Top 5 Albums of 2014: The Contenders

For the first time in the at-least-a-decade since I started doing these top 5 lists, I almost completely forgot to do one this year. It wasn’t until I happened to be on my blog this morning and my “On This Day” widget reminded me that I realized it was time for the list again.

Maybe I’ve just been too busy. Maybe there hasn’t been much good music this year (at least, good to my jaded and picky ears). Maybe it’s because I turned 40 this year and I’m now officially too old for anyone to care about my opinion on anything. Whatever the case, this year’s list was almost an afterthought. Almost.

But now I’ve remembered to do it, and if time allows I might just give the final list the attention it deserves. For now, we start off as in every year, with the list of contenders: all of the new albums I’ve purchased in 2014. (As if you needed further evidence of how out of touch and irrelevant I am… I not only still care about albums… I still buy music.)

Since my list of full albums this year is so short, I’ve decided to include for consideration EPs — even one that’s a reissue of an EP from 1996 — and, for the first time, my own music.

Aphex Twin — Syro
Beck — Morning Phase
Boards of Canada — Hi Scores 2014 Edition [EP]
Com Truise — Wave 1
The Darcys — Hymn for a Missing Girl [EP]
Foo Fighters — Sonic Highways
J. Law — The Phoenix
Jenny Lewis — The Voyager
Lusine — Arterial [EP]
Magma — Rïah Sahïltaahk
Pink Floyd — The Endless River
Room 34 — Thru
Room 34 — 5mi
Röyksopp & Robyn — Do It Again
Tycho — Awake
U2 — Songs of Innocence
Umphrey’s McGee — Similar Skin
“Weird Al” Yankovic — Mandatory Fun
Yes — Heaven and Earth
Zero 7 — Simple Science [EP]

Update (12 December 2014): I used a “smart playlist” in iTunes to find all of the music in my library that was released this year, but I discovered a couple of albums that I actually bought on CD (how quaint) were missing because Gracenote didn’t fill in the release year. And so we have the addition of Foo Fighters and Pink Floyd to the list. Wait, what year is it again? I also had to add in the new Yes album, which isn’t in my library anymore because it’s so awful I actually deleted it. (Spoiler: It’s not making the final list.)

Top 5 Albums of 2009

A few weeks ago I announced the contenders for this year’s best albums, and now here are the winners. Keep an eye open for a “Top 5 Albums of the Decade” post coming soon as well.

5. The Decemberists: The Hazards of Love

The Decemberists: The Hazards of LoveThe Decemberists are one of the most idiosyncratic bands recording today, at least among those that have achieved a modicum of success. Despite their mostly rock-oriented instrumentation (drums, electric guitars and bass, Nord synthesizer), the band frequently supplements their sound with antiquated — or at least rarely-used-in-rock — instruments like the accordion, upright bass, banjo, bouzouki. And their lyrical content has typically been somewhat Victorian. They outdid themselves, however, with this year’s release: an hour-long rock opera, the most grandiose and polarizing concept album since Tales from Topographic Oceans by Yes in 1973. As with that album, I fall on the side of “getting it.” Whether it’s art that transcends its idiom, or pompous self-indulgence, is a matter for subjective debate, but I think it’s hard to argue with the fact that Colin Meloy and company achieved what they were going for. Even better, they took the show on the road, performing the album in its entirety during this summer’s tour. I got to see the band at Rock the Garden in Minneapolis and loved every minute of it.

4. Porcupine Tree: The Incident

Porcupine Tree: The IncidentA few years ago, it looked as if Porcupine Tree was about to break into the big time. The anachronistic prog band’s fan base has grown steadily over its now 20-year history, but mainstream success (if that’s not an oxymoron) has remained elusive. If 2002’s In Absentia was a tantalizing step towards mass popularity, the band’s subsequent three albums: 2005’s Deadwing, 2007’s Fear of a Blank Planet, and this year’s double album, with the title suite occupying the entire 55 minutes of the first disc, have seen them retreat back into their prog rock niche, while continuing to… you know… progress as a band. I’ve liked each album more than the last, and yet at the same time I can’t help feeling a little disappointed at unrealized potential. This band is so good, I want everyone in the world to hear them. But with each new album it seems more apparent that Steven Wilson has resigned himself to the limited appeal of the band’s core audience. At least he’s staying true to the aesthetic that drew us to his music in the first place.

3. The Bird and the Bee: Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future

The Bird and the Bee: Ray Guns Are Not Just the FutureThis is perhaps the album that surprised me the most this year. I was not familiar with this band before the improbable hit “Diamond Dave” (yes, it’s about David Lee Roth) became a staple on The Current. This band’s unique retro-futuristic sound carries immense appeal. Equal parts ’60s lounge music and modern-day electronica, with Inara George’s beautifully delicate vocals deftly concealing the twisted humor of most of the songs’ lyrics, this is the band to bring prog rock dinosaurs who are stuck in their Yes / Steely Dan / National Health rut up to date with the exciting things that are happening in popular music today. Sure, there are no tracks on this album that stand out quite as much as “Fucking Boyfriend” from the band’s self-titled debut, but the hilariously ironic “Polite Dance Song” and the mysterious, James Bond-esque “Witch” come pretty close.

2. Grizzly Bear: Veckatimest

Grizzly Bear: VeckatimestAmong this year’s contenders, probably no album took longer for me to learn to appreciate than Grizzly Bear’s lo-fi masterpiece. But once I stopped trying to impose my own expectations on this album and just gave in, met it on its own terms, a wonderful, strange world opened up before me. This is not easy listening, to be sure, but it’s wonderfully crafted, and the hazy, distant production shrouds meticulous arrangements. The result is a darker, more challenging counterpart to last year’s debut by Fleet Foxes. This album probably won’t appeal to everyone, but the broad critical acclaim it has received is not unwarranted.

1. Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus PhoenixPerhaps an easy choice. French pop-rock band Phoenix has been around for most of the decade, but they seem to have just really hit it big in the States this year, with an appearance on SNL and constant exposure of the track “1901” in Cadillac commercials. That probably screams sellout, but if so, it’s the weirdest-sounding sellout in years. Adventurous, experimental deep cuts, like the two-part “Love Like a Sunset” show that the band isn’t just on auto-pilot. The album’s production is absolute perfection — crisp and up-front without sounding distorted (even though the loudness wars are in effect here), the arrangements are inventive despite fairly straightforward rock instrumentation, the vocals are distinctive, and every track on the album is catchy. Despite its short run time of just over 36 minutes, this album is worth listening to on repeat.

Plus, as someone who’s always felt Mozart’s music is vastly overrated, I get some twisted pleasure out of the fact that searching for “Wolfgang Amadeus” on Amazon now brings up Phoenix before Mozart. Blasphemy! (Or not.)

Strictly for the Yes fan(s) out there

I realize I’m not exactly surrounded by a vast sea of Yes fans. We’re few and far between, and with every further Spinal Tap-esque step our beloved band takes, our numbers dwindle even more.

Perhaps no step the band could have taken would epitomize their claim to the title of “real-life Spinal Tap” more than the tour they’ve undertaken this year. With legendary lead singer Jon Anderson facing a long recuperation from acute respiratory failure, and longtime keyboardist Rick Wakeman no longer up to the rigors of touring either, the band forged ahead on the potentially dangerous decision to have Rick’s son Oliver fill in on the keyboard duties, and they (temporarily) replaced Jon Anderson with a guy named Benoit David, lead singer of a Montreal-based Yes tribute band that bassist Chris Squire discovered on the Internet.

True fans may see parallels between the current situation and the infamous period in 1980 when, faced with the abrupt departure of Anderson and Wakeman (Anderson’s first, Wakeman’s second), the band recruited The Buggles as replacements, because they happened to be recording in the same studio at the time.

Trevor Horn may be a great producer (may be), and he’s a decent enough singer. But he could never be a replacement for Jon Anderson, and not just because Chris Squire made him perform songs at Madison Square Garden after only having heard them on a cassette during the limo ride to the gig. (Does it really happen? It can happen.)

Although I have seen Yes live more than any other band (five times), I had no intention of seeing them on this tour. That may be in part because it would’ve required driving to Milwaukee, but I’ve driven to Milwaukee for a concert by a prog rock dinosaur before (King Crimson in 2000). Mostly, though, I was afraid of Benoit David.

Then I saw this:

Pardon the poor sound and picture quality. Apparently Yes is OK with having video from someone’s cell phone represent them on their official site. So be it. But the lack of visual clarity only helps to reinforce the message I’m trying to convey here. You wouldn’t know by looking (the white pants, the vest, the quasi-conductor dancing) — or by listening — but no, that’s not Jon Anderson. It’s Benoit David. And now I get why Chris Squire was so excited to bring him in as a substitute. Too bad teh interwebz didn’t exist 28 years ago.

And too bad we can’t shut up the tone-deaf holder of the cell phone.

Full disclosure of geekdom: 8 or 9 years ago, before Yesworld was established, I ran a Yes fan website — well, it actually poked fun at the band, song by song, album by album, but it was done out of love — and I was approached to be the webmaster for the band’s official site. It was not a paid gig, of course — I would’ve just been compensated with some merch, backstage passes, stuff like that. I decided it was too much work for too little reward; plus, it would probably mean I’d have to take down my own site. Which I eventually did anyway.

Countering the theory that familiarity breeds acceptance

It is often said that “familiarity breeds acceptance.” (At least 16,900 times.) I now have evidence to disprove this theory.

1-800-Flowers is heavily promoting a new product called Cupcake in Bloom via the ad boards at stations on the Hiawatha Line in Minneapolis. On the face of it this is a profoundly, fundamentally stupid product. Granted, I’m not big on flowers, but I do appreciate a nice arrangement. I do not, however, get too excited about an indiscriminate ball of white flowers, stuffed in a fake muffin wrapper. I would be deeply disappointed if someone I knew spent $25 on one of these for me. I would much rather have them spend one dollar on a real cupcake.

I’m guessing I’m not alone in thinking this product is utterly stupid, which is why 1-800-Flowers is desperately trying to break down our resistance by placing at least five of these ads at nearly every station. On one side of the 38th Street station, for instance, there are eight ad panels. Presently six of these are displaying the Cupcake in Bloom ad. I didn’t even look at the opposite side of the platform to see how many more there might be.

The only possible explanation for this marketing blitz is that the company is hoping that by saturating our visual field with this image, subjecting us to it again and again, we might just eventually get used to it enough to forget how stupid it is. Familiarity breeds acceptance.

Except in this case.

You may notice in the photo below — in addition to the fact that there’s another of the same ad in the background (and this is the opposite side of the board featured in the other photo above) — that someone has defaced the photo of poor Jim McCann, founder of the company and someone who is apparently more than willing to take the credit/blame for this overpriced abomination. Ketchup, it seems. And there’s more ketchup on the other side along with… is that a Chicken McNugget? (Speaking of “familiarity breeds acceptance”…)

I was intending to take more photos (yes, there were at least two more of these signs at the station), but after these two I grew concerned that the Metro Transit panopticon was monitoring my activities: just as I took the second photo the prerecorded message about using the emergency phone to report suspicious activity came over the loudspeaker. Coincidence, perhaps, since they’re really pimping the emergency phone right now, but I didn’t want to test the response time of the Transit Police for something so stupid, especially since I doubt they would believe that this was the reason I was taking photos at the station.

With all due apologies to Bill Bruford (and the rest of Yes)

Yes, Fragile, 1971Endure it if you dare.

Things were just different back in 1971. And if you don’t believe me, consider this: a very successful rock album from that year was Fragile by Yes.

This album contained not only three tracks near or longer than eight minutes each, but five brief tracks that were the individual creations of each member of the band. Some members were not so enthusiastic about this approach, most notably drummer Bill Bruford, whose contribution was an awkward, 37-second noodlefest for drums, guitar, bass, and organ entitled “Five Per Cent for Nothing” [sic, although apparently that’s how they spell it in Britain].

Only 37 seconds, you say? Or more to the point, only five percent, you say? I have now attempted to rectify that shortcoming.

The piece as it originally appears consists of a complex rhythmic pattern, played through twice by the band. Well, if twice through constitutes five percent, simple arithmetic tells us that 40 times through will yield the full 100%. (It also clocks in at a pleasing 11:11.)

So here you go…


If you like/can tolerate this, I encourage you to consider purchasing the full album. (For what it’s worth, I myself have purchased it in one form or another no less than seven times.) It features some outstanding playing and great songs, including my favorite piece of music in the history of human civilization, “Heart of the Sunrise.”

But if you’re in the market for something a little more current… a little more seasonally-appropriate… a little more ridiculously titled, then I would steer you no further than to Chris Squire’s Swiss Choir, a drunken joke new Christmas album featuring Yes bassist Chris Squire, drummer Jeremy Stacey (formerly of Sheryl Crow’s touring band and more recently of the briefly-reformed-and-now-once-again-defunct lineup of Squire’s pre-Yes band, The Syn), and ’70s-era Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett.

Normally I would look at something like this and think, “Mannheim Steamroller, but somehow, incomprehensibly worse.” And yet, from the samples I checked out online, it’s surprisingly not complete shit! “Complete” being the operative word. When I emailed a friend about this album, with the subject line “Holy crap,” he replied “I think you have just come up with the perfect two word review for this album.”

If by any chance you do choose to purchase it, I would implore you to consider doing so via this link to the iTunes store, so they’ll know who recommended it! (OK, they won’t. But at least I’ll get a tiny piece of the action.)