The Best Albums of 2014

From Polish black metal to mind-blowing progressive R&B and electronic music, 2014's best albums certainly have something for everyone.

From Polish black metal to mind-blowing progressive R&B and electronic music, 2014’s best albums certainly have something for everyone.


Artist: Weezer

Album: Everything Will Be Alright in the End

Label: Universal Republic

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Everything Will Be Alright in the End

Before Weezer’s ninth album Everything Will Be Alright in the End was released, frontman Rivers Cuomo swore up and down to any publication that would have him that he had learned from his past mistakes and had worked extra hard to make the new album a great one. Fans could be forgiven for being skeptical about this, since Cuomo had made similar statements about Weezer albums five through eight that turned out not to hold much water. But lo and behold, this time Cuomo was telling the truth. This is the first Weezer album since its unfairly maligned early ‘00s duo of the “Green album” (Weezer) and Maladroit to effectively combine the band’s crunchy hooks, gift for melody, and Cuomo’s lovable loser lyrics. It’s that last part that’s been a sticking point on so many latter-era Weezer songs; Cuomo’s persona so often has tilted into tone deaf self-parody. Here, though, Cuomo’s words are on point. Dumb without being stupid, frustrated without self-pity, and yet somehow unselfconscious. Musically, there are very few frills here. By and large, it’s Weezer’s core quartet playing its original instruments and playing them well, and song after song manages to be sticky in the best way. Nearly any track on the album could conceivably be a single. Cuomo has stopped trying so hard to write pop hits and seems to have found the best version of his musical self in the process. img-837 Chris Conaton


Artist: Behemoth

Album: The Satanist

Label: Metal Blade

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The Satanist

The Satanist is a definitive statement for the individual and for renewed strength resulting from waging war against adversity, and it is by far the most focused, ruthless and powerful album of the band’s 23-year existence. For a band perched at the precipice of total metal domination, The Satanist is also an extremely uncompromising and uncommercial album that sees Behemoth draw heavily from the black metal side of its sound while maintaining the imperial death metal that began to take shape around the time of 1999’s Satanica. This album’s grandiose expanse recalls 2009’s Evangelion but with the added viciousness that has being missing from Behemoth since the triumphant Demigod conquered all back in 2004. Yet, most noticeably, there is a tangible air of defiance that exudes tremendous strength throughout each of the nine songs, both thematically and musically, that no other Behemoth album holds so emphatically from beginning to end. img-837 Dean Brown


Artist: Jessie Ware

Album: Tough Love

Label: Interscope

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Jessie Ware
Tough Love

With Jessie Ware’s debut album being one of the strongest debuts from a woman in the R&B genre within the last few years, critics were definitely not going to let Ware off easy if she slipped and ended up with a sophomore slump. However, Ware managed to create an album that, at the very least, matches the greatest moments of her debut. Recruiting producers that prefer the alt-R&B scene (Emile Haynie, Sampha), Tough Love is a masterpiece in its own right, due to Jessie Ware’s human touch to the electronic, pop and soul influences that rappear on the album. From the post-disco on “Want Your Feeling” to the folk-pop of “Say You Love Me”, this album is very well-rounded, helping Ware best her debut without making her sound like a puppet or overshadowed by everyone else. Without a doubt, Tough Love is easily one of the most enjoyable listens this year. img-837 Devone Jones


Artist: David Krakauer

Album: The Big Picture

Label: Table Pounding

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David Krakauer
The Big Picture

David Krakauer is to klezmer what Eddie Palmieri is to salsa: a virtuoso grounded in — and deeply committed to — a musical genre that is an expression of his own cultural background, and an innovator who takes the genre places it has never been. With his new release, The Big Picture, he’s crafted his most successful and boundary-smashing work to date. Krakauer and his terrific sextet interpret 12 songs from soundtracks by a diverse bunch of movie music composers — Marvin Hamlisch, Kander and Ebb, Randy Newman, Bob Merrill and Jules Styne, Wojciech Kilar, Sergei Prokofiev, Ralph Burns, Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, and Mel Brooks. Krakauer picked these pieces because all were heard in movies that had a Jewish connection, whether thematic or because of the identity of the filmmaker or composer. “I’ve taken themes from iconic films with Jewish content and re-imagined them with a band of world-class musicians,” Krakauer has said. img-837 George de Stefano


Artist: Schoolboy Q

Album: Oxymoron

Label: Top Dawg / Interscope

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Schoolboy Q

You know when you’re up late working on a project, long after all sane people have gone to sleep, and at some point your inhibitions loosen, and you decide to see what weird shit you can get away with? Schoolboy Q has been there. More specifically, Schoolboy Q has been inside a recording studio, horny and baked, laying down late night jams when he’d rather be laying with you, eschewing metaphor. This drives him to inventive highs. For his third album, his first on a major label, Mr. Q landed 12 great, hooky beats, including Pharrell’s hottest track in ages. “Los Awesome” is an overdriven organ jam, different rhythms stacked one on top of another, with Q’s voice — both rapping and sampled — adding to the joyful confusion. Well, not really confusion, because everything’s subsumed into one big head nod. Other highlights: the disembodied voices hovering over the boom-bap storytelling of “Hoover Street”; the title song’s chilling rock bottom drug tale; the tense, almost danceable electrogroove in “Hell of a Night”. Q is magnetic throughout; he turns throwaway syllables into beats and stray transgressions into hooks. img-837 Josh Langhoff


Artist: Sloan

Album: Commonwealth

Label: Yep Roc

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Even when Sloan changes things up, it doesn’t really change things up. It’s always the same four guys making the same great power-pop they’ve always made. Last time around, 2011’s The Double Cross celebrated the band’s 20th anniversary with a straight-ahead record that was its best of the 21st century. So for Commonwealth, the wrinkle was the each member would get their own side of a double-vinyl album. The results were close to tremendous. Jay Ferguson and Chris Murphy used their sections to lay down five-song mini-albums that stand toe to toe with each of their best material. Ferguson’s “You’ve Got a Lot on Your Mind” and “Cleopatra” are all-time Sloan greats, while Murphy’s “Misty’s Beside Herself” joins his long line of excellent three-minute character studies. Murphy’s “Carried Away” flips the perspective of his classic “The Other Man” on its head, singing from the point of view of the cheated-upon husband. Meanwhile, Patrick Pentland rips off a pair of tracks that are the closest to punk the band has ever played. Then, Andrew Scott closes the album out with an 18-minute epic that still plays like a medley of about seven strong pop songs. It sometimes seems like Sloan is underappreciated because it’s so consistently great, but if anything it deserves more recognition for that consistency. img-837 Chris Conaton


Artist: Grouper

Album: Ruins

Label: Kranky

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Ambient artists know best how to exploit atmospheric sound and silence, especially when making music that isn’t strictly “ambient” music. Liz Harris, aka Grouper, stripped her signature sound of its most definitive components on her latest record, the moving and evocative Ruins, down to its barest elements: piano, timid vocals and the sounds of open spaces. For the first time, Harris’ sparse songwriting is centerstage, soaked in the pastoral sounds of rain storms, croaking frogs and singing insects. The simple piano ballads revel in their naturalness, featuring few studio effects and even less editing as Harris leaves the incidental clicking, clattering and beeping background noises of her environment in the mix. Ruins is an example of raw, organic recording at its best, an approach that’s perhaps at odds with the tender, delicate music that it captures. But the music never betrays the album’s central truth: minimalism is beautiful. img-837 Colin Fitzgerald


Artist: Lana Del Rey

Album: Ultraviolence

Label: Interscope

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Lana Del Rey

Both perpetually maligned and adored, Lana Del Rey’s entrance into the music world gave critics, new fans, and know-it-all hipster naysayers something to discuss and debate ever since “Video Games” saturated the blogosphere. Her latest studio album Ultraviolence reignited the debate and once again; both her relevance and artistry were placed underneath the blade of the critical scalpel. She left the war zone relatively unscathed. The record sold more than a million copies worldwide and critics praised it for being a confident, cohesive effort, even if the lyrical content hadn’t evolved past tales of “bad bitch” hookers, broken heroines and calculated temptresses. Stripped of the overwrought, orchestral dramatics and hip-hop aesthetic so prevalent on past outings, Dan Auerbach’s gritty production work perfectly complements Del Rey’s sultry contralto. From the haunting, reverb-drenched chorus of “Shades of Cool” and the indie rock, reggae-tinged “West Coast”, to the tongue-in-cheek “Money Power Glory”, there is no grand metamorphosis or stark reinvention to be found here, just brilliantly realized, mature songwriting. Ultraviolence is a beautiful argument for her relevance and her potential longevity. img-837 Ryan Lathan


Artist: School of Language

Album: Old Fears

Label: Memphis Industries

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School of Language
Old Fears

Old Fears doesn’t waste a second of sound. David Brewis’s second album under the alias School of Language is a spare, fussy affair, of angular guitars and anxious malismas divvied out over music school time signatures. Knowing that Brewis and his brother Peter were consistently destitute during their time in their old band Field Music lends poignancy to “Distance Between” and “A Smile Cracks”, the one-two punch of lean funk in which Brewis refuses to “regret trying too hard [or] being naïve”, as if this KORG bassline is the last he’ll be able to afford for a while. Brewis’s minimalist tack lets the multi-instrumentalist get close to the mic in a way that’s usually deterred by the intricacy and flamboyant eclecticism of likeminded art-damaged pop. On the meticulous, disarming Old Fears, even the snare hits sound confessional. img-837 Benjamin Aspray


Artist: Parquet Courts

Album: Sunbathing Animal

Label: What’s Your Rupture? / Mom+Pop

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Parquet Courts
Sunbathing Animal

After the Strokes’ output waned over the past decade, the New York garage rock scene seemed content with lo-fi and synth-heavy indie explorations coming out of Brooklyn. But then Parquet Courts’ 2012 release Light Up Gold had both critics and fans alike buzzing with its ramshackle-meets-punk feel that was both fresh yet familiar. After touring extensively and releasing a solid tweener EP, Tally All the Things That You Broke, Parquet Courts dropped their full-length follow-up, Sunbathing Animal, late last spring. On Sunbathing Animal, the band builds upon the rambunctious guitar licks of its debut. This time around, however, Parquet Courts also emit a new found confidence within their sarcastic NYC rock ‘n’ roll approach. The songs, while at times quite noisy, still find room to breathe and never feel calculated. From the unnerving single chord attack of the title-track “Sunbathing Animal” to the arty Velvet Underground introspectiveness of “Raw Milk”, Sunbathing Animal finds Parquet Courts hitting their stride. img-837 Richard Giraldi

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Artist: Hospitality

Album: Trouble

Label: Merge / Fire

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Hospitality’s follow-up to its excellent debut builds upon all that made that record so great, all while adding layers and growth to the band’s sound. Trouble is just as immediately listenable as Hospitality’s first album, but it also veers into more varied territory. Standouts like “Going Out” and “It’s Not Serious” sound familiar in the best way, while “Last Words” surprises with its darker sound that leads into extended instrumentals, clocking in at over six minutes. At the center of Hospitality’s sound is Amber Papini’s voice. Her delivery runs the gamut between matter-of-fact and delicate, but it’s always compelling. In addition, the band’s musicianship always feels immediate and focused. There’s an energy to Trouble that can be propulsive in a song like “I Miss Your Bones” and sparsely shimmering in the grower “Sullivan”. There’s a depth to this album that lends itself to further discovery through repeated listenings, despite how instantly appealing it is. Trouble takes all the promise of Hospitality’s debut and proves it was no fluke or false hype, but rather a leap forward for the band. img-838 Jessica Suarez


Artist: Saint Saviour

Album: In the Seams

Label: Surface Area

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Saint Saviour
In the Seams

English singer-songwriter Becky Jones, aka Saint Saviour, rose to prominence through her dazzling collaborative work on Groove Armada’s Grammy-nominated album Black Light. After parting ways with the group, she carved out a respectable solo career, releasing two sonically adventurous EPs and a genre-defying, electro-tinged pop album Union. For her sophomore effort In the Seams, she has eschewed the synths and drum machines for a sound that effortlessly flits between intimate folk and string-laden chamber pop. Accompanied by the Manchester Camerata Orchestra and featuring the deft production work of Bill Ryder-Jones, the former guitarist of The Corals, Jones delivers twelve exquisitely rendered songs that wax nostalgic about youth, loneliness, the search for pure love, and friendships that dissolved over time. From the plucked harp intimacy of “Intravenous” and the soaring strings of “Let It Go”, to the playful finger-picking folkiness of “Devotion”, Saint Saviour’s latest collection of songs highlights the beauty of that remarkably versatile instrument. With stunning arrangements, emotionally fragile lyricism, and one of the most gorgeous voices in modern music, In the Seams is truly a sublime work of art. img-838 Ryan Lathan


Artist: Willie Nelson

Album: Band of Brothers

Label: Sony / Legacy

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Willie Nelson
Band of Brothers

Willie Nelson has been making an album or two a year for more than half a century, so it makes sense that this is an album about the desire for closeness after death. That his voice is almost ruined adds a gravitas to the music, a sign that he refuses to quit laughing. He doesn’t collapse into self-parody. I keep listening to this against the Rubinesque attempt at end career revivals that came after Cash’s American Recordings: the last albums of Porter Wagoner, Jessi Colter, or Glen Campbell. They deserved the respect, but they were like negotiating with Charon, proving they deserved a place in the next world. Nelson knows that he doesn’t know where he is going, and knows that he is still around — so there are delicate descriptions of the problems of mortality (“The Git Go”), of his own history (“The Songwriters”), but also very songs that might be the best western comedy since Will Rogers (“Wives and Girlfriends”). img-838 Anthony Easton


Artist: The Hotelier

Album: Home, Like Noplace Is There

Label: Tiny Engines

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The Hotelier
Home, Like Noplace Is There

One of the truest and most troubling albums released this year, Home, Like Noplace Is There shows what pop punk is capable of. Framed around a friend’s suicide, this cycle of nine songs slews back and forth from guilt to anger, compassion to confusion, bluster to blubber. Even though there is an arc to follow, from the stage-setting “An Introduction to the Album”, to the screamo climax of “Life in Drag”, to the troubling denouement of “Dendron”, the experience is less like a concept album and more like a musical catharsis. Musically, the moments of bombast and silence seethe with equal meaning — there is no wasted space. Lyrically, songwriter Christian Holden is unflinching in his chronicling the lead-up and aftermath to the suicide, tracing situations and characters with impeccable deftness and making observations that sting and linger long after the final track has faded out. img-838 Taylor Coe


Artist: Hamilton Leithauser

Album: Black Hours

Label: Ribbon

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Hamilton Leithauser
Black Hours

It’s hard to sound elegant and gleeful at the same time. The new tuxedo has a certain stiffness that doesn’t allow for giddy movement. Hamilton Leithauser isn’t afraid to show off his tux that’s frayed and muddied at the edges, he’s having too much fun to care. Black Hours mixed the grand strolling tunes of Sinatra and classic Broadway with Leithauser’s natural, wiry energy. He’s got a goofy grin as he proclaims “I retired from my fight!” He’s content to relax a little, play some beautiful piano ballads and take care of some lounge singer fantasies. Even when he does get serious (and does it ever get crushing on the stark “5 AM” and the wintery “Self Pity”) his natural ear for immaculate composition lets the songs glide along to a gorgeous payoff. img-838 Nathan Stevens


Artist: Ambrose Akinmusire

Album: The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint

Label: Blue Note

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Ambrose Akinmusire
The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint

Any savior — imagined or not — might be much easier to paint than it is to actually embody, but what’s it supposed to sound like? Trumpet phenom Ambrose Akinmusire answers that question with his second Blue Note set as he reshapes the perception and limits of contemporary jazz in equally thrilling and provocative ways. If 2011’s When the Heart Emerges Glistening was supposed to be a coming out party, this set is an announcement of longevity.

Why? Because here, Akinmusire proves he isn’t afraid to travel outside the parameters of conventionalism. Whether it be setting an ominously beautiful tone in the hook-y “As We Fight (Willie Penrose)”, or breaking your heart in the spoken-word “Rollcall for Those Absent”, or providing a landscape for meditation with the longing “The Beauty Of Dissolving Portraits”, The Imagined Savior grabs hold of your tonal tendencies and never, ever lets go.

The most lasting side effect is “Our Basement (Ed)”, a mesmerizing view of obsession that pulsates as much as it fascinates. Led by Becca Stevens’ haunting vocals, the track’s brilliance has a seemingly infinite amount of layers, Akinmusire conversing with his femme fatale via their most honest instruments. If anybody wants to tell you jazz is dead, play him this record and let it speak for how promising the medium’s future looks. An imagined savior might be easier to paint, sure. But an album this exciting is proof that sometimes reality is even better than the dream. img-838 Colin McGuire


Artist: Panopticon

Album: Roads to the North

Label: Bindrune

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Roads to the North

In 2012, Panopticon released the harrowing, bluegrass-infused Kentucky. Thematically centered on the struggles of coal miners, Kentucky represented one of the most daring and affecting takes on American black metal to date. Roads to the North doubles down on the considerable ambition shown in Kentucky and the result is nothing short of a masterpiece. Ardent, wrenching, and absolutely beautiful, Roads to the North blends traditional American folk music with black metal, crust, and death metal in a way that never seems jarring or forced. Austin Linn, Panopticon’s sole member, takes the listener on a truly epic journey in which haunting campfire melodies, ripping bluegrass, and heartfelt black metal all coincide in one glorious vision. For those of you reading this who are not well versed in black metal and who may assume that black metal is just a bunch of Norwegian kids running around in the forest worshipping the devil, let Roads to the North convince you that black metal has come into its own as a mature, distinctive art form. img-838 Benjamin Hedge Olson


Artist: Real Estate

Album: Atlas

Label: Domino

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Real Estate

Real Estate has already produced a near-perfect indie jangle-pop record in Days (2011). Where to go from there? With Atlas, the band delivered a masterclass in furthering one’s sound without sacrificing what made it special in the first place. The jangly guitars and winning hooks are still plentiful, but there is a newfound depth and richness. It may have been down to Martin Courtney’s more strident singing coupled with lyrics that tempered the usual nostalgia with regret, or it could have been the addition of two full-time band members. But Atlas at times recalls the effortless melodic strides of the Stone Roses at their best. If making it sound easy is one of the hardest things to do, Atlas proves Real Estate is up to the task. img-838 John Bergstrom


Artist: The Roots

Album: …and Then You Shoot Your Cousin

Label: Def Jam

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The Roots
…and Then You Shoot Your Cousin

It’s funny: in 2014’s spate of mortality-obsessed releases by everyone from Flying Lotus to Sun Kil Moon, the one that plunged darkest and deepest was by the house band for The Tonight Show, an act now perhaps better known for backing pop stars on kiddie instrument versions of their hits than for recording Things Fall Apart. This, in itself, carries a tinge of absurdism that Black Thought, ?uestlove, and their bandmates might appreciate, given the existential dead ends they find on …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin.

At just over a half hour, and even with three tracks devoted to well-chosen excerpts by Nina Simone, Mary Lou Williams and Michel Chion, Cousin is at once the tightest and weirdest album The Roots have ever released. Described by its makers as a satire on contemporary hip-hop, it plays only as such on the most basic level, its characters (Cousin is definitively character-driven, with little hint of autobiography) drinking, drugging, dealing, and fucking. These aren’t mocked as mere tropes, but acknowledged as physical responses to spiritual crises, with conflicted music to match. “Understand” is inverted gospel where a frustrated God can only sigh at man’s self-destructive streak, and the imposing chords on “The Dark (Trinity)” loom over three narrators who, in the absence of hope, counter despair with self-involvement and materialism. By the time the album brightens up with the (mock?) inspirational “Tomorrow”, you may have already joined the Roots, their characters and God in some sane laughter at an insane world. img-838 Dave Bloom


Artist: Wild Beasts

Album: Present Tense

Label: Domino

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Wild Beasts
Present Tense

A band that began as a swashbuckling, operatic argument for letting unchecked libido swing rock music to dizzying heights, Wild Beasts has relocated its sexual pulse to a quieter place in its later years, somewhere between chest-rattling low-end and a pregnant pause. From heartstopping opener “Wanderlust”, to the nailbiting tension of “A Dog’s Life”, to the gentle, aching beauty of “Palace”, this iteration of Wild Beasts — hinted at in 2011’s Smother but perfected here — finds strength in texture, power in nuance, force in restraint. Whether you prefer Hayden Thorpe’s warbling croon or Tom Fleming’s purring baritone, both songwriters know how to find your pressure points and squeeze. An album to fall in love with, and to fall in love to, and to be there for you when the dark, dangerous side of love rears its head? Present Tense will hold you tight, whether you’re ready or not. img-838 Corey Beasley

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Artist: The Hold Steady

Album: Teeth Dreams

Label: Washington Square

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The Hold Steady
Teeth Dreams

Some clever college kids may have invented “new sincerity”, but the Hold Steady continue to extend its’ application on Teeth Dreams, their often catchy and thought-provoking sixth album. In the centre of it all is “On with the Business”, a ferocious attack on consumerism and corporatization. The chords are heavy and grinding as the lyrics come in and out of focus like a shuddering nightmare. Taking inspiration from David Foster Wallace, Finn concerns himself with how people screw each other over to get more stuff. Yes, Teeth Dreams is ambitious but it’s still empathetic, treating Wallace’s “old untrendy human troubles and emotions” with the required post-ironic reverence and conviction, eschewing self-consciousness and hip fatigue. From the pathologically socially promiscuous (“Wait A While”, “Spinners”), the struggling and disenfranchised (“The Ambassador”) to the plainly addicted (“Big Cig”, “Oaks”), Teeth Dreams delivers a dose of street-wise words to those looking for a reason to believe. img-839 Charles Pitter


Artist: Jack White

Album: Lazaretto

Label: Third Man / XL / Columbia

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Jack White

Whether you’re enamored or annoyed by his vinyl-apotheosizing, certainly no one did more this year for the album-qua-album than Jack White, so it’s a good thing the music on Lazaretto more than holds up to the (metaphorical) bells and whistles that adorn the “Ultra LP” edition of his second solo album. Tighter, faster and funnier (witness the histrionic fingers of “That Black Bat Licorice”) than 2012’s also-excellent solo debut Blunderbuss, Lazaretto find White fully in command of his hobby horses, both sonic (the blues of opener “Three Women”; the roots of “Just One Drink”; the garage-y “That Black Bat Licorice”) and thematic (women; fame on “Alone In My Home”; societal mores on “Entitlement” and “Want and Able”). The scary thing is, as great as Lazaretto is in concept and execution, White, ever the tinkerer, still may not have released his gesamtkunstwerk. Stay tuned. img-839 Steve Haag


Artist: Judas Priest

Album: Redeemer of Souls

Label: Epic

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Judas Priest
Redeemer of Souls

This is Judas Priest as it hasn’t been heard in nearly 25 years. Not since Painkiller has the band had this much power, this much energy, or this many hooks. “Dragonaut” opens the album with a catchy, sing-along style, more reminiscent of its mid-’80s pop charting era than anything these guys have done since Rob Halford’s return to vocal duties in 2003. This is far from the only song on Redeemer of Souls to draw on styles and themes from its extensive back catalog. In many ways, the album serves as a reclamation of those things that were always at the heart of Judas Priest’s music, even when buried under the heavy progressive fog on Nostradamus or the sequenced sheen of Turbo. This is a band where melodies, hooks and sing-along choruses are key.

However, Redeemer of Souls isn’t only a band looking back, only hearkening to glories of old. While the group glances time and again in the rear view mirror, it also blazes forward with some of the best new music of its long career. “Halls of Valhalla” is a Judas Priest song — the melodies, hooks, and sing along chorus are all there as expected — but the chug has a bit of a shuffle to it, the ramp-up of the pre-chorus adds welcome heaviness, and woven throughout are bright snippets and phrases from the guitarists that keep the ear constantly engaged while the song thunders on. “Secrets of the Dead” plays the same guitar games, with little figures serving as an aural will-o’-the-wisp. The song is new take on the original blend of progressive rock and heavy metal that it pioneered in the ’70s, but has no obvious parallel or precedent in its catalog. It succeeds where most of the progressive approaches to metal on its last two albums failed. img-839 Erik Highter


Artist: Hiss Golden Messenger

Album: The Latness of Dancers

Label: Paradise of Bachelors

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Hiss Golden Messenger
The Latness of Dancers

Hiss Golden Messenger followed its breakout 2013, when the band released the excellent Haw, with a huge 2014. The year opened with a reissue of Bad Debt, frontman M.C. Taylor’s home-recorded gem. Taylor would later produce an album by folk legend Alice Gerrard, featuring members of Hiss Golden Messenger. But the band’s defining moment, for 2014 and perhaps to date, is Lateness of Dancers, the first record Taylor and company put out on Merge. It’s a swaying, lush album, from boats dancing on the water on “Lucia” to the easy drinking of “Saturday’s Song”, from the sweet heartbreak of a “love so free” on “Day O Day (Love So Free)” to the wild-eyed, barroom thump of “Southern Grammar”. This is an album that sounds like a bittersweet celebration, but for all its ease it’s hardly carefree. “Chapter & Verse (Ione’s Song)” is both a declaration of all a father will do for his children and, on its edges, a worry that might not be enough. “Saturday’s Song”, for all its swagger, never quite shakes off the weight of the work-a-day week. The first line of “Mahogany Dread” tells us all we need to know of the album’s two sides. “I can’t go back I know that now,” Taylor sings, “but who said I wanted to?” For all the worry seeping into these sweet tunes, they’re not shadowy things. The band, with its effortless mix of soul and country and folk traditions (among many others), makes the light that etches those shadows into shape. Lateness of Dancers doesn’t succumb to the dark, but rather defines it, casts it to the corners, gets it behind us, if at least for a moment of relief. It’s an album of sweet exhaustion and surprising relief, and one of the finest records from any genre this year. img-839 Matt Fiander


Artist: Ariel Pink

Album: pom pom

Label: 4AD

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Ariel Pink
pom pom

It’s hard to tell whether or not Ariel Pink is ever being serious, and pom pom only complicates things further. This is Pink’s first album for 4AD that feels like a “vintage” Pink album, in that every thought in his warped mind has somehow found its way into song form. The album is a free-for-all, the kind of project that should be a complete disaster. Instead, it’s an artistic triumph, a brilliant summation of everything that makes Pink such a great artist. Everything here is a song; Pink even treats one-off jokes like “Nude Beach A-Go Go” and “Black Ballerina” as if they’re potential masterpieces. What’s more, “Put Your Number In My Phone” and “Picture Me Gone” hint that Pink may have a more thoughtful side that he hasn’t fully articulated yet. Pink has done a lot this year to remind us that he’s unstable and kind of an asshole, but pom pom only reminds the listener that Ariel Pink is a genius. img-839 Kevin Korber


Artist: Sylvan Esso

Album: Sylvan Esso

Label: Partisan

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Sylvan Esso
Sylvan Esso

The storyline most publications tell of Sylvan Esso, one of the year’s breakout new bands, is that its music is a cross between Americana — since both members of the duo come from bands in that general vein — and electronic music. Clear that notion away and listen to the album, and what you hear will defeat your expectations, stomp on them with dancing shoes and lift them away in the beak of a bird. Sylvan Esso does feel exploratory, yet Amelia Meath’s unique singing and musings fit seamlessly with Nick Sanbourn’s primitive (in the absolute best sense) approach to hip-hop beats and grooves. Though the lyrics often linger on imagery from the natural world – “the world we all live in”, “we’re animals too” — there’s nothing rootsy about the music overall. It’s a sparkling-clean, streamlined synthesis of an individualistic, bohemian pop singer’s sensibility with that of a producer highly attuned to how rhythm and texture work to propel a song forward, lift it up, surprise you and drive you to get giddy like a two-year-old. img-839 Dave Heaton


Artist: Twin Peaks

Album: Wild Onion

Label: Grand Jury Music

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Twin Peaks
Wild Onion

Listening to Twin Peaks inevitably calls to my mind the scene in High Fidelity when Rob walks into his record store to find Barry and Dick listening to music made by local high schoolers who constantly shoplift from him. The three look at each other and are forced to admit, in the face of every instinct in their body that the songs are “really… fucking good”. The Chicago rockers may boast a lineup years away from legally purchasing alcohol but on their second album Wild Onion (a rough paraphrase of the Native American translation of “Chicago”), they show that they’re annoyingly ambitious, snotnoses or not.

The album is an exhilarating whorl of ’60s sounds from garage rock to psychedelia to the kind of bash-it-out boogie that would make the Stones and Big Star proud. What makes Wild Onion more than a simple classic rock re-hash is that the whole enterprise is run through a grungy filter that uses sly song titles and juvenile profanity to keep things from feeling stale or overly adoring. At 16 songs, it’s double the length of the band’s debut and the record’s smart sequencing makes this an asset. Rockers run headline into hazy freak outs and bouncy pop numbers with a few even weirder interstitial instrumental passages just to keep things moving. It’s filled with the kind of sloppy-yet-studied ambition that, while enjoyable, hints at greater things to come. img-839 John M. Tryneski


Artist: Oozing Wound

Album: Earth Suck

Label: Thrill Jockey

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Oozing Wound
Earth Suck

Chicago’s Oozing Wound has been linked with the so-called thrash revival since emerging a few years ago, and yet its presence on Thrill Jockey’s roster might give purists pause. After all, the only other metal band on the indie label is Liturgy, a favorite whipping boy for trve cvlt gatekeepers. The truffula-haired trio’s live attack, however, couldn’t be further from false, and the high-velocity, bottom-heavy Earth Suck, its second full-length in as many years, comes pretty damn close to replicating one of its face-melting Empty Bottle sets on record. The songwriting reflects a gradual shift it’s made towards the opiate-soaked sludge of Eyehategod, to whom “Hippie Speedball” seems to nod. Instead of slowing down, the band lets its songs open out onto tidal drones of double-bass sprinting and low-end riffage. In that way, Oozing Wound refurbishes thrash much as Liturgy aestheticizes black metal. But Earth Suck is so therapeutically brutal, even the grumpiest metalheads might not notice or care. img-839 Benjamin Aspray


Artist: iamamiwhoami

Album: blue

Label: to whom it may concern

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From the onset, Jonna Lee’s iamamiwhoami project was given a name that naturally caused Tumblr sleuths to crawl out of the woodwork and try to answer the riddle of “Who be makin’ these crazy videos?” Yet even when the question was answered, the story didn’t end; in fact, that was only the start. Three albums into the project’s existence, blue is, simply, one of the most extraordinary pop albums to emerge in recent memory. blue synthesizes the Bjork-like experimental nature of the project’s early works into something much more direct and immediate without once sacrificing their trademark emotional undercurrents. All of this leaves listeners (and viewers) feeling something, even if they can’t articulate exactly what that something is. With blue, the soaring choruses and undeniable melodies are as memorable as they are effortless. Tracks like “blue” and “tap your glass” evoke the Cocteau Twins with a cocksure attitude, acknowledging their love of all things synth-pop even as they push that subgenre into its most epic pose yet. No pop act today has this kind of batting average, and before long, that question of “iamamiwhoami” won’t be answered with “Jonna Lee” so much as “just the best pop act out there right now”. img-839 Evan Sawdey


Artist: Mogwai

Album: Rave Tapes

Label: Sub Pop

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Rave Tapes

Mogwai still regularly includes its name-making epic, “Mogwai Fear Satan”, in its setlists 17 years after the release of Young Team. Live, the song is transmogrified into a physical experience, deriving its power, as much of Mogwai’s earlier material does, from decibel and dynamic leaps. Over those seventeen years, the Scottish post-rock mainstays have grown from a band that wields volume like a blunt axe to using it as one of a number of chisels it uses to carve out its sonic monoliths. The band’s continued work for soundtracks – most recently for the French TV series Les Revenants — may also have some influence on its patient attention to detail and atmosphere. On Rave Tapes, the layers of songs like “Remurdered” and “Repelish” fold up and swirl around you, and “No Medicine For Regret” and “The Lord is Out of Control” make for one of the best ending one-two punches Mogwai have thrown on record in a while. img-839 Ian King

50 – 41

Artist: Ex Hex

Album: Rips

Label: Merge

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Ex Hex

It’s hard to think of an indie rock album that’s as pure and unadulterated fun as Ex Hex’s Rips is. While Ex Hex leader Mary Timony has long been one of the genre’s most proficient guitarists and thought-provoking songwriters, particularly when she headed up Helium, she’s never sounded so at ease and spontaneous as she does on Rips. Joined by compatriots Laura Harris and Betsy Wright in Ex Hex, Timony tears through one hook-laden indie single after another on Rips with a relish and energy that tells you she’s way past having to prove anything to anybody. That’s readily apparent in the way Ex Hex lets its influences show through, not just touching on the usual underground suspects like Sonic Youth and the Modern Lovers, but also flaunting the inspiration of less hip sources, which you notice with the glam swagger of “Don’t Wanna Lose” and the Cars-like new wave on “Waste Your Time”. But Timony really cements her legacy when she uses her own distinctive aesthetic as Ex Hex’s muse, especially on “Hot and Cold”, which streamlines her prog-punk wizardry into the guitar heroine anthem of 2014. On Rips, experience has never sounded so invigorating and rejuvenating. img-840 Arnold Pan


Artist: A Sunny Day in Glasgow

Album: Sea When Absent

Label: Lefse

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A Sunny Day in Glasgow
Sea When Absent

A Sunny Day In Glasgow has done something truly remarkable with its latest opus: it’s stumbled upon the right balance between airy dream-pop and harsh, decidedly earth-bound noise. That Sea When Absent doesn’t devolve into an atomspheric mess is fortunate; that it holds up as a listenable, enjoyable experience is a testament to the band’s songwriting strengths. Between the throbbing noise of “Bye Bye Big Ocean (The End)” and the smooth, dreamy textures of songs like “Crushin,'” the band tries its hand at different sounds and styles, resulting in an experience that seems far from the sort of monochromatic listen that most modern shoegaze records provide, while the twin vocals of Jen Goma and Annie Frederickson keep things light without getting too twee for their own good. A Sunny Day In Glasgow is many, many things on Sea When Absent, but the one thing it isn’t is predictable. img-840 Kevin Korber


Artist: Sondre Lerche

Album: Please

Label: Mona / Yep Roc

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Sondre Lerche

“Sentimentalist”, the centerpiece of Sondre Lerche’s masterful seventh studio outing, Please, closes with Lerche’s impassioned queries to a lost lover fading in a cloud of white noise. “Don’t you know me, my love?” he asks over and over again. It’s a question that is difficult both for Lerche and for the listener, as Please highlights the often contradictory emotions that arise from the aftermath of a breakup. Please, which was recorded after Lerche’s split with his wife Mona Fastvold, finds him taking a bold step forward as a songwriter both sonically and lyrically. With respects to the former, Lerche has never taken as many musical risks as he does here. From a crazed breakdown (“After the Exorcism”) to a crowd-chant ready anthem (“Legends”) to angsty lounge jazz (“At Times We Live Alone”), the album runs through a colorful collage of sonic exploration. However, it’s the lyrics where Lerche makes his biggest strides. Though he keeps the lyrical matter abstract, there’s still a subtle narrative that unfolds throughout these ten songs. We’ve never gotten this level of emotional honesty from Lerche before, which is the main reason why Please bears all the hallmarks of a songwriter’s masterpiece. img-840 Brice Ezell


Artist: SOHN

Album: Tremors

Label: 4AD

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Lingering echoes of a primeval pulse; the pneumatics of a trembling thigh; the hammer of a funk impact drummed into the skull; a ringing too slow to hear, ominous to animals; your heartbeat rippling through your blood, skin and bones; the resonant fracturing of pain in your mind: Tremors. SOHN’s debut album delivers intensity with a carnal minimalism bordering on sensory overload, lush whirlpools of melody succumbing to surges of predatory tonal intent that build until they rupture, orgasmically, against the silken silence of the dark. His achievement lies in his mastery of a sound that is meticulously designed, powerfully engineered and yet thrillingly, teemingly human: an inner life of the midnight mind painted by his gorgeous voice across sidewinding rhythms that are not so much Off The Wall as they are moonwalking through a narcotic dream of weightlessness. As close as music came this year to letting you take a 21st century soul to the artery — inject Tremors to quiver in bliss, tremble with angst, and sigh deeply as the dream departs. img-840 Stefan Braidwood


Artist: Cloud Nothings

Album: Here and Nowhere Else

Label: Carpark

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Cloud Nothings
Here and Nowhere Else

Last March, we returned to the dingy garage that the punk outfit Cloud Nothings call home for one of the hard rock highlights of the year. On Here And Nowhere Else, Cloud Nothings pick up right where they left off two years ago with Attack On Memory, and there’s no apparent signs of them slowing down. There were a plethora of punk records in 2014, but none resonate with the same melodious discontent as Dylan Baldi’s songwriting. “I can’t feel your pain and I feel alright about it”, sings the frontman on opener “Now Hear In” ushering in the running themes of self-loathing and alienation that are so prevalent on the album. True to its title, the record’s nail-biting urgency is a product of the here and now. And like Baldi’s revelation to be content with what he has on the closing track, maybe the present isn’t such a bad place to exist. img-840 Andy Belt


Artist: Prince

Album: Art Official Age

Label: Warner Bros/NPG

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Art Official Age

It always seemed ungrateful and, frankly, uncharitable to expect Prince to still soar like he did in the ’80’s. Dirty Mind. Purple Rain. Parade. Etc, etc. You’d seem like a snotnosed Oliver Twist asking for more, Hadn’t his Royal Badness given enough? He showed U heaven! Plus, dammit, he’s 56… give the guy a break, a cigar and a comfy chair. But drop the needle on Art Official Age and – no one’s saying it’s Sign O’ The Times but – there! It! Is! ! The magic. The wonder. Da funk. All wrapped within a narrative concept that’s reassuringly batshit crazy, i.e. Prince being thawed out of suspended animation like Austin Powers or Woody Allen in Sleeper and “Debriefed thoroughly”. Cue ‘THE FUTURE!’ and a smorgasbord of daydreamer pop (“Clouds”, “This Could Be Us”), swoonsome spacedust ballads (“Breakdown”) and “Fire up the Orgasmatron” bangers (“FunkNRoll”, “Gold Standard”). But it’s the interstellar weepfest “Way Back Home” that reminds us who still wears the crown (hint: it’s Prince) as our Bambi-eyed, abandoned alien pines for the life left behind. “I don’t belong here”, he sobs and it’s genuinely moving. “Most people in this world are born dead… but I was born alive”. Ain’t that the truth, and shame on you — yeah you — for doubting him. img-840 Matt James


Artist: Mike Farris

Album: Shine for All the People

Label: Compass

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Mike Farris
Shine for All the People

Mike Farris is blessed with much more than a sublime, perfect soul voice; he also shows off an impeccable sense of musical taste on everything he touches. And Shine for All the People is his manifesto, transversing the broad ranges of Southern music, from blues to Stax soul, from gospel to New Orleans jazz. Opener “River Jordan” features mesmerizing Afro-Cuban horns and rhythms that Farris says were inspired by Louis Armstrong’s “St. Louis Blues”. The Mary Gauthier penned “Mercy Me” is a flat-out stunner that will leave you in tears or ecstasy or, hopefully, both. “Power of Love” is a soul barn-burner that I’ve heard Farris play in a small Booker T-ish quartet, in a larger band with back-up singers, and an even larger band with all of that, plus Stax horns. It’s a moving dance-fest in any configuration. In the midst of all of the fine Southern roots music, Farris employs powerful, backup, choral singing that has the feel of the Beatles’ choruses in “Hey Jude” and others. From start to finish, this is a rockin’, affirming album of joy and redemption. Couldn’t we all use a bit of those things? Shine for All the People does just that and is one of the best soul records in a really long time. img-840 Sarah Zupko


Artist: Lydia Loveless

Album: Somewhere Else

Label: Bloodshot

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Lydia Loveless
Somewhere Else

Unabashed rock ‘n’ roll with lyrics from the heart. Immediate and uncensored, Lydia Loveless lives in the moment and grabs what she can or lusts for what’s out of reach on Somewhere Else. From the slurred, barstool poetry of “Wine Lips” and sexually charged “Head” to the feverish relationships of “Chris Isaak”, “Hurts So Bad” and “Verlaine Shot Rimbaud”, Loveless displays smarts honed over pool tables and barstools rather than books and library carrels. Even if she cleans up nice or reverts to her given surname, you wouldn’t take her home to meet your mother. Having trashed a batch of songs that didn’t reflect her true nature prior to writing Somewhere Else, a mature Loveless is one who’s free to speak her mind and not hold her brash tongue. From there poureth out the beauty and raw, emotional power of Somewhere Else. img-840 Eric Risch


Artist: Liars

Album: Mess

Label: Mute

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Liars have made a habit out of working adjacently to the adage that the only thing constant is change. Even Wikipedia isn’t sure what to label them album-by-album, where they go from “dance-punk band” to “noise rock band” to a few others, before finally winding up an “experimental rock trio”. However, instead of being another counterintuitive catapult in a different direction, Mess takes the blueprint they came up with for their last album, WIXIW, and throws neon paint all over it. Sanding over abrasive electronics with throbbing rhythms, songs like “Vox Tuned D.E.D.” and “Mess on a Mission” catch Angus Andrew chant-speaking some of the most infectious anti-hooks he’s ever delivered. Coming full circle without repeating themselves, Mess is the most danceable record Liars have made since their debut, but is out there enough to allow them to keep that “experimental” tag. Wikipedia will still probably need another update, though. img-840 Ian King


Artist: Somi

Album: The Lagos Music Salon

Label: Okeh

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The Lagos Music Salon

The plight of women in Nigeria was clearly on Somi’s mind during her time as a Lagos resident. “Four African Women” paints chilling portraits over a stunning bass line, and Somi does not shy away from words as weighted as “genocide”, but she does so with a sense that this culture and land — flawed to be sure — offers compensations like all rich, complex places. The collection opens with a “field recording” of Somi entering Nigeria in conversation with a customs officer, and the quick telling of a story of a show-off monkey make Lagos into a documentary as well as a soul record. But the ultimate balance of The Lagos Music Salon is toward life, hope, sensuality, and love. “Still Your Girl” and “Four.One.Nine” present much more complex portraits of love: stories of women who will put up with some disappointment or even trouble in seeking to find love. And the music, complex in how it weaves its sense of pulse, reinforces this complexity.

But that is the great strength of The Lagos Music Salon. It is a joyful burst of beauty in rhythm, harmony, and melody even as it tells stories that bend simplicity. It dares you not to put it on at your pool party, but you’re going to want to anyway. It bubbles with groove and feeling, but it represents a true artist’s encounter with a troubling but beautiful society. The final track, “Shine Your Eye”, is a spoken-word reminiscence about its city. It will make you want to fly to West Africa even as it warns you to be extra ready if you do. img-840 Will Layman

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Artist: Damien Jurado

Album: Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son

Label: Secretly Canadian

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Damien Jurado
Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son

Interstellar, the long-awaited science-fiction film from Christopher Nolan, closes a year that began with Damien Jurado’s Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son, an album whose themes the movie shares. Both are creative and about creation. Both are ambitious and about ambition. Both might be variations on what writer Brian Aldiss called “Shaggy God” stories and feature wanderers who may or may not survive their time on this “temporary earth”.

Jurado planted the seeds for Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son in “Cloudy Shoes” (2010): “I wish that I could float / Float up from the ground / I will never know / What that’s like”. Since then, the singer-songwriter has devoted a couple of albums to that transcendent idea. On Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son, his wanderer character encounters cosmic confusion, the collision of souls, and (as on prior album Maraqopa) “questions that lead to more questions”.

Interstellar, with an enormous budget and spectacular sights and sounds of travel far beyond Earth, settles with the voyager finding man alone as the highest power and purpose of the universe. Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son is equipped with the comparatively humble means of Jurado’s folk-influenced songs and Richard Swift’s production. Yet the album sets a course for the eternal beyond and stays far out. Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son isn’t satisfied with human supremacy and thus more effectively explores who we are, where we’re going, and other whys and wherefores. img-841 Thomas Britt


Artist: Shovels and Rope

Album: Swimmin’ Time

Label: Dualtone

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Shovels and Rope
Swimmin’ Time

Swimmin’ Time is the culmination of everything that makes Shovels and Rope the most exciting Americana act in recent years. There is a great back story here, certainly, but any passionate romance is predicate upon reciprocation. While both musicians could’ve done quite fine in their own right, it is only by reinforcing each other’s strength while simultaneously propping up the others weaknesses that together they create the tour-de-force that Shovels and Rope have become. Swimmin’ Time is the product of our generation’s June Carter and Johnny Cash after the messy past has been laid to rest. It may not be readily apparent yet, but history will prove it so.

In bridging the past to the present, Shovels and Rope have cut a path into the future. Early album standout “Evil” references “another victim of the mortgage bubble credit pop”. Later in the album, in the midst of pixie muted Dixieland opulence, the narrator glories over making a good living “offa suckers in Ohio”. Swimmin’ Time showcases the best of both old and new music, the idealized past and the disgusting, bloody, senseless present. Lyrics to make the soul shake loose from out of your chest meet harmonies that will convert new audiences through pure emotive conviction. img-841 Raymond Lee


Artist: Battle Trance

Album: Palace of Wind

Label: New Amsterdam

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Battle Trance
Palace of Wind

There’s a section late in Palace of Wind that sounds like thousands of birds ruffling their feathers, getting ready to take off into the sky. The quartet of saxophone players entwines their notes in such a way that the sound becomes near hallucinatory. It conjures up images of raging cyclones, powerful hurricanes, the sort of natural destruction that dwarfs humanity. These moments are followed by sections of deep and pensive tranquility; in both aspects, the music seems more animalistic than human. This is music of the birds, rather than for them. Much like avant-sax master Colin Stetson, Battle Trance makes music that soars, glides, and dives to realms that few musicians have dreamt about, let alone touched. But, unlike Stetson, this is the result of four brothers in arms, making wonderful insanity through musical kinship. img-841 Nathan Stevens


Artist: Lykke Li

Album: I Never Learn

Label: LL / Atlantic

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Lykke Li
I Never Learn

Popular music has a rich history of “dark night of the soul” albums, from In the Wee Small Hours, to Pink Moon, to Sea Change. The third album by Swedish singer-songwriter Lykke Li is a very worthy addition to that beautifully miserable canon. Precipitated — as it often is — by a devastating break-up, Lykke Li holed up, did a little soul-searching, teamed up with longtime collaborator Björn Yttling, and emerged with I Never Learn, a stark, concise album that despite its moments of shimmering beauty, could not be bleaker and hopeless thematically. But oh, what glorious hopelessness. “No Rest For the Wicked”, “Just Like a Dream”, and “Never Love Again” channel the melodrama of classic Phil Spector, while the Greg Kurstin-produced “Gunshot” whittles all that pain down to one devastating line: “And the shot goes through my head and back”. Turn out the lights, listen, and wallow in some of the loveliest, saddest music of 2014. img-841 Adrien Begrand


Artist: Andy Stott

Album: Faith in Strangers

Label: Modern Love

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Andy Stott
Faith in Strangers

Andy Stott is a master at conveying mood, and his latest album Faith in Strangers only offers further proof that that’s the case. It’s just that Stott has broadened the palette of tones he uses this time around: While Stott has made his name feeling his way though various shades of darkness, Faith in Strangers lets in a little more light, bringing in more contrast to fill out his ambient aesthetic. Still, Stott makes you earn your catharsis on Faith in Strangers, starting out with sublimely unnerving pieces like the eerie, melancholic “Time Away” and the aptly titled “Violence”, which entrances you with a sordid soulfulness that recalls early Tricky. Gradually but discernibly, the album moves towards transcendence, as if the cold and dark are there to give way to a measure of warmth and immediacy. That sense of release and relief gets its payoff near the end of Faith in Strangers on the surprising title track, where Stott’s sound reaches for uplift and finds it, ping-ponging to buoyant beats, as Alison Skidmore’s vocals radiate with an ethereal sheen. Even if you don’t mind being immersed in the darkness — something nobody does better than Stott — there’s also something to be said for seeing what it’s like when the shadows lift. img-841 Arnold Pan


Artist: Allo Darlin’

Album: We Come From the Same Place

Label: Slumberland

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Allo Darlin’
We Come From the Same Place

With Belle & Sebastian taking time to reassess and reissue their entire back catalog in advance of their 2015 release and Camera Obscura releasing a radio session of existing tracks, the twee landscape was fairly open in 2014. Fortunately, Allo Darlin’, clear heirs to the Belle & Sebastian/Camera Obscura throne, provided listeners with We Come From The Same Place, a near-perfect collection of cardigan-clad autumnal wistfulness and subtle heartache.

Wrapped in lovingly constructed melodies, lead vocalist and principle songwriter Elizabeth Morris pours her heart out in a manner beholden to her twee predecessors, chronicling both the minutiae of interpersonal relationships and bigger picture issues associated with the aging process. Fleshing out her ukulele-based compositions with a more muscular indie pop sound, Morris and co. manage to further deliver on the promise of their first two releases, growing by leaps and bounds to deliver one of the best indie pop albums of 2014. img-841 John Paul


Artist: Todd Terje

Album: It’s Album Time

Label: Olsen

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Todd Terje
It’s Album Time

It’s Album Time may be his debut record, but Norwegian producer Terje Olsen (aka Todd Terje) has been a high-profile name in European DJ and remixing circles for over a decade. Naturally, he applies this vast wealth of musical experience and compositional knowledge to his eclectic first LP, a collection of conventionally peppy dance songs made with a wicked and gleeful sense of experimentation. It’s Album Time is retro dance music with a modern palette, neo-disco spiced with a smattering of influences from rock, jazz fusion and world music that the producer doesn’t take too seriously, making for a genuinely entertaining record. In pairing swimming synth arpeggios with everything from Steve Reich-ian marimba (“Leisure Suit Preben”) to calypso scatting (“Svensk Sås”), Todd Terje has invented a strange kind of lounge music for the modern age, not to mention delivered one of the most quietly offbeat records of the year. img-841 Colin Fitzgerald


Artist: The Afghan Whigs

Album: Do to the Beast

Label: Sub Pop

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The Afghan Whigs
Do to the Beast

Prior to the Afghan Whigs’ reformation, their legacy was steeped in clichés of how they were underappreciated, cult-beloved, and ahead of their time. It is overdue just desserts that they’re getting so much attention now, all the more warranted in that their reunion album lives up to their prior oeuvre. Opener “Parked Outside” kicks in with a griminess that sprawls and thunders, while the math rock-inclined “Matamoros” crackles in seductive rhythms as Greg Dulli offers a litany of cocksure taunts about throwing shade and smoking cigars. Elsewhere, “It Kills” smolders in equal parts predation and pathos, “Lost in the Woods” deals in the noir ambience of a vampire’s lust, and the yearning “I Am Fire” burns with an understated R&B groove and ramshackle handclap percussion. Closer “These Sticks” is as vitriolic a revenge song as Dulli ever penned, and gives the entire endeavor a sense of closure. The Afghan Whigs have always been an album-centric band, their records more cinematic than that of their peers. Do to the Beast sees this aesthetic hold true, being both a mature progression from where they left off in 1998 and the next logical step in their body of work. img-841 Cole Waterman


Artist: Nickel Creek

Album: A Dotted Line

Label: Nonesuch

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Nickel Creek
A Dotted Line

When the progressive bluegrass trio Nickel Creek went on hiatus in 2007, it had no timetable for a return. The three (Chris Thile, Sean Watkins, and Sara Watkins) had played together since before they were teenagers, and their interests were diverging. Still, with only three proper albums under the trio’s belt, there was a sense that it had a lot of music left to make. A Dotted Line proves this assumption correct. The album covers a lot of ground in a brisk 10 tracks, from the bright folk of opener “Rest of My Life” to the introspective closing Sam Phillips cover “Where is Love Now?” In between, Nickel Creek dabbles successfully in a while smorgasbord of styles. The simple, traditional bluegrass instrumental “Elsie” is contrasted with the complex, shifting instrumental “Elephant in the Corn”. The band rocks out on tremendous single “Destination”, the shouty Thile-led “You Don’t Know What’s Going On”, and the drum-assisted cover of Mother Mother’s “Hayloft”. Just as successful is the record’s quietest song, the recrimination-filled “Christmas Eve”. The band even goes full-on country for the satirical “21st of May”, sung from the smug perspective of failed Rapture-predictor Pastor Harold Camping. Each of these ten songs is great in its own right, and the combination of quality and variety makes A Dotted Line one of 2014’s very best records. img-841 Chris Conaton


Artist: Beck

Album: Morning Phase

Label: Capitol

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Morning Phase

D.H. Lawrence famously wrote, “Never trust the teller, trust the tale”. The same concept is true for musicians. Critics took Beck Hansen at his word when he claimed Morning Phase was a companion piece to his 2002 album about his breakup with his longtime girlfriend, Sea Change. Indeed, the two albums do share many of the same musicians and have a similar sound. However, the theme of Morning Phase is much heavier: death. One need only note the pun of the title: check the homonyms “mourning” and “morning”, “face” and “phase”. While the emotions caused by a devastating loss of love and a loss of life may be parallel, they are far from the same. That’s why a song such as “Don’t Let it Go”, with its ambiguous declarations (i.e., “how it ends we do not know”), has a chilling effect in contrast to the comfort offered by Sea Change. When Beck sings, “These are the words we use to say goodbye” on “Say Goodbye”, the plucked strings recall mid-17th century murder ballads more than tunes of love gone wrong. The overall vibe is as soothing as a siren song that lures one forward with a false promise while only death awaits. img-841 Steve Horowitz

It has been six years since Beck released a recorded or original album, but opinions were quickly formed and anticipation varied once he dubbed it “a companion piece” to 2002’s Sea Change. That album was both lauded and divisive, as people were torn over hearing the restless energy and razorsharp wit of the party child of the ’90s traded out in favor of an acoustic guitar, following the ending of a long term relationship. Now, 12 years later, here we are again, but Beck is in a very different place: in his 40s, married with a couple of kids. The orchestration of Morning Phase is thoughtful and introspective because the artist himself is more so now. Sea Change was about the death of something, while Morning Phase, like its title and several of its track names, is about rebirth and beginnings. Sure, Beck’s run of work in the ’90s and ’00s were party staples that could keep the party going ’til the sun came up. But wisdom comes with age, and one day we all realize that the sunrise burns brightest when you’re in bed by 9:30 and you wake up to see it just for the event itself. img-841 Eddie Ciminelli

30 – 21

Artist: First Aid Kit

Album: Stay Gold

Label: Columbia

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First Aid Kit
Stay Gold

Sweden’s premier folk duo is three records into an impressive run, but Stay Gold may be the best of the bunch. It’s a finely crafted album, all ear-grabbing hooks, impossibly smooth harmonies, polished production, and songwriting as sophisticated as it is simple and intense. The sisters Söderberg write with an eye for pop melodies and a love of ’70s folk music that rarely sounds dated or trite, making Stay Gold a fresh take on an old theme—coming of age—that sounds surprisingly mature for a duo whose eldest member isn’t yet 25 years old. Like the precious metal for which it’s named, there’s a malleable, shimmery, irresistible quality to this record. With its overwhelming musical warmth, soaring vocals, and searching, romantic lyrics, Stay Gold attains a universality that feels at once instantly recognizable and completely original. img-842 Adam Finley


Artist: Leonard Cohen

Album: Popular Problems

Label: Columbia

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Leonard Cohen
Popular Problems

Leonard Cohen needed no further proof that he’s in a tower of his own, perched above the rest where he serves as a cultural oracle. He served up Popular Problems for extra measure anyway. Opening with the sensual down tempo “Slow”, Cohen starts things with a playful coyness, the lyrics loaded with thinly-veiled double entendres. It’s a sly bit of misdirection, as from there on, matters take on a graver quality. The smoky stillness of “Almost Like the Blues” sees Cohen’s cavernous intonations zero in on warfare, murder, and prevalent human suffering, though the real tragedy is the emotional desensitization these horrors have on the narrator. “A Street” throbs with menace and resentment, while “Did I Ever Love You” ponders a relationship’s worth with spiritual reverence with a surprising bluegrass rhythm in the refrain. That query is answered in “My Oh My”, offering a fatalistic and ephemeral view of life and love, harpsichord, saxophone, and slide guitar crafting a suitably dark tone. At the end, Cohen again surprises with “You Got Me Singing”. Having one of the most upbeat melodies and sentiments in his canon, it arrives like the first rays of sunlight shining after a dark night of the soul. “You got me singing / Even though the world is gone”, he sings, and if it ends up being the last song he records, it’d be a fitting epitaph. img-842 Cole Waterman


Artist: Banks

Album: Goddess

Label: Harvest

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Desire and nakedness are what Goddess comes down to, a melancholic swoon into the depths of reckless vulnerability. It is my most-played album of the year, as well as the most cohesive despite its many producers; a voyage into the dark heart of passion by a woman with a haunting voice in search of “cold shelter”. Musically, it is seductive yet mournful, lyrically excoriating, tender and plaintive in equal measures. You need blood and darkness for the most powerful magic, and where better to summon a real woman than from the corpse of romantic glamour, into the hot, wet, dark embrace of the womb, to the beat of the tyrant heart? Banks is a mess of true contradictions on this album, this hypnotic place of growth and pain that I and many others have vanished into for hours at a time. She is no Beyoncé, but her failures are her strength and our gain, and her scars give Goddess a beauty and a feminist wisdom that the platinum features of Beyoncé will never have. img-842 Stefan Braidwood


Artist: The New Pornographers

Album: Brill Bruisers

Label: Matador

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The New Pornographers
Brill Bruisers

2014 gave us ambitious double-albums (Swans’ To Be Kind), breakout new stars (FKA Twigs), and rock albums that certainly sounded like albums of the year (Sun Kil Moon, The War on Drugs). However in the end, it usually comes down to “it’s the songs, stupid” when determining which ones deserve to be on the list for “best albums of the year”. And whenever A.C. Newman has a productive year, you’ll be hard pressed to find an album with a better collection of songs that manage to lodge themselves in your head — and set up shop for a long time.

When Brill Bruisers came out, it was greeted as a more optimistic outing than the previous two New Pornographers albums. A knee-jerk reaction was it was one of the band’s better outings. However, as the album lingered, its pleasures continued to unfurl. Sure, the Neko Case-highlighting “Backstairs” and “Marching Orders” were instant highlights, but some of the crowning achievements of Brill Bruisers came with such “out of nowhere” moments like Newman’s soulful chorus “I’m falling into madrigals” in “Hi-Rise”, or the zig-zagging vocal wordplay of “You Tell Me Where”. In a few months, Brill Bruisers went from being a good New Pornographers album to just a flat-out great album. img-842 Sean McCarthy


Album: Ryan Adams

Artist: Ryan Adams

Label: PAX-AM

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Ryan Adams
Ryan Adams

Comics and cats. Pinball and pizzas. Zombies and dead parakeets. Starring as Carl in AMC’s The Walking Dead. After all of this, it was with much relief when Ryan Adams finally returned to his day job and started making proper Ryan Adams records again. Yes and Ryan Adams was such a ‘proper’ Ryan Adams record it could only be called – ta dah! – Ryan Adams. Whether you’re new to the scruffy haired troubadour in double denim or whether your shelves bow beneath the weight of his enviable, illustrious back catalogue this long-awaited eponymous set is something to cherish. More raucous than of late, it flies out of the gate, swingin’ hit after hit, kicking against the pricks with renewed spark, spirit and swagger. It burns the daylight with an reinvigorated sense of joie de vivre. “Gimme Something Good”, “Kim”, “Feels Like Fire” and “I Just Might” are notable amongst many riches. But damn Sam, when Adams strides out alone with his beat-up acoustic during “My Wrecking Ball”, it’s a bullet with a kiss that shoots straight through your fuckin’ heart. Ménière’s be damned! Heroes may take a fall, but heroes always get back up. img-842 Matt James


Artist: Scott Walker and Sunn O)))

Album: Soused

Label: 4AD

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Scott Walker and Sunn O)))

The idea of Scott Walker and Sunn O))) collaborating was one that seemed too perfect to even imagine. “Like that partnership would ever happen.” Well, it did, and fans of the venerable, reclusive Walker, fans of the doom/drone duo, and fans of avant-garde music in general flipped their collective lids when the new album Soused was announced. Not all dream collaborations work, and there was plenty of reason for apprehension. Would the roaring guitars of Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson overwhelm Walker’s crazed poet persona on record? Or would Walker’s sheer eccentricity prove too much of a challenge to the comparatively more rigid Sunn O)))? In the end, as perfect a balance between the two sides as possible was struck on this extraordinary record. It’s essentially a Scott Walker album with Sunn O))) acting as backing musicians, the guitars, drones, and feedback harnessed and manipulated brilliantly and beautifully by Walker and longtime collaborator Stephen Walsh, dark in tone, laced with dry humor, unsettling and bracing at the same time. While the sheer eclecticism of Walker’s Tilt/The Drift/Bish Bosch trilogy is missed, this is a completely different beast, the 71-year-old offering his own take on heavy metal and coming up with music far more visceral and intense than anything the genre produced in 2014. img-842 Adrien Begrand


Artist: Future Islands

Album: Singles

Label: 4AD

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Future Islands

In a year full of distinct, often idiosyncratic vocalists, Future Islands’ Samuel T. Herring stood out from the crowd. Amidst a backdrop of arty, pristinely constructed synth rock, Herring shone like the unlikeliest of stars. Moving from a growling, theatrically soulful croon to full-throated bellow on such standouts as “Seasons (Waiting On You)” and “Light House”, Herring and his band mates William Cashion and J. Gerrit Welmers proved the brazen title was not far off the mark.

Crafting ten near-perfect synth-driven indie rock tracks that very well could have been singles, Future Islands proved themselves to be one of, if not the most compelling acts currently operating within the current crop of ‘80s-minded, synth-based groups. A note-perfect recreation of everything exemplary about synth-pop’s halcyon days and the artier corners of indie rock dating back to the likes of Roxy Music, Singles showed the band taking what was already an excellent formula stratospherically to the next level. img-842 John Paul


Artist: Ty Segall

Album: Manipulator

Label: Drag City

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Ty Segall

Ty Segall brings as much energy to Manipulator as you’d expect, and he’s overflowing with ideas. One of the best ideas, though, may be his increased attention to craft on this album. Segall sounds shinier than he has in the past, a tone that fits his ostensibly pop playing, but which he undercuts beautifully with guitar freakouts and heavier moments. It’s not just a matter of mixing the fuzz and the shred with the psych-pop, though that would be entertaining enough. It’s more that Segall manages to spill his ambition across 17 tracks that show enough breadth of style to keep the long-running album interesting, but enough cohesion to make for a sensible listen. Without sounding derivative, Segall and his band tear through ’60s and ’70s garage and glam, creating a sound that’s both accomplished and explosive. img-842 Justin Cober-Lake


Artist: Sharon Van Etten

Album: Are We There

Label: Jagjaguwar

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Sharon Van Etten
Are We There

Sharon Van Etten sings like angels wish they could. If a freak mastering accident caused Are We There to be released with only vocal tracks, it would still be one of the best albums of the year. But where Van Etten’s music really reaches transcendence comes when she underpins her showstopper voice with luscious arrangements and profound lyricism, like the sensual saxes of the highlight “Tarifa” or the bouncy drum machines of “Our Love”. img-842 Logan Austin


Artist: Brian Eno and Karl Hyde

Album: High Life

Label: Warp

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Brian Eno and Karl Hyde
High Life

Modern music is indebted to Brian Eno for far too many reasons: the creative foil for Roxy Music’s early releases, the pioneer of ambient/drone music, collaborator extraordinaire (David Bowie, David Byrne), the sonic producer behind some of the best albums of the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s. (Paul Simon, U2, and Coldplay, anyone?) Eno is an auteur, a thinking man’s musician who isn’t afraid to stray from the path and to reroute the path entirely when necessary. He’s never rested on his laurels or coasted on the goodwill his career has afforded him, though, God knows, he could certainly do that without complaint. He’s only ever pushed himself forward and, thereby, pushed the musical boundaries of the possible and probable forward.

High Life, Eno’s second material collaboration with Karl Hyde after Someday World, is a wonder unto itself. For all of Eno’s indescribable experiments, it’s a gut punch to realize that, under the right circumstances, Eno can create a magnetic album of pop sensibilities. Album opener “Return” traces a narrative and a guitar and bass drone into the bottom of the sea. “Time to Waste It” pulls deep from a distorted batch of World rhythms and syncopated R&B. “Lilac” is an under-the-radar earworm that positively begs for a Talking Heads-style dance routine. At seven tracks (on the digital release; the physical release adds one or two more, depending on format) there’s plenty of time to engage in all of them. Even the tracks that stretch past the six minute mark — four of the seven — don’t overstay their welcome; they blend and bang around in your headphones like a joyous cacophony. Hyde deserves special credit for the collaboration on High Life, too. His musical approach and electronic acumen obviously unlocked something between the two men that is brilliantly committed to tape. Whenever Eno gets on a roll creatively, he’ll put any young upstarts to shame with his creativity. Having a master of his craft — in this case two masters — show up on a “best of” list in 2014 isn’t only celebratory, it’s revelatory. It underscores how much we can learn from the past and how far we can go. Eno and Hyde’s message on High Life may as well be: “Stop recycling the old; there’s too much new ground to uncover.” This duo sells that message with every song. img-842 Scott Elingburg

20 – 11

Artist: Freddie Gibbs and Madlib

Album: Piñata

Label: Madlib Invazion

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Freddie Gibbs and Madlib

Piñata is an oddity. It simultaneously embraces the golden sounds of Biggie’s reign and also has Mac Miller drop a guest verse. However, that’s exactly why it works so well. It takes the best from both eras; Madlib’s production dips into silky smooth soul just as often as it relies on wonky video game sampling beats. Gibbs sounds like a Tupac reincarnated, spitting the wisdom of the streets, crafting his own Gary, Indiana mythos one bar, only to reflect on his near-death encounters and mistakes the next — and somehow these two fit perfectly together. The chemistry that makes MadGibbs so successful sinks into every nook and cranny of the album. Piñata has no less than five songs that could be the gangsta anthem of the year, and, even with legends like Scarface and Raekwon, this show is all Gibbs and Madlib. On the stellar “Uno”, Gibbs raps “I’m number one with the bullet”. He could leave off the second half of that line and still be absolutely right. img-843 Nathan Stevens


Artist: Sturgill Simpson

Album: Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

Label: High Top Mountain

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Sturgill Simpson
Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

The year 2014 marks Sturgill Simpson’s strongest statement in the musical world. The modestly married father of two has been all over the place, playing tracks on Letterman, Conan, and >The Tonight Show, taking home accolades like Americana Artist of the Year, and raking in stunning reviews for his second full-length release, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. This nine-track collection, complete with Simpson’s earthy Haggard-meets-Waylon baritone, sharp Bakersfield-esque guitar licks, and song titles with names like “Long White Line” and “Life Of Sin” certainly helps put the long-needed “country” element back into country music.But, alas, a closer inspection of Simpson’s subject matter and lyrics reveals a man uninterested in serving as a genre torchbearer. He instead aims for the great unknown, finding a spacey and distorted place in his head, where he’s free to examine and ponder life’s mysteries without the need for certainty. There’s some insight derived from the traditional country music God in these songs, but there’s also space reserved for Buddha, romantic love, and pharmaceuticals, too. A bit of an outside-the-box face of Americana music, for sure, but one that has pleasantly breathed some fresh air into the proceedings. img-843 Jeff Strowe


Artist: Caribou

Album: Our Love

Label: Merge

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Our Love

For fans of Dan Snaith’s circular brand of flannel-friendly dance catharsis, a near eternity had passed between 2010’s critical breakthrough Swim and 2014’s Our Love, Snaith biding his time by doing silly things like releasing music under a new pseudonym (Daphni) and opening for Radiohead on yet another leg of their tour. While Our Love didn’t immediately yield go-to faves like Swim‘s “Sun”, gradual spins revealed that Our Love was, in fact, the strongest, most cohesive album Snaith has yet made, the Soundcloud glitterati firing off covers of “Can’t Do Without You” in the weeks following its release. Yet outdoing Hot Chip’s entire last album in less than four minutes (“All I Ever Need”) isn’t the mark of an asshole with score to settle, no; it’s simply evidence of that one time Dan Snaith was at the peak of his powers and decided to use them by giving us ten perfect examples of how the hips and the heart will forever be connected. img-843 Evan Sawdey


Artist: Ben Frost

Album: A U R O R A

Label: Mute

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Ben Frost

On this latest release, Ben Frost retains his commitment to militant rhythms, aggressive textures, and ominous timbres. A U R O R A is accessible noise, like Frost’s previous work, but here, the cacophony is imbued with a shimmering vibrancy, openness, and vitality. Performed by Frost, multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily, and percussionists Greg Fox (ex-Liturgy) and Thor Harris (Swans), A U R O R A is a masterful and uncompromising album that unites the elemental and the synthetic, with otherworldly results. The album’s melodic elements — hypnotizing synths and whirling wind chimes — are interwoven with its industrial rhythms, creating a soundscape that is at once immersive and pliable. On “Nolan”, wind chimes yield to increasingly distorted synths, establishing the album’s tone as one that traverses the amenable and the antagonistic. Pieces like “Diphenyl Oxalate” maintain the sense of violence heard in Frost’s earlier work, such as 2009’s By the Throat, but trade in the foreboding for the energetic and the celestial. The album meets its apex with “Venter”, wherein repetitive, syncopated hand drums enable eager chimes to give way to explosive synth. In performance, Frost invigorates each piece with live percussion, relentless strobe, and heavy smoke, making for an all-encompassing experience in which one can be suffocated by A U R O R A‘s luxurious timbres and textures. Frost’s latest release offers a profound sonic unity but refuses to offer resolve. Instead, the noisy momentum that resonates throughout A U R O R A incites expansiveness and limitlessness. img-843 Sara Rodrigues


Artist: Parker Millsap

Album: Parker Millsap

Label: Okrahoma

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Parker Millsap
Parker Millsap

Think back to the soundtrack of the 2009 film Crazy Heart, when you likely first heard Ryan Bingham’s grizzled, whiskey-soaked voice: were you shocked to learn that he was all of 26? If you were, then Parker Millsap no doubt provided you with a revelation of an entirely different order. After all, it’s not just Millsap’s commanding voice, which has lapped in what sounds like entire lives’ worth of experience (not to mention buckets of roadhouse brews), but his songwriting as well. On this eponymous first solo album, Millsap puts forth layered character sketches and spouts country aphorisms without any seeming effort. The Oklahoma native covers all kinds of ground, from the portrait of a traveling preacher in “Truck Stop Gospel” to the Wizard of Oz-centric musings in “At the Bar (Emerald City Blues)”. Like his (just barely) older peer John Fullbright, Millsap promises to bring the native-to-Oklahoma Red Dirt music to the masses, an intoxicating mix of country, folk, blues, honky-tonk, and Western swing. img-843 Taylor Coe


Artist: Taylor Swift

Album: 1989

Label: Big Machine

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Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift totally surrenders to pop music on 1989. Hasn’t that trajectory been clear from jump? 1989 dives into today’s pop sounds and integrates them with ‘80s synth swiped from Madonna ballads. It’s widescreen pop music highly attuned to the details: a unique combination, now + 4eva. Swift amplifies a persistent angle of her songwriting in a more visceral, less observational way — this is her best effort yet to capture the euphoric rush of a new love and dismantle it. The fall is rough and concurrent with the rise; love crashes and builds, perpetually. Love takes a fatalistic ride into a Betamax sunset, and is regenerated. Lovers play roles they’ve played before, knowing how the story will end. They convince themselves they’ve made it, this one is real, but it’s never true, you never get out of the woods. The many unique ways Swift finds to express this idea make 1989 like a maze; change the path, but the end is the same. It’s tempting to rearrange the songs and alter the tenor of the story, based on how much hope or pessimism you feel. Yet as designed, 1989 tells its story well, beginning with a deceptive sense of hope and ending with a deceptive sense of renewal. img-843 Dave Heaton


Artist: Jenny Lewis

Album: The Voyager

Label: Warner Bros.

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Jenny Lewis
The Voyager

Jenny Lewis begins The Voyager on a rebirth, complete with baptismal head dunk, and the album does indeed feel fresher than anything she’s done since her Rilo Kiley days. But no rebirth comes with a blank slate, and Lewis knows it. Reinvention is mundane, a joke even, on “A New You”. “Late Bloomer” recounts a precocious teen’s all-too-adult misadventures in Paris with little regret, but a detached amusement that acknowledges the indelibility of the past. And, of course, no amount of reinvention will roll back the years, argue the ticking biological and romantic clocks on “Just One of the Guys” and “Aloha and the Three Johns”.

Just as any attempted break with history is really just a direct reaction to it, The Voyager is simply the Lewis we’ve known for years, but better-realized. Ever since her former band called it quits with its most pop-leaning, genre-hopping, and underappreciated album, Under the Blacklight, Lewis’s efforts have been tentative, too self-conscious to indulge in those easy hooks. The Voyager is the truest follow-up to Blacklight thus far (to wit, “Slippery Slopes” recycles Blacklight‘s title track to good effect), although with the good-natured pastiche largely abandoned for Lewis’s country and soul-tinged pop sweet spot. “There’s a little bit of magic / Everybody has it”, she sings on “Head Underwater”. On The Voyager, Lewis proves she’s found hers again. img-843 Dave Bloom


Artist: Old Crow Medicine Show

Album: Remedy

Label: ATO

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Old Crow Medicine Show

Despite the resurgence in recent years of Americana revivalist acts (the weirdly insistent influence of O Brother, Where Art Thou?), Old Crow Medicine Show still stands on the top of the heap. It’s not because the band writes the best songs or plays the best banjo licks — though it’s no slouche on either count — but because it is so willing to live all sorts of experience in their songs. From the sneaky humor of opener “Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer” to the hymnlike final track “The Warden”, which finds pathos where you’d never think to look, Old Crow demonstrates a certain guilelessness, the talent of approaching things from either end of the spectrum. Take “Dearly Departed Friend”, written from the perspective of one soldier attending the funeral of another, which injects a moment of sly, knowing humor into the middle of a moment that couldn’t be any sadder. And don’t forget their Bob Dylan co-write follow-up to “Wagon Wheel” — the only campfire song written in the past 30 years — in “Sweet Amarillo”, a ludicrously catchy portrait of a lovelorn cowboy. img-843 Taylor Coe


Artist: Angel Olsen

Album: Burn Your Fire For No Witness

Label: Jagjaguwar

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Angel Olsen
Burn Your Fire For No Witness

From the beginning of her solo career, St. Louis’ Angel Olsen has shown a great facility at drawing the listener in. Although she clearly fits into the singer-songwriter mold, after touring and now recording with a full band she now has the ability to not only draw you in but to then blow you away. Burn Your Fire For No Witness finds Olsen ruminating on her favorite topic: loneliness. But after her famous year of “heartbreak, travel and transformation” she now has more to say on the subject and more ways to say it.

It’s hard to decide on a single highlight, but “Hi Five” is certainly a top contender. A triumphantly sardonic song about loss and solitude, it starts with a Hank Williams reference and actually manages to live up to it via an impressively deft set of musical and emotional twists and turns. Songs like the quietly grandiose “White Fire” and almost painfully fragile “Enemy” both juxtapose and blend in with bolder new arrangements on “Stars” or “Forgiven/Forgotten”. Burn Your Fire For No Witness is a record that turns heartbreak into a kind of defiant, lonely triumph. img-843 John Tryneski


Artist: Azealia Banks

Album: Broke With Expensive Taste

Label: Prospect Park

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Azealia Banks
Broke With Expensive Taste

By now, everyone knows this Harlem, New York dynamo’s got nerve. With her record label tension and berserker-level Twitter rants, Azealia Banks must have known her long-awaited Broke With Expensive Taste had some explaining to do. Without fanfare, she dropped the whole thing on us, in the same way she peppers us with her fast-paced and quick-tempered rhymes. The album’s running thread is its flair for contradiction: Banks’ mercurial swoon as a songstress contrasting the luggage-tight barrage of her rapping (“Idle Delilah”, “Chasing Time”); the intimacy of her delivery against the backdrop of trap, house, and industrial beats (“BBD”, “Heavy Metal & Reflective”); and of course the previously heard tracks (“212”, “Yung Rapunxel”) sitting alongside the new ones. It’s a suite of ambition proving that one’s grasp can (and often does) exceed one’s reach, but it also shows that the push for new heights is nevertheless rewarding for its own sake. img-843 Quentin Huff

10 – 1

Artist: Spoon

Album: They Want My Soul

Label: Loma Vista

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They Want My Soul

On its first few records, Spoon continually worked within its strengths: clockwork rhythms, punchy guitars, and Britt Daniel’s feverish croon. That formula produced a string of solid to great records including 1998’s A Series of Sneaks and 2001’s Girls Can Tell, but it wasn’t until 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga did Spoon begin to add more layers to its sound. Sprinkled with classic R&B tones, a vibrant horn section, and Daniels at his best lyrically, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga also happened to be the record where mainstream pop music fans began to take notice. While not the complete failure that some would make it out to be, Spoon’s 2010 LP, Transference, can now be categorized as a small misstep when compared to Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga or its latest, They Want My Soul. Seemingly rejuvenated from his time touring and recording with Divine Fits in 2012, Daniel brought some of that project’s whimsy and lushness with him when it came time to write new Spoon material. The result is pure and earnest rock record often covered by an ethereal pop sheen. “Do You” features a melodic hook that on first listen seemingly contains too many notes, but in the end, it’s downright infectious. Meanwhile, “Knock Knock Knock” begins quite stripped down before inexplicably building into frenzied noise folk, and title track finds the band tapping into its power-pop reservoir for a song that is begging to soundtrack a summer evening trip to the fair. Though Spoon has written some great albums in its 21-year career, They Want My Soul might be its best yet, and that’s certainly impressive. img-844 Richard Giraldi


Artist: Aphex Twin

Album: Syro

Label: Warp

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Aphex Twin

When the giant blimp bearing the iconic Aphex Twin logo was spotted hovering ominously over London earlier this year, it was difficult to know what to make of it. Like the announcement of a new season of Twin Peaks, the prospect of a new Aphex Twin album seemed too good to be true. Many of us whose minds were blown forever by records like Richard D. James Album and …I Care Because You Do had more or less resigned ourselves to the idea that Richard D. James, aka Aphex Twin, would never again emerge to mess with our heads and make the world more interesting. With Syro, he has done just that. Frantic, demented, and delightfully warm, Syro is the comeback album few of us really expected. The Aphex sound is present and unmistakable on Syro, but there is an almost organic warmth to this record that vaguely reminds the listener of bands like Tortoise or Battles. There was a playfulness and sense of fun on his classic ’90s releases that was less evident on his more recent material, and that maniacal jocularity is back on Syro in full effect. img-844 Benjamin Hedge Olson


Artist: FKA twigs

Album: LP1

Label: Young Turks

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FKA Twigs

After a fair groundswell of hype in the wake of two EPs, London-based artist FKA Twigs exceeded all expectations with the rarest of debut albums, one whose vision was clear and ambitious, yet phenomenally disciplined. Featuring a host of producers, including Kanye West collaborator Arca, Emile Hayne, Devonté Hynes, Clams Casino, and Twigs herself, it’s absolutely remarkable that LP1 is as consistent and economical as it is, but over the course of 40 spellbinding minutes she and her collaborators create a musical environment unlike anything in 2014: stripped down to skeletal form, but at the same time loaded with rich beats, tones and effects, making for an intoxicating blend of the murky and the seductive. Dipping its toes in electronic, trip hop, R&B, dream pop, and even dark ambient, LP1 is careful to never fully commit to one style, instead creating a quietly intense musical backdrop against which Twigs sings her confessional, often explicit lyrics. Raw yet warm, nocturnal yet vivid, this is a wildly inventive statement by a new British solo artist that deserves to stand alongside Kate Bush’s The Kick Inside and Tricky’s Maxinquaye. img-844 Adrien Begrand


Artist: The War on Drugs

Album: Lost in the Dream

Label: Secretly Canadian

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The War on Drugs
Lost in the Dream

Adam Granduciel and his War on Drugs project have spent years stretching a sonic palate past its logical limits. 2011’s Slave Ambient felt like one of the most far-reaching and expansive rock records in recent memory. Lost In The Dream, though, for all the uncertainly and displacement of its title, is a self-assured, staggering hour of music. Treated guitars and keyboards create thick, lush compositions that roll out in front of us like some abandoned highway. “Under the Pressure” sounds spare, until rundown hooks pile one on top of the other, and Granduciel’s subtly rangy singing spills out into the song’s grand atmosphere. “An Ocean In Between The Waves” is slicing and propulsive, but still has the same patience with its layering. The title track peels the astral feeling of these songs back to reveal an intimacy at the heart of this song. When Granduciel asks that someone “leave the light on for me”, it sounds like an exhausted, heartworn plea. There’s a home somewhere on the periphery of this album’s vision quest, but Lost In The Dream is remarkable for how deeply it commits to its exploration, how far Granduciel is willing to wander, and how much he finds as a result. As a whole, it’s a huge record, a seemingly gauzy one, but the more you dig in, the more you can see the deliberate nature of every move, every step into the unknown. img-844 Matt Fiander


Artist: Against Me!

Album: Transgender Dysphoria Blues

Label: Total Trebel

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Against Me!
Transgender Dysphoria Blues

Laura Jane Grace (born Tom Gabel) came out as a transgender woman in 2012 and, with one swift declaration, became the most prominent transgender figure in rock music. Even that move prepared no one for the dizzying gut punch of power-punk bliss and queer rage that fuses to form 2014’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues. From the barked two-chord attack of the title track (“You want them to see you like they see every other girl / They just see a faggot!” Grace protests) to the I-don’t-owe-you-anything rant of “Black Me Out”, Transgender Dysphoria Blues is an unflinching 29-minute indictment that I can’t seem to finish without beginning again, once more, however breathless I am, from the top. It’s the searingly perfect punk album 2014 needed, even if it’s not the one anyone in a sad, transphobic society much deserves. img-844 Zach Schonfeld


Artist: Swans

Album: To Be Kind

Label: Young God

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To Be Kind

If you were creeped out by the snarling wolf that adorned Swans’ 2012 album The Seer, it’s probably best to avoid the cover of To Be Kind — a screaming, Rockwellian baby that David Lynch would hang above the fireplace. The album within delivers on this unsettling entrée, boiling the meaning of life down to basic human needs while it methodically destroys the world. Yet this appeal to our animal selves is belied by the band’s exquisitely crafted annihilations, like when the angular funk groove of “A Little God In My Hands” gets pancaked by a dump truck of drunken horns, making Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” seem like “I Want Candy”. When bandleader Michael Gira screams “I’m just a little boy”, it’s not a performance. It’s an expulsion. It falls somewhere between the sneer of a playground bully and the sickening croak of a bloated raven. Maybe we all are just infants alone in our cribs, pretending that there are things we need other than love and warmth and bread. If so, this record makes for one hell of a blankie. img-844 Joe Sweeney


Artist: St. Vincent

Album: St. Vincent

Label: Loma Vista

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St. Vincent
St. Vincent

Annie Clark’s fourth entry as St. Vincent is called St. Vincent. It’s aptly titled, since it houses the best elements of its predecessors. It’s got Marry Me‘s baroque pop flourishes, Actor‘s whimsical storytelling, and Strange Mercy‘s confident vocals. There’s even a hint of the rhythm-and-brass work from Love This Giant, Clark’s collaboration with David Byrne. And her guitar work is still killer. St. Vincent also operates as a sequel, juxtaposing Strange Mercy‘s swaggering outro “Year of the Tiger” by opening with a bit of trepidation (“Rattlesnake”). From there, it marches to a relentless mash of danceable rock (“Birth in Reverse”, “Psychopath”, “Regret”), Talking Heads-style pop (“Digital Witness”), and transcendent anthems (“Prince Johnny”, “Severed Crossed Fingers”). Clark’s fondness for opposing textures is evident on icy-hot tempo changer “Huey Newton”, as is her use of delicately jarring wordplay in “I Prefer Your Love” (“…to Jesus”, she declares). In full command of her talents, Clark is a judicious songwriter now, and an exquisitely wiser editor. img-844 Quentin Huff


Artist: Flying Lotus

Album: You’re Dead!

Label: Warp

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Flying Lotus
You’re Dead!

It should shock no one that Flying Lotus took yet another giant leap forward in 2014 with his fifth studio album, You’re Dead! The experimental electronic/hip-hop producer, inspired by psychedelic drug trips, jazz fusion and the death of a close friend or two, enlisted the help of one of the most disparate, high-class guest rosters in recent memory to create his singular vision of heaven and hell, from modern rap superstar Kendrick Lamar to classic jazz visionary Herbie Hancock. Somehow the album maintains a deep sense of intimacy through the erratic beats, morbid themes, and polyrhythmic jazz cacophony. Though the album is called You’re Dead!, it’s actually an incredibly enthusiastic celebration of life. Flying Lotus is one of those rare artists that never stops expanding its sonic territory, and You’re Dead! is his most personal album statement yet. For it’s grand scope and intimate sensibilities, You’re Dead! will almost certainly live on. img-844 Colin Fitzgerald


Artist: Sun Kil Moon

Album: Benji

Label: Caldo Verde / Norman

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Sun Kil Moon

Memento mori, the process of reflecting on our mortality as a way of finding our place in the world, has a long and honored tradition. Whether one believes in an afterlife or not, we all know that the existence of ourselves and those we love is fleeting and transitory. Benji captures Mark Kozelek’s meditations on death: of his second cousin, an uncle, a man who euthanizes his wife, and many more. All of these are highly personal remembrances that show the importance of memory. We can control pain mentally as well as find joy by thinking of the people, places and things we loved—whether it was a moment when we watched a movie when younger and everything was all right with the world (“Micheline”) or a more recent event like a young mother of two getting killed accidentally when taking out the trash (“Carissa”). Kozelek understands the power of familial love (there is a song about his adoration for each of his parents) and that this serves as a corollary for the death one cannot conquer. The fact that Kozelek has wrung fresh art from these existential tropes shows that the act of witness and testifying remains a powerful force for good when times seem darkest. img-844 Steve Horowitz


Artist: Run the Jewels

Album: Run the Jewels 2

Label: Mass Appeal

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Run the Jewels
Run the Jewels 2

On paper, Run the Jewels shouldn’t have made one of the best albums of 2013. Even more unlikely would be a repeat of that feat just one year later, but here we are nonetheless, with Killer Mike and El-P enlisting the help of other wizened music veterans — Gangsta Boo, Zack de la Rocha, and Travis Barker — to surpass their first effort in every way. The beats on Run the Jewels 2 are more intense, the rhymes more fiery, the album more compact and impactful. Simply put, it’s the most 2014 album of 2014: dark, unflinching, unassailably current, holding an uncomfortable mirror up to American society and daring us to look into it. If Run the Jewels was Killer Mike and El-P goofing around, kicking raps to gain attention and prove their vitality, Run the Jewels 2 is the sleight of hand where both emcees get serious, hitting us hard and fast, leaving us all breathless and making a statement that will not be soon forgotten. img-844 Adam Finley