Friday, December 19, 2014

Best Albums of 2014

10. Bob Dylan - The Bootleg Series, Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Raw

Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series has been a fixture of my year-end lists for awhile now, so you'd think the surprise would be gone. Yet, each album unearths some side of Dylan I didn't know existed, along with a dozen or so brilliant songs. The strangest aspect is that all of these seem to affirm that Dylan's spontaneous recording style was the key to his success. That was especially true with last year's Another Self Portrait, which somehow vindicated his most critically maligned album by removing all the overdubs and showcasing the spare and affecting performances.

That's done here, too, yet the Basement Tapes were always a little raw around the edges. The remastering does help a number of songs. "I Shall Be Released" has been one of my favorite songs for years now, but the new mix brings up his vocals, and tones down the falsetto backing. But mostly I just dig the rambling nature of the condensed release. (I have no interest in sorting through the complete, 100-plus-track version). Definitely check out the blues version of "Blowin' in the Wind," which manages to breathe life into a song that I thought was hermetically sealed.

9. It's Album Time - Todd Terje

It's Album Time begins with a song called "Intro (It's Album Time)," where someone simply repeats "It's album time," over and over again. Is this some kind of grand joke? The (amazing) artwork, pictures a suited up cartoon version of Todd Terje sitting by a piano, with not one but three fruity cocktails waiting for him. Yet, this is more or less what goes down. This is lounge music for the DJ set, an album perfect for a dinner party.

8. Spoon - They Want My Soul

Everything I try to write about this album comes across as damning it with faint praise. It's not my favorite Spoon album (Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga), or my least favorite (Transference). It's just another really, really good album, where every song works. The vast majority sound like they could be on any of their albums, while a couple of tracks, "Do You" and "Inside Out," manage to incorporate new, exciting elements. Those two also happen to be my favorite tracks on the album, making me kind of wish Spoon would go for broke and try a whole album like that, but that's not how they operate. Consistency, I suppose, has its merits, too.

7. Eno • Hyde - High Life

I can't think of another Eno album where the guitar plays such a central role. The album is almost a celebration of the different aspects of playing, from the clean melodies of "Lilac" to the atmospheric wail of "Return." On "Dbf" it essentially functions as another rhythmic devices, jibbing back and forth with glee.

6. Real Estate - Atlas

Sometimes you just need a breezy album of gorgeous tunes, full of reverbed guitars and hushed vocals.

5. Ariel Pink - Pom Pom

I'd like to pretend that I jumped on the Ariel Pink bandwagon earlier, but besides a strange fascination with "Round and Round," I've found it frustrating to take a whole album of his shapeshifting. That changed with Pom Pom, which is as frilly as its pink cover suggests. Sure, there are some melancholy moments here, along with seemingly straight-laced and gorgeous songs, but I prefer the silly stuff. As its name suggests, "Nude Beach a Go-Go" is a surf song, complete with reverb guitar. "Jell-O" sounds like he was trying to write a jingle, even if he does sing about "people wearing Wal-Mart clothes into church steeples." My favorite track is "Black Ballerina," which is about going to a strip club with his friend named Shotgun Willy. Instead of being turned on, he's nervous and unsure. At one point he honest says, "I like your areolas, baby." It's completely goofy, and slightly insane. Yet, if you have some soft spot for melody, no other album packed in as many candy-coated gems.

4. Run the Jewels 2 - Run the Jewels

I've got nothing to say about the lyrics that other people hasn't already covered in more detail, but I'd like to add that the music is just as concise. There is no fat here. Only one track goes goes past the four-minute mark. Most are around the 3-minute mark, and they don't so much end as slam right into the next track. No skits or long instrumental passages get in the way. Do we have Yeezus to thank for this? Sure, they don't sound much a like, but they both share a no-bullshit approach that feels like pure focused rage.

3. St. Vincent - St. Vincent

Who knew that what St. Vincent really needed was to dance? Of course, it helped that she wrote her strongest batch of songs, while refining her completely unique guitar chops.

2. Salad Days - Mac Demarco 

Sometime an album has to wash over me a few times before I figure out what's going on and whether I like it, but it took exactly 20 seconds of the title track for me to be all in. Why? In that time, Mac Demarco has time to sing one verse AND 10 seconds of "la la la's." Actually, are those "la's" or "na's"? It could be the melody, which starts high, before tumbling down, like he just fell off the couch. Or the guitars, which sound sound both melancholy and happy at the same time. Actually, it might be the bass, which almost seems like comes from a different song and was plopped unknowingly into this one. If, like me, you fall for these 20 seconds, listen on, because this album provides a wealth of other moments to obsess over.

1. Sun Kil Moon - Benji 

Does someone close to you have to die for Benji to resonate? It's a fair question, considering death seems to hover over every song here. I lost my dad this summer, so a soundtrack full of despair and hard questions would kind of make sense. Yet, while Mark Kozelek is sure as hell worried about his aging mom, all the deaths here are slightly removed. They are cousins, friends of friends, people he heard about in the news.

What is most striking about the album is that none of these deaths is given a dramatic sheen, or any kind of meaning. They just happen--often completely out of the blue--to people who were just trying to live. As he sings in the very first song, "Carissa was thirty-five, you don't just raise two kids and take out your trash and die."

While there are vague questions asked, all that he can really do is grieve with the rest of his family. This comes up later in the album, when an unnamed funeral is explained away as "Got a death in the family gotta do some grieving."

An album full of rambling acoustic tracks about death sounds like a mighty chore, and it probably would be if the songs were built around generic guitar strumming. But the classical picking in most of the songs, leaves them with room to breathe and for his deep voice to take charge.

Still, your enjoyment of Benji probably depends completely on whether you find Kozelek's matter-of-fact lyrics poetic or bone dry. To me, the album always feels one step from falling apart. But just when the melancholy mood seems to drag a bit, some drums kick in, or he gets a song in about his dad. It's the kind of album that I'd never impose on someone. All I know is that it means a hell of a lot to me.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Best Albums of 2013

10. Yo La Tengo - Fade
9. Paul McCartney - New
8. My Bloody Valentine - MBV
7. Justin Timberlake - 20/20 Experience

6. Bob Dylan - Bootleg Series, Vol. 10

This is absurd. Let’s make no mistake, this bootleg collects unreleased demos and b-sides from what most critics agree is Dylan’s worst album, Self Portrait. Not only that, but the original was a double album. Oh, and the vaults had already been cleaned to release Dylan, which is so bad, most people don’t even include it in his discography. And yet, stripped of overdubs, and padded with unreleased tracks recorded during the same period, this ends up feeling like some kind of lost album. While not as fun as The Basement Tapes, it shows Dylan's fascination with sturdy old folk songs, and is strikingly beautiful in a way few of his albums are.

5. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories

I found it surprisingly hard to crack this one. As an albums, this one feels disjointed and oddly sequenced. That's especially true of the first half, which starts strong, and then immediately cools off. Instead of sitting down with this one, I was only able to obsesses on a track or two at a time. Obviously, I started "Get Lucky," but each song eventually revealed some ringing brilliance. I knew I was in for good, when I spent a few weeks trying to figure out why "Giorgio by Moroder" worked so well.

4. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires in the City
I’m as genuinely surprised by this album as everyone else.

3. Arcade Fire - Reflektor

I can't shake the feeling that there are two records here, and that it might have made more sense cutting this sucker in half. I'm sure most people prefer the shorter, poppier numbers, which get most of the attention on the first half. But I'll trade most of them for the moodier, grovier tracks that allow the band to really stretch out. That's definitely the case for the stunning title track, though I think

2. Kanye West - Yeezus
1. Chance The Rapper - Acid Rap

2013 was the year of the big album—records that were expensive, groomed, and long. It’d be easy to also label them as indulgent if so many of them weren’t so good; Daft Punk, Arcade Fire, Justin Timberlake all released double albums overflowing with good will and high fidelity. In contrast, my favorite two albums of the year were stripped and direct—a minimalist masterpiece and an actual mixtape.

And I’m not sure what this means, but both also happen to be by Chicago artists. Sure, Kanye probably doesn’t spend much time here anymore, but he sure as hell listens to other artists from the city. Yeezus is filled musical odes to the city, including references to Drill music, the repetitive and intense music made famous on the South Side.

It’s easy to say that Yeezus is all about West, but I’m not sure it’s that simple. The lyrics alternate between righteous anger and the kind of vulgarity that is very hard to defend. Honestly, I still find the second half of Yeezus a challenge to get through, especially “I’m in It.” It’s obviously misogynistic, but there is something about Kanye’s tone that makes it all sound even more offensive than it might read on a lyric sheet. Perhaps there is some underlying meaning I’m not getting, but I don’t think so. That said, there is no doubting that the music is every bit as intense as the lyrics, so this is probably just a case of West trying to match the mood of the music. In that sense, I suppose he succeeds.

The angry lyrics, however, are nerve-wracking and consistently thrilling, and they are made more so by his darkest and most intense arrangements. “Black Skinhead” and “I Am a God” are both blatantly anti-commercial, yet these are the two songs he chose to introduce the world to the album. Instead of trying to be “serious,” both tracks are furious and slippery; they touch on the continuing racism prevalent in America, yet he doesn’t attack the usual targets.

The vulgar and angry collide on “Blood on the Leaves,” where he samples Nina Simone singing one of the most cherished songs about racism in the South, and uses it to spin some strange relationship tale. That’s kind of heresy, no? So if he just liked the sound, why did he perform at the VMA’s in front of a photo of a tree used to hang
On the other hand, Acid Rap is colorful, whimsical, and playful—things that are almost completely absent from Yeezus. It’s also a bit “songy,” which is my way of saying that too many of the tracks have big choruses with hooks that don’t always match the verses. Take the otherwise excellent “Everybody’s Something,” where the hard beats of the verse seem to butt up against a vaguely uplifting chorus. Contrast that with “Acid Rap,” where, for three and a half spellbinding minutes, Chance pushes back and forth over a simple drum beat, with nothing to help him. Perhaps a whole album like this would be too much, but one can hope.

As for the music, Yeezus stomps all over Acid Rain, displaying a kind of virtuosity that’s genuinely startlingly. Hearing tracks stripped down for spare parts is genuinely disorientating at first, especially since samples don’t so much as pop up as collide head first into walls. Why does it work so well? Perhaps this peek behind the curtain proves that constructing hip hop songs is far harder than you imagined. There is no doubt which one will be more influential.

You’d think that this would make West’s album a more intense experience, and while musically it certainly is, Chance’s range of emotions allows him to dig deeper and hit with ten times the emotional force. Chance manages to turn trivial details into surprisingly meaningful moments. The genuinely sweet "Cocoa Butter Kisses” chronicles the lengths he goes to cover his drug use from his grandma, while also hinting on the loss of innocence that happens at the same moment:

"Used to like orange cassette tapes with Timmy, Tommy, and Chuckie
And Chuck E. Cheese's pizzas, Jesus pieces, sing Jesus love me
Put Visine inside my eyes so my grandma would fucking hug me”

That’s not the only mention of drugs on this album, but they are never framed quite in the way you’d expect. He never brags about selling them, nor does he ever seem to care about giving them up. In “Lost,” it’s hard to tell whether the hazy warm feeling is from the touch of his girlfriend or the drugs they are both taking.

The album’s most harrowing cut, “Pusha Man,” touches on the violence on Chicago’s South Side in three separate vignettes, each seeming to look at the situation from a different view. But instead of meticulously tying the pieces together, the first and second bits are separated by an explained 20 second of silence—a truly bizarre move, especially since this is the second track on the album. This disorienting move makes you take notice, and it sets the next two parts in stark relief. The middle section follows a lumbering cruise—no vehicle is mentioned, but I can’t help but think of the character swerving on a bike—while the person in question is smoking a blunt on a hot afternoon. The person seems removed from regular life, completely in his own reality, which is only scary when you consider that he’s doing so with a gun strapped to his hips.

This all sets up third section, which features this utterly devastating line:

"I know you scared, you should ask us if we scared, too.”

Which, you know, actually stings when you think about all the talk about Chicago’s continuing violence. But then he gets specific in a way that actually hurts:

"It just got warm out, this this shit I've been warned about
I hope that it storm in the morning, I hope that it's pouring out
I hate crowded beaches, I hate the sound of fireworks
And I ponder what's worse between knowing it's over and dying first
Cause everybody dies in the summer
Wanna say ya goodbyes, tell them while it's spring
I heard everybody's dying in the summer, so pray to God for a little more spring”

And all this from a 20 year old kid that made a mixtape and then gave it away for free. Part of me can’t wait to see where he goes next. But even if we never hear from Chance again, we have Acid Rain, which is more than enough.