Monday, December 29, 2014

My 20 Favorite Albums of 2014

Last year, I wrote about how many different narratives there were for music in 2013.  On the other hand, 2014 was a year that seemed to have no narrative at all (which maybe was a narrative in and of itself?).  Coincidentally, this was not a great year for music.  It was one full of good albums, because every year has good albums, but much less great ones than previous years in this decade.  There were also no real event albums like there were last year, which gave us Yeezus, Modern Vampires of the City, and Random Access Memories, among others.  And even the ones that got many people talking this year -- like Benji or Lost in a Dream -- I wasn't crazy about.

It was, however, a good year for women, at least judging by my list.  12 of the picks on my list are either by women or bands fronted by women.  So shout out to the ladies, I guess!  (Anti-shout out to rap music, which didn't fare as well.  Only one of the albums in my top 20 is a rap release.)

The rules: Due to the constant changing of the way music gets released, anything can be an album for the sake of this list.  You especially have to play fast and loose given the fact that many rap mixtapes function as albums anyway.  So LPs, mixtapes, 40-minute songs, EPs if they're good enough -- they're all albums to me!  If something got released in another country in a previous year, but got an American release this year, it works on a case-by-case basis (we'll see an example of that later).  Otherwise, the eligibility window is that the album has to have been released between January 1, 2014 and today.  That means Beyonce's self-titled album, which came out during the last week of 2013 but will probably appear on one or two 2014 lists, is not eligible for this one.  (Spoiler: it wouldn't have made it anyway.)  So now with that bit of business out of the way, on to the actual list...

Honorable Mentions (25-21)
I'll forever mourn the death of Das Racist, but Kool AD's solo work makes that loss a little less painful, and Word OK is another piece of zooted brilliance from him.  They Want My Soul is a Spoon album, and like every Spoon album, it's awesome and impeccably crafted.  Radiator Hospital's Torch Song fully realizes the potential displayed on the band's first album, in 15 little guitar nuggets.  His rapping might not be the most impressive, but Travi$ Scott's neck-snapping production on Days Before Rodeo makes it clear why he's one of Kanye West's proteges. And Sucker, Charli XCX's plucky pop gem would have certainly made the top 20 if it had come out a little earlier and I had more time to digest it.

20. Parquet Courts - Sunbathing Animal
This may be blasphemous, but I've never really been into Pavement or any other kind of "slacker rock."  Call me simple, but if the music sounds like you didn't care while you were making it, why should I care when I'm listening to it?  Though I enjoyed Light Up Gold, the first album from Parquet Courts, its general digressiveness made it hard to fully love.  Sunbathing Animal improves upon its predecessor by cranking up the ferocity.  They're still making sloppy, desultory music, but it's also blistering and immediate now.  This is a wordy, motormouthed album of stoner musings that twist themselves into being somewhat poetic.  And when frontman Andrew Savage focuses those ramblings, he can craft a genuine character study, as he does on the terrific, laconic "Dear Ramona."  The short, spastic "Vienna II" even fits some classical music references in there.  Parquet Courts are like the kid in class who never seems engaged, but gets the answer right every time they're called upon.  Sunbathing Animal, then, is their collection of brilliant, distracted doodles.

Highlight songs:
1. What Color is Blood?
2. Dear Ramona
3. Bodies

19. Sylvan Esso - Sylvan Esso
Sylvan Esso constantly toes the line between great and grating, between catchy and cloying.  Vocalist Amelia Meath sounds a bit like a Feist impressionist and the duo's brand of coffeehouse electronic music feels very Apple commercial friendly, both of which make them easy to ridicule.  The list goes on: the odd way Meath clips and annunciates her words, the nursery rhyme lyricism, the "oh-wee-oh-wee-oh" choruses.  And yet, they reign it in and manage to avoid tripping on to the side of annoyance, thanks to the locked-in chemistry between Meath and producer Nick Sanborn.  The former's voice is an instrument of its own, leaping and bounding above the latter's synth soundscapes.  Sylvan Esso is a very onomatopoetic album.  It's an elaborate contraption made up of clicks and pops and buzzes and tings, and they synchronize to form something invigorating and tuneful.  So while a song like "H.S.K.T." might sound like a commercial jingle, it sure does make you want to dance.

Highlight songs:
1. H.S.K.T.
2. Wolf
3. Hey Mami

18. Sharon Van Etten - Are We There
With three previous albums of spilling blood, shedding tears, and breaking bones all over her songs, it's a miracle that there's any more Sharon Van Etten left.  Yet here she is again with Are We There, another searing album of open wounds.  Look no further than the staggering, six-minute "Your Love Is Killing Me," whose chorus is: "Break my legs so I won't walk to you / Cut my tongue so I can't talk to you / Burn my skin so I can't feel you / Stab my eyes so I can't see."  Though this album isn't produced by The National's Aaron Dessner, Van Etten picks up right where he left off, making this her clearest, most delicately arranged record yet.  These songs are cinematic, and they'll hit you like an avalanche.  Yet with production full of horns and organs and woodwinds, it still sounds wonderfully sparse.  Emotion is always at the forefront, and Van Etten sells the vulnerability of lines like, "He can break me with one hand to my head."  Plenty of people make songs about relationships.  Few can make them as physical and high-stakes as Sharon Van Etten does on Are We There.

Highlight songs:
1. Every Time the Sun Comes Up
2. Your Love is Killing Me
3. Nothing Will Change

17. Alvvays - Alvvays
Alvvays belong to my favorite genre of music: Bands Who Sound Similiar To Camera Obscura.  This isn't new territory that they're exploring -- the 60s-influenced indie pop, the bright melodies dashed with melancholic lyrics, the aching earnestness.  But Alvvays take tired songs and make them lively again, simply through verve and solid execution.  The fact that the album's three best songs are the first three would be a problem were it not for the fact that every other song that follows is lovely as well.  Even "Next of Kin, " a song about a guy drowning to death, sounds peppy and wonderful.  This is the kind of album that'll remind you of being young -- that time where even the simplest of emotions were deeply felt -- without insulting your intelligence.  Alvvays is top notch good vibes music, perfect listening for a warm summer day.  [Read the original review]

Highlight songs:
1. Ones Who Love You
2. Adult Diversion
3. Archie, Marry Me

16. Ariana Grande - My Everything
In a landscape where every top 40 pop artist has multiple songs written and produced by the likes of Max Martin, Shellback, or Ryan Tedder, it's hard to determine what makes one stand out from the others.  With a certain artist who appears later on this list, it's because of her lyrical prowess.  With Ariana Grande, it's a little more ineffable.  Ultimately, I think it's her willingness to venture toward the R&B side of the musical spectrum, and indeed that's where she achieves her greatest success on the record.  Grande has a reputation for being a diva, but it works to her favor in her music, as she swaggers over that R&B-inflected middle stretch of My Everything with confidence and control.  It's not an album without flaws -- in fact, there are many: the forays into more dance-y sounds are hit ("One Last Time") or miss ("Break Free"), the guest rap verses are passable at best, and the momentum really flags toward the end.  However, the highs are high enough to make those seem like minor infractions.  My Everything doesn't have the charm or surprise of Yours Truly, but it has the quality to prove that that first album wasn't a fluke. [Read the original review]

Highlight songs:
1. Be My Baby
2. Best Mistake (feat. Big Sean)
3. Break Your Heart Right Back (feat. Childish Gambino)

15. Fear of Men - Loom
The debut album from Brighton band Fear of Men is greater than the sum of its parts.  If you named a song off of Loom, aside from the three songs chosen as highlights below, I probably couldn't tell you, "Oh, that's the one where..."  None of these tracks are significantly distinguished from one another, but that turns out to work to the album's benefit, because when taken together it's a wonderful wash of focused, moody sounds.  Fear of Men is like the darker cousin of bands like Camera Obscura and Allo Darlin'.  The music is still dreamy, mostly thanks to the serene vocals from singer Jessica Weiss, but more overcast than its influences.  All of Loom's 11 songs are very hypnotic, and most of their choruses repeat like a mantra.  Meanwhile, the rhythm section hums along with a metronomic precision.  When the songs are over, the instruments fade out instead of stopping abruptly, lest they yank you out of the mood.  Loom is catchy but understated, tempestuous but not melodramatic, and consistent but not monotonous.

Highlight songs:
1. America
2. Alta
3. Inside

14. Future Islands - Singles
Singles is an appropriate title for Future Islands' third album.  It consists of all new material, yet it certainly feels like the greatest hits album of a far older band.  There are the star-making singles ("Seasons," "A Dream of You and Me"), tracks made at the band's broadest point of appeal ("Back in the Tall Grass"), and the few that aren't necessarily hits but are there for you to catch your breath ("A Song For Our Grandfathers," "Fall From Grace").  The band has a flair for the dramatic, churning out synth pop songs like they're the most grandiose creations imaginable.  And even though most of the songs are about relationships, they're described in elemental fashion.  The sun, moon, earth, and sea whip around these accounts of love and desire.  Relationships are cast against the summer and winter.  And frontman Samuel Herring's reptilian growl soars over the thick basslines and crisp synth splashes.  Singles is an album full of effortlessly catchy tunes.  I'm less of a fan of the first two Future Islands records, but if this is the new direction they're heading in, I'm on board.

Highlight songs:
1. A Dream of You and Me
2. Spirit
3. Seasons (Waiting On You)

13. Jessie Ware - Tough Love
Forget about FKA twigs.  Forget about Tinashe. Well, the latter's Aquarius album has some choice jams, but the point is that R&B music has become too cold and detached.  Jessie Ware is the antidote to those clinical buzz acts, because Tough Love is the most sensual album of 2014.  It's a record that feels like a sigh, a long and sexy sigh.  Songs don't start so much as they hatch, sprung forth by Ware's powerful pipes.  She knows that the appeal of her songs lies in her smoky voice and coy melodies, so the production stays gloriously restrained, allowing her to navigate songs with a serpentine fluidity.  This stuff isn't very far from what you'd hear on your local adult contemporary station, but it's so classy and perfectly executed that you don't even think about its sleepier leanings.  Ware also ventures into territory that would fit on mainstream pop radio, as she does on "Say You Love Me."  It features Ed Sheeran and a choir -- both usually death knells for any song -- and yet she somehow warps it into something not completely ridiculous.  That kind of sums up Tough Love as a whole: broader and a little bit cheesy, but Ware finesses her way through and makes every song unmistakably hers.

Highlight songs:
1. Sweetest Song
2. Kind Of...Sometimes...Maybe
3. Keep On Lying

12. Frankie Cosmos - Zentropy
At 10 songs and 17 minutes, Zentropy is an album of astonishing brevity.  Frankie Cosmos (real name: Greta Kline) knows how to get in and get out, cutting songs off before they overstay their welcome.  But they're not just the musical equivalent of a teaser trailer -- the album is a collection of abrupt, but fully fledged songs.  It helps that Kline is an efficient writer, able to fit ideas and emotions into a tiny amount of words.  There's surprisingly quite a bit packed into a line like "I'm bitter like olives / that's why you like them and I don't" on "Leone."  Some may want to throw around words like "cutesy," "hipster," or "tumblr sadgirl" when talking about Zentropy.  After all, you hear this kind of garage pop on indie blogs all the time, there's a song called "Art School," and she has lines like "I'm the kind of girl buses splash with rain."  Consider album closer "Sad 2," however.  It's just a raw, wrenching song about the death of her dog, filled with painstaking details ("Dad made the appointment / to kill my best friend").  There's nothing hollow or contrived about that, or anything else on Zentropy for that matter.

Highlight songs:
1. Sad 2
2. Leonie
3. Buses Splash With Rain

11. The Hold Steady - Teeth Dreams
After the disappointing Heaven is Whenever in 2010, Teeth Dreams is a return to form for The Hold Steady.  It may not be on the level of their mid-2000s output, but it's a close enough approximation of the band's signature galvanizing choruses and monstrous, kettle-cooked guitar riffs.  Frontman Craig Finn remains one of indie rock's best lyricists, doling out back-alley poetry and spouting evocative, world-weary lines with ease.  Thematically and narratively, Teeth Dreams returns to the same stomping grounds, telling stories of people scratching and scraping for something better, doing anything to make those bad nights a little less terrible.  Increasingly, however, there's a greater sense of malaise creeping in to the band's songs about boozing and bruising.  On the mournful power ballad "The Ambassador," when Finn sings of someone staying at a hotel where "all the halls smelled like burning hair," it sounds less like a wild adventure and more like a sad situation.  With previous albums, there was at least some hope to balance out the strife.  Holly has some sort of resurrection on Separation Sunday, the titular Boys & Girls in America will be alright in the end, and Stay Positive ends on the encore-ready anthem of "Slapped Actress."  Here, the only thing left to hold on to is the dream of something more.  But who knows, if the band can have a comeback, maybe the characters in their songs will too.

Highlight songs:

10. Courtney Barnett - The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas
A Sea of Split Peas, the double EP from Australian rambler Courtney Barnett, is partially on this list because of a technicality.  It's officially a 2013 album, and many critics listened to and wrote about it last year, but it got an American re-release this year.  Usually I wouldn't make such an exception, but this album is so good that it deserves recognition.  There's something insanely charming about Barnett and her off-the-cuff, conversational music.  She's like that friend of yours who always tells you really entertaining stories whenever you hang out.  On lead single "Avant Gardener," she talks about a panic attack she had while gardening and makes it sound downright Homeric.  Her casual delivery makes the lyrics land even harder too.  She'll offhandedly insult a dude, increasing the sting; and she'll also share a sad obversation as if she's already resigned to it.  Sometimes she even does both at the same time ("I may not be 100% happy, but at least I'm not with you").  The disheveled nature of the album is just a Trojan horse, hiding music that's genuinely funny, poignant, thoughtful, and ambitious.  A Sea of Split Peas is quietly epic. [Read the original review]

Highlight songs:
1. Avant Gardener
2. Anonymous Club
3. Canned Tomatoes (Whole)

9. St. Vincent - St. Vincent
Anybody who has seen St. Vincent live knows that she's a beast on the guitar, but you wouldn't know it from her elegant, controlled albums.  Those records are all excellent, but it's hard not to wish that she cut loose for more than a song or two.  Well, her self-titled fourth album is finally it.  She's even changed her personal style to match the sound, looking like a gray-haired mad scientist who just stuck a fork in a wall socket.  St. Vincent is an album of strange brews.  Synths buzz and gurgle.  Bone-crunching solos appear with less warning than RKOs.  Lead single "Birth in Reverse" has guitars that sound like something out of a Drums and Wires-era XTC song.  "Every Tear Disappears" throws some chiptune sounds into the mix (while also sounding like a theme from a Morricone score).  Even "Huey Newton," which plays it coy with a paranoid synth line and minimal drum beat in the beginning, eventually rips into a distorted guitar strut.  I don't know about everyone else, but I think I prefer St. Vincent unleashed.

Highlight songs:
1. Huey Newton
2. Birth in Reverse
3. Prince Johnny

8. Wild Beasts - Present Tense
Wild Beasts hardly live up to their name anymore, but that's okay.  They've slowly tamed their sound from the spastic, libidinous days of yore to something more akin to refined sensuality.  Their first two records dripped with perspiration, but their previous album, and especially Present Tense, is more like a thin film of liquid on your brow.  These songs are more focused on delayed gratification than ever before.  Songs keep the same structure throughout, but slowly accumulate sounds atop their snakelike rhythms.  As always, the vocal trade-off between lead singers Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming is the biggest appeal.  The former's falsetto coo and the latter's deep croon are like two disparate flavors that come together to make an unexpectedly great taste, and they construct the songs like smaller pieces revealing a greater design.  In the age of individual downloads and an emphasis on singles, it's refreshing to see something that builds and flows as well as Present Tense does.

Highlight songs:
1. Daughters
2. Palace
3. A Simple Beautiful Truth

7. Angel Olsen - Burn Your Fire For No Witness
Angel Olsen's debut album Half Way Home was excellent, but you wouldn't be wrong if you called it monochromatic.  It was a record full of muted gray tones, which is what made it such a great mood piece, but what could also make it feel enervating.  Burn Your Fire For No Witness, by contrast, is presented in grand technicolor.  It's still got those great torch songs that would feel at home on the first album, like "Lights Out," but Olsen also amps things up for some faster, fuller songs here.  On those, she sounds like she's backed by some classic rock band, full of boozy piano key clanks and ragged guitars.  But even with a more muscular sound, Burn Your Fire is still loaded with quiet intensity.  It's a solitary album, full of lonely thoughts and wishes unfulfilled, carried by Olsen's distinct, honey-throated warble.  If you're in need of some stirred emotions, this should be your go-to pick -- it's music that breaks skin and then just keeps digging. [Read the original review]

Highlight songs:
1. Iota
2. Enemy
3. High & Wild

6. Wye Oak - Shriek
The idea behind Shriek almost seems like a dare, like a friend of the band got high and said, "Hey, do you think you guys would be able to make an album without any guitar"?  While it seemed like a horrible lark, cutting out the best component of Wye Oak's sound, they prove that they're up to the task, shifting around their roles and reallocating resources with great skill.  Jenn Wasner picks up a bass this time around, and shows that she's got some chops there as well, delivering deep, fat notes on "Before" and pulsating plucks on "Schools of Eyes."  Shriek serves as an opportunity to pay more attention to other items in their toolbelt that you may have overlooked when the guitars were slicing through songs, most notably Wasner's voice.  Her clear vocals shape-shift across the album, floating over the aqueous "Sick Talk," taking forceful command of "Paradise," and endlessly layering on top of "I Know the Law."  The prominence of keyboard on this record may make the songs a little more wipsy and elusive, where before they were weighty and declarative, but they also give each track an extra edge of poignancy.  Shriek is a fun experiment, but one with the substance to back it up. [Read the original review]

Highlight songs:
1. Sick Talk
2. The Logic of Color
3. Before

5. D'Angelo - Black Messiah
After gestating for 14 years, Black Messiah could've easily sounded stale, yet it's anything but.  On "The Charade," D'Angelo evokes the Civil Rights movement in lines like, "All we wanted was a chance to talk, instead we only got outlined in chalk," but it could also be applied to the current state of race relations in America.  "Back to the Future (Part 1)" is a aching wave of nostalgia that couldn't be made by someone who wasn't currently standing on the other side of the past.  And he even has self-awareness about what people have been saying about him since his legendary Voodoo days, dishing out winking digs: "So if you're wondering about the shape I'm in, I hope it ain't my abdomen you're referring to."  And though he mumbles all over the record's 12 tracks, he sounds absolutely present at all times.  On album highlight "Sugah Daddy," he ping-pongs off of a jaunty piano loop and horn blasts like Prince in his prime.  Yesterday, today, and tomorrow meld with his voice on the brain-scrambling "1000 Deaths."  Then, just to prove he's still got that piercing falsetto, he closes things out with the beautiful "Another Life."  2014 was an ugly year for America.  The arrival of Black Messiah at the end of it feels something like a soothing balm.

Highlight songs:
1. Sugah Daddy
2. Really Love
3. The Door

4. Taylor Swift - 1989
Somewhere, somehow, the critical tide turned for Taylor Swift and it suddenly became cool to like her music.  Young, old, hipster, poptimist, girl, guy -- almost every type of person likes 1989.  That's good news, because this album is great.  In a year where there were no other event albums (hers is the only one to sell a million records in 2014) or prevailing narrative, here she is, a one-woman event.  Taylor Swift is the narrative.  1989 finds her in full command, kissing off the haters in "Shake It Off" and poking fun at her reputation on "Blank Space."  Elsewhere, on "Bad Blood," she's like the eye in a storm of pounding drums, cowbell, and computerized bleeps and bloops.  Longtime fans will be able to recognize her calling cards: delicious turns of phrase ("we're a crooked love, in a straight line down"), laser-precise structures, and exposed-wound earnestness.  But the endless barrage of hooks on this record will likely grab anyone.  Welcome to the joy of Taylor Swift, newcomers.  I've been here telling you that she's the best since like 2007, but better late than never, I guess. [Read the original review]

Highlight songs:
1. Wildest Dreams
2. Style
3. I Wish You Would

3. Cymbals Eat Guitars - LOSE
Cymbals Eat Guitars have always been a band I appreciate on paper -- knotty guitar rock in the vein of Built to Spill and Modest Mouse -- but don't love in execution.  But where their first two albums felt like five different sounds tugging away at the center, this one finally finds the perfect balance of sprawling and concise, of raging and contemplative.  LOSE was inspired by a friend of the band's death, and you can feel it in every note of the record.  It's about bereavement of all kinds: dying friends, lovers lost, and people fallen out of touch with.  The songs twist around lead singer Joseph D'Agostino's vocals, which display great emotional range.  He can veer from impassioned screaming to mournful whispers.  But the true mark is left by his lyrics, which fit deeply evocative senses into tiny little nuggets like "keepsake tinnitus shrieks me to sleep / each frequency's a memory of some show we attended" on "XR."  And the production is the cleanest, brightest, and most spacious it has ever been.  White hot guitars tangle together and leap off the track.  Every song feels like it's liable to erupt at any second.  Together, they make LOSE a full-bodied, whirling rumination on nostalgia, grief, and loss.

Highlight songs:
1. Warning
2. Chambers
3. Child Bride

2. The New Pornographers - Brill Bruisers
I enjoyed Challengers and Together, the two previous New Pornographers albums, but their good-not-great quality had me convinced that the band's golden age was behind them.  Brill Bruisers, then, is a wonderful surprise.  It's an album that finds the band revitalized and banging out tight, punchy songs that recall their best work.  There's hardly even a chance to catch your breath -- it's just a merry-go-round of hooks and harmonies.  And yet, even though they're getting back to the basics, they're still able to occasionally wander into new territory.  After all, would you hear anything like the spacey, gaping "Spidyr" on their previous records?  Their music has always been about the joy of collaboration, and on this album principle vocalists AC Newman, Neko Case, and Dan Bejar are in top form, delivering songs that will likely stand up with their previous best efforts.  That's why it's such bad news that Kurt Dahle, the thunderous drummer who's been there all along, left the band a few months ago.  Savor the lovely, exhilarating Brill Bruisers.  It may very well be the true end of an era.  [Read the original review]

Highlight songs:
1. Backstairs
2. Born With a Sound
3. Marching Orders

1. Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels 2
Did you notice how many nerdy music critics tried to shoehorn the word "fuckboy" into their review of Run the Jewels 2?  It was a bit awkward and uncomfortable, sure, but also very understandable, to be honest.  Much like the sensation of wanting to drive 100 mph on the freeway after coming out of a Fast & Furious movie, the sheer brawn of this album wears off on you.  This is tear-off-your-shirt-and-beat-on-your-chest rap.  This is punch-a-hole-in-drywall rap.  This get the point.  Killer Mike and El-P exhibited some formidable alchemy on Run the Jewels last year, but they're even more locked in for the sequel.  The rhymes are tighter, the beats bang harder, and the chemistry is even more palpable.  They find a happy medium between darkness and freewheeling fun, delivering the same scorching brag raps featured on the first, but this time adding some thoughtful musings on police violence and government corruption.  These guys mean business, but they're not afraid to have a good time either.  Plus: who would've thought the best album of the year would have excellent guest verses from Zack de la Rocha and Gangsta Boo?  All hail Run the Jewels. [Read the original review]

Highlight songs;
1. Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck) [feat. Zack de la Rocha]
2. Blockbuster Night, Pt. 1
3. Love Again (Akinyele Back) [feat. Gangsta Boo]

Well, that wraps things up for my best albums of 2014 list.  I love reading other lists, so feel free to share yours in the comments.  Or if you want to just tell me that I deserve to die for my horrible list, then you can do that too!  (But please don't.  I'm very fragile.)

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