Tag Archives: best music 2014

Best Thing From Iceland of 2014

 

 

 

Our own Vanessa Tottle wrote up this artist a few months back for our Have You Heard series. Her response to his music was so moving and self-defining a piece of writing that there’s no better tribute to the album than to reproduce Vanessa’s original article here.

Yes, you guessed it. The Best Thing From Iceland of 2014 is In the Silence by Asgeir.

In Vanessa’s words:

I press myself hard because I have a shadow chasing me. I wish others could lift it for me, but have you ever tried lifting a shadow off the ground? I’ve lived with myself 25 years and I can only ever lift it momentarily. When I do, it’s often because of music.

I wallow in the darker shades – industrial, goth, aggro – because it’s harder to see your shadow in the dusk. I’m being asked to lead people now, often in other countries. That darkness gives me edge – I don’t take shit.

But when you’re in the field three weeks straight, dealing with mud and broken jeeps and some intern fracturing a fossil the earth itself couldn’t break despite millions of years at it…people don’t need my edge. They need someone who can help them pick their own dark shadows up off the ground. How can I do that when I can barely carry my own? If all I do is lend them dusk, I won’t even see where their shadow starts and ends.

If music is important for someone well-adjusted, and can still lend them greater peace or make them weep, imagine for a second what it means for someone who doesn’t know peace when they cannot stop crying.

Sometimes I am weak like that for reasons I can’t tell. Sometimes I am strong and unassailable for reasons I can’t tell. Music helps me find whatever I am missing in the moment.

Asgeir makes the music I play for beauty. It helps light the shadows for me. It helps me circle the evening campfire to make sure everyone is all right, to stay up late and make sure the rain doesn’t wash us out, to fix the jeep at 2 a.m. myself, to tell enough stories to the intern that she laughs and can go to bed with some peace.

This doesn’t say much about Asgeir, but it says everything I know how to say about his music. One in ten Icelanders owns his album, In the Silence, written with his elderly father. He doesn’t lift the shadows with happiness. This is not music that pretends to fix everything. There is a weary burden under its surface. That is how I understand it. “Happiness” isn’t the right word for Asgeir. “Serenity” is. He recognizes the shadows and sits down among them.

Sometimes I will play him softly late at night, when the weather is dry, so the whole camp can hear. I think they understand what I mean to say by this. When I listen to him in my headphones, I feel as if carrying my shadow is noble. When I play him to the camp, we feel as if helping carry each others’ shadows is noble.

 

– Vanessa Tottle

This article is part of our series on the top 35 albums of 2014. Here’s the list as we unveil it.

Best K-Pop Quadratic Function of 2014

 

 

 

Deadly accidents, suicides, and nervous breakdowns. It was the year K-Pop turned into a Thomas Pynchon novel. Two women from Ladies’ Code died in a September car accident. A father hacked his 13 year-old daughter to death for listening to EXO. 16 concertgoers died when a grate collapsed at a 4Minute performance in October.

Tragedies like these paralleled the disasters of South Korea’s bureaucracy, the largest of which was May’s ferry capsizing that killed 295 passengers. The company that ran the MV Sewol ferry overloaded the cargo by 500 tons, spent a total of $2 on the crew’s safety training, and when the captain complained about it they threatened to fire him.

How does music fight that, least of all a pop band? The Korean pop industry manufactures sugary pop groups composed of young men and women trained by agencies from youth to the point of maladjustment to be singing, dancing fashion mannequins. (So it’s just like the American music industry.)

And yet…some groups become popular enough they begin to master their own message. That’s what happened with the album Red Light and your new favorite band named after a quadratic function: f(x).

f(x) is made of the function girls – f(Victoria), f(Amber), f(Luna), f(Sulli), and f(Krystal). That already speaks volumes about how K-Pop views its stars.

Like most pop music, K-Pop adheres to a formula that makes it difficult to match the inventiveness and creativity of the best independent music around the world, but f(x) had conquered South Korea and achieved rare crossover in the United States with their second album, Pink Tape. This allowed them the freedom to start on a darker path with this year’s Red Light.

 

 

The album’s flagship single, the eponymous “Red Light,” attacks the agency-driven K-Pop industry, misogynist expectations of young women in Korea, and a government paid for by companies that cut corners and put citizens’ lives at risk.

The song was recorded before the ferry disaster, but had a choice of other tragedies to choose from. Its music video, however, uses archetypes – an unanswered phone, a burning rulebook, crosses worn like blinders, men in gas masks, exploding houses – to create a statement of dissension. K-Pop cliches like basic isolation dancing and rap solos are still there, but all of its framework is turned on its head.

“Red Light” was as brave a roundhouse as K-Pop has ever delivered, but the album is not always so controversial. It’s easy to imagine “MILK” as the album’s lead single if the band hadn’t felt so bold. “MILK” combines K-Pop style with Bollywood percussion cues and American pop choruses.

And what about “All Night,” which sounds like a lost, 30 year-old Michael Jackson song?

There’s also “Boom Bang Boom,” which sounds like Doom’s original 8-bit soundtrack met a Jessie J. anthem.

 

Or how about “Spit It Out,” a hyperspeed electronic rave about a consuming, heartless boy who carelessly eats a girl’s heart? “Spit It Out,” they demand. Listen to the cute, charming lyrics once or twice, in contrast to its rave instrumentation, and it’s hard to avoid the metaphor for rape culture, as prevalent in Korea as it is in the U.S.

This is how f(x) does something bold and new. They take the K-Pop brand and use its intentionally designed kawaii (“cute” or “lolita”) elements to directly address the culture that gave them this voice.

American music magazines like Fyre and Fuse have praised f(x)’s addictive pop music, calling them “K-Pop’s top hipsters,” but their praise falls short by defining them so dismissively. This is a group that’s beginning to use its voice to take social stands for a generation of South Koreans viewed only as consumers in the present, not leaders in the future. Kawaii has been developing as a punk-parallel protest movement in Korea and elsewhere for the last few years. This split from mainstream kawaii is one of the most interesting counter-culture movements in the world. It is uniquely borderless and comes with a pre-developed language so far immune to political recourse. With Red Light, f(x) uses its mainstream access to further define and popularize the language of protest kawaii.

Red Light was widely praised, but controversial. The band was still one of the biggest girl groups in K-Pop this year. But they also saw a whiplash response, including critical controversies due to their more political subject matter and a weird temporary refusal to broadcast. Since the album’s release, f(Sulli) has taken a leave of absence due to exhaustion and stress from the reaction to Red Light. Does this put the group at risk? Did f(x) fly too close to the sun? Is there any other K-Pop group with the mind to take their music in this direction?

Welcome to K-Pop, a melodramatic music genre that – in its dying breath – f(x) sent a shockwave through in the space of an album. Will they survive? Will they still be as brave? Tune in next time.

– JJ Kim, Vanessa Tottle, & Gabriel Valdez

This article is part of our series on the top 35 albums of 2014. Here’s the list as we unveil it.

Best 14th Great Album in a Row of 2014

 

 

 

 

 

In 2011, she opened her adaption of medieval song cycles with a heavy metal epic about domestic abuse, except the guitars and drums were replaced with woodwinds and a piano. It echoed the musical monuments of Led Zeppelin and evoked the classical music of Igor Stravinsky, the perfect introduction to an album about time travel and spirit guides. The song was “Shattering Sea.” That album was Night of Hunters. The song and album came to symbolize a return to form for one of the most intense and esoteric singers in modern history.

We speak, of course, of Tori Amos.

Her musical form, however, is that of a chameleon. Always unbowed by what she’s done before, 2014’s Unrepentant Geraldines marks the return of Tori Amos’s focus on pure storytelling. Her ability to shift between musical styles is vastly underrated and too often gets compartmentalized into the “we’re too lazy to define it” category of adult contemporary.

Across the latter half of her career, Amos has alternated between albums that feel like real risks (Night of Hunters, Abnormally Attracted to Sin, American Doll Posse) and albums that are engineered for beauty and reassurance (Midwinter Graces, The Beekeeper). The former offer the highest highs and the lowest lows. They are thick with narrative. The latter occupy a middle ground content to lean on Amos’s voice. Their stories are almost too inwardly turned, and the emotion behind them can feel too thin or inaccessible.

Unrepentant Geraldines breaks the mold. Categorically, it feels like a “safe” entry, but it’s her most lyrically interesting album since Scarlet’s Walk and the most narratively accomplished one since From the Choirgirl Hotel. And if you’re an Amos fan, you don’t bring up Choirgirl lightly. Filled with mid-song twists and turns, her voice can still jump from a guttural stadium rock shred to a gently operatic soprano in a syllable.

 

 

 

Standout songs include “Wedding Day” and “Trouble’s Lament,” in which Amos depicts an anthropomorphized Trouble betrayed by Despair and evicted from Hell. I’d call the treatment Neil Gaiman-esque if she weren’t the one who’d set Gaiman down that storytelling path so long ago. Many songs have contemplated Trouble as an ironically constant companion in life. Few have empathized with and consoled Trouble during a time of hardship.

 

In “Wild Way,” Amos repeats, “I hate you, I hate you, I do,” with such a tone of yearning that the phrase is turned into one of unconditional love. A moment of internal monologue, it’s patiently emotional, personal yet accessible, trusting the listener to understand rather than hitting you over the head with pop melodrama.

“16 Shades of Blue” focuses on the treatment of women as always being too old for any life decision, contemplating Amos’s own place as an aging female artist and repeating criticisms of younger and younger women all the way back to the womb. As a commentary on women, it becomes a deeply biting commentary on men.

“Promise” features what’s becoming a compelling call-and-response duo between Amos and daughter Natasha Hawley. Unlike in Night of Hunters, Amos puts Hawley’s airy, pure voice as the lead, placing herself like a spirit in the background in a song about always being a part of each other.

It may not be as showy as some of her recent albums, but here Amos becomes a master storyteller once more for an entire album, not just for the highlight songs. Between this and Night of Hunters, these are her most exciting albums since the millennium was fresh. Throw in 2012’s reorchestration of earlier songs, Gold Dust, and the 51 year-old singer is hardly done yet. In the theme and quality of Unrepentant Geraldines, she demonstrates that – musically – she’s still at the top of her game. And, more importantly, it should be no surprise at all.

-Cleopatra Parnell & Gabriel Valdez

This article is part of our series on the Top 35 Albums of 2014. Click here to see the list as we unveil it!

Have You Heard… Asgeir?

Songs of 2014 – “King and Cross” & “Summer Guest”

by Vanessa Tottle

I press myself hard because I have a shadow chasing me. I wish others could lift it for me, but have you ever tried lifting a shadow off the ground? I’ve lived with myself 25 years and I can only ever lift it momentarily. When I do, it’s often because of music.

I wallow in the darker shades – industrial, goth, aggro – because it’s harder to see your shadow in the dusk. I’m being asked to lead people now, often in other countries. That darkness gives me edge – I don’t take shit.

But when you’re in the field three weeks straight, dealing with mud and broken jeeps and some intern fracturing a fossil the earth itself couldn’t break despite millions of years at it…people don’t need my edge. They need someone who can help them pick their own dark shadows up off the ground. How can I do that when I can barely carry my own? If all I do is lend them dusk, I won’t even see where their shadow starts and ends.

If music is important for someone well-adjusted, and can still lend them greater peace or make them weep, imagine for a second what it means for someone who doesn’t know peace when they cannot stop crying.

Sometimes I am weak like that for reasons I can’t tell. Sometimes I am strong and unassailable for reasons I can’t tell. Music helps me find whatever I am missing in the moment.

Asgeir makes the music I play for beauty. It helps light the shadows for me. It helps me circle the evening campfire to make sure everyone is all right, to stay up late and make sure the rain doesn’t wash us out, to fix the jeep at 2 a.m. myself, to tell enough stories to the intern that she laughs and can go to bed with some peace.

This doesn’t say much about Asgeir, but it says everything I know how to say about his music. One in ten Icelanders owns his album, In the Silence, written with his elderly father. He doesn’t lift the shadows with happiness. This is not music that pretends to fix everything. There is a weary burden under its surface. That is how I understand it. “Happiness” isn’t the right word for Asgeir. “Serenity” is. He recognizes the shadows and sits down among them.

Sometimes I will play him softly late at night, when the weather is dry, so the whole camp can hear. I think they understand what I mean to say by this. When I listen to him in my headphones, I feel as if carrying my shadow is noble. When I play him to the camp, we feel as if helping carry each others’ shadows is noble.

Have You Heard… is a stream of song and band recommendations, many of which may be new to you. It’s also the kind of analysis that’s missing in a music industry obsessed with image and celebrity instead of the music itself.