As we get into the home stretch of this Top 50 Albums of 2014 list, allow me to briefly reflect in a more general fashion about what this year meant for music and the music industry. There seems to be a general consensus among many music writers and critics that 2014 was a bit of an off year. There weren’t a whole lot of genuinely exciting, mindblowing records that came out, so in a sense I understand where that idea comes from. But it also makes me wonder if we’re just a bit spoiled as well, you know? Like we’ve been really lucky these last few years, and suddenly when the magic starts to fade a bit we just go ahead and blame the artists for not bringing their “A” games every time. For what it’s worth, while I think this year has probably been the weakest so far this decade, I didn’t have any trouble filling up my Top 50 Albums list. There’s about 10 albums I wanted to include but couldn’t due to space restrictions, so that seems to indicate to me that things aren’t terrible. Where 2014 truly shined was actually in the songs. Many of the full lengths may not have been up to snuff, but boy were there some spectacular individual tracks this year that completely blew my mind. We’ve been headed towards a “single” culture for awhile now, and while I’ll always favor the long statement album over the 3 minute track, this year made me understand that concept just a little bit better. I’m excited to hear what 2015 will bring us, and if the couple of albums I’ve heard in advance of next year are any indication, it might be a great year all-around. Now then, let’s get into today’s set of 10 in this Top 50 Albums countdown. In case you missed the first three installments, here are links for you: [#50-41] [#40-31] [#30-21]
Join me past the jump for #20-11!
20. Lykke Li – I Never Learn
The biggest musical export from Sweden is pop music, and it’s stunning just how many artists from there know how to craft insanely addictive hooks. At one point a few years ago, Lykke Li was poised to be yet another pop superstar from a country that seems to manufacture them. But then something changed. After a particularly nasty break-up that caused her to move from Sweden to Los Angeles, Li decided she didn’t want to write upbeat pop songs anymore, as it didn’t suit her own feelings and personality. So she largely turned away from the sound of her first two records for I Never Learn, a collection of sad ballads and torch songs that are equal parts heartbreak, aching, beautiful and gigantic. The acoustic guitar and piano became her primary instruments, with the occasional orchestral assist to emphasize the epic drama contained within the lyrics. They’re intimate, but also reflective of a person who can’t fully turn off the pop star portion of her brain, therefore singing loudly about her sadness from a rooftop for anyone and everyone who will listen. You may think that a record filled with such emotions might come across as depressing, but there’s a strange comfort to be derived from it too. Here is a person who loved with her whole heart, who gave everything, and as a result lost it too. As the old saying goes, better to experience that than to not have loved at all.
19. Swans – To Be Kind
If we’ve learned anything from Swans’ reformation period over the last few years, it’s that Michael Gira is not going to stay complacent. He not only wants any new material being released under the Swans name to live up to the legacy that was established across the 80’s and 90’s, but also to surpass it. Incredibly, he continues to succeed, in particular with 2012’s The Seer and this year with To Be Kind. They bear some similarities to one another in tone and scope, though different energies and ambitions. With songs that range in length from five minutes to 34 minutes, spread across two discs and two hours, To Be Kind is not an adventure for the timid, yet somehow manages to be the most accessible Swans record to date. Part of that has to do with the way many of the tracks seduce you with a solid, if not downright pleasant melody, before ratcheting up the tension and smacking you around for a bit with some blunt force trauma guitars. Gira does his part, playing angel and demon, friendly normal guy and insane cult leader as needed. The assistance of female vocalists ranging from Cold Specks to St. Vincent also provides a forceful center to rally around when the record calls for it. Spend enough time listening to this album, and it will wear down your defenses. The goal isn’t to overtake you, but rather to push you into a new realm of transcendence that didn’t seem possible two hours earlier.
18. Mac DeMarco – Salad Days
It’s easy to write Mac DeMarco off as a slacker and a goofball, largely because that seems to be the persona you get both on stage and in his music videos. That may or may not be what he’s like outside of all those other elements, but either way the guy has proven to be a fantastic songwriter and guitarist. Salad Days provides a perfect example of how he’s now maturing as an artist. The production on the record is much cleaner and therefore allows his beautiful yet complex guitar work ring out that much more clearly, but most noticeable is how personal his writing has become. He’s singing about actual experiences from his life, relationships he’s had, and ponders some difficult questions. So you can still listen to and enjoy this record for it’s fun, laid back vibe, and it was a great (and highly addictive) summer soundtrack, but it’s also much wiser and more serious, showing us that there’s much more behind his whole unpolished aesthetic.
17. Hundred Waters – The Moon Rang Like A Bell
On the first or second listen, The Moon Rang Like A Bell might come across as a very small, slow building work that’s difficult to fully grasp. The reliance on electronic elements and icy synths can make it seem almost inhuman at times and therefore impossible to truly connect to. Yet something happens over the course of repeat plays: the album quietly crawls into your head and begins to make itself at home. Nicole Miglis’ vocals may bear the most responsibility for this, as she often sings in harmonized layers with such fragility and warmth that you can feel like she’s whispering secrets directly into your ears. Eventually you’ll also take notice of the intricate construction of every song, going beyond mere beats and synths and adding found sound bits and other elements to the background. Throw in a few subtle hooks to latch onto your memory, and suddenly this record transforms into a stunningly beautiful widescreen playground. It’s called the Cinderella effect – when that little record you might not have given a second thought to suddenly cleans up, throws on a glamorous ball gown with glass slippers, and becomes the belle of the ball.
16. Grouper – Ruins
Ruins is a record that was built for solitude. Liz Harris recorded most of the songs for this album in 2011 while spending time in a remote Portugal town, taking daily nature hikes and trying to work out a few things in her head. As a document from that period, all the tracks, some instrumental, some ambient and some with only vocals and a single instrument, come across as immensely raw and stripped bare. There’s no studio polish or looping/effects to be found, just Harris, her instruments and whatever ambient noise happened to get caught on tape at the time, be it crickets, rain or even a microwave beep. The whole thing is a highly personal work of fragile beauty, ripe with more sensitivity than an exposed nerve ending. You need to have a particular mindset before listening to Ruins in order to fully comprehend and digest it. I’d recommend throwing on some noise cancelling headphones, locking yourself away in a room somewhere during a weather event (rain, snow, etc.) and allowing the record to consume you. Another tactic might be to do what Harris did and listen while out on a solo nature hike. This album is so stunning, it has the ability to enhance the beauty of nature and other elements.
15. Sun Kil Moon – Benji
Back in February, Mark Kozelek made the first great record of 2014 with Sun Kil Moon’s Benji. In a way it seemed like his entire musical career had built up to this album, replete with diary entry poetic tales involving friends, family members, strangers and above all else himself. The devil’s in the details, and this record is so rife with specificities that you can place yourself inside of just about any song and even relate to it because you’ve likely experienced something similar at one time or another. So when Kozelek’s cousin “Carissa” dies at age 35 due to the explosion of an aerosol can, we recall someone from our own lives who was cut down in his or her prime due to a tragic accident. Much like life itself, Benji goes through a wide range of emotions, meaning you could be crying one minute, laughing the next or even disgusted depending on how you feel about the sexual history of a song like “Dogs”. While acoustic folk is largely the modus operandi for this album, the way guitars and other elements are used brings some blues, some horn-filled almost-pop and other varieties to the mix that keep things interesting. Alas, sometimes it is difficult to separate the artist from the art, and thanks to some highly publicized feuds in the second half of 2014, my respect for Kozelek has faded a bit, and this album along with it. Of course he probably doesn’t give a shit anyways, so why should I?
14. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness
For her latest album, Angel Olsen boosted her sound a bit by recording with a full band, not to mention using more electric guitar. The results are understandably more polished, energized, and a lot of her more left-field, strange tendencies have been suppressed in the name of overall cohesion. They’re pretty much all improvements, and allow for Olsen’s brilliant songwriting skills to really take center stage. While most of the songs on Burn Your Fire For No Witness evoke sadness, loneliness or heartbreak, the album avoids sinking too deeply into any sort of depressive state. The primary idea is that human beings need to experience a wide spectrum of feelings in order to be complete and their best selves, so these are all chances to learn and grow. But they also represent a chance to connect by finding pieces of yourself in her words. She says important things aloud that many of us would only think in our heads, and has a lot of beautiful, starkly composed melodies to go along with them.
13. Caribou – Our Love
Dan Snaith has been making music under one name or another since about 2001, and one of the things that has always set him apart from his peers is an unrelenting desire to consistently vary his style and approach from album to album. You’d be hard-pressed to find two releases from him that sound similar, and that’s a good thing until it doesn’t work anymore. Our Love is one of, if not the very best thing he’s put out to date. It’s an extremely personal work that details all of the joy, pain, intimacy and everything in between that comes with loving another human being. It’s a very mature way of looking at the modern relationship, and that sense carries over into Snaith’s compositions as well. He either teases or skirts outright dance grooves in most of his songs, choosing instead to play around with modifications on synth-pop that include some violin and orchestral work from his friend Owen Pallett plus an adventure into R&B with the Jessy Lanza-guesting cut “Second Chance”. Like love itself, Our Love isn’t always the easiest thing to enjoy, but the good far outweighs the bad, and in the end you wouldn’t have it any other way.
12. Perfume Genius – Too Bright
Too Bright is going to be viewed by many as the album when Mike Hadreas finally came into his own. After spending a couple of albums composing sparse, intimate and otherwise introverted ballads, he’s now gallantly stepping out of the shadows with confidence, strength and power. On a grand single like “Queen,” he uses his sexuality like a weapon to proudly take down the conservatives who claim that homosexuals are destroying the world. Somehow he manages to incorporate a soaring falsetto worthy of Sigur Ros plus a little bit of doo wop on “Fool,” which is so multilayered it’s impressive. The deep electronic beats on “Grid” feel like they’re from a sci-fi movie like Tron, only tossing in some screams and screeches brings a scary and aggressive vibe to the whole thing. Elsewhere he deals with some serious body issues on the aptly named “My Body”. So if you can’t tell, Hadreas gets adventurous on this record and it winds up paying off big time. He’s shining a big spotlight on himself and declaring to the world that this is who he is, take him or leave him. With such impressive results, you’d be wise to take him.
11. Aphex Twin – Syro
After a 13 year break, Richard D. James returned this year with a brand new Aphex Twin release. He wasn’t sitting around doing nothing all that time, as he put out music under a number of different pseudonyms over the years that understandably varied in quality. That he’s using the Aphex Twin name again is supposed to tell us that he’s back in action crafting a particular type of electronic music, one that’s technically without genre or peer. Surprisingly, Syro is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from an Aphex Twin record, which might seem a little disheartening coming from a guy who’s spent so much time subverting expectations. But he’s such a singular talent and infuses every track with such joy and incredible detail that you come to realize that innovation is overrated sometimes, particularly if nobody else is operating at your advanced level. So as this album breezes past with hints of disco, drum’n’bass, techno and breakbeat, among other things, you quickly realize that there’s so much going on it’ll take at least a dozen listens or more to at the very least interpret and digest it all. Such is the blessing and curse of James’ return to form.
Check out all Listmas 2014 posts by clicking here.