Sunday, December 07, 2014

Best Of 14 (Part 1)

Just three of the great records included in 11-20.
My turntable, CD player, iPod and Spotify account have all runneth over with fantastic music this year. Hopefully my attempt to quantify the many, many great records I've heard this year into a Top 20 list won't keep me awake at night, but you really should not rest until you've heard all of these. First up, 11-20.

11. Debby Schwartz: A Garden Of My Own - In which my old friend Debby makes good on the promise she showed all those years ago in the Aquanettas. 

12. Brooklyn Rider: American Almanac - Furious energy and a spate of new commissions make this the string quartet album of the year. 

13. Hospitality: Trouble - Hospitality maintain their charm while deepening and darkening their sound with hints of glacial prog and electro.

14. Kate Tempest: Everybody Down - I recently read that a large percentage of those who were shortlisted for the Mercury Prize had sold less than a 1,000 copies of their albums. I certainly hope that Kate Tempest, who was a member of that select group, has found more listeners than that. Of course "sales" are only one measure of success in today's world and, while Tempest was ultimately passed over for the Mercury, it would have been just one more award for this decorated poet, rapper, playwright and novelist. Everybody Down is a kaleidoscopic song cycle about young Londoners set to state of the art, insistently danceable beats by Dan Carey. Tempest makes the most of her slightly raspy voice, finding melodies in the words and inhabiting the different characters with total commitment. New details emerge from the songs at every listen. She will be performing this material for the first time in New York on March 24th, 2015 at Mercury Lounge. Needless to say, I already have my ticket.

15. Angel Olsen: Burn Your Fire For No Witness - Olsen arrives at the forefront of songwriting and singing with this top-flight album.

16. John Luther Adams: Become Ocean - While Adams' gorgeous Pulitzer Prize winning tone poem may not solve climate change, it will certainly change your own personal atmosphere. Smashing recording and performance from Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony.

17. Scott Walker & Sunn O))): Soused - In what may be the most surprising collaboration since Lou Reed met Metallica in Lulu's abbatoir, Soused found Walker joining forces with drone metal avatars Sunn O))) (named for the logo of an American amplifier company) to produce possibly his least obscure work since the last Walker Brothers album. Hearing his magnicent tenor ring out with a line from Oh Shenandoah ("Across the wide Missouri") to start the album is a thrill and when the guitars start wailing and slashing it sounds uncannily right. Lyrically, Walker is up to his usual tricks, exploring the dark side of American popular culture (Brando: "I took it for Wild One. And then for my sin"), the darker side of history's anti-heroes (Herod 2014) and other pitch-black subject matter. There's a strong feeling of theater to the whole enterprise and Soused demands to be listened to in one sitting. It's a real experience and one that seems to have given new purpose to Sunn O))), who have been plowing their singular furrow for nearly 20 years without really getting anywhere. Walker has harnessed them brilliantly, drawing on their mastery of guitars and textures to add weight to his soundscapes. Soused connects like a haymaker - be forewarned.

18. Golden Retriever: Seer - One could almost imagine Scott Walker finding a place for his frightening ruminations in the sounds created by Matt Carlson (modular synth) and Jonathan Sielaff (bass clarinet) as Golden Retriever, except their music is somehow more friendly and inviting than what he typically goes for. They make the most of their limited palette, drawing on sources both ambient (Harold Budd comes to mind) and avant garde (they cite Alvin Lucier) to create long, spacious environments for the listener to explore. There's a lot of color and detail to Golden Retriever's music and the feeling of excited collaboration between Carlson and Sielaff is palpable - and contagious. Don't let Seer fly under your radar. 

19. Jonny Greenwood: Inherent Vice OST - While his Radiohead bandmate Thom Yorke gets more ink for his thoughts on the business of music delivery than for his mostly terrific new album, Greenwood quietly goes about his business. He's already had quite a year, what with the beautiful recording of a symphonic suite from his There Will Be Blood soundtrack released on Deutsche Grammophon (as for Bryce Dessner's music on the same album, the less said the better), and his fluid, concentrated performance of Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint included on that composer's record of Radiohead-inspired music. Now we get his latest soundtrack for a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, Inherent Vice, based on the Thomas Pynchon novel. While I confess to not being a fan of Anderson, he's done a great service by repeatedly giving the reins to Greenwood and enabling him to create some of the most striking movie scores of our era with There Will Be Blood, The Master and now Inherent Vice. 

Greenwood seems to see the sound-world of a movie as a whole, composing his own pieces and also selecting other music as an incredibly apropos supplement. For Norwegian Wood, he sequenced songs by Can in between his symphonic cues, creating a unique tapestry. Inherent Vice also contains a Can song - their classic Vitamin C is the second track, after Greenwood's lush, pensive theme - but there are also songs by Minnie Riperton, Neil Young, surf-rockers The Marketts and soul singer Chuck Jackson, among others, for his most varied soundtrack yet. There's even a curio for Radiohead fans: a version of Spooks, which they've played live but never recorded. As finished here, it features Greenwood alongside two members of the now-defunct Supergrass and a spoken narration. It's terrific but "not really rh," as Greenwood himself Tweeted.

In some of Greenwood's own compositions, there are echoes of Bernard Herrmann's brilliant score for The Ghost And Mrs. Muir, with delicate woodwinds and strings intertwining to explore psychological depths perhaps ignored by the characters. His guitar comes out on Spooks and couple of other tracks that have a band feel, but for the most part he stays away from his day job. The Markett's track is a bit goofy and Kyu Sakamoto's Sukiyaki is kind of irritating, but the Minnie Riperton song is surprisingly great, and the important thing is the totality of the listening experience. From what I've heard, some who excessively laud Anderson are finding Inherent Vice to be quite a bit less an the sum of its parts. Not so for Greenwood's music. I'll probably save the $12 bucks and stick with the movie he's already created in my mind. You shouldn't form any opinions on Greenwood's work based on the movie's trailer, which features exactly none of his contributions. The soundtrack to Inherent Vice will be released on December 15th. 

20. Perfect Pussy: Say Yes To Love - I admit to a secret fascination with online comments related to this young band from Syracuse. Invariably someone will say, with absolute authority: "This just isn't good noise or hardcore," which usually makes me think: "As if they care." While they do draw on those traditions, they have no need to fit into any genre or subculture or follow anybody's rules. Their debut album is short, serrated and sweet, like their performances. A recent concert from Paris shows they can rule a big stage as effectively as a small one.

A burst of blistering noise - that's a good way to end a Top 20, clearing the decks for 2015. However, there's still more 2014 to come: next time I'll go back to the beginning and deliver numbers 1-10. After that will come The Best of the Rest of 14 and Out of the Past (reissues and other older sounds).

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