I will skip the pleasantries and get to what is typically the easiest of easy blog posts: lists of videos. These videos are of the 20 best tracks of the year according to me. Most are found in my favorite albums, but a few outliers are there as well. Also, keep in-mind that I typically like to keep these lists to one-per-artist/band. So, here are 20 separate efforts by 20 separate entities.
Taylor Swift “Shake It Off”
Let’s just get this one out of the way right now. Look, that beat is killer and my daughter loves her some Taylor Swift. Plus, it’s a good message for my kid. So, I stand by it.
Viet Cong “Continental Shelf” (Warning: video NSFW)
Mark these dudes as my most anticipated full-length debut of 2015. It’s dark, dank, foreboding… Reminds me of a ridiculous black IPA. Man, I’m thirsty.
Ought “Today More Than Any Other Day”
I could have chosen so many songs from my band of the year, but I went with the one that has everything. There’s the stripped-down, slow build. Metacognition. Disillusionment with modern society and commercialism. A rousing chorus. Danceability. Da-da-da’s. Entropy. Everything.
Parquet Courts “Instant Disassembly”
A sloppy rocker – almost Pavement-esque – with a touch of faux Britishness, “Instant Disassembly” is the best kind of ear worm. Not only does the melody stick, but the singer’s problems aren’t too far from the listener’s own.
Your Friend “Tame One”
I almost went with “Bangs” for this one, but I don’t think I could go wrong with either. The voice, the drone, the build all make Your Friend a band/solo artist to watch this coming year.
Alvvays “Archie, Marry Me”
I like Belle and Sebastian and Camera Obscura, but while the former messes around with pop music and that latter has somehow fallen off my radar, Alvvays will have to do. “Archie Marry Me” is all kinds of John Hughes angst and is a standout for the year.
Angel Olsen “Forgive/Forgotten”
SO MANY SONGS. I could list all the songs off Angel Olsen’s excellent Burn Your Fire for no Witness, but I will stick with my arbitrary rule to only list one song per artist/band. For this list, you get a rocker.
The War on Drugs “Red Eyes”
I honestly did not like the direction The War on Drugs took this year. It’s way more Springsteen than Vile, but they’re still a pretty good band as evidenced by the moving “Red Eyes.” That Springsteen-esque “woo” is pretty nice, but I sorta wished there was more of this on the entire record.
Sharon Van Etten “Your Love Is Killing Me”
I sort of lost touch with Sharon Van Etten this year until the above video for “Your Love Is Killing Me” crossed my path last month. It’s sprawling and Van Etten’s voice holds up as a powerful accomplice.
Ex Hex “Don’t Wanna Lose”
When an album kicks you in the teeth, it should do it from the first moments of the first track. Congratulations, Ex Hex. This album rawked like we all rawked in 1984 at a drunken high school party in a corn field. Thank god for Mary Timony finding her muse.
Sun Kil Moon “War on Drugs Suck My Cock” (NSFW)
The most interesting thing Sun Kil Moon and The War on Drugs did this year was to have a pseudo-feud. I actually appreciate Mark Kozelek’s crankiness as we are misunderstood curmudgeons. The song is actually quite funny despite its dark tone.
Caribou “Can’t Do Without You”
I know all the words to this song and they just repeat over and over in my head. Hit play and you’ll understand. It will cause you to either love or hate me.
Future Islands “Seasons (Waiting on You)”
One of the moments of the year for indie music was when Future Islands debuted this song on Letterman. The official video is good as well, but you needed to see why Future Islands broke this year and “Seasons (Waiting on You)” will land on many, many year end lists, often at the top.
New Tongues “El Condor Pasa”
The best covers are usually covers of misappropriated songs. I have no other evidence of this fact outside of this track. New Tongues flat-0ut destroy Art Garfunkel’s afro and strip the blood diamonds from the soles of Paul Simon’s tiny shoes.
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks “Lariat”
“We grew up listening to the music from the best decade ever. Talkin’ ’bout the 80’s!” All kinds of nostalgia in this one and it perfectly summarizes Mirror Traffic.
Swearing at Motorists “Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role”
Love, regret, drugs, faking it are all common themes Swearing at Motorists squeeze into every 2-minute anthem.
Tweedy “Please Don’t Let Me Be So Misunderstood”
I could have pulled several tracks from the Tweedy record, but I liked how this one encapsulated the project’s effect on the elder Tweedy. It’s not quite a punk rock banger, but it’s certainly a step back toward the cow punk of his past. Spencer’s work on the skins is pretty impressive as well.
Peter Matthew Bauer “Latin American Ficciones”
I like a good stripped-down rocker now and again. I had no idea that the dude playing keys and bass for the Walkmen had this sort of frontman, guitar-licking persona inside him. This track alone made the record a must-buy for me.
The Afghan Whigs “Algiers”
A nice take on the “Be My Baby” drum beat opens The Afghan Whigs return. I don’t even mind the auto-tune.
Hospitality “Inauguration” (Merge 25 version)
Trust me. The version they released via the Merge 25 Or Thousands of Prizes is superior IMHO to the LP version. I couldn’t find it online, so I give you the version above.
Crap. Where did the year go?
All I have done is taken several hiatuses in between some fairly mediocre blog posts. I would like to tell you 2015 will be different, but why lie? It won’t. I’ll be a sporadic blogger as it seems to be my ultimate destiny. So, you’ll forgive my momentary lapse in judgement when I thought a PhD was a good idea. You won’t mind when I prioritize my job and career over my hobbies. And you’ll give me a pass for being a parent of two who rarely gets a full night’s sleep.
That said, I still found a way to consume and as you well know, consuming indie rock records and craft beer are what I do best when I’m not parenting or working. I didn’t listen to nearly as much music as year’s past, but I did drink a shit-ton of beer as my waist will attest. So, I have something to say about both topics.
The format will be a bit different than years past. Usually, I write a list of records and/or beers. Last year I opted not to rank my choices for the year. This year I will simply name some arbitrary categories to fill with some sort of commentary. Do with this list what you will. However, I hope you can find the time to comment and even throw some money at the good people I’m about to praise.
The 2014 Beer and Pavement Recognitions and Such – Indie Rock Division
“The Next Sharon Van Etten or Courtney Barnett of 2014”
Well, this could have been Sharon Van Etten as her Are We There is yet another stellar album from the songstress, or it could have been Courtney Barnett’s as I listened to The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas on repeat after discovering it a year too late. Hell, I didn’t even get my hands on Barnett’s physical artifact until this year.
Still, there was one woman I listened to more than any other this year or at least that’s according to Spotify. Angel Olsen dominated this year with her Burn Your Fire For No Witness. This is one of the few albums on my personal list I am finding all over year-end lists. It’s an incredibly haunting, Patsy Cline-esque, fucking great record. Had I not been so busy this year, I would have written ad nauseam about this singer who could channel a lo-fi Roy Orbison on one track and turn around with something more akin to a Kristin Hersh rocker the next. She’s a phenomenal talent and from right here in Missouri. Who woulda thunk it?
“Best Reissues (Multiple Categories)”
I didn’t know that I had missed Life Without Buildings the first time around and needed their über-rare Record Store Day until I discovered them in the “Best New Music” category on Pitchfork’s Spotify page. Well, one listen was enough to send me out to my local supplier for a preview of there RSD releases only to find out they had not ordered it. I waited a week or two and tried eBay. It was costly, but nothing obscene and I scored my record. LWB’s Any Other City was a forgotten/unheard of treasure with a danceable no wave sound that would have also fit well in mid-90’s Chicago, but what set this band apart was front woman Sue Tompkins erratic spoken-word lyrics. Although 14 years old, the record was maybe the freshest thing I heard all year. Too bad they only released this record, a handful of singles, and a live album.
The other reissue wins the box set division as Sleater-Kinney is doing this whole comeback thing right. Not only were all their albums reissued on glorious 180-gram vinyl on Sub Pop, but the band put all these albums into one box complete with a book of never-before-seen photos and a surprise 7″ of new material. Now that’s a way to announce a reunion. The best part of this box and the individual reissues is that all the music was remastered, giving them the treatment they all deserved, especially those early records recorded on a budget.
Oh, and that open letter I wrote worked.
“Favorite EP’s – short and long formats”
Funny thing about my two favorite EP’s is that both are from this region of the world. How does that happen? An overwhelming sense of depression caused from living in the middle of racists and corn fields? Yeah, that’s probably what it is. The first is really just a short LP – sorta missing the idea of an “extended play” format – and the other is a more traditional supplement to and earlier full-length effort.
Your Friend’s Jekyll/Hyde is a nearly perfect example of the form capturing atmospherics, chilly femme vocals, and some silly-good theatrics surrounding stories of sisters and awkward thirteen year olds living in Kansas. Rarely do EP’s feel like LP’s but this one does. The songs can come off as quiet and pretty, but the intensity comes through in a live setting as I was lucky to witness last spring. Look for this EP to launch Your Friend in the coming year.
My friends in New Tongues put out a short-form EP that kills, nay destroys. Three originals lead off before a cover of a Simon and Garfunkel cover completely floors you. Following up last year’s We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, this EP does what the format is meant to do which is extend what work has been done and in the best cases expanding said work. the production on this 4-song EP explodes from the speakers with all the post-hardcore clichés one can muster. (The music is not clichéd, just the reviews.) To add insult to injury, that aforementioned Simon and Garfunkel cover is maybe the cover of the year.
“Best Dad Rock”
I am a dad twice over. In fact, our little release this year
might be is my favorite. His name is Theo and he should know that dads can rock. Right now, Theo’s favorite song is “Bird Is the Word.” We’ll have to work on that.
Dad rock can best be defined as the music by bands who dads probably listened to back in college. Bonus points go to bands and musicians who are actually dads themselves. This year, there were three releases that I think exemplified my own version of Dad Rock.
First and foremost, there’s Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. I crossed paths with Malk on his way to the venue where he was playing. I wanted to talk to him about fatherhood and his new record, but he didn’t have time to chat. I suspect he had to Skype with his kids from the tour van. Anyway, Wig Out at Jagbags is return to form after 2011’s Beck-esque Mirror Traffic. In Wig Out…, Malk and the Jicks get all nostalgic for the Grateful Dead and Lilith Fair-era Lesbians. It’s as goofy as they have been on a record which is quintessential dad behavior.
Then, there’s the Kickstarted project from Swearing at Motorists. S@M’s Dave Doughman is also a dad. This comes out in some heartbreaking-yet-sweet moments throughout While Laughing, the Joker Tells the Truth. Intermingled with laments and celebrations of parenthood is an obsession with acting and drama, escapes from the daily grind of being someone’s dad. It’s maybe Doughman’s most mature release yet, one I didn’t know or care if he could make. Still, it deserves a proper release once the Kickstarter money runs out.
The third Dad Rock honoree is the most obvious of the bunch. Jeff and Spencer Tweedy’s Sukierae under the band name Tweedy. This project comes from the heart as Jeff Tweedy’s creative juices seem to come alive after some so-so Wilco efforts. Honestly, I had written off Tweedy. I figured he was going to make the same Wilco record over and over and tour until his knees or liver gave out. And as a fellow dad with mouths to feed, I’m okay with selling out. However, that’s not what he’s done here. Spencer who is a gifted drummer has inspired something in his dad that I hope continues. Sukierae was a pleasant surprise and has made me look at my own life as a father and how I can rejuvinate my own creativity.
“Best Album by a Former Member of the Walkmen”
Three records were released this year by former Walkmen. There was Walter Martin’s We’re All Young Together which is a kids album and probably should have made the Dad Rock list above as it’s the most dad-like thing ever. Then there was Hamilton Leithauser’s Black Hours and Peter Matthew Bauer’s Liberation! which also came out this year. Kids music only goes so far with me. So, I figured Leithauser’s record would shine as he was the voice of the Walkmen and sort of personified their cool aesthetic. However, it was Bauer who impressed with his solo debut, a cacophony of religion, mysticism, and chic. The album is so good you wonder if maybe Bauer had more say in the Walkmen’s image than was typically let on. Either way, he put out a solid record that remained on heavy rotation throughout the year.
“Speaking of Nostalgia…”
The Afghan Whigs got back together. Well, two of them did, but those two put together a pretty tight group of musicians. Then the Whigs did the unthinkable in 90’s reunion etiquette and actually recorded an album. Do the Beast would have fit nicely after Black Love with its thematic leanings and dynamics. Plus, those old guys can still rawk.
“The One Album upon which the Critics and I Tend to Agree”
Ex Hex’s Rips is a swift kick to the gut. In much the same way Jeff Tweedy seemed to be recharged by working with his son, Mary Timony’s inner-guitar god rose from the ashes of 90’s indie rock anonymity when she joined Wild Flag, a one-off, super group who released one of the best records of 2011 and put on ridiculously great live shows. This record comes at you from the word go and it never lets up until you’re stunned to find it’s over. Mary Timony has quietly made great music for years, I’m just glad others are beginning to realize it as Rips finds a place on many year-end lists.
“The One Album upon which the Critics and I Tend to Disagree”
Well, that isn’t exactly fair. Trouble by Hospitality generally received good reviews everywhere. However, it didn’t make many (or possibly any) year-end lists. And I’m not really sure why. While it lacks the punch the Ex Hex record delivers, it certainly has its share of dynamics as well as subtle nods to that 80’s thing everyone is doing. This album might be the equivalent of Future Islands’ Singles which is getting all kinds of attention these days. However, Trouble lacks a career-making appearance on Letterman to put it over the hump. Still, the band did what bands with promising debuts are supposed to do with their sophomore efforts: expand and improve on said promise. The trouble is that most bands falter with their second release, not Hospitality. Synth, Belle & Sebastian sensibility, a bit of an edge… It’s all there and I’m not sure why no one else has noticed.
“Artist/Band of the Year”
I opted not to pick just one album as I have played the shit out of those praised above. I do plan to do a singles list if I get a chance, but I digress. I have a band of the year and it might not be who you think.
Let’s get a few of the normal artists up for this kind of consideration out of the way. The War on Drugs and Sun Kil Moon don’t make the list as the most interesting things they did was get in a non-feud. And since we’re on boring, white dude music, I’m not bothering with Real Estate, Spoon, or Mac DeMarco.
Oh, there’s more. I don’t care for dance music. So, most of that stuff doesn’t get much of a listen from me, even in a year when Caribou released an album, but I haven’t enjoyed them since 2007’s Andorra. Same goes for most rap and hip-hop. While I have an appreciation for them, I just haven’t been able to get into Vince Staples or Run the Jewels. Grouper’s record was nice, but a bit too quiet for me. (And if you like that sort of thing, check out my friend C. Vadi’s latest here.) Please don’t get me started on Ariel Pink, Todd Terje, or Taylor Swift.
There were records who probably deserved more of my attention. St. Vincent, Perfume Genius, Parquet Courts, Cloud Nothings, or Ty Segall. I’m okay with this. I have limited time and whatever art you make has to grab my attention. The bands and records I’m recognizing here did that, but none more than Montreal’s Ought.
And Ought hit my trifecta for 2014. They blew me away with an album I did not see coming. Impressed onstage in front of way too few people. Plus, they released an EP that just made me want more. This was done while sounding like a fresher, more meaningful reincarnation of the Feelies and Talking Heads. They look like Joy Division and sound like Television and the Violent Femmes. And I don’t even think they’ve scratched the surface of what they can do.
I’m not sure what else I could tell you about them. The songs are written and performed with feeling every time. They unloaded More Than Any Other Day with its critiques of the mundane and commercialism. Sonically it called back to those New and No Wave days of NYC. The live show could happen in front of 10 people or 10,000. It’s captivating and raw. They drone and jam on only to break it with sudden impulses of noise and general disruption. The EP, Once More with Feeling, supplements the LP’s material but introduces something new. “Pill” is a song I’ve obsessed over as it suits their ages better, but the simple chord structure is an ear worm by itself. The EP provides promise that this band has more to offer and I can’t wait to see what it is.
Here are ten of the best records I heard this year, in no particular order
Sharon Van Etten – Tramp
Man, I loved last year’s Wye Oak album and needed more this year. Luckily, Sharon Van Etten came through this year. Similarly to Wye Oak, Van Etten seemed to come from nowhere to unleash a haunting rock record that grips you from start to finish. It didn’t hurt that half of Brooklyn collaborated it behind the scenes or in the margins to help Van Etten deliver a punch to the gut. Still, it’s defining moment for a musician I hope to hear more from in the coming years.
The Walkmen – Heaven
Nothing new here. The Walkmen release a record and I love it. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that their records are always this good. Somehow a band known for songs about going out and drinking have eventually written one of the best albums about adulthood, having children and all that. There’s a simplicity to The Walkmen formula that allows them to adjust to their current living conditions. These are just working stiffs trying to put some food on the table and clothes on the backs of their children. I can get behind that.
Titus Andronicus – Local Business
I’m not gonna lie. I really didn’t care for this record upon the first listen. I was having buyer’s remorse as I listened to it stream on Spotify, knowing that the new local record shop was holding a copy for me. Then, I gave it another try as the record popped up on several year-end lists. It’s really a fantastic record as Titus Andronicus does what every New Jersey band does eventually: they all turn into Bruce Springsteen. There’s nothing wrong with this of course. It’s just a fact.
Cat Power – Sun
Yes, this has been a shitty year for Chan Marshall. However, that may mean she’ll have to put out more records and tour whenever she can scrounge up the dough and good health to hit the road. Cat Power has evolved from record to record. Now, after some faux-bravado, one gets the sense that Marshall is becoming comfortable with her station in life, embracing her demons, health issues, and apparent financial stresses in making what is maybe her most honest record in years.
Believers – Believers EP
Someone will surely give me a hard time for praising Believers again, but the praise is legit. Although this EP feels somewhat incomplete, it brings with it the promise of great things to come. I fully suspect several of these tracks will reappear – possibly re-recorded/remastered – on an LP via some high-profile indie label.
Japandroids – Celebration Rock
Honestly, this would be my record of the year. It’s a bit more uneven than 2009’s Post-Nothing but it still contains that raw energy that only Japandroids can bring without an ounce of irony. This band makes me want to hit the bars and dance all night before the reality of my middle-class-mortgaged-parenthood comes crashing down on my fantasies. Still, it’s nice to dream/reminisce once in a while.
Best Coast – The Only Place
On one hand, I don’t know why I like this band. On the other, I don’t know why I ask the first question. Like Japandroids, Best Coast has found a recipe that works. Unlike the “live like there’s no tomorrow” message in a Japandroids’ song, Best Coast wears their California lovin’ on their collective sleeves. I appreciate this love for one’s home state. Like Jenny Lewis and The Eagles, Best Coast won’t let you forget where they’re from and they’ll make you want to live there as well.
Dinosaur Jr – I Bet on Sky
How is it that Dinosaur Jr. is writing and recording better music after they’ve reunited? Maybe it’s that Lou Barlow has been allowed to come into his own. Maybe it’s because J Mascis has mellowed his ego. Whatever it is, I hope they never stop making loud records.
Hospitality – Hospitality
Last year, it was Eleanor Friedberger. This year, it’s Hospitality. Last year’s Friedberger joint Last Summer had me longing for some straight girl pop rock from the City. Hospitality filled that void admirably. And when you close your eyes, you think it’s Belle and Sebastian.
Dirty Projectors –Swing Lo Magellan
I really expected a letdown from Dirty Projectors, but this record – more straightforward than previous efforts – did not disappoint. I knew this as soon as I dropped the needle to reveal the opening track.
Discovered too late to form a proper assessment, but they’re pretty great: Tame Impala, Diiv, Grizzly Bear, Metz
Overall, this year wasn’t nearly as inspiring as last year’s onslaught of great records. However, most of these would rank among last year’s best. So, take that for what it’s worth, which is basically nothing.
1Ranking art just seems to be so archaic, so overdone. So, I will refrain from it this year. Instead, I’ll just tell you about ten records I liked.
2Meaning that, like Wye Oak, she hadn’t released anything of note until this latest album which is great.
3In Cat Power years, that’s maybe two records a decade.
4Let’s face it, every EP feels imcomplete. They are akin to the 20-minute set. You get a taste of the very best, maybe with one stinker. Just when you’re into it, it’s over.