WVAU Top Music of 2010: #3

Zarek Chase, A.B.

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#3 Album: Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz

Sufjan said fuck. The news came in the heart of autumn and trumped all tales of midterm smackdowns, TSA patdowns, or intelligence file crackdowns. My headline of the moment became Sufjan Stevens, Americana‰’s altar boy of celestial pop, uttering an obscenity. Being a longtime fan of both Stevens and well-placed obscenities, I felt a certain raw delight and hurried to find my headphones. After listening to ‰I Want to Be Well,‰’ the song from whence the four letter word came, I was instantly aware of a sharp departure from more recent work. ‰The Age of Adz‰’ is a refined return to some of Sufjan‰’s earliest productions. And it‰’s fantastic.

Adz is full of pounding drums, distortion and electronics (what my parents would call ‰noise‰’), all of which serves as a background to Stevens‰’ sometimes soft, sometimes sharp vocals. Yet it‰’s distinctively a Sufjan Stevens production. The epic choruses, fluttering strings and catchy tunes are all there. Only this time it sounds like Sufjan and his Midwestern symphony have been co-opted by a team of funky robots.

The instruments aren‰’t the only departure from Sufjan‰’s earlier work. ‘The Age of Adz’ signals a clear death of, or at least a hiatus from, Stevens‰’ popularized 50 States Project. Having set the goal of making an album for each state, Sufjan crafted two brilliant productions‰ÛÓ2003‰’s Michigan and 2005‰’s Illinois‰ÛÓfull of quirky historical references and bizarre town names. His latest abandons the delightful sojourn into America‰’s dusty past in favor of heartfelt, deeply personal lyrics. Sufjan sings his heart out to some lost lover, laments his selfishness and even, in the heart-wrenching ‰Vesuvius,‰’ includes his own name in the recurring refrain.

From the gentle opener ‰Futile Devices‰’ to the epic 25 minute closer ‰Impossible Soul‰’ (featuring the ultimate shock in the form of an auto-tuned Sufjan), ‘The Age of Adz’ preserves some of the best that this artist has to offer while introducing much, much more.

By A.B.

#3 Song: The Radio Dept – “Heaven’s on Fire”

“People see rock and roll as, as youth culture, and when youth culture becomes monopolized by big business, what are the youth to do?‰Û

The Radio Dept. announced with the release of the single “Freddie and the Trojan Horse‰” that they would start trading some of their typical gloom in for political activism. As the first result, “Freddie‰” was an overt shot at a Swedish politician. “Heaven‰’s On Fire‰” is barely more subtle. Singer/guitarist Johan Duncanson aches at the predictable behavior of the music industry he lambasts. Calling them and their supporters “charlatans,‰” he insists that he indeed does take pride in “moving against the tide.‰Û

Negative subject matter isn‰’t exactly new ground for them lyrically, but sonically, this song is hardly as dark as their previous work. The Radio Dept.‰’s music has always sounded like a blend between early shoegaze and C86-style indie pop, but on “Heaven‰’s On Fire,‰” they channel the latter far more heavily. The backing guitars and keyboards are nearly jangly. Everything flourishes. In the past, Duncanson has addressed the things he opposes in terms of his own misery (“The Worst Taste In Music,‰” “I Wanted You To Feel The Same‰Û), but this time he puckers up, blows a big raspberry to corporate whores and music execs, and skips down the road. As he does this, a mighty saxophone appears on the track, as if to announce what we all now know. After so many years, The Radio Dept. are back.

By Zarek Chase