i want to cuddle up and into this song. part dream pop part sultry-electro pop all sorts of pop goodness. with moments that evokes the Chromatics, Donna Lewis, 2 Bears/Hot Chip, Dan Deacon’s latest is just a lot of joy and awesomeness in one excellent song.
Belle and Sebastian on the radio…
Well, not exactly your car radio but likely your satellite or streaming radio. Our favourite Glaswegians are back with yet another collection of mirth filled, lush pop pleasantries. But, with a twist. Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance follows its quirky title by refashioning the traditional 60s pop or up-beat folk balladry with a decidedly more electronic and dance like feel. Wait, what are the boys and girls of B&S changing their brand and getting in line with the modern trend? Not exactly. If anything, B&S are indie-music’s most proficient purveyors of nostalgia (well next to She & Him), constantly digging through pop forms of the past for inspiration. Girls has the sound of a B&S record remixed with an ear to Blondie or late 70s disco more than contemporary dance. Simply listen to the tracks catchiest and most intriguingly titled track “Enter Sylvia Plath.” Would you ever in your wildest dream imagine a song nominally (at the very least) about Plath sounding like a dance club staple and having the carefree whimsy with which Stuart and company have imbued it? If anyone could turn a depressed and demure subject into the stuff of frivolity and fun, it is Belle and Sebastian. (Let’s not forget that it was “Seymour Stein” from the band’s third album, The Boy from the Arab Strap, which was playing and inspired Barry’s (Jack Black’s) tirade about “sad bastard music” in High Fidelity (which was followed by Katrina and the Wave’s “Walking on Sunshine”).) Or, what about the Caribbean steel drum-tinged epic seven minute duet “Play for Today”?
Enough with the digression, what about the record? Does it work?
On the whole, yes. As with many of the bands records since Fold Your Hands Child…, there are moments where you start to lose the thread a bit, but they have such a unique and wondrous formula that works: a Belle and Sebastian song always has the feel of a song you’ve heard before and has returned to visit. It is not simply the style that is nostalgic but the mode and feeling it creates. When you hear “Nobody’s Empire” and “Allie”, your mind’s eye cannot help but turn backwards to a simpler time in your life or cultural history. Perhaps this is because the song sounds so similar to what B&S have done before? But then again, they’ve always felt that way, even from the outset? If ever there were a songwriter and songwriting collective that embodies the Beach Boy’s classic “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”, it is Stuart and Belle and Sebastian. And, I, for one, am glad they continue to recall and bring me back to a groovy and happy place.
But listen for yourself: Belle & Sebastian – Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance
The 2014 recap comes to an end with my attempted summation of the year I spent going to more live music than ever before. After the dust settled, I attended 111 shows that featured 257 bands. Now for the actuaries out there, my “show” accounting goes as follows: one “show” equals one event worth of live music. In other words, a single day of seeing multiple bands at Pitchfork counts as 1 show. However, I do keep a running tab of all the bands I saw over the year. Some acts I saw multiple times, such as the National (x4), Lucius (x3), Lydia Loveless (x3), Wilco (x3), but despite “repeats” it is fair to say that I saw at least 200 different bands last year. Not bad for these 37 year old bones that don’t get paid to go see bands or work in an industry that subsidizes my concert-going. While the volume might impress some, I am struck more by how many truly magical moments I experienced and to the wonderful company I had with me along way. (Thanks to all you crazy, lovely friends, who share in these adventures with me, especially the dance parties! You are special beyond words.) From tiny halls to outdoor festivals to historical theaters to overstuffed showcases, I had the amazing fortune to see some of the best musical minds of my generation (and those that came before and are coming up) perform. So here were my most memorable moments…
- The National (w/ Daughter), April 15th at the Chicago Theatre – The opening night of the National’s four night sold-out residency at the Chicago Theater (I went to nights 2 and 3 as well) absolutely melted my rock n roll heart. No band packs their live performance with depth of emotion and dynamism like these gents from Ohio. I had the amazing fortune of being 7th row center and having an intimate experience with a band that plays to arena-sized crowds. Crowd pleasers like “Mr. November”, “Fake Empire”, and “Sea of Love” always get me going but the epic majesty of “Terrible Love” or the acoustic sing-along “Vaderlyle Crybaby Geeks” that have become staple show-closers are what soothe my soul.
- Lucius, August 2nd at Lincoln Hall and October 8th at the Metro – Nobody knows how loud my heart gets when I hear this band. I absolutely fell in love (all over again) with this band in 2014. It is a thing of utter joy to watch these five folks perform on stage and to hear Jess and Holly’s mesmerizing harmonies on “Don’t Just Sit There” or “Two of Us on the Run”. Or, to watch them get worked up and dance with the crowd and crowd-surf on their backs while singing!?! Oh, and at the Metro show, Jeff Tweedy came out and performed an acoustic version of “Jesus, Etc.” with Jess and Holly on backing vocals (#swoon). It is hard to top that. Well maybe my making their way into the center of the crowd and closing with acoustic sing-alongs. Yeah, they are a treasure.
- The Get Up Kids, September 13th at Riot Fest – Matt Pryor and company played all of Something to Write Home About to a crowd of kids that had likely Sharpie-d or tattooed every line of that record on to their adolescent skin. The entire crowd was scream-singing at the top of their lungs with fists in the air to every single moment. And, for a brief 40 minutes, it was as though everything was right with the world.
- Sharon Van Etten, July 18th at Pitchfork – It is the rare moment when a songwriter can bear their soul and heart in front of thousands of eager festival attendees in broad daylight and have everyone quiet and attentive. Sharon and her band absolutely owned a Festival filled with artistic giants by doing what is most essential: making us listen.
- Weezer, September 14th at Riot Fest – For all my disappointment with this band’s work since the Green Album, hearing Rivers playing the Blue Album from start to finish was another moment of having your youth injected back into your soul. From the angst of “My Name is Jonas” to the dreamy pining of “Only in Dreams”, all us 30 something aging rock/hipsters relived our heartaches and our first loves through a raucous sea of nostalgic bliss.
- Sylvan Esso & the War on Drugs, September 6th at the Hideout Block Party – The Hideout Block Party is far and away my favorite Chicago festival because it has the feeling of community and home. Sylvan Esso wooed us by day and War on Drugs wowed us at night. For those unfamiliar, the Hideout Block Party tends to be more rock and country, yet Sylvan Esso got the day drinking crowd grooving with their sumptuous and sultry beats. Their live rendition of “Coffee” floored me. 2014 was the year of the War on Drugs, the band. Set against the backdrop of the Chicago skyline, these guys played a guitar jam infused show that made your remember why you love rock and roll and evoked a timeless quality.
- Moments I never thought would happen at Riot Fest Days 2 and 3, September 12th and 13th – Seeing Patti Smith play “Because the Night” (dedicating it to her late husband Fred Sonic Smith of the MC5), Television play “Marquee Moon”, Billy Bragg play “New England”, and the Afghan Whigs play songs from n
- Perfect Pussy, July 20th at Pitchfork – A blistering, non-stop, nothing-left-behind, bullet of a set with Meredith Graves pouring every ounce of her soul and heart into the songs. It was sweaty and tear-filled. This is how every punk rock show should feel.
- The Front Bottoms and You Blew It!, July 11th at Concord Music Hall – …and speaking of energy. Watching the kids (because it was an all-ages show) screaming back every single word of the punk/emo tinged rock of these two bands was life-affirming. I’m happy to know that teenagers can still rock out and scream at shows without having their phones in the air and appreciating the immediacy of the moment.
- The Flat Five, November 6th at the Hideout – One of the most talented, joy-bringing, mirth-making collection of artists I have ever seen perform, and, thankfully I see them quite often. The five members of the band, which includes Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor, play in and around Chicago in many different permutations. This project is devoted to singing old pop classics and standards from your parent’s day. The songs may at times sound silly and simple (remember we lived in a more “nuanced” world back then) but they are filled with such wonder and joy. If you live in Chicago, watching them perform is a must.
- Wilco, December 8th, 9th, and 11th at the Riviera – Speaking of Chicago based bands…. I again had the good fortune to see these guys play on multiple occasions this year. Watching them is utter joy. They are masterful musicians in every sense of the word and love playing and giving their hearts and soul to their fans. I can’t pick one night because each had its brilliant moments of digging back into their archives with new arrangements (e.g., an acoustic “Misunderstood” or a punk infused “Passenger Side”) or playing deeper less heard cuts (e.g., “Poor Places”, “Reservations”, etc.) and outtakes from 20 years of brilliant music making.
- Lydia Loveless, April 25th and 27th at Schubas – I love a good country rock song and I adore female fronted bands. Two nights of whiskey and romance-infused rock songs with this young woman and her ferocious band nearly did me in, in the best way possible. Lydia’s songs are filled with raw and unabashed desire and yearning that will speak to every broken-hearted, pining, and hopeless romantic in the house. And, her covers of “The Killing Moon” and Ke$ha’s “Blind” were awesome.
- Angel Olsen at Lincoln Hall, May 5th – Every time I see Angel perform it feels like an otherworldly experience. With a voice that will both intoxicate and haunt, her songs are confessions, indictments, reckonings, and ruminations of this mysterious and perplexing existence we lead.
- Ex-Hex, October 25th at the Empty Bottle – These ladies simply put on the best adrenaline infused guitar rock show from start to finish of the whole year.
- American Football with Braid, December 30th at Bottom Lounge – The last show of the year and possibly the most “beautiful” show too. Despite only one album to their name and nearly a decade and a half of dormancy, American Football packed the Bottom Lounge with “older kids” intoning every sing line of their album, a delicate and gorgeous collection of songs about growing up and ebbs and flow of love.
…and I couldn’t leave out these amazing shows too
- Lykke Li at Lollapalooza, August 1st
- St. Vincent at the Riviera, April 5th
- The Hotelier at Township, March 15th
- Neutral Milk Hotel at the Riviera, February 6th
- Phox at Lincoln Hall, August 9th
- Mutual Benefit at Brooklyn Vegan Party (SXSW), March 13th
- Anthony Saint at Schubas, August 26th
- Tycho at Concord Music Hall, April 10th
- Waxahatchee at Empty Bottle, April 26th
- Neko Case at Chicago Theater, May 13th
- Chvrches at the Vic, July 31st
- Cloud Nothings at Pitchfork Day 2, July 19th
- Jon Hopkins at Pitchfork Day 3, July 20th
- Blood Orange at Lollapalooza, August 1st
- San Fermin at Lollapalooza, August 1st
- First Aid Kit @ the Vic, November 22nd
- James Vincent McMorrow at Lincoln Hall, March 27th
…and if you really want to see a list of all the shows, well here it is:
And to all my friends that joined me at shows, to the bands I watched and chatted with after their performances, to the strangers I geeked out over music with or with whom I danced, to the young woman at Lolla that called me the best fan ever, to Chicago, and to all the faithful and kind readers, don’t ever forget…
yours in music,
Who listens to full LPs anymore? I for one do. It is honestly my preferred mode of listening. Of course, I appreciate a good mixtape or a well curated playlist for a mood, occasion, or exposure (see here). But full albums provide a unique experience, a journey, an extended artistic exploration or rumination on a theme or concept. If someone recommended a good writer, would you really only read the three or four pages of the book? That seems odd to me. Same theory applies to an album. A song needs to be placed in its context and sequencing. So I prefer the long form or long play.
One of the things that will be evident to the reader is the preponderance and predominance of female artists and female fronted groups on this list. While I definitely tend towards female vocalists, I think this marks a great year (and a continuing trend!) in a more balanced musical landscape. But these aren’t simply “pop sensations” cast for their “cute”, “sexy”, “girlish” looks. All of these are women with indisputable artistic integrity and merit who let their work (i.e., skill in composing and writing) speak for itself – not through calculated manipulation of the marketplace or the Twitterverse. I digress.
Why these records? Simply these are the records I listened and returned to the most or obsessed over for extended re-plays wanting to get lost in their world of sound and stories. I’ve rocked out with my fist in the air, shook my hips or bopped my head with abandon, contemplated the mysteries of existence and being, grooved slowly across the floor, screamed with adolescent angst, pined with the hopeless heartache, and cried in the shared experience of sadness, longing, and awe. In short, I’ve shared many wonderful moments with these albums and want to share them with you. (As always, Spotify links provided.)
Enjoy and see you in 2015! a.a.
Lost In the Dream by The War on Drugs (Rock) is quite simply a staggering, timeless record, which also had the most staying power on this listener’s turntable and headphones. Imagine if you packed the freewheelin’ spirit of Dylan with the guitar virtuosity of Dire Straits and the anthemic quality of Springsteen. Few albums fulfill the unabashed joy of rocking while ruminating over the quandary that is existence as this masterpiece does.
Are We There by Sharon Van Etten (Indie Rock) is a true gift to those who desire honest and soul searching songwriting cast against a sea of lush, soothing, densely layered compositions. SVE is an amazing talent (and from her stage banter a spritely soul) who keeps providing us with an opportunity to learn how to open ourselves and delve into the amorous places we dare or dread to go.
Burn Your Fire For No Witness by Angel Olsen (Neo Folk) is the work of truly unique voice. Musically Olsen is the queen of using sparseness and space to evoke a world bursting and ripe with emotion. On this record she also aggressively rocks out. Lyrically, though, Angel is a truly gifted writer with the ability to look into the emotional abyss and not simply stare but scream back in willful passion against the darkness.
Somewhere Else by Lydia Loveless (Insurgent Country/Rock) has been my go to record when I need a jolt in the arm. Lydia is brash, bold, and speaks her mind without any worry. She embraces her longings and desires when cooler heads would refrain, loves with full and reckless abandon, turns from those who would tell her how to live, and reminds us that a life without regret and played by the book, is probably not worth living.
I Never Learn by Lykke Li (Dream Pop). By now you are getting the picture, I love or really loved records filled with raw, deep, and intense emotions. I Never Learn, Lykee’s third album, is no exception. In my estimation this her most fully realized record with gorgeously rich and lush orchestration, layers of cascading sounds, and heavenly reveals. This is definitely a record that will soothe and inspire your wounded soul.
They Want My Soul by Spoon (Rock) – It has been a long time (probably since Girls Can Tell) that I’ve loved and listened to a Spoon record with this much repetition and gusto. For me, Britt and the boys are at their best when getting into the soulful and sensual depths of rock and roll (e.g. “Inside Out” and “Knock Knock Knock”). While I love over the top 70s rock (like “Cherry Bomb”), I prefer it when they go for the more subtle and deftly crafted songs like “New York Kiss” (oh that synth line) or the curiously confrontational “Do You”.
St. Vincent by St. Vincent (Indie Rock) is not a statement it is a giant scream from the depths of Annie Clark’s artistic soul. No album this year crafted such a dense and consistent aesthetic that pushes the boundaries of “pop(ular) music” with quirky, bizarre loops, guitar riffs, synthetic and non-Western percussion (a la the Talking Heads), and stylized vocals. Yet, St. Vincent isn’t simply an “act” or “art statement” in the vein of a Bowie reinvention, Annie Clark uses the elevated levels of production to offer a comical and searing observation of contemporary American culture. She is a treasure to be heeded.
Tough Love by Jessie Ware (Pop) is an album for those who recognize that love isn’t simply teenage fantasies and romance, but a complicated and complex web of desires, actions, and words. Jessie will guide you through heartache and infatuation with sweet and soothing soul that will leave you blissfully at peace.
Morning Phase by Beck (Neo Folk) – I never thought a folk record could be epic and grandiose. Generally, folk is the realm of the small details, the minutiae, or the seemingly picayune (though affecting) moments of our life. They are the things of lore and legend. Morning Phase is a series of observations on life as seen from extend aerial view, space ship, or the perspective of old wise soul. Beck has always been a master of pop innovation. On this record, he takes us on a spiritual journey to ask bigger questions, only we can answer those, but he’s given us a gorgeous soundtrack with which to explore them.
The Moon Rang the Bell by Hundred Waters (Indie-Electronic) / Sylvan Esso by Sylvan Esso (Indie-Electronic) / Cool Choices by S (Indie Rock) – All three of these records share a common theme for me. Each in its own way creates an atmosphere and environment of sound that while extremely intricate conveys a sense of sparseness and simplicity. The austerity of each allows the listener to inhabit each artist’s aural world as though you were in private room watching flickering images of the ideas conveyed through song. Hundred Waters evoke angelic and ethereal visions with their Cocteau Twins like elements combined with lush, intricate composition. Sylvan Esso create the warm and soothing sensation of home and hearth with Amelia Meath’s dreamy vocals and Nick Sanborn intoxicating (and hip shaking) grooves. S (the work of Jenn Ghetto) feels like a musical bildungsroman replete with stories of growing up as an outsider (and feeling as though you never will escape), questioning and embracing the ephemeral nature of love, the heartbreaking reality of betrayal and distrust, and the constant need never to give up.
II by Makthaverskan (Indie Rock) – From the minute I heard the first note on II, I knew I would become hopelessly infatuated with Makthaverskan. These Swedes bring blend British New Wave with the pace of punk, the jam qualities of shoe-gazer rock, and the angst of youth. If Nena fronted the Cure with Kevin Shields (of MBV) and J. Mascis alternatively providing guitar parts, then you’ve got an idea how this band is the perfect Venn diagram of what I love in music.
LP1 by FKA Twigs (Indie-Electronic) – If you want to set the mood with a completely sensual intoxicating album, you have found your record. I think this is the Dummy of this generation. It encapsulates and exemplifies the unique blend of downtempo electronic and R&B that is on the fringe of the overproduced saccharine dance and EDM that fills the airwaves.
Say Yes to Love by Perfect Pussy (Hardcore- Punk – Indie Rock) – In what I think was an amazing year for punk or punk infused Indie rock, Meredith Graves and the members of Perfect Pussy released what is far and away the most aggressive, in-your-face record that sticks to the heart of Hardcore/Punk’s mission: brief, acerbic, wide-eyed, and unapologetic observations and indictment of our culture.
“What Is This Love?” by How To Dress Well (Indie-RB) is the follow up to Tom Krell’s heart wrenching Total Loss, a reflection on those absences – of short and extended durations, lost or abandoned relationships, or the permanent loss- in our lives. On this album, Tom focuses on the natural counterpoint: Love with its highs and lows, ebbs and flows, passion and infatuations, and its ephemeral and protean nature. What he does so well, though, is to make this lyrical exploration a great slow grooving dance party. If you can’t groove out to “Repeat Pleasure” or “Precious Love”, it might be time to question whether you are a replicant.
Blue Breath by Bellows (Neo Folk) – Over the past month I’ve fallen hopelessly in love with this record. There is something in Bellows unique brand of Lo-Fi Folk Rock that recalls Elliott Smith and early Bright Eyes with the delicate and intricate songwriting of Sufjan Stevens. Yes, those are fairly tall shoes to fill, but listen and see if you disagree.
Rips by Ex Hex (Rock) – With the exception of Spoon, no band rocked it harder from start to finish than Mary Timony’s newest project. This is an album for those that adore unabashed adrenaline generated punk-infused rock. It is a roller coaster ride of sweet riffs and guitar hooks from start to finish. …for fans of the Ramones, Cars, and Joan Jett.
Home Like No Place There Is by The Hotelier & Never Hungover Again by Joyce Manor (Emo-Punk) – Nothing has brought more joy to this boy’s musical heart than the return of unabashed raw energy of punk rock with heart-on-sleeve emotional release of euphoria and despondency. Yes, I mean I am thrilled that Emo is finally back! When you feel deeply, intensely, and with every fiber of your being, it’s cool. And, it is even cooler to express that at the top of your lungs with your voice in near shreds because the very act of singing these thoughts is the apex of being. Whenever I find myself in a rut, personally or mentally frustrated, I turn to these two records, dim the lights and sing along in teenage abandon. (You’ll know it is true if you’ve ever been to a show with me.) I saw The Hotelier perform three times this year and each occasion it made you believe in the power of music to bring people together to share in their unified release of emotion. Joyce Manor takes me back to my college days in Providence with long late night conversations about silly academic subjects, women that broke my friends’ hearts, dreams of the future, and all sorts of pop culture minutia that filled our minds because we were the sort of kids who sat around garages with Kitty Pride and twelve-sided dies. Oh, and this record is a perfect 19 minutes in length!!!
Nervous Like Me by Cayetana (Indie Rock-Punk) – Another record discovered at the end of 2014 that has become a staple of my winter listening. This is an all-female three piece set from Philadelphia that play upbeat and infectious pop punk. While this isn’t emo, there is just as much raw and vitriolic emotion pulsing through these songs. At moments, I feel like I’m listening to a blend of Rainer Maria and Pretty Girls Make Graves with an even more raucous rock energy.
Sundowners by Anthony Saint (Insurgent Country – Rock) – When I first heard Anthony perform, I was blown away by what an amazingly talented guitar player and singer he was. At the time, he was playing a brand of rock that bent more to 70s guitar. On Sundowners, he blends his mastery of 70s rock with a gorgeous turn towards Americana or Insurgent Country. I love the rawness and the Lo-FI fuzz (often employed by the late 60 Beatles/Harrison) that gives these tracks the sound of being played or recorded live (e.g., “Breakin Down”) or the ballady, 70s AM Wilco quality with Dylan-like twang of “Beg, Steal, and Borrow”. This album is that rare treasure: a full-fledged dose of country and rock without any excess or unnecessary notes, just the perfect sense of coming to a familiar musical home. Listen below and visit Anthony’s Bandcamp page.
Okay… so you all know by now that I have little restraint when it comes to music. There were many other records I really dug in 2014 and I would feel remiss in not at least mentioning them. Therefore, below are a list by musical universe of my favorite records. No links to the records but I am sure you can use the search feature in Spotify by now.
Return to Roots – Insurgent Cowboys, Folk-y Minstrels and Soulful Sojourners
- Metamodern Sounds in Country Music by Sturgill Simpson (Rock) – This was the stripped down, roots-y Country record I was looking for this year. Found it just in the nick of time. Got a love a country song that starts with the line “Woke up today decided to kill my ego, had never done me no good no how…”
- Ryan Adams by Ryan Adams (Rock) – Ryan Adams returns to what he does best, contemplating the troubled insides of his/our lives.
- PHOX by PHOX (Neo Folk) – Silky-sweet folk music with a decided 60s pop feel.
- Half the City by St Paul & the Broken Bones (Soul-RB) – For fans of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam Cooke, and just good old soul tinged rock and roll. Get your dancing shoes on.
- Stay Gold by First Aid Kit (Neo Folk) – The thirds and most complete record from these Swedish sisters. Wavering between 50s folks and 70s Americana, these ladies are amazing songwriters and storytellers.
- The Double EP by Courtney Barnett (Indie Rock) – CB weaves fantastic stories in a speak-talk reminiscent of Tom Waits and Bob Dylan with far sweeter melodies.
- HEAL by Strand of Oaks (Rock) – Wow. This album is all about loving rock music and how it fuels our spirit and soul. Listen to “Goshen ‘97” and think about all the kids in basements, garages, and bedrooms that find redemption and transcendence in rock. It is awesome!
- Madman by Sean Rowe (Neo Folk) – A vastly under appreciated and underrated songwriter. Sean Rowe has the voice that makes you want to fall into for hours and days.
- The Voyager by Jenny Lewis (Indie Rock) – From child star to Indie Rock heartthrob, is there anything Jenny Lewis can’t do? No seriously I’m not speaking rhetorically.
The Lover, the Dreamers, and Me – a collection of amazing dream pop albums.
- Alvvays by Alvvays (Dream Pop)
- True Love Kills the Fairytale by The Casket Girls (Dream Pop)
- Parades by Mina Tindle (Dream Pop)
- Zentropy by Frankie Cosmos (Dream Pop)
- Complete Surrender by Slow Club (Dream Pop)
- Too True by Dum Dum Girls (Dream Pop)
- EP II by Alice Boman (Dream Pop)
The Pop Stars
- Singles by Future Islands (Pop)
- Goddess by Banks (Pop)
- The Brink by The Jezabels (Pop)
Please Kill Me… Punk and Its Descendants
- Here and Nowhere Else by Cloud Nothing (Indie Rock-Punk)
- Hour of the Dawn by La Sera (Indie-Punk Rock)
- NVM by Tacocat (Indie Rock-Punk)
- I’ll Be the Tornado by Dads (Emo-Punk)
- Youth Culture Forever by Paws (Indie Rock-Punk)
The Art Rock Kids
- This is All Yours by Alt-J (Indie Rock)
- Sea When Absent by A Sunny Day in Glasgow (Indie Rock)
- Familiars by The Antlers (Indie Rock)
- nikki nack by Tune-Yards (Indie Rock)
- Post-Tropical by James Vincent McMorrow (Neo Folk)
After the buzz of the non-secular holiday season draws to a close, a certain peace and tranquility begins to set in. No more lists of presents to purchase or festive celebrations to attend or pleasant, yet disingenuous, smiles when confronted with garish sweaters or related accoutrements. While I don’t fancy myself a “Scrooge”, I enjoy the post-holiday bliss a lot more than the build-up, though the opportunity to share with family and friends is always the most rewarding. Thus, in the spirit of giving and chilling, this particular year-end post contains records that brought a state of meditative calm through intoxicating beats, sly and sensuous production, or downright (dance)floor pounding release. Unlike other records or tracks these are more about the feeling and experience and less about the stories. So without further ado… May the Chill Be With You. a.a.
Our Love by Caribou – For those that have been listening to Dance or Electronic music since the 90s, it has been a fascinating development of a genre once-deemed underground or transgressive (or even “non-music” for its absence of “real” sound and its reliance on computers, effects, and production) to its current state of genre of the 21st global hegemony. In the past decade, this music has become all-pervasive, infiltrating every sector of popular music from traditional pop to hip-hop to even Country, which seems an odd pairing. Lost in the evolution was the original essence of these early ground-breaking genres, whether Downtempo, Ambient, Techno, Drum and Bass, Trip-Hop, etc. While all music aims to transport the listener from the everyday into a state of heightened pleasure or awareness, all these sub-genres or offshoots of dance music had the unique power of transforming atmosphere and environment into a fully enveloping experience. It wasn’t so much a Wall of Sound as a World of Sound. While undeniably of its times, Our Love harkens back to a time when dance music lacked predictability and formula. Caribou’s newest album brings back the feel of dark-lit dance floors in clubs on the outskirts of the main streets or after the hours when the regular crowd was in attendance. From start to finish, it is a sumptuous and sultry DJ set in the guise of an album. The pacing fluctuates from upbeat full-fledged dance tracks to sedate, groovy slow jams. It is the perfect nightcap for your mental wanderings.
Awake by Tycho – Following in the theme of album as environment, Tycho’s latest effort embraces the chill, meditative state of his previous release, Dive, and pushes the listener into a dreamier, active state of mind. He is a master of finding the perfect space between ambient and infectious. Before you realize it, he will take you from contemplation to hip-shaking. Awake is a record that will both fuel your workday flow and your evening’s rest.
Built On Glass by Chet Faker – All I have to say about this album is: sexy. Chet Faker’s Built On Glass fits somewhere between Rhye’s brand of “Lover’s Rock R&B “ and James Blake steamy dub-step with tinges of Jazz riffs – hence his moniker. This record could easily have landed high on the more pop-focused review (forthcoming), but it feels more of the world of dance and Downtempo because the grooves and atmospheric elements. Wherever it lands, it’s a gorgeous collection of songs.
Xen by Arca – Admittedly this is the most “out there” and experimental album on this list. With most of the tracks clocking in at under 3 minutes, it feels like the punk rock version of an electronic record. But, in reality it is akin to the early experimental dance tracks of Burial, which tended to be shorter explorations of soundscapes. There are moments of sheer transcendent beauty and departures into realms of cacophonous dirge and noise. It isn’t the easiest or most accessible listen, but you get the feel of a talented young artist searching through a synthetic, aural language for his voice. Very curious to see where he goes next…
Syro by Aphex Twin – When discussing this list with my cousin, who really opened my ears to this world, he remarked how much he disliked the new Aphex Twin, his first release in a very long time. And, I admit, on first listen, I was not totally captured because it lacked the brilliant in-your-face game-changing feel of Richard D. James Album or I Care Because You Do. But, on repeated and return listens, I found a certain pleasure in the way Aphex Twin updated the avant elements of his earlier work with the current motifs of the downtempo/ambient/electronic scene. The album has a unique through the looking glass of time feel. If anything it helps remind us listeners how important and influential Aphex Twin was in pushing electronic music to a new gear.
Alone for the First Time by Ryan Hemsworth – In many ways the title says it all for me. This album is like a secret bedroom recording with a confessional and deeply intimate quality. However, these seemingly reclusive snippets don’t wallow in self-abasement or frustration but in dance-floor romanticism. In certain moments, I am reminded of early 00s pieces from DNTL or Prefuse 73.
Asleep Versions (EP) by Jon Hopkins – Some would argue that EPs shouldn’t be counted on the same level as full length albums. Well, when the EP is longer than some records and you are as brilliant and talented as Jon Hopkins, these foolish rules don’t apply. These four tracks are a gorgeous exploration of how much can be made with so little. The tracks are slow and seemingly sparse but in those spaces of silence and austerity there is profundity of emotional resonance. The opening track with King Creosote providing vocals is just heartbreakingly beautiful.
Tangerine Sky by Blackbird Blackbird – A trippy-otherworldly sounding electronic records.
When sifting through my favorite records of the past year, I struggled with how to incorporate genres that for whatever reason fall outside the current sphere of popular music. Although the albums included in this listed were once a “dominant” form, they’ve receded into “classical” or niche status. What unifies many of these records is a focus on instrumental music over lyric based songwriting (with two exceptions). Being a non-practitioner, I tend to struggle with describing anything other than a general feeling these compositions bring me. Therefore, the following is a rather brief post of those albums you are unlikely to hear on the radio (unless of course you listen to NPR or some hip college DJs) but deserve a listen. (Who knows maybe you’ll impress the older folks.) Enjoy a.a.
Atomos by A Winged Victory for the Sullen (File Under: minimalist classical meets soundscape) – From the first listen, I was awash in feelings of awe and enjoyment. AWVFTS compose epic pieces of atmospheric instrumental music. Borrowing from all sorts of genres including minimalism, classical, chamber, noise, and, even, Downtempo, Atomos is a blissfully mind-altering and pacifying journey through extended spaces of soothing reverie and meditative introspection.
Classics by She & Him (File Under: Standards) – Okay, fine, technically every single one of these songs was a “pop” song back in the day. However, with a couple of exceptions, standards have largely disappeared except in your grandparents or parent’s record collections. I am and have always been a sucker for Zooey and M.Ward’s brand of backward looking pop. While each iteration of the She & Him project includes a couple of covers, this is a whole collection of them and they are about as perfectly done as possible. Only the coldest of hearts wouldn’t melt hearing Zooey’s dreamy rendition of “Teach Me Tonight” or haunting take on “Unchained Melody”. And, M. Ward’s melancholic, jazzy riff on “She” makes you want to comfort his lonesome seeming pining.
The Ambassador by Gabriel Kahane (File Under: Experimental and Classical Piano, theatrical storytelling) – Whether he will appreciate this or not, The Ambassador reminds me of a far more melodic, gorgeous, and sumptuous version of Tom Waits’ Nighthawks at the Diner (one of my all-time favorites) because of his unique ability to meld literary storytelling and popular music conventions. (Wait, didn’t you say this was a non-pop post? Shh… it is my list I get to make the rules.) Unlike the nameless and often perspective-less nature of most traditional song narrators, Gabe arms his with back stories and histories giving them a life beyond just the fleeting 4 minutes of the song’s duration. These songs are lyrically rich and deftly constructed to convey varying emotions of longing, sadness, nostalgia, existential ruminations, and comical musings. The Ambassador is the rare sort of album in the 21st Century where full-fleshed storytelling drives the albums existence and it paints a brilliant picture of a disappearing world just on the outskirts of our collective unconscious. Aside from the heartbreaking brilliance of the title track, make sure not to miss the epic “Empire Liquor Mart” or the amusing 80s inspired “Villains”.
Music For Heart and Breath by Richard Reed Parry (File Under: Contemporary Classical) – I discovered this record because Bryce Dessner of the National plays on it. (For National fans, aside from being an amazing indie-rock musician, Bryce also does a fair amount of contemporary classical composition, including a great album with Kronos Quartet.) I’ve spent countless early mornings and nighttime travel by plane and train falling into the dream inducing and cinematic embrace of these pieces. Another perfect companion for winter…
Emmaar by Tinariwen (File Under: Malian Rock) – Hailing from the West Africa, Mali to be precise, Tinariwen blend traditional West African sounds with more Western instrumentation (electric guitars and drums). To say this record is unlike anything you’ve listened to this year, is an understatement. It is spellbinding and enrapturing. For fans of traditional Blues you can hear how much West African tradition inspired and gave life to the blues.
Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything by Thee Silver Mt. Zion (File Under: Indie-Instrumental, Avant-Garde, Experimental) – From one of the founding members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor (one of this guy’s favorite bands), this is yet another band whose music has transcendental and expansive power. Definitely the loudest and musically aggressive of the albums on the list, Thee Silver are not for the faint of heart or those seeking a calm ambient sound. Extended dirge-like guitars jams are interspersed with moments of dramatic space cowboy ballads. If you are a fan of Godspeed, Explosions in the Sky, Broken Social Scene, or Arcade Fire (the less pop moments), this is a must listen.
Rarely do you hear a cover song that transforms the mood and feeling of an original to such a degree that it is as though the song is completely new. On this stripped down country version of “The Promise”, originally performed by When In Rome and featured at the end of Napoleon Dynamite, Sturgill Simpson takes the original to new heights of longing and desperation. Eliminating the catchy, dance-y synth of the When In Rome version and foregrounding his gritty, earth-worn vocals, Sturgill gives a timeless quality to the song. But don’t let me tell you what to think, listen to his rendition. Also, when he digs deep and lets go at 3:40… it is so gut-wrenching and beautiful. a.a.
p.s. check out his full record with more amazing songs that just now got on to my radar: Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music