This holiday season, I learned a valuable lesson—the best gift of them all is friendship! (Just kidding, the best gift is obviously cash money or, like, the Naughty By Nature discography on vinyl or something.) But just in case someone from the Hallmark Channel is reading this and needs extra incentive to green light my romantic comedy loosely based on Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, friendship it is. And my good friend and the fantastic poetic wordsmith Jack Snyder has given us the second best gift of all, his fine insights into the year's best music. Enjoy.
Also, check out the poetry journal Jack is an editor on—Apartment Poetry.
Here goes nothing:
1. Iceage, Plowing Into the Field of Love
Post-punk, art-punk, & any other nomenclature you choose to throw at this album will only highlight the inadequacy of genre as a useful construct; however, as much as Plowing Into the Field of Love resists, it also works to revivify the genre that tries to house what Iceage has become. Transcending the blistering dissonance & aggression of 2013's You're Nothing, this iteration of Iceage is more melodic & dynamic, & it makes sense. Rather than being used as half-assed texturing or token quirkiness, the keys, strings, & horns found throughout the album are fully realized instrumentation, & are critical to each song's mode of expression. Both track by track & taken as a whole, this is the most expertly put together effort of 2014. Plowing Into the Field of Love is the work of a furious & lush punk orchestra.
2. Wild Beasts, Present Tense
I'm a Wild Beasts fanboy, but I'll do my damnedest to be objective here. Present Tense is a watershed moment for these guys, representing the culmination of a progression that has seen them gradually break onto a darker sound over the last three albums. Carried by their most mature songwriting yet, & an ever-increasing polish to Hayden Thorpe's high-end sparkle & Tom Fleming's low-end rumble, this album has plenty of instant appeal for first-timers—to wit, "Wanderlust"—& the challenging, big-payoff moments—see, "A Dog's Life"—to impress their devotees.
3. Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2
If not for the unfortunate misstep of "Love Again," this likely would have been my album of the year, too. Don't act like you're allergic to the hype—RTJ2 deserves every milligram of praise that it's received this month. Killer Mike & El-P are two luminaries at the tops of their games.
4. D'Angelo + The Vanguard, Black Messiah
Wow. It's tough to not love everything about this story. D'Angelo dusts himself off after—how many years has it been?—& puts together this funky, beautifully off-kilter masterwork w/ The Vanguard. Then, in light of the tragedies, miscarriages of justice, & subsequent protests in Missouri, Ohio, New York, & elsewhere, he opts for a surprise early release of Black Messiah (which had been slated for release in 2015). Lyrically, musically, texturally, socially—it's simply stunning, to the extent that it reveals, by contrast, the serious lack of quality & craft in so much of today's pop music. He deserves a crisp high-five from Prince.
5. Future Islands, Singles
It's been quite a year for Sam Herring & co. They danced & growled & infected late-night TV w/ their bouncy bass lines. They gave us some of their very best tracks, too. Can you honestly imagine confronting the quotidian, the horrific, the joyous aspects of life w/o "Seasons (Waiting On You)," "Fall From Grace," or "A Dream of You & Me" to wrap you in a rhythmic blanket? Let's try something: set your wake-up alarm as "Sun in the Morning." If you're not dancing in the shower, dancing into your slacks, dancing w/ granola, go directly to an urgent care center.
6. Pallbearer, Foundations of Burden
A cursory listen will reveal, rather quickly, the prevailing sounds here: sludgy doom metal. Maybe you'll note the Black Sabbath influence, especially in those Ozzy-esque vocals. But dig deeper into its thick riffs, & you'll find just as much Pink Floyd & shoegaze nuancing the crunchy distortion of Foundations of Burden. It's a metal album, sure, & a great one, but these tracks are every bit as rhythmically pleasing as Future Island's "Singles."
7. The Twilight Sad, Nobody Wants to be Here & Nobody Wants to Leave
Not many can pull off dark melancholy, loud enough to peel paint from the walls of your sadness, quite like The Twilight Sad, & this is their finest album to date. The opening three tracks are among the best they've ever released. Seriously.
8. Hospitality, Trouble
Some reviewers gave this album a hard time for being a big, rock-&-pop-subgenre potluck. I'm not denying that there's quite a bit going on here. Just pair some tracks randomly; listen to "Nightingale" followed immediately by "Last Words," for example. Hey, no one is ever going to confuse the deviled eggs w/ the hot artichoke dip w/ the potato salad at face value, but—surprise—they all contain mayonnaise, & they're all delicious.
9. Alvvays, Alvvays
Have you heard Molly Rankin's voice? Have you heard her cry out "Hey, hey" like a siren's song drenched in reverb? Have you listened—I mean, really listened—to "Party Police"? I'm not writing any more until you have, & if you already have, you don't need me anyway.
10. BADBADNOTGOOD, III
In early 2015 they'll release a collaborative album w/ Ghostface Killah, & their two previous releases rely heavily on jazzed-up covers of tracks ranging from A Tribe Called Quest to Feist, but III is BBNG's first album of all original material. From the most frenetic moments of "Triangle" & "Kaleidoscope" to the lounge-y, smoky smoothness of "Differently, Still," these young bucks from Toronto flex enviable range. Add in their hip-hop sensibilities—most of "Hedron" is good reference—& you've got a dynamic album that fulfills promise while promising a whole lot more.