Welcome, one and all to my top 10 list! Sorry if this one takes awhile to load… got a lot of embedded Spotify playlists and things this year. If you’d like something to listen to while you read, I’ve even created a “Mangosquash’s Best of 2014” playlist right here for your listening pleasure. It features a track from my honorable mentions as well as every artist on the top 10, except one who isn’t on Spotify (No, It’s not Taylor Swift.). Anyway, you can check that out here:
It’s tough to find a theme in my list this year, and perhaps even tougher than in previous years.. There’s a lot of poppy stuff here, but my two favorite albums of the year were definitely not pop, definitely pretty serious, and definitely very very different.
Here’s some cool stuff: 5/10 of the artists here have never made a top 10 list of mine in any form, and I was not familiar with them before this year. Also 5/10 of the albums have a female as at least one of their lead singers. 2/10 Artists have released their own coffee this year. 1/10 Artists is remaking their whole album with cat noises in 2015.
I will say, at the time of writing this, I haven’t read Pitchfork’s Top 50 yet, but through the Twitter grapevine, I have found out that we do have the same #1 album. So that’s something. Enough with the chitter chatter. Let’s dive in:
10. The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers
Prior to Brill Bruisers, The last time the New Pornographers released a CD was 2010’s Together and it featured at #5 of that year’s top 10 list…. 4 years might seem like a lot of time between albums, but I think at least 2 of the leads of this group would consider the band a “side project.”
Since the last release, Dan Bejar has released 2 EPs and an LP as Destroyer, and Neko Case and AC Newman have both released solo CDs as well. Other singer, Kathryn Calder, who’s taken an even more active roll in the band on this album, also appears to have released some work. What I’m saying is, these folks haven’t been idle
Every New Pornographers album is good, and this one is no exception. This release could be the band’s most raucous ever. Standout tracks include the opener, Brill Bruisers, and War on the East Coast. Perhaps the reason this album didn’t rank higher on the list is that the Dan Bejar tracks, my favorite part of most of the supergroup’s output, aren’t particularly strong here. It’s a good listen none the less!
9. Ortolan – Covered in Black
Here’s something new! Ortolan was the second band ever to take the stage at St. Louis’ new venue, The Ready Room. They were touring with Of Montreal at the time, and when I wrote-up a review of the show, they got but a single paragraph of mention. Fortunately, I followed through and picked up their CDs because hey, they are really good.
These ladies are on Sounds Familyre records, which I always assume means that they get to hang out with Sufjan Stevens a lot. This assumption draws me to make comparisons that may or may not be there. But the songwriting seems to share themes of spirituality and allusions to religion that may be missed if you aren’t looking for them
I think that there’s a wide appeal with this album, perhaps if you enjoyed my previous year’s recommendation of Tristen as an artist to watch out for. Standout tracks on this CD include “Votes are In” and album closer, “Miles”.
8. Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain
I’m pretty sure Conor Oberst isn’t making albums as Bright Eyes anymore, but I can’t seem to find a source for that information. Either way, whether it’s his former main vehicle, Bright Eyes, his punk band Desaparecidos, his folk supergroup Monsters of Folk, or his self titled releases, for me, Conor Oberst is always worth checking out.
Upside Down Mountain is my favorite Oberst release, perhaps in 10 years. No, I don’t think it is as good as Wide Awake/Digital Ash era Bright Eyes, but I do think it really finds Oberst making the best of his adult self. The songs here are well developed, have big hooks and are fun to listen to.
Standout tracks include: “Governor’s Ball”, “Hundreds of Ways” and “Enola Gay”
7. tUnE-yArDs – Nikki Nack
So, I missed tUnE-yArDs’ first two releases and I still haven’t listened to them yet. Don’t know why. But Damn, is Nikki Nak a fun album. This might be the second poppiest thing on this list, but in a very world-music type of way
There’s an incredible dichotomy between the fun, loud and crazy instrumentation on each track, and their often incredibly serious subject matter. Every song contains some kind of blunt social commentary.
If you like crazy pop music and appreciate an enthusiastic eccentric vocal style, check it out!
6. Spoon – They Want My Soul
Don’t you just sometimes wish that Spoon would release something that wasn’t so solid?
I mean solid in a lot of different ways. In stark contrast to the songs on the previous album on this list (tUnE-yArDs) which often feel on the verge of falling apart, each spoon song is built on a foundation that could support a skyscraper. Spoon songs and albums sound solid, and are of solid quality and are predictably good. They’ve done this shit for 8 albums since 1993!
This album, They Want My Soul, is even more solid than usual and I don’t mean that to sound boring. This is probably my favorite Spoon album since 2007’s “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga”, and more than any other album on this list, it’s just a solid rock album.
5. Holy Sheboygan – TWO
Want a good funky folk album about love and life? You’re going to want to check out this release (It might be an EP? I’m not sure.) from Holy Sheboygan. I saw them perform this year at 2720 Cherokee, where I was going to check out music and art from my friend Lawton Hall who was in town touring from Wisconsin. I was really impressed, so I bought their cassette tape. Only later that day did I find out my cassette player no longer works, but it came with a free download code, so I was in the clear.
This release, at 22 minutes long (OK, so it’s probably an EP.), is so good all the way through. It’s also tackling some ambitious subject matter. Finding love, the purpose of life, materialism, indefinite detention of prisoners… everything you could want is all here.
Also, there are fun instruments. They don’t have a “drummer” but on their Facebook page they do list two people playing “trash”. Milk jugs feature prominently. There’s also plenty of horns, saxophones and strings. TWO has a big full sound. I could be wrong, but I think many of the people in this band have some kind of advanced musical degree. But the music is accessible and fun. Anyway, be on the lookout for more from these guys. I think they could blow up!
4. Jenny Lewis – The Voyager
Jenny Lewis is pretty great, right? Per her Wikipedia page, she made her acting debut in a Jello commercial and went on to play parts in TV shows and made for TV movies forming Rilo Kiley in 1998. She made, by my estimate, 3 great albums as Rilo Kiley and was a contributor to the Postal Service’s only album. More recently, though, she’s released some pretty but also pretty forgettable solo albums, and also a project called Jenny & Johnny which I’ll admit I haven’t listened to
The Voyager is the first Lewis album to captivate me since Rilo Kiley’s 2004 release, “More Adventurous” and I think it shares a lot in common with that string of great Rilo Kiley releases. The hooks are big, the stories told in the lyrics are good, and Lewis’ voice is still as beautiful as ever. We’ll probably never get another Rilo Kiley CD, and that’s for the best, but this CD is a reminder of why I might still want one.
3. Kishi Bashi – Lighght
Kishi Bashi is a classically trained violin player who used to be in Of Montreal. According to his Wikipedia page, he’s also toured with Regina Spektor. If you haven’t listened to his albums, or heard of him, you may know his work from this Microsoft Windows 8 commercial
Of all the albums on this list, this was the one I listened to the most this year. This was my album of the summer, driving to and from Michigan and it’s the best (and the last) pop album on this list. I can’t believe it didn’t get more attention. The track I included on the Best Of mix at the top, The Ballad of Mr. Steak, is the most infectious song of the year. If you’re looking for fun pop music, this is your album
2. Sun Kil Moon – Benji
People die. People die for strange reasons. People are in the process of dying. You are in the process of dying, right now. If you’re not interested in thoughts like this, this probably isn’t the record for you, because that’s about all that’s here. Sure, there’s a track about loving your mom. There’s a track about loving your dad. There’s a track about early sexual encounters. There’s a track about attending a Postal Service show. But even these are framed by death.
But there is poetry found in death, and Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek is out to find all of it that he can. This premise is laid out in the album opener, Carissa. Kozelak’s second cousin, who he didn’t know that well, is 35 years old. She had 2 kids as a wild teenager, but turned her life around and is now an RN. She dies one night, because her trash explodes as she’s taking out. It’s hard to find meaning in a story of senseless tragedy, but these reflections on mortality are as interesting a way as any to tackle the topic.
1. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2
My city, the city of St. Louis, has had a lot of national attention on it since Mike Brown was killed on August 9. Protestors in Ferguson and in cities around the United States have been out daily to share their messages and questions of righteous anger and frustration. Why is our justice system so broken? Why do black people, in every neighborhood and in every economic and social class, get treated so poorly? Why do white people (like myself) get the benefit of the doubt? How have we allowed our country to remain in a state where so many people feel so hopeless from the time they are born?
These are the types of questions I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about lately, and I don’t have any answers. I’m trying to do my best to listen to what others are saying and Killer Mike, who makes up 1/2 of Run The Jewels, is one guy who’s saying something. While the biggest artists in Hip Hop have stayed mostly silent, Killer Mike has been out there. He’s written op-eds in USA Today and on Billboard. He’s been on CNN. And then, as fate would have it, on November 24, hours after the Ferguson Grand Jury decision came out, Run the Jewels took the stage at The Ready Room in St. Louis Missouri. It is my biggest regret of the year that I wasn’t here to see this show. Before the show, Killer Mike came out, and made this speech in tears. The audience doesn’t really understand what’s going on, but this is powerful stuff:
Run The Jewels is two 39 year old Rappers who have come together after long solo careers. Killer Mike is from Atlanta, GA and first gained exposure as a part of Outkast’s Dungeon Family collective. He appeared on their 2000 record, Stankonia. El-P is a white dude from New York. Together, they are the most dynamic thing happening in hip-hop. Run The Jewels 2 is the band’s second album in as many years, and it is insane. These are two best friends doing what they love together. This collaboration plays well not only in music, but when they give interviews together. Check out this crazy piece about El-P’s Steven Seagal obsession in The Onion’s AV Club.
Run The Jewels 2 is not for the faint of heart. It’s loud, vulgar, violent and should offend everyone. Social problems are addressed aggressively throughout the album, but most directly on tracks “Crown”, “Lie, Cheat, Steal” and “Early”. Killer Mike and EL-P are asking questions too, and these questions are uncomfortable.
But damn, if it isn’t the most fun thing released this year. Amongst these tough questions are two friends just having a blast. The intensity and urgency with which both the beats and the verses are delivered makes for one wild right, from start to end in 39 minutes. If rap isn’t your thing, this isn’t going to be your thing either, but this is a really special album.