From the moment Seven Pines begins and the bouncy traditional American sounding fingerpicking bumbles in you immediately start to feel yourself drifting away from whatever day you’re withstanding and into the joyous court of King Bachman. Scenery starts to change like a theater production and you see the familiar being pulled off set and replaced by the dense thicket of pure Virginian steel. One of the most remarkable things about Daniel’s music is that it tells a compelling story using no words. When I first saw Daniel play he spent a minute describing what the first song was about. I kept waiting for the lyrics to kick in, and they of course never did, and yet at the end of the song I felt like I understood exactly the story he was trying to tell. I don’t know how he does it but there is so much jammed into these songs that the stories, and imagery, and struggle are all conveyed through a simple dynamic of a guy and a guitar.
While I try to listen to albums as objectively as I can, it’s sometimes hard, nay, impossible to separate them from the life experiences they tie themselves so tightly to. I also think that’s a lot of what makes you connect with a record, and for this record, it will forever be connected to my wedding. We were lucky enough to forge a friendship with Daniel and asked him to play guitar at our ceremony and he said he would love to. Listening to this music makes me think back to that night and for that reason alone I will always love it, but I promise you that this is just an incredible record regardless. If I had to describe the way this record sounds in only two words I think I could do it. Being outside.
Swing Lo, Magellan
Dirty Projectors have mastered walking the fine line between oddness and accessibility. It’s clear that they strive to push their bounds with each album, nothing they’ve done has ever been conventional, but at the same time, if you listen to the progression of their discography there is a definite reeling in as they’ve gone on. That idea of something both expanding and contracting simultaneously is what makes them an interesting band to listen to and to follow. Being careful not to think of this album as simple or stripped down, it is however a bit more intrinsically crafted than previous albums, Bitte Orca for example (which I loved.) As always, the pairing of influences mixed with the mashing of their own fingerprints make for something entirely original, even standing out from their own discography.
Alright, here’s the thing about King Tuff… Kyle Thomas is a wild man. Attitude and lack of care for the imaginable anything ooze from his pitted voice and I’m 100% sure that listening to this album makes me cooler. It’s that kind of listening experience. It’s largely an album of feel gooderies and responsibility-less living, but every once in awhile out pops something frighteningly profound. “All I ever wanted was everything.” Man, sometimes I can’t escape this lyric. The heaviness of it despite it’s simplicity makes it genius and it pretty accurately sums up the feeling we all have experienced – wanting so much and not knowing how to get it or even what to do with it if we do get it. With many prompts to break the rules, throw caution to the wind, and be a “bad thing”, the encouragement for rebellion is obviously laid on quite heavily, but there is a constant lurking of conscience and reality that echo all of these themes. The tugging from one side to the other help create that deeper layer and the fact that all of this is hidden underneath these popped out jams makes it all the better.
Be The Void
This album resonated with me immediately, as all Dr. Dog albums have, but what sets this apart from their other work is how I can still listen to it from beginning to end with much enjoyment almost a year after it came out. This is no knock against their previous albums, each has their own set of extremely high highs, but I often found myself tiring of past albums after a few months of listening and while the good parts stuck with me, the parts that lacked often dropped off and became tracks I skipped over. With this album, it feels like their best culmination of songs to make a functioning whole. All the classic Dr. Dog idiosyncrasies are present, bulky grooves, fluttering melodies, dancing guitar riffs, and their funkiest beats to date, all of which I totally welcome, but they are all tangled in a way that finally feels like they have harnessed their full capability. This kind of figuring out of what works and why is what makes good bands create great albums.
Often prettier than normal vocals on top of occasionally uglier than usual guitar chords. Who would have guessed this would have been such a winning combination? But Hop Along makes this work perfectly on album that most of us listening had been waiting a long while for. So long, that when Frances sings “Nobody deserves you the way that I do” it’s a fitting statement spoken from me to the album. (Har, har, har. Just having a bit of fun.) But as the saying goes – good things come to those who wait, and this is a really good thing. It’s hard to not speak of Hop Along without making mention of the ridiculous vocals in the same breath, and while I don’t want to harp on that because I think we all know just how ridiculous they are, I do think it’s important to fully recognize just how much they make this band special. I know I am not alone when I say I would enjoy an a capella album just as much as anything else they would put out. But even with that being true, you simply cannot sell the rest of the music short, and definitely not on this album- I get the impression that much of the composition and instrumentation was considered and labored over until everything ended up in that flawless lock-up of noise. If you have somehow avoided listening to Hop Along this far in life, please quietly end that weird streak and listen to this fantastic record.
I’ve written about Delicate Steve before – their last album Wondervisions was one of my favorites from last year- and it’s getting hard to tell if they’ve sucked me into unapologetically loving everything they’ll do (not without merit) or if they are actually just writing powerhouse album after album, works that are so different from anything else I’m hearing that I am unbiasedly enjoying them. It’s both, I mean, it has to be, to assume those things are exclusive is kind of silly. It’s not inconceivable to believe a band could create such fanboys of their listeners because of what they are producing and at the caliber it’s coming it. I know this is totally not a new concept and probably what most bands are aiming at, but I guess the reason I’m thinking of it in relation to this band is because I’m not sure there is a better example of a group right now who’s music I enjoy because, yes, they have made a fan of me, but stripping those past credentials, and all of their previous work, I know my feelings about them would be the same had this been my only experience with their music. In that respect Positive Force succeeds in the same ways that Wondervisions does.
The trippy guitar god of now delivers (again) a cluster of slippery jams that sound like the are going both back in time and into the future simultaneously. I’ve done my best to push this band on everyone willing to give me a minute of their time and that’s something I’ll continue to do until they stop making some of the juiciest music in the game.
Hooked from the very first time I heard the first song, this has been an album I’ve not stopped listening to since I started. Soaked in American flavor, it’s filled with plenty of grooves, dreamy note bending, and twangy attitude, which in summation equal an album’s worth of bits to keep you moving. There is a sense of exploration that emanates from these songs. Those feelings of discovery and wandering, both literally and figuratively, are sort of a narrative for the record. The pairing of theme and style make for something quite special and very enjoyable. And that’s what I think sets this most apart from it’s comparisons- the fact that this record is fun. While Fleet Foxes, who they’ve been negatively compared to, have things we all like about them, I don’t think I’ve ever thought of one of their records as being fun. And there is place for that, but by the time I got to Helplessness Blues I was helplessly blue. Yes, I have puns. This has a wide-eyed eagerness to it that makes the listening exciting. A journeying record if there was one this year.
I fully expected this album to be good- Why? has been getting incrementally better with each record and I had no reason to believe this would break that mold. I’m a particularly huge fan of Alopecia (their last proper full length) and when Sod In The Seed EP came out, I loved it, playing it on repeat endlessly. I knew if this sounded like those, even slightly, I’d be very pleased. What I could not foresee was just how insanely killer this album was going to be.
Why? is often championed as being an indie hip hop band. That could mean a lot of things and if you’ve never heard them before that sounds like a scary story that easily ends in some awfully cheesy and terribly executed freak show- but if you have heard them you know they keep that balance in perfect check and while it’s an indie hip hop band is never really comes off as as either of those things.
I’ve recently found them to be some of the best risk takers and innovators making music currently and this album really follows suit. Whereas Eskimo Snow was outwardly their least hip hop sounding effort, this by far gives us their most hip hop sounding effort. In many ways this picks up sort of where Alopecia left off. Painfully honest and comically dry, the monotone delivered lyrics are packed in tightly within each song proving to be troves intended to be revisited in order to pull out all the lines that passed you by the last time around. The music itself is the finest we’ve heard from them. Everything is so crispy, which has been a bother of mine for past albums- there always felt like there was a moment (or few) that broke the stream of what was happening. This is a river with a steady flow and nothing is stopping it.
For being a record I didn’t expect to like at all, in fact it was a record I didn’t even expect to even listen to, this had the highest payoff of any album this year. This same scenario seems to happen to me at least once a year, and it’s always a fun surprise to see who will put out, well, a fun surprise. The formula is usually the same- a band puts out an album or so that I don’t like, I write them off, and then, usually by accident, I listen to the new album I promised myself I wouldn’t listen to and I wind up loving it. It’s as if the bands are checking if I am still awake. I listened to Post-Nothing and didn’t get what the hubbub was about with it. It was under produced, under-performed, and uninteresting. Those were the characteristics I had associated with Japandroids (a name I still hate despite coming around on the music) and I really had no reason to believe this album would be a departure from that. I was happily very wrong. All of those things which I had plagued them with were shed drastically on Celebration Rock. They made the most energetic, in your face, high on life album I’ve heard this year and perhaps in the last three or four. The attitude is sharp and cutting, the sonic version of shark teeth, and it makes you want to forget about your cares and get wild.
On top of the rawness this album thrives on lives a compelling coming of age narrative which even offers bits of wisdom from time to time. What I love perhaps most about the storytelling on this album is the honest speaking from where the narrator is in life. While the music is quite youthful, the musician is aging, and all the things that come with growing up are approached thoughtfully and directly. There’s not much I hate more than a 30 year old singing about high school, and that is swiftly avoided and handled in a way quite remarkably. The only time youth is directly mentioned is in the track “Younger Us” in which the beginnings of a relationship is sweetly called back to. All of this without losing it’s well defined edge. It has the punk attitude of a band like Fugazi, the pomp of a band like He Is Legend, and the energy of an early Bruce record. No doubt one of the best records in recent times.
Father John Misty
Josh Tillman wrote the best record of the year. Somebody had to and it was him. And it was under the name Father John Misty. The ridiculousness of that isn’t lost on him if it’s not lost on you. So, how would a man react to the idea that his record was the best record of all music that came out in one calendrical year? Lucky enough for me, I was present when he was confronted with this notion. “You have the best CD of the year!” shouted a woman from the balcony of the venue in between songs. “Thank you….” he replied. On stage, Tillman, as Father John Misty, leaves little to preferably no room for anyone else to share in the light- he commands the room and for anyone to think they might be taking that from him, if even just for a moment to give him a very well-intentioned and earnest compliment, well, that’s not happening. “…. THE GREATEST CD OF ALL TIME!” he shouted as he clenched both fists and pumped them above his head. Command was back to being all his. “I wonder what the greatest CD of all time actually is?” You could hear the crowd soften and you knew people were wondering where he’d go with this. He cocked his head and rubbed his chin, “Probably one of those free discs AOL used to mail everyone.” And that was that. The drummer clicked off the next song and he was on to the next thing. Such a perfect example of Josh Tillman as Father John Misty and vice versa.
Fear Fun is the deepest, most thought provoking, record this year and somehow at the same time, the most shallow, nonsensical, gab. I’m often wondering what’s real, what’s a joke, what’s meant to be an allusion, what is a real life re-telling of something he actually witnessed, what is meant to be sad, scary, or funny, and why any of it is relevant. And that is what makes this amazing! It’s Tillman finally giving in to himself and choosing to be the person he is and let the music reflect that, not trying to achieve that in reverse.
Aside from being incredibly smart, incredibly odd, and a wearing a healthy amount of smugness on his sleeve, Tillman is an extraordinary singer. He could be singing any slew of words, often it feels like he is, but the way he sings it, with unwavering steadiness, you’d take it to heart as the most precious lyric ever sung. So much of this record is taking two (or more) unexpected things and gluing them together and these beautifully sung lyrics are just as much of an element in these dichotomies as anything else.
For being a record that was coming from a guy who departed from two successful acts in order to go about making something that felt more authentic, you have to give him credit for his truth seeking and ambition. But where the real credit is due is in the fact that in doing that he wound up making a record that well exceeded everything else he had been involved with. There is not a complaint to be had of this record, and I don’t think I’ve loved an album the way I love this one is a long, long time.
I LIKED IT
Sharon Van Etten
I’m not sure there is a voice as haunting as Sharon Van Etten’s right now. It’s totally beautiful and commanding without having to be powerful, although it occasionally is. She’s one of those people with complete control over how her voice is used and no desire to flex it unless the song calls for it. With that kind of understanding, you are bound to wind up with some really great songs, and on this record she really nailed it.
Yes. Finally, the record from this band that I’ve been waiting for. While showing so much potential and promise on InnerSpeaker it never felt like it came together the way that Lonerism does. This is a really great record that is definitely one of the best of the year.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
I first heard Macklemore when I saw the Thrift Shop video and liked it so much because it was as good as it was funny. As I listened to the rest of this record I really loved that he was willing to take a stand for things that no one else in the rap game is willing to do. Positivity often comes with a price of being corny, but it was somehow evaded on this.
I DIDN’T GET IT
I know everyone likes this album, and I’m not trying to trash it, but I really just didn’t understand the hype around it. I kept waiting to feel the way that everyone else did and it never happened. I think I just don’t like R&B.
Oh, Teen Dream B-Sides? Sure feels like it. This album bore me to death. It’s almost like they tried extra hard to keep it as close to Teen Dream as they could. Left a yucky taste in my mouth.
BETTER LATE THAN NEVER
For no explainable reason, I never listened to Warren Zevon until this year. I wasn’t purposefully avoiding him, and had no bent perception of him, I just didn’t. I don’t remember why I started, but from the first time I heard Excitable Boy I was sold. I played that album to shreds. He was one of those tough rock guys from the 70’s who were undeniably and unbelievably cool, and his music reflects that. He was also a guy who didn’t lose sight of who he was. His last album sounds as cool and authentic as his first album does.
I wanted nothing to do with The Doors for so long, I just found them so trite and Jim Morrison was always a bit much to me. But I watch a documentary on the making of their first album and that really changed my view of them. I can’t say I ventured too far away from that self-titled album, but I finally understood it and got pretty into it. I also eased up on Morrison a bit and began to love some of the things about him I used to find annoying. Congratulations to me, I’m just like every kid in high school.
I was lucky enough to see Jersey Boys on Broadway this year and that obviously launched me into an interest and appreciation for Frankie Valli. I don’t know that would have happened or not if I hadn’t seen the musical, but I’m glad it did. Hits, man. HITS.