Saturday, December 20, 2014

Top 10 albums of 2014

I won't remember 2014 as a great year for new music, and in a few years time I doubt I'll rank any albums from this year among my all-time favourites.  However, there was a steady stream of quality music trickling out all year long, and I don't think I fully appreciated that until I started putting together this list and realized how many notable albums there were to choose from.

You might find it surprising, in looking over lists of my favourite albums from the past several years, that the following albums did not make this year's top 10:

Raveonettes, "Pe'ahi".  Their last album, "Observator", was my #3 album of 2012 and I still play many of their earlier albums on a regular basis.  Their career is a series of brilliant albums alternating with mediocre ones.  Raveonettes are about as formulaic as they come, so they always walk a fine line between greatness and recycling the same ideas they've been beating into the ground for the past decade.

New Pornographers, "Brill Bruisers".  Speaking of formulaic, New Pornographers have been making the same album over and over for the past fifteen years, but there's nothing wrong with being the AC/DC of indie rock.  Their last album "Together" was my #5 of 2010, and even though "Brill Bruisers" checks all the right boxes, somehow I never really got into it.  It's a fun listen, but nothing too memorable.

Plastikman, "EX".  And how's this for "somehow never really getting into it" ... Plastikman's 2003 album "Closer" was my #2 album of the 00's, I've been in awe of Richie Hawtin's music for nearly a quarter century, buying album after album, single after single, alias after alias for most of my adult life, so what happened here with "EX"?  I wasn't alone in believing Hawtin was too preoccupied with capturing past glories.  In trying to be too precise in re-capturing the classic 90's Plastikman sound, Hawtin led his inspiration fall by the wayside.  There's nothing technically wrong with this album, the basic elements familiar to great Plastikman songs are there, but somehow each track fails to capture the imagination or stir up any feelings other than the desire to pull out his older albums and relive a time when he did this stuff so much better.  The early Plastikman albums needed to exist, they form a continuous narrative where you can hear how they get more and more sparse, paranoid, and claustrophobic.  Hawtin spent a decade meticulously refining the Plastikman sound, settling progressively further into a somewhat disturbed version of deep techno that's been almost impossible to duplicate.  "EX" doesn't really have a reason to exist, there's no overriding concept, no sounds that Hawtin was desperate to get out of his head.  It's just an excuse to get the proverbial band back together.

Wolves in the Throne Room, "Celestite".  "Celestial Lineage" was my #3 album of 2011 and just might be my favourite ever metal album.  The missteps with this album are easier to trace -- they changed their sound completely and became a dark ambient outfit.  Grayson Currin wrote a brilliant review and it's hard to disagree that the band blindly jumped into this shift in styles long before they figured out what kind of band they want to be going forward.

Mogwai, "Rave Tapes"; Xiu Xiu, "Angel Guts:Red Classroom".  Mogwai are one of my favourite bands ever, who made my favourite album of 1999, my #11 album of the 00's, and loads of other great studio and live recordings, but they've been steadily declining and coasting on the value of their name for a decade, if not longer.  Xiu Xiu's "Fabulous Muscles" was my #1 album of 2004, and although I've enjoyed a lot of the music they've made since then, I think I'm simply over Xiu Xiu now.  I still enjoy "AG:RC" quite a bit, and I love the Suicide does gay fetish fanfic direction of the album, but it never grew in stature for me beyond the first few listens.

Now for the actual TOP TEN ALBUMS OF 2014.

10.  Donato Dozzy and Nuel, "The Aquaplano Sessions"  (Editions Mego)

Every track gracefully unfolds and picks up swampy minimalist steam, churning along in a semi-dreamlike state until it recedes into the shadows several minutes later. In other words, it's a typically great Donato Dozzy record.

9.  Petrychor, "Makrokosmos" (self-released)

Countless metal albums have borrowed from goth, new age and ambient, but I'd never heard one that borrowed from them so liberally while still remaining unmistakably metal.

8.  Kangding Ray, "Solens Arc" (Raster-Noton)

Much like his incredible mix for Secret Thirteen, "Solens Arc" shows Kangking Ray's knack for melding vastly different styles into an uncannily coherent whole.  The calming bleeps on "History of Obscurity" would have fit in beautifully on an ambient techno mix in 1994, the rave-y 6 AM comedown on "Amber Decay" could have been on a lost KK Records from a few years later, whereas "Blank Empire"'s menacing attitude and attention to detail could have only come from the 2010's.

7.  Swans, "To Be Kind" (Mute/Young God)

Swans studio albums and live recordings are converging into one, and "To Be Kind" comes closest to replicating their feel of suffocating live gigs on record.  This album might have finished higher on this list if it wasn't so overwhelming, to the point that it's hard to get in the mood to subject yourself to this kind of speaker assault.  And you can forget about listening to it all the way through -- that's strictly for the diehards.  The peaks (the title track, "She Loves Us", and "Bring the Sun/Toussaint L'ouverture) are incredible though, bringing a completely unique type of sensory overload onto a studio record.

6.  Damon Albarn, "Everyday Robots" (Warner Brothers)

This is an album that I never expected to like, seeing how I haven't cared for much that Albarn has done in the 21st century, from "Think Tank" onwards. But "Everyday Robots" finds him settling well into an elder statesman role after two decades of being a brat.  It's the album that "Think Tank" should have been, intimate and personal, blending its many influences rather than trying to show off the depth of its music collection.  Albarn's voice is still in pristine form too, in fact, he's never sounded better.

5.  Run the Jewels, "Run the Jewels 2" (Mass Appeal Records)

I'm not even sure how it happened, but I finally "get" El-P.  Industrial scale beats with gritty, aggressive rap shouldn't have been so hard to process, but good thing that El-P and Killer Mike are two rather persistent guys.

4.  Alcest, "Shelter" (Prophecy Productions)

If you'd asked me in the 90's, or at any time up until a couple of years ago, whether Slowdive or MBV would have the bigger influence on metal, I would have laughed at the need to even ask the question.  And yet somehow Slowdive have come out ahead.  When metalheads want to turn the page they don't want to bleed their guitars dry (something they are already quite good at), they scale things back a bit and look to Slowdive (both in sound and career path).  

Alcest went all-in with their transformation from atmospheric metal to Slowdive tribute band.  They recorded their album in Sigur Ros' studio and even brought in Neil Halstead on guest vocals.  The results were inspired and fresh sounding even as they looked backwards in time.  

3.  SunnO))) and Scott Walker, "Soused" (4AD)

Like many people, when I got word of this unlikely pairing, I was sure it was an internet joke.  As much as I try to give Scott Walker's albums a fair shake, I have never understood the hype.  I file him away with legends like Arthur Russell -- arty music for people who like to talk about arty music.  

It turns out that SunnO))) and Scott Walker complement each other perfectly.  Walker gives a dash of colour to SunnO)))'s pitch black tones, and SunnO))) are bring the heavy dose of reality to Walker's otherworldly ramblings.

2.  The War on Drugs, "Lost in the Dream" (Secretly Canadian) 

This year I saw the best two word summation of any band ever and it was used to describe The War on Drugs: "Balearic Petty".  

"Lost in the Dream" is perfectly of its time. Springsteen and Petty are touring stadiums again and indie fans are allowed to like them again after spending a couple of decades in the not cool wilderness.  The confessional style of Bob Dylan's 70's albums have arguably surpassed, in the canon, his classic 60's work as the surrealist poet for the downtrodden.  But combined with motorik drumming and enough weird synth noises to alienate your favourite Springsteen fan, it's not simply classic rock updated for the modern indie rock fan. Times will change, most of these things will be uncool again, and The War on Drugs fans will come to prefer more swagger than introspection in rock music.  Until then, "Lost in the Dream" will be playing continuously in the background.

1.  Fennesz, "Bécs" (Editions Mego)

I'm looking over my #1 albums from 2008-2013, and they all have one thing in common - I was crazy about them all from the very first listen.  So "Bécs" was obviously a grower, and although I once criticized it for being a "noisier carbon copy of 'Endless Summer'", now I love it for exactly the same reasons. 


Leee said...

What did you think of Anjou?

Barry said...

I haven't gotten around to hearing it unfortunately. What do you think about it?

Leee said...

I like it a lot! It's definitely not a Labradford album, but a few tracks ("Readings") are luscious.