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.

Top 10 Albums of 2011 Revisited

An Horse - WallsAs I do every year around this time, here’s a look back at last year’s best album list before busting out this year’s version. Now normally this exists to include albums that I missed or didn’t fully appreciate at the time of the initial list. This year’s version is different because, for the first time, all ten albums remain my top 10 of 2011 (they just are in a slightly different order).

The Original Top 10 Albums of 2011

1. Burst Apart – The Antlers
2. Simple Math – Manchester Orchestra
3. Wasting Light – Foo Fighters
4. Strange Mercy – St. Vincent
5. Walls – An Horse
6. Oui Camera Oui – The Heavenly States
7. 13 Chambers – Wugazi
8. The Big Roar – The Joy Formidable
9. Strange Negotiations – David Bazan
10. Capes – Tancred

The Updated Top 10 Albums of 2011

1. Burst Apart – The Antlers
2. Wasting Light – Foo Fighters
3. Walls – An Horse
4. Simple Math – Manchester Orchestra
5. Oui Camera Oui – The Heavenly States
6. Strange Mercy – St. Vincent
7. 13 Chambers – Wugazi
8. Strange Negotiations – David Bazan
9. The Big Roar – The Joy Formidable
10. Capes – Tancred

Slide Show: City Arts Fest 2012

Took some pictures of City Arts Fest 2012 for Seattle Met. Go take a look.

Top 10 Albums of 2011

As I’ve gazed around the various lists detailing the best albums of 2011 these past few weeks it’s become more and more clear that I’m out of touch with the critical mass. The albums that are frequently lauding did nothing for me. David Comes to Life left me more preoccupied than fucked up. Bon Iver bored. James Blake made me long for the tennis player. House of Balloons was good, but not gripping. 21 simply wasn’t in my wheelhouse. Watch the Throne was just plain bad. Ect., ect…

So just keep that in mind. I’m apparently horribly out of touch.

Here are the 10 best albums of 2011…

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10. Capes – Tancred

Radiating a tranquil warmth, Capes, the solo debut of Now, Now guitarist Jess Abbott, is welcoming and easy to slip into. Abbott’s tiny voice barely breaks through the layer of sparse, lo-fi instrumentals, but the smallness is intentional and gives the album character. Unassuming and genuine, Capes is the coziest little album of the year.

9. Strange Negotiations – David Bazan

If the masses of Occupy movement had any sense about them, they’d adopt Strange Negotiations as their official album. David Bazan remains as downtrodden as ever, only now it’s the the greedy folks behind the recent financial collapse that have got him bumming. His lyrics are angrier than they’ve ever been, taking aim at those now known as “The 1%” (“Wolves at the Door,” “Strange Negotiations”). Bazan’s somberness on more personal tunes also rings true thanks to very atmospheric, moody arrangements that perfectly suit his melancholy vocals (“Wont’ Let Go”, “Virginia”). Strange Negotiations isn’t an album of hope, but it’s certainly an album of now.

8. The Big Roar – The Joy Formidable

The title of The Joy Formidable’s first LP, The Big Roar, is actually kind of an understatement. The album is a massive tsunami wave of rock noise led by frontwoman Ritzy Bryan’s manic energy. Appropriately, her distinctive guitar sound is a processed pedal attack drowning in guitar effects. In fact, the entirety of The Big Roar is lustrously produced in a manner that would be considered severe overproduction for almost any other act. Yet it totally fits The Joy Formidable’s sprawling sound; one that’s laced with heavy, chaotic instrumental outros. And as much as Bryan’s wailing and guitar flailing gets the attention, the album would be a failure without The Joy Formidable’s solid as stone rhythm section (drummer Matt Thomas and bassist Rhydian Dafydd), who keep Bryan in check and thunderously drive the songs forward. The Big Roar is loud pop rock music in all its shimmering, glistening glory.

7. 13 Chambers – Wugazi

This year’s best mash-up album is all about edge: the hard-edge delivery of the Wu-Tang Clan’s (and their members’ solo projects’) rhymes, Fugazi’s samples instrumentals which brood in the backdrop seemingly on the edge of erupting at any second, and the way that Cecil Otter and Swiss Andy brought it all together so that there’s seemingly no distinctive edge separating the two mashees. The Wu’s lyrics match the tone of their new found post-hardcore backing with shocking ease. The Fugazi element works, in part, because they’re not the most distinctively unique samples, allowing the vocals enter the mix more natural sounding way. The whole package blends together seamlessly, to the point where a listener coming in cold could legitimately think that this is a just a hip hop album where the rappers decided to use a live rock band to back it. And that’s the whole goal of any mash-up, right?

6. Oui Camera Oui – The Heavenly States

The Heavenly States continue to toll away in rock ‘n roll obscurity, but that just makes Oui Camera Oui (or 2008’s album of the year Delayer) an even more special gem. Perhaps the reason the band is an under the radar treat is because they don’t do anything “sexy.” The Heavenly States excels at simplicity – all ya need is a hook, great lyrics, balance in instrumentation. Boom. Done. Onto the next song. Whether it’s sweeping sing-alongs (“Berlin Wall”) or more downbeat numbers (“Monarchia”) frontman Ted Nesseth’s words come across with more sincerity than just about anyone in the music business today (especially when compared to his male peers). And if that’s not enough for you, Oui Camera Oui is far and away the best album of wolf-fucking music released this year.*

*Listen to the record…you’ll understand. Continue reading

Top 10 Songs of 2011

Songs! There sure were a lot of them this year, weren’t there? Like, at least 100 of them. Easily. Maybe more. Here are the 10 (+1) best of that bunch.

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Honorable mention: “Whirring” – The Joy Formidable

If I allowed The Joy Formidable’s spinning opus to be on this list, it’d probably crack the top half. However, I’m DQ’ing it for the following two reasons:

A) Despite coming to prominence this year as a single off of The Joy Formidable’s excellent debut LP The Big Roar, the song was previously released on the band’s EP A Balloon Called Moaning. That EP came out in 2008 in Japan, 2009 in the UK, and 2010 in the States, so claiming it as a song of 2011 would be somewhat disingenuous.

B) More importantly, aforementioned previously released version is better than 2011’s more known version. It’s rawer and shorter, doing away with the unnecessarily long instrumental outro. Since this is, after all, a great pop song, there’s no need for the excess fluff tacked on the end.

10. “Life’s a Happy Song” from The Muppets Original Soundtrack

You’re damn right The Muppets made this list. The entire soundtrack to the film is golden, thanks to songwriting by Bret McKinzie of Flight of the Conchords. The Conchords’ sense of silliness and fun is on display in this song (which essentially serves as the film’s main theme). “Life’s a Happy Song” is pure-hearted upbeat fun filled with simple, gleeful rhyme. If this song can’t bring a smile to your face, then you really need to get over yourself.

9. “Won’t Let Go” – David Bazan

There’s a surprisingly long lineage of rock songs about spacemen: Bowie (“Space Oddity”), Elton John (“Rocket Man”), and the Foo (“Next Year”) to name a few. But none of those astronaut tunes are quite as dour as “Won’t Let Go” – David Bazan’s take on the theme. With hushed ambient backing Bazan’s repetition of the refrain “I will not let go…of you” feels like a gut-punch. There may be a glimmer of hope in his hopelessness, but you have to mine through a poetically rough shell to reach it.

8. “Berlin Wall” – The Heavenly States

“Berlin Wall” is the best rock ‘n roll sing-along in some time. The song slowly and patiently builds layer upon layer of backing music to support its rallying cries that dream of a post-war machine world. Finger-picked acoustic guitar leads to keys, backing vocals, and a distant beat. The flourishes keep coming until a chorus of voices explodes into a of massive nebulous of jubilation. “Berlin Wall” begs the listener to belt along and is crafted in a way that makes anyone who doesn’t join in after a few spins seem foolish.

7. “Cruel” – St. Vincent

I would not have put my money on Annie Clark making a killer dance track, but that’s just what she did with “Cruel.” While the song starts with sweeping strings typical of a St. Vincent song, they quickly give way to a throbbing beat, vaguely Caribbean-feeling electronic twitterings, and a downright dirty fuzzy guitar line to accompany her woeful lines of causal cruelty. It’s enough to make all the indie tweesters that adore her stop staring for a second to shake their shoulders and hips.

6. “Bridge Burning” – Foo Fighters

After years of growing a little soft (eww…you got Norah Jones in my Foo and it’s gross), Foo Fighters quite literally roared back into rocking mode with “Bridge Burning.” The opening track to Wasting Light set a tone of unadulterated non-stop rock and the Foo never looked back. The song’s opening apprehensive string clangings quickly burst into furious drums, heavy guitars, and Ghrol screams. “Bridge Burning” condenses the essence of Foo into a powder keg and then throws a match it’s way. The resulting explosion is a sound to be heard.

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Strange Mercy – St. Vincent

There’s a beauty in sounding broken. These days no one can touch St. Vincent’s Annie Clark when it comes to sounding simultaneously ethereal and mentally wrecked. Strange Mercy finds St. Vincent more sonically twisted than ever; still searching for a calm clarity in this mad, mad world.

Themes of feeling unloved and neglected dominate the album. Downtrodden lyrics abound, like those found on “Cruel”: “They could take you or leave you. So they took you. Then they left you. How could they be so casually cruel?” “Neutered Fruit” finds Clark questioning “Did you ever really stare at me? Like I stared at you.” But that’s not to say St. Vincent simply plays the victim. When pushed, like on “Cheerleader,” Clark’s tongue can be as defiantly cutting and vicious as it is insecure and vulnerable, declaring “I-I-I-I-I don’t want to be your cheerleader no more.”

Music supporting Clark’s vocals on Strange Mercy is a full-fledged wall of chaotic electronic fuzz. While these moments spotted previous St. Vincent albums, they’re consistent here. Lush orchestrations still pop up now and then, but they’re usually momentary; like on the intro to “Cruel,” before the song suddenly shifts into a thumping, club-worthy dance track. Continue reading

New Moon Soundtrack

I know what you’re thinking, “Ugh…more Twilight stuff? This has to suck.”

But wait…new material from Death Cab for Cutie, Thom Yorke, St. Vincent, and more? What?!?

This is the mix tape an angsty teenage vampire would make for his boo if he had indie sensibilities. And apparently vampires love reverb, because its the album’s common thread. If reverb was blood, New Moon would be more drenched than Carrie at the prom.

To no one’s surprise, the album chock-full of dark and moody songs. When the songs that stick out for being “chipper” have a choruses like “In the dark you tell me of the flowers,” (Sea Wolf’s “The Violet Hour”) you know you’re in for a mope fest. Overall, big names on here like The Killers and Yorke don’t stick out as much as their lesser known counterparts because the smaller acts are deliver more interesting songs on the whole.
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