Welcome to the final segment of What Cannon’s 50 standout tracks from 2014. Arranged in alphabetical order, this segment extends from the indefatigable Spoon to the supple, earthen, organic Woods. Click the track names for music videos and follow the links at the bottom of the page for more aural/mind stimulation. Thanks again. Enjoy.
Ask ten people for their favorite track off of Spoon’s 8th studio album, They Want My Soul, and you’re liable to get ten different responses. I’m picking “Inside Out” for a few reasons. First: it was the first the song I heard off the record before its release. Second: I heard the band interviewed on All Songs Considered and Britt Daniels talked about how the track spawned from a desire to imitate vintage Dr. Dre beats. Last and most importantly, “Inside Out” represents the kind of musical left turn Spoon has been making for two decades. Sure, “New York Kiss”, “Do You”, and “Rainy Taxi” are ceiling-smashing pop songs with sustained replay value but there’s just something infinite inside of “Inside Out,” something so worth knowing but harder still to reach. “Inside Out” is warm yet cool. It’s passionate yet vague. It contains the wiley spirit that keeps Spoon among the most important bands in American music and also one of the easiest to enjoy.
When those synth horns wobble up from the ether and are joined by a harpsichord that’s straight out of A Clockwork Orange, you’d be forgiven for mistaking “Severed Crossed Fingers” for one of the more luridly self-deprecating songs in St. Vincent’s catalog. Instead what emerges is raw and forthright, wrought with emotional turbulence. As St. Vincent, Annie Clark has sharpened and honed her vision of songcraft in the 21st century, locating an arty sweet spot between her intellect and her pop sensibilities. Her self-titled fourth album has something for everyone. Booty-shaking echoes of Love This Giant, her collaboration with David Byrne? Check. Guitar riffs nimble enough to make your favorite hair metal icon blush? Oh yes. Heart breaking confessions of undying love? Indeed. Like equally stunning highlights “Psychopath” and “Regret”, “Severed Crossed Fingers” becomes more arresting with each additional listen. Clark herself admits that she held nothing back. “I sang that in one fucking take, cried my eyes out, and the song was done.” Honesty and beauty often coalesce in strange ways. Is there a better example than a pop album that opens with an exploration of a pointillist desert landscapes in the nude and closes with an image of gothic romance worthy of Henry James or Charlotte Bronte? The truth may be ugly but St. Vincent is anything but.
Like so many iconic counter culture icons before him, Sturgill Simpson increases the already-enticing allure of drugs. But does eating mushrooms mean you’ll write a line like “there’s a gateway in our minds that leads somewhere out there, far beyond this plane/where reptile aliens made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain”? Will smoking weed statically increase your likelihood of becoming socially liberal? Will taking acid help you understand Thomas Pynchon? Musicians with drug affiliations often draw a short stick when it comes to people’s perception of their music. Trust me, I was a Phish fan in high school, people can be ruthless. But Sturgill Simpson is more Robert Hunter than Trey Anastasio and far more straight country than either of them, which is curious since as far as I can tell most contemporary country music fans don’t seem to have much interest in anything stronger than Budweiser. “Turtles All The Way Down,” the lead track from the awesomely titled Metamodern Sounds in Country Music perfectly encapsulates Simpson’s mix of humor and philosophy. Little on the record is half baked and Simpson is as charming and inciteful on wax as he is in interviews. With just the right mix of twang and Twain, Sturgill Simpson’s music is as enjoyable as it is unlikely.
Through Silver Mt. Zion and its various incarnations, Efrim Menuck and company keep alive the tradition of grand, bleak experimental music in Montreal. They are in good company on Constellation Records and it’s to the band’s credit that they have largely outlived the shadow of their legendary work as post-rock titans Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Though Silver Mt. Zion works within a similar ethical and aesthetic ideology (political commitment, eclectic instrumentation, a revolving door of band members), their music is largely set apart by the addition of singing. It’s easy to see why Godspeed shied away from using vocals: the voice is an expressive instrument yet lyrics can tie down otherwise ethereal music. For Silver Mt. Zion, the voice proves a powerful accompaniment to their dramatic framework. “What We Loved Was Not Enough” is a song of mourning, the painful cries of loss calling out across a slow, shuffling waltz. Efrin Menuck’s voice has the familiar warble of Win Butler, another Montreal native who knows how to pair a vocal melody with rich instrumentation. The lyrics prophetize the death and rebirth of the world. “All our cities gonna burn/All our bridges gonna snap/All our pennies gonna rot/Lightning roll across the track,” he bemoans. As it moves toward its wrenching climax, “What We Loved Was Not Enough” offers a glimpse of redemption. “So goodnight vain children/Tonight is yours/The lights are yours/If you just asked for more/Than poverty and war/If you just asked for more,” Menuck pleads achingly as a choir of angelic voices quietly intone, “the day’s come when we no longer feel.” What so frequently gets overlooked about these strange, brave Canadians is the hope in the heart of their music. Yet it’s there: beating out, waiting, praying.
Like Paul Simon before her, Merrill Garbus delivers world music to America in the form of deliriously energetic pop music. Her third and best album as tUnE-yArDs, Nikki Nack, is a product of Garbus’ progressive instincts and unpretentious attitude toward all genres of music. As a concept, world music can be tough to grapple with (is America not part of the world? does our musical heritage fall outside the greater traditions of harmony, rhythm and melody?). The label is often assumed to imply a kind of exclusionary, non-Western affiliation that may intimidate potential listeners. Additionally, the genre inspires images of flower child baby boomers in ponchos and tie-dyed long skirts. Either way, this ain’t your aunt’s South American pan flute compilation. Nikki Nack owes as much to Haitian folklore as it does to hip-hop. “Real Thing” is at once an open rebuke of the contradictory messages sent to women about their bodies (“why are you afraid about pants sized 10?” “ugly one, be who you are”) and a defiant rejection of her own newfound celebrity (“they say I’m the real thing/I sound like the real thing”). Along the way, Garbus gets in some solid jabs at her home country’s willful rewriting of history (“I come from the land of slaves/let’s go Redskins, let’s go Braves”). “Real Life” is the sound of one loud, prideful voice sounding out its discontents, painting its pleasures and pains against the broad canvass of cultural tyranny. Garbus is in a peculiar position, at once outside of her culture and yet, as a headline making musician, a defining part of its makeup. And yet she remains undeterred. Nicki Nack is ambitious and yet highly personal, a densely choreographed pop exercise and a pure aural delight.
More than a decade into their career, the amorphous TV on the Radio is finally approaching something like sonic homogeneity. Their sixth LP, Seeds, is often restrained to the point of being static, largely abandoning the Pixies punk of Nine Types of Light’s better moments. Maturity is only a virtue if it serves to balance indulgent impulses: the inner adult that knows better than to eat ice cream for breakfast but who will occasionally go on a braincell obliterating weekend bender. It helps if you think of “Lazerray” this way. Coming on hot and fast out of blown out speakers, the track is the cosmic center of the album’s better half. The lyrics are pure acid babble (“well I heard from the psychic sun/that she could fuse us into one”) but it’s a relief to hear the band really laying into the track with the kinetic energy they’re rightfully famous for. Seeds may be ushering in a new period of contemplative restraint and relatively straightforward songwriting for TV on the Radio but let us never forget that behind the veneer of most every responsible adult there’s a kid who’s strongly considering snorting a pixy stick just to see what happens.
A sun-bright spotlight illuminated the cracks in justifiable use of deadly force this year. Sadly, those most familiar with deadly force experience it on both sides of the law. Vince Staples, a promising MC from Long Beach (and known associate of merry pranksters, Odd Future), knows this paradox all too well and categorizes its effects over the course of his commercial debut, Hell Can Wait. Staples occupies a middle ground between Southern California’s familiar gangsta rap traditions and its current metaphysical preoccupations. You can hear Staples experimenting with these influences all over his album. “Feelin’ The Love” is “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” sans redemption while “Hands Up” is a humid West Coast banger. The latter in particular captures the airless space of L.A., choked by smog and starved by heat. The track demonstrates the slippery slope of simply existing in this state, the participatory nature of gang life essentially compulsory in certain neighborhoods. Yet, Staples’ angst is aimed squarely at the area’s law enforcement and the details of his narrative are all too familiar. “I guess the pigs split wigs for the greater good,” Staples rattles off, his discontent becoming increasingly palpable, “cause I ain’t seen they lock a swine up yet/at most they reassign ’em to prevent protest.” For most of us, the politics of police enforcement is something we glance at on the fringes of our perspective or witness, in modified form, on TV. For those who fail to understand the tipping point between protesting and rioting, “Hands Up” serves as an open letter. After diagramming a whole world of corruption, a system so convoluted it would take more time and resources to dismantle than anyone seems willing to offer, Staples concludes summarily by noting the irony inherent in the constitutional rights of the oppressed, “And they expect respect and non-violence/I refuse the right to be silent.”
The War on Drugs returned this year with the epic Lost In The Dream, a record that further expanded their hazy krautrock-indebted take on Americana. The band’s music manages to be simultaneously urgent and leisurely, propulsive and patient. Lost In The Dream‘s hour run time is ideal for a long drive where the destination is secondary to the scenery. “Red Eyes” perfectly captures the tautness behind the album’s evident effortlessness. For all the words obliquely spared on “Red Eyes”, its finest moments are its instrumental eruptions. The heroic guitar riff of the track’s chorus, its impact redoubled by soaring synths, will send a burst of adrenaline shooting through your veins. You’re liable to gun the gas pedal and feel the wind whipping through your hair even if you’re lounging on your couch in the dead of winter.
Present Tense, the latest from Wild Beasts, is a controlled piece of pristine electronica. It’s a formidable record to approach as its self-serious sophistication is decidedly out of fashion. Furthermore, its airtight cohesion means it doesn’t break down easily, its respective parts less fulfilling individually than when taken as a brilliant whole. It’s an unforeseen and largely unavoidable consequence of artistic rigor and focus. With that in mind, there’s no better to place to begin Present Tense than at the beginning. “Wanderlust” charges forward at the behest of an insistent hemiola, a rhythmic technique rarely found in pop music and much less as a core component of a song’s gravitational pull. Yet as a synthetic chorus rises out of the fog and Hayden Thorpe’s agile croon creeps in, the track’s lack of a definitive center becomes an asset. “Wanderlust” is ostensibly about the desire to buy one’s way into artistic integrity and Thorpe’s contempt for this concept is made apparent in his finely chosen words. “Don’t confuse me with someone who gives a fuck,” he spits, as if responding to an unseen heckler, “funny how that little pound will buy a lot of luck.” As a band, Wild Beasts have had to fight against a sea of indifference or worse, their music tending to skew away from trends. Yet in the process they’ve garnered much acclaim, having navigated the treacherous waters of a life in independent music on their own terms. That is experience you can’t buy and credibility you cannot simply adapt. At this point in their career it is, as Thorpe himself points out, a feeling they’ve come to trust.
I’ve had this vision for more a year now of a person, having never experienced recorded music, sitting down and listening to “Moving to the Left” by Woods. It’s possible this vision extends from the feeling I get every time I listen to this wonderful song. The Brooklyn band seems to embody the traditional hippie ethos of spiritual connection with the world without indulging in sentiment or overt left-leaning politics. Instead, Wood’s music is deeply personal and often idiosyncratic. “Moving to the Left” reflects an astonishment at the rituals and routines of existence on Earth and that fresh-eyed approach to living informs the band’s approach to songwriting. A woozy, alien theremin joins the earthy ensemble of analog instruments, lending the track an otherworldly feel, as if the boys of Woods truly are from elsewhere in the universe and are awestruck by everything that makes us human. There is empathy in “Moving to the Left” that is, above all, sincere. For what it’s worth, Woods make great festival music. Its easy to picture crowds of people united in their shared love of honest, heartfelt music such as this.