Tuesday, December 30, 2014

That Wonderful Year in Music... 2014

If I could summarize 2014 as a year in music, the first word that comes to mind is "abundance." This was a very rich year for alternative and hip-hop, maybe the best since 2010. I intentionally heightened the number of new releases I listened to compared to last year, and I still feel like I didn't cover enough ground. Worse yet, it made the process of whittling down the best albums list to 20 a even tougher task than usual.


1. St. Vincent, St. Vincent. Not to be confused with the recent Bill Murray movie of the same name, the genius of Annie Clark saw its audience increase tenfold with her fifth studio effort. Her 2012 collaboration with David Byrne Love This Giant confirmed she was the heir apparant of the former Talking Heads frontman, as her accessible art-rock is a rare breed. The sound is more pop than her previous work, yet Clark's razor-sharp wit seems even more vicious underneath the candy-coated production.
2. Run the Jewels 2, Run the Jewels (Killer Mike and El-P). Not a single beat is wasted on this unlikeliest of sequels. The first Run the Jewels, released in mid-2013, was a pleasant lark, but no one anticipated a sequel that was so immediate, yet fluid and filthy. Killer Mike and El-P are established hip-hop MCs on their own, but together they destroy worlds.
3. Lost in the Dream, The War on Drugs. To anyone who dismisses indie-rock as millennial prattling, I want you to meet Adam Granduciel. The Philly-based musician, who co-founded TWOD in the mid-2000s with Kurt Vile, then kept the band going after Vile went solo four years ago, has fully matured as a songwriter on Drugs' captivating third album. This is 21st century blue-collar, and the callbacks to Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen are both earnest and justified.
4. Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Angel Olsen
5. Salad Days, Mac Demarco
6. Pinata, Freddie Gibbs & Madlib
7. Benji, Sun Kil Moon
8. Manipulator, Ty Segall
9. Here and Nowhere Else, Cloud Nothings
10. Are We There, Sharon Van Etten. Over in Brooklyn, an old pal and hired hand of Neko Case's is turning into a formidable singer-songwriter in her own right. Two years after Tramp and the AAA radio hit "Serpents" first made people aware of Van Etten, There makes the case that she's no fluke. This woman has suffered for her art, yet beneath each confession is a parable.

11. My Krazy Life, YG
12. Oxymoron, Schoolboy Q
13. Atlas, Real Estate
14. Nikki Nack, TuNe-YaRdS
15. Morning Phase, Beck. On the surface, Beck's first studio album in six years is a kindred spirit and sequel to 2002's Sea Change. At heart, this thoughtful disc has more in common with 1998's Mutations; the sound is relaxed, but the lyrics are more melancholy than sorrowful. Anyone expecting a return to his goofier, funkier side should keep waiting; this exercise into Nick Drake-type country-rock might be his most intriguing reinvention yet.
16. They Want My Soul, Spoon
17. Sukierae, Tweedy
18. Lazaretto, Jack White
19. Turn Blue, The Black Keys
20. Sun Structures, Temples. One of the most fun listens of '14 came from this quartet of '60s-obsessed British lads. The leadoff single "Shelter Song" sounds like a long-lost track from Nuggets. Their obsession with making everything sound like 1967 might have gotten in the way of giving these up-and-comers any personality, but Structures is so trippy and energetic that it almost doesn't matter.

Best Import: The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, Courtney Barnett. Not so much a debut album but a pairing of two EPs released in her native Australia in 2012-13, Barnett made ripples in American indie-rock circles in 2014. If Stephen Malkmus (of Pavement and Jicks fame) had a long-lost Aussie niece, she'd sound a lot like Barnett; her stoner-slacker deadpan adds wit to "Avant Gardener" and "History Eraser," two songs that play like compelling short fiction. Her first proper full-length is due out in early 2015, and fingers crossed it'll make next year's Top 20.

Best Jazz Album: Last Dance, Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden. The second release culled from a 2007 session between these two old friends, this collection of tunes feels more like a cohesive album than 2010's equally atmospheric Jasmine. The peculiar, curious intro to Monk's "Round Midnight" reveals an affection for the melody I don't think I've heard in any other rendition. (Also, RIP Charlie Haden, bass virtuoso.)
Honorable Mention: Kin, Pat Matheny Unity Group.


"Coming of Age," Foster the People
"Supernova," Ray Lamontagne
"This is a Game," Nick Waterhouse
"Don't Wanna," Howler
"Fall in Love," Phantogram
"Hot and Cold," Ex Hex
"Uptight Downtown," La Roux
"American Horror," Speedy Ortiz
"Violent Shiver," Benjamin Booker
"War on the East Coast," The New Pornographers
"From Eden," Hozier
"Left Hand Free," Alt-J


1. "Take Me To Church," Hozier. This video first dropped just under the wire late last year, but "Church" (the single and the clip) both blew up in mid-2014. The lyrics about suicide and Catholic guilt meshes eerily well against the haunting hate crime of the video.
2. "Chandalier," Sia. It's all about that dance.
3. "Seasons (Waiting on You)," Future Islands. A viral hit twice over: this rodeo-centric, documentary style clip gain just as much attention as their operatic performance on the Late Show last March.
4. "Fever," The Black Keys. Hey, remember tele-evangelists?
5. "Babylon," SZA. Speaking of overt religious themes, this R&B singer decides the only way she can absolve herself is by self-baptism in a pond.
6. "Crime," Real Estate. This was a breakout year for former MADtv cast member Andy Daly, who plays the "auteur" director of the most clusterfucky video ever made. You know before you hear the song that it's going to be chaos.
7. "Water Fountain," tUnE-yArDs. A recreation of a typical Tuesday evening at Merrill Garbus' house.
8. "Thirst," Every Time I Die. Imagine an episode of "Broad City" taken over by two speed-metal dickbags from the Great Plains, and that's pretty much this video.
9. "Low Key," Tweedy. Shot in and around Chicago, this father/son Wilco spinoff is desperate to sell some records. Look for appearances from Conan O'Brien, Andy Richter, and in one of her last film appearances, veteran Windy City stage actress Molly Glynn.
10. "7/11," Beyoncé. In accordance with the Federal Beyoncé Act of 2013, all music video best-of lists must include at least one clip from Bey. This on-the-fly, yet slickly edited home movie should meet the quota.

Honorable Mention: "The Writing's On the Wall," OK Go. This group has had so many inventive videos, I'm ready to cry uncle.

Your thoughts?

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Cuban Slide, or One Last Political Blog for 2014

My latest year-in-music blog is still a work in progress, so here's a quick topical dispatch:

I'm convinced that Cuba is on the verge of collapse. This week's historic decision by President Obama to reopen diplomatic ties after a 55-year hiatus was daring, perhaps even partisan, but also potentially a cry for help. This is a country without a strategic lifeline, no world power to back them up. Beyond the elderly, frail Fidel Castro and his 85-year-old kid brother Raul, there is no clear order of succession in the event either were to pass away. Communism in the Caribbean has five years left, tops. Castro lived enough to see his regime thrive (briefly) and slowly watch it die as other Communist powers were leveled out for democracy. Cuba is at our mercy, and Obama knows it.

On the surface, ending the Cuba embargo is a gift to the GOP, the final wrapped box on the right-wing Christmas that was 2014. Florida has an abundance of Cuban refugees and their progeny; they are mostly (but not overwhelmingly) Republican, and known for having long memories. Sen. Marco Rubio, a son of refugees in his own right, declared the move foolish. In contrast, fellow Republican and Libertarian golden boy Rand Paul called the move savvy, and the beginning of the end of a policy that never worked to begin with. It's a fascinating clash between the pragmatist and the hardliner, between a man whose politics was defined by the brutal regime of his parents' homeland against a strategist who wants to leave the Cold War behind. If Rubio wants to remain hawkish, that's his risk to take, and one that could either help or hinder him if he chooses to run for president in 2016.


Thursday, December 11, 2014

2014 in Review, Part One

Something about 2014 just felt... lousy. With three weeks to go in the year, it seems like I can remember two negative moments in the year for every positive memory. I had a half-dozen friends and acquaintances get married this year, but just as many get divorced. On a personal level, I struggled to find stable employment as I accepted one crummy temp job after another. If you were an Illinoisan with any interest in politics, you lost both an iconic liberal (former Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne) and a respected moderate conservative (recently reelected State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka). On a national scale, this was a bad year to be a Democrat and a feminist. On an international scale, Malaysian Airlines and most of Ukraine would like to pretend '14 never happened. The miraculous World Series run made by my beloved Kansas City Royals, 29 years after their last postseason and championship, was hampered by the possibility that it might be another three decades before it happens again.

This has also been a tough time to write topical humor. For the better part of two weeks, the most dominant news story has been about a African-American killed by a police officer under ambiguous circumstances. Some topics are just off-limits, and in a situations like Ferguson, MO and Staten Island it's almost impossible and just about tasteless to try joking about it. No matter what your stance is on the subject, this topic has a very limited angle for satire.

Additionally, this has been a rough year to be an SNL fan. The show's 40th anniversary --which will be celebrated as a prime time event in February 2015-- has been overshadowed by frustration and tragedy. This past summer saw the passings of cast member Jan Hooks and longtime announcer Don Pardo, and even though Robin Williams wasn't best known for being on the show, he was a frequent host in the 1980s. Not to be overlooked is the truck accident that nearly killed Tracy Morgan, a tragedy that was more serious than we originally thought. Least of all, the current state of the show could best be described as fledging; a whirlwind of cast changes in the last three seasons has a left a young, unproven ensemble still finding its voice. The biggest problem spot of all is Weekend Update, where the deer-in-the-headlights glances of head writer/co-anchor Colin Jost reminds us that some people should just stay behind the scenes.

So what did I enjoy this year? I'll discuss that in my next two blog posts.

Next Week: the year in music, 2014.