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)

differentkind

 

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

9. Haim – Days Are Gone (2013)

DaysAreGone

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

8. Real Estate – Atlas (2014)

atlas

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

7. Wild Nothing – Nocturne (2012)

wildnothing

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

6. Cut Copy – Zonoscope (2011)

zonoscope

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

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

lostinthedream

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)

TroubleWillFind

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

2. Passion Pit – Gossamer (2012)

passionpit

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

1. The National – High Violet (2010)

highviolet 

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

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

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