Tag Archives: top ten

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 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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A Short Interview

And the moral of the story is: remove all your embarassing pictures from the internet before you do an interview with me.

I need to introduce my friend, Chris Short. He’s been a tastemaker for almost fifteen years. (Yeah, that’s right, you’re getting old!!) I coined the term “Chris Short rock,” in fact, to discuss music that he seems to go nutso about the most–big guitar rock with meaty hooks (bands like Guided By Voices, The Replacements and The Bon Mots). In the late 90s, he ran a short-lived, but oh-so-influential zine called Tidal Wave Magazine. He’s written some enthusiastic album reviews and interviewed some of my favorite artists and has run a blog, This Is Not Entertainment, for a while now, chronicling his listening habits. He’s a nerd and has some nuanced system of rating albums that makes it much too easy for him to crank out year-end and decade-end lists.

A few weeks ago, Short started tweeting about how Billboard measures only a niche market. This seems counter-intuitive, right? Didn’t breaking the top 100 used to mean that you’ve sold out? Strangely enough, I agree with him, as it seems much easier than ever for indie rock bands to hit the top twenty. The topic intrigues me, so I asked him a few questions…

What do you do for a living and how long have you been into music?

I am a Manager of Marketing Analytics for a multi-billion dollar retail corporation. I use statistical methods based on vasts amount of data to gain deeper understanding of consumer shopping behavior. I use this data to build models to predict behavior.

I’ve been into music since I first heard KISS –  Destroyer in 1976.

You say that “Billboard charts represent a niche market.” Define a niche market.

A niche market is a subset of a broad consumer market – in the case of the music market, the niche is people who purchase full-length records whether physical (CDs, vinyl) or digitally (MP3s). A niche market represents specific customer behaviors that are unique and differentiated from the mainstream (in my hypothesis, the mainstream buys songs not albums).

Why do you think Billboard only measures that now?

The mainstream consumer of music does not buy albums, they cherry-pick songs from new releases – Apple’s iTunes music store continues to show sales increases, driven by single song sales. Conversely, CD sales (that is, full-length records) are down 54.6% since a peak in 2000. Therefore, those who still buy records (whether physical or digital) are an interesting, unique group of consumers.

Here is an interesting comparison – looking at Eminem’s sales of his “comeback” record Relapse:

  • Relapse was #1 on the Billboard 200 for the first two weeks of its release. The album sold 609K in the first week and 211K copies in week2 (total to 820K).
  • The total for Relapse, however, pales compared to Eminem’s last studio album, Encore, which sold 1,582,000 copies in its first two weeks in November 2004.

Billboard charts are still based on number of units sold, but those units have dropped dramatically. Check out these nuggets:

  • Vampire Weekend’s new record debuted at #1 w/124K units sold that week.
  • American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert’s record sold 225K in its first week of release but debuted at #3.
  • Country singer Luke Bryan debuted at #6 on the Billboard chart with only 57K units sold.
  • Britain’s Got Talent sensation/feel-good-story-of-the-year Susan Boyle sold a whopping 701K in the first week of release.
  • The Black Eyed Peas only sold 304K of their most recent record in first week of release. Their previous record debuted at #2 and sold 291K.
  • Ke$ha opens at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with her debut album, Animal, shifting 152,000 copies…of that figure, an eye-popping 76% was made up of digital downloads

How about indie rock? It’s crazy to see obscure bands going Top 20 – I remember when R.E.M. cracked the Top 20 with Document in 1987 and I thought that was amazing. Here are some numbers from January 2009 (thanks to Pitchfork for this summary):

  • Andrew Bird’s Noble Beast lands at number 12, selling 25,000 copies, according to Nielsen Soundscan.
  • Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion lands right behind at number 13, selling 25,000 copies.
  • And finally, Bon Iver’s Blood Bank EP enters at number 16, selling 23,000.

These sales are paltry!!!

Much to do was made about Kid A cracking the Top 100 in late 2009 – well, it probably sold around 1,000 units from people who read lists summarizing the best records of the 2000s. Not much of a feat!

Has Billboard ever had its finger on the pulse of what most americans buy? If so, what’s changed? And don’t just say the internet…

Most definitely. When CDs were at their peak, people made a point to buy the whole record. In the 1990s there were several major record store chains: Tower Records, Sam Goody, Blockbuster Music, Virgin Megastores….how many are left? None. Still, in those halcyon days, these retail operations were profitable because they were able to move massive amounts of product. The Billboard charts reflected that – if you had a #1 record you sold 500K or more. The Top Ten was comprised of mega-sellers and everyone made money – the labels, the artists, the stores.

What changed? Obviously the advent and proliferation of digital. I really believe it was Napster – where the business model turned the album into something that could be picked apart and cost nothing. The mainstream music consumer didn’t have to shell out $13 or more for two or three “hits” inside a full-length record, s/he could just get those hits via download on the Napster servers. Post-Napster brouhaha, the Apple iTunes store put the nail in the coffin for the album with its single song pricing model.

If Billboard represents that niche, how can the industry see what the majority of people are consuming in 2010?

They can look at single track sales from iTunes Store, amazon.com, and various other digital music services (Napster, eMusic, Zune Marketplace, etc.). Also, concert ticket sales. But again, these aren’t really mainstream America – not many people go to concerts regularly. Just another leading indicator for identifying the nice market.

If record companies are trying to understand how to sell more product/units, then they have to market to this niche market, who’ll I’ll call Full-Length Record Buyers. They need to understand that this group will be intensely loyal, but will never exhibit the collective buying to generate the sales of the 1990s. It’s a new game.

What were the last five bands you listened to?

Deleted Waveform Gatherings, Davalia 666, Hammock, Mogwai and Johnny Foreigner

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