Sunday, December 29, 2013

HBR's Year End List of Must-Hear Music

Happy holidays and happy New Year! With the end of year comes the annual barrage of top album lists. This year, we are very lucky to have our list guest written by one of NYC's most talented, prolific, and huggable musicians, the venerable Max Goransson. Max splits his time between playing guitar and singing in Quiet Loudly, and playing bass and looking cool in Clouder, and various other projects, and doing sound at Fort Useless. We feel he's qualified, no, OVER-qualified, to pen our year end list. So without further ado, here is HBR's official best albums of the year....

Max, hard at work on this column.

First off, a disclaimer.  I am good friends with a lot of excellent bands.  Especially in Brooklyn.  So, as much as it pained me, I intentionally left my friends' local bands off of this list for a couple reasons- 1. It's very difficult not to be biased-- a song that I would really like becomes a song I absolutely adore if I know and respect the songwriter on a personal level.  2. I'd feel guilty including some friends on this list and not others, as stupid as that sounds.  However, I will do this much-- a tip of the hat.  These bands that I happen to know personally all released new music this year that is well worth checking out: Crazy Pills, Heliotropes, Belus, Dead Stars, Naam, Miniboone, Jane Eyre, The Planes, Speedy Ortiz, Butchers & Bakers, Libel, Robot Princess, Zula, Seapost... shit.  I know I'm forgetting so many people.  shitshitshitshit.  Sorry, people I forgot.  It's definitely not you-- it's me.

1. Public Speaking- Blanton Ravine  Public Speaking is Jason Anthony Harris, easily one of the most criminally unknown musicians in NYC.  While some fair reference points could be found in the likes of Arthur Russell, Talk Talk, City Center, and Radiohead (at their most experimental), Jason Anthony Harris' sound is very much uniquely his own.  Throughout Blanton Ravine, horns, strings, field recordings, backwards samples, and auxiliary hand percussion of all conceivable forms snake their way in and out of the sonic landscape, helping create a dark, sad, mysterious piece that is beautifully haunting and impossibly crammed with brilliant ideas.

2. The John Steel Singers- Everything's A Thread  The John Steel Singers of Brisbane, Australia took their sweet time making this album and it shows.  First of all, they recorded the whole thing in their own home studio that they built themselves and it sounds incredible.  But it's what's behind this impressive-sounding record that counts-- intelligent pop songs (in the classic sense) of the highest caliber, expertly crafted and performed, complete with perfect harmonies and unforgettable melodies delivered in the form of driving, instantly lovable rock songs with brilliant krautrock and classic r&b influences aplenty.  Most of the songs make you want to dance, but it's the couple funky slow jams that really disarmed me.  And that bass line in "The AC" has got to be the most perfect I've heard all year.

3. Stara Rzeka- Cien Chmury Nad Ukrytym Polem  This album is quite the journey.  In the span of just one track, the listener is taken from John Fahey-meets-Six Organs Of Admittance finger-picking beauty to the motorik rhythm of Krautrock to in-the-red Black Metal and back, all effortlessly tied together by hypnotic ambient/noise passages.  This guy's ability to combine this startlingly different elements into one cohesive listen is genius.

4. Matana Roberts- Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile  This record feels more like a full-on experience that a mere album.  This is the second chapter in a concept-driven series by the astounding, boundary-pushing Matana Roberts.  Throughout the piece, she examines her own family's history alongside the cultural climate that pervaded multiple generations of her lineage.  Her personal narrative is told more through music than lyric (although she does recite/sing quotes from interviews with her grandmother on growing up in the south), as it comes in and out of focus, dancing between abstract and direct jazz stylings that nod to different eras as well as genres.  Listening to this album is like walking around in Matana Roberts' photo albums and it is a beautiful and unique thing indeed.

5. Yellowbirds- Songs From The Vanished Frontier  One of the best bands in Brooklyn without a doubt.  Top-notch songwriting, terrific dynamic among the members, another wonderful "pop" (again, in the classic sense) album that is just dreamy and psychedelic enough to completely envelope the listener in its magic.

6. Tim Hecker- Virgins  This album is best described as "unearthly".  Listening to it makes me woozy and disoriented as it unfolds with mysterious, warped sounds it is a perfect marriage of beauty and ugliness.  It is hair-raisingly spooky, yet somehow, at its core, elegant and entrancing.

7. Jungle- The Heat EP  I don't listen to a lot of music people can dance to, especially in any kind of real club setting.  This is as close as I get.  This EP is groovy as hell and as fun as it is, there is definitely a very dark vibe lurking beneath the surface.

8. Ghostface- 12 Reasons To Die  From the looks of social media platforms and all the major blogs and magazines recently, you'd think that Kanye West and Drake were the only artists to release hip-hop albums this year.  And while everyone might be gushing about those two, this album is the one that ruled the game, as far as I'm concerned.  Although it might not quite be the BEST Ghostface album to date, it is certainly the most ambitious and the most original.  While it might not be the absolute finest moment for Ghostface as a lyricist, he definitely delivers something very special-- a concept album that tells a cinematic tale of revenge from beginning to end, Ghostface brings in a handful of Wu Tang Clan vets and everyone plays a different character throughout the story as it is "acted out" from song to song. The real star of the show, though, is Adrain Younge, who arranged all of the music and brought in an absolutely killer live band to lay down some wicked loose, dark Ennio Morricone-inspired jams.

9. Califone- Stitches  Califone is one of the most consistent and underappreciated bands making music today.  With strange, vivid lyrics, Stitches is a world all its own as it manages to embrace affecting contradictions-- it's intimate, yet expansive; it's steeped in the rustic sounds of a troubled modern troubadour on a creaky back porch in the south, while pulling in little experimental sonic surprises-- found sounds, hard panning, and beautiful reverse samples that sound like they were randomly pulled from a tape reel.  It's subtle, but it's quietly magical.

10. Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats- Mind Control  Over the last ten years or so, we've seen a lot of bands emerge, paying homage to classic early 70s metal.  And as many proficient ones as there are, Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats just might be the best of the bunch.  The band is impossibly tight and their riffs are utterly undeniable.  It's impossible not to relish the heavy grooves on this record.  And, despite the faithfulness to Black Sabbath and the like, a keen sense of melody and harmony is persistent throughout.  Like, maybe their record of The White Album is just as worn out as their Master Of Reality record.  Either way, this album is fun as hell and it nails the aesthetic that's being honored so loyally.

Check out Max's bands Quiet Loudly and Clouder.

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Be well in 2014.

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