Endless Window 2014 Review: Songs of 2014
Posted on Tuesday, 23 December 2014 | No Comments
But now, back to the countdowns. In last year's feature, I counted album tracks alongside singles: this year, no such luck. Partially to keep things fresh for myself whilst writing three different pieces, partially to allow myself the room to enthuse about other works that might not have made it in otherwise, mostly because there are always different narratives to be spun.
Last time, you may recall that one of the year's most striking releases was one that, implicitly, asked which side you were on. Across these twenty-five songs, this question becomes louder and louder. All these artists approach the question in different ways, but the consistency is striking. Are you for the future, or the past? Do you look up to the false prophets or stand up with the new saviours? Just whose side are you on anyway?
25) How To Dress Well - Words I Can't Remember
Amidst the pick'n'mix sprawl of Tom Krell's third full-length as How To Dress Well sits Words I Can't Remember. Musically and thematically, it's no departure from his established modus operandi of plaintive, emotionally raw lyricism placed above an immersive, subdued take on R&B. Yet where much of What is This Heart? unfortunately found the place where passionate sincerity tips over into unknowing self-parody, Words I Can't Remember packs a sublime punch. It's the first of many songs here about the barriers found between two people, about the difficulties of trying to form something collective in an increasingly fragmented world. It's a confused, conflicted odyssey that knows what it wants, but leaves the decision to the listener. Which do you choose?
24) Die Antwoord - Pitbull Terrier
At least as much a visual phenomenon as a musical one, yes, but Die Antwoord remain one of the most spectacularly strange and cheerily violent acts to launch a rear-guard action on the mainstream in recent years. Continuing in the vein of I Fink You Freeky, Pitbull Terrier takes the energy-drink fuelled aggression and masculine entitlement of EDM and blows it up to a gargantuan, almost camp scale. It's an outlandishly harsh production that asks you, the listener, what you're really here for. And if you want something for the bro's or something to hype you up? See how you feel after this. Because it's an iconography of white-trash Afrikaans that they use instead of, say, the Illuminati, Die Antwoord never really get the credit they deserve for their confrontational take on modern hip-hop and dance norms, for bringing out the implicit darkness and anti-social hostility and throwing it back in the face of middle-class tastemakers, industry gatekeepers and even the more unaware members of their own audience. Audacious as usual.
23) QT - Hey QT
Then more confusion: PC Music have managed to split listeners quite firmly down the middle between those who find their sugar-overload rave-pop one of the most exciting things to happen to dance music years, and those who find it a whole load of conceptual nonsense hiding outstandingly bad music. Well, you might have guessed where I side on this debate, and Hey QT is a fine case for the evidence. Yes, the whole QT shtick - a mysterious, glamorous entrepreneur recording a single as a marketing gimmick for her new patented energy drink - is a fine parody on a dance world branded head-to-toe in Red Bull, its obvious fraudery a mirror as to just how much trickery we're willing to accept in our music. But above that, it's also a fine piece of music, turning up the more sweet, kid-friendly aspects of rave and Europop to such an extreme level that it functions just as well both on its surface level as a great pop song and also as a work of avant-garde absurdity. When asked to choose between mindless fun and abstract theory, Hey QT proves that old argument as the inane, misleading dichotomy it's always been.
22) Liars - Mess on a Mission
Liars have thrived on an anarchic devotion to upsetting and changing their sound whenever it threatens to get too comfortable: when Sisterworld suggested that they'd hit a wall with art-rock, they jumped head-first into murky electronica on WIXIW. This year's Mess provided a harder-hitting, bolder evolution of this new Liars style, with sort-of title track Mess on a Mission providing a mission statement of sorts for the Liars of 2014. Fuelled by a manic energy, the track kicks and twitches in over-caffeinated convulsions, before exploding on a chorus where Angus Andrew's voice leaps into a falsetto shriek, equal parts liberated and terrified. Consider this the fruit of a career spent daring yourself and your audience to do more and do better.
21) Swans - A Little God in Our Hands
At this juncture, talking about individual Swans songs seems almost trivial. As live and demo collections released as fundraisers between records like Not Here Not Now have shown, they exist more as a canvas for the remarkable musical kinship of their current sextet incarnation than as discreet works in their own right. That said, A Little God in Our Hands, lead track for To Be Kind, focused the attack into a sharp, pseudo-funk groove, engaging in nerve-shredding repetition whilst also throwing all manner of unexpected arrangement curveballs in the way - and through it all, at centre stage, Michael Gira conducts the whole macabe orchestra, a circus barker for the existential void. Rock isn't a big enough word.
20) Mr. Twin Sister - In the House of Yes
Oh sure, there's plenty of irresponsible trap songs out there, but have you heard what the indie kids are doing these days? Ditching the dream-pop and adding some dance (and a title) to their shtick, the re-christened Mr. Twin Sister provided an irresistible solo party jam with In the House of Yes. As Andrea Estella's narrator gets more and more inebriated and finds some kind of epiphany in their anti-social imbibing ("I'm fucked up, but I think I can have some more / If I can get myself up the floor"), the music overflows with Studio 54 strings and soft-focus opulence. Sober truths found in depths of drunkenness: one can only imagine the hand-wringing editorials if this didn't come from an ex-indie band, but In the House of Yes is fine proof that sometimes you have to break the rules to make a breakthrough.
19) Leonard Cohen - Born in Chains
Forty years in the making, and still no satisfaction: of the nine songs featured on Popular Problems, Born in Chains was the one that Leonard Cohen still felt remained incomplete. Even if this recording may not be as definitive as hoped, this slow-burning number still seeps into the marrow of your life as Cohen's finest works inevitably do. It's apt in its way that this song remains complete, moving as it does from a telling of Exodus to an expounding of Cohen's shifting theological position, the chorus resolving in the admission that, even though the name of God is "written on my heart in burning letters / that's all I know, I cannot read the rest." As ever, Cohen imparts grand knowledge and grave wisdom with a sly wink and human frailty, the finest of songwriters continuing to roll the stone up the hill.
18) La Roux - Uptight Downtown
If pop music doesn't get to be popular, then what is it? This is the question we ended up having to ask after the curiously quiet response to La Roux's second album Trouble in Paradise. Plenty of fingers have been pointed at her seemingly uninterested record label, but some of the blame has to be directed at the audience: what the hell were they doing ignoring a single like Uptight Downtown? Eighties touchstones are almost de-rigueur by this point, but the polished-to-sparkling funk La Roux deployed for this comeback number made it sound box fresh all over again. It's a sound that suits Elly Jackson's voice far better than their earlier synth-pop. As with the rest of its parent album, it makes the case very strongly that her former songwriting partner Ben Langmaid had really just been holding her back from her real potential. Its fate, on the other hand, just proves once again that the keys to pop music shouldn't be left in the hands of those who usually end up winning.
17) Death Grips - Inanimate Sensation
If there was something predictable about Death Grips in 2014, it was in how typically messy it all wound up. The first half of a mooted double album The Powers That B was released back in June: since then, the band have claimed to have split up (potentially, it has been mooted, just to get out of a support slot with Soundgarden), released some sporadic updates, and then finally released the video for the lead track of the second part of their in-progress final album. If this is indeed their last stand, then they're going out all guns blazing: over what sounds like an even more demonic take on the THX tone, MC Ride is as fierce and paranoid as ever, while the beat kicks even harder than usual. Inanimate Sensation is a six-minute summation of everything that made Death Grips such an urgent, necessary force in the last few years - violent, rebellious music in an age that worships the safe and the bland.
16) Aphex Twin - Minipops 67 (Source Field Mix)
The return of Richard D. James to active duty this year has been comical, delightful, frequently absurd - but has it ever been surprising? Syro is an album of numerous discreet pleasures, but its welding of the acid revivalism of the Analord EPs to the slick, ultra-detailed production values of his late nineties work did make it clear that in his absence, the Aphex Twin had finally achieved solidity. But if he is no longer setting the agenda, James is still producing minor masterpieces of overwhelming intricacy whose wonderfully idiosyncratic take on melody and rhythm could be the work of only one composer. Minipops 67 is Syro at its most user-friendly, but even then over its five minutes it flies through so many stylistic and tonal shifts - and remains so incessantly catchy throughout it all - that a kind of awe feels only right.
15) Lykke Li - Gunshot
The 'drop': a moment of tense quiet, and then the slam of bass warfare, percussive artillery raining down. Lykke Li's Gunshot boasts a drop of sorts, but nobody is ever going to mistake this for EDM. One of the many malevolent jewels at the heart of I Never Learn, our anti-heroine is caught at the moment of terrible realisation, the moment when the brutality at the heart of all pop music - broken hearts, diseased minds, the weight of mortality, all wrapped up in a little sugar and blown as a poison dart to the chest - comes crashing down. As much as it's a song about the instant in which love is lost, it's a performance of the idea, that distinctly modern notion of feeling emotion with great intensity but expressing it as self-knowing, self-parodying pantomime. Is this a necessary coping mechanism to stop oneself from being submerged by the tides, or is this just storing up that painful moment of realisation for later? Gunshot offers both options simultaneously, and leaves us - and her - to repent at our leisure.
14) Cooly G - Wait 'til Night
Sometimes, the pantomime is better than the real thing. Already an acclaimed grime producer, Cooly G's decision to step in front of the microphone on her more recent, pop-edged material has made her the toast of the underground anew. The parent album deals explicitly and unflinchingly with love and lust and their complications, but the title track and lead single is a marvel whose skeletal frame is fleshed out by the nocturnal hopes and dreams of Cooly G. Equal parts fantasy and gritty reality, Wait 'til Night is the sound of bedroom dancing turning into actual dancing, and back into a bedroom dancing more perfect than the real thing ever could be. That this record has been so slept on is curious indeed, considering the beyond-genre-borders reach Hyperdub boasts: perhaps certain listeners, still on that misguided quest for 'perfect pop', remain uncomfortable (not to mention prudish) with the honest confidence and challenging, futuristic sound of pop with actual ambition and desire backing it.
13) Flying Lotus - Never Catch Me [feat. Kendrick Lamar]
Yes, well - hopefully 'i' was just a blip. A far better use of Kendrick Lamar's talents was to be found on Steven Ellison's most ambitious, surreal quest yet as Flying Lotus. You're Dead! is an album that constantly offers one thing to the listener, before snatching it away and throwing away in favour of something completely different. Never Catch Me functions then as a rare moment of solidity on the record, a chance for the listener to find their bearings again before they get sent down the next rabbit hole. Hip-hop might increasingly be little more than a 'you are here' dot amidst Ellison's omnivorous work, but his production on Never Catch Me finds a energised mid-point between the hip-hop surrealism of Los Angeles and the cosmic jazz he's been pursuing since Cosmogramma. As for Lamar - he hurtles through some light-speed rhythms and meets the album's concept head on, sketching out a metaphysical journey beyond the confines and laws of life on earth that suggests at something exhilarating to come.
12) Vince Staples - Hands Up
Mentioned in Hands Up: DeAngelo Lopez and Tyler Woods. Not mentioned: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner. Part of this is timing of course - events have, in the most grotesque way, out-paced the September release of Hands Up - but also because, as much as these names have become engraved in our consciousness, as much as we are rightly appalled by a pattern of systematic, militarised police racism, this isn't something new. We might be paying more attention than we were, the prevalence of social media and recording devices means we have the proof before the cover-up can even start, but this is not something that begun in 2014. Vince Staples deals in violent, brutal truth, and the real stark horror of Hands Up is that when he talks of "watchin' for them badges when out in traffic", this is just the same as it ever was.. It has always been like this, and shame on us for not paying attention. I'm reminded here of the B.S. Johnson dictum that "telling stories is telling lies": Staples refuses to sugar-coat his message or make it more palatable, because nothing less than the truth will do. Everything less than the truth is a lie.
11) Sophie - Lemonade
If Hey QT was PC Music at their most accessible, then Lemonade is them at their most intense. At a mere two minutes, Lemonade manages the rare achivement of being both endlessly replayable and also really quite long enough. A concept of a rave where the CD decks have been set by mistake to double-speed all night long, Lemonade finds Sophie turning sweet child vocals and smashed-up R&B hooks into a marvellous, delerious mess that stuns, shocks, and then demands an instand rewind - pop music that, at last, finally brings back the joy of the unexpected surprise. Actual, supposed pop fans have been screwing their noses up at this, and I really can't get it. This is smart, chaotic, maximalist joy, like scrawling all over the self-important masculinity of so much current dance in bursts of bright crayon - isn't this what you claimed to want? Perhaps the great peak of PC Music's output so far.
10) East India Youth - Dripping Down
That Total Strife Forever was not the outsized synth-pop record its singles Trojan horse-d it as does not detract from the power of those singles (or the rest of the album, for that matter). What matters is that Dripping Down is an ideal sonic representation of that point where desperation and longing tips over itself and gains its own savage majesty: a tense, strident click that slowly swells, a cry of vocals, and then the utter release of those cascading synth arpeggios. Much as William Doyle in person is a mild-mannered man in a suit whose performances conclude in him unleashing a rave storm from behind his desk, Dripping Down is a quiet, self-contained piece that suddenly, urgently claws at the walls it has built around itself, looking for new light and truth. Consider this proof that just because you enter life as one thing does not mean you can change. At is core, the power of Dripping Down lies in its vindication of the human capacity for change and re-invention, that even amongst the new-builds and the gentrified streets of finance, some Brutalist ambition or flood of emotion can come wash away the traps we build for ourselves.
9) St. Vincent - Digital Witness
The brass refrain - a gift from her sparring partner David Byrne perhaps. But the rest of Digital Witness, well that's all St. Vincent. The process of eradicating Annie Clark, the woman behind the mask, from St. Vincent has been gradual, but this year the split became definitive. St. Vincent is no more a mere nom de plume, but a character in her own right, a product of the anxieties and fears of the digital age just as much as the various incarnations of Bowie arose out of post-sixties depression, cocaine paranoia, Cold War Berlin, out of the corporate ruthlessness of the eighties and so on. Digital Witness was the grand, frazzled coming-out party for the new St. Vincent, one that lays her out as being both imperially above the fray yet somehow fragile, wounded. No time for confessions, but won't somebody sell me back to me: is she ruling the panopticon, or trapped inside? This brilliant, insidious work asks us whether we really believe ourselves to be in control of our own destiny in the digital world, or if we have merely found a new master to run the jail.
8) Run The Jewels - Blockbuster Night Pt. 1
Punchline rap: its own punchline for the self-declared cognoscenti at times, but what's the problem if it's done this well? The first Run The Jewels album established the project as a way for two smart, serious talents to let off a little steam in the most hilarious, energising way possible, and having found a whole new audience in doing so, they've thrown in more of their politics into the fray this year. Blockbuster Night Pt. 1, however, is pure punchline rap, the sound of El-P and the currently unstoppable Killer Mike constantly finding new ways to one-up each other, to land the funniest line in a song that exists as its own highlights reel. One or two indie website owners - naming no names - have managed to make absolute idiots of themselves in using their own prejudices about rap music as a whole as a way of decrying the success of Run The Jewels. But the real triumph of the duo is that whoever and whatever they rail at - politicians, policemen, epidemic levels of fuckboys - the listener is always, regardless of who they are, on board. Run The Jewels are fighting the good fight so you don't have to: just tune in, and enjoy the victories that happen every time two of the greatest talents in hip-hop today join forces.
7) Perfume Genius - Queen
Enough is enough. Of the many meta-narratives running through this year, one that stands out is the feeling of some breaking point being reached, some conclusion that things are falling apart, the centre no longer holding. If the moment has come to choose sides, are you still standing up for a failed continuity or are you on the side of the new? Queen made it clear where Mike Hadreas stood. Where the first two Perfume Genius albums dwelled in the realm of the hushed confession, Too Bright made a decisive, urgent leap for a new method of conversation. As such, it's a record that's considerably more knotty, more confused than its predecessors. But when it does gel, Hadreas' bold choices pay off considerably. Queen is the sound of pushing through self-hatred into self-actualisation, a moment of liberation that's frightening and beautiful. Its message of defiance and self-belief is essential, turning homophobic stupidity into a knowing, sardonic retort. (And yes, this was the Letterman performance we really should have been talking about this year.)
6) Wild Beasts - Mecca
The love song has been, likely always will be, the dominant mode across most popular musics. In their own twisted way, Wild Beasts have emerged as masters of the love song, their literary lustings and gothic come-ons existing in their own unique, vivid landscape that stood pleasingly seperate from the pack. But where their past material has always been wracked with fear, derangement and a kind of psychic violence, Mecca is a song that acknowleges all the doubts and difficulties of love - and takes the plunge just the same. So much has changed within the band since they first emerged, their steam-punk Smiths-isms traded up for a glossy, light-footed take on synth-pop sophistication, but Mecca feels like a genuine watershed for them. Hayden Thorpe is on as fine a vocal and lyrical form as he's ever been: the whole arrangement swoops and faints, in awe of the emotional release and joyous realities Thorpe depicts. Mecca feels completely current, yet retains that sense of existing on a different plain to any potential peers. In creating a monument to the power of love, Wild Beasts made a monument to just how far they've come.
5) FKA twigs - Two Weeks
Her first two EPs were powerful enough statements in their own right, but LP1 felt like the grand reveal, the unveiling of a significant new talent to show us what pop music could be if we would just dare. At the heart of the record sits Two Weeks, a song that walks a remarkable tightrope between a dramatic might and a fluttering fragility. Which is the persona of FKA twigs herself in essence: a modernist avatar of how the broken hearted may wish to re-build themselves, all their scars and tensions still on show but made into strengths, into a source of power. Two Weeks works magnificently in itself just as a show of strength, a seduction of a partner that looks to bring the whole audience under her spell. Within the context of the bleak, frustrated album in which it sits, it gains a whole new tragic allure that makes it all the more remarkable.
4) Royksopp & Robyn - Do It Again
But then, wasn't pop music always about pain, really? We watched as Elvis and Michael decayed, died before our very eyes as we demanded them to dance those red shoes until they fell down. We saw Britney pushed into meltdown, Houston into self-destruction - and still we call this entertainment. Do It Again is, as with the late work of ABBA, as majestic an unravelling of the great pop lie as you will ever find. Royksopp build up an incredible backing track, one that sounds larger than any arena it might find itself aired in, and yet - isn't that just a solitary kick drum heartbeat taking us, alone, through the maze? And who it is Robyn's really singing to: is it a failed lover who she finds herself drawn towards again, even though she knows it can only be disaster, or is it the listener - or indeed, the whole of pop itself? We keep listening and keep buying because we are sold on a dream of fitting in, of sharing in the delights their lifestyle brings, on the pretence that they understand our emotions - as if we could ever stand what they go through - and so we participate still in a system that destroys the people designated as stars, that holds nothing but contempt for the audience that will keep buying into the dream. Maybe pop music was always a game of sado-masochism with no master, only slaves. But when the music kicks in, you feel your pulse rise again, you feel that endorphin rush: you and I, just like Robyn, keep doing it again.
3) Holly Herndon - Home
We are spied on, we are picked apart, studied at every angle. We are caught on CCTV, our telephone calls our overheard, our e-mails read and our internet history thoroughly logged. If there was any surprise to be held over the revelations over the NSA's international spying that have been released in the last two years, it is in just how apathetic most of the public at large have proved to be. Not Holly Herndon though: she's not letting her cheating computer off that easily. "I know you know me better than I know me" she sings, as the track shatters around itself, her computer experiencing an overload of ideas and data in a shockingly human way. Home is conflicted, troubled, incisive stuff: Herndon wants to step away from a world of permanent surveillance, but knows that to do so would also be to throw out the whole modern, digital world that allows her to work as a composer. Home poses the difficult but necessary question of what we do when there are no safe spaces left.
2) EMA - Satellites
This combination of utopian potential and dystopian terror has found its way into Erika M. Anderson's work this year as well. Satellites was the launching shot for what would prove to be a remarkable year for her as EMA, and it confronts the same issue that Herndon does - i.e. what to do when the old ways are long gone but the new methods have been disproven also - but comes up with a far more defiant appraoch. Welding buzzing synth drones and drum machine cracks to soaring cellos, making precise beauty with the organic and a vibrant, chaotic noise with the electronic. Satellites is a final look back to a half-remembered childhood world ("I rememember when the world was divided / By a wall of concrete") where the divisions at least looked clear-cut that ends up revelling in unknowability and unpredictability. For all the danger that technology can pose, she still sees the romance and possibility it represents. Opening up the channels of comminque is, no matter how risky, still the only sure-fire method of contact in the modern world. Satellites is the tense, jagged, revitalising sound of taking the plunge and plugging in to our new lives as we understand them.
1) Sleaford Mods - Tied Up in Nottz
Some choices are hard. You have to weigh up all the options, work out the pros and cons, decide which is best for you and others. Some choices however just come to you unbidden and demand to be made. This is one such choice.
The rise and rise of Sleaford Mods in 2014 has been one of the few good news stories of the calendar year, a rise enabled in part because they've demonstrated a willingness to actually deal with the world they and rest of us actually live in, to present some kind of fight-back against a government of astonishing cruelty and callousness, against worthless easy answers that change nothing and the fools that offer them, against everyday cruelty. Their work is short, nasty, brutal and just about the most life-affirming you'll hear in 2014.
Reducing their work to a formula is unhelpful, but to like one Sleaford Mods song is to understand the whole concept of the band: Andrew Fearn's terse post-punk bass riffs and incessant drum machine the unyielding backbone over which Jason Williamson gives vent to every grievance and petty humilation that British life in 2014 entails. They are blisteringly angry, savagely funny, and the most refreshing thing around right now. They understand that there is nothing less punk in 2014 than being in a punk band (and let us be clear here: if you are in a band that plays punk rock right now, you're not the solution - you are the regressive, point-missing, endlessly conservative fucking problem), and so they've figured out their own way and made up a whole new punk in the process.
Tied Up in Nottz is as good a calling card as any: it's a solid Fearn riff that gets built up into a stripped-back, D.I.Y. LCD Soundsystem groove, while Williamson indulges in some blistering wordplay full of scatalogical horror and left-field puns before zooming out into a survey of the bleakness and squalor of a Britain that's been thrown to the (austerity) dogs. Is it the best Sleaford Mods song? I'm not sure. But is there anything else this year that feels as of its time, as completely necessary and just plain right as this? Of course not. Having any other band at number one would have been a cowardly injustice. Pick your side wisely: either you're with the Mods, or you're with the Tories, one way or another. This is not a time for complacency or for the easy way out. This is a time to speak out, to make your voice heard. This is a time for the Sleaford Mods, the only band left to trust in. Big up the riots.