By Biff. I don’t know if it is being in the last months of my thirties, having a kid in high school, or counting the days until my wife graduates, but I’ve been in and out of a mild depression all year. I’ve had a hard time staying focused on new music this year and in fact only 1 or 2 new albums have really moved me this year. I’ve listened to a lot of older stuff lately: the Dylan and the Band Basement Tapes, Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece, Otis Redding, The Clash, Fugazi a lot of older Wu-Tang and Rancid (which I surprisingly enjoyed a lot of the latter two’s new albums). But the album I’ve been obsessed with this year is the Velvet Underground’s self titled album. That album is amazing and it rides the highs and lows of emotions that I’ve been traveling on these days.
It opens with “Candy Says,” the perfect rainy morning song to drink coffee to and as the coffee starts to kick in, so do the velvets with “What Goes On.” From here it just rides that perfect balance of mellow introspection; “Jesus”, great story telling on “Pale Blue Eyes”, and inspirational freak outs on “Beginning To See The Light And I’m Set Free”. The only song I could do without and skip every time is “The Murder Mystery” because I don’t do heroin and I think you have to be altered in a major way for that song to make sense within this otherwise perfect album.
I’ve had a moment or two with some new stuff but for the most part it was pretty fleeting with me always returning to my old staples. I was surprised how quickly I moved on from Thom Yorke, Real Estate, Beck, St. Vincent, Jack White, Cloud Nothings, Ryan Adams, U2 and Damien Rice—all of which in any other year would probably round out my tops. I’ve also become opposed to pop this year; I can’t get into any of what I hear on the radio these days. (Although I can tolerate the Lorde-curated Hunger Games soundtrack, which I can’t explain other than that it’s mutually agreeable between me and my students. It’s hard for them to work out to Amen Dunes or Tweedy, and Wu-Tang and Rancid aren’t appropriate for middle schoolers.) It’s weird because last year I thought I was finally getting a soft spot for the pop genre, but even that stuff makes me sick this year. I think I might be musically diabetic, which might say something about my overall mental state. Here are my top fourteen that stayed in rotation all year:
1. Hiss Golden Messenger – Lateness Of Dancers: What a great new discovery. This dude exudes my vibe this year and I love it. The Band and Dylan meets Van Morrison’s pastoral spirituality. I can listen to this for days.
2. Spoon – They Want My Soul: I’m a sucker for these guys; they’re in the National category where there hasn’t been a misstep in what seems like forever. See the comments of Antony’s picks to see more of how I feel about Spoon. Their latest just continues that consistent streak of awesome indie rock.
3. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There: I only went to two shows this year and this was one of them. She was great and this album is as well. It’s the musical version of “June Gloom,” a welcomed (by me) California weather phenomenon of coastal cloud cover that provides a calm before the brutal heat waves that will follow the next three to four months. This music soundtracked my June and continued throughout the year.
4. Hundred Waters – The Moon Rang Like A Bell: The album opens with what should be everybody’s new serenity prayer:
“Don’t let me show cruelty,
Though I may make mistakes,
Don’t let me show ugliness,
Though I know I can hate,
And don’t let me show evil,
Though it might be all I take,
Show me love”
This album reminds me of Bjork and that’s a good thing!
5. Damien Jurado – Brothers And Sisters Of The Eternal Son: The other show I went to this year. Just Damien and his guitar and he had complete command over the audience. You could hear a pin drop between songs the audience was dialed in and so was Damien—it was great. The album continues the great marriage of Richard Swift’s laid back 60’s vibe and Damien’s already great story telling.
6. Tweedy – Tweedy: Dealing with his wife’s cancer and his young son Spencer’s drumming brought an edge back to Jeff Tweedy that hasn’t been heard since A Ghost Is Born. Now I would rather he make a million “Wilco (The Song)”‘s then have to have cancer bring him the edge that made him create the genius of his early work, but damn can this guy channel turmoil into beautiful art. Some say this is bloated, but when I look at songs individually, I don’t see one I would remove. “High As Hello” reminds me of the Velvet Underground and that is a great thing this year!
7. The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream: I’m a sucker for the whole Kurt Vile family tree. Maybe I’m in a sixties kind a place, so although this album doesn’t sound like it’s from the 60s, it’s definitely groovy. I like to put this on and let the groove just wash over me and space out for a little while. Beer, The War On Drugs, and coffee are the only drugs I’ve been doing these days.
8. Ultimate Painting – Ultimate Painting: A pair of guys were as obsessed as I am with the Velvet’s ST; only difference, they are musically talented people who wanted to capture the Velvet vibe. In my opinion, they nailed it!
9. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds In Country Music: That voice makes me smile every time it comes on—as if Waylon is speaking from the grave. I was raised on outlaw country and Elvis. This is the first real new outlaw country that I’ve been able to get behind since the 80s.
10. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness: Roy Orbison meets early Elvis—but female—is how I would describe this. It’s crazy because my kids won’t admit to liking this, but every time I put it on they stop talking and silently listen. The album gives me chills and I return to it often.
11. Steve Gunn – Way Out Weather: Another guitarist from the Kurt Vile family tree. In fact, this guy’s a virtuoso that I can listen to for hours. This is grittier than his last one but it is still great guitar music. He also did two other side projects: Cantos De Lisboa with Mike Cooper and Melodies For A Savage Fix with Mike Gangloff, which are quite different but also great listens.
12. Amen Dunes – Love: I have to have at least one one-word-album-title that I love each year, and Amen Dunes have delivered it. This again reminds me of the Velvets (see a theme this year).
13. First Aid Kit – Stay Gold: These Swedish sisters have my number; in fact I think I like this more than their first one. Sometimes when something is so consistently good, the newest becomes your favorite because it just adds new arsenal to the cannon.
14. Fugazi – First Demo: Does this count? It was released this year but recorded in 1988, and it provides a glimpse into the genesis of one of my favorite American bands of all time. These guys are insanely rhythmic and this demo shows the origins of that.
* My favorite song and video of the year: Flying Lotus (Featuring Kendrick Lamar) – “Never Catch Me”
* Best album to fall asleep to (in fact I haven’t even finished it because I fall asleep every time): Grouper – Ruins
* One more quick side note: the Wu-Tang / Fugazi (Wugazi) mash-up on Soundcloud is a great workout mix.