Ahoy from your old pal Crawf! Every time I show up around here I have to say something like "long time no see!" or "sorry I've been away!" Which I am, of course. I've been keeping exceptionally busy as always, working a full-time day job, planning and organizing GOLDRUSH Music Festival, and listening to as much music as humanly possible. Sorry to be such a Tome-ghost lately, but I really appreciate Ryan giving me space here to air out specific thoughts when I need to, and I really want to thank him for keeping this platform going the entire time and killing it so hard in the process. Ryan's passion and enthusiasm for music is so apparent, he really does a great job of reporting on all the crazy shit that comes our way, and I'm honored to still be somewhat included when I can contribute. If you're interested in following me a little more closely throughout the upcoming year, feel free to look for my work at Tiny Mix Tapes and Decoder Magazine, and of course I'll be checking in with team-TOME periodically with reviews and commentary on this wonderful, weird wide world of crazy ass music.
This article began as a list of 50 albums. Pretty quickly I realized I'd never be able to pull something like that off, so I pared it down to 30. Then I decided to just focus on tapes. Then I pared that down to 20, when I realized there was no way in hell I'd be able to pull off 30. And so that brings me to the following... TWENTY tapes that I found to be indespensible in 2014. And of course this thing is a total disaster. I received and reviewed so many cassettes, and have yet to review so many more (still working on it), so consider this a "running" list instead of anything definitive, and maybe look for another installment soon if I can muster the strength. Truly, there's never been a better time to be a music fan, or to own a good cassette deck, so if you haven't taken the plunge yet, here are 20 good reasons to do so right away. I numbered these only to keep track of how many write-ups I had going, so please don't consider these ranked in any way, and enjoy!
1. David Lackner
Synthetic Love Dream
( Galtta Media )
Is New York paying attention to David Lackner yet? His jazz-leaning Galtta label was a bit quieter than it has been in previous years, but that didn't stop the two releases he did put out from both being complete and total knockouts. Granted, Adrian Knight's neo-90s-sitcom jazz-pop tape was a glitzy show-stealer (more on that later...), but Lackner's compositions for this work, beautifully rendered in the cover artwork by his wife Gabrielle Muller, were just as delicately performed and positively oozed with... well, "cool" is close, but doesn't fully capture this one's hypnotic hums and fiery flicker, all set to the pace of something like 40 beats-per-minute. Two minimalist jazz pieces, smokey, inter-weaving tenor sax solos over the droning sidetone keyboard Knight lays down with astonishing poise, and 2014's most patient drummer ever-grooving into this record's black hole of sheer mood. Hey, Side A features some kick-ass vocals by Lydia Lunch, too. If you live in Brooklyn and haven't seen these cats perform yet, you're crazy and I kind of hate you a little.
( Pygmi Animals )
Apparently Phoebé Guillemot's laptop and file storage gear was recently stolen, effectively ending RAMZi, the brilliant Montréalite beat-maker, as we currently know her. WHAT?! This cannot be. And if it is, that only makes this document all the more important. Bébites is but a hint, only a gesture as to the limits sounds can go toward making one's booty shake. I finally reviewed this one a bit ago after spending weeks looking for the words, and now here it is in front of me again... and I have few more to offer. I'll stick with the B's this time and try to keep it quick: Bizarre. Bonkers. Of a new Breed. Buhhhhh.......... Really, I just can't recommend her work enough, and I know whatever the next iteration of Guillemot's distinguished sound is, it'll be just as perplexing, fascinating, alien, and altogether wonderful. So here's to new beginnings, ay?
3. Huckleberry Friend / Various Artists
Upload Leaves - Delete Fragment
( Singapore Sling )
The only thing I love (an eensy, teensy little bit) more than Singapore Sling's catalog of "album" tapes from their artist roster is the sub-catalog they have of label curator (and really excellent collage and video artist) Huckleberry Friend's mixtapes. This was one of the stranger "Spring" seasonal mixes I've ever heard, and at first listen it just didn't make any sense to me whatsoever. But the more I melted into these Reggae terrors on my many May bike rides, those backwards bass lines, those warped rhythms and screeching hyper-sonics, the more it just didn't matter. With selections from the above-raved-about RAMZi, Andy Boay, Seth Graham, High Wolf, Komodo Haunts, and a shitload more I didn't even know about until I got this tape, Upload Leaves doubles as a glance into electronic muisic's continued elusive sprawl and the lengths to which artists are going these days to operate in new compositional spaces and frameworks within the contemporary moment. A terrific variety of the endless curiosities that all come together to underscore the real underground of 2014, with whatever grace a mix of weird-ass music like this can have.
4. Phipps pt
Kiss Me So Many Times You Can't Count My Love
( Sanity Muffin )
Here's the thing... this tape came out in 2013. *ducks*. Whatever, guys! This only came to my mailbox a couple of weeks ago, and I've clocked enough plays on this sucker that I just can't not include it in this little (hah!) 2014 recap. This album almost immediately grew to become a part of me from my very first listen. Truly, though — the voice of Lovage Sharrock has become a mole on my neck, permanently tattooed to my very being, calming me when I'm getting stressed out and encouraging me to plow through a tough job when I hit a road block. A performance of heart-melting ballads dipped in an ice-bath of reverb, and you're just above it all, breathing in the ensuing steam and gaining its strength by osmosis. Sweet sweetness, holy holiness; it's just lovely, complete with a haunting rendition of Robert Wyatt's "Sea Song" to boot. This is the only thing I've heard by this woman, and I'm already convinced she's one of the most over-looked and under-appreciated artists of our day. I'll begrudgingly end here: For fans of Grouper. But don't let my laziness and inability to articulate fool you! Grouper, this ain't, and that's ok for both Phipps pt and for Grouper. And for you, too, trust me. Pro-tip: Sanity Muffin releases can be hard to track down digital copies of, so it’s wise to hop on their tapes while they’re still available. (Major hint).
5. Sad Horse
Purple on Purple Makes Purple
( Field Hymns )
I think a lot of people must think tapes these days are reserved for the typical ultra-noise or ultra-ambient folks. And certainly those are there (and appear all over this damned list, you betcha), but hell if the cassette isn't also a terrific medium for your bread'n'butter punk rock. And I heard a healthy number of great new bands doing shit with drums on tape this year, but this Portland duet kind of edged itself into the rack I'm writing about right now, only because it was so damned rude to me. Sad Horse kicked me in the stomach, gave me the finger, and then a big-ole, wet, sloppy smack on the lips. Then they fucked up the beat and then they blasted me with a chorus right when I was getting ready to punch them back. Too much sitting down in 2014. Get on your feet, fucker, and do something that might hurt a little. You need the pain. Take it, swallow it down. Rage it. Rage it right.
6. Couples Counseling
Couples Counseling was the sound I wanted for pop music this year. Interesting syncopations using a variety of popcorn-percussive textures, simple verse/chorus refrains drifting between cleverly composed interludes... but the real sell here is that voice of Virginia de las Pozas', multi tracked into prismatic harmonies that twist themselves into these easy-breezy melodies. Bonus: Couples Counseling has to be the best make-out tape of the year, especially for cassette dorks like us... just give me a day or two to try and get the timing right and I'll let you know how it goes.
It's Always There
( Tape Drift )
So, it was a great year for synth-pop, rock, guitar, ambient… what about noise? Honestly I couldn’t really totally completely say whether or not it was a good or bad year for noise (I’m guessing it was?), but there were definitely a couple of tapes/artists that turned my head, and one of them was Millions, AKA David Suss. “Noise,” I guess is a stretch, as here we have a lot of drone, some ambience, power electronics and then plenty of… well, I guess just noise. A Brooklynite who spends equal amounts of attention to textural detail, harmonic balance, timing and dynamics, all coming together in compositions best served cold… and fucking LOUD. All-immersive, stunning beauty, and also pretty damned frightening when it wants to be, Millions was the total package. Suss also released an excellent tape with 905 tapes this year as well, and shows no signs of slowing down into 2015, so here's looking forward.
8. Marcus Rubio
The Land of Disenfranchisement
I'm trying to think of other albums that came out this year that had an honest to god overture in them. Scratch that, albums that came out in the past decade? Rubio’s quasi light-opera approach and careful compositional arranging on this tape was fresh and inventive amidst his clearly strong sense for creating catchy melodic leads with clever wordplay. I've heard some of his earlier work, and he's always shown a real deft ability to combine styles and genres in a unique way, but this album is full of tracks with much more fully-realized and rounded shapes to them, all the while emphasizing the pop elements just enough to make this one universally approachable, engaging and a hopelessly fun listen.
9. Caroline Says
50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong
I noted several times over the course of the year how odd I felt like it was that I was reviewing so much... you know, normal music. Rock and roll tapes. Is the cassette really just a fad band-bands are clinging onto? If they are, does it matter? Answer: Fucking hell no. Reason: I got to be introduced to amazing new groups like Caroline Says, who whipped up a batch of super simple California pop for this album, plucked plaintively from the clean channels of their amplifiers to the tune of a pitch-perfect vocalist with a voice so buttery you can feel the pounds piling on as you listen. Through breezy, trotting tempos and downtrodden piano ballads alike, this tape proved the perfect warm-up for the chilly months and the best cool-down during my summer swelter. A crime that I never reviewed it during the regular calendar year, but maybe this'll make up for it?
10. Ballerine Nadiya
( Singapore Sling )
Singapore Sling had another incredible year. The Russian imprint has this silly habit of putting out music by emergent artists I’ve never heard of, all of whom are making their catchiest, hookiest, prettiest, weirdest, tape-flippin’est stuff. Seriously, their streak is just out of control, and this one from the mysterious Ballerine Nadiya was one of the more unique titles to cross my tape deck. Grown-up pop melodies eyed through the lenses of a seven year old’s pink heart-shaped sunglasses, Mr. Microphone in one hand and a wobbly Casiotone beneath the other. A really interesting adjunct to the mossy sounds of 4-tracked solo pop musicians these days, mostly coming out on Singapore Sling — this is one of the imprint’s very best releases to date (which is saying a lot lot lot), and maybe this whole style’s new flagship recording.
11. The Declining Winter
( Sanity Muffin )
2014 was full of breaths of fresh air from just about every direction, but none were fresher than whatever breeze blew in this crucial new material from Hood mastermind Richard Adams. Smooth tunes, a soft touch and salted with the slightest tear made Lost Songs a place where you wanted to find yourself spin after spin. Not just a tape, but a companion. Someone to walk around with you, talk to you in its low whispers, tell you secrets and groove with you, softly.
Fog and Other Memories
Brilliant follow-up to Tereshkova’s equally-brilliant release on Lillerne last year, I have a feeling this one got a bit lost in the fog of all the dozens of other amazing tapes Already Dead put out this year. Which is really a shame, because the more I listen to this project the more sold I am on the whole thing, even Jeff Lane’s knobby-kneed vocals. The songs this time around were so much more developed; deeper, wider, just bigger, all without leaving a shred of dead-space to fill, yet still managing a slender frame. Economically arranged songs presented in clear, concise terms, while at the same time completely suffocated in psychedelic effects. One of the freakishly-weirder approaches to pop music happening today, so it’s almost a stroke of luck that this also magically works out to be pretty easy to consume on a regular basis, even for the average listener. Hope 2015 treats this project right.
13. The Spookfish
( Singapore Sling )
Sometimes I wonder if it takes me as long as it does to write about tapes because... because I just want them all to myself. I know, that's incredibly anti-blogger of me, selfish, and even kind of rude. But The Spookfish dodged my review queue for a long time and I think it was because the music contained on this miniature album feels so exclusive to the listener, so instantly personal. Not only is the record a secret, but it's YOUR secret, just you and Dan Goldberg. We hung out a lot this year, me and this cassette, and I guess it just didn’t feel right sharing that with anyone else. Well, the tape is long sold-out by this point, but you can pick up a digital copy still, so spend some time with it yourself and get cozy with those warbly keys and micro-beats all wrapped up in a nice blanket of tape hiss.
14. Conrad Wedde
( Field Hymns )
One minute you're meditating, the next you're sippin' lime rickeys on the beach, and later you're slow-dancing cheek-to-cheek beneath the spangle of a cheap disco ball on prom night. Of course, this all takes place... on Mars. I don't really know much about this person, other than it appears that the music he produced was made in New Zealand, but Spaceworld was an instant favorite this year — a sound full of recognizable mantras from about a dozen of your favorite musical styles (ambient, pop, electro, and folk to name... four), mutated just-so to fit whatever weirdo-mold Wedde has so ingeniously set up for his sound. And it’s all executed with the glitter of an eye-twinkle that won't fail to make you give it the proverbial double-take.
Silver / Lawns
( Wounded Knife )
This one just barely edged out Dura's other also-excellent release on Patient Sounds to make my list, and part of it is due to the excellent packaging from Poland’s truly incredible Wounded Knife imprint, complete with a butterfly-stitched booklet and this cool J-band thing for the spine of the cassette case. And even though there’s a pretty gaping hole of sound on the end of one of the tape’s sides (big time cassette faux-pas!), the music here was plenty good enough to keep this one in heavy rotation since it first landed in my mailbox, after all, that's what fast-forward buttons are for, right? Mattson Ogg’s super soft hands seemed to be thrumming guitar strings from every possible direction on this one, each individual voice washing into its neighbor to produce an ear-massage unlike any other in 2014. You can feel this album’s fingertips kneading your brain, the perfect calm-me-down during moments of stress, the perfect mind-vacation during winter bus trips… The perfect ambient music, period.
16. The Fun Years
One Quarter Descent
Despite the fact that the unable-to-do-wrong guitar/turntable duo know as The Fun Years should probably always have their music on vinyl, that didn’t stop me from purchasing their incredible new album on cassette tape within minutes of its announcement. The 100 copies Spring Break Tapes! made of this guy were long gone in a matter of hours, making this record’s puzzling omission from year-end lists around the web all the more worrisome. Clearly they have a dedicated fan-base, though, and that fan-base was treated to perhaps the best material from this elusive combo yet. Just beautifully ebbing waves of sepia-tinged color and scribbled strokes of sonic calligraphy all over One Quarter Descent. Unbelievably good, here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another 2-3 years for more new music from these incredible musicians.
17. Yankee Yankee
Most probably don’t know this, but Whitney Ota’s Yankee Yankee project saw an unbelievable transformation with the release of this new tape. The last release under the moniker, Ecstatic Dreamer, was a much more electric-kraut concept with sharp guitar amplifiers and even acoustic drums… more like a band-band. But here Ota’s completely on his own with a synthesizer that has what sounds like about 2 millions knobs, exploding through any kind of closed song-structure forms to find his mind meandering through two epic side-long journeys. And you swear he twists each and every single one of those knobs as he makes his way from start to finish, fine tuning delay speeds, loops, micro-melodies, dynamics, and whatever the hell else he can to bend these interstellar wormholes of sound into psychedelic new shapes. The result is fast, intense, confusing, gripping, and beyond mesmerizing. Let your ears gaze in awe.
18. Poet Named Revolver
( No Kings )
Is it ok that one of my favorite albums of 2014 actually came out in, like… 2008? Ok, maybe not, but your’e going to deal with it, because No Kings re-issued the sucker this year, and it’s just amazing. Lee Noble, TJ Richards (of Trabajo), and Stephen Molyneux were in a band back in the day called Poet Named Revolver that was the best thing ever, they released the best album ever, and then I guess they broke up, which is the worst thing ever. True story. What we're left with is this incredible document full of barn-burner indie rock and quaking ballads about death. Beautifully sung, passionately played, each and every tune has its own goosebump-raising moments. A tragedy this band isn't still making music on the regular... in fact I'm thinking about passing around a petition. You guys in?
19. Charles Barabé
( 905 Tapes )
Amid the flurry of terrific, straight-ahead stuff coming out on tape, it sure was nice to have something like Charles Barabé come along to slap me upside my day-dreaming head with a bout of some of the weirdest shit on the planet. A series of "Chapters" divvied out across this tape's lengthy mutant breadth in swampy synthtoropics, theremin meanderings, opera samples and god knows what else. Most of this is completely random and makes very little coherent sense, but it’s all composed with a certain composure and grace that makes Barabé's twisted vision musically brilliant indeed. Can’t wait to check into this guy’s stuff more and see what he comes up with next.
20. Adrian Knight
Pictures of Lindsey
( Galtta Media )
Easily the most-listened to tape I received in 2014 is one that I ended up calling “The single weirdest fucking tape of 2014” in a review earlier this year. What the hell was I talking about? In fact, there were few that were more obscenely normal this year in a lot of ways, which of course was what was so fucking weird about it. Knight's over-the-top arranging, here complete with saxophone and EVI appearances, screamed self-ridicule, especially when you consider the album is a concept record detailing Kinght's many failures in the land of love, the whole thing this completely jokey schmaltz-fest. But that schmaltz-fest is just so brilliantly composed, performed, and flat-out great, offering some of the catchiest moments of pop in 2014, melodies and themes I still find myself humming in my dreams. Everyone I've shown this to has said "Ariel Pink" to me, and that's fine I guess, although Adrian Knight is like 10000000x better.