Saturday, December 20, 2014

My Top Ten Albums of 2014 (And Other Years)

Matt Domino lists his ten (and a few more) albums from 2014 (and a few other years).


Hello, my Puddlers! Wait, are there even any of you still out there? Were there even any to begin with?

As you can tell, the blog has fallen into a bit of disrepair due to my involvement with other projects that either pay me money or require a fuller investment of my time. I'm writing weekly posts over at The Manual on a variety of subjects, working with my sketch comedy group 301 Views, pitching my novel From Here to the Last Mound of Dirt to agents, submitting short stories to literary magazines, working at my day job and trying to stay positive when the ever present discouragement and rejection of a creative career rears its head. 

Overall, I'm just trying to stay sane in an era of media oversaturation, horrible human atrocities, open negativity and solipsism via social media, and the constant rumor that the world is worse now than it has ever been.

But don't worry! I still love basketball. Hell, I still get a kick out of some of the snarky sportswriters, bloggers and Tweeters out there as well! Though, I do wish some of them would start promoting their stand up sets or spec scripts for sitcoms because I love their material!

But enough of this preamble. 2014 was full of excellent music (state of the recording industry aside) and I couldn't let List Season pass without weighing in on my favorite records of the year. As you might remember, my list is unique in that I give you my favorite albums of the year as well as throw in albums from other bygone years that just had a huge impact on me in the past 365 days.


HONORABLE MENTIONS

Erik Gundel - Into the Lake

You like song cycles? You like Van Dyke Parks? Just because the fact that this guy is my friend and former roommate shouldn't stop you from listening to a fully thought out and recorded record.

The Both - The Both

I slept on this Aimee Mann and Ted Leo collaboration. It's really good. And features an excellent Thin Lizzy cover!



BONUS RECORDS:

Robert Palmer – Clues (1980)

That’s right, ladies and gentleman, in 2014 I found myself listening to Robert Palmer’s entire catalog on Spotify at work one day! Why? Well, because I’m a weirdo. But, I did find this gem of a new wave album. “Looking for Clues” should be played at every Williamsburg dance party. “What Do You Care” should only be listened to with big black Ray Bans on that you slightly lower from your eyes when a hot chick walks by. Meanwhile “Woke Up Laughing” is surprisingly delicate, ethereal synth-pop. A fun record all around!

Kinks – Misfits (1978)

Misfits is one of the non-canonical late-70’s Kinks records, but it really should be included with all the Hall of Famers from the 60’s and early 70’s. The title track alone, with its lyrics of “You’re a misfit/Afraid of yourself so you run away and hide/You’ve been an misfit your life/Why don’t you join the crowd and come inside” is Davies at his absolute best and contains a sentiment of getting over yourself and getting on in life that I can certainly relate to.

Dolly Parton – Coat of Many Colors (1971)

In the spring, I went through a pretty heavy Dolly Parton phase. I listened to all of her records from 1969-1979 multiple times and this was probably my favorite. The record is worth listening to for the pure joy of “Here I Am,” a mixture of soul and country that Dolly belts with all her heart. It sounds like stepping into a warm, small home where all your friends are partying. The thing is, though, the party isn’t unruly or messy. Everyone is genuinely having a great time, placing their drinks in safe locations on the counter and on tables, and up and down the line all of the people you care about are drunkenly explaining how much they love each other. This is utopia on wax (or Spotify).

As a side note, don’t sleep on Dolly’s Heartbreaker album from 1978. “Baby I’m Burnin’” is one hell of a song.

Mac Demarco – Salad Days (2014)

This record has some of my favorite drum sounds in recent memory and there really isn’t a bad song from start to finish. They may not all stand out, but I have no problem putting the album right back on after its over. The title track, “Passing Out The Pieces,” and “Goodbye Weekend” were among my favorite songs of the year. Now is Mac Demarco the Emitt Rhodes, Steve Miller or bankrupt man’s John Lennon of our times? Discuss.

Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness (2014)

This is a trendy pick, but what can I say, it was one of the best records of 2014. You can’t deny the haunting power of the piano on “High & Wild”—definitely one of my favorite sounding musical parts of the year.

Alice Cooper – Welcome to My Nightmare (1975)

I’m not sure what Alice Cooper’s legacy is anymore. To be honest, I don’t know if anyone cares about him. When I was a teenager, I didn’t give a shit about “School’s Out” and I doubt any kids do today. But Cooper’s output from 1969-1975 is undeniably great. He churned out solid albums year after year that could be described as “workmanlike” if they weren’t so weird, perverted, operatic and bombastic. I’ve always loved Billion Dollar Babies because “Hip, Hip, Hooray” is one of the best songs to accompany being gunned down in a blaze of glory and “Elected” is the best wrestling entrance theme that no one ever used. But Welcome to My Nightmare might be better.

The title track is all mid-70’s sleaze and runny makeup. “Black Widow,” with its Vincent Price cameo and spoken word breakdown, is pulp horror that segues into full on glam and brass fanfare in a coda that sends chills down your spine. “Some Folks” is vaudeville on steroids, which naturally equals a stadium anthem with a chorus you could lead a marching band to. “Steven” is a unique, epic rocker that no one but Alice would have made. And “Only Women Bleed” seems like a ballad that Big Star’s Chris Bell wrote but decided to give to Alice because it wasn’t truly depressing enough.

The record is wonderfully produced by Bob Ezrin. All the songs thump, throb, crunch and soar in the right places. I don’t like saying clich├ęd phrases such as “music just isn’t made this way anymore” or “I love the 70’s!,” but Cooper’s records (for what they’re worth) are a reminder of a certain quality that music once had—simultaneously dumbly entertaining and thought provoking—in even its kitschier, fringe artists. Maybe it’s just the fact that the record sounds important even if it isn’t, and at one time that was just the middle ground in popular music.

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10. Aaron Freeman – Freeman (2014)

This album popped on my radar at the very last minute and I am eternally thankful that it did. Who is Aaron Freeman you may ask? Well, that’s Gene Fuckin’ Ween you’re talking about asshole! That’s right, after the breakup of Ween, Gene Ween made his own solo record and it is excellent. There are elements of solo McCartney all over the place, but there is plenty of Ween’s trademark playfulness (read weirdness) to be found as well. The opening track, “Covert Discretion” is about the night that Gene Ween passed out onstage and decided to leave Ween due to his substance abuse. The song starts with a finger picking, almost Stevie Nicks-esque melody before erupting into an arena rock coda that contains my (now) favorite lyrical couplet of all time: “Fuck you all, I got a reason to live/ And I’m never gonna die!”

The record is immaculately produced, from the jokey, smoldering blues on “(For A While) I Couldn’t Play My Guitar Like A Man” to the world music/psychedelic “El Shaddai” to the fantastic ballad “More Than The World”, which has more than a bit of George Harrison in its melody (especially “Long, Long, Long” from The White Album). Freeman was a surprising revelation at the end of 2014 (though it actually came out in July) and a record that I will listen to for years to come.

9. Tweedy – Tweedy (2014)

I’ve loved Jeff Tweedy and Wilco for so long, and so unapologetically, that it’s become difficult for me to write about him or them in a meaningful way. All I can say about this record is that it is heartening to hear Jeff Tweedy continue to push himself. Obviously there is plenty of “dad rock” present, but it is well documented that I eat that stuff up when Tweedy is serving it. But overall, this is the loosest and messiest Tweedy has been since Loose Fur’s Born Again in the USA back in 2006. “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” is bratty; “Diamond Light Pt. 1” is like an odd psychedelic track at the end of Blues for Allah; “Slow Love” is proggy; and “Nobody Dies Anymore” is sweet and folky without turning into a worn pair of Wranglers. Perhaps Spencer Tweedy’s inventive and energetic drumming reinvigorated his dad. Or maybe, faced with the prospect of losing his wife to sickness, and feeling slightly stagnant in middle age, Tweedy decided to dig back in and fight against all the things out of his control by making a record where he left it all on the table. He didn’t leave everything on the table, but he definitely sounds alive and engaged creatively, which gives me immense hope for the next Wilco record—whenever it comes out.

8. St. Vincent – St. Vincent (2014)

I liked St. Vincent’s previous records, but I truly loved this one. Strange Mercy had some excellent songs (“Cheerleader”, “Cruel”), but so much of the instrumentation on that album seemed to be superfluous. There were excellent melodies at the hearts of the songs, but they were too obscured by all the window dressing, as interesting as it was. Here, a song with a gorgeous melody like “Prince Johnny”—an example of a prime era Madonna ballad if I’ve ever heard it—is given the space to provide the listener with its full effect. There are plenty of sonic treats (the fuzzy guitar and quiet, busy keyboard in the background of “Prince Johnny”) but they don’t get in the way of the meat of the songs.  “I Prefer Your Love ” is allowed to soar and then coo without any unnecessary sounds getting in the way. It is a beautiful, smart song delivered with a confident vocal that would have been a huge hit in 1995. Conversely, “Digital Witness” is a straight up banger with the sexiest sound (St. Vincent’s bored delivery of “yeah” in every verse) and the most poignant lyrics (“If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me / What’s the point in doing anything?”) I heard all year.

Then, there is the gem at the end of the record—“Severed Crossed Fingers.” This is songwriting in the grandest tradition. The melody is simple, stirring and slightly melancholy. There is a timelessness to the construction of the song despite the production (which is certainly great, don’t get me wrong), which begs for completely different (perhaps even better?) cover versions in the years to come.

7. John Lennon and Yoko Ono – Milk and Honey (1983)

In case you missed it, I wrote a rather long love letter to this album over at The Nervous Breakdown, so you can read my full and elaborate take on the merits of this posthumous Lennon release on that fine website. However, in this space, I just want to mention (succinctly!) that this record is criminally overlooked and may just be the third best Lennon solo studio record. Oh, fine, you want the rankings? Here you go:

Not counting pre-Beatles breakup releases.

  1. Plastic Ono Band
  2. Imagine
  3. Milk and Honey
  4. Walls and Bridges
  5. Double Fantasy
  6. Mind Games
  7. Rock and Roll

There. Feel free to argue with me whenever you like.

6. Wings – Wild Life (1972)

I’ve written extensively about solo Paul McCartney and the importance this album’s aesthetic plays into his overall approach on his solo career, so I’m not going to belabor the point here. All I want to say is that this album was a huge part of my year this year and that I swear if you listen to the title track enough it will come to have some kind of significant meaning to you even though it is ostensibly about having a picnic in the park and feeding the animals at the zoo. The hypnotic guitar playing and keyboards, Paul’s vocals ranging from nasty to sweet, from wailing to creaking will arrest you at one time or another. It is a strange and unique song, in all of its “feigned ordinariness.”

5. D’Angelo and the Vanguard – Black Messiah (2014)

C’mon, you didn’t think I was going to leave this album off the list did you? I’m on the bandwagon just like everybody else! From the Around the World In A Day pop of “TheCharade,” to the James Booker soul of “Sugah Daddy,” to the Parliament Funkadelic scratch and balm on “1000 Deaths,” all the way to “Adore”-copping “Another Life” this was one of the best records of the year without a doubt.

4. Hamilton Leithauser – Black Hours (2014)

Hamilton Leithauser and the Walkmen hold an odd place in recent rock history. Ostensibly, they made cool music. The last three Walkmen albums were all critically acclaimed and regarded as excellent additions to the rock canon. Yet, what does it matter to be a part of the rock canon anymore? And is making sturdy, longing rock and roll even cool at all? Sure, people remember “The Rat”, but is banging down a door something people value anymore when they can just as easily tell someone off via text, Twitter or Tinder?

This all sounds codgery, but I’m genuinely curious. I love the Walkmen and think they and their lead singer Hamilton Leithauser are cool, but Black Hours is not a cool album by any stretch. It’s full of swooning strings and Hamilton alternately indulging in his Nilsson predilections (“The Silent Orchestra” and “St. Mary’s County”), trying his best at some kind of Sinatra crooning (“5 AM”) being boosted to Beatlesque heights (“Alexandra”) and then leaning back into the classic Walkmen stagger (“I Don’t Need Anyone”) and fall (“Bless Your Heart”).

In the end, I think it all comes back to what people wrote about Heaven when it came out in 2012: this is the sound of a man (not a whole band this time) coming to terms with his place in life. He doesn’t care if he’s cool now or if he was cool then. All that seems to matter is that, as the album’s best track, “I Retired”, explains, he doesn’t even remember what he was fighting for, but as long he can keep the train a-rolling, then all of his friends will know they’ll never be alone.

I can relate to that, especially as I listen to my favorite track, “The Smallest Splinter,” and feel my heart swooning in a way that only music that Hamilton Leithauser has a hand in can make it swoon.

3. The Men ­– Tomorrow’s Hits (2014)

The verdict on this record was that it was the album where The Men jumped the shark. They had made too many albums in too short a span of time. They had progressed too far into the center, too far away from their thrash rock beginnings and into the queasy territory of classic rock. The tracks were too polished and lacked their trademark messiness and energy.

Well, I don’t know what record everyone was listening to, but Tomorrow’s Hits is the best pure rock record that I have heard since either Is This It? or Elephant. And, to be honest, as a true document of rock at its simplest, at its most ragged but enjoyable and tuneful, this record might even be better.  The drums sound like they are going to fall over, but not before the boys up front get to hit those last few harmonies on “Dark Waltz.” “Another Night,” with its riotous saxophones, would have fit right in with early 70’s Stones or Faces or late 80’s Replacements. Speaking of the Replacements, “Different Days” sounds like a song Mark Westerberg would have written to fit on the first half of Let It Be. Meanwhile, “Pearly Gates” with its guitars that sound like horns (and also the horns in the background) seems like an outtake from Funhouse.  And then there’s “Settle Me Down”, which very well could have been my favorite ballad of the year.  Even if I’m being bold in making that value assessment based on an internal merit system that I’m making up as I go along, nevertheless, “Settle Me Down” managed to cool my hot blood every time I listened to it, which was a lot.

The Men can jump a million more sharks as far as I’m concerned.

2. War on Drugs – Lost In The Dream (2014)

This album has been at or near the top of almost all the Year End lists that came out over the past few weeks. It was probably my favorite record of the year until I recently, and suddenly, realized it wasn’t. The merits of this album have been enumerated many times. How it simultaneously revels in its influences—Don Henley, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, random 80’s Dylan gems—and yet stands as an artistic statement on its very own terms. There are the dreamy, synthy textures; the noodling extended guitar jams, the driving choruses and the whiny, slightly wise classic rock vocals on the verses. It is an Album with a capital A.

But what I’ll remember most about the Lost In The Dream is how I loved it immediately. How, one night I went to an event that a beer brand was throwing; a kind of event that occurs in New York every night of the week, in multiple incarnations at various locations in the very same night—always with some promise of a celebrity appearance. I got buzzed and left the event and walked determinedly out into the night with Lost In The Dream on my iPhone. It was March and snow was gently swirling over lower Manhattan, turning the world copper and black and magenta. I had a date with a girl I had met at a bar (not like that!) and whom I liked a lot. I walked with the music in my ears, my heart throbbing with expectation, romance and hope. With my pea coat collar pulled up and “Red Eyes”, “Burning”, and “An Ocean Between the Waves” echoing through my skull I felt like a rich man. I looked at other people walking, shielding their eyes from the snow and felt an arrogant sense of pity. Sure, their lives were probably great. Sure, their lives might have been shitty and filled with problems and I felt empathy for those people in the sorrow that I imagined for them. But they didn’t have a date with the girl I was going to see.

I saw the girl and we had a good date. We kissed in the snow. Some weeks later she told me she didn’t want to see anyone seriously. She was overwhelmed with work and she was just looking for friends. I told her she seemed like a good person and she could call me sometime if she wanted. She hasn’t.

But in any case, a few weeks later, I was driving with one of my best friends up the long winding road to Jay Peak in Vermont to meet another one of our best friends. Lost In The Dream was playing loud over the car’s speakers and as the last slushy remnants of snow passed outside, as we got higher toward the ski lodge and the peaks of Vermont spread out in front of us, the album was just as good.

1. Gruff Rhys – American Interior (2014)

In a somewhat of a shocker, Gruff Rhys’ solo album, American Interior was my favorite album of the year. When the album was first released in the summer, I listened to it and liked it a lot, but I didn’t give it the full attention it deserved. It has only been over the past two months or so when I have listened to it at least once every other day that I realized that it was without a doubt the record that meant the most to me this year.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the Super Furry Animals ever since I latched onto Rings Around the World when I was sixteen. While American Interior retains certain parts of the SFA ethos, it is so much more than that. Simultaneously austere and bursting with sonic ideas, the album breaks down and rebuilds Americana through a little known bit of Welsh/American history—as well as an outsider’s take on America and its musical history.

“100 Unread Messages” is part early 70’s Grateful Dead, part ’64 Beach Boys and part Ringo belting “Don’t Pass Me By.” Meanwhile, “The Last Conquistador” is at one moment vague American Myth tied to a synthesized Billy Joel melody before suddenly veering into effervescent 90’s Britpop. “The Swamp” has perhaps the most heartbreaking, melancholy chorus—with lyrics that anyone can misappropriate for their own internal sorrow—since “Jealous Guy.” And the closing duo of “Year of the Dog” and “Tiger’s Tale” is film as music. It is the epic, bittersweet rolling piano movement that sees our protagonist bow slightly and exit the picture—maybe not into some picturesque sunset with flares in the lens; maybe not into the crowd beneath a well-shot New York City skyline with the Brooklyn Bridge in the foreground; but into a landscape that is something new unique.

In a year where America has been forced to face its own ugly past and realize that the racism and fundamental human flaws at the core of this country remain all too real, it makes some kind of odd sense that a Welshman observing and navigating the lesser known corridors of North American history would strike a chord in me. America has problems on its exterior; violent, possibly unsolvable issues that can’t be ignored. However, our interior may be far worse. We have a President who seems to only represent himself, a power-hungry out of touch majority in Congress, a meaningless measure of a healthy economy that seems more and more like a rising video game score with each passing month, and an ugliness and distrust among the races that is once again proving to be an ugly, but inescapable part of our DNA. Like the exterior, the problems on our interior may not be solvable either. But at least here, we know of what we speak and maybe we can do some work to improve. If not, then there will be no American exterior to worry about.


And I’m glad that an album by Gruff Rhys of all people both helped remove me from these problems and look at them in a different light. Putting me on the verge of tears even as I listened to “The Swamp” for the 100th time and didn’t know who or what I was even feeling sad or sorry for.

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