Music / review

Best Albums of 2014

I have a love-hate relationship with these lists. On one hand, I get to review all of the albums that were released during the year, which is always fun. But on the other hand, I have to push some records aside for the sake of my list not being dozens of pages long. To be honest, I could write novels about some of the records that came out this year.

About three weeks ago, I went out to lunch with the two people who run Hardly Art, the record label I interned for in the fall. The thing I was most excited to talk to them about was which albums they put on their lists. Sub Pop Records (the label under which Hardly Art is a subsidiary) creates a master list of records of the year submitted by all of their employees, and lucky for me, it had just been completed earlier that day. Long story short, when we were having this conversation, the general manager said, “Sometimes these lists just end up being everyone trying to ‘out-obscure’ everyone else.”

What I’m getting at here is that I have filed my list down to not only the best records of the year (in my opinion, of course), but these albums are also very accessible. It’s not fun for anyone to read through a list and not be able to find where to buy some of the music on it. While I did enjoy some records that were hard to find this year, I didn’t feel like I should put them on the list.

So here you are, these are my ten favorite records of 2014, and what I consider to be the best releases this year.

10. Jenny Lewis – The Voyager
(Warner Bros.)

First of all, how can you not love Jenny Lewis? She’s former frontwoman of Rilo Kiley, and already had two solo records in the books before the release of The Voyager. But this record shouldn’t just be swept in with the rest of her accomplishments. In its entirety, The Voyager brags both angsty confidence (perhaps because she’s finally a solo artist?) and painful truths with every track. There’s a running theme of being an “old woman” (she’s 38) in an industry that’s continuously recruiting younger acts, but Lewis simultaneously uses her wisdom to convince you that she’s right where she belongs. There is refreshing strength in the album that isn’t anywhere in Lewis’ previous albums: she sings in a lower register, uses more electric guitars and takes advantage of samples and special effects. The Voyager was a visual effort as well. On tour for the record, Lewis wore a rainbow pantsuit (featured on the album cover) for every show and the album artwork was painted on the side of Amoeba Hollywood for a few months. She also directed the music video for the album’s single, “Just One Of The Guys”, and recruited her friends (Anne Hathaway, Kristen Stewart, and Brie Larson) to star in it.

Album highlights: “Head Under Water”, “Just One Of The Guys”, “The Voyager”

9. The Orwells – Disgraceland
(Atlantic)

When someone mentions garage rock, it feels like it’s accompanied by a sigh of boredom these days. With bands like Allah-Lahs and labels like Burger Records, it hard to take what seems to be an exhausted genre and make it new again. But that’s what The Orwells did with their second album, Disgraceland. The record drips with teen angst and summertime nostalgia, which is easily explained by the fact that the band graduated high school in 2013.  Six months before the album’s release The Orwells appeared on Late Show with David Letterman; their performance garnered praise and even an encore request from Letterman himself. The second track on the album, “The Righteous One”, was released as a 12-inch single for Record Store Day in the spring of this year. After touring with the Arctic Monkeys and being placed on lists of overlooked artists, The Orwells are finally pushing through to the big leagues. Disgraceland is obviously great progress— good luck, boys.

Album highlights: “Dirty Sheets”, “Let It Burn”

8. Avi Buffalo – At Best Cuckold
(Sub Pop)

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I am genuinely sad whenever this record ends. I can only seem to listen to it in its entirety. Even if I want to listen to a specific song, I’ll end up playing the rest of the record; it’s just a treat to listen to. At Best Cuckold is Avi Buffalo’s second album, and it feels like a more complete effort than their debut. Some of the tracks sound like they’re straight out of the seventies, with multiple acoustic guitars and pronounced bass lines, almost as if Todd Rundgren should be singing them. But the lead singer and founder of the band, Avi Zahner-Isenberg, sings in falsetto for the majority of the record. But Isenberg is more like Passion Pit’s Michael Angelakos and less like Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon in terms of falsetto. NME said the album was “close to perfection”; the last time I was this in love with an album was when Death Cab for Cutie released Plans in 2005.

Album highlights: “Can’t Be Too Responsible”, “She Is Seventeen”, “Won’t Be Around No More”

7. The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream
(Secretly Canadian)

When I wrote my Best of ’14 list at the half-year mark, this album was no. 7 as well.  Lost In The Dream is a music library staple for 2014; it’s such a solid and complete album. In contrast with the band’s earlier records, Lost In The Dream is more sonically and lyrically mature. There are songs that are slow, contemplative and reminiscent (“Suffering”, “Lost In The Dream”), and then there are others that should be played with the windows down on a California freeway (“Under The Pressure”, “Red Eyes”). I have a terrible feeling that this record is going to be the last savory release from this band, seeing as it’s the fifth record they’ve released. I’ll be glad if I’m wrong, but if I’m right, at least we’ll have this record to cling to.

Album highlights: “Red Eyes”, “An Ocean In Between The Waves”

6. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
(Republic)

There is nothing that Annie Clark cannot do. The woman who often appears to be timid and soft spoken in interviews delivered one of the best albums of the year. St. Vincent, her fourth full-length album and first self-titled one, bears a confidence that isn’t found anywhere else in her work. The record sounds like it was recorded on some other planet— maybe in a video game. From tracks that boast beautiful melodies (“Prince Johnny”, “Severed Crossed Fingers”) to songs that offer societal critique (“Birth In Reverse”), St. Vincent is truly a work of art. In a culture where attention spans run short, this record will keep you listening until the end, every time.

Album highlights: “Birth In Reverse”, “Bring Me Your Loves”, “Prince Johnny”

5. Protomartyr – Under Color of Official Right
(Hardly Art)

Out of all of the albums that were released this year, Protomartyr’s Under Color of Official Right was, by far, the album I kept recommending to my friends. I’m pretty sure I talked to some people about it more than once: “Yes Katie, you told me, I know, that record is good.” I love this album. It’s the second release from a band who hails from Detroit, and that’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s steady and concentrated, yet gritty and rough. In contrast to their first album, Protomartyr sort of cleaned themselves up a bit, smoothing out their rough edges. The lyrics on Under Color of Official Right read like a book: every time you listen to the record, it makes more and more sense.  There are moments where the lead singer, Joe Casey, sounds a little like King Krule and Harry McVeigh from The White Lies at the same time. His vocals loom in a way that make you actually listen to and think about what he’s saying. This record is so good, and that’s about all I can say.

Album highlights: “Come & See”, “Violent”, “Scum, Rise!”

4. Ariel Pink – Pom Pom
(4AD)

If you don’t have any background information on Ariel Pink and what he did this year, read this, and this, and this. Ariel Pink is an unstoppable troll. Pom Pom is a 67 minute-long sad carnival of music. If anything, I advise you to listen to it in its entirety just for the experience.

Album highlights: “Picture Me Gone”, “Black Ballerina”

3. Alvvays – Alvvays
(Polyvinyl)

Why does it feel like Canadians are the best at making dreamy beach rock? Alvvays (pronounced “always”), a five-piece indie outfit from Toronto, wrote 9 tracks that practically bleed summer in the middle of a harsh winter. Literally. The self-titled record that was produced by Chad Van Gaalen was released in the middle of July; a tour with Real Estate followed. Molly Rankin’s vocals are girlish and easy to listen to; the lead and rhythm guitars are playful. Alvvays is a record that sounds like spring break at the beach.

Album highlights: “Archie, Marry Me”, “Next of Kin”

2. Mac DeMarco – Salad Days
(Captured Tracks)

To put it plainly, slacker rock would still be stuck in the nineties if it wasn’t for Mac DeMarco. A genre that housed the likes of Pavement, Beck, and Modest Mouse was revamped with DeMarco’s residency. His second full-length album, Salad Days, lives up to its name; it begs recollection of youth, mixed with inexperience and idealism. The album is playful without being naive and sunny without being saccharine. DeMarco writes about his girlfriend who he often brings on stage at shows in “Let My Baby Stay”, and advises guys respect their own girls in “Treat Her Better”. Other tracks like “Chamber of Reflection” and “Johnny’s Odyssey” are kaleidoscopic adventures in themselves. Salad Days is full of wise anecdotes for the younger half of DeMarco’s fan base while simultaneously making his older listeners feel young again. (Also, if you don’t know much about Mac, I highly recommend watching the short documentary on him that Pitchfork created, Pepperoni Playboy.)

Album highlights: “Brother”, “Blue Boy”, and “Chamber of Reflection”

1. FKA twigs – Lp1
(Young Turks)

FKA twigs’ Lp1 is my favorite album of the year solely because it was unexpected. Sure, we saw and heard her talent with the release of her Ep2, a four-track effort where each song had its own music video. The record is synth-y R&B; it’s soulful, bold, and pensive all at the same time. “Two Weeks” is the album’s lyrical masterpiece and its sensual peak. On the track, FKA twigs sings, “I can fuck you better than her.” Today’s R&B artists only wish they could write lyrics that sound as desperate as hers. She manages to sound confident and sensitive at the same time. On “Pendulum”, the listener experiences FKA twigs’ heaviest heartbreak with her when she repeats the song’s mantra, “So lonely trying to be yours.” The album is a work of art all the way down to the album art which has ended up being one of the most recognizable covers this year.

Album highlights: “Two Weeks”, “Video Girl”, “Closer”

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