2014 In Review: 14 of Lisa Marie’s Favorite Songs of 2014


Continuing our look back at 2014, below you’ll find 14 of my favorite songs of the past year.  Now, you should understand that I’m not necessarily saying that these are the best 14 songs of the year.  Instead, they’re just some of my personal favorites.  These are the songs that either made me want to dance or that I inevitably found myself singing off-key while I was in the shower.  These are the songs that got stuck in my head and which I found myself singing whenever I was stuck in traffic.

These are 14 of my favorite songs of 2014.

(By the way, click on the links in this sentence if you want to see my favorite songs of 2013, 2012, and 2011.)

14) Everything is Awesome — Tegan and Sara featuring The Lonely Island

13) Mess Is Mine — Vance Joy

12) Summer Nights — Kaskade featuring The Brocks

11) Chandelier — Sia

10) Take Ü There — Jack Ü (featuring Kiesza)

9) Blank Space — Taylor Swift

8) Runaway (U & I) — Galantis

7) Blue Sky Action — Above & Beyond featuring Alex Vargas

6) Fancy — Iggy Azalea featuring Charli XCX

5) Stolen Dance — Milky Chance

4) Get Low — Dillon Francis & DJ Snake

3) Don’t Leave — Seven Lions (featuring Ellie Goulding)

2) Shake It Off — Taylor Swift

1) Long Way Down — Robert DeLong

And finally, here’s my pick for the worst song and video of last year.  In the past, I’ve defended some of the notoriously awful songs that have been produced and promoted by Patrice Wilson, just on the basis that they were, at the very least, memorably weird.  Friday remains one of my favorite singing-in-the-shower songs and it’s fun to sing when you’re trying to annoy people on Monday.  Chinese Food is — well, Chinese Food sucked but I do love Chinese food so I could at least relate to the song.  But then, in 2014, came both the song Sush Up and the video featuring 11 year-old Alison Gold playing a sexualized criminal who gets electrocuted in the electric chair.  And, of course, Patrice shows up to rap.  And seriously — BLEH!

While I’m not going to share the video for Sush Up because it’s really creepy and icky, I will share another video that’ll make my point about Patrice Wilson.

Tomorrow, my look back at 2014 will continue with 20 good things that I saw on television in 2014!

Previous entries in TSL’s Look Back At 2014

  1. Things I Dug In 2014 Off The Top Of My Head
  2. 2014 in Review: The Best of Lifetime and SyFy
  3. 2014 in Review: Lisa’s Pick For the 16 Worst Films of 2014

 

Review: Blizzard Entertainment – Mists of Pandaria


I had pretty mixed expectations for the soundtrack to Mists of Pandaria. One the one hand, Blizzard’s scores embarked on a downward spiral starting in 2010. Cataclysm was a poorly planned expansion, and its lack of a clear focus and theme had a serious impact on the music. Russell Brower, Derek Duke, and Glenn Stafford did an outstanding job on Wrath of the Lich King in 2008, but the Cataclysm sound team faced a weak, haphazard plot and (I would imagine) a great deal of frustration as Blizzard scrapped some of their major plans for the expansion mid-stride. Diablo 3 was equally disappointing, with the inexcusable failure to bring back Matt Uelmen taking its toll. I was beginning to think Blizzard had abandoned any serious commitment to ensuring high quality music in their games.

On the other hand, there was no doubt as to what Mists of Pandaria would be about. Just as Wrath of the Lich King had a clearly Nordic vibe from start to finish, Pandaria was thoroughly immersed in Eastern culture and tradition, with a wealth of pre-existing musical themes upon which to build a score. It also brought video game music legend Jeremy Soule into the mix; but considering Cataclysm fell flat in spite of involving David Arkenstone, I wasn’t going to get too excited about this one until I heard it.

As it turns out, Mists of Pandaria might be Blizzard’s best soundtrack to date. Russell Brower, Neal Acree, Sam Cardon, Edo Guidotti, and Jeremy Soule clearly did their research, and the expansion presents a delicious mix of authentic Chinese folk and big-ticket film/game scoring. I am ill-equipped to compare it to similar contemporary soundtracks–I don’t watch movies, and I really haven’t kept up with game soundtracks for the better part of a decade now–but as an avid World of Warcraft fan who plays with the sound on, I can safely say that the music this go around is a fundamental, essential element of the gameplay. This really hasn’t been the case since Wrath of the Lich King. Hour of Twilight (Dragon Soul) had one of the most unconvincing scores in Blizzard’s catalog, for a patch that felt rushed and entirely uninspired. It was a force-fed collection of dramatic stereotypes, and it’s hard to imagine what else it really could have been in the context of the raid. Mists of Pandaria, in contrast, is packed with lively anthems that bring the action to life on a level to par with the mechanical and visual appeal.

My favorite track so far is the music to the Shado-Pan Monastery dungeon. It’s a dungeon that, I think, would hedge on the side of tedious were it not for the score. The Master Snowdrift boss battle begins with a semi-choreographed fight against Pandarian monks who take turns jumping into a ring to engage you. I don’t know if the music is intentionally timed to cue with the fight or if it has just happened that way the two or three times I’ve played through it, but the heavy drumming that starts about 2 minutes into this clip seems to sync up with the start of combat. Playing the game in silence, you might find yourself impatiently waiting for the new challengers to engage you, yawning and tapping your foot to press through and collect 80 valor points. With the music on, it’s one of the most engaging experiences of the expansion: the sweeping anthem gives the fight a cinematic feel, and it’s easy to forget that you’re actively playing a game, not watching a movie. It was on my first play through Shado-Pan Monastery that what Russell Brower and co accomplished in this expansion really hit home. In Wrath of the Lich King, it was the slower-paced themes like Grizzly Hills and Dalaran that moved me the most, capturing the timeless, snow-covered landscapes and subduing the combat experience. In Mists of Pandaria they certainly still achieve top quality questing zone ambiance, but for the first time in a Blizzard game I am also hearing songs that suitably enhance the action.

That, at least, stands for the casual encounters. I have yet to really pay attention to the music while raiding. In a sense, the raids demand the best tunes Blizzard’s sound team have to offer, but they are also the part of gameplay in which you are most focused on what you’re doing and least inclined to sit back and take in the audiovisual experience. What I can certainly say is that for the first time in a while I feel inspired to at least make an effort to pay attention to that experience. For now, I’d like to call further attention to the more ambient, questing zone tracks. The degree to which they managed to incorporate traditional Chinese instrumentation into the score is admirable, and to the best of my knowledge none of the musicians accredited with the Mists of Pandaria soundtrack specialize in Chinese traditional music. The score is certainly of a western film style at heart, and you would never mistake their Eastern fusion for authentic Chinese folk, but such inclusions as a pipa at the outset of “The River” are delicious indulgences that enhance the gameplay experience far beyond what was necessary for the composers to earn their paychecks. Mists of Pandaria is just packed with little Easter eggs that show how much fun Blizzard must have had making this game. (I love how two early, relatively insignificant NPCs you encounter in Jade Forest are named Ren and Lina Whitepaw, as in Ren and Li–Humaneness and Ritual–two of the principles of Confucianism.) Mist of Pandaria’s music offers the same tip of the hat to those of us casually informed on Chinese tradition, and I get a constant thrill in recognizing moments that resemble my beloved eight-volume Chinese Ancient Music Series collection.

Bravo to Blizzard for doing this one right through and through. It’s no masterpiece independent of the video game for which it was composed–I wouldn’t sit around listening to it while not playing the game as I would for say, a Nobuo Uematsu score–but it is an essential component of Mists of Pandaria in a way that the music of Cataclysm never was. Mists of Pandaria is one of the most visually stunning games Blizzard has yet produced, and it’s got a soundtrack to match. I wouldn’t necessarily say I like it more than Wrath of the Lich King, but it achieves the same level of quality while set to a drastically different theme and landscape.

Review: Ensiferum – Unsung Heroes


I read so many negative reviews of Unsung Heroes that I actually avoided listening to it for four months. My acquaintance with Ensiferum goes all the way back to their 2001 full-length debut, and I was in no hurry to hear such an essential and formative band for me fall by the wayside. I finally gave it a spin for the first time last night, and frankly I don’t know what everyone is bitching about.

In My Sword I Trust

I mean, sure, Unsung Heroes isn’t the explosive powerhouse of Victory Songs and From Afar. But was I the only person who got the feeling on From Afar that their standard formula was growing really stale really fast? Ensiferum may have set the standard for folk metal as we know it today, but beneath the fist-pumping and epic folk interludes of even tracks like Twilight Tavern and Stone Cold Metal I got the sneaking suspicion that they were beginning to succumb to the very genre stereotype they established. Victory Songs certainly stands as my favorite Ensiferum album to date, but I kind of felt like From Afar was riding too much on its success. Almost every song followed the formula that made Victory Songs so great, and while this certainly facilitated a fresh batch of great songs, it was less than I’d hoped from a band that had consistently paved their own way over the years.

Is Unsung Heroes a washed out version of Victory Songs and From Afar? Only if you claim that those albums capture exactly what Ensiferum ought forever more to sound like. I for one think it’s a breath of fresh air. It reminds me, if anything, of their 2001 self-titled. It humors the possibility of rocking out without lightspeed double bass. It dares to occasionally divorce overbearing synth and “epic” orchestrated overlays from the folk passages. It drops, I think, the degree of pretentiousness that concerned me on From Afar. I have no interest in listening to the musical equivalent of 300 spin-offs ad nauseam. The total testosterone indulgence of Victory Songs was exciting in its day, but in music and film alike it grows old quickly.

Pohjola

I really feel like Unsung Heroes is Ensiferum’s most mature work to date. That doesn’t make it their best; Victory Songs was just too perfect and the self-titled too nostalgic to be trumped any time soon. But on Unsung Heroes I can again feel like I’m listening to a band who share my nerdy lust for all things fantasy. There’s none of the glam and special effects that dazzled me on Victory Songs but made me begin to feel distanced from the band on From Afar. I’m absolutely thrilled to be able to connect with these guys again in the more personal way I felt on their first album.

And really, what can you possibly complain about on a track like Pohjola save that it doesn’t fall into the formula of their last two albums? I’ve heard people say they’re becoming a Turisas knock-off. That’s absolutely ridiculous. Post-Battle Metal Turisas has served as the ultimate Hollywood blockbuster band–glossy and refined, if Victory Songs was Ensiferum’s 300, Varangian Way was Turisas’s Lord of the Rings. Tracks like Pohjola might have epic operatic vocals and orchestration, but the surrounding atmosphere is completely different from either of those works. The viking metal riffs that really start to pick up at the 3 minute mark ought to be a revealing sign that this song is all about the steady drive. The orchestration ebbs and flows without many hard, dramatic stops. The synth whistle that accompanies the main riff in the earlier stages of the song gives it a light-hearted, positive feel that carries throughout. The acoustic guitar outro is beautiful, but it’s also accessible. It’s something you the listener could pick up your guitar and play.

Unsung Heroes isn’t perfect. Sami Hinkka’s clean vocals leave a bit to be desired, especially on “Last Breath” where they take center stage. That, the ninth track, is really the first moment on the album where I begin to see where any complaints might have a leg to stand on. If the 17 minute-long closer which follows–“Passion Proof Power”–was as good as we’ve come to expect from an Ensiferum grand finale, any petty complaints about “Last Breath” might be easily forgotten. The problem is that “Passion Proof Power” is frankly pretty bad. It starts off a lot slower than the rest of the album’s non-acoustic tracks, more inclined to bore me than build anticipation. When it does pick up there’s no clear direction as to what’s going on. The song gives way into some really, really lame progressive rock, coupled with boring, unconvincing spoken passages and completely misplaced operatic vocals. The song never really builds up into anything. There are moments here and there where you might find yourself drawn back in–at the 13 minute mark for instance–but as the song continues to go nowhere you’ll forget about it again soon enough. I can’t make any excuses here; “Passion Proof Power” is a waste of 17 minutes, and if you skipped ahead to it expecting to hear Ensiferum’s finest effort–a reasonable thing to do considering how they’ve concluded past albums–you may well be left with the impression that Unsung Heroes is terrible. Follow that up with an embarrassing bonus track cover of Gypsy Kings’ Bamboleo and yeah, you definitely have a right to demand the last 20 minutes of your life back.

Burning Leaves

In conclusion, this is perhaps Ensiferum’s most down to earth album to date. It’s all about moderation and maintaining a steady drive while never over-extending or burning out into a bore. It doesn’t crush or dazzle; it rocks along, and does so with some really compelling orchestration that’s uniquely accessible. I think there’s this common misconception that fantasy-themed music has to sound larger than life, but for me that’s a detriment in all but the most perfect, Victory Songs/Varangian Way-level instances. If it sounds fake it’s not doing a very good job of creating fantasy now, is it? Unsung Heroes paces itself and transitions in ways that feel legitimate. I love it, at least for the first 40 minutes. It doesn’t so much progressively decline from there as stall mid-air and nose dive; they should have put “Last Breath” before “Pohjola” and made the latter the finale. “Passion Proof Power” and “Bamboleo” are garbage B-sides better suited for some bonus disc on a collector’s edition. (I suppose Bamboleo technically is a “bonus” track.) To say Unsung Heroes is a great album while chucking out a full 20 minutes of its content is a bit of a stretch, but because the weak points are condensed on the fringe rather than interspersed throughout the album, and because 40 minutes of outstanding new Ensiferum is certainly sufficient, I am content to delete the last two tracks from my playlist and call it a success.

Review: Blut aus Nord – 777 Cosmosophy


Blut aus Nord generated a lot of waves in the metal scene last April when they released Sect(s), the first installment in their 777 trilogy. The album was a gripping ride through a vivid musical nightmare, merging industrial music and a particularly demented take on black metal to paint its demon-ridden post-apocalyptic landscapes. The Desanctification, released in last November, flew much lower under the radar. Lacking all of Sect(s)’s shock value, it was a more contemplative plod which capitalized on the industrial side of their 777 sound and presented the devastation inflicted first-hand on Sect(s) from a less intimate angle. If the listener was the victim on Sect(s), Desanctification offered the role of witness.

Cosmosophy, the final installment in the 777 trilogy, was released this September, and a lot hinged on it. Sect(s) and The Desanctification were drastically different and yet inseparable, the second naturally flowing from the first. How did Blut aus Nord intend to bring it all to an end?

In the very last way anyone could have ever expected: They repeated the exact same thing they did on The Desanctification. It’s a brooding, visually stunning bird’s-eye view of a cyberpunk holocaust, and as such it’s just as outstanding as its predecessor. But where is it going?

If Blut aus Nord released two albums like this every year they might well become my favorite band. I’ve been dying for this kind of material, and The Desanctification and Cosmosophy both fill that niche with a degree of excellence that surpasses all other attempts I have heard. But I guess for me the 777 series was telling a story, vague though it need necessarily be, and Cosmosophy just kind of waves that off. It’s an outstanding album in its own right, but it does not feel appropriate in the context of the trilogy.

Epitome XVII and XVIII are somewhat of an exception,and they’re the tracks I’ll be sampling here. XVII has a definite sense of conclusion about it. It’s not an optimistic one, especially given the lyrics–“How many seasons beyond this sacred life? How many treasons beyond this clever lie?” But the feeling is one of profound revelation, as if the listener in this nearly wordless narrative has finally come to see the grand vision we were all hoping Cosmosophy would offer. The transition that spans from about 4:20 to 6:20 is pensive, serving to reintroduce the darkness that resolution has by no means abated. As this fades and we reach the final track in the trilogy, you can definitely see the story coming to an end:

Epitome XVIII is one of the finest of those bird’s-eye perspectives on the greater 777 landscape, and in its context it offers something of a new, esoteric light on the devastation below. The outro that begins to fade in after the 7 minute mark is the perfect conclusion and perhaps the darkest moment in the entire trilogy, epic in its silence. Of Cosmosophy’s two concluding tracks I have no complaints. It’s the first three that get us there that leave a lot to be desired.

If you care to revisit The Desanctification, it ends on a completely twisted industrial groove that offers all of the madness of Sect(s) without any of the fear–a sense that the subject (the listener) is breaking down into utter insanity, becoming a part of the surrounding chaos. I desperately wanted Cosmosophy to pick up on this note. I wanted to hear a merging of Sect(s)’s black metal and Desanctification’s industrial that, if you’ll humor my manner of description, merged the victim and the witness into one. I expected a juxtaposition of the sweeping landscapes and the frantic madness that could, in the context of the trilogy, depict a sort of out of body experience in the subject/listener. Epitome XIV and XVI instead feel like unused (though equal) tracks from Desanctification, while XV offers three minutes of obnoxiously spoken French which quite frankly fails to invoke anything but annoyance before plunging into an outstanding but compromised semi-operatic sweep that could have found a place on the album but lacks appropriate context as presented.

Epitome XV is the only track I dislike in the trilogy, while XIV and XVI seem out of order. In the meantime, I feel like an essential step between Desanctification’s XIII and Cosmosophy’s XVII is missing. In short, Cosmosophy does not live up to my ridiculously high expectations. If Blut aus Nord were to come out with a surprise Part 4, I certainly would not deem it overkill. But if we view Cosmosophy as just another 2012 metal album there is hardly room to complain. It is only in light of the standard set by Sect(s) and The Desanctification, and in expectation that the conclusion ought to be the 777 trilogy’s finest hour, that it slightly disappoints.