Ryan Adams put an album out this year. What was it supposed to be? Making albums is what Ryan Adams does with his life, and he’s passed another year around the sun, but what is his reservoir, what is his celestial elixir, what is his muse?
Albums come in a package. Music, though, exists at large — it’s that descending major third groan of the copy machine, it’s the sound of a speeding bullet on north Twyckenham Dr., the recoil of a Tech 9, it’s a baby screaming, a baby crying louder than any baby ever has.
The albums I picked for this list all have something in common. They’re blind. They’re blind to the fact that, all over America, “consumers” will be downloading for free, they’re blind to the fact that unlike America, Canada nurtures its rock and roll artists, granting governmental stipends and staging awards ceremonies, and as a result of this you have progenitors of style like The New Pornographers, Women and Wolf Parade writing some of the finest stuff we hear. To an extent, all these albums buy into a myth — the pop myth — but my finest musical moment this year was seeing The Go Rounds live, and actually it was a free show to get into, though it was better than most shows I pay for. Music straining, descending from the chandeliers, this is how I envision life happening. So, pardon my jargon, but enjoy this manure I now present to you.
Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Days of Abandon
Schoolboy Q – Oxymoron
Copeland – Because I’m Worth it
Circulatory System – Mosaics within Mosaics
Ben Watt – Hendra
DJ Dodger Stadium – Friend of Mine
Ben Frost – Aurora
Trash Talk – No Peace
How to Dress Well – “What is This Heart?”
20 Dean Wareham – Dean Wareham
I don’t rank top singles of the year, but if I did the Dean Wareham opener “The Dancer Disappears” would contend highly. It careens and cavorts in narcotic, perfect, deliberate, world-reaching chord changes adorning the tapestry, buffering Wareham’s New York smoke shop-crackly blues bar voice. If the rest of the album doesn’t quite muster the same expression and amplitude, it might be just because Wareham had delivered his definitive statement, had slain his inner demons to circumscribe with nullifying bastions of respite.
19 Julian Casablancas + The Voidz – Tyranny
JC has always had a preternatural sense of the craft, and it seems like every day of this guy’s life has been a matter of walking on eggshells to find his muse’s median, this new one being no different, dissonant where Phrazes for the Young was sweet, full-band where the predecessor was autodidactic.
18 Todd Terje – It’s Album Time with Todd Terje
17 Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra – Fu** Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything
Not surprisingly, when you make your objective to clearly be overbearing to your audience, you end up being overbearing. Fu** Off Get Free is sure to be a favorite this year amidst bong-smoking circles in search of chronicled rock adventures on the strength of epic structures and celestial shredding, and as refreshing as this can be amidst the downpour of twee pop we’ve suffered, this is still more experimental-rock go cart than Monte Carlo — that is, they really only know one speed: Go.
16 Mecca Normal – Empathy for the Evil
15 Liars – Mess
Considering how well the sounds mesh on this album, it’s hard to imagine placing it any lower… I guess it just gets back to the pitchfork, Sonic Youth – Rather Ripped tenet: we EXPECT MORE from this band. We expect climaces like “The Garden Was Crowded and Outside” and “Scarecrows on a Killer Slant.” If anything, Mess plays like the work of those who have been there before and will be there again: the songs languish in front line rhythm and tongue-in-cheek lyrical offhandishness, self-contented and idyllic. Does this amount to an identity crisis? Well, what is the music industry but a neverending identity crisis?
14 Jungle – Jungle
13 Sleepy Sun – Maui Tears
Rarely is expansive, gutsy psychedelic rock this depository of pretentiousness. The jams themselves, the homemade weed-brownie, basement grooves, drive Maui Tears, as if envisioning Maui as an ideal of dancing luau women handing you coconuts. So Yes (Yes), here are your coconuts.
12 Twin Peaks – Wild Onion
Renewing my faith in the power of Chicago music (after, say, hearing the new Chuck Inglish album) was not an easy task, but rather that of… the ultimate slacker. My opinion of the sonic trappings in the windy city had ebbed so low that for a moment I thought I liked the new Counting Crows album which was produced by Brian Deck (it’s actually not too bad)… Twin Peaks slouch forth with the pop catchiness that helmed greats of yore like the Beach-punk Clergymen, but for some odd reason, Twin Peaks are more popular than The Clergymen.
11 What Moon Things – What Moon Things
10 Plague Vendor – Free to Eat
Like last year’s You’re Nothing by Iceage, this is nothing more and nothing less than great punk rock from Europe. The “Vendor” moniker in the name, though, typifies how the band shy themselves of veering into hardcore: punk is a product and hardcore is a lifestyle (Iceage straddle brilliantly the two), and Free to Eat never quite degenerates into pandemonium. The guitar is always cooperative enough so as not to occlude the big, closet drums, and the lead singer is more tongue in cheek than fist in face.
9 The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
As much as I love Atlas, I still hope that Lost in the Dream is the sleeper cell that delivers the definitive death blow to this recent wave of twee pop. Lost in the Dream stretches the whole thing out in a way that exercises your brain. The War on Drugs get that you get that every fad has its day, and they in no way ascribe to you, the listener, the lack of the ability to discern succinct pop songs from overblown wax. They’re way less discernible in general than your dime-a-dozen Teenage Fanclub hayriders, because part of their muse is actually having songs that stretch out, influenced, thankfully (see Mac Demarco) by Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze way more so than Smoke Ring for My Halo.
8 Raury – Indigo Child
Indigo Child is transcendent right down to its very media. You can’t find it on spotify, youtube or amazon — get this, YOU CAN’T PURCHASE IT! You go to Raury’s website, which is called like “Indigo Child Project” this or that, or something… and basically he’s a black, grander, more confident, virtuosic and original sort of How to Dress Well. He covers climactic acoustic rock, flow-R&B and a little neo-soul (garnering the widely noted and deserved attention of Kanye in the process), and as how it should be with any pop artist, the true integral musical instrument, the defining characteristic, is the vocal.
7 Lord Steppington – Step Brothers
Singularity is the m.o. of Dilated Peoples’ Evidence, now composing the emceeing half of Lord Steppington, whose late-winter 2014 tirade takes on vapid issues of the decaying industry with the usual deadpan, but a hyfier than ever pallette of sounds, techniques and textures. You can hear the mutual inspiration at work: this is not a Dilated album; this is not an Ev album: it’s titanium tenacity from the sun’s new go-round, all the way.
6 Nmesh – Dream Sequins
Dream Sequins is sprawling, formidable and almost unconscionable, just like the city of Chicago itself. But, also, just as the city of Chicago, there’s that one goofy, smiling person down at the heart of it, that you’re less likely to find in other cities, carrying the one perfect melody, the caliber of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop,” electronica heavily influenced by heartland American rock and roll. Pastiche blips of news radio and found art noise adorn this album, and the result, though more soothing than artistic, does lay down the reader’s every worry that their listening material isn’t seamlessly aligned with the times.
5 The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers
I put this one on, on CD, the day it came out, while I was doing dishes with this dude who had just run away from home, Nashville, and moved up here, Indiana. I’d been playing a lot of rock type stuff, like Weezer and No Age, but I put The New Pornographers on and it was obviously every bit as energetic, the treat being that this album is comparatively eclectic, stylistically speaking. A liquified synth cloaks both the timeless titular opener and “Backstairs,” another track cementing the album as definitively Carl Newman’s. But leave it to Neko Case to provide the poetry: “Let’s treat it like being sworn in / And not a drug deal of the heart / It’s a drug deal of the heart.” Pros doing pro stuff.
4 Real Estate – Atlas
Part of the pristine beauty, the polar ice cap with penguins on it type beauty of Atlas, is that it’s the very DEFINITION of not trying to do too much. That the band seems to put out albums like this every year only serves that it’s what they’re meant to do, hence the rhapsodic obliviousness to notions of strain. Making albums is for rich people. ‘Cause you sure as hell don’t get anything in return for them. So, while some superficial onlookers would be tempted to throw around the word “overproduced,” in light of the wrapped, truffle guitar sounds and the swathed vocals, still call Atlas the ultimate act of generosity, because for all the sheen and glitz, these are still not songs for walking down the aisle and buying some tri-color quinoa to. Some solitary emotional assembly required.
3 Caribou – Our Love
Catering to all your sound wave spa needs, this one cannons forth from our favorite rural Canadian electronica aficionado and let’s just say he’s finally climbed the mountain. 2010‘s Swim meandered about something like a drunk — full of emotion, often compelling (or at least scary), but ultimately wanting of a clear, coherent oneness. The m.o. is defined early on in Our Love (which it should be, given the title), and the beats are not only ballsier but more shirking of race zeitgeist — this stuff SOUNDS like black music (forgive that compliment-from-a-cracker, if you would).
2 Mr. Little Jeans – Pocketknife
Admittedly, I’ve ranked a dance album highly on the list each of the last three years. I just need music that moves at the speed of this life today, because I’m around a lot of young people all the time, and they don’t have time to listen to some soulful old dude strum an acoustic guitar and tell you about his kidney stones. Mr. Little Jeans is the kind of music that gets you rapt in the present, forgetting about things like black and white, time and space, fore-get and regret. I discovered her by googling the band Beirut, oddly enough — not surprisingly, in a way, given the electronica direction veered by pretty much every rock act in LA (Beirut are from New Mexico, despite the guy’s faux-British accent). Hey, at least you know the drums won’t be sloppy.
1 J Mascis – Tied to a Star
J Mascis must have heard me (joking). I challenged him, on this very blog, said that Sebadoh had more artistic valence than Dinosaur Jr., that the J only did their best work (Beyond and after) with Lou Barlow back in the band. Sometimes something just clicks. It can be from reading a great Russian novel, it can be from taking a trip, but suffice it to say that with Tied to a Star J Mascis has given us the most basic kind of beauty and artistic vision, using only his guitar and voice, but also channeling the most glorious moments of his tried and true band Dinosaur Jr. This is that peaceful day by the sea looking at sailboats, looking at all the things you have been, you are, you will be, but most of all, giving it all away.