Tag Archive | Conor Oberst

Best Albums of 2016

best-albums-of-2016

Remember us? Neither do we. On with the show.

Love,
Greg & Elijah

Elijah’s Top 10 Albums of 2016

nattesferd

10. Nattesferd  Kvelertak — Listening to Nattesferd, Kvelertak’s third full length album, is something like travelling back in time. The album is a marked departure from aural onslaught of their previous record (2013’s Meir, produced by one of my all-time favies, Converge’s Kurt Ballou). Don’t get me wrong, Nattesferd is an onslaught, but of a much different nature. Fears that Kvelertak might be headed toward a more mainstream rock sound are allayed continually throughout this 47-minute masterclass in capturing the familiar energy, precision and fun of the American heavy metal sound of the early eighties and the aggression and fullness of the Norwegian black metal sound of the 21st century without losing any of their respective charms.

puberty-2

9. Puberty 2  Mitski — There are two distinctive threads running through Puberty 2. Firstly, there is innovation and a refusal to adopt a singular form of songwriting. Mitski demonstrates that she can write high quality and accessible pop tunes (see ‘Your Best American Girl’) whilst verging on proto-grungey post-punk (see ‘My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars’) and occupying more familiar, yet refreshing indie territory in between. The second thread demonstrates that Puberty 2‘s variety is not the result of simply compiling tracks from across a repertoire — this is Mitski’s fourth album. Looking past the fact that she’s only 25 (what have we done with our lives?), Mitski is demonstrating that she is a seasoned and consummate artist.

next-thing

8. Next Thing  Frankie Cosmos — Next Thing is the epitome of ‘big things in small packages’. This album lasts under a half an hour, with the longest of its fifteen tracks lasting only 164 seconds (that’s 2:44). But the listener will not feel cheated. Somehow, Frankie Cosmos (22-year-old Greta Kline) is able to capture complete, common, yet complicated thoughts with each track. In fact, the album is summed up quite well by the cover. As you can see, the perspective of the image is from that of a passenger in a car, doodling in a notebook. At the same time, the passenger is revealed to be using a mobile to take a photograph – captured as the cover image itself. The car is veering left, perhaps making a turn to the ‘Next Thing’. We also observe typical things – a fallen tree branch, a littered plastic bag, paw prints, a car driving off in the distance. It’s a brilliantly simple yet interesting composition, much like the record.

skeleton-tree

7. Skeleton Tree  Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds — This album, as so many albums on my list this year, caught me by surprise. I first heard ‘Jesus Alone’ on 6 Music on 2 September and I knew Skeleton Tree was going to be special. The production was sparse and moving. Cave had moved from his typical narrative formula (in the accompanying documentary, One More Time with Feeling, Cave claims that he has lost his faith in narrative-based songs). The rest of the album reflects these shifts. With both the stirring words and ambient musical tone, Cave is reflecting on a profound sense of loss (having lost his young son Arthur in the summer of 2015) and engaging in some serious existential inquiries. So really, Skeleton Tree is not so atypical of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds after all.

teens-of-denial

6. Teens of Denial  Car Seat Headrest — There’s been a slight tendency toward slacker rock in my listening this past year. It’s probably a hangover from 2014’s GARAGE ROCK BONANZA. When Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of Denial first appeared on my radar, I despised the names of both the band and the album. But as with a lot of things in life, those become invisible or at least inconsequential to an individual once a relationship is solidified. I could write a lot about this record, but Greg expresses it so well that I’ll cede the floor to him for this one (see Greg’s comment on Teens of Denial below).

painting-of-a-panic-attack

6. Painting of a Panic Attack  Frightened Rabbit — A familiar face. I’m going to be honest here: when I first heard this record I was convinced that I would consider it nearly, if not the weakest Frightened Rabbit album to date. Something about it fell flat for me. So I put it away for a few months. Maybe six months. Then I picked it up again – I knew there had to be something I was missing. Even upon the first re-listen I asked myself, ‘Was I even paying attention?’ It was as if I had never heard these songs. And they were actually quite good! Maybe you share my initial impression. If you have not got back to Painting of a Panic Attack, I implore you to give it another shot. I admit that there are times when it feels less adventurous/emotionally porous than FR’s other material, but there is a quality to the songwriting (thanks to the ever insightful pen of Scott Hutchison) and production (thanks in part to the National’s Aaron Dessner) that keeps me listening.

emotions-and-math

4. Emotions and Math Margaret Glaspy — Margaret Glaspy’s debut album makes one wonder, what comes next? Emotions and Math is as competent and complete as a veteran release. That’s not say that Glaspy has gone stale – far from it! She touches on Aimee Mann and Elliott Smith in equal measure and brings her own sophisticated musical sensibilities to the table in well packaged yet positively aggressive and unpolished pop rock tunes. Emotions and Math improves upon subsequent listens and leaves us thirsty for what Glaspy will do next.

a-moon-shaped-pool

3. A Moon Shaped Pool  Radiohead — I’ve done the maths and have discovered that the period between The King of Limbs and A Moon Shaped Pool is the longest gap between Radiohead albums since their first release, way back in 1993. That’s five years, two months and 20 days between KoL and AMSP! I know it might not seem like much, but perhaps you will remember that long gap between Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows – a mere four years, four months and one day. Okay, maybe it’s not so much about the quantity of time between records as it is the quality of material on each record that leaves us thirsting for more. The King of Limbs has its charms, including the special edition packaging, featuring the world’s first (and probably last) ‘newspaper edition’. But it fails to reach the bar set by previous releases, especially since In Rainbows seems to have become so loved amongst the Radiohead intelligentsia. But A Moon Shaped Pool proves to be not so much a simple return to form as it is a uniquely profound yet thoroughly ‘Radiohead’ collection of haunting and atmospheric orchestrations. It is unassuming, gritty, yet polished. It is all the things for which we admire Radiohead and with an added expanse of lyrical coherence.

my-woman

2. My Woman  Angel Olsen — Angel Olsen is another familiar face among my end-of-the-year picks. Her previous record, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, was my third favourite album of 2014. When an artist produces something as good as Olsen’s previous outing, it’s difficult to know how to approach subsequent releases. Should one set high standards only to be disappointed or should one go in expecting the worst? I was still weighing out this question when I first heard My Woman. According to Olsen, the album’s themes revolve around ‘the complicated mess of being a woman’. As one who does not self-identify as a woman, I believe this album also has plenty of energy to contribute to ‘the complicated mess of being a human’. Olsen’s lyrical, vocal and musical presence is stronger than ever and the record seems to hold together more fully than her earlier releases. In complete self-awarness, she addresses themes of despair, broken expectations and ultimately, hope, all borne with her trademark wit and defiant boldness.

masterpiece

1. Masterpiece  Big Thief — It’s been a while since I’ve been so completely surprised by an album. There are great albums from great artists that I can see coming from miles away (such as Sufjan Stevens’ masterful Carrie & Lowell from 2015) and there are the general surprises that make me a new fan (such as Emotions and Math and Teens of Denial above). But then there’s something like Big Thief’s Masterpiece. I had already heard the album before I realised it was released on Omaha-based Saddle Creek Records, which might have coloured my first listen with Midwestern angst. But the Midwestern angst found me over the course of that first listen. I grant that this is all becoming a wee bit self-indulgent for an Angeleño-Glaswegian commenting on an album from a Brooklyn-based band that reminds him of the American Midwest. (To give me some tenuous credit, singer/guitarist Adrianne Lenker is from Minneapolis.) But there are serious, though probably unintentional musical and vocal hints of the Anniversary (1997-2004) among others, which is enough to send me spiraling into an adolescence-fueled hunt for a [misplaced] sense of ‘authenticity’. Because of these fleeting emotions, I feel some sort of shame that I can’t help but make this album my top pick of 2016. Beyond these fleeting emotions, Masterpiece is an album with superior breadth and depth, musically and thematically, driven by Lenker and Buck Meek’s vocals and guitars, completely deserving of any scanty honour that I may offer. It will haunt me well into 2017, which, unlike UK and American politics, is no bad thing.

Honourable Mentions

  • Love  Muscle and Marrow
  • You Want it Darker  Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)
  • Slow Forever  Cobalt
  • Blackstar  David Bowie (1947-2016)
  • Air  Astronoid

Greg’s Top 10 Albums of 2016

everything-at-once

10. Everything At Once  Travis — Elijah may be holding his nose with this choice, but I felt like these Scottish lads (who’ve been together for 26 years!) finally found their way back to the simple, lovely tunefulness of their turn of the century apex (The Man Who, The Invisible Band) with this strong release. I’m a sucker for the gentle melancholic hopefulness of Fran Healy’s voice (check out 2:03 on this video) and shimmering indie instrumentation of the band.

winter-lives

9. Winter Lives  Matt Pond PA — I have a weak spot for this chamber-pop troubadour. He once again demonstrates a songwriting brilliance that has made me love his poppy, life-affirming tunesmithery over the years. His voice has such a perfect sincerity and tone, the lyrical nostalgia of songs like ‘The Glow’ and ‘Whoa (Thirteen and Sledding with Kerry in Northern New Hampshire)’ warmed my sentimental heart, and the arrangements are solid and masterful.

light-upon-the-lake

8. Light Upon the Lake  Whitney — You listen to this album and you wonder, what time-machine did these guys fall out of with their perfect falsetto over tight bass/drum combo and 60’s & 70’s guitar sounds. They may be aching for those ‘golden days’ but for my money, they’ve captured them quite perfectly here.

arranging-time

7. Arranging Time  Pete Yorn — Ah Pete Yorn, yet another brilliant songwriting flame from the early 2k’s that had somewhat flickered out over the years (a la Travis). But he found that former fuel somewhere and picked up right where musicforthemorningafter left off with this new release. Check out tracks 1-3, ‘Shopping Mall’ and ‘Walking Up” for shambling, big-hearted, melodic indie goodness.

daughter-not-to-disappear

6. Not To Disappear  Daughter — Oh her voice just slays me from the first word to the last: like smoke hitting a rain-covered window. Her elegant lyrical delivery taps into the deepest sadness you could imagine, but then soars into the sun over a cascade of guitars and throttling drums (check this video out, as well as this one and fail to be impressed).

a-moon-shaped-pool

5. A Moon Shaped Pool  Radiohead — This collection of songs (arranged alphabetically it seems) took a bit to grow on me. Initially, I thought it was just some stray songs they’d never really finalized that they’d figured they would finally put on a record, but as I listened more carefully, it opened itself up to me—a staggering heartbreak woven through with gorgeous orchestration and unexpected turns of phrase and melody. They are back at the heights of their powers after the floundering The King of Limbs.

the-birds-outside-sang

4. The Birds Outside Sang  Florist — This is just a gentle, artless, and moving reckoning of dealing with the aftermath of a serious accident. The singer’s voice is fragile, child-like, but full of wonder and hard won wisdom…remembering the light coming into the room where she lay recovering, re-imagining the moment of the accident, but also whimsically meditating on the beauty and capriciousness of life. The instrumentation is lo-fi guitar strumming, Casio keyboard humming, and some droning organs, with the occasional full-band kicking in to make a point.  It’s just so sweet and tender—the mending of a confused soul.  (You can sample the record here. I particularly love the title track.)

painting-of-a-panic-attack

3. Painting of a Panic Attack  Frightened Rabbit — Ok, earlier I had told Elijah this wouldn’t probably be on the upper half of my top 10, but as I’ve gone through and listened again to the 12 tracks, it really is strong (I was basing my early sense of the album on the deluxe edition with 3 extra b-side worthy tunes). I think I was initially turned off by some of the ‘radio-friendly’ tendencies I was picking up (‘Get Out’, ‘An Otherwise Disappointing Life’) and though it loses it’s way a bit on the second half, man, when you listen to ‘Death Dream’ and ‘I Wish I was Sober’ and ‘Still Want To Be Here’ and ‘400 Bones’, it’s clearly the same undeniable genius we’ve celebrated on their last 3 albums.

are-you-serious

2. Are You Serious  Andrew Bird — I’ve always been a fan of the Birdman, but sometimes his meandering obscurity (addressed here on the title track: ‘Used to be so willfully obtuse / or is the word abstruse? / Semantics like a noose / get out your dictionaries’) and multi-layered loop tracks could sometimes become a bit tiresome. Here, he is the TIGHTEST he’s ever been with a strong backing band, streamlined songwriting, and his most straightforward reflections (‘this is all non-fiction’) delivered sincerely alongside delicious whistled melodies. It’s an almost perfect album (save the two-chord gruelling groove ‘Truth Lies Low’).

teens-of-denial

1. Teens of Denial  Car Seat Headrest — I resisted listening to this album for a long time, despite (or because of?) the accolades coming in from various quarters of musicdom. I can’t remember what made me give in, but I’m so glad I did not hold out one moment longer. This is a concept album about a troubled teen exploring some deep universal themes (mortality, depression, anxiety) and others more teen angst-y (experimenting with drugs, drunk driving, relationship drama). The vocalist sounds (and reads) like two parts Ray Davies (Kinks), one part Beck, one part Stephen Malkmus (Pavement) with a dash of Black Francis (Pixies) to taste. The sound of the record is a blend of 90’s alternative rock (open chords through chunky overdrive pedal; double-tracked vocals) mixed with kind of a classic rock aesthetic (hello cowbell!), but as with all of the artists on this list, the song is king (the only number I’m not crazy about is the nearly 8 minute jam ‘Vincent’). This kid is only in his early 20’s but, to my ears, he has already been writing songs for years that hold their own with the greatest ever written.

Honourable Mentions

  • 22, A Million  Bon Iver — I actually like this experimental collection from the falsetto king, but it just didn’t seem substantial enough to qualify as a full-length LP—it’s only like 22 minutes and 22 seconds long (hey wait a second, that was on purpose!!).
  • Young Mood  Colt — It really is a great collection of songs—I just couldn’t get over the singer’s grating, narcoleptic baritone voice.
  • I also didn’t find the time to listen more carefully to a few records from artists I admire (Remember Us to Life Regina Spektor and Ruminations Conor Oberst, so they perhaps would have ended up on this list had I given their albums some attention).  I also want to keep my ears tuned to the Spanish alt/indie band Mourn, who had a so-so album come out, but have potential to be a great band in the days ahead.

Dishonourable Mentions

  • Painting With  Animal Collective — Not as bad as 2012’s Centipede Hz, this album still failed to make much of a dent in the AC canon, which is so disappointing as I love this band so much.
  • Mangy Love  Cass McCombs — I swing back and forth on this guy from album to album, but I almost felt like he was pranking his audience with this collection of his usual esoteric lyricism put to “easy listening” accompaniment.  It won many fans in a wide range of music critics, but I’m calling the Emperor’s New Clothes on this one.
  • Here  Teenage Fanclub — Oh how I love these Scottish indie gods, but this album, their 10th LP, bored me to tears.
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Best Albums of 2014

Best Albums of 2014

Oh, hi, remember us?  Never fear, it’s that time of year again!  The time to buy into consumerism, to plunge ourselves into debt for the sake of acquiring all the latest things in order to prove to our loved ones that they really are worth that object made by underpaid underagers on the other side of the world.  But we need not be cynical!  During this festive time, when the nights are still drawing in, when we wrap up warm and share in Christmas carols, hugs and kisses, mulled wine and mince pies, we at Lost in the Cloud are very pleased to share with our favourite albums in order to see us all through the winter.  And, in typical LITC fashion, not a minute too soon.  So do read, listen and enjoy in full frequency stereophonic sound!

Love,
Greg & Elijah

Elijah’s Top 10 Albums of 2014

WYR0514tubejktnoguidlines10. Sunbathing Animal Parquet Courts — 2014 has been a good year for the revival of garage and punk rock.  Parquet Courts’ Sunbathing Animal is just one of many great fruits of this harvest.  With a barrage of home-made-feeling stripped down rock tunes, Sunbathing Animal explores the constant tension between, what vocalist/guitarist Andrew Savage describes as ‘a duality between freedom and captivity; that balance between the freedom that you find in being in a band—or just being a creative person in the world, that’s trying to leave their mark—and then the captivity that goes along with the constraints that you come up against … and a lot of the time having it fail.’  Like that poor diced up tiger on the album cover, Parquet Courts examine that tension in glorious fashion, with persistent drumbeats and sloppy guitars from a bygone era, rediscovered and executed with a shrewdness and confidence so lacking in this present age.  And with track durations ranging from one minute to seven (each very satisfying in length) Parquet Courts further demonstrate that they are well aware of what they’re doing.

Crunch9. Crunch Eureka California — Also among the great garage and punk rock records released this year, Eureka California’s Crunch distinguishes itself with a shelling of persistently energetic, witty and hook-laden gems.  As singer/guitarist Jake Ward confesses in the track of the same name, ‘You put your hand to the pencil and the pencil to the pad, never has anything so sharp ended up so dull and bland … because art is hard‘, good art is indeed difficult.  But I’m pleased to report that Crunch is anything but dull and bland.  Sadly, it seems many reviewers, to their own loss, have largely overlooked this record.  Here at Lost in the Cloud, we [and by ‘we’ I mean ‘I, Elijah’] encourage you not to let this one pass you by as it has so many others!

Loom8. Loom Fear of Men — As said by that great modern sage Tila Tequila, ‘I think every person has their own identity and beauty.  Everyone being different is what is really beautiful.  If we were all the same, it would be boring.’  I think there’s a real kernel of wisdom in that.  I once heard a university professor express gratitude for his differences from his partner because, ‘If we were both the same person, there’d be no need for the other — I might as well kill myself.’  A wee bit harsh, but the point I am making is that although Greg and I are kindred spirits in so many ways (such as our love for Sufjan Stevens, Elliott Smith and Irn-Bru), our differences make us a better platonic pairing in many ways.  Take Fear of Men’s Loom, for instance.  I don’t intend to speak for Greg, from what I’ve gathered, Loom was a ‘like’ not ‘love’ album for him.  Me, on the other hand — as you can see, it’s nestled right here between nine and eight.  Their first full-length release, Loom is a great foray into dream pop/indie rock.  Jess Weiss’ vulnerable vocals, teamed with Daniel Falvey’s watery, guitar-driven soundscapes wash over the listener like waves (and there are many aquatic references on Loom).  It’s a beautiful piece of work and, at the very least, a beautiful debut.

Some Blue Morning7. Some Blue Morning Adrian Crowley — Maltese-born Irish singer-songwriter Adrian Crowley was described as ‘the best songwriter that no one’s heard of’ by Ryan Adams in 2005. I’m inclined to agree with Ryan.  Although he has been active for fifteen years, during which he has released six albums, I was only made aware of Crowley’s existence in before Some Blue Morning.  Crowley’s voice and style remind me of veterans like Leonard Cohen and Scott Walker and of more recent master Bill Callahan.  With great skill and precision, Some Blue Morning is produced and executed very conscientiously, and it’s no exaggeration to claim that there is a maturity to Crowley’s songwriting that lands him among such greats.

Too Bright6. Too Bright Perfume Genius — This record is most definitely what I would consider ‘a grower’.  Too Bright is singer-songwriter Mike Hadreas’ third release.  His first two, Learning (2010) and Put Your Back N 2 It (2012), eluded the major English-speaking charts, gaining momentum only in Belgium (and the latter in Ireland), for some reason.  But Too Bright has found its way into the US and UK charts, riding on the success of the lead single ‘Queen’.  Upon my first listen to ‘Queen’ I was impressed with the Perfume Genius himself, Mike Hadreas’ raw lyrics coupled with his cutting delivery.  The rest of the album requires more patience, but the payoff is tenfold.  There’s a primal aggression paired with serene meekness, which only grows more satisfying with each listen.  Throughout the whole of Too Bright, one can hear Hadreas push himself to his limits, relying more upon vocal tone than words (of which there are relatively few).

Nobody Wants to be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave5. Nobody Wants to Be Here & Nobody Wants to Leave The Twilight Sad — I usually ignore Pitchfork, but I was curious to see if any critics were loving Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave (for the sake of brevity, referred to as Nobody from here on out) as much as I have been.  So I went and read Ian Cohen’s scathing review.  He opens with these words:

‘Mainstream success has mostly eluded the Twilight Sad, which is somewhat disappointing and even more surprising—their compatriots We Were Promised Jetpacks and Frightened Rabbit still fill rooms in the States despite being only slightly more ‘pop,’ proof that a certain kind of Scottish miserablism will always play well overseas, especially when delivered with a whiskeyed brogue.  Consequently, when you’re the most successful and long-running band with the word ‘sad’ in its name, the obvious question is, at what point does such a staunch commitment to misery become, well, kinda miserable?  In the case of the Twilight Sad, it takes about a decade, as everything from the title of Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave to its uncertain sonic direction tells of a band feeling trapped within their own reputation.’

‘Scottish miserablism’ and ‘whiskeyed brogue’?  Sounds like Mr Cohen is just being ‘patronising’ and ‘lazy’.  He goes on to contrast Nobody with each of The Twilight Sad’s previous three albums and comes to the conclusion that Nobody lacks ‘palplable passion’.  I assume he means ‘palpable’, but who hasn’t made typrografrical errors?  Aside from his patronising tone and his minor slip of the keys, I’m left wondering if Mr Cohen and I have actually been listening to the same record.  On the whole, I consider this record to be their strongest and most complete to date.  I’ll grant Ian Cohen the fact that Nobody isn’t always as loud or aggressive as The Twilight Sad’s previous releases, but there’s no lack of conviction to be found.  The music is more compelling and listenable than ever (though I’ll admit that, unfortunately, James Graham’s vocals on the sixth track of the album, ‘In Nowheres’ remind me of Eddie Vedder), warranting a stop in my top five albums of the year.

St Vincent4. St Vincent St Vincent — One of my greatest anxieties in my attempt to be taken seriously as a student of pop music comes when I hear a record from a familiar and belovéd artist; an artist who has, in past, been part of my ‘Top 10 Albums’ rankings.  It’s happened plenty of times in recent history—with great artists like Arcade Fire, Beach House, Deerhunter/Atlas Sound, Frightened Rabbit, Girls, Grizzly Bear/Department of Eagles, The National, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Tame Impala and Youth Lagoon, to name quite a few—and I fear that it makes me a lazy pupil.  Have I just convinced you that I’m a hack?  Well, let this year’s list convince you that I do resist the temptation as best I can.  It is my intention to present you with ten albums that I believe truly are the best from the year.  Two of my favourite contemporary artists (Owl John [Scott Hutcheson, singer of Frightened Rabbit] and Beck) are honourable mentions, whilst others (like My Brightest Diamond, The War on Drugs and We Were Promised Jetpacks) didn’t even make the honourable cut.  But the one repeat artist I couldn’t resist was Annie Clark.  St Vincent’s newest record demonstrates more than Clark’s typical-yet-excellent craft.  It gives us something novel, something more adventurous as a whole.  It depends yet more heavily on digital programming than any of Clark’s previous records and doesn’t give the impression of a one trick pony that even 2011’s masterpiece, Strange Mercy does at times.  It’s probably helped that Clark has been exploring broader avenues of musical expression (see Love This Giant).  She courts minor controversy with the prudes (with at least one explicit reference to masturbation[!]) and with the devout (with the expression of a preference for the love of another over Jesus), but she’s got this devout prude convinced that St Vincent is an excellent cut.

Burn Your Fire for No Witness3. Burn Your Fire for No Witness Angel Olsen — Oscillating wildly between her country and rock sentiments, Angel Olsen delivers with her latest album.  I was first drawn in by the garage-infused ballads, ‘Forgiven/Forgotten’, ‘High & Wild’ and ‘Stars’, but that is not all that this record has to offer.  Burn Your Fire for No Witness is largely more energetic than her previous effort (2012’s Half Way Home), whilst the latter third of the record demands more of the listener.  But make no mistake, great rewards are to be reaped upon repeated listenings.  With these dramatic swings from more aggressive tracks to more spacious, reflective and tranquil ones, Olsen draws the listener into an intimate experience and makes us thirsty for the next note, the next word.  Her vocal tones are mesmerising and her pace tells the listener that she is in no hurry — but we don’t complain because we have no good reason to do so.

pom pom2. pom pom Ariel Pink — I never expected to be made a believer in Ariel Pink. The first record of his (with the addition of his band, The Haunted Grafitti) I ever heard was 2007’s Scared Famous, which never quite convinced me he was as good as ‘everyone’ was saying.  Then he seemed to disappear for a few years, proving, in my own mind, that my suspicions were true.  When he released his next two records, Before Today (2010) and Mature Themes (2012), I didn’t pay them any attention.  But for some reason I felt as if I needed to give Mr Pink a fresh listen.  I must admit that when I first sampled pom pom (as is now my custom prior to any purchase in this digital age) my expectations were quite low.  I expected it to be too avant-garde for its own or anyone else’s good.  But upon that first listen there was something that made me think twice about pom pom.  Maybe it was actually worth buying after all.  pom pom is a pop odyssey, deriving low-fi influence from 1980s indie and new wave, combining these sensibilities with a heavily Kim Fowley-influenced 1960s feel, all in a crafty and novel way.  It descends into adolescent sex-scapades and a wee bit of nonsense in its third quarter with ‘Sexual Athletics’, ‘Jell-o’ and ‘Black Ballerina’, which rubbed me the wrong way at first (not least due to my abstinence from gelatine), but the quality and strength of Pink’s songwriting prevails.  The skilful eclecticism of pom pom has something for everyone and has made me a believer in Ariel Pink.

Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son1. Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son Damien Jurado — I’ve always appreciated Damien Jurado’s determination and his commitment to doing things his own way, but if I’m honest, I’ve resisted many of his records for two silly and interelated reasons.  The first reason is the fact that Jurado’s music is often littered with religious under and overtones.  (As the title of this record reveals, Jurado hasn’t pruned away his biblical references for this record.)  It’s not that religious artists are inevitably bad, but the remarkability of artists like Sufjan Stevens and Daniel Smith—artists who, however overtly religious their music may be, due to their innovation could be better classified as ‘artists who happen to be Christians’ as opposed to ‘Christian artists’ with all of the derivative trappings of American Evangelical culture—is hard to come by.  And whilst I don’t think that Jurado has ever been as explicit as any ‘Christian artist’ on the Billboard ‘Christian Albums’ chart (it offends me that such a category even exists!), I’ve resisted any great investment in his music because of what I perceived to be its overall unremarkability.  That being said, his recent partnership with producer Richard Swift (once keyboardist for Starflyer 59 and current member of The Shins) has proven to be a great success.  Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son is Jurado’s third record with Swift and his 11th overall, and despite his lack of commercial success, this perpetual underdog has finally captured this Loser in the Cloud’s proverbial heart.  In a video published prior to the release of the album, Jurado stated, ‘This new record is sort of a sequel to [the 2012 album] Maraqopa … and it is about a guy who disappears on a search, if you will, for himself and never goes home.’  With a stunning spectrum of aural depth and stylistic breadth, Jurado tells an intricately [scientifically] fictitious story with which I’m still learning to cope after innumerable listens — and it’s wonderful!

Honourable Mentions

  • Rooms with Walls and Windows Julie Byrne
  • Salad Days Mac Demarco
  • Rave Tapes Mogwai
  • Everyday Robots Damon Albarn
  • Owl John Owl John
  • Piano Ombre Fránçois And The Atlas Mountains
  • La Isla Bonita Deerhoof
  • Morning Phase Beck
  • Are We There Sharon Van Etten
  • Singles Future Islands

Greg’s Top 10 Albums of 2014

To my listening ears, 2014 has not been a great year in music–a good year, sure. But great? Hardly. 2013–now THERE was a year! So many of those albums have STILL been the ones I’ve turned to this year when I wanted to hear something amazing, deep, moving, clever, heartfelt, and beautiful. My last year’s top 10 albums included masterpieces from Neko Case, Frightened Rabbit, The National, The Leisure Society, and Laura Marling, which I believe will hold up for eons. Now, granted, I have only encountered ONE of the albums on Elijah’s list (which is unusual & a bit sad), so I should hold my tongue until I’ve heard all that he has put on the sonic table, but for my part, it’s been a rather impoverished year of the kind of music I am drawn to (melodic, melancholic, lyrically astute without becoming too rarefied, mid-fi to lo-fi production, sincere, organic, etc.). Still there were enough examples to put a list of 10 albums together, and apart from #10, #4, and #2, all of these albums have a kind of REAL sound where you can really tell that people were sitting in a room playing a particular instrument to make the sounds that you are hearing, and that they had refined that sound as a craft, requiring the discipline to really hear everything that the others in the group were doing, and that they had achieved a mastery in their particular genre. Enjoy!

10. Songs of Innocence  U2 — Elijah, forgive me, but here it is.  I suppose this will be a sure sign of having moved permanently into middle-agedom and sentimentality, but I truly enjoyed this album, particularly the latter half.  ‘Raised by Wolves’ married a lilting poignancy with a razor sharp intensity to produce a sound I haven’t heard from U2 in many years.  Song after song, from the poppy production of early tracks (esp. ‘Every Breaking Wave’) to the darkly disconcerting, yet hauntingly lovely closers ‘Sleep Like a Baby Tonight’ and ‘The Troubles,’ I found it quite listenable, and indeed I did listen to it again and again, which is more than I can say about any album of theirs in the last 15 years, or many other albums that came out this year.

9. Phox  Phox — This is a good album from a potentially GREAT band.  All the pieces are there.  Gorgeously idiosyncratic lead vocals of thick velvet & smoke with mysterious lyrics that suggest a wide narrative berth of times and places; brilliantly arranged dynamics with a variety of classical and folk instrumentation (I’m a sucker for a tasteful clarinet line); a vast, yet incredibly tight band that really seems to love playing together; and from what I’ve discerned from a live session, an amazing stage presence and performance.  I’m anticipating great things from these phoxy kids!

8. Are We There  Sharon Van Etten — There is a beautiful languour in her songwriting and voice that evinces a sense of longing and melancholy so deep it’s like someone avoiding eye contact with an ex-lover while they wade in a slow moving river at dusk under a purple sky, and then, suddenly, one finds the will to meet the other’s gaze and stares intensely with a flush of deep sincerity, painful uncertainty, and yet raw, emotional power.  Something like that.  If you want to feel that ‘that,’ listen to ‘Afraid of Nothing,’ ‘Your Love is Killing Me,’ and ‘Break Me.’

7. My Favourite Faded Fantasy  Damien Rice — When I heard this record was coming out, I was surprised that Rice was even still at it musically.  His break through album O had been a mainstay of my mid-2000’s playlists, but I only begrudgingly picked up his second album through some Russian website at $.05 a song and still felt like I’d been jipped.  So when my friend Wade said this LP might be his favourite album of the year, I was a bit incredulous.  Then I listened to it and knew he was onto something. Rice’s lyrics can be cliched (i.e. the idea not fitting in someone’s box) and bizarrely overwrought (exhibit A: ‘I just came across a manger / Out among the danger / Somewhere in a stranger’s eye’ which is utterly ridiculous), but he knows how to craft and perform a song, this one does.  The music rolls along and suddenly slows, like held breath; it’s spare and then suddenly full, an empty stage becoming a filled hall; his voice is rich then falling apart, with emotion that feels unmistakably real.  This Irish lad is back, in my book.

6. The Take Off and Landing of Everything  Elbow — These fellows have mastered the art of lying a spare, haunting arrangement beneath the weathered sagacity of Guy Garvey’s Manchester melodic tales recounting the joy of simple lives, getting older, looking for some kind of meaning great or small. It’s best to not pick songs off this album — just allow it all to wash over you as a whole.

5. Upside Down Mountain  Conor Oberst — I was so deeply disappointed after Oberst’s last outing, the ill-begotten final Bright Eyes album, that I had little hope that he’d return to the powerful lyrical storytelling and hook-filled songwriting I’d loved for so many years.  But this album has it in spades.  I was actually startled by how much I liked song after song on this record–while some are stronger than others, all are quite good.  Such a relief to have the kid genius back in fighting shape!

4. Stay Gold  First Aid Kit — This was another album that I didn’t want to like.  The lead song ‘Silver Lining’ was obviously hooky and rich in harmonies, but it initially felt like some kind of schtick, as if these Swedish teenager sisters were playing at creating some throwback, middle American folk-pop (whilst cramming a bunch of syllables into a kind of talk-singing that I detest) as an experiment in musical slumming.  But oh my gosh as I kept listening (and there was that clarinet line again!), I totally fell for these young women and their tragic stories sung so beautifully, having choruses that pull one into a vortex of loveliness.  (Sadly, our American version of the harmonizing, tragic songwriting teenage sister band, Lily & Madeleine, had only a pretty mediocre LP come out this year after a strong start with an EP & album last year.  Take your time ladies, there’s no rush!)

3. Familiars  The Antlers — Imagine if a resurrected Jeff Buckley decided to become some kind of ass-kicking torch singer and got a really tight band together to lay down solid grooves that stealthily built up (with the help of a horn section) passionate suffering into crescendos like a tidal waves beneath the sound of gorgeous melodic whispers and soaring laments.  Just listen to ‘Palace,’ ‘Hotel,’ or ‘Parade.’  NSFW language BTW.

2. Brill Bruisers  The New Pornographers — I’m pretty much in love with Neko Case’s voice, so I was halfway there with this album as soon as I heard her tiger’s growl.  In the past, I’ve loved the songs that she sung or A.C. Newman wrote/performed & that remained true for this album (title track, ‘Champions of Red Wine,’ ‘Marching Orders,’ ‘Another Drug Deal of the Heart,’ and ‘Wide Eyes’); I have no idea what they are ever singing about, but it is emotionally impressionistic enough that I know when to chuckle or sigh (for example, from ‘Wide Eyes’: ‘Overlooking the canyon / Right from where I’m standing / I swear I can see my former glory still burning / It had every intent of returning // There’s years to planning and landing / To prepare for jumping the canyon / It’s not the death-defying, or cheering / It’s the thrill of clearing, barely clearing’).  However, on this record, I found myself actually enjoying the cuts from the other principle songwriter (Dan Bejar of Destroyer) — which then makes this an all-around delight.  When tunes can become polished to this level of perfection, one cannot begrudge the super-group stacking of the deck!

1. Heart Murmurs  Jeremy Messersmith — This is the one, undeniable masterpiece on this list.  And to my horror, it looks like it’s going largely unrecognized on various Best Albums of the Year lists. I was introduced to the songsmithery of Messersmith by officemates who played his 2010 album The Reluctant Graveyard on repeat to the point that it should have been glass shards in my ears, and yet I found myself unendingly pleased each time I heard the familiar opening notes.  (You may also recognize him from his brilliant Star Wars homage song & video ‘Tatooine.’)  So of course I was excited when this album came out, but I couldn’t believe how deeply I came to love it the more and more I listened to song after song about relational heartache (which should be the most tired of lyrical subject matter, but isn’t here).  His voice is the apotheosis of impeccably smooth tone.  The arrangements are the finest lot of indie pop, skipping around in familiar genres (chamber pop, middle-period Beatles, Radiohead-esque alternative rock, etc.) with genius ease.  The lyrics are clever, full of warmth and compassion for named folks like Steve and Heidi, earnest, hopeful, sweetly profane, and unimprovable.  He was one of Time Magazine’s 14 Artists to Watch in 2014… but I don’t think most of the world was looking carefully enough.  Please don’t miss him too.

Honourable Mentions

  • Bones + Longing  Gemma Hayes (strong start, with guest guitar wall of sound from My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields, but didn’t live up to it in the end)
  • In Roses  Gem Club (amazing chamber pop album)
  • Seeds  TV on the Radio (mixed bag of some brilliance in back-to-back ‘Love Stained’ and ‘Ride’ but otherwise I couldn’t see what they were broadcasting)
  • Loose Ends  Francisco the Man! — I hate to be contentious, Francisco, but I believe that Portugal was actually ‘the Man’ long before you came around. I couldn’t, in good conscience, put an album with this lyric on my top 10 albums list: ‘But every time that I get high / I close my eyes and I ask “Why?” / And then the world, she disappears / And I look for another beer.’  But the MUSIC on this album is often so propulsive and tuneful and thickly layered, feeling like a drive on the open road on a stormy day (for example, ‘You & I,’ ‘Loaded,’ and ‘I Am Not’).  Reminds me of a more distorted instrumentation of Telekenisis + the vocals of The Helio Sequence.

Dishonourable Mentions

  • I was so sadly bored by Morrissey’s new album; Beck’s LP had one genius cut ‘Wave’ but otherwise felt like an attempt to cash in on a Sea Change reincarnation; and I was absolutely left cold by Lana Del Rey’s sophomore record.  (I should have listened to Thom Yorke’s release a BitTorrent more, but it felt like bleeps and bloops for the most part.  We’ll see if it’s a grower like his The Eraser was for me.)