Happy Turkey Day! As you read this, I am on a beach in Jamaica, enjoying my honeymoon (as I write this, however, it's freezing cold out in New York and I haven't even packed yet because I have three more days of work before I leave).
Anyway, since I couldn't leave the world waiting until next week ... here are my 2014 Album of the Year nominees, in iTunes alphabetical order. Hooray!
DEATH VESSEL -- ISLAND INTERVALS
Death Vessel is the first of several Newport Folk Festival discoveries this year, although we arrived too late at Fort Adams to see them. I'll have to settle for my memories of their opening set (for Shearwater) at the Bell House earlier in the year, which won me over.
Death Vessel is the American Sigur Ros; they've toured with the band and, in fact, the album was recorded in Reykjavik with Jonsi -- who sings on it, too. It's a little twee at times, and although the Rhode Island outfit, headed by Joel Thibodeau, isn't quite as good as Sigur Ros, Island Intervals contains some of my favorite songs of the year. Triangulated Heart was first to make me a fan -- I snatched their Brooklyn set list and it's the third song, marked simply, △ ♡ -- and it's followed on the record by the infectious Mercury Dime and the Jonsi-infused Ilsa Drown.
You probably have to be in the right mood to listen to Island Intervals. Watch the video below; by the end, you'll have more of an opinion as to whether Death Vessel is charming or cloying. The band is both at times, I admit, but I've mostly been sold on the former.
FIRST AID KIT -- STAY GOLD
The album's title (and the title track) is inspired by the Robert Frost poem, Nothing Gold Can Stay:
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
I enjoyed First Aid Kit's previous record, but this one tops it, imo, and the title track is a perfect reason why: a melancholy song you can sing along to. Same goes for much of the rest of the album. Which is all I ever really ask for from music.
HURRAY FOR THE RIFF RAFF -- SMALL TOWN HEROES
Alynda Lee Segarra is gorgeous. She's Puerto Rican and from the Bronx -- both of which surprised me, having heard the album before reading up on her -- who landed in New Orleans. When her band showed up on the Newport Folk Festival lineup, I checked out her music to get me primed for her set.
So glad I did. The album is wonderful, full of songs that long for home while stuck behind car crashes in Germany, songs set in the Blue Ridge Mountains and San Francisco Bay and Big Easy bars on Monday nights -- songs that feel like old friends after just a play or two.
If I say any more about Segarra, well, my marriage may come to an end before it's had much of a chance to start. So just watch the video or Spotify them or something. It's 25 degrees out, and my palms are getting sweaty.
MOGWAI -- RAVE TAPES
Mogwai, live, assaults your ears. My memory of the band from 2014 will be my head getting blasted in by them at Terminal 5. Great show, if you didn't end up bleeding from your skull or falling into a seizure. (I avoided both, but only by retreating to the rooftop bar; Terminal 5 staff were ducking for cover in all directions, fingers in their ears.)
Mogwai won my 2013 Album of the Year with one of the greatest soundtracks of all time. Rave Tapes can't -- and doesn't -- match it, but once again, Mogwai paints sound pictures that are worth a thousand words.
As usual, each song is so strong you forget you're listening to instrumentals; Rave Tapes is another great album from one of the world's elite bands. This one has been on repeat all year long.
SHARON VAN ETTEN -- ARE WE THERE
My wife tells me Sharon Van Etten finally broke up with the dude who inspired these songs (and presumably, the songs on her last record, another Album of the Year nominee). Thank goodness. I mean, the dude might have helped give us some great art, but the pain is almost too hard to listen to, let alone to bear.
Just listen to the song titles: Your Love Is Killing Me. I Love You But I'm Lost. Break Me. Nothing Will Change. And the lyrics: "I washed your dishes, but I shit in your bathroom."
Break my legs so I won't walk to you
Cut my tongue so I can't talk to you
Burn my skin so I can't feel you
Stab my eyes so I can't see
You like it when I let you walk over me
You tell me that you like it
Your love is killing me
We saw her live; she's quite charming and even clumsy and ditzy. On these albums, she is raw power and pain. Maybe her next record will bring out her happier, loopier side. In the meantime, we have an amazing document of love going very, very wrong.
SUN KIL MOON -- BENJI
So Mark Kozelek's feuds with "hillbilly" concertgoers and The War on Drugs gave us a pretty hilarious song, but it grew old and sort of left a bad taste in what should have been a purely triumphant year -- not only is Benji a great album, but Kozelek's Christmas album, which just came out, could become a staple if I can listen to it without all the irony.
Benji is packed with songs about death; I think Pitchfork compared its rambling lyrical style with boxing -- jabbing and weaving and ducking and blocking -- which is a sport Kozelek loves and even mentions on the record. I've enjoyed Sun Kil Moon's music for some time -- and was thrilled to see him at Newport -- but, to me, this is the best thing he's ever done.
Yes, that's (Album of the Year winner) Will Oldham singing backing vocals on Carissa. And to top it off, I danced with my mom to I Can't Live Without My Mother's Love at my wedding. Hard to beat.
U2 -- SONGS OF INNOCENCE
It's become hip to hate on U2. It's been deserved much of the time, but not now. Songs of Innocence is a great album, their best in at least 15 years.
Was putting the song on every iPod, iPhone, iPad and iTunes account in the known universe a douchebag move? Of course it was. But don't let this get lost in the furor: U2 had the balls to do it. It's free. And it's damn good.
This album is U2 without some of the less palatable excesses. Bono sounds great; The Edge crunches his guitars; and the songs are personal, mostly about growing up in Dublin, so even when the lyrics are a bit generic (long a Bono staple), they still resonate. Sometimes it's OK to be a jealous R.E.M. fan.
THE WAR ON DRUGS -- LOST IN THE DREAM
If I had to choose sides, I'd pick Mark Kozelek's.
Still, I love Mark Knopfler. And he sounds like he's playing on this album, even though he isn't, making a song like An Ocean in Between the Waves one of the best songs of the year.
Bridge and tunnel people, apparently, love them some War on Drugs. They're pretty beloved by the hipsters, too. While it annoys me that this album gets praised while Songs of Innocence gets bashed -- I think you either like both, or don't like both -- I won't hold it against them.
WARPAINT -- WARPAINT
I had the pleasure of seeing Warpaint twice this year, once at Webster Hall and a second, even better show, outdoors in Prospect Park. They were awesome. This record is their best yet.
From Intro -- with its stomping drums and its apology and its restart and its seamless flow into Keep It Healthy -- to songs like Disco//Heavy and Drive, which seduce you slowly, Warpaint's self-titled gem doesn't seem to have the hooks to make them a mainstream success. But they're intoxicating and mysterious -- I get swept away by their guitar work, live and on tape - and they've made possibly the best record of 2014.
Also in iTunes alphabetical order:
Leif Vollebekk -- North Americana
Peter Buck -- I Am Back To Blow Your Mind Once Again
Primus -- Primus & the Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble
R.E.M. -- Unplugged 1991/2001
Shearwater -- Missing Islands (Demos & Outtakes 2007-2012)
Sinoia Caves -- Beyond the Black Rainbow (OST)
"Weird Al" Yankovic -- Mandatory Fun
Willie Watson -- Folk Singer, Vol. 1