Words About Music
Halfway There: The 25 Best Albums of 2014 (SO FAR)
2014 has been an interesting year in music. I mean the same can be said for literally every year, but 2014 seems to bring forth a different kind of interesting, with 2011-2012 buzz bands completing the next phase in the 2-3 year album cycle with new releases. We’ve seen unlikely reunions both on stage and on record, weird side projects, an expansion in hip-hop experimentation, and more critical acclaim for the burgeoning emo revival. 2013 was a great year, but 2014 is shaping up to be something special, offering up excellent obscurities and indie pop anthems. Here are the 25 best albums of the year in alphabetical order. Remember: All other lists are wrong.
Against Me! “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”
The music world was taken by surprise back in 2012 when the artist formerly known as Tom Gabel, frontman of Florida folk-punk stalwart Against Me!, came out as transgender in a Rolling Stone interview. She has since changed her name to Laura Jane Grace and her experience served as the inspiration for the aptly titled sixth studio album “Transgender Dysphoria Blues.” Instead of the alternative radio-friendly sound of their two previous albums, the band opted for a more hardcore punk production style (for the most part). They took a grand concept and compressed it into 30 minutes of punk energy, with a couple calm tracks to break up the constancy. These are some of the best songs Against Me! have given us in years, and the best part is that they can serve as gateways to self-discovery and acceptance. “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” is not only the best LGBT-friendly punk album of the year, but it’s also one of the better albums of 2014.
Best tracks: “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” “Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ,” “Black Me Out”
At this point in musical evolution, critics are starting to overlook the post-rock and shoegazing genres as music worth discussion or acclaim. It almost seems like everyone’s just reached the decision that we’re as far as we’re going to get in those genres so there’s no point praising it anymore. Well I disagree. I see those genres less as musical bubbles and more as overlapping spheres of emotion that is way more inclusive than many people think. A prime example of this is Alcest, a band that started out as a post-rock/black metal group before making the transition into the shoegazing genre. “Shelter” seems to depict that transition as bandleader (and sole constant member) Neige builds songs out of feedback, reverb, and uplifting climaxes. The result is a truly beautiful series of songs that you don’t need to speak French to appreciate. He even got Slowdive’s Neil Halstead to contribute some vocals, which just adds another layer to the band’s legitimate foray into the whirling sounds of shoegaze. It sounds peaceful because it is.
Best tracks: “Voix Sereines,” “Shelter,” “Délivrance”
I know it sounds gimmicky: three Canadian kids fusing jazz with instrumental hip-hop. Throw in a few Odd Future and Gucci Mane covers and you’ve got yourself a viral video that would probably end up on Upworthy and BuzzFeed. That was the old BADBADNOTGOOD, though. On their third release, “III,” the band has stuck to all original compositions, and some of it goes surprisingly hard. “III” is relaxing and easy to listen to without ever being boring. It’s a jazz album for the new age of indie music listeners, and I really hope BADBADNOTGOOD jump start a new interest in jazz music. Let’s face it, jazz isn’t something many consider to be really cool. It’s often seen as pretentious and masturbatory, and a lot of people listen to it just to say they “only listen to real music like jazz; Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, the list goes on.” Well what BBNG is doing is cool, sonically fascinating, and entirely fun. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. “III” is a really great record that really shows the band as an important figure in hip-hop production (they’ve produced tracks for Earl Sweatshirt, Ghostface Killah, Tyler the Creator, and Danny Brown) and the jazz world.
Best tracks: “Can’t Leave the Night,” “Since You Asked Kindly,” “CS60”
Behemoth “The Satanist”
Did anyone see this coming? After a five year absence from recorded music due to frontman Nergal’s leukemia (he’s since recovered), Polish black metal/death metal group Behemoth is back with a vengeance. Behemoth is not a band I ever thought I’d enjoy so much, but that’s mostly due to the preconceived notions that result from seeing the band on Mayhem Fest and Download Fest lineups time after time. But with all the acclaim they received for “The Satanist” I just had to see what all the fuss was about. And man, this album is good. It is compositionally solid with sick, creative metal riffs. It is lyrically good with Nergal singing about Satanic worship in ways that would make Papa Emeritus uncomfortable. It’s just a consistent blackened death metal record that is complex and crazy and a lot of fun to listen to.
Best tracks: “Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel,” “Ora Pro Nobis Lucifer,” “O Father O Satan O Sun!”
Ben Frost “A U R O R A”
Australian composer Ben Frost has never made music that was meant to be easy to listen to. He combines the colorful synths of ambient EDM with noise, black metal, and post-punk influences, resulting in some pretty jarring stuff. On his fifth album, “A U R O R A,” surprises lurk around every corner. Songs change tempo and melody at the snap of a finger as quiet ambient drones turn into explosive synthesizer fireworks. Across all nine songs, Frost seeks to intrigue and terrify with eerie quiet and sudden leaps into noisiness. It’s almost like if The Haxan Cloak dropped acid. “A U R O R A” is dance music for the Throbbing Gristle fans out there; equal parts industrial, tribal, and hyper.
Best tracks: “Nolan,” “Secant,” “Venter”
One of my favorite albums last year came from noise-rap up-and-comers clipping. Their debut mixtape “Midcity” combined a fierce lung-capacity-testing flow and harsh noise in place of standard beats. They received high acclaim for their experimentation and were almost immediately signed to Sub Pop Records. Earlier this month they put out their sophomore release, the semi-self-titled album “CLPPNG.” On this album they tone down the harsh noise a bit while making the music itself appear much more depraved and nasty. Seriously, this album is just downright depressing. The sounds and uprooted lyrical cliches at work here are absolutely genius and poetic and it’s becoming increasingly obvious that these guys know exactly what they’re doing. Listening to “CLPPNG” is like watching The Wire in that they both supply shocking views of a world not many people know about. A world of debauchery and drugs and crime and murder. It’s harrowing and sad, but it’s also a cathartic experience.
Best tracks: “Body and Blood,” “Work Work,” “Story 2”
Cloud Nothings “Here and Nowhere Else”
Back in 2012, Cleveland-based indie rock group Cloud Nothings exploded to indie stardom with their third album “Attack on Memory.” The emo-friendly lyricism combined with the Sonic Youth-esque noise punk energy allowed for Cloud Nothings to find fans in several different subcultures. The music is honest, simple, and cleverly written. Lead singer and lyricist Dylan Baldi announced at the end of 2012 that he was already at work on the followup to “Attack on Memory,” and two years after that album’s release they’re back with the even more excellent “Here and Nowhere Else.” The album is a half hour of loud, grungy noise rock that is as forward-thinking as it is nostalgic. “Here and Nowhere Else” is relatable and artistic. It is a fast-paced joyride through the depressing midwestern town you swore you’d move out of once you graduated high school. It’s not the most uplifting record to come out this year, but you’ll definitely want to listen over and over again.
Best tracks: “Now Here In,” “Psychic Trauma,” “I’m Not Part of Me”
Have a Nice Life “The Unnatural World”
There’s post-punk, and then there’s Have a Nice Life. The non-prolific Connecticut duo’s sophomore album “The Unnatural World” has been highly anticipated, and for many good reasons. Their 2008 debut “Deathconsciousness” is a long, ambitious record that combines noise, post-punk, industrial, ambient, and doom metal music in terrifically horrific ways. While the followup is about a half hour shorter and less ambitious, it is still as pitch black as post-punk could ever get. The riffs are solid, the drums are too close for comfort, and the lyrics are entirely sick. This is the kind of album that would give the Blair Witch kids night terrors. It’s totally haunting and surprisingly catchy. Dive into the black hole.
Best tracks: “Defenestration Song,” “Burial Society,” “Dan and Tim, Reunited by Fate”
The Hotelier “Home, Like Noplace Is There”
The recent explosion of emo music has received quite a bit of recognition from several publications, including Stereogum, Pitchfork, and SPIN. There are hundreds of aspiring bands at this point, but one of the better groups is The Hotelier, formerly known as The Hotel Year. Their second album, “Home, Like Noplace Is There,” is an opus of emotional confrontation that covers the very best in the emo genre. Explosive climaxes, quiet solemnity, shouted choruses; this album does not screw around. It’s a life-affirming heartbreak in the form of an album and it’s definitely the shining star of 2014’s emo lineup.
Best tracks: “An Introduction to the Album,” “Your Deep Rest,” “Housebroken”
Indian “From All Purity”
Indian is a doom metal band if you want to keep things simple, but they’re really quite a bit more than that. Their sound is so fiercely antagonizing that “doom” just isn’t the word I’d use to describe it. The music is disgusting, primal, and nightmarish. Sure the riffs are heavily distorted and slow, but I don’t really feel doomed listening to them. I feel like I’m being chased by a demon in an ocean of quicksand. On Indian’s sixth album, “From All Purity,” they perfect their formula by upping the ante on their production, making it thicker and darker. The album’s only 40 minutes long but it feels like 80, and that’s not a bad thing. If you enjoy extreme music then you’ll find yourself enjoying this like a summertime horror film. Otherwise, I suggest you stay away. There’s no life guards in this quicksand ocean.
Best tracks: “Rape,” “The Impetus Bleeds,” “Rhetoric of No”
La Dispute “Rooms of the House”
While the Michigan post-hardcore group’s third album isn’t as gut-wrenching as their 2011 album “Wildlife,” “Rooms of the House” is still a fascinating historical journey that takes a close look at hidden domestic issues that have plagued suburbia through several generations. The music is lyrically intricate and instrumentally complex without any of the emotional passion suffering from the band’s evolution. While the stories and perspectives and characters may not tug at the heartstrings quite as much as they did on “Wildlife,” the subject matter here is still worthy of a couple teardrops.
Best tracks: “HUDSONVILLE MI 1956,” “For Mayor in Splitsville,” “Stay Happy There”
Mac DeMarco “Salad Days”
Mac DeMarco’s style and aesthetic is sort of hard to describe. If I were to attempt to describe his sound to someone who’d never heard him before, I’d probably say he sounds like the reincarnated spirit of Gene Ween. Mac’s lyrics aren’t quite as nonsensical as Ween’s were, but he’s still got an easily recognizable voice that is usually placed atop high-register arpeggios. The music is dark, smooth, jazzy, and quite accessible. If you’re looking for something catchy to listen to on a breezy summer day, grab yourself a copy of “Salad Days,” or Mac’s 2012 debut album “2,” and enjoy.
Best tracks: “Salad Days,” “Let My Baby Stay,” “Chamber of Reflection”
Modern Baseball “You’re Gonna Miss It All”
Amongst the more pop punk leaning contemporary emo bands is the one I consider to be the best: Modern Baseball. Their music has a more upbeat and simple style to it that makes me think more of golden age Blink-182 or early Brand New. The lyrics are poignant and often soaked in a marinade of sarcasm and bitterness as lead singers Brendan Lukens and Jacob Ewold trade the mic. I would not go so far as to call “You’re Gonna Miss It All” a happy album, but it makes for a great listening experience.
Best tracks: “Broken Cash Machine,” “Charlie Black,” “Your Graduation”
Nothing “Guilty of Everything”
While shoegaze is generally considered to be a relaxing genre, Nothing takes it to a much heavier level by combining tinges of loud heavy metal. While this is mostly a shoegaze album that rarely deviates, it is a great album nonetheless. “Guilty of Everything” sounds like a My Bloody Valentine/Smashing Pumpkins hybrid in a contemporary world. The group is young and energetic. The music on this album is beautiful and chaotic, maintaining originality in the slow evolution of the shoegazing genre.
Best tracks: “Hymn to the Pillory,” “Dig,” “B&E”
The Notwist “Close to the Glass”
Long-standing German group The Notwist has cycled through several different genres in their 25 year history. Hardcore, indie rock, ambient, krautrock, and electronica have all been combined and covered throughout the band’s career, but they really broke into American indie territory with their 2002 album (and fan/critic favorite) “Neon Golden.” The group is back with their first album for Sub Pop, “Close to the Glass.” While I can see many thinking that The Notwist sounds a bit too much like Radiohead, I think the group uses enough different sounds and textures to differentiate them from the UK indie gods. The Notwist sounds robotic and human at the same time; they’re in that uncanny valley that makes them similarly humanlike and robotic enough to be somewhat disturbing. The electronic post-rock makes me think of a more advanced Slint than Radiohead. Though its passed under many critics’ radars, I find it to be a very enjoyable and well produced album that covers many musical cultures.
Best tracks: “Kong,” “From One Wrong Place to the Next,” “7 Hour Drive”
Ought “More Than Any Other Day”
If the Talking Heads were a band that were coming up and beginning their career today, they’d probably sound a little bit like Ought. Ought is a Canadian post-punk band that creates noisy, poetic, strange art punk music. The eight fairly lengthy songs on this album contain all the makings of a great off-kilter punk record: angular riffs, odd political lyricism, and punk energy. The band’s debut album, “More Than Any Other Day,” is a twisted journey through Canadian young suburban life. It’s all about the normalities and eccentricities that we encounter throughout our everyday life, and it is presented in a thought-provoking and catchy way. Since I first heard this album it has not left my head and it is not likely to any time soon.
Best tracks: “Today More Than Any Other Day,” “Around Again,” “Clarity!”
Parquet Courts “Sunbathing Animal”
Parquet Courts take garage rock to a new place. The lyrics aren’t quite about love as much as they are about confusing and attracting the listener. Parquet Courts are less like The Sonics or The White Stripes and more like The Velvet Underground and Pavement. They’re a fairly weird band that is also a breath of fresh air in a genre that can be seen as incredibly derivative. “Sunbathing Animal” is the band’s followup to their highly acclaimed 2012 debut “Light Up Gold” and it is both an improvement and an evolution on their aesthetic. Parquet Courts is a very immediate sounding band that sounds perfect for its time, so hop on the train before they spontaneously break up.
Best tracks: “Bodies Made Of,” “Sunbathing Animal,” “Duckin and Dodgin”
Perfect Pussy “Say Yes to Love”
Perfect Pussy makes a ton of noise. The Syracuse-based punk band is here with their debut album, “Say Yes to Love,” the highly anticipated followup to their 2013 cassette release “I have lost all desire for feeling.” The songs are lo-fi on purpose and laced in feedback. If Perfect Pussy plays their cards right, they could be this generation’s Bikini Kill. The music is energetic and terrifically pissed off. If noisy hardcore punk is sort of your thing then check out this band. As long as they continue to experiment and defy expectations then they’re on the path to greatness.
Best tracks: “Driver,” “Bells,” “Dig”
Ratking “So It Goes”
Ratking is a force to be reckoned with in the scope of current hip hop music. They call back the aggression of fellow New Yorkers Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, and Wu-Tang Clan while including the noisy sound assaults of dälek and Death Grips. The result is an aggressive yet surprisingly enjoyable debut LP that is challenging to the listener and intense enough to stick in one’s mind. “So It Goes” is a passive coping mechanism in Vonnegut’s universe, but in this universe it’s an unforgettable listening experience.
Best tracks: “Snow Beach,” “So Sick Stories (feat. King Krule),” “So It Goes”
Say Anything “Hebrews”
Max Bemis is one of pop punk’s most twisted yet gifted songwriters, something he’s proven time and time again throughout his band Say Anything’s tumultuous history. He’s suffered several mental breakdowns as a result of his bipolar disorder and struggles with fame and identity. You can see this on any of his records but especially so on Say Anything’s ambitious sixth album “Hebrews.” Named in recognition of Bemis’ Jewish upbringing, “Hebrews” deals with issues of living up to his fans’ standards, fatherhood, religion, and coming to terms with one’s mental illness. Not only is this album one of the few alternative rock albums with zero guitars, it is also stuffed to the brim with emotion thanks to Bemis’ over-the-top performances. It’s crazy and funny and not for everyone, but I’m enjoying the hell out of it.
Best tracks: “Six Six Six,” “Hebrews,” “Lost My Touch”
St. Vincent “St. Vincent”
Annie Clark is incapable of doing any sort of wrong. Her songs are beautiful, dark, hilarious, progressive, and some of the most well written experimental indie pop songs ever recorded. On her fourth album she sounds more confident and complete than ever. Her vocal performance is absolutely top notch and it’s nice to hear her branch out even further with her guitar sounds. Annie is beginning to sound more like an instrument than a human being, and that’s totally okay.
Best tracks: “Huey Newton,” “Digital Witness,” “Bring Me Your Loves”
Sun Kil Moon “Benji”
How many people die on this album? Let’s put it this way: The only thing with a higher mortality rate than “Benji” is America. Sun Kil Moon is the solo project of former Red House Painters frontman Mark Kozelek. With his sixth record, Kozelek sings about mortality more poignantly than ever before. His performance is heartfelt and heartbreaking. Family members die, friends die, serial killers die, and children die on this album. No one is safe and no one needs to be because the music is incredible.
Best tracks: “Carissa,” “Dogs,” “I Love My Dad”
Swans “To Be Kind”
Before no-wave gods Swans broke up in the late 90s, the scariest thing they’d released was their 1996 double-album masterpiece “Soundtracks for the Blind.” Lead singer Michael Gira rebooted the group in 2010 and has since released three increasingly terrific (and horrifying) albums that make “Soundtracks” look like Metallica. The latest of these albums is “To Be Kind,” a two hour sonic phenomenon not unlike 2012’s “The Seer.” The main difference is that where “The Seer” dealt in atmosphere, “To Be Kind” deals in musical performance. A lot of these songs are more straightforward rock tracks, though don’t mistake that for Swans becoming more radio friendly. Everything here still comes down in a climax of noise that will have you re-thinking every decision you’ve ever made.
Best tracks: “Just a Little Boy (for Chester Burnett),” “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture,” “Oxygen”
White Suns “Totem”
White Suns is the stuff of nightmares. The music combines several different stylings of avant-garde designed to create feelings of claustrophobia and discomfort. There’s screaming, eerie ambience, rapid fire drumming, and general chaotic noise on this album. “Totem” is the sophomore LP of San Francisco group White Suns and it is not something you want to listen to after dark. Abandon all hope ye who listen to this album because it is a vacuum of miserable solitude. It also makes for one of the most intense listening experiences you’ll come across this year.
Best tracks: “Priest in the Laboratory,” “Clairvoyant,” “Carrion”
Young Fathers “DEAD”
In this crazy world of experimental hip hop, Young Fathers have developed a style all their own. The group mixes lo-fi, R&B, Afrobeat, and more styles to create surges of contagious excitement. This Scottish group is physical, political, and poetic. Their past two mixtapes—2011’s “Tape One” and 2013’s “Tape Two”—provided little tastes of the group’s capabilities. Their debut album, “DEAD,” however, provides a full serving of what the trio has to offer. Catchy hooks, clever lyricism, and top notch production keep this album feeling fresh and original in a post-Shabazz Palaces world.
Best tracks: “Low,” “War,” “Get Up”