A few days ago I posted the first 20 in my “Top 40 Albums of 2014” list (check it out here). Below you will find this year’s edition of what I consider the top 20 albums of the year. You’ll find albums from varying genres and possibly a few albums that are new to you. I think it’s important to note what I define as a top caliber album. Great songs are always a plus, but more important to me is the ability of an artist to create a series of songs that tell a story, that convey an overall theme, that complement each other, and that make the listener think differently about the human experience. We are moving into an age where most consumers are more concerned with hit songs, which is why I feel compelled to highlight those musicians that have stayed honest to the age-old art of The Album and created something that’s about the whole and not a couple catchy songs.
20. Damon Albarn
20 years ago one of my favorite albums was Blur’s The Great Escape due to its colorful 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 murky. 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 In his Blur days, he was the master of creating quirky characters, but this time around, the characters have been replaced by a sea of robots, “looking at (their) phones / looking like standing stones.”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. 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.
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.
18. Run the Jewels
Run the Jewels 2
[Mass Appeal; 2014]
One of the coolest moments in BDWPS.com’s short history happened back in 2012 when rapper Killer Mike sent a thank you message in response to R.A.P. Music being ranked 9th on the year-end list. This little act of kindness revealed Killer Mike’s high-moral character. While other rappers are more concerned with chest thumping, Killer Mike is reaching out to a lowly blogger to thank him for the support. This thoughtful act solidified my appreciation for Killer Mike’s honest analysis of the world’s injustices.
Another reason R.A.P. Music remains one of my favorite hip-hop albums of the past ten years is the production work of El-P. In 2013 the duo took it a step further, forming the group Run the Jewels, and I have to admit, the first collaborative effort didn’t work for me. El-P is a talent as a DJ, but listening to him rap alongside Killer Mike is like watching Tristan Thompson trying to play alongside LeBron James. The album was also a mix-tape which invariably means it was sloppy and long-winded. I was a bit wary about the return of Run the Jewels in 2014 and deep down wished Killer Mike would return to his status as a solo artist. While El-P’s mic skills still come off as a bit inept, he upped his production game this time around with an album that bubbles and splatters like a frying pan full of hot oil. The sinister spirit of the music creates the perfect backdrop to Killer Mike’s vicious assault, and he has a lot to be pissed-off about – injustice served by the police, the one percent, and racism that remains prevalent in the United States. Killer Mike has been taking on these same issues for years now, but in 2014, his powerful voice is needed more than ever.
“Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck)”:
17. Ariel Pink
Over the holidays, my brother and I reminisced about how, as kids, we’d record various productions on our tape player. Our creations ranged from murder mysteries (“The Case of the Dead Butler”), full-fledged adventure plays based on video games (“Contra”), and creating our own music under the pseudonym “The Gooies” (Goonies was a popular film at the time). The band was actually comprised of my stuffed animal collection, a cast of characters that ranged from monkeys to teddy bears and sang about subjects like Tonka Trucks, the perils of being a monkey, and parodies of popular songs at the time (“Nasty Fuzzball” is a personal favorite). As we talked about the silliness of these exploits, I couldn’t help but think about Ariel Pink and his juvenile musical creations.
In 2014 he released Pom Pom, his first solo album in years, yet none of the utter weirdness has been lost with the absence of his backing band, Haunted Graffiti. Using retro-low-grade keyboards that could have been found under my Christmas tree in 1985 and recording on a lo-fi tape player similar to what the Gooies performed on decades ago, Ariel sings about silly topics like Jello, talking mannequins, and Dinosaur Carebears. There are also songs about adult subject matter like homicide and sex, but these are handled with a boisterous zaniness that one can’t help but smile in the face of “red murder” and “penetration time.” On face value, this may all seem like a big, silly gimmick, but you’d be wrong. The true talent of Ariel Pink is in his ability to create well-crafted songs with infectious melodies. It’s the same reason why earlier this year Azaelia Banks covered “Nude Beach A-Go-G0” and pop stars like Madonna are clamoring for his talents. Ariel Pink proves again with Pom Pom that he’s one of the best songwriters today, in all his jello-fied, weirdness.
16. Cymbals Eat Guitars
LOSE is an album about just that – loss. Seven years ago, front-man Joseph D’Agostino lost his best friend, Ben High, at the age of 19 to a heart condition. On past albums, references to the death weren’t dealt with lyrically because D’Agostino wasn’t ready to tackle the sensitive content quite yet. But in a recent interview, D’Agostino said of the new album, “I feel like, as an artist, I’m ready to do the subject matter justice.”
And D’Agostino doesn’t pull any punches. Track after track takes on the devastating loss with frank candor and exposed heart. The rumpus punkabilly song “XR” takes the death head on, reminiscing about when they’d visit “Vintage Vinyl to score some CD’s/ For ripping rails not listening,” the time they “watched ‘Faces of Death’/ and…regretted it,” and when they’d “drive down to Philly/…To see the Wrens in a rec room.” But the song isn’t all rose-colored memories. D’Agostino now finds himself “at Ben’s MySpace grave” and ponders “The songs we never wrote/They float above and below me.” Ben’s death is at the forefront throughout the album, but as a whole, LOSE is dealing with more than just the loss of a friend – it’s an album about the loss of the youthful spirit. While “XR” reminisces about the glory days, other songs explore the perpetual drain upon our inner-child. In place of the carefree teenager who cruised the streets listening to records is a shell of a man who on “Places Names” realizes “There’s no word for what I became.” In a strange ironic twist, this album lamenting the loss of adolescence provides the listener with glimmers of the past, when music meant everything to you.
Clearing the Path to Ascend
Based off my assessment of YOB’s Clearing the Path to Ascend, the journey to the Great Beyond may not be as easy as we were led to believe in bible school. The band propels the listener into a weightless, mystifying atmosphere, taking the listener through terrifying black holes of noise, so dark and dense that you’ll be pretty certain that there’s no end to the mind-numbing journey. With each song tracking in at over 10 minutes, your assumptions may be right.
Most up-and-coming doom metal bands (Pallbearer, Pilgrim, Windhand) borrow heavily from the stoner-charged sounds of the 70s, but YOB’s brand of doom doesn’t sound like it comes from the past or from this planet for all that matter. It’s gargantuan; it’s suffocating; it’s spellbinding. It’s music that is so dense that it can make you feel like you are either floating or drowning, depending on your outlook. The album also provides a few breathers, allowing softer, more psychedelic moments to calm the seas before the next swell capsizes you again. It’s an intergalactic, Moby Dick of an album that will have you returning again and again, searching through the muck and mire for those elusive pearly gates.
“In Our Blood”:
Over the past 10 years, Grouper’s Liz Harris has built a buzz around her work thanks in large part to her ability to manipulate loop pedals, creating a seemingly endless cacophony. Her albums have been more experiments in hushed ambience than actual songs. This solidified track record is what makes 2014’s Ruins all the more surprising. For one, Harris is now writing songs with focus, a traditional verse/chorus structure, and discernable lyrics.
The even bigger change to Grouper’s sound is in the approach. Harris has thrown out all her electronic devices and relied solely on a 4-track tape recorder, her voice, a piano, and the room she is in. This is as raw and uplugged as it gets; you can hear the croak of toads outside her window, the hiss of a rainstorm, and even the beeping of a microwave in the kitchen. She allows the space to be a major character in her production, although the constant use of the sustain pedal on the piano certainly adds to the reverberating atmosphere. She sings each song in a hushed tone as if she is in fear of waking the neighbors. The combination of this soft vocal delivery and sparse production creates a feeling of loneliness and isolation. This aura is only heightened by the back-story of the album – in 2011 Harris traveled to southwest Portugal to escape (the lyrics suggest a recent break-up). During this self-imposed isolation, she wrote and recorded songs to help cope with her sadness. In 2014, this document of loss finally saw the light of day, giving us a first-hand glimpse at how the creative process can help one heal.
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 resolute 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”:
12. Cult of Youth
[Sacred Bones; 2014]
In the liner notes for Final Days there is an addendum that states, “Real human bones were used on this recording and a portion of the lyrics were written in jail.” This note may seem random, but it actually helps explain a lot about the album’s message of unavoidable defeat. The losing team? Planet Earth. Yes folks, this is another apocalypse album, yet it’s so much more. While the end of mankind is a subject that has been explored in music ad nauseam, Cult of Youth take on Revelations with an anger and desperation that I haven’t heard in an album for years.
Hints of Cult of Youth’s celtic, neo-folk background still remain, but the post-punk edge has been turned up a notch with Joy Division guitar leads and Fugazi-esque vocal ferocity (seriously, Sean Ragon sounds like a Minor Threat era Ian Mackaye). Ragon has described Final Days as a “post-industrial Pet Sounds,” and even though this sounds a bit audacious, the album lives up to the description with its layers of multi-facted, tribal drums (including human rib-cage marimbas), and the portentous drone of Paige Flash’s cello. The songs take unexpected turns with abrupt tempo changes, refreshing horn blasts, and twinkling chimes. Final Days is a testament to the band’s hard work over the past seven years and a promise of more complex, explosive music to come in the future (if the world doesn’t end first).
I don’t create a worst album of the year list, but if I did, Robin Thicke’s Paula would be number one in 2014. The career-killing album (let’s hope) is a disjointed collection of poorly written songs, Robin begging throughout for his ex-wife to come back to him. It’s a douche-chill inducing grovel-fest that will leave you embarrassed for Mr. Thicke and his penchant for the cliché. If only Robin had chosen to give Paula a copy of Caribou’s Our Love, this disaster of an album could have been avoided.
I wouldn’t necessarily call Our Love a break-up album. It is a 10-song reflection on the idiosyncrasies of love – the good, the bad, the tug, the pull, the give, and the take. Dan Snaith allows for the music to carry the emotional heft with simple lyrics that capture the overlying themes of the album without beating you over the head with it. Layers of glistening synth cascade in the background as the album’s constant laid-back pace carries the narrative. Caribou has always been a little too high-brow for dance clubs, and this refusal to give in to the tried-and-true thumping bass beat remains true on Our Love. Caribou’s music is sincere, mystifying, and filled with a complexity that can make your heart flutter and break at the same time.
10. 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 more forbidden territory. The songs also drive with even more energy and determination, thanks in large part to new drummer Jayson Gerycz whose 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).
9. Perfume Genius
On past Perfume Genius albums, Mike Hadreas rarely delved into tinkering with production, allowing his soft voice and morose piano to tell his tales of abuse, sexual confusion, and molestation. With help from Portishead’s Adrian Utley and PJ Harvey contributor John Parish, Hadreas ventures beyond the confines of the confessional songwriter on Too Bright, experimenting with his music sonically. Seething basslines drone below the surface of many tracks, building the tension found in the cutting synth buzz saw. Hadreas has said that Too Bright is a result of a mounting anger, and it shows in his powerfully direct voice, assertive and in control. No longer is he whispering in a fog of reverb and uncertainty. Instead, he’s up front and center, shouting out his revelations with clarity. When listening to Too Bright I can’t help but associate Hadreas’s performance with Shudder To Think’s Craig Wedren, a premier vocalist from the 90s who could jump into an emotive falsetto at the drop of a hat. Hadreas takes on Wedren’s same vocal prowess, letting his voice accentuate his metamorphosis.
Lyrically, the songs on Too Bright are more abstract and open-ended, yet there is a persistent focus on how homosexuality is viewed in society. “Fool” explores the exploitation of gay culture, and “Don’t Let Them In” looks back to the days of hiding his true self from a populous that won’t accept it. “Queen,” on the other hand, is a “take the power back” anthem for homosexuality, facing the looks of fear on the streets with blatant disregard and pride. In the chorus Hadreas pronounces, “No family is safe when I sashè.” Hadreas is no longer the singer/songwriter in hiding – he’s on full-display for all to see on an album that is both shocking and stunning at the same time.
The Serpent & 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 Serpent & 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; instead, 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 what Gollum would describe as “precious.”
“Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation”:
They Want My Soul
I really didn’t want to like Spoon’s latest album, They Want My Soul. When I heard the band had left indie stronghold Merge Records for Loma Vista, a division of the Universal Music Group, I felt betrayed as a fan. This isn’t Spoon’s first foray into the world of major labels. In fact, after a failed tenure with Warner Bros., Merge Records was the label that resuscitated life back into Spoon. The band created a string of six great albums over the past decades with Merge but then inexplicably left the label that gave them new life. I couldn’t understand what caused the break-up, and none of the interviews with the band that I read provided any explanation. I decided before even hearing the new album, that I didn’t like it.
Then, of course, I heard They Want My Soul, and despite my early reservations, I begrudgingly loved the album (damn you, Brit Daniels!). It has all the elements that make Spoon albums so great – irresistible melodies, catchy guitar riffs, and Daniel’s provocative lyrics. This time around, the lyrics focus on all of the things in the world after your soul (They Want My Soul, duh!). “Let Me Be Mine” ponders the sacrifices someone must make when in a relationship with Daniels passive-aggressively singing, “Go ahead and take another chunk of me.” The title track assesses the societal and spiritual vampires out to get you: “Card sharks and street preachers want my soul/ all the sellers and palm readers want my soul.” And although the band has remained mum on their step back onto a major label, “Rent I Pay” suggests that even Merge records may belong alongside these soul-suckers with Daniels shouting, “I lost all my tapes/ Of back masking peace/ Just for asking a piece/ That I ought to be owed.” Whether Merge has withheld funds or the rights to past recordings is unknown, but with They Want My Soul, the band is reclaiming their identity with 10 distinctively Spoon tracks.
“Rent I Pay”:
6. 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 from a long battle with leukemia. I’m not sure if he would have liked the album or not (he was 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. 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.The songs all share a soft, sweeping wall of synth, and the guitars swirl and dangle in the ether.
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.
“Eyes to the Wind”:
5. 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”:
4. Mirel Wagner
When the Cellar Children See the Light of Day
Two years ago, Mirel Wagner emerged from Finland like a haunting ghost, bringing with her the sparse, folk storytelling that had long been forgotten. Her songs told darkly disturbing fairy tales of death and decay, all conveyed through her raspy, alto voice and the soft strumming of her guitar. Mirel has stepped up her game on When the Cellar Children See the Light of Day, moving beyond gloomy tales just for the sake of being gloomy. This time around, her tales unwind with more power and purpose. The first side of the LP contains five songs thematically focused on the idea of innocence lost. The songs all lead back the motif of something being buried down below, in most cases, a young child (or some cases, multiple children). However, each song’s story leads back to death being an escape.
As if the first half of the album wasn’t already gripping enough, Mirel saved her truly powerful work for the 2nd side of the LP. With each song, the cause of the youthful demise is not as clear-cut as earlier thought. “Dreamt of a Wave,” “The Devil’s Tongue,” “Taller Than Trees,” and “What Love Looks Like” all hint towards abuse being the culprit, stealing all of the speaker’s naivety. On “Taller Than Trees” we “see that girl fall apart / Soon as his shadow touches her heart,” while “What Love Looks Like” questions how true love could “poison me.” All of the tracks work off each other, creating a focused analysis of the death of the inner-child and how sometimes, it’s best to just move on from the pain. Or as in Mirel’s case on the closing track, take that anguish and “hold down the pillow with all of (your) might.”
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 breakdowns 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 people 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”:
2. 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 can 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.
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 fresh 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. When Robin Williams died earlier this year, I kept thinking about his performance in Dead Poet Society and when he asked, “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.