This is usually the section of my Music of the Past Year roundup post where I go on and on about how much easier it is to discover music than it is to discover books. Although I still feel the same way—right now I’m listening to the new El Ten Eleven EP thanks to an email from Spotify I received this morning; I’ve never read a single book that Bookish has “recommended” to me—let’s just pretend I made some awesome points about culture and time allocation and ways we experience different art forms and the differences between visceral and cerebral pleasures and just move on.
In contrast to my books list, in which I semi-complained that I didn’t read a lot of great books in 2013 (something that hasn’t held true in 2014—so far all the books I’ve read/am reading are baller), this list was hard to put together because there were a ton of really great things I listened to this year. Granted, these weren’t all “10 out of 10” works of lasting genius, but when I sat down to make a short list of albums to include in our annual podcast, I came up with 30 albums. And there were probably a dozen more that I liked but couldn’t justify including on the shortlist.1
So, following my system of years past, rather than try and rank these, or narrow it down to my true “favorites,” I went for a series of silly categories. Because that’s more fun. And because that seems like a more interesting way to put together a “list.”
Because, seriously, this website is no home for an “Album of the Year” list. We mainly do this podcast because we love music and because we do intro the podcasts with new songs we think readers/listeners might like. (Well, that, and Puerto Rico.) And this gives the three of us a chance to share our individual discoveries with each other, and with all of you.
Which is another reason I tried to include albums that you may not have heard of. So there’s no National on here, although I seem to listen to the new album every time I drink too much and am feeling sentimental; and I left off the albums by Baths and Pantha du Prince and The Naked and Famous because Kaija already covered them.
Hope you enjoy the list, and as mentioned elsewhere, we made a Spotify playlist with a few tracks from all our favorite albums. (And all the albums below are also available to stream on Spotify.)
[P.S. The new El Ten Eleven EP, For Emily, is already on my shortlist for next year’s podcast. Along with the new Mark McGuire album, and the one from Aa. It’s so reassuring to know there’s always something new—and good—around the corner.]
Favorite Album that Sounds Electronic But Isn’t:
Dysnomia by Dawn of Midi
Regardless of category, this is straight up one of my favorite pieces of music from last year. The repetition and rhythms of electronic music made with real, actual instruments; the fact that this is a 45-minute continuous “song”; the sort of spiraling nature of the music—all of this is right in my sweet spot of music preferences. Now if only I could see them play live . . .
Favorite Album that Is Just That Damn Good:
Engravings by Forest Swords
Sticking with albums that just kind of blew me away—before getting in to the more fun categories—I have to mention Engravings by Forest Swords. One of the many electronic albums I liked from this past year (Nate’s favorite category of music!), this album feels like a journey. Not in a concept album sort of way, but in the way each song lays down a path, traverses some sonic distance between beginning and end. Also, I like this because it’s kind of dark. In an engaging, surrounding sort of way. Best to listen to this on big ass headphones.
Favorite Poppy Post-Rock Album:
Fever Forms by The Octopus Project
Looking at those two album covers above, you’d think I sat at home every Friday night with a box of wine, too many candles, and a huge helping of depression and regret. Which isn’t ALWAYS the case! Since I mostly listen to music while I’m reading, writing, or working (which is mostly reading and writing), I gravitate toward a lot of instrumental albums. Recently I got into the n5MD label because their brand of emotional electronic music is the perfect sort of half-engagement I need to stay focused. ANYWAY, this new Octopus Project album is also pretty sweet to work to, although I tend to find myself tapping away various rhythms of half-dancing—like I do, like a weirdo—while it’s on. I love all their albums, but the opening three tracks from this one make it my all-time favorite.
Favorite Album that Sounds Like the Inside of My Head and Isn’t by Dan Deacon:
Total Folklore by Dan Friel
A few weeks ago, the goalkeeper for our indoor soccer team—which is named Terminal Cathole, and is a reference to a translation joke that came out of one of our weekly workshops—got a severe concussion during the game. After getting kneed in the temple, he repeated the same four questions over and over again for the next 45 minutes. “Hey guys? I don’t really know what happened exactly?” “When is my girlfriend coming?” “Do you think I have a concussion?” “Hey guys? What happened exactly?” It was TERRIFYING. I’ve never seen that happen in real life, and to know that an errant knee—from a team that I want to destroy, but that’s beside the point—can immediately alter someone’s personality and mind? This is not OK. (Rob was OK in the end—he remembers nothing from that night, but thankfully, I didn’t have to unfriend him for becoming such a dud post-concussion. “I used to think you were funny, man, but that little bit of brain damage made you so boring. Sorry, but, I’m sure you won’t remember me saying this anyway.”)
After listening to this album—which appeals to me because it sounds like my more hyper times—you may think that you’ve actually been concussed. Or will hope that my stint as replacement GK will end in a similar way. SO MANY NOISES AND BEATS AND MELODIES AND HOOKS! MAKE IT STOP!
Favorite Album(s) with Lyrics that Chloë and/or Aidan Could’ve Written:
Mark Kozelek & Desertshore (self-titled); Perils from the Sea by Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle
Switching over to music with actual lyrics, two of my discoveries of this past year were from Mark Kozelek, otherwise known as “that Red House Painters & Sun Kil Moon guy.” Kozelek records albums at a Joyce Carol Oates rate—the new Sun Kil Moon dropped yesterday in fact—which is maybe why some of his lyrics feel like he’s just saying whatever shit comes to mind.
When my kids come up with songs—which they do basically all the time, like when we came up with “I came in like a RAINBOW!,” our much improved version of that awful “Wrecking Ball” song—they tend to channel R. Kelly a la “Trapped in the Closet” and just repeat everything happening around them, as if just stating that there’s a coffee cup on the coffee table somehow makes it musical. Kind of like this bit from “Livingstone Bramble”:
I got up and I went to the studio
got stopped by a crack head named Jerome
he had a lot to get off his chest
he wanted some money and he was homeless
I gave him some time and twenty bucks
I shook his hand and I said good luck then
I went to the delicatessen
got a bottle of water before my session
and I worked out a couple of songs
and I played my guitar all day long
You win, Kozelek. By contrast, “1936” is a really well-crafted, depressing as shit song, but even so, the lyrics feel loose . . . as if he’s coming up with them on the spot to go along with his whatever his partner has produced for him, music-wise.
Also, bonus points for the lyric “I hate Eric Clapton,” because I, Chad Post, hate Eric Clapton.
Favorite Album from a Country (Denmark) I Visited for the First Time This Year:
Dansktoppen møder Burkina Faso i set himmelblå rum hvor solon nor, suite by Frisk Frugt
According to Google Translate, the title of this album is: “Danish top meetings Burkina Faso seen in sky room where solon normal, suite.” For that alone, I could include this on my list. I found out about this from The Quietus’s year end list. A list that is a million times (or so) more interesting than Pitchfork’s. Not only does it not include that disaster of an Arcade Fire album, but it lists a ton of stuff I had never heard of, yet loved on first listen. Like this Frisk Frugt album, which reminds me a bit of The Books in the way there’re tons of things thrown together. It’s also strange—in an enjoyable, unpredictable way—and foreign. And since Three Percent is all about the foreign, it seems perfect for this list.
Favorite Album from 2013 I Discovered the Day We Did Our Podcast:
Costa Blanca by The Limiñanas
This also came from The Quietus, but in the form of an album review the morning that we were going to review this podcast. “My Black Sabbath” grabbed me right away, and when I was debating what to actually include in the actual podcast, I thought it would be kind of awesome—and very me-like?—to just pick something I’ve listened to twice and instantly loved. For me, this song represents the visceral appeal of music.
But I also felt like I had to include this album because The Limiñanas are from Perpignan, a small city in Southern France/Catalonia. That’s enough to intrigue me, but when I looked up images of this city, I decided that Open Letter HAS to become the world’s largest publisher of Perpignan authors.
Favorite Album Supposedly Created Using Telepathy:
The Marriage of True Minds by Matmos
Matmos makes some damn good music, and most of the time, their albums have some sort of concept behind them. For example, they used surgery sounds to create their organic sounding (sorry) A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure. But the concept behind The Marriage of True Minds is so much more awesome. From the Thrill Jockey website:
For the past four years the band have been conducting parapsychological experiments based upon the classic Ganzfeld (‘total field’) experiment, but with a twist: instead of sending and receiving simple graphic patterns, test subjects were put into a state of sensory deprivation by covering their eyes and listening to white noise on headphones, and then Matmos member Drew Daniel attempted to transmit “the concept of the new Matmos record” directly into their minds. During videotaped psychic experiments conducted at home in Baltimore and at Oxford University, test subjects were asked to describe out loud anything they saw or heard within their minds as Drew attempted transmission. The resulting transcripts became poetic and conceptual scores used by Matmos to generate the nine songs on this album. If a subject hummed something, that became a melody; passing visual images suggested arrangement ideas, instruments, or raw materials for a collage; if a subject described an action, then the band members had to act out that out and make music out of the noises generated in the process of the re-enactment.
Favorite Album by Favorite Band from 1994:
Purgatory/Paradise by Throwing Muses
I talk about this a lot, too much, on the podcast, but back in 1994, when I was in college, Throwing Muses, and Kristin Hersh generally, was a huge influence on my life. I probably listened to their entire catalog at least 100 times on my Walkman as I crossed MSU’s gigantic campus. One thing I didn’t mention on the podcast: I used to own a t-shirt from Hersh’s Strange Angels tour that simply had “Strange” on the front and “Angel” on the back. Not too weird—maybe even a bit too cute—but people in North Carolina thought I was totally fucked up. This is probably why I have no issues wearing my Thousand Morons t-shirt with the bra and the morons and all that. I’m used to the judgement and odd looks.
Oh, and this new Throwing Muses album has no business being this good.
Favorite Icelandic Albums (There Are Two, Because Fucking Iceland):
Samaris by Samaris; Smilewound by Múm
Iceland is one of my favorite countries on earth. If not THE favorite. It’s gorgeous, its people are incredible, it gives off a vibe of livability and happiness. Not to mention the books coming from there are incredibly good, and their music scene is legendary. For that reason, I always have to include and Icelandic album on my list. And this year, I think they deserve two.
Múm could release a bunch of tracks they wrote when they were pre-teens and I’d probably love it. I think they’re firmly installed as my favorite Icelandic band of all time. And although Smilewound is no Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy, it’s a masterful album and one that I tend to listen to twice in a row, since the first time makes me just want more.
Samaris is on here in part because of the Japanese translator Stephen Synder. I’d listened to it once or twice before seeing him in Middlebury this past fall, but after he told me how much he loved it, I went back to it and kind of fell in love. These two albums go together perfectly—melodic, almost childlike in their playfulness and innocence, and quite distinctive. Iceland rules.
1 In case you’re insane and want to know what was left off, here’s everything I cut:
Obsidian by Baths
Spring Break of the Soul by Bill Baird
Character by Julia Kent
Elements of Light by Pantha du Prince and The Bell Laboratory
Apollo by Banco de Gaia
In Rolling Waves by The Naked and the Famous
Evil Friends by Potugal. The Man
We the Common by Thao & The Get Down Stay Down
Slow Focus by Fuck Buttons
So You Are . . . So You’ll Be . . . by White Hills
Nonfiction by The Range
Wild Light by 65DaysofStatic
General Dome by Buke & Gase
Meditation of Ecstatic Energy by Dustin Wong
Love & Devotion by Heterotic
Immunity by Jon Hopkins
Danish & Blue by Lilacs & Champagne
No Blues by Los Campesinos!
The Unified Field by Piano Interrupted
Cién Chmury Nad Ukrytym Polem by Stara Rzeka
The last five days of the eleventh-century Icelandic politician, writer of sagas, and famous murder victim Snorri Sturleleson (the Norwegian spelling, Snorre, is preserved in the book) make up Thorvald Steen’s most recently translated historical fiction, The Little Horse. Murdered. . .
We all know Paris, or at least we think we know it. The Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter. The Champs-Élysées. The touristy stuff. In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying. . .
One hundred pages into Birth of a Bridge, the prize-winning novel from French writer Maylis de Kerangal, the narrator describes how starting in November, birds come to nest in the wetlands of the fictional city of Coca, California, for three. . .
At 30, the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli is already gathering her rosebuds. Faces in the Crowd, her poised debut novel, was published by Coffee House Press, along with her Brodsky-infused essay collection, Sidewalks. The essays stand as a theoretical map. . .
Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia (narrated by Julio Cortázar) is, not disappointingly, as wild a book as its title suggests. It is a half-novella half-graphic novel story about . . . what, exactly? A European tribunal, Latin. . .
Marie NDiaye has created a tiny, psychological masterpiece with her Self-Portrait in Green. In it she explores how our private fears and insecurities can distort what we believe to be real and can cause us to sabotage our intimate relationships.. . .
Reading a genre book—whether fantasy, science fiction, crime, thriller, etc.—which begins to seem excessively, stereotypically bad, I have to make sure to ask myself: is this parodying the flaws of the genre? Usually, this questioning takes its time coming. In. . .
The Sicilian Mafia has always been a rich subject for sensational crime fiction. The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos worked the mob’s bloody corpses and family feuds to both entertainment and artistic value. Giuseppe di Piazza’s debut novel attempts this,. . .
Antoine Volodine’s vast project (40 plus novels) of what he calls the post-exotic remains mostly untranslated, so for many of us, understanding it remains touched with mystery, whispers from those “who know,” and guesswork. That’s not to say that, were. . .
It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?),. . .