When you go to a Taking Back Sunday show, watching the microphone cord is 90 percent of the reason you’re there.
For those in the mid-to-late-twentysomething class of music fans, seeing frontman Adam Lazzara wrap himself in the electrical wiring of his audio equipment is something of a pilgrimage. A sold-out show at Emo’s on Friday night indicated that, though the emo heydey has passed, many are still keeping the faith.
Leading off with a recent track like “Flicker, Fade” and a shout-along favorite like “What’s It Feel Like To Be a Ghost?” heralded the mix of night’s setlist, which found the sweet spot between new and old. That mix, in turn, almost seemed like a metaphor for the evening as a whole. The band delivered a mature, professional, basically antic-free set, but that solidity struck a contrast with the youthful overreaction of songs like “You’re So Last Summer.” (That’s inevitable when you’re singing songs about things that happened to you when you were twenty and flat-ironed your hair.)
However, the word-for-word devotion of the crowd girded the set with sheer volume and raw-throated catharsis. Every sweaty fan with an Emo’s wristband deserved a tour credit for their stereophonic backup singing of all the well-tread lyrics: “And will you tell all your friends/you’ve got your gun to my head.”
Lazzara — no longer the floppy locked, spastic heartthrob of the “MakeDamnSure” video — seems to have comfortably settled into a more subtle, daresay adult mode of his signature flamboyance, somewhere between particularly genteel carnival barker and silver-tongued revivalist. As always, the limp-wristed singer jerked around like a velociraptor consumed with the Holy Spirit, flicking his hands to and fro to punctuate his most trenchant angst on songs like “You Know How I Do.” He propelled the mic free from its stand in earnest for “Liar (It Takes One To Know One),” giving the black cord a couple good flights around his neck. No full-body tangles this time, but hey, the man has kids now. He’s got to be a little more careful. (As a consolation: A clumsy semi-headstand during a raucous “Error: Operator.”)
The Friday night emo jukebox took a breather for a moment toward the end of the set proper for a little melancholy musing. Lazzara waxed about his time spent living in Texas — getting a dog, a motorcycle and a few guns — and broached the subject of regret with a sad “No one is perfect.” The awkward silence that followed perfectly introduced the brutal “Better Homes and Gardens,” a song off of last year’s “Happiness Is” that’s not hard to read as a response to the singer’s broken engagement to Texas gal and Eisley sister Chauntelle DuPree.
The efficient, 2015 version of Taking Back Sunday let comfort reign. The fans, like their fearless pop-punk leader, have had to settle into more adult modes of their own flamboyance as they’ve grown up. Now, they save their moshing for Taking Back Sunday concerts at Emo’s on a Friday night, where they can let loose a pre-encore chant of “Ten more songs!” and end their night with a communal hymn like “Cute Without the ‘E’ (Cut From the Team).”
The crowd, lingering in the parking lot until told to disperse, seemed glad they followed that flying microphone for the night.
Since becoming widely known in the 1980s for his season-themed suites, George Winston has always been associated with the piano. It remains his primary instrument, evident from the full-size Steinway grand that took up most of the stage at One World Theatre Wednesday in the first show of a two-night stand at the unique west Austin venue.
For some, though, it was a surprise when he ended the first set by switching to guitar. Winston is specifically drawn to slack key, a Hawaiian style that involves open-tuning the strings more loosely than usual. Winston credited slack key pioneer Leonard Kwan specifically for his influence before launching into a thoroughly enjoyable tune called “Sassy.”
More evidence of Winston’s range was found between sets at the merchandise table, which was manned by a representative of the Capital Area Food Bank in accordance with Winston’s gracious donation of all his merch proceeds to a local charity at each of his tour stops. We picked up a recent collection titled “Harmonica Solos,” not being previously aware that Winston also played harmonica.
As for his piano playing, Winston remains a master of both tone and invention. Starting with a bluesy tune inspired by Professor Longhair — Winston’s most recent albums have included two Gulf Coast-inspired collections — he proceeded through seasonal favorites “Rain” (from 1982’s “Winter Into Spring”) and “Woods” (from 1980’s “Autumn”). On the latter, he created remarkable “hollowed” sounds to some notes by reaching inside the piano and muting strings with one hand while striking keys with the other.
He also paid tribute to the great Vince Guaraldi, legendary for his “Peanuts” theme music, with a medley of “Air Music” and “Rain Rain Go Away,” both of which are included on Winston’s 2010 second volume of Guaraldi tunes. It’s easy to see why Guaraldi was such a good fit for Charles Schulz’s comic characters, as Winston’s empathetic playing brought out the playful-yet-wistful spirit of the compositions.
Conflicting obligations kept us from staying for the second set, but even an hour of George Winston was time well spent at one of Austin’s most creatively designed listening spaces. (No photos were allowed during the performance, thus the shot included here of just Winston’s piano a few minutes before the show.)
“The show that wouldn’t end!” an audience member exclaimed in the lobby of the Paramount Theatre about a minute shy of midnight Tuesday, just after the second annual Ameripolitan Music Awards show had in fact finally ended. At nearly four hours, it was indeed an endurance test, but those in the mostly-full theater appreciated the spirit of the event, which was clearly a labor of love for those involved.
Ringleader Dale Watson, decked out head to toe in a sparkling suit, welcomed special honorees including guitarist James Burton and rockabilly trio High Noon for a night of performances and award presentations with emcees Elizabeth Cook and Mojo Nixon of Sirius XM satellite radio.
Nearly all of the dozen-plus performances were kept to one song per artist. Early highlights included an appearance by Johnny Bush on what was, coincidentally, his 80th birthday, and honky-tonk category nominees Amber Digby and James Hand, both of whom subsequently were announced as winners of the female and male honky-tonk categories. (It became clear that a performance was a likely hint that an artist would win, to the point that California singer Big Sandy joked after performing later on, “I might be back!” – and indeed his band the Fly-Rite Boys did win for rockabilly group.)
A potentially major downer came just before intermission when Billy Joe Shaver, one of two Founder of the Sound recipients, was a no-show; Watson said that Shaver had the flu. But Shaver’s pal Joe Ely saved the day, accepting the award on his behalf and also delivering a beautiful rendition of Shaver’s classic tune “Live Forever.” Lawyer Dick DeGuerin, who represented Shaver a few years ago in his court battle over a bar shooting, also came onstage during the acceptance and got in the best line of the night: “The only outlaw musician who’s ever been declared not guilty is Billy Joe Shaver.”
A certain amount of disorder ran through the evening, with minor mishaps at times (such as rockabilly male winner James Intveld’s name being misspelled on the giant screen). Nixon, dressed comically in a loud red jacket and shorts, was partly responsible for steering things sideways; his shtick was entertaining at first but wore thin with the crowd after a while, to the point that his victory in the Ameripolitan DJ category seemed not quite well-received. Perhaps the audience would have preferred the award go to co-host Cook, who valiantly did her best throughout the night to keep things on track.
A surprise highlight of the show’s second half was the inclusion of two Canadian acts, Vancouver rockabilly singer Paul Pigat and the Ontario band Western Swing Authority. Both acts beamed brightly in their one-song spotlight, as did Minnesota honky-tonk nominees the Cactus Blossoms. None won, which suggested Ameripolitan voters lean toward Southern and Western acts. (Winners were exclusively from Texas, Los Angeles and Nashville.)
A sentimental favorite among the award-winners was Nashville fiddler Kenny Sears, whose wife Dawn Sears won in the western swing category at last year’s inaugural Ameripolitan Awards. She died of lung cancer in December at age 53, and though her husband wasn’t at the Paramount last night, he taped an acceptance video in which he spoke lovingly about the recognition given to his wife in 2014. “You are making a difference in keeping the real music alive,” he told the crowd.
But the night’s true MVP was the backing band. Though they somehow didn’t get credited in the otherwise helpful 12-page program booklet, they kept the show rolling the entire night, providing tasteful and professional backup for every act, including Founder of the Sound honoree James Burton’s extended slot to close the show. A tip of the hat, then, to guitarist Redd Volkaert, pianist Earle Poole Ball, fiddler Jason Roberts, pedal steel player Don Pawlak, upright bassist Chris Crepps and drummer Mike Bernal.
Honky Tonk Female: Amber Digby (The Woodlands)
Honky Tonk Male: James Hand (West)
Honky Tonk Group: The Derailers (Austin)
Outlaw Female: Sarah Gayle Meech (Nashville)
Outlaw Male: Jesse Dayton (Austin)
Outlaw Group: Freightshakers (Los Angeles)
Western Swing Female: Elana James (Austin)
Western Swing Male: Bobby Flores (San Antonio)
Western Swing Group: Hot Club of Cowtown (Austin)
Rockabilly Female: Kim Lenz (Los Angeles)
Rockabilly Male: James Intveld (Los Angeles)
Rockabilly Group: Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys (Los Angeles)
Ralph Mooney Musician Award: Kenny Sears (Nashville)
Ameripolitan Venue: Continental Club (Austin)
Ameripolitan Festival: Legends of Western Swing (Wichita Falls)
Ameripolitan DJ: Mojo Nixon
Founders of the Sound: Billy Joe Shaver and James Burton
By 9:30 p.m. on Friday night the line to get into C-Boys on South Congress stretched down a full city block. The show featuring Leon Bridges, the 25-year-old Fort Worth soul phenom who just signed to Colombia Records was sold out and doors wouldn’t open til 10 p.m. Inside the club 30 minutes later I staked out a spot by the front of the stage, a move that would turn out to be the best decision of the night. The main room of C-Boys is long and narrow and the stage is set low. With a packed house sight lines were obscured, but I had no idea a chattering crowd was ruining the experience for many true music enthusiasts halfway back until after the show. Where I stood the audience was rapt, hypnotized by Bridges’ silky soul.
Wearing an over-sized, checkered blazer and a polka dot necktie and playing with an eight-piece ensemble whose sound beds seem transported from the late fifties, early sixties, it is easy to lump Bridges in with the retro-soul revival movement that has been all the rage ever since the Dap Tones teamed up with Sharon Jones 15 years ago. But two things are striking about Bridges. First, his voice — he sings with a rare and beautiful golden tone, rich with emotion. Second, his authenticity. Bridges is not a flashy performer. He didn’t spend a lot of time on stage banter and his dancing was minimal. Occasionally he rose to his toes or floated his hands by his face, moving with swells of emotion. But it didn’t matter. Everything he sang was a transmission straight from the heart.
Likewise his songs are simple, but they tell beautiful stories. He played old school blues for his grandparents in New Orleans, and his description of his mother “Lisa Sawyer’s” baptism in a river was an incredibly compelling testimonial of Christian salvation. The song “In My Arms” tells the story of a wayward paramour and the underlying sentiment “If you see her, tell her there is room for her in my arms,” was delivered with heart wrenching sincerity. You could call his sound a throwback and you wouldn’t be wrong, but timeless is a better word.
Bridges is currently on his first nationwide tour and shows are rapidly selling out. By the time he returns to Austin for South by Southwest the buzz around him will likely be thunderous. That’s a lot of pressure for a young artist who currently has only two Soundcloud streams to his name, but he has truth on his side and in an industry built on glitter and gloss the depth of his substance should count for a lot.
Everything about Allen Touissaint was magic, from his sparkling white suit to his sandals.
Playing classic original songs, telling vivid stories about his childhood, tossing Mardi Gras keepsakes to the crowd, and even inviting audience members onstage to sit in with him, the New Orleans legend’s show of nearly two hours at the Paramount Theatre Saturday night provided many moments of bliss, as a friend put it afterward.
Those who came to hear Toussaint staples such as “Sneaking Sally Through the Alley,” “Working in a Coal Mine” and “Yes We Can Can” got their wishes, and so much more. As much an extraordinary piano player as he is a genius songwriter, Toussaint tipped his hand early on an exquisite rendition of the blues standard “St. James Infirmary” before pulling out all the stops later in a 10-minute instrumental excursion that incorporated snippets of everything from “Edelweiss” to “Chopsticks.” He explained simply at the end: “That’s who I am.”
He’s also an entertainer of the first order, which is why it worked when he cooked up something as goofy as leaving the piano midsong during “Mr. Mardi Gras” and having the sound engineer continue the tune with a recorded version. This allowed Toussaint freedom to roam the stage lip with a bag full of goodies for the crowd: beads, masks, mini-footballs and even flying discs that he managed to propel to the Paramount’s upper balcony.
Everything led up to Toussaint’s trademark long and winding ramble about growing up in Louisiana as he played the mesmerizing riff to “Southern Nights,” which strikes a much deeper chord in its author’s hands than it did on Glen Campbell’s streamlined pop-smash version. Toussaint appreciates both, as he made clear by following with a reprise that hewed close to Campbell’s arrangement.
That could have been the end, but Toussaint returned for a 10-minute encore during which he asked, “Who are the piano players in the house?” Eventually a couple of crowd members shuffled toward the stage. Both got their chance to sit on the piano bench with Toussaint and knock out some licks, earning a lifetime memory.
Perhaps the most moving moment of the night was, ironically, when Toussaint turned toward another artist’s song, paying tribute to the late Jesse Winchester with an incomparably beautiful reading of “I Wave Bye Bye.” Winchester passed away last April at age 69.
Toussaint turned 77 earlier this month. Introducing “Southern Nights,” he spoke fondly of “growing up in New Orleans, where I was born, and will die.”
Pausing a moment at that reality, he quickly reassured the audience: “But not soon.”
And then the graceful Southern gentleman apologized, in song, to anyone who can truly say that they have found a better way.
A fair and mild Sunday evening on the Belmont’s outdoor stage served as a perfect setting for the final stop in a monthlong U.S. tour by the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra, a 10-piece ensemble from New Zealand featuring nine ukulele players and a bassist. Yes, nine ukulele players, dressed in all manner of attention-getting apparel, from colorful spandex to shiny shoulder pads to a self-described “bedspread onesie.”
Playing two sets of about 45 minutes each, the group brought broad smiles to a crowd of a couple hundred that’s likely to grow significantly if and when they make another journey halfway around the globe. Mixing numbers largely obscure to those not from Down Under with a handful of universal classic such as Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” they put on an entertaining show that depended equally on musical performances and humorous asides.
Examples of the latter: One member mentioned that you can buy their songs on YouTube — “oh, I mean iTunes,” she corrected. At which point another member apologized for the confusion, explaining that “we only just got the internet in New Zealand.” Some jokes were a bit more risque, such as when they referred to their weekend visit to the University of North Texas and their temptation to pull out a sharpie whenever they passed a “UNT” sign. (“It’s a term of endearment where we’re from,” they assured.)
Musically, while covers such as Bonnie Tyler’s “It’s a Heartache” and Outkast’s “Hey Ya” connected with immediacy, the most rewarding number was a more obscure tune, fellow New Zealander David Kilgour’s “Today Is Gonna Be Mine,” which concluded the show. The indie-pop song translated well to ukulele, but mostly it was carried by the overlapping vocal parts delivered by a 10-voice chorus, floating high into the sky toward a blanket of moon and stars above the Belmont.
In an Austin Music Hall set that ran just over 100 minutes, Jack White praised Jesus, winked at Satan, covered Hank Williams and obliterated the audience with a barrage of guts and glory guitar work. With his astonishingly adept drummer Daru Jones banging up a righteous fury on the frontline, White’s set drew liberally from the White Stripes’ catalog. He opened with a furious take on “Dead Leaves on the Dirty Ground” and closed with a ballistic rendition of “Seven Nation Army” that brought down the house.
Though White has evolved into one of our generation’s great musical minds and he was a commanding conductor of a full ensemble with bass, keys, fiddle, lap steel, theremin and more, the primal interplay of the drums and guitar remains his signature strength. He throttled the audience with distorted growls and ear piercing squeals as the sold out crowd screamed for more and more. In a city that worships at the unholy altar of guitar, Jack White swept in with the energy of a unhinged evangelist and took us to church.
A consummate performer, White opened by calling Austin “easily one of the best cities in the country,” then went on to shout Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, dedicating an extended rendition of the White Stripes’ “Hotel Yorba” to the King of Western swing, who he said “changed American culture for the better.” He slyly slipped in a McConaughey quote, “Alright, alright, alright,” and brought local guitar great Charlie Sexton out to swap blistering licks in a climactic moment near the end of the set.
His color scheme du jour is blue and the stage lights alternated between a cool wash, a blinding blue backlight and a staccato strobe.His musicians were clothed in blue and black and White himself wore a blue button down shirt with black suspenders and trousers. His black hair flopped on his face in an unruly mop. A friend described his overall look as “hillbilly, goth Elvis.”
Though the entire performance moved at a high octane pace there were slower moments. White set his inner honky tonker free on numbers like “Just One Drink” and the aforementioned Hank Williams song “You Know that I Know” (which felt like a sideways jab at his ex-wife). The crowd went wild when he played “Lazaretto” his most recent radio hit and the title track of his 2014 album, but the White Stripes songs got the biggest rise.
70 minutes in he took an interlude and cheering for an encore the crowd started singing “Seven Man Army” in unison. When White returned with a blasting out “Icky Thump” they went nuts. He indulged the nostalgia, but the songs revisited with full band arrangements still felt fresh and vital. And White’s intensity is striking. He’s a well known retro revivalist — White’s Third Man Records pumps out more vinyl than anyone on the planet and cell phones was strictly banned at the show, but he’s also one of the most forward thinking musicians working today. He plays guitar not only like his life depends on it, but like the future of music depends on it. And who know, maybe it does.
The British singer-songwriter, playing to a sold-out crowd at Austin Music Hall, fully gave his performance over to contrasts both visual and aural Friday night. For example: It took at least four songs until Howard rose from a crouched sitting position. The lights behind the singer’s five-person band alternated from spastically blinking floodlights chasing after each other to sudden, sharp cuts to black. But most notably, every single song seemed to build from the ground-up into a clattering crescendo.
Take a mid-set performance of Howard’s latest single, the Ryan-Adams-spirited “I Forget Where We Were”: Start low, melancholy, intimate. Percolate to a whirlwind of melting guitar reverb and crashing drums. So it was throughout the set. (If you like Explosions In the Sky, you would not have been disappointed.)
It’s fitting that Howard peddled such dynamic contrasts all evening, as anyone more familiar with his 2011 album “Every Kingdom” (which went double platinum in the U.K.) would have noticed that the “Only Love” singer was drawing a musical line in the sand. The acoustic campfire bro jams of his debut album (pleasant as though they may be) gave way to the dark, taut, mysterious rock of last year’s “I Forget Where We Were,” and that tonal shift hung over the show like a stormcloud. From the opening Spaghetti Western strings of “Small Things,” with a tousle-headed Howard illuminated in a rainbow corona by the spotlight behind him but otherwise cloaked in shadow and smoke, the mood never ticked up past “conflicted and compelling sorrow.”
Gloomy, menacing new songs like “End of the Affair,” dripping in echoes, upright bass rumbles and spacey guitars, seemed to suck jaunty tunes like “The Fear” into themselves like the Swamp of Sadness from “The NeverEnding Story.” When Howard did play older songs, it was nothing so hopeful as “Keep Your Head Up,” but instead “Black Flies.” (I don’t need to append a modifier to a song called “Black Flies” to let you know that it’s not a cheerful song.) Howard even played the opening chords of warm-and-fuzzy “Old Pine” before that number, in a fakeout that no doubt dashed many hopes in the crowd.
Howard himself maintained a friendly remove, not given to banter but instead giving the impression of a green-T-shirted yogi in intense meditation. Speaking of dynamics — or singing of dynamics, rather — Howard’s vocals perfectly complemented his own sonic dichotomies, splintering from his signature twangy mutter on quieter moments into a sharp, incisive, forte cry.
It was the pleasant, mumbly Howard who returned to the stage after a stomping demand from the audience for an encore. He barely got out the words “We’ve kind of run out of songs” before the crowd erupted; you can’t just leave out a couple of your best-known tunes and not expect that kind of reaction. With a nimble-fingered, acoustic coda and a humble bow to the happy campers filling the hall, it seemed like the ray of sunlight peeking out after a fascinating thunderstorm.
This was 2014 in music: Punk rock about gender identity. Americana folk from Sweden. The biggest pop smash of the year, from a former country ingenue. In wrapping up the year’s mainstream and indie releases, I don’t want to inadvertently slight the best Norwegian black metal or Andean pan flute albums of the year. So instead, here are Austin360’s 50 Albums Worth Listening To, for one reason or another. (I did listen to loads of non-pan-flute tunes this year.)
This is just a sampling of the tunes that 2014 produced. Your list of favorites might be different; I hope it is. But maybe you’ll find something new to listen to among the feminist punks and the Canadian indie stalwarts and the emo standard-bearers who put out dang good records in 2014.
50. Parquet Courts – “Sunbathing Animal”
A rock album for rock aficianados — equal parts suburban garage and surf shack — all strung (out) together by Andrew Savage’s righteously atonal middle-finger vocals.
49. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – “Piñata”
Lived-in stories and detailed flow from Gibbs and calm, cool, collected beats from Madlib make for something that’s missing from the radio.
48. Todd Terje – “It’s Album Time”
Easy breezy dance fuel from the Norwegian DJ somehow exudes slyness without many vocal tracks. It’s “Copacabana” set in the world of “Tron.”
47. Sylvan Esso – “Sylvan Esso”
Give a synthesizer and take an African drum, and the fluid, experimental pop of songs like “Hey Mami” sounds like a Tune-Yards that you don’t have to pretend to like.
46. Sun Kil Moon – “Benji”
Easily one of the most dire, smile-withering, joy-immolating collection of lyrics of 2014, but no other album packaged nihilism as pretty, acoustic entertainment. Bonus: “Benji”also contains the most loving, curmudgeonly, sax-filled song about The Postal Service singer Ben Gibbard ever recorded.
45. White Lung – “Deep Fantasy”
A little morally outraged punk never hurt anyone who didn’t deserve hurting. The Canadian band’s third LP is hard, charismatic and reaches out from your speakers to slap you silly.
44. Dum Dum Girls – “Too True”
The kind of doom-soaked guitar pop that makes you instinctively reach for the eyeliner and dust off your Chris Isaak CD. Remarkably captures what it must feel like to wear all black all the time in Los Angeles.
43. The World Is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid To Die – “Between Bodies”
The post-rock-embracing emo army followed up last year’s perfect “Whenever, If Ever” with an album that trades a few of the chest-filling guitar crescendos for spoken word interstitials. At its best, it feels like a good ol’ fashioned hardcore rant.
42. How To Dress Well – “What Is This Heart?”
On the song “Repeat Pleasure,” Tom Krell’s falsetto and a crispy guitar solo give a generation raised on boy bands the indie rock R&B jam they’ve been waiting for their whole lives.
41. Bombay Bicycle Club – “So Long, See You Tomorrow”
The English indie band is remarkably deft at making music that answers the question “What if Sigur Ros recorded songs that were for humans instead of humpback whales?” And so it is on their fourth album.
40. Foster the People – “Supermodel”
The Los Angeles band with prodigious pop sensibilities calls upon psychedelic sounds for a second outing that seems equally critical of and embedded in Los Angeles self-absorption.
39. Tinashe – “Aquarius”
Back-to-front R&B luxury with intimidating stylistic unity — perfectly at home with the Top 40 but with an added haze of otherworldliness. There’s a Dev Hynes feature by the second track; that’s all you need to know.
38. Stars – “No One Is Lost”
The Canadian indie band behind “Set Yourself On Fire” is still around and still writes slightly ominous, smiling-before-falling-down-an-elevator-shaft melodies and still makes tone-setting dialogue samples sound good. Now with a little disco!
37. Temples – “Sun Structures”
The guitars sound like sitars, and James Edward Bagshaw’s vocal track is beamed in from a distant, fuzzy, LSD-soaked dimension. In some hands, such a slavish recreation of 1960s trip-rock would come across like one of so many label-signed Doors emulators. Here, it’s exciting.
36. Betty Who – “Take Me When You Go”
Its impact softened a bit by a two-EP warm-up lap, viral Robyn-enthusiast Betty Who’s debut LP deserves credit for entering the world as an instant cult album. Though the Internet’s power to create celebrities is ultimately imprecise, every now and then you get a sweetly campy, cynicism-free pop artist capable of wistful gems like “Somebody Loves You” out of the mix.
35. Copeland – “Ixora”
Six years after every church kid’s favorite rainy day band broke up, Copeland came back in 2014 with another helping of piano-driven laments. Whether singing about lost love, rapturous love or conflicted love, Aaron Marsh and his nature metaphors make it all sound like the most urgent thing in the world: “Your voice is fading, I call your name/‘cause I’m still here, and the only thing that’s left for me is listening/It’s the only way I make it through the night.”
34. This Will Destroy You – “Another Language”
Another slice of gorgeous, clattering, solemn instrumentals from San Marcos’ heroes of dynamics, peppered with a little feedback to get things interesting.
33. Caribou – “Our Love”
Dan Snaith’s kaleidoscopic album covers are visual metaphors for their contents. In this case, “Our Love” is wrapped in a colorful fractal of catwalk synths, skittering beats and interstellar sonic sheen. (But don’t forget the flute on “Mars.” There’s no flute like a space flute.)
32. Jessie Ware – “Tough Love”
The great thing about British chanteuse Ware is that her musical M.O. is so tailored for her powerfully breathy voice (or vice versa) that she can’t truly misfire within her neo-R&B wheelhouse. This year she built on the satin soul of debut “Devotion” with even more Sade-style ballads that make you visualize Elizabeth Taylor’s “White Diamonds” commercial.
31. La Roux – “Trouble In Paradise”
Step 1: Give the “Bulletproof” singer’s new album a courtesy listen on new music day. Step 2: Delight in the winking, smartly tropical earworms contained within. Step 3: Sing “Sexotheque” under your breath to no one in particular for the rest of the year.
30. Modern Baseball – “You’re Gonna Miss It All”
Disaffected and full of ill attitude, “You’re Gonna Miss It All” is ostensibly a pop-punk record, but it seems like that would require more energy than these kids are willing to expend. Perfectly messy singalong choruses speak to the dirtbag within us all: “To hell with the spins, I’m staying/There’s no good reason why I should leave your bed tomorrow/We can watch ‘Planet Earth’ and brainstorm tattoos.”
29. Alvvays – “Alvvays”
From the school of Best Coast and Beach House come the tight, surfy tunes that college radio dreams are made of. The Canadian band’s “Archie, Marry Me” could have been an American standard for the past 50 years, and the sweetly naive “Party Police” tugs on all kinds of aches.
28. Wye Oak – “Shriek”
In its most shining moments, Baltimore band Wye Oak’s “Shriek” sounds like the St. Vincent that St. Vincent was before she dyed her hair gray. In its very best moment — the urgent, dangerous, commanding “Glory,” one of the best tracks of the year — Wye Oak is addictive and leaves you badly needing a fix.
27. Phantogram – “Voices”
With richly textured beats, shimmering synths and gorgeously ethereal vocals, New York duo Phantogram is your one-stop shop. Songs like “Fall In Love” are rapturous, and “Voices” is that album you quietly come back to again and again.
26. Strange Talk – “Cast Away”
There is a very particular breed of electro-pop that eschews things like subtle sonic layering and cerebral pondering without being so cynical as to consciously make “an ‘80s album,” whatever that means in these days of Taylor Swift. Australia’s Strange Talk is that type of guileless dance facilitator. Dancefloor playlists need Golden Retrievers capable of songs like “Cast Away.”
25. Hurray For the Riff Raff – “Small Town Heroes”
Alynda Lee Segarra’s voice is leather and smoke on a folk-blues album that alternately vibrates with New York energy and drifts in Deep South hard times.
24. Real Estate – “Atlas”
New Jersey’s Real Estate understands that chill does not have to mean bland or boring, and because of that, the distilled guitar rock pleasantry of “Atlas” sneaks up on the unsuspecting. Just as languid summer days can be the best memories, so can songs like “Talking Backwards” root themselves in your good graces.
23. First Aid Kit – “Stay Gold”
Don’t know if everyone got the memo, but Simon and Garfunkel are Swedish sisters in floppy hats and sundresses now. Cast off the chains of Mumford and return to the something that resembles the folk music of yore, like the weeping strings and prettily hardscrabble perseverance of “My Silver Lining.”
22. Angel Olsen – “Burn Your Fire For No Witness”
Names like David Lynch, Patsy Cline and Roy Orbison kept coming up this year in reviews of Olsen’s second album, and they’re apt associations. “Burn Your Fire For No Witness” is Spaghetti Western of the heart, a dangerous and surreal dustland of romantic shootouts where Olsen is bleeding right out onto the track even when she shoots to kill: “I want the best for you/So I won’t look your way.”
21. Ryan Adams – “Ryan Adams”
Ryan gets it. That Springsteeny voice, those wah-wah riffs, that complete occupation of the singer-songwriter mileu: This is why people like Ryan Adams music, and aptly, his self-titled album is the fine-tuning of his science. No more so is this apparent than on “Kim,” which feels like it’s been one of your favorite songs since you were a kid.
20. Sharon Van Etten – “Are We There”
A selection from the most sternum-cracking, knock-the-wind-out-of-you sad song of the year: “Break my legs so I won’t run to you/Cut my tongue so I won’t talk to you/Burn my skin so I can’t feel you/Stab my eyes so I can’t see.” We will all need a song like “Your Love Is Killing Me” at some point. It’s just a matter of time.
19. FKA twigs – “LP1”
“LP1” does not play. It prowls. Every ecstatic gasp from Tahliah Barnett pursues the listener with sensual, graphic detail. Built on a backbone of industrial sound, it’s an adrenaline-pumping, frank, subversive art project. To provide a sample lyric would just highlight that the best lines are unprintable.
18. D’Angelo and the Vanguard – “Black Messiah”
The neo-soul statesman pulled this year’s Beyonce and dropped a instantly critically cherished musical surprise in the middle of December. So, that said, further listens will likely pave the way for a hindsight rank bump. But as it stands: “Black Messiah” gives the people the baby-making music that they’ve wanted, but it’s ripped-from-the-headlines songs like “The Charade” that they should stay for.
17. Dan Croll – “Sweet Disarray”
Unassuming former rugby player and nightclub doorman Croll plays stylistic Frankenstein to buoyantly likeable results: the island shimmer of the “Compliment Your Soul,” the sweeping lullaby of the title track, the soothing soul of “Must Be Leaving,” the Japanese pop sheen of “In/Out” and many more.
16. Eagulls – “Eagulls”
If I want to pretend I’m spraypainting a half-demolished brick wall in Leeds with anti-Thatcher slogans, my options for fresh material in 2014 are slim and select. Luckily, on Eagulls’ debut LP, George Mitchell has perfected a familiar, nasal bray, which happens to join perfectly with shaggy guitars and ricocheting drums so fresh out the garage that they still have motor oil on them.
15. Taylor Swift – “1989”
We all get it. Taylor pulled off her big genre trick like David Copperfield by way of Nashville. Divorced from grand Pop Cultural Analysis, here’s the truth of the year of Swift: “1989” is a most excellent pop album. It’s wall-to-wall singles, all of which hit the mark on hooks and self-awareness, and it feels like the collection of songs you can easily fill a Most Played playlist with, or scratch up a CD with, or wear out a cassette with. In fifty years, I eagerly await “Shake It Off” setting the scene in 2014 period films.
14. The War On Drugs – “Lost In the Dream”
If Tom Petty isn’t going to sound like Tom Petty anymore, someone has to. Adam Granduciel and The War On Drugs put their own shoegazey spin on the master of fringe-jacket twirls’ signature sound. Meandering, smoky and smiling with lingering memory of a hell of a night, it’s the perfect soundtrack laying in a sunlight-streaked bed after for a month-long bender. At least, one would suppose.
13. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – “Days of Abandon”
The sunny power-poppers pulled off the game of musical contradiction better than most, with an album of hopefully unbridled, buoyant chimes pairing romantically anguished lyrics about girls with sunken eyes sucking filters (“When we came together, I took it all too far/Barricade the bedroom, let me drown in your arms”), as well as a relentlessly cheerful ditty about masochism. Also, it’s got a beat, and you can dance to it.
12. Against Me! – “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”
Nothing galvanizes your gut like a shot of truth, and Laura Jane Grace and her Against Me! bandmates kicked the year off right with a heady dose of the stuff. Not the first band you would expect to plant its flag in the zeitgeist of recent years, the Florida anarcho-punks channeled Grace’s life experiences as a transgender woman into a vital, peerlessly energizing moment. The relief, anger and wistfulness leaps out of the speakers: “You want them to notice/The ragged ends of your summer dress/You want them to see you/Like they see every other girl.” Bonus: It is most excellent moshing music.
11. Charli XCX – “Sucker”
Not to return to the T-Swift well so soon, but it’s a helpful, red-lipped reference point. Imagine a world where the sneering, smirking petulance manifestos of Charli XCX are the radio hits and BuzzFeed listicle inspirations and Tumblr lyric wellsprings that the tunes of “1989” are in reality. The rhino-sized EDM builds and guitar-kissed dancefloor brattiness of “Break the Rules” and the rapturously, optimistically romantic mash note of “Boom Clap” are just as calibrated for peak crowd-pleasing as Swift’s songs, but Charli’s winking at everyone’s inner hedonist all along the way.
10. Run the Jewels – “Run the Jewels 2”
In a year without a “Yeezus,” this was the hyper-aggressive, hyper-stylish, profanely witty, id satisfying rap album that everyone could agree on. The second outing of Killer Mike and El-P’s collaboration turns hip hop braggadocio into a technicolor Looney Tune, so steeped in jargon that it builds its own universe ripe for fan obsession. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to run them jewels fast.
9. Future Islands – “Singles”
Drenched in SXSW and Letterman-granted buzz and riding the power of spring smash “Seasons (Waiting On You),” Baltimore’s Future Islands ruled the roost for a stretch in 2014. The resonant, synth-laced rock of “Singles” is wholly dependent on Samuel T. Herring’s growling, muscular performances, which could grab the lyrics on a Britney Spears album and command them to speak emotional truth. Though Future Islands is certainly a band best experienced in person, “Singles” delivers off-kilter body-movers with a mad glint of brilliance.
8. Cheatahs – “Cheatahs”
Cheatahs’ self-titled LP does absolutely nothing to reinvent the My Bloody Valentine wheel. No, it sits on top of that wheel, grabs you as it’s steamrolling through the record store and rides the momentum through a wall of “Empire Records” and “My So-Called Life” DVDs. Its Gen X time-capsule feeling captures that displaced nostalgia for people who were just a little too young to enjoy it on the first go-around. This is the fuzzy shoegaze album that sounded most like a speaker dropping on top of your head in 2014.
7. The Hotelier – “Home, Like Noplace Is There”
Rare is the introduction to a book that I will actually read. Rarer still is the introduction track to an album (usually a superfluous instrumental) that I won’t skip. But I will never, ever skip the “An Introduction to the Album” from The Hotelier’s “Home, Like Noplace Is There,” because it is a functional, simmering thesis for what blossoms into a lovingly wrought pop-punk primer on loss and failure. Gut-wrenched cries, ten-dollar vocabulary words and a slightly untidy approach to the tight, driving guitar-and-drums sound genre fans expect underscore love letters to all manner of utter relationship failure. The album’s money line, “I called in sick from your funeral” on “Your Deep Rest,” knocks wind out on every chorus.
6. Tove Lo – “Queen of the Clouds”
Sexy really works better when it’s weird, too. Proving once more that we should cede all pop star production to our betters in Sweden, Tove Lo’s unsettling, gleeful “Queen of the Clouds” insinuates itself under listeners’ skin with explicit lyrical oddities and brain-staining hooks. It’s a lot harder to get a song out of your head if it makes you constantly exclaim “WAIT, WHAT” as you’re listening. A little discomfitting territory staking on “Like Em Young,” a little gloating powerplay on “Gun” (“Last night, you were/Who you prefer, because of me/Wake up, messed up/But you’re still happy as can be”) and the most self-aware, profane deployment of heartwarming self-esteem in recent memory on “Moments,” and you’ve got yourself the type of album destined to become idiosyncratically beloved.
5. You Blew It! – “Keep Doing What You’re Doing”
If you want to hear what the lineage of Sunny Day Real Estate has to offer 20 years later, Orlando quintet You Blew It! hit a hole-in-one for the genre on their sophomore swing. Depending on whether you think emo needed legitimizing to begin with (it didn’t), “Keep Doing What You’re Doing” is a highly visible statement for a branch of rock that can only benefit from big, shameless noise that’s as far away from the shopping mall as possible. With the kind of ambling fluidity that marks American Football as a touchstone but also surging with melodic hardcore propulsion, You Blew It! doesn’t dare think about abandoning the shout-along, literate one-liners: “You can always consider me a friend, just strictly in the past tense.”
4. Cloud Nothings – “Here and Nowhere Else”
One of the things I love the most about Cloud Nothings’ fourth album is that they positioned “I’m Not Part of Me” — the album’s lead single and also the track most likely to hoist your fist aloft in a fit of scummy, triumphant rock glory — right in the very last slot. As a result, anyone giving “Here and Nowhere Else” a first spin will ideally first hear seven other rollicking slices of diffused electricity ruminating on themes of trust and wholeness. Rather, the lack thereof, given Dylan Baldi’s musings on compartmentalized feelings and what it means to be entangled in someone. Fitting, then, that “Here and Nowhere Else” would feel so complete, both as parts and as a sum.
3. St. Vincent – “St. Vincent”
Forget the Lannisters or the Baratheons: St. Vincent, occupying a throne that would make James T. Kirk proud on the cover of her self-titled fourth album, has figured the game out. Pulsing with robotic guitar riffs, bleeps, bloops, feedback and the Martian indifference of Clark’s woozy lilt, “St. Vincent” is an impeccable collection of interstellar witchcraft. The Texas native’s musical soul-bond with David Byrne seems to have latched on like a Xenomorph facehugger; the placid weirdness of St. Vincent’s previous solo albums bursts out into the open with funky, groovy confidence here. The scathing cultural criticism of tracks like “Digital Witness” may make for some cerebral songs, but they also bring much needed arthouse insanity to the dancefloor.
2. The New Pornographers – “Brill Bruisers”
In a statement ahead of the release of “Brill Bruisers,” A.C. Newman called his Canadian stalwarts’ latest effort “a celebration record.” From the introductory volley of “bah bahs” in the title track to the tambourine chatter of album closer “You Tell Me Where,” the band’s slick sixth album bounces like musical Flubber. Lyrically, “Brill Bruisers” vivid imagery skirts impenetrability (“Last night I dreamt/Vancouver dressed up in the ocean”) to piercing relatability (“I think we could save lives, if we don’t spend them”). As is to be expected from a musical phalanx like the New Pornographers, ”Brill Bruisers” whirring parts produce great variety from song to song, but it all works together brilliantly.
1. Jenny Lewis – “The Voyager”
With the acid tongue that made her every indie kid’s cool big sister as lacerating as ever, the musically adventurous Lewis arrived after a six-year break between solo albums a fully formed rock star on “The Voyager.” The album’s dip-dyed, psychedelic pop songs snap together with the hard-won cohesion of seasoned pro. (It’s odd to think of the former Rilo Kiley frontwoman as a veteran, but “A Better Son/Daughter” has been a scratched-up mix CD staple for 12 years now.) Lewis’ often biting lyrical witticisms about love, whiskey and gender roles breeze by in rich detail: “And if there’s no ring, I will have to say ‘goodbye’/Nah, I’m just playing John, I look terrible in white.” Notably, “Voyager” manages to ride its swirl of oft-distorted guitars through a patchwork paisley world of flower power and classic rock influences without ever seeming like a pastiche, or worse, a warmed-over tribute to the Mama Cass crowd. Compulsively listenable, immaculately rough around the edges and sneakily life-affirming, “The Voyager” was 2014’s secret weapon.