Steve's Favorite New Rock, R&B, and Electronic Albums of 2014

The mainstream drew me back in a little this year, though mostly by looking back several decades to the same things I love and incorporating them into music that doesn't especially sound like 2014.

1. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra: Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything (Constellation)

I think of Silver Mt. Zion as the post-rock Pogues. They have the drunken singing and the scratchy fiddling and the punky energy, but in a sort of gritty yet sophisticated Godspeed! You Black Emperor musical context (and in fact founder/singer/guitarist Efrim Manuel Menuck used to be in Godspeed!). On their eighth album, the added intensity that appeared on their previous album is increased; this may be their best yet. My favorite track is "What We Loved Was Not Enough," where at first it seems like he's singing "The days come when we no longer fail," but then when the women chime in with the same line minus his accent, it turns out "fail" is actually "feel"; across over 11 minutes, this becomes mantra-like. But really the whole album is stunning. (This review originally appeared in the print version of The Big Takeover.)

2. FKA twigs: LP1 (Young Turks)

A brilliant debut album that stylistically falls between The XX and Burial, with a similar sense of space in the production and a fair amount of the asymmetrical rhythms favored by the latter in particular. FKA twigs's (AKA Tahliah Barnett) lyrics can be lewd, but with such a deadpan delivery that lascivious pandering seems not to be her intent, just a matter-of-fact description of a young woman's life in the 21st century.

3. Beck: Morning Phase (Capitol)

I was never a huge Beck fan before, but this is absolutely gorgeous, in particular the semi-title track "Morning." Granted, "absolutely gorgeous" is apparently not what huge Beck fans wanted from a new Beck album; the Pitchfork review reeked of disappointment that, after a six-year gap between albums, the artist didn't return as some messiah in shining armor to transform music anew. Instead we got a transcendent elevation of '70s soft rock and hippie troubadourism (think Gary Higgins, Bill Horwitz, and other '70s fringe singer-songwriters) into pure art.

4. Tuluum Shimmering: Dark Star (Tranquility Tapes)

An imaginative recasting of the Grateful Dead jam standard into a beautiful, meditative drone epic by U.K. one-man-band Jake Webster, this takes open-minded and patient listeners on a 98-minute journey into an alternative consciousness that unfolds itself like a sort of kaleidoscopic reverse origami that reveals the proverbial universe-in-a-grain-of-sand.

5. Godflesh: A World Lit Only By Fire (Avalanche)

The return of Godflesh was great enough when it was just concerts; that it brought a new album (as well as a preceding EP, Decline and Fall [four tracks, none on A World…]) that can stand with the duo's classic early work, which it simultaneously looks back to and builds on. The minimalist, mechanistic crunching power of this band was unprecedented in 1988-89; now listening to it reborn here is nostalgic, which doesn't carry the same psychic impact and needless to say also misses the familiarity of such seminal tracks as "Christbait Rising." But even listening in the context of 2014, A World Lit Only By Fire is a mighty album.

6. D'Angelo and the Vanguard: Black Messiah (RCA)

The funkiest 2014 album that I heard, not that it sounds all that much like a 2014 album -- stylistically it looks back to the '70s and '80s. For that matter, reportedly some of it was written years ago; it almost could have been titled Best of D'Angelo 2001-2014. Some of the songs have mutated since they were first heard; compare the James Brownesque 2012 concert version of "Sugah Daddy" (video below) with its album incarnation as a mix of P-Funk/Bootsy Collins and of course Prince. They are frequent reference points on Black Messiah, which goes a long way to explaining why I immediately liked it, yet enough of D'Angelo's own drawling take on R&B is mixed in that it's no Xerox copy. And while some of the tracks are political, coming in the wake of Ferguson, etc., mostly Black Messiah exudes a fun vibe.

7. Vashti Bunyan: Heartleap (DiCristina)

I'd played this many times before I started to pay attention to the lyrics. That's perhaps a strange thing to do with a folksinger's album, but there sure haven't been many folksingers like Vashti Bunyan. She arranged everything here, and the music is so beautiful and dreamy that it's easy to just luxuriate in its textures, the most affecting of which is her voice. Though she uses a synthesizer on many tracks, the effect is never obtrusive, and the songs feel acoustic. So it turns out that the words are also amazing, though given Bunyan's ever more breathy singing, I had to resort to the lyric booklet to know what words were coming out of her mouth. Some of them, on "Gunpowder," include "The words that I let fly of my mouth / Don't ever say what I want them to say." In the context of this being, she has declared, her last album, that takes on a particularly strong poignancy. Nothing, however, can match the tug at the heartstrings of "Mother," where she reminisces about childhood, recalling watching "through a slightly open door" as her mother, "believing herself alone," would dance, play, or sing. Vashti, now a mother herself, finishes the song by singing, "My applause should have been rapturous / But I closed the door / And turned, turned away." Our applause for Vashti Bunyan should have been rapturous for many decades, but instead she found only a small (albeit devoted) audience decades after her first album had made barely a ripple. But to close her career with this album is to go out on a metaphorical high note reached by few, and never reached by many of much greater fame. The music business can be like that.

8. Swans: To Be Kind (Young God)

Swans maestro Michael Gira was quoted a few years ago as saying, "The goal is ecstasy." Mission fucking accomplished. Of course, Swans being Swans, it is a peculiarly dark ecstasy. At first this two-disc album seems vastly quieter and less confrontational than the group's previous studio album, The Seer, also a double. But confrontation can take many forms, some of them quiet, and the sonic restraint often heard here ("Just a Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)" [AKA Howlin' Wolf] is a good example) actually is more ominous. Then, as we knew would happen, there is an explosion. Surprisingly, it's a particularly abrasive synthesizer on "A Little God in My Hands" rather than the expected guitars. We finally get the expected on "Bring the Sun/Toussaint L'Ouverture," though not until a good 12 minutes into this 34-minute track, and only temporarily, then reaching a higher climax of sonic pain later on. The ebbs and flows continue on the second disc, with the interlocking guitar/bass riffs and nearly swinging beat of "Oxygen" standing out. Though To Be Kind lacks the monolithic character of The Seer, it is perhaps even more interesting as a result.

9. Alcest: Shelter (Prophecy)

Gone are this French band's metal tendencies, which used to provide contrast for the gauzy textures; now it's all shoegaze. Do I miss the heavier band they used to be? Yes -- but on the other hand, I play Shelter more regularly than their previous albums. The shimmering guitar textures, the ethereal (mostly French) vocals, the gently propulsive rhythms, and the majestically swelling crescendos turn out to be enough in their own totality without the screaming looks into the abyss. And when I want their old sound, I have their old albums.

10. Fennesz: Bécs (Editions Mego)

Not for nothing is the opening track entitled "Static Kings," yet this is heavier than much recent Fennesz; "Liminality" could even pass for rock. Yes, guitar has often been a part of the Fennesz sound, and there are no especially drastic departures. Still, somehow Bécs seems more segmented compared to the album it has been most often seen as a throwback to, the classic Endless Summer; where the latter flowed with seeming inevitability, Bécs projects more distinctness of mood from track to track -- each one sounds like its own dramatic event. That is not to say the album isn't sequenced well; it does vividly convey a sense of progression, leading up to closing track "Parole"'s near-abandonment of electronic processing.

11. Flying Lotus: You're Dead! (Warp)

This is sort of like imagining what would happen if John Zorn were ever to make an album in the electronic R&B genre, because it shifts and quick-changes through genres and moods at a dizzying pace. Of its nineteen tracks, only two top three minutes, with another six over two minutes and two coming in under a minute -- and those aren't skits, they're music. Just the list of collaborators shows the stylistic variety: rappers Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg, jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock, Dirty Projectors vocalist Angel Deradoorian, Blank Blue vocalist Niki Randa, Dethklok guitarist Brendon Small. (I don't mention Thundercat because he's such a regular collaborator he's practically a member, or Captain Murphy because that turned out to be mastermind Stephen Ellison's rap nom de plume.) Yet for all that, the album coheres perfectly and is just as audibly a Flying Lotus project as anything he's done.

12. Agalloch: The Serpent & the Sphere (Profound Lore)

Another hybrid-metal band that toned down its old outbursts, but instead of Alcest's move into pure shoegaze, Portland OR band Agalloch classes up its sound with some classical-ish guitar interludes (not that Sabbath wasn't pulling a similar move decades ago). Also unlike Alcest, Agalloch retains some of its old abrasiveness -- already on the first track we hear that the growling black-metal vocals are retained. That opener, "Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation," is a ten-and-a-half-minute epic of juggernaut chords that almost manages to live up to its awe-inspiring title even as it sometimes whispers as well as growling and crying in agony.

13. Peter Hammill/Gary Lucas: Other World (Esoteric/Cherry Red)

Hammill is a prog-rock icon best known as the frontman of Van Der Graaf Generator; guitar hero Lucas has an extensive discography as a leader and has also notably worked with Captain Beefheart and Jeff Buckley. Not that knowing any of that prepares one for this album, which doesn't sound all that much like VDGG (and obviously nothing like Beefheart or Buckley). Hammill's distinctively vibrant vocals are familiar, of course, but Lucas moves outside of his usual style to instead decorate these collaborative songs with spacey electric guitar and effects (there is also much relatively basic acoustic guitar strumming on the nine songs with vocals). As much as Hammill's singing and lyrics are ace, though, my favorite track is "Slippery Slope," the mysterious instrumental that closes the album on a truly otherworldly note. [Lucas's solo guitar album Cinefantastique (Northern Spy), a late 2013 release containing his alternately amusing and emotionally touching arrangements of famous film themes, is also worth picking up.]

14. Tinariwen: Emmaar (Anti)

Saharan nomads Tinariwen, in exile due to Al Qaeda's violent opposition to music, recorded Emmaar in the U.S.A. (though still in the desert -- in the Mojave). The effect is immediately heard when rapper Saul Williams opens the first track -- it's a shock hearing English on a Tinariwen album! Other guests include guitarists Matt Sweeney (Chavez) and Josh Klinghoffer (Red Hot Chili Peppers) and country fiddler Fats Kaplin (the latter's spotlight moment particularly stands out), and there are definitely moments here that sound different from previous Tinariwen albums, yet there is no mistaking them for anyone else. It's just that, like all artists worth paying attention to, they want to keep evolving. Fortunately as they do so they don't lose the wonderful rhythmic interplay of multiple interweaving guitar lines that is at the core of their sound.

15. Neil Young: A Letter Home (Reprise)

This could easily have been horrible, just a gimmick (Young solo, singing only covers, recorded at Jack White's studio on decades-old technology). But lately Young's best work has been off-the-cuff one-offs, and A Letter Home turned out to be deeply intimate and emotionally transcendent. Even the framing conceit, which finds Neil talking to his deceased mother -- these recordings being part of a message for her, as though using technology from her heyday would allow Young to communicate with her -- comes off not as hokey, but sweet. Or sweetly hokey in such an oddly sincere, guileless fashion that one suspends critical judgment. But the real message here is to living listeners, as Young sings songs that have meant a lot to him. Highlights are Phil Ochs's "Changes," Bert Jansch's "Needle of Death" (repaying in a way an old debt: consciously or unconsciously, Young copied that song for his own classic "Ambulance Blues"), Dylan's "Girl from the North Country, and fellow Canadian Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind." Granted, it's sometimes so lo-fi that the absurdity of the concept starts to leak out -- after all, it's not as though Ochs, Dylan, Jansch, Lightfoot, or even anybody of earlier vintage whose material is heard here ever released material this primitively recorded. But the directness of the communication is so emphasized in this context that I find it easy to push such thoughts aside and even feel that Springsteen should've produced "My Hometown" the way it sounds here.

Steve Holtje

steve-holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor who recently composed and recorded the soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days.

I Need More Time

Amazing list, Steve. Silver Mt. Zion, especially with the track above, is more Rowland/Dexy vibe sans the horns. Being new to them, can't wait to absorb the whole album. Flying Lotus never made it's way to my ears, just listening now. Ditto for about 6 of your album choices. I wanted to love Beck's ablum, and while I felt it was very good, I need to spend more time with it. (Heading to LA next week so I can listen to many of these in the car.)

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