Monday, December 29, 2014

Best Of The Rest Of 14: Synths & Who's New (To Me)

Synthesized But Not Synthetic

Thank god Matt Taibbi is back, because Rolling Stone had the worst Best Albums of the Year list of, well, the year. U2, Bruce Springsteen? Only Jan Wenner thought those albums were among the best of 2014. And Taylor Swift at #10? I heard Wenner broke his sacroiliac contorting himself to pander to so many audiences. But one big thing they did get right was putting Thom Yorke's Tomorrow's Modern Boxes on there. Much coverage focused on his method of releasing it as a BitTorrent file, but after you've downloaded the thing (you can also get it from Bandcamp) the music is what matters. And the music is very good, with Yorke's angelic tenor sounding better than ever over slightly off-kilter electronic grooves. Perhaps the only thing keeping TMB off my Top 20 was a slight sense of over-familiarity - as if this is pretty much the album we would expect him to make. But if Yorke is content to tread water, I'm happy to paddle next to him in his rarified ocean.

Fans of Washed Out and M83 should also delve into the soundscapes of Michael Hammond, composer, sound-designer, and singer, released under the name No Lands. An arty and ambient take on synth pop (think Talk Talk's Spirit Of Eden), debut album Negative Space is gorgeous and never ceases to be intriguing

Although some reviews seemed to expect dance music from Patten's Estoile Naiant, it was really a series of electronic collages that kept moving forward without resorting to cheap rhythmic techniques. Mouse On Mars is in his DNA, just as Kraftwerk and Neu are in the DNA of Finland's Siinai. Their album Supermarket was expertly executed and focused on telling the story of a trip to, yes, the supermarket. Delightful and eerie in equal measures. When I think of Siinai, I often think of Seekae (something about the vowels), who released two albums in 2014. The Worry, the more song-based of the two, finds him working out some personal stuff over moody and colorful backgrounds. I like his plainspoken voice better than James Blake's and find him less pretentious overall. Find Seekae.

It could be coincidence or it could be the ripple effect of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's Oscar-winning soundtrack to The Social Network, but either way three of the year's most striking electronic albums were also soundtracks. Mica Levi's score to sci-fi art film Under The Skin creates a chilling mental movie using very simple elements. I wouldn't have expected such bleak rigor from the leader of the irritating Micachu & The Shapes, and I hope her dark night of the soul continues. Cliff Martinez of Drive fame is always worth listening to and kudos to the producers of The Knick for going with his anachronistic electronics instead of a period score. As always, Martinez's work is as slippery as a murderous icicle and just as cold. Son Lux has long been a favorite of mine and a nice end-of-year surprise was having his Original Music From And Inspired By: The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby drop on Spotify. Beautiful stuff, on the more ethereal side for him but with that signature feeling of consequence throughout.

I was on the Twigs tip before she was FKA and eagerly awaited her first full-length. As much as I tried, however, I did not swoon for LP1, finding it static and over-thought, although I did like Video Girl. At first I thought part of the problem with her album was that Alejandro Ghersi, better known as Arca, didn't produce the whole thing. His &&&&& EP was so stunning, as was his work on FKA Twigs early EP2 (not to mention the stuff he did for Kanye West on Yeezus), that I thought he could have saved LP1. But then his own album, Xen, came out and it was just as stiff, seeming to wither on the vine while I listened to it. The one highlight was Thievery, which burst from the general torpor with a beat straight from the dancehall. Hopefully Arca and FKA Twigs will get over themselves and serve up something more tasty in the future - they've both got the talent to do it.

Feels Like The Very First Time

Here's a quick rundown of some folks I heard for the first time in 2014 and who I now consider in the club, so to speak. They weren't all new artists but they were new to me.

I loved Courtney Barnett's draggy sound, witty lyrics, dynamite guitar and pure rock'n'roll attitude, all of which suffused the catchy, heartfelt songs on The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas. After seeing her rip the Bowery Ballroom apart by turning all those qualities up to 11, I know she has an even better record in her. Can't wait.

Eddie Dixon's Bump Key, which I might have found on Bandcamp myself if he hadn't contacted me first, was full of fractured Americana. I've also been having a ball discovering his earlier albums.

I had a wonderful night in Nashville thanks to Wild Ponies and Catherine Ashby and I've really enjoyed reliving it through their recent releases, Things That Used To Shine and Tennessee Tracks. Both records are filled with great music and great potential.

I've long enjoyed Sylvie Simmons writing in Mojo Magazine and elsewhere - who knew that she was hiding her quirky light as a singer-songwriter under a bushel? Her debut album, Sylvie, was beyond charming.

Ian William Craig is an operatically-trained Canadian tenor who knows his way around the studio, seeming to construct the spooky, layered pieces that make up A Turn Of Breath out of scraps of half-remembered sound. Striking stuff.

Richard Dawson has one of the weirdest takes on British folk I've ever heard, torturing an out-of-tune guitar till it bleeds. It's hard to tell if he knows exactly what he's doing on Nothing Important but I can assure you it sounds like nothing else.

Ben Howard's cinematic folk is far more conventional, touching on Coldplay at times, but there is a passionate heart beating underneath it all, and the tracks on his second album, I Forget Where We Were, often build to a real intensity

When Nick Mulvey was a member of the Portico Quartet, they were nominated for a Mercury Prize. He was nominated again for his solo debut, First Mind, which draws on folk, jazz and latin rhythms some of the same nubby-sweater warmth of classic Cat Stevens. His voice is a reassuring burr and he packs a lot of incident, melody and intelligence into his well-arranged songs.

Lastly, TV Girl's French Exit was a fun trip on the lighter side. These guys know their sixties pop and their St. Etienne and put it all together into shiny, smart packages with a faint sense of amusement. Don't let them have all the fun - join in.

What new discoveries did you make this year?

Still to come: Classical & Composed and Out Of The Past.

P.S. Since Thom Yorke hates Spotify as much as Taylor Swift (although perhaps for different reasons (and they're both dead wrong)), he is not represented on the playlist above - don't let that stop you from hearing Tomorrow's Modern Boxes.

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