Death to conservative music journalism.
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Worst Albums Of All Time
- The Clash - "Cut The Crap"
- U2 - "All That You Can't Leave Behind"
- MGMT - "Congratulations"
- The Verve - "Urban Hymns"
- Bob Dylan - "Christmas In The Heart"
- Weezer - "Make Believe"
- Red Hot Chili Peppers - "Californication"
- Metallica - "Metallica (The Black Album)"
Check out the full Worst Albums of All Time chart!
- February 2016
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- January 2014
- October 2013
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- February 2013
- January 2013
- December 2012
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- August 2012
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- April 2012
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- February 2012
- January 2012
- December 2011
- November 2011
- October 2011
- September 2011
- August 2011
- July 2011
- June 2011
- May 2011
- April 2011
- March 2011
- February 2011
- January 2011
- December 2010
- November 2010
- July 2009
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- February 2009
Posts by Nostars:
B4.DA.$$ – Joey Bada$$
Mike: I’ve been waiting a long time for Joey’s album to drop after the very promising 1999 mixtape way back in 2012 and his superb 2013 collaboration with DJ Premier on “Unorthodox”. And finally, in early 2015 his debut album, the awesomely named B4.DA.$$ (pronounced “Before Da Money”) finally came out.
Is it worth the wait? Yeah, it’s really really good, if not amazing. Joey’s rhymes are as great as ever and there’s a tonne of killer tunes on here: “Curry Chicken”, “Paper Trail$”, “Christ Conscious”, “No. 99”. But it’s not my favourite hip hop album of the year (that would me Malik B and Mr Green’s Unpredictable) and I’m not sure why. Maybe I was spoilt by the aforementioned Premier collab, but I feel like perhaps the beats could’ve been a bit more interesting or innovative to match such a talented and charismatic rapper. I also find albums that pack the tracks on there (there are 17 tracks on the album) often struggle to maintain focus. I dunno, maybe I’m being picky, or maybe there was just a whole lot of dope hip hop this year. This is undoubtedly a great album, and at 20 years old, Joey has an amazing career ahead of him.
Better Nature – Silversun Pickups
Dave: This is a good record, despite the singer deciding to do some “I’m the Voice Of The Generation” shit and sing about people on the internet just not getting it (on “Connection”), and naming a song “Latchkey Kids” for christ’s sake. Silvers have never been a lyrics band but this really pushes it. That said, “Tapedeck”, “Nightlight” and “Ragamuffin” straight up rule, even if the latter contains what has to be a stylistic dig at The XX. You’ve gotta weigh this joyful rocking out up against the chance you’ll leave the record on until it finishes and catch lyrics like “A world of whistleblowing/ is something to leave far behind/ if you don’t mind.” What do you mean, Brian!? Caveat emptor.
Magic Whip – Blur
Mike: 2015 saw the release of the first new Blur album since 2003. They’d teased us a few times, with their reunion gigs beginning in 2009 and the release of the excellent “Under The Westway” in 2012, but rumours of a new album remained rumours until now. And while I’m not exactly the world’s biggest Blur fan (I was always more into their scruffier, mouthier northern counterparts) I have certainly had a casual appreciation for them over the years, and I found myself really enjoying The Magic Whip.
Opener “Lonesome Street” is classic Blur at it’s finest: whimsical, upbeat and very English. “Ong Ong” is a great tune in the same vein, and arguably ranks as one of their finest tracks to date. Some of the slower numbers I’m not as much of a fan of, but that’s a criticism I could level at any Blur album. That said, extended downbeat jam “Go Out” is excellent, and more than enough to prove thatBlur have still got what it takes to put out relevant music in 2015.
California Nights – Best Coast
Mike: So another year, another Best Coast release for me to rave about. And although it’s their first album on a major label, it’s largely business as usual here, with only the title track providing a noticeable variation on their standard “upbeat songs about California” schtick. California Nights is a very worthy introduction to a wider fanbase, but ultimately I haven’t listened to this album quite as much as I have their previous releases. The songs are as good as ever, but the recording at times is a little too polished. I guess I’m being picky, but I miss the indie grit that permeated their sound and stopped them from being overly saccharine.
But hey, I’m being picky as only an ultra-fan can. California Nights is a great album, and if you haven’t heard Best Coast before, this is as good a place as any to start.
The Scene Between – The Go! Team
Mike: The Go! Team records are as regular as clockwork: every two years or so they put out an album of unique, uplifting indie rock meets hip hop (it makes sense when you listen to it), each one as good as the last. I mean there’s not a huge variety between their albums, but honestly, who cares when you sound like this:
The Very Important Answers Initiative – J W Friedman
Dave: I started laughing in the middle of Tory Street while listening to this and people looked at me funny. It wasn’t my first listen either.
Freedom – Refused
Mike: Another of the great reunion records of 2015, Refused originally split in 1998, shortly after the release of their world beating Shape of Punk to Come album. That album was a monster, combining the band’s traditional hardcore punk with elements of jazz, electronica and more. The fact that they broke up directly after that album’s release has only added to its cult status, and to be fair, on Freedom Refused don’t ever try to emulate its scope, instead putting together an album of straight up riff driven hardcore as only they can. The genre-jumping of its predecessor is largely absent in favour of more solid punk tunes. And while I’m not exactly praising their lack of vision here, its an approach that just feels right.
How do you follow up one of the greatest albums of all time, anyway? Refused’s answer is simply to not try: just do what you do best and do it well. And I respect them for that.
V – Wavves
Mike: Wavves have been a particular favourite of mine since I discovered the equal parts punk rock and psychedelic King of the Beach in 2010. Its follow up, 2011’s EP Life Sux, took the songwriting up a couple of levels and the advance singles from the next album proper seemed to be poised to raise the bar again. Unfortunately the resulting album, 2013’s Afraid of Heights was patchy, combining some of their best work to date with some of their weakest.
So my expectations were reasonably low for album number five. First single “Way Too Much” was incredibly promising – one of the best things they’ve written to date. The next few pre-releases were great too, but this was also the case with the disappointing Afraid of Heights so bets were appropriately hedged. Fortunately V was everything it promised to be. The songs are a tad stripped back from their predecessor, trading in variety for more solid pop punk roots, and there’s a melancholy there that underpins the upbeat sounding tunes. Fantastic songwriter, energetic and consistent delivery. Top stuff.
A Little Night Music – Jonathan Bree
Dave: Literally everything I said about his previous album whenever that was still applies here; it’s quirky, it’s impressive, it’s really good, it’s unsettling. Like an audience with Spector where he tells you what he really thinks, the misanthropy is hard to bear. Though unlike last time around, it now feels like Bree’s gripes are with the entire world rather than just a handful of women, which makes it better somehow. But the humour – I’m assuming it’s humour – and great composition makes it all worthwhile.
Little Victories – The Strypes
Mike: Being the second biggest Strypes fan in the Riot Radio crew (after Dave) it was great to see the lads return reinvigorated and with a new sound in 2015. 2013’s Snapshot paid heavy dues to early rock n roll and rhythmn and blues (think Bo Diddley and the first few Rolling Stones albums) by way of Dr Feelgood, a sound that worked perfectly for them at the time but which had admittedly limited mileage. Little Victories sees them searching for their own sound and the result is more of an anthemic indie rock record – the blues riffs are still there, but overlayed over singalong rock choruses comparable to their UK indie brethren of yesteryear: Franz Ferdinand or The Futureheads, say. Their songwriting’s as solid as ever and it’s good to see that they’ve not rested on their laurels and just released Snapshot 2.
Do I like this album as much as their debut? I’m not yet sure. But it’s great to see that the lads from County Kildare have plenty of staying power.
The Collosus – Cairo Knife Fight
Dave: First full length from this duo, who had a 50% personnel changeover when guitarist Aaron Tokona left between the last EP and this. The loss is immediately felt – the sound of the band becomes less chaotic, less epic, replaced by clipped and marshalled riffing. He’s missed, but it’s not a total loss. CKF built their name on jam-heavy live sets and sprawling EPs, but on this album reorient to crisper song-based material. And the songs are pretty solid. “All in the Game” is as good as hard rock writing gets. There’s lyrical cliches to be had elsewhere, but this is hard rock so… deal with it, plenty do. Overall this is impressive as hell – the electronic elements really lift the sound and the whole effect is something very powerful.
Courting the Squall – Guy Garvey
Dave: Rarest of the rare: a solo record from the singer in an ongoing band which isn’t an absolute object of embarrassment. Well, it is, but for Elbow, not Garvey. Every note on this record surpasses his home band’s most recent efforts with ease. Garvey’s lyrical creativity has always been beyond reproach, but here he matches it with varying styles and song structures which only a man on his own can toss about. A lot of this is familiar Elbow territory, such as the great “Unwind” and “Juggernaut”. But the brass-heavy “Harder Edges” and Paris-jazz inflected “Electricity” are a world apart, as is the very, very Peter Gabriel-esque “Belly of The Whale”. It really should be impossible for a work to be as deep as this while also being as fun.
Star Wars – Wilco
Mike: I hate to be that guy, but Wilco’s recent stuff is not as good as their old stuff. Ever since Jeff Tweedy kicked his drug habit and stopped firing band members willy-nilly a decade or so ago, their music has been much more “safe”. The edginess of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and my personal favourite, A Ghost is Born are long gone in favour of more wholesome melodies and traditional song structures as the band settled into a more comfortable groove. There have been flashes of brilliance since that time of course (“Art of Almost”, for example), but nothing has quite reached the heights of Wilco’s 1998 – 2004 golden era.
And while Star Wars doesn’t quite reach those lofty heights either, it’s by far the most interesting album they’ve put out since those halcyon days. Its method of release – surprise released as a free download from their website – went a long way to side-stepping any expectations based on their previous work: there simply wasn’t time to have a pre-formed opinion. Suddenly it was there and you were listening to it. The fact that it’s a return to their more noise orientated work is also a welcome step in the right direction for for me: everyone’s got a favourite version of Wilco and for me it’s always been their noise-driven more abstract stuff. The melodies and strong songwriting that we’ve come to know from all Wilco releases is there as strongly as ever too. This is Wilco doing what they do best: getting together, jamming out some great songs that reflect where they’re at in their lives right now, with the artistically-freeing knowledge that no-one knew about it. And as a result the album seems to flow more organically. There’s no notion of singles – this is a record from start to finish – and is their most satisfying post-A Ghost Is Born experience to date.
Ten Commandos – Ten Commandos
Dave: You know what a supergroup of 90s rock musicians means; pointless riff soup. And there’s plenty of that here – a good chunk is simply music for musicians. Not least is the lead single where guest vocalist Mark Lanegan has to step through what room is left to try and get some sense of melody across. But the reason this album deserves a mention is the Alain Johannes-fronted tracks. His band Eleven was arguably one of the greatest and most inventive acts of the 90s-2000s, cut short by the death of his wife and bandmate. Whilst he’s had impressive solo acoustic outings since, this record is the first time he’s exercised his immense songwriting and arranging talents on a scale approaching his previous career. The penultimate track “Aware” with its simple bitonal riff serves as the ideal launchpad for Johannes’ guitar lead, and the rest of the all-star group get to properly shine. This is as good a testament as is available to the power of combined rock virtuosity.
Look What this World Did to Us – Red Pill
Dan: When I first heard of Red Pill I must say I was surprised; a white rapper from Detroit, who has ever heard of such a thing!
Look What the World Did To Us is not really a banger; it is a collection of dreary often muted vignettes about alcoholism, loneliness and life as an artist sitting just outside the edge of success. Even the ‘hits’ so to speak (‘Kids’ and ‘All of Us’ are really the natural stand-outs) are glazed with a boozy mutedness. What is most impressive to me about this record is the production – while the lyrics of most of Red Pill’s songs seem to teeter on the edge of being depressing, the tunes follow what I sort of hope is a tradition in Detroit hip-hop of soft, funky, woozy and interesting beats (think Slum Village and J-Dilla’s various manifestations)
If I was going to make another pointless analogy I’d call him hip-hop’s Elliott Smith. I mean, I hope he doesn’t go the same way and all. And not just because he’s white; that would be well racist.
Recreational Love – Bird and the Bee
Dave: Comprised of 70s legend Lowell George’s daughter Inara, and multi-instrumentalist producer extraordinaire Greg Kurstin (best known for his work with Adele), Bird and the Bee’s last full length record was a collection of Hall and Oates covers. Oddly, this wasn’t a vacation – they’ve stuck with a pop-breezy-synth sound for this record too. If you’re new to BatB I’d recommend probably any other album than this to start on, but if you’re into it there’s plenty here. Single “Will You Dance” is easily to pick of the tracks – bouncy and fun. The sort of music than not everybody will like, but if somebody actually hates it you know they’re the problem, not the band.
I Want To Grow Up – Colleen Green
Mike: Ok yeah, so between this and Best Coast, I like my crunchy indie pop-rock to be simple. Would it surprise you to know that I’m a big fan of the Ramones? Anyway, Colleen Green writes the type of perfect power pop from her bedroom that most indie acts can’t emulate on a major label budget. Plus she has another album called Milo Goes To Compton – is that just the most perfect thing ever or what? This lady is badass, and this album is great.
user48736353001 – Aphex Twin
Hayden: While being interviewed on last years revival album “Syro”, Richard D James revealed the existence of an untold amount of unreleased material under his guard. A few months later, a seemingly anonymous SoundCloud account was opened under the innocuous artist name of “user48736353001”. A new track was added every day or so, with the artist posting comments on Aphex Twin’s actual account, thus prompting a dialogue between the “two” artists. Eventually a mass of 110 tracks were added to the user487 account, and rabid AFX and Warp Records fanboys (and girls) clambered to rip the below-quality streamed files from the site. A move which turned out to be a waste of time, as a week later, the mysterious user made the entire dump of tunes available for download. But what are the tunes actually like? Unmistakable Aphex tracks are thrown together with harsh electronic experiments and ambient noodlings, and while covering even a handful of the 100+ tunes would be too much for this review, it’s comforting to know that the golden boy of many an electronic music fan can still surprise and confound us to this day.
Dan: Was there actually an Aphex Twin record out in 2015? Really? Really? Nah. Really?
Summertime 06 – Vince Staples
Dan: In many ways 2015 belonged to two very different forces in LA hip-hop. Kendrick Lamar dropped his chart crushing but experimental To Pimp A Butterfly which showcased a huge swathe of California rap talent. While groundbreaking, To Pimp represented only one side of the story though. While not a member of Odd Future, Staples comes firmly from that wing; with his close associations with Earl Sweatshirt particularly and his work with former Black Hippy members he represents a different but equally creative side to LA hip-hop; one that has become increasingly important in the last few years.
I didn’t know diddly squat about Vince Staples until 2014’s Hell Can Wait E.P came out and I quickly warmed to the politically charged Hand’s Up. Summertime 06 is, on the surface of it, a more chilled and muted record – telling the story of Staples’ life in the summer of 2006 (sort of alludes to it in the title really). Each song reinforces my first impression that Staples is a master storyteller; each song being a life-snapshot short story. While musically this record gives the impression of a thick funky but relatively relaxed album; far from the off the wall hype of To Pimp…, thematically Summertime 06 has a darkness to it without trying to blow the listener away with a bunch of ghetto cliches. As a record it is a soundtrack to grinds, getting by, small celebrations and setbacks.
There’s none of the audio wackery common to a lot of 2015’s West Coast hip hop in Summertime 06, but a solid and understated ride through an interesting artists’ day to day.
Sol Invictus – Faith No More
Dave: It’s weird – you can’t really think of FNM as a band in the common sense. Sure, they broke up in the late 90s like most proper bands, but they were always so aloof and distant in an age of earnestness that they’re hard to place in the archeological record. Their keyboard-led song compositions had very little in common with their hard rock contemporaries, and the lyricism was unabashed fiction – closer to the character-dramas of Tom Waits than the heartrendingly personal wails of their contemporaries. They were a band out of time. Which I guess should mean it shouldn’t be surprising that this new record, released 18 years after the last, sounds utterly unaffected by the break. It’s impressive, and enjoyable, and if you weren’t already looking forward to this record there’s really no point for you.
Wasted on the Dream – JEFF the Brotherhood
Mike: I’d been a casual fan of these guys for a while, but it was the story of this album’s release that really pulled me in this time around. Having released their previous LP, Hypnotic Nights, on a major label, shortly before the release of the awesomely titled Wasted on the Dream, the label – Warner Bros – decided to drop the band, for which (as far as I can tell) no reason was ever given. Personally, I think major labels are almost an obsolete concept to begin with, and the band seemed to decided as much too, releasing the album on their own indie imprint, Ininity Cat. To quote the band: “Luckily, we help to run an indie label that has its shit together more than the big guys”.
And Warner Bros’ loss is undoubtably music fans’ gain, as Wasted on the Dream is without question the band’s best album to date. Until now they were always a solid garage rock duo, better than average but not mind-blowing, but here they’ve really stepped up the songwriting. The album is just chock full of killer hits like “Coat Check Girl”, “Black Cherry” and “Cosmic Vision” as well as the now-ubiquitous appearance from Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast. The songs range from Ramones-esque pop-punk abandon to sludgy Black Sabbath riffs fueld by a steady intake of beer and psychedelics that doesn’t let up for the album’s duration.
Lucky Stars – Don McGlashan
Dave: Prior McGlashan solo albums have followed a bit of a format; a few great GREAT songs which get pinned to the New Zealand coat of arms and sung on television and all that, plus a few more songs which you skip when you’re in the car. This record is not like that – it takes a few listens for the gems of this album to shine through, and they are everywhere on this. McGlashan is our nation’s greatest living songwriter and here proves it, though in a way that won’t get as much attention. Shit business, ain’t it?
Foil Deer – Speedy Ortiz
Dave: Hey, most bands you look forward to the albums and put up with the EPs released in between as morsels to whet your appetite between main courses. Speedy Ortiz buck that trend – so far their EPs between albums have been the better records. This full length doesn’t deliver on the promise shown in the previous “Real Hair EP” but it’s still super good. There’s an effortless cool to Speedy Ortiz, like if The Dandy Warhols still cared about music, and they’re perhaps the best lyrics in rock today. ‘My Dead Girl’ is a great track, reminiscent of the feel of last album’s standout track ‘No Below’. The finale, ‘Dvrk Wvrld’, is the crowning jewel, with its subtle dynamic shifts slowly ratcheting up the tension. Speedy Ortiz are a band whose trajectory is unpredictable, but everything they’ve done has been some degree of great, so why worry.
Luminiferous – High on Fire
Rich: Shirtless riff-master Matt Pike does it again, with the perfect balance of sludge, thrash, and stoner metal. This is probably my “heavy” record of the year, and reinforces my view that Matt Pike is incapable of making a bad record. My faves – “The Cave”, “Slave The Hive”, “The Dark Side of the Compass”.
To Pimp A Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar
Mike: First of all: I love everything about Kendrick Lamar. He seems like a stand up dude and he’s constantly pushing the boundaries of hip hop, whilst embracing its classic elements at the same time. And it’s fairly undeniable that To Pimp A Butterfly is one of the albums of the year, if not the decade. But – and this is a fairly pathetic but, I’m ashamed to say – I do find the album a difficult listen, and as such I haven’t listened to it as much this year as I have say, Malik B and Mr Green’s more traditional (and in the context of this argument, ironically named) Unpredictable. That’s not so much a critique of the album or Kendrick’s music so much as it is a criticism of my failings as a hip hop listener. To Pimp A Butterfly to me is like cutting edge jazz (a genre I’ve admittedly not got much fondness for) in that it’s a piece of art. And that doesn’t necessarily make it an easy listen – but hell, revolutionary music shouldn’t be easily digestable right? When the revolution comes, it won’t be Coldplay they’re playing, let’s just say that.
Shape The Random – Phace
Hayden: German drum and bass maestro Phace came out with an absolute cracker of an album this year. Shape The Random does exactly what it says on the tin. Harsh, growling synthesizers crash head-on into meticulously edited beats, some real brain-messing moments align with more than enough funk for the dancefloor. During the opener, “My Mind Is Modular”, Phace decides that techno is too slow and turns up the tempo to set the tone for the rest of the album. Elsewhere, “I Am” dives head first off the crazy cliff, warping breakbeats with vocal snippets to send you to the loony bin, while the title track “Shape The Random” lets loose a barrage of formula one driven drums, reminding us that chaos can often allude to the appearance of being under control.
No Life For Me – Wavves & Cloud Nothings
Dan: There are some things that just go together; coffee and cigarettes, gin and tonic, a good steak and tomato ketchup, Your mum and….well, you get the idea. On their own they might be decent enough but the perfect blend of compliment and contrast makes the combination sweet perfection. Such is the case with Wavves and Cloud Nothings. Both bands have featured pretty prominently on this weblog and I will confess a preference for Cloud Nothings over-all. I have always felt the Cloud Nothings were the better and more varied sonically. In my mind then, The Japandroids and Wavves are filed in my brain under ‘2011’ and range from Cloud Nothings at one end with the lighter straight up indie-pop sound to Wavves at the other end with the buzz-cut punk rock spike.
“Come Down” and “Nothing Hurts” represent my bias towards Cloud Nothings’ poppier sound and are my favourite tunes on the respectably short album but the Wavves-y “Such a Drag” and the title track “No Life for Me” is a top tune and definitely the same. What is decent about No Life for Me (we’re talking about the record now) is it is almost like a greatest hits of any of the rest of their (I think combined 4 albums, I don’t have time to look this shit up). All killer and no filler as a lesser music journalist would say.
Listen to it or I’ll finish that sentence about your mum.
Anthems for Doomed Youth – The Libertines
Mike: It’s hard for me to express what a huge deal a new Libertines album was for me this year. For some reason in New Zealand we never felt the full force of the Libertines phenomenon, which is unusual because we’re usually all over these UK bands here, and rightly so (for further reading see The Arctic Monkeys). The Libertines captured the zeitgeist of early 00s England in a way that no other bands this century have. For some reason in 2001 we got full on The Strokes fever (and, hey The Strokes are great too, just arguably less relevant from a cultural perspective) but fuck all Libertines, which is a real shame because they truly took the UK by storm. Inevitably for such an impassioned band, their career was short lived, with the turbulent relationship between dual songwriter/vocalists Carl Barat and Pete Doherty imploding due to Pete’s well documented drug abuse and super model dating. And that seemed like the end of that.
But in 2015 they reunited in Thailand (Pete was there for rehab, naturally) and announced their reformation and a forthcoming new album, and fuck me if it wasn’t one of the best albums of 2015. It’s one of those reunion albums (see Blur and Refused) where the band just avoided any obvious follow up mentality and said “Here’s the album we recorded. This is what we sound like now.” So you get the reggae tinged “Gunga Din”, the suitably messy “Glasgow Coma Scale Blues” and a couple of ballads that aren’t in any way shithouse (a huge achievement in itself). Also, it’s just great to see Pete back in action again, sweating because of onstage antics rather than “other reasons”.
I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside – Earl Sweatshirt
Brendan: I saw Earl at Laneways a few years back and when I say saw, I mean sat, rather blung, with my girlfriend’s head on my lap while he performed; Yes, my girlfriend was asleep, somehow, despite Earl’s massive, relentless, blimp-like bass booming out over Silo Park captivating the swaying bros and broettes. I didn’t need to get up and dance as just listening was enough, my rib cage rattling away. At that time the album was Doris, another pearl of an album that pushed and bullied its way up the US hiphop charts.
The track that immediately grabbed me from I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside was the chuggy opener, Huey. It’s a classic intro track that sets the album’s style perfectly without revealing too much. Kicking off with a lively organ fanfare, you find yourself pondering, Am I listening to the theme song of the Love Boat or something? But then drops that blimpy Earl bass we love, his vocals surging melodically with the organ. It’s not a song I can sit still too and always has me nodding. Like Burgundy from Doris, it’s epic, bouncy, catchy and Earl’s lazy lyrics capture both the depths and trifles of his soul.
It’s an album lover’s album for sure. Huey, like the rest of the tracks has that signature Earl lo-fi griminess that surges effortlessly forward. That notwithstanding, there is a levity lurking underneath the grim, sparse beats that stops the album from being a heavy, arduous listen. The style is consistent, the lyrics and wordplay musical and intriguing, but it’s Earl’s artistic touches that made this such a highly acclaimed album with lo-fi crunches and bleats used as flourishes, complementing his lyricism perfectly.
The album closes with a cheeky little feat from Vince Staples. Who doesn’t love a bit of Vince? Like his feat on Doris his vocals complement the tambor of the album perfectly and it is a great sign-off track.
Personally, I would put this album up there with To Pimp a Butterfly and Compton for its musical accomplishments in 2015.
Top tracks to check: Huey, AM // Radio featuring Wiki, and DNA
Vulnicura – Björk
Dave: The sentiment behind Wu Tang’s decision to sell the only copy of an album to a single individual was reportedly to challenge the way society values music. In an age where a 99c download is the expensive option, what does it look like to make music that demands to be treated as an art object or museum piece? Wu’s experiment ended up seeing them offload a barely legitimate record of b-roll material to a universally reviled human morality play, so perhaps the point was missed. But also in 2015 Björk’s career retrospective exhibit of costumes, bespoke instruments and audiovisual installations was unveiled at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. To coincide with this was her new work, Vulnicura. 2011’s Biophillia was astonishing in its scope, both sonically and conceptually, as a love letter to the entire universe. I had trouble imagining how much further out she could go.
Against all expectations as usual, Björk turned inwards. Vulnicura emerged as a stripped back and intensely personal record of solely voice, strings and mostly stark, perfunctory beats. The songs are presented in the order they were written during the breakdown of her relationship with the father of her daughter. The first half of the record is an unflinching account of love in decay, at times painful and hopeless, but never short of beautiful. The second half is a bittersweet series of self-affirming songs on the theme of rebuilding and resilience which begin to lift the mood but could never be said to be cheerful. For somebody best known for their kooky 90s persona, this is a heavy album, and the lack of anything approaching a hit song (no singles were released) means non-fans may have trouble finding a handhold here. If you can grab it though, this is a subtle yet astonishingly rich record of brutal emotional honesty. The two epic songs at the heart of the record, Black Lake and Family (18 minutes long in total), are dark, mournful and heartbreaking requiems which showcase compositional and vocal brilliance, ultimately pivoting out of the depths of despair via a rare ounce of quirk into a haunting melody ironically reminiscent of her 1999 hit All Is Full Of Love.
While brilliant and important, this isn’t an album you can play every day – it’s just not emotionally viable to do so. I figure I can listen to the 10 minute Black Lake once or twice a week max, so the idea that its creator be recompensed by micropayments per stream is ludicrous. As it happened, the iTunes release was rushed in the wake of the album leaking to torrent sites two months before its unveiling at MOMA. This is work which needs to be treated as art and there has to be industry infrastructure and consumer behaviour to support it. That won’t come from weird shitty millionaires.
Music Complete – New Order
Dan: The thing about the 1980s is they were largely shitpants. The 1980s in Britain, if any Northerner is to be believed were even worse. One of the things about grim times and grim places is they produce outstanding art that tends to reflect the time and the place (The Smiths, Joy Division, the MC5). Quite often, however, these times and places produce art that draws on this grimness by standing in stark shiny contrast. The history of New Order’s futuristic electronic pop music being forged in the wake of personal tragedy against the backdrop of dreary decline is well documented and mainly of interest here because New Order have produced a record, three decades from this point, that harks back to their energy in the late 1980s.
Music Complete shouldn’t really be a very good album. Nostalgia records usually aren’t and records that so precisely reform a style and feel of a bygone age are normally doomed to novelty. New Order turning the clock back to the time between the release of Technique and the release of Republic should have been a fool’s errand. But it wasn’t.
Part of the reason for why Music Complete works is it pushes two different styles of tune-writing that New Order were really good at, but at different times. New Order were, first and foremost, pop tunesmiths and songs like Superheated and Unlearn This Hatred are just slices of pop genius.
Secondly, New Order are able to do things they were clearly trying to do in 1990, better now. Leaps and bounds in electronic music production have meant that a track like Tutti Frutti, which sounds very much like an early 90’s dance track, is a lot better having been produced in 2015.
Music Complete works because it distills what New Order were great at – writing spine-tingling pop songs and what is essentially house music – into the record they probably should have made instead of 1993’s Republic. They also refrained from doing the things they were crap at but somehow tried their hand at – guitar indie-pop and raps about football.
No Cities To Love – Sleater-Kinney
Mike: There were a slew of reunion albums this year from older bands that had either gone defunct or reunited after a long break: Faith No More, Refused, Blur, The Libertines, and so on. The first of these that I encountered this year was Sleater Kinney’s No Cities To Love. Although the band had never split up, this was their first album and tour in nine years. To be honest I was never a fan of Sleater Kinney in the past – through no fault of their own, I’d just never really taken the time to sit down and really give their music a chance. I’d heard great things about 2002’s One Beat so had given that a few spins in the past and enjoyed it, but nothing really grabbed me like the songs on No Cities To Love. It’s a beautifully recorded album, with the kind of Albini-esque sound that really puts you in the room with the band. There’s gaps around the individual instruments but they’re also unified as one, and the songs are just killer: edgy yet catchy at the same time. To release an album like this so late in a bands career is just great, and they’ve now converted me to a lifelong fan: I’m working my way through their back catalogue as we speak.
Ghost Notes – Veruca Salt
Dave: ‘Kintsugi’ is the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics with seams of gold. The idea is that the breakage of an object is but a part of the object’s story, that damage doesn’t end its usefulness, and that its beauty can be increased by the mending. Recent hard rock revival albums from the titans of the genre (Soundgarden in 2012, Faith No More this year) have over-focused on showing the bands are no less tough, no less technically able, no less solid for their time off. These have been impressively competent, but not memorable albums. But Veruca Salt’s first album since their 1998 disbandment wears all the cracks and fissures on its sleeve, and absolutely gleams.
Veruca Salt are one of my all time favourite bands. They were amongst the best songwriters of the 1990s, probably the best harmonisers in rock since the Beatles, and Louise Post’s lead guitar work was tonally deep and expressive as few others have ever matched. Yet they never stood above their more mediocre, male competitors in the public eye and looked to forever be remembered as also-rans. Throughout the 2000s I followed both Post’s and Nina Gordon’s solo careers. Post kept the band name and turned out some interesting and powerful records, heavier but lacking hooks and standout melodies. Gordon released two albums of pop-perfect songwriting but with flimsy, middle-of-the-road arrangements. It was clear as day that each one missed the other.
It only takes four tracks into ‘Ghost Notes’ be prove joyously clear that the pieces have been put back together correctly. The opening track ‘Gospel According to Saint Me’ sets the scene; lower gain guitars herald a more airy, mature sound while still rocking along. Track three ‘Eyes On You’ sounds like modern Revolver-era Lennon/McCartney. ‘Prince of Wales’ at track four is the album’s first emotional peak with its mantra-like verses and twin-harmony gutpunch choruses. And it keeps growing from there – by the towering 6 minute lament to heartbreak, deception and loss that is ‘Empty Bottle’ your heart will be in your mouth.
Post and Gordon always wrote about themselves, and one another. At the heart of this record is a 15 year estrangement – the pain and joy at reunion is in the foreground of every song. This is the pinnacle of musical honesty and vulnerability – a mutual musical redemption. Rather than front like the breakup didn’t ruin the band they’re open that it took this journey to arrive at this – the album of their career.
Unpredictable – Malik B and Mr Green
Mike: This album came completely out of nowhere from me. I saw it mentioned on Vinnie Paz from Jedi Mind Tricks’ Facebook page (who also had a very good album out this year) and just fell in love with it. As I mention in the Kendrick Lamar review below, my taste in hip hop can be depressingly straight forward, and Unpredictable is just that: a straight ahead, classic style hip hop album. At the risk of sounding like a Rolling Stone reviewer listening to a rap record for the first time, Unpredictable is not a particularly innovative album, but it’s got it where it counts. Song after song of banging hip hop, and for what it misses in terms of pushing the boundaries, it more than makes up for in pure tunes.
That’s not to say that Unpredictable is cliched and predictable either: there’s no boring bling bling lyricism or misplaced egos here. Just really great beats and stellar rhyming. It’s just a much more traditional rap record released in the same year that gave us the all-encompassing, genre-bending opus that is To Pimp a Butterfly. But that’s hip hop for you: there’s just so much scope within the genre to create amazing music in any style, and I just love that.
This album was a real contender for album of the year for me.
Dan: This masterpiece of an album will forever be associated in my mind with Brendan and myself getting lit and smashing up a bookshelf to board up one of my windows. What is ‘relevant music criticism’ anyway?
Compton: The Soundtrack – Dr Dre
Brendan: Dre finally drops another album, and by that I don’t mean releases, I mean, you know, dropped the album, Detox, the one he’s been harping on about since I can remember, he just nonchalantly kicked it to the kerb. Instead he went with Compton as somewhat of an accompaniment to Straight Outta Compton the movie. But of course you know this and you’d have to be sleeping under a massive Nate Dogg shaped rock to not. But you know what? I ain’t buying it. I’d say all he has dropped is the name as almost certainly most, if not all, tracks from Compton were destined for Detox. It’s such a tight yet diverse collection of songs that seem to capture so many of the styles and subgenres of hip hop that we’ve heard this last ten years. It’s a great album that grows on you with each listen, and barring the entirely superfluous, dated and misogynistic filler track in which a woman is murdered and buried it’s a near perfect album with some absolute belters.
There’s the standard Dre intro paying homage to Compton in newsreel style and then Dre gets his cock out and bangs it firmly and aggressively on the table with Talk about it. It’s quite a different style for Dre, with a Schoolboy Q feel to it, but there’s just so much energy and it helps the album bursts into life like a war cry. “I want it all!” Apparently, he’s just bought California. Lyrically the song pushes the persona we see of Dr Dre in the Compton movie. Alright, you’re hardworking, you’ve made a lot of money and you’re driven, we get it. Mind you, it’s hip hop so you can’t fault a man for big noting, can we.
The thing I really liked about the album, beyond the pristine production, was some of the unique musical hooks. Check out Genocide, featuring everyone’s favourite Kendrick, for it’s unique bassline.
As per usual, Dre is adept at digging up talent, the most notable being Anderson Paak in the highlight of the album, Animals, which also features big swinging dick, Dj Premier. A juicy beat with a relevant message has this as the pick of the album for me. All of Paak’s subsequent work has fulfilled the glimmers and promises of talent he showed in Compton and I would recommend checking his new album out.
But, hold on, there are still the old stalwarts of Dre’s past, with Eminem, Snoop, Ice Cube, X to the Z among others. For me however, their tracks weren’t the highlight of the album, and dare I use the term warmed over? Nah, I won’t, it’s just I enjoyed the newer talent so immensely.
The closer, Talking to my diary, is fantastic and perhaps one of the most g-funk beats ever conceived. And when Dre talks about the pages of his diary you can’t help but feel he’s talking about the album as a chronicle of the work which is so obviously his life.
Compton delivered on Dre’s formula but so excellently added new sounds, more polish and depth. It’s easily one of the top albums of the year.
Mike: Another surprise release: Dre’s first new album since Chronic 2001 (which was confusingly released in 1999 – I swear it made sense at the time). He’d been slow releasing tracks from an album with the working title of Detox since as early as 2004, but it seemed that the >Chinese Democracy aspect of the long-delayed album finally got to him, and he decided to scrap it all in favour of an album inspired by his recent success working on the NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton.
The most surprising thing aboutCompton: The Soundtrack is how contemporary it sounds. Dre’s certainly someone that’s known for his musical innovation, but at the same time, there’s certain things you generally expect from a Dre album. Compton eschews these elements in favour of something approaching a hip hop concept album. Songs swing between beats and different rappers (Kendrick Lamar in particular fits in well with this style of album) whilst still staying true to Dre’s roots. There’s no dominance from any one rapper a la Snoop Dogg on The Chronic and as such there’s an edginess and unpredictability here that’s not found on Dre’s other records. And sure, there’s an Eminem verse on here (seriously, has there ever been a rapper whose talent went south as suddenly and as absolutely as Eminem?) but there’s only one and it works fine in the same way as an extended guitar solo is acceptable as long as you don’t have to listen to too many of them.
Is it as good as Dre’s first two albums? At the moment I’m not sure: I’ve had a long time to process those records. It’s certainly a very good record, and different from anything he’s done to date. I can’t help but feel that in time history will view this as a close 3rd.
Dan: In many ways Compton was a massive sampler; a veritable chocolate box of the dominant styles of hip hop around today with an unparallelled number of quality additions this was always going to be an amazing record. From your old favourites like Xzibit and Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg to heavy hitter The Game and wunderkind Kendrick Lamar all contributing it would actually defy whatever science that goes into making a great hip-hop record if it wasn’t in the top records of the year.
If i was to have one criticism (and evidently I do) and wish to continue the ‘chocolate box metaphor’ (which evidently, yes, I do) it is the Eminem contribution is a bit like the Turkish delight – no one really wants it but it is definitely there, and you know it is going to be there basically because between 1999 and 2003 Turkish Delight was one of the most amazing chocolates and everyone liked it. In this case it is a bit like someone took the Turkish Delight and instead wrapped a nugget of shit in the Turkish Delight wrapper. Which could happen.
Every Open Eye – CHVRCHES
Mike: I actually find CHVRCHES really hard to write about. Their music is just so unassumingly awesome, I just have trouble putting that into words. Lauren Mayberry has the kind of vocals that most pop stars would kill for, and add to that the fact that she’s a a no nonsense feminist role model and you’ve got yourself one hell of a frontwoman. Combine that with their trademark huge tunes and driving synth backing and you’ve got a real contender for one of the bands of the decade.
In any case, I feel like our love of CHVRCHES here at Riot Radio is pretty well documented so I won’t go to too much detail here except to say that Every Open Eye improves on everything that their debut The Bones of What You Believe did so well. It was a tough album to top, but they really have here: every single tune could be a massive single. If you haven’t listened to CHVRCHES yet, you’re missing out.
Art Angels – Grimes
Dan: I spent some time trying to convince other-Riot Radio contributor Dave (who you will read stirling segments from on in this blog post) to listen to Grimes. I told him that Grimes’ unique brand of pop music, where the quirky and weird border closely on the art alluded to in the title but remain rooted to pop tunesmithery made her the natural inheritor to Bjork. An artist he is fond of. Anyway, I was right; about both the exciting and above all else, unusual Art Angels and that Dave would like the record. But do I get any credit? No. Where is my parade?
Mike: I wasn’t as sold as a lot of people were on Grimes’ 2012 breakthrough Visions. I mean, there was nothing wrong with it, it just didn’t grab me. That can’t be said about Art Angels: it whacks you over the face with dope tunes and doesn’t let up all album. Opening with a piece of classical music, your initial reaction is “OK, here we go, some pretentious bullshit”. But honestly it’s the perfect lead in to what for me is a near perfectly crafted album. Art Angels veers wildly from electronic folk to pop music, but somehow sounds cohesive. Highlights for me include “California”, “Kill V Maim”, “Belly Of the Beat” and “Flesh Without Blood”, but it’s tricky to pick out individual songs in an album that holds together so well. It’s honestly one of those albums where you just put it on and listen right through every time.
And did I mention the tunes are huge? Like, Jupiter huge.
In Colour – Jamie xx
Dan: There are two things that annoy me. Well, okay, there are literally thousands of things that annoy me, but for the purposes of this anecdote you are going to have to suspend belief for a bit and imagine a world where the two things that wind me up are related to electronic music. The first, I discovered when I was in mmaly teens, was when people called all electronic music ‘techno’ (techno is a very specific type of dance music; what you were thinking of was house or that 2 Unlimited Song off of the sports) the second was people saying that ‘there are no good techno (meaning dance music in general) albums’. The problem with both of these gripes is when I step back and take a cool, well-reasoned and calm view of the situation is neither is actually unfair even if both are untrue. Calling music you are not interested in by a useful catch-all name is really no harm no foul; I call all Country music ‘shit’ and all classical music ‘the music off that bank ad’. I know that both this nomenclature system isn’t accurate or fair, it is just useful for classifying something I don’t care about.
The assertion that there are no good electronic dance music albums is of course not true, but it is actually a pretty fair point. There are very few good electronic dance music records that breakthrough and enjoy critical acclaim despite the fact that there are a lot of individual tunes that attain stratospheric popular success and broad critical appeal. It has often kept me awake at night wondering why the most popular and well-known concept paen to the clubbing experience was written by four Scotsmen with a greasy seventies Rolling Stones fetish. I’m talking about Primal Scream here by the way, .
Jamie xx actually foreshadowed the release of In Colour in 2014 with ‘All Under One Roof Raving’ an epic six minute homage to the threads of music that have made up dance culture; weaving disparate styles into a piece of music that is equally a strange mish-mash but also something you could actually dance to in a club. I was never a massive fan of The xx and, while I got what Jamie xx was trying to do with 2011’s ‘We’re New Here’ (where he partnered up with Gil Scott Heron) the record seemed disjointed and trying so hard to stick to concept that any sense of groove was subsumed by the project. What Jamie xx gbot right with All Under One Roof Raving was the theme and concept synced perfectly into a well structured tune.
I actually have no idea what the theme of In Colour was. I mean, I am sure there was one and I could look it up but who’s got time for that. To me it took All Under One Roof… and expanded the various musical threads across eleven tracks. Each tune has its own unique sound but there is a thread running through each of them. It is hard for me to pick a stand out track, though Gosh and I Know There’s Gonna Be Good Times are probably the easiest to name check as singles (because, well, they were). The record to me is a single piece of music. And not just because I’m battered when I listen to it. I’ve listened to it at work and that as well.
Whereas my most recent other ‘break through electronic dance music album’, Porter Robinson’s ‘Worlds’, is most definitely a dance music record In Colour is a thick coagulation of soul, ambient and soft breaks on top of the standard. The best parallel that comes to my ‘rapidly-running-out-of-synonyms-for-’mixture’ mind is DJ Shadow’s 1996 album Entroducing. A record that takes you, for want of a less pretentious idiom, on a journey. From start to tingling finish In Colour takes you a place. Like ketamine. Or jerking off.
Bad Art & Weirdo Ideas – Beach Slang
Mike: I listened to Beach Slang a lot in the latter half of 2015, and the only reason they haven’t featured more prominently in our albums list is because – as Dan pointed out to me – they only really do one song over and over. But what a song! I mean their style of music is everything I love about rock music: anthemic vocals, fuzzed out guitars, no pretension, jangly bits, a punk rock beat. But there really isn’t a lot of depth to them. For me that’s not really a criticism: I’d rather hear a band do one thing and do it brilliantly than be a half arsed jack of all trades, and “Bad Art & Weirdo” ideas nicely typifies everything that is great about Beach Slang.
Picture This – Kero Kero Bonito
Brendan: I’m a bit of a Japanophile – and no, not the tentacle-porn loving type. It’s hard to spend two years in Tokyo and not absorb a fundamental appreciation for the Japanese style of doing things, and this goes for j-pop too. You just end up liking the analog video game, shit I’m falling through a rainbow, ow my ears are filled with pinball machine noises, typical of j-pop music – nay, you end up loving it, which is probably why Picture this by Kero Kero Bonito made it into my top pop tracks. They’re a British unit, but damn they blast a polished j-pop sound that would rival any true j-pop outfit.
Coffee – Miguel
Mike: I’m not really much of a fan of R&B as a genre. I’ve got nothing against it, it’s just not my thing. But “Coffee” is a fucking tune man! A super catchy lyric about coffee as a thinly veiled metaphor for having sex in the morning (the album version of the track rather unnecessarily replaces the word “coffee” with “fucking” in the chorus just in case you weren’t absolutely sure what he was talking about) with a hint of electronica and psychedelics thrown in. The accompanying album Wildheart was pretty shit hot too. I get it now.
Wide Open – Chemical Brothers
Dan: It’s easy to disregard The Chemical Brothers as a bunch of washed out old has-beens banging the drum (machine) for a bygone era that has been surpassed by so many drops and distorted synthesizers. If you’d said ‘The Chemical Brothers have a new record out this year’ to me in 2005 I would have put down my Nokia flip-phone, made a ‘Pfffft’ noise and gone back to thinking about what a spanner George W Bush was. It’s is true, the Brothers Chemical did sort of fall off for a bit, precisely because they seemed to be set on releasing ‘Chemical Bros. versions’ of existing style of electronic music. This year’s ‘Born in the Echoes’ record is a decent listen because is takes the music back to what they were good at.
This is in part why the album didn’t make my top albums list; it is pretty much like a compilation of the less anthemic tracks of Exit Planet Dust and Dig Your Own Hole, but Wide Open is a truly beautiful song if not a club banger. One of the Chemical Brothers great skills was bringing in superb collaborative artists, and in the spirit of Noel Gallagher on 1997’s Setting Sun, Beck provides the longing and sad vocals over a simple beat.
In much the same way that the remixes of Setting Sun were the floorfillers, the remixes of Wide Open are probably more likely to be heard in clubs but the original, with a stripped down drum-line works as a bitter-sweet pop song
L.S.D – A$AP Rocky
Dan: At. Long. Last. A$AP was an interesting album. It was interesting seeing a rapper who was definitely typecast into a style of music try and break out of that. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t. The choice of L.S.D (abbreviated from Love Sex Dreams) as a second single was an illustration of A$AP Rocky’s new experimentation. Sounding like a psychedelic motorway drive, the lysergic slow-jam references a girl that you’re not quite sure is really there or part of the dreamscape. A far cry from getting Wild for the Night, the song is reflective and touched with something…sadness? Maybe he’s just looking at his hands. There’s patterns in his skin he’s not noticed before. He should really concentrate on the road.
Coat Check Girl – Jeff the Brotherhood
Mike: I’ve been following JEFF the Brotherhood on and off for a while now, and although I’ve always liked them I kinda always thought their songwriting chops were a bit weak up till this point (with the exception of “Hey Friend” which I love). That changed for me the first time I heard “Coat Check Girl” – they’ve really stepped up their songwriting chops here. Four minutes of pure adrenaline layered with an ultra catchy melody to create a song as rock and roll as Definitely Maybe-era Liam Gallagher vomiting whiskey down the front of a Ramones tshirt whilst punching Bono in the bollocks. This is pretty much my entire taste in music compressed into one song.
A New Wave – Sleater Kinney
Mike: The whole No Cities To Love album that this track was taken from was superb but this was the so that totally floored me and converted me to a Sleater Kinney fan for life. The harmonies, that chorus, those high kicks! Fucking hell if this isn’t what rock n roll is all about, then what is?
Under A Rock – Waxahatchee
Mike: Another song that’s not left my playlist all year, “Under a Rock” is a fucken TUNE man. It’s folky and rocky and grungy in all the right places, and arguably sports the finest melody of any tune in 2015. It’s accompanying album Ivy Tripp is well worth checking out too.
Shutdown – Skepta
Dave: Imagine having worse timing than Dizzee Rascal. He’s off doing novelty electronica collabs with Robbie Fucking Williams while grime is just now reaching an American audience and blowing up without him. Of course there have been people soldiering on and making grime music throughout and in between these peaks in mainstream popularity – Skepta is one of them. Contrary to Dizzee’s child prodigy success story a decade ago, Skepta’s rise reads like a long-deserved payoff after years of hard work writing, producing, label management and rapping in the middle distance of the grime scene. There’s nothing technical that sets “Shutdown” miles apart from other decent grime songs, but something about the confident flow, lyrical attitude and the nonchalantly menacing delivery ensured its breakthrough success. And, as if to cement the fact that Skepta has finally arrived at prominence, Lily Allen attacked him at a party in September. So there you go.
Fame and Fortune – The Libertines
Dan: I was as surprised as anyone when The Libertines actually managed to release a new album this year. My proverbial bow-tie spun when, upon first listen, I discovered in aghast amazement that it didn’t suck harder than ‘2004 Pete Doherty’ over a blackened bit of tin-foil. It might seem strange then, that I’d pick a song from said album that sounded so much like an Up the Bracket-era B-side. Well, okay. It stems from what I liked about The Libertines in the first place; the rough anthems that came off of as tunes you could bellow along with. I never thought Pete Doherty was a poet and that Babyshambles were a bit crap because, other than Fuck Forever, they didn’t have the stuff you could sing along to. Fame and Fortune is a martial stomp, drawing on the grubby bonhomie of a wasted night on the slosh. It fits the bill.
The Benefit of Confrontation – Santiparro, feat. Will Oldham
Brendan: Okay, so I’m an old Will Oldham fan from long ago. My teenage years were steeped in that wailing Palace Music/Brothers sound and although I don’t keep up with all Will does these days, I’ve always had a fondness for the man’s artistry. Then I stumbled onto this little ditty by Santiparro and it has earned some heavy playback on my devices. The acoustics in this song are wonderful and complemented really nicely with gentle vocals that slowly grow as the song progresses. Will Oldham’s artistry isn’t missing on this song either and his “oooo-ooo” in the chorus is exactly what was needed to give the song a unique sound. This heartfelt ditty from Santiparro’s True Prayer is by no means the exception and there are plenty of tracks worth checking out on the album, perhaps on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
You have lived many lives
To free the mind
It just takes time
To be the light
Rips in the Paper – Malik B and Mr Green
Mike: It was a toss up between this and the more upbeat “We’re Gonna Make It” from Unpredictable but I went with the darker “Rips in the Paper” because it was the song that got me hooked on these guys in the first place. Everything about this song fucking kills it: the spooky “whilsted” backing, the way the beat propels the song along, and of course Malik B’s fluid rhyming. Hip hop doesn’t get much better.
Animals – Dr Dre feat DJ Premier
Brendan: Well, it’s not too difficult to fathom why this is one of my top tracks for dirty old 2015 as this Dre collab with DJ Premier is exactly as good as you’d imagine it to be. What’s better is it’s Dre’s, uh, how do I put it, soulful message track. Each Dre album seems to have one of them. We heard Ghetto Boy on The Chronic and The Message on 2001 denouncing street violence, and Animals seems to fill that gap on Compton. Initially titled FSU (Fucking Shit Up), it’s an angry track and was lyrically inspired by the police manslaughter of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and it certainly captures the collective ire that was prevalent in 2015. The production is perfect and to me is the climax of the album. Big juicy g-funk beats with a deft Premier edge, you know, those chubby strings and horns driving things along. Anderson Paak has the perfect lilting vocals introducing the track before Dre kicks on, spitting as he does. Sadly, Talib Kweli recorded a verse that never made it into the final mix which is a shame but maybe, one day, it’ll find its way into the daylight. This track got some heavy rotation from me along with several other monsters on Compton.
And the old folks tell me it’s been going on since back in the day
But that don’t make it okay
And the white folks tell me all the looting and the shooting’s insane
But you don’t know our pain
California Nights – Best Coast
Mike: Best Coast are a strange beast. Their lyrics rarely stretch beyond a 14 year old’s poetry and their song subject matter draws from one of two subjects: love, or their beloved home state of California. And yet there’s just something about them – they’re absolutely one of my all time favourite bands. They have beautiful layered melodies courtesy of lead singer and songwriter Bethany Cosentino, and their short, sharp burst of punk infused indie crunch pop are as near to musical perfection as you can as far as I’m concerned.
2015 was the year that Best Coast inevitably signed to a major label and released a slightly slicker version of what they’ve been doing all along, hopefully to a much deserved wider audience. And while California Nights is as good an album as anything they’ve done (and a great starting off point if you’re interested in checking them out) I also felt that it lost a little bit of something in the process. A few of the songs are just a little too slick, the guitars a little too compressed, that the balance is just a tiny bit of. For a band where lyrics are and musical variation are not strong points, minute things like can make a difference to the end product.
The one place that they broke their formula was on the albums title track. Although the lyrics are as simplistic as ever (but hey, if you love the band as much as I do, that’s almost part of their appeal) they use their new major label studio time to great effect here, serving up a psychedelic tinged slow burning belter of a song that just serves to remind you what a great band they are. Just don’t expect too much depth, and Best Coast are everything you need.
Hinterland – Lonelady
Mike: To be honest, I know fuck all about Lonelady, except that this song has been stuck on my Spotify starred playlist – and consequently, in my head – for most of the year and I still haven’t got sick of it. Sort of a pop tune with Krautrock leanings, it’s catchy as fuck and those guitar riffs are just rad as fuck. Her album of the same name is great too – I admittedly haven’t given it as much attention as it deserves – but this is the definite standout.
Gosh – Jamie XX
Dan: I maintain that Jamie xx’s In Colour doesn’t really have any natural singles and it works, albeit superbly, as an album however, if the ubiquity of Gosh is anything to go by I am wrong. It was pretty much impossible to go anywhere in 2015 and not hear the colon rumbling bass and the fuzzy “Oh My Gosh” sample. Despite sounding like a clip from a bygone era of rave, Gosh was in danger of becoming the ‘Wandering Eye’ of the year; played to death anywhere where there was coffee and food was served on something other than a plate. It was literally EVERYWHERE. Which was good. Okay, not everywhere. Not your girlfriend’s place. She still listens to Red Hot Chili Peppers. Break up with her.
Way Too Much – Wavves
Brendan: Wavves. *shakes his head* Wavves, right, you know what I mean? Ha! Wavves! They’re just one of those bands that everything they touch turns to gold. The single Way too much was no exception. The track bursts into action with their punchy punk rock with its trademark just-enough-sloppiness, and doesn’t cease. The track length weighs in at a mammoth 2.33 long so you’d be mad to not chuck it on repeat for the sake of rinsability. This track always puts me in a good mood.
Later on, I don’t hope to find myself laid out in pieces
I’ve been scattered and divided for the reason, I don’t know
And it’s hurting so much
Twist My Fingaz – YG
Mike: YG’s “Twist My Fingaz” was an absolutely huge tune in 2015, and rightly so. This is old school west coast g-funk at it’s finest, but there’s nothing old school about YG’s rapping. There was no album to accompany it though so keep an eye out for that in 2016, it’ll be huge.
Did I mention this song’s lyrics are great too? Well, they are:
Hold up, I really got something to say
I’m the only one who made it out the West without Dre
Empty Threat – Chvrches
Dan: It almost seems as if we need to set up some sort of handicap system where other bands who aren’t Chvrches get priority treatment on ‘Best of Lists’ to compensate for the fact that they aren’t Chvrches. Take Grimes out of the equation and basically the battle for catchiest, most energetic and flat-out best pop song of the year came down to Clearest Blue and Empty Threat, are both sung by Lauren Mayberry. Definitely the natural successor to The Mother We Share, Empty Threat is an urgent stab of dance music which you’d have to be some sort of frog not to take to immediately. Listen to Empty Threat and you are left asking yourself “Are men at a disadvantage in music…” *strokes neckbeard, dons fedora and takes to Men’s Rights sub-Reddit for a cry-wank*
California – Grimes
Mike: It’s pretty tough to choose a single standout track from an album amazing as Grimes’ Art Angels. “Flesh Without Blood” and “Kill VS Maim” are definitely up[ there, but the highlight on an album full of highlights is definitely “California”.
Dan: I am going to come clean on this: I had (and I am still not totally disabused of this notion) that ‘California’ in this song refers to a person. I mean, it makes sense given the lyrics: a high-energy wailing swan-song to a lover that will, if she’s honest, be back. No-one would write a song about a state, least of which a state with as little cultural inspiration as California.
King Kunta – Kendrick Lamar
Brendan: King Kunta was one of my most played tracks according to my Year of Spotify. I never grew tired of it and even as we crack on with 2016, should it come on whilst I’m on the shuffle, it’ll get played; none of this, Oh, I’m over it, I’ll just skip this track business.
Musically it just kind of jives along and gets your foot tapping, but as most musical commentators have noted, Lamar’s vocals have an improv feel that draw you in further. Lyrically, the more you listen to it, the more intriguing it gets. Is he just jamming? What’s he mad about? What is the yams? Yes, Kendrick, I do want the funk and I am gon’ take it.
It’s that time of year again, and like we do every year, we’ve sat down with the good folks at At The Drive Thru Podcast sat down to
drink tequila chat about our favourite and least favourite musical moments of 2015. Check out the podcast and the accompanying playlist below.
The Grammys are a few weeks old now and still the predictable Kanye hate trudges on. We all know that Kanye West is one of history’s great douchebags and that his wife is one of the worst people alive. These are indisputable facts, and not up for debate. But still, seriously people, what the fuck.
So for those of you that missed it (really?), Beck was awarded album of the year at this year’s Grammys on account of being around for ages – the basic Grammy awards qualification for non-pop acts. Beyonce was again in contention for best album, and Kanye again attempted to take the stage to demonstrate his dissatisfaction with this result. Beck was actually pretty cool about it, and Kanye never actually took the mic, but loudly voiced his views regarding the matter in a post-awards interview for which he has since apologised, albeit quite a long time after the actual event.
And so the internet came alive with the type of unfunny memes that only people who don’t normally create memes or listen to modern music can come up with. “Let’s mashup a Beck song with a Kanye song! What Beck songs do we know?” Not that many as it turns out:
Apparently Beck hasn’t had any decent songs since 1994. I mean, I get that the title “Loser” is fitting if you wanna slag someone off, but fuck me, predictable much? Seriously, when someone like Will Butler from fellow Grammy winning plod-rockers Arcade Fire (criteria: being around for ages and releasing lots of albums) gets onboard, you know the joke is dead. We also got gems of musical wisdom like this:
So why the butthurt on my part? Obviously the Grammys are hella-lame and have about as much to do with good music as Kings of Leon’s drum kit. And I like Beck: Morning Phase is a great album! We even featured it in our best albums of 2014, although not at the top. The artist that did take the top spot – Run The Jewels – have about as much chance of winning a Grammy as any other cutting edge act of the last 50 years: none whatsoever. Nor would they have any reason to want one: Grammy awards are for carbon copy major label groomed pop stars and ageing rock acts who’ve qualified out of sheer longevity alone. Beyonce’s album didn’t even make our list, but I’d speculate that it is more worthy of the best album Grammy because of its surprise release – it had more powerful and widespread cultural impact, which is surely what an awards ceremony for which musical quality takes a back seat is all about.
Also the idea that Beck’s music is somehow more worthy than Beyonce’s because Beck wrote it all and plays more instruments is ludicrous. That’s not what pop music is about. Elvis Presley didn’t write his own songs either. Songwriting is arguably the most important skill in the music industry, and kudos to Beck for being the musical equivalent of a swiss army knife, but that doesn’t make Beyonce any less relevant or her music any less worthy. These are different genres, they have different criteria and different elements that make them great. Would Morning Phase be any less of an album if Beck hadn’t written it all himself? Of course it wouldn’t. In any case, do you know who does write, perform on and produce all of their own music? Kanye West does.
The idea that Kanye is unworthy to hold a flame to the likes of Beck is ridiculous in itself. Beck himself expressed admiration for Kanye’s music after the event, and he is absolutely correct about Kanye’s great recording output over the last few years. His first three albums are absolute classics, and everything he does is exciting and unpredictable. He is one of popular music’s few remaining innovators (a group in which I would also include Beck), and to say that he is unworthy simply because he’s a bit of a douchenozzle is absurd. These people are rock and pop stars: they’re not like you or I. They exist to provide us with entertainment, and any Grammys that Kanye attends is bound to be interesting.
It’s also been pointed out that there could be an element of racism to all of the Kanye hate. I’m not gonna touch on this too much because I know that it doesn’t apply to all of the haters, but the gist of it is that people don’t want to see an uppity black man that doesn’t know his place outshine their largely white rock royalty. I don’t think this is the whole issue, but it’s still a valid point that needs to be noted.
Loads of fellow celebrities jumped to Beck’s defence – despite the fact that he didn’t want any – and couldn’t wait for the chance to take down Kanye West and his rock star behaviour. At least they didn’t lead the charge with someone who was barely relevant 20 years ago and probably hasn’t been invited to a Grammys event in over a decade:
So the gist of it is this: Kanye, Beck and Beyonce are all great artists. If you can’t appreciate the artistry of someone like Kanye West, then that’s your loss: he’s responsible for some of the finest hip hop production this century. And if you buy into the Grammys hype, then you get what you deserve. Kanye is as worthy as anyone up there, and his antics this year elevated a boring music industry circle jerk into the sort of event that you’d expect with so many flamboyant personalities in the room. Kanye is due to drop a new album this year, and based his track record, that is far more exciting news than almost anything else this year.
You want to talk artistry? Then check out Kanye West’s back catalogue. The man knows his stuff.Tweet
So Far Away – Axxa/Abraxas
Dan: Sneaking in at the beginning of the year, this song sounds like Teenage Fanclub a bit revved up, which I am aware doesn’t narrow it down much, but you should listen to it. Stoned vocals and sixties sounding guitar and that. Yeah, you’ll like it.
Kelly – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Mike: I was a pretty huge fan of Pains Of Being Pure At Heart’s last album, 2011’s Belong, but for some reason I never really got into their latest one, Days Of Abandon, and I’m not quite sure why. All of the elements that I loved were there – albeit with keyboards mostly swapped out for janglier guitars, but I’m fine with that – but for some reason I just couldn’t be bothered this time round. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that over 6 months after it’s release the full album still isn’t available on Spotify in New Zealand so I had to download a pirated mp3 version like a fucking caveman.
The singles were all pretty good though, and the best was probably “Kelly” sung by Jen Goma, of the great shoegaze band A Sunny Day in Glasgow, which is an upbeat pop number of the finest quality, even if it does unashamedly mimic the bass riff from “This Charming Man”. Great tune.
Joyland – Trust
Dan: A very pretty song that sounds like trance, kind of. Good for having a coffee and listening to thinking “I don’t normally like electronica but I like this.”
Thinking Out Loud – Ed Sheeran
Mike: Say what you will about Ed Sheeran: I like him. The bulk of the criticism of him seems to come from the mere fact that he’s a pop star (and perhaps because he’s a ginge) but I think his music is great. It stands out in a world of bland pop music as something fresh and a bit different. And “Thinking Out Loud” is arguably his best song to date: a straight up soul number that brings to mind Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On”. He puts on a great live show too.
Dan: An interesting thing about Ed Sheeran is he looks a lot like Riot Radio contributor Brendan. While I gather this is actually quite a lot less interesting to you, the reader, who may not know what Brendan looks like but I can gaurantee it is still the most interesting thing about Ed Sheeran.
Cannibal – Silversun Pickups
Mike: These guys just keep going from strength to strength. Usually sounding like a not-shit version of Billy Corgan’s current Smashing Pumpkins iteration, this song is a change of direction, marking the band’s first foray into electronica tinged rock. And it’s badass. The song is the band’s only new release in 2014, accompanying a greatest hits collection that seems a little bit premature after only three albums. Hopefully they’re not breaking up or some shit.
I’ll Be the First – Kill It Kid
Dave: Kill it Kid are rad and this song is rad. I’m sure when I say “blues rock” many of you will run away, but if I said “and really heavy too, with alternating male/female lead vocals, handclaps, harmonies, munted guitar virtuosity and energy to burn” perhaps some of you might come back. The album behind this single is out in some markets but not in NZ, but 2011’s “Feet Fall Heavy” and its lead single “Pray On Me” are worth checking out if this is your cuppa. Continuing the cherished british musical heritage of plain-as-day robbery at the expense of black american bluesman (to the point of pulling a Moby and straight up sampling some of them on the last album), this is perhaps not music in which you’re gonna enjoy multiple levels of appreciation. But shit me it bangs. It bangs hard.
Argentina Parts 1, 11 & 111 – Tokyo Police Club
Mike: “Argentina” is that rare thing: a song that injects new energy into the indie rock genre. A sprawling 8 minute, mostly upbeat, it moves through tempo and melody changes while always remaining focussed and more importantly, never getting boring. The accompanying Forcefield EP/ mini album is pretty fucking rad as well.
Killer Bangs – Honeyblood
Dan: Honeyblood were totally unknown to me up until the time I heard this song for the first time at a party. It was one of those moments where you ask “Who is this? This song rules!” and the person answers “What am I, your fucking slave, look at the Spotify playlist. Fuck!” and you say “Well, that was uncalled for, but okay.” Killer Bangs was the first song of Honeyblood’s I heard and my favourite but to be honest, the whole self-titled record is pretty good and pretty similar. Killer Bangs is a fun two-minute power-pop party that sticks in your head for days, and you find yourself singing on the train. Or if you don’t believe in public transport, at the wheel of your Hummer.
Damage – Pharoahe Monch
Dan: Over-all I was a bit disappointed with Pharoahe Monch’s ‘PTSD’ record. Most of the reason for this came from a lot of high expectations generally, and after seeing him in 2012 personally, it was going to be tough to match the intensity of both his performance live and his previous work. Another factor was probably that 2014 was such a strong year for hip-hop albums generally, it was up against some beastly competition. However, while the record was a bit ‘Hmmmm’, Pharoahe Monch’s unique rhyming style and odd tune structure produced some gems.
Damage is a shouty party tune and it has one of those hooks that you keep saying over and over again with a take on the “Let me slaaaaay your crew” which makes it a perfect addition to Oasis and Jay-Z’s ’99 Problems’ in the repertoire of ‘songs you bellow along to while inebriated’. If you can rap as fast as Monch can. Which you can’t. Sorry.
Inspector Norse – Todd Terje
Dan: One of the thing you find about dance music journalism, is the tendency to pick particular ‘cities’ as much as particular artists, or even genres, as being the trend point of new music. It makes a bit of sense; the petri-dish of experimentation is usually clubs as DJing in those clubs is how producers tend to make their crust. Unlike in other forms of performance music, it is perfectly fine for DJs to play literally the same music as their contempories and cross-pollination of a sound can happen quite quickly. This led to people talking with much rapidity in 2014 about The Oslo Sound.
Get Along Like U – Vertical Scratchers
Dan: This song is a fun slice of rock’n’roll that doesn’t sound like Jesus Lizard. That’s not an entirely facile comparison either – Matthew Taylor, founding member of the Vertical Scratchers, used to play in bands that bore the somewhat idiotic genre moniker ‘math rock’. Yeah, this song doesn’t sound like any of those bands.
Can’t Stop – Theophilus London feat. Kanye West
Mike: I’ve been following Theophilus for a while now and absolutely loved his early mixtapes and his debut album, 2011’s Timez Are Weird These Days is an absolute classic. His second album Vibes is decent too, but I’m really not digging his new down-tempo sound anywhere near as much as the more danceable earlier stuff. “Can’t Stop” is the standout for me though, and not just cause it features some up and comer called Kanye West. It’s a nice combination of the two rapper’s styles – Theophilus does his trip hoppy mellow chorus singing thing, while Kanye drops his usual self-aggrandising lyrics and adds some of the great production flourishes for which he’s known: female vocals built into a beat based around jazz drums etc.
Planet Key – Darren Watson
Dan: A disgusting bile-flecked diatribe against the Most Popular Prime Minister Ever enjoyed by people who think Dirty Politics is real. You can literally hear the tall-poppy syndrome vibrating through the chords and you can just tell the artist believes in a minumum wage and that feminism is a good idea. Makes me sick all over my keyboard to even think about it, which makes it EVEN HARDER to bash out comments on Kiwiblog than my short temper and limited intellect already make it.
Istanbul – Morrissey
Bren: Okay, so personally I’ve never really indulged in Mozza’a post-Smiths shenanigans as he always lacked the lack of colour that I found so appealing when he was with the Smiths. You know, that muted kind of whinge-a-thon that he is so good at. But dear fuck, Istanbul truly got me and it’s hard not to put this up there with anything else he’s done previously, collaboratively or otherwise.
Musically, it’s well-produced with an epicness behind the chorus of hectic, chugging, reverberating guitars, although – after a quick investigation apparently Mozzington opted for a cigar box guitar; fair enough, it works. His voice has held up exceptionally well and he still maintains that terrifically powerful sustain with the touch of a quaver that has always been so remarkable.
Swimming Pool – Emmy The Great
Mike: – Emmy The Great’s 2009 album First love is one of my favourite albums of all time, which is interesting (at least to me) because it’s not the sort of music I’m usually super into: fragile, singer songwriter odes to love and loss, it’s a truly beautiful and understated little album. She followed it with Virtue in 2011 which was pretty good but failed to recapture the magic of it’s predecessor, although it introduced some interesting new arrangements and instrumentation into the mix. Since then she’s been relatively quiet on the music front, spending most of her time writing for the likes of Vice and the Guardian.
So it was great to see her return with a new single at the end of 2014 (and an EP just released), and “Swimming Pool” is excellent. It’s another step in a new direction: taking the complex arrangements of Virtue and turning them up a notch, with rich guitar tones and haunting vocals over a dark brooding melody. It also features Tom Fleming from Wild Beasts on backing vocals.
I can’t wait to see what 2015 has in store for Mrs The Great.
212º – Jasiri X
Dave: Jasiri X has made his name as a firebrand political rapper who physically appears genie-like at the sites of social unrest across America to shoot guerilla music videos. He was on site for Occupy Wall Street, in the public chamber in Madison, WI for the mass pickets against Gov Walker’s anti-union legislation, in Florida in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s death, in Palestine going through checkpoints etc etc. And almost miraculously, with this level of contrivance and his fast work, his music is frequently excellent and organic. This year’s included a collab with none other than Chuck D, but it’s Jasiri X’s response to Ferguson which outshines all his recent work. He always sounds displeased, but this is real anger, and a song he says a couple of times in the lyric that he’s not entirely comfortable performing. In a handful of bars Jasiri X blends anger, history, justice with ruminations on the nature and morality revenge. It’s a powerful piece where this often high-concepts communicator hunches his shoulders a little and tells us how he really feels.
M.E.A.T. – Tomahawk
Dave: Last year I wrote about Tomahawk’s album ‘Oddfellows’ that it was a decent record but lacked any standout songs which really flexed, grooved and smashed like I knew they were capable of. This year they release this song from the same sessions but not included on the album as a single, and it really flexed, grooved and smashed like I knew they were capable of. I don’t know if holding your best cuts for off-album singles is the new digital distribution strategy or if this was just tonaly out of step with the rest of the album, but it sounds like a vibrant rocking weird-ass band again. Thanks for faking me out, fuckers.
Keep Watch – Wu-Tang Clan
Mike: The album received mixed reviews, but this song – the first of the Wu-Tang’s 2014 singles – was a classic. Released in March, I’m still listening to it without getting sick of it at the end of the year.
Go Away – Weezer feat. Beth Cosentino
Mike: I’m a Weezer fan from way back, but I failed to understand the hype around Weezer’s 2014 “comeback” album Everything Will Be Alright In The End. The only way it seemed to differ from previous Weezer failures was that this time around the shitty padding tracks were rock tunes instead of shitty pop and disco tracks. But like all latter Weezer albums, there were still a few good ones on there: opener “Ain’t Got Nobody” is pretty decent, as is “The British Are Coming”. But it should be no surprise to readers of this blog that my personal favourite was “Go Away” featuring Best Coast’s Beth Cosentino, which perfectly fuses the best bits of Blue Album-era Weez with Best Coast’s breezy summer pop.
Yellow Flicker Beat – Lorde
Mike: Not a huge year for Lorde, but what little she did release (all of it on the The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 soundtrack, which she also compiled). This included an excellent cover of Bright Eyes’ “Ladder Song”, and a collaboration of the so-crazy-but-somehow-it-works-really-well between her, Pusha T, Q-Tip, Stromae and the mighty Haim, all of which would’ve been included on this list were it not for the arbitrary rule I set for myself of one appearance per artist per list. So that leaves her one true original composition of 2014, “Yellow Flicker Beat”, a majestic slow burning number that bodes well for the quality of future releases. Also one of the top live artists I saw in 2014 as well.
Dan: The Hunger Games: Cockingjay Soundtrack single handedly changed the answer to the question “Who still listens to movie soundtracks?” from “the elderly and people who don’t like music but need some inoffensive music for an office party” to “Everybody.” Yellow Flicker Beat, the biggest hit on this record (made even bigger once Paul McCartney protégé Kanye West had a crack at remixing it), is definitely a Lorde song. Her districntive voice is, well, distinctive. If you don’t like Lorde you won’t like this song but since everyone seems to like Lorde, this is unlikely to be an impediment. Her vocals sound like that song you heard in the gym all the time, you know the one, Team. Yeah, that one.
I don’t like to bandy around the term ‘stark, clinical synthesisers’ willy-nilly, but it certainly has them in spades; and builds the song on them to create an epic sense of urgency. Like needing to go to the toilet. But in a good, danceable way.
The Museum of Broken Relationships – Veruca Salt
Dave: Veruca Salt were a huge band for me in the nineties. If you want better harmony-laden rock your only real option is the Beatles. I even followed the post-breakup 2000s “Veruca Salt” (Louise Post’s solo vehicle) with enthusiasm. So when it was announced that Veruca Salt were reforming with their original lineup and recording with the producer of their debut album I was pretty excited. The Museum of Broken Relationships is no let down. Named for a real place – an art space in europe which collects and catalogues the artefacts of failed love – it’s a fitting opening statement from the mending of the allegedly Fleetwood Mac-sized rift between Post and Nina Gordon. The song’s repeating four-chord pattern, varying only in intensity and emphasis, is unashamedly 90s rock (think ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’). Post’s habit from her solo period (now apparently referred to by the band as ‘Veruca Starship’) of borrowing from and stitching together parts of other songs is in effect here, with Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Cecilia’ loaning “Jubilation, he loves me again” to an irony-laden chorus. The b-side “It’s Holy” is just as good also, reminiscent of the wonderfully bolshy, self-celebratory vibe found on 1997’s ‘8 Arms To Hold You’.
Years of War – Porter Robinson
Dan: As I pointed out in the ‘Top Albums’ blog post, ‘Years of War’ has some of the most god-awfully earnest nonsense lyrics. But is it ostensibly dance music. The epic ‘hands in the air’ bombast of the tune though means that loads of people probably chant along to it at festivals with names like ‘Visionquest’ or ‘Electric Saddle’. In between hugging their mates. But in, like, a totally platonic way.
Mike:The whole Worlds album fucking rules and ‘Years of War’ is as good an example as any of the great music contained therein.
Hot 97 Summer Jam – Chumped
Mike: I covered my love for these guys in the Best Albums of 2014 post but if I absolutely had to pick out one song from these guys it would this one. Angsty, ultra nerdy pop punk that can’t be faked, this is just garage punk rock at it’s absolute finest. Love love love.
Easy Rider – Action Bronson
Mike: This is probably my favourite hip hop song of the year. I’m pretty late to the Action Bronson party, but this song has every thing I love in a great hip hop tune: a swirling, psychedelic rhythm topped with ragged unapologetic lyrics loosely based around the classic movie with which the song shares its name. As close to a classic hip hop tune as any you’ll hear this year.
Ghetto Tales – DJ Mustard
Dan: 2014 was pretty much The Year of Mustard. His house-influenced bare-blocks production became synonymous with hip-hop and R’n’B, with the tell-tale verbal signature ‘MustardOnTheBeat’ appearing at the beginning of tracks by YG, Ty Dolla $ign, 2 Chainz, Kid Ink, and Tyga this year, and pretty much everyone else the year before.
He also produced a record, 10 Seasons, which was a massive hit. This is sort of where a musical preference issue comes in for me because 10 Seasons probably should have made the ‘top albums’ chart, at least for me, but not being a massive fan of most modern r’n’b it made a lot of the record pretty skip-worthy for me. Entirely personal.
The hip-hop tracks however, I was a fan of, and Ghetto Tales being my pick probably also highlights another personal musical preference for ‘hip-hop that sounds a lot like hip-hop I grew up with.’ Ghetto Tales is a narrative ‘life in the ‘Hood’ rap underpinned by stark slow electro beat. Probably the stand out part of the song is the homage to Eazy-E’s Dr Dre produced ‘Boyz in tha Hood’ in the line “Woke up around noon, I knew that I had to be in mid-town soon”.
Yep, I’m that much of an old sad bastard. However, if I was the type I might use this as an illustration of a wider point – DJ Mustard potentially represents as big a seismic shift in production, particularly on the West Coast as one particularly wealthy former member of NWA did – a simple distinctive sound that is shaping a new style of hip-hop.
Seasons (Waiting on You) – Future Islands
Mike:“Seasons (Waiting on You)” was always gonna be pretty close to the top of any list of great songs in 2014. Propelled by an amazing Late Show performance and David Letterman’s mocking/ tribute to singer Samuel T. Herring’s unique dancing style, Future Islands were suddenly on everyone’s radar. And while the accompanying album Singles was amazing too, it’s opener and first single “Seasons (Waiting on You)” remains the band’s standout breakaway hit.
As much influenced by the Smiths as it is by synth-pop acts like Depeche Mode or Hot Chip, “Seasons” is an emotive, danceable pop classic for the ages.
Like a lot of trends fuelled by journalists wanting free tickets to places, a lot of it was hot air. I don’t feel bad about not being able to name more than one stand out Oslo Sound producer because neither could most of them. This name was almost certainly Todd Terje. This isn’t simply because it looks like a typo of ‘Todd Terry’ – his unique blend of disco and house was called by some people with cocaine habits, space disco, and his studio album ‘Its Album Time’ was a big cross-over-to-the-mainstream hit.
All this is well and good but why then pick this one track? And don’t say because it is a pun on Inspector Morse. No one cares about Inspector Morse anymore (though, interestingly, the Inspector Morse ‘Cherabin and Seraphim’ episode from the early-90s has one of the funniest depections of tabloid ‘acid house moral panic’ of any TV show ever). Inspector Norse probably appeals to my old-as-arse sensibilities – Terje’s first single off the record bounces along with an eighties electrodisco pulse. It is almost impossible not to dance to. While it’s sound owes a lot to the last time RayBans were cool, the feel and the sheer catchiness of the tune owes as much to Escort and Crystal Ark of a couple of years back: shiny dance music with catchy pop hooks.
After the Disco – Broken Bells, Bigger Party – Speedy Ortiz, Black Mambo – Glass Animal, Alena – Yumi Zouma, Take Me – Sisyphus, Only You – Ellie Goulding, Eyes of the Muse – King Tuff, Undone – The Bird and The Bee, No Longer Silent – Cairo Knife Fight, I’m On Fire – Nico Vega, I Don’t Know You Anymore – Bob Mould, Girl – The Number Ones, So Now You Know – The HorrorsTweet
It’s been a weird year for music. There’s been plenty of really great stuff, but nothing that really smacks you over the head and screams “instant classic” like there was last year: no Days Are Gone, Howlin’ or The Bones Of What You Believe.
But that’s not to say it’s been a bad year for music: just one that’s been a lot different from last year. The rewards have still been there, just hidden in different places, more subtle. Indie rock and electronica weren’t quite as exciting as they have been in previous years – what was once new and exciting is beginning to get tired and in need of a refresh. As a result, hip hop, garage rock and rootsier genres – country, blues, folk – took up the slack. And sometimes having to dig a bit to really appreciate something is half the joy.
Lazaretto – Jack White
Mike: It’s been a mixed year for Jack White: on the one hand, Lazaretto was the biggest selling album on vinyl since the mid-90s thanks to a bunch of gimmicky but welcome features like dual-groove intros, hidden tracks and more. On the other hand, legendary Long Beach keyboard player Ikey Owens died in a hotel while on tour with White this year. Also, grumpy Jack became an internet meme, so he’s got that going for him which is nice. And he’s got Run The Jewels opening for him on an upcoming tour: respect.
But ultimately it’s the music that matters, and Lazaretto is a top album. A bit more country influenced than it’s predecessor Blunderbuss, there’s still a lot of the stuff we love about Jack White and his unique take on blues rock. And he sure does write a mean country tune too.
Origins – Eluveitie
Rich: I love folk metal. There’s something about the overall combinations of sounds that tickles my ears. I saw these guys in Sydney in 2013 and was lucky enough to meet them as well, and they’re some of the most down to earth musicians around. Origins is the followup to 2012’s Helvetios, which was an amazing record as well, and it’s hard for me to pick standouts, as it’s all so good. The contrast between Anna Murphy and Chrigel Glanzmann’s vocals is awesome, and the harp/hurdy-gurdy/fiddle/mandola/bagpipes/whistles fit incredibly well amongst the heavy guitar work. Anna Murphy’s 2013 solo album Cellar Darling is well worth a listen also, as it the rest of Eluveitie’s back catalogue.
Sonic Highways – Foo Fighters
Mike: I should probably explain why I’ve added the Foo Fighters to this list since I generally slag them off on a fairly regular basis. I mean, every time they have an album on the way the entire internet goes completely Grohl-mental and his fucking toothy face is all up in my shit 24/7. He seems like a nice enough guy, and sure, he’s got as solid a rock pedigree as anyone, but do we need every single thing he says turned into a click-bait headline? Nothing he says is particularly clever, get over it. And how are people still getting excited when they announce a tour here? Did they even fucking leave? They’re always here. If you’re a Foo Fighters fan and you haven’t seen them live yet, you’re either twelve or retarded. I’ve seen them six times – six fucking times! – and only one of those times was on purpose (ie. not at one of the numerous festivals they play every single year).
Which brings me to their music. Their first three albums are classics (I’m aware that not everyone loved There Is Nothing Left To Lose, but I liked it) but since then I’ve found every thing they’ve done ridiculously pedestrian. I even found their 2011 album Wasting Light, an album that everyone went nuts over, boring as all fuck.
So why is Sonic Highways on this list if I hate the Foo Fighters so much then? Well, first of all, I don’t hate them. I actually quite like them despite everything above. I just think they’re massively overhyped and over-exposed, and I get sick to death of both those things from any band. And the album didn’t make the list because of its accompanying TV series – although I have been enjoying that immensely – as I listened to the album and liked it before I’d even seen the show. It’s also not because of the guest appearances – I couldn’t give a shit if the guitarists from The Eagles (vomit), and Cheap Trick (overrated) are on there.
So what do I like about Sonic Highways? The truth is, I’m not actually entirely sure. I just know I like it, where all previous albums left me feeling flat. It’s not that it’s hugely different from its predecessors, but it’s different enough: the songs are less verse/chorus/verse, less predictable. There’s no boring ballads on there that they seem to churn out as third single without fail. Maybe it’s just the fact that they limited the track listing to 8 songs: it makes it feel more focussed. Whatever it is, I like this album, and I’m not going to hide it because of what I’ve said in the past. This album is pretty good.
Phantom Radio / No Bells On Sunday EP – Mark Lanegan Band
Dave: Lanegan is on at least a couple of releases each year, and it’s rare for any of them to suck, but it’s his rarer studio solo albums where the gold is usually found. Unfortunately though, Phantom Radio (packaged together with the No Bells On Sunday EP in most electronic formats) is his most forgetable effort in a while. It’s as competent and enjoyable as anything, but the spark that propelled his previous two records to greatness is missing. Lanegan is still in the krautrock, electronic inspired mode as he was for 2012’s ‘Blues Funeral’, but this no longer feels like a fresh inspired choice, and the production (some of it apparently done on a smartphone) sometimes feels clumsy lazy. None of the songwriting efforts can stand up to the highlights of 2004’s classic ‘Bubblegum’, and the criticisms I had last year of his repetitive reuse of lyrical tropes in his Duke Garwood collaboration ‘Black Pudding’ are even more applicable to this release (in fact, ‘Judgement Time’ is a barely reheated rehash of ‘War Memorial’ from that album). That all said, even stale Lanegan is a pretty formidible meal, and taken outside of the long shadow of his phenomenal back catalogue this is a very good album whose hits far outnumber its missteps. Opener ‘Harvest Home’ bangs, as does ‘Killing Season’, but the slick doesn’t stretch to the combined fifteen tracks.
A Better Tomorrow – Wu-Tang Clan
Mike: Wu-Tang records are hard to review. How to review an album twenty years down the track from arguably the most important group in hip hop’s history? I mean this is only their 6th attempt at a fully collaborative album. Their first two records are undisputed classics, while the last three have been patchy at best (especially the most recent, 2007’s 8 Diagrams), and that’s not even touching on the huge solo artist back catalogue from each rapper, some of which is amazing too.
I think it’s pretty safe to say that A Better Tomorrow continues the patchiness trend. It’s a good album (hence its appearance on this list), and I certainly like it a lot more than its aforementioned predecessor. Opener “Ruckus in B-Minor” is an instant Wu-classic, despite a clunky opening verse from the usually reliable Inspectah Deck, and singles “Ron O’Neal” and “Keep Watch” are bangers worthy of their pedigree too. There’s even a few experiments with light electronica that I think actually work quite well, and despite the classic Wu sound being largely absent, there’s enough nods to their trademarks (Kung Fu samples, pointless intros, a few recognisable RZA production trademarks here and there) to make this album a worthy addition to their canon.
However, there’s also “Miracle” which sports one of the worst choruses on a hip hop song, ever (it sounds like an outtake from Frozen), which is a shame because the rapping and underlying beat are pretty solid. “Necklace” also has that annoying feature of repeating a boring sample over and over as a “chorus”, and “The Preacher’s Daughter” is a pointless reworking of “Son of a Preacher Man”, which would’ve worked just fine if they hadn’t attempted to sing that song’s chorus (the RZA is no Frank Sinatra, if you haven’t noticed).
It will be interesting to see how history remembers A Better Tomorrow. For now I mostly like it.
Never Hungover Again – Joyce Manor
Mike: Another punk record that I really enjoyed in 2014, and much like Chumped’s Teenage Retirement, there’s nothing really new going on here, it’s just a collection of great songs. There’s a satisfying classic emo influence at work here (circa Sunny Day Real Estate et al) as well some nice Blink 182 style songwriting flourishes here and there (that’s a compliment in case you weren’t sure), in particular on the wonderful “Heart Tattoo”. All it takes is good songs to make punk interesting again: a lot of modern punk bands could learn from Joyce Manor.
SWIM – Die Die Die
Dave: I remember years ago when Die Die Die were touring in support of some other act and they’d play about 10 minute sets of the most frenetic music imaginable then suddenly vacate the stage leaving the audience completely unsure what they’d they’d just witnessed. These days Die Die Die still come at you unrelentingly fast, but there’s a bit more to them as well. No longer a two-piece, Michael Logie (F in Math, The Mint Chicks) now holds down bass, which is a perfect fit for the energetic outfit and gives the thrashing guitars and drums a bit fat gluey melodic and rythmic spine. The songs (especially some killer intros) build on this very well. Exciting stuff. Also the cover art is a painting. Yeah man. I’m no firm friend of this genre, and the intense nature of the record means I’m still more a fan of getting my Die Die Die in ten minute bursts, but there’s no denying this is a very good, very well made record.
Tomorrow’s Hits – The Men
Mike: Some people don’t like Brooklyn’s The Men. Their songs are sloppy, and almost all sound like they grew out of extended jams with a very loose structure laid over the top. That’s kind of what I like about ’em though. There’s absolute zero pretence here, just a band that puts out a great solid rock ‘n roll album almost every single year (I wish more bands I like would do that). This time they’ve chucked horns and pianos into the mix, throwing up an album that’s as much Exile On Main Street as it is Sonic Youth influenced. Keep it up, guys.
Nobody’s Smiling – Common
Bren: The epic year of hip hop continues. I became enamoured with Common after his 2005 masterpiece Be because of it’s amazing storytelling and seamless production. Nobody’s Smiling, a return to form, isn’t as bright or bouncy as Be and there isn’t as much of the story-telling type narrative that he is so good at either but more Nobody’s Smiling is tinged with a darkness, and a seriousness, like statements are being made and existence itself is being indicted. Notwithstanding, that essence doesn’t bring the album too far down as below the surface is a glimmer of light, a hopefulness for humanity, like in Kingdom featuring Vince Staples.
The album peaks for me with Common’s tribute to his earlier years and late cohort, the legend J Dilla, in Rewind That, which also stands as one of my favourite tracks for 2014. Well lyriced and tightly produced it covers Common’s memories as he and his associates worked their way into the musical world.
The city on our back, we was the opening act
Throw our tapes in the crowd, they throw ’em right back
But we stayed on track, they stayed on the tracks
I stayed on the raps ’til we made it on the map
Nobody’s Smiling features an amazing display of lyricism that one can come to expect from an amazing talent.
Single Mothers – Justin Townes Earle
Mike: Justin Townes Earle has a hell of a track record. 2009’s Midnight at the Movies and 2010’s Harlem River Blues are modern classics in the country/folk/rock genre. I even grew to love 2012’s soul-influenced Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now. So is Single Mothers as good as its predecessors? No, it’s not.
Recorded as one album of a two album sequence – Absent Fathers is due in January – it’s standard JTE fair, which is a good thing, trust me. There are some songs here as good as anything in his repetoire – singles “White Gardenias” and “Time Shows Fools” are great, as is opener “Worried About the Weather” and the looping riff-driven “Wanna Be a Stranger” – but overall is not quite as accomplished as his previous work. There’s nothing bad on here, it’s just that the overall quality doesn’t stand out quite as much as it did on his earlier records. It’s ever so slightly patchy, in other words. Perhaps it was recording two albums worth of content in one session that made him overreach his considerable talents, but we’ll see what happens on the next record. He can still totally bring it live though.
Morning Phase – Beck
Brendan: Having Beck in your top albums or songs list is kind of like having Star Wars in your top movie list or like coming away from Dan’s place sprinkled with talcum powder – it’s a gimme and expected. Beck is a virtuoso and of course anything he does is going to have merit.
The thing I love about Beck is how systematically his albums swing in style. From his energetic rough cut funk type neo-hip hop alt genre albums (Guero, Midnite Vultures etc) to the far far more mellow and meditative style albums (Sea Change, Mutations), he is a restless musician keen to wring every droplet of musical expression out of his being and what’s more you can sense that in his albums, you can sense his own personal catharsis.
And so then it’s the status quo for Beck’s softly dawn themed Morning Phase that sits squarely in the more mellow end of his spectrum. The tracks meander dreamily without descending too deeply into melancholia and his lyrics, although pensive are never ponderous.
Need something clement to see off that Sunday hangover? Pop on Morning Phase and let this self-contained album softly canter through its paces before effortlessly, culminating with the climactic Waking Light. You’ll be right as rain by the end of it, KFC or no.
Grand Morbid Funeral – Bloodbath
Rich: Bloodbath are amazing. Essentially the world’s most awesome metal side-project (and the most prominent reason that the Boss HM-2 distortion pedal still commands exorbitant prices on Ebay), they’ve been melting faces since 1998 with various lineups. This album is the first with Nick Holmes (ex-Paradise Lost) handling vocal duties, and it’s an absolute ripper. I’ve always loved the guitar tone on Bloodbath’s records (which is probably a result of the aforementioned HM-2), and Nick Holmes’ vocals are a perfect fit, not too screamy with just the right leval of growling menace. Standouts for me are opener “Let The Stillborn Come To Me”, “Famine of God’s Word”, and “Grand Morbid Funeral”.
A Record – Jay Satellite
Dave: After putting out ‘The Muscular Sorrow Of Sadbrain Beardman’ in January, ultra prolific indie rapper Satellite High retired, releasing a clearinghouse bandcamp album of his work in progress as we went. Before long though came this release under the new name Jay Satellite. The break from the past gave Jay the freedom to step into new territory – he asked fans of Satellite High to view this as you would the solo album from a band’s frontman, which makes sense. It’s sparser and more ethereal, sort of medidative in tone. Some of the more drawn out experiemental moments don’t bear repeated listening, but it’s cool to hear familiar structures and textures deconstructed. Jay returned to the Satellite High moniker later in the year, but this brave new unique approach appears here to stay, and that’s pretty exciting.
Singles – Future Islands
Mike: What to say about the Singles that hasn’t already been said? This was the closest 2014 had to a full blown indie rock/pop classic. Bolstered by the success of first single and opener “Seasons (Waiting on You)” after a memorable Late Show appearance, the previously unheard of (at least by me) Future Islands delivered an album of breezy blissed out indie-pop. Powered by singer Samuel T. Herring’s distinctive, gravelly, and evocative voice and a collection of synth-tinged upbeat tunes, Singles is one of 2014’s absolute success stories. A perfect summer record too.
Brendan: Conversations I’ve had.
Me: “Oh, hey, man, have you checked out Future Islands yet?”
Chimp: “Oh, yeah, checked them out ages ago, those guys are so funny.”
Me: “Oh, you mean the singers odd style of dance and oddly metalish vocals?”
Chimp: “Um, yeah… I love ‘dick in a box’ and ‘Jizz in my pants’
Future Islands unambiguously titled Singles with its neo-eigthies anthems took me quite by surprise. They have a unique way of taking their softly building melodic synth pop songs and adding a bit of grit through the unique vocalising of Samuel T. Herring’s, well, Mike says gravelly vocals, which is fair, but I think guttural could also be the correct adjective. Top album. Am anxious for a follow up alb too.
Paradox on Earth – Radio Over Moscow
Dave: Radio Over Moscow is an Auckland one-man indie hard rock outfit. The heavy use of synths and effects on guitars and voice give this album a strong electronic feel, and the three main instruments duck between texturing eachother and rocking thick melodic lines in unison. At 13 tracks in 34 mins it’s all very swift, energetic, driving, bold and catchy as hell. Where subtelties exist are in the lyrics – sly political digs and pop culture references abound, and “Church” could be the only song in existence which opens with a Brian Tamaki sample. Well worth your time.
1984 – Ryan Adams
Mike: Of the two albums Adams released this year (both great), this is my favourite one. His big, self titled release was the sort of thing you’d normally expect from him: big twangy rock anthems and fragile country-twinged quiter numbers, this time with a bit of Springsteen-esque bombast thrown in for good measure.
1984, on the other hand was a much less heralded release. It sees Adams attempting to recreate early 80s American hardcore punk (hence the title) of the Black Flag, Bad Brains, Circle Jerks variety. Admittedly the music on here doesn’t sound a whole heap like those bands, or even the genre itself – it’s more Ryan Adams interpretation of those acts. So what you get is fast, urgent songs, delivered with Adams’ trademark drawl and reverby echo, jangly guitars in amongst the distortion and feedback. it’s good to know that Ryan Adams can still bring the goods in 2014.
The Great Year – The Black Opera
Dan: Calling a record ‘The Great Year’ in a year positively busting at the seams with brilliant hip-hop records was always going to spawn a thousand think-piece blog posts on the merits of 2014 as a watershed year for the genre… *looks at the reader breaking the fourth wall*…
The Great Year is the The Black Opera’s fourth studio album which continues the duos fusion of futuristic themes, dark satire and an apocolyptic noir. There’s the ‘maintaining your soul when all around is crumbling’ aesthetic which is common to that oft-crustiest of genre’s, ‘consciousness’ rap. What sets this record apart from many in this style is the epic often, erm, ‘operatic’ production.
‘Feedback’, ‘Character Assasination’ and ‘Talking Revolution’ hit socio-politcial themes with a dark wry satire that is quite often missing from earnest-as-heck ‘Rap music as CNN’ style hip-hop and these are also, for me, the stand-out songs. Issues music is a double-edged sword though, razor-sharp and witty can so easily become Pink’s ‘Dear Mr President’ and there’s a whiff of this on some of The Great Year. No Water, as somewhat clumsy addressing of third world water security drops the themes on your foot.
The themes of The Great Year are important too because it is a huge part of what sets them apart from a lot of the year’s other big hip-hop releases. It’s on point with these for the most part. What sets The Great Year apart from The Black Opera’s other records is the heavy dark and forboding production.
Introducing Darren Watson – Darren Watson
Dave: The joke here being that this is no debut – Darren has been in the blues game a while – but in any case this year may have been what brought Darren to your attention. His satirical, legally ambiguous dig at the Prime Minister hit the headlines and then the courts when the electoral commision ruled that the song and its accompanying video constituted an electoral advert and pulled it from sale. ‘Planet Key’ isn’t on this album – it legally can’t be – but that’s no loss. The songs on Introducing are deeper, more personal and far, far better. The heartfelt ‘I Don’t Know What It Is’ evokes ‘What’s Going On’s soulful musings on the state of the world. ‘Who Gave Up On Who?’ is an upbeat ode to a missing father. ‘Thought I’d Seen It All’, one of two tracks on the album written for him by Bill Lake of the Windy City Strugglers, is a modern classic.
The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas – Courtney Barnett
Brendan: Courtney Barnett sets the scene with a deliciously sloppy alt-country ditty called Out of the Woodwork, her drawl dragging us into oddly discordant piano and steel string guitar arrangements; it’s almost like she can’t be bothered singing the track but feels like she must, like she owes it to us. And well, I say alt-country but the album almost touches on classic rock and rolling at times. It’s a really tightly produced album with clever lyrical touches akin to the power one felt when listening to P J Harvey’s earlier work. Lyrics such as I take a hit from, An asthma puffer, I do it wrong, I was never good at smoking bongs, I’m not that good at breathing in, make it an interesting listen, but it’s the musical minutia that brings this terrific “EP” into the fold for me. Little touches of guitar, piano, and deft additions of vocal layering gives it a tightness and polish that makes it a truly memorable album.
The Physical World – Death From Above 1979
Mike: I have to be perfectly honest: I wasn’t overly impressed with Death From Above 1979 first time round. They were a fun band, sure, and their sound was unique enough to set them apart, but I still never understood the massive amounts of hype they generated. Their songs were just OK. I even saw them live and still wasn’t 100% sold.
So when they reunited after an 8 year split to release The Physical World – only their second album – I was intrigued but ultimately could’ve taken or left it. Yet I was pleasantly surprised with this album. Because I wasn’t a super fan, I wasn’t at all concerned with them recreating the “magic” of their first album (which seems to be the biggest criticism of this one). There’s less reliance on just creating noise (which, hey, I’m definitely a fan of, don’t get me wrong), and the songs just seem to have more of a backbone than their earlier work. The Physical World just seems to have more soul than You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine. That’s about the best way I can describe it.
The Both – The Both
Dave: Confession time: I probably listen to Aimee Mann as often as I listen to the rest of my music library put together. She’s inarguably one of the greatest songwriter-storytellers to emerge from modern music. However, on record the production rarely matches the material, her sound being so standard that it’s almost without genre at all. “Samey Aimee” my wife calls her (not a fan). That’s why this pairing with punk/indie old-timer Ted Leo is so great. He brings an ounce of guitar-rock edge to the mix. The album sounds in places like Cold Roses-era Ryan Adams alt country/americana. In others it’s a classic power trio arrangement – Leo on guitar, Mann on bass, rotating guest drummers. Shared vocal duties makes the whole album varied and interesting throughout, and allows Mann to thrive on her home instrument. It really is a masterclass in every aspect, with dirgey ballad ‘Hummingbird’ being the only skippable song.
Beauty & Ruin – Bob Mould
Mike: Bob Mould is a pretty incredible dude. Now in his 50s, he started his musical career in the legendary punk band Husker Du, and has continued much in the same mould (see what I did there?) ever since. But don’t let that put you off – this is a good thing in Mould’s case: he does a particular style of song incredibly well, in a way that no one else does. Think a slightly less lead guitar driven J Mascis. Since the acrimonious spilt of Husker Du in 1987 Mould embarked on a successful solo career as well as forming the legendary 90s rock band Sugar for the first half of that decade, and his songwriting quality has very rarely waned. 2012’s Silver Age was excellent and Beaty & Ruin is even better, and continues the trend of Bob Mould does best: rocking out like a man half his age.
Black Moon Spell – King Tuff
Brendan: Having seen and loved King Tuff live at Bodega last year with good chum and fellow Riot Radio blogger, Dan, I was looking forward to the follow up album to Was Dead (2013).
They’ve become an album a year type band and the trucker cap wearing, scraggly-faced trio from Vermont delivered yet another amazing smattering of sloprock songs varying from 1.02 mins to 4.47 mins for 2014. Black Moon Spell is seedier than a Tory politician’s love bunker which is what I love about Tuff, although I do also sense a maturity in songwriting in BMS, an ability to let a song roll with confidence, that wasn’t quite present on Was Dead.
It isn’t as gritty as self titled (2012) but Tuff play to their strengths, which are Thomas’ vocal control and the placement and execution of his guitar solos in, well, most tracks. They know what they’re doing and they’re good at it. Oh, and whilst we’re on the topic, and I am no way one of those guys that gets turned on by guitar wankery, but wowzer, Kyle Thomas is a legend on the guitar who sure knows how to hachet; tighter than a Republican’s self righteous moral compass, he is.
Personal highlights off Black Moon Spell are the opening track Black moon spell, Sick mind, Beautiful thing and Eyes of the muse.
ANTEMASQUE – Antemasque
Dave: Antemasque is the latest form taken by the lifelong collaboration between Omar Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala, which had temporarily soured with the ignoble end of The Mars Volta in 2012. Antemasque is an altogether leaner machine than TMV, more a classic four piece rock band with standard song structures no longer than five minutes a piece. The lyrics are back to basics also with none of TMV’s trademark deranged ethereality. In some ways it’s a return to At The Drive In’s style, but with a deliberate and stated aim to express intensity on vectors other than volume. Therefore most songs are experiments in tension, bubbling violently under a firm lid. Guest bassist Flea is integral to anchoring Omar’s rambling guitar to this new form. Although this is a stylistic step towards the ordinary the songwriting never falters in quality. Tracks like Providence prove that they are still the headline names in spine tingling heavy rock.
Mike: I was a huge At the Drive-In fan, and despite being ridiculously enthused over the Mars Volta’s debut at the time, was not that much of a fan as their later work. Antemasque has been praised as a return to the duo’s rock roots, which it definitely is, as well as a return to some of the styles of the ATD-I era, which it kind of really isn’t. I mean there are definitely shades of early ATD-I here (think Acrobatic Tenement) in the clean guitar bits and singalong choruses, but you won’t find much hardcore punk here either. And as much as I was excited by ATD-I’s 2011 reunion, I think that is probably a good thing. At The Drive-In had their time and place, and although they perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the early 2000’s struggle to find distinctive sounds and energy, I’m not sure I’d enjoy a new ATD-I record featuring a middle-aged Roderiguez and Bixler. Antemasque is a nice antidote to that, a return to rock ‘n roll, with occasional prog and melodic punk overtones. More, please.
In The Silence – Ásgeir
Rich: I came across this dude totally by accident. Earlier this year I was on holiday in Reykjavik, and this record was playing in a lot of cafes and bars. The cafe we had breakfast in every morning (because it was awesome food and atmosphere, and very reasonably priced – props to Around Iceland) was playing it every morning when we were in there, and my better half loved it the first time she heard it. The young lady working there told us he was huge in Iceland, that this was his first record in English, and that if we were lucky we’d be able to find the deluxe edition with the English and Icelandic versions of the record in one digipak. A 10 minute walk up the road to Lucky Records (which is an amazing independent record store – if you ever happen to be in Reykjavik, check it out!) and we found it. Its been on high rotation since we got back in early September, and it still isn’t getting boring. Parts of it remind me of Jose Gonzalez, but more interesting. Apparently the genre is “Electrofolk”. It’s a really mellow record, and everyone who appreciates music should check it out. Standouts for me are “Going Home” and “King and Cross”.
Indie Cindy – Pixies
Mike: We covered the backlash against the Pixies new music back when EP1 was released last year and I stand by my stance there: I still can’t figure out why a lot of reviewers hate these songs. It’s almost like all of the “real” reviewers out there got together and decided they were going to hate the new Pixies tunes regardless of what they sounded like.
Indie Cindy sounds exactly like a Pixies record release in 2014 should sound like: big rock tunes, Black Francis’s distinct wail and Joey Santiago’s fuzzed out bent over a bunch of A-Class Frank Black solo tunes. It’s a great record. Sure, the edges have been smoothed off, and there’s a decent amount of pop stuff here that seems to be getting “hardcore” Pixies fans super butthurt. It’s not like they never wrote pop songs before.
There’s a decent amount of the loud/quiet/loud dynamic we’ve come to know from the Pixies here too, particularly on the album’s title track. There are poppy, jangly anthems (“Greens and Blues”, “Jaime Bravo”, “Ring The Bell”) and straight out rockers (“What Goes Boom”, “Another Toe In The Ocean”, “Blue Eyed Hexe”). The latter was criticised for sounding too much like an AC/DC song – despite the fact that fan favourite “U-Mass” does much the same thing – to which Santiago replied “So? I love AC/DC”. That sort of sums it up for me. The Pixies know what a Pixies record should sound like better than you do.
When this album first dropped I listened to it constantly for a week, loving it. And I’m a fussy motherfucker – as you can see from this blog – so if that doesn’t make it a great rock record, then I don’t know what does.
Real Hair EP – Speedy Ortiz
Dave: I loved their 2013 album, and somehow this four song EP is better than that, which is kind of crazy. Next year they’ve got another full length coming out so I’m gonna keep my “OMG SPEEDY ORTIZ RULE” powder dry until then. We’re all going to need it.
Hip Hope – Dyme-A-Duzin
Mike: Another great free hip hop release in 2014, much like RTJ2, Hip Hope is a proper album rather than just a free mixtape. Dyme (real name Donnovan Malik Blocker) is part of the new Brooklyn branch of rappers that includes Joey Bada$$ (still no album from Joey in 2014, get it together, buddy), this follows hot on the heels of last years A Portrait of Donovan, Hip Hope is less introspective, more big chorus and funky basslines. There’s shades of Aquemeni-era Outkast here, and touches of classic Kanye. This is the second best free hip hop album this year (stay tuned).
Lost In The Dream – The War On Drugs
Mike: A lot has been made of the beef this year between the War On Drugs and Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek. I was petty as fuck and hilariously one sided: Kozelek got pissed at his sound clashing with the War On Drugs’ set at a festival and bitched about them from the stage and in a series of increasingly immature and unfunny snipes and “songs” in the press. It’s sorta like the 2pac/ Biggie beef but with the gangsta rap replaced with mid tempo dad-rock and 14 year old poetry.
And the truth is, I couldn’t give less of a shit about Kozelek’s music. His album Benji made a lot of people’s end of year list’s, but even before the beef began I found his music boring, unoriginal and pointless. The War on Drugs on the other hand, released an album of upbeat, cruisy tight west coast rock music, the sort of shit that’s perfect for listening to while driving around in summer and will remain in your playlist for many years to come. So if the beef came down to who wrote the best music, I’d back the War On Drugs any day.
Night Time, My Time – Sky Ferreira
Mike: Ok so this sort of originally came out in 2013, but it was missed off last years list as I hadn’t heard it yet. And no, I’m not cheating – it actually didn’t get a New Zealand release until January 2014. I’m not gonna force the issue by putting it in first place like I did last year but I just love this album so much that I had to get it in here somewhere. Night Time, My Time is a classic pop album. One of those albums where every single song could have been a single – so many great tunes. Don’t be put off by the “pop” monicker either – it’s pop music firmly aimed at indie kids, much like CHVRCHES were last year, and the tunes are just as good.
The Take Off and Landing of Everything – Elbow
Dave: The title of this album changed three times between its inception and its release. In a year that will be remembered for its aircraft disasters, it’s some super bad luck that they settled on what they did. Elbow’s knack has always been the careful use of melody and unfussy arrangements. This gives their softish rock a feeling of being something elemental, familiar even on first listen. When this turns dark the effect is heart-heavy and morose. When turned to light, it’s unrelentingly uplifting. No other band can open up your head and drop emotions into it with such surgical precision. This power is not always used for good.
The lead single, “New York Morning“, is the worst song they’ve yet released. It’s a boring, repetitive piece of trite which is embarrassingly naked in its anthemic ambition. The lyrics are lazy and rely on bland happysad wonder at the goings on of a very specific slice of society mistaken for something universal. This over-expression of such a middle class emotional experience (in this case; really enjoying being on holiday) is where Elbow sometimes risks turning into an auditory Richard Curtis movie. The second single “My Sad Captains” is not much better.
However, there are great songs here: “Charge” would be a highlight on any album. “Honey Sun” calls to mind their chillingly sad debut. “Fly Boy Blue/Lunette” is sprawling, energetic and inventive, as vital as any of their earlier work. And the seven minute title track succeeds where the lead single fails, packing an emotional weight into a rousing, chant-able stadium-pleaser. The album certainly redeems itself, but the track layout of soft opener/raucous followup/weird song/etc/penultimate anthem/soft closer is a near carbon copy of 2008’s stellar “The Seldom Seen Kid“, and even the most magical moments on this album are embittered by this tipping of hand to formula. If it were possible to listen to this album outside of the gargantuan shadow which “…Kid” casts, “…Take Off…” could be a standalone classic. But, in an album heavy on themes about missing old times and looking back at the way things were, fans will be doing much the same.
Pinata – Freddie Gibbs & Madlib
Dan: When you get a record that pairs up the gangsta stylings of Indiana rapper Freddie Gibbs and the weird experimental craziness of Madlib its pretty likely to be the record of the year. It is like getting a Big Mac AND a KFC quarter pack and having them BOTH for dinner with impunity because, hey, why should you have to choose? You shouldn’t. That was a rhetorical question.It is perhaps testament to how massive a year twenty-fourteen was for hip-hop that it (and a release by the Wu-Tang and Wu-filliate Ghostface Killah) were in fact, not the best record of the year.This aside, Piniata is a masterpiece. I hadn’t really given Freddie Gibbs’ earlier work much play, and going back to listen to 2009’s ESGN, his lyrical styles harks back to the Godfather’s of nineties West Coast rap. He brings this heavy style to a record which smacks heavily of a mid-2000s Stone’s Throw Records production with all its distinctive fuzzy samples and weird electronic trickery.
Thuggin’, Bomb (with Raekwon’s appearance), High (with Danny Brown showing up and making himself at home) and Watts are for me, the top tunes. There are also two songs about basketball teams (albeit both over-rated ones) called ‘Knicks’ and ‘Lakers’. so that’s something.
Oxymoron – Schoolboy Q
Dan: Initially I didn’t want to listen to Oxymoron because I thought the album sleeve looked stupid. I mean, it looks like a mummy wearing a cricket hat. Who wants to see that? Not me.
However, I learned a valuable lesson when i finally gave that puppy a spin: ‘don’t judge a strong Sunshine State party record by its cover and you own sartorial prejudices.’ Admittedly, its a very specific lesson but one relavent to the issue at hand.
While the former of LA stalwarts Black Hippy cites mainly East Coast influences, Oxymoron is firmly a classic Los Angeles (and I am not just saying this because there’s a song on the album called ‘Fuck LA’ – a massive bombastic gangster boogie that is a stand out tune on the album) – its all sex, party anthems and thugging. Probably the only music coming out of that town in 2014 not produced by DJ Mustard, Oymoron’s sound is fresh but of an older style. ‘Man of the Year’, ‘Gangsta’ and ‘Los Awesome’ all bump like Death Row’s finest. Nods to the newer LA sound of Odd Future in ‘Collard Greens’ sound a bit out of place on a record which sounds like you’ve heard it, loved it and smoked a fat one to it, ages ago.
At War With Reality – At The Gates
Rich: Nineteen years between studio albums is a helluva long time – but the fact that ATG haven’t deviated much from the style of their last studio album (1995’s fantastic “Slaughter of the Soul“) yet still sound awesomely current and relevant is testament to how far ahead of their time they were. This record was my most anticipated release of 2014, and it didn’t disappoint. Right from the get-go its awesome – After the obligatory scary-sounding spoken word sample, Anders Björler and Martin Larsson’s twin guitar attack rips into “Death and the Labyrinth“, helped along by the pounding rhythm section of Jonas Björler on bass and Adrian Erlandsson on drums. Frontman Tomas Lindberg’s voice cuts through the mix like a chainsaw, and you know that ATG are back with a vengeance. Standouts for me are “The Book of Sand (The Abomination)“, “The Head of the Hydra“, and closer “The Night Eternal“. If you’re a newcomer to the Gothenburg “Melodeath” Sound, brought there by In Flames, Dark Tranquility, The Haunted (who themselves rose from the ashes of ATG post-Slaughter, with 3/5 members…) etc, then you need to get this record. If you’re a serious metal fan, you need to get this record. In fact, if you have ears (and want to make the most of them), YOU NEED TO GET THIS RECORD.
Fragments and Wholes vol 1 – Alain Johannes
Dave: This crowd-funded effort is Alain’s second solo album, following the incredible 2010 solo debut Spark which was written and recorded in a handful of days following the death of his wife, Natasha Shneider. Together as the band Eleven, or as a songwriting/production duo (notably Chris Cornell’s Euphoria Morning), or as touring members of others’ bands (such as Queens of the Stone Age) their influence was all over 90s-20s hard rock without either of them reaching much prominence themselves. While Spark exclusively used acoustic instruments centred around an 8 string cigfiddle, Fragments sees Alain return to Eleven style electric guitar rock and reassert himself as the most interesting, expressive guitarist in the rock game. But that’s not to say this is a guitarist’s album – his trademark Beatlesesque songwriting, arrangements, harmonies and production make this just plain infectiously good in any language. And the gamut of genres run and mastered makes this one of the most interesting albums in a year full of interesting albums.
Zaba – Glass Animals
Brendan: Many say Run the Jewels 2 but Debut album Zaba by English “indie band” – are we still using that term? – Glass Animals is personally my favourite album of 2014. Now, I’m a stickler when it comes to music and as I’ve said before, I don’t often find “favourite albums” as I’m a song guy, so you can be sure when I say I’ve found an album I can listen to from go to whoa that it’s a cracker. Beyond this being impressive because it’s a debut there is something deeply organic about this album that to me almost transcends genres. Music to me is always at its best when merging genres or creating new sounds. I wish I could say this happens more often but it is a rarity to see it done well. Last year it was Jagwar Mar that topped the experimental bracket – this year it is Glass Animals with Zaba.
Glass animals have a androgynous sensuality to their music through Dave Bayley’s pleading yet sexual vocals, combined with throbbing bass and lilting percussion that drifts into a very experimental tribal experience that mesmerises the listener.
The song that caught my attention was Black Mambo with its almost lounge feel, but it is by no means the typical sound. Songs Gooey, Pools, Walla walla, all start so softly, so delicately and yet somehow they manage to rise and escalte while maintaining the fragile sound in a pounding yet elegant soundscape. Throughout the album you’ll find drifting bubbles of sound that merge together to form a very coherent and very seamless album. It’s, it’s – fuck it, I’m going to be lazy and unimaginative with my writing and say it’s a journey, it’s a fucking journey – there, I said it.
Teenage Retirement – Chumped
Mike: If you had told me this time last year that one of my favourite albums of the next year would be a punk record I would have
spat in your facepolitely disagreed with you but respected your opinion because I’m not a punk any more and that is how normal people discuss things. However – and you have probably guessed where I am going with this – that would have been one of those rare occasions where you were right and I was wrong.
It’s not that Teenage Retirement does anything particularly new with punk. In case you haven’t noticed, punks aren’t big fans of change, at least musically. It’s more the way it’s delivered. Angsty ringing guitars and Anika Pyle’s distinct emotive voice are matched with great songs about the usual trials of teendom and youth – it just works. There’s a decent grunge influence there – bringing to mind certain aspects of fellow Riot Radio faves and Best of 2014 alumni Speedy Ortiz – with the guitar work overall being more interesting and varied than your average modern punk record. But it’s the songs that really shine here.
I’ll always love punk music. But a good punk record needs to stand out from the pack in a genre that rewards sameness and repetition more than any other. Teenage Retirement does that and then some.
Broke With Expensive Taste – Azealia Banks
Dave: Despite ‘212’ being played at every single house party for the last couple of years, this is an album which nearly didn’t happen. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times, but being dropped by Warners was the catalyst to Banks’ debut album finally being able to be released. Banks was forthright about her mission with this album; she wasn’t going to chase trends or play flavour of the minute (something she’s been, uh, outspoken about in others, shall we say), and when it’s put like that perhaps label jitters were justified. But it’s Broke’s unique and sweeping vision that makes it amazing; one minute it’s jazzy, next european dance, next its sounding like a Manu Chao record. The production is pretty faultless, but the main attraction is Banks herself – she’s funny, aggressive, insightful, sexual, confident and sharp. The standard is pretty universally good, even the pretty annoying Ariel Pink cover “Nude Beach a Go Go” is just plain well done. ‘212’ may still be the jewel of the album but tracks like ‘Yung Rapunxel’, ‘Wallace’ and ‘BBD’ are in the same league of lyrical intensity and inventiveness. And on softer numbers like ‘Chasing Time’ she slays at pop R’nB. The variety and depth of this album is astonishing for a young artist on debut and it’s scary what the future might hold.
Dan: When I first the name Azealia Banks, from a town in Queensland that had a name nobody could pronouce to say I was skeptical was an understatement. However, one listen to ‘Fancy’ and I was converted. Well done, and advance Australia Fair.
Worlds – Porter Robinson
Mike: It’s kinda weird that two of my favourite records this year were a punk record and this, essentially a house record. Two genres that don’t really lend themselves to innovation, but when they’re done right they’re amazing. Worlds is a triumphant, euphoric masterpiece: huge tunes, every song a potential single, yet it holds together as a self contained album perfectly. Mr Robinson really needs a stage name though – it took me ages to remember what this album was called and who it was by despite listening to it every day for about a month.
Dan: Electronic music is a world of assumed monikers and pseudnyms, so it is curious that Porter Robinson released music under a name that sounds like a character in Downton Abbey. The fact that is is his actual given name isn’t really an excuse: he should have called himself something like Shavexxx or DJ Pure Essence.
This aside, the young Mr Robinson from North Carolina has released one of the most interesting electronic records of 2014. As the bloated monolith known to silly Americans as ‘EDM’ lumbers through the decade fuelled by frat parties and badly cut MDMA, Robinson’s Worlds stands almost out by exception in its originality and range.
There are the euphoric hands-in-the-air mega-anthems, sure. ‘Divinity’, ‘Flicker’ and ‘Years of War’ would fill even the soberest dance-floor (the latter tune could also win the ‘Castles in the Sky Award for Atrociously Cheesy Dance Music Lyrics’). The thing which diffentiates Worlds from other monster festival circuit artists like his mate Zedd, Zomboy, Tipper, and Glitch Mob’s 2014 releases is there are other original oddities on there. Goodbye to the World and Natural Light particulalry show range and an almost indie-music aestehtic.
Not bad for a boy who started life as a lowly porter in a stately home.
Run The Jewels 2 – Run The Jewels
Dave: I’m surprised to hear Mike say he sees no instant classics this year given that there’s, well, this. After last year’s magnificent debut I didn’t know where to place my expectations for this suspiciously fast followup. I got told – Run The Jewels 2 destroys its predecessor on every level. On a technical level, RTJ2 sounds simply amazing. Oh My Darling Don’t Cry‘s opening low low bassline and whirly owl-like hooting elicits a shiver from me every time I hear it still. The energetic cut-up Zack De La Rocha sample at the spine of Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck) is perhaps the most attention demanding beat technique of all time. The classic hip-hop elements sit amongst the innovative and the weird, perfectly blended. Not since perhaps Songs For The Deaf has a group come from left field to build an album at the apex of their genre.
But what makes the album truly great is that El-P and Killer Mike, after only a year, have so much to say so well. They explained in interviews that with this album they both brought ideas and subject matter normally reserved for their solo projects – it shows. Rhythms are attacked from every angle, no one verse standing in the previous one’s footsteps, as if scored by a jazz percussionist. They’re quick, clever and funny as ever. But here also time is afforded to darker subjects closer to the heart: Early (recorded prior to the events in Ferguson) approaches police brutality not through rap’s usual lens of anger but of heartbreak and desolation, and is an emotional listen. Killer Mike proves himself in both song and in interview to be one of the finest political communicators in the game. Through their talent, appeal, message and work rate there’s every chance this group will come to define the decade. This is my album of the year, without question.
Brendan: Here’s an actual conversation I have overheard.
Unknown Middle Aged White Guy to his girlfriend: “Man, I actually can’t believe how good this new Run the Jewels album is. It’s, it’s just unbelievable. I don’t get it.”
Girlfriend: *nods, uninterested*
Okay, it was more of a snippet than a conversation, but Unknown Middle Aged White Guy is right, there is something odd about collection of songs titled Run the Jewels 2. What is it about the rhythm behind these tracks that make it impossible to sit still to? The only possible explanation is brainwashing– in fact, this album is so freakishly good and so well appreciated by pretty much everyone that I’m thinking of starting a Facebook conspiracy page insisting El-P and Killer Mike are using subliminal messaging to brainwash the masses.
Albums that we really liked this year that didn’t quite make the cut/ we couldn’t be arsed writing about:
Royal Blood – Royal Blood, Honeyblood – Honeyblood, Ultraviolence – Lana Del Rey, After the Disco – Broken Bells, Forcefield EP – Tokyo Police Club, NehruvianDOOM – NehruvianDOOM, Here and Nowhere Else – Cloud Nothings, 2014 Forest Hills Drive – J Cole, Beloved – I Killed The Prom Queen, High Priestess – Kobra and The Lotus, Avatarium – Avatarium, Dum Dum Girls – Too True, 36 Seasons – Ghostface Killah, My Krazy Life – YG.Tweet
So, 2013 eh? Maybe it was just because it was the year I finally got round to getting a paid Spotify account, but it seemed to me that there was a ridiculous amount of great music in 2013. It definitely felt like an album year to me, so hopefully you’ll find a few on this list that you really dig. As with the songs, we didn’t set a limit to the albums on this list – there were as many great albums as there were great albums, so setting a fixed limit seemed to defeat the purpose.
We’ve also got a Best of 2013 Spotify playlist here. Enjoy!
Later… When The Tv Turns To Static – Glasvegas
Mike: Glasvegas’ 2008 debut album was a true classic:t song after song of anthemic rock music with a sound that was entirely its own. The follow up – 2011’s Euphoric /// Heartbreak \\\ – was unfortunately a disappointing follow up: over thought, over produced and lacking any real punch. So it’s nice to see them return with a third album that puts them back on the map again (because if you stop being good you get taken off the map? I don’t know). It’s not the classic album that their debut was, but if you’re one of those people that constantly wants your favourite band to do the same thing then you don’t get it anyway.
Hell, if these guys can return from a disappointing second album with something as great as Later…When The TV Turns To Static, then it gives MGMT even less of an excuse for releasing the horrendous turd they dropped this year.
Oddfellows – Tomahawk
Dave: What’s missing here is the knock-out tunes. Nothing on “Oddfellows” is of the standard of the material on their first two albums. The eponymous opening track starts with a thudding rhythm as piercing guitar and haunting vocals gradually unfold above it. The problem is that the opening track of their 2003 album, “Birdsong”, did precisely the same thing a lot better. “Stone Letter” is a poor man’s “Flashback”. Songs such as “White Hat / Black Hat” do their level best to bring something new to the table and put the album on an exciting tack, but it’s not enough.
Duane Dennison’s once-clipped and precise guitar playing now frequently meanders into the vocals’ airspace. This causes the odd ugly clash and robs the band of its engine. The drums sound flimsy and lack low end punch.
While Mike Patton’s detached, character-inhabiting songwriting is always entertaining, here he seems to run out of things to say. “South Paw” would have been the album’s jewel had he written a second verse. His trademark party tricks of growls, howls, whispers and moans are all present and, for the most part, used to great effect. But, like the bulk of the album, these mostly serve as reminders of his earlier, superior work. Despite its enjoyable moments, Tomahawk have committed the cardinal sin of the supergroup and made an album which doesn’t approach the sum of its parts.
Crimes of Passion – Crocodiles
Mike: Ok, there’s nothing mind-blowingly original about Crocodiles. They’re just an indie-dance outfit that pretty much hits the nail right on the head when it comes to that difficult combination of funkiness, good melodies and distortion. I was a big fan of their last album, Endless Flowers, but there’s a Happy Mondays-like baginess on Crimes of Passion that I just absolutely love. It also has one of my favourite album covers of the year.
Ages – Ghost Wave
Mike: The first local act to make this list, Ghost Wave make the kind of jangly guitar rock often associated with New Zealand via bands like the Chills and The CLean. But there’s a driving rhythm here that neither of those bands have that brings to mind the Black Rebel
Mary ChainMotorcycle Club and it just works. If their campaign with Becks beer this year felt a little misplaced (this feels more like a breakfast whisky or bloody mary band to me), then don’t let that put you off Ages and ESPECIALLY don’t let it make you drink any less beer.
Black Pudding – Mark Lanegan & Duke Garwood
Dave: My opinion on Mark Lanegan is pretty high, and loud. Bubblegum is, if not the best album of the 2000s, at least in the top 3. Last year’s Blues Funeral was excellent also. But due to his sheer proclivity for side projects, guest spots and tributes seeing around half a dozen releases with his name attached coming out each year, a division line between minor and major works has to be drawn. (Hence why his second album of covers, “Imitations”, released this year isn’t on this list – if you’re a fan you’ll like it, if not then you won’t. Nothing much more needs to be discussed.)
Duke Garwood is a UK-based multi-instrumentalist, and the pairing of his single acoustic guitar or moody keys with Lanegan’s voice evokes memories of the latter’s early Mike Johnson-produced solo albums. Garwood’s music is peculiar and evocative, and his tendency towards slightly unsettling chords and timing makes this record as far from a typical “singer/songwriter” sounding album as you can get without trading instruments. Despite its sparse instrumentation, the music is a densely atmospheric match for Lanegan’s soft growling drawl – perhaps too good. See, and this may only be a problem if you listen to as much Lanegan as I do, but there’s not an awful lot new out of him here so soon after a major solo record. There’s a feeling that he’s turned up with his magnetic poetry kit of lyrical themes (girls with black hair, intravenous heroin, trains, Mexico, etc etc) and bashed his bits out in a gloomy afternoon between other appointments. This is the mistake Isobel Campbell made with her records with Lanegan, treating him as a session musician rather than a collaborator. That said, the song “War Memorial” breaks completely from autopilot with him singing in a foreign key as a dying soldier. Had Lanegan used Garwood’s interesting and unique playing to push himself to new areas like this more often then this album could have been a classic. As it stands, it’s merely very good.
AM – Arctic Monkeys
Mike: I have a confession to make: I was a huge fan of the Arctic’s last album Suck It And See and I actually prefer it to AM. That’s not to say AM isn’t a great album: I have mad respect for any band that explores new sounds with each new album. While Suck It And See was beautifully crafted Smiths-esque jangly indie rock, AM has a sound all its own: a unique confident swagger that sets it apart from their other albums, and proves that you can’t keep a good monkey down (oh god please kill me)
Kveikur – Sigur Ros
Mike: Sigur Ros are another band i could take and leave up till now. I mean, I liked teir sound, even loved the odd song, but couldn’t really be arsed with their albums. They kind of all sound the same anyway.
So I’m not sure quite what did it for me with Kveikur. It’s just a little bit darker, the guitars a little bit heavier, the vocals a tiny bit more melodic. Maybe because it’s sound is closer to those shoegaze bands that I’m always banging on about. Whatever it is, Kveikur really does it for me, and it’s sort of served as a Rosetta Stone to unlock the rest of their catalogue. Thank god for
The Pirate BayiTunes.
Static – Cults
Mike: I loved Cults’ 2011 self titled debut – it combined beautiful harmonies and great songs with distortion, psychedelia and even elements of Motown. Static perhaps doesn’t have quite the same melodic punch as its predecessor, there’s still plenty to love here in what is a breezy, crunchy, shoegazey classic. Gets my vote for album cover of the year too.
The Primrose Path – Jonathon Bree
Dave: Jonathan Bree once was the guy in the guy n gal pair which was The Brunettes. The Auckland band released a handful of albums of dryly witty, darkly pretty, twee retro bubblegum pop, well before you couldn’t walk in NZ for twee pop. The Brunettes were great, their live shows were amazing (the band swelling to over a dozen members for some big-band tours, pulling in their entire label’s roster), and they had peerless hit rates for landing jokes and writing great songs.
As a solo artist he’s taking Phil Spectorism to its natural place after the girl’s gone; down a black hole of pop-despair. Bree’s skill at producing precisely what he’s after is absolute, and the intricate arrangements and timbre of the album all comes together at perfection with what appears to be infuriating ease.
The songs, despite being far more depressing than those of his previous band, are no less humorous. However, because they deal principally in heartbreak, the butt of the gag is usually the girl. On some listens I’m convinced this is all just Bree’s satirical send up of a typical misogynist post-breakup meltdown, and given the Brunette’s track record of obviously fictitious characters fronting each song this interpretation makes some degree of sense. But on some listens, in some places, I just can’t tell, and worry he may be sincere. I’m usually neither here nor there about the true personalities behind the music I listen to, but for lines such as “Crippled Darling’s” closing lyric; “you’re a slut”, intent matters. Call me a philistine for demanding I have my art cut up on my plate for me, but there you go. So this record exists in a superstate for me. It’s either the thoroughly brilliant if occasionally hard-to-stomach work of a master, or it’s the begrudgingly impressive diatribe of an asshole. Thanks to the odd maybe-wink to the audience (like the chorus of the title track referencing sociopathy, Lion King and domestic murder in the same breath) I lean towards the former. You have a listen and you figure it out.
The 1975 – The 1975
Mike: For a while there it seemed like Manchester band The 1975 were gonna be dead cert’s for album of the year in 2013. With the amazingly brilliant “Sex” already in the can by the time I heard them, they swiftly followed this up with the Music For Cars EP – with the brilliant upbeat funk electronica of “Chocolate” – and the IV EP – featuring the sublime “The City”, the band seemed unstoppable based on those three songs alone. However, when the album finally arrived in September, it only sort of lived up to expectations.
I mean, it’s still a really great album, more than deserving of being on the list. It’s just that the three best songs are the ones we’d already heard. There are some other really good songs on here, but nothing I’d really consider a classic like those first three. It’s a solid listen, but there’s a disturbing Phil Collins album top some of the songs which can be difficult to listen to if, like me, you think that Phil Collins should be euthanised.
A great album, but not the mind blowing classic it could and should have been.
Dan: In my review of 2013’s singles I opined the slight disappointment that I felt with The 1975’s self-titled debut record. Mike too, seems to have more succinctly summed up a similar sensation in his review of this record: after the promise of their initial EPs, which contained the brilliant tunes ‘Sex’ and ‘Chocolate’ their debut album didn’t really deliver on the mountain-sized levels of expectation that we had heaped upon it in the year’s early months.
In many ways it could be considered unfair to judge a record on the expectations I had placed on it, when these expectations are largely based on some intangible idea of what I thought the record SHOULD sound like. You could go as far to argue that a record that is a collection of four brilliant songs is actually a pretty good record even if the rest of said record is filler. You could go even further and say, though slightly off topic and personal, that I am a fucking idiot who has no idea what he’s on about and that my clothes are shit.
I think maybe, on reflection that the middle one is right: The 1975’s self titled debut hangs around four songs and that this, for better or for worse, led to my sense of disappointment.
The spiky indie-pop of ‘Sex’ and ‘Girls’, the bouncy and slightly camp ‘Chocolate’ and the spacy ‘Menswear’ are pretty much the record. Chuck in ‘Settle Down’ (a bit like Girls) and you have the entire playlist.
However, is this really a criticism? How many records work but have no stand-out tracks? Well, I don’t know. I heard several comparisons between The 1975 and Panic! At The Disco and while no-one making that comparison was being complimentary, I tend to agree but for different reasons.
I loved Panic! At The Disco’s 2006 record ‘A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out’, their theatrical, slightly off-kilter but ultimately ear-worming pop grabbed them both chart success and widespread trendy scenester* derision. While I loved ‘A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out’, for all its bombastic pop-emo glory it was a collection of about four songs, a lot of filler and a bit of twaddle. The thing was though, I still played the spots off the CD. Yes, it was back when people bought CDs. Well, I did.
The 1975’s self-titled may be four tunes, but it is four tunes you will play to death and really isn’t that what really matters?
That was rhetorical by the way: the answer I was looking for was ‘yes’.
*’The Trendy Scenester’ is the campy super-villain in the upcoming Batman movie. He aims to turn everyone in Gotham into plaid wearing zombies by blasting non-stop Bon Iver over giant speakers. His plan unravels when he finds that you cant really ‘blast’ Bon Iver.
Modern Vampires of the City – Vampire Weekend
Mike: It can sometimes take me many many albums for me to totally “get” and like a band. Take The Roots for example: I didn’t start really digging them until 2011’s Undun – their twelfth (twelfth!) album, despite the fact that all of their albums are quite clearly great and I’m an idiot. The same goes for Vampire Weekend. I always thought they were a bit too twee, a bit to style over substance. I dug the Paul Simon referencing sound of their second album, but it seemed like an obvious tribute, an attempt to mimic Simon’s style without really having the songwriting chops to pull it off.
Modern Vampires of the City changed that for me. The Paul Simon element is still there (and he IS one of the 20th Century’s greatest songwriters, so there’s plenty to mine there), but now it feels like the songs warrant it: they’re better written, catchier, more melodic. It’s not just an album attempting to ape a previous artist’s sound either – Vampire Weekend 3.0 feel like they’ve found their sound, figured out how to write their songs. You can’t help but feel happy for them.
Silent Cynic – Sophie Madeleine
Dave: This album “officially” came out a couple of days ago, but its Pledge Music backers (like me) have had it for a some months already. Sophie Madeleine is somewhat of an internet sensation, and raised the funds to record this album with a minimum of fuss. While her two previous albums were a case of “Come for the twee novelty ukulele music, stay for the fact that the songs are actually ace”, this album takes the brave step of mostly leaving out the tiny instrument which made her name. Without the uke in the mix we’re forced to appreciate the true heart of he matter; her voice is amazing and she can write – and deliver – brilliant indie pop songs. The tunes rely much more on guitar this time around, which is the natural sonic home for the times when her lyrical work packs a bit of an emotional whack. And there’s an almost Caribbean and Spanish inspired feel to some of the production choices, which I sure as shit wasn’t expecting, which perhaps reflect the former UK artist’s new USA-based surroundings. Silent Cynic isn’t as immediately catchy as her previous albums, but is a deeper and more rewarding listen if you stick with it. In a year that feels devoted (in my musical corner of he world at least) to the Return To Form, it’s super refreshing to see an artist growing outward in their own way, independent of the rest of the machinery.
At Home – Keep Shelly In Athens
Mike: I’ve been following these guys for a while now, ever since 2011’s Our Own Dream EP and 2013 was the year they finally decided to drop their debut album. And it was worth the wait. At Home is shoegazey and danceable in all the best ways and not in that predictable way that is quickly becoming a cliche (reverb does not instantly make shitty vocals great, folks), but in a wonderful, orginal way. I love this album from start to finish: its ethereal vocals, spaced out drums and looping keyboards just do it for me every time. Even the cover is perfect.
Snapshot – The Strypes
Mike: A band that generated its fair share of derisiveness due to their tried and tested formula of guitar based indie rock. What set the Strypes apart, for me anyway, was their love of late 50s and early 60s rock ‘n roll and rhythm and blues: Bo Diddley, The Rolling Stones, even Muddy Waters all get sonically name checked on Snapshot. While early singles were updated covers, (such as Diddley’s “You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover”), they moved on to originals that were every bit as compelling as their earlier counterparts.
Dave: Child protege musicians fall into two categories: Good For Their Age or Actually Good. This year Lorde arrived undeniably in the latter category. The Strypes maybe parachute into the former. Maybe. While technically proficient, you’ve got to wonder what is the point of having anybody wholesale mimic 50s rock’n’roll, let alone kids. Music in the fifties was as sexualised as ever, it was just delivered by sleight of hand through wordplay and innuendo which was designed to sail over stuffy parents’ heads. The hilarious thing about the Strypes is hearing them ape this technique and not be entirely convinced that they’re worldly enough to have understood it themselves. “She’s So Fine” is full of 100% recycled, post-consumer entendre. The line “she likes it when I turn out the lights” is delivered with a knowing wink to… what exactly? His mum, happy that he’s put away the playstation and gone to bed at a reasonable hour for a school night?
You can’t blame a kid for taking a paint-by-numbers approach to a genre. Whereas Lorde was afforded a period of guided, artistic development post-discovery, the powers-that-be (Elton?) have pushed The Strypes prematurely into the international spotlight with a talent-quest set to push. Like any parlour act they’ll live and die on their novelty and credibility as baby geniuses. That could be a problem – I’m not sure who’s playing either of the two guitars in the solo of the video Mike’s provided, but despite the camera cooperatively retreating to the studio ceiling it’s obviously nobody on stage. It’s all too cringeworthy to be endured, and that’s before you get to the song “Mystery Man” – an enthusiastic ode to the painfully tween idea that acting all secretive for no reason makes you interesting to girls. The biggest favour we could do these guys is ignore this album, until it’s brought out at their 21sts.
Dan: They are like a not-as-good version of The Checks.
Mike: Well, fuck.
Erotik Fiction – Bikini Roulette
Dave: Featuring Matthew Pender, the frontman for uber-ubiquitous mid-2000s Wellington band OdESSA, this album’s opening track “She Cut Me Loose” should ring a bell to fans of his former band. There’s the funk guitar, bouncy danceable rhythm and stabs of keys and horns with vocals sliding between soul falsetto and powerful tenor.
That’s not to say this is a do-over. Despite some surface similarities, there’s a gulf of philosophies between the two bands. Here, songwriting is favoured over groove-making (though there are both, make no mistake) and this gives the band a ton of room to move across the course of an album. The feel is much more loose and organic rather than piston-driven funk.
This all frees Pender up to stamp a unique lyrical feel onto every song. The playful and cheeky (“My heart gutter-balled at the sight of her pins”) sits comfortably alongside the introspective and longing in other songs. Tracks which clip by at a bouncy pace often carry surprisingly somber lyrics. Motels and suitcases crop up frequently as symbols of non-permanence throughout songs about past youth and failed relationships. Certain lines read like subtle examinations of character as pulled from the songbooks of masters like Aimee Mann or Tom Waits, yet sound on record like a Motown croon. It works.
The album is name-your-price on Bandcamp and you’d be an idiot to not at least pick it up for something.
Cupid Deluxe – Blood Orange
Mike: I don’t bandy the word “genius” around very often, but Dev Hynes is a genius. Whether it’s as his americana/ showtunes persona Lightspeed Champion, or as his current incarnation Blood Orange, there’s something special about everything he does. Cupid Deluxe is a varied album ranging from Prince-esque soulfunk (I hate Prince but I love this – go figure), psychedelia, and even hip hop. Inspiring stuff.
In Rolling Waves – The Naked and Famous
Mike: My personal favourite NZ release of the year. The Naked and Famous’s debut was an absolute classic, featuring in our best albums of 2010 and taking the top spot for songs with “Young Blood” on it’s release. So In Rolling Waves had some big shoes to fill. And although it’s not quite the classic that its predecessor was, it’s still a great album and a worthy follow up to Passive Me, Aggressive You. This time round they’ve gone for a more polished vibe, and it pays dividends, in particular on opener “A Stillness”, the title track and singles “I Kill Giants” and “Hearts Like Ours”.
I have to be in exactly the right mood to listen to In Rolling Waves – feeling like something sunny but sad, electronic but rootsy – but when I am, holy FUCK this is a great album.
EP1 – Pixies
Mike: Fuck the haters, Pixies 2.0 fucking rule. Returning with their first release in almost 20 years, the Pixies kept it real, fresh and inventive. Despite triggering a mysterious backlash from purist butthurts, the tracks on EP1 is as good as anything off Trompe Le Monde and the music feels like a natural progression of where they left off in 1991. Bit of a bummer that replacement bassist Kim Shattuck has already been given the boot, but personally I can’t wait to hear what the band have in store next. More please.
UPDATE:They just dropped EP2 on their website and it’s rather good too (although not without its hater-bait).
Glow and Behold – Yuck
Mike: Yuck’s 2011 self-titled debut was a spectacular record. Fuzzed out Dinosaur Jr-esque guitars, great melodies, it had it all. So the announcement that singer Daniel Blumberg was leaving the band prior to the recording of their follow up Glow & Behold. The change in the band’s sound was dramatic: while guitarist Max Bloom’s step up to lead vocals is not a huge sonic change, the overdriven guitars were largely replaced with jangly pop chords and beautiful melodies. In fact the whole album is very reminiscent of Teenage Fanclub – surely not a bad thing – to the point where opener “Sunrise in Maple Shade” borrows the bassline of the Fanclub’s “December” almost note for note. All in all, a superb pop album.
Dan: I was a massive fan of 2010’s self titled debut record – a blissed out and fuzzy statement of intent in a year where shoegaze reigned supreme. When I heard that their follow-up was going to see them going in a different direction I thought “Great, they are going to be going in a different direction with their follow-up”. I think I even said “Great, they are going to be going in a different direction with their follow-up” out loud. It confused the shit out of the other people waiting for the bus who didn’t have any context for why I was saying it.
The problem was, I didn’t think that change of direction would be a swerve into that much maligned late nineties genre euphemistically called at the time ‘modern rock’. You know, the section of the record store that had all the Vertical Horizon and, if you were lucky, a few Everclear records. All over-produced, big guitars and naff lyrics. While Yuck may not quite yet be Filter, this record his heading them in that direction.
Yeezus – Kanye West
Mike: So the other guys are almost certainly going to disagree with me here, but I thought Yeezus was an incredible album. It’s easy to see why the album divided people so much – it’s effectively the rantings of a rich, megalomaniac narcissist who has fallen in love with his own hype. And it’s true, the album is full of delusions of grandeur and completely unrelateable subject matter (“Hurry up with my damn massage/ Hurry up with my damn ménage/ Get the Porsche out the damn garage” and so on). But it’s also dark, disturbing, artistically rewarding and sonically innovative. In fact, if the title My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy hadn’t already been taken by Yeezus‘s illustrious predecessor, it would’ve fit this album perfectly. You can’t help feeling that the house of cards of Kanye’s ego is going to tip over into musical self indulgence at some point, and while we seem to be getting closer to the edge with every album, for now he’s still at the top of his game as far as I’m concerned. Bring on Watch The Throne 2 in 2014.
Dan: There are a number of problems you can have with Kanye West, and since I have never seen being an egomaniacal millionaire douchebag as an impediment to creating great music, I was willing to give him a pass. The thing is Yeezus isn’t crap per se, its just decidedly average. Tunes like ‘Black Skinhead’ work as decent enough pop songs but the fact is the record is just bombastic rant after bombastic rant over refried Watch the Throne style production. Even taking the cringe-making misogyny out of the equation Yeezus is ironically ‘meh’ about this statement of apparent greatness.
Pure Heroine – Lorde
Mike: Well we almost made it through a full year without mentioning Lorde. But why wouldn’t we? – Pure Heroine is a great album and completely deserving of its international success. With the huge success of “Royals” you could be forgiving for expecting the album to not offer up any others songs of quite that level of quality, but you’d be wrong: “Royals” isn’t evcen the best track on here. My vote goes to sublime opener “Tennis Court” and the downbeat electronica of “Ribs”, but pretty much any song on Pure Heroine is a contender. A local (and international) classic, and no mistake.
Bren: “Hey, have you heard that Lorde chick? She’s sixteen. She’s really good.” Mike mentioned to me one time whilst we frolicked about our lounge. “Never heard of her,” I said. (fuck me, which rock had I been hiding under?) And thus we put on “Royals”, naturally. “Yeah, that is really good,” I said. And then the conversation ended and I delved no further, because who gives a fuck.
Then, months later, after her acclaim escalated, I felt I owed it to myself to actually listen to the album and find out what it’s all about. First listen I heard the simple genius of her work and ascertained why she had garnered critical acclaim.
A few things struck me about this album. One, the sound. It’s cavernous. You play this in the Penhall lounge and the size of the room seems to grow with each punchy step of the beat. All of a sudden their humble Waiwhetu abode becomes the Albert Hall. The sound is very unique and the production consistently wonderful. I wasn’t at all surprise to read that Lorde’s influences included Kanye.
The other thing that slapped me about was that you can sense a real maturity in her voice and her ability to perform is evident. She doesn’t sing – she performs. You’re not listening a sixteen-year-old flash in the pan songstress; you’re listening to a mature performer at the top of her game. She could be thirty-odd. But I know what you’ll be thinking: just because she’s sixteen and sounds older doesn’t mean she deserves success – agreed. So for me, it’s not about her age, or her hair or the fact that she is a Kiwi – it’s the album itself. It’s just so damn good.
Quick suffix: And I’m not much of an “album guy”; I’m far too impatient for that bollocks. I’m more of a singles dude. An album has to be damn near perfect for me to say “it’s a damn good album” and rate it highly. In all truth, I was mesmerized by Pure Heroine – and I don’t bandy that word around lightly. Every song is a potential single and it’s hands down the best album of the year for me, to the point where I am actually excited about her next release.
Old – Danny Brown
Dan: I have to confess coming to the Danny Brown party a little late. In fact, by the time I got to the Danny Brown party the keg had pretty much been poked, the only chippies left were ‘feta and grass’ flavoured, and the toilet was backed up with chunder. I have to confess that Old was the record that got me into Detroit rapper Danny Brown and it was on the strength of this amazing 2013 release that I went back and listened to XXX and ‘The Hybrid’ and I started pretending I’d been into Danny Brown since back when his hometown still made cars.
Having my frames of reference very close together, I can say that there is a progression into darkness in Old. The raps are quickfire, the themes of drug addiction and desperate highs, while present in XXX for instance are heavy in Old.
Aside from his rhymes, what sets Old apart from a lot of hip-hop records this year was the variation of styles. There’s some r’n’b, there’s a hint of the nuevo-dirty south (notably ‘Smokin and Drinkin’ and ‘Kush Coma’ specifically – the latter featuring 2013’s ubiquitous guest rapper extraordinaire A$AP Rocky) and there’s a bit of plain mental (‘Wonderbread’). ’25 Bucks’, a collaboration with electronic indie act Purity Ring is probably the most hauntingly brilliant tune on the record in my not-so-humble opinion, but as a record the gems are the slower, more personal bits ‘Float On’ and ‘Clean Up’ particularly.
Even though I am sitting in the disturbingly damp sofa at at the end of the ‘discovering Danny Brown party’ I am glad I came.
…Like Clockwork – Queens of the Stone Age
Dave: Another widely anticipated-with-apprehension album. Thanks to their dizzyingly vital early work QOTSA are not about to lose heir mantle of hard rock kingpins in a hurry, but would the fans forgive another slap-together album like Era Vulgaris? Thankfully it didn’t come to that because …Like Clockwork is much the better record. The jackhammer riffs which made heir name are done away with for the most part, and it’s the softer tracks that really shine through. The heavier songs have a bit of a swing to them. Elton John guests on a brisk rocking number cowritten by Mark Lanegan. Holding this all together is a real eye to song craft, rather than the bucket-of-bits compositions of old that was producing such diminishing returns. This is perhaps due to the evolution of QOTSA from a revolving door collaboration vehicle into a stable band in its own right. That, along with their earlier brilliance muting here into merely impressive competence, can feel a bit like settling down. But it’s clearly worth it.
Paracosm – Washed Out
Dan: With Paracosm Washed Out have achieved something that few bands generally and even fewer electronic outfits manage – to release a follow-up record that is stylistically almost identical to their debut but is somehow better.
Not a man who uses the term ‘Epic glacial soundscapes’ lightly, believe me when I say the epic, glacial soundscapes’ are still there. Yep,the same sunny, beautiful electronic masterpieces that tweak the old dopamine receptors whether you are monged on pills or not have been honed into tighter pop songs. ‘Don’t Give Up’ and ‘It All Feels Right’ are probably the high points of the record and show that the progression of their music has been more towards improving songwriting and not towards changing the parts of their formula that worked so well on the first record.
Mike: Much like David Brent or John Key, Washed Out’s Ernest Greene is basically the consummate chilled out entertainer. The figurehead of the much derided Chillwave genre, he creates breezy, summery electronica for which the monicker Washed Out is perfectly suited. Paracosm introduced psychedelic elements that weren’t present on 2011’s classic Within and Without, creating an album that was familiar enough to fans of it’s predecessor to still appeal, while being just different enough to keep artsistic stagnation at bay. In other words, the ideal follow up.
Major Arcana – Speedy Ortiz
Dave: I don’t know much about this group except that they’re pretty young and have made the best guitar-based album of the year. From the opener of “Pioneer Spine” which lurches from gangly verse to punchy chorus, through to the semi-epic hypnotising fuzzy drone of album closer “Mkvi”, this 10 track release is absolute quality.
Melodic, stripped down, immediate heavy rock hasn’t been this good since the early 1990s, which has seen this group be unfairly branded as retro in some circles. It’s not the case – while these songs would not be out of place on the classic albums of the era (“Nirvana with a girl singer” is my elevator pitch, which is oversimplified to a crime but gets results. Others namecheck Dinosaur Jr.) the sound is not stuck in the past at all.
The twin guitars are intricate without being showy or having to compromise any grunt, reminiscent of the Arctic Monkey’s energetic debut. There’s perhaps also a shared ethos between these albums in their lyrics and delivery – everything comes across very wry, the songs spun out of personal vignettes dosed with drink, humour and heartbreak. That’s where comparisons end though – the relentless freneticism and verbosity of Arctic Monkeys is almost anathema to the fluid, grungy rock of Major Arcana. The overall style has more in common with Veruca Salt’s abrasive, attitude-laden, Albini-produced 1996 EP.
That said, it’s the times when the album slows to take a breath which are the highlights. “No Below”, a slow-building ballad with its unusually straightforward and earnest lyrics, is the most memorable song by a mile. “Mkvi” lowers the tempo but not the intensity, winding out a seven minute tune where singer Sadie Dupuis truly lets go for a minute on the final chorus of the record (though even then the too-cool character isn’t lost – her bvs are delivered underneath in the mix at the same moment sounding almost sarcastically disinterested). These are the tunes that will stick in your head and give the album legs.
Its mastery of dynamics doesn’t just go one way either; the song “Plough” comes out of its middle-eight to end with a surprise jump in energy. Most songs follow either a “quiet-loud-quiet-loud” or “start low, finish high” dynamic structure. This is probably what dates the band’s sound in reviewers’ opinions – it’s been a cliché of rock music ever since Dave Grohl invented a machine in the late 90s which pumped out songs in this format automatically. But on Major Arcana it’s done so satisfyingly well as to step out from under the genre’s cloud. This release has some of the most interesting and inventive guitar rock of the year and yet still sounds so effortlessly cool.
m b v – My Bloody Valentine
Mike: I’ve already said plenty about how great m b v is so I’ll keep it short by just saying that it’s great to see older bands returning with work that does justice to their legacy after such a long break. Why this album received such stellar reviews and the Pixies return was mostly ridiculed, I’ll never know, suffice to say that my fingers are crossed that new material from the Replacements or the Stone Roses could actually be something worth hoping for in the foreseeable future.
Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels
Dan: Big fan of Killer Mike in 2012 – I played R.A.P Music and Bang x3 so much I etched a groove in Spotify from over-use. The addition of El-P made this one of the most anticipated releases of the year (El-P, for my money, as a virtuoso producer is second only to Our Lord and Savior DJ Shadow) and it did not disappoint.
Mike: Sometimes the best things in life really are free. Run The Jewels is a collaboration between rapper Killer Mike and producer/ rapper El-P and was released as a free download via Fools Gold Records. Amazing hip hop with the sort of innovative and epic beats we’ve come to expect from El-P (he was behind the beats on the now classic The Cold Vein by Cannibal Ox way back in 2001. They’re also scheduled to release a Run The Jewels 2 album in 2014, which is very exciting news indeed.
Dave: I was following El-P on twitter because I just thought he was a funny dude. So Run The Jewels rates as probably the biggest, weirdest, musical surprise for me this year. Holy shit this album rules.
Fade Away (EP) – Best Coast
Mike: Ok so their lyrics haven’t gotten any better (the opening couplet on Fade Away is “I wait for you to call but sometimes you don’t call at all/ I wait for you to stay but sometimes you just go away”), but fuck it, if you can’t enjoy music for it’s melody alone then you live in a cold, inhospitable void where the sun never shines and the Beatles don’t exist and you need to get out more. A welcome return to form after the slightly patchy The Only Place (although I’ve softened to that album since its release), Fade Away is full of the beautiful, bright, sunny songs that made us fall in love with Best Coast in the first place, and Bethany Cosentino’s vocal is my personal favourite vocal performance of the year. And while I’m still not entirely convinced by their slower numbers, on EP closer “I Don’t Know How” they pull a classic rock ‘n roll trick by starting slow and ending fast, and suddenly I’m in love with this band all over again.
Event 2 – Deltron 3030
Dan: Picking a Deltron 3030 record for a ‘best record’ list is a bit like picking ‘The Chicago Bulls’ for a list of ‘best basketball teams’. While the Chicago Bulls are not the most successful team this year, the name recognition of their past roster and the depth of their historical significance in basketball’s ‘golden age’ means that I’m not going to look like an idiot for naming them as ‘greats’ even I actually know nothing about basketball.
In many ways name-checking a super-group with Dan the Automator, Del the Funky Homosapien and Kid Koala is cheating. So seeped in hip-hop greatness are they that OF COURSE their 2013 record is going to be brilliant. It won’t top charts but it will satisfy heads and it will ooze brilliance.
There’s a feeling of continuity through Event 2: a lot of the production does have a sort of ‘back to 2000’ feel to it. Let me add that this is not in itself a bad thing; the cut-up the samples, the scratching and the varied and interesting beat structures actually sound refreshing in a milieu heavily dominated by bowl-quake bass and 909s. It’s unlikely Kid Koala or Dan the Automator are going to be invited into the A$AP family any time soon.
It could be easy to view Event 2 as a throw-back to a misty past when Jurassic 5 and Black Eyed Peas weren’t shit, and beats and turntable skills were valued for their originality. When people worried about the divide between ‘gangsta and backpack’ hip-hop. The world of the first Deltron 3030 record if you will.
This blog tends to deride retro culture, and there is something a bit ironic about the ‘futurism’ claims of Event 2. What saves Event 2 from going down the hole of celebrating the past is that every single one of the tracks seems to offer up something new and original.
There are the heavy weight musical collaborations with Zach De La Rocha, (‘Melding of Minds’), collaborative jacks-of-all-trades Damon Albarn and Mike Patton (‘What is the Loneliness’ and ‘City Rising From the Ashes’ respectively) and Black Rob. Then there are the unusual collaborations such as TV comedian David Cross, actor Joseph Gordon Levitt (giving a monologue about the collapse of the financial system at the beginning of the record in ‘Stardate’) and movie scream-queen Mary Elizabeth Winstead (who makes her singing debut on this record.)
There is an inherent weirdness about Event 2 that sets it apart from mere boring retro-worship. Far from being a reheated Common record, Event 2 sounds like what an MF Doom album would sound like if literally everyone in the entertainment industry collaborated on it.
Mike: My pick for hip hop album of the year, fighting of some stiff competition from Run The Jewels and Yeezus (it’s fucking great, damn you!). It’s kind of an obvious choice though, as there’s so much packed into the album and so many guest spots that you kind of wonder if it’s not just a novelty record. I mean look at some of the guests: an intro by Joseph Gordon Levitt, a vocal spot from Rage Against The Machine’s Zak De La Rocka, Damon Albarn reprising his Gorillaz/ Del collab, even celebrity chef David Chang puts in an appearance.
But it’s not a novelty album. It’s a really really great concept album with well thought out lyrics, great rapping, clever guest spots and really great songs. A follow up to 2000’s self-titled and now-classic debut, Deltron 3030 is a collaboration between rapper Del The Funky Homosapien, producer Dan The Automator and musician/dj Kid Koala. But you don’t need to know any of that to enjoy the album.
Days Are Gone – Haim
Mike: For me, Haim boasted the most original sound of the year, and for that alone they deserve to be on this list. Lucky for us they also backed up that sound with a great album, with great song after great song on one of the year’s undisputed classics. Tracks “Falling” and “Forever” have been floating around the internet for a while, so anticipation for the album was high and it’s great to see that they delivered on their hype. Their sound is difficult to describe: it’s part indie pop, part r ‘n b and part seventies radio rock, but all awesome. Check out the band’s unique sound in the live clip below.
False Idols – Tricky
Dave: Tricky’s work has always been so autobiographical that it’s difficult to review his music without reviewing his life by extension. In the 90s he was celebrated for his trailblazing a dark, pessimistic streak through the emergent UK hip-hop scene (a set of genres overburdened with terrible nicknames which I won’t repeat here). Tricky wove issues of urban poverty, race, sexuality, gender, mental illness, crime and drug abuse into an engrossing body of music, from the sometimes upbeat and melody classic of Maxinquaye to the unhinged and sinister Pre Millennial Tension. It was angry and vital music which stood above his contemporaries and still casts a shadow over UK rap today.
Then in the 2000s, it all seemed to change. There was the reasonably dire collaborative album and a handful of other rather tepid records – some astonishingly good single songs amongst them notwithstanding. The fire appeared to go out. Tricky explained the lack of his trademark anger as being down to food allergies he’d only recently had diagnosed, thus adding “gluten” to the list of toxic substances which have helped create the essential music of our age.
So when 2013’s False Albums was hailed as a “return to form” I was apprehensive. Artist’s age and change, and that’s natural, and attempts to recapture the original spark are mostly doomed to fail. Witness Dizzee Rascal who makes sure to include a couple of plastic facsimiles of his early gritty work on the party-anthem albums he’s releasing these days. But when Tricky says that he thinks False Albums is a better album than Maxinquaye – his debut and widely regarded as his White Album – he actually has a case.
Opening with a cover of “Somebody’s Sins”, the first line sung on the record sets the tone: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”. Later, the song “Nothing’s Changed” makes it perfectly clear what this record is about. Part of what makes Tricky’s return to the self a success is that he isn’t simply trying to fit into old clothes – every song is sincere and heartfelt. Where old tropes of crime are brought up, such as in Bonnie & Clyde, they’re told as part of a story as opposed to the detail-heavy, significance-light sneers on recent albums.
Musically, False Idols sounds amazing. Several songs do tend to trail off into nothing – “Does It” hits a phenomenal groove to begin with and then disappoints when it can’t get out of it. The album closes with “Passion of the Christ”, which rounds out the New Testament redemption lyrical theme started at the record’s head, but is little more than a song fragment in itself. “Tribal Drums” exemplifies the best the album has to give – heavy-hitting, satisfying drums paired with delicate, almost-there instrumentation with doubled male-female vocals just slightly out of sync with each other. It also sums up the message of the album in its final lines; “I’m lost and found/ I walked on time/ I’m lost in sound”.
Howlin’ – Jagwar Ma
Dan: The fact that this record is one of my favourites of the year should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me: massive Madchester indie music fan, enjoyer from time to time of dance music and liker of stuff Noel Gallagher likes. Well, except The Thrills, they were arse. But in general Noel and I agree on most things. Jagwar Ma’s Howlin’ then, in its incorporating the best bits of indie dance, is a no-brainer.
Obviously this isn’t a new formula – every couple of years a Kasabian or a The Twang pop up with a baggy, eckie-and-lager fueled series of dance bangers that incorporate just enough of the spirit of the Happy Mondays to keep the faith. The difference with Jagwar Ma though, is they are good enough to be more interesting than that.
Jagwar Ma are like the Happy Mondays if they could play and Kasabian if they had imagination. Incorporating more interesting aspects of dance music than just four four banging house – ‘Backwards Berlin’ being a stand out track.
They write plenty of bangers too – the pop dance catchy ‘Uncertainty’ and ‘The Throw’ showing they have chops in the dance-floor regard.
‘Man I Need’ shows them having a stab at ‘psychedelia’ – the go to for brit-indie bands of this ilk to prove they have songwriting ability and they pull this off too, if a little cheesily.
The key difference between Jagwar Ma and most other bands of this type of music (aside from being from Sydney, which is almost as far from Manchester or Liverpool than you can get) is they have versatility and are imaginative musicians. it is almost as if ‘indie dance’ is the motif they have chosen to riff on for this record; their take on early Primal Scream, The Beloved and the Mondays but viewed through their own creative lens and next time they may riff on something else. This vision is what differentiates them from other more recent, almost slavishly derivative attempts at the style.
Oh yeah, I mentioned liking things Noel Gallagher likes before; he said that Jagwar Ma’s Howlin’ was his favourite record since, well… probably the Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds one. (He also quite likes The Strypes – Mike)
The Bones of What You Believe – CHVRCHES
Mike: It’s rare to get such a perfect pop treat as CHVRCHES in the 21st Century, but when it comes along you should grasp it with both hands. Don’t be afraid to like pop – there’s a lot to be said for great melody and songwriting, let alone a whole album of instant pop classic after instant pop classic. Sure, it’s pop firmly aimed at indie kids, but this is incredible stuff – the sort of life affirming, wonderful songs that remind you of why you love music in the first place.
Songs like singles “The Mother We Share” and the glorious “Gun” are instant classics on their own, but there’s not a dud song on the whole album. Vocalist Lauren Mayberry’s vocals are a highlight – instantly familiar and beautiful, but it’s her sense of melody that really puts The Bones of What You Believe over the edge. You’ll have “Gun” stuck in your head after just one listen, surely the highest praise possible for any pop song.
The Bones of What You Believe is upbeat, beautiful, danceable, sublime music firmly rooted in the 21st Century. The best album of the year in a year of amazing albums. There aren’t enough superlatives in my vocabulary to do CHVRCHES’ debut justice. Just listen to it.
2013 was an amazing year. If you didn’t hear any music you liked then you simply weren’t listening. It definitely felt like more of an albums year to me though, which is why you’ll find that a lot of the songs on the list are from otherwise disappointing albums or are from one-off single releases – we didn’t want to double up too much with our albums list.
This year we roped in some mates to help us through our critique of albums: meet Dave and Bren. You can also hear us talking about the year in music on Dave and Dan’s Egonomist podcast, and check out our Best of 2013 Spotify playlist.
Enjoy our best songs of 2013! (Albums coming soon)
“Bullet” – Franz Ferdinand
Mike: Any year with a new Franz Ferdinand release in it is a good one. And while Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action was a good record, it was definitely more of the same. “Bullet” is no great departure either, but it’s a great example of why we should love them regardless: a punchy, well written rocker that would be most bands best song, but that Franz can churn out with seemingly limitless skill and passion.
“What We Done” – Austra
The way this song grows, morphs and peaks has me mesmerized. It throbs and throbs and then before you realize, it’s banging away like an electro god’s throbbing wang. Brilliant. I really enjoyed the singer, Katy Stelmanis’, vocals. They’re unique and I haven’t heard anyone like her since Ari Up of The Slits from the punk soaked era of the late 70s. Some folk might mention a similarity to Kate Bush or Byork, but tell them to bollock off and think a bit harder. What we done from the album Olympia is a masterpiece. If you like this track you’ll like the entire album.
“I’m Not Sayin'” – The Replacements
Mike: 2013 was the year that one of the greatest undergroound rock ‘n roll bands of all time, The Replacements finally got back together. Ok, it’s just Paul and Tommy, and they only released an EP of covers (to raise money for ailing former guitarist Slim Dunlap’s medical bills), and they only played three gigs, but come on guys, it’s THE REPLACEMENTS.
While the EP was for a good cause, it was a bit hit and miss, their cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “I’m Not Sayin'” was just perfect. It encapsulates everything that was/is great about the Replacemnts: the sloppy but somehow tight delivery, Paul Westerberg’s wonderfully sloppy vocals, it’s anthemic in every way their best work is.
Bring on 2014 and more tour dates, I say.
(UPDATE: They’ve just been announced for Coachella 2014)
“The Descent” – Bob Mould
Former Husker Du / Sugar frontman Bob Mould returned with the excellent album Silver Age this year, and despite being well into his 50s managed to release a song as anything from his heyday with “The Descent”. A lot of much younger performers could learn some important lessons on songwriting and energy from the performance below:
“Lady, You Shot Me” – Har Mar Superstar
Mike: Named after the alleged final words of soul legend Sam Cooke, “Lady, You Shot Me” is a song worthy of its title’s reference point. A soul stomper of the finest order, it’s great to know this sort of music can still sit amongst the best in 2013. The accompanying album Bye Bye 17, wasn’t too bad either.
“She Splits Me Up” – Crocodiles
Dan: There are many people that would say I was a bit of a wally. Some may even use terms more derogatory and more ‘blue’ to describe me. Mostly I would angrily disagree and say “I’m not a wally, YOU’RE the wally if anyone is mate!” and win the argument with my rapier-like comeback. With regards to The Crocodile’s 2013 output however, I am unhappy to concede that I am, in fact, a wally. You see, on its release I thought the Crocodile’s new record ‘Crimes of Passion’ was all right but more of the same. The Crocodiles have been a band that in my minds eye have been around for literally ever and have released a lot of cool records for putting on in the back ground at parties but nothing to write home about. Kind of like The Walkmen.
Crimes of Passion though, on closer listen was different. Now, the reason I am writing this review for ‘She Splits Me Up’ rather than the album is I believe everything which is great about their album is encapsulated in this tune and sort of radiates out from it through the rest of the record.
‘She Splits Me Up’ is built around a jangly guitar riff reminiscent of The La’s and the song has a real Jesus and Mary Chain/Teardrop Explodes whiff to it. One of my criticisms of The Crocodiles in the past have been how much they sound so derivative of their influences but in many ways this song addresses it: so catchy and well-written it supersedes these influences. ‘She Splits Me Up’ manages to sound simultaneously like you’ve heard it before, that you’ve known it for ages, but it is one of your favorite songs rather than simply a rip-off.
Drenched in the Liverpool psychedelia from whence it seems to have come, ‘She Splits Me Up’ stands out on it’s own and sounds like one of your favourite songs you think you’ve known about for ages.
“Flick of the Finger” – Beady Eye
Mike: I had high hopes for Beady Eye’s second album BE. I loved their first one, Different Gear, Still Speeding – it was a straight ahead rocker that gave you the feeling that there was much, much better to come. As much as I love Noel Gallagher as an artist and a songwriter, I always felt that his leaving Oasis freed up the other members to take a different tack and create something a little bit outside the mould.
“Flick of the Finger” certainly backs up that feeling. It kinda feels like a bond theme, all dark and menacing and heavy on the horns. It’s just such a great song, so good that it raised my expectations for the album even higher. But, as you may have expected reading this far, BE didn’t live up to my expectations. It wasn’t bad as such – although Liam Gallagher’s vocal limitations are uncomfortably stretched beyond their traditional loutish comfort zone on a few of the tunes – but it just wasn’t the classic album that I am increasingly starting to think they don’t have in them. Maybe album number three will prove me wrong?
“Middle Sea” – Yuck
Mike: The follow-up to Yuck’s top-shelf debut came out this in 2013 and kinda divided people (I loved it, myself). The reason being that there debut was a fierce Dinosaur Jr-like wall of fuzzed out guitars, while Glow and Behold sorta went all mellow, changed singers and sounded like a Teenage Fanclub album. Admittedly, despite the change the best song on tehre was the one that sounded the most like their debut: “Middle Sea” is just so brilliant I can’t put it into words.
“2013” – Primal Scream
Mike: Certainly the longest song on this list, it seems kind of fitting that one of them should be named after the year in question. But I swear “2013” deserves to be here in it’s own right. The opening song on the Scream’s 20 billionth album, “2013” is a long off-kilter rocker with horns, and is utterly brilliant in that way that great bands can just constantly reinvent themselves. It’s sort of like a “Loaded” for the 21st century, albeit if “Loaded” was flipped inside out, dosed up on acid instead of E and recorded in Memphis.
So, not much like “Loaded” at all then.
“Unorthodox” – Joey Bada$$
Mike: Mr Bada$$ dropped his debut mixtape 1999 in 2012 and since then I’ve been eagerly anticipating an album, which I was hoping we’d see in 2013. In March when he dropped “Unorthodox” it aroused(!) my interest even more. Produced by the god-like DJ Premier, “Unorthodox” is all things that great hip hop should be, and Joey’s breezy, golden-era Brooklyn rapping style is the most refreshing thing I’ve heard in a long time.
Ultimately there was no album from him in 2013 (it’s called B4.Da.$$ and is due in early 2014), there was the excellent Summer Knights EP (and extended mixtape) that is also worth checking out. But for me, “Unorthodox” was his highlight of 2013. It’s free to download too via the widget below too.
“Demon To Lean On” – Wavves
Mike: I love Wavves. Their last album King of the Beach was one of the best things ever, and the EP that followed, Life Sux was even better again, just song after song of amazing crunchy punk-pop tunes. Signs for their follow up album Afraid of Heights were incredibly promising too: advance song “Sail To The Sun” was amazing, if not a huge departure.
And then “Demon To Lean On” dropped and it was such a great song, the best thy’d ever done, combining all of the best bits of Nirvana and early Green Day and you name every other upbeat punk influenced band and they were there. Sadly, when Afraid of Heights was released, it turned out that not only were those two songs the best on there, they also opened the album meaning that you got a burst of greatness followed by a whole lot of not-awful-but-still-not-mind-blowing-like-the-first-two-songs-which-were-already-available-on-pre-release-anyway-ness. This must’ve been what it was like to buy Sandinista after hearing “The Magnificent Seven”.
Still, we’ve always got “Demon To Lean On”, eh.
“I Kill Giants” – The Naked and Famous
Dan: One of my favourite memories of 2010 was standing on a crammed dancefloor as the opening bars to Naked and Famous’ game-changing 2009 mega-tune rang out over the PA. Despite their nearly being etched into my frontal cortex in familiarity I was awe-struck for a second as the band launched into them; each an every time I heard those chords I got a tingle down my spine and now I was seeing them do it live. The crowd went a happy sort of apoplectic a second later and the band launched into the song.
At that time I knew the Naked and Famous would be able to follow this up with an album; this was the release tour and we already knew they had a winner: for my money the best New Zealand pop record since, well, since…we’ll go with ‘a Split Enz/Crowded House record’ to keep any babyboomers reading this happy. In 2013 however, they came back with a new record and new singles and their glorious 2009 statement of intent Young Blood produced a whole new expectations problem. What of the new singles?
With this monstrous monkey of expectation on their back however, they still delivered with ‘I Kill Giants’. A beautiful and glistening slab of synth-pop comes in at a different angle to Young Blood – I Kill Giants is darker and more mature and addressing loss and the pain of never being able to say the things you needed to to someone close to you.
In a similar way to The Chvrches’ with ‘Gun’ and ‘The Mother We Share’, The Naked and Famous manage to translate aching frustration and anger into pop bombast and achieve it without trivialising it.
It is then, with a certain shame that I admit that I thought ‘I Kill Giants’ to be a perfect response to the gargantuan expectation placed upon the band with this single. Obviously my literal interpretation involving ‘killing’ something really large (a giant) is trite when one considers the song is actually about the singer Alisa Xayalith losing her mother to cancer at a young age. And I’ll leave the metaphor there shall I.
Great song though.
Uncertainty – Jagwar Ma
Dan: There is a school of thought which suggests that ‘The Throw’ was Jagwar Ma’s big tune off their earth-quiveringly adequate debut record. This school of thought would include those publications, blogs and taste-making websites who named it song of the month, song of the day or, in the case of Rolling Stone ‘Song That’s Okay But Not as Good as Pearl Jam’. This school of thought would be right in a way: The Throw is a great song and it is testament to the versatility and inventiveness of Jagwar Ma that there are a number of brilliant but very different tunes on their debut record ‘Howlin”.
However, I went with ‘Uncertainty’ possibly because I think, aside from being a banging tune that was on almost endless repeat around these parts (i.e, my house, where I live alone in my undies) it best captures what Jagwah Ma is about and for me, what 2013 was about.
Uncertainty is a catchy dance track with an infectious beat, around it wound the beautifully simplistic chorus. The track peaks with a chant of the song’s name. Brilliant.
In my record review I hint at the fact that Jagwar Ma’s Howlin picks up the baton from Primal Scream’s ‘Screamadelica’ (I say ‘hint at it’ because I actually only verbalised this association now, but believe me, it’s there.) ‘Uncertainty’ manages to be both interesting and ‘hands in the air and blow a whistle annoyingly so the person in front of your turns around and scowls at you’ at the same time. Everyone remembers Primal Scream’s ‘Come Together’, in all its sunny blissed-out glory, but in my mind ‘Loaded’ better captures what the Scream were really about – a volatile mix of dance and rock’n’roll. In my mind ‘Uncertainty’ is Jagwar Ma’s ‘Loaded’.
“Is This How You Feel” – The Preatures
Bren: This song is crack. Pure and simple. It’s actually my personal favourite song of 2013 and sits head and shoulders above the rest on my list. And it’s #1 for a few reasons.
Basically all the people I introduced this song to would message me a day or two later saying, “That song, Brendan, I – I just can’t stop listening to it. I’ve listened to it like ten times today alone.” And it’s 9.30am. Crack. Pure and simple.
Beyond that, it is a heck of a pop song and very very catchy. But the thing with most catchy songs is that by the twentieth or so listen you can sense its half-life and often you’ll detect a sort of thinness when you begin to see that there is nothing beyond the catchiness – no layers, or depth, no complexity. Is this how you feel, stands that test and has never lost its glossiness. It’s fucking brilliant. If this song were a woman I would make love to her endlessly. If it were a man I’d play table tennis with him endlessly, letting him win every game. Maybe at the end of our faux battle I would give him a firm pat on the buttocks for good measure.
“Gun” – CHVRCHES
Dan: When people say “I don’t listen to new music really” I usually treat them with a sort of disdain that I would otherwise reserve for a dog turd I’d accidentally messed my brand new trainers with. When I listened to Gun for the first time however, I was overcome by an overwhelming feeling of sadness for those people. Sure, they had their weekends at the garden centre, their polar-fleece vests and their net worth but were they really living at all if they never heard this pop opus.
Cooking in the high tempo-high, high energy, high end, it manages to still sound haunting rather than sweetly cloying. There’s an anger to Gun, despite it’s clear poppiness – love and loss are pretty standard subjects of pop music, but you could easily take Lauren Mayberry’s lyrics (allegedly about tearing strips off a former lover, you know, figuratively and that) as a threat of actual violence.
As with the other Chvrche’s singles, there’s a whole packet of nice remixes – my favourite being DJ Helix’s – stripping the tune down to a more standard floor-filler but still keeping the tune’s emotional urgency.
Mike: When Dan told me had heard what he considered was the best song of 2013 I treated it with the contempt that I treat all things that Dan says (“Oh, pants inhibit your blog writing ability? Ok, Dan, sure”). But as it turns out, he was pretty on to it this particular time.
“Sex” – The 1975
Bren: I was drunk. This song came on. I danced drunkenly around Dan’s talcum powdered lounge. “What the fuck is this song, Dan?” I asked. End of story.
Nah, but seriously, what is it about this song? Beyond it’s masterful musicianship, the lyrics tell a really vivid story and captures the emotional ups and downs that can occur between man and woman when it is all just about sex. “If we’re gonna do anything we might as well just fuck” he reasons. Yeah, Healy’s lyrics capture a true, genuine narrative and whether it’s his voice, and thus his experience, or just something fictional it matters not – it’s effective.
Dan: In some ways, my relationship with this tune is one of disappointment. Not with the song itself per se: Sex was the spiky rock’n’roll Bloody Mary which I greedily chopped back to begin 2013: it made me feel good, relaxed and slightly pissed on the knowledge that smart, catchy British indie-pop was back again.
As the Catholic priest at my old high school who, for some inexplicable reason, taught sex education would say; there’s nothing overly clever about Sex. It’s well crafted guitar indie pop about the awkwardness of falling for the wrong girl. Earnest as hell with a lyrical hook around “She’s got a boyfriend anyway” it somehow manages to side-step the annoying vacuous hole that by-the-numbers UK pop groups sometimes fall into (I call the Snow PatrHole) by being just so damn catchy. It’s the song you will find yourself singing for days and days and days and you won’t care because it’s mental good.
The “she’s got a boyfriend anyway” line in fact, almost comes off as anthemic.
I started this review by saying that there was a feeling of disappointment associated with The 1975’s ‘Sex’ for me though, and I will elaborate. After listening to and singing this song for ages and ages I suppose it built an anticipation for me for their debut album which while pretty bloody good, did not in my mind rise to the promise of ‘Sex’ (or, in fact, another of the singles off another of the EP’s released in advance of the debut, ‘Chocolate’.)
Can’t have everything I suppose.
* The original EP version of “Sex” was released in 2012. This is the re-recorded album single version which came out in July 2013. None of us heard it till 2013 anyway. It really is the greatest song.Tweet
We live in an age where music journalism – this blog included – is increasingly irrelevant: the discerning music fan has all of the tools available to them to make their own decisions and musical discoveries. Want to know if you like a band? Look ’em up on Spotify and decide for yourself. (Don’t have a Spotify account? It’s free, you jerks). Want their backstory? Wikipedia. Similar artists? Last.FM. And so on. So I guess it kind of fucks me off when music that is clearly not awful on any level (in fact is rather excellent in this writer’s humble opinion) gets a slagging off in the music “press” (whatever that means in 2013). I am talking, of course, about the new Pixies material.
So, twenty-two years after their last album, ten years after their reunion began, and nine years since their last new material the Pixies finally chose 2013 as the year to release some new material. Much like My Bloody Valentine’s triumphant return after a twenty year hiatus with mbv (an album I also loved), the new Pixies material ticked all the boxes – familiar enough to appeal to old fans, just different enough to generate excitement beyond simple revivalism. Yet – unlike mbv – many reviewers have taken a distaste to the new Pixies material. Case in point: this now infamous 1/10 Pitchfork review.
Let’s backtrack just a bit before we tackle that particular injustice. The Pixies split up acrimoniously in 1993 largely due to growing tensions between core members Frank Black and Kim Deal. In 2003 they triumphantly reunited and have been touring consistently ever since, releasing just two new songs a year into their reunion (2004’s excellent Kim Deal penned “Bam Thwok”, and the Warren Zevon tribute “Ain’t That Pretty At All”), before falling silent on the new material front for almost a deccade, save for the odd hint at future recording sessions in interviews. Then, early this year, much to the despair of fans, the band announced Deal’s amicable departure from the Pixies.
What sounded like bad news actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The band’s lack of new material was often hinted at by the rest of the band to be related to Deal’s reluctance to tarnish the influential band’s reputation with new material. And these suspicions were somewhat confirmed when, within weeks of Deal’s departure, the band released a new song – the very good indeed “Bagboy” – on their website for free, swiftly followed by a new EP, rumoured to be the first of many.
Deal’s replacement is Kim Shattuck, an inspired choice, and arguably the perfect replacement (they don’t even need to change the names on the riders). If you’re not familiar with Kim’s work, check out this song by her excellent 90s band The Muffs, and this guest appearance on a NOFX classic. As someone who’s seen the Pixies live several times since their reunion, recent footage with Shattuck on bass shows the band playing with more energy and conviction than they’ve displayed in years.
So finally, the new EP. It’s fucking great. It really is. Opening song “Andro Queen” is my personal favourite, slow and reverby, with a touch of Spanish so you don’t forget who you’re listening to. “Another Toe In The Ocean” is classic Pixies circa Bossanova / Trompe Le Monde. First single “Indie Cindy” is fantastic, with their trademark quiet/ loud dynamic put to good use. “What Goes Boom” is the heaviest song, punk themed and a little reminiscent of “Planet Of Sound”.
Why the backlash then? I’m not sure entirely, but it’s pretty safe to say that there’s a strong element of misplaced nostalgia here. History never repeats, and the band are never going to release another “Where Is My Mind” or “Here Comes Your Man”. Deal with it (no pun intended). Which is not to say they’ll never write a song as good as those again, it’s just going to sound completely different. Your job as a music reviewer, and even more importantly, as a fan, is to judge new music on its own merits. Forget the past. Do you like this music? Do you enjoy listening to it? That’s all that matters.
Part of the reason I’ve waited so long to post this review – the EP was released on the 3rd of September – was to see if my initial positive reaction would remain. It was important to ascertain that it wasn’t just the thrill of a new release by one of my favourite bands twisting my opinion of the music contained within to the positive. And as you may have judged by the tone of this piece, I still love these songs over a month after their release.
Just to illustrate that I’m not a hopeless nostalgic, in love with my own musical past, I should point out that another of my favourite bands, featuring one of my favourite guitarists, released their first new album in 40 years earlier this year: Iggy & The Stooges with James Williamson on guitar, with the album Ready to Die. Unlike the Notorious B.I.G album of the same name, the Stooges’ return was pretty fucking terrible. Awful songs, weak production, the Raw Power line-up’s chief asset (Williamson’s guitar playing) buried deep in the mix instead of spewing forth over all of the songs as it should, the album was a disaster. The band’s 2005 reunion album The Weirdness (with the late original guitarist Ron Asheton) may have had weak songs, but at least had Steve Albini production and trademark Stooges guitars. Ready To Die is the worst kind of reunion album – it takes the band’s existing legacy and shits all over it. The Pixies EP-1 does the exact opposite.
Are you a Pixies fan? Then get hold of EP-1 and listen to it for yourself. Chances are, like me, you’ll really like it. With the promise of more to come, and live glimpses of newer songs looking very strong indeed, the Pixies musical future is looking stronger than it has in a long time. Let the mainstream music press take their rose-tinted love of all things past and shove it.Tweet
It seems to be a common gripe from people my age (early 30s) that music is somehow not as good as it once was. As someone who listens to a lot of new music, this attitude really fucking annoys me.
For a start there is arguably more great music out there today than at any point in popular music’s history, and it’s more readily available than ever. Sure, the music industry as a business may have collapsed in on itself but believe me, that is not a bad thing. If you feel bad about music executives not getting $35 a pop on the music that you’re now getting for free then I’m sorry, you don’t deserve good music anyway. We don’t need your pity.
Some people are quite happy to listen to nothing but old music, and I find that really sad. Have you noticed that it’s almost always from an era that coincides directly with their youth? It’s always “Oh, you were a teenager in the 1980s? Tell me again about how all the music and fashions were fantastic and how it definitely wasn’t a fucking horrible and miserable time to live”.
I had some fuckwit picking a fight on Twitter the other day because I had the nerve to suggest that Aerosmith were a third rate Rolling Stones tribute band. I mean like not even like the classic sixties Stones, but the shitty 1980s having-a-play-at-disco and doing way too much cocaine Rolling Stones. If Aerosmith is your favourite band in 2013 then I can only imagine you spend large amounts of time crying in the shower before work and lamenting what has happened to society since the halcyon days of poorly written glam rock that could only be enjoyed with the aid of needle-administered drugs.
Can you imagine if these same people took a similar backwards looking approach to movies as they do to music. “Inception? No I haven’t seen it. My favourite movies of all time are the early Tarantino films so I haven’t watched a single other film since Pulp Fiction came out in 1994”. See how stupid that sounds?
Another common complaint is that people can’t seem to find any good music via the old means, like music TV and the radio. No shit. I mean really, radio? Fucks sake, put your shitty transistor away and get Spotify or something, there’s loads of great apps on there for discovering new music, plus the artists get paid (albeit quite poorly at the moment) for every listen – so you can stop cry/wanking about the poor executives at EMI while you’re at it. Saying there’s no good music out there because you don’t see any on MTV or mainstream radio is like going into a McDonalds and then complaining that all food these days is shitty gristle burgers and whale-spunk sundaes.
Slagging off hipsters seems to be another easy way of shitting on “youth” culture. So you hate people that are more fashionable and younger than you, we get it. They have silly facial hair and cardigans, but at least they like decent music most of the time. Tell them again about how much better Stone Temple Pilots are than “their music”, I’m sure they’ll be all ears. At least concede that you’ve become a more conservative version of your own parents.
Haven’t heard of the latest indie band? They must be shit then, right, or you would have heard them? I mean I haven’t seen Ben Hur, and despite living in the internet age where all of our cultural history is available to us at all times, it still hasn’t forced itself in front of my eyeballs, so I can only concede that it is a piece of shit. Totally the movie’s fault too. That logic would also make Freddy Got Fingered, which I have seen (*shudder*) a better film than Ben Hur.
Living in the internet age and still not being able to find music that you like is not a sign that music is worse, it’s a sign that you’ve lost touch. You are your own worst enemy. Stop blaming the state of music for your inability to move on.Tweet