Apr 3, 2014

First Quarter of 2014 in Music

By Ian Cory

To say that this winter was a rough one would be like describing the sun as “kind of big.” Not only did it drag on forever, but the cold seemed to cut deeper and linger longer in every bone of my body. Maybe it was just good timing, or maybe it was confirmation bias on my part, but most of the music I spent time with this quarter was perfectly suited to long nights spent alone huddled under as many blankets as I could find. 2014 has already had a string of songwriters opening up and creating a brutally honest space for their listeners. Against Me! roared out of the gate with Transgender Dysphoria Blues, a self produced record and their best by far. After treading water with listenable but overly produced major label releases, Transgender Dysphoria Blues found the band revitalized and hungry to prove those that thought the band had lost their edge wrong. But more important than any leaps made musically was the album’s focus on singer Laura Jane Grace’s struggles coming out as transgender. It would be difficult to overstate how powerful her lyrics are on this record. Equal parts heartbreaking and empowering, Grace set the bar high for the rest of the year.

Improbably, it wasn’t long before another record met that standard for both quality and frank honesty. Benji, the newest from Sun Kil Moon, doesn’t feature the punk bluster of Against Me!’s opus, but it is equally unflinching and blunt in its presentation. Over a sparse bed of acoustic guitar and the rare vocal harmony, Mark Kozelek ruminates on the way death has marked his life, wandering from topic to topic remarking on both the mundane and the profound with equal attention to detail. Although the vast web of references that Kozelek builds over the course of the album might seem scattershot, what at first glance may seem like an insignificant detail in one song gradually accrues meaning and power by the end of the record. The end result is an album that creates a panoramic photograph of Kozelek’s views on life, death, sex and fast food, about as complete a portrait of a man you could ask for.

While few albums released in this quarter reached the same heights as these two, plenty of others found their own way to help me through the cold, some through escapism and others through bringing the inherent bleakness of winter to the forefront. Marissa Nadler’s July was a mournful ode to romance and summers' past, while Alcest’s Shelter was a wistful and bright-eyed dream of sunny days yet to come. Both records are soothing and hang just outside of reach, much the like the seasons they evoke. Eventually escapism proved to be inadequate and I had to face the polar vortex head on. Luckily I had Have A Nice Life’s The Unnatural World and Indian’s From All Purity to help me channel the dark vibes productively. The Unnatural World isn’t the life changer that many Have A Nice Life fans were hoping for, but it more than proved that the duo has cornered the market on unsettling and spooky lo-fi music. From All Purity is more skull crushing then scary, but its sludgy tones and ritualistic dissonance make it a perfect fit for trudging through sleet and snow*.

Not everything heavy released in these three months was so dour however. Blood Maker, the debut EP from the Washington three-piece Wild Thrones was a maddeningly giddy take on progressive metal. Each of the three tracks jump from section to section with reckless abandon, always finding new ways to twist the momentum and rhythm just before the listener expects it to happen. Equally exciting, but on a very different wavelength was the debut full length from Issues. I’ve already spoken at length about how important the album is as a harbinger of the coming nu-metal revival, but I might have neglected to mention how good Issues are at blending the rush of heavy music with the comfort food pleasures of pop music. Often if I have a pop song stuck in my head I’ll imagine the instrumentation switching to a metalcore breakdown or harsh vocals accenting the chorus. At its best, Issues sounds exactly like that, and for that alone it’ll be stuck in my rotation for a long time to come.

As to be expected for a genre built around major releases in the second half of the year, things have been a bit slow for hip-hop. The year’s first major blockbuster release, Rick Ross’s Mastermind, was eclipsed both in sales and cultural clout by Schoolboy Q’s Oxymoron. Schoolboy Q along with recent signee Isaiah Rashad are the first two of Top Dawg Entertainment’s six album plan for 2014. The latter’s debut Cilvia Demo shows that Rashad has as sharp a wit and strong of an ear for beats as his new label mates but still has some ways to go in establishing his own voice. Q on the other hand has really struck a chord with this one, both in the sense that he has garnered some real radio play from the record, and that he has crafted a style with enough confidence to pull him out of the shadow of Kendrick Lamar. Lamar’s forthcoming full length is an easy pick for the most hotly anticipated album of the year, but it already has some serious competition from Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s Piñata, a record that combines Gibbs’s golden flow and delivery with Madlib’s unfathomably deep sampling library. It wasn’t a combo that I expected to work when it first announced, but it quickly proved to be my favorite release from either artist and a definite entry into my year-end list.

Now the weather is starting to get nicer. Birds are chirping. Good movies are starting to show up in theaters. The only thing keeping us from fully embracing spring is the emergence of some real pop jams. Hopefully we’ll get to those and more in our next quarterly update. Until then, I’m going to go back to blasting Young Thug’s “Stoner” on repeat.

*Both albums are also a great soundtrack for researching the yellow king and the relative flatness/circular nature of time, if I do say so myself

You can find Ian's "Best Songs of 2014" playlist here.

Image via NPR


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