Today’s brings you round 2 of our staff picks for favorite songs and albums at 2014’s half way point. If you missed yesterday’s part 1 of submissions, you may read it here.
Album: Neil Young – A Letter Home
We should all be thanking Neil Young for putting out a new album. We should be thanking him doubly for making it an album of covers. We should be thanking him three times as much for the album’s gritty phonographic sound that stands out in an age of digitized, computer-created music. But maybe that’s what Neil Young does best. His loner tendencies have led to some innovative, cutting-edge music. Yet this album doesn’t forge new paths, but revisits old ones. Young selected 12 songs that have meant something to him at some point in his career, taking from greats such as Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, and The Everly Brothers. They sound like they were recorded through a tin can in a sleepy town’s dusty recording booth, but somehow they still sound great. It’s an homage to the past—its songs and its sounds. Check out the piano on “Reason to Believe” and the sweet harmonies on “I Wonder If I Care As Much.” You won’t be disappointed.
Song: Willie Watson – “Mother Earth”
There’s no mistaking the sound of “Mother Earth”. It’s straight-up blues. The song is a classic blues tune, but probably most well-known for the full band and electric guitar instrumentals made famous by Johnny Winter in the late ‘80s. That’s the version you heard when you were 11 years old by some cover band at some suburban bar from which your parents were in no hurry to leave. Willie’s 2014 acoustic version shines for its simplicity. It allows you to hear and appreciate the smooth chord changes and good lyrics. The song’s message is timeless, and so is Willie’s take on it. You could easily be at some southern blues bar in the ’30s, ’60s, ’80s, or now. That contemporariness is a sign of great art if I’ve ever heard one.
Album: Damian – You Don’t Need It
Damian rules. I’ve listened to this album more than anything else this year, and mostly because Damian makes me feel better. It’s rare to find music that is optimistic without being twee or overly precious. Ever since the world took a collective turn away from irony, sincerity has been commodified in really gross and useless ways. But Damian exists in a whole different universe from that universe, in that he lives in our universe (and I’m not just saying that because he lives down the street). He sings about the friendship and mercy that we are lucky to encounter each and every day without ever lapsing into platitudes or cliches. You Don’t Need It is the album to throw on when you need to hear a friendly voice and no one is picking up your phone calls.
Song: Folke Rabe – “Was??” (or “What??” depending on your translation)
There’s a video out there of Will Oldham discussing “uplifting music” that I stumbled across while idly clicking links while the internet sucked away all of my time. Some songs are designed to inspire you to overcome and conquer, but for many people, it’s a much more useful exercise to try and center yourself and keep your head above water. So he suggests listening to this wonderful piece of noise. Folke Rabe is a Swedish composer, and “Was??” is his foray into electronic drones. If you take the time to really listen, you’ll hear that the nearly 25 minute track is immaculately paced and composed, but it’s best experienced without this kind of critical thought. There was a point where I listened to this three or four times in a row every single day, and when I came out on the other end I felt calm, capable and clear-headed. Next time you feel scattered, throw on your most enormous pair of headphones, sit back and take a listen.
Album: St. Vincent – St. Vincent
St. Vincent is often known for her slightly skewed and ever changing take on pop, blending catchy songwriting with her crooning vocals and syncopated guitar work, and her latest self-titled album is certainly keeping with these themes. But while her new release follows these lines, this time there is an unignorable prevalence of sex appeal. With her self titled album, Annie Clark has fully developed her moniker, a brainy but sexy pop music savant with intelligently written tunes to dance to. There is not one filler on this album, either, which in our single-download minded age, is impressive enough to make it the best record of the year so far
Song: Against Me! – “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”
After coming out as a transgender woman in 2012, Against Me! frontwoman Laura Grace has been working with her band on their latest album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, a concept album about a trans prostitute. The record’s self titled single deals with unabashed themes of gender dysphoria alongside the energetic backdrop of the band’s typical punk rock aesthetic. Treading the line between heartfelt and self aware, the song is an example of pop music done right.
Album: The Men – Tomorrow’s Hits
By now, people should know the Mens’ deal. From the early days of abrasive punk to dark garage to alt country, the Brooklyn group has never stuck to one sound particularly long. On their latest and maybe most fun album, Tomorrow’s Hits, the Men’s current flavors cover range from the 70’s boogie rock sounds of the Rollings Stones and Allman Brothers to the heartland (and horn-heavy) arena rock of the Boss and Joe Jackson. Album stand out “Pearly Gates” sounds like the best song that didn’t make Exile on Main Street‘s final cut, while “Another Night” may feature my favorite use of horns since Deerhunter’s “Coronado.” What’s next? Glam rock?
Song: Cymbals Eat Guitars – “Jackson”
I have been sleeping on this band since they released the great debut album, Why There Are Mountains, back in 2009, and to be honest, I forgot they were still around until I heard their new and best song to date from the forthcoming LOSE album. “Jackson,” and most of LOSE for that matter, centers around the death of front man Joseph D’Agostino’s close friend and band mate. As such, it’s a rush of emotional moments. Between the poignant, grieving lyrics to the triumphant guitars and harmonies that lead the song to its incredible finish, the song can at times be overwhelming, but who ever said coping wasn’t?
Close call shout outs to Sharon Van Etten’s devastating “Tarifa” and the War on Drugs for providing more fist pumps than any other band in 2014 in “Red Eyes”
Album: The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream
The third album from Adam Granduciel and co. is a purifying and electrifying symphony of sweeping guitars and confessional, questioning lyrics that brings together the past and future of American rock to create one of the best American rock albums in years. It’s also terrific driving music.
Runners up: Little Dragon – Nabuma Rubberband, R.E.M. – Unplugged 1991 & 2001.
Song: M83 – “I Need You”
Wilsonesque harmonies, achingly yearning lyrics, and a sexy sax solo that culminates in a sweet M83 climax, this perfect 3 minute electro-pop opus might well be the ultimate M83 song.
Album: Damon Albarn – Everyday Robots
As the first line of the title track says, “we are everyday robots on our phones.” This sadly, true sentiment is just one of many Albarn has on this lush and lonely album about the nature/technology dichotomy we have to balance in today’s society. The frontman for Britpop staple Blur and musical/visual project Gorillaz, this solo effort combines the best of both bands into a deeply personal, triumphantly melancholy debut album that takes advantage of Albarn’s dreamy vocals. Released on April 24th, it features a sly and self-aware epic that is “You & Me.” Probably the most personal track on the album, it references his long-term heroin use during the height of his Britpop success. “Five days on and two days off” might be your work schedule; here it refers to the creative process Albarn used while creating arguably some of his best work.
Song: Kanye West – “Drunk in Love” Remix
Riding Yonce’s surfbort of success into 2014, West turned the grainin, grindin, how the hell did this sh!t happen track from Bey’s self-titled album into a love song of sorts for Kim Kardashian. Released on February 14th, his verse assures the “Bound 2” fall in love brunette that “you will never need another lover/cuz you a milf and I’m a motherfucker” and the track only gets more romantic from there. Produced by longtime Kanye collaborator Mike Dean, who amplified the track, added strings, and some flashing lights to make strong and sexy mix of an already strong and sexy song. Regardless of your thoughts re: Kimye, this is the perfect addition to your summer jams playlist (Beyonce’s beach body/choreography not included).
Album: Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Cocaine Piñata
This isn’t exactly a unique pick for a hip hop head in 2014. I’m a firm believer that Freddie Gibbs is the number one gangsta rapper on the planet right now. He can switch up flows with ease, which makes him the best non-DOOM partner for Madlib that we’ve seen so far. His trademark style of piecing together obscure samples creates some of the best beats of the of the last few years. “Thuggin” came out a couple years ago and its album appearance is still probably my most played song on the project, and it’s because of the insane layers to the instrumental. Gibbs isn’t left behind on this thing either. His diss of former associate Young Jeezy on the song “Real” is the most brash, straightforward beef song since Eminem was Slim Shady. Madlib provides beautiful hip hop beats for which Gibbs to go all introspective-gangsta on, and it’s just what this year needed.
Song: Vic Mensa – “Down on My Luck”
Mensa’s house-music/rap hybrid is addictive, enchanting , under-appreciated and my favorite track of the year. The beat is a body-mover, you just have to do something while you listen to. It alone makes the track great. Whenever Mensa declares “fuck that get down,” I get down. Every time. Coupling it with Vic’s vocal effort makes the song unreal. He is actually rapping, and doing so through rapid, breath-less assonance. The technicality of it all is impressive enough, but it’s Vic’s rap-sing flow that puts it over the edge. I personally feel that Mensa has the talent to be a future top ten player in the rap game. He has the ability to be accessible, while still being a great rapper. Best case is a more original Drake, worst is where he is right now.
Album: Phish – Fuego
Out this week, Fuego brings us maybe the closest to that proverbial live Phish energy that we’ve ever gotten in any of their 12 studio attempts. In the album’s ten songs, listeners are brought through the fiery climaxes of the 9-minute title track, a pensively mature side of the band as it looks into deeper lyrical themes like the loneliness of failed relationships or staring down the pressures life (“Waiting All Night”, “The Line”), and, as always, the nonsensical tangents that demonstrate Phish at it’s goofiest (“Wombat”). Where the precision of production—the album was produced by Bob Ezrin, a man with an extensive repertoire spanning Pink Floyd to Lou Reed to Kiss— is matched with the free-ranging possibility of improvisation, Fuego proves a great attempt at bringing to life a more refined version of the bad, without sacrificing any of the characteristic live inventiveness that makes Phish, well, Phish.
Song: Railroad Earth – “All That’s Dead May Live Again/Face With a Hole”
It’s a 21-minute long masterpiece with many faces that span the emotional spectrum of the many genres it presents. The broad range of styles offered weave through each other as seamlessly as waves washing ashore, the ebb and flow of each movement building gently on the last through lush harmonization and a wisdom that brings it into focus. The ambition of the six-part arrangement lies not only in the skilled musical prowess demonstrated, but in the compelling depth of its symbolism. It’s as close to a symphony as bluegrass can get. But perhaps most of all, it’s a ride worth taking.