Sharon Van Etten is now here. “Are We There” is a big step up from her very good predecessor “Tramp”. It’s a loaded album with a few absolute tunners (Your Love Is Killing Me, Every Time The Sun Comes Up) and another handful of excellent tracks like “Taking Chances” and “You Know Me Well”, where “Tramp” was several standout tracks surrounded by mostly merely good tracks. Van Etten is a traditional singer songwriter, singing mostly of love and heartbreak (mostly the latter) but she has amazing pipes and a wicked knack for lyrical detail. Her songs are better, the production and music richer and the delivery more confident. Van Etten is a rare talent reaching the peak of her powers.
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Twigs gets my vote but being this year’s most unique new artist and also recording my favorite song of the year “Two Weeks”. Though she released music the previous two years with various EP’s, 2014 was when she really landed on the map. Twigs is a British musician and former backup dancer in music videos named Tahlih Barnett and she is a highly visual artist. “LP1” ‘s cover is likely my favorite album cover of the year as well. Twig’s music is a futuristic take on R&B with a nod to past Hip Hop/R&B artists and producers like Timbaland and Aaliyah as well as former 90’s trip hop acts like Portishead & Bjork. She whispers in a high pitched coo reminiscent of Kate Bush highly suggestive lyrics like “I can fuck you better than her” but they sound more lonely or mysterious than they sound like a come on. The beats are icy, skeletal & psychedelic. They sound so different that it sometimes takes away from the actual songs- it takes more than several listens to wrap your head around most of them. Standout techno producer Arca, who also worked on Kanye’s “Yeezus”, is responsible for much of the production. It will be fascinating to see what this album sounds like in a few years. Will it change music by creating a slew of imitators or will it stand apart as a weird but awesome anamoly?
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Dan Snaith has been plying at his trade for over a decade now as both Caribou & as Manitoba (he was forced to change the name) and with his 6th album “Our Love” he’s never received more love. I have the majority of his stuff and to me “Our Love” is both his best and his most accessible record to date. Snaith, a happily married man of thirteen years with a small child writes about a deep, adult, familial love. Even a domesticated, contented love like Snaith’s is not without its complications and “Our Love” attempts to capture the “universal love” in all its forms, dealing with its trials and tribulations. A warm sounding record, “Our Love” plays neither as straight up dance music or as head-phone geeking IDM. It’s flows more like a regular rock album- each song is singular rather than a continuation of each other- though this is still unmistakably electronic music. Like the majority of albums making up my top ten there are no weak or mediocre tracks here but lead single “Can’t Do Without You”, the title cut, “Silver” and “Second Chance” are my favorites.
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Count me as one of the people surprised that a seemingly scattershot, half-assed slacker type like Mac Demarco could make one of the year’s best albums. Though I really enjoyed Demarco’s last album “2” and the guy’s talent was undeniable, everything he did seemed so tossed off, like he was practically asleep while delivering them. Though his albums can blend together a bit on the first few listens, but “Salad Days” eventually emerges as a stellar album with zero weak cuts, many standouts, much variety, loaded with cleverness and even lyrical depth. “Passing Out Pieces” may be DeMarco’s best track yet, but there are a handful of others that are right there with it including “Goodbye Weekend”, “Treat Her Better”, “Go Easy” and the synth-laden “Chamber Of Reflection”. This guy is still only 23 years old and comes off as a total stoner goofball but he seemingly craps out brilliant hooks- most of his songs are just as catchy and melodic as they are off-beat. Deceptively simple but totally unique. Maybe he’ll keep getting better and better.
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Spoon gets my vote for the most consistently great rock band of the last 15 years. With Sleater-Kinney coming back they have some competition and certainly Arcade Fire & Vampire Weekend need to be in this discussion but both have a much smaller catalog. It shows how great these guys are that they were relatively slagged for their last effort 2010’s very good if not classic “Transference”. Even though that was hardly a misstep, Spoon is back with a vengeance anyway with “They Want My Soul”. I loved lead single “Do You” on first listen last summer and liked the album just fine at first even if it didn’t quite bowl me over. But sure enough the album got better and felt more dynamic with each listen. Aside from “Do You”, one of the band’s obvious career standouts and instant fan favorite, tracks like “Rainy Taxi” and “New York Kiss” are two should-be radio singles in a cooler world. Track “Inside Out”, fairly trippy, slower and effect laden, is unlike anything they’ve previously done and it works and works well. Deeper cuts like “Let Me Be Me” and album opener “The Rent I Pay” blended into the background the first couple of listens but now sound like the best tracks on a weaker album the more I hear them. But my favorite is title cut “They Want My Soul” which defines lead singer Britt Daniel perfectly. He’s a 43 year old indie-rock lifer and music defines his life, his mentality, his politics. He refuses to sell out. He’ll keep on chooglin’. They want his soul but they can’t have it. Damn these guys are great.
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5. SUN KIL MOON- BENJI
Some people hear “Benji” as a slow, depressing slog. Others have trouble forgiving singer (and sole Sun Kil Moon member) Mark Kozelek for all of his dick moves throughout the year- baiting indie-nice guys The War On Drugs with insults for no good reason. While Kozelek can certainly seem a cantankerous and even bitter man his music should not be dismissed. Nearly all of “Benji’s” 11 tracks involve impending or actual death and Kozelek, an expert story-teller, offers authentic and philosophical takes on humanity and life itself. In a year where I lost my father, tracks like “I Love My Dad” and “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” were particularly poignant and with titles like that it’s surprising how unsentimental they are. “Carissa” deals with the senseless death due to an exploding aerosol can of a second cousin who used to be a problem child but had gotten her shit together as a working mother in her mid thirties. “Dogs” takes a look at Kozelek’s early teenage sexual conquests. The great album closer “Ben’s My Friend” looks at rivalry, friendship and aging in a business based on youth. Kozelek is unafraid to both poke fun at himself and call himself out on his own bullshit. His profile is now raised more now than it ever was, both for better and for worse, even more than when his early 90’s band Red House Painters were taking off (relatively speaking). “Benji” is an album I know I’ll return to often throughout my life. It’s a classic even though it may not be for everyone. You can learn much from it.
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D’Angelo’s “Black Messiah” was this year’s “Beyonce”. The mid-December, surprise, instant-classic album-drop from out of nowhere. The album arrived with no advanced press and came too late to get on most of the year-end lists, yet not too late to place at #1 on the influential Village Voice Pass & Jop list which takes over 600 critics top tens into account. From the moment it was released “Black Messiah” has received nothing but love. It sounds timely in the wake of protests in New York City and Ferguson, Mo. around unprosecuted police officer shootings of unarmed black men. The riots and protests were the reason D’Angelo decided to rush release the album, though it was actually painstakingly recorded over many years. It’s his first album since 2000’s classic “Voodoo” and sounds very unlike anything else in today’s music world. It’s closest kin is Sly & The Family Stone’s 1971 album “There’s A Riot Goin’ On” in that it sounds burned out, pissed off, chaotic but brilliant. Lyrics are often difficult to make out and instruments regularly appear very low in the mix. D’Angelo takes different things from every phase of soul and especially funk and takes the energy if not the actual sound of hip hop and mixes it together in a stew creating something all his own. He has the backing of some of the best and most like-minded musicians in the business. It’s tough to find any funk that sounds this organic and greasy today. “Black Messiah” is both so necessary and so good for our current time.
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After standout rapper/producer and former head of NYC Godhead indie label Def Jux, El-P took the boards for dirty South veteran Atlanta rapper Killer Mike’s breakout album “R.A.P. Music” a true friendship was born. The two decided to collaborate on a 1-off free download album the following year and called their duo Run The Jewels. The album was so well received that they did another one in 2014 called of course “Run The Jewels 2”. And as good as their first album together was, and it was very very good, “RTJ2” beats it in every way- better production, better raps and better songs. These two are destined to already go down as one of the best rap duo’s ever. Though coming from separate geographic regions their paring makes sense. Both are no nonsense, older statesman, technically gifted rappers who go hard and aren’t afraid to get political. Their styles play off of one another perfectly- they deliver amazing one liners- one after another- filled with righteous and incendiary anger one minute and a hilarious put down the next. It’s clear these guys suffer no fools. “RJT2” features banger after banger and seems to last half of its 40 minute running time. “Blockbuster Night”, the awesomely titled “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck), Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” and “Angel Duster” are four of my favorite cuts but they all are worthwhile listens. You never know who will arrive out of nowhere to carry rap forward.
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I was very surprised to see this very liked album see almost know love on 2014 year end top ten lists. Since it came out early in the year did people forget about it? Well St. Vincent came out around the same time and it was second only to The War On Drugs so I’m not sure what gives. Suburban New Jersey raised Real Estate has gotten progressively better with each of their three albums and “Atlas” is a true beauty filled with chiming jangle pop and melancholy music about love, nostalgia, loss & life as the group readies to say goodbye to their post collegiate days and is on the precipice of true adulthood. “Atlas” ’s subject matter is universal enough that I could relate to it personally as a guy entering middle age, but it also brought me back to the years before a wife and kids. Nearly every track on the album is a standout and though Real Estate aren’t an especially innovative band and don’t really even change their sound up much between albums, they have honed their craft like true artisans. No album meant more to me personally this year.
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2014 was light on the consensus #1, heavy hitter albums. There were so many very, very good albums but no obvious standouts. For me the closest last year came was St. Vincent’s 4th, self-title album. Annie Clark, the singer, songwriter and lead guitarist of St. Vincent has quietly become one of the best and most important musicians working today. Her music lies on the fringe between the accessible and the avant-garde. Like her sometimes collaborator David Byrne’s old band Talking Heads, even the stuff that crosses over (and she still hasn’t quite actually CROSSED over), is still pretty damn weird. Annie absolutely shreds on electric guitar, but does so in a controlled, robotic way showing us that the art, the music and the theatrics are all part of a well-orchestrated package. But the package is her design alone- she is hardly a tool of a swengali or a record company. “St. Vincent” is an all killer no filler record. Every song is very good to great. “Birth In Reverse” and “Digital Witness”, the first two singles, are my favorite tracks and likely the most radio ready, but slower tracks like “I Prefer Your Love”, “Regret” and the much discussed “Rattlename”, where Annie outran a snake while alone and naked in nature, are nearly as good. It’s still up for debate whether or not “St. Vincent” tops her last great album, 2011’s “Strange Mercy”, but even with a lack of true heavy hitters at the top this year, it was still a pretty easy choice for #1.
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