Happy new year, everyone! With less than two hours left in 2014, here are my favorite records of 2014:
Jo Johnson — Weaving :: Lately it's been rather unusual for me to find a favorite album by an artist I've never heard of solely on the basis of a review. However I have to credit my discovery of Weaving to a writeup by Pitchfork's Philip Sherburne—whose comparisons to the likes of Klaus Schulze, William Basinski, and Selected Ambient Works II had me rushing to the iTunes store. The parallels made by Sherburne are well-suited: Johnson's subtle compositions made from synth arpeggios and looped drones are very much in line with early '70s synthesizer music, however her use of studio manipulation and digital effects help prevent Weaving's five songs from being a simple nod to the past.
Damon Albarn — Everyday Robots :: Fans of Blur tend to point toward Parklife, an album made more than 20 years ago, as a kind of early pinnacle and slow fade of Albarn's career. I think that's an unfortunate read on his back-catalog—partly because I think he's made more interesting if not better records than that one—but also because the progression of his career looks more to me like a sine wave than a mountain, marked by several peaks and troughs from one decade to the next.
Everyday Robots, the latest high point in Albarn's discography and his first solo LP in 25 years, manages expand upon the best things about Blur's last record, Think Tank, an album loved by seemingly no one but myself. What I appreciate here is that he's taken all of the melancholy from his first band's final recordings and stripped out the unnecessary dance club embellishments. What's left are twelve simple, artful tracks of longing and loss, all emotion laid bare with nowhere to hide.
Eno & Hyde — Someday World :: In spite of the attention piled upon the other excellent Eno & Hyde collaboration of 2014, I actually prefer Someday World as the better of the two releases. The excellent hooks and off-kilter arrangements remind me a little bit of Eno's early-'90s collaboration with John Cale, which might point to the only thing working against Someday World: it does sound a little bit dated. And yet, it also contains some of the best melodies put to record this year, including one from a favorite song of 2014,"Daddy's Car."
Godflesh — A World Lit Only By Fire :: When I was sixteen I spent almost an entire winter listening to nothing but Godflesh, Einstürzende Neubauten, and Swans, so my excitement over the existence of A World Lit Only By Fire is tinted with more than a little bit of nostalgia. Godflesh's decade plus of inactivity seems to have diminished little of their viciousness; in fact, this might be their toughest-sounding record since 1991's Slavestate EP, if not their debut (which is probably the most similar-sounding record in their catalog).
Plaid — Reachy Prints :: (Originally posted via IndieBeat music blog) Of all the great albums that Warp Records released this year (including Aphex Twin's excellent Syro and Clark's self-titled LP), this one might be my favorite. This record sounds weirder and more melodic than past efforts, and also feels like the most human record they're ever made.
Aphex Twin — Syro :: I can't imagine there being a fan of '90s electronic music who wasn't absolutely floored by the out-of-nowhere release of Syro. Personally, his 1994 landmark Selected Ambient Works II is about as important of an album as I can imagine, and given the fact that Richard D. James seemed to have retired the Aphex Twin moniker for good made Syro's quick announcement and subsequent release all the more shocking.
What we're left with after picking our jaws up off the floor is one of the most focused albums of RDJ's career. James seems to bargaining on the notion that playing to expectations without pushing the envelope too hard is the safest way to make a comeback, and to that end Syro's straightforward beats can play a bit like Aphex-by-numbers. But this solid collection of techno tracks, which emphasizes melody in a way that's jazzier and proggier than almost anything he's done before, still feels like a new variation on his core body of work.
Run The Jewels — Run the Jewels 2 :: For the second year in a row, Killer Mike and El-P craft an absolute stunner. RTJ2 manages to tread the line between peculiarity and accessibility to a wonderful effect, tinting the boom-bap of early '80s hip hop with hints of oddball sci-fi, electroclash, and '90s techno; the result is one of the most thoughtful, funny, and strange hip hop albums I've heard in ages.
Beck — Morning Phase :: It's unfortunate that so much that's been written about Morning Phase has to do with its parallels with 2002's Sea Change, not because the similarity isn't accurate, but because it set up unreasonable expectations for Hansen's latest album to deliver upon. The bad news here is that it doesn't and probably couldn't live up to Sea Change's near-perfect balance of melancholy orchestral folk and retro-future studio trickery. However, I've still managed to listen to Morning Phase more than just about anything else I bought in 2014, and have found its simple melodies strangely captivating and surprisingly comforting.
To Rococo Rot — Instrument :: One of my all-time favorite groups, TRR sadly just announced their split after a near 20-year run. Though I'm disappointed that I'll no longer be hearing records from these guys, I'm glad that Instrument saw the light of day. It's one of their most distinctive records in that it's the first to prominently feature vocals (from the legendary no-wave guitarist and songwriter Arto Lindsay); it also feels a lot more natural, making greater use of live drums than on their last few.
I sort of feel like To Rococo Rot fell under a lot of people's radar in the U.S., which is a shame—their hybrid take on post-rock and techno would surely appeal to anyone who loves Tortoise, or Battles, or The Notwist—but at least we got 8 excellent records out of them before they called it quits.
Golden Retriever — Seer :: (Originally posted via IndieBeat music blog) I spent about two weeks listening to nothing but this album back in April, a duo whose strange combination of saxophone and analog synthesizer bring to mind Terry Riley, John Zorn and early Kraftwerk. Though the melodies on this record are excellent, however it's the long, drawn out moments of abstraction that I find most breathtaking.
St Vincent – St Vincent :: With her fourth, self-titled release, Annie Clark makes her most accessible record yet, dialing up the hooks and pairing back the more progressive moments of her first three recordings. There's something to be missed of St. Vincent's move away from the sideways orchestral pop of Actor (perhaps my favorite album of the last decade). But Clark's wonderfully bizarre guitar work on her fourth album—which simultaneously conjures the avant-jazz abstractions of Marc Ribot and the trebly, razor-sharp post-punk of Big Black—is a welcome twist for a batch of such tuneful songs.
Wild Beasts – Present Tense :: (Originally posted via IndieBeat music blog) I think it's safe for me to say that Wild Beasts are probably my favorite band of the last 5 years, and their latest doesn't disappoint. Here they've streamlined the melodies even further from 2011's Smother, making for an album that's more ominous than somber. And as much as I love Hayden Thorpe's theatrical croon, drummer Chris Talbot is their secret weapon; it takes a lot of guts to play drums as minimally as he does, and I think his restraint is a big part of why this album is so spectacular.
Here are some other records I enjoyed:
Xiu Xiu - Angel Guts, Red Classroom
Clark - Clark
The Notwist - Close To The Glass
Sisyphus - Sisyphus
Warpaint - Warpaint
The Antlers - Familiars
Fujiya & Miyagi - Artificial Sweeteners
Fennesz - Becs
Spoon - They Want My Soul
TV On The Radio - Seeds
Thee Oh Sees - Drop