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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Metropole — the triumphant return of The Lawrence Arms

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There’s something about the simplicity of the punk trio format that has long been forgotten or destroyed. A collaboration of talent brought together to wave a middle finger in the air to a kick drum and a bass line. An endless list of bands come to mind when I remember thumbing through my CD and cassette collections of the mid to late 90s. Many played the game, several did it well, a few cashed in and the rest called it quits.

The Lawrence Arms were a late addition to the punk trio scene, but they hit the ground running with 5 full length albums in 7 years spanning from 1999s “A Guided Tour of Chicago” to 2006s “Oh! Calcutta”. Each of those 5 albums were gritty, ferocious and bold collections of 2 to 3 1/2 minute songs that demonstrated their “middle finger” attitude toward everything and everyone around them. I think it’d be safe to assume that if the larry arms were confronted by a blink182 dick joke they’d more likely just cut it off.

It’s been 8 years since the last Lawrence Arms album, and typically such a long hiatus causes creative laziness and a band becomes stale. The opposite proves true with 2014s “Metropole” which has more years between it and it’s predecessor than all the previous albums combined.  A gap that lengthy between album releases has ignited declines in many other bands, but it has done the opposite with the 3 Chicago punks as they punch out 12 songs in just over 34 minutes in perfect punkrock fashion.

The songs on “Metropole” are orchestrated well with the stylistically different, but complementary similar vocal styles of Brenden Kelly and Chris McCaughan.  The vocal tone of the band sits well with its dreary and dark punkrock lyrical attitude.  Throughout the album are small samples of audio that were said to be recorded on their iPhones while vacationing in Italy. These audio renditions of urban street life range from bagpipes and piano to street performers and cheering.  It’s these pieces of noise that cleanly stitch together the 12 songs that take you on a visual journey of the mind as someone walking the streets alone and tackling the destructive thoughts within his mind.

My mom told me as a kid to beware of anticipation as it can often lead to disappointment.  All of my anticipation leading into this album should have lead to great disappointment, but after my first listen I was left more satisfied than I had remembered being after listening to any other Lawrence Arms album.  Stand out tracks on the album are Chilean District, Seventeener, Hickey Avenue, Drunk Tweets, the title track (Metropole), and, probably the best Lawrence Arms song to date, The YMCA Down The Street From The Clinic.

A possible premature proclamation, but I’m willing to label this album as the best punk album of 2014.

New release grab bag: Bibio, The Lawrence Arms, Dum Dum Girls

With nary a blockbuster release to speak of this week, I chose to focus on three new records of divergent styles.

Commence bullets:

  • Bibio – The Green EP
    • Think of a cross between Boards of Canada and Iron & Wine.  Got it?  Now add a dash of psych-folk and you can begin to approximate the sound the Stephen Wilkinson produces as Bibio.  On this, his fourth EP (he has released seven full-lengths since 2004, including three in 2009 alone), Wilkinson starts things off with Dye the Water Green, a slowly building folk number that reminds a bit of Bon Iver.  He follows with a few soundscape numbers and ends with a pair of meandering compositions redolent with reverb and hints at deeper things.  While I wouldn’t call this a masterpiece by any stretch, the Green EP has certainly peaked my interest; I think a back-catalog dive is in order.

  • The Lawrence Arms – Metropole
    • I hadn’t heard of this Chicago punk outfit until yesterday.  They released a number of well-received albums in the early-aughts but hadn’t put any new music out since 2008.  From what I can tell, they were best known for drinking a lot and playing fast and loud.  I can’t compare this new record with their earlier material, but I can tell you that if you like rousing punk-rock hooks, anthemic (albeit cliched) choruses, and a healthy helping of two dudes belting harmony, then maybe you’ll like this record.  Also, the drummer seems pretty good.

  •  Dum Dum Girls – Too True
    • Um, maybe this is the old in me, but how is this different than what Siouxsie and the Banshees were doing 30 (!) years ago?  I guess the production is fuller and they wear less clothing, but it all sounds so derivative.  Dum Dum Girls seem to fall right in line (and far behind) bands like The Bangles, The G0-Gos, etc.  If you’re looking for some modern lady-rock, I would recommend Warpaint’s new album.