Written By: Thomas Murphy
Veteran music journalist, Thomas Murphy of the Denver Westword was kind enough to compile the best albums of 2014 for Publik / Private. If anyone knows music, it’s Tom. Check out these awesome 2014 releases!
Andy Stott – Faith in Strangers – Modern Love
Even when Andy Stott dips into his old bag of tricks for this album he puts an interesting new spin on it. Rather than the smoothed out bass sounds and unconventional dance rhythms found on the Passed Me By EP and Luxury Problems, Stott seems to be tapping into the same cosmic zeitgeist of soundscaping that has informed some of the best work of Hammock, Tim Hecker and A Winged Victory for The Sullen. Naturally, Stott is coming from a different musical place than any of those artists but opening track “Time Away” has that almost 20th Century avant-garde classical sensibility that is one layer of the aesthetic of those artists. The swells and depth of sound work incredibly well together on this release. Stott wasn’t lacking in that capacity on previous albums but it is fully developed here making for a consistently satisfying listen for those who like some mystery with their melodic atmospheres.
A Winged Victory For the Sullen – Atomos – Kranky
Essentially one long suite, Atomos was originally composed to accompany a dance piece. “Atomos I” is reminiscent of Steven Severin’s soundtrack to the controversial experimental film Visions of Ecstasy. It suggests an unfolding and expanding, enigmatic horizon into which you find yourself drifting as though accompanying Arthur to untold mystical lands beyond Avalon, beyond death. Weaving together a rich tapestry of evocative sounds this music goes beyond clumsy genre signifiers like post-rock and it isn’t quite ambient. It has the elegance of a brooding classical piece, perhaps a hybrid of Philip Glass and Erik Satie. In an era when too much music, too many films, too much entertainment is geared toward short attention spans, this record rewards your patience if you choose to give it its proper attention with a listening experience that cleanses the soul.
Coathangers – Suck My Shirt – Suicide Squeeze
With the glut of predictable garage punk that has clogged the underground rock world of the last few years, Coathangers set expectations on its head by really not going for genre conventions and not for trying to be boringly consistent in songwriting styles. “Springfield Cannonball” has the kind of counterpoint guitar work that you don’t hear much outside of other bands not coloring inside the lines except to its own musical logic like Throwing Muses. These songs manage to be irreverent and energetic in the punk vein but also elegant and tuneful. Probably The wiry guitar work and layered rhythms are reminiscent of Pylon and Gang of Four but with the playfulness of the former and the forcefulness of the latter. If more punk, nay, more rock and roll were this varied, raw and unpredictable across an entire album the state of rock music wouldn’t be as tired as it can often be these days with acolytes to heroes of yesteryear. If Coathangers are one of those bands it at least worships in a charmingly unvarnished manner.
Ex-Cult – Midnight Passenger – Goner
Ex-Cult’s previous record made most modern punk rock seem tame and watered down. With Midnight Passenger, Ex-Cult kicks things up a notch and even makes the music weirder. Like it turned up both the Stooges/Sonics mayhem and psychedelia in equal measures. Or reconciled those two sides of its sound with some seriously furious playing to match its wildly exciting live shows. On stage these people look like they could erupt and this albums sounds like it. Still a little lo-fi but it suits how these guys sound like they could go off the rails any minute–that danger and peril and daring that has always been the hallmark of a great rock and roll band and not one just going through the motions.
HTRK – Psychic 9-5 Club – Ghostly International
On this third album, Melbourne, Australia’s HTRK has created an immersive listening experience in which it is entirely too easy to get endlessly lost in its cool atmospheres and fluid rhythms. Deep house, downtempo, post-punk–all fit with this music but it essentially transcends easy categorization. Listen to it on headphones or a great stereo system and know that this band intended for the music to be a journey as well as an experience like the album equivalent of a moody science fiction novel the likes of which a Pat Cadigan or a J.G. Ballard might write. It has the same haunted, surreal vibe of Philip K. Dick’s Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said but soothing rather than harrowing. Its only real cousin in these ways might be something on the Modern Love label.
Future Islands – Singles – 4AD
Seeing this band go from touring the DIY circuit to signing with 4AD and then playing live on Letterman could mean getting jaded on the music because it has dulled the edge that made the band so appealing and inspiring in the beginning. But no, with Singles, Future Islands took everything that made it such a great band early on to high level of artistic development. William Cashion’s basslines are as crisp, fluid and powerfully driving as ever. Sam Herring has simply learned to harness his effusive and rivetingly soulful vocal style with a focus that comes from experience and not from trying to make concessions to accessibility. Gerrit Welmers’ synth and percussion gives the music a subtle spaciousness that is simple but enhances the richly melodic flair that this band has possessed from the beginning. What makes Singles such a great album is that it’s obvious these guys met the challenge of a self-imposed creative breakthrough and every song could in fact be a single from this record.
Grouper – Ruins – Kranky
When an album starts out reminiscent of the looming menace and existential conflict present in the scene in Apocalypse Now when Willard is heading to kill Kurtz, you know it’s got some promise. Especially when the record goes from that moment directly into melancholic passages of spacious piano and vocals tracing thoughts like brushstrokes developing a picture and a conceptualization of a confused and fragmented world. It sounds like Liz Harris was trying to heal the part of her own psyche that grappled with the idea that maybe the prevailing ideology of the economic-political situation in the world was essentially leaving it in, yes, ruins. Not easy listening and soothingly beautiful at once.
Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks – Wig Out at Jagbags – Matador
Malkmus is surely one of underground rock’s true guitar heroes and not just because he created a new kind of vocabulary for the instrument in the way that Jimi did in the 60s and that Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo and Kevin Shields did in the 80s and early 90s. Like those people he also wrote some great songs with Pavement. But he may be writing even better songs with The Jicks. The clever wordplay is intact but with this record Malkmus is less obscure but no less surrealistic in his approach to putting words together in a way that sidesteps cliché and hackneyed phrases. Or to recontextualize the same. Like David Foster Wallace, Malkmus is able to state things simply but still hit you with a smart turn of phrase grounded in unconventional thinking. With a paradoxically wisecracking grace, Malkmus and company have crafted and endlessly listenable record for the grown up child in all of us.
Warpaint – Warpaint – Rough Trade
Psychedelic rock this, dream pop that, post-punk the other. Warpaint’s self-titled album goes beyond those expectations to engage in some of the most beautifully chilling songs of the year. The way the guitars complement each other perfectly with counter melodies and rhythm and with leads and impressionistic atmospherics. The bass work all across this album is brooding and tasteful and strong but not showy. Rather it occupies the proper space giving the music a real anchor from which to float and swing. In the percussion the band allows for some textures and sounds you’d normally hear on a folk record but then again these songs feel like they were written as if the band was imagining what it would be like to write music that could have been conceived of and written five hundred years ago. It’s the kind of record that is immediately striking but grows in stature with repeated listens as the details are subtle and rich. Many bands aim for that ethereal, haunted Cocteau Twins sound but Warpaint has that as well as an uncommon emotional heft that grounds the songwriting.
Zola Jesus – Taiga – Mute Records
Nika Roza Danilova really stretches out on this album. Everything she experimented with on previous albums from the soundscaping to vocal techniques to textures and tones she has evolved into something thoroughly cohesive and compelling. And it’s one of those albums that must be absorbed as a whole and not picked apart to appreciate what Danilova accomplished as an artist even though tracks like “Dust” are a great example of why this album is great in one song. Zola Jesus has become both more accessible and musicaly daring at once with Taiga.