A Tempestuous Season: Music in 2014

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.
— William Shakespeare, The Tempest

I set out compile a list of 2014's best albums and got lost along the way. Lost in genre and signifiers of cultural relevance, lost in sounds that resonate anomalously—hot-blooded like moans of ghosts. How little faith I have in our ability to decipher sounds absolutely, to diagnose what is inherently good over what sticks like glue to bones, what shakes our limbs in frantic spasms.  

Ultimately what I compiled is a playlist of albums and songs that may outlast my taste for them and that changed my personal landscape of music in 2014. It is not the subjective best, nor is it in compiled in any order of relevance. I cry to dream again, and pray these sounds may inform those slumbering reveries or nightmares.

The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream, "Under the Pressure"

I have to admit it took me a few listens to recognize this as arguably the best rock record of the year. Like the nostalgic sounds of our fathers’ heartland rock albums (Springsteen, Petty and even Henley and Knopfler) the reverb, synth and melancholy lyrics sweep me up into a surreal dream that I never want to wake from. It's not just the influences that inform this record; the ethos is dark and new and opens horizons for rock to roll through—all along that long stretch of highway that leads somewhere beyond here. Suffering is the rock ballad I’ve been waiting decades for, without ever even knowing it. Under the Pressure is quite certainly one of the best songs of the year.

James Vincent McMorrow, Post Tropical, "Gold"

Deepened by influences of R&B, James Vincent McMorrow’s sophomore album is anthemic, soulful and heartbreaking. There is no doubt that I listened to this album more than any other this year—falsetto sounds that reverberate longer than comfortable, synthetic riffs you can’t let go of. If you don’t believe me, turn your speakers up and listen to the tittle track Post Tropical. Around 2:37 the song moves from the tempest of layered horns, chorus and outraged symbol into a quiet, island-like solo. Then, notes move the guitar through a fresh riff, layered with clapping and answered by that strange, elevated falsetto again. It’s clear we’re moving into another genre entirely and McMorrow’s voice is leading the way. The video for Gold was one of the my favorite music experiences of the year.

Sharon Van Etten, Are We There, "Every Time the Sun Comes Up"

Oh, Sharon. How will we ever recover from this one? Who knew the early songs of Because I Was In Love (The first notes of I Wish I Knew still ring in my ears) and 2012’s Tramp could be topped? I saw Sharon earlier this year at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. It was a hot day—the sweaty crowd gathered and moved to her croon—and I was certain it was the saddest music I’d ever heard in such a hot place. It’s not just her alarmingly confessional lyrics, or the desperate and raw portrayal of love and all its consequences, but perhaps the confidence and self-assured writing and performance required for something this fearless. I can’t wait until I’m afraid of nothing, either.

Damon Albarn, Everyday Robots, "Lonely Press Play"

There’s a restraint demonstrated on this album that is transfixing. Based on speculation, and the resume of former Blur frontman and mastermind behind Gorillaz, a lot of people believed Damon Albarn’s solo record would be some loud pop revolution. Instead it’s quiet, solitary and pleasantly strange. Largely focused on the alienation of everyday technology (which Albarn has been preaching since his days with Blur) the lyrics caution and comfort simultaneously. It’s easy to find some of the same sounds and pop whimsy that made Albarn so successful with Gorillaz, but there is also a poignancy and sadness that outlasts the other elements. Towards the end of the album—just when you are feeling lonely enough to want to check your feed again—the strange wave of Heavy Seas Of Love washes over you like a church choir and you’re ready for another go at whatever it was that got you started in the first place.

Noah Gundersen, Ledges, "Cigarettes"

Start this record and let Poor Man’s Son—a naked hymn that strips music down to its most unadulterated state—change your mind about popular folk music. Listen to this album for Gundersen’s songwriting that speaks of family, death, temptation, addiction, love, and disillusionment in the same breath, with strokes of a more seasoned troubadour. With his sister Abby on vocals, violin and piano, and his brother Jonathan on drums it’s the kind of family affair that reminds me that the best folk music is found in the redemptive structures of remote churches and dusty bars along the interstate. Poor Man leads to Boathouse—a southern gothic, in my mind, that conjures images of a Nordic funeral pyre floating down the Mississippi. Eventually I settle into the harmonica and desperation of Cigarettes like an addict. Gundersen is just twenty-something, so it’s good to know there’s a future for folk music as he tells it for some time to come.

Sun Kill Moon, Benji, " Carissa"

This record isn’t for everyone; perhaps because it’s honest, original and holds storytelling at a higher currency than style. In the year of the catchy pop song, this record feels shocking and uncomfortable to listen to. In the majority of songs someone dies—some of natural causes, others meet more brutal, accidental endings. The 11 songs of Benji follow Mark Kozelek’s thoughts and human encounters, and could be more easily paired alongside literature (Ulysses perhaps?) than any other musical album this year. For all its humanity and sadness, Benji can also be quite funny. The narrative adventure of the soaring Ben’s My Friend features odes to “blue crab cakes”, “sports bar shit”, Panera Bread and the misadventures of going to a Postal Service concert to see his friend Ben. Somehow, even through the loss and mundanity that pervade this record it’s grateful and urgent—put down everything and just exist for now; we’re alive. For a listener’s companion and a laugh peruse Pitchfork’s Benji Glossary.

More Sounds, and Sweet Airs

D’Angelo, Black Messiah: A timely protest album that reminds us in just 12 songs that in the 14 years that have passed since Voodoo, everything has changed but some things remain the same. No one does neo-soul like D’Angelo, and I didn’t realize how hungry I was for a savior until this arrived.

Glass Animals, ZABA: Dance with me and shake your bones. Sexy, sinister and layered—this group pulled me in with the release of Black Mambo and didn’t let go.

Alt-J, This Is All Yours: Portions of this album call to mind Wild Beats, Hot Chip and other fathers of this take guitar, add computers genre. Other times I was hazily transported back to the likes of Cream and Steppenwolf. Though it might be derivative, it’s definitely worth a listen or two. 

FKA Twigs, LP1: It’s sexy. It’s cool. It wanders into that bedroom space of The Weeknd, but with a female perspective that feels ravenous and eager, instead of depraved and weary. (Don't get me wrong, I love The Weeknd but sometimes I grow weary too.)

Timber Timbre, Hot Dreams: This album is so weird it’s wonderful. Let it spin on hot summer nights, play it on a drive through barren deserts with no exit route; hear it streaming behind you as you run for your life.

S. Carey, Range of Light: The drummer and pianist for Bon Iver, Carey's sophomore release is hushed, thoughtful and full of cinematic songs that feature chamber, pop and jazz influences that set it apart from other vessels floating within its same seas.

Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence: I like Lana because she’s complex in that I-wanna-be-a-bad-girl-so-badly way, making her the anti-pop star, the antihero to Taylor Swift’s tea-drinking-cat-purring-saccharine-I’m-just-a-normal-girl thing. Listen to Old Money—one could swear that Zelda Fitzgerald wrote this love song to F. Scott from the haunted halls of her sanatorium. This kind of nostalgic writing in our hook-fed landscape is intoxicating, as is Del Rey's pin-up sorrow.

TV on the Radio, Seeds: Sure, I miss early TV on the Radio. It was raw, heavy and soulful. Perhaps they are worshiping chance less and spending more money and time on production, and that comes across on this album. That aside, it’s still a surreal, exciting record that I’ll listen to like a Happy Idiot.

A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Atomos: This album. Unravel me like a tempest.

Vancouver Sleep Clinic, Winter: Comparisons to Bon Iver are welcome, but check those at the door and let this vaporous, surreal treat soak into you like a relentless season.