in Top Ten

Yo! I’m Michael. This is my first post here, which makes me pretty nervous. Plus, when you consider that my first post is also a top ten list, well… I’m pretty confident when I say that no person has ever felt the level of pressure that I feel right now.

Anyway, I listened to a lot of music in 2014. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever kept up with new releases as much as I did this past year. Perhaps because of that, I feel it was a pretty great year for music, making it difficult to choose only ten of the 100-ish new releases I heard. Besides the albums on my honorable mentions list, there are albums that a) I heard too late in the year to fully embrace (D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, Nicki Minaj’s The Pinkprint), b) were technically considered EPs (Vince Staples’ Hell Can Wait, Isaiah Rashad’s Cilvia Demo) or c) only existed in a weird dream I had on Thanksgiving night (Kill Machine, the new collaboration by Frank Black and my middle school P.E. teacher). Still, I think I can stand by this list.

Honorable Mentions: 
Spoon – They Want My Soul
Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks – Wig Out at Jagbags
St. Vincent – St. Vincent
The War on Drugs – The War on Drugs
Weezer – Everything Will Be Alright in the End

10. Souls of Mischief – There Is Only Now

Souls_of_Mischief_There_Is_Only_NowOn There Is Only Now, Souls of Mischief team up with composer/producer Adrian Younge to make a concept album based on a real-life shooting that the group witnessed in the early ’90s. Now, if that sentence alone isn’t enough to make you want to hear the album, here are some other things it has going for it: the best rapping the Souls have done in a long time, a sound that Younge describes as “93 ’til Infinity meets The Low End Theory meets De La Soul Is Dead”, and to top it all off, interludes narrated by Ali Shaheed Muhammad. The “story” isn’t really that great, and this kind of thing tends to be held back a bit since the verses have to serve the narrative. But this is still one of the most enjoyable rap albums of the year.

9. Black Milk – If There’s a Hell Below

Black_Milk_If_There's_a_Hell_BelowBlack Milk is one of my favorite producers in all of hip-hop right now.  While he may not be thought of as an amazing emcee, he’s definitely gotten better with each release, and If There’s a Hell Below is, lyrically, his best work so far. It goes without saying that the beats are great, but it’s also a pleasure to listen to him rap over them. Take album closer “Up & Out”, which is the simplest beat on the album. Over a drum loop and not much else, he spits: “If there’s a hell below, then we already in it/Tell your white friends, though/Come and pay us a visit/Our neighborhoods don’t look like/Theirs, don’t be scared/When you see teddybears on lightposts everywhere, you see/Streets watching everywhere you be/You see, cops hop out, on high school drop out/Hear ’em shout out “Freeze, get on the ground!”. Nothing mindblowing, but it’s definitely well-constructed and subtly moving, just like the rest of the album.

8. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2 

runthejewels2I remember when R.A.P. Music came out in 2012. El-P! The dude from Company Flow! The dude whose music sounds like a cross between the Bomb Squad and Blade Runner! Killer Mike! The dude who stole “The Whole World” from OutKast while rapping in 6/8 time! The real King of the South during T.I.’s reign! Some called it incongruous (which seems weird, especially in hindsight), but as soon as the album came out, seemingly everyone agreed it was a match made in heaven. So then came Run the Jewels, in which El jumped on the mic and the pair found about 8000 ways to say “fuck you, we rule”. It was awesome in many ways, but I have to say that I wasn’t as into it as their previous collaboration. They obviously had great chemistry together, but the one aspect of their work together that I’m kind of ambivalent about is the much-lauded “anti-aggro aggro” thing they do. There are times when it really works and I like it when rappers are “subversively macho” or whatever, but they play it up so much that it kind of gets tiresome and I think it backfires in some ways.

So I play Run the Jewels 2 for the first time, and holy shit. That element is still there, and I’m still not crazy about it. But there’s also a righteous anger there that was merely hinted at before. The all-out assault on the prison-industrial complex, the police state, Donald Sterling (and the people behind Donald Sterling, and the people behind the people behind Donald Sterling, and…), and fuckboys the world over is invigorating. There’s a catharsis to hearing these two find catharsis, if that makes sense. I’m eagerly anticipating Run the Jewels 3… though I might actually be more excited for Meow the Jewels.

7. Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty 

Lese_MajestyIshmael Butler’s lyrics could be enigmatic back in his Digable Planets days, but with Shabazz Palaces they’re damn-near inscrutable. It takes a few listens to understand what he’s saying, and even then they require some contemplation. On the production side of things, Tendai Maraire’s beats are so far-out that it makes Black Up seem like a DJ Mustard album in comparison. In other words, this is an album that demands repeat listens and asks for some work on the part of the listener. So, is it worth it? Absolutely. Once I found myself on the same wavelength as Maraire’s beats and Palaceer Lazaro’s rhymes, I was hooked. Support these guys lest Macklemore and Ryan Lewis become synonymous with “Seattle hip-hop”.

6. Jessica Lea Mayfield – Make My Head Sing

make my head singMan, I did not expect the new Jessica Lea Mayfield album to open with the sound of a squalling electric guitar. I love this new direction from her. The instrumentation, the rawness, and the melodic noise all remind me of Nirvana circa In Utero. And like Kurt, Mayfield has a knack for simple lyrics that alternate between devastating and darkly funny. I already like this album a lot, but I have a feeling that it will continue to grow on me.

5. FKA Twigs – LP1

fka twigs lp1Speaking of devastating lyrics… I remember hearing “Two Weeks” for the first time in a friend’s car and thinking “God, she sounds like she’s in pain”. A line like “You only want me in open spaces” is pretty brutal on its own, but the way Twigs sings it makes it almost unbearable. I’m still fairly new to this kind of music, so I’m not sure how to not sound like an idiot in describing this record and what it does to me. But I do know that Twigs writes about heartbreak better than just about anyone who made an album this year, and that, to me, the music frequently sounds like an alarm going off in slow motion. Not the best description, but that’s the kind of mood this album conveys, as if she’s fully realizing the personal terror she’s living in. These are some cold synths. The beat on “Numbers” constantly sounds like it’s about to fall apart completely, especially as she sings “Was I just a number to you?/Was I just a lonely girl to fly/Tonight I’ve got a question for you/Tonight do you want to live or die?”. I’m not so much “anticipating” LP2 as much as I am “preparing myself emotionally” for it.

4. Open Mike Eagle – Dark Comedy 

open mike eagleOpen Mike Eagle is, to my knowledge, the only Project Blowed member who hangs out with Paul F Tompkins and Marc Maron. While members of the alt-comedy scene have recently started to embrace him, he’s always been funny. With Dark Comedy, he does what both great comedians and great rappers do by taking everything scary and sad about the world and filtering it through his own sensibility and point-of-view. As he says on the opening track, he’s “on that laugh-to-keep-from-crying tip”. He’s angry at the way white people see his work (“Fuck you if you’re a white man who assumes I speak for black folks/Fuck you if you’re a white man who thinks I can’t speak for black folks”) and he’s anxious about technology (“I’m part flesh and part energy/The last text I sent you was from the heart literally”), but he’s funny and incisive when rapping about both. If you like They Might Be Giants, Kwame, Native Tongues (especially De La Soul), and Del the Funky Homosapien, check this album out.

3. Ought – More Than Any Other Day

ought more than“Today more than any other day/I am prepared/To make the decision/Between 2 per cent and whole milk.” And with that, the lyric of the year, this album won me over. Ought have a jittery, nervous energy to them that is perfect for songs about the anxiety of being alive. That probably makes the album sound like more of a bummer than it is. It’s actually pretty hopeful, with singer Tim Beeler finding euphoria in the same place he finds nervous breakdowns. If you love Talking Heads, the Violent Femmes, the Velvet Underground, the Feelies, and finding the strength to get out of bed in the morning, this is the album for you. Oh, and if you can, see them live.

2. Ex Hex – Rips

ex hex ripsThis album just rocks so fucking hard. Catchy, tight, loud powerpop with an emphasis on the “power”. I don’t think I heard anything more infectiously joyous all year. I found myself singing along to choruses before I was even done hearing the songs for the first time. God, I don’t even know what to say, man. I just think the world needs Ex Hex right now. This sounds like a band having the time of their lives. Side note: I’ve heard the Wild Flag album and this, but outside of a few Helium songs, I’ve never really listened to much by Mary Timony. I will now spend 2015 correcting this.

1. Sun Kil Moon – Benji

BenjisunkilmoonWith this album, Mark Kozelek tries his best to understand a sad, strange, beautiful, funny, chaotic world. To accomplish this, he takes a huge risk: he removes any sense of opacity from his lyrics. The risk pays off. There’s not metaphor to be found here because there’s no need for it. There’s a sort of prose poetry to the lyrics, but they’re so plainspoken that he may as well just be talking to you directly.

Two of Mark’s relatives died in freak accidents involving aerosol can explosions. His mom is going to die one day. He’s suffered heartbreak, and doesn’t know if he’ll ever find love. He feels sad for the families who lost their kids at Newtown. His dad’s friend is on house arrest as he awaits trial for mercy killing his wife. He loves his dad, and he forgives him for beating him when he was young. He’s grateful that he has music to help combat the melancholy that he knows will always be with him. He has mixed feelings when watching his buddy Ben Gibbard play a show, but it’s alright, Ben’s his friend.

A kid’s Grandma takes him to see Benji. He later sees The Song Remains the Same and falls in love with rock music. He gets freaked out seeing Richard Ramirez on the news. He starts a band. Someone gives him a record deal. He gets older. He visits the hotel room that Ramirez stayed in. He gets freaked out seeing the Newtown shooting on the news. He takes a trip to Santa Fe to personally thank the guy who gave him his record deal…

By now it should be clear that I have no idea how to write about this album. I thought about quoting lyrics, but in a weird way, that would feel like a “spoiler”, somehow. I can describe the way he plays guitar, but, y’know… it’s Mark Kozelek. He plays guitar good. So I’ll just put it this way: in his review of Hoop Dreams, Roger Ebert wrote that it “gives us the impression of having touched life itself”. That’s how I feel about Benji.