Saturday, January 24, 2015

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Favorite Albums of 2014, Part II

Favorite Albums of 2014, Part II

10. Luluc - Passerby: I don't know much about this Australian band, beyond the fact that it's a man and a woman. I think this is their second album. It's ghostly acoustic music. It's not terribly original and could have been made 50 years ago, but I've been coming back to it over and over. This is one of those things that reveals new things on repeated listens. You get a sense of their music on this song, "Reverie on Norfolk Street," which begins as a traditional folk lament but the words begin to pack an emotional punch as small details pile up, building entire stories out of small moments. The accompanying electric guitar has a touch of shoegaze but isn't obtrusive

9. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross - Gone Girl (soundtrack): I really liked the last two soundtracks these guys did (The Social Network and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) and this is no exception. (All three movies, of course, being David Fincher movies). It works as a total sound piece lasting about an hour-and-a-half, as kind of an ambient music to your day. Because it's a soundtrack, we get repeated motifs. And because it's minimalist, we get a lot of what sounds like the same musical figure repeated over and over. But that's part of its attraction, in that the soundtrack builds, like repeated folds in fabric, to its "thick" peak on the spectacular track, "Technically, Missing." Like much of Reznor's work these days, you can see callbacks to his earlier work (in this case, Nine Inch Nails' 1999 album The Fragile), but there are new textures bubbling up all over. Great stuff.

8. Tinariwen - Emmaar: As those of you read this blog know, I love Tinariwen, a band of (sort of) nomadic (and now, in exile) musicians from Mali who play Tuareg blues. They achieved a bit of success among Western fans with their 2004 album Ammasakoul. Likewise, their following album, Aman Iman: Water Is Life (2007) was superb, bridging an electric guitar-driven sound (known as assouf) rooted in West African music with sounds from American/British classic rock. I lost track of them for a while but this album is quite awesome, recorded apparently in the Mojave Desert in California. Key track: the fantastic "Chaghaybou."

7. Swans - To Be Kind: This is the third studio album by the Swans since Michael Gira re-started the band a few years ago. It is also the third one in a row to be quite good! Based around heavy minimalist grooves developed through months of jamming, To Be Kind sounds a bit different from its predecessor, The Seer (although it is just as long -- clocking in at about two hours). I sense a slight (and I say, very slight) sense of playfulness in the tracks, in the sense that on a track or two, they're exploring faster tempos, rather than the sludge they're usually known for. Consider "Oxygen," which actually sounds a bit like Captain Beefheart maxed out to 10. Like any recent Swans album, it requires a special commitment to listen. You need to play it loud and be in immersed in the sound and fury. But you will be rewarded.

6. Beck - Morning Phase: At least, temporarily, Beck appears to have abandoned his party aesthetic, in favor of earnest songs about life, love, and nature. These are intricately composed pop songs, produced with a soft glow around each. There has been much talk of this as a sequel to his earlier (absolutely brilliant) Sea Change (2002) and it does bear more than a passing similarity to that earlier album in tone, vocal stylings, and general vibe. The main opening song, "Morning," could easily be mistaken for the opener on Sea Change. But where Sea Change was full of resigned melancholia, this is slightly more ambiguous and even joyful at times. It's a strangely happy album although that's not necessarily what you'd get on first listen. But I listened to it a lot this year, especially on my long trips to the West Coast and back. Beautiful stuff.

5. Morrissey - World Peace Is None Of Your Business: I pretty much completely abandoned following Morrissey after Your Arsenal (1992) and in fact, barring a few songs here and there have not heard an entire Morrissey album since then. Until now. Encouraged by a friend, I listened to the whole thing. Then I went to see a Morrissey show. And something happened which I NEVER thought would happen again. I liked a Morrissey album. While this is nowhere near as good as Viva Hate (still the gold standard), it's a bit silly to expect anything that good. But it is pretty darn good. He's outgrown that bullshit rockabilly sound and the music on this is much more diverse and rich than one might expect, with musical authorship split between Boz Boorer and Jesse Tobias. No Johnny Marr, these guys, but they're not bad. Somehow they all lined up 12 pretty good songs in a row (plus at least 6 great b-sides). The lyrics are not cringeworthy, and sometimes actually funny. And his voice! Its still amazing -- even better than ever. The highlight on the album is the single "Istanbul," a fine song about the city that holds up as good as any song from the early solo years.

4. The War On Drugs - Lost In The Dream: This is the third album from this Philadelphia-based band which has gotten a lot of press this year. My first reaction hearing stuff from this album was that it sounds like mid-1980s classic rock, something that could be off of Bob Dylan's Empire Burlesque. Or worse, something from John Cougar Mellencamp or Tom Petty or Dire Straits (especially, Brothers In Arms). In other words, it was really off-putting because that's the exact kind of music I HATED at the time. Lots of keyboards, guitars and vocals with tons of reverb, classic rock moves, etc. But further inspection of the contents really changed my mind. Two things to consider: this music has a genuine emotional depth and I don't know why it does. Every time I hear it, it kind chokes me up. Second, the songs are intricately arranged and go into these kind of epic outros that are positively mesmerizing. In spirit (if not in actual style) they have that thing that the Feelies used to have -- playing the same chord sequence for 5 minutes until the listener has been taken to another dimension all together. Beauty in repetition. I haven't paid too much attention to the words but they seem to be about someone who is struggling, struggling just to be. The band's main architect is one Adam Granduciel who, it turns out, is someone who has had a lot of ups and downs. As an aside, another modern day classic rocker who I love, Kurt Vile, was a member of the War of Drugs until he went solo, which sort of makes sense now. The final song on this album -- actually not like any other song on it -- is "In Reverse."

3. Mogwai - Rave Tapes: Every year or so, Mogwai releases an album, and every time I think, hmmm, this time they're just gonna coast. And I read the reviews, and the reviews say, "Yup, they're just coasting at this point." And then I get the album, and I think, "Wow, this is good!." And so it is with Rave Tapes which is a lot like many recent Mogwai albums but also a bit different. I've begun to appreciate Mogwai's attempts to broaden their instrumental palette. On one song ("Remurdered") they actually have a weird house-music-y thing going on. Another song ("Repelish") has a spoken word text (about "Stairway to Heaven"!) over a heavy Mogwai background. There are a couple of super heavy Mogwai-by-numbers tracks that are weirdly awesome, and don't feel tired. The best track on the album is actually the first one, "Heard About You Last Night," a gorgeous and eerie soundtrack to ... I don't know, walking in the park alone at night? A bit romantic, but a bit scary? It distills all of Mogwai's recent styles into one awesome five-and-a-half minute track.

2. St. Vincent - St. Vincent: Everyone and their dog put this as one of their favorite albums this year. Maybe it's because she (Annie Clark) seems so utterly cool. Some musicians have this absolute cool about them, and she has it in spades. Fortunately, she combines cool with stunning good looks and what can only be described as a very unique musical vision. Her songs are pop songs in the way that Talking Heads songs were pop songs. They are a bit strange, emotionally distant, but clever observations about life. And they sound strange, but with good hooks and verses and choruses. If you've never heard a St. Vincent song, they all have a processed drum beat, a synthetic bass, a good synthesizer riff, and processed guitar. Yet, in spite of all that, she makes it sound like a live band. Her guitar chops are undeniable -- I've written before about that. This album (11 songs) is top to bottom to great. It's not too long and perfectly paced. The "hit song" is a catchy herky-kerky song called "Birth In Reverse" which is amazing in its economy, pacing, and strangeness. Yes, it sounds like if the Au Pairs met up and jammed with Gang of Four in 1981, but we are not here to grade originality. Although the album as a whole avoids earnestness or heatfelt emotional expression, a couple of the songs, "Prince Johnny" and the final song, "Severed Crossed Fingers" show little bits of warmth in the artifice. If we had a bit more of that, I think it could point the way to an even more interesting future for her?

1. Aphex Twin - Syro: So I have to admit that I was a bit afraid when I first heard that Aphex Twin was about to put out an album -- how could he possibly top anything after such a long hiatus? Turns out I was a bit misinformed. He's actually been releasing music under lots of aliases and random media for a while now. But the truth of the matter is that this was the first "proper" Aphex Twin album since Drukqs (2001). So yes, I suppose 13 years is a long time. In the nineties, Aphex Twin was pushing the envelope forward while others trailed in his wake. Could he (Richard James) still do that? Well, no, he's not at the leading edge of anything anymore but that doesn't matter. If electronic/digital music could have a life embedded in it, this is it. Syro is a complete statement, as good as any music I've heard in a long time, an hour of deceptively simple--in fact, quite complicated--electronic music. If his past couple of albums were willfully obscure and esoteric, even abrasive, for whatever reason, James has rounded off all the rough edges here and produced a beautiful album capable evoking a complete musical experience. The album moves from fairly conventional to more experimental until the final track, which is literally 5 minutes and 22 seconds of an (organic) piano melody played over and over again. A strange but fittingly appropriate way to end an album that draws all sorts of human emotion out of the bleepity bleeps of the digital world. Standout track includes the very first one.