Lykke Li

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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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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.

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