“Best of.” That’s a loaded phrase.
This was 2014 in music: Punk rock about gender identity. Americana folk from Sweden. The biggest pop smash of the year, from a former country ingenue. In wrapping up the year’s mainstream and indie releases, I don’t want to inadvertently slight the best Norwegian black metal or Andean pan flute albums of the year. So instead, here are Austin360’s 50 Albums Worth Listening To, for one reason or another. (I did listen to loads of non-pan-flute tunes this year.)
This is just a sampling of the tunes that 2014 produced. Your list of favorites might be different; I hope they are. But maybe you’ll find something new to listen to among the feminist punks and the Canadian indie stalwarts and the emo standard-bearers who put out dang good records in 2014.
50. Parquet Courts – “Sunbathing Animal”
A rock album for rock aficianados — equal parts suburban garage and surf shack — all strung (out) together by Andrew Savage’s righteously atonal middle-finger vocals.
49. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – “Piñata”
Lived-in stories and detailed flow from Gibbs and calm, cool, collected beats from Madlib make for something that’s missing from the radio.
48. Todd Terje – “It’s Album Time”
Easy breezy dance fuel from the Norwegian DJ somehow exudes slyness without many vocal tracks. It’s “Copacabana” set in the world of “Tron.”
47. Sylvan Esso – “Sylvan Esso”
Give a synthesizer and take an African drum, and the fluid, experimental pop of songs like “Hey Mami” sounds like a Tune-Yards that you don’t have to pretend to like.
46. Sun Kil Moon – “Benji”
Easily one of the most dire, smile-withering, joy-immolating collection of lyrics of 2014, but no other album packaged nihilism as pretty, acoustic entertainment. Bonus: “Benji”also contains the most loving, curmudgeonly, sax-filled song about The Postal Service singer Ben Gibbard ever recorded.
45. White Lung – “Deep Fantasy”
A little morally outraged punk never hurt anyone who didn’t deserve hurting. The Canadian band’s third LP is hard, charismatic and reaches out from your speakers to slap you silly.
44. Dum Dum Girls – “Too True”
The kind of doom-soaked guitar pop that makes you instinctively reach for the eyeliner and dust off your Chris Isaak CD. Remarkably captures what it must feel like to wear all black all the time in Los Angeles.
43. The World Is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid To Die – “Between Bodies”
The post-rock-embracing emo army followed up last year’s perfect “Whenever, If Ever” with an album that trades a few of the chest-filling guitar crescendos for spoken word interstitials. At its best, it feels like a good ol’ fashioned hardcore rant.
42. How To Dress Well – “What Is This Heart?”
On the song “Repeat Pleasure,” Tom Krell’s falsetto and a crispy guitar solo give a generation raised on boy bands the indie rock R&B jam they’ve been waiting for their whole lives.
41. Bombay Bicycle Club – “So Long, See You Tomorrow”
The English indie band is remarkably deft at making music that answers the question “What if Sigur Ros recorded songs that were for humans instead of humpback whales?” And so it is on their fourth album.
40. Foster the People – “Supermodel”
The Los Angeles band with prodigious pop sensibilities calls upon psychedelic sounds for a second outing that seems equally critical of and embedded in Los Angeles self-absorption.
39. Tinashe – “Aquarius”
Back-to-front R&B luxury with intimidating stylistic unity — perfectly at home with the Top 40 but with an added haze of otherworldliness. There’s a Dev Hynes feature by the second track; that’s all you need to know.
38. Stars – “No One Is Lost”
The Canadian indie band behind “Set Yourself On Fire” is still around and still writes slightly ominous, smiling-before-falling-down-an-elevator-shaft melodies and still makes tone-setting dialogue samples sound good. Now with a little disco!
37. Temples – “Sun Structures”
The guitars sound like sitars, and James Edward Bagshaw’s vocal track is beamed in from a distant, fuzzy, LSD-soaked dimension. In some hands, such a slavish recreation of 1960s trip-rock would come across like one of so many label-signed Doors emulators. Here, it’s exciting.
36. Betty Who – “Take Me When You Go”
Its impact softened a bit by a two-EP warm-up lap, viral Robyn-enthusiast Betty Who’s debut LP deserves credit for entering the world as an instant cult album. Though the Internet’s power to create celebrities is ultimately imprecise, every now and then you get a sweetly campy, cynicism-free pop artist capable of wistful gems like “Somebody Loves You” out of the mix.
35. Copeland – “Ixora”
Six years after every church kid’s favorite rainy day band broke up, Copeland came back in 2014 with another helping of piano-driven laments. Whether singing about lost love, rapturous love or conflicted love, Aaron Marsh and his nature metaphors make it all sound like the most urgent thing in the world: “Your voice is fading, I call your name/‘cause I’m still here, and the only thing that’s left for me is listening/It’s the only way I make it through the night.”
34. This Will Destroy You – “Another Language”
Another slice of gorgeous, clattering, solemn instrumentals from San Marcos’ heroes of dynamics, peppered with a little feedback to get things interesting.
33. Caribou – “Our Love”
Dan Snaith’s kaleidoscopic album covers are visual metaphors for their contents. In this case, “Our Love” is wrapped in a colorful fractal of catwalk synths, skittering beats and interstellar sonic sheen. (But don’t forget the flute on “Mars.” There’s no flute like a space flute.)
32. Jessie Ware – “Tough Love”
The great thing about British chanteuse Ware is that her musical M.O. is so tailored for her powerfully breathy voice (or vice versa) that she can’t truly misfire within her neo-R&B wheelhouse. This year she built on the satin soul of debut “Devotion” with even more Sade-style ballads that make you visualize Elizabeth Taylor’s “White Diamonds” commercial.
31. La Roux – “Trouble In Paradise”
Step 1: Give the “Bulletproof” singer’s new album a courtesy listen on new music day. Step 2: Delight in the winking, smartly tropical earworms contained within. Step 3: Sing “Sexotheque” under your breath to no one in particular for the rest of the year.
30. Modern Baseball – “You’re Gonna Miss It All”
Disaffected and full of ill attitude, “You’re Gonna Miss It All” is ostensibly a pop-punk record, but it seems like that would require more energy than these kids are willing to expend. Perfectly messy singalong choruses speak to the dirtbag within us all: “To hell with the spins, I’m staying/There’s no good reason why I should leave your bed tomorrow/We can watch ‘Planet Earth’ and brainstorm tattoos.”
29. Alvvays – “Alvvays”
From the school of Best Coast and Beach House come the tight, surfy tunes that college radio dreams are made of. The Canadian band’s “Archie, Marry Me” could have been an American standard for the past 50 years, and the sweetly naive “Party Police” tugs on all kinds of aches.
28. Wye Oak – “Shriek”
In its most shining moments, Baltimore band Wye Oak’s “Shriek” sounds like the St. Vincent that St. Vincent was before she dyed her hair gray. In it’s very best moment — the urgent, dangerous, commanding “Glory,” one of the best tracks of the year — Wye Oak is addictive and leaves you badly needing a fix.
27. Phantogram – “Voices”
With richly textured beats, shimmering synths and gorgeously ethereal vocals, New York duo Phantogram is your one-stop shop. Songs like “Fall In Love” are rapturous, and “Voices” is that album you quietly come back to again and again.
26. Strange Talk – “Cast Away”
There is a very particular breed of electro-pop that eschews things like subtle sonic layering and cerebral pondering without being so cynical as to consciously make “an ‘80s album,” whatever that means in these days of Taylor Swift. Australia’s Strange Talk is that type of guileless dance facilitator. Dancefloor playlists need Golden Retrievers capable of songs like “Cast Away.”
25. Hurray For the Riff Raff – “Small Town Heroes”
Alynda Lee Segarra’s voice is leather and smoke on a folk-blues album that alternately vibrates with New York energy and drifts in Deep South hard times.
24. Real Estate – “Atlas”
New Jersey’s Real Estate understands that chill does not have to mean bland or boring, and because of that, the distilled guitar rock pleasantry of “Atlas” sneaks up on the unsuspecting. Just as languid summer days can be the best memories, so can songs like “Talking Backwards” root themselves in your good graces.
23. First Aid Kit – “Stay Gold”
Don’t know if everyone got the memo, but Simon and Garfunkel are Swedish sisters in floppy hats and sundresses now. Cast off the chains of Mumford and return to the something that resembles the folk music of yore, like the weeping strings and prettily hardscrabble perseverance of “My Silver Lining.”
22. Angel Olsen – “Burn Your Fire For No Witness”
Names like David Lynch, Patsy Cline and Roy Orbison kept coming up in reviews of Olsen’s second album this year, and they’re apt associations. “Burn Your Fire For No Witness” is Spaghetti Western of the heart, a dangerous and surreal dustland of romantic shootouts where Olsen is bleeding right out onto the track even when she shoots to kill: “I want the best for you/So I won’t look your way.”
21. Ryan Adams – “Ryan Adams”
Ryan gets it. That Springsteeny voice, those wah-wah riffs, that complete occupation of the singer-songwriter mileu: This is why people like Ryan Adams music, and aptly, his self-titled album is the fine-tuning of his science. No more so is this apparent than on “Kim,” which feels like it’s been one of your favorite songs since you were a kid.
20. Sharon Van Etten – “Are We There”
A selection from the most sternum-cracking, knock-the-wind-out-of-you sad song of the year: “Break my legs so I won’t run to you/Cut my tongue so I won’t talk to you/Burn my skin so I can’t feel you/Stab my eyes so I can’t see.” We will all need a song like “Your Love Is Killing Me” at some point. It’s just a matter of time.
19. FKA twigs – “LP1”
“LP1” does not play. It prowls. Every ecstatic gasp from Tahliah Barnett pursues the listener with sensual, graphic detail. Built on a backbone of industrial sound, it’s an adrenaline-pumping, frank, subversive art project. To provide a sample lyric would just highlight that the best lines are unprintable.
18. D’Angelo and the Vanguard – “Black Messiah”
The neo-soul statesman pulled this year’s Beyonce and dropped a instantly critically cherished musical surprise in the middle of December. So, that said, further listens will likely pave the way for a hindsight rank bump. But as it stands: “Black Messiah” gives the people the baby-making music that they’ve wanted, but it’s ripped-from-the-headlines songs like “The Charade” that they should stay for.
17. Dan Croll – “Sweet Disarray”
Unassuming former rugby player and nightclub doorman Croll plays stylistic Frankenstein to buoyantly likeable results: the island shimmer of the “Compliment Your Soul,” the sweeping lullaby of the title track, the soothing soul of “Must Be Leaving,” the Japanese pop sheen of “In/Out” and many more.
16. Eagulls – “Eagulls”
If I want to pretend I’m spraypainting a half-demolished brick wall in Leeds with anti-Thatcher slogans, my options for fresh material in 2014 are slim and select. Luckily, on Eagulls’ debut LP, George Mitchell has perfected a familiar, nasal bray, which happens to join perfectly with shaggy guitars and ricocheting drums so fresh out the garage that they still have motor oil on them.
15. Taylor Swift – “1989”
We all get it. Taylor pulled off her big genre trick like David Copperfield by way of Nashville. Divorced from grand Pop Cultural Analysis, here’s the truth of the year of Swift: “1989” is a most excellent pop album. It’s wall-to-wall singles, all of which hit the mark on hooks and self-awareness, and it feels like the collection of songs you can easily fill a Most Played playlist with, or scratch up a CD with, or wear out a cassette with. In fifty years, I eagerly await “Shake It Off” setting the scene in 2014 period films.
14. The War On Drugs – “Lost In the Dream”
If Tom Petty isn’t going to sound like Tom Petty anymore, someone has to. Adam Granduciel and The War On Drugs put their own shoegazey spin on the master of fringe-jacket twirls’ signature sound. Meandering, smoky and smiling with lingering memory of a hell of a night, it’s the perfect soundtrack laying in a sunlight-streaked bed after for a month-long bender. At least, one would suppose.
13. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – “Days of Abandon”
The sunny power-poppers pulled off the game of musical contradiction better than most, with an album of hopefully unbridled, buoyant chimes pairing romantically anguished lyrics about girls with sunken eyes sucking filters (“When we came together, I took it all too far/Barricade the bedroom, let me drown in your arms”), as well as a relentlessly cheerful ditty about masochism. Also, it’s got a beat, and you can dance to it.
12. Against Me! – “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”
Nothing galvanizes your gut like a shot of truth, and Laura Jane Grace and her Against Me! bandmates kicked the year off right with a heady dose of the stuff. Not the first band you would expect to plant its flag in the zeitgeist of recent years, the Florida anarcho-punks channeled Grace’s life experiences as a transgender woman into a vital, peerlessly energizing moment. The relief, anger and wistfulness leaps out of the speakers: “You want them to notice/The ragged ends of your summer dress/You want them to see you/Like they see every other girl.” Bonus: It is most excellent moshing music.
11. Charli XCX – “Sucker”
Not to return to the T-Swift well so soon, but it’s a helpful, red-lipped reference point. Imagine a world where the sneering, smirking petulance manifestos of Charli XCX are the radio hits and BuzzFeed listicle inspirations and Tumblr lyric wellsprings that the tunes of “1989” are in reality. The rhino-sized EDM builds and guitar-kissed dancefloor brattiness of “Break the Rules” and the rapturously, optimistically romantic mash note of “Boom Clap” are just as calibrated for peak crowd-pleasing as Swift’s songs, but Charli’s winking at everyone’s inner hedonist all along the way.
10. Run the Jewels – “Run the Jewels 2”
In a year without a “Yeezus,” this was the hyper-aggressive, hyper-stylish, profanely witty, id satisfying rap album that everyone could agree on. The second outing of Killer Mike and El-P’s collaboration turns hip hop braggadocio into a technicolor Looney Tune, so steeped in jargon that it builds its own universe ripe for fan obsession. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to run them jewels fast.
9. Future Islands – “Singles”
Drenched in SXSW and Letterman-granted buzz and riding the power of spring smash “Seasons (Waiting On You),” Baltimore’s Future Islands ruled the roost for a stretch in 2014. The resonant, synth-laced rock of “Singles” is wholly dependent on Samuel T. Herring’s growling, muscular performances, which could grab the lyrics on a Britney Spears album and command them to speak emotional truth. Though Future Islands is certainly a band best experienced in person, “Singles” delivers off-kilter body-movers with a mad glint of brilliance.
8. Cheatahs – “Cheatahs”
Cheatahs’ self-titled LP does absolutely nothing to reinvent the My Bloody Valentine wheel. No, it sits on top of that wheel, grabs you as it’s steamrolling through the record store and rides the momentum through a wall of “Empire Records” and “My So-Called Life” DVDs. Its Gen X time-capsule feeling captures that displaced nostalgia for people who were just a little too young to enjoy it on the first go-around. This is the fuzzy shoegaze album that sounded most like a speaker dropping on top of your head in 2014.
7. The Hotelier – “Home, Like Noplace Is There”
Rare is the introduction to a book that I will actually read. Rarer still is the introduction track to an album (usually a superfluous instrumental) that I won’t skip. But I will never, ever skip the “An Introduction to the Album” from The Hotelier’s “Home, Like Noplace Is There,” because it is a functional, simmering thesis for what blossoms into a lovingly wrought pop-punk primer on loss and failure. Gut-wrenched cries, ten-dollar vocabulary words and a slightly untidy approach to the tight, driving guitar-and-drums sound genre fans expect underscore love letters to all manner of utter relationship failure. The album’s money line, “I called in sick from your funeral” on “Your Deep Rest,” knocks wind out on every chorus.
6. Tove Lo – “Queen of the Clouds”
Sexy really works better when it’s weird, too. Proving once more that we should cede all pop star production to our betters in Sweden, Tove Lo’s unsettling, gleeful “Queen of the Clouds” insinuates itself under listeners’ skin with explicit lyrical oddities and brain-staining hooks. It’s a lot harder to get a song out of your head if it makes you constantly exclaim “WAIT, WHAT” as you’re listening. A little discomfitting territory staking on “Like Em Young,” a little gloating powerplay on “Gun” (“Last night, you were/Who you prefer, because of me/Wake up, messed up/But you’re still happy as can be”) and the most self-aware, profane deployment of heartwarming self-esteem in recent memory on “Moments,” and you’ve got yourself the type of album destined to become idiosyncratically beloved.
5. You Blew It! – “Keep Doing What You’re Doing”
If you want to hear what the lineage of Sunny Day Real Estate has to offer 20 years later, Orlando quintet You Blew It! hit a hole-in-one for the genre on their sophomore swing. Depending on whether you think emo needed legitimizing to begin with (it didn’t), “Keep Doing What You’re Doing” is a highly visible statement for a branch of rock that can only benefit from big, shameless noise that’s as far away from the shopping mall as possible. With the kind of ambling fluidity that makes American Football a touchstone but surging with melodic hardcore propulsion, You Blew It! doesn’t dare think about abandoning the shout-along, literate one-liners: “You can always consider me a friend, just strictly in the past tense.”
4. Cloud Nothings – “Here and Nowhere Else”
One of the things I love the most about Cloud Nothings’ fourth album is that they positioned “I’m Not Part of Me” — the album’s lead single and also the track most likely to hoist your fist aloft in a fit of scummy, triumphant rock glory — right in the very last slot. As a result, anyone giving “Here and Nowhere Else” a first spin will ideally first hear seven other rollicking slices of diffused electricity ruminating on themes of trust and wholeness. Rather, the lack thereof, given Dylan Baldi’s musings on compartmentalized feelings and what it means to be entangled in someone. Fitting, then, that “Here and Nowhere Else” would feel so complete, both as parts and as a sum.
3. St. Vincent – “St. Vincent”
Forget the Lannisters or the Baratheons: St. Vincent, occupying a throne that would make James T. Kirk proud on the cover of her self-titled fourth album, has figured the game out. Pulsing with robotic guitar riffs, bleeps, bloops, feedback and the Martian indifference of Clark’s woozy lilt, “St. Vincent” is an impeccable collection of interstellar witchcraft. The Texas native’s musical soul-bond with David Byrne seems to have latched on like a Xenomorph facehugger; the placid weirdness of St. Vincent’s previous solo albums bursts out into the open with funky, groovy confidence here. The scathing cultural criticism of tracks like “Digital Witness” may make for some cerebral songs, but they also bring much needed arthouse insanity to the dancefloor.
2. The New Pornographers – “Brill Bruisers”
In a statement ahead of the release of “Brill Bruisers,” A.C. Newman called his Canadian stalwarts’ latest effort “a celebration record.” From the introductory volley of “bah bahs” in the title track to the tambourine chatter of album closer “You Tell Me Where,” the band’s slick sixth album bounces like musical Flubber. Lyrically, “Brill Bruisers” vivid imagery skirts impenetrability (“Last night I dreamt/Vancouver dressed up in the ocean”) to piercing relatability (“I think we could save lives, if we don’t spend them”). As is to be expected from a musical phalanx like the New Pornographers, ”Brill Bruisers” whirring parts produce great variety from song to song, but it all works together brilliantly.
1. Jenny Lewis – “The Voyager”
With the acid tongue that made her every indie kid’s cool big sister as lacerating as ever, the musically adventurous Lewis arrived after a six-year break between solo albums a fully formed rock star on “The Voyager.” The album’s dip-dyed, psychedelic pop songs snap together with the hard-won cohesion of seasoned pro. (It’s odd to think of the former Rilo Kiley frontwoman as a veteran, but “A Better Son/Daughter” has been a scratched-up mix CD staple for 12 years now.) Lewis’ often biting lyrical witticisms about love, whiskey and gender roles breeze by in rich detail: “And if there’s no ring, I will have to say ‘goodbye’/Nah, I’m just playing John, I look terrible in white.” Notably, “Voyager” manages to ride its swirl of oft-distorted guitars through a patchwork paisley world of flower power and classic rock influences without ever seeming like a pastiche, or worse, a warmed-over tribute to the Mama Cass crowd. Compulsively listenable, immaculately rough around the edges and sneakily life-affirming, “The Voyager” was 2014’s secret weapon.
Want to a sample of the top 50 albums? Check out the 50 Favorite Albums of 2014 playlist, now on Spotify.[spotify id="spotify%3Auser%3Aaustin360%3Aplaylist%3A6uPVAKNq1gjydy7GcA7RQ7" /]