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The Top 10 Overlooked Albums of 2014

The finest of the unsung in 2014 remind us of the power of experimentation and tradition, energy and intricacy, discovery and getting lost.

This year didn’t necessarily have one of those knock-out records, no one album that made us all turn our heads and react. And yet, in place of that, we got a year of remarkable consistency, with so many great records from so many corners of the musical world. So, in looking at what got overlooked in 2014, it’s nice to think of these records as part of that larger whole, as the kind that didn’t get their due not because we were distracted by lesser, more publicized albums, but because there was just so much great music to get through. These great albums remind us of the power of experimentation and tradition, energy and intricacy, discovery and getting lost. They are the finest of the unsung in 2014.

 

Artist: Rhyton

Album: Kykeon

Label: Thrill Jockey

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Rhyton
Kykeon

Dave Shuford released one great record this year with his D. Charles Speer project. But, late in 2014, he also recorded this, the third Rhyton album titled Kykeon. Shuford, Jimy SeiTang, and Rob Smith deliver a set of impressive improvised rock on the trio’s latest album, but it’s also a set rooted in deep traditions. These songs borrow from ancestral music, much of it from Middle Eastern and Greek traditions. They reach way back into history, pull those connective strings tight, and pluck away. The results are expansive, inventive, and excellent. “Topkapi” builds on Middle Eastern instrumentation and melodies, but also whips up a very modern swell of crashing drums and gauzy guitar layers. “Pannychis” incorporates funk and blues elements into the mix to provide some of the most danceable rock music of the year. Meanwhile, closer “The Striped Son” is the band at its most exploratory, letting elements clash and tangle, only to right their path and travel parallel to each other. Kykeon is a remarkable lesson in subtle textures creating immediate impact. But its greatest asset is how it doesn’t set modern rock in opposition to these other traditions, or how it uses one to contort or reframe the other. Instead, Kykeon takes a larger view and suggest that all of these sounds, all of these varying traditions, are connected, part of the same continuum of sound. It’s fascinating to think about, but even more bracing to just sit back and listen.

 

Artist: Sonic Avenues

Album: Mistakes

Label: Dirtnap

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Sonic Avenues
Mistakes

As far as overlooked years go, I could just talk about the 2014 Dirtnap Records had. They put out some great rock records, more than one label has any business putting out. But at the top of the heap of great records from the likes of the Steve Adamyk Band and Sugar Stems is Mistakes, the infectious new record from Montreal’s Sonic Avenues. From the howling, fuzzy blast of opener “Waiting for a Change”, it’s clear the band has hit its stride here. The guitars slash and buzz out in every direction, the rhythm section sprints ahead wild eyed. It’s what you think of when you think the term “garage rock”. And yet, it’s the melody that carries the day, that sweet chorus. The same goes for the jangly “Automatic” or the lean grind of “Teenage Brain”, which sounds like the perfect ode to Jay Reatard. The band also expands its propulsive energy into the more complex power-pop of “Lost and Found” or “In Your Head”, a song beset on all sides by moody guitar tones that cast long shadows. Mistakes strikes a perfect balance between aggressive energy and carefully built hooks, between the sweetness of pop and the grit of pure rock’n’roll. It suggests the power of garage rock, but also its capacity for innovation and surprise. There’s not a missed moment on the entire record, and in a year full of great rock records, Mistakes deserves a place near the top of that long list.

 

Artist: Eyelids

Album: 854

Label: Jealous Butcher

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Eyelids
854

You’d think a band with members of Guided by Voices and the Decemberists would get more attention by default. But even without those connections, the pure psych-pop of 854 is exactly the kind of thing that should have gotten way more attention. These are lush and bittersweet tunes, from the rolling hooks and perfect melodies of “Seagull into Submission” to the swirling, down-the-rabbit-hole layers of “Psych #1” to the darker textures of echoing guitar on “Floating Underground”. This Northwest outfit shows its musical pedigree at every turn here, establishing a hazy pop focus and then pushing it in all directions. 854 is always catchy, but there’s an unsettling underbelly to these songs, sounds that grind against all that lush bittersweetness. The space-rock of “Mile to Wave” hints at the sly muscle under all these harmonies, all those blurred tones. “Everybody” peels back much of the miasma here to show the directness of the pop sensibility at play here. In short, 854 unfolds on you, and in the end is much more than it seems to be at first blush. It’s one of those records worth unpacking, mostly because it never feels like work.

 

Artist: Shane Parish

Album: Odei

Label: Marmara

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Shane Parish
Odei

Shane Parish, formerly Shane Perlowin, is best known for his work in the experimental jazz-rock outfit Ahleuchatistas. But Odei is his first solo record under his new name — he changed his name in honor of his grandmother — and it marks a brilliant new direction. The album is a solo guitar set, and it argues that obscure sounds and inviting ones are not mutually exclusive. The sequence of Odei jars you, messes with expectations. We go from the quick-fire rattle of “Blind Contour” to the ruminant, eight minutes of atmosphere of “The Swallow”, from the stately phrasings and rundowns of “Rare Cry Blue” to the percussive sound experiments of “Barricades”. As with Ahleuchatistas, you can’t help but feel the tensions here are as political as they are personal, but there’s also a sense of playfulness in all this expression, even a sense of escape. There’s something almost spiritual in the execution that aligns Parish with the likes of Robbie Basho. Unlike Basho, though, Parish carves out spaces, defines the quiet around him rather than filling it up. Odei is a remarkable album, one that surprises in a new way with each listen. It may also be the best experimental album of the year.

 

Artist: Wooden Wand

Album: Farmer’s Corner

Label: Fire

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Wooden Wand
Farmer’s Corner

There were two Wooden Wand records this year: the cassette-only AZAG-TOTH and Farmer’s Corner. Both are, unsurprisingly, strong records, but Farmer’s Corner is the truly overlooked gem. After a couple records that leaned towards blues-rock and swampy jams, James Jackson Toth took this new sort of ragged edge and shaped a set of dusty folk tunes with it. Distant, tangled guitar fills scuff up the edges of the pastoral sweetness of “When the Trail Goes Cold”. “Dambuilding” melts at the edges with subtle pedal-steel sounds. The eight-minute “Port of Call” is mostly a straight-ahead guitar and vocals song, but bass and other atmospherics build out the song’s spare center to something far-reaching and beautiful. Farmer’s Corner is intimate but wide open, the kind of space that finds Toth still wandering — through fields, over roads, through emotions and states of being — but never sounding lost. Wooden Wand has found an impressive consistency over the past few years, and maybe it’s that body of strong work that let Farmer’s Corner slip through the cracks. But end-of-year lists are, if they’re good, a reason to go back and discover what we missed. You could a lot worse than start with this charming, worn, and heartbreaking set of songs.

5 – 1

Artist: Posse

Album: Soft Opening

Label: Beating a Dead Horse

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Posse
Soft Opening

To be fair, Soft Opening was a bit of a coming out party for Seattle’s Posse. So why then might I claim it was overlooked? Honestly, part of the issue is that when we talked about Posse in 2014, we talked about how much we loved Yo La Tengo or Galaxie 500 or Pavement or indie rock from one halcyon day or another. But can we just talk about how great Soft Opening is on its own? How the interweaved rundown guitars on “Afraid” feel entirely fresh and unique? How “Talk” has about the most beautifully melancholic crescendos in recent memory? The sly humor of “Cassandra B.” and how it mixes with the sadness of the record on closer “Zone”? Maybe we used other bands to talk about Posse because what’s so great about this record is, in many ways, indefinable, unnamable, a feeling. What’s clear is this: Soft Opening is a great record, one with serious staying power. It’s the kind of record that presents as understated, but lasts because it smolders with energy, with ideas, with potent compositions. Posse may be part of a tradition, maybe part of a genre, but when I listen to this record I don’t care about all of that. I care about these songs, purely but not simply.

 

Artist: Wesley Wolfe

Album: Numbskull

Label: Tangible Formats

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Wesley Wolfe
Numbskull

Wesley Wolfe worked with Spider Bags on their Merge debut, Frozen Letter. He also worked with Flesh Wounds on a Merge single and an incendiary full-length. Wesley Wolfe lathe-cuts his own records. In short, he’s great in working with other musicians, and a prime example of how community works in keeping music going. But he also makes his own great records, and Numbskull is just the latest example. Despite Wolfe recording the album himself, this sounds for all the world like a full rock band. “Cloud Cuckoo” is a sweet slice of power-pop, driven by tight hooks, crunching guitars, crashing drums and, at the center of it, Wolfe’s intimate vocals. “Fragment of a Dream”, “Deathrow”, and “Read My Mind” also show Wolfe at his most rollicking, crafting songs for his touring band to bust open even as he nails them on record. But, next to these rockers we get the gauzy textures of “Lost in My Daydreams”, the lullaby feel of “Jesus Eyes”, the careful bottle-up-and-explode of the title track. Wesley Wolfe has made a rock record with an intricate pop sensibility on Numbskull. Under all its infectious tunes, of which there are many, the interesting dichotomy here is how an album about uncertainty — over a life chosen, a life in music — can be delivered in songs so self-assured, so perfectly constructed. Frankly, more people should have caught up to what Wolfe has been doing years ago, but Numbskull is his latest high-water mark, so it’s not too late to get on board.

 

Artist: Bessie Jones

Album: Get in Union

Label: Tompkins Square

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Bessie Jones
Get in Union

It’s been an impressive year for Tompkins Square (more on that in a moment), and Get in Union stands as one of the finest, most vital moments for the label in 2014. This 51-track compilation culls together recordings Bessie Jones made with the Georgia Sea Island Singers as well as collaborations with others. The recordings were made by Alan Lomax, nearly three decades after his first visit to St. Simons in 1935. When he returned in 1959, Jones had joined the Spiritual Singers Society of Coastal Georgia (the group Lomax studied back in ’35) and brought with her a glut of songs. Jones and Lomax both wanted to spread word of the black folk song tradition across the country. Hearing these songs in this collection, it’s no wonder Jones is a legend. Classics like “You Better Mind” and “Blow Gabriel” crackle with life, while “O Death” and “Sign of the Judgment” resonate with deep feeling and conviction. These songs, mostly delivered with just voice and handclaps, sound like the very strength of community and tradition itself. There have been collections of Jones work before, but this is the definitive set, a vital piece of music to understanding the black folk tradition, but also American music more largely. If you love music, and if you love history, you have to own this one. It’s that important, but it’s no mere document to study. Like the best teachers, Jones sounds at every moment like she’s just talking to us, on fire with enthusiasm, sweetly heartbroken but resilient. There’s plenty of great reissues this year, but few are as elemental as Get in Union.

 

Artist: Alice Gerrard

Album: Follow the Music

Label: Tompkins Square

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Alice Gerrard
Follow the Music

Speaking of Tompkins Square, they also gave us this new solo album from Alice Gerrard. Gerrard, a folk legend, turned 80 in 2014, and celebrated with Follow the Music. The album was produced by Hiss Golden Messenger’s M.C. Taylor (speaking of people who had great years) and features members of his band and Megafaun. But this is Gerrard’s show, and the musicians smartly build a landscape and then let Gerrard work her way over it. Her voice is as powerful as ever. She pulls long and mournful notes over “Bear Me Away”, fills words out with anger and heartache on “You Take Me for Granted”, and rejoices with joyful zeal on the title track. The songs adhere to traditional folk sounds, sometimes touched with country dust, but this isn’t backward-looking music. Instead, Gerrard sings as if tradition isn’t a starting place, but a dynamic thing still living and growing (which it is). Follow the Music is Gerrard celebrating her life in music and the music itself, and it invites us to join in. This is no roots music, it’s more wide-reaching than that, sturdier. With Gerrard’s beautiful, ranging voice, and the wonderful instrumentation here, the cohesion of players in love with a sound, Follow the Music is more than just roots. It is the very earth.

 

Artist: Hallelujah the Hills

Album: Have You Ever Done Something Evil?

Label: Discrete Pageantry

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Hallelujah the Hills
Have You Ever Done Something Evil?

It’s hard to figure where an album will go when, in the first 30 seconds, we hear about the moon crashing into Earth. But that’s how Boston’s Hallelujah the Hills begins Have You Done Something Evil? Lucky for us, singer-songwriter Ryan Walsh and his bandmates have been building to this kind of thematically ambitious record for years now. The band has always made challenging yet dynamic records, and this is the band’s masterstroke. It’s an album full of documents — surveys, films, poems — the things we use to make sense of the chaos. But Hallelujah the Hills combats catastrophe with powerful declaration on the beautiful group singing that closes “We Are What We Say We Are”. Or they build around new devotion at the heart of “Try This Instead”. If the lyrics sift through rubble to find answers, the music builds convincing, complex new worlds. “A Domestic Zone” builds momentum from big ringing guitar chords into a frenzy of distortion and crashing, tight rhythms. “I Stand Corrected” sprints confidently over snare rolls and tightwire hooks. The album’s great consistency is that it never sits still. It’s a rock record that’s never content to be just a rock record. These songs push the band into new structures, into bigger compositions, but into tighter parts within those compositions. Amidst all the musical acrobatics, Walsh’s lyrics are incisive, mixing humor with pathos and wit with heart at every turn. In the end, Have You Ever Done Something Evil? is the kind of album that confirms the limitations of music writing (mine, anyway). Because to talk about it is to miss capturing how this album feels, how it sounds, how it surprises. There are few records, of any kind, better than this one in 2014. The only thing left to say is go get it.

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