2014 in Music: Lost in the Dream
Trying to get a definitive grasp on music this year - without concluding that it was overall, a disappointment - is a tall task for anyone.
A lot of what we experienced, the music we consumed in the mainstream, leaked over from 2013. Culture moved and shifted based on Beyoncé, an album from December 2013 that made the leaked release cool again - not because it’s a novel concept, but because artists don’t release material this good on a whim. In an age of corporations, an industry bending to the whim of one woman was enough to change how an industry looked and felt for an entire year.
Myself, I spent a lot of 2014 listening to the albums I loved in 2013. Vampire Weekend, Jon Hopkins, Glasser - these are albums I continued to unpack into the new year. I also spent a lot of time in back catalogues, including Sun Kil Moon’s April, London Grammar’s If You Wait, Danny Brown’s Old. This was either a result of a great album from this year (more on that soon) or a live performance.
Yeah, two music festivals again this year set a lot of what was on my plate. On the other end, a three-month affair from my iPod with Spotify white-washed a lot of what I listened to (something I want to unpack in another blog post). I spent more time with podcasts. Overall, there was just more distractions there. (Am I getting old?)
To say, though, that 2014 didn’t have its own look, would be unfair. Like most years, we had our share of great albums - those that harken back to different generations or live up front and centre in the present day. The ten below were my favourites.
10. Beyoncé - Beyoncé
The pop album as a critical masterwork is a lost art form. When popular artists go for broke (and they rarely do), it's often on singles, three-minute earworms that'll earn downloads and relative addiction. That's part of why Beyoncé was so well-adored in 2014, but another part was how the album came to be. We had no lead on Beyoncé, a singular artist, putting out any new music, much less a full album. Much less this. Female empowerment is at the core, here, as you'd expect - but unlike other artists, it never feels canned. On the strength of the hook anthem "Drunk In Love", the love anthem "XO" and the sex anthem "Partition", the experience is as successful in its variety as anything else released this year. The fact it came from the mainstream, overnight, is still stunning a year later.
9. Grouper - Ruins
At first listen, Grouper's Ruins isn't much of a pick-me-up album. Somber piano sits forward, as Liz Harris' vocals disappear behind the instrument. Pick it over enough, though, and you start to discover the other pieces - birds chirping, leaves rustling in the wind, and the simplicity of it all. Harris' lyrics are of lost love and when she allows herself to really sing, as she does on the gorgeous "Lighthouse", you feel the emotion that goes into these songs. It's a listen that demands your attention, but wraps you in a blanket once you do.
8. Caribou - Our Love
The headphones album of the year, Caribou's Our Love is meticulously, beautifully crafted for the aural experience. Look at the transition of "Can't Do Without You" into "Silver" - the former a compressed funnel of sound, opening slowly into bloom over four minutes. The latter, meanwhile, is wide open, stepping loudly and confidently as Dan Snaith's voice gets the chamber effect. This movement and dichotomy between tracks on Our Love is as powerful as the tracks themselves - full of layered melody and simple grooves, it's a crowd-pleaser like none Caribou has done before.
7. St. Vincent - St. Vincent
If all things were equal on the live stage, St. Vincent would be the runaway winner of 2014. There's not many people who saw Annie Clark's stage show this year who didn't walk away converted. Freak out guitar solos, shuffling dance moves, alien outfits, it was all there. Entering the conversation for this generation's greatest guitarist, Clark channels all her weirdness into St. Vincent, a compact album of catchy, melodic songs.
6. Run The Jewels - Run The Jewels 2
No surprise here. Killer Mike and El-P couldn't have had doubts after Mike's R.A.P. Music and the first round of Run The Jewels. The Toy Story 2 of music, this sequel improves on the original in all the ways you'd hope. The two rappers, now in their middle ages but sounding no worse for wear, still trade verses brilliantly - continuing a true collaborative atmosphere. El's beats are still futuristic, wickedly deep. The guest spots are sparse but impressive; Zack De La Rocha's turn at the end of "Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)" still gives me chills. In a quiet year for hip hop, this is an hour of in-your-face protest rap that couldn't have better timing (or better messengers).
5. Hundred Waters - The Moon Rang Like A Bell
The Moon Rang Like A Bell is an enigma. It’s difficult to ascribe a genre to the music Hundred Waters makes - equal parts folk and electronic, though that doesn’t tell the whole story. At the centre is Nicole Miglis, whose voice, piano and flute provide the beating heart to an unfamiliar sound. A Joanna Newsom-type, she’s able to soar into falsetto above the quiet, minimal sound around her on songs like “Out Alee”. Hundred Waters also succeeds when the electronics take centre stage, as they do on the continual build of “Cavity”. Not as melodramatic as London Grammar, this is one that takes time to unpack. When you get there and discover all the pieces Hundred Waters has in play, though, it’s a joy.
4. FKA Twigs - LP1
Last year, I said FKA Twigs was “2014’s R&B production in 2013”. Turns out, I was (sort of) wrong. FKA Twigs isn’t necessarily a barometer for the genre so much as she’s a sound all to herself. On LP1, she bends the strongest producers in the industry (Clams Casino, Arca) to her will, putting together ten woozy tracks for an effortlessly beautiful, modern album. Her vocals are breathy and sexual, yet she never shows weakness in her lyrics; Twigs has a feminist message simply in the creation of this sound. When her vocals needs to soar, as they do at the end of “Pendulum”, it’s effortless - but mostly these songs are down in the dirt. “Two Weeks” is as grimy as they come, pounding drums blossom into a three-dimensional chorus that puts other Casino works to shame.
3. Burial - Rival Dealer
December of last year may belong to Beyoncé, but Burial has been making the winter month his hallmark for a number of years. Before D'Angelo and Beyonce, he was paving the way for EP’s and singles dropped after all the best-of lists were finished. Rival Dealer was put out much the same and can be looked at as Burial’s most definitive release since Untrue. Addressing despondent members of the LGBT community with its embracing message, it was loved so much it prompted Burial to show his face and confirm his intentions. Songs like “Hiders” help the message - echoing piano, rain, and tape hiss all burn slowly before dropping into a stuttering beat, vocal samples imploring “You don’t have to be alone”. It’s a testament to Burial that he can do more with 20 minutes than many can do with 70 minutes, which makes this EP worthy of its status.
2. Sun Kil Moon - Benji
Benji might deserve its own playing field this year, as it demands the listener experience it more as a book than an album. Mark Kozelek’s music is essentially guitar licks with spoken word on top of it. This isn’t music I typically care for, but the stories he tells on Benji are so poetic, so engaging and sad, that it’s impossible not to dive in headfirst. As everyone around him dies, Kozelek’s ability to pick out weirdly specific details in his memory (Panera Bread gets name-checked a few times) makes it easy to visualize these stories and put yourself in his place. “I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same” is the disquietingly beautiful track of 2014, as he views his melancholia from a hundred-foot view - how did I become the way I am? That navel-gazing turned many people off as Kozelek launched his war against the band below toward the end of 2014. But that navel-gazing, that belief that his stories are worth telling - that's what makes Benji great.
1. The War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream
Adam Granduciel, a man with his share of personal troubles, holed up to write the songs on Lost in the Dream over the course of two years. The collection of impeccable rock songs we’re left with is the best this year has to offer. Shining, layered guitar lines meander over six-plus minute songs, shifting slightly and effortlessly, as Granduciel’s voice echoes over top. As “Eyes to the Wind” peaks, you’re reminded of the great Springsteen and Dylan tracks, songs with a definitive time and place. While Granduciel’s coordinates may deserve more pity than empathy, what he and his band have created here is simply unbelievable - an album that makes old sounds new, becoming a classic in its own right.