We are almost to the mid-point of 2014, and there have already been some outstanding releases. With a promising second half of the year ahead of us, I’d like to take a moment to spotlight some of my favorite albums from the year so far. To try to keep some semblance of control, I’ve limited my list to albums released prior to June 1st.
Tag Archives: Woods
With Light and With Love
Five albums in and not much has changed with Wood’s music, at least on the surface. The band still has that lo-fi Americana, stoner groove that people (including myself) first fell in love with five years ago with Songs of Shame, but upon closer inspection, their latest release With Light and With Love reveals the band’s immense growth as both musicians and songwriters.
Back in the beginning, the band was best known and appreciated for its lo-fi production and ramshackle performances. Wood’s sloppiness also served as its strength – a band whose recordings often sounded like live performances captured on an old, dusty tape recorder buried in the couch cushions next to a long forgotten joint.
A few days ago I posted the first 20 in my Top 40 Albums of 2012 (check it out here). The first half of the list is always easier to compile than the final 20. With this, the top half of the list, I find myself swapping albums from one spot to the next, trying to refine my list to the perfect order. Of course, this “perfect order” is never truly found. On one day I’d much rather listen to my number 17 than my number 5 and vice versa. I can promise you, all of these albums are fantastic. In order to come up with a definitive order, I took into account the overall significance of an album, not just which has the best collection of songs, but which is the perfect album – the themes, the order of the songs, the cultural significance. Within those parameters, I had no doubt what would be the number one album of 2012. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
As with all movements, the lo-fi trend has tapered off over the past couple years. In its wake, many of the artists who found their niche within the genre have had to step outside the tape hiss and attempt to tread water on the strength of their songwriting. The entire ethos of the lo-fi movement was the idea that great songs will always be great, regardless of the production (this is the gospel of Robert Pollard). As the dust has settled, some have found success moving away from the 4-track recorder (Ty Segall, Wavves, Times New Viking) while others have been exposed (Male Bonding, Matt and Kim, Psychedelic Horseshit).
After the release of Wood’s 2011 album “Sun and Shade,” I felt that they belonged in the latter category. Without the amateurish production, the band seemed lost. Many of the songs come off as lazy, while others meander aimlessly from one guitar solo to another with several songs stretching past the seven-minute mark. The band’s knack for melodies seemed all but gone and the charm of the past erased.
James Blake “S/T” [A&M/Atlas; 2011]
When I first heard that Kanye West’s “Dark Twisted Nightmare” would feature Bon Iver’s Justin Veronon, I was skeptical to say the least. The combination of Vernon’s haunting, tragic voice alongside Kanye’s robust wall of self-celebration seemed like a match made in a…well, a dark twisted nightmare. Then of course I heard “Nightmare” and realized Kanye’s turn toward a wide-open self-evaluation worked surpisingly well with Bon Iver’s signature sound. Kanye’s loneliness amidst the bitter vacuum of celebrity is the perfect parallel to Bon Iver’s “For Emma, Forever”, secluded in a log cabin with it’s combination of misery and building a still.
At the same time, the song “Lost in the World” and the album’s success made me wary that Justin Vernon may take a turn toward R&B, relying more heavily upon digital technology. I can’t deny that I did enjoy his first foray into auto-tune with “Woods”, but part of what made it a fun listen was it’s tongue-in-cheek nature, taking this overly processed crutch in modern music and creating something real and honest. Yet I didn’t feel like there was much more that needed to be explored in the voice-processing world.
Then I heard James Blake’s 2011 self-titled release, and I realized I had been so wrong. On the album, Blake creates that same haunting, sparse atmosphere and takes it fully into the realm of the digital to a level that Vernon only touched upon on “Woods”. The connection with Bon Iver only goes so far though with Blake stepping out of Vernon’s cozy cabin into the frigid Wisconsin cold.
Cold is the key word here; this album reminds me of walking through a blizzard, the howling wind creating a pocket of isolation, the blank white snow creating a curtain, hiding you from all other surroundings. Despite this setting of solitude, the synths and vocals send shivers up your spine like an arctic gust. On “Wilhelms Scream” Blake’s soulful voice sings of giving up on love, dreams, and simply falling into a drift of isolation.
This bleak message continues throughout the album, and the background music only furthers the message, creating icy sheets of echoing reverb. The synths and drum machine aid this disconnect, distant from Blake’s world of wallowing. The vocodor makes several appearances as well for the same reason: to represent this feeling of being solitary, of being inhuman, lifeless, heartless, like a machine. On a song like “Lindesfarne I” this is most evident, but even more apparent in the song is the use of silence. In fact, the moments of complete quiet are Blake’s best weapon.
An onslaught of silence on “Lindesfarne I”, followed by “Lindesfarne II”:
I connected with this album deeply upon first listen because of its forlorn outlook, but also the strange jolts and jerks that pop up from start to finish. Every song will take you in an unexpected direction, yet they all remain in that great white expanse of winter cold. Listening to Blake’s self-titled album almost makes me wish I could be back in the snowdrift laden plains of my home state Iowa…almost.
The Corin Tucker Band
I always thought Carrie Brownstein was the more punk rock of the ladies in Sleater Kinney. I always thought she had the fire, the anger, and the edge that counteracted Corrin Tucker’s more feminine approach. I was wrong. So wrong.
I’m a sucker for trumpets, especially when they sound this damn dreamy.
73. “Theme From ‘Cheers””
Looking back on my year, one memory that stands out the most is when me and BDWPS contributer PtheStudP visited Cheers in downtown Boston. After a two-hour marathon at a beer festival, our tour guide Steph led us to Cheers where her friend Justin was bartending. What I thought was going to a quick tourist visit turned into hours of drunken splendor. Soon the variety of beers and shots somehow turned into a night of boisterous chanting of “U-S-A!”, “Lord-By-ron!”, and “Tom Arn-old!” This song brings me back to that night, not necessarily because of the reference to Cheers in the title, but the chorus that could have easily been one of our chants that night: “So let’s get fucked up, and let’s pretend we’re all okay, and if you’ve got something you can’t live with, save it for another day. Save it for another day.”
72. “Bloodbuzz Ohio”
After carrying The National’s Matt Berninger to Ohio, I’d like that same swarm of bees to visit Jim Tressel’s house.
71. “Tame On the Prowl”
In most cases, my adoration of The Medications stems from trying to untangle the vine of intertwined guitar licks in each song. “Tame On the Prowl” continues this tradition, but also features a melody that will quickly wrap around your Hippocampus.
70. “Whores; The Movie”
Not only is “Whores; The Movie” a stellar song, but it would also make a great movie (preferably in 3-D).
69. “Leave You Forever”
I could never leave this song forever.
68. “Apartment Wrestling”
Maximum Balloon (featuring David Byrne)
If you’ve ever wondered what TV On the Radio would sound like if they joined forces with The Talking Heads, it’s as amazing as you expected.
67. “Grief Point”
This is not really a song, rather an audio-short-film, or an audio-psycho analysis, or maybe just the ramblings of a confused artist. Whatever the case, this eight minute insight into the mind of Dan Bejar and his view of music at this point in his career is fascinating. Earlier this year, Bejar discussed ending his recording career altogether (fortunately he didn’t with a new album coming out soon), and this B-side to his “Archer on the Beach” EP captures him in the midst of this confusion of what role his music plays in both his life and his listeners. Plus, I just like the imagery of “picnic baskets filled with blood”. Call me a hopeless romantic!
66. “Fresh Hex”
Tobacco (featuring Beck)
“Maniac Meat” is such a fun fucking album and on “Fresh Hex” Beck joins the party, giving the album his own fresh take on their energetic sound.
65. “Pop Culture (revisited)”
The Ponys originally formed in Chicago back in 2001, and one of their earliest songs was “Pop Culture”. For whatever reason, this song never made it onto a major record, only being heard during live performance. I can still remember them playing this song when I first saw them live four years ago. But in 2010, with the release of their song EP “Deathbed Plus 4″, “Pop Culture (revisited)” was finally released from captivity, and it sounds as lively as ever.
64. “Swim Until You Can’t See Land”
Water has always represented rebirth, and on “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” singer Scott Hutchison swims not only for a renewal, but also to feel alive again.
63. “You Must Be Out of Your Mind”
The Magnetic Fields
This past year I’ve had to learn how to forgive others, and also tried to gain forgiveness for those I’ve hurt. In both cases this isn’t the easiest of tasks. As the person who was wronged, there is some agitation with the idea that by simply saying “I’m sorry” that everything goes back to the way they were. They don’t and they never will. But as the person asking for forgiveness, you can’t “simply press rewind” and things will be they way they once were no matter how bad you would like them to. Stephin Merritt’s snarky lyrics take on the persona of the one burned, and his stance can be either an anthem for moving on or a eulogy for a relationship (depending one what side of the forgiveness fault-line you stand).
Fresh & Onlys
The Fresh & Onlys are time travelers, but instead of going to the past, they’ve come to us from the 60s, bringing with them a sound that has been long forgotten. Amazingly, a song like “Waterfall” grows out of the oldies, yet sounds like nothing else on the radio. This is the type of song that would lead Marty McFly to say, “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet, but your grandparents loved it.”
61. “Below the Hurricane”
At first this seems like a beautiful little folk song, but halfway through the band kicks it up a notch with Doobie Brother’s persona that is sweetened with a couple drops of harmonica.
60. “I Learned the Hard Way”
Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings
The only thing I don’t like about this song is the fact that she never defines exactly what this guy did to turn her into such a bitter old maid.
59. “Mr. Peterson”
This eerie song tells the story of a teacher, Mr. Peterson, leaving a note on a student’s paper telling them to meet him at a certain time and place. For some reason, the narrator meets up with the teacher, smokes weed with him, and possibly has sex with him (although this event is only inferred). When the teacher goes on to kill himself, the narrator doesn’t necessarily hold a grudge toward him. Instead, the speaker hopes that Mr. Peterson can find a place where he’s wanted, even if that place be hell.
So yeah, this songs kinda depressing.
The New Pornographers
After their lackluster 2007 release “Challengers”, I’d kinda written The New Pornographers off. It just seemed like their sound had run its course and had no where else to go. But on their latest release, “Together”, the band has found new ways to eek a little more life out of their collective, especially on a song like “Moves” that amps up their classic sound with a driving orchestral addition.
57. “Suffering Season”
I made the mistake this summer of defining Woods as the next Neil Young. The falsetto vocals do conjure up images of Sir Neil, but a song like “Suffering Season” shows the band is influenced by many other voices of the past (possibly the Mamas and the Papas?).
In just two minutes, Ty Segall will have you singing along. That has to be some type of record.
55. “Favourite Food”
Tokyo Police Club
Getting old stinks, a point this song pounds into the ground. Not only have I had to face the facts that I’m no longer young, but my parent’s aging has become apparent, a notion that scares me. When the lyrics say “cause it’s sweet getting old” followed by “Let the hospital be your home”, I can’t help but feel that Tokyo Police Club are being morbidly ironic. I would like to believe that there is some hope hidden within the metaphors of this riveting song, but I can’t seem to find them.
54. “Written in Reverse”
With all that screaming and punching of piano keys, something must have really pissed Britt Daniels off. But unlike the Incredible Hulk, you’ll like Britt when he’s angry.
I really should start listening to some R Kelly. A couple of years ago I couldn’t quit listening to Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s cover of R. Kelly’s “The Word’s Greatest”. This year Sam Amidon, who is known for his modern interpretations of classic folk songs, switched his routine by taking R. Kelly’s “Relief” and giving it a more classic ambience. On second thought, I’ll just stick to people covering R. Kelly.
Even though it’s the third track on “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”, “POWER” is the introduction to the Shakespearan tale found on this album. In it, Kanye portrays a man dealing with the struggles of being in power. At times he seems arrogant and aloof, but near the end of the song the listener begins hearing a man realizing that the one thing he doesn’t have power over is himself. By the time the outro arrives, the speaker is standing on a ledge envisioning himself jumping, saying, “This would be a beautiful death”.
Oh, and did I mention it samples King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man”?
51. “He Would Have Laughed”
A lot of great musicians died in 2010 (Captain Beefheart, Ronnie James Dio, Mark Linkous), but the most devastating loss in my view was the death of Jay Reatard simply because Jay had so much left to create, so must potential. Being friends with Jay, Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox wrote “He Would Have Laughed” in dedication to the lost genius. I’m not sure if the song is necessarily about Jay with its abstract lyrics, although there is something there within the lyrics “Where do all my friends go?” and “What did you want to be?”. I think the connection to Jay’s life is found within the music its self, with the slow progression that eventually goes into a euphoric swell, but then, just like Jay’s life, the song just suddenly stops. Fuck.