Oh give me pretty song, oh let me have that sound tonight

Yesterday I posted a list of my top ten albums of 2014. My other year-end tradition centered on music involves presenting some of my choices for the best songs of the year, a process a little complicated by the absence of the methodology that’s helped me make the selections. Previously, I highlighted some of the tracks I stumped for to no avail in Spectrum Culture’s process to determine their collective year-end tally. Since I’m not longer hanging my writer’s hat on their coatrack, I wasn’t privy to any of that, but I’d still prefer to use this regular post to celebrate a slightly different batch of songs than those that are cropping up everywhere. Well, mostly. Similarly, in the spirit of expanding the range, I’m steering away from artists who showed on yesterday’s albums list. Again, there’s an exception.

So these aren’t necessarily my choices for the five best tracks of 2014. For right now, though, these are the selections that feel right to put out there as worthy of a listen as one calendar hits the recycling bin and another takes its place on the wall.

Future Islands, “Seasons (Waiting on You)”

Yes, this track is showing up all over the place on “best of the year” lists, but I still feel compelled to include it here, if only to offer the true confession that I left a Future Islands show this past year, before they even took the stage. What can I say? I was there for Wye Oak. Much of the band’s music holds only marginal appeal for me. This song, though, pulls together all the oddities of their art into a thrilling, soaring single.

Mikal Cronin, “I Don’t Mind”

In the spring, I was in a favorite record store hawing and hemming (not necessarily in that order) about whether or not I should buy a vinyl copy of Mikal Cronin’s MCII. I have a fabulous friend who met my indecision by pulling the record from the rack, putting in on my accumulated stack of pending purchases, and announcing, “You need to own this.” He was right, as I was reminded when Cronin released this fantastic single in the fall, as part of the Polyvinyl singles series.

Bob Mould, “The War”

I wrote about Mould’s latest yesterday. This is the song that clinches the new record as a triumph. Powerful, pointed, fierce, and all-around stunning. It’s everything Mould does better than just about anyone piled into a single glorious song.

Sharon Van Etten, “Your Love is Killing Me”

The latest album from Sharon Van Etten is her strongest yet, but it still is occasionally too spare and fragile for my taste, an issue that’s kept me from getting as excited about her other releases as, well, just about everyone else. This song is not one of the spare and fragile ones.

Fiona Apple, “Container”

This tweet says it all:

Top Ten Albums of 2014

And here we come to the end of another year. Though I tried to keep up with new music without the outside impetus of a website compelling me to write record reviews, I definitely fell behind. That’s led to a lot of cramming in the past few weeks and a tally I will present with the shakiest of conviction. Except for the work of art at the top of the list. That’s the best album of the year. I have no question or qualm about that.

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1. St. Vincent, St. Vincent — This what Annie Clark has been building to all along. Her fourth album under the St. Vincent moniker (not including her collaboration with David Byrne, which exacts a clear, mighty influence on this record) is a spectacular reinvention of pop music, Clark’s elegant, deceptively tough guitar playing swirled into strange electronic sounds and driven by elastic, oblong rhythms. Every bend the album takes is a new provocation, but it’s no distancing art piece. It’s vibrant, approachable, and relentlessly catchy. While I’m lauding the achievements of Clark in this calendar year about to close, let me state for the record that, though I’d normally be adamantly opposed to the sort of cash-in appropriation of past efforts such a tour would represent, I’d be first in line to go see NirVincent in concert.

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2. Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire for No Witness — Angel Olsen’s stark, penetrating songs are anguish set to music. With her rich, evocative vocals, Olsen often sounds like she’s just barely dragging herself across the threshold to emotional safety, the simple act of enduring itself a triumph. The romanticism of misery that usually informs such songs is stripped away, leaving a brutal, inspiring honesty, a sense compounded by the airy, quietly echoing sound that makes the album sound as if it was recorded inside of a broken heart.

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3. Perfume Genius, Too Bright I found the prior efforts of Mike Hadreas under the guise of Perfume Genius to be a tad too precious, making me wonder if it he had it in him to create music that really cut deep. Well, he showed me. Too Bright is sophisticated and sonically surprising while delivering songs that buckle with resonant ache. With a lovely, delicate delivery, Hadreas sings his lyrics with the blessed relief of confession. For all the fragility built into it, the main impression the album leaves is one of spiritual durability.

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4. White Lung, Deep Fantasy The racing, powerhouse guitars. The hard punch of the drums. The confrontational lead vocals of Mish Way, alternately snarled or shouted. This is a record genetically engineered to bore into my wearied teenage punk rock id and defibrillate it back to life. From the opening riff, I am rapturously happy. Adding to the hit-and-run joy, not a single track even scratches near the three-minute mark. As it should be, dammit.

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5. Real Estate, Atlas The tender, mellifluous pop songs that fill Atlas are the work of grown-ups, wise and relaxed. Yearning doesn’t need to be tragic, and disappointment doesn’t need to be devastating. Sometimes these feelings are simply another gateway to explore the self, finding casual beauty in the act of just being. Without pressing, the music is consistently smart and complex. It has the inquisitiveness and assurance of a band on the cusp of making their masterpiece.

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6. FKA Twigs, LP1The full-length debut of FKA Twigs is bendy and experimental, as if it’s groping its way towards an unattainable stability as it goes. At times, the result is so transcendent that it sounds like a freshly born universe of sound unfolding, new layers emerging at the speed of thought. Tahliah Barnett’s vocals have some of the ethereal quality of Kate Bush, which makes the frank explicitness of the lyrics all the more striking. Even when it wavers, LP1 approaches the monumental.

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7. Bob Mould, Beauty & Ruin The old punk rocker who’s lived a hundred lives settles into his elder statesman phase. Beauty & Ruin and its immediate predecessor, 2012’s resounding Silver Age, make it exceedingly clear age doesn’t need to dull the creative instincts. Every lesson Mould has learned, everything he has done and made is pressed into the passages of this album. He has nothing left to prove, and the pure pleasure of creating for nothing more than the sake of it is present in every last note.

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8. The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream I swing back and forth on this album, finding it engrossing on one listen and meandering on the next. I change my mind about what it sounds like with equal frequency. Right now, I think this is the record the Waterboys would have made if Mike Scott had been raised alongside Bruce Springsteen in New Jersey. That description means the album belongs in my top ten.

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9. Ex Hex, Rips “Rips” is a pretty good description of it. We also would have accepted “roars,” “rages,” “soars,” “stings,” “shakes,” “blazes,” “bounds,” “blisters,” “splinters,” “struts,” “reverberates,” “strikes,” “shatters,” “smacks,” “thunders” or “careens.” Mary Timony keeps the wild flag flying, and bless her for it.

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10. Lykke Li, I Never Learn Lykke Li delivers a more languid, reserved version of her brand of dense pop music, befitting an album informed by romantic catastrophe. It may be quieter, but it’s no less affecting than her previous efforts (Li sees this as the close of a trilogy). Like many of the albums on my list this year, I Never Learn is a work of meticulous craft.

The New Releases Shelf: The Man Upstairs

I think of The Man Upstairs as a tale of two covers. The umpteenth release from Robyn Hitchcock opens with his take on the Psychedelic Furs song “The Ghost in You.” The track’s mix of spectral beauty and piercing emotional tenderness is a natural fit for Hitchcock, especially as he slows it down a touch and musically strip it to its bare essentials. It’s so perfect, in fact, that it seems as if the gods of rock ‘n’ roll always intended it to be his. They simply misplaced it for a few decades. Restored to the proper fingertips moving up and down the proper frets, the song is reborn, printed in ink into Hitchcock’s personal songbook. On the other end of the spectrum — and the other end of the album, slotted as the penultimate track — is Hitchcock’s cover of the Doors’ “The Crystal Ship.” At first consideration, Hitchcock would seem the perfect performer to find some loopy soul in Jim Morrison’s florid poetry, perhaps tacking it away from empty drama and towards offbeat insight. Instead, it’s tepid and inert, even more so than the languid original. It’s a doodle presented as full-realized track.

By Hitchcock’s own reporting, the structure of The Man Upstairs may be his artistic path forward from here on in. Now in his sixties, he presumably comes at his craft with a different sort of urgency, a more relaxed take on creation. The Man Upstairs is fifty-fifty affair: half of the tracks are new originals and the remainder are all covers (besides the two already mentioned, Hitchcock also draws from Roxy Music, Grant-Lee Phillips, and the Norwegian band I Was a King). It’s as if Hitchcock is cutting through the meandering process that would lead to an Odds and Sods sort of collection and trying to whip up one of those as an entirely intentional work. That’s not to disparage the quality of his songwriting on the record, implying that these are tracks that would have been better relegated to B-sides. On the contrary, “San Francisco Patrol” has a delicate acoustic loveliness that recalls his fantastic 1990 album, Eye, and “Trouble in Your Blood” has a distinct, agreeable Bob Dylan vibe (“You’ve got a dark look in your eyes/ You don’t ever compromise”). Hitchcock’s talent for mixing the odd with the poignant is in full effect.

The Man Upstairs offers a challenge as to what constitutes an important record from an artist. Hitchcock is working with producer Joe Boyd, the man who was behind the boards for significant albums by the likes of Nick Drake and the Fairport Convention, but has delivered a work that is most notable for its understatement, it entire lack of pretension. The whole album becomes an implicit argument against the notion of soldiering on with big new artistic statements when one’s muse has aged to the point where it probably prefers slippers and a warm bath to the flaring of inspiration. That doesn’t make The Man Upstairs a disappointment. Indeed, it’s far from the sort of limp filler many other older acts issue as little more that obvious justification for a more lucrative concert tour. It feels right and honest. This is who Hitchcock is right now, right this moment. And that is reason enough for the album to be what it is.

The New Releases Shelf: Rips

I was an early, vocal, and fiercely committed disciple of Wild Flag. For many, it seemed to take a little while for the band and the album to really take root, presumably because band member Carrie Brownstein’s growing prominence outside of the rock ‘n’ roll realm created an impression that Wild Flag was a side project and therefore not worth much attention. A lot of the initial reviews smacked of disinterest, though there was a slight uptick when it came time to tally up year-end lists, as the reverberating pleasures of the tuneful, driving music proved enduring. Surely there would have been an entirely different brand of attention to greet the band’s sophomore release, an artifact that will probably never be pressed into existence. With Brownstein indeed looking less and less likely to ever return to music as a day job, it’s up to others to carry the Wild Flag torch further, with Mary Timony the most likely contender.

In some ways, though, Timony requires a bit of an artistic transformation to fulfill the task, given that much of her prior work, either with Helium or as a solo artist, was more tender, preferring elegant pop deconstructions to high-volume authority. Timony’s new band, Ex Hex (a name she has employed previously), is out with their debut, Rips, and while it scratches my significant Wild Flag itch, there are some dynamics and shadings to it that make it clear it’s an expression of a different sensibility, one shaped by the whole history the bandleader brings into it. Working with drummer Laura Harris and bassist Betsy Wright, Timony delivers a record of garage rock goodness influenced by the bubblegum snap of power pop. It makes for an exuberant, delirious listen. So, yeah, it’s a lot like Wild Flag.

The album thunders to life to “Don’t Wanna Lose,” some mild psychedelic sonics shimmering under the lyrics “I thought you were a man of action/ Come on, baby, come on, give me a little reaction.” Quickly, the prevailing sound of the album locks into place, and Ex Hex is on its way to juicy rock glory. “How You Got That Girl” combines a sharp retro sheen with enough confident swagger to suggest Blondie and the Runaways collaborating during their shared late-seventies heyday. That endearing tilt towards sounds past — maybe evoking a time when rock ‘n’ roll still ruled — means the album even has a place for a song called “Radio On,” celebrating a time when freedom could be found by tuning the dial wisely. The songs aren’t uniformly great (single “Hot and Cold” is a track that idles when it should roar, for example), but overall the record provides a pile-up of good time, guitar-blast winners, the kinds of things that become locked in the brain and soul with equal stubbornness.

There’s also a nice directness to the lyrics that suits the plainspoken muscle of the music. When “Waste Your Time” sums up a romantic conflict with “I don’t wanna hang out with anyone else/ So why you wanna hide behind yourself,” it sounds a concern that could have been voiced in similar songs a few dozen years ago. That could make it sound stale, I suppose. Instead, it strikes me as timeless, tapping into the appeal of a guitar, bass, and drums played together with authority. That’s further ratified by the pleasures of “Everywhere,” which includes a nifty cascading guitar flourish, and single “Waterfall,” the sort of song that the Go-Go’s might have come up with if they had a little more punk in their veins. On the strident putdown “War Paint,” Timony sings “So put your war paint on/ And dance alone in the crowd/ And so you will discover/ The music was just too loud.” With Rips, I can assert that “too loud” isn’t a phrase that I’ve had cause to employ.

The New Releases Shelf: Brill Bruisers

Brill Bruisers, the sixth outing by all-star pop collective the New Pornographers, veritably explodes to life with the album-opening title track. The instruments burst forward with the sort of harmonized nonsense syllables that have been the hallmark of rock ‘n’ roll from the beginning, providing the time-tested signal that catchiness is more imperative than language. This record is the follow-up to a couple of releases that weren’t all that well-regarded (2010’s Together and 2007’s Challengers), making that surge of sound into something like a statement of revived purpose. ‘There was a time when you all loved us,’ it seems to say. ‘Remember that? Remember why?’ Brill Bruisers does provide a handy reminder of the dizzying glories to be found when A.C. Newman assembles his cheerily melodic Avengers, but it also betrays some of the reasons why those who once swooned over, say, Twin Cinema (as I surely did) might find the newer material a little inconsequential around the edges.

Part of the appeal of any New Pornographers release is the way Newman and his cohorts seem to be shaping the radio station of their dreams, playing around with different forms and styles while also committing themselves to the craft of writing solid, well thought out songs. An album from the band might have a uniform voice, but it sings all over the range and often wants to hit notes that that previously eluded it. On Brill Bruisers, the latter deviation manifests with a slight but discernible embrace of electronic tinkling, as if an earthier version of early-to-mid-eighties Giorgio Moroder showed up to give the album one last polish between the recording process and the pressing of the vinyl. “Champions of Red Wine” has tender trills that sound imported from the Electric Dreams soundtrack, and “Dancehall Domine” charges forward like an LCD Soundsystem knockoff. And then there are those instances that simply sound like vintage New Pornographers, which is just another way of saying the best tracks are poppy, driving, and wonderful. There’s a great Neko Case lead vocal on “Marching Orders,” for instance, with her wrapping her ringing, keening tones around great lyrics (“Let’s put this countdown clock away/ Unfinished parts of the death ray on the lawn/ Let them rust/ Turn to dust”) as a reminder that, as accomplished as her solo career has been, she often hits new highs when she punches the clock with this band.

On a recent episode of WTF with Marc Maron, Mac McCaughan of Superchunk and Merge Records talked about his discovery process as a music fan, noting that at a certain point he moved on from the scattered brashness of reactionary punk rock to groups that had greater capabilities to write “real songs.” That’s kind of who the New Pornographers are: the group that’s fully and fiercely committed to the creation of “real songs.” Welcome as it is, there’s also a downside. There’s little sense of spontaneity to the tracks, which are instead defined by a meticulousness that can wind up deadening the song. They recall another artist prone to such troubles with “Another Drug Deal of the Heart,” which sounds like a Magnetic Fields song circling in on itself into a repetitive oblivion. It’s an admittedly infinitesimal line between that flaw as a genuine fault of overt craftsmanship and the jaded impatience of a listener, but I can only report how it strikes my ears. I think Brill Bruisers sounds great. Sometimes I wish it sounded messier.

The New Releases Shelf: The Voyager

I have a feeling I would have really disliked The Voyager had it arrived ten years earlier. My basis for this is my dwindling appreciation of the music of Rilo Kiley as they got more polished and poppy on More Adventurous (2004) and especially Under the Blacklight (2007). A fervent fan of the depressive, indie heartache of the band’s 2002 breakthrough, The Execution of All Things, I found the excursion into poppier fare — it sometimes sounded like they were taking a stab at inventing a new form of lo-fi disco — to be unappealing. I don’t believe I ever cried, “Sell out!” but that was probably echoing around my heart somewhere. I don’t necessarily feel compelled to spend a lot of time backtracking to reevaluate those albums, but The Voyager confirms that the later efforts were closer to the sensibility Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis actively wanted to pursue. And the new album also makes a pretty solid argument that the evolution was worthwhile, even if that evolution was more with my ears than Lewis’s music. It wasn’t you, Jenny. It was me.

Produced by Ryan Adams, who’s been sporadically pursuing exactly this sort of genially high-gloss on his solo albums since at least Gold, Lewis’s third solo turn (counting the credited collaboration with the Watson Twins, Rabbit Fur Coat, as her debut) is positioned for a version of modern pop radio that’s better than the one we’re actually stuck with. The songs are tight, wise, glistening, and emotionally resonant. They mix salty and sweet as artfully as the star menu item of any acclaimed chef. Lewis remains as downbeat and lovelorn as ever, but the most dour sentiments are couched in deliriously addictive pop settings. It has some of thrilling embrace of smart studio craftsmanship that made Haim’s Days Are Gone so satisfying last year, although the throwback quality of that album is almost entirely absent. Lewis has her influences and inspires some useful, telling comparisons (with this material, she could trade songs on stage with Neko Case and have a fair shot of emerging with a split decision), but the record comes across as a pure expression of self instead of an echo of what others have done and said before.

The personal nature of Lewis’s music invites a lot of extra examination. There are a slew of fans who’ve been excitedly puzzling out the conspicuously highlighted lyrics on lead single “Just One of the Guys”: “There’s only one difference between you and me/ When I look at myself all I can see/ I’m just another/ Lady without a baby.” Added clues are found elsewhere on the album, notably on the wistful track “She’s Not Me,” on which Lewis sings, “I used to think you could save me/ I’ve been wandering lately/ Heard she’s having your baby/ And everything’s so amazing.” Elsewhere, Lewis references the bouts of sleeplessness that helped contribute to the six year gap between solo efforts and other travails. And yet there’s a sense of hope that mirrors the more buoyant music. No matter how bad it gets, the note of slender positivity Lewis sounds on “Head Underwater” might be Lewis’s new thesis. When she sings, “There’s a little bit of magic/ Everybody has it/ There’s a little bit of sand left in the hourglass,” it’s it own reiteration of the value of Lewis’s musical journey. She’s not content to stand pat when the opportunity to move forward, one way or another, is right in front of her.

The New Releases Shelf: Beauty & Ruin

This is one of those rare instances where the album cover says it all. There’s the kid. Bushy hair. Eyes cast down. Cigarette in place and drawn heavily upon. He looks like he’s moving forward, pressing against the world but not meeting its gaze. And there’s the old man. Years later. Decades later. Gray beard. Tired eyes behind a pair of glasses, just one more marker of the attrition that comes with time passing. There are both there, one a specter atop the other, but it’s difficult to make out which figure is in the moment and which is engaged in haunting. It is Beauty & Ruin. In every sense.

Maybe the Beauty isn’t youth, though. Youth is reckless, self-destructive. Youth is about courting Ruin. For someone like Bob Mould, committed to the punk scene in nineteen-seventies and eighties, there was no shortage of opportunities for harshly romanticized self-brutality, from violence, from drugs, from everything else imaginable. His music with Hüsker Dü was a perfect reflection of that environment. It was blistering and angry, absolutely unapologetic in its fury and nihilistic assessment. Existence was a perpetual state of hardly getting over things that made no sense at all. By his own account, Mould was moving gradually towards a more healthy life by the time he launched his solo career with the brilliant Workbook (recently reissued in lavish twenty-fifth anniversary editions), but whatever progress he made elsewhere was handily replaced by bitterness over everything that had gone wrong with his prior band. It worked in his favor for a long time–there are some great records and, on all but the weakest of his full-lengths, terrific songs–but rot eventually, inevitably settles in.

After years of mildly counterproductive creative wanderlust, Mould set himself right with Silver Age, released in 2012. It was more than a return to form. It was an artful acceptance, recapturing, and reformulation of everything he’d been before. Mould wasn’t denying who he was and where he’d been. He was finally embracing it, presumably energized by useful exercises in nostalgia (writing his memoir, touring to commemorate the anniversary release of the first album with his band Sugar). Beauty & Ruin is an extension of that revived artistic spirit. “Low Season” opens the album with a slow, menacing build up to a massive, pummeling dirge, an assurance, in its way, that Mould’s clear contentment doesn’t mean he’s going to abandon grim, complicated emotions in his music.

Across the whole album, Mould offers a survey of just about everything he can do. There’s the Sugar-style hard candy gloss of “I Don’t Know You Anymore” (surely the echo of Sugar’s “Can’t Help You Anymore” is intentional) and the chipper assault of “Hey Mr. Grey” (“Life used to be so hard/ Well, get off my yard”). “Kid with Crooked Face” comes close to scratching that old Hüsker itch, while “Let The Beauty Be” has a bit of the stripped-down Workbook magic. There are even a few electronic blips coloring the fringes of songs, though anything that recalls the ill-advised Modulate can be taken as much as a threat as anything (usually the electronic tinkering quickly gives way to a blast of guitars, as if old Uncle Bob is showing that he didn’t liberate the listener’s nose from their noggin after all). Then there’s “The War,” which plays like the quintessential Mould song–driving beat, buzzing guitars, piercing vocals, pointed lyrics about a lingering sense of betrayal–and yet feels strikingly new, a two-handed reclamation of the past as a means to moving forward. When he sings, “Listen to my voice/ It’s the only weapon I kept from the war,” its as bruising and truthful as any crushing blow.

If the Ruin, defying intuition, could be seen in youth, then it stands to reason the Beauty is found in a time of, let’s say, more advance years. That doesn’t seem quite right, though. Instead, Mould’s latest album finds its clarity in a different thesis. There is, Mould musically argues, Beauty in the Ruin. One just has to look. Or listen.