Friday, January 2, 2015

Dr. Spin's Honorable Mention Albums for 2014

As beautiful and touching as Hawaii was, there were some unsettling issues.  My understanding is that of all of the islands, Kaua'i is the most idyllic and undeveloped.  From what little I saw, this was certainly the case.  The cost of living, however, is incredibly high.  We flew into Lihue, which was, for all intents and purposes, a small but contemporary urban city, and prices on regular goods here were noticeably higher.  The further away from the city you went, the higher the prices got.  We stayed on the north side of the island in Princeville, and grocery prices were nearly three times what they might be on the mainland.

Most of the people living in the area did not seem to care too much, however, because they were largely the upper class elite and exuded the attendant entitlement that one might expect. The general impression I got was that Hawaiians are aloof and exclusive.  By "Hawaiian," I don't necessarily mean the stereotypical indigenous people of the island.  This cultural group was clearly not in the majority, nor did they generally hold much power beyond their roles as torchbearers for traditions that the upper class elite have marginalized through high-dollar land ownership.

Don't get me wrong - Hawaii is incredibly diverse from a cultural standpoint, and there were many people that I met who I genuinely liked.   This schism between idealized "Hawaiinness" and the street-level reality, however, often set me ill at ease - probably more than it should have. 

As with every year, I have a few albums that just did not quite make it into the top 20.  In this case, a couple of these albums I was saving at the end of November for the top ten, but they got edged out by some last-minute rising stars.  It would not be unfair to put this catchall list in a limbo between #11 and #10. 

Wobbler – Rites at Dawn: An online discussion with a few Yes fans about Wobbler caused me to reevaluate Rites at Dawn. I rescind the majority of the criticism I leveled against it a few years ago – It s a fantastically complex and tuneful iteration of retro-prog that just couldn’t quite find a place in this year’s top 20.

Ghost of a Sabertooth Tiger - Midnight Sun: Sean Lennon’s newest project wades into the same retro-nostalgia that Tame Impala did last year. Musically, there is a lot to like about it, but there are a few lyric ideas that did not totally win me over.

Peter Gabriel – [car]: For a long time, I viewed Peter Gabriel’s debut album as a disjointed first step into what would become a masterful solo career. I reframed the album this year as a creative burst by the artist who led Genesis to its logical end, however, and from this perspective I find it to be incredibly compelling.

Haim – Days are Gone: Haim combines the tunefulness of 80s girl bands like the Bangles with the empowered voice of TLC and other female 90s hip hop. While they sometimes rely too much on obvious hooks, their tunes are catchy and their delivery charismatic.

The War on Drugs – Lost in The Dream: Although I fail to see how this is a criticism, The War on Drugs were quite publicly chastised this year for sounding like Bruce Springsteen or the Dire Straits, circa late 80s. Lost in a Dream is a great album that sort of slipped between the cracks, but has proven to have great replay value in the long term (meaning that I really grew to love it in December, after the top 10 had mostly been set).

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Dr. Spin's Top 10 for 2014

A good part of my holiday break this year was spent in Hawaii.  We were on Kaua'i, which is also known as "The Garden Isle."  I walked off the plane with no small amount of cynicism, but I quickly learned that all of the picturesque scenery that accompanies the literature on Kaua'i is in no way exaggerated.  It is breathtakingly beautiful.  The wildflowers there would sell for high dollars in a florist shop here in Texas. A simple drive down the highway cuts through breathtaking views of verdant mountains pushed right up against crystal clear water.  I was blessed to find myself with my wife and kid on Hanalei Beach on Christmas Eve, staring out into the open sea watching those waves crash.

From an environmental perspective, it was life-changing, and an introspective way to spend a very busy, somewhat hectic year.  Also a very good year in music.  If you look at this list alongside last month's post, there was a distinct move back towards progressive rock in comparison to last year, but it still contains a satisfying diversity of styles.

10. Deafheaven – Sunbather: Any criticisms that might be leveled against this album are easily and convincingly countered by its surprising emotional range. Sunbather’s marriage of indistinct, shoegazey vocals with head-bobbing metal conjures a particularly distinct flavor of repressed, seething rage.

9. Secret Chiefs 3 – Book M:  Mr. Bungle does ethnomusicological fieldwork in Persia with stunning results. This album found its way into the library a couple of years ago, but became particularly meaningful over the course of this year.

8. Syd Arthur – Sound Mirror: After a solid debut, Syd Arthur makes an impossible step forward on their sophomore release. Impossible, because they change virtually nothing in their approach but still manage to refine and expand on what they have already accomplished.

7. Rage Against the Machine – The Battle of Los Angeles: Although I was a big fan of Rage Against the Machine’s first album way back when, I stopped following them by the time this album was released. Some distance from that mind-shattering debut allows this album to shine brightly on its own merit.

6. Transatlantic – Kaleidoscope: Although I don’t think it holds a candle to the stupendous Whirlwind, Kaliedoscope is one of Transatlantic’s most consistent and cohesive works. It is a glorious example of the expressive capacities of 90’s symphonic prog.

5. Django Django – This self-titled debut took quite a while to grow on me. In the end, however, I became convinced by Django Django's infectious, quirky songwriting approach.

4. Yes – Heaven and Earth: Although three years ago, the immediately gratifying Fly from Here just barely made it in the top twenty by year’s end, this year’s Heaven and Earth has slowly grown into a favorite since its summer release. It implies a sustainable vision for Yes’ future that I find exciting.

3. Hans Zimmer – Man of Steel OST:  Due to his facile ear, adventurous spirit, and incredible creativity, Zimmer’s approach to scoring seems to continually evolve. With Man of Steel, his unique instrumental choices resulted in an album of unbelievable depth and power.

2. Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe: While Chvrches’ adopted genre is clearly electro-pop, the strength of this album lies in its songwriting. Any of these tracks could be played in nearly any style and be effective, but deft production hand elevates them to a consistent level of near-perfection.

1. Dawes – Stories Don’t End: One of the most dreadful topics that a songwriter can address is the difficulty in writing a song. That Dawes can turn this usually embarrassing theme into an introspective social commentary of the highest order is only the smallest indicator of the genius found all over Stories Don't End.