Best of 2014: Ryan's Top Albums

As the years slowly quickly inevitably fade into the horizon, I fear sentimentality almost as much as I fear being too old to realistically stay out until 3:00 AM rehearsing songs that will never earn us any money. 2014 brought very few new discoveries to the table, but it was the musical equivalent of a Wes Anderson film for me: solid, reliable, slightly left-leaning but unlikely to alienate or offend most decent people. There’s something to be learned from artists that you’ve spent half of your earth-years walking around with.

Best Of (3)
A chart of my life looks something like this: Birth>>Walkman>>Discman>>iRiver>>iPod>>Android>>iPhone>>WindowsMobile

10. LA Symphony – You Still On Earth? (LAS Music)

Still On Earth is a welcome return from the Los Angeles-based hip hop crew who lived through record label hell in the early aughts and lived to tell the tale. Best of all, Pigeon John is back and the 16-tracks on YSOE don’t rely on production tricks but instead offer humor, hope, cultural criticism and laid-back bravado from some dudes who are still underdogs from the underground.

 

9. Spoon – They Want My Soul (Loma Vista)

 

Razor-sharp hooks, a rhythm section that is wound tighter than a suspension bridge and some great songs propel They Want My Soul into my top ten. It’s not rocket science, just rock n roll.

 

8. Future Islands – Singles (4AD)

 

I bought Singles on vinyl, which meant that I couldn’t skip around like an actual collection of singles. More than just the sum of a couple great songs (“A Dream of You and Me,” “Seasons [Waiting On You]”), Singles is actually a pretty adventurous record. At live shows, Samuel T. Herring inspires the kind of devotion and morbid fascination that has typically been reserved for Prince or Morrissey. I kid you not, we could be watching the stuff of future TIME LIFE Box Sets for 2035.

 

7. Tokyo Police Club – Forcefield (Mom + Pop Music)

Tokyo Police Club wisely stuck with the guitar/bass/drums + occasional keyboards formula on Forcefield, pairing it with some of the band’s strongest songwriting to date. Perennially under-appreciated, TPC quietly offer up two of the best songs of 2014, the rock-opera catharsis of “Argentina parts 1,2,3” and the heart-on-the-floor romanticism of “Feel The Effect.”

 

6. Sun Kill Moon – Benji (Caldo Verde)

 

I like to make up my own Benji-style lyrics “Got home from work/Logged on to my website/Argued with my woman about who should run for president I said I don’t know but I want some Panera right now.” All kidding aside, Benji is a real heavyweight feat of songwriting.

 

5. U2 – Songs Of Innocence (Interscope)

It’s not cool to like U2 and that is more than OK with me. I actually have appreciated the band in most every incarnation, including 1997’s Pop, when it was trendy to knock the band for making euro trash bleeps and video game sounds. Songs Of Innocence is not a radical reinvention and the publicity-stunt release of the record belies its emotional heft. “Sleep Like A Baby Tonight,” “Iris,” “Song For Someone” are all gimmick-free solid gold.

 

 

4. Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams (PAX AM)

 

Adams spent his own money to record this self-titled monument after shelving another complete album. Slowing down his prolific pace, and mercilessly editing himself has allowed Adams to record his most urgent, potent songs since Cold Roses, maybe even since Heartbreaker.

 

3. Bill Mallonee and The Darkling Planes – Winnowing (Self-Released)

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Bill Mallonee has written a lifetime’s worth of memorable songs but nothing can stem the flow of music and lyrics that dig deep into the pathology of despair and hope that define the human condition. The past several years have not been kind to Mallonee and yet he persists in chronicling a story that sounds at once familiar and foreign to the rest of us who walk the same ground. “All that binds us to this hard world is but a single golden chord and it all flooded through the windshield of an old beat up Ford,” Mallonee sings on “From An Old Beat Up Ford.” It’s clear that he still believes in the power of American music, and if you give Winnowing a chance, you will to.

 

2. Matthew Ryan – Boxers (Blue Rose)

 

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“We sigh and shiver under miserable stars,” Matthew Ryan sings on “Boxers,” the title-track and album opener. A straight forward rock album for the year 2014. I honestly feel like crying, laughing and expressing incredulity that simple chord changes, bass and drums can be deconstructed and chemically altered into this legendary formula. Heisenberg has got nothing on Matt Ryan.

 

1. The Lees Of Memory – Sisyphus Says (Side One Dummy)

 

There’s always been more to John Davis and Brendan Fisher than just the mantle of power-pop-revivalists. Sisyphus Says occasionally winks at the past, like when the ending of “Not A Second More” nods back to the riff that closes Superdrag’s cathartic album-opener “Slot Machine.” But more often Davis, Fisher and drummer Nick Slack operate in an alternate universe, where My Bloody Valentine was every bit as big as The Beatles and where Jesus really did ride next to Paul Westerberg. The sonics are immaculate, the songs are generously paced without overstaying their welcome and most importantly, the hooks here are earned.

If there were any justice in the universe, The Lees of Memory wouldn’t be a shoegaze side project, they would be playing the main stage at Coachella and collaborating with a still-smooth Notorious BIG. But this is the world we live in and Sisyphus Says can be first on my list, right where we all belong.

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A Couple Handfuls of Music From 2014: A Top 10 List.

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It’s been several years since I’ve put together a formalized list of albums at the year’s end.  To provide excuses for my lack of exploration would just label me lazy.  Let us all assume that you either do not care that I am sporadic, or that this is your first time reading my opinion toward music that matters.  Music has always been an important piece in my life and, in some ways, has played a rather big role in making me who I am today.  I have my favorite bands.  I have my favorite songwriters.  I even have a few favorite guilty pleasures.  (Yes, a “few”.)  One thing is for sure, and that is I always favor the album of a certain artist in which I had either personally discovered them by or had been introduced through by a friend.  That album may or may not be considered the “best” work from the particular artist, but it remains to be the personal favorite within my world.  And since the world revolves around my world we all should agree that what you are about to read is certain and true.

“Top 10” & “Best of” lists are evolutionary.  If you were to ask me today what my top albums from 3 years ago were, in order, I’d undoubtedly have a differing opinion than myself from that particular time.  Establishing this important tone I present to you my 10 favorite albums from 2014.  (In no particular order except for this moment in January 2015.)

10 the lawrence arms – metropole

I anticipated back in the beginning of the year that this album would be the best punk of 2014.  Although it did not succeed in that presumption, it did come close.  Good punk rock is a bit hard to come by if you are referring to much of it later than the 1990s.  Since their first record in 2002 they have accompanied dozens of other post punk rock bands chasing the coat tails of their predecessors’ successes. Metropole brings them back in to the conversation and gives the punk rock music fan an alternative to the critical favorite but often overhyped Against Me! albums.  This record was one that was long overdue with just two years shy of a decade since the last time an album was released by The Lawrence Arms.  I’m often overheard saying that a “post-hiatus” or a “long break” preceding an album’s release often times means it will be a 45-minute disappointment.  Metropole proved me wrong.

Stand out tracks:  The YMCA Down the Street From the Clinic, Seventeener (17th and 37th), Beautiful Things

9 we were promised jetpacks – unraveling

I’ll be the first to admit it. I’m a sucker for UK brit rock, especially if it’s from the kilted north. I first became a fan of this band from Scotland with their debut These Four Walls in 2009, quite honestly, because of the name of their band.  Luckily for me their songs are pretty good too.  The addition of a fifth member, Stuart McGachan, has helped redesign the sound as well as expand the appeal of an already enjoyable brit-rock post-punk indie band.

Stand out tracks:  Peaks and Troughs, Peace Sign, Night Terror

8 tom petty & the heartbreakers – hypnotic eye

Tom Petty has still got it!  It’s a bit unorthodox to include a Heartbreakers album on a Top 10 list post-1991, and I admit it’s no Into The Great Wide Open.  Still I cannot help deny that they brought the bass back to rock ‘n roll in 2014.  Admittedly, I was a skeptic of the news hearing that the Heartbreakers were pairing back again with Tom Petty.  A few years ago they tried to charm us with their Mojo, but ironically it made the Heartbreakers less relevant in my personal music collection. Not since Wildflowers have I been found to put any Petty record on repeat.  Right from the start this record hooked me in when the familiar vocals on “American Dream Plan B” start.

I’m gonna make my way through this world someday/I don’t care what nobody say/American dream, political scheme/I’m gonna find out for myself someday

There’s nothing petty about the new Petty record as Hypnotic Eye begs to be put on repeat.

Stand out tracks:  American Dream Plan B, Red River, Forgotten Man

7 margot & the nuclear so and so’s – slingshot to heaven/tell me more about evil

The ambition and persistence to remain indie have provided a lingering reason why I’ve been a fan of this band. To understand the relevance of that statement refer to Animal/Not Animal of 2008.  A self-proclaimed back-to-basics album (Slingshot to Heaven) recorded on 2-inch analog tape in their own studio accompanied by an alternate album (Tell Me More About Evil) on 10 rolls of 16mm film screams pretentious but results in melancholy perfection.  And when I say “melancholy perfection” I mean that the gloom has found it’s smirk.  Everything that I’ve grown to appreciate from the So & So’s plus distortion and abrasion.

Stand out tracks:  Bleary-eye-d Blue, When You’re Gone, Long Legged Blonde Memphis

6 only crime – pursuance

If the discussion was which were the best drums on an album from 2014 it’d be Pursuance.  I’d assume that my old friend “BJ” would agree this to be true.  That’d be assuming no new Swedish Speed Metal came out to prove my hypothesis incorrect.  I stumbled across Only Crime earlier this year for the first time surprised over the fact that I hadn’t done so any earlier.  I tend to forget about the punk bands that I listened to in the late 90s, but with resurgences as good as this one I’m reminded that punk rock can actually still be relevant.  With members from Good Riddance and Descendants/All it’s quite certain that the expectations of sound are the mouth-watering equivalent to staring at the Cinnabon display behind the glass at the town mall.  Pursuance is a record full of punk rock melodic hardcore fist pumping sing-a-long songs for less than 30 minutes.  If the only other punk record besides Transgender Dysphoria Blues you listen to from 2014 is this one then you have a bit of good taste.

Stand out tracks:  Find Yourself Alone, In Blood, Life Was Fair

tom the lion – sleep

There’s always a record, a band, a songwriter that catches you by literal surprise.  Often times these surprises occur not because you found it, but because somehow it found you.  I do not recall specifically how or when I stumbled upon Sleep, but I do remember it having something to do with Twitter and it being prior to the album’s release.  The single, Sleep, is a hypnotic 4 minute melody that peaked my interest enough to seek out the record once it was available.  Highly difficult to find in the US for purchase in a record store, I resorted to Ebay.  In the meantime – Spotify.  The album teeters between indie pop and early-80s retro.  With vocals similar to Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and hair like Anthony Kiedis, Tom the Lion has got the potential to be a UK success story.

Stand out tracks:  Silent Partner, Ragdoll, Beholden

4 the war on drugs – lost in the dream

Bob Dylan voice is all the rage right now.

For quite some time I’ve been wondering where my generation’s “Bob Dylan Voice” was.  I did not intend to get a literal answer.  Such blatant comparisons to previous past musical icons is difficult to take seriously.  The War On Drugs is not only a conveniently timed name of an indie rock band but it is also a breath of fresh air in a convoluted generic pond of indie rock.  I wasn’t sure if I liked this record when I first listened to it, and now after several playbacks later I’m not sure if I hate it either.  It’s actually quite good.  Letterman had him first, but after their Tonight Show appearance  it seems that this is going to be the band that released the record in 2014 that all hipsters loved, and then in 2015 conveniently disassociated from while they replace it with El Ten Eleven dance beats.

Stand out tracks:  An Ocean In Between The Waves, Red Eyes, Eyes To The Wind

3 manchester orchestra – hope

Manchester Orchestra have been one of my favorite rock bands for several years.  They are the last band to succumb to my tendency to gravitate toward post-grunge.  Last year they released 11 songs of fist-pumping rock songs with Cope, and this year they reinvented those same songs with Hope.  It’s an interesting perspective to think your own creation needs reinterpretation less than one year later.  As much as I enjoy the Manchester Orchestra of the past, I am beginning to think that they are much more than the image that they have presented up to this point.  Hope is a beautiful piece of art toned down from the greatly impressive return to rock that Cope had given us.  Put the two together and I believe that you possess the best work by a rock band in the last two years.  Given the revealing state of 2014, the a-cappella track “See It Again” provides an intimate look into the question of whether the second-coming will ever provide relief for the failing human race. This record and its tone may suggest that the final chapter of Right Away Great Captain! may never come to be if Manchester Orchestra uses this new sound to catapult their accessibility.  Either way I do not mind.

Stand out tracks:  See It Again, Choose You, Girl Harbor

2 strand of oaks – heal

Intimate.  Honest.  Poetic.  Rock & Roll.  Nearly the best record of 2014.  This has everything a great album needs:  intimate lyrics, honesty, melodies, and a little hook.  Since discovering Heal I have listened to it at least a few times every week and have found some varying perspectives to consume the passionate lyrics and fluid structure of this record.  If you are seeking the music for the decade after the musicforthemorningafter then this is the record to hear.  Sometimes great albums need minimal explanation.  So, that is all.  Just go listen.

Stand out tracks:  Heal, JM, Goshen ’97

1 spoon – they want my soul

“I remember when you walked out of Garden State ’cause you had taste.”

That’s what Britt Daniel informs us of in the first track of the flip side of what turned out to be my favorite album of the year.  Spoon is the mathematical equation of popped collars minus douche plus some skips in your step divided by an indie sensibility of relevant rock and roll.  Eight records deep in a career destined to be one of my favorites, They Want My Soul will soon be seen as a piece of Spoon’s finest work.  The poetic subtleties of Daniels and the contributions of bass and guitar of Rob Pope, paired with the drum beats from long-time member Jim Eno, have brought a progressive evolution to Spoon’s sound.  This is my favorite Spoon record since Kill The Moonlight and I see it being a peak in a career that lack many valleys.

Stand out tracks:  New York Kiss, Knock Knock Knock, Do You

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Best Albums of 2014 – Version Rossi.0

In direct opposition to my 2013 list, 2014 was a year of highly anticipated albums that for the most part, I thought, delivered on their anticipation.

Anticipating upcoming albums is a funny thing. If it’s a band you have followed for some time, you are generally looking forward to something similar to their old stuff. Something welcoming and familiar. Many times, however, that’s not quite what you get. If it’s a new band, there are multiple ways you might have come to your place of anticipation – word of mouth, good early publicity, etc. Or maybe it’s a band you’ve known about, dabbled in but could never quite get into, but have reason to believe this new offering will be different. Three of the albums in my top 10, in particular, were highly anticipated, at least by me.

However, some came out of nowhere. There were albums that hooked me from the first listen, while still others that grew with time. I started putting a tentative list together about a month ago, and the way it has shifted since that initial list is testament, I believe, more to my wide range in tastes than anything else.

So, without further ado, below is my top 10 albums of 2014. Please, tell what I missed, why I’m wrong, and what you also loved this year!

1. The War On Drugs – Lost in the Dream

From a personal standpoint, the most highly anticipated album of 2014. And man, did it ever deliver. I was a bit late to the War on Drugs game, only having really started to appreciate the work of Adam Granduciel with their 2011 release, Slave Ambient. But that album was enough to get me excited for what came next. Lost in a Dream feels is deep. It’s the only way I know how to describe it. With every listen – which is likely now going on 100 for me – I hear/feel/experience something different. But I think the greatest compliment I can pay to this album is that EVERY time I listen in, it feels as if Granduciel is right next to me, playing the song for the first time. It’s that real.

2. Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams is back, and in a big way. It’s evident not just in how this album is everything that every Ryan Adams fan had hoped for in his return from “retirement,” but it how he’s come back into the spotlight the only way he knows how – unapologetically. From covering whatever the hell he feels like (see here, here, and here) to chastising a fan for a camera flash that set off his Ménière’s disease. Ryan Adams toured hard this fall (and I was there), including the late night talk show circuit with Jenny Lewis. And why not – this album deserves to be heard far and wide.

3. Perfume Genius – Too Bright

Perfume Genius, aka Mike Hadreas, has been on my radar for about three years – after his debut LP Learning but before encore Put Your Back N 2 It. His first two albums were personal, dark and haunting. You felt as if you were watching him play each song behind a one-way mirror, with him unaware that anyone was listening or watching – a personal window into his soul. Too Bright, on the other hand, is Hadreas’ coming out party. Subdued opener I Decline lures you into the belief that you are in for the same ol’ same ol’. But that’s quickly rejected as in-your-face single Queen breaks out singing “No family is safe, when I sashay,” followed by grunts coupled with a catchy electronic hook. Hadreas’ previous albums saw him coupling the topics of sexuality and depression, as if there were intrinsically linked. But Too Bright has Hadreas breaking out from behind the glass, comfortable with who he is and exclaiming he is here to stay, in a big way.

4. Future Islands – Singles

The biggest missed live-performance regret of my year come by way of Baltimore-based Future Islands. For the first half of 2014, the band was playing domestic and international shows at known but not large or iconic venues. But that all changes in the second half of the year, as Singles gained in popularity, and word of their electric live shows spread across the indie music scene. That meteoric rise in popularity culminated in a much-talked-about performance on Letterman. My fear is that small, intimate venues won’t be on the tour circuit for Future Islands for the foreseeable future. Good for them.

5. Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues

One of the strongest albums of the year burst onto the scene in its first month. Speaking of highly anticipated albums, the first album from Against Me! since lead singer Laura Jane Grace came out as transgender in a Rolling Stone article in 2012 fits snugly into that category. Admittedly, the album title that leaked some six months prior to release led to much of that anticipation, but this album delivered in a big way. From the first track to the last, Grace’s vocals and lyrics come across as raw, personal, tortured, unapologetic, and in-your-face. Remember when punk rock was overtly political? This is a throw back to the heyday.

6. The Gaslight Anthem – Get Hurt

I love the Gaslight Anthem. They have become entrenched into a list of a dozen or so bands that carry loftier status for me. Get Hurt is what it is, and it’s not what it’s not. Brilliant, right? What it is is an attempt by Brian Fallon and company to be taken more seriously as a band, to come out of the shadows of cult-status and announce themselves to a wider audience as a “serious rock band!” This is apparent, not only in the album itself, but also in the marketing campaign that surrounded its release. Hell, Fallon himself declared Pearl Jam to be the album’s biggest inspiration. What Get Hurt is not is the same ‘ol heart-on-sleeve, teenage-angst-filled combo of dance-alongs and ballads thats permeated their previous albums. This new way works, too.

7. G-Eazy – These Things Happen

Every year, one rap album is able to crack my top 10. This year’s entrant – G-Eazy – comes from the same lyric school as 2012’s representative, Kendrick Lamar (unofficially, at least). Though G-Eazy hails from almost 400 miles north on I-5, the beat style and themes covered are very similar. They include dealing with newfound success, sacrifice, and staying true to self. But the theme throughout this album that resonated the most with me is Gerald Earl Gillum’s apparent internal struggle between living in the now and an obsession with dying young. This is something everyone has dealt with at some point, but G-Eazy verbalizes it better than most.

8. Copeland – Ixora

Copeland is back doing what it does best, writing songs that combine relatively simple piano or guitar chords with deep lyrics and the haunting voice of Aaron Marsh. I was skeptical Copeland’s music could still resonate with me, but that skepticism was misguided. This is a strong album from front to back that gets better with every listen.

9. Lana Del Ray – Ultraviolence

Another highly anticipated album, following up on 2012’s strong LP Born to Die and mini-album Paradise, Ultraviolence beat back Del Ray’s haters by featuring moody songs that stuck with you long after they ended. Del Ray’s unlikely (or, maybe more accurately, “self-constructed”) path to fame is well-pronounced, but for all the hate, you have to give her credit for the staying power.

10. The Antlers – Familiars

This album doesn’t ebb and flow, doesn’t have climaxes or songs that are better than others, or even many catchy beats. What it is is steady, strong from the beginning to the end. This might not be an album I listen to much in a year, or even remember in 5 years. But I enjoyed it this year as a background soundtrack of sorts, able to be played while reading, writing, or working.

Honorable Mentions:

  1. How To Dress Well – What is this Heart?
  2. Sun Kil Moon – Benji
  3. Matthew Ryan – Boxers
  4. Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain
  5. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There
  6. Ben Howard – I Forget Where We Were
  7. Jenny Lewis – The Voyager

Best of 2014: Digging for Transcendence w/ Bill Mallonee

Bill Mallonee & The Darkling Planes – Winnowing is one of our favorite records of 2014. Remarkably concise, elegant and beautiful, the album is a master work from a master craftsman. To have an opportunity to hear directly from Mallonee is a privilege and an honor, so I figured we’d give you the whole exchange, only edited for typos. Also, if you aren’t familiar with Mallonee’s back catalog, let me encourage you to head over to his bandcamp page and buy the whole thing.

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Ryan: A lot of stories written about you focus (rightfully so) on your songwriting process but one aspect of your career that has always floored me are the amazing guitar tones you coax out of wire and tubes. This latest record is no exception, there are some fantastic electric guitar parts all over Winnowing. Do you get as much satisfaction from putting together the sonic elements of a song as you do crafting the lyrics and melodies?

 

Bill: Absolutely. I just go with what I have and use my ears a great deal. I love constructing guitar parts. Over the last few years, I think I’ve really learned, stumbled upon “how” to make melody lines and guitar harmonies “converse” with the vocal delivery. I think Winnowing is a good example of that sort of interplay tween electric, acoustic and vocal.

My gear is very simple, both the electric and the acoustic side of things.

 

I’m sure my old record collection informs what I think are great tones. 

 

As far as the song itself goes?

 

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I think a good song is a good marriage between a bed-rock melodic chord structure, engaging lyrics, sonic textures and above all: the delivery of those lyrics.

The trick? Never over think it. That’s my angle anyway.

I’m 60 some albums into this songwriter’s life now. You learn to let one idea shine in a song and then support it with the proper filigree, you know?

There’s no one music that “for everybody.” As harsh as this sounds: The digital medium has pretty much insured that the pond is over-stocked; full of hacks, weekenders and dilatantes. Makes it harder to find the good stuff, I think. I’ve stopped listen to popular music years ago, mostly because I wanted what I bring to be as original as possible.

Me? I’m betting on “Tried & True.”

Hopefully, my classroom, over 25 years or recording and touring, has a Tried & True “take” on things.

That’s all I try and bring.

Are there specific guitars/amps that inspire certain songs? On a song like “Locust Years” from Slow Dark Train, you can hear the demo, which already sounds great on its own, take on a whole new life when you get to the album version as a result of those spiked-punch guitars and the fuzz bassline.

 

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I’m a huge Neil Young fan. Although his guitar sound is massive, his sound source is usually not.

Usually nothing more than some old Fender Deluxe tube amp, say 12-15 watts … Of course, when he’s playing “live,” he mic’s that small sound source and literally runs it into another PA on stage and then into the house PA.

But the origin of his tones is great guitars into old Fender tweed amps. That’s a sound I love to work with.

I think I get at that fairly regularly. Amber Waves (2013) and The Power & The Glory (2012) are both quite nice representations of that “sound.”

Amp world? Small Fender amps 10-35 watts. On occasion, I’ll use a VOX AC-30 or  a 100-watt Fender Twin for the cleaner sounds required from a jangle-y Rickenbacker or a Telecaster part, but 90% of the time it’s small Fender Tube amps.

Pedals? I know nothing about boutique pedals. I hear there are some fantastic ones out there. I really can’t afford them. I do have a few “go-to” pedals that do the job, but I’m surprisingly pedal-free.

To me it’s always about the song. Whatever serves the song and of course the delivery of good lyrics.

Is Winnowing the first time you’ve played all the drums and bass on an album?

Oh, no. I’ve played drums since I was 12 years old … Bass is newer, but even there I’ve played that over the last few WPA installments.

I played drums with a few early Athens, Ga bands. Keep it simple. Charlie Watts & Ringo, you know?

0000911878_36With everything about being an artist democratized, you have more direct access to fans, but there are no longer the same gatekeepers filtering the good from the mediocre (or even the terrible). So, in a way the digital medium is both blessing and curse? Do you think the record labels, at least conceptually, did a good job of providing the deserving musicians access to a wider audience?

Yes, it is a blessing and a curse. I am grateful that I have such access to folk’s ears.

And there are some incredibly talented artists “out there” these days.

I suspect that they’d be “discovered” no matter what.

But, there are also many artists who seem to have nothing much to say. And musically they so “paint-by-numbers’ that it holds no interest for me. That means the pond is quite over-stocked. It’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed on the road. There’s no substitute for that intimate “live” show…it’s how I’ve managed to make new friends and fans.

Still, every generation will champion “their” particular artists as they should.

That’s all part of pop cultural identity.

Still, I’ll offer 3 somewhat forgotten thoughts to your readership:

1. Bad bands and artists rarely made it to a 2nd of 3rd album. The people knew crap when they heard it. This is pre-digital. One had to be able to play in the studio, deliver the take and play it “live” without the aid of tracks being flown in to bolster a band’s sound. Also there was no such thing as auto-tune in real time…You either hit the notes or you didn’t.

If you or band weren’t able to deliver then you were quickly shown to the sidelines.

2. Gone is the role of the A&R man (It stands for Artist & Repertoire);

It was he or she who typically brought an artist to a major label when he or she thought that artist was ready to go big. Being “ready”  usually meant years of hard work, constant touring and song crafting by the artist well before they were in a position to turn any heads.

That A&R role is gone now, abolished. In it’s place is the “anyone can do this” attitude that the digital age has “bestowed” upon us. I think that’s a fallacy.

And it results ( I believe) in a general lack of creativity….

3. There has also been the death of that gatekeeper known as the educated rock journalist.

Knowledgeable people who more or less guaranteed that “good” music was at least noted. That was the point of the informed rock journalist.

Follow me here: We live in a day and age where anyone with a computer has the technology that allows one to fashion something he/she thinks is a real record in his/her bedroom. It “corrects” mistakes, it auto-tunes bad pitch in real time.

It even gives you all the sonic “discoveries” that took producers like George Martin years to perfect … all within easy access within a chip.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s not a thing in the world wrong with making records in one’s bedroom.

But with the loss of real journalists who knew rock and roll, we’re left with no one informed to listen to, scrutinize and render a judgement on the value of such offerings; there is no one to judge the value of the art.

That aspect is gone now.

It has often been replaced by self-appointed hipster bloggers who’s musical roots and references run about as deep as REM’s first album. (And I love REM); It’s often, it seems to me, to be no longer grounded in the streams and nuances that rock & roll drew from.

The journalistic “excavating” (which is what a real journalist ought to do for his/her public) is absent b/c it is without reference points in the past. I am very sorry this sounds harsh. But, today’s “journalism” often strikes me as an uneducated enclave of writers with a keyboard in front of them. Now, when I read someone’s blog/review, all I know is who his friend’s bands are.

On the new record, you continue to delve into themes of surrender and loss, finding hope in the midst of despair. Do you find, 20 years and 50 plus releases in, that you are more or less at peace with your humanity than when you started the journey?

I suppose so. Peace is a funny word, though. Peace is never a static thing.

I’d say there’s been something more like a resignation … punctuated with glimpses into something bigger than ourselves that make life beautiful, meaningful.

I think, underneath it all that Man is a mystic.

All great art seems to acknowledge that, strive to name it and reveal it I think.

On the personal level, I write to save myself. That’s it. No agendas here.

Sure, there are things I’d “bet the farm on.”

Peace & Joy … those things are fleeting, aren’t they? One has to go beyond & grasp the thing they point to. And I think that’s where all the great theologians, poets and writers go.They struggle to employ a nomenclature to describe this thing we call Life.

And so I think Faith and Courage are required to make sense of it all.

Everyday.It seems to me (at least as far as my journey has gone) that when we reach out for answers or mercy, opening our hearts to God (or whatever you understand Him/Her to be) it seems that we’ve been reached out to in advance.

We awaken to this thing called Grace. No displacing the need for faith, even if it’s a wavering faith.

As a writer, I’m never completely at peace with my humanity.

Like I said, when we speak of this mystery called “Life,” we know it is not static thing. We’re forced to grow, wrestle and strive to believe and make sense of it all…

The themes on Winnowing, just like all the records really, are about one person’s struggle to believe and affirm that Love (whether God’s Love of human love) has the last word when it comes to describing the reality we live in. That may not sound like the stuff of an engaging pop record, but I think it’s the only thing worth delving into.

Conclusions vacillate. And they vacillate because we’re all a curious mixture of faith, doubt, belief and unbelief. Learning to recognize this unfolding, moment-by-moment thing called Grace is what my work is about, I guess.

It comes wrapped up in that glorious Americana genre. It’s fractured, dusty, worn and I like to believe, “authentic.”

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I find it really inspiring that you are still on the road, both literally and metaphorically, searching out the mysteries of existence, relationships and faith. Have you ever felt any pressure, internally or externally, to write a “certain” type of song? Like a protest song or a love song or a “hit” song?
No, I never have …

I don’t think you can’t be all things to all people. I’ve had huge pop oriented albums, but never had the right label superstructures surrounding them to “break the band” to the next level … C’est la Vie, eh?

But, I’m still at it. I didn’t need some chart or labels “permission” to be an artist.

That makes me something of a “best kept secret.” Phrases like “cult following” start showing up when I’m written about.

It’s ok. I can live with that …

One just finds their voice and their particular strengths…and then stays at the plow; keeps writing, experimenting and creating work …

The road has been a teacher to me … It can be hard. My wife and I live in poverty, to tell the truth.

It’s a big club, though …

The road puts you in touch with the deepest heartaches and wildest joys that people can feel …

It’s why the next album I’m recording is something closer to a real folk album.

 

Was “Dover Beach” the first song you wrote for this project?

Yes, I think it was, actually … the lead off track … It sort of defines the terrain of the whole album.

 

You wrote about Winnowing being an Autumn record, can you expand on what you mean by that?

A few ideas here. 

The earth is going into her dormancy. Autumn of life is generally associated with wisdom that only time brings.
Winnowing feels like a record born of such hard won wizen-ness.
This record was a time for re-assessing, of holding things up to the light. Perhaps even letting go of certain thing you once believed were truths, but now seem to be flawed or at least incomplete.
The record is quite lush and beautiful, I think.
I spent a lot of time on the arrangements and mixes, sometimes doing 20-30 mixes of particular songs …
I still think the guitars are gorgeous on this. And also they have “teeth” where they’re suppose to.
But it still operates with a certain sparse-ness. Autumnal.
The basic instruments of rock & roll: guitars, bass drums, keyboards and voice…
Can never go wrong there.

Best of 2014: New Artist – Operators

Best Of (3)
I saw Operators twice this year, once at The Star Palace Ballroom supporting Future Islands and the other time at Harlow’s in Sacramento. Both shows were fantastic displays of electronic pop, the first one was attended by roughly 500 people; at the second I counted exactly 20. It certainly wasn’t the band’s fault that hardly anyone came out on a Monday night to a great venue with excellent sound and lighting. Operators have spent the year generating a substantial buzz, choosing to play live before releasing any music and not hesitating to play new material not on EP1, a five-song introduction released this summer.

Dan Boeckner (formerly of Wolf Parade, Divine Fits and Handsome Furs), Macedonian electro artist Devojka and drummer Sam Brown (New Bomb Turks and Divine Fits) weave together hypnotic, groove-oriented songs without the help of pre-recorded tracks or computers.
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This allows for a great deal of flexibility, improvisation and connection between band and audience. In a post-show chat, Devojka revealed that drummer Brown only relies on a flashing red light to stay in time and that she operates the midi controller with a global tempo. In a time when electro pop is mostly predictable and often-overblown, Operators are one of the few acts capable of actually jamming like a band from the pages of Kerouac or Ginsberg. It’s the very limits they place on themselves that yield the most captivating results.

Devojka also mentioned that the band enjoys playing shows in places like Sacramento and Fresno, having originated in cities like Columbus, OH; Milpitas, CA; and the Eastern European country of Macedonia that don’t always get the cool-kid shows. Whether playing to packed and deliriously dancing Star Palace or hosting an impromptu meet-and-greet between songs at Harlow’s, Operators seem equally at home, confident in the beauty of simplicity and the transformational power of melodic hooks. “Cold Light,” featured below in two performances, is one of my favorite songs of the year and it won’t see a proper release until next month.

Best of 2014: Obscure Song/Video – Josh Hedlund

Best Of (3)

 

Portland Troubadour Josh Hedlund’s “Saving Grace” is a hushed, majestic lullaby for wanderers and homebodies and pretty much anyone who’s ever felt like strip malls and tract housing aren’t going to solve an existential crisis. This version, via Youtube, was posted about a week ago and has a total of 4 plays. 3 of them from me. Enjoy the best song, you’ve never heard, released in 2014 but written years ago and recorded in an RV next to an audibly sleeping 5-year-old boy.

 

#ThrowbackThursday: Ryan Adams' obscure gems

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I don’t often participate in #TT whether on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter because I guess I prefer to use Thursday to try and make sense of the immediate future.

Friday is more or less my primary day off so I try and power through and leave my desk 50 % less full of trash.

However, looking back now and then is good for the soul, and in the case of the incomparable Ryan Adams, it can help us prepare for the future. Whether or not he returns to his hyper-prolificacy remains to be seen. But the man has authored many, many great songs, a large number of which remain relatively obscure. Here are 5 of the best, according to Popheart.

“Desire” is a gorgeous, mostly two-chord ballad that could choose to reach for epic, arena-rock heights but instead remains firmly rooted on planet earth. Which is the piece of space dust on which we all live and love and hum along. Also including a 2007 live version with The Cardinals.

“This House Is Not For Sale” merges Johnny Marr-guitar-heroics with bittersweet sentiment. Really, switch this track with any of the lesser songs on the Rock N Roll album (essentially a wink/middle finger to Lost Highway record execs) and this song could have been a fantastic single.

“So Alive” was in fact, a single from the album Rock N Roll. While the whole record is underrated in my opinion, “So Alive” ranks as one of Adams’ best songs on any of his albums. Direct, unashamedly lovesick and uptempo, with a soaring vocal that almost gets silly but toes the line in favor of heartfelt.

“September” is one of the most hauntingly beautiful, warm and harrowing songs I’ve ever heard. Clocking in at a taut 2:28, Adams tells a story worth a full-length feature film in the time it takes Pitbull to open a can of Redbull.

Few writers can combine literate folk ballads and garage rockers like Ryan Adams. “Breakdown into the Resolve” is the type of song you feel like it took 10 minutes to write on the back of a discarded cocktail napkin. And you will never ever get it out of your head.