It’s that time of year again. I’m being bombarded by Top Ten/Twenty/Fifty/Hundred music lists. I suppose that, as someone with a background in music scholarship and as a fairly seasoned critic, I should view them with wry amusement – sometimes scoffing at other critics’ choices, sometimes sagely agreeing. But that’s never been how I react to them.
Rather, these lists provoke anxiety: Why haven’t I heard this? Why didn’t I like that when others did? Where are my favourites? At the heart of this anxiety is the constant feeling that I’m not keeping up with the endless, unstoppable flood of new music. So a ‘Best Of’ list is an occasion for me to scurry off to stream, download or (shock horror) buy the things I missed; ‘a bit of fun’ it ain’t.
In my less neurotic moments though, I realize that part of the problem with Best Of lists is that they seem to assume that critics exist in a continuous year-long present. You don’t put something from ten years ago on your list (unless it’s a reissue), but why shouldn’t that be your favourite piece of music of the year? And there’s something distinctly archaic about the album still being the basic unit of analysis. Why shouldn’t an individual track or even an individual riff be worthy of highlighting?
So my Best Of list for this year contains some items that you’ll find on other lists. It also contains stuff that is entirely personal. This is a ‘real’ Best Of list, in all its bizarreness. I’m not saying that other Best Of lists are lies, but…
10. The Same Stuff I Always Listen To
I have a small number of tracks in my personal canon that have accompanied everywhere I go for the last decade or so (ever since I’ve had an MP3 player). At home, at work or anywhere else, whenever life is looking too complicated, exhausting or frustrating, these are what I turn to first. Stuff does get added to it, but slowly and suspiciously. I need guaranteed joy sometimes and it can take years for music to enter into my valhallah.
The song that probably gives me more joy than another is ‘Male Stripper’ by Man 2 Man. I love ’80s hi nrg gay dance music. I love its irresponsible defiance in the face of the cataclysm the gay community was facing at the time. And I love ‘Male Stripper’ most of all, for its glorious narcissism and its unabashed sexual flamboyance.
9. Morgul: Lost in Shadows Grey
Over the last year or two I’ve been writing about how metal faces a ‘crisis of abundance’, in which music loses its aura and preciousness amid the flood of online content. One of the strategies I’ve suggested is to deliberately destabilize the canon through revalorizing mediocrity in metal. In 2015, I will publish a fuller discussion of mediocrity in metal. This year, I’ve been exploring mediocrity through repeated listens to the mid-level ’90s Norwegian black metal band Morgul’s album Lost in Shadows Grey, as I threatened to do in an article on Souciant last year.
Despite this intensive listening, the album still stubbornly refuses to give up its secrets. It’s still okayish, it’s still not too bad. For better or for worse though, Morgul formed an integral part of my sounds of 2014.
8. John Shuttleworth: ‘I Can’t Go Back to Savoury Now’
John Shuttleworth – retired Sheffield security guard, singer songwriter and altar ego of British comedian Graham Fellows – is a constant presence in my family. “I Can’t Go Back To Savoury Now’ is a tragic tale in which Shuttleworth recounts the ‘calamity’ of not being able to have a second portion of Shepherd’s Pie after finishing his desert. Barely a day goes by when my wife, my kids or myself do not reference it in some way. It is the sound of family life in all its absurdity. Of course, it came out years ago, but 2014 saw the song embed itself even further into the Kahn-Harris conscience collective.
7. Metal ‘Best Of’ List Fodder
As usual, I’ve tried to cover at least the most commonly-cited metal release of the year – the sort of thing that is at least considered when ‘Best Of’ lists are compiled. It’s the usual mixed bag: some disappointments (the new At The Gates) some triumphs (the new Godflesh), some perennial favourites (Blut Aus Nord, Yob, Earth, Agalloch), some pleasant surprises (the new Judas Priest) and at least one album generally seen as disappointing that I loved (Mastodon). There’s plenty more, but I don’t keep track of what I listen to on streaming media so it’s often forgotten (for good and for ill).
6. Triptykon: Melana Chasmata
The second Triptykon album will make plenty of end of year ‘Best Ofs.’ It’s on mine too, but I take a perverse delight in my suspicion that I love Triptykon in a different way to most metal critics and fans. The thing is that I never much liked Celtic Frost – a blasphemy it’s taken me years to come out and pronounce publicly – and I think that Tom G. Warrior is producing his best work now in Triptykon. When I saw them live in London in early December, I spent much of the time silently chuckling to myself that I appear to be channeling Steve Coogan’s middlebrow TV presenter Alan Partridge – who believes that Wings were ‘the band the Beatles could have been.’
5. Eurovision 2014
I love Eurovision and no I’m not being ironic and no I’m not ashamed to say so. Aside from the wondrous absurdity of the event, the show always serves up – amid the dross, some of it ‘so bad it’s good’, some of it simply bad – some delightful slices of pop. This year, two entries stuck in the mind. The first, Aarzemnieki from Latvia’s ‘Cake to Bake’ was a delightfully cute piece of naïve folk-pop that bizarrely failed to make the final. The second, The Common Linnets from the Netherlands were the surprise runner up with ‘Calm After the Storm’, which baffled many because, in it’s understated power, it was quite unlike anything you’d expect at Eurovision (and yes I know the backbeat was stolen from ‘Every Breath You Take’ but who the hell cares?).
4. The entire Husker Du back catalogue
Last summer I picked up a second hand copy of Andrew Earle’s biography of Husker Du. As a biography it’s illuminating and infuriating in equal measures (the author refuses to delve into the personal lives of the band more than nominally). Reading it though rekindled my love of the band. I hadn’t listened to their work in years but spurred on by the book, I revisited their entire back catalogue. Some of it has dated pretty badly (the production on Metal Circus for instance, is flimsily shrill) but many of their songs are ageless and their productivity puts most contemporary acts to shame. Curiously, Land Speed Record, their 1981 live album, is still magnetically compelling for all its out of time drums, indecipherable vocals and all-out messiness.
I’ve been dabbling in noise for a few years now, but I’m ashamed to admit that I hadn’t picked up on Vomir and harsh noise wall until 2014. Romain Perrot (Mr Vomir)’s noise wall manifesto is my kind of document – an uncompromising definition of noise as completely blank, meaningless and outside of time. The sound of Vomir has no space, development or focus. It simply exists. Like the best extreme metal, it has an awareness of its own absurdity, particularly when Perrot performs motionless, with a plastic bag over his head. Again and again in 2014 I’ve returned to the following Vomir performance on youtube. Watch it to the end (SPOILER: absolutely nothing happens).
2. Metallica playing ‘Creeping Death’ at Glastonbury
There are so many reasons to despise Metallica: Lars is a pillock, they haven’t released a good album in years, Napster etc etc. Like many other metal fans, I was skeptical when it was announced the band were playing Glastonbury in June 2014. It seemed less like a triumphant metalisation of a previously metalfrei space, than a final inglorious validation of the band’s drift towards classic rock irrelevance. Well, I was wrong. From the moment they started up their set with ‘Creeping Death’ it was clear that something special was happening. What took my breath away was this: a band that had achieved every conceivable ambition several times over was hungry for the gig. They still had the passion, the desire to conquer an audience. And, magically, the audience responded. Sincerity sometimes seems like idiocy in our cynical era, but Metallica showed us that it can be powerful, principled and thrilling.
1. Sunn 0))) and Scott Walker Soused
Here, my own ‘Best Of’ list and that of many critics coincides. I’m too old to have a favourite band, but Sunn 0))) are my favourite band. And I’ve been baffled and thrilled by Scott Walker’s idiosyncratic oeuvre since 1995’s Tilt. So I guess I was primed for Soused. Remarkably I was not disappointed. Unlike Sunn0 )))’s previous collaboration with Ulver (which I felt compromised both acts’ sounds), both parties in Soused seemed to enhance the other. In retrospect that should have been no surprise as they share an aesthetic: both push a hackneyed formula (Sunn0 ))) – the metal riff, Walker – the croon) to its absolute limits, to the point where it is simultaneously broken and affirmed. Soused is at once a chin-stroking, hipster-attracting, The Wire-reading excursion into the avant garde, and a playful, witty box of delights. Most importantly, every time I listen to it, I hear new things and discover new sounds. Soused is unlikely to make it into my personal pantheon of comfort music along with ‘Male Stripper’ – it’s too damn difficult for that – but I have a feeling that it’s going to be staying with me long after the 2014 ‘Best Of’ lists are forgotten.
Photograph courtesy of Webzine Chuul. Published under a Creative Commons license.