It’s that time of year again where I put on my thinking cap, revisit many albums I’ve bought and listened to over the year, and figure out which ones I loved the most. This is always so hard as I know there are records I haven’t had a chance to listen to enough or didn’t give them a fair shake first time around. I know had I had more time with them they would’ve made the cut. But hey, those are the albums that get re-discovered in years to come and are adored by me and my ears(yes, my ears are entities unto themselves.) But I can’t worry about those albums at the moment. Right now, I’ve got a list to create. Normally I hem haw around trying to finalize those top three records, but not this year. This year those top three were easy picks for me. It’s everything after those top three that were the real pains in the arse. Enough of that damn hem hawing, let’s get down to it. 1. Boards of Canada : Tomorrow’s Harvest – Electronic music can be a tricky beast to keep tame yet adventurous for the long haul. Only a few have been able to grow old(er) gracefully. Brothers Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin have been Boards of Canada since the late 80s. After an incredible run of albums from 1995 to 2005, the brothers disappeared into the ether. Then as if they’d never left Tomorrow’s Harvest appears and makes everything right in the world. Not only are Boards of Canada growing old gracefully, they’re doing it without changing the formula that made them so great. Eerie synths, crackling break beats, and sampled voices roam the halls of Tomorrow’s Harvest like familiar ghosts. There’s the feeling of a post-apocalyptic world where the sun shines only just before the worst is about to happen. Tomorrow’s Harvest is nearly transcendent in mood and palpable in it’s aural texture. It doesn’t feel like the boys got bored and decided to scratch that nostalgia itch. It feels like two masters getting their groove back. 2. My Bloody Valentine : mbv – Loveless dropped in 1991 like some hazy, drugged-out erotic nightmare in which you’re having the most intense physical experience with another human being, all the while being lovingly slashed with a straight razor. It was the ultimate feeling of pain and pleasure. Countless guitarists gnawed off their fingernails attempting to replicate what Kevin Shields did on that monumental, and truly game changing record. The most famous guitarist to ache and mope over recreating the magic of Loveless? Kevin Shields. Guess what? After 22 years Mr. Shields found the right combination of pedals and just the right bend in his wrist to make that tremolo arm create the aural magic once again. mbv isn’t a retread or remake. It’s merely a return to that warped beautiful purple noise that engulfed our ear holes back before Andy Bell took orders from those Gallagher clowns. It’s Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher weaving their dreamy whispers and hypnotic Fenders into a maudlin, Escher-like aural painting that we can get lost in once again. mbv is hopefully a new chapter for which we don’t have to wait another 22 years to see how things turn out.
3. Atoms For Peace : Amok –
In terms of growers, Amok was the the king of grower albums for me this year. At first listen, you think of Radiohead’s crazy run-ins with Four Tet and Flying Lotus-like musical experiments since early 2000. You also think of Thom Yorke’s 2006 The Eraser
, albeit more intricately woven and created. But you’d be wrong to write this record off as yet another chance for Thom Yorke to do his epileptic dances in more strange videos. Upon repeated listening you begin to hear those intricate beats more clearly, the Flea-created bass runs that feel more like the true backbone to these songs. The skeleton upon which Yorke and producer/evil genius Nigel Godrich slap the meat and fat made by drummer Joey Waronker and percussionist Mauro Refosco onto. The electronic music is more or less a side note with this record. This is a players album. This is heady, dense, dance music for the apocalypse,
is more Remain In Light
than Everything Ecstatic
. Yorke and Godrich playing ambiguous deities in the control room, cutting and pasting hours of jam sessions into dark, groove-filled psychedelia. Davis and Macero would be proud.
4. Unknown Mortal Orchestra : II –
Ruban Nielson put out his second album as Unknown Mortal Orchestra way back at the beginning of 2013. I listened to it attentively as I was in awe of the first single “Swim and Sleep(Like a Shark)”, a melancholy pop song that showed Mr. Nielson had quite a few more tricks up his sleeve than first thought on his debut album. II
didn’t grab you as much as lull you. It’s the kind of record that begs for repeated listening before it bores into your brain and infects your very soul. Over the course of the year this album has been played ample times and I’m very confident in saying that Unknown Mortal Orchestra are bound for greatness. There’s a technical side to Nielson’s guitar playing that when you pay close attention you begin to feel small in its greatness. But on the other side there’s so much soul in the songs on this excellent sophomore effort that you can enjoy the fluid guitar playing as if they’re merely a fluttering melody working towards bettering the song and not the artist’s ego. There’s jams(“One at a Time”), baroque pop(“Swim and Sleep(Like a Shark) and “The Opposite of Afternoon”), R&B slow jams(“So Good at Being in Trouble”), and heady psych(“Monki”). II
is gritty, grainy, and at times near perfect.
5. Youth Lagoon : Wondrous Bughouse
– A wondrous bughouse, indeed. Trevor Powers left the comfort of his little bedroom studio for something more spacious and bright. His debut as Youth Lagoon was an intimate record that was a singer/songwriter affair combined with lo-fi hip hop beats. The result was the feeling you had stumbled upon someones audio diary, their pain and hope displayed for all to hear. With Wondrous Bughouse
Powers enlisted producer Ben H. Allen and together they’ve created one of the most dizzying, technicolor pop albums this year. Not a space went empty on this album as Allen is a master of making big-sounding records(see Deerhunter and Washed Out.) But the production is only part of it, as Powers writes truly inspiring songs. There’s an intimacy and naked vulnerability in his songs that no one else seems to capture these days. The bigness and overstuffed grandeur on this record only serves to create this imaginary world that’s part H.R. Pufnstuf, Nickelodeon, and existential crisis. It’s a trip worth taking.
6. White Hills : So You Are, So You’ll Be
– White Hills’ Dave W and Ego Sensation are some of the hardest working folks in psych rock these days. A year hasn’t gone by since 2009 that the New York psych/space/drone rock outfit hasn’t released an album; whether it be a full length or e.p. And each time out they never disappoint. Dave W likes to keep things moving. He likes to evolve the sound of White Hills so that you’re never bored as a listener. They go from Sabbath-like riffs to droning, motorik beats, to ambient tracks that sound like they could’ve been used as a score for some German expressionist film from the 60s. There’s more going on than strobe lights, acid freakouts, and fuzz pedals.
So You Are, So You’ll Be continues to evolve the White Hills canon to higher highs, heavier riffs, and an overall feeling that Dave W and Ego Sensation have found and locked into a musical groove. At times this record feels minimalist in concept, with some tracks feeling like bee swarm buzzes and late night TV fuzz you woke up to when your mom or dad fell asleep in the living room after the late show(yes, there was a time when television wasn’t on 24/7.) There’s a ‘Creature Feature’ vibe to the record, even down to the strange album cover. But that monster in your closet really wasn’t a monster. It was a portal to somewhere else. Some other time. So You Are, So You’ll Be is the Tardis, and Dave W is the next Doctor. Buy the ticket, take the ride.
7. Deerhunter : Monomania – Bradford Cox has been angry for a long time it seems. His albums as Deerhunter have morphed from razor-sliced menace to cool(but not cold) clockwork-like precision. There’s always been a gutter punk, bloody fist bravado in everything he’s done, even in the ambient drones he played for us on Cryptograms
. And even when he morphed his pained howl into a warm croon on 2010s Halcyon Digest and Atlas Sound’s Parallax
in 2011(complete with slicked back hair and old style microphone on the album cover)you still got the impression that Cox could snap at any moment. Monomania
is Cox and Deerhunter giving into their Stooges tendencies and just tearing shit up. Twelve tracks of unadulterated gutter rock and post-punk jagged stabs, the album moves along like a succession of punches to the abdomen and face, all the while consoling you after each direct hit. A perfect aural concoction of pain and ragged, bloody beauty.
8. Yo La Tengo : Fade – So after almost 30 years being the band to aspire to in indie rock, what does a band like Yo La Tengo do? Rest on their laurels? Put out that breakthrough record with some shitty hit making producer? Go through the motions and crap out another hot loaf retread of one of their classic albums from 20 years ago? Hell no. In fact, Yo La Tengo have never done that. Since 1990 Ira Caplan, Georia Hubley, and James McNew have put stellar record after stellar record out. With the exception of Summer Sun
-that at times felt a bit tired in spots- Yo La Tengo albums have evolved and kept their albums intriguing by giving us glimpses of their love for music. A love so palpable that each record seemed like a love letter to the bands that inspired and motivated Caplan and company. Fade
is yet another entry into the musical journal of Yo La Tengo. “Ohm”, “Stupid Things”, and “Before We Run” are beginning, middle and end of this beautiful, meditative record. In between those songs, you’ll find gritty jangle, Brill Building pop, and folksy acoustic strumming coming together to form one of the best 45 minutes of music you’ll hear this year.
9. Medicine : To The Happy Few – I think there’s quite a few folks out there that don’t even know who Medicine is. Up until a year ago I didn’t. Some band on ‘The Crow’ soundtrack? Oh, okay. After snagging their American Recordings debut Shot Forth Self Living
and the follow-up, the decidedly noise pop masterpiece The Buried Life
, I realized I missed out back in the early 90s while I was wallowing in post-Grunge bloat. These records were well ahead of the curve when it came to using coarse noise and blown-out drums blasts, along with that boy/girl vocal intertwining that brought to mind the Shields/Butcher vibe. Brad Laner was the key to this band. He had a vision. A vision where 60s pop and 90s drug haze came together to create something harsh yet beautiful. After many years of silence the original three members of Medicine including Laner, Beth Thompson, and Jim Goodall, reunited for the reissuing of their first two records. Things went so well that the three quickly began writing new songs and within a year had written To The Happy Few
. What could’ve turned into a nostalgia fest and bandwagon jerk off actually became a re-awakening for a band that never got the attention they so deserved. To The Happy Few
is a triumphant return for a band we never knew left. Step aside kiddos and see how it’s really done.
10. The Flaming Lips : The Terror – For the last 5 years Wayne Coyne and the rest of his band of merry pranksters in The Flaming Lips have been playing the role of blood-soaked and acid-burnt fairy tale ghouls. They’ve created this world soundtracked by skronky keyboards, fuzzy bass, and cartoon-ish guitar noise that is child-like and nightmarish all at once. A mix of Can, electric Miles, and, well, The Flaming Lips, Embryonic
started this ‘TMI’ phase of the Lips that is both wonderful and horrible all at once. Through countless collaborations and covered classic albums, as well as gummy vaginas and chocolate skulls made with Coyne’s bone marrow and Steve Drozd’s spinal fluid, the band have tested the boundaries of artistic expression and the listening public’s patience. With The Terror
, it seems the goofy, disheveled Uncle Wayne is tired and can’t pretend he’s cool with the world anymore. This album is dark, forboding, and towering; like some chromed-out giant looming over our collective heads warning of future sorrow and past sins coming back to bite us in the proverbial ass. The synths remain, but the playful jam vibe is replaced with a robotic groove. Uncle Wayne has traded his ringleader Miles vibe for a shaky Alan Vega, and it’s the most real Coyne has felt since 1999.
11. No Joy : Wait To Pleasure 12. Earthless : From The Ages 13. The Besnard Lakes : Until in Excess, Imperceptible UFO 14. Deafheaven : Sunbather 15. Ducktails : The Flower Lane 16. Beaches : She Beats 17. NIN : Hesitation Marks 18. The Knife : Shaking The Habitual 19. Kurt Vile : Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze 20. Diana : Perpetual Surrender
1. Unknown Mortal Orchestra : “Swim and Sleep(Like a Shark)”
2. Yo La Tengo : “Ohm”
3. My Bloody Valentine : “She Found Now”
4. No Joy : “Hare Tarot Lies”
5. NIN : “Copy of A”
6. The Flaming Lips : “You Lust”
7. Atoms for Peace : “Ingenue”
8. Youth Lagoon : “Pelican Man”
9. Deerhunter : “Back to the Middle”
10. Beck : “Defriended”
Let me know what you like this year. What’s been burning up your turntable, CD player, or iPod? Drop me a line.