Top 10 Albums of 2014

Before we launch into the list, I’m going to take a moment reiterate some points (somewhat verbatim) that I made about year end lists when writing about my 10 favorite Seattle albums of the year over at Seattle Met. I’ve seen a lot of chatter recently decrying the very concept of ranking artistic endeavors as a year winds down. The main ideas behind this stance seems to be twofold:

1. “Art isn’t supposed to be a competition.”

That’s true, but one has to have a pretty warped and jaded to view to see lists like this as any sort of competition. A list is simply a way to say, “Look at all the awesome stuff that came out this year. Check out what you may have missed.” I take ranking to be merely a way of saying, “If you have limited amount of time, I’d say check out #1 first, #2 second…” and so on. People usually spend more time complaining about what isn’t on a list then thinking about what made any given countdown. Viewed them celebrations of things that provided some moments of joy rather than tools of derision.

2. “There’s no objective way to rank what’s the best.”

Duh. All year end lists are based on personal (or group editorial) preferences and biases. For example, the list below is entirely comprised of rock music. That’s weird, but that’s just how it shook out this year. I wasn’t drawn to any traditional pop, hip-hop, electronic, or other genre records enough for them to make the cut in 2014 (Lorde and Caribou have topped recent year end lists, so I clearly have no bias against any of it). And that’s totally fine. It’s all objective. It’s always objective.

Posse - Soft Opening10. Soft Opening – Posse
Posse’s throwback slacker indie rock vibe calls to mind some of the best of the ’90s bands, but it feels like the band’s simply kicking dirt on the outskirts of those forefathers’ property rather than looking to move in. The relaxed instrumental worlds the band creates seem so effortlessly natural, which offers the perfect backdrop whenever Paul Witmann-Todd interjects with another detached, snarky lyrical line on tracks like “Shut Up” and “Zone.” Soft Opening is music that’s artfully laissez-faire.

S - Cool Choices9. Cool Choices – S
Cool Choices is the breakup album of the year by a mile. From the lip-quivering opening notes of “Losers” to the finale’s (“Let the Light In”) blunt declaration “This was how I thought I’d get over you / I’d write it all down like it makes this true / Let go of the things that you said to me / And now in the end we can feel so free,” S (aka Jenn Ghetto) explores all the lowest moments in the aftermath of a love gone sour. In order to get over it, Ghetto’s got to let out all the pain. Cool Choices is catharsis in action.

PAWS - Youth Culture Forever8. Youth Culture Forever – PAWS
On Youth Culture Forever, PAWS connects with the spirit of youth while dealing with the reality of no longer being a kid. It’s about the making it through rough patches of growing up without growing old in soul. Whether it’s decrying the false pretense of cool apathy in a snarling burst of punk (“Give Up”) or reflecting on the melancholic feelings of returning to your hometown over distant, weakly gripped chords (“YCF”), the album hashes out those universal moments of old friends, old flames, and the old bullshit they bring to the table.

Dude York - Dehumanize7. Dehumanize – Dude York
Charmingly bratty is a difficult persona to pull off, but Dude York makes it look easy on Dehumanize. With manic energy and a strong melodic sensibility the band rips through songs of love (“Hesitate”), disenchantment (“Dehumanize Yourself and Face To Bloodshed”), and nihilism (“Believer”) behind Peter Richards’s berserk vocals and guitar and Andrew Hall’s deftly rapid fire beats and fills (my favorite drumming performance of the year). The album captures a delightfully foolhardy sense of passion that begs for a little thrashing.

La Sera - Hour of the Dawn6. Hour of the Dawn – La Sera
La Sera’s Katy Goodman dreams of eternal summer, but inevitably the season fades. Hour of the Dawn finds La Sera floating though a sea of warm and dreamy surf pop musings centered around the freedom, love, and decay of summer. After the blistering vitriol on the opening track “Losing to the Dark,” the band settles into a carefree groove with a touch of shredding guitar edge. There’s joy to be found by bathing in the sunshine of songs like “Running Wild” and even “Hour of the Dawn” despite its lament, “Summertime was the time of my life / Now it’s the hour of the dawn.” Don’t worry Katy, much like anyone who gives this album a listen, it’ll return.

TacocaT - NVM5. NVM – TacocaT
NVM is quite simply the funnest album that came out in 2014 than NVM. TacocaT excels at crafting silly sugary pop punk tunes out of just about any topic, from drug-fueled birthdays (“Psychedelic Quinceanera”) to menstruation woes (“Crimson Wave”) to anarchist roommates (“This is Anarchy”) to Seattle being unable to handle inclement weather (“Snow Day”). The most serious the band gets on NVM comes in the form of the audio middle finger to catcallers that is “Hey Girl,” but the rest of the time the singer Emily Nokes is more content to let her anger and tambourine banging loose on things like the bus not showing up (“FU #8”). Rocking out to stoner pop has never felt so sweet.

jag246.111834. Burn Your Fire for No Witness – Angel Olsen
While it spends most of the time softly brooding, Burn Your Fire for No Witness is without a doubt the most brutal record of the year. Angel Olsen’s haunting voice and knife-twisting songwriting make each a song a gut-wrenchingly beautiful exercise in the cruelty of love. With unshakeable songs like “White Fire,” Burn Your Fire for No Witness makes the listener feel like a slow burning candle – each passing moment they melt even further until there’s nothing left and the flame extinguishes.

Sharon Van Etten - Are We There3. Are We There – Sharon Van Etten
When was the last time Sharon Van Etten wrote a song that wasn’t—at the absolute least—very good? That’s not a rhetorical question. Van Etten is a model of heart-wrenching songwriting consistency, and Are We There is another worthy entry in her impressive songbook. She struts through each track with a vet’s swagger, nailing each song’s necessary demeanor: Cooly confident on “Taking Chances, emotionally masochistic on “Your Love is Killing Me,” and breezily whimsical on “Every Time the Sun Comes Up.” Even when the songs are bummers, there’s undeniable bliss in listening to a master continue to perfect her craft.

St.Vincent - St. Vincent2. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
With each passing record, St. Vincent is getting slightly stranger (and slightly better). St. Vincent finds Annie Clark effortlessly gliding between electronic funk of “Rattlesnake,” angular guitar riff driven tunes like “Birth in Reverse,” the horn-heavy “Digital Witness,” and spacey ethereal odes like “Prince Johnny” and “Severed Crossed Fingers.” Her (non-severed) fingers remain ever skilled on the fretboard as she delivers her takes on the monotony of our mundane modern existence (being out on the road with David Byrne for a couple of years will do that to you). I always like to joke that Clark is a higher life form than us humans, but—considering St. Vincent is her most complete and cohesive record in an already sterling catalog—it might just actually be the truth.

Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria Blues1. Transgender Dysphoria Blues – Against Me!
If punk rock is supposed to give a voice to the brash, rebellious, maligned, and disenfranchised though unfettered aggression, then Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues might just be the most punk album ever. The record serves as Laura Jane Grace’s screamed declaration of arrival as an open and out transgender woman. Over the course of 10 unrelenting tracks, she says” “Here’s who I am, here are the insecurities I’ve dealt with all my life, and I’m gonna kick in the teeth of any bigot who get in my way.” Against Me! turns deeply personal explorations of transgender issue into catchy, anthemic sing-alongs and capture the heartbreaking anguish of being a true outsider.

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Top 10 Songs of 2014

These are songs I thought were cool this year.

10. “Give Up” – PAWS

The PAWS album Youth Culture Forever dwells on the insincerity of old relationships as people grow up and grow apart. “Give Up” tries to parse though the bullshit of facades of indifference in a two and a half minutes of pissed off punk brilliance propelled by Josh Swinney wicked drumming. Burn bright, young and reckless glory.

9. “Forgiven/Forgotten” – Angel Olsen

Much of Angel Olsen’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness employs a slow burning pace that allows her to meticulously melt listeners’ emotional innards. “Forgiven/Forgotten” provides an essential divination from that clip, speeding things up and allowing Olsen to get her fangs out and bite into your still beating heart. The ferocity in her delivery makes any proclaimed forgiveness seem like shaky footing, but there’s no choice but to dig your heals in and let her intensity wash over you.

8. “Hey Girl” – TacocaT

“Hey Girl” isn’t my favorite song off TacocaT’s awesome album NVM. In fact, there are probably four our five I like better (“This is Anarchy” and “F.U. #8” for sure. But throughout the year I kept finding myself sharing the anti-catcalling anthem the most. While there was (as always) lots of push back, I think 2014 was a significantly positive year as far as feminist awareness goes, and when discussions sprung up in person or online, I often found myself bring up the greatness of “Hey Girl.” Those I shared the song with greeted it with near universal approval. It seems reductive to label it a feminist “moment,” but however you choose to categorize this year’s strives to equality, TacocaT contributed in the most fun way possible. That counts for something.

7. “Taking Chances (Demo)” – Sharon Van Etten

The album version of “Taking Chances” from Are We There is superb in its own right, but there’s a haunting vintage air to Sharon Van Etten’s demo version that’s even more enthralling. The 7″ b-side has a feel of lo-fi distance that makes it sound like a track from some long forgotten 1930s gem. Van Etten coos like a ghost of a bygone era, giving the song an ever so slightly different emotional punch. It may not be polished, but goddamn it’s beautiful.

(Note: There was no version of the song online, so I had to crudely shoot this video myself. Hopefully it does the track a modicum of justice and doesn’t get pulled.)

6. “Everybody Knows” – Iska Dhaaf

There’s something ominous about the lead guitar riff in “Everybody Knows.” It’s consistently swirling overhead like the memory chopper blades above a long forgotten battlefield (this was the imagery in my head prior to the music video being release, which made said video strangely more creepy). Iska Dhaaf builds progressively more tension with each verse, and the momentary relief of the inescapably catchy choruses only offer a brief reprieve before more chaos breaks loose. It’s an artfully balanced rock song that can’t simply be hid in the recesses of the mind.

5. “Fallen Giants” – Kithkin

“Fallen Giants” is basically everything you need to know about the chattering forest indie rock of Kithkin distilled into 4 blisteringly energetic minutes. Cascading layers of floor percussion rhythms clash with frantic yelps and wailing guitar lines, Ian McCutcheon and Kelton Sears trade smoothly calm and wildly jittery vocal verses, and the whole thing ends in a ball of chaos. It’s so exhilarating that it’s almost exhausting.

4. “Bigger Party” – Speedy Ortiz

Rule #1 of a Speedy Ortiz party: Keep your friends close and Sadie Dupuis closer. While Speedy Ortiz followed up 2013’s Major Arcana this year with the Real Hair EP, the band’s best song came via Adult Swim’s free single series. “Bigger Party” is the poppiest Speedy Ortiz tune to date and Dupuis sly lyricism cuts sharp and she meta-laments “I only want to sing about murder in my songs / I have to use these metaphors just to say I like you” and delivers the hooky refrain with the hollow apology, “I’m sorry for the time that I made out with all your friends / I’m really a shithead.” It the perfect tune for a basement party she’d be sure to ruin.

3. “True Trans Soul Rebel” – Against Me!

“True Trans Soul Rebel” acts as Transgender Dysphoria Blues‘s, and by that token Laura Jane Grace’s, heartbreaking declaration of transgender arrival and defiance. While she get more personal regarding her own transsexual experience on other tracks, the poetic simplicity and poignancy of refrain of “Does God bless your transsexual heart? / True trans soul rebel” shows the authentic tattered heart of a fighter. And while that would be powerful in and of itself, the fact that she was able to turn those lines into an anthemic rock chorus that demands to be screamed along regardless of where you identify on the gender spectrum ingrains the song with power and serves as a testament to Grace’s songwriting skills.

2. “Losing to the Dark” – La Sera

Don’t neglect La Sera’s Katy Goodman and expect to get away unscathed. On “Losing to the Dark,” Goodman brims with confidence and eye-rolling sarcastic ire as she decries her lover’s rock and roll lifestyle (“How ’bout you write another song about how fun you are to drink with at the bar?”) and angelically quips “What a shame it must be to have to be in love with me.” The edge in her voice is bolstered further by the surrounding tones as guitarist Todd Wisenbaker shreds without abandon. It’s the a vicious takedown tied up in a pretty surf pop package.

1. “Cannibal” – Dude York

I’ve had the first 5 seconds of “Cannibal” stuck in my head all year and loved air drumming along with the downbeat playing in my head every time. The strength of the song is the leash-like control Dude York maintains; one moment the grip is loose as Peter Richards howls and guitar bends make a crazy scene, but with a quick yank things become taunt and instantly focused around Andrew Hall’s drum beats. It’s an invigorating audio tug of war that’s yet to grow old.

Top 10 Albums of 2012 Revisited

Now, Now - ThreadsAs is my yearly tradition prior to posting my top 10 albums list, I look back at my top album from the previous year and tweak it with things I missed or ended up growing on me. Looking back on 2012, there’s one album that was on the list that jumped a few spots, and new entrants barely knocked out the previous slot holders at the list’s bottom.

The Original Top 10 Albums of 2012

1. Celebration Rock – Japandroids
2. Negotiations – The Helio Sequenc
3. History Speaks – Deep Sea Diver
4. Threads – Now, Now
5. Fear Fun – Father John Misty
6. The Heist – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
7. Tramp – Sharon Van Etten
8. Touch Screens – Erik Blood
9. On the Impossible Past – The Menzingers
10. North – Stars

The Updated Top 10 Albums of 2012

1. Celebration Rock – Japandroids
2. Threads – Now, Now
3. Negotiations – The Helio Sequence
4. History Speaks – Deep Sea Diver
5. Fear Fun – Father John Misty
6. The Heist – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
7. Tramp – Sharon Van Etten
8. We Don’t Even Live Here – P.O.S.
9. The Kaleidoscope – Lemolo
10. Visions – Grimes

Top 10 Albums of 2012

Stars - North10. Stars – The North

Compared to previous Stars records, The North is positively joyous. Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan’s dual vocal attack remains as tight as ever, but there’s more hope in the words they’re singing. The instrumentals are also more upbeat with shimmering indie pop backings being boosted by deep groves. It’s a sweet collection of love songs that begs listeners to sway along.

Menzingers - Impossible Past9. The Menzingers – On the Impossible Past

The Menzingers is the band I thought I was getting when people first started raving to me about The Gaslight Anthem. The music wonderfully blends an angry punk sound with lyrics the pine for the elusive American dream in a way that’s Springsteen-esque. On the Impossible Past fiercely kicks off with “Good Things,” one of the year’s best songs, and barrels full steam ahead from there.

Erik Blood - Touch Screens8. Erik Blood – Touch Screens

Touch Screens is the classiest, most polished filth of the year. Erik Blood’s ode to pornography mixes a variety of guitar-driven rock styles while (naughtily) touching on everything from porn star biographies (“The Lonesome Death of Henry Paris”) to selecting a daily dose of smut (“Today’s Lover”) to the complexities of porn actor’s relationships away from the job (“Share Your Love”). Each song is fine tuned with the deft production skills that have made made Blood one of the go-to producers in the Seattle scene. Touch Screens may leave you feeling dirty, but it’s too pleasurable to deny.

Sharon Van Etten - Tramp7. Sharon Van Etten – Tramp

There’s beauty in stability. Sharon Van Etten wasn’t shy about letting her personal pain spill out on her first couple records, but Tramp finds her exploring music with a new sense of poise. It’s much more of a full rock record than her previous efforts and the fleshed out sound shines on songs like “Magic Chords” and “Warsaw.” While her words can pack an emotional, cutting punch (“Serpents”), its pleasant to see that Van Etten has found some personal peace of mind.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis - The Heist6. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – The Heist

After spending years of honing their craft and slowly building their brand, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis finally delivered their breakthrough record. Macklemore is equally deft at deft at delivering swagger (“Thrift Shop,” “Can’t Hold Us”) and vulnerable reflections (“Same Love,” “Neon Cathedral”) and Ryan Lewis’s sample-free compositions help The Heist have a feel that’s distinctly it’s own. When you add a host of terrific guest choruses (Allen Stone, Mary Lambert, and more) to that mix, the result is the most solidly diverse hip-hop album of the year.

Father John Misty - Fear Fun5. Father John Misty – Fear Fun

No one bombastically burst onto the scene in 2012 quite like Father John Misty did. Fear Fun is a wildly entertaining drug-fueled ride through L.A.’s underbelly in a manner that would’ve made Jim Morrison proud. Whether he’s dwelling on darkness (“Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings”), the tragic absurdity of art (“Now I’m Learning to Love the War”), or the chemical substances in his system (“I’m Writing a Novel”), FJM does so with a sly sense of humor and bravado. It’s a throwback rock album that revels in how silly the very idea of a throwback rock album is.

Now, Now - Threads4. Now, Now – Threads

With the aide of producer Chris Walla, Now, Now found its tonal sweet spot on Threads. Everything the band did well on previous records is distilled into an immensely accessible album full of superb vocal and guitar harmonies and unintrusive drum beats. And while the band still excels at slow jams (“School Friends,” ), it’s also great to hear the band unabashedly rock out for once (“Thread”).

Deep Sea Diver - History Speaks3. Deep Sea Diver – History Speaks

While Deep Sea Diver frontwoman Jessica Dobson served a stint as The Shins’ lead guitarist this year, her own band’s first LP History Speaks was clearly her crowning achievement in 2012. The album bursts with lively energy while blending melodically tight guitar rockers (“Ships,” “You Go Running”) and piano pop ballads (“NWO”). The entire package is crisp, clean, and undeniably hooky. One listen to History Speaks and you’ll be humming the melodies for days to come.

The Helio Sequence - Negotations2. The Helio Sequence – Negotiations

With each passing album, The Helio Sequence’s music has become more focused on atmosphere and flow. Drummer Benjamin Weikel’s synth backings now feature much more open sonic space and frontman Brandon Summers’s guitar work also no longer forces the issue. As a result, the band keeps getting better and better. Negotiations almost feels more like a single composition featuring a series of movements instead of a traditional rock record. No individual track reaches out and grabs you, rather they all welcome you warmly into their collective embrace.

Japandroids - Celebration Rock1. Japandroids – Celebration Rock

Celebration Rock got me back in the pit. While my body and age had kept me on the pit’s fringes for years, this record made my instinctively rush into the sweaty throng to thrash, bruise and scream along when Japandroids came to town. Every note on Celebration Rock pulsates with youthful electricity: every thundering drum beat, every massive split-signal guitar riff, every “woah-oh-oh-oh-oh” chorus — all of it. Japandroids elevated its game to a new level. It’s as if your favorite dumb punk two-piece band suddenly got arena rock ambitions while making a record and somehow nailed it.

Top 10 Songs of 2012

Even more so then previous years, it appears I was really into guitar rock in 2012. It’s not exactly a diverse list in that sense, but I can live with it.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

10. “Serpents” – Sharon Van Etten

While the solemn serenity of Sharon Van Etten’s Tramp gets better with each listen, the album lacks is the authentic sense of pain that was prevalent on her first two official records. The one exception to this comes in the form of “Serpents.” Van Etten’s signature angry sorrow comes through as she tremblingly snarls the line, “You enjoy sucking on dreams…” It’s a spine-shivering delivery. While it’s great that Van Etten has found a sense of personal peace, it’s terrific as a listener to hear her pent up venom momentarily seep thorough.

9. “Comeback Kid” – Sleigh Bells

Waves of huge guitar noise helped Sleigh Bells build buzz, but “Comeback Kid” is the band’s first real stab at melodicism. Backed with typically massive riff, the song maintains Sleigh Bells’ sense of chaos and noise while Alexis Krauss’s layered vocals cut through the shredding with an upbeat enthusiasm that makes the song by far the band’s most accessible track to date. It’s a rare high energy track that can be equally enjoyed in the offices of the Brooklyn music blogosphere and in football weight rooms across the country.

8. “Ships”– Deep Sea Diver

Before the day of Deep Sea Diver’s album release show, I hadn’t ever heard the band’s music. I rolled out of bed, checked Twitter, and saw that the band’s new album (History Speaks) was streaming on Bandcamp. On a whim, I clicked play on the first track – “Ships.” I was immediately hooked. The song showcased the best of the band: Jessica Dobson’s killer guitar work and vocals, terrific off-beat drumming (plenty of rim action here), and melody in spades. I quickly snagged a ticket to the release show, bought the album that night, and Deep Sea Diver eventually became my favorite Seattle band of the year. Not bad for a first listen.

7. “Thread” – Now, Now

Now, Now mainly sticks to finely crafted tunes that are relatively slow; borderline plodding. “Thread” unabashedly kicks things into a higher gear with a straight-forward rocker. Everything about the song is pitch perfect: Cacie Dalager and Jess Abbott’s vocal and guitar harmonies, the frenetic tempo, Chris Walla’s production, the jumbled clap beats in the post-chorus. Pulling a thread and watching it all unravel hasn’t been this enjoyable since Weezer’s “Undone – The Sweater Song.”

6. “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” – Father John Misty

I want Father John Misty to be my L.A. tour guide. I imagine he’d get a kick out of showing a bus full of tourists his version of the city, the one that exists on “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings.” As the rhythmic guitar riff messily crashes about, FJM bellows the refrain of “Jesus Christ girl…” (or more accurately “Je-e-e-e-e-sus Christ girl…”) with a sense of desperation, exasperation, and a hint of condescension. All the while, his tongue is planted so firmly in his cheek that one might worry that it’ll bore a hole in his pretty little preening face. What a delightful way to play in the dark. Continue reading

Points of Reference: Sharon Van Etten

I got a chance to chat with Sharon Van Etten (one of my absolute favs) about the pieces of pop culture that influenced her latest album Tramp. Check it out over at Seattle Met.

Top 10 Albums of 2010 Revisited

As is the tradition around here at Long Live the Album, I look back at last year’s best album list before tackling the current years incarnation. This is that. Because music is fluid, so why not make revisions, additions, and subtractions?

The Original Top 10 Albums of 2010

1. Swim – Caribou
2. Home Acres – Aloha
3. The Suburbs – Arcade Fire
4. Champ – Tokyo Police Club
5. True Devotion – Rocky Votolato
6. Where the Messengers Meet – Mt. St. Helen’s Vietnam Band
7. My Dinosaur Life – Motion City Soundtrack
8. White Crosses – Against Me!
9. Personal Life – The Thermals
10. The Game of Monogamy – Tim Kasher

The Updated Top 10 Albums of 2010

1. Swim – Caribou
2. Home Acres – Aloha
3. The Suburbs – Arcade Fire
4. Epic – Sharon Van Etten
5. Champ – Tokyo Police Club
6. True Devotion – Rocky Votolato
7. The Game of Monogamy – Tim Kasher
8. Personal Life – The Thermals
9. Where the Messengers Meet – Mt. St. Helen’s Vietnam Band
10. My Dinosaur Life – Motion City Soundtrack

Notes:

*I’ve fallen madly in love with Sharon Van Etten’s music (not Sharon herself mind you – I want to date these songs). The broken-up sorrow of Epic keeps me coming back. From the defiantly angry (still in) love song of “A Crime” to more upbeat numbers like “Peace Signs” and “One Day,” each track builds on Ms. Van Etten’s powerfully personal voice. I can’t believe it took me until this year’s SXSW to catch on to her tunes.

*You guys, Home Acres is still so, so good. I really wish people knew Aloha.

*Lyrically The Game of Monogamy has stuck with me more than any other album on last year’s list. Tim’s musings on the crushing tedium and hopelessness of marriage still stings. It deserved to move up on those merits.

*I had Personal Life ranked slightly lower to close last year mainly because it’s simply not as good as the best The Thermals albums. But the warmth of these pop songs seems more timeless with each passing listen, hence the bump.