THE TOP 10 BEST ALBUMS OF 2014

HONORABLE MENTION (just missed the Top 10, in alphabetical order):

Arms and Sleepers/ Swim Team: Still one of the most confusingly unrecognized electronic groups making music today, this dinner party record for the ages from Arms and Sleepers drops a striking contrast to their landmark 2007 release Black Paris 86. That was a dark, bruising trip hop record, and while this one becomes a bit more repetitive, bright and jazzy, it remains one of the most addictive and overlooked releases this year. Throw on “Nobody More Than You” or “Tiger Tempo” the next time you’re having a beach bonfire and let me know how it turns out for you. Where Black Paris massively succeeded for its chilliness, I couldn’t have been more surprised how warm and safe this record made me feel. Why has no one ever heard of them? Just turn it on, put it on repeat, invite all your friends over and open all the wine in your house.

Mac DeMarco/ Salad Days: This was a big step up from DeMarco, who showed a brilliant mix of carefree melodic perfection and psychedelic innovation on his sophomore album. Precision presides above flashiness here on airy sun-drenched highlights like “Brother”, “Blue Boy” and the title track. Electronic horns rule the day on standout “Passing Out Pieces”, while an 80s synth line combines with deep bass on “Chamber of Reflection”. “Let Her Go” is just a pure guitar rock gem executed perfectly. It’s all here, so roll down the windows, drive along the ocean and blast this.

Pallbearer/ Foundations of Burden: Even if it was a bit more streamlined than their game-changing doom metal debut Sorrow And Extinction, this time around Pallbearer sounds richer and more focused, beginning with the calculated opening riff of “Worlds Apart” which blends into the pure metal of “Foundations.” And that’s just the thing; it’s difficult to determine where these songs end and the others begin, and on the whole it feels like a giant melodic explosion when taken in full. They’re not yet as good as they could be, as tracks like “The Ghost I Used To Be” limit credibility with their overwrought dramatics and strained vocals, but centerpiece “Watcher In The Dark” demonstrates perfectly orchestrated build and showcases potential. Brace yourself for their next record, but in the meantime, play this when it’s dark and scary outside.

Parquet Courts/ Sunbathing Animal: A wildly chaotic and deep rock album, the sophomore full length from Parquet Courts was nothing if not abrasively confident. Content to shift between jangly pop and distorted punk all behind drunkenly nonchalant vocals, a clearly overlong record somehow rendered itself endearing. “Instant Disassembly” was the perfect chillax, summer beer guzzling epic, but songs like the title track and the rollicking “Black and White” brought the energy full force. “Ducking and Dodging” almost feels like an exercise in riffing, showing off spoken word vocals and foot-stomping percussion that gains traction from a shocking intermittent burst of distortion and one of the better lead guitar solos of the year. It may be a long time before this band creates an album with any sense of cohesion whatsoever, but let’s humor them and just have fun in the meantime.

Spoon/ They Want My Soul: Somehow, whatever Spoon does is always at least “very good” even if they aren’t exactly introducing any new ideas these days. Still, this was as close to an “Album of the Summer” as we had this year, and tracks like the impeccably swanky and surprisingly reflective “Inside Out” showed that these guys can still innovate to some extent and still remain about as consistent a band as they come. Moments like the final minute of the bluesy title track and the persistent grind of the perfectly titled mood-setter “Rainy Taxi” remind us all why we fell in love with this band in the first place. Seven full lengths deep, I’d argue they’re yet to write a single bad song, and this album was actually a strong step up from Transference. Pay homage to Spoon and play this on that warmer than expected winter day in Chicago.

#10: Ariel Pink/ Pom Pom

homepage_large.b02cb19bThe polarizing Ariel Pink returns with this solo record, a unique combination of psychedelic influences, new wave interpretations and overall weirdness. Pink’s most valuable quality is his ability to deliver such bipolar vocals that demonstrate a depth and diversity of musical tone; there’s everything from bright, sunny pop to unsettling post-punk here with plenty of carnival music inter-spliced for good measure. He does his best Ian Curtis imitation on the dark “Not Enough Violence”, provides a soliloquy in homage to Jim Morrison on “Exile On Frog Street” above jazzy soul piano that sounds practically lifted from The Soft Parade, while the eerie “Lipstick” takes the classic style of The Cure and spins it into a dark wave tale of a stalker in the night. Album standout “Black Ballerina” succeeds most as he combines several tones into schizophrenic mayhem in this hilarious and utterly bizarre strip club tale. A playful opening vocal combines with a funky bounce beat both reminiscent of an Of Montreal song, complete with Pink’s subtle request to “take your bra and panties off” before it explodes into a stunning combination of strained rocker falsetto and deep baritone nonsense chants and growls like “elevators, manufacturers.” His echoey baritone on the catchy “One Summer Night” is expertly produced, while the sweet, melodic “Put Your Number In My Phone” is more straightforward and whimsical but hits all the right notes as such. Pom Pom is undeniably an overlong record, and probably intentionally so. As high as these high points get, the middle is packed with moments so outrageous and ridiculous that they can only be interpreted as nothing less than a complete troll job. Beginning with the bizarre surf-nostalgia track “Nude Beach A-Go-Go” and moving into truly WTF territory such as the Middle-Eaastern piano riff of “Dinosaur Carebears”, the absurd bravado of “Sexual Athletics” and finally the abrasive Atari synths of “Jell-o”, it’s clearly all a ploy and a demonstration of confidence. This is an Ariel Pink record through and through, and he has no qualms letting us know that he’ll do whatever he wants on it, unafraid to forgo traditional album structure in terms of creating any sort of cohesiveness or flow whatsoever. Somehow, Pom Pom is all the better for it as its more serious and reflective highlights stand out even more as a result. Take the gorgeous “Picture Me Gone”, a gorgeous, thought-provoking expression of paranoia regarding digital technology as a threat to destroy all physical evidence of humanity, told through the eyes of an aging father reluctantly adapting to the changing world that he will soon leave behind. Love him or hate him, it would be hard to deny that with Pom Pom, Ariel Pink has made some of the year’s most fearless, interesting music.

#9: Todd Terje/ It’s Album Time

homepage_large.1b314148What separates Terje’s debut full length from other electronic records this year is an overall lack of pretentiousness and a welcoming feel within its carefree, casual confidence. Attention to detail and seamless execution are evident early as the transition from the acid jazz piano slow-build of “Leisure Suit Preben” moves effortlessly into the jabbing laser beam synth of “Preben Goes To Acapulco.” Standout “Delorean Dynamite” showcases the best of Terje’s arrangement style as it builds and expands with energetic synth that combines with fluttering keyboard, atmospheric guitar and subtle bass lines, resulting in a full on Euro-disco track. Among music lifted from prior work, there’s full-on, hard-hitting disco beats on “Strandbar”, which also features impressive musicality with its heavy piano samples, while the almost celebratory staple “Inspector Norse” is a steady dance track that closes the album on an upbeat note. The ability to impeccably weave these songs into his newer material is admirable, and if there is a lack of cohesion at any point on the album, it ironically comes from centerpiece and standout track “Johnny and Mary”, a Robert Palmer cover which brings the party to a massive halt with its melancholy, mournful vocal echo- the only vocal we hear on the entire album, courtesy of Bryan Ferry. If you ask me, its placement there is intentional, a reminder even smack in the middle of an otherwise joyous record, that life will always have its inevitable moments of sadness, but that the surrounding diversions are what can make it meaningful.

#8: Aphex Twin/ Syro

homepage_large.3e27e54aWithout being super-familiar with Richard James’ early work, it was especially difficult and intimidating to tackle this album as if I’m even on the same level. This actually may have been the record I listened to most in 2014, if only because of its massive scope and seemingly endless possibilities; suffice to say that it’s a hard album to fully get your head around, but was a welcome addition to a year of music that seemed otherwise devoid of truly focused electronic music. Despite song titles that border on pretentiously hieroglyphic, the first three tracks are surprisingly accessible. An ominous piano loop combines with bursts of poppy synth and processed vocals on the immediately grabbing opener “minipops 67”, while “XMAS_EVET10” is a fascinating essay in electronic build reminiscent of what Boards of Canada might sound like if they ever attempted a ten minute track this ambitious, expanding and switching between its ethereal electronica and eerie, haunting keyboard lines. The middle of the album becomes more abstract and experimental, but it’s the little things and the impeccable attention to detail and arrangement throughout that really make Syro soar; a perfectly timed synth burst ten seconds into lounge bar dance track “produk 29”, a squealing synth on “”CIRCLONT6A” just as the beat drops, and the masterfully conveyed moment of surrender on the title track achieved by a fluttering synth line that sounds akin to a shot bird falling out of the sky. There’s no repetition whatsoever here as every track stands with its own independent ideas and innovations. A groovy, trip-hoppy snare percussion sample rules the day on “PAPAT4” beneath an addictively catchy loop and ghostly choir vocals. To provide further puzzlement, James concludes this album with “aisatsana”, an impossibly gorgeous, spacious piano ballad that bears no musical resemblance whatsoever to anything that comes before it. However, it does exhibit the same unsettling tone that permeates this entire collection ever so subtly, with its sparseness in complete contrast to the density of the rest of the album, ending on a crushing emotional note that would seem difficult to top. Again, the beauty of Syro lies in its precision in terms of arrangement and timing, and that is a fact made evident in its conclusion above all else.

#7: Caribou/ Our Love

homepage_large.0b9d74c7Dan Snaith has stepped up his game considerably from the lo-fi beach party sound of Andorra and the club-driven techno of Swim to create his best record since his 2003 landmark Up In Flames as Manitoba. His notably increased confidence in his own vocal capabilities strikes a welcome contrast to his prior work and helps pull together the thematic vibe of the record. As its title suggests, at their core, these are romantic, regretful and reflective love songs, and aside from being his most personal record to date, Our Love is just so diverse musically compared to his prior efforts. Snaith offers everything from straight up dance tracks (“Julia Brightly, the title track, “All I’ll Ever Need”, “Your Love Will Set You Free) to airy lounge bar material (“Can’t Do Without You”), dark tribal beats (“Mars”), off-kilter R&B (“Second Chance”, courtesy of a perfect vocal from Jessy Lanza), to say nothing of the massive sad psychedelica of “Silver” and “Back Home”, which bookended symmetrically at #2 and #9 respectively are probably the two best tracks on the album. Both utilize slow-building arrangements that expand into massive, atmospheric, synth-driven crescendos. “Silver” is dually honest and heartbreaking, as Snaith utters nonchalant falsetto fragments like “Wish I’d never met you/ Doesn’t mean I can’t get over you”, while “Back Home” might be the perfect melancholy pop song of his entire catalog to date, boasting the catchiest electro-hook on the album and a brief but most spectacular coda. Our Love succeeds most because of its honest, intimate detail of the ups, downs and in-betweens of a relationship, or as I like to call it, reality. Where Andorra’s sun-drenched vibe kept the listener warm due to its sound, this time around, Caribou keeps us warm by conveying an honesty that most all of us can relate to.

#6: FKA Twigs/ LP 1

homepage_large.48a48155It’s next to impossible to not think of the debut album from The XX when listening to LP1, the first full length from the British-born Tahliah Barnett, who produces her unique music as FKA Twigs. The two artists dwell in completely different genres, but the chilly, unsettling tone of these songs possess a spaciousness that is immediately reminiscent of what made that album so special. Sparse production techniques frequently drop the beat out altogether, often stopping completely on tracks like the standout “Pendulum”, with its rich, melodic vocal, while sensual undertones dominate “Lights Out” and “Two Weeks,” the latter of which carefully hides its aggressive sexual lyrics with music that sounds contrastingly carefree. FKA Twigs’ music is a breath of fresh air from a creative standpoint, gaining traction from so many different, well-integrated ideas, but the easiest categorization would be to describe it somewhere between the lines of R&B meeting trip hop, not dissimilar to The Weeknd, but far more foreboding and powerful despite being considerably more stripped down and raw in comparison. Fluttering electronic percussion combines with deep, dark bass at every turn to create a consistent vibe of unmitigated tension, but as innovative as the production is, the most impressive aspect of this record might be Barnett’s vocal range. A raspy alto alternates with a high-pitched strained octave intermittently on the distinctly auto-biographical “Video Girl”, while she combines a powerful soul vocal into an even higher, seemingly impossible note on “Numbers.” While the vibe is all her own, there’s no shortage of her obvious influences shining through the overall bleakness of the album. Dark, Portishead-inspired snares carry the aforementioned, frantic pinnacle “Numbers” and the crawling tempo of “Hours” sounds like 90s era Massive Attack dungeon music, while closer “Kicks” begins with scattered Bjork-esque beats and jabs of synthesized bass that morph into a gorgeous bleary-eyed come-down. It’s a massive closing track that’s worth the wait, and even with such a consistent debut it’s important to point out how soundly and purposefully it builds, as “Kicks” clearly demonstrates that the real emotional bruisers come towards the end of the album. Penultimate track “Give Up” is as subtly bleak and gorgeous as anything here, combining elements of fluttering, ascending synth with lines like “I know that sometimes you wish I’d go/ Away, away” that oddly end on the album’s most optimistic note—Twigs isn’t gonna let you give up, she’s not giving up, and she’s here to stay.

#5: Sun Kil Moon/ Benji

homepage_large.8512d235I’ll be honest, I hated this album the first time I listened to it. Sure, I had a feeling deep inside of me that it could be a grower, but I couldn’t get past how ordinary and nonchalant it sounded musically. Fast forward eight months later, and its impact feels as massive as its initial impression felt slight; these are indisputably eloquent, heart-wrenching tales, many of them true, put to music that fits like a glove. It’s only when you understand the weight of the lyrics themselves that the music begins to make sense, and Mark Kozalek knows this. As bleak and curmudgeonly as he may seem in general, it’s hard to deny that the man is a pretty brilliant song crafter. These are dark but real stories set to gorgeous music. Apparently Kozalek has had several relatives die in aerosol can explosions; “Carissa” documents the death of his 35-year old second-cousin, a mother of two, and focuses upon his need to reconnect with distant family members at her funeral, and his nearly forgotten past. It’s a massive opening statement that sets the stakes high immediately as it becomes clear how intimate Kozalek intends the album to be personally. The comparatively somber “Truck Driver” tells a similar tale of his great uncle, who happened to be Carissa’s grandfather, who died the same way. True or not, these stories carry a decidedly Middle-American undertone, and Kozalek has a knack for simply repeating a relaxed fingerpicking pattern and communicating above it. Spliced in between are contrasting dedications to both of his parents. “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” hinges on the brutal honesty of his fear of the reality that his mother, 75 and in good health today, will someday, sooner than later, no longer be here. Guitar jam “I Love My Dad” is far more upbeat, a reflection of lessons learned, perhaps the main one being that all men have their flaws, but most of us have the best of intentions as well. Not to beat a dead horse, but while the music is admittedly well-arranged, what truly elevates this album above most of Kozalek’s work is the intimacy and diversity of the story-telling. “Dogs” documents his teenage sexual conquests with a musical tone that seems more regretful than celebratory, “Jim Wise” tells the heartbreaking tale of a man who euthanized his wife out of love and now stands trial for murder with nothing to live for, “Micheline” expands upon a mentally challenged classmate and an epileptic friend, and the epic ten-minute track “I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same” looks back, upon other things, with regret regarding a youthful incident of aggressive bullying by the songwriter. (Ironically, considering his confusing attack upon the unimposing and fantastic band The War on Drugs this year, it would seem that Kozalek hasn’t fully let this incident soak in.) There’s a sense of remembering those moments when we all recall where we were, as “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” shows off an ominous riff that conveys the horror of his crimes, while “Pray For Newtown” adds perspective to that tragedy…one that had a profound effect upon me three years ago. Closer “Ben’s My Friend” seems utterly out of place but is a welcome change of pace and arguably Benji’s greatest triumph. Between nonchalant discussion of ordering crab cakes in a bar full of “sports bar shit”, Kozalek lets us down easy with lifted saxophones reminiscent of Destroyer’s Kaputt and a song presumably about seeing a Postal Service concert, after an album otherwise full of heavy material. I don’t think I’d much enjoy actually hanging out with the brutal Mark Kozalek, but this album stuck with me all year as much as any other.

#4: Real Estate/ Atlas

homepage_large.d9f36f89This New Jersey-grown band with a penchant for relaxed western twang has finally reached its full potential, as noticeably richer production complements their best collection of songs musically to date. Atlas benefits from a fuller, warmer sound across the board, although one could also argue that on their third full length, Real Estate is at their least certain and most pessimistic. As a result, they come off as more than the simple beach and wine-road driving music band that they began as, although this album should still work well in those circumstances, but instead as a group with some additional life experience that has some semblance of wisdom to offer. Opening track “Had To Hear” builds and expands beyond its steady, confidently repetitive opening riff, and it’s immediately evident that the production has taken it up a notch from the band’s practically lo-fi beginnings. It’s such a fluid opener, as it breaks down into an impressive solo before re-connecting seamlessly back into the main riff with perfect timing. After that, “Past Lives” and “The Bend” add a woozy, almost ethereal element to the band’s trademark guitar twang. Besides a step up in production, Real Estate shows growth from an artistic aspect as well, since as mentioned already, Atlas is far and away its most melancholy offering to date. The tone is spearheaded by the heartbreaking, stripped down acoustic track “How Might I Live,” which is stunning in its simplicity, as acoustic C and G chords alternate over a lyrical breakup delivery that lasts only two and a half minutes but feels like an eternity. But in the end, what makes Atlas such an impressive accomplishment is that the band hasn’t completely gotten away from its roots; catchy, accessible sound isn’t abandoned altogether, but it’s tapered and it serves a purpose. “Crime” is straightforward, polished and professional, if not terribly exciting, and “Primitive” brings the twang, but more brilliant moments abound on songs like “Horizon”, with its steady, focused build behind a textbook hook and percussion that keeps pushing it forward with increasing uncertainty. Album standout “Talking Backwards” is perhaps the perfect pop rock song, delivering the catchiest hook of the band’s entire catalog (suck it, “It’s Real”) but adding elements of bittersweet defeat that anyone that’s been in a relationship with an actual human can most definitely attest to- “Well I might as well be talking backwards/ Is this making any sense to you?/ And the only thing that really matters/ Is the one thing I can’t seem to do.” This is so simple and so true, but wouldn’t have been believable on their self-titled debut, and that’s what makes this effort feel like a step forward. Maybe it’s real indeed? I saw Real Estate live at Pitchfork over the summer, and that isn’t really their element. They deliver perfectly with no hitches but seem very straightforward and business-like, but on record, this is the type of music that you can really sink your soul into.

#3: Run The Jewels/ Run The Jewels 2

homepage_large.e0491b02I don’t know what it is about November and surprise rap albums. In 2012, we saw Kendrick Lamar release one of the best records of the decade, and last year Danny Brown surprised everyone with the gutting depths of Old. This year, we received an equally surprising improvement from well-established rapper/producers Killer Mike and El-P on their second album together as Run The Jewels. El-P has always been an elite producer, but pardon me if I’ve often felt his actual rapping to be a bit on the try-hard white dude side of douche-baggery. Such is not the case this time, as his anger and pointed emotion is real, quite believable and executed impeccably. Check out his verse on “Lie, Cheat, Steal” for proof of the above. Maybe all he needed was to collaborate with someone equally intense and serious, with an accomplished rap background himself. Somehow, someway, these two unlikely comrades discovered each other, and the result on their second album as Run The Jewels is packed with energy, anger and general disillusionment with the current state of the country and the world that comes off as incredibly genuine and valid. These are not a couple of young gangsters trying to tough it up, they are grown ass men nearing 40 with a lifetime of experiences and observations, and suffice to say, they do NOT like fuckboys. This is the type of album that you will walk down the street with cranked at full volume with the impetus to crush anyone who dares to veer into your path. Both rappers have a considerably deep background playing for live audiences, but these songs seem almost tailor-made for a concert environment, as the beats hit harder and the anger and easily re-quotable lyrics seem so much more real and authentic on their sophomore effort together. Find me a weak track; you can’t. This pair wastes no time bringing the heat, and it never lets up. “Jeopardy” begins with an ominous, buzzing beat that steadily gains intensity as the duo unleashes lines like “Fuck you fuckboys forever I hope I said it politely” that leave no possible misinterpretation of their intentions right off the bat, while “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” shows off some of the speediest rapping verses since Bone Thugs N Harmony. The back-to-back combo of “Blockbuster Night 1”, with its diabolical industrial bass beat and alternating verses, and standout masterpiece “Close Your Eyes”, is absolutely mind-blowing. The latter brings the energy to an insurmountable level, as the duo conveys a prison riot/ break out tale over a franticly repetitious sample. It’s the best rap song of the year, and there isn’t a close second. “All My Life” samples a trip-hop synth line that reminds me of Massive Attack’s “Future Proof” and wins immediately in my book on that basis even if I’m wrong. The lyrical shock-value on the sexually driven “Love Again” gives Kanye’s “I’m In It” a run for its money and is a welcome diversion from the serious tone here, although it’s fairly intense in its own right, but showcases some of the very best production on the entire album, and that isn’t a statement I take lightly. “Crown” slows it down and pulls it all together but doesn’t forsake the deep bass lines that permeate this entire record, as Killer Mike illustrates the deep regrets of his drug-dealing past and its negative impact upon humanity with El-P’s brief but surprisingly respectful support of a man who has no choice but to join the military. Killer Mike is on the record as saying he had difficulty finishing his verse from an emotional standpoint as he had continuous breakdowns as he reflected on his past, so it is no surprise that this is the album’s pinnacle. And how about that Radiohead fade into the stunning closer “Angel Duster”? Keep in mind, these are two 39-year-old rap industry veterans that should be heading towards a mid-life crisis instead of hitting their stride and the best form of their careers. But, sometimes things don’t play out as expected, and I don’t hear anyone complaining, least of all me, as for once I can crush a rap album and respect my elders all in one fell swoop. This ultimately feels like a fantastic piece of work that will stand the test of time.

#2: The War On Drugs/ Lost In The Dream

homepage_large.9419e472Mark Kozalek who? As great as Benji was, the real irony of the Sun Kil Moon leadman’s bizarre attack upon the “beer commercial lead guitar” of The War On Drugs was the easily and frequently overlooked fact that these guys made a better record than he did. There’s a depth and feeling here that he certainly missed while being so frustrated and annoyed by a live concert sound bleed situation that he decided to spend the last half of his year attacking this band sarcastically for no apparent reason, while he could instead have been prideful enough regarding his own career-topping work. But enough about him, as these bands aren’t even in the same genre, and while Kozalek’s attacks shamefully impacted the legacy of both records more than they should have, the fact remains that the music itself stands alone and aloof to such nonsense, and thankfully so. With Lost in The Dream, The War on Drugs have made a fascinating and heartbreaking record that will rank among the very best of this decade when it is all over. Springsteen influences? Sure. I’m an American and a fan of rock-n-roll, and wasn’t aware that such a position was akin to liking bad music. But again, I digress. Epic opener “Under The Pressure” is perfectly placed in that spot, with its relaxing, atmospheric and ultimately triumphant arrangement setting a tone that is hard to live up to, but The War on Drugs does so with ease. My favorite song of the entire year, “Red Eyes” follows, and it’s maybe the best American rock song of the entire century. Everything is executed and timed perfectly without excess, from the whooping vocals, brilliant melody, pounding percussion and gigantic riffs which eventually overlap and collapse upon the verses into an all out onslaught of a coda. What separates this album from being “beer commercial lead guitar”, whatever in the holy ever-living fuck that is even supposed to mean in the first place, is its somber moments. The aptly titled “Suffering” lets you feel that pain through and through, while “Disappearing” veers in and out, leading the listener into a state of utter confusion, and correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that’s the songwriter’s mental state and ultimate intention in writing the song in the first place…so it’s conveyed perfectly. Sure, there are rocking, rollicking, open-road driving song moments like the fantastic “Burning”, and again, I NEED songs like this in my life. You want more driving music? The War on Drugs will give you more driving music. Turn on “An Ocean Between the Waves” and try to convince me that you aren’t on your way to go buy a motorcycle for an adventurous escapade up California 1; again, you can’t. But there’s nothing pretentious or happy about any of this. These songs are graphic, detailed open wounds, all minor keys, even the most upbeat of the bunch. In a brilliant move of arrangement, the tempo tapers off massively over the final two songs. If The War On Drugs was really about being commercial, they’d close this album with big marketable rock band music wouldn’t they? The title track brings in a gentle harmonica behind leadman Adam Granduciel’s subtle Dylan-esque vocal before “In Reverse” tests patience with its practically acapella intro that pays off as explodes into the line “I don’t mind you disappearing/ Because I know you can be found/ Living on the dark side of the street/ Down.” It’s such a culmination, especially invoking his own fears from earlier on the record, by name no less, yet sends the album off on a sentimental, bittersweet note. This is an intensely emotional record and one that stuck with me all year since its winter release, fitting the bill for what was probably the craziest of my 35 years on this planet. And I wouldn’t dream of using a single track in a beer commercial if I actually wanted to sell beer. (Sorry Mark.)

#1: Swans/ To Be Kind

homepage_large.dfa26de1I’ve been rating songs on a ten point scale since I was fourteen years old, and more than twenty years later, over all that time, I’ve never had more numerical distance between my first and second favorite record in any single year. To Be Kind is not only the best album of 2014 by a crushing, previously unprecedented margin, it’s also the best album of the decade as it reaches its halfway point. When Michael Gira brought Swans back from the dead and completely re-conceptualized the band in 2010 after a fourteen year hiatus, there was always the feeling that they were building towards a release like this, taking small steps for the sake of the future the same way my beloved Chicago Cubs have been for the past few years, building patiently until they are able to reach their fullest potential and content to not try to do too much too soon. While 2012’s The Seer was decidedly ambitious, an epic, nearly two hour opus that proved Swans to be once again a serious band but with new, innovative musical ideas, To Be Kind surpasses it on nearly ever conceivable level, and even broadens and expands its ambition, which is almost impossible to grasp. Take the 30-minute hybrid track “Bring The Sun/ Touissant L’Ouverture song.” While the similarly placed title track from their last effort takes awhile to get going and meanders wildly over its 30 minutes, “Bring The Sun” is immediately enthralling and completely captivating from its onset all the way into the haunting “Touissant L’Ouverture Song”, which culminates with Gira equating, in Spanish no less, blood, love and life with one another, in a baritone that sounds like a crazed cult leader bellowing from the top of a mountain. Over its 121 minutes, which is two longer than its predecessor, not a single moment of down time exists. That, in and of itself, is an accomplishment, and it’s a credit to the masterful arrangements and management of tone that are present here throughout. While an easy genre characterization would be to dismiss this amazing musical achievement as merely noisy and dark, what separates To Be Kind from all other records so far this decade is its sprawling scope combined with its musical diversity. Opener “Screen Shot” is arguably the single most terrifying leadoff track since Massive Attack’s “Angel”, building with hypnotic repetition that builds into an eerie piano line and culminates into an apocalyptic eruption through the coda. There are also moments of unsettling terror like the slow burning “Just A Little Boy” which contrasts with aggressive, faux-shoegaze crescendo pieces like “Kirsten Supine” later on the album. I heard the completely rejuvenated and re-arranged version of the old Swans’ punk song “Oxygen” two summers ago at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, and it was one of those stunning live concert movements that you never forget, and one that only raised my excitement for this upcoming album when its inclusion here was confirmed. Explosive bursts of guitar sprawl beneath propulsive percussion and Gira’s maniacal ravings as he gives a fearful, frightening account of a time he had difficulty breathing during a severe asthma attack. If there’s a track one might offer as moderately accessible to the masses, “A Little God In Our Hands” starts with an approachable guitar riff and swanky beat that might fit on a Red Hot Chili Peppers album before it evolves into a full on cascading avalanche of noise, while at five minutes in length “Some Things We Do” is the shortest, and softest track on the album, as Gira utterly indicts the entire human race by condemning the menial triviality of our very existence. “She Loves Us” might just be the single most impressive thing here in terms of overall build and attention to detail. Over its epic 17-minute length, it opens with a jarring guitar riff that repeats over and over again and picks up tribal chants before breaking down completely into guitar fuzz, eventually culminating into a full-on onslaught over its panic-inducing eight minute coda that showcases Gira howling such insanity as “Your name is fuck!” behind haunting, contrasting background vocals of “Hallelujah!” Equally well-executed at only half that length is “Nathalie Neal”, which is as ominous and foreboding as anything in the band’s entire catalog, and that’s saying something. It opens with thunderous percussion and grows more and more persistent and frantic until it finally collapses upon itself and concludes softly.‎ The title track closes the album and takes a symmetrically opposite approach, starting as softly as any here, but sends the album off on its most panicked, abrasive note, and any other conclusion to this record would be entirely unfitting. As relentless and challenging as it is, To Be Kind isn’t one of those double albums that should be taken in parts. It’s best consumed in its entirety, where it looms a monolithic masterpiece for any true fan of music. There’s such subtle beauty lurking beneath the brooding tension on every track here, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a better executed artistic contrast any time in the near future.

 

 

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