When I interviewed Actress for The FADER this year, he described Ghettoville to me as a concept album about being homeless but having a laptop with musical software on it. He even suggested that he made the album in the hopes of imparting a piece of life advice to his listeners: “If there is one sort of profound moral, it’s just to consider other people a bit more. If you’re doing alright, and you’ve got a decent job and you get paid, and you’ve got a home to go to, and you’ve got friends that you can chill out with and have a drink with and be warm or whatever, then that’s amazing. But the stark reality is that there's people out there who just don’t have that.” I was surprised. How could an album as abstract and even willfully difficult as Actress’ fourth full-length have a "meaning," let alone a moral? As I began to spend more time with with the record, though, the London producer’s words began to make sense; in fact, I think they illuminated all the cryptic doomsday proclamations that preceded the record’s arrival (you know, that stuff he wrote about Ghettoville being Actress’ last record, “R.I.P Music 2014," etc.). Ghettoville, in all it’s sketch-like, crooked, sputtering, weirdly clipped, off-rhythm goodness, felt like a bombed-out incarnation of dance music itself, battered and emaciated but determined to keep trucking along.
In the same interview I mentioned above, Actress also called the album his attempt to “crash the market,” which I think is a pretty bad-ass ambition to have when you are seemingly poised on the end of verge of a mainstream breakthrough. If Ghettoville is partly a conceptual reckoning with the failures of capitalist society to look after its denizens, and partly a musical reckoning with the intersection of capitalism and music, then it’s pretty admirable for its political intentions alone. That said, there’s also some pretty striking moments of beauty herein, such as the damaged but unwaveringly soulful vocal loop on “Don’t.” Within the context of the record’s conflicted relationship to pop, it feels pretty political too, but also touchingly reassuring: “Don’t stop the music.” --Emilie Friedlander
Andy Stott: Faith in Strangers [Modern Love]
Manchester producer Andy Stott has experimented with various shades of techno over the past decade, but his 2014 record Faith in Strangers breaks away from any single style in lieu of a unified melancholic feel. Stott’s latest has a cinematic quality that makes it difficult to just idly listen to; instead, it's best to enter into and experience viscerally these songs, which are ordered in such a way that you get the sense of having traveled through space, time, memory to get from start to finish. The slow build of opener, “Time Away,” sets the chilly mood that colors the entirety of the album, like on the very next track, “Violence,” which sustains and heightens this tone with its heavy, almost trap-ish industrial beat. This, along with the similar-sounding title track are the climactic moments that stand out amidst the more loosely structured, atmospheric unfolding of Faith in Strangers. The ethereal vocals from Alison Skidmore counterbalance the dark strangeness of the grinding loops and beats that Stott layers together. Soft vocals and machine noise combine especially powerfully on the final track, “Missing,” a simple but haunting piano arrangement that evokes both delicateness and danger, that in filmic language might amount to a shot of a lone person walking through a city at night. --Beth Tolmach
Arca: Xen [Mute]
Xen seemed underwhelming at first because of how counterintuitive it feels to the ongoing narrative behind Arca's ascent. Last year, the producer born Alejandro Ghersi pulled no punches. This was the guy who gave the unwieldy "Hold My Liquor" off Yeezus it's haunting pulse, and sent the now-ubiquitous FKA Twigs to her career-starting launchpad on EP2. &&&&&, etc. You probably know all this already. Which made Xen messing with the program all the more disarming. On this album, Arca's ever-propulsive momentum from last year now moves in start-stops, melodies traded for drop outs and half-awake chords-- the sonic results being an awkward balance between classical, trip-hop, and faded skeletons of flamenco from his childhood.
It's been cited over and over in reviews how fully in control of Xen Ghersi seems to be, and yet the opposite is true. The album sounds like how it was recorded (over the course of six months, mostly improv), unfolding in fits of introspection and spastic release, reflective of the mental state of both the tunesmith and the androgynous alter-ego it's named after. That kind of approach left Xen feeling confused, with little to grab onto as its tunes evaporated one after the other. But if the listener held on, the record deepened and gelled in a powerful way that none of his efforts have done before. It's still just as much of a labyrinth to get through as it was the day it was released, but Xen is all the wiser for letting listeners draw the map to get through it for themselves. Everyone you talk to about it is going to have a different favorite part. --Brad Stabler
Ben Frost: A U R O R A [Bedroom Community & Mute]
In an interview conducted during October, Ben Frost said his latest album “would not stand for anything less than absolute oblivion.” This intrinsic brutality, which refused to be curtailed or neglected, is apparent throughout every second of A U R O R A. This time around, Frost reached out to Greg Fox, Thor Harris, and Shahzad Ismaily; three musicians with a submissive attitude towards repetition, always willing to shed every drop of energy for the sake of an overwhelming sensorial experience. From the very beginning the Australian composer arranged the album’s aggressive DNA so that the aforementioned musicians could gather the impetus required to create those fleeting moments of ecstasy, best exemplified in tracks like “Nolan” or Venter”.
A U R O R A was originally conceived out of an obsession for bioluminescence and neon, which explains why it appears to be so colorful, so fitting-for-a-rave, whereas most of the music dominated by cumbersome layers of noise and drones relies on common cinereous palettes. Melodies sometimes beam through the noise dams and beguile the listener into entering furious sonic passages capable of decimating speakers. One can certainly contort the body to the album’s infectious dance rhythms and surrender to the pummeling percussion of Greg and Thor. However, these tracks are awash with distortion and distress, which is why one can’t seek solace within them. They provide, in Frost’s own words, “an emotional fucking kick in the ass." A U R O R A is a harrowing record about light which details how the synthetic can lead towards the revelatory; how wonderment can be attained from that which appears to be insipid. It serves as further proof the so-called laptop-music can be as seismic as anything you’ve heard before. --Jean Burset
Bitchin Bajas: Bitchin Bajas [Drag City]
“I mean, time for me, I can make it go slow or fast, however I please,” said Willow Smith in a recent interview with T Magazine, “and that’s how I know it doesn’t exist.” Though Cooper Crain, Dan Quinlivan, and Rob Frye of Chicago’s Bitchin Bajas derive their sense of spirituality from different sources than do Willow and Jaden Smith, they engage time similarly on Bitchin Bajas, their follow-up to last year’s shorter, more sedate Bitchitronics. “Pieces of Tape,” the nine-and-a-half minute closer on the new eighty-seven-minute-long album, gets louder and louder as it drifts along, the dense layers of organ and synthesizer hovering around a single chord, contrasting with the album’s quieter, sparser, multiphonic beginning (“Tilang”). The album could be seen as one long crescendo-- quiet at the beginning, loud at the end-- implying a seamless circuitousness, as though it were all one piece. Many different styles are put in dialogue on the record-- with influences ranging from Terry Riley to Alice Coltrane, Klaus Schulze to Iasos-- but there’s also a strong unifying feel throughout. The understated percussion in “Field Study” leads right into the pulsating synth beats of “Brush,” which reappear more melodically in the subsequent arpeggios that make up “Bueu.” Bitchin Bajas’ eight separate pieces each attain sonic autonomy without disrupting the flow of the album as a whole; its eighty-seven minutes can thereby “go slow or fast,” depending on your attention, your state, your desires. But when, at the peak of that album-closing crescendo on “Piece of Tape,” the mass of sound clicks off, abruptly popping out with a blurt of distortion-- that’s Bajas unknowingly proving Willow Smith's point: they can control time. They can take this seamless circle of sound, timeless and immaterial, and cut it off when and how they want. And that’s how they know it doesn’t exist. --Joe Bucciero
The Body & Thou: Released From Love [Vinyl Rites]
Anybody who got to see The Body and Thou on their collaborative tour together this year got to see two exceptional metal bands at the height of their prowess, forming the rare supergroup that actually lives up to the expectation that their combined effort should be just as great if not greater than their individual discographies. After already putting out two of this year’s best metal albums (I Shall Die Here and Heathen, respectively), the two bands released the incredibly heavy sludge- and doom-infused EP Released From Love. Rather than pulling a Sunn O)))-meets-Boris and attempting a potentially bloated 3xLP, The Body and Thou decided to make a 20-minute record which cuts deeper than most single-sides of vinyl. You could easily call the record unrelenting if it weren’t for the opening section of the profound interpretation of Vic Chesnutt’s “Coward” which closes the album. The track has the same arc as the original of building to greater heights and emphasis of the phrase “I am a coward,” which in hindsight of the circumstances of Chesnutt’s death is particularly heartbreaking. The Body and Thou have touched upon anger, misanthropy, fear, and melancholy in their past work, but this cover is especially somber even by their own standards (and is rather more convincing than the Nine Inch Nails “Terrible Lie” cover they toured with). This record hits you right in the gut and doesn’t let you recover. The two bands are hardly done with each other, having already announced a follow-up to Released From Love to be released in January. Here’s to hoping these are the beginnings of a long and heavy relationship. --Isaiah David
Container: Adhesive [Liberation Technologies]
As Ren Schofield gets his elbows deeper in a Unit 731-style vivisection of noise music, we learn that chaos is his modus operandi as Container. The objectives are simple: fuck up sound, make it fun. In a nutshell, Adhesive is his most fucked up and fun yet. If typical dance music production is akin to painting a wall in layers-- prime with a sample, lay down the drums for the first coat, thicken with bass and pads-- Schofield's method is more like tossing paint into an oscillating fan. Each of the four tracks on Adhesive is bound by a groove, but the elements that really make your ass shake are triggered in enrapturing succession, inducing the old 23 skidoo. Sure, Container's everything-in-the-red timbres get you amped, and it's his keen sense of rational thought-dismantling disorder that keeps you jacked. Adhesive stands as the singular heavy music release of the year so far because it short-circuits the thinking part of your brain where so much experimental music thrives, instead firing neurons in whichever cluster of grey matter makes you feel like you just punched a cop in front of a cheering crowd. --Mike Sugarman
copeland: Because I'm Worth It [self-released]
There’s something about Inga Copeland’s music that resembles something like a simultaneous wink and an eye roll. Her music is both distancing and enticing; though undeniably well thought out and deliberate, it is also skeletal and unpolished, delivered with an ironic detachment. This is true even of the title of Copeland’s first LP under the copeland moniker, Because I’m Worth It. On the one hand, this shoutout to L’Oreal could be wholly genuine, an empowering call to arms. “Yes, I am worth it.” Or perhaps it is a cheeky affront to consumerist, makeup-clad feminism. Somewhere, Copeland is smiling as her confounded listeners try to peel back the curtain.
Copeland’s relentlessly mysterious persona is nothing new. Her partnership with Dean Blunt was marked by pseudonyms and cryptic interviews. Both artists have retained that mystery following their mysterious divorce, but where Blunt walked away with their warped pop sensibility in tow, free to kick around with jangly guitars and K-Ci & JoJo samples, on Because I’m Worth It, Copeland explores eerier, less pop-inflected terrain. On the opening track, Copeland weeds out the faint of heart with a blaring high frequency-- a different approach than the lush, Big Star-sampling introduction to Blunt’s Black Metal. On the next track, “advice to young girls,” Copeland impels her remaining listeners over a blustery grime beat. “Together you’re strong. Face the night. The city is yours.” It is at once disorienting and danceable, a heady alchemy of mechanical beats and sketchy electronics. As Ian Pearson pointed out in his essay on Copeland, her music occupies a unique position between the poignantly human and the postmodern, two points that are difficult to compromise. The best we can do, then, is stop trying to look behind the infinitely strange curtain. We’re better off embracing the wink, the eye roll, and rolling with it. --Julia Selinger
Dean Blunt: BLACK METAL [Rough Trade]
Dean Blunt, the man of extremes. At the most basic level, it’s the visual extremes: compare a plain, featureless cover of Hype Williams’ 2011 One Nation with the stark, pitch black cover of this year’s Black Metal, its parental advisory warning being the only stand-out detail. Another strange juxtaposition: Black Metal is named after one of the most extreme genres of music yet it features some of the softest, most refined sounds from Blunt to date, not bearing a single reference to actual black metal. He combines the extremes when performing live; interrupting an R&B heartbreak hymn to shock the audience with nearly infra-sound bass and relentless stroboscopic lights; and in his catalogue, jumping between extremely hazy Dadaism and Top-40 friendly ambient pop. Needless to say, Black Metal doesn’t disappoint, carving Blunt’s own auteur vision of heartbreak songwriting, lite psychedelia and bedroom electronics with titles which attempt to redefine meaning of the words (“Punk” being a dub ballad; “Country” a noisy, abrasive synth abstract; a sedated folk ballad called “Molly and Aquafina," citing the most popular drug for high energy raves). On Black Metal Blunt seems to be more melancholic than ever, but his agent provocateur blade stays as sharp as ever. --Jakub Adamek
EEK: Live at the Cairo High Cinema Institute [Nashazphone]
After a slew of YouTube videos went low-key viral a couple years ago, E.E.K.’s keyboardist Islam Chipsy became one of the most recognizable street musicians in Egypt. Chipsy is a virtuoso that’s been pushing the limits of electro chaabi, a popular form of dance music usually played at weddings. Upon hearing the first three seconds of the 17-minute, it’s obvious that the style has more in common with psych-rock, noise, and experimental dance music than the tame and dated Top 40 you’d find at your typical American wedding. Between the punishing percussion of Islam Ta’ta and Khaled Mondo and Chipsy’s blistering dance licks and atonal synth freakouts, Live in Cairo sounds unlike any other record that’s come out this year. --Ric Leichtung
Fennesz: Bécs [Editions Mego]
The eagerly-repeated grand narrative of Bécs (pronounced “baeetch,” FYI) is a reductionist one: since well before the album’s official release date back in April, it has been proclaimed the spiritual and conceptual successor to Fennesz’ breakout, the catchy Endless Summer. While it is tempting to look for parallels and anchor points when dealing with the extended discography of a hard-to-classify, singular-but-seeking auteur, there seems to exist a vast number of angles to the Austrian composer’s output other than that of the poppy/challenging dichotomy. One of them: Christian Fennesz deals in moods, and his preferred means of expression stem instinctively from the mood on the table. Endless Summer was an ecstatic, exuberant record compared to the more mercilessly austere Black Sea, yet you wouldn’t necessarily call it more accessible than, say, Venice’s fuzz-driven aquatic beaut of “Laguna.”
The moods of Bécs are as angular and sharp as the quartz-like glass arrangement of its cover art. From the early percussive bursts of “Static Kings,” the album overwhelms with the immediacy and directness of the melodies that Fennesz reclaims from under gallons of ocean water. Momentarily shifting focus from over-the-top visceral guitar riffs to wall-of-sound textural smothering, or employing both at the same time, the M.O. of this record never gets off track – Bécs wears its heart on its sleeve and narcissistically demands your full, undivided attention. In this way, the album has more in common with Black Sea, which strove to achieve something similar with its sense of doom. Bécs' beauty is without precedent in Fennesz’ catalog, because of how self-conscious, in your face and measurably bold it is. If Endless Summer offered a glimpse into the idea of being intoxicated by the titular, sun-drenched mood, Bécs fashions itself into an artifact that shies away from representing anything– a test-tube of pure intoxication. --Patryk Mrozek
FKA twigs: LP1 [Young Turks]
FKA twigs’ debut album LP1-- the logical progression from her first two EPs-- finds its power through tapping into the very human desire for companionship, tenderness and reciprocity. For all the moments of yearning, LP1 can also feel surprisingly reserved and withdrawn at times. It's an exploration of how messy the space between sentimentality and raw physical desire can be. Because as direct as her pleading is, the release still feels hauntingly cryptic in its sensuality, whisper-soft and remarkably tender in the way she says so much with so little. Because underneath the air-brushed posters and Kanda-fied kisser, she’s still a woman experiencing an urge to articulate her needs in a refreshingly direct way.
Precise in its sparse sonic embellishment, even the powerful crescendos that swing between stilted basslines and skittering drum rolls can’t detract from the immense power her delicate voice holds, constantly sounding on the verge of shattering from the sheer amount of yearning it carries. LP1’s appeal partly comes from the fact that twigs shows her vulnerability without having an agenda-- a quality usually absent in the pop-influenced ballads, with their braggadocio and faux-confidence in an all-prevailing love. Instead, things in her world remain fuzzy, unsure and always in motion-- tapping into the very real anxiety which stems from a mixture of self-doubt and tempered expectations. Not like she should have to feel that way. After all, LP1 is definitive proof that twigs is infinitely sexier and more intriguing than the entire Cullen clan combined. --Sandra Song
Freddie Gibbs and Madlib: Piñata [Madlib Invasion]
Madlib, ceaselessly digging through crates for the next blip or beat, has never looked back. Yet since he married his sonic trickery to MF DOOM's equally adventurous wordplay a decade ago, the shadow of Madvillainy has loomed large over his collaborations. With Freddie Gibbs on Piñata, though, the revered producer finds a worthy partner in crime: a man whose stark depictions of reality rival DOOM's notorious vocab gymnastics through sheer, unflinching honesty. Like a proper duet between producer and rapper, Gibbs takes a cue from Madlib's cinematic sampling and provides equally striking storytelling on their first full-length collaborative album. The result is the rawest project Madlib has ever worked on-- an album which recounts the story of a drug dealer from the battered town of Gary, Indiana and his journey to the hip-hop promise land. Take the one-two punch of “Broken” and “Lakers”; first, a prototypical street-rap weeper peppered with harsh details of Gibbs’ past life (“surviving off cold cuts and cold spam”) to make the tough realizations that follow all the more powerful ("I'm a crook and you crooked, that's all we had in common," he says of his cop dad). Next, “Lakers” is a triumphant ode to his adopted city that recognizes the shit he’s been through (“I done tried everything but dying,” he spits) while celebrating the place he once only imagined from “Boyz n the Hood.” Still, it’s not all palm trees and weed in L.A. Screwed over by the industry — and Jeezy's CTE World label if juggernaut diss track "Real" has anything to say about it — Gibbs lets his grudges boil and goes for broke. So much so, that if all the fire wasn’t set to Madlib’s retro-soul score it could be hard to take, but together, the two make Piñata a career-high revelation. --Arielle Sallai
Giant Claw: DARK WEB [Orange Milk Records & Noumenal Loom]
With DARK WEB, Ohio’s Giant Claw, a.k.a. Keith Rankin, arrives at something of a musical equivalent of his visual art which accompanies all of his label Orange Milk’s releases. Although Rankin’s previous albums were similarly chaotic and informed by a variety of musics and technologies, their hybridous, kosmische-video-game-soundtrack sound is ultimately quite different than the cut-up club music aesthetic employed on DARK WEB. Less compositionally streamlined and straightforwardly “electronic” than, say, the tracks on last year’s Impossible Chew, DARK WEB’s music and art instead juxtapose a mess of internet-culled fragments-- familiar but ultimately untraceable, with an added irrational, surreal flair. The fragments come at us frenetically, without reason or obvious consistency, as if to mimic the undiscerning way we consume culture on the internet: half a second of R&B here, a minute of musique concrėte there; a scroll through images of Greek statues here, a scroll through something, er, more NSFW there. More than digital surrealism, then, DARK WEB’s music and cover could be called digital realism-- displaying truthfully our colorful and fragmentary digital existences, what we really see and hear when we open up our laptops. The amorphous, malleable globs in the video for “DARK WEB 003,” for instance, though without a real world referent, are no doubt as real in the digital realm as the checkerboard marble floor and white doric columns-- objects for which we have concrete language-- that they flank. Time dissipates too; on the internet, chronology becomes likewise irrelevant. On “DARK WEB 005,” harpsichords and drum machines coexist temporally, and it works out just fine. Even makes you wanna dance, for good measure. --Joe Bucciero
Good Willsmith: The Honeymoon Workbook [Umor Rex]
Even if you had been closely following Good Willsmith’s budding chemistry since the Chicago trio’s humble beginning in 2012, it’s doubtful you were ready for their quantum leap, The Honeymoon Workbook. On paper, it’s somewhat of a logical bookend to their opening years of semi-improvisatory synthetic psychedelia. In practice, the performance transcends calculation-- the zen of archery in the flesh at the moment of the first unequivocal bullseye. And ultimately, even though there’s a method to the madness, this is a triumph of performance over all else, essentially the best live record of the year-- though planned and practiced, the seven-part suite was recorded as a single-take performance. Like all good jammers, there are those rare, special, nigh-inexplicable times you tune into a nameless ether, a silent communication, a sense or spirit that is hard to define by any other method than by willing yourself into vessels. Again, though there’s math behind the music, there’s no real human explanation. It’s just a really fucking good show.
And it couldn’t have come at a better time. Even with the creativity and productivity of Good Willsmith and their label, Hausu Mountain, these last few years of existence for the U.S. noise music scene-- and the larger modern underground that it has been a supportive column for-- have been pretty distressful. Venues have shuttered, bands have split up, and in many communities, fans have even been left asking themselves what was so special in the first place. If you listen to this, you will remember how you felt the first time you saw a life-changing show in a dingy loft and bought your new favorite tape afterwards. -- Matt Sullivan
Grouper: Ruins [Kranky & Yellow Electric]
Liz Harris’ musical timeline is perhaps just as clouded as her music itself. This year's Ruins was recorded for the most part in 2011 during an artistic residency in Portugal, the same year she released her double album AIA. One song on Ruins dates as far back as 2004. Her 2013 release, The Man Who Died In His Boat , was also a collection of older work. Hence, Harris’ musical history is less a straight line than a fuzzy patchwork. But her usual foggy aesthetic is decidedly absent from Ruins. Sure, Harris is still very much interested in combining vocal drone and phantasmagoric balladry, but she has forgone the usual murky overtones and looped strumming for a wispier, even starker record. The resulting collection of songs deem Harris more vulnerable than one could have imagined possible. Without the pronounced reverb, Harris’ lyrics are as audible—and melancholy—as ever. “Every time I see you,” she sings on “Clearing,”"I have to pretend I don’t.” For the first time, the humming swells have cleared the air to reveal an artist who can create something potent even when seated in front of a lone piano. --Julia Selinger
Horse Lords: Hidden Cities [NNA Tapes]
The dissociative collage of Horse Lords’ third mixtape of summer 2014 rightfully wet taste buds with hints of what the polyrhythmic droners had in store for their next release. What we got was Hidden Cities, an album that functions as much as a conceptual magic eye puzzle as a groovy, highly listenable specimen of rhythmic innovation. The heady challenge of the album stems from the band’s re-purposing of various traditional strains of music that we normally associate as art brut artifacts, only to resynthesize them into tightly choreographed, metamorphic arrangements. In the age of limitless post-production possibilities, it’s especially refreshing to hear a drone record grounded in the shifting of real-time musicianship-- a band of players each fixed in their individual part of the collective vision. The bare fundamentals of rhythmic complexities and unorthodox musical intervals are what end up baffling our ears to the point of a head-trip.
Behind all of this, there are hints of a sociopolitical narrative to the record. The title Hidden Cities refers to Italo Calvino’s work of imagined urban infrastructure, Invisible Cities. Meanwhile the protest rock tag on the third mixtape’s bandcamp page could be interpreted either as tongue-in-cheek or sincere, as after all, we know the music itself is too enmeshed in the finer points of composition to deliver a blunt Pete Seger style punch to the political systems that be. No, these horsie boys are coy. If they do have something "political" to communicate, it's in the form of a cultural inquiry via the record’s earnest, scholarly approach towards ethnic music. --Maxwell Parrott
Jerry Paper: Big Pop for Chameleon World [Orange Milk Records]
The title of Jerry Paper’s second full length of 2014 might sound obscure, but it actually couldn’t be more on-the-numbers. This is pop music through and through: cleverly arranged, richly harmonized and wonderfully melodic. But Lucas Nathan, Jerry Paper’s host body, isn’t interested in making pop music for its own sake. The pop song, like the album’s accompanying video game, Dr. Javier Genneheigen's Chameleon World, is a medium for the exploration of the realm of simulacrum that constitutes the "Chameleon World." Nathan realizes his lounge pop compositions through his trusty keyboard, relishing in the disparities between the keyboard’s sounds and the sounds it seeks to imitate-- drum patterns, trumpets, flutes, and shredding guitars are all part of his simulated arsenal. The music never feels sterile, though. Nathan’s skill at creating interesting arrangements and emotionally affecting hooks imbues his music with a warmth. There is a humanity in his keyboard’s failed imitations.
On “Synthesized Mind,” Jerry Paper calls for the listener to “go into the system preferences / inside of you / Don’t be afraid to change the / settings of the synthesized mind.” The use of awkward technological metaphors and the imitative synth arrangements emphasize the fundamental stiltedness of a language that is always circumscribed-- the Chameleon World is so deeply internalized within us that Nathan can only hint at escaping it within the game's own terms. The illusions that Nathan takes aim at here aren’t necessarily technological ones, so much as they are intellectual ones. The Chameleon World is one that we fool ourselves into thinking we can understand. The search for clarity and the desire to make sense of the world distracts us from being present, from seeking and giving love. Love, Nathan argues on the album’s penultimate track, “Love, Still Love,” is an affirmation of "life, of body, of this world.” Embellishing his conviction is a wailing, simulated guitar solo which by all accounts should not belong-- it simply doesn’t make sense-- and yet sounds perfectly, delightfully out-of-place. --Miguel Gallego
Kassem Mosse: Workshop 19 [Workshop]
Gunnar Wendel (aka Kassem Mosse) has made a firm decision to explore the convergence of old technologies-- utilized in new and illustrious fashions-- with the body, as medium for the machine. Tethered together by a worn and anxious thread, Wendel’s debut record Workshop 19 sees him exploring the depths of his established, strung-out style. The web of anonymity woven through a series of untitled and vinyl-side labeled tracks carries an air of mechanical, procedural distance. If anything, this album was made for and about expanding the self through improvisation and technical parameters. An image of a dingy, drug-laden apartment is conjured from the Dada-esque, Fender Rhodes jams heard throughout, making for a meeting ground between the corporeal and the spiritual. Swept in the knackered narcotics of Korg M1 oscillations, deeply circuitous percussion and vaporous vocalizations, Workshop 19 sees Wendel performing intensely body-oriented and sexualized compositions which collectively give way to an introspective sublime. Weeding through the discarded junk of oversaturated genres-- the regional-ideations house and the technical modes of techno-- and flipping their mechanics in a fashion not unlike R. Stevie Moore, Workshop 19 is an unassuming record that sees Wendel expand well past genre histories and prescribed genre usages. --Deforrest Brown
L.O.T.I.O.N.: Second Audio Document 2014 (self-released)
Brooklyn's L.O.T.I.O.N. is something of a supergroup, consisting of the most forward-thinking torchbearers that New York’s punk scene has to offer. Alexander Heir, who’s defined the scene's aesthetic with his breath-taking visual art, leads the group away from hardcore's guitar-bass-drums paradigm and edges towards industrial and power electronics. The change is a welcome one. Technology’s seeped its way into all aspects of daily life in 2014 and made itself present in incredibly unlikely places, in this case the notoriously preservationist punk scene. Reflecting the sensibilities of Throbbing Gristle and The Sodality moreso than Void or The Wipers, Heir brought together Dawn of Humans’ testicular torture enthusiast Emil Bognar-Nasdor and Nomad’s Tye Miller to draw a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by alien invasion, trans-humans, and nuclear war that’s as hopelessly nihilistic as the one that inspired punk decades ago. --Ric Leichtung
M. Sage: A Singular Continent (Patient Sounds)
After years of promising cassette and lathe editions on various tape institutions as well as his own Patient Sounds imprint, Matthew Sage released A Singular Continent, a sprawling double-LP that feels like a genuine master work by a still young producer. Recorded in various locales across the U.S., the album is an expansive work of modesty, unassumingly creating tonal landscapes with a variety of sounds and motifs. With sincere but original nods to Stars of the Lid's narcotic symphonies, Mille Plateaux's glitching ambiance, and Fennesz's distorted nostalgia-- all married by meticulous arrangement-- Sage has sculpted entire aural landscapes strewn across two plates of vinyl. The end result undermines high-profile drone albums issued this year while comfortably positioning itself as a modern classic of the genre. --Bobby Power
Moodymann: Moodymann [KDJ]
Timeless art is rarely hip art. There's nothing particularly “2014” about Moodymann's self-titled album. There's no slick computer production or winks at pop culture, and his tempos are all moderate. For that matter, even though he has been a head in the Detroit techno landscape since the '90s, his utilization of the scene's most famous tropes is scant. He's more prone to a Rhodes solo than a sequenced synth line, more reverent to sample-based hip-hop and permutations of soul music like Parliament-Funkadelic than to futurism à la Underground Resistance or Drexciya's countless side projects.
In a year when many dance producers were on a mission to subvert refined concepts of taste or blow minds with audio spectacle, Moodymann turned out an album of latter-day funk and good old fashioned sex jams. His lyrics about an active sex life in middle age and the inclusion of a likely-commissioned Lana Del Rey remix speak to his willingness to do whatever the fuck he wants, but the presentation of some of his hookiest, groovin'-most tracks ever shows that he was aware that he had a few minutes in the limelight and he knew just what to do with it. Moodymann is one of those albums that draws you in with the hits–“Freeki Mothafucka,” “Watchin' U”–but keeps you coming (back) with the deep cuts: “Desire,” “Got Dem Freaks Wit Me,” and “Lyk U Use 2,” featuring Andrés from Slum Village. Who's to say when Moodymann will collect enough tracks that he deems stellar enough to put on a LP again (the last time was 10 years ago), but this should hold us over for a good while. --Mike Sugarman
Pharmakon: Bestial Burden [Sacred Bones Records]
It’s been a staple of Pharmakon's live sets that at some point, typically after two or three songs, Margaret Chardiet will make her way into the crowd. At the record release show for Bestial Burden at Palisades in Brooklyn this year, she nearly started her own mosh pit— pushing people around, getting up in their faces. Chardiet wants to make you firmly aware of her (and your own) physical existence, and Bestial Burden is her strongest testimony to date. Each side of the record opens in a visceral display of bodily weakness: “Vacuum” confronts extreme anxiety via heavy breathing; “Primitive Struggle” features what some writers have called “wet coughs,” but it sure does sound like vomiting to me. It’s gross, but that’s the point: you will have physical reactions while listening to this record. The body cannot be trusted, track titles like “Body Betrays Itself” and “Autoimmune” suggest. In fact, per the “Intent or Instinct,” we’re basically animals. What’s the point of even being human? There’s a primalism to the sound of the album as well: it’s primary pulse is that of a piece of sheet metal fitted out with a contact mic, and Chardiet’s voice is at it’s harshest, even most beastly, yet. Thematically, structurally, and sonically, it represents a significant progression from last year’s Abandon. That record had some formidably terrifying moments, but Bestial Burden is near-flawless. --Isaiah David
Pure X: Angel [Fat Possum]
The common narrative about Angel is that it's the lighter companion to 2013's Crawling Up The Stairs. Reactions to that album often focused, for good reason, on the debilitating knee injury guitarist and singer Nate Grace had sustained while recording. Shrouded in a narcotized haze, it seemed to bob uneasily between pain and numbness. Angel, for the most part, finds the band in better spirits: it reads as a collection of sincere and grateful love songs, peeling back some of the obfuscating effects deployed on Crawling so that the melodies can shimmer and soar. Still, Pure X seems incapable of writing an easy record. While the album itself works on the level of pure pop-- and would be an achievement if it did only that, because the songs are that good-- Grace and co-writer Jesse Jenkins use this sonic foundation as means of exploring the elusive nature of pleasure and happiness. On "Livin' The Dream," they flip the song’s title on its head, so that it designates the illusions that one builds for oneself to live in: "Looks like I fell into that thing again/ It’s all war and money, something taken from me/ But that ain’t real, it’s just a dream/ The dream I been living." If Crawling was mired in the reality of physical pain, Angel floats in the unreality of heavenly feeling. Ultimately, however, the band’s lyrics suggest that truth isn’t a matter of which sensations are real and which are manufactured. It's a matter of which feelings one chooses to believe in. --Joseph Ocón
Ricky Eat Acid: Three Love Songs [Orchid Tapes]
The first song I heard off of Ricky Eat Acid’s Three Love Songs, released earlier this year by the tiny Brooklyn label Orchid Tapes, was the infectious “In my dreams we’re almost touching,” a pure dance track that samples Drake, ebbing and flowing in classic house fashion. It didn’t properly prime me for the rest of the album, which I’d expected to take on a similar sound. Instead, Maryland’s Ricky Eat Acid-- the recording alias of Sam Ray, who is also involved in indie pop groups Julia Brown and Starry Cat-- uses his first proper full-length to take listeners through a diversified palette of sounds: a spoken-word intro, melodic ambience, seven minutes of dreamy synths, beats borrowed from UK dubstep, moments of silence. Ray’s stylistic tinkering is a testament to how the Internet has eroded former notions of genre and thus made it possible for musicians to approach composition via a guiding mood or narrative alone. Notably, the track titles on Three Love Songs are wordy and evocative (i.e. “Outside your house; the lights went out & there was nothing”) and work almost like captions in that they ground the music to a place, a time, a memory. There is a nostalgia throughout for a kind of intangible personal experience, one which finds articulation through the mash-up of conventional dance, poetic lyrics, and meditative noise. Music in 2014 may be in danger of simply recycling old ideas, but Ricky Eat Acid's experimentation points decidedly toward the future. --Beth Tolmach
Seth Graham: Goop [Noumenal Loom]
There was a time when I thought of the term “vaporwave” as the final derogatory nail in the coffin of the now-abandoned term “hypnagogic pop,” a phrase that had little meaning to me at genesis and even less once it proved to basically just mean “lo-fi.” But, in a shocking twist, a dumb name with a dubious origin point was a proverbial toe in a new communal pool for internet-based scenes with digital, sample-based, or collage-focused processes. It was a breeding ground for open-minded ambassadors from previously insular scenes. Before you knew it there were compilations with little-known international footwork producers sequenced next to beat scene chillers and experimental noise from Ohio. Rather than a marriage based on aesthetics or geography, this was one based mostly on network and mutual respect-- a Super Friends of varied experimental musics that were all neighbors on Soundcloud but had been too shy to say hi. If they had a community board, at one point they would have voted James Ferraro to be their leader. Now, it would likely be Seth Graham (and/or close partner Keith Rankin) of Orange Milk Records, who (though active for years prior) walked away from 2014 as beloved kings of the underground.
In Mike Sugarman’s first installment of Notes on Humor, Seth Graham remarked that part of Orange Milk’s ethos is to “show that art has a sense of curiosity, vulnerability, humor [but] exploration is [still] serious.” Though it was actually released on Birmingham, AL label Noumenal Loom, his 2014 cassette Goop is emblematic of this same ethos. It’s a wacky world where chaos stutters and stops while perpetually choking on its own laughter. Broken choirs of sampled debris hold grooves with rusted orchestras ridden with digital skidmarks, as if a secretly gifted class clown spent a snowy day building an immaculately sculpted snowman that sported a raging hard-on detailed with the same discerning skill. This is far from overt goofery, it’s just a tape that isn’t afraid to kick down sand castles and disturb an otherwise serene day at the beach. It’s the latest in a long discography by one of the contemporary underground’s greats, but, at the winking suggestion of its own tracklist, it’s gleefully aware that “it’s just a tape.” -- Matt Sullivan
Steve Gunn: Way out Weather [Paradise of Bachelors]
Sure, Way Out Weather is a “guitar record.” Steve Gunn is a phenomenally gifted guitarist, and each song on the album has multiple guitar parts, always interlocking and/or opposing one another. Way Out Weather is a “folk-rock record,” too. Its sonic and lyrical palettes are informed by, though not beholden to, the music of ‘60s and ‘70s heroes like Manassas and Bob Dylan: “guitar music” and “folk-rock” par excellence. Manassas’s influence manifests itself specifically in the title of “Milly’s Garden” (see: “Johnny’s Garden”) and, more generally, in Gunn’s Stephen Stills-esque move from intimate folk music (see: last year’s Time Off) to more various, jam-oriented Americana rock. Dylan comes up most directly in “Tommy’s Congo,” which apes the phrasing on “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” and in Gunn’s lyrical themes at large: place, drifting, companionship to name a few. However, calling Way Out Weather a “guitar record” or a “folk-rock record” à la those that were en vogue forty years ago does Gunn and co. a real disservice in 2014. It ignores both the multiplicity of styles and techniques employed on the record (the drifting intro on the title track, the percussion on “Tommy’s Congo,” for instance), as well as the sheer transcendental power of the music. Way Out Weather is indeed way out: more salt of the stars than salt of the earth. Gunn’s guitar, playing the same lick over and over again, doesn’t so much assert its virtuosity as disappear because of it. His playing is so good, so fluid that it combines with the music’s other elements-- propulsive drumming, phasers and delay pedals, Gunn’s minimally expressive vocals-- to become a unified sonic whole: a blissed-out and detached color-field, as opposed Manassas’s busy, artist-driven action painting: experiential, subjective, psychedelic, sublime. --Joe Bucciero
Taso: Teklife Till Tha Next Life Vol. 1 [Teklife]
Footwork builds off the fragment, and the Teklife collective’s best work has shown off their knack for taking micro-samples—often from old school soul acts like Roy Ayers and Gil-Scott Heron—and chopping and distorting them beyond recognition. On Taso’s Teklife Till Tha Next Life Vol. 1, he complicates this compositional mode by using hip-hop classics from groups like The Pharcyde, Wu-Tang Clan, and Outkast as his raw material-- tracks that themselves sample old soul and funk-- and thereby confusing the fuck out of us. But less important than the mind-fuck aspect of this album is the fact that it’s just really fun. It’s got multiple cameos from Spinn, Manny, and the late DJ Rashad, and though the obvious highlight is when Taso applies the footwork filter on golden-era rap cuts, there is also some pretty great, more typical Teklife fare, like the jazzy, atmospheric “On Treez.” This is a celebration of sampling in all its forms, interweaving present-day footwork with inspirations from the past and immortalizing it all in the process. --Beth Tolmach
Telecult Powers: Black Meditations [Experimedia]
By design or by circumstance, Black Meditations was destined to be a lost relic. Cryptic track titles, like “Never Ending Empires” and “Oerg-8 & The Mothership,” suggest the dredging of some secret history. The Hoodoo altar displayed on the album cover registers a folk spirituality relegated to obscurity by an America that grows ever more apathetic to matters of faith, much less one that renders household objects as talismans to conjure spirits from the beyond. No, America's glorious and bizarre relationship with its historical occult grows ever cloudier, and we're left buying candles housed in tall glasses from the dollar store with no awareness of the fact that the assortment of colors abides by a code dictating which to burn for which type of fortune. But as the vocal sample on “Incident at El Yunque” reminds us, “To know faith, you must have faith: faith in power, secret power.” And indeed, faith in the transportative potential of Black Meditations is all it takes to enjoy the album. You must have faith that members Mister Matthews and Witchbeam can use crusty modular synthesizers to channel the metaphysical via drone, that music can transform your current state if you turn your speakers up and close your eyes. As with any intriguing lost relic–the Ark of the Covenant, the Necronomicon, the weed pipe you found in the box of your dad's college stuff–its power is ignorant of the beholder's faith. Fortunately, Black Meditations rewards the faithful. --Mike Sugarman
Tonstartssbandht: Overseas [Company Etc & Arbutus Records]
Tonstartssbandht feels like a once-in-a-lifetime band the first time you see them. And, well, also the second, and third time, and so on. But the first time you don't really understand what the fuck is going on with these two dudes making messy, ratty psych music while they shout back and forth at each other until said shouting turns into these gorgeous harmonies. The brothers White consistently demand that every single living person in the room turn present, wholly conscious for this and only this experience. You only feel compelled to talk to other people about how good this is; phones only come out to snap a pic of Andy Boay falling over. The two are monomaniacally focused on rocking out, and this passion spreads. Charisma-wise, they're on par with popularly elected dictators. So yeah, thank god these guys put together a live album, Overseas.
"Ok, but what's so great about Tonstartssbandht outside of the live thing?" asks the hypothetical bozo who dislikes live music. We exist in a moment when indie rock progresses according to a series of trends in laser-focus nostalgia which imbue specific structures and aesthetics on the very macrogenre that used to be the sonic and spiritual embodiment of freedom, exploration, of the individual's ability to be part of something greater. Tonstartssbandht, with little need for the trends and localized nostalgia, utilizes rock's history-- they'll tribute its origins with some Carter Family, its outer limits with some Amen Düül II, its populism with some '60s AM nugget, textbook classic rock with some Stones-- in order to prove the multitudes contained by rock, and suggest, further, what can be contained. They stake new territory by mangling traditional structures and implementing contemporary experimental electronic techniques-- better on display with their solo work as Eola and Andy Boay-- packaging it all in ecstasy. Not the stuff that hits for a few hours and leaves you low, but the real deal ecstatic which spreads in public spaces and lingers when you wake up the next day. For someone like me who once lost all hope in new rock music-- seeking refuge in noise, hip hop, Tuareg psych, etc.-- Tonstartssbandht seems like the messengers, the one true hope for a genre that is impossible to stop loving, no matter how awful it can be. Rock 'n' roll will never die, or some such shit. --Mike Sugarman
Traxman: Da Mind of Traxman 2 [Planet Mu]
Corky Strong is one of Teklife's most ballsy, outspoken DJs, and in a lot of ways, Da Mind of Traxman Vol. 2 feels a lot like business as usual for the incredibly prolific footwork pioneer. Strong typically drops multiple tracks every week, if not every day, via multiple Soundcloud accounts, so one can only imagine how much material there was to go through for this collection. Just like the very good Vol. 1, Vol. 2 was curated by Mike Paradinas, the same mind behind the Bangs and Works compilations that introduced the world to footwork notables like RP Boo, DJ Clent, DJ Nate, and the late DJ Rashad. And while Paradinas' ear was definitely needed to sift through and select the best cuts, while listening to the record the sense sets in that Strong's curatorial ear is as forward-thinking as Paradinas'. Traxman takes samples from Eurythmics and Pantera that feel stale and Girl Talk-y on an ideological level, looks the other way at what'd be appropriate for a progressive DJ in 2014 to draw from, and turns them into rebellious, impeccably tasteful choices that work in ways you'd refuse to believe. It's major successes like "Let It Roll Geto," "Your Just Movin," and the now-poignant and bittersweet "Ever and Always" that charm the hardest as they show how Traxman is just too creative and talented to respect things as petty as musical boundaries. --Ric Leichtung