An easy call in what was generally a weak year. Two years ago I rated Ixtahuele’s Mareld EP as number 4 on my top albums list (2014 was a very strong year), saying it might have ranked higher if it wasn’t just an EP. Well, the three tracks from Mareld returned this year as part of Ixtahuele’s second full-length album. Though maybe a step down from their incredible debut Pagan Rights, this is by no means a let down. These are thirteen original exotica tracks that rank up there with the best of the genre (extremely rare for any exotica group to have an album entirely of original compositions) . Such a fine mix of vibes+piano that would make Arthur Lyman and Martin Denny proud.
2- Honoka & Azita EP – Honoka & Azita
Hawaii’s ukulele sensations finally put out music for purchase after a couple years of YouTube videos. Their surf covers of “Miserlou” and “Wipeout” featured additional musicians but their original tune “Drop In” shows promise beyond novelty.
3- The Exotic Sounds of Tikiyaki 5-0 EP – Tikiyaki 5-0
This is the surf-oriented quartet variant of the Tikiyaki Orchestra, and their EP was a lot of fun. Check out the very good surf version of the exotica classic “Taboo.” I was looking for a modern surf group and this EP didn’t disappoint.
4- Super – Pet Shop Boys
Hard to follow 2013’s Electric album, but the template was largely similar with a focus on dance tracks rather than orchestral or acoustic experimentation. Some very strong tracks, including the single “The Pop Kids.”
5- This is what the truth feels like – Gwen Stefani
All the songs sound the same is sort of a plus and a minus. A big comeback for Stefani who’s last album was the largely forgettable Push and Shove with No Doubt. Though not as varied and dance oriented as Stefani’s first two solo albums, this one does have a great sound and some strong tracks such as “Rare” and “Make Me Like You.”
6- Hardwired… to Self Destruct – Metallica
A solid but unspectacular album from Metallica.
7- Strange Little Birds – Garbage
Ranked last, because it was my least favorite this year and among all the albums from Garbage. Which is not to say it’s awful, just “less awesome.” Overall, this album had fewer outstanding songs than are typical for the average Garbage album, and the tempo was down too (evidence: the album’s best song “Even Though Our Love is Doomed“).
With this year’s milestone Super Bowl being held our own Bay Area backyard, it’s been hard to escape the hype. And thanks to good weather, Julie and I did brave the crowds yesterday to visit Super Bowl City in San Francisco (the fact that we could easily flee and find something else to do in The City was also a factor). Though football isn’t really my thing anymore (thank you SF Giants), it certainly was an impressive scene that many people seemed to be really enjoying.
My initial exposure to SB50’s marketing push came not via television or billboards, but with a display in our neighborhood supermarket. They were selling SB50 logo shirts and other items, obviously trying to position themselves as your “big game headquarters.” But something about the display bothered me. The colors seemed off. I’m used to seeing the NFL’s red/white/blue color scheme but this one seemed muted. What’s with this ugly yellow color?
Oh, it’s supposed to be gold. You know, the “golden anniversary” celebrating the 50th Super Bowl.
I can kind of see it now but I still think the color scheme is all wrong. It’s not a good color, certainly nothing that strikes immediately as gold. The ironic part is that with the game being held in the Bay Area at the SF 49ers home stadium, it isn’t like they don’t have a really good model for what a good gold color should look like on a football logo or jersey. In fact, the Los Angeles Rams’ gold color also matches the 49ers gold.
I purchased nine albums/extended plays released in 2015, and here’s my ranking.
1. Veruca Salt – Ghost Notes
One of my favorite albums from the 1990’s was the Veruca Salt album Eight Arms to Hold You, which sadly preceeded Nina Gordon’s departure from the group. A decade plus later the full original line-up reunited for an excellent combination of hard riffs, melodies, and harmonies. One of my favorite moments was the line from “Empty Bottle” that went “Banging my head against a wall of sound.” That’s Veruca Salt in a nutshell.
2. Metric – Pagans in Vegas
Canadian alternative vets Metric went into a very synth-y direction on their latest album. I really liked some of this material including some instrumental and experimental songs such as “The Face” and “Office Towers Escalate.” Mainstream songs such as “The Governess” and “The Shade” show that Metric is still one of the best groups at producing catchy alternative rock.
3. Editors – In Dream
Another nice post-punk revivial record from Editors, who’s last record I skipped. They too went into a more synth-heavy direction on this album. I also liked the alternative versions on the extended version of the album.
4. FFS – FFS
The most unexpected release was this collaboration from Franz Ferdinand and Sparks. While some songs felt like “Sparks” songs or “Franz Ferdinand” songs that were brought to the project, the epic “Collaborations Don’t Work” was seamless blending of styles. Some very strong material here, and it’s nice when popular “students” do effective and enjoyable projects with their “masters.”
5. Colin Hay – Next Year People
Another effective album of catchy and reflective material from Hay, who’s live show I caught this year as well. While in concert it’s mostly Hay and a guitar, the record features a full band sound. Hay’s voice is as effective as ever and this is one of his best solo efforts. I pre-ordered and received an autographed copy too.
6. Madona – Rebel Heart
There were lots of tracks I really liked, including the title song available on the extended version of the album. But there was a lot of weird and hip-hoppy material that really isn’t my thing (example: “Bitch I’m Madonna”).
7. David Gilmour – Rattle That Lock
The title track is amazing, but the rest of the album isn’t really that catchy. Kind of ironic that I prefer last year’s mostly instrumental Pink Floyd release to this.
8. Foo Fighters – Saint Cecilia EP
Their last album was nearly the top of my list in 2014, and one of my favorites of the last 10 years. But Saint Cecilia is pretty generic stuff. Which is okay since it was released for free as a bonus to their loyal fans.
9. Trans-Siberian Orchestra – Letters from the Labrynith
This came along with a purchase to their live concert and suffice to say that I’d have never bought it on it’s own.
Projected winners in bold. I kind of feel like Best Picture and Best Director could split again this year, but I don’t know which one has the lead for each award. So, I’m guessing Boyhood for Best Picture and Birdman for Best Director. It really could go either way with one film winning both or Linklater winning Best Director and Birdman for Best Picture. But, I’m not playing it safe by picking the same film for both slots.
Which award winner would I stand and cheer for? Maybe Steve Carell in a miraculous upset. I’d probably cheer for Bradley Cooper too (he has a much more realistic shot). I’d like to see Big Hero 6 win Best Animated.
Update: Final tally is 16/24 – a pretty lousy results this year
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
“The Grand Budapest Hotel”
“The Imitation Game”
“The Theory of Everything”
Marion Cotillard in “Two Days, One Night”
Felicity Jones in “The Theory of Everything”
Julianne Moore in “Still Alice”
Rosamund Pike in “Gone Girl”
Reese Witherspoon in “Wild”
Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher”
Bradley Cooper in “American Sniper”
Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Imitation Game”
Michael Keaton in “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything”
Patricia Arquette in “Boyhood”
Laura Dern in “Wild”
Keira Knightley in “The Imitation Game”
Emma Stone in “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
Meryl Streep in “Into the Woods”
Robert Duvall in “The Judge”
Ethan Hawke in “Boyhood”
Edward Norton in “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
Mark Ruffalo in “Foxcatcher”
J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash”
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Alejandro G. Iñárritu
“Boyhood” Richard Linklater
“Foxcatcher” Bennett Miller
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Wes Anderson
“The Imitation Game” Morten Tyldum
“American Sniper” Written by Jason Hall
“The Imitation Game” Written by Graham Moore
“Inherent Vice” Written for the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson
“The Theory of Everything” Screenplay by Anthony McCarten
“Whiplash” Written by Damien Chazelle
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo
“Boyhood” Written by Richard Linklater
“Foxcatcher” Written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Screenplay by Wes Anderson; Story by Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness
“Nightcrawler” Written by Dan Gilroy
“Big Hero 6” Don Hall, Chris Williams and Roy Conli
“The Boxtrolls” Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable and Travis Knight
“How to Train Your Dragon 2” Dean DeBlois and Bonnie Arnold
“Song of the Sea” Tomm Moore and Paul Young
“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” Isao Takahata and Yoshiaki Nishimura
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Emmanuel Lubezki
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Robert Yeoman
“Ida” Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski
“Mr. Turner” Dick Pope
“Unbroken” Roger Deakins
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Milena Canonero
“Inherent Vice” Mark Bridges
“Into the Woods” Colleen Atwood
“Maleficent” Anna B. Sheppard and Jane Clive
“Mr. Turner” Jacqueline Durran
“CitizenFour” Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutzky
“Finding Vivian Maier” John Maloof and Charlie Siskel
“Last Days in Vietnam” Rory Kennedy and Keven McAlester
“The Salt of the Earth” Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and David Rosier
“Virunga” Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara
Documentary Short Subject
“Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1” Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Dana Perry
“Joanna” Aneta Kopacz
“Our Curse” Tomasz Sliwinski and Maciej Slesicki
“The Reaper (La Parka)” Gabriel Serra Arguello
“White Earth” J. Christian Jensen
“American Sniper” Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach
“Boyhood” Sandra Adair
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Barney Pilling
“The Imitation Game” William Goldenberg
“Whiplash” Tom Cross
Foreign Language Film
“Wild Tales” Argentina
Makeup and Hairstyling
“Foxcatcher” Bill Corso and Dennis Liddiard
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Frances Hannon and Mark Coulier
“Guardians of the Galaxy” Elizabeth Yianni-Georgiou and David White
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Alexandre Desplat
“The Imitation Game” Alexandre Desplat
“Interstellar” Hans Zimmer
“Mr. Turner” Gary Yershon
“The Theory of Everything” Jóhann Jóhannsson
“Everything Is Awesome” from “The Lego Movie” Music and Lyric by Shawn Patterson
“Glory” from “Selma” Music and Lyric by John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn
“Grateful” from “Beyond the Lights” Music and Lyric by Diane Warren
“I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from “Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me” Music and Lyric by Glen Campbell and Julian Raymond
“Lost Stars” from “Begin Again” Music and Lyric by Gregg Alexander and Danielle Brisebois
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Production Design: Adam Stockhausen; Set Decoration: Anna Pinnock
“The Imitation Game” Production Design: Maria Djurkovic; Set Decoration: Tatiana Macdonald
“Interstellar” Production Design: Nathan Crowley; Set Decoration: Gary Fettis
“Into the Woods” Production Design: Dennis Gassner; Set Decoration: Anna Pinnock
“Mr. Turner” Production Design: Suzie Davies; Set Decoration: Charlotte Watts
Animated Short Film
“The Bigger Picture” Daisy Jacobs and Christopher Hees
“The Dam Keeper” Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi
“Feast” Patrick Osborne and Kristina Reed
“Me and My Moulton” Torill Kove
“A Single Life” Joris Oprins
Live Action Short Film
“Aya” Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis
“Boogaloo and Graham” Michael Lennox and Ronan Blaney
“Butter Lamp (La Lampe Au Beurre De Yak)” Hu Wei and Julien Féret
“Parvaneh” Talkhon Hamzavi and Stefan Eichenberger
“The Phone Call” Mat Kirkby and James Lucas
“American Sniper” Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Martín Hernández and Aaron Glascock
“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” Brent Burge and Jason Canovas
“Interstellar” Richard King
“Unbroken” Becky Sullivan and Andrew DeCristofaro
American Sniper” John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff and Walt Martin
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño and Thomas Varga
“Interstellar” Gary A. Rizzo, Gregg Landaker and Mark Weingarten
“Unbroken” Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño and David Lee
“Whiplash” Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins and Thomas Curley
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” Dan DeLeeuw, Russell Earl, Bryan Grill and Dan Sudick
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett and Erik Winquist
“Guardians of the Galaxy” Stephane Ceretti, Nicolas Aithadi, Jonathan Fawkner and Paul Corbould
“Interstellar” Paul Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter and Scott Fisher
“X-Men: Days of Future Past” Richard Stammers, Lou Pecora, Tim Crosbie and Cameron Waldbauer
Are are my picks for 2014. Most years, I get around 18/24 picks correct, though last year I got 20/24. Am pretty confident in most of these except for Best Picture (where I almost picked 12 Years a Slave) and Best Supporting Actress (where if support for 12 Years is a soft I’d see Jennifer Lawrence winning). By picking Gravity for Best Picture and Nyong’o for Supporting Actress I’m sort of splitting the difference; gotta get at least one of these correct.
Update: 18/24 this year (winners in bold)
Best Picture: Gravity
Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
Best Actress: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)
Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)
Best Director: Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity)
Best Adapted Screenplay: John Ridley (12 Years a Slave)
Best Original Screenplay: David O. Russell and Eric Singer (American Hustle)
Best Foreign Film: Italy, The Great Beauty
Best Documentary Feature: 20 Feet from Stardom
Best Animated Feature: Frozen
Film Editing: Captain Phillips
Best Song: “Let It Go” (Frozen)
Best Original Score: Steven Price (Gravity)
Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity)
Costume Design: American Hustle
Makeup and Hairstyling: Dallas Buyers Club
Production Design: The Great Gatsby
Sound Editing: Gravity
Sound Mixing: Gravity
Visual Effects: Gravity
Short Film, Live Action: The Voorman Problem
Short Film, Animated: Get a Horse!
Documentary Short Subject: The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
To celebrate this week’s release of the Pet Shop Boys outstanding new single, “Thursday”, I thought it would be interesting to rank the English duo’s best albums. Given the group’s pop sensibilities, they are typically considered a “singles band” and given their vast numbers of pop hits it’s not hard to fault this line of thinking. That thinking is especially timely given that three of their four singles this year are among their best ever (the previously mentioned “Thursday”, video shown below, and the previously blogged about “Axis” and “Vocal.”).
But to truly appreciate the Pet Shop Boys you really need to dig into their albums for songs that often deal with more complex topics than is typical in a single release. Musically, there’s often an opportunity to “stretch” as well. And in my mind the best albums follow some sort of theme or at the very least pull together a great collection of songs.
For my criteria I eliminated collections of previously released songs. This meant that 1995’s amazing B-sides collection, Alternative, wasn’t able to make the cut. But, as an “album” you typically are looking at what the record says about “right now” musically or at least what’s going on with the group and so compilations don’t really make it.
10. Nightlife – 1999. A pretty uneven record, though there are some highlights that are amongst the group’s seminal efforts. Two non-single tracks in particular, “Radiophonic” and “In Denial” (duet with Kylie Minogue), are among my favorites. The club-oriented “For Your Own Good” opens the album that leaned in an urban/disco direction.
9. Very – 1993. More dance oriented than the group’s 1990 mellow downer, Behaviour. The record embraces current dance trends and avoids being a rehash of their late 1980’s sound. Check out the rich arrangements of “The Theatre” and “Young Offender.”
8. Yes – 2009. After two very uneven efforts, the Pet Shop Boys returned with a contemporary album featuring one of their best singles in years, “Love, etc.”
7. Relentless – 1993. An EP of sorts that was paired with Very as a special edition release. The tracks here are very club oriented and electronic to the extreme. Some songs feature very little vocal content. The song “We Came From Outer Space” definitely is well named, though my favorite track is “KDX 125” (named after a motorcyle, not a synthesizer).
6. Introspective – 1988. An interesting album that featured “long versions” of songs that were eventually released in shorter versions as singles. Features the group’s last big US hit, “Domino Dancing” as well as their good time anthem “It’s Alright.”
5. Bilingual – 1996. There a pronounced Latin influence on this album, with outstanding tracks such as “Discoteca” and “Se A Vida E (That’s The Way Life Is).” A great example of the more complex material you’ll find in a non-single track is provided by “Metamorphosis” which describes Neil Tennant realizing “he was that kind of guy” and includes an always-welcome vocal appearance by keyboardist Chris Lowe. The lyrics and musical themes are extremely tight on this album.
4. Disco – 1986. Smart readers might consider this album to break my “no compilation” criteria, though the album pre-dated the single releases for a re-recorded version of “Suburbia” as well as Chris Lowe’s signature vocal appearance with “Paninaro.” So, in a way, the singles did function in a way to promote the upcoming album release. In any case, Disco was the prime example of how the Pet Shop Boys embraced dance sensibilities rather than “careerist sensibilities” as well as highlighting their single remixes to a more mainstream audience.
3. Actually – 1987. This album probably has the strongest selection of singles from any album, including “It’s a Sin” and “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” There’s some great material here, including the UK singles “Rent” and “Heart”, plus a great re-recording of their original B-side “One More Chance.” It’s a great album but some of the album tracks including “Shopping” and “Hit Music” weigh down the rating just a tad.
2. Electric – 2013. The group’s most thematically solid album ever. And for someone who prefers the “dancy” records to the “theatrical” ones this is maybe the group’s best ever representation of that kind of material. As noted, this album has some of the group’s best singles ever, plus some outstanding non-single tracks including “Inside a Dream” and the Bruce Springsteen cover “The Last to Die.”
1. Please – 1986. One might look at this album and think the sound is pretty uniform and thus penalize it for not trying to branch out into different musical directions. Or you might look at how you could reorder the tracks to tell the story of life in London in the mid 1980s. You know the singles such as “West End Girls” and “Love Comes Quickly” but equally excellent are album tracks such as “I Want a Lover” and “Tonight is Forever.”