Updated Fri, Dec 13, 2013 9:21 am
This is the fifth in a series of year-end blog posts by WOUB staff, volunteers and contributors. Check out all of this year's lists at this link.
This list is the best I could do. I used to listen to as much music as possible, but unfortunately life has caught up with me.
There are albums from Dean Wareham, Phosphorescent, Bill Callahan and Mazzy Star that I haven't heard yet. The latest from Melt Banana is still sitting in my new record stack. I just can't get to everything...but here's what I loved that I did get to hear this year.
1. David Bowie, The Next Day (ISO/Columbia): I can't say this is the best Bowie album, but it never left my car for months. A great album can be enjoyed in stages. At first you take everything in. Then you identify early favorites. Then you identify stinkers. Soon, you really get to know the songs, picking out those memorable couplets, the chord sequence at the bridge or the subtle ghost notes from the drummer. Lastly, you re-evaluate. If you're lucky, the album holds up and reveals a depth that's missing from most records. The Next Day has depth in spades. Production, performance and composition are all refined. Bowie is seasoned, and seems to have been inspired enough to give us a great record this year.
Lyrically, I wish a song or two would have been left off ("Valentine's Day" has some truly dull lyrics) but "The Stars Are Out Tonight" is a glorious update on "Fame" that features his distinct vocal harmonies. Some of these songs are his most personal ("Where Are We Now?") and biting ("The Next Day") in decades. While not up there with Low, "Heroes" or Aladdin Sane, it's still an album that I will revisit for the rest of my life.
2. PLVS VLTRA, Yo Yo Blue (Field Hymns): Toko Yasuda has had a high profile indie career (Enon, Blonde Redhead, St. Vincent), so it’s refreshing to hear her experiment on Yo Yo Blue. Unlike her debut as PLVS VLTRA, 2012′s pop-infused Parthenon, this release is mainly comprised of instrumentals; full of samples, loops and synth passages.
It's refreshing to hear Yasuda add to her musical palette and not simply repeat herself. There are vocal songs here too. "ちょ-ちょ (with Nico)" and "Falling Slowly" are two incredible tracks, worthy of being featured on a single all by themselves, though they are not out of place among the instrumentals and their disparate samples.
This album has the mood of a dream, floating above and observing a variety of scenes; detached, yet focused. New details emerge on repeated listens. A dense, dreamy album. Yo Yo Blue deserves your attention.
3. My Bloody Valentine, MBV (self-released): I'll always remember the night I was able to download and listen to MBV for the first time. A beer in hand, sitting in the sweet spot between the speakers, I cranked up this album not knowing what to expect. And I found myself smiling. A lot. The sonic slew has more presence than their previous work. The production is straightforward, despite the trademark guitar sound and buried vocals.
With this album, My Bloody Valentine has (hopefully) bridged the gap between the glorious landmark Loveless and whatever might be next. While some tracks sound right out of 1991, "New You" feels down to earth and mature. We don't know where Kevin Shields will take the band in the future, but I hope I'm around to hear it.
4. Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (1969-1971): Who would have thought that the outtakes from Dylan's biggest flop would be so damn good? There's not a stinker on this 35-song set. It's apparent what was robbed of us when producer Bob Johnston took the tapes to Nashville for overdubs: It buried the dynamic interplay of three musicians playing great songs together. The sessions featuring guitarist David Bromberg and pianist Al Kooper, which are the core of the original Self Portrait album, are intimate, playful and fun.
The alternate takes from New Morning (my favorite 70s Dylan album) offer an appreciation for how Dylan can change from one take to the next. This was a period in which Dylan was trying tried to reinvent himself. It wasn't the first or last time he would do that, but it had seemed to be the most difficult rebirth of his career. While Self Portrait is confused and overcooked, Another Self Portrait reveals that Dylan was just being Dylan, and he was at his best.
5. SK Kakraba Band, SK Kakraba Band (Holy Page): SK Kakraba is the son of world-renowned master xylophonist Kakraba Lobi. Now living and performing in Los Angeles, he plays the Ghanaian Gyil Xylophone, while accompanied by bass, drums, guitar and keyboard. The band is extremely tight, bouncing rhythms off each other while maintaining an indestructible groove. In the most basic terms, the sound of the Gyil is considered the "vibration of water that physically balances the water in the bodies of humans and animals." It’s appropriate that Kakraba flows around the accompanying instruments, and sometimes locks in to compliment and build harmonically. It’s serious dance music.
6. Aloonaluna/Motion Sickness of Time Travel, self-titled split release (Constellation Tatsu): Truly one of the most enjoyable and mesmerizing albums that I've heard in a long time. It’s a 25-minute split release from two prolific electronic artists. Side A features three tracks from Aloonaluna, aka Lynn Fister. Her composition technique sounds refined. Rather than improvised ambient music, these songs feel more like "drone pop," if there is truly such a thing. They are inviting pieces that create rich atmospheres using echo feedback and pitch shifting. Side B is a 12-minute track from Motion Sickness of Time Travel. Rachel Evans has created a piece that hovers across peaks and valleys, never descending into the depths or floating too far into the atmosphere. It’s a delicate balance, but she pulls it off.
7. Morgan Delt, Psychic Death Hole (Inflatable Tapes): Psychic Death Hole is a psychedelic-rock fan’s wet dream. Lyrics cannot be understood. The bass guitar is mixed more forward than you’d expect. Guitars and keyboards appear and disappear. The indecipherable vocal melodies soar…hell, everything soars. The distorted, dense mix is warm and inviting (as opposed to, say, the cold, distorted mixes we hear from indie rock bands in this post-Flaming Lips world). There isn’t a bad track on this album.
8. The National Park Service, I Was Flying (Lily Tapes and Records): Cleveland’s Bill Delaney has released a number of digital collections since 2011, but this is his first physical release. It’s an auspicious debut. The eight tracks on this album are a delight. The instrumentals are heavy with guitars, possessed by strange background sounds and repetitive to the point of blissful trance. Some, like "Community Sunburn," are less traditional, focusing on strangely looping tones and layered field recordings. There is a lot to dig into here, and repeated listens reveal details and depth.
9. Prefab Sprout, Crimson/Red: In high school, I fell in love with the Thomas Dolby-produced Two Wheels Good by Prefab Sprout (it was called Steve McQueen in the UK and Europe). Back then, I was more into the emerging sounds of 80s synthesizers than songwriting, but that album had some relate-able songs with odd analogies (to this young American's ears anyway) and descriptions that took you right into the scene. Paddy McAloon, the songwriter and singer of the band, was on to something. It didn't last though, and while there were a few good songs on subsequent albums, the 80s production style became more intense, and some of those songs were pretty damn stupid. I always checked out what McAloon was doing though. His voice was so distinctive. It had to be heard.
McAloon returned this year with a new album. Now essentially a solo artist, he has aged from a cocky 80s MTV star into a wise, white-haired (and bearded) man whose songwriting chops have matured. And his voice sounds virtually the same as it did in the 80s, though perhaps a bit mellowed and refined. Despite the "home computer" production, the album is one of the best he has ever made. There aren't many songs on here that I would throw away. Perhaps most notably, he updates traditional song subjects to reflect a modern way of thinking, with a slight disdain for modern life. The legend of a musician selling his soul to the Devil is presented as a look back at his career, perhaps regretting his appearances on Top of the Pops? McAloon is a guilty pleasure for me. Here, he finally delivers on all the promise he's hinted at for years.
10. Ed Askew, For the World: This album shouldn't be in my Top 10 because, in full disclosure, I recorded and mixed this album. My bandmate, songwriter Jerry DeCicca, produced it and enlisted me to engineer after he briefly toured with Ed in 2011. If not for my involvement, this album would be my number one.
Ed Askew is a 73-year-old singer, songwriter and visual artist. In 1968, he released his first album on the legendary ESP-Disk label. The album, Ask the Unicorn, has become a psych-folk classic. It mainly features Ed performing his songs on a Martin Tiple, a short-scale 10-stringed guitar. On For the World, Ed is backed by the core of his band: Jay Pluck on piano and Tyler Evans (of The Black Swans) on guitar, banjo and from time to time, Ed's old Martin Tiple. Guests include Sharon Van Etten on vocals, Mary Lattimore on harp and Marc Ribot on guitar.
Enter the world of Ed Askew and you enter the world of snowy white nights, great ships sailing on blue oceans, New York City in the early 1900s (and in the 60s and 70s), houses in maple trees and singing children. Ed's lyrics are the opposite of his abstract paintings: direct and descriptive. Yet there is still a little there to interpret in the subtlety. Ed Askew may have been branded a folk singer back then, but in reality his songs have more in common with Hoagie Carmichael, Kurt Weill and Erik Satie. And they are all personal songs. This album would kill me with it's beauty even if I had never met the man. The music is timeless.
Keith Hanlon is a musician, recording engineer, and Ohio University alumnus from Columbus, Ohio. He has played with The Black Swans and Orchestraville, among others. He is currently producing The Mug & Brush Sessions video series on YouTube and reviewing indie cassette releases on the Cassette Love blog.