Sunday, May 24, 2015

Keith's Playlists: Rock 'n' Roll Is In the Words (aka Best "Rock 'n' Roll" Songs)

These are not the best rock ‘n’ roll songs, but the best songs with the words “rock and roll” in them somewhere. The earliest track here is from 1935 and the latest from 2013!

What else would you include? (And note there are three obvious ones I left out: “We Built This City” by Starship as it’s one of the worst songs ever written; “The Heart of Rock ‘n’ Roll” by Huey Lewis and the News (nice guys but I can’t stand their music); “Rock and Roll” by Gary Glitter partly because its use at sporting events has killed the song for me, and partly because Glitter is a scumbag.)

  • “If It Feels Good, Do It” by Sloan 
  • “Gotta Have Rock and Roll” by Heartless Bastards 
  • “Rock and Roll” by Led Zeppelin 
  • “Rock and Roll Music” by Chuck Berry 
  • “Get Rhythm in Your Feet (and Music In Your Soul)” by The Benny Goodman Orchestra with Helen Ward – From all the way back in 1935, one of the first big hits to use the words “rock and roll” 
  • “Do You Remember Rock and Roll Radio?” by The Ramones 
  • “I Love Rock and Roll” by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts 
  • “We’re Gonna Rock” by Wild Bill Moore – Another oldie, from the late-1940s, a rough gem with honking saxes taking the role that electric guitar solos would later assume in rock ‘n’ music 
  • “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me” by Billy Joel and “That’s Damn Rock & Roll” by Eric Church – Two very different artists from two different eras but I lump them together here as the gist of both songs is similar: the music 
  • “Rock and Roll All Nite” by KISS 
  • “Rock & Roll Band” by Boston 
  • “Rock and Roll” by The Velvet Underground 
  • “Old Time Rock and Roll” by Bob Seger – My parents’ all-time favorite song! 
  • “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo” by Rick Derringer – I prefer this version to the Johnny Winter original 
  • “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It)” by The Rolling Stones

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Short Fiction: Sovereign Citizens in Love (First Draft)

(Writer's Note: This is a rough first draft of a new story. I'm working on a new version in 3rd person. In the meantime, what do you think of this 1st person version? PDF available here.)

They ask me about Hollis all the time: “What was he like before the siege?” “Why does he hate the government so much?” “Did you ever think he’d do something like this?”
They ask because they think I know him. “Kevin and Hollis grew up together. They’re still good friends.” True enough on the growing up part. I met Hollis in first grade when we teamed up to keep Kenny Sampson at bay. I’m not so sure on the “still good friends” part. He was gone for 15 years or so, and came back a different man, no longer fat, married to that fireball Rhonda with three kids in tow and a light in his eyes that hadn’t been there before. Still, I thought I knew him. We socialized, barbecued together, drank more than a few beers on my porch. Then Rhonda got arrested, convicted and sent up the river, and this damn siege started.
Now when I Google “Hollis Donelson,” I find “anti-government extremist,” “domestic terrorist,” “tax protestor,” “violent radical,” “Sovereign Citizen,” “survivalist,” hostage-taker,” “man at center of Iowa siege.” I also see “hero,” “patriot,” “soldier,” “oathkeeper,” and (my favorite) “a truly righteous, fire-breathing, Son of Liberty, fighting Tyranny and nourishing the Tree of our Freedom with his own Sweat and Blood,” the latter on websites that prominently feature American flags, the Bible and the Constitution, plus pictures of Obama with horns or merged with pictures of Stalin or Mao.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

If you know how to drive, you know how to live

Let me be clear: I don’t like driving. If I never had to drive again, I’d be perfectly happy. It’s madness out there. But I’ve also realized that knowing how to drive is knowing how to live: if you can drive safely, you can live life to the fullest. Think I’m exaggerating? Consider this:
  1. Jim Morrison said it best: “Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel.” You’ve got to take control. It’s your life. If you cede responsibility to someone else (an employer, a partner, a condition, a substance) and don’t maintain balance, you’re asking for trouble.
  2. Always check your blind spot. We all have weaknesses. Know yours. Don’t avoid change because of a weakness, but don’t think you can ignore it and be successful.
  3. Don't forget to look in the rearview mirror. The past matters. Don’t make the same mistakes over and over. Know your strengths. Know your weaknesses.
  4. Keep the engine in tip top shape. Your body is your foundation. If you don’t maintain it, you’re screwed, no matter how well you manage other aspects of your life.
  5. Be extra alert at night. “For the night is dark and full of terrors.” We’re raised to fear the dark. It’s primordial. It’s also a good chunk of our lives (half to a third depending on one’s timezone) so there’s no way to avoid it. Embrace the dark. Embrace the known. But expect the unexpected. Stay on guard.
  6. Sometimes it's better to walk or take transit. Sometimes the road less traveled is less traveled for a reason. March to the beat of your own drummer.
  7. Adapt to the conditions. You can’t always go a million miles an hour. Changing conditions require a more cautious approach. Track the conditions. Adapt accordingly.
  8. Know the rules. Rules can suck. They constrain. They close off options. But ignorance of the rules can cause untold trouble. Get to know the rules. That way you’ll know how to break them. 
  9. Distraction can be dangerous. It’s okay to get lost. Sometimes that’s the only way to get found. But getting distracted at the wrong moment can kill you. Know when to focus and when to give yourself a rest.
  10. Take a break. Unless you’re Superman, you can’t go go go all the time. You need a break. You need to recharge your engines. Feeling tired? Feelling unfocused? Pull the car over and have a snooze.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Updates to My Definitive List of Boulder County Craft Breweries - April 29, 2015

My Definitive List of Boulder County craft breweries is a huge hit! I created it in response to my own frustration at being unable to find a single source that 1) included all of these breweries, and 2) had all the key information I wanted (patio, dog friendliness, happy hour) so there are obviously a lot of other folks looking for the same thing! The research is tough, but someone's got to do it! :-)

Here's what's changed since I initially posted the list on April 15, 2015:

  • New Planet: Seneca at New Planet let me know that they serve not only gluten-free but also gluten-reduced and barley beers. Check them out!
  • Filled or updated details for:
    • Crystal Springs
    • Liquid Mechanics
    • Powder Keg (personal visit!)
    • Upslope
    • Very Nice
    • Vindication
  • Added three new breweries that are supposed to open this year:
    • Atom Brewing, Erie
    • Gunbarrel Brewing
    • Open Door Brewing, Boulder
I still don't have complete details for the following breweries, in spite of emailing them, so if you're at one of these locations, please help me fill in the blanks!
  • 12 Degrees
  • Avery
  • Echo in Erie
  • Grossen Bart
  • Industrial Revolution
  • Walnut

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Boulder Country Craft Breweries - The Definitive List (updated May 13, 2015)

This is a definitive list of all Boulder County craft breweries, including key details (such taproom vs. full restaurant, patios, dog friendliness, etc.) I've visited these myself and/or reached out to the brewery for details but please help keep this current! If you have any changes, let me know in the comments below.

I've posted this as an Excel spreadsheet on my Google Drive if you'd like to download your own version.

A few provisos: 
  • I have not been to all of these (yet). I haven't visited Crystal Springs, Echo, Left Hand, New Planet, Vindication, and Wild Mountain, although I've had beer from Crystal Springs, Echo, Left Hand and Vindication.
  • This doesn't include BJ's Roadhouse as this is a national chain.
  • I left out cider and meaderies.

Brewery Name Location Restaurant
or Taproom
Patio? Dog Friendly?1 Happy Hour Notes
12Degree Brewing Louisville Pizzeria Yes Yes (patio)
300 Suns Brewing Longmont Taproom Yes Yes (patio) M-W 2-6 pm
Asher Brewing Co. Gunbarrel Taproom Yes Yes (patio) No, but pints only $4-5 Organic
Atom Brewing Co. Erie Opening Summer 2015
Avery Brewing Co. Gunbarrel Both Yes Yes (patio)
Bootstrap Brewing Niwot Taproom Yes Yes (patio) All day Mon.
Boulder Beer Boulder Restaurant Yes Yes (patio) Yes but different every day CO's first craft brewery
BRU Handbuilt Ales & Eats Boulder Restaurant Yes Yes (patio) 3-6 pm daily and all day Tues.
Crystal Springs Brewing Co. Louisville Taproom Yes Yes M-F 3-5pm
Echo Brewing Erie Pizzeria 2nd site; other site is in Frederick
FATE Brewing Co. Boulder Restaurant Yes Next to (not on) patio only M-F 3-5:30 pm
Finkel & Garf Brewery Gunbarrel Taproom Yes Yes No
Front Range Brewing Co. Lafayette Taproom2 Yes Yes (patio) M-F 3-6pm $1 off pints
Gravity Brewing Louisville Taproom2 Yes Yes (patio) No
Grossen Bart Brewery Longmont Taproom Yes Yes
Gunbarrel Brewery Gunbarrel Opening in 2015
The Industrial Revolution Brewing Co. Erie Taproom Yes
J Wells Brewery Boulder Taproom No Yes "Slacker hour" $2 off pints 3-4pm M-F
Regular happy hour $1 off pints 4-6pm M-F
Left Hand Brewing Co. Longmont Taproom Yes No No (but free tour)
Liquid Mechanics Brewing Co. Lafayette Taproom2 Yes Yes (patio) $1 off pints M-Th 4:30-5:30pm
Mountain Sun Pubs & Breweries Mountain Sun (Pearl St. Boulder) Restaurant Yes No Yes No credit or debit cards
Southern Sun (South Boulder) Restaurant Yes No Yes
Under the Sun (South Boulder) Restaurant No No Yes
Long's Peak Pub (Longmont) Restaurant Yes No Yes
New Planet Beer Co. Boulder Taproom Yes Yes (patio) No Gluten-free, Gluten-reduced and Barley beers available
Limited hours
Odd13 Brewing Lafayette Taproom2 Yes Yes (patio) M-Th 3-5 pm All night M-Tu if you walk or bike
Open Door Brewing Boulder Opening Summer 2015
Contract brewer
Oskar Blues Brewery Brewery (Longmont) Taproom Yes Yes No but pints only $4
Liquids and Solids (Longmont) Restaurant Yes No Food only
Chuburger (Longmont) Restaurant Yes No Food only
Cyclhops (Longmont) Restaurant Yes No Food only
Lyons Restaurant Yes No Food only
The Post Brewing Co. Lafayette Restaurant Yes No M-F 4-6 pm
Powder Keg Brewing Co. Niwot Taproom2 No No No
Pumphouse Brewery Longmont Restaurant Yes Yes (on patio leashed to perimeter fence and out of walkways) M-F 3-6pm & 10pm-midnight
Sanitas Brewing Co. Boulder Taproom2 Yes Yes M-F 4-6pm $1.5 off pints
$2.50 for train beers within 15 min. of train passing
Shine Brewing Co. Boulder Restaurant No No $1 off pints 3-6:30 daily
Twisted Pine Brewing Co. Boulder Restaurant Yes No (although dogs can stay on grass a few feet away from patio) M-F 4-6 pm
Upslope Brewing Co. East Boulder Taproom2 Yes Yes M-F 11 am-2 pm $1 off
North Boulder Taproom Yes Yes No
Very Nice Brewing Co. Nederland Taproom2 No Yes No but flagship beers only $4
Vindication Brewing Co. Gunbarrel Taproom Not yet but planned No $1.50 off pints every Mon.
Walnut Brewery Boulder Restaurant M-F 3-6 pm & 10 pm-close
West Flanders Brewing Co. Boulder Restaurant Yes No M-F 3-6 pm
Wild Mountain Smokehouse & Brewery Nederland Restaurant Yes No 4-6 pm daily
Wild Woods Brewery Boulder Taproom Yes Patio only All day Tues.
1 Dogs must be on leash (whether in the taproom or on the patio) in all of these establishments.
2 Although these breweries do not have restaurants, there is food available, either from an adjacent restaurant or from regularly scheduled food trucks.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

My Top 100 Albums of 2014: #25-1 (with commentary!)

#25: Zola Jesus, Taiga
Nika Roza Danilova (who goes by Zola Jesus in her musical career) has a smoky, operatic voice, and brings a strong sense of dynamics and drama to her music. Each song is a like a mini-symphony with quiet moments and slow builds, mostly driven by electronic sounds and really nice touches of percussion (e.g., the cacophony of background drums on “Taiga” or the snare drum upfront in the mix in “Hunger”). Sometimes the result is borderline poppy (e.g., “Dangerous Days” or “It’s Not Over”) but the emphasis here is really on the gothic aspect of her musical personality.
#24: Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah, Only Run
There’s an element of arena rock about this band: thudding bass drums far up in the mix, soaring and emotive vocals. (Listen to “As Always” or “Cover Up” for an example.) There are oddball moments, too, but it’s generally a big and bold album of hardy indie rock.
#23: Ólöf Arnalds, Palme
Like a certain other Icelandic artist (whose name begins with B), Olöf Arnalds has a sprite-like voice that bobs around with a sense of child-like wonder over harp, harpsichord, and ambient noise. Rather than flying off in fits of fancy, however, these songs remain clearly within a quiet and quirky place. “Defending Gender” is a highlight.
#22: The Notwist, Close to the Glass
What does The Notwist sound like? It might be easier to ask what this German group (with a quarter-century history) doesn’t sound like. Every time I listen, I hear something new, from the Ramones-like feel on “Kong” to the trance electronica of “Lineri” to the Jesus and Mary Chain sound on “7-Hour Drive” to Broken Social Scene on “From One Wrong Place to the Next.” Always inventive and entertaining, if not the most relaxing music to listen to.
#21: Hozier, Hozier
Irishman Andrew Hozier-Byrne, like so many of his countryman before him, digs deep into the soil of American musical history (which, arguably, owes as much to Irish music as it does to the music of Africa) and comes up with the soul and blues album of the year. He wraps his expressive, gospel voice around spectacular, driving tunes like the dramatic Grammy-nominated “Take Me to Church,” and the R&B of “Jackie and Wilson” and “Someone New.”
#20: Sean Rowe, Madman
This is my favorite album of 2014, even if it ended up at #20. (My formula is designed to try and keep me objective!) Sean Rowe’s voice is amazing: deep, sometimes growling and sometimes soaring. Add that to precise songwriting and wonderful arrangements that cover the gauntlet from folk to rock to world music to soul, and the result is a unique sound. The highlight for me is the title track with its quiet acoustic opening and clap-along neo-soul chorus. Other standouts are “The Game,” with a Caribbean-flavored chant leading to a simple percussion-driven melody, and the stomping blues of “Done Calling You.”
#19: Mark Lanegan Band, Phantom Radio
I love dramatic music. Of course “dramatic” means different things to different people. “Harvest Home,” the tune that kicks off the Mark Lanegan Band’s latest is the essence of my definition of dramatic: a sense of edginess and warning in the voice, vivid and dark imagery, ringing chords and a background string synth that adds a sense of urgency. The dark feel extends throughout this record (one song is titled “Death Trip to Tulsa”) with Biblical imagery always supported by the right instrumental choices, from chugging or swelling synthesizers to loosely struck snare drums to rapidly strummed acoustic guitars.
#18: Rubblebucket, Survival Sounds
Super fun reggae- and ska-flavored dance pop with awesome horn breaks. “Shake Me Around” is a blast with its quiet, almost spoken verses and blasting chorus. “Carousel Ride” is a classic singalong and “Middle” is a great slice of funky pop with an awesome bassline.
Who brings the funk like Prince? No one, that’s who! So get down, muthaf*ckers!
#16: Gemma Ray, Milk For Your Motors
Another entry in the long list of great British neo-soul/R&B artists, Gemma Ray’s music reaches back to late-1950s and early-1960s “girl groups,” Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” recordings, and artists like Nina Simone. It’s fantastic stuff, dramatic (“The Wheel” has the feel of those late-50’s-early-60’s teen tragedy songs), playful (“Buckle Up”), coy (“Shake Baby Shake”), and moving (most of the rest of the album!).
#15: The New Basement Tapes, Lost on the River
These types of projects (i.e., find a sheaf of lyrics without music – in this case from the Master of all Lyricists, Bob Dylan – and ask modern artists to put them to music) can smack of gimmickry, but it’s the end result that counts. And in this case, it’s a pretty amazing end result, partly because the five musicians here (Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens of Carolina Chocolate Drops, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, and Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons, all produced by the Patron Saint of Americana, T. Bone Burnett) are incredibly talented, and partly because of the reverence they bring to the project.
#14: Tinawiren, Emmaar
I sometimes wonder if I don’t have some distant Berber blood. (Moore is a common English and Irish name, but there’s another strain that comes directly from the Moors, the Northern African folks who invaded Spain. There’s like some Berber/Arabic mixing.) There’s something about the music of the Tuareg people (a Berber people scattered amongst Algeria, Mali, and Niger) that gets into my bones. The sound is raw and dusty, and the rhythms and tunings are off-kilter to most western ears, but I listen to a band like Tinawiren and I start moving almost without knowing it.
#13: Ben Howard, I Forgot Where We Were
Ben Howard is one of the best new singer-songwriters I’ve heard. (And I’m not just saying that because he’s left-handed!) He plays guitar with an interesting percussive style that adds a lot of expression and nuance to his tunes (somewhat like Jose Gonzalez). The rapid electric guitar harmonics on “Rivers in the Mouth” and the echoing, hammer-on’s in “Small Things” are great examples. Of course, these would just be cosmetic touches if it weren’t for great songs, and this album is loaded with them.
#12: Thurston Moore, The Best Day
The dissolution of Sonic Youth in the face of his affair with an assistant and subsequent break-up with Kim Gordon has not dented Thurston Moore’s creativity. There might be less shrieking than in his Sonic Youth days, but the range of sounds and feelings he produces from an electric guitar is unmatched. (I’d love to know exactly many different tunings he uses!)
#11: Fanfarlo, Let's Go Extinct
This band continues to impress me with their impeccable songwriting, and smart, eclectic instrumentation (whether it’s the muted trumpet on “Cell Song” or the phased synth on “A Distance”). Every song is just tight as hell, perfectly put together, tuneful and bright. These are total pop gems that will set your head to bobbing: “We’re the Future” or “Painting with Life.”
#10: Jesca Hoop, Undress
I almost didn’t include this album since it’s not new material but reinterpretations of her 2009 Hunting My Dress album. But since I listened to this before I’d heard the originals (and since this is an incredible album), I decided to keep it. “Experimental pop” is most common description of her music, but that doesn’t begin to capture the flavor here. It’s playful, hypnotic, rhythmic and enchanting. And she’s got some great help on this album: Guy Garvey (Elbow), Sam Beam (Iron & Wine), Erika Wennerstrom (Heartless Bastards) and Willy Mason. Some guest appearances just reek of record company interference (“Let’s stick So-and-so” on this album to help sell”) but that’s not the case here: every contribution feels perfectly natural and adds a great touch to the song.
#9: Kevin Drew, Darlings
One of the best albums ever about that always hot topic: sex. This isn’t stylized, idealized bodies linking, but real, down-to-earth coupling: hands wear out, thanks is given for what we taste, buildings crumble with lust and desire, and we breathe together. Drew’s voice is perfect here: cool and sexy, sometimes aching and sometimes breathy. “Body Butter” and “Good Sex” are highlights.
#8: Imogen Heap, Sparks
I often find myself responding to vocalists who offer something interesting or different in their tone and inflection. (Interestingly, these are often qualities that may make their voices less than technically perfect. But then I can barely tolerate technically superb vocalists like Celine Dion or Mariah Carey.) Imogen Heap falls into this category. Her voice is light, breathy and almost slightly hoarse-sounding on occasion. But it blends perfectly with the genius she brings to electronics and production. This album really highlights the latter as she collected sound samples from fans over several years, releasing tracks based on these, and eventually pulling the whole thing together into this album. Beautiful, ethereal and quirky.
#7: TV on the Radio, Seeds
TVOTR is one of those bands whose sound is instantly recognizable, and whose music is hard to categorize. But while they’ve danced all over the musical spectrum in their previous four full-length albums, Seeds is a kick-ass rock record, whether it’s the driving power pop of “Lazerray” or the sneaky “Happy Idiot.”
#6: Robert Plant, Lullaby... and the Ceaseless Roar
The photo of Robert Plant in the booklet accompanying his latest album is an interesting choice: it looks like a celebrity mugshot from The Smoking Gun. He slouches, glowering from dissolute and puffy eyes. It’s like he’s saying “I know I’m an old rock god and I should be long dead, but I’m still here and I’ve still got things to say.” And say them he does. The now 66-year-old legendary lead singer and renown musical explorer shows no sign of slowing down. His latest collection of musical journeys ranges over Celtic, Arabic, blues, and rock with magical results.
#5: Wye Oak, Shriek
Layer a strong sense of rhythm (including some amazing basslines) onto classic ‘80s synth-pop and you’ve got this album. The duo of Andy Stack and Jenn Wasner has produced an incredibly cohesive and slick gem of indie pop: dreamy, moving, and sweet. Shriek is bookended by my two favorite songs on the album: “Before” to open, and “Logic of Color” to close. Sweet tunes!
#4: Damien Jurado, Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son
With an album name like this, what kind of music would you expect? If you answered “psychedelia,” you’d be correct. The ‘60s remain a hot source of inspiration, and no one did it better in 2014 than Damien Jurado. His voice often sounds druggy and processed. The songs are a mix of quiet acoustic folk songs, and percussion-driven (like Santana on “Silver Timothy”) rockers. And the last song, “Suns In Our Mind,” closes things with a bit of sunny pop.
#3: My Brightest Diamond, This Is My Hand
This is sensual, jazzy, slinky music. “So Easy” is a sensual flow. She swings on “Pressure.” “This Is My Hand” is a wonderful orchestral build with a fantastic closing line: “This is my gloom, my flame, my joy, my aim to love.”
#2: Perfume Genius, Too Bright
Mike Hadreas (aka Perfume Genius) has an incredibly expressive voice that floats above spare but emotive arrangements in this exquisite set of songs about being an outsider (and being out). “Queen” is a gut-wrenching tour de force of emotion. “My Body” has the frightening claustrophobic feeling of a Nine Inch Nails’ track. And “Longpig” may be my favorite track with its looped synth figure and handclaps creating an astonishing sense of urgency.
#1: tUnEyArDs, nikki nack
It’s taken me awhile to warm up to Merrill Glabus’s particular (peculiar?) brand of quirky pop. Until this release, I always found the experimental outweighed the melodic. nikki nack, on the other hand, gets the balance just about perfect. The quirky voice and harmonies bubbles and bounces over playful and inventive soundbeds in a way that’s absolutely joyful. “Hey Life” is an inspiration.

Friday, March 13, 2015

My Top 100 Albums of 2014: #50-26 (with commentary!)

#50: LP, Forever For Now
LP (the simple stage name chosen by singer-songwriter Laura Pergolizzi) creates impeccable, urgent pop songs that ride on her powerful, expressive and emotive voice. Just listen to her soar on “Tokyo Sunrise” or plead on “Your Town.”
#49: Jenny Lewis, The Voyager
A surprisingly poppy and produced album for the indie-rock, alt-country icon. She covers a lot of ground, from the ‘70s pop of “She’s Not Me” to the country stomp and singalong of “Just One of the Guys” or the ‘80s chime of “Late Bloomer” or the alt-pop of “Love U Forever.” Great stuff!
#48: The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, Midnight Sun
This is a very haunting recording, not because the music itself is particularly haunting, but because it’s almost impossible not to hear John Lennon’s voice: his son Sean is one half of this band and his vocal tone is very similar to his father’s. Add in the fact that the music itself is an homage to ‘60s-era psychedelic rock and it’s not to get sucked back in time. But however derivative it may be, it’s wonderfully put together, heartfelt and extremely coherent from beginning to end.
#47: The Apache Relay, The Apache Relay
The Apache Relay crank out rootsy rock often backed by boppy string arrangements. “Katie, Queen of Tennessee” is a stand-out, as is “Good As Gold” (with its handclap chorus).
#46: Umphrey’s McGee, Similar Skin
I’m an unreconstructed progressive music fan. (For you kids out there, that means Yes, Rush, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, etc.) So when a friend mentioned Umphrey’s McGee as a kind of progressive rock jam band, and then I watched a few samples of their live performances, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. While known primarily for incendiary live performances, especially of covers and mash-ups, and their incredibly musicianship, they do record studio albums and this offering captures well their combination of influences (from hard rock to prog to jazz to pop), their musical talent, and the organic way it all comes together.
#45: St. Vincent, St. Vincent
Another slice of quirky, oddball musical inventiveness from the always entertaining Annie Clark. Her work, while extraordinarily accomplished and creative, isn’t always what you’d call “accessible,” but there’s less shrieking and oddball time signature changes than in some of her previous work. Tracks like the playful “Birth in Reverse,” the electronic funk of “Digital Witness” or the ballad-like “Severed Crossed Fingers” are almost, gasp!, mainstream.
#44: James Vincent McMorrow, Post-Tropical
James Vincent McMorrow is a kind of Irish Bon Iver, singing in a delicate yet soulful falsetto with the same sense of aching loss. It’s very affecting, if borderline soporific at times. The songwriting is more blue-eyed soul than northern Wisconsin folk with soaring choruses and generally simple keyboard and guitar arrangements. Great “Sunday morning over coffee” music.
#43: Lykke Li, I Never Learn
Lykke Li has moved a long way from the light electro-pop of “Little Bit.” Between 2011’s Wounded Rhymes and 2014’s I Never Learn, she’s turned into a Nordic chanteuse, singing torch songs that often move from quiet verses to “wall of sound” choruses. They’re beautifully written songs and the arrangements are impeccable. My only complaint is her voice: it’s not 100% suited for this style of music. There’s an element of constraint, almost like someone who’s trying to protect her voice. It gives a sort of resigned tone that often matches the lyrics, but it also means that there are times when you want her to belt it out and it doesn’t happen. But more power to her for picking how she wants to approach her music and sticking to it.
#42: Kasabian, 48:13
You’ve got to love an album named after its length. Swaggering, driving, dramatic Brit-rock with grabby repetitive figures often making up the choruses (e.g., “treat” and “doomsday”) that make it almost impossible not to shake one’s head.
#41: U2, Songs of Innocence
It’s almost impossible to listen to U2 objectively. Between their constant angst about whether or not they can remain relevant, their over-earnest and over-serious past, their naked ambition (only in artistic fields does it seem that “becoming big” is automatically a ding), and Bono’s big mouth, this is a band with a lot of baggage. But so the fuck what? At the end of the day, it’s about the music, and this album features lots of great music, from the kick-ass opener of “”The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” to the soaring ache of “Song for Someone.”
#40: Tove Lo, Queen of the Clouds
This electronic pop debut from the Swedish songwriter (full name Ebba Tove Elsa Nilsson) is playful, sexy, and impeccably crafted. Highlights are “Like ‘Em Young,” “Talking Body” and “Not on Drugs” (“I’m not on drugs, I’m just in love”).
#39: Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
This album would probably make my list just for the lead track, “Turtles All the Way Down,” a meditation on the meaning of life that’s at once humorous and affecting (not to mention melodic as hell) but the rest of the record is solid country-rock driven by Simpson’s gifted songwriting and classic voice.
#38: Eric Church, The Outsiders
A combination of crunching rock ‘n’ roll (the title track, “That’s Damn Rock ‘n’ Roll”), acoustic ballads (“A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young”), and more traditional country (from the humorous “Cold One” to the affecting “Give Me Back My Hometown”) from the country rebel and his kick-ass backing band.
#37: Gem Club, In Roses
I’m not surprised that this album ended up just below The Antlers on my list as it has a similar feel: same high-pitched, expressive voice, and aching sadness. The instrumentation is less lush and full, if similarly orchestral in nature. Some of the piano figures sound like they were pulled directly from classical composition.
#36: Temples, Sun Structure
The 1960s continue to be a tremendous source of musical inspiration, as this album demonstrates. The first cut, “Shelter Song,” could come from any late-‘60s British band: slightly druggy vocals, ringing guitars, etc. The title song (just the name gives it away) delves into psychedelia with Moody Blues-style vocals. There’s lots of great stuff here, like the melodic descending chorus on “Mesmerise” or the catchy acoustic “Keep in the Dark.”
#35: Sinkane, Mean Love
A wonderful mélange of influences (from reggae to Latin to Afro-pop to electronica) come together to create this wonderful and danceable collection. Hard to believe it’s the product of a single person (Ahmed Gallab)! The bass really drives this music, sometimes in subtle ways (“New Name”) and sometimes more aggressively (standout track “How We Be”). It’s amazing how such a mix of styles can also sound coherent: the ‘60s soul of “Mean Love” seems right at home next to the slow funk of “Hold Tight” and the smooth reggae of “Galley Boys.”
#34: The Antlers, Familiars
The Antlers continue to produce achingly lovely orchestral rock highlighted by Peter Silbermann’s exquisite voice and perfectly chosen musical touches, like the trumpet on opener “Palace.”
#33: The Kaiser Chiefs, Education, Education, Education & War
The sound may be a bit different (less ska and rockabilly influence, more produced) but this album has got the feel of London Calling-era Clash. A great musical kick in the guts delivered with passion and conviction.
#32: Lia Ices, Ices
This a wonderful blend of influences, from the Arabic sounds that launch the album on “Tell Me” to the synth ballad “Waves” that closes the record. But the broad range (and inventiveness) of her choices in sounds support, rather than overwhelm, what are very catchy pop gems, say on “Magick.”
#31: alt-j, This Is All Yours
While not placing as high their Polaris Prize-winning 2012 debut, alt-j still solidly makes my top 50 with this excellent sophomore effort, almost totally ducking the dreaded second album curse. (That said, this album does suffer slightly from 2nd albumitis just because I was expecting their amazingly unique sound and therefore not as immediately enthralled.) It’s hard to think of another band with such a unique sound. Their vocalizations sometimes sound like madrigals or Benedictine chants. When layered on the backbone of spare percussion, dramatic keyboards and heavy, low-end bass, the sound is stupendous.
#30: Shovels & Rope, Swimmin’ Time
My vote for Americana album of the year! Fantastic harmonies, great thrashing and upbeat energy, and wonderful execution. Plus their beautifully written songs touch on all the great themes from the American songbook: good vs. evil, God and the Devil, fishing, drinking, hard times and good times.
#29: Spoon, They Want My Soul
God, I love Spoon. There’s such a swagger and bop to their music. When the drums thump confidently and then the guitar plays the opening chords of the first track, “Rent I Pay,” my head starts bobbing. Even something quieter like “Inside Out” has a hint of rock ‘n’ roll attitude in the delivery. It helps that Britt Daniel’s slightly hoarse voice is so perfect for the music.
#28: Saint Saviour, In the Seams
Lovely brooding chamber pop, delicate and gentle. What more do you want?
#27: Nico Vega, Lead to Light
This band offers driving, urgent, guitar and synth-based pop. “Drive” is a good example, with the urgency partly delivered via the instruments and partly via the voice. “I Believe (Get Over Yourself)” showcases their pop bona fides: what an earworm! Then there’s a dramatic cut like “Bang, Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” that’s like a combination of Nine Simone and teenage tragedy songs.
#26: Cymbals Eat Guitars, LOSE
If you’re a fan of quirky, offbeat indie rock (think Modest Mouse), you’ll love these guys. Vocals and instruments dart all over the place and there’s a strange sound of wide-eyed wonder in Joseph D’Agostino‘s voice. Sometimes it pulls me back in time: the soaring guitar figure at the start of “Laramie” makes me think of mid-1970s Genesis. (Yes, I realize this isn’t exactly a recommendation to some of you!)