Crafting a year-end list is important.
In music or movies or stuff you did that you liked, a little summation can go a long way towards some insight on just what the hell exactly you accomplished and/or experienced between January 1sts.
I really only make one. It’s my favorite albums of the year. I’ve tried to do individual songs in the past, but that is a whole thing. So I’ve stuck with albums, and EPs if the shoe fits. Because that’s really the beauty of it: it’s all so wildly subjective.
Rolling Stone and The Quietus came out with their lists earlier this week. Pitchfork, Stereogum and the rest will follow suit sooner than later.
The former two compilations are, well, not super close to a consensus. On the one side you have Rolling Stone spilling martinis and ashing cigars all over the music-blogerratti in the gutters below. On the other we see The Quietus meticulously combed through their own archives, linking this Bandcamp and that.
It’s easy to say that one is a bloated, senile, perversion of its former self, milking every last drop of credibility it has to nourish the careers of the safe and already solidly canonized. It’s easy to say that the other has taste in spades and taps into more disparate veins than almost any other publication out there besides the now basically (read: tragically) defunct Dusted Magazine.
It’s definitely easy.
But championing the little guy with the wide-ranging taste sort of defeats the purpose of these lists.
After all, there’s no empirical evidence that one record is better than the other. Production values, lyrical content, whatever genre means, these are all subjective. Certainly some to more wildly varying degrees, but still, who’s to say U2 didn’t put together a better cycle of songs than Gazelle Twin?
Well, maybe you and maybe me. But that’s one of the most wonderful things about art. We all get an opinion. We all get to have a taste. Some people know more than others, and with that they earn the luxury of public trust. And that’s good. Everyone should be able to consult an expert. But widely consumable as it can be, art is, ultimately, highly personal.
It’s easy to lose track of that.
Tito’s Vodka enthusiast and presumably the funniest guy in his office, Matt Korvette once tweeted, in part, “I’m not one of those jerks who post their year-end best-of list in early December.”
And I mean to stand by those words. Sort of.
Cuz I’m going to go ahead and throw down a list right now. But, for the purpose of semantics, not a final list. I have a pretty solid idea of what’s done it for me over the past 11 months. Not much will change that. I’ve looked through the expected release dates and such, and I’m not seeing much to disrupt things for me.
Naturally when and if Kanye drops a neu classic sometime before New Year’s Eve it’ll jump in and burn it all down, but until then, though with it very much in mind, I think I’ve got it down to 11. Ideally, you want a nice multiple of 5, so I’d like to get it down to 10, but so it goes.
Anyways, here’s what’s I’ve been mainly fucking with that was new in 2014. This is not in any order because I’m spineless and fickle:
1. The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream
The comparisons came fast and heavy. 80s-era Springsteen, Dire Straits, a little Echo & the Bunnymean-ish…all perfectly legitimate. In a year that saw a return to 90s sensibilities with notable nostalgia-updates like EMA’s Future’s Void, Cloud Nothing’s Here and Nowhere Else, or the Foo Fighters road-tripping/bankrolling their way back to relevance, the late-80s were kept alive and churning by, among others, The War On Drugs’ Adam Granduciel.
Lost In The Dream is a big, beautiful, ambitious record; a swirl of glittering guitars, a propulsive, self-assured rhythm section and blanketing, tone-affirming synth layers. It’s grandiose and intimate and works in any kind of weather.
My favorites: “Red Eye,” “An Ocean In Between The Waves,” “In Reverse”
2. Rich Gang – Rich Gang: Tha Tour Pt 1
When Birdman hits on a weirdo, he really hits. And he’s got two here! Granted, the momentum behind these two ATLiens of the newest order has been building for a few years now. Rich Homie Quan has had more commercial success than Young Thug to date, but the latter is probably the more exciting artist of the two. But I mean people probably said that about Outkast’s dynamic when they first came out, and look who’s definitely killing it more now??
But beyond the always dubious, oh-this-partnership-must-have-a-Lennon-McCartney-dynamic argument, Quan and Thug really do have chemistry, and good on sweet Baby Brian Williams for bankrolling it. This is the kind of collection that you can’t listen to just once in a single sitting.
My favorites: “Tell Em Lies,” “Whos On Top,” “Milk Marie”
3. Coldplay – Ghost Stories
Okay, so this album falls off mid-way through and only mounts the tiniest of valiant recoveries. It’s still such a moooood. Such a viiiiibe. People sleep on Coldplay. It’s weird. Coldplay’s been good. You don’t call up Chris Martin for mind-bending lyricism, you call him for delightfully crafted love songs. And that’s what you get here: simple, electronically-toe-dipping love songs.
This is an undeniably pleasant record, albeit nowhere near a transcendent one. But again, nobody asks this band for transcendence. Coldplay does what Coldplay does very well, no matter what Chuck Klosterman says. And, if I were to attempt a songs-of-the-year list, “Magic” would have a strong case for the top spot.
My favorites: “Always In My Head,” “Magic”
4. Dum Dum Girls – Too True
The best part about compiling this list is getting to go back through and re-listen to the records you loved but maybe haven’t picked up in a while. Too True is definitely one of those records.
Dum Dum Girls has always been a killer band. I Will Be was one of the crowning jewels of the century’s second garage-revival, and kicks ass to this day. And the addition of a slicker sound hasn’t diminished a thing. Too True is a hard-driving record that’s catchy to the core. There’s space underneath the riffing, and you can get a lot of the same late-80s references that the War On Drugs possess. Dee Dee continues to be an understated, ever-more-emotive singer. They just keep sounding tighter and better.
My favorites: “Rimbaud Eyes,” “Under These Hands”
5. Dark Blue – Pure Reality
John Sharkey III is the man. Plain and simple. He doesn’t make bad music and he’s finally putting everything he does well together with his latest project, Dark Blue.
You have the steady riffing and in-your-face aggression of Clockcleaner and the untrained baritone vocals and boiling-under-the-surface aggression of Puerto Rico Flowers; post-punk auteur Sharkey meeting the head-fucked, wrist-slitting-in-the-rain, crooner Sharkey.
Always damaged, always sinister, always great.
The early singles may pass the immediacy test with higher marks than anything on Pure Reality, but given a few more listens…oh man, this is a monster album. When I eventually figure out the order of my list, this is certainly top 3, if not number 1, you know, with a bullet.
My favorites: “Here On My Street,” “Sounds Like Hell On Earth,” “I Can’t Take Another Year,” “Always Ready To Leave”
6. The Hold Steady — Teeth Dreams
We all have musicians that we’re unreasonably loyal too. I will always get my hands on anything Stephin Merritt does (possibly excepting the operettas), anything John Darnielle does, and anything that The Hold Steady’s front man Craig Finn does.
The Hold Steady’s best albums may be behind them. But reasonably so: it’s pretty hard to find a better three-album stretch than Almost Killed Me-Separation Sunday-Boys and Girls In America. And, although the real meat of the catalog certainly exists in the first three albums, they always have a home in my eyes, heart, mind and year-end list.
They also may be the best live band working by a pretty comfortable margin. Like, you know that part in Talladega Nights when John C. Reilly is describing how he likes to picture Jesus? Well, just insert Craig Finn for Jesus and The Hold Steady for Lynyrd Skynyrd. You get the idea.
Plus whatever, Teeth Dreams is actually good; critical gripes about the production aside. Craig Finn is back to some semblance of his story-telling self, a trend he’ll hopefully continue, and it, very simply, rocks.
My favorites: “Spinners,” “The Ambassador,” “Wait A While”
7. Elbow – The Take Off And Landing Of Everything
Elbow kind of sounds like a lot of bands: Tindersticks, Arab Strap, occasionally the National or U2. But, in their owns words, they “never learn from history” so whatever. A solid album is a solid album and all those other bands are, at worst, pretty good.
This album is the definition of sprawling. It actively reaches for the heights and firmly brushes them. “My Sad Captains” (backed with Courtney Barnett’s “Avant Gardner”) got me through a good month-long stretch of waiting for my bus to work in increasingly cold and dark winter mornings. I’ve used the words “gorgeous” and “beautiful” to describe muic before, but The Take Off And Landing Of Everything is one of the more deserving albums of those descriptors.
This is a soaring ride. And “give me G&T and sympathy.” I know that game!
My favorites: “Charge,” “New York Morning,” “My Sad Captains,” “The Take Off And Landing Of Everything”
8. C Foam – C Foam
Pointing out that C Foam is sample-heavy is a lot like pointing out that Minor Threat was not. That’s sort of a big part of the deal. And much like Ian McKaye & Co, C Foam represents a punk ethos. But, rather than railing against the inequities and non-coca cola beverages of the 1980s, C Foam is painting a picture of the new millennium, the innate influences that have gotten us where we are as a culture, interviews with Nike executives re: Air Jordan, soundbites of NPR’s “Marketplace,” and all. Salad days, indeed.
Per the instructions on the packaging, “LISTEN LOUD ON LAPTOP SPEAKERS OR IN HEADPHONES.” Do that. Either works.
This is a sprawling exercise in pastiche. Though what exactly C Foam is imitating is up for discussion. An easy comparison is to prolific Internet sound-collage-extraordinaire, James Ferraro, but even his similar style (sonically speaking) isn’t quite as grand in scope.
I won’t list favorite tracks because C Foam functions as singular piece of pop art. Because of the way it transitions within and between songs, this album, and really all of C Foam’s (super hard to come by) previous work, has this cool, ever-present quality where it’s not distracting but you pay attention to everything, almost subconsciously.
Just listen to the whole thing; many, many times.
9. Theophilus London – Vibes
Has an album ever enjoyed a more apt title? Maybe Metal Machine Music, but still, Vibes lives up to and expands on the promise of its title and dope, Marty Balin-referencing cover artwork.
Vibes has the unique quality of being made up of songs you’re pretty sure you’ve heard hundreds of times in passing. Kanye West helped produce the album and if his aforementioned “neu classic” is along these same, smooth, buoyant lines, I may never need to hear anything else again. Speaking of Kanye, his verse here on “Can’t Stop” is some of the best laidback shit talking I’ve heard. I’ll never get tired of the way he says “raw.”
But enough fanboying for now. Vibes really serves to melt away the chilly scenes of winter that even, what with all this drought-fending rain, Southern California is experiencing.
My favorites: “Neu Law,” “Can’t Stop,” “Get Me Right,” “Do Girls,” “Need Somebody”
10. Dean Blunt – Black Metal
Let’s just get this out in the open: Black Metal doesn’t have as cool a logo as The Redeemer. We were all thinking it. It’s a shame. Phew. Now we can move on.
I can’t stop comparing this album to the musical template and ethos of Bill Callahan. He has the same sort of respect for allowing space in his songs. Like you really get the sense that the drum fills are really filling something in. And deep voice aside, he has a similar approach to lyrics. This is not to say that Dean Blunt is a comparable lyricist to Drag City’s finest, but the way he uses small phrases scattered and repeated, almost as instruments of their own, throughout his songs is pure Bill C.
Blunt has never been more intent on more traditional song structure than he is here. It’s very cool to hear him succeed at this. Again, I can’t kick the feeling that this sounds like an amalgam of Bill Callahan projects but with samples and synthesizers and certainly recorded during Smog’s mid-period with the dub and noise sensibilities of the other ends of Callahan’s career. Really odd how one of my favorite records of the year is also one of the most difficult for me to pin down.
My favorites: “LUSH,” “100,” “HUSH,” “GRADE”
11. Ariel Pink – pom pom
There’s no one quite like Ariel Pink. His music has always been a mix of what you’re sure you’ve heard before and what you’re pretty sure you haven’t. Sort of like if Bowie had just consumed all this influences whole and in one bite and swirled them together rather than nibbling, borrowing, and refining them per album cycle.
Pink’s lack of concern for singularity and need for constant motion makes pom pom work as both a well-curated playlist and a single piece of art. Like most of his work, the transitions (and there are many) are more dial turns than chord progressions. But, dense as it is, this is a smooth ride. This is very likely my album of the year.
My favorites: “Plastic Raincoats In The Pig Parade,” “Not Enough Violence,” “Put Your Number In My Phone,” “Picture Me Gone,” “Dayzed Inn Daydreams.”