#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 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.