Okay, we’ve made it to Day 2 of this countdown. In case you missed the first set of 10 albums, aka #50-41, you can click here to bring yourself up to speed. The collection of records you’ll find below has a little something for everybody, I’d say. Well okay, maybe not EVERYBODY. But there’s some great synth pop, some punk rock, some electronica, some hip hop, and a little bit of experimental whatnot in there for good measure. If there’s a theme to be pulled from this portion of the countdown, it’s that change is inevitable, and can often turn out for the best. Anyways, let’s just get right into it. Here’s the Top 50 Albums of 2014: #40-31!
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This is the big one. Well to be more accurate, this is the START of the big one. The Top 50 Albums countdown is the cornerstone of Listmas every year, and the 2014 version is looking pretty stellar. Before we begin, let me quickly go over the basic ground rules to help explain the rankings and how records qualified for this list. Any full length record released in the United States over the course of the 2014 calendar year was eligible for inclusion. EPs are not eligible (sorry Royksopp & Robyn), nor are soundtracks (sorry Mica Levi and the Under the Skin OST), mixtapes and “Various Artists” song collections. It’s equal parts funny and sad to me that at the start of the 2013 Top 50 Albums countdown, I mentioned that the site had fallen off the wagon in terms of album reviews for that year, but promised that “in 2014, things are going to be different!” They actually were different in that the total number of album reviews declined yet again. There’s a myriad of excuses I can claim contributed to that problem, including some serious bouts with writer’s block and having a lot more general life responsibilities on my plate that snatched away the free time I’d normally spend writing. Ultimately though, I didn’t push myself hard enough to get things written and published in a timely fashion. I’ve actually got a handful of unfinished album reviews from across the year that I kept delaying until they were forgotten about. They’re all way past expiration date now, but maybe I’ll use pieces of those writings in the short capsules for each record on this list. When you really think about it, the Top 50 Albums countdown is pretty much just a mini-review marathon anyway. Almost all of these you’ll be seeing and reading about for the very first time on the site, so enjoy the surprise and suspense of what might be on the way this week. Today I’m happy to kick things off with the very first of five installments. Take a hop, skip and the jump to check out my Top 50 Albums of 2014: #50-41!
Here at Faronheit, nothing is ever truly off limits. Musically, I mean. The primary goal is to help you uncover the absolute best that music has to offer. Sometimes that takes things to a really obscure, underground place, and sometimes it’s the opposite and revels in the mainstream. Listen closely before passing judgment on anything, no matter if it’s a local band you’ve never heard of or a new Katy Perry song. Even an artist you actively dislike might somehow release something that catches your ear and makes you question everything you’ve ever known. For example, a few years back I heard a brand new song on the radio that to my ears sounded halfway decent. Imagine my shock upon being told it was a Hanson song. Not like a 1996 Hanson song, but a 2010 Hanson song. Do I like Hanson more now as a result? Not really, but I suppose I respect them more than I did before. So keep (or start) listening to any and all kinds of music that you can get your hands on, because even the darkest corners may contain some hidden gems. With that, I’m pleased to introduce the final installment of The Top 50 Songs of 2014. The first 40 songs were all fantastic, but what’s below is the cream of the crop. What you see and discover here could very well confound your expectations and disturb you to your very core. Or perhaps after listening to all of these songs you’ll give an understanding nod. There’s a little something for lovers of just about any music genre, but of course feel free to disagree with any or all of the choices as this is totally subjective. In case you missed them, here are links to all the other parts of the countdown:
And so without further ado, please join me past the jump for my Top 10 Songs of 2014.
Electronica. Indie pop. Synth pop. Experimental pop. Punk rock. Psych rock. Indie rock. R&B. You can find all of these genres and more in this next installment of Faronheit’s Top 50 Songs of 2014! Thus far, we’ve journeyed through three previous sets of 10 songs, and should you have missed them, why all you have to do is click these individual links to be taken there instantly: [#50-41] [#40-31] [#30-21]
Of course if you’d like to see all of the Top 50 Songs posts with a single click, simply choose this link. We’ve got two more rounds left, including this one right here, so follow me even further down the rabbit hole as digging continues toward the Top 10 Songs of the year. For the moment, click past the jump for #20-11!
In the formidable challenge that is counting down the Top 50 Songs of 2014, today is the day we reach the halfway point and then keep going. The songs are getting progressively better, more epic, catchier, and more emotional. That’s how lists like this work. I hope you’ve enjoyed what’s already been covered in the previous two installments. Click here to see #50-41 in the countdown. Click here to see #40-31. Is there a theme to the set of 10 songs featured in this particular post? Not that I’ve been able to discern. You’ll find a couple of hip hop tracks, a couple of R&B cuts, a couple of synth pop numbers, and some other things that can sometimes feel like they’re straight out of left field. It’s nice to get a little unpredictable from time to time. So here we go: The Top 50 Songs of 2014 #30-21!
This Top 50 Songs list is not organized in any other way than by perceived order of excellence, so when you have a look at the set of 10 below, you may be surprised at how thematically related almost all of them are to one another. It was a total fluke things worked out like that, and in fact I didn’t even notice myself until writing up this introduction. The overarching theme is love, whether you’re falling into it, out of it, or somewhere in between, which is a subject matter as old as music itself. I just looked it up, and apparently about 60% of all songs written today are about love, so I guess the similarities aren’t all that shocking after all. Anyways, let’s get right into it, shall we? This freight train keeps rolling on with #40-31 of the Top 50 Songs of 2014! Oh, and in case you missed it, here’s #50-41.
Welcome, dear reader, to the official kick off of Listmas 2014! For the uninformed, Listmas is the grand tradition here on the good ‘ol site that celebrates the end of the year with a series of ranked lists. It’s not really a new or novel idea, and in fact pretty much every site that covers music releases their own lists, though I suppose very few put it all together under one broad label like this. Yet the word has also become part of the jargon people use to talk about this list-making season every year. Anyways, it’s my sincere hope that you’ll keep checking back and reading the site over the next couple of weeks while the slow roll out of Listmas takes place. We’re starting this week with the Top 50 Songs of 2014 countdown, and following that up next week with the Top 50 Albums of 2014 countdown. There are currently designs for another extra list or two leading up to Christmas and the site’s annual holiday break, but I won’t go into detail on those yet because there’s still a good chance they might never be written or published. The last couple of years this endeavor has become increasingly difficult to put together, and resulted in delays that pushed a list or two past the holidays. So let’s keep our fingers crossed that everything gets done in a prompt and concise fashion this year.
Today we begin the journey of counting down the Top 50 Songs of 2014. Before we launch into this, a couple of quick notes. This list will be parsed out at the rate of 10 songs per post, ideally kicking off on Monday and ending on Friday. Along with the artist and song title, I’m pleased to provide different ways for you to hear each of the songs on this list. Some will be available for free download, but most will be streams through Soundcloud, YouTube or Spotify. The hope is to make all of this music as universally accessible as possible so you can hear everything should you so choose. Once the list is complete, I’ll include a link to a full playlist on Spotify where you can hear almost everything, as a few artists on this list don’t have or refuse to use Spotify. In regards to what you can expect, I’d say don’t make any assumptions and mentally prepare yourself to be outraged at some point. You’re not going to love every song, and the picks range from the very obscure to the super mainstream, even in the Top 10. No artist is featured more than once, though that rule technically doesn’t apply to collaborations or featured vocal spots. The goal is to spread the love as widely as possible, so hopefully that comes across in the end. So without further ado, please join me past the jump for Faronheit’s Top 50 Songs of 2014: #50-41!
A fair number of people have absolutely no idea who Owen Pallett is, even though they’ve likely heard his music in one place or another. His primary claim to fame has been as a composer/unofficial member of Arcade Fire, most recently earning an Oscar nomination for his work with the band on the soundtrack to the 2013 film Her. Most, if not all of the band’s string arrangements come directly from his brain. He’s composed for other bands on occasion as well, including Beirut, Grizzly Bear and The Mountain Goats, the latter of which was a lyrical inspiration for his new solo record In Conflict. After releasing solo material in the mid-00’s under the Final Fantasy moniker (which he was forced to change due to a lawsuit with video game creators Square Enix), in 2010 Pallett put out Heartland under his own name. Like everything he had done up until that point, Heartland was a concept record, telling the story of Lewis from a fictional realm called Spectrum, who faces off in a battle with his God (named “Owen Pallett”). It was a rich and engrossing album that practically demanded to be heard in full in one sitting, each thread connected and lightly pulling on the one before.
In Conflict is similar in that it too is best digested all at once; however conceptually speaking there is no singular narrative or storyline to follow. There are themes though, and many of the songs deal with self-doubt, depression, loneliness and the challenges of connecting with others. These are things we all face from time to time, though some of us deal with it a lot more than others. There seems to be a lot greater resonance the older you are too, as friends slowly disappear into their marriages and families, what’s a thirty or forty-something single person with no children to do? In the opener “I Am Not Afraid,” Pallett appears to have come to some sort of a resolution about his life. “I’m not at all afraid of changing / but I don’t know what good it would do me / I am no longer afraid / The truth doesn’t terrify us, terrify us / My salvation is found in discipline,” he sings with confidence.
Yet as quickly as he finds direction, he loses it once more. “On A Path” is about losing your place or outgrowing your hometown and the subsequent wanderlust as you search for a new place to settle. Mental illness and the “It Gets Better” Project are the focus of “The Secret Seven,” inspired in part by the suicide of gay violin student Tyler Clementi. Pallett seeks to relate his own experience with mental illness as a teen as well as those of his friends in the hopes of helping others dealing with the same issues. He even gives out his phone number at the end of the song so those in despair can call him to talk if need be. Later in the record “The Sky Behind the Flag” deals with the desire to control every aspect of our lives and exert that same influence on the world at large. The idea is that such micromanagement can only end in destruction and implosion, as others as well as the universe do not like being ruled by an iron fist. Above all else however, “The Riverbed” probably best represents the album’s overall themes. The subject matter on that track ranges from writer’s block to depression to alcoholism to growing older without children, which is basically a nasty cocktail of anxiety and dread. Dark as it may get, the final verse seeks to provide some degree of solace, particularly with the line, “Try to admit that you might have it wrong.” In other words, though you may be haunted by your failures, perhaps everyone else considers you a success.
Such is the point of a record titled In Conflict, as our mental states often clash with one another in obtuse ways. That idea also comes through from the instrumental side of things, supported in no small part by the master of the oblique, Brian Eno. While Pallett does an incredible job with string/orchestral arrangements and there are plenty of them on this album, he’s also chosen to expand his sound to incorporate more electronic elements. He’s done a fair amount in that area before, but never to such an extent. Pretty much every song has at least a touch of violin in it, but there’s also a wealth of digital effects like beats and bleeps, often accompanied by some sort of synth or Mellotron as they work well together. Those sorts of moments are particularly evident on “The Passion,” “Infernal Fantasy,” the title track and a couple others. It’s easy to say that this is where Eno’s influence bleeds through the most, as the non-symphonic, non-guitar areas are almost always his specialty. The only disappointing thing about it will likely be how some of these songs come across when performed on stage. There’s a certain excitement that comes with watching Pallett build sonic landscapes through his unique looping techniques, and electronic/synth stuff pulls him out of that world, however temporarily.
As a whole, In Conflict represents yet another masterstroke from Pallett, who has increasingly proven to be one of the top composers making music today. The lack of any official conceptual elements connecting all of the songs through characters or ideas relieves us from the distraction of trying to analyze and dig out some sort of storyline so we can focus on what’s really being done and said on the individual tracks. Every moment is fascinating in one way or another, be it a delicate instrumental composition or a single word/phrase. Whether or not they are influenced by or autobiographical to the man behind them is certainly up for debate, but what’s not is their intention to provoke a response from the listener. Hidden beneath the themes of fear, anger, depression and anxiety is the message that everyone has their own path, and the choices you make, no matter how good or bad, are an attempt to do what’s best for yourself. Thankfully, this record allows Pallett to give us the best of his conflicted, brilliant self as well.
Owen Pallett – Song for Five & Six
If you’ve heard a Real Estate record before, very little may surprise you about their new one Atlas. It’s another collection of lackadaisical songs with weaving guitar melodies supplemented by jangly chords. This time however, everything gets alternately clearer and cloudier. How so? Well, to start this is the first Real Estate album that’s been cleanly produced and doesn’t have touches of lo-fi haze built into it. Matt Mondanile’s serpentine guitar work benefits most from this adjustment, glimmering like a freshly polished diamond. It’s most effective on tracks like “Primitive” and “Had to Hear,” when you could almost refer to those lead guitar parts as another voice that acts in tandem with Martin Courtney’s silky vocals. This is a band that has quietly become a well oiled machine, as they now know what works and how to get there with the least amount of trouble. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the lyrics on Atlas, which bring the dizzyingly fun highs of their previous records down to earth. Real Estate were the sort of band that wrote songs about spending time at the beach or bumming around suburbia with your friends on a summer day, but now the sky has become overcast and the temperature has taken a nosedive. “Our careless lifestyle, it was not so unwise,” Courtney sang on “Green Aisles” from the band’s 2011 record Days. As nice of a sentiment as that was, those days (so to speak) are over, and now it’s time to grow up and be a responsible adult. Going along with that are relationship struggles (“Talking Backwards”), crippling anxiety (“Crime”) and the realization that everything changes and we can never truly go back (“Past Lives”). Pairing those emotions with the band’s trademark sound proves to be a rather inspired combination, resulting in their catchiest and most mature album to date. It’s also their best, right down to the carefully structured sequencing. All of this shows that Real Estate have certainly learned a thing or two both personally and professionally over the last few years. Now it’s time for them to teach us, and that goes well beyond simple guitar tab videos.
Over the course of four albums, Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) has undergone a complete transformation. This fact is most evident in her album covers, the first two being self-portraits displaying what might best be described as wide-eyed innocence. Her new album is self-titled and once again features a photo of her on the cover, only this time her hair has gone from black to white and she sits atop a throne in an ornate dress, a look of power and control on her face. So too has her subject matter focus evolved from miserable suburban housewives and the curse of domesticity to powerful tyrants and society’s weaknesses when it comes to facing such leaders. In essence she’s been writing songs about the oppressed this entire time, but she expands to a greater and more epic scope with each new record. It’s similar to how her skills and sonic palette have grown in that time, as she always offers up something different to engage the listener and keep us guessing.
More so than anything she’s done previously, on St. Vincent Clark plays around with all sorts of digital sounds and effects. That’s clear right from the opening track “Rattlesnake,” where her guitar doesn’t even show up until well past the halfway mark. And while there’s plenty of examples of digital prevalence on this record (almost ironically, not so much on the song titled “Digital Witness”), it’s perhaps most obvious on the skittering, almost science fiction dystopian “Bring Me Your Loves.” What’s missing? Well, the ornate orchestration that permeated much of her first two records is all but gone, though 2011’s Strange Mercy certainly started that decline. Her buzz saw guitar solos have also largely started to take a back seat as well, though when they do show up as on “Huey Newton” they’re so completely distorted and compounded with effects you might not even recognize that’s the instrument you’re hearing.
In a sense, it can sometimes feel like a waste of talent if Clark isn’t using the greatest tool at her disposal on pretty much every track. What ultimately makes it okay is how she fills in those spaces previously occupied by guitar solos with other things and strong songwriting so you don’t notice nearly as much. Slightly more worrisome is how little St. Vincent has to share in terms of innovation and general evolution. The album is different because it emphasizes other elements and concepts, but none of it is anything we really haven’t heard from Clark in some different capacity. As the song title from her 2009 album Actor implies, what she’s giving us is “Just the Same But Brand New.” On the plus side though, absolutely none of the record feels stale or disappointing. It also couldn’t have come from any other artist. Annie Clark has reached a level of comfortable confidence that many other artists spend entire careers searching for. Whether this self-titled album marks the end of one chapter or the beginning of the next, it’s a defining moment for one of today’s smartest and most compelling rock stars.
When someone’s very personal vision is on display for all to consume, they’re taking a huge risk putting themselves “out there,” since the reaction to it can range anywhere from hugely positive to incredibly negative. Yet there’s also something wholly refreshing about it too, because even if it sucks at least nobody can accuse the artist of compromising or playing it safe. That’s probably why the best books, films and albums also operate on the fringes of popular culture, because people actively crave the most positive and idealistic things, and anything that doesn’t conform or forces you to relate to it in more than a superficial way fails to provide the necessary escapism from their not-so-great lives. Which makes a great case for why there’s likely to be a heavy division between those who love and those who hate Sun Kil Moon’s sixth record Benji. Then again, most of those who won’t like the album are probably not even aware enough about music to even know this exists in the first place. It’s what’s known as a specialty record, with a sharp emphasis on “special.” Rest assured that no matter how you react to it, you’re unlikely to forget this listening experience.
If you examined Benji solely for its instrumental composition and remove Mark Kozelek’s vocals from the equation entirely, there’s a very good chance you’d shrug and think of it as just another folk record. There’s nothing flashy or wholly experimental about the way these songs come together, even though they’re more varied and dense compared to more recent Sun Kil Moon efforts. That’s largely done intentionally, so as not to distract from the lyrics and the way they’re being sung. More specifically, every track isn’t so much a song as it is an intensely personal story pulled directly from Kozelek’s life. He’ll talk about his parents (“I Love My Dad” and “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love”), other family members who have died (“Carissa” and “Truck Driver”), serial killers (“Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes”), provide explicit details of his sexual history (“Dogs”), and give his perspective on one of America’s most recent tragedies (“Pray for Newtown”). Is any of it true? Is all of it true? A little research about the names, dates and location details in every song appears to point towards complete honesty, though on occasion a name might be changed to protect the innocent. Every tale is told with such interesting and vivid specificity that you can picture it in your head, while also generalized enough that just about anyone can relate to it. That remarkable balance is what turns this from a good record to a great one.
Given that somebody dies in almost every single song on Benji, you might think that this is a pretty depressing album. How Kozelek avoids falling into that trap is by painting vivid portraits of the people he’s singing about. Their experiences turn out to be just like our own, a grand mixture of triumphs and failures, happy moments and sad ones, and everything in between. Don’t be surprised if you find it difficult to make it through this lengthy record in one sitting due to all the emotions it conjures up. That’s just part of what it means to be a living, breathing human being. Kozelek writes about all these people and topics because they’ve changed his life in some way, and creating poetry out of them is his way of returning the favor. One can only hope it will inspire others to do the same.
This is the big one. Welcome to Faronheit’s Top 50 Albums of 2013 countdown! Over the next few days, I’ll be revealing my unveiling the full list, 10 albums at a time. We do this every year, and it’s always an adventure. Things are running just a little bit behind schedule at the moment, as I’d hoped to have this up before Christmas, but I appreciate your patience and promise to have everything posted before the end of the year. Did you happen to catch my Top 50 Songs of 2013 list from earlier this month? In case you missed it, all of those posts can be found simply by clicking this link. While I’m always excited to share tracks with you, as evidenced by the daily Pick Your Poison posts, albums hold a special place in my heart. This site was started with the intention of writing long form album reviews, and unfortunately in 2013 strayed further away from that than ever. A combination of factors, from having a really busy schedule to endless amounts of writing and rewriting to bouts of writer’s block prevented me from cranking out more than a few album reviews each month. It’s something I have a strong desire to get back to however, so that’s going to be a primary goal for 2014. As things stand now, all 50 of the albums in this countdown have short paragraph mini reviews to go along with them, so in a sense I’m packing a year’s worth into just a few entries. I hope you enjoy them, and maybe even discover some great records that you missed from this past year. Let’s get started then, shall we? Follow me after the jump for the first set of ten albums, with #50-41!
They were bred for this. Well, maybe they were. Somebody ask their parents about that. One thing is for sure though – the three sisters that make up the band Haim have been making music from the very first moment they were able to. It’s certainly no coincidence that each of them plays a different instrument too: Danielle is lead guitar, Este is on bass, and Alana does keyboards/synths. Danielle and Este spent their late teens as part of a cut-and-paste major label band called Valli Girls, where they performed a bunch of songs written by a team of professionals intent on marketing to tweens and teens. Generally disappointed with playing a bunch of songs they didn’t write or necessarily like, the two Haim sisters left the band and went Partridge, complete with mom on lead vocals and dad behind the drum kit. Covers were their specialty, diving into the songbooks of everyone from Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac to Shania Twain and R&B legend Wilson Pickett. Of course it’s tough to make a living as a cover band, let alone a family cover band, and there comes a time in every parent’s life when they need to shove their babies out of the nest and let them try to fly on their own. And so we have Haim in their current incarnation, complete with long-time session drummer Dash Hutton to add percussion into the mix.
The buzz began in early 2012 when the single “Forever” was released as part of a three song EP, which along with some heavily hyped performances at SXSW got them a record deal. Their sound is best classified as a mixture of their influences, largely stemming from their upbringing and cover songs played with their parents. Fleetwood Mac is the name that gets referenced most often, however it’s most apt to say that they’ve got the late 80’s/early 90’s soft pop sound on lock, with dashes of R&B thrown in for good measure. Think Phil Collins and Richard Marx mixed with En Vogue and Kate Bush, and that should give you a decent impression of where they’re coming from. Those names might raise a lot of red flags or conjure bad memories, and there’s the inclination to suspect that they’re really just exploring those genres out of complete irony, however there’s extreme sincerity in every single thing they do. That’s really what sells the listener on the idea and earns the band the right sort of attention and respect in spite of all other factors. The new twists on old familiar sounds are also what make their songs seem very “of the moment.” For example, you could easily say that their latest single “The Wire” is a natural blend of the most classic periods of Shania Twain and The Eagles. Beyond that sonic comparison, the addition of each sister taking their own verse plus those dynamic harmonies really helps to elevate it to a “song of the year”-type status. Make previously strong singles “Falling” and “Forever” your lead-ins, and the start of their debut album Days Are Gone turns into a 1-2-3 knockout punch combo.
Of course it definitely doesn’t end there, in spite of the record’s apparent front-loading. Time and time again, Haim prove that they know their way around a chorus, and that they are happy to exploit or break away from genre conventions whenever it suits their needs. The album’s title track, kicking off the second half of the record, appears to mine a bit from the more urban pop era of Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul, and works out better than you might expect. It’s no wonder the song was co-written by Jessie Ware, who has largely taken over where Jackson and Abdul once reigned. While press materials will tell you that there’s a bit of an R&B influence in Haim’s sound, it doesn’t really show up too often. When it does though, as on “Let Me Go” and “My Song 5,” it adds a deeper layer to what the band is capable of, and makes for some of the most impressive moments on the album. Both songs could be considered an homage to En Vogue, though only “My Song 5” and it’s heavy bass drum/tuba blare truly sets itself apart from the rest of the album. And that’s perfectly fine – most records could use such a great standout. Yet one of the most fascinating things about Days Are Gone is how it manages to unite all of the disparate elements and influences into one cohesive whole of an album. Credit goes to producer du jour Ariel Rechtshaid (Vampire Weekend, Usher) for finding a way to make it work, and to Haim for never sounding anything less than original in spite of obvious nods to the past.
If Days Are Gone has a real weakness, it’s found in the lyrics, which often attempt to turn a breezy melody into something dark and “important.” There’s nothing necessarily wrong with wanting to write about serious issues against a lighthearted pop melody – artists do that all the time. Plus, it’s not like half of their songs are about depression, even though a few are about breakups and the fallout afterwards. Then again, “The Wire” is just about the most upbeat and kind song about the ending of a relationship that you’ll find these days. Where the issues emerge are in the words themselves, and not the topics. While the record has its fair share of creative wordplay, a close look at the lyrical content of most songs unveils a pattern of generalizations and bland phrasing that doesn’t hold up so well under scrutiny. All things considered, calling attention to such an issue given what Haim is out to accomplish can be viewed as petty and nitpicky, which is why it might be best to simply sit back, relax and let the melodies and hooks take you away. That is, essentially, what the sisters are doing on their album cover anyways.
Those in search of something different or innovative in a band probably won’t find Haim and Days Are Gone to their liking. What you do get from this record is a collection of strongly composed and confident songs that grab your attention and refuse to let go. Coming straight out of the gate with such excellence and precision is rather impressive, even if these sisters have been playing music since they became old enough to hold instruments in their hands. This is definitely something they’ve been building towards, and for all practical purposes they knock it out of the park.
Haim – The Wire
Haim – Falling
“How much do I not give a fuck? / Let me show you right now ‘fore you give it up.” These are the words Kanye West spits out in the bridge to the song “On Sight,” the opening track off his new record Yeezus. It’s likely he’s addressing the media when saying them, however it makes a grand statement about the album as a whole. After a few records of ever-evolving but always smartly constructed and commercially accessible hip hop, West has had enough. 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a crowning achievement of the highest order, enough to be called one of (if not THE) greatest records of the century. Crafting a follow-up certainly wouldn’t be easy, but in many ways West makes it look like child’s play. Those looking for challenging and obtuse in their hip hop will find it on this new album in spades, and though he’s purposely tried to avoid releasing any singles, it’s going to happen anyways since “Black Skinhead” has caught on.
Unlike the boisterous arrangements and orchestral flourishes that populated his last record, Yeezus goes for the stripped down, attack dog approach. West is angry at the world it seems, and though he throws out a lot of hate, he rarely threatens actual violence, which has largely been the case since the beginning of his career and has helped to separate him from his peers. Still, women don’t fare well on this record, particularly on the extremely sexual “I’m In It,” which includes lines like, “Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign,” and the cringe-worthy “Eatin’ Asian pussy, all I need was sweet and sour sauce.” The only real “redemption” (if you can call it that) for women comes on the final track “Bound 2,” which is rumored to be written about his relationship with Kim Kardashian. Elsewhere he chooses to go anti-corporate advertising with a track like “New Slaves,” slamming corporations and any famous people (especially other rappers) accepting goods in exchange for promotions and shout outs. Ironic then how closely his pal Jay-Z is working with Samsung for the release of his new album. Also unlike his last album, West keeps the guests to a minimum on Yeezus, and several tracks feature only his voice, though with a fair number of samples and “producers” working on them. Frank Ocean shows up for a few seconds on “New Slaves,” and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon gets a couple of dramatic vocal workouts on “I Am A God,” “Hold My Liquor” and “I’m In It.” Though Kid Cudi shows up for a verse on “Guilt Trip,” the only other guests are up-and-coming Chicago rappers Chief Keef and King Louie, on “Hold My Liquor” and “Send It Up,” respectively. Everybody’s great, but West truly shines when he’s flying solo.
The divorce drama of “Blood on the Leaves” is the absolute greatest and most powerful piece on the entire album, buttressed by a Nina Simone vocal sample and a piece of TNGHT’s “R U Ready” that provide a profound mixture of sadness and venom. The acid-house squelch sample from Phuture’s 1987 classic “Acid Tracks” cut, which inspired a generation of rock bands from that era (Nine Inch Nails included) helps drive “On Sight” to an intense degree, and brings a certain synth element to this record that West has never attempted before. That sort of sound works well on a number of album tracks, but perhaps “I Am A God”‘s Blade Runner-esque haze with a Daft Punk production assist matches up best overall, somehow able to handle both a goofy eye-rolling moment like the line, “Hurry up with my damn croissants,” and the terrified, breathless screams that show up at the end. The only track that really breaks from the unified bare-bones production on this record is “Bound 2,” which smashes together The Ponderosa Twins’ “Bound” with Brenda Lee’s “Sweet Nothin’s” and Wee’s “Aeroplane (Reprise)” in a melody that sounds like t was ripped straight out of one of West’s first two albums.
Still, the generally minimalist (down to the cover art) and rock n’ roll-like approach he takes on much of Yeezus is new territory for him to explore, and something that feels informed at least in part by some of the incredible, anti-commercial anger that has earned Death Grips the right kind of attention over the last couple years. Hip hop in general could use more of this type of boundary exploration. In this particular case the strategy is likely West’s attempt to feed his own ego; to prove that no matter what he does or how much he alienates his own fans, he will still be praised as the greatest thing to ever happen in music. The worst part about it is, to some degree he’s right. Very few, if any, rap artists can claim to have such an acclaimed and lucrative career over a 10-year period. The same can be said about almost every musician outside of that genre too. You hate to give such a self-aggrandizing figure even more ammunition, but full credit where credit is due, Yeezus is another near-masterpiece.
Kanye West – Hold My Liquor (ft. Chief Keef and Justin Vernon)
The ship should have sailed on Vampire Weekend a long time ago. As in, the wave of backlash should have hit them right around the release of their second (and previous) album Contra in early 2010 and doomed them to a slow descent into obscurity. Yet every so often, an artist or band finds a way to rise above the fray and continue to persevere in spite of everything. Leave it to the guys with Ivy League educations to solve that puzzle and go from a debut with one hit single to a sequel with three. That’s not even mentioning all the commercial licensing they signed off on, continuing to build their “brand” of cardigans, boat shoes and balaclavas to a predominantly young, white audience. Perhaps most incredible through all this is that the quality of the music they’ve been making has dipped very little, if at all. What started out as a ferocious nod to Afropop and in many respects Paul Simon has since evolved into something darker and more considerate while still largely maintaining a giddy, indie pop vibe. Perhaps that’s the main reason why so many people love this band – they take challenging topics, difficult issues and high class living and make them into very on-the-level, non-pretentious, fun songs. One minute you’ll be bobbing your head and singing along to the chorus of a song, and the next minute you’ll hear a lyric that forces you to grab your dictionary to try and figure out exactly what frontman Ezra Koenig was getting at with that reference. You’re learning new things while you listen, and in a sense that raises the collective conscience and intelligence level for all involved. For whatever reason, Vampire Weekend are working to leave society better than when they found it, and perhaps that’s why it’s so difficult to find fault in just about everything they’re doing. Their new album Modern Vampires of the City is their strongest collection of tracks to date, but it’s also their darkest and most challenging, all of which can be seen as major positives.
Most bands like to throw a single out as the first track on their records, because it provides a nice gateway into the rest of the album. If they don’t go with a single, then it’s usually something upbeat and fun to at least put you in a good mood before moving forward. The last two Vampire Weekend albums have featured “Mansard Roof” and “Horchata” respectively, and both fit right into that traditional first track pattern. For Modern Vampires of the City, the opening song is “Obvious Bicycle,” a track that might best be described as a piano ballad. It’s not exactly a magnet of a song that sucks you in, and the lyrics make it even worse. “Oh you ought to spare your face the razor / Because no one’s gonna spare their time for you / You ought to spare the world your labor / It’s been twenty years and no one’s told the truth,” pretty much spell out deep depression and a complete mistrust of others. Yet there’s also stoicism and beauty in the way it’s composed, and the delicately harmonized, easy to remember chorus gives it a certain replay value you might not otherwise expect. The buzzy, pop-driven side of the band shows up starting with the single “Unbelievers,” certainly one of the album’s strongest moments and most addictive tracks. Yet it too features a rather dark take on things, emphasizing the idea that it can be tough today to truly figure out exactly who or what you believe in, religiously speaking and otherwise. “Girl you and I will die unbelievers, bound to the tracks of the train,” Koenig sings like there’s no escaping the fate that lies before him. There truly is no way of knowing if we’ve made the right decisions for our lives or our futures, which in many ways is crippling and could be considered a metaphorical freight train bearing down on us.
If you’re looking for a more “traditional” Vampire Weekend song, look no further than “Step,” which drops references to Angkor Wat, Dar es Salaam and Croesus amid sparkling harpsichords. Such challenging names and phrases are used in this case as more of a wink and a nod to their highly intelligent, “upper class” past rather than a legitimate attempt to go highbrow simply because they want to. The real deal behind this song is that the band borrows a couple of the main lines from the chorus from an unreleased track from the early ’90s called “Step to My Girl” by hip hop group Souls of Mischief. That track borrowed a saxophone melody from a 1972 song by Bread, which additionally Vampire Weekend also recreated with the harpsichord for this song. It’s fascinating how it all came together, and how the worlds of hip hop, smooth jazz and rock music from the past intersect via what sounds like a completely original and modern track. With that kind of history, maybe that is just a little more pretentious and challenging than it might otherwise appear. Similar things can be said for first single “Diane Young,” because while it is a whirlwind, roller coaster of a fun song complete with purposely goofy vocal modulations, there’s deeper meaning below the giddy surface. The subject matter is death, and the song title isn’t so much about a girl as it is, like the vocals, a slight modification of the more common expression, “dying young.” The lyrics support it, particularly with a reference to the Kennedy family, who are known for dying young. The music video also supports the idea, with a Last Supper-like scenario involving Jesus, who of course reportedly died at age 33.
Yet “Diane Young” also speaks to one of the overarching themes of Modern Vampires of the City, which is more about time running out on you than it is actual, physical death. Sure, death is certainly one of the possibilities of things to happen when the clock reaches zero, but it’s equally important to look at where the band is at in their personal lives. At the moment, they’re right at the border of what some might designate as “adulthood,” and all the “responsibilities” that come along with that. While there is no official hard line in the sand definition of what constitutes an adult, the ideas of getting married and starting a family certainly get wrapped up in that. In your own way, when you become an adult it marks the death of your youth, because there are new challenges and people to worry about and care for, taking away those times of freedom when you could do anything (…or anyone) you wanted to. Instead of staying out at some bar until 3 a.m. on a weeknight and showing up to work hungover a few hours later, you’re in bed by 11 and have to get up again at 4 because the baby is crying. The track “Don’t Lie” is actually all about that idea, and the quest to get in all the crazy and fun experiences you want to before making a full commitment to another person. “Young bloods can’t be settling down,” Koenig sings early on, but he’s also in love with a girl and feels just about ready to make that leap. The lines, “It’s the last time running through snow / Cause the fire can’t last and the winter’s cold,” speak to the need for love between two people, which should be fully appreciated, lest it be extinguished and you’re left alone in a harsh and loveless environment.
This path towards adulthood truly reaches its peak with the centerpiece of the record, “Hannah Hunt.” In many ways it seems like Vampire Weekend’s own maturity as a band gets unveiled in this track, like it’s something they’ve been purposely building towards for the last few years. Within this single ballad contains a multitude of sonic and textural innovations while the the lyrics and especially Koenig’s vocals overflow with emotion in a rousing and powerful way. The story line is a familiar one, in the sense that this could well be picking up on the lives of two characters we’ve spent time with previously in other Vampire Weekend songs on other albums. Here they’ve made the decision to escape from their own lives and hit the road to drive across the country in the hopes of starting over fresh. You may recognize this inclination as a more literal version of trying to outrun adulthood and other responsibilities that life hands us. Along the journey, this couple meets a gardener who talks about how plants move as they grow, and a man of faith who tries but fails to instill the narrator with a sense of personal accountability. Yet the real focus here is between these two people, our narrator and Hannah Hunt. Though their trip starts out promising enough, by the second verse of the song their relationship has grown cold, like the freezing beaches of Providence, Rhode Island which Hannah says she misses now that they’re on the opposite side of the country. And while the narrator wanders off to buy kindling for a fire, aka an attempt to get the flames of passion burning once more, Hannah chooses to burn a copy of the New York Times instead. The frustration builds, and eventually explodes outwards in the final 90 seconds of the song, going from a slow and meditative ballad to a soaring and gorgeous crescendo. Koenig’s voice follows suit, and he yells the chorus with such force you can almost hear tears rolling down his face: “If I can’t trust you then damn it, Hannah / There’s no future / There’s no answer / Though we live on the U.S. dollar / You and me, we got our own sense (cents?) of time.” It’s as harrowing as it is beautiful, and for those four minutes, that fictional clock through which we count the seconds and watch the hours stops completely.
While there are a few (perhaps arguably so, depending on personal interpretation) religious references in the first half of Modern Vampires of the City, it’s on the second half of the record where religion really come into topical focus. “I took your counsel and came to ruin / Leave me to myself, leave me to myself,” Koenig gripes at the start of “Everlasting Arms.” The song title itself alludes to the old hymn “Leaning on Everlasting Arms,” which is about the Day of Judgment. In his own way, Koenig spends the song passing judgment on God, trying to break off that relationship because it has caused him nothing but pain and suffering. An even greater indictment shows up on “Worship You,” which asks whether or not God deserves the love and praise given to him around the globe. There are references made to God’s “red right hand,” which play on the phrase of getting caught red-handed, implying guilt and wrongdoing. There’s also a political angle to the track, primarily dealing with the Middle East and Israel and the supposed protection offered to the Holy Land. “Finger Back” deals with similar issues, though the focus in this case is more on the cycle of violence in the region and how religion is the main reason for many conflicts. That also ties into the sharply depressing but stylistically intriguing penultimate track “Hudson,” which uses the historical context of explorer Henry Hudson and his death as a springboard to envision a post-apocalyptic New York hellscape in the years following the nuclear holocaust that is World War III.
Looking solely at the lyrics on Modern Vampires of the City and attempting to delve into the meanings and intentions behind the songs can make everything seem like a truly depressing march through sludge. The themes are dark and unpleasant, from the ticking clock of youth and life running towards its ultimate finish to the anger towards God and religion, and you might expect the music itself to match those tones. Yet that’s not the case by any means. The band has come a long way from their debut, but they haven’t lost their ability to write compelling melodies and hooks that grab your ear and refuse to let go. Listen to this album enough and you’ll find that a different track stands out each time, even some of the slower ones like “Ya Hey” and “Step” will give you a reason to keep coming back for more. A very lyrically bleak song like “Finger Back” is only dark and depressing if you can fully comprehend what’s being sung about, and Koenig’s rapid fire vocal delivery paired with a bouncy melody seem to suggest upbeat pop more than anything else. And that’s really the crux of this record as a whole: it deals with a lot of heavy issues, but always with a little wink and a nod to let you know that it’s not all bad. That sense of relatability and inclusiveness which gets developed while also ushering in a new found maturity makes this Vampire Weekend’s strongest effort to date. For a band that spends so much time on this record worrying about getting older and the proverbial deaths that go along with it, there’s a terrific amount of irony in the fact that they’re only getting better with age. It’s certainly something most other artists should look at with envy.