Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Best of 2015

Last year my best-of was a bit overboard. So for 2015 I decided to scale things back a bit. I’m also over four months late with this. There are reasons (excuses) why it took me so long, but they’re not important. Here are my favorite records from last year, with the top 20 ranked as best as I was able. Some honorable mentions follow after. As usual I have a little playlist at the bottom to hear for yourself.

Top Twenty

1. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly: If I had to pick a single best record of the year, this would probably be it. It’s such an incredibly complete statement, both on a personal and a societal level. This record is not directed towards me. I’m not the intended audience, and I’m okay with that. TPAB is a document of what it meant to be young, gifted and black in the year 2015. However, even though Kendrick is a product of Compton, like other artists before him, he is too much of distinct individual to truly identify with his hometown. Like Dylan and Hibbing, the Beatles and Liverpool, Springsteen and Freehold Borough, or Ice Cube and Compton, for that matter – Kendrick understands the people from the city that formed him, but at the same time stands apart from them. He’s special. For this reason, anyone relate to this record as a personal journey of searching for oneself in relationship to where you’re from. Musically this record moves all over the board. The cuts are strung together with a spoken word piece that gets extended as the album progresses. In the end it becomes apparent that the entire spiel in an introduction to a staged conversation between Kendrick and Tupac. It’s the concept the album’s conceit hangs on, building an album as a series of responses to your hero. The album can be incredibly inviting (the bounce anthem, “King Kunta”) or challenging (the complex and draining, “u”). The music and the lyrics would have made this a good record no matter who the M.C. was. The fact that Kendrick’s rasp of voice is what it is makes this a classic. It’s a voice of immediate integrity, authority, and emotional reality. His voice is what sets him apart from everyone else working now.
2. Kamasi Washington – The Epic: My number two record of the year is the appropriately titled, The Epic. Kamasi is a musician that has been bubbling under the surface for the past decade playing with a number of jazz and R&B stars. Recently, he’s played on Flying Lotus’ “You’re Dead,” Thundercat’s latest EP, and Kendrick’s TPAB. This three-CD set can seem overwhelming on first listen. Not only is it a huge chunk of music to absorb, but the breadth of the material is expansive. Everything from modal post-bop, symphonic jazz psychedelia, salsa-inflected funk, and gospel-infused soul jazz is covered here. One of the best places to start with this one is “Leroy and Lanisha,” which I think stands a shot at becoming a future standard. The tune features two fantastic melodies in a call and response between the trombone and the sax that sound like the interplay of young lovers caught in a summer romance. The mid-point builds to a frenetic boil before the piano takes a solo leading back into the main theme. Not only is it catchy, but it swings like crazy. And even though it's tuneful and you can dance to it, the solos really push the corners. The exploratory lines are dynamic and full of joy. This isn't just academic noodling. It feels like Washington put everything he had in him in this record, as if he didn’t believe he would have another chance to lead another session and he wanted to put it all out there. Hopefully this is just the beginning of a long, storied career.

3. Shamir – Ratchet: Shamir rounds out my top three with another young African American voice. Shamir’s voice, however, speaks from a perspective of non-binary gender which his countertenor suits perfectly. In his early 20s, hailing out of Las Vegas, Shamir Bailey is a quick wit with huge personality. You could solidly classify Shamir in some kind of disco or house tradition, but it’s not that simple. Take the song, “Darker,” for instance. The intro comes from a sample of Scratch Acid’s “Owner’s Lament” that’s used in a way that feels honest and completely organic. This is music that can be as informed by 80s indie scuzz rock as it is by Green Velvet. The album treads the same terrain as the misfit disco of Hercules & Love Affair and Planningtorock. This debut is self-assured, wonderfully produced, and stylistically broad within its genre. There’s not a weak track here.

4. Smokey – How Far Will You Go?: Technically all of the music on this collection was recorded before the 80s. That said, most of it has never been released in any format, and the little that was, sold next to nothing outside of a local cult following in L.A. Besides, “Piss Slave” (hitherto unreleased) was maybe the best thing I heard all year. I can’t really articulate why it resonates with me so much, but maybe it’s that I’ve never heard a voice from the margins sound so bold and cocky. There is no apology, no shame in this music. Smokey doesn’t intend to provoke or shock by trading in what society has deemed transgressive. They are just a duo earnestly expounding the transformative joy of watersports. Aside from the act being described, this song is a sister to “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The same unfettered joy exists in it. And yet, as one friend put it after I turned him on to this record, the line “I want to be your toilet” makes the Sex Pistols sound like the Monkees. I realize that imbuing this song with such significance makes me come off like some lowbrow Barthes-wannabe discussing some sleazy disco track like it was “Sarrasine.” Oh well. Smokey was utterly fearless about what and who they were. By comparison, they make Erasure sound a timid and Coil seem like naive schoolboys. Aside from all of the cultural importance of this group, the songs and music are genuinely compelling. Both Randy Rhoads (Ozzy) and the Stooges’ James Williamson went through Smokey’s ranks at one point. Lead vocalist, the eponymous Smokey, is one of the best, underheard singers from the 70s. With his golden croon and Shaun Cassidy looks, he could have been a huge arena rock star. Thankfully, he chose his own path.

5. Myrkur – M: This is my pick for the metal album of the year. A lot of noise was made over Ghost’s Meliora, but that album was like a Satanic version of a Christian rock band - devoted and kind of lame. Myrkur put a new spin on metal and points a new path forward. A mix of Scandinavian apocalyptic folk, black metal, and Dead Can Dance, this is heavy, but has clear separation in the arrangements - it’s orchestrated. Good metal needs good arrangements otherwise everything is swallowed in a tunnel of mid-range fudge. Think of the open void in Sabbath’s music, of Metallica’s Wagnerian choir of riffs, of Iron Maiden’s dual lead guitars over Steve Harris’ galloping bass. Myrkur’s music is both high gothic and pagan witch rites. M is alternately haunting, pretty, unexpected, dynamic, and super heavy - a mix of folk instrumentation and electric distortion. Whereas most metal bands sound like they were produced in an underground bunker with carpet on the walls, M sounds like it was recorded in a glass cathedral on the edge of a Scandinavian lake at night under the northern lights.

6. White Reaper – White Reaper Does It Again: I know I’ve said multiple times in the past few years that white rock dudes aren’t doing it for me anymore. Well, there will always be room in my heart for the type of scuzzy loud-fast-rules-with-hooks rock that these gents serve up. It’s the same kind of hyperactive fun perfected by The Buzzcocks, The Dickies, and Jay Reatard, but it’s well done and with things as heavy as they are in the world it’s sometimes helpful to hear this kind of snotty, adenoidal adolescence. The buried, FM-fuzz vocal production gets my goat, but the melodies are top notch.

7. Colin Stetson/Sarah Neufeld – Never Were the Way She Was: There is a bit of a stunt component to Colin Stetson’s records. He’s like the David Blaine of the saxophone, setting out to produce an incredible effect through sheer endurance and perseveration of will. This kind of feat-driven showcase is not necessarily a guarantee for good music - entertainment maybe, but art requires more. Luckily Stetson usually employs this rigorous aesthetic discipline towards serving smart, well-thought-out concepts. For the uninitiated, Stetson makes records that are essentially solo saxophone recorded live with no overdubs, only an elaborate microphone setup to capture his non-stop sheets of sound that are achieved through a Rahsaan Roland Kirk-style of circular breathing. It’s a hard-won trick that creates a web of sound that infers more musicians than there are. This time out Stetson brings in fellow Arcade Fire collaborator, violinist Sarah Neufeld, which immediately broadens the sonic palette. Neufeld’s arpeggios, drones, and vocalizations bring fresh context for Stetson’s playing. This is an incredibly moody, bewitching record. It’s not the kind of record you’d play in the car with the windows rolled down. It’s a gorgeous bummer, but worth the time.

8. Low - Ones and Sixes: Low often get overlooked by the national press because they are unassuming, low-key by nature, and so consistently good that it’s actually almost boring. The new wrinkle on this one is the electronic rhythms. It’s not Stephen Hague-type stuff, more Young Marble Giants. Otherwise it’s just a really great set of songs – their best, in my opinion, since 2005’s The Great Destroyer. I’m probably wrong in this last assertion. I probably just need to go back and listen to the last few records again. Low have a way of sneaking up on you. Their songs have a weight to them that is completely missing in popular music right now. There is a durability baked into their songs that bucks any kind of trend or fad. And regardless of what type of arrangement or production the albums feature, the centerpiece is always the blend of Alan and Mimi’s voices. Their two voices are beautiful independently, but nearly devastating together, like a current update Richard and Linda Thompson. It seems silly to list highlights, but my faves are “No Comprende,” “Into You,” “What Part of Me,” and “Lies.” The performances are so convincing it’s hard not to read real life into their songs, but the implication would be that these two have one of the darkest relationships in pop music. “Lies,” in particular, paints a brutal picture of two people who know each other inside and out.

9. U.S. Girls – Half Free: There is a sinister mood to this record which is immediately present on first listen. The songs’ arrangements and production span a wide swath of styles. Opener “Sororal Feelings” sounds like the Ronettes on quaaludes. “Damn That Valley” is death disco dub. “Sed Knife” is a deceptively buoyant, chunk of punk/glam rock. “Navy & Cream” is their version of an NPG Prince song. “Telephone Play No. 1” is like a nightmare Honeymooners skit. My two favorite tunes are “Window Shades” (think Saint Etienne) and “Woman’s Work.” The latter is a haunting warning of giving into the cult of beauty that women are raised into. The entire record sounds politically feminist in a way that is implicitly understood rather than explicitly overstated. It’s all the more powerful for it.

10. The Staves – If I Was: A trio of three British women, two of whom are sisters, The Staves sound like a modern update on Kate and Anna McGariggle. In fact, this is what I wish the McGariggle sisters had actually sounded like. Lots of close harmony singing on deck here, and sometimes there’s very little else as on the beautifully stark, “No Me, No You, No More.” The production is handled by Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and occasionally a full rhythm section, electric guitar, strings, and horns appear to lift the tracks outside of their folk environs. I’m not a folk music purist, so this doesn’t bother me a bit. The overall result falls for me somewhere between Heart and the Unthanks. Maybe it’s the album cover’s fault, but this record sounds like it should be listened to in a cabin in the woods during the winter. It’s warm in a close, hearth-hearkening way.

11. Ghost Culture – Ghost Culture: As the review I wrote last year (but only recently posted) mentions, this record is Matthew Dear-lite. I’m still listening to it over a year later which means it’s a keeper even if it’s a facsimile of something else. What strikes me now is the quiet vulnerability in James Greenwood’s voice. Dear’s voice is that of the black box out of a downed phantom 747. Greenwood is just a slightly sad-sounding guy, and that makes him slightly more relatable, if not as awe-inspiring.

12. LoneLady – Hinterland: The title track of this album is easily one of my top ten tracks of the year. The rest of the record holds up as well, but “Hinterland” is far and away the best. It’s a funky blend of chicken-scratch rhythm guitar, cello, synth bass, and atonal “Boys Keep Swinging” lead breaks that builds to an anthemic chorus. My reference points for this Manchester musician, Julie Campbell, are early Sinead O’Connor (Lion and the Cobra), Bush Tetras, Gang of Four, and A Certain Ratio. She’s supported Wire on tour which is a good musical fit. Although this album feels very “80s,” Campbell gets closer to the heart of her inspirations in a way that her recent peers miss. It’s a fun, spiky, rock record that makes you want to dance. Hopefully her next record won’t take five years to come out as it did for this and her also-good debut.

13. Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats – Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats: I liked Nathaniel Rateliff’s previous records which were very different from this one. Rateliff has moved away from the warm, molasses folk tunes of his early work to a complete rock & soul review sound. On those first, more intimate records Rateliff could work his voice up to a throaty passion, but here he belts out soulfully along with his new horn section. He’s so successful with it, I almost feel like it’s a bit of an overly calculated move made by a talented guy who knows exactly the kind of record that would make an NPR music critic drool. So despite its overt canniness, I can still get behind the crowd-pleasing fare on offer here. The songs are good, the singing pretty great, and the production and arrangements are at a Daptone level if not an Eddie Hinton level.

14. Soko – My Dreams Dictate My Reality: There’s an almost precocious, romantic earnestness to this record. It’s deeply uncool, but that doesn’t really matter. The fact that she’s French might explain some of it, but maybe that’s too easy as well. If you watch her “What’s in My Bag?” segment you’ll get the idea of what I’m talking about. “Oceans of Tears” sounds like a Girls track that doesn’t have its tongue in its cheek. The record has more of a Springsteen as filtered through Conor Oberst vibe. The levels of reverb, delay, and chorus (as well as the vocalisms) give away that she really likes The Cure, but doesn’t quite have a sense of the larger cultural context of that band. I almost hear a bit of Lene Lovich, yet not nearly as much fun. So, sure, Soko comes off a bit awkward, but it’s kind of endearing. She’s got a great sense of melody and a lot of energy which makes it easy to forgive the seriousness.

15. Jane Weaver – The Silver Globe (Deluxe w/ Amber Light): I admit this record leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth though due in no part to the music or the artist. Shortly after buying this record I left the second bonus disc of Amber Light in a rental car in Portland after playing it all the way back from Cannon Beach. I wonder if the next renter of that Toyota Yaris discovered it and what assumptions they made about me based on listening to it. What a weird and random disc to discover. In all fairness, this a terrific set whether purchased as the single Silver Globe or as the deluxe edition with The Amber Light included. Weaver’s previous records were outsider folk, but this is forward-looking Krautrock-inspired trance rock. The eight-minute Stereolab-like motorik of “Argent” is a good litmus test for whether or not this is your thing.

16. Petite Noir – La Vie Est Belle/Life Is Beautiful: This South African artist’s first record sounds like if Theophilus London fronted TV on the Radio. Comparisons could also be made to Peter Gabriel or Tears for Fears as well. It’s big, dramatic rock music with African rhythms, 80s synths, and romantic crooning over the top. It’s the kind of record that will slip through the cracks because it doesn’t fit neatly into the preconceived expectations of different audiences. I found the copy I bought in the R&B section of my local record store. This is more an indication of how Yannick Ilunga’s (the man behind the name) record company has chosen to market the record (if you can really call such a burial “marketing”). This is a rock record, and a good one. The peak is “Seventeen (Stay),” a seven minutes of mid-tempo, romantic, yearning new wave. The rest of the record is of a piece with that song - a strong debut from a new artist.

17. Arcs – Yours, Dreamily: Dan Auerbach makes me feel like a chump. I like this in spite of my gut telling me I shouldn’t, as if I should know better. Like Nathaniel Rateliff, I feel there’s a cheat to this - like I’m being sold some second-hand goods with great presentation and packaging. Auerbach is great at creating very likeable records (both on his own or with the Black Keys), but they generally have never held up to multiple listens for me. Only his lone solo album has stayed with me and I think that’s due to its simplicity. His productions, both for his own records and for other artists, have become slick and predictable. There’s very little in the way of surprises or rough edges. Maybe I’m just getting cranky in my old age. Everything on here sounds good and there are a lot of hooks, it’s just that I don’t feel a personal connection with it. I want him to do something unexpected like make something proggy along the lines of Jethro Tull. I think he’d do a great job with that, but I’m probably the only one.

18. Christine and the Queens – Christine and the Queens: Not much to say about this one. It’s just a nice synth pop record from a French artist. It gives me some of the same vibe as last year’s La Roux record although I like that record way more. I also hear them drawing influence from the last couple of records from Astra. The arrangements are smart, the songs are tuneful, and leader, Héloïse Letissier, has a nice voice. This is the kind of album and the kind of artist that might sneak up on me on their next record. It might also disappear off my radar completely within a few years. Even in that capacity it holds interest for me the same way as other too-often forgotten French favorites like Poni Hoax and Joakim do. It may be one of those records I rediscover from time to time.

19. Fort Romeau – Insides: I’m not sure  what it is about this guy’s records that I dig. There are a lot of people who make lush house music like this. You can actually picture people dancing to it rather than just hanging out in a living room bobbing their heads. At the same time, this is still more cerebral and less dramatic and funky than say, Metro Area, but it still makes for a nice listen. The tracks all hang together well and sound like a real album rather than just a collection of 12” singles which makes it a nice record for driving around in the car at night. Like the Ghost Culture record, Insides, is in some ways yet another Matthew Dear surrogate in terms of tone and mood, if not personality and arrangement.

20. Shilpa Ray – Last Year’s Savage: The rockers on this one are what really grab me. When Ray cuts loose, like on “Johnny Thunders Fantasy Space Camp,” she sounds as lethal as Debbie Harry on “Detroit 442.” And while the song titles indicate that she doesn’t take herself too seriously, the Nico-nodding harmonium featured all over the album creates a very morose and heavy atmosphere that’s truly hypnotic. The album starts with two of these slow burners which maybe is what makes it seem like the record takes a little to kick in. The whole album is obsessed with sex and death in the same way Nick Cave’s work is (Nick was an early advocate of Shilpa Ray). The album centerpiece, “Nocturnal Emissions,” has one of my favorite lyrics of the year (won’t tell you which one). The album lacks cohesion a little bit with the swing between rockers and dirges, but I can’t think of anyone else who’s making music like this right now.

Honorable Mentions

These are records that I liked a lot, but either haven’t gotten around to buying yet or still have conflicted feelings about. I may forget about them in a year or I might suddenly connect with one of them on another level later on. They’re listed here in no specific order.

Marilyn Manson – The Pale Emperor: This record was a real surprise for me. I’ve never been much of a fan of Manson’s work. The last Manson record that piqued my interest at all was Mechanical Animals. Like that record, the arrangements on The Pale Emperor have more space, the rhythm swings, and the hooks are more direct. Manson has cited Muddy Waters, the Stones, and the Doors as influences on the album. He says he’s been getting into the Blues. This isn’t a Blues record by any means, but it’s bluesy the way Danzig II: Lucifuge or Songs of Faith and Devotion are. I hear a bit of that influence along with an Alice Coooper vibe. That might sound dead-obvious since Manson’s long mined Alice’s theater-rock schtick. This time, however, Manson emulates more than just the imagery and shock tactics - the influence is musical. It’s a sleazy L.A. record. The guitar tones are as natural sounding and uncompressed as they’ve ever been on a Manson album. This is simply a tough rock record with swagger and great melodies on top. It puts it in the same vein as Queens of the Stone Age, but with its own personality. I think it’s easily his best work and it makes me wonder what a Guns ‘n’ Roses record helmed by Manson would sound like.

Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion: This was the best pure pop music I heard this year. The songs are really good, the basslines pop, and the production is a perfect sheen. Allegedly, Robyn and La Roux were inspirations for Jepsen and you can hear it. When people talk about how great Taylor Swift or Katy Perry are this is the standard of music I expect, and in my opinion, they fail to meet. Jepsen isn’t just an empty pop cypher. She reminds me of Kylie Minogue on this record, and hey, it’s got saxophones on it! The singles off this are fun, but album tracks like “Gimme Love” and “Let’s Get Lost” (and half a dozen others) are easily just as good.

Blur – The Magic Whip: Reunion records are always tough. Listening to this album is a feel-good experience because it’s nice to have Graham Coxon back in the fold. There is no new direction here. In fact, the record feels like a travelogue of Blur’s various styles over the years. In all honesty none of it feels as vital, fresh, or inspired as it did the first time, but Blur are consummate craftsmen and The Magic Whip is very easy and familiar on the ears for old fans. Sometimes it’s nice to have music that doesn’t challenge, but merely and comfortably validates your personal taste.

Empress Of – Me: Just as Ghost Culture is a proxy for a new Matthew Dear album, this record kind of works for me in place of a new Astra. The main difference being that Empress Of is less of a band project than Astra, closer maybe to Imogen Heap. The singles, “Water Water” and “Kitty Kat,” are decent, but I feel the album is better represented by “How Do You Do It” and “Make Up.” The cover art is pretty boring, but otherwise a nice solid listen.

Tamaryn – Cranekiss: This is a great record for anyone with a pang for dream pop circa 1989: Cocteau Twins, Jesus & Mary Chain, and My Bloody Valentine. There’s a lot of sweetness and light on this, however, which one doesn’t always associate with this sound. Like the Blur album, this is a comfort listen. It’s odd because although this is a new group, the familiarity breeds a kind of false nostalgia by association. As I get older I find this kind of lack of originality bothers me less and less. There’s a nagging feeling of another influence I can’t place which makes me continue to listen to try to eventually figure out that elusive influence that I can’t quite place. Someday I may hear it going through my record collection. Maybe that’s the day I stop listening to this, but until that day I might as well enjoy what’s here.

EMA – #Horror Soundtrack: I haven’t seen the movie that this record acts as soundtrack for, but I have an idea based on the very giallo-inspired recording. I really liked EMA’s Past Lives Martyred Saints, but her second didn’t move me very much. I’d be very happy if her career took a turn towards this kind of music which also has more of a Chromatics/M83 feel to it.

OST – Jodorowsky’s Dune: This is the soundtrack to the wonderful documentary about Alejandro Jodorowsky’s stupendous failed attempt to bring Frank Herbert’s Dune to the screen. Jodorowsky’s pre-production work was so thorough that the film nearly does exist in folio form cataloging production and costume designs by H.R. Giger and Chris Foss, as well as meticulous storyboards illustrated by Moebius. The cast was to include Mick Jagger, David Carradine, Gloria Swanson, Orson Welles, Amanda Lear, and Salvador Dali. French prog-maestros, Magma, and Pink Floyd were set to do the music. In short, it was to be a grand science fiction masterpiece before Star Wars. This soundtrack doesn’t sound like Magma or the Floyd, but it falls into that early-Tangerine Dream/electronic prog territory. Soundtracks are best when then enhance the film they are attached to and can still stand on their own. This accomplishes both.

Danzig – Skeletons: Honestly about half of this all-covers album isn’t very good. However, there are a couple of tracks that rank as the best stuff Glenn Danzig’s done in a good long while. The lead-off version of the Cassavetes-staring, biker exploitation soundtrack tune, “Devil’s Angels,” is sublime Danzig, all ragged croon and sonic thunder. His sludgy version of ZZ Top’s “Rough Boy” is better than an Afterburner album cut has a right to be, outstripping the original by a mile. The Litter’s “Action Woman” and the Everlys’ “Crying in the Rain” are also highlights. His version of Sabbath’s “NIB,” on the hand, is not only unnecessary, but totally hilarious (“Oh yeah!”). The Pin-Ups referencing cover is pretty funny too. The best part of this release though is how raw and unfinished it is, harkening back to the simple, direct impact of those early Misfits records. More of this.

Ryan Adams – 1989: I enjoy listening to this album, but I’m conflicted about it for two reasons. The first reason is that as a cover album, no matter how good the result, in the back of my mind it feels like a gimmick. The second reason is that this gimmick features all of the things I’ve always like about Adams’ best work from 15-20 years ago that has been so lacking in his records as of late. As I mentioned in my 2014 list, it’s almost as if the more of a one-off throwaway the record is (like his Paxam singles) the more he feels free to be himself. Ironically, it’s on an album of someone else’s work that Adams’ sounds more like himself than he has in years. I think it’s the best singing he’s done since Demolition. Taylor Swift writes decent melodic hooks and Adams is smart enough to recognize a good hook when he hears one. Moreover he has strong enough skills as an editor to cut out the bits that aren’t so good. Adams reworks or omits the more cringe-worthy lyrics (no “boys only want love when it’s torture” section in “Blank Space,” for instance). Is this a better record than Taylor Swift’s? I think so. Will Adams ever write and record songs of his own this good ever again? Sadly, probably not.

Baroness – Purple: When Baroness’ first few albums came out I remember thinking they were okay, but they didn’t leave a huge impression on me. This record is making me go back and reevaluate their catalog. This is band gets closer to the kind of metal that no one outside of my head makes anymore. Lead singer, John Dyer Baizley, is the nearest I’ve found to prime-era Hetfield singing. The vocal levels alone (high in the mix) are enough to get excited, but the lack of effects on them to be able to hear the words is so nice to hear again after the last couple of decades of Cookie Monster bellows. The anthemic catchiness of this record reminds me of power metal’s righteous hooks but without the over-the-top Masters of the Universe chest-beating machismo. My only complaint is that arrangements and production give me a maximum density (no space), overly compressed 90s heavy-rock sound. The vocal melodies and riffs start to blend together too, but I’ll be paying attention more from here on out.

Lianne La Havas – Blood: This is a graceful, sophisticated British soul record that fits in with Alice Smith, Jessie Ware, Estelle, and Sade. Beautifully produced and arranged, Blood has a lush, smooth sound atop these very pretty songs. There is a touch of smooth jazz, but the melodic hooks and rhythmic pulse keep it from being smug or indulgent. The opening of “What You Don’t Do” reminds me of something I can’t place - maybe Toto’s “Hold the Line?” La Havas’ voice has tonal weight to it without being overbearing. It’s neither too light and airy or too gruff and grunty. Her clean, jazzy, finger-picked guitar work throughout the album almost reminds me of Jeff Buckley, whose vocal styling she sometimes resembles.

Thundercat – The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam EP: Potentially the only thing keeping this from actually making my list is this is just an EP. It feels a bit like a stopgap of sketches although the music is really nice, particularly “Them Changes.” Although brief, the record (16 minutes) boasts guests like Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington, and even Herbie Hancock. I’m excited to hear what’s next.

Recently-Missed Discovery

Ejecta/Young Ejecta – Dominae (late-2013) / The Planet EP (early-2015): Every year I come upon a record or an artist that put out records from the previous year or two that I missed or never heard about at the time. I’m inevitably missing out on something else that’s really great right now. A review of The Planet in early 2015 hipped me to Ejecta (now unfortunately Young Ejecta), and it just goes to show that there’s too much music being created now that there’s no way to stay on top of all the great stuff. Ejecta are a synthpop duo whose members come from Neon Indian and Ford & Lopatin. The EP is good, with tracks like “Welcome to Love” and “The Planet” as the standouts. The debut from over a year earlier, however, is pretty great. It’s a perfect propulsive synth-driven dance pop in the mold of early Eurythmics, OMD, and Depeche Mode. Vocalist Leanne Macomber’s voice is nice, though honestly nothing remarkable, but the melodies and the arrangements are what get me. Ejecta would suffer by a direct comparison with any of Astra’s records, but it’s still too good of a record to miss entirely. The shame is that Ejecta are probably doomed to never reach their potential due to their gimmicky presentation. Macomber performs live and in videos, and adorns their record sleeves in a near or total state of undress. It’s the kind of thing that either can be read as a brave, political or artistically symbolic gesture, or just a brazen grab for attention. Even if the former is the case, it will unfortunately be too easy for people to dismiss the group by assuming the latter. It’s too bad because the tunes are good.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Twin Shadow - Eclipse

Well, George Lewis Jr. just jumped the shark. His new album, Eclipse, is overblown and ponderously dramatic. The production is slick; the lyrics are broadly generic; and the emotive earnestness is cranked up to 11. This is serious Celine Dion, chest-thumping stuff. It's devoid of all the things that made Twin Shadow so unique and promising to begin with.

TS's first album, Forget (2010), was one of many low-fi 80s new wave homages to come out towards the end of Aughts, but it stood out from the rest of the Captured Tracks crowd due to Lewis' clever, memorable lyrics, his musicianship, and most of all for his supple, elegant voice. M83's Saturdays = Youth and Craft Spells' Idle Labor are great records, but they lack Lewis' vocal presence and personality. Forget's opener, "Tyrant Destroyed," has more good lines in it than the entirety of Eclipse. His voice is hushed and understated, sexy and persuasive. There's also a playful sense of humor to that first album that is conspicuously absent from this new record. Eclipse's production sounds like an embarrassed reaction to the bedroom recording of his debut.

To be fair, this move isn't a complete surprise. Lewis had begun to move towards this epic direction on his sophomore release, Confess (2012). That album broadened the Twin Shadow sonic palette and brought a more cinematic sweep to a batch of songs that, although good, were not quite up to the standard's of Forget. The one exception being "Five Seconds," which is still Lewis' absolute New Romantic apex - 4:20 of new wave heaven. That song excepted, the rest of Confess suffers from sounding like it's trying too hard to be too cool for school, betraying a self-consciousness not found on Forget. Eclipse expands on the slick production of Confess, but leaves behind the cool-guy pose for a populist commercial appeal.

Eclipse is Twin Shadows' first record after moving to L.A. and his first for a major label (his first two were released on 80s stalwart 4AD) and it sounds like it. I admire Lewis' disregard for the indie world's obscurantism and applaud his sense of ambition (an all too rare thing in rock and roll these days). At the same time, Eclipse feels so over the top, desperate to connect to an arena-sized audience that all individuality is lost in its global reach. Another casualty of this new record is Lewis' (great) guitar playing, notably missing for much of this record. In a recent Pitchfork interview Lewis even went so far as to say that he was planning on giving up guitar for good, again, sounding embarrassed by his ability.

This new record is not without its moments. "Eclipse," "Half Life," and "Watch Me Go" have a bit of the old spark in them, or at least provide evidence that Twin Shadow may still have another good record in them yet. Lewis is a talented guy. He could make good music again if he goes back to listening to his Smiths albums and learns to stop watching himself being watched. Instead of including a player to stream Eclipse I've made a playlist of tunes that the best Twin Shadow reflects.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

AC/DC Scheduled to Perform 2015 Grammys and Headline Coachella

As I posted recently, I was less than thrilled when the 2015 Grammy nominations were announced. Outside of a few groups nominated in categories that won't air, I really didn't have anyone to root for or reason to watch. You might argue that there's never a reason to watch the Grammys. However, aside from a professional interest during the dozen years I worked at a record store, there's always been something that drew me in and gave me a reason to care. This year seemed to be the one where I was destined to tune out.

Last week, the Grammys began to announce the performers for the Feb. 8 awards show. Among the performers announced thus far: Madonna, Ariana Grande, Ed Sheeran, Eric Church, Sam Smith, Pharrell Williams, Usher, Miranda Lambert, Common and John Legend, and for the first time on the Grammy stage, AC/DC.

Well, there's my reason to watch. I will tune in just to watch AC/DC mop the floor with the sorry parade of pop tart ding-a-lings. It's always good to see any rock band at the Grammys, but having one of the best rock bands of all time play is going to be great. The group are not up for any awards, but were likely invited on the back of their recently released album, Rock or Bust.

Now granted, today's AC/DC is not the AC/DC of yore. Malcolm Young has left the group (at least temporarily) due to serious illness. Phil Rudd's involvement in the group is question after a police raid on his home. Brian Johnson's acid-razor  of a voice is not quite what it once was. All that said, it's still AC/DC. Malcolm and Angus' brother Stevie has joined on guitar and if Rudd can't make it, they should have no problem finding a drummer - maybe Chris Slade will come back.

Regardless of the line-up or their age, this is a band that is more than a match for the likes of Ed Sheeran or Sam Smith. I'd love to see one of those choirboys follow these legends. I'd be willing to wager, however, in true, lame Grammy fashion, the band will close out the show and be cut off 30 seconds into their performance due to the lateness of the broadcast.

I'm sure there will be a generation of younger viewers who will have no context for these old guys tearing up the stage. Hopefully a few eyes are opened, but I can't expect much. I'm much more hopeful for the news of the band headlining Coachella.

Coachella has recently been into booking older acts that cause a twitter storm of tweens wondering who some headliners (like the Stone Roses) are. Now perhaps I'm not giving the younger generation enough credit. AC/DC are one of those bands who seem to cross generational lines and are a fixture of popular culture. Something tells me though that there are a lot of trendy, rich kids who are going to have their minds blown in the desert this spring. I hope every denim-clad dirtball in Bakersfield, CA comes out to Coachella for AC/DC's set, just to make it interesting.

Now if life were truly just, the '74-'79, Bon Scott-era version of the group would be playing the Grammys and Coachella. But that would be too much rock, too much danger for today's whimpering music audience. Could you imagine Bon Scott in the same room as Taylor Swift? Oh, but to dream.

Here's a video of the group's new single, "Rock or Bust." It's a nice rocker and the band sound to be in good enough form to destroy the Grammys. I followed that with a selection of Bon-era gems. What I would give for the Grammy audience to have to deal with such a raw, feral, barrel-chested, satyr-beast like Bon.

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Comparative Perspective on 2014: The Year in Music – Part 3 of 3

So, how does 2014 compare to other years-in-music? Certainly not every year is equal. To provide some context for how good or bad the year was, I’ve somewhat arbitrarily compared this year’s list to the best records from 40, 30, and 20 years ago. I decided against going back 50 years since the pop music album market in 1964 was really in its infancy. I also decided not to compare it to 2004 because I don’t think there’s been enough perspective on those records yet.

What follows is a brief discussion of the year in question and how it compared favorably or unfavorably to 2014. I’ve listed my favorite records from each year along with other notable records from the same year. These notables include records that were big-sellers or were critically-lauded, decent records of personal interest to me, or records that are emblematic of the year and give a good impression of the pop landscape of the time. Some of the notable are records I like, some I don’t. Each section has its own jukebox which I’ve loaded with only the things I liked, sequenced not in order of preference but hopefully in a more listenable order. Finally, at the end I’ll give a short synopsis on 2014 based on the comparative analysis.

Upfront disclosure: the records listed for each year are not every record released that year. I’m sure I won’t mention some people’s favorites. I may have even neglected to include some of my own. These are not meant to be comprehensive lists. This is a very subjective exercise. Obviously my personal bias plays into this, but let’s not pretend that you’re here to get a dry, objective view of pop history. This is my blog; I’m king here.

2014 vs. 1974

Like 2014, 1974 was not a particularly distinguished year for popular music. It was a time of late-glam, late-prog, pre-punk, pre-disco, and mid-period funk. Metal had not fully emerged from heavy, blues-based rock. Classic roots reggae and dub had barely developed out of rocksteady and ska. The hippie dream had died and nothing had come to take its place. A lot of the big groups of the time were either in between releases (Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, The Who) or released records that were not their best (see both of the David Coverdale-led Deep Purple albums).

All that said, there were plenty of good records released that year, many of which I deeply love. A lot of the records released in ‘74 that mean the most to me personally were not commercial successes. Sure, Bowie had a hit with “Rebel Rebel,” but many of the rest (Big Star, Eno, John Cale, Robert Wyatt, Neil Young, etc.) were either outright flops or very specialized, marginal releases (Can, for instance). Even KISS’s first two records struggled pre-Alive. The records that did well, chart-wise, in 1974 were of the laid back, post-hippie, Californian superstar variety (Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Jefferson Starship, etc.); and I generally don’t go in for much of that. Rock had become a big-business commodity by ‘74. The darker, weirder stuff is what appeals to me from that year.

None my favorites from 2014 were bestsellers either, but that’s become the norm for past few decades. Very little in the mainstream has appealed to me since ‘93. In the Seventies, however, the biggest records were sometimes the very best. It seems like it’s the reverse of that now. In that way, ‘74 resembles 2014.

I’d argue that D’angelo’s new record compares favorably with the best of ‘74 R&B which includes good to great records from the Meters, Rufus, Parliament, Funkadelic, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Ohio Players, Isley Brothers, and more. The other R&B-related records I liked in 2014, Theophilus London and FKA Twigs (and Kelis, which didn’t make my list), were far less traditional and are a lot harder to compare to their predecessors. Even so, I don’t think they will hold up by comparison over the years. Go back and listen to Up for the Down Stroke or Sweet Exorcist if you haven’t heard them in a while. They’re pretty great.

Any easier comparison is the good country records of 2014 with those of ‘74. Waylon Jennings’ Ramblin’ Man is a clear antecedent of Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. Not only does Simpson’s voice sound like Jennings’, but both are/were outsiders to what the rest of country music was doing. Gene Clark’s excellent No Other offers another predecessor for Simpson’s psychedelic country vision as well. Dolly Parton’s Jolene can be compared with 2014’s Somewhere Else by Lydia Loveless, not just because they are women, but because both albums are watersheds for the songwriting talents of both. Lucinda Williams’ Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone is a maybe a closer analog to Neil Young’s On the Beach: downbeat, mature efforts with roots both in rock and country. Both have songs called “Walk On” on them too. 1974 was awash in this kind of outsider country and country-rock hybrid like Willie Nelson, Gram Parsons, Gene Clark, Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, Grateful Dead, etc. 2014 had a few good examples, but nowhere near as many.

A comparison of rock between 1974 and 2014 is tougher and generally highlights differences between the two years, although some similarities can be found. One notable difference is the number of female artists on my 2014 list than my 1974 list. Clearly, Ex Hex wouldn’t exist with Suzi Quatro, but Rips is a way better record than Quatro. White Lung rocks harder than anything on this pre-punk 1974 list with the possible exception of KISS. Nothing approaches the musical doom of the Swans, but there is a similar lyrical darkness to John Cale, Steely Dan, Randy Newman, and even the Peter Gabriel-led Genesis (see “Back in NYC”).

That last example, of Genesis, brings up another distinction between the two years. Art rock and prog in 1974 contained a high level of both musicianship and intellectual conceptualism that is largely missing these days. Liars, Wild Beasts, Pere Ubu, Blonde Redhead, and Parquet Courts all offer a level of post-punk weirdness inherent in Genesis’ Lamb, Eno’s two records, the Crimson albums, Henry Cow, Roxy Music, Cockney Rebel, Can, and Yes. However, none of them approach the virtuosity of King Crimson, Yes, or Zappa. The bands that do offer that level of technical ability now have none of the imagination or taste of the aforementioned 2014 art rock groups. D’angelo’s record was probably the most musically proficient record on my 2014 list. Pere Ubu is the most logical bridge between the art rock of the two years, particularly since their first single was released in 1975.

One small similarity between the two years is that even in 1974 rock was starting to look back at itself in anachronism. Big Star was considered a Beatles-y throwback in the time of concept-album prog. Likewise, Ty Segall, Temples, and The Coral all feature almost self-consciously retro sounds. However, none of them approach the freshness or originality of Radio City. That’s a high standard, but if any of these retro groups want to make something that lasts they need to stop hiding behind production and write songs that expose themselves as much as Alex Chilton did.

A lot of my 2014 list was made up of electronic dance music base out of techno and house, genres whose births were only just being forecasted in 1974 by German records like Autobahn and Phaedra. The other ingredients of modern electronic dance music was also in place in 1974, namely the pre-disco Philly soul sound of records like the Spinners’ Mighty Love and the high-polish production of ABBA’s Euro-pop. Clark and Aphex Twin obviously owe elements of their sound to the krauts, but La Roux’s new wave dance music was anticipated in the synths and bassline of ABBA’s “My Mama Said.”

I suppose if I were to choose between the two years I would favor 1974 because of the degree of affection I feel towards the records I did like. I liked my top ten from 2014, but not with the zeal I feel towards the top of ‘74. Whether or not this is because I discovered the ‘74 titles earlier in my life when I was less cynical and more impressionable, I can’t be sure. There were also just a larger number of good records from that year, even several groups who put out more than one record. Brian Eno, Sparks, KISS, Rufus, and the Ohio Players all put out two (really good) records in ‘74. That speaks to the quality of the year as a whole. I was still a year away from being born in 1974, but I feel closer to the music produced that year than the current one. I loved Alvvay’s album from this year, but can I say it’s better than I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight? It’s really hard.

My Favorites from 1974 (in rough order):

Big Star – Radio City
Brian Eno – Here Come the Warm Jets; Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)
John Cale – Fear
Robert Wyatt – Rock Bottom
Cockney Rebel – Psychomodo
Roxy Music – Country Life
King Crimson – Starless and Bible Black; Red
David Bowie – Diamond Dogs
Richard & Linda Thompson – I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
Van Morrison – Veedon Fleece
Sparks – Kimono My House; Propaganda
KISS – KISS; Hotter Than Hell
Neil Young – On the Beach
Waylon Jennings – The Ramblin’ Man
Bob Marley & the Wailers – Natty Dread
Genesis – The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
Steely Dan – Pretzel Logic
Curtis Mayfiled – Sweet Exorcist
Parliament – Up for the Down Stroke
Mick Ronson – Slaughter on 10th Avenue
Can – Soon Over Babaluma
Tangerine Dream – Phaedra
Kraftwerk – Autobahn
Rufus – Rags to Rufus; Rufusized

Other Notable 1974 Releases (in no order):

Joni Mitchell – Court and Spark
Jefferson Starship – Dragonfly
Eagles – On the Border
Eric Clapton – 461 Ocean Boulevard
The Rolling Stones – It’s Only Rock & Roll
Jackson Browne – Late for the Sky
Linda Ronstadt – Heart Like a Wheel
Grateful Dead – From the Mars Hotel
Lynyrd Skynyrd – Second Helping
Bob Dylan – Planet Waves
Gram Parsons – Grievous Angel
Stevie Wonder – Fulfillingness’ First Finale
Yes – Relayer
The Meters – Rejuvenation
Randy Newman – Good Old Boys
Willie Nelson – Phases and Stages
James Brown – Hell
Henry Cow – Unrest
Keith Hudson – Pick a Dub
Dolly Parton – Jolene
The Residents – Meet the Residents
Funkadelic – Standing on the Verge of Getting It On
Ohio Players – Skin Tight; Fire
New York Dolls – Too Much Too Soon
Kevin Ayers – The Confessions of Dr. Dream and Other Stories
Mott the Hoople – The Hoople
Blue Oyster Cult – Secret Treaties
UFO – Phenomenon
Elton John – Caribou
Commodores – Machine Gun
Average White Band – AWB
Isley Brothers – Live It Up
Jackson 5 – Dancing Machine
Lou Reed – Sally Can’t Dance
ELO – Eldorado
Harry Nilsson – Pussy Cats
Barry White – Can’t Get Enough
Sly & the Family Stone – Small Talk
Herbie Hancock – Thrust
Gene Clark – No Other
Sweet – Desolation Boulevard
Al Green – Explores Your Mind
Suzi Quatro – Quatro
Leonard Cohen – New Skin for the Old Ceremony
Frank Zappa – Apostrophe
ABBA – Waterloo
Rush – Rush
Spinners – Mighty Love

2014 vs. 1984

It’s almost cruel to compare the albums from any year to those released in 1984. In my mind, 1984 is one of the great years in pop music history (1967, 1969, 1972, 1977, 1980, and 1989 are a few others). The best records from 1984 are some of the best of all time. It’s not a question of which year had better music, ‘84 or ‘14. The answer is clearly 1984 by a huge margin. As such I won’t spend as much time on this comparison. I’ll just touch on what made ‘84 great and some of the ways that ‘14 managed to compare respectably in some areas.

All my hyperbole doesn’t mean that there wasn’t bad music in ‘84. There was tons, in fact (some of which is listed in the Notable records). Lots of really bad “80s” production. The 80s get a bad rap in the memory of musical history. I think this is largely due to disappointment of baby boomers that their heroes of the 60s and 70s had a rough go of it during the 80s (Dylan, the Stones, Bowie, Neil Young, Rod Stewart, and Lou Reed all floundered artistically most of the decade). That doesn’t detract from the great records that did come out. There were a number of key groups of the time that didn’t release records in 1984 (Talking Heads, New Order, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel), but enough did that a sensible person couldn’t complain.

Let’s look at the winners of 1984, starting with the Twin Cities. Minneapolis was to 1984 as Manchester was to 1989 or Seattle was to 1991. Prince reached his purple pinnacle with the release of his greatest album and all of his production/writing for other acts that year (The Time, Sheila E, Apollonia 6, Sheena Easton, Chaka Khan). The other sound coming from the Twin Cities included the best records from the Replacements, Husker Du, the Suburbs, and the first Soul Asylum album. For one year, the Twin Cities felt like the center of the music world.

Another winner of 1984 was heavy metal. It was a golden age to be a hesher. Compared to ‘84, 2014 was pedestrian in terms of its metal output. In Part 1 of this Year in Review series I made mention that metal in 2014 did very little for me and that’s because, in my mind, metal today pales in comparison to the greatness of a year like 1984. Ride the Lightning is one of the greatest metal albums of all time, period. Two of the other Big Four, Slayer and Anthrax, put out their debut albums as well. Then there were great records by Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Scorpions, Dio, Venom, Mercyful Fate, Ratt, and many more. Van Halen was really just considered a rock and roll band by this point, but that is really just a testament to how pervasive metal was in mainstream rock.

British and American post-punk was incredibly well represented in 1984. Along with the Minneapolis records already mentioned, REM, the Meat Puppets, and the Minutemen showed very different exits out of punk rock, putting out some of their finest work in the process. The Bunnymen released their Sgt. Pepper’s, U2 ditched Lilywhite for Eno, The Fall fully ushered in the Brix period (begun on Perverted By Language), Depeche Mode made their first great post-Vince Clarke album, and Robert Smith made a better record with the Banshees than he did with the Cure. Nick Cave left the Birthday Party to form the Bad Seeds. The Smiths were the transatlantic answer to REM’s stateside jangle and the Furs and Simple Minds also released quality discs. It was a good time for hairspray, eyeliner, and dark trench coats.

So where does 2014 stand against 1984? Well, I think the ‘14 Swans are actually superior to the ‘84 Swans. Robyn Hitchcock released good albums in both years (and covered the Furs hit from ‘84 this year as well). 2014 offered more in the way of electronic or hip hop than ‘84, however, Run DMC is as good of a hip hop or electronic record as those released in 2014. Tina Turner’s Private Dancer is a great R&B/rock record, but D’angelo’s Black Messiah is more powerful as a cultural achievement, and almost as powerful of a personal one. Sade beats Jessie Ware just by the fact of one being the inspiration for the other, but I think Ware will still hold up years from now too. Just like when being compared to 1974, 2014 had more great women artists than ‘84. Other than that, 1984 takes the honors in every other way. One noticeable difference between ‘84 and ‘74 is the notable releases are not as deep as in ‘74. In true 80s fashion of go-big-or-go-home, records in ’84 were either pretty good or pretty bad.

I realize this somewhat depends on your personal taste. If you don’t like metal and post-punk, then perhaps you wouldn’t feel the same way about ‘84. One thing I did notice is that rock was still the most prevalent genre on my ‘84 list. On my 2014 list – and my lists for the past few years – rock groups were nowhere near as prevalent. In fact, you could almost argue that rock doesn’t exist outside of genre anymore. In ‘84 that wasn’t the case. Rock and roll was the mainstream in a way that it isn’t now and hasn’t been for a while.

My Favorites from 1984 (in rough order):

Prince – Purple Rain
Replacements – Let It Be
Metallica – Ride the Lightning
Echo & the Bunnymen – Ocean Rain
Husker Du – Zen Arcade
Minutemen – Double Nickels on the Dime
REM – Reckoning
Iron Maiden – Powerslave
The Fall – The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall
Tina Turner – Private Dancer
Van Halen – 1984
Depeche Mode – Some Great Reward
U2 – Unforgettable Fire
Tones on Tail – Pop

Other Notable Records from 1984 (in no order):

Bruce Springsteen – Born in the USA
Madonna – Like a Virgin
Bryan Adams – Reckless
REO Speedwagon – Wheels Are Turnin’
Various – Footloose (soundtrack)
The Cars – Heartbeat City
Run DMC – Run DMC
Foreigner – Agent Provocateur
Steve Perry – Street Talk
Twisted Sister – Stay Hungry
The Pretenders – Learning to Crawl
David Bowie – Tonight
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – From Her to Eternity
Sade – Diamond Life
The Smiths – The Smiths; Hatful of Hollow
Siouxsie & the Banshees – Hyaena
Spinal Tap – This Is Spinal Tap
Psychedelic Furs – Mirror Moves
Simple Minds – Sparkle in the Rain
The Suburbs – Love Is the Law
Slade – Keep Your Hands off My Power Supply
General Public – All the Rage
Chaka Khan – I Feel for You
Sheila E. – The Glamorous Life
Cocteau Twins – Treasure
Bronski Beat – Age of Consent
Chicago – Chicago 17
Weird Al Yankovic – In 3D
Yngwie Malmsteen – Rising Force
Swans – Cop
The Cure – The Top
Coil – Scatology
Death in June – Burial
Nena – 99 Luft Balloons
Dead Can Dance – Dead Can Dance
Queen – The Works
Black Flag – My War; Family Man; Slip It In
Meat Puppets – Meat Puppets II
Style Council – Cafe Bleu
Los Lobos – How Will the Wolf Survive?
Dio – Last in Line
Robyn Hitchcock – I Often Dream of Trains
Bangles – All Over the Place
Slayer – Haunting the Chapel
Anthrax – Fistful of Metal
Venom – At War with Satan
Ratt – Out of the Cellar
Scorpions – Love at First Sting
Mercyful Fate – Don’t Break the Oath
Bon Jovi – Bon Jovi
Wham! – Make It Big
Frankie Goes to Hollywood – Welcome to the Pleasuredome
Judas Priest – Defenders of the Faith
Julian Cope – World Shut Your Mouth
Robert Plant – Honeydrippers Vol. 1
Billy Ocean – Suddenly
Soul Asylum – Say What You Will… Everything Can Happen

2014 vs. 1994

1994 was the year that the corporate co-opting of alternative music took hold. Bland facsimiles of alternative music took over the airwaves and true indie returned to the underground. Perhaps not coincidentally it was also the year Kurt Cobain killed himself. Mediocre bands got signed and made long, terrible CDs that sold millions of copies. With the advent of the compact disc, bands could put out almost 80-minute albums which were 80% filler. It was, in my opinion, the beginning of a terrible time for rock and roll. One that I think it hasn’t recovered from. It pushed me to explore hip hop and electronic music which were coming into their own.

There were some good rock albums throughout the 90s, and 1994 in particular. Those that I did like, I loved – I think in part because I hated so much of the rest of what was out there. A lot of what got me through that decade was Britpop and American indie rock. Real alternative music went underground again which was fine but frustrating when you couldn’t hear good rock on the radio anymore. There were a few above ground rock artists from that year that I will stick by, namely Beck, Green Day, and Weezer. I didn’t really stick with those acts as the years passed, but in ‘94 they offered a brief respite from the rest of the dreck. Blur were huge in England but only a novelty in the U.S. and soon to be dwarfed by Oasis (who were in my mind inferior). Jeff Buckley’s high archangel tenor soared at a time when every mainstream rock male vocalist was either exaggerating some nasal vocal tic or grunting in a manly constipated moan. Low-fi became a code for keeping the good music secret and safe. That, in the end, became a cage itself. For the time though, it’s all I had.

Most of the notable records below are albums I couldn’t understand at best and couldn’t stand at worst. I realize some of you may go through and think I’m an idiot for not liking a lot of these records. Hey, whatever floats your boat. For me, 1994 was horrible and isolating.

It’s hard to compare 1994 to 2014. I think ‘14 had more good records than ‘94, but again, I felt an attachment to my favorites from ‘94 that I don’t feel for the ‘14 records because these albums were a life preserver for me. I think the easiest way for me to reconcile the two lists is imagine how I would have embraced my ‘14 list had they come out in ‘94. From that perspective, it’s easier to make a connection. Alvvays, Parquet Courts, and Mac DeMarco would have fit in very well next to Liz Phair, Sebadoh, Superchunk, and Pavement on 120 Minutes. White Lung would have ended Courtney Love’s career before it really caught fire. Ironically, there would be no superior White Lung without Hole. Saint Etienne’s record is great, but probably not as good as La Roux’s. You could hold Jeff Buckley responsible for a lot of the soggy male singer-songwriters out now, but in ‘94 he couldn’t have been more different from everything else. It’s hard to see Green Day as anything other than megastars at this point, but when I first heard them I saw them as inheritors of both the Descendents and the Buzzcocks. FKA Twigs owes a lot to Portishead, but ultimately I think Dummy is the much better record.

In the end, I think my favorites from 2014’s are at least as good as those from 1994. There are more of them too, so the win goes to 2014, but how high is that bar, really? Maybe that’s not fair. There’s always good music released every year. The jukebox below is the weakest of the three, but there are still some great songs on it. What makes 1994 a bad year for music was how much bad or mediocre music became hits. The Black Keys and the War on Drugs didn’t make my list for 2014, but I think their records were pretty good. Neither of them have yet sold as many copies as Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy (“Corduroy” is the only good song) or Sponge’s Rotting Pinata (no good songs), but the Black Keys and WOD records are easily better and are as successful as far regular rock and roll gets nowadays.

A few words in defense of 1994 compared to the other years: pop memory can be selective in hindsight and with the distance of years the bad music of ’74 and ’84 can get filtered out more easily than the bad music from just 20 years ago. We tend to forget about how popular things like the Osmonds, Helen Reddy, Barry Manilow, Barbara Mandrell, and countless one-hit wonders (Andy Kim, Billy Swan, Bo Donaldson & the Heywoods, etc.) were. There is always terrible popular music. The good years just make up for it with plenty of great music.

My Favorites from 1994 (in rough order):

Pavement – Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
Jeff Buckley – Grace
Blur – Parklife
Guided By Voices – Bee Thousand
Liz Phair – Whipsmart
Sebadoh – Bakesale
Superchunk – Foolish
Weezer – Weezer (blue album)
Green Day – Dookie
Beck – Mellow Gold
Portishead – Dummy
Saint Etienne – Tiger Bay
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Let Love In

Other Notable Records from 1994 (in no order):

Nas – Illmatic
Jeru the Damaja – The Sun Rises in the East
Digable Planets – Blowout Comb
Nine Inch Nails – Downward Spiral
Beastie Boys – Ill Communication
Soundgarden – Superunknown
Oasis – Definitely Maybe
Boyz II Men – II
Common Sense – Resurrection
Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die
Hootie & the Blowfish – Cracked Rear View
Blues Traveler – Four
Hole – Live Through This
Rollins Band – Weight
Live – Throwing Copper
Grant Lee Buffalo – Mighty Joe Moon
Morrissey – Vauxhall and I
Suede – Dog Man Star; Stay Together EP
TLC – CrazySexyCool
Method Man – Tical
Prince – Black Album
Nick Lowe – Impossible Bird
Mary J. Blige – My Life
Pearl Jam – Vitalogy
Stone Roses – Second Coming
Stone Temple Pilot – Purple
Bush – Sixteen Stone
Nirvana – MTV Unplugged in New York
Autechre – Amber
Orbital – Snivilization
Sponge – Rotting Pinata
Warren G – Regulate...G Funk Era
Aaliyah – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number
Massive Attack – Protection
Johnny Cash – American Recordings
Brandy – Brandy
Ween – Chocolate and Cheese
REM – Monster
Soul Coughing – Ruby Vroom
Dave Matthews Band – Under the Table and Dreaming
Cranberries – No Need to Argue
Korn – Korn
Veruca Salt – American Thighs
Rancid – Let’s Go
Tori Amos – Under the Pink
Jamiroquai – Return of the Space Cowboy
Melvins – Prick; Stoner Witch
Neil Young – Sleeps With Angels
Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works II
Sunny Day Real Estate – Diary
Shellac – At Action Park
Sonic Youth – Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star
Rusted Root – When I Woke
Dinosaur Jr. – Without a Sound
Toad the Wet Sprocket – Dulcinea
Ani DiFranco – Out of Range
The Offspring – Smash
Coolio – It Takes a Thief
Marilyn Manson – Portrait of an American Family
All-4-One – All-4-One
Seal – Seal
Frank Black – Teenager of the Year
Mark Lanegan – Whiskey for the Holy Ghost
Underworld – Dubnobasswithmyheadman
Kristin Hersh – Hips and Makers
Alice in Chains – Jars of Flies
Gravediggaz – 6 Feet Deep
Outkast – Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik
Stereolab – Mars Audiac Quintet


So, what’s my takeaway? How good or bad of a year in music was 2014? In short, 2014 is not as bad as it gets (although even 1994 isn’t as bad as it gets); but when compared to a great year (like ‘84), or even a really good one (like ‘74), 2014 comes out pretty mediocre, which is really what it felt like to me. Of the records that I really like from this year, I bet I don’t end up listening to half of them five years from now. What I think this comparison really reveals is how the changes in the music industry and culture have shaped the way we process and think about music. The music made in the years above is really just a mirror of the time from which it came.

In the Seventies, the record industry was a huge business that acted as gatekeepers for which music got released. As a result, fewer records were released than now, and still fewer were actually heard by most people. That doesn’t mean that only the good stuff got released. A lot of terrible, safe music came out back then. However, there was a real support system for the recognized greats of the time (Bowie, Neil Young, Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Led Zeppelin, etc.) that clearly doesn’t exist now. There was such a thing as real A&R that developed artists to have long term careers. Kate Bush is a prime example of this. The Seventies were the decade that AOR (album-oriented rock) ruled. In that light, it’s not surprising that even an “off” year like ‘74 produced some exceptionally strong albums.

In the Eighties, music became more imaged-based with the advent of MTV, even as album artwork became physically smaller with cassettes, then compact discs, overtaking vinyl as the format of choice. Affordable Walkman players meant that music not only became more portable, but more of an individualized listening experience. It was easier to walk around with your headphones and tune the world out. Home taping may not have killed the record industry, but it did begin the death of the album format as people began making their own mixes, re-sequencing and re-contextualizing the art as it was intended. The result of these changes was that the music sometimes became as much of a fashion accessory. The release cycles of albums started becoming longer as MTV allowed the record companies to milk a single album over a longer period of time. Although the album was still in many ways considered the primary way for an artist to make a grand statement, music videos made for a lot of one-hit wonders and placed more focus on singles. Culturally, the Eighties were obsessed with a utopian space-age dream of a technological future which bled into the production choices of its pop music making much of it somewhat dated.

In the Nineties, the longer run-times of compact discs meant less editing which weakened the structure of the album. Albums became packed with filler and no longer had two programs (A and B) separated by the intermission of turning the record or cassette over. Album artwork during these years was horrible. Not only did it get physically smaller, but with the introduction of primitive digital design, some of the ugliest album art of all time graced the covers of million-sellers. 1994 was the start of a dour three-year period of a corporate takeover by the record companies. They had had a few years to figure out how to capitalize on the revolution of ‘91 and began to pump out pablum disguised as edgy, rebel music to be sold to a youth market eager to be identified as individuals.

Which brings us to the present. Digital music has changed everything. There’s no such thing as album length any more. Album sequencing, album cover art, and liner notes are all but lost pieces of pop culture. Streaming has even challenged the idea of owning or collecting music as if storing music in any form was burdensome. And yet there has been a microscopic resurgence of vinyl which recognizes the old values of sound quality and the tactile experience of music. There will be a ceiling to this trend and the current vinyl bubble will inevitably burst at some point. The most troubling aspect of the current music landscape though is that very little of it truly sounds new. Pop music has always made a practice of cannibalizing its own past, but in ‘74, ‘84, and ‘94 there was music coming out that sounded like nothing before it. In ‘74, Robert Wyatt, Can, Kraftwerk, King Crimson, and Henry Cow were making music that hadn’t been invented ten years prior. In ‘84, there were precedents from the previous decade for RUN DMC (Gil Scott Heron, Last Poets), Metallica (Black Sabbath, Judas Priest), and the Smiths (the Byrds, Sparks); but “It’s Like That,” “Creeping Death,” and “This Charming Man” couldn’t have come out any sooner than the year they did. They were shocking in their newness at the time (and still are, to some degree). Even the Nineties had records from Aphex Twin, Autechre, and Orbital that sounded like the promised future the ‘80s had yearned for. Looking over my 2014 list, I can’t say that any of the records couldn’t technically have come out 10, 20, 30, or 40 years before. In fact, most of them almost aim for some pop moment that preceded them.

This isn’t supposed to be an old man’s lament about how music nowadays isn’t as good as it used to be. To give you some generational perspective on my possible personal bias, I was 18-19 in 1994. Usually for most people, the music that comes out during that time of their life becomes the standard by which they judge everything else. They think of it as “their” music. If that’s supposed to be the case for me, I feel ripped off. In my opinion 1974, 1984, and yes, even 2014, were far richer years. There’s the possibility that there are great records from 2014 that I have yet to hear. Many of my favorites from ‘74, ‘84, and ‘94 were hardly successful at the time of their release. It took years for them to find an audience. So in some ways the jury is still out on this newly finished year. Maybe one day I’ll look back on 2014 as a golden age in popular music. That’s a terrifyingly depressing thought for the future, but on the other hand, I may still see 2014 as mediocre compared to the great music of the years yet to come.