MUSIC: The Half-Decade That Was

With five years nearly down for this decade, I thought I’d share some thoughts about the music that mattered most to me during the five years of 2010 through 2014. There’s certainly been some outstanding music these years and there’s been a lot to digest. I’ve been to many great concerts and come across so many incredible artists through friends, websites like Pitchfork and the A.V. Club and by always keeping my ear to the ground.

This will be something of a hodgepodge of superlatives and random thoughts on these past five years, but at the end I’ll provide lists of my 50 favorite songs, 10 favorite concerts and 10 favorite albums of the past half-decade. These will be presented without much commentary since you can read what I’ve had to say about most of these artists and their work in other places on my blog.

I’ll open up with some general thoughts on what’s happened in music since 2010.

At no time in history has it been easier to access music. That can be both a terrifically awesome and horrifically calamitous thing, for both listeners and artists. I won’t get into the debate about how the streaming services potentially screw over artists, but it’s pretty amazing for listeners to have access to a massive library of music at any given time as long as they have a stable Internet connection.

Where I find this troublesome is that listeners have so many options at their disposal and such quick access to those options that I wonder how many people really take the time anymore to get into a single artist or album, but instead just jump around from song to song willy-nilly. That I make such a huge deal about albums at the end of each year and write 3,000 words about my favorites puts me in a distinct minority, at least among people around my age.

We’re rapidly entering a phase where the 50-plus-year-old album-based model for popular music is deteriorating. When I come back to write a decade retrospective in five years, will albums still be a thing? Will artists revert to a model of releasing more EPs or individual tracks? Deep down, I don’t think albums are going away anytime soon. I think there’s still a large enough group of people who like to dive deep into the minutiae of how songs interact with each other in a bigger picture to keep the album alive. At least that’s what I hope.

That easy access to music helps diversify and evolve the tastes of people like me who really get into this stuff. It makes it so much easier to find out about (and sample the sounds of) new artists, to know when that new band you like is coming to town and to connect with others about what you like (or don’t like). This is how I have artists as different as Kendrick Lamar and Mark Kozelek show up on my year-end lists. Not only are more people listening to music now than ever, they’re also listening to more different kinds of music and appreciating things they never would have imagined without that access.

Take a band like Neutral Milk Hotel. Their last album was released in 1998 and unless you read indie magazines or alt-weeklies like the dearly-departed Boston Phoenix, or just so happened to pay attention to the Georgia freak folk scene of the late-’90s, odds are you never knew anything about them when they were together in their initial run. Their last album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea eventually grew into a cult favorite and by the time the band reunited for tours starting in 2013, they had enough of a fanbase to sell out theaters and play to festival crowds.

Today, it would be exceedingly rare for a band like Neutral Milk Hotel to go unnoticed. Quality music tends to spread like wildfire thanks to social media and the finely-tuned ears of those who run music blogs and websites. That’s not to say an album with initially-tepid reception won’t find second life later on these days. It’s just that if you’re paying attention, good music doesn’t get overlooked so much anymore.

So while the paradigm is shifting in some respects, there’s still amazing music of every flavor imaginable being made and it’s never been easier to get it. For that we should all be thankful.

ONE LATE 2014 ADDITION

One of the problems with putting out my year-end lists before the year actually ends is there’s always a chance something will come out late in the year that I either don’t give enough consideration (I typically start writing my albums post in mid-November), or it arrives after everything’s been written and posted. The latter happened this year.

On Dec. 15, the elusive neo-soul/funk legend D’Angelo released Black Messiah, his first album in 14 years in the best possible sneak-attack on our senses. D’Angelo worked on this album off and on over the last decade-plus and it was worth the wait.

D’Angelo went through lots of personal strife to get to this point, plus I think he really wanted to shake the persona as “that guy who was naked in that music video way back” and be known for what he really is: a virtuoso who very much belongs in the same breath with guys like George Clinton, Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder.

Although Black Messiah was slated to be released next year, D’Angelo reportedly asked it be pushed up to this month because of the ongoing protests around the killings in places like Ferguson and Staten Island. His engineer told the New York Times the album is “pretty much right out of the oven – it’s still hot.”

“Hot” is definitely a great way to describe Black Messiah. The songs touch on numerous topics, some are politically-charged while others are simply about love. The influence of everyone I listed above is present here, in addition to many others, like the Hendrix guitars of “Prayer” and the Miles Davis-inspired flamenco sketches of “Really Love.” And you can’t help but love the classic funky strut of a song like “Sugah Daddy.”

When it all comes together, Black Messiah feels like a capital-A album, with everything working in concert and one song flowing perfectly into the next in a way few albums do these days.

I know I only have a couple weeks of listening to Black Messiah under my belt, but if I could re-do my favorite albums list for 2014, I’d slot this third, just under Atlas and ahead of They Want My Soul. As for a favorite song, it’s a tossup between the full-bodied shuffle of “The Charade” and the gorgeous, epic closer “Another Life”, but you really can’t go wrong with anything here. I’m just thrilled D’Angelo is back in all of our lives.

FAVORITE BANDS, OLD AND NEW

This is not going to come as a shock to anyone who pays attention to what I write here, follows me on Twitter or knows me at all, but my favorite band of this half-decade is, without question, the National. I wrote about them at length here when I named Trouble Will Find Me my favorite album of ‘13 and I don’t have much more to add now. They’re so rock solid, write incredible songs, sound unbelievably great live, get behind causes I believe in, Bryan Devendorf is the best drummer on Earth and I can’t wait to find out what they do next. It may not be until ‘16, but here’s hoping we get a taste sooner than that.

For anyone who hasn’t, I highly recommend checking out Mistaken For Strangers, the documentary piloted by lead singer Matt Berninger’s brother, Tom, when Tom worked as a roadie on one of the National’s recent tours. You don’t have to be a fan of the National to appreciate it, but it gives you an interesting view into band dynamics, how a tour works, and above all, the relationship between two brothers at very different places in their lives.

Also check out this awesome Song Exploder podcast where Berninger and guitarist Aaron Dessner discuss how they wrote Trouble‘s seminal track, “Sea of Love.”

Other artists/bands that really stand out to me during this stretch include: Arctic Monkeys, the band who has come of age alongside me and finally hit the mainstream bigtime in ‘13. I never expected it would be a song like “Do I Wanna Know?” that would push them over the top. I’m excited to see what they have in store…Cut Copy, the electro-pop heroes from Australia who can seemingly do no wrong (except for those weird interludes on Free Your Mind, but I digress) released two strong LPs and I believe will continue their world-conquering ways in the next half-decade…Local Natives defined what it means to be a workmanlike band in the ‘10s, producing two outstanding albums in Gorilla Manor and Hummingbird, drawing from the best of bands like the National and Grizzly Bear and touring their asses off. Their best work is still to come…Vampire Weekend continues to grow by leaps and bounds, following up their great debut by releasing the varied Contra and then last year’s refined Modern Vampires of the City, which I expect will help launch them into the type of career reserved for the best of the best…Other artists I want to make sure I mention here include Passion Pit, TV on the Radio, Spoon, Two Door Cinema Club, Bombay Bicycle Club, Real Estate, St. Vincent, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, Haim, Japandroids, Dum Dum Girls, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Wild Nothing, Beach House and Hot Chip.

It was also great to see some reunions and comebacks over these years, including live revivals for the Stone Roses, Pavement and, as mentioned above, Neutral Milk Hotel. David Bowie returned with his first album of new material in over decade but didn’t tour, while My Bloody Valentine finally followed up Loveless with an album and an equally-acclaimed tour. Now, if only we could get Talking Heads back together…

IT WASN’T ALL GREAT…UNFORTUNATELY

I know at this point Festivus has passed, but I’d like to take this opportunity to air some grievances and say how certain things in the world of music have disappointed me in the last five years.

In ‘09, no band was more on top of the indie world than Animal Collective. After several critically-acclaimed releases through the 2000s, they unleashed Merriweather Post Pavilion early in the year and the album exploded behind standout single “My Girls.” Their experimental electronic sound dominated by psychedelic synthesizers was imitated in many places and their producer, Ben H. Allen, was suddenly one of the most in-demand producers in the industry. At the time I felt Merriweather Post Pavilion was the closest thing to Pet Sounds I’d heard in years, both in terms of subject matter and overall feel. Later that same year, they released an EP of leftover songs, Fall Be Kind, that was similarly lauded.

Unfortunately, the band didn’t really capitalize on this success. As a “collective,” members slipped in and out over the next few years, with Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox and Dave “Avey Tare” Portner releasing solo records before reuniting in 2012 for the wildly underwhelming Centipede Hz. Only the album’s first two songs, “Moonjock” and “Today’s Supernatural”, represented anything close to the depth and innovation from Merriweather Post Pavilion. The rest was mostly incoherent noise splattered across the canvas. I did see the full band live in March ‘13 and they were excellent, however, this was just before they had to cancel the rest of their tour due to an illness for Panda Bear.

There’s been no indication Animal Collective plans to record again anytime soon, with Panda Bear (who’s always been the McCartney of the group) set to release another solo album next year. The first track from that, “Mr Noah”, is promising. But it’ll be sad if the band never comes close to their creative high of ‘09 again. They certainly haven’t so far in this decade.

Other disappointments: It took me a while to warm up to the Black Keys and I was finally on board after mostly liking Brothers and loving El Camino, but they took a major step back with Turn Blue this year. How about getting back to rocking, guys? And don’t think I haven’t noticed the same trend in you, Kings of Leon…At some point in ‘10-’11, John Mayer stopped making accessible blues-rock and turned into Harvest-era Neil Young in just about every way. Normally, I’d think this is a great thing, but I really miss the Try!/Continuum/best parts of Battle Studies-era Mayer who destroyed everything in his path with his Fender (I bet he secretly wishes he’d been the one to come out with something like Black Messiah). Here’s hoping he reunites with Steve Jordan very soon…Arcade Fire is one of my favorite bands, they were outstanding live when I saw them a few months ago and I generally have very few bad things to say about their music. However, they botched the rollout of Reflektor, waited way too long to announce a tour and went to exorbitant lengths to build up an album that to me didn’t really live up to the hype. Maybe scaling things back for the next album won’t be a bad idea…and finally, I’m generally disappointed by the break-ups or indefinite hiatuses for LCD Soundsystem, the White Stripes, Girls, Fleet Foxes, the Walkmen and, most recently and perhaps most dishearteningly, Smith Westerns. I say that because of how young they are and I don’t know if any of them will reach the band’s lofty promise on their own.

MY TOP 50 FAVORITE SONGS OF ‘10-’14

The full list of my 50 favorite songs is here in a Spotify playlist and, unlike my usual yearly lists, includes more than one song from an album in some instances. One missing song is My Bloody Valentine’s “she found now”, which was No. 24 on the list and isn’t available on Spotify. Otherwise, it’s listed in order from 50-1.

Here’s the top 10 with embedded YouTube clips, and some words about the #1 song at the end:

10. THE NATIONAL – “CONVERSATION 16” (2010)

9. PASSION PIT – “IT’S NOT MY FAULT, I’M HAPPY” (2012)

8. BOMBAY BICYCLE CLUB – “TAKE THE RIGHT ONE” (2011)

7. THE PAINS OF BEING PURE AT HEART – “BEAUTIFUL YOU” (2014)

6. THE NATIONAL – “SEA OF LOVE” (2013)

5. WILD NOTHING – “NOCTURNE” (2012)

4. LCD SOUNDSYSTEM – “ALL I WANT” (2010)

3. CYMBALS – “THE NATURAL WORLD” (2013)

2. REAL ESTATE – “CRIME” (2014)

1. M83 – “MIDNIGHT CITY” (2011)

“Midnight City” endures for me as the best song so far this decade and one of my favorite songs ever because of how excited it still makes me even though I should be tired of it by now. Everything works together so well, from the blaring melody siren throughout, the lyrics about seizing the evening and the surprise saxophone solo that I still love hearing. There’s something for everyone in “Midnight City.” I hope M83 and its leader, Anthony Gonzalez, return guns blazing soon with something remotely as spellbinding as “Midnight City.”

MY 10 FAVORITE CONCERTS OF ‘10-’14

There’s no way I could rank these concerts, so I’ll present them to you in chronological order. Like I did with my overall list a couple years ago, I’m basing this on the greatness of the headliner, the greatness of the entire bill, my personal memories of the show and the overall concert experience.

9/28/10 – LCD Soundsystem with Sleigh Bells at the Orpheum Theatre, Boston MA

11/20/11 – M83 with Active Child at the House of Blues, Boston MA

6/6/12 – Dave Matthews Band at the Xfinity Center, Mansfield MA

9/23/12 – David Byrne and St. Vincent at the Orpheum Theatre, Boston MA

5/26/13 – Youth Lagoon, Dirty Projectors, the Walkmen, Of Monsters and Men and the National at Boston Calling, City Hall Plaza, Boston MA

6/4/13 – The National with People Get Ready at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, Providence RI

8/11/13 – Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake at Fenway Park, Boston MA

11/16/13 – Cut Copy with Larry Gus at the House of Blues, Boston MA

4/17/14 – The War on Drugs at Paradise Rock Club, Boston MA

9/5/14 – Future Islands, Neutral Milk Hotel and the National at Boston Calling, City Hall Plaza, Boston MA

MY 10 FAVORITE ALBUMS OF ‘10-’14

Thanks for reading this far. My 10 favorite albums so far this decade are as follows:

10. Bombay Bicycle Club – A Different Kind of Fix (2011)

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Top songs: “Take the Right One”, “Lights Out Words Gone”, “Shuffle”

9. Haim – Days Are Gone (2013)

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Top songs: “Falling”, “Forever”, “Go Slow”

8. Real Estate – Atlas (2014)

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Top songs: “Crime”, “Had to Hear”, “Past Lives”

7. Wild Nothing – Nocturne (2012)

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Top songs: “Nocturne”, “Only Heather”, “Paradise”

6. Cut Copy – Zonoscope (2011)

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Top songs: “Pharaohs & Pyramids”, “Take Me Over”, “Alisa”

5. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream (2014)

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Top songs: “Burning”, “Red Eyes”, “Eyes to the Wind”

4. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)

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Top songs: “POWER”, “All of the Lights”, “Runaway”

3. The National – Trouble Will Find Me (2013)

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Top songs: “Sea of Love”, “Graceless”, “Pink Rabbits”

2. Passion Pit – Gossamer (2012)

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Top songs: “It’s Not My Fault, I’m Happy”, “I’ll Be Alright”, “Love is Greed”

1. The National – High Violet (2010)

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Top songs: “Conversation 16”, “Lemonworld”, “Bloodbuzz Ohio”

With that, I’m done. Happy New Year and happy listening!

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LIST: My 10 Favorite Albums of 2014

After posting my favorite songs of 2014 last week, I’m now ready to unveil my 10 favorite albums of the year. For your reference, here are my favorite albums lists from 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Before I get to the long-form thoughts on the 10 best albums I heard this year, here are albums 20 through 11 on my list, accompanied by one song from each.

20. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2 (“Close Your Eyes (And Count to F***)”)

19. Ariel Pink – pom pom (“Black Ballerina”)

18. Mac DeMarco – Salad Days (“Passing Out Pieces”)

17. Twin Peaks – Wild Onion (“Strawberry Smoothie”)

16. Eagulls – Eagulls (“Possessed”)

15. Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal (“Black and White”)

14. St. Vincent – St. Vincent (“Birth in Reverse”)

13. Lake Street Dive – Bad Self Portraits (“You Go Down Smooth”)

12. CYMBALS – The Age of Fracture (“Empty Space”)

11. Jack White – Lazaretto (“Alone in My Home”)

Here they are, my 10 favorite albums of 2014.

tootrue10. Dum Dum Girls – Too True

I extolled the virtues of Dum Dum Girls’ last LP, Only in Dreams, in this exact spot on my ’11 list. The all-woman indie guitar pop outfit led by velvety-voiced Dee Dee underwent lineup changes in the intervening years, releasing probably their finest work to date on ‘12’s outstanding End of Daze EP and this past January’s also-terrific Too True full-length. Dum Dum Girls move away from their punkish roots here, driving closer to late-’80s Cure sound. It’s far and away Dee Dee’s most polished effort, introducing more synthesizers and mechanized percussion for a much shinier touch. As much as I’ve enjoyed Dum Dum Girls in the past, the drumming has never been worthy of Dee Dee’s songwriting and turning to a drum machine here isn’t an admission of defeat. That change produces the charging “Little Minx” and sprawling “Evil Blooms”, two songs that wouldn’t work for previous incarnations of the group. Elsewhere, “Lost Boys and Girls Club” recalls much of the ‘80s goth aesthetic conjured by its title; “Too True to Be Good” has vocals and notes coming from every direction; “Are You Okay?” draws from a Full Moon Fever influence and is one of Dee Dee’s most indelible songs to date; and closer “Trouble is My Name” introduces some of the light touches that made End of Daze so memorable. When it comes to LPs, the best for Dum Dum Girls is yet to arrive. But Too True is a sign Dee Dee has the chops create something truly special.

seeds9. TV on the Radio – Seeds

The critical reaction to Seeds, TV on the Radio’s first album since ‘11’s Nine Types of Light and also its first since the death of bassist Gerard Smith, was more muted than I was expecting. Seeds isn’t as good as either of TVOTR’s best albums (‘06’s Return to Cookie Mountain and ‘08’s Dear Science, the latter remaining a taste-shifting marker for me as a music fan). But these guys are generally incapable of producing anything anyone who closely observes indie rock would consider sub-par. Seeds is TVOTR’s most accessible record to date, and the highlights far outweigh some of the less-dynamic tracks occupying its soft middle. The Beatles are a clear influence on Tunde Adebimpe, Kyp Malone and David Sitek here, with the vocal line of brooding and synthy “Careful You” and the “Got to Get You Into My Life” horns and joy of album centerpiece “Could You” the best examples. The classic eclecticism of TVOTR comes through in many spots, too, including on winding single “Happy Idiot”, the hard-rocking “Lazerray”, the building “Ride” with its home-hitting lyrics (“Look to the sky / It’s time to ride”) and ending with knockouts in the rollicking “Trouble” and the poignant title track (Rain comes down / Like it always does / This time I’ve got seeds on ground”). Not every album by a great band has to be praised as their best upon release. But if you give Seeds a chance, you may find it the most listenable yet from TVOTR.

rips8. Ex Hex – Rips

Dum Dum Girls and Ex Hex are similar bands, both in member composition and composition styles. However, Ex Hex bring a more extreme no-frills, stripped-down, in-your-face attitude to their debut album, Rips, than anything Dum Dum Girls have ever done. Led by Mary Timony, a longtime indie rocker who most recently played with Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss in Wild Flag, Ex Hex doesn’t do anything you haven’t heard before. Rips has 12 short songs, bringing together power-pop chops from the likes of Tom Petty and the Cars. You could imagine these songs playing in the background of a “That’s 70s Show” episode. What stands out is how clean, tight and expertly-crafted these songs are. The most unique song here is lead single “Hot and Cold”, which chugs along at mostly-mid tempo, but grips the listener with an great groove and that fun mid-song key change that kicks it into another gear. Elsewhere, opener “Don’t Wanna Lose” makes you bop your head to its fuzzy tones, “Waste Your Time” features a killer bass line from Betsy Wright, while her own “How You Got That Girl” is a true highlight with a great riff and singalong chorus. The one song here that doesn’t sound much like the rest is “War Paint”, clocking it at nearly four minutes and sporting a biting harmonic guitar line and Timony spitting lines like “I know you think you’re/Too-too-too-too-too cool” before launching into that garage-tastic solo. Ex Hex keeps it simple on Rips but the results exceed all expectations.

benji7. Sun Kil Moon – Benji

Mark Kozelek had an interesting 2014. For years, his acts (first Red House Painters and now Sun Kil Moon) were well-regarded in the underground, but his exposure level heightened in February when Benji was released to universal acclaim as an intensely-personal collection of folky acoustic confessionals. As the year progressed, he got in tiffs with audiences and started (and unnecessarily perpetuated) a “feud” with another band (more on them later) that grew increasingly childish with each barb. I’d hate to think that overshadowed the work Kozelek put in on Benji’s 11 songs that touch on so many emotions: formative memories of childhood, pains from loss of loved ones, fears of growing up and losing your parents, acknowledging mistakes made and lessons learned, and even mundane exercises like shopping for a $350 pair of lampshades or taking a high school date to Red Lobster. From lamenting devastating personal tragedies in “Carissa” or national ones in “Pray For Newtown”, recounting his youth in “Dogs” and “I Watched the Film ‘The Song Remains the Same’” and stories of people who shaped his life like “Micheline”, Kozelek’s words sock you in the gut because these are slices of his life on display for all to see. Not to be lost amongst the words is the music highlighted by lush melodies, mostly supplied by Kozelek’s outstanding acoustic fingerpicking, which has become a lost art. If you can get past Kozelek the Public Curmudgeon, Kozelek the Artist with Nothing to Hide is something to behold and that shines through blindingly on Benji.

singles6. Future Islands – Singles

I’m not sure if anyone made a “Best Live Music Viral Videos of 2014” list, but if they did, they wasted their time. Because that list only needs one video: this one, and none else need apply. When Baltimore-born Future Islands got their chance to perform “Seasons (Waiting On You)” from their fourth album Singles on Letterman in March, I doubt they expected it would spawn a video with over 3 million views to date. Why did this happen? I mean, look at those freakin’ dance moves! Can any human on Earth besides lead singer Samuel T. Herring make those kinds of gyrations? I’ve always said good music should move you, and “Seasons,” which became one of my favorite songs of the year, moved Herring and many others. The video likely led lots of people to Singles, and I hope they were just as impressed with this excellent album as they were with Herring’s performance art skills. Future Islands combines the snythpop-driven energy of M83 and a sense of grandeur from the Killers into something uniquely their own. Whether it’s the bass and horn-steered funk of “Doves”, the anthemic excitement of “Sun in the Morning”, the creeping synth magic of “Spirit” or the ‘80s dancing slide of “Like the Moon”, Future Islands go all out behind the passion of Herring’s voice. Singles will have you, like Letterman, saying “I’ll take all of that you’ve got!” once you’re done listening.

solongseeyoutomorrow5. Bombay Bicycle Club – So Long, See You Tomorrow

After Bombay Bicycle Club saw modest success with ‘11’s A Different Kind of Fix, it would have been pretty easy for these Londoners to make a similar-sounding successor to capitalize on that momentum. Instead, they went in a much different direction with their electronic pop sound and, to their tremendous credit, succeed on So Long, See You Tomorrow as much as any of their releases. Building on the eclectic experimentation of their last album, the band introduces world music elements, interesting samples and rhythmic explorations that don’t live anywhere else in modern electronic rock. It’s hard not to be spellbound by the drumming patterns on opener “Overdone”, while also entranced by the melodic samples that sound ripped from a ‘70s TV show. That’s followed by the triumphant “It’s Alright Now”, alongside its marching band-like drumming and Jack Steadman’s looping vocals and then “Carry Me”, a veritable maelstrom of changing guitars and synths and whacked-out time signatures befitting a band like Battles. But there’s a lot of heart here in addition to the experimenting, with the soft hip-hop beat of “Home By Now”, the slow-growing “Whenever, Wherever” and the piano smatterings of “Eyes Off You.” They even recall Stone Roses-esque acid rock on the sprawling “Come To.” But my favorite track here is definitely “Luna”, the jet-setting, world-traveling pop marvel with a chorus full of voices. There are so many different sounds here, between the African percussion, flitting synths and outstanding bassline from Steadman and his mates. I always respect bands willing to take a chance with their sound and So Long, See You Tomorrow is a fine example of a young band finding success in the unknown.

daysofabandon4. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Days of Abandon

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s self-titled debut in ‘09 and Belong in ‘11 helped them stake claims as both purveyors of early-90s guitar rock nostalgia and something uniquely their own: sugary power pop, without feeling schmaltzy. Leader Kip Berman retooled the lineup for this year’s Days of Abandon, progressing with more polish and maturity. That maturity shows right away, with opening track “Art Smock” representing Berman’s most delicate work, a short ditty with soft guitars and synths that sets the mood of whimsy for the album. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart we’re more used to comes next, with the bouncy and excitable “Simple and Sure”, a wall of pop sound painted with sweet lyrics: “It may seem so simple but I’m sure / I simply want to be yours.” Elsewhere, Jen Goma from A Sunny Day in Glasgow takes the lead vocals on “Kelly”, and later on the Smiths-influenced “Life After Life”, adding a diverse element to the voices here. “Until the Sun Explodes” has the energy of an exploding sun and borrows some of its verse vocal lines from the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven”. “Eurydice” (who’s a popular figure in indie rock these days) takes a new spin on the ancient Greek tragedy: “Eurydice / I’ll never stop losing you / Losing you.” Yet nothing quite stacks up to “Beautiful You”, the longest song Berman’s released to date and possibly the best. It isn’t just that “Beautiful You” has that perfect guitar line running from start to finish, or the lyrics touch on the realities of growing up and finding the right person to be with along the way: It’s that you’d have to be stone-hearted to not feel something here. Hopefully the Pains of Being Pure at Heart can one day top “Beautiful You,” and Days of Abandon. But it won’t be so simple and sure.

theywantmysoul3. Spoon – They Want My Soul

Wasn’t it great to have Spoon back this year? If the wait between albums for these indie rock elder statesmen felt long, that’s because it really was: their previous LP, Transference, was released way back in January ‘10. During their four-and-a-half-year hiatus, lead singer Britt Daniel recorded with Divine Fits, churning out songs reminiscent of Spoon’s most prolific work (like the aces “Would That Not Be Nice”) while drummer Jim Eno produced for other bands. The time away definitely paid off. Spoon returned to record their eighth studio album, They Want My Soul, and produced a sound consistent with their finest work like Kill the Moonlight and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. I enjoyed Transference upon its release, but there’s one thing that really separates They Want My Soul from its immediate predecessor: energy. Besides the plodding trip-hop of “Inside Out”, these 37 minutes move briskly, thanks to an overabundance of tremendous rockers. There’s the stomping, relentless intro “Rent I Pay”, the joyously buoyant title track with Spoon’s classic descending riffs and callbacks to previous enemies (“Jonathon Fisk still wants my soul!” Daniel screams midway through like an inside joke) and the “Paper Tiger”-like flange percussion of start-stop wonder “Knock Knock Knock.” Like on all Spoon releases, they aren’t afraid to try new things here. In addition to covering Ann-Margret (huh?) on “I Just Don’t Understand”, the appropriately-titled “Outlier” is a revelation, a maelstrom of voices and guitars set to a gaudy dance beat with jolts of synthesizers from start to finish. But They Want My Soul’s highlight is “Do You”, a perfect tune for its late June release. In a different universe, “Do You” would have been the 2014 Song of the Summer, an acoustic-driven jam recalling nights in the backyard running barefoot, chasing fireflies wishing the warmth would never end. “Someone get popsicles / Someone do something ‘bout this heat!” Daniel exclaims in his Brooklyn-via-Texas drawl. It’s exciting, fun and filled with wonderment, like the rest of They Want My Soul. Hopefully Daniel, Eno and Co. won’t make us wait so long next time.

atlas2. Real Estate – Atlas

As bands go, Real Estate is pretty basic. Led by New Jersey dudes Martin Courtney, Matt Mondanile and Alex Bleeker, Real Estate plays clean, no-frills guitar rock. They occasionally add in some keyboard color, but that’s about it. They’re outstanding technical players, with nothing ever sounding out of place or time. In an indie rock scene dominated by complexity, Real Estate keeps it really simple. So what sets them apart? I’d say it’s how easy they make it look, the familiarity their sound brings to any listener and their brilliant precision in creating a dreamy, easy-going aura around ridiculously melodic songs. They’ve reached their pinnacle on this year’s Atlas, their third album and first since mini-breakout Days in ‘11. The first time I listened to Atlas, I felt like I already knew all the songs. They’re so lived-in, so instantly recognizable and so indelible you can’t help but feel some connection. While the sounds are bright, the lyrics paint an achingly human picture about growing up, finding and losing love and what life in the “real world” really looks like. It starts with the beautiful winding riffs of “Had to Hear” amidst lyrics like “I had to hear you / Just to feel near you / I know it’s not true / But it’s been so long / I know it’s wrong.” “Past Lives” is a nostalgic look back at childhood and the world we leave behind when we grow up, presented alongside shimmering melodies. There’s also the bouncy lead single “Talking Backwards”, the countrified instrumental jam “April’s Song”, the toe-tapping “The Bend” (with its woozy, out-of-nowhere coda), Bleeker’s cowpath-inspired “How Might I Live” and the sad realizations in closer “Navigator.” Yet no song I heard in 2014 stacked up to “Crime”, the album’s emotional core (and you can play it, too!). With gorgeous guitar lines echoing Pavement’s past, Courtney and Mondaline play off each other fluidly while Courtney pleads for love: “I don’t wanna die / Lonely and uptight / Stay with me / All will be revealed.” Real Estate may be a simple band, but there’s nothing simple about the greatness of Atlas, and that’s revealed from start to finish.

lostinthedream1. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream

Amazing fact: The Who’s “Long Live Rock” was written in 1972. That should give you some idea about how long the “rock is dead” debate has lasted. The guitar has become something of an endangered species, at least when it comes to indie. Guitars often just provide color. To that I say: Bah. My favorite album of 2014 is one of the best guitar rock albums in recent memory, thanks to Adam Granofsky (who dropped the stage name “Granduciel” at some point this year and went back to his birth name) and his third album with the War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream. This is a behemoth, clocking in at just over an hour with most songs hovering around six minutes or more (even the building mid-album interlude “The Haunting Idle” is over three minutes). The running time was my one complaint about Lost in the Dream initially. But over the course of 2014, I found its entirety to be so engrossing, so enthralling and just so damn good that any reservations I had about its length dissipated. It draws from the best Dylan, Springsteen, Young and Knopfler released in the ‘80s and especially derived from Dylan and Knopfler’s underrated opus Infidels, one of my favorite albums ever. Granofsky lives up to those lofty comparisons right away with the pulsating push of “Under the Pressure” and the reverb-soaked triumphant blitz of “Red Eyes”, its energy so riveting it feels like a roller coaster ride, with synthesizers sounding like carnival calliopes to boot. The shuffling blues of “Suffering” and “Disappearing” lead into the drum-machine propelled and devastatingly rocking “An Ocean Between the Waves.” The bigger theme of Lost in the Dream is about battling personal strife, which became a public battle for Granofsky in 2014. “There’s just a stranger / Living in me,” he says on “Eyes to the Wind.” But there’s a sense of overcoming those demons here, too. It comes through best on “Burning”, a blazing storm of guitars and synths with Born in the U.S.A. kickassery. “Cross the rich derivative of pain,” Granofsky belts during the last chorus, “crush the burning in your heart.” There’s an acoustic-driven break about 5:10 into closer “In Reverse” that perfectly signifies Granofsky’s sense of getting over. That’s what makes Lost in the Dream a titanic success not just for guitar rock, but for anyone who takes the time to dive in deep.

LIST: My 20 Favorite Songs of 2014

All year, I keep track of my favorite music and now that it’s mid-December, I’m ready to share with you what made the cut for my favorites of the year. Next week I’ll unveil my 20 favorite albums of 2014, followed by a retrospective on the best music of the first five years of the 2010s, likely to appear here closer to New Year’s.

I start with my 20 favorite songs of 2014, which wasn’t the greatest year for new music in recent memory but certainly had many terrific contributions from artists old and new. I’m presenting the cream of the crop below with 20 great songs, via YouTube clips below. I wrote about many of these songs in my mid-year top 10, so I’ll reserve further long-form thoughts for my albums post.

I slightly altered my criteria for the list this year, considering songs that had any kind of release (be it on a single or an album) in 2014. And, as always, I only included one song per artist to ensure no one artist dominated the list.

Lastly, I created a YouTube playlist of these songs and a Spotify playlist here and at the bottom for your listening pleasure (don’t be thrown off by the numbers next to each song on the playlists, it’s meant to be listened to as a 20-1 countdown).

Enjoy the list and stay tuned for my albums post next week.

20. KENDRICK LAMAR – “i”

19. PARQUET COURTS – “WHAT COLOR IS BLOOD”

18. LAKE STREET DIVE – “RABID ANIMAL”

17. EAGULLS – “TOUGH LUCK”

16. SLEATER-KINNEY – “BURY OUR FRIENDS”

15. ST. VINCENT – “REGRET”

14. JACK WHITE – “LAZARETTO”

13. ARIEL PINK – “PUT YOUR NUMBER IN MY PHONE”

12. DUM DUM GIRLS – “ARE YOU OKAY?”

11. EX HEX – “HOT AND COLD”

10. SUN KIL MOON – “CARISSA”

9. THE BLACK KEYS – “GOTTA GET AWAY”

8. CYMBALS – “EROSION”

7. BOMBAY BICYCLE CLUB – “LUNA”

6. FUTURE ISLANDS – “SEASONS (WAITING ON YOU)”

5. SPOON – “DO YOU”

4. TV ON THE RADIO – “COULD YOU”

3. THE WAR ON DRUGS – “BURNING”

2. THE PAINS OF BEING PURE AT HEART – “BEAUTIFUL YOU”

1. REAL ESTATE – “CRIME”