Best & Worst Music From the First Half of 2014, In Alphabetical Order, Plus a Few We're Looking Forward To

THE BEST

Beck, Morning Phase

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For the first time in his more than twenty year career, Beck has released a record motivated by neither sadness (2002's Sea Change) nor weirdness (every other Beck record). Morning Phase isn't dull, but compared to the rest of his oeuvre it sounds awfully conventional, which is why it may be his weakest record to-date. The fact that it is still easily one of the best fifteen records I have heard this year is a testament to Beck's enduring creativity and musicality. The vocabulary here is the same - sun-soaked acoustic ballads reinforced by lush string arrangements (courtesy of his father, composer David Campbell), with occasional lysergic garnishment, grandiose reverbs that suggest the songs are as big as Laurel Canyon (they're not), plainspoken lyrics that are alluding to something, but never quite make sense - but lacks its anguish, inspiration, and coherence. As usual, his production is immaculate and his voice has only gotten warmer with age, which more than anything seems to be what this record is about. Since releasing Modern Guilt in 2008, Beck has turned 40, raised two children into adolescence, and is rumored to have a bad back. It appears that the risk averse mentality that is rumored to come with being over-the-hill has carried over into his music making. Still, not bad for an old man. -Zev

Required Listening: “Wave,” “Blackbird Chain,” “Country Down”

 

Burial, Rival Dealer

Will Bevan has made his name in the shadows, building fractured dubscapes out of haunted vocal samples and razor-sharp drum breaks. On the Rival Dealer EP, released in the waning days of 2013  (too late for critics’ end-of-year lists), he steps out into the light, and what results is his most unique, and possibly his most powerful, work yet. Rival Dealer is an uplifting journey towards love and self-acceptance, morphing from the title cut’s bruising drum’n’bass breaks in an entirely new direction – towards an unabashed, if warped, beauty. “Don’t be afraid to step into the unknown,” a voice offers on “Come Down to Us,” as the song does exactly that, an exuberant pop hook emerging from a sea of static. Closing with an extended cut from transgender filmmaker Lana Wachowski’s acceptance speech at the 2012 Human Rights Campaign Visibility Awards, Rival Dealer ends on a powerfully uplifting note, living up to Bevan’s dream of a work “that could maybe help someone to believe in themselves, to not be afraid, and to not give up.” -Kyle

Required Listening: “Rival Dealer,” “Come Down to Us”

 

Chet Faker, Built on Glass

Chet Faker has been hailed the heir apparent to James Blake and  Blake’s doleful brand of electro-soul is palpable on Built On Glass, the Australian’s debut album. To our surprise, he was critically neglected in most mid-year polls, perhaps because his voice lacks the uniquely fragile quality that has elevated Blake and his other imitators to prominence. Nevertheless, he is a master conjurer of spare, sleek beats enriched by a tasteful selection of synths and vocal self-harmonizing. "Talk Is Cheap" is one of the best singles so far this year. -Zev

Required Listening: “Talk Is Cheap,” “Melt,”  “Gold” 

 

Cloud Nothings, Here and Nowhere Else

You know that kid who sat at the back of your US history class in high school and slept through every class? Shoulder-length hair, wore t-shirts referencing bands you'd never heard of, never said anything. Turns out that while you were trying to get the attention of the volleyball girl next to you he was busy a) not giving a fuck and b) writing the songs on Here and Nowhere Else.

I saw Cloud Nothings at Bonnaroo because I'd heard 2012's Attack on Memory and thought it was not terrible, but mostly because I wanted to get a good place for Banks, who was playing right after them. And then they started playing and metaphorically fucked my face with noise and it was awesome. I think the main problem was that I had never listened to their music at cochlea-shattering volumes; I had tinnitus for a week and it was 100% worth it. 

I don't have a very academic reason for liking this album. It's musically pretty simple, and it's a formula We Were Promised Jetpacks have been using for a few years just as successfully. For me Here and Nowhere Else feels like a distillation of every moment of teenage angst into something just on the verge of chaos. They don't really know what they're doing and they're great at it. -Mac

Required Listening: “Quieter Today,” “I'm Not Part of Me”

 

Future, Honest

The violent, drug-addled, and hyper-materialistic rhetoric that saturates each stanza of this record has a sickening sort of appeal. Future’s tone is confessional - after all, he titled the record “Honest” - but not to the point that he expresses any misgivings about the Bacchanalian excess of the high life he’s finally obtained. But I suspect the ghetto beau monde isn’t nearly as glamorous or lurid as he describes. Consider the spoken-word interlude “Big Rube Speaks”, which hints at the deep existential uncertainty - dare I call it a nihilistic tendency - that underpins his rhymes. Add in a generous helping of auto-tune and the omnipresent rattle of hi-hats and you have one of the year’s most engaging rap records. -Zev

Required Listening: “Honest,” “Side Effects,” “I Won”

 

Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence

In a past life Lana Del Rey was the goth (or emo, I never quite understood the difference) girl who sat next to you in class, the one who would alternately be scribbling maudlin love poetry in the margins of her notebook or applying yet another coat of polish to her already tar-black nails when you glanced over at her (if you're unfamiliar with this character, you probably been fortunate enough to bypass secondary school or were that exact girl and are still in denial). Today, her nails may still be painted black, but at least she's accumulated some dirt under them, along with a sexy sophistication that has her curating her collection of jazz records and reciting beat poetry in one song, and hob-nobbing with West Coast "golden gods" the next. Sure, appearances change, but the insecurity has only gotten worse, the complex more ingrained, the malaise more difficult to shake with every swill of Chardonnay and toke of "hydroponic weed". Though self-styled as a "gansta Nancy Sinatra" (whatever that means), on this record her voice is more reminiscent of Patsy Cline or Marianne Faithfull, aloof but thin, hauntingly vulnerable, equal parts femme fatale and damsel in distress. Producer Dan Auerbach deserves all the grief he's been given for the underwhelming Turn Blue, The Black Keys' most recent effort (see below), but proves his mettle here. Her voice necessitates an understated, but nuanced production, which he achieves with shoegazey guitars, a woozy reverbs, and muted string arrangements.

Death and sex sell, and Ultraviolence, down to its very title, implies both. Lana Del Rey is a rare specimin: a female pop singer who enjoys a following broad enough to fill stadiums, a generous slice of Top 40 airplay, and cultural staying power, all the while glamorizing mortality, fetishizing melancholy, and projecting a persona who is frank, literate, and noir. She occupies a similar place in our pop iconography to Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga and like them tends to write about men, sex and relationships, but her music is neither wistfully virginal nor rapaciously kinky, just somewhere in the more realistic, sensual in-betweens. I am encouraged by her recent popularity, as it indicates that listeners, particularly young female ones, are willing to reward frank, literate, and noir pop music, but I've had a hard time shaking the impression that Lana Del Rey really has no clue what she's doing. Her onstage behavior is erratic, her voice ambles between registers without any clear destination, one moment she's dominant over her men, the next she's battered. But I prefer it that way - she's an enigma and that keeps things interesting. -Zev

Required Listening: “Ultraviolence,” “Brooklyn Baby,” “Pretty When You Cry” 

 

Leon Vynehall, Music for the Uninvited

A well-worn narrative about the origins of rap is rehashed in Ice-T's 2012 documentary Something from Nothing: future DJs took the jazz records lying around their parents' homes and resampled them into something danceable. While T's directorial debut suggests he should keep his day job on Law & Order, this is a tidy backstory for many of the most influential beatmakers of the last few decades: J Dilla, Q-Tip, Guru among them.

Leon Vynehall takes much of the same approach with classical music, resampling and cutting ethereal strings and synths into low-key and punctiliously catchy dance tracks. Careful distortion allows Vynehall to toe the line between the xx, the Caretaker, and early-era Detroit techno, especially Juan Atkins, creating something that sounds as dark as the first, as repurposed as the second, and as hypnotic as the third. -Mac

Required Listening: “Inside the Deku Tree,” “Pier Children”

 

Mac Demarco, Salad Days

There’s no denying that, at the end of the day, every Mac DeMarco song sounds roughly the same. An oddball synth flourish may crop up here or there, but two clean, jangly guitar lines, a steady, shuffling rhythm and a slightly off-kilter vocal take is pretty much the boilerplate Mac sound. It’s a testament to DeMarco, then, that he manages to create such a varied and interesting album from this relatively limited palette. “Blue Boy” skips along on a buoyant bass line, while “Passing Out Pieces,” with its wistful fame-sucks narrative and spooky synths, hints at the darkness that lies under the surface of DeMarco’s sunny pop. But Salad Days’ twin highlights best highlight its striking range. “Chamber of Reflection” is a dimly-lit journey inside the mind, blending Lennon-esque vocals with lounge lizard keys and a dour sense of dread. “Let Her Go,” on the other hand, is pure pop sunshine, its ebullient guitars and gentle croon belying a narrative about falling out of love. Taken together, they’re a perfect encapsulation of Salad Days as a whole – sometimes sour, sometimes sweet, always compelling. -Kyle

Required Listening: “Blue Boy,” “Passing Out Pieces,” “Let Her Go”

 

Madlib & Freddie Gibbs, Piñata / Madlib, Piñata Beats

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I’ve got a soft spot for instrumental hip-hop – get me on the subject of J Dilla’s Donuts and I’ll talk your ear off – but Freddie Gibbs’ chilled-out gangster presence takes Piñata from solid to sublime. Madlib brings his avant-garde brilliance down to earth, constructing lush, soul-sampled beats that pair perfectly with Gibbs’ syrup-smooth voice and surprisingly nimble flow. It’s a pairing that, while not as stunning as ‘Lib’s Madvillain project with MF Doom, produces a remarkably consistent and enjoyable listen. “High” sounds like Curren$y with street smarts, while “Bomb” finds Freddie showing up Raekwon with his double-time shit talking. But the real highlight is “Deeper” and its striking moment of clarity: “Maybe you a stank ho, maybe that’s a bit mean, maybe you grew up and I’m still livin’ like I’m sixteen.” -Kyle

***

I came into this trying to disagree with Kyle, but I disagree less strongly than I did before a fifth or sixth listen. On the first few times through, Freddie Gibbs's dirty south, UGK-inspired flow just didn't seem to fit with the off-kilter, weird beats Madlib consistently produces. Famously prolific, Madlib's work with MF DOOM, which Kyle mentioned, along with his solo work under the alias Quasimoto, and his exhaustive releases in the Beat Konducta and Medicine Show series are enough to place him as one of the best underground producers working today. 

And the comparison between *Piñata* and Madvillain (the aforementioned MF DOOM collab) is unfair. To a certain type of rap fan, Madvillain is the *OK Computer* or *In the Aeroplane Over the Sea* of the genre—Freddie Gibbs just isn't as talented as MF DOOM, and it shows. But right, it's an unfair comparison. I don't care at all about Atoms for Peace, but they can obviously be good even though Radiohead is better.

There are moments of brilliance on the full *Piñata*. Earl Sweatshirt provides an effortless guest verse on "Robes"; that Raekwon verse on "Bomb" that Kyle mentioned. Just give the instrumental release a listen—in many ways the beats hold up better without Freddie. -Mac

Required Listening: “Deeper,” “Bomb,” “Robes”

 

St. Vincent, St. Vincent

I know, I know, it was on everyone's best-of lists. And it'll be on everyone's end-of-year lists as well, for good reason. The echoes of Annie Clark's 2012 collaboration with David Byrne, Love This Giant, come through loud and clear on her self-titled fourth solo release, a snugly-arranged counterpoint to tUnE-yArDs's maximalist density. St. Vincent combines Clark's badass, dextrous guitar work with an indisputable and assertive weirdness that gives this release an unparalleled replay value and an orchestrated snarl rarely found in such meticulously melodic songs. It's unabashedly pretentious and earnest in equal measures, and it's glorious. -Mac

Required Listening: “Rattlesnake,” “Digital Witness”

 

Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

By the halfway point of opener “Turtles (All the Way Down),” when Sturgill Simpson sings “There’s a gateway in our minds that leads somewhere out there far beyond this plane/where reptile aliens made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain,” it’s clear that this ain’t your average country album. What it is, however, is a psychedelic trip through the American heartland, where trucker anthems rub shoulders with lysergic ruminations and chicken-fried country from the school of Haggard, Jennings and Cash swims in an ocean of reverb. There’s even a cover of new wave radio hit “The Promise,” played as a straight-faced (and beautiful) country ballad. But it all comes together on “Just Let Go,” where swirls of pedal steel and guitar recreate the metaphysical experience Simpson narrates in real time. By the end of the song, you realize it’s not the drugs that inspire him; it’s love and the mystical oneness of humanity. I have no clue what “metamodern” means, but if it's anything like this, I want more. -Kyle

Required Listening: “Turtles (All the Way Down),” “The Promise,” “Just Let Go”

 

Sun Kil Moon - Benji

Freud would have a field day with Mark Kozelak, who seems to derive a morbid sort of pleasure from rehashing the traumas of childhhood and wallowing in the torments of middle age on Benji, his fifth album under the moniker Sun Kil Moon. Kozelak situates most of his stories in his hometown, Steubenville, OH, a Faulknerian place populated by increasingly hapless people and grisly endings, like Carissa, who's torched by an errant exploding aerosol can, and Brett who develops a lethal blood clot from his unorthodox guitar technique. These tales of woe, lurid than they are, are far less intriguing than his commentary on them, his forthcomingness about the grief and anxiety they provoke, and the non-linear manner in which he narrates them. Like Leonard Cohen on Songs of Love And Hate and Nick Drake on Pink Moon, Kozelak's underlying guitar riffs serve more as ambient mantras than actual accompaniment, elegant in spite of their repetitiveness. Kozelak admits that he's always had a preference for melancholy, which less sentimental types may find disquieting, and seems to find comfort in mawkish statements like "I need to give and get hugs". After listening I found myself yearning for something stiffer. -Zev

Required Listening: “Carissa,” “Dogs,” “Micheline”

 

tUnE-yArDs - nikki nack

nikki nack channels the art pop of the early 80s - combining the intricate and buoyant polyrhythms of Remain in Light-era Talking Heads with the driveling lyrical sensibility of The B-52s - but not to the effect of sounding derivative or retro. Merrill Garbus, the singer/songwriter/producer behind tUnE-yArDs, is a musical maximalist working with minimal means - basic drum loops, a bass guitar, and her sweet, but substantial voice. “Rocking Chair” is exemplary in this regard, beginning with a rudimentary, guttural vocal phrase that, through a series of clever loops, mutates into an complex polyphonic organism. This is strange music and Garbus occasionally overindulges her absurdist inclinations (look no further than the asinine “Interlude: Why Do We Dine On The Tots?”), but that’s exactly what makes it sound so fresh, percussive, and progressive. -Zev

Required Listening: “Water Fountain,” “Hey Life,” “Rocking Chair” 

 

Tycho, Awake

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“Background music” is usually an epithet; here it’s a commendation. Scott Hansen has been making blissed out downtempo electronica as Tycho for a decade now, but on Awake he ups his game majorly, delivering a set that remains sublimely compelling across its 36-minute run time. The album’s sonic palate is consistent – squiggly synths and shimmering guitars duke it out over a warm but insistent live rhythm section on nearly every track – but Hansen is versatile in their deployment, casting a wide net that ranges from the funky stutter-step of “Apogee” to the wistful heartbeat pulse of “L.” This is sunset music, the perfect soundtrack for summer evenings spent around a flickering fire. But at its best, like on the stunning title cut, Awake proves that background music can be a majestic centerpiece. -Kyle

Required Listening: “Apogee,” “L”

 

The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream

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I remember driving across Indiana to visit some distant relatives when I was in middle school—my CD player was broken and we were drifting in and out of range of an NPR station airing Prairie Home Companion. There are few things more torturous for the middle schooler than listening to Garrison Keillor, and sleep was mercifully quick to come. I was dozing off as the station was changed to one known primarily for playing songs by geographical bands: Europe, Kansas, E-Street.

You would be forgiven for thinking The War on Drugs's latest release was a lost record from Springsteen's ketamine phase. This is zoned-out 80s heartland rock in the best possible sense. Pieces of fragments of vague feelings are littered about: "Come and ride away," vocalist Adam Granduciel intones on "Red Eyes," "It's easier to stick to the earth/ Surrounded by the night.” -Mac

Required Listening: “An Ocean Between the Waves,” “Red Eyes”

 

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS

The Black Keys - Turn Blue

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If fish and visitors stink after three days, producers certainly do after three albums. Danger Mouse’s malodorous pseudo-psychedelic influence is palpable before the music even starts, with the hackneyed optical illusion that serves as cover art, and permeates when it does, on tracks like “Year In Review” (abusing our ears with a sample that sounds derived from an old European porn flick) and “Fever” (the album’s flaccid lead single). The commercial success of their previous collaborations, El Camino especially, has ensconced the The Black Keys and Danger Mouse in the musical mainstream and on Turn Blue they seem reluctant to take any major artistic risks. Sure, the trio is going for a different sound here, a mellow blend of psych-pop and blues, but their partnership is simply not visionary, adroit, or committed enough to pull off much more than this album offers. Dan Auerbach has never given us much to work with lyrically, but the pointless abstraction and garden-variety sexism that marks tracks like “Weight of Love” and “Bullet In The Brain” comes off more haphazard and hacked-together than usual. They would do well to click their ruby slippers and return to the little garage in Akron where it all started, ditching Danger Mouse along the way. -Zev

 

Drive-By Truckers, English Oceans

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As a devoted Drive-By Truckers fan, it hurts me to write this review. I’d love to highlight their impressive longevity or the workmanlike dependability of their sound, or shout out highlights like the soaring, epic “Grand Canyon” as proof that there’s still some magic left. But the truth is, English Oceans is just plain boring. For a band who’ve spent their career painting in vivid detail the peaks and valleys of life in the American South, the Truckers’ tenth album sounds remarkably flat. They occasionally muster enough energy to rise out of the muck, as on the shit-kicking opener “Shit Shots Count” or the wistful, elegiac “Primer Coat,” but for the most part it all passes in one ear and out the other. Jason Isbell’s departure and the convergence of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley’s once-diverse songwriting styles have paralyzed the Truckers; they’d better right the ship, or their days as the poet laureates of Southern rock may be drawing to a close. -Kyle

 

Pixies, Indie City

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It would be baldly cynical to say that the Pixies's reunion was driven only by the desire to cash out on their somewhat unexpected post-breakup success. Unfortunately, it would also be true. Perhaps the best, or at least laziest and most convenient analogy here would be through the film that introduced many people under age 25 or so to their music: Fight Club.

Pre-breakup Pixies were Tyler Durden. Annoying, sure. Emblematic of some destructive and disturbingly conservative tendencies, and probably more than a little adolescent, check and check. Reunified Pixies are Edward Norton—and they're so fucking bad, not just because they're boring and oblivious, but because they actually *believe* in the toxic shit that Durden is feeding them. Indie City sounds like it could be any rock band on any label at any point in the last two decades. To mix my analogies, this is not the band you’re looking for. -Mac

 

LOOKING FORWARD TOs

alt-J - This Is All Yours

It would be difficult to replicate an album as consistently satisfying as their first, 2012's An Awesome Wave, and based off of the first two singles they've released for This Is All Yours, alt-J doesn't seem to be trying. The first, "Hunger Of The Pine", is a slow-burning five minute cresecendo, replete with strings, horns, chanting in odd Gallic dialects, and an even more incongruous Miley Cyrus sample. The second, "Left Hand Free", is an uptempo jaunt, allegedly written in response to a challenge to write a song that would appeal to "American truckers with Good Riddance To Bin Laden stickers!" (the band has since recanted and denied, though the song is far too unconventional and British to please that demographic anyway). alt-J is experimenting and, admirably, straining against the mold of their first album. Hopefully it won't be at the expense of quality. -Zev

 

Beck - Warby Parker Presents Beck Song Reader

In 2012, Beck released Song Reader, a 20-song "album" composed entirely of sheet music. While an admirable attempt to resuscitate interest in the flagging art of sight-reading and a clever foray into the question of how musical interpretation has evolved (or failed to evolve) in the digital age, Beck appears to have realized that if he wants us to hear this music, it will need to be spoonfed to us. Still committed to the concept of having others interpret these songs, Beck has recruited a menagerie of musicians to record and produce individual tracks, including Laura Marling, Jason Isbell, Fun., and Jack Black. Even Norah Jones gets a nod. Sight-reading is still insufferable, and it still suffers. -Zev

 

Kanye West, ???

Like this even needed to be said. Kanye recently played twenty new songs during a DJ set at a private party in London, songs which are rumored to include contributions from largely the same production crowd that worked on Yeezus: Rick Rubin and Q-Tip as executive producers for the whole thing alongside Kanye himself, with contributions from Hudson Mohawke, Evian Christ, Tyler the Creator, and maybe (gasp) Daft Punk.

There've been some unintentionally hilarious comments about the sound of the new album, my favorite of which was "Otis Redding crossed with Mobb Deep," which oh please god make that happen. For all his purported megalomania he certainly has an ear for the direction of pop music and a legion of fans who will, regardless of the quality of the product, declare it the best album of all time. -Mac

 

Meek Mill, Dreams Worth More Than Money

Meek Mill, born Robert Williams, is in jail at the moment. While there were likely other contributing factors, internet speculation has placed the blame mostly on Mr. Mill posting a picture of himself holding a gun on his Instagram account, which is almost definitely a violation of his probation following a gun- & drug-related conviction five years ago.

And perhaps that would be fitting. Mill's online presence recently has been a bizarre mix of inspirational quotes, verses from his own songs, and fuzzy cell phone videos of early-2000s MTV programming, yet his last release, 2012's Dreams & Nightmares, showed him eclipsing the rest of Maybach Music's offerings. This was certainly helped by Rick Ross's precipitous decline in the last half decade following Teflon Don, yet Mill's half-shouted verses and slight hoarseness has begun to feel like the Platonic ideal of the genre. In a landscape dominated by DJ Khaled-style featured rapper overload, Mill is a rare exception: his features are distinctive and confessional without ever stepping too far out of line. Legal troubles notwithstanding, Mill is expected to release his second studio album in September. -Mac

 

Spoon, They Want My Soul

Boy, do I love Spoon. Over seven albums, they’ve proven themselves to be one of the most dependably creative bands in indie rock, confidently strutting across an incredible stylistic range – from barroom bruisers to cut-and-paste studio experiments. If the three songs that have surfaced in 2014 are any indication, They Want My Soul may stand with their best. “Rainy Taxi” combines the barstool grooves of Girls Can Tell with the knotty sonics of Kill the Moonlight, in turns haunted and throbbingly insistent. “Rent I Pay” overflows with swagger, its churning three-guitar attack teasing an explosion that never comes. And “Do You” blows them both out of the water, blending the blue-eyed soul of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and the punchy acoustic bounce of “The Underdog” into a swirling, mesmerizing headspace. August 5th can’t come soon enough. -Kyle