December 29, 2013 § Leave a comment
See you some day.
10. Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience (Pt. 1)
(RCA) (March 18)
The sudden turning on Justin Timberlake that came towards the end of the summer before Part 2 of “The 20/20 Experience” came out was pretty bizarre to me. I mean, he didn’t need to release that record, it’s about half the record this one is (if that), but I was seeing people who were initially praising this record as a new step in pop perfection go back on their word. Of course, as soon as this record came out, the reviews were pretty well split – go look at the AMG review or even the scores at Metacritic. It’s not a record for everyone, and it’s not really the record a lot of people want from Timberlake, one of America’s favorite celebrities (the guy who has supplanted Tom Hanks as THE best SNL host over the past many years.) But here’s what I get from this record: it’s grandiose and overly long, sure – but this isn’t necessarily a pop record in the same way that we should look at one. This is Justin attempting to shed his “the new Michael Jackson” image in favor of a “the new Prince” image. Obviously, he’s not Prince, no one ever will be – but the extended instrumentals and musical changes that almost every single song has here with Timbaland is terribly invigorating to me and really some of the freshest things that Timbo has put out in a long time. I had a friend that said something like “Timberlake discovered James Murphy” and I can surely see that as an influence in a track like “Let The Groove Get In” or other tracks where it’s about repetition. I don’t know, it’s a helluva record to me, and while I don’t know if I want to praise it as being a true artists’ record or a masterpiece, I think it’s totally ballsy and lives up to its ambitions for the most part. Forget the second record came out – that one looked backwards at his old stuff, this one looked forward to what he should be doing.
9. Classixx – Hanging Gardens
(Innovative Leisure) (May 14)
Or, Pure Joy: The Album. The reason that “Hanging Gardens” has a bunch of super dedicated fans of people who actually took the time to listen to this record is because this record is just blissful. Whereas Disclosure really capitalized on years and years of UK and Detroit dance music, Classixx is a trip to the sunny beaches of California over and over. It’s like a more pop version of that tropical album that the Happy Mondays did, or essentially a mixture between an HD version of the Donkey Kong Country soundtrack and playing beach volleyball in non-neon clothing. It’s not done tongue-in-cheek like Junior Senior did it either (though Jeppe is on the record), but it really sounds like a natural, totally organic Los Angeles dance record and the moments leading up to the dance. The album was great for me, because I got into it right as I was starting my second consecutive summer in New England, and while summers over there in New Hampshire and Vermont and Maine are wonderful, they really don’t compete with the summers I spent as a kid in San Diego and Los Angeles or even as an adult in San Francisco and Humboldt. This record was able to tap into that nostalgia, no matter how much I was putting into it, and just allow me to really find a place of comfort and fun and smiles that most dance records aren’t able to capture. “All You’re Waiting For” is one of the catchiest and poppiest songs of the year, one of my absolute favorite tracks, you get a track like “Long Lost”, which is so dreamy and sounds like what the wood elves from Lord of the Rings would listen to if their woodland realm was in the Amazon and not a place akin to northern Europe. All I know is that everyone I know who checked this record out totally loved it, so don’t be one of those people who didn’t.
8. Iceage – You’re Nothing
(Matador) (Feb. 19)
12 tracks, 28 minutes and with that – Iceage has put out what is probably my favorite punk album since well…shit, “Gutitar Romantic”? Yeah, punk isn’t a genre I pay a whole lot of attention to and while I dig most everything the RFTC crew puts out and was into that lo-fi movement that was hot in like 2007, this is easily my most listened to punk album that I can even remember. I had a serious addiction to this record that I was finally able to kick around July – and now that I’ve been working on this list, it has kicked back in, hard. What Iceage does better than most bands of their ilk is blend the interesting vocals and instrumentation of “post-punk” with a more hardcore aesthetic. The songs aren’t just BEAT THE SHIT OUT OF YOU type hardcore punk songs, there is an artiness to them, but they still do have that we-don’t-give-a-fuck, naivete about them that makes the tracks way more about playing loud and breaking shit than pondering “well, how’d they make THAT sound?” And the fact that this is a young, Danish band makes it even cooler because you have to imagine that they’re only going to get better with their third album. Just a killer record.
7. The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die – Whenever, If Ever
(Topshelf) (June 18)
I feel like almost every year I’ve done this list there has been one record in “indie rock” record that reaches back to the late 90’s emo influence I used to obsess over and just blows me away. This year, a band with a horribly long and pretentious name put out that record. This record starts with a 2 minute instrumental that is just a drone track of cymbals, violins and guitar distortion and eventually a simple guitar chord that gets replayed throughout the album. It fades into “Heartbeat In A Brain” which starts off sounding like a Get Up Kids or Reggie & The Full Effect song, before the vocals come in, sounding like Modest Mouse. But once that picks up, the band really sounds like many countless emo bands I loved my sophomore year of high school that you could find interchangeable. The track slows down picks up, shows the influence of Brand New before closing out for a minute of instrumentals that sound like Explosions in The Sky. Yeah, this is a band I would’ve loved a lot in high school and as nostalgia seems to be the name of the game this year, this is the emo revival record that really blew me away. Track 3, “Fightboat” has horns and is an altogether, louder song, but still has enough off-kilter instrumental passages and warped vocals to make it almost more like a No Knife song than Taking Back Sunday or something. Play this record loud, put on your tight pants again and just remember how fun it was to have bands who really spoke FOR you. Also, I think it really a great rock record, nostalgia aside.
6. Jason Isbell – Southeastern
(Relativity/Southeastern) (June 11)
If you have any sort of passing interest in Americana music past Mumford & Sons, I’m guessing you saw people talking about this album somewhere. Just about any media outlet that covers roots-type music over electronic and hip hop basically praised this as the best album of the year, if not one of the best singer/songwriter albums of our generation. And guess what – it’s both of those. It’s also the record that I’ve been waiting for from Isbell for 10 years now. Isbell was always my favorite 1/3 of the Drive-By Truckers when he was part of the band. And DBT happened to be the band I considered the best in the world. I was heartbroken when he left, to the point where I wore out the section of my cd where “Goddamn Lonely Love” was located (this is probably untrue). And then Isbell went solo and put out 3 mediocre albums. Three albums that had moments of absolute brilliance piled together with some Dave Matthews/John Mayer crap. It was like he was trying to crossover by being something he wasn’t. What’s funny is that “Southeastern” is the first record since his marriage and his being sober, and somehow it’s the most dour, minimalistic and emotional of his records. I mean, this is some Hank Williams -level country music. This is Townes Van Zandt without the insanity, a new Guy Clark. You name it. And here’s the thing: I didn’t even give this record it’s due this year, because I was bitter that Isbell was finally getting the press I felt like he should’ve been getting since like 2005 – and I wasn’t the first to break it. I tried to ignore this album for months for completely selfish reasons and eventually I succumbed and jesus, what a piece of work.
5. Chance The Rapper – Acid Rap
(Self-Released) (April 27)
When all is said and done, “Acid Rap” is one of the few rap albums in history where the execution of the project actually lived up to the ambition. And it was free. And it was by a dude who was virtually unknown. Honestly, as a complete album, as a singular vision of something that is wholly unique and will spark a lot of copycats in the future, as a feel good story that had a huge impact in the independent music world, the hip hop world and just random places on television, print and the internet – Acid Rap is a classic. I’m talking “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” and “Good Kid Maad City” classic. There is no other album like it, there is no one like Chance and there is no one operating on the path that he is operating successfully; grass-roots, anti-label, surrounded by a bunch of future superstar peers. Honestly, Kanye ruled the media, Beyonce ruled December, Justin Timberlake ruled the early part of the year, Taylor Swift, Robin Thicke & Pharrell, Daft Punk & Pharrell, Macklemore, Miley Cyrus, Drake, all of these pop stars had these huge years – but Chance The Rapper gets artist of the year from me. A stone-cold classic album from a visionary. And I feel like I’m only now giving the record it’s due – even though I’ve been listening for 7 months.
4. Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer, Different Park
(Mercury Nashville) (March 19)
You know, I knew this would be near the top of my list before the album even came out. “Merry Go Round” was one of my favorite singles of 2012 and one, in which I got completely wrapped up in the hype of – this young songwriter who was writing country music that was actually relevant. When a performance of her next single, “Follow Your Arrow” hit the web, I fell in love. When videos of Kacey going record shopping and talking about Ryan Adams were around, I fell harder. When she started to really gain popularity and was in every magazine and publication and looked like a more countrified Rashida Jones – man, she just has my heart like no one has since Nelly Furtado in 2004. I mean, I seriously love this woman. And beyond that, I love this album. It’s a country album, sure – some of it is really quite country, but it’s also a conventional singer/songwriter album, and much of it is super catchy pop music, not dissimilar from Taylor Swift or Michelle Branch or something similar. “My House” is a fun take on a trailer home that is totally country. “Dandelion” sounds like something that could rule adult contemporary radio and has a really interesting key change at the end of the chorus. “I Miss You” totally jacks Radiohead’s “Creep”. “Step Off” and “Blowin’ Smoke” are Miranda Lambert songs, “Follow Your Arrow” is an anthem. Lots of it is naive, but it’s also super courageous and super accomplished. Ashley was more country, Brandy had better songwriting, but as a complete package and as a totally unique pop star – Kacey is the clear winner.
3. Sam Amidon – Bright Sunny South
(Nonesuch) (May 13)
Look, unless he completely changes his sound, any time Sam Amidon puts out a record – it’s going to score really high with me. He’s one of my very favorite musicians going right now, even with his fairly slim output. “All Is Well” was my #1 album of 2008 and is probably in my top 20 records of all time at this point. “I See The Sign” scored highly with me, but couldn’t live up to its predecessor. “Bright Sunny South” sees Amidon gone from Bedroom Community, linked up with Nonesuch, using a more jazzy approach, fresh off a marriage to one of the most creative female musicians out there (Beth Orton) and a father. It also finds him reconstructing the “Shape-Note” style of singing his folksinger parents used to do while growing up. He also covers Tim McGraw and Mariah Carey. It’s probably the prettiest record of the year, from a dude who has made a career out of making records whose beauty is hard to even fathom. His singing is alien in the same way that Jason Molina (RIP) was an alien. His arrangements are sparse, though this record adds horns to the mix occasionally. And all he is doing, still, is taking traditional, public domain songs. Songs that have existed for seemingly hundreds of years and rearranging them into modern, unique takes. It’s about my favorite thing in music, and I hope he never stops – he gives me chills.
2. Kanye West – Yeezus
(Roc-A-Fella) (June 18)
Yeah, it’s surprising that it’s not #1 for me, also. At the same time, if you look at the Metacritic collated list of “best albums” lists from this year, “Yeezus” is far and away the winner for best album of the year – yet if you compare it with where it ranks as far as reviews go, it’s something in the low 20’s. And that’s a perfect way to approach this record. First of all, it’s one of the most divisive mainstream record I can think of since I’ve been paying attention to music. Second, I don’t know too many people who would consider it the “best” album of the year, but Third, I know a whole bunch of people who consider it their “favorite” record of the year. Because this record – it grows on you. That’s a weird thing to say for a Kanye album, especially one that is so abrasive and in your face as Yeezus, but it’s true. It is such a departure from what came before it, that initially it’s sort of hard to wrap your head around it. But then you keep listening, and you keep listening and it just worms it’s way in there to the point where the huge synth blasts and overly sampled Popcaan or hilariously bad lyrics just don’t even grate anymore and become totally essential. It’s not the best Kanye album, and as a full piece of work – I think “Acid Rap” is probably a better complete work, but the high points on this record, they haven’t been matched many times…ever. Kanye DOES operate on a whole other level, and it doesn’t always work. I don’t really like “Hold My Liquor” anymore, and I could probably do without “Send It Up” – but then I think musically, they are still really interesting songs. And they are surrounded by 8 of the best songs of the year. #2, #1, #25, it doesn’t really matter where I rank this album; regardless on how people feel about it now, it’s going to mark a huge turning point in hip hop trends going forward. Just like every Kanye album before this.
1. Sturgill Simpson – High Top Mountain
(High Top Mountain) (June 11)
I knew the first time I heard it. I tried to disprove that feeling, but I knew. This is the country album I’ve been waiting for, likely the best country album of the 2000’s, and the record country music fans like me, need. I pre-ordered the LP, I got friends to do the same, I posted youtubes almost weekly on FB, I made sure to tune into his 2-song set at the Opry, I regretted not finding a way to see him live, I listened to the record dozens and dozens of times – and even though it is a modern-day Waylon Jennings album, just another record in the midst of a hundred “outlaw” records being put out every year, this is THE ONE. It’s easily my favorite record of the year, or at least the one that MEANT the most to me, the one I wanted to tell people about the most – and I can’t wait for Sturgill to blow up. He has a big following now, but it’s going to become cult-like. This is as perfect of a country record as has been crafted and the best album of 2013.
Maybe you’ll see me again. Doubtful. Have a good 2014.
December 28, 2013 § Leave a comment
We should get to it, no?
20. Disclosure – Settle
(Cherrytree/Universal) (June 11)
There can’t be a whole lot that I can add about the most talked about electronic album of the year, that hasn’t already been said a million times. Look, it’s a good album. It’s an exciting album, because what Disclosure did with “Settle” is create a modern dance album that harkens back the last 20 years, really and combines all these different, very popular dance music styles and makes them really accessible and fun and because of that (and because of the hype machine, I suppose), they were able to crossover into the pop sphere (obviously way more overseas, but I had friends talking about them I would’ve never guessed would be too). A lot of their success comes from teaming with some huge up and coming British vocalists like AlunaGeorge, Sam Smith, Jessie Ware, Jamie Woon and London Grammar, which was the immediate draw for me (I mean, I LOVE Jessie Ware and Jamie Woon). But this album is a success because it’s just terribly fun. Some people more in the know can’t really understand why this is THE dance album of the year, and I’m not sure I do either, but I have a very strong memory of driving from New York to New Hampshire in June and listening to this record 2 times, really loud, windows down and it was just perfect. I’ve listened to it other times and it hasn’t stirred me, and then maybe even a day later it’s like the perfect record to me. Maybe it’s a mood piece, I don’t know, but played loud – it provided some of my best memories and auditory experiences of the year.
19. Ariana Grande – Yours Truly
(Universal) (Aug. 30)
“Baby I” is my favorite Mariah Carey in many years. “Right There” samples one of my favorite r&b/hip-hop songs of the 90s (Lil’ Kim’s “Crush On You”), “Lovin’ It” samples “Real Love” and from there you can point back to the early 00’s and mid 90’s to every influence this record has. And that’s why it is fantastic. Also, because Ariana is a seriously great pop singer. But look, there were a handful of excellent pop records, including two that will appear later on this list that appear because of their spin on what pop music should be in 2013 – but “Yours Truly” is a celebration of the stuff that I loved growing up and didn’t realized until I was an adult. It’s a nostalgic record in the best way imaginable for its genre and a rare feat really. There’s a reason why very few of the 90s and early 2000’s r&b acts are around today – most of the sounds just don’t translate well. But Ariana, man. I love this record more and more every day. For me, “Your Truly” is this year’s “Kiss”, in that it is just perfectly written, tried and true pop carried out by a girl who isn’t going to be as big as Mariah or Beyonce or Madonna or Taylor Swift or Lady Gaga even, but is still just a talent that we better get on the ground floor loving. I’m sure you’ve heard a few of these songs on the radio – or maybe at the AMA’s, but I encourage y’all to check out the record if you haven’t, it’s about perfect.
18. Willis Earl Beal – Nobody Knows
(XL) (Sept. 10)
No single album from this year was more arresting the first time I listened to it than “Nobody Knows”. I was in Oklahoma, I was relatively hung over (for me), and I was listening to this in the morning and it was more or less the first record I can remember since having crippling depression in college that basically didn’t allow me to get up from the bed I was on until it was over. And it’s an hour long. I mean, it really has this intense feeling about it, that with repeated listens has waned a bit, but regardless – I think it’s a terribly creative and alien-sounding record, probably the most “soulful” record I heard this year, and yet it’s not a top 10 record because of just how arresting and honestly, exhausting it can be. I’m a situational music guy, and this record isn’t really one I’ve allowed myself to just put on in the background or in the car, or listen to on headphones when working – it’s a sit down and listen record. Which I guess could be an argument to the power of it, but mostly it makes me tentative to listen to it. I realize I’m over thinking this whole thing and should probably just an enjoy the awesome record that it is, but man, nobody knows. I’m not going to tell you how it sounds, but it’s not of this era.
17. Valerie June – Pushin’ Against A Stone
(Sunday Best/Concord) (Aug. 13)
I feel sort of bad when I describe this record as Erykah Badu does country-blues, because it’s really short-sighted, unfair and maybe a little bit racist, but ultimately – it’s a starting point for a record that doesn’t really sit well in any genre or sound like anything else. But honestly, Valerie June is a game changer in the music scene. She is part of the Nashville country scene but she is clearly not a country singer. She’s super soulful, but her music isn’t just blues either – it’s just this world of American music that exists and always has and always will. The thing that grates on me the most about this record is probably Dan Auerbach’s production, because occasionally some of the best songs get mired in the Black Keys echo vocals and fuzzy guitar sound, which stops June from TRULY sounding like something completely new. Like if you compare two of my favorite tracks “Somebody to Love” and “Wanna Be On Your Mind” – both have this ethereal beauty to them, but the production on the former allows it to be something that just doesn’t equate with current music. I listened to this record a whole lot early in the year when it leaked way before August, stopped listening for most of the summer and then bought it in the autumn when it for real came out and it’s been in rotation ever since. Really excited to see how this wonderful woman progresses.
16. Chris Schlarb – Psychic Temple II
(Asthmatic Kitty) (July 15)
This album has a cover of one of my favorite lesser Beach Boys songs (“‘Til I Die”), an important Frank Zappa instrumental and one of my favorite pop songs ever: Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out”. And between those 3 great pieces you get these intricate, organic arrangements that blur the line between ambient, dream pop, neo-classical and jazz. If it sounds pretentious on paper, it doesn’t on record, because the first time I heard this record this autumn, I felt compelled to play it the entire day. 8 times in a row. The last record that did that to me? “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”. That’s irrelevant and my single-day obsession with this record certainly was only a single day, but I still find this to be a very excellent record. Mixes some Steely Dan with Joe Jackson, but also Sufjan Stevens, Bill Frisell, some modern jazz, it’s just great and terribly smooth, without actually SOUNDING “smooth”. It floats by, is mostly dreamy, but it doesn’t dawdle, even on the 10 minute “No Tsurai” which is the most experimental piece here. It is a fully composed album from start to finish and one of those records where when I listen to it, it makes me wish that I had studied and learned music at some point – because this is a type of record I would love to be a part of.
15. Brandy Clark – 12 Stories
(Smith Music) (Oct. 22)
Spoiler Alert: this is not the last solo female country album that will be on this list. If you pay attention to the genre at all, you could probably guess what the other two are, and neither is Lindi Ortega. But anyway, this is an awesome musician to support, mainly because she’s great. Also, she’s an out lesbian who writes country hits, specifically for “strong” women singers, who have dominated what most country critics would deem the best stuff going over the past 5 years, but she’s also been behind some of the acceptance of talking about marijuana in country, NOT talking about trucks, and just blending traditional country with a modern sound. There’s no auto-tune in her song or hip hop beats, but there is some shit talking. Brandy’s album isn’t particularly “twangy” compared to even someone like Miranda Lambert or Leann Rimes, but it is through and through country. And it also is able to forgo the somewhat “white trash” aesthetic that some of these female country albums use as empowerment. It’s just a real musician and great songwriter breaking through, making waves and putting out great songs.
14. Jim Guthrie – Takes Time
(Static Clang) (May 14)
“Takes Time” isn’t the first Jim Guthrie release since 2003’s breakthrough pop masterpiece “Now, More Than Ever”, but it is the first release that can be considered in the same breath. He’s done video game soundtrack work and collaborated with Nick from Islands and probably had his hand in some production, because he is a goddamn whiz kid, but this record is an example of what he does best: creates unbelievably catchy, dreamy pop music. Honestly, this is one of those timeless records that makes perfect sense coming out now in 2013 and sounding fresh, but it could’ve come out in 2007 or 1997 or probably 1987 and it would still have fans. It’s terribly fresh and well-crafted, one of those records where you have to turn it up to a pretty loud volume and just listen to all the LITTLE things that happen in each track. From harmonies to extra instrumentation in choruses and what not, Guthrie just knows how to construct songs that tickle everything I love about guitar-based pop music. His vocals always have that hushed echoey sound that people like Islands or The Shins or all of those mid-2000’s excellent indie-pop bands use (or Neil Halstead), and it just blends perfectly with the music. I don’t know if this type of music just isn’t exciting to people nowadays, but I hardly saw any talk about this record this year, except for the people who DID talk about it – and would claim it basically to be album of the year. It’s not, but as I said – it might be the most timeless record of the year.
13. Ashley Monroe – Like A Rose
(Warner Nashville) (March 5)
You know Ashley Monroe as 1/3 of the Pistol Annies, but now you should know her as the country singer who is bound to put out a bunch of amazing albums. Because that’s what this debut is. It’s one of the best neo-traditional country albums of the past decade, which is probably what stopped it from truly crossing over the way that her peers are able to. This is some straight up Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette amazingness. And the team that put the record together help out the cause, making sure that it has the feel of a classic country record, without just sounding like a tribute. Produced and worked on with Vince Gill (does he do ANYTHING wrong at this point?) and featuring co-writes from people like Shane McAnally (every modern country singer), Sally Barris (Lee Ann Womack) and Liz Rose (Taylor Swift) – everything sounds fresh and really focuses on amazing hooks and concepts – but it sounds like the best 70s or 90s country record you’ve ever heard. It’s got fiddles up front, it talks about weed and pregnancy and being poor and it’s the most COUNTRY record on the entire list.
12. Futurebirds – Baba Yaga
(Fat Possum) (April 15)
My single best “musical moment” of the past year happened late last April, coming back from a fairly incredible date in Middlebury, Vermont. I love the middle of Vermont, it’s turning into my favorite place in the USA not along the northern coast of California, but beyond that – there was this time, where I was riding this high in my car as the sun was setting slowly and I was driving past farm lands and took a wrong turn somewhere and heading towards Lake Champlain and instead of being worried about going the wrong way, I just vibed out to everything that was happening, mainly because I was listening to “Baba Yaga” for the first time. It was a transcendent moment, one of those that will be remembered for a long time, if not forever. And this is the music that Futurebirds makes. The AMG review of this record calls it a “sort of alt-country answer to stoner rock” and in a way it is. It’s breezy and hazy, super pretty, but intense and really psychedelic. But this is clearly not an indie rock record, beneath it all, this is a Flying Burrito Brothers country rock record through and through. It became one of my favorite records to listen to this year in the kitchen and in general when I was stressing out – just because this is the type of record that really feels natural to my sensibilities, it’s comforting in the way that half of Yo La Tengo’s discography is. This kind of music needs to exist for people like me. That all said, I wish this record was like 15 minutes shorter and it would probably be an all-time classic for me.
11. Myron & E (with the Soul Investigators) – Broadway
(Stones Throw) (July 2)
You almost can’t have a list of mine exist without some shout out to a retro soul sounding record and for most of the year, I figure it would be Adrian Younge’s collaboration with one of my favorite soul groups ever, The Delfonics – but then I discovered “Broadway” out on Stones Throw and immediately forgot that other soul music existed, period. This has a totally vintage sound, not like it’s copying anyone famous – because I can’t really point to anything, but I definitely heard the sound of some Northern Soul groups in this record. The Soul Investigators kill it on production, all vintage and with amazing breaks and Myron & E for their part don’t have powerful voices, it almost sounds like they can’t reach the ranges that are required for most soul singers, and that’s what makes this work better – because it makes the record more about the WHOLE sound than just them as vocalists. Any fan of hip hop, or Detroit or The Delfonics or anything like that should be checking this record out – it has become something I’ve obsessed over like 3 or 4 times since July.
December 21, 2013 § Leave a comment
Keep it going, keep it going.
Pokey LaFarge – Pokey LaFarge
(Third Man) (July 2)
If there is one album in the 21-50 rankings that gets closer and closer to the Top 20 with every listen, it is this Pokey LaFarge jam. Honestly, if I were to have stayed in upstate New York this autumn and winter instead of moving to Tulsa and then ultimately back to Portland, OR instead, this would probably be like a top 5 record, because this whole western swing, jazz, old timey country thing that Pokey does better than anyone? Yeah, it’s my favorite sound in the world. He’s not the only dude on the block making this real old-timey sounding music (and I don’t mean string band and CERTAINLY not Mumford territory), but this is something else. What I like about Pokey though, is that he doesn’t really come off as hokey as a lot of people (Jay Sparrow), nor does he really try to put a twist on it to make it super modern twist on it (Devil Makes Three), he just seems like a guy who should probably have been making music in the 30’s and 40’s and instead, is making music in the 2010’s. Pour a glass of bourbon, sit on the porch and listen to Pokey.
Postiljonen – Skyer
(Best Fit) (July 5)
I think this is probably the only one of the 50 albums on this list that I have yet to read a review about – not because there is a lack of them, it’s a relatively highly buzzed about album – but just because I usually don’t give a shit about this type of post chillwave, dream-pop, airy female vocal, electronic pop music. I mean I like all of those things singularly, but there is this certain sub-genre that has existed within the last 10 years where I like a few songs, but mostly I just don’t care. I feel like there was a lot of indie-electronic pop stuff in this vein this year, and I checked out a lot and I feel like there were a couple of really good dream-pop records and what not, but this one is one of the few that really stuck with me. I think even though it stays slow most of the time, and the vocals are super whispered and echoed, there is something about the production that keeps the songs a lot more interesting than most of their peers – something that drives the songs forward, keeps them almost danceable. “We Raise Our Hearts” is one of my favorite songs of the year. It kind of goes into the M83 style of pop music a lot of the time, but maybe less corny? Anyway, this is a record I tried to dismiss, but it always hooks me.
Pure Bathing Culture – Moon Tides
(Memphis Industries) (Aug. 19)
I’ve been waiting for an album that sounded like this for an awful long time. One that sounds like the cover of this particular album suggests it sounds. It’s dream-pop, and there has been lots of good dream-pop records of the past decade, but there is something about the sound of this record – it being almost equally poppy and dreamy that really slays me. Pure Bathing Culture gets compared to Cocteau Twins a lot, but then secondly to Beach House and Fleetwood Mac. All of those are great comparisons and points of references. It’s crystalline and crisp but blurred. The vocals float amongst the music, but the melodies are pure Fleetwood Mac poppiness. It’s dream-pop for the coast, for the summer days (and nights), and was probably the record that I was addicted to the most this summer. I don’t think it’s as good a record as “Teen Dream” by Beach House or anything, but it certainly has this lightness to it that that record lacks – just makes me want to go surfing in the daytime. It’s almost exactly the type of music you’d expect a Portland-based duo to make in 2013 after a trip to the Oregon Coast, which I’m guessing is basically how it came to be. Really melodic, beautiful stuff.
Purling Hiss – Water On Mars
(Drag City) (March 18)
There was a short time in March where I was repainting old dormitories in the snow where I probably considered this my favorite record of the year. I think this album alienated some “long time” Purling Hiss fans because it actually sounds like music now, rather than just basement fuzz, but man – this is one of the best 90s throwback records in a long while. The opener sounds like Nirvana, “Rat Race” sounds like Pavement or Evan Dando, there are instrumentals, psychedelic, more acoustic numbers and sometimes I get this Hot Snakes/Rocket From The Crypt feel. It all has this awesome fuzz and distortion to it that shows that it is clearly related to Ty Segall in some way. “She Calms Me Down” is a track that actually calms me down and was listened to while inebriated way too many times this year. Just a great throwback record that fell on a lot of deaf ears.
Queens Of The Stone Age – …Like Clockwork
(Matador) (June 4)
I guess I should have figured that bringing back Dave Grohl and Nick Oliveri into the band would have resulted in their best album since “Songs For The Deaf”, or maybe that they were leaving their major label deal for Interscope. Or that Josh Homme is now married and has kicked drugs and has been dealing with the fallout. Or that the album would feature Alex Turner and Mark Lanegan and…Elton John. Or maybe even the fact that the song or two that came out as a preview to the album’s release were just fantastic should have clued me into the fact that this would be a special record. It could’ve been the awesome artwork or Josh Homme’s star rising on television (with Bourdain) or on the radio and podcasts – coming off like a legitimately hilarious dude. I don’t know, there were lots of things that were pointing out to me that this could be a really great record and I still gave it like two months after the release before I actually checked it out. And I was blown away. It rocks, it’s more straightforward and stuff, but really has a more unified sound than a lot of their albums and it definitely hovers around the mid-tempo level more too. It is some of the best songwriting that Homme has done and tracks like “The Vampyre of Time and Memory” are definitely a little subversively dark (well, not by title), but it just carries on. You HAVE to play it loud – I didn’t experiment with driving to the record too much, but come this spring – it is on.
Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels
(Fat Beats/Fool’s Gold) (June 26)
Let me just say that the album art, t-shirts and distribution model that El-P & Killer Mike went with for this album is about my favorite shit of the year. That out of the way, I’m gonna admit I have this weird relationship with Killer Mike. It’s a one way thing, because he’s unaware of it, obviously – but I like most of his releases, from his debut album about 10 years ago to the various GRIND TIME RAP GANG mixtapes to his recent work with El-P, but I don’t usually LOVE his releases, because I find listening to him exhausting. More than that, I think more than with any other rapper, I feel like Killer Mike is just talking down to me. He’s preaching at me with his superior intellect and yet still keeps it fucking gangster. That’s why El-P sharing the verses on this record is a breath of fresh air, because I love El-P’s raps. I actually think El-P is super underrated as a rapper. Killer Mike is great and lyrically and style wise is obviously one of the best we have going, and I like this album a lot – but I maybe not as much as “Rap Music” from last year and definitely not as much as the El-P album from last year, but it’s great at the same time – I just can’t get addicted to it like the rest of the rap albums on this list. I don’t want him to tone it down, it’s my issue and everything, but it probably isn’t going away. Wonder what Mike would sound like with a classic boom bap production. Whatever, it’s still good and often great.
Russian Circles – Memorial
(Sargent House) (Oct. 29)
In November of this year, I tried really hard to get into a bunch of metal and post rock releases from this year I had just kind of had sitting in Spotify playlists and Itunes and seen posted around and what not, and while there were a bunch of releases I found very good, it was almost too predictable that the one that would really stick with me and becoming addicting was going to be the new Russian Circles. I love instrumental metal like this. I’ve talked before about how Capricorns’ “Ruder Forms Survive” is one of my favorite metal albums of the past decade, and how I love old Pelican and the instrumental passages that Mastodon and Isis and Wolves in the Throne Room mess with. I loved much of the Sunbather album from this year too. And Windhand, and Castevet and Inter Arma and Year of No Light and even Pelican, but this record, man. I don’t know. I guess some people were a little disappointed with it, some people praised it highly, but it is just one of these records that checks off all the boxes on what I am looking for with this type of release. It crushes, but it’s pretty. It’s epic in scope, is sequenced wonderfully (the first half IS better than the second), and on the whole the record is under 40 minutes. It’s a great record for the winter and in a year when there were good metal releases that I actually paid attention to, this one just won out.
San Fermin – San Fermin
(Downtown) (Sept. 17)
This is my token NPR-approved album of the year. I mean, a lot of my list probably overlaps with their various lists, but San Fermin is a “band” that I probably wouldn’t have given a chance if not for All Songs Considered relentless pushing of this album and particularly “Sonsick” towards the end of the summer. And this is an album custom-made for the hip, older crowd that will also appeal to the pretty hip younger crowd. It’s pretty, we can get that out of the way. And if you want to get specific – it’s pretty much equally influenced by Grizzly Bear, The Dirty Projectors and Sufjan Stevens with vocal duties split by a guy who sounds like Bill Callahan (Smog) one song and Matt Berringer (The National) the next and the girls from Lucius who sound like the girls from Dirty Projectors but less kooky. There are horns, strings, and 17 songs over the course of 55 minutes, so it goes kind of all over the place – but whereas lots of indie rock that fits a ton of tracks into this time frame seems to be really hyperactive and cut through things really fast, Ellis Ludwig-Leone’s training is as a classical composer from Yale allows the songs to remain interesting for those of us with a low attention span, but still gives them room to breathe. It’s huge, orchestral pop that challenges the listener to really listen to everything going on and not just be subverted by the beauty.
The Night Marchers – Allez! Allez!
(Swami) (Jan. 22)
I think back in March or April or whenever I firsttalked about 2013 albums, I described this record essentially as a Thin Lizzy record on speed. Funnily enough, for those who don’t know – frontman John Reis also goes by Speedo, and he is in TOP form on this record. Look, I love or really like just about every record in the Drive Like Jehu/Rocket From The Crypt/Hot Snakes camp because they are no bullshit, awesome rock n roll. Over the past year, this one has come to be one of my very favorite from the camp though, just because I feel like it has this groove to it that I don’t always get in their records. It’s dumb, fun as hell and super loud. I mean, the second track is called “Loud, Dumb & Mean”. Other track titles include “Thar She Blows”, “I Wear The Horns” and “Fisting The Fanbase”. But this record swings man, that’s what really gets me. Like it’s a punk record you wanna dance to and not just mosh to (you do), but actually just dance by yourself or with friends or whatever, it’s really deceptive. Shit rocks and has stuck with me longer than any record this year.
The Stepkids – Troubadour
(Stones Throw) (June 11)
Apparently The Stepkids made some waves earlier this year by doing jazz covers of Justin Timberlake and Daft Punk. I just found that out. I usually consciously ignore that stuff. But what I do know is that I really enjoyed the first Stepkids record and generally try to check out most everything that Stones Throw puts out, but all that being said – this record being on this list is probably the biggest surprise for me. Here’s what the band did for this record: abandon the badass psuedo-Funkadelic sound of their first record for a stream-lined Steely Dan/Joe Jackson/Doobie Brothers/Yacht rock sound for this one. It’s like they knew the way into my goddamn adult contemporary-loving heart. Not much on this record is life-changing, but it is just a great comfort for those of us who love this style of music. And it isn’t a direct copy or anything, it still sounds pretty modern and all, but it is a great homage to a sound that people try to pretend they don’t like anymore. “The Lottery” sounds like a Donald Fagan b-side, “Desert in the Dark” sounds like Rockwell or The Time or some other Michael Jackson or Prince disciple, “Insecure Troubadour” doesn’t sound like any other music, it’s bizarre and simple, “Moving Pictures” does sound like Prince sort of and there are moments of Oingo Boingo and Talking Heads and other lite-rock stuff. It’s all over the place and terribly fun.
Vic Mensa – Innanetape
(Self-Released) (Sept. 30)
In the early stages of this list, I was contemplating teaming up Vic Mensa’s debut mixtape with Chance The Rapper’s masterpiece and then I realized that if I did that, I’d have to include the rest of the great #Savemoney releases from this year and then it would be hard for me not to give a bunch of really good albums combined the #1 spot. So I took the two best. Chance is in the Top 20 (SPOILERS!), and Vic just barely missed. All things considered, probably #22 or 23. This is just a fantastic (free!) record, especially for a first one (yeah I know it’s not the first music he’s made), but I just love almost everything this whole crew is doing. While most of Chicago’s rap that is coming out seems focused on THE TRAP or the Kanye-isms, this crew of young dudes who are friends with a lot of the dudes shooting each other up (same neighborhoods at least), this stuff is so alternative and weird and just amazingly melodic and paired with Kendrick and TDE is the freshest stuff being put out (funny that it’s come to light that Chance The Rapper was offered a spot in TDE). But with Vic – he actually sounds a lot like Chance, maybe more stoned and less weird, less high pitched and more linear, but he is a pretty incredible rapper in his own right – stupidly fast and playful, but not just putting out party rhymes. He flips from conscious, introspective raps weed and computer raps in the blink of an eye. It’s just one of the best rap albums of the year, no doubt about it. And I’m posting just one video, from probably his most known track, but almost every track on this mixtape has a video at this point, so search Youtube.
Volcano Choir – Repave
(Jagjaguwar) (Sept. 3)
Those damn warm summer nights. This past summer, I lived in what was termed (by me) “The Hut” up in New Hampshire at a youth camp I worked at. It was a great, rustic place. Rustic in bad ways, mostly – but it had electricity and all that, so I wasn’t going full on Bon Iver or anything. Except I was, because this record came (yeah, it leaked early) this summer and I immediately became addicted to it and declared my vendetta against Justin Vernon over and that this was the best record of his. Like it was at the point where this was a top 5 record of the year, no doubt about it. And then the autumn hit and this record started to fall out of favor with me, though I still think it’s mostly great – but a lot less great than initially. Look, it doesn’t try to be nearly as emotional or as anthemic as either Bon Iver records, but it’s still really pretty and really dreamy and definitely goes by through a haze of clouds or night fog or something, but Justin doesn’t drown his vocals in all kinds of effects. Echo, sure, but you take a song like “Alaskans” and it sounds like an old Coldplay song, but also sticks in your head and makes you think it is one of the best songs of the year (even though “Byegone” or “Almanac” are probably the real winners here). But look, if you are a Bon Iver fan (there are millions of you) than you should probably get this record if you don’t have it. If you like dreamy stuff or somewhat rustic stuff or just wanna be comforted, look – it’s a pretty great record.
William Tyler – Impossible Truth
(Merge) (March 19)
When he was still alive, I probably put Jack Rose in the #1 or #2 spot as my favorite living musicians. When he left us, there was this gaping hole in the acoustic, instrumental guitar music scene that was filled up by people like James Blackshaw, Glenn Jones (also had a great album this year), Harris Newman, and William Tyler. Tyler’s last album kind of wasn’t on my radar until a while after it came out, but it was a marvel. “Impossible Truth”, as I said at the beginning of the year, might actually be the best album of the year. Or at least, in the future will be the album I consider to be the best. It’s probably my favorite solo instrumental record since Rose’s “Kensington Blues” and it’s a lot more diverse than that record. On this record, Tyler has scripted what, to me, is something like the ultimate American landscape record. Some tracks are straight up 12 or 6 string acoustic jams, some have huge amounts of echo (and overdubs I think), but every single track is a finger workout, a record that has an excess amount of beauty throughout and one in which it seems like each track perfectly illustrates the title of itself. There are occasional band members providing bass and percussion, but Tyler’s work is the focus, no matter the track. It is really an astounding listen and one I wish I would have devoted more time to this year.
Willie Nelson – Let’s Face The Music And Dance
(Legacy) (March 5)
Another year down, another album full of Willie Nelson covers of standards. At 79 years old, the dude can and does do whatever he wants, but he ain’t standing still. Maybe he’s sitting now, though. He put out two good records this year, I like this one better than the one with all the female singers, but I tried to hate this record. I tried throughout the year to just write this album off as lazy and sloppy. And it is. I read Willie’s book that was published this year or late last year probably during the recording of this album and it was one of the worst thing I’ve ever read. It read like an 80-year old man just discovered how to update his status on Facebook and what not, and that still didn’t make me dislike this record. He attempts to channel Django a lot here, which is a tough feat, and he doesn’t even come close, and yet the sloppiness of it all, the wear on his voice and the gentle feeling that all these songs exude, gosh Willie, I love you. The record sounds rushed and hushed and like you’re just sitting around at the ol’ Nelson farm and sipping red wine and this is happening RIGHT NOW. Whatever, if you like Willie, you should probably have this record.
Yo La Tengo – Fade
(Matador) (Jan. 14)
Is there even anything new to say about Yo La Tengo at this point? This is something like their 13th album proper, but really they’ve put out lots of EPs and singles and other one-off projects that who even knows. And here’s the thing: nothing they’ve ever done has been outright BAD. That’s something that very few (if any) bands with this amount of output can say. Some things are all-time classics, some things are just good, but nothing bad. “Fade”…I thought Fade was their weakest album of all at first. And then I listened. And I listened again. And then I listed one morning at the end of March when the snow was thawing and then it was hard to stop listening. This is THE Spring album of 2013, whatever that means. It sounds more like “Summer Sun” than their heavier guitar based songs – it’s a little lighter, has some electronic washes and generally keeps the tempo pretty moderate, but it really feels like an album that is slowly burning away clouds. I don’t know if there is a better band than Yo La Tengo at this point, it’s like putting on a sweater, or taking the sweater off if you’re too warm. We’re better people because Yo La Tengo exists.
Rankings after Christmas.
December 18, 2013 § Leave a comment
So this blog is pretty dead, that’s ok. Rush killed the blog (it was dead before that), but HEY it is the end of the year. Alright so this might be the last list. This is the 10th writeup I’ve done, 11th overall list I’ve made (in 2005 I just posted it in my AIM Profile Info), and I’m just sort of done with it. Got too much music to pay this much attention to new stuff all the time (was much worse this year than last year). That being said, it was a pretty great year for music both new and in respect to reissues. There are a bunch of albums that just missed the cut (like always) and will likely find themselves in my very favorite albums of 2013 in the coming years, but whatever. Also, I’ll probably do a list of my favorite comics of the year and favorite movies of the year. BUT HEY, check it out. The bottom 30 are unranked, as I’ve done for the last couple of years, top 20 will be ranked. Enjoy.
Alan Jackson – The Bluegrass Album
(Capitol/EMI Nashville) (Sept. 24)
I passed through Nashville for a night for the first time ever earlier this year, it being a place I’ve wanted to visit as long as I can remember. It wasn’t a particularly good visit. It happened to be Labor Day weekend and the crowds of skirts and pink boots, hilarious jeans and drunkenness was about too much to handle. But I did make it a point to attempt to get into The Station Inn when I was there, knowing that Alan had been performing tracks from this album quite often. It was filled to capacity and “sold out”, so whatever, but once the album actually came out – I devoured it. It’s a really fantastic album, this coming from a guy who has never really been much of an Alan Jackson fan (ok, he’s great but he writes a lot of really bad songs). I hasten to say it’s actually a bluegrass album, because his voice is SO country and it’s really quite slow. It’s a more countrified version of the 1970’s new grass scene than any kind of bluegrass album. More Alison Krauss than Bill Monroe, I suppose. Anyway, it is a great, engaging listen and has gotten better with subsequent listens.
Blood Orange – Cupid Deluxe
(Domino) (Nov. 5)
As I write this on Tuesday, December 17th, Dev Hynes aka Blood Orange has just announced that his apartment in NYC has burned down, his music, art and dog Cupid along with it. It’s a really hard thing to stomach for a guy who clearly puts a lot of passion into the things that he does and is essentially on the cusp of taking over pop music. At least he was able to give us this frequently brilliant album before this tragedy. It’s not a perfect pop record and there are a few tracks on here that I just don’t actually like, but the thing about Dev and his songwriting and production is that when he is ON, he is REALLY on. You take the first two tracks “Chamakay” and “You’re Not Good Enough” and there very few songs as good as them this whole year. He was responsible for the best song of 2012 too, with Solange. This whole idea of new R&B championed by him and Cassie and a bunch of other people that are really fresh and hip is terribly exciting (though not always good), and this is probably the most complete album of the sound. Some of the ideas clash here, some seem a little bit sloppy or too indebted to nostalgia that I don’t particularly care for, but there are just these fleeting moments of “holy shit” that few songs or albums were able to give me this year and for that alone, I gotta include this album as one of the best of the year.
Caitlin Rose – The Stand-In
(ATO) (March 5)
Caitlin Rose’s previous album, 2010’s “Own Side Now” was on my best albums list that year, and “The Stand-In” is an even better record, though remarkably less country than it’s predecessor. Her voice has gone much more into the Zooey Deschanel register, the music is more filled out and occasionally veers into Chantal Kreviazuk territory, but she has this pop sensibility and vulnerability in her delivery that just makes me love her. You take a song like “I Was Cruel” and it’s really one of my favorite slow burns of the entire year, just clearly one of the best songs. And then you take a song like “Everywhere I Go” which I have to imagine is being optioned for a hundred different romantic movie montages as we speak and then on to “Menagerie” which is actually good enough and poppy enough that I put it on constant rotation at the rock climbing gym I worked at this past winter. She’s covering a lot of territory and will probably be a star before long.
Danny Brown – Old
(Fool’s Gold) (Oct. 1)
The hype leading up to the release of this record was insane. It seemed like a damn year that Danny Brown was teasing us with a song here and there, a video, a documentary, a million guest verses on everything. It was reaching the point where essentially I was ready to award this album of the year before I even heard it. And I have never even been that big of a Danny Brown fan, just a modest one. Well, it delivered AND didn’t deliver. It’s clearly not the album of the year, but it is definitely one of my favorite rap releases in a year in which there was dozens and dozens of great albums and mixtapes. So, if you don’t know, this is split into two sides. The first half is the “introspective” side, where Danny Brown is using his lower register, his street side. It’s still super modern sounding and really the half that most people are pointing to as the classic part of this album. The second half is the HYPE Danny Brown that really got him famous in the first place. You got dubstep drops, his crazy high voice and rapid fire rhymes and lots of talk about sex and drugs. I love this Danny Brown. I love both Danny Brown’s, really – and thankfully neither side goes on TOO long (it could probably half like 2 less songs on each half), but it’s an awesome album, awesomely sequenced and while it’s not the classic I was hoping it would be, it kinda leads me to believe maybe his next one will be.
Friendzone – DX
(Self-Released) (Oct. 9)
Friendzone is a production duo doing awesome things in the loosely affiliated “cloud-rap” subgenre made famous by people like Lil’ B and Main Attrakionz and even A$AP Rocky before he was one of the biggest rappers on the planet. Equally inspired by Japanese culture and E-40, weed and green tea. I made those up, but that’s what I get from listening to Friendzone’s first “proper” album of instrumental hip hop. They’ve produced some great tracks over the last couple of years, but I have to say that this record showcases their production in a way that connects with me a whole lot more than the vocal stuff. I probably haven’t heard an instrumental hip hop record as inspiring or as good since Clams Casino’s first collection, and this is in a very similar vein – but while most of Clams’ stuff just stayed dreamy forever, this goes a few different directions. The soundtrack to a 1980s Ninja Gaiden-esque, Japan-only release video game, walking through the inner workings of the neon signs of Las Vegas, chillin at your house, reading Jonathan Hickman’s Infinity series for Marvel. And it hits hard. It’s been one of my favorite records to drive to this autumn and winter. Really exciting stuff.
Fuzz – Fuzz
(In The Red) (Sept. 30)
Just about every year I have like a month where I get super into garage rock and punk and psychedelic music again and feel like just giving the bird to the world and growing my hair long and being dirty. Then I get over it. That happened around February this year, and then disappeared until the beginning of October when Ty Segall’s Fuzz album was released. Yeah Ty Segall releases an album every week it seems, and most I don’t really care about, but this is less garage rock and more Black Sabbath psychedelic awesomeness. It’s my favorite kind of rock n roll, just distorted as hell and dirty and awesome. It’s lo-fi but doesn’t feel especially lo-fi because it’s got such a great low end. Anyway, this will be a record I go to a lot over the years, especially once the sun comes back out.
Haim – Days Are Gone
(Polydor) (Sept. 30)
Look, I get why this band is so divisive among people. They are totally a 90s pop band. Sound Opinions said they were basically Wilson Phillips. A buddy of mine likened them to Shania Twain b-sides. Their image seems totally manicured to be these awkward, long-haired sisters – but man, I can’t find a record that opens stronger than the first 5 tracks of “Days Are Gone” all year. Like, I get the criticisms on the whole, but I also had the realization this year that I’m ok accepting my love of good Adult Contemporary pop of the likes that Haim represent (and I don’t really think they actually do). Pop music is pop music. I listen to Don Henley and Phil Collins and hell yeah I used to listen to Wilson Phillips on cassette all the time on family road trips. That doesn’t have a whole lot of bearing on Haim, who just make really catchy pop music to me. A track like “Falling”, has a really cool, intricate sound that harkens back to music we’ve heard a hundred times. “The Wire” has every right to be as big as it is, bassface on SNL or not. And I loved when they performed Sheryl Crow’s “Strong Enough” with Lorde on that VH1 concert special, because that is a near perfect pop song to me. Look, it’s not my favorite thing ever, but as far as feel good music goes – I like this a whole lot. And Vampire Weekend isn’t even on the list this year.
Heirlooms Of August – Down At The 5-Star
(Caldo Verde) (June 25th)
Mark Kozelek (of Red House Painters / Sun Kil Moon) released two pretty great albums this year. Neither are on this list because it usually takes a lot of time for me to get into his songs and the directness of them. On the other hand, his former (current?) bass player released an amazing (and amazingly similar to RHP/SKM) album that slayed me from the get go. I mean, it sounds VERY familiar to Sun Kil Moon, down to Jerry Vessel’s voice being a slightly less emotive Kozelek. It’s slow, it has a folk feel, but it’s super dreamy too. And the songwriting is great. It’s quickly becoming an essential “slowcore” album for me, like all time, because I love it so much. I can’t really describe what separates it from others, but it just works. The slide guitar that is heard throughout sends chills. “Ghosts of a Great Highway” is a 5/5 album, but I almost feel like this is an album equally deserving of that album title. It sounds like music that was made 100 years ago, or has existed for all time and it is my de facto nighttime album of the year.
Helado Negro – Invisible Life
(Asthmatic Kitty) (March 5)
On the whole, I took a pretty big hiatus in the Latin music department compared to last year. Well I mean, I still have tons of stuff I haven’t listened to yet in a Spotify playlist, but it really dominated most of 2012 for me, and this year, there are only a few records that I really loved. My favorite of the bunch was Helado Negro, because god I love this dude’s dreamy Spanish Bon Iver thing he has going on. The music is a little more psychedelic here and there, maybe even a bit more pop-oriented than the last record, but on the whole this is like delicate, floating and calming indie electronic music with lots of echo and sung in spanish. Totally delightful stuff.
Jai Paul – Jai Paul (Stolen Demos)
(Not actually released)
This is a pretty weird story. Jai Paul has had like 2-3 songs in the last few years, all of them essentially sounding like demos, all of them awesome. Drake even sampled “BTSTU” on one of his best songs. But Jai Paul is notoriously reclusive and no one knows anything about him other than he is eventually going to release an r&b album that will change the game. Then one day a mysteries jaipaul.bandcamp.com page turned up and it was a full 16 track album of unlabeled songs that seemed fishy, but we don’t know anything about the guy so maybe it’s real. A bunch of us internet people got it, we loved it, we listened to new songs and all their lo-fi glory and HUMONGOUS bottom end and the cover of Jennifer Paige’s “Crush” that is maybe my favorite song of the year and then suddenly Jai Paul and XL actually come out and say it was stolen and none of these tracks are finished. What a trip. But IT IS really great. It’s super lo-fi and sounds drugged out and surreal and is unlike any other r&b you’ve heard and it’s danceable and drinkable and just great. I didn’t listen to it nearly enough and every time I do, I’m mesmerized. Bummer about how it came to be, but hope we can get some true Jai Paul music soon.
John Wizards – John Wizards
(Planet Mu) (Sept. 2)
Just about every year I’ve ever done this list or any sort of writing in which I try to talk about electronic music, something about my love for Four Tet comes up. Four Tet in general is my favorite electronic music producer and has been so for about 10 years. Four Tet put out a record this year that was decent, but probably my least favorite of all his records. Who filled that gap? John Wizards. I relate the two because like Four Tet, John Wizards has the ability in their music to let the music (for the most part) breathe. There are lots of sparse arrangements here that let the South African/Rwandan vocals become the main focal point of the track, but occasionally there are tracks that are rave ups. Regardless, all the tracks come across as pretty organic sounding, like a dreamy African club/lounge night or something. It’s a unique sound, a modern update on some of the African electronic from the 80s and 90s that you find on obscure blogs and some of the later Ethiopiques releases. There is a bit of a lo-fi sound to a lot of the tracks, but it’s mostly clean. I don’t know, it’s a peaceful, comforting record for the most part and just sounds like something that should have existed and broke open years and years ago.
Lilacs & Champagne – Danish & Blue
(Mexican Summer) (April 23)
For years now, Grails has been one of my favorite post-rock/psychedelic/instrumental bands. I’ve been fortunate enough to see them here in Portland and they are just innovative as hell. So when two of the dudes started putting out instrumental hip hop last year as Lilacs & Champagne, it was odd at first – then realized, it’s really not that unlikely for the band members to do it. The s/t record from last year got some praise but I didn’t really dig it that much – this one, though…this one has maybe gotten more plays since October than any other album this year. It’s very much in the Dilla/DJ Shadow camp, but I actually think it reminds me of some early Blockhead production more than anything. It’s not super trippy or cut up or anything, it is just vibes that are a little dark and twisted, a little airy, sound like they’ll probably soundtrack some extreme sports videos in the future. Essentially the dudes seem to sample some deep rock or pop cut from forever ago and build the drums around it. It’s simple stuff a lot, but it’s smooth as hell.
Luke Winslow-King – The Coming Tide
(Bloodshot) (March 26)
This album totally crept up on me through like the whole year. It never once blew my face off, I rarely listened to it and was immediately thought it was one of the great albums of the year, but unbeknownst to me, it was one of the albums I listened to the most this year, because it is so damn comforting, reassuring and just…American? I don’t know, this album is part gentle singer/songwriter, mostly old New Orleans Jazz, but it’s like soft. There are muted horns and trombones and piano keys and stuff, but Winslow-King has this really plaintive, almost whispered, like he’s had too many glasses of wine ease about his voice and delivery, it’s just too good. The songs fill a room, make you kinda lilt and bob and all that. A totally joyous listen and probably the one record this year that I found myself putting on over and over when I couldn’t figure out anything else to listen to.
Lyn Saga – Venice
(CD Baby/Self-Released) (Jan. 14)
If you’ve been trying to scratch that Weezer itch for a long time, now that Weezer and most Weezer-influenced bands suck – then you should probably go ahead and get this album. Lyn Saga was a somewhat successful Youtube musician from what I gather, but this record just rules. One of the best power pop records I’ve heard in a while and haven’t seen almost anything about it in the press. Just classic Weezer/Fountains of Wayne/Letters to Cleo/Beach Boys sunny day music. The guitars crunch, Lyn Saga has a fun voice, the harmonies are just great. There’s horns, it’s simple, the songs are about self-hate and love and hanging out and everything. It wears its influences super well and is just one of the most fun records I’ve heard all year – I wish she would’ve blown up, because it’s great.
Paramore – Paramore
(Fueled By Ramen) (April 8)
I have tried to ignore Paramore for what – like 8 years now? Hayley Williams is still some obnoxious teenager in my mind, even though they’ve ruled the world and put out a bunch of good albums – I just didn’t want to even TRY with this band. And then I did with this album. And man, is this the catchiest record of the year? Probably. Apparently it has a lot of different sounds that the past albums didn’t, I don’t know what that means, but it’s mostly still pop/punk and can sound like Florence and the Machines and No Doubt and tons of other bands, but there are also tracks that are totally just theirs, including little super hip ukulele interludes and what not. I don’t know anything about this band, but I know people obsess over Hayley and they are still really popular (but maybe not AS popular?), I don’t know – almost every song here is pretty great, even if they are embarrassing to play loud in your car.
Ok, part 2 of the bottom 30 soon.
September 19, 2013 § Leave a comment
After 4 albums you get a live album featuring music from those 4 albums. You know this, I won’t bore you.
The thing is though, that the Rush live albums seem to be the ones that I enjoy the most – they skimp on the songs that aren’t as good, typically, and the sheen that ruins a lot of their songs is mostly gone. It’s like being further away from the band makes it seem like they actually have some crunch to their instruments.
And don’t get me wrong, this has a ton of synth time, it has a really boring Neil Peart solo, but for the most part, the band chooses the best songs of this era for this collection, and it stays pretty enjoyable.
Kicking it off with “The Big Money”, “Subdivisions”, and “Marathon” is a great way to win me over, as those are 3 of my favorite songs from the era – but then PLOP right into the crap that is “Turn the Page”, “Manhattan Project” and “Mission”. The first one still sucks, I just hate that song, but MP sounds pretty cool here. I said before that the song itself SOUNDS rad, it’s a catchy number if you just ignore the lyrics entirely, which I’m choosing to do here, because they’re less audible – makes it enjoyable. And “Mission” almost wins me over, but not quite.
“Mystic Rhythms”, “Witch Hunt”, “Force Ten” and “Time Stand Still” come towards the end and those are all great tracks. Shame they have to still close with “Closer to the Heart”, but whatever, by this time it is just fun.
And that’s why their live albums work, because that’s what they are. The guys having a good time, playing big ol’ stadium shows. The recording is never great, but that works in their favor. If I were to get rid of all the Rush albums, I’d probably just keep the live ones to encapsulate their eras. They might just be better anyway.
September 18, 2013 § Leave a comment
Full disclosure: “Time Stand Still” is probably one of the most joyous Rush songs.
I’ve been wrestling with this review a lot over the past few months, really, because I sort of hate this album, but having “Time Stand Still” right there at track number 2 (almost ALWAYS the best track on any album), it has begun to make me rethink where this album stands in the Rush discography. Certainly the song is corny as anything the bad put out, but it is sort of everything that I love so much about Rush. It is just epic and silly and really GOES for it. But beyond that, it has this terribly catchy melody, and the chorus is wonderful how the music just drops out and then Aimee Mann, one of my favorite female vocalists of all time shows up and just kills it. Yeah yeah, I know it’s one of the worst music videos of all time, but I’ll always have a soft place for this song. Always.
And album opener “Force Ten”? Well, it’s half good and half bad. It’s no doubt one of the catchier and more ROCKING songs they did during this time period, but even with that being the case, the best part of the song for me is the brief synth solo about 2/3 through the track. It doesn’t really even fit the song, but it is just so amazingly awesome and bizarre that I can’t help but love it. It’s just a fist-pumping song. Rush hears Journey, says “no, we’ll do this our way, thank you!” and then out Journey’s Journey, without all the crying and sentimentality. So yeah, it’s a great 1-2 punch.
But then it’s followed by alternating mediocrity and “pretty good”. That all said, this album rocks a bit harder, or at least has an idea of what it wants to be as an album better than the last couple of albums. Yeah, it’s still super heavy on the synth, but Lifeson also has some interesting guitar moments here and a lot of that “delay” sound that was big in the mid-80s, letting the guitar echo as Geddy sings. It gives everything this shimmering quality, like we’re all visiting some super socially conscious crystal castle. “Open Secrets” and “Second Nature” are fairly basic late 80s synth-pop. Not entirely catchy, but decent enough tracks. “Prime Mover” kicks ass. It ratchets the sound up a bit, and is a total blast, but “Mission” does nothing for me and “Turn The Page” is clearly the worst song on the album. It’s not unforgivably bad like some tracks from recent albums, but it IS bad. Embarrassingly so.
And “Tai Shan”…I mean, you can’t take a song like this seriously either, but unlike some of the other tracks that you can’t take seriously, this one really FEELS serious. I mean:
I stood at the top of the mountain
And China sang to me
In the peaceful haze of harvest time
A song of eternity
Lovin’ that harvest time.
So look, it’s not a good album. But it’s seriously better than “Power Windows” and “Grace Under Pressure”, it sounds like the band almost got their act together. You could take or leave the album as a whole but there are about 4 songs here that you wanna keep around, because they’re pretty great. On to the next phase, Rush. Onto the next phase.
July 22, 2013 § Leave a comment
The advantage of the intricate instrumentation and the really over the top synthesizer-based production is that it really distracts from some awful songwriting. Or at least lyrics. Now, that’s not saying a whole lot for Rush – who obviously I have lots of gripes with when it comes to lyrics, but you know – here’s what I’ve realized, I think. I like their ridiculous lyrics, I do. But I want them to just stay in the fantastical realm. I don’t need allegories, I don’t need metaphors, I don’t need politics and the philosophy of man and beast.
You listen to a song like “Manhattan Project” and you’re like “ok, yeah, this is pretty catchy”, but you delve into the lyrics are there is no way you can help but just shake your head. Obviously, it’s about the atomic bomb, but it’s so simplistic, and not just that – that could work, but it is just a summary of the actual building (yeah right) of the premier weapon of mass destruction. No metaphor, that’s good – but the whole “imagine” bit of the song, when all of these things actually happened, it’s just like…I don’t know, middle school poetry.
But then you follow it up with a song like “Marathon” which is probably all entirely metaphorical and is like basically the worst of the 1980’s pop-rock schlock, and yet it’s just entirely fun. It doesn’t seem like it takes itself that seriously, probably because of the hilarious sound effects and the really built-up, anthemic chorus. It’s the template of Journey and all the bands of their ilk – almost flashes of Iron Maiden as well. It could be about an actual race, it could be about Peart and his infamous and ever-present motorcycle journeys, it could be about life, I don’t even care. The song sounds like millions of magical crystals just smashing together into symphonic harmony and I love it so.
“Middletown Dreams” does absolutely nothing for me. Despite even more keyboard sounds that could probably be labeled as “crystal” or something else absurd, the song has no emotional value, no pop aesthetic, it just kind of sits there as a 1980s song that could potentially be considered hard rock or progressive rock or something else, it’s really one of the weaker songs I can recall in the Rush discography, precisely because there is just nothing to it.
And then we close with “Mystic Rhythms”, which alternates pretty consistently between amazing and awful. Pretty much any time a progressive rock band has the word “mystic” in a song, I’m going to like it – I’m a pretty big fan of that type of thing. But this is a simple song lyrically, but that word “mystic” man, makes it seem so much more important than it really is. Like it carries some weight. And the combination of “african” drums and more modern sounds – I mean this could be a Duran Duran song essentially (in production), but it never quite gets there. I can see why a lot of people like this song, why it was a single and I could definitely envision myself in 1985 really digging this track. As it is now, it’s one of the better tracks on this album, but still not quite as special as something like “Marathon” or even “The Big Money” – though it does remind me of waterfalls.
So is it an awful album? No, but it has a couple of awful songs and really no super great songs. It’s taken me awhile to get to this point of actually reviewing this album, and now that I finally have – I can’t say it was worth the wait of going through with it. It’s just well, mediocre. Another one of those in the Rush discography.
May 24, 2013 § Leave a comment
If we thought Rush was ridiculous before – “Grace Under Pressure” turns it up to a whole other level.
The synths are louder and almost used more appropriately here (it is 1984), but they work in a way that actually highlights, rather than overhwhelms Alex Lifeson’s guitars. But man, these synthesizers are everywhere. Just take a listen to “Red Sector A”, a song that I am pretty sure is about internment camps or the holocaust or something similar to that, but it sounds like this hugely awesome, futuristic anthem with words like:
Sickness to insanity
Prayer to profanity
Days and weeks and months go by
Don’t feel the hunger
Too weak to cry
But you get this persistent, somewhat wonky guitar riff just totally beefed up with these “Final Countdown” synths. And yeah, that’s basically “Grace Under Pressure”. Oh, and there are a lot more “reggae” moments in this album. Which is the direction that Rush really should have gone with as time went forward, it’s like listening to UB40 again while being 9 years old.
Meanwhile, “The Body Electric” might actually be the worst song that Rush has written because it is hardly even a song. It’s fun and it’s the band trying to be all futuristic and science fiction based rather than so superficially political and fantasy based, but I mean c’mon – the chorus is “1-0-0-1-0-0-1” – and the verses are about “bytes” and “plastics” and the machines taking over and all that. It’s terrible, I mean really terrible – but at least it’s fun.
“Red Lenses” is an attempt at a clever song and the meaning of “red” or “read” or whatever else in as many ways as possible and is almost chance for the band sound like the Talking Heads. It’s also the worst song on the album and probably one of the worst songs in Rush’s catalogue up this point, but at least it gets LOUD. “Between the Wheels” sounds like Kane’s entrance music in the WWF but just not quite evil enough. Good song, but really really cheesy.
But that’s what this album is. It’s more pop-oriented than the last few albums, it doesn’t flow, the songs don’t seem as complete or quite as over thought as previous Rush albums, it’s just a collection of catchy songs that veer between awful and almost awesome, nothing ever truly breaking through. It’s silly, it’s fun, it’s the 1980’s, and while I enjoy the album on a whole – it’s not really something I need to hear that many more times in my life.
May 20, 2013 § Leave a comment
Well hello 1982.
Right from the get go – you get a blast of synthesizers, synthesizers that never go away. You get a lack of guitars and you get songs that are just a bit more glossy than what you are used to with Rush – already a glossy band. But hey, at least “Subdivisions” is about the suburbs and alienation rather than wizards and labor unions, right?
And it’s a solid song, even if I’m waiting for Alex Lifeson to blow it open for it’s entire duration (and the duration of most of these songs), but they’re going for something new here. Do these songs lean more towards pop music? Not necessarily – they’re just…different? “The Analogy” is almost like a pre-cursor to pop-punk, but with this awful, near Contemporary Christian “you moooooovvvveee me, you moooove me” chorus. I don’t know, it’s an accomplished sound and for people who prefer the improved musicianship and the new wave sound more than the arena rock sound – it’s going to be awesome for them (see most Progressive Rock fans), but for me – it mostly leaves me well, feeling nothing.
I’m a pretty big fan of “Subdivisions” on the whole, it’s like the fanciest song about the horribleness of growing up in the suburbs – a topic that was all but reserved for punk rock up until this point. It’s different and not the usual style of rock music that I dig, but it’s fun enough and like most Rush albums – as an album opener, it’s one of the strongest tracks on the album. “Digital Man” I really love. It basically apes The Police entirely. The guitar tones are completely Alex Summers, the bass lines just reek of Sting and the “reggae” breakdowns, I mean – take your pick at which Police song you want it to be. I love The Police, so it works out – but Rush’s little obsession with reggae breaks in the early 80’s is awful and awesome – but it makes “Digital Man” memorable for me, something that most of the rest of these tracks are not.
And look – I don’t think the album is bad. I don’t think it is particularly good either, like some people. But, the style of music here, just isn’t really what sticks with me. I want things to ROCK, not to be smoother (weird, because I love Steely Dan), but this is Rush, people – I want the ridiculous! That’s the point, isn’t it?
What I’m saying is that this album is just different. Maybe my indifference to it (it’s not anger) is because it’s not the Rush that is the albums before this – but I don’t necessarily have the most favorable view of all those albums either. It’s leaner, the songs are shorter, the lyrics are more relatable and less fantastical, and that should all be a good thing. But it’s not, not for me at least. It’s just kind of…ok.
May 19, 2013 § Leave a comment
If nothing else, “Exit…Stage Left” further cements my opinion that “Xanadu” is far and away the best Rush song. Oh and that for the most part, their big “hits” are justifiably their big “hits”, super die hard fans be damned. This live album demonstrates to me that Rush is not really a band about “deep cuts”, but about rocking the fuck out to anthems you know and love.
And that’s why this album and performance rule.
I don’t actually know how authentic of a live performance it is, what is added in after the concert, what is straight from the source, what is missing – surely all of those things have happened to make this release, because the fidelity is really quite good for a live performance in the 80’s, so whether this is a combination of real performance recording and studio trickery is likely – it doesn’t matter, because the songs? They hold up.
Apart from “Xanadu” and “The Trees” and “Spirit of the Radio” and “Tom Sawyer” which all sound awesome here (I’ll go ahead and say “Tom Sawyer” isn’t as good as the album version) – this performance get me excited about tracks I don’t really like either. You take something like “Jacob’s Ladder” – which on record is a track that just goes on too long and doesn’t really go onto anything, but here, it just seems amped up. The solos are more impressive, the playing is more passionate and the robotic feel is gone. It’s the same thing with the instrumentals “YYZ” and “La Villa Strangiato” – some of that studio stiffness is gone, though it’s replaced with some extra length, but it’s good. It just feels like a band at the prime of their career, playing the songs that people really want to hear and loving every minute of it.
And when “Closer to the Heart” starts – the people go buckwild, it’s hilarious that song is so big, and every time I hear this performance – I cringe. And I like the song, but it might actually be the low point of the album.
Another awesome surprise is the inclusion of “Beneath, Between & Behind” which is an earlier cut and really fucking rocks. It’s just like a transition from CTTH and JL but it amps up the energy for it’s 2 minute duration.
I don’t like putting “La Villa Strangiato” at the end and would have loved for “Natural Science” to be included (even if people don’t really give a shit about that song), but on the whole – this is my favorite Rush album from this period. It’s a greatest hits played live. Not much filler, some silly experimental effects and it has a solid fidelity. It’s the Rush that I want without all the bullshit.
And it’s great.