Indies on Top: War on Drugs, Parquet Courts, Lana Del Rey Rule the Roost Midway Through 2014
While Walt Disney's Frozen soundtrack has so far proved to be this year's Adele for the record industry, clinging to the top of the Billboard album sales chart through much of the first quarter of 2014, rock 'n' roll still showed some life with No. 1 debuts from Bruce Springsteen, Coldplay, The Black Keys and Lana Del Rey offering some heartening evidence that commercial and critical success aren't always diametrically opposed.
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The real action was on the indie front where veteran Philly rockers The War on Drugs proved patience paid off, as they set industry tongues wagging after nine years with the aptly named Lost in the Dream, the follow-up to their 2011 breakthrough, Slave Ambient, on the same Secretly Canadian label that produced Bon Iver. Brooklyn-by-way-of Texas buzz band Parquet Courts were the recipients of critical mass as well with Sunbathing Animal, proving that punk-rock guitars channeling the likes of The Velvets, The Clash and Television remain relevant, if not in vogue. In addition, Lana Del Rey and St. Vincent held up the distaff end of pop music with widely divergent personas that offer evidence of an anti-diva femme fatale trend that has both nothing, and everything, to do with sexuality. Busted romances were also prominent in breakup albums from wounded lotharios Chris Martin, Jack White, Beck and The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach.
What follows is our midyear survey of the best in music:
Albums of the Year
1. The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream (Secretly Canadian): Adam Granduciel proved the latest guitar-slinging hero, and yet another aching heart, leading the charge for a jam band that also hews to the terra firma of timeless melodies, including the psychedelic epic "An Ocean in Between the Waves," offering a glimpse of Dylan if he dropped acid at the same time he went electric, Dire Straits if Mark Knopfler shared leads with Bob Quine, and Television if Tom Verlaine was fused at the hip with Quicksilver Messenger Service's John Cipollina and cool jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery.
2. Parquet Courts, Sunbathing Animal (What's Your Rupture?/Mom + Pop): ESPN's Grantland asked rhetorically if they were the last great New York band, and they are nobly in the tradition of such garage-punks as The Velvets, Television and The Strokes, but frizzy-haired group leader Andrew Savage is a self-created myth-maker all his own. This is a band that brings some measure of dignity back to punk rock, sidestepping temptations and skillfully refusing to give in to the pitfalls of stardom, knowing that, by keeping their gaze straight ahead, and their noses to the grindstone, they will grow and survive.
3. Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence (Polydor/Interscope): Like Julie London, not only will she cry you a river, she'll make it an ocean, and like Peggy Lee, end up wondering, "is that all there is?" Yes, the madame of mope-pop sucks you in and leaves you asking for more, and she doesn't care because she's off to the next sadomasochistic, doomed romance, but at least she's doing it her way. A harbinger of a post-feminist universe where girls are free to cry if they want to because it's their party, Del Rey is the female ghost in producer Dan Auerbach's lush wall of sound, a siren sweetly singing, and sending us crashing into the rocks of her benign indifference. Baby, it hurts so good.
4. St. Vincent, St. Vincent (Loma Vista/Republic): A true original, Tulsa-born Annie Clark's fifth album, and first for Tom Whalley's Loma Vista imprint, brought her into the spotlight, cemented by her season-ending appearance on Saturday Night Live, where she showed she learned her lesson in performance art from touring with David Byrne. Standouts include the sinewy "Rattlesnake" and the twisted "Severed Crossed Fingers." Inspirational lyric in "Birth in Reverse": "Oh, what an ordinary day/Take out the garbage, masturbate/I'm still holding for the laugh … Here's my report from the edge."
5. Jack White, Lazaretto (Third Man/Columbia): His second solo album proved even better than his debut, from the raucous Zeppelin-style instrumental "High Ball Stepper" to the soulful country plaint of "Temporary Ground," the Little Richard gospel shouts of "Three Women" and the Jimmy Page licks of the title track. Touching on themes of willful isolation and solitude set against the wild abandon of a preening rock star let loose to explore every crevice of American roots music.
6. Beck, Morning Phase (Capitol): The purported sequel to 2002's Sea Change, though it resembles that record in its lush folk dreamscapes and gauzy psychedelic undertow, is as different thematically from that album as, well, day is from night, resulting from a painful back rather than a wounded psyche. He, too, is "so tired of being alone" ("Blue Moon") and drowning in isolation ("Wave"), but the now-husband and father glimpses hope at the end of the tunnel. "Woke up this morning," he starts off, "Found love light in the storm.. but can we start it all over again." Beck offers a "waking light," suggesting it's time to get out of bed, greet a new day … and life.
7. Coldplay, Ghost Stories (Parlophone/Atlantic): Forget for a moment that this is Chris Martin's lament for Gwyneth Paltrow, even if that was all but impossible in the media build-up to this album's release. Still, these creators of anthemic pop scaled things back a bit, and created a minimal atmosphere worthy of their former collaborator Eno in a very minor-key effort that snuck its way into the marrow, just like a love affair, and refused to let go.
8. The Black Keys, Turn Blue (Nonesuch): Dan Auerbach wasn't quite as mournful about the end of his marriage as Chris Martin was for his, striking a vengeful note in several of these songs. Like Coldplay, though, The Black Keys eschewed the foolproof hit formula of their last album for something that required a few listens to worm its way into your ears. The band had guts to open the record with the almost seven-minute "Weight of Love," an epic soul stirrer that more than lived up to its name.
9. Real Estate, Atlas (Domino Records): Dream-pop at its most ethereal, these New Jersey-to-Brooklyn jangle rockers offer a lush sound that veers between '70s power pop acolytes the dBs and the Feelies on one hand, and the Grateful Dead's jam band ethos on the other, with a little bit of Beach Boys surf music by way of Beach House, Best Coast and Broken Bells along the way. "I'm just trying to make some sense of this before I lose another year," admits lead singer Martin Courtney in "The Bend," but it sure looks like it won't be long until they start winning.
10. Bruce Springsteen, High Hopes (Columbia): The Boss' 18th studio album might seem like a collection of odds and ends, but itmanages to cohere quite nicely, living up to its title in a remarkably coherent effort, given the overarching addition of Tom Morello to the mix. The Afro-gospel tribal beat of "Heaven's Wall," the feel-good vibe of "Frankie Fell in Love" and the martial Irish waltz "This Is Your Sword" fit neatly with the sweeping orchestral strains of the Dylanesque "Hunter of Invisible Game," the elegiac "The Wall" and the final cover of Alan Vega and Martin Rev's "Dream Baby Dream," his nod to Suicide and an ode to a fan base which relies on him to keep their own alive.
Runners-up: Ray LaMontagne, Supernova (RCA), Rosanne Cash, The River & the Thread (Blue Note), Broken Bells, After the Disco (Columbia)
1. Parquet Courts at the Fonda and the Roxy: Young, fast and te-RIFF-ic.
2. Kraftwerk at Walt Disney Concert Hall: Eye-popping 3-D and mathematical precision prove machines are ready to take over.
3. Jack White at the Mayan Theater: The last of the rock stars?
4. Coldplay at Royce Hall UCLA: Understated, but the intimacy came through loud and clear.
5. Jeff Tweedy at the Largo: Who knew he was a stand-up comic, too?
6. The War on Drugs at the Troubadour: Guitar pyrotechnics up close and personal.
7. Paul Simon and Sting "On Stage Together" at the Forum: Two legends, no waiting, the whole more than the sum of its admittedly impressive parts.
8. David Byrne, et al., "Atomic Bomb: Who Is William Onyeabor?" at Greek Theater: A tribal celebration breaks out as Talking Heads meet Fela in this unexpected cross-cultural hybrid.
9. Morrissey at the L.A. Sports Arena: His Latin following turned out in droves, and the stage-crashers were kept to a minimum, but Mozz remains master of his domain.
10. Beats Music Launch at the Belasco Theater: Old school celebration of new school technology, with Eminem, Diddy, Mase, Geto Boys, Busta Rhymes, Nas, Ice Cube , Bone Thugz N' Harmony and Dr. Dre himself rocking the house and bringing back the OG era during Grammy weekend.
1. Pharrell Williams, "Happy": Ubiquitous and irresistible, with yet another debt to Marvin Gaye.
2. Courtney Barnett, "Avant Gardener": Aussie talk-sing songwriter drawls like a female Lou Reed. "I can't seem to stand/On my own two feet… I'm having trouble breathing in."
3. DJ Snake w/Lil Jon: "Turn Down for What": If this wacky tune is EDM, give me more, give me more.
4. Coldplay, "A Sky Full of Stars": This Avicii collaboration is what EDM should be, an indelible melody hooked up to beats.
5. Aloe Blacc, "The Man": A twist on Elton John's "Your Song" proved a potent sync hook for Beats.
6. U2, "Invisible": Rumors of their demise greatly exaggerated, even if the title is too perfect. Where'd they go?
7. The Fleshtones, "Remember the Ramones": A nod to the past, with a lyrical tribute to sipping Mai Thais with the late Marty Thau, who died shortly after this song came out.
8. Sam Smith, "Stay with Me": Coming out after this tear-jerker was surely redundant.
9. Ariana Grande, "Problem"/Iggy Azalea, "Fancy": A pair of post-feminist modern pop divas capture the pop zeitgeist … and the airwaves. Good for them.
10. Lana Del Rey, "West Coast": Maybe not the best song on Ultraviolence, but certainly the most illuminating as to her aesthetic. This self-declared "Brooklyn Baby" is the perfect L.A. creation — now you feel her, now you don't, her "Cruel World" as seductive as Eve's apple, and just as forbidden.