This is the big one. Well to be more accurate, this is the START of the big one. The Top 50 Albums countdown is the cornerstone of Listmas every year, and the 2014 version is looking pretty stellar. Before we begin, let me quickly go over the basic ground rules to help explain the rankings and how records qualified for this list. Any full length record released in the United States over the course of the 2014 calendar year was eligible for inclusion. EPs are not eligible (sorry Royksopp & Robyn), nor are soundtracks (sorry Mica Levi and the Under the Skin OST), mixtapes and “Various Artists” song collections. It’s equal parts funny and sad to me that at the start of the 2013 Top 50 Albums countdown, I mentioned that the site had fallen off the wagon in terms of album reviews for that year, but promised that “in 2014, things are going to be different!” They actually were different in that the total number of album reviews declined yet again. There’s a myriad of excuses I can claim contributed to that problem, including some serious bouts with writer’s block and having a lot more general life responsibilities on my plate that snatched away the free time I’d normally spend writing. Ultimately though, I didn’t push myself hard enough to get things written and published in a timely fashion. I’ve actually got a handful of unfinished album reviews from across the year that I kept delaying until they were forgotten about. They’re all way past expiration date now, but maybe I’ll use pieces of those writings in the short capsules for each record on this list. When you really think about it, the Top 50 Albums countdown is pretty much just a mini-review marathon anyway. Almost all of these you’ll be seeing and reading about for the very first time on the site, so enjoy the surprise and suspense of what might be on the way this week. Today I’m happy to kick things off with the very first of five installments. Take a hop, skip and the jump to check out my Top 50 Albums of 2014: #50-41!
50. Banks – Goddess
Those on the hunt for the next Lorde or Lana Del Rey in 2014 were given plenty of options to choose from, and key among them was Banks with her debut album Goddess. It’s more R&B and trip hop than it is gothic pop or torch songs, but there are little bits of all those things at various points on the record. With a roster of producers that includes Sohn, Lil Silva and Shlohmo, a majority of the songs are moody and mid-tempo, but also smartly written and infused with passion. A huge amount of credit goes to Banks’ vocals, which have a highly impressive range and often rise above everything else to push you into feeling something. It’s by no means a perfect record, but thanks to strong standouts like “Waiting Game,” “Brain,” “Drowning” and “Beggin for Thread,” it manages to rise to the height of being considered one of the year’s best.
49. Beck – Morning Phase
It took six years, but Beck finally released an album of new material this year in the form of Morning Phase. It is the spiritual cousin to his 2002 effort Sea Change, featuring the same musicians from those sessions and filled with similarly somber, introspective acoustic songs. Considering that Beck gained his notoriety thanks to his weirdo pop/rock/hip hop aesthetic, it’s easy to think of this most recent effort as too safe and a waste of his talents. But what the album lacks in ambition it makes up for in beautiful songcraft and highly emotive lyrics. As with most Beck albums, I found myself coming back to it again and again over the course of the year, particularly on Sunday mornings when I’d curl up on the couch with some hot tea and a good book. It’s actually the perfect record to put on in that scenario.
48. Shellac – Dude Incredible
It’s a little hard to believe that seven years have passed since the last Shellac record. But the trio all have other things going on, and they actually recorded Dude Incredible piecemeal style over the course of a few years. In spite of that, the nine tracks all sound great together, as do the guys, who after 20 years together know one another’s strengths and how to play to them. Everyone gets a chance to shine at one point or another, and their return to the much leaner punk rock sound of their early days seems to have inspired and revitalized them. Clocking in at just under 33 minutes, the album quickly builds in intensity and manages to hold onto that for the duration. Along the way there are songs about fighting, politics, sex, and the city of Gary, Indiana. Throw in a good amount of humor, screaming and guitar soloing, and suddenly you’ve got what could be the best Shellac record to date.
47. Lydia Ainsworth – Right From Real
Canadian singer-songwriter Lydia Ainsworth earned a lot of comparisons to Grimes when her debut album Right From Real came out early this past fall. Both of them are from the same country, have released material through the same record label (Arbutus), and make music of an experimental, art-pop variety. Yet despite these apparent similarities, the two don’t really have much in common other than having to deal with lazy writers not willing to take a closer listen to the actual music. Ainsworth tends to avoid more traditional song structures. She’s not afraid to use orchestral flourishes on top of backward vocals. She gets gothic from time to time, will throw in an 80’s synth-pop influence should the mood strike her, and maybe even a little bit of R&B. It’s a highly adventurous record that somehow manages to project a distinct sense of normalcy across most of the songs. That it all works quite well is equal parts surprising and delightful.
46. Douglas Dare – Whelm
The best way for me to describe Douglas Dare’s debut album Whelm to someone who had never heard it before is by making the following example: Imagine the instrumental of Radiohead’s “Everything in It’s Right Place” was the basic outline for a full record, but with Rufus Wainwright singing on every track. Dare is a classically trained pianist and has an operatically beautiful voice. He could probably do just fine with only those two instruments at his disposal. The incorporation of electronic elements, be they skitters, programmed beats, ambient noise or other, help push this record beyond traditional expectations and often help craft a mood that is darker, more dramatic and powerful. He deserves serious praise and attention for making a record that is complex and smart but also gorgeous and accessible.
45. The Hotelier – Home, Like Noplace Is There
The Hotelier’s Home, Like Noplace Is There is a record that should have been released about 15 years ago. Had I been exposed to it at that time, I would have become obsessed with it to the point of memorizing all the lyrics and shouting/screaming along with each and every one. It would have found a home between other punk records from bands like Brand New and At the Drive-In. This has been a selection from my episode of MTV’s True Life: I Was An Angsty Teen. I don’t listen to this type of melodic, highly dramatic punk rock much these days, mostly because I’ve mellowed and diversified my tastes. Also, I’m not living a life where every moment feels like a frayed nerve ending and my whole world might implode at any second. Somewhat ironically, Home, Like Noplace Is There is about being unable to escape your past, and how traumatic events from back then continue to shape your present and future. It is a hard hitting, intense and really fucking well-written record. More than anything else, I was grateful to have a 2014 record to throw on during those occasional days when I really want to take my emotional state to another level.
44. The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers
Across the discography of The New Pornographers, you may have noticed a trend when it comes to energy. Their first three records were like little balls of indie pop energy, bouncing from one sugar-coated chorus to the next. 2005’s Twin Cinema brought a little more balance and levity to that sound, and then 2007’s Challengers and 2010’s Together slowly reached the point where it almost felt like the three principal members of the band were phoning it in. But something woke them all up for Brill Bruisers, and suddenly the band seems fresh and invigorated once again. The vocals and harmonies are forceful, the synths have been pushed higher in the mix to give most songs a little more spice, and the hooks are ridiculously addictive. This is The New Pornographers in classic mode, with upgrades for today’s modern music scene. It’s quite simply wonderful to hear from start to finish.
43. Charli XCX – Sucker
Speaking of sugary pop music with enough hooks to fill a tackle box, allow me to present for your consideration Charli XCX’s second full-length Sucker. It’s mid-December release date probably didn’t help when it comes to most year-end lists, but spending a few days with it listening obsessively earned it enough mojo to find a spot here, and boy is it a head rush. Charli XCX has spent the better part of the last two years significantly building her profile after her debut album True Romance was acclaimed but failed to ignite mainstream audiences. It took teaming up with Iggy Azalea on this summer’s hit “Fancy” and having a song on The Fault in Our Stars soundtrack to get the right kinds of attention, which actually also caused Sucker‘s release to be delayed. The resulting collection of songs is extremely energetic, fun and will hold your attention for as long as you can stand it. When you’re not being blasted with pure pop music, there are some clear punk and new wave influences that offer up some nice variety while maintaining the overall aesthetic of the record. Above all else though, you should come away with the understanding that Charli crafted this record on her own terms, didn’t compromise anything to make it more commercial or easier to digest, and is all the better for it.
42. Pharmakon – Bestial Burden
harmakon records are not for everybody. The noise rock project of Margaret Chardiet could be considered abrasive to listen to on its best day and excruciatingly painful on its worst. On her second album Bestial Burden, she works on the premise that the human body is an abhorrent machine set out to eventually destroy us from within. It’s probably worth noting that she had a near-death experience with a bodily growth, so that is essentially what fueled this whole concept. Populating it are death march drones, piercing screeches and jet engine roars, all while Chardiet screams with the guttural fire of a thousand suns. Adding to the body horror sonics are vocal tics that include coughing, choking and hyperventilation. Yes, it’s freaky, painful and off-putting performance art, but it’s also extremely real and powerful if you let it. After spending a while with this record, all the loud elements more or less become wallpaper, and we’re left trapped in a room with someone being tortured by their own body. You absolutely want to turn away and shut it off, but to do so would mean refusing to acknowledge that pain and suffering are essential parts of our own humanity.
41. Taylor Swift – 1989
Taylor Swift is the sort of person who claims that 1989 is her first pop record, when everybody knows that the one before it was basically pop with a country song or two thrown in for good measure. It’s more about rebranding than anything else, to help create a story line and sell more records. Not that it needed the momentum before becoming the highest selling album of 2014 (with more than 3 million copies sold), and it didn’t even come out until the end of October. None of these factors contribute to why 1989 is one of the year’s best; it’s just fascinating to note that for all the disgust and harsh criticism that many people deeply passionate about music tend to hurl at massive mainstream artists (except maybe Beyonce), every now and then one of them creates something wholly interesting and listenable. In this case, it’s a chronicle of moving to the big city, letting go of your past and making plenty of life and love mistakes along the way. The whole record is pretty PG in terms of content, and most of her songs speak in generalizations with a sense of unrealistic ideals and expectations. What makes it great is the hyper-intelligent, crafty wordplay, and the impeccable beats/melodies that can hang in the background or alternatively push forward to offer additional support when Swift is singing an important lyric. She and her team appear to have had a very clear idea of what they wanted to say and do with this record, and by all accounts pulled it off. Rather gracefully too, I might add.
Check out all of the Listmas 2014 posts by clicking here.