Christmas Comes Late
I’ll never be on time for posting my favorites, and I like it that way. While I lagged a bit more behind this year than I intended, it’s not like it matters. I had a last-minute switch for the top two spots that I would have regretted had I posted my list the same time as everyone else. Normally I also post some shit essay that I piece together at the last moment, and it’s only slightly different this year: now I’m giving you two shit essays! First is about my choices and overall feeling of music in 2014, the second a special bonus concerning the Village Voice‘s Pazz & Jop and the top two finishers. Christmas comes late. Also, a good friend of mine will be filing in the gaps of my dismal hip-hop coverage later this week (hopefully), so let’s look forward to that. So bottoms up. Here we go:
- Jenny Lewis – The Voyager (Warner Bros.)
- Withered Hand – New Gods (Slumberland)
- Parquet Courts – Content Nausea (What’s Your Rupture?)
- Ex Hex – Rips (Merge)
- Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal (What’s Your Rupture?)
- Ought – More Than Any Other Day (Constellation)
- Thom Yorke – Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes (BitTorrent download)
- Wussy – Attica! (Shake It)
- D’Angelo & the Vanguard – Black Messiah (RCA)
- Taylor Swift – 1989 (Big Machine)
- Angaleena Presley – American Middle Class (Slate Creek)
- Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2 (Mass Appeal)
- Spoon – They Want My Soul (Loma Vista)
- St. Vincent – St. Vincent (Republic)
- Azealia Banks – Broke With Expensive Taste (Prospect Park)
- Lily Allen – Sheezus (Parlophone)
- Bradford Cox – Teenage OST (Cinereach)
- Drive-By Truckers – English Oceans (ATO)
- Hamilton Leithauser – Black Hours (Ribbon Music)
- Homeboy Sandman – Hallways (Stone’s Throw)
- Miranda Lambert – Platinum (RCA Nashville)
- Allo Darlin’ – We Come From the Same Place (Slumberland)
- Chrissie Hynde – Stockholm (Caroline International)
- Tweedy – Sukierae (dBpm)
- The Magic Words – Junk Train (Bandcamp download)
- Parquet Courts – American Specialties (Play Pinball!)
- Aretha Franklin – Aretha Sings the Great Diva Classics (RCA)
- Peter Matthew Bauer – Liberation! (Mexican Summer)
- The Jezabels – The Brink (Mom+Pop)
- SBTRKT – Wonder Where We Land (Young Turks)
- Serengeti – Kenny Dennis III (Joyful Noise)
- Hard Working Americans – Hard Working Americans (Melvin)
- Neneh Cherry – The Cherry Thing (Smalltown Supersound ’12)
- Tamikrest – Chatma (Glitterhouse ’13)
- Tinariwen – Emmaar (Anti/Epitaph)
- Kool AD – Word O.K. (free download)
- William Onyeabor – Who is William Onyeabor? (Luaka Bop ’13)
- The Roots – …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin (Def Jam)
- Kool AD – NOT O.K. (free download ’13)
- Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks – Wig Out at Jagbags (Matador)
- Ani DiFranco – Allergic to Water (Righteous Babe)
- Chimurenga Renaissance – Rize Vadzimu Rize (Brick Lane)
- LCD Soundsystem – The Long Goodbye (Parlophone/Warner Bros.)
FYI, I’ve decided to demarcate the ten jazz releases I A-listed into its own category, the reason being that it’s pretty difficult for me to figure out where I’d place jazz in the list—it’s a whole different beast, and I’m not that good at talking about it, so I figured if anyone cared they could look at it on its own.
- Moskus – Mestyrteven (Hubro)
- Charles Lloyd & Jason Moran – Hagar’s Song (ECM ’13)
- Cyrus Chestnut – Midnight Melodies (Smoke Sessions)
- Stein Urheim – Stein Urheim (Hubro)
- Jason Moran – All Rise (Blue Note)
- John Lurie – The Invention of Animals
- Ambrose Akinmusire – The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint (Blue Note)
- The Thing – Boot! (The Thing Records ’13)
- James Brandon Lewis – Divine Travels (Okeh)
- Ginger Baker – Why? (Motema)
Human Music First
Last year I vowed to be less adventurous in my listening habits, and I was. I heard 232 2014 releases as opposed to 2013’s 288, and overall 380 albums new to me in 2014 compared to the 434 I heard in 2013. And my 2014 numbers are down (in terms of new releases, anyway; I don’t have the data for overall new listens) with regards to 2012 as well. Still, I wound up with more picks this year proportionally when compared to either of those years, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it really had nothing to do with my supposed more careful listening over the last twelve months.
Turns out that 2014 was just a great year for music.
I was pretty tepid towards the end of 2013 with the list I’d constructed—even went so far as to say that I thought the year was a bust of sorts—but that’s not the case this year. Whereas I was only spinning with any real pleasure my top fifteen while disregarding most everything else, there’s hardly an album this year in my list that I’m at all hesitant to play. And that’s a good feeling, because I haven’t felt that way since I started seriously writing music criticism in 2011, and haven’t felt that way since I started shittily writing ‘rawk crit’ back in 2008. There was so much good product this year that my plan of being less adventurous actually backfired. Not that I didn’t listen to less so I could spend more time with it—I did—but that listening to less made me miss out on stuff I’m sure I would have enjoyed. More than that, I spent way too much time sweating over albums I knew how I felt about from the get go, so much time in fact that I fell ridiculously behind, posting Record Bulletins so sparsely I missed an entire month, and in some cases only posted once in a period of thirty days. Of course, what I think’s hot doesn’t jive (once again) with Pazz & Jop, as only ten of my picks landed anywhere in the top 50. But that’s a constant I’m content with.
Same goes for our two titans of music criticism, Rolling Stone and Pitchfork, who agreed on fifteen albums, though their placement of them varied pretty wildly. The only comparable placement was Run the Jewels 2, which topped Pitchfork and placed eighth at RS. Beyond that, the next album they shared that showed up in the others’ list was at 16—St. Vincent for Pitchfork and FKA Twigs for RS. RS predictably handed their first three spots to established artists, two old fart acts and another that will be an old fart act someday: U2, Springsteen, and The Black Keys. Pitchfork swerved toward the lesser-known as they always do, with not a single major-label artist in their top ten. The glaring omission in both lists was—hold on to your butts—Pazz & Jop’s late-year winner, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, once again proving that late-year releases have a tendency to upset. It’s what Beyonce nearly did in 2013 and The Roots, to a lesser extent, in 2011.
More annoying was that 2014 was the big year for slow, boring shit. Critics couldn’t stop themselves from fawning over the soundscape albums of great dullards like FKA Twigs, The War on Drugs, Sharon Van Etten, Beck, Sun Kil Moon, Lana Del Rey, Perfume Genius, and Grouper (to name a few), not one of which I recommended beyond a slight Honorable Mention. That’s not to say I think all of it’s garbage: I have real respect for Lana Del Rey’s broodiness, think War on Drugs made a more than listenable album, and have enjoyed Van Etten’s Here We Are and Tramp as sedatives. But my cynicism knows no bounds when it comes to gurgling non-albums like Grouper’s Ruins or Beck’s Morning Phase, and try as I might, I can’t give whispery, sex-obsessed FKA Twigs a pass, probably my biggest disagreement with this year’s results. Like Perfume Genius, the only rationale I can draw for FKA Twigs’ ascendancy is a deceivingly good single: “Two Weeks.” From there suckers were hoodwinked into thinking the rest of the album had just as much to murmur regardless of how purposefully anti-genre and anti-melody Tahliah Barnett forced LP1 to be, so dreadfully slow and computerized to the point of sounding metallic. You could easily lay the same criticism at the feet of my #7, Thom Yorke’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, though Yorke’s got a far prettier set of pipes and isn’t allergic to melody despite his infatuation with simplistic though off-kilter rhythms. To her credit, I’ve never heard anything quite like LP1, and I’ve suffered my way through dreck the likes of Metal Machine Music. LP1 defies classification like it were its job, eschewing any semblance of past or present hip-hop or R&B, flaunts stillness in the face of funk, and hints at no rock tradition I’m aware of. It’s largely the same reason I figure people are drawn to the laptop jazz of Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead!, though I’m willing to give Steven Ellison a pass because I like everything else he’s done. So, sure. It’s different. But nothing on her album convinces me she’s a flesh-and-blood person except for slivers of that good single, and that’s not enough for me to pretend I’d play her album again.
Knowing that critics are drawn to novelty, it’s no surprise that my more-than-conventional pick hits weren’t contenders for the top spot: Jenny Lewis placed at respectable 26th, but Withered Hand clocked in at paltry 92nd with only a mere eight mentions. What set these albums apart from virtually everything else, and why they’re far and away my favorite records of the year, is that both deliver music and lyrics fused together and informed by an earnestness I don’t hear often. What I mean is what I wrote when I scrambled desperately to say something intelligent about The Voyager—that these albums are human music first, concerned centrally with how their choices about everyday events inform their moral compasses rather than what they ought to say about Ferguson, a case far more abstract and distanced from what’s directly in front of them. So there’s a felt vulnerability, risks taken that can result in serious ridicule on a level different from the political diatribes of Parquet Courts or Run the Jewels, apart from the completely phony or shallowly-touched but completely enjoyable love affairs of Taylor Swift or Spoon. The chances taken aren’t in the music—there’s absolutely nothing innovative in the sound of Dan Wilson, nothing Jenny Lewis does here she hasn’t done elsewhere—but the chance is that such emotionally naked music might make a connection with the listener through something other than rage (Run the Jewels and Parquet Courts), eccentric presentation (St. Vincent and FKA Twigs), or pure pop pleasure (Taylor Swift and Ex Hex), even though those elements are at play in both New Gods and The Voyager in varying degrees.
Punk isn’t exactly novelty, either, but the punk rockers that infected my top ten have definitive sounds, which is something I can’t say for about 95% of the indie acts I encounter every year. My bias toward Parquet Courts is revealed readily, as their two 2014 albums are in my top five, and a third—2011’s previously unreleased American Specialties—shows up at 26. Mary Timony’s Ex Hex is a shortened, sweetened version of Wild Flag. Ought isn’t quite the Talking Heads doppelganger they’re made out to be, but their brand of post-punk does derive from the great American acts of the late 70s—they’re a band that could storm the world or fall flat on their face.
Speaking of bands that could storm the world, Wussy finally broke Stateside (and they’re from there) after five albums and a few EPs. Funnily enough, as long as I’ve been championing them—after acquainting myself with Christgau’s reviews, which have championed them since they started—I found Attica! to be their weakest release, even though Chirstgau and his acolytes feel differently. Just check out the insiders’ P&J over at the relatively-defunct Odyshape to see how far ahead Wussy scored above runner-up Withered Hand. Attica!, however, does have what is arguably the best song of 2014, the inimitable “Teenage Wasteland.”
What I noticed with all these albums is how quickly I knew I enjoyed them. I’ve mentioned in the past that listening to so much can bring out the grumpus in you since it requires giving everything less ear time just so you can hear that many more records. But I think what dismayed me was that albums pre-2014 weren’t as good (or maybe I just happened upon more that I like by chance), and so I had to listen all the more intensely to appreciate what I might otherwise toss off halfheartedly. As December wound down, I found that I was happiest when I digested an album with a few listens, went with my gut, spit out and refined a few lines, and moved on. If something stuck, great, and if it didn’t, I wasn’t heartbroken that I wasn’t in the crowd of admirers. So the game plan going forward is to do just that—not get hung up too long on any one album. It’s a clear sign to me that I’m not digging it as much as I desire, and that’s a waste of time when there’s so much I know I’d rather be hearing. And there is so much. And I love it.
America, the Beautiful
Interesting thing about Pazz & Jop: D’Angelo and Run the Jewels got the same number of mentions, but D’Angelo scraped up more points. An interesting dynamic is at play here, because out of all the albums in the top 50, they’re the only ones that can reasonably be called protest music (with the exception of Parquet Courts at the difference—their critiques are more theoretical than visceral), and their dueling aesthetics couldn’t be more different: whereas D’Angelo approaches the issue of cop-on-black violence abstrusely, Run the Jewels take a bat to your face, a big ‘fuck you’ to anyone unlucky enough to find themselves in their blast zone. History doesn’t set up what-if conditions like this often, so it’s a duality worth parsing.
Hip-hop heads are often extremely skeptical of anyone over thirty-five who moralizes the way Killer Mike (and before I go further, no disrespect to KM; check out his Ferguson speech, God bless him) and steroid-abusing El-P do (gee, there’s a poster boy for emotional honesty), and that’s even truer of a guy like D’Angelo who’s as famous for his abs as he is for his music, so it’s fascinating that these aging artists could be as straightforward as they were and still be well-received—at least in the realm of music criticism, which, sorry to say, is largely infested by white guys like me. Proof that D’Angelo reached a wide audience was his debut at #5 on the Billboard charts despite a silent release. RTJ2, however, debuted at #50 with sales of about 12,000, though who knows how many times it was downloaded between its free release on October 24th and when it hit shelves and iTunes four days later. While both whipped up storms of critical acclaim, there is a strain of virulence coursing through RTJ2 that made me skeptical, namely the near-endorsement of open violence against authority. Not that the attitude is anything new—Ice Cube’s made a career on the promise of cop killing—but it’s a wrongheaded attitude regardless of the reaction it attempts to provoke. I don’t subscribe to the rightwing kookery of music inspiring violence—that fools like Marilyn Manson inspire pariahs to take up arms by grabbing their crotches on stage or that emcees boasting of bumping off hood gangstas causes street violence rather than at best reflects it, or at worst is a shit attempt at gaining authority. But it’s a lot harder to take RTJ’s message seriously when assholes really are shooting cops, and whether you like it or not, that call for violent revolution lies at the heart of RTJ’s philosophy. For Killer Mike and El-P to make those proclamations and then get in your face about morality is caustic if you think about it for more than thirty seconds.
Maybe the meteoric rise of both albums is in part due to a lack of musical voices of dissent (specifically black musical voices of dissent) concerning Ferguson and Staten Island, if not in the music itself than at least on platforms like Twitter. But it seems to me many have made themselves clear—D’Angelo and Run the Jewels among them, but also J. Cole, Questlove, Azealia Banks, Kendrick Lamar, Lupe Fiasco, and others, though those voices often got embroiled in arguments with each other, trading pot shots to do nothing but draw attention to themselves. I can’t attribute the silence according to Questlove’s diagnosis—that artists are afraid to speak out about it because artists gotta eat, and that uttering ‘black lives matter’ makes that more difficult. That thread strikes me as imprudent, especially when 1) there’s not much more that could mar someone like Kanye’s public perception (who, if you remember, had the balls to say on national television that George Bush didn’t [doesn’t?] care about black people), so what does a guy like his buddy Jay-Z honestly have to lose? And 2) your fanbase is most probably comprised of people who either agree with you or are so politically disconnected that they don’t give a shit, especially if you’re an artist like Questlove; not exactly obscure but no household name, either. And as for Jay and Yeezy, I imagine they’re so wrapped up in their own materialism they couldn’t give less of a shit. Just sayin’.
Since I’m staunchly anti-nostalgia (especially for times I didn’t live through), I’m not going to wax poetic over Neil Young’s “Ohio,” a response to the slayings at Kent State that thrust Young and the other three folkies into the seat of spokesmen for the countercultural movement. But I am going to say it took over ten years of US involvement in Vietnam before any sort of serious protests began, with already tens of thousands of American deaths, to say nothing of the chaos unleashed upon the Vietnamese. So you might guess that I’m not enamored with the romanticized version of the hippie movement as a beacon of counterculturalism that was somehow more righteous than any countercultural movement since. That the cops who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner got away with it (to pick the two biggest examples) is to say nothing of the massive response across the nation, even if it didn’t come from musicians loudest. And while we’re on the subject of protest music, I don’t recall hearing a whole lot addressing the increasingly dangerous confrontations between the US and Russia regarding Ukraine, or the Israeli invasion and decimation of Gaza, or how we handle ISIS, or whatever your favorite international leftist distress happens to be. Not that I would expect anyone to, and I guess it’s one of those deal-with-things-in-your-own-home attitudes. I get that. Still, it goes to show that articulating a prescient critique of power structures in three or four minutes isn’t the easiest task, especially if you’re trying to do anything more than preach to the choir.
But there are groups who do it well, and that’s why Parquet Courts’ Content Nausea sits at #3 in my list. Despite wearing their politics on their sleeve, Andrew Savage and Austin Brown are never so ferocious in their delivery as RTJ. They opt instead to survey the scene in terms of its larger features, a sort of trickle-down critique (if you’ll excuse the term) that saturates in its implications. So, too, was D’Angelo’s approach—that is, when he actually approached it. If there’s some veiled social or political commentary in bragging about making a chick queef, you can spell it out to me. RTJ’s aggressiveness subverts release for further aggravation; D’Angelo’s cynicism and slight humor isn’t quite cathartic, best represented in the million-mile marching of “The Charade.” So they wind up representing two sides of the same divide: the pitchfork-wielding mob and the laid-back cynic.
In light of this cynicism that so many may have, Homeboy Sandman’s oddly uplifting “America, the Beautiful” is a light in dark times and maybe the best damn rap song of the year. After reciting a laundry list of rights and amenities afforded all Americans, he acknowledges that “the streets ain’t paved with gold,” before quickly adding “at least they paved, though.” I, too, wish there were more voices chiming in regarding the injustices inflicted especially upon POC, more vulnerable than white folk not because of anything natural but because of manmade, imposed institutions of racism. And yes, something ought to be done to reform a method of policing that essentially thumbs-ups execution, but the vitriol of RTJ, harmless as a vessel for blowing off steam, does nothing in my book for social justice. D’Angelo will do us better by not waiting another fourteen years to drop an album. In the meantime, who knows what we’ll accomplish. Had you told me in 2003, looking down the long barrel of a gun I figured would never go away, that we’d not only have a black president but a fairly-functional national healthcare system, with more social program proposals on the way, I’d say you were living in the lighter version of an alternate dimension. No fool, Homeboy Sandman admits in the final lines that our country’s “a work in progress and it may always be,” which couldn’t be truer. To finish off though, he concludes: “But even overseas opportunity is known to be in,” well, you guessed it.