IN MY EAR LAST YEAR
Written by Tobin Wait.
Disclaimer: This is a completely subjective, biased, personal list of favourite albums, culled solely from the music I was able to listen to this year, which was quite a lot. My criteria for good music is pretty simple: it has to make me think, make me move, or make me feel. These 10 albums were able to make me do all three. So, from my ears to yours (in no particular order)…
DARKSIDE – Psychic
A collaboration between electronic music wonderkind/mastermind, Nicolas Jaar, and Brooklyn guitarist Dave Harrington, Darkside is a festival for the ears. It’s electronic music at its highest form: intricate, diverse, layered and challenging. This is not music for the dance floor. It is music for long walks with headphones on or a rainy afternoon at the crib. It demands that you listen. It’s ambient, without being boring; it’s groovy, without being mundane; it’s funky, without being contrived. It’s meant for repeated listening, and like a good book that you have to read again, each listen will bring something new.
Standout Track: “Golden Arrow”
PHOSPHORESCENT – Muchacho
Matthew Houck, the heart & soul of Phosphorescent, has the kind of plaintive, crackling voice that is instantly addictive. Backed by a harmonic mixture of piano, synthesizer, guitar and beautifully lazy rhythms, his voice takes on a life of its own. An added bonus is that Houck is also a sublime songwriter, tackling the big themes – love, loss, betrayal, human nature, mythology – with originality and subtle humour. There is no filler on Muchacho – each song has a life of its own, a world of its own.
This is beautiful, haunting, addictive music…my favourite kind.
Standout Track: “Song for Zula”
BLOOD ORANGE – Cupid Deluxe
Blood Orange is the latest incarnation of New York producer, Dev Hynes, a well-respected and influential musical vagabond. Cupid Deluxe is a genre-defying tour-de-force, mixing together a vast array of musical styles: 80’s synth pop, funk, jazz, R & B, smooth pop, disco, new wave. It is a true musical melting pot, and on top of it all is Hynes’ smooth and sultry vocals. It’s a record you can dance to, chill to, make love to, wash the dishes to. It’s an eclectic mix of the smooth and the funky, and it demands your attention.
Standout Track: “Uncle ACE”
CHANCE THE RAPPER – Acid Rap
Wearing his J Dilla and Native Tongue influences on his sleeve, Chicago native Chance the Rapper has burst out of the rap gates. With quirky, jazz-influenced beats, funny insightful lyrics, and a slew of guest rappers, Acid Rap is never boring. It’s sound and feel evoke such 90’s greats as A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Wu Tang Clan, but with its updated beats, and guests such as Ab-Soul, Action Bronson and Childish Gambino, Acid Rap is a fresh and welcome sound for 2014.
Standout Track: “Cocoa Butter Kisses”
KURT VILE – Walkin’ On A Pretty Daze
The title of this gem pretty much says it all – listening to this album is pretty much like walking through a daze. But it’s a really cool, pleasant daze. It has favourably been called a “stoner album” by some critics because of its lazy, drifting sounds, but one thing is clear: Kurt Vile is a great guitarist and a sublime songwriter, and his songs are as catchy as hell. He has a knack for constructing seemingly simple song structures, and infusing them with subtle artistry and and a master’s touch to render them somehow less simple but so much more enjoyable. The result is a beautiful album from start to finish.
Standout Track: “Never Run Away”
KANYE WEST – Yeezus
Despite all the hype, despite his polarizing persona, and despite a slew of competition from established heavyweights and talented newcomers, Kanye released the most revolutionary rap album of the year. What I mean by revolutionary is that Kanye not only changed the game, but drove it in a completely new direction. Like Run DMC, Public Enemy, Dr. Dre and A Tribe Called Quest before him, Kanye introduced us to a new sound, a new style, a new future. Thumping techno beats, an unadulterated industrial sound, dark, powerful and angry lyrics, Yeezus was a slap in the face. But it felt so good. Now, if only he could turn the God complex down a bit…
Standout Track: “New Slaves”
JAMES BLAKE – Overgrown
James Blake has the kind of voice that makes all of his songs seem sad and depressing. It’s a plaintive and tender voice, but it is unmistakeable and unique. Overgrown is a hard album to categorize: it is equal parts soul, R & B, pop, electronica. It’s made as much for romantic evenings as it is for lazy afternoons. Musically, it relies on the kind of minimal, yet sophisticated beats that made Frank Ocean’s Orange such an amazing album. The music serves to enhance the words and sounds of Blake’s achingly beautiful voice; it never overpowers. And it is that beautiful voice which demands that you feel the array of emotions he expresses. And to top it all off, Overgrown contains an absolutely haunting RZA guest vocal on the powerful “Take A Fall For Me.”
Standout Track: “Retrograde”
VAMPIRE WEEKEND – Modern Vampires in the City
Vampire Weekend were not supposed to have any lasting relevance. They burst on the scene a few years ago with their African and Paul Simon influenced rhythms, released some really catchy singles, and then seemed destined for obscurity. They were a bunch of East Coast preppies who ripped off the sounds of others – they couldn’t last. Wrong. Vampire Weekend are for real, and Modern Vampires in the City is all the proof you need. It’s haunting, emotional and intellectual. It is lyrically extraordinary. It is musically mature and harmonic. Singer Ezra Koenig confronts life, death and everything in between, showing off his songwriting skills and intellect at the same time. It is definitely the best surprise of the year.
Standout Track: “Hannah Hunt”
EMINEM – The Marshall Mathers LP II
Say what you will about Eminem – he’s washed up, his jokes are old, he’ll never be as good as he was – you cannot ignore a simple, undeniable fact: he is one of the greatest rappers of all time. His wordplay, his delivery, his cadence, his masterful use of the English language, they are unparalleled. And they are all in full effect on The Marshall Mathers LP II. Sure, there are some weaknesses: too much guitar, too many classic rock samples, some pedestrian production. But the strengths more than overshadow the weaknesses: his back-and-forth lyrical bullets with Kendrick Lamar on “Love Game;” the old school, chaotic, Beastie Boys-influenced “Berzerk;” the master’s degree of wordplay he delivers on “Rap God.” This is one of the best ever on top of his game.
Standout Track: “Love Game”
JOHN TALABOT – Fin
Sometimes you just need a good, solid dance record with funky grooves and killer beats. I call it “house cleaning music,” because it’s perfect for cleaning your house. You can bob your head, smile, and maybe even do a little dance with your broom. No lyrics to distract you, just solid waves of groovy house music. And John Talabot is a master. The Spanish DJ is as solid as they come when it comes to beats and grooves. This is not in-your-face techno, meant for a sweaty warehouse. This is silky, airy, artistic house music. Sometimes that’s all you need.
Standout Track: “Destiny”
LORDE – Pure Heroin
NEPH – The Black Box EP
EARL SWEATSHIRT – Doris
GOLD PANDA – Half of Where You Live
DAFT PUNK – Random Access Memories