WE’RE BACK! Happy New Year, SlackFans, and welcome to the third edition of Stuff We Listened To. (For our 2012 and 2013 picks, head here and here.) Before we get started, a couple things. First of all, we apologize for going MIA for much of the past 12 months. By our count, we published five new pieces in 2014, which is frankly pathetic. We’d say unacceptable, but then again, we were really just living up to our name. That said, we promise to be much more active during the new year. Secondly, please note that what follows is not a breakdown of 2014’s best music, but of the music we liked and listened to most throughout the year. Away we go!
Serial is not a song, but it definitely qualifies as “stuff I listened to in 2014.” I am not alone. I can’t really explain what exactly made Serial so good or so popular, but it was definitely both of those things. It’s essentially a spinoff of NPR’s This American Life in podcast form, which should theoretically excite middle-aged white people and roughly no one else. But something about this non-fiction murder mystery had everyone I know hounding me: You’re not caught up yet?!
Serial is about Adnan Syed, who was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, when he was in high school. He has been in jail for the 15 years since. The shaky evidence against him came largely from the testimony of some dude named Jay that Adnan occasionally smoked weed with. The podcast consists of reporter Sara Koenig (pronounced “Kay-nig”) laying out all the evidence, offering her personal opinions, and meandering back and forth between “he’s definitely innocent!” and “wait… maybe he did it” — all with some “alternative bedroom bummer pop” playing in the background. The crazy part is that it was being produced week to week, which meant that new information was actually surfacing between episodes. Even so, you could feel Koenig reaching a little for content in the final weeks. The end seemed premature, especially given that the case is actually being sort of re-opened (more or less due to the podcast). But the maddening parts of Serial were exactly why people wanted to talk about it so much. There are pages upon pages of fan theories on Reddit (“JAY’S SIDE GIRL JEN DEFINITELY DID IT” seems to be the prevailing theory there) because the evidence was all so murky that basically any crazy conspiratorial case you could make around the office watercooler was about as probable as any made in court. There was even a podcast about the podcast, which I imagine must be the dream of everyone who sets out to make a podcast. Here’s hoping Season 2 can recapture the magic.
Vance Joy – “Riptide”
I had almost forgotten how frustrating the lifecycle of a song on the radio can be until I spent a lot of 2014 in the car. That’s where I first heard “Riptide.” I liked it, and I kind of wished that the radio would play it more. Some time went by, and then they did play it more. Of course it was a little late, so the sheen of “cool and new” had worn off a little, but it was still satisfying to see a decent song getting its due amount of spins. Now, like six months later, when any desire to hear this song has been thoroughly beaten out of me, LA radio still subjects us to this song at a rate of something like seven times per hour until I’m yelling “More like Vance AGONY!” and forcefully jamming a finger into any button that can make it go away.
That said, this is a nice, cute song. I heard that Vance Joy (not his real name) was going to be a professional soccer player before he gave it up to try and be a lawyer. Then the Right People heard the product of his songwriting hobby on the internet and he got a five-album deal. This gives me hope that someday someone will hear my yet-unrecorded masterpieces and think, “This needs to be played to death on alternative radio!” That’s something I like to call “inspiration.”
Also, importantly, “Riptide” is a heavyweight contender for the title of My Mom’s Favorite Song of 2014.
Priory – “Weekend”
5 Things About This Song, In Order Of My Ability To Confirm Them As True:
- It feels pretty good listening to this on Friday afternoons leaving the office.
- Priory are a very solid live act.
- Blake Griffin was cranking this all summer long.
- If “Weekend” had come out closer to when fun.’s “We Are Young” was dominating the charts, it would have taken a turn as the most popular song in America.
- This band often watches Cops together.
Sylvan Esso – “Coffee”
I don’t know anything about this song, except that I sometimes hear it (fittingly) in coffee shops, and that it makes me feel things. The lyric, “wrap me in your arms / I can’t feel it but / wrap me in your arms” is particularly affecting. The hook is a hell of an earworm, and I imagine I wasn’t the only one who Googled something like “get up get down song” because it was the only line I came away remembering (fortunately, despite there probably being at least twenty other songs with that lyric, this song is somehow the first thing that comes up). Also, I am a huge sucker for glockenspiel. I hear it and just get a little happier. It reminds me of children’s lullabies.
Royal Blood – The Entire Self-Titled Album
A half hour of two guys making a lot of noise, fantastically.
Stars – “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” and “No One Is Lost”
I rediscovered Stars’ 2004 hit “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” early on this year, and never stopped going back to it. It is perhaps the greatest breakup song known to man, with all its horns and strings and drama and pianos and melodicas and oh wow these lyrics. It’s an incredible polaroid of two people who are somewhere between convincing themselves they are in the acceptance phase and actually being in the acceptance phase. It aims at projecting any painful, complicated, and lovely memories you have right in front of your face and making you watch them while some strings swell. It would be over the top if it wasn’t so perfect.
“Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” got me wondering what this Canadian indie band was doing these days, and it turns out they put out an album called No One Is Lost in October. The title track sounds a lot like 2014 and almost nothing like 2004. It’s mellow, dreamy, and just the right amount of dancey — which is also to say it sounds indistinguishable from a lot of what appears to be popular right now. (Note: my barometer for “what’s popular” is the annual FIFA soundtrack, and I can’t be sure that every song on the 2015 edition wasn’t just a different remix of “No One Is Lost.”) The track even comes pre-packaged with the kind of carefree philosophical advice that plays well at music festivals where people are on drugs: “put your hands up ‘cause everybody dies.” Except, whoops. After Ferguson, you can’t really hear those lyrics the same way. And after a few listens, the Coachella-ready dance-rock starts to sound subversively bitter and sad. Apparently, that’s exactly how Stars likes it:
“This record’s called ‘No One Is Lost’ because that is a fucking lie,” says [lead singer/songwriter] Torquil [Campbell]. “We are all lost, we are all going to lose this game and, as you get older, you lose people more and more. I just wanted to close my eyes and jump and hope that was true.”
When I look back on 2014, “No One Is Lost” might be the most efficient way to remember how this year went: we were optimistic that was a dance party we were hearing in the distance, until it turned out to be gunshots and protests.
Run the Jewels 2
RTJ makes this list again for their second album. Killer Mike and El-P have created something special, and it’s an absolute joy to consume everything they produce. They’ve released all of their music for free, allowing fans to pay what they want. They rock the shit out of every venue they play. And their promotional material is hilarious; the bonus package descriptions are truly worth reading. Run the Jewels blends refreshing honesty, tongue-in-cheek humor, and straight-up goofiness with furious beats and hardcore wordplay.
Here’s another dynamic duo I’d like to see sticking around. DJ Premier has blessed Royce da 5’9” with his production before — hip-hop heads go crazy every time “Boom” comes on — but this is the first time the two have collaborated on a whole album.
If you’re wondering whether PRhyme is the new Gang Starr, Royce emphatically rejects the idea that he’s replacing Guru on “U Looz.” And if you’ve ever wondered whether Premier could rap, Royce laughs off that idea after the DJ tries spitting a line during the interlude.
It’s hard to listen to PRhyme straight through — not because it sucks, obviously, but because you have to keep pausing and rewinding to check out deep wordplay. For example, Royce drops this line on “Courtesy”: “You wouldn’t rip a wrapping on Christmas in Santa’s attic with the hands of Eddie Scissors. Ain’t you average?”
Translation: Even if you had scissorhands in a room full of wrapping paper, you wouldn’t rip a (w)rap, you mediocre son of a bitch.
PRhyme heavily samples instrumentals from composer Adrian Younge, known primarily for the fantastic throwback soundtrack to Black Dynamite. Premo unifies the album under this psychedelic soul sound. And Royce murders the beats with the help of guests like his Slaughterhouse comrades, Killer Mike and Jay Electronica. Even Mac Miller lays down a respectable verse.
Royce da 5’9” does not apologize for his violent rhymes. On “Wishin” he raps, “I’m an acquired taste. If you don’t like me, acquire some taste.” That’s the kind of cleverly constructed braggadocio that elevates his lyrical menace above mindlessly violent hip-hop. Few emcees can rival the Detroit artist’s gun raps, and most of those who can are part of the Slaughterhouse gang.
Speaking of Slaughterhouse, I listened to this cypher over and over and over, unlocking mind-blowing punchlines and puns bit by bit by bit. Eighteen goddamn minutes of a capella freestyling, and it’s glorious. Kxng Crooked (formerly Crooked I) opens with furious battle raps that include a great Darren Wilson reference. Joe Budden depresses while he impresses; he keeps it real, probably too real for most listeners. Yelawolf builds a crazy-complex extended metaphor, ending with a quadruple entendre. Joell Ortiz shows why he’s one of the most underrated rappers with lines like this one: “I’m opposite the hands of Sandusky. With the shit that my pen state, these rappers can’t touch me.” Then Royce da 5’9″ wastes proverbial wack rappers before Eminem closes the cypher. Shady hasn’t been spraying rhymes this venomous since The Marshall Mathers LP: “Evil and vile enough to leap in the crowd and heave a child in a sinkhole on Cinco de Mayo when I’m sprinkled with Pico de Gallo.”
Future Islands – “Seasons (Waiting on You)”
I discovered this synthpop band from Baltimore (by way of Greenville, North Carolina) after they killed it on Letterman. Just watch that Marlon Brando-looking frontman move. Samuel T. Herring dances in a way that’s really awkward and really cool at the same time. He gestures like a Shakespearean actor (or Marlon Brando) amidst the throes of a particularly emotional soliloquy. Herring sings with soul, ranging from breathless gasps to guttural screams. I don’t know how long I spent watching the performance when I found it, but I’ve watched it five times while writing this.
French Kiwi Juice
Welcome to the dance-centric realm of SlackPost! First up is FKJ, a dreadlocked, half-French, half-New Zealander producer based in Paris and signed to Roche Musique, which boasts an impressive roster of house artists including Cézaire, Zimmer, Darius, Cherokee, and Kartell. FKJ is my favorite of the bunch because of his distinctive funk-based sound, which sees him playing multiple instruments on his groovy productions and remixes. When performing, he often employs live guitar, bass, and keyboard loops, and to top it all off, he’s also a great traditional DJ with a penchant for including both obscure and popular tracks from wide-ranging genres into his set lists.
A wonderfully talented and soulful Aussie who is money on the keys, has released two great EPs, and has starred on many other artists’ productions (including FKJ’s) as a vocalist. Rakei’s own work seamlessly blends soul, rock, and even some reggae. His cover of Kiwi band Fat Freddy’s Drop’s “Blackbird” arguably surpasses the original and was one of the great musical discoveries of my year. The best part? How Rakei incorporates the memorable keyboard riff from D’Angelo’s “Lady.”
Hey, speaking of D’Angelo, HE’S BACK! While his latest album (and first in 14 years) Black Messiah only came out this past month, I had to mention him because 1) I’ve been listening to the new album nonstop, 2) it’s great, and 3) I’ve also been listening to D (his first two albums) all year anyway. Black Messiah can’t hold a candle to Voodoo, and it never should have been expected to, but it doesn’t matter; D’Angelo is an incredible artist to whom I listened for several days each month last year, and now I’ll forever have 12 additional songs to vibe out to whenever I return to his discography.
LATE 70s & EARLY 80s BLACK DANCE MUSIC!
The best kind of music. (Side note: all the kids losing their minds over Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk” have no idea that it’s a straight rip-off of stuff from 30+ years ago, right?) The following artists and songs were essential to my 2014. They were also instrumental in starting and maintaining several phenomenal dance parties.
- Sister Sledge
- Mary Jane Girls
- 80s Aretha
- Prince: I was planning on linking to “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” but then I remembered that Prince basically doesn’t allow anything of his to be on YouTube.
- Oliver Cheatham
- The Whispers
- Rose Royce
- Kool & The Gang
- Cheryl Lynn
- Rick James
These boys are bad, bad dudes. Of all the names I’m listing here, I think I listened to Snakehips the most in 2014. Give ‘em a whirl, bask in the glory of their signature blend of hip hop and electronic dance music, and if you’re in New York on January 8th, come with to their show in Brooklyn.
The best way to describe this Dane’s productions? Lush.
Hot Natured feat. Róisín Murphy – “Alternate State”
Lovely record, stellar guest appearance from Miss Murphy of Moloko fame, my go-to chillout track of the year. Even though it came out in 2013.
This is likely insulting to the two members of Billon because they have a sound all their own, but I like to think of them as Disclosure 2.0. I say that partly because I just want to get you to check them out, but also because it’s shorthand for “impressively polished, old-school UK house created by two English teens.” Members Ed and Robbie have a sophisticated ear for dance music that belies their years and proved as much when I saw them live this fall: their set featured many of their own fantastic productions, Disclosure-produced and former SlackPost RJOTW “J.A.W.S,” their new remix of former RJOTW artist Lion Babe’s “Jump Hi,” and a bunch of other tracks I loved. So I guess I’m saying their taste aligns perfectly with mine, but whatever. They didn’t play a single song I disliked, and that’s the most you can ask for from a DJ set.
Exmag (originally Extraordinary Magnitude) is a Brooklyn-based collaboration between Eric Mendelson, Mike Iannatto, SuperNicer, ILLUMNTR, and Gramatik. They play an awesome mixture of funk and electronic music, dubbed “future soul.” Their debut Proportions, released in late 2013 on Lowtemp, served as the soundtrack to most of my life during the early months of 2014. It’s also available for free. Bonus: check out Exmag’s dope mashup of their track “Proportions” and Blackstreet’s “No Diggity.”
One of the most important DJs ever. For developing the genre in 1980s Chicago, he was rightfully nicknamed the Godfather of House Music. When he passed away in March, countless musical tributes were offered up by artists from all corners of the dance community. And while I’m ashamed to say I only began listening to Frankie after he died, I was surprisingly delighted by his brand of super-old-school, vocal- and piano-driven house, which I’d previously considered corny but which actually struck all the right chords with me. Frankie Knuckles was simply really, really good. RIP.