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2014 Mid-Year in Music, Part II

June 26, 2014

Yesterday I posted Part I of my review of others’ mid-year music reviews (pretty meta, no?). It featured a sampling of the Top 25 Songs of 2014 So Far according to Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone and Spin‘s 50 Best Albums of 2014 So Far.

As promised, today I’m going to move on from the mainstream music magazines and highlight smaller or less known music sites, starting with:

Music blog Pretty Much Amazing (PMA) which, like Spin, offered up its 50 Best Albums of 2014 So Far (just posted yesterday). They also posted their 50 Best Songs of 2014 So Far. This site really is amazing, as despite the fact that they clearly meant this to be a six-month review, it was posted in mid-April! Nevertheless, I have a soft spot in my heart for PMA, as it was one of the first sites I leaned on to bring me up to speed on new music after losing my way for some years in the 2000s. Some highlights from the PMA lists, starting with the top albums (album links are to Spotify streams):

  • 49 Tori Amos, Unrepentant Geraldines. Who know that Tori Amos was still making music? Is the Lilith Fair reorganizing too? (One prominent Lilith Fair artists says no.)
  • 41 Parquet Courts, Sunbathing Animal. The Brooklyn guitar kings make yet another list. Amen!
  • 31  Speedy Ortiz, Real Hair. This is a band I wish I was paying more attention to. Every time I hear Speedy Ortiz, I like what I hear. They’ve been compared to Dinosaur Jr., Pavement, and Superchunk, among other jangly early ’90s indie rock bands. Time to jump on board.
  • 25 Cloud Nothings, Here And Nowhere Else
  • 20 Future Islands, Singles. Future Islands are the 2014 band that is everywhere you look. In part because of their noteworthy performance on Letterman, in part because there’s always some indie band that captures the nation’s attention (remember .fun?), this is the cool band that your moderately cool friends love. I don’t dislike them for that reason – for example, the same could be said about Phoenix in 2010 and I love them – but I don’t care much for Future Islands.
  • 15 Beck, Morning Phase. 4 more days!
  • 14 Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence. Well this is a bit of a surprise. I didn’t think anyone was on the LDR bandwagon anymore. PMA calls it “a stunning accomplishment,” adding, “Del Rey and the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach (the album’s main producer) complete the logical trajectory laid out by “Video Games,” “Ride,” and “Young and Beautiful” and mercifully ignore everything in between.” As someone who still stands by those songs, I’m tempted to check out Ultraviolence.
  • 9 Perfect Pussy, Say Yes to Love. I didn’t mention yesterday that this album is only 23 minutes long. It’s hard to believe, because PP packs so much into so little time. An incredibly forceful debut that will be hard to follow up.
  • 8 tUnE-yArDs, Nikki Nack. Stop the madness!
  • 2 Sharon Van Etten, Are We There and 1 St. Vincent, St. Vincent. Women rule 2014.

Next up, some highlights from PMA’s 50 Best Songs of 2014 So Far:

  • 50 Dum Dum Girls, “Are You OK?”. Our first mention of the DDGs. I continue to believe that they went in the wrong direction with their latest album (which I talked about here), moving from low-fi to glossy. I hope their next is a return to form.
  • 43 Lykke Li, “No Rest For The Wicked”. Another first mention, and another artists who went in a different direction with her third album. And another whom I previously loved and am now on the fence about. I’m not per se against artists evolving – for example, I love the continued metamorphosis of MGMT – but in the case of both the DDGs and Lykke Li, where once I was a huge fan I am now skeptical of the future.
  • 36 Beck, “Country Down”. This would not have been my first choice off of Morning Phase (that would be “Blue Moon”). In fact, this might be my least favorite of the 12 songs on the album. It just goes to show how strong and diverse the album is overall.
  • 28 Sharon Van Etten, “Every Time The Sun Comes Up” and 10 “Your Love Is Killing Me”. With all the mentions of Van Etten over the past two days, I thought it would be useful to highlight the two songs that PMA put on their list.
  • 17 Caribou, “Can’t Do Without You”. I didn’t know that Caribou had new music out. “Odessa“, off their album Swim, was one of my favorite songs of 2010.
  • 16 Todd Terje, “Johnny and Mary (featuring Bryan Ferry)”. Wait, Brian Ferry? At a minimum it makes you ask, who is Todd Terje?
  • 02 Future Islands, “Seasons (Waiting On You)”. And here is the song that made them everyone’s darlings.

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Moving on from PMA, I turn next to NPR, consistently a thoughtful guide to what’s worth listening to in today’s music. One of their many pieces of content is their All Songs Considered podcast, hosted by Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton . On this week’s show, the hosts were joined by NPR Music’s Stephen Thompson to recount their favorite music from the first six months of 2014. You can listen to or download the podcast episode here. In the meantime, here are some highlights from the show:

  • Stephen beats Robin to the punch to claim Perfect Pussy as his favorite new band of the year. He says, “”I was amazed at how much [this record] had grown on me. There’s this incredible ferocity but there’s also layers, textures and surprises that roll in throughout the record.”
  • Stephen names Sylvan Esso’s self-titled album one of his favorites of the year so far, saying “”Nick Sanborn creates these electronic beds for Amelia Meath’s vocals to lie atop. It’s an absolutely intoxicating record.” The song to check out is “Coffee“. Also, see Esso live in concert at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club, courtesy of NPR.
  • Boilen’s favorite new artist is a band called The Family Crest, a San Francisco-based seven-piece group. Boilen: “I’m so thrilled about this band. … Liam McCormick is opera-trained, and many of the musicians are classically trained. There’s some jazz musicians as well … really quite a force.” The song to check out is “The World“.

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Finally, there’s Stereogum, a site that could hardly be called “under the radar” anymore but is still (in my opinion) the leading indie music taste-maker. They too posted the 50 Best Albums Of 2014 So Far. Highlights:

  • The logo for the “50 Best” was styled to look similar to Pixies’ new album Indie Cindy; that would have made more sense had Indie Cindy made the cut.
  • tUnE-yArDs’ Nikki Nack is all the way down at 47. I find that an encouraging sign that maybe it won’t make some year end lists.
  • Similarly, St. Vincent is at 46, Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There is at 29 and Future Islands’ Singles is at 28. Stereogum is clearly not afraid to stand alone with less-than enthusiastic rankings of these highly acclaimed albums.
  • And then, I see Beck’s Morning Phase at 45. Oh well, you were bound to get one wrong guys!
  • At #38 is the Hold Steady with Teeth Dreams. Doesn’t it seem like the Hold Steady’s time has passed?
  • At #35 … Coldplay with Ghost Stories. Wow. I really didn’t see that coming. Coldplay. Coldplay?! As you can see, words escape me.
  • We have another Perfect Pussy sighting, at #34. These lists are a little strange, aren’t they? How does one compare Coldplay and Perfect Pussy anyway, let alone decide that one is so slightly better than the other.
  • The best cover art on this list? Duck Sauce on their album Quack (#31). Meanwhile, cover art that most accurately depicts how I often feel – Wye Oak on their album Shriek(#21).
  • Two of my favorites are here again: Parquet Courts (25) and Cloud Nothings (23).
  • Lana Del Rey shocking me again as Ultraviolence is at #15. I was willing to write off the PMA ranking as a fluke but now I’m determined to get a copy of this record. Surprises like this are why I like doing these kinds of exercises.
  • The biggest surprise though is that nothing after #15 grabbed me. It was the usual assortment of albums that I’ve seen on these lists for two days now, the new ones from Swans, Sun Kil Moon, The War on DrugsAgainst Me!, and Real Estate. I’m sure these are all very solid albums, but I have a feeling they are more likely than not flavors of the moment rather than lasting pieces of art. I don’t see a future where I listen to the 2014 The War on Drugs album (even if it is at #3), while I think I’ll be listening to Morning Phase, Sunbathing Animal, and maybe even Ultraviolence for years to come. Time will tell. Which is why I always make my lists three years after the year in question. With that in mind, if you’d like to read my Best of 2010, go ahead! I’ll be listening to Lana Del Rey apparently.
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