Another great year for music. Taylor Swift released a new album and literally tried to break Spotify; Pink Floyd came out with their first material this century, while Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers put out their best record in decades. Beck, Jack White, and the Black Keys all graced our ears with terrific and tremendously popular albums, to say nothing of such chart-toppers as Ed Sheeran, Pharrell, and Coldplay. But your library probably already has all or most of these titles, so LJ’s best music list is going a little deeper. Steve Kemple presents a snapshot of the most interesting and accessible music 2014 had to offer, three must-haves plus an extended list to buy if your budget allows, all of which are major releases and will be available from your favorite library vendor. Matthew Moyer’s selections fly a bit further under the radar but are still well worth investing in.
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra with Maya Angelou. Hallowed Ground. Fanfare Cincinnati/Naxos.
The disc opens with a moving rendition of Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” featuring narration by Angelou, recorded live with the orchestra only a few months before her death in May. This is followed by world premiere recordings of works by composers David Lang and Nico Muhly. Lang’s “mountain” succeeds in replicating the experience of staring at a mountain for a very long time, while Muhly’s “Pleasure Ground” thoughtfully probes the mind and work of 19th-century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. It’s a difficult piece but one that rewards careful listening. Taken together these three works comprise a substantial statement by conductor Louis Langrée, a masterful curator of music and ideas.
FKA Twigs. LP1. Young Turks.
Performance art and pop music have a long history of overlapping with and inspiring one another. Tahliah Barnett—better known as FKA Twigs—is the latest iteration of this phenomenon, and her critically acclaimed debut, LP1, is poised to ignite storms of fervor among fans of both pop and art music. It’s a difficult album to pin down, effortlessly swaying between hypnotic dubstep and twisted, hypersexed, post-Beyoncé electro-pop. Constant throughout is Barnett’s high powerful voice, turning acrobatics, ripping apart tropes of R&B, and reassembling them into new, supremely danceable postmodern forms.
Owen Pallett. In Conflict. Domino.
Canadian singer/violinist Pallett released a handful of chamber-pop solo albums to quiet acclaim and in 2013 even took home an Academy Award for his hand in the score for Spike Jonze’s Her. But In Conflict is by far his most personal and ambitious record to date, filled with heart-stopping twists of melody and achingly beautiful orchestration thanks in part to Brian Eno’s lush electronic wizardry. Lyrically, the album alternates between oblique references to unnameable feelings and poignant storytelling. It’s a portrait of angst, uncertainty, gender-identity tension, and spilling-over-everywhere brilliance.
Aphex Twin. Syro. Warp.
Electronica pioneer’s first album in more than a decade.
Kenny Barron & Dave Holland. The Art of Conversation. Impulse!
With players as good as this, piano and double bass are all you need for a perfect jazz album.
Stefano Bolani. Joy in Spite of Everything. ECM.
Infectious jazz with a touch of Latin.
Bryce Dessner. St. Carolyn by the Sea. Deutsche Grammophon.
The National’s guitarist was inspired by Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur when he wrote this work for two electric guitars and orchestra.
Ex Hex. Rips. Merge.
High-energy indie garage rock with a classic-rock vibe.
Bill Frisell. Guitar in the Space Age. OKeh/Sony Masterworks.
Jazz guitar virtuoso does classic jams through a prism of 1950s futurism.
Alice Gerrard. Follow the Music. Tompkins Square.
Traditional folk and gospel by an 80-year-old singer/songwriter.
How To Dress Well. What Is This Heart? Domino/Weird World.
A perfect synthesis of impeccably produced R&B and confessional singer/songwriter.
Hozier. Hozier. Columbia Records/Sony.
Bluesy singer-songwriter with a powerful voice.
Mary Lattimore & Jeff Zeigler. Slant of Light. Thrill Jockey.
Instrumental harp played through electronics. Simply breathtaking.
Jason Moran. All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller. Blue Note.
An R&B tribute to jazz pioneer Waller by one of today’s most innovative pianists.
PHOX. PHOX. Partisan.
Sultry vocals with exquisite chamber-pop orchestration and infectious melodies.
Real Estate. Atlas. Domino.
Breezy, mellow indie rock.
The Roots. …and then you shoot your cousin. Def Jam.
The 11th studio album from seminal hip-hop innovators.
Run the Jewels. Run the Jewels 2. Mass Appeal.
Massively acclaimed second album from hip-hop duo Killer Mike and El-P.
Spoon. They Want My Soul. Loma Vista.
Indie rock veterans channel the Stones.
St. Vincent. St. Vincent. Loma Vista.
Paradigm-shifting diva elevates pop music to danceable and wickedly intelligent art songs.
Sun Kil Moon. Benji. Caldo Verdi.
Mark Kozelek croons about death and family in rural Ohio.
Swans. To Be Kind. Mute/Young God.
Mind-expanding double album from noise rock veterans.
War on Drugs. Lost in the Dream. Secretly Canadian.
Spaced-out classic rock jams.—Steve Kemple, P.L. of Cincinnati & Hamilton Cty.
Under the Radar
Dark Blue. Pure Reality. Jade Tree.
A simultaneously delirious and dour tribute to postpunk, oi, and sundry forms of blue-collar Brit musical delinquency from former Clockcleaner/Puerto Rico Flowers main man John Sharkey. Sharkey’s baritone is as affecting as ever on these blackhearted terrace anthems. The first release from the rejuvenated Jade Tree label (once home to Alkaline Trio and Joan of Arc).
Pharmakon. Bestial Burden. Sacred Bones.
Margaret Chardiet is on an incredible creative run as Pharmakon. Bestial Burden is a stunning extension of the themes and sonics of her previous album, Abandon. Cold, harsh electronic walls struggle not to dissolve against an onslaught of unrestrained vocal agony. Palpable dread simmers and then explodes.
RAKTA. RAKTA. 540 Records.
My apologies for the tease—RAKTA is a vinyl-only release, but this is a name you’ll be hearing a lot soon enough as they come off a successful American tour and have been receiving plaudits for their recent releases. This all-woman Brazilian quartet fuse the kinetic thrust of the Cramps with the sonic spiderwebs of classic deathrock like Christian Death and 45 Grave and make it all sound new!
Ritual Howls. Turkish Leather. Felte.
After a string of amazing small-run cassette releases that displayed a confident grasp of eldritch hooks and oh-so-dramatic flair, this “proper” release on Felte is a swaggering statement of dark intent. Evoking the Sisters of Mercy, the Mission UK, and The Sound, the Detroit-tough Ritual Howls are near the front of the new darkwave pack.
Various Artists. Tliltic Tlapoyauak. AJNA Offensive.
Beautifully sprawling and ambitious, this set on two cassettes, three LPs, or two CDs highlights the intense creative drive, prolific output, and sonic violence that lie at the heart of Southern California’s Black Twilight Circle musicians’ collective. This compilation is a manifesto for a new style of black metal that is based on the cultural and mythological roots of these young (mostly) Mexican American artists.—Matthew Moyer, Jacksonville P.L., FL