Jan 1, 2015

My Favorite Songs of 2014, Part 1: 2:54, The Choir, Chromeo, Desiderii Marginis, Flying Lotus, Ben Frost & More

Swirling shoegaze, Christian psych-rock, dark ambient and industrial, ’80s-style disco pop, and more.

Ben Frost
Ben Frost

I think it’s safe to say that I listened to more music in 2014 than any other year to date. Part of that was due to me finally compromising my ideals, giving in to the dark side, and subscribing to a music streaming service (Rdio, if you must know). Yes, a streaming service is just about as cool as everyone says it is. And as a result, this is probably my longest year-end song list so far, but there were just so many good songs out there.

This year, I’m doing something a little different: I’m listing my songs in alphabetical order by artist, just to make it easy on me so that I don’t have to pick a favorite song.

Read Part 2, Part 3

“Orion” by 2:54

Remember that first moment you listened to The Cure’s Disintegration, when the guitars and drums on “Plainsong” came crashing through those wind chimes and overwhelmed you? 2:54’s “Orion” creates a similar mood as shimmering guitars notes flicker high overhead like distant stars over clouds of synths and crashing drums. The song takes a few left turns after that, with wiry guitars, staccato drumming, and Colette Thurlow’s melodramatic vocals — but it always come back to that glorious opening salvo.

“Sparks Were Real” by Anilore

Anilore opens Dead Love’s Grave — now how’s that for an album title — with this absolutely gorgeous piece of slow-mo shoegaze. Everything in this song, from the constantly unfurling guitars to the spectral vocals, sound like they were recorded under a layer of amber — the sounds forever suspended in a golden drop of time. “Sparks Were Real” plays like one long crescendo, constantly building but never quite arriving. Which might sound like a frustrating experience, but there’s something arresting, too, about being caught up in a simply perfect moment of pure, swirling, mind-bending sound.

“Windswept” by CFCF

Hearkening back to the lush, atmospheric pop of Peter Gabriel, Talk Talk, and The Blue Nile, CFCF’s “Windswept” is an oasis of sound that never ceases to refresh (read my review). All of the song’s elements — gamelan-esque percussion, fretless bass, keening guitar, layers of gentle synthesizer, hushed-yet-impassioned vocals, sensual lyrics — come together in all of the right ways. It’s by far the best thing Mike Silver has recorded so far under his CFCF moniker, and considering his discography to date, that’s saying something.

“Fall” by Cheatahs

Listening to this song is like revisiting the time I first discovered shoegaze. Sure, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless was a big influence, but honestly, the album that really opened my eyes to the genre was The Boo Radleys’ Everything’s Alright Forever. Like the Boos back in the day, Cheatahs know how to blend fuzzed out, overdriven guitars with catchy, jangly hooks. A strong song in its own right even with the genre aspects galore, “Fall” is proof that you can memorialize your influences without sacrificing originality or an aesthetic effect that’s all your own.

“It Hurts to Say Goodbye” by The Choir

2014 was the year I finally checked out The Choir, one of Christendom’s most established and respected alternative bands, and I’m a bit embarrassed that it took me so long. Coincidentally, they just so happpened to release a new album this year, titled Shadow Weaver. “It Hurts to Say Goodbye” is the album’s highlight, a seven-minute track full of swirling guitars and saxophone that will make any Verve fan swoon with delight. And then there are the lyrics about the growing divide between parent and child, which is pretty weighty subject matter for music as blissed out as this. But as I’ve recently discovered, that juxtaposition is one of The Choir’s great strengths.

Desiderii Marginis
Desiderii Marginis

“Old 45’s” by Chromeo

Here’s what I love about Chromeo: At first they seem pretty shallow, from their too-slick blend of disco, funk, and ’80s pop to their salacious-yet-silly lyrics (see “Over Your Shoulder”). But sometimes a little sincerity and earnestness pops up and you find yourself re-evaluating Dave 1 and P-Thugg. Which brings us to “Old 45’s,” which finds Dave 1 comforting a lady who’s heard too many pick-up lines, and turns it into a lament for a more innocent time. Sure, this sort of nostalgia is as old as rock n’ roll, but that doesn’t make it any less affecting. And if you find the lyrical sentiment kitschy, there’s always the band’s stellar production and sense of groove.

“Oblivion” by Deaf Center

2014 was a good year for fans of dark atmospheric music. First there was the return of Raison d’être, then Desderii Marginis’ monolithic Hypnosis, and finally, a two song EP from Norway’s Deaf Center. Deaf Center’s music has always relied on texture as much as sheer overwhelming sound for their powerful — and dark — soundscapes. While no less textured, “Oblivion” takes a (relatively) brighter approach, though. Lasting over 13 minutes, the song is a constantly unfurling swirl of ghostly guitars and synthesizers that, especially on headphones, twines itself around the listener for a sublime experience.

“The Fog Closing In” by Desiderii Marginis

For Desiderii Marginis’ Hypnosis, Johan Levin created 15 harrowing soundscapes inspired by the dreams and nightmares of friends and fans, as well as his own. When I listen to “The Fog Closing In,” I imagine the song’s sub-conscious inspiration involved Lovecraftian beasties; it sure sounds like one or two of them populate this densely layered song. Clattering percussion, murky synthesizers, blasts of noise sounding out of the darkness: they all create the sensation of being lost at sea while something massive, alien, and ancient passes by you in the mist. When it’s over, you breathe a sigh of relief at having escaped its notice… for now.

“Never Catch Me” by Flying Lotus

It’s impossible to listen to “Never Catch Me” without thinking of the song’s exuberant video. Directed by Hiro Murai, the video starts out solemnly, as grieving loved ones come together for the funeral of two young children. And then, backed by the spotless flow of hip-hop wunderkind Kendrick Lamar, the dead children rise up and literally dance their way into the after-life. It’s an exhilarating moment, a cry for the soul’s freedom, a shuffling off of this mortal coil in grand fashion. (Oh, and I’ve yet to say anything about Flying Lotus’ mind-bending production, a blend of hip-hop, jazz, soul, and electronica.)

“Secant” by Ben Frost

Ben Frost’s A U R O R A remains one of 2014’s most striking and overwhelming albums for me, with its massive waves of tortured, broken electronic sounds. It was often a visceral and physically affecting album, due to Frost’s expertise in breaking and bending his instruments to his will, and wrangling all manner of anguished sounds from their guts. Admittedly, that’s a rather extreme image, but one listen to A U R O R A confirms it to be true. But here’s the thing: Even in the midst of that chaos, Frost finds beauty in the form of “Secant,” which combines martial drumming, melting synths, and church bells into something approaching an apocalyptic epiphany.

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