The Best Indie Rock of 2014

Some of the heavy hitters may not have made the cut for the best indie rock of 2014, but newer acts did more than just fill the vacuum left by the usual suspects.

If you’ll allow a bit of subjective experience to weigh on this otherwise objective and completely irrefutable list, I’ve had quite a few friends tell me 2014 hasn’t been a good year for independent rock music. I, with typical composure and articulate patience, respond: “Bruh.” It’s been a banner year for guitars, provided you’re happy to do some digging. Many of the year’s best indie rock releases are from new, or newer, groups — some here aren’t even proper albums, and some are self-released. And no, a few heavy-hitters didn’t make the cut. You might ask, who am I to snub the War on Drugs, or Sun Kil Moon, or St. Vincent? (I’m someone who didn’t like those albums very much, that’s who.) The good news: with many of these bands just getting started, we’ve got plenty to look forward to when we’re finishing out the decade.


Artist: Christian Fitness

Album: I Am Scared of Everything That Isn’t Me

Label: self-released

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Christian Fitness
I Am Scared of Everything That Isn’t Me

To call Andrew Falkous’s other projects, the legendary Mclusky and forever underrated Future of the Left, “cult bands” is to mean the term literally: Falkous makes demented, evil, brilliant music — to hear his Word is to join his ranks and spend the rest of your days evangelizing, wandering the blasted heath to convert your neighbors under pain of shredded eardrums. Christian Fitness features Falkous and only Falkous, playing every instrument on an album that belies its dissonant squall with its author’s keen pop sensibility: his layered hooks and ricocheting vocal melodies add heft to these compositions. Falkous makes more than his share of noise, but he’s never been one to do it for noise’s sake. Whether indicting xenophobic know-nothings in “I Am Scared of Everything That Isn’t Me” or spitting devastatingly dour poetry in “The Earth Keeps Its Secrets”, Falkous’s pen is as sharp as any buzzsaw riff here. Cast off your earthly bonds. Follow us into the horrible, horrible light.


Artist: Ex Hex

Album: Rips

Label: Merge

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Ex Hex

For anyone still waiting for a band from Washington, D.C., to carry Fugazi’s torch into the new millennium, Mary Timony has had you covered for about two decades now, building one of the most consistent, axe-grinding discographies you’ll ever find. The former Helium frontwoman has made a career — under her own name, with the Mary Timony Band, with Soft Power, and with Carrie Brownstein in supergroup Wild Flag — as a guitar hero, forever mixing gnarled, fleet-fingered riffs cloaked in a slightly stoned, pop-friendly haze. Ex Hex trades the post-punk of Wild Flag for barnburning power-pop, with plenty of room for Timony’s shredding solos. Galloping drums propel volleys of garage chords into liquid leads, all in the service of fist-pumping exhilaration.


Artist: Weaves

Album: Weaves

Label: Buzz

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Toronto’s Weaves packs more excitement into an EP than most rock bands in 2014 managed in a year’s worth of LPs. From the lurching groove of “Buttercup” to “Take a Dip”, which toes the razor’s edge between anthemic pop and caterwauling dissonance, to the sexy slow burn of “Hulahoop,” the group’s songs are as restless as frontwoman Jasmyn Burke’s livewire vocals. There’s something for the whole family here: Dad wants a generous slice of noise; Mom wants R&B flavor; little Timmy wants skuzzy sleaze; you’re looking for huge beats to drown them all out. It’s rare for an EP to offer such a feast. Dig in.


Artist: Hospitality

Album: Trouble

Label: Merge

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Hospitality came into this world a sweet-natured, charming indie-pop band, with a self-titled EP (2008) and self-titled LP (2012) that garnered lots of NPR-flavored buzz for the Brooklyn group. But Amber Papini’s band, judging by this year’s Trouble, will leave quite a different legacy behind. Trouble‘s sharpened edges glint like a knife, the kind you don’t see until it’s sticking between your ribs. Songs like “Nightingale”, with its guitar-and-synth workout, or “I Miss Your Bones”, sure to nest in your head for weeks to come, show a more assertive, less polite Hospitality, and Trouble is all the better for it. Papini’s voice, flecked with just enough rasp, lends weight to her precisely vague lyrics, all balanced against the staccato chords or punched-up leads uncoiling from her guitar. If the leap between records this time around is any indication, album number three will be a monster.


Artist: Spoon

Album: They Want My Soul

Label: Loma Vista

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They Want My Soul

Writing about a Spoon album in 2014 is like writing about peanut butter. You don’t need me to tell you: at this point, you know whether or not this shit does it for you. They Want My Soul combines vintage Spoon — tightly interlocking riffs, a rhythm section seemingly of one mind and six limbs, Britt Daniel’s ultra-cool, emotive vocals — with enough subtle experimentation to keep things interesting nearly 20 years after Spoon’s first release. “Inside Out” sees the band’s first (!) real use of sampling and programming to create a gorgeous soundscape, while the synth textures of “New York Kiss” hint at Daniel’s recent work in Divine Fits with Dan Boeckner (Wolf Parade, Handsome Furs, Operators). Spoon’s never been a flashy band, which means it’s always been easy to take them for granted, sure they’d drop another stellar record in our laps every couple of years or so. But pound for pound, they’re the reigning kings of rock music in America, and Soul hits highs as stratospheric as anything in their tenure.

5 – 1

Artist: Priests

Album: Bodies and Control and Money and Power

Label: Sister Polygon/Don Giovanni

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Bodies and Control and Money and Power

Remember when bands wanted to do more than help Volkswagen sell cars, or give seriously good vibes to a festival’s worth of smug twentysomethings in American Indian headdresses, or help you study for your midterms by clinking politely along in the background? Katie Alice Greer does, and she’d like to help you jog your memory. A quick spin of “And Breeding”, the closing track of Priests’s Molotov cocktail of a record, Bodies and Control and Money and Power, should do the trick — by the time Greer’s shredding her vocals to its closing statement, “Barack Obama killed something in me / And I’m gonna get him for it,” you might look up to notice you’ve punched a hole in the wall. Greer takes no prisoners, throwing knives at the militarized police state, income inequality, widespread boredom and disaffection, and — yes — a certain president who may have disappointed some of us looking for real change. Backed by G.L. Jaguar’s diamond-sharp guitar and a spring-loaded rhythm section in the finest D.C. tradition, Greer’s vitriol burns like a near-decade’s worth of acid reflux caused by swallowing your tongue every time big business or rich, white America spikes the football. They don’t make stereo equipment that can play this music loudly enough.


Artist: Alvvays

Album: Alvvays

Label: Polyvinyl

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“You don’t have to leave,” sings Molly Rankin on one of the year’s best guitar-pop tracks, “you could just stay here with me.” It’s a simple, clear-eyed statement, one sung in different iterations countless times in the history of pop songwriting. Carried by her plaintive voice, over a perfect wash of synth and guitar, the line stings like it’s the first time anyone’s sent such a feeling over the airwaves. That song, “Party Police”, accomplishes what so many other reverb-soaked, mid-tempo guitar bands can’t with similar ingredients: it sounds timeless, equally plausible as a lost classic or a brand new favorite song. That’s true of nearly all of Alvvays’s self-titled debut, the highlights of which — “Archie, Marry Me”, “Adult Diversion”, “Atop a Cake” — distill a few decades of college radio into endlessly delightful gems all the band’s own.


Artist: The Twilight Sad

Album: Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave

Label: Fat Cat

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The Twilight Sad
Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave

The Twilight Sad has made a career of flying under the radar, releasing some of the decade’s most evocative, punishing music. One can understand the band’s underdog status: this is music designed to send the casual listener running scared. Andy MacFarlane’s guitars are less wall-of-sound than a wave straight out of a Hiroshige painting, crashing right toward you while drummer Mark Devine pounds his kit with steady, bone-snapping force. But it’s frontman James Alexander Graham, with his thick Scottish brogue and pitch-dark lyrical bent, that sets the group’s nightmarish tone — and mixes it with a beautiful ache. On Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave, Graham displays a newfound vocal range, winding his guttural syllables around melodies more intricate — and still immediate — than any he’s written before. Each song unfolds to reveal earworm after earworm, the grace of Graham and MacFarlane’s melodic compositions cutting through the unforgiving atmosphere like beacons of light.


Artist: Future Islands

Album: Singles

Label: 4AD

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Future Islands

Here’s the thing about late night television, even in the Year of Our Lord 2014: if you’re the best live band in the world, it can still help you prove that to millions of people. Future Islands has been that band for, say, four years running, and this year saw the Baltimore-via-North-Carolina trio finally get the widespread critical and fan adulation it’s so long deserved, largely due to Dave Letterman’s show helping to beam Sam Herring’s theatrical, endlessly captivating live presence into televisions and computers across the globe (nearly three million and counting). But Herring’s raw physicality is no YouTube schtick. On Singles, Future Islands tones down the throat-shredding angst of contemporary classic In Evening Air (2010), blending that album’s dance-inflected rhythms with the more spacious stylings of On the Water (2011) to create a soulful, fist-pumping, deeply felt album of hopeful, heartstopping pop. Herring has the most indelible voice in rock music, here stronger and more nimble than ever, and in his control these songs stretch beyond their generous pleasures to become something irreplaceable, vital, transcendent.


Artist: Wild Beasts

Album: Present Tense

Label: Domino

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Wild Beasts
Present Tense

Wild Beasts have come down from the highwire. On the Leeds quartet’s first two records, 2008’s Limbo, Panto and 2009’s Two Dancers, songs pirouetted to Hayden Thorpe’s falsetto-strewn heights and bent low to Tom Fleming’s baritone come-ons, revealing operatic thrills and larger-than-life libidos. 2011’s Smother saw the band pause in mid-air, slowing its tempos and bringing silky electronic textures into its palate. This year’s Present Tense, the finest work the band has done to date, represents the successful confluence of all of these threads, a masterwork of unchecked emotion woven together with throbbing bass, swirling synths, crystalline guitars, every element converging around Thorpe and Fleming’s almost profanely beautiful vocal performances. Beautiful, yes, but beautiful like a night-black lake — more than a touch of danger lurks in the core of these songs, their sexual appetites and flair for tiny violences, an ugliness juxtaposed against the lush ecstasy flowing through every track. The contrast — Fleming, for example, cooing in your ear about “your lady wife around his lips” while a tidal pull of melody draws you closer — makes both sensations more vivid, the sensory fullness sometimes nearly too much to bear, though you do bear it, gladly, again and again.