Here it is folks. All in one go, with a minimal preamble.
Comet Control – Comet Control
I loved the late Quest For Fire, but I have to admit I love Comet Control even more. Guitarists Andrew Moszynski and Chad Ross have corralled some of their more jamtastic inclinations to craft a pop leaning but still fuzz blasting record. This is sing-along, head-nodding psych. Comet Control has a dynamism and drive that Quest For Fire lacked, even in blues explorations like “Fear the Haze”. This self-titled debut also has the best mid-period Pink Floyd song that exalted band never recorded, the lush and beautiful “Hats Off To Life”. The fact that I can’t quite pin down which Pink Floyd record it belongs on only makes it more appealing. It’s sometimes reminiscent of other records, even their prior work, but never feels anything less than it’s own special beast. In the year man lands a craft on a comet, it’s only fitting that from the very first listen Comet Control was like a rocket to my heart.
Pallbearer – Foundations of Burden
Some records aren’t rocket ships, but heavy blankets; nothing this year was enveloping and comforting in the darkest, coldest times of the soul than Foundations of Burden. The huge leap from their strong debut Sorrow and Extinction to this album is palpable from the first notes. Producer Billy Anderson helped them shape their tone and attack, for where once they merely pummeled they now can seduce. It’s a beautiful sounding record, heavy yet delicate, and if you don’t like how Billy captures drums I don’t know what to tell you. Full, resonant and snappy, they add proper heft yet cut through the swirling mix of dual guitars and bass like gusts of wind through smoke. It’s also one of the first metal records I can remember that recalls both The Cure’s Disintegration and Robin Trower’s Bridge of Sighs, often at the very same time. I don’t think I’ve gone a week without playing it since it’s release.
Watter – This World
Watter is a post-rock super group of sorts, featuring Britt Walford of Slint, Tyler Trotter of Strike City, and Zak Riles from Grails. Thankfully, This World is its own particular thing, and what that is I struggle to put a finger on. I’m incredibly particular about my post-rock, particularly this deep into whatever cinematic hole the genre fell in years ago. That said, I was not two minutes into album opener “Rustic Fog” before I went to the Temporary Residence website and pre-ordered it. That track, whose dubbed-out take on “Eminence Front” turns it into the best Tinariwen track in years, is near the top of the list of my favorite songs of 2014. And yet, I’m not sure it’s the best song on the album. That could be “Small Business”, where Tony Levin of King Crimson joins on bass to anchor a slow rising tide of sounds; or maybe the title track, where pianist Rachel Grimes’ and Zak Riles alternate leading and anchoring a dancing, swirling, ephemeral jig. It’s a record I play as dawn breaks and I’ve been up through the night, something I experience less and less each year but which never fails to make me feel alive.
Generation of Vipers – Coffin Wisdom
Generation of Vipers weren’t on my radar before this past summer’s Gilead Fest. I had somehow missed their rhythm-driven sludgy noise rock, even though it was tailor made for my sensibilities. But after their incredible live set I bought a copy of their last record, Howl and Filth, which ended up being one of my most played records in August and September. I took a break from it when I heard their new album would be released in late October, and I’m glad I did. For as good as Howl and Filth is, Coffin Wisdom surpasses it in every measure. The songwriting is stronger, the playing tighter, and the recording is downright visceral. Rarely does a band with such an overwhelming live presence capture even a scintilla of it in the studio, but Coffin Wisdom hits me like their live show; right in the gut and rolling down to my feet. As I said, this is rhythm-driven in a way few heavy records are, and it makes me want to move around much more than stand still and headbang. Jump around, get an old-school circle pit going, I don’t care, just move. Even typing as I listen I find my legs moving to the churning.
YOB – Clearing the Path to Ascend
A lot of my favorite music this year has been soul-bearing and confessional. Actually, a lot of my favorite music of all-time fits that description. But what separates the Pallbearer and YOB records from the mopey pack is that the music matches the lyrics and conveys the mood as well as – if not better than – the words themselves. The lack of distance or ironic detachment from the pain and the process of recovery is one of its greatest strengths. Without parsing, the emotion is palpable. With closer listening, it’s gut-wrenching. But despite its harrowing nature, no record this year gave me more hope than Clearing the Path to Ascend. As the title implies, this entire album is about moving through the obstacles to reach a better place. It’s a journey, and from the opening of “In Our Blood” to career highlight and closer “Marrow”, the album brings clarity to the listener. And not just a clarity of thought or vision; this is also YOB at a new peak of songwriting and recording. While I wish the drums had the Billy Anderson punch of their last few records, the vocal and guitar work of Mike Scheidt has never been stronger.
Judas Priest – Redeemer of Souls
I praised this record to high heavens at PopMatters, and I stand firmly by what I wrote. It’s the best Judas Priest record since either Screaming for Vengeance or Defenders of the Faith, depending on your inclination (I like the former much more than the latter). It’s also their most consistent record since Killing Machine/Hellbent for Leather, though if they purged about 15-20 minutes of solid if unspectacular tracks it would be even better. Also, “Sword of Damocles” is my favorite metal song of 2014. Beware of the jester that sings.
Lamb – Backspace Unwind
Only a few of my friends greeted Lamb’s reformation a few years ago with the glee and celebration it deserved. 5 was one of my favorite records of 2011, but as good as it was Backspace Unwind makes it look like a tentative album. From opening track “In Binary”, this record has a mission, and that is to claim Lamb’s place in the electronic pop stratosphere. Regardless of whether the Lamb you liked was the drum ’n’ bass inspired pop of the debut or the more subdued electronica of What Sound, Backspace Unwind has something to latch on to. The balance between the Andy Barlow and Lou Rhodes has never been more precisely calibrated; neither overshadows the other, and neither is cast in a supporting role. The title track is a perfect example. The two work in concert, with Rhodes’ phrasing reinforcing the beats, and Barlow’s electronics lifting her melody higher and higher. It’s what always set them apart for me, and to have them in this fine form warms my heart.
Ex Hex – Rips
No one was happier than I when Wild Flag called it a day. I adore May Timony’s work, whether with Helium, Autoclave, or solo, but my antipathy toward Sleater-Kinney made that “super group” a non-starter. However, if it’s what Timony needed for Ex Hex to come to being than it was more than worth it. Rips is such an apt name for this album, for it does so from start to finish. Marrying the simple propulsion of Road to Ruin-era Ramones with the new wave rock sensibilities of The Cars Candy-O or Cheap Trick’s Dream Police, Ex Hex’s debut could have been the 1979 to Taylor Swift’s 1989. But Rips is more appropriate, for as much as it is built on those rocking new wave sounds, it has its own thing, too. It can only be from our current era of recycling and reuse, for the context is current, the sound updated in ways I hear but can’t explain. And to be honest, I don’t care to figure out why, because I’m enjoying singing along and bouncing around the room far too much to give a shit.
Primordial – Where Greater Men Have Fallen
I’ve had less time with this album than anything else on my list, but when an album makes a first impression like this one I can’t help but take note. I’m a long time fan of the band, and have been an early enthusiast for everything they’ve done in the past decade or so. Sometimes that initial enthusiasm wears off; a few years back, I praised Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand to the heavens but I haven’t played it in some time. In retrospect, I know why I don’t pull that record out these days; the balance is off between vocalist Alan Averill and the rest of the band. Here, the balance is restored. While Averill is still front and center, the guitars have presence and properly stonking riffs, and the drums pound. I keep mentioning drums in metal blurb after blurb, but shitty drum sounds plague the genre. I swear bands want to marry classic black metal cardboard drums with 80s gated bullshit into the most unlistenable beats ever created. All that said, Where Greater Men Have Fallen finds a balance between all the elements that harkens back to The Gathering Wilderness and To The Nameless Dead. Averill has only grown as a vocalist in that time, and while some may miss the shrieks and howls I’m not one of them. Give me the emotional heft of strong clean singing any day.
Black Bombaim – Far Out
Portugal’s answer to Earthless have been on an amazing roll, and barely anyone has even noticed. Their latest record, Far Out, is two side long songs, each a jam with an outside improviser. “Africa II” pairs the trio with free jazz saxophonist Rodrigo Amado, and “Arabia” finds them jamming with modular synthesist Luis Fernandes. On “Africa II”, the band finds a theme and groove, exploring, deconstructing and reconstructing before Amado joins in to lead them into further explorations. “Arabia” follows a similar trajectory, though instead of a dive into free jazz and north African rhythms it’s a rocket into space. Fernandes’ washes, bleeps and noises bring out their inner Hawkwind, with Tojo’s anchoring bass a pulse for all to swirl and fly about. I’ve liked everything Black Bombaim has done since I first heard Saturdays and Space Travels in 2010, but Far Out is their best release thus far, and proves they should be considered some of the finest improvisors and collaborators on the planet.
Earth – Primitive and Deadly
Riff worship. If there’s an American church, Earth built it. If there’s a pastor, it’s Dylan Carlson. Built on the back of “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)”, Primitive and Deadly is the synthesis of the Americana explorations of the band since their reformation in 2000 with the heaviness of the earlier albums. It’s a welcome change, for it seemed the last two records, Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I & II, were a stylistic dead-end. Re-embracing the heavy has given Earth a new lease on life, to the point they even try out some vocals from guests Mark Lanegan and Rabia Shaheen Qazi. While Lanegan may be the bigger name, it’s Qazi who looms largest on the album. “From the Zodiacal Light” is the centerpiece, a dirge that earns all 11 1/2 minutes of its running time. Oddly, the second best cut is a vinyl only track, the slow bludgeon of “Badger’s Bane”. Apparently the band thinks highly of this song too, for they played it on nearly every stop of their North American tour. Having caught them on their stop here in Dallas, I have to say that, as much as I love them, their 90 minute set is too long. For 20 minutes they were the best band I’d ever seen, at 30 minutes I loved them, at 40 I’d gotten what I needed and by an hour I was picking the performance apart. By the time they were done, I was thinking buying the record and a shirt before the set was a big mistake. As time has passed, I love the shirt (I’m wearing it as I type) and I love the record. Next time I’ll just leave when I’ve had my fill.
Giant Squid – Minoans
I passed on reviewing this record because I didn’t know how to talk about it. Unsurprisingly, extra time with it hasn’t changed my initial thoughts. It’s an incredibly beautiful and engaging record, filled with left turns and yet, on closer listen, they’re unsurprising ones, in fact dictated by the compositions themselves. It’s metal, in that it’s heavy and the distorted guitars fit in no other lineage, but it’s not metal in intent or purpose. It’s progressive rock, complete with gorgeous haunting strings and a concept so nerdy I can’t help but love it. It’s a record tailor made for all of my personal loves, from Greek history, to metal, to violins – oh how I love violins – and yet I can’t do it any justice. My friend Dan did a great job at Last Rites, so check that out while I blather about how it’s my most played record of the last few months and yet all I can do is touch on the mere edges of what it does and how it works. I can’t even describe it with any justice, for the songs and sounds vary internally and from one another with such variety that nothing captures it. It’s a record that people will either love and obsess over, or quickly put aside for other things. I can’t imagine anyone passively liking this, or thinking it’s merely okay. Me? I’m squarely going to drown with the Minoans.
Neneh Cherry – Blank Project
Another one I reviewed for PopMatters. I don’t play it as much as I expected, but every time I do I enjoy it just as much as I did when I was living with it for weeks prior to the review. It’s a subtle record that rewards close listening, so don’t be afraid to sit in the dark with the headphones on and sink into its close, personal sound. Hear her breathe, sync to her idiosyncratic rhythm, and enjoy one of the most organic electronic records I’ve ever heard.
Asphalt Orchestra – Asphalt Orchestra Plays Pixies: Surfer Rosa
When I first heard mention of what was essentially a marching band covering the entirety of Pixies’ Surfer Rosa I raised a quizzical eyebrow. I’m not against covers, even full cover albums, but I wasn’t sure there was enough meat in the original compositions to feed even a small marching band arrangement. Boy was I wrong. What could have been mere novelty instead turned out to be something that made me rehear and reevaluate a record I’ve lived with for 25 years. These arrangements, created by several different members of the Asphalt Orchestra, shine a light on nuance, color, and subtle phrasing inherent in the compositions that I had ignored in favor of hooks and singing along. I still find myself singing to these versions – it’s hard not to with songs that might as well be written in my DNA by now – but when I stop and listen, and I hear how they’re exploring the interplay, the melodies, the harmonic work, the counters, the buttressing and stripping away that was there all along, I’m utterly enthralled. It makes me want to learn more about theory and composition. A good goal for 2015.
For a better review from someone that knows what they’re talking about, check out Caryn Havlik’s piece for New Sounds. And all thanks to Caryn, whose repeated championing of the work got me to check it out in the first place.
The Skull – For Those Which Are Asleep
I freely admit to having written off Trouble and the artists involved a long time ago. 30 years removed from their early peak, and nearly 20 years removed from their last decent record, I approached The Skull album with both hesitation and trepidation. But I had heard rumors that vocalist Eric Wagner was rejuvenated by this project. The rumors were true. The Skull’s debut is better than any Trouble album since the one which gave this new band their name. Yes, it touches on the template of classic doom that Wagner and drummer Oly Olson helped create all those years ago. How could it not? But there is more to the sound than just Psalm 9 revised or The Skull redux. It’s still doom as hell, but there is more to it. For example, check out “The Door”, which is heavy like late 60s heavy blues, complete with almost stereotypical electric organ. But it doesn’t sound dated. As with Chris Goss’ band Masters of Reality, the infusion of classic hard rock and proto-metal only serves to freshen their sound. Likewise, “Till The Sun Turns Black” is almost desert doom, downtuned but dry, a shuffling near boogie that sounds bright and alive. Overall, it’s the brightness that shines through which makes this more than just another trad doom excursion. There is a light, and a lightness, that suffuses the entire album. Looking forward to what comes next for The Skull.
Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
I’m a country music snob. I’m not a fan of most of the radio friendly stuff, just as I’m not a fan of radio rock or pop or r&b. But I have great love for a lot of classic country, especially the stuff that got the outlaw tag in the 70s – Willie and Waylon, Johnny and Kris, etc. But I also like a lot of the Nashville countrypolitan stuff that was kicking around in the late 60s and early 70s. Strings, horn sections, gratuitous pedal steel all over the place; these are all things that make me happy. So when Sturgill Simpson comes along with an outlaw vibe but a bunch of entirely superfluous production touches I’m in hog heaven. I’m not in love with how he tends to slur and undersell the ends of his lines, like he’s too tentative to let go. But with songs I like this much I don’t care. “Life of Sin” can be mumblecorn and I don’t give one shit, let alone two. And that cover of 80s cheese “The Promise”? Gives me goosebumps, even after 50 listens.
Tweak Bird – Any Ol’ Way
I covered this one for Last Rites, and in retrospect I undersold it a bit. Like all of their work, there is an immediacy that makes it easy to grasp, but there is a lot of subtle playing and craft that underlies that general stoner vibe. I also got the chance to see them after I wrote that piece, and live the Bird brothers are something else. It’s hard to believe it’s just the two of them, but with some effects and that weird familial telepathy they pull it off. As is often the case, getting a chance to see a band play material gives me insight into how it works and what I’m hearing. In this case, it made me like the record all the more, for I better understood how the compositions work. It’s a little thing, but with Tweak Bird, it made a difference.
Kikagaku Moyo – Mammatus Clouds
I’d never heard of Kikagaku Moyo before I saw them on the Austin Psych Fest lineup. And to be honest, with so many bands I was dying to see, I didn’t take the time to listen to them beforehand. However, it just so happened that I wandered over to the amphitheater shortly before their set and decided to check out the first song. I was dumbstruck. These Japanese kids seemed to go from tuning to triumph in ten seconds flat. I was immediately a fan. As it turned out, I caught them squarely between two releases, Mammatus Clouds and Forest of Lost Children. Both are highly recommended. But it’s “Pond”, the lengthy opening track on Mammatus Clouds, that nest captures the experience of seeing them. A live track recorded at Ikebukuro Chop on January 25th of this year, “Pond” is an exploration on a theme, with obvious chunks of improvisation and a seat-of-your-pants “where the hell are they going?” vibe. For me, it’s a band spreading their wings and hoping for flight, and, when it’s achieved, reveling like they should. It’s what they did that day in Austin, losing themselves in the moment for all to share. It’s why I love this kind of psychedelic rock. It takes me with them.
The Notwist – Close to the Glass
Since putting out my favorite album of the 21st century thus far, The Notwist seemed to have fallen off the critical radar. Sure, they still get reviewed, but despite a couple of quality records since Neon Golden they seem to have moved outside the zeitgeist. In all honesty, the lack of interest seems to have done them a world of good. It’s kept them from being measured against their past, and allowed them to follow their muse ( i imagine a blinking cursor, communicating in a Morse-like code only Martin Gretchmann can interpret). I remember reading in a press release that Gretchmann was manipulating the band’s performance before it went to the mixing board, and the result of that Eno-esque role as human synthesist is a singular work, even in their incredibly varied catalog. From skewed pop to pure icey soundscape, Close to the Glass is the album that has had the most to unpack for me in 2014. Released in February, the months and months of repeated listening in different ways – headphones, the record blasting on the stereo, driving in the car, upstairs when I’m down, etc. – has given me entirely different impressions of the album. Listening to the MP3s on headphones, it’s cold but intimate. Split over three sides of vinyl, it seems warmer somehow, and the track splits (side A is tracks 1-4, side B 5-10, side C tracks 11 & 12) change how it’s absorbed. “Casino” gains weight as the open of side B; the nearly 9-minute electronic excursion “Lineri” no longer feels like an anchor, but instead gains a lightness that more befits it’s airy bounciness. I don’t know where this will end up years from now. Maybe it will be my favorite record of the second decade of the century, maybe it will drop far beneath consideration. I only know I need to keep playing it to figure it all out.
Brownout – Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath
Brownout is a side project of Group Fantasma, an Austin-based latin funk band; Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath is them covering Black Sabbath songs in their own funky style. Much like with the other covers album from Asphalt Orchestra, the new context sheds light on the work Sabbath did in the early 70s. I’ve heard those records hundreds of times, but in this context it’s like hearing them refreshed. If I had one quibble, I wish these were all instrumental. Nothing against their guest vocalists, for they do these songs justice, but so much is going on with the horns and percussion that they’re almost superfluous. When they’re not present, for example on the song “Black Sabbath”, the arrangement precludes a singer. There’s no space nor need. It also totally rips. Catching them live is on my to do list.
Spider Bags – Frozen Letter
I wrote about Spider Bags for PopMatters. As with Tweak Bird, time has only given me greater fondness for the album. What I thought was initially their best album yet has risen in my estimation to one of the best records of the year. And again like Tweak Bird, it was their incendiary near empty room set that has me returning to Frozen Letter again and again the last few weeks. The show they played for seven people on a Wednesday night in Denton, TX was one of the best I’ve seen in ages. What works fine on record lights up like a flash bulb live; for example “Chem Trails” is a catchy as hell garage rock tune, but it was napalm sprayed on that tiny crowd. Listen to this album, but by all that is holy see them live if you can.
Unconscious Collective – Pleistocene Moon
I don’t have words to do this epic double album justice. It’s free jazz, and metal, and progressive rock, and jazz fusion, and punk, and primal scream therapy, and utterly, utterly, amazing. I freely admit to some bias; the rhythm section, bassist Aaron Gonzalez and drummer Stefan Gonzalez, I’m happy to say are my friends. But if you talk to my friends, you’d find I often hold them to higher standards than to random strangers. I know what they’re capable of and I want them to live up to their talents. Needless to say, the Gonzalez brothers and guitarist Gregg Prickett more than met any expectations I had set for the album. It’s a tour de force from start to finish. Their scope is vast, their focus ever shifting, but each track is nailed with laser precision. In a fine year for local music it was the finest.
Menace Ruine – Venus Armata
Their last album, Alight In Ashes, was one of my favorite albums of 2012, so it’s no surprise this is here, too. While Alight in Ashes channeled Nico’s “Janitor of Lunacy” to great effect, Venus Armata expands and refines their Desertshore meets medieval church music sound. I’m glad to see they’ve finally culled what remained of their black metal roots; though touches of noise and modern experimental music suffuse the album, it’s stronger for its lack of any of black metal’s genre conventions. Menace Ruine is in some ways the most difficult and divisive music on this list. But for me, the blend of plainsong, folk music, and strained and broken electronics is an hypnotically visceral and engaging listen.
Robyn Hitchcock – The Man Upstairs
I nearly always overrate the work of my favorite artists, but Robyn Hitchcock’s last record, Love From London, was amongst the worst releases in his long and patchy career. So it’s nice to say The Man Upstairs is not just a “return to form”, but one of the strongest solo albums he’s released in quite some time. A lot of that credit goes to producer Joe Boyd, who got Hitchcock to focus on performance instead of production. By all accounts, this is nearly a live in studio recording, with minimal post-production work. The immediacy shows. The choice to mix five covers with five originals was also a good one, for Hitchcock has always been an underrated interpreter. Here, he finally takes his version of “The Ghost In You” into the studio, and while his range has changed since the classic live recording some 25 years ago, there is additional poignancy to this take. He also reclaims The Door’s “The Crystal Ship” from its cheesy dustbin. But it’s a couple of originals that have stuck in my mind. There’s “Trouble In Your Blood”, where a Dylanesque melody is buttressed by some sublime playing from cellist Jenny Adejayan, that’s one of Hitchcock’s smoothest and prettiest vocal performances in ages. But the highpoint of the record is the stark closer, “Recalling the Truth”. While “Trouble In Your Blood” highlighted Robyn’s ability to sing softly and silkily, “Recalling The Truth” is unvarnished, his voice bare, breathy and near breaking as he climbs high in his range. It’s a song of loss, and it’s stripped down vulnerability fits it like a second skin. The Man Upstairs isn’t Hitchcock’s best album, but it reaffirms his continued strength as a songwriter and an incredibly underrated performer.
Wo Fat – The Conjuring
I first saw Wo Fat perform a few months after moving to Dallas, and I’ve seen them a half dozen times since. While before now they’ve released a handful of decent records, onstage was where the magic of Wo Fat blossomed into full flower. They’re effectively a four-piece band, with the audience the crucial component that brings the other three to life. But on The Conjuring they’ve come incredibly close to bottling that elusive elixir they brew in concert. Which isn’t to say they’re not still better live – the shows last winter where they first debuted some of this material were indescribably good – but this record is a fine testament to their true prowess. Though lumped in with stoner rock, this is really North Texas blues gone hazily psychedelic. This band is mainlining the history of Dallas blues, something I couldn’t quite grasp when I lived in Maine. A lot of that is in the vocal delivery of Kent Stump; while his guitar playing gets top billing, it’s his vocal connection to Texas blues that separates Wo Fat from countless others. Maybe a few decades of performing in the neighborhood Blind Lemon Jefferson made famous means you just soak the pre-electric blues in through your pores. I don’t know. But you get the idea. Enjoy the record, but as with so many bands on my list, see them live if you ever get the chance.
REISSUES AND COMPILATIONS
Here’s 10 of my favorites, in no order and no explanation. I’m fried, folks.
Deep Purple – Made In Japan [Limited Edition Box Set]
Little Feat – Rad Gumbo: the Complete Warner Brothers Years 1971-1990
Unwound – No Age
various artists – Warfaring Strangers: Darkscorch Canticles
various artists – Guruguru Brainwash
Craig Leon – Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music vol. 1: Nommos/Visiting
Captain Beefheart – Sun Zoom Spark
Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Complete Basement Tapes
The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground [45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition]
Bedhead – 1992-1996