So, this will at least complete (part 1 here) my top 20 music releases of 2014 (you can see what I drew from here), a relative first, in its way, as I’m actually commenting on them all and what have you. The numbering has been agonized over, but remains fluid, because I rarely make ordered lists that have meaning in their order. Hell, my top 3 have been mingled gases at this point, each being “obviously” number one at the time I’m listening to it, but I factored in a few things and feel (mostly) happy with my final conclusion.
So, without further ado:
10) Young the Giant – Mind Over Matter
Maybe it’s the fact that Fun. got so big–though I think it’s also related to the sound and production style–but I have difficulty framing Fueled by Ramen as a small label.
Ah, who am I kidding? It’s the sound. Young the Giant sounds like a “big” band. I mean that both in the sense of “large, with many members and a full sound” and “probably could be or are played on pop stations”. I don’t actually know if the latter is true, but it would be the least surprising thing in the world if it was. The video for “Mind Over Matter” has 1.4 million views, which, considering some official videos I’ve linked to in this thing have, say, 2,000, should indicate something about their cultural penetration.
Sameer Gadhia’s voice, when it opens up, reminds me of a full-throated–think Genesis–Peter Gabriel, with that unconscious, strained vibrato. Heavy strings and other full-bore production choices really expand the sound of the band and feed those feelings of an enormous band. But the ear worms of particularly the tracks that come in the early mid-section of the album hooked me instantly. Standing in a store I visit on periodic trips across the state (Earshot in Winston-Salem), the guy working that day just happened to be playing it, and I bought it on the spot, something that I don’t do all that often. Revisiting the album recently (mostly in attempting to narrow my choices for this/these list(s)), I found that a few tracks really got me moving, which is something I largely avoid, being as me moving is not something anyone needs to see, or I need to imagine happening.
It says something when an album does it anyway–and that I could suggest this band to both a relatively picky friend and my father and have them both instantly interested after one track. Maybe that all makes this a weird choice, but it is what it is, no?
Get it here (on Vinyl, CD, or Digital).
9) Aphex Twin – Syro
Anyone who knew me in or around high school and college knows that Aphex Twin rapidly ascended to one of my “core” artists and stuck there for a long time. I wandered–a bit–away from electronic music in recent years, less due to disinterest than it was to constantly moving forward (or backward) and outward into new sounds and feelings in music, as I discovered them. It may not have helped that, in most senses, Richard D. James¹ hasn’t released much of anything in years–seven years ago, two EPs as “The Tuss” (both now astronomical for physical editions) and nothing as Aphex Twin since the vinyl-only Analord series in 2004 (which I do, in fact, have in its entirety, unlike the Tuss EPs).
“XMAS_EVET10 [thanaton3 mix]” is a mouthful of title and a crazy-long (10:31) track to suggest, but it’s still the one I’d go with. It feels like some really fresh, new stuff, but it also has hints of a number of his older sounds in it and just sounds really good in general. The 120 is an indication of the BPM, and it puts this track in roughly the middle of the pack for the album insofar as that metric. Still, it shows our RDJ has just kind of embraced the freedom he’s largely guaranteed in making music, to make a ten-and-a-half minute track and put it on an album as the second cut and move on. It’s not one of his more frenetic records–this isn’t that mid-to-late 90s stuff–and feels like it has the most in common in overall feel with some kind of amalgamation of the Analord work and Drukqs, which is nothing to be upset about, especially as it refines the rather scattershot collection that is Drukqs (as good as it is).
Buy it on 3xLP, CD, or digitally here. You can also stream each track.
8) Drive-By Truckers – English Oceans
The latest DBT record comes on the heels of continued upheaval: Shonna Tucker exited, cutting the songwriters down to two after years and years of numbering three, and John Neff pulled their overall numbers down yet again (naturally, Shonna, as a bassist, had to have a replacement, and came in Matt Patton).
In a way, the record really epitomizes change: down to two songwriters for the first time ever, some changes occur even in Patterson and Cooley. The record opens on a Cooley track–which hasn’t happened since 2004’s The Dirty South–which was also the first time it happened. As a nice hook for fans, they emphasized that, this time, Cooley sings a song Patterson wrote–another first for the band. Percentage-wise, that puts him on more even ground with Patterson than ever before–2008 got more songs out of him, but it was on a 19-track album, and it was only the one more.
All of this adds up to one of the most consistent Truckers records in years: lean ‘n’ mean and shooting straight. They dropped a couple tracks (“Pauline Hawkins” and Cooley’s opener, “Shit Shots Count”), but it’s been “Part of Him” that has most caught my own ear, expressing Patterson’s peculiar turns of phrase, the roots-y tinges that have lingered in what is largely a Southern rock band that often emphasizes “Southern” lyrically and “rock” musically, but here pushes the first into the music more emphatically, too.
Ever occupied by the thought that I’d unfairly–even by my own reckoning–spotlight part of a group or record to the absence of another, Cooley’s “English Oceans” is a strong contender, with its darkened, ominous musical tone and Mike’s rapid patter of characteristically clever words.
7) Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams
Ryan Adams (there, three times in a row) has rapidly climbed to the top of my personal “charts” (I suppose literally, if one happens to glance at my last.fm profile) over the last 2-3 years, so I pre-ordered this record in no uncertain terms, as it was a pretty sure shot.
After feeling uncomfortably unfamiliar with particularly the sound of the Cardinals records (I’ve since grown to feel otherwise, mind you), a new sound (that has something in common with, I think, the Cardinals’ III/IV) that is married to the familiar made me pretty happy.
Ryan’s coated the record in a “deliberately 80s” tone and production style, with a touch of smoky reverb and some metallic, sharp guitar. Obviously, this adds up to a winner for someone with my tastes, but the strength of the songs here doesn’t leave the sound to hold as a delicate framework for nothing–“Feels Like Fire” has a pounding 4/4 snare and gnarly guitar (and a pretty buried bass) with Ryan’s voice and uses a light touch of choir with a bass-expanding piano to turn into a prettier, catchy chorus.
The cover is kind of weird, but the coloured lighting on Ryan’s face is kind of in keeping with the neon lights-feeling of the record, which seems to just barely echo something like an early 80s Heartbreakers (Petty, not Thunders, obviously) record.
Get it here (on CD, with a sold out listing for LP, but you can probably find it at the usual suspects or–better yet!–your local record store).
6) Transit – Joyride
Speaking of rapidly climbing up my personal “charts”, Transit appeared entirely on a whim (“That’s quite a bundle of stuff for this band I’ve never heard of,” I said to myself, seeing a monstrous pre-order bundle for their previous album. “I think I’ll order it.”)
While Listen and Forgive and Young New England, especially, have had a dominant place in my listening for the past year, Joyride comes after the exit of founding member Tim Landers². The complaints fans of This Will Not Define Us are turned up even further–in ways that start to make me look askance just a bit–Joe Boynton’s voice is heavily produced in the opener (“The Only One”), drenched in cleaning, touches of reverb, and an artificial tightening. But, that’s all lost pretty quickly to another catchy pile of tunes. The apex on this one–for me, at least–is easily “Summer Dust” which launches a monster hook in that chorus: “Let it go/A wave out the window/So far, so good/It’s all over so/Let it go/Nothing’s beautiful/Face down floating up at the beach house” (considering I heard the guys discussing taking up painting jobs after the show I saw them at, I’m not sure how much a role beach houses play in most of their lives).
Get it here (on CD or Vinyl + bonus 7″).
5) Weerd Science – Red Light Juliet, Broadcast 2: Steady Straight Lights/Sudden Dark Turns
Ah, that moment where your “Oh well, I can’t imagine this drummer for a prog rock band can really rap” thoughts get stuck in your throat and you feel like a total and complete moron, because you couldn’t have been more wrong.
The first Red Light Juliet let Josh and Dirty Ern carve out a clearer sound for themselves as Weerd Science, and the second gets somewhat more subdued and somber through most tracks. While it’s tempting to point out the absurd flow of one of the exceptions to that tone (“Gangsta Dreamz” –which reminded me of Jeru the Damaja’s “Tha Shit” in its central conceit and nothing else, but when I asked Josh he wasn’t familiar), it’s better to point to something indicative of the totality, and that’s got to be “Greater Than You Are”, which manages a sad piano-focused beat that turns into a much bigger, louder chorus, transitioning back and forth with absurd ease.
Get it here (CD). Stream or buy it digitally on Bandcamp. Don’t forget to support the vinyl release of all three RLJ’s, the upcoming release of RLJ3 and otherwise follow the Weerd Science future release via Pledge Music (You’ve got three weeks. Get on it now.)
4) Mike Mictlan – Hella Frreal
Mike Mictlan. Probably the least acknowledged–outside the Twin Cities, anyway–member of the Doomtree crew, at least so far as I’ve seen, bafflingly shrugged at by those who haven’t seen them (and especially him) live, has dropped two records in the past few years–first the very weird, very out there SNAXXX and now Hella Frreal (not to be confused with a track of the same name which appeared on SNAXXX).
The release (characterized as a “mini-LP”) was preceded by the release of its final track, “Clapp’d”, which immediately suggested the self-parody and humour of SNAXXX was nothing like the focus of this release. From the opening of “Benicio del Torso”, it’s clear that Mike brought it on this one–beats that don’t bring to mind anything from DTR (because many of them aren’t Beak, Cecil or Paper), and he’s on his own flow, not the kind he uses for DTR records, whether crew or guesting on someone else’s track.
“I need a rap career to get me thru the year/ I said rap wouldn’t save YOU didn’t say nuthin about me there” he adds on “Less’Talk” in reference to his famous lines in “Game Over (Go Big Or Go Home Boy)” and “Fresh New Trash“. Well, if this is what we’re getting from you now, Mike, it sure as hell deserves to save you.
3) Davenport Cabinet – Damned Renegades
Well, my thoughts on this one are already out there in far greater detail than would appear here, but let me just note that this band is now a band, and has solidified their sound with their lineup and it is not a thing to sneeze at.
As with the next two, any one of them could easily be #1, but, for the moment, I think I’ve got it right.
Get it here (CD, Vinyl, or Digital).
2) Braid – No Coast
Not long after I burnt a copy to disc from my digital download pre-order (which included the LP but not CD), this immediately shot to my #1 for the year without any question or hesitation.
A fair number of bands from Braid’s era have re-formed or even just been reignited in recent years, but Braid was largely defunct (split into pieces and various associated acts) since the release of Frame and Canvas sixteen years ago.
No Coast is ridiculously good. Bob Nanna and Chris Broach have smoothed over their vocal approaches in most cases, with a flair that gives the album a tasty–rather than plastic–sheen. It’s one of those albums that’s solid top-to-bottom, with the two trading lead vocals (and, one suspects, writing credits) pretty handily, without losing any sense of cohesion whatsoever. Their guitars are more refined and cleaner, too, another change that also doesn’t coat the sound in anything unrealistic, just grease in the gears of moving it from beginning to end (and, most likely, back again).
I’d be hard-pressed to firmly select a track, but that’s only because “This Is Not a Revolution” is the closing track and it’s especially in that particular position. Additionally, man, the guitars on “Many Enemies” are ridiculously good (though that track was released in a slightly different version on their split with Balance & Composure, anyway), as are the pretty ones used in “Light Crisis”.
Buy it here (on CD, Vinyl, or Digital, and with multiple other places to buy or stream linked directly)
1) The Twilight Sad – Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave
I’ve advocated for The Twilight Sad since I first saw them open for Mogwai in 2007 (and then headline shortly thereafter, with Brakes and We Were Promised Jetpacks in tow), and I’ve liked every album they’ve released up to this point. They’ve always been somber, bordering on morose, and only carried strains of the post-rock characteristics of, well, Mogwai, with too much focus on the vocals of James Graham to really fall neatly into that category.
Andy MacFarlane, as producer and guitarist, keeps the band’s recorded sound clear and cohesive, and keeps that cold, sparse sound that has stayed with them from the outset: even as they are woven together, the separate electronic noises, guitar, bass, drums, and vocals all have just a touch of echo that gives the feeling of cold, dry air surrounding each.
Touches of that tremolo’d My Bloody Valentine sound creep into Andy’s guitar, but it remains an unlikely focal point for the band, electronics often (pleasantly and justifiably) arcing over the tracks as their dressing and adhesive. It’s a fascinating sound, as they manage to appear and disappear quietly throughout tracks, only coming in as fasteners or emphases as needed, never overstaying their welcome. Future single (announced, not my declaration) “I Could Give You All That You Don’t Want” exemplifies this, only dropping in peculiar warbles to punctuate and underscore the chorus.
“Last January” highlights the drum-heavy sound they’ve often favoured, with the ever-passionate Mark Devine precise and powerful behind some of James’s most well-integrated vocals and lyrics. “Sometimes I Wished I Could Fall Asleep” has one of his best vocals, and a spartan backing track that lets it hold center stage as it should, a reverb effect added to even further give it power over that backing. Ending as it does on the draining sustain and then trailing off to heartbeat drums, it’s a brilliant choice for album closer.
In no uncertain terms: this is the best album of an already excellent band’s career so far. It was apparent within moments of listening to it that this was an absolute triumph for them, so perfectly refined, passionate, organic, and laser-focused on being the best that it could be, that it could do little but succeed.
Buy it here (on CD, Vinyl, or digital).
And, with that, you’ve got the whole list. Give everything on it a listen–not because it will affirm my taste, but because these are sounds that should be heard and enjoyed, because these are sounds that should be found and recognized. I’m just one person doing it, and there should be more–of course, in plenty of cases, there are more, but that’s not really the issue here.
Incidentally, it was a small note last time, but J. Robbins also snuck out a digital EP called Abandoned Mansions that should also be heard. While he, Gordon Withers, and Brooks Harlan turn out some excellent acoustic versions of J.’s older tracks (Burning Airlines’s “Aviary”, Office of Future Plans’s “Lorelei” and “Salamander”, Jawbox’s “Spoiler” and “68”), it’s the new title track that highlights J.’s writing a song for the acoustic format that really shines.
¹I realize most people say “RDJ” and mean “Robert Downey, Jr.”, but I doubt I’ll ever not think “Richard D. James” first, especially when it’s “RDJ”, which was used amongst his fans regularly for quite a while, up to and including in the context of “The RDJ Album”
²I strongly suspect that Tim and Joseph Lacy exited after the band signed to Rise Records and has become more popular on the back of a much more melodic and catchy sound that has irritated some older fans, and, perhaps, some band members. Speculation, though. I don’t know at all for sure.