Category Archives: Albums of the Year

Best Albums of 2014: #9 Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso

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The term “lightning in a bottle” is reserved for situations like this. When two folk musicians come out of nowhere to produce the most deliciously addicting electro-pop album of the year. For real though, Nick Sanborn and Amelia Meath’s previous bands (Megafaun and Mountain Man, respectively) play crunchy-as-fuck-hippied-out mountain folk jams. Sanborn was a bass player and Meath sang in a 3-woman damn-near-a-capella group. Yet somehow, we were gifted this incredible debut?! Again, lightning in a bottle.

Sylvan Esso came to me in the form of a moment I described in this feature for Paste Magazine’s Song of the Year, the album’s opening track “Hey Mami.” What I didn’t expand on in that article was what a dancing fool I was listening to just about that whole damn album in the car on my road trip. With nobody in the car besides me, I let out every ounce of energy I had in my body, mind and soul when I listened to this album. It was truly the soundtrack to my cross-country road trip and “Coffee” was the song I played every morning when I started the day’s drive.

Sanborn’s beats are so bass-forward. I feel like this sound was sitting there for someone to explore it for so long and it just now happened. Meath’s voice is perfectly atmospheric and she articulates with soul and a hint of elegant bass that compliments the production. Whether it’s the multiple movements on “Could I Be”, or how “Dress” and “Dreamy Bruises” make me want to pop-lock and do the robot (badly) or how “Coffee” still transports me back to my rented Dodge Avenger, mashin’ on the motorway across the nation’s highways, this album will forever be an integral part of my soundtrack to 2014. One love.

Best Albums of 2014: #10 Courtney Barnett – The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas

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While The Double EP, was first released in 2013, it was finally given it’s official US release in April of 2014 on Mom+Pop Records. Oh yeah, it’s fucking great and that’s why we’re ranking it as the #10 Album of 2014 🙂 Courtney is a wonderful musician, one of my favorite discoveries of the year and it’s a sheer pleasure to watch her absolutely shred on stage. She’s just so damn unique and cool.

Coincidentally enough, I wrote a short capsule about this Album for Paste Magazine’s Top 50 Albums of 2014, where it was also ranked at #10. With that, the capsule is below and check out Paste’s list too. I had a good time making the albums and a bunch of other year end lists with 35 other writers there and it’s a solid compilation, albeit different from Everything Ecstatic’s. And now, back to Courtney:

#10 Courtney Barnett – The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas – When it comes to storytelling, Courtney Barnett is as clever they come. The Australian singer/songwriter garners her share of giggles and smirks with songs that tackle situations from hilariously unsuccessful amateur gardening (aptly titled “Avant Gardener”) to drunken dreams where artists “made their paint using acid wash and lemonade” (in “History Eraser”). For every whimsically stoney lyric onThe Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, there are equally as many moments of sheer shred-ability from Barnett’s left-handed tail-spins on the guitar that often feel like she’s channeling Kurt Cobain.

The album itself is a collection of two older EPs, which despite getting released in Australia as far back as 2011, only saw their official US release gain widespread distribution in 2014, as this 12-track collection on Mom+Pop Records. Barnett’s musings are catchy and endearing. She finds ways to loop guitar solos into poppy verses, yet she avoids extremes. On “Are You Looking After Yourself” she opens with a twangy guitar into her isolated vocals that then lead to a full-on-folk implosion that’s utterly danceable. She repeats the pattern as it intensifies with the existential proclamation of “I don’t need to 9-to-5, telling me that I’m alive!” Lines and song structures like these render Barnett incredibly likable. There’s a confidence in place that make her American debut one of the most flat-out-fun records of the year.

The Best Albums of 2014: #11 Damon Albarn – Everyday Robots

Can we just go ahead and give Damon Albarn the credit he deserves for being one of the most accomplished songwriters of the last 20 years? The man behind Blur, The Gorillaz and now this deeply introspective solo album, has a grasp on pop culture that few can claim. On Everyday Robots, Albarn has put the globally-recognized pop appeal of The Gorillaz to the side for a moment, to reflect on personal themes, technological apathy and an over-arching treatise on tying our emotions to technology. The result is the best loner album of the year.

The aptly titled single, “Lonely Press Play” is the yin to St. Vincent’s “Digital Witness” yang. It’s a take on how we deal with boredom and depressive loneliness by turning on our digital devices:

Arrhythmia
Accepting that you live with uncertainty
If you’re lonely, press play
Can I get any closer? (Can I get closer?)
What antidote can I bring to you?
When I’m lonely, I press play

It sets the tone for a theme Albarn dissects throughout the album. On the album’s titular track, he’s more straight-forward in his critique:

We are everyday robots on our phones
In the process of getting home

The irony of the man behind the world’s first “digital band” (The Gorillaz) taking shots at the digital age is pretty wonderful in this context. Because this is Albarn’s detachment from his projects as an artist and an exploration of who he is and what goes on in the brain of Damon Albarn the person.

He even delves into memorable experiences from his travels, like on “Mr. Tembo,” a song he flippantly wrote to an orphaned baby elephant he encountered while travelling Tanzania. How he turns this song from a lullaby to a pachyderm into a Paul Simon circa Graceland jam featuring the Leytonstone Mission City Choir, (in contrast to Simon’s collaborations with Ladysmith Black Mambazo) is a memorable moment and shows Albarn humbly flexing his influence to include the East London choir.

But “Mr. Tembo” is merely an anecdote to describe Albarn’s benevolent process and human approach. The most wonderful moment on Everyday Robots comes on the nod to the eponymous Oscar Wilde classic, “The Selfish Giant.” I have to admit, I was sitting alone at a taqueria at 11pm on a Tuesday night (late work night…I told you it’s a loner album) when this song came on my headphones and I damn near broke down focusing on Albarn’s lyrics:

I had a dream that you were leaving
Where every atom falling in the universe
Is passing through our lives

And this was when when I moved this album further up on the year-end-list. To hear Albarn describe emotions and life-affirming musings with such poetry just made me want to crumble in existential bliss. Because artists like Damon Albarn who transcend the expected an can re-invent and create so masterfully, make you cower in respect.  Everyday Robots marks the moment when I stopped thinking of Damn Albarn as “the guy from Blur,” or “the dude behind the Gorillaz,” but rather as one of the most significant modern artists who has a rare ability to create music that’s truly a sign of the times.

The Best Albums of 2014: #12 Chet Faker – Built On Glass

Pardon the delay on this entry, but I’ve been a real weekend warrior. At any rate, here’s the #12 entry and make sure to follow Everything Ecstatic on Twitter first:

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When Built On Glass came out in mid-April, I didn’t want to listen to anything else. It motivated me. It lifted me up. It was the kind of soulful synth-R&B I had been yearning for. I was introduced to Chet Faker through KCRW’s excellent Morning Becomes Eclectic radio show (hosted by the incomparable Jason Bentley, this is my go to weekday morning listen) and was intrigued by the Aussie from the start.

Chet Faker (real name Nicholas James Murphy, but we’ll keep calling him Chet Faker) infuses jazzy vocals in his tunes like no other. He sports a trademark bushy beard and his lyrics are super emotional; exactly what you’d want out of a jazz singer; he looks and sings the part. He twinkles the keys and let’s it all hang out. My sister (who lives in Brazil) sent me this video of a live performance of “Talk Is Cheap” and I love it not just for the song and the performance, but also how Faker’s sound is resonating in Brazil:

His hooks are poppy and that likely lends to his global appeal, but it’s the production that distinguishes him from other sultry-voiced male singers. Take the horn-samples on “Talk is Cheap” and “Lesson in Patience,” or the kraut-synth of “1998.” He finds a way to balance different sonic elements and yield a sound that’s nothing short of infectious. He’s at his velvety-iest on “Cigarettes & Loneliness,” which layers a simple guitar riff over a punchy bass line. Faker coos to a woman who’s left him tongue-tied and weak in the knees: “Love what you’ve done to my tongue?/I open my mouth, but you hear me wrong.”

Built on Glass is a series of laments. We feel Faker’s emotions, because he presents them so passionately. Where he’s had success in the electronic realm in working with fellow Aussie Flume in the past, he embarks on a solo tour de force on this album that cements his presence in the synth-R&B scene. He wears his heart on his sleeve and that resonates with me big time. Waxing on the ups and downs of love, you can just feel how much pain he’s letting go of through these songs. His authenticity is exactly that and this is a go-to album for a range of emotional fluctuations. Make your heartbreak easier to stomach by listening to Chet Faker rationalize it for you on Built on Glass, our #12 Album of 2014. Cheers.

The Best Albums of 2014: #13 FKA Twigs – LP1

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This is the sexiest album of the year. Straight up. LP1 is memorable for not just the haunting production from the likes of Arca, Emile Haynie, Paul Epworth and even Sampha, on top of stoically deep and dark lyrics by Twigs, but it’s also for the visual atmosphere that FKA Twigs builds within her music. Essentially, you can’t listen to LP1 without thinking about her movements, her dancing, her look. It’s synesthesia of the highest order, which we went in depth about in this April post. 

There was a lot at stake for LP1. Twigs had built up steam on EP2, largely on the massively popular song and video for “Water Me” (produced by Arca, video by frequent collaborator Jesse Kanda). I remember seeing her play at Glasslands in Brooklyn, which will go down as my last time visiting the soon-to-be defunct venue and it being the hardest concert ticket to get in all of New York. There was so much mystique around Twigs, who was a prolific music video back-up dancer for the likes of Kylie Minogue and Jessie J, before launching into her solo career, that everyone wanted to see her. It was a cryptic evening: the red lights were low, the smoke machine was on and she left us all jaw-dropped. She was one of the alpha girls for the electro-R&B movement alongside Banks and on a greater scale, Grimes. But where Banks fizzled on her debut LP into a clear product/pawn of the industry (shade, i know), FKA Twigs is in a class by herself.

This is artistic expression. There are maybe one or two other artists on this list (yet to be announced) that can pull off this type of art. She’s stunning. Case in point, the video for “Two Weeks”:

She performed this song, in similar fashion to the video on Jimmy Fallon and as the set ended, Fallon couldn’t contain himself: “Wow! I have NEVER seen anything like that!” It was genuine and a moment that resonated with me for sure, when I think about how affectatious FKA Twigs’ music is.

Paul Epworth’s lone production credit on LP1, is on “Pendulum,” and it’s a finely crafted work, with the meandering beat and Twigs coursing through it’s vibrations. On “Video Girl,” Haynie and Twigs weave a memoir of sorts, from her time as a music video dancer. It’s an honest journey into the brain of her 19-year old self, who she was and who she wated to be:

The camera loves you, ain’t that enough?
You’re craving for the whole universe
So nothing’s gonna get in your way
You’re gonna get yourself broke one day

It’s a window into the mind of a budding star. She was the best at her craft, but she yearned for more out of life and out of art. And like every track on this album, it has a distinct and powerful degree of sensuality. On “Lights On,” she’s a fierce lioness and shrieks:

When I trust you we can do it with the lights on
When I trust you we can do it with the lights on
When I trust you we’ll make love until the morning
Let me tell you all my secrets in a whisper ‘til the day’s done

Fuck. This is sexy stuff and it renders us uncontrollably drawn to her. Calm and demure, standing on stage, provocatively clad in leather and fishnet undergarments, moving erratically, yet in sheer fluidity. And I can’t get these visions out of my head when I listen to her music. It’s more than just an aural experience; it’s a full-on sensory exploration and sometimes it feels like she taps into 6th and 7th senses that I didn’t even know existed. She crashes wildly in and out of lyrical bars and I’m left speechless and in awe. Every time.

Best Albums of 2014: #14 ODESZA – In Return

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“Tasteful electronic.”  That’s what ODESZA’s Clay Knight half-jokingly called their sound when I spoke with them for Paste Magazine earlier this year. And while some people might think that sounds kinda snobby, I totally get it. It’s tasteful because ODESZA manages to have their finger on the pulse of modern electronica, but they’re not trying to replicate this dub-step, deep house sound that’s gotten so popular. In Return is an album I turned to when I needed to focus, when I needed a pick me up, when I’m getting ready to go out AND when I’m lounging with friends; it’s an all-encompassing experience.

This record represents a major accomplishment of the internet age. ODESZA themselves came up in the soundcloud/hype machine/youtube buzz world and this album is a credit to hard work in a modern landscape. The album’s first single and my song of the summer is “Say My Name” featuring Zyra. ODESZA first got connected with Zyra when she was singing hooks over their tracks and posting them on youtube. I can never get over how cool this story is: They dug her takes on their output, reached out and they worked on the track together via internet exchange. This kind of story is so common in today’s musical landscape that it might as well be the norm. Like when RJD2 and Aceyalone made an entire album via snail mail recordings (Magnificient City), or how Phonte and Nicolay collaborated via e-mail on the first album for aptly titled The Foreign Exchange (2004’s Connected.) Electronic music has increasingly adopted this model of creativity, but seldom does it sound as divine and just flat-out-right, as it does with ODESZA, Zyra and other vocalists that appear on the record.

Zyra is also featured on “It’s Only” and where “Say My Name” has a distinct high level of energy that makes it the most dance-floor-conducive track on the album, “It’s Only” is a more mellow and emotional track with the influence of Asian sounds and effects. On “Sun Models” with Madelyn Grant, ODESZA brings back the kind of epic vocals that made their first two releases resonate with a wide audience. It’s a really accessible sound for an electronic group and this is what sets ODESZA apart. In fact, they’re so accessible that UNICEF used “Sun Models” for a riveting video that was released on and themed around #WorldAIDSday:

This was one of my favorite purely electronic efforts of the year. The Seattle-production duo has a totally altruistic view on making music, in that they want to further up and coming artists in the same way that they were co-signed and supported coming up. There’s a lot to like about this group and here’s hoping they spawn other acts of the same spirit.

 

The Best Albums of 2014: #15 The Antlers – Familiars

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Peter Silberman is one of my favorite songwriters. If you’ve never heard of the Brooklyn band, I highly recommend spending time with their discography. Silberman and Co. have a way of crafting an indie rock sonata of sorts from album to album. The Antlers’ 3rd LP, 2009’s Hospice, is a landmark indie record that tells the story of a dysfunctional relationship through the eyes of a terminally ill patient and a hospice-worker. Their 2012 EP Drift Dive, was a marvelous companion to 2011’s introspective and deconstructing Burst Apart and it was the last breath we’d heard from the band. It left me chomping at the bit for the release of Familiars. You know that feeling when you listen to a band non-stop and you acclimate yourself with the story of their music and then say to yourself “Then what happens?” This is Familiars.

This is a gift of a record. It’s when a band that moves you with every note, drops the next piece of the puzzle and it’s just as magnificent as the others. Familiars opens with the gripping piano and an atmospheric whirring trumpet on the single “Palace.” Silberman’s lyrics are nothing short of poetically perfect, with lines like “The day we wake inside a secret place that everyone can see” and then on “Revisited,” my favorite lyric on the record:

Can you see the secret exit? The false wall in obsession?
You’ll only fit through the doorway when you relinquish your possessions

It’s a line I’ve pondered more than once since I first heard it and shaped my outlook on material things. How such a simple line can affect a listener deeply. Lyrics seem to come so naturally for Silberman. He’s a master of cryptic story-telling. He can seemingly weave any idea into any group of gorgeous words he chooses. But the ultimate charm of Familiars is truly in it’s arrangements. It’s like a small jazz orchestra is leading the journey through all of the songs. The trumpet played by long-time collaborator Darby Cicci is king and it’s an integral part of the movements of the album. Much like yesterday’s entry lends itself to a good companion on a rainy day, Familiars is no different. With it’s lengthy guitar outros, soft snares and subtle synths, it’s both an ambient and orchestral essay in melancholy.

The Antlers are a fantastic band. One of the best from where I’m standing and Familiars is the next logical step in their upward trajectory and easily one of the best albums of 2014. Enjoy.

 

 

The Best Albums of 2014: #16 Mac Demarco – Salad Days

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It took me a minute to figure this guy out. First time I saw him at SXSW, I was certainly short of impressed. He looked like just another slacker with a guitar, so I wrote him off for a year. Then Salad Days came out to nearly unanimous critical acclaim and I gave him a whirl. And again, it didn’t make sense at first…Why does everyone like Mac Demarco? Then, on a rainy day (like today is, fittingly), I spun the record and mindlessly let the playlist flow into his debut record as well and something hit me: I decided to think of Mac as a chill-wave artist for a moment (like Toro y Moi, Washed Out or Neon Indian) and my brain finally started to understand his music. There really isn’t much of a difference from the vibes that Mac puts out from what we hear in the chill-wave movement; especially when he uses synth. He rounds out the vibe with an inherent gazy-ness and for that, let’s go ahead and dub him, Chill-gaze.

Mac Demarco, the chill-gaze prince. There’s really nobody else like him. An eccentric to say the least (he calls himself the “Pepperoni Playboy”) and with these chilled out guitar vibes, he makes me feel like I’m stoned and riding in the cab of a 1968 Ford F-100Salad Days is a complete work. You can listen to it start to finish and it’s gonna keep you in the same lovely spaced out mood through and through. Although there’s a couple stand-out tracks that are just super nice, smooth and generally agreeable. I know that doesn’t sound spectacular, but this an album for when you just want to listen to music and be in the moment without being totally floored. Mac does this on “Passing Out The Pieces” with his re-verby vocals and what sounds like a baritone or tuba in the background. He sings:”What Mama don’t know, has taken it’s toll…on me.” And I’m instantly transported to the porch of my old house in Santa Barbara, breeze blowing, leaves rustling. So chill.

“Chamber of Reflection” is a blissful moment that brings Salad Days to a head. It’s an introspective song that shows Demarco’s love of Eastern synths. He’s professed his affinity for Japanese composer Ryuchi Sakamoto and the melody of the song itself is an homage to 70’s Japanese synth artist Shigeo Sekito. And that’s pretty cool. Demarco, with his bright gap-toothed smile, puts me in my favorite kind of daze. Much like he is right now, with droplets of rain crashing to the ground outside of my window, I’m in the world of the Pepperoni playboy from British Columbia, who also doubles as the chill-gaze prince. Chill.

Best Albums of 2014: #17 First Aid Kit – Stay Gold

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Who would’ve thought that a Swedish duo could make an album so mindful of classic folk and Americana? This album was hard to not get wrapped into upon hearing the first single and opening track,”My Silver Lining.” Stay Gold accomplished the feat of falling somewhere in the middle of a Venn diagram consisting of pop, indie, folk and country. This being their major label debut (Columbia), it was really marketed across all colors of the musical palette, thus exposing the sisters to a wide audience. And I guess I respect that it’s a good pop record more than anything. To take a sound like “Swedish-folk” (?!) and make it appeal across so many platforms is kinda mind-blowing, but they deserve the acclaim and success.

Their harmonies are tight and not tracked out. Essentially, the way you hear their voices on the record is how it was recorded. They didn’t take turns in the studio and then mix the vocals in separately, they’re just naturally this fluid when signing together. Being on Columbia this time around, allowed them to experiment and make their song arrangements more extravagant than they’ve been in the past. Like the flute in “The Bell,” it’s a gorgeous sound and a positive example of how latching onto a bigger label actually gave them freedom to experiment with more instruments.

First Aid Kit evoke shades of American greats like Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton all over Stay Gold. It’s a tasteful homage to the music they grew up listening to and even more impressive when you consider that Johanna Söderberg is 24 and Klara is only 21. I love the melancholy of “Cedar Lane.” It makes me feel like I missed on a period of American music in my younger years and respect it more now because of it’s effect on First Aid Kit and their eventual output.

“Fleeting One” has lovely guitar strums and a permeant deep cymbal gong. They sing in unison over a piano and punctuate the chorus with:

My life is a fleeting one
My work is just a web I’ve spun
Oh, my life is a setting sun

It’s the essence of Americana. The poetic description of your working life with uncanny country vibes. Ultimately, this isn’t the type of music I would normally listen to, but I couldn’t put it down this year and for that, I loved it.

Best Albums of 2014: #18 Isaiah Rashad – Cilvia Demo

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It was a down year for hip-hop. Heavyweights like Kanye West, Drake and Pusha T dropped their most-recent efforts in 2013 and following up in 2014 would be understandably too soon, especially considering how much play those albums are still getting. Enter TDE Records, from Los Angeles, CA. The label that discovered and built a small empire around Kendrick Lamar’s good kid M.A.A.D. city, boasts only 6 artists (7 if you count supergroup Black Hippy). TDE had quite the year, dropping LP’s from stalwarts Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul and new signee, female singer SZA. But their best release of the year, came from their other new signee, 23 year old Tennessee native Isaiah Rashad; in the form of the introspective, wonderfully produced and polished Cilvia Demo. 

My equation for hip-hop to hit is simple. Without using big words and shit, it needs to sound nice, have substantive lyrics and something that I can feel. I’m not really into MC’s who wanna act hard, or brag about how much money they have. Fuck that. Been there, done that, over it. Herein lies my affinity for Cilvia Demo. It doesn’t boast a big single, like Q’s Oxymoron does with “Collard Greens” and it doesn’t have the big name features that Ab-Soul’s These Days has with Rick Ross, Lupe Fiasco and Action Bronson. But it marries Rashad’s emotive rhymes with ambitious hip-hop production that comes across like a classic sound.

Rashad uses unconventional lyrical paths to get his points across. On “Tranquility,” he waxes on the fucked up state of the world with these quasi-controversial bars:

Well, thank God for the shooter,
And thank God for the leader,
And think hard for a message
Blink art on pedestrians, what are you, a believer?

It’s a take on how both good and evil play a part in our perception of the world. How we establish our value judgements once we look at the whole scope of all parties involved. He cites Caesar and Brutus and Jesus to illustrate his point. All the while, production by Farhot strews lush keys along with an ominous bass hit.

Farhot and those buttery keys also guide the way on “Soliloquy,” which is exactly that. A 2-minute aside from Rashad with no chorus. On it, Rashad shows his serious side (“I left my daddy round ’97, he was lazy”), his playfulness (“I been on the Jäger for a day-ger watch me slow dance”) and even a witty sports reference (“And I’m finessing like I’m Timmy Duncan, win you something.”) He totally nails it and settles into Farhot’s groove.

The album’s crowning moment comes on “Heavenly Father,” where Rashad questions the role of God in his life, namely pondering whether the life he’s led is part of the greater plan that’s been set for him. It’s another fine production on Cilvia Demo, this time from D. Sanders, who infuses a pipe organ sound reminiscent of a ballpark and a stand-up bass that makes me hope to see Isaiah Rashad perform a song like this at a jazz club someday. I feel it even more on the  beautiful music video for the song directed by Eric Swiz.

This was a humble-yet-next-level effort from the even-keeled Isaiah Rashad and one of my favorite hip-hop albums of the year. One love.