1. Dornenreich : Freiheit
Dornenreich is the only band I know that plays poetry. It's not black metal, it's not neofolk, it's not ambient--it's not just music, see. I run the risk of sounding pretentious when I say something like that, but there's no other way to say it and get it right. Every song is a communication, but it's not a telephone dialog: every word has two meanings instead of one. Isn't that what poetry is, anyway? But--and this is why I love this band so much--there's no deliberate obfuscation here, no complicated syntax, no highbrow allusions, no overwrought word-strings of convoluted poetspeak. This is life distilled into symbols easy to know: sun, water, birds, trees. See? When I say it, it sounds dumb and trite. But it's not. You have to listen to it--with a free mind.
I listened to this in late spring and throughout the young summer months. One time in particular: under an apple tree watching a phoebe catch insects above a fresh-mowed lawn. Little spiders crawling over my fingers. Warm sun.
2. Pallbearer : Foundations Of Burden
I slept on this band's debut album a couple years ago. I remember the hype but it never sounded like something I would care much about. To be fair, I'm not sure if "Foundations" is an album that I will care about a couple years from now, but I did play the hell out of it this year, so that must mean I liked it for some reason. Actually, I think there were two reasons: good riffs, and a couple of memorable vocal lines. The trick to writing long songs? Fold your best ideas into the middle or latter parts of your composition and people will keep listening just to hear those short, sweet little bits--but keep those bits short, that's the key: always keep people wanting more, but don't ever give them enough to satisfy. A constant desire for more, that's what this album is.
I listened to this album almost nonstop from late summer to early autumn. On one day in particular: driving up a steep hill under a dismal gray autumn sky after an equally dismal day at work, playing "Worlds Apart" loudly and singing along, mostly making up the words because I didn't care about the words.
3. Anaïs Mitchell : Xoa
Basically a "fans only" collection of acoustic re-workings of her older songs. I initially thought I would pass on this one, but it has since revealed itself to be a little gem, maybe my favorite release from her. As I get older, my attention span for long and ornately detailed compositions has waned as I find more pleasure in simple words, simple songs-- a voice and a guitar: one soul expressing itself without adornments. Mitchell has a genuinely quirky voice that perfectly suits her playfully sharp lyrics and nimble guitar pickings.
I bought this in October and I'm still playing it. Favorite memory: I saw her perform these songs live in a Cleveland bar to a small crowd of hipsters, art teachers, craft-beer-drinking yuppies (they arrived late), and, surprisingly, a gaggle of elderly folks (is there a proper collective term for this yet?), from which one man called out for her to play a cover of an old Irish ballad of some sort, I couldn't hear what he said. He wore a hat, I think. Or maybe he didn't and his hair was straight and white. I can't remember. Anyway, after her set was over, Anaïs walked past me on her way back to her merch table. We looked at each other as I continued to clap. Her eyes were darker than I expected and she looked very tired.
Another memory: every night driving home in the dark listening to "Cosmic American" on repeat.
4. Alcest : Shelter
How did I become such a big Alcest fan? I honestly don't know. I completely disowned this band earlier in their career and somehow came around to liking them all over again. Nothing has changed appreciably, really. Neige is still a dream-kook and his music is still the prettiest blackfluff you'll find, but I respect his dedication to his vision, and instead I've decided to disown all the snarky internet critics who like to poke fun at Neige's expense. See, you have to understand that you are made out of dreamcolors and so am I, which makes us kind of the same thing, you know? And if we're actually just colors, then this world is kind of like our rainbow and all we have to do is arch our backs and stare at the sun through the falling rain. It's easy, really-- we just have to see it without pretending we see it. /// I remember watching Neige perform on stage last year and there was this one bliss-out moment when he surveyed the crowd as he stood playing his guitar and I'll never forget his half-lidded gaze as he calmly tilted his head back and forth. He was looking at us but he wasn't really looking at us. I wish I could've seen what he was looking at.
I played this album through the cold winter months of January and February. The sun was out but it didn't warm a damn thing.
5. DEAD REGISTER : TRVNS BLVCK EP
Best new band discovery of the year. I'm a sucker for slow, heavy guitars and clean vocals. Downbeat without being dramatic or drifting into gothic posing. The easiest touchstone for me is In The Woods..., although they don't really sound like them much. Same itch, different scratch, as they say. (Does anyone say that?)
I played this throughout November when the heavy gray hours seemed to outweigh the sunlit ones.
6. Chevelle : La Gárgola
What? Chevelle? Isn't that some crappy radio nu-metal band? That's what I always thought, anyway. When my car's CD player stopped working due to the the cold weather earlier this year (it miraculously started working again when the warm weather returned), I was forced to listen to the radio for long stretches of time. I discovered that the reports were indeed true: radio really does suck, but "Take Out The Gunman" was a pleasant surprise amid all the dross. Maybe it sounded better precisely because it was amid all the dross, but whatever: I bought "La Gárgola" anyway, and then I picked up "Hats Off to the Bull", too. That's about as far as I'm willing to go, though. Call me a tentative Chevelle fan at best, but the guys seem like they're down-to-earth and cool, so it's all good.
I listened to this album a lot during spring and sporadically through the summer months.
7. Whirr/Nothing : split EP
The best shoegaze confection released this year. I'll probably forget these songs even existed three years from now, but shoegaze is all about pleasure anyway; there's no substance.
8. Steven R. Smith : Spiral Horns, Black Onions, et al., Byzantium Crow
Of course, Steven R. Smith is on this list. He can do no wrong to my ears. This year he didn't release anything new under his name proper, but instead under the Ulaan Markhor and Ulaan Passerine monikers. No matter. I know it's him. And they're both good. "Spiral Horns" is the better of the two.
9. Cloakroom : Lossed Over 7" single
A two song 7" makes the list? Yep. I'm only ingesting music in small bites these days. Plus, I love this band. I can't wait to get my hands on the double LP planned for release next year. But what about these songs? This is actually a roundabout way to say I rediscovered how good the band Hum is/was thanks to "Dream Warden", which features Matt Talbott on vocals.
10. Kazuki Tomokawa : Vengeance Bourbon
Japan's answer to Tom Waits strikes again. My complete inability to relate to the sound of the Japanese language is always a barrier here, but Tomokawa is able to transcend language through his unhinged vocals and guitar playing. His albums always sound like an explosion of fauve colors and unbridled human passions, but behind all of this there's a serene oriental equanimity that underpins the poetry of his compositions. This sort of music could only come to fruition through the strange electric blender of his mind, and that's what I like about it. "Vengeance Bourbon" is not an album I played a lot this year, but it is worthy.
Other stuff I liked:
Lykke Li - I Never Learn
Spectral Lore - III
Empyrium - The Turn of the Tides
The Gloaming - self titled
Lantlôs - Melting Sun
Tori Amos - Unrepentant Geraldines
1. Dornenreich - "Traumestraum"
Far and away the most important track for me this year. The compassion at the root of this song just overwhelms me ... Both the album version and the alternate take with Thomas Helm on vocals are beautiful.
2. Pallbearer - "Worlds Apart"
I love the way the riffs fit together in this song. And then that little vocal melody on the final line of the song -- probably my favorite moment in music this year.
3. Anaïs Mitchell - "Cosmic American"
Probably my most played track of the year. Amazing performance live as well.
4. Chevelle - "Take Out the Gunman"
Heard it a lot this year; I think I'm sick of it now. But it deserves to be mentioned here.
5. Nothing - "Chloroform"
The best shoegaze track since Loveless.
6. Kari Rueslåtten - "Only you know"
Just a nice song from a rather forgettable album.
7. Lykke Li - "Love Me Like I'm Not Made of Stone"
Pop music? Really? Who am I anymore? But no, this is stripped down stuff, which is what I like.
8. Cloakroom - Dream Warden
9. Rome - "The Ballad of the Red Flame Lily"
The only track on the new album I liked.
10. Ulaan Markhor - "Rolling"
See you later, 2014.
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