What a year for music…seems like the year that all the serious vets came out of the woodwork with great new albums that prove why they are still in the biz after all this time. Apologies to some of the up-and-comers also doing great work, but man-this was a packed year, musically. Let’s get into it, let’s go!
1. Damien Jurado- Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son
Even though this list is technically in no particular order, this may actually be my favorite record of the year. Damien Jurado has been making excellent music for a long time now, and I’ve always had friends trying to turn me on to his work. For whatever reason, this was the year I (thankfully) started listening to them, and consequently, Damien. And damn,son, this record is just GOOD. It’s actually great. Musically, lyrically, production-wise: everything is exactly what you want, and then it still takes you to surprising places. This album is the reason that people make music and (yes, still) whole albums. This is art and life. The overarching religious themes on this record come across as more of basic pan-humanist metaphysical musings than any specific dogma, so don’t be scurred. Give it a listen. “Silver Timothy” is probably my top song of the year, though I am hard-pressed to express exactly why. A certain “I don’t know what”, i suppose. Damien will be in town early in February…let’s all try to be there together.
2. the New Pornographers- Brill Bruisers
How do you even go about writing a new pop song / album and make it sound great and fresh and totally exciting and listenable even though everything in history already exists and you have already written a ton of killer songs (14 years’ worth) already, already? I don’t have any good answers, but you might want to start by asking the New Pornographers, because they don’t seem to have any trouble with it. Of course, it helps that they are just silly with talent; a super-group of sorts in the truest sense. These guys are like the Justice League of Canadian indie rock. Even though the album credits list all songs as written by ‘the New Pornographers’, it’s hard not to hear them divided sonically based on the triple-threat songwriting of A.C. Newman, Dan Bejar (of Destroyer fame) and Neko Case (of Neko Case fame), almost at a 33 1/3 rate of deployment. Yet and still, the album is remarkably cohesive. The Neko-driven “Champions of Red Wine” is a stand-out for repetitious subtlety throughout that builds to a legitimate pay-off. And even if I weren’t a huge Scott Miller fan (from Game Theory and Loud Family, r.i.p.), and I am, I would still love the album-ender, “You Tell Me Where”. The fact that it does, in fact, pay homage to Scott and his career while still sounding totally just like the New Pornographers themselves is, well, the icing and cherry on top of a tight cake of triumphant power-pop.
3. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks- Wigout at Jagbags
O, look out! It’s our favorite WTJU / UVA alumni back with more of his esoteric, wry, bittersweet-yet-shredding, guitar-driven indie pop. While other Jicks albums have had some real high moments for me (so to speak), this is maybe my favorite total album since Stevsie split Pavement. Just stocked with great tunes, humor, nostalgia, hooks-galore (don’t neglect to catch the musical tip of the hat to BIlly Joel on “Chartjunk”)…even a tune called “Lariat” that seems to memorialize his time right here in the ‘ville of C (“we lived on Tennyson and venison and the Grateful Dead”). Which reminds me to say that Steve Malkmus really has a knack for distilling a specific sense of place down to an insightful one-liner…see the track ‘Houston Hades’, where he sums up perfectly the striking Houston downtown skyline versus the payoff of the actual Houston downtown with the line “this town is so impressive from a distance…”. If you haven’t ever been to Houston, I can assure you this is accurate. Go and see sometime. And go ahead, Wigout at Jagbags. This record is also in the running for best album title of the year.
4. Ex Hex- Rips
Who can help but be stoked when a friend suddenly steps quite naturally into rock stardom and blows the eff right up? Longtime WTJU pal Betsy Wright from the really great and sadly defunct C-Ville band the Fire Tapes split for D.C. last year and stepped right into the mighty power trio Ex-Hex, fronted by Helium’s Mary Timony. As you may know, they got signed to Merge records down in North Carolina, and recorded this album with one of my favorite all-time musicians and producers, the most esteemed Mitch Easter (founder of Let’s Active, producer of countless heavy-hitting classics, including early early R.E.M.,plus Pavement, Wilco, etc.). Pretty much it’s against the law to name your album ‘Rips’ if it doesn’t, in fact, rip. Thankfully for everyone, it does. Ex- Hex is headed out on tour with another powerhouse from this year, King Tuff, so look for them on the road, and then in Europe. Go, Bets, Go!
5. Ty Segall- Manipulator
Speaking of powerhouses, just look at Ty go! This dude may be the hardest working man in the rock biz right now, and sometimes that makes you want to tell them to stop, slow down, take a break, give it a rest, etc. But Mr. Segall continues to deliver the infectious goods, rock right on out, and still keep the I.Q. level of garage psych rock in the prodigy zone, all while having his tongue in his cheek just enough to let you know he’s quite aware of what he’s up to. I think the nearly album-ending ‘Who’s Producing You?’ might be my favorite tune, and also one that totally embodies all of this.
6. Temples- Sun Structures
This is just a real good record, no bones about it. I don’t know much about them except I think they are from England, there are boys and girls and some pretty great T Rex hair, and this is a sweet slab of varied psych-pop. The barn-burning title track ‘Sun Structures’ was the first thing I heard, and instantly knew I wanted to hear more, but the whole record wants to be listened to…at this point, I think my favorite tune is late in the album, called ‘the Guesser’, but I guess I will probably change my mind on that, or just listen to the whole thing again. A nice call by Fat Possum records, btw.
7. Spoon- They Want My Soul
Like the Steve Malkmus thing I was just talking about, Spoon’s Britt Daniel has a keen, smart sense of nostalgia and place and time, and manages to translate these things musically. To my ear, his outstanding album They Want My Soul is a love song to time spent in New York City, and the beginning through eventual exorcism of a love affair lost there. It all starts out practically enough, with the cost-of-living-blues stomper ‘Rent I Pay’, but by the time you reach the gorgeous album-ender ‘New York Kiss’, you have been on quite a ride.
I am kind of confounded by the complexity v. simplicity of the lyric “I knew your New York kiss…now it’s just another place to place your memory on”.
Writing a romantic song / album about New York City that involves the loss of New York City as a romantic construct also seems to me some form of wizardry.
8. Doug Gillard- Parade On
A friend and I always joke that if you hear a song that you really like on 70’s soft-pop fm radio and don’t know who it is, it is probably Todd Rundgren. It is possible the same could be said currently (in the best possible way) for Doug Gillard, except you probably won’t ever hear him on the radio, unless you are tuned into the ‘teej, which, thankfully, if you are reading this, you likely are.
A sometimes-Guided By Voices collaborator, Doug’s solo record from this year is a pretty straightforward yet somehow inexplicably inventive array of power-pop. The lead-off track, ‘Ready For Death’ is by turns the sunniest, hook-iest, pop-iest thing you might hear, also featuring some of the darkest lyrics and sentiment you can imagine. And yet, you can’t help it- you are tapping your toes and whistling along to all the joyous desolation. Other standouts include the middle-album anchor ‘Overseas’, a driving krautrock-y number, and the album-ending title track ‘Parade On’, where you wind up not feeling as worried about Doug as you were when the record started.
9. Beck- Morning Phase
Really, we shouldn’t forget that Beck put this gorgeous album out this year… a sort of reprise of the great Sea Change record of 2002, possibly one of the greatest break-up albums of all time, this is another grouping of songs that seem to have accumulated based on a shared melancholy tone. But the intervening years have mellow(gold?)-ed Beck, and he advises us on ‘Don’t Let It Go’: “These are some faults we’ve found / hollowed out from the years / Don’t let them wear you down / don’t let them turn your mind inside out”…he almost seems to be saying “hey, take these heavy songs with a grain of salt, I’m just making music over here”. I will credit my WTJU colleague Matthew Simon for the extremely astute musical assessment that the song ‘Wave’ has “the sonic energy of a superball in slow motion”…listen to it, he is absolutely right. Also, the album-ender ‘Waking Light’ is just great. Capping off the record on an extremely hopeful note while not breaking with the tone, Beck is really flexing his well-seasoned muscles and letting us all know how things are done properly.
10. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard- I’m in Your Mind Fuzz
If Steve Malkmus was in the running for best record title of the year, he got blown out of the water this fall, when these fools came out of nowhere and stole the show, while also flaunting maybe the best and most ridiculous band name ever. Hailing from Down Under (props to dj Wicked Sharkie for pointing me in their direction), these guys are kind of like a goofier response to all the good things that Tame Impala does so well…and just crazy rocking. Dig out your 3-d glasses and check out the totally hilarious video for the tune ‘Celophane’. They’re in your mind fuzz!
Here are a few other things that either came out too late to deal with, or that I haven’t spent enough time with to really write about intelligently, but that are still really worth checking out. 10 is just a random number, after all…there were so many more than just 10 great albums in 2014. For your consideration:
D’Angelo- Black Messiah
Let’s not mince words: this is probably the best and most important record of 2014…it does what few other recordings ever manage, which is to merge genres and cultures into something that is vitally important to everyone who hears it. We are talking about the heavy-hitters like Stevie Wonder’s ‘Songs in the Key of Life’, or Funkadelic, or Prince or Public Enemy or Outkast. I think this album was rushed to release for pretty serious and altruistic reasons (see the liner notes), but I still want to put this record with next year. First, because I believe it was meant to be released in the spring, and it feels like a spring/summer jam to me, but also because I sincerely hope the vibe and the message of this album last us all throughout 2015.
T.V. On the Radio- Seeds
I just haven’t spent enough time with this, and it just came out, too, but I love these guys, and the tune ‘Lazerray’ is a serious rocker of the ‘Wolf Like Me’ order…
J. Mascis- Tied to a Star
Real, real solid stuff from J., giving you both the shredding you have come to love and expect, and also some interesting twists on what he can do with songwriting and guitars. Total veteran pro here.
King Tuff- Black Moon Spell
More fun, rocking garage-pop-psych…out on tour with our pals Ex-Hex in the opening slot…check it out!
Outrageous Cherry- the Digital Age
Must always shout out the esteemed Don Harrison of WTJU’s Radio Wowsville show for turning me onto these guys when I first got involved with the station. Another fun rocker from these Detroit-based veterans…out on Burger records, which seems like the perfect fit.
Jeff Tweedy, along with his young-adult son on the drums, put out this pretty awesome album this year. There are some real high points for me, but again, I just didn’t get to spend quite enough time with it. Thankfully, it is not going anywhere…only 2014 is. A very generous offering, with something like 18 or 19 tracks on it.
Hiss Golden Messenger- Lateness of Dancers
This is M.C Taylor’s project after his band the Court and Spark split (they are an all-time fave of mine…please check them out if you haven’t before) …he has relocated to North Carolina and signed with Merge records, and it all seems to be suiting him well. ‘Saturday’s Song’ is pretty incredible, and it is really worth checking out the Youtubes for their performance of ‘Southern Grammar’ a month or so ago on the Letterman show, where they pretty much blew things out of the water, and the band featured Reggie Pace from the No B.S. Brass Band in the horn section and the ladies from Mountain Man as the back up singers. Dave Letterman got more than a little fired up.
Ok- as always, I must shout out this place I love and WTJU and all the great folks involved, behind the scenes and listening, or both. I feel so lucky to be part of things here, and thankful to everyone who tunes in and supports free-form, dj- curated music. Can’t wait to bring more great tunes your way in 2015.
YE OLDE TUESDAY AFTERNOON ROCKE SHOW