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.

Todd

#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.

Chris

#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.

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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.

Todd

#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.

Chris

#7: Andy StottFaith in Strangers

andy-stott

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?

Yep.

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

war-on-drugs

(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…

Record Store Day Returns Along With My Music Hoarding Habit

Record Store Day 2014This weekend marks the return of the annual Record Store Day. As luck would have it, I recently started buying vinyl albums. While collecting vinyl is new to me, the act of collecting music is not. I’ve owned music in pretty much every format over the years but I was a bit too young to ever actually own my own records as a kid. Growing up in the ‘80s, I jumped right into the cassette tape era. My first tape (Men at Work, Cargo) was a present for my 8th or 9th birthday. I can’t remember which; these things tend to get a bit fuzzy as of late.

What I do remember is the joy of actually owning a physical copy my favorite band’s recording.

Men at Work Cargo

The tape that started it all

That’s right, for a short period in 1983, Men at Work was my favorite band. So what?!
“Settle Down and Eat Your Peas and Gravy, My Boy.” What lyrics!
“This is the story of Dr. Heckle and Mr. Jive.”  What imagination!

Not all of my cassettes were the proper studio pre-packaged release. Most of my tapes were homemade mixes filled with songs recorded from the radio. They didn’t have lyrics sheets or cool covers but it was still a physical possession. Plus, there was an enormous amount of fun that went along with my secret cassette naming and cataloging schemes. Only I could know that OMD’s “If You Leave” was on Side B of the tape labeled Radio Goo Goo Ga Ga. It was the song after Paul Hardcastle’s “19” but right before “Somebody’s Watchin’ Me” by Rockwell.

Whether it was cassettes in the ‘80s or CDs in the ‘90s I truly enjoyed the music collecting process. I loved it all, especially the anticipation of the trip to the music store. A lot of forethought went into these trips. This is a typical example of the pre-trip deliberations going on in my head or with friends:

Q: Are you going to buy Led Zeppelin I or II?

A: I like more songs on Led Zeppelin II.

Q: Aren’t you kind of tired of it though? You’ve been listening to my copy a lot lately.

A: Ok, Led Zeppelin I it is.

Q: What if the store doesn’t have Led Zeppelin I?

A: Well, then maybe I’ll have to look at the new Cult album with “Fire Woman” on it.

Q: That’s a great song! Any other good songs on that album?

A: I don’t know. Maybe I’ll just stick with Led Zeppelin. Physical Graffiti is awesome.

Q: That’s a double disc. You have enough money?

A: Ooh. No. Well maybe I’ll get that Love and Rockets album. You know, the really good one.

Q: Earth, Sun, Moon. Yeah that’s great. You can almost never find that one in the store though. What if they don’t have it?

Recent Record Store Score, Led Zeppelin ll

Recent Record Store Score, Led Zeppelin ll

And on and on and on, until the fateful day that I made it to the music store and all that planning went completely out the window when I bought the last copy of Alice Cooper’s Trash album because they played the song “Poison” over the store’s overhead speakers.

The process was easier in the early 2000s as I got older and my musical tastes matured along with my wallet. It wasn’t unheard of for me to walk out of the store with 3-4 CDs. I often stuck to the old adage, “Something old (Al Green, Greatest Hits), something new (Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin), something borrowed (Used copy of The Sugarcubes, Stick Around For Joy) and something blue (John Coltrane, Blues Train.)

Things went on smoothly like this until I started relying more and more on my computer and iPod for entertainment. Pretty soon, I had any song in the world available to me. Complete discographies of forgotten artists could be on my hard drive in the click of a mouse. That’s when a different form of music collecting took over my life. I was a full on file hoarder. No amount of MP3s could satisfy my hunger. I downloaded album upon album of songs that I’ve still never listened to. If I ever feel a need to visit the collected works of Thin Lizzy, I can. That day probably won’t come but… you never know. Every now and then, I think that I should spend some time and clean up my disc drives but I can’t ever seem to delete many files. That copy of Everclear, So Much for the Afterglow isn’t hurting anything in there. I’ll probably never play it but again…you never know.

Up until last year, I still had many of my old CDs, cassette tapes and even a few albums I picked up along the way from friends and family.

MoSS? Todd digging for records at Vinyl Renaissance in Kansas City.

MoSS? Todd digging for records at Vinyl Renaissance in Kansas City.

Mostly, these items just collected dust in my basement. I had an old turntable but ended up giving it away to a relative in need. Knowing this info, my mother bought me a new turntable as an early Xmas present. I had a pretty good time spinning my old records but didn’t really think about collecting again. On a whim, I stopped into an old record store, actually it was the very store I used to buy all of my CDs back in the 90s. I asked the guy at the counter if they had any vinyl. He chuckled and waved his arms like Vanna White, drawing my attention to the entire store.

“Look around you, man. We have vinyl everywhere. Old. New. Whatever you want.”

He was right. They had it all. Before I knew it, I had spent an hour digging through record shelves and I was holding a stack of albums both new and used. The rest of the day I had an oddly pleasant feeling rooted back to my record store experience. I’d forgotten how fun it could be searching through the bins for anything that piqued my interest. I’d forgotten the excited feeling you get after you leave the store with your purchases. I’d forgotten how I always removed the items from the bag as soon as I got in my car and looked over the album cover and read the liner notes. Something had been awakened inside of me.

Digging

MoSS? Todd and MoSS? Todd Junior digging at Kiss the Sky Records in Batavia, IL

In the months since then, I’ve made multiple trips to different record stores. If I’m ever going to be out of town, I frequently look online the day before I leave to see if there are any stores in the area. In my travels, I’ve found that there are basically 3 types of stores:

1. The stores that have used albums at a decent price and sell new albums at ridiculously high prices.
2. The stores that have new albums at a decent price and sell used albums at ridiculously high prices.
3. The stores that reek of incense or patchouli and sell everything at a decent price.

All three types of store can suit your album collecting needs depending on what you are after. My favorite store is type #3. I prefer purchasing quantity over quality and have a high tolerance level for overpowering fragrances designed to mask the smell of the “sticky icky.”

Now to be clear, I’m not one of those hardcore audiophile weirdos. Many of the albums I buy are less than perfect. I don’t minds a few pops and hisses. The imperfections can actually make the listening experience a bit more enjoyable. I also don’t that think the MP3 is inferior or that vinyl is the one true audio format. I love technology as much or more than the next guy. My wireless SONOS system probably gets more use that my record player. Sometimes you can’t beat the ease and versatility of digital formats.

With Record Store Day 2014 is coming up this weekend, maybe this would be a good time for many of you readers out there to pop into your local record store (if you can find one) and dip your toe into the album collecting pool. (I really can’t recommend The War On Drugs, Lost in the Dream enough. Great sound on vinyl.) Like me, that one visit could be the spark that ignites an album buying habit you though had long been burnt out.

MoSS? Monthly Mixtape: March 2014

march 14

Side A : Todd’s‘ Picks

Side B : Chris’ Picks