Top Ten Albums of 2014
In 2014, we saw a lot of records strongly derived from a single mastermind – from Swans to Blut Aus Nord to Perfume Genius, many of my favorite albums bear the mark of one strong creative figurehead. Here’s my top ten albums of 2014, with five bonus albums. You can hear selections from these albums here at my Rdio playlist.
Future Islands – Singles
Quirky pop music with an arresting lead vocal performance by Samuel Harring
Spoon – They Want My Soul
Not a bad song on the record, with newfound aural shades from the indie vets
TEEN – The Way and Color
A proggy, infectious R&B journey from Brooklyn’s all-female quartet
Tame Impala – Live Versions
Ace studio recordings become festival ready jams on Aussie band’s live release
Wye Oak – Shriek
Baltimore duo lose guitars, add stunning layers of synths to catchy choruses
THE TOP TEN:
10. Inter Arma – The Cavern
Inter Arma has thrown a gauntlet at the feet of other young metal bands – not only does their new album The Cavern span at least a half dozen genres, from sludge to prog to southern rock, but it does it over the course of one captivating forty-five minute track (!).
9. Aphex Twin – Syro
My only criticism of Syro is that it doesn’t change the vocabulary of electronic music the way that previous Aphex Twin albums like Selected Ambient Works II and The Richard D. James album did. Instead, James’ first record since 2001 is simply a brilliant, complex, surprisingly accessible suite of off-kilter beats and rhythms that only he could produce.
8. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
Who would expect two underground, nearly forty-year-old rappers to become hip-hop’s salvation in 2014? But here we are – El-P’s production has never been more immediate, more explosive. And there isn’t a better pure rapper in the game than Killer Mike. In a country where the racial divide has deepened in many ways, it’s undeniably satisfying to see a salt-and-pepper duo throwing their middle fingers up in unison, tackling current issues head on while also delivering an ass-shaking, head-banging rap record for the ages.
7. Perfume Genius – Too Bright
Too Bright is full of rich contradiction – frailty and power, longing and disgust, fury and introspection all manage to find their way into a beguiling 30 minutes of music. Along the way, frontman Michael Hadreas’ vocal tour de force vacillates between startling intimacy on “No Good” to Bowie-esque vamping on “Queen” to Sigur Ros falsetto on the jaw-dropping “Fool.” Perfume Genius proves on Too Bright that emotional intensity and production mastery needn’t be mutually exclusive. This is the both the lyrical and headphone album of the year.
6. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for No Witness
You could tell folks who didn’t know otherwise that Angel Olsenwas an obscure contemporary to Emmylou Harris and they wouldn’t blink. The singer-songwriter deftly balances galloping feminist country and heartbreakingly vulnerable ballads in a way that defies her young age. Burn Your Fire for No Witness sounds lived-in, considered, haunted. “White Fire” is a 7-minute hush, a captivating whisper of a song. “Stars” re-casts romantic indecision as a strutting surf-rock tune. And the album-highlight “Dance Slow Decades” crests in orchestral ecstasy.
5. Blut Aus Nord – Memoria Vetusta III – Saturnian Poetry
Vindsval, the mastermind and sole core member of French black metal band Blut Aus Nord, is already considered a master of the genre to the point that when he releases a new album, its excellence is almost a matter of course. That being said, even considering Blut Aus Nord’s stunning discography, Saturnian Poetry represents a new apex. In a genre that often favors technique over pacing and hooks, Vindsval’s ear for songwriting is impeccable without a shred of compromise. The climax of centerpiece “Forhist,” for example, rewards patient listeners with a massive barrage of riffs that sound like the rallying cry for the orcs at Helm’s Deep. Blut Aus Nord has transcended the black metal genre by perfecting it.
4. Mac DeMarco – Salad Days
Supposedly Mac DeMarco penned the bulk of Salad Days immediately and quickly after an exhausting world tour. World-weariness sits well with the songwriter – the album’s mix of resignation and youthful spunk immediately evokes a waning summer, a cold breeze coming in off the ocean, that first day you’re a little cold in shorts. DeMarco’s signature watery guitar tone and tossed off vocals make the record feel effortless, despite the fact that every single song here is a perfectly constructed pop-rock tune. From the cooing “Brother” to the Pet Sounds evoking “Passing Out Pieces” to the swinging “Let Her Go,” each song is a mini-masterwork of the form. Every year there seems to be one album I play when I can’t think of anything else I want to hear – in 2014, it was Salad Days.
3. Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else
In 2014, Cloud Nothings did not have the element of surprise working in their favor. When they released Attack on Memory in 2012, folks familiar with Dylan Baldi’s emo-tinged, lo-fi bedroom recordings were blown away by that album’s furious, manic but still remarkably tuneful indie rock. Before releasing Here and Nowhere Else, people were comparing Cloud Nothings to Nirvana and Pavement and Dinosaur Jr. Fortunately for us, the band rose to the challenge and then some – Here and Nowhere Else is actually a more concise, more focused, more consistently powerful album than Attack. What it lacks in brashness (there’s no 9-minute “Wasted Days” here) it makes up for in arresting anthems like “Quieter Today,” the dizzying coda of “Psychic Trauma” and the Fucked Up-esque choral-punk “Pattern Walks.” And then there’s the album closer, “I’m Not Part of Me,” the best song of 2014 – a tightly wound, perfect written and paced blast of 90’s style indie rock that would do all the bands they’ve been compared to proud.
2. The War on Drugs – Lost in a Dream
Those of us who really took to 2011’s brilliant Slave Ambient knew that this album could be coming. The classic-rock moments that shone through Ambient’s haze suggested a fresh take on Springsteen-era 80’s rock – Americana filtered through a druggy, stupefied haze. On Lost in a Dream, the fog has lifted (for the most part), revealing one of America’s great rock n’ roll bands of the moment. “Under the Pressure” opens the album as kind of a mission statement – a gigantic, nine-minute opus seemingly fine-tuned to kill at a large, outdoor concert (news flash, it really does). “Red Eyes” follows – a piano and guitar driven road-trip anthem that would make Tom Petty jealous. Frontman and lead guitarist Adam Granduciel kicks it up another notch on the spectacular “An Ocean Beneath the Waves,” a dazzlingly constructed, slow-building affair that crests in a squall of guitar heroics. The second half of the album is slower, statelier – the album’s core themes of loss, anxiety and keepin’ on really burrow in on the piano led ballad “Eyes to the Wind” and especially the wispy opening moments of album closer “In Reverse.” Lost in a Dream manages to perfectly evoke its influences without being beholden to them – they may not be playing Giants’ Stadium yet, but The War on Drugs are somewhere in The Boss’ rear-view, gaining.
1. Swans – To Be Kind
To Be Kind, the third album into Swans’ unfathomable comeback, is so amazing – so massive, so perfectly executed, so haunting, so rich, so ambitious – it frankly makes most other rock bands seem somewhat ridiculous. To Be Kind certainly isn’t for everyone – after all, this is an oftentimes abrasive, repetitive, maximalist record that runs well over two hours – but for those open to a mind-altering trip, there hasn’t really been anything like To Be Kind since, well, Swans’ last record, The Seer. If anything, mastermind Michael Gira’s newest is even more focused and impressive than The Seer – and also, despite the crushing heaviness of its music, a more deeply positive and spiritual album. Sure, there are songs like the distressing, jazzy “Just a Little Boy” and the palpitation provoking stutter-step “Oxygen,” two songs that evoke anxiety attacks so well that they should come with FDA warnings. But then there’s the slap-in-the-face call to immediacy opening track “Screen Shot” and the almost jaunty, Nick Cave in a sandstorm strut “A Little God in My Hands.” Swans may present as dark, forbidding music, but they really are more akin to the mantra-like repetitiveness of Philip Glass. They create noise-rock monoliths that evoke the completeness of the human experience – yes, anger, anxiety and pain, but also love, acceptance and contentment. This is rock music as art – if Wagner was still alive writing operas in 2014, they would sound something like To Be Kind.