Monthly Archives: January 2015

Masterwork: Album of the Year 2014

Album of the Year 2014

The War on Drugs

Lost in the Dream (Secretly Canadian)

Masterwork 11 of 25

1 Lost in the Dream

Although 2013 offered a higher number of big-name releases which had me in a tizzy at the time, for my money, 2014 ushered in a greater raft of less blatant, but more powerful albums. In the process of putting this list together, I’ve been able to fully appreciate the level of quality that was on display over the last twelve months. There were some truly incredible highs, from Annie Clark’s glorious transformation to Mac DeMarco’s neverending Top Gun solos, and a wealth of records which grew to sound utterly indispensable. The year was less showy than 2013, but much that it offered was nothing short of spectacular. However, when I came to choose my Album of the Year, there was absolutely no question about it. Spectacular as many of them have been, no other work came close to resonating with me as profoundly as The War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream.

This isn’t one of the albums that I had set in my sights at the beginning of the year, but since its release in April, it has affected me indelibly. Lost in the Dream grew to resonate with me in a way I never predicted it would, hitting me straight in the heart, and stirring up both great joy and an aching, bittersweet sadness. I have found myself constantly turning back to it, and many of its moments are embroidered onto some of my most vivid memories of the year. And each time that I throw myself into it, I am wholly conscious that Adam Granduciel – the band’s nexus – went through hell to produce it.

Lost in the Dream is painfully personal and insular at its essence. After finishing touring duties for 2011’s Slave Ambient, Granduciel returned to Philadelphia to find his life had falling into total disarray around him. Relationships with his friends, family, and a significant other were crumbling apart, and he found himself seized by horrifying panic attacks which left him a nervous wreck, suffering sleepless nights and teetering on the brink of breaking down. This suffering filtered into the writing and recording sessions for his band’s third album, as over two agonising years of stop-start recording, Granduciel obsessively strove for his idea of perfection, pouring his heart and soul into his songwriting, and pushing his bandmates to the limits of their patience as he scrapped session after session.

The end result should sound stodgy, overworked: a hopeless mess wrought by physical and mental exhaustion. But somehow, it is absolutely immaculate, and invested with such a sincere and palpable heartache that every second rings with soulful frankness. Where Granduciel has turned inwards to survey personal emotional wreckage, his music has expanded outwards; the seismic haze of Slave Ambient swelling to something even more wondrous and triumphant, accommodating a staggering audience of hearts and minds in the process. The more Granduciel taps into his insecurity, the more moving the music becomes, as we listeners join his uphill struggle by mingling his turmoil with our own, pushing for catharsis in soaring, driving guitar music.

Although the influences are blatantly clear (Springsteen, Dylan, FM radio circa the ’80s), the angle at which Granduciel remoulds them is never obvious. The album skirts bluster by forging its peaks with technical precision, rather than shoving in needless frills here and there to tick “epic” boxes. Guitar solos that would otherwise reek of indulgence are utterly necessary, contributing to the ebb and flow of the album’s emotional current. Rather than utilised for heroics, the instrumental passages here express the straining emotions that Granduciel’s vocal range can’t cover. And that’s pretty impressive in of itself, because the man has plenty to get off his chest, and he does so with spine-tingling power. I can barely decipher what it is that he wails over ‘Red Eyes’, but the force of his emotional agony rushes through the hazy rush of the track, bursting from its depths to pierce the sky like a euphoric call to arms.

Lost in the Dream is perfectly paced and impressively mounted, with many of its songs taking flight multiple times, defying expectations to move to greater heights with each new sonic shift. It never ceases to send a pump of adrenaline coursing through me when these moments arrive: the wide-eyed, sky-kissing synths dovetailing with that triumphant guitar line in ‘Red Eyes’; the drums finally starting to really hammer during ‘An Ocean in Between the Waves’; and the way ‘In Reverse’ shivers open to reveal the full-blooded band rallying around Granduciel’s graceful lament.

For an album which is led by one particular author (and possible control freak), it’s astonishing how instinctively dexterous the band’s team of musicians sound in full force. When ‘Under the Pressure’ sinks into a brass-led reverie, you can practically hear The War on Drugs gathering strength, gearing up to launch into something even more wonderful than what came before. The same tactic is used during ‘An Ocean in Between the Waves’, which opens with a steadily moody groove, before swelling and swelling to a zenith of titanic size, and collapsing into the vast valleys of ‘Disappearing’. The sounds on this album are so physical that it’s no wonder that wide-open spaces are often evoked in its reviews. ‘The Haunting Idle’’s shivering, stark guitar sounds like it echoes up from a seabed, and as ‘In Reverse’ shimmers into life, the sound of lapping waves underscores Granduciel’s beautiful final composition. One horizon comes to an end, as another begins, and as the song fades away, I realise how completely transported I’ve been, listening to an hour of music which taps into something truly monumental.

Seeing the band perform live twice in 2014, I was able to see just how unpretentious and unselfish Granduciel is as a performer, and as a man. His graciousness and humble air completely belie the fact that he has put together something really significant, which has touched so many people at such an elementary level. This is an album that I will carry with me for a long time, with so many of my own memories and emotions now irrevocably mixed into it. From start to finish, Lost in the Dream fills me with wonder, and I am incredibly grateful to Granduciel and The War on Drugs for it.

Music is such a varied and malleable art form that it’s silly – at best – to blithely label an album as one’s favourite of all-time. Nevertheless, many listeners are at least conscious of the albums which are among their own personal favourites: albums which are worthy of that coveted title, if never directly named as such. I’m not going to claim that Lost in the Dream is my favourite album of all-time, but its effect is so completely compelling, that I am moved enough to consider it as within reach of that accolade.

I don’t mind you disappearing, when I know you can be found.

The War on Drugs’ Adam Granduciel: Catharsis from the jaws of suffering. (photo: diymag.com)

18/01/15

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Top Ten Albums of 2014: 4 – 2

Top Ten Albums of 2014: 4 – 2

1 soundi.fi

Annie Clark as St. Vincent: never forgets her roots. (photo: soundi.fi)

4

St. Vincent

St. Vincent (Loma Vista / Republic)

St. Vincent

A fellow music blogger and friend of mine wrote of the significance of eponymous album titles in his review of Warpaint’s latest LP. To repeat his words, in naming an album after oneself, an artist makes a claim that this album – more than any other album of his / hers / theirs – “is definitely and defiantly us”. In a recent interview with NME, Annie Clark clarified that her fourth album as St. Vincent took its name because her identity has never sounded clearer.

Truly, St. Vincent is a supremely confident and unreserved establishment of Clark’s artistic persona, with every single moment here emanating pure, unfiltered identity. There’s more than a shade of Ziggy Stardust in the DNA of the St. Vincent character, and with this particular move in her career, Clark’s creation has become unquestionably iconic. Her bushy brown locks of yesteryear have been blitzed by a platinum ball of static electricity. On the album cover, she directs a burning gaze into the viewer’s eyeline from atop a throne, resembling an empress of some dystopian kingdom. Both alluring and chilling, St. Vincent is Clark’s creative alter-ego, and on this self-titled package, she finally mobilises everything at her disposal to secure her place on that throne for good. And my goodness, it’s astonishing.

By focusing all that she has taken from her past three albums and channelling it into its most concentrated form, St. Vincent unleashes forty minutes of immediate, muscular art-rock. An electrical charge runs through this album; a sonic sizzle which brings with it an urgency like a racing pulse. Where Strange Mercy was steered by impulses and neuroses, St. Vincent is unflinchingly direct in its loudest moments, sounding almost mechanised as it rumbles along relentlessly, everything snapped sternly into place. The guitar solo that crowns ‘Rattlesnake’ shoots through the song like a bolt of lightning, the music’s parameters widening with each passing bar. Coldness is hinted at in the periphery of this atmosphere, but chaos comes first, with rubble-sized chunks of guitar shredding through anything remotely basic, as seen most brilliantly in ‘Huey Newton’ and ‘Regret’, whose riffs slam into the fray like falling meteors.

Yet keeping all of this tumult in check is a nigh-on celestial sheen, wrought equally by John Congleton’s finessed production, and Clark’s own luminary harmonies, which balm the album’s more robotic tendencies by bringing a human touch to the mixture. Although the words speak of destruction and dystopia, Clark’s penchant for the divine brings a much-needed lightness to the album, stopping it from becoming all-too-much. The fusing is seamless: ‘I Prefer Your Love’ sounds positively naked following the brassy blast of ‘Digital Witness’; its spacious, majestic opulence tingling with tender bliss. Equally, ‘Severed Crossed Fingers’ bows out in marvellously picaresque fashion: a slo-mo marching mantra peppered with rapturous sighs from Clark’s multiple vocals.

St. Vincent is an incredible work of art; so densely produced that it begs to be admired, but so inviting that it is unendingly listenable. Clark handles her material with unerring autonomy, bridging sci-fi yarn, cyberpunk fantasia, and modern day lamentation inside of forty hugely immersive minutes. As with many other albums which completely own their moment in time, St. Vincent is lightning in a bottle: a genuinely spine-tingling demonstration of an artist in complete, unequivocal control.

Spitting our guts from their gears, draining our spleen over years, found my severed crossed fingers in the rubble there.

FKA twigs

FKA twigs, also into petals. (photo: theguardian.com)

3

FKA twigs

LP1 (Young Turks)

1 LP1Not only is FKA twigs’ stunning first album artistically uninhibited, and wholly pioneering in its convention-defying aesthetic, it’s also really, really disturbing. Some of the visions conjured by Tahliah Barnett on this album are borderline nightmarish: claustrophobic power-plays transmitted through unpredictably brittle beats and vocal effects which transform the singer into an extra-terrestrial being. Though individual flavours can be compared to other artists (originally, many moments on LP1 recalled GrimesVisions), this music is far too slippery to be summarised concisely. It’s so elusive, so shrouded in mystique, so otherworldly, that it’s a struggle to convey how one responds to it in both style and substance – of which there is an abundance of each.

Musically, LP1 is a monstrous tableau of contradictions. It defies categorisation as something sparse and skeletal, or dense and overbearing, because it is all of these things simultaneously. Deathly silences float airlessly alongside crushingly dense atmospheres, culminating in an intense claustrophobia courtesy of the album’s broad team of producers. It’s an incredibly thick listen, the push-and-pull between distance and intimacy tightening the feeling of entrapment as the soundscapes shift and pulse with a sensual ferocity. Beats clatter and snap, icy synths flutter as if of their own accord, and both channels are overloaded with tiny fragments of ethereal sounds: smashing glass, squealing voices, barely-there strings.

These fluid atmospheres are thoroughly bewitching, but it’s Barnett who goes in for the kill, wielding second-person pronouns in an almost predatory fashion to keep her listener ensnared. Throughout LP1, we are subject to Barnett’s whims and enticements, whether she is pledging to “kiss you for hours”, or commanding “motherfucker, get your mouth open”. When the sensational ‘Lights On’ plunges into its chorus, Barnett employs a cadence which is monotonous, vulnerable, and menacing all at once: “when I trust you we can do it with the lights on”. As it goes throughout LP1, the dominant force in this coupling is never made clear – a dichotomy which is cracked wide open on ‘Two Weeks’. The swelling sense of foreboding permeates the highly physical atmosphere, with Barnett’s snarls horribly disturbing, yet intoxicating; reconfiguring sex as a monumental power struggle.

This ambiguity keeps FKA twigs captivating as a guide through these alien atmospheres, no matter how depraved the content. The fierce slinkiness she projects is heavily imbued with a depressive weight, bringing a dark beauty to everything she touches. Barnett’s face on the album cover reflects this schizophrenic ambiguity: those stains smearing her face could be interpreted as decorative makeup just as easily as the mother of all bruises. Her gaze muddies things further: is she pouting in arousal, or moaning in exhaustion? Never once do the answers become clear; the deeper one tunnels into LP1, the muddier things become. Pretty much every other album on this list makes for a more inviting and visceral listen than LP1, but this album’s ethereal undertow crept under my skin more than any other record of 2014.

When I trust you we can do it with the lights on.

1 Sun Kil Moon

Mark Kozelek, aka Sun Kil Moon – though the moon currently leads. (photo: billboard.com)

2

Sun Kil Moon

Benji (Caldo Verde)

BenjiWith the possible exception of its title, everything about Mark Kozelek’s sixth album as Sun Kil Moon is steadfastly literal. It presents us with just over an hour of a man in his late forties drawling seemingly unedited anecdotes and observations about recent events in his life. There is no pretence, no reliance on metaphor, no sense of straining for poetry or imposing substance; just an organic unspooling of thoughts and experiences. Its arrangements are largely restricted to acoustic guitars, occasionally shaded with rhythm sections, with delicate filigrees and oaky melodies providing a bed over which Kozelek can sing with total honesty. What emerges is plain, mundane, and indelibly moving.

The meaning behind Benji is non-existent. It flows in a way which seems spontaneous, which is key, because it isn’t an album about the great joy or meaning that life brings; it only chronicles that sense of searching that we all get bogged down in. Kozelek draws attention to this hope in ‘Carissa’, but he never gives us any sense of understanding or resolution. For much of the album, he instead draws attention to trivial details: on ‘Ben’s My Friend’, the choruses are composed of the chants “blue crab cakes” and “sports bar shit”, and the narrative is a shaggy dog story involving a trip to buy lampshades and a Postal Service gig. And just as innocently as he references a trip out to lunch, Kozelek can be confronted by a death in the family, or sudden concerns about his parents’ welfare. These events aren’t treated as dramatic; they just occur alongside all the other stuff he goes through.

If there is a point to Benji, it’s most likely the notion that life is not neat or purposeful, but rather a bizarre sequence of events and accidents. Any ideas pertaining to the sublime are left at the door, and all that’s left is total and utter transparency. This is what Kozelek did. This is what happened. This is what he felt. Not everything on Benji slots together coherently, and it almost prides itself on its non-sequiturs, but Kozelek’s presence is so completely enveloping, it’s hard to cut it off short. The experience is akin to a confused, meandering memoir, where bereavement, childhood guilt, sexual experiences, familial love, and day-to-day activities are jumbled together, with everything laid on the table with equal consideration.

In this fashion, ‘Carissa’ is the perfect gateway into the album. Kozelek recounts the tragic fate of his second cousin (after whom the song is named); a woman who burned to death in a freak accident involving an aerosol can left in the trash. Kozelek agonises over Carissa’s passing, grieving both for her loss and for the fact that her death apparently held no meaning whatsoever. This idea does not compute with him, and he achingly insists “you don’t just raise two kids, and take out your trash and die”. But though he pledges that he will find poetry in her life somehow, it never surfaces. There are a number of deaths throughout Benji, but they are related alongside trivial knowledge, to the point where death becomes part of everyday living. ‘Carissa’ – and Benji as a whole – isn’t about the meaning inherent in tragedy; it’s about searching for that meaning, and the lack of final answers.

But although this sounds incredibly bleak on the page, Benji is a remarkably sensitive and strangely listenable creation. The purity of Kozelek’s lyrics and the simple beauty of his fingerpicked melodies are refreshingly candid, and the emotional spectrum isn’t confined to just grief. There’s a wicked sense of humour, too, from his self-effacing comparison to Nels Cline to the warmth that permeates his songs about his parents. ‘I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love’ and ‘I Love My Dad’ are both pretty basic, and the latter could easily be construed as cheesy. But it’s so heart-on-sleeve and unpretentious that both are utterly lovely, the former one of the most heartbreaking songs of 2014. Benji has the power to break hearts, but it’s incredibly warm and sympathetic, its stubborn bluntness both brave and poignant.

It’s a shame that Kozelek proved himself capable of being a douchebag later on during the year, during that snaffoo involving The War on Drugs. But the strength of Benji is such that it isn’t tarnished by Kozelek’s mean streak. In fact, Kozelek’s churlishness even reinforces the purity of this hour of music, which comes from the kind of man who makes cruel put-downs in public and wears a perpetually curmudgeonly frown, yet who can’t bear the thought of losing his mother, and feels searing guilt over a boy he once bullied at school. In brushing off any ideas of significance, Kozelek has paradoxically produced something truly outstanding.

An aerosol can blew up in the trash, goddamn, what were the odds?

And there we go: nine incredible listens, each one worthy of praise. There’s just one more to be announced, and my Album of the Year will be revealed tomorrow evening.

Top Ten Albums of 2014: 7 – 5

Top Ten Albums of 2014: 7 – 5

Ought: one of these men is thinking about whole milk. (photo: kickingthehabit.nl)

7

Ought

More Than Any Other Day (Constellation)

More Than Any Other DayThe cover image adorning Ought’s début album is cribbed from a postcard that one band member found on top of a dumpster in the group’s native Montreal. The picture they stumbled on – and eventually selected to serve as the band’s emblem during their LP’s promotion – depicts a cluster of hands, held together in unison. As per the laws for and against interpretation, the context of this image, its discovery, and its latent content may or may not feed into More Than Any Other Day in any significant fashion, but in purely subjective terms, it resembles a gang of chums during one of those hands-in-the-air, “go, team!” rituals that precedes a group undertaking. (Very rock & roll / Scooby-Doo.)

In More Than Any Other Day, said undertaking is the everyday routine heralded by crashlanding into responsible adulthood. Buying groceries, commuting to work, alleviating the boredom of a “nonspecific party” by consuming some dubious powder or another. All those staples of living which are repeated to the point of drudgery; a numbing sensation which eventually cements into a permanent stupor. Life can be so dull. But the way that these four Canadians combat this truth is through the excitable solidarity promulgated on the album sleeve: making the most infinitesimal decisions a cause for hysterical euphoria. Getting hung up on making the choice between types of milk is fucking stupid, but let’s have fun with it anyway. What Ought are trying to say, in a nutshell, is let’s make today – more than any other day – awesome.

This idea is championed during the quasi-title track; a song which begins at a crawl before steadily accelerating into a heart-pounding mess, until by its end it has completely derailed itself in a breathless rush of Tim Beeler gasping “we’re all the fucking same!” Befitting this statement, Ought do not deliver anything particularly new or sharp in terms of musical conquest. This is itchy, riff-heavy garage rock, as straightforward and heady as advertised on the tin. But though their influences shine through more than occasionally, Ought are a tightly-wound unit, with Beeler’s slurs ready to snap into sharp focus at any given moment. This creates a tension that results in some truly walloping moments of genius. ‘The Weather Song’ – the album’s most accessible cut – rattles along on a two-tone riff as it buries itself inside the mind of a shut-in, and you can practically hear the gears crunching as the band suddenly spring into the chorus.

Jolts such as these are registered like kicks against complacency; the band’s sly approach refusing to let the listener escape passively. Songs which have dusty, subdued beginnings quickly wriggle into furious, endlessly repeated mantras. And this repetition becomes a routine in of itself (never more apparent than on the indefatiguable ‘Gemini’), but it’s a more conscious form of living than sleepwalking through these situations. While Ought may not have all the answers, they possess a hypnotic quality when performing at their best, and these eight tracks barely waste a second. Fun, progressive, and enticing, these tirelessly repeated refrains are hammered into the mind and can be hard to shake off; constant reminders that there’s often something interesting to be found – even in patterns which have become familiar.

Today, more than any other day, I am prepared to make the decision between two percent and whole milk.

Wild Beasts: “Who does this punk-ass lighting intern think he is?” (photo: inveterate.co.uk)

6

Wild Beasts

Present Tense (Domino)

Present TenseI absolutely adore Wild Beasts. For my money, they are the most captivating British group working today, composed of four wholly gifted musicians and forward-thinkers; the combined talents of whom have produced music to be cherished and marvelled at in equal measure. Theirs is an intimacy and beauty which is polished enough to dazzle, while leavened with earthy, tangible foundations which keep them consistently grounded and three-dimensional.

With each subsequent album, Wild Beasts seem a little more complete, which may seem odd considering that they had such a distinctive identity from the get-go, having stood apart in sound and vision since 2008’s Limbo, Panto. With the arrival of each new release, the band never sounds less than exactly how they’ve always strived to be: a strong and full-bodied unit, ornate and immaculate, at the peak of their powers. It’s only when their latest material is pored over that a whole new side to them is introduced, one which – and here’s the genius of it all – never felt lacking beforehand. As fully-formed as they may sound each time, they’ve never stopped growing, their evolution a quiet linearity which I can only hope lasts throughout their career.

When Present Tense arrived in February, I was very impressed, if unconvinced that this record was in the same league as the band’s two previous LPs. Ultimately, I still believe that Two Dancers and Smother edge out this offering, due to their coherence. But my goodness, what a work of beauty Present Tense is – and what unshowy, rewarding beauty at that. After almost a year of listening to this album regularly, its many details have blossomed at last, revealing the magnificent craftsmanship at the record’s core. The band’s diversion this time is into synthesisers: a tried-and-tested shift of course, but one which the Beasts have mastered by burying secrets in every corner. There is so much to say about it, and if you fancy a more in-depth summary, check out my full review from February, in which I’ve already touched upon many of the album’s individual treasures.

Here, I’ll simply draw attention to one key attribute for which I most admire Present Tense: Wild Beasts’ masterful balancing of light and shade. More than on any previous album, the band sound diverse and more finely textured, their range still restrained but with a greater spectrum of colour than ever before. Present Tense contains some of the band’s poppiest work thus far, sat alongside some of their most ominous and unsettling compositions. As a prime example, ‘Palace’ is all the more heavenly in the wake of the tension which precedes it. As it goes throughout Present Tense, blissful moments of light accentuate those of darkness, and vice versa. While the resultant listen isn’t as streamlined as, say, Two Dancers, each individual song rings clearer and feels more vividly detailed, with its features all the more deftly defined.

There’s so much to say about Wild Beasts, and so much to find in their music. When it comes to Present Tense, its imperfections only render it more humane, more tantalising, more fascinating to behold. And when the Beasts really, really get it right – as they so often do – they make magic that defies adjective.

 We may be savage and raw, but at the core, we’ve higher needs.

1 Sharon Van Etten

Sharon Van Etten: her headphones fell off. (photo: discosalt.com)

5

Sharon Van Etten

Are We There (Jagjaguwar)

Are We ThereSharon Van Etten’s third album – 2012’s Tramp – was a firm and decisive step onto a larger playing field. With Aaron Dessner working as producer and counsellor, and a host of indie tentpole names lending their emotional and technical support, the word-of-mouth buzz surrounding Van Etten ballooned, and by the year’s end, she found herself nestled in the upper echelons of alternative singer-songwriters, with her heart-on-sleeve confessionals at last finding the reach to connect with a broad audience.

Are We There goes further still in allowing Van Etten to bare her soul, and this album feels much more the product of a singular consciousness than its predecessor. Though she has remained congruent thematically, in musical terms, Van Etten’s arrangements sound highly personal, inhabiting an intimate, delicate atmosphere that feels drawn from a single conscience. It’s telling that – for the most part – she produced these songs herself, and what has emerged is an even greater clarity. Sonically, Are We There twinkles wonderfully, its flutterings of piano and strings occasionally scarred by shards of distorted guitars. Messy eruptions break forth like bruises or opening wounds; a perfect reflection of Van Etten’s subject matter.

The bewildering and unexpected workings of the heart have been addressed by many before her, but Van Etten details the psychological toll wrought by love affairs with a dexterity that few of her peers are bold enough to match. Eschewing high drama for more commonplace fears and insecurities, Van Etten hooks into the subtleties of turbulent relationships, and manages to make even the most horrifying domestic situations sound relatable. Although not everybody can claim to have been trapped in an abusive relationship, her plight becomes something so malleable, chiefly because she never seems blind to it even as she addresses its hopelessness. Titles such as ‘Your Love is Killing Me’ seem a tad on-the-nose at first, but they perfectly encapsulate the headspace behind desperate, destructive love.

Even as happiness steadily crumples and is ravaged by absence and violence, deep-seated devotion remains: an inexpressible attachment which defies reason, but cannot be ignored or amputated. On ‘Afraid of Nothing’, Van Etten recites “I can’t wait until we hide from nothing”, and the multiple layers of this sentiment are unnerving. There are several other lyrics peppering Are We There which are absolutely brutal in this regard; none more so than the trembling cry at the core of ‘Break Me’: “he can break me with one hand to my head.”

Yet although this sounds awfully traumatic on the page, Van Etten works her troubles into a record of sublime beauty and catharsis. Never once is Are We There anything less than spellbinding; as wrenching as it is humane, and imbued with Van Etten’s own gentle, good-natured spirit. Yes, she has been through some real shit. But, as that little giggle at the end of the album indicates, she’s still able to laugh, and exude a truly comforting warmth with her music. She’s a wonderful person, who also happens to be a very gifted songwriter, and the owner of a breathtaking voice which speaks for many others besides herself.

I sing about my fear and love and what it brings.

Top Ten Albums of 2014: 10 – 8

Top Ten Albums of 2014: 10 – 8

Angel Olsen Portrait Session

Angel Olsen: heaven and hellfire (photo: therealmusic.net)

10

Angel Olsen

Burn Your Fire For No Witness (Jagjaguwar)

Burn Your Fire For No WitnessBefore galumphing to last summer’s Green Man festival, I knew very little about Angel Olsen, the Missouri-bred folk-punk heroine sustained on a diet of throaty troubadours, lo-fi country, and even a splashing of Mariah Carey. The afternoon set that I stumbled across was an odd one to behold with innocent eyes, with Olsen resolutely unflappable even in the face of adoring fans and blinding sunshine. She remained stock-still in a set devoid of fuss or showboating, yet a devilishly sly smile fed into the tunes quite discernibly, and very occasionally, one would flicker across Olsen’s poker face.

It’s this sort of tone that is mainlined on her second LP, Burn Your Fire For No Witness. Olsen’s means of address to her patrons oscillates unnervingly between a thousand-yard stare and a devilishly sly grin, using the wreckage of an unceremonious uncoupling as kindling for the album’s titular blaze. And Burn Your Fire… certainly sparks, thanks to the billowy darkness of Olsen’s proclamations and John Congleton’s dense, calloused production. The crunchy, dusty instrumentation binds together to create a rawness which refuses to tip into raucousness, as lead single ‘Forgiven/Forgotten’ makes perfectly clear. The result fits the ears snugly, sounding off-the-cuff in the moment, but carefully co-ordinated upon deeper study; the product of a clever, calculated mind ensuring maximum impact with the bluntest tools to hand.

Musically, Burn Your Fire… is scrappy, and for the most part, so are Olsen’s words when seen on the page. But the final product is far greater than the sum of its parts: an album to wrap yourself in, allowing Olsen’s tremulous voice to ripple through you. With Burn Your Fire…, the singer gets to have it both ways: it can play loose and nimble just as easily as it can morbid and disturbing. There’s the creepy, spidery slow-burn of ‘White Fire’ on the one hand, and the almost-anthem ‘Lights Out’ on the other, during which her voice rises to its clearest to deliver basic, yet resonant wisdom.

One of the album’s greatest moments arrives in the form of ‘Hi-Five’’s cracked genius. Amid this reeling, fuzz-flecked saloon march, Olsen comes across as more effective at understanding personal troubles than a thousand empathetic singer-songwriters. The moment in which she croons “are you lonely, too?” with the music receding behind her, it’s as if the construct of the album briefly falls away too, and she removes herself from the confines of recorded context to communicate directly with you, the listener. And how does she respond to your sense of disconnection? “Hi-five! So am I.” Somehow, these five gleefully bleak words feel as compassionate as any mantra of tearjerking balladry. It’s because, just as Olsen acknowledges the importance of solitude in her music, she doesn’t forget to forge solidarity between fellow damaged souls.

Some days all you need is one good thought strong in your mind.

Mac DeMarco

Mac DeMarco. Bless the wonderful tyke. (photo: pitchfork.com)

9

Mac DeMarco

Salad Days (Captured Tracks)

Salad Days2014 was the year in which I fell in love with Vernor Winfield McBriare Smith IV – or, as he is more widely known, Mac DeMarco. Lured in by his effortlessly effervescent melodies, it wasn’t long before I was hooked on videos of his shenanigans, from his playful Rapid-Fire interviews to Sky Ferreira-baiting at Pitchfork Fest ’13. Mac’s persona is so refreshingly blasé, quick-witted and goddamn fun that his presence can become kind of addictive.

On top of this, he was able to walk away from 2014 having gleaned widespread praise for his third LP; the sunny wooze-pop of Salad Days. The album itself may be the mere tip of the iceberg when it comes to Mac’s wide-ranging appeal, but that being said, it’s still a bloomingly good record. Much of the press surrounding its release had it dubbed as a downbeat, delicate heartache of an album, as a consequence of the exhausting touring schedule for 2012’s 2, which allegedly left Mac completely burned-out. Or, in his own words: “The mood for Salad Days is, ‘Fuck man! I was just on tour for a year and a half and I’m tired!’”

Indeed, there is a heightened air of yearning and ruefulness perceptible in Mac’s music this time around, but beneath all those overbearing, sad-eyed labels, Salad Days is still a buoyantly vital listen, overflowing with the feelgood froth that 2 delivered in spades. All through the album, guitars warble drunkenly, delightful earworms rise to the surface, and Mac’s vocals chirp with a scruffy (and pleasingly versatile) charisma. ‘Let Her Go’ is troubadour pop at its sunniest, ‘Passing Out Pieces’ is a majestically spaced-out stomp, and I can’t hear the opening notes of ‘Blue Boy’ without breaking into a daft grin. The likes of ‘Chamber of Reflection’ and ‘Let My Baby Stay’ express a strikingly weary tenderness, but whatever the demons Mac channels, the end products never fail to raise the spirits.

I wouldn’t call Salad Days a classic record, but it is among the catchiest and most distinctive listens that I’ve enjoyed all year, and it has assured Mac’s status as one of the most infectious entertainers in the business. I found this out first-hand at the Kentish Town Forum in November, where I witnessed one of the most frenzied, hilarious, and memorable gigs I’ve ever been to, attended by a near-hysterical crowd whose adulation for Mac was redoubtable. People really are fucking nuts about Mac DeMarco, and between his goofball antics and fresh-as-a-daisy music, it’s easy to understand why.

Sometimes rough, but generally speaking, I’m fine.

1 Merrill Garbus

tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus: possibly allergic to confetti. (photo: youtube.com)

8

tUnE-yArDs

Nikki Nack (4AD)

Nikki NacktUnE-yArDs’ third is a dizzying jumble of an album, with each of its thirteen songs erratically different in terms of tone and topic. It runs the gamut from neo-colonialism protests to a dystopic interlude about cannibalism, and ends with Merrill Garbus shrieking out against sexual harassment. Yet somehow, in spite of its breadth and heady shifts in mood, Nikki Nack works most effectively when taken in a single sitting. Even if it isn’t the smoothest album in terms of pace or cohesion, it’s only by taking a more leisurely tour of Garbus’ mind that one is able to completely satisfy the curiosity her music provokes. As she repeatedly wails on the closing ‘Manchild’, she’s got something to say – quite a lot, in fact, and a mere five-minute snippet can’t bring her wild imagination to bear fully.

tUnE-yArDs’ sonic landscape is one for getting lost in, rather than for visiting briefly. There are a couple of exceptions, but by and large, these songs only reach their full potential when heard amid this sprawling web of sound. Although its plodding rhythm may not be that enticing on a casual listen, the seesawing ‘Look Around’ is a stunning balm following the frenetic ‘Real Thing’, bringing the heat down to a simmer before rising to a cascading crescendo of multiple Garbuses intoning that creepy “never knew” refrain. As a result of this wildly creative approach, Nikki Nack is less lean than its predecessor whokill, but Garbus’ development as a composer is clear in the heightened level of detail this time around. Whereas several flavours felt a little lost in the mixture previously, on Nikki Nack every ingredient positively sings.

Additionally, Garbus’ voice has strengthened in the intervening years, with an increased confidence opening up more avenues for her to express herself more openly. ‘Find a New Way’ blisters through her insecurities as a vocalist, and smack in the centre of the album comes ‘Hey Life’, where she handles existential dilemmas with all the exuberance of a kid let loose in a funhouse. And then there’s ‘Wait for a Minute’, the album’s most sedate moment, in which she hones in on a crippling case of writer’s block that also alludes to the numbing waters of depression. Hidden beneath the Technicolor textures and tribal wails, these sombre themes rest like booby-traps, hitting all the harder for their bright, unassuming camouflage.

Nikki Nack is a wonderful release from this one-of-a-kind artist, and I was surprised to see it barely recognised on many end-of-year lists. Maybe the general feeling is that, while it remains a fun listen, it doesn’t quite top the bar set by whokill. For me, though, the adventurous spirit of Nikki Nack hasn’t lost is shine since its release back in May, and Garbus deserves recognition for tirelessly producing vibrant and flavoursome music which is as relevant as it is catchy.

Oh my God, I use my lungs!

Albums of 2014: Honourable Mentions

Samuel T. Herring

Samuel T. Herring: keep reaching for that rainbow! (photo: mobtownstudios.com)

All through 2013, it felt as though we were living through a stonkingly good year for fresh music, with the bar set high across genres left-right-and-centre as influences bled into one another and hyperbole came thick and fast. Titles worthy of Best-of-the-Year came rushing in from all corners of the musiplex, culminating in some delightfully colourful end-of-year lists, and some of the most lavished albums of the past half-decade.

In the wake of such a prosperous year, 2014 looked ever so slightly threadbare on the horizon, with fewer forecasts for big releases, but with promises for radical curveballs generating an insistent buzz of excitement that grew with each passing month. In fact, many albums over which I was most feverish (Warpaint, All This is YoursSeeds) fell short of expectations, with the less assuming surprises making their mark much more insistently. It’s been an odd little year. But sifting back through the past twelve months, there are diamonds peppering the mixture, and in hindsight, 2014 was of equal – if not greater – strength than 2013, with the final end-of-year reckoning providing some revelatory moments of realisation. We’ve had some good times.

So, before unveiling the Top 10 list in full, here are a clutch of honourable mentions: ten additional records which I’ve greatly enjoyed this year, and have become integral fixtures in my personal soundtrack of 2014. They’re not necessarily placed at 11-through-20 in my end-of-year list, but they are deserving of praise and playback nonetheless. In alphabetical order:

Alvvays – Alvvays

Alvvays

I will gravitate towards peppy, dreamy-eyed guitar pop like a bear to honey, and the début from this Toronto quintet whoops and sighs in all the right places. On an album spring-loaded with jangly melodies and the requisite fixation on clashing hearts, the MVP in Alvvays‘ arsenal is Molly Rankin, whose deft command of that particular brand of swooning, keening vocals wins me over every time. She leads from the front in a record which counterbalances its sweetness with a crunchy undertow, indicating a firm steeliness behind the lighter-than-air earworms. The results are resplendent gems like the bouncy ‘Adult Diversion’ and the disarmingly lovely ‘Party Police’.

Beck – Morning Phase

Morning PhaseMy knowledge of Beck is far from encyclopaedic, but it’d be clear even to a non-hardcore fan that Morning Phase represents a sonic comedown for an artist renowned for fidgety reinventions. This time around, however, the shift is more akin to a personal (and musical) regeneration; the sound of coming to terms with some great burden. The sombre strings of ‘Cycle’ usher in a gentle, heavy-lidded album dripping with melancholy, studded with some confessional triumphs along the way. Syrupy it may be in places, but there’s a clarity and conviction to Morning Phase which keeps me under Beck’s spell, right through to the twanging conclusion of ‘Waking Light’. Roll on, perdedor, roll on.

Caribou – Our Love

Our LoveInitially, I was a little nonplussed by Dan Snaith’s sixth album under the Caribou moniker. For me, it doesn’t quite pack the same punch as 2010’s Swim, and the quality of its constituent components occasionally wavers, especially in its mid-section. That said, I was conscious of its keepers from the get-go, and these saving graces are powerful enough to propel Our Love higher in my estimation. ‘Second Chance’ is a blissfully straightforward banger, the title track’s careful mutation retains its ability to surprise, and in the irrepressibly beatific ‘Can’t Do Without You’, Snaith has unleashed perhaps his finest work thus far.

East India Youth – Total Strife Forever

East India YouthIn 2012, William Doyle downed tools in Doyle & The Fourfathers, and shouldered complete autonomy for his first solo album; the sessions for which became something of a long slog. Yet his toil was undeniably worthwhile, as this year, the album’s word-of-mouth success saw him notch up increasingly hallowed festival sets as well as a Mercury Prize nomination. The album itself is an impressive construct; a bold collage of full-blooded electronica, icy ambience, and remarkably catchy vocal refrains. Even the stitches where the record hangs loosely accentuate the excitement surrounding Doyle’s talent: there is much to expand upon here, and it’ll be thrilling to see how Doyle advances from this launchpad onwards. [Full review here.]

Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!

Flying LotusIf I dived into Steven Ellison’s fifth album with no knowledge of its name or song titles, then I’d probably respond to the end product completely differently. But thanks to those irreverently pulpy headings and some jarring online promos, You’re Dead! thoroughly mainlines the mystery, wonder, and sensory atonality signposted by that playfully brazen title. Tumbling through You’re Dead! is disorienting, unpredictable, and cohesive all at once, with Ellison’s smash-and-grab approach to free jazz, g-funk, and everything in-between both technically and aesthetically mind-blowing. Unlike the twinkling sumptuousness of Until the Quiet Comes, everything passes in freefall on You’re Dead, and the experience is dizzyingly addictive.

Future Islands – Singles

SinglesAs gorgeous as it can be, the music of Future Islands is only half of the story. When an act goes interstellar after years of steadfast dedication to The Long Haul, they seem much more able to withstand the spotlight’s gaze than the poor newbies pounced upon by the bloodthirsty music press. As with many other long-awaited success stories before them, the members of Future Islands seized their moment with aplomb, but any threat of hyperbole was already nixed thanks to a cracking album of simple, synth-kissed alt-pop. There are moments of real lushness sprinkled throughout Singles, but it’s Samuel T. Herring who gives these songs the oomph required to scrape the skies; his pure conviction giving these tunes license to soar.

GrouperRuins

GrouperHushed and solitary, Ruins is an unflinchingly stark work of ambience, reputedly conjured by Liz Harris with nothing but a 4-track, a stereo microphone, and an upright piano. In its fuggy, bare-bones approach, it evokes the cavernous atmosphere of its recording setting (a ruin-pocked coastal town in southwestern Portugal), yet the pooled sounds are spacious enough to allow listeners’ imaginations to plug the gaps. The omnipresent hiss of tape and the palpable limitations of the recording apparatus indicate the bald isolation at the record’s core, with each piece drifting into the next like a cycle of snowflakes. When the vocals can be plucked out from the haze, they’re often ghostlike themselves, wispy in sound and context: “Every time I see you / I have to pretend I don’t,” Harris breathes during ‘Clearing’. The entire listen is mesmerising, able to creep under the skin as something simultaneously haunting and comforting.

Kate Tempest – Everybody Down

Kate TempestIn an illustrious career that already spans several mediums, Kate Tempest has succeeded in realigning the properties of poetry as something malleable, lending her hand in bridging the increasingly blurry divide between slam poetry, novelistic cohesion, and hip-hop. On Everybody Down, she proves her mettle as a remarkable talent, spinning a narrative around three principle characters whose lives become entangled after a number of chance encounters and dubious choices. The drama that unfolds is suitably juicy, but Tempest’s tenderness and her tangible sympathy for these people keeps the album’s heartbeat prominent throughout. While the backing beats are a little tinny, they work well in underscoring Tempest herself, whose precise, wonderfully woven wordplay is given ample room to dazzle.

Perfume Genius – Too Bright

Perfume GeniusWith his third album as Perfume Genius, Mike Hadreas expanded upon his familiar fusing of fragility and boldness by stretching the two extremes further than before. The delicacy is none-more quavering, yet a furious defiance shudders throughout Too Bright. This dichotomy is unpacked cleanly and brilliantly on the opening pairing of ‘I Decline’ and ‘Queen’: the sparseness of the former blown away by the goosebump-raising glam of the latter, which stomps, huffs, and glitters in a perfect crystallisation of Hadreas’ anguished path to triumph. The remainder of Too Bright is studded with such brilliance, encompassing torchlit balladry (‘All Along’), booming ’80s soul (‘Fool, ‘Longpig’), and shrieking freakouts (‘My Body’, ‘Grid’). It’s appalling that the world is still not liberated from the intolerance against which Hadreas protests, but the man’s growing confidence and extroversion are harbingers of a beautiful ascendancy.

Real Estate – Atlas

AtlasI reviewed Atlas soon after it dropped in springtime, and my quibbles with it then still largely stand. I find the New Jersey group’s patently ‘plain’ approach a touch too conservative at times, but paradoxically, that’s the entire point of their endeavours: to echo the meandering, unassuming nature of suburbia. Ultimately, the band deserve props for sewing together a distinctive and immaculate signature sound on Atlas, evoking the atmosphere of sunbeams filtering through deserted streets. The wonderful opener ‘Had to Hear’ sets the precedent that Atlas runs with for 40 sweetly sad minutes: yearning, warmth, and loneliness, channelled through glittering jangle-pop. It’s rarely electrifying, but when it succeeds, Atlas absolutely nails the bittersweet restlessness that comes with frittered time, and the effect is wholly transporting.

And lo, there they go – every one worthy of a listen. Several of the albums listed here came agonisingly close to cracking this year’s Top 10, but hair-splitting has always been central to this list malarkey, and it just reaffirms the vastness of riches that 2014 had to offer. Return tomorrow to see my take on the record that just pipped these to the post, as the countdown gets underway. Thanks for reading!