1. NICKEL CREEK: A Dotted Line
Perhaps my most anticipated record of the past few years, this is a reunion album. After nearly a decade since the release of Why Should the Fire Die? (2005), Chris Thile (mandolin) and brother and sister duo, Sara (wicked fiddle) and Sean Watkins (guitar) joined forces once again after years apart doing their own thing musically. The mandolin virtuoso, Chris Thile, is a MacArthur Fellow and recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship or “Genius Grant.” He may very well be my favorite artist right now and is probably the best mandolinist in the world. He prodigiously produces albums, individually and in collaboration with some of the world’s best musical artists (Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and the brothers Punch). This album happens to mark the quadranscentennial anniversary of Nickel Creek’s forming. Having played so long with one another, the three are just in sync like a trichord. Lyrically, instrumentally, vocally: this album met all my expectations. It’s gorgeous, fun, impressive. In a word, it’s vintage Nickel Creek but progresses beyond their earlier work.
2. ANDREW BIRD: Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…
Not only can the man whistle like a champion, but he can also produce a phenomenal cover album. This is Andrew’s 8th studio album and it’s a collection of The Handsome Family covers. The husband-wife duo Brett and Renniy Sparks are excellent song-writers but Bird makes their songs come alive for me in ways the The Handsome Family just don’t. I’m sure they’re handsome and all but their versions of their own songs don’t do it for me. Sorry. Nonetheless, So Much Wine, Merry Christmas is definitely one of my favorite songs on the album and possibly one of my all-time favorites. It’s about a couple having a fight: “listen to me butterfly: there’s only so much wine, that you can drink, in one life, but it will never be enough, to save you from, the bottom your glass.” That’s tragic and genius. Tin Foiled is also phenomenal. From start to finish there’s not a song I don’t love. I saw Andrew Bird and his band The Hands of Glory at the Vancouver Folk Festival this summer and it was one of the better live performances I’ve seen.
3. BECK: Morning Phase
This album has been my steady companion through the whole year, especially in the car. I first heard Beck when I was 9 years old (via MTV, I’m sure). The track I’m a Loser from his album Mellow Gold (1994) was like my anthem in 4th grade. Odelay (1996) was released two years later and I was hooked. But then… Beck and I decide to take a few years off from one another, mostly due to artistic differences (there are some other reasons but I’d rather not go into them now, thank you). As it turned out, I sort of lost track of Beck for almost a decade. And then he released Morning Phase and I decided to give it a listen for the same reason I decided to listen to Bob Dylan’s shameful Christmas album, Christmas In the Heart, back in 2009. I wanted to see if the old hack could still hack it. As it turns out, Morning Phase is the happiest musical surprise of my year. The album is smooth and big and easy; such a gulp of fresh air.
4. HOZIER: Hozier
The guy reminds me of Jeff Buckley, which is a massive compliment. Andrew Hozier-Byrne and I also happen to share a birthday, St. Patty’s Day, so we’re almost brothers. The Irishman has some serious pipes and is an old soul. His songs are sometimes haunting and always full of passion. After the wildly successful EP Take Me To Church (2013), his self-titled album provides a larger quantity of the same goodness. Take Me to Church is likely his best known track. I think my favorites are To Be Alone and Work Song. He’s probably the guy I’d most like to see live in the next year.
5. THE NEW BASEMENT TAPES: Lost on the River
This album is the love child of Marcus Mumford (Mumford and Sons), Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops), and Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes). This may be a bit graphic but one could accurately describe this as a musical orgy inspired by Bob Dylan. The album is 15-tracks that introduce the public to newly discovered Bob Dylan lyrics. I haven’t met an album with Jim James that I didn’t like. A few of my favorite tracks are “Down on the Bottom, ” “When I Get My Hands On You,” “Kansas City,” and “Spanish Mary.”
Here’s another video of their recording sesh. I include it mostly because you get to see Johnny Depp playing electric guitar in the song. Enjoy.
6. APHEX TWIN: Syro
This is what I listen to on my dark days… days when I fall into dreaming I’m a Jason-Bourne-esque-Russian-assassin who spends his days listening to Aphex Twin for a little pick-me-up while reclining slightly in a red leather circular lounging couch in a v(odk)ampirish nightclub. I mean… what? Just joking, but seriously I understand almost nothing about this album, track titles (especially) included, but I like it. Whatevski.
7. ALT-J: This is All Yours
I discovered this British boy band this year. OK so they’re not exactly a boy band but they’re British and boys… so close enough. Alt-J is an indie-poppie-rock group of four lads whose music is bloody popular in the UK. When they really get rocking, they can remind me of a sleepier less-synthy version of Mutemath. “This Is All Yours” is kind of all over the place but in a good way. It has some catchy tunes (the Intro rocks; Every Other Freckle; Left Hand Free); some lovely, harmonious ballads (Arrival in Nara); and a strange interlude with pipes called Garden of England.
8. STILE ANTICO: From the Imperial Court: Music for the House of Hapsburg
I love early polyphonic music and I don’t care who knows it. Stile Antico (pronounced Steal-ey-Antique-O) is Italian for “antique style.” The obligatory Stile Antico (. I love everything they produce and often listen to them when reading or writing.
There is no track from this album on YouTube at the time this was posted. Here’s a gorgeous performance of “Agnus Dei” from William Byrd’s “Mass for 5 Voices” from their excellent album The Phoenix Rising (2013).
9. CARIBOU: Our Love
Dan Snaith, the man (the myth, the legend) behind Caribou reminds me of a Canadian Moby with more hair. The music is like a mellower Daft Punk. That is: it’s more reindeer-ish than caribou. The track Can’t Do Without You is the type of song you dance in the subdued, restrained kind of way. Like when you’re dancing but you don’t want people to know you’re dancing. This is what my sister calls a “subtle dance party.” One track I could do without is Our Love. For some reason it brought back tragic memories of middle school dances (I kept thinking I heard “sweet dreams are made of these…”) but that’s just the sound I hear when my epileptic seizures are coming on. Generally speaking, the tracks have a nice flow and tend to blossom at the end. This album would serve you well as a road trip soundtrack with familiar friends.
10. D’ANGELO and THE VANGUARD Black Messiah
Every since my days of listening to D’Angelo’s during study hall before sports practice in high school, I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for D’Angelo. This is the man’s his first full-length album since Voodoo back at the turn of the century and it’s on point. With some contributions by Q-Tips and ?uestlove, the album grooves like a D’Angelo album should. The only thing that might make this better would be a shirtless D’Angelo for cover art. As it stands (even without a shirtless D’Angelo), the album does not disappoint. All joking aside, the timing of the album release coincides with race relations (or race mis-relations) at a fever pitch in the country and I think it will make an even bigger splash because of it.
U2: Songs of Innocence
Classic U2. Again, somehow they’ve done it again. My favorite track is probably Every Breaking Wave. Lykke Li makes an appearance on the final track of the album, which is super cool. The album rocks and the album rolls – what more can I say?
LYKKE LI: I Never Learn
Speaking of Lykke, this album its fair share of anthems that will resonate with folks in their early-20s. They’ll be all like: “That’s so true. I’m never gonna love again. Lykke just gets me.”
JOHN LUTHER ADAMS: Become Ocean
This is not an album but the name of a symphonic piece some 42-minutes long. Listen to it, you’ll get lost in it’s depths but you won’t mind.
ÁSGEIR: In the Silence
This is the first album by Icelandic artist Ásgeir Trausti Einarsson recorded in English. In the Nordic tongue, “As” means God and “Geir” means spear and so his name means God’s spear. If that’s not cool enough, his music is also pretty good.
NEW PORNOGRAPHERS: Brill Bruisers
This is a high-energy album that hits all the marks you’d expect from the band. If you liked their previous albums, my gut says you’ll like this one, too.
BLACK KEYS: Turn Blue
More complex than previous albums but not overly produced. Less raw but more mature. Doesn’t pack the punch of Brothers (2010) or El Camino (2011) but it’s solid.
This is melancholy-winter, piano music with haunting vocals. It’s beautiful, sad, and delicate like a droopy rose. This would be my soundtrack if I had a house with a view of the sea during a nor’easter and someone I love just died. It’s like a less good, subdued, femalian version (not less good because its femalian) of Bon Iver’s Blood Bank (2009).
TEMPLES: Sun Structures
The sound of this neo-psychedelic band 3 parts peppy, 1 part trippy. They remind me of the Beatles and a much less experimental Yes. All the same, the album showcases the experimental sound and excellent musicianship of this British band. I would recommend the album if you’re sad and want to be happy or if you’re already and just want to be happier.
ST. VINCENT: St. Vincent
It’s a snazzy little album. St. Vincent is like a edgier-weirder Feist.
WEEZER: Everything Will Be Alright In the End
In the very first track Ain’t Got Nobody, I heard echoes of My Name is Jonas and Surf Wax America from the glory days with their Blue album. Sadly, nothing they produce will ever surpass their first album but there is something comforting in the grungy tone of their power chords and voice of Rivers Cuomo. Still, I enjoyed the album – it is very Weezer and that’s not usually too bad a thing.
BÉLA FLECK and ABIGAIL WASHBURN
If you’re into banjo music, you’ll like this album recorded by the husband and wife banjo powerhouse. They told Joshua to step aside and were all like: “As for me and my house, we will play the banjo.”