Tuesday, February 24, 2015

HL's 2014 Favorites

No one much cares what anyone's favorites are from the year before once February comes around, unless you're handing out gold trophies or some such. I barely posted at all last year, which bothers me because I thought the music was phenomenal. I can't think of a year when I was blown away by so many records; torn to pieces by so many others. 'Fifteen looks just as promising, and there are things I have on my subject list for posts if I can get on top of work, malaise, and whatever else shuts me down in the late hours when I used to dial into the WYMA nerve center and think of different ways to say, 'you really need to hear this.' So this list is sort of an exorcism, inasmuch as I can't do those until I do this. But it was a great, great year.

25.  Centro-matic -- Take Pride in Your Long Odds
The final album from one of the greatest rock bands ever only disappointed in being the final album.

24.  Eagulls -- s/t
Surly postpunk from Leeds -- at times they'll make you think of Killing Joke, and other times they'll make you think of Killing Joke crossed with, say, the Jam. Here's one of the best songs of the year:

23.  Planning for Burial -- Desideratum 
If I had to genrefy Thom Wasluck's sound I might call it 'bedroom metal'. It's ponderous and oppressive like metal, but the miserable sense of cold alienation that pervades every track makes it irresistible. Go out on the web and pull up the lyrics for "Where You Rest Your Head At Night" and follow along (here you go).

22.  Protomartyr -- Under Color of Official Right
These guys are mining the same postpunk vein as Eagulls, but iin keeping with their Detroit roots they opt for less of the industrial chaos of Killing Joke and more of the buzz and grit of Iggy Pop.

21.  Somos -- Temple of Plenty
Melodic but propulsive punk/emo from this excellent Boston band. They played one of my favorite live sets I saw in '14.

 20.  Mount Carmel -- Get Pure
This is beautiful heavy blues rock from a three man band from Columbus, Ohio. The singing is Paul Rodgers crossed with Chris Robinson; the guitar solos are tasteful but not too restrained. And the songwriting is too free-spirited to be saddled with a label like "throwback." This is the music we wish the Black Keys were making today.

19.  Beach Slang -- Who Could Would Ever Want Anything So Broken? / Cheap Thrills on a Dead End Street
Beach Slang released two phenomenal EPs in 2014 on the upstart Tiny Engines label (not the first entry on this list from Tiny Engines -- see Somos -- and certainly not the last). The band has just signed to Polyvinyl for their full-length follow up, which is expected this year. I've heard folks compare Beach Slang to later Replacements, and I suppose I do hear that, but musically they're just as close to the Psychedelic Furs or even old, old Goo Goo Dolls -- and I don't mention the latter to disparage -- I liked 'em back then. Lyrically, they make me think of that scene at the end of "Brothers McMullen", where Jack starts coming clean about fucking up, and Patrick says "you fucked up? You don't know from fucking up." Something like that. It's been awhile. This is a refreshing, yet familiar sound we haven't heard for a long time.

18.  Joyce Manor -- Never Hungover Again
I truly love this California punk band. They have never made a record that didn't make a year end list of mine. This one will quite possibly go down as my favorite when all is said and done, mainly because of its epic scope -- 10 songs and more than 19 minutes; it seems longer than the first two "full-lengths" combined. Frontman Barry Johnson is an emerging genius, a guy who probably could write Taylor Swift songs in his sleep. Lucky for us, he takes those hooks and drowns them in beautiful punk music.

17.  Restorations -- LP3
This terrific Philadelphia band had Punknews.com's 2013 album of the year, and I swear I like this one even better. The playing is tight, the production clean. There's no affect or pretension. And the songs are, as always with this band, nearly perfect. The song below is about Caucasian angst -- and it's one of the best of 2014.

16.  Tombs -- Savage Gold
There's a certain weirdness to this album that I've never been able quite to pin down. It's got everything metal you're looking for in a metal album -- instrumentally, vocally, thematically (you know, death and darkness, darkness and death). It was produced by Hate Eternal's Erik Rutan, so there's that. Just a lot of dang noise -- exactly what you hope for. Still, there's something else, an undercurrent of industrial prog, for lack of a better description. More than mere atmospherics, it's something that sets Tombs apart, and makes this album great, as opposed to merely very, very good.

15.  Old Man Gloom -- The Ape of God
Members of Isis, Converge, Cave In, and others have combined from time to time over the past 15+ years on some challenging metal. This year they were kind enough to bequeath two albums -- volumes one and two of The Ape of God. Some call it sludge, some post, some core -- I guess any of those describe moments you come across. Interspersed throughout are electronic effects, buzzes, whines and found audio, all combining for a bracing beatdown lasting more than an hour and a half. The first album is 8 fairly standard-length OMG tunes, and the second is 4 long-form metal meditations. I'm a bit partial to the first, but each new listen to the second yields something new. "The Lash", one of the shortest tracks, packs a lot of the overall Old Man Gloom vibe into 3 minutes, but they're really at their best when they get a chance to stretch things out.

14.  Every Time I Die -- From Parts Unknown
What with the Sabres intentionally tanking in ice hockey so as to win the Cave for McDave sweepstakes, it's nice to see something come out of Buffalo that's truly, surpassingly excellent. This is as brutal and unrelenting as any ETID album, but the cool thing is that they never let you forget they're just a bunch of punks. The youtube video is for one of my favorite songs, but before clicking play you need to know it's safe for neither work nor home. It's got full frontal male nudity, full backal male nudity, emesis, re-emesis, cocaine, Tony Montana-level snorting of same, an alligator, and various primates or near-primates, including a sloth, a lemur, and Drew Stafford.

13.  Cloud Nothings -- Here and Nowhere Else
Speaking of hockey, I once went to an NHL game in Cleveland. It was the St. Louis Blues vs. the Cleveland Barons. I was a little kid, but yeah, that still makes me old. This Cleveland band's second album was a massive improvement relative to their debut, and I loved that record. I actually think I did a review of this album about a year ago, but I'm too lazy to search for it or link it. This album would have made my list even if "Psychic Trauma" had been the only actual song on there, and the rest of the album had been farting noises.

12.  Afghan Whigs -- Do to the Beast
I've said it before and I'm gonna say it again -- Greg Dulli is a national treasure. It would be great to see him replace the Maroon 5 guy on "The Voice" so he could sit next to Gwen Stefani. My thinking is that without saying a word, he'd give Gwen a lustful staredown that would make her nervous and sweaty, and deeply hurt that Bush guy's feelings. He'd also teach all those weasels what it's like to be a frontman for a great rock and roll band. The simple guitar solo at the 2 minute mark of the song below is just transcendent.

11.  Mastodon -- Once More 'Round the Sun
I don't expect Mastodon ever to make another album as great as Leviathan, and wasn't really surprised when I didn't flip over 2011's good-but-not great release, The Hunter. That's just what happens. It's not selling out, in my view; it's just the sound of a band playing itself out. So it was a great surprise to me to be pretty much blown away by Once More . . . It's not Leviathan, but it is an extremely strong collection of short-to-mid-length songs that are a refreshing take on what Mastodon just does better than anyone else: traditional structures festooned with enough mathy, proggy ornaments to make it sound like Red-era King Crimson stumbled across a reverse time capsule of COC albums or something.

10.  Typesetter -- Wild's End
This is gritty midwestern punk music. My superlatives for this record carom into one another, it seems, because the beautiful production shines a light on the rawness of the performances. Feedback abounds, and each guitar has its own channel in the mix, making headphone listening a revelation. The two vocalists in this Chicago band make zero effort to harmonize. If they did, you'd lose much of the authenticity. And that doesn't mean they can't sing, by the way. This album has been out almost a year, and I still crank the hell out of it a couple of times a week.

9.  Inter Arma -- The Cavern
Richmond's Inter Arma was near the top of my list last year for the brilliant Sky Burial. The Cavern is a single, 45 minute song that they (and Relapse Records) modestly refer to as an EP. That's nearly 3 times the "full-length" Joyce Manor record at 18 on this list. The thing is, "The Cavern" really feels like one song. Its breaks are organic, flowing naturally from face-melting nihilism to the soulful warmth of a guest vocal performance by Dorthia Cottrell of Richmond and Relapse neighbors Windhand. Themes crest and resurface a half hour later. It never drags, and there's no cheap filler. By the way, make sure to see them live if you ever have a chance. You'll thank me for that advice. Here's Relapse's trailer for the record.

8.  Hard Girls -- A Thousand Surfaces
I had never heard of this San Jose trio until a couple of years ago when they teamed up with Jesse Michaels of Operation Ivy, called themselves Classics of Love, and released a punk rock album for the ages. A Thousand Surfaces doesn't sound much like that CoL record, but that doesn't mean it's not truly great on its own merits. The playing is beautifully tight, the songwriting is intelligent and muscular, yet filled with hooks (they are big Guided by Voices fans, according to their Facebook Page -- if you don't believe me, click on the band photo at the link).

7.  The War on Drugs -- Lost in the Dream
I can't add anything to what everyone (well, everyone except that jackass Mark Kozelek) has said about this phenomenal album. This is my favorite song from it.

6.  Obliterations -- Poison Everything
This LA band combines scabby hardcore vitriol with the precision and sheer heft of metal. Make no mistake, even though the record was released by the venerable metal label Southern Lord, this is pure punk rock -- 13 songs in 29 minutes. It's menacingly aggressive, veering at times into proto- and then even to industrial. That happens on the song below, which is probably my favorite even though it's the "slowest" on the album. For some reason this music makes me think of one or more guys I've known who can drink like champions, but when they take down nearabout a fifth of the brown demon a switch flips and someone new and highly dangerous steps out and sets about to making trouble. Like what Hurricane Andrew did to Homestead, Florida. It's the sort of thing that reaffirms my faith in the human race.

5.  Pallbearer -- Foundations of Burden
The downtuned guitars, the ten minute songs, restrained solos -- one might be forgiven for assuming that doom is a stagnant sub-genre, but it's really experiencing a remarkable renaissance over the past five years or so, led by a handful of bands including this foursome from Little Rock, Arkansas. This album builds on their beautiful debut, 2012's Sorrow and Extinction.

4.  Morning Glory -- War Psalms
This is an ambitious collection of thrash punk that also has enough melody infused to hold the attention of those with delicate sensibilities. Ezra Kire is a punk rock lifer who likes to write big, heart-on-his-sleeve anthems about politics, addiction (which he has some experience with), and the punk scene. He's not afraid to use over-the-top orchestral sounds and even banks of horns (playing, at one point, something along the lines of the Rocky theme) when it suits his dramatic purposes. Still, purists don't need to turn up their noses at this because one is never more than a couple of seconds away from Kire's blistering guitar. In the end, it's the basic punkrock guitar/bass/drums format that powers this tremendous set of songs. The other stuff isn't unwelcome because it never gets in the way of the sheer force of the band.

3.  YOB -- Clearing the Path to Ascend
Mike Scheidt's Portland, Oregon-based doom metal outfit made my album of the year for 2011 with their sixth release, Atma. I love this new album at least as much. It's downright gates-of-hell heavy in spots, but as the four song, hour-plus album moves along, you start to sense a warmth -- a glimmer of hope in the middle of all that doom. It befits the album title, and is really beautiful and effective. The song below, "Nothing to Win," is one of my favorite metal songs of the past 4 or 5 years. It's worth listening to all the way through, because after pounding on a pretty simple theme for the first half of the song, you come into a quiet interlude that builds tension and ultimately gives way to a gripping final few minutes of Scheidt exploring the destructive capabilities of his Monson guitar.

2.  Wovenhand -- Refractory Obdurate
David Eugene Edwards, the Denver-based songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist who fronts Wovenhand (and who once fronted 16 Horsepower), appears to be from another place and time. He is well-known for his affection for old musical instruments, from the banjo and hurdy gurdy to the Chemnitzer concertina. He is also known for his deeply held religious beliefs, which give life and breath to the people and imagery in his songs.  In trying to describe how profound and powerful this album is, I have been unable at times to resist comparing Edwards to a character from Flannery O'Connor, but that assessment is cheap, and does injustice to the man. Because instead of the grotesque hucksters that masquerade as religious folk in O'Connor's writing, Edwards is genuine -- devout without being didactic; less a tent revivalist and more a missionary.

Most places on the web use "alt-country" as the primary genre for categorizing Wovenhand's music, but on Refractory Obdurate, the old instruments and more roots-inflected approach take a back seat to a blistering electric guitar assault (the album was released on the Deathwish, Inc. label). Edwards's stentorian baritone, though, cuts through the densest noise and underscores the heavy Christian themes with authority and sincerity. This album is truly one of the most unexpected explosions of brilliance I've happened upon in years, and I can't give it a high enough recommendation. Check  out the third and fourth songs on the record below.

1.  The Hotelier -- Home, Like NoPlace Is There
Like a couple of other entries on my list, this album has been out for nearly a year, and as I think of my lack of productivity on this site during 2014, much if not most of it can be attributed to the fact that I never was able to sit down and do a proper review of what has become not just my favorite album of '14, but pretty much one of my very favorite albums, period. There was a point during the year when I would listen to this front-to-back three times a day, like I used to do with old Alice Cooper and Aerosmith albums back before I was a teenager. Of course, back then I only had about five albums to choose from. Now, I had one that I just couldn't put aside.

The Hotelier is a four-piece punk rock band from Worcester, Mass. They used to call themselves The Hotel Year, and under that name in 2011 put out a very fine album called It Never Goes Out. Some people casually label The Hotelier an emo band, which is fine with me because that word has become so overused that it's pretty much lost its older connotation of something along the lines of 'less than rugged.' That old usage certainly wouldn't apply to this band and, especially, this album. To be sure, just beneath the insistent melodies and bright, clanging open chords, this album is 35 minutes of seething, clear-eyed rage.

The songs are thematically connected, but more in the way of a song cycle than a full-on concept album. The listener keeps picking things up as he or she goes along, some helping to make more sense of things, some creating more confusion. The prevailing themes of social isolation, ruined relationships and loss are not in themselves groundbreaking, but the band's ability to pump blood into these ideas and, without any sentimentality, form them into furious three minute vignettes, is revelatory.

When I say "furious" I don't necessarily mean caustic -- although there is that in the form of "Life in Drag," the paint-peeling 2 minute slab of screamo that, while inhabiting the dead center of the album, serves as a sonic climax (some listeners will impulsively skip this song because it is difficult listening the first few times through, but I humbly suggest that's a mistake, and that the song is very necessary because of its difficulty). But back to 'furious' --  if you think about it, have you ever heard a more furious album than the Mountain Goats' Tallahassee? I mean, which had more flat out anger, Tallahassee or that first Rage Against the Machine album? Although I loved both, I respectfully suggest the former.

Likewise here, you feel it in the callowness of the narrator in "Your Deep Rest", as he observes while at the funeral of a friend who has committed suicide: "The sight of your family made me feel responsible." You sense it in the parable "Housebroken", where an old, abused dog is offered a new life without chains, but refuses out of fear that his ruined body and dulled instincts cannot deal with the unknown future. You hear it in the clear, expressive vocals of singer-guitarist Christian Holden, not just when he's wearing out the microphones, but also in his more restrained moments. The album just boils with it. Sure, there are times when they get too literate and too clever for their own good, but I don't care, and neither should you. Without those things, this album would be getting perilously close to perfection.

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