Hey! It’s 2015 now, which means another year in music has gone by, and that means I get to tell you all about what I thought were the best albums released in past year. Just like last year (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), these rankings are in no particular order and I wrote about them in pairs because I like to be different. Also, these are solely my opinions, but I listen to an insane amount of music, so my opinions are probably better informed than yours (no offense). Anyway, here we go!
Mac DeMarco – Salad Days :: Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness
We start off with a couple of twenty-something singer-songwriters who really came into their own in 2014. Mac DeMarco and Angel Olsen both put out albums that were finely crafted, but also bursting with raw emotion that their more popular contemporaries consistently fail to match. DeMarco is as chill as ever on Salad Days, combining his trademark laid-back guitar riffs and apathetically delivered witticisms to create saccharinely slimy jams that hit you like a Coke on a scorching summer afternoon. Sure, water would be a healthier and probably more refreshing choice, but you need that strong, sweet taste right now, and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to choose water when you’re secure enough to settle for something boring. DeMarco understands that the future may not be easy to see from here, and that the cloud of uncertainty hanging over you can tear your insides apart if you zero in on it too much (as he momentarily does on “Chamber of Reflection”). However, the future will only move closer, so instead of trying to chase it down, why not sit back and wait for it to show up?
On her debut album Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Olsen feels this same cloud hanging over her, but is much more tortured by it than DeMarco. The intensity is higher and the quips are sharper as Olsen tries to stay strong and fight through the doubt and the pain. Olsen attempts to make peace and settle into contentment at the start of the album, trying to “Unfucktheworld” around her, deem everything “Forgiven/Forgotten”, and “Hi-Five” the other despondent souls around her, encouraging them to push on with her and that everything will be alright if they believe in each other. But, as she admits on “High & Wild”, Olsen cannot stifle her sentiments and ignore her fears, as much as she would like to, and her emotions dramatically overflow on the soaring track “Stars”, with Olsen wishing she could “scream the feeling til there’s nothing left”. It’s harder to sit back and feel good about the future when the present can be so damn agonizing.
Dean Blunt – Black Metal :: Laetitia Sadier – Something Shines
Like DeMarco and Olsen, Dean Blunt and Laetitia Sadier are mired in doubt, struggling to discover exactly what they’re striving for. However, the latter two are further along on their quest, making them a bit wiser, but also more desperate as time keeps on passing them by. This desperation leads to Blunt and Sadier experimenting with more unorthodox methods in an attempt to find a way through their existential crises, and in doing so, they arrive at more definitive conclusions.
On his previous album, The Redeemer (which made my Top 30 last year), Blunt suffered through finding and losing love; now on Black Metal, he begins to question if searching for love is even worth the effort at all. “I’m dying to meet you, but everybody says I’m wrong,” he states on “100” as he descends into despair, coming to the realization that he may simply be destined for loneliness. Eventually, though, he grows comfortable with this thought, embracing the self-centered, live-it-up sort of nihilism commonly found in hip-hop by interpolating French Montana’s “Ain’t Worried About Nothin” on the beautifully stripped-down track “Molly & Aquafina”. “You’ll never be, the one I want you to be, ’cause I know that person is me,” Blunt says, admitting that no one will ever be able to measure up to what he needs and finding himself content living with a Meursault-esque mindstate: riding around with a gun, shooting it if he feels like it, and not caring what happens from there.
Something Shines, the latest solo effort from Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier, is sonically different than Black Metal, with brighter sounds and smooth grooves evocative of classic bossanova. But Sadier encounters the same doubts about love that Blunt does, expressing deep dissatisfaction with her relationship on “The Milk of Human Tenderness” and then finding pleasure within the world apart from companionship on “Release From the Centre of Your Heart”. Sadier keeps on prodding for more; “We need answers,” she repeatedly proclaims on “Butter Side Up”. She continues on her search for answers, and by the last track of the album, she figures out that simply “Life is Winning”, and none of the details really matter much at all.
Alex G – DSU :: Julia Brown – An Abundance of Strawberries
2014 was a breakout year for independent label Orchid Tapes, and these two albums are the cream of its wildly-growing crop. Alex G firmly established himself as an elite singer-songwriter with DSU, exhibiting his incredible charisma as he is able to quickly connect with the listener and convey a ton of meaning through just a few lyrics. The restraint and control that Alex G shows on DSU is phenomenal, as he jumps around between styles and moods but wastes no time unnecessarily dwelling. DSU is short and sweet, but is full of beautifully depicted moments, from the opening lament of “After Ur Gone” to the unconditional dog-love of “Harvey” to the consuming romantic obsession of “Black Hair” to the beaten-down wallowing of “Hollow”, and Alex G has the unique ability to make these songs instantly relatable and enlightening.
An Abundance of Strawberries, the second album by Julia Brown, a band consisting of multiple Orchid Tapes affiliates, is most likely the least-known album on this list (the album actually wasn’t officially released through Orchid Tapes or anywhere else, but rather “leaked” by bandleader Sam Ray) but it also is absolutely the most gorgeous release of 2014. This album is not religious at all, but I would describe listening to it as an extremely spiritual experience. The production is on point throughout, sweeping you off your feet, sending you floating through the sky, moving closer and closer to paradise, and then setting you gently back down, cleansed and rejuvenated. The second half of the album is particularly breathtaking, with songs like “You Can Always Hear Birds”, “Loved”, “The Body Descends”, and “Closing (On A Roof)” that are amazing on their own, but come together cohesively to create something even more magical.
Ricky Eat Acid – Three Love Songs :: Grouper – Ruins
Ok, so I actually have one more Orchid Tapes album on this list. Before leaking the Julia Brown album, Sam Ray put out Three Love Songs through Orchid Tapes under his main alias, Ricky Eat Acid (in addition, he’s also part of the band Teen Suicide). Three Love Songs is another gorgeous album, but in a more haunting way than An Abundance of Strawberries, as the creaks, squeaks, and other transient transmissions transport you back like a ghost to a place that you’re all too familiar with. Maybe you don’t think of the exact locations that make up some of the song titles, but these compositions flood with nostalgia, evoking memories real or imagined, longingly remembered or long-repressed, but all full of profound personal significance. Looped vocal samples are sparingly but spectacularly used, brilliantly implemented on the gripping “It Will Draw Me Over To It Like It Always Does”; the climactic “In My Dreams We’re Almost Touching”, the lone danceable song on the album, built around a sample from a cover version of Drake’s “Take Care”; and then the following comedown, “God Puts Us All In The Swimming Pool”. Ray’s other releases in 2014 as Ricky Eat Acid, including the boisterous Sun Over Hills EP and Three Love Songs: B-Sides & Outtakes, are also worth checking out.
Ruins, the tenth album from ambient musician Grouper, hits in a similar way. Ruins is a bit more subdued, shying away from the spotlight and slinking into a darker, quieter place, never reaching the feverish peaks of Three Love Songs. Once you gain enough sense to pay proper attention, though, you’ll kick yourself for not letting Grouper have a chance to speak to you earlier. The songs on the first half of the album, most notably “Clearing” and “Labyrinth” burrow themselves into you, awakening parts of your soul that had been laying dormant for far too long. Then “Lighthouse” comes on, providing a beacon to guide these rediscovered synapses as the second half of the album commences, taking them to a comfortable corner where they can grow and prosper on their own terms. The one in the spotlight may garner the loudest applause, but sometimes it shines right in your eyes, leaving you blind and helplessly exposed.
Todd Terje – It’s Album Time :: Aphex Twin – Syro
While the last two albums garnered feelings of familiarity, these long-awaited releases by a couple of highly regarded European producers sent you out to explore parts unknown. It’s Album Time, the first full-length from Norwegian Todd Terje, blasts you off to the most exotic edges of the universe, where perceptions of time and space are as cartoonishly warped as the album’s cover art. It can occasionally get dark in these faraway places, but the rapid expansion suddenly becomes strikingly apparent, and soon you’re moving so fast that you start to see colors you’ve never beheld before.
Syro, Aphex Twin’s first album in thirteen years, takes you on a journey in the opposite direction. These tracks drill you down into the Earth, thrusting you through layers of rock-hard crust and boiling magma to bring you to the scorching metal core at the center, burning and gleaming with an incomprehensible intensity. The only beings that can survive this far underground are a fascinating sort, simultaneously sub- and post-human, and you can’t help being intrigued by the twistedness because it could never ever propagate back up at the surface.