The Top Albums of 2014
by Tastemakers Staff, published December 25th 2014
10. Swans - To Be Kind
Before the release of To Be Kind, there was a clear division between old Swans and new Swans. Like fangirls picking their favorite vampires, people would often find themselves in one camp or the other. Some preferred the intense variety of albums like Soundtracks for the Blind. Some were partial to the raw, primal energy to be found in Filth or Public Castration is a Good Idea. Still others connected with the progressive, grandiose nature of post-breakup albums like The Seer. To Be Kind, however, feels like a culmination. It has the variety of Soundtracks for the Blind, cycling from repetitive chants to noise-rock reminiscent of early Modest Mouse to electroacoustic sound collages to slow, creeping ballads. It also uses repetition to an extreme degree, creating arguably more atmosphere and cohesiveness than even The Seer. And the intense heights of noise and emotion that songs like “Bring the Sun” reach surpass the band’s early work if only because they can be compared to the stripped-back, minimalistic sections in the rest of the album.
Like many Swans records, it risks the borderline between strength and comedy. The yammering and screeching of Michael Gira would seem absurd if it wasn’t done with such conviction, and over such a convincing background. He can get away with the unfiltered emotion he shows only because of the sheer intensity of the entire performance. Even on repeated listens, this intensity is mind-boggling. Swans push their tracks to what feels like the absolute limit, then casually proceed to break past it. This album is over two hours long, full of repetition, and not boring for a single second. Even if they refuse to appeal to everyone, this album is an accomplishment to be remembered. Some say that this record is exactly what we have come to expect from Swans, and that at least should speak volumes.
By Tim DiFazio (English)
9. Sun Kil Moon - Benji
It has doubtless been a weird year for Mark Kozelek. Between the foul-mouthed T-shirts and the diss tracks, the 47-year-old singer/songwriter’s antics have been a constant presence in the music news cycle, to the chagrin of many. Lest we forget, however, the reason that Kozelek has found himself and his Sun Kil Moon project in the center spotlight during 2014 in the first place: the stunning and heart-wrenching Benji.
Benji takes the stream-of-consciousness lyrical style that Kozelek has shifted toward in recent records and centers it around broader thematic concerns of death, aging and nostalgia, resulting in his most cohesive and affecting work in years. Kozelek narrates histories and tragedies both familial and far-removed, woven together by his intricate acoustic guitar work and accompaniment from friends like Will Oldham, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone’s Owen Ashworth and Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley. The writing is stark but heartfelt and the arrangements beautifully, subtly befitting of each tale.
It’s a record that quietly gets under your skin and refuses to let go; a sprawling and engrossing web of people and places impacted by death and loss, hope and fear, family and friendship, rendered in stunning detail. Benji is a new side to Kozelek’s increasingly idiosyncratic songwriting that strikes a powerful chord. For all his questionable conduct in the past year, this record is what Kozelek’s 2014 should be remembered for.
By Ben Stas (Journalism/English)
8. Real Estate - Atlas
When you listen to Atlas, you start to remember all these weird, ridiculous, and extremely lovely days from your younger years. You become lost in those beautiful moments that seem to slip out of our immediate consciousness. You relive those embarrassing times in life that make it awkward for all parties involved. But then you realize that they are the ones we will appreciate in the long run because they remind us that we are functioning humans (some more than others) distinguished by our own unique stories.
Hailing from Ridgewood, New Jersey, Real Estate presents the world with their third studio album. Atlas opens with “Had to Hear,” a divine piece that brings the listener back to those indelible times. Because you can’t stop listening to it, you get carried away with the clean and simple sounds of each song. Then you hear “How Might I Live?” and you become enthralled by what is and what could have been. You listen to the album again and you can’t help but think about your friends, family, and all that you genuinely love in life. With soothing vocals and handsome melodies, this album provides the listener with a humble and uplifting experience. This is Real Estate’s talent, the ability to provide us with a unique way to reflect, accept, and embrace the things we did this year.
By Timothea Pham (Communication Studies)
7. Cloud Nothings - Here and Nowhere Else
What does black-and-white symbolize, these days? Austerity, restraint, and detachment. Cloud Nothings’ Here and Nowhere Else is their second black-and-white album cover in a row, and yet they possess none of those qualities, at first glance. “I can feel your pain, and I feel alright about it,” you’re told in the opening track. Baldi, Duke and Gerycz aren’t distant, but that doesn’t mean they plan to be kind.
That’s a valid strategy, after all. “Try to stop it, try to feel something, but nothing happens, I stay the same,” Baldi sings on “Psychic Trauma.” Faced with nothing, Cloud Nothings choose hatred. Their aggression is calculated. The sound is raw, but the rhythms are precise. They have the facts, and they’re voting hell no.
Is that an unsustainable way of going through life? Probably, yeah. But they’re kids and they’ve never pretended to be anything but. As its title suggests, Here and Nowhere Else is an album about coming to grips with your place in the world. Nobody said it wouldn’t hurt.
By Nathan Goldman (Sociology)
6. The War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream
With Lost in the Dream, The War on Drugs have accomplished a feat similar to that pulled off by Tame Impala in 2012 with Lonerism. Both bands took a major leap forward in songwriting ability on their breakthrough albums, blending the classic-rock influences they had mined in their previous work with just enough modern-sounding experimentation to go beyond mere revivalism. However, while Tame Impala’s record drew sonic inspiration from ‘60s psychedelic rock, Lost in the Dream bears the stamp of significantly less hip ‘80s dad-rock touchstones like Dire Straits, Tom Petty, and the synthesizer-heavy phases of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. And while it’s been frequently noted that Tame Impala frontman Kevin Parker sounds eerily similar to a certain assassinated Beatle, the singer who War on Drugs vocalist Adam Granduciel most closely resembles, especially on Lost in the Dream’s profoundly melancholic opener “Under the Pressure,” is, uh, Don Henley. Thankfully, rather than try to be something they’re not in an attempt to win cool points, The War on Drugs stuck to the style they do best and in the process made an album so deep, beautiful, and just flat-out good that the indie kids had no choice but to meet Granduciel and his band on their own terms.
On Lost in the Dream, Granduciel chronicles the depression and anxiety he experienced after pushing himself to the point of nervous breakdown on tour. What would have been 4-minute rock songs in the hands of most bands are often stretched out to twice that length, with instrumental codas which marry the reflective airiness of ambient music to Krautrock’s rhythmic forward pulse. Granduciel’s lyrics, which meditate on feelings and relationships in the confused, abstract language of someone with more questions than answers, are vague but tangible enough to be relatable if you’re in a similarly contemplative mood. Flowing from one song to the next in that effortless way which only the best albums do, Lost in the Dream is the aural equivalent of staring out a car or plane window during a long journey and feeling some unclassifiable mixture of comfort and dread at the thought that all of this motion never really ends, it just drops you off somewhere for a little while before picking you up and dropping you somewhere else. By the time Granduciel sings “Love’s the key to the things that we see” on the gorgeous title track, he hasn’t just earned the right to share that timeworn sentiment as if it were as profound as life itself. He’s made you recognize it, and every other raw emotion bared on Lost in the Dream, within yourself.
By Terence Cawley (Biology)
5. The Antlers - Familiars
Brooklyn indie-rock mainstays The Antlers returned this year with the follow up to 2012’s experimental Undersea and a remarkable appetite for theatrics on their tenth release in eight years. Always melody-driven and melancholy, but typically favoring understated emotive cues, The Antlers introduce Familiars with an uncharacteristically overt one-two punch of opener ballad “Palace” and dirgey “Doppelgänger,” the latter of which comes complete with a creepy vocal affectation courtesy of vocalist and principal songwriter Peter Silberman.
As with past releases, Familiars’ content continues Silberman’s thematic focus on death. This time, however, there’s something different––the downright scarring final-breath-heartbreak of 2009’s Hospice is replaced with, in addition to the aforementioned penchant for grander theatrics, a generally more optimistic tone both sonically and lyrically.
Indie rock tends to be persnickety about bands that repeat themselves. Evolution and forward progress is a must. In fact, in some interpretations, evolution and forward progress is the entire purpose of independent music. The Antlers offer a worthwhile counter to this––Silberman’s subject matter has never really changed, but his manner and outlook has markedly. The Antlers aren’t about the world at large, they are very much about Silberman’s own experiences and anxieties. Why, in that case, demonstrate anything other than Silberman’s own chronicle when reflecting upon The Antlers’ excellent catalog to this point?
By Nick Hugon (International Affairs)
4. Flying Lotus - You’re Dead
You’re Dead! is a whirlwind meditation on death presented in 19 parts and various shades of jazz-fusion, hip-hop and electronica from the iconoclastic Steve Ellison, better known by his recording name Flying Lotus. On his fifth full length under the Flying Lotus moniker, Ellison relies on rapid bebop style drum beats and unorthodox percussion, while still allowing room for more traditional hip-hop grooves. As the listener is thrown suddenly from one track to the next (only two songs clock in over three minutes), lightning-quick bass and guitar jazz runs bleed into laser noises, psychedelic vocals, or disarmingly beautiful atmospherics. The album tackles the very concept of death with an irreverent, even joyful confusion as jazz influenced chaos gives way to breathy moments of serenity.
Some may argue whether You’re Dead! is a hip-hop album at all. Though Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg both appear on the album, very few songs feature any actual rapping. Ellison has created an album separate from the current trends of hip-hop without attempting to contradict them. You’re Dead! would seem to find a kindred spirit in 2003’s Madvillainy with its heady concept album approach and nontraditional hip-hop interpretations. However, You’re Dead! truly stands out as an album all its own, unafraid to assemble a wide range of musical styles to muse on death in unexpected ways.
By Marco White (Journalism)
3. St. Vincent - St. Vincent
This. This is why we do it. This is why we follow artists throughout their career, because after they catch our attention with a unique and resonating sound, we can only sit around and hope that sound to comes to a full realization. 2011’s Strange Mercy saw the experiment that is St. Vincent come to a point that made sense. The eclectic guitar, strange noises, cloud-like vocals, and the strange human yet somewhat alien persona that we had come to expect from Annie Clark were all present and pleasing on past records, but were clearly still maturing.
Enter 2014 and enter Annie Clark, donning white-gray hair and high fashion dresses to go with a new persona, one that is more extroverted and in control than the naivety we saw in her earlier work. Yet that personality does not stay larger than life, reaching down to a smaller level for intimate moments such as “Prince Johnny” and “I Prefer Your Love.” In order to counterbalance the personal moments, we get to hear St. Vincent at her biggest as she crams the album with horns and some of Clark’s best guitar work to date. The rises and falls of the album play out so expertly that by the time “Severed Crossed Fingers” rolls around as the closer, we come to realize this album is here to stay. Everything we loved about Clark’s work in the past suddenly got bigger, presenting her sound with an unprecedented level of confidence and execution that marks the entrance of St. Vincent as a dominant voice in the indie music scene.
By David McDevitt (International Affairs/Economics)
2. Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels 2
Taken at face value Run the Jewels 2 handily provides the most satisfying simple pleasures of any artist – Ariana Grande, A$AP Ferg, even the two on the same track – making bread in 2014. The beats, a streamlined distillation of rapper/producer El-P’s ear for distortion, could level buildings in their wake, and neither El nor partner-in-crime Killer Mike have ever sounded less fuck-with-able on the mic. Throughout Run the Jewels 2 Killer Mike more closely resembles an untamed beast than rapper; his brash speech and subsequent verses on opener “Jeopardy” comprise a fearsome crescendo with no shortage of quotables, and when he positions himself as “purveyor through hell” at his verse’s close it feels earned. El-P, a self-described “blip on the radar of motherships,” is a headier, less immediate presence, but every bit Mike’s equal (his tossed-off “you can all run backwards through a field of dicks” is the most memorable diss in a sea of them). Where Run the Jewels, the duo’s first excursion as an equal partnership, occasionally felt like a well-earned victory lap, Run the Jewels 2 stands tall as an artistic peak for both artists, and often (as on “Early” and “Crown”) a document of our troubled times. It’s a reward for the initiated and a wake up call for the holdouts.
By Mike Doub (Journalism/Psychology)
1. FKA Twigs – LP1
Though FKA Twigs began her career as a music video backup dancer for artists like Jessie J, Ed Sheeran and Taio Cruz, she gained recognition in the alt-R&B circuit after the releases of EP1 and EP2. Her two EPs relied heavily on 2013’s obsession with dream-pop, but showed potential with her trademark style of fusing her ethereal voice with a background of heavy, dissonant noise.
LP1 is without a doubt a much more pop-based album than her EPs – or at the very least, much more generically coherent – yet it still maintains Twigs’ trademarks. Combining dreamy and undoubtedly catchy melodies to hooks laden with her dynamic voice, this album took the potential initially displayed on EP1 and absolutely blew it up. In that sense, it’s hard to pinpoint an exact genre in which to place this album. It can be classified as pop, sure, but there really is no other pop artist that dares to be this hauntingly grandiose with their lyrics. She repeats statements like “I love another, thus I hate myself” on the track “Preface” or “when I trust you, we can do it with the lights on” on the track “Lights On” enough times for them to practically be in prayers. Her style incorporates individual voices that tend to be muted to almost a whisper in tracks like “Kicks” and “Pendulum,” awkward and frail in “Closer” and “Lights On,” but she still sings with an extremely dense and demanding tone that makes her lyrics and songs so memorable.
This album was an extremely fresh take on the new but quickly growing alt-R&B genre; the same genre that houses artists like How to Dress Well, Frank Ocean, Janelle Monae, and The Weeknd, all of whom have also been met with rapid success. At first it may seem as though she’s just bandwagoning on the success of her contemporaries, especially considering a lot of the producers on LP1 are various alt-R&B artists, but Twigs has easily earned a unique spot thanks to her singular signature styles.