Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Favorite Albums of 2014

Like my brother, I am a music dork. So I decided to make a list of my twenty-five favorite albums of the year. Some of these words are borrowed from Pitchfork and Consequence of Sound. Things I couldn't have said better or agree with more. Don't judge. I just can't find the time to write my own thoughts. I am too much of a perfectionist. Click on the album artwork to listen/watch songs from each album.

25. Peter Matthew Bauer

[I saw this former Walkmen bassist/organist open for The War on Drugs a couple months ago. I was not expecting much. But I didn't know much about him. I saw him a couple years ago on the side of the stage playing bass for The Walkmen. I never would've thought I'd seem him effortlessly ooze charisma with veins bursting out of his neck in front of several hundred people. His sound is more expansive in genre than anything The Walkmen ever churned out; he weaves between island music, 60s beat bands, and American heartland rock. But it all strangely works.]

24. Sam Amidon

[Sam Amidon’s new set of “reimagined folk songs” is a compellingly quiet, intense affair that is remarkable both for the power of his understated, no-nonsense and often mournful vocals, and for the subtle arrangements that bring an urgency to his mostly traditional American songs and hymns.]

23. Grouper

[Ruins has a vivid sense of place. Harris recorded the album in 2011 during an artistic residency in Aljezur, Portugal—a tiny coastal town tucked inside a nature preserve on the southwestern corner of the country. From the hushed mood and half-enunciated vocals of it all, you get the feeling she didn't speak to many people during that time of focused creativity. Lucky for us.]

22. Cloud Nothings
Here and Nowhere Else

[Here and Nowhere Else mostly moves in one direction and at a breakneck pace; by playing just ahead of the beat, taking charge of the song with torrential fills, Gerycz does everything in his power to try and throw it off course. There is an urgency to the record, similar to Ryan Adams' new 1984 EP.] 

21. Conor Oberst
Upside Down Mountain

[Upside Down Mountain is a great album from beginning to end—relaxed, assured and understated in its presentation. For the most part, the arrangements are simple and lead by clear, ringing acoustic guitar melodies that are suggest Nashville Skyline or early-’70s James Taylor. In other words, there is no upstaging by all-star musicians, no unnecessary vocal treatments, techno flourishes or concessions to style. The songs are perfect as they are and don’t require any adornment.]

20. Alvvays

[This is the sound of pristine pop music blasted through cheap, blown-out headphones—and every time it seems like a song is about to decay before your ears, you sense both the sadness and liberation of knowing that nothing lasts forever.] 
19. Merchandise
After the End

[Just like Merchandise’s previous releases, it’s a home recording. Most of the band live together in the same house. But if much of After the End was laid down in Cox’s bedroom, it sounds like the band are performing a concert on the roof, absorbing the twinkle of the stars, the hum of crickets, the vapor trails of planes flying overhead, and the endless expanse of the sky above. The shimmering acoustic guitars sound like they have dew collecting on the strings; the smooth synth textures reflect the warm nocturnal glow of the city at night.]

18. Mac Demarco
Salad Days

[His second full-length, Salad Days, isn’t a departure from its predecessor so much as a richer, increasingly assured refinement. For all its internal contradictions, Salad Days is no more or less than a great album in a tradition of no-big-deal great albums.]

17. Steve Gunn
Way Out Weather 

[His latest, Way Out Weather, is the fully formed pinnacle of his career. With a full band and plenty of instrumentation behind him, the care he puts into every nook and cranny of a song is evident. It’s lush but without lacquer, detailed without being dense. These songs live in hollowed out holes of America’s past; it’s as easy to imagine him playing in front of a disused gas station off an Oklahoma highway as it is to hear his band booming out of a roadhouse on the Mississippi Delta. At times, there’s so many guitar tracks it it feels like in the middle of a pickup jam session with Jerry Garcia, Duane Allman, and John Fahey.]

16. D'Angelo and the Vanguard
Black Messiah

[One song might channel Funkadelic, another, the Revolution, but the shiftless mad doctor experimentation and the mannered messiness at the root of it all is unmistakably the Vanguard. Black Messiah is a dictionary of soul, but D'Angelo is the rare classicist able to filter the attributes of the greats in the canon into a sound distinctly his own. It’s at once familiar and oddly unprecedented, a peculiar trick to pull on an album recorded over the span of a decade.] 

15. Courtney Barnett
The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas

[The 12 songs in this collection are often wordy, articulate, and dazzlingly witty, but they’re always down-to-earth; Barnett comes across like a slightly less urbane Jens Lekman, or Eleanor Friedberger if her songs took place not in bustling cities but in small, sleepy towns.]

14. Tweedy

[The album takes its title from a nickname for Sue Miller Tweedy, Jeff’s wife and Spencer’s mom. As father and son worked on Sukierae, she was diagnosed with a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (her prognosis is good), which accounts for some of the more somber moments on the album. “I want to watch you growing old and dumb/ I want to see what you and I become,” Jeff sings on “Where My Love,” his voice subdued and distant under the stark piano part that opens the song. It’s a strangely touching sentiment, looking forward to the twilight years in a way that feels realistic, but tender and hopeful.]

13. Hamilton Leithauser
Black Hours

[Black Hours is a tribute to a diverse range of musical progenitors. But more deeply, it’s a testament to Leithauser’s inexhaustible stylistic ambition, and his ability to conquer expectations by throwing one curveball after another. The infectious song "Alexandra" has a high-pitch piano pluck in the background that reminds me a lot of Atlas Sound's "Walkabout". It's incredibly contagious. The traversing from Sinatra jazzy ballads to bluesy dive-bar laments, Leithauser shows us the range he's shown us he is capable of all his years leading The Walkmen.] 

12. Amen Dunes

 [A shoegazy, folky, dreamy thing. I love it. If it weren't for me discovering this less than a week ago, it would probably be higher in this list. His voice taps into something very elemental, the croak of Will Oldham and warbled croon of Devendra Banhart, his voice seems to stretch like elastic. The twangy instrumentation, the muted drums and pitchy strings allow for open space for his voice to rest in and his story-telling to unravel.]

11. St. Vincent
St. Vincent

[St. Vincent continues Clark's run as one of the past decade's most distinct and innovative guitarists, though she's never one to showboat. Her harmonic-filled style bears the influence of jazz (she picked up a lot of her signature tricks from her uncle, the jazz guitarist Tuck Andress) and prog rock, two genres known to embrace sprawl. But Clark's freak-outs are tidy, modular and architecturally compact—like King Crimson rewritten by Le Corbusier. Even at its most spazzy, there's always something efficient about St. Vincent.]

10. Sun Kil Moon

[Mark Kozelek, despite being a bored old asshole of a man, can tell stories. It's hard to shake off his jabs at War on Drugs and the annoyance it brought me in my mornings over coffee for seriously...months. But this album is just so good, I can still go back and listen and get so drawn in to his stories, I forget about the man who's telling them. He tells these stories in a heartbreaking, almost shock-value-esque narrative of how family and loved-ones all lived, loved, fought, screwed up, and often did the best they could, before he sets out to “find some poetry to make some sense of this and give some deeper meaning” to their tragedies. Turns out he doesn’t have to dig very far. Here, Kozelek does away with the metaphor and verbal obfuscation often used to distract an audience from their own joy, sadness, crippling failures, and small triumphs. If listeners find themselves unable to make it through Benji in one piece, it’s because Kozelek all but forces us to recognize how the most emotionally moving art can be mapped directly on to our own lives.]

9. The Antlers

[They’ve become one of the most interesting indie rock bands working, and the stately beauty of Familiars is the latest satisfying effort from a band that continues to reward those listeners who give them the attention their elegant, secretly weird music deserves.]

8. Ryan Adams
Ryan Adams

 [As my brother pointed out on his blog, all of what people have said in the past about Adams needing an editor cannot be said about this album. He is not merely sonic candy though, providing a cannily constructed record that runs deliberately lean. His blend of song and studio craft turns this eponymous album into the equivalent of a substantive, new millennial version of an Eagles or Petty song. That's right, dad. And as many have pointed out, this record is Ryan Adams being Ryan Adams. But what does that mean, really? The man is impossible to put under your thumb and will forever be one of my favorites because of just how uncertain you are of his next move.]

7. Beck
Morning Phase

[Morning Phase follows in the footsteps of the classic Sea Change, with Beck embracing heartache and emotional stakes, this time with the light at the end of the tunnel much brighter, much more road-worn. It’s a look that suits him. The string arrangements and song structures are some of the most refined of his career.] 

6. Elbow
The Take Off and Landing of Everything

[Some of their catalog’s most emotionally rich material, The Take Off… is an album worth sitting with and revisiting. Any tunesmith can throw together a bunch of songs about the end of a relationship. But to look beyond that initial hurt and mine new insights about what comes next takes a maturity that’s as hard-earned as it is vital.]

5. Kevin Drew

[You wouldn’t call it “synth-pop,” any more than you would Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, an album that serves as a spiritual forebear for albums like Darlings. Its more muted character makes a case for Drew as one of indie rock’s most subtly distinctive vocalists. His tone doesn’t lend itself to descriptive terms, but four years after Forgiveness Rock Record, it’s striking how instantly familiar Drew can sound even in this newly sleek context, thanks to a cadence that riffs on ragged melodies just a little behind the beat.]

4. Isaiah Rashad
cilvia demo

  [Sonically, Cilvia Demo makes flexible adjustments to traditional sounds: Think boom-bap dipped in lean, or country-rap tunes floating in space. Tracks shout out Southern heroes like Webbie, Master P, OutKast, and Scarface, proving Rashad isn’t allergic to the influences of his own region — compare that with, say, J. Cole, straight out of Fayetteville, North Carolina, but firmly deriving his skills from above the Mason-Dixon line. But Rashad isn’t too mired in regionalism, either, which has proven to be the problem with struggling rappers like Big K.R.I.T, embattled fellows fueled by a contrived sense of holding an entire city or lifestyle on their backs. This guy is simply focused on keeping his head above water, which only makes him more relatable to everyone.

3. Future Islands

[Frontman Samuel T. Herring has an energy, a physical aura, that moves along a single line. On one end is a hangdog character with tucked-in shirt and pleated khakis and on the other is an ursine man-monster wresting primordial sounds from his heart. Herring acts on impulse—at no point does he sound calculated or clever—offering an open invitation to the uninhibited, to the goofy, and the sentimental.]

2. Sharon Van Etten
Are We There

[This record might be her best yet. That is saying a lot, considering how obsessed I was with both Epic and Tramp. This album met me at a crossroads: saying Goodbye to Nashville and being greeted by Memphis. The end of spring and beginning of summer found me and my wife and my then 8 month-old son in the front yard drinking Rolling Rock around a kiddy pool and soaking up our last days in the historic Sylvan Park. Saying Goodbye was not easy. I moved on and I couldn't help but feel it parallel Van Etten. Her fourth album marks the true arrival of a singer who’s been on her way for a long time, and thinking of her as anything less than a career artist is certainly a vast underestimation.]

1. The War on Drugs
Lost in the Dream

[The most crucial details are found in its structural mutations. The album is loaded with songs whose greatness is revealed slowly, where the simplest, most understated chord change can blow a track wide open and elevate it from simply pretty to absolutely devastating. Note the shift that occurs two minutes and 50 seconds into “Suffering”, where the pent-up despondency heard in Granduciel’s state-of-his-union address (“Why we here when we’re both gonna fake it?”) is unleashed in a crying jag of drizzling piano chords and gently weeping White Album-like guitar slides. Or in the midst of the album’s epic break-up-ballad finale, “In Reverse”,­ you realize that all of the angst and ache that went into the song, and the album’s creation as a whole, is just building to the moment of release provided by the big, shoulder rub of an acoustic-guitar riff that appears out of nowhere at the 5:13 mark. They’re the sort of perfect little touches that effectively translate Granduciel’s private hurt into communal catharsis—and reify Lost in the Dream as an immaculately assembled portrait of a man falling apart.


benjamin said...

I've at least HEARD OF all these artists, but there are several albums here that I haven't listened to at all: Kevin Drew, Elbow, The Antlers, Tweedy (I know, WTF), Courtney Barnett, Steve Gunn, Merchandise, Conor Oberst (I know....), Cloud Nothings, Peter Matthew Bauer, and Foxygen

And there were a couple that I did listen to, but didn't really click with me: Real Estate, Amen Dunes

And there were a few I liked alright, but they weren't my favorite: Mac Demarco, Sun Kil Moon, Hamilton Leithauser, and Alvvays

I love that our top two are the same. BRO$ 4 LYFE! I feel like I should have put Future Islands higher on my list. I freaking loved that album.

Anyway, it looks like I've got a lot more to listen to from this year!

way said...

I can't believe you haven't listened to Tweedy at all. You should fix that. That's crazy man! But I kinda figured you hadn't, because... basically...it would've been on your list. It's really good. And honestly, it should probably be higher on my list. Ranking is really hard. I got done with my list and several times would be like "what! I ranked that above that. That is not accurate" and would end up moving things around. Tweedy really should be higher. I will say I kinda wish the record was slimmer though. There are a few songs that are kinda meh. I mean, there are 20 songs on the record. I think father and son just had too many ideas they couldn't resist delivering. But songs like Summer Noon, the one I linked to the album art in my list, are reasons I know Tweedy can still write. Way better than anything on Whole Love or Wilco the Album. Not a fan of either of those. And the movie Boyhood probably helped me appreciate the record even more.

I don't know if you would like Foxygen. If you didn't like "We Are the 21st Century", then you might not like their new one. It's bloated for sure. I hope they return to form with their next record.

Antlers is really great. My favorite album by them is probably Burst Apart and I feel like this record follows in the same vein of mood.

Had you listened to Alvvays?

And I can understand why Real Estate didn't clikc with you. But I totally would think you'd like Amen Dunes. Surprised you didn't.

And yea man, I was dead set on War and Sharon being my 1 and 2 spots. That was a given. In a way, I knew they would before the year even started. I'm just such a big fan of both of them. And they've both been so consistent throughout their careers. It's crazy to see where Sharon Van Etten has come from.

So yea, I think of all the albums on my list, I would recommend Tweedy above anything. Oh, and Kevin Drew. I listened to his new album so much over the summer. I kinda burned myself out on it. It's really good. Watch his performance I linked to the album cover.

way said...

Oh meant to say. Yea Future Islands are my favorite band that I discovered this year. I had heard a song or 2 before this year. But once I saw his performance on Letterman, like you, I was sold. The dude has such an amazing stage presence. And I stayed awake and watched this last night:


Highly recommend watching it. It's 45 minutes long. The way it is shot and the way his face makeup slowly sweats off his face throughout the show is super cool. It would've been such a cool experience seeing them live on Halloween. I can't think of a better band to see on Halloween.

benjamin said...

I know, I need to get on Tweedy ASAP. I'm not really sure why I never took the time to listen. Maybe the one song I did hear didn't exactly suck me in and make me want to hear more? I dunno...

And yes, ranking is super hard and kinda dumb to be honest. It might have made more sense to just have my top 4 and the rest just floating behind that in a random order. My top 4 is pretty solid, but the rest could really all be interchanged. The order I put mine in just happened to be the way I felt about those albums on Monday.

I'll check out Antlers. I never really clicked with Hospice (I tried to several times), but I'll probably revisit it someday.

Yes, I actually liked Alvvays a lot. It was one of the few albums that just didn't quite make the cut.

I've literally never heard anything by Foxygen. I know you liked their first album a whole lot, but I was so stuck in hip hop land last year that I just never gave them a spin. I'll check it out for sure.

And yeah, I just really didn't like Real Estate. It was so boring. I guess it would be pretty good background music for working or studying, but it just didn't hold my attention at all. Their first one did a little bit, but I didn't really like it much either. I think they are very good at what they are trying to do, though. And maybe I'll be in the mood for it someday. It's sorta like vanilla ice cream. I like a simple mug of vanilla sometimes, but usually I'd rather eat something with more flavor, ya know?

Future Islands have been steadily growing on me for a while. I think Jason Jung was the first one to turn me on to them back when Thom's Lazy Eye was active. I feel like they still have a lot of room to improve with their studio work, and I can't wait to see what they do in the years to come.

And SVE and WoD.... man. Such good stuff. Those albums move me. Easy #1 and #2 pick.

And I'll check out Kevin Drew, too. Thanks.