Welcome to the second annual Year in Music review courtesy of What Cannon. We’re so glad you could join us. Herein lies the first of five installments covering 50 standout tracks from 2014. Arranged in alphabetical order, this segment extends from the electrically charged Angel Olsen to Dum Dum Girls’ revamped ass-kickery. Click the track names for music videos & stay tuned for Parts 2 through 5. Enjoy.
It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that when you begin your album with a song as colorfully titled as “Unfucktheworld” that devastation lies in wait. Angel Olsen’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness unfurls the tight coils of Half Way Home, swapping her trademark fingerpicked acoustic guitar for a dynamic electric. The change is a revelation as tracks like the sludgy “Forgiven/Forgotten” land with insistence that would have been out of place on her intensely private previous releases. Burn Your Fire finds Olsen willfully stepping out from behind her own mystique. “What’s so wrong with the light?” she sighs on album closer “Windows” and you get the sense she is asking the question of herself. Introspective to a fault, often painfully aloof in performance, Olsen is light years away from being a heart-on-sleeve lyricist and her work is still hedged in on all sides by darkness. But it takes gall to throw one’s shadow down and step into the light as she’s done here. By all accounts, Burn Your Fire For No Witness is not only a musical triumph but a personal one as well.
Even if you don’t care for his idiosyncratic approach to electronic music, it was hard not to get caught up in the hype surrounding Aphex Twin’s return. His first formal release in 13 years, Syro expands on Richard D. James’ signature blend of squelchy noise and harmonically complex pop. The album’s dense 65 minutes can feel daunting at times and James makes a number of decisions shrewdly calculated to challenge listeners (putting an 11 minute odyssey in the slot generally reserved for a lead single, for instance). Yet Syro never comes off as misanthropic. Rather, the album is joyfully coy, clever without being grating and infectiously fun as on the bubbly album opener “Minipops 67 (Source Field Mix)”. Long delayed releases can often come with the burden of expectation but Syro effortlessly picks up where the Aphex Twin moniker officially left off. James generously brings us right back into the fold like a long lost friend who, after returning from a timeless voyage, is only concerned with whether there’s any decent beer in the fridge.
The eternally adolescent Black Lips returned this year with another delicious slice of flower punk. It’s fair to say that by 2014 the band has reached a critical point in their popularity. It’s hard to imagine anyone picking up Underneath the Rainbow who isn’t already in love with the band’s delightfully skewed approach to garage rock. A few added bells and whistles aside, each new record fits snugly in with the rest lending Black Lips something resembling a timeless image of perpetual delinquency. Following in the thematic footsteps of “Bad Kids”, “Smiling” is a loving ode to good ol’ fashioned trouble making. As always, there’s a smart ass undercurrent. In this case a fantasy of imprisonment that turns immediately to regret. But most importantly, like so many great garage rock songs before it, “Smiling” can be enjoyed equally from the comfort of a broken-in couch or the center of a beer soaked mosh pit.
Dan Snaith has been on a dance music kick this decade. Beginning with 2010’s Swim and its loping, analog grooves, moving onward to his Daphni side project and finally returning this year with his most mature, restrained and intoxicating record yet, Our Love. These are words that really mean something when applied to Snaith who’s been using his Caribou moniker to follow some of his more complex impulses as a constructor of songs. Less of a dance record than its predecessor, Our Love nevertheless kicks things off boldly with “Can’t Do Without You”. The track begins with a looped sample and a click track, slowly adding textural and harmonic elements before building to a heavenly catharsis of synths and disco rhythms. “Can’t Do Without You” is replete with Snaithian touches both new and old: airy falsetto, romanticism, the sense of watching something bloom. Taking on the notion that consistency is synonymous with conformity, Caribou has traced a diverse musical arc. Dropping in at any particular point you get the sense of an artist operating at an apex of their talents yet having only just begun to scratch the surface of all they’re capable of. In this regard, Caribou will continue to clock musical miles long after many artists have petered out.
Considering frontman Dylan Baldi’s paralyzing lyrical honesty, it wouldn’t be out of place to characterize any Cloud Nothings album as self-conscious. Yet, after the enormous success of Attack on Memory two years ago, the follow-up, Here and Nowhere Else, feels deliberately difficult, a direct challenge to anyone attracted to the band’s perceived accessibility. Cloud Nothings are hardly the first band in history to retaliate against their own success. Here and Nowhere Else is far and away the band’s most musically dense album to date, a 30 minute blast of filthy bass, wild drums and grungy guitars. While there is plenty to be impressed with on a theoretical level, there is little for the ears to grab on to. “I’m Not Part of Me” reaches for the heights of “Wasted Days”, an impressive feat in its own right, and makes a good case for the band’s foremost strength: their thunderous live sound. Still, it marks the only entry point for anyone who bought this album expecting the pop-inclined hardcore of their previous releases. Change is good, inevitable even, and ought to be celebrated but comes at a cost for those who become attached to a particular phase of a band’s evolution.
Remember last year when the indie music elite and Top 40 enthusiasts alike were united in their shared passion for Lorde, Daft Punk, and Beyonce, each side feeling they could claim those artists as their own? Well that was last year. While 2014 proved to be a good a year for the Ariana Grandes and Charli XCXs of the world, there wasn’t necessarily a lot of crossover potential. During this dearth of worthwhile commercial music, Canadian pop savants Chromeo eagerly stepped in to fill the void. The duo’s latest album, White Women, is noteworthy not only for its ability to pull off that title but for the tight funk underlying its globe-trotting, game-talking dancefloor pop. As songwriters, Chromeo can be counted on for their strong collaborative instincts. In addition to appearances from Ezra Koenig and Solange, Chaz Bundick’s Toro y Moi offers a sobering contrast to Chromeo’s id-in-overdrive party anthem “Come Alive”. “You’re working double just to have a life,” Bundick claims prophetically, “I like to think that it’s just a phase.” Chromeo weave Bundick’s strengths into the fabric of “Come Alive” so as to avoid a situation where the featured artist usurps the guys doing the heavy lifting (ever heard anyone attribute “Get Lucky” to Pharrell?). Pop music constantly runs the risk of being inconsequential and Chromeo avoids becoming empty-calorie radio filler by making choices that are simultaneously clever audience bait and genuine reflections of their talents as musicians.
I have a theory that geography suggests the shape and character of one’s emotional life. This idea can be applied finely and broadly. For instance, there is something pure and unadulterated about EMA’s Past Life Martyred Saints that evokes the crippling spaciousness of South Dakota. Then there’s the desperate ennui of all those California hardcore bands in the 80s rebelling against Ronald Reagan, their parents, corporate culture and pretty much everything else. Somewhere in between there’s Cymbals Eat Guitars. The Jersey band captures a great deal of that captivating American wasteland, a region as famous for inspiring The Sopranos as it is for birthing Jon Bon Jovi. As compared to their more boorish urban counterparts (Titus Andronicus, Screaming Females) and their urbane suburban peers (Real Estate), Cymbals Eat Guitars hail from downstate, closer in proximity to Springsteen’s lovelorn Atlantic City and the City of Brotherly Love than to NYC or, God forbid, Hoboken. Album opener “Jackson,” finds frontman Joseph D’Argentino on his way toward a different American landmark: Six Flags. The physical sensations of the amusement park mirror the emotional ones mapped across LOSE’s stellar 45 minutes. There’s a sense of fatalism in “Jackson”, an ominous precursor for the tough life lessons found throughout the album. “There’s nothing to do when it’s a foregone conclusion, a pool overflowing,” D’Argentino hollers before launching into a straight up jaw-dropping classic rock guitar solo. While so many bands invert and suspend the characteristics of rock’n’roll, often to captivating ends, Cymbals Eat Guitars continue in the the well-defined Jersey legacy of mixing tradition with experimentation, knowing when to kick out the jams and when to freak the fuck out.
Of all the artists you might have expected to release deeply personal and highly reflective work in reaction to the tragic second half of 2014, D’Angelo was probably not one of them. It’s true: believers everywhere had been preaching his return for over a decade, pointing toward snippets of leaked tracks and insider rumblings as proof of his resurrection. Reading about the journey D’Angelo went on from the height of his stardom in 2001 to the release of Black Messiah at the end of this past year, you begin to realize that it’s an honest-to-God miracle that the album ever saw the light of day. And not for the reasons that typify legendarily delayed albums: the one person holding back the album’s release was the same one that brought it all into existence. “Perfectionist” doesn’t do D’Angelo justice: it is at once too soft and too stern. The album is easily the most complex record to crack the Billboard 200 this year and a track like “Charade” captures the progressive approach to songwriting achievable only with this level of craft. But Kid A this ain’t. Black Messiah bleeds soul and oozes passion out of its sultry analog pores. “All we wanted was a chance to talk/’stead we’ve only got outlined in chalk” is a PR-ready lyric if there ever was one and “Charade” perhaps best represents D’Angelo’s mission with Black Messiah: to truly communicate the struggle. Not just talk about it but cut through the clatter and give people something they can hear in their hearts. In this sense D’Angelo is a perfectionist in the same way Terrence Malick is: rigorously human, profoundly expressive and patient to a fault.
The respective excesses of Blur and Gorillaz, innumerable side projects and left-field theatrical experiments have kept Damon Albarn busy for the first 20 years of his career. This year things slowed down enough for him to squeeze in the recording of Everyday Robots, his first album under his own name. This move is especially significant for Albarn whose work with Jamie Hewlett on the first Gorillaz album pioneered the act of image creation and maintenance for musicians in the formative years of the Internet age. By comparison to the rest of his discography, Everyday Robots is an informal affair though orchestrated with subtle craftsmanship. “Mr. Tembo” begins with little more than a rollicking ukulele accompanying Albarn’s unmistakable tenor though it eventually expands into a full blown spiritual in honor of a tiny Tanzanian elephant. In many way the song serves as an excellent metaphor for Everyday Robots: deceptively simple, highly personal and, above all, delightfully relatable.
Dum Dum Girls have a long history of covering frontwoman Dee Dee Penny’s melancholy lyricism with gallons of sun soaked riffs. That sheen started to wear away a few years ago with the still-devastating “Coming Down”, a song that marked a turning point in the band’s sound and image. After a relatively quiet two years (a lifetime for such a prolific band), Dum Dum Girls reemerged like the quiet, bookish girl who shows up to the first day of high school sporting leather pants and blood red lipstick. The band’s third full length, Too True, doesn’t go completely goth but it definitely mines a specific musical time period for the proper mix of delicate synths, hollow drums and spidery guitars. “Lost Boys and Girls Club” is a slow burner anthem dedicated to standing still. If that seems at odds with Dum Dum Girls discography take it as a good sign even if the song itself is tinged with uncertainty. Dee Dee has fought her way out of an emotional tailspin and “Lost Boys and Girls Club” arrives triumphantly. It is an undersold narrative: an artist not defined by her suffering but by the act of overcoming it. Too True is as rewarding musically as it is personally for anyone who’s spent the last few years cheering for the beleaguered Dee Dee and her rough and ready cohorts.