In lieu of a Spotify playlist, here’s the annual writeup of the very best songs of the second half of the year, in alphabetical order. If you click this link right here, you’ll even be able to download a folder full of all of them. And then you will truly know happiness.
Ryan Adams – Change Your Mind
Ryan Adams took a couple of years off, and then jumped back into a level of productivity he hasn’t seen in a decade. His full-length record (Ryan Adams) was fine, if just about what you’d expect a Ryan Adams album to be. The subsequent series of singles were generally better, if only because they tended to show sides of Ryan Adams that rarely make his records. The best of those is 1984, which doesn’t actually sound much like 1984, except in the very specific sense that it sounds like Minneapolis in 19841, and the highlight of that is, perhaps ironically, the most Ryan Adams-y song on that record, which is “Change Your Mind,” which sounds like one of his downer songs played at double speed.
Jhene Aiko – To Love & Die (f Cocaine 80s)
The seemingly-bottomless well of weirdo downtempo R&B of a couple of years ago has started to show its bottom a little, but one of the surprisingly-durable figures is Jhene Aiko, who manages to still fill records with sad, oddball songs. Her attempts to become a pop figure are probably a part of the appeal, but they’re also probably doomed. No ID does a better job producing here than he has in years, and that doesn’t hurt.
Aloonaluna – Bleed With the Moon
Aloonaluna is a quiet woman from Asheville, North Carolina. Her songs are surprisingly conventional, given that they’re also very much in the same drone/noise/near-ambient tradition as Motion Sickness of Time Travel, with whom she split a tape a couple of years ago.
Aphex Twin – CYRCLONTA6A (Syrobonkus Mix)
Prior to its release, I was convinced that the run-up and prerelease shenanigans would be the best part of Syro. Oh, I had no doubt that it would be a fine album – there are no bad Aphex Twin albums, after all – but the list of equipment, the list of completely crazy track-names, the fact that this all came out over TOR, it all seemed like the show was going to be better than the meal, as it were. I was, naturally, completely wrong, and what was even more comforting was that, despite Richard James’ output being largely concerned with flirting with populist forms, Syro had moments that were wierd as hell. So while lead single “Minipops” got all of the love and end-of-year accolades, I still found myself coming back to “Cyrclonta”, and trying to figure out what made all of that woozy looping so compelling.
A-Wax – Jetsons
One of the best things about Method Rappers2 is that they completely obviate the truth value of whatever it is that they’re claiming to live out – it doesn’t matter if A-Wax is still the weary, dejected criminal that provides narration for his songs, because it’s clear that the character is real to A-Wax, even if not to anyone else. Even without A-Wax’s insistent personality, “Jetsons” it’s an offbeat, sweet little song about a friend serving time – “by the time he’s out as a parolee/we’ll have a robotic maid we call Rosie/like The Jetsons” is how the chorus ends, and it’s a great enough way to say it that it makes it a great song.
BADBADNOTGOOD x Ghostface Killah – Gunshowers (f Elzhi)
Ghostface Killah had a year of real ups and downs – the “reunited” Wu-Tang Clan made a record that was mostly notable for being a lazy mess, and 36 Seasons was ok, if not a particular standout. So this, the advance single from this year’s collaboration with jazzbos BADBADNOTGOOD was pretty much the brightest spot of his year. Which is unsurprising, as BADBADNOTGOOD are consistently pretty great, Elzhi is a criminally slept-on talent, and Ghostface can still pretty generally come up with bars when he has the right facilitation.
Courtney Barnett – Pickles From the Jar
I don’t know that I would have predicted that the thing the world needed was an Australian Holly Golightly3, but we got one anyway, and I certainly can’t offer any complaints as a result. Also, I may be betraying my own plebeian status here, but just how else, exactly, is one meant to eat pickles?
The Beverlys – Bad Company
The commercial decline of rock music remains a mystery, because the form, as evidenced by not only The Beverlys, but a ton of other very similar bands, is still pretty easy to do a good job in. “Bad Company” is not a song that’s doing anything new. It probably even sounds like something you’ve heard before. And that’s why it works.
Black Milk – Detroit’s New Dance Show
If there was a “theme” to the stuff I heard a lot of in 2014, it was the idea of repeating yourself. Acts whose musical existence is seemingly dependent on a mercurial sense of self and mutation took a breather and trod on familiar ground. What ended up being surprising is that, for the most part, it worked out – Swans, Flying Lotus, Xiu Xiu, and here even Black Milk made records that sounded, basically, like the last record they’d made4. At least this sounds like it could, credibly, be a dance, albeit a really unnerving one.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy – So Far and Here We Are
I suppose if Black Milk brought to mind how many acts looped around to let people catch up, it’s fair to point out that professional weirdo Will Oldham continues to seemingly take direction from the most confounding ideas he has, even going so far as, for the last three or four records, making it really hard to even figure out that they exist. Singer’s Grave a Sea of Tongues is the best record of original material he’s made since 2006’s The Letting Go, which is a comfort, as it continues to the trajectory of last year’s good-but-still-kind-of-cobwebby Bonnie “Prince” Billy.
Busdriver – Motion Lines
I always feel like Busdriver songs are not as good as they should be. I have no reason to believe this, except for occasionally, when there’s a song like “Motion Lines” that comes around and is great, I feel like he’s met some sort of potential, and it always makes me very happy.
Busto Power Trio – Negotiating
If I have one musical weakness, it’s shoegaze. If I have two musical weaknesses, the other one is nineties-style surf-revival music. I can’t say it actually sounds like any surf music that actually exists, and there aren’t a lot of practitioners, and probably they’re all jsut filling the void left by the distinct lack of Man or Astro-Man material, but I could listen to this stuff all day. And I often have. And in 2014, many of those sessions were anchored by “Negotiating”.
Cold Specks – Old Knives
I first became aware of Cold Specks, like a lot of people, when she covered The Swans’ “Reeling the Liars In” a couple of years ago, and then didn’t really get around to listening to her records until Neuroplasticity came out5, which is a bit of a shame, as it’s awfully impressive stuff. The Swans connection is clearly a cultivated one (Michael Gira also sings on Neuroplasticity), which leads fairly easy to saying that, generally, she sounds exactly nothing at all like Jarboe. Hope that helps.
Cut Hands – Parataxic Distortion
On the tally sheet of artists where a wide variety of sonic experiences is the expectation, Cut Hands would fall somewhere near the bottom. For Whitehouse’s tenure, William Bennet had basically one set of sounds, that he then jettisoned in favor of his tribally-inspired, percussion oriented Cut Hands sound. It was a surprise, then, when Festival of the Dead included some pretty surprising branching-out, including this almost-pretty, funereal cut that reminds us that there are lots of reasons for tribal music, and that one of them is mourning.
Daephne – What Summer Felt Like Behind Your Bedroom Door
While it’s true that they’re killing me with their novel-length song titles, Daephne’s Family Vacation Demo was a handful of really sweet songs that sound like songs that were orphaned somewhere in Champaign/Urbana in the mid-nineties and migrated to Boston in the meantime. Which is probably a complicated way to say that they sound somewhat like a very young Juliana Hatfield fronting Hum.
Dama/Libra – The Chant
Joel R.L. Phelps was the original singer for Silkworm, and has had a long and troubled time in and around the indie music business ever since leaving (spontaneously and due to alcoholism) his erstwhile band. In 2013 he made a pretty good record with the Downer Trio, and then took a sharp left turn last year, and teamed up with G. Stuart Dahlquist (formerly of Goatsnake and Sunn0))))6, brother of deceased Silkworm drummer Michael Dahlquist, to make a droning, organ-heavy, seascape-like record of queasy, tense, funereal music. Here’s hoping this one wasn’t a one-off.
Deafheaven – From the Kettle Onto the Coil
Deafheaven are a band that, somehow, just missed being written about a number of times last year – their record really grew on me7, and seeing them live a few months ago really cemented what a wonderful thing we have in Deafheaven. This song also went a long way toward elevating my opinion – Sunbather was really long, but this punchy, sweeping single really gets their whole “thing” across in the most direct way possible.
Doomtree – .38 Airweight
The first Doomtree song released since No Kings was always going to have a place on this list, so it’s probably a good thing for me that it’s such a good one.
Earth – Torn By the Fox of the Crescent Moon
Of all the acts making surprisingly mainstream-oriented inroads, it’s perhaps Earth that is the most surprisingly. Once so far out-there that they essentially invented a subgenre (drone metal) and a mode of working (near-formless, pulverizingly loud heavy-metal-style drones8), Primitive and Deadly has songs with structures, drums, melodies, and even vocals. Oh such things the world comes to. Luckily, Dylan Carlson is enough of a forceful presence that even when his records are ostensibly normal, they still sound like they’re perpendicular to anything that’s easy to listen to.
EMA – False Flag
EMA has a wide array of songs, in a bunch of styles. She’s a guitar player who writes songs that rely heavily on screaming, whining synthesizers, and combines the elements of her band in a lot of different ways. And sometimes, when it all comes together, the result is pretty amazing. And sometimes they all beat on their instruments really loudly and kind of rip off “Sonic Reducer” and it’s even better.
Ex Hex – Don’t Wanna Lose
Remember in the nineties when people would trip and fall all over themselves in the music press to show how little regard they had for riff-rockin’ style classic rock? Remember how dumb that was? Mary Timony remembers, guys. A year ago I wrote “I’d still like ten or eleven more of [“Hot and Cold”] on an album” and I was totally right – that’s exactly what we got, and I love it.
Flying Lotus – Never Gonna Catch Me (f Kendrick Lamar)
While the world waits to see if Kendrick Lamar has lost his marbles or if “i” just represents a colossal, crushing step backwards, with none of his 2014 output being either comforting or damning w/r/t Kendrick as a long-term prospect. Still, though, it provided some pretty awesome traction on this slippery, bendy FlyLo track, so at least we can hope for some good features here and there.
Foie Gras – Cliffs
Foie Gras is one woman from San Francisco with a guitar and a bunch of synthesizers. While this leads to a lot of mental comparisons to the Oregon-based Liz Harris9, her music is only superficially similar, as it is considerably more outwardly-directed, and much more performative. “Cliffs” is her most conventional song (it’s the least ambient-y, at least), and doesn’t have much in common with her other output, despite being a tremendous song.
Forest Management – Natural Light
Cleveland minimalists Forest Management closed out their most record with this song, and it is a perfect, engrossing pressure release of a track. While it’s tempting to let ambient music be, as its name implies, the music of the background, this is a piece that really rewards letting it be the only thing on your mind.
Grouper – Clearing
Liz Harris herself, then, released an album that she recorded alone on a beach in Portugal with an upright piano. The whole record is as intensely, fiercely honest a document of aloneness and (often pointedly named) loss and regret as there is, and it also has a quality of eavesdropping, which, if you’re someone like me, increases the general discomfort. It rewards the difficulty of listening closely by being a delicate, gorgeous piece of work, with “Clearing,” which is actually one of the more forceful songs on the record, being especially cathartic.
Theophilus London – Get Me Right
I don’t know, man, sometimes you just gotta dance.
David Mayfield – Ohio (It’s Fake)
Another Mayfield of the Kent, Ohio Mayfields (his sister is Jessica Lea), David Mayfield’s third record, Strangers, is easily his best. This song is in keeping with his mien – finding, somehow, new ways to shine light on some fairly-traditional songwriting ground, mainly by being a really impressive guitar player and having a crazy way with a melody. That said, Ohio is totally real, guys. I keep all my shoes there and everything.
Mark McGuire – Noctilucence
Mark McGuire’s music is getting ever more buoyant and driving. Apparently having been freed of Emeralds for some time, he’s now propelled to ever-greater levels of velocity and shiny, tightly wound parts. “Noctilucence” sounds very much like a happy robotic horse.
Mellowhype – Bars
Quietly and unassumingly, MellowHype somehow became the most consistent and reliable force to come out of Odd Future10. They’ve put out a bunch of music in the last couple of years, a lot of it has been very good, and none of it has particularly been an embarrassment. “Bars” is, like much of their work, lacking the formal interests of Earl Sweatshirt, and lacking the joie de vivre of Tyler, but it’s still a solid track, and another step in the continuing documentation of Hodgy Beats’ improvement as a rapper.
Mono – Recoil, Ignite
As I’ve already said, I have no problem with an act taking a minute to more deeply explore some already-covered ground. I’m also over the moon about a band deciding that they’ve figured out the best possible way to say something they’ve already said. There’s nothing about “Recoil, Ignite” to set it apart from other great Mono songs, except that it’s probably the greatest of them. Sometimes it takes a few tries to get it this right.
Noxagt – Someone Calls You Every Night But Says Nothing, You Can’t Sleep…
Noxagt are a bunch of really intense Norwegians. A few years ago they swapped out their viola player for a guitarist, and their records since have been steadily getting back to the level of their first record. While not all of Brutage is as good as the Iron Point, there are moments that are pretty far up there, including this terrifying little number.
Old Man Gloom – Burden
The most appropriately-named band in heavy metal is also the one that gets the most entertainment out of twitting its audience – following up 2012’s barely-promoted, surprise-released No11, The Ape of God was first leaked in an incomplete teaser form, then given the full double-album release and a “nyeah nyeah” note baiting the people that downloaded the “leak” in the first place. The better part of the joke, however, is that the single-album leaked version is missing “Burden,” which is the best song Aaron Turner has written in a decade, and is more than worth putting up with any sort of release shenanigans.
Pere Ubu – Golden Surf II
The members of Pere Ubu are old. David Thomas followed his yelping, quacking muse all the way from Cleveland to London decades ago, and has taken various lineups with him through all sorts of twisty, bizarre forms of rock music. The band is coming into something of a third renaissance here in the last couple of years, as this year’s Carnival of Souls is, unbelievably, even better than 2013’s The Lady From Shanghai. “Golden Surf II” is a double-super-extra surprise, then, as it’s also one of the most aggressive, intense pieces Pere Ubu have recorded in a long, long time.
Pharmakon – Body Betrays Itself
Taking inspiration from some pretty terrifying medical happenstance, Bestial Burden ended up a great concept album – more focused than Abandon, and still more interesting than most of the power noise stuff that floods the market every year. It’s impossible to think that “Body Betrays Itself” would have done anything like encroach on the mainstream, but it almost did12 and that’s pretty cool.
Run the Jewels – Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck) (f Zack de la Rocha)
I don’t have to keep telling you how great Killer Mike and El-P are, do I? I didn’t think so.
Shabazz Palaces – #CAKE
I always have a soft spot for when art-rap weirdos make songs that sound like they could go off in a club, if the club was full of completely insane people.
Shellac – Riding Bikes
It might not be fair to call Shellac underrated. They’re generally lost in the wash of their guitarist’s status as Cranky Old Guard Analog Producer Guy General (although it is also the case that that probably increased their prominence), and rarely considered as their own entity. But leaving aside any of the non-band identity of any of the members, Shellac remain one of the most unique and consistent bands in the world (not to mention having hands-down the best rhythm section in rock music). They’re sonically interesting, they’re often funny, but at their best, they’re also a mind-blowingly intense band, as evidenced by “Riding Bikes”.
Sleater-Kinney – Bury Our Friends
I am completely and hopelessly unable to be impartial about the existence of a new Sleater-Kinney song. I suppose if it had been actively bad, that might be a different conversation, but I genuinely have no idea if I would even notice. It’s a new Sleater-Kinney song, it’s from a new Sleater-Kinney album, it’s going to be promoted by a new Sleater-Kinney tour. By all accounts, they’re back in semipermanent form even. So basically this song’s greatness was established by the fact of its existence. That it also manages to be – I think (once again, I am completely incapable of being accurate here) a pretty great song (and the other advance single, “Surface Envy” is also very good, and something of a curveball) is heartening, and encouraging, but at the end of all that, I’m still pretty much left with incoherent excited noises at a new Sleater-Kinney song.
Sleevenotes – Gutting the Spires
While 2013 saw me tripping constantly over new Explosions-style post-rock bands, such was not the case for 2014, with Sleevenotes being a notable exception (and also more like Mono than Explosions in the Sky). There isn’t a lot to say about this kind of thing, except that it’s especially impressive when a band can get all of the normal build/crescendo/unbuild stuff into a piece that’s only six minutes long.
Spoon – New York Kiss
It seems like the first paragraph written about any Spoon record for the last three or four records has to mention consistency. I will one-up this particular trend: not only are Spoon a rock-solid, completely dependably great band, but their album-closers are always, always top-notch. This is the closing track from They Want My Soul, and it more than holds up its end as a Spoon album-closer.
Stalley – Navajo Rugs (f De La Soul)
It was only a short couple of years ago that MMG seemed like an exceptional collection of talent. That’s hard to believe in a year that saw a terrible13 Rick Ross album, as well as a less-terrible-but-still-pretty-bad Rick Ross mixtape, an endlessly-delayed Meek Mill record, increasingly inconsequential Wale material, more French Montana material than anyone needs (which, honestly, is pretty much any French Montana material), and even the seemingly-unquenchable Gunplay releasing the most annoying mixtape in recent memory14, the last bastion of hope seems to be slow, steady Stalley and his surprisingly-good album Ohio. The best thing about it is the longish, unfolding “Navajo Rugs”, with spiritual fathers/all-time greats De La Soul.
Vince Staples – Blue Suede
It would be possible to be the rapper that bridged Odd Future and TDE and be a total mess. I would not predict that such a rapper would have Odd Future’s fire and TDE’s bars, but I would not have been able to imagine Vince Staples if he didn’t already exist. “Blue Suede” is a perfect example of what makes Staples so special, and why we should all be looking forward to him for (hopefully) a long time.
Trampled by Turtles – Come Back Home
Why are so many modern bluegrass bands so boring? Maybe Trampled by Turtles just make it seem unfairly easy, but it sure seems like you should be able to make some pretty compelling elements just by using the tools that have been available to bluegrass musicians for the last hundred or so years. “Come Back Home” is two things that are rare for this list: happy and rollicking. That’s probably a good thing for when you listen to all of these things.
Twin Peaks – Making Breakfast
Twin Peaks, as a band, are fine. There are several dozen power-pop bands doing just about the same thing. Fat White Family is a better band. The Gotobeds are a much better band. But neither of those bands are here, because while both of those bands have great songs, neither of them are responsible for the finest moment in rock music of 2014. To wit: “AW YEAH, MAKIN’ BREAKFAST” is one of the all-time great yelps, and my hat is off to Twin Peaks for that.
The Underachievers – Caprice
We had to wait almost all year for Cellar Door. 2014 was already the Year of the Pushed-Back Hip-Hop Release, so I suppose at least we’re lucky enough that it came out at all. It was, as all of their tapes have been so far, pretty great, and “Caprice” is a wonderful song, but as with the last three of these writeups, I find myself with very little to say about The Underachievers. It’s good. If you liked the last several, you’ll like this one. I will say at this point I find it kind of baffling how few people are excited about them. It’s almost like they’re……..underachieving15.
Whirr – Clear
Whirr was started after the singer left Deafheaven (see above) and their most recent record, Sway, was recorded after he joined Nothing (see the first half of the year writeup). That, my friends, is a band that is pitched directly at me. That is also a gentleman that’s had a busy couple of years. In any event, they’re heavier than the current crop of shoegaze revivalists. They’re also one of the few to legitimately sound like My Bloody Valentine. And “Clear” is such a good song.
Kierston White – Alcohol
Kierston White appeared midway through this year, and I had never heard of her even remotely. She’s based out of Oklahoma, Samantha Crain produced this record, an interview reveals that she alternated shots of whiskey and olive oil while recording this record. I don’t know, man. I do know that it’s a pretty compelling record in general, but that lead track, first single and all-around great song “Alcohol” is far and away the best country song of the year, and one of the best songs full-stop.
Wreck and Reference – Stranger, Fill This Hole In Me
I generally don’t use the “post-” prefix for a genre unless it seems completely necessary. It’s come a long way in the decade or so since it was used to describe everything, but it’s still pretty annoying. That said, an act like Wreck and Reference really sort of demands to be called post-something, as what they really sound like is music made sometime after the collapse of civilization in general. “Stranger, Fill This Hole in Me” is the vocalist’s strongest moment.
Xylouris White – Pulling the Bricks
George Xylouris plays a Cretean Lute (which is not, for various complicated taxonomical reasons, a bouzouki). Jim White, as he always does, plays the drums. The resulting record is a pretty dazzling display of musicianship, often moored to a distinctly nonwestern idea of what constitutes a melody. At its best, it sounds like “Pulling the Bricks,” and is great music for winter.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars teamed up to make “Uptown Funk,” which might be the best Bruno Mars song yet, but it’s still just a little too long. Mogwai’s “Teenage Exorcists” is a crazy power-pop direction for them, and might be kind of exciting, although the rest of the EP it was on didn’t give nearly the same impression of a change of direction. Nothing’s “July The Fourth” was another crushing, mighty song from a crushing, mighty band, but was clearly a leftover from Guilty of Everything, and basically failed to stand up to the rest of Nothing’s output this year. Tape’s “Alioth” is a very pretty song that didn’t really make the list. Anjou’s “Sighting” is a nicely meandering piece of atmospheric rock music. Tweedy’s “Low Key” has a fantastic video, and is a pretty great song besides, if lacking any sort of wallop. The Gotobeds’ “Wasted On Youth” has plenty of wallop, and is, in fact, very little but wallop, and I look forward to more cool stuff from them in years to come.
1 the Husker Du/Replacements Minneapolis (1984 was the year of Zen Arcade and Let it Be), not the Prince Minneapolis. It does not sound like Prince.
2 I’m kind of making the term up, but the idea is it’s the rappers that claim to live all the way inside their persona. Like A-Wax, or Rick Ross in 2006, or Ab Soul, or, going back a little further, Tom Waits or Sun Ra or George Clinton.
3 the singer, not the movie character
4 I mean, within reason. This strikes me about bands that don’t repeat themselves in a way that it doesn’t for, say, Mono or Spoon or even Run the Jewels – who despite being made of two extremely progressive musicians, literally repeated themselves to wonderful effect. Context is everything, I suppose.
5 it probably wasn’t hurt that this appearance was on the heels of her also singing on Swans’ To Be Kind a month or so before.
6 few things in this world give me as much pleasure as being able to close parentheses after that band’s name
7 I’m not one to revise old lists, but if I made my forty favorite records of 2013 it would not only be on the list (it was on the long list, but got cut when I made the final thing), but it would be as high as #20.
8 see also: Any of Stephen O’Malley’s output, (including subgenre apotheosis Sunn0))))* Boris’ weirder output, Nadja (and probably one out of every 10 or so Aidan Baker records in general), The Corrupted, and Moss
* still pretty satisfying, not going to lie. I love you, close parenthesis.
9 whose excellent project Mirrorring also stunned me with a song called “Cliffs,” coincidentally
10 I suppose it’s also surprising, depending on how you look at it – I don’t think anyone genuinely expected anyone in Odd Future to be consistent, except maybe Frank Ocean, and the only thing keeping Frank from the “most consistent” crown is his apparent hibernation.
11 which was, itself, released after eight years of silence on the part of the act
12 well, relatively
13 no, really. It really was quite bad. Stop arguing.
14 three to four tags on every track? Really, DJs Epps and/or Nasty? Really?
15. *Roger Daltrey scream*