The Best Albums of 2014 (finally)

St_Vincent_artwork10. St. Vincent
St. Vincent
Loma Vista/Republic
Release Date: February 24, 2014

The funky, synthed-out fuzzy riff that starts off “Rattlesnake” tells you all you need to know about St. Vincent. The second the song begins you get the sense that Annie Clark’s “St. Vincent” isn’t interested in feel; she’s interested in making you move. Even songs with a message (“Digital Witness”) have a certain whimsical feel. Clark has been held in high regard for years; and for good reason. Early on in her career, Clark spent time playing with The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens before embarking on a solo career. Other career highlights include 2012’s collaboration Love this Giant, with former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. On this, her eponymously titled fourth album, Clark appears to be having a little fun for a change.

D'Angelo_-_Black_Messiah_Album_Cover9. D’Angelo
Black Messiah
RCA
Release Date: December 15, 2014

Right or wrong, D’Angelo (Michael Eugene Archer) has always been perceived as an singer that can’t seem to decide whether he wants to be a sex symbol or an artist. Roughly 10 listens in to Black Messiah and its obvious that the singer is interested in the latter. Black Messiah utterly turns the notion of D’Angelo as some sexy R&B crooner on its head. The melodies here (“1000 Deaths” and “Ain’t that Easy”) are amelodic and dissonant. In fact, throughout Black Messiah D’Angelo’s voice is barely audible, and discerning the lyrics is quite a chore. The music transitions from the bombast of “Bomb Squad” era beats (or even early Ice Cube), to lighter fare like “Charade,” which is in many ways a tip of the hat to the Purple one. Its brilliance is not immediately obvious, as the music and lyrics challenge the listener. But in the end, this collection of music stands as one of the year’s best.

JMascis_TiedToAStar_LPJacket8. Commune
Goat
Sub Pop
Release Date: September 23, 2014

Commune has a sound that reminds me of Australia’s Tame Impala. The music is generally straightforward, but atmospherically (the usage of drums big and small, the psychedelic twelve-string Byrds-like twang) and the extended jams add a little complexity to the overall aesthetic. Add in the siren-like howls that define the vocals, and you have the perfect soundtrack to Burning Man. It’s familiar and refreshing at all once, and for that, it’s worthy of top-10 billing.

DBT7. Drive-by-Truckers
English Oceans
ATO
Release Date: March 4, 2014

Better late than never I suppose. It only took ten albums for this Athens, Georgia based outfit to seep into my regular music rotation. Of course, once I properly digested English Oceans, I couldn’t shake it. Led by guitarists/vocalists Mike Cooley (equally splitting song-writing duties for the first time) and Patterson Hood (principal songwriter), English Oceans is straight-ahead Southern rock without pretention. The music is steady but honest. And the lyrics have a certain narrative quality, as the songs tell tales seemed to be ripped from an Elmore Leonard novel. There are no bells and whistles here, but often that’s the hardest thing to pull off. Here, the lyrics, the melody, and the music take priority, resulting in a notable collection of new material.

lost in the dream

6. The War on Drugs
Lost in the Dream
Secretly Canadian
Release Date: March 18, 2014

As I write this, it occurs to me that there seems to a common thread throughout many of my record reviews: adoration for an album that I once loathed. Lost in the Dream the third studio album from Philadelphia indie rock band The War on Drugs is no different. Indeed, about a year ago, Scott Hoyer – my friend and fellow co-host of the music podcast Bring tha Noize – sent me a text heaping praise on this album. In the end, you probably know what happens next: he says the album’s great; I say it sucks, and then I end up eating my words. Lost in the Dream is a deeply contemplative album, rich with ambient sounds, moody in places, but urgent in others. It’s a bit long in the tooth though, clocking in at a shade past an hour. The opener goes on for nearly 9 minutes, and there are several instrumental interludes, placed throughout. But that’s part of what makes it such a unique album. It swells, it moves, and it takes you through a variety of different moods, one song contrasting with another in a way that’s difficult to pull off.

wye oak5. Wye Oak
Shriek
Merge/City Slang
Release Date: April 29, 2014

Shriek begins with a syncopated vamp, two notes an octave apart, teetering back and forth for a little while. It goes on long enough to keep you wondering what is to come. The drums, bass and layers of synths step in to form a vibe that sounds more like a mishmash of St. Vincent and Everything but the Girl. And less like the dreamy folk-rock this duo has been serving up for years. Heck, if you set this song (or any other on this album) up alongside the title track from the band’s breakout album Civilian, you might think it was lead vocalist Jenn Wasner’s side project. It’s as if someone hid her guitars. Of course that doesn’t mean the album isn’t any good. Sure it’s slickly produced. And yes, much of the raw energy of Civilian is missing. But still present are Wasner’s effortlessly alluring vocals, which take center stage. And there is some great songwriting here; especially on “Glory” and “Sick Talk” which, back to back, make up the middle of the album. To be sure, some longtime fans will come away bored. But the change in direction should not detract from what is a brave effort, rich with great music.

morning phase

4. Beck
Morning Phase
Capitol
Release Date: February 21, 2014

It’s hard to believe that Beck Hansen has been at it this long. After all, his first, full-length studio album (One Foot in the Grave) dropped way back in 1994. And yet here he is, just as relevant now as he was when he hit it big with the breakthrough hit “Loser.” Among its many accomplishments, Morning Phase earned a Grammy award as the album of the year. Thankfully, the award was well deserved as it is a beautiful album. It’s sonically rich, hewing closer to Hansen’s Los Angeles roots, than his more whimsical offerings. It feels like a modern take on late 70’s rock, but with richness and textures that sound more at home within the modern musical landscape. It is a mostly somber affair, as is the case with songs like “Unforgiven.” In fact, you might find it more suitable as a work companion, than something you’d put on at a cocktail party. Yet it is still a wondrous and enduring collection of music.

seeds3. TV on the Radio
Seeds
Harvest
Release Date: November 18, 2014

I will readily admit that I came to appreciate the genius of TVOTR quite late in the game. I had been familiar with their work since the early days of Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes. Eventually I met my girlfriend wife Naomi, who is a huge fan. In time I came to realize just how good they are. Having gone up and down the band’s anthology of music, I’d have to say that this is probably their “sunniest” and ultimately safest album. That I still consider it one of the year’s best should say a lot about the band’s music in general. Don’t get me wrong, still evident in their music is the nimble fusion of funk, punk rock, and electronic dance music. But what’s different is that there’s an air of mushiness that rings true throughout. Indeed, love is a constant theme on Seeds, as evidenced by anthemic rockers like “Trouble” and “Careful You.” Don’t get me wrong, both songs are strong compositions. But they exhibit a side of the band not previously seen; at least not to this degree. But don’t give up hope. I would put the rocker “Lazerray” up against anything else in the band’s catalog. Paired with the opener “Quartz” and the psychedelic “Could You,” TVOTR has nothing to feel bad about; Seeds is still a superb offering.

salad days2. Mac DeMarco
Salad Days
Captured Tracks
Release Date: April 1, 2014

The melodic guitar riffs that are papered all over Mac DeMarco’s splendid Salad Days give the album a whimsical, 80’s throwback vibe. Recorded in DeMarco’s Brooklyn apartment, the style here is a little tough to pin down. I’ve heard it called “jangle pop” (probably the most accurate description), “psychedelic pop,” and also – my personal favorite – “alt-scuzz.” On a visceral level though, the music transplants me to the porch of an old friend, taking down glasses of ice-cold vodka lemonades on a hot summer day. The music is sweet but discordant; it’s light but ultimately refreshing. My first run at Salad Days left me somewhat intrigued, so I just kept coming back for more. The half-sung melodies and catchy chord structures are easy to look past. But closer inspection reveals a more complex offering, with deft songwriting, some lyrical introspection (see “Let My Baby Stay”), and a wide palette of sounds.

elbow1. Elbow
The Take Off and Landing of Everything
Fiction (UK, Eur, Aus)/(Concord (US)
Release Date: March 10, 2014

I’ve said it once before, and I’ll say it again: Elbow is the best band no one’s ever heard of; well at least this side of the Atlantic. Sure, they have throngs of fans in their home country of Great Britain. Yes they won a Mercury Prize for 2008’s The Seldom Seen Kid. But they’re just not that big over here in the States. I doubt that will change anytime soon, but The Take off and the Landing of Everything is one more reason why it should. Elbow’s music is a little hard to describe. Lead singer Guy Garvey has probably heard more Peter Gabriel comparisons than he’d care to remember. But it is a fair comparison. Both singers have soft, smooth, somewhat higher pitched registers, that never seem to be out of tune; the comparisons don’t end there either. Musically, both acts incorporate elements of prog rock, except there are no self-indulgent solos here. The title track is quite expansive with a tribal beat, multiple keyboard and guitar tracks, and harmonies that span what seems to be a never-ending song (over 7 minutes). Yet nothing in the song feels excessive. Contrasted with songs like “Colour Fields” and “This Blue World” which seem restrained, The Take Off and the Landing of Everything succeeds in offering a collection of music that is painted on a large canvas.

Honorable Mention: Cheetahs- Cheetahs; Taylor Swift- 1989; Ryan Adams- Ryan Adams; Royal Blood- Royal Blood; Swans- To Be Kind; Spoon- They Want My Soul

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To All my Sad Captains: My 2014 Detroit Lions Preview

Getty Images North America

Getty Images North America

If, like me, you’ve spent the better part of your life, rooting for a sports team, you realize just how fleeting success can be; especially if you’re a Lions fan. For as long as I can remember, Sunday afternoons in the fall have been riddled with disappointment, mixed with shame and a little angst. At this point, the very sight of the Honolulu Blue and Silver on my TV elicits a certain Pavlovian emotion of anxiety. Of course this begs the question why anyone would choose to root for a team that brings about such grief. My answer is simple, I love football, I love the NFL, and I can’t bring myself to quit the Lions. Besides, misery loves company, and in that regard I have plenty of both as a Lions fan. To put it another way, I look at Sunday NFL football this way:

“Another sunrise with my sad captains, with who I choose to lose my mind . . . and if it’s all we only pass this way but once, what a perfect waste of time . . .”

I’m not sure if any lyric could better epitomize just how soul-crushing it is to be a Lions fan.* Most years, spending 3-4 hours watching the Lions is a waste of time. Not just because they lose, but because of how they lose. To make things worse, they seem to be one of those teams that certain members of the sports-industrial complex have designated as a sleeper team this year. Such notions will only make this season’s inevitable descent into mediocrity that much more unbearable. A little salty you say? Sure, but my pessimism is borne out of a lifetime of disappointment as a Lions fan. A little hyperbolic you say? No, not really. Last season the Lions famously controlled their own destiny in the NFC North compiling a 6-3 record. With Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler missing significant time due to injury at the same time, a playoff berth seemed inevitable. Wrong. The Lions went on to lose 6 of their last 7; ultimately costing head coach Jim Schwartz his job.

Very little that I’ve seen or heard since then leads me to think this season will be different. To be sure, the Lions have brought in some offensive brainpower with the trio of head coach Jim Caldwell, quarterback coach Jim Bob Cooter, and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. Additionally, the Lions have added more offensive weapons by drafting tight end Eric Ebron 10th overall in this year’s draft, and signing free-agent wide receiver Golden Tate. However, they’ve done very little to address the defense, particularly in the back end, which is both thin and short on talent. Indeed, Grantland.com’s Bill Barnwell points out the following:

Detroit benched each of its top four corners at different points last season, and it has brought three of them back. The Lions are actually going to start Rashean Mathis this year. Rashean Mathis! In 2014! On purpose!

Leading up to, and after May’s draft, Lions GM Martin Mayhew seemed to suggest that the defense wasn’t in as much trouble as some thought. Yet, as of this writing, the Lions are trying out 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback/Methuselah Impersonator Champ Bailey. Given that fact, it’s hard to imagine the Lions are honestly feeling secure with second year corner Darius Slay on one side and the 34-year old Rashean Mathis on the other.

Look, it’s not all bad. The front seven is in excellent hands with Ndamukong Suh up front and second year guy Ziggy Ansah coming off the edge. On offense, there are some obvious bright spots with Calvin Johnson and Matt Stafford. But looking at the schedule, no matter how many ways I try, I just can’t see more than 8 wins. So there it is, a prediction; the Lions will go 8-8.

Wins: Giants, Jets, Bills, Vikings (twice), Dolphins, Bears, Bucs

Losses: Panthers, Packers (twice), Saints, Falcons, Cardinals, Pats, and the Bears (away)

Best Case Scenario: We steal one game each from the Pack and the Saints, and then find the Bears without Cutler at the end of the season to go 11-5.

*Originally I had the lyrics from this wonderful Elbow song dedicated to my 2014 Michigan Football preview, but I couldn’t get that done before last Saturday. Needless to say, I had some long weekends last fall.

The Best Albums of 2011: #9

Elbow: Build a Rocket Boys

Elbow just may be the UK’s best kept secret. That or I’m just (unsurprisingly) very late to the party. Apparently these lads have been banging out records for close to a decade. Heck, they won Britain’s prestigious Mercury Prize in 2008 for The Seldom Seen Kid, yet I knew nothing of them until I discovered this little-known gem of an album. The title is emblematic of one of the central themes of which lead singer Guy Garvey sings: youth, adolescence and his fond reflection of that period in his life. Musically, Garvey counts Peter Gabriel as one of his biggest influences, and it doesn’t take long to hear it in the music, all the way down to the general timbre of Garvey’s voice. But their sound also reminds me of The National in the way that their songs shift gracefully between the bombastic (“Open Arms”) and the sombre (“Lippy Kids”).  Ultimately, Build a Rocket Boys! isn’t all that accessible. Rather, it grows on you slowly until you realize that the music is first rate and the songs endure making it one of the year’s best.

Select Cuts: Lippy Kids, Open Arms, Dear Friends