Among the many terrific things about this terrific album are the words, memorable little nuggets of real life, lyrics that pull off that trick of feeling poetic without seeming to try too hard at achieving the effect. The first song, “Teenage Wasteland,” seems to be an ode to the joy of listening to rock music — in particular, that classic-rock radio standard by the Who, “Baba O’Riley.” And it deserves a spot on the list of best opening lyrics for an album:
Do you remember the moment you finally did something about it? When the kick of the drum lined up with the beat of your heart Stuck in the corn with only a transistor radio Making paths with the sound waves and echoes in old Baba O oh oh…
Of course, Wussy is considerably less famous than the Who, but this little band-that-could from Cincinnati has made yet another record filled with rock songs that stand up alongside the classic stuff. Wussy is one of those groups with two lead singers, and the way Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker switch off on lead vocals is a big part of Wussy’s chemistry.
Thanks in part to the championing of legendary critic Robert Christgau, who has called Wussy “the best band in America,” the group has been getting a bit more of the attention it deserves, including a recent appearance on the CBS This Morning. I chuckled at the way CBS described Wussy: “Despite a record deal, a dedicated following and critical praise, members of the band Wussy haven’t been able to leave their day jobs.” As if that’s anything unusual! (See many of the other musicians on this list.) wussy.org wussy.bandcamp.com/album/attica
2. Laura Cantrell: No Way There From Here
It has been a strong year for female singers — five of them occupy spots on my top 10 list, or 5 1/2 if you count Wussy — but Laura Cantrell’s wonderful collection of old-fashioned country and folk-rock songs went largely unnoticed. Cantrell is a low-key performer, singing her lovely melodies without any grand flourishes. That’s part of what makes her songs such perfect gems. lauracantrell.com redeyeusa.com
3. Ultimate Painting: self-titled
The key reference points on this album are the Feelies and, of course, the seminal band that influenced the Feelies and countless other bands, the Velvet Underground. That formula is well-worn but far from worn out, as this delightful record demonstrates. Released by the dependable Chicago label Trouble in Mind, it’s the debut of a London group comprising James Hoare of the band Veronica Falls and Jack Cooper of Mazes (the British group, not to be confused with the Chicago group of the same name). The bones of Ultimate Painting’s songs are bare in these recordings, which almost sound like unadorned demos — the best sort of demos, the kind that reveal all the strengths and structure of a song. These tunes don’t need anything more. ultimatepainting.tumblr.com troubleinmindrecs.com
4. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings: Give the People What They Want
Jones has made several great albums of authentically retro soul music since the Daptone label rescued her from a career of obscurity, and this is one of her best. The presence of backup vocals by the Dapettes and the varied, colorful arrangements give the music an added urgency. Jones finished making this record just before she was diagnosed with breast cancer; she successfully battled the disease and hit the road this year for a tour (including a triumphant show April 11 at the Vic), sounding as strong and vibrant as she ever has. sharonjonesandthedapkings.com daptonerecords.com
5. John Luther Adams/Seattle Symphony Orchestra: Become Ocean
First off, let’s stipulate that this recording can’t capture the full effect of hearing and seeing Become Ocean performed live — something I haven’t been lucky enough to experience. Adams, a composer who lives near Fairbanks, Alaska, writes music that evokes the natural world. And he designed Become Ocean to be performed by an orchestra spatially divided into three ensembles. Each of these groups plays slowly changing chords at its own pace. But even experienced through the two channels of a stereo recording (I haven’t heard the DVD 5.1 surround mix), it’s a beautiful and remarkable piece of music. Adams took the title from a poem that John Cage wrote about the music of Lou Harrison: “Listening to it, we become ocean.” That’s an apt description of Adams’ amorphous and oddly compelling music. johnlutheradams.com cantaloupemusic.com
6. Lydia Loveless: Somewhere Else
This young singer-songwriter from Columbus, Ohio, belts out her smart, catchy alt-country songs with impressive strength, packing them with yearning and spunk. And her band kicks ass. Among the many excellent tracks on this album, “Verlaine Shot Rimbaud” — a twangy Americana tune about 19th-century French poets — was my favorite song of 2014. lydialoveless.com bloodshotrecords.com
7. Protomartyr: Under Color of Official Right
Joe Casey, the frontman of this Detroit group, typically performs in a professorial jacket, intoning his lyrics like a half-inebriated poet. The brooding strength of that voice comes through on record, too. Using the basic tools of a standard rock band — guitar, bass and drums — Protomartyr makes intense post-punk with unusual, distinctive sonic touches, especially those otherworldly guitar lines. protomartyr.bandcamp.com/releases
8. Twin Peaks: Wild Onion
This youthful band from Chicago writes garage-rock tunes with a touch of 1970s glam, cheerfully bashing out catchy riffs and singing with what sounds like a bit of a punk sneer. This debut album isn’t quite as lo-fi as Twin Peaks’ earlier EP, but it still has the highly compressed tones of music actually recorded in someone’s garage. Thank goodness. music.twinpeaksdudes.com
9. St. Vincent: self-titled
Annie Clark, who performs under the name St. Vincent, is an amazing talent: a highly inventive songwriter; a musician who makes daring and unusual production choices; a live performer with the flair of an actress and a dancer; and a guitarist capable of blazing solos. Other than the visual spectacle of her live shows, all of that comes through in brilliant color on her self-titled album. ilovestvincent.com
10. Angel Olsen: Burn Your Fire For No Witness
On her latest record, the former Chicagoan gets more comfortable playing with her band, making music that defies genre labels. But her stunning voice is still at the center of the music — a preternatural force that conveys deep emotion even in the moments when it seems calm and placid on the surface. angelolsen.com jagjaguwar.com
With more listens, many of these records might have ended up in my top 10. And I heard another 100 or so albums that I liked — if only I’d had enough to give them more than a spin or two. These are in roughly descending order:
Chad VanGaalen: Shrink Dust
Andrew Bird: Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…
Gord Downie & the Sadies: The Conquering Sun
Bob Mould: Beauty & Ruin
Reigning Sound: Shattered
Cousins: The Halls of Wickwire
Bry Webb: Free Will
Swans: To Be Kind
Ty Segall: Manipulator
Nude Beach: 77
Woods: With Light and With Love
Neneh Cherry: Blank Project
Sturgill Simpson: Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
Thee Oh Sees: Drop
Ausmuteants: Order of Operation
Sharon Van Etten: Are We There
Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra: Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything
Jennifer Castle: Pink City
The Skygreen Leopards: Family Crimes
Richard Thompson: Acoustic Classics
Marianne Faithfull: Give My Love to London
Matt Kivel: Days of Being Wild
Mozes & the Firstborn: Mozes & the Firstborn
Outrageous Cherry: Digital Age
Ex Hex: Rips
Spoon: They Want My Soul
Beck: Morning Phase
Lykke Li: I Never Learn
Kasai Allstars: Beware the Fetish
Pink Mountaintops: Get Back
The Soft Walls: No Time
The People’s Temple: Musical Garden
Carsick Cars: 3
White Fence: For The Recently Found Innocent
Lucinda Williams: Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
My Brightest Diamond: This Is My Hand
Steve Dawson’s Funeral Bonsai Wedding
Jack White: Lazaretto
New Pornographers: Brill Bruisers
Damon Albarn: Everyday Robots
Jon Langford: Here Be Monsters
Greg Ashley: Another Generation of Slaves
John Wesley Coleman: Love That You Own
The Haden Triplets: The Haden Triplets
Paperhead: Africa Avenue
Tony Allen: Film of Life
Musee Mecanique: From Shores of Sleep
Hookworms: The Hum
Krakatau: Water Near a Bridge
Records I discovered in 2014
Honorable mention goes to a few records from previous years that I discovered in 2014. If these qualified as 2014 releases, they’d have a strong shot at my top 10:
After introducing the musicians in her band, Angel Olsen omitted her own name, remarking, “I’m still learning about who I am.” Maybe that’s true (as it is for most of us), but Olsen sounded completely confident in her musical identity as she performed Saturday night, Nov. 29, at Thalia Hall. As always, her voice was a wonder to behold, commanding everyone’s attention even when it was just a whisper. There’s nothing fussy or affected about the way she sings — it seems like that remarkable sound just naturally comes out of her. Her vocal style is cool, but it isn’t cold; there’s plenty of emotion pushing to break through even when her singing seems to be placid on the surface.
Her singing also has a timeless quality, with echoes of traditional English folk music and old-timey Americana as well as contemporary indie rock. As a result, Olsen’s performance on Saturday — featuring many songs from her great album from earlier this year, Burn Your Fire For No Witness — transcended genre. She played a couple of songs solo, bringing back memories of similarly intimate performances she gave a few years ago at Saki and the Burlington, back when she was still residing in Chicago.
But for most of the night, Olsen’s songs were shaped into subtle rock songs by her band: guitarist Stewart Bronaugh, bassist Emily Elhaj and drummer Josh Jaeger. For the first time, the band played a delightfully jangly cover of Jackie Deshannon’s classic 1963 song “When You Walk in the Room,” which was a hit for the Searchers in 1964. Commenting on how much she’s come to love playing with this group, Olsen said, “Basically, we’re all in a relationship now.”
The show also featured strong opening sets by the atmospheric indie-rockers Lionlimb (a band featured two members of Olsen’s group, Bronaugh and Jaeger) and the hard-riffing roots-rockers State Champion.
See my photos of the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival for The A.V. Club: Days 1, 2 and 3. I’ve included photos in this blog post.
For a long while now, Pitchfork has been about a lot more than indie rock. The Pitchfork website and the Pitchfork Music Festival both have a history of mixing obscure, strange and intellectual music with unabashedly mainstream pop. This past weekend, the festival put an exclamation point on that attitude by booking controversial R&B superstar R. Kelly as one of three headliners. The other two were more typical examples of the sort of music originally associated years ago with Pitchfork: Björk and Belle & Sebastian.
In theory, I like this idea of mashing Top 40 artists and DIY bands together into one musical amusement park. It pushes fans out of their comfort zones, helping them to discover artists they’ve previously ignored because of a bias toward particular genres. I’m one of those music fans who needs some pushing. Call me an indie snob … a guitar-centric elitist … a rockist. I’ve been ignoring the vast majority of mainstream music for the past few decades. The reason is simple. To my ears, most of it sounds overproduced, unimaginative and uninteresting. I realize that the sonic style of this stuff — the way this music tends to be performed and packaged — probably leads me to overlook some creative and well-crafted songs. But it feels like a chore to sift through it all to find whatever gems might be hidden in there.
So … R. Kelly? Sorry. I’ve barely even listened to the guy. What I have heard didn’t make me want to continue listening. The controversy over the disturbing criminal charges he once faced — and was acquitted of — doesn’t make me especially eager to dig any deeper into his music, either. This weekend, I was taking photos for The A.V. Club. After being allowed to take pictures from the photographers pit during R. Kelly’s first song on Sunday night, I had fulfilled my duty. And I needed to get home to edit a day’s worth of photos. So I left Union Park at that point, missing most of R. Kelly’s set. I’ll leave it up to other writers to say whether his performance was what R. Kelly fans wanted to get out of the experience. Judging from most of the comments I’ve seen, his fans rated the concert as a smashing success. From what I did hear, I doubt that R. Kelly would have made a new fan out of me.
I did stay for Björk on Friday night. There was never any doubt about that. And I stayed for every minute of Belle & Sebastian. Both of these iconic artists delivered terrific performances — the only problem being the weather alert about an approaching storm that forced Björk to end her concert prematurely, cutting a few songs off her set list. Certainly, Björk’s more recent compositions aren’t as catchy as the earlier songs, but even the less memorable tunes came off as intriguing, complex creations as she performed Friday, wearing a sparkly set of spikes on her head. The set’s emotional climax was the moment when Björk sang “I love him, I love him, I love him, I love him…” in “Pagan Poetry,” tilting her head skyward, while her choir of female harmony singers responded, “She loves him, she loves him…” And then, shortly after Björk conjured some bottled lightning with a Tesla coil, actual lightning sparked in the dark clouds overhead.
Nothing so dramatic occurred during Belle & Sebastian’s set the following night. It was, quite simply, a fun time — a lively concert packed with so many fabulous songs that it was hard to imagine how anyone could come away from it without being a Belle & Sebastian fan.
The three-day festival had plenty of other highlights for me. Woods jammed with a more Byrdsy vibe than ever. Swans droned and declaimed with frightening intensity. Savages made good on their hype. Wire started off a bit slow but finished with a strong buzz. Yo La Tengo played loud, and then quiet — so damn quiet that you had to listen — and then loud again.
…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead dug into its songs with fierce power. Foxygen’s flailing lead singer, Sam France, climbed halfway up the red stage’s metal support column and jumped down, as the band fell into a delightfully shambolic groove. Phosphorescent leader Matthew Houck’s voice keened with longing. Julia Holter’s music floated as she stood as still as a statue. And Waxahatchee’s songs blossomed from bedroom folk into slacker rock.
Alas, I wasn’t able to stay for whole sets by Mikal Cronin, Angel Olsen, Low and Metz, but they all sounded great for the few songs of each that I did catch. (I wasn’t there when Low closed its set with a cover of Rihanna’s “Stay,” transforming a mainstream pop song into, well, a Low song.) And I wish I’d seen more of Parquet Courts to figure out what all the fuss is about.
What else happened over the weekend? Pissed Jeans cavorted with glee. Daughn Gibson intoned with brash confidence. Trash Talk praised old people for “having us all and shit.” The Breeders fumbled. Mac DeMarco stuck out his tongue. Joanna Newsom plucked her harp and warbled, the subtleties of her songs getting a bit lost in the park.
I went into this Pitchfork fest with a bias toward old-fashioned, guitar-based indie rock, and I came out of the weekend with my bias intact. Still a rockist, but trying to be open-minded. Toro Y Moi’s frothy pop did nothing for me. M.I.A. put on an impressive and energetic show, but her music quickly wore me down, as it has in the past. I still have no idea what Lil B is all about, other than the fact that he has some really enthusiastic fans. Solange, Beyonce’s sweetly smiling sister, seemed to charm much of the audience. Hearing her music for the first time, it struck me as unremarkable. Maybe just not my cup of tea.
And so, when New York Times critic Jon Caramanica writes that the Pitchfork fest’s second half “served as a reminder of how dance music has become the most exciting emergent narrative in pop,” I have to wonder: What was I missing? I much preferred the weekend’s indie rock, which included, according to Caramanica, “bands in various stages of delusion and defensiveness.”
Killer Mike won me over, though. Of all the hip-hop artists I watched at Pitchfork, he was the one who had the most to say, even if his rap denouncing Ronald Reagan’s lies in the Iran-contra affair seemed oddly dated. “I want to encourage Chicago to take care of each other,” he said in one of his mini-sermons in between his raps, apparently alluding to the city’s violence. “I’d like to encourage the people of Chicago to look out for one another.” Later in his set, looking out on a Pitchfork audience that was more racially diverse than it had been on previous days, Killer Mike declared, “This is what church is supposed to look like.”
See my photos of the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival for The A.V. Club: Days 1, 2 and 3.
On Sunday (Jan. 9.), Logan Square’s Saki record store once again hosted an afternoon of free live music. One of the performers was Chicago singer-songwriter Angel Olsen, whom wrote about recently when she played at the Burlington. So… not to belabor the point, but she once again wowed a crowd into silence with her beautiful voice and songs.
In a much different vein, Sunday’s in-store at Saki also featured Foxygen. The California duo-turned-band’s debut, Take the Kids Off Broadway, was released this year by the Jagjaguwar label. It’s a giddy psychedelic party, and the band lived up to its occasionally goofy studio recordings with a daft live performance that included lots of hair pulling, ironic stage banter and keening vocals that sometimes reminded me of the Oklahoma band Evangelicals. I’m looking forward to the second Foxygen record, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, which comes out in January.
Earlier this year, Olsen finally put out the sort of record that could attract the sort of attention she deserves: a lovely LP called Half Way Home, on the Bathetic label. On the record, Olsen sings and plays with backup from another talented Chicago musician who’s spent time in Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s band, Emmett Kelly (who’s also the leader of the Cairo Gang). While this isn’t a solo acoustic recording, the production and arrangements are spare, and the feeling is that of an intimate, natural performance captured on tape just as it might sound in a bedroom.
Olsen played an in-store with Kelly on Sept. 4 at Reckless Records in Wicker Park, and the store was filled with listeners. And then, when she performed a Nov. 12 concert in New York, New York Times critic Ben Ratliff wrote a glowing review under the headline “A Singer Finds Her Voice, and It Can Silence All Others.” It seemed that this largely unheralded singer from Chicago might be finally getting more widespread notice. Jessica Hopper interviewed Olsen for a Nov. 16 article in the Chicago Tribune, and then Olsen made her triumphant return to Chicago for a gig Monday (Nov. 19) at The Burlington.
At least, it felt triumphant to me. Olsen’s still a fairly obscure singer in the grand scheme of things, and Monday’s show felt a bit like a private party where she was welcomed home by friends. After nice, folk-rock sets by two openers, Clouds and Mountains and I Ching Quartet, Olsen took the stage. This time, she was playing solo — calmly commanding the stage. She did show jitters at a few moments, forgetting a few of her own lyrics, but then laughed it off with self-deprecating humor. She played an electric guitar, but kept the tone clean and unadorned, sounding practically acoustic as she strummed and plucked spare but inventive chord progressions. She sang softly much of the time, but then she would step aside from the microphone as her voice rose in strength, hitting notes filled with plaintive pleading.
At a few points, in the middle of song, Olsen raised her eyebrows or said something like, “hmm,” as if commenting on her own performance as it was happening — gestures that could be seen as examples of her lacking confidence. To me, they felt — paradoxically, perhaps — more like signs that she is comfortable with her presence on the stage. As she sang, the room felt almost completely silent. I sensed some awe among the people gathered there.
Here’s a video I shot of one song, “The Waiting,” which is preceded by a giggly introduction:
Earlier this week, I reported about the Chicago band the Singleman Affair — led by Daniel Schneider — on WBEZ’s Eight Forty-Eight program. (Hear it here.) After seeing the Singleman Affair perform several times over the past few years, it’s a delight to hear the group’s second album, Silhouettes at Dawn, at long last. It’s a beautiful record, with orchestral flourishes fleshing out Schneider’s smartly composed and passionately performed folk rock. The Singleman Affair celebrated the release of this record, the band’s second, with a grand show Friday night (Feb. 11) at the Hideout, featuring an expanded, seven-piece lineup. Schneider looked lost in the music as he rocked out on his acoustic guitar, and the rest of the band was with him every step of the way.
The opening act Friday was also notable — singer-songwriter Angel Olsen, who’s been seen lately touring with Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Her band last night included another regular with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Emmett Kelly, on bass. Her gothic country-folk-rock songs sounded strong. Watch for a new Angel Olsen record next month. www.myspace.com/ghostgrocersings