Monday, December 8, 2014

Favorite Records of 2014

Look, every year I feel like I say the same thing: this year was disappointing. But something was very off about how I listened to music in 2014. Typically, I find my "January," a band or an artist I fall madly in love with, binge on for at least the first half of the year, see at least once live, and buy all of their back catalog on vinyl. That didn't happen this year. Well, technically it didn't. See, I think part of the reason was that I'm still binging on Frightened Rabbit, my artist of 2013. And another part of it is because although my favorite record of the year was released in January, I didn't find myself becoming too attached to the artist. In fact, I didn't actually binge on any particular band until October rolled around, and it's not fair to say that 2014 was the year of The Twilight Sad.

2014 also felt like the year of "Pretty Good But Still a Disappointing Follow-ups" That is to say that I enjoyed a lot of albums by artists I loved but they just weren't as great as their predecessors. 2014: the year of disappointment.

Anyway, onto the list...

1. James Vincent McMorrow-Post Tropical
I think I initially fell in love with this record because it was like some beautiful cross between Bon Iver and James Blake. It was also very different from JVM's first record, which I thought was fine but unforgettable (I still haven't warmed up to it.) But from the moment I pressed play on that January evening, I was hooked (well, it was really the first time I heard "The Lakes" but we'll let that go). This was probably the record I listened to the most this year, and it is truly a stunner. Aside from JVM's beautiful voice, there are just so many stunning little moments (sort of like Grizzly Bear's Shields from a few years back) throughout the album. It really is a all-encompassing listening experience, and honestly, I found it really accessible right off the bat. This record has been out almost a year and I'm still listening to it regularly.

Favorite Tracks: Repeating, Red Dust, Outside, Digging

2. Owl John-Owl John
I really went back and forth about my number one this year. As much as I love Post Tropical, I didn't feel an emotional connection to it. But with Owl John, I clearly did because Scott Hutchison is basically my favorite musician. I likened it to reading a brand new book as opposed to reading the next book in a beloved series. It's always a lovely surprise when you pick up something you don't know, with new characters, and end up loving it, whereas you're pretty certain you're going to really enjoy a book in a series filled with characters and plots you already adore. So I thought, well, which record really shaped your 2014? To be honest, neither. But for me, it's a matter of two things: I genuinely like every song on Post Tropical, whereas I really don't care for "Los Angeles Be Kind" on Owl John, and well, I don't know if I could recommend the latter to everyone. It feels like a special record for people who are already fans of Hutchison's work. Does it sound like a Frightened Rabbit record? No, it does not. But it's not an immediate record, and I think you have to go into with already liking (or loving) the guy's music.

Anywho, with that being said, I was still pretty apprehensive about this when I listened to it the first time. I'm always kind of nervous about pressing play on a new record by an artist I love but to be honest, I didn't love "Hate Music" or "Red Hand" when I initially heard them, so I was pretty convinced I'd be disappointed with the whole record. But then I heard "Cold Creeps" and holy shit, all apprehension was completely erased. That song, I mean, it's like nothing Scott has ever written before, and it's absolutely incredible. And for some reason, that last chorus always makes me smile and remember just what it is I love about his music. Never let it be said the man can't write a killer opening track.

The rest of the album took a bit of time to grow on me (seeing him live definitely helped) but I think it's all pretty much perfect (not you, "Los Angeles Be Kind"), especially "Stupid Boy." (Jesus Christ, "Stupid Boy" is so so so so good.)  Even something like "Don't Take Off the Gloves," which initially struck me as really bizarre and kind of off-putting, became one of my favorite songs of the year.

Bottom line: this is a really, really solid album by a really, really talented songwriter.

Favorite Tracks: Cold Creeps, Stupid Boy, Don't Take Off the Gloves

3. The Twilight Sad-Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave
This record is one of my most rewarding listening experiences of 2014, and proves that sometimes you really have to have patience with a record or else you'll miss out on a gem. When "There's a Girl In the Corner" was first released, I was like, "where's the chase and how can I cut to it?" And then when the whole thing was streaming on Stereogum, I tried my hardest to get into it but it just did not capture my attention at all. Nothing stood out for me. I tried, and tried, and tried, really I did. (I also have this problem with The National sometimes.) But for some reason, I really kept trying. And suddenly, it all clicked and I realized, "Dammit, this is amazing!" I mean really, the A side is stellar (and the B side but that's neither here nor there), and I think this is The Twilight Sad's most accessible (jeez, there's that word again) record, and certainly their catchiest album. (Catchy seems really reductive but I suppose it's better to say that their clearest melodies are on this record.) And uh, let's talk about James Graham's vocals. They really are quite beautiful on this record (see: "Sometimes I Wished I Could Fall Asleep") and I don't think he's ever sounded better.

I mean I could go on forever about how great I think this album is, about how amazing the way "There's a Girl in the Corner" builds, or how "Last January" should've been a bigger song than it was (a la "The Woodpile"), or how amazing the vocals in the first chorus of "It Was Never the Same" are. But the bottom line is that the album is a great achievement and everyone should listen to it.

Favorite Tracks: There's a Girl In the Corner, It Was Never The Same, Sometimes I Wished I Could Fall Asleep

4. Spoon-They Want My Soul
Perfect record is perfect. Like "Nobody Want to Be Here...," I wasn't completely enamored with this right away. I really liked "Inside Out" and "Knock Knock Knock" but it all blended together for me, and upon initially listens I was just like, "meh, whatever. Spoon." And again, I gave it a few more tries and once again, it clicked and suddenly it was like, "WHOA! WHAT AN ALBUM!" As I've already said, it is perfect. And "Inside Out" is probably the most perfect song released this year. Not to mention, Britt Daniels' vocals are so killer. He's truly one of the best frontmen in music today.

Favorite Tracks: Inside Out, Knock Knock Knock, Rainy Taxi

5. tUnE-yArDs-Nikki Nack
Like I've said before, I adore Merrill Garbus. She is an outstanding talent and her music is so original and creative. She manages to be confident and vulnerable at the same time, sexy and insecure. She's also one of the most consistent artists these days. I may not have loved this one as much as w h o k i l l  but it was still incredibly enjoyable, with amazing vocals and amazing lyrics. I rank this only at #5 because I've kind of stopped listening to it, so I don't know how great its lasting power is but as a complete work, it's very, very good.

Favorite Tracks: Real Thing, Hey Life, Left Behind

6. Sylvan Esso-Sylvan Esso
This record was a complete surprise, and a delightful one at that. It's catchy, infectious, and Amelia Meathe's vocals are amazing. It also reminds me of the good old days of CocoRosie.

Favorite Tracks: Coffee, Could I Be, Dress

7. The Antlers-Familiars
The Antlers are such a solid, consistent band, and consequently, one of my favorites. Okay, so this record wasn't as immediate as Burst Apart (but Burst Apart is perfection), and I was a wee bit disappointed by it but it's an album that quietly reveals its greatness. And there's a lot of beauty in it. Peter Silberman has one of my favorite voices in music at the moment, and he never fails to devastate me with his vocals (and his lyrics too). A lot of people slept on this record, and I don't think The Antlers get the attention they deserve.

Favorite Tracks: Revisited, Director, Hotel

8. We Were Promised Jetpacks-Unravelling
I love We Were Promised Jetpacks but my biggest complaint about them has always been a lack of variety in their music. All of their songs were very loud, and emotional, and fast-paced. I wanted a bit more nuance from them (and this is coming from someone who loves Japandroids). Well, they delivered it on Unravelling. As much as I love These Four Walls, I think their third album is most certainly their best. Their songwriting alone is way stronger than on their first two releases. Maybe it's not as immediate but it's also far more rewarding, and way less repetitive.

(I rank this so low simply because it's fallen out of rotation a bit.)

Favorite Tracks: I Keep It Composed, Night Terror, A Part of It

9. St. Vincent-St. Vincent
Annie Clark, what am I going to do with you? Yes, I think she's one of the most talented musicians making music right now, and I think St. Vincent is superficially a great album but it left me so cold. The songs are great, don't get me wrong, but nothing on in comes close to "Marrow" or "The Party" or "Surgeon" or "Neutered Fruit." Nothing hits emotionally on St. Vincent (maybe "Prince Johnny" comes close.) I was so disappointed in this album, especially since Actor and Strange Mercy are two of my favorite albums of all-time. But at the same time, I do really like it. Am I contradicting myself You get me, right?

Part of it is that I don't really buy this persona Annie Clark has constructed for this album. It doesn't quite feel genuine to me, and if I can't find genuineness in your music, I can't really love it.

Favorite Tracks: Prince Johnny, Regret, Every Tear Disappears

10. The War On Drugs-Lost in the Dream
Obligatory The War on Drugs mention.

I'm kidding. This is a great album. I mean, very well-written and executed. Another one that kind of leaves me cold but still a really good work of art. That's just the best way to describe it for me. It's nothing I can get really into but I can acknowledge that it's a great album.

Favorite Tracks: Under the Pressure, Red Eyes

Honorable Mentions:
First Aid Kit-Stay Gold
FKA Twigs-LP1
Dry the River-Alarms In the Heart
Kevin Drew-Darlings

Albums Released in Previous Years That I Want to Mention Anyway:
We Were Promised Jetpacks-These Four Walls
The Twilight Sad- Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters
Chvrches-The Bones of What You Believe
Dry the River-Shallow Bed

Most Disappointing Records:
Damien Rice-My Favorite Faded Fantasy
Future Islands-Singles (I even bought this record and I still can't find it in me to enjoy it. Glad everyone else does. It is sort of unfair to say it was disappointing because I had no expectations for it and I've never been a huge fan of theirs. It's more of a "I bought this but I don't get it" thing.)
Wye Oak-Shriek (After loving their last record, this was such a let down. I barely listened to it after it was released.)

Friday, December 5, 2014

Favorite Concerts/Sets of 2014

1. Owl John + Mike Pace and the Child Actors//The Bell House
(Note: the opening act for this show is completely irrelevant. Completely.) Sometimes I just know a concert is going to be amazing before it even starts. This was one of those shows. Two hours of Scott Hutchison and a guitar, pretty much playing only requests, in a room that only stood 500? It doesn't, and won't, get any better than that. (I mean, if you're a big Scott Hutchison fan, of course.) I remember walking out of The Bell House in complete shock and awe that night. And the set! "Scottish Winds?" "Good Arms Vs. Bad Arms?" "Floating the Forth?" "Footshooter?" Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. And "The Loneliness and the Scream" and "The Woodpile" are pretty much the most perfect songs in a live setting. And I won't even get into all of the other amazing songs played that night. I walked out of the venue thinking, "Jesus Christ, Hutchison is the best songwriter right now." He's also one of the better performers I've seen (I immediately likened him to Glen Hansard, so you know I'm serious about it. Thou shall not bare false comparisons to Glen Hansard. That's my second commandment, after "He is Glen Hansard, there is nobody better than Glen Hansard.") Everyone deserves to see their favorite musician play solo in an intimate space.

It also helps that I managed to meet Scott before the show. I'm not sure how it happened or what I said to him but it happened. And I'm still fangirling about it.

2. We Were Promised Jetpacks + The Twilight Sad//Webster Hall
I'm putting this out there right now: this show happened at just the right time for me. I basically listened to only the new Twilight Sad record in the weeks leading up to this show. So I was really psyched to see The Twilight Sad (even though I had seen them the month before, I don't know, it's very complicated, I suppose). Throw in WWPJ (who were one of my favorite bands of 2014) and you've got one hell of a bill.

I saw WWPJ back in March and it was kind of an odd show. They didn't have it, and the tone of the show seemed off to me. They'd do songs like "Quiet Little Voices" and "Ships With Holes Will Sink" and the crowd would get really into it but then they'd do new songs and the crowd would just shut down completely. There was no momentum. I felt like they had the capacity to be a great band, they just needed a bit more charisma and personality. Well, fast forward eight months and it was like a totally different band on that stage. All of their songs worked so well (especially the new ones), and they sounded very tight. They looked like they really wanted to be up on that stage, and that they were having fun. I still can't quite figure out their fans, and why they don't respond to some great songs (i.e. "I Keep It Composed) but lose their shit for stuff on These Four Walls (I know, that's a killer album). I still think they lack something, maybe whatever it is but I really enjoy them and I think they are really improving with every record.

But for me, this show was about The Twilight Sad. Now, I've been a casual listener/fan of theirs since 2012 (does this all sound like a song and dance I gave about another Scottish band?), and for some ungodly reason I got tickets to their show at Rough Trade because well...Scotland. (Scottish men, you are my weakness.) But holy shit, if I didn't fall in love with Nobody Wants To Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave. And I enjoyed every damn second of their set at Webster Hall (as I held said album in my hands because I just had to buy it and worried it was going to sell out after the show.) They're sort of an intense live experience, and I know they get compared to Frightened Rabbit all the time (I don't see nor hear it), but I feel like watching James Graham is similar to watching Matt Berninger.  They are a really great, unfairly underrated band (I suspect accessibility is the case with them but fuck that) and let me just say, I haven't listened to anyone but them in the two weeks since this show. You know it's love when I binge on you after seeing you live (see: Andrew Bird in the summer of 2009).

This has nothing to do with how much I enjoyed this entire night but...I met James Graham after the show and he was very, very lovely.

3. Kevin Drew + Andy Kim//The Bowery Ballroom
2014 was the year of impulse concert going (see: The Twilight Sad at Rough Trade). I also thought 2014 was going to be the year of Kevin Drew (it was more like the month of Kevin Drew) but regardless, this was an incredibly fun show. Wanna talk about personality! I'd seen Kevin with Broken Social Scene open for TV on the Radio, which is one of my favorite sets I've ever seen, so I know he is a great performer. No, "Darlings" isn't as great as any of the BSS stuff but the live show was, as I just said, very, very fun. Complete with crowd spooning and hugs!

Andy Kim, while a bizarre pick for an opener, was also strangely very fun. Sometimes all I want is a fun concert and to have a good time.

4. Phosphorescent//Webster Hall
I often get annoyed when I see a band and their songs sound exactly the same live as they do on the album (looking at you, Bell x1). Well, Phosphorescent changes his songs up so much to the point where some of them are unrecognizable, and frankly, it's amazing. Matthew Houck is truly amazing live, period, end of story, and really, he's just so damn talented. And look, "Wolves," "Song for Zula" (that song will never not be incredible in any context), and "Ride On/Right On" back to back to back just about killed me.

I also saw Phosphorescent open for The National about a month later (this was a running theme of the year I see), and they were still pretty damn awesome.

5. James Vincent McMorrow//Town Hall
I was very apprehensive about this show. For one, it was at a seated venue, which I always find can be hit or miss when it comes to enjoyment. I like to feel like an active participant at shows. I like that feeling of collectivity. The feeling of being in the same room with your favorite artists. For me, seated shows can often just feel like I'm there, sitting, watching you play. If I wanted that, I'd go to the theater. Another reason I was a bit apprehensive was that although I love Post Tropical, I don't love his first record and wasn't super familiar with it.

Well, the show began and JVM is just playing song after song and I guess the crowd was into it,  but JVM wasn't really doing much in terms of entertaining us. But then something changed, and I was suddenly really enjoying myself. I think it has to do with his voice. Jesus Christ, that voice! And once he started talking and interacting with the crowd, I found him very engaging and the show became a bit more intimate. Look, not everyone needs to be like Glen Hansard or Scott Hutchison when it comes to stage banter but I do like it when artists acknowledge their crowds. When they don't, it almost feels invasive on the part of the audience. Or like they don't want us to be there. I also find it very uncomfortable as well. But anyway...back to James Vincent McMorrow. He just came off so charming, and with a voice (again, my goodness, that voice!) and those excellent, excellent songs, it made for a great night.

He also did one of his new songs, "When I Leave," and it was so frickin' good that I bought it right away. It's a bit more straightforward than his stuff on Post Tropical but I'm excited for whatever direction he goes in.

6. Sylvan Esso//Webster Hall
This was actually in support of tUnE-yArDs, and you know me with tUnE-yArDs: I cannot say a bad thing about Merrill Garbus. She is fantastic live. Really, her live shows are practically unparalleled. But that night, I wasn't feeling the whole atmosphere. It was really crowded, and there were a few people around me who were very, very annoying, and in total disregard for the people around them, and that pretty much soured me on the whole show. (Let it be known that tUnE-yArDs sounded really fantastic anyway. It wasn't them, not at all.)

Sylvan Esso however...boy are they a blast live. I know a lot of people are turned off by the whole karaoke singer vibe (look, I get it; it's one of the reasons I haven't seen Chvrches live) but when the songs are that fantastic, fuck it, just go along for the ride.