I can’t claim to understand why the Oscars are taken so seriously. How could a voting body honor the likes of Crash, and still be given control over the conversation of what movies were great in a given year? The Oscars lionize as much tepid, whitewashed pablum as the Grammys, but the former remains an Event, and the latter is a punchline. It makes no sense, but I have to admit, I love that unearned cred. I love that my wife and I are planning an entire weekend around the Oscar broadcast, that I’m going to try and make fancy appetizers, that we actually watched The Imitation Game so we could marvel at its foolproof Oscar formula (British accents + misunderstood genius plastering pieces of paper to a wall + moment where a bunch of people say “if you fire him, then you’ll have to fire me” = nominations galore). I love that Birdman could win Best Picture on Sunday, and that some small, illogical part of me will actually be upset. On a certain level, I will care that a stylized PSA about the plight of famous American actors (who sometimes get bad reviews and aren’t taken seriously, poor dears) will go down in history as declaratively better than SelmaI don’t care about sports, but maybe this is why people love them – to have a pony or two in the race, and to be emotionally invested in how they do, regardless of how little sense that makes.

Anyhoo, I’ve put together a list of what I would nominate for the Best Picture of 2014. And goddammit, it’s because I care.

The Babadook

The Babadook

First-time director Jennifer Kent enters a realm of psychological horror in which Stephen King would feel downright cozy. The titular meanie is a horrifying Edward Gorey character gone mad, and as it jumps off its pop-up pages to infiltrate the lives of Amelia and her son Samuel, the frayed nerve endings of their shared family tragedy are painfully exposed. An allegory for the grieving process, and an exploration of how goddamn hard parenting can be, Kent’s film isn’t afraid to show its soul, and is all the more terrifying for it.

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Blue Ruin

On top of being a way to describe a feeling of utter desolation, “blue ruin” is also an archaic term for low-end gin. And in Jeremy Saulnier’s elegantly brutal, Kickstarter-funded thriller of the same name, his main character would’ve been better off medicating the former with the latter. Instead, Dwight Evans – played with quiet, schlubby intensity by Macon Blair – spends years planning revenge on the man who killed his parents. When his target is released from prison, this plan immediately goes to hell. From that point forward, the tension heightens in direct relation to the vacancy in Blair’s eyes. There’s no such thing as payback here. There’s just bankruptcy.

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Dear White People

Using a college campus as the setting for an exploration of 21st century black identity and white privilege – as well as the ways that social media, reality TV and family dynamics can promote the distortion of self – writer/director Justin Simien illustrates the frustrations of living in a deeply prejudiced society that really wants to believe racism isn’t a thing anymore. Weaving through the sharp Spike Lee callbacks and slobs vs. snobs satire are Sam White and Lionel Higgins (Tessa Thompson and Tyler James Williams, both terrific). Both are hiding elements of themselves, whether it’s underneath some passionate rhetoric or an unruly afro. And both reach new levels of self-confidence at a gruesome, hip-hop-themed frat party (whose basis in reality makes it all the more sickening). These character arcs form the backbone of Simien’s film. Their sweet triumphs are also his.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

When I first saw the trailer for The Grand Budapest Hotel, it looked like it was gonna be little more than an airy romp – a clever slapstick period piece set in a hotel that looks like a big pink layer cake. I feel for whoever had to cut that thing. Because this is writer/director Wes Anderson’s most ambitious story. He flexes his writing muscles more than ever, stacking flashbacks like nesting dolls until we’re back in 1932, watching wide-eyed lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) and kinetic concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, in a hilarious, tender, career-best performance) operate the titular hotel in its prime. What follows is epic and basic, funny and tragic, violent and sweet. But most of all, it’s romantic, in a way that transcends ornate set designs and vengeful Dafoes and vicious Nazi stand-ins. The Grand Budapest Hotel is one big celebration of that moment when you know you’ve found your person. With plenty of cake to go with it.

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Selma

It’s crazy that until last year, nobody had made a major motion picture where the main character was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But it just takes one look at the ongoing criticism of Selma’s portrayal of Lyndon Johnson to understand why. These people prefer their condemnations of racism to come from the mouths of white saviors, and Hollywood’s compliance to those expectations has resulted in big box office (The Help made $169 million domestic). Which just makes Selma feel all the more masterful. Director Ava Duvernay has made a movie that – god forbid – credits King for the civil rights victories of the 1960s, by focusing on one event in his life, in a clear, measured way that avoids typical biopic lionization. It’s what Spielberg couldn’t quite pull off with Lincoln – a film that humanizes an icon by jettisoning easy re-enactments in order to focus on how the historical sausage was made. Instead of the typical loaded flashbacks, or they-feel-this-way-and-so-should-you shots of awe-inspired followers, Duvernay shoots meetings between organizers, arguments between planners. She directly addresses King’s marital infidelities. She gives as much screen time to his moments of doubt as his inspirational speeches. She gets a brilliantly subdued performance out of David Oyelowo that never feels like an impression. She depicts the voting rights marches that give the movie its spine with brutal clarity, and haunting relevance. By tackling one of the most emotionally charged moments in our nation’s history with a cool, even hand, Duvernay has made an MLK movie with a distinctly MLK sensibility.

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Wild

This adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir takes the concept of a redemptive journey quite literally. Writer Nick Hornby and director Jean-Marc Valleé let the metaphors fall where they may as we follow Strayed (Reese Witherspoon, in a rich performance that makes her Oscar-winning turn as June Carter Cash feel like a cartoon) through a 1,000-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. The vastness of the landscapes speak for themselves. As do the moments of toenail sloughing pain, and the unspoken, ever-present threats from the men Strayed meets in the wilderness. Through artfully deployed flashbacks, we learn the driving forces behind Strayed’s journey, in bits and pieces. Her mother, and her emotional bedrock, dies, and Strayed spirals into self-destruction. This backstory is treated with the same restraint as the main trekking narrative, giving us just enough of a glimpse to make a connection. Throughout, Wild is content with showing, and moving on. “How wild it was, to let it be,” muses Strayed as she nears her journey’s end. Here’s a film that takes that line to heart.

What better way to ring in the new year than with a list of songs that somebody else liked? Here are my favorite songs of the year that was. Listen on the fancy playlist that hopefully is appearing below, and/or read my thoughts on each track, and/or stop reading now and start a good book. Like “Watership Down” or something. Got it? Great. Happy new year.

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25. Ex Hex – “Waterfall”

Mary Timony’s new ensemble gins up a dynamite Ramones boogie, and gives us an idea of what it must’ve been like to court Dee Dee: “I want to show you my affection / But you’re on the floor.”

 

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24. Jessie Ware – “Say You Love Me”

The kind of scorching R&B theater we took for granted when Whitney and Mariah were at their peak.

 

 

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23. Kylie Minogue – “Fine”

This underappreciated pop star speaks directly to the people who line the walls of the club, staring at their shoes, afraid of how they’ll be perceived: “You’re gonna be fine/You don’t have to worry.”

 

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22. Mark Ronson ft. Mystikal – “Feel Right”

I’ve heard that Get On Up was pretty decent. But I don’t need a James Brown movie. I have Mystikal. “Feel Right” is no “Hit Me,” but it still drowns our eardrums in joyful adrenaline, leaving you no choice but to believe lines like “I eat flames up / Shit fire out!”

 

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21. Swans  – “A Little God In My Hands”

When this angular funk groove gets pancaked by a dump truck of drunken horns, it makes Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” seem like “I Want Candy.”

 

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20. Run The Jewels – “Blockbuster Night Part 1″

Just in case this beat’s Andre The Giant-playing-the-12-string-guitar thump doesn’t do the trick, Killer Mike is here to shake your ass awake: “Top of the mornin’ / My fist to your face is fucking Folgers.”

 

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19. Jungle – “Busy Earnin'”

Perhaps the catchiest dance track to ever leverage the swagger of hardcore capitalists. We “can’t get enough,” indeed.

 

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18. Mastodon – “High Road”

This song compares those who take the high road to plague-ridden rats. Whether or not you agree is immaterial – one listen to that magnificent, belching riff, and you’re following these guys down every tunnel.

 

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17. St. Vincent – “Birth In Reverse”

What does Annie Clark see through the blinds? She hints that it’s something phenomenal, haunting, and American. Perhaps it’s her own reflection.

 

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16. Nicki Minaj – “Anaconda”

During a summer when Taylor Swift and Meghan Trainor were appropriating hip hop tropes in queasy ways, “Anaconda” felt necessary, with Minaj transforming an old pop-rap punchline into something hilariously, defiantly, and indelibly new.

 

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15. Future Islands – “Sun In The Morning”

A stunning ballad that dares to suggest one person can be all you need. It’s “Drunk In Love” for the quavering new wave set.

 

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14. Migos – “Pop That”

Proof that humanity’s instinctual urge to procreate is directly related to our instinctual urge to dance.

 

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13. Tune-Yards – “Water Fountain”

An elegy to a failed public works system presented as a gleeful jump rope chant. Shades of gray aren’t usually this neon.

 

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12. Drake – “0 to 100 / The Catch Up”

A salve for those still irked by the flagrant falsity of “Started From the Bottom.” Drake claims that he left TV for hip hop because the money wasn’t coming fast enough. Then he admits he’s probably not the greatest yet, in a freewheeling flow that begs otherwise.

 

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11. Hannah Diamond – “Every Night”

The chirping synths and Chipmunk vocals of the PC Music collective sound like a robot presenting evidence that it can love. And “Every Night” is its most convincing argument, if only for its charming brain teaser lyrics: “I like the way you know that I like how you look / And you like me too.”

 

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10. Sturgill Simpson – “Turtles All The Way Down”

A ballad about Buddhism and the cleansing power of reptile aliens. Now that’s what I call rebel country.

 

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9. Azealia Banks – “Gimme A Chance”

There’s a difference between an artist making eclectic music and an eclectic artist making music. This track is the latter, transforming from brassy hip hop into a killer salsa tune so seamlessly, you almost don’t realize it.

 

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8. Against Me! – “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”

Hearing Laura Jane Grace’s pain ferment into jet fuel was one of the only things in 2014 that made us believe hatred’s days are numbered.

 

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7. Shamir – “On The Regular”

Throw together some cowbells, a few notes on a synth, and the breezy confidence of the precociously talented – and just like that, dance music feels new again.

 

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6. Cakes da Killa – “Just Desserts”

Listening to a Cakes verse should qualify as an hour of cardio. “Coming at n***as like an avalanche,” he spews here, not even coming close to hyperbole.

 

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5. D’Angelo & The Vanguard – “Betray My Heart”

If you can believe any famous person who claims to be true to themselves, it’s probably the one who waits 14 years to capitalize on his fame. And then does so with earthy aplomb over walking bass and squelching wah-wah.

 

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4. Nicki Minaj – “Boss Ass Bitch (Remix)” 

The Rosetta Stone of being a boss.

 

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3. Sleater-Kinney – “Bury Our Friends”

“Patch me up/I’ve got want in my bones,” belts Corin Tucker on Sleater-Kinney’s first new track in almost a decade. She sounds like a boxer who’s feeling her second wind, a character in an action movie who the CIA convinces to come out of retirement with guns blazing.

 

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2. Clean Bandit – “Rather Be”

When the alarm goes off, you’re holding your person, and you’d trade tickets to Paris for just another hour. Clean Bandit has made a dance song out of that feeling.

 

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1. Young Thug – “Treasure”

Nobody sounds like Young Thug. And “Treasure” captures him at peak delirium, marveling at people who leave money on the table in enchanting quadruple time, his voice squawking and cracking and stopping and starting like a Lil Wayne tape played on a melting Teddy Ruxpin. If you pass up the chance to listen to this, its chorus immediately applies to you.

Honorable Mentions: Azealia Banks – “Chasing Time”; Behemoth – “In the Absence ov Light”; Cozz – “Dreams”; Craig Campbell – “Keep Them Kisses Comin'”; D’Angelo & The Vanguard – “Really Love”; Flying Lotus ft. Kendrick Lamar – “Never Catch Me”; Michael Jackson – “Love Never Felt So Good”; ILoveMakonnen – “I Don’t Sell Molly No More”; La Sera – “Running Wild”; Nicki Minaj ft. Soulja Boy – “Yasss Bitch”; Sinead O’Connor – “Take Me To Church”; Pallbearer – “Worlds Apart”; Robert Plant – “Rainbow”; Rich Gang – “I Know It”; The Roots – “Tomorrow”; Sia – “Chandelier”; TV On The Radio – “Lazerray”; Sharon Van Etten – “Every Time The Sun Comes Up”; Young Thug & Bloody Jay – “Florida Water”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“On The Lord of the Rings we had actors in prosthetics playing the orcs, and I was always a little frustrated by that. If I could have afforded it then, I would have much preferred to have all the orcs CGI. Now, in The Hobbit, I can.”

-Peter Jackson

A few months ago, The Hollywood Reporter revealed that as of March 2014, the budget for Peter Jackson’s latest epic – three films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 children’s fantasy novel The Hobbit – was $745 million. It’s the most expensive trilogy of all time, costing around $500 million more than Jackson’s last massively successful go-round with Tolkien’s work – those triumphant, absorbing, lived-in adaptations of The Lord of the Rings novels. After seeing the final Hobbit installment, The Battle of the Five Armies, in a packed theater over the holiday weekend, I have no doubt that every penny of that budget was used to make these movies look great. Unfortunately, you can’t finance feeling.

TBOTFA picks up right where The Desolation of Smaug left off, with that titular dragon feeling over it after a far-too-long dwarf fight and laying waste to the vaguely Celtic people of Laketown. It’s a gorgeous and harrowing sequence, with Jackson capturing the grand terror of the dragon’s every swoop, both from above the town and in the thick of its clogged and scorched canals. But before you can relax and honestly hope for a stuck landing, the dragon (77-year-old spoiler alert!) is killed by Bard the Guardsman (Luke Evans). Only after the amber light elegantly leaves its body in midair does the film’s title appear.

You’ve gotten your Smaug, now prepare for the slog.

 

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The rest of the film transforms the last five chapters of Tolkien’s book into a battleground strategy manual. It makes good on its title for sure, with the armies of dwarves, elves, men, orcs and deus ex machinas turning each other into CGI slurry for a huge chunk of the running time. There are stunning visuals here; Jackson does not deserve the “video game” taunts. But he’s blinded by pixels. The patience, warmth and good humor of the underrated An Unexpected Journey are nowhere to be found; characters have no time to talk, let alone develop enough to get us invested in them. As a result, those looking for any kind of message from these movies leave with some paper-thin bullshit. Tolkien taught us a simple, poignant lesson – if you don’t lose sight of what’s truly valuable in life, you’ll be stronger than kings. To do so on film would require some quiet, reflective moments, however.

So instead of letting his universally beloved main character Bilbo Baggins (the perfect and wasted Martin Freeman) steal screen time from the worms from Tremors, Jackson invents the character of Alfrid Lickspittle, the toady to the King of Laketown and sentient insult to our intelligence who spends TBOTFA being cartoonishly cowardly and greedy, pushing old ladies and then dressing up like one to avoid battle (which is funny in 2014, apparently). Instead of letting Bilbo actually have a conversation with Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the newly crowned King of the Mountain struck with “dragon sickness,” the character can only come to his senses after a (terrible-looking) CGI hallucination sequence involving a floor of molten gold quicksand or whatever. Instead of having Bilbo do anything, we watch Bard save his “Da!”-yelling kids over and over and over again, because FAMILY. We learn about Legolas’s dead mom, because FAMILY. We hear the warrior-elf Tauriel talk about nothing but love and dudes, because WOMEN’S ISSUES=HALF-BAKED TWILIGHT-TYPE SHIT.

 

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When filming The Lord of the Rings, Jackson had to get creative to avoid blowing his budget. He had to lean on his actors and his script-writing partners. He had to shoot miniatures and build sets and use old camera tricks to make us believe that Ian McKellen was three times taller than Ian Holm. His passion and ingenuity were all over those films as a result; he was Sam carrying Frodo up the mountain. On The Hobbit, with that blank check staring him in the face, he felt like a King. His trilogy that started with such heart has ended in a haze. The dragon lives.

 

 

2014 was a year. A year in which there were records. A year in which some of those records were downright pleasant. A year in which 20 of those downright pleasant records made me particularly happy in my ears and brain:

Dead Congregation 20. Dead Congregation – Promulgation of the Fall

When I discovered metal, I was 12, and would share a Walkman with my similarly inclined Catholic school pal. We couldn’t get enough of Cannibal Corpse’s debut album Eaten Back To Life, specifically one moment when the cacophony abruptly ceased, and singer Chris Barnes intoned in his throaty roar, “Fuuuccccckkkk yooouuuuuuu!!!!!” It made us laugh, but it was also a form of nourishment, a blast of roughly hewn vulgarity to remind us that the world was a ridiculous place, and that if we were born with original sin, well then so be it. Promulgation Of The Fall brings me back to that feeling. Because this underground Greek ensemble is uncompromisingly brutal in a subsuming, freeing way. The riffs are simple and undeniable, layered and deepened to appropriately pulverizing levels. Solos are short and never showy. And singer Anastasis Valtsanis belts his demonic screeds in a steady, guttural growl, on songs that embrace chaos with open arms, jettisoning millennia of human guilt in the process. (excerpt from my review in The Quietus,6/9/14)

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19. Kylie Minogue – Kiss Me Once

Kiss Me Once, Kylie Minogue’s 12th album, continues an impressive streak of ruthlessly addictive dance music that dates at least as far back as 2001’s aptly titled career rejuvenator, “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.” Smartly, Minogue and her deep bench of producers and songwriters stick with the winning formula of caffeinated synth-pop and disco, with a touch of dubstep tossed in for the kids. When it works best, it results in the kinds of choruses that make platitudes sound like rallying cries. The killer, clavinet-laden groove of “Sexy Love” does something to the human brain that makes us forget we’re listening to a song called “Sexy Love,” with a chorus that goes “Gimme that sexy love.” Kind of like how John Lennon’s harmonica tricked us into thinking “Love me do” was a sentence. (excerpt from my review in Slant Magazine, 3/16/14)

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18. Coldplay – Ghost Stories

There are times when a truly great movie is precisely what you do not want to see. You want to watch Reversal of Fortune instead, because it’s Sunday and you’re hung over and there’s something gently entrancing about Ron Silver’s hyperactive yin meshing with Jeremy Irons’ laconic sleazeball yang. Coldplay’s sixth LP was this year’s Reversal of Fortune of rock albums, a well-crafted, well-executed drama that wields clichés like hot water bottles – after a long day grappling with intense, ambitious works of art, Chris Martin is here to soothe those aching joints by singing “I love you so / So much that it hurts.” Ghost Stories is possibly the calmest, unfussiest breakup album ever; it’s far more concerned with sounding beautiful than sounding hurt. By weaving elements of James Blake’s bedroom dubstep into the band’s usual earnest-verse/bear-hug-chorus formula, these nine songs possess a touch of winter that does wonders to Martin’s lyric sheet, which would seem pretty hoary on its own. He sounds like a man who is capable of poetry, but has been made indifferent to it by loss. So he makes simple observations about birds and stars and the ocean, leaving the deeper metaphors to those who feel strong enough to plunder them.

Archibald-Slim-Hes-Drunk17. Archibald Slim – He’s Drunk!

On his debut mixtape, Archibald Slim weeds America’s uneven playing fields until all that’s left are the ugly truths in the soil, proving himself as the most accomplished artist of Atlanta’s ever-expanding Awful Records crew. Producer KeithCharles Spacebar gives the tracks a midnight jazz solemnity that would bend the ear of a young Nas, squashing any expectations that the title of this tape is an entrée to wackiness. In this context, “he’s drunk” is a quote, attributed to anyone who responds to the marginalization and oppression of an entire people by blaming the victims. People who would scoff with a hitch in their voices when they hear “Stay Black and Die,” a song delivered by Slim with something more harrowing than mere fury in his voice: “They tell me, ‘No don’t do it, go and get a job’ / They don’t understand that a fella play the game with different odds / So I know task one is stack dough for your bail / Cause you won’t pass go / Just go straight to jail.” (excerpt from my review in Paste Magazine, 11/25/14)

cibo_matto_hotel_valentine_1391874927_crop_480x48016. Cibo Matto – Hotel Valentine

“I wonder how many people know their life is like this / Staying at the hotel, renting times, renting a body,” muses Miho Hatori on Cibo Matto’s first effort in 15 years. The sentiment works to chilling effect as the preview to the one-two punch that closes this satisfyingly strange meta-comeback album – the ominous storm of “Housekeeping” and the fragile rise to the heavens that is “Check Out.” I leap toward the close of this brief record because it’s so compellingly open-ended. Hatori and Yuka C. Honda have great fun setting the stage – the catchiest track, “Déjà vu,” combines their trademark rubbery bass lines with a triumphant stroll of a chorus. But it’s those last two songs that make this more than a ’90s nostalgia trip. We’re lured in by the lulling groove of “Housekeeping,” the playful vocalizing of guest Reggie Watts keeping the disquiet at bay for a little bit. But then that maid keeps saying she’s going to “set us free.” And then, before we know it, we’re floating. (excerpt from my review in The Quietus, 2/14/14)

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15. Jungle – Jungle

By writing simple, irresistible pentatonic melodies, singing them almost exclusively in falsetto, and pairing them with the kind of moody, heavily synthesized soul grooves that suggest an unhealthy obsession with Marvin Gaye’s Midnight Love album, this camera-shy British duo has created something unpretentious enough to energize a dance floor at 2 a.m., yet curious enough to suggest there’s something just a tad thornier under the surface. Jungle is at its best when its clear goal is to get heads bobbing, like when it argues for the cathartic benefits of endless partying on “Time” – “Don’t let it in / Just let it out / Time and time again.” Or when it leverages the swagger of hardcore capitalists on “Busy Earnin’,” explaining how we “can’t get enough” over hooks so insidious that they’d make any bleeding heart understand. It’s no coincidence that both of these songs possess lively bass lines. The duo is stingy with the low end on much of Jungle, preferring to keep its heads and equalizers in the clouds. (excerpt from my review in PopMatters, 7/15/14)

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14. Ty Segall – Manipulator

Ty Segall must be haunted by riffs. How else can you explain the absurdly prolific number of sickening garage rock hooks he’s already churned out (five LPs’ worth since 2012)? They must come to him in dreams, demanding to be released. Last year’s autumnal folk album Sleeper was still mighty catchy, but it also sounded like the kind of palate cleanser that could precede a more significant tonal shift. It wasn’t. Manipulator is an embarrassment of classically Segall-ian riches, 15 tracks that boogie you ragged like a forgotten disc from the Nuggets box set. That his Kinks and Stooges jones hasn’t gotten old is a testament to the songwriting – “Ask your bossman for a raise / Tell your mama she better keep her change” nails that classic rock sweet spot between nonsense and bad-assery – and Segall’s evolving gifts as a singer. The hushed instrumentation of Sleeper pays dividends here, with the artist paying close attention to his vocal melodies and intonations even though they’re back in the fuzzbox fray.

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13. Rich Gang – Tha Tour: Part I

Even though he’s only 22, Young Thug’s major label misadventures are already legion. But if there was any doubt that he couldn’t mold his inimitable quirks into universal entertainment, Tha Tour: Part I laid them to rest. Rich Gang consists of Thug, fellow Atlanta mixtape veteran Rich Homie Quan and Dirty South Svengali/Cash Money Records founder Birdman. The latter lays down the recipe for the tape’s luxurious syrup with a spoken word intro about the group’s affinity for “gold turlets,” his pronunciation crucial to his swagger—this is provincial materialism, thousands of miles away from Magna Carta Holy Grail. Thug and Quan sing as much as they spit, over the lush, organ-fueled R&B soundscapes of producers like London On The Track. It’s the lava cake after Black Portland’s backyard barbecue, a satiated dream state triggered by the kind of artistic chemistry you can’t fake. (excerpt from my review in Paste Magazine, 11/25/14)

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12. The Roots – And Then You Shoot Your Cousin

When The Roots became the house band for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in 2009, it was such a good thing – for black artists; for hip hop; for television in general. But for Roots fans, it was also a little scary. A year earlier, the band had inflamed our brains with Rising Downa raw, sickening ride on the American merry-go-ground of poverty and violence. Now that they were the next Doc Severinsen, would albums like this be a thing of the past? With And Then You Shoot Your Cousin – the third high-quality Roots album of the Fallon era – those fears have been put to bed. Like 2011’s Undun before it, Cousin is supposedly a concept album, but it’s best if you ignore the “story” and let the poverty-stricken poetry and mournfully gorgeous production wash over you. “Never” is an epic achievement, complete with a scratchy choral introduction, pizzicato-sprinkled breakdown, echoing canyon of an opening verse, and that exhilarating moment when all the elements come together. Keyboardist Kamal Gray remains the perpetual unsung hero, grabbing all the best hooks – the solemn backbone of “When the People Cheer”; the dusty saloon groove of “Black Rock”; the triumphant, cathartic chords at the heart of “Tomorrow.” “Some say that happiness will never find you / Until you find yourself,” sings guest Raheem DeVaughn on the latter. As a band that’s as self-aware as any, yet keeps piling on the challenges, The Roots must be happy as hell.

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11. Lykke Li – I Never Learn

Is it better to have loved and been shot in the head, or to have never loved at all? This is the grim scenario we’re confronted with on “Gunshot,” one of several over-the-top relationship eulogies that haunt Lykke Li’s third album. Those who had their hearts set on another batch of coy, cloudy electro-pop from the Swedish singer/songwriter might consider the song a bummer, but for the rest of us, it and the other eight tracks that comprise I Never Learn make for a stirring, pristinely rendered expression of heartache. The artist isn’t interested in poetry here. She fills her songs with theatrical 1980s adult contemporary visions – rainy days on lonely roads; hearts that shatter and crack; other hearts that are made of steel; the one that got away. Every lyric lands, however, because they’re not the result of laziness – their author is just too wracked with guilt to bullshit us. (excerpt from my review in The Quietus, 5/12/14)

Mastodon_-_once_more_'round_the_sun10. Mastodon – Once More ‘Round The Sun 

It’s probably unfair to compare Mastodon to Metallica. They’re from different eras, command different-sized spotlights, and play by different music industry rules. But humor me. Mastodon has been challenging its die-hard fans with a less-thrashy, more-accessible approach, at the same point in its career that Metallica did – on its fifth and sixth records. The good news is, they’re doing it in a different way. Once More ‘Round the Sun is the catchiest, most sludge-free metal LP in its catalog, but what it forsakes in lyrical weirdness (no Cysquatch this time around, folks) it makes up for with a clutch of instant-classic riffs, some of the most powerful singing in the genre, and yet another amazing album cover. Its counterpart in Metallica’s catalog is 1996’s Load, that glossy, “bluesy” turd of betrayal that played to all of the band’s weaknesses (e.g. lyrics that aren’t about war/injustice, singing that does not involve growling). Some cries of dismay have cropped up here and there, but Mastodon has avoided Metallica’s fate by embracing cleaner, richly layered prog instead of melodramatic classic rock. And by being talented enough to help us forget about subgenres while we sing along at full tilt. The thrash is gone, but by no means is the thrill.

nikkinack9. Tune-Yards – Nikki Nack

After 2011’s w h o k i l l topped the Village Voice‘s Pazz & Jop poll, Merrill Garbus found herself touring arenas with Arcade Fire while trying to maintain her brash, avant-garde sensibilities. Nikki Nack is the result of these warring priorities, with the Oakland-based vocal acrobat railing against social stagnation while simultaneously celebrating the world’s fluorescent beauty. It all works because Garbus and bassist Nate Brenner stick to what they do best: chopped, clattering percussion; sophisticated, bluesy vocal melodies; walls of harmonies that jar and swirl; and spare funk basslines that make thrilling sense of it all. Perhaps nothing possesses the dualities of Garbus’s state of mind more than the album’s first single, “Water Fountain,” an irresistible, manic playground chant of a song, its beat shaped from a Waits-ian junk heap of claps and clangs and Brenner’s punchy bass, with the gusto in Garbus’s voice doing the rest. When the chorus rolls in, it sounds like a nursery rhyme, but then the first verse begins: “Nothing feels like dying like the drying of my skin and bones.” There’s no water in the water fountain, and that’s not just a catchy turn of phrase. This is a song about a failed public works system and a gleeful sing-along. Shades of gray aren’t usually this neon. (excerpt from my review in Slant Magazine, 5/3/14)

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8. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2

The chemistry between Killer Mike and El-P was apparent on last year’s Run The Jewels, which didn’t try to be much more than a document of two talented, wise-ass artists having fun. This second volume represents Run The Jewels as a primary career focus for both. The beats are richer and rangier; more attention is paid to sequencing, and all of that boasting comes from pride and momentum rather than just the desire to blow off steam. That said, part of their secret still has to be catharsis. Killer Mike is a legend of the Atlanta underground, whose most famous moments remain guest verses on Outkast tracks, even though his solo work rivals that of his hometown peers. El-P is a candidate for indie-rap Mount Rushmore, thanks to his work as a member of Company Flow and as the founder/house producer of Definitive Jux records, but he’s never sniffed the mainstream. Run The Jewels 2 is a great listen because of the artistry on display, but it’s the pent-up frustration that makes you want to hug your loved ones and thank god for each breath while you set fire to the neighborhood. (excerpt from my review in The Quietus, 11/5/14)

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7. Young Thug & Bloody Jay – Black Portland

If the tidal wave of creativity in Atlanta hip hop has a center, it’s probably Young Thug, whose humdrum moniker is belied by a mesmerizing energy on the mic. Here is the next level of Outkast and Lil Wayne’s alien self-identification—a man who is bilingual in the sense that he’s speaking English and Venusian at the same time. Thugga was on three tapes in 2014, and while Black Portland is begging to be remastered, it’s still the best. At the point where rubber bands break, Young Thug is just starting to stretch out, littering his natural, lackadaisical syncopation with quizzical squawks like a chipmunk Busta Rhymes. He finds an ideal foil in Bloody Jay, who sounds gruffly amused throughout, his DJ Holiday basso tipping the scales of tracks like “Movin’” and “No Fucks” from gritty street theater to one deliriously unique party. (excerpt from my review in Paste Magazine, 11/25/14)

Swans_To_Be_Kind6. Swans – To Be Kind

If you were creeped out by the snarling wolf that adorned Swans’ 2012 album The Seer, it’s probably best to avoid the cover of To Be Kind—a screaming, Rockwellian baby that David Lynch would hang above the fireplace. The album within delivers on this unsettling entrée, boiling the meaning of life down to basic human needs while it methodically destroys the world. Yet this appeal to our animal selves is belied by the band’s exquisitely crafted annihilations, like when the angular funk groove of “A Little God In My Hands” gets pancaked by a dump truck of drunken horns, making Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” seem like “I Want Candy”. When bandleader Michael Gira screams “I’m just a little boy,” it’s not a performance. It’s an expulsion. It falls somewhere between the sneer of a playground bully and the sickening croak of a bloated raven. Maybe we all are just infants alone in our cribs, pretending that there are things we need other than love and warmth and bread. If so, this record makes for one hell of a blankie. (excerpt from my review in PopMatters12/8/14)

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5. St. Vincent – St. Vincent

“Here’s my report from the edge.” If you’re looking for a premise statement for Annie Clark’s stunning fourth album, well there you have it. On St. Vincent, the diminutive axe-slinger sits on all kinds of edges – between pop and avant garde, satire and confession, guitar solos and blood spatter patterns. In her effortless ability to make her singular personality feel universal, Clark summons the spirit of another diminutive axe-slinger; you know, the one who could claim to approximate the sound of doves crying without sounding like a flake. And while there was plenty to like about the two Prince albums we got this year (especially the sci-fi funk opus Art Official Age), it’s St. Vincent that gives us a closer approximation of the Purple One in his ruffled, enigmatic prime. Its guitar riffs consist of hyperactive clusters of notes. Its synthesizers coat everything with a thin layer of late-November ice. Yet it’s pop bliss through and through, delivered with poetic urgency. Clark makes you feel what it’s like to be chased by a rattlesnake, or hallucinate a conversation with Huey Newton, or understand that somebody out there loves you more than Jesus ever could. If you’re looking for a one-way ticket to the edge, she’s comped one for you.

AreWeThere

4. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There

Some voices were meant to convey ache. Like Roy Orbison. Or Hank Williams. Or Sharon Van Etten. The Brooklyn transplant warrants comparisons to such hallowed figures on her fourth album, a hypnotic collection of songs about need, and all the stupid and callous ways that others fail at fulfilling it. “I need you to be afraid of nothing,” she sings on the record’s first song, her voice leaping into a yodel on that second word like an eagle peeking above the cloud line. On a record with a three-word title that contains multitudes (Do we exist? Have we reached those goals that we set? Is this the end?, etc.) the production is appropriately reserved-yet-bottomless, a mix of chiming Americana and muffled electronics that sounds like Raising Sand getting lost on a foggy night. It’s the perfect milieu for Van Etten to sing like she’s holding nothing back. Like Roy, she can sing with the kind of quaver that reveals whatever beauty there is to see in the rawest grief. It’s a voice that can bemoan “your love is killing me,” and at the same time be absolute proof that life is good.

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3. Cakes da Killa – Hunger Pangs

The line separating hip hop mixtapes from studio albums gets thinner every time another gorgeously produced triumph shows up on DatPiff (see #13 on this list, for example). But one listen to Hunger Pangs and you know you’re hearing a tape. The beats are jagged and guttural and loud. The songs are short, muscular, and barely interested in choruses. Whitney Houston’s between-song banter is fearlessly utilized as a coda. And goddamn is the emcee going off, tearing apart every verse like a gymnast with buzz saws for arms. Cakes da Killa is no stranger to tape brilliance, but Hunger Pangs is on another level. Run The Jewels deservedly got a lot of praise for spiking our adrenaline levels this year. They simply can’t touch Cakes on tracks like “Just Desserts” or “It’s Not Ovah” – just listening to one of his verses should qualify as an hour of cardio. “Coming at n***as like an avalanche,” he spews, not even coming close to hyperbole.

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2. Pallbearer – Foundations Of Burden

The greatest poetry tends to spring from the simplest subject matter. Fire and ice. The west wind. Lightness and dark. It’s the latter dichotomy that’s woven through the ravishing gloom of Pallbearer’s second album. If you’ve ever wished that Black Sabbath had a more nuanced lyricist than Geezer Butler, Foundations Of Burden is probably gonna be your jam. “Darkened heart / Enlightened mind / Whole world apart / Remain entwined,” goes the chorus to the 10-minute opening salvo “Worlds Apart,” exploring the human struggle between instinct and intellect with an astonishing economy of words. A feeling of immensity begins here and never wavers, the result of producer Billy Anderson’s shamelessly decadent approach. Every sound is given to us in its richest, warmest tone. Guitar chords fall like velvet curtains. Brett Campbell sings in a gravel-free tenor that would make him a prime candidate for the Church of Satan’s choir director. I know this is technically doom metal, but it sounds more like bloom metal to me.

Azealia_Banks_-_Broke_With_Expensive_Taste_album_cover_20141. Azealia Banks – Broke With Expensive Taste

Broke With Expensive Taste deserves to be the next Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – the careening masterpiece that gets dropped by its shortsighted label and ends up selling like crazy once it hits the light of day. Azealia Banks’s long-shelved debut dares to enter a churning sea of genres and attitudes, and then calibrates our voyage so skillfully, it feels like we’re standing upright on a speedboat with no need for the rails. It cares not for the cycle of intense hype and curdling frustration that preceded it. It doesn’t even remember what an “Interscope Records” is. Banks is always in complete control, even when she needs to sing in perfectly inflected Spanish or summon the spirit of Annette Funicello. If you’ve been following her since “212” shook the earth three years ago, you’ll already know five of these tunes. Yet this particular familiarity does not breed contempt. Yes, we had only been given little pieces for so long, and we were tired of it. But here is the whole puzzle in all its glory. Here are those songs we love, reenergized by the context we were dreaming they’d get. This shit is better than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It’s better than anything that came out this year. Now let’s finally stop talking about it, and listen.

Honorable Mentions: Agalloch – The Serpent & The Sphere; Behemoth – The Satanist; Bloody Jay – #NAWFR; Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems; Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Piñata; Future – Honest; Future Islands – Singles; Gangsta Boo & La Chat – Witch; Migos – Rich N**a Timeline; Dolly Parton – Blue Smoke; PeeWee Longway – The Blue M&M; Prince – Art Official AgeSylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso; TV On The Radio – Seeds; Wu-Tang Clan – A Better Tomorrow; YG – My Krazy Life

ODB50. Ol’ Dirty Bastard – Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version (1995)

Even though there were nine talented rappers vying for our attention on Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album, it was clear that Method Man was the one being pegged for a solo career. But while Mr. Meth did deliver that first Wu solo record, it was Ol’ Dirty Bastard who delivered the first Wu solo masterpiece. In hindsight, this was far from a sure thing. Because while every ODB verse on Enter the Wu-Tang is a gem, part of his impact came from the way he recklessly exploded onto tracks, spilling jet fuel in his wake. Not exactly the formula for anchoring a 15-song album. Except Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version wasn’t concerned with formula. It begins with an extended free form spoken word track in which ODB introduces himself, cries about getting gonorrhea, then sings an Andrew Dice Clay-esque spoof of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in a quavering, deep-throated croon. The record lets us spend an extended amount of time with the artist, and it reveals a man obsessed with STDs, the Great American Songbook, and a raw, off-the-cuff rhyming style that electrifies everything it touches. Almost 20 years later, it’s clearer than ever that this is no cheap laugh for hip-hop rubberneckers. This is genius, unfiltered.

Dulcinea49. Toad The Wet Sprocket – Dulcinea (1994)

A band remembered mostly for its crappy name and a pair of wide-eyed jangle-pop love songs, Toad the Wet Sprocket’s only value in 2014 should be to the producers of I Love the ’90s: Everything Else We Haven’t Talked About Yet. Except for the fact that Dulcinea, the Santa Barbara group’s fourth album, is a lush, tender, literally quixotic triumph. Released three years after the band’s commercial breakthrough, fear, the record smartly refines the swooning, alt-rock hamminess of hits like “Walk On the Ocean,” adding delicate strains of folk and country that make the morose, clean riffage feel authentic. It was the perfect accompaniment to the spiritual bent of singer/songwriter Glen Phillips, ensuring that tracks like “Fly From Heaven” and “Reincarnation Song” remain humble in their inquiries. The result is a record with a much longer shelf life than fear, with songs that put us all in the shoes of Don Quixote, elegantly losing our minds with hopes of true love and a higher standard for humanity.

Portishead - Portishead48. Portishead – Portishead (1997)

“Nobody loves me/It’s true,” mourned Beth Gibbons on Dummy, Portishead’s essential, trip-hop hall of fame debut. Three years later, the Bristol quartet’s perspective was a bit more refined, yet no less intoxicatingly dark. “All Mine,” the first single, practically has you thinking it’s an old-fashioned love song, with Gibbons singing, “When you smile/Ohhh how I feel so good” over horns that stab and accuse like a Bernard Herrmann Bond theme. The reverie doesn’t last, of course, with the vocalist taking her haunting, Nico-via-Kate Bush pipes into the upper registers to make a chilling prediction – “Make no mistake/You shan’t escape.” If the first Portishead record was about misery, this one was about Misery. Gibbons’ incredibly effective tone once again finds its soul mate in  producer/bandleader Geoff Barrow, who unleashes a gorgeous array of crackling, unsettling samples, somber keyboards, echoing drums and inspired scratching. It was a gift to lovers of torch singing, DJ Premier and all forms of gothic art, one generous enough to satiate listeners until the band’s next effort – 11 years later.

Fishbone47. Fishbone – Give A Monkey A Brain and He’ll Swear He’s the Center of the Universe (1993)

As a 15-year-old person in 1993 who loved AC/DC and Arnold Schwarzenegger in equal measure, it was a foregone conclusion that I would not only see Last Action Hero on its opening weekend, but also buy its soundtrack, which featured not only my favorite Aussies but other bands I loved like Queensryche (!) and Tesla (!!!). And lo, I loved both the film and its music. But I’ll never forget the moment track 10 of the soundtrack came on. It was a metal song, and thereby should technically have been in my comfort zone. But this was a practically riff-less, crazed dirge of a metal song, a song designed not to inspire head banging, a song that whispers to you to lie down so you can become mired in its ooze. The song was “Swim” by Fishbone, which was also the first track on this, its mindblowingly diverse and preposterously entertaining fourth album. Give A Monkey A Brain … may have been the first recorded work that taught me genre rules were imaginary. There was plenty of stunning, melodic metal, alongside the frenetic ska of “Unyielding Conditioning,” the primo Funkadelic-esque freak outs “Properties of Propaganda” and “Nutt Megalomaniac,” and a pair of avant garde punk breakdowns from singer Angelo Moore. Both “The Warmth of Your Breath” and “Drunk Skitzo” made me laugh after I picked my jaw up from the floor; today their energy remains totally addictive, but they read less like comedy, and more like profound expulsions of feeling. To say the least, the rest of the Last Action Hero soundtrack has not held up half as well.

Uncle Tupelo46. Uncle Tupelo – March 16-20, 1992 (1992)

If I was writing about Uncle Tupelo five years ago, I probably would have railed against contemporary country music in that ignorant way that people sound when they criticize something they’ve never given a fair shake. But a gig reviewing concerts for my local newspaper put me face to face with supreme talents like Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley and Eric Church, and I discovered that there’s plenty of incredible songwriting and irresistibly breezy melodies in today’s country-pop. Still, I prefer the approach of bands like Uncle Tupelo and their eventual spawn, Wilco and Son Volt. And I think I know why – they sound like blue-collar guys singing blue-collar songs, whereas today’s average country single sounds like a pop singer delivering lyrics that were vetted for the blue-collar marketplace. (It’s why I can admit that a universal party song like “Red Solo Cup” is a masterpiece, while pretty much anything with “truck” in the title makes my skin crawl. There’s a disconnect.) Or maybe this album is just so good that it’s skewing the larger argument in my mind. March 16-20, 1992 was the purest ode to blue-collar American life laid to tape in the 1990s. From its bare-bones title to its embrace of musty standards like “Coalminers” and “I Wish My Baby Was Born,” this is Americana in the raw. It was recorded and produced in Athens, GA, by R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, but his smartest move was to pretty much stay out of the way, letting the songs feel captured, Alan Lomax-style. It’s the most in synch that Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar ever sounded, so much so that the record’s best, most emotional track is one where they just play together, the bucolic instrumental “Sandusky.”

Feel free to check out the whole list so far, and stay tuned for more of my unsolicited 1990s ramblings!

Hey there, world. I haven’t posted here in three months, and here’s why – I’ve been busy writing album reviews for a pair of lovely websites, Slant Magazine and The QuietusThat’s really no excuse to have been dormant for so long, especially when you consider all the hours I wasted watching House of Cards. Hey, did you know politicians are corrupt? Anyhoo, here are some handy hyperlinks to some of those reviews, to prove I’m not lying. Consume away!

Have Fun With GodBill Callahan – Have Fun With God

I’ve gushed about Bill Callahan more than once on this site, so it goes without saying that I approached this dub remix of 2013’s astounding Dream River from the perspective of a frothing megafan. A frothing megafan that expects more than this.

Reviewed in Slant Magazine, 1/20/14

 

Hotel ValentineCibo Matto – Hotel Valentine

On their first new record in 15 years, Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda get nostalgic in an appropriately, oddly imaginative way – through the perspective of a ghost that haunts the titular hotel. It’s carefully crafted avant-pop that’s more than a bit profound.

Reviewed in The Quietus, 2/14/14

 

OxymoronSchoolboy Q – Oxymoron

I had high hopes for this release from a Kendrick Lamar crewmate, especially once I heard the propulsive reggae beat of the single “Collard Greens.” Alas, it is not the Doggystyle to Lamar’s The Chronic.

Reviewed in Slant Magazine, 2/25/14

 

English OceansDrive-By Truckers – English Oceans

A lot of what has made Drive-By Truckers great in the past – incredible story-songs, walls of guitars, a variety of songwriters –  cannot be found on English Oceans. But Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley make up for it with addictive Southern rock tunes that feel instantly weathered.

Reviewed in The Quietus, 3/7/14

Kiss Me OnceKylie Minogue – Kiss Me Once

The Aussie pop legend makes dance-pop whose effervescence belies its lyrical simplicity. On Kiss Me Once, she pays homage to the power of positive thinking so directly and shamelessly, you can’t help but be taken up in it.

Reviewed in Slant Magazine, 3/16/14

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In my day job as an advertising copywriter, it’s common to be tasked with crafting a brand identity for a company that describes itself as “authentic.” It’s a challenging oxymoron – write something rooted in sincerity and hard-won truths, that captures the way real people actually think and talk, for the express purpose of making charts on quarterly reports look different. Yet, as the marketing strategy behind Beyoncé Knowles’ fifth album has proved, this result is not only achievable, but can be responsible for some of the most dynamic, successful, and believable branding in this unrelentingly noisy day and age.

Of course, the strategy behind Beyoncé was to make it look like there was no strategy – the album dropped on December 13 with no advance notice. (When considering it was produced by dozens of people and included a 17-track “video album” featuring elaborate mini-movies shot all around the world, it’s a minor miracle that nobody leaked anything about it.) Even more so than David Bowie’s The Next Day, which pulled a similar trick last March, Beyoncé‘s surprise party approach came readymade with compelling implications – the 21st century artist not playing by outdated rules, the pop star who still believes in shared cultural moments, the independent woman who will only put herself out there when she damn well feels like it. But there’s only so much marketing can do. If Bounty paper towels weren’t all thick and fluffy, none of us would know about “the quicker picker upper.” Luckily for her marketing team (and us listeners), Beyoncé is Knowles’ best work.

BeyoncéA decade into her solo career, Knowles could easily be following the Whitney Houston blueprint – spend your twenties gathering cred as pop’s most dynamic vocalist, then use that momentum to propel you into the adult contemporary stratosphere – but instead, she uses Beyoncé to paint herself as a three-dimensional human being, who feels deliriously in love, discovers how deeply erotic monogamy can be, looks back at her younger self with pride and tenderness, and feels that glorious sense of emotional and financial self-sufficiency that can only come in your thirties.

Everything about the album’s production lends legitimacy to this expression-first mentality; songs regularly break the five- and six-minute mark as Knowles luxuriates in extended segues. Guest spots are limited to the artist’s husband and vocalists who are synonymous with confessional pop. The most instantly infectious track on the collection is “Grown Woman” – an Afro-pop-tinged barnburner that could be our generation’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” – and it doesn’t even appear on the audio disc.

And along with her murderer’s row of producers (Pharrell, Timbaland, Noah “40” Shebib, Justin Timberlake, etc.), Knowles explores the nooks and crannies of her genre with the same fluid confidence as her songwriting, making stylistic choices that not only keep things fresh, but also deepen the narrative. For instance, maybe it’s a coincidence that “Rocket” pays homage to the devastatingly sultry D’Angelo classic “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” – a song that was recorded in 1999, the year of Destiny’s Child’s stratospheric rise – but Beyoncé‘s breezily autobiographical aura makes me think otherwise.

At a time when it’s easier than ever for people to promote themselves, Knowles (and her marketing team) decided to ignore all of that and let the music do the talking. The result is an album that taps into the feeling you get when you buy a house, or move to another state, or realize you want your spouse just as badly as ever – I’m a grown-up, and I can do whatever I want.

Hello readers of words and listeners of sounds! Here are my 20 favorite tracks from the year that was. The common thread running through them all is that I thought they were good. Enjoy! (full playlist at the bottom)

Prince

20. Prince – “Da Bourgeoisie”

On top of making us feel grateful for new Prince music, “Da Bourgeoisie” almost makes us believe that Sly Stone has finally made that triumphant comeback. On the juiciest riff of the year, the purple one teaches us that funk guitar is like a campfire – if you really want it to burn, you’ve gotta let it breathe.

Danny Brown

19. Danny Brown – “Dip”

Here’s a song about an MDMA bender, that sounds like an MDMA bender. A jittery, propulsive beat built on a distorted memory of Freak Nasty’s 1996 hit “Da Dip” sets the stage for the most addictive thing of all – Danny Brown’s tweaked-out yammer.

Jim James

18. Jim James – “A New Life”

On this sweet, triumphant ballad, Jim James doesn’t just sing the line “There’s more stardust when you’re near.” He pronounces the “t” in “stardust” with NPR-ready elocution. He believes in this stuff, and I’m right there with him.

   Action Bronson

17. Action Bronson & Party Supplies – “Pepe Lopez”

Pee Wee Herman will forever win the award for “Best ‘Tequila’ Appropriation.” But on this song, Action Bronson comes damn close.

Thundercat

16. Thundercat – “Oh Sheit It’s X”

2013 was a heck of a year for ecstasy songs apparently. This vivid, psychedelic synth-funk jam from bass virtuoso Thundercat is the blissed-out counterpoint to Danny Brown’s hyperactive horror story.

1 Train

15. A$AP Rocky (feat. Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson & Big K.R.I.T.) – “1 Train”

Crew songs in rap are like double albums in rock – they’re usually bloated and unfocused, but the ones that work are all-time classics. And this is an example of the latter – with so many creatively peaking emcees one-upping each other over a haunting, string-laced beat, you never want “1 Train” to stop rolling.

Robin Thicke

14. Robin Thicke (feat. Pharrell and T.I.) – “Blurred Lines”

Lifting its groove wholesale from Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up,” this juggernaut of a summer jam possessed just the right mix of sunny songcraft and dumb-ass confidence. Even though I heard it around 156,000 times this year, its “you know you want it” refrain always rang true.

Pistol Annies

13. Pistol Annies – “I Hope You’re The End Of My Story”

For anybody who’s ever been touched by a story like this.

Retrograde

12. James Blake – “Retrograde”

“Ignore everybody else/We’re alone now.” On a record full of bald romantic overtures, the chorus from “Retrograde” shimmers the brightest – as does its lilting melody, Blake’s catchiest yet.

Finnaticz

11. Finatticz – “Don’t Drop That (Thun Thun)”

And now for our next entry of Now That’s What I Call Songs About MDMA!: This insanely catchy slice of stripped-down ratchet, which tells us not to drop said drug while educating us on yet another slang term for it. With that chorus blasting, any other high would just seem redundant.

Kanye West

10. Kanye West – “Black Skinhead”

Seven notes, synth toms, hyperventilation, and the truth.

Chance The Rapper

9. Chance The Rapper – “Cocoa Butter Kisses”

When Chance talks about putting Visine in his eyes because his grandma wouldn’t hug him otherwise, this self-deprecating, nicotine-stained gospel singalong becomes the stuff of great storytelling.

Janelle Monae

8. Janelle Monae – “Dance Apocalyptic”

If Janelle Monae was on the Titanic, that sad-sack string quartet would’ve been jettisoned right quick, in favor some absurdly, deliriously addictive R&B.

Rhye

7. Rhye – “Open”

When delivered in the right way, few things are sexier than a plea. With “Open,” Rhye takes the opposite tact of, say, James Brown, but its languorous, whispered appeals feel just as deliciously desperate.

pusha_t_my_name_is_my_name

6. Pusha T – “Numbers On The Boards”

Push growls with the grizzled confidence of a junkyard dog, over a filthy-hot beat that sounds like a trash compacter on the fritz – giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “raw talent.”

Disclosure

5. Disclosure – “When A Fire Starts To Burn”

Take a snippet of molten-hot ranting from a guy who calls himself “The Hip Hop Preacher,” add a no-nonsense drum n’ bass groove, and you’ve got an eternal flame of a club jam.

M.I.A.

4. M.I.A. – “Come Walk With Me”

M.I.A. wrote the catchiest chorus of the year, and then pulverized it with an electronic air raid.

Drake

3. Drake – “Hold On, We’re Going Home”

The 1988 Marvin Gaye last call ballad that never was.

Kanye West

2. Kanye West – “Bound 2″

You’d think the last noise on Yeezus would be some kind of bloodcurdling scream. But it’s actually the reassuring coo of Brenda Lee’s voice, on a song that anchors a tempestuous album in the same way love anchors a man.

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1. Bill Callahan – “Small Plane”

Human flight is quite a feat, but Bill Callahan finds something else even more miraculous on this profound ode to love’s triumph over turbulence.

Dear readers,

Before we dive into yet another year-end rundown of music sounds that I deemed pleasurable, I wanted to say that this particular list was most likely influenced by events other than the physical media spinning on my Discman. This June, my wife and I realized a dream by moving to Maine, and the sudden proliferation of beauty and happiness made me more susceptible to messages about life being worthwhile and love being the most important thing. Am I seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, you ask? Well, I just jabbed a pen at my eye area to check, and nope! No glasses. So even though my retina is bleeding, if I had to pick one lyric I identify with from the albums on this list, it would be “I really am a lucky man.”

future20. Future – Future Presents F.B.G.: The Movie

Auto-Tune was invented to be a form of sonic retouching, a way to ensure pitch perfection for any vocalist. But if you’ve heard Cher’s “Believe,” or seen a cover of Vogue lately, you know that the more you hide flaws, the more you’re hiding signs of life. Which makes Future’s artistic identity all the more transgressive and intoxicating. The Atlanta rapper uses Auto-Tune not as a support system, but as a sparring partner, his voice rejecting its attempts to correct it, resulting in an entrancing, narcotic croak that frays and stutters like a YouTube video played over spotty Wi-Fi. So while FBG: The Movie suffers a bit from your typical rap crew mixtape bloat (it’s intended to be a showcase for Future’s Free Bands collective), it has Future delivering pretty much every chorus, sounding deliriously confident and dangerously vulnerable, all at the same time. Like last year’s Rick Ross tape Rich Forever, FBG: The Movie has so many classic, filthy-loud beats it almost feels unfair. But where Ross washed his kingpin tales in bright comic book colors, Future is a decidedly flawed superhero – a man masked in Auto-Tune, fighting for air.

The Electric Lady19. Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady

Sometimes an artist is too talented for their own good. They operate on a different plane than their audience, seeing things they couldn’t possibly see, and thereby creating things that are difficult for them to digest. Like sci-fi writer Frank Herbert, whose novel Dune is a breathtakingly intricate achievement of the human imagination, and also boring as shit. Then there’s sci-fi R&B singer Janelle Monae, whose artistic vision is painstakingly complete to a level of confusion. On her magnificent 2010 debut The ArchAndroid, the whole Blade Runner-ish concept didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it didn’t matter, thanks to stone cold grooves like “Tightrope.” It’s essentially more of the same on The Electric Lady, which means Monae gives us an album’s worth of monster jams (“Dance Apocalyptic” will make you do just that, for instance), but almost buries them in unnecessary world building. There’s enough greatness here to forgive these failed attempts at concept album transcendence, but here’s hoping her next record is all sandworm, and no sand.

Lousy With Sylvianbriar18. Of Montreal – Lousy With Sylvianbriar

If Kevin Barnes has made a bad record, I haven’t heard it. But it’s not for lack of trying. Over the course of a dozen albums, the driving creative force behind Of Montreal has taken his music in all kinds of questionable directions – he’s written the twee-est of bedroom folk songs, stacked harmonies like Phil Spector on acid, spilled his guts about a divorce over dance-pop beats, and then created a hedonistic alter ego to take that same approach into some seriously apeshit-sounding places. Lousy With Sylvianbriar represents his first major creative shift since that incredible divorce album (2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?) – convincingly appropriating 1970s country-rock vernacular, full of cheerful slide guitars, chiming mandolins and Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris-style duets. It should come as no surprise that it works; in fact, it’s the most focused collection of Barnes songs in years. Whether he’s burrowing in the pocket of a loose, Sticky Fingers-era Stones groove or cooing an Opry-ready ballad, Barnes sticks to the one thing that has been consistent throughout his crazy-ambitious career arc – dense, whimsical, unforgettable wordplay. Like this doozy: “The voice with the synapse that calls blood bats into action has now entered the tablelands.”

Push The Sky Away17. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away

If anybody was worried that original guitarist and songwriter Mick Harvey’s exit from the Bad Seeds would be a death knell for Nick Cave’s most longstanding incarnation, the refrain from “Water’s Edge” should’ve quelled some nerves: “It’s the will of love/It’s the thrill of love/But the chill of love is comin’ down.” Lyrics don’t get much more Nick Cave-y than that, and Push The Sky Away, his 15th Bad Seeds record, is full of similar ruminations on romance and death and dark destinies coming to fruition by the seaside. It’s the band’s most beautiful work in this century, a collection of quietly ominous, pre-dawn ballads that are no less frightening for their prettiness. Perhaps Harvey could’ve convinced Cave to prune a lunkheaded line or two, or at least save them for Grinderman 3 (which is a thing that I’m just going to say is happening because IT NEEDS TO HAPPEN), especially the first couplet from the otherwise crushingly gorgeous “Mermaids.” But on the whole, this is a legacy-worthy installment, a deliciously restrained effort from a band that seemed due for an overreach.

Wakin On A Pretty Daze16. Kurt Vile – Wakin On A Pretty Daze

In my best of 2011 list, I tried to explain why Kurt Vile’s lackadaisical brand of folk-rock is so damn compelling. The best I could do was the old cliché that “not trying makes you cool” (which, really? come on, self). Luckily, I don’t have to attempt it again this year, because on the warm, rolling dream that is Wakin On A Pretty Daze, Vile delivers a line that pretty much nails it – “Feeling bad in the best way a man can.” These are songs with narrators in need – of love, vindication, succor, direction in life, etc. Yet instead of wallowing, they’re more likely to step out into the sunshine, make a wisecrack and coast on the reverberating, 12-string acoustic waves. Songs like “Pure Pain,” “Shame Chamber” and “Too Hard” aren’t titled ironically, yet they’re streaked with hope, and anchored by Vile’s singing, which never rises above an “everything’s gonna be OK” kind of murmur. He’s singing about feelings that sting like freezing rain, if only because they make pretty days that much prettier.

Yoko Ono15. Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band – Take Me To The Land Of Hell

Yoko Ono’s music has a pretty entrenched reputation as the ultimate in avant garde art student bullshit. And while she’s done plenty of that sort of thing – much of it with a man who remains universally thought of as a genius – her actual sonic identity is much more nuanced, marked by hyperactive new wave freakouts, strikingly fragile balladry, and nostalgic 1930s-style romps that make you wonder if she’s been a closet McCartney fan all these years. Her latest album with Plastic Ono Band (which includes son and bandleader Sean Lennon, as well as guests like Questlove, Nels Cline and the surviving Beastie Boys) is a worthy addition to a musical legacy both aggressively offbeat and quirkily traditional. Yes, there are the stereotypical Ono shriek-outs, which make tracks like the opening rock/poetry slam pastiche “Moonbeams” sound off-the-rails dangerous, but there are also meditations on true love that would fit snugly on Double Fantasy (“There’s No Goodbye Between Us”) and a cheeky, cabaret-style kiss-off to an ex that’s as charming as music got in 2013 (“Leaving Tim”). Now an octogenarian, Yoko sounds as feisty and invested as ever – so much so that a trip to hell now feels like one unforgettably whacked-out kind of party.

The Next Day14. David Bowie – The Next Day

If somebody put a gun to my head and demanded I point out a weakness of David Bowie in his prime (which for my money began with 1971’s Hunky Dory and ended with 1977’s Heroes), I’d probably single out his singing voice. In reality, Bowie’s reedy quaver had an enchantingly alien quality that fit all the interstellar/dystopian subject material quite snugly, but I wouldn’t call it beautiful, and hey, this guy’s about to kill me here. And that makes the distinctive pleasure of Bowie’s 21st century material downright ironic – and an argument in favor of the artist being something more than human, like that all-knowing glow-being from The Abyss or something. Because on records like 2002’s Heathen and this year’s surprise release The Next Day, David Bowie’s singing is the number one reason to pay attention – his timbre more resonant, his phrasing more nuanced, his 66-year-old vocal chords responsible for some of the most solemnly pretty noise in rock and roll. The Next Day treads some familiar terrain for Bowie fans – elegant, gothic rock songs about fame, the apocalypse and space dancing – but this time around, our messenger traverses it with a deep, knowing croon, and that makes all the difference. His message used to be “hang onto yourself,” but now that the ride is almost over, he’d rather we sit back, relax, and accept the inevitable with a smile.

Modern Vampires13. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires Of The City

Like Coldplay, Vampire Weekend is a band that invites an easy kind of hate – for starters, you’ve got the Graceland-aping trust fund ballads, upper crust New England hipster duds, and tween-friendly band name. But let’s pretend that their ’80s Afro-pop hooks weren’t discussed as if they were revolutionary, that they’re all children of Indianapolis schoolteachers, and that they’ve had a good band name this whole time (for the sake of this exercise, we’ll go with “Good Band Name”). And you’ve got a group that can craft a cheerful hook as effectively as anybody, who stuffed its first two albums with so many of them that it seemed unfair, and whose third release manages to work in some stunning mid-mid-life crisis poetry without skimping on the earworms. In this vacuum I’ve created, Modern Vampires Of The City (aka Good Band Name III) is a fantastic work of art, where singer/co-writer Ezra Koenig (aka Frank Stevens) tries to reconcile his faith in God, which is tough to do when he can’t even keep a relationship from falling apart during a cross-country trip. “Wisdom’s a gift/But you’d trade it for youth,” he sings during the lyrical encyclopedia that is “Step.” Considering how compelling his band has become since the days of “Who gives a fuck about an oxford comma,” I’m compelled to disagree.

Carcass12. Carcass – Surgical Steel

I suspect my relationship with death is like most Americans – it gives me a hazy, queasy feeling that I quickly distract myself from with the bounty of cheap food and endless entertainment at my disposal. So when an existential coward like me puts on a record like Surgical Steel, he feels a crazed, drooling kind of glee – here’s a group of middle-aged British guys who channel their death obsession into 52 minutes of relentless, chest cavity-collapsing thrash. This is Carcass’ first record since breaking up in 1996, and it’s (ironically) a stunning rebirth, with Jeff Walker’s mostly unintelligible, coked-up-harpy vocals doing god knows what kind of damage to his throat over Dan Wilding’s firebomb drumming, the guitar parts containing just enough catchy Iron Maiden interplay to make beautiful sense of the chaos. And when you listen closely enough to make out a line or two, chances are it’s worth the effort (e.g. “A working class hero is something to bleed.”). Metal has always been a refuge for the insecure, but discovering a Carcass with this much life in it makes me especially, screamingly grateful for every drop of blood I’ve got.

Pusha T11. Pusha T – My Name Is My Name

Even for a genre where boasting is like breathing, 2013 was an especially egomaniacal year in hip hop – whether it was thrillingly unstable, moody and defensive, reeking of flop sweat, or recorded while waiting for the yacht cable guy. But nobody explored the depths of their own awesomeness with the level of measured cool achieved by Pusha T, whose first official solo record completely delivers on the audacious yet matter-of-fact confidence of its title. It’s a feat even more impressive when you consider the pressure to perform – years into his solo career after the demise of Clipse, Pusha T had put out a mixtape and an EP, and landed some prominent guest verses, but hadn’t really proven he could carry a record. While hip hop is friendlier to its elder statesmen than it used to be, a bust from Push here would’ve been a killer. Not that he sounds concerned in the least over the raw industrial clatter of “Numbers On the Boards,” where he lays claim to “36 years of doin’ dirt like it’s Earth Day,” his gruff, laconic flow selling the hardest beat of the year, illustrating the grime and glory of the drug game in a way that’s both romantic and weathered from experience. Even with the murderer’s row of talent producing him (Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, The-Dream, etc.) and a top-form guest spot from the seemingly unstoppable Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T dominates with a steady hand, like the lone survivor in a deal gone wrong.

Matangi10. M.I.A. – Matangi

It’s always been tough to accept the plight of the wealthy celebrity – “heavy lies the crown” makes more sense when applied to presidents than, say, Super Bowl halftime show performers. But ever since making an indelible, kaleidoscopic imprint on the world of popular music with her 2007 album Kala, M.I.A. has been in active rebellion against the idea of being a pop star, and it has been as compelling as any artistic evolution this millennium. On Matangi, her fourth record, the English/Sri Lankan singer, rapper, songwriter and noise wrangler remains in distress about her position of influence, exhorting her listeners to both dance and revolt over squalls of mechanized drumming. And while no song avoids these thrilling, dissonant bursts, M.I.A. does gives those pop sensibilities more room to breathe than she did on her last record, 2011’s cold, tangled, underrated Maya. Sensibilities that are most evident on “Come Walk With Me,” which pairs a sunny, it-takes-two philosophy with an endlessly hummable chorus, giving us enough time to appreciate those incomparable summer jam chops before the sledgehammer drums shatter our reverie. The crown remains heavy, but M.I.A. has come up with a surefire way to deal with it – make sure her records are even heavier.

Muchacho9. Phosphorescent – Muchacho

Matthew Houck’s albums have always been delicate affairs, perfect for the emotional rollercoaster one goes through while nursing a hangover – confusion, regret, inexplicable elation, then regret again. So it’s quite fitting that his sixth album as Phosphorescent was inspired by a recent lonely, heartsick period in Mexico, where an exhausted Houck mourned the loss of his NYC studio (which had to be moved thanks to re-zoning) and the demise of a relationship. But this time around, the singer/songwriter is just as interested in the party that happens before the pity-party, resulting in the most robust production of his career – in between the fragile, spiritual beauty of the record’s sunrise/sunset bookends, Muchacho contains pedal-steel swathed country strolls, a ragged, swirling Neil Young-ish opus, and 1980s adult contemporary synths. Like all Phosphorescent records, it’s all threaded together by the distinctly earnest, about-to-crack nature of Houck’s voice, which can make a line like “I’ll fix myself up, to come and be with you” sound like the rawest, most solemn promise.

Blue Chips8. Action Bronson & Party Supplies – Blue Chips 2

Apparently Action Bronson has been recording his major label debut for Atlantic Records. Here’s hoping they’re saving as much of the budget as possible for sample clearance. Because this mixtape, a sequel to last year’s stellar Blue Chips, contains what is possibly the most entertaining melange of looped pop hits this side of Paul’s Boutique – after Blue Chips 2, any record that doesn’t give Bronsolino at least one ironically applied oldie or ’80s smash to spit over will feel like a disappointment. Not to make BC2 sound like a gimmick, because it’s not. (It doesn’t work because it samples “Sledgehammer,” it works because it has Action Bronson opining, “Uhhh … fly shit … grown man shit” over a sample of “Sledgehammer.”) Like the first Blue Chips, this tape features plenty of RZA-like, scratchy soul loops to back up verses loaded with references to food, sex and 1990s athletes (Nick Van Exel, take a bow). But the whole thing is just more fun this time around, what with the snippets of Applebee’s commercials and beats born from “Tequila” and Tracy Chapman’s “Gimme One Reason.” Few rappers are feeling it like Action Bronson these days, and BC2 is the perfect platform for his magnificent, tongue-in-cheek shit talk.

Neko Case7. Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

Neko Case is sick and tired of your expectations. “If I puked up some sonnets, would you call me a miracle?” she asks on “Night Still Comes,” one of many tracks on her stunning sixth album that discover freedom through fatalistic directness. The singer/songwriter has never sounded this fed up – with crummy parents, dumb-ass lovers and those pesky illustrated lampreys – and her scalding sarcasm turns the lovely, warm bath of a typical Case production into a complex, simmering stew. Gone are the love-as-tornado metaphors, replaced by the rallying cries of the defiantly heartbroken – “You didn’t know what a man was/Until I showed you,” she belts triumphantly over the sensational gallop of “Man.” All this vitriol does not change the fact that The Worse Things Get is a joy to listen to on the level of Case’s two previous masterworks (2006’s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood and 2009’s Middle Cyclone). From ghostly a cappella breaks to burbling baritone-sax arrangements, quiet acoustic reflections to finger-wagging girl group choruses, this is as ambitious and assured as Case has ever sounded. On the record’s opening song, she asks herself if she’d rather be a king or a king’s pet. Hearing the absolute power she wields in the studio, you can guess which one she chooses.

Rhye6. Rhye – Woman

R&B is generally viewed as the sexiest genre of music, the go-to soundtrack for doing stuff on bearskin rugs by the fire and the like. And while there’s great R&B that embraces such corny clichés (see Kelly, R.), I think that for the most part, this stuff is at its most sensual when it’s about more than just sex. Enter Rhye, an L.A. duo whose immaculate quiet storm of a debut album is full of excellent pick-up lines, but delivers them with the sweetness and vulnerability of a heat-of-the-moment “I love you.” It’s the same delicate emotional balance that defined Sade at her peak – and listening to how Woman weaves blankets of synthesizers for lead singer Milosh to tuck us in with, there’s no doubt that Rhye is more than just influenced by the queen of slow-burning romance. This album is a tribute to her. So for those of us who find tenderness to be erotic, these guys were the smoothest operators of 2013.

Overgrown5. James Blake – Overgrown

When artists say they don’t really care about attention or awards, it’s usually a lie they’re not even trying that hard to sell. But on the title track of James Blake’s hypnotic second album, his pleas for constancy over frivolity are either totally sincere, or the product of a magnificent fibber: “I don’t wanna be a star/But a stone on the shore/A lone door frame in the wall/When everything’s overgrown.” I can’t help but take him at his word, because Overgrown itself is an argument for the beauty of things that last, a collection of simple mantras about what truly matters woven through a wintry forest of lulling, whispering electronica. Blake has created a consistently entrancing experience akin to his devastating 2011 debut, continuing to draw no lines between moments of transcendence and pain. But there’s a lot more of the former this time around, thanks to a handful of love songs that are as profoundly spartan as a blue collar engagement ring – “To the last/You and I,” he croons, leaving the flowery language to those who crave stardom above all.

Nothing Was The Same4. Drake – Nothing Was The Same

The most compelling thing about Drake is the way he has his cake and eats it too – crafting verses that are drenched in both bravado and insecurity, making references to his days as a child star while also saying he started from the bottom, making music that’s muted and moody, yet somehow perfectly calibrated for the pop charts. These dichotomies could be infuriating in lesser hands – and on lesser Drake albums – but on Nothing Was The Same, the artist’s vision is so thoroughly realized, his collective strengths, weaknesses, priorities and fears make for a story as seamless as its exquisitely sequenced tracks. If the arc of his tortured millionaire persona is a put-on, it’s a fantastically executed one, because on NWTS, the cognac-for-one romantic despair of Drake’s previous work evolves into a grander fear of the other shoe dropping. The more money he makes (which, according to his verse on “All Me,” is so much he’s forgotten the amount), the more he feels like it can’t last. So much of the record finds the rapper revisiting the fantasies of his 1990s childhood, creating a two-song sequence based on Wu-Tang Clan’s most magnanimous single, making Fresh Prince of Bel Air references, comparing his earning potential to Dan Marino’s in his prime. These would seem to be the only things this prodigy-turned-superstar can take comfort in, if it weren’t for all those sumptuous, late-night-neon grooves.

Yeezus3. Kanye West – Yeezus

A casual scan of a Kanye West lyric sheet or Twitter feed will make it clear that this is a man who loves fashion. So he’s probably familiar with Coco Chanel’s famous adage, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory.” For his album Yeezus, West looked in the mirror and removed almost everything, stripping his ornate production style down to the most visceral noises, accessorizing them only with his rampaging id, intense ego, and super-intense superego. If it’s not his best record, it’s certainly his most exhilarating, and shamelessly human. West, who co-produced Yeezus with an aging Snarf, uses his own gasps for breath as a percussion instrument and features a hysterical scream like it’s a guitar solo. He twists Justin Vernon’s lullaby tenor into something slimy and subterranean. When looking for a metaphor for his song about divorce, he goes with Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit.” It’s a flailing, agonizing, extraordinary experience from an artist whose refusal to be tagged and classified might come off awkwardly on talk shows, but burns bright as diamonds in his art.

Dream River2. Bill Callahan – Dream River

Two years after releasing an album called Apocalypse, Bill Callahan resurfaced in 2013 with the most life-affirming record of the year. Dream River begins with Callahan in full story-song cowboy mode, sitting alone in a hotel bar. But instead of brooding about stuff like how every flower turns to hay, he relishes in the simple joy of a three-word vocabulary (“Beer” and “thank you”), appreciating everyone in the room, just because they exist. From an artist who has tended to espouse a worldview where even the silver linings are tarnished, this is an unexpected, enlightening surprise, like encountering a Larry McMurtry character in a Cormac McCarthy novel. And just when you start to ask why, track two starts playing, and you realize he’s in love. “You looked like worldwide Armageddon while you slept,” Callahan sings in his rich, whiskey-barrel basso. “You looked so peaceful, you scared me.” Fear of losing one’s full happiness is right there in that voice. Fear, and awe, and gratitude. Dream River overflows with moments like these – a cycle of eight songs that represent a metaphysical moment of clarity. Bill Callahan might look at life as one arcing flight through the air, but he’s made an album about the times before you land in which you truly feel weightless.

Chance The Rapper1. Chance The Rapper – Acid Rap

Smoking cigarettes doesn’t quite have the cultural cache that it used to – these days, kids need an especially potent sense of mischief, rebellion and self-loathing to get hooked. It’s this precise emotional cocktail that fuels Chance The Rapper on Acid Rap, where he gives a fascinating, charismatic performance that puts him on the short list of young artists who seem primed to leave their fingerprints all over the ’10s. The 20-year-old Chicagoan spent his formative years ingesting Kanye West’s college trilogy and Lil Wayne’s mixtape revolution, and he soaks his second tape in the balmy soul samples of the former, and the effortlessly hilarious, cough-addled wordplay of the latter. But Acid Rap is about way more than influences. Chance has his own fully formed persona here, a laughing-and-pointing playground pest whose vulnerability is clearly visible between all the “nyeah nyeah, nyeah-nyeah-nyeahs.” He litters his verses with a mischievous, nasal quack, which logic dictates should be annoying, but instead is as playful and essential as a Kanye “Haaah!” “Cigarettes, oh cigarettes/My mama think I stink/I got burn holes in my hoodies/All my homies think it’s dank,” Chance sings over the trembling church organ of “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” making fun of himself while making us root for him at the same time. I’m addicted, and not just because it makes me look cool.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Atoms For Peace – Amok; Danny Brown – Old; Cakes Da Killa – The Eulogy; Disclosure – Settle; The Flaming Lips – The Terror; Jim James – Regions Of Light And Sound Of God; Paul McCartney – New; Queens of the Stone Age – … Like Clockwork; Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels; Ty Segall – Sleeper; She & Him – Volume Three; Skeletonwitch – Serpents Unleashed; Shugo Tokumaru – In Focus?; Tree – Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out; Waxahatchee – Cerulean Salt

Bob Dylan

Being a Self Portrait apologist is an uphill battle. And I understand why – after a run of challenging, zeitgeist-capturing songwriting like no other, Bob Dylan titled his first album of the 1970s in a way that promised new depths of introspection, yet the music he put on there delivered on none of it. A collection of Americana covers, live tracks and roughshod instrumentals with nary a T.S. Eliot reference to be found, Self Portrait was (and remains) his least self-conscious work. To a passionate fan at the time, this album must have sounded like the kind of odds and sods phone-in job artists release to fulfill label obligations.

Lucky for me, I was negative eight when Self Portrait pissed everybody off, including Rolling Stone’s Greil Marcus (who delivered perhaps the most famous line in album review history – “What is this shit?”). Listening to it in a vacuum, knowing that it doesn’t have to inspire the hopes and dreams of a generation, I became charmed by its ironic self-remove, by how a man who was once perceived as a lightning rod of revolution in our country was defining himself with cowboy songs. It left me open to appreciate the record’s loose, nostalgic atmosphere, and gave me the freedom to obsess over the handful of all-time great Dylan songs nestled inside of it (e.g. “It Hurts Me Too,” “Wigwam”).

Regardless, to express this charm out loud to another Dylan fan has been a form of pop culture suicide to rival my Coldplay love. Self Portrait‘s suckiness has been a foregone conclusion ever since that Marcus review; it took Blood On The Tracks to convince people that the man’s genius hadn’t mysteriously evaporated, retroactively stocking the ’70s albums that came before it into the “transitional period” bargain bins of our minds. “But, it’s fun!” I’d say. “He’s not taking himself so seriously!” Opinions that don’t exactly hold up against decades of despair.

Another Self PortraitBut I don’t really have to argue so much anymore. Because the latest entry into Columbia/Legacy’s transcendent Dylan Bootleg Series gives us a studio feed into the 1969-1971 sessions for Self Portrait and its follow-up New Morning (as well as a pair of Nashville Skyline outtakes). And like so many Bootleg Series releases before it, Another Self Portrait is much more than some artifact for Dylan completists – it’s a carefully curated and sequenced work, meant to be listened to front to back like a new Bob Dylan release. It weaves unreleased songs, alternate takes, overdub-stripped versions of album tracks, and a few live cuts into a gorgeously insightful whole, revealing how Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait and New Morning were all different chapters of the same story – a hyperbolically beloved artist turning to the sounds and ideas of old Americana for succor. If you had to pluck a “single” from the previously unreleased stuff, it would probably be “Pretty Saro” – Dylan delivers the 18th century English folk ballad with a close-miked, lullaby tone that would’ve fit snugly on any of his records from the time. Second place goes to “These Hands,” a working man’s prayer of a 1950s country song that Dylan sings with heartbreaking tenderness. These moments of intimacy and full-throated nostalgia put the listener in the right mindset to hear Self Portrait, and this set drives the point home by stripping the strings and horn sections out of songs like “Little Sadie,” “All The Tired Horses,” “Wigwam,” and “Days of ’49,” revealing the earnestness and warmth of the performances underneath. I think I’ll always prefer the original productions – especially the drunken Spanish horns of “Wigwam” – but the quieter versions do make Another Self Portrait sound more like one seamless session. (FYI: I still prefer Phil Spector’s schmaltzy-ass overdubs on Let It Be to that Let It Be … Naked experiment, so perhaps I’m just a big old sap.)

By giving context to a record that disappointed so many, Another Self Portrait gives us precious access to a Bob Dylan that was tired of the swirling stream-of-consciousness poetry slams, a Bob Dylan who just wanted to sing pretty songs he loved and jam on some blues vamps. I’m tempted to say it’s an amazing feat – to force a re-assessment of something long-reviled. But honestly, all it’s done is release this great music in an impeccable package. The most important thing that’s been stripped from the original Self Portrait? Unfair expectations.

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