As we reach the halfway point in our countdown, let me say a few quick words about D’Angelo. As you’ve hopefully heard, he released his long-awaited second album Black Messiah a couple of weeks ago, during a time when many in the music world had already released their Top Albums of 2014 lists, or at the very least were on the verge of doing so. The Top 50 Albums list that we’re counting down right now was actually all locked in during the first week of December. Really it’s just the writing that’s holding up everything being published in a more immediate fashion. So like those other music media outlets, I’m officially ruling that Black Messiah missed the unofficial cut off date and will not be found on this list. If you’ll recall, a similar thing happened with Beyonce last year, as her self-titled album came out a couple of weeks before Christmas. That turned out to be one of the best albums of 2013, to the point where I almost felt it’d be reasonable to include it on this year’s list since it missed out last year. Actually that D’Angelo record is one of 2014’s best as well, which also makes its lack of representation here just a touch sad. So I’ll advocate for it right now. Please check it out and pick up a copy. Of course I’ll also recommend that you pick up copies of all the albums on this Top 50 list. In case you missed the previous entries, here once again are links to #50-41 and #40-31. We’re continuing to chug along here, and I’m now pleased to present the next segment, #30-21!
30. Ought – More Than Any Other Day
Ought’s sound has been described as art-punk, which is probably a little misleading given how all-consuming a label like that can be. But that’s kind of what this band is across More Than Any Other Day: they are consistently restless and refuse to be easily defined or boxed in. From track to track you can play spot the influence, and wind up rattling off names like Television, Talking Heads, The Feelies, Wire, Sonic Youth, The Velvet Underground, Violent Femmes and Fugazi. Meanwhile vocalist/guitarist Tim Beeler has his own peculiar style and delivery like a halting sing-speak that’s not necessarily impressive but gets the job done – particularly when he hits on a topic that makes him angry or frustrated. The lyrics are highly incisive and tend to ask a lot of big questions while offering very little in the way of actual answers. But that’s perfectly okay, because the band’s ability to cover such a wide range of topics and emotions matches their style and proves to be extremely effective.
29. Ty Segall – Manipulator
It’s comforting to know that each new year will likely bring one, if not two new Ty Segall albums. He’s pretty much always writing or recording something, and while much of his material has a somewhat lo-fi element to it (because it was recorded quickly and without a lot of production bells and whistles), the overall quality tends to be pretty top-notch. He’s an absolutely killer guitarist who knows how to turn a phrase. Manipulator represents the greatest cohesion of his many strengths by offering up a mixture of the styles he’s experimented with over his last few albums. There are the ferocious lo-fi fuzz rock guitar rippers, the more muted psychedelic folk songs, and the shiny, blissed out glam rock that seems to be channeling classic David Bowie. It turns out he took more time to make this record than pretty much anything he’s done previously, and the extra care is both a blessing and a curse. There are simply too many songs, specifically too many GOOD songs, and suddenly it becomes tough to wrap your head around everything all at once.
28. Andy Stott – Faith in Strangers
Andy Stott has undergone several stylistic evolutions in the last few years, and for awhile it seemed like he was just trying different things to find a particular sound that spoke to him in the right way. Faith in Strangers essentially marks yet another step in that process, but that step is tinier and more all-encompassing than anything he’s done previously. It’s very dark and very bleak, and even though it eliminates a lot of the digital noises and instead focuses on people playing actual instruments, most of the songs sound more mechanical and inhuman than ever. Such detachment is purposeful, though Alison Skidmore’s vocal presence brings warmth even when it’s chopped up or filtered. In some sense this album is like an alien siren song, beamed out from space and just now being intercepted on Earth for the first time. Faith in Strangers reminds me of some classic Massive Attack records, as well as the Under the Skin soundtrack from Mica Levi that was released this past spring. Sure, it may hold you at arm’s length through its many drones and occasional breakbeats, but you also can’t help but be awed by its majesty and daring.
27. Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else
By all indications, Cloud Nothings’ 2012 album Attack On Memory was their breakthrough, but it was also a warm-up. Here and Nowhere Else is the main event, taking the hard-won punk of that previous record and pushing everything harder and farther than ever before. If you didn’t know any better, it might seem like the band is going to spontaneously combust the way the guitars rip with energy, the drums crash with earthquake-like fury, and Dylan Baldi’s screams cut worse than a thousand knives. And despite its incredibly raw nature, this album also places a premium on melody and memorable hooks. They may all race past you in a quick 32 minute trip to the finish line, but Here and Nowhere Else gains most of its power and attraction through repeat listens. You may not latch on to it the first two or three times through, but rest assured that once it clicks, you’ll want to be listening exclusively to it and nothing else.
26. Ex Hex – Rips
Mary Timony has been making music as part of one band or another since the early 90’s, which meaning you can pretty much call her a veteran musician at this point in time. While she found some solid underground success with Helium a good 20 years ago, she hadn’t really ever had a high profile project until she joined Wild Flag in 2010 with Sleater-Kinney refugees Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss. That star burned out mighty quickly however, and after their one-and-done album and tour cycle Timony set about forming Ex Hex with Betsy Wright and Laura Harris. Rips is exactly the sort of record you might expect from three true professionals who are genuinely excited about crafting catchy garage rock entwined with power pop. It’s all very, very good and falls somewhere in line next to classic 70’s records from The Runaways and Tom Petty, but with a fresher, more modern perspective. You can hear the energy and feel the physicality in these songs, as they brighten your mood and stick in your head for days. This is truly Timony’s time to shine, and she takes that ball and runs with it.
25. Arca – Xen
Producer Alejandro Ghersi is the man behind the Arca name, and after a couple of EPs plus some work with artists such as FKA twigs and Bjork, Xen marks his official debut album. It’s a stunning collection of instrumental electronica tracks that do their best to stay devoid of any particular sound or style for too long. You could say the point is to engage the listener via disorientation. Melodies emerge only to break apart or quickly shift in some new direction with very little warning. A majority of the tracks clock in at under three minutes, which provides just enough time to really get something going before cutting it off and moving on to something completely different. One minute you’re listening to the warped soundtrack of some imaginary Japanese 16-bit video game from the 90’s, and the next you’re steeped in shrieking orchestral synths that could be part of some alternate universe soundtrack to the film Psycho. It’d all come across as very schizophrenic if it didn’t happen to sound so great together. This is likely where the future of electronic music is headed, so jump on board with Arca now before the wave hits.
24. White Lung – Deep Fantasy
White Lung excel at one thing, and that’s making high speed punk rock for the masses. Deep Fantasy does it’s business over 10 tracks and 22 minutes, and absolutely none of it feels excessive or wasted. Yet as the album flies by in a heartbeat, you’re likely to miss the many incredible things being said and done. There are chords and solos and hooks that pile on top of one another, burying you in sound while Mish Way is screaming about important topical issues like body dysmorphia and rape culture. You’ll need a lyrics sheet and plenty of repeat listens to even start digesting this firebomb of a record, exploding everywhere and leaving you to pick up the pieces as best as you can. It’s intense but also exciting, brazen and trying its hardest to push for basic human decency. If only all music carried such power.
23. Sharon van Etten – Are We There
With each new Sharon Van Etten album, we are treated to a smorgasbord of emotions splayed out across delicately crafted songs. Her highly confessional reflections and insights often feel as intimate as diary entries, but with the backing of a full band. Are We There isn’t much of a sonic evolution from her previous record Tramp, but in terms of songwriting and a couple of other small elements there’s a very natural yet important progression that helps to make this her best effort to date. She produced the album herself, and that extra personal touch really shines through, particularly with how well the melodies interact with her vocals. It requires just the right balance of the two in order to wring the perfect amount of drama or passion from any piece of music, and thankfully she knocks it out of the park. Ultimately, Are We There is a record about how many of the smallest moments wind up having the biggest impact on our lives and loves. It’s essential we remember and acknowledge them if we truly desire to grow into our best selves.
22. Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal
Sunbathing Animal will be remembered as the album where Parquet Courts learned a lesson or two about moderation. Their previous full length Light Up Gold was such an energetic piece of alt-punk that it raced to the finish without ever stopping to take a breath. Where that was a singular vision, this record has multiple perspectives and just the right amount of maturity for a bunch of guys who can often come off like goofy slackers. The jittery punk tracks are there when they need to be, but are offset in subtle fashion by dashes of slow burners and mid-tempo numbers that show off other sides and influences. Comparisons to Pavement seem almost inevitable at times, but it’s clear that Parquet Courts are happy writing their own history while also doing whatever the hell they want, even if that means a second full length in 2014 under a slightly different name or combining forces with another band.
21. Todd Terje – It’s Album Time
The first time I heard It’s Album Time I was on an airplane, and perhaps unexpectedly it soon turned into the soundtrack for my entire vacation. Maybe it’s the fact that the record has such a celebratory vibe to it, along with a number of songs that could very well be playing on overhead speakers in a hotel elevator or cocktail lounge. There’s a lot of disco so you naturally want to dance to it, but there’s also some slinky numbers and a heavy dose of kitsch that can in some respects make you question your own taste. Terje wears such labels with pride, and the winking knowledge that this is all in good fun. Yet at the album’s core is a cover of Robert Palmer’s “Johnny and Mary” which features Bryan Ferry on vocals. It’s nearly seven minutes of melancholy and introspection that turns the song into a complete outlier from the playfulness of everything else. Life isn’t a fun party all the time, and we need the occasional low so we can better recognize and enjoy the high. That Terje knows this and infused it into his record makes all the difference in the world.
Check out all Listmas 2014 posts by clicking here.