Jessie Ware – Tough Love
If you stick around long enough to look passed this album’s lack of a “Wildest Moments”(though, for my money, “Champagne Kisses” and the title track get close), you might discover a record that’s arguably more consistent than its predecessor. Sonically, this a more scaled back and minimalist(but still plenty pretty) effort than Devotion. Ware’s vocal performance compliments those production choices, carrying the songs without running circles around them. The result is a passionate collection of tracks that never loses its sense of demure distance. It’s only a matter of time before Ware delivers the balls-out pop album that she clearly has in her. The refined legwork on display here will make that album all the better.
PUP – PUP
I think the biggest issue with the “pop-punk” tag is how misleading it is. Even for me, an apologist and occasional fan, it invokes a spikey-haired quartet nearing or in their 30’s, playing saccharine, shallow pop about high school romance, with lyrics that often villainize the female perspective. But if we’re being honest with each other, what were The Sex Pistols if not a pop-punk band? What were The Replacements? Superchunk? Mudhoney? Teenage Fanclub? You can make all of the hair-splitting qualifications you need to to differentiate these artists, but you’re only deluding yourself. I namedrop these bands, not because Pup’s debut is sonically in this wheelhouse, but because there’s inevitably going to be people who give them a pass because they see “pop-punk” in a review or in a piece of ad copy. Hell, it probably delayed my listening to their album by a few months because I was convinced that I wasn’t in the mood for whatever they were selling. So imagine my delight when I realized their album wasn’t a catchy dose of sugar but a collection of fun but vicious songs. The biggest punk influence that I can identify on this LP is the cathartic, blue collar gravitas of bands like Hot Water Music and Bear vs. Shark, with the album’s tendency towards churning rock and four-way gang vocals. The band’s pop sensibility is more in line with 90’s alt-rock than anything from the Blink-academy(and it doesn’t hurt that lead vocalist Stefan Babcock’s clean register sounds a lot like Stephen Jenkins). This is a fun, loud rock record more in spirit of Third Eye Blind and early 00’s “The...” bands than anything that typically gets associated with pop-punk.
Code Orange – I Am King
I Am King opens with a trick from the industrial metal toolbox: a droning distorted guitar that cuts in mid-note and is muted just as quickly. It’s a simple trick, conjuring Hans Zimmer’s Inception “BRAAAMM”, that effectively sets off a feeling of menace that permeates this entire record. Even when the album briefly flirts with some of the more frowned upon trappings of modern hardcore, the band rarely pays them off to reward instant gratification. When things threaten to get straight bouncy in the middle of the title track, Code Orange pivots and shifts time signature almost immediately. Breakdowns that begin archetypally morph and slow down into molasses-thick doom passages. Even the incorporation of delicate female vocals don’t so much offer a respite as they do increase our anxiety, existing almost in defiance of the stoned out, paranoid guitars. Kurt Ballou(Hardcore MVP of 2014) and his cavernous production grounds the entire thing with a feral unpredictability, regardless of the iteration of heavy music the band seems to be exploring on any given track.
Death From Above 1979 – The Physical World
Despite clamoring for a new DFA1979 in the ten years since their debut dropped, there was always a very real chance that this thing could have sucked. I mean, through ten years, I heard a net total of less than 20 songs. It was always possible that whatever noisy, dancey stew they tapped into on their debut was a happy accident and future output, whenever it came, would render it as their Illmatic. Well, The Physical World indeed dropped, people cared for like four seconds, and screw them because this thing is pretty excellent. It takes their template sound(funky, fuzzy bass riffs, stripped down but driving drums, and lower-register cock rockish vocals) and adds some cleaner production and more textured synths. What it lacks for ambition it makes up for in consistency and infectiousness. Welcome back.
Every Time I Die – From Parts Unknown
Shacking up with Converge’s Kurt Ballou for production duties clearly lit a fire under this band’s ass. While I’ve always found them pretty consistent(Southern rock influence, vocal snark and all), they’ve been slightly spinning their wheels on their last couple of releases. From Parts Unknown finds the band greatly reducing the Southern rock tendencies and amping up the technical chaos that the band has always fucked with in moderation. Buckley’s hyperliterate swagger is kept somewhat in check. Some might see that as a con, but this allows the chaos of the playing to share the moment in the sun. Ryan Leger’s drumming performance gives Ben Koller a run for his money. I’m not sure if this is my favorite Every Time I Die release, but it’s definitely their most brutal in years and probably the only one that I’d recommend to non-converts.
Andrew Jackson Jihad – Christmas Island
AJJ have always been a kindred spirit to The Mountain Goats. While Andrew Jackson Jihad is decidedly more punk in spirit, both bands have traditionally used increasingly varied(but still pretty salt-of-the-earth) sonic palettes to advance lyrical conceits that are simultaneously observant(“I saw the Children of God…the USB ports in their arms were bleeding”), funny(“The older I get, the better I am at lying/The older I get, the more articulate I am at whining”), sad(“We’ll kill the neighbor kid who only wants to be our friend”), and awkward(“With eyes as red as a dog’s asshole when you see it shitting”). On Christmas Island, the punkish/cock-rock fury of Knife Man is largely absent(with the exception of the fuzzed out “Kopelli Face Tattoo”). There’s a greater emphasis on strings(peep the swelling violin on “Do Re Me” or the weeping cello on “Linda Ronstadt”), keys, acoustic guitar, and driving bass. Sonically, AJJ are all but abandoning the things that got them the “folk punk” tag, opting for something more in the vein of feisty baroque pop with punk tendencies(not unlike Say Anything’s latest, with more realized arrangements). And while I was long sold by the vocal performance by the time it arrived, I have to acknowledge maybe my favorite closing lines of 2014: “Be prepared to die. Bad Lieutenant 2 is the greatest movie ever”.
Modern Baseball – You’re Gonna Miss It All
“Trying hard not to look like I’m tryin’ that hard” opens track 11 on Modern Baseball’s sophomore LP, which is an appropriate encapsulation of the album proper. The slacker vocals might seem disaffected and complacent, but they clash with hyperaware and self-conscious lyrics that eventually give way to earnest emoting. “I hate having to think about my future when all I wanna do is worry about everyone but me” turns to “No better time for exercise and wishing you were still my girlfriend”. The guitar driven arrangements borrow tricks from Pavement, Spoon, and The Front Bottoms. Jangly, bouncy numbers that seem shoddy and half-assed, reveal themselves to be sturdy and infectious. The lyrics are the stuff of an insular John Darnielle. Instead of the idiosyncracies of a well-traveled troubadour, we get ultra specific portraits of twentysomething introspection: dorm rooms(“To hell with class I’m skippin’/We can watch Planet Earth and brainstorm tattoos”), ego driven navel gazing(“What do you call someone who calls you out on the DIY ethics you don’t have?”). “Your Graduation”, track 11 on Modern Baseball’s sophomore LP, was apparently my most listened to track on Spotify this year. It’s a driving piece of anthemic power pop that contains the album’s biggest chorus and a shouted verse from drummer Sean Huber almost pushes the thing into a straight up hardcore song.
Restorations – LP3
For a band that does the whole throaty shoutalong chorus thing so well, it’s kind of admirable that the Philadelphia five piece exercises restraint as well as they’d do. Following in a trend that became pretty noticeable on their debut, Restorations seems less interested in constantly going for big chorus payoffs and more interested in resting their albums on a framework of space: the about-to-break guitars and military drums on “Misprint”; the Soundgarden-indebted rockout to open “Wales”. So when the payoffs do hit(as they damn well do on “Separate Songs”, “No Future”, “Most Likely A Spy” etc) they’re even more impactful. For a punk band whose bread and butter lies in mining the sounds of 90’s rock, Restorations follow the post-rock playbook of build and catharsis to a T.
Joyce Manor – Never Hungover Again
I was already a fan of Joyce Manor’s debut LP the first time I caught their live set(opening for The Desparecidos). I don’t know if it was the booze or just the breakneck enjoyability of their set, but I felt like every song was comically short(like the Crash and the Boys tracks in Scott Pilgrim). And these were songs that I knew and loved. Never Hungover Again is the first offering from the band that I feel actually replicates that sensation on record(despite being the second longest album in their catalogue at a fatty 19 minutes). And this is fine, because unlike that live performance, I can relive Never Hungover Again whenever I want to. This thing is loaded with hooks that don’t overstay their welcome and a slightly cleaner production than its predecessors. The band still walks a line between rawness and catchiness; guitars that veer from Liftetime-crunch to Johnny Marr-jangle*; vocals that aren’t too saccharine or poppy but aren’t exactly aggressive either. The lyrical content evokes a Richard Linklater sort of suburbia, with its beach houses and birthday drugs and cars that “smell like hot Gatorade”.
*And is it me or does “Catalina Fight Song” sound like Third Eye Blind covering Against The Grain-era Bad Religion?
Busdriver – Perfect Hair
Alternative rap mainstay Busdriver dropped, for my money, his most cohesive project in 2014. Perfect Hair melds his schizophrenic flow and vocal delivery with some incredibly tuneful production. I say that with some qualification, because while some of the beats here come close to crossing over into veritable “banger” territory, this is not a bid for pop-accessibility whatsoever. Many of the tracks here display a consistent unwillingness to deliver predictable payoffs, sonically or lyrically. Track one, “Retirement Ode”, begins with some droning, playful synths and some rattling percussion creating a pretty head-knocking track. But then instead of anything approaching a hook, we get Busdriver delivering these tongue-in-cheek spoken word bits about how much various aspects of the album production cost. The beat morphs completely on the back end, ditching the percussion entirely as the beat begins to take on these glitchy bleeps and ethereal washes. “Ego Death” has some fantastic spitting from Busdriver and stellar guest verses from Aesop Rock and Danny Brown, but it’s grounded by some awesomely menacing and dystopian synths. Many of the instrumentals here are infectious, but take on the quality of some sort of sonic 3D illustration, inspiring dizziness when you pay attention too closely(the pitchshifted vocal loops on “Bliss Point”; the glitchy “When The Tooth-Lined Horizon Blinks”). But this album never feels “too backpacky” or unapproachable. Busdriver’s mic presence is whip smart and eccentric, railing on the state of the hip-hop scene and frequently questioning his place in it, with a sharp and self-deprecating sense of humor. More consistently than any of his earlier projects, he proves a funny and relatable tourguide through some truly batshit production and idiosyncratic subject matter.
Dean Blunt – Black Metal
This is an album that is about its own contradictions. “50 Cent”, the second track off of Black Metal, has lyrics like “She’s got a new nigga and she can’t be found/ 5 – 0 comin’ and they know my name” delivered singspeak-style over a narcotized bit of neofolk. In “Molly and Aquafina” Blunt uses a barely-there guitar to anchor his wholesale lyrical lifting from French Montana’s “Ain’t Worried Bout Nothin” as he sleepily sings “Ridin’ through the streets/Strapped up with my Nina/So I ain’t worried ’bout nothin'”. The entire album is littered with with phrases and literal signifiers that are unmistakably attached to, if not race, then racially associated subcultures. The front half finds Blunt dealing primarily in hip-hop vernacular while the music itself could not be more further removed. After extended ambient-forward centerpieces “Forever” and “X”, side-two titles consist of “Punk”(complete with an inversion of the “Guns of Brixton” bass riff), “Country”(which sounds like a glitchy Ghost Town Dan Friel cut, if anything), and “Mersh”(as in the Minutemen?). Is it too much of a leap to observe that these are largely white-dominated cultures? Closer “Grade” feels like something from a more accessible David Lynch score, with a saxophone struggling to differentiate itself from these swelling but menacing synths. Precisely what Blunt is attempting to say about race and identity and loneliness remains somewhat elusive but I don’t think I spent more time thinking about the relationship between sonic and lyrical choices on a record than I did with this one.
FKA Twigs – LP1
Just when, I think, everyone thought that this breathy, druggy post-R&B thing was starting to see signs of diminishing returns, Twigs up and releases a gorgeous record with a singular vision and aesthetic. Her vocal performance is pained, compelling and haunting(check out the orgasmic angel-sighs on lead single “Two Weeks” or the creepy, layered harmonies on “Preface” or the self-induced chop & screw on “Video Girl”). The production side of things is where the record’s real idiosyncrasies lie. Sonically, this record incorporates sounds from R&B, trip-hop, EDM, trap and the rest of the modern avant-pop kitchen sink. The production manages to be dense and complex but not without an artful gentleness. What’s most impressive about this whole thing is how the entire collection manages to strike that perfect balance of ambition, complexity, and perfectly realized restraint(not unlike the debuts from The Weeknd or the xx, if we’re keeping with this sort of aesthetic). This is a weird, cohesive, and deeply satisfying album and one of the year’s best.