Alvvays

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A little over ten years ago, Logan and I holed up in my college apartment with a Little Caesars Hot-N-Ready pizza and started rifling through my CD collection to figure out what to call our music blog. I don’t remember many details about that night (there was a lot of root beer involved), but I do remember reading lots of lyric sheets before stumbling onto Andrew Bird’s “Plasticities” and together being enamored with the line that eventually gave us our name, “This isn’t our song, this isn’t even a musical / I think life is too long to be a whale in a cubicle.”

Now, over a decade later, things have changed a bit. We wrote pretty regularly for a few years, but eventually graduate school, then careers and families started to consume more and more of our time and attention, leaving less time to tend to this place. At the same time, the shape of the internet was changing dramatically–with the rise of social media and the fall of personal blogs, it made it harder to find and keep a readership without adding more and more content constantly, so when we did write there were fewer and fewer people around to read it. Slowly we just ended up writing less, and the site would sit fallow for most of the year.

That is, until year-end list season. Each November or so Logan and I would exchange multiple calls and emails as we began hashing out what should make up our year-end list. We’d make lists, compare, whittle, compare again, divvy up writing assignments and get to work. The whole process has easily become my very favorite part of writing this blog, and honestly one of my most cherished experiences. I still find so much joy in reflecting on the things I loved each year, and then trying to articulate why I loved them so much.

But it’s still a lot of work, and the last few years have proven particularly difficult as we’ve tried (and failed) to get our lists done before the end of the year (I think it’s pretty safe to say that we’re the only people reviewing last years music in August). It seems silly, but it seems we can’t even get one good post up a year, at least not on time.

So we’ve decided to hang it up, and our tenth year-end list seemed the perfect time to sign off. For all four of you who still check in on this thing, we’ll still keep the domain so you can, you know, re-read your favorite posts or something. 😉

As always, these were our favorite records of the year – the ones we kept returning to, the ones that moved us, changed us, kept us sane. In another ten years, these are the records that will make us think of 2017 the most. We hope you enjoy.

(I want to quick give a special thanks to Logan, who’s been the best partner these past ten years. It’s been such an amazing experience to create something like this with one of my very best friends, someone who’s passion for great music is contagious. Considering I first met Logan sixteen years ago as he was feverishly scribbling down Cat Stevens lyrics on a classroom assignment, it seems fitting that the last entry in our last post is his review of Mr. Stevens’ latest record. Thanks for the fun ride my friend.) -Chris

 

Chris’s Favorite Album of 2017

 

Life Will See You Now

by Jens Lekman

[Secretly Canadian]

In the fall of 2007, I sat in my college apartment looking up NPR podcasts on iTunes for the first time. A friend of mine had suggested I listen to a podcast they produced called All Songs Considered, and although I’m pretty sure I didn’t even know what a podcast was at the time, I downloaded the most recent episode to my 160GB iPod Classic and started listening. That episode happened to be guest DJ’d by an affable Swede named Jens Lekman, who played a few songs from his latest record, including “I’m Leaving You Because I Don’t Love You” and “Your Arms Around Me”–and I was mesmerized. I went out the very next day and bought it on CD. That CD, Night Falls Over Kortedala, has since become one of my very favorite albums of all time.

Fast forward a few years. I’m married and living in Indianapolis and I get wind that Jens is doing a one-week residency in Cincinnati. He’s calling it “Ghostwriting” and he’s inviting people to submit personal stories that he’ll use to write new songs on the spot over the course of the week. I nagged my wife to submit a story, which she finally did hours before the deadline. Jens picked her story (because of course he did), and she got to go spend an afternoon with him to flesh out the story (incidentally, she reports that he is, in fact, just as charming as he comes off in song).  That week in Cincinnati yielded a clutch of charming songs pulled from several strangers’ experiences, including one about Kristin’s misadventure with a therapist and an emotional support animal (neither of which were particularly good at their jobs).

At the end of the week we went to see Jens perform a number of those new songs, along with some old classics. He opened the show with a new song called “To Know Your Mission,” which recounts the story of a teenage Jens running into a pair of Mormon missionaries twenty years earlier (in the summer of 1997) and getting into a conversation. It’s a touching account of trying to find your place in the world and wrestling with what your ultimate calling is, as Jens asks the missionaries “how (does it feel) to know your mission / to know what you’re here for / to know who you’re serving / to know what to do?” I left feeling moved by the whole show, but that song in particular.

Fast forward again to 2017, and that song now opens Jens’s latest record. At the song’s conclusion, Jens comes to an epiphany of sorts–singing “I just want to listen to people’s stories / hear what they have to say / …in a world of mouths / I want to be an ear / if there’s a purpose to all of this / then that’s why God put me here.” What follows are nine stories about nine different individuals–a man who’s 3D-printed a model of a tumor that was removed from his neck, a couple having their first fight, a bride having second thoughts at the end of the world, and Jens himself facing up to some nameless fear. Each story is beautifully told, shot through with humor and empathy and sung over disco beats and obscure samples. In other words, it’s a standard Jens Lekman record. But to me it feels like the culmination of a lot of things, an example of so much that I love about music–it’s generous and optimistic, thoughtful and playful all at once. It also feels appropriate that my very favorite record this year was created by an artist I fell in love with at the same time I started writing this blog ten years ago. -Chris

mp3: Jens Lekman – To Know Your Mission

 

Logan’s Favorite Album of 2017

 

Rocket

by (Sandy) Alex G

[Domino]

I am often wrong. Looking back on my life, it’s largely a series of mistakes and well-intended but ultimately incorrect ideas punctuated by the occasional good decision. Marrying my wife? Good. Praying for new seasons of Arrested Development? Bad.

So it is with all of our previous year-end lists. For every album included on my list that has stood the test of time and which I find myself returning to over and over, there are two albums that are, at best, rarely revisited and at worst, regretfully remembered as having included them in the first place.

One positive of preparing my 2017 list over eight months after 2017 ended (sorry Chris!) is that I have spent more time with these albums than any in the past. I’ve really had time to come to the conclusion that yes, Rocket by (Sandy) Alex G is my most beloved album of 2017.

Eight months later I’m still amazed at what Alex G has created here. He has a folksy feel in his songs but each are twisted at times by other genres like psychedelia, pop, and even screamo/metal and they work beautifully together! It isn’t for everyone but this is one of the most brilliant albums of whatever year you’re reading this. -Logan

mp3:(Sandy) Alex G – Poison Root

 

The rest of the best….

 

 

Antisocialites

by Alvvays

[Polyvinyl]

Right after we moved to Seattle we caught Alvvays opening for Courtney Barnett at the Moore Theatre—at the time they only had their full-length debut to their name, but fully half their set was made up of new songs that all sounded remarkably fully-formed, like a natural extension of everything they were already doing. Those songs, “Dreams Tonite”, “Not My Baby” and “Saved By A Waif”, finally found their way onto this record—and they sound as good on wax as they did onstage. As a whole, Antisocialites is the perfect sequel to their self-titled—a logical extension of that record without repeating it, sharpening the lines and refining the edges, shaping this thing into weapons-grade indie pop. Whereas the highs on their first record towered over the valleys, Antisocialites is consistently gorgeous throughout, offering a record-full of indie pop delights, from the woozy organ that opens “In Undertow” to the widescreen wash-out of closer “Forget About Life.” It’s a perfect little record, and a complete pleasure from start to finish. -Chris

mp3: Alvvays – Not My Baby

 

Guppy

by Charly Bliss

[Barsuk]

I was 13 when Weezer released Pinkerton in 1996. In the wake of that album’s relative critical and commercial failure, Rivers Cuomo retreated, Matt Sharp left for the Rentals, and the band went on indefinite hiatus. It would be five years before Weezer released another record—which is an eternity when you go from seventh to twelfth grade in that same span. I cannot overstate the impact of Weezer’s absence on my adolescent musical self—they became something much more than the power pop band they actually were. They became myths, legends, heroes in exile. I would listen rapt as a friend recounted every detail of seeing them on the Pinkerton tour, I’d spend hours tracking down every B-side I could find on the nascent Napster. I tracked down the Meet The Deedles soundtrack just because it had a one-off song by Homie, a Rivers side project. (Side note: that song is called “American Girls” and it rules.)

And I wasn’t the only one. About this time there were tons of bands springing up in my part of the world trying to capture the magic of those first two Weezer records—bands like Ozma or Teen Heroes or The Promise Ring or anyone on the later Hey Brother compilations. I devoured this stuff, along with anything else I could get my hands on—The Rentals of course, but also That Dog or anyone on the DGC Rarities compilation. I was tirelessly trying to fill the Weezer-shaped hole in my musical heart.

While you certainly didn’t have to experience all that to enjoy Guppy, the insanely good debut album from Charly Bliss, knowing I did might give you a small glimpse into why I adore this record so much. This is the record I was looking for during all those years in the Weezer wilderness—with it’s unrelenting hooks and chiming riffs, with it’s wall-of-crunch rhythm guitar, with it’s songs named after women with no romantic connection (no way “Ruby” and “Julia” aren’t direct nods to “Jamie” and “Suzanne”). Guppy sounds like some lost masterpiece from 1997, something I would have stumbled on in a used CD bin at Warehouse Music and bought on a whim, then played incessantly in my blue Ford Explorer and burned to CD-R for any friend who’d let me with hand-drawn sharpie swirls and a title like THIS RULES. While most of the things in that sentence no longer exist, this album does, and well, IT RULES. -Chris

mp3: Charly Bliss – Black Hole

 

Lotta Sea Lice

by Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile

[Matador]

On paper, these two slacker guitar idols should make pretty awesome music together. In practice, they actually do! Sometimes things just work out! 🙂 -Chris

 

 

 

 

mp3: Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – Over Everything

 

Crack-up

by Fleet Foxes

[Nonesuch]

The first two Fleet Foxes records mean a whole lot to me. They each came along at just the right time for me and became the soundtrack to some pretty crucial times in my life. Now, almost ten years after their debut, their third LP has arrived—but into a very different world; a fractured and uncertain cultural moment, where the significance of an indie-folk record is easily questionable. What’s the purpose of a record like this when there are so many people suffering and afraid? What’s the purpose of art in a time where sacred institutions seem less certain than ever? It seems that Fleet Foxes’ chief songwriter, Robin Pecknold, has grappled with those same questions. With this record he said he wanted to use his “particular set of cultivated talents to make a Use Object, something useful, a balm, something experientially or aesthetically moving, a reprieve.”

Crack-up only sounds tangentially linked to the records that precede it. It’s uniformly gorgeous, but the song structures are loose, if they exist at all. The music exists in movements and themes more than distinct songs with verses or choruses. Motifs rise and fall, harmonies swell then grind to a halt, songs bleed into one another with very little to ground them. It’s difficult to parse, but taken as a whole, it’s not difficult to enjoy. That’s because every recorded sound is so lush, so full, so obviously loved into existence. I’ve listened to this record less like my other indie or folk records, and much more like my classical or jazz records – I’ve just let it play on repeat for long stretches at a time, letting the music just fill the house. In that sense, I’ve found it’s more than met Robin’s hopes- Crack-up has indeed been a reprieve and a balm. A place to retreat to in the best possible way. -Chris

mp3: Fleet Foxes – If You Need To, Keep Time On Me

 

The Far Field

by Future Islands

[4AD]

I’m tempted to discuss lead singer Samuel Herring’s dancing on David Letterman. It would be a fine intro and it was my first exposure to Future Islands, but that was over four years ago and gosh darn it, they deserve to be and are more than some electric moves. The bright pop of their last album, Singles, largely remains and though it’s familiar it’s still as delightful and peppy as it ever was, but the tone of the album is darker, moodier, and almost desperate at times. I’ve been drawn to this dynamic in the past. Music that sweeps you along with its poppy rhythms and a leading man pouring his heart out. At the time of The Far Field’s release, a lot of attention was given to the track “Through the Roses”. Rightly so. It’s a powerful song that delves into loneliness and the all-too-frequent and private terror we feel when we don’t believe we’re strong enough to continue. However, the track ends with a repeated statement that, although scared, “we can pull throughtogether.” The next entry I’m writing is largely concerned with butts and farts (see the Bob’s Burgers soundtrack below), so I thought it was okay to get a little serious and even us out. -Logan

mp3: Future Islands – Through the Roses

 

Everybody Works

by Jay Som

[Polyvinyl]

Melina Duterte’s first official album as Jay Som is a masterclass in name-that-influence indie rock. But she isn’t satisfied just pillaging the established indie-rock canon—instead she pulls from a wide array of influences, expanding the idea of what a bedroom pop record can sound like—pulling gleefully from dream-pop to punk, from lo-fi ambient to straight-up ‘80s throwback jams. It’s especially telling that in interviews Duterte cites everything from Carly Rae Jepsen to Phil Elverum to Yo La Tengo as influences, and Everybody Works could only have been made by such a pop omnivore.

The album’s highlight comes early and emphatically in “The Bus Song,” the single best encapsulation of what’s so special about Duterte—what starts out as a lo-fi exercise in indie rock guitar explodes into twinkling piano, multitracked harmonies and exultant brass figures, stretching into a bonified jam, complete with a fake-out ending and blissed out coda. Elsewhere her ideas shine just as bright but sometimes burn up a little too quickly (both “Lipstick Stains” and “Remain” are gorgeous but don’t stick around long enough to go much of anywhere). This renders the record more like a sketchbook than a finished piece, but that ultimately adds to its charm. Duterte sounds more interested in exploring than actually arriving anywhere specific, and Everybody Works explores some pretty breathtaking places. -Chris

mp3: Jay Som – The Bus Song

 

Harmony of Difference

by Kamasi Washington

[Young Turks]

My knowledge of jazz is neither deep nor broad — I can’t intelligently parse bop from hard bop, and I’m not totally sure what separates free jazz from jazz fusion. But the jazz records I love I really love. Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Davis’s Kind of Blue, Jobim’s Wave, plus a couple minor works from Dave Brubeck and Wes Montgomerythese have all become bulwarks of my musical taste, and I return to them often. Though I haven’t lived with it long, Kamasi Washington’s Harmony of Difference seems to have already joined that small but illustrious group of records. In the short time it’s been in my life I’ve listened to it almost exclusively, letting it wash over me every chance I get. It somehow sounds like everything I needed this year—a missive against the noise and a balm for the bludgeoned soul. Though it’s not overtly political, its track titles (like “Humility,” “Knowledge” and “Integrity”) seem practically insurgent in today’s political climate—this reaches its climax in the final song, the 13-minute odyssey “Truth,” wherein Washington returns to the themes and motifs from earlier songs, this time joined by angelic choirs to drive home the messages contained in the melodies. Like I said earlier, I’m not nearly qualified to detail what makes a jazz record great, but like those other records I mentioned, I can tell this is one I’ll live inside for some time. -Chris

mp3: Kamasi Washington – Knowledge

 

Wonderful Wonderful

by The Killers

[Island]

Brandon Flowers is, in my opinion, the greatest living rock vocalist (if Freddie Mercury were still alive, Flowers would be the second-greatest living rock vocalist). I came to this conclusion in a conversation I had over 5 years ago with a friend who was trying to ‘frankenstein’ the world’s most perfect band. Flowers on vocal, Prince on guitar, etc. It was an interesting thought experiment and made a 3-hour road trip disappear but ultimately, a supergroup composed of Flowers, Prince, Dave Grohl, and Vinnie Paul would sound TERRIBLE.

But Wonderful Wonderful is far from terrible and having Flowers back at the helm of The Killers is fantastic. I’ve always been able to count on The Killers to provide intimate arena rock music. Big sounds, catchy hooks, and deeply personal and oftentimes sad music. This is best exemplified in the lead single, ‘The Man’. Flowers struts and swaggers through this bombastic song with obvious self-consciousness and such insecurity that it’s humorous and unbelievably enjoyable. We still have moments to see the mature and overtly introspective Flowers beautifully bear his feelings in songs like “Rut” and “Some Kind of Love” but the greatness of this album comes during the swelling choruses of hits like “Tyson Vs. Douglas” and “Run for Cover”.

With all that said, how much better would this album have been with Tom Morello on guitar and Max Weinberg on drums? (A: Not better. Probably terrible.) -Logan

mp3: The Killers – The Man

 

American Dream

by LCD Soundsystem

[Columbia/DFA]

As far as I’m concerned, “Call The Police” single-handedly justifies the resurrection of LCD Soundsystem. If it were the only good song on American Dream—LCD’s first record since their supposed-swan-song seven years ago—I’d be disappointed, but I’d still be grateful. It’s just incredible—taking all of James Murphy’s swing-for-the-fences moves and channeling them through Another Green World-era Eno and using that to light a fuse that takes a full seven minutes to combust. When I finally saw them last summer they played it alongside classics like “Someone Great” and “Dance Yrself Clean” and it absolutely sounded like it belonged in that rarefied air. But “Call The Police” is not the only good song on American Dream, not by any stretch of the imagination. It’s co-single “American Dream” is just as stunning, if a touch less grand; “Tonite” is the best pop single to ever dissect what it means to be a pop single; “Emotional Haircut” is the best song title of the year (and also a great track), and “Oh Baby” is, almost certainly, one of the absolute best songs Murphy has ever put to tape. Maybe even better than “Call The Police.” Maybe. -Chris

mp3: LCD Soundsystem – Call The Police

 

Melodrama

by Lorde

[Republic/Lava]

If you want to get me feeling melodramatic, have my wife and kids leave for a week while I stay home to work. This is what usually happens: Day 1 is fun, I spend way too many hours in record stores, get Chinese take-out, order too much, watch some music documentary that my wife probably wouldn’t be interested in, and fall asleep on the couch in my jeans. This seems fun until like Day 4 when I’m still eating that same Chinese take-out, but now I’m re-watching The Wonder Years on Netflix, choking up at every grown-up Kevin platitude and trying not to lose it before the week is out.

This year, Lorde happened to release her sophomore record, Melodrama, on the very same week my wife happened to be out of town, and boy did this thing mess me up. I bought it primarily on the promise of “Green Light” (which is basically perfect), but songs like “The Louvre” and “Hard Feelings/Loveless” and “Writer In The Dark” absolutely floored me with their beautiful idiosyncrasy, both musically and lyrically. Nobody’s making pop music like this right now, and although most of these songs will probably never be hits, they strike that perfect alchemy in pop music, sounding both melancholy and exultant at the same time, making every moment feel so much bigger than it actually is. It’s, well, a bit melodramatic. Which is exactly what I need sometimes. -Chris

mp3: Lorde – The Louvre

 

Goths

by The Mountain Goats

[Merge]

John Darnielle’s gifts as a lyricist are profound and profoundly needed. His ability to empathize with the sidelined and the forgotten, to give eloquent voice to those usually ignored in particular, is more needed than ever. In the past his narrators have ranged from young heroin addicts to doomed pop stars, from professional wrestlers to the poor guy in Super Mario who waits in a dungeon just to relay that he’s not the princess the hero is looking for. Darnielle not only treats these characters with compassion and respect, but draws us so fully into their world that their tragedies become our own, compelling and painfully relatable.

This time around Darnielle’s unlikely muse is the Southern California goth scene in the 80s. He uses its brief cultural moment and those who participated in it to poignantly explore themes of mortality and the passage of time, of coming to terms with loss—not just of people and things, but of identity and place. Ultimately it’s a record about being a part of something—a music scene, sure, but just as easily a community, a class, a family—and coming to terms when that something ends. People grow up, move on, die. Neighborhoods morph and change, buildings get torn down, miles separate you and those you were once closest to. Things that once seemed immutable eventually fade away and the world keeps spinning. Take this short bit from “Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back To Leeds:”

“There’s a rusted fog machine

In a concrete storage space,

Letter-number combinations

With no meaning on its face,

They won’t make these anymore

It’s a wooden coach-n-four,

No-one will even steal it

If you leave it by the door,

No sign to mark it’s going

No tombstone for its grave,

There will be goodbyes by dozens

So practice being brave,

No-one anticipates the rush

The breezy feeling of the faceless crush,

At the end of things, where the salvage bleeds,

Andrew Eldritch is moving back to Leeds.”

Like most of the best art, Goths is simply about being mortal—it’s just wrapped up in studs and eyeliner and platform shoes. We all hope we’re part of something special, but like Darnielle sings over a beautiful brass section on the last song, “however big that chorused bass may throb, you and me and all of us are gonna have to find a job.” -Chris

mp3: Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds

 

Sleep Well Beast

by The National

[4AD]

If you follow any members of the National on Instagram, you’ve likely witnessed the building of Aaron Dessner’s new studio in upstate New York—a pretty and understated little structure overlooking a wooded pond. The building is fairly classic and looks a bit rustic in the pastoral context, but there are some little details like its asymmetric window that give it a more angular, modern feel. It reminds me a bit of the music that was recorded within its walls, the songs that eventually found their way onto Sleep Well Beast (and not just because the studio came to grace the records cover). In general, these songs sound fairly natural and intuitive, like they’ve always existed, but each has some subtle details that set it apart from anything else in the National’s catalog. A great example is “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness” which sounds just like a classic National anthem while at the same time sounding nothing like any National song before it (it even has a bonafide guitar solo!). My personal favorite is “I’ll Still Destroy You”—a glitchy slow burn that winds between Berninger’s evocative non-sequiturs and these euphoric melodic lifts before descending into noisy mayhem for the last minute or so. It’s a mess but it’s completely perfect, and it’s got my favorite line on the whole album (“I’m just trying to stay in touch with anything I’m still in touch with”). In some other iteration these songs would have slotted nicely onto other National records… but just the way they are, they could only ever belong right here. -Chris

mp3: The National – I’ll Still Destroy You

 

Moonshine Freeze

by This Is The Kit

[Rough Trade]

Bashed Out was my favorite record of 2015 by a good margin — so I had high expectations for Kate Stables’ next go-round as This Is The Kit. I’m happy to say that Moonshine Freeze  is at least on par with that amazing record, and in some ways surpasses it.

For one, the music is more buoyant. For example, on the Aaron Dessner-produced Bashed Out there were plenty of horns, but it was primarily used for texture and shading (much like Dessner’s full-time band)—here the brass takes a more central role, sometimes calling back and forth with Stables’ purr of a voice, other times stealing the show entirely (as in “Hotter Colder” or “Two Pence Piece”). And let’s talk about the rhythms on here—Stables’ music has always been deceptively rhythmic (she has more in common with krautrock than straight-up folk music in my opinion), but the stuff here is entirely different—some of these songs, like “Moonshine Freeze”, legitimately swing, and it’s a treat to hear her cut loose like that.

In other places, the instrumentation might have fit on any of Stables’ earlier releases, but her lyricism has never been sharper—as on opener “Bullet Proof” or “Easy On The Thieves”. I had the privilege of seeing her perform twice this year, and both times the thing that struck me most (aside from how tight her band sounds), was how perfectly written these new songs are. Each one is a gem, and I’m grateful she blessed us with 11 new ones this year. -Chris

mp3: This Is The Kit – Bullet Proof

 

The Bob’s Burgers Music Album

by Various Artists

[Sub Pop]

If you don’t smile just a little bit at butt jokes, you probably won’t find much to love about Bob’s Burgers.

Now approaching its eighth season (eighth!), Bob’s Burgers is still just as quick and hilarious as it was when its first episode premiered, but it really wasn’t until this album was released that I realized how perfectly the showrunners incorporated music into Bob’s Burgers. Other television shows have included original songs with varying degrees of success; however, no television show has so frequently and reliably created songs that only ever add to the humor and heart of the show. The tracks that will get the most attention are those sung by the Belchers and the other members of Bob’s Burgers weird and wonderful cast of characters. Linda’s Thanksgiving carols, Gene’s ode to farts, the fictional boy band Boyz 4 Now, and of course the transcendent “Electric Love”. But the songs that serve as an accompaniment to the myriad of antics we find the characters getting up to are perfectly implemented. “Lifting Up the Skirt of the Night” and “Groping for Glory”, can almost be missed since they’re played during montages but they compliment the scene and take funny situations to another level. Other artists have discovered the brilliance of Bob’s Burgers and lent their talents to the show and this album through some covers (The National, St. Vincent, Cyndi Lauper are just a few).

I’ve always held the position that in order to create a great parody song, you’ve got to thoroughly understand the genre your parodying and the writers of Bob’s Burgers have nailed it every time. -Logan

mp3: Bob’s Burgers – Electric Love

 

A Deeper Understanding

by The War On Drugs

[Atlantic]

If you read only one thing about this album, don’t waste your time here. Go read Michael Nelson’s review on Stereogum. Trust me. It’s great.

Alright, did you read it? And you’re back here? For more? That’s crazy, because that thing was a Master’s thesis or something (but with more YouTube links)…. so I’ll just keep this short. I’d never really gotten into TWOD’s 2014 hit Lost In The Dream–every time I’d listen to it I’d think “wow, I don’t remember this being so good,” but afterward I’d barely be able to recall what impressed me so much. I considered this a weakness and ended up not returning to it often. But something in Nelson’s review flipped a switch for me. It was this: “These songs (are) like recurring dreams. I know what’s going to happen, and yet (even after listening about 4,000 times in the last three years) I have no idea what’s going to happen. Every time, they sound new.” That same ambient ambiguity that had turned me off was what imbued these songs with durability for Nelson. I’ve since returned to Lost In The Dream and had a totally different experience. That record might be a masterpiece. And A Deeper Understanding definitely is.

It’s evident right in the opener, “Up All Night,” when it takes a Hornsby-ish piano line and somehow spins it into a fuzzed-out krautrock jam. It’s evident on the second track, “Pain,” when the guitar solo that closes it out stacks up over and over and over like a ridiculous jenga game that should topple but somehow never does, until it circles back to the main lick, now oozing with some kind of chorus effect and sending shivers down my spine every time. It’s evident on “Strangest Thing” when every last element of that song builds so inevitably to the its climax at 4:28 that when it finally hits it feels like the entire world just clicked into place. It’s evident in the alternating bass and glockenspiel arpeggios that wind their way beneath the chorus of “Clean Living,” like the beating heart under its beautiful melody (fwiw: the bass playing on this record is uniformly excellent, which certainly warms this latent bass player’s heart). Basically every second of recorded music on A Deeper Understanding is evidence of some kind of genius. So don’t make the same mistake I did. Don’t write it off. -Chris

mp3: The War On Drugs – Pain

 

The Laughing Apple

by Yusuf/Cat Stevens

[Cat-O-Log Records/Decca]

Cat Stevens fans, as you may already know, are a passionate and belligerent group, so I’m about to ruffle some feathers when I make the bold proclamation that The Laughing Apple is the greatest Yusuf/Cat Stevens album since Teaser and Firecat was released in 1971.

Now, as my fellow Yusuf-ians are sharpening their pitchforks, let me defend myself. Many fans will recognize that about half of the tracks on this album are actually some of Cat’s earliest work. Back when, for every two songs about love, loneliness, and isolation, he wrote a song about an archaeologist digging up moonstones or anthropomorphic smiling fruit. I understand the exclusion of those tracks back then (they range from the simple to the silly) but now, on an album written by a grandfather, they make perfect bedtime lullabies to be sung to a beloved little one. There are plenty of musicians and rock stars that become grandfathers but few embody that mantle quite like Yusuf, and it’s the heart and soul of this album. His devotion to that sacred role is evident throughout The Laughing Apple.

There are warnings, there is advice, but weaved throughout every song is love, which is the most grandfatherly thing ever. Cat Stevens has lived the life of a rock star but we find him at his happiest as a grandfather (and c’mon, the man is still a rock star). -Logan

mp3: Yusuf / Cat Stevens – Mary and the Little Lamb

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WiAC 2014 Songs HeaderWell we weren’t planning on doing a favorite songs post for 2014, but then Logan sent me an email with his favorite songs and some brief write-ups, then I couldn’t help doing the same, and before we knew it, we had a list that we both agreed should probably be shared. But we didn’t want to do too much more work, so we present to you our favorite 30-ish songs from 2014, un-ranked and accompanied by our first-draft non-proof-read write-ups!

Logan’s list is on top, Chris’s is on bottom, and both are in alphabetical order. Click on and enjoy!

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WiAC 2014 Header 2Well here we are again at the end of another year – a little older, a little wiser, a little worse at blogging. You see, 2014’s been a busy year for us here at Whale in a Cubicle – Chris became a dad, Logan became a fiancee, we both became 31-year-olds (I think that means we’re officially in our thirties now), and maybe most exciting of all, whaleinacubicle.com became whaleinacubicle.net. Due to some silly internet stuff we had to change our URL rather unceremoniously (our apologies to anyone who’s stumbled onto the virus-laden old site) but we’re back online and aside from losing all our past external links, you’ll find that little else has changed – all the old posts are still here, and we’re hoping to add some more soon.

Aside from our lackluster posting and poor website-maintaining, we’re still listening to lots of great music, and we still love making this list each year. It’s come to be a sacred tradition around here – the November emails back and forth, the playlists and hand-written countdowns as we take inventory of what moved us over the last twelve months, then the whittling down and trying to articulate why this or that has meant so much to us. At this point, these lists are kind of a musical journal for the two of us – and even if it’s just a couple of you faithful few who end up reading it, it’s still been tremendously valuable for us to make it. We hope you (whoever you are) find something valuable in here too.

 

Sun_Kil_Moon_-_Benji_139282130419. Benji

by Sun Kil Moon

[Caldo Verde]


Last year I fell deeply in love with the song “Ceiling Gazing” on Mark Kozolek’s collaborative album with Jimmy LaValle, Perils From The Sea. It’s stream-of-consciousness ruminations on family and the passing of time struck a chord with me, and I listened to it incessantly (along with the rest of that record). This year Kozolek released Benji, his sixth album under the Sun Kil Moon moniker, and it takes all the things that enchanted me about “Ceiling Gazing” and blows them out to album length proportions, creating something truly staggering in the process. Delivered almost entirely in a sort of rambling sing-speak over spare elegiac guitar, with little regard for things like rhyme schemes or time signatures, Kozolek weaves together various true stories of family and friends in rural Ohio as they face untimely deaths, bizarre accidents, and the steady march of time, cut intermittently with bits of dry humor and frank kindness. Kozelek’s been covering subjects like these for decades now, but what’s so striking about Benji is how candid he is about these stories and his place in them – the cliché is tired, but these songs really do feel like pages plucked from a diary. The results range from some of the most touching songs of his career (see “I Love My Dad” or “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love”), to some of the most harrowed and searching (especially “Carissa” or “I Watched The Song Remains The Same”), to even the most crass and disturbing (I actually deleted track four from my iTunes account) – but all of them feel honest and lived-in, un-guarded and completely without pretense. I first listened to Benji in the spring as I drove alone from Louisville through the hills of southern Ohio to meet my family in Columbus for the blessing of my new baby niece, the first of three babies to join our family this year. The combination of the provincial landscape as it rolled by and the rather sentimental nature of my trip only heightened this record’s already considerable powers, and I ended up listening to it two or three times through – scrunching up my face more than a few times to ward off tears, especially after lines like “Everyone’s grieving out of their minds making arrangements and taking drugs / I’m flying out there tomorrow because I need to give and get some hugs.” It was one of those beautiful and singular listening experiences where the music reached deep down and touched something elemental inside me – a musical communion I guess you could say. So why then is Benji so very far down this list? Well, to be honest, I haven’t returned to it much after that trip, mostly for the same reasons that it touched me so deeply – it’s weight and darkness, and the candor with which it addresses that weight and darkness. Actually, in almost every respect Benji is the exact antithesis to the record you’ll find at the top of this list – and that’s very telling. In a year that has been in many ways a beautiful and wonderous one for Logan and I, maybe Benji isn’t what we needed quite as often as some others on this list. But not every year is like that, and it’s comforting to know that whenever I might need it, a record like Benji exists. -Chris

mp3: Sun Kil Moon – Carissa

 

Lily and Madeleine18. Fumes

by Lily & Madeleine

[Asthmatic Kitty]

My wife Kristin, who is an exceptionally gifted writer, sometimes talks about how when she was seven or eight years old, she not only knew she could write, but she knew that if she could just get some of her writing out there while she was very young she would benefit significantly from the sheer novelty of being, well, very young. (See: that little kid who wrote “How To Talk To Girls” when he was, like, nine.) Sadly, Kristin never published anything as a third-grader, so we’ll never know what ridiculous heights of fame and fortune she might have achieved. But when we laugh about it, I’m reminded of all the burnt out child stars of music and film, and think “who on earth would want to peak so early?” It’s a double-edged sword to be young and gifted artistically – what at first appears to be a boon can easily become a crutch, especially if the product is really only interesting because the artist is so young (I’m looking at you, “How To Talk To Girls” kid). That’s always been a risk for Lily & Madeleine, the sister-duo from Indianapolis, who’s first EP was released when they were only 15 and 18 respectively. Many write-ups for their self-titled debut last year offered some variation on the theme of “Very Young Sisters Make Record”, and why wouldn’t they? That’s the natural introduction point. With the release of Fumes, their sophomore album, not enough time has passed to tell if Lily & Madeleine’s ages will prove boon or crutch, but my money’s on neither. The sisters’ real selling point has nothing to do with their age, and everything to do with their breath-taking voices. Their harmonies are absolutely celestial, and I’ll bet you’d think that whether or not you knew they weren’t of legal drinking age. Until now most of their songs have ornamented those voices with very little, letting Lily’s earthy alto and Madeleine’s crystalline soprano do all the heavy lifting; but on Fumes, they introduce more lush instrumentation, bouncing the sisters’ voices off of vibraphones, mellotrons, banjos, cellos, and all sorts of other things – proving their harmonies can play well with others. (Speaking of playing well with others, we actually saw Lily & Madeleine back up a local rapper on a cover of Kanye West’s “All of the Lights”, accompanied by the INDIANAPOLIS SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA. I was really hoping to hear Lily throw down that Fergie verse about unemployment lines and credit cards declining; alas, it wasn’t to be.) The songs as a whole on Fumes are their strongest yet, especially the smoky “The Wolf Is Free” or the movie-montage-ready “Rabbit” – evidence that, even with gems like “Back To The River” in their past, these girls are still on an upward trajectory. And that’s great, because while they may be getting older, I doubt their best work is behind them. -Chris

mp3: Lily & Madeleine – Rabbit

 

Ryan Adams17. Ryan Adams

by Ryan Adams

[Pax Americana]

Well he did it. Not only did Ryan Adams release a good record in 2014, he released a great one, one that might be his best in almost a decade. Like most long-time Adams fans, over the years I’d started to get used to diminishing returns, to digging through a ton of half-baked material to find the gems of virtuosic songwriting that were always there if you looked. But in the back of my mind I kept hoping he had another Heartbreaker or Love Is Hell or Cold Roses in him, even if it seemed unlikely. Then lo and behold, along comes this record – one that’s not only packed with great songs, but one that sustains a consistent mood and quality for its entire 42-minute running time. Sonically it’s unlike anything in Adam’s oeuvre, drawing more from the shimmery mid-‘80s soft-rock of Petty and that other Adams than any of the more countrified touchstones he made his name on – and the change couldn’t possibly suit him better. Songs like “Gimme Something Good”, “Feels Like Fire”, and “Tired Of Giving Up” are exquisite examples of Adams bending this new sound to his will – if they’d been recorded 30 years ago I guarantee they’d be radio mainstays to this day. And “My Wrecking Ball”? That just might be one of Adams’s best songs to date. Recorded in his new Los Angeles recording studio-slash-personal music/movie/pinball-nerd haven, this record, along with his recent slew of 7” releases, may mark the beginning of a Ryan Adams renaissance, one that isn’t marred with record label expectations or critical takedowns, but instead presents the artist following his muse wherever it takes him. And that is an exciting prospect in 2014. -Chris

mp3: Ryan Adams – Tired Of Giving Up

 

Nils Frahm16. Spaces

by Nils Frahm

[Erased Tapes]

Ok, I’m cheating a little bit here, because this album was technically released at the end of 2013. But since its US physical release wasn’t until early this year I’m going to go ahead and count it, because few albums have seeped so much into my everyday life as deeply as Spaces has this year. Nils Frahm, the German pianist and composer, has long been known for his largely improvised and thoroughly cathartic live performances, but seldom has the energy of those shows been adequately committed to tape. Spaces rectifies that. Unlike a traditional live album, the record culls its 11 tracks from over a years worth of performances, showcasing the breadth of Frahm’s styles as he not only bends and stretches his various instruments, but does the same thing to the (ahem) spaces in which he’s performing. The most obvious case of this is “Improvisation for Coughs and a Cell Phone”, but examples are littered throughout the record, from the way he lets the synth arpeggios in “Says” bounce around the space before folding back onto each other, or how he plays the hushed silence as much as the piano in “Over There, Its Raining”. Spaces is an exciting document of a remarkable performer at work, but perhaps more importantly, it’s just a beautiful collection of music that has been soundtracking much of my life this year. -Chris

mp3: Nils Frahm – Over There, It’s Raining

 

James Vincent Mcmorrow15. Post Tropical

by James Vincent McMorrow

[Believe/Vagrant]

Each one of my favorite albums fits a niche in my life. Each one has a role. As a mindless 9-to-5 office drone (I make my own hours, so actually I’m an 8-to-4 drone) I’m finding that “work day” music is too general. The variety of roles for music to fill during the workday is nearly as expansive as the art itself. Responding to your morning emails, pouring over spreadsheets, waiting to be connected to a conference call, and the daily internal struggle of being a cog in a machine all have their own musical genre (aggressive hip-hop, early 90’s pop, Swedish bands, and Rage Against the Machine respectively). However, with all of that said, there was one album that could serve in all of those capacities: James Vincent McMorrow’s Post Tropical might not be perfect and it might not precisely fit the ideal… but it was always a welcomed sound during my day-to-day drudgery. So although it languishes here, near the bottom of our favorites list, it was one of my most listened to albums. And when James sings “…and there’s no sense at all” in “Glacier” I will always get the chills. –Logan

mp3: James Vincent McMorrow – Glacier

 

Alvvays14. Alvvays

by Alvvays

[Polyvinyl]

Listen to this unlikely string of events (for 2014 anyway): I first heard Alvvays on the radio (NPR, but still), then when I happened to be in a real-life brick-and-mortar record store, I stumbled on to a used vinyl copy for cheap, so I picked it up on a whim. From there, this sunburst of gauzy indie-pop just stole my heart. The whole thing is kind of like the plot to a ‘90s romantic comedy: boy catches glimpse of girl/is intrigued, boy inexplicably and serendipitously runs into girl at unlikely, but objectively hip and tragically anachronistic locale, then cut to montage of couple laughing/dancing in city parks/coffee shops/ice-skating rinks as boy + girl inevitably fall for each other. That’s where the similarities end though, I’m afraid, because I don’t know if Alvvays has a sassy black best friend, and as far as I know I’m not involved in any evil re-gentrification project that Alvvays is opposed to, and which Alvvays will convince me to abandon after a brief third-act estrangement. But otherwise I think my analogy works remarkably well. Anyway, you should listen to Alvvays, because this album is fantastic. -Chris

mp3: Alvvays – Archie, Marry Me

 

Restorations13. LP3

by Restorations

[SideOneDummy]

My youth is inextricable from punk rock. Attending junior high and high-school in Southern California in the late ’90s and early ’00s, I was completely immersed in the area’s fading ska-punk and nascent punk-pop scenes – I collected every compilation put out by Epitaph, Fat Wreck Chords, Hopeless and Vagrant, and I knew their line-ups like other kids knew first-round draft picks. As soon as I could drive I’d head up to Anaheim to catch my favorite local bands at Chain Reaction, or out to Hollywood or Pomona to see Ten Foot Pole or Millencolin on tour. This was my youth. This was how I learned to love and interact with music. But the problem with punk rock, and especially that particular strain of pop-punk, is that it tends not to grow much with the listener – at least it didn’t for me. Something about NOFX’s potty humor and Bad Religion’s angsty indignation seemed to hold much less cache the further away I got from sixteen. But the sounds of those records are still incredibly evocative for me, and every now and then I try to find a punk rock album that resonates in my adult life the way those did in my youth. Restorations’ LP3 did just that for me this year. It’s bright and loud and insistent, but not juvenile. It doesn’t care at all about what’s cool, but it’s not naive. Its songs are at times celebratory and at others anxious and insecure, as frontman Jon Louden lyrically navigates things like vocational anxiety on “Tiny Prayers” or coming to terms with how friendships change as you ease into middle-age in “All My Home”. Sonically, LP3’s closest touchstones are The Hold Steady, another punk(ish) band for grown-ups, and Samiam (one of the few punk-rock holdovers from my adolescence) – and with its chugging mid-tones, Louden’s gravelly growl, and an abundance of sky-scraping guitar solos, this was one of my favorite windows-down records of the year – which is saying a lot for a record that came out in chilly late October. Punk rock may be for the young, but Restorations prove that it may have a little longer shelf life than I originally thought. -Chris

mp3: Restorations – All My Home

 

Beck12. Morning Phase

by Beck

[Capitol]

What can I say about this album? What can I say about Beck at all that hasn’t already been said? The man has transcended most useful signifiers to become more an institution than a musician, and at this point you’re either in or you’re out. Most people have their favorite iteration of Beck’s work, and this one basically scans as “for those who liked Sea Change” (which I do), but that doesn’t really do it justice. Unlike that album, Morning Phase exudes a deep sense of peace and contentedness, of everything being in its right place, the sounds of a cozy Sunday morning. Since I spent most of the year preparing to become a new father, this record came along at just the right time for me – I found myself returning to it more and more often the closer I got to meeting our new little guy. And now that he’s here, it’s tough to think of a better soundtrack for lazing around with a new baby. Also, this album has “Blue Moon” on it, which might actually be one of the most perfect songs written in the last ten years. -Chris

mp3: Beck – Blue Moon

 

Rural Alberta Advantage11. Mended With Gold

by The Rural Alberta Advantage

[Paper Bag/Saddlecreek]

I think we all saw this one coming. Those drums are inescapable. They draw you in (this won’t be the last time I bring up drumming… apparently I am becoming a real ‘drum head’). I had a chance to see RAA this year and was standing right by their drummer, Paul Banwatt, and was blown away that one man with such a simple kit could produce that much sound. On tracks like “The Build” and “Terrified” you can get completely lost in the drumming, and Banwatt drives those songs. I don’t mean to take anything away from or in any way insinuate that the other two members, Nils Edenloff and Amy Cole, are disposable or simply an afterthought. The quieter moments of Mended with Gold like “To Be Scared”, when Nils and Amy shine, are haunting and beautiful. Also, if you want to really read into this album and go that extra step into full obsession, I feel that this Wikipedia article on Kintsugi is required reading. -Logan

mp3: The Rural Alberta Advantage – Terrified

 

Sylvan Esso10. Sylvan Esso

by Sylvan Esso

[Partisan]

Sylvan Esso is an electro-pop duo made up of Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn – both musicians who gained some success in folk/roots music groups (Meath in Mountain Man, Sanborn in Megafaun). So the idea of these two getting together and making a vocal-heavy electronic indie-pop record might not sound too promising on paper, but trust me, it sounds pretty dang promising on record. Because this is one of the most consistently entertaining albums I’ve heard all year. Sanborn’s beats and sonic textures are a perfect bed for Meath’s coy alto. There’s nothing particularly flashy or groundbreaking here, but the songs are consistently fetching, and the two never seem to take themselves too seriously. The record opens with “Hey Mami”, an absolutely perfect bait-and-switch for those who might be familiar with these two’s folky day jobs – what starts as a fairly straight-forward vocal and acoustic performance quickly turns into a glitchy take-down of urban catcallers months before it was cool. Highlights abound after that, but the album’s third act is particularly strong, starting with the smoldering third single, “Coffee” then the delightfully understated “Uncatana” and culminating with “Play It Right” a jittery stop-and-start that makes the perfect 2am come-down anthem. The whole thing is remarkably even for a debut album, especially one that’s so far out of left field. -Chris

mp3: Sylvan Esso – Coffee

 

Lykke Li9. I Never Learn

by Lykke Li

[LL Recordings/Atlantic]

Back in 2008 when Lykke Li’s “Little Bit” and “Dance, Dance, Dance” were waging a relentless campaign to appear on every playlist I made all year, it was clear that this was a songwriter who not only had a beautiful voice, but who had the uncanny ability to find that elusive sweet spot in pop songs – the spot where heartbreak and elation somehow coexist, where you get a lump in your throat and a shiver down your spine. In those earlier iterations, Li’s songs came packaged in the trappings of mid-aughts indie-pop, better suited for swaying in your bedroom with earbuds than swaying in a stadium with a lighter, and for awhile that understatement suited them fine. But on this years I Never Learn, Li trades in indie’s limiting self-awareness for a straight-up swing-for-the-fences take-no-prisoners bid for world domination, and she has never sounded better. The product of the Swedish singer’s recent break-up and subsequent move to Los Angeles, she’s described the songs on I Never Learn as “power ballads for the broken”, and I couldn’t think of a better description for them. She dissects and flays every bit of a dissolving relationship’s viscera, sparing herself no culpability in the process (“I let my good one down / I let my true love die / I had his heart but I broke it every time”), all the while building them into these monumental pop songs with huge redemptive choruses that demand to be sung at the top of your lungs. It’s the heartbreak and the healing all at once, just like all the best pop always is. -Chris

mp3: Lykke Li – Never Gonna Love Again

 

Liam Betson8. The Cover of Hunter

by Liam Betson

[Double Double Whammy]

The Cover of Hunter feels out of place for me this year. A lot of “sad” albums have made appearances in years past. Many of those were quite high on our year-end lists and remain some of the best albums I have ever heard (most notably, The Antlers… man, Hospice is still so amazing). However, it’s been a dang good year here in the offices of WiAC. Joy, happiness, and all of that lovey dovey stuff. So Cover of Hunter, an inescapably sad album that sings unabashedly and often brutally about depression, is an odd fit for my general mood in 2014. Brilliance is brilliance though, and super positive Logan can still appreciate the beauty of what Liam Betson created. -Logan

mp3: Liam Betson – Made from Tin

 

Gem Club7. In Roses

by Gem Club

[Hardly Art]

In Roses came out in the dead of last winter – right when the Polar Vortex was ripping through the Midwest and I was home alone for almost a week, snowed in, work canceled, my wife stuck on the west coast. It was a strange and lonesome week – one spiked with beautiful snowy visions of the silent city and days spent alone inside watching weather reports as they cycled back every 15 minutes – long stretches of not seeing anyone at all. In Roses recalls the feelings of that week more than anything else I’ve listened to all year – it’s an album to get lost in, to get enveloped by. Every piece of every song adds to the melancholic beauty of the whole thing – the crystalline piano figures, the light-handed electronic flourishes, Christopher Barnes’s delicate falsetto. In fact, this album is so suffused with a single mood for me, that it’s the only album on this list that I honestly don’t know a single lyric from – In Roses sounds to me like a world to get lost in, not a collection of songs created by an actual human being. I imagine many people who’ve fallen for this album feel the same way; I also imagine they’re planning on spending many more wintry days wrapped up in its insular world. I do anyway. -Chris

mp3: Gem Club – Hypericum

 

King Creosote6. From Scotland With Love

by King Creosote

[Domino]

By now my affection for Kenny Anderson (AKA King Creosote) is fairly well documented. For a man as prolific as he is, the fact that he can do no wrong in my book is, frankly, astounding. But as much as I love most of what he produces, I still find myself returning most often to his work with Jon Hopkins (2011’s Diamond Mine and the couple EPs that followed) – something about the limited scope of that collaboration seemed to concentrate and focus my favorite aspects of KC’s work – his doleful lilting tenor, his specific-unspecific lyrical vignettes, the way he takes a single melodic idea or phrase and slowly churns it over and over until it froths and spills over with emotional resonance. Well it seems that soundtracking the film From Scotland With Love, an archival-footage documentary commissioned as part of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, had a similar focusing effect on Anderson’s work, because these are some of the finest, most consistently moving songs he’s produced since Diamond Mine. Instead of just soundtracking an already finished film, Anderson worked collaboratively with director Virginia Heath to portray the joys and struggles of past Scottish working-class men and women, taking their shared stories and mashing them together with his own experience to create something evocative and timeless. One of the most moving examples of this is “Miserable Strangers”, an account of young immigrants and their fear of leaving home and family that culminates in the refrain “at the back of my mind / I was always hoping that I might just get by”, a sentiment KC re-appropriated from one of his own past songs “678”. He pulls a similar trick on “Pauper’s Dough”, taking what was once an inward-facing call-to-arms and turning it into a de facto protest song with the clenched fist/teary-eyed closing refrain, “you’ve got to rise / out of the gutter you are inside”. In between there are ditties based on playground rhymes, beautifully-rendered pastoral instrumental asides, and plenty of lyrical and musical idioms of both Scottish and Anderson-ish provenance. If you check it out, be sure to spring for the 2-disc edition that includes re-recordings of two of my all-time favorite King Creosote songs: “My Favourite Girl” and a full version of “678”. -Chris

mp3: King Creosote – Miserable Strangers

 

Cloud Nothings5. Here and Nowhere Else

by Cloud Nothings

[Carpark/Mom + Pop]

Ages ago I posted a link to Cloud Nothing’s “I’m Not Part of Me” on facebook. That song is simply amazing. However, my brother Ty disagreed, “I listened to that link you put on facebook for that band yer into. What happened to your good taste? My theory is it’s that girl you’re dating has made you like them. Trust me, I know the lengths you’ll go for that sweet poon 😉” Partial credit Ty. I actually got the girl I was dating then (and am engaged to now) into Cloud Nothings. However, I’ll admit that Here and Nowhere Else appears on this list because of that cute little blonde girl. My tastes were already listing heavily towards the lo-fi, punk-ish rock that Cloud Nothings so perfectly create, and it only took a slight nudge from the right source to tip me into that world. But seriously, those drums. Listen to those drums! -Logan

mp3: Cloud Nothings – I’m Not Part of Me

 

Atlas_12Gatefold4. Atlas

by Real Estate

[Domino]

We’ve all experienced music’s amazing ability to instantaneously transport us back to a specific place and time. It’s mysterious and uncanny how just a few notes can bring back a flood of memories in such a poignant way – like how for me, Jimmy Eat World’s “Sweetness” potently recalls my senior prom night, or Gloria Estefan’s “Get On Your Feet” whisks me back to my 9-year-old bedroom, drawing comic book characters and orchestrating elaborate LEGO space operas on the floor with my little brother (you didn’t realize late ’80s latin-crossover-pop accompanied space battles so perfectly, and that’s why your childhood wasn’t as cool as mine). This is one of music’s most incredible powers, and it’s one we’re all familiar with. What’s less common, at least for me, is for a song or record to powerfully recall a specific place and time it had nothing to do with at all. That’s been happening for me all year with Real Estate’s Atlas – almost every time I listen to it I’m swept back to a trip Kristin and I took to the Outer Banks of North Carolina a few years ago. It was in mid-March, the calm before the tourist season – winter was just giving up its hold and the weather was windy and mild, just slightly too chilly to go swimming but nice enough to lounge on the beach, fly kites, and take long bike rides down the coast. It was a beautiful, dreamlike vacation that felt palpably like the end of something and the beginning of another. The beginning of what exactly, I couldn’t say. But Atlas feels the same as that trip did for me, and it conjures visions of that white coastline every time I listen to it. The playing is restrained but insistent, Martin Courtney’s vocals, Matt Mondanilee’s bright lead guitar, and Jackson Pollis’s metronomical drumming – every part twisting together, then apart, then back together again, weaving patterns like the ones fences and power-lines make when watched out the side of a moving car on the highway. The record overall is languid and relaxed, but that’s not all – these songs are infused with a subtle melancholy and tempered with a bit of hopefulness; you know, the kind of emotional cocktail that’s usually served up with beginnings and endings. –Chris

mp3: Real Estate – Talking Backwards

 

Sharon Van Etten3. Are We There

by Sharon Van Etten

[Jagjaguwar]

I need you to be afraid of nothing.” That’s the plea that opens Are We There – in terms of a relationship, it’s a poignant cry for commitment, for solidarity, to stick around for whatever comes next. In terms of Sharon Van Etten’s music and those who listen to it, it might be a plea to stick around even if things get a little raw, a little strange; which is an apt way to introduce her fourth, and most adventurous, album. Are We There expands Van Etten’s sound in subtle and significant ways, dabbling in weirder, more idiosyncratic influences – scuzzy R&B grooves on “Taking Chances”, a midnight-in-Miami-circa-1987 guitar lick on “Our Love”, slow-motion Memphis soul on “Tarifa”, hung-over girl-group doo-wop on “Every Time The Sun Comes Up”. But don’t think for a minute that these songs sound like anyone but Sharon Van Etten – her voice alone is enough to mark each as her own. As on Epic and Tramp, she continues to tease out haunting new sounds by mining the harmonic dissonance created by multi-tracking her vocals. The way she crafts and utilizes those harmonies is a unique power of Sharon’s, evocative and impressionistic; its clearest predecessor may only be Joni Mitchell’s equally enigmatic guitar playing, and it’s no less gorgeous. Lyrically, Are We There continues to explore Sharon’s recurring theme of dependence vs independence – as a woman, as a human being, and more than ever as a musician. She produced this record herself, a palpable act of asserting and testing her autonomy, and the album’s very sequencing is evidence of it. For example, the absolutely devastating “Your Love Is Killing Me” – a jarring six-plus-minute march through self-mutilation and emotional abuse – appears just 2 songs in. The song stands like a gauntlet at the outset of the record – it’s as if Sharon’s saying “you cannot listen to this casually, you will stop what you’re doing, and you will get a lump in your throat” – or as she sings, “everybody needs to feel”. It’s the practical realization of the plea made in “Afraid of Nothing” – it demands to be heard, to be cherished, to be lived-in, sometimes to be feared, but never to be taken for granted. -Chris

mp3: Sharon Van Etten – Afraid of Nothing

 

Jenny Lewis2. The Voyager

by Jenny Lewis

[Warner Bros.]

This is the solo album I’ve been waiting for years for Jenny Lewis to make. Back in 2006, Lewis’s Rabbit Fur Coat was a welcome change of pace from her Rilo Kiley day-job, and while it was a great album, to me it always felt like she was holding something back. 2008’s Acid Tongue, on the other hand, had some good songs but not enough great ones, and ultimately its poor sequencing made it feel much longer than its eleven track running time. But The Voyager is something else entirely – a fully realized, remarkably concise treatise on what it’s like to be Jenny Lewis as she closes in on forty. And the results are amazing. Recasting herself in the image of late ‘70s/early ‘80s easy-rockin’ icons (many of these songs could have been hits for Stevie Nicks or Tom Petty circa 1980), Lewis takes her wry observations on life and love in LA and dresses them up in glossy new duds that shine brighter than almost anything she’s done before. A perfect example is “Late Bloomer” – a song that could easily have been a dime-a-dozen story song in the folk tradition, but instead becomes a shambolic sing-along and centerpiece to the record. Elsewhere “She’s Not Me” swaggers and sways to an unflagging disco beat, “Head Underwater” (the spiritual descendent of “A Better Son/Daughter) jangles the affirming refrain “there’s a little bit of magic / everybody has it / there’s a little bit of fight left in me yet”, and “Just One of the Guys” invokes Brian Wilson’s pocket-symphony as Jenny refracts back the idea of an aging rock star through the hopes and fears of a woman nearing middle-age. Lewis revisits this theme over and over on the album, maybe most explicitly when she asks, “is this the beginning of middle-aging? / or is this the end of civilization?” (I love that line so much). Any of the songs I’ve mentioned could be candidates for the best in Lewis’s catalog, and they’re not even my favorite on the record (that would be the bleary-eyed “Love U Forever”). Altogether, this is an album no-one but Jenny Lewis could possibly have made, and I’m so glad she did. Because it’s perfect. -Chris

mp3: Jenny Lewis – Head Underwater

 

Kishi Bashi1. Lighght

by Kishi Bashi

[Joyful Noise]

2014 has been, without reservation, the greatest year of my life. I have never been happier, I have never felt more fulfilled, and I have never faced the future with such optimism and jubilation. With such a sickeningly sunny disposition, it only seems appropriate to have Kishi Bashi’s Lighght here at the top of our list. Lighght is an absolutely delightful album! I think it might actually be impossible to listen to it with a frown. There are some cripplingly sad albums on this list and they are beyond beautiful, but this year belongs to Kishi Bashi and his hymns to love and dancing pieces of meat. This post is short. Shorter than most and certainly shorter than past ‘top picks’, but this album just hits the right notes. It’s pure and it’s simple and that is why it’s the most beautiful and beloved album of 2014. -Logan

mp3: Kishi Bashi – The Ballad of Mr. Steak

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