best of 2014: honorable mentions

it’s nearly time to unveil our favorite full-length albums of 2014, but for now we’ll tease a handful of albums that didn’t quite make the cut in order to build some unnecessary suspense.  the following five albums aren’t ranked – instead, they’re presented in alphabetical order – and adequately represent the large musical palate made available this year.  as you may have noticed with previous posts, links to stream relevant content are provided in the titles.  dig in.

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american wolf my main sport coveramerican wolf – my main sport 

chicago’s american wolf certainly isn’t immune to the emo resurgence currently underway across the midwest, but the quintet has enveloped that aesthetic safely inside more atmospheric ambitions.  seven of the eight songs on my main sport are sprawling efforts – the shortest one clocking in at four minutes, the longest flirting with the eight-minute mark – wrapped up in intricately-layered guitar melodies that build patiently to each individual apex.  it’s the kind of dreamy pop music that bides its time in the background before fully unleashing its cacophonous potential.  some songs burn slowly, like the early standout “may” and “cave fantasy,” but american wolf is also adept at executing straight-ahead, unabashed alternative rock in the form of “evil eyed.”  sal plant’s counter-tenor is eerily reminiscent of brian aubert’s work in silversun pickups while joe sherman’s meticulous drumming makes my main sport a trip to experience rhythmically, two traits that bookend an impressive melodic and harmonic journey from one of chicago’s preeminent outfits.

virgo indigo coverfog lake – virgo indigo

 with the runaway success orchid tapes experienced during the final half of 2014, it’s understandable that some of the label’s earlier releases may have skirted the public eye.  ricky eat acid’s three love songs is an obvious exception (more on that tomorrow,) but a trio of releases were decidedly low-key.  at the forefront of that pack was aaron powell’s fog lake, a newfoundland-based solo project that exudes the bedroom pop trope so commonly associated with orchid tapes.  virgo indigo contains twelve songs, most of them short works directed by powell’s voice and guitar, although the appropriately-hokey “mad scientist” is based around a playful piano progression.  it’s commendable that powell can evoke such emotion and overall bleakness using a relatively static approach to composition, but this is largely aided by strong forays into ambient territory; virgo indigo is bookended by two such songs, and its centerpiece “transcanada” is the soundscape to a snowstorm, a poignant representation of sheer isolation.

gem club in roses covergem club – in roses

gem club has been composing heart-wrenching ballads for some time now, but the boston trio hit their stride on their second full-length, in roses.  christopher barnes and his piano are still the focal points of the project, but an increased sense of ambiance is injected to make the trio’s plaintive sounds less plain and more complex.  the interplay between barnes and cellist kristen drymala is more prevalent as well, compounding gem club’s somber mood in a different timbre on sprawling tracks like “first weeks” and “polly,” but the trio really benefits from the extra time spent on arrangements and studio overdubs.  the synth ostinato on “hypericum” provides a sense of momentum so often absent from gem club’s material, and it’s easy to hear how doubled and harmonized string lines flesh out the overall orchestration.  regardless of the instruments used, it’s hard to dispute the sheer beauty of in roses.  acoustic timbres collide with barnes’ laments on “speech of foxes,” but the song’s gradual descent into ambient noise is indicative of the fragility gem club has come to represent, in its antecedent state and in its aftermath.

sea oleena shallow coversea oleena – shallow

from the first arpeggiated piano melody on shallow, it’s clear that charlotte loseth has succeeded in capturing a mournful aesthetic similar to that of her predecessor on this list, but one that deviates down a slightly different path.  percussion plays a more prominent role in sea oleena’s music – and on this album more so than any of her other releases – yet the instrument’s true power is felt once it’s taken away; then the contrast of loseth’s ideas become that much more stark.  after a tight execution over the first half of opener “if i’m,” loseth trades in that thought for a rambling, ambient one that sprawls over the next twenty minutes of the album, lowering her voice gently into a pool of thick reverb as she jockeys between a guitar and a piano to provide harmonic support.  when loseth surfaces from the stupor on “everyone with eyes closed” a low-end thump does indeed dictate each downbeat, but she’s now snuck in a wealth of grating strings, one that must be contended with directly on the album’s penultimate epic, “vinton, la.”  shallow is the kind of album one can easily digest on the cusp of sleepiness, yet it’s also one that demands a thorough investigation as to why lethargy is inevitable upon listening.

st. vincent coverst. vincent – st. vincent

yeah, st. vincent’s fourth album may also be titled “st. vincent,” but to simply refer to it as her self-titled album may be shorting her some credit.  st. vincent is a complete immersion in the persona annie clark has so meticulously crafted over the past decade, as evidenced by her visual transformation, adoption of symbols, and the sheer outlandish nature of the songs inside the album.  but outlandish is good, as it allows clark – who has become entirely consumed by st. vincent at this point – to lash out with her guitar, yielding songs like “prince johnny” and “huey newton.”  st. vincent is also her most lyrically ambitious effort yet, as she portrays a dystopian world ruined by technology (“digital witness”) and tries her hand at humor (“birth in reverse”) all while holding up her characteristic tropes of religion and metaphor.  but peel back the accolades and the tremendous musical accomplishment clark has achieved and st. vincent is unabashedly fun, a whirlwind of a record so dizzying that it takes infinite listens to fully absorb and dissect.

best of 2014: music videos

as the years tick by, the music video seems to become an increasingly insignificant form of consumption.  though youtube is a powerful streaming source, lyric videos and static images accompanied by audio have largely become the norm.  amidst the changing landscape lies a handful of artists (check the output of honorable mentions fka twigs and perfume genius for further examples of consistently stunning work) and videographers still dedicated to enhanced storytelling through visual representation; we’ve compiled our five favorite offerings of 2014 below.

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5. lorde – “yellow flicker beat”


single-handedly curating the soundtrack to an assured universal blockbuster is no easy task for anyone, let alone a seventeen year-old.  lorde went two steps further, shouldering responsibility for the soundtrack’s monstrous lead single, “yellow flicker beat,” and its accompanying music video.  numerous comparisons were made to the aesthetic of david lynch, but the video particularly excels at showcasing lorde’s ownership of her artistic identity; her singular form of dancing becomes synonymous with the song’s anthemic chorus, further cramming a very natural artistic expression down the throats of detractors who expect something different from female pop stars.

4. pillar point – “dreamin'”


the surreal implications of the song’s title are aptly accentuated in the music video for “dreamin’.”  an early staple of pillar point’s career and the centerpiece of his self-titled debut album, “dreamin'” is forcibly reworked – in its introduction, anyways – to accommodate the contorted dancing style of the video’s protagonist, who seems to be a projection from the mind of the older man who appears at the beginning and end of the sequence.  yet despite the jubilance and dedication conveyed in the dance, “dreamin'” retains an incredible amount of poignancy, as the dancer’s feats go largely unnoticed.

3. caroline smith – “half about being a woman”


caroline smith tried her hand at r&b last year and wound up with half about being a woman, one of our favorite albums of 2013. nearly a year later she delivered a music video for the album’s title track that is at once heart-wrenching and uplifting, as smith’s monochromatic character traverses from utter despair to hardened confidence with a bit of help from her döppelganger.  raw emotions are rarely captured so effectively.

2. st. vincent – “digital witness”


a wes anderson color palate meets annie clark’s frazzled grey mane in st. vincent’s music video for “digital witness.”  clark has to be shortlisted as one of the best artists to emerge in the past decade, and the depth offered by her latest album only strengthens her claim to that exclusive club.  social commentary has often been a covert operation throughout st. vincent’s discography, but her views on the strong grip of modern technology are readily apparent on “digital witness.”  the martial rigidity of the song’s synthetic horn staccatos is mirrored by the nonsensical militaristic marching in the video, and the uniformity and repetitive acts performed by the cast is a metaphor for the enslaving power wielded by digital technology.  even clark, portrayed as a wary outsider, doesn’t seem to be fully free of its grasp.  just like the bulk of st. vincent’s output, both “digital witness” and its music video are beautiful at surface level and absolutely compelling once the outer layers are peeled away.

1. vince staples – “nate”


vince staples will be a key player in the immediate future of hip-hop, largely in part due to his visceral storytelling contained in songs like “nate.”  the video that accompanies the focal point of staples’ fourth mixtape, shyne coldchain vol. 2, is just as jarring: a domestic dispute played out in slow motion seen through the eyes of an unfazed child.  through association, one might assume that the autobiographical material from staples’ childhood directly correlates to the video’s protagonist, but said protagonist encounters staples while en route to a convenience store.  the fact that the video’s plot line may exist outside of staples’ personal narrative is critical, as it showcases a cyclical epidemic of violence and drug abuse in urban southern california.  it’s not a long stretch; staples has already proven he’s one of the most hyper-aware young minds in the rap game.

st. vincent – marry me

St. Vincent Marry Me
beggars banquet

it’s a largely accepted fact in 2014 that annie clark is a preeminent fixture of pop music; her eccentric guitar skills have become spectacle, over-saturated in fuzz distortion and often processed through synthesizers, while the depth of her songwriting has become increasingly formidable over the span of four albums.  but in 2007, clark had yet to solidify her musical identity as st. vincent.  she had done stints in sufjan stevens’ touring band and had worked with the polyphonic spree, but had offered up no solo work of her own.  that, in part, is why marry me continues to be such a monumental album, one that clearly shaped clark’s career as opposed to functioning as a mere stepping-stone.

this distinction is critical: the trajectory of st. vincent has always been an evolution, never a reinvention, and marry me contains the foundation of that vision.  wisps of the grandeur that would eventually control efforts like 2011’s strange mercy and this year’s self-titled album exist, but they’re muted, almost as if clark was suppressing innate artistic urges in order to develop them more cohesively before embarking on a full exploration.  nonetheless, by the time she delivers “your lips are red,” the album’s third track, early signifiers are there: jagged melodies, stuttering guitars, surreal imagery.

despite the presence of those key elements, the dominating component of marry me is decidedly acoustic.  the jagged melodies found in “your lips are red” are delivered primarily by a piano, not a guitar or synthesizer, and string flourishes add an element of the baroque that was so in vogue amongst clark’s new york contemporaries in the mid-2000s.  witness this combination again on the album’s title track, a plaintive ballad propelled by a soft piano progression and enhanced by a string ensemble.  this is also one of the first tastes of clark’s quick, understated wit delivered through song.  the song’s (and album’s) title is lifted from a running gag found in the initial run of arrested development, effectively dispelling any submissive or patriarchal undertones that may initially be conveyed, and lines like “we’ll do what mary and joseph did / without the kid” continue to subvert expectations and suggest that if mutual affection is going to be legally consummated, it will be on clark’s terms.

marry me is also unique within st. vincent’s discography in that it’s the only album to prominently feature clark’s talent on an acoustic guitar.  many of those skills evidently translated to her electric explorations, but they somehow seem even more impressive when stripped of their bombastic tendencies.  “paris is burning” is initially structured around relatively intricate acoustic finger-picking before diverging down the path of a bizarre waltz foreshadowed by clark’s apocalyptic lyrics.  but even as the meter shifts and a robust hammond organ starts jockeying for attention with an angular electric riff, the song still feels critically informed by the initial acoustic work, as if the eventual cacophony wouldn’t have been as meaningful – or even possible – without that ominous contrast.

the album’s key triptych is delivered late, and rightfully so.  listeners are required to peel back the outer layers of annie clark’s musical onion before they receive the privilege of experiencing the true potential of her artistic ingenuity.  “landmines” is a five-minute slow-burner that compounds clark’s affinity for meter changes and gradually shifting instrumentation (the harp sweeps contrasting martial snare flams almost make the song), but she also recycles hints of subject matter from “paris is burning” into the morose metaphor “landmines” is centered around.  “we put a pearl in the ground” pulls its title from an early lyric in “landmines,” and the use of “we” instead of “i” in the title is crucial, as it implies a sense of unity and resolution.  it’s the only track on marry me that clark doesn’t appear on (long-time david bowie collaborator mike garson provides the piano interlude), but its ornamented melody is derived from clark’s vocal contour on “landmines,” and the placid piano timbre further suggests a peaceful outcome.

“human racing” is the consonant result of the path taken by “landmines” and “we put a pearl in the ground.”  the album’s penultimate track is also the clearest foreshadowing of the subsequent course st. vincent’s career would take.  marry me largely favors chordal structure over riffs, but “human racing” blurs the line.  clark’s guitar work is so fascinatingly intricate that, while she mostly remains within the harmonic confines of the song’s progression, the ornamentations and passing tones almost push the vocals out of the spotlight to make the instrumentation the memorable component of the piece.  the ascending interludes provided by a small ensemble of woodwinds and brasswinds are also indicative of later st. vincent tropes: add a bit more low-end and a more intense bridge, and “human racing” wouldn’t sound out of place on actor or clark’s 2012 collaboration with david byrne.

clark’s biblical references are sparse but evident, perhaps a witty concession to her adopted stage name, but her lyrics especially thrive on metaphor and the simplest of statements that are incredibly profound.  an example of the latter is contained in the chorus of “the apocalypse song,” as she examines the basic principles of physics before declaring “it’s time / you’re light / i guess you are afraid of what everyone is made of.” and just like that, a seemingly simple fear becomes an all-consuming one.  clark’s use of metaphor and surreal imagery becomes more prominent on subsequent efforts, but its origins are firmly grounded in marry me; religious imagery and wordplay are at their finest on “jesus saves, i spend,” and as stated before, “landmines” would carry no weight if not for its desolate, war-torn descriptions and comparison of relationship struggles to minefields.

marry me feels timeless, not so much indicative of a particular point in the history of pop music as it is a crucial one in annie clark’s musical presentation.  as she continues to add to her discography and accolades, it’s hard to not see this inaugural album becoming an even more critical reference point.

st. vincent – st. vincent

even when hiding behind the understated folk sounds of her 2007 debut marry me, it was evident that annie clark was not, and will never be, amongst musicians easily recyclable in the contemporary indie rock climate.  as st. vincent, she demands listeners to pay attention to her lyricism and phenomenal guitar work simultaneously – a feat not easy to achieve – regardless of the genre she’s happened to settle into.  clark has largely gone electric since her debut, drawing on elements of funk, her love of horn arrangements, and angular guitar lines to develop a truly signature style.  maybe that’s why her newest album is self-titled; at this stage in the game, annie clark needs no introduction.

there’s this really thought-provoking article on the trajectory and meaning of the artwork on all of st. vincent’s albums, and it backs up my perception of her latest effort: this record just exudes self-confidence.  both “i prefer your love” and “regret” are comfortable, familiar st. vincent songs, and that’s why clark makes the audience wait until the middle of the album before they are heard.  the front half of st. vincent is full of eclectic aggression; the subject matter of clark’s songs is simple in delivery while slightly abstract in concept, but she staunches any apprehension with vehement orchestration.  album opener “rattlesnake” winds and strikes just like its namesake, with a slithering synthesizer line interrupted by interjections from clark’s voice and some pretty frenzied drumming, and lead single “birth in reverse” keeps the dust off of your dancing shoes.

some of clark’s most inspiring songwriting to date comes in the form of “huey newton.”  the track first finds her navigating through an ostinato synthesizer pattern and singing in her patented ethereal voice, but it soon transcends into a crushing guitar riff bolstered by a commanding, almost harsh vocal delivery that mirrors clark’s austere demeanor on the album cover.  her blend of tried and true with uncharted musical territory in terms of her own career is fearless; it’s something that started to take shape on strange mercy and has now been fully realized, three years later.

while elements of her collaboration with david byrne are evident on tracks like “digital witness,” st. vincent still feels like an album organically grown by annie clark.  i’ve always expected her music to challenge my perception of what is possible in the pop realm, and this batch of tunes certainly did not disappoint.  she may be easing herself into a palate rich with dirty synthesizers and fuzzy guitars, but this is akin to easing oneself into a swimming pool of cold water; there’s ample time to get out and try something new.  annie clark is only knee-high, still capable of writing songs as diverse as “severed crossed fingers” and “psychopath,” and her demonstrated musical intellect and curiosity suggests she’ll never go beyond waist-deep.

8.8/10

listen to a new song from st. vincent

st. vincent is gearing up for her self-titled fourth album, out february 25th via loma vista.  after a somewhat dramatic announcement of the album and its lead single “birth in reverse,” annie clark let another track go this morning.  check out the funky “digital witness” below.