The same theme that I so often repeat plagued me again in 2014: once again, without regularly listening to streams of new releases online, and with an ever increasing amount of my new listening coming form the library (so it’s only new to me). But this pattern was made even worst by my (re) discovery of podcasts, Serial being only the most famous. So I feel like, ye again, for seemingly the nth year in a row, this list will need to fleshed out in future years, when I finally make it around to listening to whatever it was I was supposed to have grabbed up this year. (Things I would have liked to get my hands on: the new Secret Chiefs Three, maybe the new TV on the Radio, etc.)
So, here are the 2014 music new releases I actually managed to get around to listening to:
1. tetema: Geocidal (8/10)
Mike Patton has long been one of my favourite rock musicians. And I think he has also made some objectively great music; at least six albums he has been involved with I would put on my “core” list of important music a neophyte should listen to. (For your reference, those albums are, in chronological order: Angel Dust, King for a Day…Fool for a Lifetime, Disco Volante, California, The Director’s Cut, and Anonymous.)
2. Tinariwen: Emmaar (8/10)
I have come pretty late to the whole tishoumaren / “Saharan Soul” thing and so there’s a part of me that stupidly worries I’m overrating this; I mean, they’ve been releasing music here for over a decade, this can’t be that novel, right? But I will try to turn my brain off for a few moments:
This is fantastic stuff: pretty much just blues – very little soul, despite the popular nickname – mixed with what I assume is traditional Malian music (Tuareg music). I have no idea what they are saying but it doesn’t matter as the whole thing is entrancing; I could listen to this all day and not regret it for a second, though I might zone out into some kind of trance while I did that. The playing is excellent and the concept makes me rethink the blues, at least a little.
I am better off for having heard it and I sort of wish I hadn’t taken my sweet time in checking out this fascinating fusion.
3. Parquet Courts: Sunbathing Animal (8/10)
I have a problem with most if not all 21st century indie rock: I can’t help but hear all the bands that band likes. If I don’t like those bands, I don’t like the indie rock band, obviously. But even if I like the influences, I usually have a lot of trouble getting over the game we can all play where he say “track 1 sounds like…, track 2 sounds like…” etc.
4. Thurston Moore: The Best Day (8/10)
I can’t say I’m familiar with Moore’s solo work up until this point (and I had no idea he was so prolific) and I am hardly the biggest Sonic Youth fan, as I only know three of their albums well. Haven’t listened to anything they put out since the late ’80s.
Without that context, this album feels to me like some kind of marriage between Sonic Youth, Television and some singer-songwriter I can’t name off the top of my head. I am not really a fan of Moore’s lyrics, and I kind of wish his voice wasn’t so prominently mixed (compared to one of the guitars, say), but the background music is so compelling that I don’t really care very much about the lyrics. Moore and his band manage to take sounds (and, obviously, tunings) that should not be in conventional rock music and make the whole thing sound like conventional rock music.
Now I know that’s sort of what Sonic Youth were about (after a point) but it still impresses me decades on. This is a shockingly catchy album, given how given how willfully ignorant it is of conventional tonality.
I like it.
5. Robert Ellis: Lights from the Chemical Plant (8/10)
Ellis’ traditional country sound which is, on its own, often too revivalist is saved by his excellent song-writing. Ellis’ songs are relatively simple and he doesn’t rely on any kind of modernist, post-Dylan lyrical inventiveness, but maybe that’s part of the appeal. Ellis writes his lyrics and music in the traditional country ideal, and the results are rather spectacular.
The fact that he and the band occasionally stretch out – to remind us of what decade we might be in – is only gravy; these brief interludes remind us that this is a modern band playing very traditional music. And they add contrast to what is otherwise a perhaps too-traditional record.
But, as I said, Ellis mostly nails his lyrics, and this really helps digest the overly traditional feel of the record. And the however brief jams keep it from being totally revivalist.
6. Scott Walker, Sunn O))): Soused (7/10)
This should be a match made in heaven. (Or a match made in hell. Or the ether. Or nothingness… You get the idea.)
I feel like Walker’s recent song-writing and his aesthetic should have matched utterly perfectly with Sunn O))), a band that I more appreciate than like. One of the things missing from Sunn O))), in my mind, is songs. And Walker can certainly write songs.
But the problem is that it sort of feels stitched together. What I thought would mesh doesn’t actually mesh. It’s almost as if Walker’s sound sits atop (or in front of) Sunn O)))’s, and the results are a little disappointing. Walker has once again created some stirring imagery, but the musical backing feels considerably less crazy than the last two albums. It just sounds like Sunn O))) does their thing, regardless.
I got to temper my expectations next time.
7. Daniel Lanois: Flesh and Machine (7/10)
I have never been particularly interested in Lanois’ work. Rightly or wrongly, I have always thought of Eno as the more interesting of U2’s co-producers. I have only ever once gave Lanois the time of day previously, and I didn’t enjoy it. (Don’t remember which record – it was pretty singer-songwriter oriented – but I clearly didn’t listen to much of it, as I never wrote a review.)
So this record is a bit of a surprise for me. Like a far rockier early Eno, Lanois seems to have found a (mostly) happy middle ground between ambient and various forms of rock music (which we might call post-rock). I am particularly taken by the hard-charging nature of the initial tracks, though they get significantly more mellow as the album runs its course. This is fairly unique, as far as my ears are concerned, and it mostly works, though I feel like the album could have been sequenced better.
8. Tord Gustavsen Quartet: Extended Circle (7/10)
Gustavsen does more of the same Evans-Jarrett thing here, though at times it feels as if he’s expanding his palette, which is always a good thing. The problem for me, which was also almost a problem on the ensemble album, is that I find this sax player to be about as ECM cliché as it gets. I have found that I like the trio version of this band better, even though as a quartet / quintet they seem to be be expanding their sound.
So this is pleasant, and it’s nice to hear Gustavsen walking some kind of line between obvious and odd, but it’s just not compelling enough. And I really don’t enjoy most of the sax parts.
9. Beck: Morning Phase (7/10)
I have deja vu… Read the review.
10. John Hiatt: Terms of My Surrender (7/10)
Hiatt appears to be going deeper into the roots this time. The patterns are more familiar, and the sound is gruffer, for lack of a better term.
It’s probably my favourite record of his I’ve heard so far. It doesn’t have any songs I intensely dislike – though I cannot make up my mind about “Old People” – and though it often feels like he is relying on traditions a little too much, it actually feels a little more “lived in” this time.
I feel like Fred Eaglesmith is all over this record. And though I guess that would imply Hiatt isn’t being unique enough, this is roots rock we are talking about; it’s not exactly the realm of uniqueness.
11. Rabbit Rabbit: Rabbit Rabbit Radio, Vol. 2 – Swallow Me Whole (7/10)
This second collection of a year of “one song a month” is considerably more accessible and poppier than the last set. The songs are hookier, the production cleaner/more contemporary – featuring electronic beats on a lot of the tracks – and everything is less weird. (So much more accessible I told my brother about them.)
There are still a few moments of borderline SGM weirdness, but not many. And while that’s disappointing, at least they’re not repeating themselves, right?
12. The Flaming Lips et al.: With a Little Help From My Fwends (6/10)
I avoided the Lips’ cover of The Dark Side of the Moon like the plague, figuring that was an album that absolutely did not have to be covered and also because I’ve been finding the Lips’ willful weirdness to be increasingly maddening and hard to follow. (I have no idea if I’m going to like anything by them any more – not since a long time ago – they release things in so many different ways, it’s exhausting etc.).
13. Small Town Heroes: Hurray for the Riff Raff (6/10)
This is all very nice. The performances are convincing and cover a fairly wide range of roots genres. But I’ve heard a lot of roots music at this point and for me to really enjoy something like this, it has to grab me in some way. This doesn’t. Even the energetic performances are just okay – there are loads of ensembles that could run circles around these guys. And the ballads are pleasant, but I could listen to other ballads just as easily, and barely remember them as well.
There’s nothing wrong with this record, it’s just not adding anything new to what I know of roots music – especially New Orleans roots music, which this barely touches upon.
14. THUMPERS: Galore (6/10)
“Bedroom” pop, or whatever you want to call it, has sort of run its course, no? (Really I don’t know, I don’t usually listen to it.)
Here are two guys making pop music on their own – with only a little bit of outside help, it seems – and I guess they’ve come up with something reasonably interesting for two guys with this kind of taste in music. Their songs aren’t really super catchy, but I think the appeal of this kind of thing lies more in how they make somewhat catchy – occasionally insanely catchy – music more interesting than the mainstream would. Isn’t that sort of the point of all this? (Sorry, it’s art; I shouldn’t ask about the point.)
But I hear all sorts of things that recall more interesting music – I think it’s the opening of track two that sounds like recent Radiohead – and I can’t help thinking that there are loads of people in the world who make somewhat similar music, but who do so in a much more idiosyncratic – and therefore interesting – way. I can’t help but think about a project Dirty Projectors and how much more interesting (he) they are compared to these guys.
15. The Hold Steady: Teeth Dreams (6/10)
Finn’s characters appear to be getting older. You have admire his ambition, to keep up these stories.
But if his songs aren’t your thing, that means things haven’t improved. And, this record manages to sound less varied than the last two, which was kind of the problem with their earlier music.
A good songwriter (who I don’t like) just pumping out more songs to middle of the road rock music. Nothing to see here.
16. Maya Beiser: Uncovered (6/10)
A wide selection of cover songs done in a way that just isn’t far enough off of Apocalyptica for me to care enough about it. Read the review of Uncovered.
Not ranked: Cuarteto Casals: Die sieben letzen Worte by Joseph Haydn (10/10)
This is supposedly an “instrumental” oratorio. Haydn first wrote it for orchestra (with no vocals!). Then he adapted it for String Quartet. Then he adapted it for Choir (as if it was an actual oratorio). Then he “approved” an adaptation for solo piano, but apparently didn’t write that one himself. This is the String Quartet version, obviously. It is considered the most popular version of the piece, which I guess makes me okay with listening to it over the orchestral original.
Not ranked: Prague Philharmonic Choir, Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, Tomas Netopil: Glagolitic Mass, The Eternal Gospel by Leos Janacek (9/10)
This set collects two of Janacek’s choral works, a mass and a cantata.
The setting for the Glagolitic Mass (i.e. the Mass is in old Slavic) is a great, bombastic thing. This is the original version, which is apparently performed less frequently. I always find masses the most dense of orchestral music and have a hard time digesting them in just three listens, but this thing just pulsates with seemingly radical ideas – certainly radical for church music. It’s among the cooler 20th century masses I’ve heard (though I haven’t heard many).
The Eternal Gospel is a triumphant but modern; it hearkens back to tradition (what I know of it) but at least hints at modern sounds. It’s a good piece, though it’s not the equal of the mass it’s paired with.
This is an excellent disc, highlighting Janacek’s great choral music, which is among his best music, methinks.
Not ranked: Various Artists: Selected Orchestral Works by Augusta Read Thomas (7/10)
I decent introduction, I think. Read the review.
Not ranked: Ian Sabourin Counter Tenor
I was sitting on a bench waiting for Jenn to leave her work when I heard this incredible voice (a counter tenor, it turns out) all around me. I thought it was coming from multiple speakers, it was so powerful. After looking around a bit, I saw a young man singing. What impressed me particularly was how he was using the building to resound his voice. I mean, we were on Bloor street. You’d think the voice would have just disappeared into the rush hour bustle.
Not ranked: DJ Similac Presents JT Cuts: Cut the World
This is some pretty weak stuff. The lyrics are all about picking up chicks (or just getting their numbers!), having sex, drinking with women, the skin colour of women, driving around, making lots of money, and the usual hip hop braggadocio. I really don’t think it adds to any dialogue about anything. And there’s a skit. I have been told that skits are more common on hip hop records (I wouldn’t know, but they’re just about nowhere to be found on rock records), but one of the two actors in the skit is brutal. (The other is believable.) The skit, incidentally, is at a barbershop. I believe JT Cutts is a barber in his day job. And he raps about. So there’s that.