It’s that time of year again, the time when everyone under the sun makes their top ten lists for whatever. I make ‘em for music. This is what I listened to this year, and liked best. No inclusion of some band you never heard of to try and seem cool (if you haven’t heard of someone, I really did listen to that album like crazy), no attempts to hide uncool selections. For further proof of this, check out previous years’ top ten list here:
As with every year, there are albums that I didn’t get around to listening to all that much, like the TV on the Radio’s “Seeds” (which I’ve listened to once, really liked, but haven’t had the chance to really focus on yet) and this year’s Shabazz Palaces album (which I bought, but haven’t listened to yet at all). There’s stuff I liked quite a bit, and feel compelled to mention, even though they’re not in the top ten (like the Crosses album, and the newest The Rentals album). And there was the cocktease of the year, Jurassic 5 dropping a great, catchy new song that sampled the White Stripes, and then promptly going right back to radio silence. And I never bothered with Taylor Swift, even though I’m pretty sure she has her fans. But enough of that, let’s get to the nutmeat of the year!
Here’s the problem: I don’t know how to talk about electronic music very well. Further problem: I don’t generally like electronic music. I’m not a dance music guy, and I never have been. Even bigger problem: edison’s music is not dance music, but it is electronic music. Tangential problem: irregular capitalization irritates the shit out of me. And another problem: there isn’t a ton of writing about edison’s music, so I don’t even have someone else’s buzzwords and observations to help me write this.
So if I tell you that it’s kind of ambient, I’m aware that that term has specific genre connotations, and that’s not exactly what I mean to imply. This music is low-key but not languid, mostly, has beats, and therefore is not free-form or unstructured. While there are vocals, sort of, they’re just part of the landscape, not formal raps or verses or anything. Except that there is one song with a guest rapper. The best I can say is that it’s kind of like a DJ album (like Kid Koala or something), but not dependent on turntables and samples to generate sounds (although I think some of it is).
So probably the best thing to do is link a couple of edison’s songs (which have the greatest titles ever, stuff like “i don’t know tim, i’m not the loudest guy at the fuck you contest” and “make noise not marketing,” which demonstrates more of that pesky irregular capitlization), and let you hear it for yourself. I’ll also link up his website, because if you like what you hear and want to find out more, his name is pretty unfriendly to search engines. But I’ve been picking up his albums (digitally, because that’s how things work anymore) for a few years now, and really like what he’s doing, even though any description I can think of for edison would be something that I’d ordinarily run from. So take that to mean that I think he’s doing what he does extraordinarily well.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I like Murs, but only when he’s collaborating with other people. I’ve got a ton of his solo albums, and literally the only thing of his own that I listen to is the “H.U.S.T.L.E.” remix, partially because it has a guest verse by WWE’s John Cena. I never, ever listen to any of his solo albums. But last year’s The White Mandingos album? Pretty rad. The three Felt albums with Atmosphere’s Slug? Constant rotation. ¡MursDay!? I’ve been spinning that like crazy, and I hadn’t even ever heard of his collaborators, ¡Mayday!, before. Guess I’ve got some homework to do.
This collaboration is a party album that I wouldn’t be ashamed to get caught listening to. I mean, am I going to cruise around Horse Town USA bumping Rick Ross? Sure, the people around here might not be able to tell the difference, but I’d know, and if you’re going to blast horses with bass, you’ve got to have the confidence to stand behind your decision, to be able to stare a farmhand in the eye and say, “This is the shit that you should be listening to.” They’re talking about the real stuff; bitcoin, dropping Alexander Dumas references, and dancing on tabletops.
I don’t know much else to say about this album, other than to reiterate that this is the shit you should be listening to. If you want to listen to something that could feasibly be played in a club, if your crossover SUV is going to be an incongruous party zone, and you want that to not be the same party that everyone else is trotting out in their crossover SUVs on the way to dropping their kids off at school, find some cheap sunglasses, Irish up that coffee and crank ¡MursDay! while you wobble down the avenue. Or you could just daydream all of that, and maybe not get arrested for a DUI. But whichever, because as long as you’re bumping ¡MursDay!, the soundtrack to your debauchery (real or imagined) is going to be awesome.
Remember that crazy rapper from years gone by who wanted nothing more than to teach you how to curtsy that I was telling you about last year? Sir Jarlsberg is back, and he’s brought his chums this time! Gnome is back, Forlorn Maiden, the foul Lord Richard is here, even Sir Jarlsberg’s father is on board this time, with a new serving of hark hop.
There are still no signs of breaking character, which leads me to believe that Sir Jarlsberg is exactly what he claims to be: a rapper from medieval times (not the restaurant). I have no idea how these songs have crossed time and space to be available for me to enjoy, but I’m thankful that they are, because once again, the very concept of Sir Jarlsberg and his music make me happy literally every time one of his songs pop up.
Even better, this album is a step up from Jarlsberg’s first. It’s short, only ten songs, which is efficient and keeps to the point. But Jarlsberg in particular raps with much more confidence and skill, which makes the album fly by. The jokes land regularly (one of my favorites involves trying to convince a giant to allow them to hide in his prison wallet); this is one damned funny album. And, like last time, it’s not just a comedy album. “Come Hither” feels like almost as much effort was put into the music, which is why I’m convinced I’ll be listening to this album in the coming years, the same way that the first Tenacious D album has held up pretty well. It’s not just a fun album, something tossed off in a weekend, it’s a solid piece of work. And, if you need more convincing, Kimya Dawson’s verse on the posse cut, “All’s Faire,” kills me every time. I feel like everyone would be better off having heard it at least once.
And I still want to see a Sir Jarlsberg movie. If “Your Highness” got made, there’s no reason that Jarlsberg and Chums can’t top that.
You know what’s even better than seeing an overlooked favorite band get some due? Knowing that they’ve earned it. I’ve had The Muffs’ “Blonde and Blonder” in rotation for a solid 19 years now; it’s an overlooked gem from the ‘90s pop/punk boom that’s held up a damned sight better than anything Blink-182 ever recorded. I feel bad for even mentioning those two bands in the same breath. The Muffs have consistently provided fuzzy ‘60s style garage rock hooks and catchiness and punk energy mixed with the oddball bratty/snotty vocal delivery of Kim Shattuck (who has my favorite rock scream ever), and it’s delicious every time out.
There’s comfort in knowing that a Muffs album is never going to be a bloated concept album, in knowing that you’re not going to have to read a dozen interviews trying to figure out what the fuck it is that you’re listening to. Throw the Kinks and a Red Bull in a blender and feed it to a screeching three year old who somehow has mastery of guitar, and you’ve got the Muffs. It’s always poppy, usually pretty up tempo, sometimes goofy, and you can sing along on your second listen. The fact that there hadn’t been a Muffs album in over a decade is unfortunate, other than it allowed people some time to realize that they might have missed the Muffs, and then to appreciate this one when it came down the pike.
One of the handful of shows I went to see this year was the Muffs a couple of weeks ago, and they were fantastic. I had that moment of horror when I realized that I must’ve seen them last nearly twenty years ago, but the pleasure from seeing the Muffs sounding pretty much exactly like I remembered (and like they did on the album that I’ve been listening to for that entire span of time) was great, like the Grand Canyon is grand. It feels like there aren’t a ton of bands still making music like this, and if there are, please point me in the right direction, but good garage rock is timeless. “Whoop Dee Doo” feels like it could have been made at any point in the last fifty years. I hope that this album is the start of a resurgence for the Muffs (I don’t want to have to wait as long for another album, dammit!), but I’m nowhere near tired of this one yet.
Maybe you’re familiar with the Budos Band, maybe not. They’ve released all of their albums on Daptone, which also releases Sharon Jones’ albums. There are similarities; an attempt to use classic approaches to make fresh, new music. But where Jones’ albums are about the power of her voice and personality, filtered through classic soul music, the Budos Band’s songs are all instrumental, and refer back to ‘70s Ethopian Jazz/Soul records (the kind that you might hear on any of the Ethopiques compilations). It’s a distinct sound, one that doesn’t feel derivative so much as using that music as a starting point to continue from.
There’s been some talk about how “Burnt Offering” also tries to incorporate metal into the stew, from the wizard cover art, to a “doomier” tone for some of the songs. If what you’re imagining is riffage and guitar wankery, yes and no. There are always catchy riffs all over Budos Band albums, and probably half of this album could be incorporated into any Quentin Tarantino movie (“Jackie Brown,” in particular) with ease. But the Budos Band is a pretty big band (twelve members, according to something I read somewhere once in a galaxy pretty close, but too far to walk), and the buzzy guitar work isn’t something lifted from a Ted Nugent song. Also, the tone of that buzzy guitar is like dozens of donuts for my ears, but without the next morning’s regrets.
Pretty much every road trip I take involves listening to an album or two by the Budos Band. You don’t have to relegate this (or the other albums) to the background; it holds up to scrutiny, and gets those hips moving a bit. I’ve played the crap out of this album in every scenario imaginable; in the car, in the studio, at the computer, in the face of unspeakable evil, as a slow-jam substitute, as a soundtrack to general awesomeness. You might get similar mileage out of “Burnt Offering.”
It seems weird that this was the year that found both Tom Petty and Weird Al getting their first #1 albums, but that’s how it goes sometimes. There was this snarky article I read recently about how other, newer bands were making better Tom Petty albums this year than Petty himself. Which is dumb. I think that some people will never get over the fact that he tried to make a reggae song on his last album. It’s fine to make indie albums that no one will ever hear, other than Pitchdorks, but Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers make music for everyone, for radio play, and you’re going to sing along to those songs every time you hear them on the radio, because they’re that well-written, that catchy, and just that good.
In a lot of ways, “Hypnotic Eye” is this year’s version of last year’s Roots/Elvis Costello album; it finds Petty writing more groove-oriented songs (like “Fault Lines”) than big radio songs, but the album holds together really well. I don’t ever find myself hitting fast-forward when listening through “Hypnotic Eye,” which is rare even for albums I really like (the shuffle button on MP3 players has ruined my attention span). I even like the incorporation of jazz in some of the material (well, let’s say the way that some of Steely Dan’s music has incorporated jazz), Petty and the Heartbreakers are a tight band with the chops to pull off whatever the heck they feel like pursuing.
If you don’t like Tom Petty, I can’t really help you there. There’s obviously something wrong with you on a genetic level, and clearly have a disposition unsuited for public consumption. Tom Petty is still writing very good music, and there’s no substitute for him and his voice. And it’s kind of arrogant to try to replace him while he’s still around, and still making very good music. So maybe just be appreciative for that fact, and enjoy him while that’s still the case.
I got into Rob Sonic backwards, as he frequently collaborates with Aesop Rock, who I’m a big fan of. Rob Sonic put out a couple of solo albums on Def Jux in the aughts (and had a couple of group albums before that) that are pretty good. I still listen to his solo work from time to time. But Def Jux ended, and this is Rob’s first solo album since 2007’s “Sabotage Gigante.” And he ended up having to start his own record label to get it out there (called OK-47 Records, which still leaves me giggling when I come across it).
And it’s his best work, by a mile. Yeah, I like the Hail Mary Mallon albums (I’m still warming up to “Bestiary,” but it’s not in my top ten) but this is it right here. “Alice in Thunderdome” is a dense, paranoid, claustrophobic album that still finds a place for lines like “bitches call me Ward the way I punish the beaver.” “Alice” feels like the product of a lot of frustration, a lot of time spent in one’s own head, a lot of work done without really knowing whether or not anyone was going to hear any of it, but work that needed to be done no matter what. And it’s a good thing, because his rapping’s never been better.
I think I remember reading an interview with Sonic where he called his style “hard electronic.” If not, that’s definitely what the production style should be called. In terms of the vocals, there’s a lot of words. Sonic’s rapping style is rapid-paced, wordy, a constant barrage. It’s not always strictly narrative; this is a place of overlap with Aesop Rock, who is someone it took me quite a while to “get.” I refer to it as a cubist style of lyrics; you’re getting views of the same subject from multiple viewpoints at once. Any given line might not make a ton of sense on it’s own (or might just be a clever line), but over the course of a song or an album, the mountain of snapshots from different angles add up to define something, and you end up with the feel of a situation instead of a literal portrait.
“Alice in Thunderdome” is not a good times album; there’s a song about pushing a girl in front of a train, we learn that Thunderdome is basically basement weed. The atmosphere is weary, worn, but the fact that the album exists is a definitive statement. The final song, “Pep Rally,” sums that up in the chorus. “We got spirit/no we don’t/but we got black eyes/and a broken nose/and a few good men/but most of those/are drunk in the back/singing “Row Your Boat.” I’ve listened to this album over and over, and find it weirdly comforting to know that there are others who are frustrated with their situation and the long odds against pulling out of it, but still see the value in chugging along anyways. Or, even barring that, still choose making something over doing nothing.
Gary Clark Jr. seems to have been bubbling under for at least a couple of years now. He’s a modern-day bluesman, known for his electric live shows and blistering guitar work, but his 2012 album “Black and Blu” didn’t quite capture what it is that he does. The production was a bit slick, although there were certainly standout tracks. I don’t know if you’d call this live album a stop-gap until he gets back in the studio, or another attempt to “break” him to a wider audience with largely the same material presented in a different setting (he released an EP teaser to “Black and Blu” and a previous solo album/EP thingy in 2010, and he’s still flogging some of the same songs), or what exactly.
The truth is that his live performances are probably always going to be the point with Gary Clark Jr., and that’s okay. Even before this live double album, I had a Daytrotter session and an iTunes Session in my collection, and I listened to both of those more than I have his studio album. And they’re both fantastic. I’m not even sure that I’d recommend this album over the iTunes Session from 2013; there’s a fantastic cover of Albert Collins’ “Oh, Pretty Woman” that’s there and not here, and Clark’s “big songs” are on both releases.
There are a lot of pet-peeves for me; a live album cobbled together from multiple shows, already having significant portions of the album on other live releases, this feeling like one more attempt to squeeze juice from material that’s not particularly new. But what “Live” has going for it is that it’s pretty damned good. I always prefer “warts and all” live albums, but this feels like a good representation of what it would be like to see Clark play. The performances are good, there’s a good selection of covers, and it’s twice as long as the iTunes Session. And the biggest plus is that this release contains much more definitive versions of his best material than any of the previous attempts to represent the same songs. If you’re into blues and blues/rock, this is pretty much a surefire great addition to your collection. I’m hoping that this is the last go-around for this batch of songs, though, as I’m very curious to see what Clark’s next batch of material sounds like.
I can’t get around this line of thinking: “Do to the Beast” is this year’s flip side of the Pixies’ “Indie Cindy.” I still don’t get all of the blistering hatred for the Pixies’ recent output, but I think that’s because I’ve actually kept up with Frank Black’s solo output in the intervening years, for the most part. I’ve gotten used to the idea that Black is going to release material like clockwork, that there are worthwhile songs, and occasional great albums (like “Bluefinger,” which he released under the Black Francis moniker). But the days of genius album after genius album are gone, mainly because so many other people have adopted his quirks and tricks and caught up to what he’s doing.
The key here is that, since I actually followed Black’s career, what came from the Pixies wasn’t particularly a surprise, but another chapter in what’s turning out to be a long career. In the same way, The Afghan Whigs’ newest album, “Do to the Beast,” might be their first album in something like fifteen years, it is not singer/guitarist Greg Dulli’s first album in that span of time. He’s steadily released albums under the name The Twilight Singers (five studio albums, a live album, and a solo album in the time since the last The Afghan Whigs album). They’re usually pretty good, preserve the sort of atmosphere you might expect from Dulli, and there are a handful of fucking great songs in there. I’ve followed Dulli with the Twilight Singers for this whole time, so it’s not like I don’t have an idea of what to expect out of him in 2014.
Maybe it’s the lack of Kim-related drama that is the difference between the reception for the Pixies and the Afghan Whigs albums (original bassist Kim Deal left the Pixies when they started recording, and replacement bassist Kim Shattuck (of the Muffs) was let go under odd circumstances). The Whigs definitely made a better album, from where I’m sitting. If you’ve been following Dulli’s work, “Do to the Beast” isn’t a shocker, other than it’s really, really good. This album works in all kinds of situations – it’s smooth enough to fade into the background, sultry enough to be baby-making music, atmospheric enough to drive to, full-bodied enough to curl up with a pair of headphones and lose yourself in. It’s essentially everything that one could hope for in a “reunion album.” It finds Dulli in a good place creatively, represents a continuation of both what the Whigs and Dulli have been doing, shows growth, and still harks back to what you might have liked about the band in the first place.
And it’s really, really good.
Let me explain this. Yes, RTJ2 is a consensus pick for a top album of the year. Even Pitchfork is all over this. This is the year of Run the Jewels. And I’m completely thrilled to see it.
Chuck D once famously called rap “the CNN of the streets,” but it’s been a while since that’s been true. Yeah, there’s plenty of coke and trap music to listen to, but how much you consider that street-level instead of cynically selling get-rich drug fantasies to kids probably depends on whether or not you consider “Scarface” to be a documentary. Truth is, popular rap music is generally afraid to address anything meaningful; escapism is the order of the day. Even the notion of getting angry about anything seems out-of-date.
That is, until you press play on “RTJ2.” Sure, Killer Mike hit this level a couple of times on “R.A.P. Music,” also produced by El-P. It’s times like this where you remember what it’s like to hear righteous anger, and what a thrill it can be. “RTJ2” is a two-against-the-world album, an all-out assault on the tyranny of nice, a boat-rocker of epic proportions. Killer Mike and El-P hit hard, hit fast, never let off the gas, and the resulting document is a lean animal stalking prey and talking shit the whole time. The first four songs are a crushing suite without even a moment’s pause, building steadily and peaking with “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck).” It’s not the only exhilarating moment on the album, but when you hear Zack de la Rocha’s voice kick in, it’s a reminder that there was a time that everyone wasn’t forlorn and strumming, heart-broken and saying nothing, or striving for bland pop perfection. And that he hasn’t lost a step, dropping a couple of the album’s better lines and keeping up with the relentless pace that’s been established. And it would be nice to hear him release some new music, if he wouldn’t mind.
But RTJ2 is not a one-note album. It’s not just about how you (and others) are fucking up, there are moments of introspection, of pure lust (“Love Again”), of brotherhood, and it’s all even better than the first Run the Jewels album, which was my album of the year last year. It’s more cohesive, more ambitious, just more. And that’s not even counting the upcoming “Meow the Jewels” remix album, the cat-based project that started as a joke and then got Kickstarted because that’s how things work on the internet.
RTJ2 is career-peak work from both Killer Mike and El-P, and it’s general tone is uniquely timely, in a way that no one else has broken through with. Killer Mike ended up making more than a couple of media appearances in the wake of the events in Ferguson. RTJ even played a show in St. Louis the night that the grand jury announcement was handed down, his pre-show address to a sold-out and hurting crowd was human in all the best ways; even though Mike is a hulking man spitting aggressive rap most of the time any of us see him, he’s a man first and foremost, with the same concerns and emotions that all of us have, which is the narrative that gets left out of every single news story about police/community relations, and out of every tragedy that we hear about.
So it’s not just that RTJ2 is a great, great album. Which it is. But it’s been thrilling for me to see it become something a little more than that, which is an album that represents it’s time. That probably wasn’t the intent when Killer Mike and El-P sat down to knock out a sequel to last year’s surprise hit. And yet, that’s what it became. When things started going to hell, and provoked real reactions, RTJ2 was at least part of the soundtrack to that.
Thanks for indulging me yet again. Happy listening!