Favorite Albums of 2014
Every year I offer a bit of reflection on the last four quarters of music more so for my own personal musings. I have an annual personal journal (yes, I only update it once a year) for much the same reason: experiencing time is weird and full of paradoxes. It seems to go by fast, but so much happens. Little details go missing in the blur. Attempting to assign some descriptors known as words onto the experiences seems almost futile. But here I am.
For music, 2014 was an exceptional year. There were a few headline leaders taking a lot of acclaim as usual, but there is incredible volume of high quality artists making music. This is in thanks both to the democratization of the tools used in making/producing music as well as the continued improvement of digital distribution/streaming. Obviously we’ve been heading in this direction for a while now, but now that it’s being more frequently embraced by both content creators and listeners, the result has been incredible.
If you have the urge to listen to something new of any genre, it’s easier than ever. There are services that will even do the hard work of finding those artists for you. It used to be only a few crazies like me who would take the time to dig up and research new artists, but now, anyone with Pandora or Spotify can dive into something new. And I’m not being elitist about that — I think it’s awesome, and I’m glad people can experience new content so easily. Thanks, information age: you have officially become digital crack cocaine. And the masses are euphoric.
I felt so passionately about so many albums this year that 50 albums was starting to feel like too few. But the limitation helps me be more critical about the quality. I almost did narrative for the entire lot, but once again, it’s only for the top 20. I mean, for that alone, it’s nearly 10 pages of text in Google Documents. I don’t think people care what I have to say that much.
Okay, here we are. The list follows at the break:
50. Gardens & Villa – Dunes
49. BADBADNOTGOOD – III
48. Ought – More Than Any Other Day
47. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Days of Abandon
48. Melted Toys – Melted Toys
45. Tycho – Awake
44. Craft Spells – Nausea
43. 18+ – Trust
42. M. Geddes Gengras – Ishi
41. Total Control – Typical System
40. Cheatahs – Cheatahs
39. clipping. – CLPPNG
38. Mr. Little Jeans – Pocketknife
37. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra – Fuck Off, Get Free, We Pour Light On Everything
36. Eno / Hyde – High Life
35. Lone – Reality Testing
34. Isaiah Rashad – Cilvia Demo
33. Mac Demarco – Salad Days
32 Busdriver – Perfect Hair
31. Wye Oak – Shriek
30. Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty
29. Nothing – Guilty of Everything
28. The Raveonettes – Peʻahi
27. Grouper – Ruins
26. How To Dress Well – What Is This Heart?
25. Andy Stott – Faith In Strangers
24. Clark – Clark
23. Perfume Genius – Too Bright
22. A Sunny Day In Glasgow – A Sea When Absent
21. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There
20. Aphex Twin – Syro
I still berate both critics and the general electronic music community for its gross underappreciation for Aphex Twin’s Drukqs. To this day, I think it’s as good as any of his other most celebrated releases in his catalog, and represents such a masterful execution of hypnotic layering despite its insane tempo. On Syro, some of those ideas forged resurface with more focus. The somewhat harsh hitting glitch and jungle-centric beats are frequently balanced by warm electronic synths (similarly to the piano used so ubiquitously on Drukqs). Structurally, however, he is closer to his work from the ‘90s, especially his Selected Ambient Works series. Of course, it would be misleading to characterize this album as safe and predictable. James is as playful and inventive as ever when it comes to both form and texture. Using this approach, he seems to have appeased more people this time around. Of course, it helps that it’s damn good. The guy’s release schedule is sporadic, but never disappointing.
19. East India Youth – Total Strife Forever
Many of those out there who follow today’s alternative/independent music probably wouldn’t bat an eye at this album from a conceptual standpoint. Pop tunes like “Dripping Down” and “Heaven, How Long” are comfortably enclosed between flowing electronic experimentations. Fifteen years later after the release of Radiohead’s Kid A, we take for granted accepting this kind of thing as normal for a “pop” record. Yet, it’s shortsighted to think continuing an idea is a waste of time. After all, rock music itself has twisted itself upside down so many times that people can no longer agree on an appropriate definition. Whatever its influences are, Total Strife Forever is gloomy yet soothing like (as one cheesiest metaphors I’ve made in a while) rain against a window. Its ambient excursions allow it to work both as well as background music or as a delicately assembled aural puzzle.
18. TOPS – Picture You Staring
TOPS are a lo-fi pop band with knack for for musician brevity. Their sound has a tint of retro, but it’s not oversaturated in style. Influences can be identified from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s alike. There’s not much to dislike about these 12 short but sweet pop songs spanning a satisfying 43 minutes.
17. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness
On Burn Your Fire, Angel Olsen marries rich instrumentation with a whole mess of emotion. Yet, the album never lingers uninterestingly in despondent ballads. There’s ample variation across its scope, and plenty of “fuck you” extended to the wallowing that seems to be sneaking up behind Olsen at every corner. The approach keeps the album thoroughly listenable even if you’re not looking to light your own personal tragedies aflame. But if you are looking to do that, hell, you are in the right place.
16. Ex Hex – Rips
After hearing Rips, it’s clear that Mary Timony was an equally driving force (if not more so) as Carrie Brownstein in the short-lived indie supergroup Wild Flag. Or, perhaps, it was her experience in Wild Flag that shaped her songwriting on Rips. In any case, this album brings similar energy and irreverence. Timony is surefooted in her lead vocal duties with a magnetic cheekiness. There are no gimmicks to hide behind here like waves of reverb with 60s pop sampling. This is simple, catchy garage rock with playful charm and attitude.
15. Posse – Soft Opening
While their formula isn’t new, it’s masterfully executed. This Seattle band has a reserved, minimal edge that simmers carefully with energy. It’s reminiscent of late 90s / early 00s, but the style has had a consistent following since then. Where this album wholly succeeds is creating crescendos you never knew were there. The songs rhythms are addictive and easy-listening. I never feel anxious waiting for a build-up. Songs unfold naturally and effortlessly. It’s a case of great restraint from the band, yet the listener has no need to commit to that restraint. It’s an amazing listen all the way through.
14. Madlib and Freddie Gibbs – Piñata
Madlib and MF DOOM’s Madvillainy is now looked at like a template of perfection–a paradigm that I’m not even sure those involved in creating it could reforge. Both artists have continued on creating similar works, but nothing quite right what they’re looking for. Some have even taken upon itself to pursue the task themselves, such as Earl Sweatshirt whom uncoincidentally guests on this album. Still, Piñata is perhaps the closest we’ve gotten to such a sequel. Freddie Gibbs has improved substantially as a lyricist and is able to hold his own through Madlib’s–a real virtuoso of beats–gauntlet of textural and rhythmic variety. Yet, all songs are tied together through a vibe that hits like a ‘70s crime/noir film: fuzzy and seedy. The commitment to this vision while somehow keeping it fresh through its entirety makes the album distinct against a lot of the same-old heard this year in hip-hop. Again, Madlib proves he is one of the few who can pull this off.
13. The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers
I’m embarrassed to admit that this is the album that turned me onto The New Pornographers. I’ve known them for a long time and checked out songs here and there, but I never really “got” it. I think part of the problem is that since they’re essentially an indie supergroup, there are a lot of different ideas and directions spread across their discography. Checking out a song or two really doesn’t do them justice. Which such individually interesting and unique characters like Dan Bejar (Destroyer), Neko Case, and A.C. Newman, their sound is understandably varied.
However, on Brill Bruisers, I think they’ve found a more consistent style. I’m not sure this is due to increased direction on A.C. Newman’s part or perhaps they just shared the same vision for what they were trying to achieve. The only song slightly out of place is “Spidyr,” but that’s probably because it was originally written by Bejar for a Swan Lake album. In any case, “Champions of Red Wine” is one of my most listened-to songs of the year. It’s incredibly infectious. “War on the East Coast” makes me want to saw off the top of my car with a chainsaw and drive down the street like a maniac (all while wearing Ray-Bans of course). Without a doubt, the most heartfelt moment on the album is “Born With A Sound.” Even though I’m not a musician, I feel strangely connected to its lyrics.
“I had a sound in my head
But I couldn’t find the words
To get it out
Now I know love is the way
Get it out.”
We all have a song within us. Or a story. Or a painting. Something unique that only we could come up with based on the experiences that shaped us. The ability to extract them requires skill. Acquiring the “skill” for each craft is of course easier said than done. Beyond commitment, like in love, you have to leave yourself vulnerable. Putting yourself out there and creating art for others takes courage. But with enough time, patience, and a little luck, you’ll find an audience who will love what you’ve created.
12. Arca – Xen
Producer Alejandro Ghersi (Arca) is behind some of the stellar production work on FKA twigs’ recent releases, as well as Kanye West’s Yeezus. These are some pivotal artists today that are influential, although it’s difficult to say pioneering. The idea of popular music’s direction as whole being caused by a few major key players I believe is a thing of the past, and anyone who says otherwise today is simply elitist and bigheaded. Music has become a gigantic cultural beast moving at a languished pace, and its different organs–while connected–have trouble communicating with each other. The sounds popular on the radio are a few years behind. Even FKA twigs and Kanye–while their sounds are absolutely current–they’re also way past their infancy.
Arca’s “Xen” is a series of aural meditations. They’re like mini existential crises blended into noise. Yet instead of a questions of mortality and purpose, they’re questions of tonality and pitch. He explores so many possibilities of over its 15 short but dense tracks. The fact that he was able to explore these sounds like still maintaining a cohesive aesthetic shows either his skill or obsession with creating this brand of heavily stylized “alternative” R&B (I used quotes because people can’t seem to decide if alt. R&B should even be a term, including most vocally FKA twigs herself).
On some songs, I can’t help but wonder how this isn’t annoying me. For example, title track “Xen” delivers an environment that sounds like a futuristic construction site that’s located next to an alien brothel. The sampling is so masterfully waxed and coated in the overall texture — they’re like postmodern sculptures formed with a mixture of organic and synthetic materials but they’re each so processed in the craft that you can’t tell which is which. In any case, as a work, listening to this album is like flipping through a sketchbook. I get to explore a lot of ideas, and the only downside is that I wish some of them were explored a bit deeper (in the way that Jon Hopkins did on Immunity last year). Still, I can’t deny the individual richness of each idea, and I’m pretty sure we’ll be seeing a lot more from him in the future as both a producer and a solo artist.
11. The War On Drugs – Lost in the Dream
This is an album that feels perfect as the first thing to play on a long drive. It urges me to both reflection and adventure. Not many bands can pull off a 9 minute opening track that doesn’t feel like it drags on at all, even as it slowly fades out. I’m usually so dazed by forced introspection to notice. But eventually, Red Eyes kicks on with an easy listenability that probably inspired Mark Kozelek to make his comment that they sound like “beer commercial lead-guitar shit.” That silly drama aside, the album does have strong pop sensibilities. But it’s never afraid to stray far from them and wander into the distance. When I first heard this album, I thought it suffered from a weaker second half. But that’s not quite true at all. Surely the first half hits with more immediacy, but there is plenty positive in its more subtle latter tracks. I can’t say if this album is a symbolic fade out for today’s version of Americana, but it certainly feels like a fitting anthem for another generation of drifting free spirits.
10. Gazelle Twin – Unflesh
Unflesh is a distant world of anxiety and harrow; its muddled, persistently unsettling synthesizers and drum machines act as our telescope for observation. Elizabeth Bernholz’s (Gazelle Twin) voice guides our view with an otherworldly disquiet.
Most music is well-anchored in safety. Obviously there’s a generally agreed-upon range of what is considered harmonic, but I’m talking about the overall theme and ideas. There’s nothing wrong with this — in fact, I’d say it describes the majority of music on this list. However, there is the rare occasion when we’re sailed out to somewhere uncomfortable. It takes a willingness and patience to understand, but the payoff is usually worth it.
The success of Unflesh is thanks in large part to Bernholz’s courage to express. For example, I read that her song Anti Body deals with her experience with body dysmorphic disorder during her teenage years. In fact, there is a write-up here where she herself depicts the background of each song. In her music, though, she goes beyond a simple willingness to convey. She channels the root of the feelings and transforms them into something vivid and tangible. It might not bring the listener any closer to understanding her experience, but it might give us some inkling of the feeling.
9. Jenny Lewis – The Voyager
Jenny Lewis has fallen off my radar since Rilo Kiley released The Execution of All Things back in 2002. I’m not exactly sure why — I just wasn’t feeling her brand of indie pop. Today, I can’t turn my back on The Voyager. Many artists today either seem to be A) Desperately carving some obscure niche within already deeply seeded layers of alternative, or B) Sticking to safe boringness. In opening track Head Underwater, Lewis exclaims “I’m not the same woman that you were used to.” Perhaps she found the lost option C) Just be yourself.
That sounds trite, and on some level, perhaps it is. There’s nothing novel here in execution. Yet at every turn of this album, I’m in awe of its seamless blending of indie and alternative country to the point where neither one particularly sticks out sorely. Even Jenny Lewis’s voice itself seems to linger in a register residing pleasantly between the two as she radiates resplendently through a variety of feels. Honestly, that’s how Jenny Lewis has always been. But now thanks to Ryan Adams’ painstakingly meticulous layering and a bit of her own songwriting maturity, she refined a sound I believe she’s always wanted to capture but perhaps never got quite right. Well, everything is right here. I’m smitten.
8. Sun Kil Moon – Benji
Seemingly, Benji is an album by a man who doesn’t give a fuck anymore. Well, that’s not fair. He gives a fuck about a great many things. His mother, his father, his extended family, tragedy, injustice, death. It’s easy to trace his development as a lyricist from his efforts in the mid-’90s up through his more recent solo work. At some point, you gain enough life experience and confidence to allow the small details of life to become poetry that would only be muddled by the obfuscation of metaphor. So, this album is full of plainspoken recounts of his life and the many figures connected to it — some very close (his family) and some observed from afar (such as the shooting victims sung about on “Pray for Newtown”).
I have enough words to write on the many other albums on this list that I can’t do a thorough lyrical analysis of this album, although I’m tempted. Needless to say, it’s not an easy album to throw on in the background (aside from the more slightly upbeat “Ben’s My Friend”). The album is more often a slow burner, and can be heartbreaking and perhaps even frustrating. He’s not afraid to reveal unnerving details, some of which even make Kozelek himself seem like an ass. The musical arrangements on this album are consistently lovely and perfectly fitting for the mood. Even on repeat listens, I find more to discovery lyrically and musically. It’s an album that I think I’ll rediscovery again when I’m middle aged and have a totally different experience. I can’t say I’m looking forward to that, but there it is.
7. Alvvays – Alvvays
Alvvays (much easier to google than Nothing thanks to the quirky spelling) is one of those tender indie debut releases with a lo-fi production that instantly sparks nostalgia, despite hearing it for the first time. While there were many of those releases this year as retro everything became even more ubiquitous than last year, this album has the advantage of killer songwriting. Nearly every song is infectious and heartfelt. I’m reminded of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s debut album — assuming they keep releasing music, I think Alvvays will become exponentially popular over the next few years.
6. FKA twigs – LP1
What’s there to say about this album that hasn’t already been said? This LP was long hyped up and smashed all doubts. FKA twigs is in a remarkable position in that she’s somewhat of a bridge between the most popular current sound of the alternative and the mainstream. Yet, it’s no stroke of luck. The writing credits bring in a lot of critically acclaimed names which helped quickly mature her songcraft. Add in some of the highest skilled experimental/alternative R&B producers today like Clams Casino and Arca and yes, you do have quite an exceptional album. But I’d be selling FKA twigs short if I didn’t give her the credit she deserves herself. Many artists of her popularity level have albums that feel disjointed because they allow songwriters and producers to “own” individual tracks. Clearly, she had her own vision for this album, and it’s a vision clearly and masterfully executed across its entirely despite a mix of collaboration. It’s fantastic curation through musically auteur direction.
5. Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else
2012’s Attack on Memory had to be tough to follow-up. It put Dylan Baldi on the map as a new force in indie rock (although taking influence from punk, post-hardcore, and noise rock), a genre that has fallen out of favor in the midst of EDM’s ubiquity. What made the album great was that Baldi seemed to take chances at every corner, yet always landed swiftly on his feet.
Here and Nowhere Else takes less risks. But the flip side of that coin is that it has more focus. The songwriting is rigid and tightly wound, allowing for its bursts of aggression to unwind predictably yet precipitously and sharp. The pop songwriting is so consistently good and perhaps unmatched this year in the density of melodic arrangements on a rock album.
In the last decade, I haven’t been able to digest much music that involves any level of screaming. That angst just isn’t within me anymore. Yet somehow, I find it completely satisfying on this album. Quoting the Dean from Community, “I hope this doesn’t awaken something in me.” The production makes it not terribly dissonant — it allows me to appreciate the intensity of the emotion without becoming an earsore. Maybe this makes it sound weaker, but I think it’s more difficult to pull off this way. Anyone can be loud and boisterous – not everyone can channel that kind of energy while keeping target on a somehow pleasantly consonant sound.
4. Future Islands – Singles
“A dream of you and me – I let it go from me,” is a sentiment I’ve had to face recently. Singles is an album full of these bittersweet reminders. The pain channeled by vocalist Sam Herring who bursts the seams of the songwriting, cracking around the edges as the framework is fiercely ignored. It’s the kind of imperfection that harbors an honest human experience. Despite the tight synthetic production that his album is draped within, it is a deeply visceral album. It is equal parts uplifting and shattering.
I mentioned in my words regarding Here and Nowhere Else that I wasn’t too into screaming anymore. Well, I have to make another exception. “Fall From Grace,” has one of the most unpredictable and harrowing vocal outbursts I’ve heard in a long time. I love it. It’s like for two seconds I’m a 15 years old and listening to death metal again. Of course, I have to mention opening song “Seasons (Waiting On You).” Their awe-inspiring performance of this song in Letterman this year brought some the band a lot of attention. Perhaps people’s attention was initially grabbed by Herring’s strange dancing and antics, but at the end of the night, no one could challenge the band’s greatness.
3. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
I love the attention RTJ2 has gotten El-P and Killer Mike this year. El-P in particular has been both my favorite emcee and producer for a while now, and I’m glad more people are waking up to how good he is. He perhaps hasn’t had a boost this big since producing Cannibal Ox’s “The Cold Vein” (an album that’s sadly fallen into obscurity since then). I think the popularity of trap has garnered a new potential audience for El-P’s grimey electro beats. Songs like “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” and “Close Your Eyes” are equipped with slightly dissonant samples on repeat through the track as El-P and Killer Mike drop verse after verse of verbose, scholarly shit talk. It’s not the kind of thing that will appeal to everyone, but the climate of popular music is in a place right now (following the popularity of stuff like TNGHT) when more people are going to be receptive to it. Rap verse of the year for me is El-P’s bit on “Lie, Cheat, Steal” that starts at the 45 second mark. That was one of the few moments I had listening to music where I had to literally stop the song and replay the segment like 5 times over to fully appreciate it.
Within interviews with El-P and Killer Mike following RTJ1, they shared their desire to bring lyricism back to hip-hop. Along with Kendrick Lamar, they are on the vanguard of making that so. But they haven’t abandoned production that hits well and grabs attention. In fact, the production’s as good if not better than any rapper today that focuses more on production aesthetic than lyricism. That’s why this album is such a tour de force of hip-hop. It’s not some half-assed sideproject of a couple rappers in-between their main LPs. This is them making the music they both love without holding back, and the product is a stellar album born equally of craftsmanship and passion.
After the success of this album, I can’t help but wonder what’s next for El-P and Killer Mike. Keep pushing on and release RTJ3? Or switch focus back to their solo work? I’m still awaiting a follow-up to Cancer for Cure (2012). Either way, I look forward for what’s to come.
2. Wild Beasts – Present Tense
Throughout the year I had an internal argument over whether I liked this album or Future Islands’ “Singles” better. Ultimately, I think Singles had some stronger individual tracks. But as a cohesive album, Present Tense is tightly tied together more beautifully. It shows restraint and maturity, never letting impatience ruin the exquisite texture of its wonderfully woven aesthetic.
The album launches its impeccable post-punk form immediately with drums that drive on forcefully and relentlessly through its duration. Truthfully, I was bored by this song the first time I heard it, but it grew on me increasingly over time. Standout single “Mecca” is one of my favorite songs of the year: its chorus is uncanny, haunting, and divine. “Where the body goes the mind will follow soon after,” vocalist Hayden Thorpe reassures us, though lamenting, “All we want is to feel that feeling again.” If that’s not a universal urge, I don’t know what is.
I love the pacing on “Sweet Spot.” The song title is perfect considering its carefully timed shift about two minutes into the track. The tempo never quite changes, but the layering clears up to reveal beauty in open space. Hayden Thorpe’s prowess as a vocalist is further confirmed on the disciplined and pondering “Pregnant Pause.” I’d compare him to fellow English singer Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons). They both share heavenly, powerful voices. Thorpe has enough talent to easily stand as a solo artist. But in Wild Beasts, he has a completely fitting home for his craft.
From start to finish, I never regret turning this album on. I’m disappointed if I have to stop listening by its end. Even through its solemness, its obscurity, its gloom, I can’t help but be enraptured. I’m not a spiritual person — I’m not even sure I understand what it means to feel what that word means — but this album makes me feel like I can pretend that I am.
1. Owen Pallett – In Conflict
This album’s placement at my #1 is perhaps, more than anything, due to one simple thing: it comforted me. I felt connected to it in a way that I didn’t experience with any other album this year. Sonically, it spoke to me in a new language I was somehow already fluent in.
Sentiment aside, Owen Pallett had a challenge in following up to 2010’s Heartland. Although not his debut album, it put him on the map for a lot of people as both an excellent baroque pop musician and electronic dabbler, bringing him some long deserved critical acclaim. Where In Conflict is missing some of Heartland’s mystique, it makes up for it in complexity: it presents a wider range of timbres, emotions, pacing. Pallett’s songwriting chops were already good, but this album pushed them even further as a master of concept albums. Owen Pallett is no stranger to dramatic motifs and ideas tied together throughout a series of compositions. His albums are like love letters to film and video game soundtracks (uncoincidentally he used to work under the name “Final Fantasy”).
Opening track “I Am Not Afraid” serves as a prelude to the rollercoaster that follows. Title track “In Conflict” coasts the central theme with smooth trepidation. “On a Path” arrives on a clammering of strings that quickly extinguish into quiet vocal melodies; its gorgeous, melancholic chorus never ceases to strike awe in me with every re-listen: “You stand in a city that you don’t know anymore, spending every year bending over from the weight of the year before,” is a mantra that equipped me to get through the summer. I’m not sure if Owen’s vocal talent has improved since Heartland or they’ve just grown on me. Perhaps a little of both.
Synthesizers are another crucial component of this listen. “Song For Five & Six” and “The Secret Seven” share light, airy synthesizers in addition to their numeric names, which merge together with the orchestral strings naturally like a flock of birds in staggered formation. I’m reminded of my 2010 AOTY, Sufjan Stevens’ “The Age of Adz” which similarly conjoined synths and strings in a conceptual album. Yet where Adz was more dissonant, In Conflict triumphs with harmony, even through its more grim moments. Perhaps some of this is thanks to Brian Eno’s contribution as a guest on this album, which feels right at home. I’m not sure how their collaboration came together, but I’m glad it did.
“The Passions” and “The Sky Behind the Flag” offer brooding lamentations before interlude “—>(1)” leads to the grand and powerful “The Riverbed,” which acts as the album anthemic climax. Nowhere are Brian Eno’s vocals more apparent than the last half of “Infernal Fantasy” which stirs hypnotically with its repeating drums and synth phrases. The album acquires a fitting instrumental end with “—> (2)” which melts away in a series of strange organic chirps carried away in the wake of orchestral waves.
Instead of some majestic landscape or modern art, the album’s cover is simply the lyrics in a narrative form with black splotches redacting itself three quarters of the way down, like some kind of Rorschach test. You’re left to your own imagination to create this album’s imagery. The lyrics are, of course, perfect catalyst for this goal. Their absurdity is not far enough from their mundanity for your to lose sight of reflection on your own life. The fantasy, in this case, acts as a way of grounding the listener rather than escapism. Conflict is a thing that can be eased by the escape of fantasy, but at the end of the day, it’s just you in your room with yourself. If this album is a soundtrack, (to further quote The Wire) it’s soundtrack for “…the shit that happens while you’re waiting for moments that never come.”