Creating a “best of” albums list is always difficult, since the sheer amount of releases in any year makes it difficult to listen to all of them. Inherently, the list is always changing. While the list may be somewhat premature since the year is not up yet, I feel that 2014 has been such a great year for music that I could easily make this a best 50 albums of 2014 list and still have more records to pull from. So without further ado, my favorite albums of 2014.
4. Marc Ribot Trio – “Live at the Village Vanguard”
Guitarist Marc Ribot is best known for his work with artists such as Tom Waits and Elvis Costello, but his ideal atmosphere is in the avant-garde jazz sphere. On this album he teams up with bassist Henry Grimes, who had been absent from the jazz scene for several years before this album, and drummer Chad Taylor in this live performance at The Village Vanguard. The album consists of new takes on jazz standards by John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, among others. Ribot is a precise player with a style that is very much his own, no matter the artist he is working with, and this album is of no exception.
Often times when musicians work with phenomenal guitarists such as Ribot, it can be hard to bring anything exciting to the table without being swept under it or making it seem like they are simply being competitive. Grimes and Taylor swipe away both of those obstacles and contribute wonderfully to the record, from Grimes’ Charlie Haden-esque intro on “Dearly Beloved” and Taylor’s outstanding solo on the same track. The group also takes well-known standards like “Old Man River” and runs with them in a new direction, crafting their own singular song through free improvisation and overwhelming musicianship.
3. Swans – “To Be Kind”
After first establishing themselves as one of the most hard-hitting second generation no wave groups in the early 80s, Swans reformed in 2010 to establish themselves as gods of another, more ambiguous genre: post-rock. The group’s 13th album, “To Be Kind,” is a two-hour monolith made up of hypnotic grooves, drones and unique concepts. Opening up with the track “Screen Shot’s” repetitive bassline akin to Tool, Swans forms a passage into a whirlwind of mind-bending songs that demand your attention for the whole of the lengthy album. “A Little God In My Hands” shows us Swans’ funkier side while still keeping us entrapped in the psychedelic rhythms and disturbing lyrics. “Oxygen” is almost a return to form for Swans with its punk-tinged approach with lead singer Michael Gira going all out wild with the vocals. The highlight of the album is “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture,” a 30-minute journey through the new sound of Swans that centres around a few similarly droning riffs without losing edge and becoming dull. This is one of the best albums in Swans’ already impressive discography, and it is a glimmer of hope for what the band may release in upcoming years.
2. John Zorn – “The Alchemist”
John Zorn is quite possibly the most prolific artist of our time, having added thirteen albums to his 500 plus album discography in this year alone. Needless to say, it was difficult to only pick one album from Zorn’s 2014 releases with albums like “Valentine’s Day” and “Fragmentations, Prayers, and Interjections” being potential contenders. Zorn attempts several genres, from classical to hardcore jazz to klezmer to noise rock and beyond. This album is one of Zorn’s classical excursions and his outright best album in that field. The title track and opener is a 20 minute string quartet followed by a twelve minute choral piece called “Earthspirit.” “The Alchemist” is a brilliant classical piece that sounds something like atonal composer Arnold Schoenberg at his most unhinged, with complicated structure and approach to tonality. There are several haunting passages that break up the chaotic nature of the piece, which disallows the piece from being a one-trick-pony. It’s extraordinarily difficult for a track to live up to a song like “The Alchemist,” and while “Earthspirit” certainly does not match “The Alchemist” on all levels, it is anything but disappointing. “Earthspirit” sounds like an homage to composer Morton Feldman, with the track sounding quite similar to his choral works, especially “Three Voices: For Joan La Barabara.”
This album is yet another testament to the genius of John Zorn as he is now highly regarded in both classical and jazz circles.
1. White Suns – “Totem”
Lastly, we have “Totem” from noise rock group White Suns. Visceral, gritty and at times terrifying, the album shows us an often unexplored side of noise rock. Most noise rock groups hold a heavy dedication to structure, whereas White Suns introduces improvisations to the disconcerting frameworks, bringing more chaos to the album.
“Improvisation gets me away from the muscle memory that can leech a song of any excitement in the present,” White Suns guitarist and vocalist Kevin Barry said.
“Totem” confronts the listener with walls of noise created with discordant guitar, powerhouse drumming and harsh electronics. In between the claustrophobic and breathtakingly in-your-face tracks like “Priest in the Laboratory” or “Clairvoyant”, there are also more meditative yet still unsettling tracks such as “Prostrate” that add another dimension to “Totem.” The highlight of this album is its distinctiveness, as it explores new territories of noise rock in the true avant-garde fashion. My one complaint about the record is the lyrics, which sound as if they were pulled from Kevin Barry’s eighth grade journal. However, the music and vocal delivery more than makes up for that, and with its explosions of noise and dark ambient undersides, “Totem” is a noise rock gem as it meshes both genres in a way that few bands have been able to accomplish.
Published December 10, 2014