Better Late than Never: 2014’s Best Music

I did it!!!!!!!  I published this on my self-imposed deadline of whenever!!!!  Before you venture into the vast amount of music critique below, a brief explanation of my method.  If I had my way, I would write about my top 50 musical releases of the year.  Indeed, that would be too much, so I’ve compiled a list of my top 10 releases as well as a few interesting/fun superlatives.  This was damn bloody difficult because music is such an ardent passion of mine and the pool of candidates is enormous.  In the end, my top ten releases were judged on strength of intrigue, play-count/replay value, emotional clout, relevance, artistic proficiency, nostalgia and innovation.  These include ANYTHING released during the year 2014, even deluxe reissues and live recordings.

Best Opening Track (Tie)

“Weight of Love” – The Black Keys, Turn Blue & “Palace” – The Antlers, Familiars. 

It’s quite cool to see a band as big as the Black Keys take a risk* and start a record with a song that is seven minutes long and entirely instrumental for the first two.  Not to mention the guitar solos are downright gorgeous.  The soaring brass in The Antlers’ “Palace,” meanwhile, is equally beautiful.

*Then again, is it risky? Or is it just a tribute to how rock used to be?

Most Enormous Yawn-Inducing Cop-Out Overdone Topic of a Track

“Welcome to New York” – Taylor Swift, 1989.

Seriously?  Singing about New York City?  Please, do go on and tell me how bright the lights are.  Come on Taylor, you are a way better songwriter than this.

Best Closer

“Long Way Home” – Gareth Emery, Drive.

This is melodic trance’s equivalent to an Ansel Adams photo.  Or a J.M.W. Turner and John Constable painting combined.  It is a wondrous smile-inducing must-have-on-any-road-trip song of epic proportions.  When it gets warm outside, blast it in your car with the windows down.

Best Bonus Song

“Alright” (feat. Big Sean) – Logic, Under Pressure.

Big Sean follows up the line “She doin’ tricks with her pussy, I guess she’s a vagician” with “Yellin’ fuck the 5.0, state troops / Any nigga with a badge, I don’t even trust the boy scouts.”  Hilarious vulgarity followed by compelling social commentary on an impeccably produced beat.  How this song didn’t make the original album cut is beyond me.

Most Amazing Song That Was Released On An Album in 2014 But Has Justifiably Been Played At Least Three Times At Every Party Since 2012

212 (feat. Lazy Jay) – Azealia Banks, Broke With Expensive Taste. 

If it wasn’t, now it should be.

…Also Best Album Name

Azealia212

Top 5 Played Songs on My iPod From 2014:

1 “Two” – The Range (190)

2 “Repeat Pleasure” – How To Dress Well (113)

3 “Words I Don’t Remember” – How To Dress Well (113)

4 “Habits (Stay High) [Hippie Sabotage Remix]” – Tove Lo (102)

5 “Spectre” – Tycho (97)

Whenever I Heard This I Dropped Whatever I Was Doing And Danced (Tie)

“In My Heart” – Route 94, Fly 4 Life EP & “Shut Up and Dance” – Walk the Moon

Biggest “Upon My Word!” Album Cover:

Riff_Raff___Neon_Icon_Album_Download_498_498


On that note, I’ll begin my top 10 releases of 2014!!!!!!!!!!

tokimonsta-desiderium

10 – TOKiMONSTA – Desiderium

I stumbled upon Jennifer Lee’s project TOKiMONSTA whilst reading up on an unsurprising egregious music industry sexism story.  Some context.  Electronic trio Krewella broke up into two factions: 1) The two sisters Jahan & Yasmin Yousaf and 2) Kristopher Trindl.  As a result the two sisters became victims of plenty of gendered and sexist criticism.  Highest profiled of these was DJ and producer Deadmau5 who in a string of tweets  said the girls kicked out the “talent” of their act and “should have gone into porn” because “at least in that industry it’s acceptable to screw the people you work with.”  In an attempt to save face, he stated that he liked TOKiMONSTA’s work.  Right.  As if liking one woman’s music makes you not a sexist pig.  Jahan Yousaf later wrote an op-ed for Billboard discussing sexism in the electronic scene, which is even more bereft of women than other genres.

Anyway, I am grateful that Deadmau5’s rant led me to classically trained Lee.  This seven-track release is in my opinion her strongest, and the way she crafts her beats and molds them to perfectly accompany whomever is featured or sampled seems effortless.  On “Steal My Attention” she takes a typical 4/4 beat and throws in some half beats and syncopation.  When I first heard the song, this literally stole my attention.  Then, on “Dusty,” her Aaliyah sample just made me really happy.  All of her interesting time signatures make her music really catchy and makes her a really talented DJ.


Sun-Kil-Moon-Benji-608x540

9 – Sun Kil Moon – Benji

“To get a look at those I’m connected and see how it all may have shaped me” – “Carissa”

For the longest time, this was for me hook, line, and sinker the best of album of 2014.  There was, however, something about it that got under my skin, and it wasn’t the tough lyrics and thematic content.  A good friend of mine was able to put into words exactly what I was feeling, and it was that Benji is way too specific.  Panera Bread is mentioned more than once and the album closer is about Ben Gibbard of the Postal Service and Death Cab.  My friend, who is a scathing Sun Kil Moon critic, explained that this dates the music and makes it sound like Kozelek is singing from a diary.  Of this I agree.  Art’s greatest strength is that it’s open to interpretation.  More often than not music lyrics should not be too specific but rather complex thought provoking poetry.  But this paints too simple a picture and doesn’t do Benji justice.  It is raw anguish and adoration that leaves Kozelek completely bare.  Almost every song involves someone’s death and there are warm loving tributes to his mother and father.  Connection.  Friendship.  Family.  Of these fundamental human themes no music from 2014 comes at all close to paralleling Benji.


LCD last

8 – LCD Soundsystem – The Long Goodbye (Live at Madison Square Garden) 

“I know it gets tired, but it’s better when we pretend.” – “All My Friends”

On Record Store Day of last year, I woke up at 7am hoping to grab one of the local hole in wall’s two copies of the vinyl box set recording of this show.  I was not nearly early enough (i.e. did not camp out), and my place in line was too far back.  Looking back on this memory makes me realize that this was more than fitting.  Many people loved LCD Soundsystem before I did, and when I got caught up, most of them moved on and left me alone to discover the harsh reality that there’s nothing romantic about growing older while still trying to experience life like when you were 18.  But the truth is, I am far from alone.  If you embark on this mammoth three hour emotional roller coaster ride you’ll hear the thousands of fans that are cheering, crying, and above all, dancing with me.  James Murphy could’ve never released a recording of their farewell show, but “If it’s crowded, all the better,” and for those of us who weren’t able to make it to MSG, we can all close our eyes and dream we were there.

LCD Balloons


babymetal_lady_gaga_tour

7 – Babymetal – Babymetal

“Babymetal doesn’t hide its contrivances at all” – NPR’s Adrien Begrand

Japanese teen girl pop metal infused with reggae, dub-step, and hip-hop influences.  It’s an ingenious marketing Frankenstein of epic proportions that makes sweaty greasy metal heads cringe and start cursing.  To the haters out there I say this:  Since when has relentless headbanging been reserved solely for western white men?  To hell with predetermined notions of “its all been done” and to hell with the idea that metal is for the aggressively masculine, because this….

babymetal concert

is happening.  In the words of Aaron Sankin, “Babymetal is kind of like a magical, leather-clad, fire-breathing, sonic unicorn,” and they stand alone as a current genre pioneer.  It is completely okay to let loose and have a ridiculous amount of awesome fun every once and a while.  With an emphasis on ridiculous.


Le1f-Hey1

6 – Le1f – Hey EP

“It saddens me out that a straight man is the voice pop music has chosen for gay rights” – Le1f

When someone told me that Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” ripped off Le1f’s song “Wut,” I didn’t hear it and I argued that just because two songs use the same time signature and instrument doesn’t signal plagiarism.  The thing is, I’m probably wrong.  Because a white straight man saw success and queer person of color did not.  Macklemore also received tons of acclaim for his song “Same Love,” which cemented his image as a white knight for gay rights.  Le1f is pretty clear in his pointed criticism of Macklemore, but he doesn’t let it get in the way of him making fantastic music.

The nerdy and mood-alleviating lyrics over beats that hit as hard as any club banger out there are indeed so curious and awesome that it’s hard not to crack a smile and step onto the dance floor.  “Fire type, I flame throw and it’s over / I’m combusting, bitch check your locals / I’m a Charmander, a banjee commander.”  He later raps about how a flirtatious man tries to use all his pokéballs on him, but there’s “no capture.”  That’s from the first song, “Hey,” and the next track, “Sup,” is even better: “Rumspringa, Rumspringa!!… Serving it grande, venti, trenta / Skin color: spicy chai latte / Get some coffee, pop it like edamame.”  Later in the song it’s, “I’m in that garden / With Adam, Eve and Steven / You wanna rub the apples? / Call me Johnny, I’m seedin'”  These are lines written and rapped by a fiercely proud gay man who is not only justifiably confident but is also on a mission to prove he’s better than all the hate and corruption swirling around him.  The politics that Le1f attracts pisses him off and “if you ask a gay question [he will give you] a black answer.”

“Don’t ask me how I been cuz the answer is relentless

Innocent until proven filthy I’m wildin’ out here.

I hope the cops don’t kill me

They wanna see me blend in like Realtree

But I can’tz do thatz. I gots to do me”


exhex-rips

5 – Ex Hex – Rips

For Mary Timony, this is something like her fourth band.  I haven’t listened to her other work from other outfits, but my god, if they are anything like Rips I must get my hands on all of them.  This album is SO. MUCH. FUN!!!!!! It’s straight to the point catchy as all hell rock and roll, something that has unfortunately fallen by the wayside.  Made up of a power trio of bad ass women, a guitar, drum set, a bass, and two-and-a-half minutes are all they need to rock their way into your ears through to your heart and out your mouth making you “bumbumbum” right along with them forevermore.


HowToDressWell-WhatIsThisHeart_535_535_c1

4 – How to Dress Well – “What is This Heart?”

“It’s hard to see how much of our social fabric is made up of a radical refusal to love people” – Tom Krell

When I went to see Tom Krell and his band How to Dress Well perform at U Street in DC last year I was expecting a haunting and evocative performance.  After all, Krell’s music explores devastating topics like heartbreak and suicide, just to name a couple.  So it was pretty cool and quite entertaining to see him lighten the mood with quirky quips in between songs.  As he was introducing the song “Suicide Dream 1,” however, Krell told a story about a dear friend and roommate who had died soon after Krell moved to Europe.  During this time, the audience held conversations over him, cheered and clapped.  To say I was livid would be a gross understatement.

I have introduced How To Dress Well’s music to many but still have not found anyone who comes at all close to sharing my intense love for it.  Reasons range from the understandable “obnoxious falsetto,” to the irritating “the band name is dumb.”  I cannot do anything about musical taste and it is annoying to see people judge a project by its title, but it is impossible to criticize Krell for the unequivocal expression of his emotions.  “What is This Heart?” is a masterpiece of immensely honest emotional expression that is so powerful it sometimes seems corny, but in the end deserves sympathy and respect.


Terry multiplicity

3 – The Terry Hsieh Collective – Multiplicity

During his 2014 set at Coachella, Beck told a story about how he waited in the rain to see a band play a gig in a small bar in his neighborhood.  As it turned out, that band was Arcade Fire before they became the enormous stadium rockers that they are now, and Beck made a point to say that the local music scene–wherever you are–is often the best.  I had the pleasure and privilege to attend Oberlin College, where I could see budding musicians play at one of the best music conservatories in the world.  I was exposed to some amazing things, and it was there that I saw my track teammate Terry and his jazz band perform his compositions.  WOW.  I vividly remember watching him that first time at the Cat and the Cream and getting completely blown away by the performance.  “Dream of The Red Chamber” moved me to tears.  To have a polished recording of his new work is an awesome thing, because brilliant artists all have a launchpad, and Multiplicity is a rocket ship.


American Football Album Cover2 – American Football – American Football (Deluxe Reissue)

“Play the sad one!” – Audience Member at American Football’s Pygmalion Set

Sometimes a band forms, records a classic album, then breaks up and moves on, never again to bless us with new music.  Sometimes this is perfectly necessary, and makes sense given the lives and feelings of those involved.  And sometimes they unwillingly set up something out of their control and greater than themselves.  Sometimes the music ages and transcends all boundaries.  Almost sixteen years ago American Football recorded their only album, a self-titled monumental pillar on the foundation of emo rock.  It inevitably spread, and for those of us who grew up with it nurturing our angst understand that those nine songs are impervious treasures.

So when it was announced that American Football was issuing a deluxe version and that they were going to play their first show in fifteen years in their hometown of Champaign, Illinois, people could not believe it.  In their own words from their song “But the Regrets are Killing Me,” the last fifteen years had been “a long goodbye / with mixed emotions / just fragments of another life.”

When you’re living teenage angst, you feel totally alone and there is no way on earth an adult understands what you’re going through.  Over the years we mature and discard the belief that adult feelings are completely different from those of a teen.  There are variances, to be sure, but they retain certain striking similarities.  This is why I come back to this album time and time again.  American Football’s music endures because the emotions are age defying and universal.  You could see this truth on the faces of the three middle aged band members while they played.  Their performance was the ultimate ending at the Pygmalion Music Festival.  The lead singer, Mike Kinsella, would repeatedly look out into the crowd in utter shock and disbelief.  He was overwhelmed at the sheer growth in his fan base, (the last gig they played fifteen years ago was in a half empty bar), but I suspect the real reason was the fervent cathartic realization that all in the audience identified and knew what they had gone through and felt all those years ago.

“Honestly I can’t remember those teen dreams

all my teenage feelings and their meanings

they seem too see-through to be true

all the who’s are there but the why’s are unclear”

American Football


 run the jewels cover

1 – Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2

“This whole court is unimportant, you fuckers are walkin’ corpses” – El-P on “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck) [feat. Zach De La Rocha]”

That is, if the police officers who killed Eric Garner and Michael Brown even made it to court to begin with.  They didn’t even get indicted.  These implications are inescapable when listening to Killer Mike and El-P’s collaboration, but Run the Jewels is a merciless, ruthless behemoth of a bullshit-caller, regardless of your political views.  “You want a whore in a white dress / I want a wife in a thong.”

I tried a few times to see what the hype was about, but I couldn’t get past the first song.  The same happened for my brother and girlfriend.  The reason?  The predominant mood on this album is uncompromising animosity.  We grew to adore this album, however, because beneath all the vitriol and abrasive beats is blunt, impartial wisdom.  Whether it be in television (“They all actors, giving top in back of a BM /I’d fall back if the casting calls are ending in semen…The fellows at the top are likely rapists”) or religion, (“The forehead engravers, enslavers of men and women / Includin’ members of clergy that rule on you through religion / So strippin’ kids to the nude and then tell ’em God’ll forgive ’em”), Run the Jewels is straightforward and unforgiving.

Later in the album the two rappers face their shame.  Killer Mike says he “Won’t be the same type of man that puts cocaine in this lady’s hand / Heard she was pregnant, I’m guilty I reckon cause I hear that good shit can hurt baby’s brain,” and El-P questions his doubt for the armed forces: “We’ll teach you to move without mercy and give you the tools to go after the causers of hurt / You’ll become death / You will take breath / This is for everything you’ve ever loved.”  Anger is difficult to deal with, guilt often worse.

There is a scene in the film Selma when Dr. King has a tense exchange with Coretta about constantly traveling and being away from the family, for he is on the verge of leaving once again.  The brilliance of Ava DuVernay’s direction shows that during the discussion Martin is fumbling around the kitchen trying to find trash bags for the bin he just emptied.  Problem is, he hasn’t been home enough to know their location, and a frustrated Coretta hands them to him.  Afterwards he is left stressed and very much aware of the burden on his shoulders.  Before he retires for the night, he phones Mahalia Jackson and asks her to sing for him.

After the death of a cotton-picker in the film 12 Years a Slave, those that he worked with gather around his grave to sing.  Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped and lost everything, at first does not participate because he is completely disheartened and defeated.  As the voices swell and gain ground, however, he joins them, staring determinedly at a point on the ground next to the camera.

Music’s therapeutic qualities are just water molecules in the vast and complex ocean of African American history.  But what does it say about our society that the songs sung on plantations and the Black voices whose gospels inspired and comforted are evolving into enraged messages of malcontent?  That is why this album is so prominently prevalent.  Run the Jewels disguise the relevance beneath the ire because their work is meant to be experienced by those who are equally frustrated for the present and yet are hopeful for the future.  They are blue flames igniting our passionate fury, encouraging us to channel it into progress.

Martin Singing

Protests-After-Ferguson-MO-Grand-Jury-Decision-Pictures

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