A Rather Subjective Look Back At The Music of 2014
I've been meaning to get to this piece for weeks (months?) now. A cross-country move (D.C. to Seattle) involving a ten-day roadtrip across the country with my best friend Alan, the NFL playoffs, and generally getting settled into my new home in the Emerald City has, somewhat understandably, delayed much by way of progress.
This has also been a hard year-end review to find my way into. 2013 was a big, loud year—Kanye's Yeezus dominated much of the conversation, even here on This City of Islands; Boards of Canada put out of their first album in forever, and it was brilliant; Sigur Rós found a haunting dark edge to incorporate into their work; Haim stole our hearts; it was an incredible year for hip hop, with Earl Sweatshirt, Chance the Rapper, and Danny Brown releasing phenomenal records, and let's not forget the first Run the Jewels collaboration between El-P and Killer Mike; the Arcade Fire made headlines (good and bad) with Reflektor and their CMJ show; and Foals put out perhaps their best album to date with Holy Fire. By comparison, 2014 has been 2013's quiet, shy cousin—more a year of quiet surprises than of blaring klaxons, which isn't at all a bad thing, it just took some getting used to, and hasn't helped me while I've been trying to sum up the year in music and its accomplishments.
Best Albums of the Year
Wild Beasts, Present Tense
What better album to top a year I just described as someone's quiet, shy cousin? Present Tense finds Wild Beasts at the top of their game, deftly exploring the shadows, and furthering their sound in the process. "A Dog's Life" can almost be seen as a microcosm of the album as a whole—haunting, deliberate, with near-perfect production, and more than a few dark glances towards the abyss hinted at just beyond the horizon. This isn't an album that reveals itself all at once; it needs to grow on you, to linger, echo, and unravel. Once it does, it never quite leaves you.
In a year of surprises, these teenage Catalonians steal my top billing for debut of the year. At once an energetic, youthful examination of indie rock and post-punk, and an album well beyond the years of its creators, Mourn is a remarkable document, made all the more so ever since I discovered the album was recorded live in the studio. Like some strange marriage between early Sleater-Kinney and Naomi Punk—which, now that I think about it, wouldn't be that strange, as both bands hail from Olympia—Mourn's music seems to exist both in that nostalgic idea of the '90s that is currently being harvested and on the frontiers of contemporary post-punk. And Mourn wrote a song about a squirrel that's one for the ages, so there's that going for them, too.
Mac DeMarco, Salad Days
Like Parquet Courts, it took me some time to finally fall in with Mac DeMarco's music. I can only figure these artists started their rises in popular esteem at a time when I just wasn't ready for them. Luckily for me, I was cured of this curious ailment a while back, in plenty of time to be ready for DeMarco's best album to date. This summer I found myself on a strange, semi-psychedelic music trip, and was pleasantly surprised how easily Mac's compositions fit alongside the work of bands as diverse as the Kinks, Scott Walker, John Cale, even the Delfonics. (If you're ever working on a mixtape for a friend or loved one and need to transition out of "Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time," DeMarco's "Chamber of Reflection" will get you where you need to go.) All in all, this is an incredible record from one of the more unique voices working in music today.
Merchandise, After the End
It will surprise few that Merchandise are on my Top 10 list yet again. Totale Nite made it onto last year's list, and I crushed hard on After the End earlier this year. If you haven't found your way into Merchandise's loving embrace, you should pencil that into your daybook.
White Lung, Deep Fantasy
I'm not sure how much more praise I can heap on this band. They have been a mainstay in my life since 2012's Sorry, and Deep Fantasy is everything you'd want from a punk rock band. Without sacrificing anything by way of brashness, swagger, or aesthetic violence, White Lung are the best songsmiths in punk right now—on my first few listens through this album, there were times I realized I'd been so keenly listening to the guitar, bass, and drum work that I needed to listen to the song again to hear Mish Way's vocals. Deep Fantasy stands up very well to repeat listenings, which is absolutely essential to an album that clocks in at under twenty-five minutes. If you need any more convincing, just put on "Lucky One" or the album's closer, "In Your Home."
Flying Lotus, You're Dead!
Trying to write about Flying Lotus and not being named Patrick Thomson is a scary thing indeed. If you've ever been lucky enough to catch Patrick on one of this conversational FlyLo journeys, you understand how deeply the man appreciates what Flying Lotus does—not just the craftsmanship and production, but FlyLo's inspirations, the echoes of jazz, the appreciation of the experimental nature of both electronic music and certain veins of hip hop, the genius and the playfulness circling and complementing each other. I'll try to record the next conversation Patrick and I have about You're Dead! and post it here, but until then just take my word for it—You're Dead! is an incredible album.
Parquet Courts, Sunbathing Animal
Another benefit of 2014 being a bit quieter of a year than 2013 was that I finally took the time to truly appreciate Parquet Courts. Honestly, I'm not sure why it took me so long, but I'm thankful I snapped out of it, and in time to fall for Sunbathing Animal. Last year I wrote that I would probably need to spend a weekend in New York City, sweating in the summer sun, walking aimlessly around Brooklyn and the East Village listening to Sunbathing Animal on repeat to truly become one with it. Well, this didn't happen, and I still fell in love anyways. I will, however, take the album on walks around Seattle soon, as I did promise it some sort of urban promenade.
In a rampant act of journalistic self-destruction and laziness, I'm going to plagiarize myself: "Where Awake's predecessor Dive hovered in the liminal period between first light and sunrise (or perhaps between sunset and evening, depending on your mood and how you interpret the cover art), Awake is the soundtrack to a perfect afternoon." Awake was an early favorite of mine in 2014, and it still packs a punch. Also, if you've never seen them, Tycho are incredible live.
Bam Spacey, 1998
You knew a curveball was coming, and here it is. I've been a big fan of Bam Spacey ever since 2012's Land, and the songwriting has only grown stronger. It really doesn't matter if you can't understand Swedish, the lyrics aren't what's going to pull you into 1998. Bam Spacey carves out a stretch of territory somewhere between Sand Circles, Tycho, and Cliff Martinez's Drive soundtrack, and yet 1998 is uniquely its own thing. If you have a thing for atmospheric, cinematic music, Bam Spacey's got what you need.
Ex Hex, Rips
Sometimes you just need to rock out, and no one seems to know and appreciate this as much this year as Mary Timony's newest project, Ex Hex. If the first track, "Don't Wanna Lose," doesn't get your blood pumping, well, I'm not sure what will. Maybe a tiger getting loose at the zoo? A meteor set to descend on the Earth, wiping away human civilization as we know it?
Perfume Genius, Too Bright
The Twilight Sad, Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave
Girl Tears, Tension
Blonde Redhead, Barragán
Ice Age, Ploughing Into the Field of Love
Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2
Craft Spells, Nausea
The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream
Fear of Men, Loom
A Sunny Day in Glasgow, Sea When Absent
Total Control, Typical System
Best Tracks and EPs of the Year
For the playlist, I avoided songs from albums that made my Top 10 and runners up list (well, mostly). I also tried to put it together in a way where it could be listened to front start to finish without too many huge jumps in tempos and sounds and moods. Still, even doing this, "Head Over Here" found its way to the top of the list, which is fitting.
While this was a quietly strong year albums-wise, it was a very solid year for EPs and singles.
A few of my favorites, all of which make appearances on the playlist above:
School '94, Like You EP
While the band appears to have added a '94 to their name late last year, that didn't do anything to dampen the quality of the music that appeared on last month's Like You EP. If you typically like Swedish music, dream pop, and shoegaze-influenced indie rock, School '94 is the band for you. If you need more convincing, just listen to "Head Over Here" from the playlist above. Might very well be the song of the year for me.
Wolf Alice, Creature Songs EP
Wolf Alice have been a welcome addition to my life ever since my dear friend Alan got me into "Bros" a year ago. The band has continued to impress ever since, and never more than on Creature Songs. "Heavenly Creatures" is the standout track for me, but the other three tracks aren't far behind. "Moaning Lisa Smile" packs enough mid-'90s punch to knock an Elastica fan right on their ass, and "Storms" doesn't exactly skimp on the crushing waves of distortion either, continuing the band's flirtation with the heavy and the delicately melodic. The final two jams, "Heavenly Creatures" and "We're Not the Same" tread quieter avenues—well, until the final moments of the latter song—with beautiful results. If Wolf Alice haven't already popped up on your radar, you should get on that.
Courtney Barnett, The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas
Yes, technically this is two EPs jammed together—making it long enough to almost be an album—and this double EP was originally released in Australia in 2013 (Mom + Pop Records released the record Stateside in 2014), but anyways... the real point I'm trying to make here is that if you haven't given Courtney Barnett a listen yet, you absolutely need to. And honestly, you're going to have to dive in to get an idea of the music she makes—my best attempts at describing her music would only be floundering, desperate gestures towards artists as diverse as PJ Harvey, the Kinks, Foxygen, and Parquet Courts. Anyways, take my word for it, she's a talent to keep an eye on.