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
Chris 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
Gardens & 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
I’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 Stott, Faith 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
It’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 Drugs, Lost 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…