So many old albums I need to clear out. Below is a mix of the well-known and unknown, with many of the well-known held up as shining examples of this year’s cream. I completely agree that 2014 has thus far seen a lot of really great releases, though my honest side tells me some of the more anticipated works just don’t quite make the cut. Regardless, plenty of enjoyable stuff to be soaked up. Since it’s been more than half a year without one of these extended dumps, here’s the breakdown: all Honorable Mentions are B Plusses where more * is better. Lemons are garbage no matter which way you cut it. Sink your teeth in.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN – High Hopes (Columbia): Take Rolling Stone’s reflexive 5-star reviews with a grain of salt, but don’t dismiss them. The Boss hasn’t had the incredible streak they’d have you believe, but post-9/11, and especially since the financial crisis, Springsteen has fodder for material again after the 90s drought. This time, though, it’s a collection of reworked oldies, proof that his body of tunes needs only slight tweaking to be relevant to whatever day and age one might find oneself in. That said, not everything works, and the idea in general is a little lazy. Neneh Cherry and The Thing did far more with “Dream Baby Dream” than Springsteen could imagine. (“American Skin (41 Shots),” “Just Like Fire Would”) ***
DUM DUM GIRLS – Too True (Sub Pop): Everything 80’s All the Time. I was nearly hooked with 2011’s Only In Dreams, which leaned much more towards rock and featured a couple of killer openers, but ultimately couldn’t ride the storm. Here obvious single “Rimbaud Eyes” echoes throwaway 80’s staples like “I Wear My Sunglasses at Night” with its airy background guitars and innocuous and repetitive chorus, Dee Dee’s voice switching between a strong, solid alto and whispery menace. And that’s the formula practical one-chick band Dee Dee and producer Richard Gottehrer employ in force on this remarkably slim 10-track, 30:30 release. Couldn’t care less what decade her records imitate hereafter so long as she keeps churning out choruses as catchy as anything here. (“Rimbaud Eyes,” “Too True to Be Good”) ***
MODERN BASEBALL – You’re Gonna Miss It All (Run for Cover): Philly indie rock group started by Brendan Lukens and Jake Ewald, who both share guitar and vocal duty. In limbo between being not tired and not bored, these city slackers are clever, comical, and warm. (“Fine, Great”) ***
TUNE-YARDS – Nikki Nack (4AD): I named Whokill best album of 2011, probably an overenthusiastic move even though the Pazz & Jop crowd wound up agreeing. While there are some nice grooves inside, it’s not quite like its predecessor; just seems like Merrill Garbus is the insufferable intellectual hippie spouting sincere nonsense. Nikki Nack’s ethos is no better summed up than in spoken word piece “Why Do We Dine on Tots?”—a parable accusing Boomers of sacrificing America’s young to better themselves, frustrating because its cloak of goofiness eschews critique or congratulations. And that’s my problem with Garbus’s shtick. I’m sure she’s perfectly sincere, and she sure can stretch the limits of a pop song, but she’s also a cartoon. (“Water Fountain,” “Stop That Man”) ***
DAMON ALBARN – Everyday Robots (XL Recordings): Ex-Gorillaz/Blur frontman (putting aside various side projects like Rocket Juice & the Moon) finally drops a solo effort. Themes might be a little heavy handed—individual isolationism manifesting in technology overuse/reliance and LCD screen worship—but the tunes are solid, surprisingly mellow for a guy who made a career doing the opposite. (“Everyday Robots”) ***
THE NEW MENDICANTS – Into the Lime (Ashmont): Some sort of Canadian construct channeling early jingle Beatles—or more likely Love, or the Byrds, or the Hollies. (“Shouting Match”) ***
LYDIA LOVELESS – Somewhere Else (Bloodshot): Alt-country singer-songwriter. Catchy enough, energy to spare, but screams a bit too much, trying to sustain a fist-pumping, head-nodding kinesthetic that induces fatigue. (“Wine Lips”) **
LYKKE LI – I Never Learn (Atlantic): There’s no “I Follow Rivers” here, which is probably how she likes it. Riddled with confessions of how she done wrong, this is more heartbreaky than usual, which for Li is surprising. (“Silver Line”) **
SHARON VAN ETTEN – Are We There (Jagjaguwar): Came terribly close to awarding Tramp an A Minus, but held off when I just couldn’t get behind enough of the album—the grind of her throaty, airy vocals that reflect almost as little personality as Cate Le Bon. Nevertheless, there’s something strangely magnetic about her music—I can always listen to one of her albums, and the spell is only broken once it’s ended and I can barely recall a single song. (“Break Me”) **
TYCHO – Awake (Ghostly International): Early morning electronica. **
MAC DEMARCO – Salad Days (Captured Tracks): Ugly ass Canadian Vernor Smith, third album under this alias. Easy enough to listen to with its 60’s psych/folk rock/jangle pop imitation—and certainly an improvement over his first proper album 2—but stealing styles only goes so far once one locks oneself inside its confines. (“Salad Days,” “Let Her Go”) **
NENEH CHERRY – Blank Project (Smalltown Supersound): Daughter of trumpeter Don, Cherry’s follow up to 2012’s highly praised The Cherry Thing feat. Scandinavian free-jazz outfit The Thing sees producer Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet) directing RocketNumberNine’s drum ‘n bass backdrop. This should, in theory, work. But what makes TCT great is its improvisatory feel (or just genuine improvisation), which—much as I love him—Hebden’s cold, structured production can’t reproduce, much less improve upon. (“Weightless”) **
STANTON MOORE – Conversations (Royal Potato): Galactic drummer’s breezy blend of piano neo-classical, jazz, and soft-cock rock. (“Lauren’s Song”) **
ANGEL OLSEN – Burn Your Fire for No Witness (Jagjaguwar): Singer songwriter from St. Louis, fourth album, two more in collab with Bonnie Prince Billy. Whispery folk-fest runs at nearly an hour, unsurprising for label Jagjaguwar, though she mixes in enough electric in the first half to boost her permanently reverbed vocals, channels Lou Reed for a hot second on “High & Wild.” (“High & Wild,” “Hi-Five”) *
THE WAR ON DRUGS – Lost in the Dream (Secretly Canadian): A cross between Bob Dylan and Dire Straits, failing to match the quality of either. The need to ID this dream-indie group among the slush evinces their triteness. *
GUIDED BY VOICES – Motivational Jumpsuit (Guided By Voices Inc.): They release too many albums for me to keep up with, and until someone releases a definitive, multi-disk best of spanning their tenure of twenty-something years, I’ll constantly say “That album was pretty good. Is that the one with that song? No? Ah, fuck it. Probably a decent album, anyway.” (“Vote For Me, Dummy,” “Save the Company”) *
BADBADNOTGOOD – III (Innovative Leisure): Canadian jazz/hip-hop trio, first album of original material. Have a strange obsession with Tyler, the Creator, but I don’t see any of his influences here. Plays more like electro chunky beats with a sliver of improv. *
FUTURE ISLANDS – Singles (4AD): Formed in Greenville, NC and later based in Baltimore, this indie-electro group went viral due to frontman Sam Herring’s emotive and impressive performance on Letterman. I unwittingly caught them live sometime between ’07 and ’09, remember nothing about them other than everyone telling me they were good and that it was fucking loud, and even then Herring was channeling the energy the audience brought into explosive stage antics. That energy doesn’t transfer to disc, however, so only the leadoff track has any memorable spunk and the rest is by-the-numbers. (“Seasons (Waiting on You)”) *
LITTLE FEAT – Live in Holland 1976 (Eagle Rock): Ten song set stretching to an hour. A fine collection that features none of my favs from Sailin’ Shoes, this is reserved for diehard completists. *
THE MEN – Tomorrow’s Hits (Sacred Bones): Someday, someone somewhere will anthologize the invariable few good tracks from their every-year albums. That will be worth something. Probably. *
THE ANTLERS – Familiars (ANTI-): Can no longer accuse Peter Silberman of shooting for American Radiohead, not with these nine incredibly long and overly slow lullabies. *
AFGHAN WIGS – Do to the Beast (Sub Pop): 90s alt-rock semistars regroup for minor key jams.
BECK – Morning Phase (Capitol): Been a long time since Modern Guilt, or at least a long time since his last audial album if you count Song Reader. This must be the sounds of Beck’s life between the time he gets up and has his first cup of coffee: murky, inarticulate, uninteresting.
THE BLACK KEYS – Turn Blue (Nonesuch): Auerbach and Carney’s insistence on rehiring Danger Mouse—not only as producer, but as songwriter—continues the devolution of a once modest blues rock duo. Never one to discourage experimentation, I can’t fault them for branching out, but the end result is (once again) a flaccid grind.
BROKEN BELLS – After the Disco (Columbia): Brian Burton and James Mercer team up for a sequel no one should have asked for. If the Shins don’t go down as one of the more overrated indie acts of the 21st century and Burton among the most overhyped producers, then this collaboration of mere competence will be a cherished relic.
COLDPLAY – Ghost Stories (Parlophone): Backing away from the ridiculously poppy ethos of Mylo Xyloto, Chris Martin attempts once again to make Coldplay the most boring arena act in the world.
MAC DEMARCO – Salad Days Demos (Secretly Canadian): Even lo-fier than the lo-fi original, and shittier sound quality, too.
THE HOLD STEADY – Teeth Dreams (Washington Square): Raconteurs less and less interested in making music to back up their musings.
THE HORRORS – Luminous (XL Recordings): Goth group goes poppy, which is good.
THE PAINS OF BEING PURE AT HEART – Days of Abandon (Fierce Panda): If any more evidence is needed to convince those skeptical of the death knell of indie rock, they need not look further.
THIEVERY CORPORATION – Suadade (ESL Music): Pitchfork shits all over this electric duo. Understandable.