Music

The Best Indie Rock of 2014

Corey Beasley

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.

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Artist: Priests

Album: Bodies and Control and Money and Power

Label: Sister Polygon/Don Giovanni

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Priests
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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Alvvays
Alvvays

"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
Singles

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.

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