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Here’s a selection of the best comments we received from music writers who voted in this year’s Pazz & Jop music poll. Thank you to all of our music writers who participated this year for voting and for sharing the comments below!
Between Yeezus last year and Black Messiah this year, there are enough black Christ figures in music right now to make Megyn Kelly shit her pants.
The last time Pazz & Jop had a ballot for music videos was in the 1995 poll, which was way before my time. Still, this year had so many great ones that it made me wish there still was a video ballot. Some highlights: Too Many Cooks taking the TV opening sequence to a terrifying new level, Kiesza proving to OK Go that a cool one-take video is better when you have a song to back it up, and Taylor Swift doing Gone Girl better than Gone Girl.
Vance Joy’s “Riptide”: This song was everywhere on the radio during car rides in fall, but its inescapability never bothered me. Why? Because finally I have an articulation for how cringe-worthy it can be when someone you care about sings the lyrics to a song wrong, especially when you can feel that it’s coming. Who knew there’d be a song that addresses that feeling?
Iggy Azalea has received louder booing for cultural appropriation than Eminem [did] for threatening to rape her. I point this out as a huge Eminem fan and a skeptic of Azalea’s chart charisma. Maybe I should be a skeptic of myself.
Ariel Pink: the human dickpic. Men keep trying to make him happen.
tUnE-yArDs mAdE aNoThEr GrEaT aLbUm j/S
Sharon Van Etten, Are We There — In which The Divine Ms. Van E explores every flavor of love: lost love, brokenhearted love, risk-fraught love, not-in-love-but-kinda-in-lust-love, secret love. All sung in the key of “sad.”
Jaime Paul Falcon
D’Angelo, Black Messiah — A lot of people have been making the comment that Black Messiah has Prince kicking himself, that it’s the record he would have made if he had ever decided to team up with the Roots and go crazy. Those people (myself included) seem to forget that Prince barely pays attention to anything not Prince. Let’s let Black Messiah stand on its own, and not endlessly compare it to things that will never exist.
Your Old Droog: While we’re all now sure that Your Old Droog is not secretly Nas, we can’t quite rule out the theory that he’s a laboratory creation by the RZA.
A.S. Van Dorston
With the number of publications and sites participating in year-end lists increasing every year, I wonder if people are getting more self-conscious about their choices, second-guessing their tastes and striving to choose albums that are “important” and “substantial.” Was the Scott Walker + SunnO))) album really on heavy rotation on that many playlists this year? Other list-toppers were Einstürzende Neubauten, Swans, Aphex Twin, and FKA twigs. With the exception of the latter, it’s a bunch of difficult listening for old men. I appreciate and even admire most of those albums, which lurk somewhere in my lists, but man, that’s some hard shit to love. OK, you’ve all proven how sophisticated and tasteful you are, but how about a little stupid, ridiculous fun?
Overrated of the Year: The War on Drugs. I don’t hate this band at all, and I can kind of see how their gauzy pop that also evokes classics from Dylan, Springsteen, and Tom Petty can appeal to people. Sort of. But best album of the year in multiple lists? Nooooo no no no. Top 400 at best (it’s currently No. 522 for me)!
On November 20, Beyoncé released “Ring Off” and quietly changed the feminist conversation. It wasn’t as flashy as broadcasting the word “feminist” into the homes of millions during the MTV VMAs, but it was a message nonetheless, at least to those who could hear it. Amid all the violence of 2014 — the injustice, the evidence that Americans are living in a truly broken country — the conversation about emotional and physical relationship violence has perhaps never been more open. From #whyIstayed and #whyIleft to Ray Rice to that PSA with the NFL players almost crying because “No More,” where for a long time there has been silence, there are beginning to be whispers. “Ring Off” is still a hushed voice in the conversation about relationship violence, and unfulfilling, unhappy relationships in general, but to those who feel trapped, the song is an anthem, and more importantly, it’s a hope.
While veterans like U2 simply floundered this year, oddballs and experimentalists seemed to thrive. FKA twigs, Future Islands, Chance the Rapper, and Flying Lotus finally started getting their just due in mainstream press outlets, keeping DJs, blogs, and labels on their toes and introducing even more experimental artists like Sturgill Simpson, GoldLink, Rabit, iLoveMakonnen, Moiré, and Rome Fortune.
2014 was the year of the weirdo, and King Weirdo himself, D’Angelo, somehow came through in the final weeks of the year to snatch back his crown, reportedly leaving Jack White in tears. For music nerds like myself, we all know that it’s a very uncommon occurrence for an artist to release an extremely long-awaited album months early in an attempt to ease social unrest. But I’ll be damned if it didn’t seem to work.
…2014 wasn’t such a great year for rock, barring a few exceptions (Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There, Beck’s Morning Phase, The War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream, Angel Olsen’s debut LP). The only album able to truly make a break from the experimental stagnation currently plaguing indie rock was Cymbals Eat Guitars’ LOSE, a bleak yet endearing record that speaks poignantly to the feelings of hopelessness currently being endured by the endless number of unemployed twentysomethings.
Another album that’s stayed with me most of the year is the Hotelier’s Home, Like Noplace Is There. It’s supposedly been the year of the so-called “emo revival,” but I don’t make any distinctions between “new” and “old” emo, and frankly, it seems pretty exhausting to do so. I will say this, though: I’m fairly confident that not only can 27-year-old me find something intensely satisfying and cathartic in the Hotelier, but I can definitely see a 16-year-old Michelle sweatily, tearfully crowd-surfing at the (sadly) defunct venues Birch Hill (in Jersey) and The Downtown (on Long Island) to this record over and over again.
I loved Perfume Genius’s first two albums, but felt a bit crowded out by reactions to this year’s Too Bright, every article advancing the same narrative of strength in the place of former frailty, of an artist putting his back N 2 it for real this time, as if “Take Me Home” hadn’t been the most beautiful and courageous song of 2012, no matter what degree of shadow the singer promised to be. The new listener craves empowerment. Bending the oppressors to our hushed ways would suit me better. But enough about me; to anyone thrilled by Perfume Genius’s success, I say, “I’ll be so quiet for you.”
Lil B’s life-affirming “No Black Person Is Ugly” came out late this July, and Michael Brown was shot dead and left in the street ten days later. It’s a song of heartbreaking optimism, like a “Better Must Come” for today.
Against Me!, Transgender Dysphoria Blues — “True Trans Soul Rebel” is the most triumphant song in years, and rightfully so. In an ugly year for societal issues at large, Laura Jane Grace’s well-documented and very transparent return as a female rock star is inspiring. Grace is the rare public figure who is open to discussing and helping others learn about her experiences as a transgender individual, and the interested and positive reception to this album can restore faith in humanity just a bit. Against Me! are a band that played to a very specific audience for years, one many would assume lacked an openness to diversity solely for its Warped Tour aesthetics. But not only did Transgender Dysphoria Blues touch that specific audience, it spoke truth to the experience of being a modern transgendered person to a massive music community suddenly paying attention. The band has always been punk, but Grace’s revealing, courageous, and downright badass honesty on Transgender Dysphoria Blues make this Against Me!’s punkest effort yet.
Future Islands — Singles. Frank Ocean or Phoenix on SNL. Christopher Cross or Phantogram on Fallon. It’s amazing how one performance can change the entire perception of a band. Future Islands are not a new act; their latest album wasn’t even out at the time. But when Sam Herring threw caution to the wind and let the music move him without inhibition, he gained more fans than merely David Letterman. The trick to this Future Islands groundswell is that the “Seasons” performance is just as good with your eyes closed. Herring’s baritone is sultry, inviting you to sing along after mere moments. The bass drives listeners to the point of throwing away self-awareness for dance as well, and it all culminates in a chorus that peaks sonically and emotionally before everyone involved comes crashing down…only for Herring to be there to pick everyone up all over again. It may have taken an hour and a half to write and two-plus years to live, but it’s the best three-odd minutes in music this year.
Colin St. John
It was an off-year for hip-hop. Obviously, heavyweights like Kanye, Kendrick, Jay-Z, and Drake didn’t get a proper LP out there. What we were left with was a nearly universal consensus that Run the Jewels 2 was the best the style had to offer in 2014. It’s a solid record — two elder statesmen of rap coming together for a follow-up that eclipses their first effort. Still, it has the feeling of an album that might’ve been the second- or even fourth-best hip-hop record in another year. If hip-hop is where much of innovative music is being made these days, then a lackluster year for the genre says something about 2014, in general.
Seven and one-half of my top ten albums are by women, by far an all-time high for me. Four of those are r&b (if you include Azealia Banks, and why not), while another two are country, with Miranda Lambert just missing the cut at No. 11. The others are Kate Tempest, who made the best Streets record ever, and Taylor Swift, who made the year’s best pop album by furlongs. Those two are opposite sides of the same coin, the Daria and Quinn of my top ten. And then there’s my No. 1, who not only rules my album list, but has a hand in my top two singles of the year, the undisputed Queen of Popular Music (and maybe the world), Beyoncé. I firmly expected something would knock Beyoncé off the top of my list all year, but nothing did….And that’s not even mentioning the amazing sight of her at the Video Music Awards standing before the stage-high word “FEMINIST” to make sure the world got the point.
Royal Blood made me believe in the purity of rock ‘n’ roll again.
Jenny Lewis, “Just One of the Guys”: Neko Case tried this last year, but Lewis’s stripped-down vocals and perfect harmonies reflect an intensely ironic destruction of masculine excess. In a year where we spent an endless amount of time finessing gender, this might be the best artifact of these conversations.
Hurray for the Riff Raff — Small Town Heroes. Country music rests on the bodies of dead women, and even the bodies of dead women who return from the graves tell their stories less than the stories of male relations, or at least country music that gets recorded. In a crystalline voice, this major-label debut tells stories — about women’s movement, across the city, country, continents, and back from the grave itself.
“Down on My Luck,” Vic Mensa: He’s lost in the town, wiping fog out of his eyes, Wednesday morning comin’ down. I checked a lyrics page on this — its video captures the vertiginous rabbit-hole of getting drunk as well as Charlie Boy and “Rubber Biscuit” in Mean Streets, or the ten-minute accordion hootenanny in Satantango (with a spiralling, house-of-mirrors narrative out of Tarantino or Christopher Nolan), and I wanted to see if the song was literally about the same. No — the club just happens to be where a down-on-his-luck Mensa ends up, brooding about what seems to be the illusions of some woman he was in love with, illusions he’s seen through (“Ooooh, look at you, look at you” — meant for her, but in the video timed perfectly to the moment where he gets cuffed). Twice everything stops for a few seconds of P.M. Dawn. Only three and a half minutes, but feels as majestic and as epic as Rhythim Is Rhythim’s “Strings of Life.”
Flying Lotus — You’re Dead!: Who else can do what Flying Lotus is doing? And who is excelling so nearly flawlessly as FlyLo does on You’re Dead!? The melding of jazz, EDM, hip-hop, and funk sounds better than one could have ever guessed. Flying Lotus is clearly a knowledgeable jazz head, but more than fanning out and paying homage, he wants to take jazz new places. In doing this, he follows in the footsteps of Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, and Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew. This is why he enlisted the talents of saxophonist Kamasi Washington and bassist Thundercat to collaborate with titans like Herbie Hancock, Snoop Dogg, and newcomer Kendrick Lamar. The product is something that could only come from the mind of FlyLo. Much like Sun Ra, it feels like no one on earth could possibly fathom the musical possibilities that are percolating in FlyLo’s brain. You’re Dead! is a glimpse into his mind.
In many ways, 2014 was characterized by men doing horrible things: Bill Cosby, Jian Ghomeshi, Ray Rice, Boko Haram, the trolls of GamerGate, etc. But musically, 2014 was fabulous for women. Even though I ultimately placed the War on Drugs on the top of my ballot, St. Vincent was a close, close second. Between her, Jenny Lewis, FKA twigs, Lykke Li, and Taylor Swift, I daresay we dominated the year.
2014 was the year it seemed nearly everyone rallied around Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music — even those folks (especially those folks?) who usually make a point of how country ain’t their thing. Has a country album ever inspired so much across-the-board critical love by being so completely retro? If you doubt that tag, please give a quick listen to Waylon Jennings’s “I’ve Always Been Crazy” or “Cedartown, Georgia.” And if you’re thinking, yeah, but what really distinguishes Sturgill from Waylon is that he’s “metamodern,” please listen to them again.
Despite the naysayers, listeners ARE seeking out quality sounds and better-quality delivery systems. High-resolution audio may be niche, but whenever I cue up a hi-res 96-kHz/24-bit music file on my Pono player (yep, I was a Kickstarter supporter, and damn proud of it), I’m transported to being RIGHT THERE in the room with the musicians, hearing and feeling their vibe and intent in the best way possible. How can that be a bad thing? And I continue to love vinyl, cuing up LPs during what I call my Appointment Listening sessions, where no distractions are allowed — i.e., no phones and no screens…nothing but sweet, sweet MUSIC. Ahhh.
I learn about music from reading about it and from my stepdaughter and daughter….Hozier’s CD [was] the debut of the year and arguably the album of the year. It earns that status because it’s a work of both head and heart and, with its curiously charming lurching quality, a soul album.
After a good number of years voting in this poll, I’ve begun to realize I am always going to vote for the elders, because they rock the best. I had been chalking this up to my own advanced age (52), but, remembering my leanings as an 18-year-old, it’s occurred to me that I would have loved Ross Johnson & Monsieur Jeffrey Evans, Wussy, Marc Ribot, Neneh Cherry, and Billy Joe Shaver (to name just a few) much more than what constitutes youth music today (or what has over the past decade). And that doesn’t depress me. It’s not a sign of musical end-times at all. Even someone as totally marginal as Johnson (his own classification has yet to be coined) has proven he’s anything but disposable, from 1982’s insane “Wet Bar” to 2014’s maniacal “Three Beer Queer”; it comforts me that he’s not part of the musical equivalent of an island of plastic bags choking the Pacific Ocean, nor is he likely ever to be. The older guys (and gals) know what it’s all about. They’ve really got it all worked out.
If there is one lesson every artist should be learning, and fast, it’s this: Get to know the standards. If you fuck up your career, like really fuck it up, like drive it off a cliff, like Lady Gaga circa 2013, you can always get back on the horse by singing the standards. If you’re Lana Del Rey and you can’t tell where the line is in terms of the ultimate trolling experiment, it’s best to regroup by doing a Disney standard. If you are skeleton Barry Manilow, no one will point out your capacity to scare young children with your countenance as long as you can keep flipping the pages of the Great American Songbook. When you get to the point where people don’t give two shits about your personal demons and artistic impasses, dial up an orchestra and some song written by Fats Waller or whatever and it’s all good baby baby. People don’t want Jay-Z to be the black Sinatra, they want him to sing Sinatra. With a Dean Martin hologram, preferably.
2014: Eighties AOR or GTFO — unless it’s shamelessly upbeat pop like the Galileo 7, or charmingly retro like Got a Girl, or boldly retro but modern like Miriam, not to mention intriguingly modern Sixties lite-psych like David Crosby(!), or maybe the soaringly synthy sounds of Future Islands, along with music in the vein of Pierce Turner’s quaint chamber pop — all of which sound like bands I listened to while neglecting Eighties AOR.
I sure hope this is another year where we get a lot of music critics whining about how it’s hard to make a living as a music critic nowadays.
Another lackluster year for semi-popular music — I think I’ve said that now in every single Pazz & Jop I’ve voted in, so let’s hear it for tradition — but to my particular regret there was very little for me to snark about in 2014. Why? For the simple reason that the Foo Fighters made Sonic Highways (album AND cable series). It’s time to say it, folks — Dave Grohl is in fact a Living Saint.
For all of the ease in finding music on the internet, it still seems like if some music is not marketed to critics or the masses, it gets ignored. Southern soul, of the slightly-raunchy-lyric and synth-rhythm variety, continues to generate new songs by the likes of Nellie “Tiger” Travis and others, but since it’s not pushed in a crossover manner, this line-dance-friendly sound for a largely older African American audience gets ignored. Similarly, Afrobeats (with an S), the African dance music style, is huge for the African diaspora, but with no major-label American releases and no PR marketing to critics, it’s largely been neglected by the music critic media.
There was a lot of good music in 2014, if not any standout albums or masterpieces. As has been the case for me in recent years, the best music in 2014 was all about the live shows. The author of my No. 1 album, Damien Rice also gets my nod for top show, as he put on a dazzling solo performance at a church in Los Angeles — two hours of just him and a guitar.
2014 was a banner year for SoCal hip-hop. DJ Mustard, Vince Staples, Freddie Gibbs and Madlib, YG, Schoolboy Q, and DJ Quik all dropped brilliant, idiosyncratic records. Let’s throw in L.A.-born iLoveMakonnen, the weirdest of the bunch; a genuinely bold left turn from Kendrick Lamar; and literally dozens of Mustard-produced singles, especially Tinashe’s “2 On.” These records don’t have much in common, except this: Together, they’re forceful arguments that L.A. is the center of the hip-hop universe.
I don’t object to the way that Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” makes me wanna holla, “Hey, Taylor, you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind.” I do object to the way it and all the rest of 1989 make me miss Shania Twain.
I don’t object to the (sometimes large) extent that Drive-By Truckers’ English Oceans sounds as if it were intended to remind the Rolling Stones and/or Neil Young how to make good albums again. I do object to the likelihood that neither the Stones nor Young will take the hint.
Most of my year-ends come from some kind of direct experience, some kind of magical night where the music blew my mind away in a wave of euphoria surrounded by people I love (and most likely with a tequila mate in my hand). RIP DBA, RIP Steel Drums, RIP Kent. Keep it going forever — 2014 was an unreal year for the NYC music scene.
Jody Beth (Jody Beth Rosen)
Although Taylor Swift and Beyoncé reigned supreme as pop’s homecoming queens, ever the hybrid of imperious throne-stroking and carefully constructed “relatability,” 2014 was the year of the weird, emotionally messy girl sharing her parents’ Xanax in the bleachers, her eternal party-readiness mixed with loneliness — that girl who’s yelling “Timber” as the tinsel falls has gotta stay high all the time and drink to push it down, push it down. And if not that, then at least being a delinquent and warming the seats in the principal’s office. As the year ends, it feels like some of us are the tweens on the bus at the end of Over the Edge, waving to our friends on the outside as the police cart us off to juvie; we’re screwed, but fuck this town and its puritanical, punitive, power-mad ways. Want a cigarette?
…That harsh systemic conservatism turns people inward, whether it’s Lana Del Rey and her supposed gaffe about copping to suicidal ideation, or tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus with Nikki Nack, reflecting on identity politics, depression, and the value of her own artistic voice.
That same conservatism has all but silenced American music’s in-text political activism, save the dreadful 2014 update of the already dreadful “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Run the Jewels made what one NME critic called an “urgent, paranoid album for a violent, panicked time,” and in those heated post-Ferguson weeks, RtJ’s Killer Mike was very vocal against institutional racism. Azealia Banks, never one to pass up an opportunity for a good Twitter beef, eviscerated Iggy Azalea over Iggy’s cherry-picking of the most fun and saleable parts of black pop culture without any signaling of genuine concern for the actual struggles of African Americans. Like Courtney Love, Banks has trouble keeping her mouth shut, being obedient for god’s sake, and it’s wonderful and refreshing whenever there’s a bug that the PR pest control can’t contain, particularly when that bug put out an album as irrepressibly intriguing as Broke With Expensive Taste. But these little blips of activism are anomalies. It’s crickets out there.
So what were you all about this year?
Did you create? Did you conquer new mountains? Did you leave something that transcends you? Did you move the world forward, even in some small way that resembles the conservation of angular motion but remains poetic enough to be blamed on the moon, if you had to credit your creation to anything between heaven and earth?
Or did you just keep fucking around without even once thinking about finding that clit?
The world only turns one way. Which way did you move this year?
The most salient advice of 2014 was in a Sisyphus song: “Calm it down.” (Advice, it must be said, the album heeded entirely too well.)
Women had more than enough reason to feel frustrated, besieged or misconstrued throughout 2014. But take a look at how good pop has gotten, how much money it’s made, how gorgeously it’s absorbed hip-hop (and vice versa) and how absolutely none of its hitters, heavy or otherwise, are male. Stuff like the Sony hack reminded us how gross inequality thrives badly in the movie industry; the music industry seems like its proud feministic antidote.
2014 will probably be remembered as the year “Weird Al” ’s acceptance (or Al-cceptance) went full-mainstream. Between having a No. 1 album, a cameo in a musical television event, and his film UHF re-released on its 25th anniversary, the next stop is the Hall of Fame.
Run the Jewels, RTJ2: “I’m gonna bang this bitch the fuck out!” Killer Mike shouts in the spoken-word intro to RTJ2. “You might wanna record the other way, you feelin’ like history being made. This motherfucker put a mirror on the goddamn screen.”
True to his word, Mike’s second tag-team effort with fellow incendiary mastermind El-P reflects the chaos that was 2014. Brimming with violent charisma and razor-sharp braggadocio, social unrest is the subtext for every punishing rhyme — whether it’s El-P’s “Give a fuck if you deny it kids/You can all run backwards through a field of dicks” or Mike’s more pointed “ ’Cause when you live on MLK and it gets very scary/You might have to pull your AK, send one to the cemetery.”
The beats and verses escalate with hypnotic perfection: As comfortably psychedelic textures harden into bouts of bracing noise and concussive bass, the rappers’ push-and-pull chemistry moves from simple boasts to vicious political barbs. Mike’s passionate onstage speech in Ferguson, Missouri, and his USA Today op-ed objecting to rap lyrics as courtroom evidence grabbed headlines, but all that attention would mean nothing if RTJ2 weren’t already so powerful.
Y’ALL, I’m Here Right Now: No disrespect to the charming sprawl of Ty Segall’s similarly minded Manipulator, but the year’s best glam-garage hybrid came from this new and relatively unknown quartet from Virginia. Picking up the pieces from two rock bands, Invisible Hand and Naked Gods, that chased similar ends, I’m Here Right Now is both cozy and captivating. The guitarmonies alternately sizzle and swaddle, and leader Adam Smith is suave like Bolan until he goes crazy like Bowie.
While online discussions about fake geek girls proliferated, the mainstream media focused on allegations of rape, women’s rights, and gender, and handled them all so poorly as to be on the side of those attacking. Thankfully, this year, there came from the underground a song that fought back against the zeitgeist in furious form. Punch’s “Worth More Than Your Opinion,” from They Don’t Have to Believe, kicks off that album with a minute-and-a-half opening salvo in the war against women. Meghan O’Neil simultaneously describes the onslaught of judgment women face as they walk out the door every day, while excoriating those who perpetrate it.
I think it’s great when artists can take on things like a “supergroup” or several consecutive side projects but are able to gain and/or retain an excited following of existing and new fans alike. This year, Angaleena Presley capped off all three members of Pistol Annies releasing well-received solo records with her debut, American Middle Class, and Andrew McMahon (of Something Corporate and Jack’s Mannequin) emerged once again, this time with the self-titled debut album for his project Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, showcasing a newly developed side of his songwriting personality. Each of these endeavors embodies this scenario of “the flexible musician,” and seeing as how the spirit of collaboration and reinterpretation has only burned brighter this year (just take a look at the explosion of viral remixes and covers on YouTube), I think all of this is a sign that both fans and musicians alike are healthily embracing when albums, bands, or members of bands decide to change or connect their inspirations.
Farah Joan Fard
Taylor Swift used to annoy me…I mean…really annoy me. Skipped any song of hers, dismissed her performances, rolled my eyes at her magazine covers…the whole kit and kaboodle. And yet she surprised me this year. In fact, I get where she’s coming from.
This may seem trivial, but let’s just say it’s a huge turnaround for someone like me. My favorite albums consist of Synchronicity, A Love Supreme, Moving Pictures…you get the idea. As a kid and teenager I collected tapes of showtunes, soundtracks, film scores, and classic rock. The first CD I ever bought myself was Metallica’s Black Album. You might say I’m not Taylor Swift’s demographic.
….While I don’t see myself actively seeking out her music anytime soon, I see where she’s coming from, and respect her decisions. I appreciate her activeness in bringing artist royalties and women in music to our attention. I don’t think she’s an over-the-top amazing guitar player or lyricist, but anyone looking at negative comments from men on most of her videos will see how derogatory they are. If she were a male performer at the same level, I don’t think people would treat her the same way. I guess time will tell as to how she will evolve.
So, when do we get to see Taylor Swift shred?
Best of all, so far: [D’Angelo’s] “Till It’s Done (Tutu),” with words that quickly brush and scratch the surface of communication, in between deeper drops (both approaches are also found in those songs/tracks busy being born on The Basement Tapes Complete),and seem, for a while, like they may just settle for atmosphere, surrounded by other sweet sounds. But a melodic line keeps forming, rising, darting away and coming back, with more and more clearly felt commitment, to resolution, and emergence, on whatever level can be reached, with open air that can still be breathed.
If you’ve followed pop music long enough — from the 1960s to now — the passings have become as important as the new releases. One that really got me, because I saw him perform (and talked to him) just a month before his death, was Ian McLagan. He was fit, energetic, good-humored, in great voice, and had songs from a new rock album on a reputable label that was introducing him to some new fans. What more do you want at age 69?
tUnE-yArDs — Nikki Nack: Merrill Garbus made an album that takes what glorious chaos she created on 2011’s whokill and channels it into what might actually be the best pop music of the year. How most everyone seems to have left this first-half-of-2014 standout off their year-end lists, I just do not know. Merging vocal prowess with frantic percussion and real electronic craftsmanship, Nikki Nack is pointed and emotional, alternating between sneeringly political and happily childlike. “Water Fountain” may be the pinnacle of all that Garbus can do, but “Wait for a Minute” will, fittingly, stop you in your tracks.
Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music: Had there ever been a country record about finding yourself through psychedelic drugs? I think not. After a year of country music that is more at home in a garbage dump than anyone’s record collection, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is enough to give fans beaten down by bro-country a little glimmer of hope for the future.
For all of the Twitter jokes made and thinkpieces written about the “surprise” release of U2’s Songs of Innocence, one striking message sent by the band’s union with Apple lingers more than any other. It is remarkable that, rather than offering the album as a gift that one could download for free if she wanted to, U2 instead put it in every iTunes user’s Purchased queue. The message here is not, “Here’s a free album for you.” Instead, it’s something far more bold: “You already bought it.”
Spotify’s free streaming on the one hand and Pono’s high price tag for hi-res on the other shows 2014 as a watershed year in music’s role in accommodating, or accommodating itself to, widespread economic disparity.
Parquet Courts, Sunbathing Animal — Incendiary post-punk out of Brooklyn, Parquet Courts recall the best of downtown Seventies NYC rock without verging into kitsch — raw, propulsive, relentless, with a face-melting live show to match.
No one captured the fear and the loathing better than Killer Mike and El-P, of course. And yet my favorite album of the year was mostly music for music’s sake. Blake Mills took his ridiculous résumé as a guitarist and studio genius and turned it into Heigh Ho. Listening to that thing at high volume is an experience like swimming or flying. In either case, it’s a good way to get the hell out of this godforsaken place.
Being a lover of music in physical form — i.e., CDs, vinyl, or, if you must, cassettes (why?) — I feel inclined to continue to lament the continuing trend of offering music as downloads, streams, samples, etc. Way back when, the arrival of a new album was something to anticipate not only for the music contained within, but also for the entire package — the opportunity to study the packaging, the credits, etc. With the physical availability of new music diminishing, those sensory advantages and accoutrements are disappearing as well. Music has become an amorphous quality — one well suited to iTunes, phones, and however else people are acquiring their music these days.
Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire for No Witness — The growth out of Olsen’s solitary soul was not an overnight success, but rather the maturation of working with personalities as adept at mining our depths to pull forth tales worth spinning. Burn Your Fire for No Witness is as stark as “old” Olsen and yet the most forthright message of life among the ruins of a society too preoccupied with the fallout to stop it from happening. While the masses go mad in preparation for the apocalypse, they do little to prevent it but rather just stock up on munitions to wait it out. Olsen is the first line of defense against such a sad reality. Those of you retreating from the darkness rather than facing it, you’ve clearly ignored this album. Wait no longer.
Best Artists of 2014 Whose Names Start with “Lil”
1. Lil B
2. Lil Data
3. (tie) Lil Ceno (Sicko Mobb)
3. (tie) Lil Trav (Sicko Mobb)
5. Lil Herb
6. Lil Ugly Mane
7. LiL JaBBA
2014 Pazz & Jop Essays Index
• A First-Rate Year for Second Acts
• Black Lives Matter
• The Comfort in Being Sad
• Pop’s Not-So-Secret Weapon
• Pazz & Jop 2014: The Critics’ Best Comments
• Tabulation Notes by Pazz & Jop Ballot Master Glenn McDonald
More:Pazz & Jop