This is Fifty Second Week.
This has become one of my favorite annual traditions, and I hope it’s as much fun for you as it is for me. I hear so much music every year that it would be impossible to write reviews for everything, so I came up with this idea that allows me to rip through a ton of them in a couple hours. I have 52 records sitting in front of me, and I plan to give myself 50 seconds to review each one. I have a timer that will emit a loud, shrill tone when we get to zero, and when I hear that sound, I will stop writing, no matter where I am in a particular review. Middle of a sentence? Middle of a word? Doesn’t matter. Pencils down.
This is also my way of waving goodbye to the year. While everyone else is counting down to 2015, I’ll be here counting down from 50. (Not really. I’m writing this a couple weeks early. But I couldn’t resist the turn of phrase.) Are you ready? Good.
This is Fifty Second Week.
Alt-J, This is All Yours
That this band is popular at all anywhere astounds me. They write patient, slowly unfolding songs based on atmosphere more than anything else. This second record is more of a refinement of the first, and it’s really beautiful, if you’re in the right mood. Love any song called “Gospel of John Hurt,” too.
Basement Jaxx, Junto
The long-running dance party duo changes absolutely nothing on Junto. It’s still old-school beats and samples and booty-shaking. A second disc is more of the same. Good for what it is, though.
David Bazan and the Passenger String Quartet, Volume One
I love that Volume One there, because it means we might get more of this. Familiar Bazan songs are given new shapes with the strings, and they become even more beautiful. If you thought Bazan hid his razor-sharp words behind sweetness before…
The Black Lantern, We Know the Future
I bought this for Prayer Chain guitarist Andy Prickett, and while it’s nowhere near his pedigree, it is pretty fun. Loud, piercing punky songs sung by a woman in a shrill yet awesome voice. This is fast, stomping stuff.
Camper Van Beethoven, El Camino Real
A companion piece to their last record, this is more prime Camper Van goodness courtesy of David Lowery. These songs are in no way second-place also-rans. They’re just as intricate, just as biting and just as hummable as those on the previous disc. I should have reviewed this.
Julian Casablancas and the Voidz, Tyranny
This should have gotten a WTF Award. I don’t know what the hell it is. It’s more than an hour of electro-trash awfulness, and Casablancas only got to make this thing because he’s in the Strokes. I hope that free pass runs out soon, because this shit is absolutely unlistenable.
Celldweller, End of an Empire: Time
Klayton is releasing End of an Empire, his new Celldweller album, in chapters. This one is pretty great, combining pop, industrial, metal and dubstep in some fascinating ways. The title track is one of my favorite Celldweller pieces, and the remixes are really good.
Celldweller, End of an Empire: Love
The second chapter is longer, but less amazing than the first, specifically due to the juvenile and vulgar “Heart On.” But the remixes and instrumentals are again pretty great, and the fact that this chapter is 90 minutes long makes it a winner to me.
Mark Chadwick, Moment
The second solo album from the co-frontman of the Levellers is leagues better than the first. Here are some classic Chadwick folk-rock songs, with searing lyrics and that immediately recognizable voice. This one’s definitely worth picking up.
Coldplay, Ghost Stories Live 2014
If you still have doubts that Ghost Stories is intended as a single unbroken thought, here is a live album and DVD featuring nothing but that album played in sequence. It’s not worth it for casual fans, as it sounds exactly like the record, but for those who love this one (like me), it’s a good watch.
Jonathan Coulton, JoCo Live
Over the past few years, Jonathan Coulton has truly come into his own as a songwriter, and the evidence is all here. This blistering live set with a full electric band shows off his versatility as a writer, jumping from sweet observations like “Glasses” to geeky sing-alongs like “Re: Your Brains” with aplomb.
Mike Doughty, Live at Ken’s House
Who would have thought that covering his old band’s songs would revitalize Mike Doughty? Live at Ken’s House is all Soul Coughing tunes reimagined, but Doughty sounds alive and invested in ways he hasn’t in a long time. You can hear that continue on Stellar Motel, his best album in years.
Enuff Z’Nuff, Covered in Gold
This is more of a compilation of scattered tracks than a new album, but it shows off the versatility of this long-lived power pop band. They do a fine job covering the Beatles, Nirvana, Cheap Trick, David Lee Roth and the theme song to The Greatest American Hero, believe it or not.
The Fray, Helios
The Fray gets louder and better than they’ve been in a while, thanks to an injection of rock into their staid piano-pop sound. “Love Don’t Die” was the best single this band has ever released. When I say it’s a good Fray record, that doesn’t mean it’s a good record, but it’s good for them.
The Ghost of a Sabertooth Tiger, Midnight Sun
Sean Lennon impresses for the first time with this weird psych-pop project. It’s not bad, and I’d like to hear more, but I can barely remember what these songs sound like.
Hammock, The Sleepover Series Volume 2
Another collection of beautiful beatless drones from Hammock, who weave guitars and synth sounds into thick and lovely atmospheres. This one has a 30-minute track that is sublime. Perfect to lull even insomniacs to sleep, in the best of ways.
Emerson Hart, Beauty in Disrepair
The Tonic frontman sticks to what he knows best on his second solo album, which is straight-ahead acoustic-based pop songs. Nothing here is bad, but nothing here is particularly memorable either. I do still like his voice, though.
Jon Hopkins, Asleep Versions
I’ve never reviewed a Jon Hopkins record. Sad. The electronic maestro here presents four songs from last year’s Immunity in stretched out and ambient forms, the better to send you to dreamland. They sound great, as always.
Bruce Hornsby, Solo Concerts
Bruce is one of my piano-playing idols, so the chance to hear two CDs of him behind the ivories is like gold. Nothing disappoints here, particularly when he sends these songs into more dissonant waters and really shows what a tremendous player he is.
The Horrors, Luminous
Less another evolution than a refinement, this album builds on the swirling cacophony of Skying and darkens it up. It’s still pretty great stuff, confident and propulsive, and “I See You” is the best seven-minute single you’ll hear all year.
Michael Jackson, Xscape
I wish this hadn’t happened. But given that, it could have been a lot worse. These gussied-up demos rarely sound like finished songs, but it’s nice to hear Jackson’s voice again, and the producers of choice rarely push this into embarrassing territory. I know there’s more to come, and I’m already despairing.
Jars of Clay, Jars 20
To celebrate their 20th anniversary, Jars asked fans to pick 20 songs and then reimagined them as acoustic numbers. The changes are not as dramatic as you’d think, but it’s nice to hear so many of these songs together, and played by an older and wiser band.
Second solo record from the Bloc Party frontman is much like the first, based in pulsing, low-key electronica. This is good stuff, and Kele Okereke is still one of the finest frontmen around, but there isn’t anything here as arresting as “Tenderoni.”
Lenny Kravitz, Strut
It’s right there in the title. This steaming pile of clichés is Lenny’s return to sexy funk, and he’s just not very good at this. Songs like “Sex” and “She’s a Beast” are exactly as cringe-worthy as you’d think.
Here’s an unlikely supergroup: Dug Pinnick of King’s X, George Lynch and the drummer from Korn. What could this possibly sound like? Well… like straight-ahead groove-metal with Pinnick’s soulful yet frayed voice on top. Meh.
Hamilton Leithauser, Black Hours
How did Hamilton Leithauser transform that howl of his into such a supple and warm instrument? The answer is slowly, over several Walkmen albums that led to this solo bow full of string sections and sweet little tunes. It’s actually grand.
Manchester Orchestra, Hope
The companion piece to Cope features every song from that record played acoustically. It’s fun to hear a mirror version of these kickass rock tunes, but not essential. Enjoyable enough.
Mastodon, Once More Round the Sun
Mastodon’s evolution continues, as they present another record of stomping rock-metal with psychedelic overtones. I miss the days of Leviathan and Blood Mountain, but I have to admit that this new, tight Mastodon sound is pretty great as well. Better than their last one.
Blake Mills, Heigh Ho
Second album from this critically acclaimed songwriter and guitar virtuoso. I enjoyed this a great deal, particularly “Half Asleep” and “Don’t Tell Our Friends About Me,” but it slipped out of my memory as soon as it was finished playing. Still, would revisit.
Peter Murphy, Lion
Murphy’s tenth album continues the hot streak of Ninth, setting his still-shiver-inducing lowlowlow voice atop guitar-heavy rock towers. If you ever liked Murphy before, you should give Lion a go.
Karen O, Crush Songs
20 minutes of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman noodling around with an old tape deck. This is not even worth the recyclable packaging it came in.
Christopher Owens, A New Testament
That’s a bold title for an album of pretty typical country-folk from the former Girls frontman. I like the opener, “My Troubled Heart,” but after 12 tracks of simple chords and simpler sentiments, this starts to feel like a betrayal of the man’s talent. I want more out of him.
Owen Pallett, In Conflict
Another complex and fascinating piece of work from the string arranger to the indie stars. Pallett layers his own violins atop one another to create striking songs of surprising power. This one deserved a full review.
Real Estate, Atlas
Aw, this band is adorable. Chiming guitars, sweetly nostalgic songs, not an ounce of angst or venom to be found. Perfect music for a rainy Sunday afternoon, though it will waft out into the air and disappear before you know it.
Philip Selway, Weatherhouse
What does it say about Radiohead that their drummer is the only one who remembers how to craft a song? This second solo record is more atmospheric pop from Selway, who has a serviceable voice and an ear for melody that his bandmates could stand to make more use of. The best damn Radiohead-related anything since Selway’s last record.
A rap album masterminded by Sufjan Stevens? Why didn’t I ever review this? Not sure. It’s a mostly successful and yet mostly baffling effort that pairs him with Serengeti and Son Lux, laying down rhymes on some Sufjan-y soundscapes.
First full album from the dubstep superstar is surprisingly diverse, but just as juvenile as anything he’s done. The latter half contains some convincingly chill tunes that point in a more grown-up direction, so I’ll keep listening.
Simon Raymonde teams up with a clear-voiced woman to create shoegaze-y songs of often stunning beauty. Sound familiar? This is Cocteau 2.0 in a lot of ways, with Stephanie Dosen filling in for Elizabeth Fraser nicely.
Someday I will review a full St. Vincent album, and maybe get at the heart of why, despite the fact that I admire Annie Clark to the ends of the earth and think she’s remarkably talented, I just don’t like her stuff all that much. This record is pretty good, but not earth-shatteringly good like people say.
Another new Northern Records band starring Holly Nelson, Herb Grimaud and Eric Campuzano. If those names mean nothing to you, the low rock Stranger Kings makes might not resonate as much. This is a decent first effort, and it’s nice to hear Nelson sing again.
Sun Kil Moon, Benji
The first of two records here that every critic adored, and I never bothered to review. This is a pretty typical Sun Kil Moon album, save for the devastating stories that populate the lyrics, and it’s beautiful and disturbing in all the ways Mark Kozelek usually is. Not sure why it was so acclaimed.
Chris Taylor, Daylight
New record from the former Love Coma frontman was completed quickly, and you can kind of tell. The songs are decent, particularly “Set Our Sail,” but the recording is bare bones, and the album has a ramshackle feel about it. Not bad if you like this sort of thing.
Temples, Sun Structures
Maybe my favorite thing relegated to Fifty Second Week this year. Temples plays ‘60s-inspired pop and rock, and they do it with flair and verve. I liked this record a great deal, and I can’t quite figure out why I haven’t said so before now.
Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer, Bass and Mandolin
Chris Thile has had quite the couple of years, with Nickel Creek reforming and Punch Brothers set to return. This set with bassist Edgar Meyer is the cherry on top, a fine, fine set of performances that puts two virtuosos together and comes up with gold.
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Various Artists, The Art of McCartney
This celebration of Macca’s wonderful songs, starring everyone from Billy Joel to Brian Wilson to the Cure to Def Leppard to Perry Farrell, is somewhat marred by the decision to use session musicians to slavishly recreate these songs instead of putting new stamps on them. Still, good, good songs.
Various Artists, Nashville Outlaws: A Tribute to Motley Crue
A country tribute to the Crue? Of course I’m gonna buy that. The idea of this record is a lot more interesting than the reality of it, alas. But many of these blues-metal songs make the jump to twangy town a lot better than you’d expect.
The Vaselines, V for Vaselines
The renaissance continues for these foul-mouthed rockers. Their second album since reuniting is the same as the first, just a little bit cleaner and more produced. It’s snaky sexy romps on simple, pounded guitar.
Rufus Wainwright, Live from the Artists Den
This looks like a bargain basement knockoff CD, but it’s truly excellent, showcasing Wainwright’s Out of the Game live show. He’s a consummate performer riding his best set of songs in many years, so of course this is gonna be awesome.
The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream
Here’s the other critically adored record that didn’t make much of an impression on me. I did include it in early drafts of my top 10 list in March, but it fell off quickly because it’s just so simple and repetitive. It’s not beer commercial rock, but it does kind of put me to sleep.
We Shot the Moon, The Finish Line
Yet more decent yet unremarkable piano-pop from Jonathan Jones. When he wants to stretch out, he’s something special. When he writes a bunch of simple little ditties like these, he’s a dime a dozen. I will buy the next one, though, because I believe in him.
Steven Wilson, Cover Version
Collection of six covers and six originals from the Porcupine Tree frontman. This shows the range of his influences nicely, and caps off with “An End to End,” a song that stands with the best of Wilson’s solo work. He chooses Alanis’ “Thank You,” not Led Zeppelin’s, which is fascinating.
And that, as they say, is that. Hope you had fun. I’ll be taking next week off, but diving back in with Year 15 on January 14. Thank you again, more than I can say, for reading this thing I do. Have a very happy new year.
See you in line Tuesday morning.