The theme for this year is: “It’s great to have talented friends.” Here are my Top 5 albums of 2014, in no particular order:
This record hits home on a couple levels. I, of course, am from Cincinnati. And this album is my brother’s project. One of the many things he and I share is a fascination with a sense of place. That idea is inherent to this project. My brother Isaac rode around Cincinnati with a friend and recorded “natural” drones. These field recordings were then given to a variety of other Cincinnati musicians and artists to use as a foundation to make a new piece. Each piece is named for the source of the drone. The original field records were released as a companion disc Cincinnati Drones. Both of these albums are atmospheric and transfixing. And if you think I’m just giving props to my brother, check out all of the good reviews this project has received. This was on heavy rotation this year. Incidentally, my brother’s musical contribution is track 11, as a part of the band Hmmmm.
The 80’s get a lot of shit for some bad music that came out in that time. While that is a gross oversimplification, I get it. Turing the reverb on the drums to ’11’, layers and layers of synths, and the outfits. The plastic plastic outfits…That said, there obviously was something to the zeitgeist. Guitarist and songwriter Adam Granduciel was clearly keying in on some of the best sounds out of the 80’s on Lost In The Dream. The layered guitars, krautrock beats, and smooth psychedelia found on 2011’s Slave Ambient are still there, but Granduciel is clearly playing with textures on Lost In The Dream. If there is a fault to be found on this record, like many Ryan Adams songs, it may be that some of his influences show a little too much. This doesn’t bother me, but it can sometimes take you out of the mood or feel they create on this record. I feel like Slave Ambient was a much more unique sound. You can hear some Tom Petty, some Dire Straits, A LOT of Dylan in his vocal delivery….And on more than one song, god help me, you can hear Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” on more than one track, particularly the opener. And I have to say, that’s not a bad thing. I hate The Eagles, and most of their solo projects are worse. Maybe it’s that I grew up in the 80’s, but I have a soft spot for that song. I’m grateful for The War on Drugs for taking that sound and running with it…..And you’ve gotta love the bari sax on this record.
Chicago’s Angela James came onto my radar the last few years when my friend, drummer Charles Rumback, started playing drums with her. I think I first heard her music from this video by Coach House Sounds. Not only was I glad to see my friends Anthony Burton (bass) and Justin Brown (pedal steel (one of 2!!)) back playing together, and with Rumback’s drumming no less, but the music is just so good! And there are 2, count them- 2, pedal steels on those songs. I was so looking forward to a full-length release. Way Down Deep doesn’t disappoint. There are so many good things on this record, from the performances to the engineering and mixing by Chicago’s Nick Broste. The first three songs are a perfect sample of why this album is so good. While James’ voice is certainly all her own, right from the opener, ‘Halo’ recalls Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette backed by a contemporary band. ‘Drink and Try Not to Cry’, the second cut, may have my favorite lyrics in recent memory and be my favorite song this year- and it’s sung so heartachingly beautiful: “So I’ll drink and I’ll try not to cry tonight / Cause whiskey never did me wrong / And I’ll make my bed at the bottom of a bottle / And sleep like a baby tonight / Yes I’ll make my bed at the bottom of a bottle / And won’t think of my baby tonight.” Jason Stein’s bass clarinet and the horn washes at the end are just some of Broste’s wonderful subtle touches to Way Down Deep. The third track is where Way Down Deep truly blows my mind, it’s a horn-only composition written by Rumback…..!!!…..The fourth track, “Lost and Found” starts out as a lovely bedroom recording and builds to a haunting and tense crescendo full of wonderful layered vocals. The chorus promises to get stuck in your head. While I could tout each song one by one, I’ll just finish up with how seamless the blending of the live versions of “I Should’ve Known” and the title cut “Way Down Deep” fit in with the rest of the record- and I love the slushy sound the car passing by on the latter.
A lot of old-school “fans” of Yoni Wolf and WHY? have asked when Yoni was ever going to “get back to hip-hop.” While that has never been a concern for me (nor is it any of my business, it’s his music), I do have some fond memories seeing Yoni at Top Cat’s and Scribble Jam in rap battles back in the day. In May, Yoni dropped Old Dope (Rap Tape) on limited edition cassette and digital download. Old Dope is comprised of songs from spanning Yoni’s career from cLOUDDEAD, Reaching Quiet, and Hymie’s Basement to WHY?’s last few records. This album is an amalgam of great songs with a completely fresh sound. Nothing in the realm of hip-hop has sounded this good since cLOUDDEAD and Reaching Quiet- because nothing sounds like them. For some reason I’m not normally attracted to remix albums. Maybe it’s because I am used to the way a song sounds and want to hear the version with which I’m familiar- or maybe it’s because the remixer may not have as much invested in the song as the original artist. Old Dope somehow affect me that way. The beats are fresh and driving. And did he remix The Pharcyde on that song? Yes he did.
1. Wussy – Attica!
If you’re just hearing about Attica! from this writing, you must’ve been taking an internet-hiatus. The fifth album by Cincinnati’s Wussy has been on everyone’s Best-Ofs for the year, from Greg Kot to Robert Christgau, and rightly so. I’m not sure if it’s the songs on this album in particular (the first four were stellar in my opinion…..and Robert Christgau’s), or the fact that Wussy has been busting their collective asses since Chuck and Lisa met….Maybe it’s the addition of steel-guitarist John Erhardt? I don’t know. Either way some fine representatives of Cincinnati have done good, and are getting some recognition for it. Attica! is a bit of a departure in some ways from Wussy’s earlier efforts; the acoustic element is somehow more prominent as on “Acetylene” and “Halloween.” But Attica! is also a refining of what they’ve been honing since Funeral Dress: secret-weapon Mark Messerly’s multi-instrumental additions are all over Attica!, and the rhythm section of Messerly and Joe Klug are delicate and bombastic where need be. And while they’ve been wrongly labelled alt-country in the past, they’re going to have to do a little more to outrun the country-music references with the prominent mandolins and steel-guitar, which have really been there all along on past records- they’re just used differently than in a traditional country song. Erhardt’s contributions are largely textural guitar washes which adds to Wussy’s unique sound. And that’s what I love about them and this record; Chuck or Lisa will write a somewhat traditional song and then they’ll pull it apart and piece it back together with spit and sweat and raw and dirty textures over a humdinger of a love-song. Favorite cuts are “Home”, the aforementioned “Acetylene”, “North Sea Girls”, and “Beautiful.” But no one, and I mean no one, has caught what it sounds like to be so wholly moved by a song as much as Lisa has with “Teenage Wasteland.” I am brought back to my teen years listening to songs on repeat ad nauseum. And since this could always bear more viewing, check out this live recording.
As always, I have to break my Top-5 limit. These albums are just as good as the ones above, but I either got them late in the year or they didn’t quite get the number of repeat plays the Top-5 did.
Me Or The Moon / eponymous – This one only didn’t make the Top 5 because I’ve not yet picked up my copy from Matt. I got some rough mixes a few years ago after it was recorded, and it’s amazing. When I first saw Me Or The Moon, it was just Matt Shelton and upright bassist Victor Strunk. It was intimate, poignant, and like nothing I’ve ever seen before. On this album they’ve expanded to a quartet. Wussy’s Joe Klug plays keys, vibes, and percussion and also recorded this album. Cincinnati jazz drumming staple Tony Franklin adds another percussive layer. Get yourself a copy while you still can. There is a limited run of artwork made by Matt Shelton and Victor Strunk.
Beck / Morning Phase – I was looking forward to this release as soon as the comparisons to Sea Change started being made. I thought the last few Beck albums were all just fine, but nothing special. This one is a step up, to be sure. But I think after multiple listens some of the popular criticisms are true. It’s a great sounding record. There are some beautiful songs on there. But the songwriting just doesn’t quite hold my interest from beginning to end. I don’t agree that it’s too happy or content as compared to Sea Change. I think it stands well on its own. As far as specific songs, there are some standouts, and like I said, I think it’s better than Modern Guilt (which I like, alright) and don’t even own The Information. But I’ve gone back to it a number of times- it just sounds so good.
Run The Jewels / Run The Jewels 2 – If you don’t know, you don’t know. I don’t know what else to say about this record that hasn’t already been said. The beats, man. The beats.
Tycho / Awake – I first heard of this album in an unlikely place: the Sunday morning music review on NPR Weekend Edition Sunday. I listen to NPR a lot, but they normally don’t introduce me to new music, I usually hear music I already know in new ways (Tiny Desk Concerts). This album is smooth and great driving music. It reminds me of the kind of music my friend Jason and I used to play together.
Maggie Björklund / Shaken – I accidentally came across this album looking for something else, and after hearing it, I cannot believe I’ve never her of her before. A Scandinavian woman pedal-steel guitarist playing an album that (somehow) at times sounds like Mark Sandman wrote it- with guest stars Mark Lanegan, Calexico and Giant Sand member- John Convertino, and Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner? Really? There almost hasn’t been a day since I got this record that I’ve not listened to it.
Angel Olsen / Burn Your Fire For No Witness – Edged out only ever so slightly by Angela James’ record above, Burn Your Fire For No Witness made its impression on the year. It was a pleasant surprise in the expansion of her sound. While I was a fan of earlier records, Olsen’s brassy Nancy Sinatra strut on “Forgiven/Forgotten” and “Hi-Five” is a welcome change. The sequencing on this album is strange, but I love it. My favorite cut is the album closer, “Windows.” How she can be the same singer on a song like “Hi-Five” as on “Windows” is a testament to her voice.
Ryan Adams / 1984 EP (Paxam Singles Series, Vol. 1) – Ryan Adams was clearly pulling out his old Replacements’ or Hüsker Dü albums while writing these songs. This EP seemingly came out of nowhere on a limited run. I heard about it in the blogosphere and was too slow in ordering a physical copy, but bought the digital version. Clearly, by the title of the EP, he’s referencing the sound of a certain time and place. This batch of songs is a next step from his album Rock N Roll, which I thought was ‘meh‘. But on 1984 I think he figured it out. This is Ryan Adams at his best. You can tell he’s really feeling these songs, even if there isn’t much variety among them. This EP was on heavy heavy rotation, and had it been a full-length would have made the Top 5. I didn’t hear Ryan Adams, but if it’s anything like this, I’m glad he’s back.
Under The Wire:
The Hiders / Totem – Bill Alletzhauser takes his band out to a cabin in the woods in the middle of January to record on this, the much-anticipated follow-up to 2012’s Temenos. Unfortunately, this album didn’t come out till just before Thanksgiving, and I was pretty busy and therefore didn’t get my copy until I was in town for Christmas. I think this is going to be on heavy repeat come 2015.
D’Angelo / Black Messiah – SUCH a good record. Probably would have made the Top 5 if it hadn’t come out two weeks before the end of the year. While I’d like to hear how it would have sounded when he planned on releasing it, it’s still pretty tight.
And there were so many more I missed, somehow. I was streaming every song I could find by St. Paul & The Broken Bones’ Half the City, and for some stupid reason never bought it. The same goes for the new releases by Sharon Van Etten, Wye Oak, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Lydia Loveless, Parquet Courts, Sun Kil Moon, and Spoon all of which looked like they were going to be good…That Protomartyr record also got my attention. I’ve liked what I’ve heard…..All in all, 2014 was a great year for music.
I’ve plugged this album so much in the last 18 months. As many of you knoe, in March my band, Labors, self-released our first full-length LP Blue Funk on vinyl and digital download. Blue Funk was a long time in the making- starting the demoing process at my Down The Rabbit Hole Recording and finishing the mix at Strobe Recording. Blue Funk was engineered by Jamie Wagner at Strobe Recording and mixed by Jim Becker at Strobe as well. The album was mastered by The Hiders‘ Billy Alletzhauser and Brian Moeller at The Batcave in Cincinnati. The making of this record was one of the best experiences of my life. I had so much fun being a part of bringing Zechariah’s songs to life and tracking them. I am really proud of how this record sounds. Everyone worked really hard to bring it to life and I think it’s a great record. We’re already starting to demo the follow-up album. Stay tuned.