You're Dead! (2014)
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * Steven Ellion's previous two major releases were alternately irritating, insubstantial and brilliant -- and one hopes that his pronounced move toward accessibility this time out doesn't have people crying foul. Because this absorbing cycle of
electronic avant jazz at last bridges the gap between his innovations and his musicality, and that's no small thing; one can hear how much harder this was to put together, not that he was ever any damn slouch in the first place. So when vague memories of trip hop fade into the vague now of trap into free jazz into Kendrick Lamar, you can sit back and let yourself get played. Its playful textures call back to Prince, George Clinton, even Stevie Wonder's "Contusion" as much as his non-pop influences. More than some knob-twiddling exercise, this is profoundly beautiful and strange -- and it's a celebration, as assertive as ever but now with the entirety of the world seemingly invited.
Plowing into the Field of Love (2014)
God, indie rock is confusing these days. For a good five minutes into this I was thinking "wow, this is really different from that OMD revivalist stuff they were doing" then I realized that was Ice Choir, not Iceage. (PSA: Cold Cave are also a different thing.) Iceage are the punks from Denmark, and this is their third album. I didn't hear the second one. This one seems a bit harder, more elaborately produced. It's also oddly pleasant, by which I mean that on one of my listens I literally fell asleep with headphones on and was never outright disturbed by Elias Bender Rønnenfelt's growl. (Not because it's boring, I was just tired.) That's possibly a compliment, perhaps not, depends how you look at things.
RECOMMENDED * My rabbit has requested that I declare this "the album of the year." She likes it very much and flopped attentively on the floor during non-headphones playback. Bunyan is the 69 year-old obtuse, whispery folk singer briefly put on a pedestal by the likes of Animal Collective and Devendra Banhart this past decade. Now that indie isn't folky anymore she's got nothing to prove, so on her third album in five decades she sounds appealingly unforced and relaxed, and her music is beautiful and emotive if light as a feather and somewhat stagnant (the mood is unwavering). As others have pointed out, Bunyan's lyrics are exceptionally good but they read better than they sing.
A Winged Victory for the Sullen
RECOMMENDED * Partially orchestral ambient, like Owen Pallett without the singing. As you will inevitably guess upon hearing it, it was written and designed as scoring -- for a modern dance piece -- and this colors it as a slightly incomplete experience. But it's still lovely: dramatic yet soothing. It peaks when encouraging you to waltz for a bit.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * I'm a great fan of Janet Jackson -- actually think she released a greater quantity of solid LPs than her brother -- and this began reminding me of her work early on, in part vocally but moreover in the choice of material and mood of bone-dark sensuality. That peaked, of course, when the terrific "How Many Times" sampled the great Control cut "Funny How Time Flies." There are also the interludes in which Tinashe, just like Jackson in the old days, strips everything away to talk to her audience for a moment -- or drops song ideas that seem to me too good to be thusly sidelined ("Indigo Child"). Still, Tinashe is very much a star of the now, myriad producers helping her contrast bangers and softness and gradually pick up the pace ("2 On"), climax ("Feels Like Vegas") and release ("Bated Breath"; "Wildfire"). As a singer, Tinashe is compelling and assured, cutting through the vast atmospheres with which she's saddled (the first few cuts are a bit druggy), but it may be her lyrics that stick with you the longest -- the empowered "Thug Cry" for one thing, but the Smokey Robinson-like mindbending sexual politics of "Pretend" for some kind of splendidly kinky and/or desperately sad peak: "Let's pretend we never met / A good excuse to play forget / Let's pretend you never lied / So I can give it up all night." Maybe it's the Velvet Rope fan in me talking but I can't stop listening to this one.
RECOMMENDED * Wonderful, strangely reassuring guitar playing on this debut album by the latest project of Mary Timony, formerly of Helium and the short-lived supergroup Wild Flag. Timony's playing is lyrical and engaging, well-suited to the backward-looking garage pop songwriting, which is otherwise a bit pedestrian. The standouts are the opening and closing cuts, which boast strong melodies and solos, and the driving raveup "War Paint." Everything else is decent, it just doesn't soar and sounds at times like an exercise. You expect punk bands to be a bit derivative, and nobody minds an interpolation of the "Sweet Jane" chords unless they're just too sour to talk to about music, but "Radio On" begs the question: why not just cover "Roadrunner"?
Hell Can Wait EP (2014)
I'd be interested to know why Stapes' post-mixtape debut is so short -- 24 minutes, free of filler but making little of an impression except the fantastic "65 Hunnid," one of the top hooks of the year. The production, handled mostly by Canadian producer Hagler, is engaging enough but it still feels like we barely know Staples, his delivery solid but undistinguished.
Bestial Burden (2014)
Much respect for Margaret Chardiet, who goes out and does this belligerent screamy kookiness live like all the most confrontational bits of Warhol's EPI in one person. But I wanna let something like this into my placid rabbit-owning day to day life like I want a cyst in my gut, which not coincidentally is what inspired this album. The noise audience will love it. Meanwhile, for this to be declared potential crossover into mainstream-indie listening ears is hilarious to me; it's performance art, and if the far more accessible p.a. of Yoko Ono (to whom the title cut seems almost an homage) in the '70s was never accepted wholesale by the rock audience, surely this can't be. But she is clearly interesting and well-engaged in the art of aural fury, desperation and bleak wordless storytelling, so good luck to her. (And major thanks to her for letting this run under a half-hour.)
Scott Walker & Sunn O)))
Heavy. Dumb. Arty. Funny. Ridiculous. Stagnant. Unlistenable. But it certainly beats how Brian Wilson is spending his winter years.
Mark Lanegan Band
Phantom Radio (2014)
!! CAUTION !! * At last, courtesy of one of our nationally treasured grunge holdovers, the fusion of wanky blooze rock and mid-'90s trip hop I still am not sure I needed.
Run the Jewels 2 (2014)
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * Enough attention has been afforded this that I won't be telling you anything you don't know -- it's hard and strong and an incredibly confident transition from first album to second, with both Killer Mike and El-P running along unstoppably and bringing hardcore rap into a comfortable maturity. They repesent a sort of utopian ideal that, in practice, has never been more depressingly out of our reach. "One black, one white, we shoot to kill." But not just the postracial protest, not just the smashing of that specific power dynamic. It's also that they feel it's important to justify their lusting after a woman who gives good head on the Akinyele tribute "Love Again" by giving a verse up to Gangsta Boo, who wants you to put her clit in your mouth all day. El-P's excellent production is almost beside the point; you feel the likes of Afrika Bambaataa and Run-DMC being channeled for an army of kids to whom these are new, enlightened lessons. Yet it's also a party record, a menacing record, a challenge. Mike's flow still eclipses El-P's, but the gesture of this continued collaboration and its impact relies upon El's steadiness all the same. These two deserve their suddenly immense popularity completely.
The Twilight Sad
Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave (2014)
This band's brand of minor-key maudlin pub rock has long been sort of Scotland's answer to the National (or, uh, Depeche Mode). On their new album they relax from the sustaining of tension and essentially deliver sadfaced arena rock like Suede or Elbow only drunker, more desperate. I sort of like the drab singalong "It Never Was the Same," a triumph of fist-pumping apathy. Otherwise you can get the story from the song titles -- "Drown So I Can Watch," "Pills I Swallow," "Leave the House." Goth adults doing their best to uphold the image.
One of the architects of the increasingly mainstream into-the-void sound of modern electronics, the Venezuelan producer Alejandro Ghersi, releases a proper solo debut that functions as a kind of demo reel for his talents. Beats are chopped up and fall to pieces, half-formed melodic ideas are pushed forward by the sporadically used organic instruments. It's ominous and invasive but strangely calming -- not just formless, unemotional noise. Its appeal is very limited, but Ghersi undoubtedly meant it that way.
American Interior (2014)
Dad rock from the ex-Super Furry Animals guy.
The Hum (2014)
RECOMMENDED * Decent when they rock, better when they drone. The suite from "v" to "Off Screen" to "vi" occupies nearly a third of the album and almost wholly justifies its existence.
My Favourite Faded Fantasy (2014)
!! CAUTION !! * People complain that Justin Timberlake's stuff goes on and on. This guy's songs run in excess of nine minutes, and he's just faux-crooning over spare acoustic guitar and strings. Indulgent boyish dross (produced by Rick Rubin!), neither beautiful nor dark nor twisted.
Give My Love to London (2014)
RECOMMENDED * The cover material is predictably, flamboyantly weird, taking on the Everlys' "Price of Love" and Nick Cave's "Late Victorian Holocaust" with vampiric zeal, but everything snaps into focus toward the end when Leonard Cohen's "Going Home" appears. That song is only three years old and yet it sounds like a standard is being renewed and unveiled. You can say she's mostly proving what an immediate and enduring classic Cohen's song already is, but she delivers it masterfully. Her artful decadence on this storm of demented cabaret trumps Stevie Nicks' and, for me, Scott Walker's. Key lyric: "My god, how you disgust me."
In the Silence (2014)
(One Little Indian)
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * Not sure if classifying this as a new album is even technically allowed; it's really just an act of translation from Ásgeir Trausti's 2012 debut album Dýrð í dauðaþögn, which was a big hit in his native Iceland but wasn't heard much over on our end. The new English language lyrics are by John Grant from Midlake, but I seriously doubt the words are what make this so endearing. Which brings us to this: I don't know if this qualifies as an interesting record if you're not just subconsciously turned on by defiantly old-fashioned baroque folk-pop, flawlessly sung by the velvet-voiced Trausti. Chances are I'd have responded exactly the same way to the original version. Between this and my infatuation with Lyla Foy's album, maybe I'm more fixated on melody than I realize. Anyway, a good test is whether the Bacharach trumpet on "King and Cross" takes your breath away or just annoys you. Me, I feel like I need this.
Faith in Strangers (2014)
RECOMMENDED * A big improvement on Luxury Problems explicitly because Stott plays on his strengths here. No longer irritatingly noodling, he commits to a collection of cavernous grooves, smoothly propulsive beats and eerie vocals. That last part is the weak link -- I personally have little faith in piano teachers -- but it doesn't keep this from being a mostly enchanting set.
TV on the Radio
RECOMMENDED * In which our misguided faith in guitar bands is tested once again. Tunde Adebimpe's voice is still sufficiently compelling and nuanced to let us overlook the hooky goofy vapid stuff like "Happy Idiot" (well, kinda) and the dull, momentum-ceasing moments like "Love Stained." Harder to understand are the weak easy-listening modern rawkisms, especially the painfully straight-ahead riffage of "Winter" and "Lazerray." After four strong albums, it's a pity that the entire second half of this one is so overgrown with the kind of standard-issue stuff that never used to bring them down. Perhaps it's overcorrection? Gerard Smith died just after Nine Types of Light was released, assigning to that record a solemnity for which it was suited but not necessarily built. They have the right, three years hence, to get happy and yet it's hard to say if their energies are fully in it. "I know it's best to say goodbye, but I can't seem to move away." Attractions besides the neato lenticular cover: the muscular Byrds of "Could You," the R&B hook on "Test Pilot," the Beach Boy soul of "Quartz." Disappointing, but forgivable; evidence implies they are as great as ever live.
pom pom (2014)
!!!!! AVOID !!!!! * Gr8 joke, prick. This moron -- who desperately needs to go away -- dares you to take his unthinking, flat fake psychedelia seriously, smirks and laughs at you for listening to it, takes it to the bank with the rest of the nice white guys. In The Guardian, Alexis Paradis said it best: "Suffice to say that if you’re the kind of person who thinks the one thing rock music is lacking in 2014 is people singing in self-consciously funny voices, then pom pom is very much the album for you. [...] It sounds like pop music made by someone who feels pop music is beneath him." Fucking preach it.
RECOMMENDED * Euophoric, escapist body music, rich and textured, if only occasionally reaching an exhilarating peak (the first minute of "Beacon," the last of "Unfurla"). It has the sense of discovery of the earliest techno records, or even of you that time you played with loops in Audacity. Critics talk about the foreboding or apocalyptic nature of this music; nah, sans the goosestepping it's too slight for that, just intense and fun drum'n'bass / IDM mixed with classic Detroit, though it does get rather moony and florid at the end.
Chatham County Line
The slow retreat into bluegrass adult contemporary. Nothing negative to report vocally or lyrically, though -- "Girl She Used to Be" sounds at first like a groan-worthy "Caroline, No" revision but really is an incisive ballad about Alzheimer's, and a heartbreaking one.
No Way There from Here (2014)
RECOMMENDED * Another favorite from my alt-country cultist years returns after a nearly decade-long absence. Her new material mostly drifts along in a midtempo Americana puddle but she still has one of the strongest voices -- both as a singer and a lyricist -- in modern pop-ish music. Her songs are all about everyday struggle, especially the struggles of women coming to terms with the quiet life, the loud one, the in-between. As a soon-to-be-married person, the domestic trifecta of "Can't Wait" - "Barely Said a Thing" - "Washday Blues" resonates like you wouldn't believe, with wit and clear-headed maturity but also perfectly expressed emotion. Slowly the other songs start to assert: "Driving Down Your Street" reminds me of what made Cantrell so endearing to me in the first place, her stunning vocals, and Cantrell didn't write "Beg or Borrow Days," a Jennifer O'Connor song, but it is an anthem of purpose and independence for the ages, and the perfect mission statement for a renewed career.
Broke with Expensive Taste (2014)
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * Remember when Paul McCartney talked about Let It Be feeling like an old album before it ever came out? Three and a half years after Banks first lit up the hype machine with "212," her constantly delayed debut album has a lot to answer for -- and it's just about worth the trouble. It's front-loaded as hell; tracks one through ten are unstoppable, glorious, brilliant, the album of the year. Banks has a versatile, dramatic delivery to rival any bigger star's and her dizzying array of voices and characters is breathtaking, as is her collaborative power with an army of excellent producers who come armed with an endless number of disparate influences and trends upon which to build (some have decried this as making the record uneven, but to quickly bring this back to the Beatles, there's a reason the White Album is my fave). The most exciting stuff is her work with Lil Internet, which takes Banks into a zone of Yeezus-like abrasion while maintaining her breadth of speed, style, humor and sensuality. The second half of the record is quite good as well, of course, though "Chasing Time" is by far her weakest single... and when the record inexplicably stops dead in its tracks for a variation on Ariel Pink's Kim Fowley collab "Nude Beach a-Go-Go" I finally understand why some Janelle Monae fans got so pissed off about Of Montreal vomiting up pseudo-funk outta nowhere toward the end of ArchAndroid.
Cellar Door: Terminus ut Exordium (2014)
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * Judge this not by its hideous cover, the worst packaging for a release this good since Suckers' Candy Salad. These weedy Brooklynites -- part of the Beast Coast collective, and associated with major tastemaker Flying Lotus -- are psychedelic hip hop in anything but the classic sense; in fact, given the material you'd think that they're trying to prove a point about the possibilities of one's work ethic while under the influence. Not for Issa Gold and AK the despondent slackerdom of Curren$y or the pillowy sonics of PM Dawn. This is intensely focused, hard (as hard as RTJ2 despite the vast gulf in production styles), spiritual and conscious but relentless. Unless my eyes deceive me, no producer works on any two numbers, which on a record that flows this well is incredible. One assumes it's because these two, after two mixtapes of practice, know how to hold back and intrigue with their enigmatic, sophisticated rhymes and the floating, dreamlike production behind them. Lyrics are everything here -- both MCs e-nun-ci-ate to make sure you don't miss anything -- but from the staggering fusion of power and chill on "Chrysalis" to the perfectly named "Ethereal" to the soulful closer "Amorphous" (which slightly resembles William DeVaughn's "Be Thankful for What You Got"), they command and justify attention without once stopping for breath. Did we mention it's really smart? "I lead the impoverished cause they struggle the hardest / And I came from the same place, stuck in the darkness."
Oneohtrix Point Never
Commissions I EP (2014)
RECOMMENDED * This is weird, but I probably listened to nothing as often in the last month or two as the first two absolutely lovely ambient pieces on this twenty-minute, three-track collection. ("I Only Have Eyes for You" is decent but breaks the spell a bit, and runs 7:20 without getting much better.) It's an extension of R Plus Seven but far more peaceful, and "Music for Steamed Rocks" and "Meet Your Creator" have a beguiling airlessness about them that I appreciate in moments when I need to focus. So very rock & roll, right?
Insides EP (2014)
RECOMMENDED * "Let You In" is heartfelt, has a neat melody, sounds like their first album, is gone in under two minutes. "Grumpiest Old Men" isn't as funny as its title but still funny; someone other than the bass player sings it. "Don't" is post-hardcore, sounds like their second album. The key lyric of "Hidden Bay" is "Baby I'm a fool / a fool / a fool / Baby I'm a fool / a fool / a fool / but baby you're so cool / so cool / so cool / baby you're so cool / so cool / so cool / baby you're so cool"; it's also gone in under two minutes. You could do a lot worse.
I have the flu. But you haven't heard the last of me. Next up: seemingly good records I didn't have time to listen to more than once or twice. Then, at long last, my favorites for the year AD 2014.