For me, this list is the most important thing I write all year. While I enjoy all the various writing avenues I take, the “Top Albums” list is really the end-all-be-all. I’m not blind to the list of other music websites, and as I peruse them, I always find myself scoffing or shaking my head in frustration. Sometimes it’s because of the thinly veiled politics behind picks; other times it’s the unwarranted hype given to an artist who still needs time to grow. I like to believe that I’m so outside the industry and that I can give you a list that is based solely on my passion for music that lurks outside the mainstream. Once again, I’ve compiled a list of some incredible albums that hail from a wide range of genres. Give the first 20 a read through and a listen, and I’m sure you’ll find something that strayed beyond your listening peripheral in 2014.
Antwon, Heavy Hearted in Doldrums
Jennifer Castle, Pink City
Death From Above 1979, The Physical World
Steve Gunn, Way Out Weather
Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire For No Witness
Pallbearer, Foundations of Burden
Self Defense Family, Try Me
Young Widows, Easy Pain
I’m probably not in Ausmuteant’s target demo. A sampling of song titles (“Flushing Problems,” “Stepped in Shit,” and “Pissed Myself Twice”) and it’s clear that this isn’t highbrow material. No, Ausmuteants aren’t one of those punk bands trying to change the world; I doubt they even change their underwear regularly. Musically, the band borrows heavily from Devo. I would even go so far as to suggest that “Inducing Instinct” is either a blatant rip-off or a tribute to Devo’s “Jocko Homo.” Despite this crass songwriting and unoriginal sound, I absolutely love this album.
There are albums on this list that are thought provoking, challenging, and original, but none are quite as joyfully juvenile. This album is enjoyable in the same way that Jackass movies are so inherently funny. I know this music isn’t made for me, but the teenager inside can’t get enough of it.
39. Vince Staples
Hell Can Wait EP
[Def Jam; 2014]
With the deaths of both Michael Brown and Eric Garner in 2014 came a nationwide feeling of anger toward the injustices committed by the United State’s justice system. Vince Staples debut Hell Can Wait came at the exact right time, just months before the Darren Wilson acquittal, expressing many of the frustrations felt within the black community. On “Hands Up” he echoes the cries heard across the nation: “I guess the pigs split wigs for the greater good/ Cause I ain’t seen them lock up a swine yet.” For those who feel the police violence is warranted in response to disrespect, Staples attempts to explain the mounting opposition toward police: “Raidin’ homes without a warrant/ Shoot him first without warning/ And they expect respect and non-violence/ I refuse the right to be silent.”
26 years ago NWA released their controversial anthem “Fuck tha Police,” and sadly, that same disdain for authority still prevails. With Hell Can Wait, Vince Staples has rekindled the seditious flame NWA lit decades ago and carried it defiantly into the 21st century.
38. Chad VanGaalen
Chad VanGaalen’s 2014 release Shrink Dust continues in his tradition of writing instantly memorable melodies filled with shocking descriptions that won’t be leaving your brain any time soon. The songs on the album will be featured on a full-length movie that the constant-factotum VanGaalen has been working on for the past two years. He has hinted that the film will be a combination of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Strange Brew, and I guess the same description could be used to describe the music on Shrink Dust. The album definitely has an otherworldly ambience throughout, and the lyrics to several songs lean toward these same spacey environs. “Cosmic Destroyer” tells of a mythical space creature, always consuming the vast wasteland of the great beyond, and “Where Are You?” plays out like a never-ending journey into the void, searching for a lost love.
Not only is Shrink Dust another great album to add to VanGaalen’s flawless track record, it might be his most self-assured and refined. Possibly the sanded down edges and calmer demeanor will open up his music to a wider audience, but I doubt it (most people have trouble warming up to songs about cutting off your limbs or acquiring scales on your skin). He may never receive the accolades and success he deserves, but that might be the key to his freedom to create such a strange melodic brew. Maybe it’s better that VanGaalen stays an unknown to the masses, allowing him and his muse to continue doing whatever they like. Let’s keep him our little secret.
37. Duck Sauce
[Fool’s Gold; 2014]
In 1986 George Lucas released Howard the Duck, a film that told the story of a wise cracking duck from outer space who ends up on Earth where he shows those around him how to have a good time. The idea of a highly sexualized duck/alien didn’t sit well with American audiences, and the movie was a monumental bomb at the box office. Duck Sauce, a side project from DJs A-Trak and Armand Van Helden, is banking on the fact that people will be more accepting of an intergalactic duck in 2014 with their non-stop club album Quack.
This is not music trying to change the world – it’s here to have a good time. With a constant four on the floor dance beat, the DJ duo creates a world where Disco Duck would fit right in, mixing the best party sounds from the 70s, 80s, and 90s and stringing them together into one non-stop celebration. Each song is led into the next with another duck-themed skit, and although in the past I’ve bemoaned the use of album skits, the strange array of stories presented keep the listening experience light-hearted. Quack is a culmination of five years worth of singles, and the variation shown on the album is the result of this recording approach. If there is a message to cull from this album, it’s the all-inclusive belief that ducks have feelings too.
36. New Pornographers
It feels weird calling Brill Bruisers a comeback album for New Pornographers since they’ve never really left us. In 2005 the indie super-group released their seminal album, Twin Cinema, but since then they have been unable to match the heft with two mediocre albums over the past nine years. Challengers and Together had some great songs that fit within the pantheon of the New Pornographer’s catalog, but overall, the albums felt procedural and anti-septic (here’s three Neko Case songs; here’s three Dan Bejar songs, and AC Newman will fill in the rest).
Brill Bruisers does feels like a different animal altogether. The compartmentalized compilation album model has been wiped away in favor of a full-fledged approach again. It’s a family reunion of sorts with Neko and AC teaming up and eccentric uncle Bejar there to lighten the mood. Backing band mainstays Bline Thurier and Kathryn Calder are also given more attention this time around, receiving songwriting credits and even taking lead vocals on a few tracks. No longer are the New Pornographers about the big three; rather, they are about the band as a whole.
35. Woods of Desolation
As the Stars
[Northern Silence; 2014]
We are living in a post-black metal world, and I like it. Not to say I’m happy to wave goodbye to the black metal movement, quite the contrary. What I’m excited about is how artists like Deafheaven, Wolves in the Throne Room, and Woods of Desolation have taken those definitive black metal elements and softened them up a bit. Woods of Desolation is one of the few bands staying loyal to the lo-fi characteristic, giving their 2014 album As the Stars a more authentic and personal sound.
As the Stars also features some brilliant guitar work, front man D moving from crushing distortion to shimmering shoe gaze bliss with ease. This subtle movement from one environ to the next creates moments of emotional upheaval countered by the blistering black metal sound, bringing you back down to earth. Black metal has always been about sadness and despair, but Woods of Desolation have added another unlikely emotion to the miserable mix: hope.
34. Amen Dunes
[Sacred Bones; 2014]
Whether it be the turmoil between Israel and Hamas, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the Malaysian crash over the Ukrainian war zone, or the continued violence in Iraq, it’s safe to say that the world has fallen on hard times. With all the doom and gloom in the air, it’s surprising that an often unpredictable and brooding artist like Amen Dunes have released an album that can best be described as stripped-down and placid.
Love is an album that is rooted in simplicity during a time of complexity. The songs are as straight-forward as Damon McMahon has released to date, a steady, acoustic gait throughout, sauntering from one earnest track to the next. McMahon’s production shows a growing maturity, allowing the hazy atmosphere of the album to envelope the songs with a warm, loving spirit. Love is a reminder that instead of cowering in fear at the latest ominous headlines and endless, fear-mongering news cycle, sometimes it’s better to stick your head in the sand and give yourself up to the uncertain void of love. It’s not a new sentiment – The Beatles said it best in 1967 with “All You Need is Love,” but Amen Dune’s chorus in “Lonely Richard” of “Have yourself a good time” is a nice reminder.
33. Ex Hex
One of my favorite TV series in 2014 was the Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highways, a documentary style show that followed the band as they recorded in various legendary studios around the United States. The only aspect of the show that left a bad taste in my mouth was the band’s inability to actually incorporate the sounds that were distinctive to each region. Maybe the series would have been better served with Mary Timony and her latest band, Ex Hex, at the helm.
Ex Hex’s 2014 release Rips is the ultimate mix-tape of American rock ‘n roll. The band was born in the DIY scene of Washington D.C., yet it melds the punk of New York City’s Ramones with the larger-than-life anthems of Chicago’s Cheap Trick. The pop sensibilities of Los Angeles based The Runaways run throughout the album while the angular-edge of Seattle-based Sleater Kinney are also a mainstay. Rips is one of those albums you swear you’ve heard before, probably because it’s so entrenched in the music that defined your childhood.
The Future’s Void
On EMA’s debut Past Life Martyred Saints, Ericka M. Anderson exposed every weakness and flaw imaginable on what would be one of the most emotionally raw albums of 2011. To expect her to return to the well of misery again would be masochistic, and fortunately with The Future’s Void, she’s turned the mirror on the listener, exploring how we mold, mutilate, and mask our self-image via the internet. Despite Anderson’s assertion that this isn’t a concept album, every song merges at some point back toward references to what she disdainfully labels as the “superhighway.” From the cover image of her holding up a vacuumous virtual reality headset to the songs’ reoccurring imagery of “Big Brother” watching over us, this album definitely has a focus if not an overlying theme.
Musically, The Future’s Void dabbles in a variety of genres. “Chtulu,” “Smoulder,” and “Neuromancer” are highly influenced by 90s era industrial music with their icy sheen and garbled vocals, screaming beneath the portentous, digital synth. While this middle section of the album is dystopian melodrama, its bookended by softer moments like “100 Years” and “3Jane” with watery pianos and Anderson’s soft register, front and center. Despite all these differing inspirations, the album doesn’t play like a genre buffet. Instead, Anderson visits each style and blends in her signature crushed, whispering/screaming vocals and austere lyrical outlook. Some may argue that The Future’s Void lacks the intimacy of Past Life Martyred Saints, but I see it differently. Instead of exposing herself via her music this time around, Anderson forces the listener to see how we all are creating a ghost of ourselves online that eventually will be just as revealing as anything EMA has put to tape.
31. Hamilton Leithauser
[Ribbon Music; 2014]
When The Walkmen decided to go on their extended hiatus last year, I thought it was the last we’d hear from the boys for a while. This assumption was based on their final release, Heaven, an album dedicated to love and the family unit. Fortunately, front-man Hamilton Leithauser couldn’t keep himself away from making music for long, releasing his nostalgic adventure, Black Hours, in 2014.
The black and white photo on the cover is the first clue that you’re in for a completely new listening experience from what we’ve grown to expect from The Walkmen. It looks like something from a Frank Sinatra album, and this parallel is no accident. The one-time voice of pent-up frustration is now a smooth crooner, lulling his listeners into a relaxed state of mind as he focuses on the thrill of love. I’ve always contended that Leithauser has the best voice in music today, and Black Hours is more proof to add to the pudding. His vocal prowess fits nicely over the elaborate production, jam-packed with orchestration, a horn section, and even marimbas. Black Hours may not be a Walkmen album, but it’s still a warm, inviting listen that can help fill the void while we wait for the return of one of the best bands of the past decade.
[Sacred Bones; 2014]
In 2014 Diamanda Galas has one-upped herself by making Bestial Burden, an album twice as horrifying as her 2013 noise-massacre Abandon. Bestial Burden is not for the faint of heart. It’s brutal, crushing, madness that will make your spine shiver and your brain implode. In a strange way, this bedlam can be almost therapeutic, Galas and her guttural screams, kicking and scratching deep beneath the torturous orchestra of noise, yearning for escape from the madness.
Galas could be singing in another language for all I know, but it doesn’t matter – her message comes out loud and clear (garbled, yet clear). Whatever is causing her agony isn’t important. It’s the raw, authenticity of the pain that makes it relatable to anyone that has taken part in the human experience. If you want cookie-cutter, sentimental heartbreak, turn on your radio. But if you want real, unfettered misery, wallowing in it’s own dreadful waste, look no further than Pharmakon. As far as I’m concerned, Diamanda Galas is the anti-Taylor Swift.
“Body Betrays Itself”:
29. Aphex Twin
If there is one genre I struggled to get into in 2014, it had to be EDM. I’m not completely adverse to electronica as a whole, it just feels like anything I check out that is deemed buzzworthy lacks any of the ingenuity that drew me to the genre decades ago. I blame Aphex Twin’s Richard D James. While there was corny, predictable dance music blaring from 90s dance clubs, music nerds like myself were holed up in their dorm rooms listening to the strange incarnations of James, whether it be drum n’ bass, ambient, or straight up chaos. He proved with his experimentations that electronic music could make you feel a plethora of emotions, none of which invoked dancing.
This innovative past is what makes Aphex Twin’s return with Syro all the more alarming. In a time where every kid with a laptop thinks he’s a DJ, James has opted to go back to basics and create his most straight-forward dance album yet. It’s crisp, clean, and complex. Each track seems simple, but on deeper examination, the multiple moving parts illuminate the brilliance of James after all these years. Instead of showing the kids where they should be taking EDM, James has decided to take them back to brass tacks with remarkable results.
When Lantlôs parted ways with singer Neige (of Alcest fame), it seemed like the end for the German black metal band, and I guess in a way it was. Other than the second track, “Cherry Quartz,” all remnants of the band’s black metal background have been swept away and replaced with a dreamier, more spiritual sound. Markus Siegenhort’s baritone vocal delivery calms the listener rather than sending them into a frenzy. The guitars twinkle and swirl, a dramatic, shoe-gazey wall of sound, soothing the listener rather than knocking them down. It’s weird to describe music this colossal and thunderous as calming, but it’s a strangely serene listen.
The entire album is focused around the concept of the melting sun: the album title, the beautiful cover art of a face bathed in the sun’s fading light, the song’s anthologized titles like “Melting Sun I: Azure Chimes” and “Melting Sun VI: Golden Minds.” It’s weird to think of a black metal band having such a warm, welcoming concept, but then again, this is no longer a black metal band – it’s much, much more.
27. S. Carey
Range of Light
John Muir once described the Sierra Mountains as “The Range of Light” and the moniker stuck. Muir was pin-pointing the wide range of beauty one can experience in Yosemite, from the blanket of pine trees, the cascading waterfalls, and the snow-capped peaks that stretch for miles. S. Carey has understood the nuances of nature since childhood through the various trips his father took him on, places like the White Mountains, the Mongollan Rim, and yes, Yosemite National Park.
Range of Light is S. Carey’s love song to the natural wonders that formed his appreciation for nature’s magnificence at a young age. Not only do the lyrics explore the wonders abound in the wilderness, the songs also require focus and solitude to truly be fully appreciated. If you give it time to bloom, the album slowly forms around you, taking shape and growing into beautiful soundscapes. One of my favorite parts of hiking is the amount of emotions that rush to you when surrounded by splendor – the wonder, the sadness, the pure joy. With Range of Light, S. Carey has both captured the beauty Muir wrote so eloquently about and the range of emotions that come with a walk in the woods.
[Touch & Go; 2014]
Touch & Go Record, once the citadel for indie rock, had to cut back severely on production five years ago due to the state of the crumbling music business, and the signs of their demise are written all over their website. The “coming soon” column is devoid of any information, and five of the top 12 recent releases are re-issues. That one remaining bastion of hope? Shellac.
After over two decades of work together, this tenacious threesome remain standing tall atop the rubble, continuing to stay true to their no-nonsense take on post-core rock. Bob Weston’s bass is straight-forward and blunt, steamrolling everything in its path. Todd Trainer’s unrelenting drums match Weston’s intensity with pinpoint accuracy throughout. Then, of course, there’s Steve Albini, the rebellious music outsider, refusing to follow the paint-by-numbers approach to songwriting. His guitar still spews the same bitter bluntness that defined his music four decades ago. You know how people say they just don’t make them like they used to? They’re talking about Shellac.
Nostalgia-based music is far from a new thing. Every year 100s of bands release albums paying homage to the sounds of old, ranging from 60s psychedelia, 70s prog-rock, or 80s new wave. With their self-titled debut, Alvvays (pronounced “Always”) are just another one of these bands borrowing heavily from the past, but the difference with this Nova Scotia quintet from many others is the flawless craftsmanship displayed through every track on the album.
I’m not suggesting that what Alvvays have created is perfect. In fact, pristine musicianship and production would tarnish exactly what makes the album so great. Thanks to producer/genius Chad VanGaalen, the album’s rough, lo-fi exterior amplifies the warm and welcoming heart of the music. The songs are a refreshing mix of 60s pop and 80s new wave, blending the jangly guitars of the Mamas and the Papas with the no-nonsense synths of Kraftwerk. This is far from a paint by genre venture with the album’s constant reliance on a rumbling under current of overdrive helping to give it a faint punk aftertaste. You’re not going to find heady stuff on Alvvays debut album, but what else do you expect from a bunch of kids in their early 20s? Instead, revel in the bright-eyed, naive wonder found in these nine optimistic melodies.
24. Mick Jenkins
In a time where many hip-hop artists are touting their worth in cars, watches, and women, Mick Jenkin’s places his focus on the most important element of them all – water. The Water(s) doesn’t just steer clear of the rap norms thematically, his music also takes on a much mellower, somber tone than the in your face assault played incessantly by the mainstream. Dangling guitar leads reverberate over the soft click-clack of the backing beat, creating an atmosphere of smoky jazz club.
Swimming above the surface of these calming melodic waters is Mick Jenkins, performing his pointed poetry, magnifying the mis-guided values of hip-hop culture. His vocal approach is dead-pan, confident, and powerful. His lyrics at times can be playful, but it’s clear from the start that his verbal wordplay is just a vehicle for furthering his message. The best part of The Water(s) is that it’s Mick Jenkins dipping his toes in – I look forward to his swan dive.
23. Electric Wizard
Time To Die
In a year where young, up-and-coming bands dominated the doom metal scene, it feels kind of weird for me to proclaim that one of the best doom metal albums of the year is by legendary Electric Wizard. It’s not that I don’t have respect for the band’s storied history; it’s just that bands are supposed to have a fall-off as they get older. Many thought 2010’s lackluster Black Masses was a sign of the end for these stalwarts of sludge, but Time To Die is proof that it’s time for anything but death for this influential band.
Time To Die features an un-containable energy throughout thanks in large part to the return of Mark Greening and his animalistic drumming. New bassist Clayton Burgess rattles the low-end throughout with his booming dirge, pacing the plodding death march. Elizabeth Buckingham’s head-nod inducing guitar riffs truly make this album worth repeated listens. When not laying down an unforgettable riff, she’s filling up the blank space with reverberated, caterwauled guitar lunacy that can whip one up into an instant, frothing frenzy. Throughout the album, news clips from the 80s and 90s are interspersed, punctuating the perpetuated lie that “evil” music is the cause of the ills of society. While “Destroy Those Who Love God” is a catchy doom metal song, it hasn’t brainwashed me into following the song’s orders (yet!).
“Time to Die”:
22. Have a Nice Life
The Unnatural World
[The Flesner; 2014]
Earlier this year, Trevor Powers (the brains behind Youth Lagoon) pleaded on Twitter, “Please, no more genres. Find a better way to classify music.” Only a few weeks prior, NPR writer Bob Boilen questioned the future of labeling sounds with a blog entitled “Can You Imagine a World Without Music Genres?” Both of them have a point. With new bastardized sub-genres popping up daily, it’s getting to the point where one will be required to use an algorithm to crack the sub-genre code laid out by the all-knowing music reviewer.
Take the latest Have a Nice Life album, The Unnatural World, as an example. Is it industrial-shoegaze-electro-drone-post-rock? Or is it new wave-ambient-doom-post-punk? The Unnatural World is just that – a mish-mash, cross-section of every genre that ever mattered to you, yet it sounds strangely alien and refreshing. The music on The Unnatural World is a constant contradiction. It can be soft yet overpowering. It can be spacious yet suffocating. It can be beautiful yet darkly foreboding. Despite this constant dichotomy in the music, the album all stays grounded deep within the lonely caverns that Dan Barrett and Tim Macuga have created with their claustrophobic production. Its moments of ambient drone are counter-balanced by the post-punk apocalypse of other tracks. The concoction Have a Nice Life have created is such a free-for-all mixture that it reminds me of childhood when my friends and I would go to the gas station and mix every single soda on tap into one cup for a drink we called “Suicide.” In the end, maybe that’s exactly what Have A Nice Life’s death-obsessed jambalaya of noise should be called: Suicide. No, scratch that: Post-Suicide.
“Guggenheim Wax Museum”:
21. Real Estate
On face value, what Real Estate does seems pretty basic and pretty boring. Martin Courtney’s voice never raises much above a soft whisper. Matt Mondanile’s guitars licks are simple and clean. The drums are soft and unassuming, and the melodies never cry out for your attention. But through this minimalism, Real Estate have mastered the transcendental credo of “less is more.”
Real Estate’s 2014 release, Atlas, continues in the band’s tradition of understated surf-gaze, but lyrically the band has taken past themes into new territories. 2011’s Days was an album of nostalgia with songs waxing poetic about suburban childhood. While the band’s habit of pining for the past continues on Atlas, it is a more mature and measured approach. From one track to the next the band skillfully moves from reminiscing to ruminating about broken relationships, loneliness, and how the passing of time never ceases. Thankfully, their distinct, straightforward approach doesn’t paint life’s failures with dread but with wistful wonder.