“We have art in order not to die of the truth.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche
2014 was a doozy. Personally, it was the most interesting and important year of my life, and all my excitement and ambition flew me a little too close to the sun. I laughed a lot, but I felt frayed more often than I should’ve. The state of the union weighed heavily on the optimist in me, and I wrestled with the good a “Good Vibes For All” worldview could even achieve. In times good and bad, though, music was always there in equal measure. It comforted me, renewed my spirit, reminded me who I am, illuminated truths, and – most importantly – kept me connected to others, which is the thing that really makes life worth living (and helps to keep us from “dying of the truth”).
With that said, here are the albums released this year that meant the most to me.
40. Hundred Waters – The Moon Rang Like a Bell (OWSLA)
39. Goat – Commune (Sub Pop)
38. Allah-Las – Worship the Sun (Innovative Leisure)
37. Coffinworm – IV.I.VIII (Profound Lore)
36. The Acid – Liminal (Infectious Music Ltd.)
35. Destrage – Are You Kidding Me? No. (Metal Blade)
34. Black Bombaim – Far Out (Lovers & Lollypops)
33. 2 Chainz – FREEBASE (self-released; free dl)
32. SZA – Z (Top Dawg Entertainment)
31. Sir Michael Rocks – BANCO (6 Cell Phones)
30. The Nude Party – Forbidden Fruits (self-released)
29. Flying Lotus – You’re Dead! (Warp)
28. Swans – To Be Kind (Young God/Mute)
27. Exalt – Pale Light (New Damage)
26. Timber Timbre – Hot Dreams (Arts & Crafts)
25. The Bug – Angels & Devils (Ninja Tune)
24. Electric Wizard – Time To Die (Spinefarm)
23. Ty Dolla $ign – $ign Language (Taylor Gang; free dl)
22. Baptists – Bloodmines (Southern Lord)
21. BADBADNOTGOOD – III (Innovative Leisure)
20. White Reaper – White Reaper (Polyvinyl)
I couldn’t get into the latest Bass Drum of Death record, so it was nice to have something fuzzy to fill that void. Reaper propels forward frenetically, though, where Bass Drum is more inclined to swing, and they tear through six songs handily in a mere 16 minutes. Great driving music, and probably awesome live.
19. Willie The Kid & Bronze Nazareth – The Living Daylights (Embassy)
This is a hip-hop record crafted by someone who really, really loves music. Even ignoring the Wu-Tang pedigree (because I knew nothing about this record when I came across it), it’s worth spinning for treasure trove of soulful samples – and the bonus is that the dexterous rhymes are worth sticking around for.
18. Morgan Delt – Morgan Delt (Trouble In Mind)
The one time I tried to convey the feeling of this record to anyone all year, I called it “psychedelic lava.” The guitar is way up in the mix and pushed to the red, and when combined with layers of freaked-out echos, dubs, and effects, the result is a heavy, hypnagogic sound that is best described as sort of “melting.” If Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka had a record collection at the Chocolate Factory, this most certainly would’ve been in it.
17. The Greenery – It’s Looking Grim (New Damage)
I grew up with a punk-rock loving guy who had a special affection for bands he described as sounding “tough.” The Greenery is that band, and Grim is their swan song, thrashing and smashing liker a harder, grittier, darker Kill ‘Em All. Bikers, skaters, heshers, and heathens rejoice!
16. together PANGEA – Badillac (Burger)
I love that there are still bands out there that sound like they actually circled up in a garage, sweated it out for a summer, and wrung out all the blood and sweat of their everyday lives into an audio snapshot of their lives and headspaces. There’s a pure adolescent fury to Badillac, even in its Cobain-worshipping-Lennon lighter moments, that makes it impossible to stop listening to once I’ve queued it. In fact, I remember the particular moment I was hooked: when “Does He Really Care” slows to a crawling descent of single guitar notes then revs furiously back into the main riff, it was the same sensation as dropping in. From there, I just kept coming back.
15. Moutheater – Passing Key (Anthems of The Undesirable)
One reliable measure of your love for a band is the number of other bands to which it led you. Through Nirvana, I discovered Steve Albini and the “AmRep sound,” whose spiritual descendants are creating with full force right now. Some of my favorite new music focuses on unearthing killer tones and locking them into leviathan, stomping grooves. Like Young Widows, Hawks, Helms Alee, Pissed Jeans, and Kowloon Walled City before them, I’m stoked to have discovered Moutheater and to have listened to them at very high volumes.
14. Death From Above 1979 – The Physical World (Last Gang/Warner Bros.)
I caught DFA1979 opening up for Queens of the Stone Age and Nine Inch Nails in the winter of 2005 and they blew me away … just before imploding themselves. Now, ten years later, they’ve returned with an airtight, propulsive record packed with slug after slug of raw, smart, commanding rock ‘n roll. It may have taken a while, but it’s a record worth dusting off your leather jacket for so you can head down to your favorite dimly lit neighborhood dive, queue it on the jukebox, and dance the night away.
13. A pair of Gunns:
Steve Gunn & Mike Cooper – FRKWYS Vol. 11: Cantos de Lisboa (RVNG Intl.)
Black Dirt Oak – Wawayanda Patent (MIE Music)
While I never dug into to Way Out Weather, I did find myself spending time with two of his less straightforward efforts. The ninth FRKWYS installment (2012’s M. Geddes/Sun Araw/Congos collab) put the former on my radar, and a brief, intriguing Tiny Mix Tapes review of the latter brought Gunn to the forefront of my mind. He’s phenomenal on both efforts, channeling traditional folk and blues idioms through a mystical lens to spectacularly meditative effect. A statement I read about Gunn’s FRKWYS collaborator Mike Cooper comes to mind: “He calls for the listener before the musician and music for him is not a grand statement: it channels a diffused mood, not made just of sounds but of visions, incidental noises, colours, stories, traditions, lyrics, images in motion.” Both albums did just that for me, offering me very necessary respite from the constant grinding drone of city life and transporting me to a quiet, still place where it was just nature and me at one.
12. FKA twigs – LP1 (Young Turks)
There’s not a lot to say that hasn’t already been covered – this is TIME‘s album of the year, for goodness’ sake. I fell into this record because it stirred so many of the same things that I felt the first time I heard Portishead’s Dummy: it’s quiet, sensuous, almost ghostly. It’s intimate and intriguing all at once. It’s stunningly good at reaching that transcendent place beyond words, and I think that’s why it’s garnered so much worthy attention. If you haven’t listened yet, please do.
11. Obliterations – Poison Everything (Southern Lord)
All it takes is five minutes of watching the news in 2014 to want to start a band whose nihilistic rallying cry is to “poison everything,” so it’s understandable that the mighty Sam James Velde was obviously as mad as hell and wasn’t going to take it anymore and did just that. The record is fast, furious, and on a level all its own. It’s got Black Flag’s raw-nerve intensity and Motorhead’s “Everything Louder Than Everything Else” swagger. It’s half an hour of straight-up-bonkers scorched earth.
10. Floor – Oblation (Season of Mist)
This requires pretty much zero explanation: Torche is one of my favorite bands of all time, Steve Brooks of Torche was in another band called Floor, and the two bands sound fairly similar. I missed the Floor boat the first time around, so I was happy to jump on board this time. The riffs are thick, the melodies soar – it’s grade-A Brooks. May the bomb string ring into eternity.
09. Mount Carmel – Get Pure (Alive Naturalsound)
Hey, do you like rock ‘n roll and/or things that sound good? Then you would probably love this record. A lot. Nuthin’ fancy, just more over-the-plate heat from some of the best blue-collar bluesmen giggin’ right now. On this, their third record, the guitar sounds a little crunchier and the proceedings are a little tighter, but everything still feels effortlessly delivered and remarkably good, evoking the feel of being in a den with three dudes who’re just jamming away, having the time of their lives.
08. Curtis Harding – Soul Power (Burger)
Living in the city is great. You’re surrounded by creative, interesting, unique people from all walks of life, and pretty much anything you’d want to do is right around the corner. One such example is seeing a musician perform live, especially if you’re not sure if you like his/her record. This was my case with Curtis Harding, and one Saturday night in July, I opted to ramble down to The EARL and see what all the fuss was about. Turns out the fuss was right on the money, as was the title of Harding’s remarkably realized debut Soul Power. Dude came out in a denim shirt and small gold chain, with a small part in his afro and a cigarette alight between his lips, and with ice in his veins, played some of the best, most transportive working-class soul music I’ve ever heard rendered in the 21st century. He even ran through “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” quick to point out that he just wanted a chance to interpolate some Isaac Hayes. He got his start singing backup for CeeLo Green, but he eclipses his famous affiliate with his incredible voice, tastefully throwing in subtle runs (look no further than the cascading chorus of “Surf“) that reflect his gospel upbringing. Soul Power is a killer record for Saturday night or Sunday morning – everything about it feels decidedly classic.
07. Ty Segall – Manipulator (Drag City)
Says Pitchfork’s Stuart Berman: “It’s hard to feel overwhelmed by the vast amount of material [Segall] releases, because each new album has revealed a different facet of both his sound and personality, and built up anticipation for where he might go next. With Manipulator, Segall arrives at his own personal promised land, the place where all the divergent paths he’s travelled intersect.” Dude is a prolific, energetic student of the music he loves, and it finally feels like he’s emerged into a space of his own. In 2012, I praised Segall for putting out three great albums in a single year; on the other end of that spectrum (just one album following 14 months of writing), we see that a bit of gestation also does his music some good. In retrospect, it makes everything he’s written up to this point feel like a series of research projects for Manipulator‘s material, and everything comes together in a grand thesis awash in fuzz and fun.
06. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2 (Mass Appeal; free dl)
“I don’t care if others rioted or why. I don’t care that ballplayers and rappers are what they shud be. I care that we as humans care as much about one another more. I care we see past Class, race and culture and honor the humanity that unites our species. Stop talking and … stand … against a system allows a Human PIG to slaughter their child.” – Michael Render
Americans looked on in horror this year as the myth of our greatness crumbled on the world stage. I could write and write and write about why RTJ2 is the most important album of the year and why we need a million more Killer Mikes, but in lieu of that, I’ll continue trying to take action the name of unity and I hope you’ll resolve to do the same in 2015. If you’re reading this, you’re likely already a great advocate for the well-being of all mankind, so let’s all bring a friend to the Stick It To The Man Party next year.
05. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (High Top Mountain)
I grew up in Atlanta’s far southern suburbs, just before things start to get really rural, in a town with as many old brick churches as a city has Starbucks. I’ve always kept the Spirit with me (I call it God, but you may call it Buddha or Allah or the Flying Spaghetti Monster or vibrations, or you may not believe in it at all and that’s okay too), but have grappled mightily with seeing the very same teachings that gave me loving my neighbor as myself being invoked for hatred and division. I hear this same shade of weariness in opening track “Turtles All the Way Down” (“Love’s the only thing that ever saved my life”), a track about this very certainty that the aforementioned spirit exists but has been so mangled by the dark heart of man. Having grown up on Jones, Jennings, Twitty, Strait, Yoakam and the like, it’s almost too perfect for my life that the spiritual awakenings of my adulthood are comfortingly delivered in the vernacular with which I grew up. Simpson is a flawed, deeply human, but ultimately very enlightened cat, and Metamodern Sounds affords us the opportunity to walk alongside him on his vision quest. My tired Southern heart is mighty glad to have found this record.
04. Generation of Vipers – Coffin Wisdom (Translation Loss)
Akin to the case of Run the Jewels 2, I took comfort in finding music that sounded the way I felt as I experienced the events of 2014 through my own lens. East Tennessee’s Generation of Vipers, a much-lauded band’s band commanding the respect of musicians I admire, drop you straight into a war zone with the lion’s-growl bass of opener “Damaged Awake” and they never look back. This record is H-E-A-V-Y, and the riffs are towering walls that close in on you slowly. I manage to unearth about one band each year that opens my mind to totally new ways of experiencing or thinking about art, and like Death Grips and Young Widows and Teeth of the Sea before them, Generation of Vipers was that band in 2014.
03. Every Time I Die – From Parts Unknown (Epitaph)
I’ve been a big ETID fan for more than a decade now, and my favorite thing about them remains consistent: they seem to work harder than any band I know at digging deep and elevating their game. Where most of their genre peers have pivoted to cash in on trends or given up altogether, ETID has doubled down on the speed, ferocity, and heaviness (especially in their slower, stranger moments of breadth). In noticable contrast to this are the lyrics of a more meditative, spiritualized Keith Buckley, still in the company of my favorite writers and thinkers. The record’s opens with an authoritative command to “Blow your … brains out,” an instruction which Keith Buckley actually means is “like a candle whose light is inferior to that of the sun” because the song is about “ignoring what you think and going by how you feel.” The rest of the lyrics follow suit, shedding the weight of metaphor under which Buckley has postured himself slouchily for the past six albums. Buckley touches on everything from gratitude for the absurd miracle of life (“If There Is Room To Move, Things Move“) to self-concept (“Exometrium“) and only achieving enlightenment by embracing all parts of yourself (“Thirst“). There’s a poignance to ETID’s heaviest record also being its “zen” one: dark and light are parts of the same whole, after all. “Just take the ride … just take the ride.”
02. Young Widows – Easy Pain (Temporary Residence Limited)
The best word to describe the Young Widows sound is “haunted” – they recorded one album in a funeral home, for goodness’ sake. On Easy Pain, the ghost has come home drunk and seething, lumbering around the house in an unsettlingly even flare of Jack Torrance sociopathy. Evan Patterson cited “destruction” a number of times in describing his creative headspace for the record, in contrast to its much more structured, calculated predecessor (2011’s In and Out of Youth and Lightness). He even drew inspiration from the rhythms of a funky, dancey slab of 1976 disco, warping the good-time music into a sadistic unrequited love song; a kin of “Creep” that’s more mad than sad. I guess all work and no play makes Evan a dull boy.
01. He Is Legend – Heavy Fruit (Tragic Hero)
In 2009, He Is Legend released one of my favorite albums of all time – one I often told people was the spiritual successor to Nevermind, and one I still listen to front-to-back every few days – then disappeared into the mist. I was heartbroken, but at least I had the swan song of a band that had grown light years between each album, shedding stubbornly nostalgic fans each step of the way. Then, much to my delight, the band that never seemed to care about anything started playing some shows, then putting out a song, then another song, then another. It was a slow climb to this point, but it was worth every letdown along the way and every single minute of the wait. Days went by when Heavy Fruit was all I listened to, and some nights I would come home and just put a YouTube video of their live “No Quarter” cover on repeat. Heavy Fruit is an album without contemporaries, made by a special band full of pure, visionary creatives who I was wrong to assume care about nothing – the only thing they care about is the real thing.
Because I also like sweeping up other musical loose ends from the course of the year: I found Soundgarden’s “Limo Wreck” or Usher’s “U Don’t Have To Call” stuck in my head near-endlessly in respective moments of melancholy or joy, I appreciated Bey keeping it so Syrup City on the world stage, I found a new überbäe in Ilana Glazer the moment she used “Started From the Bottom” to near-perfect comedic ends, I rolled my eyes at the full-on middle American meme-ification of rap, I had a spiritual experience with the Los Angeles episode of Sonic Highways, I made a mantra of “WE MADE IT” because a life without fun is worthless, I submitted to pure joy each time I heard Rahki’s incredible Isleys flip, I enjoyed making killer mixtapes with my fellow Good Ol’ Boy, and I got in the Cage with my wild-at-heart bride by sharing a first dance to “Love Me Tender.”
I know my years of chasing the “listen to everything” white whale will draw to a close soon enough, but I’ve certainly enjoyed all the smiles, high fives, conversations, experiences, insights, memories, and magic moments that insatiable appetite has yielded to date. My professional aim for 2015 is to operate with relentless focus, and I hope it yields even deeper, more satisfying personal experiences as well. Hopefully we can all put down our phones, breathe a little more easily, and more deeply enjoy the miracle of life in this mortal coil. Cheers to all y’all. See you at a show.