(pictured below: a piece from Firelei Baez’s Can I Pass? series)
Another year, another handful of songs. 2014 managed to pack a lot of interesting musical highlights for me. Weird Al had his 8 Videos In 8 Days, taking him to #1. Magical Cloudz’ video for “Childhood’s End” paid tribute to outsider artist Henry Darger, which made me emotional enough to shy from watching it again. Lykke Li’s “I Never Learn” closes with the most beautiful instrumental paraphrasing the words, “I fucked up.”
In turn I’ve mined quite a bit from my collection for this list, and as usual the results are varied and strange. Keeping with the tradition, the music I’m providing is free and available here (via Box). Simply click to download and enjoy.
1) Moving Star Hall Singers & Alan Lomax- “Remember Me (Edit)”
The first time I heard this group was seven years ago while taking a music history course. The song was “See God’s Ark A-Moving,” and there was something about these people’s voices that tore right through me. I never forgot them, and it was no surprise that years later I would seek them out again, wanting to hear more. There’s simply nothing like it. These recordings are unvarnished, forceful and full of strength I haven’t found anywhere else.
This song was going to be included on this list for a long time, but in the light of Ferguson and other incidents exposing our country’s racial divide, it’s especially poignant. The song is a call to be heard and for others to listen.
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2) Lydia Ainsworth – “Malachite”
Aside from having one of the most WTF (and, strangely, critically lauded) videos of 2014, Ainsworth’s “Malachite” sounded like a complete mess when I first heard it. Then I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Then I couldn’t stop listening to it.
I mean, seriously- how often do you hear a weird, hypnotic mesh of choral music and video game noises as well as Asian, ’80s and Enya-esque influences all rolled into one? If that’s been missing from your life, then look no further.
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3) Gesaffelstein – “Pursuit”
The video for this song is one of my favorites of all time. I’ve watched it over and over and still find myself fascinated by it (a loose interpretation: the rise and fall of an empire). In the end this prompted me to keep playing the song throughout the year. It’s intense and kind of skull-crushing if you play it loud, which is something I tend to gravitate toward.
Here is how it started, however. Prepare to be perplexed and amazed. (Warning: NSFW)
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4) FKA twigs – “Preface”
FKA twigs (aka Tahliah Barnett) was an act I wasn’t seeking out, but one that found me instead. Two friends posted her video for “Water Me” on my Facebook wall and things progressed from there. She is an artist I’ve thought about a lot this year, not only concerning her personality and work, but her placement in the music world based solely on her race.
“Preface” is what struck me first about her album LP1, an interlude quoting a single line from Thomas Wyatt’s I Find no Peace: “I love another, and thus I hate myself.” All of the voices are her own- layered or altered, male or female. Although “Two Weeks” would prove to be my earworm of the year (seconded only by the theme song for Too Many Cooks), first impressions are the strongest.
Bonus: I’ll include the video for “Two Weeks” here as well. I know some people describe Beyoncé’s music as sexually aggressive, but I’ve never heard someone use the phrase “Motherfucker, get your mouth open” and capture the insatiable need behind it (especially without sounding scary).
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5) King Krule – “Easy Easy”
In May St. Vincent posted a mixtape of some of her favorite songs, and the moment I heard King Krule’s “Easy Easy” I was blown away by it, especially considering his background and age. However, what made me return to it again and again was his interpretation of the famous Winston Churchill quote: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
Those words are one of my favorite doses of reality, so hearing it put to music was an affirming experience.
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6) Marina & the Diamonds – “Primadonna (Mr. Kitty Remix)
As far as I’m concerned, pop music only serves three purposes: 1) getting parodied by Weird Al, 2) influencing other artists for the better, or 3) getting remixed into oblivion. I had never heard of Marina & the Diamonds’ “Primadonna” until Mr. Kitty put it in male drag and added the note, “All sounds are from iPhone apps.” My head kind of exploded.
The song itself is a caricature. Lead singer and writer Marina Diamandis stated, “I thought I’d channel this well-known but kind of undesirable character type into a pop song.” So it’s campy enough on its own. However, here it’s taken in an unexpected and somewhat darker direction. I don’t need any other version of it.
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7) Keaton Henson – “Earnestly Yours”
Keaton Henson self-released his third album without press or ceremony, as if it had materialized out of thin air. Romantic Works set itself apart in that it was instrumental and contained collaborations with cellist Ren Ford, but it carried the same anguish as what he had done before, only without words.
Upon listening to it I was particularly drawn to the earnestly titled “Earnestly Yours,” which reminded me of Dario Marianelli’s excellent score for Jane Eyre (2011). I listened to both of them this year and found they had a similar sad beauty when paired together.
However, in the case of “Earnestly Yours” I got the deep impression that it was score for a picture I had been deprived of seeing. I wonder if Henson would have an interest in scoring films. His music would be unbelievably effective.
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8) Sibylle Baier – “I Lost Something In The Hills”
Although I included a Sibylle Baier cover in my list last year, I didn’t hear an actual Baier song until my sister introduced me to her this summer.
“I Lost Something In The Hills” was a stand-out, not only because it comes from a reclusive voice, but because it proves that European melancholy never goes out of style.
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9) Perfume Genius – “Grid”
Mike Hadreas returned this year with his third album, Too Bright, which dwells more on his present frustrations and less on his past. As a result his persona and sound gained an edge that blew some doors off of their hinges. It was invigorating to see a gay man refuse to compromise himself and demand respect.
Songs like “Queen” and “Fool” confront stereotypes head on while others dwell on the emotional and physical pain of being set apart from everyone else. The album closes with the haunting lines that could be the rallying cry for any minority: “I don’t need your love / I don’t need you to understand / I need you to listen.”
“Grid” is especially powerful in that it captures the futility of choice, that in a way there is no denying who we really are. The life cycle consumes us and the most transgressive thing we can do is struggle against it. However, what makes this song so intense is how it builds to the most frustrated, soul-cleansing wails I could imagine on a Perfume Genius album. I thought, “Holy shit, is that a sample from somewhere?”
No. It’s actually Hadreas, screaming at the top of his lungs. It’s one of the most cathartic sounds I’ve ever heard.
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10) John Eliot Gardiner & Stephen Varcoe – “King Arthur Z. 628: Act 3 ‘What Power Art Thou'”
I didn’t care about anything Jonah Hill did until I saw The Wolf Of Wall Street this year. His performance came out of nowhere and burst through walls like a coke-fueled Kool-Aid Man, haunting me for days. It got to the point where I thought, “Did Jonah Hill steal a film from Leonardo DiCaprio? …Oh my God, I think Jonah Hill just stole a film from Leonardo DiCaprio.”
Although several scenes will stay with me for a long time (some against my will), there is one featuring Hill out of his mind on Quaaludes, drifting through a slow motion sequence during a Purcell aria. Otherwise known as “The Cold Song,” the lyrics make references to everlasting snow, which in context may be a reference to cocaine and other pharmaceuticals. In the end this moment became one of my favorite and most memorable interludes in the film.
However, on its own the song is quite beautiful. Coincidentally I had been taking an interest in Purcell after a family member recommended I check out his English-language operas. This piece was no exception. I’m also a fan of the Klaus Nomi interpretation.
Here is the Wolf Of Wall Street scene mentioned above.
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11) White Horse – “Trouble With The Horses”
White Horse (aka Ben Chisholm) may be the only artist that makes my skin crawl. He creates music sampling only the voices of the dead and whenever I visit his Tumblr I lose all faith in humanity (What can I say? Albert Fish quotes will do that to you).
Nevertheless, it may be that uneasiness that always brings me back. In step with his funhouse deconstruction of The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize” (featuring Chelsea Wolfe), “Trouble With The Horses” is a striking, almost in-your-face homage to the voices it resurrects. They remain anonymous but are granted new life by an artist I could genuinely call the “anti-Moby.”
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12) Lana Del Rey – “Born To Die (Clams Casino Remix)”
Del Rey’s assertion that “We’re born to die” may be the most nihilistic sentiment absorbed by the mainstream in the past five years. What has made it so easy to swallow is the swooning romanticism that frames her aesthetic, keeping the unpleasant tucked somewhere beneath.
In perhaps one of the most divisive remixes of her work, Clams Casino brings it to the surface. In the Soundcloud comments section someone notes, “This sounds like a car crash of the original.” I can’t think of a more apt description. The last twenty seconds sound like shattering glass upon impact, shredding the song to pieces. It’s challenging. It’s dissonant. It disturbed then grew on me after multiple listens.
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13) The White Stripes – “I Fought Piranhas”
Man, how my opinion of Jack White has changed. I don’t like the way he treats his fans, talks to his ex-wife or about his critics, contemporaries (both male and female) and former bandmate, Meg. The past year and a half has been a sobering look at someone who you would suppose is confident and at the top of his game, but consistently has his foot in his mouth or something to complain about.
Believe it or not, this outlook has altered how I’ve interacted with his projects, basically taking a step back then steadily losing interest. Sometimes this is a natural progression. Artists and fans grow apart, just like any other relationship (I know it sounds strange, but it’s true).
However, one day I happened to hear “I Fought Piranhas,” something written and recorded by The White Stripes 15 years ago. I was reminded that the connection was still there, although tied to the past. The song summed up the past three years of my life in three minutes.
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14) Angel Olsen – “If It’s Alive, It Will”
Discovering Angel Olsen was kind of by chance, and in a way I can’t untangle her music from devastating losses, whether personal or public (“Lost Universe,” in particular). The closing track off of her most recent album, “Windows,” would have undoubtedly been one of my friend’s favorite songs of 2014. That is, if she was still alive.
Choosing a particular track for this list was difficult, but I ultimately settled on “If It’s Alive, It Will.” Like most of her introspective works, there is not only poignance but excellent advice. In this case it’s about gaining perspective beyond ourselves and recognizing we’re not alone. “Some stranger you don’t know / Has surely felt your pain,” she assures. “Some stranger out there / Might even own your name / And say all the thoughts that you’ve said / Your thoughts existing in someone else’s head.”
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15) Jon Brion – “Ok”
In February Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away, and unlike any other public figure’s death during my lifetime, it effected me like someone I had personally known. I can’t come to any conclusion about this, and I wonder if it will always be an anomaly I can’t explain. There is also nothing I can write about his loss that hasn’t already been said.
In the wake of it I remembered the comforting swell of “Ok,” a piece of score from Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008). It plays over a rather puzzling and tragic suicide Hoffman’s character can’t prevent and laments, mostly because a (literal) part of him has died.
After his death I returned to the piece. Its meaning slowly changed, becoming less about death but the mysterious release of it, something everyone has in common. Even the title captures this notion. “Ok.” We will all die someday. It’s strange and mysterious but it’s all right.
What a beautiful, accepting way to sum that up. I wouldn’t mind having this played at my funeral.
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16) My Brightest Diamond – ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
I was given My Brightest Diamond’s Shark Remixes as a Christmas gift last year, in which four different artists take on Shara Worden’s songs from A Thousand Shark’s Teeth and make them their own. Out of the four I ended up liking DM Stith’s re-workings the best. His enigmatic ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ dwells on a single line from “From The Top Of The World.”
The effect is like standing on a precipice and staring ahead, which is how I feel most of the time. At the close of another year it seems appropriate, not knowing what’s ahead.
Happy Holidays, everyone. Best wishes to all…