Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Musically Inclined's Top Finds of 2014

It was a quiet year for music. While 2013 gave us Jay-Z, Kanye, Beyonce, Daft Punk, the return of My Bloody Valentine, The National, and whole bunch of other musical heavyweights, 2014 gave us… (a mild sense of unfulfillment?) much less. St. Vincent, Spoon, and Jack White were absolutely respectable, but it was like music this year forgot to take its vitamins.

The upshot is that 2015 almost has to be a knockout year. We already know we’re getting records from Sleater Kinney, Punch Brothers, and San Fermin. Hopefully there will be more to follow from folks we haven’t heard from in a while.

But, we’re not quite there yet. There are three-ish weeks left in 2014, and it would be unfair not to celebrate what did keep us turning the volume knob, up and up and up.

Even if there wasn’t one album this year that slayed all, there were so many great singles – probably enough to merit an extra five slots on this list, if my inner editor were a little more self-indulgent.

For the seventh year running, here are The Musically Inclined’s Top 10 Finds.

Gameplay is as follows:

1. Any artist or band TMI hadn't listened to before January '14.
2. Songs have to have a stick factor to survive the year. Catchy? Bouncy? Quirky? Sure, but mostly they just have to be solid. Doesn't hurt to be fun and mildly screwy, either.

For any interested parties, the full Spotify playlist is available right here.

Otherwise, scroll on.

10. Fire Extinguisher : Howell Dawdy

The tenth spot on the list usually goes to some song that’s too ridiculous or weird to ignore. This year is no exception. Louisville’s Howell Dawdy deadpans his way through “Fire Extinguisher,” listing off the oddball things he needs – a brick on a string, a 12 pack of moist towelettes, a driver who’s also a student in something interesting. His train of thought is inexplicable and incredibly amusing, especially when it veers from things like jackets into the way he sees the world.

9. Dark Sunglasses : Chrissie Hynde

While the Pretenders have been around for a while, this was the year Chrissie Hynde went solo. “Dark Sunglasses” was an immediate favorite. The song tells the story of a guy who’s lost his social status and hangs on to the last shreds of his glamour and style by hiding behind dark sunglasses. Cool is elusive, folks. 

8. Lead Me On : Joe Henry

Woefully, I’d never heard any of Joe Henry’s preceding 12 albums. “Lead Me On” is delicate and wistful as hell. If I ever stop listening to this track on loop, I might check out the rest of his stuff.

7. Out on the Street : Spanish Gold

A few weeks after I moved to Louisville, I found “Out on the Street” from Spanish Gold’s debut album. The group is patched together from bits of other bands like My Morning Jacket, Hacienda, and Fantasma. “Out on the Street” is So. Much. Slink.

6. Of Nothing : GRMLN

“Of Nothing” turns solid surf rock into something more searching and earnest. It almost doesn’t matter what the rest of the lyrics are. When singer Yoodo Park asks, “Are you alright, tell me that you’re alright,” the repetition in the chorus traps the listener in his appeal. Maybe if he asks enough times, he can will the answer into a positive form. 

5. Coffee : Sylvan Esso

So many good things were said this year about the debut album from Sylvan Esso. And rightly so. “Coffee” makes the list for being one of the most different songs I heard all year. They blend light blippy electronicpop sounds with singer Amelia Meath’s pure vocals -- Meath was in Mountain Man, a mostly a cappella folk trio with some really nutso harmonies from a few years back. Here’s to contrast.

4. Move : House Ghost

The final Louisville-based entry on this list comes from House Ghost and their wonderfully smart-ass song. Aside from having a buzzy bassline and some cool shifts, “Move” gets points for the fake-out that comes with the lyric “Hey, I really like you. No, the girl behind you. So please move.”

3. Avant Gardener : Courtney Barnett

Australia’s Courtney Barnett produced some of the most naturally-flowing, detail-stuffed songwriting this year. In “Avant Gardener,” she recounts a nervous breakdown brought on by weeding the yard – but probably not just that – and she bats around with the metaphor of having trouble breathing in. When the paramedics revive her she thinks, “I get adrenaline straight to the heart. I feel like Uma Thurman post-overdosing kick start,” which, if you ask me, is a great pop culture pull.

2. Love Ain't Enough : The Barr Brothers

In 2013, it was easy to find big songs, the kind with layered sounds that were warm and enveloping. There was “Hey Doreen” by Lucius and “Sonsick” by San Fermin – this year that wasn’t quite the case. However, “Love Ain’t Enough” swooped in this September with its gorgeous weave of harp, banjo, marimba, and dulcimer, making a request counter to its own title: “Forget I ever said that love ain’t enough.”

1. Archie, Marry Me : Alvvays

“Archie, Marry Me” might have landed the spot solely based on how many polysyllabic words are in its opening line: “You’ve expressed explicitly your contempt for matrimony/You’ve student loans to pay and will not risk the alimony.” A surf-rock ode to commitment might be the last thing you expect from the youthful-sounding Toronto band Alvvays, but the way they straddle the line between innocence and preconsciousness, makes for an incredibly endearing song, where the narrator’s ideal for love is let’s just sign the papers. And somehow this sounds romantic. Go figure.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Year Without Albums

Sort of. 
I can never get to sleep on Sunday nights. It's like a bad joke -- maybe the one night of the week when I'd really prefer to be unconscious by 10 p.m. and well-rested by 7 a.m., I am, without fail, wide awake hours after I've turned off my light. 

Part of this bad joke is that I always get a little caught up in some topic that seems more important at midnight than it really is. 

Last Sunday, what kept me up was the realization that in the past 11 and half months, I'd failed to really love any one album. 

I dug the Spoon album. I spent a few weeks with The Both. But out of everything that came out this year from St. Vincent to Jack White, nothing aggressively demanded my attention. At the risk of sounding dramatic, this was a crushing thought. 

So, was it me? Or was it them?

In October, the big story was that no albums went platinum in 2014. Of course, T. Swift put an end to that just a few weeks later, but that was no big surprise. 

Also not a big surprise is how disparate all the year-end lists are. Rolling Stone's album of the year was Songs of Innocence by U2. (Boy, finger on the pulse, over there.) Consequence of Sound went with The War on Drugs' Lost in the Dream. If you're seeking guidance from the critical consensus, these lists will leave you as lost as when you started. 

2014 saw neither monster releases, nor the earnest championing of much-loved, borderline lost causes. 

I'm going to say it was them.

What's still unclear is if this year was merely weird, or if it was indicative of a world where there really is so much out there, it's impossible to rally more than a few people around anything. Maybe music eventually peters out when the tail gets too long. 


As I'm writing this, I'm also working on The Musically Inclined's Top 10 Finds of 2014. What I realize is that even if albums didn't do much for me this year, there were so many songs that did. 

And many of those songs came to me from the radio. 

In March I moved to Louisville, KY and was fortunate enough to fall right into the arms of WFPK, the local public radio station with an alternative-ish format. It's a place where you're just as likely to hear the Chuck Berry and the Talking Heads as you are to hear Hozier and Sylvan Esso. Most of the time, it feels like you're rattling around in the brain of whoever is on the air instead of trapped inside a strict playlist. (Which is fitting because most mornings, I'm like GET OUT OF MY HEAD DUKE MEYER) For WFPK, I'm endlessly grateful, and constantly wishing there were a Shazam button built into the steering wheel of my car. 

When the Top Finds list publishes later in the week, know that it exists in no small part due to what I heard on the radio this year. 

That doesn't mean I'm not still thrashing around for one last shot at really loving an album in 2014, but I'm not quite as bothered by absence of that album. Also, the irony of drifting away from a "dying" format toward one that is already "dead" isn't lost on me. 

I think that also means anything could happen in 2015. What exactly that means will undoubtedly be a topic for next Sunday night.