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.

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