This is it! The final post of 2014 also marks the conclusion of Listmas and specifically this Top 50 Albums of 2014 countdown. It’s been a long road with plenty of bumps and delays along the way, but we’ve finally reached the peak of this imaginary mountain. At this point I’d like to give a special thank you to everyone who read something, clicked on something or downloaded something here at Faronheit over 2014. All of the content that’s posted here is for you to discover and enjoy, and I’m grateful for anyone who visits with that intention. It hasn’t been the best year for the site content-wise, but the hope is to generate more and return to form in 2015. Typically I’d tease a bunch of new features and exciting things in development for next year, but honestly most of that stuff either gains no traction or simply falls off never to be heard from again, so let’s just stick to the mantra of more everything and go from there.
So what can I say about these Top 10 Albums of 2014? Well, like the other entries in this list, there’s plenty of variety in terms of genre and style. It goes from weird to fun to noisy to sexy to relaxing to adventurous and back again. If you’ve been following me on Instagram these last few weeks, you’ve been given access to an early preview of the eclectic Top 5, though I can assure you that #6-10 are as equally exciting and wonderful. And hey, while I wasn’t able to write a lot of album and show reviews this year, some of the ones I did write about make an appearance here. Also worth mentioning: a particular pair of artists who are members of my Class of 2014 had an exceptionally great year, helping to continue to support that program. So I’m not going to spend any extra time talking this up. Please join me past the jump for the big reveal of my absolute favorite albums of the year.
Previously: [#50-41] [#40-31] [#30-21] [#20-11]
10. Ariel Pink – Pom Pom
Ariel Pink has built his career around subversion and confusion. His commentary on a wide variety of topics over the last few years has drawn harsh criticism from some and defense from others. Whether you love him or hate him, it’s difficult to say exactly what his position is on anything because he jokes, pokes and prods so often the real Ariel Pink gets lost in the shuffle. It’s a similar approach with his music, and Pom Pom serves as a double album filled with evidence of his myriad of personalities and influences. One minute you’re listening to an old school, kid-friendly jingle for a classic treat (“Jell-O”), and the next you’re following One Eyed Willie as he takes young Shotgun Billy to his first strip club (“Black Ballerina”). Along the way there are also clear tributes to 80’s Bowie (“Four Shadows”), 60’s Frankie Avalon (“Nude Beach A-Go Go”), 70’s Frank Zappa (“Negativ Ed”) and Jim Morrison/The Doors (“Exile on Frog Street”). None of it particularly makes sense together, but not much in Pink’s discography does. The rule of thumb is to always expect the unexpected. This time we’re treated to some of his smartest, funniest, clearest and most emotionally resonant songs to date, and that’s a very nice surprise.
9. Spoon – They Want My Soul
When Spoon released the 2010 lo-fi experiment album Transference, they sounded a bit world weary. Being the sort of band that tours and records incessantly for 15+ years will do that to you eventually. So they took a few years off to rest, relax and work on some other projects. Naturally then, they returned this year sounding not only refreshed, but in prime form. They Want My Soul stands along side previous peaks such as Gimme Fiction and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga by encapsulating some of the many qualities, styles and influences that make Spoon sound like every indie rock band you know and love but with just enough of a twist to set them apart from the pack. So they can go from pounding rock and a raw-voiced Britt Daniel on “Rent I Pay” into the ethereal harps and atmosphere of “Inside Out” without so much as a blink. This is the album where we fully realize that there’s an intense gravity in Spoon, and we’re just their satellite.
8. Perfect Pussy – Say Yes to Love
Three months. That’s how long I tried and failed to write a review of Perfect Pussy’s Say Yes to Love. In the end I gave up on it, as I never felt that my words properly captured the essence of the record. This year-end capsule isn’t going to do much better, but here it is anyways. You could be forgiven for saying that the band Perfect Pussy isn’t for you. Beyond their explicit name, their music is anything but easy to listen to. Say Yes to Love is an extremely loud and abrasive record, liable to blow out your eardrums if you’re not careful with your volume control. The band recognizes this, which is why the whole thing flies by with eight tracks in 23 minutes. See, every single member of the band takes their pent up emotion and channels it directly into their instrument, effectively making every song sound like an all-out blitz of sadness, rage, fear and even love, all of which can be equal parts profound and confusing particularly when it piles on top of you like a fast moving tidal wave. You’re thrown into the fray, and left wondering what just happened when it finally passes. Your only real guide through this journey are the words of Meredith Graves, who writes punk poetry with such gut-punching honesty that your eyes are likely to well up with tears just reading her lyrics. Considering that her vocals are buried underneath a mountain of sound about 90% of the time, a lyric sheet is essential to uncover the crumbling heart at the center of this record. Tales of abuse, pain and injustice are just the start, all channeled through arresting and intense prose. In the end, Say Yes to Love is a testament to the indomitable human spirit; a blunt force reminder that though we may suffer through unimaginable physical and/or emotional hurt, our refusal to let it tear us down is an incredible source of strength and power. Wounds heal, and scars give us character.
7. How to Dress Well – “What Is This Heart?”
If you listen to all three How to Dress Well albums right in a row, you’ll easily be able to hear the incredible progression that Tom Krell has made these last four years. What was once a very muted, reverb-heavy form of experimental R&B has now morphed into louder, clearer and bolder sound that skirts the border between R&B and pop. Nowhere is this more evident than in the vocals, which have been pushed to the front of the mix and positively radiate with confidence. It makes you question why this guy with such a powerful and elastic voice would have kept it so toned down and buried in effects for so long. “What Is This Heart?” marks Krell’s first legitimate attempt at finding crossover success, and in a better world songs like “Repeat Pleasure” and “Words I Don’t Remember” would be charting hits instead of holding steadfast across the indie circuit. But it’s his uncompromising vision and relentless ambition that’s gotten him this far, and most assuredly when the time is right, it’ll also be what finally rewards him with a seat at the big kids table.
6. FKA twigs – LP1
The best debut album of 2014 is also the sexiest. The lyrics throughout FKA twigs’ LP1 are often so raunchy and specific that they might make you blush redder than the album cover. What’s fascinating though is that despite all the talk of sex, very little of it actually occurs in the songs themselves. Most of the time it’s just twigs talking about what she’d LIKE to do to/with another person. So she’ll say, “I could kiss you for hours” or “So lonely trying to be yours,” and it’s all hypothetical. The same goes for a song (my favorite of the year) like “Two Weeks,” where she wants to get a man to leave his current lover and fall for her instead by describing all of the things she’ll do to him. When she does move past her own sexual needs and desires, other tracks get into her struggles with depression, body image and relationship issues. Though it might seem difficult and even a drag to listen to songs about so many dark topics, it’s to twigs’ great credit that she injects just about every lyric with intense emotion, even if it only comes across as a whisper in your headphones sometimes. The diverse yet minimalist production work from a wide variety people including Arca, Clams Casino, Devonte Hynes and Sampha somehow manages to bring a cohesive feel to the album, craftily slinking around to leave enough room for her vocals to sit front and center where they need to be. And while the sound of LP1 falls firmly into the world of R&B as populated by The Weeknd and Beyonce, there are nods to more electronic-based acts like James Blake, The xx, as well as flashes of trip-hop a la Massive Attack and Portishead. It’s one hell of a grand cocktail to throw together your first time out, and twigs handles it with all the grace of a future superstar.
5. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
It makes perfect sense that Annie Clark chose to self-title her fourth album as St. Vincent, because it’s the first to truly capture the true breadth of her talent and personality. To be clear, her previous three records are all high quality pieces of work, they just didn’t feel as complete and all-encompassing as this one does. This record radiates confidence, right down to Clark’s laser-focused stare on the cover as she sits atop a pink throne. There’s an extreme amount of control evident here too, as everything is clearly if not coldly calculated to the point where it almost feels inhuman. Even her guitar solos, which were sometimes prone to extra expression to account for the emotional turbulence being hinted at in many songs, have become less frequent and more precise with their intentions. Yet if you can understand that she is trying to connect with us through her own eccentricities, it serves as a fantastic reminder that we’re all freaks on one level or another. The sooner we embrace those qualities in ourselves, the sooner we can fully become who we’re meant to be.
4. Owen Pallett – In Conflict
In addition to making music for himself and contributing to others’ albums, Owen Pallett spent part of 2014 writing about music theory in pop songs. The way he’s able to disassemble and get to the core elements of any particular track and why it appeals to so many people is highly impressive, and it’s something of a wonder that he hasn’t injected many of those same pop qualities into his own songs as a result. Then again if he did, would we even know it? To my ears, his latest record In Conflict is filled with compelling and addictive compositions that certainly deserved more attention this year. While his music continues to be constructed in complex fashion, he’s scaled back on some of the more grandiose flourishes of past records in order to craft something more streamlined and personal. The melodies may be simpler, but the lyrics and emotions injected into them are anything but. Hidden beneath these songs focused on fear, anger, depression and anxiety is the message that everyone has their own path, and the choices you make, no matter how good or bad, are an attempt to do what’s best for you. As a result, this allows Pallett to give us the best of his conflicted, brilliant self as well.
3. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
2014’s best hip hop record is also one of the few that you can download for free. It’s crazy to think that Killer Mike and El-P would give something so incredible away for absolutely no cost (unless you want a physical copy), but if it helps bring this music to the ears of a whole lot more people then it’s absolutely worth it. These guys aren’t looking to make millions of dollars from Run the Jewels, though if they did that money would likely be spent to help the disenfranchised and give a voice to the voiceless. That’s pretty much the message they’re going for throughout all of Run the Jewels 2, as they take down corruption, greed, racism and others who try to hold society back. Over the course of 11 tracks and 38 minutes, the duo hurls all manner of rage and destruction at the evils in this world, out for blood and justice. And instead of being some young upstarts inciting revolution simply because they can, Killer Mike and El-P make it clear that their life experiences have led them to this point. They have the gravitas to pull it off convincingly, and they do every step of the way. From production work and beats that burn with the ferocity of a Molotov cocktail, and a small number of carefully chosen but highly impressive guests, Run the Jewels 2 is a landmark achievement in hip hop and music overall. I’m already pumped for the all-cat remixed version Meow the Jewels in 2015.
2. Real Estate – Atlas
Real Estate are relaxation personified. Their music is best enjoyed while splayed out in a hammock with a cool drink, or getting some sun on the beach with friends. If you didn’t have their latest album Atlas on repeat for most of your summer adventures, you missed out. On its surface this record is not much different than the band’s two earlier LPs, though the extra bit of polish used this time around really enhances Matt Mondanile’s serpentine guitar work and other key elements of their sound. It’s less of a change and more of a refinement, turning something that was already very good into something truly great. Singles like “Had to Hear,” “Talking Backwards” and “Crime” have quickly become standouts, ranking high among Real Estate’s best. Yet for all of the carefree beauty that Atlas provides, storm clouds gather in equal measure thanks to Martin Courtney’s lyrics. As he’s now got a wife and child, youthful exuberance has been replaced with crippling anxiety, relationship struggles and other challenges that often come with adulthood. It can’t always be sunny, fun times with friends in the suburban sprawl, and Real Estate knows that better than any other band in 2014.
1. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
Back in December of 2013, The War on Drugs released the song “Red Eyes”, the first single from their forthcoming album Lost in the Dream. It felt like a revelation from a band that up until this point hadn’t particularly been big on them. Sure, 2011’s Slave Ambient was a gorgeous and well put together record, but this new song was on a whole other level. Taking the single as a promise of what was to come, my first few listens to Lost in the Dream were disappointing. Where was the wild energy and driving rhythm? Why weren’t there a lot more exuberant “Woo!”‘s? “Red Eyes” suddenly felt like an outlier, written to be commercially marketable and help sell copies of an album that was much less so.
It only took about a week after its release for my stance on Lost in the Dream to change dramatically, and all credit goes to one special live show at the Metro. Of the dozens of performances that I’ve seen at that venue, none have ever sounded better than The War on Drugs did that night. Every single note that came out of those speakers was pristine and dripping with warmth and passion. The band went beyond the recorded versions of most of their songs to display immense versatility and an extreme talent for guitar solos. Hearing everything in that context gave me an incredible new respect for these guys and the album they had just put out. Suddenly the energy level of the record no longer mattered, because the rich detail, beauty and complexities within each song rose to the surface and became the most engrossing things about it. That, and Adam Granduciel’s lyrical tales of woe.
Lost in the Dream is the result of a punishing recording process that took about a year to complete, as Granduciel allowed his perfectionist tendencies to get the better of him, leading to a lot of tracks being thrown out entirely, heavily edited or completely re-recorded. Toss in a tragic break-up and other personal turmoil, and it’s almost a wonder this album was completed at all. Yet some of the best music also comes from the hardest of times, and in this case the pain and suffering wound up being worth it when you come away with a record as profound as this one.
Sonically speaking, Lost in the Dream bears all the markings of a classic American rock album from the mid-80’s. Had it been released during that era, it’s peers might well have been Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms or Tom Petty’s Long After Dark thanks to their ability to mix heartland rock with synths, reverb and other elements of new wave. There’s a certain amount of tension that’s naturally built into this particular sound, and when paired with Granduciel’s deep yet dark lyrics it becomes even more of a high wire act, threatening to fall apart at any minute. Thankfully it never does, but even if it did, the band adds a fair amount of hazy atmospherics to help pull you out from any potential wreckage.
What Lost in the Dream ultimately accomplishes across its hour-long run time is an emotional catharsis that comes from one man’s very real and very personal pain. Just about every track starts in a simple, understated fashion but slowly grows more complex, opening up like a flower as it progresses. Sometimes it arrives in a sudden burst or wave, reaching out across the vast expanse towards the unknown. Other times it’s a few notes on a piano or the chord progression on an acoustic guitar that suddenly takes a melody from quietly beautiful to completely devastating. And just when it seems like things have gotten too hopeless and there’s nowhere left to turn, this record calmly wraps you in a warm, auditory embrace to comfort and reassure you that everything will be all right in the end. For Granduciel and The War on Drugs, that’s certainly turned out to be the case.
Check out all Listmas 2014 posts by clicking here.