“It’s been a long time baby and it has been a rough road.” – Mariah Carey, Home Shopping Network
I feel like this quote from the elusive chanteuse herself (whose latest album effort is most definitely not included in my top 30) adequately sums up the year in music, as well as most things in my life, like putting together this list of my Top 30 Albums of 2014.
This list is all over the place, as expected. There were releases from artists that I knew, even before hearing, would end up in the top 10. There were releases from artists that I thought would end up at the top that didn’t even stick. There was one release from a particular Canadian artist that I knew I would love, but didn’t expect to be my favorite album of the year.
And so, as we turn down the lights on 2014, I’m looking at this list and I’m liking a lot of what happened. Here’s hoping you did too.
30. Damien Juardo – Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Sun
Damien Juardo said this album “is about a guy who disappears on a search, if you will, for himself and never goes home,” which is kind of like what happened to me when I moved to Boulder, so that’s fun.
Favorite Track: “Silver Katherine”
29. Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain
I feel like most people have written off this album. While there’s nothing groundbreaking here, there’s a familiarity in Mr. Oberst’s vocals and subject matter that, along with the sprawling, dusty guitars, makes flipping this record akin to sliding into your favorite boots. Whatever.
Favorite track: “Double Life”
28. Sia – 1000 Forms of Fear
Best straight pop album of the year. WHATEVER T-SWIFT.
Favorite track: “Elastic Heart”
27. Glass Animals – Zaba
It’s just like chic and funky and consistently groovy, front to back.
Favorite track: “Cocoa Hooves”
26. Interpol – El Pintor
Yes, while El Pintor is a return to form (finally) for Interpol, the album sees the band falling back on old tricks. Nothing is new or exciting about most of this material, and yet it’s the band’s strongest effort in a long, long time, with a few of the songs being able to sit on the same shelf as the best work they’ve ever done.
Favorite track: “My Blue Supreme”
25. How To Dress Well – Where Is This Heart?
Like, one minute it’s dance-y and fun (“Repeat Pleasure”) and then it’s like, really spooky and scary and sad (“Face Again”). I’m in.
Favorite track: “Repeat Pleasure”
24. Thom Yorke – Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes
A very welcome surprise from Mr. Yorke, who continues to be prolific behind the scenes while we all wait for Radiohead’s next masterpiece.
Favorite track: “Nose Grows Some”
23. Sisyphus – Sisyphus
I’m biased because it’s love. Sufjan and I share a very special bond, so I couldn’t not include an album on this list that he’s (heavily) involved in. While in theory this album shouldn’t work, it works well. Really well. Sufjan’s orchestral flourishes along with Son Lux’s melodies prove to be the perfect backdrop for MC Serengeti’s rhymes.
Favorite track: “Rhythm of Devotion”
22. Azealia Banks – Broke With Expensive Taste
Perpetually delayed, and now perpetually great. I’m nervous I’m summoning something dark from the underworld when I listen to tracks like “Heavy Metal And Reflective,” or summoning something really, really chic while listening to “Ice Princess.” Even though most of the material is years old at this point, Ms. Banks still sounds fresh to death. Gays are flying everywhere.
Favorite track: “Wallace”
21. – TV On The Radio – Seeds
TV On The Radio are a happy band now and it sounds great on them.
Favorite track: “Right Now”
20. Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!
But like really? It’s like candy coming out of your speakers.
Favorite track: “Never Catch Me (feat. Kendrick Lamar)
19. The Antlers – Familiars
I don’t think The Antlers will ever get to a place as good (or depressing) as Hospice, but with each release since that defining record, they continue to evolve and surprise, still able to deliver an emotional punch with those freakin’ horns in a way that few others can.
Favorite track: “Surrender”
18. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
Like, K. Album of the Year on many other’s lists. Not as high up on mine, but still, earth shattering.
Favorite track: “Early (feat. Boots)”
17. FKA Twigs – LP1
Favorite track: “Pendulum”
16. Spoon – They Want My Soul
I met Britt Daniel this past Sunday. Oh, this album is good. Spoon by the numbers, but that’s like, way better than most bands’ by-the-numbers shit.
Favorite track: “Knock Knock Knock”
15. La Roux – Trouble in Paradise
Maybe it’s because I’m gay. Maybe it’s because the live show blew my mind (even though I was alone, which was chic but also not chic). I keep coming back to this album when I need to shake the stress away, one of the many magical powers of music. La Roux’s Trouble in Paradise does it better than many others – there’s no need to skip to the next track on this one.
Favorite track: “Cruel Sexuality”
14. Mac DeMarco – Salad Days
Is Mac DeMarco good looking? Not good looking? What would happen if he fixed his teeth? Can he get naked more often in music videos?
Favorite track: “Let My Baby Stay”
13. James Vincent McMorrow – Post Tropical
Murked me all last winter, and I’m ready to let it murk me all over again during this snowy season. McMorrow turned up the bass for his second LP and it sounds really great.
Favorite track: “Red Dust”
12. Future Islands – Singles
I mean there’s really not much more I can say about Singles that hasn’t already been said. This was Sam’s year.
Favorite track: “Seasons (Waiting On You)”
11. Caribou – Our Love
Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiike. Yes. Also, Owen Pallett contributed a lot to this one. More on him later…
Favorite track: “Back Home”
10. PHOX – PHOX
Ok, honestly I really didn’t want to like this album as much as I did, and still do. First, it was pushed on me BY THE STARBUCKS APP. Red flag number one. And then just look at that album art. CUTE AS FUCK. Also, their name is a stylized spelling of fox, an animal that is plastered all over my favorite Pierrepont Hicks tie. There’s no way the music can be that good. Then I learn this Baraboo, Wisconsin-based band recorded this album at Bon Iver’s April Base. BAIIIIII. And then I gave in and laughed and cried and wow it’s just kind of perfect. Does this make me basic?
Favorite track: “Satyr and The Faun”
9. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There
Dead. I’m dead by how perfect this album is. Really Sharon, stop it.
Favorite track: “Break Me”
8. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
Favorite track: “Regret”
7. Lykke Li – I Never Learn
Jesus, this album. I mean when the preview video was released, I was sobbing at my desk. TALK ABOUT DEVASDATING! Apparently she wrote this album after the most painful breakup of her life. “This album is about the shame and the guilt and the sadness and the regret you can experience after leaving someone,” she told Pitchfork. Like, sadness chic to the extreme. And that voice, that voice that can pierce anything. Really though, if you’re having a bad day or you just fought with your girlfriend/boyfriend/roommate or just want to feel feelings, this is about as cathartic (and brilliant) as you can get. I mean during the chorus of “Gunshot” it actually feels like the music is shooting you. How great is that?
Favorite track: “Gunshot”
6. Beck – Morning Phase
The return of Beck was great for me, and great for 2014. Seeing Beck at Pitchfork Fest this year really cemented how great this album is; who knew “Blue Moon” was such a sing-along anthem? “I’m so tired of being alooooneeeee.” Sing it boy.
Favorite track: “Waking Light”
5. Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence
I don’t think I anticipated an album more this year than Lana’s- the one on which she had to prove to everyone she wasn’t a flash in the pan, she wasn’t her SNL performance, which honestly wasn’t that bad. The girl that everyone loved to hate became the subject of countless think pieces both defending and defaming her (once again). But Lana doesn’t care about any of that, and Ultraviolence is amazing. The album sounds like old Hollywood, curated by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys and brought home by Lana’s vocals, which are stronger than ever. She revels in being the other woman, looking pretty when she cries, smoking hydroponic weed in Brooklyn with her boyfriend. And she’s cooler than him. Duh.
Favorite track: “Sad Girl”
4. Tweedy – Sukierae
What could have been a toss-off is instead one of the most captivating releases Jeff Tweedy has put out in a while, with or without Wilco. It’s long, yes, but none of the tracks are throwaways. Instead, we get a look into how a singer/songwriter deals with family issues (his wife’s cancer), and learn that Jeff’s son, Spencer, is a skilled drummer, which isn’t that much of a surprise. Songs like “Fake Fur Coat” evoke solo Dylan material, while “Low Key,” “Pigeons,” and “Honey Combed” take their place along with the best that Wilco or Tweedy have ever done. A treat, for sure.
Favorite track: “Low Key”
3. Real Estate – Atlas
Real Estate have established a pretty niche sound, and while that doesn’t change much with Atlas, the band has evolved that sound to drape around some forlorn subject matter. “I’m out again on my own, a reflection in the chrome,” sings Martin Coutney on the opening track, singling that not all is beachy keen in New Jersey. This sentiment continues throughout the album. Lyrics like “I cannot come back to this neighborhood without feeling my own age,” on “Past Lives” and “I’m just trying to make some sense of this before I lose another year,” on “The Bend” hit home for many who are watching their own lives evolve before their eyes, but also reinforce that change can be a beautiful thing.
Favorite track: “The Bend”
2. The War On Drugs – Lost in the Dream
It’s perfect. Really. Like, almost too perfect. The best part is Adam Granduciel and company make it all sound (and look during live shows) so effortless, like this kind of material is easy to conjure. I’m guessing it isn’t, so bravo.
Favorite track: “Red Eyes”
1. Owen Pallett – In Conflict
“I’ll never have any children. I would bare them and confuse them, my children.”
Oh Owen, aka Final Fantasy, aka master of the violin and loop pedal, aka the strings genius behind The National, Arcade Fire, Beirut and the Oscar-nominated Her soundtrack. On In Conflict, Owen the collaborator collaborated with Brian Eno to release his most personal album yet. One minute, this thing sounds like you’re on the moon (“In Conflict”), the next, you’re almost uncomfortably close to a past sexual encounter that’s at once eerie and beautiful (“The Passions”). I knew In Conflict would be good, but I had no idea that this album would grow on me to become my favorite of the year. Finally eschewing the guise of a stage name and signing about fictional characters like he did on Heartland, Pallett opens up and sings about his life, which is beautiful, messy and yes, gay.
When he sings that line, “I’ll never have any children,” you can almost hear the sadness in his voice, but he’s also come fully to terms with that fact. On “The Secret Seven,” Pallett sings, in defiance to Dan Savage, “It won’t get better,” before offering up his own telephone number and an ear to those that are experiencing “the hunger” and the rising water that can be navigating the gay lifestyle. The arrangements are complex yet playful, with added electronics, on display during “The Sky Behind the Flag,” and others, fleshing the whole thing out. I’m just rambling at this point, but the point is that I couldn’t escape In Conflict even if I wanted to.
And I don’t hate that.
Favorite track: “Song For Five & Six”