It’s been a long time coming(nearly a year by my count) since we’ve done a favorite album of the year list. Upon looking back on the year I’m pretty astounded by how many great records came out. When I first started thinking about it, I was struggling to remember more than a handful of albums. Was this a sign that the year kind of sucked for new music? No, not at all. This was the year of growers. If they weren’t growers they immediately went for the jugular. There were so many albums that I spun for weeks straight. They literally stayed on the platter for two weeks and got played like they were going out of style. Hell, I even had to upgrade my cart this year(to the Ortofon 2M Red…it’s a beauty.)
While there were no OK Computers or Yankee Hotel Foxtrots, there were albums that grew and blossomed into records that I will love for years and years to come. Hi, and welcome to my favorite records of 2014.
30. Cult of Youth – Final Days
Are you looking for some music to soundtrack a bloodletting? Have you been hankering for a sound reminiscent of OMD being eviscerated by Bauhaus? Look no further than Cult of Youth.
Final Days is dark, dreary, and abysmally cheery at times.
29. Wye Oak – Shriek
If you’re familiar with Wye Oak you’d know that Jenn Wasner’s smokey vocals and impressive six-string work defined their downbeat, slowcore sound. This time around the guitar was left in the other room and Andy Stack put his production work to the test as synths and dream pop took the stage. The result is striking and quite lovely at times.
28. Craft Spells – Nausea
Justin Vallesteros mixed things up with Nausea. He mixed things up with a live band in the studio and turned his 80s electro sound into something more intimate, darker, and lush. It’s a beautiful album that takes Vallesteros’ songwriting to a new level.
27. Electric Wurms – Musik, Die Schuer zu Twerk
I’ll be honest, I was expecting more of the same with this Flaming Lips-related project. But Steve Drozd proved me wrong and made a pretty damn good prog/psych album. It’s not changing the world, but there’s some damn good psych jams on this record and Drozd proves he could pull off the ringmaster job just fine.
26. Bear in Heaven – Time Is Over One Day Old
Brooklyn’s Bear in Heaven continue to hone their icy synths and danceable beats on Time Is Over One Day Old. While they still haven’t quite reached the epic peaks of 2009s masterpiece Beast Rest Forth Mouth, Jon Philpot and company are still writing great tunes that mix neo-futuristic synthesizers and massive live drums.
25. Blonde Redhead – Barragan
The formula hasn’t changed much for Blonde Redhead since their great Misery Is A Butterfly. Melancholy melodies, dream pop bliss, and shoegaze haze have been the themes of their albums for years, and Barragan continues this trend. More intricate and immediate than 2010s Penny Sparkle, Barragan feels mature and exquisite in its details. I think this is what they call growing old gracefully.
24. The Night Terrors – Spiral Vortex
Melbourne’s The Night Terrors make beautifully dark music. Somewhere between floating through space in a dead spacecraft and walking through some hallucinogenic nightmare. Spiral Vortex is filled with slinking synths, theremin melodies, and prog drumming. It’s a killer musical journey into the mind’s eye of the universe.
23. Papir – IIII
Denmark’s premier psych three piece Papir have been putting out stellar and expansive jams for a few years now. IIII is an atmospheric space jam that ebbs and flows from mellow moments of peace and explosive guitar jams that would put most “power trios” to shame.
22. Whirr – Sway
Sway is the culmination of one full-length and two or three EPs over the course of three or four years. It’s the perfect mix of wall-of-shoegaze guitar noise and at times serene, dreamy soundscapes. Vocals that blend into the shapes and colors of the music so as to make it hard to discern them from the music. A beautiful and aggressive record.
21. A Sunny Day In Glasgow – Sea When Absent
This album is pop music of the future. ASDIG are almost impossible to categorize. Their songs are huge pop explosions but with this introverted, indie aesthetic. If Passion Pit can be big, there’s no reason for Sea When Absent to rule every set of headphones from Seattle to Boston. Neo-futuristic pop confection.
20. United Waters – Sunburner
This album just appeared from out of nowhere. It’s strange, eerie, and at times disconcerting. And yet at the same time it lulls you into a numbed comfort with it’s recorded underwater vibe. Guitars hum like a dull toothache and melodies crackle under rust-covered production.
19. Ashrae Fax – Never Really Been Into It
This album was like taking the wayback machine to 1981. Ashrae Fax sound like a cross between The Motels, Cocteau Twins, and Siouxsie Sioux; in other words it’s girl power from the 4AD days of indie and goth. Never Really Been Into It gives me all those good feelings I used to get in the car as a kid running errands with my mom. Car radio playing pop songs, ones I’d know and ones I didn’t. Songs that stuck in your head for days. Ashrae Fax make songs like that. Songs that stick.
18. Steve Gunn – Way Out Weather
Steve Gunn’s Way Out Weather has both the essence of classic, breezy guitar jams in the key of Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers, and the like, and also a sense of real progression and jazz improvisation headiness. Gunn is one of the best guitarists and songwriters working today. Way Out Weather proves it.
17. Jakob Skott – Taurus Rising
Causa Sui drummer Jakob Skott likes to make heavy synth-driven, sci-fi-themed instrumental jams in his free time. He released the excellent Amor Fati in March of this year, and in December he dropped a sort of companion piece album called Taurus Rising. It seems to follow the formula he wrote on Amor Fati, but this time around there’s much more emphasis on the groove. This album grooves like some weird spaced-out funk concept album.
16. Mogwai – Rave Tapes
For this album, Mogwai turned down the amps a bit and turned up the synthesizers. The result is at times an ominous and atmospheric record. While not for everyone and die-hard Mogwai fans, I found this album to be pretty damn great.
15. Real Estate – Atlas
Atlas sounds like a band coming to terms with getting older. Revisiting the old haunts and realizing you’re not the same person that used to hang out there. It’s not depressing. It’s actually quite freeing. These songs tell the stories of being cool with growing up and moving on.
14. Mac Demarco – Salad Days
Mac Demarco’s Salad Days is jizz jazz pop bliss. He sounds like he might actually be ready to make a go at this album making thing. While 2 had moments of great, catchy pop songwriting, Salad Days is an all out classic pop record. He’s still a freak, but a freak that is one hell of a songwriter.
13. Causa Sui – Pewt’r Sessions 3
The Pewt’r Sessions that Causa Sui put out are like this aural trip into some far-out galaxy. They’re pure improvisational bliss each time, and Pewt’r Sessions 3 is no different. A one day jam session, then said jam was cut, edited, and pasted Teo Macero-style into cohesive, expansive jams. It’s like a psych freakout version of Bitches Brew.
12. Ty Segall – Manipulator
I think Ty Segall has made a masterpiece in Manipulator. A double album filled with chunks of glam bliss in the key of Bowie and T. Rex. This is the first album by Segall that has made me listen over and over again. It’s his most hi fi record, and has some of the tightest drums and bass on anything he’s done. It’s a classic double album.
11. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
Annie Clark is a hell of a guitarist and a hell of a songwriter. On her self-titled record both come together beautifully. Her time spent with David Byrne has given her the gift of quirkiness and funkiness. She seriously grooves on this album. I couldn’t stop listening to this thing when it came out and I continue to now. Everything comes together beautifully.
10. Nothing – Guilty of Everything
There’s something about Domenic Palermo’s back story that makes Nothing’s music all the more visceral and tragic. Running around Philly in cars with friends, whacked out on whatever, listening to My Bloody Valentine not really caring what happens either way. Thankfully for us(and himself) he got it together enough make a go at this this music thing. Guilty of Everything is this mix of both a massive wall of guitar and beautiful, dream-like vocals. It has the dreaminess of shoegaze, but almost this oppressively heaviness that carries it. There isn’t a bad song on this album. And if the new split Nothing did with Whirr is any indication, things are only going to get better.
9. Spoon – They Want My Soul
Britt Daniel can pretty much sing anything and make it sound cool as hell. He’s got a soulful, gritty yelp that has helped to establish Spoon as one America’s best rock and roll bands your neighbor’s never heard of. They pretty much laid the groundwork for what should be the considered the proto-typical indie rock album with their masterpiece, 2002s Kill The Moonlight. Ever since then Daniel and drummer Jim Eno have only improved, expanded, and honed their skills, both in their songwriting and studio prowess.
After 2010s misunderstood Transference, Spoon took a small hiatus. Daniel formed Divine Fits with Dan Boeckner, formerly of Handsome Furs and put out a great record in 2012 called A Thing Called Divine Fits, while Eno took on production duties for a number of artists at his own Austin recording studio. The break paid off as They Want My Soul sounds like a band rejuvenated and filled with all that piss and vinegar that made them the indie rock icons they are today. “Inside Out” is one of the best pop tracks you’ll never hear on the radio. Period.
8. Cymbals Eat Guitar – Lose
Lose is the culmination of five years worth of hype, tragedy, growing up, and touring. Joseph D’Agostino got a lot of attention for a 20 year old kid just learning who or what he was. Before most bands even find their sound with the second or third album, CEG had accolades and high praise for their self-released Why There Are Mountains in 2009. Lenses Alien followed in 2011 and proved that first record was no fluke. While not pushing them forward artistically, it sounded like a band that was getting comfortable with what they were creating. Lose takes all those elements and puts them together into a little masterpiece of an album. D’Agostino sounds like a songwriter who knows exactly what he wants out of a song. “Jackson” and “Laramie” are epic tracks filled with guitar squall and melodies that go for days, while “Child Bride”, “Place Names”, and “Lifenet” are pure pop bliss.
7. Sinoia Caves – Beyond The Black Rainbow
Jeremy Schmidt, aka Sinoia Caves, makes music you can zone out to. He makes soundscapes with vintage synths, organs, and atmospheric whines and yelps courtesy of tube-powered machinery. In his day gig as keyboardist for Black Mountain he helps to add that bit of 70s flair to the already heady, stoned vibe of their Black Sabbath-meets-Uriah Heep sound. As Sinoia Caves the music is spacier, creepier even. His soundtrack to the cult sci-fi film from 2010 is just as much a reason to watch the movie as the creepy set pieces themselves are. It’s a killer album, and just as easily enjoyed as a standalone piece of art.
6. This Will Destroy You – Another Language
I’m new to the wonders of This Will Destroy You, but I’m so glad we’ve finally been introduced. I think most folks would call their sound post-rock, and I guess they wouldn’t be completely wrong. But really, TWDY make music completely their own. Another Language feels like this soundtrack to an amazing discovery. It pulsates and flows like lava erupting from the earth. It’s a soundtrack to an open mind. It’s the score to just being. It’s absolutely stunning.
5. Medicine – Home Everywhere
Not only did Brad Laner, Beth Thompson, and Jim Goodall reappear on the scene after 18 years as Medicine last year, but they dropped one of 2013s best records. To The Happy Few had all the noise and squall you love about their music, but it was tweaked and prodded to absolute sonic perfection by the now studio wizard Brad Laner who had many years of studio work under his belt by then.
Just a little over a year later Medicine has given us yet another new album. Home Everywhere is not what you’d think it would be. It’s not the safe, equally delicious follow-up you would assume a band like Medicine would give us. No, it’s actually one of the most far out, noisy, psychedelically pop records you’ll hear this year, or many years past. It’s at times gleefully upbeat, painfully jagged, and as danceable as something that would’ve risen out of the drug daze of the Madchester scene. “Turning” moves along on a driving drum beat that sounds like it’s falling apart at the seams, but never does. “They Will Not Die” opens with the clang of what sounds like the Junkyard Gang before opening into absolute pop bliss. Vocals layered like The Four Freshmen ran through some trippy, LSD-laced filter.
Home Everywhere is one of the best albums you haven’t heard this year.
4. Tweedy – Sukierae
As soon as opening track “Please Don’t Let Me Be So Misunderstood” opens Sukierae you know you’re not just getting Jeff Tweedy-lite. It’s brash, angry, and rocks like a mother. What was going to be a set of solo tunes by Jeff turned into a family affair when son Spencer joined his dad for these sessions. What you get is 20 songs that range from gritty rock ‘n roll, folksy singer-songwriter fare, and catchy pop. Sukierae breathes and sways. It feels breathy and crisp. Jeff Tweedy hasn’t felt or sounded this laid back and open to something different since Loose Fur’s Born Again In The USA. And as far as Spencer’s drumming goes? All I have to say is look out Mr. Kotche.
Sukierae is the beanbag chair and basement chill double album you didn’t know you needed.
3. Thom Yorke – Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes
Yeah sure, Mr. Yorke isn’t changing much up here. He’s still dabbling in glitchy electronics, strange facial expressions, and even stranger dance moves. But what did you expect? What he does he does it brilliantly. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes feels even more isolated and dystopian than even The Eraser, yet there seems to be something there on a more personal level. A song like “Interference” feels like the reminiscing of a tired, lonely soul as he sings “We stare into each other’s eyes, like jackdaws, like ravens”, then later stating “In the future we will change our numbers, and lose contact.” Its’ a striking track amongst many.
If Yorke continued making records like Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes and no more Radiohead, I’d be perfectly content.
2. Jakob Skott – Amor Fati
Jakob Skott’s Amor Fati is a soundtrack to some non-existent, dystopian, science fiction movie you never saw in 1980. It’s atmospherics are created with nothing more than a funny little analog synthesizer and Skott’s impressive skills behind a drum set. The results are electric-era Miles Davis jamming with Stewart Copeland and Bernie Worrell. It’s a tripped out instrumental album that gets headier, groovier, and funkier after each listen.
Denmark has no idea what they’ve got in this native son. Amor Fati is tops.
1. The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream
Adam Granduciel’s soundtrack to anxiety, love lost, and attempting to find your place in the world when it feels all the seats have been taken is donning many year end lists number one spots, and that’s not surprising. It’s, in my opinion, the best record made this year…that I’ve heard. But it would take a miracle of an album to push it out of the number one spot on my list.
The War On Drugs do this amazing thing where they sound so big, expansive, and canyon-esque while still retaining this painful intimacy. Yes it sounds a hell of a lot like artists like Bruce Springsteen and Dire Straits. The big, anthemic tracks those guys took to the top of the charts have certainly made an impression on Granduciel as he attempts his own version of that kind of 80s anthem. But unlike those artists, The War On Drugs put a psychedelic take on it. The colors bleed together, mixing songs into one another. You get the feeling of waking from an anesthetic. The hazy, numbed feeling that comes over you when you begin to realize where you’re at and where you’ve been. “Under The Pressure”, “Red Eyes”, and “Suffering” are anthems for the lonely and just barely getting by. It’s melancholy, but uplifting. It’s a soundtrack to a long, evening drive to nowhere in particular.
It’s the best anxiety has ever sounded.
Here’s a couple reissues that completely blew me away this year.
Viet Cong – Cassette
This Canadian band that rose from the ashes of the band Women is something to behold. Post-punk and noisy jangle pop reign supreme on this album that was originally just a cassette-only release back in 2012. Mexican Summer reissued it over the summer on vinyl and it hasn’t left my turntable since it hit my porch over a week ago. Look for their Jagjaguwar debut in January. Until then, get a hold of this album toot sweet.
Rudiger Lorenz – Invisible Voices
German pharmacist Rudiger Lorenz was a rather prolific musician that never got the recognition he deserved when he was alive. By day he was a pharmacist, by night he built his own synths and recorded tons of self-released albums in the 70s and 80s. One of those was the epic Invisible Voices. It was filled with atmospheric, musical landscapes that could soundtrack a sunset or a space walk. It’s a unique take on new age or ambient music. Mexican Summer reissued this classic synth record for the world to appreciate and love.
Z(Bernard Szajner) – Visions of Dune
Another classic synth record originally recorded in 1979 as a concept album based on Frank Herbet’s classic science fiction novel, Bernard Szajner made a dense, dark, and ominous record filled with whooshes, blips, bleeps, and even the occasional funky beat. It’s a hell of a great listen and one that boded very well from a reissuing. Give it a listen and get lost in the world of Dune(and Z.)
Okay, I’m out of here. Happy Holidays. See you in 2015.