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.

Todd

#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.

Chris

#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.

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