20. Flying Lotus – You're Dead!
“Dead Man’s Tetris” is the place in You’re Dead! that you might cotton to the fact that this is a concept album about dying if the branding hadn’t already keyed you in. And who’s the first person you meet in heaven? The disembodied voice of Snoop Dogg né Lion né Dogg né Doggy Dogg, aka a man who has spent twenty years reinventing himself. Oh but he’s so smooth though! Funny that an album that attempts to faceplant straight into mankind’s deepest abyss can’t help but hint at rebirth. And You’re Dead! feels like something of a rebirth for Flying Lotus as well. The rougher edges of his previous music have been sanded down to the point where I’ve seen him dismissed as an off-brand Herbie Hancock in more than one place. But to me, You’re Dead! sounds introverted. It sounds like the music itself is searching – frantically drifting, the way I imagine inner dialogue sounds when contemplating someone else’s death or your own.
19. Ty Segall – Manipulator
Spending the better part of the last decade fuzzing it up and hanging out in every music writer's top ten list of go-to "garage revival" listicles, it's become somewhat difficult to single out the actual albums that Ty Segall releases, the equivalent of a Buddhist convert confusedly trying to figure out what part of the river he had stepped in yesterday. Not so with Manipulator, which carved down the squalor enough to give America's most recent T. Rex convert--Segall covered him in 2013, and the licks sticked--a chance for him to deliver his longest, most sustained piece of music yet. Lyrically, Segall seems to be sticking with what sounds good versus clear meaning, with most of his songs revolving around a pronoun, a noun, and at least one verb, repeated over time, sometimes in a pattern. Triumphs of the will are for assholes, anyway. Time to get crusty again!
If busdrivers were elected officials, who would drive the night bus? With Burial careening toward house music on his most recent EP, the world is left with Andy Stott taking charge of this most hypnotic state of travel. Faith in Strangers takes nearly fifteen minutes to lull you into a waking dream before detouring onto unexplored roads – from the noxious, clattering “Damage” to the title track, a genuine pop song that wouldn’t sound too out of place on a Beach House record. On Millie & Andrea’s Drop the Vowels, Stott gets a major assist from Demdike Stare’s Miles Whittaker – let’s call him the Minister of Exact Change – for an album that sounds more familiar to those following Stott’s earlier campaigns (his grassroots years) like the similarly spacious and dubby EPs Passed Me By and We Stay Together. You didn’t realize it was possible to drift and fixate simultaneously. You’re pretty sure you’ve passed that same mailbox three times already. You’re on the night bus, baby. With Stott at the wheel, your ride is in good hands.
17. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
We have gotten to the point where an old-school shitkicking country album can sound downright revolutionary. I sent a 100-song mp3 mix of all kinds of music from 2014 to my closest friends, and the most frequent reaction to the inclusion of “Turtles All the way Down” has been, “Sturgill? Simpson? What! Is! This!” It’s country, duders. Perhaps they are shocked by the laundry list of psychedelics Simpson says taught him how to love? “Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin, DMT.” (Protip: when you believe there’s a gateway in your mind that leads to alien reptiles, that’s the DMT talking, bro.) Perhaps it’s the simple studio tricks that wouldn’t be out of place on one of my dad’s band’s records that make this album Metamodern. That all just reminds me of another country eccentric – Terry Allen, whose late 70s masterpiece Lubbock (On Everything) travelled down plenty of these gravel roads. But if the promise of novelty gets you to crack open Sturgill Simpson’s mp3s, it’s the directness of his music (evinced most gut-wrenchingly on his cover of When in Rome’s “The Promise”) that should resonate long enough to eradicate the album’s title altogether.
16. Gordon Voidwell – Bad Études
Bad Études often makes me feel like I’m listening to an issue of Vice Magazine, which is not typically a way I choose to feel. I worry about its shelf-life – that I’ll wake up one day and it will sound repulsive to my ears, like Counting Crows 20 years after worshiping them in high school. In the meantime, I’m embracing it as a substantial house-party mix by the dude best known for remixing a Das Racist jam. The fact that Gordon Voidwell’s music is slightly out-of-joint with the current rockcrit meta means that he often mines conceptually unsexy sounds with great success. Out of the gate, “Homemade VHS” and “Bad Wave” are relentlessly sticky. But it’s not until the Prince homage “GF Jeans,” that Voidwell’s sly musicianship comes into focus. An “etude” is, classically, a short composition that is exceedingly difficult to perform. Here, Voidwell’s the touch-points of mid-80s funk and mid-00s synthpop are a hard sell, but it’s a tribute to Voidwell that he makes them so easy to listen to.
15. Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else
Cloud Nothings’ third album is a contradiction: an emo record about being unable to communicate one’s emotions. Lead songwriter Dylan Baldi litters Here and Nowhere Else with false starts and full stops: “You don’t really seem to care and I don’t even talk about it,” “I don’t know what you’re telling me is true,” “I’m not telling you all I’m going through.” It’s as if Baldi is trying to articulate the feelings that get lost upon resolution or resignation – the quiet seconds in the middle of a long argument; the cognitive static created between the urge to act and the inability to know what to do. In this way, Here and Nowhere Else dives into some of the most difficult artistic territory to navigate—the moment-to-moment complexity of confusion, of anxiety, of low self-esteem, of depression.
A double shot of some of the finest lyricist currently lyricising (sure!), these two albums--sisters, yes, but not twins--are the strongest examples in 2014 provided for sending our critics into fits of favorite-picking, with the end result of all those "now, THIS is the best line" reviews serving up all the raw, informational meat required for the greatest music writers Venn diagram ever constructed. We'll find out who your friends really are, Jason Gubbels.
All kidding aside--but not really, we're talking about contemporary white boy indie rock of 2014, which means we're so neck deep in sincerely constructed fake identities to sell our brand that we're incapable of abandoning any pose that might move some units, and while snark might be out of favor this quarter, who knows what's around the corner in the 1099 economy--these guys really do sound like Pavement, but only in the way that they sound like they aren't going to let any obligation to specificity get in the way of a good riff or a great zinger.
Oh, and the the best line is "these people are famous. I'd trust 'em!"
13. Caribou – Our Love
One of those music acts guaranteed to earn you a "are you sure that guy didn't quit making stuff" every single time a new album drops, Caribou's Our Love--like Swim before it--is yet another slice of a very particular kind of heaven that we most definitely will miss when it is finally unavailable, despite the fact that for whatever reason, so many people seem to think that period of time has already arrived. (Two months ago I was actually stuck in a conversation explaining that no, Dan Snaith is alive and well, he even made a new album, and stop rolling your eyes at me i'm standing right-the-fuck-here.) A digital immersion made up predominantly of tracks that are built inside a pressure cooker, with the lid removed somewhere around the minute mark (at which point his R&B laced dance concoctions fill whatever space you've permitted them to enter), Our Love clocks in at a 42 minutes that never manages to feel longer than a dead heat for 20. ("It's over too soon", is where that sentence was aimed.) Some music you sell on its previous accomplishments, some you just bark "get your shit together", nowhere else on this list will you find a candidate better qualified for both categories. Our Love: quit fucking around.
12. Bing & Ruth Tomorrow Was the Golden Age
"What if Stephen Reich had sex with Beach House, but they did it at a silent Scientology birth?", he asked.
"I don't want to see you anymore," she replied.
Actually, if you're just going to list influences, you would want to mention William Basinski as well, the bulletproof king of experimental urban soundscapes that have meaning, no matter how much "okay, I'll buy that" you'll have to hand over. More so than anything since--well, their last release, or Billy B's--Tomorrow Was the Golden Age plays across that delicate line of decay and renewal, choosing to side with the sense of possibility that the morning contains rather than the bitterness that gentrification class war tends to produce. Right or wrong, this is a dynamic, life-embracing piece of work, and if it seems inconsequential to some--well, fuck those people. You really want to roll with those clowns?
11. Sunn O))) & Ulver – Terrestrials
Calling it baby's first Sunn O))) would be both fun and, for the most part, apt, as this is one of the most infectiously pleasant things our berobed fathers from the Northwest have brought to the table. Yet doing so would be to dismissive of Ulver's contribution to this mighty three track stew, and the more time one spends with Terrestrials, the more difficult it becomes to point to where America ends and Norway begins. The give and take of improvisation is at its best here, the sensation being more akin to what you read about amongst the jazz masters and Derek Bailey's of the world, and yet the end result is so eminently listenable and so blissfully clear eyed that it stands in as a stark reminder of how truly wonderful these two artists are: it takes a whole lot of work if you want to make it sound this easy.
10. PC Music – PC Music x DISown Radio Mix
If a person were to listen to TFO’s favorite albums of 2014 straight through, PC Music would be sandwiched between Godflesh and Swans, and Sun o))) and Ulver. Yet I suspect that many would find PC Music the most jarringly abrasive of that small grouping. The burgeoning London-based label often gets tagged as divisive or controversial, which to me means it requires the same period of acclimation that the sounds produced by the Sex Pistols or the Bomb Squad or Skream once did – the difference being that the A.G. Cook-led collective traffic in music that sounds like pure pop. Don’t get me wrong, pop music is often unsettling to begin with. But on this hour-long Soundcloud mix (which I’m using as easy shorthand for the bulk of the label’s 2014 work, a move I confess I stole from FACT magazine), PC Music’s roster – Cook, Danny L. Harle, Kane West (whose name I first reacted to as if someone had bought the domain name for gopgle.com), GFOTY, Nu New Edition, and Lil Data – barrels through trope after trope, infusing each with new energy inspired by K-pop, bass music, and even stuff like Negativeland’s U2. Even if PC Music don’t have quite as big an impact in 2015 as they seem to be building toward (though officially releasing Harle’s “Aquarius” would be a nice start), in 2014 the label challenged me to imagine the face of pop to come. I doubt I was alone.
9. Swans – To Be Kind
Although all the talk about comebacks in 2014 rightly belongs to Godflesh, D'Angelo and our blimp loving techno god, let's not forget about the guy who got back on the horse in 2010: Michael Gira. Responsible for the longest album on this list--To Be Kind clocks it an a skeleton shattering two hours, longer than the last few Liam Neeson movies and as hard as that man's lantern jaw. Nobody hit as hard as Gira did this year. Incorporating the kind of plainspoken walk-the-Earth poetry that he'd honed on his years releasing music under the Angels of Light moniker to such a degree that those records now feel like rehearsal archives, To Be Kind seamlessly transitions from the dusty roadhouse croak to the altered beast howl, while the percussion (courtesy of Thor Harris and Phil Puleo) pummels out a tempo that could serve as the pace car if Norse Gods needed to shatter mountains to dust. The term we use when we struggle with something is to grapple with it, last year, there was no more muscular partner. This is John Henry, giving it his all, besting the machine.
8. Godflesh – A World Lit Only by Fire
Although there are better, more correct arguments for the containment of the contemporary sound to be found on this list, there is something to be said for the utter purity of the lines of "New Dark Ages", the opening track on this, the first new album by Godflesh in 12 years: "Pray to God/pray/to/God/that we're/not here". If there's one thing that everybody shared this year--well, except for those who just don't pay any attention at all--it's the sense that we might be better off if we could just get-the-fuck-off-this-planet for a little while. The fact that said song concludes with the observation that "we all suffer" seems a little pat, because for the remainder of A World Lit Only By Fire, we are to get neck deep into the failings of those who built this maelstrom of hate, disease and decay. There's moments to breath, but ultimately, this is an album about the suffering that's been caused, and those that cause it, and the identification seems to come from a man with his head already in the noose. You'd call them last rites, but they feel more like the bitterness of optimism cowed, of hope extinguished--they sound like something you'd yell at the people who destroyed you not because you believe it will change them, but because their crime needs to ring in their ears as they watch your eyes bulge out.
7. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
St. Vincent is so simple compared to Annie Clark’s other albums. Every song is economical, and gives you almost exactly what you expect from it. The album is like 70% rockers and 30% ballads – in other words, the exact right combination of tempos as devised by the Brill Building or the Eagles or whatever. It is St. Vincent’s Pretenders album after a series of Kate Bush albums. And there’s something to be said for this approach—which, it should be noted, doesn’t step on any of Clark’s fringier tendencies. She is aided by the fact that the rockers rock and the ballads ball. Each song finds its own frenetic rhythm, and each rhythm inevitably barrels through some form of obsessive love – technological self-adoration on “Digital Witness;” platonic teenage sex on “Prince Johnny;” and on “I Prefer Your Love” she prefers your love to Jesus, go figure. St. Vincent isn’t the first to compare love to mania, but she is hyper-specific in placing a kind of Tourettic spasm where most artists would settle for a heartbeat.
6. Vince Staples – Hell Can Wait
It wouldn't be a year in music without some early 20's musician with a who-gives-a-fuck attitude towards pecking orders, and this year, the role was filled best by Vince Staples and his 7 track EP, Hell Can Wait. It's a nod off and you'll miss it kind of experience, but the likelihood of falling asleep during its too-brief 24 minutes is pretty close to nil--there's just too much here to experience, and it's as compelling as a chase scene. Weaving rock solid West Coast style banger rap with some intense, earthshaking low end rumbling that would fit seamlessly behind every look-at-that-giant-spaceship scene in any movie that has one, Hell Can Wait treats you its listeners like a tackling dummy--Vince knows he needs an audience, but he clearly wants to make sure that it's one who understands what he plans to dish out. There's more to come, of course--a longer album, higher production values, the requisite guest spots from established names (some of whom will certainly be trading on the hope that the nearness of youth will work like careerist Botox, others who will just want to revel in the excitement). For now, what we have is this--cast iron classicism. Nice work, kid.
5. Isaiah Rashad – Cilvia Demo
One of the subversive pleasures of Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city is the way it acutely traces the path of teenage alcoholism from peer pressure to party lust to dependency. “Swimming Pools (Drank),” for example, can be read two ways – the chorus, begging/bullying you to turn the party up a notch, has the veneer of a party anthem until you catch Kendrick worried about “drowning in poison” and whetting his “appetite for failure.” Tennessee’s Isaiah Rashad was always going to draw Kendrick comparisons, if only by virtue of being the first non-Black Hippy to release an album on Top Dawg Entertainment. But the Kendrick comparisons are at least somewhat apt – Rashad raps with a similar tenacity; less syllables-per-minute, but with a recognizable talent for finding the pocket of a beat while biting at the edges. And Rashad’s debut album, Cilvia Demo, is similarly subversive. His version of the Kendrick’s pool party is more chill (if no less skeezy), but there’s an undercurrent of fighting depression. On “Heavenly Father,” he talks about, “his issues as a child, when I was busy cutting on myself;” on “West Savannah,” as he’s seducing a lady with OutKast and weed, he chases romance as a way to keep his own tendencies at bay, singing, “at least we fell in love with something greater than debating suicide.”
4. D’Angelo – Black Messiah
We tend to take for granted things that were composed over extended periods of time. We tend to dismiss them. They become a novelty at best. At worst, a cautionary tale. “Chinese Democracy,” right? “That’s not the way things are done.” We’re conditioned to think of prog rock and excessively intricate compositions. Classical music. Perhaps we imagine them demanding of the same effort from us that went into their own creation, scuffle at the idea of pop as work, assume it must be belabored, dead-eyed. With D’Angelo we spent years focusing on the reason for delay – the alcoholism, body-issues, reclusiveness, whatever we thought could be bad enough to fell the dude who made Voodoo. The reason for delay—as if we were owed. But craft is a virtue, and Black Messiah, despite the apocrypha of its birth—D’Angelo’s long crawl out of a deep rut, and the catalyst of the Ferguson protests that led to its release—makes a surgical case for artists taking their damn time. Gestation seems to have allow Black Messiah to relish in so many traits that are usually either/or propositions. It is loose but judicious, comfortable but urgent, classic but vital.
3. Sun Kil Moon – Benji
It's hard, and it only gets harder, to take a step back from the minute to minute desire to lay judgement and ask what the value of art is, to question its purpose. It's not hard because we've changed, but because our access to the thing has changed so dramatically, in such a short period of time. There's more of it now, there's less boundaries--the job has become less the finding then the refusing, and while that has opened a thousand doors, it's also made it that much more difficult to go beyond the surface, to penetrate deeper into the thing. (One of the best music critics in the game told me earlier this year that while he had gotten much better at the quick listening the job demanded, he craved the chances to let something gestate, to write pieces where punctuality and how's-that-new-thing didn't determine the quantity of attention he could give.) The first thing that's going to go is going to be the question of value, in that ritual--and that's not without reason! After all, if the thing matters, it matters, you can't clamor for value to be proven every single time, you'd go insane, and you'd be annoying to boot. "Before I tell you if you should watch Game of Thrones, let's talk about whether or not serialized television has aesthetic purpose."
While plenty of art traffics in serious subject matter, only one album this year managed to address them all. Ranging in topic from the horrors of Sandy Hook, the bizarre repetition and savage randomness of tragedy, aging, a sexual inventory, serial killers, heartbreak, mortality, jealousy (professional and romantic), mental handicap, middle aged ennui, the resultant breakdown of the body...Benji, named after the movie, was so warmly received upon its release that it's hard to believe how incredibly difficult its subject matter is. And make no mistake: that subject matter is what counts, it is front and center from the opening lines of "Carissa" (a glorious hymn to a recently passed family member that is as full of affection as it is heartbreakingly committed to the confused sorrow that the death has brought to Kozelek's life) all the way to the final, neatly doubled vocal mixes on "Ben's My Friend", a song reportedly written exactly the way its own lyrics describe it--in a flurry to get another song finished for the album, while still reeling from the bittersweet observation that the friend it describes (Gibbard, of Postal Service and Death Cab fame) has surpassed our songwriter in terms of fame and financial success.
Addressing a topic isn't the same as engaging with it, and engaging with it--that's where Benji shines brightest. Forcing the listener to wade into the muck with him, to stand blasted in the sunlight of mortal question: what is this thing that we are doing? This life-how is it spent? The moment when he tosses off an "I ain't one to pray, but I'm one to sing and play" is the key. It's a secular world. There's no help coming, no lottery payout. Children are getting gunned down all over the world. You're going to outlive the people you care about, and when they go, it's going to hurt. What are you going to do about it? How do we bear up under this weight? In Kozelek's album, the answer is of scorching simplicity: it's empathy. It's being a caring individual who witnesses, who sees, who makes the call. It's no surprise that every song has a brief moment of natural wonder, or a trip outside--looking internally too long upon these questions will sour you down to the bone. For him, there's only two things to do with a fist. You clutch it around a guitar, or you unwrap it and use that hand to reach out.
2. Aphex Twin – Syro
While some artists disappear into the ether leaving us clamoring for their return, others leave behind a body of work so incredibly full that the desire for more is accurately labeled as greed, and not the kind of greed that's socially acceptable, but the gross kind, where you realize they probably hump that pillow more than is physically necessary. Aphex Twin is in the former category, a musician of such incredible regard that even his most ardent fans seemed content to wait patiently, possibly forever, for their hero to show up on eBay with one copy of an album he had given up on in 1994. After all, it isn't like one could exhaust the Selected Ambient Works of their possibilities--these are the seminal tracks of an entire genre, the circulatory system of a branch of art, and while it probably would intimidate most people to have refined an entire sound to perfection while still in their 20's, Richard James isn't most people: he's one of those people who are actually a legitimate genius. That doesn't mean he's gonna nail it forever--Chaplin, Ozu, Beckett all get to wear that moniker as well, and those guys turned out a stinker or four. Being a genius gives you the stinker pass--you already did the thing nobody else could do, and in James' case, he did it more than once. Get fat and lazy. You've earned it.
The nice thing about Syro is how little of any of that history gets in the way of you and the sound: the titles are essentially gibberish, letters and numbers and bits of phraseology that can be parsed by the Aphex Twin superfans, and the album art itself is a pure white field, with nothing more than a raw list of the album's expenses to get lost in. But with sounds like this, why would you? Repurposing the EDM sound whose crystalline properties could basically lay claim for the identity of the last ten years of graphic design--what does every minimalist desktop or whiteboxed product ad resemble, if not that early 90's Aphex sound--into a full suite of material designed to showcase the influences that have formed the texture of the beeping pulse, Syro is so much the ideal of what one could have hoped to hear from Aphex that the temptation upon its release was to make up a list of goals it had failed to achieve just so there would be something to talk about. "Oops", he seemed to say. "Did I forget to make it look like this was something you could've done yourself?"
1. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
Let’s talk about the Career Year. Typically, it’s a term you see thrown around when older put up their best numbers to date. The Career Year can be a backhanded compliment – the inference being that there are long odds on the same guy sustaining that new level of performance over time. Player known for his blazing speed knocks in a ridiculous numbers of home runs in one six month span, but then goes back to ground balls and stolen bases the next season as if the power surge never happened. The Career Year can be an aberration, an illusion created by a series of unlikely events – fly balls barely making it over the fence; shortstops missing easy plays – that converge upon a single talented player in a sea of talented players. Career Years in music seem to come along less frequently, and require not only artistic success, but commercial success – at least in relative terms – with some form of omnipresence. Plus they tend to want to come from underdogs, journeymen. (Otherwise you could, for example, say Kanye had a career year in 2007, and then again in 2010, and 2013.)
When I say that Run the Jewels’ 2014 was a Career Year for both Killer Mike and El-P, I’m not trying to damn them with faint praise, but acknowledge just how unlikely their achievements were and how many small events had to line up precisely in order to get them here after the years each of them spent consistently grinding out hyper-intelligent, edgy, subversive material for their small-but-rabid followings (and, in El-P’s case, running his own label and shepherding dozens of other artists). Chris Weingarten’s Rolling Stone profile compellingly tracks how Killer Mike and El-P’s solo careers devolved into periods of deep depression before they found each other and surprisingly scored the biggest hit of their life with a battle rap album that initially looked like it had “side-project” written all over it.
And yet stunning thing about Run the Jewels’ 2014 wasn’t all of the breaks going their way to make it happen. That kind of luck is awe-inspiring but unsustainable. It doesn’t necessarily create people you can root for (more often it creates Imagine Dragons or whatever). No, what made Run the Jewels’ 2014 so special was that Killer Mike and El-P had the experience and presence of mind to capitalize on each of the opportunities afforded them – and often in the most thought-provoking, even touching ways. They used the success of the first Run the Jewels album – where the two kept it simple with a record full of hard-assed battle raps – to create a sequel that expanded the conceit with harrowing personal stories and sociopolitical screeds. (Even “Love Again,” the track on Run the Jewels 2 that initially appears to be a misstep, evolves into a hilarious and sly gender war.) Killer Mike penned op-eds on police brutality and the persecution of rap music in America’s courts. And then there was that speech. The emotional honesty with which Michael Render galvanizes that small St. Louis crowd, after being stuck outside of the city for ten hours on the day of the fucking Ferguson Grand Jury verdict jesus christ, strikes me as the type of moment that could only happen after decades of little things in Killer Mike and El-P’s careers falling into place just so – and only after that could Killer Mike’s war cry ripple out from those in attendance to social media to thousands of individuals who felt precisely like he did: “You motherfuckers got me today;” “It is us against the motherfucking machine.” To me, that’s a career’s worth of sweat culminating in a single moment, though you could be forgiven for seeing it as something else entirely – a Christmas fucking miracle.