Friday, December 26, 2014

What I Heard in 2014

Today’s post begins my series of year-end posts about the music, movies, and books I enjoyed this year. This isn’t meant to be my objective list of the Best of 2014. I certainly listen to a lot of music in a year, but not enough to say with honesty that I’ve heard everything worth praise. I tracked down what seemed interesting, bought my usual dozen or so albums and offer the following selection as a record of what sounds spoke to me and what I suspect I will still be listening to years after 2014.

As usual, I’ll work my way up to my favorite album this year starting at:

 #5: Perfume Genius Too Bright. Mike Hadreas, the singer song-writer responsible for Perfume Genius apparently sings in more of a torch-singer mode than you’ll find him here. Slow, dirgy piano confessions rub shoulders with scorched-earth cyberpunk anthems. Gay, straight, or other, Perfume Genius captures the homesickness of restless souls, and it is impossible to react to these songs in any other way than as simply Perfume Genius songs. That in itself is an achievement, to listen to a person find their voice and take possession of it. In terms of songs, I put “I Decline,” “My Body,” and “Grid” as must-listens for this year.

#4: Rosanne Cash The River and The Thread It’s a shame that this album came out at nearly the exact moment HBO’s True Detective was airing, as any number of songs here could have found a place on that soundtrack. Cash here is in her most prophetic style, marrying bare and rusty chords to songs about feverish horses and money roads where blues legends lie buried. It’s a simple, and familiar sound, not terribly challenging but absolutely heart-felt and genuine. Must-listens: “Etta’s Tune,” “Tell Heaven,” and “Money Road."

#3: Marissa Nadler July. I bought this album on the basis of the sweet menace of the opening track “Drive,” with its lyrics about cars slowly accelerating and a suppressed longing for death. Nadler sings with the fetching chill of a folk singer who just crawled out of her own snow-covered crypt. One of my absolutely favorite songs this year is “Dead City Emily,” which is towering and still, haunted and bleak, like a Laird Barron story in song form.

#2: St. Vincent St. Vincent. Both Annie Clark and Mike Hadreas gave interviews this year praising and claiming inspiration from Polly Jean Harvey which is instructive. Although neither Perfume Genius or St. Vincent sound all that much like PJ Harvey, they do bear that quality of intrinsic self-possession, of arty theatricality raised to an authentic statement of self and personhood. Of course, with St. Vincent, that inspiration produced something a lot more fun and energetic than either Perfume Genius or Polly Jean. St. Vincent reminded me of a lot of things while never really settling on those influences. Her songs bounce around like Talking Heads at their loosest, while including more off-kilter confessions than Kanye West’s last album. Then there’s the overt science fiction metaphors and I find myself thinking of Jannelle Monea. Although this album settles down somewhat in its later tracks, the opening stretch of “Rattlesnake,” “Birth in Reverse,” Prince Johnny,” "Huey S. Newton,” and "Digital Witnesses,” was one of the most compulsively listenable playlist of all last year.

#1: The War on Drugs Lost in a Dream. The mark of growth of an pop artist is not that they suddenly repudiate everything that came before and drop some out-of-nowhere masterpiece, but that the themes and obsessions of previous works come alive, that what came before now draws into focus, lent new meaning by the gradual accretion of wisdom. In that way, Adam Granduciel’s new album is like the 117th permutation of a reoccurring dream, the one where the dreamer suddenly wakes up inside of the old patterns, and leaves with a self-awareness of why these patterns exist. The entire album flows together, the feedback washes of one track foreshadowing the droning intro of the next. That said, the true genius of this album is that it is also a collection of individual and powerful songs. The jubilant whoops of the liberated prisoner in “Red Eyes,” the weary outrage of “The Ocean Between the Waves,” and the true simple longing of “Burning.” In The War on Drugs last effort, Slave Ambient the disparate influences had not quite solidified, Granduceil’s wooly drawl standing apart from the krautrock rhythms and drones. Here, the influences have embraced, intermingled into something with the fire of classic rock n’ roll but the hazy distance of Sonic Youth or My Bloody Valentine. A nifty trick I look forward to seeing repeated in the years to come.

As I’ve detailed on previous post this was also the year of This American Life’s spin off podcast Serial. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the impact of this one show. I can’t wait for the second season but I also want to see what Serial’s obvious success could mean for the entire universe of podcasts and online media.

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