Well, that's not entirely true, I bought a used 188.8.131.52's CD from a friend for $1, but that's it. In fact, I don't even own a CD player anymore. I mean, sure, I can play CDs on my computer or in my car, but I no longer own a dedicated CD player component. But the odd thing is, I did pick up a cassette for the first time this year since the '80s (and I don't own a cassette player either).
The audio cassette revival is understandably obnoxious to those of us who grew up with them. It is an inferior format in every sense except for one: it has a crafty, DIY appeal. But really, the flirtation with the audio cassette today is only slightly more popular than the very brief mid-90s 8-track comeback. Cassettes may not entirely go away like 8-tracks, but they're not ever going to come back like vinyl either. So those of us who remember cassettes V1.0 - prepare to keep rolling your eyes for the foreseeable future - but also don't be pigheaded about it. The one cassette I picked up this year turned out to be one of my favorite releases.
My preferred method of audio delivery is still vinyl - specifically the LP (the amount of vinyl I buy increases every year and I'm pretty sure I buy more records now than I ever have).
Admittedly, I'm not a singles person - I like to put a record on and settle down with a magazine or a sketchbook or something. I'm not sitting on my bed with a bunch of singles, playing record after record as I stare dreamily into the spinning 45. That being said, I also bought more singles this year - about a dozen - than any year since I was a little kid (when I used to by a lot of singles).
However, I also want my records to come with download codes so they can be more functional. I still sometimes buy a record, get it home and open it and play it only to discover it doesn't come with a download. My response to that is more than disappointment but not quite anger.
I was a part of 2 music mail-order clubs (Yeti Mike and Van Dyke Parks) - where for a set fee, I get sent a certain number of records over the course of a year. Those were fun because I'd usually forget about them and suddenly a package full of weird and wonderful vinyl would arrive.
Unfortunately, given the nature of the music distro business (talk about antiquated, top-down dominated business models), I can't always find/get the music I want on vinyl, so I sometimes find myself forced to download (in some cases lazily or ignorantly supporting the very businesses (Amazon & iTunes) that are destroying the industry in the first place) - but I also often end up buying the vinyl later when I find it (like with GbV records).
And while I'm fessing up to bad behavior, I also continue to use Spotify despite agreeing largely with David (Camper Van Beethoven/Cracker) Lowery's excellent reply to an NPR intern's post illustrating everything that's wrong with the new generation of music consumers.
However, in my own defense, I only use Spotify as a listening station. In the absence of legitimate music criticism (if Pitchfork is the best we have, we are in a lot of trouble), viable radio and any semblance of music television - finding good music has gotten even harder despite glib pronouncements of techwhores that we're living in some kind of artistic utopia.
On the plus side, a lot of good music is definitely out there to be found (even if the finding of it is more difficult - I call it the "Obscurity Through Availability" theory - so much is available, but with no filters or valid cultural arbiters, it all just becomes so much white noise).
In fact, I found so much good music this year, that I've decided to forgo my usual 1-20 countdown and list simply all of my favorite records of the year and why.
Where possible, I have linked most of the albums below to Spotify - so if you have an account and are interested, you can more easily check out the music. In other instances (when the record isn't available on Spotify), I have linked to either Bandcamp, Last.FM or a label's site. I do this for the reader's convenience in the hopes that they'll check out some of the music being discussed.
Many of these records are available at your local record shop - I purchased a lot of them at Celebrated Summer and The True Vine in Hampden, and Sound Garden in Fells Point is also a good resource.
Feel free to ask me for a copy of my annual Shank's Best Year End Mix CD. Available at Atomic Books while supplies last.
Also, here are the past 5 years of my annual year end mixes on Spotify if you are interested. These aren't entirely complete as Spotify doesn't have everything, but it's as close as I could get it.
Best Journey Into A Troubled Mind: Jazz Mind by Ed Schrader's Music Beat
Schrader's Jazz Mind has a stripped down, minimal intensity in that sort of Joy Division, post-punk, Factory way. Air shows, sugar addiction, sermons, rats, broken minds, Schrader's Jazz Mind deals with issues of mild madness. This is a record that gets under your skin and stays with you and it is easily my favorite record of the year.
Best Record I Thought I'd Never See: Birthday Gift by Sick Weapons
Birthday Gift has a long, storied history. It was supposed to come out a few years ago and didn't. Then a single was supposed to come out, and that didn't happen. Then, this year, it finally came out - with a reunion show. Easily one of the best records in Baltimore punk history - it's a bittersweet thing - knowing that there will never be another Sick Weapons record. But at least we have this one. With lines like, "If you love me, take me to the hospital," or "I don't know what I'm doing and I feel like an asshole," or the Ed Schrader penned "I Get Fucked For The Fuck Of It" - the songs are at least sharply clever and at their best - they're downright transgressive.
Best Solid Indie Rock: Orange Cassette EP by Monster Museum
So I got this as a cassette with a download code. I downloaded the songs, tossed 'em on my iPod and every time a song would come up, I found myself checking to see who the band was that sounded like I should file them between Pavement and Sonic Youth. Each song on this EP is a winner, and I really can't wait for more songs from these guys. If all cassette releases were as good as this, I'd be an avid cassette collector (until the tapes started to get eaten or they fuse together because they were left in a hot car or until they accidentally get wiped because I sat it too close to a magnet... etc).
Best Trifecta: Let's Go Eat The Factory by Guided By Voices
Class Clown Spots A UFO by Guided By Voices
The Bears For Lunch by Guided By Voices
Often times we talk about song cycles on records - GbV this year, unfettered by label limitations, delivered an album cycle. This is the newly regrouped classic lineup, and each album moves closer to that classic GbV sound. In fact, there are a couple tracks off Bears, "White Flag" and "She Lives In An Airport" that rank as good as anything from the Bee Thousand - Under The Bushes, Under The Stars-era. There are gems on each record - and each is a movement of a band relearning itself and pushing forward. Some might argue that these three records could be edited down into 1 truly great GbV album, and they'd be right. They could. But to make such an argument is to not understand Pollard and GbV at all. Record all the songs. Put them all out. Let the fans decide what they like, and worry about making more music. That is the Pollard method.
Best Attempt At Being The New Guided By Voices: Slaughterhouse by Ty Segall Band
Twins by Ty Segall
Hair by Ty Segall / White Fence
Garage rocker Ty Segall was responsible for 3 excellent records this year (my favorite of the lot is Twins). Output-wise, he's almost giving Bob Pollard a run for his money (but Pollard released 3 GbV albums as well as 2 solo records this year). Each record has that distinct Segall psych-garage rock sound, but each sounds like a distinctly different project too. Not an easy feat to pull off.
Best Unexpected Comeback: Researching The Blues by Redd Kross
I really hadn't expected anything from Redd Kross ever again. Even a couple years back when I found myself revisiting their catalog and was shocked at how well it's aged, I thought they were done. But then out of nowhere came Researching The Blues - a tight, edgy guitar rock confection the likes of which just isn't as abundant as it was during Redd Kross' heyday.
Best Continued Relevance: I Bet On Sky by Dinosaur Jr.
A few years back, I was pretty certain that I'd never need to hear another Dinosaur record, then they reformed with the original line-up, released Beyond, I heard enough good reviews to make me curious, and it was great. Then Farm came out, again I got curious, and again, it was great. And here we are with the third release since the reformation, and it's another good record. Beyond was hard and tight. Farm was sludgy and stonery. Sky is downright poppy at times. I'm done wrestling with it. New Dinosaur Jr.? I'm in!
Best Reclamation Of A Musical Legacy: Meat And Bone by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Before The Black Keys. Before The Kills. Before The White Stripes. Long ago, there was the JSBX. Even at their peak, they had to endure hipster backlash. As the years wore on, their enthusiasm waned and, well, they haven't done much worth listening to. Until Meat & Bone. It is prime, vital JSBX, but it also works in some new sounds, to keep the sound not only fresh, but ahead of the curve. The quailty of a Jon Spencer album is conversely proportional to the amount of times he self-references "Blues Explosion" on the record. By my count - there's only 1 "Blues Explosion" on Meat & Bone which means this is one of their best. Listen for yourself, I think you'll find that theory totally holds up.
Best "Rock Classicists": II by Nude Beach
Nude Beach play quality barroom rock and roll in the Replacements style. The fact that Pitchfork regards it as generic rock "classicism" is actually more a testimony to the quality of the music on II than the smug indictment Pitchfork intends it to be.
Best Hooks - Leaving Atlanta by Gentleman Jesse
As far as I can tell, Gentleman Jesse doesn't care where the hooks come from, and when the songs are this good - neither do I. Great guitar pop in the vein of classic Joe Jackson or Elvis Costello.
Best Pop Punk: WWIII by White Wires
A quality 3-piece, garage/pop-punk/surf ensemble with a generous helping of catchy as fuck songs. You'll be singing along by the second listen.
Best Psych-Rock Revival: Putrifiers II by Thee Oh Sees
I'm not sure if it's because I started listening to them both at about the same time, but I often think of Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees along the same lines. Over the years, Segall has moved into a more glam/garage rock direction, and Thee Oh Sees have expored more the psychedelic sounds of things. Both journeys have paid in remarkable dividends.
Best Psychedelic Journey: Lonerism by Tame Impala
This album ranks on my list on the basis of one song alone, "Elephant" - a woozy piece of Rundgren-infused psychedelica. The rest of the record is shiny, pleasant, Australian psych-gone-walkabout - but man, that "Elephant." If the whole record were like that song, Lonerism would have easily been my record of the year, despite their horrible band name.
Best '90s Revivalists: Attack On Memory by Cloud Nothings
Cloud Nothings bring the lo-fi alterna-rock of the '90s back to the teens with a new fervor and new breath. One of the more appropriate album titles of the year.
Best Album I Keep Overlooking (Most Likely Due To Lame Band Name): Open Your Heart by Men
Every time a song from this record came up on my shuffle, I'd like it. A lot. There's a good diversity of sound on this record - within the indie-rock realm. But I'd never member the band. Probably because their band name needs a prefix. Or at least a "The".
Best Next Move - The Only Place by Best Coast
The last Best Coast album had such a defining sound, it would be enough to pigeonhole a lesser band. They made the bold decision of ditching the Phil Spector-esque production vibe and go with a more straightforward sound, and that seemed to piss a bunch of people off. Expectation management is key to enjoying most things. The more you listen to this record, the more the songs present themselves.
Most Underrated: Young & Old by Tennis
Tennis' Cape Dory got so much pre-buzz hype, when it came out, it didn't quite manage to live up to it (although I think it did). As a result, Tennis' next album, Young & Old, came and went with hardly any notice, which is shame. The songs here are beautiful, lush pop.
Best Record I'd Always Hope Would Be Made: Locked Down by Dr. John
I've always liked Dr. John - a sort of voodoo swamp Tom Waits who lost his way over the years because of drink, drugs, and assorted vice. Here he gets Rick Rubened/Jack Whited by the Black Keys and delivers a wicked album of fully realized hoodoo funk. I really hope someone gives similar treatment to Leon Redbone next.
Best State Of The Union: Wrecking Ball by Bruce Springsteen
It's not my line, but I wish it was - a new Springsteen album is like a State of the Union address. His "We Take Care of Our Own" almost seemed like a "gotcha song" custom made to trick Republicans during an election season for their Reagan-era co-option. The title track is a testament to an America that's been forced upon us by our own failures and our own determination to continue on despite it. Quality Springsteen.
Best Rantings Of A Crazy Old Man: Tempest by Bob Dylan
This is not a perfect album - but a flawed record can sometimes be so much more interesting than a flawless one. Bob's getting up there in years, and there's no telling how many more records he has in him, but Tempest continues is Golden Years Golden Streak. His voice, ever-more croaky, at times seems like that haggard old man you run into immediately after parking your car in a strange neighborhood because your friends wanted to have drinks at some strange bar - and in this instance he's yammering at you about blood and death and violence and hell to pay. Tempest is Dark Dylan - An Old Pimp Turned Street Crank.
Best R&B Revivalist: Time's All Gone by Nick Waterhouse
It's a modern take on the pre-rock era - Waterhouse constructs tight, irony-free R&B that it as smart and fresh as it is familiar. Even its presence as soundtracks for TV commercials isn't enough to wreck how enjoyable the music is.
Best Garage Rock Revival: Allah-Las by Allah-Las
If it seems like the Allah-Las really know music, it's because they really know music. A band comprised of employees from the famed Amoeba Records, this record is note-perfect garage at its best.
Best Single: "Meet Mike Hate" by The Stents
I am sometimes cautions about exquisite packaging. Maybe I picked up a few too many of the wrong Estrus Records titles back in the '90s or a few too many records with Dan Clowes, Coop or Pete Bagge artwork that just didn't live up to their respective wrappers. Regardless - I sometimes suspect really good packing is over-compensation. In the case of The Stents "Meet Mike Hate," the deluxe packaging treatment doesn't misdirect or hide - it accentuates perfectly. Red vinyl - beautiful sleeve, inside a download coupon and stickers - and the record itself if some really tight garage rock via 1970s guitar pop.
Best Career Retrospective: Lo Fi High Fives... A Kind Of Best Of by R. Stevie Moore
It can be a little daunting getting into lo-fi pioneer Moore's music. Over the years, he's put out so much, it can be difficult to figure out where to start. This sort of "Best Of" is an excellent Moore primer.
Best Compilation: Country Funk: 1969-1975 by various
Talk about two great tastes that seem like they shouldn't taste good together but do. The cheesy country fondue of songs compiled here create an outline of an interesting genre. Featuring songs by Bob Darin, Bobby Charles, Link Wray, Mac Davis and more.
Best Box Set: Never To Be Forgotten: The Flip Side Of Stax 1968-1974 by various
There was a lot of talk about how great Frank Ocean's R&B was this year. To me, it just seemed like more generic stuff - I didn't get what was special about it. However, this box set of Stax b-sides - holy shit! I mean, these b-sides are so much more awesome than a majority of R&B a-sides currently being produced. It was a magical era, and sometimes it's just fun to listen to something and shake your head at how staggeringly good their b-list stuff was.
Best Guilty Pleasure: Red by Taylor Swift
I was working late on the computer one night, and I had Letterman on in the background. I wasn't really paying attention, but there was a band playing what seemed to me to be a pretty fucking decent pop confection. When I looked up from what I was doing, I realized it was Taylor Swift. What was happening to me was the I was liking a Taylor Swift song. This was a little confusing, so I checked out a few more songs from her new album, Red, and I found all of them secretly enjoyable, so I bought the record. But I kept this secret shame to myself. I wasn't sure if there was something wrong with me or if these songs were actually good. Maybe I was just becoming a confused old man (I still very well could be). Then I overheard another old dude in a record store talking about how good the record is to the shock and dismay of some of his punk friends. They couldn't believe him, so I outed myself and confirmed it and backed him up. The record is a very good pop record. We're not talking Pet Sounds here, but it is delicious ear candy.
Best Punk Rock (Despite Stupid Comments From Lead Singer) Off by OFF!
When OFF! started coming out with singles a couple years back, it was a breath of fresh air. Good-0ld fashioned hardcore with band comprised of members with well-established punk pedigrees. It felt like the early '80s all over again. But the band has been around for bit now, and as much as I've tried to avoid it, every so often I'd stumble across a quote or a part of an interview with lead singer Keith Morris (he of Black Flag and Circle Jerks fame) and the dumbass shit he'd say quickly reminds me of how quickly I went from digging the Circle Jerks and seeing them play back in the '80s loathing them for their support of Ronald Reagan and general dumbassery. So I guess what I'm saying is, hey OFF!, reign in Morris on the interviews before he starts chasing away fans. He's not funny. He's not even coherent. But otherwise, great music.
Best This Kind Of Shit Ain't My Kind Of Shit, But Clearly It's A Landmark Release: Book Burner by Pig Destroyer
"Book Burner" - the name immediately brings to mind an Amazon tablet gadget (Fire, Kindle). Grindcore ain't my thing, but I've listened to enough of it to know what's what. And from the opening sounds to closing track, what Pig Destroyer does here is raise the bar for every other grindcore band. It doesn't transcend genre, so if you aren't down with the sound, it's unlikely to persuade you. However, if you're genre-rock neutral - just listen to what Pig Destroyer does on Book Burner. It is a masterpiece of the genre.