10. Eccodek - Singing in Tongues
It may have been a chilly summer, but whenever I had Guelph, Ontario's Eccodek playing the world sounds seemed to warm up those cool days. For the past 10 years Andrew McPherson, the multi-instrumentalist who has been at the centre of Eccodek, has mixed world sounds into various electronic soundscapes. Employing the voice of Mali's Jah Youssouf and various other collaborators McPherson's latest record takes us on a musical geographic excursion of rhythm. Whether it is the hip hop (courtesy of MC Yogi) that lays the ground work on "My Primitive Heart", the jazzy afrobeat on songs like "Village in Me" or the Indo-influence on songs like "In Confidence" this album was a amalgam of influences that are well worth discovering.
9. Lana Del Rey - Ultraviolence
Everyone loves to hate on Lana Del Rey. Whether it's her comments on Feminism or the rape scene with Eli Roth that may or may not have had something to do with Marilyn Manson, we need to shut up about Del Rey's strange meanderings into pop culture and just enjoy the music. The Dan Auerbach-produced Ultraviolence is airy and atmospheric and far more cohesive that 2012's Born to Die. In fact, it the album's overall theme sounds downright creepy. I don’t mean Stephen King creepy but more David Lynch creepy. The sounds are minimalist yet seem to tap into a sublime dreamscape that haunts with stormy vocals. The reverberation on the guitar, the timbre of her voice and a slow rhythm section that sounds like it is playing at bottom of a very dark-wet-well adds to the unsettling feel of the album. Like a Lynch film Ultraviolence strikes a film noir quality: a striking femme fatale, dark eroticism, and a cast of sinister characters working within shadows that all around us.
8. St. Vincent - St. Vincent
It is hard to believe that Annie Clark (AKA St. Vincent) is only 32 years old. And, I don’t think my belief that she is older is because of her grey hair. St. Vincent is a paradox; She is both an old soul and an entirely modern musician. St. Vincent has always been the type of musician who demands respect. Starting off in the wonderfully audacious Polyphonic Spree and the equally mesmerizing Sufjan Stevens, St. Vincent’s pedigree was not that of a top 40 artist, but a musician bent on doing (as cliché as it sounds) “her own thing”. And, there is no denying that she has done that on this her fourth solo record. It would be easy to throw her sound into the “Chamber Rock” genre. But, to do so limits the almost futuristic feel to St. Vincent. It is both bare and complex but the listener cannot help but be jarred by the striking dischords and at times operatic feel to the record. The album’s standout track “Digital Witness” calls us to awake from our self-centred media enduced coma, begging for someone to “sell me back”. Of course, this message does not come in electronic instrumentation or a mash up, buy by means of a trumpet line worthy of a Stax-Volt record. This is the paradox that is St. Vincent. St. Vincent is not an easy listen, but I think that’s the point.
7. Jeremy Fisher - The Lemon Squeeze
It seems odd for me to go from the darkness of Lana Del Rey and the sonic bomb that is St. Vincent to Jeremy Fisher’s happy romp The Lemon Squeeze. I have always enjoyed Fisher’s songwriting style, but his newest album sees Fisher charting into the cheeky and fun territory that were the tell-tale style of his videos. Pounding the piano a little more than on past records Fisher sounds like a kid bashing away with wanton abandonment. From the opening notes of “I Love You…So?” Fisher embodies the emotions of a rom-com protagonist amidst a bout of unrequited love, begging his love only to respond. The response might be evident in the Randy Newmanesque follow-up track “Happy Day” where he sounds less than cordial about his salutation. From then on the record continues with the Ed Sheeran-like “Uh-Oh” through to the melancholic anthems “You Again” and “Last Song”. With “Song in my Heart” Fisher seems to turn to a less confusing and frustrating love – the love of a good pop song. Akin to fellow Canadian songwriter Mike Evin, Fisher shows the joy of a music, and closes by highlighting how such the simple medium can convey such honest emotions.
6. Tanya Tagaq - Animism
If this is the future of music, it is in a word sublime. Tanya Tagaq reappeared on the music scene this year with an album that was both traditional and futuristic at the same time. The traditional sound of Tagaq’s Inuk throat singing has always defined her music style. But, add to that the atmospheric production of violinist Jesse Zubot (Zubot & Dawson) and you have a sound that is like something you have never heard before (I know you are thinking that this line is a tad over-used but the truth is that you really haven't). This originality surely played a role in ensuring her Polaris Award for the best Canadian album of the last year. Beginning with the relatively comfortable cover of The Pixies’ Caribou (which is so original it might as well be her own) Tagaq (and Zubot) take us into uncharted musical territory. Animism is a weapon of sheer force driving home a rhythm and sense of urgency rarely heard in “traditional” music. From the opening rhythm of “Uja” straight through to the entrancing “Fight” the album sounds like the soundtrack to a dystopian film, with the not-so-subtle destruction of our world as the backdrop. But unarguably, the most powerful song on the record is the politically-charged “Fracking”. I am not one to bring up the fourth-year Eco-Feminist course in a record review, but Tagaq’s voice seems to speak of the violent attack we are perpetrating on our earth. As her voice seems to moan in anguish I sadly can only imagine an earth “beset by men who care nothing for her except to extract her inner essence”.
5. Bahamas - Bahamas is Afie
Afie Jurvanen (aka Bahamas) and I have had an interesting relationship this year. The album started as what we often refer to as a “grower”. I liked the record, but I didn't love the record. The retro-tinged guitar and Afie’s tender soulish-falsetto were, as usual, good. But I just didn’t gravitate to it like I had with his 2012 Barchords. However, with every listen I seemed to hear more artistry. The gentle and sweeping strings on“Can’t Take it with Me” and the choir-like chorus singers gently revealed themselves. And although Afie has always been an exceptional guitar player I truly began to appreciate the reflective tone of the lyrics on Bahamas is Afie. And, I began to appreciate how these lyrics gave the record a unity not unlike a concept album. The lyrical gem on the album has to be on “Bitter Memories” when he croons “The memories of us are sweeter than we ever were”. Over the past few years Afie has shown himself to be a formidable songwriter and guitarist, but with Bahamas is Afie he has shown himself to be multi-talented musician who charting exciting musical waters.
4. St. Paul & The Broken Bones - Half the City
I love soul music. I don’t mean what most people would think of when they hear the words soul music. I couldn’t care less about Usher or (the dreadfully named) Trey Songz, but I mean real soul music, the sounds that were the soundtrack of 60’s protest and true love. It seems only right that the best soul record should come from seven white guys from Birmingham, Alabama. Wait. What? White guys? Produced by Ben Tanner of Alabama Shakes, St. Paul & The Broken Bones’ Half the City oozes with an undisputable confidence and swagger. Out of the gates vocalist Paul Janeway leads a soulful attack on the listener. “I’m Torn Up” is an emotional gem that is so reminiscent of Otis Redding. However, it is not merely Janeway’s voice, but the Broken Bones themselves. On standout tracks like “Sugar Dyed”, ‘Dixie Rothko” and “Broken Bones & Pocket Change” the rhythm section of Jesse Phillips (bass) and Andrew Lee (drums) lay down a solid foundation echoing their heroes Donald “Duck” Dunn & Al Jackson Jr. Meanwhile the Memphis Horn-like combination of Ben Griner (trombone), and Allen Branstetter (trumpet) lift the songs to up like a soaring accent to Janeway’s enthralling vocal delivery. But, like Booker T and the MG’s before them the subtle guitar of Browan Lollar and keys of Al Gamble allow Janeway the structure needed to shine. Although St. Paul & The Broken Bones may sound like Paul Janeway’s band, the truth is this is a purely collective effort that generates something purely astounding. I miss Stax-Volt. Thank you St. Paul & The Broken Bones.
3. I am the Sky - The World Doesn't Need Another Record
This is not the type of record I generally gravitate to. But, perhaps with my age I am becoming more introspective. Whatever the reason, I really gravitated to 24 year-old Jesse Daniel Smith’s debut album. Set against the gigantic sounds of many of the records on this list The World Doesn’t Need Another Record is a small and quiet collection of songs that are lovely. Smith has a nice finger picking style evocative of Neil Halstead, which goes from country twang, to classical. This is so clear on tracks like “All But Her”, “City Boy” and “A Simple Friday Night” where the fingers pluck away at the listener lulling them into a calm and gentle resting place. The stripped down sound of The World Doesn’t Need… allows the listener to truly appreciate Smith’s melancholic lyrics. Whether it is the heartbreaking laments of “the boy who don’t know how it feels to be loved”, or the charm of “Put away your feelings and always know that you are made of stars”. A phrase I have even started to employ with my kids. To employ a phrase my friend Dave hates; This is a lovely record.
2. Frazey Ford - Indian Ocean
Vancouver’s Frazey Ford released an album this year that slipped under just about everyone’s radar. And, I cannot understand how that happened (although a visit to the Nettwerk website will show you that they have done little to promote the record). The former Be Good Tanya has always had a voice that wavered and shook with a style that was all her own. However, on Indian Ocean she has added an element to her sound that differeciates her all the more. Ford packed up and made her way to Memphis to record at Hi Records, where she employed the Hi Rhythm Section. What is particularly beautiful on the record is the sound of Charles Hodges’ Hammond Organ. A sound that will be familiar to anyone who is a fan of Al Green (The Hodges appeared on numerous Green albums). The Hi Rhythm Section sound gives a gentle cushion of Ford’s songs. And, like the aforementioned St. Paul & The Broken Bones allowed her to voice to be the focus. What this does for the record is make what could have sounded like a pure folk record into something far more dynamic. The hints of 70’s soul warm Ford’s songwriting and captures her innovative timbre. From the opening of “September Fields” through the cheeky lyrics of “Done” Ford delivers an outstanding record. However, as good as the album is, its final track is the highlight. Indian Ocean is a slow intense burn that seems to wallow in the hardship of loneliness. A lone trumpet echoes as Ford cries out “It’s a quarter to four, on the other side of the world”. And then, as if you had forgotten he had been invited to the party, Charles Hodges’ Hammond slides into the mix as the final notes trail out on a song that you wish didn’t end. The song, like the ocean itself, is still, expansive. Indian Ocean signals the powerful combination of folk and soul music and deserves to be noticed.
1. The War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream
As I finished this year’s list a theme emerged. The best music of the year transcends that ground between traditional and modern. The number one record on my 2014 list does that exquisitely. At first listen a lazy listener would be quick to point out Adam Granduciel’s Dylanesque vocal delivery or perhaps 80’s era Springsteen. However, as the listener breaks apart Lost in the Dream there is so much more going on. As much as lead off track “Under the Pressure” might be akin to Dylan and Springsteen the sonic layers that close the song are reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine or Nels Cline. That ambient noise returns throughout the album but is most evident on “The Haunting Idle”. Songs like “Red Eyes” and “An Ocean Between the Waves” move with transient guitar sounds that beg to be blared from a convertible driving down a sun-soaked highway. Yet, the quieter moments of the record allow us to settle into Lost in the Dream’s desolate tone. On “Suffering” the quiet horns call to mind Dark Side of the Moon-era Pink Floyd. While “Disappearing” conjures up something that would be found on Don Henley’s Building the Perfect Beast. If Don listened to more Floyd. But, once again, the highlight comes in drive-like rhythm of “Burning” where David Hartley (bass), and Charlie Hall (drums) push the song along over Robbie Bennett’s Springsteen-like keys. All of these influences seem to come together on “In Reverse”, the album’s existential finale. It is the subtlies of the instrumentation and the almost hodge-podge mix of influences that make Lost in the Dream such an enjoyable record. The band seem to pride themselves on sounding like Dylan, Henley, 90's shoe-gazer rock and by embracing sounds that are reminiscent of the 1980’s. Yet, in doing so the album sounds altogether fresh. It is truly an album that encapsulates the scattered influences of the last 40 years. It is not a folk album, or a rock n’ roll album. It is not a pop album, or an indie album. It is however a War on Drugs album, and it is damn near perfect album.