Summer’s right around the corner, and now’s the time when the amount of new music floating around the radio waves and internet always starts to increase exponentially, with artists looking to cash in on this year’s big summer anthem.  So, before we get bombarded by this year’s “Get Lucky” or “The 20/20 Experience,” now is as good a time as ever to talk about the albums I’ve listened to so far in 2014 (honestly, this is long over due).
The three most enjoyable albums this year have been Beck’s “Morning Phase,” Phantogram’s “Voices,” and St. Vincent’s self-titled release.
“Morning Phase” is a standard, well-made Beck album. If you liked his music before, you’ll probably still like this. It’s folkier than his 90s songs, but it still has a quirky, experimental quality to it.  Even though the songs all work together well, each individual track seems to draw an influence from somewhere else, from R.E.M. and Pearl Jam, to Pink Floyd and even the Goo-Goo Dolls, which is interesting.
Both the St. Vincent and Phantogram albums are similar in production and overall quality and are fun to listen to, even if they do tend to drag on at times. There are some obvious differences; St. Vincent is more of an indie, 90s pop revival where Phantogram songs draw more on the side of heavy hip-hop production techniques. However, both groups pull on electronic influences and utilize their lead female voice to create a sound that’s distinctly their own.
That, however, is a big problem I have with a lot of the music that’s come out recently. Every artist tries to sound so unique, that in the process they put limitations on their creativity. The first four tracks all sound really cool; however, when seven through nine just sound like variations of each other, I lose interest. Other examples of this would be Lorde last year, Mumford and Sons in 2012, and even Adele to an extent.  I like those artists and a lot of their individual songs, but with each passing listen I’m less eager to come back.
Foster The People’s follow up to 2011’s “Torches” was bit of a disappointment--but still appealing. No tracks on “Supermodel” are as iconic as “Pumped up Kicks” or the other singles on their debut, and it’s not as solid an album, although there are some gems. (“Fire Escape,” “Goats in Trees,” and “The Truth” to name my favorites.)
“Ghost Stories,” which came out last week, symbolized, in my mind, the death of Coldplay.  I loved their debut, “Parachutes,” and I really liked all their albums through “Viva La Vida,” although each came with diminishing returns.  Even “Mylo Xyloto,” which is almost unbearable at points, had three or four really great songs. “Ghost Stories” is boring, slow-moving and mechanical. The band substitutes live, acoustic instruments with electronic sounds for no conceivable reason other than they think it’s something they have to do in order to be played on pop stations, which is where the money is. That’s a path you never want to see a band go down.
There haven’t been too many classic rock groups releasing albums so far in 2014.  I was hoping the new U2 album, which has been in the works since late 2009, would drop before the summer, but now it’s looking like 2015 is more likely.  “Invisible” was a fine tune that’s upbeat enough and showed a fusion of old-school U2 with modern production, but I was looking for more than just a taste of what is to come.
Bruce Springsteen did release his 18th album, “High Hopes,” in January. I’m in no way a Springsteen aficionado, but a good friend of mine back home listens to Bruce almost exclusively, so I’ve been exposed to most of his music--I like the classics and even appreciate some of his other works. Music critics, namely Rolling Stone Magazine, seem to praise everything that “The Boss” releases nowadays, but I haven’t been moved by much of his work since about 1994, and “High Hopes,” a mix of some older tunes and new material, is no exception. We did finally we get a studio version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” a collaboration with Tom Morello that everyone heard at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert five years ago. It’s good, but it’s a bit overproduced and lacks the spontaneity of live performance (obviously).
I haven’t checked out any hip-hop albums this year other than “Oxymoron” by ScHoolboy Q, which I wasn’t particularly a fan of (and I’ll leave it at that). There aren’t any rap stations in Minnesota, a concept I might rant about in a future column, and I think that’s the main reason I feel so out of touch with the rap game now. When I’m not working or enjoying the outdoors this summer, I’ll do some digging, see what I’ve missed, and report back to you then!