The National

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chris’s Favorite Album of 2017

 

Life Will See You Now

by Jens Lekman

[Secretly Canadian]

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

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

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

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

mp3: Jens Lekman – To Know Your Mission

 

Logan’s Favorite Album of 2017

 

Rocket

by (Sandy) Alex G

[Domino]

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

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

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

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

mp3:(Sandy) Alex G – Poison Root

 

The rest of the best….

 

 

Antisocialites

by Alvvays

[Polyvinyl]

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

mp3: Alvvays – Not My Baby

 

Guppy

by Charly Bliss

[Barsuk]

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

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

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

mp3: Charly Bliss – Black Hole

 

Lotta Sea Lice

by Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile

[Matador]

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

 

 

 

 

mp3: Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – Over Everything

 

Crack-up

by Fleet Foxes

[Nonesuch]

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

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

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

 

The Far Field

by Future Islands

[4AD]

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

mp3: Future Islands – Through the Roses

 

Everybody Works

by Jay Som

[Polyvinyl]

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

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

mp3: Jay Som – The Bus Song

 

Harmony of Difference

by Kamasi Washington

[Young Turks]

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

mp3: Kamasi Washington – Knowledge

 

Wonderful Wonderful

by The Killers

[Island]

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

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

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

mp3: The Killers – The Man

 

American Dream

by LCD Soundsystem

[Columbia/DFA]

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

mp3: LCD Soundsystem – Call The Police

 

Melodrama

by Lorde

[Republic/Lava]

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

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

mp3: Lorde – The Louvre

 

Goths

by The Mountain Goats

[Merge]

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

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

“There’s a rusted fog machine

In a concrete storage space,

Letter-number combinations

With no meaning on its face,

They won’t make these anymore

It’s a wooden coach-n-four,

No-one will even steal it

If you leave it by the door,

No sign to mark it’s going

No tombstone for its grave,

There will be goodbyes by dozens

So practice being brave,

No-one anticipates the rush

The breezy feeling of the faceless crush,

At the end of things, where the salvage bleeds,

Andrew Eldritch is moving back to Leeds.”

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

mp3: Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds

 

Sleep Well Beast

by The National

[4AD]

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

mp3: The National – I’ll Still Destroy You

 

Moonshine Freeze

by This Is The Kit

[Rough Trade]

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

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

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

mp3: This Is The Kit – Bullet Proof

 

The Bob’s Burgers Music Album

by Various Artists

[Sub Pop]

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

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

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

mp3: Bob’s Burgers – Electric Love

 

A Deeper Understanding

by The War On Drugs

[Atlantic]

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

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

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

mp3: The War On Drugs – Pain

 

The Laughing Apple

by Yusuf/Cat Stevens

[Cat-O-Log Records/Decca]

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

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

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

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

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2013 Singles Header

So we had so much fun putting together our Top Albums list, we decided to go ahead and make a Top Songs list too! Hopefully this kind of makes up for not posting all year! This list basically collects the songs that really killed us this year, whether they were world-conquering disco anthems, churning electronic chamber pieces, Billboard Top-40 hits, covers of Billboard Top-40 hits, or slowed-down versions of Dolly Parton classics – these are all just amazing songs.

Our rules for inclusion were simple: only one song per artist (Sorry “Afterlife”!), songs could come from one of our Favorite Albums, but couldn’t have been included in our Favorite Album post (Sorry “Holy”!), and finally, every song had to be unequivocally awesome. I promise they all qualify.

They’re listed below in alphabetical order by artist, because we don’t hate ourselves and weren’t about to rank these in any kind of favorite order. That being said, my favorite song of the year was hands-down “Song For Zula” by Phosphorescent. That song is my 2013 jam. Here’s hoping you find your 2013 jam below.

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2013 Header2Well 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.

 

Rilo Kiley19. Rkives

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

mp3: Rilo Kiley – Let Me Back In

 

Okkervil River18. The Silver Gymnasium

by Okkervil River

[ATO]

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

mp3: Okkervil River – Stay Young

 

Daft Punk17. Random Access Memories

by Daft Punk

[Columbia]

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 these two videos. So just watch those and you’ll understand. -Chris

mp3: Daft Punk – Doin’ It Right

 

Haim16. Days Are Gone

by Haim

[Polydor]

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

mp3: Haim – Don’t Save Me

 

Foals15. Holy Fire

by Foals

[Transgressive]

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

mp3: Foals – Inhaler

 

Yo La Tengo14. Fade

by Yo La Tengo

[Matador]

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

mp3: Yo La Tengo – Before We Run

 

Jon Hopkins13. Immunity

by Jon Hopkins

[Domino]

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

mp3: Jon Hopkins – Immunity

 

James Blake12. Overgrown

by James Blake

[ATLAS]

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

mp3: James Blake – Retrograde

 

Mark Kozelek11. Perils From The Sea

by Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle

[Caldo Verde]

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

mp3: Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle – Ceiling Gazing

 

Marnie Stern10. The Chronicles of Marnia

by Marnie Stern

[Kill Rock Stars]

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

mp3: Marnie Stern – The Chronicles Of Marnia

 

Portugal The Man9. Evil Friends

by Portugal. The Man

[Atlantic]

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

mp3: Portugal. The Man – Smile

 

King Creosote8. That Might Well Be It, Darling

by King Creosote

[Domino]

Since falling fast and hard for Diamond Mine a 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

mp3: King Creosote – On the Night of the Bonfire

 

Mikal Cronin7. MCII

by Mikal Cronin

[Merge]

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

mp3: Mikal Cronin – Shout It Out

 

Local Natives6. Hummingbird

by Local Natives

[Frenchkiss]

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

mp3: Local Natives – Wooly Mammoth

 

Low5. The Invisible Way

by Low

[Sub Pop]

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

mp3: Low – Just Make It Stop

 

JR_TBIIT_Digipack_F4. The Beast In Its Tracks

by Josh Ritter

[Pytheas]

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

mp3: Josh Ritter – Hopeful

 

Volcano Choir3. Repave

by Volcano Choir

[Jagjaguwar]

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

mp3: Volcano Choir – Comrade

 

Frightened Rabbit2. Pedestrian Verse

by Frightened Rabbit

[Atlantic]

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

mp3: Frightened Rabbit – Holy

 

National1. Trouble Will Find Me

by The National

[4AD]

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

mp3: The National – Don’t Swallow the Cap

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Here’s a short playlist I made a few weeks back after seeing The National open for Arcade Fire in Chicago (I promise to write something about that soon). It seems like there’s been a slew of one-off songs lately featuring the unearthly baritone of one of my favorite leading men, Matt Berninger, so I decided to throw all the ones I could find together.

They’re all varying degrees of awesome, but some stand out a titch more than others. The Forms song, for example, is hands-down one of my favorite songs of the year thus-far, while Matt’s duet with Sharon Jones over a Booker T groove is a very very close second. I also have a real soft spot for that Clogs tune. Enjoy!

mp3: The Forms – Fire To The Ground (featuring Matt Berninger)

mp3: Booker T – Representing Memphis (featuring Matt Berninger and Sharon Jones)

mp3: Doveman – Angel’s Share (featuring Matt Berninger)

mp3: Grinderman – Evil [Silver Alert Remix] (featuring Matt Berninger)

mp3: Clogs – Last Song (featuring Matt Berninger)

And if you’re enjoying Matt’s voice mingled with others, here’s some National songs featuring a few notable guest vocalists of their own:

mp3: The National – Sleep All Summer (featuring Annie Clark of St. Vincent)

mp3: The National – Think You Can Wait (featuring Sharon van Etten)

mp3: The National – Afraid of Everyone (featuring Sufjan Stevens)

And don’t forget, The National are releasing a special clear-vinyl 7″ of “Think You Can Wait” b/w “Exile Vilify” today! Get it here.

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Last Friday me and a friend made the short jaunt down to Cincinnati for the first night of their annual MusicNOW festival, featuring ymusic, Shara Worden, and a resurrected performance of “Sounds of the South” by Megafaun, Fight The Big Bull, Justin Vernon and Sharon Van Etten. For those who aren’t familiar with the festival, it’s curated every year by The National’s Bryce Dessner, and is dedicated to unique collaborations between various artists – and usually consists of new or original music, sometimes never even having been performed before. In fact, in introducing the night’s itinerary, Bryce said it best by saying, “nothing you hear tonight has been recorded and released, currently no-one can download any of it on mp3”. Hopefully that changes soon, because I cannot remember a more moving night of live music than what we were treated to that night.

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For the last several years, the beginning of the Christmas season at our house has been marked by The Sounds of Sufjan. His Christmas EPs (released in 2006 in this fantastic box-set) are just about the perfect holiday accompaniment I could ever hope for: they’re at turns silly, hopeful, reverent, corny (in the good way), jubilant – you know, all the things that Christmas can be. So naturally, I’ve been waiting eagerly for any word about volumes 6, 7, 8, etc. etc… Well this year, CHRISTMAS CAME EARLY!

Gloria! Songs for Christmas, Vol. 6 (actually recorded some years ago) just saw the light of internet-day this morning! The 8 song set includes some help from the National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner, as well as Arcade Fire’s Richard Perry – so that’s pretty fun. You can download two of the tracks over at Between hipsters and God there is Sufjan Stevens, or stream the whole thing below (via rawkblog). Merry Christmas ere’body!

UPDATE: It appears the songs are no longer available. It was fun while it lasted!

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Top 21? But weren’t there 25 last year? Well yes. And it was only 15 the year before that. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re not that rigid around here – all we really care about is letting you know what we’re loving right now and that’s about it. If we only fall for one record next year then you can probably expect “WiAC’s Top 1 Album of 2011”. It’ll be a good one, though. We promise.

That said, this year was a great year for music. But it was great in a different way than the last couple years. In 2008 and 2009 we fell hard for debut records by new bands (Grand Archives and Harlem Shakes, respectively), but this year our top 5 went to nearly all familiar faces. In fact, I think when we look back on 2010 what we’ll remember most was how artist after artist that released an anticipated album just seemed to deliver – and not just by making good records, but often by making the record of their career. In a year where we listened to more music than ever, we just couldn’t deny that these were the albums we enjoyed the most. Period.

Finally, 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 would probably look a little different. But we’re not critics, so we’re going to skip all the posturing and taste-making mumbo-jumbo. 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 2010…

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I’ve been really enjoying the bonus material on The National’s recently released expanded version of High Violet. This song in particular is a gem, giving a little glimpse at what that “happy record” might have sounded like if they’d made it. It’s bouncier than any of its live iterations I’ve heard, what with that twinkling keys/horn interplay, and it’s got a swagger and style that few other National songs do (there are hand-snaps for goodness sake!).

mp3: The National – Wake Up Your Saints
from the album High Violet [Expanded Edition] (buy it here)

Also, the alternate version of “Terrible Love” is fast becoming my version-of-choice. So good, these guys.

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The first post I ever wrote for this site was about The National. That’s funny because I always seem to have trouble writing about them – I feel like no matter what I say I never quite do them justice. I think it’s a symptom of how much I actually love this band, and after seeing them again on Saturday I’m once again feeling a little inadequate at relaying the experience. I’ll do my best, but just know: it was really good.

Owen Pallett opened, and though I haven’t listened to him much, he completely blew me away. He used loop pedals to weave complex musical tapestries out of just his keyboard and violin, with added flourishes provided by his drummer/bassist/guitarist/whistler, Thomas Gill – creating a lush and intimate sound that was completely entrancing. He performed a slew of songs from this year’s Heartland (which I’ve promptly repented for ignoring so long – these songs are beautiful), and its accompanying EP, A Swedish Love Story. In fact, two of my favorite songs of the whole night were off that EP – “Scandal At The Parkade” and “A Man With No Ankles”. Take a listen:

mp3: Owen Pallett – A Man With No Ankles
from the EP A Swedish Love Story (buy it here)

After Pallett’s fantastic set, The National entered in darkness and opened with “Runaway”, lit only by the stage backlighting. It was a haunting and gorgeous rendition of the subtle High Violet standout – a perfect introduction to what would be a rock solid show. They immediately picked it up after “Runaway’s” languid pace with the more traditionally rocking “Anyone’s Ghost” and “Mistaken for Strangers”, and then barreled right into the near-perfect “Bloodbuzz Ohio.” I was expecting them to save that song for later in the set, but no, they pulled it out right at the beginning – and I knew right then that this was going to be a fantastic set. When your catalog’s so strong you can put a song like “Ohio” right up front and know the rest of your set can live up to it, you’re going to have an amazing live show. And they did.

The band was supported by the trusty Padma Newsome on keys and strings, plus a mini- horn section that filled out the sound laid down by the Devendorf and Dessner brothers’ lush instrumentation, especially remarkable on numbers like “Squalor Victoria” and “Fake Empire.” Frankly, the band has never sounded better. Matt Berninger was in great spirits, making jokes with the Dessners about meeting Mary Poppins backstage, and how much of a diva she was (Mary Poppins was also playing at the Murat that night). Their stage banter was actually endearing: the Dessners describing how they tried to talk Matt out of singing about eating people’s brains on “Conversation 16”, Matt explaining how that’s not metaphorical, Aaron explaining how none of them really know what they’re saying at the end of “Secret Meeting.” I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure Matt said that “Afraid of Everyone” was “about the news”, which completely opened up that song in a new way for me. They played some of my all-time favorites like “Slow Show”, “Apartment Story” and “Green Gloves” along with new classics like “Sorrow” and “England” (which somehow sounded even lovelier live). A four-song encore included a heart-stopping rendition of “Mr. November” with Matt jumping down and wandering throughout the sold-out crowd as they fist-pumped along to its endlessly cathartic chorus, and they ended the night with a gorgeous take of “Terrible Love.”

So yeah. The show was really good. Click on for pictures and setlists.

mp3: The National – Runaway
from the album High Violet (buy it here)

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I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s noticed this… but a lot of the artists who made records that rocked my world in 2007 have happened to also make records that are rocking my world in 2010. It’s like they’re on the same creative cycle or something. I thought I’d throw a few of them together for you:

mp3: Spoon – You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb (2007)

mp3: Spoon – Written In Reverse (2010)

mp3: LCD Soundsystem – North American Scum (2007)

mp3: LCD Soundsystem – Pow Pow (2010)

mp3: Josh Ritter – The Temptation Of Adam (2007)

mp3: Josh Ritter – The Curse (2010)

mp3: The National – Green Gloves (2007)

mp3: The National – Bloodbuzz Ohio (2010)

mp3: The New Pornographers – Challengers (2007)

mp3: The New Pornographers – If You Can’t See My Mirrors (2010)

mp3: Arcade Fire – Intervention (2007)

mp3: Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (2010)

mp3: Panda Bear – Comfy In Nautica (2007)

mp3: Panda Bear – Tomboy (2010)

So admittedly, those last two are a bit anticipatory – I’m only hoping that their new albums are as amazing as their 2007 counterparts… but I’m not too worried. Now we just need another record from Feist, The Moonbabies, and Radiohead (maybe!?) to round off my list…

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By now I’ve had quite a while to sit on The National‘s new record, High Violet – but due to a crazy month of various other responsibilities I haven’t been able to get my feelings about it down until now. It’s a bit late in internet terms, and doubtless many of you have already fallen for the album, but here’s my thoughts anyway…

It’s been hard to pin down exactly what it is I love about The National – by all accounts they’re a pretty nuts and bolts rock band. There’s Matt Berninger’s rumbling baritone, and then there’s the fact that these guys are undeniably brilliant musicians with an uncanny ability to build and release tension. But it was while listening to High Violet that I realized something special about this band – and it’s the fact that they’re no rock stars. If you look at the bulk of those making this kind of music (today or ever really) it’s overwhelmingly dominated by two kinds of people: the youth and the rock stars. The youth are innovative and often relatable (we’ve all been there), but they’re also often limited by their experience – this love really will last forever! or, breaking up really is the end of the world! The rock star is arguably older and more experienced – but no matter how good they are at expressing their thoughts on life, the fact just is that their life experience is very different from most… and tends to diverge more and more as their rock-stardom increases. But Matt Berninger, throughout The National’s albums, has been able to consistently make music from the everyman’s perspective – singing about toiling at dead-end jobs, working to pay off debts, and living in real relationships (both succeeding and failing). And somehow he imbues these experiences with the kind of dramatic importance we all feel, because it’s our life.

High Violet not only touches on all these things again, but it does it with a confidence that they haven’t attained before. Not only is this one of The National’s best albums, but it is simply one of the best records I’ve heard all year.

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That’s right, High Violet is streaming for free right now over at the New York Times website. It will be streaming there until next Tuesday (April 27), so don’t wait too long. High Violet hits shelves May 11. Enjoy!

mp3: The National – Bloodbuzz Ohio
from the album High Violet (pre-order)

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