To cap off our Best of 2014 coverage, we asked a handful of our staff writers to submit their favorite albums and songs of the year.
Chet Faker – Built on Glass
I was scrolling through somebody’s blog over the summer, and to my annoyance, they had a self-starting playlist. My initial annoyance quickly passed as I actually tuned into the song, pleased within the first few seconds of listening. After a quick Google search, I realized I was listening to Australian musician, Chet Faker. I bought the album quickly after, and was not at all disappointed. Built on Glass embodies everything that electronic music needs right now; it’s a balanced mixture of the synthetic and the soulful. This album is completely genuine, and asserts itself without any contrivance. It’s also one of the few albums I can listen to without skipping any songs.
I was personally pleased when I realized that he featured Kilo Kish, an underrated female rapper, on my favorite track, “Melt.” By virtue of mixing radio-friendly elements with ample jazzy-weirdness, this album absolutely works at any occasion. I spent most of my time making crafts while listening to it…but, I digress. I see Chet Faker as an up and comer in 2015.
Phantogram ‘s fourth album, Voices, reminds us of how rad co-ed duo can sound (just look at Stars and the XX!), while Sam Smith’s debut album, In the Lonely Hour, is a much-needed revival in the contemporary pop-music scene.
Young the Giant – “Mind Over Matter”
After Young the Giant’s self-titled 2010 album, I was waiting, for what felt like centuries, to hear some new music from them. For a point of time, I was unsure if they would ever make anything new. One day, while listening to Pandora, I heard the self-titled single off their latest album, Mind Over Matter. It’s an irrefutably catchy song. I’ve always been a fan of Sameer Gadhia’s vocals (he’s excellent live!), and his vocal ranged is show-cased in this song. Apparently, they used their four year absence wisely. “Mind over Matter” proves the band has not at all fizzled out.
Sun Kil Moon – Benji
It seems weird to think of what’s happened to folk music over the past 5 years. Once the premiere genre for storytelling has increasingly become a mere aesthetic for pop bands. Once a raw powerful vehicle for the emotional and social truths it was in the 60s has become an excuse for bands like the Lumineers and Of Monsters and Men to wear silly hats and play an acoustic guitar. Which is perhaps why Benji feels like gamechanger in this era.
Mark Kozelek is hardly a new face in the indie music scene, but never has he made such a definitive statemen. This is his magnum opus. Over the course of 13 songs, Kozelek builds linking narratives that outline real-life tragedy stretching back to his childhood. Yet, what’s most surprising about Benji is how Kozelek uses it’s dark subject matter to create a beautifully complex celebration of life. Each song using death as a catalyist to explore Kozelek’s childhood, family, inspirations, coming-of-age, and how those experiences still affect him today.
The album’s ambience and lyrically hyper-detailed world create a sense of place so specific that listening to it feels like being immersed into the best of classic American short stories. To listen to Benji is not so much a musical experience as it is an emotional journey, one that takes you through so many varying personal experiences only to leave you looking at the world through different eyes. And so the strange irony of 2014, Sun Kil Moon has breathed new life into a seemingly dying genre by crafting the year’s masterwork, about life through death.
Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
While many great albums were released in 2014, only one felt like the voice that encompassed what the year truly was, and that was Run the Jewels 2. The follow-up to Killer Mike and EL-P’s mixtape from last year brought all the rap braggadocio, but more than that, brought the sociopolitical commentary that’s previously characterized their solo efforts. In a year rife with social injustice El-P and Killer Mike arrive as arbiters for truth and wishful fulfillment, calling out a corrupt system that has failed our poorest, profited off our least fortunate, and waged war on those in the minority.
On “Early,” Killer Mike recounts a story of a police officer arresting him for a minimal marijuana possession in front of his son while holding a gun to his wife’s head, while El-P matches his verse with one that details the hypocrisy of a system that monitors it’s citizens, but turns a blind eye to it’s police force. On “Close Your Eyes and Count to Fuck,” the duo act out wishful fulfillment with the venom of an early N.W.A. Or Chuck-D with lines like “”Where the fuck the warden?/And when you find him, we don’t kill him, we just waterboard him/We killin’ them for freedom cause they tortured us for boredom“. With the futuristic production of EL-P, flow that has made them gods in the undergroup rap game and lyrics that have never been more relevent or potent, Run the Jewels 2 is not just a hip-hop masterpiece, but a near essential account of America in 2014.
Future Islands – Singles
While Future Islands have been working on making a name for themselves for awhile, it’s taken a long time for the Baltimore trio to truly find themselves amongst the elite of modern indie rock bands, which is what makes Singles such a wonderful surprise.
Synthpop has long been one of the most popular trends in the indie landscape and yet the latest album from Future Islands leans harder on electronics than before sounds the most original. There are echoes of their contemporaries and 80s new wave bands of the past here and there, but Singles finds the band balancing their synthpop sound with great restraint, letting Sam Herring expansive vocal range buoy the emotions of their lyrics. It might have taken a lightning in a bottle performance for Future Islands to make their impact, but to stand-out musically in a landscape of like-minded contemporaries is pure talent.
Perfume Genius – “Queen”
After two quietly beautiful and lush albums that previous touched on gay identity, Seattle-based singer-songwriter Mike Hadreas returned to announce his new album with the release of Too Bright, which featured the booming gay pride anthem, “Queen,” that landed with a force unmatched by anything in 2014. Hadreas willfully embraced effeminite characteristics reaffirming them not as something delicate but as a force of strength and bravery. As the song builds to it’s immense chorus, Hadreas openly mocks and raises a middle-finger to right-wing social critics, declaring “No family is safe, when I sashay” leaving listeners with one simple message: All the forces of the hateful and ignorant can battle to keep you quiet, but nothing should ever stop you from expressing who you are.
Charli XCX – “Boom Clap”
While Taylor Swift might be breaking sales record after sales record, I argue that 2014 will still be remembered as the year of Charli XCX. After having previously writing Icona Pop’s popular “I Love It,” and providing the hook on Iggy Azelia’s 2014 mega-hit, “Fancy,” Charlotte Aitchison finally earned the long deserved US hit of her own with “Boom Clap.” The single arrived during the summer as a piece of irresistible bubble-gum pop perfection. While other pop stars have embraced heart-on-their-sleeve songwriting or the trends of indie rock, Charli XCX has made a name for herself by simply being unafraid of how her music is perceived: gleefully smashing pop, electronic, and punk music into one another till the lines between genres become indistinguishable. “Boom Clap” might not be the most powerful statement ever made by Aitchison, but it is wake-up call to the public of a supremely talented young artist who will only continue to grow and evolve, dominating radio pop for year’s to come.
Flying Lotus – “Never Catch Me” (feat. Kendrick Lamar)
Sometimes music gives a moment that can’t be duplicated, with two artists working at the absolute prime of their careers. “Never Catch Me” provides us with just that. With a smooth jazzy R&B beat provided by Flying Lotus, Kendrick Lamar riffs on ideas of mortality, death, and afterlife. The more the beat stutters, twists, and turns, Lamar’s rhymes only gain steam perfectly riding along with Flying Lotus’s rollercoaster ride production. A meeting ground between commerce and the avant garde, between hip-hop and electronica, between existentialism and entertainment. “Never Catch Me” becomes the centerpiece of Flying Lotus’s You’re Dead, a moment that it feels as if the whole album builds to and almost has to come down to. There were many magical moments in hip-hop in 2014, but few felt as special as this partnership.
Angel Olsen – “Burn Your Fire for No Witness”
I’m going to stay with the album that I picked as my favorite from the first half of the year as, after another six months, it is still the collection of songs that I enjoy and appreciate more than any other that was released in 2014. Angel Olsen’s cleverly-titled Burn Your Fire for No Witness is filled with well-written songs that all perfectly balance wistfulness with guarded optimism and are all sung with a voice that is forceful and haunting and sounds like it is threatening to break into our world from some alternative universe. Olsen uses it to get more emotion out of three chords and a couple verses, on a song like “Unfucktheworld” for example, than some artists can manage out of a whole album. “What’s so wrong with the light?” is a question that Olsen repeatedly asks (to increasingly eerie effect) on the album’s last song, “Windows,” and the double meaning in that line (a subtly sarcastic suggestion that, “of course, there’s nothing wrong with the light,” to a honestly terrified inquiry as to, “oh God, what is actually wrong with that light”) is a perfect example of the way that the songs on Burn Your Fire seem to exist simultaneously as tributes to swaggering confidence and doubt-filled solitude.
Avi Buffalo – “Memories of You”
For my favorite song. I’m going with Avi Buffalo’s “Memories of You” off of Avi Zahner-Isenberg’s really enjoyable second album, At Best Cuckold. I find this song to be eminently joyous and re-listenable, and the melody is one of the most tightly focused and uplifting that I’ve heard all year. Lyrically, it’s a dreamy mix of nostalgia and awkwardly-forward sexual references that somehow come off as deceptively charming in the context of such an earnestly light-hearted folk-pop number. This song is also a great example of the excellent guitar work that was more present on the first Avi Buffalo album, with an extended instrumental outro that nicely balances the more overtly intimate first half of the song.
Tweedy – “Sukierae”
Jeff Tweedy is the most dependable musician of contemporary rock music. His releases are perpetually free of disappointment, and this year’s Sukierae (pronounced sue-key-ray) makes no exception. This 20-track solo effort, featuring Jeff’s eldest son Spencer on drums, is dedicated to Jeff’s wife—who is currently battling cancer—and navigates the plethora of emotions that follow such unfortunate news. From the pensive stroll of “Nobody Dies Anymore” to the sassy strut of “Low Key”, Tweedy and company walk a line of effortless dynamicity, filling the spaces in between with beautiful acoustic confessional and a caliber of songwriting that, in my opinion, goes widely unparalleled this year.
Most honorable of mentions go out to The War On Drugs for their soaring new record Lost In The Dream, which has picked up a well-deserved abundance of recognition, and Cloud Nothings for the unstoppable force that is Here And Nowhere Else.
Father John Misty – “Bored In The USA”
The ever sharp-witted Joshua Tillman, AKA Father John Misty, champions my top track spot with his mildly satirical yet alarmingly accurate “Bored In The USA,” off of his forthcoming sophomore album I Love You, Honeybear. At its core, the song blasts the various shortcomings of modern American culture, from materialistic obsession to mindless organized religion, and everything in between. The song is painfully insightful despite Tillman’s penchant for satire, and sung beautifully over a Nilsson-esque piano progression and orchestral accompaniment. If the rest of I Love You, Honeybear turns out to be as good as “Bored,” I might have myself a 2015 pick as well.
Runners up for best track include the feel-good jangle gem “Talking Backwards” from Brooklyn dream rockers Real Estate, and “Forgiveness,” a droning dissection of emotions from the art-rock punks in Ought, based out of Montreal.
The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
Despite coming out early in the year, War on Drugs was the band I kept returning to throughout the year. It was just so ambitious and realized an album that it overshadowed everything this year. Lost in the Dream had too many hair raising moments to count, a sprawling journey with no low points.
(Tie): Todd Terje – It’s Album Time/FKA Twigs – LP1. I am a sucker for music that makes me feel like i am traveling in a luxurious spaceship or bullet train so I had to pick It’s Album Time. On the other hand, how can you deny the genius of FKA Twigs at this point?
FKA Twigs – “Two Weeks”
This song is a near religious experience and everything I wanted from pop music in 2014. A grandiose R&B anthem that trumped everything I heard this year. Like I said, how can you deny the genius of FKA Twigs?
Craft Spells – “Nauseau”
A moody song about isolating yourself and general malaise was my other favorite song this year. I swear I am a somewhat emotionally stable person!
D’Angelo And The Vanguard – Black Messiah.
You kind of get all of this sorted out but procrastinate until the deadline is set by the boss for albums like this to happen. Twitter goes off on a Sunday night that the long talked about but elusive third album from 90’s soul recluse D’Angelo is getting released at midnight, and while you’re excited about it there was a lingering suspicion that the unorthodox release strategy might’ve been another U2 fiasco waiting to happen, I needn’t have worried. Black Messiah is an overpowering triumph, a delirious rush of soul, gospel, funk that is the past and present of American music simultaneously. Beautiful, sweetly melancholic, insurgent, and ecstatic, it really is all that.
The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream.
Poor Adam Granduciel and Co. had it locked down with this excellent slice of modern American rock.
St Vincent – St. Vincent.
If she wasn’t an art rock heroine before her eponymous fourth solo album and first since her 2012 collaboration with David Byrne, this exquisitely considered and rendered sonic adventure put Annie Clark over the top.
Caribou – Our Love.
By focusing on concise jams, Dan Snaith unlocked the code, and managed to surpass his utterly sublime 2010 album, Swim.
Interpol – “Everything Is Wrong.”
Interpol snapped back into focus on El Pintor, and this dark and strident cut managed to sum up 2014 perfectly. Everything was wrong in 2014: injustice, lousy elections, natural disasters. This year was OFF, and this song from the restored NYC post punkers seemingly railed against it all even though it really wasn’t. Hopefully the band’s nightmarish multi day odyssey stuck on the thruway south of Buffalo doesn’t put them off returning to the city to play here next year.
Father John Misty – “Bored In The USA”
When Tillman debuted this on Letterman, it landed on the Earth like the Ten Commandments. Elegiac, hilarious, and scathingly true, it’s another song that summed up the zeitgeist of 2014 to grim perfection. I can’t wait for I Love You, Honeybear in February.
Caribou – “All I Need”
Sweet r&b tinged electronic perfection that wraps you up in a big sonic kiss.
Beck – Morning Phase
In early 2014, Beck dropped his masterpiece. Morning Phase is a sprawling, expansive journey into the heart and mind of a man who grew up worshipping Neil Young, Nick Drake and Simon and Garfunkel. A more-than worthy companion piece to Sea Change (a classic in its own right), Morning Phase occupies a rare space in today’s quick fix music culture. It is an album that demands a start to finish listen, as thematically the songs unfold as a whole before dispersing at their final calling bell. Much like an early Pink Floyd record, it is at once airy and off, yet restrained by the pop folk Beck has come to embrace; tempered by atmosphere and the notes that are not played. It sounds old and familiar, yet fresh and vibrant. The songs are songs you’ll remember. And they’ll find a place in your heart the more you give them a listen.
At the Gates – At War with Reality
Swedish Death Metal pioneers return with their first album in nearly 20 years and prove yet again that they still hold the crown
The Pixies – Indie Cindy
Another album released over 20 years after its predecessor, Indie Cindy is the perfect example of an album that is interesting, unique (and often weird) art rock, yet unabashedly pop. Every songs a killer here.
Weezer – “Lonely Girl”
It’s been a struggle for Weezer. You all know the story. Band releases two incredible, life-changing albums, then turns to suck, gaining riches and hit songs along the way, all at the cost of their hardcore fan base. Well, their new album definitely does NOT suck and proof positive is “Lonely Girl,” their best song in years. I like to think this song would fit in nicely as a Blue Album b-side. Everything is there. The cooing vocals, the broken hearted longing, the melodies that just plain sink you. I felt like I was right there again in 94.
Dum Dum Girls – “Too Good To Be True”
This is the 4th year in a row a Dum Dum Girls song or album has made my list. What can I say? I’m a sucker for this kinda band. Slighty mysterious, dark, and nightclubby, this hits me in all my feels.
Tigers Jaw – Charmer
Four singers pepper the songs on Charmer, my favorite being the Young Frankenstein vocals of Adam McIlwee. McIlwee and two others quit Tigers Jaw earlier this year, but stuck around to finish the album… The finished result sounds aloof, uninterested, and glassy-eyed, but instead of channeling their lack of interest into a mediocre product, McIlwee and co. came out swinging with sardonic lyrics over mid-tempo indie rock. Lines like, “I was getting bored of the compliments,” show an honest portrayal of a musician dedicated to finishing his art, but disenchanted by his success. Tigers Jaw claim to sound like a perfect mix of Brand New and Fleetwood Mac, but the conflict surrounding this album is definitely more Rumours than Deja Entendu. Needless to say, Charmer was the perfect transition out of their emo-punk pigeonhole and into something more palatable. The title-track is a banger.
Alvvays – Alvvays
Alvvays is packed with perfect, swimmy beach-pop written through the lens of snowy Toronto. Alvvays summed up 2014 with faux vintage bliss and alluring, semi-detached female vocals.
The Hotelier – Home, Like No Place is There
Passionate, underdog indie rock with intelligent lyrics and fierce sincerity. Singer Christian Holden’s neurotic delivery is a true highlight.
Alvvays – “Archie, Marry Me”
I bestowed the coveted “Song of the Summer” award to Alvvays earlier this year… It was a close race, but no other song managed to dethrone this particular gem. Alvvays have perfected the vintage vibes and swimmy guitars that make fuzzy indie-pop like theirs so charming. In this case, “Archie, Marry Me” was the powerhouse first single from their near-perfect debut. Alvvays eschew any pretentiousness for clever wordplay about matrimony, alimony, and breadmakers. Needless to say, one listen to this song will have you “hey, hey-ing” all day.
Weatherbox – “The Devil and Whom”
Weatherbox is an enigma of a band whose Flies in All Directions featured this cryptic, five-minute jam. Here, frontman Brian Warren showcases his penchant for strong imagery, rhythmic bursts of guitar, and unconventional song structures.
Somos – “Familiar Themes”
Singer Michael Fiorentino’s Bostonian accent is a perfect compliment to Somos’ bouncy power-pop. Call it my guilty pleasure of 2014.