Since I've been covering music for Time Out New York, going on eight years now, I've been compiling year-end top-10-albums lists for print and/or online. This year, Time Out won't be running individual lists; in their place is this aggregate best-2014-albums rundown, chosen by and featuring contributions from various folks at Time Out Chicago and Time Out L.A., as well as me and my NYC colleagues Sophie Harris and Andrew Frisicano. A similarly styled best-2014-songs list is coming soon.
You can read a few of my blurbs in the general list linked above, but I thought I'd go ahead and publish my own personal, all-genres-in-play top 10 on DFSBP. This will likely be the same list I'll submit to Pazz and Jop, and any other general poll I happen to participate in. For readability's sake, as well as for my own sanity, I'm going to try to keep the blurbs here to a more manageable length than those on the 2014 jazz top 10 I posted recently.
One note re: the content, echoing what I wrote here: For me, the day-to-day experience of music is about songs. The records I return to most frequently are, simply, the ones packed most densely with songs I want to return to. The LPs below were extremely useful to me in 2014. I'm not trying to reduce them to some sort of service role, i.e., boiling down their value to how well they happened to integrate into my life; I'm just trying to drive home the idea that for me, directness, concision and memorability have become more and more focal, at least in terms of my recorded-music listening (a totally different phenomenon, I should stipulate, from the live-music experience). The following albums, crammed with great songs, already feel like old friends. Listen along via this 30-song Spotify playlist, drawn from the top 10 and honorable mentions below, and spiced up with a few of my favorite stand-alone 2014 singles.
10. White Lung Deep Fantasy (Domino)
This is simply a great, super-vigorous punk album that rocks like hell and features an extremely specific, consistent group dynamic. Anne-Marie Vassiliou's drums are a minimalist flattening force (kick-snare-kick-snare, ad infinitum), and Mish Way's vocals are a throaty rallying cry, somehow casual and urgent at the same time. The short songs are lousy with hooks. And guitarist Kenneth William is working out of a completely different playbook than any other rock guitarist I can think of: His lines sparkle rather than sear, spraying micro-detailed melodic glitter all over Deep Fantasy. William's lead line from roughly :48 through 1:05 in "Snake Jaw" is probably the most riotously awesome bit of musicianship I heard on an album released this year.
9. Run the Jewels Run the Jewels 2 (Mass Appeal)
As I indicated in my Run the Jewels 2 blurb for the aforementioned Time Out list, it was difficult to separate this record from its context, namely a year of race-centric tragedy, outrage and protest. And yes, that context does give the album, specifically Killer Mike's contributions, a special kind of added resonance. But Run the Jewels 2 is simply an excellent hip-hop LP, period, full of thoughtfulness, silliness, badassery, raunch and a general feeling of conscientious engagement. El-P's verses are outstanding, though the album really takes off when his harsh, dense, super-funky beats fuel Killer Mike's rhymes, as on "Lie, Cheat, Steal"; Mike's tongue-twisting "Like, who really run this? / Like, who really run that man that say he run this?" episode on that track is the apex of this brilliant—and, crucially, brilliantly entertaining—work of politicized art. P.S. I found the discussion surrounding Run the Jewels 2 to be nearly as crucial as the album itself; this NPR Microphone Check interview is essential, especially the section concerning the X-rated "Love Again."
8. Mark Turner Lathe of Heaven (ECM)
This is the album that topped my jazz-only 2014 albums list. Extensive thoughts here (scroll down to No. 1).
7. Mitski Bury Me at Makeout Creek (Double Double Whammy)
Mitski played what was maybe the single best live set I saw all year—a solo performance (loud, heavily distorted electric guitar and voice) at Brooklyn Night Bazaar on Halloween. She's excellent as the singer of Voice Coils (guitarist-composer Sam Garrett's fascinating, sui generis prog-pop sextet), but her solo material hit me in a more visceral way: The combination of sing-songy hooks and merciless severity, the latter of which came through not as much in lyrics and delivery as in weighty yet intangible presence, floored me. Bury Me, which features many of the songs Mitski performed in that live set, hits me just about as hard. It's not as harsh, concise or unrelenting as her live show—though the beginning of "I Don't Smoke" gives a good idea of what the set I caught sounded like—but it's just as assured and compositionally sound. There is so much fierce emotion packed into this record, emotion that's matched by the tightness and integrity of the actual songs. Any artist that could craft two alt-pop songs as simultaneously catchy and unsettling, and as different from one another, as "Townie" and "I Don't Smoke" is someone I'm going to pay serious attention to from now on. (Hear/buy on Bandcamp.)
6. Cloud Nothings Here and Nowhere Else (Carpark)
As I wrote of Here in the Time Out list, this is an album with simple, straightforward indie-rock appeal. Because it's so stylistically familiar, it's easy to mistake for something average. But it's no small feat to craft a record this structurally sound, executed with such genuine, unpolished feeling. Insanely catchy songs that rock like hell. Half the time, I have no idea what the term "indie rock" even refers to, but when I hear Here, I think I know: scrappy underdog passion and outpouring of heart, pop smarts mixed with punk abandon. Here and Nowhere Else is as about good as this kind of music gets. "I'm Not Part of Me," discussed here, is such a jam.
5. Juan Wauters N.A.P. North American Poetry (Captured Tracks)
Juan Wauters's set at Baby's All Right back in February, around the time this record came out, was another highlight of my showgoing year. I've been a Wauters fan since he and his old band the Beets stopped by Time Out to play unplugged in 2011. N.A.P. fulfills every promise of the Beets' best moments. In this brilliant 2011 Beets profile, my former colleague Jay Ruttenberg described Wauters as a "nutter with a Cheshire-cat grin." That grin has only grown subtler and deeper with time; Juan Wauters's deadpan is both inscrutable and absurdly charming. (N.A.P. opens with a sort of talk-sung Spanish-folk-sounding preamble, "Let Me Hip You to Something," which begins, stunningly, "I don't like you / You're a fool / Let me hip you to something.") Here, the Uruguay-born singer-songwriter channels his droll sense of humor into a stubbornly laid-back, almost meandering album of heavily accented folk-pop, the kind of music that reminds you that being punk means, simply, being yourself. Wauters is incredibly good at being himself, and as demonstrated here, at writing deceptively casual, ramshackle pop ditties like "Sanity or Not" and "Lost in Soup." But he goes further on N.A.P., accessing more tender and vulnerable emotional zones. The quiet yearning and plainspoken soul-searching in the song "Water" breaks my heart: "Woke up early, feel that itch / What am I doing now in this niche? / Do I belong? / Who is it that I am?" (You have to hear Wauters sing this, of course.) Not bad for a nutter!
4. La Dispute Rooms of the House (Better Living)
As I've written on DFSBP before, I have a thing for the brand of ’90s (or ’90s-inspired) post-hardcore that's sometimes referred to as emo. Emo is one of the most nerdily taxonomized subgenres I can think of; I can't keep up, honestly. But I know when I hear something that mashes on my emo pleasure buttons, like Cossack (scroll down to the bottom of this post) or On the Might of Princes (RIP Jason Rosenthal) or La Dispute. What a serious album this is—that is to say, it takes itself very seriously, and as well it should, because it's hugely moving and substantial. A novelistic narrative, expressed through Jordan Dreyer's sort of talk-yelped vocals and the band's expertly controlled post-hardcore mini epics. I'm not sure how well I follow the overall story, but the emotions—regret, bitterness, fear, nostalgia, fondness, hope—come through loud and clear. Such a fierce and sturdy piece of art, the kind that makes you feel like you're attending a church you can really believe in. Sad and harrowing and raucous and rocking—in a flailing and convulsing yet tightly drilled sort of way—and just brilliant. This was the best out-of-nowhere discovery I made in 2014, i.e., an album by a decently well-established band that I knew absolutely nothing about prior to this. If you like your post-hardcore—hell, your rock, period—weighty and dramatic, and convincingly so, you need to hear this.
3. Alvvays s/t (Polyvinyl)
Another album with a super-sturdy emotional character, though in a completely different way. As I wrote in the mixtape post, Alvvays zeroes in on the best of indie/twee culture and turns it into something profound. "Archie, Marry Me" is an absolutely extraordinary single, and the rest of this album just about lives up to that absurdly high standard. Heady fumes of bookish, post-adolescent emotion, distilled into songs that zip and skip along ("Adult Diversion," "Atop a Cake") or lope and mope in pensive bliss ("Ones Who Love You," the exquisite album closer "Red Planet"). If Here and Nowhere else is indie rock done simply, magically right, Alvvays is the same, but for indie pop. Yep, you've heard this sound before, and nope, you haven't heard it done this well. I must have listened to this full album something like 40 times straight through in 2014, and I'm still obsessed.
2. Antemasque s/t (Nadie Sound)
Another one that got endless spins. Played this damn thing over and over and over. Spilled a lot of ink on it too: see here. I'm so glad Omar and Cedric are back and tapping into the song vibe with renewed vigor.
1. Future Islands Singles (4AD)
They owned the year and, yep, they absolutely deserved it. Some thoughts here and here. An artful and moving piece of work. And so consistent! I love literally every song on this record, though "Spirit" and "A Song for Our Grandfathers" are megajams for the ages. Anyone who saw Future Islands on Letterman and wrote them off as a mere collection of quirks needs to sit with this album, get a whiff of its deep consistency, confidence and composure, honed via years of touring. Future Islands were ready for their close up.
FREEMAN s/t (Partisan)
Here, via Partisan Records, is the bio I wrote for Aaron Freeman, the former Gene Ween, in conjunction with FREEMAN, the self-titled debut by his new band. FREEMAN has its own character—resolutely chill, optimistic, ominous, trippy, tough—but in terms of the inevitable comparison, I honestly think this one ranks up there with the best of Ween. Also, in terms of the exorcising-personal-demons songwriting canon, "Covert Discretion" is a new masterpiece. That track is the standout, but the record feels sharp and inspired all the way through. Given that I worked on the promo campaign for FREEMAN, I don't feel right listing it in an official capacity, but if that hadn't been the case, it very likely would've appeared on the above list. P.S. FREEMAN, the band, is extraordinary live; see them if you can.
Cannibal Corpse A Skeletal Domain (Metal Blade)
Eyehategod s/t (Housecore)
Obituary Inked in Blood (Relapse)
In 2013, my metal consumption centered on new records by old bands. That trend continued this year. No need to make any grand proclamations about the current state of the scene; this pattern surely says more about my own personal tastes than it does metal at large. There's something about established b(r)ands, like those whose names you see above, that really moves and engages me.
These three albums all document bands simply being themselves. As discussed in a DFSBP post last week, for Cannibal Corpse, that means further refining their current Corpsegrinder-era style. These guys are besting themselves with every release, and that's inspiring to see/hear.
For Obituary, "refining" might be a misleading term. As I've written here before, this band's M.O. is decidedly anti-evolutionary; their mission is to obey their initial primal imperative, the adolescent root of their metal. From a recent interview with drummer Donald Tardy, one of the most hard-grooving, gloriously human drummers in all of metal: "It’s not like we worked for years on getting our sound; the sound came naturally because of the instruments that Trevor [Peres] plays, and just my style of drumming." (I also love this Tardy quote from Terrorizer: "Obituary isn't reinventing the wheel. We'll leave that to the other bands that play technical and crazy and try to go beyond themselves with every record. With us, we knew that fans needed Obituary to be Obituary. They don't need us to change; they just need some solid music.") So Obituary does what it does what it does, etc. The shifts between albums are miniscule—mainly matters of production style, or a difference in lead-guitar approach (while riffmaster Peres has been an Obituary fixture—and thank God for that—the band has featured several different lead players over the years).
In the case of Inked, the production was a bit of a sticking point for me at first. The band funded this album via Kickstarter—yes, I was a proud contributor; I got a shirt and a camouflage Obituary beer coozie for my troubles—and recorded it themselves. Overall, the sound is excellent: loud, mean and unfussy. But the drum production in particular took some getting used to. I almost wish the band had brought in an outside producer to help them capture Tardy's kit, because the sound is pretty confounding: super loud, uniform, seemingly synthetic kick drums, the kind that if they aren't triggered/hit-replaced—as Tardy insists in the Metal Underground interview linked above—they might as well be, paired with really rickety-sounding, near pitch-less toms. I'm nitpicking, sure, but the snare and cymbals sound so good, so live, that it really puzzles me that they couldn't achieve a natural, well-blended representation of the whole kit. But you know what? After I listened for a while, I basically stopped caring. This is another very, very good Obituary album. The riffs are memorable, Kenny Andrews's lead guitar is tastefully (read: minimally) integrated, John Tardy's throat sounds as raw and anguished as ever, and the band's patented Southern stomp is in full effect. The sense of groove on this album is straight-up monstrous, and since that's the main criteria by which I judge any Obituary release, I'll set aside my drum-nerd griping and state for the record that Inked in Blood flat-out rules.
Speaking of Southern stomp, the Eyehategod record is stunning. It's not as punishing as the band's masterpiece, 1993's Take as Needed for Pain (maybe the most disgustingly weighty album I've ever heard in my life), but as a portrait of what this band does, the elegance with which it juggles putridity with real wit and swagger, the way it greases each riff—and my God, are there a lot of good ones on here—with that special N'awlins spice rub, Eyehategod is an absolutely marvelous document. (Sorry, I know food metaphors are cheesy, but EHG's music just has a certain kind of rib-sticking appeal that's hard to convey in sonic terms alone.) Such a shame, then, that it doubles as a memorial for drummer Joey LaCaze, who died last summer. Thankfully, he appears on the entire record—and damn, does he ever appear, his inimitable dancing-through-the-muck groove enlivening every track; check that funky-as-hell LaCaze drum break, leading into a masterful lowdown shimmy, at 2:10 in "Worthless Rescue." But how sad that he isn't around to tour with his EHG brothers during a time in their career when they're getting more deserved acclaim (here's Ben Ratliff on the band's outstanding Brooklyn show from earlier this year) than ever before. Let's be thankful for what we have: Eyehategod is heaven for anyone who's ever loved this band. Incidentally, I'd highly recommend Noisey's admirably comprehensive, multipart NOLA-metal doc, Life, Death and Heavy Blues from the Bayou, to any fan of EHG or the scene that birthed them.
RVIVR Bicker and Breathe (Rumbletowne)
Erica Freas Tether (One Brick Today)
What's this? Another masterpiece from the band that made my favorite album of 2013, and an equally impressive solo dispatch from one of its key members? RVIVR's Bicker and Breathe EP embodies everything I loved about The Beauty Between. Erica Freas, represented here with "Goodbyes" and "The Sound," is one of the most galvanizing singer-songwriter-performers on earth today, and Bicker offers further proof. And as Tether, her wise, calmly heartbreaking latest solo EP, demonstrates, she's every bit as riveting in acoustic mode. (Hear/buy on Bandcamp: Bicker and Breathe / Tether.)
More 2014 faves:
Shorties re: 14 other new LPs and 4 archival releases (jazz excluded; shouted out three of those at the bottom of this post) that I loved this year
Battle Trance Palace of Wind (New Amsterdam)
Battle Trance's Travis Laplante is a genuine contemporary NYC visionary. You might remember him from Little Women; Battle
Trance, his four-tenor-saxes quartet, is equally
extreme, but more about meditation than catharsis, or maybe the zone
where meditation becomes catharsis, or vice versa. Experimental music as
sustained, prayerful zone-out. Hear this album, and see Battle Trance
live at all costs. (Hear/buy on Bandcamp.)
Lana Del Rey Ultraviolence (UMG)
A slow deluge of concentrated atmosphere, via a caricature that the artist born Elizabeth Grant has gradually fleshed out into a complex pop persona. Ultraviolence both lays on its doomed-starlet psychodrama super thick (the title track) and makes fun of its narrator's (or narrators'?) narcissistic self-mythology ("Brooklyn Baby").
Internal Bleeding Imperium (Unique Leader)
Another great new record by an old metal band, whose specialty is a vile, unrelenting and unmistakably New York–y sort of hardcore-infused death metal, where the slow/fast juxtaposition is key. Kudos to Bill Tolley for his idiosyncratic (splash cymbals! tambourine!), unpolished, super-groovesome drumming.
Kayo Dot Coffins on Io (The Flenser)
Depending on how you look at it, Kayo Dot either made the moodiest, most decadent pop album of 2014, or the sleekest, most listenable prog album of 2014. A profoundly weird band—led by Toby Driver; like Travis Laplante, another contemporary NYC visionary—that continues to grow ever more confident, and comfortable with its shapeshifting M.O. (Hear/buy on Bandcamp.)
Mastodon Once More ’Round the Sun (Reprise)
Mastodon furthers its pop metamorphosis—shorter songs, huger hooks—with outstanding results. This album is obviously a totally different animal than, say, Remission, but it's completely satisfying on its own terms. "The Motherload" is one of my favorite songs of 2014, and most of the others are catchy as hell too.
Bob Mould Beauty and Ruin (Merge)
"I Don't Know You Anymore" is another one of my favorite songs of the year; "The War" is almost as good. I've been moderately into Hüsker Dü for a while, but I didn't become a serious Mould nut until I heard 2012's Silver Age; this album is stylistically similar and maybe even better. More loud, masterfully melodic rock music from one of the contemporary masters of the form. P.S. I also read Mould's memoir this year, and I highly recommend it.
Karen O Crush Songs (Cult)
A sad, small, deliberately sketchy album with substantial heartbreaking potency. More on K.O. here.
Nude Beach 77 (Don Giovanni)
NYC's best straight-up rock/roll band trades hook-crazed immediacy for a more patient, lived-in sound on a good-all-the-way-through double LP. A rare example of "maturity" without tedium. God, these guys write classic-sounding songs.
Psalm Zero The Drain (Profound Lore)
Two more CNYCVs (see Battle Trance and Kayo Dot above), Charlie Looker (ex–Extra Life / Zs) and Andrew Hock (ex-Castevet) join forces, producing what is, to my ears, the most compact, listenable and gut-wrenchingly affecting album in their sizable joint discography. (Hear/buy on Bandcamp.)
Raspberry Bulbs Privacy (Blackest Ever Black)
Speaking of gut-wrenching. Maladjusted midtempo goth-noise-punk filth from yet another CNYCV: Bone Awl drummer turned Raspberry Bulbs mastermind Marco del Rio. P.S. This record grooves like hell. (Hear/buy on Bandcamp.)
Say Anything Hebrews (Equal Vision)
Max Bemis proves he's still the king of confessional emo-gone-Broadway brain-/heartspew.
Sia 1000 Forms of Fear (Monkey Puzzle)
The triumph of the megawatt human voice—many writers, myself included, overuse the word "soar" when describing music, but Sia's vertiginous vocal leaps on tracks like "Chandelier" and "Eye of the Needle" actually seem worthy of the term—and an eccentric pop mind that refuses to let fame compromise her weirdness or vulnerability.
The War on Drugs Lost in the Dream (Secretly Canadian)
Pastel roots-pop bliss, with all the gloss and pathos of the best ’80s dad rock. "Red Eyes" in particular is an instant classic.
Yusuf Tell ’Em I'm Gone (Columbia/Legacy)
Still need to spend more time with this one, but have heard enough to know that Cat Stevens remains the archetypal pop/folk/soul troubadour.
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young CSNY 1974 (Rhino)
The real monsters of folk. Ragged roots-rock glory disguised as ego-/drug-fueled supergroup excess. More here.
Demilich 20th Adversary of Emptiness (Svart)
Inspired death-metal surrealism. More here.
Bob Dylan The Bootleg Series, Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete (Columbia/Legacy)
Finally, the Bootleg Series, after winding through Dylan's career in circuitous, Dylan-y fashion, gets around to the trove we've all been waiting for. Have barely scratched the surface of this, but I can tell that the vibes are thick, the camaraderie deep and the mood often refreshingly light.
Led Zeppelin reissues (Atlantic)
The best rock music, dusted off (but not scrubbed clean) and sounding huge and incredible. We're up through Houses of the Holy now—get on board if you're not already, okay?