Tag Archive | Sharon Van Etten

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.)
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Best Albums of 2012

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Dear faithful LITC readers,

Our favourite post of the year is here!  We apologise that it’s taken so long, but think of it as a late Christmas gift.  As with previous years, we’ve included our respective Top 10 Albums of the year as well as some honourable mentions and some not so honourable ones.  Feel free to share your favourite records of the year in the comments section.  Maybe you’ll even discover some unknown treasures within our lists.  Take care, readers.  See you in 2013.

Love,

Elijah & Greg

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Elijah’s Top 10 Albums of 2012

Valtari

10.  Valtari  Sigur Rós — Whilst I loved 2005’s Takk…, I found that 2008’s Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust left much to be desired.  Valtari leans more toward Sigur Rós’ earlier style, a more ambient and reflective record although I’d hesitate before calling it ‘samey’.  Incredible tracks like ‘Varúð’ and ‘Varðeldur’, some of the finest I’ve ever heard from the Iceland post-rock legends kept me from pushing this record out of the top ten.  For this record the band also came up with they’ve called the ‘Valtari Mystery Film Experiment‘ in which they employed twelve filmmakers to make music videos for the album based upon what the song brought to their minds and without the final approval from Sigur Rós.  See ‘Varúð’ below, created by Inga Birgisdóttir, who designed the album cover and also directed the video for ‘Ekki Múkk’:

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Gentle Stream

9.  Gentle Stream  The Amazing — This was the first record of 2012 that really caught me by surprise.  Released in Sweden in 2011, Gentle Stream proves to be just that, a gentle yet wide stream of quality, what I would describe as a subtle mixture between Simon & Garfunkel and Dinosaur Jr.  Like their previous releases, The Amazing and Wait for Light to Come, there are still hints of psych rock (influenced by the presence of various members of Dungen) and classic rock and the finished product it is most satisfying.

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All We Love

8.  All We Love We Leave Behind  Converge — Before I listened to this record, I didn’t want to include Converge in this list because it’s starting to look like whenever a few of my favourite artists make a new album they inevitably end up on my ‘Best Albums’ list.  For those who know how I rate music, it’s unlikely that the top four will come as any surprise this year.  But give me some credit; I can betray bands I love when they make subpar records – like Animal Collective’s Centipede Hz or my ‘dishonourable mentions’ below.  Or last year when I resisted We Were Promised Jetpacks’ In the Pit of the Stomach, Atlas Sound’s Parallax, David Bazan’s Strange Negotiations, DeVotchKa’s 100 Lovers, Danielson’s Best of Gloucester County, etc.  See, so when I include one of my favourite bands in my top ten I really mean it!

All that being said, I didn’t want to include Converge this year, so when I heard the first track, ‘Aimless Arrow’, I was relieved and heartbroken simultaneously.  I would consider the track their weakest opener to date (especially compared to their last record’s first track, ‘Darkhorse‘), and with its hints of ‘screamo’ and melodic hardcore (don’t worry, there’s no ‘singing’ on this track), I was fearful of listening to the rest of the record.  But the eight tracks to follow are all heavy, quality tunes!  The rest of the record features some spoken word, which works on top of the slow, thoughtful guitar work by Kurt Ballou.  But my heart was nearly torn in two upon listening to the tenth track, ‘Coral Blue’.  It’s not all that frightening until the chorus, which isn’t quite ‘screamo annoying’, but more confusing for those who listen to Converge.  Thankfully, that’s the extent of this ‘singing’ charade on All We Love We Leave Behind.  It closes out with the sufficiently epic title track and sufficiently heavy ‘Predatory Glow’.  No, on the whole this was no serious transition for Converge, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.  They tried that on You Fail Me and they failed me indeed.

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Sweet Heart

7.  Sweet Heart Sweet Light  Spiritualized — I know, great cover, right?  OK, it’s probably one of the worst album covers this year, but don’t let that put you off!  This here is an excellent record.  Jason Pierce, also known as J. Spaceman, the creative force behind all of Spiritualized’s incarnations over the last 22 years, wrote the album whilst undergoing serious medical treatment for his liver, which was left in a sore state as a result of many years of drug use, both prescribed and recreational.  But unlike 2008’s Songs in A&E, which was also inspired by a serious medical emergency (aspiration pneumonia and periorbital cellulitis), Sweet Heart Sweet Light is a much more hopeful, inspiring record, somewhat in the vein of 1997’s Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space.

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Don't Bend,  Ascend!

6.  Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!  Godspeed You! Black Emperor — This is the Canadian post-rockers’ first record since 2002’s Yanqui U.X.O., and whilst I found Yanqui rather uninspiring after 2000’s masterpiece Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, ‘Allelujah! is a return to form and then some.  Godspeed has a rare skill (shared with Sufjan Stevens) for making 20+ minute songs engaging throughout.  The tracks are engrossing and become, as the album title suggests, transcendent objets d’art, ushering the listener into heavy aural ascension.

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America

5.  America  Dan Deacon — I appreciated Dan Deacon’s music before (his 2009 release, Bromst was among my honourable mentions that year), but this record caught me by surprise.  The opener, ‘Guilford Avenue Bridge’, is a buzzy digital number, which flows into the two subsequent tracks until Deacon decided to change the pace with ‘Prettyboy’, which seems to ruin the rhythm of the album, that is until we’re brought back into the jam with ‘Crash Jam’.  The highlight of the album is the four-part ‘USA’ opus below:

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Lonerism

4.  Lonerism  Tame Impala — Tame Impala’s last record, Innerspeaker, which came to me as such a surprise thanks to Greg’s preaching of the gospel, ranked 6th on my Best Albums of 2010 list, so in my desire to not be let down, I was suspecting that the follow-up wouldn’t be as good.  As with their previous material, Lonerism draws much from the past (‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards‘ could’ve been part of Magical Mystery Tour, right between ‘Blue Jay Way‘ and ‘Your Mother Should Know‘, or it could’ve totally replaced the latter and I wouldn’t have minded), but always with a sense of artistic integrity and completeness.  Thank you, Tame Impala, for defying the awfulness of your band name yet again and coming up with another excellent piece of psychadelic groove rock!  Oh and isn’t it groovy!

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Bloom

3.  Bloom  Beach House — After their excellent third album, Teen Dream (which ranked 8th in my Top 10 Albums of 2010), I expected Beach House to lose steam.  Every subsequent record was getting better and no band can keep that up.  Well, this loss of steam will have to wait until their next record, because I’d say that Bloom might very well be their best record to date.  Whilst their sound remains distinctively ‘Beach House’ (those keyboard and guitar-driven dream pop soundscapes and that husky female voice), the songwriting in Bloom has taken a step forward.  And even though this record demands more time and attention than their previous releases, the payoff is tenfold.  And how amazing is this Ghostbusters-inspired video for ‘Lazuli’?

+++++

Dept of Disapearance

2.  Dept. of Disappearance  Jason Lytle — This was an exciting year for us Grandaddy fans: the band reunited after six years apart!  And very fortunately for us, the excitement didn’t end there.  Grandaddy principal songwriter, lead singer and guitarist, Jason Lytle, has kept busy since the break up in 2006.  In fact, Grandaddy’s final record, 2005’s Just Like the Fambly Cat, was written and recorded entirely by Lytle.  After the break up, a move inspired by lack of commercial success, Lytle relocated from California to Montana and toured with Rusty Miller in support of Just Like the Fambly Cat.  In 2009, Lytle released his first solo record, Yours Truly the Commuter and followed that with an EP, Merry X-mas.  Lytle and former drummer of Grandaddy, Aaron Burtch, joined with members of Earlimart to form the band Admiral Radley, who released their debut record, I Heart California, in 2010.  Each of these incarnations were superb (I Heart California was an honourable mention in my Best Albums of 2010 list), but none seemed to capture the magic that Lytle’s earlier work possessed in great measure.  Until now.  It’s safe to say that Dept. of Disappearance is a grower, but there was enough of pure goodness present from the first listen to keep me going.  Each track is excellent, and some are among the best Lytle’s ever written, such as the title track, ‘Matterhorn’, ‘Last Problem of the Alps’, ‘Somewhere There’s a Someone’ (below), ‘Gimme Click Gimme Grid’ and ‘Elko in the Rain’.

+++++

Shields

1.  Shields  Grizzly Bear — I won’t make excuses or defend my pick despite the fact that Grizzly Bear’s previous record was my number one album of 2009Shields is just that good.  Still present are the Grizzly Bear trademarks we know and love, but this record is the band’s most aggressive and coherent to date.  At times it is far darker than their previous material (‘Speak in Rounds’), yet it still takes the listener into the clouds (‘Half Gate’).  In the midst of this more aggressive direction, Grizzly Bear also ventures into the realm of more accessible pop music, music that isn’t as dissonant as their previous releases yet retains its creative bearings.  On top of all of their unique qualities as proficient musicians and songwriters, Grizzly Bear demonstrate a continuing process of maturation, one that solidifies them as—in this listener’s opinion—one of the best bands of their generation.

+++++

Elijah’s honourable mentions

Elijah’s dishonourable mentions

  • Mirage Rock  Band of Horses
  • Silver Age  Bob Mould

+++++

Greg’s Top 10 Albums of 2012

Another conflicted year of listening for me:  some of my favorite bands put out albums I thought were shite (Animal Collective, Sigur Rós) and other bands that I expected more from turned out mediocre fare (Passion Pit, The Avett Brothers).  Then there were the albums that had real moments of brilliance on them…but which couldn’t sustain that level of greatness throughout the entire record.   The following albums didn’t break into my top ten, but you should definitely check out the songs indicated:

  • Bloom  Beach House — ‘Myth’, ‘The Hours’, ‘Irene’
  • Charmer  Aimee Mann — ‘Labrador’, ‘Soon Enough’, ‘Slip and Roll’
  • Confess  Twin Shadow — ‘Golden Light’, ‘Five Seconds’, ‘Be Mine Tonight’
  • Lonerism  Tame Impala — ‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’, ‘Elephant’, ‘Sun’s Coming Up’
  • Shields  Grizzly Bear — ‘Yet Again’, ‘Gun-Shy’, ‘Half Gate’
  • Time Capsules II  Oberhofer — ‘HEART’, ‘I Could Go’, ‘oOoO’; also did a great cover of Kanye West’s ‘Runaway

+++++

Young Man Follow

10.  Young Man Follow  Future of Forestry — I don’t mind if I lose all indie credibility for putting a Christian, anthem rock band on my top ten.  This album falls somewhere in between Delirious?/Phil Wickham and post-Pop U2/Snow Patrol (right now, Elijah is raising his eyebrows/giving me a look of consternation/experiencing a slight taste of bile in the mouth).  I know that there’s a strong hint of  songwriting formulae, mixed with sentimental emotionalism, strategic falsetto insertion, and derivative production sleight-of-hand, but I can’t help it…I eat it up.  This is my sonic Kryptonite.  It moves me and I can’t help loving it.  So there you go.

+++++

White Rabbits

9.  Milk Famous  White Rabbits — This was a late addition to the list.  I had loved the track “Everyone Can’t Be Confused” earlier in the year, but never got around to purchasing the whole album.  Two weeks ago, I finally got it and have enjoyed the carefully orchestrated arrangement and production of each song immensely.  As I began reading reviews, many of which were not kind, there was some talk about the band selling out and transforming into Spoon-lite (one of that band’s members produced the album).  I actually can’t stand Spoon, but I love these guys!

+++++

Fiona Apple

8.  The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do  Fiona Apple — I’ll be honest, I’m not such a fan of the craziness that exists inside this woman’s head, but her startlingly stark songwriting, passionate confessionalism, and uncompromising originality make this album a work of undeniable greatness.

+++++

Port of Morrow

7.  Port of Morrow  The Shins — There may be some measure of sentiment and nostalgia in this pick.  The 2001 album Oh, Inverted World was a life-changer for me (a moment captured and corrupted in Zach Braff’s film Garden State) and I can hear echoes of those glorious times in songs like “It’s Only Life,” “No Way Down,” and “For a Fool.”  For those purists who find this a shameless exploitation of The Shins brand (being that only one member of the original band plays on this album), a stance which I myself initially considered, I respectfully disagree.  The magic is still here…

+++++

Adventures in Your Own Backyard

6.  Adventures in Your Own Backyard  Patrick Watson — Watson is one of those artists whose voice alone puts him into a category of talent and beauty that should earn accolades–but he is also a brilliant songwriter and musician whose idiosyncratic vision comes into its own on this release.  If you’ve never listened to his work before, his catalog is well worth exploring, including his work with The Cinematic Orchestra.

+++++

Heaven

5.  Heaven  The Walkmen — This band has been loitering in the periphery of my musical tastes for a while–a great song here or there, but no album that absolutely blew me away.  Until now…you MUST listen to this record.

+++++

Tramp

4.  Tramp  Sharon Van Etten — Such fine, delicate songwriting; beautiful, haunting, and frequently spare instrumentation to accompany her striking, melancholy voice; and brilliant production & instrumental assistance from The National’s Aaron Dessner (who better be working on a new album himself!).  I love so many of these songs with an affection that is reserved for a select few artists.  Listen to the song belong and try not to simultaneously smile AND ache:

+++++

Break it Yourself

3.  Break It Yourself  Andrew Bird — I wrote about this album earlier in the year, wondering if it would grow on me more and more.  Boy, did it ever.  As I said before, Andrew Bird cannot make a bad album, but here, he’s certainly made a great one.  I think it really comes alive after the first 1/3 of the album is over, so don’t give up on it if you don’t immediately sense the genius.

+++++

Silver & Gold

2.  Silver and Gold  Sufjan Stevens — I’m considering this a 2013 release, even though it is a collection of EP’s that Sufjan had privately given out to friends and family over the last five or six years.  Of course I love it—I’m a Sufjanite through and through.  But beyond my dedication to the man, this really is a beautiful collection of 58 songs that I think transcend the holiday season itself and act as a meditation on the human condition as a whole, refracted through the hopes and disappointments that we connect to a particular time of year and experience of faith, family, community, and tradition.  There are haunting covers of Christmas & holiday classics (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Joy to the World,” “Let It Snow!” and “Silent Night”), worshipful church hymns simply arranged and devoutly performed (“Ah Holy Jesus,” “Lift Up Your Heads Ye Mighty Gates,” and “Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light”), and Sufjan originals or adaptations that stand up to any of his other records (“Justice Delivers Its Death,” “Christmas in the Room,” “The Midnight Clear,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and “The Child with the Star on His Head”) along with a myriad of lovely instrumental meditations (my favorites include “Make Haste to See the Baby,” “Go Nightly Cares,” and “Even the Earth Will Perish and the Universe Give Way”), crazy experimental electronica (not my favorite genre but occasionally delightful), and simple fun communal musical merry-making.  It’s also fun to view the collection in tandem with the albums he was working on during these years (The BQE and The Age of Adz).  You can actually download some of the best tracks for free on Sufjan’s Noisetrade page—and that is a truly wonderful gift from the greatest artist of our age.

+++++

Fear Fun

1.  Fear Fun  Father John Misty — One day this year, I was listening to an unbelievably compelling live set of songs on KCRW by a band whose name I somehow kept missing.  I finally went onto the station website and discovered that it was Father John Misty.  This is the first release under this band name by J. Tillman, former drummer from Fleet Foxes.  I had some of his previous solo releases post-FF, which were pretty average folkish meanderings.  But this!  On this album, Tillman discovers some kind of alchemy that turns his melancholy into the rarest kind of beauty and wonder.  His songs sound like they were written 40 or 30 or 20 years ago—any age but now, yet they simultaneously capture the hidden spirit of some mystical contemporary world surrounding us that we may not perceive.  Even the songs I don’t absolutely “like” have a tangible genius to them.  I didn’t want to like this album—the creepy cover, the hipster pedigree, the critical darlingness of it.  But, for me, in 2012, this was it.

+++++

Greg’s honourable mentions (albums)

  • Among the Leaves  Sun Kil Moon — Such lovely instrumentation and melodies; such bothersome narcissistic lyrics
  • Born to Die  Lana Del Rey — I think one is not supposed to like this album due to its contrivances, over-production, other myriad reasons—nevertheless, I found it strangely compelling in a fashion from start to finish
  • Lonesome Dreams  Lord Huron — Quality folk/Americana
  • Strange Land  Yellow Ostrich — This ended up on exactly no one’s top ten—yet really quite a solid indie rock record!
  • Who’s Feeling Young Now  Punch Brothers — Not enough substance to crack the top 10, but some real winning songwriting here, with a eminently listenable sound throughout

Greg’s honourable mentions (EPs)

Band Evangelist, ch. 4

I have neglected my musical prophetic calling as of late, but LO, I have returned to separate the melodic wheat from the chaff and to baptize you in the tuneful rivers of new music (the evangelist metaphor is wearing thin, I know). I have put together a mix of some of the latest songs to catch my ear–cleverly entitled “2012: My Own Apocalypse”–but since sharing music online is a dangerous pastime, I will simply offer to send you a link to the songs  (if you know me, shoot me an email; if you don’t know me, post in the comments section and I should be able to see your email…AND make sure you are not an undercover agent of the RIAA!).  Most of the following artists I’ve highlighted have a track on this mix…

To begin with, two years ago, in my first “Band Evangelist” post, I lamented the break-up of a band that I believed had great potential to be among the indie greats:  The XYZ Affair.  Well, the singer of that band has just released a free 5-song EP under the moniker Leonard Friend.  It’s a bit more quasi-ironic 80’s electronic poppy than I might wish, but this singer/songwriter’s talent cannot be hidden under a bush & heck, it’s FREE!

Another singer/songwriter–Ramesh Srivastava–from a similarly lamented & potentially epic indie band that broke up several years ago–Voxtrot–has just released a few new songs as well, which can be heard for now at his website (the song “The King” was on my best of 2010 mix).  I think Ramesh may someday rise again like the phoenix to the heights he reached with Voxtrot (whose must-have songs include “The Start of Something,” “Fast Asleep,” “Firecracker;” their self-titled album from 2007 is worth a purchase, though not essential), but for now, these few songs are all we have to remind us of what could’ve been.

Some of the kings & queens of indie-dom from years past also have new albums out/coming out that must be reckoned with:

  • Andrew Bird/Break It Yourself (out now):  I did buy it & I do like it thus far.  I’m sure it will grow on me even more (straightaway, I was taken with the penultimate 3 tracks quite a bit).  The man is so multi-talented (composing melancholic melodies, playing guitar/violin/violin like a guitar/whistling, etc.), he cannot make a “bad album,” but to be honest, I think he could stand to have a producer other than himself (it lacks a sonic fullness and critical perspective that a talented outsider could have brought), he should focus his lyrical impressionism just a bit, and, this sounds harsh, but he needs to drop his brushes/soft kick drum percussionist Martin Dosh, who, while an incredibly talented musician himself, I think, brings out a soft-rock mildness and self-indulgence in the Bird that keeps him from attaining his full greatness on record (when they play live together, as a two-piece, they are able to create an entire symphony of sounds through looping).
  • The Shins/Port of Morrow (out now):  After a few listens, I am uncertain what I will ultimately think of these 10 tracks.  Having loved the early Shins, it is hard to see this new line-up, sans any other original member than singer/songwriter James Mercer, as anything more than just Mercer resurrecting a “brand” that’s proven to sell records.  But his voice & lyrics are so great to hear again (though the instrumentation on this album may have been a bit OVER-produced) and the old sparkle does emerge in some of the attempts to recapture the old Shins magic (much more glimmer than I found in the Mercer/Dangermouse collaboration, Broken Bells).
  • Daniel Rossen/Silent Hour/Golden Mile (out now):  This lovely throated & absurdly brilliant songwriter from Grizzly Bear and Department of Eagles has released a five-song EP that I have found wonderfully enchanting, lovely to the bones, and all other kinds of goodness.  Yep, you should buy it!
  • Sigur Rós/Valtari (May 29):  Now I have to admit that I am getting my hopes up ionospherically high for this forthcoming album–to the point that I do not want to hear any tracks until I have the album in my hands.  I was personally disappointed with singer/composer Jonsi‘s recent solo release, so I’m hopelandic (or Vonlenska, if you prefer) for a aural reconciliation between my fey Nordic friend and me.
  • Regina Spektor/What We Saw from the Cheap Seats (May 29):  I’m not totally sure what to think of this quirkstress any more.  I did love so much of her last album, Far, but the initial single for this album, “All the Rowboats,” is cloyingly precious (oh, poor paintings that want to escape from their museum prisons) and I fear the worst.  Still, she does have heaps of talent, a golden ear for melodies (until she kills them with an intentionally dissonant note to the throat), and a certain sweet naivete, so I’m certain I will give it a listen.
  • Other releases of note to check out or watch for include:  White Rabbits/Milk Famous (out now)–I don’t know much about them, but I love the song “Everyone Can’t Be Confused,” Damien Jurado/Maraqopa (out now)–“Museum of Flight” is pretty as all get out, Rufus Wainwright/Out of the Game (April 23), Silversun Pickups/Neck of the Woods (May 8), Beach House/Bloom (May 15)–the song “Myth” from this album is soaringly lovely, Best Coast/The Only Place (May 15)–get a free song off the album here, The Walkmen/Heaven (June 5), and a new Passion Pit album in June.  Post in the comments about any albums I missed!

SO those are releases from the KNOWN bands…but let me list out a few NEW (to me & perhaps you?) acts that I’d like to commend to you all:

  1. Sharon Van Etten/Tramp:  This singer-songwriter caught my ear with “Serpents” before I’d heard that The National‘s Aaron Dessner had played on/produced her album (which is reason enough to take note). Her voice is a mix between Cat Power, Kathleen Edwards, and Sarah Jaffe (who also shares a similar composing style & sound). This woman has an incredible future ahead of her.  I’ve been playing this album non-stop of late.
  2. Yellow Ostrich/Strange Land:  This LP is the apotheosis of indie-songsmithery.  Haunting at points (“Up in the Mountains,” “Wear Suits”), darkly epic at others (“Marathon Runner”) and hopping off walls at yet many other points.
  3. Pandercakes/Paint By Numbers EP:  I don’t quite remember how I heard about this band, but you can download some songs here.  Read this music blog to find out more about their sound, which I like immensely–densely layered & yet fun and catchy at the same time.
  4. Oberhofer/Time Capsules II:  I have only listened to one song of of this album (“Heart”) but it has set expectations quite high.  This song is a mix of Animal Collective, Explosions in the Sky, Page France, and Muse (the piano parts)–to my ears at least.  This kid is the next generation of indie genius.
  5. Dry the River/Shallow Bed:  A friend with impeccable taste just turned me on to this band via a set on KCRW.  Check out this quote from their online bio:

“This five-piece band has all the hallmarks of the latest folk sensation: elemental name, beards, acoustic guitars, even a violinist. But what sets Dry the River apart is a background in hardcore and post-punk bands, hence the tattoos, lyrics that read like a Steinbeck novel and a sonic palette that sweeps from gentle to giant like an incoming storm.”

Well, that should keep your ears busy for a short while…until our next gathering at the edge of the river, let the “Glory Hallelujah’s” roll!