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.

Quarantine Quick Takes, Part 3: My Picks

Alright, this should be the last one before we get back to our regularly scheduled programming. Who am I kidding? This thing has never been regularly scheduled. But you know what I mean, we’ll get back to single album reviews. Anyway, in this last entry, we have some albums that I wanted to make sure I got to share my thoughts on. A lot came out in March, so I have a lot of thoughts.

Lesser Known

BRIAN FALLON – LOCAL HONEY–There are a few specific genres of music that I’m just a huge sucker for and heartland rock is definitely one of them. Brian Fallon, lead singer of The Gaslight Anthem, is one of the modern artists scratching that itch. His second album, Sleepwalkers, was one of my favorite albums of 2018. Local Honey is his follow-up and it’s a much quieter, more personal album. Despite this, the spirit of heartland rock is still very much present. With the exception of the murder ballad “Vincent,” all the songs are very personal, with half of them being love songs and one being words of hope and encouragement for Fallon’s daughter. There are a couple moments where I wish the song would go big and loud but that would defeat the purpose of the album. 4.0/5.0

Prolifica

CIRCA WAVES – SAD HAPPY–Earlier this year, I praised the first half of tracks released for this album back in January. The upbeat and catchy dance rock hooks were working a lot better for me than the band’s last album. I was hoping that they would continue the momentum when the full album was released. Now we have the whole thing and it’s a somewhat confusingly packaged double album with only 14 total tracks and a run time of 47 minutes. Unfortunately, as with most double albums, there are tracks that don’t need to be here and it runs out of steam by the end. This is a little concerning when you consider this album isn’t that much longer than your average rock album. It’s still better and more enjoyable than last year’s What’s It Like Over There? but cutting this down to a single album with 10 tracks might have been a better course of action. 3.5/5.0

Vortexan

ERIC JOHNSON – EJ, VOL. II–For 2020, guitar virtuoso and songwriter Eric Johnson has given us a sequel to 2016’s acoustic album, EJ. Much like that album and a lot of Johnson’s recent work, he is showcasing his songwriting and vocal abilities. This isn’t new, even Ah Via Musicom–famous for his signature song, “Cliffs of Dover”–has songs with lyrics. But anyone but his most die-hard fans will find the lack of electric guitar on this album a little disappointing. Is Johnson an accomplished musician across multiple instruments? Absolutely. Are his songwriting skills and vocal performances competent? Sure. Is anything on this album noteworthy? Not really. 2.0/5.0

Republic

PHANTOGRAM – CEREMONY–I’ve had an interesting relationship with Phantogram’s music. I fell in love with the trip-hop-meets-indie-rock sound on their debut. But they apparently decided that they did’t want to make that kind of music soon after releasing it. I’ve been unable to connect with the music on the following albums in the same way. Ceremony is the closest I’ve come and I’m sure that’s due to the fact that some of their trip-hop origins are popping back up on a few tracks. I’m sure it’s always been there, but it’s really front and center here. There are still tracks that just don’t grab my interest and some other just general weirdness. But this is the first time I’ve really enjoyed some Phantogram tunes in about 10 years. 3.0/5.0

Ruby Yacht

R.A.P. FERREIRA – PURPLE MOONLIGHT PAGES–Another one of those genres that I’m a sucker for is jazz rap. I am all about groups like A Tribe Called Quest and Digable Planets. Every year, I find at least one album that scratches my jazz rap itch. So far this year, that honor falls to Purple Moonlight Pages from R.A.P. Ferreira (formerly known as milo). As the “Rhythm and Poetry” on the cover implies, there is a bit more of a spoken word element to this than just rapping. But Ferreira delivers dense and conscious lyrics with clever rhyming and structures that call to mind the best lyricists of hip-hop’s golden age. And the jazz instrumentals just make them that much better. The album’s one major weakness is it’s length, clocking in at a stout 52 minutes. When your music is this dense, length is not your friend. Otherwise, this is a very enjoyable album. 3.5/5.0

UNFD

SILVERSTEIN – A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DROWN–Honestly, I had no idea that Silverstein has been consistently releasing new material this whole time. As such, this is probably the first time I consciously listened to new music from them in over 10 years. Which is a funny coincidence because a lot of the album sounds like music that was coming out 10 or so years ago. Given the gap in my listening history, I don’t know if this comes from a conscious effort to recreate the sound or the fact that their sound has changed so little over the course of 15 years. Either way, A Beautiful Place… brings the bad along with the good from the time. About half of the tracks sound like the more produced emo and pop-punk songs of the late 2000s instrumentally and lyrically. And some of the melodies sound like they came right out of an All-American Rejects song. But the other half is full of the things we fondly remember from post-hardcore and screamo from the same era. It’s not bad, but it could have been better. 3.0/5.0

Asthmatic Kitty

SUFJAN STEVENS/LOWELL BRAMS – APORIA–This latest release from celebrated songwriter Sufjan Stevens is a collaboration with is step-father, the Lowell from the title of his 2015 album Carrie & Lowell. The track list consists of mostly instrumental electronic compositions that came out of a jam session that occurred when Lowell visited Sufjan in New York. And it mostly sounds like just that: a bunch of electronic improvisations cut down into digestible tracks. It’s not unpleasant and there are a few moments of brilliance, but the overall impression I get is that it’s all just pretty “meh.” I know it’s not really fair to expect an artist as seemingly restless as Sufjan Stevens to stick to a particular sound or formula, but when you compare this to his previous work, it is a little disappointing. 2.5/5.0

Merge

WAXAHATCHEE – SAINT CLOUD–On this album, singer and songwriter Katie Crutchfield taps into the worlds and sounds of indie folk and alt-country. For me personally, the result is ultimately only okay. There are bright spots both instrumentally and lyrically, and sometimes it’s even on the same song. But one of the pitfalls of the peak of indie folk was forgettable songs for the sake of a sound or aesthetic. Saint Cloud unfortunately falls into that trap on more than a couple songs. That’s not to say it’s bad, the brightest moments shine especially bright. In the end it’s still a good album, just not a great one. 3.0/5.0