(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Favorite reviewed albums of 2014

It's always a ridiculous challenge to name the best albums of the year. I contributed my top picks to Spectrum Culture this year and not one made their final list of 20. It's not that the other writers' tastes were questionable; plenty of those albums were quite powerful and groundbreaking. At the same time, my predilections aren't particularly beyond the pale. It's merely a matter of there being too many diverse albums for a group of critics to take them all in and really get to know the music.

To that end, I continue my tradition of counting down my favorite albums of the set that I reviewed here on Jester Jay Music. Don't get upset that St. Vincent or Against Me! aren't here—despite having strong releases, I didn't review them, so they weren't eligible.

#10 - Shonen Knife, Overdrive

Japanese punk legends Shonen Knife have been making drop-dead simple garage punk music for more than 30 years. Inspired by American bands like the Ramones but committed to their uniquely Japanese kawaii personas, they've create a solidly original sound. Their latest, Overdrive, finds them still kicking ass, belying the cute smiles or childlike lyrics. Some of the songs, like "Black Crow" or "Robots From Hell", delve into darker moods and leaven this strong, head-banging album, but all the songs are strong.
[Original review]

#9 - Tori Amos, Unrepentant Geraldines

Tori Amos may have gotten her start with pop music when she was kicked out of the Peabody Conservatory of Music, but she's buried that demon over the last couple of years with orchestrally oriented releases like Night of the Hunter (2011) and Gold Dust (2012). Unrepentant Geraldines sees her swinging back into pop, without losing any of the edge she's honed over the years. Amos hasn't gotten any younger and that's all to the good, especially on standout track, "16 Shades of Blue", which addresses ageism in the music industry even as it reflects a very modern production aesthetic.
[Original review]

#8 - Lonesome Shack, More Primitive

Plenty of bands have played the blues revival card and, even if it's not as popular as it once was, Lonesome Shack isn't making a radical artistic choice to draw on the rootsy power of the blues on the aptly named More Primitive. But more than just steeping themselves in the tradition, they seem to have an instinctive feel for organic rhythms that could care less about metronomes and restless vamps that never let the listener drift into ambivalence. Their raw palette is colored with visceral dabs of nervous tension, moody reveries, defiant snarls, and introspective memory.
[Original review]

#7 - Cymbals Eat GuitarsLOSE
Tragedy often acts as inspiration and LOSE is driven by Joe D'Agostino's grief at his friend's death. Rather than turning the album into a direct elegy, Cymbals Eat Guitars extends that idea into the larger theme of childhood's end. Losing friends and recognizing self-destructive behavior are just a couple of things we have to face as we grow up. Despite the emo potential, LOSE is neither self-pitying or self-indulgent. The band deals with all of the emotion in their inimitable fashion: cathartic waves of guitar crash, songs evolve into surprising directions, and dreamy, distracted interludes break up the heaviness.
[Original review]

#6 - Bike for Three, So Much Forever
Bike for Three pairs rapper Buck 65 with electronic producer Greetings From Tuskan (Joëlle Lê), but what makes the duo so strong is how they deconstruct the basic relationship between rapper and producer. Normal hip hop collaborations place the backing music and beats in a supporting role, to set the mood without overshadowing the emcee's personality. Bike for Three drops back to the definition of the word "collaboration". Lê and Buck 65 work together on these pieces to blur the lines: these tracks are electronic grooves with backing lyrical flow every bit as much as they're wicked raps with exotic vocals and textures.
[Original review]

#5 - Wax Fang, The Astronaut
Four years ago, Wax Fang created their stoner mind-trip, "The Astronaut: Part 1", a beautiful blend of Pink Floydian mutation crossed with neo-psychedelic exploration. This release uses that epic track as a jumping off point. While "Part 1" is long enough to count as its own concept album, they've built on the idea and taken the story off into some interesting directions, with darkness and doubt and a transcendent finish. The larger pieces are framed by shorter contrasting bits. Revisiting old ideas is a risky step, but Wax Fang takes on their earlier work and creates a richer, more nuanced project.
[Original review]

#4 - Megafauna, Maximalist
Megafauna takes the epigram, "Too much is never enough" to heart and delivers a visceral, hard-hitting mix of post-rock complexity, retro metallic darkness, and theatrical posturing. Bandleader Dani Neff anchors the songs not with her sweet vocal versatility—which can range from odd and vulnerable to ragged and stern—but through her monster guitar chops. She builds heavy riffs like the masters of classic rock, and effortlessly transitions into shred mode to push the songs over the top. All of that is impressive, but she and Megafauna make this list because they also know how to use dynamics and subtlety to make their punches hit that much harder.
[Original review]

#3 - Mazes, Wooden Aquarium
In contrast to Megafauna's Maximalist, Mazes asserts that less is more by making the most of the fairly simple production and getting the complexity from the wide ranging musical directions they take Wooden Aquarium. Fun house reflections of widely disparate bands like Pavement, Supertramp, and Guided By Voices populate the album, but Mazes asserts their own optimistic jangle that persists through everything from disorienting trippiness to driving Krautrock. The overarching sound is pop psychedelic goodness, but with a new wave twist.
[Original review]

#2 - Team Spirit, Killing Time
Lest year, Team Spirit self-titled EP debut made my list because of their perfect balance of thrashing pop punk excitement and tight twin-guitar riffing. It's been a long wait to get a full length release from the band and having seen them live several times in the interval, I honestly wasn't sure they could deliver both the wild excitement of their shows and a polished set of songs to compare with that first sample. I shouldn't have worried about it. Killing Time delivers the perfect mix of party time rock, entertaining humor, and punk swagger. More importantly, Team Spirit shows that they can play the fuck out their songs in the studio just as well as they do in concert.
[Original review]

# 1 - Sleepy Sun, Maui Tears
Ever since Rachel Fannan left Sleepy Sun in 2010, they've been leaping out into the great, noisy unknown of neo-psychedelia. While that reinvention may have been forced upon them, they've risen to the challenge and become a stronger band for it. Their last album, Spine Hits, demonstrated that they've become adept at harnessing the cathartic press of swirling feedback and thick brambles of guitar, but Maui Tears finds them showing off their dynamic chops as well. For all the noisy distortion and sonic saturation, they can still create nuanced moments, making the songs ripe for interpretation.
[Original review]

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