The Year in Music: 2014

This article was originally published in The Daily Pulp on December 26, 2014.

Author’s Note: Since publishing this article, I listened a bit more and reached the conclusion that Pink Floyd’s elegiac The Endless River, Sturgill Simpson’s visionary Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, and Andrew Hozier-Byrne’s powerful Hozier also rank among the best albums of 2014. What an incredible year for music!

Well, it’s that time of year again for the Daily Pulp’s annual music rundown of what was good, mediocre, and disappointing from 2014. I must give a tip of the hat to NPR Music, whichintroduced me to a number of these albums. I also admit that I’ve never really gotten into rap, so this list lacks that side of the music world. As for classical, there are so many releases every year that frankly it’s hard to know which recordings are the essentials. With those disclaimers out of the way, here is my take on the music of 2014.

(Note: If you live near a conservatory, consider attending some of the B.M. students’ recitals at the end of each semester. They tend to be free and open to the public at major music institutions. If you want to see and hear the next generation of serious musical talent, these are the places to look.)

A Word of Apology from the Author

Before we get to the main list, I want to apologize for putting “Blurred Lines” on the list last year. Let’s face it – given the way our society has been honest this year about sexual violence, and considering Robin Thicke didn’t write the song, not to mention the plagiarism lawsuit against the song, “Blurred Lines” really shouldn’t have been on the list, never mind the bassline. Mea culpa.

The Best Album of 2014 – IT’S A TIE!

The brilliant St. Vincent. Source: http://bit.ly/1Bc8zsC.
The brilliant St. Vincent. Source: http://bit.ly/1Bc8zsC.

St. Vincent, “St. Vincent – The last time we heard from Annie Clark, professionally known as St. Vincent, she had just created a worldbeat extravaganza with David Byrne, performing live with an eight-piece brass band in one of the greatest live tours of the millennium. Save for the horns on “Digital Witness,” Clark has gone in the opposite direction and fully embraced an electronic rock sound – a far cry from her semi-acoustic early albums. I think I still love collaborative-worldbeat St. Vincent best, but the eponymous “St. Vincent” is the greatest achievement of her solo career. The album never drags. The songs juggle issues of conformity, digital-era narcissism, politics, gender identity, regret and joy, and Clark’s angry electric guitar propels the compositions forward. Quite a few of the tracks also work as dance tunes, showing that the post-postmodern Annie Clark still values the dance-based roots of rock & roll. Furthermore, Clark’s live performances are stunning. Clark ironically uses digital and electronic instruments to advance a pro-analog message (the “Digital Witness” must turn off the TV in order to be fully alive), and she performs Annie-b Parson’s angular choreography to great effect. Comparisons of St. Vincent to Patti Smith, another distinctive musical personality, are probably warranted because of this album.

“St. Vincent” very nearly emerged as the crown jewel of 2014’s new music – except for a fourth-quarter release called “Lost on the River.”

The New Basement Tapes. Source: http://bit.ly/1HNKJFy.
The New Basement Tapes. Source: http://bit.ly/1HNKJFy.

The New Basement Tapes [Elvis Costello, T-Bone Burnett, Marcus Mumford, Jim James, Taylor Goldsmith, and Rhiannon Giddens, with lyrics by Bob Dylan], “Lost on the River” – When Bob Dylan undertook the legendary Basement Tapes sessions in the late 1960s, he did not set all of his many poems to music. Forty-five years later, producer-cum-folk-curator T-Bone Burnett has taken up the challenge of writing music for the lost Dylan lyrics. He does so by gathering together a 21st-century equivalent of the Traveling Wilburys: an ensemble named The New Basement Tapes, comprised of punk pioneer Elvis Costello, Taylor Goldsmith from the folk band Dawes, alternative fixture Jim James, opera-singer-turned-folkie Rhiannon Giddens, and commercial dynamo Marcus Mumford. Together, they produce a powerful tribute to the words of Bob Dylan that draws from country, Gospel, blues and classic rock to create a truly stunning new album. The ensemble fuses together well, especially on the dynamite rock track “Nothing to It,” which appears to be about a lazy young man considering a casual act of murder. Rhiannon Giddens in particular shines on the album. One of the most singular talents in music today, Giddens has the voice of a goddess, and despite her continued ensemble work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, she is likely to emerge as a major solo artist. Credit is also due to Taylor Goldsmith, whose beautiful tenor voice and careful phrasing stand out on the emotionally devastating “Liberty Street,” a tale of struggling Midwesterners. Ultimately, though, the best track is the soaring “Lost on the River #12” – Costello’s interpretation of the lyrics, describing a path to redemption, would make a great hymn. In many ways, “Lost on the River” is a work of reverence, celebrating that singular enigmatic talent Robert Zimmerman, better known as Bob Dylan.

The Rest of the Best Albums of 2014

Alvvays, “ALVVAYS” – This stellar Canadian indie-rock album nearly beat out “Lost on the River” for the tie with “St. Vincent.” On the first listen, “Alvvays” sounds like it was recorded in mono; this is an illusion, but the musicians perform in such perfect unison that the sound appears to lack stereo depth. The musicians of Alvvays clearly have been honing their sound for some time. As the album progresses, the album further reaches for an old-time aesthetic with talk of matrimony, universities and party chaperones, sci-fi movie synthesizers, especially midway through “Adult Diversion” and Molly Rankin’s Blondie-esque vocals. And yet “Alvvays” is very much a contemporary album. Maybe it’s because the lyrics’ concerns are timeless, or because the rhythms and guitar work allow for occasional moments of full-on head-banging glory. At the end of the day, “Alvvays” by Alvvays is just damn good music, and 33 of the best minutes you’ll spend all year.

Beck, “Morning Phase” – The sonic and spiritual sequel to “Sea Change” is the most serenely gorgeous record of the year. Beck continues to experiment with time signatures and elaborate orchestrations, and he shows that he remains one of the titans of modern music. “Morning Phase” is a treasure. 

D’Angelo and the Vanguard, “Black Messiah– The most unexpected album of 2014 was not the surprise release by Beyoncé, but rather this magnificent R&B album by D’Angelo, marking his return from a nearly-fifteen-year absence from the music scene. D’Angelo has conquered (or at least temporarily suppressed) his demons and emerged with a set of deeply funky songs. Nearly all the songs evoke Prince’s overtly sexual and guitar-heavy work, but the album’s most sublime moments, when D’Angelo talks cryptically but forcefully about politics and spirituality, evoke Marvin Gaye’s masterpiece, “What’s Going On.” Songs like “1000 Deaths” and “The Charade” speak to the current moment in black America’s consciousness, given the recent proliferation of protests against the police. D’Angelo may raise more questions than he answers, but at least he asks the questions.

Neil Young, “Storytone” – I respected this album more than I actually enjoyed it. Young strives to be an overtly political singer-songwriter on tracks like “Who’s Gonna Stand Up,” and I’m not convinced he’s completely successful. Still, Young’s ageless voice produces the same anguished yelps he made forty years ago, and this double album niftily features solo renditions and big band/orchestral/rock band arrangements of every song.

Prague Philharmonic Choir & Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Tomás Netopil, “Leos Janácek: Glagolitic Mass / The Eternal Gospel – One of the NPR best-of liststurned me onto this classical album. NPR mentioned the word orgy to describe the Mass, but it struck me not as an orgy, but rather as a wild and welcoming party, where all kinds of emotions and personalities are present. If Christ wanted to invite all to a heavenly feast, then these musicians encapsulated that spirit. Portions of the score are reminiscent of Copland’s “Rodeo,” while other spooky passages on the organ evoke some of the stranger elements of the Christian mythos. The variety of musical personalities – soaring strings, interlocking brass and woodwind passages, that unstoppable organ and the polyphonic choral sections – is staggering, and the final movement, “Intrada,” is as great a symphonic send-off as I’ve heard in years. “Intrada” is the classical equivalent of rock music. I want to go to a church with this kind of Mass. (The second piece, “The Eternal Gospel,” is also exquisite, but that Mass is the meal ticket.) If this is a great example of what’s being produced in the classical music world these days, I want more.

(Postscript: The big sensation in classical music this year apparently was John Luther Adams’ “Become Ocean,” which won the Pulitzer Prize and was recorded for commercial release by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. It’s pretty interesting, certainly well orchestrated, but a bit meandering and not nearly as fun as the Glagolitic Mass. Listen for yourself.)

Primus, “Primus & the Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble– Yes, a heavy prog-rock band covered the complete soundtrack from “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory” – every last song, from “The Candy Man” to the Oompa-Loompa sermons. But God, what a cover version! Primus transposed, augmented and sometimes wholly rewrote the songs and created a singularly weird, disturbing yet sweet tribute to the classic childhood film. I’m not sure how much repeat listening value the album has, but it sure makes for a continually surprising and hilarious first listen. Les Claypool et. al. did a fine job here.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “Hypnotic Eye– Tom Petty is a fine musician, but has sort of been absent for the last few years. He bursts back onto the scene with “Hypnotic Eye,” a snarling, emphatic album of country and heartland rock. Lead single “American Dream Plan B,” the heaviest track Petty’s recorded in ages, draws on recent economic fears in its portrayal of a young man determined to fight for his dreams, but unable to fully suppress his doubts. Other songs tackle magic, folk religion, sin and the apocalypse. Petty and the Heartbreakers still have things to say after several decades in the business, and they push the boundaries and content of country music in the process. Bravo!

Tune-Yards, “Nikki Nack” – Merrill Garbus and bassist Nate Brenner create a truly bizarre work here, which I can characterize only as worldbeat funk. Garbus’ distinctive blend of shouting and alto singing is forceful and impossible to ignore. Tune-Yards combines street corner wackiness with tape loops and an infinite number of percussive sounds. “Water Fountain” is the standout here, but there’s a lot to enjoy.

U2, “Songs of Innocence” – It took a few listens for this album to grow on me, but I now believe U2 made a rather good record with “Songs of Innocence.” Yes, “Volcano” is a pointless retread of “Vertigo,” but other than that fumble, the album is really quite good, a sonic tour of musical genres that inspired and defined U2’s career. “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” pays skillful tribute to punk, even if it sounds more like heavy metal than classic punk proper, and the opening of “California” eerily evokes the Beach Boys for a less optimistic age. “Raised by Wolves” goes straight back to the early-U2 sound of “I Will Follow,” and Danger Mouse & One Direction’s Ryan Tedder add a very contemporary degree of treble synthesizers to much of the album, especially the soaring “Every Breaking Wave.” Again, the album isn’t perfect – “Volcano” is bland, and Bono’s use of falsetto on “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight” gets a bit silly – but the writing is solid (and especially apparent on the acoustic bonus tracks), and U2 seems willing to experiment. This isn’t a masterpiece on a par with Achtung Baby or How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, as Rolling Stone gushed a few months back, but neither is it the travesty decried in The New Yorker.

Unfortunately, U2 made the biggest fumble of the year with the premiere of “Songs of Innocence.” The Irish band erred by instantly putting their album into every iTunes account on the planet, assuming people would want the free album. Instead, the band inadvertently insulted a lot of people (and by a lot, I mean millions) who didn’t take too kindly to such presumption. The better plan would have been to put the album on the iTunes Store and offer it as a free download for a month, giving consumers the choice to download the album. Still, imagine how much worse this process could have been if the album had been really terrible.

(Postscript: The original digital release cover, which makes the album look like a new vinyl pressing, is pretty cool. The weird one with a half-naked Larry Mullen Jr. clutching his half-naked son is creepy as hell.)

The War on Drugs, “Lost in the Dream – This sensational prog-rock album technically qualifies as “alternative music,” but it is very much a ROCK ALBUM. I use those all-caps to convey the sheer power of the compositions, which come across as a fusion of Weezer, Peter Gabriel and King Crimson. The War on Drugs uses thickly multitracked guitars and nearly symphonic synthesizers to create gorgeous, elaborately constructed soundscapes. It is appalling that “Lost in the Dream” has not been nominated for the Grammy for Best Rock Album, for an album this strong in execution deserves much praise.

Weird Al Yankovic, “Mandatory Fun – Weird Al produced a timely, exceptionally well-composed album of satirical musical comedy. (I enjoyed it so much that I wrote a lengthy reviewof it over the summer.) After five decades of show business, Yankovic still understands American pop culture and remains adept at thumbing his nose at society.

William Onyeabor, “World Pyschedelic Classics 5: Who is William Onyeabor? – While released in 2013, this historical album from Luaka Bop, David Byrne’s worldbeat label, got its major rollout in 2014. A series of live tribute shows and TV appearances featured Byrne, Damon Albarn, Joshua Redman, the Lijadu Sisters, and many other artists. Luaka Bop also put together a remix album and a series of documentaries on Onyeabor and his mysterious circle of friends and musicians, most of whom seem lost to history or determined never to make themselves known. Onyeabor’s gonzo Afrobeat soul music is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. It’s hypnotic and deeply groovy. This multimedia archival project is the edgier flipside to the recent rediscovery of “Sugar Man” Sixto Rodriguez.

 Mixtape of the Year

Dave Wrangler and DJ Alykhan, “Purple Life – This superb Prince mixtape, which got a favorable notice in USA Today, makes for a funky good time. Its seamless edit of “Chelsea Rodgers” and “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” is brilliant.

Song of the Year

The War on Drugs, “Under the Pressure – I first heard about “Under the Pressure” when a CNBC anchor, appearing on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, deemed the song the best rock track of the year. Joe Scarborough proceeded to mock the anchor as a hipster, but Scarborough needs to get off his high horse; that CNBC anchor was right. Audaciously tipping its collective hat to the peerless “Under Pressure” by Queen & David Bowie, the War on Drugs’ “Under the Pressure” is the most powerful piece of new music I’ve heard all year.

For Bowie and Queen, the pressure was a lack of compassion for others. The War on Drugs has similarly epic concerns, but the pressure here is less societal than internal and psychological. Indeed, there’s a good chance this song describes a struggle with mental illness. The first verse details a collapsing love affair and ensuing feelings of social isolation; the second verse describes how, as hard as we try, our problems refuse to be ignored. A stunning passage of guitar and synthesizer then follows, mostly free of percussion, save for a repetitive cymbal strike not unlike a ticking stopwatch. This section becomes increasingly forceful as it builds to a crescendo; the listener imagines either a period of calm collapsing into turmoil, or a person finally preparing to speak. The drums kick back in at 4:06 with incredible force and carry through the final verse, as the narrator defiantly declares that we must carry on, despite our struggles. The song then concludes with a lengthy instrumental passage, which finally comes to rest with a few elliptical guitar notes. In nine minutes, the War on Drugs takes us on one of the most lyrical, emotionally raw and hardest-rocking journeys of the year.

On a side note, the band’s nifty music video for “Under the Pressure” riffs on the work of Stan Brakhage, whose experimental films intercut shots of suburbia and nature with paint applied directly to celluloid film. In particular, I think the filmmakers and band members emulated Brakhage’s “Untitled (For Marilyn)” art film, which is available in the Criterion Collection’s DVD set, “By Brakhage.” There are also some parallels with the methodical indoor cinematography and dreamlike visuals seen in David Lynch’s films. Clearly, the War on Drugs aims for a high level of intellectual sophistication. I look forward to see what the band does next.

Song of the Year: Runners-Up

Alvvays, “Archie, Marry Me – Molly Rankin skillfully walks a tricky line between seeming like a stalker or a sincere lover in this paranoid ode to matrimony. “Archie” has a fairly slow tempo, but also has surprisingly ferocious guitar work and a tempo that repeatedly freezes, then starts again with ever-increasing momentum. The dense, not-quite-mono sound of this recording also adds to the timeless vibe Alvvays clearly desires.

Bill Frisell, “Surfer Girl – My favorite track off Frisell’s “Guitar in the Space Age!” was this mellow, dreamy bit of reverb guitar. Frisell’s musicianship is top-notch.

Bruce Springsteen, Tom Morello and the E-Street Band, “American Skin (41 Shots) – The Boss recorded a masterful live rendition of this song in 2001, but this new studio recording became essential and thought provoking listening due to 2014’s many cases of alleged police brutality. Springsteen speaks the unspeakable, but he and Morello use scintillating guitar chords to find beauty in civil chaos.

D’Angelo and the Vanguard, “The Charade – The best song on “Black Messiah” is this powerful protest song. While “The Charade” was written several years ago and could describe any struggle for freedom from an oppressive society, it is impossible to listen to “Charade” in 2014 and not think of the protests in Ferguson, New York City, Milwaukee and many other cities. D’Angelo has given us a song of the moment; whether you side with or against Michael Brown’s supporters, D’Angelo captures the feelings of frustration that many black Americans feel. In this way, D’Angelo has created an artistic primary source, which will surely be studied when future historians tackle the 2014 protest movement.

OK Go, “The Writing’s on the Wall – This trippy ode about a collapsing relationship had a distinctive wailing vocal hook and crisp percussion work. OK Go remains adept at producing alternative power-pop in the same vein as Weezer, but with a bit less volume. The band members also continued their string of innovative music videos with a mind-bending short film that is their greatest achievement so far as visual artists.

St. Vincent, “I Prefer Your Love” – There were a lot of gems on “St. Vincent,” but this track conveyed honest emotion – love for an ailing parent – through some of the most heartrending lyrics Annie Clark has ever written. When singing “Love” live (something I had the privilege of witnessing in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park in August), Clark uses Annie-b Parson’s unusual choreography, which evokes old-time cabaret, to great effect.

Tune-Yards, “Water Fountain – The dance track of the year is a playground song on amphetamines and came with the best music video of 2014. A two-pound chicken DOES taste better with friends! The power of science!

Best Soundtracks

            T-Bone Burnett’s lovingly curated swamp blues soundtrack for “True Detective” made for wonderfully atmospheric TV. On the big screen, Hans Zimmer created a swirling, bombastic organ and piano score for Interstellar, while the folks at Marvel introduced soul music to a new generation with the golden-oldies soundtrack for Guardians of the Galaxy. Seeing Groot, the talking tree, boogie to the Jackson 5 was one of the greatest cinematic moments of the year. Justin Hurwitz and Tim Simonec put together an excellent original soundtrack for “Whiplash,” while also classic jazz compositions by Stan Getz, Hank Levy and Duke Ellington. Antonio Sanchez did a great job crafting an almost all-drums score for Birdman. Finally, Johann Johannsson wrote probably the loveliest score of the year for the flawed but compelling Stephen Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything.

Disappointments

            Beyoncé, “Beyoncé – Please set aside mind the impressive production values, engineering and surprise release for a minute. I read the lyrics to all of the songs before I listened to any of them. Four tracks seemed to promote good messages about women. The rest were hyper-sexualized songs, focused on their presumably female protagonists’ quests to make themselves sexually appealing to and involved with men. There was also a lot of limelight-glorifying material typical to commercialized hip-hop, part of the glorification of an elite-gangster lifestyle seen in the work of Jay-Z, Kanye West, et. al. I still love Beyoncé’s extraordinary voice, but I do not like her musical choices. At her level of fame, she could use her platform to really push musical boundaries and talk about more challenging and nuanced topics. Instead, she appears to have dumbed herself down and dug into the highly materialistic hip-hop culture of the mainstream record labels.

In short, Beyoncé is wasting her talent.

Meghan Trainor, “All About That Bass – On the one hand, Trainor admirably layered this song with elements of Trinidad’s soca music, while also drawing from doo-wop piano and vocal harmonies. Unfortunately, Trainor’s attempt to praise all female body types backfires by frowning on skinnier women and saying that women still need to rely on men for validation. Indeed, all of the songs on Trainor’s EP, Title, revolve around men. Sure, Trainor-as-narrator in these songs tells men that they must behave if they want to woo her, but every one of her compositions function on the premise that women are objects of male heterosexual affection. Carole King wrote far more sophisticated and feminist lyrics in 1970. Trainor’s got the sound right, but she still has a lot to learn about articulating a truly feminist message.

Honorable Mentions

Ariana Grande, “My Everything” & “Bang Bang” (the latter with Nicki Manaj and Jessie J) – On a largely overproduced album, which seems determined to turn Ms. Grande into yet another digitized club soundtrack, the plaintive “My Everything” showed Ariana’s genuine talent as a performer. The uproarious “Bang Bang” was also a showcase for Grande, but more specifically it showed off Jessie J’s superb vocal talent, even if the lyrics were fairly inane.

Ed Sheeran, “Thinking Out Loud – I tend not to be crazy about this subgenre of coffee shop singer-songwriter tenor pop – the artists in this genre often become interchangeable, which probably explains their radio appeal – but this track was a quality emotive song.

Skirts, “Halal Cart – The boys and girl from upstate New York may not have a huge following outside of the North Country, but we at the Daily Pulp continue to believe in and love the rhythmically dense, wacked-out surf pop of this regional group, which frankly rivals Alvvays in terms of quality. (Now there’s a dream concert lineup!) This song, the standout of their SemestersEP, uses neighboring lunch carts as the venue for a surprisingly poignant love song. “Halal Cart” also has the best guitar hook I’ve heard all year.

Young the Giant, “Firelight – “Firelight” is a great ethereal pop-rock song. I saw Young the Giant perform in Rochester back in April, and of all the new tracks from their 2014 album, “Mind Over Matter,” this song stood out, although I was also fond of their “Eros.” Even so, “Firelight,” which is admittedly kind of spooky, is a real gem, a passionate song of escape and renewal. When Young the Giant began playing “Firelight” live, I wrapped my arms around my girlfriend and swayed with the melody. It’s that kind of song.

 Random Stuff I Listened To This Year, Which You Should Also Hear

David Byrne, “Ur,” “Dura Europus

Giorgio Moroder, with Freddie Mercury, Pat Benatar, Bonnie Tyler, Billy Squier, Loverboy, Adam Ant, Jon Anderson, and Cycle V, “METROPOLIS: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Jane Siberry and K.D. Lang, “Calling All Angels,” from “Until the End of the World”

K.D. Lang and Roy Orbison, “Crying

Negativland, “U2– R.I.P. Carey Kasem.

The Rolling Stones, “Going to a Go-Go,” “Too Much Blood – The first track is one of the most invigorating live tracks the Stones ever produced, with incomparable staccato, thumping bass notes by Bill Wyman. The second track, “Too Much Blood,” is one of the weirdest things they ever recorded.

The Silk Road Ensemble, feat. Yo-Yo Ma, “A Playlist Without Borders

Various Artists for Real World Records, “The Mahabharata: Original Soundtrack

And that’s all, folks! See you in 2015!

Cover photo: The War on Drugs’ superb music video, “Under the Pressure.” Source: http://bit.ly/1JUHMqt.

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