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!
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!
Join me after the jump for a collection of photos that I took on Day 1 (Friday) of this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival. Photos are arranged by set time. They are also available in higher resolution on Facebook. Check out my full recap of the day, as well as all the rest of the coverage, by going here.
The first day of the 2014 Pitchfork Music Festival is in the books, and it was an interesting one to say the least. You could say that the festival got off to a very relaxed start, which has both benefits and drawbacks. The biggest positive is that you can just kind of chill out and move at your own pace, without a whole lot of pressure to be up and about dancing or moving from stage to stage. The downside is there wasn’t a whole lot to get overly excited about. My approach to Friday was to treat it a bit like a sampler platter, spending a little bit of time with just about every artist performing tp get a taste, and then moving on to something else. I can’t say anything was particularly bad, and I didn’t always want to walk away, but it’s always good to know you’re not missing something completely mindblowing on the opposite side of the park. So here’s a bit of a chronicle detailing the performances I saw and how worthwhile they all were.
My day started with Hundred Waters, who were the first band of the shortened Friday, and were playing unopposed due to Death Grips’ breakup/cancellation. Singer Nicole Miglis joked about it at the start of their set: “This is when we start playing Death Grips covers, right?” And so, with a little bit of a wink, they launched into a set that was comprised primarily of snogs off their new album The Moon Rang Like A Bell. On record the band is equal parts introspective, beautiful and energetic, and those aspects were even more amplified in their live performance. The highs were much higher, the lows a little lower, and all of it was tackled with grace and aplomb. The moderate sized crowd that had gathered to watch seemed to enjoy themselves, though very few felt the need to bust out their dance moves on the handful of tracks where it was appropriate to do so. Maybe next time.
As Hundred Waters doesn’t have a wealth of material to pull from, they finished their set in 45 minutes, leaving a 20 minute gap before Neneh Cherry and RocketNumberNine started up on the nearby Green Stage. Thankfully Factory Floor was just taking the stage on the other side of the park, so I ventured over there to have a short look at what that setup was like. Part of me suspected the trio would be essentially playing music with laptops and turntables, fiddling with knobs the entire time while encouraging people to dance, but the actual reality of it was far different. Sure, Dominic Butler’s primary job is to twist and turn knobs and trigger samples, but there’s also Gabriel Gumsey playing drums and multi-instrumentalist Nik Colk adding guitar, keyboards and distorted vocals to the proceedings. Listening to their records, you would never know. It makes their performance a lot more interesting to watch, and also somehow infuses even more energy into their songs. About half of the crowd was dancing pretty hard for the 20 minutes I was there, and showed no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Part of me wishes I could have stayed.
Yet Neneh Cherry was calling my name. As she’s been making music since 1989, Cherry is now a music industry veteran with several prolific records under her belt. She was a genre-crossing pioneer back in her early days, and her latest album Blank Project with RocketNumberNine proves she still hasn’t lost that touch. The same can be said for her live performance, which was packed with just the right mixture of energy and experimentation. While her set started off with a ballad, things picked up quickly from there, and soon she was dancing and whipping her hair around with the beats. She seemed to be having a lot of fun, and the crowd was more than willing to go along on that ride with her. Not particularly excited about looking back to her earlier records, she mostly ignored them, save for a couple of songs that included her biggest hit “Buffalo Stance.” Ever the innovator though, everything old sounded new again by turning the classics inside out to the point where they were nearly unrecognizable. It would be disappointing to hear a beloved song completely changed if it wasn’t so damn good.
Sharon Van Etten has really grown by leaps and bounds over the last few years, both on record and in her live performance. Whereas four years ago she performed at Pitchfork solo with one record to support, these days she’s got a full band and three albums to her name. The songs have gotten more expansive, her stage presence more dynamic. A hit like “Serpents” roared to life with more power and visceral energy than ever, while a ballad like “Every Time the Sun Comes Up” added some late afternoon pathos that was more beautiful than sad. It’s always great to see an artist truly flourishing, and Van Etten gets better every single time that I see her.
There’s not a whole lot I can say about SZA. I saw her perform three songs and they were all pretty indistinctive, which is a shame because she appears to be a genuinely delightful person. She appeared surprised by and appreciative of the relatively large crowd that had gathered to see her, and encouraged everyone to have fun. If only her songs were a little more suited to the outdoor setting. The arrangements were minimal and the energy was just a touch lacking, leaving many people standing around not entirely sure how they should react. I shrugged my shoulders, decided it wasn’t doing much for me, and hoped to discover a better situation on the other side of the park.
Having listened to the Benji record quite a bit these last few months, and being largely familiar with Mark Kozelek’s back catalogue as Sun Kil Moon, I was a little concerned that his early evening Pitchfork set on the massive Green Stage might wind up being a bit of a snooze. Turns out that was a pretty accurate description of what transpired. Kozelek and his band were seated on stage for the entire set, which in turn gave the crowd very little reason to stand either. Most spent their time sitting in the grass and chatting with friends, leaving the music as more background accompaniment rather than a priority. Those that did pay close attention were treated to slightly less effective versions of great songs. The biggest problem was the reverb Kozelek used on his vocals, which largely removed the emotional impact of his direct and unflinchingly honest lyrics. By the time he finally did muster up some energy on the sexual history confessional of “Dogs,” most of the crowd had scattered to either look for food/drinks or wait for Giorgio Moroder, who started 15 minutes late due to Sun Kil Moon going long.
The smoke machine was in full effect over at the Blue Stage for Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks. It was about the only visual element the band had on stage with them, which is certainly different than what Animal Collective and their other respective side projects have tended to do. But what they lacked visually they made up for sonically. They tore through the songs on their debut album Welcome to the Slasher House with more dissonance and energy than how they appear on record. Even a single like “Little Fang” felt a little more vital and fun in this setting. And the crowd pretty much freaked out in the best way possible. There was all kinds of dancing and crowd surfing near the front, and all kinds of head bobbing and toe tapping near the back. It was a strange, kinetic set, and actually quite delightful.
I’ve watched enough Giorgio Moroder live videos to know what his performances are like. At 74, he’s experiencing a big revival in his career thanks in no small part to his work with Daft Punk on their latest album Random Access Memories. The man has worked on probably hundreds of dance and disco hits over the course of his lifetime, and he played some of the biggest ones during his set. His work with Donna Summer featured heavily, with “Love to Love You,” “Hot Stuff” and “I Feel Love,” among others. It was almost all easily recognizable songs, which proved great as the crowd danced up a storm and sang along almost the entire time. Moroder did his part to encourage the party atmosphere, clapping to the beat, throwing his hands in the air, and generally appearing to have a great time as he pretty much just pushed buttons on a laptop. Not the most inspiring stage setup, but with all those classic hits blasting out of the speakers, it didn’t matter.
Beck is nothing if not a showman. He’s built up an arsenal of funky and fun hits, and there’s no way he’s not going to give them his all in concert. Kicking things off with “Devil’s Haircut,” he danced around the stage like there were ants in his pants, and the crowd did the same. This wasn’t so much the start of a show as it was the start of a party. He pulled from all over his catalogue, so “Black Tambourine” and “Chemtrails” could sit alongside “Sexx Laws” and “Lost Cause.” There were a few more introspective moments around the halfway point in the set, when Beck chose to perform a couple of songs from his somber acoustic new record Morning Phase, but for the most part it was bizness as usual. He closed with a sublime mashup of “Where It’s At” and “One Foot in the Grave,” complete with harmonica solo, which is standard but is also incredibly effective. Overall it was nice to end the night on a huge high, after the very mellow moments from earlier in the day. Saturday looks to be even more fun, and I’ll have a full recap of that very soon, plus photo sets from the entire weekend. Stay tuned!
And so it begins. Following yesterday’s artist guide, which exposed you to all the sounds of the artists performing at this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, I’m now proud to present the first of three previews guides leading up to the start of the weekend this Friday. Speaking of Friday, that’s what we’ll talk about right now. The way that this works is pretty simple: I’ve arranged all of the artists in order of their set times, and separated them according to the hour in which they’ll be performing. From there, I’ll talk a little bit about each one, and ultimately make a recommendation (as indicated by **) as to which you should see at that time, provided you’re able. Even though it’s a shorter day than the rest, Friday still has plenty of quality to offer. Learn all about it with the guide below!
Hundred Waters [Red Stage, 3:30]**
With Death Grips calling it quits, the singular obstacle that could have drawn people away from Hundred Waters has now been removed. The band has also gotten a promotion from the comparatively small Blue Stage up to the large Red Stage, as they’ll have a full 45 minutes to perform with no competition anywhere else at the festival. Now you may think this is a good excuse to show up later and skip this band, whose material you might not be very familiar with. But let me assure you, Hundred Waters are great, and very much worth showing up early for. In the weeks following the release of their second album The Moon Rang Like A Bell a couple months ago, I developed an addiction to this band that holds pretty steadfast today. They make very chill but very gorgeous electro-pop, and singer Nicole Miglis has the voice of an angel, often twisted in fascinating ways reminiscent of early Bjork. It should make for a delightful start to the weekend, so show up when the gates open!
Factory Floor [Blue Stage, 4:15]
Neneh Cherry with RocketNumberNine [Green Stage, 4:35]**
Factory Floor’s sound has been described as “industrial post-punk,” which doesn’t seem particularly accurate to my ears. They’re so much more than that, as they avoid easy characterization by pulling from a wide variety of sources that include disco and more traditional EDM. Primarily they’re able to craft interesting, beat-heavy dance music that keeps you guessing. Their self-titled debut album from last year proved to be quite worthwhile, and it’s going to be a whole lot of fun watching them grow in both profile and songcraft. If you’re in the mood for a groove, Factory Floor are a safe bet. It’s somewhat tragic then that they’re paired up against Neneh Cherry, who is a legend. Cherry herself probably wouldn’t like that “l” word being tossed around so flagrantly, but she’s been making music for a few decades now, and when your career gets that long you earn that status whether you want it or not. Equally fascinating is how Cherry remains something of an unknown entity in the United States, where her only breakthrough “hit” was the song “Buffalo Stance” from her 1988 debut album. Perhaps that’s why she’s only ever played one U.S. show. Her set at Pitchfork will be her second, essentially turning it into a must-see situation. As an artist who is also always innovating and never sticking with one particular style or genre of music for too long, if she does a career-spanning set it will be all sorts of fun and maybe just a little weird. More likely she’ll play a lot of stuff from her latest album Blank Project, which is an understated but powerful record that features collaborations with Robyn, electronic duo RocketNumberNine (who will be performing at the fest with her) and Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet). So yeah, unless you really want to get your dance on at Factory Floor, Neneh Cherry is the one to see.
The Haxan Cloak [Blue Stage, 5:15]
Sharon Van Etten [Red Stage, 5:30]**
To be perfectly honest, I’m not entirely sure why Pitchfork booked The Haxan Cloak to play this festival. London-based producer Bobby Krlic is the man behind the name, and while what he does is brilliant, it’s also incredibly minimalist and dark. The last Haxan Cloak album Excavation was one of my favorites from last year, however it’s so subdued and death obsessed that it’s never something you want to put on during the daytime. You listen to it in the pitch black of night, in your bedroom, by yourself, with headphones on. It could well function as the soundtrack to your favorite horror film. How this is going to translate via a late afternoon time slot on an outdoor stage is a mystery to me. Part of me thinks there’s no way it can work. It’d be great if Krlic proved me wrong. A far better bet is Sharon Van Etten, the dynamic singer-songwriter who continues to grow by leaps and bounds with each new record. When she performed at this festival for the first time in 2010, she performed solo with a single guitar, and at one point couldn’t continue because she broke a string. The guys in Modest Mouse lent her a new guitar so she could continue. Four years and two new albums later, she’s got a full band behind her, regular radio airplay, and a lot more guitars. Her confidence as a live performher has grown exponentially as well, making her shows lively, beautiful and altogether worthwhile.
SZA [Blue Stage, 6:15]
Sun Kil Moon [Green Stage, 6:25]**
This one’s a case of hip hop/R&B vs. folk. Without a doubt, even though SZA will be on the smaller Blue Stage, you will probably be able to hear her set by the Green Stage when Mark Kozelek aka Sun Kil Moon is performing. It’s the simple disparity in styles and volume. As to why I’m recommending Sun Kil Moon over SZA, that’s purely a selection based on quality of music, not quality of live performance. I’m betting that SZA will put on a thoroughly enjoyable, relatively high energy set, dominated with tracks from her debut album Z. The problem is, that record isn’t exactly great, or even pretty good for that matter. Meanwhile, Sun Kil Moon’s latest effort Benji is regarded by many critics to be one of 2014’s absolute best. It is truly a remarkable record, filled with engaging melodies and lyrical stories that come across like pure poetry. Yet like most solo folk records, it’s extremely laid back and bare. If you can find a spot in the grass near the Green Stage to lay down as the sun begins to dip in the sky, there’s some real potential that Sun Kil Moon could hit your sweet spot. Or you’ll just spend the whole time during his set talking loudly with your friends.
Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks [Blue Stage, 7:15]
Giorgio Moroder [Red Stage, 7:20]**
If there’s a conflict to be had on Friday, it’s with this time slot. For those who love psychedelia, specifically Animal Collective-style psychedelia, Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks delivers in spades. This is a more straightforward and catchy Animal Collective side project, and their debut album Enter the Slasher House is one of my personal favorites from the first half of 2014. Of course I’m happy to advise you to go and see them if their music is something you might enjoy. But your better bet would be to split your time somewhat unevenly and spending a fair portion at Giorgio Moroder. The man has been part of the music world since the 70s when he helped to turn disco into something huge. He’s continued his pioneering ways ever since, to the point of winning a Grammy last year for collaborating with Daft Punk on their Random Access Memories album. All indications are that his set will be very fun, very dance friendly and very familiar. By that, I mean he’ll be spinning mixes and remixes of classic dance and disco songs from the last few decades, so you can sing along while showing off your best (or worst) moves. What’s not to love?
Beck [Green Stage, 8:30]**
Beck’s headlining set should be a delight. You may be worried that his quiet, acoustic album Morning Phase will dominate the set list, but rest assured he’ll probably only play 3-4 songs from it. The rest will be tons of classics, from “Where It’s At” to “Sexx Laws” to “The New Pollution” and beyond. In other words, there will be no shortage of silly, off-the-wall energy. This is a music festival, and the man knows what the people want to hear. So yes, stick around and enjoy it. Sing or rap along to all the hits. I’ll be right there with you.
If you’re planning to do some traveling over the next month, specifically by commercial airplane, here’s a new option to help keep you entertained during the flight: stream the new Beck album Morning Phase. Ideally you could always just buy a digital copy of the record and upload it to your laptop, tablet or smartphone before takeoff, but in lieu of that, in-flight internet provider Gogo has partnered with Capitol Records to host a stream of the Beck album for free over the course of the next month. Basically all you need to do is access the Gogo homepage on whatever wifi-equipped flight you’re on, and that should give you access to the stream. Don’t ask me for any details beyond that, because I don’t know them. The reason I’m mentioning it is because it seems like a unique and somewhat cool thing to do, and that Beck record is pretty great. It might serve as the perfect soundtrack to a flight if you’re staring out the window as well. So consider checking it out if you’re traveling before the end of March. Now let’s get to your Monday edition of Pick Your Poison. There’s some great tracks today from Alana Amram & The Rough Gems, Arum Rae, Cate Le Bon, Dead Stars (covering Nirvana), Eternal Lips, Fat Goth, Plateau Below and The Weeknd’s remix of Ty Dolla $ign’s “Or Nah.” In the Soundcloud section after the jump, stream songs from Architecture in Helsinki, Bright Light Bright Light and Elton John, Kevin Drew, Maps & Atlases, Ski Lodge, and many more.
Feel free to call Thurston Moore an old man. He may only be in his early 50s, but in rock star years, he’s closer to 70. Sure, you’ve still got your classics out and about still making music, your Paul Simons, your Bob Dylans and your Paul McCartneys, but they come so few and far between these days. It’s better to think of aging rock stars when they’re in a band, because the collective whole provides you with a stark legacy and a lack of focus on a particular individual. The last Sonic Youth record, for example, 2009’s “The Eternal”, did not seem like it came from a band that’s now officially 30 years old in and of itself without taking into account how old everyone was by the time they started. And while you have to essentially weigh any new stuff based on what came before it, we really only think of career highlights rather than the entire catalogue, particularly when dealing with 10+ records. In the case of Thurston Moore it’s even more, thinking about his already numerous solo efforts along with the Sonic Youth stuff. Perhaps the biggest and most pertinent question to be asking is how somebody like Moore can keep creating new music without surrendering to complacency or repeating the same old tricks. His new record “Demolished Thoughts” seeks to provide something close to an answer to that question.
One of the more interesting tidbits about “Demolished Thoughts” is that it was produced by Beck Hansen, otherwise known as simply Beck. He and Moore have never worked together before, and it’s a strange wonder as to why that is. It’s clear from this record that the combination of the two is an inspired pairing, and you can hear both of their influences present even if it is Moore doing all of the heavy lifting. The easiest and most favorable comparison you can make given the circumstances is to Beck’s “Sea Change”, a largely acoustic effort with small flourishes of orchestral beauty. There are even brief brushes of harp mixed in, and it is surprisingly graceful and oddly cohesive. And while most of the songs bear a quiet, almost folk-driven psychedelia (track lengths range from 4 minutes to nearly 7), there are moments of vigorous energy and sharp electric guitar. “Circulation” is naturally one of those tracks that gets your blood flowing, and it calls to mind a handful of old Sonic Youth cuts in the process. The same could be said for “Orchard Street”, though that’s more like a subdued acoustic rendition of an unreleased Sonic Youth song. Of course both those make perfect sense, as Moore also tends to save up tracks that are either rejected by or simply won’t quite work in his main band’s canon.
Just because a track isn’t moving along at a moderate pace doesn’t mean it lacks energy though. A song like “Blood Never Lies” glistens in the sunlight akin to a dew-covered flower at the start of a new day. The harps and strings on “Illuminine” create glowing pinpricks of light in an otherwise pitch black night. It’s the lush warmth that pulls that and many other songs on “Demolished Thoughts” out from the proverbial gutter of depression. An Elliott Smith album this is not, even if the topics of growing older and struggling to find happiness seem to permeate the highly poetic lyrics. What separates it out from your otherwise standard folk-indebted fare are the intelligent ways each song comes together to both acknowledge and destroy what we might otherwise expect from these genre tropes. Like how “Orchard Street” takes an extended instrumental detour for the entire last half of the song. Or maybe the way a light echo is applied to Moore’s voice on “In Silver Rain With A Paper Key” to better illustrate the loneliness and isolation the lyrics speak of. You’ve got to hand it to Beck, who most assuredly had something to do with these little extra touches that help turn very good songs into excellent ones.
It’s worth noting that most of Thurston Moore’s solo career has been of mixed to poor quality. He seems to use the time away from Sonic Youth as a testing ground or an idea dump, which has had a tendency to leave him seeming scatterbrained or incoherent. 2007’s “Trees Outside the Academy” was a lot like that, with a few solid songs smashed between a horde of attempts. There was no real theme or connection between the tracks, just sketch after sketch appearing to resemble something whole. That’s not to say it was a terrible record – in fact it was far from it. Compared with “Demolished Thoughts” though, it’s night and day. These new songs feel well thought out and purposeful, and though they may not be the most upbeat things, they never dwell too long in one darkened corner. It is actually one of the rare times a Moore solo record works on all pistons, giving a clear legitimacy to the venture and providing another outlet through which die hard Sonic Youth fans can get something of a fix. He may be getting up there in rock star years, but from the sound of it this “old guy” clearly has plenty of fight left in him.