Words About Music
The Music of 2014: Best Albums
2014 was a very special year for me. I finished high school, moved on to college, and became marginally more attentive to the world around me. Perhaps my 50 favorite albums of the year reflect that. Agree or not, you’ll find a lot of stuff on here I hope you like. Every album on here has meant a lot to me this year, and it means a lot to me to share them with you.
See you next year.
50. Death From Above 1979 “The Physical World”
When bands release music after being broken up, it can create weird situations. Death From Above 1979 is a band that achieved cult status ten years ago with the release of its phenomenal and, until recently, sole album, “You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine.” Before and since, there’s nothing that sounds like Death From Above 1979. Passionate vocals, distorted bass, terrific drumming, and a lot of noise for only two people. “The Physical World” is the Canadian noise-rock band’s long-awaited second album, and I found myself really enjoying it this year. It’s not the year’s best comeback, and it is still very much hidden in the shadow of its predecessor, but if you look past that then you get a really great album by the only band capable of making music that sounds like this.
49. Jenny Lewis “The Voyager”
Okay, so I didn’t expect to love this record. Even though I gave it a positive review over the summer, I wasn’t quite convinced of the numerous strengths of “The Voyager” immediately. I knew it was good, but it took a few months for it to feel great to me. Gradually, I realized that former Rilo Kiley vocalist Jenny Lewis wrote a powerful, simplistic indie rock record that features some of the best pop songs 2014 has produced. The feminist empowerment is palpable, the hooks are huge, and the album itself is so enjoyable and unique that it’s impossible to hate. Lewis’ voice is great, but not perfect. Her lyrics are decent, but not amazing. Her guitar playing is passable, but not virtuosic. “The Voyager” is the year’s most gorgeous background album, and all it took was a colorful jacket, 10 incredible songs, and a little bit of wit.
48. Weezer “Everything Will Be Alright in the End”
C’mon, Weezer. After nearly 20 years of churning out offensive to decent albums, you finally manage one that’s actually great? It’s common knowledge that popular rock group Weezer hasn’t really released an album to top its first two, “Weezer” and “Pinkerton.” It may not be common knowledge that the group has finally released their third best album to date. “Everything Will Be Alright in the End” is a funny, sad, groovy record that features everything about what makes ’90s Weezer so great without delving too much into the forced nostalgia of it all. It’s a little goofy and the self-references get tiresome at times, but it’s also something that few Weezer albums have been recently: sincere. “Everything Will Be Alright in the End” is an incredibly sincere album, and I’m not ashamed of the fact that I really like it. I don’t give a hoot about what you think, anyway.
47. BADBADNOTGOOD “III”
Whenever I listen to Canadian trio BADBADNOTGOOD, I ask myself the following question: Is this a hip-hop group reinterpreting and reconstructing jazz, or vice versa? BADBADNOTGOOD makes music that combines those two genres, usually with the added post-rock freak-out jam. The band has spent its past two records (2011’s “BBNG” and 2012’s “BBNG2”) fusing strange covers — including Earl Sweatshirt, Kanye West, and My Bloody Valentine — with passionate and intricate contemporary-sounding jazz. “III” is a change of pace for the band, and the breaking of the “BBNG” album title pattern is not unintentional. The songs on this album are all original compositions, and they’re all incredibly tight and focused. “III” sounds like the future and the past simultaneously: bangin’ spacious hip-hop production and seductive jazz-rock instrumentation.
46. Spoon “They Want My Soul”
Spoon is probably the best band in the world. The Austin band is eight albums deep into a just-below-mainstream career, and they still put out some of the best rock and pop records the indie scene has ever produced. From the band’s mid-90s debut to “They Want My Soul,” Spoon’s music is fun, smart, and thoroughly catchy. With this being the band’s first album in four years, it sounds newly energized, with lead vocalist Britt Daniel’s voice coming in like a hardened, badass angel. It may be the least offensive record you hear all year, but it’s also got a ton of heart, passion, and bite. Most importantly, it’s living proof that Spoon could probably release another eight records and they’d all be this good.
45. The Hotelier “Home, Like Noplace Is There”
2014 probably wasn’t the best musical year in recent history, but it is responsible for plenty of awesome indie rock records. No album you hear this year — be it post-hardcore, emo, or indie — will sound quite like “Home, Like Noplace Is There.” It’s simultaneously uplifting and heartbreaking, agreeable yet ambitious. The band fuses punk rock passion with jagged chords and downtrodden lyricism like few rock bands do. A lot of emo albums came out this year, but few of them were as memorable and powerful as this one. The Hotelier has changed its name from a much more obvious spelling (they used to be The Hotel Year), but the band’s music is as open and welcoming as its new name isn’t.
44. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra “Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything”
Back in 2012, Canadian post-rock collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor came out of nowhere with a brilliant comeback record, “‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!” The periodically dormant band has spawned numerous side-projects in the early-2000s-until-“‘Allelujah!” interim, one of which changes its name on a whim. GY!BE guitarist and founder Ephrim Menuck lends his bizarre vocals to his long-running project A Silver Mt. Zion, which is currently called Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra. With GY!BE’s return, I didn’t see much need for more music from the great but inferior Silver Mt. Zion. Fortunately, “Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything” proved me wrong. This album is loud, furious, and severely political. It’s similar to the music of GY!BE, but it’s more upfront with its goals. They’re here, they’re mad, and they also want to pay respect to deceased New York rapper Capital Steez.
43. ScHoolboy Q “Oxymoron”
ScHoolboy Q is probably not the most advanced lyricist in the increasingly prevalent (and impossibly talented) Top Dawg Entertainment crew. Kendrick Lamar is the most gifted, Ab-Soul is the most intelligent, Isaiah Rashad is the promising newcomer, and Jay Rock is there, too. ScHoolboy Q, though, is TDE’s most compelling personality. “Oxymoron” is the year’s hip-hop album for everyone. It’s got bangin’ beats, catchy hooks, tales from the Crip lifestyle, drug addiction, drug selling, redemption, fatherhood, and a fantastic Chromatics sample. It’s not the world’s most ambitious or groundbreaking hip-hop record, but it just might be one of its most exciting. Bested only by the incomparable “good kid, m.A.A.d. city,” “Oxymoron” is Black Hippy’s second most accomplished, refreshing achievements. It not only warrants repeat listens, it demands them. Listen to ScHoolboy’s goofy hooks and his passionate delivery. It’ll only hurt for a second.
42. Neil Cicierega “Mouth Sounds/Mouth Silence”
The mash-up album has been an indie staple for nearly as long as the Internet has been transforming the music industry. Artists like The Hood Internet, Girl Talk, and Kids & Explosions have used and abused several different copyrighting loopholes to create new songs. Sometimes two songs are mashed, sometimes it’s a dozen. It usually sounds pretty neat, though. YouTube celeb Neil Cicierega (you know him from the strange “Potter Puppet Pals” series) managed to completely reinvent the mash-up album in the evolving age of the Internet by making it sound like absolute hell. “Mouth Sounds” and “Mouth Silence” are two companion albums Neil put out earlier this year, and the point of these albums is to make you mad. It’s like every terribly terrific pop song of the last 50 years was carefully remixed into bizarre meta-meme humor. Jimi Hendrix is mashed with Hanson. Foo Fighters is mashed with One Direction (and the “Folger’s” jingle). System of a Down is mashed with Elton John. Every song ever written is mashed with Smash Mouth’s “All Star.” These two albums are phenomenal, hilarious, and downright blasphemous, and every human on Earth should be blasting them in their cars.
41. Dope Body “Lifer”
No band in the world sounds anything like Fugazi. Dope Body just happens to be the closest thing we have to Fugazi. This Baltimore noise rock group fuses garage guitars, post-hardcore vocal passion, and poetic experimentation in ways that few bands do. “Lifer,” the group’s third album, is a visceral record. It’s bare, it’s aggressive, and it’s incredibly raw. It’s a great rock record through and through that is unique without trying to be. While they lack the cult status, I think the minds behind Dope Body are well on their way to being more fully recognized in the punk world as some of the sharpest. They also make a ton of noise that fractures itself into numerous directions. All sorts of heavy styles are heard on “Lifer,” but the resulting album is cohesive and gloriously loud. Rock ‘n’ roll is dead because musical genres are dead, but Dope Body is alive and kicking (for the time being). Rock on.
40. Charli XCX “Sucker”
2014 was packed with great pop music. Taylor Swift and Lana del Rey both released their best albums yet, and vocalists like Beyoncé and Ariana Grande came through with some awesome singles. One woman appeared to dominate the year, though, and that woman is England’s own punk-pop rebel priestess Charli XCX. I first took notice of the rising star early last year when she released her awesome debut album “True Romance.” Less than two years later, “Sucker” is here, and it’s just as vulgar, catchy, and rad as “True Romance.” It’s also more consistent and more fun. Undeniable tracks like “Boom Clap,” “Breaking Up,” and “Sucker” are some of my favorites this year, and Charli is sure to dominate mainstream radio for years to come. Whether or not you find her chorus on “Fancy” annoying, the fact still remains: no one (in England, anyway) is making pop music as fun and carefree as Charli XCX. It’s simple and a tad formulaic, but who cares? Just listen and let yourself fall deeply in love.
39. Big Ups “Eighteen Hours of Static”
One of the year’s most tragically overlooked albums is the debut from New York punk quartet Big Ups. The format is simple, the songs are short, and the music is weird, but “Eighteen Hours of Static” is one of the strongest debuts I’ve heard in a while. It’s certainly a grower, but once you let the impassioned lyricism about our disposable Internet lifestyles pull you in, Big Ups will refuse to let go. This album is punk rock at its purest and most enjoyable. The band is obviously influenced by noisy post-hardcore groups like The Jesus Lizard and Shellac, but it’s not ashamed of its love for the more accessible, upbeat punk bands to come about. Equal parts experimental avant-punk and pop-rock sincerity, “Eighteen Hours of Static” is a fierce and easily lovable debut. Don’t let it slip under your radar this year.
38. Mac DeMarco “Salad Days”
One of my favorite late discoveries of 2012 is indie rock’s resident Canadian goofball Mac DeMarco. He landed on plenty of radars with his studio debut album, “2.” While he jokingly calls his musical genre “jizz-jazz,” I prefer to call it “Ween performing on a cruise ship.” While the songs on his latest record, “Salad Days,” aren’t quite as strong as those on “2,” it still demonstrates DeMarco at his current peak. Relaxed guitars, good vibes, and bizarre lyrics pervade his music, and “Salad Days” works both as a background and foreground album. Put it on while you study and let its clean tones soothe you, or give it a hard listen and analyze Mac’s strangely romantic songs. It’s an incredible record either way, and those who are only familiar with Mac’s Adult-Swim-on-shrooms sense of humor will be surprised by the amount of love and passion that can be found here.
37. Shabazz Palaces “Lese Majesty”
Most of the year’s critics weren’t as willing to wash Shabazz Palaces in acclaim as they were in 2011, when the Seattle hip-hop duo released its fantastic debut album “Black Up.” The highly anticipated follow-up, “Lese Majesty” manages to sound as unfocused as humanly possible while also remaining surprisingly consistent and featuring some of the duo’s best songs yet. “Lese Majesty” isn’t an album where you can skip songs, and Yeezus-forbid you listen to it on shuffle. The album’s 18 short tracks flow and glide and coalesce and mesh in weird, disorienting ways. There are twists, turns, and dead ends throughout. Much like its labyrinthine album cover, “Lese Majesty” doesn’t seek to make sense or guide the listener down any sort of discernible path. It does, however, expand upon the spacious afro-beats and thesaurus-tier lyrics of the previous album. Is it better than “Black Up”? Probably not. It is still an incredibly strong album from one of hip-hop’s most fascinating and promising teams. Forget Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Seattle’s best rapper/producer combo of the decade is Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire.
36. Pharmakon “Bestial Burden”
Much like its disturbing cover suggests, “Bestial Burden” is not an overly inviting or appealing album. It’s a little over a half hour of screaming, gagging, shrieking, retching, and hyperventilating. It’s like listening to a human body have a psychological response to a traumatic experience. Written after a very-near death experience, Margaret Chardiet’s second album, if you consider last year’s even shorter “Abandon” an album, is visceral in the literal sense of the word. Bits and pieces of stark harsh noise provide the backdrop for the year’s best medical nightmare. Let’s just say you shouldn’t throw this puppy on during your morning drive. You won’t have fun listening to “Bestial Burden,” or any of Pharmakon’s music in general. Even when Chardiet opts for clean vocals on her cover of Cher’s “Bang Bang,” it’s still coated in layer upon layer of noisy terror. “Bestial Burden” is a great and unforgettable record, but press play only of your own discretion.
35. Perfect Pussy “Say Yes to Love”
Let’s forget the fact that some of lead vocalist Meredith Graves’ politics are hypocritical and weirdly specific. Instead, focus on the fact that her band Perfect Pussy makes some killer noise rock. Gimmicky eye-catching name aside (when it comes to vaginally themed band names, no one beats Harry Pussy), the band puts out fast, relentless lo-fi punk music that should please any fan of hardcore music. Perfect Pussy’s debut album “Say Yes to Love” comes after a highly acclaimed 2013 EP called “I have lost all desire for feeling,” and while the music on this album doesn’t quite deviate from that EP, it still rules. Graves’ poetic and wordy verses get tangled up in the harsh feedback and carefree drumming. “Say Yes to Love” is basically 23 minutes of heaven for fans of ’90s feminist punk bands like Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear.
34. White Lung “Deep Fantasy”
Even better than the political punk of Perfect Pussy (Say Yes to Alliteration) is the punishing nuclear assault of Canada’s own White Lung. This band is just as noisy and vile, but it’s got the added bonus of thrash metal. If you’re looking for a band that sounds like Sleater-Kinney covering Anthrax, or a heavy metal Blondie cover band, then White Lung is the band you should listen to. The production is amazing, the songs are fierce, and the instrumentation is surprisingly melodic. Just listen to the opening track, “Drown With the Monster,” if you don’t believe me. This record will not just destroy you, it’ll wrestle with you for ten 2-minute rounds until you tap out. It’ll give you some hope of survival until you finally succumb to its sheer power. It’ll crush you to your death and you’ll love every second of it.
33. Shellac “Dude Incredible”
Over the past 20 years, the world has changed in remarkable ways. Technology, social norms, war, it’s all new and evolving. Shellac hasn’t. The long-running post-hardcore group is one of the few remaining ’90s relics that I’m actually happy about. Led by super-producer and noise-rock legend Steve Albini, Shellac makes albums that could be released at any time and still sound perfect. “Dude Incredible,” the band’s highly anticipated fifth album, could’ve been just as easily released in 1994. In fact, it sounds like a debut. It’s primal, intense, and harsh. The jagged riffs would’ve fit right in around the time of the band’s former contemporaries Drive Like Jehu and The Jesus Lizard. Instead, though, we get it this year, and I couldn’t be happier. The songwriting is confusing and scary, the production is close and aggressive, and the music is filled with anxiety and pain. “Dude Incredible” is the sound of a band tapping into its sexually frustrated primal lizard brain and releasing something that sounds like an ape’s fight-or-flight response kicking in. It won’t pummel you like White Lung’s album, but it’ll definitely fester and rot in your brain until you’re hypnotized by the bizarre eccentricity within.
32. Lazer/Wulf “The Beast of Left and Right”
Those who know me might not believe that one of my favorite albums of the year is an instrumental progressive metal album. Personally, progressive metal is not a favorite of mine. It tends to be all style without much substance. Atlanta’s own Lazer/Wulf managed to write an album that has more style than any progressive metal record I’ve ever heard, while also having an equal amount of substance. “The Beast of Left and Right” is a palindrome. Not the phrase, but the album itself. I suppose if you look at the actual musical notation then it reads the same front to back as it does back to front, but you wouldn’t be able to tell by listening. You’ll be too lost in the outrageous drumming, intricate bass, and shredding guitar to notice the real genius behind the record. “The Beast of Left and Right” is one of those rare albums that is equal parts catchy and intelligent. It’s a phenomenal record even if you take away the nerdy concept, which is part of why “The Beast of Left and Right” is a total success.
31. Against Me! “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”
In a year filled with great punk music, long-running Florida band Against Me! put out the most important one. Back in 2012, lead singer Laura Jane Grace came out as a transgender woman in a Rolling Stone interview. Having already gained popularity for incredible tracks like “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” and “Thrash Unreal,” this was (and is) pretty huge. Now, with a 10-track album chronicling her past, present, and future, Grace is pulling no punches. “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” is dark, harsh, and powerful. The eponymous opening track contains some of the year’s most astounding lyrics, and closing track “Black Me Out” is an earth-shattering masterpiece. “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” is a 30-minute emotional rollercoaster that is out to fight bigotry, and you’re not likely to forget its message (or its ear-grabbing songs).
30. Fear of Men “Loom”
While this isn’t the only album this year to be titled “Loom,” (definitely check out the Frameworks record when you get a chance, though, it’s pretty good) it’s the best and most gorgeous. Fear of Men is a British band that makes a simple kind of dream pop and shoegaze music. The group sounds like it’s more influenced by The Cranberries than groups like My Bloody Valentine, and they’ve got a definite appreciation for shoegaze precedents like The Cure. It also sounds remarkably modern. In a year of upbeat pop jams, “Loom” is full of downtempo winter whispers. It’s walking-in-the-rain music that’ll make you feel quite content. It’s a beautiful sad record that sounds much more realized and confident than the music of bands like Whirr and Nothing. There’s nothing complex or crazy here. It’s conceptually simple, but it’s musically fantastic. Is it mood music? Sure. But for dark times such as these, is there room for much else?
29. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib “Piñata”
Ten years after the release of the landmark album “Madvillainy,” we still don’t have a sequel. We’ve got something that’s just as good, though: a collaboration between low-key West Coast gangsta rapper Freddie Gibbs and experimental jazz-rap producer Madlib. “Piñata” is a bizarre record that works much better than any prediction would accurately explain. You may not know it yet, but Gibbs is one of the genre’s most gifted MCs. Once he starts rapping, he rarely stops. The flow is continuous, eternal, and incredibly smart. He only stops for his hilarious “parody” of TLC’s “Waterfalls” that comes at the end of one of the album’s short tracks. Even better, though, is Madlib’s infamously jazzy brand of production. “Piñata” sounds like a radio station in an alternate universe: the experimentalism of the underground fused with the gangsta rap of the mainstream. It shouldn’t work under any circumstance, but it works like a charm on this record. It’s stuffed with intricate verses, and it’s one of those rare contemporary hip-hop records that doesn’t need to rely on a banger to be noteworthy. It’s more than noteworthy, though. It’s completely and utterly brilliant.
28. Modern Baseball “You’re Gonna Miss It All”
While most of today’s emo and pop punk music has an air of complete sad-sackness, Modern Baseball refutes and defies that. “You’re Gonna Miss It All” is an album full of the happiest sad songs you’ll ever hear. Sure, there are songs about unrequited loves, post-collegiate depression, and bad friends, but it’s all done with such a completely carefree vibe that it ends up sounding like the soundtrack to a great summer. That’s because the members of Modern Baseball have amazing chemistry with each other, and the lyrics are superb. Even if you don’t want to hear sad songs all the time, “You’re Gonna Miss It All” is enchanting and fun. The lyricism is hilarious, musicianship impeccable, and talent palpable. It’s some of the most fun you’ll ever have listening to an album that’ll probably make you cry, and I’m eternally grateful for it. It’ll only take up a half hour of your life at a time, but the songs on here will hopefully stick with you forever.
27. Ratking “So It Goes”
2014’s most aggressive hip-hop album didn’t come from Death Grips, Kanye West, or Run the Jewels. It came from New York up-and-comers Ratking. Ratking isn’t interested in making you dance, or smile, or feel any sort of good. Ratking is interested in replicating the sounds of its city: harsh, loud, and intense. The beats sound like they were composed by noise music’s best, but it’s still very much rhythmic and melodic. Most impressive and noticeable, though, are the rhymes supplied by main rapper Wiki. He’s young, pissed off, and completely insane. He’s also a highly gifted rapper that concerns himself with dissonance and lyricism simultaneously. “So It Goes” is the definition of a grower. You’ll probably hate it the first time around. If you let it stew inside your brain, though, it’ll reveal its genius to you. You’ll find yourself attempting to hum lyrics you won’t know the source of. “So It Goes” is a stark and abrasive debut that brings the best of New York City’s political rap powerhouses and includes experimental production and structure.
26. White Suns “Totem”
It’s not easy to describe exactly what’s going on here. White Suns manages to fuse black metal, noise, industrial, and punk music while also retaining identity and catchiness. If you like your music harsh and intense, you’ll probably recognize “Totem” as one of the year’s most revolutionary records. It’ll grab your brain and it won’t let go until 40 minutes have gone by and you’re crying blood on a bathroom floor. It’s hard to explain, but for people like me it’s very easy to love. There’s no redemption in this record, though. No happiness. Only pain and deep anger. “My God’s face is made of mirrors!” shouts the lead singer halfway through the album’s masterpiece, “Clairvoyant.” “My God’s face looks like my father’s!” It’s an angry, mean-spirited album that will leave you feeling hollow and numb. It’s also a very ambitious metal record for the genre’s latest resurgence.
25. Scott Walker + Sunn O))) “Soused”
Fans of Scott Walker are used to waiting. He generally releases an album per decade, so getting another one so soon after his latest masterpiece, 2012’s “Bish Bosch,” is surprising to say the least. Even more surprising — well maybe more “how did I not think of that?” than surprising — is that the album is a collaboration with equally terrifying drone-metal duo Sunn O))). The result is “Soused,” a 5-track odyssey through warped time and deep space. It’s the year’s heaviest non-metal album, and the juxtaposition between Walker’s gorgeous baritone and Sunn O)))’s intense drones is noticeable, yet it makes the music all the better. It’s also a remarkable change of pace for Walker, whose last few albums involved the employment of a full orchestra. The lyrics are just as bizarre and frightening as any of Walker’s best, and the sounds are some of the best Sunn O))) has composed since 2009’s “Monoliths and Dimensions,” an album Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson, the duo’s members, invited Walker to do guest vocals on. He declined at the time, but thank Satan he changed his mind. “Soused” is a soaring achievement that fans of avant-garde music shouldn’t — and probably didn’t — miss.
24. The Wytches “Annabel Dream Reader”
If you’re above the age of 40 or below the age of 15, then The Orwells is a band that is probably a big deal to you. That’s fine. Unfortunately, their bland garage rock is absolutely nothing in comparison to what The Wytches brings to the table. Combine old-school Arctic Monkeys, ca. 2009 Cage the Elephant, and a touch of The Strokes’ first two albums — plus some phenomenal lyricism and surf rock influences — and you get “Annabel Dream Reader,” the debut from British garage rock group The Wytches. I seriously just can’t get enough of this record. It’s got the unashamed poeticism of Parquet Courts fused with the youthful energetic anger of the early-2000s garage rock revival’s best bands. It’s been years since a garage rock band felt so raw and relevant to me. I’m not asking for a full-on revival here, but I’m in complete awe of this album. If you haven’t heard it — which you probably haven’t — then please do yourself the world’s biggest favor and do that now.
23. Pallbearer “Foundations of Burden”
Back in 2012, Arkansas-based doom metal quintuplet Pallbearer just barely cracked my top 50 list with its incredible debut album, “Sorrow and Extinction.” As with most critically acclaimed debut albums, the pressure was on for album #2. Thankfully, instead of backing down from sheer awesomeness, Pallbearer stepped up the game with a new level of confidence and intelligence. “Foundations of Burden” is a space rock album disguised as a doom metal album. It asks essential philosophical questions about death and mortality while also doing what Pallbearer does best: fusing mind-melting riffs with soaring melodic vocals. If you’re a metalhead that is looking for a respite from the genre’s usual ugliness, then you’re crazy for not knowing about Pallbearer. It’s a beautiful record that is best listened to loudly, without distractions. It’s an amalgamation of heavy metal’s best and probably the closest thing my generation has to a Black Sabbath. And if this is Pallbearer’s “Paranoid,” I can’t wait to hear their “Master of Reality.”
22. Indian “From All Purity”
Fair bit of warning: “From All Purity” may be the most extreme, harsh, disgusting sludge metal album you’ll ever hear. They’ve got the soaring post-metal gloom of your typical doom metal band, but without anything resembling melody, or crescendos, or hope. 2014 was an abrasive, ugly year, and few musical compositions soundtrack that attitude better than this one. The album’s only 40 minutes long, but its force feels never-ending. The lead vocalist’s screams don’t sound like they were produced by a human mouth. They sound animalistic and fierce. It doesn’t even sound like this album was written beforehand; rather, a bunch of maniacs got into a garage and murdered each other and this is the result. If you like your music extreme as all get out, then this is essential listening. Indian’s brand of brutal chaos will leave you hollow. Wiser and tougher, but hollow nonetheless.
21. Ought “More Than Any Other Day”
It’s been years since post-punk albums sounded this neat and calculated. Harkening back to the days of groups like Talking Heads, Television, and The Pop Group, Ought is not screwing around. Lead vocalist Tim Beeler yelps, talks, and squawks throughout the record, emoting his intelligent lyrics with unorthodox passion. Simply put, there’s no band today that sounds like Ought. The music is also strangely positive; a recurring theme of togetherness and the enjoyment of life’s simple pleasures is recognizable throughout. The album’s eight lengthy tracks (six minutes is rather atypical for a punk band) are instrumentally rich, sonically immediate, and completely original. The music is beautiful and brave. It takes quite a bit of confidence and knowledge to make music that sounds like this, but Ought is not afraid. It’s gonna go headlong into the fierce storm ahead and find the good in the world, minimal though it may be.
20. Zammuto “Anchor”
Nick Zammuto’s idea of pop music is a little bit warped. Though he’s best known for being one half of now defunct electronic folk duo The Books, his solo work is equally weird in its own way. On his 2012 self titled debut, he eschewed the heavy sampling The Books was known for in favor of dynamic instrumentation and experimental vocal work. It sounds like the Daft Punk robots exchanged their computers and synthesizers for guitars and drums, only to end up buying some more synthesizers. While “Zammuto” had more of a relaxed, summery feel to it, his second album, “Anchor,” knows only jittery coldness. The drums on this album are much more intense and the vocals aren’t quite as covered up by vocoders and autotune. Like it’s cover suggests, “Anchor” is an album for the coldest winter. Not every critic was as crazy about this album as I am, but the music on here is truly special. It sounds like a more organic version of the newest Caribou album, or like early 2000s-era Radiohead with more intricate drumming. It’s a beautiful pop record that I will probably always feel comfortable putting on. It’s fun to listen to, and it further separates Zammuto from his former band. And, as it turns out, that’s not a bad thing at all.
19. FKA twigs “LP1”
Besides the surprise D’Angelo record, no R&B album dominated quite like “LP1.” FKA twigs is a British singer, songwriter, producer, and genuine artist that is responsible for every aspect of her image. No longer content with being a dancer in music videos, twigs is proving to the world that she’s really honestly amazing at what she does. Rather than go with the typical method of writing, singing, and performing, FKA twigs is a natural born experimentalist. Taking cues from eccentrics like Björk and Kate Bush, twgis’ music is fiercely catchy and incredibly ambitious. “LP1” is a seductive debut, one whose unashamed sexuality is almost as obvious as the layered and rich production. Yes, I know that every music critic and their mom is hyping this album to dangerous levels, but there are several reasons for that. It’s a wholly excellent experience, and is likely the most important R&B album since “Channel Orange.” It’s a complex and gorgeous production that I commend you all listen to, assuming you haven’t been swept up by the FKA twigs hype train just yet. Here’s looking forward to “LP2.”
18. Cloud Nothings “Here and Nowhere Else”
I first fell in love with Cloud Nothings in early 2012, when the Midwest rock band’s third album, “Attack on Memory,” was released. The formula is simple and there are loads of bands that have done what Cloud Nothings is doing, but the music on that album is so great and moving that I couldn’t help but love it, and I still do. “Here and Nowhere Else,” of course, had a lot to live up to. Thankfully, it met and shattered all expectations. Simply put, this album is a masterpiece of modern rock music. Again, the band combines garage rock simplicity, noisy assaults of feedback, post-hardcore passion, and the catchiness of the best ’90s emo bands. These eight songs are Cloud Nothings’ best, with lead vocalist and guitarist Dylan Baldi once again making music for sad lazy folks that are stuck in the Rust Belt. It’s an intense, energetic affair that will only take up a half hour of your time, so let this genre-bending hard rock album take you somewhere else. Preferably somewhere that’ll help you escape from the ennui of daily life.
17. La Dispute “Rooms of the House”
I think I’ve finally accepted the fact that ultimate goal of La Dispute is to make everyone in the world a giant, weeping mess. On the Michigan post-hardcore band’s previous full-length, “Wildlife,” the band was making some of its most emotionally dense music yet. Every song detailed some sort of horrible tragedy: drive-by shootings, kids dying of cancer, getting stabbed by schizophrenic family members; let’s just say this isn’t the easiest album to listen to. Rather than delve even further into the tragedy of human life, La Dispute instead focuses its newest album on domesticity. Sure, plenty of tragedies are detailed on this album, but they tend to involve tough break-ups and natural disasters. Okay, so maybe “Rooms of the House” is a depressing sob-fest just like the last two albums were, but it’s also another poetic, beautiful album of excellent post-hardcore music. I can see why people may not like the super-intense vocal delivery of Jordan Dreyer, but without that confidence and sincerity, La Dispute would be a failure of a project. Instead, the band goes all out every single time. Lyrically and instrumentally, this album is a heartbreaker. It’s also a reminder that in this life, not even your loved ones can keep you safe from the world’s numerous terrors. Life is short, so you might as well spend it contemplating its fickleness.
16. Panopticon “Roads to the North”
This year was responsible for some incredible metal records, and plenty of them came from the latest wave of black metal music. The best of them was a low-key release by American black metal project Panopticon, a one-man band led by Austin Lunn. Those who are aware of Panopticon recognize it as one of the most ambitious black metal bands ever taken on, as it combines the genre’s usual quirks with bluegrass and folk instrumentation. Yes, you read that right. Blastbeats and tremolo guitars meet up with violins and banjos in strange, yet beautiful ways. Rather than go for transcendentalism like fellow folk/black metal experimentalist Agalloch, Panopticon opts for a colder feel. It’s a black metal album designed for freezing temperatures, but it’s also incredibly uplifting. “Roads to the North” is a loud, sonically inventive production that expands on the sounds Panopticon explored on 2012’s “Kentucky,” and fans of the genre should take note. There aren’t many bands out there that sound quite like Panopticon, and “Roads to the North” is the project’s most accomplished album to date. One can only wonder where it goes from here.
15. Joyce Manor “Never Hungover Again”
Pop punk has never sounded so convincing. Joyce Manor’s self-titled 2011 debut is a favorite in the indie/emo/pop punk listening communities, and for good reasons. The band’s second album, “Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired,” was critically acclaimed, but it was also only 13 minutes long. “Never Hungover Again” is the quartet’s third album, and it far surpasses the last one. Clocking in at a full 19 minutes, “Never Hungover Again” is easy to miss. It can be easy to get lost in the distorted power chords and explosive choruses, which might make it easy to miss out on vocalist Barry Johnson’s surreal, intelligent lyrics. This album is about as straightforward and clean as pop punk gets, but it’s also a work of subversive genius. It doesn’t dare overstay its welcome, and instead feels like a musical novella. Short, but smarter than most of the band’s contemporaries. In fact, if you press play right now, you’ll probably finish it before you’re done reading this list. If you have a youthful bone in your body, you’ll love it the way I did. Not too sappy, not too pretentious; it’s a delightful record that is shorter than most bands’ EPs and packed with more emotion than most bands’ double LPs.
14. Have a Nice Life “The Unnatural World”
Connecticut duo Have a Nice Life had a perfect album on its hands with its 2008 debut “Deathconsciousness.” Years and years of hard work paid off, and the 90-minute masterpiece that resulted is one of the best albums the 2000s have seen. Naturally, creating a followup that lives up to the debut’s cult following would be hard to do. The stakes were high. “The Unnatural World” works as an album because it doesn’t try to be “Deathconsciousness.” It’s a little over half as long and not nearly as complex, but it still takes the band’s shoegaze-inflected post-punk into the next decade with confidence and strength. The guitar tones are still ungodly and the atmosphere is still pitch black. This is the Have a Nice Life we know and love, just not the one we were expecting. This is a band that is less indulgent and more open to progression and change, and the album’s fantastic eight tracks are evidence of that. While I wouldn’t call this Dan Barrett and Tim Macuga’s magnum opus, I would call it the year’s best post-punk album. It sounds like if “Unknown Pleasures” was cursed by ancient witches and buried for thirty years, only to be dug up by young Wiccan shoegazers. “The Unnatural World” doesn’t mess around, and if you let its eternal sounds swirl around in your head long enough, your mind may be entirely transformed.
13. How to Dress Well “What is this Heart?”
Ignore the silly portrait of Tom Krell that makes up the cover, and you have the year’s most devastatingly emotional album of 2014. For a few years now, Krell has been singing and producing under the How to Dress Well moniker, and “What is this Heart?” is ostensibly the project’s cleanest record to date. Krell’s gorgeous vocals and introspective lyrics hardly make up half of what makes this such an amazing album. As always, the production is incredibly on point. How to Dress Well not be as experimental as FKA twigs or as thoroughly talented as Frank Ocean, but the musical excellency on here is hard to deny. “What is this Heart?” is a look back on childhood, loss, and life. It’s a depressing, yet reaffirming album that will break and heal your sorrow heart. At 55 minutes, it’s How to Dress Well’s longest album, but it’s also his most essential.
12. Perfume Genius “Too Bright”
Though Mike Hadreas has never exactly hidden his homosexuality (at least for as long as he’s been releasing albums), he hasn’t made it more abundantly clear than he does on his third album as Perfume Genius, “Too Bright.” He takes a different approach to his orientation, though. “Too Bright” is incredibly empowering, yes, but it’s also super disturbing. His first two albums, “Learning” and “Put Your Back N 2 It,” were largely piano-and-vocal affairs. “Too Bright” adds quite a bit of extra instrumentation, often leaning toward industrial and distorted sounds. Just look at the album’s lead single, “Queen,” which both embraces and subverts the common tropes of being a gay man. Nothing sums up the album quite as well as his now-famous line “No family’s safe when I sashay.” There’s more to it than that, fortunately. Foreign voices scream, synthesized bass rumbles, and Hadreas squeals and croons his way through disturbing imagery. Sure, it’s empowering. It’s also insane and gorgeous and weird and awesome. Along with Pharmakon’s “Bestial Burden” and Against Me!’s “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” “Too Bright” deconstructs the fickle bridge between body and mind until you don’t know who you are anymore. And it’ll have you feeling great.
11. D’Angelo and the Vanguard “Black Messiah”
“Black Messiah” is one of those albums that, much like the actual Messiah, only comes once in several centuries. Not only is it special because it’s the first release from R&B experimentalist D’Angelo in nearly 15 years, but it’s also one of the most important albums to come out in 2014, period. Across the album’s beautiful, delicate, and ambitious instrumentation, D’Angelo emotes in dozens of singing styles about love, racism, climate change, and — of course — explicit sex. It’s one of those albums where every possible aspect is worth looking into. Every lyric, every note, every sound, every melody. Though I’m sure it’ll move closer to #1 as I familiarize myself with it more, since it only dropped a few weeks ago, I’m certain that “Black Messiah” is perfect. D’Angelo does things with his voice that I didn’t know humans could do, even with my prior familiarity with “Brown Sugar” and “Voodoo,” his past two albums. Instruments make sounds on this album that I didn’t even know were possible. It’s a perfect blend of old school and new school R&B: politically charged, gorgeous, sensual, and worth listening to over and over again. In case there was any doubt beforehand that D’Angelo was capable of producing a masterpiece on par with “Voodoo,” “Black Messiah” proves itself time and time again as a modern classic. Enjoy and be moved in every way.
10. Mick Jenkins “The Water[s]”
The year’s best mixtape was a low key affair, and one I didn’t expect to like at all. Chicago MC Mick Jenkins tends to be a bit preachy in his raps, and that sort of thing tends to get on my nerves. Thankfully, Jenkins is preaching about stuff that I (mostly) agree with. Not only that, but he manages to balance his politics with astounding production and an inhuman amount of rapping ability. If anything, Mick is a superbly talented rapper that can fit a lot of words into his songs. He’s also great at connecting his music under unifying themes. Throughout “The Water[s],” you’ll hear Mick rap about ginger ale, weed, Jesus, love, gang violence, and — of course — water. This timely mixtape is about the way we prioritize money and consumer goods over the things that truly keep us alive. Water can be taking literally and metaphorically here, and that’s a part of the genius. “The Water[s]” is a dreamy, cloudy, powerful mixtape that sounds more like an album that most hip-hop albums that came out this year. Jenkins is a very intelligent dude, but he also has a soft spot for catchiness. That’s why this mixtape is going to stick with you. Anyone could write a song about what they perceive as wrong with society, but it takes a truly gifted person to write an entire hour-long mixtape about it while also sounding clean and pristine. This one hasn’t left my rotation yet, and if you give it a chance I’m sure it won’t leave yours.
9. Ariel Pink “pom pom”
It’s disappointing, but appropriate that Ariel Pink is probably going to be remembered for the misogynist, music-journalism-baiting bizarro prick that he is and not for 2014’s pop genius. Because, like it or not, “pom pom” is the year’s most impressive and phenomenal pop album. For the famed singer/songwriter’s first album not under the Haunted Graffiti moniker, he wrote 17 of the catchiest, darkest, strangest tunes I’ve had the pleasure of hearing. This near 70 minutes of music is pretty hard to pin down in one phrase, but if I were, I’d probably use the phrase “1985 VHS sex nightmare shared by Jim Morrison, David Bowie, and Ozzy Osbourne.” “Pom pom” calls back to several decades of pop and rock music while also feeling like it belongs outside of space and time altogether. Even his Wayne Coyne-ish indulgences (“Jell-O,” “Nude Beach A Go-Go”) feel like songs that could have been on the radio at one point in time. It’s both a celebration and a deconstruction of false nostalgia that is Pink’s best collection of songs yet. His public image may be worsening with each insensitive remark, but his music is only improving with each album he releases.
8. Flying Lotus “You’re Dead!”
Every time producer/rapper Steve Ellison releases an album, it’s a revolution. His ingenious combination of hip-hop, jazz, and IDM is unrivaled, and not since J Dilla has a beat-making jazz fan been such an important figure in contemporary music. “You’re Dead!” is Ellison’s fifth album as Flying Lotus, and certainly not his first to deal with a broad theme, that theme being death this time around, obviously. With remarkable features from the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Herbie Hancock, and Snoop Dogg, “You’re Dead!” is FlyLo’s fullest and catchiest record yet, while also being kept under 40 minutes long. Perhaps the biggest change is the focus on live instrumentation this time around, with several of the album’s shorter tracks featuring psychedelic free jazz freakouts not too far removed from the music of Ellison’s late uncle John Coltrane. With help from bass virtuoso and frequent collaborator Thundercat, Flying Lotus has crafted one of the most elegant and insane musings on life and death since Jodorowsky’s “El Topo.” “You’re Dead!” is FlyLo’s darkest album yet, but also his most fun. Aficionados of all sorts of music should fine something enjoyable on this psychic journey, and the reappearance of Ellison’s rapping alter-ego Captain Murphy makes it all the more refreshing.
7. Parquet Courts “Sunbathing Animal”
Rock and roll doesn’t deserve a band as good as Parquet Courts. The New York/Texas indie rock quartet is too far advanced for the genre’s boundaries, and “Sunbathing Animal” is a crowning achievement in its evolution. It sounds like an alien race whose intelligence is vastly superior to ours devoured every bit of American rock and roll ever recorded on Earth and made it better. “Sunbathing Animal” combines ’90s slacker rock aesthetic, ’70s poetic post-punk lyricism, and delivery that alternates between impassioned punk singer and emotionless cyborg. Lead vocalist Andrew Savage is one of contemporary rock music’s best lyricists, and his band’s brand of experimental art rock in a vacuum is unmatched. Not since Pavement has a pocket thesaurus seemed like such a useful tool, but the band also manages to have a hell of a good time doing what it does. It’s rare that an album manages to be so smart while also being the opposite of pretentious. The best part is that if you find yourself loving this album and needing more, then Parquet Courts put out another album just last month of almost-as-good material called “Content Nausea.” It’s been a great year for indie’s most ambitious not-rock band.
6. Sun Kil Moon “Benji”
Looking back on the weird year Mark Kozelek has had — what with all the ridiculous beefs with the not-nearly-as-good band The War on Drugs — it’s hard to believe that he was responsible for the year’s most beautiful album. “Benji” is the sixth album by Sun Kil Moon, and it’s hard to explain why it’s so great. For twenty years, Kozelek has been making confessional, wordy sad guy indie-folk albums, whether with his former band Red House Painters, as Sun Kil Moon, or under his own name. There’s no experience quite like listening to “Benji” in its entirety, though. 1082 people died in the making of it, for one. Whether they’re obscure family members of Kozelek, celebrities, acquaintances, or victims of serial killers, they all get some sort of mention. “Benji” is a gorgeous folk rock autobiography of the genre’s most talented curmudgeon. Throughout this nonlinear depiction of Kozelek’s strange, tragic life are unashamed descriptions of sex, depression, love, death, jealousy, and an expansive cast of flawed people. It’s one person’s perspective on 46 years of life, and it’s one of the most simple yet phenomenal albums you’ll ever hear.
5. Aphex Twin “Syro”
I guess Kickstarter isn’t all that bad if it results in new music from Aphex Twin. After fans used the site to raise money for a wide release of a 20-year-old unheard album called by one of enigmatic electronic artist Richard D. James’ many alter-egos, he decided that maybe it was time to release some more. The resulting album, “Syro” is the first from James under his Aphex Twin identity since 2001’s “DrukQs,” his least acclaimed to date. Thankfully, things were back on track for the sprawling, gorgeous production that is “Syro.” Aphex Twin is known for disturbing imagery and ambient works, but “Syro” features neither. This album is a much more relaxing piece of work. It’s layered and aurally intense, definitely, but also one of James’ most cohesive works. Just as he did back in the ’90s, Aphex Twin combines glitchy IDM and sour ambient synths with reckless abandon, and it works just even better today. “Syro” hardly even sounds like it was written or composed by a human, but if there’s any human on Earth who’s the most like an alien, it’s Aphex Twin. I don’t even know if it’s ahead of its time, because there really is no time for music like this. All I can say is that it’s catchy, spastic, beautiful, and slightly off. It’s a robotic album full of human qualities, but these qualities feel like they’re being mimicked by martians. It’s a thank you letter from James to all his fans that sounds like the Internet having sex with a piano, but in a really good way. It’s always hard to pin down his music, and with “Syro,” the best I can muster is a bunch of positive words and this placement in the Top 5 albums this year had to offer.
4. St. Vincent “St. Vincent”
Annie Clark’s version of pop music usually doesn’t register immediately. When I first heard this album, I was somewhat disappointed actually. After months of further listening, though, I have no problem with calling this the year’s best pop album. “St. Vincent,” the fourth album from Clark’s experimental id, is a visceral masterpiece of absolute jams. Beautiful ballads, rockin’ guitars, and a whole lot of St. Vincent’s strangest lyricism. There’s not a single bad song on this album, and it’s the one in her discography that I return to the most, because it’s definitely the best. Annie Clark manages to balance art pop personality with the cold emotionless nature of face-to-screen interaction. It’s a very heavy and diverse record that features some of St. Vincent’s catchiest and sexiest songs yet. It is completely creative, and I’m positive that no other mind on this planet could make anything that sounds remotely like this. She’s turned the electric guitar into the electronic guitar, and now she’s trying to do the same to her entire being. On “St. Vincent,” it’s safe to say she succeeded.
3. Iceage “Plowing into the Field of Love”
Making post-punk a continually intriguing genre can be a hard thing to do, but Denmark’s brattiest young’uns seem to have no problem with it. It almost feels like first nature for the members of Iceage to make noisy, abrasive post-punk. Just when you think you can predict the band’s next move, the formula has been switched entirely. Out with the 2-minute bursts of noise, and in with the 5-minute rockabilly anthems. “Plowing into the Field of Love” takes Iceage’s usual sound and fuses it with American country and old school rock and roll music. It sounds completely insane because it is, but it’s also the most effective form of experimentation I’ve seen from a band in a long time. “Plowing into the Field of Love” would’ve probably been #3 on my list even if it sounded exactly like the band’s previous album, “You’re Nothing,” but the switch proves wholly successful. Ambition flows throughout this album like a fountain, and the songwriting itself is impossibly good. It’s groovy, catchy, noisy, and absolutely fantastic. I never thought I’d use the phrase “post-punk country rock nightmare” to describe one of my favorite albums of the year, but that’s one of many surprises that came with “Plowing into the Field of Love.” Post-punk may have been born and bred in Thatcher’s England, but it was perfected in the frozen wasteland of Scandinavia.
2. Swans “To Be Kind”
Is it really possible that Swans made one of the year’s catchiest records? The long-running New York experimental rock band has several masterpieces under its belt, all of which dip in and out of numerous genres. Industrial, neo-folk, noise rock, drone, post-rock; you name it, Swans and its revolving cast of Michael Gira’s recruits have perfected it. “To Be Kind” takes all of Swans’ experimentation and condenses it into one of the band’s most consistent and hypnotic records to date. The album’s two hours simultaneously feel like two minutes and two infinities. If you let it pull you into its whirlpool of noise and terror, you’ll be entranced. It sounds like a hurricane of guitars, drums, and bass; it’s rock and roll’s logical conclusion. It taps into the humble beginnings of humanity and inverts them, creating a Big Bang of gorgeous noise. Michael Gira is a sonic terrorist, but he’s also an unparalleled musical genius. No band in the world sounds like Swans, and no Swans album sounds like “To Be Kind.” Nothing encompasses the wide range of human emotions quite like this, and doing it in two hours is a feat that has to be heard to be believed.
1. Run the Jewels “Run the Jewels 2”
When I think of the phrase “album of the year,” the only thing that feels right is “Run the Jewels 2.” In a year of heightened social media, police brutality, and truly shocking deaths, nothing encapsulates darkness while also showing optimism quite like “Run the Jewels 2.” Killer Mike and El-P are 2014’s most significant rappers, and all 11 of El-P’s beats on this album are bangin’ and bodacious. Back in the ’80s, people called The Clash the only band that matters. I wouldn’t hesitate to reapply that term of endearment to Run the Jewels. When it comes to phenomenal production, amazing lyrics, and unmatched delivery, I’m okay with a lot of my favorite rappers missing one of the three. Run the Jewels completely exceeds in all three, as well as more that I don’t even think have been invented yet. “Run the Jewels 2” is an absolute improvement on the first album, and then some. It’s all 40-something years of hip-hop condensed into this: an explicit, violent, dark, hilarious, brooding, sexual, perfect album. It is an album that is absolutely for its time, and for every time. Underneath the album’s bravado and braggadocio are two men who are pissed off; two men who obviously care very deeply for the genre and the world they live in. These are two veterans who are tired of being repeatedly ignored and overshadowed. Run the Jewels is this generation’s Run-DMC, Public Enemy, and Wu-Tang Clan, all rolled into one perfect package. And if you don’t wanna hear the ugly truth, then you’d better not listen.