In Spring of 2014, Kristin called me at work and asked if I could meet her for lunch. It was a cold-ish day, and we met at a little Greek place south of downtown in Indianapolis. At lunch, Kristin presented me with four CDs she’d just bought that morning, and asked me if I knew what they had in common. The records were Pablo Honey by Radiohead, Ágætis byrjun by Sigur Rós, Ready To Die by Notorious B.I.G., and Years of Refusal by Morissey. I actually couldn’t figure it out, but after a little prompting realized that all four album covers featured babies. She was pregnant and we were having our first child in November.
Not long after that lunch date I started working on this playlist. It started when I was moved to tears listening to Chris Staples’ song “Dark Side of the Moon” (I’m actually not even sure that song is written for a child, but for me it forever will be). I started compiling songs that were either written for/to children, or somehow represented that to me.
Since then, we’ve had another child (both boys), and things are often more hectic than not, but whenever I play these songs they remind me of the wide-eyed wonder of first becoming a parent, and how incredible it is to be entrusted with these little souls.
It’s late getting posted, but here’s my playlist about parenthood:
Well this is embarrassing. We’re only like like, what? 7 months late with this thing? 2016 was a wild year for both of us, and it looks like 2017 is shaping up to be too, or else we’d have wrapped this up a long time ago. But here we are. Most of these blurbs were written last year, so if there’s some confusion in the tenses used, we apologize. But honestly, if you’re still reading this thing after all these years and you’re worried about inconsistent grammar, I don’t really know what to tell you.
As always, these were our favorite albums of the year, not necessarily the best… blah blah blah. You get it. Let’s just cut to the chase…
Chris’s Favorite Album of 2016
The Bound of the Red Deer
by King Creosote & Michael Johnston
Most of what I love about The Bound of the Red Deer can be summed up in its fourth track, “Billows Roll.” After two minutes of uninterrupted piano, the song gives way to a simple couplet repeated only twice, “You have an anchor that steadies the soul / steadfast and sure my love, how the billows roll.” It’s thoughtful and understated, and I hear that desire for a sure anchor throughout the record.
The Bound of the Red Deer may be the least obvious pick for an album of the year – it’s a minor release from two fairly niche musicians to begin with, recorded quickly on acoustic instruments several years ago, then released without any fanfare last spring. They only played a few shows in its support after it slipped into the world, largely unnoticed (I’m pretty confident that “unnoticed” is the right word, because I’m pretty well obsessed with anything King Creosote does, but I didn’t even hear about this record until almost four months after it had been released), and then it just kind of floated away as both musicians moved onto other projects.
Overall it’s a quiet, ruminative record, one that’s content to just be what it is. Both Johnston and Creosote are veteran songwriters who’ve been working tirelessly for years, and these sturdy songs reflect it (they’re both part of the Canadian/Scottish songwriters collective The Burns Unit, whose 2010 record Side Show is absolutely worth your time, and on which a few of these songs originally appeared). The songs are thoughtfully arranged and beautifully realized, with pretty little moments abounding: the ascending piano line that opens “Since We’ve Fallen Out”, the buoyant sha-la-la vocals in “Hang Dog” and the celtic percussion that peppers it’s outro, the celestial coda of “Supermoon” where both men’s voices combine to chant “come in with the tide” until the song ebbs away. I suppose none of these moments are particularly notable in their own right, but taken together they form an undeniably beautiful whole.
This past year has been a turbulent one for me. We left Indianapolis, our home of seven years, and started a new life 2000 miles away in Seattle, Washington. We started a business in April and welcomed our second son in September. All good things for sure, but not things I’d recommend doing within a 12-month period if you can help it. As I’ve been thinking about our year, full of gale-force winds and tempestuous seas, it’s become pretty apparent why this record has spoken to me so much. I love King Creosote, and his music actually has become an anchor for me over the past several years – something I’ve returned to over and over again whenever I’ve needed it. The Bound of the Red Deer is another cable lashed to that anchor, “steadfast and sure (as) the billows roll.” –Chris
During my first semester at college I took an introductory art history class. It covered everything from prehistoric fertility statues to contemporary street artists. It was hardly in depth, but broad strokes and shallow interpretations are about all I’m capable of digesting (I know next to nothing about music but compared to my knowledge and understanding of art, I’m a Juilliard graduate specializing in… let’s say Jazz drumming).
However, I do remember one particular piece of art from that class and the experience I had (and have) when looking at it. The Night Café by Vincent Van Gogh depicts the interior of a cafe, a billiard table is near the center of the scene and customers sit slouched, drunk or asleep, at tables that hug the walls of the room. The colors are garish and almost violent. Even now, the sickly yellow-green glow of the lamps in that piece is lurid and unsettling. I was amazed at how the careful selection of colors could evoke such emotion and when I listen to James Blake’s appropriately titled third album, The Colour in Everything, I am reminded of that painting. Whether intentional or not, Colour has an imagery associated with it. The various tracks feel as though they were painted in cool hues of blue, purple, and gray. Blake’s sound is, at times, thickly applied like an Impressionist, chunky and roughly textured — at other times he channels the fine and precise detail of a Rembrandt, while still maintaining the darkness and intense emotions that permeate the album from start to finish.
(I trust anyone who knows anything about art will laugh at my childlike and simpleton interpretation. But I’d say this was pretty good for a guy who still laughs when he hears Peter Paul Ruben’s work referred to as “Ruben’s Boobens.“) –Logan
One constant during years in Indianapolis was making the 40-minute drive down to Bloomington to see this or that concert. I’ve seen everyone from Bob Dylan to Sufjan Stevens, from Jens Lekman to Janelle Monae in that little gem of a town, and I’ll always be grateful for its wealth of charming little venues, from DIY spaces like Rhino’s and the Live Room at Russian Recording, to relative mainstays like the Bishop and Bluebird, to the historic Buskirk-Chumley Theater.
Just before we moved I got one last chance to make that drive to Bloomington to see Hop Along at the Bishop with one of my very best friends. Hop Along were, of course, incredible (they’re honestly one of the best bands working today), but I was pleasantly surprised to thoroughly enjoy the opening act – a local group fronted by a young woman going by Amy O. That night was the release show for her latest record, Arrow, and she and her band just played its ten spritely songs straight through. I was so impressed I bought the album on cassette (that was the only format she was selling, if I recall) and went on to listen to this lo-fi garage-pop gem all year. She’s got another record on the horizon, so keep an ear out for this talented export from one of my favorite little Indiana towns. -Chris
This definitely wasn’t Since I Left You, Part II. But honestly, how could it be? After 16 years, The Avalanches made the wise decision to not try and recreate a stone-cold masterpiece, instead coming back with something a little goofier, a little less mysterious, and with a lot more MCs. It might not prove to be as timeless as that first bit of lightning-in-a-bottle, but you know what? I still love it.-Chris
When 22, A Million finally saw the light of day, I read a lot of reviews that described it as “Justin Vernon gets weird,” which struck me as odd. Because, in my mind, Justin Vernon’s always been weird. Sure, the narrative for For Emma, Forever Ago was pretty cliched, and yes, it was mainly a man and his guitar – but aside from that, it’s a weird little record, made up of droning alternate tunings and word-soup free-associative lyricism. It was weird! On the Blood Bank EP, Bon Iver flirted with Reichian tonal patterns on “Babies” and was honestly the first singer-songwriter I knew of to experiment with autotune on “Woods.” It was also weird! On 2012’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver he swapped his guitar for maximalist cut-and-paste sound collages that ended with a straight-shooting homage to Bruce Hornsby. That was weird! And I’m not even mentioning all his forays into hip-hop (a la Kanye), experimental rock (Volcano Choir’s first record) and adult contemporary (Gayngs). It’s all been weird!
So yeah, 22, A Million is weird, but c’mon, it’s not like Vernon’s been writing variations on “Hey There Delilah” for the past ten years. The real difference this time around is how fully Vernon leans into his post-guitar phase – the majority of 22, A Million is made up of glitchy electronics and disjointed samples, creating the bed for Vernon’s trademark falsetto, only this time it’s more often distorted than not. So yeah, it’s weird. But just like all the other weirdness Vernon’s put his name on, the record is almost uniformly gorgeous, another testament to the man’s creative genius. -Chris
I got deep into this record in the weeks after my second son was born — it’s like a time capsule for this AM-radio golden era that probably never actually existed, but still makes the perfect soundtrack for a lazy afternoon. Neko Case is, as always, a force of nature, and KD Lang and Laura Veirs are just brilliant as ever. It’s an album that doesn’t try hard to win you over, but it doesn’t really need to. It’s just doing it’s thing and it’s thing is enough. -Chris
EDITORS NOTE: We consider this a family-friendly blog. We try to limit things like profanity and nudity when we can help it, and even though this cover isn’t particularly offensive, it still had a whole lot of naked, hence the pixelation. 🙂
I’m not a creative type. I like to doodle but that’s about it. I often think that I’m one who’s been blessed to appreciate and applaud those that are creative but at the same time is cursed to not be creative myself. I’ve surrounded myself with creative people; people who can use words, music, pencils, and other mediums to create art. Many of these people find inspiration in the mundane and use that to soothe and to solve. People who, when faced with a 3-year old refusing to go to bed, illustrate a comic showing a brave pillow-wielding heroine fighting a sleep deprived monster or who, upon seeing a doe grazing outside their cabin window, ruminate on life, death, and God. I find myself frustrated that I just don’t see the world the way they do. Goodness, by The Hotelier, has many of these moments (including the aforementioned inspiration from a doe). It has been an especially inspiring record since welcoming my first child this year because, if even in the smallest way, I think I’m starting to see the world a bit differently. Holding my son (essentially a little helpless poop factory and sleep destroyer) has made me think more about my life, the path I’ve been on, and, even in these dark times, allows me to see the beauty in this world. He really makes me “see life in exploding color”.
Okay, so maybe it’s all of the above that makes me love this album, or maybe I just enjoy over-the-top spoken word intros (which it definitely has). -Logan
In the short five years since I stumbled upon King Creosote he’s released at least 9 albums worth of music (at least I think he has – his “official” releases can be pretty hard to pin down, much less purchase). The guy is just ridiculously prolific, especially considering the fact that the man’s been making music for three decades! This year alone, KC released this on Domino Records, Queens of Brush County on his own Fence Records, and self-released The Bound of the Red Deer with Michael Johnston. How’s anyone supposed to keep up with that?
With that kind of prolificacy, quality can be a real concern, but this guy just keeps pumping out winner after winner for me, and Astronaut Meets Appleman is no exception. Lots of KC’s records can be considered DIY affairs, but this one takes the hat-tip from 2014’s well-received From Scotland With Love and sticks with the higher production values. You can hear it in the gorgeous vocal textures and harp scales on the back half of “You Just Want” or in the lush low end in “Love Life”, or in the accordion and strings that drive the crescendo in “Surface” (in fact the accordion is all over this thing, and I love it so much). Listen, I know I’ve crossed over completely into fanboy territory with this guy and I’ve lost any semblance of objective credibility here, so you can just dismiss anything I say about him from here on out if you want. But make sure you at least take a listen first, because you might just find yourself in the same boat. -Chris
Two years ago when Chris and I put together our year-end list, we had two albums vying for the number one spot, Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There and Kishi Bashi’s Lighght. Ultimately, if memory serves me right, we settled on Lighght strictly because Chris and I had had a fantastic year – 2014 had been one of the best years in our lives and we wanted our “top” album to reflect that optimism. Personally, I was celebrating my relationship and engagement to my now wife. I’m still in awe of my wife, but particularly in that year, when we decided to get married, I could not believe my luck. She is the everything I was made to believe was asking too much. The beauty and, at times, the lighthearted silliness of Lighght encapsulated what made 2014 wonderful. Now, two years later, I’m married, I’ve just welcomed my son into the world, and Kishi Bashi’s Sonderlust is beautifully in line with these life changes.
Both albums, ultimately, are about love. But where Lighght was frantic, excited, and just generally matched that thrill of a new love and romance, Sonderlust seems to take a more honest, fragile, and realistic approach to love. There is a mature love expressed in this album. A love based on understanding, compromise, and true affection. And you can take my word on this. I’ve been married for almost TWO years, so I’m pretty much an expert on mature and celestial love. –Logan
This record occupies an odd space for me. It came out just as we were packing up and preparing to leave our home of seven years to start all over in the Pacific Northwest. I listened to it almost exclusively as I finished packing up our little duplex rental, repainting and filling holes in the 70-year old plaster walls. It’s what I listened to during the nights after my wife and son flew ahead of me to our new home — it played on an old portable turntable while I slept on an air mattress on the bare wooden floor surrounded by the dregs of everything we own, the things that didn’t file away easily into previously packed categories.
I haven’t returned to it much since that week, and I’m not sure when I will again. But the last two songs, “How I Feel About You” and “On The Starry Banks”, have never really left me since those nights on the floor in our old house, like little beacons from another life. -Chris
With all of the talk of love and happiness in my other posts, I feel like we need to take it a tad darker.
2016 was a nuts year for me and my family. I’ll try not to go into too much detail, but it all started in February when I decided, along with my doctor, that I could discontinue my anti-anxiety medication. I had been in a really good spot for a while and I was feeling quite triumphant. My beautiful wife was pregnant, we had just put a down payment on a home we were building, and I had just received a pretty nice pay bump at work. These things and more led me to feeling emotionally stable, comfortable, and confident. And boy was I happy.
And then things started happening, not bad things, undeniably good things. Over the next four months, the ground was broken on our home, I left my old job to take a great position at a company I love, we moved into our new home, and the little boy continued to grow until he joined us mid-November, happy and healthy. During this time, even while we were celebrating such wonderful things, I felt the shake of my old anxiety. New father jitters. Homeowner nerves. New job stomach. Holiday exhaustion. It was easy to dismiss these things and not acknowledge that maybe I needed that help again. Things were wonderful and I was happy! You could look at any aspect of my life now versus 5 years ago and see the almost exponential difference. But I couldn’t shake the feeling of some unknown dread. Completely unidentifiable but, in my head, 100% real. It sucked.
Preoccupations (formerly Viet Cong) have, in my opinion, captured this emotional struggle with their self-titled release. Preoccupations is heavy. It perpetually beats these emotions into you through an almost monotonous repetition that keeps you uneasy and on edge. This was obviously the band’s intent. Each track title alludes to a battle so many people are facing day to day (and I fully realize I am very lucky and I feel a bit uneasy even putting myself in the same category as those that carry a far heavier burden). So far, I’ve described Preoccupations as an emotional struggle and a battle, but what is beautiful is that, at no point, is there the thought of a surrender. It might be an ongoing fight, you might lose battles here and there, but ultimately, the war of this album closes repeating the following line, “You’re not scared. Carry your fever away from here.“
(And in case you were wondering, I’m feeling much better now. I’m back on my meds and things are going great.) -Logan
I don’t have much to add to any discussion on Radiohead, so I’ll keep this brief. As someone who genuinely enjoyed The King of Limbs, I wasn’t looking for some redemptive comeback record as much as I was looking for another gorgeous collection of songs — but no matter what you were hoping for, I think A Moon Shaped Pool probably delivered — it’s just that great. Like most of Radiohead’s work, it’s claustrophobic and anxious while still somehow being tender and breathtakingly beautiful. But what’s most striking to me about A Moon Shaped Pool is how generous it is. Honestly, there’s so few examples of bands this successful making music this vital this late in their career – and the fact is, Thom Yorke & co. honestly didn’t need to. But they did, and it sounds like they put everything they had into it. And then they go and throw freaking “True Love Waits” on the end of it too? I mean, come on. We don’t deserve this. -Chris
I was pretty late to the School of Seven Bells party. I liked their second record well enough and put “I L U” on several mixes back in 2010, but besides that, they’d flown completely under my radar. Then, in 2013, Benjamin Curtis passed away due to complications associated with lymphoma. His surviving bandmate Alejandra Deheza released the last thing they’d recorded together, a cover of Joey Ramones’ “I Got Knocked Down (But I’ll Get Up),” which Curtis had reportedly been working on in his hospital bed right up until his death. The over seven-minute take on the snotty classic won me over easily, and from there I dove back into a truly impressive catalog, cut much too short. So you can imagine how excited I was to learn that Deheza was finishing and planned to release the record she and Curtis had been working on before he died. The result is SVIIB, the likely last record under the School of Seven Bells moniker.
But you don’t need to know all that history to enjoy this thing – these songs stand up just fine on their own. Side A’s killer run of “Ablaze” through “A Thousand Times More” is as bleary-eyed and brilliant as anything else in their repertoire, and while the second half is more sedate in comparison, it’s no less pretty for it – all shimmery and enveloping in the way that Deheza’s and Curtis’s best work always has been. In short, SVIIB is just a gorgeous batch of songs, and certainly a worthy coda to a singular run of records.
I just wasn’t that plugged into hip-hop this year. All the releases I was most excited about left me feeling cold (Kanye, Chance), and I’m just not that interested in any of the newest rappers I’ve heard (That’s right! I’m old! Get off my lawn!).
But something about seeing Q-Tip spit his bars from “We The People….” on SNL mere days after learning that a narcissistic authoritarian cheetoh-in-a-wig was going to be the next leader of the free world got my blood pumping. Since then, it’s been a sheer joy to revel in Tribe’s return from the grave – a vital document that appeared at exactly the right time. –Chris
Well 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.
by Sun Kil Moon
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
Well another year has come and gone, and we still haven’t been writing too much around here. We’re still listening to tons of great music, of course, but for some reason the urge to write about it hasn’t been there. Maybe it will strike again someday, but maybe it won’t. It’s hard to say.
One thing’s for sure though, we still very much enjoy putting together this year-end list. It’s become one of our favorite things each November to start emailing back and forth some of our preliminary thoughts on what should and shouldn’t make the list, and then spending a few weeks listing and re-listing, then splicing our lists and figuring out who will write what. It’s a lot of fun, and while we’re fairly certain at this point we’re at an all-time low for potential readers, we still like to think there might be somebody who’ll enjoy reading about what moved us this year.
But if not, that’s ok. We probably get the most out of this anyway, and at least we’ll have something to look back on when we’re telling our grandchildren all about what we listened to before we all got Google Glasses implanted in our heads and all the music ever made was constantly streaming right into our frontal lobes. They’ll probably think it’s quaint how we tried to quantify our favorite music of the year. And it probably is. But maybe we are quaint in our sleepy little corner of the internet. At least we’ve got great music here.
by Rilo Kiley
[Little Record Company]
Ever since Rilo Kiley’s quiet demise a few years ago, there’s been fevered talk among fans of a collection of rare and unreleased material, and that collection finally saw the light of day this year in the cheekily titled Rkives. Considering that this may be the last we’ll ever hear from this remarkable band, I was probably going to enjoy it no matter what – but here’s the thing: this collection is so good you don’t need to be a RK devotee to thoroughly enjoy it. Frankly, the whole thing is miles better than any odds and ends collection has any right to be. The first half – from Jenny Lewis’s baleful ode to LA “Let Me Back In”, through the vintage-Rilo Kiley wordy-rockers “It’ll Get You There” and “Runnin’ Around”, all the way to the power-pop sing-a-long “I Remember You” – is as good as any stretch of recorded music I’ve heard all year. In the middle of that stretch is a Blake Sennett number that, in my opinion, is better than any song he contributed to any of their proper releases, and its blistering guitar outro is worth the price of admission alone. The second half isn’t as consistently impressive, but it still yields some gems, like the Execution of All Things b-side “Emotional”, before it closes with one of RK’s oldest and most iconic tunes “The Frug”. That song, from the band’s 1998 debut EP, is probably still the most concise encapsulation of everything that made this group so special – from the wry humor and playful guitar, to Jenny’s beautiful alto and subtly devastating lyrical confessions (“I can take my clothes off/I cannot fall in love”). For this Rilo Kiley fan, I couldn’t have asked for much more than this. -Chris
Okkervil River has never appeared on a WiAC year-end list. The closest they got is their collaboration with Roky Erickson (and boy, that’s still such a good album) but that doesn’t really count as a proper OR album. I don’t expect you to have an encyclopedic knowledge of our lists, but if I were you, I would have bet money that The Stand Ins or I Am Very Far would have showed up. Nope. Well it’s time that oversight was remedied. Talk about a slow burn though. If Chris questions the inclusion of any album on this list it should be this entry. When he asked me what I first thought of this album I was pretty dismissive, “Eh, it’s ok.” I liked it, but when I held it up to earlier albums, it just didn’t move me. It took a solid amount of time before I realized The Silver Gymnasium is its own beast entirely. A beautiful, moving beast. Let me sum it up so you can get to the next entry: the music is triumphant, the lyrics are tragic, but ultimately, the past is the past. -Logan
I was going to write about how this was exactly the record I didn’t know I needed this year, how an over-the-top disco kitsche-fest pushed the exact groove buttons I didn’t even know I had. And I was going to write about how I was initially disappointed that the whole record didn’t sound like “Get Lucky”, until I realized that one “Get Lucky” is probably all the “Get Lucky” the universe could contain. And I was going to write how much “Motherboard” sounds like Daft Punk collaborating with Philip Glass and how much I love that. But then I realized that everything I feel about this record is pretty succinctly expressed in thesetwo videos. So just watch those and you’ll understand. -Chris
I don’t have much to write here that hasn’t already been written elsewhere. Three sisters play in a family rock-n-roll cover band as kids, obviously take great notes, come up with a perfect amalgamation of everything that was great about popular rock in the 70’s and 80’s and then unleash it on the world in the form of songs like “The Wire”, “Falling” and “Don’t Save Me”. Their musicianship is fantastic, their hooks undeniable. If anyone has a problem with these girls, it’s because they must hate fun and probably murder kittens for a hobby. Just kidding, they probably just listen to the hype more than to the music, because this is some great music. -Chris
I remember a reggae-heavy record shop in Laguna Beach I visited sometime in 2010. No real treasures until the twice-baked owner showed me to a random box from the back that was like the Room of Requirement. Think about an album and it appeared in a puff of bubonic chronic smoke. I walked away with three or four albums, one of which was Total Life Forever, which would be my first real introduction to Foals, and it is still such a great album. Now if Tim McGraw has taught us anything, it’s that the memory of your first love never fades away, and I will always love TLF, but Holy Fire outshines it in just about every way. Guys, the beginning of this album is something else. Listening to the prelude and the first few minutes of “Inhaler” you think, “Oh this is going to be a great Foals album” and then Yannis Phillippakis screams “and I can’t get enough…SPACE!” and you’re whole world stops existing. But you’re fine with it; ‘cause in its place is distortion, rock, and the unsent spirit of grunge. -Logan
So I have a difficult relationship with digital music, and my experience with Yo La Tengo’s gorgeous new album illustrates perfectly my fraught relationship with recorded music when it’s divorced from physical media. I finally signed up for Spotify this year, and Fade was probably one of the first records I used my new-found account to listen to back in January, and I actually listened to it quite a bit. But I didn’t fall in love with it. I knew I liked it and that it was very good, but I didn’t have any real emotional connection to it. It wasn’t until very recently, when I bought it on vinyl at my local independent record store, that I really fell for this record. So why is that? The music hadn’t changed – the only thing that changed was how I interacted with it. I think there’s something about the commitment that physical media demands – that act of saying “I Choose You” to a record and then going out and buying it – that makes the difference. That act of choosing tends to focus my attention and tastes so that I really do end up liking something more than if I’d just streamed it 30 times. It also doesn’t hurt that I’m such a visual person and album art plays such a huge role in how I interact with a piece of music (and man, does Fade have some gorgeous album art). When I can’t flip through liner notes or lyrics I always feel like the artist is keeping me at arm’s length, and I can’t develop the same relationship with it. And then there is something about the physical act of putting something on the turntable/CD player/cassette deck that somehow makes the relationship between me and the music more permanent – like that physical act just brought our relationship into the real world. It’s like that Perro Del Mar song, “you gotta give to get” – even just the very minor effort required to turn a record over somehow imbues emotional resonance to what I’m listening to, and that opens me up to really be moved by what the music has to offer. And so far, I just can’t have that same experience with on-demand stream-whatever-you-want digital music. So in conclusion: Yo La Tengo’s Fade is a beautiful record and you should listen to it on some kind of physical thing that exists in the world. -Chris
Electronic music can sometimes be pretty cold. That’s nothing new. But more and more, electronic musicians seem to be finding ways of letting in the heat. Not the four-on-the-floor club-anthem kind of heat though – but the human touch kind of heat, the warmth you feel whenever you can tell something was labored over and loved into existence. Jon Hopkins is the master at this kind of heat. On Immunity he explores a remarkable breadth of ways to express it, like in “Collider” when he leaves in the sound of someone speaking… not the actual words they spoke, but the sound they made when they spoke them, the sound of air leaving their lips. Or like halfway through “Breathe This Air”, when the swirling bass falls off leaving just Hopkins’ piano and the sound of… something falling in the hall? Or maybe it’s someone walking into the room? I’m not sure what it is, but it’s entrancing. Immunity is full of little touches like that, where the music is wrapped up in the sound of the space it was made in, so much so that the space is as much a part of the record as the actual music. Nowhere is this more true than on the eponymous closing track, featuring King Creosote (another one of my year-end favorites), where the song itself seems to expand and encompass whatever space and time you happen to be listening to it in… it’s breath-taking, and might just be one of the prettiest pieces of music released all year. -Chris
To me, my love of James Blake is a continuing mystery. Those of you that were with us in 2011 will remember Mr. Blake’s self-titled album appeared on my year-end list. I didn’t know why I liked him so much then and I still don’t know why I like him so much now (my friend Rachel says that all of her gay friends are obsessed with James Blake… I’m not going to read into that). Maybe I unknowingly love Romanticism and the poetry of William Blake. I’ll let my brother Ty explain: “Can’t believe he [James Blake] is only 24 though, that is the age when you’re most prone to High Romanticism. I always loved the English Romantics, Byron, Shelley, Keats et al. I’d like to assume you know what I’m talking about but none of those dudes I just mentioned wrote Lord of the Rings so you probably don’t. I can’t believe BYU is a real school. Anyway, yeah, James Blake is maybe the spiritual ancestor of William Blake.” Oh well, maybe I’ll never know why Overgrown is so great, but with songs like “Digital Lion” and “Retrograde” it is undeniably one of the years best. (And yes, I am excited to see the new Hobbit movie. Screw you Ty.) -Logan
It was a good year to be a Mark Kozelek fan. The man released three whole albums of new music, not to mention a Phish-like deluge of live records, plus a few singles teasing an early 2014 release – it was a lot of music to unpack, and frankly it’s all worth your time. But of the recent bounty, I’ve gotten most lost in this, his collaboration with the Album Leaf’s Jimmy LaValle – whose electronic blips and boops add a subtle new dimension to Kozelek’s stories, somehow managing to make them even more spacious and ethereal. Not that the music is that different from your average Sun Kil Moon fare – LaValle’s synthetic backdrops are not particularly lush or elaborate, but instead rather sparse arrangements of beats and midi melodies, essentially the electronic version of “the-man-and-his-guitar” sound – but they strike just the right note for this batch of Kozelek’s ruminations on nostalgia, aging, family, love, and death. The record is long (most songs clock in over seven minutes), but the songs are varied enough and so uniformly excellent that the length is just an invitation to get lost in Kozelek’s world. Ranging from the complicated have/have-not morality of “Gustavo”, to the stream-of-consciousness anti-lullaby of “Ceiling Gazing”, to the grand, conflicted affirmation of “Somehow the Wonder of Life Prevails”, there is not a slight song on here. They are all beautiful and thoughtful and should be a part of your life. -Chris
True confessions: the reason I started listening to Marnie Stern was because she went off in an interview about how much she hated the ending of LOST, and how she was more upset about the end of that show than about her last break-up – and I thought “YES! THAT IS EXACTLY HOW I FEEL!” (Just ask anyone who’s inadvertently brought this topic up with me over the last several years – I promise they regret it.) It turns out her taste in television is not the only thing to love about Marnie Stern – because she happens to make fantastic music. She reminds me a little of early Mates of State – the manic energy, the lyrical free-association, the frenetic melodies bouncing around like an ADHD kindergartener – just replace the Korgs with some serious guitar slaying and you’ll start to picture what’s going on here. This record is just fun from front to back, and unlike some TV shows I can think of, I can recommend it without reservation. -Chris
Oh boy, oh boy, I LOVE Evil Friends. My love notwithstanding though, I won’t let me nieces and nephews listen to this album, and I dread the day when my future children (Ha! Not likely!) discover this album in a dusty box in the basement. All of my parenting about only listening to obscenity-free music will go straight out the window (kind of like when Chris discovered one of his Dad’s records had the f-word on it… that record was James Taylor’s Greatest Hits. I don’t look forward to destroying Evil Friends just to prove a point.) Really though, this album is just perfect. It has that perfect combination of funk, psych, and rock that I’ve craved all year. “Modern Jesus” is maybe one of the best Portugal. The Man songs ever, “Waves” makes me want to protest something, even if I’m not sure what, and “Creep In a T-shirt” is so darn catchy I can hardly stand it. However, if I had to pick a favorite song, it would be “Smile”; if I could write music, I would have written “Smile”. To a great degree, it’s exactly what I want out of life. Is that selfish? Probably. I get news-fatigue. I get tired of the bickering politicians, reports on how fat, poor, and stupid we’re all becoming, and yes, I get tired of hearing about starvation, genocides, and the general suffering of humanity. It’s nice to forget the world sometimes. -Logan
Since falling fast and hard for Diamond Minea couple years ago, I’ve dived head-long into the rabbit-hole of Kenny Anderson’s (AKA King Creosote’s) discography, and it’s been an experience. Over the past decade and a half the guy has released something like 50 records, ranging from proper studio releases to self-made CD-Rs to locally distributed vinyl records, and so much of it is so genuinely fantastic that it’s pretty overwhelming. For instance, this year’s That Might Well Be It, Darling was originally released last year in the form of three vinyl-only EPs, which were themselves re-recordings of 2010’s tour-only vinyl record, That Might Be It Darling, which was the follow-up to 2009’s performance-only record, My Nth Bit of Strange in Umpteen Years. You see what I mean? This guy is nuts. Sonically, Darling strays far from the incubated intimacy I originally fell for on Diamond Mine – instead showcasing the raucous bandleader and wry songsmith that’s spearheaded the close-knit Fence Collective in Scotland for years, and it legitimately feels like a clutch of good friends hammering out a solid set to a sold-out hometown crowd, and loving every minute of it. Book-ended by sing-along barnstormers “Little Man” and “Going Gone”, the record contains everything from bright folk-rockers to tears-in-your beer torch songs to an 11-minute showcase of what Kenny Anderson can do with that voice and an indelible melody. This is yet another great entry into an already pretty overwhelming discography. -Chris
I just love this record so much. It’s fuzzed-out garage rock for people with feelings, or maybe just people who really love a good pop song. Because seriously, Cronin’s stuff is right up there with any of the classic pop songsmiths – Wilson, Davies, Nilsson, you name it and I hear their peer on MCII. Every one of these 10 songs is a 3-4 minute punch of unbelievably concise songcraft – unveiling brilliant melody after brilliant melody, every one gilded with hooks and bridges and codas that add just enough weight to what might have otherwise been just another good garage record. Cronin also expands on his composition skills here, using a clutch of strings and keys to complement that ever-fuzzy guitar. And oh man, can we talk about that guitar? Because that unapologetically overdriven monster has soundtracked many a roadtrip for me this year, so much that I can hardly hear the hook on “Shout It Out” and not reach to roll down the windows. -Chris
In years past, I didn’t want a concert to influence how much I enjoyed an album, I wanted the album to stand on its own instead. Now I can understand why I tried to do that then, but like most of the decisions I made in my early to mid-twenties, I’ve come to realize that was stupid. That isn’t to say if you haven’t seen Local Natives in concert you won’t get why Hummingbird is so incredible and totally deserving of being one the best albums of the year, but if you haven’t seen them, you may not get why I’m so deeply in love with it. Really, this album is the best and this band is the best, and you should see them (preferably you should have seen them when they were touring with Frightened Rabbit AND the National this year. Oh man, just thinking about that lineup…). We’re not talking about concerts though, we’re talking about albums and this one got to me right away. I enjoyed Gorilla Manor, but Hummingbird is quite a different experience. It’s a little…darker, I guess? Not as poppy for sure, but it seems to have traded that for some depth. “Wooly Mammoth” blows it out of the water. Starting off with that chunky guitar and drums and then the transition into the smooth and soaring chorus… sublime. -Logan
I’ve slept on Low for years. But something finally clicked about a year ago and I finally started my descent into the annals of their 20-year career – and man, has it been wonderful. Fast forward to this past March: we took an impromptu road-trip to the Shawnee National Forest in the southern tip of Illinois, which if you didn’t know, is gorgeous (see: Exhibit A). We explored ancient rock formations, Ohio-river pirate caves, and Native-American ruins. It felt kind of surreal, like we were discovering this magical other world, one that had existed for years right under our noses but no-one knew about it. During that whole trip we listened to a mix I’d made of Low’s music, and thinking about it now, I couldn’t think of a more appropriate soundtrack for the understated grandeur of that little corner of the Midwest than the gorgeously understated songs of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, themselves natives of another little corner of the Midwest. That mix ended with “Just Make It Stop”, a chugging highlight from The Invisible Way, Low’s most recent record. I know I’m speaking as a recent convert here, but I think this album is a perfect encapsulation of what Low does so well. The production (leant by Jeff Tweedy – yet another Midwestern native) is especially warm – often you can literally hear the space they’re recording in, their voices and piano chords bouncing back off the walls. But something is still slightly, even inexplicably, distant… like you’re just peeking in on some magical other world, one that you may have just found, one that isn’t going to give up all its mysteries just yet. -Chris
My admiration for Josh Ritter is well documented. But I was a little skeptical when I first heard rumors that this record was a more stripped back affair, recorded after his recent divorce. We’ve all heard the old trope: “guy gets his heart broken, gets back to basics and bears it all on record”, and its not always a good omen. But here’s the thing, this isn’t really a break-up record. There’s no real mud-slinging, no pining, no naval-gazing. For Ritter, who’s always been interested in the grand scope of things (even the titles of his records seem to conjure the sweeping arc of history, with phrases like Golden Age, Historical Conquests, or So Runs The World Away), those things would all seem kind of slight. Instead, this is the chance for him to place what happened to him within a grander scope, and he does. Instead of dwelling on the period of heartbreak and loneliness following the break, he starts the narrative a bit later, after he’s pulled through and finds himself in a new, healthier relationship – he first describes his new lover in relation to his old (he says they only look alike “in a certain light”), but later, as the old lover’s memory begins to fade, he focuses more and more on his new love alone, essentially dedicating the records second half to her. There’s a palpable sense of moving on, of things working out. On “Hopeful” he sings “the world is as the world is, everybody’s gonna hurt like hell sometimes” over a loping gait and plinking keys, but then he adds “she’s hopeful for me, coming out of the dark clouds” – essentially laying out the thesis for the record: we all hurt like hell sometimes, but it gets better. -Chris
This year, unlike in years past, Chris and I share very few year-end albums in common. Which I think is great… sure you disagree on some things, but you’ve got fundamentals. We still need to shy away from talking about Portugal. The Man or Israeli/Palestinian relations (really Chris? The ’67 demarcation line? c’mon man)(NOTE: I don’t actually know Chris’ thoughts on this subject), but again, we agree on the fundamentals and really nothing is more fundamental than loving Justin Vernon and his projects. No question that Repave was going to be on our list. After I heard the first four tracks it was just, “Yep, this is it. Here it is guys. I found it. Everything you want is right here. I found it.” The biggest question, more than on any other album on this list, was what song to include in this entry. “Tiderays” or maybe “Byegone”? I finally settled on “Comrade” (though not choosing “Acetate” may still keep me up at night). Sure, my four most favorite songs from Repave are the first four and comprise the first half, but don’t think that I consider this a one-sided album. Start to finish this is beautiful. -Logan
I have a pretty funny story about how I ended up on a date with a married woman at a Frightened Rabbit concert this year, but it would take way too long to explain, so instead I’m going to tell you about the homemade calendar I plan on making. For real though, 12 tracks on Pedestrian Verse, 12 months in the years, and some of the most quotable lyrics ever. Yep, it’s gonna happen (and my mom said I’d never use the skills I developed in my college bookbinding course) (okay Ty, I get it, BYU might not be a real school). Each month would feature my favorite line from each track: “Acts of Man” (“I’m here, not heroic, but I’ll try”), “Backyard Skulls” (“White silent skulls are smiling at hypocrisy”), “Holy” (oh man, “Holy” guys, maybe the line of the year, “You’re acting all holy, me, I’m just full of holes”), “The Woodpile” (“Would you come brighten my corner?”), etc. Pedestrian Verse and Frightened Rabbit dominated the first half of this year and it was my most listened to album, by a decent margin too. More than anything though, this album excites me; it engages me like no other album on this list, and it’s the most exciting album of the year. -Logan
It’s become more and more clear to me over the years that the National are probably my favorite band. Which is sort of interesting, because over those same years I’ve become less and less likely to even have a favorite band at all. Generally, the older I get, the more I listen to music from a broader base, and the less I seem to obsess over any one particular group the way I did in my teens and early twenties. That is, except for the National. I kind of do obsess over them. I love everything they’ve ever done almost without exception. I collect even their 7-inches and EPs. Every time I’ve seen them perform live, the experience has been more akin to a spiritual rite than a rock and roll show. I even know every member of the band by name (even the bassist!). I cannot think of a more talented pair of guitarists/composers than the Dessner brothers, and I don’t think there has been a better low-end in rock music than the Devendorfs (I recently wrote a 1400-word treatise to a friend on how Bryan Devendorf is the best living drummer in rock right now), and then there’s Matt Berninger and his way of tying words into knots around already knotty subjects. And that voice? Just stop. The talent contained in this group is just staggering. And Trouble Will Find Me is that staggeringly talented band operating at their peak. It’s easily their most immediate, most visceral record since Alligator, but with the same poise and consistency of Boxer, combined with the fully realized production and sound of High Violet. It’s the natural culmination of everything they’ve done up to this point, taking everything they do so well and doing it, well, so well. Every song feels as if its already been part of their canon for years, and I’ve had some sort of experience with just about every single one on this record; whether it was falling in love with “I Should Live in Salt” while driving through the mountains of West Virginia in June, or getting a lump in the back of my throat while watching them perform “Graceless” in Louisville, or playing “Hard to Find” on repeat while watching the sun set behind a wintry Indianapolis skyline. I’ve returned to this record over and over again all year, and it’s continued to amaze and inspire every time. And I guess that’s why we have favorite bands – because bands like the National keep making records like this. -Chris
It’s been pretty quiet around here for awhile (so quiet that we’re pretty sure just our mom’s are checking this thing at this point) (hi moms!), but even though we haven’t been writing all that much, we promise we’ve still been listening to loads of good music. So putting this list together has been a good chance for us to finally put down how we feel about some of the great stuff we’ve heard this year. We just hope it’s as fun for you to browse through as it was for us to pull together!
Before reading on, just a quick note about a record that’s not on this list: The Head & The Heart’s debut record saw a major label release this year (on Sub Pop), and although we’ve probably listened to that absolute gem of a record more than just about any other this year, we didn’t include it on account of it being on our year-end list for 2010, since they self-released it that year. But just know this: under different circumstances, The Head & The Heart would most certainly top this list. So if you haven’t heard them yet, let that be your invitation! Because they are so great!
So with that out of the way, we’re ready to unveil our Top 21 Albums of 2011. Just remember that this list represents our favorite albums of the year, and not necessarily the best albums of the year. If we had to pick what we thought were the very best albums critically, this list might look a little different. But we’re not critics, so we’re not going to worry about who made the greatest artistic strides or whatever this year. These are simply our very favorite albums of the year: the ones that made us laugh, cry, dance, smile, press repeat, wet our pants, etc. Basically, this is what we’ll remember when we look back on 2011.