My Favourite 50 of 2014, Part Five

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#10:  Swans – To Be Kind

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.

#09:  The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream

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.

#08:  St. Vincent – St. Vincent

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.

#07:  Milo – A Toothpaste Suburb

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.

#06:  How To Dress Well – “What Is This Heart?”

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.

#05:  Sun Kil Moon – Benji

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.

#04:  Aphex Twin – Syro

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.

#03:  Liars – Mess

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.

#02:  Cloud Nothings – Here And Nowhere Else

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.

#01:  D’Angelo & The Vanguard – Black Messiah

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 VoodooVoodoo 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.

Part 1:  50-41

Part 2:  40-31

Part 3:  30-21

Part 4:  20-11

Part 5:  10-01

My Favourite 50 of 2014, Part Four

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#20:  Caribou – Our Love

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.

#19:  White Lung – Deep Fantasy

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.

#18:  Drive-By Truckers – English Oceans

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.

#17:  Ex Hex – Rips

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.

#16:  Courtney Barnett – The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas

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.

#15:  Black Milk – If There’s A Hell Below

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.

#14:  Cymbals Eat Guitars – LOSE

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.

#13:  Single Mothers – Negative Qualities

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.

#12:  Spoon – They Want My Soul

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 GaTransference 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.

#11:  Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal

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.

Part 1:  50-41

Part 2:  40-31

Part 3:  30-21

Part 4:  20-11

Part 5:  10-01

Favourite 50 of 2014, Part Three

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#30:  BADBADNOTGOOD – III

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.

#29:  Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Pinata

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.

#28:  Sleaford Mods – Divide and Exit

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.

#27:  Ought – More Than Any Other Day

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.

#26:  Thee Oh Sees – Drop

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.

#25:  Behemoth – The Satanist

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.

#24:  Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness

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.

#23:  Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra – Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything

“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:  Ghostface Killah – 36 Seasons

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.

#21:  Deerhoof – La Isla Bonita

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.

 

 

Part 1:  50-41

Part 2:  40-31

Part 3:  30-21

Part 4:  20-11

Part 5:  10-01

My Favourite 50 of 2014, Part One

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#50:  Parkay Quarts – Content Nausea

The prolific Parquet Courts released two LPs in 2014, the second of which was released under their other other name.  Content Nausea adds a spiky post-punk vibe to their usual overcaffeinated blend of pop punk, Pavement, and Guided By Voices.  There’s a bit of Pere Ubu here, some uncomfortable odes to Gang of Four, and it melds smoothly into their existing sound.  In addition there is a cover, the first such the band has committed to permanence – a disarmingly straightforward take on Lee Hazlewood’s “These Boots Were Made For Walkin'” whose sole nod to original sound is the swath of feedback that wraps around the horn section.  It’s an interesting sonic detour for a band with a prolific sense of its own self.

 

#49:  King Tuff – Black Moon Spell

Kyle Thomas makes the kind of instantly kick-ass, fist-in-the-air type of album that would have been a stone classic thirty-five years ago.  Nowadays, of course, decades after the advent of Black Sabbath and Cheap Trick, it fills the same sort of nostalgia niche as the Darkness once did.  Unlike the Darkness, however, Black Moon Spell is not lazily reaching for a derivative pop-Iron Maiden type of sound; rather, it hits the same filthy back-alley sounds that the first Cheap Trick album once did, twining fuzz guitar around the kind of melodies that countless Sunset Strip bands spent the 1980s mining.  As it stands it fits in well with the fuzzed-out garage revivalism spearheaded by acts like Ty Segall and Bass Drum of Death – Master Segall actually guests on the title track.  The album’s highlight is without a doubt “Eyes of the Muse”, which I honestly thought was a cover the first time I heard it.  It has a guitar vibe that touches on Marc Bolan, Pete Townsehend, and Eric Clapton without being slavishly devoted to any of them.  Great for people who slag on modern music and miss “real rock”.

#48:  Ben Frost – A U R O R A

Aurora is the sound of the 21st Century barrelling down on us:  the paranoia, the rebirth of nuclear tensions, the sense that it might already be too late to fix the problems we face on this fragile little planet of ours.  Avant-garde composer Ben Frost channels these rather frightening ideas through waves of glacial synths, creeping loops, withering soundscapes, and metallic samples.  What percussion is on this record acts to punctuate the sound and bring the piece in question to another level of dread.  It was mainly written beneath an active volcano in the DR of Congo and sound uncommonly like if Tim Hecker were to be covered by an even more nihilistically focused Swans – an interesting analogy given Frost’s production of albums for both artists.

#47:  The Notwist – Close To The Glass

The venerable also-ran of indie rock released an album this year that comes very close to achieving the heights of their 2002 masterpiece Neon Golden.  Close To The Glass displays all of the best facets of the German band’s style:  the pop sensibilities, the tight arrangements, and of course the spiky electronic textures that are their stock-in-trade.  There were bands melding ambient electronic sounds with indie rock before the Notwist but there were none that influenced the bands that came after quite like they did.  Close To The Glass is an excellent after-the-fact explanation of why.

#46:  Marissa Nadler – July

2014 brought dream-folk singer Marissa Nadler to the white-hot Sacred Bones label, and with it came a newfound sense of personal confession.  Nadler’s earlier work was often metaphorical in nature, but July brings her songwriting perspective into the first person.  As usual, a broken heart is the culprit:  the song-cycle on display here is strewn with the debris of a dead relationship and the haunted emotions that accompany it. Despite its fiercely personal nature there is a sweeping universality inherent in it; anyone who’s ever suffered through a hellish breakup will know exactly what July is saying.

#45:  Foxes In Fiction – Ontario Gothic

Warren Hildebrand’s younger brother died in 2008 and he’s been mourning him ever since.  I first caught on to his Foxes in Fiction moniker through “Flashing Lights Have Ended Now”, a deeply sad ambient piece that /mu/ was into (largely, I think, because Hildebrand was one of us and sometimes did Q and A sessions for the hell of it).  His debut, 2010’s Swung From The Branches, was *okay*, but it felt too loose and surreal to really fit the devastating nature of either “Flashing Lights” or another perennial favourite of mine, “Bathurst”.  Ontario Gothic is a much tighter album, anchored by synth arpeggios and the sort of reverb-soaked, ethereal vocals that thousands of chillwave artists can only dream of.  Owen Pallett does string arrangements throughout as well, making for pop music that reaches the next spiritual plane of existence more often than not.  This is “healing pop” – Hildebrand’s own words – and it’s hard not to listen to it and feel cleaner having come out the other side.

#44:  Jenny Lewis – The Voyager

Jenny Lewis was every Nintendo nerd’s red-headed crush in 1989’s Fred Savage vehicle/Power Glove advertisement The Wizard.  Then, by the early 2000s, she was the critical darling of Los Angeles’ typically backwater indie scene, bringing California folk-rock and Fleetwood Mac up to date with Rilo Kiley.  Immediately following her band’s demise she went solo and has been channeling a modern day version of Emmylou Harris ever since.  The Voyager is her strongest effort to date, a collection of L.A. sounds that range from opulent yacht-pop to the folky parts of the Canyon that Joni Mitchell once haunted.  It’s big, and it’s confident, but it’s also vulnerable under the surface; there’s heartache here, and disappointment, and the mismatch of wistful nostalgia with the dreary truth of the present.  It’s a midlife crisis wrapped in gilded paper, like if Beth Cosentino grew up and still wrote songs for men who weren’t sure if they wanted to commit to her yet.

#43:  Joyce Manor – Never Hungover Again

Never Hungover Again comes and goes in less than twenty minutes, but in that slight frame of time it packs enough shorthand and ideas for an album twice its size.  Joyce Manor spent their previous two albums banging out a lo-fi revival of the days when emo didn’t mean faux-goth kids wearing Hot Topic specials and thinking Black Veil Brides were cool.  Never Hungover Again continues in the tradition of riot booooy albums but their new deal with the venerable Epitaph Records gives them a bigger budget that they use to full effect.  There’s absolutely nothing here that says they’ve sold out, the key thing here is that the band sounds immensely huge, bigger than they’ve ever sounded before.  The touches from the emo forebears are all there – here’s some Weezer, here’s some Jawbreaker, here’s some Jimmy Eat World before they started to suck – but it’s all integrated flawlessly and played with an honest, earnest passion.  It’s an album for those who came of age just before and just after 9/11.


#42:  tUnE-yArDs – Nikki Nack

Nikki-Nack builds on the previous W H O K I L L album through the simple expedient of being bigger.  Ditching the loops in favour of live drumming, Nikki-Nack is so different than what came before that one can only imagine where Merrill Garbus will take her act next.  The lack of tape loops and lo-fi field recordings points towards a long series of sessions in a professional studio, although the breathless energy of the tracks still has its roots in 80s R&B and schoolyard skipping-rope chants.  Subtle when it needs to be, Nikki-Nack  balances dark thoughts with caffeine-fuelled movement such that it keeps the listener from leaving with a first impression of moodiness.  While it largely lacks the singular anthems that W H O K I L L brought to the table (aside from “Water Fountain”, of course), it’s a much more fulfilling album, one that should leave the the listener breathless, satisfied, and wondering where the hell it’s going to go after.

#41:  Fucked Up – Glass Boys

Glass Boys is the band’s shortest album, and after the exhausting conceptual monolith of David Comes To Life, it’s refreshing.  Musically it builds on their previous work, layering anthemic guitar work over rock-solid progressive rhythm work and letting Pink Eyes stab his signature growl through everything.  Here and there are more classic rock nods, another progression from the sprawling previous album.  Fuzzy, icepick guitar solos, organ flourishes, lumbering Black Sabbath riffs –  this is not the hardcore of Minor Threat or 7 Seconds.  Maybe it is “popcore”, as Emily Haines snarkily tweeted the night The Chemistry of Common Life won Canada’s Polaris Prize, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable in a way that classic hardcore just isn’t.

Part 1:  50-41

Part 2:  40-31

Part 3:  30-21

Part 4:  20-11

Part 5:  10-01