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Listmas 2014: The Top 50 Albums of the Year [#50-41]

This is the big one. Well to be more accurate, this is the START of the big one. The Top 50 Albums countdown is the cornerstone of Listmas every year, and the 2014 version is looking pretty stellar. Before we begin, let me quickly go over the basic ground rules to help explain the rankings and how records qualified for this list. Any full length record released in the United States over the course of the 2014 calendar year was eligible for inclusion. EPs are not eligible (sorry Royksopp & Robyn), nor are soundtracks (sorry Mica Levi and the Under the Skin OST), mixtapes and “Various Artists” song collections. It’s equal parts funny and sad to me that at the start of the 2013 Top 50 Albums countdown, I mentioned that the site had fallen off the wagon in terms of album reviews for that year, but promised that “in 2014, things are going to be different!” They actually were different in that the total number of album reviews declined yet again. There’s a myriad of excuses I can claim contributed to that problem, including some serious bouts with writer’s block and having a lot more general life responsibilities on my plate that snatched away the free time I’d normally spend writing. Ultimately though, I didn’t push myself hard enough to get things written and published in a timely fashion. I’ve actually got a handful of unfinished album reviews from across the year that I kept delaying until they were forgotten about. They’re all way past expiration date now, but maybe I’ll use pieces of those writings in the short capsules for each record on this list. When you really think about it, the Top 50 Albums countdown is pretty much just a mini-review marathon anyway. Almost all of these you’ll be seeing and reading about for the very first time on the site, so enjoy the surprise and suspense of what might be on the way this week. Today I’m happy to kick things off with the very first of five installments. Take a hop, skip and the jump to check out my Top 50 Albums of 2014: #50-41!

Snapshot Review: Best Coast – The Only Place [Mexican Summer]

Based solely on material from Best Coast’s debut album Crazy for You, we learned four main things about frontwoman Bethany Cosentino: She likes boys (most specifically, Nathan Williams of Wavves), California, weed, and cats. It was remarkably easy to boil her down to those characteristics, and she spent quite a bit of time touring and doing interviews in an effort to break free from those labels. Delving deeper into her psyche via such interviews and her strikingly entertaining Twitter feed, we’ve learned a bit more about her, and it all sets us up quite nicely for Best Coast’s sophmore record The Only Place. First and foremost, Cosentino has said many times that this second album is more “emo” and “pop-punk” than the band’s debut. If you’ve been keeping a careful eye on what Best Coast has been up to the last couple years, perhaps you saw one of their shows where they covered Blink 182. Such moments give you a pretty good idea where some of the band’s sonic inspiration stems from. They’ve given up the lo-fi grunge of the first album and hired producer Jon Brion to add plenty of polish and space. In some respects a bit of the mystery is lost by removing the instrumental layers of fuzz generated by Bobb Bruno’s excellent guitar work. Such purposeful flaws only heightened Best Coast’s overall aesthetic as a crew of plainspoken slackers that were just like us. With everything on The Only Place coming off as pristine, it creates a new imperative that they have to take themselves much more seriously and professionally. The good news is that the melodies seem to take that thought to heart, as the guitars jangle, the vocals soar, and the hooks grab you by the ears and won’t let go. Their sonic palette has expanded a bit too, at least enough to incorporate light blushes of alt-country. It would have worked even better had they thrown in at least a little slide guitar or fiddle, but songs like “My Life”, “No One Like You” and “Dreaming My Life Away” feel like they’re channeling Neko Case in overall tone anyways. That’s probably Cosentino’s hope, though she’d be even more ecstatic to generate comparisons to her role model and personal hero, Stevie Nicks. She comes strikingly close on “Do You Still Love Me Like You Used To”, particularly on the multi-harmonized chorus, however that song and others are cursed with one major flaw: the lyrics. If you’re going to clean up your sound and strive for something more professional, you’ve got to back away at least a little bit from lines like, “The sun was high/and so was I” or “You say that/we’re just friends/but I want this/til the end”. Cosentino has changed her writing style a bit, moving away from the lackadaisical summer fun themes and towards the more personal and emotional. Most of the songs on The Only Place feel like pages pulled from a diary, but from a girl in her early teens and not her mid-twenties. Remarks such as, “My mom was right/I don’t wanna die/I wanna live my life,” on “My Life” are simple to a fault. The opening title track keeps the never ending cycle of songs about California going, and like a pseudo-cousin to Katy Perry’s “California Girls”, features lines like, “We’ve got the ocean/Got the babes/Got the sun/We’ve got the waves.” Don’t be shocked if you hear that eyeroll-worthy beast in a commercial soon, probably for the State of California Tourism Board. Why Cosentino’s lyrics are so poorly written has less to do with how uncomplicated they are and more to do with sheer predictability. Nine times out of ten you can guess what the line-ending rhyme is going to be, and while it may be easier to sing along as a result, that sort of blandness really isn’t helping anyone. A little more energy or even some experimentation in the songs would have offset the lyrical damage a bit, but unfortunately there’s not a whole lot of that to be found on The Only Place. If Best Coast really is planning to continue to grow into a full-fledged, professional band, they’ve still got some work left to do. The majority of that falls straight on Cosentino, who might want to spend just a little less time messing around on Twitter and a little more time trying to avoid becoming a cliche.

Best Coast – The Only Place

Buy The Only Place from Amazon

Pitchfork Music Festival 2011: Day 1 Recap

Ugh. It has been a long day for yours truly. Didn’t anticipate my day/evening going so late, so this initial recap of Day 1 of the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival is going to be a little shorter and more to the point than much of everything else I plan on writing about over the course of the weekend. But fun was the name of the game today, and to call it a great day would not be an incorrect statement. Let me tell you a brief bit about the music I bore witness to, as well as maybe a couple other quick notes about things that went down on Day 1.

Due to an unfortunate vehicular mishap, in which my car broke down and refused to start, I wound up arriving at the Pitchfork Music Festival about 45 minutes later than I had originally planned. Still, it left me just enough time to see the last couple songs from EMA. Erika M. Anderson is her full name when not being referenced in acronym format, and she had a couple friends backing her up to handle much of the instrumental work. The two songs I saw her perform were solid renditions, in particular her single “California”, in which she did a lot of the same hand gestures that can be found in the video for said song. Fun isn’t the best word to describe what I saw, but very capable and strong are probably two solid descriptors. A few hours after her set, I was being taken on a brief tour of the backstage area and stumbled upon EMA. She was sitting in the grass by herself with a guitar and was making notes on some pieces of paper. In all likelihood she was writing a song, and hopefully something at the festival inspired her to do so.

My most hotly anticipated act of the day (and essentially the weekend) was tUnE-yArDs. After the massive number of raves I heard about Merrill Garbus and her intense performances, there was a little chill that went down my spine on the quite hot day when she began to belt her vocals into the microphone. Creating all sorts of vocal and instrumental loops, watching her put together songs like “Gangsta” and “Powa” was thrilling enough even if you threw away the actual songs. She didn’t do much to actually improve upon the recorded versions of the stuff on “w h o k i l l”, but then again she didn’t need to. That record is still amazing, and just seeing the songs come together live was the treat. Hopefully many were won over by her stellar performance. While I skipped seeing Battles in favor of tUnE-yArDs, all my friends chose to abandon me, claiming I made the wrong choice. They came away with nothing but raves for Battles’ set, and given to how they are dynamite live, the reaction felt sensible.

Thurston Moore was next, as I was intrigued to see what he would do. His backing band consisted of one guitar, one drummer, one violinist and one harpist. Yep, he had a harp with him and its lilting melodies were built into a lot of the songs. Moore also had a music stand with plenty of sheet music on it, which begged the question of how well he knew the songs he was playing. And virtually the entire thing wound up being a flop. Standing out in the hot sun and watching Thurston play slow acoustic numbers was not a good time. Early on in his set, he jokingly asked if everyone was ready to hear some songs about rape and other dark things, clearly trying to make light of the fact that OFWGKTA would be performing on that very stage in a couple days. There will be protesters for that, and come to think of it, people should have protested Moore’s set as well for being rather pedestrian and boring. Everything was capably performed, and much of the material came via his latest solo effort “Demolished Thoughts”. No Sonic Youth was played, but to close out his set, Moore told the crowd, “my band is saying that we should play a rock song”, a statement that was met with applause. The spark that ignited within the last few minutes of that set was what the entire thing should have been made out of. There’s always next time. If you went and saw Curren$y, consider yourself lucky.

The great news is that Guided By Voices were up next, and the very first thing that Robert Pollard asked the crowd was whether or not they were ready to see a real professional rock show. Hell yes, the crowd was ready. And GBV gave everyone exactly what they were looking for. Chain smoking on stage, wielding a bottle of alcohol, windmill guitar work, Neko Case on tambourine, jumping around like a madman, salutes, the hoisting of guitars high into the sky, the pointing of the necks of the guitars out at the crowd in a threatening and stabbing motions – all these things happened during that set. To call it awesome would be putting it lightly. These guys are all music veterans, and instead of slowing down their set was filled with visceral energy – the sort of which is missing in so many rock bands these days. Not only that, but they did all this while running through “hit” after “hit” (the quotation marks are used because despite a long career the band never achieved massive success to justify anything of theirs being a hit according to today’s standards). They hit up “Hot Freaks” “Tractor Rape Chain”, “Kicker of Elves” and “I Am A Scientist” (among many others) from their seminal album “Bee Thousand”. Their other big record was “Alien Lanes”, and tracks like “Game of Pricks” and “They’re Not Witches” sounded even better now than they did back in the day. So to recap: Guided By Voices put on one hell of a great show. And in that same way it’s sad, because there’s only a couple shows left with their “classic” lineup in place. They’re probably never going to do this again, so if you saw them at Pitchfork consider yourself lucky.

Neko Case is such an effortless charmer of a woman. There’s a certain sweetness to her, and maybe the down-home alt-country bits of her music are big contributors to that. One of the more interesting things about her is the backing band she surrounds herself with. The guys in the band were all older gentlemen complete with beards and a few extra pounds, and that alone was enough to make you think they belonged in a country band you’d stumble in and catch one night at some random bar. Who knows, maybe that’s where she met them. In spite of their appearances, they’re also excellent musicians, which is likely the reason why Case picked them in the first place. But that syrupy sweet voice of hers is in as good of shape as ever these days, and the set list mixing old songs, newer songs, and the newest of the new gave it plenty of workout. Case is currently hard at work on new material, so she did play a couple new ones during her set which were on par with everything else she’s done to date, if not better. The biggest crowd responses were for “Hold On, Hold On” and “People Got A Lotta Nerve”, and given their radio single status it’s no wonder why. There was no real reason for me to leave Neko Case, but after awhile I chose to wander over and at least check out James Blake‘s set for a few minutes. My concern initially was that his very quiet and minimalist self-titled debut would not translate well in an outdoor park. Outside of some seriously heavy bass, I’m pretty sure I was correct on that one.

Last but certainly not least, Animal Collective closed out the night in the headliner slot. It seems they got the love note I left them criticizing the very fluid and ever-changing dynamic of their live shows. The last time I saw the boys, they spent their festival time slot noodling around with psychedelic textures rather than playing most of the songs that appear on their albums. Think of it like one long acid trip in which many songs are teased but little to none are actually performed. They were on their best behavior at Pitchfork 2011 though, actually playing songs all the way through and even adding a few brief moments of silence from when one song ends and another begins. Call it common courtesy, and it made the set very bearable and remarkably fun. There was plenty of dancing going on, not to mention the glowsticks and an inflatable Spider-Man that became a part of the party. There were a handful of new songs sprinkled into the set as well, all of which sounded more than fine but with fewer harmonies than their last album “Merriweather Post Pavilion”. Between those elements and the neat stage setup complete with light-up rock-like structures and hanging shapes attached overhead by strings of lights. Animal Collective took their headlining job seriously and left the crowd in a better place compared to how they found them.

In case you couldn’t gather already, the entire day was nothing short of great. I’m very much looking forward to Day 2 tomorrow, but at this very moment sleep beckons. I’ll have photos for you as soon as I’m able. Check back for my Day 2 Recap overnight tomorrow night.

Album Review: The Dodos – No Color [Frenchkiss]

Falling in love with The Dodos back in 2008 was so easy. The duo of Meric Long and Logan Kroeber effortlessly blended together ramshackle acoustic guitar fingerpicking, African-style rhythms and indie pop into a hybrid so organic it seemed to outright defy nature. That first record was “Visiter” and all-out jams like “Red and Purple”, “Jodi” and “Fools” were often so intensely strummed that it always felt like the song would break down at any moment because the guitar simply fell apart. It was really exciting and intense to listen to that album, which is probably why their follow-up, 2009’s “Time to Die” was regarded as such a disappointment. There were a number of factors that conrtibuted to this letdown of a sophmore album. Those changes included adding a third member Keaton Snyder which changed the group dynamic, relying on the ultra-clean production work of uber-producer Phil Ek, and the decision to place more of a focus on traditional melody rather than the off-the-rails, freewheeling style they were used to. Slower, denser and cleaner were the end results, and many balked at that. As if they’ve learned their lesson, The Dodos have set about trying to right the ship on their third album “No Color”. Their trinity of band members has now returned to its original twosome state, “Visiter” producer John Askew is once again behind the boards, and siren Neko Case was kind enough to contribute her pipes to back up Long’s vocals on a majority of the tracks. On the surface, it seems that everything’s coming up Dodos.

The booming thump of the bass drum at the start of “Black Night” signals that things are once again in their right place, and the rustic fingerpicked acoustic guitar that joins it moments later pushes it over the top. The pace is brisk and only gets brisker as the song chugs along through the imaginary alleyways of verses and main arteries of choruses, and the structural integrity of the song is such that it breaks from the usual verse-chorus-verse tradition but not far enough to call the main hook anything less than catchy. It’s one great reminder of how amazing The Dodos can be when fully left to their own devices. “Black Night” blends straight into “Going Under” without a moment’s hesitation, as if the two tracks are joined at the hip. The six minute adventure starts as a slower, more well-adjusted track with Neko Case making her first background vocal appearance. Once it hits the exact middle of the song though, the dam breaks open and a rush of buzzing noise and pure energy comes surging forward to send things into the stratosphere. Such a burst of noise might be considered jarring were it not well earned and smartly arranged. “Good” starts as a gallop and then moves into a full out stride, continuing to capitalize on the momentum the record has already established. “Is it better to be on or be good?”, Long asks. In this case, the band is not merely on and good, but instead on and great. Neko Case does sprinkle a bit of extra magic on “Sleep”, a song that would have been better titled “No Sleep” because it’s essentially about insomnia. The track races past like your mind does when all you want is the peace and quiet so you can pass out. It seemingly comes from a number of different places too, embracing that freeform style The Dodos have espoused at their best while also adding to that spaced out and unfocused mental state described in the lyrics.

After racing through the first few tracks at a highly brisk pace, “Don’t Try to Hide It” begins the slower and more subtle second half of “No Color” with a bit of parental-like support from your “parents” of Meric Long and Neko Case. We’ve all got little things about ourselves that would be interpreted as weird by others, and this is a song about proudly displaying your most unique qualities. The beginning of “Hunting Season” features a touch of the ‘ol vibraphone, and it’s enough to wonder if it was taken from a Keaton Snyder session before he exited the band or if that’s just a coincidence. It’s also not the most exciting or catchiest Dodos song, though Long’s emotional vocal performance is one of the highlights. It’s just the opposite that helps make “Companions” a better song than it has any right to be – intricate guitar playing and a very small bit of violin. The melody itself is pretty bland and ineffective, but the way that fingerpicked guitar rolls along is quite impressive. closing track “Don’t Stop” has the exact same issues, technically impressive but lacking in most other aspects. It does build energy just a little, and the incorporation of electric guitar and some vocal harmonies make for a good summation of the entire record. As a microcosm of the whole album then, that final song is only a little more than halfway good.

As exciting as it is to have the core team of Meric Long and Logan Kroeber recording and performing once again as a duo, along with their old producer John Askew back in place, this original recipe for success doesn’t always fully succeed as we see on “No Color”. There are tons of great things about this new album, including some of the most exciting and energetic melodies that The Dodos have come up with in some time. The return to the reliance on those shaky acoustic guitars and offbeat percussion is a huge plus too, as are Long’s lyrics – more vague and less clunky than they’ve ever been before. Not every song is winner though, and the second half of the album is much less compelling than the first. It’s not an energy thing, though arguably that does factor in just a little bit. If all the songs were as briskly paced as those first few we’d be worn out before the last couple even started. Pacing is part of the problem, with all the excitement right out of the gate and none really saved for the finish line. “Visiter” spread out the moments of grandeur pretty evenly, though to be fair about half of that record’s fourteen tracks could be called individual highlights. Hooks are also an issue. Songs like “Black Night” and “Sleep” are strong but don’t have the full staying power of a “Jodi” or a “Paint the Rust”. Maybe it just takes some time for them to fully sink in. After all, “Time to Die” was and is still the worst Dodos record, but these days it seems less like the trainwreck everyone labeled it as two years ago. Perhaps a year from now “No Color” will have that same effect, only rising in esteem from its current position as a pretty strong “comeback” album for the band. Thanks in large part to some serious freeform and fun songs, The Dodos have proven they know how to correct past mistakes and challenge the listener once again.

The Dodos – Don’t Stop

Buy “No Color” from Amazon

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