Before I get to the long-form thoughts on the 10 best albums I heard this year, here are albums 20 through 11 on my list, accompanied by one song from each.
20. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2 (“Close Your Eyes (And Count to F***)”)
19. Ariel Pink – pom pom (“Black Ballerina”)
18. Mac DeMarco – Salad Days (“Passing Out Pieces”)
17. Twin Peaks – Wild Onion (“Strawberry Smoothie”)
16. Eagulls – Eagulls (“Possessed”)
15. Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal (“Black and White”)
14. St. Vincent – St. Vincent (“Birth in Reverse”)
13. Lake Street Dive – Bad Self Portraits (“You Go Down Smooth”)
12. CYMBALS – The Age of Fracture (“Empty Space”)
11. Jack White – Lazaretto (“Alone in My Home”)
Here they are, my 10 favorite albums of 2014.
I extolled the virtues of Dum Dum Girls’ last LP, Only in Dreams, in this exact spot on my ’11 list. The all-woman indie guitar pop outfit led by velvety-voiced Dee Dee underwent lineup changes in the intervening years, releasing probably their finest work to date on ‘12’s outstanding End of Daze EP and this past January’s also-terrific Too True full-length. Dum Dum Girls move away from their punkish roots here, driving closer to late-’80s Cure sound. It’s far and away Dee Dee’s most polished effort, introducing more synthesizers and mechanized percussion for a much shinier touch. As much as I’ve enjoyed Dum Dum Girls in the past, the drumming has never been worthy of Dee Dee’s songwriting and turning to a drum machine here isn’t an admission of defeat. That change produces the charging “Little Minx” and sprawling “Evil Blooms”, two songs that wouldn’t work for previous incarnations of the group. Elsewhere, “Lost Boys and Girls Club” recalls much of the ‘80s goth aesthetic conjured by its title; “Too True to Be Good” has vocals and notes coming from every direction; “Are You Okay?” draws from a Full Moon Fever influence and is one of Dee Dee’s most indelible songs to date; and closer “Trouble is My Name” introduces some of the light touches that made End of Daze so memorable. When it comes to LPs, the best for Dum Dum Girls is yet to arrive. But Too True is a sign Dee Dee has the chops create something truly special.
The critical reaction to Seeds, TV on the Radio’s first album since ‘11’s Nine Types of Light and also its first since the death of bassist Gerard Smith, was more muted than I was expecting. Seeds isn’t as good as either of TVOTR’s best albums (‘06’s Return to Cookie Mountain and ‘08’s Dear Science, the latter remaining a taste-shifting marker for me as a music fan). But these guys are generally incapable of producing anything anyone who closely observes indie rock would consider sub-par. Seeds is TVOTR’s most accessible record to date, and the highlights far outweigh some of the less-dynamic tracks occupying its soft middle. The Beatles are a clear influence on Tunde Adebimpe, Kyp Malone and David Sitek here, with the vocal line of brooding and synthy “Careful You” and the “Got to Get You Into My Life” horns and joy of album centerpiece “Could You” the best examples. The classic eclecticism of TVOTR comes through in many spots, too, including on winding single “Happy Idiot”, the hard-rocking “Lazerray”, the building “Ride” with its home-hitting lyrics (“Look to the sky / It’s time to ride”) and ending with knockouts in the rollicking “Trouble” and the poignant title track (Rain comes down / Like it always does / This time I’ve got seeds on ground”). Not every album by a great band has to be praised as their best upon release. But if you give Seeds a chance, you may find it the most listenable yet from TVOTR.
Dum Dum Girls and Ex Hex are similar bands, both in member composition and composition styles. However, Ex Hex bring a more extreme no-frills, stripped-down, in-your-face attitude to their debut album, Rips, than anything Dum Dum Girls have ever done. Led by Mary Timony, a longtime indie rocker who most recently played with Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss in Wild Flag, Ex Hex doesn’t do anything you haven’t heard before. Rips has 12 short songs, bringing together power-pop chops from the likes of Tom Petty and the Cars. You could imagine these songs playing in the background of a “That’s 70s Show” episode. What stands out is how clean, tight and expertly-crafted these songs are. The most unique song here is lead single “Hot and Cold”, which chugs along at mostly-mid tempo, but grips the listener with an great groove and that fun mid-song key change that kicks it into another gear. Elsewhere, opener “Don’t Wanna Lose” makes you bop your head to its fuzzy tones, “Waste Your Time” features a killer bass line from Betsy Wright, while her own “How You Got That Girl” is a true highlight with a great riff and singalong chorus. The one song here that doesn’t sound much like the rest is “War Paint”, clocking it at nearly four minutes and sporting a biting harmonic guitar line and Timony spitting lines like “I know you think you’re/Too-too-too-too-too cool” before launching into that garage-tastic solo. Ex Hex keeps it simple on Rips but the results exceed all expectations.
Mark Kozelek had an interesting 2014. For years, his acts (first Red House Painters and now Sun Kil Moon) were well-regarded in the underground, but his exposure level heightened in February when Benji was released to universal acclaim as an intensely-personal collection of folky acoustic confessionals. As the year progressed, he got in tiffs with audiences and started (and unnecessarily perpetuated) a “feud” with another band (more on them later) that grew increasingly childish with each barb. I’d hate to think that overshadowed the work Kozelek put in on Benji’s 11 songs that touch on so many emotions: formative memories of childhood, pains from loss of loved ones, fears of growing up and losing your parents, acknowledging mistakes made and lessons learned, and even mundane exercises like shopping for a $350 pair of lampshades or taking a high school date to Red Lobster. From lamenting devastating personal tragedies in “Carissa” or national ones in “Pray For Newtown”, recounting his youth in “Dogs” and “I Watched the Film ‘The Song Remains the Same’” and stories of people who shaped his life like “Micheline”, Kozelek’s words sock you in the gut because these are slices of his life on display for all to see. Not to be lost amongst the words is the music highlighted by lush melodies, mostly supplied by Kozelek’s outstanding acoustic fingerpicking, which has become a lost art. If you can get past Kozelek the Public Curmudgeon, Kozelek the Artist with Nothing to Hide is something to behold and that shines through blindingly on Benji.
I’m not sure if anyone made a “Best Live Music Viral Videos of 2014” list, but if they did, they wasted their time. Because that list only needs one video: this one, and none else need apply. When Baltimore-born Future Islands got their chance to perform “Seasons (Waiting On You)” from their fourth album Singles on Letterman in March, I doubt they expected it would spawn a video with over 3 million views to date. Why did this happen? I mean, look at those freakin’ dance moves! Can any human on Earth besides lead singer Samuel T. Herring make those kinds of gyrations? I’ve always said good music should move you, and “Seasons,” which became one of my favorite songs of the year, moved Herring and many others. The video likely led lots of people to Singles, and I hope they were just as impressed with this excellent album as they were with Herring’s performance art skills. Future Islands combines the snythpop-driven energy of M83 and a sense of grandeur from the Killers into something uniquely their own. Whether it’s the bass and horn-steered funk of “Doves”, the anthemic excitement of “Sun in the Morning”, the creeping synth magic of “Spirit” or the ‘80s dancing slide of “Like the Moon”, Future Islands go all out behind the passion of Herring’s voice. Singles will have you, like Letterman, saying “I’ll take all of that you’ve got!” once you’re done listening.
After Bombay Bicycle Club saw modest success with ‘11’s A Different Kind of Fix, it would have been pretty easy for these Londoners to make a similar-sounding successor to capitalize on that momentum. Instead, they went in a much different direction with their electronic pop sound and, to their tremendous credit, succeed on So Long, See You Tomorrow as much as any of their releases. Building on the eclectic experimentation of their last album, the band introduces world music elements, interesting samples and rhythmic explorations that don’t live anywhere else in modern electronic rock. It’s hard not to be spellbound by the drumming patterns on opener “Overdone”, while also entranced by the melodic samples that sound ripped from a ‘70s TV show. That’s followed by the triumphant “It’s Alright Now”, alongside its marching band-like drumming and Jack Steadman’s looping vocals and then “Carry Me”, a veritable maelstrom of changing guitars and synths and whacked-out time signatures befitting a band like Battles. But there’s a lot of heart here in addition to the experimenting, with the soft hip-hop beat of “Home By Now”, the slow-growing “Whenever, Wherever” and the piano smatterings of “Eyes Off You.” They even recall Stone Roses-esque acid rock on the sprawling “Come To.” But my favorite track here is definitely “Luna”, the jet-setting, world-traveling pop marvel with a chorus full of voices. There are so many different sounds here, between the African percussion, flitting synths and outstanding bassline from Steadman and his mates. I always respect bands willing to take a chance with their sound and So Long, See You Tomorrow is a fine example of a young band finding success in the unknown.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s self-titled debut in ‘09 and Belong in ‘11 helped them stake claims as both purveyors of early-90s guitar rock nostalgia and something uniquely their own: sugary power pop, without feeling schmaltzy. Leader Kip Berman retooled the lineup for this year’s Days of Abandon, progressing with more polish and maturity. That maturity shows right away, with opening track “Art Smock” representing Berman’s most delicate work, a short ditty with soft guitars and synths that sets the mood of whimsy for the album. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart we’re more used to comes next, with the bouncy and excitable “Simple and Sure”, a wall of pop sound painted with sweet lyrics: “It may seem so simple but I’m sure / I simply want to be yours.” Elsewhere, Jen Goma from A Sunny Day in Glasgow takes the lead vocals on “Kelly”, and later on the Smiths-influenced “Life After Life”, adding a diverse element to the voices here. “Until the Sun Explodes” has the energy of an exploding sun and borrows some of its verse vocal lines from the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven”. “Eurydice” (who’s a popular figure in indie rock these days) takes a new spin on the ancient Greek tragedy: “Eurydice / I’ll never stop losing you / Losing you.” Yet nothing quite stacks up to “Beautiful You”, the longest song Berman’s released to date and possibly the best. It isn’t just that “Beautiful You” has that perfect guitar line running from start to finish, or the lyrics touch on the realities of growing up and finding the right person to be with along the way: It’s that you’d have to be stone-hearted to not feel something here. Hopefully the Pains of Being Pure at Heart can one day top “Beautiful You,” and Days of Abandon. But it won’t be so simple and sure.
Wasn’t it great to have Spoon back this year? If the wait between albums for these indie rock elder statesmen felt long, that’s because it really was: their previous LP, Transference, was released way back in January ‘10. During their four-and-a-half-year hiatus, lead singer Britt Daniel recorded with Divine Fits, churning out songs reminiscent of Spoon’s most prolific work (like the aces “Would That Not Be Nice”) while drummer Jim Eno produced for other bands. The time away definitely paid off. Spoon returned to record their eighth studio album, They Want My Soul, and produced a sound consistent with their finest work like Kill the Moonlight and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. I enjoyed Transference upon its release, but there’s one thing that really separates They Want My Soul from its immediate predecessor: energy. Besides the plodding trip-hop of “Inside Out”, these 37 minutes move briskly, thanks to an overabundance of tremendous rockers. There’s the stomping, relentless intro “Rent I Pay”, the joyously buoyant title track with Spoon’s classic descending riffs and callbacks to previous enemies (“Jonathon Fisk still wants my soul!” Daniel screams midway through like an inside joke) and the “Paper Tiger”-like flange percussion of start-stop wonder “Knock Knock Knock.” Like on all Spoon releases, they aren’t afraid to try new things here. In addition to covering Ann-Margret (huh?) on “I Just Don’t Understand”, the appropriately-titled “Outlier” is a revelation, a maelstrom of voices and guitars set to a gaudy dance beat with jolts of synthesizers from start to finish. But They Want My Soul’s highlight is “Do You”, a perfect tune for its late June release. In a different universe, “Do You” would have been the 2014 Song of the Summer, an acoustic-driven jam recalling nights in the backyard running barefoot, chasing fireflies wishing the warmth would never end. “Someone get popsicles / Someone do something ‘bout this heat!” Daniel exclaims in his Brooklyn-via-Texas drawl. It’s exciting, fun and filled with wonderment, like the rest of They Want My Soul. Hopefully Daniel, Eno and Co. won’t make us wait so long next time.
As bands go, Real Estate is pretty basic. Led by New Jersey dudes Martin Courtney, Matt Mondanile and Alex Bleeker, Real Estate plays clean, no-frills guitar rock. They occasionally add in some keyboard color, but that’s about it. They’re outstanding technical players, with nothing ever sounding out of place or time. In an indie rock scene dominated by complexity, Real Estate keeps it really simple. So what sets them apart? I’d say it’s how easy they make it look, the familiarity their sound brings to any listener and their brilliant precision in creating a dreamy, easy-going aura around ridiculously melodic songs. They’ve reached their pinnacle on this year’s Atlas, their third album and first since mini-breakout Days in ‘11. The first time I listened to Atlas, I felt like I already knew all the songs. They’re so lived-in, so instantly recognizable and so indelible you can’t help but feel some connection. While the sounds are bright, the lyrics paint an achingly human picture about growing up, finding and losing love and what life in the “real world” really looks like. It starts with the beautiful winding riffs of “Had to Hear” amidst lyrics like “I had to hear you / Just to feel near you / I know it’s not true / But it’s been so long / I know it’s wrong.” “Past Lives” is a nostalgic look back at childhood and the world we leave behind when we grow up, presented alongside shimmering melodies. There’s also the bouncy lead single “Talking Backwards”, the countrified instrumental jam “April’s Song”, the toe-tapping “The Bend” (with its woozy, out-of-nowhere coda), Bleeker’s cowpath-inspired “How Might I Live” and the sad realizations in closer “Navigator.” Yet no song I heard in 2014 stacked up to “Crime”, the album’s emotional core (and you can play it, too!). With gorgeous guitar lines echoing Pavement’s past, Courtney and Mondaline play off each other fluidly while Courtney pleads for love: “I don’t wanna die / Lonely and uptight / Stay with me / All will be revealed.” Real Estate may be a simple band, but there’s nothing simple about the greatness of Atlas, and that’s revealed from start to finish.
Amazing fact: The Who’s “Long Live Rock” was written in 1972. That should give you some idea about how long the “rock is dead” debate has lasted. The guitar has become something of an endangered species, at least when it comes to indie. Guitars often just provide color. To that I say: Bah. My favorite album of 2014 is one of the best guitar rock albums in recent memory, thanks to Adam Granofsky (who dropped the stage name “Granduciel” at some point this year and went back to his birth name) and his third album with the War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream. This is a behemoth, clocking in at just over an hour with most songs hovering around six minutes or more (even the building mid-album interlude “The Haunting Idle” is over three minutes). The running time was my one complaint about Lost in the Dream initially. But over the course of 2014, I found its entirety to be so engrossing, so enthralling and just so damn good that any reservations I had about its length dissipated. It draws from the best Dylan, Springsteen, Young and Knopfler released in the ‘80s and especially derived from Dylan and Knopfler’s underrated opus Infidels, one of my favorite albums ever. Granofsky lives up to those lofty comparisons right away with the pulsating push of “Under the Pressure” and the reverb-soaked triumphant blitz of “Red Eyes”, its energy so riveting it feels like a roller coaster ride, with synthesizers sounding like carnival calliopes to boot. The shuffling blues of “Suffering” and “Disappearing” lead into the drum-machine propelled and devastatingly rocking “An Ocean Between the Waves.” The bigger theme of Lost in the Dream is about battling personal strife, which became a public battle for Granofsky in 2014. “There’s just a stranger / Living in me,” he says on “Eyes to the Wind.” But there’s a sense of overcoming those demons here, too. It comes through best on “Burning”, a blazing storm of guitars and synths with Born in the U.S.A. kickassery. “Cross the rich derivative of pain,” Granofsky belts during the last chorus, “crush the burning in your heart.” There’s an acoustic-driven break about 5:10 into closer “In Reverse” that perfectly signifies Granofsky’s sense of getting over. That’s what makes Lost in the Dream a titanic success not just for guitar rock, but for anyone who takes the time to dive in deep.