Yes, this is mainly a travel blog, but I’m allowed non-travel entries! 😛
This has been my most sedentary year in recent memory. While I’d have preferred otherwise (and in fact, it will be in 2014), being in one place has given me the chance to stay more in the loop with music and live shows. So, keeping with my annual tradition that I started somewhere else, here’s what I’ve been listening to this year! Each section is in alphabetical order. (And since this is a travel blog and I’ve got all these flag images lying around, might as well use ’em…)
Here’s a playlist of every linked track below. All links are on YouTube.
Not necessarily my most listened albums of the year (though many are), but also some intriguing ones I wanted to highlight.
AlunaGeorge – Body Music
Electropop with a 90s/early 00s R&B bent, this record pairs George’s off-kilter but lush beats with Aluna’s distinctively sharp but sweet voice, in a way that effortlessly oozes creativity and cool (though George is hilariously awkward in their videos). Think Aaliyah/Timbaland. It’s dancey, accessible, and endlessly replayable.
>> You Know You Like It, Your Drums, Your Love
Basia Bulat – Tall Tall Shadow
Coming off the death of a close friend, this record is palpably intimate as though she’s singing with you in the room, figuratively staying in the shadows with little bursts of light, both musically and lyrically. It’s a folk record through and through (Basia maintains her focus on the autoharp and charango), but with gentle introductions of less acoustic elements — synths here, a strutting beat there.
>> Tall Tall Shadow, City With No Rivers / Wires (live)
Blood Orange – Cupid Deluxe
Dev Hynes has been known lately for his 80s style “bedroom-pop” hits for Solange and Sky Ferreira from last year. This record follows the same aesthetic over the length of a record. Loungey and smooth but never pastiche, it never repeats itself either. Dev sings, but occasionally passes duties to a variety of guest singers and rappers, giving them far more than the standard 8 bar verses to shine. It’s a spacious record that takes its time.
>> Uncle ACE, Time Will Tell
Camera Obscura – Desire Lines
While I’ve always been a fan of theirs, this record never sank in until repeated listens with fewer upbeat numbers than its predecessors, but it’s now my favourite of their already excellent catalogue. A beautiful, elegantly lush 60s pop record with a twinge of whatever the song calls for: melancholy, sun, the thrill of excitement… it’s whatever a warm hug should sound like.
>> Do It Again, New Year’s Resolution
Carla Morrison – Déjenme llorar (2012)
While Carla may never raise the volume from “coffeehouse”, she is certainly not a derivative singer-songwriter. She’s got an incredibly warm, sincere voice, but also a knack for varied alt-pop arrangements. It entirely justifies the soppy lovelorn/heartbroken lyrics — if you understand them. If you don’t, you’ll feel every inflection of emotion nonetheless.
>> Eres tú, Déjenme llorar
Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe
A bright, pulsating synthpop record, they’re in a class of their own even on their debut. The lyrics are dramatic and overwrought, but it all makes sense in context of the music, with the build ups and bursting refrains. Think epic like M83, but with a beat and a female singer.
>> The Mother We Share, Gun
Disclosure – Settle
How these brothers (18 and 21!) came up with such an assured debut record is beyond me. It’s dance/house music that still works for people who don’t like either (me) — while nearly every song is built off of an “unn-tss-unn-tss” beat, there’s enough of a 90s pop bent to attract anyone, and a dizzying array of guest singers (not that they can’t themselves) that I happen to love. Everyone brings their A-game; the songs range from soaring to impossibly smooth. Incredibly hard to pick favourites.
>> Latch (f. Sam Smith), White Noise (f. AlunaGeorge)
Foals – Holy Fire
While it’s at times catchy (see “My Number”) and it’s got its grooves, their math-rock roots show a teeny bit in the many layers the songs have. Despite all this, this record is generally pretty dense and heavy both lyrically and musically, with plenty of minor-key slow burners, dissonance, and hard rockers. It’s a little difficult, but definitely demands (and is more than worth) repeat listens to get into.
>> My Number, Late Night
Goldfrapp – Tales of Us
Having veered jarringly back and forth between glam-pop and ambient sounds between their records, Goldfrapp continue the trend and hark back to their Felt Mountain sound. Each song on this record is a little vignette of a love affair or a sad story, named after a single person. While the whisper-quiet lyrics aren’t necessarily completely intelligible, the songs are sweeping and cinematic, and moody — a wonderful night-time record.
>> Drew, Annabel
Haim – Days are Gone
Arguably one of the most hyped bands of the year, they deserve it. This is like… 90s adult-alternative. Except it’s really, really good. The Haim sisters are all very accomplished musicians and singers, but they’re able to make catchy music that seems completely effortless and they just clearly seem to be having fun with it all. It’s confident, it sounds like all the music I ever grew up with, yet I can’t pin it down at all.
>> Forever, The Wire
Jamie Lidell – Jamie Lidell
The self-titling is apt: Jamie Lidell takes elements from his past three records spanning blue-eyed soul to straight-up electronic funk and melds it altogether in one cacophonous mix. It’s cluttered with ideas and noise, cut through with his elastic wail and croon. Plenty of swagger, but at times revealingly personal. (Also, he throws on a hell of a live show!)
>> Big Love, What a Shame
Janelle Monáe – The Electric Lady
The artist behind my favourite record of 2010 (by farrrr) does it again. The Electric Lady spans suites 4 and 5 of her now 7 part Metropolis series set in 2719, of an android on the run for falling in love with a human. The concept is both less present (in the songs) and more present (in the interludes) than before. The music spans less genres than before, centering on R&B instead; the focus makes for more consistently great songs. Plenty of high profile guests — who gets Prince as a feature?! — yet she’s never upstaged.
>> Q.U.E.E.N. (f. Erykah Badu), Primetime (f. Miguel)
Juana Molina – Wed 21
A well-established Argentinian folk singer (and former actress/comedian), this is the first record I’ve heard from her. Her music is full of details and plays around with dissonance and experimentation — using mainly conventional instruments — in a way that just catches. I think “smoothly twitchy, often hypnotic” kinda describes it. While I admit to not fully paying attention to the Spanish lyrics, there’s a lightheartedness to what I understand.
>> Eras, Sin Guia, No
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu – Nanda Collection
It’s somehow not surprising that Kyary is breaking out in the west, and not just from the viral PonPonPon. All of her music and lyrics are written by Yasutaka Nakata (responsible for his own band Capsule and a few others), who excels like no other in piling layer upon layer of sugar-sweet, exuberant pop. But it’s really the combination of the music (admittedly a little uneven on an album-length) and Kyary’s seriously, seriously oddball aesthetic (on crack) that puts her on my list. Stick with the music videos.
>> Furisodeshon, Fashion Monster
The National – Trouble Will Find Me
When are they not my list? I’ve written about them plenty of times. Their dark humour, the obtuse lyrics that somehow make sense when you put it together, the gravitas of their top-class musicianship… I’ve grown up with their music and listened as they continually figure out how to grow up. After all these years, they’re still my favourite band.
>> Demons, Graceless
Omar Souleyman – Wenu Wenu
This reminds me of the music I hear blaring from bus stops and random places in the Middle East — gauzy, cheap keyboards, canned beats, trilled melodies. And it’s not a slight at all. Omar Souleyman is a Syrian wedding singer who’s done hundreds of recordings, but is now for the first time professionally recorded in studio. I have no idea what he’s singing (in Arabic and Kurdish), but it’s hypnotic. And now that I think of it, it shares an odd commonality with dance music. Unintentional trendsetter?
>> Warni Warni
Quadron – Avalanche
Blend Coco O’s jazzy, rangeful voice with Robin Hannibal’s simple but lush electro-soul production and detail, and you have a record that seems like every sound was carefully arranged into place — immaculate and tasteful. In their second record, they fill out some (but not all) of the open, ambient spaces in their songs and shift slightly pop. Their signature airy sound is still their signature.
>> Hey Love, Favorite Star
Rhye – Woman
Robin Hannibal’s second project of the year is with Canadian singer/producer Milosh. Yes, he’s a guy. (Listen, you’ll see what I mean.) Unlike Quadron, Rhye’s sound is more soft-rock/R&B, all closeups and soft-focus, and where the music only swells and recedes subtly. While it’s silky-smooth and sensual, it’s romance done tastefully and genuinely, never crass.
>> Open, The Fall
She & Him – Volume 3
I freely admit it — Zooey Deschanel is my celebrity crush. Sigh. Her voice is pure and classic 60s — the odd vocal tic and the random off-beat only make it more endearing. Plus, she’s actually a great songwriter. She and M. Ward have never really varied their sound that much, but I’m a sucker for nostalgia folk-pop. If you liked or hated the first two volumes, you’ll think the same here.
>> I Could’ve Been Your Girl, Together
Stromae – Racine carrée
Belgian singer-rapper and producer extraordinaire Stromae breaks past the ranks of typical house/dance acts with some interesting subject matter — strife in areas of relationship, missing father-figures, health, discrimination, and others; frequently playing characters. He performs entirely in French, but it’s absolutely worth looking up the translations or watching his literal music videos. Unique and gutsy.
>> Papaoutai, Tous les mêmes
Tennis – Young & Old (2012) / Small Sound EP (2013)
Newly married couple leaves it all behind and goes sailing. That was their story and their first record, now what’s next? A push into 60s girl-group pop melodies and story-per-song lyrics, apparently. Piano, guitar, bass, and drums make for a breezy, saccharine throwback record or two.
>> My Better Self, Mean Streets
Thao & The Get Down Stay Down – We the Common
After a few years of shallow roots, how do you connect with people and community? The title says it all. The music reflects the community aspect too — with shout-sung lyrics, there’s a folksier than usual, ramshackle quality to the proceedings, and it’s more raw sounding than her previous work. The youthful lyrics may be gone, but the youthful energy is still there in every banjo strum and horn blast.
>> Holy Roller, We the Common (For Valerie Bolden)
Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
While I used to find their music a little pretentious and whip-smart, this record really grew on me (as immediate as it sounds, I was late to the party). The subject matter is surprisingly poignant and sophisticated; there’s a pervasive sense of mortality and uncertainty, what to do when youth passes. The music? Playful, whimsical, but also a little more mature. Listening to this record gives me a wistful smile.
>> Step, Hannah Hunt
Yuck – Glow & Behold
Losing their lead singer/writer between albums wasn’t catastrophic for them. Yuck continue to bring on a wave of 90s nostalgia in the form of long jamming sessions, shoegaze, and familiar chord progressions. There’s less fuzz on this record than the last, but the lyrics really aren’t the focus.
>> Lose My Breath, Middle Sea
Some songs for the road. I may not have written about the albums above, but you can check them out for yourself anyway.
Annie – Back Together (A&R EP)
Arcade Fire – Reflektor (Reflektor)
Band à Part – Verano azul, invierno nuclear (La aventura original)
Cayucas – High School Lover (Bigfoot)
Charles Bradley – Strictly Reserved For You (Victim of Love)
Classixx – All You’re Waiting For (f. Nancy Whang) (Hanging Gardens)
Dënver – Revista de gimnasio (Fuera del campo)
Dungeonesse – Drive You Crazy (Dungeonesse)
Erlend Øye – La prima estate (non-album single)
Franz Ferdinand – Right Action (Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action)
Holy Ghost! – Okay (Dynamics)
Julieta Venegas – Te vi (Los momentos)
Junip – Line of Fire (Junip)
Kakkmaddafakka – Someone New (Six Months Is a Long Time)
Kisses – Funny Heartbeat (Kids in LA)
Mayer Hawthorne – Her Favorite Song (Where Does This Door Go)
Mikal Cronin – Change (MCII)
Mutual Benefit – Golden Wake (Love’s Crushing Diamond)
Phoenix – Trying To Be Cool (Bankrupt!)
Second – 2502 (Montaña rusa)
Tegan and Sara – I Was a Fool (Heartthrob)
Telebit – Primera dimensión (Primera dimensión)
If you’ve found anything awesome this year, let me know!