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Entries in year in review (12)

Friday
Dec262014

2014 Year in Review: St. Vincent, Album of the Year

Around the time of last year's Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony and Annie Clark joining Nirvana on stage to perform "Lithium" it occurred to me that she is the coolest person in music today.

Since Clark's band, St. Vincent, came on the scene with their phenomenal 2007 debut album Marry Me she has cultivated the perfect mixture or accessibility, experimentation, and persona.

While Clark continues to write and compose all of St. Vincent's songs herself, she has gradually backed off with some of the recording responsibilities.  On Marry Me, Clark recorded nearly everything you hear on the album herself; from the vocals to piano to percussion to the dulcimer.  On 2014's St. Vincent, Clark is satisfied merely with recording the vocals and guitars leaving everything else to guest and studio musicians while she focuses on the bigger picture.

It is unlikely anyone would call any of St. Vincent's albums timid in their ambitiousness but with this year's self-titled St. Vincent there is a confidence that seemingly was not there before.  She allows things breathe and take shape more organically.  Perhaps it was Clark's 2012 collaboration with Talking Heads frontman David Byrne or just the gradual progression of her artistry, either way the result is a beautiful adventurous sound with just enough familiarity to appeal to mainstream.

The electronic crunch of the opening track "Rattlesnake" clashes perfectly with the desolate desert imagery of the lyrics.  The urgency of Clark's voice gives way to an explosion in the following track, "Birth in Reverse" signalling the crisp guitar/synth sound that most of the album is styled with.

I hesitate to use the word "balance" when describing St. Vincent because it implies even distribution.  St. Vincent's individual parts exists mostly in chaos.  Clark's brilliance is her ability to temper that chaos with just the right amount of order - a smooth vocal melody here, a well timed guitar breakdown there - and then have it all come together for a masterful flourish of sound.  The soft crooning of "Prince Johnny" melting into the electronic methodology in "Huey Newton".  

Technology is a recurring theme of St. Vincent, techno-esque guitars and robotic sounding vocals clashing up against lyrics that call for human connection in a digital age.

This is best encapsulated in "Digital Witness", a bombastic song heavy with brass instruments in the verses and synth in the refrain.  The song also shows off Clark's best talent: taking a song trying to go a million different ways at once, forcing it onto a one way-track and fueling it with a great hook.

There is something distinctly more joyous in St. Vincent that was absent from the band's previous albums.  Clark herself described the album as reflecting a much more "extroverted" emotional state when she wrote and recorded it.  A track like "I Prefer You Love", which Clark wrote when her mother briefly fell ill, might have been a introspective melancholy song if it had appeared on Strange Mercy (2011) or Actor (2009). But on St. Vincent it is a celebration.

The final track of the album, "Severed Crossed Fingers" is the most emotional on the album, and my favorite.  The lyrics of the song speak to the quiet and incredible ability people possess to create hope even when trapped in an utterly hopeless situation.  The soaring, swelling emotion heard in Clark's voice matched with the meticulous ticking of the beat creates a build that gives listeners the very best of what St. Vincent has to offer at the very last chorus.  Clark said of recording the song, "I sang that in one fucking take, cried my eyes out, and the song was done."

Wednesday
Dec242014

2014 Year in Review: Taylor Swift, Ryan Adams, Future Islands, and What Wasn't the Album of the Year?

 

A lot happened in music in 2014.  Right?  What?  Huh?  You know something I learned in 2014 about music?  It's really hard to keep up with music these days.  I pride myself on following music and I didn't even know who Sia was until about three months ago.  Think you did better?  Just look at Stereogum's Top 50 Albums of 2014 or Pitchfork's Top 100 Songs... recognize them?  Recognize half of them?  Then you're doing pretty good in my book.

Even with my limited knowledge, I was able to catch some of the bigger happenings in music this year.

- Taylor Swift continued her steel fisted reign over the American music world, holding record sales hostage until she was damn good and ready to release her album in October.  She dented her legacy slightly when she thought she was worthy of representing New York City (Bodegas are NOT your friend, Taylor).

- War on Drugs had a kind of sort of fued with Sun Kil Moon singer Mark Kozelek, that was really mostly just Kozelek hurling insults while War on Drugs mostly ignored him.  How did it end?  With Kozelek releasing a song called "War on Drugs Suck My Cock" and War on Drugs having on of the best albums of the year, "Lost in a Dream." (Kozelek's own album, "Benji" wasn't bad either).

- Charli XCX and Kitten both finally released LPs this year that didn't quite live up to their previous singles and smaller ventures.

- Run the Jewels (Rap duo and partners in name puns: Killer Mike and El-P) put out two albums but it was the second, "Run the Jewels 2", a nitroglycerin doused, subversive, anthem that launched the group from America's radio into the country's social consciousness.

- U2 gave people a pretty good album for free, and everyone bitched about it.  (Rolling Stone's Album of the Year).

- Weezer made yet another comeback album, but this time it was something worth coming back for.

- Ryan Adams double dipped this year producing one of the best albums of the year in Jenny Lewis' "The Voyager" and releasing one of his own that was even better.

- Mac Demarco is a guy who exists that I guess you should start listening to.

- Against Me! released their first album since their lead singer's highly publicized sex change operation.  The aptly titled, "Gender Dysphoria Blues" landed in many Top 20 Albums lists.


- Future Islands head bobbed their way from Letterman into the mainstream and released what I am going to call the SECOND BEST Album of the Year.

Saturday
Dec202014

2014 Year in Review: The Legacy of The Colbert Report

I can still remember the night the Colbert Report premiered.  

It was the fall of my sophomore year in College.  Nightly viewings of The Daily Show had become something of a ritual for myself a few other denizens of the 2nd floor Aquinas dorm.  We had come to terms with another for years of George W. and I was likely consuming a bottle of coke with a pair of pop tarts.  As Jon Stewart signed off are gaze did not waiver from the tv for starting that night, the ritual no longer ended at 11:30.  The screen split as Jon traded banter with a sarcastic Stephen and moments later, The Colbert Report began.

The rest is history.

Truthiness, Papa Bear, Colbert Super Pac, Stephen Colbert rode a pitch perfect right-wing conservative wave of satire for 1447 glorious episodes.

 

 

He didn't start there.  I do remember distinctly thinking the Daily Show was the more entertaining and interesting of the two programs early on.  Colbert was clever but felt one dimensional and his mostly intellectual guests didn't quite know what to make of the character of "Stephen Colbert".

The great leap forward (at least for me) came with the writer's strike.  Dozens of shows on television went dark when the writer's strike hit in 2007.  Late night programming tried to remain on, at the benefit of the crews that worked on the show.  Many of these shows, such as Letterman and Late Night with Conan O'Brien clearly suffered from the absence of it's writing staff.  In truth, most of the shows that stayed on were borderline unwatchable, save for two: The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

In this setting Colbert didn't just stay the course he was made stronger, sharper.  Perhaps without a group of writers he was forced to look to himself, explore what made his character the way he was, ask what it was his character would think about anything and everything going on in the world.  Whatever it was, Colbert found a second gear that hadn't been there before.  The result was a flood of wit and innuendo that turned the horrifying into the absurd and the absurd into the familiar.

Possibly the greatest talent of Colbert was his ability to conceal common sense and then reveal it again like a magician.  The number of tricks and gags Colbert had hiding up his sleeves was endless, and you never saw them coming no matter how closely he let you look.

Colbert with his character explored the very edges of cultural satire.  It was something he did so well that it earned him the respect of celebrities and politicians across the ideological spectrum.  It was something he was so dedicated to he often fooled those he was mocking into thinking he was fighting the good fight on their behalf.

It might be unfair to give the crown of "Show of the Year" to The Colbert Report, but as Colbert himself might have said "The rules exist to benefit me."  The Colbert Report wasn't just the best show of 2014, it was the best thing on television the last nine years.  (Nearly) Every night.  From start to finish.  It was all Colbert.