Here are the 30 best albums that sound-tracked our year (does not account for closeted Taylor Swift or Behemoth listeners). Thanks for another great year and here’s to 2015! Keep It Neat!
30. Nobody’s Smiling – Common
Review by Alex Hernandez
The Chicago native, known for his ability to blend the smooth rhythms of hip-hop with his conscious lyrics, structured his latest album, cleverly titled Nobody’s Smiling, to capture the mood lingering about the windy city and address the worsening conditions of the streets of Chiraq. His last album, The Dreamer, The Believer, released in 2011, left many of his core fans, (including myself and a few other fans of his that I know personally) disappointed and somewhat confused due to the fact that the Common that we all knew and loved seemed to have disappeared and had been replaced with a new artist that, in a strange fashion, attempted to be someone that he was not and alter his musical voice and tone.
People used to listen to his tracks and say, “Hey! This guy is on to something, he’s rapping about real, tangible things such as the poverty faced by this country and all that goes on behind the scenes in America such as violence and the distribution of drugs like cocaine”.
Many, if not all of the tracks featured on the album possess a somber tone mixed with a bit of a hard-nosed attitude, descriptions one would typically associate with the notoriously rough streets of Chicago. Although this approach was consistent throughout the album, certain songs really highlighted “the struggle” as well as his pride in Chicago. Also, Common thanks NoID and the late J-Dilla (RIP) for their help and support throughout the years and apologizes for his former neglect towards them, a classy move by all means. Needless to say, I really liked this album, and you will too, once you accept it for the bold, raw expression of emotion and gratitude that it is and what kind of musician/lyricist Common is.
29. Lazaretto – Jack White
Review by Jon Birondo
Just like on his last effort, Blunderbuss, White slowly dips his toe into country music and garage rock on this album. A majority of these songs feature lap steel guitars, busy fiddles, distortion buzzes, old-vintage pianos, and even some folky strumming. White then blends them all together, and the much heightened instrumentation really does add up to the scope of the album, making each song as lush and grand as they can be. His most gaudy, yet bold movement on this album comes on “That Black Bat Licorice”, where he sings “She writes letters like a Jack Chick comic, just a bunch of propaganda/ She makes my fingers histrionic, like this [BADASS RIFF] and this [BADASS RIFF]!” It’s exhilarating and it possesses a true rock n’ roll sensibility, because let’s face it: in rock and roll, there’s no mercy when it comes to solos, especially solos that can melt the walls and burn out amps.
And White does just that: although there’s more room to breathe on this album, White still adds more instruments or amps up the volume, violently clashing these elements together, filling the atmosphere with a lot of noise and sound. Yet that’s how we love Jack White right? Sure The White Stripes’ trademark sound, along with everyone’s realization of “HOW COULD TWO PEOPLE MAKE THAT MUCH NOISE?!?” is vital to the world of alternative rock and White’s image itself, but seeing White with a full band is like watching a painter when given more colors and better brushes: you never know your full power and potential until you’re given the right tools.
28. Are We There – Sharon Van Etten
Review by Jon Birondo
Sadness can change us in so many ways, ways that are good or bad. It can ultimately define us, or it can ultimately destroy us. Whatever sadness may mean to you, Sharon Van Etten’s latest record Are We There is an interesting portrayal of love, hope, and sadness, offering different perspectives on sadness, but most of all, of life.. And with her voice, her message is assuring and passionate.
Are We There is a gentle record, but it comes with its surprises. Interesting instrumentation, orchestral swells, and incredibly passionate lyrics bring the emotional intensity of this album to the forefront. Contrary to the album cover, there’s a lot of color and textures on this record, and more gets brought out with each listen.
On the opener, Van Etten sings “I can’t wait/ Til we’re afraid/ Of nothing”, showing that although the future is unclear, taking that first step into the unknown can do even benefit your cause. And that’s where Van Etten succeeds and triumphs, she sees the good and bad outcomes of love, and knows that above anything else, the journey is the destination. Because this journey and narrative sounds far from over. As is life. As is love.
27. Sickening Joy – Flares (Now Called Glasir)
Review by Michael White
Flares is a brand-spanking new post-rock group, fresh out of North Texas. Post-rock can be a derivative genre, but Flares make the extra effort to make something that transcends the usual style.
I felt totally transported to another dimension with this track, as well as other tracks. The space-rock flavors (very reminiscent of Hum) elevate the next track, “Purge.” This is a majestic mammoth of a track, clocking in at over 8 minutes. The riff that intersects this track is undeniably catchy, just like many of the riffs on this project. “Reconcile,” has a well-executed black metal approach reminiscent of many blackened shoegaze bands.
With minimal amount of fluff (superfluous effects, random instrumentation, etc.), Flares have taken us on a beautifully spacious journey.
26. CLPPNG – clipping.
Review by Jon Birondo
Los Angeles trio clipping. are a collaboration between rapper Daveed Diggs and producers Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson. The trio have built a huge name in the underground for themselves, pushing the enigmatic sub genre known as “noise hop” into ambitious directions, with industrial, hard hitting beats and lightning fast flows.
Although aggressive, unique, and alienating in nature, clipping. somehow find ways to craft some of the catchiest rap songs I’ve heard all year (See “Summertime” and “Taking Off”). And yet these songs have some of the weirdest but unique compositions ever. There’s the splashy, blood drench “Body & Blood”, the glitchy snares on “Taking Off” and even the gradual, odd beat of “Story 2″ which starts off with a 3/4 beat but slowly grows to a 7/4 beat.
While industrial hip hop is a hard genre to tread, newcomers should not be wary. This is experimental hip hop that feels chaotic and crazy, but at the same time it feels contained and controlled. clipping. is chock full of ideas and CLPPNG shows it: these songs do more than grab your attention, they invite and for once, it’s incredibly accessible.
25. Trouble – Hospitality
Review by Enrique Berrios
When Brooklyn based indie-pop band Hospitality released their self-titled album in 2011, the band enjoyed moderate success. Hospitality’s unique rhythm, warm acoustic guitar, bright electric guitar, and friendly tone made the band’s first LP 2011’s Hidden Gem and cemented the underrated group as one of my favorite indie bands. Now, after having matured and learned from their past, the band offers bold new flavors in their second full length album Trouble, released on January 28 by Merge Records.
Hospitality takes you back in time to the 70’s with a warm piano and lyrics that focus on ending a relationship with an unfaithful boyfriend. I really enjoyed this song. It helps to send the listener through the album’s progression. It changes the ideas and sounds. Next, Hospitality sunrises with another 80’s inspired song with “Last Words”. The synthesizers, piano, darker lyrics, and simple electric guitar make this Hospitality’s best song yet. The group reaches its lyrical peak in this song with biblical allusion and ideas not typically found in indie-pop music. This peak precedes two more songs that, like “Sullivan,” just don’t fit.
Trouble offers a new look into Hospitality, and it largely succeeds. It’s easy to dismiss the band’s new louder sound, but it’s truly something special.Hospitality can never lose its indie-pop roots. Trouble would reach into the realm of incredible albums, but I still love every song on this LP. The problem was in the placement of these songs. Once Hospitality learns to produce an album that smoothly transitions through its different acts, the band will be able to produce a masterpiece. In the mean time, we’re left with a great offering from a great band.
24. Everyday Robots – Damon Albarn
Review by Will Butler
Softly spoken and humble Damon perches on his stool, his face cast downwards with an expression unidentifiable. The front cover of Damon Albarn’s first official solo record is the first exposure to what Everyday Robots alludes to, it features Damon, alone, contemplating, and us, inhabiting the grey pallet sat by his feet awaiting. Intimate and wholly Damon, Everyday Robots sees the Blur/Gorillaz/Dr.Dee visionary draw from the last two decades of experience seeped into his bones to produce a record as honest and cherished as the man himself.
On occasion Everyday Robots finds itself in familiar terrain where the ever-present grey hue overtakes personality and rare as these moments are they can translate lethargy across the medium like on ‘History of a Cheating Heart’ which caresses more than penetrates the feeling membrane.
Final track and Eno collaboration ‘Heavy Seas the Love’ sheathes steadfast and satisfied like closing the final page of a book. Many folks pin this as a sad affair but I find solace in it, to be able to appreciate the work as a whole not just as a formation of it’s aggregates. As this track draws to a stop we’re left with a slow, solitary applause, one earned and revered by a man that is nothing less than a national treasure.
23. The Unnatural World – Have A Nice Life
Review by Jon Birondo
There comes a point in The Unnatural World where all you feel is sheer terror and paranoia. The chaotic, claustrophobic atmosphere of “Defenestration Song” is sure to frighten any young child, and the cultish chants of the intro song “Guggenheim Wax Museum” is disturbingly haunting. Yet, that’s what makes The Unnatural World so striking and compelling, it’s able to blur the line between music and animalistic tendencies and abrasively deliver solid tune after solid tune, all while retaining some solid, melodic precision and production.
Yet the most chilling moment on the album comes from the intro of “Cropsey”; as Pitchfork reports, it’s “named after Staten Island’s eerie, mad-slasher urban legend, opens with an even more chilling sample: testimony from a young boy named Johnny, an inmate of the notoriously abusive Pennsylvania mental institution Pennhurst that was featured in the 1968 exposé Suffer the Little Children.” And the song echoes its chilling deposition, before donning gothic and industrial tendencies, before closing out with throbbing synths; an aching heart needs some room to move.
With what may there be most chilling album to date, Have A Nice Life have also delivered their most personal, if not, heartfelt one. Each song has a certain feeling to them, and they move, and tremble in ways that only music can. For all of its vacillation, The Unnatural World remains irreparable, never maintaining a solid shape, or genre, to call it home. It’s as if its ghostly wail isn’t a wail that scares, it’s one that beckons to be loved.
22. Turn Blue – The Black Keys
Review by Jon Birondo
Alas, with the latest release from The Black Keys, the band puts forth their most compelling, gripping, and moody record to date. If you’re looking for The Black Keys you’ve come to love, you won’t find them here. The band is still able to pull off stadium-ready tunes, with enough catchy choruses and melodies to entice a crowd, but the band is dealing with different shades of their craft.
The opener “Weight of Love”, is a towering epic that starts off soft, with an acoustic guitar and bells, before swelling into atmospheric, blues rock heaven, with long, elongated solos, reminiscent of David Gilmour, which makes sense considering it sounds a lot like “Breathe”. At almost seven minutes, this is one of the band’s longest tracks, and one of their most compelling. And this track pretty much sums up the album as a whole: less immediate then their past albums, but much more sprawling and draped, each aspect slowly coming into the fold. Now these tracks won’t necessarily start a party, but they sure get the job done.
As I said, you won’t find The Black Keys you’ve come to love here. What was once “black” has know grown into a different shade of color, “blue”. By spiraling into other creative mediums, toying with production, and offering more strengths to the table, The Black Keys find themselves in a new light. With less rock-heavy riffs, and more focus on melody, production, and overall precision, the band creates one of their finest records, not to mention one of the finest records of the year. Auerbach’s croons are as sweet as ever, and Carney’s drumming is steady, yet blatantly, but subtly, wild, as he offers an interesting dynamic to the album. If you’re a fan of The Black Keys at all, you shouldn’t be disappointed; this is a testament to a band at the height of their creative powers.
21. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
Review by Will Butler
Self titled albums speak volumes in terms of content, resemblance and expectations, many bands opting for their debut with ephemeral hopes of it being their signature stamp on history whilst others sit on it, waiting for their brand to progress and their artistry to cultivate into something more substantial and grounded. Annie Clark has proven herself album after album that she is a pioneer of fluctuation in stylistic terms, technical ability and the progression as an artist she illustrates through her music. As not to say that St.Vincent has no core sound or refined fundamentals to pin down, this record is as close as we’ll get to an accumulative synopsis of her accomplishments so far.
Equal parts chaos and beauty with reference to sexuality, social networking and experiences beyond our reality, St.Vincent really intwines herself, her essence, into every note of this record. Siren comparisons are and have been rife within all manner of literature concerning Ms.Clark and rightly so, she has both the menace and captivation to draw in those who are lost among the mediocre and impersonal.
Riddled with neurosis and quirky introspection, St.Vincent is a true extension of Annie Clark, the person – strikingly beautiful and mysterious.
20. LP1 – FKA Twigs
Review by Will Butler
So rare is it that a pop-star rattles the music community with such progressive vigour. Normally we push these advancements into the peripheries until we perceive them relevant and label them ‘ahead of their time.’ London based singer FKA Twigs transcends this phenomena, she cultivates a new visual and musical epoch for pop. In some ways I feel that the recent popularity of neo-soul in both the mainstream and alternative spheres have led up to Twigs’ breakthrough. While a lot of the acclaim accredited to Twigs can be accounted to her empowering stances on sexuality, her involvement as a Young Turks prodigy and her complex mystique, LP1 is a documentation of Twigs pushing pop in the right direction.
With a production roster of this magnitude, LP1 was never going to fall short. Armed to the teeth in talent, LP1 features input from Young Turks peer Sampha, Clams Casino and the growing talent of Emile Haynie. All with an obvious reverence for Twigs’ voice, the producers have all put their stamp on their respective tracks, a diversity that can be heard in the way each instrumental develops. It ranges from the purging tones that descend throughout ‘Two Weeks’ to ‘Hours’, co-written by Devonte Hynes, in which haunting rests build a tension of the unknown, like hearing footsteps behind you at night.
And in keeping with this, LP1 is truly an extension of the artist. An appreciation for RNB, modern and classic, soul and Trip-Hop, in fact ‘Numbers’ is comparable to a Portishead cut mixed by the Mad Hatter, the beats are consistently challenging but never incoherent or contrived. The musicianship may take some time to adjust to but becomes increasingly accessible with more listens to the extent that the simpler tracks, like the hymnal ‘Closer’, don’t strike as hot as the more experimental instrumentals.
LP1 is the pop record that’s been brewing beneath the brine for all too long. What Channel Orange or 21 accomplished for their fields, LP1 has trail-blazed for the contemporary pop audience. Never over-encumbered or sacrificial, Twigs has shattered preconceived notions of what a pop record ‘should be’ because a pop record shouldn’t ‘be’ anything and I feel Twigs has opened our eyes to that. A cathartic step into ecstasy, LP1 is the current forerunner for progressive pop.
19. Metropolis Pts I & II – The M Machine
Review by Martin Flores
Hailing from San Francisco, unique dance trio The M Machine (composed of Ben “Swardy” Swardlick, Eric Luttrell, and Andy Coenen) certainly caught the attention of music fans and artists across a wide scope of genres. In fact, the group recognizes a “difference between The M Machine fan and the average electronic music fan.” The group sets themselves apart from the stereotypical dance scene that has arisen in the past fifteen or so years by blending stunning sound engineering and production with thoughtful lyrics from multiple influences and genres alike.
‘Moon Song’ explodes out of its inception into a heavy synth note leading to distant vocals and concluding with multiple drops sure to satisfy. ‘Schadenfreude’, track number five, really disappointed me because of its willingness to sacrifice some unique elements for the most sound. I found the production slick, but I found the rest of the musical features mediocre. “Luma” rounds out the album by combining multiple genres into one nine minute piece, bringing the music to its conclusion.
The M Machine certainly brings a new approach on typical dance music by encompassing multiple genres. Of course, the group has described their genre that they play in as dabbling in “a few. We see most of our success writing electro-house and vocal-based indie-electro. Still, we’re no stranger to future techno, dubstep, and pop.” I highly encourage anyone who is pretty ambitious about listening to new music and being open to growth to give them a listen.
18. In Return – ODESZA
Review by Alec Shea
Odesza was formed back in 2012 when the duo, Harrison Mills and Clayton Knight, were seniors in college at Western Washington University. They quickly gained popularity in the electronic scene and have now released 2 albums and 1 E.P. Their newest album, “In Return” was released September 9th, 2014. The group claims that their name came to be from 2 reasons. Mills’ uncle had a ship that sank and Odessa was its name. The other reason is because the band name “Odessa” had already been taken. Thus, Odesza was born.
The overall feel of the album is very chill. Some songs have a faster tempo than others, but overall the tone of the album is chill, calm, and peaceful. I found myself constantly tapping my feet along with the propulsive beats and catchy synth melodies. The album also features many different artists. This is always a good thing in my opinion because it varies up the sound of the album. The vocals on the album are incredibly fitting to each song they are in and overall just work really well.
So many aspects were made just right. You will become addicted to the album as a whole within the first listen. That statement is coming from someone who doesn’t generally like electronic music. I’m excited to see what this group does in the future and they have gained me as a fan.
17. Glass Boys –F**ked Up
Review by Will Butler
Being 20 is great. I haven’t amassed a single gram of weight since I moved out, I can drink six litres of gasoline nightly and run a 5K the next morning in addition to having unshaken emotional connections with a plethora of temporary suiters. Though, according to Toronto based hardcore outfit F**ked Up and new their record, Glass Boys, the decade to follow won’t be treasured through vermillion tinted lenses but will rather test the mettle and sanity as age becomes an unavoidable cross to bear.
Stand-out performances track after track, philosophical minotaur Damian Abraham exhibits an almost mythical level of awareness and sullen articulation through ear-spitting growls and yelps. As always, the rhythm sections are tight and guitars incendiary, seeming to get brighter and more melodic with every record – Glass Boys, and F**ked Up as a band, is arguably the world’s gateway into the realm of hardcore combining crucial elements of punk with accessible sentimentality, a rarified balance.
Closing track “Glass Boys” is another highlight of my year in music so far. With transparent optimism it spits at the stereotype of hardcore as a guttural mash of noise, it speaks volumes that I found one of the most uplifting tracks in recent years standing boldly at the back of a crassly named punk record. With a cathartic bridge that speaks of concealed darknesses and finding solace in light, Glass Boys is a record that will reflect and pierce universally. From the thirteen year old unravelling rage and emotion to the frustrated careerist in their thirties, the concept of ‘outgrowing’ seems to weigh heavy at all stages of life. Forged characters of grit and lethargy, F**ked Up plead that we “Never let go of what we outgrow” and I for one am genuinely inspired.
16. Trouble In Paradise – La Roux
Review by Jon Birondo
You should never, ever EVER disregard an artist just because of their past hit single, especially one that once plagued airwaves. Who knows? Maybe they’ll improve on their next album/single? Or even better: an entirely different yet familiar territory to tread. Artists naturally change things up a bit. Imagine a band doing the same style over and over again. The whole fan-base will get bored and leave; change is necessary and inevitable. The artist I’m talking about is La Roux, and the song: “Bulletproof”. Now that isn’t to say that the change isn’t drastic in her music, it’s still within the realm of electronic pop, but this time she has more impressive instrumentation, lyrics, and production.
Part of Trouble In Paradise’s magic is in its ability to recapture the perky, crisp, and cheerful magic of 80s synth-pop; the firs two tracks groove with ease, offering slick guitar strums and reverb, along with some cheerful synths to top things off. With all these elements brought in, Trouble In Paradise seems instantly familiar, which is fine, if you want like your synth-pop pure and untampered with. But hearing this type of music in 2014 seems anachronistic at times, considering the evolution of electronic music in today’s culture (see EDM/dubstep/trance).
But one of the most important aspects to gather from this album is empowerment; Jackson has become wiser and smarter. Don’t go into this album looking for a “Bulletproof” replacement or for an artist transformation. Instead, expect an artist strongly producing eight tracks that, for the most part, teem with power, brilliance, and wisdom. With that, you’re all set to make it through the thick and thin.
15. 1000 Forms Of Fear – Sia
Review by Jon Birondo
Sia has been around in the pop music world for about ten years, yet if you ask anyone who she is, you’ll most likely hear “Titanium” or “Wild Ones”, her real presence never fully acknowledged. Sia is much more involved in the pop culture world than most know. On her latest record, Sia drums a set of powerful and emphatic tunes that showcase her songwriting and vocal ability along with a lot more ambitious instrumentals, never sacrificing one for the other.
“Chandelier” overflows with emotion and her vocal range shows her pain, along with her triumph. “Big Girls Cry” finds Sia at her most vulnerable, but her perception, clear as day. While on “Hostage” contrasts uppity beat along with her despondent lyricism.
Other than her two chart topping hits, no one really knows who Sia is. You can’t see her face on the cover, but you can feel her prescence, imminently looming over the horizon. 1000 Forms Of Fear finds Sia coming off a string of some of her most vulnerable moments, but by the time it’s over it’s as if she never fell. 1000 Forms offers us a snapshot into the enigmatic figure known as Sia because one thing is for sure: you will remember her name.
14. Sweet Dissaray – Dan Croll
Review by Enrique Berrios
Last year, I was watching a video on YouTube when I noticed a suggested video with an interesting thumbnail titled “Dan Croll – From Nowhere.” I decided that I was bored and clicked on the video. Little did I know that I was in for delightful surprise. This song, by English singer- songwriter Dan Croll, was fascinating, musically varied, and fresh. It arrived as something completely new at a time when the music industry needed some new music. When I finished listening to the song, I tried to purchase the album online, but I couldn’t, partly because Dan Croll didn’t have a finished album to sell. He was testing the waters as he prepared for his full-length LP’s eventual release in 2014. Now, his first album Sweet Disarray is finally here and ready to please eagerly awaiting fans.
“From Nowhere” opens the album with a journey into a musical style I’ve never heard before. This song blends elements of indie-rock and pop to great effect. “Wanna Know,” continues the trend of good and interesting music. Croll sings in a distinct high-pitched voice for the majority of the third track. Next, he delivers a fast, karaoke inspired tune with “In / Out,” a fast and fun pop tune. Then he returns to his normal pitch to deliver an indie-pop, folk hybrid in “Compliment your Soul.” The fast drum beat and warm vocals make this track stand out.
Every track on this LP grows on the listener with time. Even if I didn’t initially like individual tracks, by the end of the album, I loved each song. The best songs are very different from anything I’ve ever heard before, and “Sweet Disarray” might be one of the best songs I’ve ever heard. I loved this album, but it did have some problems. Besides “Home,” the final tracks lacked the punch they needed, and most of the songs, while lyrically different, focus on the same subject matter. While these problems do affect the quality of the album, and Croll’s music is very different from other artists, you shouldn’t be deterred from listening to Dan Croll’s expertly fashioned first album. I look forward to more from this young and talented English artist.
13. Southsiders – Atmosphere
Review by Jonathan Beltran
The improbable duo, Slug and Ant, are back at it again. The two Minneapolis natives have had one of the longest runs in underground hip hop music Spanning for over 25+ years in the making. The duo resides with Rhymesayers Entertainment that holds the most prominent underground artists with the likes of MF Doom, Grieves, Aesop Rock, and many others. The duo has received most success and credit with their release of “God Loves Ugly” and “When Life Gives You Lemonade, You Paint that S**t Gold” as they mark the highlights of Atmosphere’s career. With the release of their 8th studio release Southsiders, Slug attempts to reconcile with his old flow while Ant experiments with more equipment and the use of more live instruments, all to live up to their legacy.
Throughout the album Ant and Slug are able to intertwine their diverse and versatile abilities and create an album that is very enjoyable. Though there isn’t a track that is over the top, most, if not all, are very enjoyable to listen to as the lyrics are pleasing and the beats are on par, this album can be considered a very solid one.
In respect to Slug’s and Ant’s future creations, the album marks an important step for Atmosphere. A step where no one knows if they will return to their roots, pursue another direction in their music, or (worst case scenario) leave their legacy as one of the best story-telling rappers of the underground, but we all know they aren’t close to retirement. Ultimately, Southsiders is one of Atmosphere’s best produced albums yet and regardless of the minimalistic rhymes and metaphors, the album succeeds to please most fans.
12. Keep Doing What You’re Doing – You Blew It!
Review by Michael White
Modest Mouse once said, “And we’ll all float on okay.” You Blew it! attest to this maxim in their new album, Keep Doing What You’re Doing, A whimsical new emo record, that delves into relationships and questions existence. It’s an angst-y piece of music, much like nearly every emo-revivalist group nowadays, but the music is executed at a top notch level.
The first song, “Match and Tinder,” showcases how tight the band’s performance chops are. The course is catchy, and the guitar parts are well-written. The drumming is also solid and pumps out grooves that really propel the “feels” into the listeners’ ears. Also, Evan Weiss’s production on this record is incredible as he records the guitars with a very lush sound. Every instrument is well balanced in terms of volume. The first half of this record up until the song “A different kind of Kindling” is great. It’s a collection of infectious choruses, happily hopeless harmonies, and interesting guitar leads. “Kindling”, sporting a sad cappella intro, is even more emotional than the other songs on this album as it transitions smoothly into a very beautiful and dreamy guitar harmony.
Melancholic and moody, You Blew It! have crafted another great record. Although the second half was somewhat lackluster, Keep Doing What You’re Doing is a fantastic experience. If any of these songs speak to you, which they will if you’re human, this is the best time you’ll have crying all year.
11. Passenger – Black Monolith
Review by Michael White
The first release off of the George Clarke (of Deafheaven) co-run record label ABRC, Black Monolith’s Passenger, make music that you’d probably expect from a band with the name Black Monolith. However, this record is filled to the brim with great ideas, a compositionally very well-executed release. Each chord progression is masterfully done, each semi-wretched vocal is true to the craft, although not sounding exactly like boiling water. This may not make the record more accessible for a non-kvlt expert, but it doesn’t alienate newcomers to black metal either; instead, it invites them to invest themselves into the record more easily.
The other core attributes of black metal are here; tremolo picking, blast beats, etc. However, there are many crusty breaks interspersed between various parts of the album. For me, this interrupted the flow of the album, detracting from the moodiness established by more black metal-centric parts of the album. Other than that, I have no gripes about this album. Definitely check out every long track on here (most of them are over 6 minutes), especially the opener and closer. The closer is a beautiful and melodic opus, and every melodic music fan should hear it.
If you like black metal, definitely let this one assault your ears.
10. They Want My Soul – Spoon
Review by Jon Birondo
Teeming with sentimentality, emotion, and chagrin, They Want My Soul shows Spoon at a predictable yet admirable level of musicianship, with more viewpoints on life to keep any fan happy.
The steady opener “Rent I Pay” is, well, the type of song you’d expect from Spoon. Reverberating guitars that strut with Spoon’s familiar prance, Daniel’s forced yet passionate vocals, organs, and a catchy hook open the pod doors for the album. The following track “Inside Out” finds producer Joe Chicarelli masterfully blending ambient keyboards with a dance ready bass, orchestra strings, and a harp, proving that these guys aren’t afraid to experiment, even if it’s something as small as classical instruments. The track also features Daniel singing impressive lyricism connecting love and gravity, and towards the end the song sounds a bit spacey, with wobbly synths and harps echoing off into the atmosphere.
There are other tunes to comb over such as the gimmicky “They Want My Soul”, the piano rock influenced “I Just Don’t Understand”, the spacey “Let Me Be MIne” and the synth-riddled “New York Kiss” (which sounds like a leftover from the Divine Fits LP, but it’s tasteful on a Spoon record). Through these tracks you can hear Spoon’s trademark meticulous and detailed production, down to every instrument and to every beat. The mixture of these track provide an intense environment to fulfill their needs, resulting in a fantastic set of tunes that are hand-crafted beautifully.
And at this point, these songs seem far from easy but also far from difficult. Not to say that these songs are middle-of-road or “meh” but that they’re quintessential Spoon, nothing more or nothing less. These tracks do give the band’s discography a breath of fresh air, but they don’t necessarily push the band into a specific direction. Not that that’s a bad thing but don’t expect Spoon to make any drastic changes to their music (you never know, but from this album, it doesn’t sound imminent).
But that’s where Spoon’s brilliance shines, to be able to brush off any predictions or preconceptions. So what if they were called “Band of the Decade”? They don’t care. Spoon’s mission is to play songs made for and by Spoon. And that to itself is brilliance nonetheless. They Want My Soul sounds like that friend who’s full of optimism: always putting the team on their back and looking forward, hoping for the best.
9. Damage Control – Mat Zo
Review by Drew Curran
Damage Control is the first album from British producer Mat Zo. According to him, this album has been seven years in the making. It’s hard to lasso this album into a specific genre, as Mat seems to like jumping around, not allowing himself to settle into the groove of a particular style, but somehow he manages to make each song his own, though bearing no connection to s specific genre, the album still has the feel and signature of Mat.
The planning of this album is also impeccable. Through his inclusion of “Ez”, a garage, early-stage version of the monumental “Easy” acknowledges all of the years of planning and refining in this LP. Somehow, through the dips and turns of the road through this album, Mat manages to keep the energy constant through each song, keeping the listener interested to each detail in the unique songs, but also keeping them unable to tear themselves away from an album that retains every drop of energy from the previous song, only transforming in style barring only a few songs through the midsection.
This seamless transition makes the album that much more impressive, as many albums these days are hard to digest in one sitting. This album changes that musical norm and invites the listener to instead have trouble not consuming the album at one time, the album a balanced meal that leaves the echo of Mat’s style in the ear of the listener even after the music has ended.
8. El Pintor – Interpol
Review by Jon Birondo
Interpol is undoubtedly in love with with New York City. You can hear it in their music, their lyrics, and in the albums they create. Even when they aren’t explicitly expressing the Big Apple, they evoke what it feels like to be in New York: at times horrifying, but at times tranquil and peaceful. And this vivid picture they paint justifies the album title of El Pintor: translated in Spanish as “the painter”, as well as doubling as an anagram for Interpol.
Interpol has never been about drastic evolution but rather coloring inside the bold lines first drawn on TOTBL. Antics brought the pummeling fury and catchy hooks, while their lackluster self titled effort was as flaccid and malaise as the band could ever get. When I first heard the swinging strings of Daniel Kessler’s guitar, I knew that Interpol were back to the drawing board.
“My Blue Supreme” has the catchiness that Interpol so rarely dips its toe in, “Breaker 1″ sounds as if “Obstacle 1″ was looked through lens of remorse, and the vigorous attitude of “Ancient Ways” furiously pummels through showcasing an entirely new animal behind the wheel. The album closer “Twice As Hard” careens left and right, up and down as Banks’ baritone builds up the potent closer, before silently fading away.
Admirers of Turn On The Bright Lights should have no trouble finding appeal in this album because Interpol’s music wasn’ always about any drastic switch ups or experimentation, it was always about building upon what they first laid down in 2002. It was always about sticking to the same route, and becoming stronger and focused because of it all while steering away from irrelevancy. A lot has changed since 2002, but Interpol hasn’t. They may be down a man, but that isn’t stopping one of indie rock’s best bands out there. When the bright lights first turned on, the crowd surfing and moshing stopped. Time stood still, and so did the listeners, absorbing the beauty that is Interpol. With El Pintor, time has stood still once again.
7. Oxymoron – Schoolboy Q
Review by Jonathan Beltran
Schoolboy Q has returned with his highly anticipated project that has succeeded to surpass all expectations. Oxymoron may seem like a pun to the word “oxy” as Q is known to rap about narcotics, but in this genius record, Q manages to fulfill the album’s name.Though Oxymoron isn’t Schoolboy’s first album, since he released Setbacks and Habits and Contradictions in 2011 and 2012 respectively, he manages to release something new and fresh and it seems to be a new beginning in his discography.
On “Break the Bank”, Q tells Kendrick to “move from the throne”, throwing a complete curveball at the listeners; you wouldn’t expect an artist to collaborate with an artist from the same label and then later tell him to get out of your way. This just shows Schoolboy’s creativity throughout the album and brings up a reoccurring theme in the album:to remind people that he isn’t just “another” guy from T.D.E. and this is something Q has never done before.
He also does the same, in a way, with 2 Chainz as the two of them make the song “What They Want” but Q calls out 2 Chainz in “Break The Bank” saying “B**** call me 2 Chainz, units be moving”.This isn’t a criticism but rather shows how he makes money like 2 Chainz. In “F*** LA”, Q doesn’t stop with the contradictions as it’s abnormal to call out your hometown when there are rappers that are proud to say where they’re from, evident from similar artists like Dr. Dre and Snoop Lion, but this could also be explained as Q’s place of birth is Germany. Nonetheless, the album in itself justifies for the title very well, quite adequately in fact.
Overall, Schoolboy Q succeeds in accomplishing to justify the name of the album, showcase his talent, and show what he’s really made of, in order to let others know that the new chart topping artist of T.D.E. isn’t just Kendrick. Intrusively and as manic as he appears, Q will stop at nothing to get the props he deserves, with all the grit and glory that he can provide.
6. You’re Dead! – Flying Lotus
Review by Jon Birondo
You’re Dead! explores a concept that has been around since the beginning of time, and in its essence pops up in every facet of our lives: death. While mysterious and formidable, You’re Dead! successfully views death from a more hopeful angle, shifting this daunting perception into something much more sanguine.
Perhaps the most striking part of this album is the overall approach toward “death.” Take a look at the music video for “Never Catch Me,” attached above. The kids are dead, yet they’re dancing like they just won the lottery and driving off into the sunset as if they just got married. The main point that I feel FlyLo is trying to drive home is that while death can be mysterious, foreboding, and at times, limiting in terms of lifespan, that doesn’t mean we should be afraid.
An aspect of the Jesuit way of life is finding beauty in all things: nature, buildings, sports, movies etc. Flying Lotus’ greatest feat yet is laid out on the table on You’re Dead!: he’s found beauty in death and has fully displayed it throughout these nineteen tracks. Fear is the ultimate limiting factor, and it is a fact that WE ALL will end up fearing death. But when you’ve seen death as the opposite of completely desolate, it makes both sides—life and death—much more worth the ride, and the experience, truly showcasing its immaculate and uncompromisable beauty.
The opener, “Theme,” sounds eerily like a black hole opening, with it’s orchestra-like vibrancy droning off into the atmosphere. Not even a minute in, the track breaks into a spacey jazz cadence. The following three tracks tread improvisational space jazz grounds, all while segueing perfectly into one another, like one really long track. Hyperactive bass grooves, nimble and quick drumming, and power riffs help keep each track different, while also keeping them perfectly, for lack of a better term, “turnt up.” These jazz improvisations feel so vibrant, alive, and pumped with ludicrous amounts of adrenaline, as if Flying Lotus made the gunpowder and lit the fuse by himself.
Infusing jazz, electronica, hip-hop overtones, a slew of talented guest artists and neo-psychedelia, all with an experimental approach. Flying Lotus crafts one of the most profound and noteworthy albums of the year. As he explores death and beyond, FlyLo takes his conceptual approach towards his music and transforms these trademarks into an album that, despite its short running time, makes an everlasting mark, all while remaining just as meaningful.
5. To Be Kind – Swans
Review by Jon Birondo
Age rarely comes into conflict with the pacing of this album. For a band that is more than 30 years old with a 60 year old frontman, the band is more exciting, intriguing and heavy than most acts out there.Now with a plethora of powerhouse musicians, and the forward thinking of Gira, the band seems to have gotten the hang of improving their music, shooting it up to IMAX screen proportions, with enough vibrant energy and brutality to back it up. In a strange and intriguing way, this formula they’re dealing with feels, new.
Swans have discovered ways to branch out from their simple formula of music, towards songs that are incredibly heavy to songs that are incredibly meditative. In addition, most of the songs here focus a lot on groove. There’s the Primus-like “Oxygen”, a ferocious, teeth gnashing odyssey that trumps most of Swans’ discography; Gira’s maniacal screaming adds a ton of character and manic insanity to the track as well: “I CAN’T BREATHE!!”, “I STEALL ALL THE OXYGEN!!”, “OXYYGEEEENNN!” Complete with horns, the song is a massive kick to the face; and as insidious as it sounds, Swans sound like they’re having fun with it too.
The opening bass riff to “She Loves Us” kicks off the second disc, further reiterating the groove-heavy nature of the tracks on To Be Kind as it builds up to a chaotic, bass heavy wonderland, which then closes off with cultist chants and Gira’s manic barking. Swans always strive to push their music as far as it can, even up to transcendent proportions. And they won’t hesitate, even if it means repeatedly hitting you over and over again with massive amounts of noise, riffs, and grooves to make you see stars and hallucinations. But they do know when to put an ice pack on the listeners, however it may be a numbing experience.
Granted, all these elements sound alienating and horrible: cult chants, disturbingly loud noise, long repetition, babbling, nonsensical lyrics, and incredibly heavy instrumentation. What makes an album like To Be Kind so intriguing is the power it contains; it’s presence can be felt when it’s played, yet it comes unexpected every time.
Talk to any parent, a crying baby is one of the most volatile stages of childhood out there, and in a way it reflects the album as a whole. Not because they’re annoying, unpredictable, and unbearable, but because they represents much more than the beginning of new life. They represent the fears of new life, the fears of new experiences, and the fears of your surroundings. When you first listen to this album, you will be overwhelmed, but I just hope that you will grow more comfortable with To Be Kind ’till it’s as pleasing as life itself.
4. RTJ2 – Run The Jewels
Review by Jon Birondo
Anger is a feeling we all experience, whether it be through frustration, a fight, or even when things aren’t going your way, anger is everywhere. Now normally I’m not an angry person, but when I first listened to Run The Jewels, I was furious. Not at it, but with it. Run The Jewels is a rap duo, comprised of underground rappers Killer Mike and El-P. These two rappers, both working at the best of their abilities, on their own accord, have teamed up to create on of the most visceral, ambitious, and hard hitting hip hop albums to come out of 2014. While their debut, a criminally overlooked album, introduced the world to this duo on a very high note, the expectations for this album were very high. Run The Jewels 2 not only breaks those expectations, but also proves that Run The Jewels are a group you do not want to miss out on.
The list of features that this album has to offer just goes on: jaw dropping beats (“Oh My Darling Don’t Cry”), vile lyrics over some of the sickest beats (“Love Again”), Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker (’nuff said) (“All Due Respect”), and much more. I could go on and on about how much RTJ2 has to offer, and how much Killer Mike and El-P are succeeding in the rap game. The truth of the matter is that Mike and El-P are at the height of their creative powers here. With RTJ2, they’ve crafted a record that, in all its grit, humor, and ambitious glory, speaks messages on a multitude of levels ranging from politics to racism. With some of the best flows and production accompanying their fury-filled thoughts, RTJ2 is an album that not only gets fists pumping, but will get you punching through walls, with reason and meaning.
3. Plowing Into The Field Of Love – Iceage
Review by Jon Birondo
You’re Nothing not only solidified Iceage’s name in the underground community, but found the band improving their songwriting, flirting with gothic rock by showcasing some influences from bands like Bauhaus and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and intensifying their songs with more noise, energy, and emotion. So when Iceage released “The Lord’s Favorite” as a promotional single for Plowing Into The Field Of Love in late July, the expectations were at an all time high. Highly regarded punk figure, Iggy Pop said in an interview with Australia’s triple j radio that “[Iceage are] the only current punk band I can think of that sounds really dangerous.”
The instrumentation comes with a more theatrical change of pace. Piano balladering, banjo solos, shrill horns, spine-tingling violins, and Irish pub rock ditties replace the dense, flesh burning chords that engulfed New Brigade and You’re Nothing. But one aspect has remained constant: passion. Rønnenfelt’s groans, although incoherent, are incredibly difficult to imitate, especially if you haven’t got the heart or mindset to fully do so. In a way, I feel Rønnenfelt’s singing style has deterred novice listeners; yet novice listeners rarely dig deep into the psyche of Iceage. A psyche that treasures and celebrates the joys and hazards of youth.
Lead singer Elias Bender Rønnenfelt moans and croons, reminiscent of early Nick Cave and your uncle at his most-drunkest state. However, behind the slurring lies some incredibly morose yet enlightening lyrics: “I always had the sense that I was split in two/ It seems so complicated/ To shift between existence,” sung as if Rønnenfelt is balling like a baby. A sense of precision and elegance solidify Iceage’s transition into this new entity that they’ve encompassed. There’s a moment in the song “Forever”, where trumpets come into the fold of this morose, Western ballad; I found this addition to be quite beautiful. As did I with the banjo solos on “Abundant Living”, the waltzy ‘Stay”, and with the brutal closer, that despite its Western twangs, still lives and breathes like a normal Iceage song, nihilistic to its core but expounded in its beauty
With improvement in mind, Iceage craft one of the most creative albums to come out of 2014. Fusing noise rock, gothic rock, country, rockabilly, and punk rock, Iceage show no signs of slowing down, continuously putting down high octane track after track. Surprisingly, the band finds a stable balance between the archaic and the controlled. Iceage may be young, and this new direction may sound as if they’re growing up, but once you hear Rønnenfelt’s drunken slurs, you’ll see that Iceage aren’t ready to grow up just yet. And that’s the way we like it.
2. Lost In The Dream – The War On Drugs
Review by Jon Birondo
The War On Drugs are masterminds when it comes to muddying up the atmosphere, and they do it beautifully while they’re at it, carrying each rhythm gracefully, packing it buoyant instrumentation and production. The opening track “Under The Pressure” has tons of room to breath through as Granduciel sings Tom Petty style vocals over lushly composed instrumentation, a steadying beat that never overstays its nine minute length as it showcases dueling guitars, bright synths, and a gentle piano finish.
The band’s magnum opus “Red Eyes” feels much like a long lost demo of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire”, if it had actually been ablaze; powering solos, emphatic piano chords, and a steady beat . The song then rips itself open, and at the heartstrings, as Granduciel delivers one of the most, if not THE most, memorable moment of the entire album as it vacillates between a sound that is melancholic, to a sound that is empowering, a moment where the band are conscious of their weaknesses, and their strengths. Here, Granduciel sees himself as falling apart: “I would keep you here, but I can’t,” a disparaging realization that is both haunting and beautiful.
However, it’s in the tiny, minuscule details where the ambitious and artistic scope of the whole album coalesces. Each song has a hidden greatness that only time can fully show; songs where a simple solo or comforting piano chords can upset the balance and feel of a song, boosting it up to proficient expectations. Not only does this drastically improve the album, but it expands the album’s horizons. Each listen rewards itself with new discoveries, new moments previously unheard the first time around.
And with all these moments of self- realization, communal catharsis, and grand swells of emotion, it’s no wonder why this album can bring even the strongest of people to their knees. Breezy, yet heavy. Subtle, yet effective, the album’s power is inescapable, and its message, memorable. In a way, this is the band’s most personal album, yet their most expansive, and emotional, one. As Granduciel rediscovers himself, reinstating new life into his music, all of his work culminates into an album that really feels, alive.
Last year, we crowned Is Survived By the best album of 2013. Now the torch must be passed…
Here it is…
Pretty Neat Grooves’ 2014 Album Of The Year
1. Piñata – Freddie Gibbs & Madlib
Review by Corey Herndon
In hindsight, the idea of a Madlib/Freddie Gibbs collaboration album seems slightly nonsensical. Not necessarily bad or wrong, just… “what?!” The production of Madlib spans across an eclectic array of jazz, latin, and rap to create incredibly diverse and pleasant hip-hop music. On the other hand, Freddie Gibbs is, in essence, a gangsta rapper who spits over beats that frequently make even the most noble of Honda Fit drivers want to ride slow and bend corners.The word hindsight was aforementioned for a reason, since Piñata not only defies the expectation of being an unnatural mixed bag, but casts itself out as one of the most interesting and impressive major hip-hop releases in quite a while.
Gibbs’ lyricism mostly stays in it’s usual pocket of keeping-it-real thug rap throughout the record, however there are many instances of branching out and an undertone of harsh introspection on Freddie’s gangster lifestyle. Tracks like “Knicks” and “Thuggin’” don’t exactly condemn or praise said lifestyle, but raise and answer questions of the necessity and origins of, for lack of a better term, trapping; “F*ck a job, I’m whipping this butter cause crime pays/In these last days, on my last page”.
Freddie Gibbs has explored similar themes in the past, but they are a lot harder to take seriously over 808s and slow, lazy rapping. It’s Madlib’s traditional melancholy and jazz-heavy production that allows Gibbs to branch out creatively, and not only help the lyrics, but change the way Gibbs raps entirely.The beats give a lot more room for Gibbs to spit in new directions, which is probably why there’s so much more diversity and personality in his rhymes on Piñata than on any of his previous outputs.
There’s some crafty tempo changing and even spontaneous double-time as seen in parts of “Real” and most of “Shitsville”. The production is simply phenomenal, as is usual for Madlib. There’s an extensive amount of string and synth sampling that bring a strong 90s west coast vibe to the album, especially tracks like “High”, “Harold’s” and “Bomb”.
It’s inevitable to bring up 2004’s Madvillainy when talking about this record. While yes, they are both incredibly unique collaboration albums featuring Madlib, the comparison brought up in most circles is just unfair. Madlib’s production is brought out completely differently in the two releases, with one being a new creative approach in abstract hip-hop, and the other a new creative approach in gangster rap. Piñata is probably my favorite hip-hop album of the 2010’s so far, and it is not the next Madvillainy; it’s the first Piñata.
And that’s it! Here’s to 2015! As always, Happy Holidays, have a Happy New Year, keep listening to music, Keep It Neat, and see you in 2015!
Sincerely, The Pretty Neat Grooves Staff 2013-2014