My favorite albums of 2014 so far

It’s roughly halfway through 2014, which means it’s a convenient time to take a look at my favorite musical releases from the past 6 months.

As Steven Hyden pointed out, in his Mid-Year Music Report, there has not been a universally adored blockbuster release this year.  On one hand this means the music released so far this year can seem inconsequential. This years biggest commercial success is the soundtrack to a movie released during the 2013 holiday season. Of course, a year’s critically acclaimed or influential music can be just as important to a year’s perceived legacy as which songs received the most airplay. For example, last year Yeezus seemed ubiquitous despite not actually being one of the 10 best-selling albums of the year. As of June 14, 2014, the vast majority of albums generating critical reverence are reissues. Still, this makes 2014 a year perfectly emblematic of its time. Niche markets, streaming services and the ability to generally listen to any music at any time mean the release of Fucked Up’s Glass Boys can be as momentous as the release of Jack White’s second solo album, Lazaretto, for listeners who seek out hardcore rock while eschewing folk-tinged tunes.

Without critical or commercial behemoths to rank and reckon with, this means everyone’s musical experience in 2014 is going to be different and extremely personal. This is definitely freeing, because it means I can feel better about any omissions or oversights. In no particular order, these are the five albums, which I have enjoyed the most during the first six months of 2014.

 

1. St. Vincent- St. Vincent

Annie Clark is having an awesome year. She got to perform with the surviving members of Nirvana at this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. She also put out an incredible, self-titled album chock-full of humor, rocking hooks and interesting arrangements. St. Vincent is one of the most vibrant, self-assured releases of the year even when it deals with the minutiae of Clark’s modern neurosis. This album is a must-listen for fans of everything from straightforward rock to more avant-garde Brian Eno-inspired dream pop.

2.Schoolboy Q- Oxymoron

Without a doubt, Oxymoron, is my favorite rap album of 2014. This album combines hooks and wordplay with heartbreaking voice overs from Schoolboy Q’s daughter and lurid personal details from the Californian rapper’s gang-involved youth. It also contains the monstrous single, “Collard Greens”. When listening to Oxymoron, it becomes clear Kendrick Lamar’s ex-hype man is ready for and deserving of the spotlight.

3.The Men- Tomorrow’s Hits

The Men first captured attention by releasing incredibly earnest rock songs with a healthy dose of garage rock fuzz and punk attitude. Over the course of their discography The Men’s sound has matured. The coyly titled Tomorrow’s Hits is a collection of gorgeous songs, which pay homage to classic rock’s golden age. The songwriting is solid, and the rootsy throwback vibe never seems like a gimmick. This is one of 2014’s most purely enjoyable albums.

4.Cloud Nothings- Here And Nowhere Else

Cloud Nothings continue to grow and improve. The hooks and energy of Dylan Baldi and company’s earlier works are approached with the intensity and relative polish on display on 2012’s Attack on Memory. The blending of old and new is fitting, because Here And Nowhere Else is an album full of contradictions. It blends sweet tunes with sick sentiments. The lyrics proudly display Baldi’s insecurities. It’s a tough balancing act to pull off, but Cloud Nothings do it incredibly well.

5. The Both- The Both

Ted Leo and Aimee Mann teamed up to make an incredibly pleasant pop-rock record. The Both is not a grand artistic statement, but it is a collection of well-crafted,, mostly good-natured pop songs. With its guy-girl lead vocals and  anthemic chrouses, The Both is the best New Pornohraphers’ record since Twin Cinema. It isn’t ground breaking, but it is ridiculously listenable indie rock.

 

 

My favorite albums of 2013

I had a hard time putting this together. I don’t think I’ve thoroughly blasted my brain with this much electropop since Goldfrapp released Supernature .Also, there was a lot of good music released this year, but only a few albums that absolutely gripped me. Still, there were definitely some outstanding albums released this year, and one anticlimactic choice for album of the year.

Also, unlike the list of songs of the year I put together, I’m pretty confident these are the best albums released in 2013.

5. My Bloody Valentine- “m b v

Before “m b v” was released it was assumed the successor to the genre-defining “Loveless” would join “Chinese Democracy” and “Duke Nukem Forever” as long-gestating disappointments. Instead, after more than two decades Kevin Shields, Bilinda Butcher and company delivered an excellent album.

The guitars still sound like power tools and the vocals still have a glass armonica’s ethereal fragility.

4. Chance the Rapper- “Acid Rap

At 20, Chancelor Bennet is responsible for one of the best releases of the year. Vibrant beats, excellent guest spots, memorable hooks and occasional bouts of intense introspection make “Acid Rap” truly excellent.

3. Disclosure- “Settle

In a year when EDM and disco influence were everywhere two British brothers mined minimal acid house for all it;s worth. Every song on “Settle” seems like the album’s highlight until you hear the next song. Even with about half of the album featuring guests things never feel crowded.

This is a dance album for rock kids.

2. CHVRCHES- “The Bones of What You Believe”

CHVRCHES finally delivered on the promise of the singles they’ve had floating around online, and the result was better than anyone could expected. A full album of synth-driven pop songs was one the year’s best albums. Everything sounds fresh and dithyrambic. Listening to “The Bones of What You Believe” is one of the most purely enjoyable ways to spend the better part of an hour I could imagine.

1. Kanye West- “Yeezus”

There is so much to love about this album. It’s an album which draws more from the music of Death Grips than anything from Kanye’s own discography. It’s a dark, actively aggressive statement meant to burn off all the goodwill West earned with the impeccable “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”.

The album opener “On Sight” lays down the album’s mission statement of brutality while it subverts a past Daft Punk collaboration and one of Yeezy’s biggest radio hits.

What follows is a visceral gut-punch disguised as music.

2013’s best album concludes with the wonderful throwback jam “Bound 2” which serves to show Kanye West is an artist fully capable of delivering pleasant, moving music, but chose not to. After hearing the seething anger in the previous 9 tracks it’s not surprising West chose to be withholding.

Honorable Mentions: “Reflektor“, “Random Access Memory“, “Wakin’ On a Pretty Daze“, “Old“, “Night time, My Time“, “No Blues

My favorite songs of 2013

This list comes with the obvious caveat that these are my favorite songs of the year and not necessarily the 10 best songs of the year.

I spent entirely too much time listening to the Flying Burrito Brothers this year and not enough time listening to Sky Ferreirra to be a good barometer of taste.

Still below are the 10 tracks I couldn’t get enough of this year. They are in no particular order.

1. HAIM-“Don’t Save Me”

Hercules is the demi-god with the strength of 10 ordinary men, and HAIM is mom-rock with the strength of 3 Stevie Nickses. Just one of several earthy, hooky jams from this year’s thoroughly praised “Days Are Gone”.

2. Ex Cops- “Separator”

The most accurate approximation of ’90s shoe gaze outside of “m b v”. A pleasantly throbbing bass line, a healthy coat of reverb varnish and a build to a triumphant jangle crescendo kept this song firmly entrenched in my head all year long.

3. Black Joe Lewis- “Skulldiggin”

This crunchy slice of blooze rock would be the hardest The Black Keys have rocked in a couple of albums. In a year when indie-pop and Yeezus reigned supreme this unapologetic throwback was a counter-intuitive breath of fresh air.

4. CHVRCHES- “Gun”

Chvrches were the Scottish-indie-synth-pop triumph of the year.  “Gun” is my favorite song off of the excellent “The Bones of What You Believe”. After hearing this song, running away with everything you own probably won’t keep it out of your head.

5. King Khan & the Shrines- “Pray for Lil”

“Idle No More” is an exceptional garage rock album from King Khan & the Shrines. Its standout track is the “Little Wing” and Dusty Springfield indebted “Pray for Lil”.

6. Charli XCX- “Take My Hand”

“Take My Hand” is equal parts energetic, addictive and sweet. It’s audible cocaine cut with pixie sticks. It’s the biggest ear worm on, “True Romance” , an album with so many pop gems even its bonus tracks bump.

7. Los Campesinos!- “Avocado Baby”

I am an unabashedly huge LC! fan, and this is maybe the perfect culmination of the different musical directions the band has pursued. Gareth yelping his sardonic lyrics, twee backing vocals, a muscular rhythm section and a fruit-based metaphor no other band would attempt all make this an instant classic in the LC! catalog.

8. Chance the Rapper- “Juice”

“Acid Rap” is one of my favorite albums of the year, and this track epitomizes what Chano was up to on his excellent mix tape. It has a ragtime sample, Tupac references, plenty of vocal ad libs and some great double-time rapping.

9.  Kanye West- “I Am a God”

“Yeezus” was an intense car-bomb of an album, and no song on it was as incendiary as “I Am a God”. West’s palpable anger is somehow on display next to moments of genuine humor in one iconoclastic statement. Hurry up with his damn croissants!

10. Disclosure- “F for You”

I’ve been infected with the restless urge to listen to this song on repeat. A great, slinky piece of house music.

Honorable Mentions: Get Lucky, Reflektor, Pepe Lopez, Demon Dance, My Number, Rattlesnake

My favorite albums of 2013 so far

It’s already 6 months into 2013, and in those months a lot of notable albums released.  My Bloody Valentine, Daft Punk and David Bowie, all legends in their respective genres put out quality music in the first half of this year, and less well-known artists such as Kurt Vile, Youth Lagoon, The Men and Iceage all followed up acclaimed albums with more strong work. Of course, many excellent albums have yet to be released, but it’s time to take a look at the best music released this year so far.

1.My Bloody Valentine- “M B V”

It took 12 years for the Dublin quartet to release its third album, but the wait was rewarded with another shoegaze master piece.sound. Layers of reverb, bestial howling of guitars, energetic drumming  and the ethereal voices of Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher create a sound that is simultaneously ambient and urgent. “M B V” is an ocean of sound bigger than any wall Phil Specter imagined.It seemed unlikely after waiting for more than a decade, but “Loveless” finally has a proper follow-up, and it is as loud, as strange and as beautiful as you would hope. This album will make your head swirl and toes tap, and it is the best thing released in 2013 so far.

2.Chance the Rapper- “Acid Rap”

The most inventive rap album of the year so far is a mixtape by a 20-year-old Chicago native, Chance the Rapper. Samples are lush, brush and approximate actual instruments. The word play is almost always clever and there is no shortage of ear worm hooks. An excellent guest list including Action Bronson, Childish Gambino, BJ the Chicago Kid, Twista and a show stealing turn by No Name Gypsy add another dimension to Chance the Rapper’s already quixotic and occasionally introspective rhymes.

3. Daft Punk- “Random Access Memories”

The rise of Electronic Dance Music can be easily attributed to the iconic French duo; apparently to Daft Punk’s chagrin. “Random Access Memories” is essentially a pulsating, gyrating lesson on dance music. This purpose is made particularly clear on the track “Georgio by Moroder” as a legend discusses inventing a click track over click tracks. Excellent studio musicians and guests including Niles Rogers and Pharell help create a Disco homage that never resorts to navel-gazing and manages to feel perfectly contemporary. By borrowing from the past with their latest release Daft Punk have put the human element back into a genre which they helped pioneer.

4. The National- “Trouble Will Find Me”

The National have created a trilogy of excellent, brooding, hyper-literate albums starting with 2005’s “Alligator.” Their newest release continues to mine the same vein, and it continues the trend of excellence. “Trouble Will Find Me” consists of about 10 mid tempo songs that rely on heavily on Matt Berninger’s baritone voice and two songs that rock in the way “Blood Buzz Ohio” rocked.  All in all it’s just more of the same from one modern music’s most consistent bands.

5. Ex Cops- “True Hallucinations” ;

This is an excellent jangle-pop debut. Loud guitar, gripping melodies and sweet but not saccharine vocals are all over this album. It seems entirely fitting that “True Hallucinations” would come out the same year as a  new Pastels album, a group to which Ex Cops are obviously indebted. Although, a touch of aggression keeps and audio fuzz keeps this album from being a Pains of Being Pure at Heart retread. Overall while “True Hallucinations” may not be a groundbreaking album it is a thoroughly enjoyable debut and a great listen.

Honorable Mentions: Savages-“Silence Yourself”; Kylesa-“Ultraviolet”; Youth Lagoon-“Wondrous Bughouse”; Pissed Jeans- “Honeys”; The Knife- “Shaking the Habitual”

An Album per Year for a Decade

Usually, lists touting the best music from a preceding decade are anesthetized. They fall into a neat ten year span, and praise the albums that in hindsight have become canon to that decade. They also tend to be hourglass shaped with repeat entries coming in at the beginning and the end of the decade as representations of either an influence that shaped a decade or a culmination of change in the sonic landscape.

My list is much messier; one album per year starting in 2003 and ending in 2012. There are no repeat years, and inclusion was based entirely on what album I remember liking the most from a particular year.

  • 2003: The White Stripes- “Elephant”: I received this album as a stocking stuffer for Christmas in 2003. I spent the next couple of weeks ruining my ear drums with my portable disc player at my side.

“Elephant” was released at the tail end of the two year span known im music circles as the garage rock revival. However, it sounded nothing like the other bands that were flailing away at their instruments. “Elephant,” filtered blues, country and folk music through the prism of classic Detroit garage rock.

Recorded using only technology available in the ‘60s in a matter of weeks and including a cover of a Burt Bacharach song this album was a revalation.

  • 2004: Danger Mouse- “The Grey Album”: When this album first came out it was almost an urban legend. A new musical trend called mash-ups was becoming in vogue, and this was its epitome.

A then fairly unknown DJ by the name of Danger Mouse had taken the lyrical content of Jay-z’s “The Black Album” and remixed it with vocals and instrumentation from The Beatles’ “The White Album.”

Despite being instant lawsuit fodder and being given away as a free download this album would prove groundbreaking enough to make Danger Mouse as a hit maker and producer de jour for the rest of the decade.

  • 2005: The Hold Steady- “Separation Sunday”: The Hold Steady are what I imagine Bruce Springsteen would sound like if he had spent a decade toiling at shows in bars from Minnesota to Boston and eventually New York.

The Hold Steady’s lead singer, Craig Finn, belts out sloppy Americana tinged lyrics while the rest of the band plays straight ahead rock with flourishes and horn sections that set it apart from simple meat and potatoes bar music.

Add in the fact that “Separation Sunday” is a loose concept album steeped in semi-ironic Christian themes, and you get an amazing album from the world’s most ambitious bar band.

  • 2006: The Arctic Monkeys- “Whatever People Say I am, That’s What I’m Not”: This album a sensation in most of the English speaking world when it came out. Instantly making Arctic Monkeys a household name in the U.K. and breaking decades old sales figures.

The album is an aggressive mix of cheeky lyrics, early observations about the youth in the early 00’s and hard charging rock.

This simple but well-execute formula was so effective that at the time of its release British politicians were expected to have a familiarity with this album.

  • 2007 Of Montreal- “Hissing Fauna Are You the Destroyer?”: This album is schizophrenic. It bounces between euphoric singing and caterwauls of lament, and it’s all the result of one man.

While ostensibly a band, Of Montreal is mostly the work of one man, Kevin Barnes. In 2007 Kevin Barnes was going through an existential crisis after a separation with his wife

This is the catchiest, funkiest and most psychedelic break up album I could imagine. It features Barnes singing with himself in barbershop quartet fashion while a thudding bass line propels songs along.

It also includes an existential freak out song, which in David Bowie fashion Barnes transitions in an alter ego named Georgie Fruit who transcends race and gender.

  • 2008: Los Campesinos!-“Hold on Now, Youngster”: This English band by way of Wales burst onto the indie music scene with their debut.

All band members went by the same last name, Campesinos! (Yes, with an exclamation point), their lyrics name checked everything and everyone from LiveJournal and Spider-man to Jane Eyre.

Audible elements of any given song include electric guitar, glockenspiel, violin and three or four singers. It’s an explosive, unpredictable debut.

  • 2009: Phoenix- “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix”: This album is the rare case in which extremely popular and extremely good overlap.

The good will generated from this catchy pop-rock album from the French band Phoenix has them slated to headline Coachella Music Festival this year, and “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” is four years old.

The album title is a reference to Mozart and the opening track is a simpatico view of Franz Liszt’s songwriting. A smart pop album was correctly beloved.

  • 2010: Kanye West- “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”: This is not the rap album that any sane person would construct with lyrical elements that question sanity, the pitfalls of fame and substance abuse and features multiple songs that take over six minutes to play.

After a painful breakup, the death of his mother and the public backlash West faced after interrupting Taylor Swift at an awards ceremony West set out to make a magnum opus.

He retreated to a Hawaii recording studio, and he flew all contributing artists to the studio on his own expense. West also required full formal attire of his guests at all times during the recording process.

It’s hard not to see comparisons to Brian Wilson’s notoriously fickle recording techniques during The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” as both efforts resulted in near unanimously praised works.

Ultimately, this album proved that while West may not be the ideal person he can create one heck of an album.

  • 2011: F*cked Up-“David Comes to Life”: This post-hardcore band from Canada was not a likely candidate to release the best rock opera since The Who’s “Tommy”, but they did.

While the singing (bellowing would be more accurate) featured on the album falls in line with the bands profane name, but the music does not.

Twin guitar attack, tight rhythm and steady, pounding drumming provide a melodic contrast to the gruff vocals.

“David Comes to Life” is made even more intriguing by being a concept album about a factory worker’s doomed love that features multiple unreliable narrators and frequently breaks the fourth wall.

  • 2012: Japandroids-“Celebration Rock”: Every song on this album could stand alone as a shout along anthem, and yet it never gets exhausting.

This album is the result of just two young men capable of making a wall of sound that captures the wistful longing for the next party even as one rages on around them.

There is also an underlying angst to the album that keeps it from being too saccharine or from feeling underdeveloped. It was certainly my favorite of 2012.