I always look forward to the beginning of December because I get to start putting together my favorite albums of the year. Just like every year I can’t wait to hear your comments and complaints. Let me know what albums should have made the list and what albums obviously shouldn’t have been there. And I always like to point out that I purposefully used the word “favorite” instead of “best” because I can’t really argue the latter. As usual, I’ll have some videos for you to watch and listen to and the titles of each album are links to iTunes if you’re interested in purchasing the music. Alright, let’s do it:
So let’s start the list off with an old favorite of mine, Jason Mraz. I’ve been a fan of his since the beginning and I always enjoy his albums. Each one is different than the last without losing the Mraz sound and YES! is no exception. What makes this record different is the change in backing musicians. YES! was recorded with an all-female band named Raising Jane playing everything except for Jason’s parts. And on the tour (that Halie and I was lucky enough to attend) Raising Jane opened and played with Jason. They had a great chemistry amongst themselves and between them and Jason and the night was filled with an incredibly positive vibe and enjoyable music. As always, Jason’s voice is still one of the strongest in the business even if he doesn’t use it to it’s full potential all the time. Let’s listen to “Hello, You Beautiful Thing” so you can get a feel for the album:
I’m not sure if you’re familiar with St. Vincent (stage name of Annie Clark) but she’s really, really good. She started as a member of The Polyphonic Spree and moved on to be part of Sufjan Steven’s touring band. Finally she started her own band under the name St. Vincent and has been making infectious music ever since. This self-titled album is actually her fourth and you can hear the expertise and experience in every note played. She’s an inventive guitar player even though she doesn’t force her guitar into the forefront of her music. With that said, seeing her live consisted of her relying much heavier on the her guitar which created a completely different vibe than her album has. And both are great. Anyways, here’s “Digital Witness:”
Speaking of odd women. This lady makes some really great pop music. And her lyrics are hilarious, thought-provoking, inappropriate, and everything else you’d ever want from words. There are so many things about this album that make me love it. First, the name. As far as I know, she got the name from Kanye West’s album Yeezus. In the song “Sheezus” she sings about all the female pop singers and how awesome they are but she ends the chorus with “Give me that crown, bitch, I wanna be Sheezus.” My next favorite thing about her album is the humor and wit she puts into every song. One of the funniest tracks is “URL Badman” in which she mocks all the online commentators that have only horrible things to say on every youtube video, especially for female artist. But Lily Allen also has the beautiful on her record. There are numerous love songs about her, her husband, and her children. She speaks candidly about the great and the mundane when it comes to marriage and having children. And within all of these, she continues to make feministic statements that really question society’s views on what women artist should and should not talk about. I guess the best way to introduce this album would be to let her tell you about being “Sheezus:”
So when I was in college I regularly would get the iTunes free single of the week. For some reason I forget to do that now but over the years I’ve come across a lot of great music because of this. One example: Paolo Nutini and his first single “New Shoes.” I’ve followed his career since that first single in 2007 and have always jammed whatever he releases. His newest album, Caustic Love, has everything I love about Paolo Nutini: incredibly strong vocals, upbeat funky jams, slow soulful crooners, a great backing band, and music that continuously surprises you about where it’s going next. This year at ACL I finally got to see him perform live (and I was front row). He put on a great performance and I can’t wait to see him again. Listen to “Scream (Funk My Life Up)” to hear what he can do vocally and musically:
Now let’s get to a really odd woman. Merrill Garbus, the lead singer of TUNE-YARDS (or tUnE-yArDs), creates percussively bombastic pop music. Her vocal range is anywhere between a manly growl to some of the sweetest high notes you’ve ever heard. Her lyrics can go from nonsensical to depressing in one verse. Her stage performance is a sight to see with most members on stage playing some type of percussive instrument while interweaving intricate harmonies and layering it all over a funky bass line. Which brings us to her new album, Nikki Nack. From “Water Fountains” infectiously funky beat to the smooth vocals all over “Wait for a Minute,” the album gives us an unpredictable landscape of what pop music can be. I want you to listen to “Real Thing” to really hear the range in her vocals and what she can do with pop music:
So if you’ve paid attention to my favorite albums list for the past few years, you’ve might have noticed less and less rock bands show up. And I’ll tell you why. Over time rock music has become bland and boring to me. I just feel like hearing a four-piece rock band play the same few chords has been driven into the ground. That said, there are exceptions. Bands doing something unique, creative, or just so damned well you can’t not like them. I’d say Austin rock band Spoon meets all these exceptional standards. They consistently make great, minimalistic, funky rock music. Every record doesn’t disappoint. And their newest, They Want my Soul, is no different. Here’s the opening track, “Rent I Pay:”
Every once in a while I’ll use iTunes radio’s First Play to listen to an album from a band I’ve never heard just to see if anything good is slipping through my fingers. One day I decided to play this album. And it starts. Piano pop. Almost punk vocals and harmonies. Then it starts sounding like a musical. I almost feel like I’m listening to a Glee soundtrack. Later into the album there’s some incredible piano ballads. A few great lyrics slip into my ear. Then a few hilarious songs. And by the end I’m confused. Then I listen to the whole thing again. And again. And then I pre-order the album. And it’s been on repeat pretty regularly ever since it’s release. You almost need to hear the whole album to appreciate this band. Each song only shows one facet of this larger picture of a great, almost perfect, pop band. They have a few music videos you can look up on youtube but here’s the audio from the first track, “Rockstar,” so you can hear what I heard first:
Now speaking of pop music, Pharrell Williams. Every freaking popular song over this past summer either was written by, produced by, or featuring Pharrell. And then he released his full album, G I R L, and that was it. That was all the music anybody needed for the summer. One killer jam after another. Upbeat, sexy, and incredibly fun. From beginning to end. It never got old because you wanted to dance to the record over and over. Of course everybody knows (and some hate) his single “Happy” but you can’t judge him off that one song, even though it’s a great song albeit overplayed. But there are plenty of more great songs on the record. And as an ode to all women, how can you hate it? Anyways, I guess we’ll continue with the opening tracks of each. Here’s “Marilyn Monroe:”
So these next two albums are from bands that have taken long hiatuses (announced and unannounced) and have finally released new music. First we have Damien Rice, the musical love of my later high school years. He pretty much disappeared from the spotlight until this past year and released My Favourite Faded Fantasy after a long (and difficult for fans) 8 years. The album is everything I wanted it to be. All the emotion, raw power, and inappropriateness of his earlier work brought up to today with Rick Rubin’s clean and lushly orchestrated production. Even with only 8 tracks, each song gives us so much. His vocal performance is as great as ever, his lyrical genius still shining through. This is the only official video released so far for the album, “I Don’t Want to Change You:”
And finally we have number one. Nickel Creek. Playing their first show in 1989 with the oldest member being 12, they started releasing incredible bluegrass albums with folk, country, pop, and rock influences during the early 2000s. Their last album was released in 2005, a hiatus announced in 2007. And finally, we have a new album: A Dotted Line. If you don’t know anything about Nickel Creek, I’m not really sure how to explain the music to you without letting you listen. If you are familiar with them, get this new record. It’s all the goodness of the last few albums blended in with more drive, more emotion, and more creativity than they’ve ever shown together. I say “together” because during their hiatus all the members have been creating incredible solo work or work with other musicians, my favorite being Chris Thile’s band Punch Brothers. Anyways, Nickel Creek has three members who all sing. So let’s try to get a track for each of them. Here’s violinist Sara Watkins leading “Destination:”
Next we have the oddest track from the record, “Hayloft.” Although Sara sings the chorus, mandolinist Chris Thile sings most of the song:
And last but not least we have the slightly more traditional bluegrass track “21st of May.” Really listen to these lyrics because they crack me up. If you can pick it up, he’s singing from the perspective of Pastor Harold Camping wrongly predicting the rapture on the 21st of May:
And if you can’t get enough of all this awesomeness, here’s their incredible performance for NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert. Although two of the above tracks are repeated, it’s worth watching them play it all live to really drive home their musical and storytelling abilities:
There you go. That’s all of them. Until next year.
Oh, yeah, let me do the honorable mentions. 5 artist (in no particular order) that released really good albums this year that almost made my list: Coldplay, Heath McNease, Elizabeth & The Catapult, Jack White, and Kimbra.
Okay, hit me with your comments. What albums did I miss? Which ones am I completely crazy for having on here? Why am I an idiot?