Best albums of 2014: No. 1

The Music or Space Shuttle? braintrust rolls out its top albums of 2014 this week! Today we unveil our top pick. Don’t miss our picks for #11-20, #8-10, #5-7, and #2-4.


#1: The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream

war-on-drugsA lot has been written about the MoSS? team’s experience at the War On Drugs concert a few years back (Chris revisited it a bit in his WoD at #5 post). It was so bad that neither Chris nor I chose to write a review of the experience. Things dribbled out here and there in other posts but we decided to try to forget the whole mess. Along with that awful evening, I kind of dismissed The War on Drugs altogether. When I heard there was a new album out it barely piqued my interest.

I don’t really remember how I heard Lost in the Dream for the first time. I must have been bored at work and listened to it on Spotify or something. All I remember is the complete surprise and to be honest more than a little bit of annoyance that the album was so incredibly good. This was not the band we saw drunkenly stagger around the stage and threatening the sound guy was it?

I ended up listening to it several times that day and within a week or so I had bought Lost in the Dream on vinyl. It’s the perfect album to play on a turntable. Many of the songs sound like they are straight from the early ’80s era of album rock. Not to say that it’s a nostalgia filled album because it fits in perfectly to this era of music as well with the frequent use of synthesizers.

[Side note: It’s also a great album to listen to on a turntable because the songs are generally pretty long. Not nearly as much getting up and down to flip to the next side.]

The thing I admire the most about Lost in the Dream is the way one song drifts in to the next. War on Drugs mastermind Adam Granduciel is an incredibly talented guitarist and he could melt all of our faces with ridiculously complicated guitar solos anytime he feels like it.  He has the patience slow it down here and plays the guitar god card sparingly. It really helps set the tone for the whole album.

I wasted a lot of time early on listening to Lost in the Dream trying to think of what it sounded like. “This one sounds like Springsteen and this one sound like Rod Stewart and this one sounds like … shit can’t put my finger on it.” It was like trying to remember something that’s just on the tip of your tongue. You know it but the words just won’t come. It’s all totally pointless and frustrating. Lost in the Dream really isn’t “like” anything else. This album stands on its own.


#1: AlcestShelter

alcestWhat did my favorite album of 2014 sound like? Answer: Shoegazey metal (or is it metally shoegaze?) often sung in French, meaning that some of my favorite songs of 2014 are titled “La Nuit Marche Avec Moi” and “L’eveil des Muses.” And the band name draws quizzical looks and responses like, “Wait, your favorite album of the year is by Incest?”

Incest? No. Alcest? Fuck yeah.

I hadn’t heard of this band until Pitchfork reviewed Shelter in January (giving it a run-of-the-mill 6.6 score). Despite the mediocre rating, the review included some words that catch my attention:

  • Shoegaze. More specifically, that the band has steadily shifted away from “extreme metal” to “an unbroken dreamscape of cushiony shoegaze.” OK, I’m interested.
  • Deafheaven. This was a reference to the band’s former peers. I like Deafheaven well enough.
  • Sigur Ros. The album was recorded in Iceland at Sigur Ros’ studio, with Sigur Ros producer Birgir Jón Birgisson. I love Sigur Ros.

So let’s check this out. And what I found, after a short song (“Wings”) that consisted of soaring voices and the occasional low drum sound, was a searing guitar line and an explosive chorus (“Opale”), those aforementioned dreamscape sounds (“La Nuit Marche Avec Moi”; “Away,” featuring a guest vocal by Neil Halstead of Slow-fucking-dive; and the 10-minute penultimate track, “Delivrance”), a song with Explosions in the Sky-style crescendo (“Voix Sereines”), layers of fuzz (“L’eveil des Muses”), nice touches of piano (“Shelter”), and an upbeat closer with female vocals by Billie Lindahl (“Into the Waves”). I often found myself wanting to repeat one song immediately after it finished, but then the next song would start up and I’d find myself unable to take myself out of the current song.

Fans who were familiar with Alcest before this year might not share my opinion (and I must admit, the 2012 album Les Voyages De L’Ame is quite solid in its own right, with noticeably more edge). And others might get hung up on the non-English lyrics. The first point I will concede—I’ve hated when bands I adore change up too much from their roots. But the second point doesn’t hold water with me—as a Sigur Ros fan, I’ve long looked beyond the vocals as words only. And in shoegaze, are the vocals all that intelligible? Again, they often serve as another channel of instrumentation.

I read the P4K review on Jan. 21. There was a time when I thought perhaps the War on Drugs album might rival Shelter, but as it happened, the Alcest record pretty much led my rankings wire-to-wire. And I’m sure I’ll enjoy it for many years to come as I dive further into the back catalog and look forward to what’s next.

Best albums of 2014: No. 2-4

The Music or Space Shuttle? braintrust rolls out its top albums of 2014 this week! Today we unveil our individual picks for #2-4. We’ll reveal our top 10 throughout the week, culminating with our top pick on Friday, Dec. 19. Don’t miss our picks for #11-20, #8-10, and #5-7.


#4: PAWS, Youth Culture Forever

pawsBack in 2012, PAWS released their debut album Cokefloat!. I liked it enough to put it at #7 on my best of list that year. I’m still the only person I know that’s actually listened to it. There’s just something about this band from Glasgow that strikes a chord with me (pun intended.) Like many ’90s influenced bands, they’ve got the distortion filled guitars, the quiet-loud-quiet song structure and vocals that range from apathetic to jubilant. Unlike other ’90s influenced bands, PAWS takes a familiar sound and makes it into something original. Especially in their latest album Youth Culture Forever. (I’m also the only person I know that’s listened this one)

I’ve never heard a delivery like lead singer Philip Taylor’s. Take the song “Owls Talons Clenching My Heart,” (I can’t think of the word talon without hearing Napoleon Dynamite saying, “Do the chickens have large talons?”) at first he sounds like any other mumbling, bored, garage band poser but as the chorus kicks in he takes it up like 18 notches to borderline screeching “I don’t wanna fool around WITH YOUR HEART!!!!” Good god that’s great stuff.

Another thing I like about PAWS albums is the production value or lack there of. In the title track “YCF” the song opens with what sounds like the record button being pressed on a tape recorder. What follows is about as stripped down a song as you’re ever going to hear. A man, a guitar and a struggle to hold onto youth while time keeps on ticking. Welcome to the club Philip.

Side Note: Extra bad-ass points go to PAWS for their feud with perennial pain in the ass Morrissey. Any band that doesn’t bow down to that entitled old man is OK in my book. Read about that here.

#3: Spoon, They Want My Soul

spoonWhen Chris and I first started this blog, we got together and threw around some ideas for posts. Many were done many weren’t. Chris had an idea that we never got around to doing and I wish we had. Basically, it was for us each to make a list of bands where we only like one of their songs. It couldn’t be just some one hit wonder type situation. It needed to be an established artist with some credibility. If we’d made that list Spoon would have been at the top of mine.  I was not a fan other than their song “I Turn My Camera On.” It’s a fun little song that sounds like disco-era Rolling Stones but to tell the truth I even tired of that song.

I made the incredible mistake of putting “I Turn My Camera On” on the MP3 player that I used for exercise. Everyday for a summer I would ride my bike and hit the biggest hill on the trail as Spoon came over my headphones. The song was perfectly timed for the long chug up that damn hill. Every pedal rotation, every grunt, every muscle burn was in sync to “I Turn My Camera On.” By the end of summer there was no way I would ever hear that song again and not be reminded of that fucking miserable hill climb. I’m very careful with my exercise music now. Frequent updates are the key. Can’t have a song in the playlist for more than 2 weeks.

Anyways, what changed my mind about Spoon? Well, music supergroup Divine Fits of course. It’s Spoon frontman Britt Daniels side project and I really enjoyed the songs that featured his vocals. So when I saw the new Spoon album They Want My Soul was out, I had to check it out and see if maybe, just maybe I was wrong about Spoon. I was happy when I found most of the songs had a similar vibe as the Divine Fits songs I enjoyed.  The percussion is just great in songs like “Do You” and “Let Me Be Mine” and Daniels’ gravelly vocals don’t disappoint. Those are just the 2 standout tracks I chose to share. The entire album is an excellent all around listening experience…at least for me. Check it out for yourself.


#2: Real Estate, Atlas

Real estateAtlas is Real Estate’s 3rd album now. I didn’t discover them until 2011 after their 2nd record Days was released. Since then I’ve probably listened one of their albums at least twice a week. If we re-made our top 100 albums list, all three Real Estate Albums would most likely be on it somewhere. So basically what I’m saying is I frigging love Real Estate. I admit it, I’m a fanboy. Chris is lucky I didn’t geek out all over The Mill when we saw Real Estate lead guitarist, Matt Monanile’s side project, Ducktails, a couple of years back. I kept it together. I applauded when appropriate and I didn’t rush the stage begging for an autograph.

I’ve always been a sucker for jangly dream-pop and you get that in spades with Real Estate. Their music is suitable for any mood you’re in. If you’re happy it makes you happier. If you’re sad, it doesn’t amplify that feeling, the music just allows you to be sad. No judgement, no coercion. Sounds comforting, right?

While the mood of Atlas may be comforting, you need to listen a bit closer. Many of the songs are about anxiety, the exact opposite feeling of comfort. Take the open lyrics off “Crime” for example:

Toss and turn all night
don’t know how to make it right
crippling anxiety

Sounds like a man in need of some Paxil. The chorus follows with more anxious thoughts:

I don’t wanna die
lonely and uptight
stay with me
all will be revealed

That’s a pretty common feeling in this anxiety ridden society we have now. It’s odd to hear lyrics like that in a song that sounds so upbeat. The song “Primitive” also deals with worry as lead singer Martin Courtney laments about finding his place in the adult world.

Don’t know where I want to be
But I’m glad that you’re with me
And all I know is it’d be easy to leave

My response to that is the same as it was for PAWS struggle through adulthood, welcome to the club.

I wonder what’s next for Real Estate? Whatever it is, I hope they don’t stray too far from their signature sound. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I say.


#4: Dum Dum GirlsToo True

ddgirlsSomething I’ve paid attention to lately: third albums. The impetus for this: last year’s Sleigh Bells album, which might possibly be the most severe dropoff in my lifetime. (If I were to use the Pitchfork scale, I would say Treats is a 9.3 and Reign of Terror is an 8.8 and whatever that third album is called [Googled it mid-sentence: Bitter Rivals] a 1.4, perhaps.) Bloc Party didn’t plummet that far, but the release of Intimacy was a rough time for this Bloc Party fan. (And they didn’t recover with Four; at least Sleigh Bells has a chance for redemption come album No. 4.)

Dum Dum Girls, however, have rebalanced the scales of the third-album universe with Too True, the band’s latest point in their impressive upward trajectory. While I thought I Will Be was an OK album and was quite taken by Only in Dreams, I did not anticipate being so impressed, start to finish, with the third Dum Dum Girls album.

Great rock ‘n’ roll with the perfect amount of cool/attitude, but not so much that it feels like a crutch. (Although their look, with the sheer black clothing and shades and detachment, it’s hot, as I saw in person at Pitchfork.) “Cult of Love” comes romping out of the gates, insistent drum beat combined with breathy backdrop and sultry vocals. Cue up a kickstart strum session around the 1:08 mark and you have the makings of a great “Track 1.”

Songs like “Evil Blooms” and “Little Minx” add to the rollicking mood of the album, while the ringing guitars of “In the Wake of You” are the perfect complement to Dee Dee’s vocals. “Too True to Be Good” almost takes on a shoegaze vibe at times (without burying the vocals like many bands in that genre). The pace slows down for “Lost Boys and Girls Club” and “Are You Okay?” (my son’s favorite DDG song, if you care); the former using a piercing guitar line, the latter softening things up with some acoustic strumming mixed in.

Love the songs, love the full sound, love the vocals. After making this list, I did find myself pausing to ask, “Should Too True really be ranked ahead of that War on Drugs album?” My confident answer is yes.

#3: White LungDeep Fantasy

white-lungWhile the Dum Dum Girls deliver their message with a touch of detached cool, White Lung’s Mish Way insists that you pay attention to every single thing she’s trying to express. When she writes about things like rape culture or depression, singing “Shut my mouth real tight//There’s no room to fight” and “Don’t make a sound//You don’t make a sound//and die face down” on the song “Face Down” or “You don’t take me//You won’t make me” on “I Believe You” (a song about a friend confiding in another about a sexual assault), the message is as important as any riff or beat or whatever sonic element you want to throw out there.

But here’s the thing: for a band that puts a great deal of emphasis on its lyrical content, the music is absolutely on point. I have to (hate to?) admit that although I listened to (and enjoyed) my fair share of Bikini Kill during the tail end of the Riot Grrrl movement, I sort of viewed the music as nothing more than a prop to allow for the delivery of Kathleen Hanna’s empowerment message and/or nightmarish tales. I really think I could learn their whole catalog in a weekend and still have time to watch Queens Park Rangers earn some points at home or get their asses kicked on the road.

White Lung takes the influence of Bikini Kill and ups the ante for everyone else. The sound is fuller, the guitar work of Kenneth William is absolutely killer, the drumming of Anne-Marie Vassiliou is fast, fierce, and tight. Way’s voice is great, too: she sings with such veracity but it’s not just screaming. Her power as a vocalist is as impressive as her wit (I really enjoyed her interview with Pitchfork earlier this year).

There are great flourishes throughout the album: the notes that transition the listener from “Down It Goes” to “Snake Jaw”; the rumbling bass intro of “Face Down”; the thunderous drumming that follows the opening notes of closing tune “In Your Home.”

The album’s 10 songs run a total of 22 minutes and 1 second, which is shorter than a lot of EPs these days. But that shouldn’t be looked at as a negative. For one, the amount of energy and passion they put into that 22-minute blast is exhausting…and if you’re like me, after 22 minutes and 1 second, you simply start over and listen to the whole thing again…and again.

After hearing Deep Fantasy, I feel no guilt about saying this: Mish, I’m really glad you lost your barista job in 2012. The resulting devotion to your art yielded one of the most satisfying listens of the year.

#2: Death Gripsniggas on the moon

death-gripsQuite the confounding group, these Death Grips. They sign up to do Lolla and then bail on an after-hours pre-show the night before their actual set, causing mass chaos and removal from the main bill (which they never intended to play in the first place, apparently). The next year they join the Pitchfork bill and then break up two weeks before the festival, claiming that they are at their peak so it’s the perfect time to disband.

Funny thing, as pissed as I was about missing them at Pitchfork, I can’t really argue with their statement. This album, the first half of what will eventually be a double album called The Powers That B, ranks right up there with Exmilitary as my favorite work of theirs. Its eight tracks play more like a 33-minute single track to me, yet you can divide them up into individual tracks and they do just fine sans context.

The aggression is there. The repetition that makes their tracks so intense is there. Bjork’s sampled and manipulated vocals are here, used to great effect on some songs (“Black Quarterback” comes to mind…her wail of “Oh yeah!” punctuates every line that MC Ride spits out). Elements of chaos are there…perhaps not as erratic as on previous releases, but the fact that the songs aren’t SOOOOO bizarre yet maintain their power is a testament to Death Grips working within some form of convention.

There’s something about each track that I love: the sheer volume of “Up My Sleeves”; the nearly poppy vibe of “Billy Not Really,” not to mention the sudden shift the song takes about two-thirds of the way through; the aforementioned Bjork vocals on “Black Quarterback”; the slow-fast-slow-fast structure of “Say Hey Kid” (and the way it transitions into the next track); the madcap feel of “Have a Sad Cum” (and that title!); the line in “Fuck Me Out” that goes “I believe you/Every time/No one believes me/But that’s alright/I’ll prove them right”; the sweet drum work on “Voila”; and the disintegration of the final track, “Big Dipper” (along with the line “I’m a bullshitter/I’m a shitty stripper … I’m a bit bewildered/I’m a fucking downer.”

The combination of fierce emcee, talented/angry drummer, and imaginative producer has produced some great songs, and for me, this is the first collection that (a.) nails it front to back and (b.) that I heard during the actual year it was released (I didn’t hear Exmilitary until a year or so after it dropped…another example of missing out a la Andy Stott). You might hate what you consider their rebellious “shtick (this is a band that in 2012 leaked their latest album, against record label wishes, complete with album cover art that featured the album’s title written in Sharpie on the drummer’s cock…that’s quite a sentence, isn’t it?!) or you might recoil against the use of the N-word in this particular title (fair enough), but I implore people to look past the noise and hear the music.

Best albums of 2014: No. 5-7

The Music or Space Shuttle? braintrust rolls out its top albums of 2014 this week! Today we unveil our individual picks for #5-7. We’ll reveal our top 10 throughout the week, culminating with our top pick on Friday, Dec. 19. Don’t miss our picks for #11-20 and #8-10.


#7: Sharon Van Etten, Are We There

sharon-van-ettenChris had this album at #8, me at #7, it must be great right? Like Chris, I enjoyed parts of Sharon’s last album. I also really loved her AV Club cover of “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” with Shearwater. I believe they dubbed the collaboration, Shearon Van Ettonwater. Very clever. Anyways, liked her, didn’t love her. Until now.

Are We There is a raw, emotional album that you don’t just throw on for fun. You have to be in a good state of mind or you can get dragged into the muck with her. Not to say there aren’t lighter moments. Like Chris mentioned in his post, the line “I washed your dishes, but I shit in your bathroom.” What a revelation that was! I was under the impression that hot women didn’t go #2. I’ve been with my wife 17 years now and until I heard that lyric I was 93% sure she didn’t go poo. Thanks for ruining the mystery there Sharon.

Unfortunately, I was unable to make the live show in Iowa City with Chris. That makes two shows she’s done in Iowa City I’ve missed. The first concert was a few years back and I decided to go to a Dirty Beaches concert that night instead. Big, big mistake.  I still have tinnitus from that awful event. Sharon, please come back a third time…I promise to show up this time.

#6: Gardens & Villa, Dunes

g&VGardens & Villa’s first album could have made my best of 2011 list if I’d have stumbled upon it a bit sooner. It wasn’t until late winter 2012 that I got into that record. The 5-some from California’s debut album was at its best during the fast paced synth pop songs like “Orange Blossom” and “Star Fire Power.” The MoSS? boys actually saw G&V in Iowa City a few years back. The venue was a tiny room under a Subway sandwich shop. Odd venue but it was a great show. They filled the tiny space with surprisingly good acoustics with their odd style of synthesizers and flutes. That’s right, the lead singer works the flute into almost every song. Going so far as to wear what we dubbed a “quiver” of many flutes slung over his shoulder. Part of me wishes they’d come back to town again so I could hear how their sound fills a larger more professional venue. The other part of me would be fine with just that one concert experience. The show was so intimate (there were like 12 people there besides our group) and special it would be hard to beat.

So, as I was saying, the debut album was a bit sluggish during the more slowed down songs. Where the last album failed Dunes succeeds. The up-tempo songs out number the slower songs and when they do sprinkle a slow song in here and there they don’t drag the album down. Songs like “Purple Mesas” and “Minnesota” aren’t going to draw a crowd to the dance floor but they are still filled with the same life that the rest of the Dunes has which makes for an excellent full album listening experience.


#5: Beck, Morning Phase

beckI’ve always had a love it or hate it attitude towards Beck’s albums. Seems like every other album he makes will fall into the “Hate It” category. His last album Modern Guilt? Hated it. It didn’t seem original in any way. Basically, it sounded like a dude trying to sound like Beck. So it would stand to reason that I love his new album Morning Phase right? Correct, I love it.

A lot has been written about how Morning Phase is like his 2002 album Sea Change. While they do have a similar feel, listening to Morning Phase doesn’t make me want to blow my brains out. He was clearly going through some shit back then.  He is still dealing with some melancholy themes. Throughout the new album he brings up the topic of loneliness. The opening lyric of  standout track “Blue Moon” is :
I’m so tired of being alone
These penitent walls are all I’ve known

He later pleads…

Oh, don’t leave me on my own
Left me standing all alone

My favorite song on Morning Phase, “Wave”, also deals with the subject of loneliness. Give it a listen in the playlist above. The string arrangement and the lyrics are a bit of-putting as he calls out “Isolation” over and over.

Not all of the songs are downers. Many like “Morning” and “Heart is a Drum” seem to deal with the idea of starting over and are down right upbeat. I do miss the goofy 20-something Beck and there isn’t anything goofy about Morning Phase. Beck is older and making the music of a grown-ass man. I can appreciate that.


#7: Andy StottFaith in Strangers


I’ve been late to the party many times, despite my best efforts to stay current. Andy Stott is one such example. I didn’t listen to his 2012 album, Luxury Problems, until May 2013, long after we’d put out our year-end lists. Given what I consider a weak year, Stott would have easily landed in my top 10, possibly even my top 5. Needless to say, I knew to keep my eyes and ears open for his next move.

It came toward the end of 2014, and this time I was ready. And my attention has been rewarded with exquisite compositions that bring to mind some of the mid-’90s Bristol scene (Portishead, Massive Attack, and, perhaps most apt, Pre-Millennium Tension era Tricky). This was also one of the most difficult albums to pull two songs from as prime examples of the album’s greatness: the songs’ quality doesn’t ebb and flow, and they all play nice in one solid listen.

I eventually went with “Violence,” a song that feels rather sparse but gets great effect from the whispered vocal provided by Alison Skidmore, Stott’s former piano teacher (who also featured prominently on Luxury Problems). The song quietly builds for a couple of minutes before the beat comes along, creating another ominous layer. I love the slow build and the abrasive noises that punctuate the song.

I also picked “No Surrender,” just to show that Stott can arrange a song without the central hook of a vocal. And I love the introduction of the percussion at the 2:00 mark…song absolutely shifts gears at that moment and becomes something else.

Stott is now right there with The Field in terms of “I can’t wait to see what he does next” in this genre. If you don’t know Andy Stott or his work, I would implore you to (ahem) put your faith in this stranger.

#6: Alvvays, Alvvays

alvvays-albumIt’s fair to say that seeing these guys perform just days before we planned to publish these lists didn’t hurt Alvvays’ position in my rankings. I loved the tunes on their debut full-length offering, bringing to mind an artist that typically ranks high on my annual lists, Best Coast. To see the songs performed with such enthusiasm and skill cemented the album’s spot in my top 10, ahead of some stuff I really, really enjoyed this year (at one point, Sharon Van Etten or Royksopp/Robyn seemed destined to live up here).

Is it surf pop? Is it indie rock? Is it jangle pop? Is it happy? Is it sad? Is it ambitious? Is it laid back? Is it catchy? Is it upbeat? Is it thoughtful? Is it varied? Is it fun?


That’s the nice thing about this album. It is diverse and rich in emtions. You could play these songs when you’re sitting around having a drink and shooting the breeze. You could play these songs when you’re enjoying a sunny summer day. You could play these songs when you’re in a hurry to get somewhere. You could play these songs during a leisurely drive. You can sing along with a smile; you could sing along while feeling melancholy.

A promising debut full-length from a cool quintet. The quality found here ensures more than a passing fad.

#5: The War on DrugsLost in the Dream


(Worth noting: When I made my list this year, it took me about eight seconds to pick my top 5. To my ears, they stood well above everything else I listened to this year. Since this album is rolling out a day or two before the others in my top 5, I wanted to stress that distinction.)

I’ve been to a lot of shows over the years, and I usually know what I’m going to get out of the deal. My friend Brittany Jade gives me shit every time I come back from a concert with a glowing report: “Your reviews mean nothing! Everything you see is amazing.”

Well, perhaps I’m just that smart…I know who will play a good show. But I’m not infallible. The War on Drugs is one of those rare shows that kinda, well, sucked. Mission Creek a couple of years ago (Todd actually mentioned the show above; it was a shared bill with Dirty Beaches). The War on Drugs headlined, and to call the show “chaotic” is an understatement. Adam Granduciel was pretty much wasted and spent most of his time yelling “Woooo!” (which the crowd started to mimic, and not exactly lovingly). Even Ric Flair would have suggested laying off the “Woooos!”

So when everyone started talking about the new War on Drugs album, how great it was, blah blah blah, my first thought was “Woooo!” Or “Really?”

But I had to investigate the hype. And from moment one, the album is gorgeous. “Under the Pressure” is a lengthy opener that doesn’t feel long, if that makes sense. “Red Eyes” has some “Woooos” in it, but they actually punctuate emotional moments rather than come off like fumbling drunken yowls. Every song on the album feels intricately crafted and is a great soundtrack for chilling the day away. My personal favorite: “An Ocean in Between the Waves,” as it meshes a propulsive beat with dreamy guitar notes and a relaxed vocal delivery that fits nicely between those two aforementioned elements. Guitar work toward the end of the song is really nice without being overly showy. Even though the song is a shade over seven minutes, I often find myself listening to it again immediately after finishing a first listen.

As someone who isn’t a big fan of Springsteen (to whom this album is often compared) or the band’s previous output (I never bothered to go beyond Spotify with Slave Ambient) I must admit this is a wonderful achievement in songwriting. Perhaps Iowa City will get a do-over on the live-show front…

Best albums of 2014: No. 8-10

The Music or Space Shuttle? braintrust rolls out its top albums of 2014 this week! Today we unveil our individual picks for #8-10. We’ll reveal our top 10 throughout the week, culminating with our top pick on Friday, Dec. 19. Don’t miss our picks for #11-20.


#10: Broncho, Just Enough Hip To Be Woman

BronchoThis was kind of a late addition to my list. Sirius XMU played the song “Class Historian” basically every 5 minutes this fall and I was pretty annoyed by it at first. Then I caught myself dancing around my kitchen to it one morning while making breakfast. Damn you Broncho! Those infectious doot-doot-doot-doot’s hooked me in. At work that day, I brought the album up on Spotify and listened to it several times. Since then its been a mainstay on my work playlist.

So why’s it so good? Just Hip Enough is your basic garage rock filled with instantly memorable hooks that never seem to grow tiresome. Broncho reminds me of several bands at the same time. The vocals make me think of “Surrender” era Cheap Trick and the overall feel of the album is a lot like Catherine’s, Hot Saki and Bedtime Stories, an album on my Top 100 of all time. (That’s an obscure one, I bet the Catherine band members don’t even have that album in their top 100)

Check Just Hip Enough out for yourself and I guaranty you’ll find something to love about it. It’s a quick listen clocking in at 32 minutes. If anything, it will help keep you from falling asleep at your desk.

#9: Ariana Grande, My Everything

arianaYup…not kidding. This album is very good. Really…I can’t believe it either.

A few months ago, I would have called you crazy if you told me an Ariana Grande record would show up on my best of the year list. I was one of the Ariana haters too. I hated her stupid T.V. show Sam & Cat  that my tween daughter insisted on watching non-stop, I hated her incredibly annoying speaking voice on said show and mostly I hated that Pitchfork gave her a 7.7 out of 10 on her album review. 7.7! That’s pretty high regard for a website notorious for its music-snobbery. They gave the Pixies a fucking 1.0 for their new EP-1. What’s the world come to when the Pixies, Rock n’ Roll Gods mind you,  get a 1.0 and this annoying little whore gets a 7.7?!!…take a breath. I was convinced the reviewer was either trying to get into trouble or get “into” Ariana Grande.

Then, at the request of my daughter, I downloaded My Everything. I was all set to hate it. The thing was I didn’t hate it…like…at all. Halfway through every song I would think to myself, “Damn it, this is good.” I needed reassurance from an adult I trusted that this was actually happening. I played My Everything for my wife. She had the same reaction as me. Her exact words were, “I want to hate it but I just can’t.” Well said darlin’.

At first listen you may think every song sounds like another artist. You say, “Oh this is the Mariah song, this is the Janet Jackson song, this is the one that sounds like Michael.” Then you’ll realize like I did, that her songs are instantly likable BECAUSE they remind you of other artists. She also pairs herself with other talented artists in many of the songs which help give her some credibility. (She gets a writer’s credit on almost all of the songs but I’m convinced she can’t possibly read or write. She seems real-real dumb. I picture her putting on lipstick, twisting the tube until it’s fully extended, then eating the remainder of the stick).

In summation…I’m serious, it’s very good.

#8: Phox, Phox


Another in a long line of bands with names featuring alternate,more Google friendly, spellings of common words. Chvrches, Alvvays, now Phox. While Phox plays the same weird name game, that is pretty much where the similarities stop amongst those bands. There’s no Chvrches-esque electronic sounding songs in Phox’s self-titled album. Of the 6 Phox band members, not one of them is twisting knobs on a turntable. There is also nothing lo-fi about Phox’s music. The musicianship and plush vocals make this a much more quiet and intimate listening experience.

I can’t rave enough about the lead, Monica Martin’s, voice. Whispering, shimmery, crooning, breathy and deceivingly powerful. She truly uses her voice like an instrument with long breathy runs throughout songs like “Leisure” and “Laura”. None of it seems forced and all of it fits perfectly.

I recently found out that Phox was going to be in town this January and I can’t wait to see if the live show is as satisfying a listen as this album. Maybe we’ll see you there?


#10: Royksopp and RobynDo It Again

royksopp-robynI love that one of my favorite releases of 2014, Do It Again by Royksopp and Robyn, features one of my favorite toys from 1982 or 1983 on lead vocals. That would be the song “Sayit,” calling upon a Speak & Spell to deliver the mantra of “I…Want…You,” with Robyn answering back with a come-hither “I want you too.” They even include the ruptured voice that the S&S would make when the batteries run low. Pure genius.

Of course, there’s more to this five-song gem than just some ’80s electronics. The opening track, “Monument,” is a great build-up intro, loads of tension. It gives way to the aforementioned “Sayit” and then the title track, which is a real conundrum of a tune. On one hand, it is pop perfection, so much so that it makes me wonder why the song isn’t absolutely huge. On the other hand, if that’s the case, one might think that I would instantly hate it.

The first part has to do with the marketing machine (or lack thereof) behind these Swedes. Their ambition isn’t to play some fucking Friday morning concert for GMA. They are more than content to play on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night TV stage. The second part has to do with the misconception that just because I write a pseudo-diary about music, I would hate everything popular and/or poppy. Not true. Most things, but not all. Great pop music works for me, as long as I call the shots on how often I get/have to hear it.

All in all, this is a solid EP, a welcome return of Robyn to my rotation. Hope these guys work together more often down the road.

#9: First Aid KitStay Gold

first-aid-kitAt this very moment, “Emmylou” remains my favorite First Aid Kit song. (It’s so great.) But despite the presence of that tune on The Lion’s Roar, I much prefer FAK’s most recent album, Stay Gold, and it’s not even close, really.

The album is a satisfying listen from start to finish. It kicks off with “My Silver Lining,” a song that is the closest thing to a contender to “Emmylou”‘s perch atop the First Aid Kit catalog. “Master Pretender” is an upbeat song 2, followed by the title track, which is another showcase of the sisters’ powerful pipes. It always gets me when they both launch into the chorus with gusto: “What if our hard work ends in despair? What if the road won’t take me there? Oh, I wish, for once, we could stay gold.” I love it.

The two voices intertwine so wonderfully throughout the album; I really don’t see a dull moment among the 10-track playlist. And the hippie vibe I’ve always felt from these two comes through in musical flourishes on “The Bell” and “Cedar Lane.” It’s wrong to characterize this album, or First Aid Kit as a whole, as chill, even if the music wants to take you there. (The closing song, “A Long Time Ago,” might be an exception.) Their voices are too powerful to allow for that simple of a classification. Beautiful works, though, as does intriguing.

#8: Sharon Van EttenAre We There

sharon-van-ettenCan’t address this album without looking back at a couple of fun moments involving Sharon Van Etten: her excellent set at Pitchfork, and her show at Gabe’s in Iowa City, where Sam incurred the wrath of SVE when all he was trying to do was get more people to the show. (They kissed and made up after the show. Or hugged. Or high-fived. I dunno.)

But I wouldn’t care about either of those live encounters unless the music she was performing was top-notch. Are We There is just that. Much like First Aid Kit above, I really like a couple of songs from Van Etten’s previous album but feel like the latest offering is head and shoulders above. It’s a heavy listen, as you might expect from an album featuring “I Love You But I’m Lost” and “Break Me.” The album starts well, with SVE pleading that she “needs you to be afraid of nothing”—fair warning for the emotional depths about to be explored. “Taking Chances” stretches out the word “emotions” into a full line of a verse while keyboards soar in a place where guitar solos might have once lived. “Our Love” is a lighter moment on the surface, but then you hear the lyrics (“At the bottom of a well//I’m reliving my own hell//Someone throws the ladder down//Still don’t know what I have found//In our love”).

I haven’t even touched on the best song (“Your Love Is Killing Me”) or the song with the funny/bizarre lyric (“Every Time the Sun Comes Up,” which features the line “I washed your dishes, but I shit in your bathroom”). Rest assured, though, that this album is an amazing emotional ride.

Best albums of 2014: No. 11-20 (with playlist!)

The Music or Space Shuttle? braintrust rolls out its top albums of 2014 this week! Today we start with our individual picks for #11-20, with playlists sampling each group of 10. We’ll reveal our top 10 throughout the week, culminating with our top pick on Friday, Dec. 19th.

Todd’s #11-20

20. Alt-J, This Is All Yours

19. Craft Spells, Nausea

18. Bully, Bully EP

17. Future Islands, Singles

16. Pixies, Indie Cindy

15. Dum Dum Girls, Too True

14. St. Vincent, St. Vincent

13. I Break Horses, Chiaroscuro

12. Warpaint, Warpaint

11. Hozier, Hozier

Chris’ #11-20

20. Jessie Ware, Tough Love

19. Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire for No Witness

18. The Raveonettes, Pe’ahi

17. Beck, Morning Phase

16. Phantogram, Voices

15. Mastodon, Once More ‘Round the Sun

14. Warpaint, Warpaint

13. Sylvan Esso, Sylvan Esso

12. Tune Yards, Nikki Nack

11. Parquet Courts, Sunbathing Animal

From the MoSS? Pit: Alvvays


alvvays performing in Iowa City

Alvvays doing their thing at Blue Moose.

Even before the lopsided outcome at Carver-Hawkeye played out, I firmly believed the hottest ticket in Iowa City on Friday night was the Alvvays concert at the Blue Moose Tap House. Frankly, you could have gone to the game, left just after halftime when the result was no longer in doubt, and caught the great show put on by Alvvays and opener Sun Club. The performance would have lifted the spirits of even the most downhearted Hawkeye fan. Hell, Sam managed to still have a good time once the music started.

Even though this young Canadian band has just one album to its credit, I’ve been rewarded by shows from bands of similar stature. Cults comes to mind: just one album out when I saw them in 2011, but it was a wonderful rendition of said songs. Same thing happened here at Blue Moose, and I didn’t have to drive to St. Louis to see them as I did with Cults.

Some answers to questions posed by the uninitiated:

  • It’s pronounced “always,” even though I prefer to pronounce it “all-vays.”
  • If you’re looking for a “Recommended If You Like” reference, the best/easiest answer is Best Coast.
  • Yes, they are adorable.

They started the show attempting to start a beef between Iowa City (or maybe the state of Iowa in general) and Charlotte, N.C., over the “first in flight” dispute. (I don’t care what your license plates say, North Carolina; I am firmly in the camp that the “hop” in Burlington, Iowa, gives our state bragging rights.) It was like the polar opposite of the singer saying hello to the wrong city; these clever Canadians had done their research.

Anyway, their sunny sounds translated very well in the Moose (easily my favorite venue in terms of sonics). The crowd, which was disappointingly small, made up for things by bringing a lot of energy. (Alvvays singer Molly Rankin acknowledged that our enthusiasm exceeded that of crowds twice our size.)

One of Mark's calmer moments.

One of Mark’s calmer moments.

Well-regarded songs like “Adult Diversion” (my favorite song) and “Marry Me, Archie” got the crowd going. I believe the latter song was the one that prompted my friend Mark, clad in his finest Canadian tuxedo to honor the band’s homeland, to repeatedly pump his fist in revelry. Good music will do that to a guy; doesn’t hurt when the song is led by a blonde rockin’ a guitar.

“Atop a Cake” had the crowd singing along to the chorus and “Next of Kin” featured a nice swoon throughout the song. Songs like “Dives” and “Red Planet” took me back to another pleasant Blue Moose moment, recalling the sounds of Camera Obscura around the time of the My Maudlin Career album.

The openers, Sun Club, impressed the crowd with endless bounce. What I listened to online before the show seemed really calm compared with the songs played at the Moose. Their drummer in particular was a beast. Good way to set the mood for the show. Keep doing what you’re doing, boys.

So with a great show under their belt and an album that ranks highly in my year-end rankings (more on that later this week), Alvvays has my attention. Can’t wait for what’s next. Come back soon.