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Nobody Put Out a Great Album in 2014

on December 23, 2014, 1:00pm

Component is a section of  Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Chris Bosman returns to music writing, telling us that our year-end celebration of music just may not be as jolly as we make out.

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Nobody put out a great album in 2014. Nobody did. A lot of people put out good albums, and a few people even put out some very good albums. But no one made an unassailable masterpiece. You’re going to see some publications that weren’t able to put Beyoncé’s self-titled record on or near the top of their 2013 lists, so they put it on or near the top of their 2014 lists, but that’s the closest this year got to producing a masterpiece.

That’s caused some very interesting dominos to fall. Because of the lack of a true, universally-approved, Triple A, Number One record of the year, you’re going to see a lot of publications show their truest colors regarding the tastes of their staff, like how Rolling Stone tried to make us care about that U2 computer virus of a record. And it also means that literally none of 2014’s most popular records are unquestionable.

And I have questions about some of these records, their creators, and their listeners.

The Hotelier – Home, Like Noplace Is There

QUESTION: Who the fuck anointed the Hotelier?

Don’t take that question the wrong way. Home, Like Noplace Is There ended up as one of my very favorite records of the year, but how did they end up as the de facto face of the emo revival?

Oh, and sidebar: stop saying the term “emo revival” was inaccurate or insulting. What happened in early 2014 was an emo revival. Just because you listened to Say Anything a few times in May of last year doesn’t mean that emo was in the popular music-listening consciousness of 2013. Meanwhile, it was in the popular music-listening consciousness this year.

Which brings us back to the question of, why the Hotelier? The differences musically between them and the litany of bands and albums that fell under that emo revival umbrella — to name a few: Paws’ Youth Culture Forever, Modern Baseball’s You’re Gonna Miss It All, You Blew It!’s Keep Doing What You’re Doing, Fireworks’ Oh, Common Life — were so minute as to be mostly a matter of personal aesthetics.

Yet it’s the Hotelier of all those bands and albums that is getting the call on all these year-end lists, as their representative piece of “We were in on this movement, guys!” Yes, Home featured slightly stronger songwriting, but it mostly trafficked in the exact right form of melodrama for twentysomethings who had to hear about Cursive from their older brothers.

Future – Honest

QUESTION: What the actual fuck, Nayvadius Cash?

I don’t have any questions about Honest as an album. It was and still is a great rap record. I just can’t find it in myself to give a shit after dude was found cheating on Ciara. On Ciara. “Body Party” Ciara. “1 2 Step” Ciara. This Ciara.

There’s a long-standing argument, especially in music critic circles, that what an artist presents or represents morally should not factor into the critical assessment of their music. Okay, sure fine. I won’t factor into my view of Honest that a few months after Ciara returned his engagement ring, Future teamed with the increasingly dayglo rave mop-looking Wiz Khalifa for a gross song called “Pussy Overrated”. I won’t factor into my view of Honest that I think cheating is reprehensible. I won’t factor into my view of Honest that I think if you’re going to say getting with your girl is the equivalent of winning at life, then maybe you should mean that (and maybe we should have realized that Future wasn’t that great of a partner when he called his wife-to-be a trophy?).

So, critical assessment: Honest is a really great rap record. The opening trio of “Look Ahead”, “T-Shirt”, and “Move That Dope” is as explosive as any military incendiary device. Andre 3000’s verse on “Benz Friendz (Whatchutola)” is one of the best guest verses of the half-decade. And the billowing delicacy of “Blood, Sweat, Tears” could carry your incapacitated body to Valhalla and get you accepted there all on its own.

But I’m never going to listen to it again. Because what the actual fuck, Nayvadius Cash?

Sam Smith – In the Lonely Hour

QUESTION: Which music critic had their puppy kicked by Sam Smith right before “Stay with Me” came out?

When he was just the dude on “Latch”, the party line I heard on Smith was that he was an incredible untapped talent. A powerhouse singer whose ridiculous vocal instrument had been missing from pop radio since Adele. Hell, even when he did first hit the radio — in those nascent days of “Stay with Me” climbing up the charts — that conversation didn’t seem to shift much.

But once that single reached ubiquity? Wow. The knives sharpened on Smith like In the Lonely Hour was delivered not to radio but to a butcher’s shop. Suddenly people had a problem with his production choices, his approach to homosexuality; hell, even his once unquestioned vocal prowess was sometimes being characterized as “too showy.”

Look, I understand the oversaturation argument. I just disagree with it. If something is good, it doesn’t matter if it gets played a hundred thousand times an hour; it’s still good. (I call this the “Float On” corollary.) And In the Lonely Hour is good. The record’s passion — Smith’s passion — makes the universal themes present within the record personal, and arguments that the record’s isolated, dramatic production is too smooth or too rote simply ring false.

Some of the backlash is probably because Smith is reluctant to try on any hat other than balladeer on his debut record (aside from opener “Money on My Mind”), despite critics knowing he’s really quite good working with, in, and around club beats. Not since Antony crushed “Hercules’ Theme” has a singer shown himself to be so capable of not only existing but thriving within the multi-faceted, intricate layers of talented dance producers. But don’t hold that against Smith’s pre-breakup breakup record. Dude may have worn his heart on his sleeve, but it’s a pretty big heart, and it’s a pretty attractive sleeve.

Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence

QUESTION: Are we going to admit that we were wrong about Born to Die?

Of course Lana Del Rey’s sophomore album was going to be critically acclaimed. Why? Because the reason her first album was panned had nothing to do with her first album and everything to do with wounded music critic pride. What critics thought her debut single, “Video Games”, would herald ended up being wrong, and rather than engage with what Del Rey wanted her sound to be, they lashed back on the basis of what they wished it was.

The differences between Ultraviolence and Born to Die are important, sure. Namely, the songcraft is more fully realized, Del Rey’s voice seems more confident, and her weird attempts at incorporating hip-hop into her sound have been toned down. But those differences are also subtle rather than obvious, better calculated in inches than miles. What’s most changed between her two records is perception; we have a clearer picture of who Lana Del Rey is and who she wants to be.

Admittedly, Ultraviolence is a better autobiography of Del Rey than Born to Die. But to dismiss the latter is to dismiss the singer’s highest highs. “Video Games”, “Blue Jeans”, “Radio”, and even the non-remixed version of “Summertime Sadness” are better than anything off the former. While Born to Die had lower lows than Ultraviolence, it also had higher highs. Let’s stop pretending that Del Rey’s purported musical change between her two records is anything more than music critics starting to take her more on her own terms.

Ultraviolence is a good record, too. It’s both more self-aware than its predecessor and more willing to willfully ignore that self-awareness in service to committing more to a song’s themes. It definitely indicates that Del Rey is growing more confident in her musical aspirations. But critics should also be setting aside pride and re-examining Born to Die as it is and not as they wanted it to be.

FKA Twigs – LP1

QUESTION: How is this record both better and worse than people say it is?

I’ve seen some very passionate and vocal people staking out two camps regarding this record. The first camp sees LP1’s popularity cynically, as media-created nonsense, and that she’s dating Robert Pattison now somehow has something to do with that. The second is lauding FKA twigs’ debut as groundbreaking and utterly unique.

First, let’s get this out of the way: the popularity of LP1 is not a conspiracy theory. There wasn’t a covert, darkened room of music critics steepling their fingers while saying, “Yes, first we’ll all give her album a positive review, and then we’ll set her up with the guy from Twilight to ensure even more people tweet about her!” That didn’t happen. Nothing like it happened. Stop it. You’re embarrassing yourselves.

LP1 has been evolving holistically over the past two years, since 2012, when Twigs put out the four-song EP1 and each song had an accompanying, powerful video. And, brother, her musical and multimedia artistic excursions have only matured since then. LP1 wasn’t a media creation; it was the natural evolution of an artist who had been putting in work for two years. It sounds fuller, more realized, more patient, and more considered than anything she’d done previously. Its popularity, both critically and commercially, was earned.

But, like … the people whose only complaint is that they think it’s boring? They aren’t totally off either. LP1 has some dizzying high points — when the hydra falsetto chorus kicks in on “Two Weeks” or when “Pendulum” finds the Edgar Allen Poe of its title in swinging nervously back and forth between claustrophobic minimalism and rich, warm layers of neon R&B — but it also has long stretches where its subtle tonal shifts and instrumental changes lack enough of a payoff to justify their elongated stretches of tension.

Twigs is too good not to have a masterpiece in her. That’s been apparent since she scored EP1 standout “Ache” with a slomo closeup of a dude wearing a deconstructed Air Jordan on his face. But that record unfortunately isn’t LP1.

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