In one glorious package.
In one glorious package.
80s No Wave heroes Swans have been reunited for three albums now and remain the best reason for old bands to get back together. Each reunion album has been an exercise in brilliance and this third album tops them all. Running well over two hours, it is a collection of intense moments and whispering interludes that redefines the term “heavy”. It’s a work of musical minimalism, but you don’t realize it at first because the instrumental tones and the noise work are denser than lead. This is music that crushes you, and not in a nice way. It’s suffocating, oppressive construction, an orchestra of doom bent on eradicating all light from the universe. The usual Michael Gira guideposts aid in this: the ultra-repetitive rhythms, found sound, concrete tones. It’s deliberately made to invoke the idea that the world has fallen and it’s not going to get back up again. In this it succeeds without question. For those listeners that want music to be the light, frothy soundtrack to their consumerist-driven lives, the playlists at Old Navy will get you going. For those who want their music to reflect the dark truths lurking in the human soul – look no further.
So it’s beer commercial lead guitar rock. Who cares, Kozelek, you cranky old fuck? The War On Drugs pull it off with such style you’d think they had been doing it since birth. Before Lost In The Dream the Philadelphia band was best known as being Kurt Vile’s old band, the one he’d played guitar in before he went solo and became a critical darling. With this album the band came into its own, mixing together working class classic rock with haunted, reverb-laden indie noise. A lot of big names get thrown around with regards to the album – Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan – and while these are all quite apt, the band that I find closest to the sort of sound found here is Red Rider. It’s blue-collar AOR filtered through a loving layer of Sonic Youth and the Cure, the perfect marriage of Boomers and their early Xer children.
To get an understanding as to how Annie Clark’s 2014 went, just look at the cover of her self-titled fifth album. She sits upon a throne, her expression haughty and noble, the very picture of supreme confidence in herself and her rule. At this very moment she is the Queen of the Indie World, and it’s because of the polish and poise she brings to St. Vincent. She’s always been half art-rock, half pop, but her recent collaboration with Talking Heads mastermind David Byrne seems to have accentuated both sides of the equation. These are pop songs delivered with skewed aplomb, studded with venom and anchored by Ms. Clark’s bold guitar work. Everything she touches turns to gold here: her rock songs conquer everything in their path (especially the singles, “Digital Witness” and “Birth In Reverse”) and her ballads both reach quivering emotional resonation (“Prince Johnny”) and crawling discomfort (“Severed Crossed Fingers”). She was also responsible for my absolute favourite moment on television in 2014 – her appearance on SNL. It was all robotic movements, strobe lights, and confidently smooth guitar, and it drove the mouthbreathers nuts.
Milo has pumped out a great deal of material, both on his own and with his Hellfyre Club collective, but A Toothpaste Suburb is his first proper album and it lands with amazing force. His beats have always been choppy and a bit off-kilter – he once sliced up Baths’ Cerulean for beats, after all – but here his work manages to be both glitchy and head-nodding, a combination that maybe shouldn’t work but somehow does. It’s the perfect frame for his surreal lyricism, a heady mixture of nerd-culture references and real-world emotional toil, like if my friend Steve was a rapper from Wisconsin. He may in fact be a “rap messiah agitator / chronic bathroom masturbator” but it’s really only half the story. Sure there’s toilet humour and goofy moments, but the album abounds with references to great literature, meta-poet wordplay, and Milo’s friend Rob, who died too soon and left Milo thinking about death more than might be healthy. It’s a stellar debut and one that points the way forward for his Hellfyre mates.
There’s no easy way to say this: Tom Krell can sing like a motherfucker. He’s also a PhD candidate in philosophy, and it’s the contrast between these two parts of his life that bring to life his How To Dress Well project. His music has always been artsier than your average R&B setup – Pitchfork compared his 2010 debut, Love Remains, to William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops – and it’s been concerned with getting into your soul on its own terms. This is pop without concern for popularity, glacial R&B songs that ooze emotion without resorting to the typical hip-hop-lite that the genre reaches for when it wants to his the Billboard charts. These are tense, brittle, often pitch-shifted tracks that sound as though they are matted with tears. Heartbreak, misery. Soaring vocal work and a need to reaffirm a childhood faith in love. This is R&B for hipsters, true, but it has a universalist sense of love and loss that reaches out to everyone, beard and PBR or not.
On one hand, long-time folk-rocker Mark Kozelek had a banner musical year in 2014. After reaching the peak of his Neil Young meets Andre Segovia powers with Admiral Fell Promises, he went in the opposite direction, toning down the guitar work and opening up his oblique lyrics into much more personal, confessional songs. Benji is the height of this movement; these are less songs than they are conversations had by candlelight over the low rumble of fingerpicked guitars. It’s never been clearer that Kozelek is getting older, based on these songs. In the very first song his cousin dies after an aerosol can explodes in the garbage – a freak accident that is echoed later in the album when he explains how his uncle died in the exact same way. He uses this as an opportunity to ruminate on seeing family and noting how time marches on even when you don’t see people every day. It sets a pattern that defines the album as an examination of mortality and the way time keeps going, asleep and awake. After all of that, though, it ends on a wistful note, with a story that’s essentially about how he’s friends with Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie/The Postal Service. It’s a triumph for a man whose discography is littered with quiet, under-the-radar triumphs.
On the other hand, of course, 2014 also revealed Kozelek as a boor and a bully, a cantankerous old jackass who can’t let a perceived slight go and who thinks that telling another band (The War On Drugs) to “suck my cock” in song form is a great way of conveying your annoyance. This was less of a triumph, to be polite.
2014 was in a way a year of long-buried artists coming roaring back with very little warning. It started on the deepweb. An album cover and tracklisting were uncovered for what appeared, for all intents and purposes, to be a new Aphex Twin album – stunning, considering the man had largely dropped off of the face of the earth following 2001’s Drukqs. Then the same information appeared on the Warp Records page, and it was on. With shocking suddenness the album arrived, and it sounded as though the thirteen years between Drukqs and Syro didn’t happen. Syro is unmistakably an Aphex Twin album. Every sound layered on here springs naturally from the sort of things we’ve come to expect from Richard D James over the course of his career – every drum line, every synth run, every twist of the knob sounds logically consistent with his musical M.O. There is nothing that comes out of left-field here, and there is nothing quite as crossover-pop as “Windowlicker” or “Girl/Boy Song”. Instead, it’s a beginning to end statement of purpose, a reminder of everything that made his work in “home listening techno” great. He promises that he hasn’t been slacking for his thirteen mostly-missing years – he has scads of recorded material, and will be releasing another 17 tracks quite shortly.
Liars came into the world as dance-punk anarcho-artists, a trio of transplanted L.A. art students who fell into the New York post-punk revival with deep comfort. After, they blew through witch-haunted noise concepts, bunker-recorded drum music, straightforward rock revival, and edgy industrial noise-pop without even breaking a sweat. They are famous for not putting out the same kind of album twice, but in many ways Mess feels like the band has finally come full circle. This is, at its heart, a punky dance pop album, a mix of industrial soundscapes over club-worthy beats and topped off with a vocal sensibility that would not honestly sound out of place on a classic Marilyn Manson album. It’s fun, confident, and cathartic, pretty much the opposite of their previous album WIXIW. Where WIXIW seemed like bedroom pop done by a laptop producer (Dntel, let’s say), Mess sounds like arena EDM, big gestures from big producers meant to make the crowd go wild. That said, it’s arena EDM done by Liars, which means its subversive, dark, twisted, and faintly perverted. They’re songs that could be slipped into a DJ set, but they would make the crowd pause in the midst of their MDMA-fuelled flailings.
Cleveland punk rocker Dylan Baldi has kept very busy over the last several years trying to erase the pop part of his pop-punk past. Even his last album, 2012’s Attack On Memory, turned out in the end to be too pop, despite the presence of Steve Albini as the producer. Anyone who listened to Attack On Memory – and there were lots – would say that, for the most part, it was scorched-earth firebreathing punk rock that leapt out of the speakers and grabbed you by the collar. Yet, looking back on it, there are poppy moments aplenty on it: the screamed refrain of “Wasted Days”, the assured hook of “Stay Useless”, the nearly radio-ready bounce of “Fall In”. Here And Nowhere Else scours most of these pop influences off of the tracks, leaving churning punk songs that hit with heavy fists. Yet Baldi can’t help but craft a great melody, despite trying to bury them in layers of grime. “I’m Not Part Of Me”, the last and best song on the album, is the biggest earworm Baldi has been able to come up with yet, and coming as it does at the end of seven other nearly-buried moments of melodic genius gives it all the more impact. It ups the ante on Attack On Memory exponentially, managing to carve up chaotic incendiary punk rock into chunks that are easy to swallow without losing any of their spicy edge.
I don’t normally wait this long to put together my list of favourites for a given year. Usually I stop gathering new music in during the first week of December, because in the past I’ve found that no one released anything worthwhile over the holiday season. You would think that after 2013 found Beyonce dropping a stellar album with no warning at the end of December I would have learned my lesson, but I nearly stopped again for 2014. As it turned out, history repeated itself, only in a much greater fashion.
The last time anyone heard from D’Angelo in full album form was 2001, and it was the R&B classic Voodoo. Voodoo was a funk-soul masterpiece, the highwater mark of modern R&B. After, however, he largely dropped off the earth. He was uncomfortable with his status as a sex symbol overshadowing his music, a close friend committed suicide, and he developed a growing problem with alcohol. For a while, it seemed apparent that, aside from the odd guest appearance, his career had been derailed for good. Then the rumours began. D’Angelo was back in the studio. He’d been rumoured to be in the studio since around 2007, but by 2011 people in the know were saying that the album was nearly done. By 2012 he was back on stage. Then, on December 15th, Black Messiah arrived. Like Beyonce’s album, there was no fanfare, no press releases, no warning that this was coming.
Originally it was slated to have been released in 2015. It was pushed up, though, because the vibe on the album is, as the title suggests, one of race, revolution, and spirituality. After Ferguson, and the Eric Garner decision, the album’s release was sped up. Normally this would signal problems with the album, but Black Messiah is very much a finished album. It’s as far removed from Voodoo, however, as you can imagine. Voodoo was marked by minimalist production designed to put the focus on D’Angelo’s voice. Black Messiah, on the other hand, is experimental retro-soul, as much a product of his backing band The Vanguard as it is of D’Angelo. The two albums that are close guideposts for Black Messiah are Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Both albums harken back to an era of revolutionary civil unrest in the black community as well as being pillars of pre-digital black music. Both aspects are present on Black Messiah. Musically it’s jazz-funk wrapped up in soul, old-style R&B, and the rock music of the end of the Vietnam War. It’s played with deliberate imperfection, faithfully reproducing the feeling of the era with all of its pops and snarls. At the same time it articulates a response to the upswing in racial violence in America over the past few years, especially with regards to the killing of unarmed black men by the police for crimes that would get white men in the same situation a living arrest. It makes numerous references to Ferguson, and to Occupy Wall Street – race and class are bound together in modern America, and Black Messiah acknowledges it as such.
When it takes fourteen years to follow up an album, that album is rarely as good as the original. Look at Chinese Democracy, or even last years My Bloody Valentine album. Black Messiah is a rarity in this regards. It’s a follow-up album that took nearly forever to create that exceeds the standards wrought by the original. It’s not just a worthy sequel to Voodoo – it’s an album that reestablishes the legend of D’Angelo in its own right.
Dan Snaith’s been doing this a long time, stretching back to when he used to call himself Manitoba. His two previous albums, 2007’s Andorra and 2010’s Swim, were big successes, introducing the EDM world to his particular brand of psychedelic electronic pop grooves and getting award nominations left right and center, especially at home in Canada. Our Love tops even those albums, being at once his most dance-oriented album and his most sonically experimental, mixing foggy vocals, strings, 808-sounding drums, and a whole host of studio effects. Even with all of the genre-bending sound work, he keeps it accessible, crafting wicked-edged pop hooks that keep things bouncing from beginning to end. Snaith himself referred to it as “mind-numbingly simple”, but this has to be kept in context with the fact that his pre-music background is in deep tech research and that simple to Snaith is more complicated than pretty much anything else.
Vancouver’s White Lung trades in blistering punk rock that brings back the feel of Dischord Records, Sleater-Kinney, and early Hole. Deep Fantasy is a mile-a-minute collection of abrasive rock and roll that flies by so quickly that you might miss the more off-the-wall moments, mostly courtesy of guitarist Kenneth William’s love of weird patterns and oddball chord changes. Some of this stems from a metal influence – black metal rhythms and hair metal swagger. Singer Mish Way rides this hybrid wave of blackened thrasher punk with songs that focus on depression, body image, power structure, and rape. She also has a number of essays online that expound upon these themes, because academic punk rock is and should continue to be a thing. White Lung are ultimately a very subtle band, which sounds strange when you consider Deep Fantasy as an abrasive punk rock record that comes and goes in less than twenty minutes.
Southern rock is hard to come by these days. The late 1970s were a long time ago now, and bands like Marshall Tucker, 38 Special, and Lynyrd Skynyrd are now relegated to State Fair nostalgia tour circuits. Don’t tell that to Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood, though; they’re banking on the fact that southern rock is a viable artform, and they’re proving themselves correct with every album they put out. While their previous albums skewed towards the country side of the country-and-rock combo, English Oceans buckles down onto the soulful rock and roll side and the result is electrifying. As always, however, the real strength of the album lies in the songs themselves. Character sketches abound on here, and English Oceans is a litany of disappointment, shady nights out, marital problems, family disagreements, and an undertow of low seething rage. They’re brilliant stories that get into your head, and suggest that maybe southern rock isn’t the ball of deep fried cheese that the beer-bellied greybeards lounging near the rickety stage near the edge of town might have you believe.
Mary Timony has cycled through Helium, Wild Flag, and Autoclave before putting together Ex Hex, a new band that takes its name from a solo album Timony once put out. Ex Hex is a band based around the ideal of guitar heroics, rooted deeply in 70s power pop and shot through with glittering guitar solos. It’s part Go Gos and part Sleater-Kinney, a hurtling, snarling album that manages to glam up the proceedings to great effect. Each riff lands with a punch, and then walks it along with a swagger befitting a Great Rock And Roll Band. “New Kid” is the track that proves this – it’s literally impossible to avoid breaking out into air guitar right from the beginning. She may have played second fiddle to two-thirds of Sleater-Kinney in Wild Flag, but in Ex Hex Timony answers to no one, and her strengths are on full display.
It was kinda sorta released in 2013, sure, but that was in Australia, and I refuse to recognize the existence of Australia. 2014 saw her twin EP set released in North America and found a whole slew of new fans suddenly enamoured with her casual conversation style of songwriting. Her life is a string of mundane disappointments, at least according to her, but she relates them in such a way as to make them the most fascinating things anyone could say. Case in point: “Avant Gardener”, a five minute tale of going out to fix up the front gardens (because the neighbours must think she runs a meth lab), getting overwhelmed by the heat, having a panic attack, and having the ambulance called. She screws up her oxygen mask (she was never that good at smoking bongs) and feels uncomfortable with the EMS worker thinking she’s cool just because she plays guitar. This double EP is stuffed full of these kind of stories, welded to psychedelic slacker music that is threaded through with tinges of old style country wistfulness. Rumour has it she’s releasing a proper debut LP in 2015, darker than Split Peas but along the same lines. Put it at the top of the highly anticipated pile.
Detroit’s Black Milk is one of the most underappreciated figures in the rap game, a consistently good MC and producer who’s been bringing it for twelve years now with no real breakthrough. If There’s A Hell Below is an excellent summation of everything that he’s about: loop-driven production strongly reminiscent of J. Dilla, Detroit techno bangers, thick gospel samples, and lyrics that come off as a little sketchy on paper but come alive when he puts them into the beat. The lyrics here on If There’s A Hell Below focus on his upbringing in the hard parts of Detroit, learning about rap and losing his innocence beat by beat. What sets it apart from his previous albums is the sheer attention to detail here. Even 2013’s No Poison No Paradise pales in comparison to this album, with its meticulously constructed beat scapes that bleed with every bit of the influences he’s been building on since 2003. If it happens to be the height of his powers, it’s a hell of a peak to crest on.
At first glance the music of Cymbals Eat Guitars is pure 90s indie rock revival, a crunchy mix of bands revolving around a Built To Spill worship. What keeps it from being a mere early treble charger exercise in counterfeit sounds is the lyrical work of Joseph D’Agostino, who crafts literary narratives that pulse with the seriousness of modern poetry but also show a real willingness to get playful with the English language. Like the title implies, these are poem-songs about loss – the emotional and physical toll taken upon people (New Jersey residents, mainly) who experience loss in one form or another. The heart of it, though, stems from the death of D’Agostino’s best friend Benjamin High in 2007. There were hints at mourning him throughout the band’s first two albums (the magical Why There Are Mountains and the great-but-commercially-toxic Lenses Alien) but on LOSE he opens the floodgates and lets it all out. These songs soar and crash, allowing D’Agostino to craft big rock and roll gestures that double as outpourings of grief and healing. It’s a big album that draws both from the aforementioned 90s indie rock and from the earlier tradition of massive arena rock, and it feels all the more cathartic for it.
Single Mothers broke up in 2009 and have been touring ever since. So says their Bandcamp page and there’s a history behind it, of course. It revolves around frontman Drew Thomson, a scrappy Ontario kid posessed of a busted-ass smile and a heart of blackly hilarious observations. Before he devoted himself full-time to the band (before ’09) he was a full-time gold prospecter in the wilds of eastern Ontario. The call of punk rock was too strong to ignore, though, and thank the lord for it. Thomson is the perfect punk frontman, perfectly suited to spewing bile but able to convey that bitterness in a way that comes across as wildly intelligent. There’s a strong streak of Craig Finn in his songs: the boozy nights out, the kids blowing off steam from their studies at the University of Western Ontario by getting blackout wasted, the strange allure of Dundas Street, straddling between bachelor’s degrees and cocaine deals. If the Hold Steady are the bards of 1990s Minneapolis, Single Mothers are the poet laureates of London, Ontario circa pretty much forever. The only thing that would make the album better would be the inclusion of their 2012 self-titled EP, which is comprised of 4 perfect songs that sum up living and dying in Ontario.
Four years after the somewhat difficult Transference, and a sidetrack into a supergroup (Divine Fits) Spoon returned and reconquered the world. The thing about Spoon is that they spent fifteen years putting out albums that were consistently great, peaking with 2007’s perfect Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Transference seemed weary and torn, but They Want My Soul is as fresh as if the band just woke up from a nap. Lead single “Rent I Pay” conjured up the laid-back groove of classic Rolling Stones, “Do You” brought back the classic vibe of 2007, “Knock Knock Knock” gets in that pocket and never leaves. “New York Kiss” sounds like it came straight out of Britt Daniels’ work in Divine Fits, and “Let Me Be Mine” affirms that Transference was, in fact, a great album given time to consider it. From the moment the album begins it feels as though the band never left, and in the end it’s yet another superb entry in a catalogue that is wall to wall superb entries.
Sophomore slumps be damned: Parquet Courts are out to show that there’s no such thing. The band’s second album picks up where Light Up Gold left off, stuffing fun wordplay into songs that either race by or slouch by, slacker-style. It’s a little angrier than their debut, a little more deliberate and seething, but the rampant hyperactive energy that marked them out as a band to watch is still very much present. It’s still that heady mixture of Pavement, Guided By Voices, Wire, and the Fall, but it buckles down with greater intent this time out. The title track is the perfect example of their newish tone: it darts out of the gate, grabs ahold of you, and shakes you until every bone in your body is broken, then drops you and lets the slower tracks soothe you back to health. Amongst the slower tracks this time there are some real moments of classic rock homage, especially on “Raw Milk”, “Instant Disassembly”, and “Always Back In Town”. They add some weight to the faster-than-light tracks and make Sunbathing Animal into a work of actual substance.
Toronto jazz trio and sometime Frank Ocean backing band BADBADNOTGOOD released their first album of original material this year and it ended up being just as good as the cover work they made their bones on. Having covered the likes of Odd Future and MF Doom in jazz form in the past, it came as no surprise that the trio continued to filter their jazz roots through hip hop, conjuring up the feel of classic instrumental hip hop a la DJ Shadow. Interestingly enough they eschew the swinging feel that most mainstream jazz falls into in favour of replicating the mechanical on-the-beat tone of hip hop, with a bit of the dance-around in-the-pocket groove of lumbering funk. The biggest delight on the album, though, is the way each track flows into each other, like molten steel filling every nook and cranny and allowing for some very meticulous meta-arrangements.
It’s no secret that urban America is decaying. The poster child for this problem is, of course, Detroit, but lots of former industrial centers are now broken wastelands. One particularly bad one is Gary, Indiana, home of Freddie Gibbs. Freddie Gibbs breathes the busted streets of the ghost of US Steel, coming on like a gruff 2Pac with a subwoofer-rattling voice. He keeps it strictly thuggin’ but gets a lot of love from the indie crowd, mostly due to the fact that his thug life gets downright poetic at times. The beats on Pinata are handled by Madlib, who is equal parts the dusty, shadowy street work of RZA and the more soulful side of J. Dilla. It gives a mythical feel to Freddie Gibbs’ street tales, and elevates it beyond mere thug replication to the sort of grimey poetry that the Wu once dealt in. The guest lineup isn’t half-bad either – Danny Brown, Raekwon, Scarface, and the formidable combination of Domo Genesis and Earl Sweatshirt add colour to an album that is still undeniably carried by Gibbs himself.
So, rap-punk is a thing now, thank you Death Grips. There are a lot of people marrying strident, barking rap to industrial-edged hip hop beats, but most of them are striving to run parallel with the edgy imagery and brink-of-mental-illness vibe of MC Ride. Sleaford Mods, though, are blue collar lads with a vicious contempt of all of the stupidity that they see in their daily lives – politicians, local culture, other musicians. Jason Williamson is a crude son of a bitch but he puts you right in the thick of things, spinning scenes that are at once visceral, disgusting, and hilarious. Some of his images are a little too British for mass global consumption, but the seething working class frustration comes across just fine for all of that. Unlike a lot of their contemporaries, Sleaford Mods manage to be both nasty and relatable.
Constellation Records used to be stridently anti-commercial. They once refused Alternative Press a review copy of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Yanqui U.X.O. on the basis that the magazine was “too glossy”. This vaguely pretentious tone has softened in recent years (I mean, have you heard Thee Silver Mt. Zion lately?) and Ought is another symptom of this. “Symptom” is a bit of a harsh word, of course, especially considering that, while the Montreal band’s hyper-caffeinated post-punk brings to mind the best of the Feelies, Cap’n Jazz, and Talking Heads, they also spike these palatable moments with drones, churning rhythm changes, and anarchic experimentation. The frenetic energy that flows through the album lends itself to the sort of mid-00s dance-punk that used to be on every hipster’s playlist, but at the same time it’s rabidly political, like DIY punk rock played by people who really like to spend their off-hours pounding down MDMA and dancing until dawn.
Thee Oh Sees – the main vehicle for garage rock auteur John Dwyer – started off life as a freakish San Francisco outfit dedicated to exploding everywhere at once. As the years have rolled on, the more out-there parts of their sound have slowly withered away, leaving a hard-edged core that feels more and more in line with shockingly regular hard rock. “Regular” is a relative term, of course, since there’s enough psychedelic noise work in these 32 minutes to kick the band into the stratosphere, but when compared to an album like Castlemania it’s a bit more, uh, normal. Drop brings out the melody that has always been embedded in Dwyer’s songs, and wraps them in fuzzed-out guitar tones. The acid-tinged guitar fireworks are missed, but the in-and-out nature of the bouncing songcraft means that it isn’t missed too much. It’s a Thee Oh Sees album you can bring home to your parents.
Polish death metal titans Behemoth have been around for a very long time – ten albums now – and after their frontman Nergal was diagnosed with leukemia in 2010 it would have been natural enough for the band to slowly drop off the face of the earth. Instead, Nergal underwent treatment, rested for months to recover, and the band worked with him to slowly put together work for what would eventually be The Satanist. A lesser band would have put out a middling album and then retired, but Behemoth has never been a middling sort of band. The Satanist turned out to be the band’s best album yet, and one of the best death metal albums to arrive on American shores in years. The extreme metal community responded whole-heartedly, putting the band in the U.S. Top 40 for the first time. It’s a massive sledgehammer kind of album, a mix of pummeling blastbeats and crushing doom riffs that leave the listener a crumpled mess in the corner. The very best metal blows the listener across the room and leaves them unable to think about their problems, and The Satanist is amongst the very best metal.
Burn Your Fire For No Witness is an astonishing breakthrough album. Part crunchy indie rock and part slow-burn confessional folk, it flows together without a hitch. The former backup singer for Bonnie “Prince” Billy has tightened up the production from her early lo-fi days, and at the same time has loosened up the space around her instruments. Her early work tends to skew more towards the claustrophobic, and now that there is some light allowed into her arrangments the effect is galvanizing. Her communication with her band is flawless, with each instrument playing off each other like they’ve been doing this all their lives. The highlight of the album is the torchlight Leonard Cohen-esque number “White Fire”, whose lyrics the album draws its name from. Burn Your Fire For No Witness is a heavy album, rich with sorrow and quiet hurt. It’s an album that will amplify your own hidden dreads – listen with care.
“We live on the island of Montreal and we make a lot of noise because we love each other”. Thus begins the Constellation Records flagship band’s latest album, and it’s the best raison d’etre for it. Having begun life as Efrim Menuck’s side band, an outlet for his experimentation with loose atmospheric ambient post-rock, the tale of Silver Mt Zion is as convoluted as the history of their name changes. By the time they expanded to Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra La La Band, they were a force in their own right, a replacement of sorts for the then-abandoned Godspeed You! Black Emperor project. Paring the band down to just Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra changed the band into a heavy guitar-oriented post-rock outfit, the sound of which reaches its peak on Fuck Off Get Free. Unlike the somewhat shaky lyrical work that marred 13 Blues For Thirteen Moons, Efrim keeps things political but vague, adopting a strident tone that strives to evoke post-2008 anti-austerity feelings but doesn’t get bogged down in the details. Musically its an orgy of disparate genres held together by sheer tenacity: modern crescendocore post-rock, black metal drums, long-range drone waves, European string arrangements, acoustic dread. As far as the Silver Mt Zion project goes, Fuck Off Get Free is the peak to date.
22 years after 36 Chambers‘ opening salvo, the best MC to come out of the Wu Tang Clan continues to surprise with the consistent level of quality he puts out. There are some inarguable stumbles in his catalogue: Bulletproof Wallets was so-so, Apollo Kids felt like old man nostalgia, and the less said about Ghostdini: The Wizard of Poetry the better. They’re outweighed by the absolute triumphs he puts out with regularity, though. Last year found him returning to the concept album strucutre that won him accolades when he did Fishscale; Twelve Reasons To Die, an adaptation of mafioso giallo stories, was a hard-hitting, gritty affair that played into GFK’s strengths. 36 Seasons continues in this trend, picking up his Tony Stark character after nine years (36 seasons) away from Staten Island. The streets have changed, his friends have become murky, his girl is in play; Tony hits the island with force, dodging betrayals and making things as right as he can by the gun. It hits like a brick, albeit a brick in a Blaxploitation film, and it’s funk underpinnings move you even while you lie bleeding in the street.
Deerhoof turned twenty this year, which seems bizarre when you consider how fresh and new the band sounds with each album they put out. La Isla Bonita shifts the whimsical, electro-pop nature of 2012’s Breakup Song towards a more garage-oriented sound, filtering their core tone through a thick layer of newfound respect for the Ramones. The guitars come to the forefront more than they did on previous albums, maybe more than they have since 2005’s The Runners Four. Worked in and around the Ramones worship is some serious groove work, taut funk rhythms that bring to mind the best of 1970s disco 45s. The result is an end-to-end delight, a heady, fuzzy, dancing affair that sounds as though it could have come out of a new band ready to take on the world. That it comes from a band tumbling headalong into middle age makes it all the sweeter.
It’s something that seems so normal in the post-Kanye era, but it has to be said: mainstream rap hasn’t been very gangsta for a while. Ever since Graduation cleaned 50 Cent’s clock, rappers have been finding inspiration from regular life, relationships, and inner turmoil – or, as the kids like to call it, Drake. The biggest thing to come out of Compton since The Game fumbled the ball back in the mid-00s has been Kendrick Lamar, and his world-conquering good kid m.A.A.d. city album shone a light on the dark side of cross-generational gangbanging and street life. The celebratory party-gangsta album – a mainstay of West Coast rap in the 1990s – has been largely absent. Gangsta life has been relegated to the over-the-top absurdity of Gucci Mane and Rick Ross, or to the grimy, nihilist underworld of Chief Keef and Chicago’s drill scene. Enter YG, who wants to take it back to the days of Snoop, Dre, and Ice Cube. My Krazy Life, which comes across almost like the gritty, in-the-shit companion album to good kid, thumps with that West Coast bottom end and grooves with the same sort of Parliament/Funkadelic inspired sampling that drove Dre’s “G Funk” movement. It’s basically Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ Redux, with more palm trees and more bottom end ass shaking.
Killer Mike and EL-P have ridden the hype train since this sequel was announced and only the fuccbois were going to say otherwise. RTJ2 is actually slightly weaker than the original, but this is like saying a cluster bomb doesn’t kill as many as a nuclear explosion. Killer Mike centers himself in violent, paranoid intensity, spouting rapid-fire ticker-tape verses like the proverbial banana clip from the original Run The Jewels. EL-P allows his production to explode outward; the beats slam into the listener with bruising force and explode outward. On their own, they’re each primal forces in the rap game, but together, they’re nearly unstoppable. As an added bonus, killer lead single “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)” features a rare, incendiary verse from Zach De La Rocha, which can hopefully only mean good things for future appearances from him.
New Brigade was a brash young album from a brash young punk band, combining searing new noise with edgy, controversial imagery (including Danish neo-fascist symbols). You’re Nothing doubled down on the noise, devolving now and again into chaos before snapping back into razor-sharp songcraft. Plowing Into The Field Of Love, however, takes a sudden right turn into tuneful songcraft, balancing the sort of harrowing on-the-cliffs-edge sonic disturbance with moments of melody and beauty. “The Lord’s Favourite” is a track that sums up this new tightrope act the best: it stumbles along and nearly crashes on several occasions, but it holds its own internal logic together with spit and shoestrings and delivers a hook that drives right into your living room and takes up residence there. It’s not a knockout album per se, but it sets the band up perfectly to deliver a knockout album next time around.
Underneath The Rainbow was produced by Pat Carney and it’s immediately better than the album his own band churned out earlier this year. Black Lips have become extremely adept at this kind of rock and roll: dishevled, slinky garage rock that falls apart into aesthetically pleasing shapes. It’s really not all that much different from what came before but it doesn’t need to be. There’s a thick layer of grime on every track that bleeds debauched authenticity and a scuzzy guitar tone that dials up several decades at once while being beholden to none of them. It’s rock music for people who miss the inebriated swagger the Stones used to bring in their golden days.
John Dwyer – the prolific garage-revival madman behind Thee Oh Sees – cannot be contained by just one act. In addition to his Coachwhips work, 2014 adds a new side with Damaged Bug. Hubba Bubba is, at its heart, a love letter to analog synthesizers. Dwyer ditches the guitar in favour of cobbled-together synths whose vintage dates back to the 80s, the wavery sounds of which he marries to staggering beats to create a stoned, pyschadelic electronic pop album. Seemingly not well-received by anyone besides me, it was wilful and deliberately noisy in the sort of way that always seems to appeal to me.
Liz Harris has this ambient soundscape thing down pat, so it was somewhat surprising that she chose to follow the gorgeous, flowing The Man Who Died In His Boat with something that can be properly described as “stripped down”. Where her previous releases were progressions in processing atmospherics for fun and profit, Ruins relies more on the natural echoes of her piano and recording spaces, as well as judicious use of the analog sustain pedal of that piano. In addition to the reverb of the drums and piano, she works in frogs, birds, and, on “Holding”, the sound of a breaking thunderstorm. Recorded mostly in southern Portugal, Ruins is a hushed, intimate ambient album, the opposite of a Tim Hecker effort in that it gently swells to fill the space rather than brashly occupying all that space at once.
Azaelia Banks is one of two albums released in 2014 that followed Beyonce’s lead. Having been screwed around by her label for nearly two years, she ditched Polydor/Interscope and released the album herself, dropping it with no press release and no promo work (a la Beyonce’s last album, released in the last days of 2013). A lot of these tracks (“Yung Rapunxel”, “212”) were released as singles during the major label runaround process, but the tracks that weren’t are just as strong and fill out Ms. Banks’ sound to devastating effect. This is hip hop with a relentlessly old-school vibe, a clattering kitchen-sink affair of pulsing rhythms, fly girl rhyming, and instrumentation that straddles the line between retro and cutting-edge. She also refuses to keep her opinions quiet on Twitter, starting fights with pretty much everyone (including one particularly sharp call-out of Black Culture Appropriation Poster Child Iggy Azalea) and, on Boxing Day, stating that the descendants of prominent slave traders should have their houses burned and their finances seized. She’s a heavily talented ball of controversy and as such she’ll be around for quite a while.
John and Alice Coltrane’s grandnephew dug deeper into his jazz roots on his fifth album. He’s famous for forward-thinking melds of hip hop and electronic sounds that pushes into solidly psychedelic territory, especially on 2010’s breakthrough Cosmogramma. You’re Dead! takes the progressive vibe of those albums and marries them to a shredded vision of hard bop. The album has a flow that works in an even more cohesive manner than his previous work; most of the 19 tracks average under two minutes and only make complete sense when listened to in order. The jazzed-out instrumentals are held together by the longer moments that feature a rich panapoly of guest moments: Kendrick Lamar on “Never Catch Me”, Snoop Dogg on “Dead Man’s Tetris”, Angel Deradoorian on “Siren Song”, and Kimbra on “The Protest”. You’re Dead! is one of the most inventive mainstream takes on the legacy of American jazz in the 21st Century, and the strongest effort yet for Flying Lotus.
LP1 is a minimalist dream, an album that rewrites the idea of “spare” and finds a flourishing, soaring sound within the borders of barely sketched-in bass and snare. Tahliah Barnett, former music video dancer, proves her skills as a euphoric singer whose style evokes both the trip-hop glory days and the best moments of R&B. She spins webs of power and sexual frustration, exuding confidence and vulnerability in equal measures. The album is a balancing act between overt sexual desire and the poetic sentimentality that often sugarcoats that desire, delivered in extremely subtle turns and songs that slowly coalesce into singalong moments. There’s more than a bit of the ghost of Aaliyah on these tracks, and it’s been long enough since her untimely death that that’s perfectly okay.
Ty Segall – lord and master of the neo-garage rawk movement – has been one thing over the course of his six years of recording history, and that is insanely prolific. While not perhaps at the level of Robert Pollard, he made his name churning out singles and albums not only under his own name (eight in six years) but also under the names of seven other bands. It stands to reason, then, that when it was revealed that it took him fourteen months to write and record Manipulator it was an indication that something special. The result was that the album came across as meticulously crafted, the effect of Segall slowing down and concentrating on the details of each individual song. The sound is nothing different in terms of what he’s done before – last year’s Sleeper was a much bigger deviation in terms of pure sonics – but there’s more to chew on this time around. It’s his longest album to date and his most lush, combining the forceful guitar riffs of 70s vintage with rich psychedelic tones. The decades may go on and it may in fact be the 50th anniversary of an album like The Who Sing My Generation this year, but Manipulator is proof that even though ‘classic rock’ is largely unfashionable, there will always be someone willing to come along and mine it for inspiration.