The Best of 2014 - Audio Entertainment

If you missed the best movies of the year post from yesterday you can check that out here. This post is going to be devoted to my favorite non-visual entertainments of the year. Up first: my favorite podcast, then my favorite album, then my favorite song.

 Thanks to Kyle Mayfield for designing this poster

Thanks to Kyle Mayfield for designing this poster

I probably spend between ten to twenty hours a week listening to podcasts; I probably spend more time listening to Marc Maron's voice than I do my own mother's. (In my defense, I would indulge my mom more if she had access to Paul Thomas Anderson.) Over the years I’ve come to really hone in on what I think makes a good podcast: it needs to be intimate but far reaching, it needs to be focused but loose, it needs to be funny enough to be entertaining but serious enough that it doesn't feel glib.

That might sound like a complicated series of demands, but I’ve found that if you put a few funny people in a room and then have them engage in a serious conversation, they’ll naturally bridge all those divides by simply letting the conversation go where it wants to go. That said, you do have to have the right funny people for it to work, because if you pick people that are too discursive or not funny enough or too guarded, it can get very old very quickly.

The reason why U Talking U2 To Me was my favorite podcast of 2014 was because the two people hosting it were the best possible hosts. Both Scott Aukerman and Adam Scott are really funny people, and they spend the first half of each episode going down endless comic rabbit holes, dragging each bit to absurd lengths. But then in the last half they get serious, and delve deeply in the band U2’s history earnestly. They have such chemistry that they can follow whatever tangent they want to, but they have enough of a shared interest in a single topic that they can also stay focused for a long time once they get down to brass tacks.

Now, I’m not a huge U2 fan, so when they do turn their attention to the band there’s a part of me that’s ambivalent - I often feel like I'm about ten years too young to care about what they are talking about, since my cultural lodestars are from the 90s and their are from the 80s. Still, I like dialogues about culture in general, and I like being a fly on the wall that's overhearing two old friends getting into the thick of things, so I’m willing to hang with them while they talk about what’s important to them even if it's not super important to me. Besides, there's no way to dissect a band that's hopped on most of the big trends of the last three decades without discussing the culture at large over the same time span, so they always end up touching on topics I do care about.

Admittedly, it’s not a podcast for everyone. If you absolutely can’t stand U2 (which is fair enough) – well, this is just going to be a no-go. And sometimes their comedy bits do go on a bit too long, or get a bit too repetitive or discursive, so I can understand if someone found it to be frustrating more than it was funny. But I liked the feeling that they were flying without a net, challenging each other to one up the last suggestion, and I think for the most part they pull it off. They put out a few episodes that actively enraged me – but I was also ecstatic every time a new episode came out, far more so than I was for any other podcast. (Their intermittent schedule helped on that front.) That mixture really jumped them to the top of the pile, since so many podcasts just find a groove and ride it, which can make them fun but predictable.

If for nothing else, U Talking U2 To Me deserve recognition for making me excited that a new U2 album came out in 2014. Sure, I didn’t care about Songs of Innocence on it’s own merits and was mostly looking forward to the two Scotts breaking it down – but it’s still a helluva accomplishment to make me care about U2 at all. So congrats to them, and here's hoping there's more U2 news for them to pretend to talk about in 2015.

 This is probably my classiest cat photoshop. Look at my cat! She's ready to go to a literary party!

This is probably my classiest cat photoshop. Look at my cat! She's ready to go to a literary party!

My favorite album of the year is probably Sky Ferreira's Night Time, My Time, but I already wrote a long post on the El Kiablo Tumblr about why I like that album so much and I don’t want to reiterate that here. (El Kiablo Tumblr RIP.) Instead, I’d rather dedicate a few words to an album I got at the tail end of the year, too late to dethrone Ferreira, but which I think is going to dominate early 2015 for me.

Over all, Tove Lo’s Queen of the Clouds is not a perfect record, but it is pretty damn good. It passes the Howard Hawks test – it has three perfect pop songs and no really bad ones – so I can forgive it for having a bit of filler on it. Her basic shtick is to take traditional pop song sentiments and to subvert them by injecting a note of crassness, and as someone who is a bit tired with the cookie cutter content of traditional loves songs, it’s a welcome contrast. It also helps that her particular style of crassness is generally pretty funny, and that her IDGAF tone reminds me of a lot of the people I knew when I first moved to Portland straight out of college.

Right now my favorite song on the album is called “Talking Body”. Overall, Talking Body is a pretty straight forward sex jam (“Now if we're talking body / You've got a perfect one, so put it on me”) but what sets this song apart for me is the line “if you love me right / we fuck for life”. Every time I hear that line it cracks me up, because a) it makes it sound like she’s holding auditions; b) I always imagine that as she says that she’s making a “four” hand symbol with one hand and a “L” hand symbol with her other hand; and c) “fuck for life” just conjures up a funny image for me, because it makes me think of two dogs that are doing it in someone’s front lawn and they get the hose turned on them, but they can’t figure out how to disengage, so they just had to waddle off together – except it’s people, and it's for the rest of their lives. This song might not be as funny for you as it is for me, but the images it conjures up for me never stop cracking me up.

I also really like the song “Moments”: “I can get a little drunk, I get into all the don'ts / But on good days I am charming as fuck… I have my moments.” It's surprising how nostalgic this song makes me feel, given that it's such an unsentimental blast of attitude, but I've known so many women over the years who could use "Moments" as their theme song, and I think of all of them when I listen to it.

The big single is “Habits (Stay High)” and that’s the album’s clearest distillation of her ethos. The first verse is all about her bad behavior - (“I eat my dinner in my bathtub / Then I go to sex clubs / Watching freaky people gettin' it on”) – but once you get into the backstory about why she’s acting out so much it becomes a more traditional love song. (You see, she’s trying to distract herself from the boy that broke her heart.) Even though Habits doesn't really live up to it's full potential, I still find it’s balance of humor and bleakness to be a welcome change of pace from the average pop song, which is too earnest and too positive. Depending on how I’m feeling when I hear the song, the image of her numbing her pain away with a box of twinkies in a bathtub is tragic, absurd, or touching – or all of them at the same time.

Hopefully Tove Lo’s follow up can take her best ideas and put them into one complete package, but if she makes another album that has a few perfect singles in the middle of a bunch of workmanlike filler – well, I’ll take that and still be happy.

 This isn't the most technically advanced cat photoshop that I did this year but it never stops making me laugh

This isn't the most technically advanced cat photoshop that I did this year but it never stops making me laugh

My song of the year, however, is not a pop song. (Sorry, Sky.) It’s a seven and a half minute long garage punk song called Pattern Walks. Now, I'm about to break this song down in far more detail than most of you will care about, so I want to sum it up briefly for people who have gotten this far and are like "enough already with the words!":

Short version: I'm a man in my thirties, and I grew up on a certain diet of popular rock music, and I will always like things that sound like 1994. However, I'm also a guy who is still curious even though I'm getting older.and I still want to sample modern music that sounds, well, modern. Pattern Walks is my favorite song of the year because it does an incredible job of hitting all my nostalgia buttons while still seeming fresh and new. It's a song that sounds simultaneously like my favorite old bands and like 2014. That's a hard combination to beat.

Now here's the long version:

My best argument in favor of Pattern Walks greatness is even though it has basically no lyrics I still love it. Now, that might not mean much to most people, because most people pay more attention to a song's feel than they do to it's words, but great lyrics are almost always what separates a good song from a great song for me. However, Pattern Walk’s energy is so infectious and so undeniable that it's total lack of lyrical content doesn't matter to me at all. As far as I know the only lyrics are “Pattern Walks” and “I saw it" (or maybe "I Thought" - that's what the internet is claiming he's saying; I've always heard "I saw it"). Oh, and I think he also says "I feel strange" at one point. Whatever he's saying, he's saying it in a bird squawk that sounds like a parrot whose imitating words for the first time, which is perfect, because "Pattern Walks" is the sort of thing a bird should squawk.

Musically, the first half of the song is positively Freebirdian in it’s superfluity. It’s a competent rock song, full of piss and vinegar, and while a version of this song that was just the first 3:25 minutes would be completely fine, it would not be remotely epic. However, once the breakdown starts to hit at 3:26 things start to get more interesting.

Now, this breakdown is not the best breakdown of all time – that honor probably belongs to a James Brown song where he "gave the drummer some" – but it’s pretty high up there. The breakdown begins with everything but the guitar dropping out, and the effect of losing the driving drumbeat makes it seem like the song is slowing down. In fact, the pace is still pretty damn fast, so this is the rare breakdown which seems slower without actually being any less intense. This sort of noisy guitar freakout reminds me Nirvana's best work, where the dynamics could shift back and forth between loud and quiet without losing any of the pressure that made the song so thrilling.

The next layer of sound to be added to the song is the return of the drumming at 4:34, which is again very Nirvana-esque - all thunderous kickdrums that create an aura of obsessively controlled fury. However, at 5:16 the guitar part shifts, and here's where the song's arrangement really starts to kick into gear. This is where Pattern Walks heads into Downward Spiral era Nine Inch Nails territory, as there starts to be a beautiful melody juxtaposed against an increasingly ugly wall of noise, with the vocals increasingly receding. Buried in the mix are lovely keyboard washes, which become more prominent about 5:56, right as the lyrical segment starts to robotically loop back onto itself. As the singer loses himself in the song, the drumming picks up in fury, and at 6:46 some keyboard trills begin to come in, becoming the final tipping point that will overload the song and push it towards it's natural endpoint.

Now, you can probably tell that I've listened to this song way too many times, but I used it as the anchor point for my fall mix CD, and it's amazing car music. There's something about the anxiety and the release of the song that's been very keyed into the way my year went, and there were so many times when I got into my car feeling a little bottled up and left feeling loose and free because I freaked out to Pattern Walks en route. I'll often rewind a pop song to get back to the part I like, but Pattern Walks is basically the only song I can think of where I've regularly rewinded through nearly four minutes of music to get to the part I like. (Incidentally, that's why I know where all the parts come in - because I want to rewind to the exact part I want to hear.)

The overall feeling of the song reminds me of those times when you’re burning up with energy, so angry and upset that you can’t sit still, and so you flail and scream and explode, but then there hits a certain point where the freedom of just letting your body go starts to take root, and your tantrum actually starts to feel good. It becomes cathartic, and the steam starts to escape your body, lowering the pressure in your engine. And then just like that you’ve burned through your fuel, and you’re just worn out and content. It’s a rare feeling, one that happens every now and then in life, maybe a little more often at really good concerts, but to be able to deploy that sort of power on command is the best. And thus Pattern Walks is the best.