Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Best of 2014: The Year in Music – Part 2 of 3

As mentioned in my introductory installment of this year-end review, there were plenty of records that I liked well enough, but not many that I actually loved. I’ve read and absorbed as many lists over the past month as I could, but my list remained pretty consistent throughout.

So, here are my favorites. They’re organized in order of preference as well as I could manage at the time of writing this. The first ten are pretty solid, but it kind of goes to hell after that. The honorable mentions are records that might rank differently on any given day depending on my mood. I know there are records that I’ll discover months from now that would make this list if I were aware of them. There are records that I bought and liked at the time that didn’t make the cut because I brought them home and barely played them. I haven’t bought some of things on here. What follows are the records I kept going back to, records that made me excited to hear them again.

The Top Ten

1. D’angelo – Black Messiah: This is why you don’t make best-of lists until the end of a year. It’s a little silly for me to rate this record this high when it’s only been out for a few weeks. At the same time, part of me feels that in a few more weeks I might regret not putting it at number one. This may be a Sgt. Pepper’s/Dark Side caliber record – time will only tell. The fact that we’ve been waiting for it for 14 years puts all kinds of pressure on it to live up to the wait. It can’t possibly be as good as Questlove has been saying for the past two years, could it? Um, maybe. I think it might be better than Voodoo which is pretty ridiculous to think about. It’s tighter than Voodoo, more broad and artful than Brown Sugar. Sure, Prince put out two not-bad records this year, but nothing on them is as good of a Prince song as “The Charade.” The production is deep, dark, and murky which is why it’s drawn so many There’s a Riot Goin’ On comparisons. There are small sounds in the mix buried like treasure. The vocals are often obscured. This makes me listen all the more intently, drawing me in. It’s a deep album in the sense that I expect I’ll still new things in it a year from now. People generally don’t dream records this big anymore. Marvin, Sly, Curtis, Stevie, Bowie, Prince, and Kate Bush all used to make records with this scope. Kanye and Janelle Monae have made albums with this reach, but neither has achieved this level of sophisticated grace – and I say that as someone who likes Kanye and Janelle. There’s soul, gospel, jazz, rock, hell, even flamenco, here and it all works. It’s the kind of record that I want to talk to everybody about and ask them what they think. I wonder what Kanye and Prince think of it. Are they jealous? Does it make Greg Dulli hate himself? Questlove said of the record at the listening party, “It’s everything.” That’s not much of a stretch. It has a Whitman-esque world-encompassing, multitude-containing aspect. It’s an album that feels both like old fashioned soul music and at the same time as cutting edge as any record by The Knife. The story behind the album’s surprise rush release at the end of the year is that it was a reaction to the events of this past fall. I wonder if coming out after all the critics lists are in for the year and too early for 2015 will doom it to be lost and ignored. It doesn’t matter. I think it’s too strong not to last.

2. Alvvays – Alvvays: This is just good indie rock. Great melodies and songs that don’t sound forced. It’s not game-changing or epic, and it’s not particularly original (you could easily convince someone it’s a new Bettie Serveert record). So why rank it so high? Listening to it made me happier than any other record this year. How’s that for an objective criteria? The production combines mid-90s low-fi charm with 60s reverb which likely plays on an inadvertent nostalgia inside of me. There’s an innocence to this album that I haven’t heard in a while and I can’t help but find it endearing. Alvvays is incredibly romantic and wide-eyed, leading with its heart, songs of someone terribly afraid to miss out on the love of one’s life. There’s windswept desperation, longing, and wit in the lyrics and voice of Molly Rankin that makes your heart ache and soar at the same time. This is the record that I once hoped Park Ave. would make, an ode of longing for love before knowing what loss really is.

3. La Roux – Trouble in Paradise: This is effortless pop/dance music that’s fun and sexy – a mix of new wave and italo disco. There’s also something that reminds me of early Prince in that cocky, self-assured, flirty swagger. Like Prince, Elly Jackson performs and produces most of the music herself. Now that she has split with bandmate Ben Langmaid, there will no longer be any doubt that La Roux will be seen as wholly her vehicle. If Alvvays is my idea of a long lost Park Ave. masterpiece, then this would be the Tilly and the Wall record they might make if they ever ditched the guys. As bright and bouncy as a record about relationships on the rocks could be, this is the most emotionally tough record released this year.

4. Jessie Ware – Tough Love: This is more expansive than her debut. Some might say Ware is too calculated: a new, market-tested Sade for rich condo dwellers. Maybe she is. The music is great regardless. It’s hearing sophisticated pop like this that throws dross like Charli XCX and Meghan Trainor into sharp relief. This is adult music for grown-ups. Tough Love has epic, expansively lush production and emotional vocal performances. I loved her last record and this one only improves on what that one did well. I don’t understand how this wasn’t a hit record. How do people pick Lana Del Ray over this?

5. Wye Oak – Shriek: I’ve heard people who’ve liked their older albums (and sound) don’t care much for this new album. I have to say I feel the same way, only in reverse. I never cared for their previous work. It felt too self-absorbed and depressed to me. This is light and airy by comparison. The way the off-kilter arpeggiated keyboard riff in album-opener “Before” suddenly locks into an easy groove once the drums and bass come in sounds like a new morning in the bands career. It’s the best song on here along with the closer, “Logic of Color.” They’ve gone new wave and it’s a good sound on them.

6. Swans – To Be Kind: From a purely aesthetic standpoint, aside from the D’Angelo album, this is probably the most masterful record on this list in terms of completeness of vision and perfection of execution. Like all their work, however, it’s not something you throw on lightly. Aside from the abrasive sounds, the length of the songs are going to be a hurdle for most people – two discs with only one song under seven minutes and five songs over ten. This music takes its time with an almost ritualistic, tantric sensuality. Gira is still brutal these days, but now he sounds like he’s having fun sculling the rivers at the bottom of the sewers.

7. Clark – Clark: I realize that placing this Warp Records release higher than that other record on the same label (more anon) will seem ridiculous to some. This one was personally more satisfying. Chris Clark offers up a darker, maybe more goth-friendly, vision. “Winter Linn” could even possibly be slipped into a DJ set of the latest Metropolis singles and no one might notice. That’s not meant to be an indictment, just an indication that this is a record that has a personality of its own outside of most techno platters. The key track for me is the penultimate “There’s A Distance in You” which starts small and builds into a squealing banger before airing out into a saxophone drenched cloud of gray heaven. I can’t prove that Colin Stetson played on this, but it sure sounds like him. Clark may have even played the horn himself if the liners are to be trusted. That other record on Warp might have drawn bigger headlines, but this was my favorite electronic music of the year.

8. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music: This album plays like an imaginary, long-lost psychedelic record by Waylon Jennings. His cover of When In Rome’s “The Promise” is reborn as an American western ballad, tapping into a grit that the original never had (and I love the original). There’s an embryonic warmth in Simpson’s voice that screams classic country, but his lyrics follow in a long line of folksy, yet cosmic American transcendentalism from Emerson and Thoreau down to Woody Guthrie and Willie Nelson. Rock fans have already accepted Simpson, but make no mistake, this record is legitimate country music, not alternative country which is too often indie rockers playing cowboy. It does push the envelope by adding psychedelic touches to the sound, but musically it’s closer to George Strait and Alan Jackson than Justin Townes Earle. Simpson isn’t interested in saving country music, but if he continues making records this good I hope that Nashville and (more importantly) country music audiences begin to embrace something other than jock-jam bro-country.

9. White Lung – Deep Fantasy: I never liked Hole. White Lung sounds like if Hole had been a good band. Deep Fantasy is an album full of short, fast songs that doesn’t overstay its welcome. It was by far the toughest, ballsiest record I heard this year. I’d love to see them play on the Grammys. It would be a shot of guts that would shred the rest of the milquetoast fair that program offers up.  I always hear people complaining that music doesn’t rock like it used to. This record refutes that gripe. It’s true that twenty years ago there were thousands of bands that played music like this, but only one in several hundred made records this good. I’d argue that if Deep Fantasy was released in 1994 it would still stand out from the crowd. Singer Mish Way’s Marlboro-filtered voice and Kenneth William’s Big Black-like ringing harmonic guitar storm through each song, one raging right after the other. It’s not just a blur of noise either; there are great big hooks here. They’re just flying at your head at high speed.

10. Liars – Mess: These guys crack me up. From the first lines of this record they immediately suck the pompousness out of the room. Not since the Butthole Surfers has a band been able to make you laugh while at the same time daring you not to take them seriously. “Mask Maker” begins the record with the words: “Take my pants off/Use my socks/Smell my socks/Eat my face off/Eat my face off/Take my face/Get me your face/Give me your face…” It’s completely Buffalo Bill, Swans-style horrorshow, but it makes you want to boogie. The funniest (or scariest) thing about the Liars is how methodically consistent they are for how psychopathic their music sounds. Mess continues the move towards electronic dance music that they started on WIXIW, however this isn’t electronic music in the sense of faux dubsteppers like Skrillex or pop-dance dudes like Calvin Harris. I fantasize that the Liars are Freddy Krueger-like dream demons who terrorize Skrillex and Harris at night for their sins in the waking world. That would be righteous justice.

Honorable Mentions (The Best of the Rest)

I didn’t number the rest of what follows. I’m less sure of how I feel about these records than I am of the ones above. They’re listed in a loose order, ranked roughly in preference. They’re followed by one latecomer from last year and my favorite complilation/reissue.

Mac DeMarco – Salad Days: Do you remember when Blur fell in love with Pavement in 1997? This sounds like if Damon Albarn tried to make a Stephen Malkmus solo album. It’s a nice groovy, laidback set of warm slack. The album was recorded in DeMarco’s apartment, but it sounds open and clear instead of low-fi and claustrophobic. It has a friendly, laissez-faire Kevin Ayers feel without aping the banana god’s actual music. With more listens this might have made it into my top 10. The fact that he’s only 24 fills me with envy, but he has a voice that will age well as he sounds like he could just as easily be 54.

Wild Beasts – Present Tense: The fact that this record is as high on this list as it is stands as a testament to how much I like this band because it’s not that great of a record. There are four really good songs on it: “Wanderlust,” “Sweet Spot,” “A Simple Beautiful Truth,” and “Palace.” The Hayden Thorpe-led songs are the winners here. The Tom Fleming tracks are dogs by comparison to be honest, “Nature Boy” and “Daughters” among them. There really isn’t anything really bad on the record; it’s all just too tepid coming from a band as invigorating as this. All the vim and vigor of Limbo, Panto seems to have been drained out of them. I don’t mind the move towards synths and electronics, but I just wish for more of their early, spastic harlequin energy. Drummer Chris Talbot continues to be a consistently inventive player despite not having the bangers to get behind that he once did. Based on this record I wouldn’t be surprised if they broke up which would be preferable to me than seeing them become Radiohead.

Future Islands – Singles: I really liked this record when it first came out, but I either burned out on it or it just hasn’t held up for me like I thought it would. My biggest complaint? There’s too much positivity in it, too much communal good feeling. Songs like “Sun in the Morning” and “A Song for our Grandfathers” make me feel like I’m listening to a Ziggy Marley record. That said, the new wave basslines and lead singer Samuel Herring’s indomitable spirit make for an incredibly winning combo. Their performance of “Seasons (Waiting On You)” on Letterman might have been the best pop music moment of the year.

Pere Ubu – Carnival of Souls: This is the second record of theirs named after a classic B-movie and it’s even better than Lady of Shanghai. This is a band that hasn’t toned down the weirdness after all this time. Almost 40 years into their career, they are putting out music that compares well with some of their early best. No, it’s not at the level of the Hearthan singles or The Modern Dance or Dub Housing, but that’s an almost impossible standard to hit (although I would argue that 2009’s Long Live Pere Ubu did). It is easily as good as, if not better than, The Art of Walking or Song of the Bailing Man.

Planningtorock – All Love’s Legal: Much was made of the new Against Me! record being a revolutionary screed of gender freedom, but this record tackles the same terrain without the overwrought solipsism. Planningtorock is just as polemical as Against Me!, but the music actually sounds new and revolutionary rather than just a rockist retread. Besides that, the message is rendered with real pride, joy, and celebration rather than reactionary angst. The day-glo alien dance sound offers an enticing inclusivity that doesn’t rail against its oppressors so much as push them aside while stepping into its own future. Like The Juan MacLean (next), Planningtorock are moving on after the group they’re most often associated with has broken up, in Planningtorock’s case, The Knife. Jam Rostron, who is Planningtorock, continues to obscure her image like The Knife, but Rostron uses it as another way of making a statement of gender politics in the arts. She also uses the final line from The Knife’s “Full of Fire” as a launch pad for an invitation to discourse through dance and music. Planningtorock is about reinventing yourself out of your origins.

The Juan MacLean – In A Dream: This is the first time this group has sounded like an actual group to me rather than just another non-LCD DFA project. The question is now that LCD is no more will they, or can they, fill the gap that band left? The answer is no, and that’s to be expected. What made LCD different than all other similar groups (The Rapture, !!!, Hot Chip, Joachim, etc.) is James Murphy. Murphy infused his project with his aging rock-nerd personality. All too often, these dance rock guys have aimed for Kraftwerk-like anonymity rather than Murphy’s Lou Reed-like full disclosure. Cold is cool, but Murphy’s warmth and humanity is cooler than cool. It’s the same goofy, flawed humanity Bernard Sumner brought to New Order. The Juan Maclean is still pretty icy, even when playing disco and house. You can begin to hear a bit of a thaw though on “Love Stops Here.” Past collaborator and former LCD member, Nancy Whang, seems more like a full-fledged member now; and whether this new warmth is a result of her direct influence or rather just a catalytic result of her presence, it’s a move in the right direction.

Jungle – Jungle: The video for lead-off track, “The Heat,” is a perfect visual for this music, two old-school rollerskate dancers breaking under a bridge. This album has an instantaneous cool about it. It’s also ridiculously catchy, almost enough to make me wary of it. It’s the kind of “Dry the Rain” record you could throw on in a record shop on a busy day and have half-a-dozen people asking what it is by the middle of the third track. The whole thing is suffused with smoky, laidback grooves and falsetto vocals which make for great background music at home or driving around town.

Ibibio Sound Machine – Ibibio Sound Machine: Despite hailing from London, this is modern African music, like Amadou & Mariam, which doesn’t sound retro or beholden to Western conceptions of “world music.” This record is more dance music than Amadou & Mariam, but it’s just as funky and soulful in a Talking Heads/Bush Tetras meets Fela way. Horns mix with new wave synths over a bedrock of Afro-Funk. Singer Eno Williams Uffort’s voice reminds me of Shara Nelson from Massive Attack at certain moments, and although I don’t understand the lyrics the spirit is put across.

Robyn Hitchcock – The Man Upstairs: The Man Upstairs is a Joe Boyd-produced set consisting of half covers and half originals from one of the most singular British songwriters of the past 35 years. So why should you listen to such a talented songsmith do other people’s songs? Because Hitchcock is a great interpreter and hearing him cover the Psychedelic Furs “Ghost in You” or Roxy’s “To Turn You On” is to hear them through his Strawberry Fields-focused filter. The originals here feel of a piece with the rest. New songs “San Francisco Patrol” and “Recalling the Truth” are the kind of casually brilliant songs that would garner loud praise if penned by Dylan, Cohen, or Neil Young. However, even Hitchcock can’t make “Crystal Ship” not suck. You can’t expect them all to be gold.

Blonde Redhead – Barragán: Let me be clear: this isn’t as good of a record as some that they’ve made in the past, but it does hold its own charms. Blonde Redhead is nothing if not charming. “Dripping” offers up a loose, languorous funk topped with a vocal melody of sleepy-eyed seduction. The almost-nine minute “Mind to Be Had” has a trance-inducing effect. Elsewhere, the arrangements are more minimal than they have been in the past which makes more room for some delicate left turns. I’m still intrigued by them and I still want to hear where their baroque vision takes them next.

Ryan Adams – 1984: Ryan Adam put out two records this year. One of them is a great rock & roll record; and the other is something for Ryan Adams fans to listen to. This is the good one. Naturally, Adams put it out as a limited, vinyl-only release as part of his PAX AM Singles Series that’s already unavailable. Essentially, it’s a throwaway. It’s telling that my favorite Ryan Adams record is Demolition which was a collection of leftover tracks cobbled together with nothing more than a second thought. Most of Adams’s records are too overwrought and contrived. His other record this year, the self-titled record, is showing up on a lot of other best-of lists, but I think Adams himself knows better. Ryan Adams, with its Bryan Adams Reckless typeface, seems to be trolling his own fanbase who crave and encourage his worst tendencies. 1984 is a short, sharp injection of Husker Du-fueled rock. The whole thing is 11 songs in less than 15 minutes which is about all the Ryan Adams anyone needs.

Ty Segall – Manipulator: I haven’t heard this record enough yet. It’s a mix of glam and psychedelic rock: a little T. Rex, a little Jay Reatard, some Stooges, and maybe even some Bobby Conn. He rocks harder than a lot of his retro-contemporaries; he’s the Rolling Stones to Temples’ Beatles (see below). At 56-minutes this record’s a little hard to digest without repeat listens. It will either continue to grow on me or I’ll have forgotten it completely in another year.

Israel Nash – Israel Nash’s Rain Plans: This has some CCR and Neil Young shine to it. It’s a good hippie record. I thought it was a better Neil Young record than the record Neil put out this year. Along with Neil, this record seems like it owes something to Jimmy Webb & America’s soundtrack to “The Last Unicorn” (it’s not that good though). He’ll probably get himself a big-name producer and make a really terrible record next. I hope not.

Todd Terje – It’s Album Time: This record has a space-age bachelor pad, international lounge music from a 70s European film soundtrack vibe – the kind of record Shawn Lee used to do well. It also rescues the brilliant Bryan Ferry cover of Robert Palmer’s “Johnny and Mary” from Ferry’s pretty meh new record. That guest spot is an ingenious idea. The song centers the record for me around a projected narrative idea of the lonely melancholy of a jet-setting cosmopolitan man of leisure. It would be silly to call this a concept album as some of these tracks have been around for over a year. Still, the whole piece has a continental unity of sound, if not theme, as evidenced by “Oh Joy,” a Benny & Bjorn-like rendering of some italo/Alan Parsons Project Frankenstein. It’s pretty cheesy and uncool, but wonderfully so.

Temples – Sun Structures: Temples are this year’s Tame Impala or Foxygen. The songs from this record could have been pulled off of the Nuggets II box set. They aim for the same “Rain”-era Beatles psychedelia that countless other bands in the last thirty years have attempted. Although lots of bands have adopted this same 60s echo chamber sound, most don’t come up with vocal melodies like those in “The Golden Throne.” That said, I couldn’t quote you any lyric or tell you what any of the songs are about.

Aphex Twin – Syro: A fun return that doesn’t break new ground but does what he does better than anyone else: quirky, hyperactive techno with grace and humor. Richard D. James has apparently been making music this entire time, just not releasing it. Techno’s J.D. Salinger has said he’s been working on finally collecting this work into releasable form in the near future. If that comes to pass, we could be listening to “new” Aphex records on a regular basis. Worse things could happen.

Theophilus London – Vibes: Theophilus actually got Leon Ware on the record this time instead of just cribbing his front cover style. More than Ware, he reminds me of Eddy Grant in that he doesn’t seem to fit into any niche but his own. “Neu Law” is the best track on here and it has a Grant-like electro funk. One of these days he’s going to have a huge “Electric Avenue”-sized hit. For now, I’ll enjoy his stand-ins for “Killer on the Rampage” and “Romancing the Stone.” London is still trying to figure his own riddle out which is maybe why I’m still interested.

FKA Twigs – LP1: The easy comparisons are Bjork and Martina Topley-Bird. This has a really moody trip-hop drag to it. It manages to be both icy and vulnerable at the same time which is a neat trick. While the space in the arrangements is the key, next time out I’d like a little more meat on the bones musically speaking, but we’ll see what we get.

Hercules & Love Affair – The Feast of the Broken Heart: I really got into this record when it first came out, but I’ve since cooled on it a bit. What’s curious is that it made me go back to their second album, Blue Songs, which I kind of wrote off when it came out. Now, Blue Songs sounds great to me. Neither the second nor this third have met the standard of that first eponymous album, but Andrew Butler’s project still retains the feeling of a revolving cast of characters. This album’s most significant new family member is John Grant who fits in perfectly with the crew.

Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal/Content Nausea: Neither of these was as good as the band’s previous records, but they were still good. The current kings of college rock slack continue to pump out post-Velvets jams in the same mold as their sonic forebears Television, The Fall, Pavement, The Strokes, etc. They probably could have condensed these two records into one better one, but I’m hoping the next one is even better.

Ex Hex – Rips: I was never a Helium fan, but I like that Wild Flag got Mary Timony to rock out more. This is good, Sweet/Suzi Quatro power pop. It’s a bit one-note, both musically and emotionally, but it’s a good record for driving around town in the summer. There are even traces of an early-KISS influence, like on “Radio On,” which has a bridge riff reminiscent of “Calling Dr. Love.” Rips is the kind of record Rodney Bingenheimer would have spun at his English Disco club.

Marissa Nadler – July: I loved her first three records but lost interest in her after that. This one grew on me slowly. It’s still growing on me. Nadler is still a terrific guitar player and her ghostly vocals are as beautiful as ever. Nadler has always struck me as sharing something similar to Leonard Cohen, but she lacks Cohen’s self-believe, his wit, and his steel. Nadler could use a little more flint in her voice. Cohen has always been an old man (even when he was a young one). Perhaps with age, Nadler will look to Marianne Faithfull as a role-model and start to take no prisoners. She may never make her Broken English, but hopefully she’ll give us a Songs for the Gentle Man (see Bridget St. John).

The Coral – Curse of Love: It’s surprising that this band is still making records considering how largely ignored they’ve always been. They could be releasing and distributing this music in a closet for all the notice it will get. This isn’t their best, but it’s nice, dark folk rock, like a collection of sad, psychedelic sea shanties.


Sun Ra – In the Orbit of Ra: I owned another Sun Ra compilation before this came out, but Sun Ra’s catalog is so overwhelming you get the feeling that you’re only scratching the surface of music he made. This new collection was curated and assembled by saxophonist and band-member Marshall Allen who has put together what feels like a broad, but unified 2-disc set. Sun Ra was part Thelonious Monk, part Moondog. This is a really wonderful way to explore the interplanetary jazz excursions on a true American genius.

Late Entry from Last Year:

Josephine Foster – I’m A Dreamer: This is a recent discovery which came out at the end of 2013. If it wasn’t a question of eligibility this would be much higher up the list. Foster is an American signed to the British import Fire Records which is to say she is doomed to not being heard. Fire has always been terrible at promoting, marketing, and distributing their records stateside leaving good records stranded without an audience. The crime in this instance is that Foster would have a shot at an actual sizeable indie audience. If the Current played this record, she would sell a couple box-lots locally and sell out the Cedar. She’s has an old-timey feel to her that feels honest and not hackneyed. Her voice has wisdom behind it. It feels a little worn and weathered. Although she’s much quirkier stylistically, this is what I wish Marissa Nadler had more of – a seasoned, less-fragile worldview.

The Playlist

 Here's a playlist of tracks from the above albums followed by some videos, including a Ty Segall video because Manipulator isn't on Spotify.

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