Blake Mills - Ho Hey
Blake is one of those guitarists whose playing is endlessly inspiring to me, and what gets me most about his playing is that, as complex and daunting as his fretwork and picking styles can be, they are always so damn understated that no one could ever call him a showoff. His lyrics are brilliant too--wry Los Angeles philosophizing like a young, guileless Randy Newman. Lots of heartbreakers on this record. The traditionalism of the recording is inspiring, too--his last record, Break Mirrors, which I also loved, was more of a pastiche, and this one feels so immediate and live in comparison that it's clear he's been spending the interim tirelessly working on his skills as a producer as much as he has been expanding his already almost limitless range as a guitarist.
Bing and Ruth - Tomorrow Was The Golden Age
Back in the first couple years of my living in New York City, I had the pleasure of inviting David Moore and his ensemble to headline a show I put together at Joe's Pub. Not a lot of people showed up, probably partly due to the fact that I was not exactly a draw myself, but they put on a good show that night despite being down several members. A month or two before then, I had seen them play at Littlefield in Gowanus, and that had floored me--it was very, very good. I had picked up their album City Lake a while before that, and I listened to it constantly. It captured the beautiful desolation of New York in the early morning so well. One of Moore's solo piano pieces, "2:08 A.M.: Grace on the Street, Dirty", is one of my favorite pieces for solo piano of all time, right up there with Erik Satie's "Gnossienne No. 5." Anyway, enough backstory. This record is right up there with City Lake, and shows Moore's group taking a very different tack while still maintaining the core of their original identity. There is a power to these new pieces that subsumes the delicacy of the earlier material I heard from them, but it is just as appealing and moving. Before I heard this record in its entirety, I'd heard a snippet late at night earlier this year as my girlfriend and I drove back up to Brooklyn from my brother's place outside of Philadelphia. It was on John Schaefer's show, and at first I didn't know it was Bing and Ruth. But there is something about these glacial chord changes that is theirs, and theirs alone.
The Weather Station - What Am I Going To Do With Everything I Know
I was introduced to Tamara Lindeman's music a few years ago by a mutual friend in North Carolina, who posted the track "Came So Easy" on her Facebook page. Soon after that I helped arrange one of Tamara's first shows in the U.S.--it was me, her, and Martin Crane of the band Brazos, a pretty nice bill, at Union Hall in Park Slope. She mentioned that night that she'd be interested in doing a duet with me as part of a duets project that she was working on, and while that didn't come to pass, as I was recuperating from my cancer treatment, I asked her to contribute a verse to the title track of the album I was working on, Gray Lodge Wisdom. Her contribution really made that song work, and I'm still really pleased about it. The thing that strikes me most about her own music is its sobriety. It reminds me of Andrew Wyeth's paintings, which is about as high a praise as I can muster for anything, since Wyeth is maybe my favorite painter. Her imagery is so clean and precise, yet not stark at all--I can't express how deft her syntax can be in conjunction with her consummate guitar playing. There is a point I have come to as a musician where I only really enjoy music that attempts to express the ineffable, and her music always does that. This EP feels like a full length record to me, because it is so fully realized and so certain of its aims. I tried unsuccessfully to find it a home on a few labels in France and elsewhere in Europe, and while I'm disappointed by that, it's totally their loss for not picking up on this record's brilliance.
Steve Gunn - Way Out Weather
Another year, another great record by Steve Gunn. In interviews this guy embodies a kind of hard-won cool that I always wish I had, and his guitar playing and singing is so sure of itself. He has had a relatively long career in the experimental scene in Philly and over the course of that time he has managed to fuse a lot of different modes of playing--American primitive, raga, free jazz, Piedmont blues, straight up rock and roll--into a pretty seamless whole. Not to mention the drumming and bass playing on this record, which is immaculate as well. My favorite track here is the opener/title track. In my mind, this is desert road trip music, though I haven't tried it out in that vein (yet).
D'Angelo - Black Messiah
I was a latecomer to D'Angelo. Of course I remember watching his naked torso in that awesome music video in my family's living room in the early 2000's on MTV and being like "whoa." But my first real musical encounter with him was through a bonafide D'Angelevangelist, driving through Bed Stuy in the passenger seat of my friend Jason Beck's car, blasting Voodoo. Jason was working at the Magnetic Fields' studio in Manhattan at the time (I think?) and man, he loved D'Angelo like 12 year olds love the Beatles. His enthusiasm took hold in me, too. He monologized about the timelessness of the record's production and songwriting, and man, he was right--in 2011 that record sounded brand new, a decade after its release. And it still does today. lack Messiah has the same kind of timelessness going on--spaced out Prince falsettos, deliciously messy percussion, the most beautifully succinct guitar lines, a kind of murky production that is somehow minimalist and maximalist simultaneously. I've only been listening to this record for a few days (duh, it just came out), but damn, it is good. "Sugah Daddy" is the song with the most obvious hook, so that's what caught me early on, but every time I listen there is something else that becomes the aural foreground. The string intro on "Really Love" gives me major goosebumps this time around.
Sylvan Esso - Sylvan Esso
It was so satisfying seeing this record blow up this year. Amelia Meath has one of the keenest ears for popular music of the musicians that I've had the pleasure of getting to know in the past decade, and seeing that get realized on such a grand yet lighthanded scale in her collaboration with Nick Sanborn has been so cool. When Blair and I were in London this summer we showed this record to some posh young doctors and Guardian reporters at a dinner party and I think it blew their minds a little bit. "Coffee" is the standout track here, I still think, although "Hey Mami" is great too. It's that chorus in "Coffee" that gets me--the way that bass comes in ever so subtly along with Amelia's great vocal hook, and then how the bass drops back out just as subtly. On a vindictive note, it was satisfying seeing this record do so well despite a totally tone-deaf and rather cruel Pitchfork review. On those choice occasions when Pitchfork's monopoly on cool falters, they can get pretty nasty (on the other hand, perhaps they'll pull an about-face on Sylvan Esso the way that they once did for Bon Iver).
No Lands - Negative Space
I've listened to this record probably fifty times since it came out, and I still don't really know what to say about it, except that I like it a lot. I saw these guys play with some friends of mine in Red Hook at the NewAm loft, and in those moments where they were not encumbered by all of the technology that they had saddled themselves with, they were transcendent. Alex Overington did the mixing here, and he did a fantastic job. Something about the textures of this record reminds me of Fennesz, but it is much more song-oriented than that. "Pretender" is probably my favorite track here, with its rather heavy-handed sidechain compression, pentatonic guitar delay licks, and beautiful vocal sampling.
Anawan - Anawan
I was a member of a former version of this group, known as Trevor Wilson and Vocal Ensemble. It was a lot of fun singing Trevor's often thorny but well-notated pieces, which at the time were often a cappella or accompanied by a single guitar. I had to sing the bass parts, which were really low tenor parts, as I am no bass. We played some really memorable shows at D.I.Y. spaces in New York that have since closed or are in their last throes. Anyway, I quit and then I got sick and then I moved back to New York and then away again, but Trevor, Ethan, Alice, Michael, and Maia have carried the earlier threads of the project into ever-more interesting directions. Trevor's vision is so humane, so willing to embrace its own imperfections and uncertainties, so heartening and alive. Ethan's experimental impulses go very well with Trevor's, and Michael (from a now-outsider's perspective) tempers everything with a disciplining, leveling ear of a formalist. Alice's spirit on this record is wild and often fun and unexpected, and Maia, as always, has such a soulful and mercurial presence. This record is a grower--you need to let it open up for you like a blossom in a glass of water.
Stephen Steinbrink - Arranged Waves
What is there to say about Stephen Steinbrink? His lyrical sense and his facility with melody are formidable. His ability to combine the worries and neuroses of our alienating present with the sweetest vocal lines and arrangements is often breathtaking. This record got a lot of attention this year, but not nearly enough for how good it is. I remember hearing Stephen's music on an mp3 blog in maybe 2007 while I was in the composition lab in college, and it left a mark on me even then, but eventually I forgot about it. Then this record came into my consciousness, maybe through my buddy Anton, who has been managing Stephen's affairs in Europe very well. I wish he had someone as savvy and dedicated to advocate for him here--then again, Stephen probably fits that description well enough himself--perhaps it's just that, to generalize for a moment, the mainstream in the States has become so immovable and indifferent to anything aside from the most current and blatant trends as to seem cowardly sometimes. Anyway, this is a great record, and the fact that he recorded and mixed this thing himself in his home studio is, frankly, unbelievable.
The War On Drugs - Lost In The Dream
I'm not even going to mention the one-sided press stunt that a certain other songwriter pulled this year related to this band, other than to say that I think that his recently critically-acclaimed record is the worst album he has ever made, and I hope that whatever abyss he has been staring into the last couple of years breaks its hold on him at some point. Moving on: Eyes To The Wind is one of the greatest songs of the year, and one of the best songs in the folk-rock genre to come out in the past twenty years. Adam Granduciel is an incredible producer in his own right, and it would be interesting to see his skills put to use on other people's material as well. This band's use of synthesizer still sounds kind of bold to me in the context of how popular this record has been for a rock album in 2014, like they are making a conscious effort to embrace the excess of 80's Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen and give it some new context. I think it works really well.
Ben Seretan - Ben Seretan
I always knew Ben was a really great guitarist, but when I realized he was one of the best guitarists (by best I mean most transcendent--most able to supersede the material of music and tap into some sort of usually intangible emotional stratosphere) was when I saw him playing lead guitar in our mutual friend Jesse's old band Jane Eyre. Dude can play, in other words. But on this record he proves that he doesn't have to be constantly virtuosic in order to win the devotion of the listener--he has a lot of other tools at his disposal: his minimalist approach to lyric writing, his visionary sense of texture, and his indomitable spirit. It is impossible to explain what an intense experience this record is. I hear a lot of the Urbana-Champaign/Kinsella brothers sound in it, but there is a lot of other amazing stuff going on musically at different times. The second half of the record is the clincher for me--so much triumphant, gallant, sometimes bombastic music packed into such a relatively diminutive space.
Tiny Ruins - Brightly Painted One
I was so excited to see Hollie come to the states this year, and even more excited to see what a good response she got when she was here. I hadn't heard this record yet, but I opened for her at Pete's Candy Store and was pleased to hear some of the new material. The thing about Hollie's writing is that it is so incredibly elegant--it's like she just puts the words on the page and they work just like she thought they would work, every time. Every syllable that she commits to the page has a musical purpose as well as a literary purpose, which is no mean feat. Anyway, this record is just as good if not better than Some Were Meant For Sea, which in itself was a masterpiece. "Me At The Museum, You In The Wintergardens" is my favorite track, but there are a lot of growers here.
Other artists that put out albums that I liked a lot this year: Itasca, Ryley Walker, Caribou, Zammuto, Joan Shelley, Wilder Maker, Lydia Ainsworth, Apex Twin, Twin Sister, A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Ricky Eat Acid, His Name Is Alive, Thom Yorke, Foxes In Fiction, and probably about ten that I have forgotten.