Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Little Bit of Magic: Best Music of 2014

The 2015 Grammy nominations have been out for a few weeks now, and I can't decide if a) the Grammys are getting more and more irrelevant, or b) I am getting more and more out of touch with popular music. In favor of the latter: I have listened to precisely ZERO of the Album of the Year nominees, and of the Song/Record of the Year nominees, two are among the worst songs of the year ("Fancy" and "All About That Bass") and I have no idea what a Sia or a Sam Smith are. (I guess that Hozier song is pretty good though, if overplayed.) That leaves... Taylor Swift (up for Song/Record but, inexplicably, not Album). People who have known me for a long time may (or may not) be surprised to know that I LOVED 1989. Like, seriously, it's a fantastic album, easily the best pop album since Teenage Dream. I can't imagine "Shake It Off" *not* winning Song or Record of the Year, or both. So maybe there's hope for me (and the Grammys yet). Anyway, in the spirit of the Grammy nominations (and in following last year's format), I've devised my own categories, nominees, and winners. So, let's see who made the cut and hand out some fake awards!

* = saw live this year

Best Punk(ish) Album
Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria Blues*
Joyce Manor - Never Hungover Again
The Lawrence Arms - Metropole
The Menzingers - Rented World
The Shrine - Bless Off
Honorable Mentions: Cloud Nothings - Here and Nowhere Else, Little Big League - Tropical Jinx, Modern Baseball - You're Gonna Miss It All, New Found Glory - Resurrection*, Restorations - LP3

In a genre that's become increasingly fragmented and pushed to the fringes of the mainstream (remember when one-time punk band Green Day was among the biggest bands in the world?), it was great to see an important punk album released in 2014. No one knew what to expect when Against Me! frontman Tom Gabel came out as transgender and became known as frontwoman Laura Jane Grace. Personally, I wasn't sure if there would ever be another Against Me! album. The band (and singer in particular) had always had a prickly relationship with the punk community—cries of "sellout!" followed the band as they got bigger (and, yes, better)—and it wasn't clear what the reaction would be to such a monumental change. Thankfully, it was nothing but positivity. I saw the band twice this year and heard nary a slur and plenty of heartfelt applause. As for the album itself, it's a step back in production value and a step forward in songwriting, perhaps closer to the band's roots than their last few releases, a sub-30 minute collection of snarling defiance and raucous anthems. Some of the song titles seem ripped from the back pages of a junior high notebook ("FuckMyLife666," "Dead Friend," "Osama bin Laden as the Crucified Christ"), but I think that's part of the point—Laura Jane is putting it all out there and doesn't care what anyone thinks. I can't think of a better message—or person—to represent punk in 2014.

The rest of the nominees (and honorable mentions) point toward a solid year for punk music. It's a good thing any time Brendan Kelly or Chris McCaughan release new music, and especially so with their powers combined as The Lawrence Arms. Metropole was their first record in 8 years and it did not disappoint—another brazen, emotive, introspective set. The Menzingers very much mine that same territory, and Rented World is another strong release from yet another great Rust Belt punk band. Joyce Manor and The Shrine both hail from that other hotbed of punk music, southern California, but couldn't be more different. Joyce Manor specializes in 2:00-minute emo/punk song-stories, while The Shrine sound like a Tony Hawk Pro Skater soundtrack tribute band in the best possible way. Lots of solid stuff from all across the genre spectrum this year.

Best Rap Album
Atmosphere - Southsiders
Childish Gambino - STN MTN / Kauai
Flying Lotus - You're Dead!
Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels 2*
Schoolboy Q - Oxymoron
Honorable Mentions: G-Eazy - These Things Happen, Grieves - Winter & the Wolves

This year was a stronger one than 2013 in just about all respects. The only real exception was rap music. Yeezus obviously towered over the genre last year, but there were also releases from Drake, Eminem, and Jay-Z. Oh, and a little duo by the name of Run the Jewels. El-P and Killer Mike... maybe you've heard of them? Their (phenomenal) debut had the misfortune to be released the same year as Yeezus, but 2014 offers no such competition. That said, RTJ2 is not as strong an album as the group's debut—it just doesn't feel as urgent, as berserk, as iconoclastic (as if that were possible). And this is an album with song titles like "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)" and "Lie, Cheat, Steal," as well as a track with a refrain of "Dick in her mouth all day" ("Love Again"). But it is still a very good album, with easily the best beats of the year (mostly courtesy of El-P, again pulling double duty as a producer) and rhymes that stick in your skull like shurikens: "I'm trained in vagina whisperin', glistenin', waitin' for the christenin' / I know the neighbors can't help but listen in" ("Close Your Eyes"). I'm not sure how the MC duo has enough energy, but they're set to release another album in 2015. Perhaps it will be Kanye vs. RTJ in this space again next year?

The rest of the releases were good but not great. Childish Gambino's mixtape/EP combo STN MTN / Kauai comes the closest to greatness. Hip-hop mixtape STN MTN showcases a more focused MC than could be found on 2013's Because the Internet, while on the Kauai EP, he explores the R&B that's always been a (small) part of his repertoire. "Pop Thieves (Make It Feel Good)" is an absolute jam. Elsewhere, the new Atmosphere release is confident and competent, if not a bit lengthy. Schoolboy Q's album continues the West Coast gangsta rap resurgence I didn't know I needed. Speaking of West Coast rappers, the best rap song of 2014 is easily the Kendrick Lamar-featuring "Never Catch Me" from producer Flying Lotus's album You're Dead! I absolutely cannot wait for Kendrick's next release. (And I know You're Dead! isn't strictly a rap album, but I'm slotting it here anyway.)

Best Electronic(ish) Album
Chromeo - White Women*
Dum Dum Girls - Too True
EMA - The Future's Void
Phantogram - Voices*
TV on the Radio - Seeds
Honorable Mentions: Future Islands - Singles, Warpaint - Warpaint*, Young the Giant - Mind Over Matter

Okay, okay—I'm really stretching genre definitions here. This category might as well be called "Best Album that Makes Use of a Keyboard and/or Electronic Production Flourishes," but that's a bit of a mouthful, no? With those broad parameters in mind, easily the best of the bunch is Phantogram's second record, Voices. They had been one of those "heard of, but never heard" bands for me, but I decided to check them out when I found out they were coming through town. I listened to the album just enough to get me excited for the show, but it wasn't until I saw them live that the album really clicked for me. It's a volatile mix of mischievous keys, sinister beats, and foreboding lyrics ("Fireworks exploding in my hands / If I could paint the sky / Would all the stars be shining bloody red?" from "Black Out Days"), all held together by Sarah Barthel's haunting, sultry voice. She flits effortlessly between power balladry ("My Only Friend"), trip-hop lilt ("Black Out Days"), and dreamy, shoegaze monotone ("Bill Murray"), often in the same song ("Nothing But Trouble," "Howling at the Moon"). (This is, of course, not to discount the contributions of guitarist/part-time vocalist Josh Carter—although his two tracks on vox didn't do as much for me.) Even if their album doesn't quite capture the energy and atmosphere of their live show (it would be a contender for my favorite concert of the year in a year in which I didn't go to Outside Lands), it's one of the best of the year, a perfect compliment to night drives, dance parties, and anything in between.

Of the rest of the nominees, my favorite is Chromeo's new disc, White Women. I've been a fan since the Fancy Footwork days, and I had the pleasure of finally seeing them live this year under the San Francisco sun and half a flask of whiskey at Outside Lands. While I think I might still prefer 2010's Business Casual, "Old 45's" might be the best song they've ever written. I also got into the Dum Dum Girls this year, and was enchanted for a spell by their darkly sly electro-pop jams, especially "Rimbaud Eyes." The new TV on the Radio album was a late entry (and I'm still exploring it), and while it doesn't hold up to Dear Science and Nine Types of Light at first blush, it's still eminently listenable. Finally, the new EMA record feels like a sonic and thematic sister to one of my favorite recent records, Metric's 2012 album Synthetica. (And, honestly, I'm on board with just about any record with songs called "Cthulu" and "Neuromancer.")

Best (Indie) Rock Album
Desert Noises - 27 Ways
Spoon - They Want My Soul
Strand of Oaks - HEAL
Sun Kil Moon - Benji
The War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream
Honorable Mentions: Cheap Girls - Famous Graves*, Cory Branan - The No-Hit Wonder, Drive-By Truckers - English Oceans, Real Estate - Atlas

This was the most difficult category to pick, as the albums are split among ones I more like (Desert Noises, Spoon), and ones I more respect (Strand of Oaks, Sun Kil Moon, The War on Drugs). You know, the whole pop vs. art thing. I changed my mind a couple of times, but, in the end, I went with the album that split the difference the best—Strand of Oaks' excellent HEAL. It's a perfect combination of weighty subject matter, immaculate production, virtuosic instrumentation, and just enough pop sensibility to keep me coming back no matter my mood. The album starts of with the killer riffage of origin story/righteous jam "Goshen '97," then segues into the synth-propelled introspection of title track "HEAL." It meanders through genres, tempos, instruments, and emotions, eventually ending with "Wait for Love," a mournful, conflicted ballad. The centerpiece of it all, for me anyway, is "JM," a towering, emotive tribute to fellow Midwestern singer-songwriter Jason Molina and surefire song of the year contender. It's a powerful record and one I know I'll continue to explore in the new year and beyond (as well as his older stuff, which I still have yet to check out.)

The other nominee I almost went with was Desert Noises, which was the album of the five I actually listened to most. 27 Ways has some of the tightest, most focused songwriting of the year—clean production/vocals, polished harmonies, and soaring guitar work—and another of my favorite tracks of the year, "Angels." Speaking of soaring guitar work, The War on Drugs released probably the best guitar album of the year (or the last few years) in Lost in the Dream. Adam Granduciel is probably the closest thing to Mark Knopfler we have right now. (And this coming from the biggest Dire Straits fan I know.) But the album loses a bit of momentum in the second half and I found myself listening to it more passively than some of the rest—actually getting lost in the dream. Benji is my first experience with Mark Kozelek, and the album—basically just a dude, stream-of-consciousness lyrics, and a guitar—is most decidedly not in my musical wheelhouse. But I found myself drawn to his earnestness, and, obviously, "I Love My Dad" too. I'm eager to explore the rest of his discography as well. And Spoon has always been a "like, not love" band for me, and They Want My Soul isn't going to change that, but "Rainy Taxi" and a few other tracks wormed their way into my brain and haven't left yet.

Best (Mainstream) Rock Album
Counting Crows - Somewhere Under Wonderland
Foo Fighters - Sonic Highways
The Hold Steady - Teeth Dreams*
Ryan Adams - Ryan Adams*
Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers - Hypnotic Eye*
Honorable Mentions: The Gaslight Anthem - Get Hurt*, Jack White - Lazaretto, The Kooks - Listen*, Weezer - Everything Will Be Alright In the End

First off, Counting Crows and Ryan Adams both released excellent albums this year (both are in my top 10). But, other than my #1 album of the year (see below), there might not be a band/album more in tune with my personal taste than The Hold Steady. Let's see... guitar rock? Check: The addition of second guitarist Steve Selvidge makes this record—check out the riff from "I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You" if you don't believe me. Witty, literate lyrics? Check: "Weak handshakes and great expectations / Chemistry, currency / Plastic and magic" from "On With The Business." Obsession with urbanity and modernity? Check. "The kid that went down isn't dead / He just can't find his phone" from "Almost Anything." Just enough genuine emotion to keep the cynicism at bay? Check: Just listen to "Spinners." I should also mention the fact that I have that dream where your teeth fall out ALL THE TIME, so that resonated with me. Oh, AND their live show was absolutely phenomenal. It was at my favorite local venue (Crescent Ballroom) and I was close enough to get splashback from Craig Finn's brow sweat. Add it all up and you have a pretty strong album of the year contender, just as I predicted in April. Welcome back, Hold Steady.

Like I said, I really loved the Counting Crows and Ryan Adams records. Somewhere Under Wonderland in particular was on constant rotation for a couple months after it came out. I'd never been a huge fan before, but now I'm thoroughly on board with Adam Duritz, awful dreads or no. "Dislocation" is one of my favorite songs of the year and the album as a whole is the most pleasant surprise. I was also behind the times on Ryan Adams, although I must say I prefer the bigger, shinier sound on this self-titled album than his rougher, older stuff (remember that I worship at the church of Tom Petty). "Gimme Something Good," "Kim," "Feels Like Fire"... they all tickled my classic rock funny bone (even if I'm a little bitter he didn't play the last two live). Speaking of Tom Petty, his newest effort with the Heartbreakers continues their career resurgence that started with 2006's Highway Companion (a Petty solo album in name only). Although Hypnotic Eye isn't as impressive an effort as 2010's Mojo, it's still a strong album—and it totally WAILS live, especially "Shadow People." Their set at Outside Lands was easily the best 2+ hours of live music I've ever seen. (Oh, and the Foos... Sonic Highways is fairly "meh," but I'm an unapologetic Dave Grohl fanboy and none of the HMs really did much for me. But "I Am A River" is a pretty great track.)

Best Female Pop/Rock Album
Courtney Barnett - The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas
Hospitality - Trouble
Jenny Lewis - The Voyager*
Lydia Loveless - Somewhere Else
Taylor Swift - 1989
Honorable Mentions: St. Vincent - St. Vincent

Two things about this category: 1) I cheated a bit with the Courtney Barnett album. It was a 2013 release, but didn't get physically released in the US until this year. 2) There's a compelling case to be made that this should just be the album of the year category—4 of the releases appear in my top 10 (and 3 in my top 5). It also features—SPOILERS—my #1 album of the year, Jenny Lewis's nigh-flawless The Voyager. Rilo Kiley were one of my favorite bands, but if it took their breaking up to bring The Voyager into my life, well, then, it's (almost) worth it. I can't think of an album I fell harder for faster in a long time (maybe The King Is Dead by The Decemberists back in 2011?). From the vocal sample and sensuous keys that kick off "Head Underwater" to the lovely outro on the title track to wrap up the album, I was completely absorbed from the first listen. This is the best album from one of my favorite artists since 2004's Rilo Kiley masterpiece, More Adventurous, and in many ways it feels like a 10-years-later follow-up. It's got the same mix of lush production, personal songwriting, wry, winsome lyrics, and a sense of timelessness. Lewis has always had a knack for writing songs about fictional characters that have just enough personal detail to make you wonder (see "A Man/Me/Then Jim" and "Late Bloomer"), and, just like "Love and War (11/11/46)," "Can't Outrun 'Em" deals with the death of a loved one. Personal favorite "She's Not Me" feels like a companion to "I Never"—both are stunning ballads about complicated women with a vintage girl-pop feel to them. This is just an amazing album that I know will hold up as the years pass, one that I'll revisit again and again.

It's a testament to the albums released by Taylor Swift and Lydia Loveless that I can say I love them *almost* as much as The Voyager. After being charmed nearly to death by "Shake It Off" on the radio, I took the plunge and downloaded 1989—by the time I got to track 3 ("Style," easily one of my favorite songs of the year), I was hooked. What surprised me most though was its staying power—aren't pop albums supposed to be disposable? Not so this one. Lydia Loveless's album is also one that has stayed with me since I first heard it—she's got a voice like Stevie Nicks and the lyrical sensibilities of Alanis Morissette circa "You Oughtta Know," all delivered with a country charm that's impossible to resist. (Oh, and her band rocks as well.) "Head" is the standout here, and is my second-most listened to track of the year (after my song of the year... see below). Hospitality has largely traded in their twee-pop confections for a moodier aesthetic, and it suits them well—"Last Words" is an especially ambitious achievement with its pulsating bass line, sly horns and keys, and nimble guitar solo. As for interloper Courtney Barnett, she was one of the acts I regretted missing at Outside Lands. She's a brilliant, ironic lyricist, and her unadorned (but effective) musicianship allows the stories she tells to shine through.

Song of the Year
Counting Crows - "Dislocation"
The Hold Steady - "I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You"*
Jenny Lewis - "She's Not Me"*
Lydia Loveless - "Head"
Taylor Swift - "Shake It Off"
Honorable Mentions: Chromeo - "Old 45's"*, Drive-By Truckers - "Grand Canyon", Hospitality - "Last Words", Ryan Adams - "Gimme Something Good"*, Strand of Oaks - "JM"

You have to go all the way back to 2011 to find a year where my favorite song wasn't written by a woman (The Decemberists' "This Is Why We Fight"). In 2012, it was Metric's "Speed the Collapse." Last year, it was Tegan and Sara's "I Was a Fool." This year's might be better than any of them—Jenny Lewis's "She's Not Me" is easily the most gorgeous song since Tegan and Sara's pitch-perfect ballad last year. Both songs have a delicate, crystalline sound that suggests feminine vulnerability. But both songs subvert that expectation with their titles, albeit in different way. Tegan Quin is, of course, pining for another woman and still remains a fool—the "Was" of the title is ironic. The twist of "She's Not Me" is a different, more complex one—this is no sassy breakup song like the title might suggest. Consider the (beautiful) chorus: "She's not me / she's easy." The narrator of "She's Not Me" (whether Lewis or merely a facet of her personality) is a regretful ex, both admitting culpability for a breakup ("Remember the night I destroyed it all / when I told you I cheated?") and seemingly resigned to her ex's happiness without her ("Heard she's having your baby / and everything's so amazing"). But the linchpin of the song, the line that makes your heart go a-flutter for a cheating lover (and not the cheated-upon partner), is "Bet you tell her I'm crazy." Her voice just drips heartache, nearly cracking as she sings. It's the kind of line that demolishes the stereotype of the "crazy ex," the one guys have complained about since time immemorial. Lewis imbues the archetype with humanity, injects the cliché with pathos. It's "easy" to call an ex crazy. But maybe uncomplicatedness isn't necessarily a virtue. Not with women like Lewis around.

The other four songs are so good I wish I could hand out five awards. (I mean, I could, as they're fake awards, but I have my principles.) "Head" is my second favorite song of the year, and not because it's about exactly what the title suggests: oral sex. In fact, it's probably the most poignant song about oral sex I've ever heard—and this is the man-on-woman kind, not the other way around. It's nostalgic without being sentimental, a little sexy, and, oh yeah, has a killer guitar solo. It's a song that won't be leaving my... head any time soon. Next... "Shake It Off." Obviously. I actually almost went with "Style," T-Swift's ultracool stab at the Drive soundtrack genre, but "Shake It Off" was just too massive to ignore. It's silly, self-referential, has a simple, infectious beat, and the most giddy, ear-wormiest chorus... maybe ever. It won me over at first listen and still has me 50+ listens later (even with the awkward white girl rap interlude). (Also, don't sleep on "New Romantics," an excellent 1989 bonus track.) Oh, and I guess dudes made some good music in 2014 as well. "I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You" has my favorite riff of the year and is a fine example of Craig Finn's bar-poet-laureate storytelling—"There was a side of this city I didn't want you to see" says it all. Speaking of great storytelling, Adam Duritz is no slouch himself, and "Dislocation" is perhaps the catchiest, most rollicking song about feeling so disconnected that you wish for the apocalypse I've ever heard. Anyone who's ever spent a lot of time in L.A. knows exactly how he feels. (Just ask Maynard James Keenan.)

Best Album of the Year
Counting Crows - Somewhere Under Wonderland
The Hold Steady - Teeth Dreams*
Jenny Lewis - The Voyager*
Lydia Loveless - Somewhere Else
Taylor Swift - 1989
Honorable Mentions: Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria Blues*, Hospitality - Trouble, Phantogram - Voices*, Ryan Adams - Ryan Adams*, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - Hypnotic Eye*

All right, I'm up to almost 4,000 words and I've said just about all I can say about these albums (and I'm sure you're sick of the Jenny Lewis album cover by now), so I'll just leave you with my top 10 in order (aka the TL; DR version):

1. Jenny Lewis - The Voyager*
2. The Hold Steady - Teeth Dreams*
3. Taylor Swift - 1989
4. Lydia Loveless - Somewhere Else
5. Counting Crows - Somewhere Under Wonderland
6. Phantogram - Voices*
7. Hospitality - Trouble
8. Ryan Adams - Ryan Adams*
9. Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria Blues*
10. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - Hypnotic Eye*

This was a really good year for music, but I'm sure I missed something. Let me know your favorites in the comments. As always, thanks for reading!

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