Dec 19, 2015

2014 Year In Review Part V: The Tracks

I keep wavering each year on whether or not I want to call this portion of the year-end round-up "tracks" or "singles". The former definitely sounds more truthful for 2014, as I fell ever further behind in keeping up with mainstream radio. I could rarely tell you if any given track was a legitimately released "single" or not. Regardless, here are 75 of my favorite songs of the year. You'll notice I've cut this list down. I'm an albums kind of guy and it just got much harder and more arbitrary to round out that final 25.

75. "The Instinct" - Mark McGuire
74. "It's Not Too Late (To Say Goodbye)" - Doug Paisley
73. "No Rest for the Wicked" - Lykke Li
72. "Forerunner Foray" - Shabazz Palaces
71. "Disco/very" - Warpaint
70. "Morning" - Beck
69. "Instant Disassembly" - Parquet Courts
68. "Heavy Seas of Love" - Damon Albarn
67. "Automatic" - Miranda Lambert
66. "Careful You" - TV on the Radio
65. "Fuego" - Phish
64. "Left, Right" - YG
63. "Dark Star Blues" - Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso U.F.O.
62. "Boom Clap" - Charli XCX
61. "Habits (Stay High)" - Tove Lo
60. "I Wanna Get Better" - Bleachers
59. "Sunbathing Animal" - Parquet Courts
58. "minipops 67 [120.2][source field mix]" - Aphex Twin
57. "Forevermore" - Thurston Moore
56. "In Love With Useless" - A Sunny Day in Glasgow
55. "Ain't It Fun" - Paramore
54. "Turtles All the Way Down" - Sturgill Simpson
53. "Platinum" - Miranda Lambert
52. "Whole New Dude" - William Tyler
51. "Milly's Garden" - Steve Gunn
50. "Little Fang" - Avey Tare's Slasher Flicks
49. "Warning" - Cymbals Eat Guitars
48. "Inside Out" - Spoon
47. "She's Not Me" - Jenny Lewis
46. "Kelly" - The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
45. "Happy" - Pharrell
44. "Are You Okay?" - Dum Dum Girls
43. "Plateau of the Ages" - Agalloch
42. "Blast Magic" - Comet Control
41. "Put Your Number in My Phone" - Ariel Pink
40. "Fuckers" - Savages
39. "Love Me Harder" - Arianna Grande f. The Weeknd
38. "Gunshot" - Lykke Li
37. "Brando" - Scott Walker & Sunn O)))
36. "Out of the Woods" - Taylor Swift
35. "An Ocean In Between the Waves" - The War On Drugs
34. "O Father O Satan O Sun" - Behemoth
33. "Partition" - Beyonce
32. "Our Love" - Sharon Van Etten
31. "Back to the Shack" - Weezer
30. "Move That Dope" - Future f. Pharrell, Pusha T & Casino
29. "Johnny & Mary" - Todd Terje f. Bryan Ferry
28. "Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes" - Sun Kil Moon
27. "Jackson" - Cymbals Eat Guitars
26. "The Singer" - Ty Segall
25. "Tough Love" - Jessie Ware
24. "Red Eyes" - The War On Drugs
23. "Bury Our Friends" - Sleater-Kinney
22. "Pet Semetary" - DJ Quik
21. "Problem" - Arianna Grande f. Iggy Azalea
20. "Digital Witness" - St. Vincent
19. "Can't Do Without You" - Caribou
18. "Choices (Yup)" - E-40
17. "Silver" - Caribou
16. "Do You" - Spoon
15. "Delorean Dynamite" - Todd Terje
14. "Blockbuster Night Pt. 1" - Run the Jewels
13. "Never Catch Me" - Flying Lotus f. Kendrick Lamar
12. "Seasons (Waiting On You)" - Future Islands
11. "Shake It Off" - Taylor Swift

10. "Transgender Dysphoria Blues" - Against Me!
For an absolutely bracing, cathartic and life-affirming record like Laura Jane Grace brought us with Transgender Dysphoria Blues, the album's lead-off title track is probably the most "all of the above" of the batch. A powerful thunderhead of a "fuck you" meets the shore of "don't give a fuck anymore", resulting in a swirling squall that is equal parts anthem and throwing in the towel. While later tracks on the record took more full advantage of Grace's songwriting chops, this title track set the table for one of the most engaging rock records in recent years.

9. "***Flawless" - Beyonce
Despite it's ultimate position as the fifth single from Beyonce's surprise released self-titled record, "Flawless" was the one that hung with me the most - far more than the bigger hits "Partition" and "Drunk In Love". Ultimately I think it comes down to the red-hot collision of the trap influenced beat and the pro-feminist sample from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TedX talk, a playful bit of message shifting that manages to capture the spirit of Bey in 2014.

8. "Two Weeks" - FKA twigs
I took me a little while to come around to loving the entirety of FKA twigs debut full-length (though come around I very much did), but this track hit me immediately and powerfully. It captures the whisper to a scream dynamic range that twigs skillfully wraps up in a silky smooth R&B package that exudes pure sexual energy for its entire 4:14 run time. The Queen of the Damned inspired video certainly helped, a pitch perfect personification of her power and control.

7. "Blank Space" - Taylor Swift
The second of her three #1 singles from 1989, this one proved to have the longest lasting charm of any of them. While "Shake It Off" was, and still is, great fun, it's tied to a particular moment, but "Blank Space" better reflects the uncanny universality of Swift's best pop songs. The haters will point to the winking, self-deprecating lyrics as a negative, but that she makes even those lines so relatable hints at her real power. 1989 was the triumphant coronation of her mainstream takeover, "Blank Space" will be it's biggest song in rotation 15 years on.

6. "Marrow" - YOB
The nearly 20-minute "Marrow" closed out Clearing the Path to Ascend, the seventh (and, to my ears, greatest) album from San Francisco doom stalwarts, YOB. It's a colossally powerful song that earns every second of its running length, with Mike Scheidt's clear voice calling out in hope through the fog of doom and gloom established during the previous three tracks. It's a powerful moment, to date the band's high watermark, and a testament to the visceral power of metal.

5. "Talking Backwards" - Real Estate
Serving as the lead single for the band's terrific third record, Atlas, "Talking Backwards" also serves as the perfect single song distillation of the band's gorgeously melodic guitar-pop, Matthew Mondanile's chiming guitar lines and Martin Courtney's sweet vocals aren't doing anything particularly different from what they've done in the past, but it all blends together perfectly, enhanced by some of the band's clearest, most pristine production to date. If this one song can't convince a newcomer to Real Estate's greatness, you're likely dealing with a cloth-eared fool.

4. "Goblin" - Opeth
Even I'm still surprised that this song has proven to be so durable throughout the course of 2014 and been so permanently lodged in my brain, a pretty rare feet for a mid-album instrumental palette cleanser. But Opeth's Pale Communion was, if nothing else, an album out of time - an unabashedly progressive rock record stuck in 1972 that proved divisive even amongst the Opeth devotees - so the normal rules need not necessarily apply. "Goblin" is an obvious nod in both title and form to the titular 1970s purveyors of horror movie scores, but it slots in perfectly with Opeth's prog world.

3. "Water Fountain" - tune-yards
It took me a lot of time to warm to Merrill Garbus. Hers was always an approach I admired more than I actually enjoyed in practice, but that all changed with the second track on her third Tune-Yards record, Nikki Nack. It's an impossible song not to fall hopelessly in love with, even on the first listen. Over joyous Afropop inspired polyrhythms, Garbus adds deliciously wry and wickedly memorable schoolyard chants that sneak in subtle layers of cultural and socioeconomic commentary. Though you'd be forgiven for not even catching those last ones while you bounce along.

2. "True Trans Soul Rebel" - Against Me!
It's not often that I've ended up with two tracks from the same artist in my year-end top ten, but Against Me! is a band that's never really bothered by bucking traditions. I've already talked about the album's' title track and how well it set up the theme and mood of the album, but it's this track that best balances integrates the newfound ferocity with the songwriting skill that Laura Jane Grace has always out on display. It's a deceptively simple song, but when Grace hits that chorus... "Does god bless your transexual heart?", the inner turbulence and pain is crystallized. This is the power of pure pop music.

1. "i" - Kendrick Lamar
By September of 2014, when this song was first released, the world was hungry for anything new that Lamar might have to offer after the universally lauded good kid, m.A.A.d. city won over hearts well beyond the usual hip-hop world's boundaries. Though only the briefest tease of what To Pimp A Butterfly was to bring, "i" was a powerful statement on it's own. For a genre that usually expresses self-doubt more than self-pride, the Isley Brothers sampling hook was a brilliantly simple and rabidly infectious assertion of black pride - something he's explore even more fully when the calendar flipped and Butterfly finally dropped. It took me a minute to warm to the album version of "i", it makes total sense in the context of the larger record, but I'll always cherish the beauty of the single version.

Dec 6, 2015

2014 Year In Review Part IV: The Live Albums

And let's keep the momentum going... here are via//chicago's ten favorite live releases of 2014. Some are brand new, some archival, but all are newly gussied up live recordings that are well worth tracking down.

10. Between the Buried and Me - Future Sequence: Live at the Fidelitorium (Metal Blade)
If there is something else I really love, it's ridiculously over the top metal that delves into progressive rock territory. And, for my money, no one has done that as well in recent years as North Carolina's Between the Buried and Me. This live set captures the band recreating, in full, their 2012 full-length, The Parallax II: The Future Sequence. While that's not my favorite album of theirs, it's a pretty massive slab of prog-metal ridiculousness and sometimes I just want to revel in it.

9. Band of Horses - Acoustic at the Ryman (Brown Records)
Here was a band that fell of really, really hard. Like most of the world, I discovered them thanks to their highly hyped debut, 2006's Everything All the Time. Seeing them play later that summer at the Pitchfork Music Festival only confirmed how much I liked them. What followed was a really solid second album, a third (and major label debut) that was mostly fine but showed some diminishing returns, and a fourth that just flat out sucked. I'd all but given up on them, but hearing them stripped down at Nashville's legendary Ryman Auditorium reminded me about what I first loved about these guys. I'm still doubtful that another studio record will turn the ship around, but this is a pretty solid live document.

8. Naam - Live in Berlin (DesertFest)
Really this is more an EP than anything else, but these 24 minutes rock just as hard as anything else on this list. Brooklyn's Naam have been kicking around for awhile now, releasing two full-lengths and a handful of EPs on the always reliable Tee Pee label. Their particular brand of heavy psych is most definitely heavy on the psych, but heavy on the fuzz and riffs as well - think Pink Floyd meets Black Sabbath. This live document captures them firing on all cylinders and will serve as a great doorway to their other work.

7. Gary Clark Jr. - Live (Warner Bros.)
While I've found his studio work to be frustratingly inconsistent, where he tries to wear way too many hats and inevitably falls far short at pulling off most of 'em, it seems that Gary Clark Jr.'s place is on the stage. This 2-disc live document captures performances from the festival circuit that Clark was on during the summer of 2013, which certainly seems like a comfortable setting for his particular blend of blues-rock. It's a genre that gets clowned, usually very much deservedly, but when played well and without ego it can still be really powerful. He's a fantastic guitar player, but I think his greatest strength is knowing when to cut and run, this isn't another Bonnaroo jam session that will bore you silly.

6. The Bad Plus - The Rite of Spring (Sony Masterworks)
This is likely cheating, but it was fine tuned as a live performance so much that this recording really has a live feel to it. Igor Stravinsk's The Rite of Spring is one of those monumental compositions that even those with the most adverse reactions to classical music know and, usually, love. It's a big task for any group to tackle it, let alone a three man jazz band. And, getting it out right now, this never reaches the dramatic swell and power of the full orchestrations you've heard, but that's fine. The Bad Plus make this their own and pull the piece apart to best suit their approach, without sacrificing the emotional impact. It's not as dynamic, but is still a very engaging take.

5. Circle / Pharaoh Overlord - 6000 km/h (Full Contact/Ektro)
I'm cheating a bit here, but it's really hard to separate these two from each other. If you've been paying any attention to via//chicago over the years, you'll be well aware of how big of a fan I am of the Finnish band Circle, and their various off-shoots. These two records catch recent live performances of both Circle and Pharaoh Overlord (an off-shoot that, for this recording, contained three members of Circle) and both are absolutely killer. The Circle record features a couple rare jams and runs the gamut from brief bursts of hardcore noise to drone goodness. Pharaoh Overlord, on theirs, gives us four lengthy tracks that alternate between noisy prog and jazzy noise.

4. Fripp & Eno - Live in Paris 28.05.1975 (DGM)
This is quite a fascinating historical document that captures what is, in retrospect, quite a pivotal moment for both of these two legends. Robert Fripp had just begun the five year hiatus that shelved King Crimson for the back half of the decade, while Brian Eno was deep into his four album run of terrific pop records after having parted ways with Roxy Music. These two had already made quite an impact with 1973's ambient (No Pussyfooting), but this live set is taken from the only, very brief, tour these guys underwent as a duo. Backed by Eno's prerecorded loops (included here as bonus on disc 3), the pair meld together on some fascinating pieces that rely on Eno's brilliant sound manipulation and Fripp's fantastic guitar work. Probably not the best entry point for newcomers, but an essential document for fans.

3. Causa Sui - Live at Freak Valley (El Paraiso)
I've been a fan of this Danish four-piece for a few years, since I first discovered the excellent El Paraiso record label and the 2-disc compilation of Causa Sui's Pewt's Sessions. Since then I've also discovered their three-part Summer Sessions series and their terrific 2013 full-length, Euporie Tide. Live at Freak Valley is a two disc package that captures their full, 90-minute set from the German festival, Freak Valley, that came hot on the heels of Euporie Tide's release. It's the perfect format for a band that has pushed their sound out this far, evolving from a rather straightforward stoner rock sound to something far more psychedelic and hallucinatory. If you haven't checked this band out yet, there are far worse places to start.

2. Earthless Meets Heavy Blanket - In A Dutch Haze (Outer Battery)
Speaking of killer performances from European heavy music festivals... here's another absolutely killer performance, this time a fiery team-up from two fine purveyors of heavy psych-rock from America. Earthless is a Bay Area trio that cranks out lengthy psychedelic instrumental jams that are riff-heavy and heavily influenced by krautrock. Heavy Blanket is one of J Mascis' umpteen bands, a trio that also trades in psychedelic heavy rock, but one that leaves plenty of room for Mascis and his furious fret-work. This records captures the two bands teaming up to absolutely decimate the Roadburn Festival (hence, In A Dutch Haze) with their potent blend of stoner rock. It's a heavy, heady trip well worth taking for any fans of exploratory heavy music.

1. Grateful Dead - Wake Up To Find Out (Rhino)
And, continuing on with the theme, here's some more exploratory rock music, though one that is decidedly less heavy than Earthless and Heavy Blanket and a little more hippie than Causa Sui. Yes, this is another live document from perennial via//chicago favorites, the Grateful Dead. But it marks for a slight departure from the band's recent focus on the '60s and '70s by presenting a complete live set from the band's twilight years - specifically a March night from their well-regarded, if under-appreciated 1990 Spring Tour. What makes this particularly special is that Branford Marsalis sits in for a killer first set "Bird Song" and the entirety of the second set. I'm typically not a Marsalis fan, but he really did pull something special from Jerry and the boys on this tour. If you have't delved into the latter years of the Dead's career, this is a great place to start - a shining gem from a surprisingly solid tour.