The best albums that I listened to for the first time this year, regardless of the year said albums were released.
Paper Route – The Peace of Wild Things (2012)
Speaking as someone who loves modern synthpop, Paper Route was one of my most pleasant discoveries in the last couple years. I just picked up The Peace of Wild Things earlier this year and couldn’t be happier with it. It’s a catchy, fun, full-spectrum bombardment of primary-color sawtooth frequencies and sunshine melodies. And, I mean, would you just LISTEN to that towering, searing synth riff that tears open the chorus in “You And I”? Every retro-obsessed alt-electro outfit of the past 10 years can just stop — Paper Route nailed the sound they were all searching for.
Cut Copy – Free Your Mind (2013)
What do you get when you mix psychedelics with Australians? Why, Free Your Mind of course. Previous Cut Copy albums ran the gamut from dancefloor catharsis (“That Was Just a Dream” / “Zap Zap” from Bright Like Neon Love) to the electro-funk-turned-trance-breakdown of “Sun God” off of Zonoscope. They’re masters of their equipment, to be sure, and the psych-pop of Free Your Mind is well within their realm of talent. It’s a weird-but-effective example of modern music’s obsession with synths coming into contact with the drug-induced musical vision that was so popular in the ’60s. Whether or not I approve of the means used to inspire the music, I do like the outcome; if any genre stands to gain from a psychedlic sound, it’s synthpop, and in retrospect it’s hard to see why it took so long for someone to put the two together.
At The Drive-In – Relationship of Command (2000)
Insanity is what’s at the heart of this album — a ravenous, vitriolic insanity that seeps through its every pore. And yet, through the screaming, the frenetic guitar, and the intense melodicism stretches a weird, unnerving focus. Never, for a moment, do you ever think that any of this is random or unnecessary. The song titles point to a hopeless, dystopian techno-future. The unusual and often unintelligible lyrics paint broad strokes rather than distinct lines. There’s something underlying this, some deep, logical foundation, but it remains always just out of frame…and it makes this album timeless and endlessly fascinating.
Sarah Brightman – Dive (1993)
For all intents and purposes, this is an album that shouldn’t really work — operatic classical crossover mixed with early ’90s pop…that tinny-sounding drum machine…some really questionable songwriting (the sexual overtones in “Once In A Lifetime” approach cringeworthy levels)…all spread across a concept album centering around the theme of water. Uhh…sure. And yet, through the multitude of would-be failures and potential disasters that litter the landscape, Brightman manages to navigate it all and create an album that is more than the sum of its parts. I love this album, and I know I probably shouldn’t. The theatre of “Captain Nemo”. The pure emotion of “The Second Element”. The shimmery nostalgia of “By Now”…it could be the most dated pop album of the last 30 years, but somehow, against all odds, it manages to succeed in the best way possible.
The Goo Goo Dolls – Hold Me Up (1990)
Time for a quick history lesson. Did you know that the Goo Goo Dolls, the same band who played the orchestral alt-rock hit “Iris” that no one born in the last 20 years hasn’t turned the radio dial to avoid hearing yet again, were once a scrappy garage punk band? Did you know they used to be called the Sex Maggots and that bassist Robby Takac was their lead singer because pretty boy Johnny Rzeznik was too shy? No? It’s no surprise — the Dolls have done a good job, whether intentionally or not, of covering up the fact that they ever used to be anything but a radio rock band.
But it’s true! And while I do love a lot of the more well-known Goo Goo Dolls’ work, there’s just something about their dirtier, grittier roots that interests me. Hold Me Up is a transition album, between their lo-fi punk beginnings and the wildly popular alt-rock band they became. It has solid production values with much more relatable, less wishy-washy heart-on-sleeve songwriting than what they’re now known for. In short, it’s a fun, rockin’ album that most GGD fans have probably forgotten about, or didn’t know existed to begin with. Plus, um, you know, this.
Mae – (M)orning (2009)
Mae have never been at the top of my list for my favorite bands or anything. They enjoyed a brief stint in my normal rotation in high school, but I quickly tired of them; Destination: Beautiful had no staying power, The Everglow was an over-ambitious album that took itself way too seriously, and Singularity was a vast disappointment no matter how I sliced it. I’d given up on them…until this year, when I decided to check out (M)orning on a whim.
I was…well, “blown away” might be overselling it, but I was very pleasantly surprised. This wasn’t a “return” to some idealistic prior state that Mae had since left, this was actually more like finally getting it right. It’s a relatively short but surprisingly versatile album. “The Fisherman Song (We All Need Love)” is easily the best thing the band has ever produced, and “Two Birds” is the soundtrack to a bright, cool, sunny morning. There’s not a weak song on the album and it’s good to know that for a short moment in time, Mae was a band worth listening to.
The Blue Nile – Hats (1989)
Some albums succeed off a band’s musical prowess, some off of clever lyrics or complex instrumentation or having an enormous scope. Hats doesn’t really have any of these things; rather, it succeeds and prospers on its incredible atmosphere and the mood it generates. It’s warm, nostalgic music, rich in imagery and echoy guitar and a washed-out drum machine. It’s mostly downtempo, preferring to slowly envelop you in cozy reminiscience rather than overwhelm you with waves of specific memories. This is music born in the border between wakefulness and sleep, between the crystalline present and the foggy past, between where you are now and that place you’d like to be.
Dieselboy – projectHUMAN (2002)
When the inevitable machine revolution comes and we humans are in our final moments, crumbling and defeated, waiting for that last thermonuclear warhead to fall and finish us off, the sounds of projectHUMAN are going to be the last things we hear as the machines play it in celebration of their victory. This is a piledriving drum-n-bass mix that will shatter your eardrums only moments before vaporizing the rest of your body. The earth-shaking “Hostile” alone is worth the price of admission, and it’s set right in the middle of a mix that any machine would be proud to say it had a hand in creating. In fact, it might be best for humanity to just kill off Dieselboy right now — it’s clear where his allegiances lie.
Underworld – Dubnobasswithmyheadman (1994) / Second Toughest In The Infants (1996) / Beaucoup Fish (1999)
Underworld were my introduction to true “techno” music; when I was younger and more naive, any music that was purely electronic would earn the “techno” nameplate from me. I quickly learned that there are innumerable subgenres within the realm of electronic dance music, but I never actually took much time to listen to “techno”.
But here we are, I’m older and wiser, and am closer to appreciating some of the best music from the ’90s. Because what Underworld do, they do incredibly well; this is throbbing, long-range dance music that goes on for ages and takes no prisoners. It’s unusual for an Underworld song to be shorter than seven minutes; some reach into the 16-minute range. Underworld aren’t interested in making you dance; they’re more interested in giving you time to think about why you want to dance, and then after enough time has passed, giving you the opportunity to get on your feet.
Although they tend to burn slow, the payoff is absolutely worth it in almost every song. Take the incredible “Cowgirl”, which starts off with a vocal-modulated “Everything, everything” as a blank canvas. The boys slowly layer on more and more contextless lyrics until the laser-guided synths make their entrance, at which point the song is fully autonomous, moving under its own significant momentum until it’s completely spent, tired but full of stupid smiles. This song represents just what Underworld does — they take something simple and build it up into something amazing. They’re masters of creating something from nothing, and it shows, song after song after song.
Even the bizarre, stream-of-conscious lyrics create a kind of weird, surreal, lasting buzz. Take this gem from “Stagger”: “Cover your teeth / I love you / Don’t bite me yet / I believe in you / I found you shopping in Europa on Wardour Street”. It’s utterly nonsensical but strangely beautiful, and in the context of the music it’s set in front of, absolutely fitting. It allows room for you as the listener to project. What do you know — you can actually learn things about yourself by listening to this music!…maybe.
For the patient listener, Underworld is one of the most cerebral EDM acts out there, and their music stands up surprisingly well 15+ years later. It’s both ear-shattering (“Moaner”) and deeply introspective (“Winjer”). It’s trancey (“Cups”) and angular (“Dark & Long”). They even made a Gorillaz song two years before the Gorillaz’ debut (“Bruce Lee”). Underworld is everything and the kitchen sink set to a fusion-powered drum machine; what more could you want from techno?
John Mayer – Continuum (2006)
Sometimes, I find myself far too influenced by external pressures to actually sit down and listen to music that might be deemed “uncool”; I’ve been getting better, but it’s still occasionally a problem. John Mayer was one such artist, and I am now lamenting the fact that I let Continuum go unlistened-to for most of my life since it was released. Shame. The sheer talent on display on this album is astounding. I remember back in the mid-2000s when Mayer was being hailed as a virtuoso guitar player, and all I could see him as was a pop sellout. How stupid I was; his blues chops, especially on songs like “Gravity” and “Slow Dancing In A Burning Room” are impressive and mood-altering.
For all that, though, Mayer is a pop artist and it shows — not that this is a bad thing. If it weren’t for the catchy, endearing songs like “Waiting On The World To Change” and “Vultures”, Mayer could easily become too self-serious, too full of himself (well, moreso, anyway), and too heady. Instead, this is a perfectly balanced blend of pop and blues, and a fair amount of vitriol too (“Slow Dancing” and “I’m Gonna Find Another You”, especially). It’s everything a breakup album should be — self-doubting, angry, regretful, and narcissistic backed by mercurial guitar work and a crooner’s voice. If I were a chick, I probably would have been into Mayer too when this was released.
Bomb The Music Industry! – Adults!!!… Smart!!! Shithammered!!! And Excited By Nothing!!!!!!! (2010)
If you can’t tell from the title of this EP, Jeff Rosenstock is cynical about adulthood. Many of BTMI’s songs buzz the topic of getting older and how to deal with the dreary repetition, the oppressive city, the parties that always end in blackouts. (For the record, I think that if Jeff Rosenstock and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy ever met, they would be fast friends. Maybe that’s why I like BTMI so much). This release is no different in its content, but in its approach, it shows a paradoxical maturity in sound. Adults!!! has a little bit of everything. There are the familiar synth-punk trappings (“The First Time I Met Sanowan”) and ska breakdowns (“You Still Believe In Me?”), sure, but we also get to experience a moment to breathe (“All Ages Shows”) and tinges of indie-pop (“Slumlord”). It’s a jack-of-all trades of an EP, and as much as Rosenstock seems to just despise the idea of growing up, his band was maturing and branching out into new territories with this release. Make up your mind, dude.
Fountains of Wayne – Welcome Interstate Managers (2003)
I very strongly believe that Fountains of Wayne kind of screwed themselves when they wrote “Stacy’s Mom” — I have yet to find someone that genuinely likes the song. Over-saturation killed it and people ended up writing off Fountains of Wayne as a generic pop rock band, maybe going so far as to classify them as a one-hit wonder, and man it’s a shame, because Welcome Interstate Managers might just be the best guitar pop album of the last 15 years.
It’s the perfect storm of pop hooks and quirky lyrics and themes and a sly, sidelong humor that, for those willing to invest, is impossible to hate. There’s also substantial sonic variety throughout the album; there’s straight-up rock (“Bright Future In Sales”, “Little Red Light”), weird balladry (“All Kinds of Time”, “Fire Island”), and tinges of country (“Hung Up On You”). And then there’s “Supercollider”, a song that is so blatantly a mockery of (or tribute to) Oasis that I can’t help but wonder why they haven’t been sued by the Gallagher brothers yet.
Through it all runs the thread of the mundane experiences that make up day-to-day life. Some might accuse Fountains of Wayne of being opportunistic with songs like “Hey Julie” and “Halley’s Waitress”, both of which could come off as overly try-hard attempts to get the average listener to “relate”. But you know what? I don’t care if it’s manipulation, it works and the music is all the more charming for it. And we’ve all been there, in that restaurant, waiting for the waitress to come so that we can order or get our check or whatever, and at least now I have something I can use to soundtrack the event.
Taylor Swift – 1989 (2014)
Look, if I had been writing this about a month ago, I would have probably gone off on a tirade about how Taylor Swift’s image in the eyes of those who claim to like “real” music (whatever that is) is completely unfounded and dumb; I would have written a thesis on pop music and why it’s no less valid than music like the supposedly “intelligent” stuff found on Richard D. James Album; I would have explained that, come on, as a pop artist I’ll take her over the drink-til-you-pass-out crap that populates the radio waves today and can be heard blasting from the speakers of teenage American suburbia.
But I’m sure anyone who wants to read that kind of stuff can find plenty of Internet echo chambers that will cater to their needs, and far more eloquently than I can. Instead, I just want to say that this album…this album is great. It’s a complete departure from the Swift that came before, dabbling now in synths and retro rather than guitar and twang. It ranges from anthemic (“Welcome To New York”) to wistful (“Wildest Dreams”) to cathartic (“Clean”), and everything in between. It’s like CHVRCHES decided to make a Taylor Swift album, or Taylor Swift decided to make a CHVRCHES album. I can’t decided which is more fitting, but it’s an unlikely match made in heaven.
Carly Rae Jepsen – Kiss (2012)
I’ve refrained from buying certain CDs in brick-and-mortar stores more times than I care to admit based solely on the imagined judgement from the cashier behind the counter. Call it vanity, call it insecurity, call it whatever you will, but buying this album goes down as one of the most awkward CD purchases I’ve ever decided to make, and it was an uncomfortable two minutes at the register. For the record, this is perhaps more justified than it would normally be as the CD store in question is run by a bunch of tough, tattooed metalheads. Nice guys and girls, all of them, but if you don’t feel a little squeamish buying a teen pop album from them, you have a stronger constitution than I.
No matter. I don’t regret this purchase one bit, as Kiss ended up being one of my absolute favorite albums that I listened to this year. “Call Me Maybe” is the foundation off of which this album is built, but if you ask me that’s as good a foundation to build a pop album off of as you could ever ask for. It’s an album that’s full of hard-hitting could-be singles with the pulsing insecurities of youth as its rhythm. Influenced more by the house music of the ’90s than the synthpop of the ’80s (which seems to be in vogue right now), it’s fun and driving and beautiful. Jepsen may end up being the brightest-burning one-hit-wonder of the last 10 years, but it’s not a title that she deserves. The earworm melodies of “This Kiss” and the dancefloor spitfire of “Tonight I’m Getting Over You” elevate her far above the masses. If Kiss is the only album she ever releases, she’ll still be one of my favorite pop stars.
Not the best, but still pretty darn good.
-Atari Star – Aniseed
-They Might Be Giants – Flood
-The Hold Steady – Boys and Girls in America
-Pixies – Doolittle
-My Bloody Valentine – Loveless
-mewithoutYou – [A–>B] Life
-Cursive – Happy Hollow
-Copeland – You Are My Sunshine
-Madonna – Madonna
-Sunscreem – O3
-Every other album by Bomb The Music Industry!
-Reel Big Fish – Why Do They Rock So Hard?
-The Format – Interventions and Lullabies
-Taylor Swift – Fearless