Friday, December 26, 2014

Favorite Albums of 2014, Part I

My favorite albums of 2014, Part I

General observations:

- lots of electronic music
- the more traditional stuff is pretty mellow: pop songs, classic rock, guitar-based indie pop, etc.
- a few 'experimental' sound collage-type things

21. Mica Levi - Under The Skin (soundtrack): Mica Levi (who often uses the stage name Micachu) is a 26-year old English composer, singer, and musician based in England who has done quite a bit of experimental and pop music in a lot of different genres. This soundtrack, to one of of my favorite movies of the year, Under the Skin, is the most unsettling film soundtrack I've heard in a while. Evoking the sound of 1970s horror and sci-fi movies, she uses massive strings and slightly atonal harmony to communicate menace and foreboding very powerfully. Even if you've never seen the movie (which is extremely unsettling) this is amazing stuff. Not perhaps suitable for casual listening but certainly rewarding if you're in the right kind of mood. Listen to the sample track "Love."

20. Rodrigo Amarante - Cavalo: He is a Brazilian songwriter and singer who has been playing around in several pretty cool Brazilian bands for many years. Cavalo is his first solo album. The music is soft, float-y, sometimes barely there, sometimes uptempo, a bit of electronics, drums, here and there. Beautifully recorded, surprisingly eclectic organic music. A half-an-hour concert here.

19. FKA twigs - LP1: Another English singer who's a woman (she must be in her mid-20s) and is most famous among teenagers because she is the girlfriend of that guy from Twilight. But she has a pretty great pop sensibility. There's a little bit of Bat for Lashes in her but more synthetic pop, with some R&B thrown in. Apparently she likes Siouxsie & The Banshees but I don't see that at all. Good intelligent pop though. Sample track: "Water Me."

18. Pink Floyd - Endless River: Some critics have not been kind to this, most certainly the last album to be released by the band Pink Floyd. What it is, is basically soundscapes put together by guitarist David Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason playing with their late compatriot (and keyboardist) Richard Wright during sessions for the 1994 album The Division Bell. Gilmour & Mason basically took outtakes from those sessions--with suitable embellishments--and created Endless River. I quite like it and honestly I did not expect to. I like it a lot, notwithstanding the terrible vocal track that ends the album. Certainly a dignified end to the Pink Floyd story and at times lovely. Sample track: "It's What We Do."

17. Caribou - Our Love: I've followed the career of Dan Snaith, electronic music artist extraordinaire, since the early 2000s (back when he was "Manitoba") through excellent albums such as Up In Flames (2003), The Milk of Human Kindness (2005), and Andorra (2007). He mines a kind of softness in the electronic beats he cooks up, part psychedelia, part euphoria, some melancholia, and full-on electronica. If before he was trying to merge Brian Wilson with (danceable) Aphex Twin, here he attains a kind of half awake, half asleep dream pop, just a little bit odd, yet undeniably dance music. Like all of his music, the video for the song "Our Love" is romantic but just a bit odd, even haunted, by the ghosts of past genres.

16. Peter Murphy - Lion: Probably not the hippest singer to like these days, but who knew Peter Murphy would ever make another album worth listening to? This sounds a bit like late period Sisters of Mercy, but you know, what redeems it is that Murphy had one of the best voices of the '80s post-punk, and he appears not to have lost any of his bite. And this album has a lot of bite. It weirdly kinda rocks. I'm not going to start wearing all black again anytime soon but it's nice to hear an old geezer come up with something good. Sample track: "Hang Up."

15. Arca - Xen: Arca is the stage name of a Venezuelan producer, DJ, electronic musician-type dude (actual name, Alejandro Ghersi) based in London who's been making some original music recently (while also producing stuff for Kanye West, FKA twigs, Bjork, etc.). This is the strangest music I've heard in a while. It's like he literally dismantled a fairly conventional pop song and then put together the music in the most unintuitive way possible. Nothing seems obvious. People have said that this is almost a new kind of musical genre, but I'm not so sure. There are obvious reference points (such as sci-fi film soundtracks, Bjork, Aphex Twin, even Kanye) but it also sounds like it dropped here from outer space. Sample track: "Xen."

14. Phantogram - Voices: The band is basically two people who live in New York and do electronic pop. It's very atmospheric, hook-laden, and wouldn't be out of place in the 1990s. In fact, the most obvious reference is the 1990s semi-shoegaze band Curve (remember them?). You run into Phantogram music a lot, without really knowing it's Phantogram--their music is on a lot of 1-hour drama shows (like, I think Revenge or Scandal and stuff like that). The new album is song after song of perfect electronic pop, no weak numbers, just a steady stream of good stuff, suitable for the Top 40, right between Depeche Mode and Florence + The Machine. This album would probably be much higher on my list but for the fact that I just started to listen to it only a month or so ago. There's a pretty good recent show on-line (ignore the idiot host). See here.

13. Interpol - El Pintor: Well, well, well, who'da thought? I kind of lost of track of Interpol for many years. They put out one of the greatest debut albums of all time (Turn On The Bright Lights), then slowly but inevitably sank into mediocrity. Now they're a 3-piece band (Paul Banks plays guitar, bass, and sings) and appear to have rediscovered the muse. It's not a classic album but it is a good one, where you don't have to skip over tracks. There's still that tremulous sense that even when you're in despair, at least you can be dressed well for it. Here they are doing "All the Rage Back Home" on Letterman.

12. Real Estate - Atlas: This is the kind of music that would have fit in very well with American "college rock" in the late 1980s. They sound a lot like bands at the time (see Dumptruck) who were trying to emulate R.E.M., taking stuff from classic '60s pop like the Byrds but updating it for the times.  Real Estate are a three-piece band from New Jersey (although I think they live in New York now). I've posted stuff by them before on this blog. They have produced a bunch of great sublime guitar-based songs, songs that remind me of being in college (in fact, remind me of the kind of songs I wrote back then). Slow, mellow, understated indie pop. Here they are doing "Talking Backwards."

11. Clark - Clark: Yet another electronic musician (full name: Chris Clark) on the Warp label who has been around for a while under a mind-bogglingly large number of guises. This is his first album actually under his own name. He's English but I think lives in Berlin now. The hipsters at Pitchfork say "[t]he world is ending, and Chris Clark is writing its soundtrack." I don't know if I believe that, but the album does feel like it's a soundtrack to things falling apart. It's basic techno dance music, but for a future that you know is gonna be much much less than you hoped it would be. The album itself is remarkably eclectic, moving from different sub-genres of techno, a bit of Aphex Twin here, a bit of Boards of Canada there. There are points where the album sounds really emotional, perhaps even a bit muzak-y, but it's all invested with real feeling. Apparently he made all this up in a barn in the English countryside. Check out this track "Unfurla."