Hello readers. Garrad Lee here. You might remember me from my time at the JFP as the writer of the bi-monthly column “The Key of G,” where I covered local and national music, as well as just musing about different topics related to music in general.
One of the things I liked to do was to make top 10 release lists at the end of the given year. While I did enjoy that, I always felt a little disingenuous, because I don’t listen to that much new music; I spend most of my time digging for and listening to old records. Hence, my top 10 lists would barely be made, as I squeezed in a few listens right at the end of the year to go with the few albums from artists that I always check for. Further, I never kept a running list, so my top 10 would have omissions, on top of my already poor sample size. (For instance, I somehow left Robert Glasper’s “Black Radio” off of last year’s list).
But this year has been different. I made it my mission to listen to as many new releases as possible, and to document them. What I have now is a list of 60 new albums that I have listened to and ranked in order. Mind you, this list is not meant to be definitive; there is a lot that I didn’t listen to for several reasons, mainly just because there isn’t enough time in the day to hear everything. I did listen to almost everything from artists that I am a fan of, which is something I have done a poor job of over the years. I also branched out to some artists I never was a fan of before, even though I knew who they were and ignored them on purpose. The results are fairly predictable. I also discovered some new artists I had never heard of at all, which was quite nice in most instances.
So, over the next several weeks, I am going to present you all with a ranked list of the 60 albums I listened to this year. Again, this list is not intended to be definitive at all; it is just a list of what I listened to, ranked solely by my opinions. I am sure there will be some disagreement and head scratching, but some of you might also see some new things that interest you that you go check out. And that’s what it’s all about anyway. Thanks for reading and indulging my opinions.
60) Daft Punk “Random Access Memories” Oh yeah. You are reading this right. I have in fact put Daft Punk at the bottom of this list. You know right away this isn’t your average top 60 list, given that this album is sure to populate many top 5 lists this year. Someone had to be the sacrificial lamb in my last spot. Frankly, I just do not like this album. At all. I love Daft Punk, and their contribution to the electronic music scene, especially the French house scene, is not to be questioned. This album, however, is just way too poppy for me; it sounds like what I think a Justin Timberlake album would sound like, and I’ve never heard one of those. And with the hype for this album, I was expecting something way better, with more balls and excitement; just something a little weirder. But alas, it’s a vocal-synth-pop-psuedo disco album that just doesn’t work in my opinion. And I love electronic music, as you’ll see throughout the list. All that said, check out “Giorgio by Moroder.” This 7-minute+ instrumental track is epic, and a great break from the weak auto-tuned vocals that doom the rest of the album.
59) Sting “The Last Ship”
This is probably a way better album than I am giving it credit for. This concept album finds Sting singing songs (the first he’s written in over a decade) about the demise of the shipping industry. Yes, the shipping industry. The songs are honest and earnest and Sting reveals a lot of emotion. Some of the tunes are catchy and witty. But it is just so boring and therefore I won’t be listening to this one probably ever again.
58) Goodie Mob “Age Against the Machine” I hate to do this to Goodie Mob. They are at the top of my pantheon of musical heroes. And they will always get a pass because their debut, “Soul Food,” is a bona fide hip hop classic that has affected me over the years as much as any album I’ve ever loved. But I can truthfully say that each album after that was not able to live up to the first. And I hate saying that, because I do not want to be a “their first album is better” dude. It has been 9 years since their last release before this one, and in that time the group didn’t do much, while Cee-Lo became an international pop star. As such, this album sounds to me like a rockstar Cee-Lo solo album that features his old friends on some tracks. There are some good songs, lyrically and topically wise, but it is just weak. It is weird hearing a Goodie Mob album made for fans of “The Voice” (or whatever show it is that Cee-Lo is on). Make no mistake, I am thrilled that Cee-Lo didn’t forget his past, and is willing to share the spotlight with his old friends. That is great. I just almost wish he wouldn’t have. This doesn’t ruin the legacy, but it’s just not that good.
57) The National “Trouble Will Find Me” This is the first installment of bands I have heard of but have always ignored. I checked out this album because of the hype around it, especially from some close friends of mine. I feel bad ranking the album this low, but I just don’t get it. Granted, I know absolutely nothing about their back catalog and that probably skews my listening. Further, I am woefully ignorant when it comes to indie rock since 1999. I guess I can see why people like it. Except for the singer. I feel like this guy just trying to be off-putting. In my opinion, he succeeds quite well.
56) Samiyam “Wish You Were Here” This release let me down a little bit. Samiyam is a hip hop beatmaker on one of my favorite labels of all time, Stones Throw Records. He has some good beat ideas, but they just never go anywhere at all, suffering from the shortness mainly. The album lacks any kind of cohesion, thus sounding more like a random collage of sounds than a true album. It has its moments, but it is a throw away at the end of the day.
55) Baths “Obsidian” This is the first entry from one of my other all-time favorite labels, Anticon. It is been a very strong year for Anticon, the home of American avant-garde hip hop, as you’ll see as we move through the list. And to be honest, this album is really good, but it gets lost in the fray. Baths (aka Will Wiesenfeld) creates tracks that are devastatingly real and deal with intense topics, and the music is pretty dark. So, I am not questioning the guy’s ability, per se. But the album loses steam quickly for me because of the singing. One thing you’ll probably get sick of hearing me say throughout this list is that I really don’t like electronic music producer dudes singing on their own beats. And that is what shuts this record down for me. He focuses way more on singing than he did on his first record and it suffers for that. On top of that, the record is just so deep and dark, and a touch, dare I say, emo, that it inherently can’t be an everyday kind of listen.
54) Trombone Shorty “Say That To Say This” I also don’t want to be a “they are better live” kind of guy, but for Trombone Shorty, the trombone prodigy from New Orleans, it is true. I’ve seen this guy deliver so many amazing sets in person, and all over the country. But like many other live acts, the studio material suffers (like some of my other favorite bands, namely Phish). That’s not to say that there aren’t some party starters on the record, but it mostly comes off as being over-produced and lacking of any real substance. That’s OK though, because a new album means a new tour.
53) J Cole “Born Sinner” J Cole has made some noise the past few years, and rightfully so. He is very gifted lyrically and falls into the category of newer hip hop artists who are carrying the flame for the culture. This album is good, but it lacks that punch throughout that I look for. I think I might be too old to get it, although I do get a lot of the new hip hop, so I don’t know. Either way, while it is enjoyable, there just isn’t too much to grab on to, especially given the stellar year that 2013 was for hip hop. It’s not bad, there’s just a lot better out there. Lyrically J Cole is on point, but I think his production (of which he does most of on this album) is weak. And there are way too many guest rappers, a weakness that is apparent in several of the hip hop albums released this year.
52) Griz “Rebel Era” While I do love electronic music, or EDM, or whatever we are calling it these days, I am not the biggest fan of dubstep (if you aren’t familiar with the name, you are definitely familiar with the music; just think of a Volkswagen commercial or an X games spot on ESPN). Dubstep is an interesting genre: the kids LOVE it, and us older “went to raves in the 90s” guys are supposed to hate it. I don’t love it, but I don’t hate it, at least when done tastefully. Sadly, the popular producers (like Skrillex) do nothing at all tasteful, instead focusing on the harsher and more abrasive sounds that define the genre’s lesser points. While I can do without that, there are a few artists I check for regularly, including Griz and his partner in crime Gramatik, who puts out very tasteful and soulful dubstep (if that is even possible). “Rebel Era” was a free download from Griz’s website, and while I appreciate the album, it sounds like dubstep-by-numbers. It’s got some dope beats on it, but nothing groundbreaking that pushes the genre forward. But it was free, so maybe I am just being too harsh. I can see myself playing this some more, especially if there are a bunch of 18 year olds on my lawn on molly, or if I need to get some college aged hipsters to leave my house.
51) The Haxan Cloak “Excavation” This is the first album on the list by an artist that was brand new to me. I am always on the look out for new and interesting electronic music, because that is where I think the best music is being made today, at least from a creativity standpoint. This is one seriously heavy album; it is supposed to serve as a roadmap to the journey after death and act as a sequel to his first album, that dealt with the last days of life. It sounds exactly like what is supposed to, with dark, brooding, sparse electronic production. While I appreciate an artist getting their Dante on, this album is just too dark for me and lacks any beats to hold my attention. It is very ambient, in a Brian Eno gets pregnant by Satan kind of way, and thus is frightening, which was the intention of the album so I had to show it a little love and keep it out of the bottom.