Category Archives: Year-End Lists

Top Ten of 2014

Before I begin with my list of ten favorite albums from 2014, here are a few of the usual caveats.  This is a list of my favorite, most frequently played, records released in 2014. In no way is this an objective list of the year’s best albums. (You won’t find Swans or Scott Walker here. While releasing some of the best albums of this year, or any year, I rarely listened to them in their entirety.) Also, a couple albums were unexpectedly released after I had finished this list. Since their vinyl releases won’t be until next spring, I’m just going to pretend they’re 2015 releases and discuss them next year. (Yes, I’m referring to Luxury, Steve Taylor and D’Angelo.)  And finally, there are some albums I’ve recently purchased that I’m still processing, still trying to get my head around.  (Maybe I’m just being difficult, but I don’t feel like including the Iceage and Protomartyr albums in this list.  Please forgive me, but I’m still trying to figure them out.)

1.  Rising Son / Takuya Kuroda

Rising Son was, by far, the album I listened to the most in 2014. It provided great background music while students worked, and it was excellent for my planning periods. At first, I felt the album was a Xerox of a mid-seventies Roy Ayers or CTI-era Freddie Hubbard record, but then I realized that Kuroda really does bring some strong, memorable hooks.  The drumming also brings it up to date, with Nate Smith playing up to his hip-hop influences and tipping his hat to Questlove on nearly every track.

2.  Hendra / Ben Watt

There’s absolutely nothing new about Ben Watt’s first solo album in 30 years, and that’s the best part. Invoking influences like Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac, this could have easily been an exercise in nostalgia, but Watt brings pop hooks and some decent, thoughtful lyrics. The packaging is gorgeous, including a poster for the lyrics. The art is incredible, insulting anyone who’d be content with a download.

3.  Atlas / Real Estate

Believe it or not, I don’t intentionally try to be difficult.   So why have I been so hesitant to admit that I enjoy Real Estate?   I think I’m finally at the point where I’ll admit to liking its last album, but I really, really love Atlas.  It’s one of those rare albums where I imagine the band just walked in, laid down its tracks and left.  (Obviously, bands don’t really do that anymore, but uncluttered arrangements lend themselves to that impression.)

4.  Bécs / Fennesz

Somehow I doubt that Christian Fennesz cares for all the micro-subgenre labels in electronic music.  Sure, he’s influenced by glitch and ambient, but his music feels more alive than that.  Bécs is a great example of how an artist can treat a laptop as an instrument, especially on the tracks “Static Kings” and “Liminality.”  His music allows me space to think, to work and to dream.

5.  Syro / Aphex Twin

As time went on, I felt like I was alone in my love for drukqs, Richard James’ last album as Aphex Twin from 2001.  Sure, it was a bloated double-disc, but I enjoyed all of it: all the weird electronic stuff, the minimalistic piano exercises and experiments with prepared piano.  So obviously I was ecstatic at the promise of a new Aphex Twin record, but I also feared that James might feel pressure to get aggressive and do EDM to be relevant or something. The best part about Syro is that it’s just a continuation of his unique vision to write real songs and make technology groove and breathe. No idea yet where it fits into his canon, but it sure is a great album.

6.  Fortuna / Popstrangers

Apparently nineties indie rock has become the thing to imitate.  And the fact that I’m complaining about that probably means I’m getting old.  Sure, Fortuna sounds like a Deerhunter record, but it feels more cohesive than what Brandon Cox usually delivers.  I’ve been rewarded with how Popstrangers takes its time to develop even the murky songs.  Maybe not the best album of the year, but with many long hours at work, Fortuna just made sense.

7.  Home Everywhere / Medicine

Brad Laner and his band Medicine are like old friends.  Or maybe more like that older brother who schooled me on good music.  (But unlike my real-life stepbrother who introduced me to Dinosaur Jr. and The Cure, Laner hasn’t grown boring with age.)  After nearly two decades apart, the band Medicine reformed in 2013 and released a new album, To the Happy Few, with its trademark mix of psychedelic pop and tape-mangled industrial noise was still in tact.  This year, the band took things a little further, testing listeners’ limits with dense layers and almost too many musical ideas in each verse.  So of course I loved it, especially because it’s on beautiful people vinyl.

8.  You’re Dead / Flying Lotus

Steven Elison has tinkered with jazz on his previous Flying Lotus albums, but You’re Dead finally feels like his first jazz record.  The electronics are still compressed to the point of absurdity, but he uses more live instruments on this album.  Elison’s great success is in creating his most cohesive album.  So much so that it becomes difficult to discern between tracks, at times.  Given the complexity of the arrangements, it’s remarkable how short the album feels.  It’s a mind-trip, but I was quick to start the album over many times this year.

9.  Deep Fantasy / White Lung

Remember when you first listened to “Whirring” by The Joy Formidable and the band ripped off your face for nearly seven minutes straight? That’s kind of the feeling I still get from listening to Deep Fantasy, except that the intensity lasts for the entire album. Heavy, aggressive, melodic and brief.  Just what the doctor ordered.

10.  Into the Lime / The New Mendicants

The New Mendicants feature Norman Blake from Teenage Fanclub and Joe Pernice from Pernice Brothers, two of my favorite bands. But I’m not gonna lie, I was a little disappointed when I first listened to Into the Lime. I hoped for big power pop, but the record feels a lot more front porch-ish and acoustic. The vocals are upfront and mostly unaffected, Blake’s acquiescence to role as a background vocalist is frustrating and gone are many lush layers I’d come to expect from either artist.  But the songwriting is great, and I just lived in this album for a couple months. Some of my favorite albums are the frustrating ones, and Into the Lime was the difficult album that grew into a favorite this year.

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Top Ten Favorites Albums of 2013

Album release gimmicks were the thing in 2013. While I like the idea of making a release more of an event than just a drop date on iTunes, few of those hyped-up records interested me. (The most notable exception being The Next Day.) I like the personal interaction and support my wife and I have given artists this year. I’ve found that commitment to their music through Kickstarter campaigns and concert attendance endear these records to me more than any publicity stunt ever could.

Obviously, I didn’t listen to every record released in 2013, but I tried. Sure, other great albums were released this year, but whatever. People always want me to generate lists, of course these lists are always flawed, people invariably ridicule me for music I admit to enjoying, I hate committing to lists, but whatever, you get the picture. I have once again acquiesced. I love these albums, and so should you.

Here are my ten favorite albums from 2013, in no particular order:

1. Black Hearted Brother – Stars Are Our Home
2. Bowie, David – The Next Day
3. Crocodiles – Crimes of Passion
4. Daniel Amos – Dig Here, Said the Angel
5. Deafheaven – Sunbather
6. Flaming Lips, The – The Terror
7. Holograms – Forever
8. Hopkins, Jon – Immunity
9. Iceage – You’re Nothing
10. Laner, Brad – Nearest Suns
11. Mary Onettes, The – Hit the Waves
12. Medicine – To the Happy Few
13. My Bloody Valentine – mbv
14. Phillips, Sam – Push Any Button
15. Shorter, Wayne – Without a Net
16. Starflyer 59 – IAMACEO
17. True Widow – Circumambulation
18. Veronica Falls – Waiting for Something to Happen
19. Witmer, Denison – Denison Witmer
20. Yo La Tengo – Fade

 

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Top 12 of 2012

I’ve a penchant for flippant hyperbole. But when it comes to honestly making lists of favorite albums from any given year, it can take me forever. Unlike years past when I waited a couple months to post my lists, I’ve only missed my self-imposed New Year’s deadline by a few days, so I consider this progress.

I do know some people take my recommendations seriously, so I’ve really put some thought into this list. This is not necessarily what I consider to be last year’s best albums. It’s simply a list of the ones I enjoyed the most in 2012. With seemingly everyone on Spotify or Rdio these days, I hope you all can listen to most of these (multiple times each). If you don’t have access to those services, I’ve included links to a choice song from each album. Enjoy.

12. Dumb Gold by Motel Beds

Another year, another record from another Dayton band that I adore. Maybe it’s too simplistic to say that Motel Beds are a combination of The Ventures and T. Rex, but that’s not too far off, either. If they make a record next year, I’m sure it’ll be in my year-end list then, as well.

Song: Valentimes

11. The Bears for Lunch by Guided by Voices

I thought that, when bands reunite, they’re supposed to just tour and play their hits. Never would I imagine that Guided by Voices’ classic, early-nineties lineup could reunite and release three(!) albums of new material in one year. Then again, I guess most bands don”t have a super-prolific songwriter like Robert Pollard. The Bears for Lunch is its third, and most consistent, album of the year. Not surprisingly, the band is preparing a new EP and full-length album for next year…

Song: The Challenge is Much More

10. Departure Songs by Hammock

A friend characterized Hammock’s music as “post-rock version of The Church,” which sounds as good as any description to me. This record finds the band at its most epic and lush, nearly beating Sigur Ros and M83 at their game. A full two discs in length, Departure Songs is an exhausting, yet very rewarding listen if you don’t mind losing yourself in endlessly reverberating guitars and sweeping orchestrations.

Song: Ten Thousand Years Won’t Save Your Life

9. Dwarf Mountain Alphabet by Joy Electric

I’m pretty sure Ronnie Martin is the only guy out there making synthpop with only analog synthesizers. No drum machines or computers here. If his work ethic alone doesn’t convince you, know that he has delivered his most focused and dancey collection of pop songs since 1997’s Robot Rock. Oh yeah, and his vocals have never sounded better.

Song: Whose Voice Will Not be Heard

8. Shields by Grizzly Bear

I don’t care how predictable Grizzly Bear’s spot in my year-end lists is becoming; I love this band. At the heart of its best songs is a folky-pop thing that I adore. Of course, the band dresses it up with great drumming, lush background vocals and thoughtful horn/string arrangements. I think Grizzly Bear occasionally gets backlash because of its rising popularity and the fact that Ed Droste’s vocals sound so good. Oh, that more bands pay such attention to arrangements, harmonies and lyrics!

Song: Yet Again

7. Lonerism by Tame Impala

Trailing close behind my love for great songwriting is weird sounds. On its last album, Innerspeaker, Tame Impala delivered psychedelia and killer guitar jams. This time around, the band uses more synthesizers and plays up its Paul McCartney and Todd Rundgren influences. A weird and totally perfect album.

Song: Mind Mischief

6. Melody’s Echo Chamber by Melody’s Echo Chamber

So Melody Prochet worked with Australian band, Tame Impala, to make a sugary pop record. Except that, around the seventh track, the band derails the process and the album drops off a cliff into fuzzy, new wave-influenced psychedelia. And it’s beautiful.

Song: I Follow You

5. Places by Sam Billen

I guess admiration could muck up our friendship, but I’ve always envied Sam’s songwriting and musicianship. Songs like “It’s My Life” and “Someday You’ll Regret” that he wrote for his old band, The Billions, were monumental in my personal and musical discovery/development. While I’ve loved his solo recordings up to this point, they’ve never captured the magic of the demo CDs he recorded ten years ago. But this year, Places did it for me. I feel like Sam has finally captured my feeling of driving off from The Billions’ farmhouse, playing one of his collections of mature, difficult songs and rupturing my cerebellum. I love you, Sam.

Song: It’s Not a Lie

4. >> by Beak

Beak, a side project of Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, is quickly becoming a favorite band. It plays to the right influences, most notably Neu! and Syd Barrett. (And you should know that I love Krautrock. Neu!, Cosmic Jokers and Agitation Free are some of my all-time favorite bands.) With vocals taking a backseat to some luminous, motorik grooves, this is perfect music for 2:00 am.

Song: Wulfstan II

3. Kill for Love by Chromatics

Come on now, how can you make an album of hazy, eighties Italian disco with reverb-drenched guitars and expect me not to like it?

Song: The Page

2. Bloom by Beach House

I’ve followed Beach House since its first record, so Bloom didn’t really come out of nowhere for me. I can’t help but feel like this dreampop fad in indie rock might be just a little too trendy. Just as long as bands remember to match the sound with great songs, I’m okay with more albums like this.

Song: Other People

1. Nootropics by Lower Dens

I’m not sure why it’s suddenly hip to sound like a Krautrock band, but I like it. While I loved Bloom by Beach House, Nootropics was just more dark and murky and German, tipping the scales for me. True, I found it to be one of the year’s least-immediate albums, but all that extra work I’ve put into understanding it has made it my favorite of 2012.

Song: Brains

Honorable mentions (or albums that I liked and don’t want to not mention in this blog post): Attack on Memory by Cloud Nothings, The Loudest Sound Ever Heard by The Choir, Until the Quiet Comes by Flying Lotus, Sweet Heart Sweet Light by Spiritualized, Oshin by Diiv, Plumb by Field Music, and My Height in Heels by She Does is Magic.

Stuff I didn’t hear in 2012 (but would probably make my list if I had):Europe by Allo Darlin’, Wild Peace by Echo Lake, Cancer for Cure by El-P, Ark by Halls and Nocturne by Wild Nothing.

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Fifteen Favorites of 2011

I think I’m finally getting old. No, I’m not going bald. And no, it’s not that I’m aware of when I need to change my furnace filter. It’s just that fewer records really grab me each year. That’s not to say I don’t still listen to tons of music. You know me better than that. I’m not getting that old where I forsake power pop for reality television, fantasy football or talk radio.In 2011, my wife and I pre-ordered one album and participated in three Kickstarter campaigns, two great ways to support great art/ists. Through Kickstarter, we raised money for the vinyl release of the new Motel Beds album and Robert Deeble’s new CD, and we sponsored Sam Billen’s annual Christmas project. We also pre-ordered Radiohead’s album, The King of Limbs, on double 10” vinyl. Not only do we feel we’re doing something for artists, but we get some really cool artifacts in return.

My favorite album of 2011 was The Decemberists’ return to straight-ahead pop, The King is Dead. I know I’ve annoyed some folks with proclaiming “The Calamity Song” and “This is Why We Fight” as two of Colin Meloy’s most insanely catchy songs since “The Sporting Life.” I know the band is an easy choice for readers of the slightly-informed-but-oh-so-boring, Paste Magazine, but there’s nothing to apologize for here, folks! It feels like this is probably the stellar album R.E.M. intended to make in 1992 but got sidetracked with rappers and shiny, happy people. No amount of skinny jeans-clad fans can change the fact that the songs deliver strong hooks.

This year I went nutso over the new albums by The War on Drugs, Real Estate and Girls. Sure, Pitchfork and the bloggers also loved them, but they really struck a chord with me. Dreamy, a little slacker-ish and drenched in reverb, these bands provided solid albums that kept me company many mornings while I fed our baby, Ian (born on November 1).

I guess the biggest surprise for me last year was The Joy Formidable. Methinks this band is the second coming of Swervedriver. I love huge guitars and pop hooks, and The Big Roar delivers them in jaw-dropping fashion. I’m impressed its getting airplay, and the band’s new album should be at home in the collection of any Silversun Pickups fan.

I don’t pretend to have compiled a list of the best albums from 2011. Like I’ve already noted, I didn’t listen to nearly enough albums to make such a statement. (One glance at this list should reveal that I’m not going for objectivity. The new R.E.M. album was not that great, as a whole. But the middle chunk of about five songs is some of its best work since the 80s, resulting in the album’s near-constant spot in my rotation for much of the year.) These are my favorite albums of 2011.

1 – The King is Dead – The Decemberists (Capitol)
2 – The Big Roar – The Joy Formidable (Atlantic)
3 – Strange Mercy – St. Vincent (4AD)
4 – Slave Ambient – The War on Drugs (Secretly Canadian)
5 – Father, Son, Holy Ghost – Girls (True Panther)
6 – It’s All True – Junior Boys (Domino)
7 – Heart Like Feathers – Robert Deeble (self-released)
8 – Nine Types of Light – TV on the Radio (Interscope)
9 – Tango Boys – Motel Beds (No More Fake Labels)
10 – Dawn of Light – Tineke Postma (Challenge)
11 – Red Barked Tree – Wire (Pink Flag)
12 – The King of Limbs – Radiohead (Ticker Tape)
13 – Widowspeak – Widowspeak (Captured Tracks)
14 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming – M83 (Mute)
15 – Collapse Into Now – R.E.M. (Warner Bros.)

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Favorite Albums from 2010

After much lollygagging and fence-riding, I’ve decided to come forth with my list of favorite albums from 2010.  To be honest, some of this could be blamed on copious rewrites of the mini-reviews for each album in the list.  This task just got too overwhelming.  (How does Chris Short do it?!!)  So I decided to just go with a list, no annotation.

My criteria for this list was simple; I chose my favorites from last year.  These were the albums I listened to in their entirety most frequently.  There are no reissues, 45s or EPs, as I placed those in an addendum with honorable mentions.  So here are my fifteen favorite albums from 2010, in no particular order.

  1. Swim – Caribou (Merge)
  2. Transit, Transit – Autolux (TBD)
  3. The Changing of the Guard – Starflyer 59 (Tooth and Nail)
  4. Cave Syndrome – Transient Songs (Indian Casino)
  5. The Courage of Others – Midlake (Bella Union)
  6. Who We Touch – Charlatans (Cooking Vinyl)
  7. Clinging to a Scheme – The Radio Dept. (Labrador)
  8. The Lady Killer – Cee-Lo Green (Elektra)
  9. Losing Sleep – Edwyn Collins (Heavenly)
  10. Intriguer – Crowded House (Fantasy)
  11. Each Other All the Time – Cowboy Indian Bear (The Record Machine)
  12. Cosmogramma – Flying Lotus (Warp)
  13. Beach Fossils – Beach Fossils (Captured Tracks)
  14. My Room in the Trees – The Innocence Mission (Badman)
  15. Into the Great Wide Wonder – Trentemøller (In My Room)

Honorable Mentions

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