I Never Learn / Lykke Li
|Highlights: "Gunshot", "No Rest For The Wicked"|
I Never Learn is, I guess, somewhere in the considerable soundspace between her first two efforts, just not so much sonically. The band retain their ornate grandiosity on "No Rest For The Wicked" and "Gunshot" (seriously, check that video again), sounding like they set up in some old-world cathedral and set out to fill every damn square inch of it with their booming chamber echo. Even the tracks featuring sparse instrumentation sound big. "Love Me Like I'm Not Made Of Stone", an anti-ballad in the vein of Rhymes' "Unrequited Love", is but Li's strained vocal and an acoustic guitar. It's captivating. The power ballad quotient is really the biggest difference between I Never Learn and its predecessor, but that nothing on this record is anywhere as vaguely, surprisingly danceable as selected tracks on the last isn't so much a bad thing. This is a collection of songs that can stand on its own, presented in its fullest as its meant to be heard.
Are We There? / Sharon Van Etten
|Highlight: "Every Time The Sun Comes Up"|
This is a dichotomy that's mirrored in her live performance, where she affectionately banters with the audience and pokes fun at herself for slanging SVE-embroidered tissues at her merch table before launching into a song like "Your Love Is Killing Me", basically the be-all, end-all of caustic, abuse-evoking bloodletting. That same sentiment takes on a softer, ironic bent over a Fleetwoodian smoke-screen on the gorgeous "Our Love". Though I find Van Etten is at her most powerful when singing over distorted guitar, little is lost in the record's unrelenting mid-tempo flow. "Taking Chances" is as close as you get to anything resembling Tramp cut "Serpents", though that might not be a bad thing as the plaintive numbers really make it impossible to dissociate the conscious from Van Etten's vividly rendered world.
Piñata / Freddie Gibbs & Madlib
|Highlights: "Lakers", "Knicks", "High"|
Here, neither artist adjusts his style much to mesh with his counterpart. Freddie certainly does as Freddie does and spits the shit straight off the streets of Gary, Indiana (by way of LA). The homie's out there packin' steel, slangin' rock and getting mad amounts of fellatio. The misogyny alone threatens to really bog this project in the mire (as is typically the case on his past works), but the instrumentals stay jazzy and soulful, light and loose enough to keep Gibbs and his staccato spit skipping across the surface, at times sounding a bit like he's just talking shit indifferent to the beat. And believe he's talking shit: to his old girl and her new (college educated, bitchmade) man on "Deeper", to former label boss Jeezy on "Real", to the pre- and post-Y2K New York Knicks on "Knicks". The remix of the lattermost track offers a peak into just how much better Pinata could have been with post-Ferguson context when Freddie quips, "Another Darren Wilson get a badge every week. R-I-P to Michael Brown, and motherfuck the police." However, guest verses from Ab-Soul on "Lakers" and Danny Brown (shout out to the sleaziest fans in the game!) on "High" are a worthy consolation.
Loose Ends / Francisco The Man
|Highlights: "I Used To Feel Fine", "Progress", "Loaded"|
Loose Ends is an appropriate title for such a collection of soaring soundscapers, as it's largely concerned throughout with tugging the strands of messy webs twentysomethings weave for themselves. Ruminations on the ins and outs and beginnings and ends of relationships - or whatever arrangements technically qualify as relationships for twentysomethings.
"Loaded" perhaps best exemplifies Francisco's strongest qualities with the slowly-built bounce that blooms into a wider, aired out chorus. It closes with a minute-plus of the best, most succinct guitar interplay I heard all year. It's not to say it's a perfect record, but where it falters is mostly attributable to track sequencing. The fifth track, "In My Dreams", excels at replicating that exploratory air of Deerhunter's Microcastle in a way that's independently enjoyable; however, it's placement attenuates the strength of the run built by the preceding tracks. I dig it, and I have no idea where else it could go, but after a spacey, down-tempo eight minutes, the sunshining jolt of "It's Not Your Fault" - the record's catchiest, most straight-forward, and (therefore) weakest track - is needed to resuscitate the vibe. It takes but a track for Loose Ends to regain its form, finishing strong from "Progress" on. Really, though, this record is worth your time and money if only for the penultimate track, "I Used To Feel Fine". The longest of the ten-set, it's ushered from suite to suite like a series of swells in the open ocean, none overstaying their welcome.
Run The Jewels 2 / Run The Jewels
|Highlight: "Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)"|
Part of what makes this second installment so poignant is Run The Jewels' willingness to have it considered within the context of the year it was released. The themes addressed - police brutality, racial prejudice and disenfranchisement, etc - are proving ever timeless in America. That's always been true, but 2014 brought the realities to the surface where even White America had to confront them. And whereas Vince Staples dropped that banger "Hands Up" in the throes of the Ferguson grand jury drama and then did his best to muddy the link between the two on account of the track not being written in response to Michael Brown, et al., Mike & El positioned RTJ2 as the vocalization of the resultant communal anger, frustration and outright pain as though the songs were fucking premonitions of all this bullshit. They released the anti-justice system jam "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)" as the second single (btw let's pretend to talk for a moment about how that Zach de la Rocha verse kinda fire). For their television debut on Letterman they performed "Early". And immediately following the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, Mike opened a show in the heart of St. Louis with a goddamn great speech that really laid it bare. The beats are hot and grimey, because this ain't fuckin' (or) dancin' music. And that's why it's superb. Run The Jewels 2 is important because it's a reminder that these wounds never heal, they just scab over. Instead of acting so surprised when they're subsequently ripped back open, perhaps we should stick our fingers in the lesion and probe for something meaningful.
Stay tuned for the feline features, tambien.
Lost In The Dream / War On Drugs
|Highlights: "Red Eyes",|
My contention with it, then, is that it's just... too perfect. Really. That's a thing that makes sense, right? I mean, would the Mona Lisa be so special for so long if homegirl looked like Kate Beckinsale? Doubtful. Though, that's the vibe I get when traversing The Dream. For a band clearly at the top of their game, fully in control of their sound, they sound safe. Like if 1973 Nolan Ryan eliminated the curveball from his repertoire all together, throwing a whole seasons worth of 105-MPH straightballs. It's for this reason, I think, that Sun Kil Moon's Mark Kozelek called The War On Drugs "beer commercial rock" when was serving beef this summer. Punks punch up and out of their weight class, and Kozelek is a troll. But goddamnit if, at least on some level, I didn't understand where that old fuck was coming from. (Note that this understanding would be a lot stronger if I didn't feel during most of Sun Kil Moon's Pitchfork Festival set like I'd rather it have been drowned out by The War On Drugs from three miles out, but still.) It's hard not to think the result would have been better had the stranger tangents on Slave Ambient been embellished and examined rather than tightened up and rounded out. Nevertheless, Lost In The Dream is really good. But just good. Buy it for your dad for Father's Day.
Here And Nowhere Else / Cloud Nothings
|Highlights: "I'm Not Part Of Me", "Pattern Walks", the rest|
The hooks, while abundant, are similarly unadorned by frills. Most of the time they feel at least somewhat accidental, as though the band find them as unexpectedly as one might find a twenty-spot crumpled in the back pocket of their freshly washed jeans. The old Cloud Nothings are long dead, but their ghost lingers as the gravitational center around which their current incarnation must orbit, whatever their impulse might be to break off in a tangential vector toward harsher Nirvana. This intrinsic, deeply rooted catchiness is the thread by which the record's eight tracks hang, each pushed as close as possible to the point at which they might devolve from enthralling punk cuts to complete shit. While the imbalanced amalgamation of past Cloud Nothings efforts always feels nine parts Attack on Memory for every one part of their self-titled debut, the final two tracks - "Pattern Walks" and "I'm Not Part of Me" - see something of a shift toward greater control in the chaos, almost as though the soul-searching of the album's first three-quarters succeeded in talking down the manic psyche so openly, enthrallingly on display.
St. Vincent - St. Vincent
|Highlights: "Prince Johnny"|
In both facets, Annie Clark demonstrated seamless mastery. She committed to the otherworldly wardrobes and the eerie, semi-alien persona. She remained affable but also semi-scripted in interviews (though if I hear her say once more that St. Vincent was meant as a party record for a funeral, I may well schedule my own). Most importantly, though, Clark and her longtime band were unrivaled onstage as headliners of larger theatres and main stages planet Earth over. In both settings they looked every bit like an act that spent months running through tireless twelve-hour rehearsals, nailing the cheeky dance movements, the light show accompaniment and (of course) the shreds. Lord, almighty, the shreds. I'll probably always associate this record with the awestruck looks on the faces of old dude festival-goers during that riff on "Huey Newton". Though, on the whole St. Vincent's BIG riffs sit cozily alongside subtler arrangements (the jammy, impenetrable groove of "Prince Johnny", perhaps the best song St. Vincent have ever released). Just the same, the record's more tender moments ("I Prefer Your Love") contain enough blasphemy to remain cohesive with the more tongue-in-cheek (Clark's wry definition of a "ordinary day" on "Birth In Reverse"). The collection, much like its cover, is cohesive, composed and impossibly confident. Check out her ACL set to see an artist, nay empress, in complete control of her minions.
Black Messiah - D'Angelo
|Highlights: "Ain't That Easy", "The Charade", "1000 Deaths"|
"I been wondering if I ever can again,
So if you're wondering about the shape I'm in
I hope it's not my abdomen you're referring to."
That's all of it, right there. That's the Voodoo highs, the post-Voodoo hype, the post-hype drug use and near-death calamity, and it's the affirmation that fourteen years later, D is back and, miraculously, better than ever.
I was thirteen when Voodoo dropped. I was listening to, like, The Offspring or something. I had neither the interest in immersing myself in an R&B epic nor the ability to fully digest, comprehend or appreciate its greatness the couple times it permeated its way into my atmosphere. Until I was twenty-three, about the only thing I knew of D'Angelo's breakthrough was "that video". And what I remember most is being severely creeped out by the emotional honesty of the track and the direct, vulnerable stare of the yoked crooner standing shirtless in front of a solid black backdrop (sentiments that have not waned much in the interim but have since proven to be a wider reaction toward emotional honesty, in general). But, man, when I started dabbling in that Voodoo, I started dabbling heavy. The four years between then and now seemed enough like an eternity. I'm in some ways thankful for the lost decade during which I didn't give a fuck.
Though, in some ways I feel the opposite, because for those who waited patiently, frustratingly, for the entire bid.. the payoff has to feel surreal. It's hard to believe the new D is even decent, given that one and a half decades away made the prospects of a new D'Angelo record about as likely as those of that mythological Dre joint. But fuck decent, yo, because Black Messiah is the goddamn truth. The simmered, coalesced elements of funk, soul, R&B and every damn thing in-between are effortlessly present from the jump on the loose, marching groove of "Ain't That Easy". That recipe of congealed influences carries over to the following track when, after a brief denunciation of White Jesus (amen!), D & the Vangaurd launch into the funk-punk pressure-cooker "1000 Deaths", one of the more forcefully unique songs I've ever laid ears upon. "The Charade" is the most culturally palpable track on the record and gives some credence to the rumored, politically-minded haste with which D'Angelo and the label rushed Black Messiah to the shelves in the name of relevance, though ultimately that angle does feel a bit overblown. And so on and so on and so it goes.
I wrote the intro to this list the day before news of this record's existence broke, and two weeks after its release I feel comfortable saying it's my favorite record of the year. I can't exactly tell whether that's because it makes me feel less shitty about 2014 or more optimistic for 2015 or both. Probably both. Make no mistake, though, it'd be on other lists where it is on mine were other, reputable institutions less concerned with (or entirely dismissive of) deadlines. Here's to hoping the dude D'Angelo hangs out for awhile. Though should he not, there's plenty here to keep us busy for at least another fourteen.
"Today More Than Any Other Day" / Ought
Ought put out a superb debut this year, and "Today More Than Any Other Day" became probably my favorite art-rock jam since Art Brut's "Formed A Band". Distinctly bratty and Canadian and exuberant and optimistic, "Today More Than Any Other Day" assumed a logical role as the track that got me up and out of bed all the way to work on time Monday thru Friday. It was the go-to for burning off the light hangover haze of the off-days. It wills itself up and out of the slow, plodding dirge of its first half in much the same way, the way that cries defiantly in the face of the world's shit that the glass is half full because I am the center of everything and thus decree it so! If you're going to be a self-entitled fuck, may you at least do so in the name of good will. Or whatever.
"Sanctified" / Rick Ross
My feelings regarding the first of Rozay's two releases in 2014 are more tempered than the big homie's. I thought it was pretty solid, but nowhere near what's becoming the obvious crest of his career, 2010's Teflon Don. That said, there are two tracks on Mastermind that I fucks with heavy af. "Nobody" is real nice, but the gravity of Ricky's bars were marred by the overacted recounting of the 911 call (for a shooting I'm still not confident wasn't staged), the fact that Biggie already murked the beat, and whatever the fuck Puffy was doing in the background. Still a fine track, but one that's outclassed on about every level by "Sanctified".
"Sanctified" delivers on all fronts. It's got that old soul intro that screams classic Kanye, but isn't. It's got Ye, himself, going hard on the criticism of his career arc and brushing it off with characteristic perversion of the slant rhyme (He don't sweat it, wipe his forehead with a HANKERCHAAAAF). Ross is wylin' per usual, trading blowjobs for grilled cheese sandwiches (probably the most realistic depiction of his life he's ever rapped). Perhaps most generously, it's got Big Sean staying in his fucking lane and making his impact minimal on the hook.
"Unfucktheworld" / Angel Olsen
If the year was good for anyone (excluding rich, white males, obvi), the argument could be made it was female artists. I highlighted some of my favorites above, but there were really so many more that garnered critical acclaim in spite of KJ's cold shoulder (FKA Twigs coming to mind most immediately). Angel Olsen's Burn Your Fire For No Witness likely would have received my first honorable mention were I a man of softer resolve. Much like TSR mainstay SVE, Olsen possesses an innate ability to transfix an audience at its core with very little (almost nothing) at her disposal. The interest that album opener "Unfucktheworld" inspires because of its ultra-rad title is almost immediately redirected once her midwestern warble enters above the simple, downstroked acoustic strum. The album's ultimate track, "Windows", does nearly as captivating a job of demonstrating the high-wire waiver of Olsen's best work, but I really prefer "Unfucktheworld" for it's utter simplicity. When she opened with this track at the Echoplex not long after Burn Your Fire's release, her guitar strap snapped halfway through, and she sang the remainder a cappella. It was just as mesmerizing.
"Instant Disassembly" / Parquet Courts , "Uncast Shadow Of A Southern Myth" / Parkay Quarts
I don't put as much investment in the discussions on the significance (or lack thereof) of there being a Parquet Courts and a Parkay Quarts and there being however much member overlap etc etc etc et al et al et al. Because I don't care. As far as I'm concerned they're the same band releasing aesthetically similar music. I tried really hard for a really long time not to like them. They play Squiers and seem mostly like they don't give a shit how they sound in a way that's more hipster than punk, and so it is easy to hate them.
When Parquet Quarts drop their guard and the BPMs, though, fuck if they can't write a damned good tune. "Instant Disassembly" and "Uncast Shadow Of A Southern Myth" are something of sister-songs to me. Released on separate albums billed under different artists, they're by far the catchiest songs on each, they carry the kind of melodies you feel you could sing anything to. They tumble along as though they could forever, as though the only proper way to end them is to let them fade away amid the shouts and screams that ultimately attempt to bookend their back ends. More than that, though, these tracks are similar in that they exist as effective entry points to their respective collections and the
"April's Song" / Real Estate
With "April's Song", Real Estate stake quite the claim for catchiest song of the year. Is it possible to sing along to a song with exactly zero words? I mean, that seems to be the what they were aiming for. Shit, that's what they succeeded in doing. I legitimately made a few passes through Atlas without realizing "April's Song" was all Matt Mondanile and no Martin Courtney. The absence of Courtney's yacht-rock-ready vocals are hardly missed, as "April's Song" moves from verse to chorus to verse and back again with distinct, painfully memorable melodic lines dividing the regions. The track highlights an element of Real Estate that I've always felt they underplayed, though along with the their guitar-tutorial video for "Crime", it seems it's one the band seem to have finally felt comfortable giving its day in the sun.
"Unites" / LUH
The sudden, unexpected death of WU LYF is one I've still not gotten over, two years after the fact. I may try to pretend otherwise all I want, but the reality of the matter is brought to the fore any and every time former frontman Ellery James Roberts comes out of nowhere with new music and I cope with the dreams of what may have been by replaying 2011's masterpiece Go Tell Fire To The Mountain. Such sightings are few and far between, seemingly on a yearly pace in the summer or early fall. 2013 saw the release a single under his own name, and 2014 brings us the GTFTTM-styled plaything "Unites", a collaboration with Ebony Hoon unveiled under the moniker LUH (or Lost Under Heaven). As could be expected, it's Roberts' presence that makes "Unites" what it is. The guy has an inimitable delivery that would saturate about any track with a prevailing sense of otherworldly wonder, even the comparatively flaccid ones presently pumped out by former WU LYF mates' yacht-rawk project Los Porcos. Fortunately, "Unites" is heavy on delay-driven clean guitars and echoed floor toms, made to fill arena space much in the same way fellow-UKers, U2, did in their heyday. I don't really ride for The Edge, et al., but there's a good chance I would were they were Roberts' guttural shouts of maybe-words wailing over the top. Enjoy this shit, may be awhile yet before we get more.
"Inside Out" / Spoon
Britt Daniel is fucking 43. That sounded crazy to me when I read it this year. Then I remembered how old I am, and I guess it made more sense. Everybody's aging up in this bitch. Crows feet abound. Damn, though, dude was just the other side of 30 the last time Spoon put out an album as thoroughly solid as this year's They Want My Soul (for clarity, I'm speaking of 2002's Kill The Moonlight). For a band that's been at it as long as they have, grinding it out for far too little recognition, snagging some accolades for their post-hill output has got to be a good feeling. It's one that's only heightened by the fact Spoon have very likely never written a song as good on its own as "Inside Out". It coasts along on the back of scratchy, synthesized drum patches, the snare and kick achieving an almost blown out quality punctuated by a syrupy bass bump that picks and chooses its punches. The rest is made up of harp-mimicking, delayed keyboard flourishes and Daniels trademark rasp that's only become more understandable after two decades on the road. He sounds like he could well be singing this fireside, as a world's worth of rain dumps outdoors. Ages into their career, Spoon might only be getting better as they grow more self-aware. Time's gone inside out, indeed.
"Never Catch Me" / Flying Lotus (feat Kendrick Lamar)
Here y'all were thinking I'd pump out an entire list without a contribution from K-dot. FOH. Folks be crying about how we didn't get the new full-length from King Kendrick as though we walked away with nothing. I ain't even trying to here about that, straight up. The guest verse on the Jeezy remix was fire. His first post-gkmc single "i" was seriously dope and challenged anyone to box him in with expectation. Then he doubled down on that strategy with whatever that piece de resistance was on Colbert. Man, even the bars he spit for Reebok put shame to most the rap game.
Outshining the rest, though, was his frenetic take atop the nu-jazz fusions of LA's Flying Lotus. Lotus' shit is the kind of thing I generally like to listen to when I resign to taking the bus, as it does a fair job of soundtracking the uncertainty (and, on some level, the anxiety) of every stop. It never flows between ideas so much as it darts, and that same urgent shiftiness is present from the opening strides of the glitchy gallop that begins "Never Catch Me". Kendrick could just as well have ignored the complexity of the brushfire beneath him - and it may have been the wiser route to do so - but instead he manages to find all the pockets and does his best to upstage the twistable, turnable, Thundercat-like bass line as the most intriguing instrument in the ensemble. K-dot's technical prowess has never been on fuller display, and it's fascinating to hear.
"Can't Do Without You" / Caribou
Our Love is a great album. I don't think it's as good as The Milk of Human Kindness or In Flames (the latter originally released as Manitoba before lawsuits forced the name change), but it is damn good. Admittedly, it wasn't really my jam at first, but in the final run-up to the year's end I found myself returning to the album with greater frequently. It's a grower, for sure, and if the calendar came as a baker's dozen, there's a definite possibility it would have scaled the list of favorites in short order if and only due to how much I love its first song. Caribou mastermind Dan Snaith is a mathematician by trade, and the methodical unveiling of elements on "Can't Do Without You" makes that a believable backstory. As the slow-burning build pushes the various components toward ignition temperature, that simple, solitary admission increases in volume and frequency until it's nearly sung out in reverie at the track's apex. I'm reluctant to apply the world "simple" to anything in the electronic vein, but "Can't Do Without You" is at its core a simple love song. And it's perfect.
"Seasons (Waiting On You)" / Future Islands
I mean there really ain't much to debate here. I could write some shit to mansplain to you why this is a phenomenal song, or you could go to any number of esteemed publications and let some other white, millenial male mansplain to you why this is a phenomenal song. Or you could just watch the video below and know all you need to know about the best song of the year. Just watch the video. Then go buy the record. Then go buy their first two records (but especially their first). Then go see them live. If you can see them at a smaller venue (lol doubtful), spend whatever you have to to make it happen. Mortgage your home if you must. Seriously.