By Eli Winter
HOUSTON, Texas, U.S.A. – Here’s my favorite music released this year. You may not know all of the musicians discussed here, but don’t let that scare you. There’s something for everyone here.
I use the word “favorite” in place of the word “best” this year for two reasons: First, because it’s a more accurate reflection of my music tastes; second and because this way I won’t have to decide which album or song I like the most.
This year, it’s especially hard to do that.
Time Off by Steve Gunn
Steve Gunn’s fifth album wears its influences on its sleeve. Gunn’s a big record collector; he knows some blues, some world music, some American Primitive music, and everything in between. Before stepping into the studio to record, he helped out Kurt Vile as guitarist in his backing band, The Violators, and here he puts all these influences together in a slow-burning, seemingly effortless style. His guitar builds up the music, but never to excess; his vocals are restrained, and oddly appropriately so as he sings of tales of men of the city; the whole album is mellow and relaxing. And yet it’s captivating, soothing; it draws you in and leaves you hungering for more, 40 minutes later, 40 minutes happier.
Try out his performance of “Lurker” at NPR Tiny Desk Concerts here: http://youtu.be/2bMVMjOMRkU?t=10m39s
Comedown Machine by The Strokes
This is The Strokes’ fifth album and their last one released by RCA Records, which snapped the band up in 2001 after their first EP came out. Unlike Angles, Comedown Machine sees The Strokes experimenting – as opposed to four Strokes experimenting and one Stroke purposefully extricating himself from the other band members in an attempt to force creativity. As a result, this album is more cohesive, more natural (Despite Julian Casablancas’ occasionally unnatural falsetto), more intimate, and frankly, better than Angles. Critics tend to assume The Strokes have a certain sound they absolutely have to stick to or else they won’t succeed, and here they do just the opposite of what’s hoped from them: Branch out more than they ever have, dabbling in everything from disco to lounge music to synth ballads to punk. Despite the disconnect between their critics’ expectations of their sound and their own sound, they mix these styles well. The Strokes don’t feel the need to prove themselves anymore, and they let said critics hear about it, too: “You'll never believe me 'til you're on your own.”
Try out “Welcome To Japan” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQphPd7-2RM
Phosphor by Karl Culley
Karl Culley is a guitarist with skill the likes of which you’ll never have heard before. Same goes for his songs – they’re excellent. At times reflective, desperate, and funky, he combines many musical styles with little more than an acoustic guitar and a voice. His percussive fingerpicking style gives him great stylistic versatility. One song, such as “Dragon Kite,” can be somber and solemn, and another, like “Runes,” can be anxious and tense. Lyrically, abstractions and allusions abound; he can allude to Greek mythology as a metaphor for addiction and arrogance, as in “Icarus and Whisky,” while also, in the tune “Qualifer,” comparing life to a ballgame: “I see the ball coming fast towards me like a wall; it’s a hard, hard court to live upon.” Life knows how to throw a curve, and Phosphor helps you hit it back and arrive safely on base.
Watch his video for “Dragon Kite” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MTJ4u7tWLXY
Pale Green Ghosts by John Grant
This album may take you aback a little at first listen. Maybe it’s the way the synths sound, so suddenly ice-cold or maybe it’s just the way the album cover looks – not exactly inviting, with John Grant’s glare and pale green tie juxtaposed against a dark brown suit and room. Noone is immune to judging books by their covers, to be sure, and the same goes for albums. But Pale Green Ghosts proves an endearing listen which, with the help of a beautiful baritone, will warm and reward you. Its subject matter certainly can’t be described as “light.” Grant tackles heartbreak, resentment, and AIDS diagnoses, among other subjects, during the course of the album, and it’s lyrically just as intense as it is musically sparse. But in spite of himself, Grant keeps his tongue firmly in his cheek in songs like “GMF,” exuding dorky confidence as he challenges his lover to “go ahead and love me while it’s still a crime,” and then reminds him that with him, “You could be laughing 65 percent more of the time.” His lover may have left him, but in his stead, John Grant has left us this album. Listen to it; you’ll be all the better for it.
Watch his video for “GMF” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ekFWPsXXcg0
“Weight” by Mikal Cronin
The most tasteful fuzzed-out guitar distortion you’ll hear all year, and with one of the prettiest melodies, too. Hear it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0S2eTV2v3V0
“Portrait” by Richard Buckner
A gorgeous song, at once introspective and desperate for connection; “Locked in your portrait, lost in the frame” – wouldn’t you be, after listening? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0S2eTV2v3V0
“Wake Bake Skate” by FIDLAR
FIDLAR are honest, and brutally so. They’re happy where they are, and this song is them, grinning ear-to-ear with glee, wishing you could take it easy like they, and noone else, can.
“Tumbleweed Learner” by a microscope
I know the man who made this, so I’m admittedly a little biased towards it, but I’ll be damned if it’s not the most beautiful song of the year. http://amicroscope.bandcamp.com/