Best of 2014: Top Ten Albums

So, it’s the end of 2014. Boy, what a nothing year that was for me. Oh well, onward and downward I suppose.

It wasn’t all bad, there was a ton of cool music to enjoy, so that’s something. I took a while working on this list, and there were a couple of late entries.

There are a few honourable mentions that very nearly made the list, notably Scott Walker + Sunn O)))’s highly anticipated Soused, and Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra’s Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything  both of which dropped-off after I got Grouper’s Ruins and Mamiffer’s Statu Nascendi. Neverthless these are also records I enjoy, and I’m sure if you asked me in six months, this list would be very different.

Anyway, enough nonsense, on with the list!

10. Secret Chiefs 3: Ishraquiyun – Perichoresis

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It’s paradoxical how prolific Secret Chiefs 3 are, considering how few records they seem to put out. They’ve put out new records of one sort or another every year for a while, just not the ones everyone’s been waiting ten years for.

After Book of Souls: Folio A finally showed up last year, 2014 saw a new slate of 7″ records hit, along with this, the first full-length by satellite band Ishraquiyun. As far as the satellite bands go, Ishraquiyun have been one of the most active, featuring heavily in Secret Chiefs setlists. Here staples like Fast, The 15 and The 7, finally receive studio treatment – with Fast‘s title being revealed here as Spiritus Intelligentiae: Jophiel.

Given that Ishraquiyun songs were initially the most traditionally acoustic of Secret Chiefs material, it’s interesting to hear how tracks like Saptarshi, and Base Phive Futur Cossacks especially, have evolved to incorporate obnoxiously loud synths and noisy effects.

The centrepiece though is the title-track, which seems to be one permutation of composer Trey Spruance’s recent “Tessellations” pieces. The timing on this track is mind-bending, resulting in a disorienting but catchy groove of incomprehensible but entirely rational geometry.

9. Swans – To Be Kind

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To this day, I haven’t been able to fully digest To Be Kind. It’s predecessor The Seer was my album of 2012, and To Be Kind follows almost precisely in its mould; both are sprawling, dense, double-albums focussing on painfully incessant grooves violently ploughing themselves into orgasmic oblivion. Normally this is exactly my bag, but for whatever reason, I’ve found this one harder to penetrate than The Seer, which I know pretty much inside out at this point.

Nevertheless, what I have gotten out of it thus far has been very powerful, and listening continues to reap rewards. Just a Little Boy (for Chester Burnett) is as unsettling a piece as modern-day Swans have yet put to tape, with Gira’s harrowing yells of “I’M NOT HUMAN!” trading blows with screaming tremolo guitars over a nauseatingly swampy groove. If you want to convince people you’re a psychopath, playing this song in public is a sure bet.

Oxygen is a mean, pounding and writhing with the kind of pure incandescent fury that most punk bands can only gesture ineffectually towards. Swans’ current modus operandi continues to astound. Michael Gira is 60 and making some of the strongest, densest, hardest, most cathartic music of his career. Bono is 54. So, you know, fuck U2 is what I’m saying.

8. Grouper – Ruins

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A very late entry, necessitating a shuffling of this list. I don’t really have a word for what Ruins is, but it sure smells of ennui.

I saw Grouper’s Liz Harris playing a drone-focused ambient set a few years ago in a church in Glasgow, and was quietly impressed. It is to my shame it has taken me this long to catch up to that moment. Ruins is nothing like that performance, or much of Grouper’s discography. It is comprised almost entirely of songs for piano and voice, apparently recorded during a residency in Portugal in 2011. There’s even a microphone beep that made it to the recorder during the last notes of Labyrinth.

The two ambient tracks that bookend this are enjoyable, but it’s the sweet and delicate sadness of the songs that really stands out here. In the new year I shall be worming my way through Grouper’s back catalogue, but for now Ruins is the soundtrack to me standing at my bedroom window staring out of my window across the impressive but alienating cityscape of Glasgow.

7. Mamiffer – Statu Nascendi

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Story: When I was in Portland, Oregon in the summer of 2013, I was wearing a Mamiffer shirt, and a very pretty girl with green hair walked past and said “rad shirt!” It was the best day ever.

Mamiffer, led by Faith Coloccia, is a musical group that’s always been right up my alley.  Keyboard-led song-writing that ebbs and flows with a dense but dreamlike quality, with a heavy naturalistic aesthetic, and tangible organic hand-made feel.

Statu Nascendi is built around relatively conventional songs in a way none of the previous records have been. There’s a definite shift in focus, with Coloccia’s vocals taking a lead role for the first time. The arrangements are less dense, purposely built around the two-person live line-up of Coloccia and her husband Aaron Turner.

6. Earth – Primitive & Deadly

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For me, Earth had been stuck in a rut for a while, and by the time Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light II rolled around, my attention had drifted away. Thankfully they have shaken things up quite a bit on Primitive & Deadly. This is still a decidedly Earthy record, but it’s Earth doing psychedelic rock.

The name Earth comes from an early moniker for the band that became Black Sabbath. Primitive & Deadly seems to draw heavily from that pool, bringing a warm stoner rock fuzz back into the sound, along with real guitar solos and guest vocals from Mark Lanegan and Rabia Shaheen Qazi.

Dylan Carlson is still unflappable.

5. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There

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Ah, Sharon Van Etten. What a voice.

I absolutely adored Van Etten’s previous album Tramp, so I’m glad to report that Are We There lives up to expectations for the most-part. There are a couple of poppy tracks that I find less exciting, but over all this is a strong logical progression from Tramp. The 6-minute Your Love is Killing Me is a lyrically harrowing highlight, building from a quiet pulse to an aggressively cathartic climax, as though the writer is exorcising all of her demons at once. It’s bold and exciting.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the heartbreaking and sparse I Know sees Van Etten taking a surprisingly confident turn at the piano. As exquisite as this album’s vocal harmonies and arrangements are, there’s nothing quite like hearing a singer-songwriter in their prime stripping things all the way down to their most simple.

4. Tune-Yards – Nikki Nack

Ladies and gentlemen...

I “discovered” Tune-Yards this year. It must have been a right-place-right-time situation, because I cannot imagine being nearly so excited by this kind of thing even a couple of years ago.

This is a more consistent record than WHOKILL. While Nikki Nack doesn’t quite hit the same frenetic heights that the previous record did, there’s much stronger songs throughout. The tunes edge closer to accessibility than ever, but still take violent and unexpected detours into and out of left-field. Merrill Garbus’ singing is more confident and clear than ever, and this lends itself to the tighter structures.

Most of the tracks are full of all kinds of syncopated rhythmic funk-mayhem, but the slower songs like Time of Dark and Wait for a Minute show surprisingly traditional song-writing and lyricism, and balance out the more frenetic tunes perfectly. Overall the album is a delightfully glittering ball of light, fizzing with energy, and it makes me want to dance. Not in public though – not ever.

3. Old Man Gloom – The Ape of God

But which The Ape of God? I will never tell!

Ah yes, the Institute returns. I just recently waxed pretentious about these two records, so no need to cover old ground. Suffice it to say that the post-hiatus resumption of Gloom has been of the greatest importance to me.

I thought about reserving two entries for The Ape of God, without specifying which album was which. But there was too much good music this year, so I decided to repeat the obvious shortened version of this joke:

Of the two albums Old Man Gloom released this year, I think I prefer The Ape of God over The Ape of God.

By which I mean the one that has Predators on it.

2. Kayo Dot – Coffins on Io

This is about as cool of an album cover as I can imagine.

Kayo Dot and me go back a long time, and throughout that time, songwriter Toby Driver has steered the band through all sorts of fascinatingly weird turns. None so drastic as this though. Coffins on Io represents a new style of songwriting for the band, ie. the style of writing actual songs.

These songs are filled up with synthy bleeps and bloops, and slow cavernous drumming, and drenched in jangly guitars, chorused bass, reverb, delay

The thing that really sells me on Coffins is the weird goth-sci-fi 1980s aesthetic. It is somehow very cool and very uncool at the same time. I would never have guessed Jason Byron’s Captial-R Romantic writing would fit this kind of material, but in many ways it’s actually more at home here than ever, particularly when sung with Driver’s perfectly overwrought vocal affectations. “The thing in the back seat, that used to be human.”

It’s not all completely alien. The band locks into some seriously intense grooves as they have in the past, particularly in the back halves of Offramp Cycle, Pattern 22 and Library Subterranean, and Driver’s fascination with that Cure-esque bass chorus effect reaches full-bloom here. It’s the song structure and heavy-handed production that really make this so refreshing.

1. St Vincent – St. Vincent

All hail the Future Space Queen.

As was the case with several records in this list, the number one spot goes to an artist I’d not paid any attention to even 12 months ago. Additionally, you may have noticed, this is woman at the top of a list full of music by women. I couldn’t say why that’s the case this year more than ever before, but it seems to have transpired this way.

This year I discovered, quite by accident mind you, that I loved the music of St. Vincent. Under normal circumstances, this record might not have made it to number one on the list, but in some ways it’s standing in for Annie Clark’s entire discography which I obsessed over during a lonely and hazy summer in Glasgow.

As a side note, I know the tendency is for people to fall in love with the first record they hear by an artist and be disappointed by everything else. I don’t do that of course, because I’m better at listening to music than you are (semi-joking). Of the five St. Vincent discs to date (including her David Byrne collaboration Love This Giant), I actually got this one second-to-last.

I do think this is her strongest collection of songs to date, or at least on a par with Actor. It’s hard to argue with singles like Birth in Reverse or Digital Witness. The arrangements are as strident and razor-sharp as they’ve ever been The lush mellotron-esque string beds of I Prefer your Love are a personal highlight. Though heavily produced synths do the majority of the legwork, if you’re looking for Clark’s famous distorted angular lead guitar playing, there’s a few stand-out moments. Rattlesnake‘s solo is particularly searing.

Clark is a smart lyricist as well, and there are some fantastic turns of phrase here. How about “Spitting our guts from their gears, draining our spleen over years, found myself with crossed fingers in the rubble there” .

All of this adds up to an incredibly tight and powerful electronic pop record to rival Björk at her most immediate. Highly recommended, even if you think I listen to weird music.

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