I hate to start it off like this, but 2014 wasn’t a great year for albums. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of solid releases, but it wasn’t like 2009 or 2011 or 2012, when we were knee-deep in near-classics. Before coming to this realization though, I thought I was going crazy, wondering if music just didn’t provide me with the same enjoyment. Luckily for my sanity’s sake, other music critics also thought 2014 was kind of an off-year.
Here’s Matthew Perpetua, music writer for Buzzfeed:
But just because there weren’t as many excellent albums as years past, that doesn’t mean there weren’t some transcendent pieces of music. To my ears, there were five records in particular that stood out among the rest. Without further ado, my top five albums of the year:
1. The War on Drugs: Lost in the Dream
No other record succeeded as thoroughly at enveloping me and taking me to another place (although Real Estate gave them a run for their money, as you’ll see below). It felt like being in a cold, Midwestern town, where the snow has been for months, refusing to melt. As cheesy as it sounds, Lost in the Dream is a like a fire that brings life to those cold days. Living in California, I feel like it was harder to appreciate and really feel the album in that way, but I caught glimpses, and man did it feel good.
Which parts felt good? When the drums come back in at 4:08 on “Under the Pressure” to cap off a slow build. The synths that permeate lead single “Red Eyes”. The pensiveness of “Suffering”. The triumph of “Burning”. And especially, the moment when Adam Granduciel yells an impassioned “WOO!” at 6:03 on “An Ocean in Between the Waves”. I know that “WOO!” It’s a “WOO!” of exultation — when, despite all the crappy stuff that’s happening in your life, you have something pure and beautiful to grab onto. And that purity and beauty is what the whole record is about.
In Grantland music critic Steven Hyden’s review of They Want My Soul, he mentions a rubric he devised called the Five-Albums Test, which “rewards artists who are able to sustain excellence over the course of five consecutive records.” According to him, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Al Green, Kanye West, and Spoon all pass the test (among others). Spoon has been able to maintain consistent greatness throughout their career, which is amazing. They Want My Soul is another entry in their canon of excellence.
The album’s strength isn’t necessarily its cohesion — it’s a collection of singles, but all of which are extremely good. Admittedly, I was originally underwhelmed by lead single “Rent I Pay”, but as I listened to it’s slow, filthy guitars a few times, I began to viscerally enjoy its rawness and power. It sounds like peak, late-60’s Rolling Stones, and Britt Daniel gives it as much punch and grit as Mick Jagger would. “Do You” has the same qualities.
But then, there’s “Inside Out”. What a simple, yet brilliant song, both musically (same beat throughout) and lyrically (“Break out of character for me”). It shows exactly what makes Spoon great — Daniel goes all out, with an impassioned vocal line that pairs perfectly with the Dr. Dre-inspired beat. That’s why it was my #1 favorite song of the year. An understated classic.
There is something unexplainable about the nostalgia that all of Real Estate’s songs emanate. The feeling is just so potent that I don’t know how they do it. Smell is always associated with its strong memory recall, but Real Estate expertly unlock the bond between sound and memory.
I mean, of course, much of the nostalgia is directly attributable to the lyrics. “Past Lives” is very clear, as singer Martin Courtney states “I can not come back to this neighborhood without feeling my old age. I walk past these houses where we once stood. I see past lives, but somehow you’re still here.”
But it’s not just the lyrics. The music itself — the interaction between the instruments and the haze that hovers over the production — takes you back. Just listen to the opening of “Primitive”, especially at 0:14 when that guitar lick comes in. You might feel something, you might not. For me, it takes me back to freshman year of college (even though the band didn’t even exist then), walking around the Berkeley campus, thinking about friends and girls and growing up. “Talking Backwards”, “Crime”, and “Had to Hear” all take me back to the same place. There’s nothing inherently special or unique about their songs, but their execution and vision is impeccable.
This guy shouldn’t be as good as he is. He’s a screwball and goof-off, perpetrator of tons of little gimmicks, but MAN, can he write a song! He is such a pro at writing appealing, woozy songs with melodic vocal lines and shimmering guitar riffs.
Just watch him as he isolates the different instruments of “Let Her Go” on his mixer as part of this documentary detailing his shenangians — each part sounds great on its own, and even better when together.
The whole album is full of dark surf-rock, warped and distorted to create something nuanced but still catchy on a very basic level. Prime examples include “Brother” and “Blue Boy”. And “Chamber of Reflection” is just a trip. Keep messing around Mac, because it’s working.
Remember how ubiquitous Justin Timberlake was last year? He released not one, but two albums, occupied Jimmy Fallon’s studio for what seemed like forever, unleashed thorough marketing campaigns, etc. Despite his immense popularity, he kind of wore out his welcome. Even I got tired of it, and this coming from a person who thought The 20/20 Experience, Part 1 was the best album of the year.
Pharrell experienced the same thing. He absolutely killed it in 2013, playing prominent roles in the two biggest hit singles of the year (“Get Lucky” and “Blurred Lines”), producing up a storm (whether it was “Blow” by Beyoncé, “Wine Glass Woman” by Mayer Hawthorne, etc.), and released “Happy”, which dominated the charts as 2013 turned into 2014. The problem is, “Happy” dominated a little too hard and we got absolutely sick of that track (which is too bad, because in a vacuum, it really is a top-notch pop song).
So by the time Pharrell’s solo record G I R L dropped early this year, “Pharrell Phatigue” was in full gear and no one really gave it the time of day. This is unfortunate, because I think G I R L is an expertly-crafted, tight, and catchy 39 minutes of pop-soul-funk — check out Daft Punk-collaboration “Gust of Wind” (a.k.a. “Get Lucky” part 2), Alicia Keys duet “Know Who You Are”, or soul-celebration “It Girl” to get a flavor.
Most overrated album:
FKA twigs – LP1
Everyone has raved over newcomer FKA twigs’ debut. It’s certainly not a bad album — again, it has some great production. But you can’t have an album that just sounds good. It needs good song structures, which LP1 completely lacks. It’s boring.
As I stated a couple weeks ago:
Most underrated album:
Hamilton Leithauser – Black Hours
“11 O’Clock Friday Night”
When the Walkmen announced their indefinite hiatus, it was a sad thing to hear, but then frontman Hamilton Leithauser’s solo album, Black Hours, came out and sounded amazing. Without the “Walkmen” label, it didn’t gain much traction. Don’t sleep on this album — it has some really solid songs, and Leithauser’s vocals are as strong as ever.
Other albums I really enjoyed:
Sun Kil Moon: Benji
“I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love”
Mark Kozelek builds upon his recent “stream-of-consciousness” style for an album full of dark poetry and acoustic fluidity.
Ryan Adams: Ryan Adams
“Gimme Something Good”
Much like the War on Drugs, Adams offers up a serving of 80’s heartland radio rock, and kills at it.
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib: Piñata
Legendary indie rap producer (complete with woozy soul samples) + gangsta rapper = interesting juxtaposition and a lot of fun.
Ty Segall: Manipulator
“Tall Man Skinny Lady”
Garage rock workaholic releases his best-produced album yet.
Jeff Tweedy, of Wilco, teams up with his 17-year-old son Spencer on drums. I assumed it would just turn out to be an empty vanity project, but Spencer is no joke, and the album is solid all the way through.
Sinkane: Mean Love
Psychedelic, soothing, funky Afropop.
St. Vincent: St. Vincent
The work of a genius. So much activity going on here.
Twin Peaks: Wild Onion
“I Found A New Way”
Exciting and impassioned garage rock.
A breezy, indie pop offering, and a fun listen all the way through.
The Men: Tomorrow’s Hits
One of the most consistent and hard-working bands out there, constantly reinventing their sound. It’s been riveting to see their shift from blistering hard rock to skronky, “Exile On Main Street”-era Stones style, barroom rock.
Albums I should have listened to more, because the few times I put them on were great:
Jenny Lewis: The Voyager | “Just One of the Guys”
Adult Jazz: Gist Is | “Springful”
Owen Pallett: In Conflict | “The Riverbed”
Angel Olsen: Burn Your Fire for No Witness | “Hi-Five”
Hiss Golden Messenger: Lateness of Dancers | “Saturday’s Song”
Alvvays: Alvvays | “Archie, Marry Me”
Ex Hex: Rips | “Don’t Wanna Lose”
Aphex Twin: Syro | “minipops 67 [120.2]” (Not the full name because the idiosyncratic title is messing with my HTML code, haha)
Tennis: Ritual in Repeat | “Never Work For Free”
Nude Beach: 77 | “I Can’t Keep the Tears from Falling”
Sylvan Esso: Sylvan Esso | “Coffee”
Most disappointing albums / albums that should have been better than they were:
Jack White – Lazaretto
“Would You Fight For My Love?”
I don’t know. I don’t know. Is it too much to ask for Jack to just go back to White Stripes rawness? Or does he need Meg for that? This album is okay, but I want more from him. And by more, I mean less.
Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else
I can’t really put my finger on why Here and Nowhere Else didn’t grab me. My biggest hunch is that it lacks Steve Albini’s booming production on 2012’s Attack On Memory, which was pretty much a perfect album.
Broken Bells – After the Disco
“Holding On For Life”
It’s become trendy to hate on Danger Mouse and his tendency to overbearingly impose his sound on his subjects’ records. He used to be hands-down my favorite producer, but I agree with the criticism. Broken Bells’ self-titled first album was bright and punchy. This year’s After the Disco was a monochromatic bore with no soul.
Damon Albarn – Everyday Robots
“Heavy Seas of Love”
I kept thinking I liked this album from the former Blur and Gorillaz brit-pop legend, but then I’d get bored every time I put it on. A few songs, such as the title track and “Lonely Press Play” have life and hold interest, but the rest of the album: not so much.
The Antlers – Familiars
Too saccharine. Give me the rawness of their previous album, Burst Apart, any day.
TV on the Radio – Seeds
Seeds was left off many a year-end list, causing a minor backlash of sorts, with some saying it was overlooked and underrated. I think leaving Seeds off is the correct move. It’s overall a pleasant listen and has a few great jams (I particularly like “Happy Idiot” and “Right Now”), but it’s nothing special. Nothing that approaches Dear Science level.
Album that I could tell was mind-blowingly awesome, but I think I just don’t feel as angsty as I used to, so it didn’t really hit home as much as it would have when I was 18:
Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2
“Blockbuster Night, Part 1” (Explicit)
Album that I really liked at first, but then when someone called it cheesy, I couldn’t get it out of my mind, and now I can’t really listen to it anymore:
How to Dress Well: What is This Heart
Album that I ended up randomly enjoying more than I would have ever expected:
YG: My Krazy Life
“Bicken Back Being Bool” (Explicit)
Album I love that would most make High-School-Freshman-“All Music After 1980 Sucks”-David-Bradford cringe:
Taylor Swift: 1989
Album that I’m going to just include on my “best of 2015” list, because these surprise December releases are throwing us all off and I didn’t have enough time to let it sink in:
D’Angelo – Black Messiah
Trippiest Album Cover
We Were Promised Jetpacks: Unraveling
Also, be sure to check out my favorite songs of 2014, either on Facebook or on this blog.
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