Their Bated Breath | Best 14 LPs of 2014

December 27, 2014 at 5:49 am Leave a comment


Usually, I write a little preamble here, maybe pointing out the trends of the past year or pointing toward things to come. I can’t wait to hear what’s around the 2015 bend for Radiohead (Thom Yorke’s “Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes” barely missed the cut), Grimes, Bob Dylan, Bjork, Waxahatchee and Savages. But this year, I’m going to keep this short and sweet. I really didn’t find any distinct theme this year, but maybe’s that’s the trend. Music is growing less collective perhaps, fueled more by individual drive and peculiarity. There are some records this year that I didn’t understand the hype over. I listened to “Run the Jewels 2” and found it to be just like any other rap (I did really like the cut “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry”). But then again, my favorite style of rap concerns clever word-play, slick beats, and smooth R&B-based nuances — which is why I prefer Mick Jenkins “The Water[s]” and Isaiah Rashad’s “Cilvia Demo”. I also didn’t understand the superfluous love for The War on Drugs’ “Lost In the Dream” — a good record (“Disappearing” is really elegant), but not one that made me long for the days of Dire Straits and Don Henley. Below are my picks for the best 14 LPs of 2014. Enjoy! — David D. Robbins Jr.

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14. MICK JENKINS | THE WATER[S]
Song above: “Comfortable”
One half of Jenkins’ “The Water[s]” has more ingenuity and style in it than the entirety of “Run the Jewels 2”. Yeah, I said it. I usually don’t like talking bad about one record while writing about the good qualities of another one — but I just couldn’t understand the drooling joy over “Run the Jewels 2”. This is the best rap LP of the year, and as its antecedents you’ve got Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City” (2012) and Chance the Rapper’s “Acid Rap” (2013). Jenkins’ mix-tape works like a concept album, taking the metaphor of water and pouring it across all the tracks: You can find it in some of the song titles like “Dehydration”, “The Waters” and the transporting opener “Shipwrecked”. There’s also the sound of waves on the beach, lyrics about dying of thirst, drowning, bong water and the spoken-word intro to “THC” announcing a simple message: “Drink more water.” This approach isn’t forced, but rather sprinkled lightly throughout. A listener could apply it to the usual rapper conceit of the record being the musical oasis in a supposed desert of pretenders. But there are deeper thoughts here than that. Water is what makes up the majority of the content of the human body, and as Jenkins sings, it’s simply life. We are water. So, by implication Jenkins is telling us this record contains his life — and it gives him plenty of space to float his dizzying verses, intermittent choirs, brass interludes and clever samples. — DDRJr

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13. PERFECT PUSSY | SAY YES TO LOVE
Song above: “Big Stars”
Syracuse’s five-piece punk band Perfect Pussy released a four-song demo tape in 2013, “I Have Lost All Desire for Feeling”, and “Say Yes to Love” is the blazing follow-up, featuring eight scorching songs with four accompanying live versions. It’s one hot, thundering mess of frantic goodness. Listening to their song “Driver” is to be audibly accosted. It’s a thick loogie hocked in your path, daring you to say something — daring you not to be caught up in the hammering pace, the speedy and dirty guitar lines, the heavily-shouted female wailing of the lead vocalist Meredith Graves and the scuzzed-up quality of it all. Like Fuck Buttons, KMFDM, and Swollen Members before them, Perfect Pussy make quite the pronouncement with their band name alone. You name your band Perfect Pussy and, well, you’re pretty much grinding it in peoples’ faces. The name works a bit like a bouncer outside the club doors, ready to toss out all those that don’t belong. (Heck, the band can’t even create a logo without perversion. Instead they’ve opted for a back-to-back faded double-P (see above) — like some kind of debauched Warner Brothers.) But hey, in a way, that’s what you’ve got to expect with punk music — and to have it any other way just wouldn’t be right. Granted, some purists criticize the band as faux-punk. I guess they’re missing the days of Henry Rollins’ self-laceration and punching your fans in the face. But come on, it’s all about the music anyway, isn’t it?  — DDRJr

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12. FKA TWIGS | LP1
Song above: “Video Girl”
I selected FKA Twig’s (aka Gloucestershire’s Tahliah Barnett) 2013 four-song “EP2” as one of the best 15 EPs I’d heard that year. Largely because the caramel dark moods and outward idiosyncrasies of the record felt inspired by some of my own personal favorite musicians: Bjork, Tricky, Portishead and even the digi-beats of James Blake. “LP1” expands on that foundation, bringing it into the R&B realm, while letting the trip-hop influences join on the bandwagon with broken percussion, stuttered beats and dusky electronics. It’s like she’s taking the popular world of Aaliyah and Ciara and spiking it with The Weeknd and Martina Topley Bird. But rather than staying dark, FKA Twigs brings sexy back to the genre too, singing verses like, “Do it with the lights on”. The stunning “Two Weeks” is essentially a four-minute, eight-second song mixing imagery of violence and orgasm. Gerunds abound: flying, closing, ripping, rolling, dealing … (On a side note, I don’t know if it’s intentional, but the vocal melody change at the 2:51 mark of the song sounds just like Air Supply’s “All Out of Love”. I mention that because only in the world of FKA Twigs can all these competing styles find a way to mend.) — DDRJr

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11. CIBO MATTO | HOTEL VALENTINE
Song above: “MFN”
Like “Viva! La Woman” and “Stereo ★ Type A” before it, this record is all over the place — in a good way. It’s a mashing together of oddball rhythmic transitions, seemingly incompatible styles, bizarre lyrics and nutty aphorisms under a canopy of strangeness and ingenuity. “Hotel Valentine” takes listeners on a supernatural musical journey through a haunted hotel, moving from “Check In” to “10th Floor Ghost Girl”, to the title track, and “Empty Pool”, “Lobby”, “Housekeeping”, and ending with “Check Out”. There’s a method to the madness, and it’s a fun journey to take. “Deja Vu” will remind Cibo Matto fans of the melodic vocal styles of “Stereo ★ Type A”, while “Emerald Tuesday” leans more toward the free-form jazzy peculiarity of “Viva! La Woman” culinary tracks like “Beef Jerky” and “Know Your Chicken”. But my favorite is the acronym-titled “MFN” (aka Motherfuckin’ Nature), which encapsulates everything that’s good about Cibo Matto — humor, crazy beats, even crazier musical progressions, and the dexterity to blend it all into mellifluousness. I mean, what do you make of a funky, spacey keyboard beat playing in tandem with these lyrics: “Don’t tell me what the hell / I’m a ghost / Don’t throw the fuckin’ oyster shell at me.” Or what to make of a sexualized song about housekeeping that includes a verse about confusing “a big stain” with “Chianti”? — DDRJr

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10. LEONARD COHEN | POPULAR PROBLEMS
Song above: “My Oh My”
“My Oh My” is a wickedly good song. Those horns. That rhythm. Cohen’s vocals. Superb. Cohen’s lyrics are still strong too: “Your victory was so complete / Some among you thought to keep / A record of our little lives / The clothes we wore, our spoons, our knives / The games of luck our soldiers played / The stones we cut / The songs we made / Our law of peace, which understands / A husband leads, a wife commands … / Names so deep and names so true / They’re blood to me and dust to you.” At 80-years-old he’s still putting out records better than 99 percent of musicians out there. “Popular Problems” is a short record, but compact the way a diamond is. No filler. — DDRJr

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09. SHARON VAN ETTEN | ARE WE THERE
Song above: “Tarifa”
Where does a singer-songwriter go after writing “Magic Chords”, “We Are Fine” and the majestic “Dsharpg” and “Love More”? Those are four tracks good enough to stunt any singer with the prospect that there’s nowhere to go but down. But what we get instead is an artist pushing her peak into territory that’s even more freeing, confident and open. The grand irony of this record is that this musical certitude reveals a singer who doubts her own ability to be loved. In some ways “Are We There” is a record about dependency. It’s about discovering one’s value in and out of a relationship. Simple-sounding piano-based songs like “I Love You But I’m Lost”, “Break Me” and “Our Love” (which feels like a Nite Jewel song) confess the costs of love in their sadly sumptuous vocal melodies. “Taking Chances” rides a bass beat to rival Sade’s “Hang On to Your Love”. And the gorgeous rhythm of “Tarifa” (a seaside Spanish town) is like wilting and rising, with Van Etten singing half-thoughts of peace and love in the sun, with a kind of trepidation one feels when you sense things are too good to be true: “Slow it was seven / I wish it was seven all night / Tell me when / Tell me when is this over? / Chewed you out / Chew me out when I’m stupid / I don’t wanna / Everyone else pales.” But this record sets the gold standard of balladry with “Your Love Is Killing Me” — a song about the inability to escape pernicious love: “Break my legs so I won’t walk to you / Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you / Burn my skin so I can’t feel you / Stab my eyes so I can’t see / You like it when I let you walk over me / You tell me that you like it / Your love is killing me.” It’s the kind of admission that turns the commodity of listening to a record into a kind of sacred offering between singer and fan. — DDRJr

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08. ST. PAUL & THE BROKEN BONES | HALF THE CITY
Song above: “Like A Mighty River”
Birmingham, Alabama band St. Paul & The Broken Bones prove that you can never judge a book by its cover. They’re a throwback swirl of Sam Cooke, Al Green, Otis Redding and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. (Okay, hold your vintage mics. I’m not saying they’re as good, but that’s their style.) The band isn’t about parody — they’re genuine. Watching this band live is something to behold. They don’t mind if you underestimate them as a bunch of lily-white boys in full suits,  pudgy lead singer Paul Janeway wearing a bright red button on his lapel that reads: “ALABAMA”. When this band gets going, it’s on. Janeway sounds like Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall, with more aggression. He powers through “Like a Mighty River”, belting out: “She is just a pure girl / And I am just a dirty boy / And we’re just tryin’ to work it through / But there ain’t, but there ain’t no one to cut me / Like the words that she used” — while his band soars behind him with high-octane horns, soulful guitar riffs and a whole lot of bravado. It’s the kind of music that just makes you feel good you’ve found. Many lists mention The War On Drugs bringing back an old sound, but let’s go back further in your record collection. Throw on St. Paul & The Broken Bones’ “That Glow” and imagine Janeway falling to his knees à la James Brown, singing at the top of his lungs: “She’s gone with somebody else / How I wish it was me!!! / How I wish it was me!!!” — DDRJr   

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07. SUN KIL MOON | BENJI 
Song above: “Pray For Newtown”
Okay, so Mark Kozelek, of Sun Kil Moon, has always seemed a bit surly. But he’s a great, pure songwriter. Just play the dark, lyrical masterpiece, “Pray for Newtown”, that uses the 1984 San Ysidro massacre as a touchstone for senseless, violent tragedies met ultimately with a giant collective yawn. Kozelek takes everyone to task, the media, the country itself and our apathy glowing in the hyper-reality we call television: “I just arrived in Seoul, by way of Beijing / I had an hour to myself in my hotel when I turned on the TV / It was quite a thriller / CNN was promoting the bat man killer / His eyes were glazed like he was from Mars / Yesterday he was no one, today he was a star.” I haven’t heard modern lyrics that good since Spiritualized’s “Sweet Heart Sweet Light” (2012), Bob Dylan’s “Tempest” (2012). What makes this record so good is Kozelek’s ability to balance between the beauty of verbosity and plainness –the latter evidenced in the heartbreaking, “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love”. — DDRJr

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06. EMA | THE FUTURE’S VOID
Song above: “Cthulu”
This is a severely underrated record. I think many reviewers missed the fact that this is a highly-creative kind of concept album about the dystopian world we all live in. EMA’s “The Future’s Void” seems to take its cues from records like Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor” — tasking itself with interpreting modernization in all its faults and glories. There’s a reason EMA is on the cover holding a digital viewer. It’s an artificial way of looking at the world, as if the face itself no longer exists, but in the form of the thing it views the world through. The album itself opens with a beautiful but cold image too: thousands of satellites out in space, suggesting a peopled, interconnected planet — both surrounded and filled with loneliness. The marvelous throwback and punked-out “So Blonde” may keep its feet on the ground, but like “Satellites”, is all about coping with this age of alienation in the din of digitization and electronic whirring. Erika M. Anderson’s screeching vocals never sounded better, calling to mind Courtney Love’s Hole days. Two tracks mention the isolating image of “passing freeways”. The song “3Jane” questions privacy, videography, and the emptiness of the internet — its atmospheric music beautifully mimicking all that desolate space between our social habits and false connections. “Neuromancer” questions narcissism in the age of selfies. Perhaps the best track on the record, “Cthulu”, borrows it’s title from the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, concerning a monstrous malignancy. Something wicked this way comes, especially at the song’s coda, which feels like a mix of Nine Inch Nails’ “Pretty Hate Machine” and David Bowie’s “Outside”. EMA is brilliant, and even though she seems to take pride in the slumpy style of her writing, shes can’t hide her erudition in slackerdom and clever jingoism. This is a record that something in the water does not compute, the stars are falling, and even closeness results in losing one’s soul. — DDRJr

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05. SYLVAN ESSO | SYLVAN ESSO
Song above: “Dress”
Sylvan Esso’s world is an effortless fusion of digital-rhythms, blips, found sounds, fuzzy bass beats, overlapping vocals, samples and pretty melodies that will make you love everything synthetic about the most modern of music. Amelia Meath’s voice is just one of a number of instruments toyed with, altered, stacked and amalgamated to create the seductive moods, nursery-rhyme melodies and mesmerizing incantations on the Durham, North Carolina duo’s astounding debut record. It’s enough to be taken in by the digi-cleverness of it all — sub phattys, synthesized bass drops, sequencing, pitch shifting, Korg pads — but it’s the record’s breezy elegance and symmetry that persuades. A song like “Could Be” is more than the sum of its parts. Taken by themselves, there are Meath’s twee vocals, a circular keyboard rhythm, computerized backing vocals, a static hum and heavy beat — but the coalescence of each is where the magic is. It’s what makes the experience of listening to “Sylvan Esso” a deep one. Listen to the song, “Dress”. It’s wonderful. There are touches of all kinds of artists on this record, like tUnE-yArDs, Everything But the Girl and Purity Ring. — DDRJr

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04. PARQUET COURTS | SUNBATHING ANIMAL/CONTENT NAUSEA
Song above: “Bodies Made Of”
Parquet Courts released not just one but two good records this year, “Sunbathing Animal” and “Content Nausea”. I’m combining them here. This exhilarating rock band is raucous, fun, smart and obstinate as shit. What other band releases two records in the same year, within six months of each other? More power to What’s Your Rupture? and Rough Trade for being okay with that. But listening to these records most-likely led the labels to one conclusion: With this kind of profusion, there’s much more where this came from. “Bodies Made Of” has a fantastic guitar line and the opening lyrics, “Bodies made of slugs and guts …”, only has St. Vincent’s “masturbating” verse to compete with for best opening lines to a 2014 song. “Dear Ramona” is playful and sarcastic. “Ducking and Dodging” is as lyrically playful as Sleaford Mods (“Lady Macbeth, rock me mama / Like my back ain’t got no bone / Like clicks heard on the telephone / Like a sudden unhinged moan”) topped with psychotic guitar structures, to borrow a phrase. Best rock band around. Period. — DDRJr

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03. ST. VINCENT | ST. VINCENT
Song above: “Rattlesnake”
Annie Clark has always been a visual artist as well as a musical one. You can see it in her live performances, where she’s continued to let herself venture into what feels like her real personality — quirky, weird and avant-garde. So, it should come as no surprise that the serpentine opener, “Rattlesnake” (about her fleeing naked from a Texas rattler) begins optically, dropping the name of art’s most famous pointillism painter: “I see the snake holes dotted in the sand / As if the Seurat painted the Rio Grande.” The cinematic touchstones are still there, like on the Disney-fied “Actor” (2009). On “Prince Johnny” we get a bit of the Pinocchio story within a tale of self-destruction: “Where you pray to all / To make you a real boy.” There’s a beautiful lyric that contains the kind of giganticism (“You traced the Andes with your index”) I associate with Sylvia Plath and her poem “The Colossus”: “Nights, I squat in the cornucopia of your left ear.” It’s the same giant obsession that led to the monster-Annie in the 2012 Ron Mueck-inspired video for “Cheerleader” and perhaps the title of her work with David Byrne. Clark is also forever finding ways to free her kaleidoscopic guitar histrionics. Listening to the last quarter of “Rattlesnake” feels like Jackson Pollock slapping alkyd enamels on a canvas from all directions for the sheer aesthetic pleasure of breaking through all resistances. The coolest aspect of this record is the simplest to understand: Listen to how many times the melodies are doubled-up. Vocals mimic guitars and keyboards throughout, giving a kind of stereophonic musical assonance. There’s a moment (3:27 mark) when I was watching Clark play her new song for a DVF fashion show, and she bursts out from behind the mic — aesthetics, music and style all coming to a head as the birth of cool is born. — DDRJr

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02. ANGEL OLSEN | BURN YOUR FIRE FOR NO WITNESS
Song above: “Unfucktheworld”
While the trend in music these days is toward ultra-modernism, electronics, digital blips and computerization — Olsen stands out like an island unto herself. The hard-boiled “Hi-Five” isn’t a call toward Radiohead or Flying Lotus, but rather Patsy Cline and Roy Orbison. The first three songs are such a powerful opening for a record, lasting a total of seven minutes and seven seconds. (Making as strong an impact as Laura Marling did with her opening suite on 2013’s “Once I Was An Eagle”.) Like all great music, the songs don’t outwear their welcome, but rather as soon as you’ve lost yourself in one, the next begins. It’s what makes me go back to them over and over again. At the end of each, my first thought is I wish they weren’t over. This is a record about so much heartbreak and loneliness. The hard-thumping “Hi-Five” conjures Hank Williams (the opening lyric, literally, “I feel so lonesome I could cry”), with a beautiful tremolo guitar-effect shimmering around the vocals. But Olsen is too good a songwriter to bask in solemnity without offering a glimmer of humor: “Are you lonely too? Are you lonely too? Hi-five, so am I.” Her performance of the song on the Late Show with David Letterman, back in June, was a highlight of 2014. Oh, and this record contains the best song of the year, the understated and passionate “Unfucktheworld”. You can read my thoughts on it in the TBB Best Songs of 2014 list. — DDRJr

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01. D’ANGELO | BLACK MESSIAH
Song above: “Back To the Future (Part I)”
In the last three decades, we’ve had at least three perfect soul records: Prince’s gargantuan masterpiece, “Sign o’ the Times” (1987), Erykah Badu’s “Mama’s Gun” (2000) and “Voodoo” (2000). (Maybe throw in Curtis Mayfield’s under-appreciated 1997 record, “New World Order”.) But this record is just as good as “Voodoo”, if not better. Rumors soared for the longest time after Spin magazine printed a piece in 2008 entitled, “D’Angelo: What the Hell Happened?” The piece marked his weight gain, a spiral of substance abuse, arrests and a virtual disappearance from making music. It also talked about the difficulty he had in maintaining the ripped-ab image he bore after appearing in the famed “Untitled (How Does it Feel)” video. D’Angelo has put all of that behind him (sorta). He does have a few words for the fans concerned with his appearance more than his music in his new song “Back To the Future (Part I)”: “I been wonderin’ / If I can ever again / So if you’re wonderin’ / About the shape I’m in / I hope it ain’t my abdomen / That you’re referring to.” It’s a wonderfully honest account. But what’s most remarkable is how stingingly eclectic the record is, underneath some of the familiar “Voodoo” flourish. There are sounds on “Black Messiah” that recall Prince, P-funk, J.B.-like horns and a touch of “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below”. It’s a record describing a world in need of soul fixin’ — addressing Wall Street greed, a need for real love, personal redemption, environmental clean-up (à la Marvin Gaye), white-American regress and black redress. It’s no wonder the record is called “Black Messiah” — because this is D’Angelo’s great second act, and ultimately his resurrection. — DDRJr

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Guilt-Free Listening Zone

This is a guilt-free listening zone. We've built relationships with bands, artists, labels and PR firms to give you the best in new music. All songs on this site are sent to Their Bated Breath directly from the artists, their PR firms, their record labels, or are available via stream. Thanks so much to all of them. It's important to me that nothing posted here take away anything from the artists. Enjoy. -- David.

2014: Good Listens …

  • • Leonard Cohen "Popular Problems"
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  • • Warpaint "Warpaint"
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  • • Cibo Matto "Hotel Valentine"
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  • • Sharon Van Etten "Are We There"
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