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.

Sean’s Favorites: 2011

Well, I certainly took my time getting to this one. Before you get too far, you might want to go back and refresh your memory of my 2010 list. But anyway, in 2011 I finished my second year of college and left that school for a couple reasons (let’s just say I didn’t transition well to the college lifestyle). The Marvel Cinematic Universe began to truly take root with the release of the first Thor and Captain America movies, NASA flew the last Space Shuttle mission, and Osama bin Laden was found and killed. The role music played in my life was pretty similar to 2010. I was still listening and reading as much as I could. I continued to discover new things and dig deeper into genres I previously hadn’t explored. Here are some albums that have endured for me from that time.

Capitol

BEASTIE BOYS – HOT SAUCE COMMITTEE PART TWO–4 years since their last album, 7 years since their last album with lyrics, and 13 years after their last great album (sorry to fans of To the 5 Boroughs), the Beastie Boys came back in the best possible way. They came back loud, funky, and ready to party. Hot Sauce fits nicely in the sound that the Beasties established through the ’90s with obscure samples, live instruments, synths, and punk rock attitude. Other Beastie Boy staples like instrumental funk tracks and the odd punk song are here too. This really was a return to form for the Beasties and it would become a fitting end to their discography. MCA sadly passed away from cancer in 2012 and Mike D and Ad-Rock announced that they would not make new music as the Beastie Boys a couple years later.

Nonesuch

THE BLACK KEYS – EL CAMINO–2010’s Brothers broke The Black Keys into the mainstream, then El Camino blasted them off the charts. The fuzzy guitars in the opening seconds of “Lonely Boy” tell you immediately that you’re not getting the slow-jamming R&B rock of Brothers. This is going to be a raucous, badass garage rock record, and you better buckle up. But the Keys haven’t forgotten their blues roots. “Gold on the Ceiling” and “Little Black Submarines” still have hints of their beloved delta blues. And later tracks like “Hell of a Season” and “Stop Stop” still pull from R&B. El Camino really is the total package and the crown jewel of the later half of The Black Keys catalog. They haven’t quite captured the same magic since.

Jagjaguwar

BON IVER – self titled–My ass was planted firmly on the indie folk bandwagon in the early 2010s. I had heard of Bon Iver, but my knowledge was limited to the song “Skinny Love,” I hadn’t heard the rest of the first album. When I saw that he had come out with a new album and it was getting very good reviews, I gave it a chance. I pressed play and was met with… not indie folk. I don’t really know how to categorize what I heard but it was beautiful and incredibly compelling. I put this album in my car stereo and it stayed there for months, despite not really being “driving music.” There are so many layers to uncover on this album. Even as I revisit it for this list, I’m hearing new things along with what made me love it in the first place.

Sensibility/Columbia

THE CIVIL WARS – BARTON HOLLOW–Sticking with the indie folk theme, The Civil Wars were one of many groups to emerge during the genre’s boom at the time. A collaboration between contemporary Christian singer Joy Williams and Americana singer-songwriter John Paul White, the band quickly proved they were not just another Mumford clone trying to capitalize on a trend. Their sound was much quieter (mostly), and their lyrics embodied feelings of longing and loss in ways that other songwriters only dream of. Barton Hollow itself plays almost like a timeline of a relationship with lighter songs leading to the explosive and raucous title track. The tone then turns to darker minor key songs and then ends with bittersweet goodbyes. Unfortunately we only got one other album from The Civil Wars before they called it quits, but they will be remembered as one of the better parts of the indie folk boom of the 2010s.

Samples & Seconds/Republic

GOTYE – MAKING MIRRORS–Yes, this is the “Somebody That I Used to Know” album, and that song is fantastic, but I think we can all agree that it was overplayed at the time. However, this album is so much more than that song. It’s track list has just one indie pop gem after another, some with hints of old school soul and R&B and even hints of Paul Simon. There is some art-pop weirdness here and there, but it’s way more accessible than it isn’t. I also feel like the fact that “Somebody…” became such a meme distracted from the strength of Gotye’s songwriting and his voice. You really should do yourself a favor and check out the rest of this album, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with what you find. The only downside is this is the last thing that Gotye has really released. But I keep my fingers crossed in hopes of someday getting another album.

Universal

OWL CITY – ALL THINGS BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFUL–I feel like I’m going to lose a lot of music fan cred by admitting that I like Owl City. Say all you want about how he’s a more sanitized, ultra twee version of The Postal Service, but if you follow Adam Young, you find out that he has a serious DIY attitude and he just does what he wants, and I respect that. All Things Bright and Beautiful was his second major label release and, to me, the best example of the Owl City brand of synth pop. The instrumentals are super clean and precise with intricate percussion tracks. These back catchy melodies and lyrics that are full of metaphor and beautiful language (that is, admittedly a little cheesy, but way less than some found on Ocean Eyes). I could go on for awhile on this one. Maybe I’ll do a full write-up for it someday.

Pure Noise

THE STORY SO FAR – UNDER SOIL AND DIRT–By 2011, the emo and pop-punk bands of the late ’90s and ’00s had either disbanded or were making radio rock and bland power pop. It was enough to keep the fans happy, but the world needed a new class of pop-punk to bring the energy back. The new decade brought that with bands like Fireworks, Man Overboard, Real Friends, The Wonder Years, and Handguns. One that quickly rose to the top was The Story So Far who kept the catchy pop hooks but brought back the harder edge of punk with more raw vocals and energy that would permeate through the entire scene over the next few years. 2011 was a good year for pop-punk, and Under Soil and Dirt was one of its best releases.

Hassle

TURBOWOLF – self titled–In the last entry of this series, I mentioned that The Sword left me hungry for more riff-heavy hard rock and metal, but I had a hard time finding it. However, I was lucky enough to find Turbowolf while I was stumbling about in the dark. But Turbowolf is not your typical stoner or doom metal band. They do have sludgy guitars, an occult aesthetic, and riffs for days, but they also have the attitude and occasional speed of punk, the atmosphere of psychedelic, and the weird synths of horror punk. Mix this all together and you get the tasty, hard rocking riff smoothie of their self titled debut.

Vulf

VULFPECK – MIT PECK–Somewhere in Michigan, a few friends decided that they were going to start a band that tried to capture the vibe and sound of old live rhythm sections like The Wrecking Crew or the Muscle Shoals band. Little did they know that they were about to create the minimalist funk powerhouse of the modern era known as Vulfpeck. Mit Peck was the first collection of tracks they released into the world, containing songs like “Beastly” and the band’s signature track, “It Gets Funkier.” With this EP, Vulfpeck introduced us to their brand of retro-styled funk and soul, but more importantly it introduced us to the bass playing of Joe Dart. (We’re not worthy!)