Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Totally Unauthorized: 2014 Album of the Year Awards

There are several reasons why 2014 was not the greatest year in music or media. First off, Robin Williams died. Rest in peace to one of comedy's all time greats. Secondly, a metric ton of my favorite electro-pop bands either split up or went into extended hiatus. Nicolas Jarr's ambient guitar synth project Darkside fired the first shot by releasing an ambiguously worded statement that they were disbanding but left open the possibility to a future reunion. Electro-freaks The Knife called it quits, Alice Glass left the future of Crystal Castles in doubt by declaring her departure from the group, and all-time greats Orbital decided to hang up for the second (and presumably last) time. In the span of a few months, four of my favorite groups in the genre were no more.

Secondly, it just wasn't as good a year for music than what we've become accustomed to. When you think about it, who really had a big year? I suppose you could nominate War on Drugs. Lost in the Dream catapulted them from being random Pitchfork Best New Music act to 80s rock and roll enthusiasts' wet dream, but would their rise to stardom be as recognizable to the random joe on the street as that of Yeezus? Or Vampy Weekend? Or half a dozen others from the last few years? When the tale of these years are penned, they're liable to be best remembered for a six minute folk diss track than anything else. Sun Kil Moon's Mark Kozalek had possibly his biggest moment yet, then managed to squander almost all his goodwill overnight with his stirring rendition of "War on Drugs: Suck My Cock." Foos were a good candidate for awhile. Their Sonic Highways HBO series gave a thought provoking look into the musical legends behind eight U.S. cities, and their ticket controversy at Ryman Auditorium on Halloween night attracted just enough any press is good press controversy to bolster their status as a major story, but then the album actually dropped and everybody realized: oh wait, it's yet another fucking Foo Fighters album. Swans already had their moment with The Seer. Aphex Twin, observing the success of comeback attempts by Neutral Milk Hotel, Nine Inch Nails, Outkast, and tons of others, decided to step out of the limelight himself but forgot that it doesn't really work the same way without the live act.

So here we are, at the end of another year, and I guess it could have been worse. If nothing else, this may stand as the year to reaffirm our faith in guitar based rock music. Cloud Nothings, Swans, St. Vincent, Ty Segall, Rodrigo y Gabriela, The War on Drugs, Spoon, Jack White, and Tom Petty all put out excellent albums, not to mention the fact that metal had a banner year. Electronic music had a slow start but recovered in the second half with strong releases from Caribou, Aphex Twin, and Iamamiwhoami. Rap, as mentioned before, decided to take the year off.

So if I don't seem that enthusiastic about this year, well, just think that with all the technological advancements we have now, coupled with all the musical breakthroughs of the past 60 or 70 so years, I know we can do better. And we will. But for now, let's get this out of the way so we can move on to the (hopefully) far superior 2015.
10. Badbadnotgood - III
One of the most intriguing occurrences of the year was Badbadnogood's transformation into an electro-jazz outfit. They shed some of their hip hop stylings but the atmosphere has never been better. It's like wandering around a darkened warehouse at night, but it's a mystical and awesome experience. Not to mention that each band member here -- even the bassist -- gets their moment in the spotlight with an array of dazzling solos, proving just how deep the talent runs in this outfit. These guys are bold, young, and know they're going somewhere -- and they make music that sounds like it.

9. Swans - To Be Kind

It's not that I didn't think anyone would ever make an album like this, it's that Swans make music in ways that never would have occurred to me in the first place. The first disc is an imposing slab of dark art rock, while the second disc sounds like a crazy priest chanting while the earth is being sucked away into a vortex. Admittedly, I like their more straightforward (at least for their standards) rock more so than the 15+ minute post rock nightmares, but Swans are who they are and no one can take their place.

8. Thee Silver Mt. Zion - Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything 
Efrim Menuck has a way of talking about things that will stone cold sober you. This side project fronted by Menuck, of Godspeed You Black Emperor fame, touches on powerful themes including dealing with the bleak reality of everyday life, trying to pass on a better world to your children, and realizing that no matter how much love you put out in the world you can never put out enough. Sometimes it's a tough listen with walls of wavy guitars, Menuck's acquired taste vocals, and various elements that stack up and sometimes crash into one another, but there are other times where the post-rock/punk inspired ethos comes together with the backing choir to create sheer beauty. Conceptually, it's one of the most beautiful albums I've heard.

7. Behemoth - The Satanist

The complaint may be that there's not much new in metal, and blackened death certainly isn't either. But what makes The Satainst is all the little touches Nergal puts into it. He's not the first to have to bone to pick with the Almighty, but Nergal insists on elevating his dissent to the realm of high poetry. The amount of passion he put into this is staggering. There's abundance of biblical, Latin, and ancient Roman imagery that gives the album an atmospheric, silver screen type of feel, while the horns, backing choirs, and epic, weighty guitar solos will compel you to raise your hand like a Roman emperor in the coliseum over a downed gladiator. Do you point thumbs up or down?

6. Rodrigo y Gabriela - 9 Dead Alive

9 Dead Alive marks a key turning point for this Mexican acoustic guitar duo. Once known for their white hot metal inspired guitar leads, however, this one is much more of a thinking man's album. Each song is dedicated to a luminary who fought to improve the human condition, or who has pushed the envelope with their creative endeavors. There are sounds of sorrow and of triumph, dedicated to finding our place in the world and meaning in our lives. It appears that their fans didn't follow them in their new direction as this is the least buzzed about album yet, but what they do put forth here is contemplative music to calm the soul, and I find great value in that.

5. St. Vincent - St. Vincent

The tagline everyone floated with this album focused on how bizarre and eccentric it is on the surface, but in truth it is actually a very confessional and interpersonal record for Ms. Clark. She proves she can kick ass and write a killer guitar lick, and crafts one of the most intoxicating albums of the year thanks to her rose tinted guitar and synth crunch. But she also reveals herself to be very sensual and full of longing and desire. Which of her revelations are the most confessional in nature? That she prefers her mother's love to Jesus? That she begins her day with taking out the trash and beating off? Or is it this line: I'm afraid of heaven because I can't stand the heights/I'm afraid of you because I can't be left behind."

The mainstream publications may have focused on her zany image, but this album, maybe more so than any album this year, is a triumph of allowing us to see its creator as human and vulnerable.

4. First Aid Kit - Stay Gold

Swedish sisters Johanna and Klara Soderberg have crafted their finest work yet. It's chock full of themes that will appeal to youth, including insecurities about the future, realizing the transience of people, places and situations when you're young, and figuring out who you are. There are themes of traveling or moving on from certain things in life, which calls to mind Dylan in a way. Even if you aren't a youngster, the breezy melodies, brilliantly arranged harmonies and that retro 70s folk/country vibe are so easy to get swept up in.

3. Caribou - Our Love

The electronic production here is better than any album I've heard this year, and can hold its own with anything this decade. A deep, dense, swirling world composed of IDM beats and hazy psychedelia rise up to engulf the listener from the moment the needle hits vinyl. Dan Snaith's tender croon paints images of love and love lost, but he never dives full bore into the subject lyrically. Instead, he allows his stunning dreamscapes to transpose the message he wants into the listeners' mind. This album that will penetrate every little pore if you let it.

2. Cloud Nothings - Here and Nowhere Else

This album is great for anyone who's ever felt uncertain about life, which is a feeling I think many of us can relate to. It presents a pulsating, driving hard rock sound accented with fist pumping choruses and guitar leads reminiscent of 90s punk. Meanwhile, Dylan Baldi pours out his frustrations and anxieties pour out in full force. It may not help you chart your course for life, but it will provide a hell of a soundtrack for doing so.

1. Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels 2

One of the biggest areas in which music this year lacked was that there wasn't anything with much of a message. War on Drugs might have wowed listeners with waves of reverb, and Swans sure as hell developed some intense experimental soundscapes, but when you boil it all down it's all just music, and nothing more. Run the Jewels 2 was one of the few notable albums this year that actually attempted to say something relevant to its time. Now, I'm not going to try to tell you this is The Times They Are A-Changin' or anything, but a hell of a lot happened in 2014 that didn't involve our headphones and this sums it up as well as anything else. "Early" presented a depiction of police violence and a summation of our society's response to it. In a year in which violent protest dominated our headlines, it's enough to rank Run the Jewels 2 among the year's most socially conscious records.

Of course, the album is great for many reasons other than that. Emcees Killer Mike and El-P talk about some very real themes but don't shove it down your throat. They mix great production with mostly intense hardcore lyrics and then slip the themes in here and there. It's very intense in every sense of the word, from the beats and overall sound of the album all the way down the to lyrics and presentation. They laid down basically what they wanted to do with RTJ1, but this one fixed all of its problems. The beats are better, they cut the shit, cut out all the weak watered down hooks, and tightened everything up.

No comments: