2014 was a pretty good year for music! Some good new artists emerged, and older, more established artists I dig either redeemed themselves (Spoon) or continued being great (TV On The Radio). When it came to this year’s list I didn’t have any rules or guidelines different from previous years: If I felt like writing something about an album that means I liked it enough to put it on the list. Problem is, I felt like writing about a lot of albums! For the sake of time I stopped when I realized I went over 20.
I also tell myself I can’t listen to 2015 music until I’m done writing this, and with Sleater-Kinney’s album coming out in January I gotta be done! Before we get to the list here’s 10 albums that could have easily expanded this list to 32. These are not honorable mentions–these are albums I thought I would write something about and place on my list but…didn’t.
Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks – Wig Out at Jagbags
Rural Alberta Advantage – Mended With Gold
Vince Staples – Hell Can Wait
Schoolboy Q – Oxymoron
Luke James – Luke James
Tennis – Ritual In Repeat
King Tuff – Black Moon Spell
Isaiah Rashad – Cilvia Demo
Popcaan – Where We Come From
Slow Club – Complete Surrender
Above, as below, any links you click on will go to a sweet Youtube jam.
22 Duck Sauce – Quack
Duck Sauce are an American/Canadian DJ Duo, and you may have heard “Barbara Streisand” before because it came out in 2010, was played after the Calgary Flames scored a goal, and was nominated for a Grammy in 2011. Well now it’s on Duck Sauce’s first album, and is a good example of what you’ll hear all over the LP: catchy-as-hell electronic dance music. Moreover, it’s a FUN album. It feels more goofy than basic fist-pumping bros music. This might make the album sound a lot better than it actually is, but if Daft Punk and P-Funk made a disco album produced by Fatboy Slim, it might sound like Duck Sauce’s Quack.
21 The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream
Starting an album off with a 9 minute song isn’t a great way to win me over…unless you’re The War On Drugs. Adam Granduciel has that gift of writing pretty songs about sad things (speaking of which, The Antlers put out a good album this year). Like floating down a river on a sunny day, then you look under the surface and see that the water is dark and swirling with depression. The beauty of this album is you can choose to float in the warm relaxing sun or take a swim in the cold dark waters, and either choice gives you a good song. I thought Real Estate would win smoothest album of the year, but then Lost In The Dream Came out.
20 The Coathangers – Suck My Shirt
I saw these Atlanta ladies open for someone 5 or so years ago and have been a fan since. I don’t remember who they opened for, but I remember The Coathangers. Clearly a case of “I’m bored and can’t play any instruments, but let’s start a band!”, The Coathangers have gotten better and better with each album. Thankfully they haven’t lost their grrl punk urgency, except for when they choose to like on the album’s sweet sounding, “Drive”–a song that proves The Coathangers sonic highway can take multiple turns as the band tightens up, and I am more than happy to ride along.
19 Todd Terje – It’s Album Time
I don’t know what to call this music, cocktail lounge disco? Disco muzak? Whatever you call it, it makes a fantastic soundtrack for whatever mundane task you’re performing while it plays. It’s a lock you’ll tap your foot and/or dance in your seat to this album. These aren’t cold, impersonal electronic songs–Terje gives them heart and soul, making the tunes more like a great desert you savor as opposed to that entire bag of cotton candy you ate and instantly regret.
18 Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
It was a tough choice between this album and Doug Paisley’s Strong Feelings, but Simpson’s voice wins out. With songs about drugs, aliens and religions OTHER than Christianity, this is the country album you play for people who say they don’t like country music. Traditional country tunes with untraditional country subjects. Simpson also wins cover of the year with his rendition of When In Rome’s “The Promise”.
17 Alvvays – Alvvays
Every year there’s that album where I hear a song on shuffle and have to stop what I’m doing to see who it is because I like it so much. That award this year goes to Alvvays. This Canadian group does a great job mixing 60s pop with modern low-fi fuzz, and the vocals rise above lesser attempts by other bands. “Archie, Marry Me” is such a good song I wouldn’t be surprised if a future movie character is named Archie just so they can use the tune.
16 Tove Lo – Queen of the Clouds
Tove Lo is a Swedish singer-songwriter who further proves my theory that female Swedish singers trump all others. Norway is a close second. In fact, this spot on my list was going to go to the Norwegian Mr. Little Jeans’ Pocketknife, but then Queen of the Clouds came out. Good pop needs substance to rise above the dreck, and I think Tove Lo succeeds; on the surface a song called “Like ‘Em Young” is pretty straightforward, but then she sings how we’re all dying slowly, and really, what’s the purpose of manners, maaaan. If you want to enjoy a good pop album that’s catchy as hell before Hot 99.5 overplays it a year from now (or maybe sooner now that she’s opening for Katy Perry), this is the album for you.
15 Woods – With Light & With Love
Woods aren’t strangers to my year-end lists, and I feel like with each album I think “this is their most accessible album yet!” Well guess what, With Light & With Love is The Woods’ most accessible album yet! I think their jam band-meets-psychedlic-meets-folk-meets-indie sound is pretty niche, but this album is less lo-fi than their previous ones, and if any album brings Woods a larger audience it’ll be this one (but check those other ones out too!). Year after year Woods have proven themselves to be consistently good at what they do.
14 Tacocat – NVM
Cashing in on my weakness for that alternative 90s sound, this was a front-runner for my list since its release in February. Tacocat is a quartet from Seattle playing bubblegum pop-punk with a little surf-rock thrown in. It’s a great sound, especially when combined with song topics such as seasonal affective disorder, catcalling, and menstruation. In a year ripe with gender issues under debate I don’t know why “Hey Girl” wasn’t more popular…maybe because it’s a band named Tacocat. Well don’t let the meme-based name fool you–the songs may be sunny satire, but the band is seriously good, and I can’t wait to hear what they do next.
13 The Men – Tomorrow’s Hits
The Men’s “Open Your Heart” made #2 on my 2012 list. Their debut was grounded in indie/punk, but it was easy to hear The Men’s love of all music–and as time has passed, it’s easier to hear their love (and influence) of good ol’ fashioned American Classic Rock and Roll. You hear a little CCR, Tom Petty, Bob Segar and the like in their tunes, but overall you hear The Men rocking and rolling. “Tomorrow’s Hits” is a fantastic title for an album by a modern band playing classic rock and roll.
12 Run The Jewels – RTJ2
It’s rare that chemistry comes through in the music on an album. El-P and Killer Mike fit together so well, and you can tell how much they dig working together that their chemistry elevates this album to another level. Every song is like a climactic rap battle with the two trying to one up each other, except they’re friends and everyone wins! It’s darker and more vulgar than their debut, but also more dazzling and hard-hitting. This is not their first time on my list, and hopefully not their last.
11 White Lung – Deep Fantasy
There was a lot of good loud rock this year. Plague Vendor’s Free To Eat is solid California voodoo surf rock, Ghetto Ghouls’s self-titled LP was a very promising low-fi debut, and Cloud Nothings continued their run, but the standout fast and loud album of the year for me has to be White Lung’s Deep Fantasy. Partially because it’s a cyclone AND a whirlwind of guitars, but also because of the anger and rage about gender and social politics. This is an angry album that sounds angry, and for damn good reason. More people need to be this angry, and more people need to listen to this anger.
10 Big Freedia – Just Be Free
Big Freedia is an ambassador of bounce music, which I sadly didn’t know was a genre until 2014. Hailing from New Orleans, bounce hip hop is bass-heavy, call-and-response, ass-shaking music. It’s what we have to thank for giving us twerking decades before white girls set themselves on fire as a Jimmel Kimmel prank. Sometimes these tunes feel maybe TOO repetitive, but Big Freedia commands your attention. When she shouts “I’m that queen that’ll make you bounce” I say “you sure are!” When she demands that I “shake, wiggle, work, now kill yourself!” I say “Ok!”
9 Hamilton Leithauser – Black Hours & Peter Matthew Bauer – Liberation!
For 10 years, The Walkmen released 7 fantastic albums and I believed in the elementary science that they could do no wrong. Then they announced an “extreme hiatus” and I stopped believing in science. The first round of solo albums came out this year, and that has helped dull the pain. With Leithauser being the voice of The Walkmen his solo album sounds…a lot like a Walkmen album! Bauer’s album, on the other hand, sounds much more raw and exciting. It’s like getting a behind-the-scenes look at The Walkmen–like listening in on the workers as they shovel coal to keep the ship going. I realize I’m cheating by putting two albums in one spot, but too bad.
8 Azealia Banks – Broke With Expensive Tastes
When did “212” come out, 2011? That was probably my favourite song of that year, and then it was included on Banks’s EP 1991, and now it’s on Broke With Expensive Tastes. I have “212” on my iPod three times, and I’m not deleting any of them. She put out the Fantasea mixtape in 2012 which was pretty good, but made me want her to just hurry up already and release her album, and here it is! And it’s great! Since The Wrens album still hasn’t come out, Broke With Expensive Tastes gets my “Worth the Wait” award of 2014.
7 Sleaford Mods – Divide and Exit
You will know within 5 seconds whether or not you’ll like this album. I gotta hand it to these two lads–they released an album where you basically get cursed at in a British accent for an hour, and it’s one of the better albums of the year. There is a very simple formula repeated with each song: lay down a catchy budget melody and beat, and spew bile over that beat. There’s a message with each song, of course (along with profanity, jokes, puns, criticisms, etc), but it’s hard to tell if you’re getting yelled at or eavesdropping on an internal monologue, and I think that’s why makes the album stick with you. So much is spouted off in a short amount of time that repeated listens reveal new gems. Fans of mclusky/Future of The Left should definitely check this one out.
6 Hurray For The Riff Raff – Small Town Heroes
The problem with a bunch of the new folk recently is I don’t buy into a majority of the bands playing those songs. When Mumford & Sons sing about going out back and getting their gun I don’t believe them for one eye-rolling second. Enter Alynda Segarra’s Hurray For The Riff Raff. Equal parts Kathleen Hanna & Pete Seeger, Segarra doesn’t need to dress up the part of a folk crooner. She literally hopped freight trains across America before picking up a banjo and starting a band. Small Town Heroes is not emulating the sounds of Appalachian folk or fingerpicking blues, but instead sounds like an album deeply rooted in those traditions, and that’s why it’s a success.
5 Reigning Sound – Shattered
I’ve expressed my admiration of Greg Cartwright in the past. Whether it’s The Oblivions, Compulsive Gamblers, The Parting Gifts or Reigning Sound pretty much any project Greg has a part in will go on my “must listen to ASAP” list. I probably say this for every Greg Cartwright album when it comes out, but I think Shattered is my favourite. I don’t know if he’s found a new love in his life or what, but the album is very…sweet. There’s a gentle funk and soul running fluidly through the LP, and while I’ll always be fond of Cartwright shouting from the garage, I’m perfectly ok with him crooning next to the fireplace.
4 Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal
Parquet Courts remain one of my favourite bands with their sophomore album. There is no slump here because not only is this more of their fantastic Pavement-esque slacker rock, but they actually put out TWO albums this year (Parkay Quarts Content Nasuea is essentially Parquet Courts with a different rhythm section, so check that out too). I think it’s fair to mention Pavement and Velvet Underground when discussing Parquet Courts, but it’s not fair to compare them. Parquet Courts are on their own level, and Sunbathing Animal proves they are no one trick pony. I wish I could remember where I read this so I could give credit, but I’m going to steal/paraphrase a line that works so well here: I loved Light Up Gold last year because Parquet Courts didn’t sound serious–I love Sunbathing Animal because they do.
3 Future Islands – Singles
I’ve been all aboard the Future Islands train since their debut album–even their side project Peals made #3 on my list last year. Herring’s velvet sandpaper voice is captivating, and the synthpop built around the vocals is right up my alley. I was surprised when their legendary performance on Letterman was so polarizing. Anyone who’s seen Future Islands play before knew that was par for the course, but the uninitiated were either blown away by Herring’s passion or put off by his “goofy dancing” and death metal yawp. People in the latter camp simply don’t get it. Pitchfork just gave “Seasons (Waiting On You)” their #1 song of 2014, and I’m inclined to agree. It’s one of the best songs of the past 5 years on one of the best albums of 2014.
2 Ex Hex – Rips
This is perfect power-pop. Nicely produced, but not sparkly clean. Grit with energy. Guitar riffs that hook into you as you yearn for sunny days in a car with the windows down. It’s 70s radio rock, but new and fresh instead of cashing in on nostalgia. Mary Timony’s voice/vocals sound sooooo cool. Turn it up. This album is almost flawless.
1 Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness
The album starts with a song called “Unfucktheworld”. It’s a dark tune about leaving someone to save herself. Two honky-tonk songs later she cheerfully sings “Are you lonely too? HIGH FIVE! So am I! All of your life? Stuck inside? I’m stuck too! I’m stuck with you! Doo doo dee doo…I do. I do. I do…” Yikes.
Burn Your Fire For No Witness is a hauntingly beautiful/beautifully haunting album partly thanks to Olsen’s vocals–which reminded me of Hank Williams crooning at times–and partly thanks to the songwriting/lyrics. Filled to the brim with gut-punch lyrics, every line seems perfectly written and delivered.
It’s one of the few albums this year where shuffle wasn’t good enough. I needed to listen to this album in its entirety, and each time I had a new favourite song or discovered a new subtle bit the band plays to elevate a song. The songs hold up on their own in a shuffle, and I really debated between this and Ex Hex’s Rips for my #1. Rips is certainly more fun, but at the end of the day Burn Your Fire For No Witness has so much more to offer to those willing to listen.