2014: My music of the year

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When I think back over 2014, I think of albums fleetingly, I think of songs, mostly and, pretty quickly, I think of specific moments. Three audio moments and one video moment in particular.

The sound moments all seemed to emerge from the same genus. They were these:

1. The moment in ‘Digital Witness’ by St Vincent when the chorus kicks in and the gear shift delivers a gentle, but with time unmistakeable, jolt. You feel you’ve been shoved into motion, have received a gentle blow against your inertia.

2. The moment in ‘Queen’ by Perfume Genius when Mike Hardreas gives a ‘WUH!’ as the main refrain hits. You can feel the wind being slammed out of him as the song he has created delivers a belting blow to the solar plexus.

3. The incredible passage in ‘Daughter’ by Wild Beasts, which follows perhaps my favourite lyric of the year. “From the egg / Broke my little girl / Destroyer of worlds”. What happens next is a heady, organic attempt to recreate the wub-wub dubstep drop. It’s a moment both amusing, impressive and, eventually, moving.

In their own ways each of these moments seem like attempts to recreate the feeling of standing too close to the big speaker and suddenly realising that the bass beats are too much for you to handle. Each represents a primarily rock artist delivering a sensation only previously available via the dancefloor. That’s not a particularly noteworthy observation, but it’s all I’ve got.

And speaking of the dancefloor, here’s that video moment again.

[youtube:http://youtu.be/1Ee4bfu_t3c%5D

I wrote about it at length here.

Elsewhere there are more moments, big and small. My music is inexorably becoming more about the song and less about the album, with some notable and important exceptions. For the first time since I got my first CD player and could skip back and forwards without having to hold down a RWD or FWD button, the means by which I listen to music is fundamentally altering the way the music lands and what I go on to make of it.

Because I enjoyed putting together an end of year playlist at the end of 2013, a playlist I listened to over and over again in December and January and which in a slightly pernicious way came to represent the year for me, I started doing the same much earlier this year. And so, much more quickly, my sense of what music has meant and done for me in 2014 has been winnowed down to single tracks to represent albums, artists or larger bodies of work.

Sometimes whole records fell away. I love Liars and I really liked ‘MESS’, the album they released earlier in the year which forced home the steps toward the dark dancefloor they had begun to take on ‘WIXIW’. But almost immediately I decided the track ‘Darkslide’ would go onto my 2014 playlist, and that’s the last time any of the rest of the record got a look in. The blinkered stupidity of this approach is betrayed by the fact that each time I hear that one song, my first thought is ‘I wonder if I chose the right track?’.

Sometimes there is only one piece to choose, for instance ‘All Under One Roof Raving’ by Jamie XX. Released as a stand alone, it encapsulates something perfectly and doesn’t need any supporting body of work to prop it up.

In other cases specific tracks genuinely did force their way out from the crowd. I wasn’t immediately smitten with ‘Present Tense’ the fourth album by Wild Beasts, but it grew and grew on me and now I think it may be their best. But even when that status had been attained, one track continued to grow. ‘Daughter’ caught my attention the first time I listened to the album on headphones. The drop in the middle really is a stunning moment, enough to keep bringing me back to appreciate the exquisite sonics of the rest of the track. Only then did I realise how perfectly the lyrics summation of the feeling of awe, horror and obsolescence that comes as part of parenthood. I think it’s my favourite song released this year.

Other albums felt like single movements and choosing a single track felt like randomly sticking a pin in. Mica Levi’s masterful soundtrack seeps from every alien pore of Jonathan Glazer’s absolutely extraordinary film ‘Under The Skin’ and, once seen and heard together, the music alone is enough to rekindle the dread of the movie, and one track does that as effectively as the whole suite.

‘Atomos’ by A Winged Victory For The Sullen hasn’t quite sunk in yet. It’s beautiful but, currently, a single indistinguishable piece for which one track can stand as well as almost any.

Meanwhile some records simply couldn’t be picked apart. ‘Everybody Down’ by Kate Tempest and ‘Benji’ by Sun Kil Moon made this year’s strongest arguments for the album as an art form. Tempest’s was a traditional concept album built around a narrative of lust and violence and lifted to the rafters by her lyrics, by turns hilarious and brutal:

Gayle was Pete’s Mum’s new boyfriend’s son
He had a mouth that was too small for his tongue
Teeth like a ladder that was missing a rung
Chin looked like it was trying to run

Meanwhile Mark Kozelek used ‘Benji’ to almost redefine what narrative albums could be. Under the cover of word-of-mouth blank poetry he builds a fractured picture of his life, zooming in on personal details and out to the grand sweep of life, meeting death every time he moves. It feels both matter of fact, as if he had sat down and written it in the time it takes to perform it, and at the same time a delicate, near perfect construction bristling with call-backs, cultural and person references and the laden deathlorn sadness of everyday life.

My musical inputs are now apparently so fatally fractured that albums like ‘Benji’ or Ought’s ‘More Than Any Other Day’ or Swans ‘To Be Kind’, works which demand or somehow earn the right to be listened to in full, are now the exception rather than the rule. I still pick them up and I still listen to them, but I picked up most of my musical leads this year through podcasts or online reviews, and followed them up through Spotify. I still bought a bunch of records, but most were after-the-fact.

I’m not entirely saddened by this, but I have to reflect it. My listening is now much broader than it ever has been, but it is also, necessarily, much shallower.

My song of the year? That might be ‘Lah Di Dah’ by Jake Thackray, but that’s another story.

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