This year didn’t necessarily have one of those knock-out records, no one album that made us all turn our heads and react. And yet, in place of that, we got a year of remarkable consistency, with so many great records from so many corners of the musical world. So, in looking at what got overlooked in 2014, it’s nice to think of these records as part of that larger whole, as the kind that didn’t get their due not because we were distracted by lesser, more publicized albums, but because there was just so much great music to get through. These great albums remind us of the power of experimentation and tradition, energy and intricacy, discovery and getting lost. They are the finest of the unsung in 2014.
Dave Shuford released one great record this year with his D. Charles Speer project. But, late in 2014, he also recorded this, the third Rhyton album titled Kykeon. Shuford, Jimy SeiTang, and Rob Smith deliver a set of impressive improvised rock on the trio’s latest album, but it’s also a set rooted in deep traditions. These songs borrow from ancestral music, much of it from Middle Eastern and Greek traditions. They reach way back into history, pull those connective strings tight, and pluck away. The results are expansive, inventive, and excellent. “Topkapi” builds on Middle Eastern instrumentation and melodies, but also whips up a very modern swell of crashing drums and gauzy guitar layers. “Pannychis” incorporates funk and blues elements into the mix to provide some of the most danceable rock music of the year. Meanwhile, closer “The Striped Son” is the band at its most exploratory, letting elements clash and tangle, only to right their path and travel parallel to each other. Kykeon is a remarkable lesson in subtle textures creating immediate impact. But its greatest asset is how it doesn’t set modern rock in opposition to these other traditions, or how it uses one to contort or reframe the other. Instead, Kykeon takes a larger view and suggest that all of these sounds, all of these varying traditions, are connected, part of the same continuum of sound. It’s fascinating to think about, but even more bracing to just sit back and listen.
As far as overlooked years go, I could just talk about the 2014 Dirtnap Records had. They put out some great rock records, more than one label has any business putting out. But at the top of the heap of great records from the likes of the Steve Adamyk Band and Sugar Stems is Mistakes, the infectious new record from Montreal’s Sonic Avenues. From the howling, fuzzy blast of opener “Waiting for a Change”, it’s clear the band has hit its stride here. The guitars slash and buzz out in every direction, the rhythm section sprints ahead wild eyed. It’s what you think of when you think the term “garage rock”. And yet, it’s the melody that carries the day, that sweet chorus. The same goes for the jangly “Automatic” or the lean grind of “Teenage Brain”, which sounds like the perfect ode to Jay Reatard. The band also expands its propulsive energy into the more complex power-pop of “Lost and Found” or “In Your Head”, a song beset on all sides by moody guitar tones that cast long shadows. Mistakes strikes a perfect balance between aggressive energy and carefully built hooks, between the sweetness of pop and the grit of pure rock’n'roll. It suggests the power of garage rock, but also its capacity for innovation and surprise. There’s not a missed moment on the entire record, and in a year full of great rock records, Mistakes deserves a place near the top of that long list.
You’d think a band with members of Guided by Voices and the Decemberists would get more attention by default. But even without those connections, the pure psych-pop of 854 is exactly the kind of thing that should have gotten way more attention. These are lush and bittersweet tunes, from the rolling hooks and perfect melodies of “Seagull into Submission” to the swirling, down-the-rabbit-hole layers of “Psych #1” to the darker textures of echoing guitar on “Floating Underground”. This Northwest outfit shows its musical pedigree at every turn here, establishing a hazy pop focus and then pushing it in all directions. 854 is always catchy, but there’s an unsettling underbelly to these songs, sounds that grind against all that lush bittersweetness. The space-rock of “Mile to Wave” hints at the sly muscle under all these harmonies, all those blurred tones. “Everybody” peels back much of the miasma here to show the directness of the pop sensibility at play here. In short, 854 unfolds on you, and in the end is much more than it seems to be at first blush. It’s one of those records worth unpacking, mostly because it never feels like work.
Shane Parish, formerly Shane Perlowin, is best known for his work in the experimental jazz-rock outfit Ahleuchatistas. But Odei is his first solo record under his new name—he changed his name in honor of his grandmother—and it marks a brilliant new direction. The album is a solo guitar set, and it argues that obscure sounds and inviting ones are not mutually exclusive. The sequence of Odei jars you, messes with expectations. We go from the quick-fire rattle of “Blind Contour” to the ruminant, eight minutes of atmosphere of “The Swallow”, from the stately phrasings and rundowns of “Rare Cry Blue” to the percussive sound experiments of “Barricades”. As with Ahleuchatistas, you can’t help but feel the tensions here are as political as they are personal, but there’s also a sense of playfulness in all this expression, even a sense of escape. There’s something almost spiritual in the execution that aligns Parish with the likes of Robbie Basho. Unlike Basho, though, Parish carves out spaces, defines the quiet around him rather than filling it up. Odei is a remarkable album, one that surprises in a new way with each listen. It may also be the best experimental album of the year.
There were two Wooden Wand records this year: the cassette-only AZAG-TOTH and Farmer’s Corner. Both are, unsurprisingly, strong records, but Farmer’s Corner is the truly overlooked gem. After a couple records that leaned towards blues-rock and swampy jams, James Jackson Toth took this new sort of ragged edge and shaped a set of dusty folk tunes with it. Distant, tangled guitar fills scuff up the edges of the pastoral sweetness of “When the Trail Goes Cold”. “Dambuilding” melts at the edges with subtle pedal-steel sounds. The eight-minute “Port of Call” is mostly a straight-ahead guitar and vocals song, but bass and other atmospherics build out the song’s spare center to something far-reaching and beautiful. Farmer’s Corner is intimate but wide open, the kind of space that finds Toth still wandering—through fields, over roads, through emotions and states of being—but never sounding lost. Wooden Wand has found an impressive consistency over the past few years, and maybe it’s that body of strong work that let Farmer’s Corner slip through the cracks. But end-of-year lists are, if they’re good, a reason to go back and discover what we missed. You could a lot worse than start with this charming, worn, and heartbreaking set of songs.