Albums I Listened To in 2014

Five Albums I Loved, In Roughly Chronological (for me) Order

Owen Pallett, In Conflict.

“In Conflict”. “The Riverbed”. “On a Path”.

I think Owen Pallett is one of those musicians who hits a stride and then just can do no wrong for like a decade or so, and In Conflict finds him in the middle of that stride. His musical inventory has grown from the looped violin and chamber strings of his earlier albums to more fully incorporate acoustic drums and the electronic and synth flourishes he started employing on Heartland.

Pallett’s voice, never the kind to dominate a track, still doesn’t, but it’s stronger than ever, easily centering the driving, intense “The Riverbed” (shot through with electric guitar, surely his loudest song) and making “The world will forget any good you have done” sound like a rallying cry. But more often, especially before the first of his two “→” interludes, it’s gentle like on "The Passions,” where it floats over strings that drift from abstract tone clusters (as if half-remembered or just obscured by a haze of propriety) to chords that momentarily surround the lyrics and then dissipate again.

Speaking of the lyrics: Pallett got some buzz in 2014 for a series of essays in which he analyzed some big recent pop hits using the tools of classical music theory, and that blending of the “high” and “low”-brow continues to be a big part of the appeal of his lyrics too. So you have one of my favorite stanzas of the year, where a philosophical rumination on fame and immortality in the title track pivots abruptly into a crude, cheeky come-on. You have “The Secret Seven”’s blunt rejection of the It Gets Better mantra in its chorus softened by Pallett’s singing of (apparently) his actual phone number and a probaby facetious request that the listener call him if they can’t reach their mother. And you have an album that announces its commitment to ambiguity, internal struggle and in-between-ness by having an esoteric gender-neutral pronoun as its fifth word.

I don’t have any moments that I’d call standouts from this album because the whole thing’s so consistently solid. It’s affecting, playful, catchy work from a musician at the top of his game, and the quality also makes it delightful how voluble he is about his creative process and motivating themes. Like its predecessor Heartland, In Conflict is an album that can grab you immediately and work as background music but also reward any closer inspection you care to undertake.

Swans, To Be Kind.

“Oxygen”. “A Little God In My Hands”.

I can’t write about this album without sounding hyperbolic, so if you haven’t heard it you have to just trust that I’m not exaggerating when I say things like “To Be Kind grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go for two hours” or “To Be Kind is a rollercoaster ride where every car is a steamroller with spikes on it” or the like. Let’s say: if you have something distressing on your mind and you would like to blast it out of there as efficiently as possible, you could do worse than spending a couple hours with To Be Kind at high volume.

This album has few of the characteristics that usually define my year-end favorites. Its lyrics are “mantric” if you’re feeling generous, “perfunctory” if not, and probably something like “asinine” if you’re not into it. It has some of what could be called hooks, but its approach to melody ranges from indifferent to hostile, to say nothing of its total disregard for conciseness. In light of that, I guess the easiest way to describe its appeal to me is to say that it is one hundred percent unself-conscious and uninhibited, which inspires a certain vicarious delight in a person like me who is completely the opposite. Is it weird of me to have a secret desire to perform the seventeen-minute “She Loves Us!” at karaoke and have everyone in the room clear out in disgust at its two minutes of wordless gibbering so that Michael Gira and I can shout “YOUR NAME IS FUCK” at the top of our lungs and then follow it up with another nine “FUCK”s in a row without everyone, like, judging us about it? Is it weird that that song is supposed to be about sexual abandon but I suspect the force that makes me want to “sing” along to it is impotent rage? Or is it just weird that I think it’s germane to admit that in an album review?

To Be Kind isn’t just two hours of sixty-year-old Michael Gira bellowing inscrutable obscenities. The musicianship—tight enough for a groove like the one in “A Little God In My Hands” but loose enough that when it spills over into cacophony after the first verse you feel it might do so again at any moment—makes those obscenities feel justified. The stamina exemplified by the two solid minutes of pummelling that Swans delivers at the beginning of the thirty-plus-minute “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture” makes them feel earned. Put it all together and this album, which on paper seems self-indulgent and gratuitous in the extreme, never feels that way when you’re listening to it.

After being underwhelmed by Swans’s (superficially quite similar) last effort The Seer, I was really surprised at how much I liked To Be Kind and how often I still manage to make time to listen to it front to back. It’s not the kind of album you cherry pick songs from (with the possible exception of the blistering “Oxygen” or the blaring single “A Little God in My Hands”). It demands a commitment and your full attention but it earns both in spades: when the final onslaught of the title track subsides I feel raw, hypersensitive, scrubbed clean as if by purifying fire.

Jenny Hval and Susanna, Meshes of Voice.

“Black Lake”. “O Sun O Medusa // A Mirror In My Mouth”. Medley (live)

Jenny Hval’s 2011 album Viscera was one of my favorites that year, but Meshes of Voice tops it even as it reprises some of its material. Viscera’s black lake reappears here: lyrically in the first and last proper songs, and sonically in the form of floods of distortion, feedback and static that either suffuse the vocals or drown them out entirely. Too much of this would be unlistenable (or perhaps just part of a genre whose charms haven’t made themselves known to me yet), but Meshes deftly balances the noise with its prettily melodic sections in a way that enriches both.

Over these alternately skeletal and miasmic backing tracks—this was apparently a live performance, which I didn’t realize until I heard a cough from an audience member when my listen count was in the double digits—the lyrics take a handful of themes and stretch them thin: honey dew, Medusa, milk, the body. The “Mirror in My Mouth” of track 6 seems to me to loosely describe the album’s structure, with “I Have a Darkness” as the suffocating centerpiece across which the aforementioned themes reflect. Basically: the first and last songs describe the lake; “I Have a Darkness” is the lake.

Conventional descriptions of this album’s sound don’t seem to do it justice. Some of the melodies could be described as catchy, I guess, but they cling like honey dew rather than in the parasitic way usually associated with the term “earworm”. The vocals are uniformly strong and complement each other as well as the title suggests: Susanna Wallumrød has the more “traditional” voice, mellow and warm compared to the sometimes piercing reediness of Jenny Hval’s vocals, and she usually sings over piano where Hval favors guitar. Besides the noisy sections I described in my first paragraph, the instrumentation deviates only rarely (and thrillingly) from those two timbres. There’s an organ of some kind on “Honey Dew”, a splash of drums on “A Sudden Swing”, and the piano takes on a bit of a barroom sound on “Medusa”, but overall Meshes sticks to a pretty consistent sound.

But the real appeal of this album for me is that it seems full of mysteries—mirrors and depths, skin and bones, water and milk—but reveals a little more of itself every time I listen. It’s lovely to skim along its surface and peer into its black depths, but there’s enough lake there to submerge myself completely and never reach the bottom.

Zammuto, Anchor.

“Great Equator”. “IO”.

Anchor is a graceful album, cohesive and melodic, surprisingly sedate for the impression it leaves on me. Its production is a front to back triumph—particularly the crispy drums—supplementing an emotional and stylistic arc that culminates in what’s for my money the most affecting couple of minutes of melancholy of the year.

This album is a sonic delight, and the links in this paragraph will take you to blog entries where you can not only hear the songs but read about how they were made; as an occasional music-making hobbyist myself I find Nick Zammuto’s skill in production hugely daunting and impressive. Here are a few of my favorite moments on Anchor that he coaxes out of his equipment and his apparently hugely talented collaborators: Those huge synth bass hits behind the verse and the twitchy blips in the interlude of “Great Equator.” The tightly reined cacophony that starts and finishes “Hegemony.” Those claps in “Electric Ant” and the unstoppable rubbery basslines of “IO” and “Need Some Sun”. The so, so perfectly maudlin strings that buoy the falsetto in “Your Time”’s bridge to even further heights of pathos.

I think my only quibble with this album is that “Stop Counting” drags a little bit for me, but that’s not enough to keep it from being one of my favorites this year. It’s gorgeous, enigmatic but not unapproachable, and it packs a great deal of fun and sonic inventiveness into a tidy 40 minutes.

Adult Jazz, Gist Is.

“Hum”. “Am Gone”.

I admit, I found out about this album by reading about it on another year-end list. The advantages of having no deadline of one’s own, I guess: I can dawdle till February before finishing my list and poach albums from all the people with editors breathing down their necks. Anyway, the poachee in question was coke machine glow, which used to be my favorite music review site back when they reviewed more than three albums per month, and albums like this one are why.

Gist Is is such a hot-and-cold piece of work, like it wants to keep you at arm’s length but also pull you in for a hug and can’t make up its mind. This is apparent from the very first word of the very first song, after a warm but metallic hum leads us toward Harry Burgess’s vocals. They too are round and smooth but almost unsettlingly so: a bit unearthly, maybe, but expressing a very human fear: “The police are gonna wound me / the minister will heal me / but I think he’ll do it equally violently.”

That striking first line is also one of the most complete thoughts in an album otherwise packed with what often seems like a tangle of lyrical scraps: parenthetical asides, sentence fragments, scat singing, even outright gibberish (that’s nontheless faithfully transcribed in the liner notes). So when you get something that sounds like a statement of intent—like when the already-spare instrumentation steps aside about halfway through album centerpiece “Spook”—you sit up and take notice. “I write these songs to trick God / and I do not take it lightly” is a line I find delightful enough on its own, but in context on “Spook” it gives me a frisson. And then “Spook” spirals up into one of Gist Is’s most anthemic choruses, and when it ends it’s followed by the tribal thump and incoherent ululation of “Idiot Mantra”. It’s a hell of a transition.

I’m focusing on moments from Gist Is that tickle me, but the album is almost just a collection of moments. Its nine, mostly longish songs tend to be of the “song suite” variety, which has been one of my favorite formats since the Fiery Furnaces made it a way of life on Blueberry Boat. But the instrumentals aren’t overstuffed like the Furnaces': there’s a pretty minimal rotation of drums, guitar and bass with a dusting of trombone and synth. The sparsity of the arrangements ensures you can always make out each instrument and keeps Gist Is sonically cohesive, but never boring, as it hops from idea to idea. The melodies are compelling and hooky as the dickens and Harry Burgess has a powerful and acrobatic voice. This is a splendid album.

Stuff I Liked A Lot

Runners Up

These are albums I liked a lot but didn’t quite love: maybe they had some lyrics that made me wince; maybe they were impressive but too frontloaded or uneven, with too many songs that didn’t quite hit for me; maybe they were striking but too “out there” for me to really say I loved them.

Fear of Men, Loom

Kind of a slight thing at first glance, with its frontwoman’s wispy voice and mostly unadventurous arrangements. The guitar work might be the most R.E.M.-ish I’ve heard since Peter Buck himself played on like half of that Decemberists album, and the melodies are the kind that stick in your head for days, but the lyrics are what make this album feel like a full package. The last song is the best showcase for zingers— “Baby come back / Baby come before the light is gone / You don’t disgust me anymore / You don’t disgust me / Sometimes I miss you / When you’re not around to turn me down"— but there’s more thoughtful stuff, equally as good, sprinkled throughout.

Pharmakon, Bestial Burden

The most searing 32 minutes of music I heard this year, which I guess what do you expect when you check out an album made by a noise artist after almost dying. Margaret Chardiet edges out Swans for the "bloodcurdling shriek of the year” award (“Intent or Instinct,” 3:15, though perhaps its impact is increased by my invariably having been holding my breath for a minute or so anticipating it at that point) and takes the “most uncomfortable listen of the year” award for “Primitive Struggle” in an absolute landslide. Basically: this album viscerally conveys the tenuousness and absurdity of life to me. It is alternately nauseating and oppressive. Sometimes, if rarely, that’s just what I’m looking for.

Also, best Youtube comment on this album: “j'ai écouté ça et mon chat s'est suicidé”

Kool A.D., WORD O.K.

Kool A.D. is my favorite rapper but he’s never had an album in one of my “best of” lists since the late, lamented Das Racist broke up because he seems to release everything he records without regard for the consistency that I value so highly there. WORD O.K. is, I believe, his first proper album after a flood of post-DR mixtapes: it’s a little more restrained, a little more verse-heavy, and a little shorter than the mixtapes but maintains the stoner insousiance and freewheeling refusal to give a fuck that makes them delightful and frustrating in equal measure. Major quibbles: I’m not thrilled that Kool A.D. and his guests bump up the misogyny and objectification a bit here. “The Front” is the corniest goddamn rapping I’ve heard since the last time I watched some YouTube shit where white people tried to “rap” about Whole Foods or whatever and it features Decent Producer but Worst Rapper in the World Amaze 88, who here reminds me of nothing so much as a totally straight-faced Hiphopopotamus. Aside from those two complaints, though, it’s whatever, man. Kool A.D. is still the best rapper in the world, best rapper alive, best rapper dead or alive, in the world.

Busdriver, Perfect Hair

The west coast rap collective Hellfyre Club dropped a really good and fun mixtape in 2013 and then followed it up with like four solo albums, and Busdriver’s was the one that grabbed me the hardest. This surprised me a little, but Busdriver has been in the game since just about forever and he’s got ambition to show for it: Perfect Hair is gloriously over the top and it hits way more often than it misses. “Ego Death” is the most straightforward thing here, for sure, a monstrous posse cut featuring three of the most distinctive voices in rap. But the album is also rife with hooks both spoken and sung, some brilliantly wry lines (one of my favorites, from opener “Retirement Ode”: “I’m a frequent flyer / And a decent liar / And that’s a lie in itself / But you knew that, come on!”), and hairpin turns in the production that it’s amazing Driver manages to pull together.

Neneh Cherry, Blank Project

Outstanding pop with great, soulful vocals over minimalist and sometimes unorthodox beats. I gather that Robyn, who does guest vocals on “Out of the Black” here, is some kind of fairly highly regarded pop artist, but Cherry frankly makes her sound kind of wan and bloodless. Unlike a lot of my year-end favorites, this album has some notable standouts: the title track, “Naked”, and “Dossier” are probably my favorites, with “422” the stronger of the few slow songs. “Cynical” is jarring in a way that doesn’t work for me and the deranged laughter that ties the album off makes more sense on an album like Bestial Burden that’s not even trying to be tuneful. Still though. I can imagine an alternate universe in which this is a much glossier, pure-pop album. As it is, it sounds like someone sanded all the gloss off that version and then kept going until they hit rebar. That’s an interesting thing for an album to sound like.

Azealia Banks, Broke With Expensive Taste

Worth the wait? I’m not sure. But definitely worth a listen or twelve. I really, really like Banks’s rap flow so this is a little heavier on the choruses than I’d prefer, but she’s no slouch as a singer either and there are some solid melodic hooks. The real revelation is how eclectic this is, though. I love the left turn into samba shit on “Gimme a Chance” and the space the verses in “Desperado” have to breathe. “212” makes what will probably be its final appearance here, and of course it still bangs, but because the album is so all over the place, it doesn’t stick out as The Best Song in the way I’d feared would make me want to shut the album off after hearing it. Most of the other songs aren’t even trying to compete with it. In short: “Nude Beach A Go-Go” is probably the stupidest song I heard all year and I kind of hate it. But I appreciate that Broke with Expensive Taste is the kind of album that will include it.

St. Vincent, St. Vincent

I love about half of this album (the first half, natch) and can’t really muster up any enthusiasm for the rest of it, though it’s not bad. “Huey Newton” is absolutely one of my favorite songs of 2014, despite its dream-journal lyrics: the almost-bone-dry production on the drums in the first half is unaccountably wonderful to me, as is the turn it takes halfway through. The transition from there to “Digital Witness"— which makes St. Vincent’s David Byrne collab Love This Giant sound like a collection of B-sides— is similarly sublime. But how is an artist as weird and wonderful as St. Vincent gonna title a song "Psychopath” and make it one of the most boring things on the album (tied with “Every Tear Disappears”)? I like the wackiness of “Bring Me Your Loves” but it sort of pales in comparison to the also wacky and far catchier “Birth In Reverse.” Frontloading! The scourge of modern music!

Artists Doing What They Do

This section includes some artists who basically seem to have a Thing They Do at this point and released albums showcasing them Doing That Thing, generally very proficiently and enjoyably but in a way that tends not to be super exciting once you’re “used to” it.

Spoon, They Want My Soul

What Spoon Does: solid, catchy rock music with maybe a little bluesiness (“You Just Don’t Understand”), maybe some more adventurous arrangements and production (“Inside Out”, “Knock Knock Knock”). They Want My Soul is not as tight as Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga or as eclectic as Kill the Moonlight but there’s not a weak track on it. The transition from “Knock Knock Knock” to “Outlier” is a smooth, delicious segue between probably the two most different tracks on here, which also happen to be two of my favorites on the album. They Want My Soul falls off a little for me after that, but the title track is another standout that keeps me listening through to the end.

The New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers

What The New Pornographers do: Pure shiny power pop candy. Peep the neon lights on the cover! It’s not my favorite NP album (I think that would probably be Electric Version, for anyone keeping score) but it’s a solid one with two of the sugariest Dan Bejar choruses of all time. Also maybe lead singer A.C. Newman is maybe gettin' a little autobiographical on “Backstairs”? That’s fun, from a dude whose lyrical M.O. up to now has seemed to be mostly “sing the words what sound good together.” But while I don’t want to say “if you’ve heard one NP album you’ve heard them all” because that would imply they only have one worth hearing, at this point their shtick is so like an old, comfy hoodie to me that I can’t get too excited about it.

Run The Jewels, Run the Jewels 2

What Run The Jewels do: Wall-to-wall rap bangers that make you want to throw a brick at a motherfucking cop car. NOTE: I DO NOT ENDORSE THROWING A BRICK AT A MOTHERFUCKING COP CAR. But, like, if you plan to do it anyway, you could do worse than listen to Run the Jewels 2 to get hype beforehand. RTJ get a little more introspective in “Crown” and “Early"— and substantially raunchier on "Love Again"— than on their debut, and their guests fit in a lot better too. They still come up with some hooky, clever bars and spit them with considerable stamina and versatility. El-P’s beats still hit hard as hell: see for example ”Oh My Darling Don’t Cry,“ (video NSFW, sigh) which starts out intense enough but veers to new heights of frenetic aggression about two-thirds through, or the wacky percussion fills that round out the stanzas of "All Due Respect.” But, I mean, the name of the album is appropriate. This is at the same time “incredibly” and “just” an equally-good sequel to one of the best rap albums of last year, which is to say it’s great, but now that the sheen has worn off the shtick it’s just not enough to get me past its occasional ickiness (e.g. I’m just not super into listening to grown men say “dick in her mouth all day” 16 times on the aforementioned “Love Again”) or the way that it ends with its longest and least impressive song (“Angel Duster”). Still, it won’t disappoint you if anything I’ve said here sounds the least bit appealing.

clipping., CLPPNG

What clipping. does: Noise rap, meaning beats that range from “mildly off-kilter and abrasive” to “like listening to a JPEG”, with a dextrous rapper spitting gangsta shit that’s no less hackneyed for its undercurrent of cynicism and disillusionment. clipping.’s first album, midcity, was compelling to me because the beats were like nothing I’d ever heard, but the serviceable banality of the lyrics kept it from having any real staying power. CLPPNG doesn’t really bring anything new to the table so, lacking the element of surprise that its predecessor had, it faded from my rotation even faster.

Aphex Twin, Syro

What Aphex Twin does: Aphex Twin is actually just one guy, his actual name is Richard D. James, and he was one of the pioneers of electronic and ambient music back in the day. If you knew all that, you probably have a pretty good idea of what this sounds like as soon as I tell you it’s more Drukqs than Selected Ambient Works, Volume II. In fact, this album sounds to me like Drukqs, Volume II, shorn of the more out-there pieces like the nightmarish “Gwarek2” and shaken until all the little downtempo piano interludes coagulate into a pudding at the bottom. It has the frenetic, trebly drums hitting all over the place like a bed of nails for the nervous, usually minor-key melodies to try and fail to settle down on. The chopped and screwed voices, some inscrutable or barely recognizable as such, some merely distorted. The song structures that rarely if ever repeat a section. It’s really good. But it had too much of a whiff of “clearing out the vaults” and didn’t captivate me the way my top 5 did.

Other Stuff

Disappointments

Albums I was looking forward to that were letdowns when they actually dropped.

Milo, A Toothpaste Suburb

My stance on Milo is that he’s my perfect rapper on paper, what with his having a song named “DAVID FOSTER WALLACE” and taking his own moniker from the main character of The Phantom Tollbooth. But in practice, he just never quite lives up to my expectations, mostly because of the total lack of cohesion of his lyrics. It’s weird, because it’s not like Kool A.D. (my favorite rapper, who features on “In Gaol” here and actually delivers one of his most linear, if pointless, verses ever) ever does much besides free-associate either, but I guess he sounds like he’s having a lot more fun with it than Milo is. The production here is spacey and pleasant but not really anything that wasn’t done just as well on Things That Happen at Day/Things That Happen at Night, and so I guess this basically works as background rap for me. And that’s not really a genre I’m interested in.

Open Mike Eagle, Dark Comedy

Actually, I have the same problem with Dark Comedy that I did with the only other Open Mike Eagle album I’ve heard, Rappers Will Die of Natural Causes: it has some fucking great lines, but a lot of others that kind of don’t do a lot for me after the first few listens, and the production leaves me almost completely cold. I’ll give examples of all three. Almost the entire second verse of “Golden Age Raps” is brilliant, but the note of desperate, sarcastic faux-enthusiasm with which Mike delivers the lines “And if your rap career ain’t hitting / You can rap over videos of kittens, it’s the golden aaaaaage!” and “And no one ever has to pay for anything! / Which is pretty cool ‘cause everybody’s unemplooooooooooyed!” are two of my favorite moments in rap that 2014 gave me. That’s the good news. The bad news is the lyrics in tracks like “Very Much Money (Ice King Dream)” and “Jon Lovitz (Fantasy Booking Yarn),” which are cute for the first couple listens but then it’s like, okay, I get the joke now! Cool! Maybe the difference is that Mike just doesn’t sell them as well as he does those lines on Golden Age Raps, and unfortunately their production is exactly as boring as the interminable screeching in “A History of Modern Dance” is grating.

But hey, “Qualifiers” is also on here, and that track still rules.

Future Islands, Singles

I came late to Future Islands’s second album In Evening Air and grew to love it pretty quickly, that borderline chintzy synth work anchoring Sam Herring’s unique and versatile voice which in turn gives it an edge and a huge dollop of authentic—even overwrought—emotion. Singles takes the poppiness lying under the surface of tracks like “Tin Man” and spins it into a whole album, and it doesn’t sit right with me.

Don’t get me wrong, you should watch that Letterman performance if you haven’t already. But it seems to me that Herring has a voice made for darkness, not light. His straining into his upper register on songs like “Spirit,” “Doves,” and “A Song For Our Grandfathers” makes me wince, especially when paired with the sometimes dubious or unconvincingly chipper lyrics and saccharine melodies like the chorus of “Sun in the Morning.” Singles as a whole lacks the dynamism of that Letterman performance: the growl and chest-thumping that helped make that performance so electrifying are absent, the darkness piled unceremoniously into penultimate track “Fall from Grace” which comes off as histrionic in the context of all the poppiness. I think the track that walks the tightrope best is “Light House,” even if it sounds like he’s singing “And this is where we were / when I showed you the duck / inside of me” and now that I’ve heard it I can’t unhear it (and you can’t either; you’re welcome). This is a decent album, for all my dunking on it; it just pales next to In Evening Air, thwarted by its own attempt to be immediate and lacking that album’s slow-burning and enveloping mood.

Scott Walker & Sunn O))), Soused

So I thought I didn’t know what to expect from this, but then I listened to it and it turned out to be exactly what I’d been imagining without being aware of it. Hell, I could have included it in my “Artists Doing What They Do” section above, and that’s really not a good look for Scott Walker, whose 2006 The Drift remains one of the most startling and terrifying albums I’ve ever heard.

But I can’t argue with the facts: these are five quite long songs of which each and every one takes maybe a handful of decent ideas, stretches them pretty thin, and fills in the gaps with Sunn O)))’s special blend of sludge. Opener “Brando” features the use of a bull whip as arrhythmic percussion, which is cute and thematically appropriate but verges on self-parody after Walker did the same damn thing with machetes on Bish Bosch and a side of beef on The Drift. “Herod 2014” doesn’t justify more than about half of its twelve-minute runtime. The whole thing has all the dreariness of Walker’s other “late-period” work but lacks the melodies of Tilt, the creeping terror of The Drift, and the humor and grotesqueness of Bish Bosch. Probably my number one disappointment of 2014.

Dribs and Drabs