer service. Where Starbucks has happy employees, Randall’s has angry musicians or disgruntled philosophy majors. Lindsay ate it right up and, thus, so did Jaimee.
As they entered, Jaimee took stock. Three boys from their school were at a booth in the corner, dripping honey from little packets onto their table when the employees weren’t looking. Jaimee thought about this, and wondered who invented the tiny condiment packet -- someone in the ketchup business, she assumed -- and how much that idea was worth. There was a black man working on a laptop at the second table from the door. Jaimee felt bad for noticing he was black.

There was a boy with shaggy blonde hair working the cash register. Lindsay did the talking.

“Hi. Um...I’ll have a latte with nonfat milk please. Honey, what do you want?”

Jaimee shrugged from behind Lindsay and thought about this new nickname. She thought of herself being spilled out from a tiny packet by immature boys.

“Just a hot chocolate, I guess,” she said.

Lindsay turned back to the shaggy-haired blonde boy at the register. She did a half-eyeroll to indicate that she was more grown-up than her friend’s beverage order.

“A nonfat latte and a hot chocolate, please.” She turned back to Jaimee. “I got it!”

Lindsay pulled out a Visa and flipped it like a playing card onto the counter.

Jaimee looked more closely at the boy. He looked down at the card and seemed to notice, for the first time, that he had customers. He pushed some buttons and swiped the card; then, making eyes with Lindsay, lowered his neck and rolled his arm behind his back, as if he was about to ask her to dance. He extended the card forward with tenderness. When Lindsay went to take it, it dropped from his fingers back onto the counter.

The boy took two Post-Its and wrote “nonfat lat” on one and “hot cho” on the other. Then he stuck them on two mugs and passed them down to the other barista, by the espresso machines. Though there were no other customers, Jaimee moved quickly away from the counter, but Lindsay stayed, obviously irked by this affront with the credit card. Jaimee was watching the boy’s shaggy hair, hanging just above his eyes like drapes cut short with a scissors.

The other barista was fat and hairy, and he started making the drinks without a word.

Jaimee made her way to their “spot,” which was in the corner, next to the table with the milk and napkins and things, on a maroon L-shaped couch. She studied Lindsay’s shoes -- which were a bit tacky themselves -- and how they weren’t moving at all. Nothing seemed to be moving.

“Have you ever been to Canada?” The boy at the counter said this quietly to Lindsay. Jaimee shouldn’t have even been able to hear it but she could.
“You’ll bring the coffee to us, right? We’re sitting over there.” Lindsay didn’t gesture or point back to the couches.

“I asked if you’ve ever traveled,” he said, then paused. Then: “To Canada.”

“I’ve never been anywhere,” Lindsay said, and turned and shimmied back to the couch as would a starlet at a movie premiere. Jaimee saw the boy looking after her, but Lindsay couldn’t know that, with her back turned. Jaimee tried to think of a way to use that information to her benefit.

Lindsay sat down and folded her hands in her lap. Jaimee looked into her eyes and saw sadness. The exchange at the counter had obviously excited her more than she let on, but she’d expected more from it.

Jaimee looked out the window. It was beginning to drizzle.

The drinks were ready. The shaggy boy gave a pat on the back to the barista who made the drinks, to indicate that he’d be making the delivery. Lindsay sensed his arrival and pretended to be in conversation with Jaimee, though they’d been sitting in silence.

“--finished reading ‘Brave New World’,” she said. “Everyone else in the class thought it was boring but honestly I don’t even think they’d finished it. It’s not even that hard. It’s just because people in our class aren’t up to the Advanced Placement reading level. It’s a shame really.”

By this time the boy was standing in front of them. He held the drinks until Lindsay stopped talking. After she said “shame really,” the boy looked down to verify that he had the right drinks and placed in front of Lindsay and the hot chocolate down in front of Jaimee, Post-Its still attached.

“So, neither of you have ever traveled to Canada?” The boy was standing perfectly still, but not rigid. Jaimee looked down to see if he was in danger of swaying. There was no swaying, but no rigidity. It was as if he hung in midair like a scarecrow, neither in danger of falling to the ground or sailing off into the air.
“I told you. I’ve never been anywhere,” Lindsay said. “Except here and Virginia a few times because of my cousin.”

“What about you?” the boy turned his head to Jaimee who was still looking down but not really at his shoes anymore.

“I was born in Winnipeg,” Jaimee said. “In a museum actually. It was my parents’ anniversary, and my dad was taking my mom on a scavanger hunt.”

Lindsay took a sip of her drink and Jaimee just stared at the great globby mountain of whipped cream on top of her hot chocolate.

“It’s an aviation museum and if you go there you can see Canada’s first helicopter. From the 30s. The very first helicopter in all of Canada. It may not seem like a big deal, but they actually had helicopters in the 1930s!”

“Why do you ask?” Lindsay tapped her fingers on the side of her mug and stomped her foot to make sure the boy looked back her way. “Do we look Canadian?”

“You look,” the boy closed his eyes to think, “perfectly, fundamentally, normal.”
Jaimee stared up at the boy who stared back at her. Lindsay took a sip and used her lower lip to get foam off the top one.

“I ask because of the moose,” he said. “Every once in a while, you can see a moose in the states, usually the Pacific Northwest. But the moose here are nothing like the moose you see in Canada. Did you see moose growing up in Winnipeg?”

Jaimee didn’t answer for a while and eventually Lindsay kicked her shin under the table.

“No,” she said. “It was a city, really. And I was young.”

“But, you live here now,” the boy said, and he finally was moving his limbs again. His hand went through the brown-blonde locks of hair that hung over his forehead like well-groomed pig tails. “You live here and there is certainly no moose here. There’s plenty they don’t have in Canada, sure, but one thing I can assure you they have up there is moose and that’s something you’ll never find down here.”

Jaimee dipped a pinky in whipped cream. “Maybe I should go back? Like, there’s more life there than here?”

“That’s not what I said. I just asked what I asked because it looked like neither of you had ever been to Canada. I’m often wrong, though.”

Lindsay asked questions: “Do you go to college?”

“Do you play sports?”

“When you travel up there, do you fly or drive?”

Then she started making statements about the questions she asked.

“I’m applying to multiple schools. I’m not sure which are my goals and which are my backups. I’m just happy to get away from my parents.”

“My brother was a soccer goalie but then he got a knee injury and had to stop.”

“I don’t see what’s so special about Canada. It’s sunnier down here.”

Another customer came in and the boy left. It was a bald man with a dog who ordered a muffin. Jaimee wondered where they got them from. Even though this place was a notch above the other coffee places, it didn’t seem like they had the resources to bake their own pastries. She looked at Lindsay.

“Do you want to go?”

“No. It’s fine. He’s cute but weird, right? I don’t mind staying. You’ll be the plane and I’ll be your wings.”

“Or I’ll be the helicopter and you’ll be my propellor,” Jaimee said.

When the boy came back, he was holding a cup.

“I’m on my break now,” he said. “Why don’t you both come out back with me. I want to show you something.”

Lindsay and Jaimee looked at each other. This was the sort of invite girls their age were advised not to take, but the mystery of it all became too much. The girls got up without saying anything. They followed the boy out the door and around the corner to the alley behind the store.

“This is a fun afternoon,” Lindsay said. “God, it’s so easy to get stuck in a rut. School, home, school, home, school, home. It’s nice to have an adventure. This is an adventure, right?”

“I guess that depends on your definition of ‘adventure,’” the boy said.

“And what happens now,” Jaimee said.

The boy led them to a row of parked cars behind the coffee shop and adjacent stores. Then he showed them the cup.

“I put honey in here,” he said.

The boy stopped at a Chevy sedan and put his hand on the trunk. The girls stopped talking and looked at him. He wasn’t moving, but Jaimee would not have been able to look at anything else if she’d wanted to. She looked at his jeans, neither overly tight nor baggy. His face showed little sign of weather, but he was still only modestly attractive to her. Though a bit older, he looked like all the boys she knew, and now she was standing behind a coffee shop next to his car.

“Last night,” he began, “I was driving home from a party at the beach. We’d brought chocolate and graham crackers and marshmallows to make s’mores. Since that’s what you do at the beach. There was volleyball, even after the sun went down. I watched my friends play and then I showed everyone how to make s’mores. Here’s how you angle in the chocolate and marshmallow between the cracker to keep it from breaking. Here’s how you get the stick through and keep it all together, and I showed them with my hands.

“Afterward, we all dragged ourselves and our sticky hands into the ocean. I thought the water would clean them off but they just felt stickier afterward. My hand tasted like a chocolate-covered pretzel.

“I drove separately from everyone else for some reason. I was all by myself, but I liked it, I think. I was driving up the hilly road away from the beach and lowered the passenger side window and tried to reach out to the right to feel the breeze. My hands were sticky and smelly but I still felt clean and free. Cleaner than when my hands are covered in coffee grounds. Cracker crumbs and marshmallow are always better than coffee grounds. The wind was great. I was on a road nobody else was on and I heard a thumpump,” and here he smacked his free palm down onto the trunk of the car, “thumpump and I stopped and pulled over to the side of the road.”

He stopped talking and tried to swallow. One of his hands held the cup and the other he used to open the trunk.

“Look,” he said.

The girls kept their breathing shallow and sidled forward. Jaimee kept her eyes on the boy as Lindsay peered in. She saw a brown-red fluff of nothing. It looked like a rug someone had ignored for months and shoved away in a closet, behind old shoeboxes and umbrellas and jeans that didn’t fit.

“They’re always out at night,” the boy said, “And I’d even seen them run across the road before. But, I was looking out the window. I was feeling the outside.”

Lindsay reached out for Jaimee’s hand and pulled her closer. The two girls huddled together like old Russian peasants and crept up to the trunk. The coyote was only bloody from the chest down. Its face was fully intact, frozen in the moment just before death.

“Do you think it will still eat the honey?” The boy picked up the cup from where he had placed it on the ground. He leaned over into the trunk of the car and moved the cup in position next to the coyote. It took no honey.

Jaimee saw Lindsay tighten her grip before she felt it. She began to feel her lip quiver and her foot tap the cold suburban asphalt.

“We have to go,” Jaimee said. “And she turned and took Lindsay’s hand and they walked briskly away, not turning back to see if the processed honey would somehow resuscitate the animal and change the physical world as we know it.

They walked and walked without saying a word. After a few blocks, Jaimee looked up and saw a helicopter circling overhead. It looked like it was falling.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

My Impression of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1"

Harry: Where do we even begin to look for these horcruxes?

Hermione: Why, at Muddlewick Fizzlebottom's, of course!

Harry: Who's she?

Hermione: She's the proprietor of Snurkle's Broombit Emporium. It was her sister, Betsy Battlebrain, who mixed Dumbledore's blood with the magic potion found in the Wagstill glass decanter, left behind in the Chamber of Fortitude after Mophocles McDaggle killed Snagtooth Thortlewump!

Harry: Let's get naked.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Top Ten Albums Of The 2000s

The full list: Honorable Mentions, 100-91, 90-81, 80-71, 70-61, 60-51, 50-41, 40-31, 30-21, 20-11

Before I get to the top 10, it's important that I list the many talented artists who didn't make the list, despite having released fantastic studio albums in the 2000s. There are so many, I'm sure I forgot some:

Cut Copy, Justin Timberlake, Portishead, The Field, The Wrens, Gas, Grizzly Bear, Liars, Dan Deacon, The Mountain Goats, Dinosaur Jr., Junior Boys, Bill Callahan, Real Estate, Fever Ray (seriously?? I suck), Bat For Lashes, The xx, Jim O'Rourke, Okkervil River, The Pernice Brothers, Scritti Politti, King Khan & The Shrines, Papa M, Hot Chip, Bjork, Loretta Lynn, Camera Obscura, Man Man, Broken Social Scene

And now here we go:

10. Tom Waits - Alice

You'd be hard-pressed to find a musical artist as consistent throughout his career as Tom Waits. Even the best of the aging rockers have had some pretty strong dips in their careers. Neil Young is too prolific to be consistently brilliant and, well, Bob Dylan had the 80s (though some of his albums from that era are largely underrated). Waits, however, has never had a dip. In fact, he's never released a bad album, though some are certainly better than others. His debut LP, 1973's Closing Time, kicked off a career that has seen several masterpieces and the development of the gruffest, growliest voice around.

Alice and Blood Money were released on the same day in 2002. Both were filled with material previously written for macabre collaborative musicals. Alice has more ties to the Lewis Carroll source material than most concept albums (and more than several Alice In Wonderland adaptations), and captures the mood of that grim tale more than most films on the subject ever have. Several of Waits' most memorable songs from his post-80s career are here -- it's also the perfect assortment of grim reapers and grand weepers. The album ends with "Barcarolle" and "Fawn," the latter of which was covered by Scarlet Johansson on her 2008 tribute to Waits, Anywhere I Lay My Head. Alice is solemn and ironic, with enough of Waits' madness and humor to make it almost uplifting. While "Alice" is the descent, "Fawn" is the reemergence. Waits, however, didn't have to reemerge. He's always been there.

9. The White Stripes - White Blood Cells

I heard The White Stripes for the first time in a friend's basement apartment by UCLA. It was their self-titled debut, and I listened to the dozen-and-a-half quick burst blues-rock songs in near silence. I loved it but wasn't sure if it was as disposable as similar artists in the new rock revival (The Hives, The Vines and, face it, The Strokes). A week later, though, Jack and Meg's third album was released and it was all over.

White Blood Cells was released at the perfect moment, capturing the interest of the Gen-Yers who were finally tiring of the nu-metal garbage. It was also a point where you could appreciate The White Stripes for the music, when Jack White was a musician and not a persona. That being said, there was immediate intrigue: are they really brother and sister? Is it really just the two of them? The album sounds too full to be just two people. There were obviously several talented people behind the scenes, but White Blood Cells is the work of a rock auteur, a musician who took control of his songs and put his craft out there for all to behold. And if you didn't see that, you at least saw the Michel Gondry-directed music video for "Fell In Love With A Girl," which is under two minutes -- and it was the last time you ever heard about Staind.

8. Joanna Newsom - Ys

There's only one debut album in the top ten, though for the other artists on the list, it's safe to start with the albums listed -- except for Ys. If you want to get into Joanna Newsom, I'd buy The Milk-Eyed Mender. Give it a few listens. Once you've fallen in love with her voice (that many find off-putting) and begin to discover the subtleties and beauty of her songwriting (which many find jumbled and unstructured), then you're ready for Ys. Its five tracks span over 55 minutes, and the majority of the album contains full orchestral arrangements by Van Dyke Parks.

These are expansive, ambitious songs, all autobiographical, even the one about an engaged monkey and bear attempting to escape from a farm. The lyrics, by themselves, could be read on the radio by Garrison Keillor, but Newsom finds a way to patch these stories together in 10-minute songs, each with several phases, choruses, emotional peaks and valleys. "Emily" is perhaps her best song, named after her astrophysicist sister, and about the differences in personalities and how those personalities learn from each other. It's the remarkable work of a brilliant songwriter still in her twenties -- and with this year's (arguably even better) Have One On Me winning her larger legions of fans, one wonders what effect fame and notoriety will have on her subtle, romantic and pastoral songs.

7. Animal Collective - Sung Tongs

2004 was the watershed moment. At the time, as I've mentioned before, "indie" was caught between the blues and slowcore rock of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and the more frantic dance pop of The Rapture and LCD Soundsystem. Animal Collective was everything from this pool and with a little bit of tribal madness to boot. Sung Tongs was AC's foray out of the jungle and into the city, a voyage home for a group that seemed more at home in a hut than a studio. The album lets you know from minute one that you're in for a more accessible treat, and boy does it ever kick off. "Leaf House" and "Who Could Win A Rabbit" are the greatest 1-2 punch since Gretzky and Messier. It's a sonic statement of purpose.

This album is more Avey Tare than Panda Bear, though Noah Lennox's 60s pop sensibilities are still heard in standout track "Winter's Love" and "Visiting Friends." This is the whoops and whelps album, the songs that introduced me and many of my contemporaries to Animal Collective, and the progression of the promise of Kid A -- a record that would amaze with its technical prowess but still perform like you're watching it live, preferably outdoors.

6. Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Wilco was always about the pop music, but somehow Yankee Hotel Foxtrot became a buzzed about will-it-won't-it album. Its initial release was held back (originally scheduled for September 11, 2001) due to label issues and divisions in the band. It was rumored to be more cerebral and experimental than its predecessor, the wonderful Summerteeth (up there on my 90s list if I had one).

When YHF was finally released in April 2002, there was a danger that the story would overshadow the music. Fortunately, that didn't happen. It's just too good. YHF is experimental, condensing the nonstop barrage of pop hooks found on Summerteeth into 11 tracks, some with long intros or outros, some sonic droning and more than one hidden melodies. The standout songs ("Jesus, Etc.," "Poor Places," "Kamera") speak for themselves, but every track is perfectly placed, complementing the song before and after. Despite its strange thematic similarities to 9/11, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is thankfully not rooted in its time. Eight years on, it's already timeless.

5. Knife In The Water - Red River

Clearly the most overlooked band of the decade, Knife In The Water formed in Texas in the late 1990s. Co-founder Aaron Blount's serene, open-air voice transcends the simplicity of the songs on Red River, their second album. Many of these are love songs, or start out that way. They can quickly turn dark, vengeful and macabre. Consider the chorus of opener "Watch Your Back": We are so in love / that our hearts just won't collapse / But if you turn on me /You'd better watch your back

And it gets even harsher. "Rene" is about a woman waiting to kill her abusive lover. "Youngblood In The River" is a police procedural -- they find a decapitated body, identified only by his teeth. It turns out he was a transvestite prostitute. How will his mother be able to comprehend "broken neck and a blowjob"? But, these abrasive lyrics are accompanied by a subtle pedal steel and Blount's soft country singing. It's sometimes difficult to hear the violence in these songs.

Red River is an album for driving in the desert late at night -- it would make a great soundtrack to McCarthy's Blood Meridien. It's a forgotten masterpiece, and one that fans hope will receive greater critical acclaim in the future.

You can listen to some songs by Knife In The Water on their MySpace page. There aren't any songs from Red River on here, but you can order the rerelease (with two bonus tracks) through

4. Bob Dylan - Love And Theft

Every Bob Dylan show since 2003 has opened with the following announcement:

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the poet laureate of rock 'n' roll. The voice of the promise of the 60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock. Who donned makeup in the 70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse. Who emerged to find Jesus. Who was written off as a has-been by the end of the '80s, and who suddenly shifted gears releasing some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late '90s. Ladies and gentlemen — Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan.

This is the extent to which Dylan's image is muddled. The announcement was lifted from an article in The Buffalo News in 2002. He loved it. He stole it. And that's what he does on 2001's Love And Theft, Dylan's greatest album since Blood On The Tracks (dare I say, even better than 1997's phenomenal Time Out Of Mind). It's an ode to the great lyrics of yore and the progenitors of his beloved blues. It jams in a way that pleases the adult-contempo crowds I see at his shows, to the hipster contingent that can't get enough of his craggy drawl (Tom Waits, be warned). "Summer Days" and "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum" are straight blues rockers, while "Mississippi" and "Floater (Too Much To Ask)" are beautifully written love songs for the past. Dylan so adroitly maneuvers classic lyrics into the stories of his songs that there's almost no reason to document all of their origins (though plenty have tried. Google it).

Though continuing his line of fantastic work, Love And Theft will likely be the hallmark of Dylan's late period, an ambitious, fluid, fun record that would not have received quite so many accolades in 1967. I guess the media learned to start trusting him.

3. Arcade Fire - Funeral

The band that Pitchfork built -- but it didn't hurt that the album was pretty damn good as well. The power of the new indie pop was revealed on Arcade Fire's brilliant debut, an album about death laced with melodic hope. Win Butler's voice makes him sound on the verge of tears -- his nostalgia for childhood, even a childhood in the suburbs, undeniable.

He sings on "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)":

But sometimes, we remember our bedrooms
and our parents' bedrooms
and the bedrooms of our friends
Then we think of our parents
well whatever happened to them?

Your youth is a part of you, despite your relationships with your parents, your friends, or even your parents' bedrooms. Funeral has levels, but its intensity remains throughout, in the sing-songy "Crown of Love" and "Wake Up," to the emotional penultimate track, "Rebellion (Lies)." When you listen to Funeral, you feel Butler's energy, his yearning, especially when you close your eyes.

2. Animal Collective - Feels

Feels was the realization of Animal Collective's promise. Nine flawless songs of frenzied forest African-bop, Beach Boys-esque sunshine pop, squalls and squeals, and some of the best melodies this side of "Be My Baby." Feels has some of Avey Tare and Panda Bear's greatest songs. "The Purple Bottle" has an extended denouement that will inspire foot-stomping among all who hear it. "Banshee Beat," their greatest song, stands as the album's centerpiece, and should be listened to with headphones on. You will be bombarded with the subtle, introductory three-minutes, and then filled with the euphoria of "swimming poooooooollllll!!"

Each new Animal Collective album that's released immediately becomes "their most accessible album," but Feels still stands as a crowdpleaser to trump all others, though its importance has since been trumped by Merriweather Post Pavilion. Though, as I said previously, AC's best work has yet to come, very few artists have as many triumphs as Feels.

1. Radiohead - Kid A

Duh. Kid A has become such a foregone conclusion, that lists like this are very anti-climactic. When people ask me why Kid A is the greatest album of the decade, just like when people ask me why Citizen Kane is the greatest film of all time, there is much I could say about the style, the influence, the technical achievement, but it's much easier to say, "It just is."

And it's true. It's an album that works for so many moods -- you can lay on your bed at dusk, drive on PCH, play it as a precursor to making out (I assume), even on your headphones while you write your screenplay at Starbucks, and it works. It's an album about paranoia, isolation, the traps of fame and the traps of obscurity. Whatever you do and whoever you are, Kid A somehow describes you and can speak to you, though it certainly doesn't speak to everyone.

In an era that saw the destruction of the "album" in favor of the downloadable mp3 (a transition Radiohead were acutely aware of during the release of In Rainbows), Kid A is a work of art in its composition, not equatable to the sum of its parts. It should be listened to in its entirety, and thankfully, despite the downloadable nature of modern music, many still do. Who knows how the rest of this list will become jumbled over the years. Kid A will undoubtedly stay at the very top. It just will.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Top 100 Albums of the 2000s: 20-11

The full list: Honorable Mentions, 100-91, 90-81, 80-71, 70-61, 60-51, 50-41, 40-31, 30-21

20. LCD Soundsystem - Sound Of Silver

James Murphy has one of the most ironic stories of the decade. A somewhat shlubby, aging hipster, obsessed with being cool/not being cool, writes minimalist dance music in the rock-digital transition, influencing others to do the same, which would suggest he is cool. He writes songs about how he's not cool, losing his edge, finding himself not a part of the scene. He writes songs about how the scene is self-obsessed and how he's definitely part of it. He's ironically part as part of "it" as one can be. And we all know how hipsters hate irony.

So think of that as you listen to Sound of Silver, and then forget about it, because these songs are just plain awesome. "All My Friends" packs an emotional punch even if you've heard it as part of the awkward Silver Lake anthem of the last four years. "Get Innocuous" is one of the most overlooked dance tracks of the decade and "New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down" sums it all up in a big populist blow-out. Dance took a step past rock from relative Daft Punk obscurity to mainstream and, like it or not, James Murphy was right there tugging it along.

19. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes/Sun King EP

You could say that folk is a dying genre, or maybe that it's just evolved too much. Fleet Foxes aren't really folk the way McCabe and Mrs. Miller isn't really a western. I include their Sun King EP as part of this entry, because it's just as good as the album proper and I tend to listen to them back-to-back anyway. It's all we have of them right now, and though the ephemeral, misty mountain sound can get close to Dad Rock territory (especially since you could actually call Fleet Foxes "pleasant"), their impeccable harmonies make them much more than just another John Mayer or whatever the fuck.

18. M.I.A. - Kala

Who is the person who decided to put M.I.A.'s monumental "Paper Planes" into Pineapple Express. If it was David Gordon Green, I tip my hat. She had already proven herself as a great talent with Arular, and Kala had amazed the few million who had heard it. But, Pineapple Express somehow made "Paper Planes" a pop-culture phenomenon. Even people who didn't know who or what it was were saying, "play that song with the BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG."

Then everyone started hanging on every word. The tweets slamming The New York Times were elevated to more than just fucking tweets. And the music won. Kala is a frolicking, excessive 'fuck you' to American excess. Thank goodness she ended that retirement nonsense a few months after the announcement (it lasted a few months, what do you want?).

17. Low - Things We Lost In The Fire

Low didn't just produce an under-the-radar masterpiece, they're an under-the-radar band. Oh sure, everyone can recognize some album covers, knows they did that Dirty Three collaboration, maybe knows their Mormon, but you'll never hear them talked about by the taco truck. There's no real story, no real innovation. Low is simply one of the most consistent bands of the last 15 years, releasing solid album after solid album.

Things We Lost In The Fire is an anthem for a lost era, an album that transcended mp3s -- no single song could give you a wide enough taste. "Dinosaur Act" captures the perfect balance and harmony between husband and wife vocalists Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. The word is "slow." You could be in slow agony or slow awakening or slow summer afternoon -- Low fits it and evokes it. It's that sweet spot between Mojave 3 and Mogwai. You won't be dancing, but you won't be disappointed.

16. Deerhoof - Apple O'

This was not your daddy's Deerhoof. Some hardcore fans of their early work actually thought they were "selling out," their new foray into pop songwriting belittling their prior ethos. But Apple O' kicks in a way no other Deerhoof album does. "Dummy Discards A Heart" is a fully-charged opener and "Apple Bomb" is the only way Deerhoof does an epic (at only 4:14, it's the longest track on the album).

Deerhoof is a band that only got more ambitious as the decade went on. I believe it was guitarist Greg Saunier who described a Wilco show where people in the audience hugged each other when a certain song came on, they loved it so much. Saunier wanted to write a song like that, and thus came The Runners Four, their most intricate album. Apple O' is them at the height of their powers, the balance between the ecstatic and the experimental. If only an entire Deerhoof show was comprised of these songs, the audience might never stop hugging.

15. Lil Wayne - Tha Carter III

One of a half-dozen rappers to claim the title of "Best Rapper Alive" in the oughts, Lil Wayne had a serious case to that claim in 2008. He had come off a string of superb mixtapes and studio albums. When the cover art for Tha Carter III hit the streets, it was a foregone conclusion that he was about to have his greatest mainstream success. Then "Lollipop" came out and it was all over. The raunchy, remarkably self-assured Weezy was as famous for his persona as the music. I hope that Carter's stint in prison and ridiculous flop rock album won't ruin the momentum. Tha Carter III is, however, an album for our time, with singles that will be daily mainstays on "Hip-Hop Oldies" radio for years to come. We're only a few years away.

14. Modest Mouse - The Moon And Antarctica

It came at a weird time. Dance wasn't the new indie rock yet, but the off-kilter noise rock of Sebadoh was probably done for. Modest Mouse did the perfect thing, and released a record of great, accessible tunes that didn't compromise their aesthetic. Though Good News For People Who Love Bad News was nothing to sneeze at, that record was MM's attempt at modest (and I use the term loosely) radio play, which they achieved. Nothing could capture the magic of the first three tracks of The Moon And Antartica -- "3rd Planet," "Gravity Rides Everything," and "Dark Center of the Universe" -- a triumvirate of sizzling semi-art rock that's as deceptively dark as uplifting tunes can be.

13. Sigur Ros - Ágætis Byrjun

"Ágætis byrjun" means "A good beginning" in Icelandic, which is the language heard in songs by Sigur Ros, natives of the tiny European island nation -- most of the time. Though their second album, it could be considered a beginning of some sorts -- or perhaps it refers to the album's beginning, an "Intro" that leads into the angelic "Svefn-g-englar," which means "Sleepwalkers." The album is filled with alternating figures. From otherworldly floating seraphim to the microscopic sounds of a subtle heart beat.

It's what Brian Eno dreamed of when he made albums of ambient music. In some respects, Ágætis Byrjun could be considered an ambient album, but only at first listen, because it's certainly not lazy and requires active listening. So, it is a good beginning, in the way that the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey ends with a good beginning. Which means it's a pretty damn great beginning.

12. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion

Who knew that people would know who Animal Collective were one day? It seemed so unlikely just 7 or 8 years ago. Here Comes The Indian (#74 on this list) was blended and anachronistic, a pagan ritual in the woods. But Merriweather Post Pavilion is the culmination of a decade of experimentation and expansion. Panda Bear perfected his Brian Wilson harmonies and Avey Tare chose to calm down his yelps. What we're given is a nearly perfect album of pop and frenzy. The two best tracks -- "My Girls" and "Brother Sport" -- are splendidly memorable and are sure to delight at live shows for the remainder of AC's career, if they decide to keep playing them (they're notorious for playing predominantly new material at shows).

As Animal Collective continue to evolve, it's possible that Merriweather could end up as another Here Comes The Indian, a precursor to even different work. It's hard to imagine, but Animal Collective's best work could be ahead of them.

Feel free to scroll down fast if this is freaking you out.

11. Ghostface Killah - Fishscale

Perhaps I'm too white, and that's why Fishscale didn't crack the top ten. I'm hoping it's just due to the wide number of fantastic albums released during the decade. I argue that Fishscale is one of the best albums of the decade because of its brutal honesty, its willingness to lay bare Dennis Coles' life and history. The song is full of truth, but ironically, many of the songs surround fictional stories. The phenomenal "Shakey Dog" and the dreamscape "Underwater" act as bookends to the fantasy life of Tony Starks -- living in a dark superhero world, crippled by hubris.

All this aside, it quite simply is the most fun and exhilarating rap album in recent years. The skits fit and the songs couldn't flow together better. And Ghostface, listen, "Back Like That" is the only R&B from you we'll ever need. No need for a whole album of the stuff. This one is perfect.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Top 100 Albums of the 2000s: 30-21

The full list: Honorable Mentions, 100-91, 90-81, 80-71, 70-61, 60-51, 50-41, 40-31

30. The Knife - Silent Shout

"Let me play you the first track off this Knife album," I was told about a month after the release of Silent Shout in the summer of 2006. We listened to the title track, starting with the thudding base and a simple falsetto of electronic beats. We'd just listened to Vitalic's Ok Cowboy (#100 on this list) and I was expecting a record of equal velocity. I was wrong, but far from disappointed. This is The Knife's third LP, but for me it came out of nowhere. The Knife is Swedish brother and sister team Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer, but their live shows hid their identity behind gimp and monster masks. The same theatrics are a wonderful complement to the live shows of Fever Ray, Andersson's other project (whose fantastic eponymous debut is ridiculously omitted from this list).

29. Sleater-Kinney - The Woods

Forget that this is a girl group. They don't have anything to prove to you. They released one of the most frenzied-but-focused, hardest rockers of the decade. Their final album before splitting up in 2006, The Woods opens with a train wreck of guitars. If you can get through "The Fox" and want to keep going, you're ready for what Pitchfork called an "endurance test." Sleater-Kinney will rip you up and spit you out. In an era when female musicians split into two categories -- soulful singer-songwriter (Feist, Cat Power) or electro-vixen (the above-mentioned Karin Dreijer Andersson), Sleater-Kinney perform old-fashioned rock with more than a dose of distortion. "Modern Girl" is the only pop relief here; its slick bass line is infectious and comes as a perfect interlude. A fitting end to a socks-off band.

28. of Montreal - Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?

Kevin Barnes' sexual anonymity (he's straight, fyi) has never been to his advantage as much as on his 2007 masterpiece, an absolutely stellar 12 songs that run up and down the pop ladder. The songs vary in length from one to 12 minutes, but all are precise and focused. The 12-minuter in question is "The Path Is A Grotesque Animal," a song that seeks to blend the album's (and Barnes') multiple personalities. It's the centerpiece of this hyper-pop, schizophrenic record. Barnes references his own up-and-down, half-of-two-minds mood in a most frank manner on "Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse." He says: I'm in a crisis, I need help, come on mood, shift shift back to good again. The song's latter minute is an angry screed at the "chemicals" that control him. It's the best sounding mood disorder I know of.

27. Kanye West - Late Registration

Hip-hop has evolved more in the past five years than in the previous 20. Kanye is the only rapper to ever sufficiently display his vulnerabilities. I don't care what you say about Tupac -- Kanye is the emo rapper. If you get past the singles, past Jamie Foxx on "Gold Digger" and Pamela Anderson in the video for "Touch The Sky," you'll see a man who's practically begging you to tell him you accept him, that he's cool. He's ashamed of admitting that he's not in Broke Phi Broke (and never was, to be fair), he doesn't just back up his mama and grandma, he cries over them, he has songs ripped from his chest over them. Kanye considered Late Registration his entry into higher education, but really, he just ended up schooling all of us.

26. Interpol - Turn On The Bright Lights

Despite the success of Turn On The Bright Lights in 2002, it's been a pretty rough decade for Interpol. Their follow-up album was solid but couldn't quite compete with TOTBL's success. They've been out of touch for the most part since -- further albums have fallen flat, the Pitchfork love is gone -- but we can't let that take away from how good their debut really is. Joy Division-comparisons aside, they wrote some fantastic 80s new wave-style songs and pulled them with great aplomb. "NYC," "PDA," and "Obstacle 1" are still remarkably entertaining, even if it's been over a year since I've listened. This was a point when we weren't sure about the future of music. It turned out not to be Interpol, but Turn On The Bright Lights will last far past 2002.

25. Spoon - Gimme Fiction

Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is the fan favorite, but I give the edge to Gimme Fiction, a straight-up stellar rock album. No song Britt Daniel wrote before or since has matched the pure joy of when the chorus cruises in on "The Beast and Dragon, Adored," or the unhittable falsetto on "I Summon You." Though Spoon had already made waves, Gimme Fiction is what set them on their course to being everywhere. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga made them a household name (or at least a college dorm room name) and Transference hit #4 on the Billboard Top 200. Pretty impressive for album #7.

24. Clipse - Hell Hath No Fury

In a decade when hip-hop either blew up on MTV or wallowed in the underground, Clipse had hits that were right in the middle. Hell Hath No Fury is their great achievement -- enough songs about crack-dealing and the need to shine on in Italian sports cars to make even the more popular rappers jealous. Just listen to the horror-film space-cadet beat on "Trill" to see how Clipse transcend the Westside-Eastside antics and work to simply thrill captive listeners. True. Real.

23. My Morning Jacket - It Still Moves

At a My Morning Jacket show in 2004, Jim James expressed his slight dismay that his group were considered hippies (by whom, we'll never know), just because of their long beards and very long hair. That's not so much a problem now, but back upon the release of It Still Moves, it was unclear if MMJ had a greater plan, so hidden were those faces behind auburn hair. The new MMJ is less southern, less country, less folksy and jammy. They're still fun and compose fantastic songs, but It Still Moves captured them at their wondrous, rockabilly best. The tandem of "One Big Holiday" and "I Will Sing You Songs" are a perfect balance -- the high and the low, the anxious and the secure. It hasn't stopped moving.

22. Sun Kil Moon - April

Mark Kozelek was thoroughly unintimidated by the 2000s. In a decade where music was distorted, reverberated, danced-up and beat-down, Kozelek continued to write quiet, exploratory songs. But, they're not simple songs. The first two tracks on April run over 16 minutes, and each is packed with thought and discovery. His music is all about memories, those faded images we all have and apply to entire experiences. Just look at the album cover. When you see something like this, you're either in a Sun Kil Moon album or a Tarkovsky film. April is Kozelek's most beautiful album, a collection of songs melancholy but effortlessly fulfilling. The music is subtle enough that you might even be able to doze off if you're in the dark on a bed...but don't expect to not have haunted dreams.

21. Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam

If you've questioned my obsession with Animal Collective, leave now. The rest of this list will annoy you. Another in a string of masterpieces that AC have released since they hit their stride in 2004, Strawberry Jam might very well have pushed them right up to the mainstream, before Merriweather Post Pavilion launched them over the Top 40 fence. It was, at the time, considered their most accessible record, though you wouldn't have known it from being thrust into "Peacebone" right off the bat. However, no listener could forget the duo of "For Reverend Green" and "Fireworks." The euphoric collection of Panda Bear's "oohs" and "aahs" and Avey Tare's yelps are a highlight of their (or anybody's) careers. If Sung Tongs and Feels were a bit too out there (still) for the community, Strawberry Jam was the sweet, gooey, sugary pop to get everyone to the table.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Top 100 Albums of the 2000s: 40-31

Older posts: Honorable Mentions, 100-91, 90-81, 80-71, 70-61, 60-51, 50-41

40. Sonic Youth - Sonic Nurse

Sonic Youth's follow-up to the previously mentioned Murray Street is full of no-nonsense rock songs. The middle frame, featuring "Kim Gordon & The Arthur Doyle Hand Cream," "Stones," and "Dude Ranch Nurse," is perhaps the most solid 18 minutes of straight-ahead rock they've produced since Dirty. The flourishes are here, but gone are the 10-minute noise jams of "Karen Revisited." Don't get me wrong. You saw Murray Street on this list -- it's awesome. But Sonic Nurse grabs hold and powers you through 62 minutes of the closest thing to arena rock Sonic Youth will ever get. To watch them perform "Pattern Recognition" live is as enriching as watching them play "Teenage Riot." Well, almost.

39. Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven!

Post-rock hardcore faded early on in the decade. Slow was replaced with fast -- simple as that. Oh sure, listeners still have patience to feel a song build, but, only 10 years later, it's doubtful that a double-disc rock symphony like Lift Yr. Skinny Fists... could be released and embraced today. Godspeed You! Black Emperor constructed an undeniably complex and very fulfilling album. At times somber and beautiful, at others macabre and eerie, Godspeed made a thematically relevant follow-up to the masterful F♯A♯∞ on an even grander scale.

38. Fuck Buttons - Street Horrrsing

Time is likely the only reason Street Horrrsing made the list over Tarot Sport. Both albums are infectious, freewheeling blasts of pscyhedelic noise pop. "Sweet Love for Planet Earth" will grab you immediately and scream at you for nine minutes. It's another one of the albums that, due to its inclusion of some pop with its noise, fits the modern indie audience and embraces the newcomers. Fuck Buttons are the creation of two British minds -- one a huge fan of Aphex Twin, the other of Mogwai. Those two influences show. Plus, you can dance like a muthafucka.

37. TIE // M83 - Saturdays=Youth; The Handsome Family - Twilight

Last tie of the list. It's a bit odd, considering these albums couldn't be more different in almost every way. But, I simply couldn't tell you which one I like better than the other. So let's start with M83. Anthony Gonzalez had been fine-tuning his sound for years. Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts was an impressive breakthrough and Before The Dawn Heals Us included more focused songwriting and an ephemeral, dreamlike sound. Saturdays=Youth is a step above, an album that would likely hold this same position on a decade list if it were released in 1983...and nobody would bat an eye. "Kim and Jessie" and "Graveyard Girl" are two excellent singles that would have been stand-outs on the soundtrack to The Breakfast Club, and "We Own The Sky" may be the greatest song in the M83 catalog. It's nostalgic for a time when all the teenagers were pissed off, and you wouldn't be accused of being "emo." You'd get up, go to high school, bum around in your suburb and wonder what else was out there. The cover says it all.

And The Handsome Family...the musical collaboration between husband and wife Hank and Rennie Sparks couldn't be much simpler. Play a drum beat, she plays bass, he plays guitar, she writes the lyrics, he sings them. Songs about ghosts, the road, loneliness fill their music with smoky, ethereal images. They spent the decade releasing a string of fantastic studio albums, but Twilight is as good as it gets. From the solemn, serene "Passenger Pigeons" to the goofy "So Long" (about a kid saying goodbye to all the harmless animals he's tortured), Twilight is sad even when it's happy. In the former song, the narrator laments the loss of a lover. He'd rather sleep in the park and "talk to the wind than an empty apartment." The disconnected chorus: "Once there were a billion passenger pigeons, so many flew by they darkened the sky."

36. No Age - Nouns

Technically, Nouns is No Age's first proper full-length, but the splash they made with Weirdo Rippers sent ripples around the indie rock world. This is a band with few flourishes, a straight-ahead, if fuzzier, Sebadoh, and an energy that reflects the relative youth of members Randy Randall and Dean Allen Spunt. Both Randall and Spunt are vegan, but they're not activists. They're two guys in a band that became mainstays at L.A.'s The Smell. They jam on Nouns for 30 minutes and then you're silent and breathless. This is a band whose best work is still ahead of them.

35. Radiohead - Amnesiac

Nobody said it, but there was a palpable disappointment when Amnesiac was released. I was 19 and waited in a line outside of Tower Records (I'll explain what that is later, kids), picked up the album at midnight and promptly returned to my dorm room to listen. It was out there, songs plucked from the Kid A sessions, but odder, quicker, less moody. "Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors" was like "Fitter Happier" inside of an acid-blanketed maze. Did I like it? I wasn't sure. It was too experimental for the Bends kids and for the art kids it was simply just not Kid A. Then we listened a few more times, looking for a message, and found that there was none. These are simply 11 amazing songs, arranged perfectly, sounding like a cohesive album, certainly not a collection of castoffs. Alienation and lack of control are the prominent themes. We fall through doors and climb through others, we're packt in like sardines, everyone can see us in our glass house. "You And Whose Army?" ends with Ghost horses / We ride tonight, but you could listen a thousand times and not make out a single word. Things are out of our control, and this is how Radiohead seemed to operate in 2001. They could not be reined it and we just had to sit and love every minute.

34. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - Ease Down The Road

Will Oldham was coming off a remarkable achievement in the transitional I See A Darkness. One of the best albums of the 1990s, that record moved Oldham away from the twangy country of Viva Last Blues and into the lulling sounds of piano balladry. Not that his lyrics were any less incisive or filthy. Ease Down The Road followed in 2001 and finds Oldham at his sharp-tongued, womanizing best. Though the songs flow at the same pace, Ease Down The Road is a more jovial, explorative album than Darkness. Take the title track: the narrator is on a road trip with a married woman to see her firefighter husband's family. On the way, infidelity is prevalent. Digest this lyric:

A fireman her husband was
And so to give him duty
I duly tried to light a fire
Upon his rightful booty
But beauty was my treasure then
As through the hills I drove her
And taught her that another man
Could have made love to her

Music that can be played on a sunny drive or offend your closest lady-friends with equal measure, Oldham has not released an album this beautiful and immaculate since, and that's saying a lot.

33. Sparklehorse - It's A Wonderful Life

Mark Linkous took his own life this year. He had a prolific 20-year career as a songwriter and producer. His collaboration with Danger Mouse and David Lynch, Dark Night of the Soul, is finally getting a proper release this year. It's odd to be writing about the ironically-titled It's A Wonderful Life -- fans have known of Linkous' depression for years, and it comes through on this 2001 masterpiece. The songs are slow, melancholy, but the melodies and instrumentation are so textured and angelic that it's hard to belief a depressed person could have written them. I held my hand to the fire / it burned me down to the wires, he sings on "Eyepennies." You can see it now as a metaphor for his final days, but Linkous' work should be remember more for its beauty than as a harbinger.


32. The Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots

Never has a band released a breakthrough album so late in their career, but The Soft Bulletin catapulted the Oklahoma psych rockers to superstardom, and when their tenth album, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, was released, the mainstream started to take notice, just in time for the hipsters to pretend that they'd cared since 1993. Yoshimi doesn't attempt to build on The Soft Bulletin. It's its own beast, a miraculously fun record surrounding a loose story about giant robots that threaten the universe. It also has one of their most famous songs, the "Good Riddance" of the indie world. "Do You Realize?" is anthemic and uplifting, an antidote to the sad bastard music of, well, much of the rest of this list. Man vs. machine theatrics aside, Yoshimi is a wonderful listen and will last as one of the Lips' most memorable achievements.

31. Madvillain - Madvillainy

I saw MF Doom perform in UCLA's Ackerman Grand Ballroom in 2004. He's a chubby guy in a red polo shirt and a mask. Opening for Talib Kweli, the crowd was not into it. After a few tracks from Vaudeville Villain, Operation: Doomsday and Madvillainy, he was booed off the stage. I'm not sure if the audience ever realized who they were booing or why Madvillainy is now considered a landmark hip-hop album. With lyrics by Doom and beats by Madlib, Madvillainy is a brief, scattershot collection of rhymes and rhythms. He raps about the same topics as most of his other albums: weed, cred, and how ill he is. The fat is trimmed -- there are no sketches, no beat poetry mockery as on Vaudeville -- the beats are quick and punchy. It flows from beginning to end and you're never tempted to skip to your favorite single. There simply aren't any on here. But it does have more lyrics than the church got "Oooh Lords." You can call him Your Majesty.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Top 100 Albums of the 2000s: 50-41

Older posts: Honorable Mentions, 100-91, 90-81, 80-71, 70-61, 60-51

50. Frog Eyes - Tears of the Valedictorian

Frog Eyes are the toughest band in the modern Canadian music scene to get into. Once you're through The New Pornographers, Handsome Furs, Sunset Rubdown and Destroyer, it's time to tackle Carey Mercer's 55-octave wailing amid a flash flood of Spencer Krug's Rakhmaninovian keyboarding. Tears of the Valedictorian is their best album, bookended by two songs of over seven minutes, keeping the pace very speedy -- I would say, in a frenzy. This whole album is like going through Space Camp. "Caravan Breakers, They Prey on the Weak and the Old" is three magnificent songs in one. "Bushels" is even better, arguably the greatest in Mercer's songwriting career. Get ready to feel like the guy in the chair in the old Maxwell ads.

49. Iron & Wine - The Shepherd's Dog

Sam Beam's intimate bearded songwriting has sustained him through much of the decade. He appeals to the Elliot Smith crowd, maybe even, dare I say it, the Jack Johnson crowd. His music is likable and inoffensive enough that "Flightless Bird, American Mouth" was featured on the soundtrack to Twilight. But, there's an edge to Iron & Wine that J. Johnson certainly couldn't match. His lyrics are often biting, and his voice often drops to that breathy whisper -- something unsettling is certainly afoot. The only reason The Shepherd's Dog appears over other Iron & Wine's two other much-loved albums is because I simply return to these songs the most. "Boy With A Coin," "Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car" and "Peace Beneath The City" are remarkably enjoyable after multiple listens. The 2005 EP Woman King is also definitely worth a purchase.

48. Beck - Sea Change

Most of us actually thought Sea Change was a joke at first. It was so distant from the ramshackle country-funk of Odelay and light years from the energized dance of Midnite Vultures, that it could have been a fake disc. It turned out though that Beck had settled down, or settled in, at age 32, to a blurry haze of acoustic and bass driven tunes. These songs build and prove Beck's versatility. It's hard to compare to other Beck albums: 1) it sounds so different and 2) I still consider Odelay the greatest album of the 1990s. How can I even try to compare a great album like Sea Change to a masterpiece of that magnitude? Still, this is Beck's greatest achievement since the 1990s, and despite the underrated Modern Guilt and The Information, may stand as his last great album, depending on if/when he can still bring the funk.

47. Neko Case - Fox Confessor Brings The Flood

The edge of late has gone to Middle Cyclone, but I still believe that this is Case's greatest achievement, a collection of 12 breezy songs about relationships (both platonic and romantic), inhibitions and cat fights. The spacey "Star Witness" and follower "Hold On, Hold On" are perfect for her voice, and the cast of musicians on this album suit her ambling sound even better than on Middle Cyclone or the superb Blacklisted.

46. Battles - Mirrored

My iTunes lists the "Genre" of Battles as "noodly math rock." Exactly. This is art rock with the prog turned up to 11. Scattershot vocals over relentless drum beats and sharp electric guitar make Mirrored like the Speed Racer movie, except good. One of the most enjoyable of the decade's abstract, experimental releases. I hope they're more prolific this decade, though Battles is essentially a side project for all participating parties.

45. Songs: Ohia - The Magnolia Electric Company

The names can get a bit confusing. Jason Molina was Songs: Ohia. Then he wanted to call his band The Magnolia Electric Company. The label knew that Songs: Ohia was more recognizable, so they made him keep that title as the band name. The follow-up to this album, What Comes After The Blues, is credited to The Magnolia Electric Company. No matter. This is Molina's finest album -- a twangy, dark mix of country and gothic rock. Opening track "Farewell Transmission" is a masterpiece. In an album full of secrets and ghosts, "Farewell Transmission" strikes the first and most defining chord: I will resurrect it, I'll have a good go at it / I'll streak his blood across my beak and dust my feathers with his ashes / I can feel his ghost breathing down my back. The last words in the song may give the most apropos of Magnolia Electric's mood: "Long, dark blues."

44. Panda Bear - Person Pitch

This is the album that got most of the Animal Collective-haters on the bandwagon. Panda Bear's Beach Boys dreaminess won people over, and primed them for the full band's explosive, giddy pop songs. Noah Lennox has had, pretty unquestionably, the most successful AC-solo career. His first album, Young Prayer, was released to some acclaim, but Person Pitch elevated him to the status of indie pop icon. The album is out there, but accessible enough to bring everyone into the pool party. "Bros" is a frolicking bit of song craftsmanship: it concludes with irresistible, bouncing percussion work, much like Animal Collective's own "The Purple Bottle." Person Pitch just makes you smile, as Brian Wilson songs always intended.

43. Richard Buckner - The Hill

One of a few albums in the top 50 that most probably won't recognize, The Hill is one of the greatest works from one of the most prolific songwriters of the last 15 years. Buckner is usually alone with his acoustic guitar singing of love lost (nearly every song on his 1997 masterpiece Devotion and Doubt lamented his recent divorce). On The Hill, his lyrics are lifted from poets and his backing band is subtle but everpresent. There are many songs but they all live on one track. You should listen to it from beginning to end with no breaks. My friend Bryan once said, "If God had a voice, it would sound like Richard Buckner." It sounds like it on The Hill.

42. Kanye West - Graduation

Okay, Canibus, ima let you finish, but Kanye West made one of the most self-glorifying rap albums of all time! Every song on Graduation proves that Kanye can interrupt any acceptance speech and say whatever he wants on television. The award show is cheapened if you don't let him do this. In fact, just let him host the show with no script. It will be more entertaining and elevate him to deity status. Here's how Kanye transcends rap culture: the original video for "Can't Tell Me Nothing" featured Zach Galifianakis and Will Oldham riding on a tractor, "Flashing Lights" had an avant-garde car-in-the-desert video with Rita G stripping off a fur coat. For a guy so seemingly-obsessed with himself, he appears in neither of these iconic videos. Kanye is more than a rapper. He's an idea. Graduation may be remembered as the album that defined Yeezy even more than his two breakthroughs.

41. Bob Dylan - Modern Times

Dylan completed his latter-day trilogy in 2006 with Modern Times, an album full of blues but without the despair. Much of 1997's brilliant Time Out Of Mind was spent lamenting his age, as if his career was winding down. It's not dark yet, but it's getting there, summed it up. On Modern Times, Dylan admits he's older, but isn't ready to throw in the towel. You think I'm over the hill, think I'm past my prime / Let me see what you got, we can have a whopping good time, he says on "Spirit of the Water," with more than a little innuendo. The old bastard is having fun here. Shortly after this album's release, he said he thought his career was just beginning. If you've been world famous for 45 years and then you drop this gem, I'm inclined to believe that you've got a few decades left in the tank.