My Favorite Albums Of 2014


10. Steve Gunn – Way Out Weather

Steve Gunn is just so charmingly guitary. It’s like he’s barely tickling the instrument—effortlessly bending notes and creating little hums to form the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard. Hyperbolic? Maybe. But it’s probably the most beautiful thing I’ve heard this year. When it came out in October—right as I was feeling the shift of the seasons—I remember feeling like no other album could sound as good as this does. He’s picked up comparisons to bands the Grateful Dead, guys like John Fahey, even the Rolling Stones, and he’s probably marinating in a soup of all of those. But I’d attest that there are probably others in that pot with him that  Steve Gunn is still distinguished from. To create a more unique picture, Way Out Weather is sort of like if The Doors knew how to relax. Really relax. Wonderful, crisp, and unparalleled in beauty. This is early morning music for those sun basking hours.

9. Perfume Genius – Too Bright

I was not expecting an album as heavy sounding as I got with Too Bright.  Like previous Perfume Genius albums I was expecting something that could be described as “mostly somber piano songs.” Happily, there is still some of that, but I was more so drawn to this for the experimentation with different instruments and sounds that led to an overall sense that you were exploring the deepest and weirdest cave. That darkness makes for something kind of creepy at times and it’s really difficult to predict where the album is going. Even on repeat listens I’m surprised at the turns it makes that I can’t seem to keep straight. Just when things get nearly too dark they quickly shift to something so light and creamy you’re being gently cooed to sleep. This is clearly an album centered around the feelings of not fitting in and the ownership that comes to life in living in that space. Breathtaking, really.

8. Cloud Nothings – Here And Nowhere Else

I spent some time trying to think about what it is that draws me to albums like this. It’s not so evident right away. I mean, at first glance it’s a scummy, quick, jumbled up album that’s moving so quickly you’re enjoying it the way you would rolling down a hill. But what gelled so well for me is the confines it worked so perfectly in. Each song—amidst all of the tumbling craziness—was secretly unraveling a beautiful melody of a vocal line, one that blends into the messy guitar so well you don’t pick it out right away. Japandroids’ 2012 Celebration Rock worked so well in this way too.  Of course the music itself is fun, it sounds like it bubbled out of the dankest basement in Cleveland (oddly enough, it kind of did) but it’s hardly the most memorable thing about the album. This album achieved the impossible feat of saying “take me seriously” without actually having to ask. Only the coolest of things are capable of that.

7. Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso

I started loving this album from my first listen on NPR’s first listen. Cute, right? It was an attractive sparkle of a thing, boasting folks from Mountain Man and Megafaun, and it made me feel good. It hits all the right spots for what you’d expect of a duo like this to do. Blippy and boppy and genuinely quirky. I’d finish one listen and start the album again and uncountable amount of times. Again, it makes me feel good! Yet, in all that feel-goodery I almost feel ashamed because after months of listening—and I listened to this a lot—it’s actually a pretty one dimensional album. They found a lane and stuck to it. But, even stuck in one dimension, one lane, there still exists a space for something to really shine. While my hope and vision for the future of this band may feel a bit bleak, none of that should take away from how gooooood this makes me feeeeeeel.

6. Little Big League – Tropical Jinx

I had the pleasure of seeing Michelle Zauner’s pre-Little Big League band ‘Post Post’ about 4 or 5 years ago and was stunned. Melodies to melt your heart, attitude to put you in your place, and a sense of youth to bring you to your kneels and make you crawl. Her voice is a special kind of captivating. So when news of Post Post breaking up hit me, I was crushed. And to leave me with but one 4 song EP felt criminal. I spent a couple years casually bumming out about this until earlier this year when I learned that members of Post Post had regrouped as a little punk thang called Little Big League. My excitement went through the roof and so did my play count for their first album, These Are Good People. Rounding out my lucky year in the Little Big League universe, a few months later I learned of a soon to be released Tropical Jinx. To be clear, this is still as raw and nasty as their first album—to be clear still, this is why I love them—but you can’t help but bend to the notion that our babies are growing up. There are beautiful moments of accidental maturity peeking through. If These Are Good People is a knee scraped kid skateboarding, Tropical Jinx is more likely the ratty twenty something who sold his old skateboard to the kid on craigslist. Just as beautiful, just wearing some new perspective. There is no shortage of young Philadelphia (or elsewhere) punk bands squeezing all the good out of the pop punk they grew up on and mixing into something much sweeter and I can safely say none doing it better than Little Big League.

5. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness

Sadness cloaked in psych bliss. Positivity buried in folk woes. It’s hard to figure out exactly what’s going on with this tricky record—especially when it’s sung through a voice as dazzling as hers. But, what do you expect from a gal named Angel? Seriously, it takes a few listens to even begin hearing words. I love that. Each word is so perfectly crafted, considered, articulated, each sound coming from her feels like it’s gone through the most intense interview process. Like all tricky records, there’s an awful lot of give and take on all the cloudy ends. Throughout, she’s challenging us with examples of stark (or maybe not so stark) juxtapositions. This or thats that have no clear pull and often wind up with her meandering to an ambivalent but comfortable middle. Sounds, feelings, thoughts, nothing has a definitive direction home. It’s a very good kind of confusing. “If you don’t believe me you can go ahead and laugh, if you’ve got a sense of humor you’re not so bad.” I got lost in all the haze that this record stirs up but happily hung around not trying too hard to find the edge.

4. Frankie Cosmos – Zentropy

17 minutes goes by quick. And with that, it’s hard to do much of any significance. It’ll probably take me as long to write this up as it will to listen to the album. And still, here comes Zentropy—17 minutes long, 10 songs, the power of the fluffy dog wearing a knit hat appearing on its album art, and impossible not to enjoy and beg (again, like that hatted dog) for seconds of this birthday cake of an album. It’s that type of sweetness and excitement that makes this the joy that it is. To continue the cake metaphor, beneath all that sweet icing, there is an inherent sadness baked in. Maybe the cake is gone too soon, maybe you ate too much, or maybe you realized you are aging and inches closer to your coming death. Standing shoulder to shoulder with all the candied moments of this album are all her most intimate and most real thoughts splayed out in simple terms. “I’m the kind of girl buses splash with rain” she sings, illustrating the comic luck of someone who trouble just finds “I make my canteen so heavy, as if I need any more water today” she responds, pointing out that maybe all her problems aren’t comic bad luck after all. Maybe she’s the source of her problems. Maybe she ate the whole sickly cake.

3. Mac Demarco – Salad Days

“As I’m getting older, chip upon my shoulder, rolling through life to roll over and die.” The album could very well end after this first line of the first song and I don’t think I’d love it any less. At times it’s odd feeling like you’re taking down pieces of wisdom from a guy who carries himself like he’s still yet to care about anything. A guy who answers to “Pepperoni Playboy.” Nonetheless, as he’s caught between having the flippant attitude of an angry punk and the peace and love of some stoner hippie, he’s dolling out all sorts of life wisdom. “So don’t go telling me how this boy should be leading his own life, sometimes rough but generally speaking I’m fine.” To his point, this is the Mac Demarco show and we’re voluntarily along for the ride. Hop off if it’s bumming you out. While the ethos of the album is circling around himself and how he’s fitting into the obviously less cool earth, trapped alone again in his “chamber of reflection”, it’s no less valid because of it. And when you really dig in, perhaps there’s someone who’s not just a 24 year old goober kid who can’t keep a straight face. Maybe it’s a safe front to someone who’s secretly sincere. When you have a reputation for being a goof, it’s hard to shake people of it. I look forward to listening to this and trying to figure out what any of this means. I’ve forgotten to mention that this sounds like The Beatles and The Beach Boys and Lou Reed and is just a pleasure to listen to in every way.

2. The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream

The album most likely to float a leather jacket on me as a put my arm around my friend and pump my fist into the air as we head into sunset. The album most likely to make me grow my hair out one last time even though I promised my friends and family I’d never again. The album most likely to wake me up from my own sleepy dream and put me in a ramshackle convertible and drive off a cliff to float over a make believe canyon. Yes, all of this and more. So much captured in this sparkly jewel of a record. Pickin’ on Springsteen, Dylan, The Police, Warren Zevon, you name it, it’s tapping the shoulders of all the greatest superheroes of dad rock and asking them to scoot down and make room for one more. And everyone seems to be just fine with that. I watched this album sweep over all my friends—each with their own unique preference in music—and leave no one behind. It was remarkable to go into work and hear this album quietly leaking out of the headphones of every single person for pretty much all of March and April. It’s not that mass appeal that makes this album good, it’s how good this album is that allows for that many people to enjoy it. It’s a classic in every definition of the term.

1. Sun Kil Moon – Benji

The saddest, most depressing, darkest, weepiest, quietest, most-reflective, honest, diary of an album I’ve ever heard. If you know anything about this record you know death plays a big role. A huge role. It faces the worst thing that can happen to a person and then reminds you that maybe dying is actually only the second worst thing that can happen to you. Living in a world where people around you die is much worse. And while the expected angle would be that you’d be lucky to remember and celebrate those people who’ve died, this album is hardly about that. This is about the inescapable pain of dealing with it. It’s about taking the bumper sticker “never forget” mentality and burning it a fire started by an exploding aerosol can and realizing it’s not our choice to never forget something, it’s our curse. We live in a world where we are punished by the memory of the things that hurt us. “So when Christmas comes and you’re out running around, take a moment to pause and think of the kids who died in Newtown.” Oh hey, yeah, you…on the happiest days of your year, when you’re with your family, don’t you ever forget the tragedies that happened. Live with this. It’s so dark and painful, such an abysmal way to be in the world, but it’s also a cry from someone who’s hurt and sick of just going along with it.
Like any good diary, we are lucky enough to see the rest of Mark. A chance to try to piece together why he’s coming to the realizations he’s coming to. And he’s giving us a surprising amount. The bright points, the funny parts, the humiliating parts, the wonted parts, the parts where he’s scared witless. And these parts come together in each song, sometimes multiple times within a song, to tell incredibly visual—and yes, often merciless—narratives. “When I was five I came home from kindergarten crying because they sat me next to an albino. My dad said ‘Son everyone’s different you gotta love them all equally you know’”
The most beautiful part of this is that Mark Kozelek is 47 years old and despite all he’s experienced, he’s still scared to death of death, plagued by the screw ups of himself, his friends, his family, still trying to figure out how to cope with his emotions, and ultimately admitting he’s not even sure he’s better for any of it. While this easily could be taken as depressing, it’s worth noting that he’s not complaining. He’s just putting it all out there, exposing himself as best he can, and trying to deal with what comes from that.

Notable Superlatives /
Honorable Mentions


The Sweetest Pop Album Of The Year

Jessie Ware – Tough Love

Pop stars begging to be taken seriously, respected independent artists trying to ironically dip into sappy R&B—there’s a lot of weirdness in those spaces of crossover, and a lot of it is ugly and unimportant. This album is nailing the one thing mainstream pop can’t seem to get right, and the one thing I won’t let it live down: an album that’s enjoyable from start to end with no junk songs mixed in. Not a just series of enjoyable singles strung together, each complete with their own shiny 99 cent “buy now” iTunes button. Also, Champagne Kisses is one of the best tracks of the year from any album, despite being one of the goofiest names.

The Darkest Pop Album Of The Year

Lykke Li – I Never Learn

Check you out Lykke Li. Look at you trading in your naive and ultimately irksome former self for a brand new something sleek. I was cautious to throw myself at this album—why should I knowingly explore yet another bout of quirk from the girl who just wants to daaaaaaance, man. Instead, I Never Learn turns her pop vocal talent to the darkish side and goes for the heart. Most impressive is how the album moves. It takes until the albums mid-point in the aptly titled Gunshot to feel a perfectly timed jolt of life. It’s a very well designed album.

The I Can’t Believe I’m Loving This As Much I Am Album Of The Year

Tigers Jaw – Charmer

Calling this anything but a pop punk album would only be an act to distance yourself from the preferred genre of most high schoolers. Now, it’s not a straight forward pop punk album, as in, it would blow the mind of Paramore, but it’s still pop punk. It’s just being done with the slightest amount of perspective and maturity and what the difference it makes. One of this year’s catchiest and sing a longiest.

The First Album I Loved This Year

Damien Jurado – Brothers And Sisters Of The Eternal Son

I knew of Damien Jurado from my days of giving a crap who was on Secretly Canadian Records. I never listened to him though because I’ve yet to go through my days of giving enough of a crap of who is on Secretly Canadian Records to listen to all of them. Regardless, I came across this album early this year and it was the first release of 2014 that I bowed down to. Totally imaginative, great compositions, instrumentation, all guided by his certain voice. I feel like this album snuck under the world’s radar, which is a shame because it’s exceptionally great.

The I Should Be Liking This More Than I Am Album Of The Year

Spoon – They Want My Soul

Don’t mistake what I’m saying here, I like this album a lot. And I listened to it a lot. But too often did I feel like it was a chore to get thus album going. Like I had to complete my duties. When it was going I found myself enjoying it, but I never felt the need listen. It’s a very good album, probably my favorite from Spoon, and it seems to be critacally regarded as being their best. Because of this, I couldn’t help but feel like I wasn’t experiencing this the way the rest of the world was, and in rare form, I felt like maybe I was the one who was wrong.

The This Is Getting Worse With Every Listen Album Of The Year

Beck – Morning Phase

I loved this when it first came out. It felt like it was going to be the first Beck album I really connected with. Blue Moon is as good a single as any that came out this year and I was excited about a guy who’s made a bunch of albums making one more. So, it got me feeling weird when I started losing interest as time passed, finally culminating in a bad taste in my mouth every time I skipped over the songs when they’d come on in my playlists. I felt kind of bad. That eventually turned to feeling bothered that Beck let me down again. Hard to explain why he can’t keep my attention, but this album falls right in line with the rest of secretly snoozy albums for me.

The I Listened To This Because Of The Good Name Album Of The Year

DJ Dodger Stadium – Friend Of Mine

I know it’s the artist’s name not the album’s name that drew me in, but still, that is a very good name. And this is a good album. And it’s not something I’d normally listen to—it’s basically a techno album—but I credit all that to the name.

The Most Disappointing Album Of The Year

tUnE-yArDs – nikki nack

Hey, don’t look at me like that. I loved w h o k i l l and I like tUnE-yArDs, but I can’t even fake a smile at this one. I expected big things with this album, growth, experimentation, new themes, new territories, and I got what sounds like a bunch of w h o k i l l B-sides. A lateral move right off the field and on to the bench. I tried hard to see the good in this, it just never came together. Aw, look, she’s still wearing the face paint.

The I Don’t Care, His Voice Is Amazing Album Of The Year

Sam Smith – In The Lonely Hour

The boy can sing. And the album is enjoyable. And he went from playing rinky dink venues to preforming at the Grammys in the span of a year. Your mom likes him, your sister loves him, and I’m there with them both cheering him on. His range is unreal and all real, making him a little bundle of joy.

The I’m Not Buying It Album Of The Year

Ariel Pink – Pom Pom

Pass. The attitude is definitely a miss for me, but the songs feel kinda shotty and the album feels like he scraped the crumbs off his table and onto a napkin and offered it to you as a snack.

The I Didn’t Get It Album Of The Year

FKA twigs – LP1

Two Weeks is good but not great and Kicks is the best track on the album. Not as good as Jessie Ware.

The Of Course It’s Great Album Of The Year

Caribou – Our Love

Narrowly missed my top ten. A great album that doesn’t need me telling you it’s great for you to know it is.

Better Late Than Never

Aphex Twin

Thanks to Syro, I finally hit up the Aphex Twin catalogue. What was pinned as “very 90s” was only correct in the literal timeline. Heads up all, what they say is true, Apex Twin was(is) decades ahead in electronic music. Always down for someone taking a 14 year hiatus and then making a new album. Unless it’s like, AC/DC.

Until next year.

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My Favorite Albums of 2013

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10.
Baths
Obsidian

This album achieves success in my book for a few reasons that seem to draw me to “these types” of albums time and time again. For one, it’s an album from an artist I had little interest in before this album. I had heard some things from Baths, didn’t really gel with it, and was ready to pass. For whatever reason, likely a mood I was hunting, I listened to Obsidian and was sold almost immediately. The other is that this really works (and perhaps ONLY works) as an album versus merely a series of tracks. While that’s a pretty romantic idea for a record to function like that, it’s usually just not realistic. So, while I wouldn’t necessarily pull a song from this and have you listen to it, somehow—all strung together—they make an excellent listening experience. It’s a greasy album. Dark but slick, a little dirty, a bit strange but mostly familiar.

9. 
Eminem
The Marshall Mathers LP2

It’s no secret that I love Eminem. I look forward to new albums, new singles, new anything, really. So when this long awaited part 2 to the long praised Marshall Mathers LP came out, I was there with open arms to greet it. Now, I know. I know Eminem is too old and too angry and too mean and too corny and too whatever else. But, the man is a lyrical master and a living legend, and so long as he’s making albums I’ll be faithfully checking them out. Not a ton of people I can say that for, and I think it’s special when someone has that ability. On top of his staying power, and perhaps in part to what causes it, it’s plain silly how well he can arrange and rearrange the basic words he’s used every album up to this point to say something new in a new way. Truly impressive. It’s a fun album with lots of zany word smithing and a fair share of topical ranting. Standard Eminem stuff. 

I should be clear in one thing—this is not an excellent album. It’s one of my favorite records from the year, but not because it works excellently together,(like Obsidian!) but because it’s jam packed with enough great content to carry itself as a really great sum of parts. It’s likely too long, ordered strangely, and features too many of those “too_____” moments. But, all of that being true, I have no problems with albums being shipped this way. Sometimes it works, and for me, this is one of those times. Get deep into this album and really appreciate the lyrical stuff and this can take you for a fun ride.
 

8.
Bombino
Nomad

Nomad is so choc-full-of-attitude it’s pretty hard not to like. But not the kind of meaningless angst we’ve come to mistake for atiitude. This all feels very purposeful and articulate. It took all of this bottled sass and stuck it through a wood chipper to spit out this funky mulch of pure grit. He’s been described as “desert” blues and that’s as geographically accurate as it is sonically. Aside from his compelling backstory—which is absolutely compelling, look it up, we’re talking about living in a place that banned guitars—the music actually does stand for itself. It’s a pretty shuffling album, lots of movement, and lots of gears grinding. But because of this dynamism, each song, while relatively short, packs much power and drive even though—and this is a kicker—the whole thing is sung in Tamashek. I’ve written before about my interest and love for instrumental music, and the some of the reasons why I love that apply to why I love this, but I will say there is a divide here that needs crossing. However, despite the language barrier, there is little time spent feeling distant from what it is happening, and by the time the second verse of the first song comes along you’re already singing along. Impossibly.

7.
Ducktails
The Flower Lane

For as big a fan of Real Estate I’ve been, I’ve been a somewhat small (microscopic) fan of Ducktails. Which is likely why I love this album as much as I do! Ducktails has always been fine, I had little interest, but it was cool over there doing it’s own thing. However, on this album the production quality has been amped, the structure to the songwriting is much, much, stronger than it has been, and it sounds much fuller. All of these things drew me right to it and I got down with it in a big way. It’s lazy at times (in a good way), a little shmoozy (also in a good way), and teasing constantly between chill and electric. It’s a cocktail of an album for sure. 

6.
White Denim
Corsicana Lemonade

White Denim has been impressing me for a while now, but nothing of theirs really struck me as being great until this album. This album seems to have a stronger, more clear vision than anything to this point. It’s focused and contained and because of that there is payoff. They’re an interesting group to me because of their obvious comparisons to groups like Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers, which I think makes them insatiably fun right from the get go. But on top of just being fun, they are also equal parts raucous and beautiful. I’m often attracted to things that are fun, because it has immediate satisfaction. Every year I love more pop singles than I can count for this reason, but often they lack the beauty that something that would perhaps be less fun but more introspective and thoughtful might have. This album achieves both of these notions—a feat for sure—and makes listens and re-listens a real joy.

5.
Kanye West
Yeezus

Enjoying Kanye West means putting up with Kanye West. A task that at times can be difficult. Something that seems to be a hang up for some, and something I’ve learned to overcome. But I’m here to promise you it’s worth it. Beneath the strangeness of his often shifting personas, and actually somewhere above his god complex, he’s making music that pushing the genre to a place with no bounds. You have to admire his confidence in himself and what he’s doing and his relentlessness to settle for anything but the what he deems the best. And with an attitude like that, you get a guy who’s last two albums are some of the best in rap, certainly recently, and perhaps ever. Bold, right? But maybe not untrue. MBDTF was an evolution of everything he’s been doing and prompted a shift in rap music and I think Yeezus is doing the same. I have a serious fascination with artists who can produce quality music and maintain a level of super stardom. It’s the same reason I find Arcade Fire fascinating. One of the same reasons I love The Beatles. It’s easier to make excellent music when you’re (relatively) unknown and can do whatever you want. But when you’re at the level of notoriety that Kanye West is, there is expectation and spotlights on everything you do. I can’t speak to whether that makes things harder or easier for him being in that position, but the scenario of stardom and no drop off in quality is something that is a very compelling storyline in any artist who’s working under those conditions. 
 
I really started to love this album once I heard the story of how the production process went down. There was apparently a ton of stripping down and a real desire to take away as much as possible before the songs didn’t work anymore. I love that. Again, I think a decision like that at his level is a big deal. It’s exciting to think of the things he’ll do next given the path he’s been on recently. For all his idiotic comments about being a creative genius, if he keeps turning out stuff like this, I think we’ll all have to revisit that idea with a new heart and really question the validity to that.

 

4.
Mutual Benefit
Love’s Crushing Diamond

This album quietly snuck up on me. I don’t think you could describe it in any other way, actually. Nothing about this album is bold or shouting. It’s calm, soothing, caring, and relaxed. I spent many a day listening to this album on repeat just floating away. It’s warm and inviting. It’s the music equivalent of a country house on a lake. Picking blueberries. Making lunch. Opening a window to let some air in. It’s all those (wonderful) things. This may be the moodiest album I listened to this year, which for me became a bit of a blanket I could pull up when I needed it. While most albums can achieve that in some way, this does that remarkably strong considering it’s softness.
 
I think this album has a lot of the charm and sincerity that I found on something like Youth Lagoon’s “The Year Of Hibernation”. There is similarity between the two, though not in sound entirely, but rather more in emotion. This is definitely an album ready to fill in emotional cracks of the listener, which I think is really special. For an album so seemingly simple, it’s surprising how much there is in each composition. Lots of thought and lots of heart.
 

3.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra
II

This record was an instant win for me. I connected with it for it’s poppy sensibilities woven into 60’s tinged psych and fuzz funkiness. There’s plenty of sweet moments throughout, but none too strong  as to never let you get too deeply into the groove of a certain singular vibe, something I enjoyed. It keeps you on your toes as a listener and allows you to sort of wade in the flow of the shifting landscape. It’s a warm feeling record with plenty of nostalgic flares. Think Lonerism meets The Moon And Antarctica.
 
This record absolutely wins the “Gets Better With Every Listen” award of 2013. While it’s easily enjoyed on first listens, there’s much to be revealed in sequential returns. What initially seems simple becomes a bit more complex, and what first feels routine becomes extraordinary. Many of the riffs and crunchy melodies seem to stick with you for days on end, and the actual guitar playing is something that is impressively strange, hard to nail down a specific influence or style, a bit scattered, but totally awesome. Perhaps my favorite part of the record as a whole is that feels a bit beat up. Imperfect and rough like old barn wood. With this gritty shell, when the jolly pop shines though it makes for an excellent mix that covers the whole thing in a bizarre spit shine that I just love.
 

2.
Vampire Weekend
Modern Vampires Of The City

In what kind of world am I living where I am not not only listening to a Vampire Weekend record, but loving it? 2013, baby. I’m finally willing to admit that I had unfairly written of Vampire Weekend since first hearing Oxford Comma for really no reason at all. If I had to root that distaste in something it was thatI just found them corny I suppose. But, stupidly, I was forming an opinion on a band I didn’t really know much about and worse, a band I didn’t listen to. So as they continued to put out albums, my lack of listening and continuation of annoyance with them went on. But when Modern Vampires Of The City came out and I was gearing up for another year of not listening to an album from Vampire Weekend, I began to see a few articles popping up that were each calling out people like me for hating on them without actually listening to them. It was a fair enough argument and a piece of me wondered if what I was doing was wrong. I mean, of course it’s wrong in the sense of forming an uninformed opinion. But was my opinion wrong? Would it change once I actually listened? Being curious about this, I decided to see if I was off kilter and boy, off kilter was I!
 
I’m yet to find out whether Vampire Weekend has always been good or whether they got good on this record, but this record, undeniably, is fantastic. It’s so well paced, so well planned, and so grown up. None of these were things I had thought of them to this point. (Again, I’ve yet to make my way backwards into their discography, so it’s hard to tell where they’re improving and where I’m just late too the game.) So forgetting the Paul Simon likenesses (which I once felt should be used against them), the name (both for the band and the album) I could do without, the truth is that they made a really excellent record and a believer out of me. This taught me to approach these types of bands a little more carefully than I have been. They are in a tricky spot. Not quite Arcade Fire level but certainly more than a Ducktails level for example, leaving them in a place that makes judgement a bit tougher. Until you actually listen. Whoops.
 
 

1.
Kurt Vile
Wakin On A Pretty Daze

Whoever thought kicking an album off with a nine and half minute song is a bad idea is by all means likely correct. But Kurt Vile did it anyway and proved us all wrong. Not in that it’s either a good idea of a bad idea, but that it doesn’t matter when the song is Wakin On A Pretty Day. With the first chord of that song, you’re launched into a pretty daze right then and that nine minutes could be nine hours and it wouldn’t much matter. Kurt soon joins in lazily as only Kurt could do with a floppy melody that sort of melts on top of the cloud-like song like provolone and that sets the par for the course. As the record progresses the daze only gets stronger and the cloudiness engulfs you. Like all his other albums, this has his signature atmospheric vapor pumping its lifeblood, but this time he’s created something much clearer than previous efforts. That’s a common theme in my attraction to albums—artists like who make albums I like finally hitting a nerve and making something I really love.

For all the reasons I’m a fan of Kurt Vile—the hazy attitude of each song, the thick airiness of his voice, the pulling between seeming cool and being cool, the tug of war between being serious and being flippant—this album is a success. But what really brings this album to life for me is a little understanding of Kurt as a person. Which has nothing to do with this album specifically, but also I don’t know how to separate those things from each other. He’s a man with a family living in a changing world and trying to do the best that he can while balancing music and family and his own ideals. We all have these struggles, but to see someone approach them so honestly and purposefully, makes me really appreciate what he’s doing. It makes me listen to his lyrics in a different way. Oh, he’s a little like me. On “Goldtone” the last, longest, and maybe best track he sings “Been livin’ my life on the run, from day one. Every day is “hey, so are they.” A classic Vile-ism if there ever was one. (This album is full of them.) An introspective lyric with much room to relate to it. The lyrics itself is about relatability. Identifying the feelings we share and calling them out as shared feelings. An interesting approach to thinking about how we interact with each other. Much like his masterful songwriting has been doing forever, these songs are excellent and beautiful to listen to and they don’t require much of you to enjoy them, but when you are ready to dive in—and you will get to that point—there is a deep hole of meaning and thoughtfulness to get lost in.  

 

I LIKED IT

 

Arcade Fire
Reflektor

Unsurprisingly, I found this record to be another success from a band who only creates successful albums. Lots of ambition, lots of smarts, and plenty of great vibes on an album that without needing to, pushed Arcade Fire’s bounds just a little farther. I have so much appreciation for their ability to maintain interest, uphold quality, and continue on their tear of success. Fascinating and equally enjoyable!

 

Darkside
Psychic 

Not usually a huge fan of this type of noisy blippy avant garde type of experimental stuff, and I can’t say this made me any more interested in the “genre” as a whole, but for whatever reason, this really worked for me. The guitar work on it is particularly excellent and I think it helped pull together some of the aimlessness I tend to feel often runs rampant on these types of projects. It served as a rockin’ glue to keep this together at it’s moments where it felt most likely to burst. The teetering on combustion can be as easily annoying as it can be entertaining, but I feel like it was done boomingly on this album. 

 

Dads
Pretty Good EP 

By far my favorite EP of 2013. Straight up power and sweat crammed into one tiny little EP. The heaviest (and maybe also the lightest?) stuff they’ve done to this point, which didn’t necessarily seem like a selling point to me on paper, but on listen, it works remarkably well. This is a direction I hope they continue to chase as this is their strongest stuff yet. 

 

Katy Perry
Prism

I’m waiting on the day a mainstream pop album can really be appreciated as an album as opposed to a series of songs and singles. I don’t think we’ve reached that yet, and instead of throwing a stink about it, I’ve transitioned myself to appreciate these pop albums for what they are. The fact that they can be a series of would be singles speaks to the way people consume pop music. I’m more likely to listen to Katy Perry on a car ride with friends than I am at home alone. (Though, I’ve done both.) So, that being the case, it’s interesting to see how we’ve evolved in receiving these types of albums. Personally, I don’t think we can call something like this great until it functions as a whole and rids itself of the excessive filler songs that all of these albums can’t seem to let go. Prism is guilty of this, but at least aware of itself. Artpop doesn’t know it’s doing it, and neither does Beyoncé, ugh, don’t get me started on Beyoncé. All of that being said, pop music really has one function and that’s to be fun. And so, so, so much of Prism is incredibly fun. 

 

I DIDN’T GET IT

 

HAIM
Days Are Gone

It was fine. It was perfectly fine, and there are plenty of great moments. But can we PLEASE knock it off with the pop groups masquerading under something more meaningful than they are? This is cry for artists to go all in on what they are doing. HAIM would benefit from calling a rose a rose and just truly embracing their pop tendencies and seeing where that could take them. OR back off just a hair and make things a little more intesting and authentic than what they tried to do with Days Are Gone. I don’t have much faith in them being around too long, I think the foot in both camps will be problematic for their longevity. 

The Haxan Cloak
Excavation

I mean, c’mon. What is this?

 

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER

 

Little Comets
Life Is Elsewhere

This record was one of my favorites of the year (and certainly my most listened to) until I realized it actually didn’t come out this year, but instead late 2012. Bummer. But regardless, this little group from England made this shimmering little record that is as bouncy as it is wiry. It’s upbeat, bubbling, and was the go to source for motivation when I was getting work done for many times in the past few months.
 

John Fahey

Finally gave this guitar god some much needed listening after years of being pretty unfamiliar. When it comes to American style guitar playing, he’s hard to leave out of the conversation. In fact, it’s hard to have a conversation without it being somewhat Fahey focused. Anyway, really enjoyed listening to him and pretending I was on a train in the 60s. 

 

My Favorite Albums Of 2012

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10.
Daniel Bachman
Seven Pines

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.

9.
Dirty Projectors
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.

8.
King Tuff
King Tuff

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.

7.
Dr. Dog
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.

6.
Hop Along
Get Disowned

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.

5.
Delicate Steve
Positive Force

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.

4.
Lord Huron
Lonesome Dreams

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.

3.
Why?
Mumps, Etc.

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.

2.
Japandroids
Celebration Rock

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.

1.
Father John Misty
Fear Fun

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
Tramp

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.

Tame Impala
Lonerism

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
The Heist

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

Frank Ocean
Channel Orange

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.

Beach House
Bloom

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

Warren Zevon

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.

The Doors

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.

Frankie Valli

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.

 

 

 

 

My Favorite Albums Of 2011

Delicate Steve – Wondervisions

I accidentally introduced myself to Delicate Steve when I got to an Akron/Family show they opened in March just a little too early. Not that I’m the kind of guy who purposefully shows up late to evade the openers, but I can’t say I’m the kind of guy who makes it a point to be there a half an hour early as to not miss the sound check of an unknown act either. But regardless, I only got there in time to see a measly two songs from them. Let it be a testament to Steve himself that those ten minutes of circusy jamming (and his dancing in the after show impromptu dance party that went down – he was dancing like Steven Tyler doing a James Brown impression) left enough of a mark on me to seek out this album immediately and soak myself in it.

I feel like “instrumental” is verging on being a dirty word for describing bands because in most instances people would assume one of two things. “It’s boring.” or worse, “It’s like Explosions In The Sky, right?” To make that assumption for any band would be insulting but it would be especially insulting in this case. But this is an instrumental album from an instrumental band. Let me be clear. But more importantly, let me make it even more clear, that the absence of vocals is not the absence of a voice. This album has a voice that is loud and proud. It’s youthful, aspiring, and incredibly sure of itself.

There’s a lot packed into these songs; like an overstuffed suitcase. But unlike a hodge podgy shoving of wrinkled clothes, when opened, this suitcase displays everything precisely puzzled together. Packed, yes, but utilizing what space it has to hold everything it should. Each song battles the previous to call itself home to the most cosmic riff, leaving distorted echoes of The Allman Brothers, the weirdness of Talking Heads, and the groove of Stevie Wonder. A lot of how I react to albums has to do with what notions I have about them before I listen. Knowing truly nothing, I loved everything about it from first impression and this was one of the best discoveries of the year.

 The Antlers – Burst Apart

Completely shocking myself, I love this. I mean I really, reallllllly, thought Hospice was a major yawn. It’s praise had little or no merit and the album severely lacked ambition. Which makes me so happy to see that Burst Apart is spilling with ambition. It really feels like a whole new band. Bookending this album with it’s best songs (and the third best song right in the middle), it makes for a really pleasant listen. It’s somber, as I expected it to be, but it’s all carried on a dark wave that isn’t exempt from crashing at any moment. It also has a prickle to it that Hospice desperately needed. It’s important to keep a listener on their toes, even for an album that has a clear direction. The listener needs to be led, they’re asking to be led, and it’s the responsibility of every album to do that. This album has succeeded on all of those things, and I’m not sure I can think of a better example of an improvement in successive albums. I mean, wow.

Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost

There is something so incredibly likable about Girls. Even on their last album, Album, which I didn’t love or hate, there were parts of it that I couldn’t help but applaud (“Oh I wish I had a suntan / I wish I had a pizza and a bottle of wine.”) With Father, Son, Holy Ghost, there is a notable improvement in song writing, a little more depth within the instrumentation, and a clearer focus of what they are doing. I was happily surprised with this album, and as time went on, it continued to grow on me in a way their last album didn’t.

Things get started with a surfy, rolling, bouncy ball of a track called Honey Bunny, in which Christopher Owens sings to a future girlfriend or wife, and to himself. Down on his luck from previous attempts with girls, yet still hopeful for the chance at something new, he admits with a level of playful self-deprecation “They don’t like my boney body, they don’t like my dirty hair.” It’s a self-realization paired with a self-confidence. At first, he seems to come off terribly ambivalent about it all. Girls don’t like him, he knows it, and he is moving on. It’s not deterring him from the fantasy of finding the perfect woman just for him. But what makes the song truly genius, is just when you think this guy has enough swagger to to actually find the woman he pines for, the song slows and he admits that he’ll never find a woman who loves him as much as his mother did. It’s incredibly honest, incredibly introspective, and pits hopefulness against reality, setting the tone for the whole record.

Vomit, the tragic epic that sits in the middle of the album is a telling of him anxiously driving around San Francisco looking for his girlfriend who was out drinking. Their relationship was on the decline and he wasn’t ready to let go and embark on a life without her, but she was already removed. Even though he knew he was doing the wrong thing in trying to hold on to her, he couldn’t stop doing it. While the message and the lyrics are rather simple, they are irrefutably poignant. This song really tears the house down as it takes off and it reminded me of some of the cacophonous moments in Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig In The Sky.

This record is as genuine as the man who wrote it and genuineness is never ever wasted in song writing. I couldn’t have been more impressed with this than I was/am.

Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo

This was an album that I knew I was going to like just from hearing the first few seconds of the finger picked opening of the first track Baby’s Arms. It’s an undemanding and atmospheric love song with an open message. “I get sick of just about everyone and I hide in my baby’s arms.” And the interesting thing is that it’s not an “I love you” love song, but rather an “I’m loved by you” love song. When you look at Kurt Vile, or when you listen to him sing, he maintains a very cool attitude. He has long freakish hair, a solid and sure baritone voice, and he could easily and erroneously be pegged as a guy who is too cool for it all, but in listening to what he’s singing, you realize he’s sort of the opposite of that. There’s no doubt he’s cool, but it’s all from his honesty and ability to be comfortable with himself. He’s willing and ready to take any notion you might have about him and flip it on you to make it work for him, and not against. “I bet by now you probably think I’m a puppet to the man, well, I’ll tell you right now you best believe I am.” I think that this album’s refusal to let you completely figure it out right away is part of what makes it strong. There is a familiarity to the sound that allows for immediate attraction but there is also so much to it that is sort of waiting to reveal itself and change your interpretation. And the real beauty is that at some point, you sort of realize he’s right there with you trying to figure it out as it’s happening. “I don’t know if it’s real but it’s how I feel.”

I’ve described Kurt Vile as being a mix between Neil Young and Mick Jagger. But he’s also got a little Tom Petty in him too. And maybe a little Lou Reed. And maybe a little Roger McGuinn. And maybe a little Syd Barrett. However, despite drawing comparison and influence from the aforementioned, I still think that Kurt is able to have a very distinct and fresh voice to his songs, and nothing about this album feels recycled.

Givers – In Light

This is a very bright and shiny record. It’s loud, inventive, and the product of some kids who grew up in the Louisiana music scene tinkering with Cajun and zydeco bands. Knowing that much, it’s no surprise this record sounds the way it does. As with most bright and sunny records, the good ones at least, it’s not fifty minutes of high powered toasting, but rather, while the light never dims, you need to move around,  sun patch to sun patch, searching for the warmth as the afternoon sun shifts. This record is a constant moving of afternoon sun. In this regard In Light is a perfect title.

I’ve been a fan of them ever since seeing them open for Dirty Projectors in 2009, and while I had been playing and over playing their EP, this was a record I was desperately waiting for. The only complaint I would have (as an already familiar listener anticipating a full length) would be that they chose to include the four songs from the EP onto this record. They are new, better recordings, with better mixing and a better grasp on the structure of some of the songs, but still, I would have liked to hear ten new songs. Regardless, and I can’t use that against this album, this really works for me. Definitely some of the most impressive musicianship on any record I’ve heard this year. Lots of moments with sky high energy, and a constant emotive thread weaving it’s way from the first moments to the last.

Time spent as lead vocalist in divided between Taylor Guarisco and Tiffany Lamson, but songs are often most successful when they exist symbiotically. Lively passing lines back and forth, you can feel the joy they’re releasing to just be doing what they are doing.

With plenty of unsuspecting elements interjecting themselves so strangely perfectly (a totally unsyrupy jazz flute?) there’s a lot to like about this. It feels like a record that Vampire Weekend couldn’t make but really wish they could. It’s upbeat and encourages you to move. Even if it’s just a subtle rolling of the neck and shimmy of the arms, it’s hard to not want to groove to it. It’s entirely authentic and very happy, and I think most people would tell you the same. Whiny babies will complain about all the changes in key, tempo, and probably the mashing of many styles, but hey, there’s always Vampire Weekend for those of you still at the kids table.

Bon Iver – Bon Iver

This album rules and if you don’t see that, you’ve gotta be kidding yourself. Or not actually listening. Or you like The Deftones. Which in that case, you’ve gotta be kidding yourself. So let’s get real for a second. Bon Iver is more popular now than ever, and even at the release of this album I had to wonder if it was still cool to like Bon Iver. Stupid, I know, but if I had to see one more person quoting Skinny Love on Facebook YEARS after the fact, I was going to die. Or start listening to Kings Of Leon or something. But I did have to wonder if he had seen his day. And what I quickly found out from the first time I listened to this album, was that this was a ditching of all the gunk that accumulated from the last album. The story of a sad dude in a cabin. The Jools Holland performance. His working with Kanye West. His beard. This was the Bon Iver snake shedding the skin and slithering on. And with that understanding you’re allowed to listen to the album and realize, holy cow, this is really great.

Justin Vernon could have easily done the same exact thing as he did with For Emma, Forever Ago and few people would have complained. I mean, haters gonna hate (@Mike_FTW), but it would have been well received. But instead this record took some well calculated, bold and opportune steps and did something that was not only progressive but necessary. The biggest and most noticeable difference from the last full length to this one is the inclusion a band. And impressively it avoids sounding like he wrote ten new songs and then had his friends come in and throw their talents on top (which apparently to some extent, he did). Songs seem to be consciously crafted with the band in mind. In addition, there are also plenty of beautiful arrangements, string, horn, that carry this far beyond the traditional “backing band” concept. Much of it is really orchestral.

What made this record one of my favorites was that it took the idea of Bon Iver and made it better. It took the understanding of this project and unfurled the scroll a bit and encouraged me to explore a little more, and in doing that I was able to remember all the reason why I liked Bon Iver in the first place. The interesting and promising aspect of that, is that in that expansion, I still believe there is more rolled up and waiting to be spread out and unfolded on future albums.

Wye Oak – Civilian

Wye Oak is a duo. And not that their sound particularly highlights this, but it also doesn’t shy away from it. And I really appreciate that. It’s tasteful. And this tact is on display in their best work yet with Civilian. Up to this point I was still trying to figure Wye Oak out. I had plenty of friends who campaigned on their behalf (apparently being young and living in Baltimore means this is your jam) but for whatever reason I just wasn’t clicking with them. But when this came out, every thing fell into place and I fell in love. Shortly after, I saw them live and that pretty much cemented my relationship with the band, and specifically this album. Since then, I’ve gone back and obsessed over each of their other albums individually to make up for lost time, but I do credit that all to this album.

At it’s heart this album is pretty folky, you can imagine each track being stripped to an acoustic guitar and haunting vocals and being okay with it. But it’s dressed up pretty well. And I mean that in a really good way. It has an atmosphere to it that isn’t capable with something so bare, and I think the songs succeed because of it. Important to realize that’s not always the case. It’s easy to get carried away and start mucking things up just because you can. But that’s not what’s happening here. Again, everything is so tasteful.

I think what really makes this album work and why I love it so much is that it’s just really beautiful. Beautiful in the way you might call a photograph of a really dirty city beautiful. Meaningful, a little dark, and an ability to make you feel something. A.V. Club had a really interesting article about 2011 being a year of no important records, and many good ones. The argument is that it’s okay to be a good record, even if you don’t change music. In my opinion, this album is a reallllly good record. A.V. Club thinks so too and ranked this as their number one of the year.

tUnE-yArDs – W H O K I L L

This album came as a storm of a surprise to me. I really did not care for their previous Bird-Brains album whatsoever, and because of that, I really hadn’t even planned on listening to this at all. Until sometime in mid-August when I received a tip from Ryan Maffei basically telling me I’d be crazy to not listen to this. In turn, I feel like it’s my duty to pass that conviction along, yes, anyone not listening to this is crazy.

This is probably the most colorful, powerful, brightest record I’ve heard this year. It’s a really excellent blending of the weird with the listenable. Nothing is pushed too far for the sake of pushing, and yet this is definitely an experimental record. It’s records like this, where a powerful, opinionated woman is doing everything right, that ensures my belief that Lady Gaga is doing everything wrong.

There are many ways to judge why something is your favorite, and in making a list like this, you really need to examine why it is that you like something, or what makes it good. For this album, I went through a time where I would just play it over and over and over, as soon as it finishes just going back to the first song and starting it up again. That alone doesn’t make a record good or bad, but it is a pretty good indicator of how something resonates with you. In the truest sense of the phrase, I could not get enough of it. And since then, it’s been a record I’ve regularly returned to and have enjoyed every time. Even if you don’t like this record, and I’m really trying to be forgiving at the thought of someone who wouldn’t like this, this is a record that will stick with you. It’s got such an interesting sound that it’s hard to forget about it. However, playing up the memorability of it kind of feels like I’m selling the rest of it short. And I don’t mean to do that. This is a good memorable. Something you want to be remembering not something you have to be remembering.

In what is probably the track of the year, Bizness is the track that I want to listen to again literally every time I hear it. I’m a believer in an album being played in it’s entirety from start to finish. It’s how the artist intended it to be heard and who am I to mess with that? But man, I break that rule far too often in thanks to this song. From the opening flutters you sort of know the song is going to be special but I don’t think anyone could have predicted it was going to be this explosion of excitement in the way that it is. You have to force yourself to stay motionless, otherwise you’ll be giving in and throwing yourself around every time you hear, which is where I am.

Not to trash Lady Gaga, (but yea, sort of to trash her) but she makes a big stink about herself and her music and how weird she is and then immediately throws up her hand like a traffic cop and says, wait a minute, stop it right there, you’re not allowed to judge me, I was born this way mister. Sure. Let’s just for a minute assume that that’s true, (it’s not) that attitude suuucks! It only brings on unnecessary hate and stirs people up for no reason other than her own enjoyment of being capable of doing so. This record doesn’t preach a message so different from Lady Gaga’s and not even in an entirely different way, but instead of being all ughhhh about it, this record says, this is me, here are my real thoughts and concerns. And it leaves it at that. Any opinions you have beyond that are your own, not some projection on you that you’re expected to have only to be later used against you. And that resonates SO much better.

Youth Lagoon – The Year Of Hibernation

So I’ve been singing the praises of this record for a little bit now and I guess it’s time for me to get the choir going. I love this record! I know that really goes without saying as it’s ranked so highly on this list, but I do just love it. It’s a dreamy, often warbled, electric piano played by a wild ghost of a record. Now, I’m not much of a lo-fi man, it’s a kind of weird world that I don’t find myself in often. Not for much other reason than the fact that I usually like my songs to have a little more production in them. However, I totally appreciate lo-fi music because there’s almost always an unparalleled level of earnestness and when something is raw in sound it tends to be raw in content. There are of course exceptions, but I think the success of lo-fi bands is usually because the two go hand in hand. This record is not the lowest of lo-fi recordings, but it has that edge. And I was a little hesitant about it for that reason but as soon as I really started getting into it, I found myself in this whirlwind of these dirty unpolished gems. With little sifting I was being rewarded with some heavy stuff, it kind of hits like a slow motion tornado. Much of the content are these wise-beyond-his-years lyrics set to electric piano pop jams with minimal electric percussion and sparse but pertinent guitar lines. “When I was seventeen my mother said to me ‘Don’t stop imagining, the day that you do is the day that you die.'” That’s a great, befitting lyric! And it’s got surprising depth to it too. The whole record actually sounds like it was written with that bit of advice in mind.

When you discover this kid is 22, whether that’s before you’ve heard anything or after you’ve listened to the album twenty times, something happens there, a little something goes off. Age is a funny thing when it comes to song writers because I think we’re just a little skeptical to put our trust into anyone who’s younger than we are at the fear that they might know more than us, as silly as it is. But the important thing to keep in mind is the deliverance of his message, and again, it’s very earnest and it’s very kind. What he’s bringing to the table is a batch of songs appealing to us through shared experiences. Things he’s done, feelings he’s felt, which in turn, triggers those thoughts for us. It’s very nostalgic sounding and that’s something I think most people can easily latch on to. I’ve heard critics say that while the nostalgia aspect is there, they found a hard time connecting with the specific experiential stories being told. And I’m not sure I get that argument. If he’s singing about the lake he swam in when he was kid, maybe you never swam in a lake and you don’t have that same story to look back on, but you can easily identify with being a kid and doing things in the summer. I think the ability to have something be heard and have it provoke personal emotion is a major part of the potency of this album.

This record got a lot of play and I never tired of it. Take that for whatever you want, but some records, even good ones, are hard to listen to a lot. But there is something about this album that has yet to go stale for me. Every song is great.

Real Estate – Days

Some albums need to tell you what they’re all about by bashing you over the head. While that can be a terrible thing, it’s not inherently bad. I think an album like Dye It Blonde by Smith Westerns did that really well. It’s a punchy album with lots of screeching guitar that demands attention and respect. It was hardly a subtle record by any means, but I loved it for what it was and was happy with their approach. But for a record like Days, Real Estate finds a way to make that sort of impact without being overly aggressive. This is an album that consumes you; and quite effortlessly. Which to me, is a lot of its appeal. It’s sort of like the feeling of lowering yourself into a hot bath. Totally non-threatening and blissful. And awesome.

One thing I love about this album that I think deserves some pointing out is the guitar work. It’s really not overly “anything” in particular; simple lines often reflecting the melodies, usually harping on a few chords while everything simmers. The rambling and reoccurring quality of it just really really works and makes for some moody playing. It is a bit jangly, and it’s reminiscent of bands like The Feelies or The Smiths, but never too much where you feel like it’s a rip off or even a reimagination of those bands, it’s just natural evolution of that kind of music and it feels incredibly real.

With much of this record, and Real Estate’s sound in general, it’s based around the familiar. And it’s usually approached with a simple psychology. But what this record suggests is that when done right, simple isn’t bad, and in fact, it might be downright good. Paired with preciseness, as it is on Days, simple transforms into something pretty powerful and washes away any allegations of banality.

With fashion, the best advice you can give someone trying to build a wardrobe would be to collect classic pieces that aren’t going to go out of style and leave you rebuilding every few years. There are certain things that, for the most part, look good on almost anyone (providing the fit is correct), they are basic and clean and will serve you well for years and years to come. Of course things come along and they are great for seasons and perhaps even years, but as we look back, it’s clear that something like acid washed jeans are very indicative of a time, and no matter how cool they were in 1989, you’d be hard pressed to find someone wearing a pair unironically now. While something like My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy is a great album, it’s so clearly 2010 and I fear it may one day be looked back on as the acid washed jeans of music. Not to say Days will go down in history as being one of the greatest albums ever, but for 2011, it’s definitely the pair of Levi’s I refused to take off.

Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

Another really great album from Fleet Foxes. Totally into it, totally loved it. However, this was sort of exactly the second record I would have expected from Fleet Foxes. And that’s fine, it really is, I definitely enjoyed it and still enjoy it, but when you look at what Bon Iver did for their second record, I mean, that’s how you do it. This left me sort of wishing for just a little more. It was a very safe continuation of the band, and again, they did it perfectly, but for what had the potential to blow everything out of the water, wound up just sort of floating around with the rest of ’em.

David Bazan – Strange Negotiations

I love David Bazan and I love this record. Every Pedro The Lion album was progressing more and more into something I liked, and while earlier albums had moments to shine, Achilles Heel really reached the point of him getting it exactly right. So when he started recording under his own name, it kind of picked up right where Pedro left off, and I was very into it. With this year’s Strange Negotiations it’s more of what we’ve been hearing and I embraced it with open arms. Definitely nothing earth shattering here, but for fans of his, it doesn’t get much better.

Vetiver – The Errant Charm

It’s a Vetiver album, so that alone, you know you’re in for a treat. I’m extremely happy with the direction this band has been going. Each album seems to be taking on a little more as it goes. Kind of like a camel adding a new pack each time it goes from town to town. Under all of it the camel is still there, but this time it’s got an awesome new blanket, and this time it’s got a basket of fruit, and next time it will have something else. I definitely feel like this band is very under appreciated and flying under a lot of radars, and I can’t really explain why. Great groovy songs, great song writing, and one of the most unassuming attitudes of any band out there right now.

The Black Keys – El Camino

It’s good. You really can’t deny that. I think for a lot of fans of theirs who’ve been around since the beginning they will either love it because they love everything, or will kind of stray away from it because the Black Keys glory days are definitely over. This is undeniably an album that was consciously made in the wake of a very successful Brothers. And I really don’t mind that, I think El Camino is oozing with really sweet riffing and catchy grooves. I happened to love the poppier fuller tracks on Brothers, so a lot of this is right up my alley. I’ve already been hearing this on a few commercials and in the background of network programming, and that’s to be expected, again, it was sort of specifically crafted because how well the last album did, they needed to deliver something comparable again. I’m totally fine with all of that because when it comes down to it, I like the songs. I don’t, however, like that they chose to exclude this album from Spotify and other music streaming services. That felt like a band who was totally out of touch with their fans.

Foster The People – Torches

This was almost not worth mentioning but just in the past week I was brought to a new level of annoyance with these three fratty dudes trying to fit themselves in an “indie” box, and I don’t know if I can help myself. I could really say a lot about my disdain for this band, but let me start with the quote on the bass player’s bass:
“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.” – Plato

Cool man. Let me guess, you LOVE music right?! I thought so. Cause of your bass.

I’m just sort of sick of bands who are purposefully trying to sound one way or another, and it’s somehow hardest to swallow when it’s a band who’s clearly trying to pump out radio ready rock and pass it off as “indie” because you know, that’s cool music. Being able to tell that a band has no sense of identity is just depressing. I commend LMFAO for their track Party Rock Anthem. That’s a band and a song that knows exactly what it is. Love it, or hate it (I love it) , it fully accepts and embraces what it is. I mean, the name of the song is Party Rock Anthem, it’s a party rock anthem, no one is listening to that song for any other reason. They just get it. Foster The People doesn’t get anything. At all. I don’t even hate Pumped Up Kicks (though I prefer every remix I’ve heard of it) but I do hate that they took what could have been a really serious and meaningful song and set it to a video of them surfing and playing pool. Idiots.

It’s sort of like my feelings on Mumford And Sons all over again. Gah, thinking of either of them is giving me a headache.

Lady Gaga – Born This Way

Just… come on already with this…

Tyler, The Creator – Goblin

Alright. Yes, I liked Yonkers. A lot. And I sort of still do, I don’t really know. And if this whole album sounded like Yonkers I would have no problem with it or him. But it doesn’t. Boy, it reallllly doesn’t. I have no issues with what he’s trying to do and how he’s trying to do it. In my mind, at worst, he’s annoying. BUT, if you’re gonna be that way, you need an album that’s going to justify everything you do. And this was an enormous failure. Just, nothing about it worked. Yonkers stood out like a sore thumb as “the one” and everything else fell flat. And not even like a forgivable, let-it-grow-on-you-flat, but a tragic, uninteresting, unimportant, change-the-track-actually-change-the-album-flat. So, do your inverted crosses thing, do your menace to society thing, I’m not really gonna be paying attention to you, but do it. Not sure what the odd future (do you get it?) holds for him, but until I see something of content I just feel like he’s uninteresting. Which, for someone like him, that’s the last thing he’d want.

St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

Is something wrong with me? Everyone else seems to love this record, but I just can’t get into it. I don’t even really have a convincing reason as to why this doesn’t sit well with me, but it just doesn’t do a single thing for me. When I’m listening to St. Vincent I’m wishing I wasn’t. Maybe one day. I like her music videos. Maybe I’ll put them on mute and listen to something else.

Drake – Take Care

Nope. Pass.

The Weeknd – House Of Balloons, Thursday, & Echoes of Silence

Yeahhhh, sorry, another one the people seem to love and I’m just completely missing. He’s indie! He’s R&B! I don’t know, if that’s supposed to be reason for me to like this, I don’t know what to say… I don’t. Appreciate the effort, but not for me.

James Blake – James Blake

For the most part, I feel the same way I do about the The Weeknd. I saw a few interviews with this guy and he seemed a little too pretentious for his own good. So that sucks.

Nirvana

For whatever inexcusable reason, I never listened to Nirvana until early this year. I don’t even want to try to explain why, I’m not fully sure myself. I certainly knew about Nirvana, certainly had heard individual songs, but I wasn’t listening to albums of theirs, and I definitely wasn’t able to call myself a fan of theirs. But this year I watch Six Feet Under and there is an episode where it flashes back to Nate hearing of the news of Kurt Cobain’s death and he’s in his room, crying, listening to All Apologies. Strangley, it was that clip that flicked the light switch on for me. I started familiarizing myself with their songs and their albums and obsessed over Kurt Cobain for a few months. All of my friends had done this in 8th grade, so no one really had the tolerance for me, but I just was enamored. I still am. I’m somewhat thankful it’s taken this long to listen to them, I think I can appreciate them in a way I would not have been capable of had I been listening in 8th grade.

Bruce Springsteen

Totally didn’t get the Bruce hype unit this year. Shame on me. I got a copy of Born To Run on vinyl last Christmas and that started a very steep and spiraling ride that landed me in Asbury Park, NJ. I immediately loved some of his older albums, but promised myself I wasn’t going to get into anything too schmaltzy, specifically citing pre-Born In The U.S.A. as a cut off point. Well, at some point that broke and I wound up really getting into Born In The U.S.A. as well. It’s weird how things click, especially when it’s with an artist that’s been around so long, like, longer than you’ve been alive, but for whatever reason it happens, if you find it happening to you, don’t fight it. Whatever you felt about the artist is probably ripe for a reassessment anyway.

Music Monday 4.18.11 Wye Oak

I finally got the chance to see Wye Oak this weekend when they played in Philly with my friends in Secret Mountains. They’ve been a band that’s been continuously growing on me, to the point now where I’m pretty obsessed. Jenn not only has an incredible voice, but also shreds on guitar. Seriously, they rocked and if you get the chance to see them, do it, one of the best shows I’ve seen in a while. They’re really putting a lot of two pieces to shame, not that they’re trying; everything seems extremely effortless.
Their new album Civilian is a an absolute must have for 2011. Possibly my favorite record of the year so far. So take that as you will.

The idea for this poster was entirely influenced by Kirby’s obsessions with finger spelling and sign language.