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Listmas 2014: The Top 50 Albums of the Year [#40-31]


Okay, we’ve made it to Day 2 of this countdown. In case you missed the first set of 10 albums, aka #50-41, you can click here to bring yourself up to speed. The collection of records you’ll find below has a little something for everybody, I’d say. Well okay, maybe not EVERYBODY. But there’s some great synth pop, some punk rock, some electronica, some hip hop, and a little bit of experimental whatnot in there for good measure. If there’s a theme to be pulled from this portion of the countdown, it’s that change is inevitable, and can often turn out for the best. Anyways, let’s just get right into it. Here’s the Top 50 Albums of 2014: #40-31!

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Album Review: Twin Sister – In Heaven [Domino]


Most bands arrive at our doorsteps fully formed. That is to say, lead-in single or not, the first major release from a majority of bands is their debut full length. The material on it is often culled from years worth of early demos, the tracks that got the band noticed in the first place. Most artists live or die based upon how that first record is received. Yet there are a select few that choose to forego releasing a full length right off the bat, instead dipping their toes in the proverbial musical waters by unleashing a smaller EP first. If you’re a band like Voxtrot, you put out two EPs before getting around to a whole album. There was a lesson to be learned from Voxtrot’s example, where they earned loads of hype via by releasing small sets of songs at once, but then fell flat on their faces when it came time to extend that out to something bigger and more traditional (even if the album is a “dying format”). The EP just works much better for some bands. Enter Twin Sister, one of those bands solely defined by the EPs to their name. The first was “Vampires With Dreaming Kids”, unleashed in 2008 right on the verge of the “Twilight” craze. It did earn the band some healthy buzz, but last year’s “Color Your Life” EP served them even better, boosted by the band’s best track to date “All Around and Away We Go”. That last EP also brought them interest from some larger indie labels, and they struck a deal with Domino to release their debut full length “In Heaven”. So does the band come away clean in their transition from EPs to albums? To start, they’re certainly faring better than Voxtrot did.

Technically speaking, Twin Sister were never a lo-fi band, but the audio quality of their EPs was far from perfect. They were most likely working on a shoestring budget both times. With decent financing for “In Heaven”, there’s a notable difference in quality that reflects positively on the band. Such crispness brings out qualities in the music you wouldn’t have caught before, and that’s particularly true when synths are one of your main instruments. Singer Andrea Estella’s vocals get the biggest boost out of it, her high-pitched and lush songbird pipes get pushed to the forefront and take the reins, keeping you invested in every song even when it might not be prudent to do so. The band also learned a thing or two about economy, stepping away from any of the longer 6 and 7 minute space out sessions on the “Color Your Life” EP and instead averaging out around 3-3.5 minutes across the entire album, never making it to the 5 minute mark once. That’s perfectly fine, actually – they use most of the tracks to experiment just a touch while the more manageable track lengths give them greater commercial viability. That they’re able to add a few more quirks to their more traditional bedroom pop sound helps them to stand out just a bit more from their peers, even if not everything they try works. Still, you can hear the influence of a band like Broadcast in the bombastic “Spain”, while “Bad Street” goes almost straight for the 80s electro stylings of Blondie. Sprinkle a little 80s R&B in with the duet “Stop”, a little alternatve universe shoegaze via “Kimmi in a Rice Field” and a touch of Sterolab-ish odd pop courtesy of “Gene Ciampi” and you’ve got a record filled with fascinating curios.

Delightful as it may be to listen to, the one thing that “In Heaven” truly lacks is any sense of consistency. They happily journey from a more spacey dark wave number like opener “Daniel” into the sensuous R&B of “Stop” without blinking an eye or caring how well the two blend together. Truth is, that doesn’t make for a bad combination, nor does much on this record feel markedly out of place, but that’s probably due to the effortless but key vocals from Estella and bandmate Eric Cardona. Also the instruments stay largely the same, often some form of synth-guitar combination with beats that tend to be more programmed than performed. Think of Twin Sister as if they were this really great cover band, running the gamut with a mixture of popular favorites across four decades, every attempt accomplished with the same set of tools. Not everything works out to perfection, but 8 or 9 times out of ten they birth something far more impressive than it has any right to be. What is Twin Sister’s sound then? If you consulted their first two EPs, they were relatively well-defined and cohesive statements pushing a spacey, retro electro-pop aesthetic. “In Heaven” breaks away from that mold save for “Luna’s Theme” and presents a whole lot of other avenues the band might take. Given how well they tackle that spread of ideas, the band is now faced with the challenge of regaining focus on their next effort. Any number of stylistic doors have been opened for them as a result of this record, and which one they’ll choose to step through is anybody’s guess.

Twin Sister – Bad Street

Twin Sister – Gene Ciampi

Buy “In Heaven” from Amazon

Pitchfork Music Festival 2011: Day 3 Recap

It seems we have come to the end of the road for this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival. It was a supremely fun 3 days filled with dozens of interesting artists that ranged from incredible to incredibly disappointing. My overall ruminations on the weekend will be handled in a different post. In the meantime I want to continue in the same tradition of the last two days, in which I keep up with the day-by-day recaps. Here’s what I bore witness to on Sunday (Day 3):

The goal was to make it to Union Park by 1:45pm to see Yuck‘s set. That was at the latest. I got stuck writing my recap of Saturday night on Sunday morning, so that caused a bit of a delay. Then traffic on the highways continued to pile additional delays on top of that. I was a mere couple blocks away from the festival and the time read 1:40pm. A band I thought may have been The Fresh & Onlys was playing off in the distance. Turns out Yuck started their set just a tiny bit earlier than scheduled. So I missed about a song. They put on a very good and energetic set, or at least crafted accurate representations of studio tracks. Smiling isn’t exactly Yuck’s thing, but they also appeared to be having a good time despite the blistering heat. The crowd pretty much did the same.

Seeing Kurt Vile & the Violators was by no means my genuine intention. It was more a matter of convenience and the safety of knowing that How to Dress Well was likely not doing so…well on the smaller Blue stage. Really it turned into a way to pass the time while waiting on Twin Sister about 20 minutes later. Quieter acoustic folk music hasn’t done so well this weekend, particularly with the sun feverishly beating down on everyone, which is why I felt like Vile was going to nosedive. To my pleasant surprise, he did not nosedive, but rather pretty much the exact opposite. Whether it was the fans blowing his amazing mane of hair around or just a very well put together backing band, there was energy and plenty of other compelling reasons to watch that set. Even a slower, more difficult song like “On Tour” was smartly played with the larger crowd in mind. I was so entranced, I forgot about Twin Sister and finally jogged my memory about it 10 minutes into their set.

In terms of Twin Sister, it was at that point, around 90 minutes into my day, that I felt like the heat was just starting to get to me. Loading up on water and shade became essential, and Twin Sister on the Blue stage was a good location to do both. I found a spot in the back corner of that area and downed a couple bottles of water with friends while trying to cool off. Twin Sister absolutely helped with that, providing a fun and energetic set of songs that made you want to get up and keep going with your day. Calling their set prolific or revolutionary is definitely too excessive, but remarkably pleasant bordering on excellent might be how I best describe it. Part of me wishes I was motivated enough to get up off the ground and actually watch what was happening on stage, but there was a certain sense of contentment just turning off that mode for a small period of time.

The set clearly most people wanted to see on Sunday was Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All aka OFWGKTA. Women’s rights groups and anti-abuse organizations were up in arms about the hip hop collective’s booking, and were threatening to do an all-out protest of it as a result. The festival organizers instead cut a deal with them, providing them with their own tent to raise awareness. They also were handing out plenty of paper fans that mentioned domestic violence and provided contact information for those in need of help. This was all to provide counter-programming to the inane ramblings of OFWGKTA, given that so many of their tracks appear to advocate rape and abuse and other unseemly things. Just prior to their set, the Odd Future boys went out to the abuse awareness tent and brought the women there cupcakes. This was all in an effort to show there were “no hard feelings”. Then they did their thing, often complete with catchy choruses that included lyrics like “smack that bitch” and “suck my dick”. The crowd appeared to be eating it up, throwing hands (or middle fingers) in the air as instructed, while the boys on stage took turns interacting with the crowd/crowd surfing. One of the more amusing things about their set was how they’d finish a horribly abusive or angry song against women, and would follow it up by telling everyone to go by and visit with the women’s advocacy group. “We hope they’re listening to our set right now,” one of them said seconds before launching into an extremely vulgar track about rape. In other words, the whole thing was counter-intuitive and just a bit confusing. But it was still fun, and those guys are talented even if they’re not the cleanest or friendliest hip hop group around. Mostly I’m just glad there wasn’t a riot.

After getting about 45 minutes into Odd Future’s set, I thought I’d go for a change of pace and see how Shabazz Palaces were doing. It was definitely a quieter vibe on that side of the park, and the lighter crowd made it nicer as well. They had some sound issues that delayed their start time, but once things got going it was definitely strong hip hop that was very much the anti-OFWGKTA. More minimalistic and subdued in nature, the duo made the most of what they had brought with them, including a number of live instruments (as opposed to the DJ sample-fest that was Odd Future). There was something about that set that had all the class and dignity you could ever want. The 20 or so minutes I heard were a good palate cleanser before I allowed my curiosity to pull me in the direction of another stage.

That other stage was the Green stage, where Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti were playing. The past show reviews I’ve read from people who’ve seen Ariel Pink before appeared to describe him as moderately pensive, often with an attitude that suggested he’d much rather be someplace else doing something else. That was NOT the Ariel Pink we met at the Pitchfork Music Festival. This version was completely nuts. Like, serious screw loose in the head sort of nuts. Depending on how that dynamic works on stage, it can lead to rousing success or total meltdown. It actually turned out to be a mixture of both. The great parts came in the early going, with Pink singing/manipulating his vocals through a headset connected to a small soundboard. The headset was needed because of all the jumping around, head banging, and wacky gestures he tended to make. The guy had more energy than he knew what to do with, and channeled as much of it as he could into his performance. The crowd ate it up. But as time went on, he kept leaving the band and retreating back stage for one reason or another, always to re-emerge and crank out another song. Yet simultaneously you could watch his mood go from crazy happy to crazy pissed, and it eventually erupted into a meltdown that had him walking off the stage for good, once again leaving the rest of the band there to politely end the set about 20 minutes early. Sound issues were to blame, apparently, as Ariel was reportedly not happy with what was going on with his vocals. For the 40 or so minutes that the set lasted, almost all of it was of an exceptionally high quality, vocal problems be damned.

Compare Ariel Pink to Baths, the 1 man DJ band. The words “DJ band” are probably used incorrectly here, but Will Wiesenfield uses a laptop and a sampler on stage. No actual instruments there, but he does do a fair amount of singing via the tracks he composes. That was one of those legitimately fun dance sets where despite the temperatures you can just let your hair down and have a blast. What makes Baths so engaging outside of the music is how Wiesenfield runs his show. He legitimately seems excited about playing these songs, and rather than just carefully mix together that might appear to be a lot more beat than melody, he dances, head bangs (sorta), makes wild flailing motions with his arms, sticks his tongue out Michael Jordan style, and overall turns boring and normal on its head. It was a lot more entertaining than I thought it would be.

Then there’s Superchunk. Here’s a veteran band that’s been around for ages, but there have been significant breaks due to a number of different factors. Somehow though, Mac McCaughan and the rest of the band don’t seem to have aged much. I think I spotted a grey hair or two, but otherwise they’re still on the right side of youth. They played like it too, seamlessly blending a lot of their classic catalogue with a bunch of material off their latest record “Majesty Shredding”. The crowd totally ate it up, and there was much singing and jumping around. Superchunk has always been one of those bands that delivers each and every show they play, and this one was no different. They put themselves out there and got enduring love and respect in return, as they should.

Deerhunter is an interesting sort of fish. The sun was beginning to set when Bradford Cox, Lockett Pundt and Co. took the stage, and immediately something felt a little weird. That is to say, the guys in the band appeared to be a little stand-offish and difficult. It didn’t help that the first thing they did was dive into a huge squall of white noise. They looked like they were sweltering in the still overly hot temperatures, but the great news is that once they’d finally gotten some legs underneath them, they were solid as ever. Deerhunter hit all the hallmarks they’re pretty much required to at this point in their careers, making an epic spectacle out of “Nothing Ever Happened” or settling into the grooves of a “Revival”. And hey, they even threw in a little bit of amusing banter to continue to charm us. For a band that, in my opinion, got off to a rocky start, they really kicked into high gear and things turned out as good, if not better than hoped.

My most anticipated set of Sunday was Cut Copy, and that’s almost entirely because of how much I love their music yet have never seen them perform it live. Apparently a lot of people were also looking forward to Cut Copy, as it wound up being one of the most heavily attended non-headliner sets I saw all weekend. They had an interesting lighting set up behind them which is likely more effective in a pitch black venue but worked well enough as the sun was beginning to drift below the horizon, casting a large shade over much of the park. With the cooler temperatures too, things became ideal for a dance party. A dance party is exactly what Cut Copy gave us, cranking out one hot cut after another. Leading early on with “Where I’m Going”, the highlights were spread smartly across the duration of the set. There was a point about halfway through the set in which they “announced” that the show was over and that they were saying goodnight, something that would have been a lot more effective had they legitimately left the stage instead of immediately confessing it was a joke. But from “Hearts on Fire” to “Lights and Music” through “Need You Now” and “Take Me Over”, there wasn’t a single key moment they missed, and I had a blast. It was a cathartic release, a celebration of everything the festival had been and done up until that point, and a very nice warm-up for TV on the Radio.

Let’s do a brief recap of the headliners at this year’s festival. Animal Collective on Friday night was good, if not great, but their extremely experimental psychedelic bent makes them a bit difficult to truly get into and enjoy (from a very mainstream perspective). Fleet Foxes are far more pleasant and easy to love, but they’re also much quieter and still new enough to where they might not yet be ready to headline a festival. But when you talk about TV on the Radio, that is a band with enough time in existence and an impeccable/energetic/appealing catalogue of music. In other words, they’re the real deal. They also wound up being the purveyors of the best headlining set of the festival. Naturally, there was a bit of an emphasis on their newer material, so “Nine Types of Light” got a fair amount of play across their 75 minute set, but there was plenty of time for highlights galore. Starting with “Dear Science”‘s opening energy burst “Halfway Home”, things jumped off right from the start. There was the 1-2 punch of “Young Liars” moving into “Staring at the Sun” that was simply excellent if you love the band’s older stuff. The way that songs like “Will Do” and “Caffeinated Consciousness” fit in amongst “Wolf Like Me” and “A Method” was pretty seamless too. The one song I personally missed hearing was “Golden Age”, but I’d like to think in place of that they chose to cover Fugazi’s “Waiting Room”. When they hit the first notes of the song, I thought it would just be a tease before launching into something else. They were not kidding around, and it turned out to be a remarkably great cover. I love that song, and while it may not have the same ferocity from which Fugazi would have performed it, the sheer force and technical accuracy was all it needed and was given. That provided the perfect cap on a weekend-long journey that was more fun than I’ve had in quite awhile. Thanks, TV on the Radio.

This wraps up my day-by-day recap of the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival. My coverage is not yet complete though. I’ve got several hundred photos to weed through and edit for your consumption, along with a look back at the full weekend that was, complete with a bunch of “superlatives” directed at many bands that I bore witness to. So keep your eyes peeled, I’m hoping to have everything taken care of within the next day or two.

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