(BadWolf provides his annual list of personal favorites among not-metal albums released in 2014.)
I’ve never written so few lists at the end of the year. During my first year at No Clean Singing, I wrote three separate lists. Many writers compose even more, and I have no idea how they do it. However, each year my format has changed as I think of new ways to think about music. As time goes by, I simplify, I erase boundaries.
There’s only one meaningful distinction in my list this year: metal vs. not-metal. My metal list is currently up at Invisible Oranges, and it serves as my unified vision of 2014 in heavy metal. However, this is my favorite list—my favorite piece of copy that I write each year. There’s something about writing about mainstream music on an underground metal blog that strikes me as fun and transgressive.
More to the point, I always loved reading the opinions of metal heads and musicians about non-metal music. To people outside of the culture extreme music is what sets us apart. Inside the community, however, our tastes in other genres of music can offer interesting window into people’s personalities. I also wonder if the commonalities we find outside of the music reveal something about the threads that other artists and metal share. For example, my #1 album is, I know, fairly popular among metal bloggers, but you’ll have to wade through my bottom nine to get to it.
This was an odd year for not-metal music, in that there never really seemed to be a kind of tentpole musical event that I cared about outside of metal. The worlds of pop and jazz and such simply felt like they were sleepwalking through life, to me. The big exception? Hip-hop, a genre which seemed energized to a fever pitch this year, like it’s ready to roll over and transform into something darker and more exciting than it has been. By comparison, in rock music, Pink Floyd and AC/DC both released new albums and… I didn’t like either. Some things that I absolutely expected to blow me away, like Wovenhand’s first album on Deathwish, Refractory Obdurate, fell flat with me.
It’s probably ceremonial to spend some time here reflecting on the past year in and outside of my life as a metal writer. Honestly, I found 2014 to be perhaps the single most eventful year of my life–No Clean Singing was a tremendous part of that (thanks again to all parties involved and especially Islander). I’m glad that it happened, but I don’t see any point in recapping its narrative here. I choose to let this list be my last word on 2014, and spend from here out looking to make 2015 an even more eventful year. My heart is like a thrash album: I want to increase the momentum, but sometimes you need a breakdown. This is a two step, the most fun two step I allow myself.
Johnny Azari – Road Dog’s Teeth
Disclosure: Johnny Azari is the first musician I ever covered, before I joined the No Clean Singing ranks. Since then I’ve grown to consider him a friend. I’ve even booked him to play at company events. It’s safe to call me biased. However, I first grew intrigued with Johnny because I loved his music and, in my opinion, this prolific Iranian-American outlaw folk artist just gets better every year.
His solo debut, The Tropic of Entropy, boasted great tunes though minimal production. Its successor, however, adds some instrumentation to flesh out Johnny’s sound, including drums and some spectacular back-up singing by Jamie Elizabeth, as on the standout song “Bitter.” And though Elizabeth’s voice adds sweetness to the mix, and Johnny’s guitar playing is prettier and crisper than before in songs like “Fatman Blues,” he’s still one aggressive fucker when he wants to be. Opener “Loyalty” barks and stomps like a mean drunk, and “The Beast of Bethlehem” is so noisy and dissonant that it pushes things into hard rock territory—the shadow of Black Sabbath hangs long over it, especially in the massive-though-low-fi drum track.
Opeth – Pale Communion
I’ve come to realize that Opeth was, once upon a time, my favorite band, and honestly I cannot say that after Pale Communion, their second full-on progressive rock album, and it’s not that Mikael Akerfeldt cannot write a progressive rock song that is as effective as his death metal work, it’s just that he can’t keep the flawless batting average up for an entire record. At the same time, I just can’t quit him all the way, because as frustrating as Pale Communion is, it still packs some serious punches.
Opener “Eternal Rains Will Come” may be Akerfeldt’s most flat-out gorgeous vocal performance ever, and “Moon Above Sun Below” proves that he can hold my rapt attention into the ten-minute mark without using any metal elements. The best cut here, however, is “River,” which deserves a permanent slot in his set list.
Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
Folk-punk turned arena-rock act Against Me! first mystified me when they toured with Mastodon in 2007 (Why? My mind still boggles), and since then became one of the few modern punk acts I could identify with on a lyrical level, even though their last album, White Crosses, felt pretty limp. This, its long-delayed follow-up, the band’s first since singer/songwriter Laura Jane Grace began gender reassignment, is the band’s best effort since their (in my opinion) peak, Searching for a Former Clarity.
Obviously, Grace’s recent life experiences color every lyrical aspect of this album, and her struggle is evident. Still, far from being a depressing trudge, there’s a real sense of courage and triumph here—I didn’t expect a song called “fuckmylife666” to be so damn uplifting.
More than that, however, even in its brief run time, Transgender Dysphoria Blues explores adventurous territory for this band, from the high-speed hardcore of “Drinking With the Jocks,” to the electronic influences on “Osama bin Laden as the Crucified Christ.” Oh, and “Black Me Out” is the kind of rock song people toil for their whole lives and never write. Grace makes it look so easy.
Messenger – Illusory Blues
Another year, another gem of a rock album released on a metal label, because apparently if it’s not precocious and folk-inflected, it’s not rock anymore—oh wait, Messenger are folk-inflected, and precocious in their own way. It takes real panache to channel late Peter Gabriel-era Genesis with this kind of accuracy on your debut album.
Flute and acoustic guitar play nice alongside electric six-strings and some forward-thinking bass work on this moody and pensive album. Vocalists Khaled Lowe and Barnaby Maddick share powerful harmonies as well, but their inflections are dark and modern enough to make this feel like more than a prog-rock nostalgia retread (note it’s higher on my list than the new Opeth for that reason).
If my opinion isn’t enough to justify a second look, the group came with a letter of recommendation from none other than Kristoffer Rygg of Ulver, whose work also colors the band’s sexy and pastoral sound. While everyone was flipping over Myrkur, these guys were doing a better job of doing Ulver’s legacy a solid.
Banks – Goddess
Banks came to my attention last year as the opening tour act for frigid R&B creep The Weeknd, whose Kiss Land was my favorite not-metal album of last year. This British chanteuse plays in the same cold-soul style that The Weeknd does, but where his cypher was a conflicted and often ugly personification of privileged machismo, Banks is going for the sacred feminine, albeit a more streetwise diva than pop often accepts. Maybe that’s why she still doesn’t really make press waves in the US.
Her production, though chilly and gorgeous, is more varied than The Weeknd’s, though it comes at the cost of consistency. Goddess is an overlong and uneven record, but its highlights are incredible. “Fuck Em Only We Know,” is the kind of love song that made me sit down and reconsider all the petty wrongs I’ve committed to my lovers and significant others in my life—its ability to affect me as such is a testament to Banks’ writing.
Elsewhere, “You Should Know Where I’m Coming From” gives her the space to let her firehorse voice loose, again offering a mirror to see my own life in, and I think pop at its best does exactly that. “Begging for Thread,” god dammit, should have been the #1 radio single of the year.
I expect big things from Banks in the future, she’s got all the shine to make her relatable to younger and less cynical people than I, but enough darkness to also put her in conversation with groups like Portishead.
Clipping – CLPPNG
“It’s Clipping, bitch.” emcee Daveed Diggs spits overtop a feedback squeal to finish his intro to the band’s sophomore LP, CLPPNG . Yes it fucking is. In any other year, this would be the best hip-hop album on my list. It’s not, but don’t let that dissuade you from listening to this unique, powerful cocktail of styles. The group’s first mixtape was too obtuse for me, but this is the album I wanted Death Grips #3 to be.
Less indebted to traditional hip-hop than almost any group I can think of, Clipping spin beats out of samples of broken glass, phone alarms, and various flavors of power electronics and industrial metal. What else can you expect from a group that named themselves after a kind of audio distortion?
The dissonance is lyrical as well as cognitive: Diggs proves himself a masterful rapper here, taking gangsta rap conventions and flipping them on their head in songs like “Tonight,” and “Work Work,” but also becoming an imaginative and provocative storyteller on tracks like “Story 2,” which is basically one long running freestyle depicting the worst night in a closeted-gay former arsonist’s life.
You think that’s twisted? The album opens with a dick-stiffening ode to a female serial killer, and the music video is all about men with vaginas getting railed from behind. Cattle Decapitation and Lord Mantis would be proud.
The Afghan Whigs – Do to the Beast
The comeback game is a losing proposition to most, especially mid-90’s hard rock bands, but I’m glad that didn’t deter Greg Dulli from reforming his hyper-sexed soul-rock juggernaut The Afghan Whigs. Maybe Dulli didn’t really feel the pressure—this album’s been slept on by the mainstream press. I have a tough time even finding reviews for it. Par for the course, sadly, as nobody ever appreciated this band enough to suit my tastes.
Full disclosure, The Afghan Whigs are one of my favorite bands of all time, their final four classic albums, Congregation, Gentlemen, Black Love, and 1965 are, to me, some of the finest rock music ever recorded. I’m talking as good as Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors, as The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls. It took balls for Dulli to come back after so long, but I’m glad he did.
Do to the Beast is a flowing, raucous, and emotional album worthy of his legacy. Sometimes it deals in power chords and fire breath, as on opener “Parked Outside,” which finds Dulli in his classic sexually-tortured aggressor mode. Elsewhere though, on “It Kills” and “Lost in the Woods,” he shows some real emotional vulnerability and maturity, but not enough to keep him from ping-ponging right back into venomous lust on “Royal Cream.” In other words, the album is as unknowable and complex as the person who created it, which makes Do to the Beast a must-listen.
Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence
So, word to the wise: never listen to critics. The indie rock intelligentsia blasted this modern-day crooner shortly after her debut album Born to Die was released and she apparently flopped at an SNL performance. The heat was so bad, in fact, that I waited a year to even give her a listen. What a fool I was.
I adore Born to Die, even with its cheesy production style. However, in every way, Ultraviolence is its superior. Slow and gloomy, with bits of soul and blues rock, courtesy of producer Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, peeking out of the miasma, Ultraviolence is like a late-night stroll through a graveyard, but there’s no monsters in the fog. All the horror comes from the siren leading you.
Del Rey’s lyrics are twisted, sometimes-empowering, but sometimes romanticizing her own history of emotional and possibly sexual abuse. Case in point, the (spectacular) title track opines “he hit me and it felt like a kiss […] I’m your jazz singer, and you’re my cult leader, I love you forever.” Someone hook this woman up with Jus Osborne, because she belongs on an Electric Wizard track with lyrics like that. She may be trying to sound like Nancy Sinatra, but rather than sing a Bond movie theme song I’d love to see her work with someone like Roman Polanski, who knows what it’s like to be wanted and desired in different, more salacious ways.
Still, that’s buying too much into Del Rey’s personae. There’s a lot of humor hidden in her lyrics. Songs like “Brooklyn Baby” and “Shades of Cool” strike me as deeply sarcastic, which only makes Del Rey more uncanny. I can’t help but think she’s pulling my leg a bit when she sings “Pretty When I Cry”… even though she’s definitely pulling on a few other limbs as well. Some people are still gonna hate on Del Rey (apparently she can’t pull off all of her vocal acrobatics live). Screw them. This album’s a tragic romance, a sexual thriller and an Agatha Christie novel wrapped up in a soul-rock-meets-trip-hop crust. Dig in.
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Piñata
This one blindsided me. Madlib has long been one of hip-hop’s most sought-after producers. His relatively unique style, heavy on soul and jazz samples, results in music so smooth that it feels luxurious and slippery. Few rappers can spit along to one of his beats, which might be why his output is so spastic. He may be best known as the producer behind esteemed eccentric MF Doom’s piece de resistance, Madvillainy, an album so ubiquitous that neither party’s really been able to top it since.
Enter Freddy “Gangsta” Gibbs, a rough-and-tumble emcee from the midwestern hellhole of Gary, Indiana, a man who’s been the next-big-thing for about as long as I’ve been listening to hip-hop. One minute the man’s a genius, the next he’s some thug. However, together this duo has created an album that unfolds like a lotus flower. This concept album, detailing the life of a low-level drug dealer in the midwest, is so packed with nuance and detail that each listen clues me into a new facet I missed before. Gibbs is on point in every single track of this record, flowing like a madman, with inhuman enunciation offering deeper corridors into his own violent, sociopathic, though ultimately sympathetic, psyche.
Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels II
That RTJ2 is a great album should come as no surprise—I’ve featured previous albums by NYC emcee/producer El-P and Atlanta rapper Killer Mike, as well as their first collaboration as Run The Jewels, before. The sucker punch is just how good RTJ2 actually is. It is, without question, the best record in any genre I heard in 2014.
More than that, however, it’s an album that feels like a genuine event, part of a great socio-political current. In the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown and its subsequent unrest, as well as the #blacklivesmatter movement, Killer Mike has been the only person artist or otherwise who has balanced sense, on his appearances on Fox News, and sentiment, as on his pre-show speech following the grand jury’s failure to indict officer Darren Wilson.
The police, as well as their interactions with African Americans (and all urban Americans), return as a theme over and over on RTJ2, most poignantly on Mike’s verse in album standout, “Early.” Normally I would not transcribe an emcee’s total verse in this space, however I feel that even readers who opt to not listen to the music itself should have the opportunity to appreciate Mike’s storytelling and poignancy here.
“It be feelin’ like the life that I’m livin’ man, I don’t control
Like every day I’m in a fight for my soul
Could it be that my medicine’s the evidence
For pigs to stop and frisk me when they rollin’ round on patrol?
And ask “why you’re here?”
I just tell ’em cause it is what it is
I live here and that’s what it is
He chimed “you got a dime?
I said “Man, I’m tryin’ to smoke and chill
Please don’t lock me up in front of my kids
And in front of my wife
Man, I ain’t got a gun or a knife
You do this and you ruin my life
And I apologize if it seems like I got out of line, sir
Cause I respect the badge and the gun
And I pray today ain’t the day that you drag me away
Right in front of my beautiful son”
And he still put my hands in cuffs, put me in the truck
When my woman screamed, said “shut up”
Witness with the camera phone on
Saw the copper pull a gun and
Put it on my gorgeous queen
As I peered out the window
I could see my other kinfolk and
Hear my little boy as he screamed
As he ran toward the copper begged him not to hurt his momma
Cause he had her face down on the ground
And I’d be much too weak to ever speak what I seen
But my life changed with that sound”
The life that I’m living, man, I don’t control, like every day I’m in a fight for my soul… that’s a greater truth for me, personally, than most lyrics I hear in metal or hip-hop. It’s a burning arrow straight from this album’s conscience.
Which isn’t to say that RTJ2 is all about social issues and storytelling. The group originally made its mark with mad swagger and ridiculous braggadocio—it’s their comfort zone, but also their area of expertise, and it’s still executed with aplomb. In fact, their two-man crusade against their opposition has been amped up into a, to use their words, “Fuckboy Jihad.”
The one-liners fly faster and with greater fury than depleted uranium shells in Fallujah, particularly on the record’s more minimalist side A, while the serious, more melodic material is sequestered at the back end of the record. I tend to prefer the serious material, so on first listen RTJ2 didn’t connect with the visceral impact of its predecessor, and while I now listen to “Jeopardy” and “Oh Darling Don’t Cry (Part 1)” with greater frequency, I feel the record grows as it progresses to the closing one-two combination of “Crown” and “Angel Duster.”
Then again, one of my favorite songs on the record is the least (obviously) political track on side B, “Love Again (Akinyele Back),” an ode to filthy and debaucherous sex acts. The song, about as explicit as any I can think of offhand, opens with a bass blast that loops into an air raid siren, over which El and Mike divulge a litany of lustful memories and desires while making an anthem out of “Dick in her mouth all day.” What could be stupid and male-centric gets flipped on its head when Gangsta Boo, the female founding member of Three 6ix Mafia, shows up and drops maybe the single raunchiest verse of any song I’ve heard outside of a Lords of Acid album. She flips the script, and flips the chorus: “He want this clit in his mouth all day.” Yep. After that, yes I do.
She’s just one of the many curve balls packed into this trim barnburner of a hip-hop record, one that packs brutality, sentimentality, politics, story writing, and indelible hooks. It’s gotten #1 album of 2014 on Stereogum and Pitchfork, which renders it into a strange sort of reconciliator. In this age of internet-fueled debate, 2014 had one point of consensus: The greatest album released in 2014 is a progressive gangster rap album released by two humorous middle-aged men with some good ideas about society, a lot of swagger, and a chip on their shoulders about religion, government, and the police. Oddly enough, that’s the kind of world I want to live in.
P.S. My single of the year goes to Grimes’ impossibly catchy “Go.” Starts with Solid Snake quoting Dante’s Inferno, then has the sickest dubstep breakdown of the year? Yes please.