‘Big Band’ is a genre that has firm associations with the war period, a style of music lost in time but remembered with fond nostalgia. When I discovered Fire! Orchestra, I was excited. A modern avant-big band group with nearly thirty musicians? Hard not to get excited just thinking about what it could sound like. This year, they released ‘Enter’, a four part album totally nearly an hour. Splitting the album into four parts is pretty arbitrary though, since the whole thing is designed to be listened to in its entirety – some editions of the album divide it into just two parts.
Would I reccomend listening to the entire thing? In all honesty, I was a little dissapointed. Perhaps the ‘avant’ part of the sound was a little too, well, avant for me at times. Yes, a quarter of the album is one of the vocalist creating a noise that sounds like she’s trying to screech as high pitched as she can, without quite making the sound, while various horned instruments and double basses play entirely random sequences – all in the name of jazz, amirite?
It’s not the easiest listen, but one thing I know for sure – it pays off. Making into my top song list this year is the grand finale of the record, and calling it grand is hardly an understatement. Perhaps part of it is just hearing a cohesive melody for the first time in nearly half an hour, but when the cheesy rock organ riff comes in, it’s time for curtain-close. As the same short melody repeats, the whole song gradually builds, huge sounding trumpets, crashing drums and powerful vocals eventually escalate to create an album finisher that Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ should be jealous of. When the trumpets and trombones start doing their own thing, the song just flourishes with life, like among all the debris, a party in a city of thousands is held. And in an instance, it all goes quite again as the organ plays its riff just a couple more times, before holding that last night, and then – silence.
Proper album finishers are hard to come by, but this record might just hold one of my favourites, this song is larger than both life and death.
It’s surprising to think that The Roots, even today, are still creating relevant music. Known for their political charged lyrics and strong use of original instrumentation, they are possibly the most critically acclaimed and respected Hip Hop groups of all time – their 90s classic ‘Things Fall Apart’ is still frequently listed as one of the greatest albums of all time.
This year The Roots released perhaps their most daring, experimental and controversal records to date. At just over 32 minutes, ‘…and then you shoot your cousin’ is a concept album by design, with each song unfolding a powerful story of urban violence and desperation. But it hasn’t entirely been met with praise, with some saying it feels too confused, too distant from being a traditional Hip Hop record to work. It’s certainly true – the album tries to accomplish an awful lot in such a short time, and it often feels like it’s all rushed past you before you can really understand it. Still, it’s an album with some really strong album to those willing to be more open minded about its form.
As with all concept albums, a strong opener needs to set the mood, get you excited and introduce you to the characters and environments. ‘Never’ is that song on ‘…and then you shoot your cousin’, and is one of biggest, boldest Hip Hop songs of the year. Opening with a choir of voices, leading into the booming pianos and vocals from Patty Crash who somehow seems to perfect soundtrack a helicopter shot flying over the city of Philadelphia with just a few words. But then it all retreats, and focuses tightly into a single character, as the song strips down to just drums and Black Thought introduces us to the thoughts of the album’s protagonist – painting his sense of hopelessness. Finally the song returns to the beginning, then ends with one last crashing piano chord. This song is like the perfect pilot episode, just making you itch to find out what happens next, and what it might sound like.
My favourite song from last year, ‘Immunity’ by Jon Hopkins, won my heart over by it’s twinkling piano and synthetic vocals – it was a song that even to this day I can switch on and instantly and submerge myself in it’s dreamy soundscapes. Needless to say, I was super excited when I heard that Jon Hopkins was releasing a follow up EP to his 2013 release, taking the gentle sound of ‘Immunity’ and expanding on it. The EP even opens with a stripped down version of the song, but it would be cheating to include that song again in my 2014 list.
Instead, I’ve gone with the second song on this EP ‘Form By Firelight’. Slightly more upbeat that ‘Immunity’, ‘Form By Firelight’ flutters and dances rather than twinkles, but remains equally as dreamy. Perfect to, as the album art suggests, imagine yourself flying over a forest in the dead of night. And that’s what works about this style of Hopkins’ work, although it’s unquestionably electronic, no synths or synthetic sounds are found, instead acoustic instruments and percussion are skewed and played with, giving it a really hearty, rich sound that’s completely unique. Finally, Raphaelle Standell’s vocals are indecipherable, but work perfectly with the instrumentation to heighten the sense of atmosphere. A perfect song to work to.
Two years after the release of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘good kid m.A.A.d.’ city and it’s influence is still very palpable. Artists have demonstrated their influence in different ways – some producing what sounds like carbon copies of his work, like Logic’s ‘Under Pressure’, where the title track sounds almost nail-bitingly similiar to Kendrick’s ‘Sing About Me (I’m Dying Of Thirst’).
And speaking about dying of thirst, here we have what is my favourite derivative of this new, mellow direction of West Coast Hip Hop. ‘The Water[s]’ is a mixtape from Mick Jenkins that is, in many ways, a concept album that features 15 songs all about our, well, water. Jenkins takes this themeatic approach and runs with it, using it as a oppertunity to build really powerful poetry at times, taking water as metaphor or simply exploring it’s importance as the most life providing substance on earth. And as the album art suggests, all the songs here are perfect for floating to the bottom of the ocean to.
The song that has always grabbed me the most, however, is ‘Healer’. Kendrick fans might argue that it leans dangerously close to sounding like ‘Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe’, both using smooth electric guitar to rest the lyrics on, and using both male and female vocals to provide both a male and female voice to the situation, allowing the listener to obtain both sides. Jenkins uses the song as a reflective moment to discuss his experiences with poverty, and how he finds joy in life by spending time with the person he loves. My favourite verse describes his time relaxing and talking despite his problems:
“We was at Starbucks gettin’ lost in these carmel apple spices
Conversation all but priceless, topics ranged from the innermost thoughts to all the trifling shit on Worldstar
And other solar systems, and other planets of people, and how close our worlds are”
A really perceptive use of wordplay that’s as easy to get lost to as the guitar. As though the song couldn’t get any more chill, a final verse from female artist Jean Deux may just be the most relaxed verse in history, a perfect way to end one of the smoothest songs of the year.
Kicking off this year’s Jam Awards is Open Mike Eagle. While Hip Hop has certainly found it’s way into the mainstream in recent years, usually by shoe-horning itself as a verse into the latest pop song, some of the best stuff is still found in the nooks and crannies of the Hip Hop community, which is probably one of the most progressive and open music communities out there. Open Mike Eagle , with his frizzy hair and tendency to wear neck-ties, is an underground Hip Hop artist who also happens to be a fairly normal bloke. He drips the odd bit of comedy into his songs, and chooses to rap about his thoughts in intriguingly abstract ways. His beats are also delightfully out of left field, and perhaps the song that demonstrates that best is my choice, ‘Thirsty Ego Raps’.
It was a nail-bitingly close match up between that and his song ‘Very Much Money’ which revolves around how despite everyone having their own amazing talents and skills, everyone is struggling to get by, with perhaps my favourite lyric of 2014 – short and simple: “My friends are superheroes, none of us have very much money though”.
‘Thirsty Ego Raps’ delves much deeper into the abstract though, both lyrically and sonically. Simply put, when I first heard the song I had absolutely no idea what was going on, and I loved it. The lead synth dances around almost randomly, ducking in and out of audibility, occasionally peaking over the percussion to see what’s going on, and the bass melody is equally as sporadic. The closer you listen to what’s going on, the harder it is to concentrate – it’s almost a necessity here to surrender yourself to the madness. Open Mike himself provides forward-thinking lyrics with an inticing sense of urgency, especially compared to his more laid-back delivery style he has in his other songs. And that’s what makes this song so engaging to listen to, it finds the perfect balance between being fast-paced and in-your-face while remaining dreamy and spacious. Open Mike Eagle defines his work as ‘art rap’, and that might just be accurate – a refreshingly different direction to a tried and tested formula.