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Staff Picks: Music

Best Music of 2014

Catch up on the best music made in 2014 by checking out some of these end of year lists.

NPR's Music Critics

Pitchfork

Rolling Stone

Country Music

AV Club

Metacritic's Debut Albums

Hip Hop Albums


TV on the Radio

TV on the Radio is a difficult band to describe given how their sonic palette draws from multiple sources including, post-punk, soul, doo wop, and electronic music. The band's strength is in synthesizing these stylistic threads into cohesive and accessible songs that can both rock out and register emotionally. The new album is called Seeds but definitely check out some of the Brooklyn group's older material as well.


Slow Club

The new British male/female duo Slow Club effectively weave together expressive crooning with catchy melodies and dance-friendly grooves with their third album Complete Surrender. From beautiful ballads to romping Motown-rooted soul, fans of bands like Beach House, Wye Oak, The Supremes, Low, Amy Winehouse, and Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings will find something to like in this album.


Christmas… and All That Jazz

Winter is here in all its glory and with the holiday season (and, of course, Record Store Day) right around the corner, it’s time for another Bargain Basement adventure. This time there are two worth bragging about… well, ok, maybe more like five or six but who’s counting?

First, if you’re in the mood for some new jazz (and who’s not?), Friends Bookstore has a whole cart full of new acquisitions. Seriously. A whole cart full. Ok, even I’ll admit that there’s some pretty obscure stuff in there, but for a couple of bucks each, you definitely can’t go wrong. I made out like a bandit with three killer titles by local (but nationally famed) jazzman, Tom Knific; Siena, Lines of Influence, and Home Bass. Siena features a full cast of heavies, including pianist Fred Hersch and one of my longtime favorite guitar artists, John Abercrombie. Impressive stuff, indeed. Lines is a quartet record with pianist John Knific, drummer extraordinaire Keith Hall, and tasty sax work by Chris Geckstrom. Lastly, Tom’s “Duos and Trios” release, Home Bass, boasts an equally impressive cast, with Billy Hart, drums; Trent Kynaston, sax; and others. All are wonderful recordings and terrific finds.

And… just in time for the holidays, Friends have so cleverly set up a cart chock full of holiday music and seasonal videos. Sinatra and Bing and all the classics are there, of course, but as I’ve confessed here before, I tend to seek out the more unusual when it comes to musical holiday fare. (There’s even a new film about this strange obsession due to arrive in December. There’s a trailer below - thanks for the tip, Karl!) So, in between the Mannheim Steamrollers and the Gregorian chanters, along comes this cool collection called Maybe This Christmas Too? with Dave Matthews, Barenaked Ladies, Oh Susanna, and the Flaming Lips. Nice! I also grabbed a lovely disc from Utah with some wonderful guitar and violin works by Michael Lucarelli and Kelly Parkinson. And to top it off, I managed to secure a swingin’ copy of Have Yourself A Tractors Christmas. Priceless. 


Bargains in the Basement is an occasional series highlighting noteworthy items unearthed in the lower level of Central Library. What a treasure we have (quite literally) in the Friends Bookstore. When you can grab high quality books, music, and movies for little more than pocket change, life is good. And all the proceeds go to help support the library. So shop often; you never know what you’ll find. And stay tuned… I’ll let you know what I find!

 


Pink Mountaintops

Those who loved the muddy, grungy, heavy sounds of 90’s alternative music will recognize in the Pink Mountaintops, a certain backward looking approach to their referencing of the era's loud and fuzzy heroes like Dinosaur Jr. and Mudhoney. Throw in some touches of Neu, Bruce Springsteen and a smattering of New Wave synthesizers and you just about have the makings of a throwback album. There’s a few really catchy tunes on this long player, including Through All the Worry, which features J. Mascis on guitar. Give it a shot.


FKA twigs - Lets Hear It for the Girl

Give it a decade-- “where you were you the first time you heard LP1?” will be a standard question for music enthusiasts everywhere. Singer-producer FKA twigs’ first studio release is not just a well-executed debut; in the vein of Black Star who released one sole record (Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star), this is an instant classic that leaves you craving a follow-up.

LP1 stands in stark relief to electronic contemporaries because it emits a haunting, raw energy that is also crisply edited. FKA twigs (26-year-old Brit Tahliah Barnett) pairs her own vocal and production talents with those of industry innovators like Sampha and Dev Hynes to deliver synth-heavy tones that range from dissonant ("Pendulum") to lush ("Kicks"). The first track, "Preface," opens with FKA twigs singing hymnal notes, quickly chased by a simple drum beat, followed by an unintelligible man's voice. Though the pace rarely moves beyond a nonchalant head nod, the album is not lethargic. The first single, “Two Weeks,” is barely mid-tempo but achieves a hypnotic, hair-raising feel. A few tracks veer towards ‘90s R&B production, yet never sound dated. "Give Up" could be a dark follow-up track to Janet Jackson's “Velvet Rope.” FKA twigs neatly contorts her controlled soprano to fit LP1’s sonic range. She never belts, but when paired with gauzy tones and deep bass her voice takes on an ethereal quality. Those vocals are essential to the album’s central theme: tension.

LP1 communicates tension primarily by placing the familiar in unfamiliar spaces, sonically and lyrically. "Closer" sounds like a hymn you might hear at Mass if not for the steady 808s and chirping synthesizer. While “Numbers” is a frustrated missive to a transient former lover, "Two Weeks" confidently declares the singer’s erotic power. These contrasting elements feel like an intentional rejoinder in a music landscape that demands definition. More than just sharing FKA twigs’ distinctive vision, LP1 expresses a multidimensionality inscribed with self-love, doubt, narcissism, insignificance, and invincibility: all emotions rarely discussed in public. Now, check out the album and mark the date on your calendar—it will come in handy.


Ty Segall

There’s a lot of music on the newest Ty Segall album Manipulator (17 songs). With that many songs, you shouldn't be surprised to discover that a handful are great, a few are throwaway’s and the rest are well…somewhere closer to meh. Segall keeps his grungy brand of garage rock truckin’ along the lines of his previous albums, mixing together pop melodies with surf-psych and Stoogesesque rock anthems. Quality control aside, Segall's albums always possess just enough hooks to get you to the next album; one that is usually only a few months away.


Bargains in the Basement: No Direction Home

It’s a good time to be a Bob Dylan fan. At 73, he’s still on the road with his (seemingly) never ending tour… he just finished a well-received series of dates in Australia and returns to the good ol’ U.S. of A. next month for another fall tour here. Aside from the live shows, we seem to get an album of new material every couple of years… his latest being Tempest from 2012, and (thankfully) a steady stream of archival material thanks to “The Bootleg Series.” Dylan and his label, Sony Music, deserve (in my humble opinion) a great deal of credit for allowing these recordings to be heard, rather than keeping them buried and quite possibly lost forever. It’s these otherwise “lost” recordings that allow us to gain true insight into the artist’s work. And of course they make for some fun listening, too.

To that end, I just snagged a nice copy of No Direction Home: The Bootleg Series Vol 7 at the Friends Bookstore. This double disc from 2005 is a companion (sort of a soundtrack) to the Martin Scorsese film of the same name, gathering 28 mostly unreleased rarities, including one of Bob’s very first recordings from 1959, plus various demos, live tracks and alternate takes – mostly from the mid-sixties. It’s an interesting look back at a pivotal point in Dylan’s career.

Looking ahead, November should be an interesting month. Sony is preparing to release The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11 (including a 6 disc deluxe edition!), which features for the first time the legendary “Big Pink” recordings “presented as close as possible to the way they were originally recorded and sounded back in the summer of 1967.” Also in November, we’ll get a brand new collection of recordings by Elvis Costello and others (members of Dawes, My Morning Jacket, Mumford & Sons, et al) called Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes. These recordings feature new original music that underscores a newly discovered batch of Dylan’s handwritten lyrics from the 1967 Basement Tapes period. Oh, and it’s produced by T Bone Burnette, so you know it should be mighty interesting. As always, thanks Friends and stay tuned.


Bargains in the Basement is an occasional series highlighting noteworthy items unearthed in the lower level of Central Library. What a treasure we have (quite literally) in the Friends Bookstore. When you can grab high quality books, music, and movies for little more than pocket change, life is good. And all the proceeds go to help support the library. So shop often; you never know what you’ll find. And stay tuned… I’ll let you know what I find!


My Favorite Albums So Far

We're past the mid-way point of 2014 and so here's my ever expanding list of favorite albums of the year. I'm sure a few more releases will make the list by year's end. What about you? What's on your list?

The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream
Real Estate, Atlas
Dean Wareham, Dean Wareham
St. Vincent, St. Vincent
Nikki Lane, All or Nothin’
Hamilton Leithauser, Black Hours
Conor Oberst, Upside Down Mountain
Slow Club, Complete Surrender
Wildest Dreams, Wildest Dreams
Jenny Lewis, The Voyager
Aztec Camera, High Land, High Rain (Reissue)
Spoon, They Want My Soul
Bebel Gilberto, Tudo
Ty Segall, Manipulator


A Spoonful of Good Tunes

The Texas band Spoon’s newest album They Want My Soul (Available to stream through Hoopladigital.com) brings together both something old and something new to their brand of catchy, no thrills indie rock. Their foundation of taut, skeletal minimalism is still very much alive and at the core of these 10 songs. But unlike some of their previous albums (which are also great), their newest feels more amiable, better produced and with a less detached tone. This is sharp, straight forward stuff that still has the hooks to get inside your head.





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