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Listmas 2014: The Top 50 Albums of the Year [#10-1]

This is it! The final post of 2014 also marks the conclusion of Listmas and specifically this Top 50 Albums of 2014 countdown. It’s been a long road with plenty of bumps and delays along the way, but we’ve finally reached the peak of this imaginary mountain. At this point I’d like to give a special thank you to everyone who read something, clicked on something or downloaded something here at Faronheit over 2014. All of the content that’s posted here is for you to discover and enjoy, and I’m grateful for anyone who visits with that intention. It hasn’t been the best year for the site content-wise, but the hope is to generate more and return to form in 2015. Typically I’d tease a bunch of new features and exciting things in development for next year, but honestly most of that stuff either gains no traction or simply falls off never to be heard from again, so let’s just stick to the mantra of more everything and go from there.

So what can I say about these Top 10 Albums of 2014? Well, like the other entries in this list, there’s plenty of variety in terms of genre and style. It goes from weird to fun to noisy to sexy to relaxing to adventurous and back again. If you’ve been following me on Instagram these last few weeks, you’ve been given access to an early preview of the eclectic Top 5, though I can assure you that #6-10 are as equally exciting and wonderful. And hey, while I wasn’t able to write a lot of album and show reviews this year, some of the ones I did write about make an appearance here. Also worth mentioning: a particular pair of artists who are members of my Class of 2014 had an exceptionally great year, helping to continue to support that program. So I’m not going to spend any extra time talking this up. Please join me past the jump for the big reveal of my absolute favorite albums of the year.

Previously: [#50-41] [#40-31] [#30-21] [#20-11]

Song of the Week: St. Vincent – Prince Johnny

Song of the Week is a new Friday feature on Faronheit that gives a closer, more in depth look/analysis of a song rather than simply handing it over to your ears. You are invited to share your own thoughts on the Song of the Week in the comments section.

As a guitar virtuoso, it makes perfect sense that Annie Clark places her focus on that element and her vocals for any given St. Vincent song. It’s been that way since the very beginning, though the dynamics of it have changed dramatically over time as Clark has continued to grow as an artist. As a preview to her forthcoming self-titled debut album (out Feb. 25th), “Prince Johnny” flips the script on the listener just a bit by placing an incredibly large amount of emphasis on the beats and percussion. It completely overwhelms everything in the mix except for the vocals, to the point where you might not even notice the bass guitar sliding in at the :20 mark or the initial electric guitar at :40. Only during the chorus does Clark’s guitar come roaring to life to help establish what will become the hook. She’s done something similar before, perhaps most notably on the Strange Mercy single “Cruel,” however there were a lot of other elements playing off one another in that track so the lack of guitar didn’t seem so important. Also, the “Cruel” chorus hit within 30 seconds, whereas “Prince Johnny” takes nearly 3x as long to get there. What does all this mean? Well, it provides a small glimmer of hope that the new record will be more than just a bunch of Clark’s previous work revamped to sound fresh, which is in part what the other two tracks released from the album so far may have implied. A bolder emphasis on beats and other digital elements also plays into the larger themes of the record, slowly stripping away the shreds of our humanity as we become increasingly reliant on technology to do the work for us. When it’s all over, perhaps even Clark’s voice will wind up proverbially buried underneath a pile of noise. We’re just going to have to wait and see on that one.

Album Review: David Byrne & St. Vincent – Love This Giant [4AD/Todo Mundo]

As with so many collaborations betweem famous musicians, having David Byrne and St. Vincent working together seems like a great idea on paper. In many ways, you can envision Byrne as a mentor to Annie Clark, a guiding spirit who’s been through the ringer a time or two with the Talking Heads and other projects, taking a talented young prodigy and trying to mold her on a path towards legendary success. Lord knows he doesn’t need the career boost and could probably get away with playing his classic songs for the rest of his life. Certainly Byrne’s work with Brian Eno has been the most highly regarded of his collaborations, with 1981’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts being just the sort of strange, boundary-pushing effort to inspire a whole new generation of artists. He’s made plenty of great records since then, though arguably nothing will ever quite match his streak of greatness in the ’80s. As for clark, her ever-evolving sound has only become more potent with time, and the latest St. Vincent album Strange Mercy reaches a new peak of her songwriting and guitar skills. She doesn’t really need any favors either at this point, though the opportunity to work with Byrne is one that few smart artists would pass up.

But maybe it is that lack of necessity that makes their album together Love This Giant so comfortable and safe. Instead of taking the license of such a project and running wild with sonic experiments, what we get instead are concise pop songs punched up with a backing brass band. Such a lack of liberty would be more forgivable if the songs themselves were more compelling and memorable, but unfortunately that’s not the case either. The album’s opening song and first single “Who” is actually a very encouraging start, though it is less addictive and inspired than Byrne’s last big single with Brian Eno, 2008’s “Strange Overtones.” A less apparent highlight on the record is “Weekend in the Dust,” taking a canned beat and the funky horn section and turning them into a melody that feels rooted in ’80s or ’90s funk or R&B. It represents a markedly different approach for Clark, and even her halting Janet Jackson-esque lead vocals don’t sound like anything she’s done before. It’s the sort of boundary pushing this album could have used more of. Actually, it’s probably more of Clark’s take on some of Byrne’s known sounds, which then makes it a shame when he doesn’t really adopt much of her creative guitar work. In fact, her guitar is either absent or put behind brass for virtually the entire record, which is like having a million dollars stored in a safe at home but refusing to spend a dime of it even though you’re in debt. “The Forest Awakes” is about as guitar-heavy as this record gets, and even that provides meager offerings.

Yet it’s still Clark that comes off best on Love This Giant, and whether that has to do with songwriting, melody or general enthusiasm for the project is up for debate. Byrne mostly sounds bored, almost like he’s run out of things to say. Instead of using “I Should Watch TV” as a clever way to comment on today’s pop culture, he uses it to analyze exactly why he’s compelled to do as the song title suggests. You could say that it’s a noble search for deeper meaning, but the melody suggests a playfulness that’s simply not present otherwise. While the brass backing band is something of a bolder choice for both artists involved, one of the real tragedies is how whitewashed and bland they come off sounding. That’s especially true on tracks like “Dinner For Two” and “Lazarus,” both of which could use a little extra pep in their step and injections of instrumental creativity. Thanks to an additional assist from Antibalas and The Dap-Kings, “The One Who Broke Your Heart” is a surprising late album treat and probably the best use of brass on the entire record.

A large part of the disconnect on Love This Giant, instrumental and otherwise, probably stems from how it was pieced together. Recorded over three years in a variety of studios with files passed back and forth between Byrne and Clark, you can sort of tell that not everybody was in the same room or studio when this was created. Such are the potential perils of long distance collaboration. Inspired as this team up sounded initially, both Byrne and St. Vincent have done and will do bigger and better things down the line. Perhaps if they decide to do this again, as Byrne has done with Eno, things will turn out much differently and for the better.

David Byrne & St. Vincent – Who

Buy Love This Giant from Amazon

Album Review: St. Vincent – Strange Mercy [4AD]

The star of St. Vincent continues to rise. Graduated from the schools of Sufjan Stevens and The Polyphonic Spree, Annie Clark has quickly established herself under that holy moniker as her own force of nature. On her two records so far, she’s crafted delicate and raw songs about people that have it all together on the outside but are on the verge of breaking down on the inside. The title of her last record, “Actor”, was largely an allusion to the roles we play to please others in spite of our own predilections. Of course her debut album, “Marry Me”, was a reference to the cult classic TV show “Arrested Development”, so it’s also quite clear that Ms. Clark is not without a sense of humor. And whether you’ve only heard her on record or seen her live, few can argue that singing and songwriting are only a small part of her immense talents. To put it a different way: she can shred. Big time. Even the songs that sound intense on record take on an entirely new life when performed on stage. They become more jagged, formless and gut-wrenchingly intense. Earlier this year, she blew a lot of people away by covering “Bad Penny/Kerosene” by Steve Albini’s seminal 90s band Big Black. Nearly equal parts punk rager and heavy metal, Clark tackled that storm head-on and came out the other side smelling of roses and adoration. With such heaps of praise consistently lavished upon St. Vincent, it was only a matter of time before enough people caught on and her popularity shot through the roof. Now on the precipice of it all, the phrase “make or break” could well be applied to the third St. Vincent record “Strange Mercy”. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the record though is in spite of what would otherwise be mounting pressure, Clark appears to ignore everything and everyone by embracing her own pathological whims, no matter how off-putting they might otherwise be.

That’s not to say “Strange Mercy” is all that…strange, though it is far less endearing and easy to digest compared to her previous efforts. In many ways, that’s a good thing – the best artists continue to challenge themselves and evolve, and that typically means kicking normal song structures and simplistic instrumentation to the curb. Case in point, it’s fascinating how much Clark’s fragile upper register at the start of opening cut “Chloe in the Afternoon” resembles Bjork’s. The vocal similarities don’t necessarily hold up beyond those first few lines, but the composition of the track also starts to feel like something Bjork would be proud of. The buzzsaw electric guitar slices through just about everything save for the rhythmic march of the snare drum that very much feels electronica/drum machine-inspired. By the time things wrap up, the song has broken down like a computer gone haywire with a virus. Clark’s vocals drown in a digital bath, obscured to the point where you can’t understand a word but can still make out the melody. Building to a frenzy is nothing new for a St. Vincent song, but there’s something inherently bigger, weirder and darker here than what we’re accustomed to. That carries over to most of the rest of the record.

What we’re essentially seeing on “Strange Mercy” is a more exposed Annie Clark than ever before. Previously, such dark tales were buried beneath the surface revelations. They were the musings of a deeply conflicted person admitting that, like the rest of us, sometimes it’s okay to have fits of rage. You’re almost inhuman if you can’t express such feelings on occasion. The new record strips away the conflict to show human beings much more in touch with their emotions. “Best, finest surgeon, come cut me open,” she sings, quoting Marilyn Monroe on “Surgeon”. The song itself is a bit of a lone wolf on a record such as this, relaxed and more passive in both words and melody. Unlike so many of the other characters on “Strange Mercy”, here is one that is holding everything inside emotionally and resorts to begging somebody else, a proverbial surgeon, to extract those emotions and bring them to the surface. It comes from a place of yearning to belong, and the very finely picked guitar work is handled with scalpel-like precision to go along with it. We’re never really sure if that surgeon finally comes along, but the synth-fueled instrumental breakdown that concludes the song takes things to a rather uncomfortable yet intricate level that isn’t too far removed from the terror many of us experience when we know somebody is about to slice into our skin with a blade.

In addition to her more plainspoken and confrontational mannerisms in the lyrics, Clark allows her guitar to do a lot more “talking” as well. Whereas many of the melodies on “Actor” were buttressed with dynamic orchestral-like arrangements that included violins and cellos and flute, heavy electrics in both guitar and synth form get plenty raw and show off Clark’s skills that much more. The difference in the song “Your Lips Are Red” from the first St. Vincent album on record versus in a live setting have become like night and day, the latter version often escalating to a 7+ minute guitar freak out that’s the auditory equivalent of bloodlust. While a bunch of the songs on “Strange Mercy” could well take on a similar life when performed, many of them already capture such ferocity on record that you wonder what could be added on stage. On the opposite side of that coin, not every track is an intense, guitar-heavy ripper. Variety is the spice of life, which is why the second half of the record goes down in a smoother and slower fashion than the first. That sort of more subdued yet beautiful balance is essential on a record such as this, and it’s handled with grace and aplomb. “Neutered Fruit” sounds like it’s had its balls clipped at first before it grows a pair towards the end, and while a “Champagne Year” is normally cause for celebration, it’s clear from the mellow tone of the track that Clark is in no mood to have a party. Her somber The first third of “Dilettante” holds pretty static, pairing Clark’s sweet vocals with a very simple and slow drum beat so sparse she might as well have done it a capella. Horns and guitars eventually pick up the slack and bring the track to a rousing conclusion. The buzzing guitars return again for one last appearance via the closing track “Year of the Tiger”, which coincidentally is also the only song on the album to have light brushes with an acoustic guitar as well. The record more plods to the finish line rather than dashes across it, but the sentiments of fear and paranoia that permeate the lyrics don’t particularly call for something peppy or lighter.

Perhaps the lone disappointment with a record like “Strange Mercy” comes at the hands of commercial viability. “Cruel” is the first single, but as bouncy and catchy as it may be, it defies traditional song structures. There’s just something about it that lacks the pure magic of a “Actor Out of Work” or “Paris Is Burning”. No matter though, for the sheer charm of it will win enough people over to keep some of the most casual St. Vincent fans interested. Almost equally great single fodder is “Northern Lights”, driven forwards by a great pace and strong guitar parts, but tempered by an only moderately successful hook and an odd squelching synth solo during the bridge to keep you on your toes. Annie Clark seems to like doing that – keeping us on our toes. It’s all about continued evolution, and through three records now she has been able to do whatever it takes to avoid repeating herself while retaining the core ideas and skills that made her such a dynamo in the first place. In the particular case of “Strange Mercy”, it’s wonderful to hear her kick a lot of the prettier elements from “Actor” to the curb in order to focus much more intently on her immense guitar skills and more directly on the real world issues that challenge her cast of characters. And while synths seem to be one of the most popular instruments in indie rock these days, Clark isn’t using them to recreate a specific era of music but instead as a pure supplement to her timeless rock songs. She continues to do things her own way in spite of otherwise mounting pressure to trade it all in for massive commercial success and popularity. They certainly don’t make many rock stars like that anymore.

St. Vincent – Surgeon

Buy “Strange Mercy” from Amazon

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