Look, 2017 was a garbage year and I think we’d all just rather move on. Nazis roamed the streets, giant hurricanes ravaged densely populated areas, half of California is on fire, all of your favorite people who didn’t die last year got outed as sex offenders, and President Donald Trump managed to gut social programs and mortgage our children’s futures so he could give the 1-percenters a tax cut they absolutely do not need. Worst of all, Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone, giving the Minnesota Freakin’ Vikings the opportunity to be the first team to play in a home-field Super Bowl. The silver lining? Well, we’re not in a nuclear war, so that’s good at least. Anyway, I guess some good music was released this year, and as usual my “year-end” list is not so much a list at all as it is a haphazard lumping of various albums that I mostly already wrote about. I do not really have an album of the year, usually when I declare such a thing I wind up wondering what the hell I was thinking a couple weeks later. But there was a lot of good stuff, most of which I haven’t heard, but hey. Only so many hours in the day. So here are my end-of-the-year awards – as usual, links to better, more well-thought out opinions when they exist:
1) Were you born in the 80’s?
2) Does Smash Mouth make you angry?
If you answered Yes to 1 and No to 2, then Neil Cicierega’s mash-up albums may be your new favorite thing on the planet. In 2014, Neil dropped a pair of them titled Mouth Sounds and Mouth Silence, and if you heard them and liked them, then let me just say that Mouth Moods is just as good, if not better than those two albums, so drop everything and download this thing right now.
This has probably been the craziest year of my life. The reasons why go a bit outside the scope of this blog but suffice to say it’s pretty much had it all. As far as the music world goes, well who knows, since as usual I’m way behind on new releases. But I’ve listened to a few and I’m here to detail ’em all for you, since who knows when I’ll get around to really writing about any of this. Before we get into it, let’s look at what I’ve really been listening to in 2014:
BT as #1 isn’t really a surprise – not only did I do a feature on him but I’ve also been playing several of his albums on a regular basis. Many of his albums come with a bonus disc, plus there are lengthy compilations of remixes and OST’s with 30 or so tracks on ’em. Glass Hammer I also did a feature on, plus I’ve just really loved their work in general. Rip Slyme are always great and every once in a while I have the urge to just listen to all their stuff. Yes and Aphex Twin have both released new albums this year and when that happens I like to go through the past stuff – It resulted in two articles about the Twin, and the discovery of a bunch of Yes albums I never really gave the time of day to (particularly their 90’s work and stuff like Big Generator). The rest are just groups I’ve liked this year…Pet Shop Boys of course are classic, Plaid and Saint Etienne are fun listens, and I’ve liked a lot of Swans stuff though I haven’t yet bothered with their recent work yet. Then you’ve got Baby Einstein which quite frankly I’m getting a little sick of but hey, my one-month old son seems to dig it.
Anyway, let’s talk about the new stuff. If the title of the album is a link, that means I’ve written something about it, either here or on The Quietus.
2014 Album of the Year: Neil Cicierega – Mouth Silence
Straight up, “album of the year” is supposed to be the album you enjoyed the most and straight up there’s no better candidate for this than Neil Cicierega’s Mouth Silence. Neil of course is a guy whose work has gone viral in many, many different ways. In 2014 he started doing mash-up work, and like everything else he does it’s both intriguing and completely fucked up. At first these mash-ups just consisted of him mixing Smash Mouth’s “All Star” in with everything – it turned out to be a totally natural fit with the likes of “Float On”, but Neil kept taking it further and further. One track, called “Smooth Flow”, managed to smash together Enya’s “Oronoco Flow” and Santana’s “Smooth”, using “All Star” as a bridge, and somehow not sounding like a total trainwreck. That alone is testament to Neil’s talents as a mash-up artist, but soon enough he realized that perhaps such things could work without relying on Smash Mouth, and thus Mouth Silence was born. It’s an album I really would love to do a full-length feature on, but let me just say it’s not only hilarious, but it’s downright awesome in spots. Though there are a few tracks that concentrate on intertwining two different tunes (similar to what the majority of mash-up artists do) there are a number that are practically original compositions, sometimes sampling up to a dozen different songs. I’ve never been much a fan of mash-ups – the “hip-hop vocals over classic rock” thing always struck me as boring, and Girl Talk always felt like a meaningless exercise to me. But what Cicierega does is often beyond that; it’s not just all the holy-shit moments or the bits that make you laugh out loud, but just how cohesive he’s able to make these different strands sound together. It’s stuff that seems absolutely ridiculous on paper; who could possibly think you could reconcile “Crocodile Rock” and “Chop Suey”? It’s got to be heard to be believed, I’ll tell you what. And honestly, I can’t say I’ve enjoyed anything this year more. Go here and download ’em both.
Second-best album of 2014: Zammuto – Anchor
This is a really great disc that I hope gets some more exposure – it’s one of those albums that’s really far out and experimental while remaining accessible and fun. If you’ve ever listened to his music before, you know that Nick Zammuto is never the type to take the easy way out; everything he does is so controlled and precise without feeling rigid. What I like about him is that he knows he has a tendency to think about music in a manner that’s very intellectual or dry, and thus with his new band Zammuto he’s taken a lot of steps to loosen things up a bit. Having a top-flight drummer like Sean Dixon can open up a lot of doors but I think more than that it’s just his willingness to ride broken or unusual grooves like “Great Equator” or “Need Some Sun” without micromanaging things into oblivion. I feel weird saying this is his best work since they’re all so good, but that’s my hot take at the moment. This is one I’ll be listening to for a while.
Third-best album of 2014: Brian Eno & Karl Hyde – High Life
These are a couple of guys I have real high expectations for so to say I’m not disappointed by these albums says a lot. Their first effort, Someday World, was really not bad when you took it for what it was – a bunch of unfinished demos from the Eno vault which Hyde went through and fleshed out into full songs. That might explain why there seem to be parts “missing” from time to time or why the tunes feel disjointed in spots, though really I feel its biggest crime was those fake synth-horns on the lead-off track, as that alone seemed to put everyone off. Like a lot of Eno’s collaborative song-based projects, the tunes were mostly goofy and strangely upbeat, and honestly I really liked about half of them. As a whole it’s a little inconsistent but my overall impression of Someday World is that it’s nowhere near as bad as everyone said, and it contained a number of my favorite songs of the year (“Witness”, “Who Rings the Bell”, “Daddy’s Car”). I didn’t think it was quite as good as Hyde’s solo disc Edgeland (which I’m still real high on), but for what it was it was alright. Anyway, the real surprise was that shortly after everyone chewed up and spit out Someday World, Eno and Hyde announced that they had another album in the works, one that was going to be all original material culled from jamming. With High Life, Eno surprisingly brought back that Brian Eno, the goofball funkmaster that gave us Before and After Science and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. My first impression of this album was that it was a whole host of ideas for LCD Soundsystem to rip off if they hadn’t broken up already; lengthy, two-chord vamps like “Return” and sunnyside-up funk like “Lilac” capture the vibe that Murphy had been chasing for years, and the head-spinning “Time to Waste It” is one of the year’s most intriguing tunes, featuring a vocal that’s beautiful despite being completely mutilated.
Fourth-best album of 2014: Future Islands – Singles
This has been a big year for Future Islands, and honestly I can’t think of too many bands that deserved it more. I remember seeing the band in 2008, opening for Dan Deacon, and struggling to describe to my friends exactly what I had witnessed – that sort of over-the-top sincerity and showmanship was the sort of thing you would expect from a band like The Darkness, only Future Islands felt totally legit. They weren’t synth-pop or dance-punk or anything like that, but the seeds were there. It’s been nice watching them blow up like this – they signed to 4AD and went viral thanks to a totally bonkers performance on Letterman, though as anyone whose followed the band can tell you, that’s the way they are night in and night out. Singles has all the makings of a breakthrough album for the band; the songs are memorable and intense, without being over-the-top or too wistful the way they could be on albums past. I mean, On the Water was great; probably my favorite album of 2011 really, but it’s not exactly the sort of disc that’ll win them any new fans. Hopefully Singles is the beginning of a run for them – it’s hard to think of a band that deserves it more.
Anyway, it turns out there are plenty more albums I’ve listened to this year. Some of these are nearly as good as the four I’ve listed above, or may be even better but I haven’t listened to them yet enough.
Raymond Scott Rewired
Information here. Essentially it’s three mash-up artists (The Bran Flakes, Go Home Productions, and The Evolution Control Committee) given a pass to run wild amongst the entire Raymond Scott collection. Despite what you might think such a collection may sound like rest assured that it’s generally pretty tasteful; lots of cut n’ paste but nothing overly intrusive like a snare rush or that damn stutter edit. In fact I believe it’s pretty much all sounds from the originals, sometimes organized in a more modern way but nothing out of place. Though it’s not quite “authentic” as it were I think you’d struggle to find a better representation of Raymond Scott’s musical output in about an hour – sure, there are collections of it everywhere, but they either miss a big chunk of his work or come rife with unfinished or commercial tracks that get in the way.
I like albums like this one – Aaron Ackerson is the kind of guy who realizes that he doesn’t really have a standout voice nor incredible instrumental skill, so he compensates by indulging some of his most far-out impulses. Outside of an obvious homage to Andrew W.K., the songs here don’t really sound like anything else, often combining elements that are disparite or unexpected, giving the impression of a dude just working from memory. There are so many weird compositional or production decisions that probably wouldn’t have passed on a more ‘professional’ release (not a dig, I swear). Just check out “The Ninja Song” – it sounds like three songs in totally different genres playing on top of each other, with some wacky Weird Al-gone hip-hop vocals over the top. The real keepers are the proggy/technopop tunes like “Inside” or “SHC”, and I’m still intrigued by “Taiko no Yastu”, an off-kilter collection of ideas that really goes to hell in the middle.
Aphex Twin – Syro
Personally I think the return of Aphex Twin was one year too late – how neat would it have been if RDJ made his comeback the same year as David Bowie, My Bloody Valentine, Boards of Canada, and Daft Punk? I think it was only a matter of time before Aphex became Aphex again; he hasn’t been silent since the release of drukqs 13 years ago, but the stuff he has released hasn’t exactly been meant for wide release – his work as The Tuss was destined to be some obscure 12″ until a few people figured out who it actually was. I suspect measuring Syro against the rest of his catalogue is a mistake – though he’s still got the skill, too much time has passed and the zeitgeist of Richard D. James has died down. There’s almost no crossover appeal in this one, essentially a collection of meticulously sequenced acid funk which quite frankly uses little outside of the same big analog synths that the techno dudes have been using for decades now. That said, it’s brilliantly produced, almost certainly the best sounding record of RDJ’s career; the sounds are even deeper and thicker than they were on Rushup Edge and the Analord EP’s. Still, I suspect the jury’s still out on this one – it clearly is a good album, and maybe even a great one, and it’s going to be on all sorts of year-end lists like this one, though I doubt it’ll find many top spots. There’s just little to talk about here – not a lot of hooks, almost no gimmicks whatsoever, and nary a curveball thrown until the very last track. On several listens I’ve totally blanked out the second half up until “Aisatsana” starts and I think, “whoa, that’s it?”. That’s not to say anything about the quality of the second half of this album – I suspect if you reversed the track order it would be roughly the same thing. Syro is destined to be one of those albums that fans and critics listen to time and time again in an attempt to reconcile it with the rest of the man’s career and the music landscape of 2014 in general, or barring that just trying to find some sort of opinion on it other than “it’s good”.
Not much more to say about this one since I just wrote about it last week. I will say this though, before having our son we took a long and sort of useless pregnancy class which mostly just showed a bunch of videos of babies being born. The bumper music had some riff in it that got stuck in my head because it was so close to something I recognized, but I couldn’t figure out what. Turns out it was “All the Way to China” from this album. So yeah, five seconds of that tune were stuck in my head for about six hours. I guess I’ve had worse.
Doughty is turning into a real “just when you thought…” guy. Just when you thought he’d carve out his niche as a thoughtful and unique solo acoustic guy, he decided to dress up his sound and deliver a couple of albums on ATO that sounded, above everything, cluttered and desperate for a hit. Just when you thought he was running on empty, he decided to listen to his fans, strip it down, and stop overextending himself. Just when you thought he’d put his Soul Coughing completely behind him, he wrote a book on the subject, burning it all to the ground – and just when you thought he’d shunned that era of his life completely, he comes back with a collection of Soul Coughing covers. And just when you thought Doughty had completely missed why Soul Coughing fans enjoyed the band in the first place, you get Live at Ken’s House, a live-in-studio collection of his old band’s tunes that show that maybe he gets it after all, turning up the drums and bass, bringing back a bit of that freewheeling energy, and most importantly, allowing things to get fucked up a bit. Granted, Live at Ken’s House has some glaring missteps (see: both takes of “Super Bon Bon”, but one in particular…), but it immediately struck me as that album that the SC covers album should’ve been.
As for Stellar Motel, it’s again a surprise – essentially it is the hip-hop album a lot of people hoped Doughty was going to try 15 years ago, and to be honest it’s pretty good. Certainly not great, but it’s fun, and impressively fearless – it’s as though Doughty finally decided to stop trying to please his fans or his label (though I don’t think he’s been on an actual label for a few years now) and just say “fuck it”. Some real great songs here, some that’ll make you scratch your head, and some that’ll get lodged in your head whether or like it or not. I think I’ll call it a win for Doughty, who certainly has displayed an inability to stay still or stick himself in a rut, despite the fact that he’s been releasing records for 20 years now.
But wait…there’s more! Tune in next week!!!