Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Best Records of 2014


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.


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.


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)


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]

Friday, January 23, 2015

Also recommended in 2014

Sampling hundreds of releases is a monumental task, and it's not a perfect arrangement -- there are albums to which I feel obligated to give my full attention even if they aren't incredibly interesting to me personally, and then there are those with considerable potential that fall by the wayside in the attempt to hear as much as possible while not snapping my tenuous threads of sanity. What follows is a listing of 2014 releases that I heard, liked, but did not have time to listen to more than once or twice; thus I can't meaningfully "review" them, but I can point you in their direction and suggest they're worth your attention. So each record comes with a brief description and hopefully some indication of whether or not they may strike your particular fancy. (That may be extraneous if it's an established artist; I imagine you know how you feel about Conor Oberst already.) They will be in rotation over my way in the years to come for sure.

Where applicable, I've also noted up to three songs that really stood out to me so if you're on the Spotify or whatnot you can cut to the chase and not have to take my word for it all, not that you would do that anyway, o me droogs.

(Since I mentioned last year that I especially regretted not having more time for M.I.A.'s Matangi, this year I choose to single out Ambrose Akinmusire and Metronomy for the same reason -- they may both be under-graded here.)


I Break Horses: Chiaroscuro (Bella Union)
Very pretty, electro-tinged shoegaze from Sweden; more Chromatics than Cocteaus. ["You Burn" / "Faith" / "Weigh True Words"]

Blank Realm: Grassed Inn (Fire)
Brisbane noise-pop ramshacklers discover hooks, sinaglong choruses. ["Reach You on the Phone" / "Falling Down the Stairs"]

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings: Give the People What They Want (Daptone)
The usual flawless classic-soul party, undemanding but sweetly addictive. ["Get Up and Get Out" / "Slow Down, Love"]

Damien Jurado: Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son (Secretly Canadian)
Baroque-ish folky concept record, alternately intimate and florid but always very classic-sounding.

Warpaint (Rough Trade)
Lush but tough psych-dream pop comes equipped with Flood's peerless sonics. Great harmonies. ["Biggy" / "Feeling Alright"]

Dum Dum Girls: Too True (Sub Pop)
Dee Dee's fine writing fits well with J&MC / Siouxsie sound. ["Rimbaud Eyes" / "Cult of Love" / "Lost Boys and Girls Club"]

Angelique Kidjo: Eve (429)
Celebrated Beninese performer's cycle about African women escapes the spectre of overproduction; the results are pure joy.

Cymbals: The Age of Fracture (Tough Love)
Emotional dancefloor synthpop, a must if only to hear singer Jack Cleverly get overwhelmed. ["The Natural World" / "You Are"]

Suzanne Vega: Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles (Amanuensis)
So great to hear her voice again, and on some superb material. ["I Never Wear White" / "Fool's Complaint" / "Silver Bridge"]

The Notwist: Close to the Glass (Sub Pop)
Long-running, tricky electro rockers from Germany fit right in with the trends now. ["Close to the Glass" / "Casino"]

Rick Ross: Mastermind (Def Jam)
Extremely fond of the part where Ross checks his bank account by phone. ["Nobody" / "Thug Cry" / "Sanctified"]

Ambrose Akinmusire: The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint (Blue Note)
Brilliant crossover jazz that engages immediately; some vocal cuts drag. ["Richard (Conduit)" / "Vartha" / "Marie Christie"]

Metronomy: Love Letters (Because)
Tantalizingly minimal synthpop with vulnerable shading; potentially special. ["Reservoir" / "Monstrous" / "The Upsetter"]

London Grammar: If You Wait (Columbia)
Hyped debut is strongly sung, but beats more minimal and sporadic that I was hoping. ["Wasting My Young Years" / "Shyer"]

Polar Bear: In Each and Every One (The Leaf Label)
Avant jazz not for all tastes, surprisingly accessible if you're into the aesthetic.

Young & Sick (Harvest)
Pretentious one-man show makes unpretentious dance music. ["Ghost of a Chance" / "Counting Raindrops" / "Feel Pain"]

Badbadnotgood: III (Pirates Blend)
Hip hop-tinged jazz is less immediate than Flying Lotus' similarly vibed record but no less musically sprightly.

Sylvan Esso (Partisan)
Almost feels like a relic from the coffeeshop trip hop years -- Amelia Meath finds joy in the sometimes static songs.

Conor Oberst: Upside Down Mountain (Nonesuch)
"I used to think that time was of the essence / Now I just wish I could get some sleep." ["Hundreds of Ways" / "Zigzagging Toward the Light" / "Common Knowledge"]

Hercules & Love Affair: The Feast of the Broken Heart (Moshi Moshi)
Hi-NRG disco revival is as harmless as ever, sometimes a great joy in the right context. Never probing though.

Hamilton Leithauser: Black Hours (Ribbon Music)
Solo debut from frontman of dear departed Walkmen is not as bland as it first seems, at least toward the end. ["I Retired"]

La Roux: Trouble in Paradise (Polydor)
Fresh and invigorating, beat-driven relationship laments. ["Kiss and Not Tell" / "Silent Partner" / "Uptight Downtown"]

Dilated Peoples: Directors of Photography (Rhymesayers Entertainment)
Lessons in film history and escaping your demons from Evidence et al. ["Opinions May Vary" / "Show Me the Way"]

My Brightest Diamond: This Is My Hand (Asthmatic Kitty)
Without a doubt one of America's most unheralded, powerful voices. ["Shape" / "Lover Killer" / "I Am Not the Bad Guy"]

alt-J: This Is All Yours (Infectious)
Unassuming and inviting -- even calming -- alternative rock, so of course Pitchfork loathes it. (It's no Benji.)

Allo Darlin': We Come from the Same Place (Slumberland)
Twee London aliens write lovely songs, stumble over them charmingly. ["Half Heart Necklace" / "History Lessons" / "Angela"]

Wussy: Attica (Damnably)
First time with this Xgau-plugged cult act and I can feel its noise and the dynamic vocals growing on me. ["Beautiful"]


Please note that the conspicuous absence of D'Angelo in our commentary thus far is occurring because I'll be treating his record (for now) as a 2015 release. We'll get there eventually, I assume.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Smart and full of filth and joy: November 2014 new release rush (part 3 of 3)

Flying Lotus
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.


Vashti Bunyan
Heartleap (2014)

(Fat Cat)

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
Atomos (2014)


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.


Aquarius (2014)


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.


Ex Hex
Rips (2014)


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"?


Vince Staples
Hell Can Wait EP (2014)

(Def Jam)

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)

(Sacred Bones)

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)))
Soused (2014)


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)
(Mass Appeal)

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)

(Fat Cat)

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.


Xen (2014)


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.


Gruff Rhys
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.


Damien Rice
My Favourite Faded Fantasy (2014)

(Warner Bros.)

!! 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.


Marianne Faithfull
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.


Andy Stott
Faith in Strangers (2014)

(Modern Love)

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
Seeds (2014)


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.


Ariel Pink
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.


Clark (2014)

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
Tightrope (2014)

(Yep Roc)

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.


Laura Cantrell
No Way There from Here (2014)

(Thrift Shop)

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.


Azealia Banks
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.


The Underachievers
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?


Terry Malts
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.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Hit me through the void via text message: November 2014 new release rush (part 2 of 3)


No Coast (2014)


!! CAUTION !! * On behalf of my generation, I apologize for you young folks who have to put up with this kind of stuff. "Post-hardcore," "emo," whatever you wish to call it, it's a fraud and a sham and anti-evolutionary and the world is worse for its existence -- particularly when it's propagated by old dudes like these. It helps that I never liked this sort of thing and that I can hear how much better some members of the subgenre are at pushing their emotions into well-expressed, helpful territory than others. But I don't blame Braid's punker cult for thinking this is a welcome return to form. Here's why...


Old Crow Medicine Show
Remedy (2014)


On behalf of my generation, I apologize for ever encouraging alt-country to exist without taking into account that its now-permanent stasis was inevitable. This isn't a bad album at all, in fact better than this band has been in a while, but I feel that putting faith in a young group's sense of "style," if you can call it that, comes at the expense of appreciating actual good songs. The laziness is played out in the group's jam band-style following; shoulda seen that coming. I don't know if I was ever an alt-c cultist but whatever I was, I sort of regret it now. I did like those records and still do when I hear them, but every time a band like this comes out doing the same tired shtick for years down the line, I realize a lot of that was probably me being a Certain Age at the time.


They Want My Soul (2014)

(Loma Vista)

RECOMMENDED * Rock's most predictably solid modern band -- a role Britt Daniel and Spoon have filled happily since the '90s -- proudly present more of the ever-engaging, agreeably melodic, pleasantly sorta-rockin' sorta-tricky same. The sole surprise is their departure from Merge Records to semi-major Universal imprint Loma Vista, a home they now share appropriately with the equally airless and hip St. Vincent. Honestly, I've got all their albums and they're fine, but Spoon is the sort of thing you put on when guests are coming (especially if said guests are male) so we can all celebrate our love of the vaguely alternative without fear of anything really idiosyncratic slipping through. That's not as sarcastic as it sounds -- unchallenging communal appeal is not nothing. They're the kind of band, as they are quick to point out, that defines "taste" -- cheering someone for walking out of a Zach Braff movie for that specific reason -- and every tired bro-y division and vague elitism thereby implied. Which, in 2014, makes me slightly uncomfortable. Props for the Ann-Margret cover, though.


FKA twigs
LP1 (2014)

(Young Turks)

!!!! AVOID !!!!! * Enough already with this drugged-out fake soul horseshit and the boring-ass fawning over it. (Time Magazine's album of the year, no really. We Did It.) The barely-tolerable "Closer" is as good as this gets musically, and it's unbelievably insipid. Amber: "I just want everbody to stop breathing on me."


Reigning Sound
Shattered (2014)


!! CAUTION !! * Just what we need after all that disgusting futurism, some dudes who think it's still the '70s, and accomplish very little with this delusion. Though singer Greg Cartwright occasionally evokes Van Morrison ("Once More") in both sound and fields of interest, it's more often these days he comes off like the guy from Train. This beer-rock would sound all right at the county fair I guess, inevitably with the guy onstage announcing "This one's called 'Baby It's Too Late.' [That one features high drama in the form of Cartwright changing his mind every few seconds about whether he wants to use contractions or not.] This one's called 'North Cackalacky Girl.'" The last song, a bad Otis Redding lampoon, is especially funny in a Blueshammer sort of way. This sort of thing is all indie-rock inbred pedigree.


King Creosote
From Scotland with Love (2014)


Wistful folk-jazz from one of Scotland's most prolific singer-songwriters, this documentary soundtrack sounds like what it is -- a commission -- but is also imbued with glory and sadness at its best moments. Creosote has a pleasant voice that (unsurprisingly?) recalls Jim Kerr from Simple Minds. In this context the songs are missing the visual cues that inspired them, but the credible songs rise above this when they're sufficiently forceful, like "For One Night Only." The highlight is the schoolyard chant "Bluebell, Cockleshell 123," plaintive and folky but beautiful, with handclaps like "Iko Iko."


Joyce Manor
Never Hungover Again (2014)


!! CAUTION !! * Points for economy -- this is nineteen minutes (and ten tracks) of watered-down Weezer, who were only ever good for about that long anyway. The songs might not even be bad if they were sung by someone who wasn't so absolutely anonymous and grating. Otherwise see Braid above; fifteen years and niche status haven't made emo and all its stringent delivery requirements any less dreadful than when I was in high school.


Shabazz Palaces
Lese Majesty (2014)

(Sub Pop)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * Deceptive and seemingly insubstantial at first blush, this utterly sublime performance scores less on ambiance and subtlety than Black Up but ever more on the element of surprise. The boundless pleasure of the unexpected sounds, rhymes and musical interludes in this patchwork of brief suites and briefer songs are designed to hide pop and hint at pleasure that's swifty denied -- only then creating further pleasure yet with its cumulative impact; it's Pink Flag for 2014. Surprisingly, a couple of the songs are stronger on their own than anything in Shabazz's catalog previously. Both "#CAKE" and "Motion Sickness" grab hooks and grooves and actually concentrate on them for longer than a minute, but you won't be sorry there are few examples of same. This is dreamlike bliss, both sultry and aggressive, up until it sends you completely into space at the finale. Ishmael Butler's MCing is fabulous -- invoking Moby Dick allegory and targeting rap as commodity, it's maybe his best writing and MCing ever, including as Butterfly -- but he's really only one sonic factor in this extraordinary concoction of futuristic surrealism, half George Clinton and half Brian Eno. Only one small request: for god's sake, listen to this on actual speakers or headphones, not laptop speakers or earbuds -- let its effects, synths and bottom end wash over you. Background pleasantness this isn't.


Mirel Wagner
When the Cellar Children See the Light of Day (2014)

(Sub Pop)

!! CAUTION !! * This ghostly folk that barely moves has its charms, astoundingly standstill and morose as it is (and with a closing track that's essentially a musical suicide note, natch), but the only song that sounds like a finished thought is "The Devil's Tongue"; the rest are reptitive and halting in a manner that will start to gripe you quickly. We try not to harp on this, but the lyrics are noticeably bad; Wagner was born in Ethiopia and raised in Finland, so English could easily be her third language, which makes it hard to fault her. Then you remember Kristian Matsson, Josephine Olausson, etc.


James Yorkston
Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society (2014)


!! CAUTION !! * There wasn't enough attention in poetry, still not enough money in music, but at least it's a vehicle he can use to lecture us in his shapeless, wordy tirades.


Ty Segall
Manipulator (2014)

(Drag City)

Like Jack White or Queens of the Stone Age only about 33% less self-aware, Segall does stoned out rawk & roll with in-name-only aspirations to garage. He ain't punk cause he's alternately too folky and too heavy; his riffs (dig "The Hand") and guitar solos are killer but not in that perverse J Mascis sense. He's a baby, but his talent far outsizes him. Wanna know the big difference between Segall and Ariel Pink? It's that Segall can write a song like "Mister Main" but treat it so seriously you barely notice how ridiculous it is, especially after beer number four. Wank for the kids is still wank, and I honestly never want to hear it again, but for this kind of thing it sure as fuck beats the Black Keys or Reigning Sound.


The Bug
Angels & Devils (2014)

(Ninja Tune)

Creepy crawly ambient music with all-star annoyances like Gonjasufi and (god help me) Death Grips contributing, this is trippy and semi-agreeable but also weirdly aggro for something with such a benign overall sound. It's like if you put out Music for Airports and gave it the song titles from the Replacements' Stink. The ever-dependable Grips' contribution is entitled "Fuck a Bitch," because of course it is.


Aphex Twin
Syro (2014)


!! CAUTION !! * Boring as hell. Illuminati must've got to him.


Perfume Genius
Too Bright (2014)


Sure, Mike Hadreas still sings like a goddamned angel and Put Your Back N 2 It was mostly noodling ballads as well, but it also coalesced into four or five very solid and complete songs, including one out and out masterpiece ("Hood"). Well, Too Bright boasts its own near-masterpiece, the shimmering and multilayered "Fool," but otherwise it's pretty much all noodling. And that might not be so bad, except you just keep expecting him to blow you away again.


Mr. Twin Sister (2014)

RECOMMENDED * I was a big supporter pre-name change (in case you missed the memo, this band used to be merely Twin Sister), but Domino let them go when next to no one bought the lovely In Heaven; the band focused on what they still loved about performing and came up with a weirder, more surreal swirl of disco, Grace Jones and offbeat keyboard swirl. It might be the most assertive sophomore album in indie rock history, but it isn't a whole lot sharper or deeper than someone like Tennis or (pre-awful) Youth Lagoon. If the currency here is excitement at the sheer wonder of chemistry and creation, I'll still side with the record they now kinda-sorta dismiss; its pep and uncompromised simplicity got to me, which is another way of saying the songs were better. If we must, though -- the atmospheres ("Sensitive," "Twelve Angels," "Crime Scene") are all fine, the electronics and beats consistent, and "Rude Boy" is almost as good as "Gene Ciampi." Madonna-circa-Erotica pastiche "In the House of Yes" makes provocation of innocent ideas and quirks, the opposite of what In Heaven did but noble all the same.


Hiss Golden Messenger
Lateness of Dancers (2014)


Tear-in beer whatever folk rock, sounds kinda like the Wallflowers. Title track is OK. Getting bent out of shape about it won't help make the world a better place and would make me look like an asshole, so I won't. See, listening to insipid music isn't the only way to prove you're mature. Oops.


El Pintor (2014)


RECOMMENDED * Paul Banks wants to know: "Am I more soulful?" Sure, to some extent, and a little goofier too; really, after the last two records I'm surprised you'd bother asking. Anyway, yes, there's some cooing falsetto on "Tidal Wave" and "My Desire" has a yearning, a slight pathetic whine, that causes that impressively simple tune to present something like believable emotion. It's also perhaps the most relentless earworm in this stunted band's weird catalog. It comes just after the classically disaffected "All the Rage Back Home," thus at least opening an Interpol album well for the first time in a decade. It's not just Banks' gradually subsiding smugness that tells the tale, either; all through their best release (nearly unquestionably) since ANTICS, Interpol demonstrate a looseness that's proven elusive to them till now. Like class of 2000 alienated brethren the Strokes, their new work speaks well of their resignation to become a functional aging unit -- but much as Room on Fire gave better diminishing returns than ANTICS, the new one, attractive and delightful as it is (neither attribute applied to Our Love to Admire or Interpol), has neither the songs nor the wit of Comedown Machine. Without Carlos D, they lose their jock appeal (which isn't really a debit) and phase out vague aspirations toward surf rock in favor of vague aspirations toward late '70s Beach Boys (which is).


Punish, Honey (2014)

(Tri Angle)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * An unexpectedly engrossing -- and heavy -- collection of programmed, apocalyptic percussive electronics that nevertheless weave around you with their complex rhythms and abrasive grooves. Considering how little this music adheres to any conventional sense of "beat" or even a snatch of tunefulness, it's amazing how accessible it is -- it's one of the best ambient records I've heard in a long time. And while it easily rewards headphone-level concentration, it's also surprisingly relaxing at the right volume, which is the last thing you'd expect for an album that owes so much to industrial techno.


Cities Aviv
Come to Life (2014)

(Young One)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * Gavin Mays a.k.a. Cities Aviv hails from Memphis but is part of no geographic or theoretical scene ("cloud rap" or "Tumblr rap" would lump him in with the likes of Childish Gambino and Chance the Rapper, neither of whom deserve the association), at least none that I'm aware of; musically, his strikingly atmospheric work is singular and unique and barely any conventional or familiar kind of hip hop. Rather it's a stirring mixture of keyboard atmospheres, stoner rap, aggressive post-punk and general aloof weirdness. His proper debut album uses a range of producers; ideas and songs segue into one another, some quick and some hypnotically drawn out but all fully formed and compelling (even the interludes and oddball gags, the kind of stuff that drags down noble records like Frank Ocean's Channel Orange), so that the album falls together as a complete creation linked by Mays' droning but alert delivery, which you can liken to a megaphone he's yelling into from a safe distance, a delightful mixture of the committed and the laconic. But Come to Life delivers big-time because of its layered, unorthodox arrangements. Consistently surprising and unexpected, Cities Aviv one-ups and decries the apathy of the lazy drugged-out R&B subgenre by simultaneously tripping us up and entrancing us. The results are positive, emotional, funky, practically every good thing a witty and inventive musician ought to be. And they are not something we've heard a million times before, within or outside of hip hop. If anything, hip hop as we know it is incidental to what he's doing.


Gerard Way
Hesitant Alien (2014)


Looks like a Gary Numan album and is even titled like one, but nah, this is just the guy from My Chemical Romance passing along his glam fantasy on a major. Not much to see here but it's tolerably angsty. Good drum sound.


Lucinda Williams
Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (2014)

(Highway 20)

RECOMMENDED * I admire Williams a hell of a lot but have never connected with her work like I wanted to. While I'm familiar with her most celebrated album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, I find I come far closer to being shattered and moved by the first few songs on this much more exhaustive double-set. Perhaps it's just an indication that I've changed but there's something gorgeously engaging in the Neil Young-like slapdash arrangements, and (especially) in Williams' increasingly frayed, slurred vocals. One friend who loves her says every moment is perfect, but longtime supporter Robert Christgau argues that the songs are longer than they need to be, resulting in a record that rambles long after it's made its point. Not having a dog in the fight, I admit that either disc is more than enough of this for me at a given time. But I'm glad they're both there anyway -- and there's something to be said for indulgent sadness. If you're unsure of where to dip in, try "Burning Bridges," "Protection" or "Something Wicked This Way Comes."


Our Love (2014)


HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * Swim was a particular kind of drifting and atonal that got under my skin in the wrong way, but with the vague EDM aspirations and the In Rainbows-like shameless romanticism of Dan Snaith's follow-up, he's located my heart. Owen Pallett's involvement probably doesn't hurt. "Silver" deconstructs hi-NRG until it's an indescribably lovely paean to passion and need that cushions the ears and body. "Back Home" is an irresistibly snaky melody, lushness surrounded by a tweaking away of harsh tones. All of the songs meld repetition into beauty, and get ample mileage from what initially sound like strange and barely related tangents. The record reveals itself more on every revisit, ultimately unfurling itself so gorgeously I can't help but wonder if I wasn't just giving up on Caribou's earlier work too easily. At any rate, this is available as a bargain-priced half speed master from Merge, which is amazing but would mean nothing if the music weren't sublime. It is -- a curious, deeply original new addiction for anyone who loves the depth of really charged, passionate dance music. So consider this personal advice: buy this one on vinyl.


Steve Gunn
Way Out Weather (2014)

(Paradise of Bachelors)

Absolutely harmless singer-songwriter, John Fogerty-ish melodies, very good and interesting guitar playing. Probably worthwhile if you're in the market.