Saturday, December 27, 2014

Demeter's Abundant Bounty: The Ten Best Albums of 2014

And here we are yet again, 366 days after the last time, and it's time to round up what was great in music this year. And greatness there was! There were a few new albums from artists who dropped masterpieces back in astoundingly good 2012, as well as new releases from those I thought I'd never see again, and a whole slew of new performers to keep an eye on. The year proved to be tougher than last for writing about comics, but all that time spent in the car meant that there was plenty of time to listen to new records, so get out those gift cards you've hopefully accumulated over the past few days and let's see what we have.

10. Ergo Phizmiz - The Peacock

Among his countless operas, sound experiments, and thumping longform techno beasts, Ergo Phizmiz gifts us with impeccable, idiosyncratic pop records about once every couple years. The first of these, Things to Make & Do, is one of my absolute favorite records, and the second, Eleven Songs, is up there as well. This is his third, and it finds the maestro turning inward and busting out the acoustic guitars for a folky spin on his style. The Peacock could be looked at as Ergo's 'serious' album... there are no modified cuckoo clocks or teapots among the instruments used, and the whole record has a bit of melancholy in its tone, if not necessarily its lyrics. If The Incredible String Band or Fairport Convention and their ilk interest you, or if you were into the 'freak folk' banner in the mid 200s, give this one a spin. Ergo can give us catchy, poppy weirdness effortlessly, but The Peacock shows he can give beauty, as well.

9. Current 93 - I Am the Last of All the Field That Fell
By this point, Current 93's David Tibet is very set in his ways. Ever since he formally finished off his astoundingly wonderful set of folk records with Black Ships Ate the Sky about 10 years ago, the average Current 93 album has been Dave ranting his standard brand of poetry over whatever genre of music he and his bandmates/cultists seem interested in at the time. This style can be very engaging, but like Scott Walker's more recent releases, it can end up self-indulgent as well, where the lyrics don't connect with the music at all. That said, I Am the Last of All the Field That Fell is a perfect example of the style working perfectly, where everything just clicks. This time around, Dave has chosen almost lounge jazz as the backdrop for his poetry, and the tinkling piano keys give his words a creepiness that he was never able to accomplish with layers of droning guitars previously. The whole album reminds me of Coil's best work, a delicate menace that is really gorgeously terrifying.

8. Mirah - Changing Light
I've always been simultaneously impressed and made jealous by Phil Elvrum's talent on the mixing board. His ability as producer is second to none, and the fact that he can conjure up such soundscapes out of the shittiest equipment is testament to his talents, but the man has a stunningly awful singing voice, one which has made it difficult for me to appreciate his solo act The Microphones in the past. Thankfully, Phil seems aware of this as well, and in the late '90s he picked up a muse in the form of Mirah, a beautiful Washingtonian lass with a stunningly expressive voice that Phil could build ramshackle works of aural sculpture around. Changing Light is cleaner sounding than Mirah's work in the past, and starts off with a bit of an ill-advised electronic tinge to it, but like Cate le Bon's album before her, all is forgiven by track 4, in this case the haunting 'Gold Rush'. From then on, the album is widescreen, a film in sound that sends chills through your bones up until the very end. For those who want a female singer that sounds right at home within the swirling sounds of the studio, Mirah and Changing Light exist for thou.

7. The Budos Band - Burnt Offering
I had made an off-hand joke with the release of The Budos Band's 2010 offering, Budos Band III, that it was the perfect soundtrack for a '70s exploitation movie. The Band's sound is all horns, buzz bass, and clusters of African percussion, which would sound equally great on the soundtrack of a gritty cop movie as it would cut up by Byrne and Eno in 1980. Well apparently, somebody out there heard the words and took them as prophecy, because Burnt Offering has updated its world music leanings with fuzzed out '70s guitar and psychedelic organ, not to mention with ludicrous grindhouse-inflected videos. The album feels dirty and claustrophobic compared to the relative joy of the three self-titled albums that proceeded it. Put Burnt Offering on as party music, or during any drug deals or Satanic rituals you might be conducting, its world-music-by-way-of-Manson-family vibe is one that needs to be appreciated in the right atmosphere.

6. Jenny Hval & Susanna - Meshes of Voice

The thematic opposite of Mirah's plush opulence, Jenny Hval & Susana's Meshes of Voice exists in a black void of sound and voice. Outside of extremely rare guitar, the only instruments used on the record are twisted, manipulated noise, piano, and both ladies achingly gorgeous voices, spinning and mixing and flowing through the subtle, restrained cacophony they live in. The album is amazingly intimate, like you exist within the women, their voices reverberating within their bodies as well as your own, voices like ghosts swallowed up by controlled, raging feedback, only to push forth once again into black space. This is a bad album for the car, but an excellent album for somewhere dark and cold, where its sounds can scatter off into infinity.

5. Ty Segall - Manipulator
Ty Segall seems to exist as a ball of unrestrained energy. A year doesn't go by where he doesn't release an album, if not two or three, as himself, or Ty Segall Band, or Fuzz. Even so, the man has been slowing down since his 2012 collaboration with White Fence, Hair; first there was 2013s mostly-acoustic Sleeper, and now there is Manipulator, where Ty hangs up his manic fuzz for some eye-opening pop power. He still gets a few freakouts in, but most of the album is gorgeous, Brian Wilson-influenced '60s pop power, and it's almost certainly the best record he's ever made for it. Now it seems like Ty is taking Jay Reatard's path of transforming from a controlled guitar explosion into an absolute master of the pop song, and provided he doesn't meet Jay's unfortunate end, in Manipulator he's given us one of the best garage-influenced albums I've ever heard.

4. Comet Control - Comet Control
And this is another offering of garage might. Comet Control was once Quest for Fire, a scuzzy, slugdy Floydian mess of psychedelica, but like Comets on Fire evolving into Howlin' Rain before them, the Quest ended with Comet Control and now they're blasting off to the absolute stratosphere. The songs on Comet Control are absolute stunners, hugely heavy and phenomenally catchy, second track 'Future Forever' is one of those once-in-a-lifetime type of songs  that burrows its way deep into your very being. The album never lets up, either, its 40 minutes end in a flash, especially when 8 of those minutes are contained within the titanic opener 'Blast Magic', as much a statement of purpose from a new band as I've ever heard. There were heavier albums released in 2014 (Jucifer's new ep is the stuff of nightmares) but none as balanced between hugeness and hooks. Comet Control are going places.

3. Swans - To Be Kind
Swans in 2014 had the unenviable task of trying to top their release from 2012, The Seer, far and beyond the album of that year and quite possibly among the best albums of the 2000s. To Be Kind repeats a lot of The Seer's magic, and if it never quite makes it to the same lofty heights, it provides some of the best music of the year. To Be Kind's problem is almost entirely length; where The Seer manages to be the rare double album with barely a wasted minute, several of the new album's moments were clearly developed from jams, which almost certainly sound incredible live, but fall flat in the studio. Whereas The Seer manages a 32 minute title track where you never get bored, the corresponding moment on To Be Kind, the 35 minute 'Bring the Sun' it half awe-inspiring, half dreadful and indulgent. Thankfully, that's the only straight-up uninteresting moment on the disc, and if you cut out the more jammy tracks, you're instead left with a phenomenal single disc that has Michael Gira adding some serious funk to his abstract post-rock. The two best tracks, 'A Little God in My Hands' and 'Oxygen' make use of a horn section to blow them into madness, and opener 'Screen Shot' shows that Gira can do Slint better than Slint ever could. To Be Kind doesn't make album of the year this time around, but even as he hits his 60s, Michael Gira is still the coolest grandpa I know.

2. Gazelle Twin - Unflesh
Unflesh is incredible. First, take everything I said about Jenny Hval & Susanna's Meshes of Voice, about the power of the album's minimalism, and the feeling of being within the artist's body, and then turn it vicious, diseased, and insane. Gazelle Twin is Elizabeth Bernholz, and Unflesh is a soundtrack to how warped and evil society has turned femininity. Instead of Hval & Susanna's haunting piano, Unflesh is primarily anchored by sick, infested synthesizers and rattling drum machines. Here, Bernholz has done what Trent Reznor has been attempting and failing at since 2001: to produce an album where (wo)man and machine intersect and the result is failing, exposed, and psychotic, Bernholz's words filled with tales of self-harm, puberty, obsession, and a general inability to control both mind and body. Gazelle Twin has given a jolt to the decaying corpse of industrial music I never thought I would see again, and it's something that everyone has to experience.

1. Flying Lotus - You're Dead!
It is known by some, at least, that I worship at the altar of electric Miles. The things that Miles Davis and Teo Marcero were able to do with the studio as an instrument, especially once they cast off the shackles of 'jazz' as it was then understood, proved that popular music could evolve to an almost avant-garde state. In a Silent Way, Tribute to Jack Johnson, and especially the king of popular music Bitches Brew changed the rules of how we accept and process sound at least as much as The Beatles did, and at last we have 50 years later a successor to Miles and Teo in Flying Lotus. Lotus is Steven Ellison, great-nephew of John and Alice Coltrane, and You're Dead! is a swirling schizophrenia in the same way that The Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique was; a living, organic omnivore that has devoured jazz, IDM, hip-hop, and rock, and spit out something at once alien and familiar. The album shifts from genre to genre suddenly, heart-stoppingly, giving us a distorted mirror of popular music since Bitches Brew, a whole strata of human experience distilled down into a 40 minute treatise on experience and perception after death. Thus, the two best albums of the year are linked: whereas Gazelle Twin gives us the horror of existence, Flying Lotus reflects back the psychedelica of non-existence a kaleidoscope of sound and color and feeling that thrives on the other side of the page from Elizabeth Bernholz's feminine loathing. It is these two sides of the coin that sum up all of the music this year, and it is Flying Lotus' warped and stretched mythology that provides a perfect overview of the year. You're Dead! is, without question, my album of the year.

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