Monday, December 22, 2014

Best albums of 2014

1) Future Islands - Singles

I'm glad I didn't see their semi-infamous Letterman performance until today, as it may have dampened (doused?) my enthusiasm for this band/album. The record is so tight, so careful in its balance of light and dark, tinny and profound, and that performance is, um, not.

I mean, I'm all for geeky dancing. Gord Downie anyone?

And a crumbling stage persona + failing voice? I'm Dave Wyndorf's eighth biggest fan.

But I don't need that stuff when you're pumping out dancy, croony, soulful, electro-pop. I'll be sticking to the studio versions for my summer playlists, that's for sure.

2) Wild Beasts - Present Tense 

The English Future Islands? I guess there are some similarities between my #1 and #2 this year. Wild Beasts dwell in a higher register and have a better back catalogue (though I only traversed it this year). Smother from 2011 is just as strong as Present Tense ('Loop The Loop' being its standout track). Present Tense is probably the most consistent (consistently good) album of 2014.

3) Cold War Kids - Hold My Home

What is it about some bands that makes expect them to disappear? You know those bands you like, but you're always surprised to hear with a new song on the radio?

I loved 'Hang Me Out To Dry' (from Robbers & Cobbers, 2006), but something about the song / the band felt one-hit-wondery. I was wrong.

If I'd listened to Robbers & Cobbers more closely (heck, I'd know by 45 seconds into its first track, 'We Used To Vacation') I'd have been disabused of this notion. But anyway.

I was surprised last year when Dear Miss Lonelyhearts came out and was great. And was surprised again when Hold My Home came out this year and raised the bar again. This is partly a career achievement award and an endorsement from me to go and listen to Cold War Kids if, heaven forbid, you too have been sleeping on them.

4) War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream

Okay, so I know this is on a lot of Year End lists. And part of me wants to drop them down further just to be contrary. But this is a great album for certain moods: Sunday afternoons, summer barbeques, early morning writing sessions. And that's pretty much all my listening slots, so they got me!

And War on Drugs were helped along by Mark Kozelek's vendetta against them. Sun Kil Moon's Benji was a pretty good album, but when I learnt what a douche Kozelek was (however catchy 'War on Drugs Suck My Cock' might be), Benji slipped from my top ten and kept slipping, while Lost in the Dream rose in my estimation.

Note to self: never feed the trolls, even when they're famous trolls.

 5) Lana Del Ray - Ultraviolence
Slow, dirgy pop with swearing, self-awarenees, self-effacement, parody. That's pretty cool. From the "poetry" of "Get a little bit of bourbon in ya / Go a little bit suburban and go craaazy" ('Cruel World') to the rocky-enough-to-play-on-Radio-Hauraki 'West Coast', this is a surprisingly fine album.

6) Fucked Up - Glass Boys

I'm not normally that into scream-singing. But Fucked Up have made me wonder if it's the screaming I don't like, or the music the screaming tends to get paired with. Because Glass Boys is a friggin ride, muscially. An avalanche of guitars and high-tempo drums (although the album is almost as good with the drums half-speed).

And it turns out this is the perfect music to write to in the early morning. I wouldn't have picked that.

7) Total Control - Typical System

There's a definite punky-throwback quality to Total Control. And the angular guitars and tempo breaks are reminiscent of mid-oughts Franz Ferdinand. But Typical System also sounds like it couldn't have been made any earlier than 2014. And that's pretty much what a 31 year old is looking for in music (contemporary feel; familiar grooves).

8) The New Pornographers - Brill Bruisers

I don't love this album as much as some of TNP's others (yet?). I think because it's so full-on, up-beat, up-tempo. I mean, I love the way Dan Bezar's songs sound like Sigue Sigue Sputnik. And a dig the way A.C. Newman has channelled ELO's 'Livin' Thing' for an entire album. But I miss the slower tempo gut punches like 'Adventures in Solitude' and the builders like 'My Rights vs Yours'.

That said, Spotify tells me this is the album I've listened to the most in 2014. And I'm going to listen to it some more in 2015. So...

9) Real Estate - Atlas

How to describe Real Estate? A sleepier, less Springsteeny version of War on Drugs (it's about now that I start to wonder if  Mark Kozelek would describe my list of top albums as the whitest he ever saw...)? I dunno. But this album is like a good (jangly) friend. Time flies in its company.

10) Avi Buffalo - At Best Cuckold

Another album that softly flirts with sonic beauty. Maybe I was after 'pleasant' a lot this year. But the lyrics are real enough, and dark enough, and smart enough (well smart), to undercut any sense of mushiness.

Other notables

Set for a bump

By the end of March next year, I'll probably regret not putting one or more of these albums in my top ten, as all are coming to Wellington and I tend to become a homer for bands I've seen live.

11a) Perfume Genius - Too Bright

11b) Parquet Courts - Sunbathing Animal (and maybe, but less likely, their 2nd album of 2015: Content Nausea)

11c) Royal Blood - Royal Blood (the anti-Future Islands, in that they were just another band on the radio that I didn't get into until I saw a clip on YouTube and appreciated all that sound they were making with just a drum and a bass guitar)

Best single

'Class Historian' by BRONCHO


Best comeback album

Sloan - Commonwealth

A double album, with each member taking song writing duties for a side (including a single 18-minute track to close out the record), this is both ambitious and welcoming. So many poppy gems. But a tad too slick and too, um, uncool (?!) to make the top ten.

Blameless unstickability

Last year, I loved Cloud Control's Dream Cave. This year, Cloud Nothings and Total Control made great albums. For some reasons, I just couldn't keep them all straight in my head and Cloud Nothings seemed to be the one I forgot (misplaced) the most. A shame, as Here and Nowhere Else is a good'n.

Anyway, don't take my words for it. Listen to choice tracks from all these albums below:

Sunday, December 21, 2014

My best non-book, non-music things from 2014

Tomorrow I'm going to post my top ten albums of 2014.

Then, in a few days or weeks, I'll post the top ten books I read in 2014 (I'm holding off because I'll probably read another three books in the next 11 days and one or two might merit inclusion on the list).

Until then, here are the best things I did this year:

1) Put a solid state hard drive in my PC


There's a lot more "worthwhile" and "big picture" things on this list, but they all have drawbacks (a promotion means work is more tiring; fatherhood means less time to yourself, etc). But putting a solid state drive into my four year old PC is the best $120 I've ever spent. Booting up used to take two minutes. Now it takes less than 10 seconds. Those 10 second boot-ups still fill me with glee. It's all gain, no pain.

2) Spent solo days with my daughter at least one a fortnight

Kereru-spotting at Zealandia
I started out the year working from home and caring for my daughter every Thursday. It was just possible to do a full working day when she had two naps a day (2 hours work before she woke, 3 hours during her naps, 1 hour of phone calls and emailing sprinkled during her waking hours, and a couple more hours once she was in bed for the night).

Draining, but possible.

When she went down to one nap, and I started managing a team at work, I had to go down to one day a fortnight.

Thursdays with Lia are one of the reasons this year has felt full to brimming. So much to do, so little time. But on reflection, our days together have been more important than a day in the office or a chance to recharge my batteries (even if I'm the only one who'll recall specifics): watching the baboons at the poor dad's zoo (Melrose Park); fun times with the paddling pool on the deck; eating pizza in the car; birdwatching at Zealandia and Otari-Wilton; all those smoothies and trips to the supermarket...

She turned two yesterday. She'll have a brother come April. Next year will be different, for sure.

3) Said 'yes' at work.

When I came back from Iowa in December last year I was asked to act up in a more senior role at work. It meant more pay, and a more impressive CV, but it also meant more stress and less head space to devote to creative writing. But I said yes and it kicked off the most fulfilling year of my professional life.

The role I was acting in later got re-profiled into a manager's role and I said 'yes' when asked to apply for it. And reader: I got it.

Best unidentified tree:
this one on McKinley Cres, Brooklyn
Managing people isn't rocket science, but it has been an adjustment. A bit like being a parent. You still have to do everything you used to do, but you also have to make sure the needs of others are being met.

It (higher pay) also helps when your wife wants a bigger house.

4) Acquiesced when my wife said we needed to sell our house

Even before Baby #2 was a reality, Marisa was back in the routine of getting the Property Press every week. Our section isn't that baby friendly and carrying a toddler, a baby and groceries up the steps from the garage would be a bit of nightmare. And we'd be short of space (goodbye daddy's dedicated office).

But it wasn't yet three years since we'd bought this house. Our first house. I was attached to it. I liked how it was a 20 minute bike ride to work (downhill) and a 30 minute ride home (uphill). I liked how private it was. I liked our view. I liked the vege garden we'd eked out. I liked the damage we'd done to our mortgage.

But I let myself be overruled and we bought a new house, and sold this one, and we didn't take a massive bath (we actually sold our house for more than we paid for it), and we'll be moving in early February.

The new house will be bigger, and warmer, and more sheltered, and the kids can run around without us worrying about them falling down the hill. And the section will take less time to maintain.

And I'll still have a dedicated office. And I'm going to put bluetooth speakers in the ceiling throughout the house and we won't move for at least ten years...

5) Volunteered with IHC

I spent this year as a mentor in IHC's one-to-one goal achievement programme. Like parenthood and managing workers, this was rewarding but time-consuming. I'm not sure how I'm going to squeeze it in next year, but we shall see.

6) Baked

These crucifixion shrewsbury biscuits went down a treat on Twitter
(and in real life).

This boysenberry NY cheesecake with a brownie base looks a bit iffy,
but it was great. Guess you had to be there.

7) Quit writing my column in the Dom Post

Which I wrote about here. And yes, I can see the irony in this post being a listicle.

8) Not stressed too much about my output of other writing

I got one short story published this year (which I wrote in 2013), and finished one other which might be published next year. I made a bunch of starts on stories that I intend to get back to. And I progressed three novelly ideas to the point where they felt solid and I could probably start writing any one of them. The only problem was I couldn't be sure I'd pick the wrong one and want to switch tracks in six months.

But I think one of those three (actually, half of one of the ideas) has ascended to the top this month and I might really make some headway in 2015.

The thing is, what does one year of low productivity really mean if I'm in it for the long haul? It took me about three years to write The Mannequin Makers only for it to disappear from the face of the earth after a couple of months.

But many who read it dug it. Reviewers included. It will always be there on my Wikipedia page (at least until I get culled from Wikipedia).

One thing I learnt from the last decade as a worker bee: it rarely happens overnight. But as long as your CV keeps getting better, as long as you don't drop off the face of the earth completely, or get an offensive forehead tattoo, your hard work will pay off in time.

9) Kept making playlists

Even if I haven't blogged enough to post one a month.

Here's October's. And here's November's.

These things are useful when it comes to writing my best ablums of the year post. But I've also found it interesting to listen to playlists from 2012 and 2013 and relive whatever I was going through at the time,

If I ever need to transport myself back to 2014, I've got my soundtrack sorted.