One of many rewards that came from focusing so closely on Baltimore music in 2014 (though I didn't exclusively focus on it like my colleague Baynard Woods) is that it further revealed to me how full of shit the proper music industry is. Rarely do you need to really venture outside of Baltimore to get whatever kind of musical kicks you're trying to get. And too often, the difference between a Baltimore musician doing something awesomely and some well-regarded critical darling doing a similar thing very, very well to much more praise is that the latter pays a P.R. firm to push their shit to "tastemakers" at places like Pitchfork and The FADER who no longer do their job and search out the good stuff themselves. So here's a Baltimore "better-than list" (an idea cribbed from the once-vital, now totally bonkers troll Armond White), offering up local preferences to some of 2014's biggest non-local singles and artists.
Admittedly, even my homerism has its limits. As much as I tried, I couldn't make a case that Lor Scoota's 'Bird Flu' is better than similar region-twisted trap anthems like Shy Glizzy's 'Awwsome' or Bobby Schmurda's 'Hot Nigga' (though it is just as good) or that the city has anything to offer up in contrast to, say, towering female pop presences like Beyonce or Taylor Swift (maybe Jenn Wasner?), but hey we also have Future Islands, who are now the world at large's band, though Baltimore's appreciation of the band is more complex than an out-of-towner's GIF-erific idea of Future Islands, for sure.
Abdu Ali, 'I Exist' > Kendrick Lamar, 'i': Both of these songs are stirring affirmations of self from black musicians and both arrived in the wake of the murder of Mike Brown, but Kendrick's 'i' is a sub-'Happy' sell-out and a major disappointment after the cogency of his 2012 album "good kid, m.A.A.d city." Abdu's 'I Exist' off his "Already" EP is a fragile, Eric Satie-in-da-club slow jam that moves away from his signature abrasiveness but doesn't pander. And if you saw him screaming it while crowdsurfing at the Crown when he opened for Lor Scoota, then this better-than isn't even up for debate a little bit.
Caleb Stine, "Maybe God Is Lonely Too" > Sturgill Simpson, "Metamodern Sounds in Country Music": Philosophical Baltimore folkie Caleb Stine made the trippy country record Sturgill Simpson tricked everybody into thinking that buzzing Kentuckian made. The first track of "Metamodern Sounds" has shout-outs to DMT and the final track gets all wobbly and trips over itself, but for the most part, it's a throwback Waylon-indebted country record with some baggy psychedelic flourishes. Stine's masterpiece, meanwhile, is a disassociative doctoral thesis cut into three pieces, thanks to the sounds of birds and nature, brimming with big ideas about the future of the world—about race, and the possibility of romance, as viewed through a wide-eyed, occasionally bleary, existential eye. It's only flaw isn't a flaw at all: Unlike Simpson, Stine doesn't play up his weirdness.
Brooks Long and the Mad Dog No Good > Pharrell Williams' 'Happy': Brooks Long resurrects the feeling and attitude of old soul music with sincerity and tears it down live, while Pharrell rides the mediocre R&B of 'Blurred Lines,' smoothes it out even more, and turns it into a pathologically posi, new-age hit in a year that really needed some soul with some seriousness and fucking substance to it.
Kix, "Rock Your Face Off" > Tweedy, "Sukierae": Dad rock from working-class Dundalk butt-metal middle-agers is always gonna be preferable to upper-middle-class dad rock from that dink from Wilco and his drummer son, but especially here thanks to Kix's biting, honest, and T-Rex-like 'Inside Outside Inn,' with lines like, "I love making love to you/ And those two kids you talked me into."
Ryan Bair, "Casting Away" > The War on Drugs, "Lost in the Dream": The War on Drugs do Don Henley-isms and look back to an era of the early '80s that their millennial fans (and music critics) feel nostalgic for as youths, and the Philly band rode that shit to the top of top 10 year-end lists (though not City Paper's, thank gawd). Meanwhile, a 15-year-old guitar maniac from Sparks, Maryland gets his Yngwie Malmsteen on and reinvigorates the always-awesome, never-cool operatic shred metal of the mid-'80s.
Cex, "Shamaneater" > Aphex Twin, "Syro": Two knob-twiddling, innovative electronic oddballs get back to doing what they do best, but the high-profile big-deal one gave us a data dump of nostalgia bait tracks that showed little artistic progress, while Cex afforded his IDM an immersive concept (the soundtrack to a non-existent Playstation video game) and cleverly commented on the limits of our nostalgia for the immediate past.
Bond St. District, "Everybody's So Sleepy" > Vince Staples, "Hell Can Wait": Two tasteful rap albums but Bond St. District, a collaboration between rapper DDm and producer Paul Hutson, is a celebration of friendship and open-heartedness tinged with the tragic optimism of the burgeoning protest movement, while Staples can't resist the urge to play played-out tough-talker from time to time and pander to the "real hip-hop" heads.
Young Moose, "O.T.M. 2" > Sun Kil Moon, "Benji": Old white man grumbles with his guitar and gets all kinds of points for being depressing when really he just needs to grow the fuck up, while an East Baltimore target of police details his girlfriend's miscarriage, growing up terrorized by the cops, and other actual life-threatening problems that've made him grow up too fast with a singer-songwriter's eye for novelistic detail.
Glittoris > Iggy Azalea: Pop rap's blindingly white, incredibly clueless great hope is essentially a minstrel act who annexes bits and pieces of rap, gives nothing back, and just plain doesn't get it, whereas Glittoris, the side project of Sara Autrey of Which Magic and Wing Dam, walks into the swaggering female rap tradition with self-awareness and employs its The Real Roxanne-to-Trina brashness to get real (and really funny) about fucking.
Trunkweed, "Days of Haze" > Real Estate, "Days": New Jersey indie darlings play professional and deliver clean jangle pop but forget about making their shit memorable, whereas the teenaged Trunkweed lackadaisically tear into acoustic-surf riffs, resulting in catchy and exploratory instrumentals, and show the charms of not trying so hard, man.
Abdu Ali, "Infinity Epiphanies" > Run the Jewels, "RTJ2": Noise rap from a queer, genderfucking screaming poet is far more rebellious and political with a capital P than the duo of Killer Mike and El-P, who do political rap for all those dudes who checked out once Public Enemy started to stink and buy into the myth that hip-hop ain't what it used to be. Rap doesn't need saving, but I'd put its fate in Ali's hand before two aging grump-rappers.
Repelican > Sam Smith: The studious and self-serious Smith, who wore out his welcome after that one Disclosure song has nothing on the white-boy kinda-sexy croonin' of Jon Ehren's stumbling, fumbling, and sweet bedroom R&B on "Pall Mall Blues."
Jenny Graf, "Machines Inside" > St. Vincent, "St. Vincent": Two guitar records that expertly try and make the guitar not sound like a guitar, both about what all this technology means maaannn, conveyed through solid, idiosyncratic playing. But Graf gets weird and singular, invoking Derek Bailey, Sonny Sharrock, and Mary Halvorsen, while St. Vincent settles for a jazzed-out David Bowie impression.
The Heads Are Zeros, "All The Men I Love Are Dead" > Swans, "To Be Kind": Female-fronted grind band's brutal, unabashedly economical music is over and out in under 10 minutes; meanwhile curmudgeonly Michael Gira and crew drone on and on and on for two fucking filibustering discs of smart-bro, in-quotes brutality and say way less about the state of things.
Chiffon's "Marble" > How To Dress Well's "What Is This Heart": Alt-R&B-er looks at '90s R&B and all he sees is his own pain and suffering and tries to approximate Maxwell, which like, why man, why? Amy Reid and Chase O'Hara contort early '90s slow jams and the fidgeting future fuck-friendly funk of turn-of-the-millennium Timbaland into music full of multitudes (hints of Bmore club, J-Pop, IDM, and hip-hop), ideal for jumping up and down or bumping and grinding.