We are almost to the mid-point of 2014, and there have already been some outstanding releases. With a promising second half of the year ahead of us, I’d like to take a moment to spotlight some of my favorite albums from the year so far. To try to keep some semblance of control, I’ve limited my list to albums released prior to June 1st.
The Both, The Both
Marissa Nadler, July
Owen Pallett, In Conflict
Slough Feg, Digital Resistance
Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, Wig Out at Jagbags
20. Duck Sauce
[Fool’s Gold; 2014]
In 1986 George Lucas released Howard the Duck, a film that told the story of a wise cracking duck from outer space who ends up on Earth where he shows those around him how to have a good time. The idea of a highly sexualized duck/alien didn’t sit well with American audiences, and the movie was a monumental bomb at the box office. Duck Sauce, a side project from DJs A-Trak and Armand Van Helden, is banking on the fact that people will be more accepting of an intergalactic duck in 2014 with their non-stop club album Quack.
This is not music trying to change the world – it’s here to have a good time. With a constant four on the floor dance beat, the DJ duo creates a world where Disco Duck would fit right in, mixing the best party sounds from the 70s, 80s, and 90s and stringing them together into one non-stop celebration. Each song is led into the next with another duck-themed skit, and although in the past I’ve bemoaned the use of album skits, the strange array of stories presented keep the listening experience light-hearted. Quack is a culmination of five years worth of singles, and the variation shown on the album is the result of this recording approach. If there is a message to cull from this album, it’s the all-inclusive belief that ducks have feelings too.
Heavy Hearted in Doldrums
This is the only hip-hop album you’ll find on this list. It’s not that I haven’t listened to any new rap music in 2014; it’s just that not much has piqued my interest. I blame the mix tape movement. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of rappers posting their own music online, circumventing the middleman. I just feel like this also results in a lot of lackluster music because artists are less likely to cut the throwaway tracks. Also, DIY production can result in some shoddy, uninspiring music.
That is what makes Antwon’s Heavy Hearted in Doldrums such a breath of fresh air. Despite releasing the album for free online, Antwon insists that this is his first legitimate album, and he’s correct. In comparison to his past work, Heavy Hearted in Doldrums is a finely produced hip-hop album with a plethora of respected producers offering their talents. Tracks like “Loser,” “Rain Song,” and “Don’t Care” are awash in a sea of ambient reverb and twinkling synths. Antwon’s allegiance to early 90s hip-hop can be heard on songs like “Baby Hair,” “Mr. Intercontinental,” and “Cold Tears.” It’s fitting considering his vocal delivery, a powerful timbre somewhere between Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. That may seem like a strange mix considering the West Coast/East Coast history, but Antwon’s influences aren’t defined by past conflicts.
I’m probably not in Ausmuteant’s target demo. A sampling of song titles (“Flushing Problems,” “Stepped in Shit,” and “Pissed Myself Twice”) and it’s clear that this isn’t highbrow material. No, Ausmuteants aren’t one of those punk bands trying to change the world; I doubt they even change their underwear regularly. Musically, the band borrows heavily from Devo. I would even go so far as to suggest that “Inducing Instinct” is either a blatant rip-off or a tribute to Devo’s “Jocko Homo.” Despite this crass songwriting and unoriginal sound, I absolutely love this album.
In fact, of all the albums on this list, I’ve probably listened to Amusement the most simply because it’s so damn fun. There are albums on this list that are thought-provoking, challenging, and original, but none are quite as joyfully juvenile. This album is enjoyable in the same way that Jackass movies are so inherently funny. I know this music isn’t made for me, but the teenager inside can’t get enough of it.
17. Woods of Desolation
As the Stars
[Northern Silence; 2014]
We are living in a post-black metal world, and I like it. Not to say I’m happy to wave goodbye to the black metal movement, quite the contrary. What I’m excited about is how artists like Deafheaven, Wolves in the Throne Room, and Woods of Desolation have taken those definitive black metal elements and softened them up a bit. Woods of Desolation is one of the few bands staying loyal to the lo-fi characteristic, giving their 2014 album As the Stars a more authentic and personal sound.
As the Stars also features some brilliant guitar work, front man D moving from crushing distortion to shimmering shoe gaze bliss with ease. This subtle movement from one soundscape to the next creates moments of emotional upheaval countered by the blistering black metal sound, bringing you back down to earth. Black metal has always been about sadness and despair, but Woods of Desolation have added another unlikely emotion to the miserable mix: hope.
Liar’s 2012 release WIXIW was disappointing for several reasons. For one, the adventurous spirit that defined the art-punk band was all but gone. Of course, their foray into electronic music was a surprising turn, but the band’s novice behind keyboards was pretty clear. For the first time, Liars sounded tentative. Thankfully, that hesitant approach is gone on Mess, and the strange, experimental Liars we know and love are in full-force. It looks like WIXIW was just a step in Liars evolution because they remain fully committed to the electronic angle, this time with refreshing results.
Mess is an energetic dance album fit for a dank, dark dance club where dancers prefer meth over ecstasy. The songs burst forth with a confident swagger, shadowy basslines providing the eerie backdrop, pulsing drums fueling the manic march, and the synths squawking with a confidence that WIXIW lacked. The latter half of the album gives the listener a breather, exploring more ambient terrain that at times reminds me of a demented Radiohead. Two years ago I would have never foreseen such a comparison, but I’ve learned over the years to expect the unexpected with Liars.
“Vox Tuned D.E.D.”:
15. Chad VanGaalen
Chad VanGaalen’s 2014 release Shrink Dust continues his tradition of writing instantly memorable melodies filled with shocking descriptions that won’t be leaving your brain any time soon. The songs on the album will be featured on a full-length movie that the constant-factotum VanGaalen has been working on for the past two years. He has hinted that the film will be a combination of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Strange Brew, and I guess the same description could be used to describe the music on Shrink Dust. The album definitely has an otherworldly ambience throughout, and the lyrics to several songs lean toward these same spacey environs. “Cosmic Destroyer” tells of a mythical space creature, always consuming the vast wasteland of the great beyond, and “Where Are You?” plays out like a never-ending journey into the void, searching for a lost love.
Not only is Shrink Dust another great album to add to VanGaalen’s flawless track record, it might be his most self-assured and refined. Possibly the sanded down edges and calmer demeanor will open up his music to a wider audience, but I doubt it (most people have trouble warming up to songs about cutting off your limbs or acquiring scales on your skin). He may never receive the accolades and success he deserves, but that might be the key to his freedom to create such a strange melodic brew. Maybe it’s better that VanGaalen stays an unknown to the masses, allowing him and his muse to continue doing whatever they like. Let’s keep him our little secret.
More Than Any Other Day
Yes, Ought sounds a lot like influential 70s band The Modern Lovers. Yes, singer Tim Beeler’s voice often resembles the manic-cadence of David Byrne. And yes, the jumpy drum beats and jagged guitar riffs owe a lot to the post-punk sound of the 80s. But to define Ought by their influences would be missing the point. The difference between what they do on More Than Any Other Day in comparison to other nostalgia-based bands is Ought’s earnest, emotional approach. Their nervous energy boils over on each track, even the slower songs that eventually build up into a frenetic explosion of exuberance.
The songs also feature a depth and complexity that goes beyond simply trying to stir up past sounds. It’s a message of looking toward an uncertain future where our only choices are between “two-percent and whole milk,” a world where we are always “Sinking deeper…sinking deeper…sinking deeper.” But instead of wallowing in this inevitable decline, each song stands up to the looming future on the horizon and proclaims “I retain the right to be disgusted by life/ I retain the right to be in love with everything in sight.” It’s a message that leaves one feeling energized to face the day, no matter how bleak it may seem.
The Future’s Void
On EMA’s debut Past Life Martyred Saints, Ericka M. Anderson exposed every weakness and flaw imaginable on what would be one of the most emotionally raw albums of 2011. To expect her to return to the well of misery again would be masochistic, and fortunately with The Future’s Void, she’s turned the mirror on the listener, exploring how we mold, mutilate, and mask our self image via the internet. Despite Anderson’s assertion that this isn’t a concept album, every song merges at some point back toward references to what she disdainfully labels as the “superhighway.” From the cover image of her holding up a vacuumous virtual reality headset to the songs’ reoccurring imagery of “Big Brother” watching over us, this album definitely has a focus if not an overlying theme.
Musically, The Future’s Void dabbles in a variety of genres. “Chtulu,” “Smoulder,” and “Neuromancer” are highly influenced by 90s era industrial music with their icy sheen and garbled vocals, screaming beneath the portentous, digital synth. While this middle section of the album is doom and gloom, its bookended by softer moments like “100 Years” and “3Jane” with watery pianos and Anderson’s soft register, front and center. Despite all these differing inspirations, the album doesn’t play like a genre buffet. Instead, Anderson visits each style and blends in her signature crushed, whispering/screaming vocals and austere lyrical outlook. Some may argue that The Future’s Void lacks the intimacy of Past Life Martyred Saints, but I see it differently. Instead of exposing herself via her music this time around, Anderson forces the listener to see how we all are creating a ghost of ourselves online that eventually will be just as revealing as anything EMA has put to tape.
When Lantlôs parted ways with singer Neige (of Alcest fame), it seemed like the end for the German black metal band, and I guess in a way, it was. Other than the second track, “Cherry Quartz,” all remnants of the band’s black metal background have been swept away and replaced with a dreamier, more spiritual sound. Markus Siegenhort’s baritone vocal delivery calms the listener rather than sending them into a frenzy. The guitars twinkle and swirl, a dramatic, shoe-gazey wall of sound, soothing the listener rather than knocking them down. It’s weird to describe music this colossal and thunderous as calming, but it’s a strangely serene listen.
The entire album is focused around the concept of the melting sun: the album title, the beautiful cover art of a face bathed in the sun’s fading light, the song’s anthologized titles like “Melting Sun I: Azure Chimes” and “Melting Sun VI: Golden Minds.” It’s weird to think of a black metal band having such a warm, welcoming concept, but then again, this is no longer a black metal band – it’s much, much more.
With Light and With Love
Woods still have that lo-fi Americana, stoner groove that people (including myself) first fell in love with five years ago with Songs of Shame, but upon closer inspection, their latest release With Light and With Love reveals the band’s immense growth as both musicians and songwriters. Back in the beginning, the band was best known and appreciated for its lo-fi production and ramshackle performances. Wood’s sloppiness also served as its strength – a band whose recordings often sounded like live performances captured on an old, dusty tape recorder buried in the couch cushions next to a long forgotten joint.
That jam-band, free-for-all aesthetic remains intact, but the group has also learned over the years how to refine their creative process. 2012’s Bend Beyond hinted toward a step into stronger production; With Light and With Love is the band diving headfirst into a full-fledged studio. The songs sound crisper, cleaner, and more determined than ever. They’ve washed away the murkiness in favor for more clarity in their songs. Despite this abandonment of the lo-fi ethos, the album still swells with an airy coziness that hearkens back to classic Neil Young albums of the early 70s. In the past, the band’s songwriting also grew out of the 70s era, but With Light and With Love shows them exploring the psychedelic environs of the 60s. Listening to the album is like a game of seven degrees of the 60s: the swirling guitar solo on “Twin Steps” is vintage Hendrix, the slide guitar styling’s of “Full Moon” are pure George Harrison, and the organs on “Leaves Like Glass” are torn straight from Blonde On Blonde, a theft that I’m totally cool with.
“Moving to the Left”:
10. Real Estate
On face value, what Real Estate does seems pretty basic and pretty boring. Martin Courtney’s voice never raises much above a soft whisper. Matt Mondanile’s guitars licks are simple and clean. The drums are soft and unassuming, and the melodies never cry out for your attention. But through this minimalism, Real Estate have mastered the transcendental credo of “less is more.”
Real Estate’s 2014 release, Atlas, continues in the band’s tradition of understated surf-gaze, but lyrically the band has taken past themes into new territories. 2011’s Days was an album of nostalgia with songs waxing poetic about suburban childhood. While the band’s habit of pining for the past continues on Atlas, it is a more mature and measured approach. From one track to the next the band skillfully moves from reminiscing to ruminating about broken relationships, loneliness, and how the passing of time never ceases. Thankfully, their distinct, straightforward approach doesn’t paint life’s failures with dread but with wistful wonder.
9. Have a Nice Life
The Unnatural World
[The Flesner; 2014]
Earlier this year, Trevor Powers (the brains behind Youth Lagoon) pleaded on Twitter, “Please, no more genres. Find a better way to classify music.” Only a few weeks prior, NPR writer Bob Boilen questioned the future of labeling sounds with a blog entitled “Can You Imagine a World Without Music Genres?” Both of them have a point. With new bastardized sub-genres popping up daily, it’s getting to the point where one will be required to use an algorithm to crack the sub-genre code laid out by the all-knowing music reviewer.
Take the latest Have a Nice Life album, The Unnatural World, as an example. Is it industrial-shoegaze-electro-drone-post-rock? Or is it new wave-ambient-doom-post-punk? The Unnatural World is just that – a mish-mash, cross-section of every genre that ever mattered to you, yet it sounds strangely alien and refreshing. The music on The Unnatural World is a constant contradiction. It can be soft yet overpowering. It can be spacious yet suffocating. It can be beautiful yet darkly foreboding. Despite this constant dichotomy in the music, the album all stays grounded deep within the lonely caverns that Dan Barrett and Tim Macuga have created with their claustrophobic production. Its moments of ambient drone are counter-balanced by the post-punk apocalypse of other tracks. The concoction Have a Nice Life have created is such a free-for-all mixture that it reminds me of childhood when my friends and I would go to the gas station and mix every single soda on tap into one cup for a drink we called “Suicide.” In the end, maybe that’s exactly what Have A Nice Life’s death-obsessed jambalaya of noise should be called: Suicide. No, scratch that: Post-Suicide.
“Guggenheim Wax Museum”:
The Serpeant & the Sphere
[Profound Lore; 2014]
Despite all the hype, I was never much of an Agalloch fan. Perhaps it was the constant break-neck, black metal speed on past albums, or maybe it had something to do with John Haughm’s vocals, reminiscent of Gollum with strep throat. Whatever the case, when The Serpeant & the Sphere came across my radar, I was expecting more disappointment, but fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised by the growth the band displays on their fifth album.
Instead of pummeling the listener incessantly, Agalloch has learned how to provide contrast, adding hills and valleys to their musical landscape. Interspersed throughout the album are acoustic breakdowns by Ontario musician Nathanael Larochette, providing softer moments to counter the eminent chaos lurking in the atmosphere that surrounds his intricate guitar work. The best part of this varying move from crescendo to diminuendo is that the timing is spot on. The tracks don’t follow expectations, rather they use that anticipation like a carrot on a stick, leaving you second-guessing when the crushing surge of noise will return. And even when the band is in full distortion mode, they’ve tinkered with the speed of their attack, often moving from black metal speed into doomier environs at the drop of a hat. With all these orchestral, baroque inspired elements, even Haughm’s gravelly vocals can sometimes come across as a tad precious.
“Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation”:
7. The War on Drugs
Lost in the Dream
[Secretly Canadian; 2014]
I can’t listen to The War on Drug’s Lost in the Dream without thinking of my friend James who died earlier this year. I’m not sure if he would have liked the album or not, being an avid fan of Guided By Voices and Jesus and the Mary Chain, but I can’t help but feel like fate intervened and brought this music to me just as I was coping with the loss. The songs all share a soft, sweeping wall of synth. I’ve been a fan of War On Drugs for a while now, but never have the songs sounded so heartfelt and reassuring. According to a recent interview with Gruciel, the year-long recording process for Lost in the Dream was a demanding grind, but the patience and care can be heard on each lushly produced track.
But the real heart of this album is Gruciel’s lyrics. Every song reveals another ding in his armor, one painful tale after another. And despite this ever-mounting sense of loneliness and loss, the album never reveals the big pay-off, the big moment of redemption. Instead, it’s just suffering, again and again and again. By the end of the final track “In Reverse,” all that’s left is a softly shrieking synth and the echoes of distant waves crashing upon a forlorn beach. You may think that as I deal with the loss of my friend the last thing I would want to listen to is music that reminds me of the futility of life, but somehow, through Gruciel’s revelatory lyrics and calming production, I take comfort in knowing I’m not alone in my sorrow.
6. Cloud Nothings
Here and No Where Else
[Car Park/Mom & Pop; 2014]
Two years ago I chocked up Cloud Nothing’s resurgence with Attack On Memory to producer Steve Albini. The music sounded rawer, darker, and more authentic. In the aftermath of the album, Cloud Nothings frontman Dylan Baldi downplayed Albini’s impact going so far as to suggest that all Albini did the entire session was play Scrabble on Facebook. Being an Albini acolyte, I at first scoffed at the notion (although part of me took pleasure in the idea of the oft curmudgeonly Albini opting for an intense game of Scrabble over helping a talented, impressionable band).
So when Here and No Where Else came out with a producer not named “Albini,” I was ready to attack. Not only did the 2014 release exceed expectations, it also made me question my own Albini hero-worship. With John Congleton at the production helm (another successful producer), Here and No Where Else is a far superior album to Attack On Memory and that’s really saying something. The same elements that made the prior album great are fully embraced. Baldi’s voice has never sounded more abrasive, more emotive, more intense. The lyrics go into even darker territory. The songs also drive with even more energy and determination, thanks in large part to new drummer Jayson Gerycz who’s caustic, driving beats present the perfect foil to Baldi’s sweet melodies. Even without the help of Scrabble-master Steve Albini, Baldi has reached his apex (that’s a 13 point word, Steve).
5. Damon Albarn
20 years ago one of my favorite albums was Blur’s The Great Escape due to its boisterous nature and catchy hooks, and those same elements are what kept Damon Albarn afloat post-Blur days with Gorrillaz. That is what makes Everyday Robots such an unexpected turn. The songs are lo-key, morose, and haunting. The blaring horn sections of Blur and hip-hop beats of Gorrillaz have been replaced with funeral dirge organs and rickety drum samples. The album features the same elaborate production oft associated with Albarn, but it’s used to deaden the senses rather than excite them.
Lyrically, Albarn is also a different creature on Everyday Robots. In his Blur days, he was the master of creating quirky characters, but this time around, the characters have been replaced by a sea of robots, “looking at (their) phones / looking like standing stones.” This is one of many anti-technology albums to come out in 2014, but it’s one of the best due to the ghostly production and bleak imagery, hitting on an emotional level. Amidst all this technological alienation, the only voice of reason remaining is Albarn himself, singing some of his most revealing and personal songs to date. In a time where the masses are easily distracted, Albarn has created an album that forces the listener to relax, look inward, and breathe.
4. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra
Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything
Thee Silver Mt. Zion started as a side project for Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Efrim Menuck, but over the past decade it has become much more than a cute little experiment. Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything is the culmination of that tinkering, an album that is as brash and brooding as anything Menuck has done before. Musically the album perfectly blends the beauty of the strings with dissonant, distorted guitars and menacing basslines, resulting in a cathartic, crushing wave of release.
It’s a good thing the music is so exultant, because Menuck’s lyrics focus mostly on desperation and anxiety, a result of a society gone wrong. This has been a common theme with Thee Silver Mt. Zion over the years, but the analysis of societal ills has taken on even more significance with several of the band members recently becoming parents. On the album’s lullaby “Little Ones Run” female voices sweetly sing the contradictory message of “Wake up darling the moon is gone/ The sky’s a mess and falling down.” On the following track Menuck sardonically predicts a future where “There’ll be war in our cities/ and riots at the mall/all our children gonna die.” The goal of all this shocking imagery isn’t to demoralize you; it’s a reminder that we still have time to change.
“Take Away These Early Grave Blues”:
3. St Vincent
[Loma Vista; 2014]
Two years ago St. Vincent did an album with legend David Byrne, and the result was a mixed bag of hits and misses. However, one listen to St. Vincent’s 2014 self-titled album and it’s patently clear that Byrne served as a Jedi master to Annie Clark, pushing her sonic boundaries and helping her find her voice. It’s not that St. Vincent needed any polishing; her first three albums are some of the best to come out in the past decade. Then again, she has never sounded more sure of herself than she does on St. Vincent.
The cover photo says it all, Annie sitting upon a throne wearing a sleek evening gown, her hair a frizzy mess of silver locks. Her face is neither smiling nor frowning, yet her eyes stare out, cold and confident. Long gone is the innocent cover photos of Annie smiling sweetly in front of a pastel backdrop. She’s now queen of her domain and the music on the album shows her dominance. Whenever I try to think of a comparison to St. Vincent’s unique blend of pop/synth/punk, I always come back to David Bowie, and much like Bowie with his fifth album Hunky Dory, St. Vincent has finally found her voice within the bizarre mix of angular guitars, bubbling synths, and unexpected accents that come at you from all sides. The songs at times feel unhinged and random, yet at the same time, they are tightly constructed pop songs with purpose and soul. With hopes of more of this virtuoso to come, long live the Queen.
To Be Kind
Just when you thought you’d finally wrapped your head around the epic, 2-hour odyssey that was Swan’s 2012 album The Seer, they return with even more sprawling, monolithic music on the equally ambitious To Be Kind. The moments of dissonant squeals and five-minute noise break-downs remain the same, but the band takes different paths to reach these euphoric swells. Whether it be the funky intro to “Screen Shot,” the middle eastern influence on “She Loves Us,” the spastic guitar riff on “Oxygen,” or the album’s reoccurring reliance on a blasting horn section – the band has taken their unrestrained explorations into even stranger territories.
If anything, To Be Kind is even more complicated and confounding than The Seer. It almost seems like Michael Cira and gang are challenging their listeners, daring them to like their music. This isn’t background music for your drive to work or a day at the beach. This isn’t music that is filled with infectious melodies you’ll want to listen to again and again. This is ugly, messy, uncompromising music that requires you to sit down and focus all of your energy on the unrelenting force coming out your speakers. And why would one devote two hours of their day to an album that tests their intestinal fortitude? The pay-off, and god damn if it’s not a glorious break-through. In a time where most like their music in short, sweet, easily digestible singles, Swans refuse to appease the masses. That refusal to compromise on their art is what makes To Be Kind all the more magnificent.
“A Little God In My Hands”:
1. Sun Kil Moon
[Caldo Verde; 2014]
Mark Kozelek’s music has never been about the lyrics. Whether it be his time with Red House Painters, his solo work, or his latest project Sun Kil Moon, his calming tenor and intricate guitar picking always took precedence over the metaphor-cloaked lyrics. However, with his latest, Benji, he threw away his tried-and-true blueprint and started anew. In a recent interview Kozelek said of his new start: “I’ve run out of metaphors, and when you get older, you’re bothered, or inspired, by other things in life than a girl breaking up with you. Things get heavier as you get older.” And what exactly causes things to get heavier when you get older? If Benji is any barometer, the answer is death, and lots of it. Like a roll call of corpses at a morgue, the album chronicles the deaths of family members, friends, acquaintances, mass murderers, and innocent children. Listening to the album from start to finish is an emotional endurance test that tugs at your core and ignites an internal assessment of one’s own place in the world.
Kozelek comes out of the gates with one of the most devastating tracks, a song about his second cousin who “burned to death…in a freak accident.” The song introduces the album’s haunting mood, intimate production, and matter-of-fact lyrical approach. It also reveals the mission statement of Benji: “She was only my second cousin/ But that don’ t mean that I’m not here for her/ or that I wasn’t meant to give her life poetry/ To make sure her name is known across every sea.” There are a lot of real life names that are now “known across every sea” thanks to Benji. There’s Micheline, the girl who lived down his street whose “brain worked a little slower” but “wanted love like anyone else.” There’s his friend Brett who died from an aneurysm and Kozelek’s grandma who “had a pretty hard life.” His songs unroll in an unrestricted stream-of-consciousness rambling that would make Jack Kerouac proud. For some strange reason, this album makes me think of a recent Apple advertisement for the iPad Air that features audio from the film Dead Poet Society with Robin Williams asking, “What will be your verse?” With Benji, Kozalek is providing a verse for all those he loves and all those who died before they could create their own.