Here I am again. Writing another year end music article and wondering where the hell the time went. Its amazing how a year can seem to go so fast and yet when I start thinking about everything i did in 2014, it seems like a decade of stuff. We moved back to California. I released another Sleep Maps record. I biked 350 miles into Canada and back. I drove across the country. And here at the end of the year we have just moved into Petaluma, CA. Those are just the major highlights, if I listed everything there would be no more space to talk about music, which is the whole point of this thing.
Similarly, I feel like the year was long with music. Albums that I was fully obsessed with came out in February, so now here in December they seem like old friends and I had to remind myself they were eligible for this most holy of honors that is my top ten list. Other stuff is more recent but still as worthy. So in no particular order:
Wax Fang – The Astronaut
I wrote a full blog post about this album earlier in the year and my opinion of it has not changed at all. A progressive, bluesy, space epic full of amazing imagery, great guitar solos and some really impressive lyrics. In its short 5 song cycle it manages to pack in more ideas and themes then most bands do with 10 or 11 tracks. Infinitely re-listenable to me, i hear something new each time I give it a spin. I wish this had been the soundtrack to Interstellar instead of all that Hans Zimmer organ garbage.
Highlight track – The entire album
A Winged Victory For The Sullen – ATOMOS
This is an ambient duo made of up of pianist Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Wiltzie from Stars of the Lid. Atomos was the soundtrack they wrote to accompany a contemporary dance performance but nothing about it really screams “Dance record!” Its a quiet, contemplative piece that reminds me of the modern classical work of Max Richter, Johan Johannsen and Daniel Bjarnason. Its contemplative, at times relaxing and at times inspiring and thoroughly listenable for its whole length. As I write this and listen to the opening track, Atomos I, I remember the first time I heard it, and how I had to stop what I was doing and try to inhabit a place mentally where I could really absorb all that was going on. Powerful, mind expanding stuff.
Highlight Track – Atomos VII
Liars – Mess
I give a lot of credit to bands who constantly change their sound over the course of their career. Radiohead is the most well known example of this, but for my money, Liars take the crown for most open to change. Starting as an indie post punk band, they moved to pure experimentalism, then to indie rock (sort of), then to quiet, down-tempo tunes with some synths, and now emerge in 2014 as a full on analog synth rock band. Mess sees them playing with all kind of old synths and making some of the best music of their career. Songs like Vox Tuned D.E.D. and Pro Anti Anti are genuine upbeat dance tunes. Such a weird turn from a band I have followed for a long time but so good.
Highlight Track – Pro Anti Anti
Barrows – Red Giant
Four twentysomethings from LA turn in the best instrumental rock album of the year with Red Giant. Its quick, only 5 songs long, plotting the story of a sun as it goes nova and then collapses into a black hole. The songs are just spacey enough, just heavy enough, and have enough awesome guitar melodies to keep me coming back for more.
Highlight Track – Red Giant
Sinoia Caves – Beyond The Black Rainbow OST
Sinoia Caves is one of the main guys from Black Mountain and under this moniker he makes analog synth music on his own and for films. Beyond the Black Rainbow is a totally bizarre horror/sci fi movie that came out a couple years ago, but the soundtrack was just released this year (so it counts). I saw it at the TriBeCa film fest and it kind of blew me away. The movie is made like a horror movie from the 80s and the soundtrack fits this aesthetic perfectly. Plenty of awesome arps, slow swells and drum kits happening in here to make you think you are listening to something from 1985.
Highlight Track – Forever Dilating Eye
Old Man Gloom – The Ape of God I and II
After Isis decided to call it quits, a lot of imitators rose up to try and fill their shoes. The post-metal genre had lost its founders and nobody could quite match up to them. Old Man Gloom has been an Aaron Turner side project for a long time, and now that Isis isn’t taking all his time, he managed to sit down and write a really killer record that almost hearkens back to the glory days of Isis. I say almost, because in some cases its even better. Free from the name, it seems like he is ok with trying anything. The album swings from quiet ambient interludes of found sounds and tape loops, to really gritty crust punk, to long slow builds that crescendo at just the right moment. When the band was getting ready to release these 2 discs, they intentionally leaked a completely different version of the album with abbreviated tracks, some totally different songs and other weird stuff. It tricked all the downloaders and played havoc with the system in general, which was pretty cool.
Highlight Track – Simia Dei
WIFE – What’s Between
All the black metal guys are putting away the guitars and hitting the synths. I saw it happening a ton when I lived in Brooklyn and I guess it makes sense. Both genres allow you to create walls of noise and kind of get lost in the haze of it all. The best example that I heard this year was the debut record from WIFE, who is really just James Kelly, the lead singer of the now defunct Altar of Plagues. He does a great job blending whispered vocals, some abrasive sounds, and really bizarre percussion sounds into a cohesive whole. I like how dark this record is without really incorporating anything that stands out as ‘dark’.
Highlight Track – Heart is a Far Light
Sia – 1000 Forms of Fear
I am pretty sure in the 10 years of doing this list, I haven’t had a standard pop record on here. Ever. But, this year we have Sia. I don’t even feel bad about putting this on here. Its a great record full of catchy songs that have some dark, dark lyrics. Sia is an artist who channels her pain, suffering and history into each of her songs. She writes all kinds of pop music for other people, but I think she hangs onto the stuff she knows is best, so that she can blow everyone’s mind. Also a major plus is her anti-rockstar attitude and her desire for privacy.
Highlight Track – Fire Meet Gasoline
Max Cooper – Human
I’ve always been a fan of Cooper’s work and earlier this year when he finally released his first full length, it delivered all I hoped it would. Incredibly intricate drum tracks, loud synths and quiet moments where his trademark production could shine. I wrote an entire column about him earlier in the year so check that out for more.
Highlight Track – Potency
Mica Levi – Under the Skin OST
Lots of people hate this movie. I recommend it to friends and when I ask them later what they thought of it, they say something like, “I couldn’t get through it” or “What a piece of garbage why did you recommend that?”. All I can say is… they are all wrong. The movie was an intense look at the nature of sexual relationships between men and women and what it means to have power. The soundtrack is a classic Bernard Hermann-esque anxiety inducer that plays well in its own right. Levi uses very few instruments to set the mood, but anyone who’s seen the movie knows that they were enough to set the scene every time ScarJo brings a guy back to her death den. That drum beat! Those strings! Arrggghh.
Highlight Track – Lonley Void
There were a few other records that didn’t make the cut but that are worth your time.
Alpha Male Tea Party – Droids
Death From Above 1979 – The Physical World
I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness – Dust
Mastodon – Once More Round The Sun
Mono – Rays of Darkness
Survive – MF064