Sean’s Favorites: 2014

Yeah, we’re on a roll now! In 2014 I was right smack in the middle of full time engineering school, so keeping up with things like music took even more of a back seat. As such, this is going to be the shortest list of albums in my retrospective series. Yes, I know a lot of really good, and even important albums were released this year. But I’ll just remind you that these lists have to do with albums that were important to me at the time and have stayed relevant through the years. Engineering school must have been brutal this year, because I can’t remember much of anything else that happened in the world. And when I tried looking stuff up, it was all depressing. So we’ll just focus on the music this time.

Downtown

CHET FAKER – BUILT ON GLASS–Like everyone else, I was introduced to Chet Faker with his cover of “No Diggity.” I immediately bought his EP with that track. I loved his blend of trip hop, downtempo electronic, and soul vocals. He was one of the few artists I kept tabs on in this time of my life, so when his full-lenght, Built On Glass came out, I snapped it up. Nick Murphy (Faker’s real name) was already getting tired of being limited to his more soul-oriented sound, so Glass is split into two sides. The first is more like his EP and Blackstreet cover, and the second is more experimental electronic pop. I was surprised with the change, but I ended up liking some of the tracks on the second half more than ones on the first. “1998” in particular is still one of my favorites. Murphy makes music under his own name now instead of Chet Faker, and nothing has quite appealed to me the same, but I still check in once in awhile.

Last Gang

DEATH FROM ABOVE 1979 – THE PHYSICAL WORLD–Dance punk and dance rock are a couple genres that are weirdly specific but they sure do something for me when they’re done right. I also have a thing for rock duos, especially when the duo is drums and bass guitar. Death From Above 1979 happen to check all those boxes. The Physical World is the band’s second album, released a decade after their first due to a hiatus. Apparently the break was a good thing because they came back firing on all cylinders. The riffs and grooves hit just right with fuzzy bass lines and punk energy. I don’t think there’s a single skip on the album for me. They did come out with another album in 2017 but it didn’t quite capture the same magic. Let’s hope a future release can.

Big Machine

TAYLOR SWIFT – 1989–Yes, I’m publicly admitting that I like a Taylor Swift album, but I have my reasons! I personally believe that this album is monumental in Swift’s career because it’s the moment that she stopped kidding herself about being a country artist and fully embraced the role of pop star. Even Red, the album that came right before this was marketed as a country album when there was hardly anything to classify it as such. Swift also made the transition with a relatively simple synth-pop sound that contrasted with her typical over-produced country pop. Some songs even flirt with synthwave. The tracks might not hit as hard as say, a CHVRCHES song, but it’s the first album of hers that I can honestly say that I enjoyed. And there’s even a track that features and was co-written with Imogen Heap!

Vulf

VULFPECK – FUGUE STATE–Ever since their first release in 2011, Vulfpeck have faithfully released new material every year. There were a couple EPs before Fugue State, but this was the first one since their debut where every track is a winner and there are no skips. The title track shows the group flexing their classical music muscles (they are music college students, after all) and “1612” is their second collaboration with vocalist Antwaun Stanley. The rest of the tracks find the band playing even more with studio and production tricks to develop the signature Vulf sound. 2014 would also be the year that Vulfpeck would release the silent Sleepify album to exploit Spotify’s payment model. Seriously, if you’re not on the Vulf train, you really should go digging through their catalog.

TYCHO – SIMULCAST album review

TYCHO – SIMULCAST

Mom+Pop/Ninja Tune

Electronic/Downtempo/Ambient

Okay, you’re getting a bonus review this week because I can’t compress my thoughts on this one down to a single paragraph for the end-of-the-month post. Simulcast is a companion album to Weather, Tycho’s release from last year. As such, I will be referring back to that album quite a bit in this review, so I highly recommend that you watch my review of it here. But the bottom line with Weather is that I liked it quite a bit because I happen to enjoy Tycho’s brand of laid-back electronic music and it’s inclusion of vocals from Saint Sinner gave it that little extra something.

Like I said, Simulcast is intended to be a companion album to Weather, but this time around it’s all instrumental. I actually hesitate to call this a new release because 3 of the 8 tracks on it are the 3 instrumental tracks from Weather with no changes (“Weather,” “Into The Woods,” and “Easy”). And the remaining 5 are just instrumental reworkings of everything else. So I guess you could call this a remix album? But only like, 5/8 of a remix album? I don’t know, the electronic music world can be weird sometimes.

It’s important to point out that while this is an instrumental companion to the previous album, the reworked tracks are not just the vocal-less backing tracks. They truly have been reworked. They have key defining characteristics that tie them to their lyrical counterpart and maintain the same spirit, but Tycho has given them new embellishments to fill in the gaps left by the vocals. These tracks also have new titles and most have longer running times. Interestingly, the only new title that gives you any hint to the original is “Stress,” a heavy rework of “No Stress” from Weather.

So the real question here is whether Tycho managed to sufficiently replace Saint Sinner’s vocals. The answer is… mostly. Some tracks like “Cypress” (companion to “Japan”), are still pretty basic and sound like backing tracks despite being stretched out to almost twice the length. Others like “Outer Sunset” (companion to “Skate”) have clearly recognizable parts but benefit from additional percussion and synths. And then there’s songs like “Alright” which I think is the companion to “For How Long,” but it honestly sounds like an entirely different song.

The second question is if the tracks are any good. And I personally think they are. People like to give Tycho a hard time because his music is so inoffensive. It’s background music for the kitchen or office, only slightly more creative than lo-fi hip hop beats to study to. And I won’t deny it’s good music for that, but I also think it’s impressive that an artist has set out to make music like this and still make it distinctly their own. Despite being electronic music, Tycho finds ways to make it feel organic with electric guitars and vocal improvisations (still provided by Saint Sinner, by the way). And these little touches make the songs unquestionably his, and very rewarding when listening actively with headphones.

At first, I wondered if this album was really necessary. Weather was already so good. Tycho took his music to new places when he incorporated lyrics. Did we really need an instrumental companion? At the end of the day, maybe we didn’t, but I’m not upset that it exists. The vocal-less tracks from Weather represented some of Tycho’s best instrumental work up to that point, and the reworks on Simulcast are just as good, if not better. And if there are people out there who wished that Weather didn’t have vocals, well now you have your wish. I do still think Weather is the stronger release here, but Simulcast is still a strong entry in Tycho’s catalog.

3.5/5.0

NICOLAS GODIN – CONCRETE AND GLASS album review

NICOLAS GODIN – CONCRETE AND GLASS

NCLS/Because Music, 2020

Electronic/Downtempo

Nicolas Godin is better known as half of the electronic music duo Air, but they haven’t released any new music as a group since their soundtrack for Georges Méliès’ 1902 film Le voyage dans la lune in 2012. Since then, Godin and his bandmate, Jean-Benoît Dunckel have focused more on side projects, film scores, and solo releases. Concrete and Glass is Godin’s second studio album following his 2015 release, Contrepoint.

The title Concrete and Glass is a reference back to Godin’s time as a student of architecture. The first lyrics we hear in the title track are “I’m looking for a house/made of concrete and glass,” filtered through a vocoder. I don’t know if this is supposed to lay some kind of thematic foundation (heh, architect humor) for the album. If it does, it’s definitely more of a metaphorical theme than a literal theme as the title track and “The Foundation” are the only tracks to directly mention anything related to architecture, and the latter is definitely metaphorical. The rest of the tracks have more romantic lyrics. Specifically they seem to be post-romantic, describing events after a relationship has ended.

Musically, the album sounds pretty much like an old-school Air album but within the musical context of the late 2010s. You still have your slow jamming, downtempo beats with African drums, funky bass, and the latin presets on vintage rhythm machines, but now you have elements of more modern genres and techniques like chillwave and vaporwave in the form of 808s and more ’80s-style synths. This isn’t a major stylistic shift, but more just a slight change in the range of years that Godin pulls his sonic palette from. Air always looked to the past for the building blocks of their sound, Godin has just broadened the scope. The only track that really deviates from a typical Air style is the final track, “Cité radieuse,” that takes things in a bit of a jazz direction. It’s a welcome change and ends the album on a highlight.

Five of the tracks on this album have guest vocalists and Godin does his best to complement what each guest brings to their respective track. The best results come on “Back To Your Heart” and “We Forgot Love,” featuring Kate NV and Kadhja Bonet respectively. Kate NV especially has a voice that recalls the airy pop music of the ’70s and ’80s, matching Godin’s aesthetics perfectly, though the song does get a bit repetitive. Songs featuring Kirin J Callinan and Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor are fine but not particularly special. Cola Boyy’s feature on “The Foundation” almost falls into the same territory, but his unique voice and Godin’s choices to complement it just manage to save the track. All other tracks feature Godin’s voice filtered through a vocoder, samples of what sound like GPS directions (“Turn Right, Turn Left”), or no vocals at all.

Overall, I think this is a pretty enjoyable album. Godin is operating well within his wheelhouse. And while there’s something to be said for experimentation, there’s nothing wrong with sticking to what you know when you do it this well. He makes welcome updates to the signature downtempo sound he developed with Air and he makes good choices with his guest vocalists. Concrete and Glass is a nice, relaxing electronic album to play in the background, or to enjoy quietly with headphones.

3.5/5.0