Top 5 Albums of 2014

This year’s list requires an asterisk. Or two. I have not yet listened to the Gone Girl soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. If past experience with their soundtrack work is any indication, I’m likely to consider it the best album of 2014.

I’m not sure why I haven’t listened to it yet. I haven’t seen the movie (or read the book). But that didn’t stop me in the past. I only managed to sit through half of The Social Network and I never saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo either. And yet, I bought and thoroughly enjoyed both of those soundtracks.

Beyond that omission, the list this year also suffers from my general lack of enthusiasm for the music that came out this year. I bought far fewer albums than I have in most years over the past 15 years (ever since Kid A awakened me from the disinterest in what was happening in contemporary music that plagued me throughout the ’90s).

Nevertheless, here’s the list.

5. “Weird Al” Yankovic — Mandatory Fun
I was a huge “Weird Al” fan as a kid. I owned several of his parodies on 45, and had the full Dare to Be Stupid album on vinyl as well. But as an adult, I stopped paying attention except when songs like “All About the Pentiums” or “White and Nerdy” would blip into the collective geek consciousness. Al’s genius with this album was to release a video a day for 8 days around the release of the album. It really got my attention, and got his songs into my brain enough that I had to buy it. Songs like “Foil” and “Word Crimes” are pure “Weird Al” genius, but don’t write off his clever style parodies like the epic “Jackson Park Express.” I still feel a little weird putting Al on the list, but this album really was one of the best I heard this year.

4. Foo Fighters — Sonic Highways
This is a solid Foo Fighters album. I wasn’t really into them for their first 3 albums or so, but from In Your Honor onward, they’ve been my favorite rock band doing new music. In fact I sometimes think they’re the only commercially successful band still producing new, good music I would unambiguously assign to that genre. The band made a huge deal out of Sonic Highways, but to be honest… I think it’s probably their weakest album since I really got into listening to them. I do like it, but I’ll take Wasting Light over this any day.

3. Aphex Twin — Syro
I really dig the music Richard D. James produces. But I have to confess I haven’t gotten into much of it because I find most of his cover art so off-putting. Superficial and silly, but there it is. Syro features a simple green cover with his logo symbol though, so it doesn’t bother me… probably because I have never figured out what it’s supposed to represent.

2. Tycho — Awake
I’ve been a big Tycho fan since I first heard their previous album. I regret missing the chance to see them at First Avenue this year. I actually had tickets to the show but I wasn’t feeling well that night and blew it off. A big regret, to be sure, but it’s tempered by having this great album to listen to. Definitely my favorite of the year. At least, other than…

1. Room 34 — 5mi
Yeah, that’s me. It’s unbelievably conceited to rank my own album at the top of the list, but to be honest, this is just about the only album that I’ve really found compelling all year, and it’s the one I’m most proud of to date. I’ve probably listened to it hundreds of times by now.

The inspiration came in early July, when I was running in a 5-mile race. I had never run any significant distance without listening to music, but somehow I had arrived at the race that day without my earbuds, forcing me to listen to nothing but the sound of my own breathing and footsteps (and, to a lesser extent, those of the runners around me, but it was a small race, so I was alone for most of it).

The rhythmic counterpoint of my steps and breathing became embedded in my brain, and a couple of days later I sat down to compose a piece of music based on it, played at a tempo equal to my running pace, and built on a 1000-measure structure. At just over 43 minutes, the piece came out almost precisely as long as the time it took me to complete the race.

5mi is a single, uninterrupted piece of music consisting of 11 distinct musical sections. It was composed and recorded in its entirety in a single 4-hour session. The 11 track names are inspired by locations near the 5-mile race route, in my hometown of Austin, Minnesota.

The album is available on iTunes, Spotify, and other streaming/download services.

Side note: After the 5-mile race, I actually started to embrace the idea of running without headphones. At the end of October, I ran in my first ever half marathon. Just under 2 hours of running, with no music. I might even have to credit the lack of music with my good time. I found the chatter of the 9:10/mile pace runner so annoying that I sped up to get out of earshot from him, knocking my time down to a 9:06 pace and finishing the race in 1:59:05.

Dishonorable Mention: Yes — Heaven and Earth
This album most certainly is not in my top 5 for the year. But I still feel compelled to mention it here simply because it is so absolutely terrible. I have been a Yes fan for most of my life (ever since I first heard “Owner of a Lonely Heart” as a 9-year-old). Some of their music is my favorite music ever. I would put at least four of their albums in my “desert island selection” (The Yes Album, Fragile, Close to the Edge, Relayer). But they also have several mediocre albums (Tormato, Big Generator, Talk) and a few truly awful ones (Union, Open Your Eyes, Magnification).

The last album Yes produced that I thought was genuinely decent (if not actually good) was 1999’s The Ladder. In the past few years, the band has become a parody of itself, more Spinal Tap than Spinal Tap could ever have dreamed of being.

None of that prepared me for how awful Heaven and Earth is.

It took me months, and several attempts, before I could force myself to listen to the entire album, or even an entire song. Then I did it once and promptly deleted the album from my iTunes library. It is so bad, I want to forget that it even exists. I have never, ever found an album by any artist so absolutely appalling as this album. Although I have had only tepid enthusiasm for the albums I liked this year, Heaven and Earth definitely left the strongest impression on me. That’s worth noting in its own twisted way.

Top 5 Albums of 2008: The Winners

No surprises, really, after I had already highlighted the 5 strongest contenders, but here they are in order, with cover art and brief reviews. And of course, links to buy. Ka-ching!

Bryan Scary and the Shredding Tears - Flight of the Knife

#5: Flight of the Knife
Bryan Scary and the Shredding Tears
Buy Now from Amazon MP3

This is probably the most obscure of the five albums in this year’s list, which comes as no surprise to me. Nonetheless, I think it’s worth a listen. I discovered the album when iTunes was featuring it for $5 and I figured, why not?

Musically, it’s an odd mix of bits and pieces of Queen, David Bowie, Yes, Ben Folds and more, both old and new, and yet it’s like nothing you’ve ever heard. This concept album is as over-the-top as can be, and then some. But every moment of it is enjoyable, amusing, rocking, and a bit self-mocking. Apparently the band’s live show is equally overblown, in a good way, with elaborate costumes and theatrics.

Fujiya & Miyagi - Lightbulbs

#4: Lightbulbs
Fujiya & Miyagi
Buy Now from Amazon MP3

Probably more entitled to the name “The Mooney Suzuki” than the band that actually goes by that name, this band’s Can influence is apparent and strong, yet they forge their own unique sound in a minimalist electronica/rock style.

The lead-off track, “Knickerbocker,” sounds the most like Can, and more problematically, nearly identical to “Ankle Injuries,” the lead-off track from their previous album, 2006’s Transparent Things. but after the opener things go in a different, but equally interesting, direction.

If you’re not already into them, I recommend this album for (if nothing else) the best finger-snapping performance ever committed to record (“Pickpocket”).

My Morning Jacket - Evil Urges

#3: Evil Urges
My Morning Jacket
Buy Now from Amazon MP3

This one’s getting a lot of “best album of the year” hype. Well, from everyone except Pitchfork, but they’re pretentious douches anyway. (Oh snap! I went there! And I even listen to stuff like this.) Exhibit A: Their top 50 of the year features not one but two bands that have “Fuck” in their name. Oh, tee-hee, aren’t we rebellious and unconventional? We’ll bestow pointless accolades on bands that, by their very names, have declared total disinterest in such publicity. But I digress, even if it was worth it to rip on Pitchfork. Now where was I?

Oh yeah, My Morning Jacket has delivered a great album that I have enjoyed listening to in its entirety numerous times over the past few months, after I finally overcame my apprehension, based (regrettably) on Pitchfork’s review, and listened to the album my own damn self.

M83 - Saturdays = Youth

#2: Saturdays = Youth
Buy Now from Amazon MP3

With a title like this, the John Hughes-esque high school archetypes on the cover, and the vintage early ’80s sound throughout, you’d think M83 had grown up in the age of Atari, but the number in the “band” name refers (as I understand it) to this solo artist’s year of birth.

“Kim and Jessie” is the breakout (get it?) hit here, and you might be inclined to expect the rest of the album to sound the same, but you’d be wrong. That was a bit disappointing to me at first, but I quickly grew to love the synth-heavy, neo-New Wave sounds throughout.

Death Cab for Cutie - Narrow Stairs

#1: Narrow Stairs
Death Cab for Cutie
Buy Now from Amazon MP3

The dense, brooding 4-minute jam that opens the extended version of the hit single from this album, “I Will Possess Your Heart,” is my favorite musical moment of the year. (Even better than the hoedown jam in the opening track of Evil Urges.) But this album doesn’t get first place just for featuring a cool 8-minute jam track about a stalker (told from the stalker’s perspective). Everything about this album is great. The music’s great, the lyrics are great (especially “Your New Twin Sized Bed”), the flow from track to track is brilliant, it’s just a 100% enjoyable album from beginning to end, and like a satisfying meal at a good restaurant, you feel good about enjoying it. (As opposed to the bag of Doritos and White Castle sliders you metaphorically consume with every listening to certain albums.) I have no reservations whatsoever in hailing Narrow Stairs as my album of the year.

Honorable Mention

Best Album I Haven’t Actually Heard

TV on the Radio: Dear Science As the heading reveals, I haven’t actually heard this album, but I’ve meant to. And everyone else seems to think it’s the best album in, like, forever. Totally.

Best Mainstream Pop Album

Coldplay: Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends I don’t know why I’m always compelled to write out the full title, since no one else seems to do so (or even necessarily know it). Perhaps the full title and its usual truncation is part of the reason I can’t give this album more than honorable mention.

Best Musician’s Musician Album

Joe Satriani: Professor Satchafunkilus and the Musterion of Rock What was that I was saying about album titles? Oh yeah. Well aside from the fact that his greatest fame has probably come from the Coldplay lawsuit, I do think this is one of Satch’s best albums ever, which is to say that the soaring-melodies-and-shredding-guitar-to-cringe-inducing-cheez ratio is much higher than usual. And he doesn’t sing at all (well, not really). But his appeal is too narrow, his music more craft than art, for me to put him in a top 5 list.

How did they make cardboard feel like leather? (And why?)

prince_of_persia08_le360boxart_160wChristmas is officially over, and this year my video game collection increased in size by one game: Prince of Persia (Limited Edition) for the XBOX 360. My initial assessment: great game, cool visual style, engaging gameplay, nice re-imagining of the series. I look forward to playing it more.

One thing I do not look forward to more of is touching the box. The Limited Edition version of the game comes packaged in a special outer box, which is designed to look like an antique leather-bound book. Artistically it is very well-done, but what is profoundly disturbing about it is the feel of it. There is some sort of coating on the cardboard that makes it feel eerily like real, well-worn leather. But not exactly. It mostly just feels like there’s some kind of weird fuzzy/sticky/highly unnatural (and probably toxic) film smeared all over the box. Yuck.

Luckily, inside the box is a regular plastic game case (featuring the standard cover art), which is what I’ll be keeping on the shelf. And I’ll store the cardboard box away in a secure location where it cannot contaminate my life further.