Monday, June 23, 2014

Our End of the Year 'Best Albums'

Yes, it's that time of year again!  Just like any respectable music reviewer, it's really important (perhaps even "mission critical") to come out with a ranking of all of the previous year's releases, in order of rank, to properly frame the previous year's highlights.

It's actually all pretty self-explanatory, but some of you look confused.  Perhaps we'll take a few questions to clear up any details.

Q:  You say "end of the year," but it's actually June.

A:  Great question.  I needed time to listen to the albums, and I do have a day job, as you may or may not know.

Q:  Then why didn't you just listen to them earlier?

A:  Lack of time, but definitely NOT because of poor planning.

Q:  But I've moved on to 2014.  Why would I care about 2013 albums now?

A:  Well, why wouldn't you care?

Q:  This is pointless.  And IT'S JUNE!

A:  This interview is over.

Now the simple thing, of course, would be to just give you a list right here.  Instead, since I clearly hate the six of you who actually read this, I will review all of the 2013 albums I never got to, and THEN put them in order, all over the next month or so.  It's this kind of revolutionary thinking that earned me the "Music Blogger of the Year Award" from no one.

So today, I'm going to start with notable downloads.  These are albums that got sent to me by various PR people (unsolicited), which I listen to, delete 75% of, then listen to the remainder again, and delete about 30% of those.  Thus the Pile of Death here is rather large, but the individual band names have not been disclosed as I really don't need to embarrass bands that are likely living in a family member's basement.

So without further ado...

At Least You Made It to Round 3, But Upon Further Review It Turns Out You're in the Sell-Back 1 Pile
  • Coke Weed - Back to Soft.  This is one of those albums that is actually good enough to keep, but I'll ultimately never listen to again.  It's very laid back, with 60s Mama and the Poppas-ish harmonies.  It kind of plods you into submission, but the first half of the album mainly makes me realize I really need a nap.  I'll keep "Mary Anne," "Blue Flag," "SOM," and "Sunseekers," and toss the rest.  Special note must be made of "Manchester," which is the last song on the album and is just a terribly trite song.
  • Dog Party - Lost Control.  I can see why this appealed to me at first in a Magnapop or K-pop kind of way, but there is just a lot of rhythm guitar here.  The highlight for me was their cover of "Los Angeles," where the lead singer sounds A LOT like X's Exene Cervenka.  For their age (they are teenagers), this is a remarkable accomplishment and is polished.  Taking their age out of the equation, it's generic.
  • Ellie Herring - Kite Day.  "Anti Alias" starts out pretty trippy.  It's a nice song... that goes nowhere.  As does the rest of the album.  I'll keep "Thinking JFK."
  • PVT - Homosapien.  First of all, it's unfortunate that the album name screams Pete Shelley from The Buzzcocks.  (Look it up -- you only need to listen to the song once to forever keep that association.)  In any case, there is something positive going on here in electronica land, but this whole thing needs to be put back in the oven for 30 minutes at 350 degrees.  There are a few fully formed compositions here ("Evolution," "Electric," "Nightfall," and "Love and Defeat"), but the rest do not make the cut.  Let's hope that the next time out is a step forward -- there is a lot of potential here for sure.
CD Rack
  • Dramady - Answer Only to the Sea.  This is an odd one for me, as the music is decent to a little below average, but the lyrics save this electronica/guitar offering from the scrapheap.  Tracks like "Go Home" and "Two Ghosts in One Costume" are vocally and lyrically are way above par, and I'll keep them just based on that factor.  Glad I listened to this on the right day; this would have been Sell-back 1 or (gasp!) Pile of Death material otherwise.  It's like a poet laureate decided to play with his high school kid's band.  It's amazing and disappointing at the same time.
Portable CD Case

These were really good, and in some cases almost in the Car iPod.  But that's why I get paid the big bucks -- to make the tough choices here.*

*Editor's note:  He does not actually get paid for ANY of this.
  • The Embassy - Sweet Sensation.  Think a simpler Haircut 100 with Pet Shop Boys vocals.  They focus on both more tightly controlled and gently placed individual sound elements, and thus feature lots of grooves and riffs.  It's dance pop that I'd describe as "oddly uplifting," while remaining thought provoking.  As you listen, you can't help think that this is simple but not dumb; it may be minimalist but it's not minimal.  It's very pleasant but not without strong purpose.  I'm clear but not direct, apparently.
The Embassy - "Livin' is Easy"

  • Rainbow Arabia - FM Sushi.  Electronica/Dance is generally out of my comfort zone, except when it's something like New Young Pony Club (now just NYPC) or Ladyhawke.  This album is very '80s retro, with "Precreation" being the standout track here.  A little same-y?  Yes, at times.  But it's fun, upbeat, and ultimately interesting.  And on tracks like "Lacking Risk," they'll even get subtly and deceptively complex.  It's indie retro rock without the guitars, basically.
Rainbow Arabia - "Lacking Risk"

  • Sister Crayon - Cynic (EP).  Vocally, this is Jill Cunniff meets Siouxsie and The Banshees.  Overall, this good, but at times it veers into too much of "kitchen sink" territory.  This makes some of the EP complex, and other parts confused; they're simply trying too hard, oddly enough -- sometimes less is more.  Once they relax and find their voice, they will be great.  As it is, they are very, very good already, so you might as well get on board now.  They can sound transcendent at times, and one day they will all of the time.
Sister Crayon - "Cynic"
  • Soviet Soviet - Fate.  Think a stripped down Joy Division/Interpol/*stellastar with Pet Shop Boys vocals.  (Hmmm... that latter part sounds very familiar.)  It's indie rock with whirlwind drums (i.e., no double bass, but frenetic).  It's a fun listen, but what carries the day is their energy and enthusiasm.  They're living through these songs, and it sounds like a lot of fun.  There's neither a standout or a stepdown track here -- it's a good solid listen all around.
Soviet Soviet - "Further"
  • Team Ghost - Rituals.  Off of their Dead Film Star EP in 2012, Team Ghost is back with ethereal, dreamy pop.  Whispered vocals and atmospheric synths effectively build up tension and then remove it -- it's a clever push and pull, resulting in a pleasant tug of war.  Excellent percussion helps, of course.  One thing that holds this album back is the Autotune on a couple of songs; there is no need for it, and it's ultimately detrimental.  The lyrics are inconsistent -- at times, they are high-level prose, but at other times they range from "teenage charming" to making Peaches look like Shakespeare.  I'd call this low-tempo neo-shoegazer and mid- tempo alt electronica.  (If I hadn't just made up those genres, you'd probably know exactly what I was talking about.)  Basically, it's two parts M83, one part The Information.  Highlights include "Pleasures That Hurt," "Dead Film Star," "Montreuil" (which sounds like Rod Stewart meets the Moonababies), "Curtains," "Blood" (a piano ballad that turns into a midtempo guitar fuzz thrash), and "Fireworks" (totally guitar based and a complete build-up song).  Overall an excellent listen, which falls just short of being great by a hair.  Definitely worth a listen, this easily could be in the Car iPod upon further review. 
Team Ghost - "Curtains"

Car iPod

Now these may legitimately appear in the Top 10.  I'll bet the suspense is killing you.
  • Anoraak - Chronotropic.  Of all the electronica I heard this year, this album seemed to incorporate the best parts of all of them, adding in a confidence and a self-assuredness that comes off as "relaxed expert," and not "annoyingly cocky."  Where electronica generally fails is that much of it is purposefully mono- or even non-emotive; part of that is the nature of the genre.  Here, you feel they are engaged vocally and invested emotionally.  There are a bunch of standouts here, including "Morning Light," "Behind Your Shades," and "Summer Is Over."  Sure, there are some highs and some lulls here, but in general, it's just awesome.  
Anoraak - "Morning Light"

  • Brent Amaker and the Rodeo - Year of the Dragon.  I generally don't like country, but I try to keep an open mind.  This sounds like Calvin Johnson from Beat Happening traded his lo-fi bandmates for Johnny Cash's backing band. It's uptempo country, fun storytelling extolled in a lighthearted tone (even when the lyrics are dark).  Highly recommended; even if it is country, it's still great.
Brent Amaker and the Rodeo - "Tequila Cerveza"  Warning: the video is very sacreligious at points.

  • Bored Nothing - Bored Nothing.  Right from the opening track "Shit for Brains," you can't avoid the eerie sonic similarity to Big Star (and even a little Elliott Smith at times).  It's 60s/70s rock with quick changes throughout; ultimately it's traditional rock/pop that does not seem stale.  The lyrics have some weight and life experience behind them.  This is excellent, accessible, and well produced; it's everything you'd want in an album to listen to and enjoy.  Not a bad song in the bunch.  I'll take Big Star 2.0 any day.  
Bored Nothing - "Let Down"

  • Speck Mountain - Badwater.  Let's see, I hear Gila Bend, Mark Kozelek, and a slightly higher energy Cowboy Junkies.  It's laid-back alt-country, but it's not languid -- it's measured and exacting.  To my ear, it sounds like a late 80s/early 90s type album, in the best possible way.  There are great drenching guitar sounds, and very pleasant musical "harmonies" throughout.  It's a nice mellow listen, best enjoyed with a good book on a bright sunny day on your porch, or with your favorite medicinal drug of choice.  (My guess is that the latter is what the artist intended.)
Speck Mountain - "Slow So Long"

- Snilch

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