Tag Archives: 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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10 jazz records you should own

herbie_1974

Herbie Hancock and The Headhunters, his band for his 1974 album, Thrust

Some friends have indicated that they just don’t know where to start when it comes to jazz records.  Some of them feel it would be valuable for me to offer a list of recommendations.  I understand that Jazz can be intimidating, as it often evolves into a cerebral exercises.  You know, dudes will solo in a particular mode in a certain time signature while the rhythm section plays in another time signature and, truthfully, it’s no longer even tuneful or moving.

Before I begin, a little concerning my history with jazz might be helpful.  I played alto saxophone until my freshman year of college.  I also played baritone saxophone for three years in high school.  Between the busyness of life and the intonation problems of my student-issue horn, I stopped playing and pursued songwriting and rock instruments.  During this time, I sought out mostly rock recordings, as well.  This gap, however unfortunate it may be perceived, gave me a different perspective on jazz recordings when I finally returned to them later in college.  While I can appreciate technical prowess, I’m a bigger fan of sounds and melodies.  I also prefer small groups, or combos, to overblown big bands.

Obviously this list is not exhaustive; I’m leaving out some real heavy-hitters.  I just hope the annotated list offers a place to start and doesn’t get too technical (for lay people who just want to discover cool music).

1.  Thrust – Herbie Hancock (Columbia / 1974)

Thrust is the follow-up to Herbie’s big, funky, fusion break-out record, Headhunters.  Simply put, I like this one better.  The grooves are more tight and the drumming more precise.  I feel like Herbie and his backing band, The Headhunters, have gelled with this record.  Probably the most accessible album on this list to start with.

2.  Kind of Blue – Miles Davis (Columbia / 1959)

Miles was like only a handful of career artists who constantly evolved and reinvented themselves.  (Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, David Bowie and Elvis Costello also come to mind.)  This record finds Miles and his bandmates embracing modal soloing.  Don’t worry about what that means, just know that it opens up the bebop sound.  He pieced together a stellar band of dudes  who really listened to one another and were, themselves, on the cusp of true greatness.  I know, I know, this is an obvious, big album in Miles’ catalog (and in all of music) but it’s still a great starting point.

3.  House on Hill – Brad Mehldau (Nonsuch / 2006)

The most recent album in the list.  I love Brad Mehldau’s airy style (reminiscent of Keith Jarrett, but I’d say Mehldau is usually more accessible), and I feel this record finds him at his best.  A great album to play as you watch the rain fall.

4.  Red Clay – Freddie Hubbard (CTI / 1970)

The funkiest fusion record you will ever find.  It’s a collision of funk, soul and jazz.  Lenny White’s drumming is so crisp and precise.  Some great playing and comping, too, but I don’t want to get too technical.  Like so many releases on CTI, this seems intended for vinyl.  The drums sounds perfect and warm on wax; the gate-fold artwork is gorgeous.

5.  Off-Limits – The Francy Boland/Kenny Clarke Big Band (Polydor / 1970)

I’m not usually a fan of big band recordings.  (Playing in bands, on the other hand, was pretty fun.)  This is the only big band to make my list, and it’s quite impressive.  The group has two drummers, hard-panned left and right, and the horn lines swoop in and out in a dizzying manner.  It’s hard to keep up with it all, but it’s beautiful.  With everything going on, it’s surprising that the best moments are quiet and autumnal.  Hard to describe, but it’s a must-have.

6.  Moon Germs – Joe Farrell (CTI / 1973)

Farrell is a criminally-overlooked tenor sax player.  In fact, I recommended him to a friend who just graduated with a degree in tenor sax performance, and he had never heard of the guy.  Playing with some of Miles Davis’ late-60s band, this album finds Farrell at his most funky.  It’s worth getting this record for the drum break in “Great Gorge,” alone–it feels like the drummer (DeJohnette) predicts the future of 80s hip-hop with just that one break.

7.  Conversations with Myself – Bill Evans (Verve / 1963)

I think Bill Evans is my favorite pianist.  I won’t gush about his beautifully-voiced chords, but they are beautiful.  Trust me.  Just get this record and be amazed.  It’s a solo piano record without precedent.  Evans accompanies himself, one piano track on the left and another, overdubbed part on the right.  Occasionally, he even adds a third piano down the middle.  Great tunes and an inventive (for the time) delivery.

8.  Search for the New Land – Lee Morgan (Blue Note / 1964)

Much like Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan was a trumpet player whose legacy is often overshadowed by Miles Davis’.  This album is well-balanced between swinging bop and new sounds of the 60s.  I especially love the title track, as it explores that expansive (airy?) vibe that Coltrane and Miles were after, as well. It’s as close to psychedelia as many acoustic jazz musicians got without tape manipulation and overdubbing.

9.  Timeless – John Abercrombie (ECM / 1974)

I really don’t care for many fusion guitarists.  Trading style for wankery, these dudes seem only concerned with impressing the listener (or themselves).  While that can be fun, it usually just gets old.  Throughout his career, Abercrombie occasionally nailed it, delivering cool vibe and melodies.  This is it.  Oh yeah, and check out the crazy breakdown with synth bass and drums (same dude who drummed on the aforementioned Joe Farrell record) nine minutes into “Lungs”.  That sick track, alone, makes most DJ Shadow records obsolete.

10.  Speak Like a Child – Herbie Hancock (Blue Note / 1968)

Before he became a jazz/funk rockstar, Herbie was on the verge of becoming a first-rate jazz composer.  Speak Like a Child and The Prisoner feature fantastic horn arrangements.  This record, in particular, is especially solid and would make for a great film noir soundtrack.  Very few songs make me cry, and “Goodbye to Childhood” has brought me to tears, twice.

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