Listening: The Top 5 Albums of 2014

  1. St. Vincent: St. Vincent
St. Vincent: St. Vincent

St. Vincent: St. Vincent

St. Vincent’s guitar playing sounds both well thought out and completely improvised at the same time. For me, it’s the highlight of this year’s release.  It reminds me of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd’s work on Marquee Moon.  “Rattlesnake,” “Birth in Reverse,” and “Digital Witness” are three of the finest songs on this nearly flawless album. My only criticism is that it is not as good as Strange Mercy, her previous album. In other words, the only competition Annie Clark has these days is basically herself.

PS. Am I the only one that looks at her four album covers and sees a planned out story?

  1. D’Angelo: Black Messiah. 

This only came out three weeks ago. I’ve already listened to it 6 times. And I want to listen to it again now.

  1. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2

Run the Jewels has studied the best. 39- year olds, Killer Mike and El-P’s latest takes the best political elements from Public Enemy, exhibits the hardness of NWA, and uplifts the crudeness of 2 Live Crew. The beats by El-P are also on point and stand up right next to those first two bands that I mentioned. The somewhat fictional verse by Killer Mike about feeling remorse from selling drugs is jaw-droppingly good. His anger in this album will help more people understand some current events more than any other media. Also, any album that reminds you that Zachary de la Rocha still has the best angriest voice is a great album.

  1. The New Pornographers: Brill Bruisers
The New Pornographers: Brill Bruisers

The New Pornographers: Brill Bruisers

I was never a fan of the New Pornographers until a friend mentioned we should go see them at the Civic Theater in New Orleans. The show was cheap enough to give them a chance. So, I listened to Brill Bruisers. Repeatedly. Then I listened to their entire back catalog. Repeatedly. The album is just what a great pop album should be. Dan Bejar’s “War on the East Coast” and “Born With a Sound” are two of his finest songs. In fact, War is my favorite song of the year and Born would be in the top ten. “Champions of Red Wine” written by AC Newman and sung by Neko Case is my second favorite song of the year. This is probably the most accessible album on my list.

  1. Sun Kil Moon: Benji
Sun Kil Moon: Benji

Sun Kil Moon: Benji

I was doing grad school work when I first decided to give this album a listen. I didn’t accomplish any work. The first song is the story of his second cousin “Carissa.” In the song, Carissa dies from an aerosol can exploding in the trash. Her father died in a simlar accident, which is the subject of “Truck Driver.” I was moved as if I saw this happen to a friend in real life. In fact, every song is about death in someway. Yet, it’s one of the most positive, life-affirming albums you will hear. Mark Kozelek, who uses the name Sun Kil Moon, uses these stories to process what has happened to him and his loved ones. In fact, it is a memoir in album form. Family makes a major theme with not only the aforementioned songs as well as one about his mom and another for his dad. In their Best of List, Pitchfork beat me to discussing one of the other major images of this album – Panera Bread. Not that it’s all that important to the album, but the normalness of the chain restaurant is. It’s a place we go to without thinking (because if we were thinking we go to a better restaurant). It’s a place we go with people we are familiar with and care about. We go there to talk without pressure or distraction, especially from the food. It’s an album about dealing with past sexual episodes from an honest not sure what he was doing way (“Dogs” named after the Pink Floyd Song not the attractiveness of the girls ), his dad’s friend that helped teach him how to converse with men about nothing (“Jim Wise”), his reaction to a tragedy (“Prayer for Newtown”), how something odd on the news can make someone take stock of their own life (“Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes”), to being jealous of a member of Death Cab for Cutie and the Postal Service (“Ben is My Friend”). This is an uncoverable album. It is too tied to Kozelek. Yet by being so specific and using his words and his music to process it, he makes an album for anyone.   This is the rare album that deserves the title masterpiece.

Yes I will get around to listening to Taylor Swift and Coldplay. What are albums that aren’t my list that I should listen to? I’m constantly in search for new sounds, new thoughts, new ways to help shed light on my life. Isn’t that what great music should do.

Listening: Best Albums of 2014 – Number Ten to Number Six

I realize that for this section I might need to make a few purchases. (Note: I picked up number 7 after I wrote this).

10: Spoon: They Want My Soul 

I’m not the first to say this (it seems a running theme in all their reviews and listings in the best-of lists) but Spoon is the most consistent band in rock. Each album delivers what you expect from a Spoon album while at the same time constantly surprising you. If you have followed this list and don’t recognize any bands on it, this is the one to start with. They won’t disappoint.

  1. Grouper: Ruins

Most albums I look up the lyrics to get the full idea of the album. I refuse to do that with this one. Gothic and dreamy, it’s a perfect album to listen to while alone with a cup of tea or trying to fall asleep. It’s more of a document to a certain period in someone’s life including the beep of the microwave.

  1. Lydia Loveless: Somewhere Else
Lydia Loveless Something Else

Lydia Loveless Something Else (It’s a dark album cover, sorry for the picture)

This is the best country release that no one heard. Yet, it is more than a country album, it’s also a rock album, a punk album. In fact, classifying good music is often stupid because good albums, like this one, defy classification. Like Taylor Swift, ex-boyfriends can be targets like on the song “Chris Issak” about a boyfriend who used to sing that singers songs to her. Unlike Taylor Swift, she can write a depressing song about “Head.” But, I haven’t heard the new Taylor Swift album so I may be wrong.

  1. Pallbearer: Foundations of Burden. 

I discovered Pallbearer a few years ago, but forgot about them. Then I saw them open for Deafheaven. Deafheaven is one of my favorite bands and they were just as good as them that night. Their version of doom metal is slow, melodic, and, of course, heavy. I worry about their guitar sting budget. On the first album, the leader singer,  Brett Campbell, tried to hard to reach certain sounds.  On this one, he only tries to sound like himself.  This is the album for people who love heavy music but also like good vocals such as Black Sabbath. If the 14 year old version of myself had heard this album, I would have grown out my hair, converted my wardrobe to Iron Maiden T-shirts, and learned how to play bass guitar.

  1. Strand of Oaks: Heal

“Goshen ‘97” is the best opening song on album this year. J. Mascis provides some of his finest guitar work in years on this song. It’s such a good song not only does Timothy Showalter, the main force behind Strand of Oaks, makes a cheesy lyric such as “That’s where the magic began” not only work, but essential to the song. The rest of the album explores different music styles all successful. The next best song “JM” is a haunting tribute to one of Stand of Oaks idols, Jason Molina.  Strand of Oaks will be playing at my favorite New Orleans festival this year, Hogs for the Cause. . Considering Drive-By Tuckers will also be there, this is the show I can’t wait to see.

Tomorrow the top five.

Listening: Best Albums of 2014 – Twenty to Eleven

  1. Thou: Heathen 

I might be a homer for this pick, but I really like this album from the Baton Rouge doom metal band. The music is heavy and unrelenting and the lyrics are intelligent without going over into pretentiousness. The lead signer’s voice takes a little getting used to but it fits the overall mood of the album.

  1. Real Estate: Atlas 

On the other side of the spectrum from Thou is Real Estate. The music on this album is just pretty. They aren’t scared of a good melody. This is a good album to put on in the background. Yet, they are at the core a guitar band.

  1. Cloud Nothings: Here and Nowhere Else 

This is an emotionally raw album with themes of anxiety, growing up, and co-dependence. The album builds into it reaches it’s apex with “Pattern Walks” with it’s devastating refrain of “I don’t feel bored and worried, I just feel strange/Coming up the middle of the thought that I could change.” The last song, “I’m Not Part of Me” sounds as if it was recorded in a different session than the rest of the album, yet this works in this case. The song is about breaking free, if the character can, and the music highlights this need to escape.

  1. Mac DeMarco: Salad Days 

I’ve always thought something was missing from Jack Johnson’s music, and I found all here on Salad Days. Both have that laid back vibe, but Mac adds an emotional intensity that’s missing on most of Johnson’s music. Even though the music is somewhat relaxed and detached, the lyrics are full of self-referential  assertions that it’s time for Mac to grow up, even though he doesn’t really know how. “Chamber of Reflection” is a masterpiece.

  1. Ryan Adams: Ryan Adams
Ryan Adams: Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams: Ryan Adams

For the first time in a long while (2005 actually with his three great albums of that year), I find myself going back to a his music after a first listen. It’s a great guitar album. Adams is a traditionalist and often sounds like the music he listens to (in this case 80s classic rock), but when he is at his best, as he his here, he often sounds better.

  1. Weezer: Everything Will Be Alright in the End.
Weezer: Everything Will Be Alright in the End

Weezer: Everything Will Be Alright in the End

A few years back when Weezer was playing Voodoo Fest, a girl trying to get in front of us tried to use the excuse “But Weezer is my childhood!” I wanted to tell her that her parents were not cool enough to raise her on Pavement. All jokes aside, the Blue album and Pinkerton are great albums. The rest of the albums, not so much. There are great moments on each one, but as a whole most of the songs are ones that you are just sure Rivers wrote in his sleep. On this album, even those songs (I’m looking at you “I’m Lonely”) are really, really good. The more I listen to this album the more I like it. The three-part suite at the end reminds you that Rivers has plenty of musical ideas, more than most bands.

  1. Behemoth: The Satanist.

This is crushing black metal music that your fundamentalist friends’ parents tried warning you about when you were younger. Luckily, my parents knew those parents were full of shit. The music is powerful, yet when the horns and organs come in, strangely elegant. The lyrics, taken at face value, are exactly what you expect form an album with this title. However, no intelligent person should take them at face value. The themes here are about the dangers of conformity, which is not such an evil thing to preach.

  1. The War on Drugs: Lost in the Dream
The War on Drugs: Lost in the Dream

The War on Drugs: Lost in the Dream

An artist that will appear much higher on this list called this album “beer-commercial shit.” He was right about the first part. This sounds like great beer commercial music if that were an actual genre. The guitars wash over you leading you to new patterns. Yes, it does sound like 80s John Cougar Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen, and Dire Straights. I fail to see how that is a bad thing. This is a great driving record, especially on at night on a straight road.

  1. Thee Sliver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra: Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything.

I just listened to this album again, and I fear I have it far too low. Politically driven lyrics (which can be boiled down to “We can do better”) are paired with hypnotic musical passages. The music sounds slightly out of tune, but also perfectly in tune. This is an album that reveals itself more and more over repeated listens.

  1. The Afghan Whigs: Do To the Beast 
The Afghan Whigs: Do To the Beast

The Afghan Whigs: Do To the Beast

Do To the Beast sounds like the Whigs never took a break. The guitar playing is as tight as ever. This is straight rock, but the grooves show that this band as explored lots of soul music over the years. “Dream your sins away/ Sin your dreams away” might be the best lyric of the year. Like Swans To Be Kind, the Whigs prove that it takes a lot longer for some rock bands to fade away.

Listening: 2014 Albums of the Year – Honorable Mentions

Even though I’m a teacher, part of my job requires me to analyze school data.  Being a History/English guy, music allows me to deal with numbers. Thanks to Spotify (will talk about my feelings — good and bad — about Spotify in another blog), I listened to plenty of albums. This year, I listened to around 75 albums that were released in 2014. I would probably add another 100 to that list of albums that I discovered in 2014 but had been released before. Add old favorites, the list probably goes over 300.

In short, I’m an album person. It’s why I collect records and have a premium Spotify account. I try to buy as many albums as I can afford. I rarely buy single songs.

I decided to do a top twenty list of the albums that I heard this year. I didn’t hear every album released.  Even the internet’s business music nerd did not listen to every album this year. I haven’t heard the releases from Taylor Swift, Ariel Pink, Schoolboy Q or Coldplay. I have no problem with pop music if the album isn’t full of filler. The only genre that I don’t really give the time of day to is mainstream country. However, alt-country or Americana (or whatever we are calling it this year) is one of my favorite genres. Yes, this might be hipster post to some in that a lot of the bands will not be familiar to my friends. However, while I have favorite bands, there is too much good music out there to not try new albums.

Before I start the top twenty, I want to give some praise to some albums that did not make the cut. I know if I did a reevaluation in 2015 a few of these albums could make the top twenty and quite a few of the top twenty would shuffle. In fact, my number one was the only one I was certain of…the moment I heard it for the first time.

The Hotelier’s Home, Like Noplace is There is one of the best rock albums of this year. It has a timeless sound. The songs feel lived-in. They come from that part of the body that no producer can reach.

Angel Olsen’s Burn Your Fire for Me is one of those albums that I listened to at work. Then I became instantly unproductive. I switched to something else and saved it for a headphone listen at night. It is a heartbreakingly beautiful album.

Tweedy is a side project from Wilco’s frontman Jeff Tweedy. The other member of the group is his son Spencer. Wilco’s best music comes from when Jeff is pushed by a great musician who is full of ideas. He has found that with Spencer. The album is a little too long which is the only reason why it’s not in the top twenty.

Swans To Be Kind is the only album on here that I can’t recommend to just anyone. It’s a hard listen requiring the listener to be willing to go on a grueling journey. But it is a rewarding journey who are willing to take it. In fact, I need to re-listen to this one soon.

The Old 97’s are like old friends.  You haven’t heard them in a while, and then you put them on and it’s like you just pickup where you last left off. This is the type of album you put on when you walk in the door from work and sit down to relax. You get yourself a beer or a bourbon or both. You grab your wife by the hand and dance in the living room. Most Messed Up that album. In fact, if you are a fan of country music and you haven’t heard them, take a listen.  Go back in their catalog, and give a listen. You shouldn’t be disappointed.

The Old 97's: Most Messed Up

The Old 97’s: Most Messed Up

Stephen Malkmus and Jicks’ Wig Out at the Jagbags is surprisingly the album I had the most fun listening to. Both mindless and deeply intellectual at the same time, this is Malkmus’s finest work since Pavement.

Stephen Malkmus: Wigout at the Jagbags

Stephen Malkmus: Wigout at the Jagbags

The Hold Steady’s Teeth Dreams is a grower of an album. It requires lots of listens to understand all the intricacies of the lyrics. Craig Finn is a storyteller. I heard a few songs before the album was released and they were even better live.

The Hold Steady: Teeth Dreams

The Hold Steady: Teeth Dreams

The most surprising album of the year was The Smashing Pumpkins’ Monuments to an Elegy. No songs are over 4 minutes except for one and that is only by a few seconds. Tommy Lee — yes that Tommy Lee – provides Corgan’s music the best drumming it’s had since Jimmy Chamberlin’s playing on Mellon Collie. It sound instantly like the Smashing Pumpkins and not like them. The lyrics are a bit cheesy but that’s true of all Corgan’s lyrics. In fact, I have always contended that the real story is in the guitar leads. This time they are leads and not solos. If it has been a while since you have heard the Pumpkins, give them another shot. It’s not a masterpiece, but it reminds you Corgan still probably has one in him.

Tomorrow: 11-20.

Concert-ing 2014: The Year in Concerts

While graduate school took up most of my time this year, I decided to go to some concerts this year. Well, I usually decided that every year, but this year I made that decision more often than most years. Um, yeah.

The first show I saw this year was Neutral Milk Hotel. NMH is one of those bands that I discovered long ago, became obsessed, forgot, rediscovered, repeat numerous times. They only have released a handful of items but they are all great especially their masterwork, Into the Areoplane. They have not toured, or recorded, in fifteen years. When tickets went on sale last August, they sold out in 20 minutes. I was able to get one. Then they announced a second show. Being greedy, I was able to get two for that show wanting Cristina to experience them. They did not disappoint. They played at the Civic, which at the time had serious sound issues that they have since addressed, but that did not deter from the show. They used every instrument they could think of including saws to recreate their sound. The crowds loved it on both nights. More importantly, they looked like they were having fun. The setlist worked better on the first night allowing for a better tension between songs. Cristina came the second night. Not really being a fan before hand, she became one after.  When I asked for her impression, she responded “they played saws.”

Setup for Neutral Milk Hotel

Setup for Neutral Milk Hotel.

Setup for Neutral Milk Hotel.

Setup for Neutral Milk Hotel.

The Civic Theater

The Civic Theater

In March, I saw Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks at the Parish. The former Pavement frontman played a great set of his solo stuff. I forgot how good of a guitar player he was. He only played one Pavement song, but it was the magnificent “Stereo.” I know it left some people disappointed. Most were there because of Pavement. However, if an artist has moved on, he has moved on. If he were to play Pavement songs, he probably would be playing bigger venues. He chooses not to. He chooses to give his new songs the spotlight. Which is a good thing, because his last two albums have been great.

Elton John put on amazing set in March. A huge setlist that included practically every hit except “Daniel.” Curiously, the people sitting behind us left because they did not recognize any songs. They said this after “Levon,” “Tiny Dancer,” and “Goodbye Yellowbrick Road.” What?

Elton John

Elton John

The Bitch is Back!

The Bitch is Back!

Hogs for the Cause is my favorite festival. I get to eat pork in order to raise money for pediatric brain cancer patients. It’s perfect.  This year they had Hurray for the Riff Raff and the Hold Steady.  The Hold Steady is what I would want my band to sound like if I were in a band.  It was a glorious spring day with great music.

The Hold Steady

The Hold Steady

Kurt with Craig Finn of the Hold Steady!

Kurt with Craig Finn of the Hold Steady!

To celebrate the near end of the Spring semester we heading out to the Hangout Fest in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Lured by the promise of The Flaming Lips and Outkast, we decided to buy tickets knowing that Sunday would probably be a no go day. Friday started out well with the Queens of the Stone Age and The Black Keys. I’m not a huge fan of the Black Keys (they suffer from is that this song or is it that song since they both kinda sound alike syndrome or aka Foo Fighters syndrome), but they did put on a good show because they are two supremely talented musicians. Queens was better but under appreciated. We also saw Childish Gambino play a few tracks. Saturday was a full day in which we saw Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, Modest Mouse, the Flaming Lips and the Killers in a row. That would also be how I would rank them. Trombone Shorty is on the top of the his game, so do yourself a favor and find a way to watch him perform. The Flaming Lips had trouble understanding that the crowd for their early show just wanted to hangout and listen and not be all that excited.  Outkast was the main reason why we bought tickets to the festival, but we decided to be adults and skip them. They were scheduled for nine on Sunday and then it would be a three hour drive back home. Work would come early the next day.

The Flaming Lips from a distance

The Flaming Lips from a distance

We spent two days at Jazz Fest.  The second day we saw Bruce Springsteen.  I have no desire to see such a big act again at the Fest.  You have to get there to early and camp out to be able to see anything.  Jazz Fest should not be a one tent festival.  The other day we did wander from stage to stage until it was time to see Vampire Weekend.  The crowd was drastically younger than Bruce’s.  VW has grown with every album and are another band at the top of their game.  I would love to see them in a more intimate setting though.

Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend at Jazz Fest

Vampire Weekend at Jazz Fest

When I asked Cristina to marry me, I did it in a simple fashion. I did it at home with a song by the Old 97’s playing in the background. The song is called “Question” and it’s about asking THAT question. They played in New Orleans on May 28. This was perfect since that is our anniversary. Dancing with my wife, on our anniversary, to that song is a memory we will both always cherish.

The Old 97's

The Old 97’s

This was right before Bayou Country Superfest, yet I wish most people would have realized that on May 28 two of the best country acts were playing at a small rock venue in the Quarter. Opening for the Old 97s was newcomer Lydia Loveless. Short, sassy with a great voice, an ear for melody, and in your face lyrics, she was the best opening act I’ve seen since I saw Radiohead open for REM.

Well, until I went to see Deafheaven. Deafheaven sounds like Robert Smith of the Cure, Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine, and The Edge of U2  formed a death metal band with a guy screaming lyrics who could be on the cover of GQ. Their album Sunbather is an instant classic. They played at the same venue as the Old97s albeit to a much different crowd. They killed it, but they had to because the bar was set high by the previous act. Pallbearer, a doom metal band from Arkansas, played an amazing set that overcame some mic difficulties. Their songs are slow but build up a power that just knocks you back when it comes alive. I came away not knowing which band I preferred. Not bad for $20.

Deafheaven

Deafheaven

The only clunker of the year was Peter Murphy. Like the two shows mention above, he performed at One Eyed Jacks. Unlike the two previous shows, the former Bauhaus frontman claimed the sound was bad. He could not hear himself. He cut the show after the first set leaving everyone wanting to hear his biggest hit. The sad part was that he sounded great.  He was the only one who thought so.

The next show was another that I have waited years for: The Afghan Whigs. The album Gentleman is my favorite album of the 90s and it might not even be their best album. They are band that sounds like the Stones and the Replacements who grew up knowing every song of the Stax catalog. Their new album is one of my top twenty albums of the year.   I had high expectations. They, too, did not disappoint. Their lead singer and songwriter, Greg Dulli, spends plenty of time in New Orleans and that energized the band. The setlist was flawless even when Dulli forgot the words to “Algiers.” He stopped the band. Played the next song and came back to it. It was the right amount of “fuck it” attitude a great band needs to have.

The Afghan Whigs

The Afghan Whigs

Another legend put on a titanic show in October. Paul McCartney played three straight hours of songs from each era. The highlight: “Somewhere” played on a ukulele. Simple, beautiful, and moving tribute to his friend.

Paul playing Helter Skelter

Paul playing Helter Skelter

Voodoo Fest came at a bad time for us, yet we saw the bands we wanted to see. Fishbone played a monster set on a stage too small to contain them. “Everyday Sunshine” is a contender for my favorite song of all time. Seriously, watch the video and watch your day get instantly better.   Slayer was awesome (and it was Halloween!)  but they crowd did not want to hear them, they just wanted to dance. That was probably because Outkast played next, in what may be their last show. Andre 3000 might not have put his heart into it, but it was hard to tell. It was a great set and a great way for them to go out. We saw the Foo Fighters on Sunday after skipping Saturday. Best moment was when they brought out Trombone Shorty, and Dave Grohl knew it.

The Foo Fighters at Voodoo

The Foo Fighters at Voodoo. We sat far back so this was the best picture we could take.

My last show of the year was The New Pornographers. I loved telling people I was going see this band to see their reactions to the name. They are just a great pop band. Playing at the Civic with the improved sound, they made a joyous noise. A concert should make you want to go back and listen to a performers music. Since this concert, the New Pornographers, and the members solo efforts, have dominated my turntable and mp3 players.

The New Pornographers at the Civic

The New Pornographers at the Civic

It had been a long time since I went to that many shows. Cristina went to most, but not all. I haven’t been able to convince her of deafheaven’s greatness yet.  She did get to go to 311 on 3/11, plus she saw Bruno Marrs and Justin Timberlake.  She’s not complaining about missing deafheaven.

311 on 3/11

311 on 3/11

Return of the Blogging

Because we have been in graduate school for the last two and half years, we have not posted much.  Books and papers took up most of our time.  That does not mean we did not have fun.  We have made many trips to Florida and Texas, spent a month in Scotland and Ireland, and gone to a lot of local events.

I hope that we can keep this blog updated. Cristina wants to share info about our travels and her hobbies such as collecting autographs and scrapbooking.  I want to write more music and movies reviews as well as sharing some of the records I collect.

Our new extended title reflects this change in focus.  We are still cooktraveleat.com, and we will continue to do those things.  However, we realized that our other hobbies often cross over into our cooking, travelling and eating.  My favorite spatula is a Darth Vader one and I love cooking while listening to any of our records.  Finding new scrapbooking and comic book stores has become a vital part of our travels.  Usually, independent music stores are near great local restaurants.

In other words, we will write about the things we love.