Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Best Records of 2014

TOP TEN ALBUMS


Photo by Kim Leng, under Creative Commons licensing

10. Lyla Foy: Mirrors the Sky
(Sub Pop) | A- | capsule review

9. Tinashe: Aquarius
(RCA) | A- | capsule review

8. Shabazz Palaces: Lese Majesty
(Sub Pop) | A- | capsule review

7. Cities Aviv: Come to Life
(Young One) | A- | capsule review

6. Hospitality: Trouble
(Merge) | A- | capsule review

5. tUnE-yArDs: Nikki Nack
(4AD) | A | essay

4. Beyoncé
(Columbia 2013) | A | essay

3. clipping.: CLPPNG
(Sub Pop) | A | essay

2. The New Pornographers: Brill Bruisers
(Matador) | A | essay

1. Kate Tempest: Everybody Down
(Big Dada) | A | essay

***

Three years ago I thought Das Racist was going to be the future of "alternative" hip hop, but after their Sex Pistols-like implosion, it's Shabazz Palaces' Black Up that seems to have had the broadest effect on the best left-field music to come around since, with a big assist from Yeezus. Like mainstream hip hop, the underground changes and mutates faster than most of us can even begin to comprehend: Tumblr rap and cloud rap have already come and gone, and by blinking you lost any claim to authority on either of them anyway. Like all of the best popular music, hip hop seldom looks backward. And yet some of the best music of 2014 has roots in the sometimes-celebrated (ATCQ, De La), sometimes-groaned-at (Arrested Development, Jurassic 5) college hip hop of fifteen to twenty-five years ago. A prospective time traveler might even recognize the Underachievers as having something to do with a Bush I administration idea of Consciousness Rap (we'd stop short of invoking the dreaded Positive Tip), and then there's the Ishmael Butler matter.

Known as Butterfly when he recorded two extraordinary albums with his group Digable Planets back in the '90s -- they were the most Afrocentric of the middle-class political rappers in a period increasingly dominated by gangsta rap -- he participated in a few reunions that quickly burned out (I had tickets to DP's show in Wilmington in the spring of 2008 that never happened). Then, with renewed purpose and a kind of elder-statesman sense of surreal whimsy, he teased his new outfit Shabazz Palaces' debut with several coyly mysterious EPs in the early part of this decade and then joined Seattle's legendary (and legendarily malleable) Sub Pop label simultaneously with taking on a less publicized position as their A&R rep. Butler released Shabazz Palaces' second LP this year; Lese Majesty is a completely bizarre and invigorating collection of sounds and verses all but wholly divorced from the lush but driven sound of its predecessor. But Butler also signed the Los Angeles collective clipping., a trio led by the MC Daveed Diggs whose music is about as exciting a bid at recording the future of hip hop as has yet to exist. In every aspect except the esoteric openness and demographic spread of their target audience, clipping. bears no resemblance to Shabazz Palaces (save insofar as their music sounds just as otherworldly). Diggs raps and occasionally sings as though possessed, but never once deviates from the steely purpose of his frequently vivid and mordantly funny, sometimes harrowing lyrics, as likely to track a former arsonist's post-civilian redirection downfall on "Story 2" as to give emotional weight to an unstoppable radio-ready hook on "Work Work." The music uses industrial clang, alarm clocks and aural intrusion where Shabazz lulls you into false security with their cushioned but tense marriage of words and sound. These records are two sides of a coin -- it's possible that Butler isn't attempting to establish a niche, but it's almost not worth the hassle of taking that side of the argument.

We can read both Lese Majesty and CLPPNG as taking steps into the oblivion of hip hop's unknowable road ahead, and Diggs and Butler are both masters and innovators, but there's some artificially enforced narrative in play -- this isn't a linear story any longer, and the real story of alt-hip hop since 2010 is how varied and unpredictable a landscape it really is now. Run the Jewels takes the sound of vintage hardcore rap into an age of almost naive enlightenment, teaming the alt-rapper El-P with the (far more skilled) professorial grunge-gangster Killer Mike and somehow has now thrown together two albums' worth of nearly unstoppable beats and rhymes violent in their effect but never their intent. A zillion sonic miles away from RTJ is the eclectic debut from Azealia Banks, which goes about setting the stage for its star's immense talent by treating her with sheets upon sheets of varied Hollywood gauze; a small army of producers from the gifted Lil Internet to the highly suspect Ariel Pink sets about generating songs and hooks around Banks' wildly unpredictable, manic flow. Broke with Expensive Taste could hardly be more of a world apart from the two Sub Pop albums referenced above in all their starkness and minimalism: it's the old world but it feels like a new one. Yet in some ways the most enlightening discovery for me is Cities Aviv's barely-noticed Come to Life, a procession of roller-rink music over which Gavin Mays shouts, rants and bellows like it's a matter of life and death that he gets through to you -- it can be exhausting but it also turns a page in unembarrassed directness and humility.

The ascendancy of noise rap and so-called "hipster rap" isn't fully irrelevant to us here, and there's more than enough evidence that Yeezus was wrought in part by Death Grips, but really these albums that I find myself celebrating this year are the culmination of a longer story suggested by Come to Life's guest shot from Abdu Ali and by the underground mixtapes of little-heard performers like B L A C K I E, whose entire aesthetic is built on a bridging between earnest hardcore punk and the sound of abrasive, industrial hip hop. Can we admit to an increasing attraction toward things that are at times hard to listen to? Ratking's avant-rap opus So It Goes is a paean to the underbelly of a city, tough-minded, bleak and wise, not a celebration like so many records about New York -- not least being the wondrous sophomore album from the Brooklyn band Hospitality, Trouble, which pulsates with urgency and drunken romance. City symphonies are the other great presence in the music that I loved most in 2014. tUnE-yArDs' Nikki Nack isn't quite as much about Oakland as w h o k i l l was but it betrays even more of the energy, tension and terror of urban life. And it's a city symphony that tops our list this year. It's also a snapshot of just how far-flung and liberated alternative hip hop has now become.

Kate Tempest is a white British rapper whose dad is a criminal attorney. She was born in December 1985 in South East London, and London is the great fact of her stunning debut album Everybody Down. Tempest's reputation as a poet and playwright precedes her public entrance into rapping, which she in fact has been doing since she was sixteen and which she approaches with spirit and cool dedication equipped to wow any skeptic, but the main thing is unsurprisingly her writing. The album tells an honest-to-god story, with complex plotting and characterization, that not only never distracts from the presence of real, catchy, indelible songs but is compelling and remarkably humane in its own right. It carries the ring of autobiographical truth not merely because it is a London story and London is what Tempest knows, but that truth wholly comes through hard work and good judgment. Tempest looks outside of herself to find the story she must tell. It is everything that the likes of Sun Kil Moon, Sleaford Mods and Ariel Pink cannot give us, and yet all three received exponentially more acclaim on my side of the Atlantic than did Tempest. And that scares the living shit out of me.

Everybody Down doesn't desperately need me to champion it; it was up for the Mercury Prize and was very well-received in the U.K., and it's not my place to use a dubious platform like an obscure Blogger account to cast stones at the stuff I find disagreeable. But Sun Kil Moon's Benji, a song cycle about deceased family members and long-forgotten blowjobs, might be the most flagrantly overhyped record of the century; for me as a consumer of pop and a reader of pop criticism, it's maddening when what Tempest does so clearly outweighs what Mark Kozelek does in terms of the effort, passion and energy expended. Kozelek's work isn't wholly without melodic merit, and there's something to be said for an utter absence of filtering and the fearlessness that implies (though it freely manifests as well in Kozelek being a complete dick, which is neither here nor there in our present discussion). The truth remains that the conversation is nevertheless dominated by the artist doing stuff that, really and truly, most of us could do. Almost none of us could do what Tempest does. Why is she not even in the discussion? It's bothersome enough to me that it has led me to more or less extract myself from most of my contact with music writing on the web -- if I can't relate to someone on this point, I feel like I'm in such a different room from where everybody else is at that I have pretty much nothing to add.

None of this is to say that I felt disengaged from music this past year -- quite the opposite. I heard every non-metal album that received any sort of widespread critical attention, and at least sampled nearly all of those that received scattered critical attention. I don't know how many albums I checked out and didn't finish or evaluate but I would guess around 300. And I officially reviewed 140 in this space, a task made easier by my scaling back of operations this year. (Incidentally, it's only by coincidence that the top five in my list above all received full reviews; Lyla Foy was mixed in there until nearly the last minute.) I like things that drone. I like R&B. I like indie pop that sounds like R&B. As ever, I'm charmed most of all by songcraft at its finest, with aesthetics often irrelevant -- Leonard Cohen's music sounds more and more like it's emanating from a tin can, September Girls are unabashed shoegaze throwback without even a bone thrown to originality; and Lake Street Dive, whose songs charm me almost beyond my ability to express, is PBR folk-rock readymade for Morning Edition, but they sing, plead, play and express themselves as clearly and cleanly as if pop itself were some ageless thing, and goddammit maybe it is.

But we'd be remiss not to mention that when someone does get the aesthetics right, it can be glorious and life-affirming all over again. The New Pornographers' sixth album Brill Bruisers is quite possibly their best to date, something that was continuing to hit me as I put this post together. Carl Newman's lyrics make no more sense than they ever did, vague platitudes mixed with intriguing asides, but the band's fearless, large delivery is still their great weapon -- their drama divorced from context is a quirk of writing. But the greater revelation is the quirk of performance; reduced to the science and precision of writing great, surprising hooks that swell and resonate unstoppably, one after another after another, the New Pornographers could be record collector rock, power pop reduced to detached verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge like some robotic cotton-candy machine. Instead, Newman's gaggle of voices render it all nothing more or less than a celebration of warmth. Besides, if you're going to pare everything down to a one-sentence sentiment, you could do a lot worse than "you tell me where to be, I'll be there." So Brill Bruisers becomes heroic: barbed, pleasurable, intense and alien, the definition of pop. It lives. It envelops. It makes everything else sound silly.

***

HONORABLE MENTIONS
Others I loved in 2014

Caribou: Our Love (Merge)
Run the Jewels 2 (Mass Appeal)
Azealia Banks: Broke with Expensive Taste (Caroline)
Leonard Cohen: Popular Problems (Columbia)
Todd Terje: It's Album Time (Olsen)
Flying Lotus: You're Dead! (Warp)
Lake Street Dive: Bad Self Portraits (Signature Sounds)
Vessel: Punish, Honey (Tri Angle)
Ratking: So It Goes (XL)
SOHN: Tremors (4AD)
The Underachievers: Cellar Door: Terminus ut Exordium (Brainfeeder)
September Girls: Cursing the Sea (Fortuna Pop!)
Ásgeir: In the Silence (One Little Indian)


***

One more note: I'm not a great believer in half-decade lists for the same reason that I don't believe in a "best of the year so far" sort of thing: it's way too much work for something twice as arbitrary as is even normal for this practice. Don't get me wrong, I love making these lists but we don't need to segment our listening habits into predetermined time periods any more than we already do. The top ten of the year you see above this was arrived at painstakingly and over a long period of time -- nothing is arbitrary about it except, you know, its very existence.

With that said, we are halfway done with the 2010s and in case anyone were to ask, I assume a list of my favorite records from 2010 to now would look roughly like this, with the caveat that I haven't listened to these albums with such a list in mind and thus can't verify that I wouldn't want to make changes if I underwent the full procedure:

1. tUnE-yArDs: w h o k i l l (2011)
2. Kanye West: Yeezus (2013)
3. Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City (2013)
4. Joanna Newsom: Have One on Me (2010)
5. Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
6. Kendrick Lamar: good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012)
7. Das Racist: Relax (2011)
8. Janelle Monae: The ArchAndroid (2010)
9. Kate Tempest: Everybody Down (2014)
10. Shabazz Palaces: Black Up (2011)

The idea of a songs list is even more dubious but put on the spot, I nominate Newsom's "Good Intentions Paving Company" and Frank Ocean's "Lost" for #1.

***

OTHERS I LIKED IN 2014
A ridiculously long list this year -- perhaps I need to take my standards up a bit? But why should I be dishonest, an awful lot of what makes it far enough for me to even become aware of it really does merit attention, provided you're not a genre cultist. So here you go, ranked in order of preference.

Lee Fields: Emma Jean (Truth & Soul)
Ambrose Akinmusire: The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint (Blue Note)
Kelis: Food (Ninja Tune)
East India Youth: Total Strife Forever (Stolen)
Owen Pallett: In Conflict (Domino)
Metronomy: Love Letters (Because)
La Roux: Trouble in Paradise (Polydor)
Laura Cantrell: No Way There from Here (Thrift Shop)
Conor Oberst: Upside Down Mountain (Nonesuch)
Wussy: Attica (Damnably)
Tinariwen: Emmaar (Anti-)
Neneh Cherry: Blank Project (Smalltown Supersound)
Ex Hex: Rips (Merge)
First Aid Kit: Stay Gold (Columbia)
Vashti Bunyan: Heartleap (Fat Cat)
Allo Darlin': We Come from the Same Place (Slumberland)
Clark (Warp)
Interpol: El Pintor (Matador)
St. Vincent (Loma Vista)
Rick Ross: Mastermind (Def Jam)
Wild Beasts: Present Tense (Domino)
Young Fathers: Dead (Anticon)
Cymbals: The Age of Fracture (Tough Love)
The Antlers: Familiars (Anti-)
Angelique Kidjo: Eve (429)
TV on the Radio: Seeds (Harvest)
Mr. Twin Sister (s/r)
Marianne Faithfull: Give My Love to London (Dramatico)
Blank Realm: Grassed Inn (Fire)
Young & Sick (Harvest)
Future Islands: Singles (4AD)
Against Me!: Transgender Dysphoria Blues (Xtra Mile)
Suzanne Vega: Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles (Amanuensis)
Hookworms: The Hum (Domino)
EMA: The Future's Void (Matador)
Polar Bear: In Each and Every One (The Leaf Label)
My Brightest Diamond: This Is My Hand (Asthmatic Kitty)
Jesse Boykins III: Love Apparatus (Empire)
Andy Stott: Faith in Strangers (Modern Love)
alt-J: This Is All Yours (Infectious)
Lucinda Williams: Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (Highway 20)
Badbadnotgood: III (Pirates Blend)
Dilated Peoples: Directors of Photography (Rhymesayers Entertainment)
Dum Dum Girls: Too True (Sub Pop)
The Notwist: Close to the Glass (Sub Pop)
Spoon: They Want My Soul (Loma Vista)
Bob Mould: Beauty & Ruin (Merge)
Warpaint (Rough Trade)
Rosanne Cash: The River & the Thread (Blue Note)
Hamilton Leithauser: Black Hours (Ribbon Music)
Brian Eno & Karl Hyde: High Life (Warp)
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings: Give the People What They Want (Daptone)
Old 97's: Most Messed Up (ATO)
Sylvan Esso (Partisan)
Woods: With Light and With Love (Woodsist)
Y.G.: My Krazy Life (Def Jam)
Damien Jurado: Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son (Secretly Canadian)
The Roots: ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin (Def Jam)
London Grammar: If You Wait (Columbia)
I Break Horses: Chiaroscuro (Bella Union)
A Winged Victory for the Sullen: Atomos (Kranky)
Hercules & Love Affair: The Feast of the Broken Heart (Moshi Moshi)

***

THE BEST SONGS OF 2014
Follow the link to a Spotify playlist of the top twenty songs below, sequenced for maximum fun. One song permitted per album. Several are difficult decisions, especially tUnE-yArDs ("Manchild"), Lake Street Dive ("Use Me Up"), clipping. ("Work Work"), Kate Tempest ("Circles") and Beyoncé ("***Flawless") and I can't promise I won't make a big switch on those in a few years.

1. Flying Lotus ft. Kendrick Lamar "Never Catch Me" [You're Dead!]
2. tUnE-yArDs "Wait for a Minute" [Nikki Nack]
3. Tinashe ft. Future "How Many Times" [Aquarius]
4. Conor Oberst "Hundreds of Ways" [Upside Down Mountain]
5. The New Pornographers "Champions of Red Wine" [Brill Bruisers]
6. Hospitality "Last Words" [Trouble]
7. Azealia Banks "Heavy Metal and Reflective" [Broke with Expensive Taste]
8. Lake Street Dive "Better Than" [Bad Self Portraits]
9. The Roots ft. Raheem "Tomorrow" [...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin]
10. Kate Tempest "Lonely Daze" [Everybody Down]
11. clipping. "Story 2" [CLPPNG]
12. Kelis "Breakfast" [Food]
13. Robyn Hitchcock "The Ghost in You" [The Man Upstairs]
14. Beyoncé "Haunted" [Beyonce]
15. Ratking "Snow Beach" [So It Goes]
16. ceo "Whorehouse" [Wonderland]
17. La Roux "Kiss and Not Tell" [Trouble in Paradise]
18. King Creosote "Bluebell, Cockleshell 123" [From Scotland with Love]
19. EMA "When She Comes" [The Future's Void]
20. Allo Darlin' "Half Heart Necklace" [We Come from the Same Place]
21. Caribou "Back Home" [Our Love]
22. Run the Jewels ft. Gangsta Boo "Love Again" [RTJ2]
23. Sohn "Lights" [Tremors]
24. Metronomy "Reservoir" [Love Letters]
25. Vince Staples "65 Hunnid" [Hell Can Wait EP]
26. Cymbals "The Natural World" [The Age of Fracture]
27. Marianne Faithfull "Going Home" {Leonard Cohen cover} [Give My Love to London]
28. Owen Pallett "In Conflict" [In Conflict]
29. Ásgeir "King and Cross" [In the Silence]
30. Katy B "5 AM" [Little Red]
31. Perfume Genius "Fool" [Too Bright]
32. Shabazz Palaces "Motion Sickness" [Lese Majesty]
33. Oneohtrix Point Never "Music for Steamed Rocks" [Commissions I EP]
34. Lee Fields "Paralyzed" [Emma Jean]
35. Mr. Twin Sister "Rude Boy" [s/t]
36. Interpol "My Desire" [El Pintor]
37. September Girls "Green Eyed" [Cursing the Sea]
38. Lyla Foy "Rumour" [Mirrors the Sky]
39. The Underachievers "Chrysalis" [Cellar Door]
40. Ambrose Akinmusire "Richard (Conduit)" [The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint]
41. Leonard Cohen "A Street" [Popular Problems]
42. Young & Sick "Ghost of a Chance" [Young & Sick]
43. Sam Amidon "Blue Mountains" [Lily-O]
44. Y.G. ft. Kendrick Lamar "Really Be" [My Krazy Life]
45. Blank Realm "Reach You on the Phone" [Grassed Inn]
46. Laura Cantrell "Can't Wait" [No Way There from Here]
47. TV on the Radio "Could You" [Seeds]
48. Broken Bells "Perfect World" [After the Disco]
49. Lucinda Williams "Protection" [Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone]
50. Tennis "Needle and a Knife" [Ritual in Repeat]
51. Rick Ross ft. French Montana "Nobody" [Mastermind]
52. Neneh Cherry "Blank Project" [Blank Project]
53. East India Youth "Heaven, How Long" [Total Strife Forever]
54. Big K.R.I.T. ft. E-40 & Wiz Khalifa "Mind Control" [Cadillactica]
55. School of Language "A Smile Cracks" [Old Fears]
56. Suzanne Vega "I Never Wear White" [Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles]
57. St. Vincent "Digital Witness" [s/t]
58. Hookworms "Off Screen" [The Hum]
59. Wussy "Beautiful" [Attica]
60. Dum Dum Girls "Rimbaud Eyes" [Too True]
61. Dilated Peoples ft. Gangrene "Opinions May Vary" [Directors of Photography]
62. Old 97's "Ex of All You See" [Most Messed Up"
63. Simone Felice "Molly-O!" [Strangers]
64. Lydia Loveless "Wine Lips" [Somewhere Else]
65. My Brightest Diamond "Shape" [This Is My Hand]
66. Hamilton Leithauser "I Retired" [Black Hours]
67. London Grammar "Wasting My Young Years" [If You Wait]
68. Objekt "Ratchet" [Flatland]
69. Wild Beasts "Sweet Spot" [Present Tense]
70. Young Fathers "Low" [Dead]
71. Lust for Youth "Illume" [International]
72. Kindred the Family Soul "Everybody's Hustling" [A Couple Friends]
73. The Notwist "Close to the Glass" [Close to the Glass]
74. First Aid Kit "Waitress Song" [Stay Gold]
75. Terry Malts "Let You In" [Insides EP]
76. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings "Get Up and Get Out" [Give the People What They Want]
77. Warpaint "Biggy" [Warpaint]
78. Future Islands "A Dream of You and Me" [Singles]
79. Spoon "I Just Don't Understand" {Ann-Margret cover} [They Want My Soul]
80. The Bamboos "Helpless Blues" [Fever in the Road]
+
Bob Mould "Let the Beauty Be" [Beauty & Ruin]
I Break Horses "You Burn" [Chiaroscuro]
Chatham County Line "Girl She Used to Be" [Tightrope]

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