THE FEW, THE PROUD, THE MEMORABLE
A Review of Some of 2014’s Best Music
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly, 12/25/2014
Taylor Swift, who says she looks at albums as “sort of statements,” has sold an awful lot of albums this year. The unabashedly pop (as opposed to country-pop, her previous focus)1989 sold more than a million albums in its first week and has spent a total of 29 weeks at #1.
What kind of statement was Swift making with 1989? Well, she “felt like making a pop album.” Not that there’s anything wrong with great pop music, or wrong with you if you enjoy Taylor Swift, who is pretty hard to ignore. But 1989 is what Kurt Cobain would call a “radio-friendly unit shifter.” It’s a carefully calculated business venture by a young woman who was riding her crazy-wealthy family’s ponies while in diapers, successfully lobbied her parents to move to Nashville at 11 so she could become a star, and now gets paid more than $50 million a year to do many things associated with being a mega-famous musical celebrity, one of which is singing.
Point is, a few years from now you’ll be hard-pressed to remember one song from 1989.
In this, my seventh-annual feature for Boulder Weekly on my favorite albums of the year, I aim — as ever — to share with you some essential “statements” you may have missed, whether because they weren’t on the radio or because you don’t have the pleasure — or misfortune — of receiving a hundred press releases a day like I do. In my humble opinion, these are 10 records you’re sure to remember, and maybe cherish. Have fun listening, and debating.
Damon Albarn: ‘Everyday Robots’
At 46 years old, with a well-known career as a pop vocalist in Blur and Gorillaz, few would have predicted the English singer-songwriter Damon Albarn not only releasing his first-ever solo album but making it a profound, spacey treatise on life in the ever-distancing digital world.
Everyday Robots, with its dreamy opening track of the same name, is a much more strippeddown OK Computer in a world where technology has become even more of a worldwide obsession. Gorillaz is known as a “virtual band,” but Everyday Robots, with lyrics like “when you’re lonely, press play” and “it’s hard to be a lover when the TV’s on and nothing’s in your eye” is a mellow, haunting, electro-pop journey through the sadly habitual virtual reality we live in.
Future Islands: ‘Singles’
It’s a fun game, playing the addictive, romantic, live electronica of Future Islands’ brilliant new albumSingles for someone and asking what he or she thinks emotive vocalist Samuel T. Herring looks like. “Very ’80s” was one comment I got. “Something like Flock of Seagulls?” was another. Watching the Baltimore band’s unforgettable performance of “Seasons” on Letterman — it’s been viewed on YouTube 3 million times — is a revelation. Herring, a Southern-born gentleman in neat clothes and short, dark hair, looks like a young Marlon Brando and takes pain and passion to heights rock has seldom seen. He brutally punches himself. He licks his fingers like a madman. He stresses random words with a guttural howl that seems to come from another plane of existence. He dances in crouched, near-fetal position. Somehow, not a moment seems contrived. And yes, the whole album is that good, that inspirational.
First Aid Kit: ‘Stay Gold’
The young Swedish sister act First Aid Kit has come a long way since initially gaining attention by posting a homemade video of a Fleet Foxes cover — recorded in a forest, no less — online as teenagers six years ago. Now an international success, First Aid Kit marked the release of its galloping third album, Stay Gold, with a video for “My Silver Lining” that finds Johanna and Klara Söderberg (now 21 and 24) cruising in a convertible around sunny Los Angeles. Sure, some of the lyrics on Stay Gold, less purely poetic than the stunning Lion’s Roar, can be called “naïve wisdom,” but these baby-faced Swedes can sing and play as wonderfully as Nashville’s finest.
Alt-J: ‘This is All Yours’
The English “folktronica” band Alt-J sold out the Fillmore in Denver back in October, and — in the most awkward, honest terms I can provide — the performance was a phenomenon of unique, slow dance-rock without cymbals. Nary an inch of Fillmore space wasn’t being bounced on as the quartet — playing mesmerizing, eccentric electronic music that, like Future Islands’, is all live — stood as stone-faced as its dreary sophomore LP, This is All Yours, would suggest. Unlike the utterly fun An Awesome Wave (2012), the tranquil “song cycle” that is This is All Yours strangely and silkily takes listeners to and from the ancient Japanese city of Nara, a trip that includes some seriously weird expressions of love (“turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp packet,” etc.). Most of the lyrics, as ever, are incomprehensible, but it’s Alt- J’s beautiful, syncopated group harmonies and aforementioned thick, slow beats without cymbals that justifiably landed This is All Yours at #1 on the U.K. charts and #4 in the States.
Andrew Bird: ‘Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…’
Anyone who has attended one of Andrew Bird’s magical performances at the cavernous old Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder in recent summers has learned that the violinist/guitarist/ vocalist/whistler can do a lot more than juxtapose world-class bursts of musical virtuosity with mindexpanding wordplay. The Chicago genius is as American as W.C. Fields with a dobro, and his new album (it’s a slow year for Bird when he releases only one album) is a tribute to the songs of The Handsome Family, an Albuquerque-via-Chicago husband-and-wife duo that writes songs as quirky and touching as Bird’s but much more narrative, and somewhat gothic.
Lana Del Rey: ‘Ultraviolence’
Something tells me I should hate this album. Lana Del Rey has glorified violence against women, extramarital affairs and suicide. Like Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift, her route to hitting #1 on the Billboard charts was eased by her extremely wealthy roots. Del Rey (born Lizzy Grant in New York City to an entrepreneur and an account executive) was even lampooned for her exceptionally crappySaturday Night Live performance in 2012. But from the opening moments ofUltraviolence, Del Rey’s third LP, I was surprised by what gloriously twisted, lovesick album it reminded me of: Bob Dylan’s classic Time Out of Mind. With the help of Dan Auerbach, the whole “stiff, distant and weird” thing actually works for Del Rey on much ofUltraviolence, especially during the orchestral blues of “Cruel World” and the dark, hilarious satire of “Brooklyn Baby.” The sleek guitar-noir of “West Coast” is also a highlight. This is definitely not an album to ignore on reputation alone.
The War On Drugs: ‘Lost in the Dream’
For a little Indiana label Secretly Canadian, which boasts under-the-radar greats like Luke Temple and Antony Hegarty, to release an album that reached #26 on the Billboard charts might seem like a fluke, but Lost in the Dream’s radiance was no accident. The War On Drugs spent two years making its third, and best, album; it is clearly the result of frontman/songwriter Adam Granduciel’s love of both classic American “layman rock” (Springsteen, the Eagles, Tom Petty) and drugged-out space madness like Spiritualized. Focusing on a tempo and feel eerily “Boys of Summer”-esque, Lost in the Dream is easy to fall in love with. Granduciel italicizes and narrates like Dylan; the whole band is remarkably tight, and clearly having a blast; and the balance between technology and wholesome acoustic rock births something like Pink Floyd with Rick Danko replacing Roger Waters.
Laura Mvula: ‘Laura Mvula with Metropole Orkest conducted by Jules Buckley at Abbey Road Studios’
While Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence, with its nightmarish romance and gloomy wit, reminded me at times of Time Out of Mind, Laura Mvula, a 28-yearold English songstress, released an ambitious orchestral album that brought to mind Sketches of Spain. Like Miles Davis’ singular instrumental voice leading a Gil Evans-led orchestra, the rebellious, empowered love songs on Sing to the Moon (Mvula’s 2013 debut), get big, (mostly) tasteful symphonic treatment on this exciting release, and Mvula’s confident, heavenly voice and defiant lyrics are the centerpiece.
Against Me!: ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’
There isn’t enough space in an issue of Boulder Weekly to discuss the poignance and importance of Transgender Dysphoria Blues, the powerfully honest album that vaunted Against Me! from respected, successful punks to spokesmen for the international LGBT community. On the five Against Me! albums prior toTransgender — which is full of energetic, well-written power-punk — frontwoman Laura Jane Grace identified herself as a man named Tom Gabel. Now, still married (to the visual artist Heather Hannoura) with a young daughter, Grace is undergoing medical transition, mostly hormones, and considering full sex-reassignment therapy. From the start, the album is fantastic: Fierce as ever as a band, Against Me! now juxtaposes hard-charging punk with heartfelt lyrics such as “you should’ve been a mother / you should’ve been a wife…you should be living a different life.” It’s an inspiration for anyone afraid to be themselves.
Sylvan Esso: ‘Sylvan Esso’
Based in North Carolina, Sylvan Esso’s playful electro-pop is programmed by Nick Sanborn and sung by the exuberant Amelia Meath, who blew away the Boulder Theater a few years ago as a member of the pastoral Vermont vocal group Mountain Man. Sylvan Esso — which transforms Mountain Man’s quirky “Play It Right” into a bass-heavy, uplifting dance number on its eponymous debut — is a pleasant surprise for Mountain Man fans waiting patiently the last four years for a follow-up to the landmark Made the Harbor. The duo played a hypnotic version of “Coffee” with Questlove on Jimmy Fallon in July and — with the vivacious beats and provocative lyrics of Sylvan Esso, which quickly found critical and commercial success — has generally been channeling the Tank Girl fashion and attitude Meath has seemed to be somewhat holding back in Mountain Man.